Aluminium: 10 Years of Favourite Worst Nightmare

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Arctic Monkeys – Favourite Worst Nightmare

Released April 23rd, 2007 on Domino Records

The Difficult Second Album has always been a problem in rock ‘n’ roll.  After an album that sets the world on fire, relatively speaking, the follow-up is constrained by time, hype, and record label needs.  It’s also constrained by artistic pig-headedness – the curse of “Oh they think we’re just about this sound, well WE’LL SHOW THEM!”

They inevitably don’t light the same fire that the first album did, and both the critics and paying public feel lukewarm and move on, leaving only a small coterie of hardcore fans who stick around, convinced that the band can do no wrong.  This was the Strokes on Room On Fire, The Hives on Tyrannosaurus Hives, Weezer on Pinkerton, Massive Attack on Protection, Alanis Morisette on Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie, Live on Secret Samahdi.  This was, ostensibly, Arctic Monkeys on Favourite Worst Nightmare.

Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, the Sheffield band’s first album, was world-shaking, especially in their native England.  When the Strokes first came to the UK it was as though an atom bomb had gone off; within four years bands influenced by the Strokes were clogging up MySpace, hawking their wares and building their fanbase one grimy all-ages show in a small town after another.  Arctic Monkeys were one of those bands, but multiplied by a hundred.  At the height of MySpace as a social media platform, they were one of the two bands that leveraged their fanbase into massive real-world success (the other of course being Fall Out Boy).  Unlike their American counterparts, Arctic Monkeys could actually write good songs; Whatever People Say was chock-full of poetic renditions of liquored-up good times, a paean to English drinking culture, small-time rock scenes, and getting up to shifty business in very dodgy places.

How to follow up such a successful first album, though?  It’s a tightrope walk, as the Strokes themselves knew all too well, and it’s always going to be fraught with heavier criticisms than might otherwise be warranted.  So it went with Favourite Worst Nightmare.  Critics were unconvinced by the songs, claiming the snarky swipes at the scene that had given birth to them were dreadful.  While there is some merit to this particular criticism (especially in dead-ringer slogs like “If You Were There, Beware” and “The Bad Thing”) it obscures the great songs that are embedded in the album.  “Brianstorm” is a barnburner of an opener and a delightful piss-take on the younger set of would-be managers and show promoters.  “Teddy Picker”, “D Is For Dangerous”, and “Balaclava” hearken back to the band’s debut – leave the progress for the next three albums, this was all about doubling down on what worked.  “Fluorescent Adolescent” is a stone classic of a song, the sort of song that transcends whatever album it’s on to be a classic of a band’s canon; it’s first line (“You used to get it in your fishnets, now you only get it in your nightdress”) sums up an entire feeling of the kind of heavy nostalgia that can get you into serious trouble later in life in such a way that is honestly rare in youth-oriented rock ‘n’ roll.  Favourite Worst Nightmare is blessed with two of these sorts of classic tracks, the other being “505”.  “505” was, in 2007, the odd one out in the band’s catalog, a smooth number that builds up to a crescendo, rather than the riff-oriented bangers that the band was otherwise known for.  Humbug, their follow-up, would show a band that wanted to focus on this aspect of their songwriting, and it was all the better for it.

(The entire Glastonbury 2007 Arctic Monkeys performance!)

It’s somewhat funny to look back on Favourite Worst Nightmare and remember the disappointment some felt, and the defensiveness that others felt they needed to exude to combat this.  As far as contemporary bands, Arctic Monkeys have surely aged the best; AM, released in 2013, was easily one of the best albums of the year, a feat that bands like Fall Out Boy could only dream of (especially given that every album subsequent to From Under The Cork Tree was complete garbage).  Even the Strokes couldn’t manage that; everything after Is This It? was a mixed bag.  Not bad for four kids from Northern England.

China: 20 Years of I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One

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Yo La Tengo – I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One

Released April 22nd, 1997 on Matador Records

BestEverAlbums:  #432

RYM:  #289

I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One, Yo La Tengo’s eighth album, is in a sense a breakthrough album, although in a very real sense it’s meaningless to talk of “breakthrough albums” for a band like Yo La Tengo.  Although the band, formed around the husband and wife duo of Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley, has been in continuous existence since 1984 (marking 14 albums in 2015), their visible success has been rather limited.  They’ve never been the “Voice of a Generation” even during the height of the Alternative Revolution; they’ve never sold scads of records; it’s only been since the proliferation of indie music on the internet and the age of big lifestyle festivals that they’ve had headlining slots.  Yet when it comes to the conversation of what the best albums ever made were, Yo La Tengo albums often slot in seamlessly, and without fuss.

I’ve read on several occasions that Yo La Tengo aren’t a popular band, they’re a critic’s band.  They’re a band tailor-made to be a sort of shared open secret among people who spend far too much of their time thinking and writing about music.  Part of this lies in the fact that they’re just too subtle to really get a berth in the world of mainstream success.  There’s something like the vibe of Sonic Youth in a lot of their music, but where Kim and Thurston made their point with squalling feedback, laser-beam guitars, and twenty-minute Velvet Underground-esque suites, Yo La Tengo do it in a much more laid-back fashion.  Even a relatively hard-charging song like “Little Honda” holds back and remains somewhat aloof from going all-out.  It’s gentle, dreamy persuasion rather than drugged-out noise-mining – check out “Green Arrow” and the opening track “Return To Hot Chicken” for purely instrumental evidence of this.

While the group had been signed to Matador for four years, I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One was the album that made all of those aforementioned critics finally sit up and take notice en masse.  It was a breakthrough for the band’s audience, if not the mainstream at large, and it’s not hard to see why.  There are some serious pop tracks here, as in the bass-heavy “Moby Octopad”, the power-sweetened “Sugarcube” and “Autumn Sweater”, the breezy, twee closer “My Little Corner Of The World”, and the wispy nostalgia rocker “Little Honda”.  “Deeper Into Movies”, “Stockholm Syndrome” and “One PM Again” balance that out with subtle mood-shifters that at a glance seem to just float by, but like a deep, wide river, there’s always much more going on underneath.  The group jump from sound to sound, crossing genres like one would cross a stream, and with every experiment they prove themselves to be shockingly competent at it.

From 1997 on out, every new Yo La Tengo album was greeted with anticipation from the critic’s community; many of them even charted briefly on the U.S. Billboard chart (not enough for them to have an honest mainstream moment, but enough to prove that there were people listening out there in the world).  As far as Yo La Tengo albums go, however, it remains for me the high point of their discography, outlining in bold everything they were ever good at, and then some.

 

 

Aluminium: 10 Years of Ashtray Rock

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Joel Plaskett Emergency – Ashtray Rock

Released April 17th, 2007 on MapleMusic Recordings

A triumph of album-making, the third Emergency album tells the story of the Ashtray Rock, a place in the woods near the Halifax suburb of Clayton Park where the local teenagers gather to get drunk and crank the volume on already-loud rock ‘n’ roll music.  Two guys have a great time hanging out at the late-night parties but they have a falling out over a girl.  One of them gets the girl for a little while, and the other one forms a rock ‘n’ roll band.

As far as ideas for concept albums go, it’s squarely in the Who camp, but Plaskett and Co. pull it off at the height of their powers and it ends up being exhilarating rather than ridiculous.  Part of the success in this is that the concept and lyrics are near and dear to Plaskett’s heart and he has said at times that some of the characters are his old bandmates in Thrush Hermit, and that the music-in-common part of “Penny For Your Thoughts” is tuned to his wife’s tastes.

Regardless of the concept, of course, it’s an amazing lineup of songs that strike a clear tone and build hooks like skyscrapers.  It was shortlisted for the 2007 Polaris Music prize (along with Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible) but eventually lost out to Patrick Watson’s Close To Paradise.  This is too bad, really, since Ashtray Rock is the absolute peak of the Emergency, a rock ‘n’ roll triumph whose nostalgic paeans to youth and young love will ring on long after the last notes.

Ruby: 40 Years of Rattus Norvegicus

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The Stranglers – Rattus Norvegicus

Released April 15th, 1977 on United Artists Records

The Stranglers came up rough-and-tumble in the English pub rock scene of the mid-1970s, and it shows.  The band formed in 1974 after drummer Brian “Jet Black” Duffy made a ton of money operating a fleet of ice cream trucks.  His business success convinced him to get back into drumming, something he had done semi-professionally through the 1950s and 1960s, and he scoured the region looking for potential bandmates.  What came together was originally called the Guildford Stranglers and played a regular gig at The Jackpot, an offie that Duffy also owned and operated.  After gaining a bit of a following they managed to merge in with the emergent punk rock scene in 1976-1977 to become one of the more memorable First Wave bands.

Rattus Norvegicus, their first album, encapsulates everything that is right and wrong with the external identification of the band with the scene they found themselves in.  First, what is wrong.  The Stranglers, unlike their contemporaries, were not afraid to get crazy with the keyboards; the band’s sound is as much Dave Greenfield’s manic-Doors keyboard playing as it is Jean-Jacques Burnel’s bouncy, fiercely melodic bass playing.  The intro to “Princess Of The Streets” is a gorgeous, haunting arpeggio feature that you would never catch the Clash using, and it’s written in 6/8 time, which is about as un-punk as you can really get.  Their music was as much about the Doors and the Kinks as it was about ripping the pub apart and getting the lager lads going.

Then again there are aspects of their music that fit right in with where everyone else was at in 1977.  For one thing, Rattus Norvegicus is an incredibly violent record.  “Sometimes” is about a knock-down, drag-out physical fight between boyfriend and girlfriend.  “Goodbye Tolouse” is a raucous good tune about Nostradamus’ predicted destruction of the aforementioned French city.  “Ugly” is a clashing, destructive song that lives up to it’s name in spades.  It has great depictions of the “street scene” of the time:  “Hanging Around” and “(Get A) Grip (On Yourself)” are both descriptive songs about the life the band was leading during the recording of the album.  There’s also the English punk preoccupation with reggae:  “Peaches” is heavily influenced by contemporary reggae records although the use of Greenfield’s brittle-glass keyboard sound adds a keening, paranoid vibe to the bounce.

The Stranglers would go on to hit greater heights (peaking with 1982’s “Golden Brown”) but Rattus Norvegicus sets them up as a band – propulsive and yet oddly romantic, violent and a little jaded from the streets.  1977 featured some very impressive debuts – and this definitely ranks among them.

 

Enter The Apocalypse: Russell Hemmel

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Enter The Apocalypse is a new anthology of short fiction from TANSTAAFL Press that I have the good fortune to be included in.  It will be the first in a planned trilogy of apocalyptic-themed anthologies from TANSTAAFL.  Enter The Apocalypse examines the apocalypse at the point of impact.  In celebration of it’s impending release, I have a guest blogger today!  This has literally never happened before, so I’m going to get out of the way and turn the proceedings over to Mr. Russell Hemmel.

(“Russell Hemmell is a statistician and social scientist from the U.K, passionate about astrophysics and speculative fiction. Recent publications in Not One of Us, Perihelion SF, SQ Mag, and others.”)

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“You can’t but admire this virus’s purity. It’s elemental, uncomplicated, deadly powerful. We’re lucky not to be his target.”

“Virus are ten times more numerous than bacteria, did you know that?”

10 to 1.

In the last six months I have, as a fiction writer, contributed stories to a few anthologies, all dealing, in a way or another, with visions of a dystopian future. While not all of them featured an apocalypse, they were all bleak enough to made readers think that one was indeed on the way, or had just happened.

As a (social) scientist and astrophysics passionate, I have to say that what scares me the most is not the possibility of destructive cosmic events – such an asteroid impact of the kind that’s considered responsible for the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction (and the death of the dinosaurs), even though books like Stephenson’s Seveneves are frightening enough. 

[In case you haven’t read Seveneves, I do recommend it – no matter if you’re not a SF fan. There’s a lot to enjoy in this novel that has nothing to do with SF. What’s about? It deals with the aftermath of an unexplained – and utterly disastrous – disintegration of the Moon, and the world efforts to preserve human society in whatever possible ways. The first one is to build arklets in lower orbit using the ISS as starting point.

I especially liked this quote, that I think represents well the book’s spirit. “We’re not hunter-gatherers anymore. We’re all living like patients in the intensive care unit of a hospital, and what keeps us alive isn’t bravery, or athleticism, or any of those other skills that were valuable in a caveman society; It’s our ability to master complex technological skills – it is our ability to be nerds.” ]

No matter how convincing Stephenson’s scenarios and frightening the dinosaurs’ destiny, as a professional statistician, I think it’s far more probable that the next global catastrophe is going to be man-made. Here the possibilities are endless – from climate change to a highly infectious plague to a nuclear holocaust.

What keeps me awake at night at times is the sensation we’ve now reached a level of scientific development where we can summon forces that can easily destroy the planet, without the wisdom to handle them and even less the foresight to understand cause-effect mechanism on a longer timescale than the human life. The endless discussions on the responsibilities of climate changes – from people denying global warming to others debating if it is indeed a consequence of human action (Crichton’s State of Fear is a good albeit fictional example) miss the whole point: the agent of changes doesn’t really matter when an epochal change is on the way. The state of the Arctic can’t be denied by anybody that makes his/her own research, as the mass extinction of species we are going to face in the coming decades and that already started. Science is pitiless, folks, it’s not a question of opinion. Evidence speaks louder than our delusional beliefs.

As anyone else, I have my personal vision of apocalypse, the one that would probably freak me out the most, and that I’ve often written about – and it is in the form of a plague we have manufactured ourselves in some sort of experiments gone wrong. Terror apart, I won’t be that astonished to read something like that in the press one day or another. If any, I’d be surprised it has taken so long to happen. Welcome to a dystopian world.

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Ruby: 40 Years of Sin After Sin

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Judas Priest – Sin After Sin

Released April 8th, 1977 on CBS Records

Released on the same day – and on the same British label – as The Clash, Judas Priest’s major label debut is a leap forward in a direction that would solidify the genre of heavy metal as much as The Clash would for punk rock.  While it wasn’t the definitive statement of hard rock and heavy metal at the end of the 1970s – that would be their next two albums – it was a definite harbinger of things to come.  Rob Halford sounds as though he’s still coming to terms with his shrieking demon wail (he seems even a trifle unnerved on parts of “Starbreaker”) and the rest of the band is playing it somewhat safe in the space carved out by Deep Purple.  This last is underscored by the fact that production was handled by Purple bassist Roger Glover.  Regardless of this somewhat unsure path, the, er, British Steel that lay within the band was clearly evident on tracks like “Sinner”, “Let Us Prey / Call For The Priest”, and the pummeling “Dissident Aggressor”, which would (many years hence) be covered by Slayer.  It’s hard-rocking album, to be sure, but there would be much harder moments in the future.  Much harder.

 

Ruby: 40 Years of The Clash

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The Clash – The Clash

Released April 8th, 1977 on CBS Records

BestEverAlbums:  #174

RYM:  #224

1977 is widely regarded as “the year punk broke” and there are several reasons for this.  The Ramones released their second album earlier in the year, as we discussed.  The Sex Pistols would release their only real album later in the year.  Between the two, though, is what I feel to be the real heart of punk rock:  The Clash.

That’s maybe a controversial thing to say (although, not really) for a few reasons.  For one, the candy-coated third wave of punk that broke into the mainstream in the mid-1990s (which, unlike “grunge”, actually called itself punk rock) was built on pure waves of the Ramones and the more melodic part of the Buzzcocks.  The only real antidote to that, for kids with access to a radio and little else (weren’t those the days) was Rancid, who were by and large a Clash cover band.  Even still, the band didn’t get the sort of legendary status in the 1990s as other bands from 1977 did.

I once went wandering (mostly drunk) with a few friends through a Laurier Brantford residence called The Post House; it was night and we were friends with the RAs, so this sort of thing was fairly normal.  We got caught up in a conversation with some of the freshmen about music and the subject of punk rock came up.  “Oh yeah!” one of them shouted.  “Punk rock is awesome!  The Sex Pistols rule, they started it all!”  This got me started on a lengthy rant about how the Sex Pistols were the Backstreet Boys of punk, a group of fashionable chatterheads put together by a merchant to sell safety pins to well-heeled slumming Londoners.  The Clash, I said, The Clash were what punk rock was meant to coalesce around, because they were strident, political, in touch with the down-and-out working class, and rocked harder than anything else out there.  This sounds like total /r/thathappened material but I swear to god it’s true, this was before I learned that if I wrote my stupid opinions down they might seem less obnoxious.

Still, at the risk of sounding like a cut monologue from SLC Punk, The Clash weren’t posers like I felt (and to an extent still feel) the Sex Pistols were.  Johnny Rotten and friends were the original edgelords, dressing provocatively and flashing swastikas like it was the coolest thing since the electric guitar.  The Clash didn’t need flashy imagery and hip fashion trends to telegraph their seething rage – that’s what the songs were for.  From the beginning, people derided punk rock as music for people who couldn’t play their instruments or write songs, but The Clash could do both, and well.  They embraced reggae right from the beginning as well, injecting a diversity into the genre that it would have floundered without.  They also weren’t afraid to get back to the roots of rock ‘n’ roll, a sound that they would later embrace whole-heartedly on London Calling.  The mixture has galvanized bands ever since, and chances are if you see any of those rockabilly folks drinking their hipster beers at places like the Cadillac Lounge, they’re Clash fans deep down.

The only real question, once the brilliance of the album has been established, is which version?  The original British release kicks off with “Janie Jones”, a thundering rocker about an infamous London madame.  The American release starts with “Clash City Rockers”, a dead ringer for the Who’s “I Can’t Explain”.  The American version also has several key songs that the British version lacks:  “Complete Control”, a somewhat toned-down version of “White Riot”, a cover of “I Fought The Law”, the early rocker “Jail Guitar Doors”, and the ultimate Clash reggae tune, “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais”, which sets out a clear anti-violence, pro-racial unity, pro-socialist message, three things that The Clash and their descendants would go on to enshrine as gospel.  The songs these would replace (“Deny”, “Cheat”, “Protex Blue”, and “48 Hours”) are simply not as good as the tracks included on the American version, so…the American version wins.

The band would of course go on to loftier heights (London Calling is often included in discussions of The Greatest Album Ever Made) but The Clash 1977 is the real root of both their later sound and the whole of punk rock.

 

 

 

China: 20 Years of Dig Me Out

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Sleater-Kinney – Dig Me Out

Released April 8th, 1997 on Kill Rock Stars Records

Straight-up:  Carrie Brownstein’s vocals are an acquired taste, but they’re a taste that I acquired a long time ago.  They’re a barrier to entry, for sure.  You either get them or you don’t, but if you get them, then Sleater-Kinney’s work ranks among the very best that rock ‘n’ roll has produced since the Alternative Revolution.

Released at the height of the Riot Grrl movement in the mid-1990s, Dig Me Out characterizes a band that was a fair bit different than the other stuff that was coming out of Seattle and Olympia at the time.  A lot of riot grrl bands favoured style over substance; they were modern art collectives, compilations of patriarchy-smashing posters set to thudding power chords.  Sleater-Kinney took a complete opposite tactic.  Their guitars were knotted and spiked, weaving odd, complicated leads over a bedrock of shifting chords.  Their dynamics were unpredictable, mixing shrieking rage into calm bliss with a deftness that Billy Corgan could only have dreamed of.  They were out to smash the patriarchy – make no mistake – but they were out to do it on their own terms, terms that at once eschewed the contemporary ideal of punk rock and yet were 100% punk as fuck.

Part of the toss-up was the addition of Janet Weiss as drummer; her steady-handed pounding and athletic fills called up the sound of the Stones and the Kinks and thereby lent more soul to the proceedings than had been found previously.  Part of it was Brownstein’s heartfelt emoting; beneath all of that Poly Styrene-esque wailing was someone more intellectual than you typically find in rock ‘n’ roll.  Part of it was the use of Corin Tucker’s voice to leaven it sometimes, of course; check out her undertones on “Words And Guitar” to really get the full effect.

Sleater-Kinney are a rare band that is able to be both stridently political and unabashedly emotional.  That Dig Me Out is just one of the great albums they’ve made that showcases this is a testament to how utterly kick-ass they are as a rock ‘n’ roll group.

Aluminium: 10 Years of And Their Refinement Of The Decline

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Stars Of The Lid – And Their Refinement Of The Decline

Released April 7th, 2007 on Kranky Records

Stars Of The Lid, here at least, deal with symphonies that have been compressed and stretched out and compressed again until the word “minimalist” doesn’t mean anything anymore.  This is music where the drones fade in and linger and then fade out again, creating the definition of ambient music and also establishing the purest sense of a symphony of drones.  Often times the tracks presented here feel like the tail-end of some greater whole, like someone cut off all of the end bits of Godspeed You! Black Emperor suites and stitched them together to create something new and bizarrely compelling.

There is something akin to Phillip Glass here, or a more spaced-out Brian Eno, but neither is really accurate.  It’s stark music that is too atomized to really be all that striking, and yet you’ll find yourself coming back to certain moments throughout the impressive length of the album time and time again.  There is a certain peace to the record, although it is an edgy peace, not entirely at home with itself.  If we return to the previous Godspeed analogy:  if Godspeed is the soundtrack of the apocalypse (as I’ve thought on numerous occasions) then And Their Refinement Of The Decline is the soundtrack to the still world that comes after the apocalypse, when the dust settles and the spiders spin their webs and all is but a silent, irradiated ruin.

China: 20 Years of Dig Your Own Hole

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The Chemical Brothers – Dig Your Own Hole

Released April 7th, 1997 on Virgin Records

As an adolescent I hung out with the stoners, the smoking pit crowd, the “greasers”, the rockers – however you want to call it, my friends were not the type to wholeheartedly embrace the sort of music that was making inroads in our mainstream consciousness during the mid 1990s.  Some of them splintered off and decided that hip hop was where it was at (they were right, in retrospect), but most of us plodded on with the Korns and the Bizkits, as the well-heeled buying public who lived vicariously through tortured-artist college rock and floor-punching macho pablum (with respect to Propagandhi).  Give us our guitars or give us death, we all probably thought at one point or another.

Still, there was something radically compelling about the kind of electronica that was finding it’s way onto radio between 1995 and 1999.  The Prodigy were practically a de facto punk band, with their mohawked singer and their overall vicious sensibility.  Ditto Atari Teenage Riot, whom we were all acquainted with through the legendary Spawn soundtrack.  The Sneaker Pimps kind of felt like an alt rock band that had been through a wringer that got rid of – most of – the guitars, in the same sense as Portishead.  The Chemical Brothers, though, were something else.  Dig Your Own Hole embodied – embodies – the sounds of big beat.  These beats are big, in the purest sense of the word.  The duo knock out funked-up samples and acid-inspired synthesizers and watch them land with the force of an atomic bomb into breakbeats that were, from the moment I heard them, all I ever wanted out of drums.

“Block Rockin’ Beats” and “Setting Sun” are the bigger singles, but every track on here hits the same particular nerve endings that make me want to loop the album forever.  It’s an amalgamation of drum n bass, hip hop, psychedelia, and English rave culture and it follows an internal logic that punches holes in walls.  Twenty years later it still gets the party going like nothing else.