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.

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.

 

China: 20 Years of Life After Death

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The Notorious B.I.G. – Life After Death

Released March 25th, 1997 on Bad Boy Records

Ready To Die was a massive album, the kind of once-in-a-generation record that changes the course of a genre.  Sure, you can point to Pac and the Wu, but Biggie made a gigantic impact on subsequent MCs in terms of flow, beat choice, and lyrical subject matter.  No one was as smooth or as coldly vicious as Biggie at his peak; no one’s beats landed quite like gunshots in a robbery gone wrong.  Life After Death was thematically designed to be the logical sequel to that fabled album, and also to be a sort of “commercial introduction” of the rapper.  While there were some undeniable hits that came off of Ready To Die, a lot of the album was too grim, too dark and real for mainstream radio to really mine it to death.  Life After Death was a response to this; the beats here were pure radio circa 1997, which is both a blessing and a curse.  It’s very much a Bad Boy record, Puff Daddy and all, which means it’s slick and easy to bump in the whip; at the same time, a lot of the beats haven’t aged particularly well, using samples that just don’t create the same excitement in 2017 that they did twenty years prior.  “I Love The Dough” is a good example of this; the electro-funk sample was two years out of date even then, and the hook is too bland to fit Biggie’s dark flow.  Along the same lines, the length of the album is problematic as well; hip hop has always loved to throw as much material as possible onto a record, and the double-CD length of Life After Death makes it drag a bit near the end.  None of the songs are weak, per se, but there is a sort of fatigue that sets in regardless of the quality.

 

Still, it’s Biggie, which means that whenever he appears on a song it immediately makes up for whatever dated samples or cheesy hooks are being used.  Even at his most commercial no one could touch him, then or now, and his flow remains as vital as ever.  The singles are all top-notch:  put “Hypnotize”, “Mo Money Mo Problems”, or “Going Back To Cali” on anywhere and people will get into it.  At it’s thuggiest, it’s equivalent to parts of Ready To Die:  “Kick In The Door” and “What’s Beef” are chilling and violent, in the way that only Biggie could be, and “Ten Crack Commandments” remains a street anthem two decades after it’s release.  He even gets downright filthy on “Fucking You Tonight” and “Nasty Boy”, an aspect of his personality that was largely absent on Ready To Die.

 

The man’s death sixteen days before the release of Life After Death tends to overshadow the actual music, of course.  After presenting an award at the 1997 Soul Train Awards in Los Angeles, Biggie’s car got caught in post-show traffic at Wilshire and South Fairfax.  An Impala pulled up beside his SUV, rolled down the window, and shot him four times.  He died a half an hour later.  The album is thus shrouded in symbolism, from it’s title to it’s album cover to it’s bookending tracks.  It is, in essence, a posthumous bit of self-mythologizing, a meta-narrative that delves into everything that made up Christopher Wallace’s public persona.  There’s brash posturing, there’s loving tenderness, there’s future-ready ambition, there’s chilling fragments of premonition.  “What’s Beef?”, “Somebody’s Gotta Die”, and the goosebump-inducing closer “You’re Nobody (Til Somebody Kills You)” are bleak in retrospect, given the likelihood that Wallace was murdered as revenge for his alleged role in the death of Tupac Shakur six months earlier.  In that sense, the album’s length can be forgiven, and even cherished; these are the last releases that Wallace meant to go public, and despite Bad Boy’s willingness to raid his vault forever thereafter, it is his last real album.  Ready To Die may be the better album, but Life After Death is a fitting memorial to an enormous personality that still stands at an imposing height over an entire genre of music.

 

 

China: 20 Years of Whatever And Ever Amen

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Ben Folds Five – Whatever And Ever Amen

Released March 18th, 1997 on 550/Epic Records

In 1997, guys like Todd Rundgren, Billy Joel, and Elton John were the stuff of your parent’s dust-collecting record collection, stuff they’d mostly relegated to buying the “Greatest Hits” compilation of and torturing you with constant replays of “Piano Man” and “Candle In The Wind” (well, not my parents, I grew up under a blues purist).  No one gave Ben Folds the memo, though; his second album, Whatever And Ever Amen, drew a direct line from those hoary old ivory-strokers to the contemporary world of ironic folk dudes, ska bands, and second-generation grunge retreads.  It’s decidedly uncool, although Folds wisely cuts the painful sentimentality of those old Seventies dudes with some Xer-approved Alternative Era Snark, which can get tiresome in its own right but for nearly all of the album manages to get by just fine.  While there are some off moments – the plod of “Selfless, Cold and Composed” and the kitchen-sink clutter of “Steven’s Last Night In Town”, mostly – there are a lot of surprisingly poignant moments, such as the “taking my girlfriend to get an abortion” confessional of “Brick”, the song that launched the rest of Ben Folds’ career.

 

China: 20 Years of The Dismemberment Plan Is Terrified

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The Dismemberment Plan – The Dismemberment Plan Is Terrified

Released March 17th, 1997 on DeSoto Records

The Dismemberment Plan are the perfect band to dance like no one’s watching to.  Hell, that’s pretty much how they played music.  With a couple of exceptions, the songs on The Dismemberment Plan Is Terrified are either played with abandon – nearly random guitar squiggles, songs that explode out in every direction at once, and then suddenly veer off in another direction – or played as moody proto-indie songs that come out as confessions.  Occasionally, as on “The Ice Of Boston” (still the best New Year’s song out there), they’re both.  In an interview with Stylus singer Travis Morrison described it as “the most dedicated to hip-hop record we have.”  I feel like this is sort of what Christgau was saying when he said that The Dismemberment Plan Is Terrified sounded “sort of the way Primus might if Primus enjoyed a normal sex life.”  It’s an album that writhes spastically in odd directions but is still completely relatable, as though you just discovered that your accountant was in a noise rock band.  While it was eclipsed by it’s followup, the sublime Emergency & I, it’s a recommended listen for anyone into noise rock, or post-hardcore, or inventive post-punk in general.

 

China: 20 Years of The Boatman’s Call

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Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds – The Boatman’s Call

Released March 3rd, 1997 on Mute Records

BestEverAlbums: #387

Nick Cave is easily one of the most enduring artists in the history of rock ‘n’ roll.  In the 1980s he staked his name on crawling, disturbing post-punk that encapsulated the violence and Biblical darkness of a mythologized American South (this despite growing up in Australia and basing himself out of England).  From 1994’s Let Love In onward, he tempered the abrasive potentials of his songs with a renewed focus on texture, including piano and gentler tempos.  Despite this, both it and 1996’s classic Murder Ballads reveled in the darkness, spiking moody atmospheres with moments of bone-chilling terror and loud musical moments. The Boatman’s Call, then, is an anomaly in his catalog.  Everything before and after is shot through with darkness, full of revenge, murder, and sinners in the hands of an angry God.  While 2001’s …And No More Shall We Part continued on with the exploration of gentler tones, The Boatman’s Call is also a musing exploration of spirituality and love.

 

“I’ve felt you coming girl, as you drew near,” he sings on “Are You The One That I’ve Been Waiting For?”, “I knew you’d find me, cause I longed you here.”  This is a somewhat atypical Nick Cave lyric.  Also atypical is “Just like a bird that sings up the sun / In a dawn so very dark / such is my faith for you,” the opening line from “There Is A Kingdom”, a song that feels as New Testament as Cave’s other work is Old Testament.  “West Country Girl”, “Black Hair”, and “Into My Arms” are all about PJ Harvey, whom Cave dated briefly in the middle of the Nineties.  “Into My Arms” was also performed at Michael Hutchence’s funeral (after Cave requested the cameras be shut off, so don’t go looking for footage).  It’s also the wedding song of my wife and I; it was originally going to be “Have I Told You Lately” before we remembered that latter-day Rod Stewart sucks.

 

That said, there are a couple of songs on The Boatman’s Call which can be considered more standard fare for Nick Cave.  “People Ain’t No Good” walks that careful line between love and death that is familiar for Cave fans (and also found it’s way into Shrek 2 somehow); “Lime Tree Arbour” straddles that same line, although in that case it’s love protecting Cave from death rather than the other way around.  “Idiot Prayer” is also about dying, although there’s a firm sense of fatality that accompanies the line “If you’re in Hell, then what can I say / You probably deserved it anyway / I guess I’m gonna find out any day / For we’ll meet again / And there’ll be Hell to pay.”  The real summation of the album – and perhaps Cave’s career as a whole – comes on the final song, “I Got You Bad”.  “Babe I got you bad / Dreaming blood-wet dreams / Only madmen have / Baby I got you bad.”

 

China: 20 Years of Either/Or

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Elliott Smith – Either/Or

Released February 25th, 1997 on Kill Rock Stars Records

BestEverAlbums:  #149

RYM:  #106

Kurt Cobain may have been louder and flashier, but Elliott Smith really was the quintessential Nineties rock star.  Haunted, brooding, and darkly melodic, he epitomized the “tortured artist” aesthetic that was popular during the first half of the decade.  Raised in an abusive environment in Texas, he moved to Portland, Oregon and channeled his demons into drugs, alcohol, and music.  His original band, Heatmiser, wasn’t anything particularly special but his solo releases – 1994’s Roman Candle and 1995’s self-titled LP – captured the imagination of listeners much more.  Those solo releases had little to do with what Heatmiser was doing, and in the fall of 1996, shortly before their last album was released, they broke up (fun fact: bassist Sam Coomes would go on to be the frontman for Quasi).  Smith’s next release would eclipse both his former band and everything he had recorded up until that point.

 

Either/Or was first an attempt by Smith to vary the moods on an album.  Elliott Smith had been an album that was largely the same from beginning to end:  acoustic confessionals about drugs and depression.  Either/Or has some of those, of course:  “Speed Trials”, “Between The Bars”, and “No Name No. 5” are evidence of that.  Songs like “Alameda”, “Ballad Of Big Nothing”, and “Rose Parade”, though, are evidence of something bigger:  songs by a guy who proved on this album that he could craft big hooks, emotionally impactful melodies, and arrangements that were built to last.  That last item is especially important:  Either/Or doesn’t sound like 1997 – there’s no pandering to teen pop, or ska, or post-grunge trends.  It could have been released last year, or ten years ago, or today.  It’s songs and it’s themes are artistically timeless, even more so now that the waves of the Great American Heroin Addiction have crashed over the shores of seemingly every state in the Union.

 

Everything that came after – Gus Van Sant’s love of the album, Good Will Hunting, “Miss Misery”, Smith’s two major label albums, and his mysterious death – would cement his legend.  Either/Or is the moment that Emily St. John Mandel describes in Station Eleven:  a moment that, ever after, would divide Smith’s life into “Before” and “After”.  Before Either/Or, he was an up-and-coming songwriter with an acoustic guitar and a monkey on his back.  After, he was a bona fide rock star with a following and highly-placed friends.  Neither would prevent him from slipping a little further into addiction and depression – or from dying in Los Angeles with twin stab wounds to the chest, a death still shrouded to this day in suspicion and mystery.

 

China: 20 Years of Marcy Playground

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Marcy Playground – Marcy Playground

Released February 25th, 1997 on Capitol Records

One of these days I plan on doing a listicle called “Ten Albums From The 90s That Aren’t As Bad As You Remember” and #1 on that list is Marcy Playground.  Also, Bush’s Razorblade Suitcase and Live’s Throwing Copper, but that’s beside the point.  Marcy Playground is one of the most criminally overlooked album of the Nineties, but at the same time it’s completely understandable as to why that occurred.  The band’s first single, “Sex And Candy” was…well, you know it.  Don’t pretend like you don’t.  You’ve sung along to it, and I don’t particularly care how old “you” are.  You like sex, and you like candy, and you like “Sex And Candy”.  Unfortunately, it was 1997, and one hit wonders were par for the course for alternative rock by then.  Remember Seven Mary Three?  The Nixons?  Chumbawumba?  Semisonic?  Marcy Playground is counted in those ranks, because “Sex And Candy” was huge, the other singles from the album didn’t make much of a dent in the radio, and the follow-up, 1999’s Shapeshifter, was listened to by approximately seven people worldwide.

 

So why are we marking the anniversary?  It’s because Marcy Playground is something of a lost gem.  It is a much better album than it has a right to be, and that all comes down to John Wozniak’s winsome songs that feature very dark shadows lurking in the corners.  “Poppies” almost feels educational, with lyrics about the British opium trade with China, until you realize that the fate being sealed that he’s talking about is heroin.  Heroin also features, implied or explicit, in “Ancient Walls Of Flowers”, “The Vampires Of New York”, and “Opium”.  “Gone Crazy”, in context of the other songs, feels somewhat sinister, and “One More Suicide” is pretty much what it says on the tin.  “Saint Joe On The School Bus” is about getting bullied mercilessly, and “The Shadow Of Seattle” posits a rainy war on art.  The moments of levy stick out all the more for the darkness that shrouds the indie-pop arrangements:  “Sherry Fraser” is about old love, “A Cloak Of Elvenkind” is a peaceful little song about Dungeons and Dragons and parental disapproval, and the ubiquitous “Sex And Candy” is a jumble of vaguely sexy non-sentences, capped with a hook that is an inside joke about Wozniak having sex with his girlfriend in her dorm room.  The arrangements are tight, the guitars have just the right shade of grunge crunch without being histrionic and overbearing, and the hooks are goddamn barbed.

 

As I said before, the band would go on to do pretty much nothing in terms of mainstream exposure, although they keep releasing albums for a fanbase that must exist somewhere.  Right?  There are people out there that listen to Marcy Playground albums?  Wozniak isn’t just releasing these albums into the void for no one to listen to, like I do?  Who knows.  Marcy Playground stands as their legacy, though, an album that will continue to be remembered even if it’s just because “Sex And Candy” is such an iconic Nineties song.  There are worse positions for a band to be in.

China: 20 Years of City

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Strapping Young Lad – City

Released February 11th, 1997 on Century Media

Devin Townsend is fully aware of how completely ridiculous many of the tropes in metal are.  Think about it for a second.  They are.  There’s a reason that the genre is most popular among 14 year old boys – it’s because those are the people most willing to swallow absurdity in the face of pure, naked aggression (see also Trump supporters).  Townsend knows how ridiculous the tropes are because he lived them; before forming Strapping Young Lad, the Vancouver musician was best known for providing the vocals to Steve Vai’s uneven 1993 album Sex And Religion.  His experience with record labels and the music business led him to his awakening:  metal is absurd, the business is absurd, so you may as well have some fun with it.  A little burned out and feeling like a “musical whore” for working his muse at the command of other people, he recorded Heavy As A Heavy Thing, an album lost on it’s contemporary listeners, even in 1995.  People sat up and took notice when City came out, however, and it marks the beginning of the metal community’s embrace of Strapping Young Lad and their balls-out, “twist-the-dial-back-and-forth-until-it-snaps” version of extreme metal.

 

City is a solid trash metal album buried carefully in a really stellar industrial noise album.  For every moment of straight-ahead pummeling (like the beginning of “Home Nucleonics”, or the massive breakdown in “AAA”) there are layers of digital textures and those Townsend vocals that sound like they were lifted whole and breathing off of dank, bloody German industrial records.  The influence isn’t particularly surprising – Vancouver is, after all, the home of Skinny Puppy, Frontline Assembly, and a bajillion other industrial acts – but Townsend’s mixing of it with his obvious mastery of metal forms is what puts City over the edge into being a bona-fide classic.

China: 20 Years of Perfect From Now On

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Built To Spill – Perfect From Now On

Released January 28th, 1997 on Warner Bros.

BestEverAlbums:  #318

RYM:  #212

Doug Martsch attracted major label attention for his Boise, Idaho band Built To Spill on the basis of There’s Nothing Wrong With Love, the group’s second album.  That album was full of light and whimsy, comprised of solid indie pop songs overflowing with nostalgia and good vibes.  Upon signing to Warner Bros. he decided instead to concentrate on squalling, lengthy epics more in line with vintage “Cowgirl In The Sand”-era Neil Young.  While this is not precisely recommended behaviour for a band that just inked a major label deal, Perfect From Now On is the best Built To Spill album by a country mile.   The follow-up, Keep It Like A Secret, was as concise as Perfect From Now On was sprawling, and after that Martsch put out a series of solid enough albums that showcased moments of brilliance but could mainly be described as “workmanlike”.

 

Perfect From Now On, though, is a heady trip.  Gifted with the same deft touch for screaming, grungy lead guitar that J. Mascis put to such good use ten years prior, Marsch and the band hover and strike like stoned professionals.  The leadoff title track is a textbook exercise in how to craft a rock song that seems made to be heard in the moon’s gravity.  “I Would Hurt A Fly” is Built To Spill at their moodiest, turning cliches on their heads and getting close to snapping at that noise you’re making.  “Velvet Waltz” and “Kicked It In The Sun” both glide by on skates in the cloud, built on jams that flirt with singularity and then reform in more solid states.  The closer, “Untrustable,” snaps that dreamy melodies that dominate the rest of the album into solid focus before switching to an almost carnivalesque instrumental jam that closes out the album in a weirdly Elephant Six fashion.

 

The album was actually recorded three times; what you hear is the final form of these songs after being jammed out again and again.  The first time Martsch played everything except the drums but was unsatisfied with the results.  The second time the full band played and while the producer was driving from Seattle to Boise to record some further takes the master tapes were destroyed by the car’s heater.  Thus the album had to be recorded a third time, the end result being that the songs were as good as they were going to ever be.  In 2008, between albums, the band took Perfect From Now On back out on tour, acknowledging the indisputable high point of their catalog.