Pearl: 30 Years Of Appetite For Destruction

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Guns N’ Roses – Appetite For Destruction

Released July 21st, 1987 on Geffen Records

BestEverAlbums: #67

The highwater mark for Eighties hard rock came directly from the squalor of L.A.’s rock club circuit, the combination of two hot bands in that scene:  L.A. Guns and Hollywood Rose, the latter of which featured guitarist Izzy Stradlin and singer Axl Rose.  The three members of L.A. Guns – lead guitarist Tracii Guns, bassist Ole Beich, and drummer Rob Gardner – were either fired or quit, and of their replacements, two were former Hollywood Rose alumni (Slash and Steven Adler).  Bassist Duff McKagan was the only out-of-towner, hailing originally from Seattle.  Still, regardless of the fact that the band was basically Hollywood Rose in it’s structure, the name Guns N’ Roses stuck.

It’s an apt name for the band on Appetite For Destruction:  blazing-gun guitar work and attitude with a dash of the rose, or at least a facade over burning lust.  In an era when so-called “hair metal” was dominating MTV with increasingly-saccharine pop music and power ballads, GNR were a fist in the nose.  Bands like Poison and latter-day Motley Crue were pretending at being loud and dangerous; Guns N’ Roses actually were.  This was the same era in which Vince Neil was singing about “Girls, Girls, Girls” and David Coverdale was crying in the rain.  Right from Axl Rose’s snarl of “you’re gonna die!” (cribbed from a homeless man who’d warned him in that exact fashion when he’d arrived in L.A.) this was something different – brash and bold, the musical equivalent of a street kid offering you weed with a switchblade hidden behind his back.

There were a lot of ways it could have gone wrong.  1987 was also the year that Def Leppard released that most boneheaded of hard rock singles, “Pour Some Sugar On Me”.  GNR’s id-driven sound could have had thudded like that, but it was kept deft by the dancing rhythm section of Stradlin, McKagan, and Adler, who were much more Rolling Stones than they ever were Black Sabbath.  Slash’s guitar work has always had trouble getting out of the minor pentatonic range, to be true, but it fits his work on Appetite exactly, like his leads were always meant to be married to the rest of the band’s boxer-bounce clamour.  Axl Rose also never sounded better; his soaring, hectoring nasal voice found the vanishing point between Bon Scott and Brian Johnson (ahem) and took up residence there, becoming the signature voice for a generation of aspiring hard rock vocalists.

Much has been said of the problematic nature of the songs on Appetite.  The album’s original artwork featured a surreal beholder-like monster attacking a robotic rapist, with the robot’s latest victim lying disheveled on the ground.  Indeed, there is a certain obnoxiousness present throughout the tracks – singing about getting sex on demand, regardless of consent, spilling out a tell-all on “My Michelle”, glorifying alcoholism on “Nighttrain”, spelling out the boys-club rock ‘n’ roll fantasy lifestyle on “Paradise City” – but, coming from a quintet of near-homeless, drugged-up and boozed-out miscreants barely out of adolescence and raised on Zeppelin and KISS, it’s maybe not hard to figure out where that obnoxiousness comes from.  At any rate, the band sells their songs with such vitality and fervor that it’s hard not to bang your head along, even if you’re worried about the message it sends.  It’s also important to note that a lot of the filth and fury present here is dredged up from the then-decade-old punk rock scene, and presented as a middle finger to the Just Say No, Nancy Reagan, Christian America of the 1980s.

Everyone from a certain era has put “Sweet Child O’ Mine” on a mixtape for a person they’ve been romantically/sexually interested in, except for me.  For reasons I’ll never be quite clear on, my go-to was usually “Rocket Queen”, probably because the latter is a much better-written song and the former is built around a guitar exercise Slash found stupid, and for good reason.  I’m convinced that the only reason he changed his tune on it was because it got so godawfully huge.  It’s a really annoying riff, even if the rest of the song is pretty okay.

Even as the band’s star diminished (by 1992 they were mostly a bloated joke, made fun of by Nirvana and the rest of the Alt Generation) Appetite For Destruction remained a classic album, a legacy of where rock ‘n’ roll had been prior to Nevermind that carried over into the new alternative world by sheer force of attitude.  Even in the face of sprawl, an acrimonious breakup, a revolving-door lineup, and a long-delayed vaporware album that was finally released, Appetite For Destruction remains the quintessential GNR album, the one that makes them rock stars for life, regardless of all else.

Pearl: 30 Years of Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me

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The Cure – Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me

Released May 25th, 1987 on Fiction Records and Elektra Records

Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me marks the indelible transfer of The Cure from dense gloomsters to buoyant Eighties pop stars.  1982’s Pornography marked the peak of the band as the poster children for goth as both a musical expression and a fashion choice.  The Top and The Head On The Door are bridges, with former being the album where they experimented messily with their form and largely failed, and the latter being the same but a success.  Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me took the expansive vision that Robert Smith had been trying to articulate and blew it up into ridiculous proportions.  The album was long, especially by 1987 standards; it took up two LPs and clocked in at just under 80 minutes.  It was a collection that emphasized the best parts of each of their last three albums; there was Pornography-era chorus-laden guitar grind (as on the opener “The Kiss”, “Tortureor ), experiments with sound, form, and culture (“If Only Tonight We Could Sleep”, “The Snakepit”) and balls-out brassy pop (“Why Can’t I Be You?”, “Hot Hot Hot!”).  “Catch”, “The Perfect Girl”, and “Just Like Heaven” are quirky love songs without parallel.  “Like Cockatoos” and “Icing Sugar” marry their earlier crushing pomp with pop brassiness, a preview of what Kiss Me‘s follow-up, Disintegration would hold (although the ribbon of saxophone on the latter is something that didn’t show up nearly enough in the band’s work afterward).  While a career retrospective shows Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me to be something of a hot mess compared to the best Cure records, the album contains some of their very best compositions and, when it falters, some songs that at least make an attempt at pushing the group’s peculiar sense of artistry over.

Pearl: 30 Years of The Joshua Tree

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U2 – The Joshua Tree

Released March 9th, 1987 on Island Records

BestEverAlbums: #34

Boy made them New Wave stars.  War broke them into a bigger stage and staked their claim as political rockers.  The Unforgettable Fire led Rolling Stone to claim them as “The Band of the 80s…for many, the only rock ‘n’ roll band that matters.”  One more push – The Joshua Tree – and they were bona-fide world-straddling superstars.

 

The Unforgettable Fire had been more in the line of an experimental album, produced as it was by the duo of Brian Eno and his faithful engineer Daniel Lanois.  It’s textures were complicated, it’s songs more impressions than compositions, and it proved to be difficult to translate to a concert setting.  For their follow-up, the band wanted to keep the best lessons they’d learned from Eno and Lanois, but pare down, and make their sound more expansive.  In the write-up on Neon Bible a few days ago I mentioned that the ocean was the overarching metaphor for the album.  In the case of The Joshua Tree, the overarching metaphor is the desert – wide-open, expansive, cinematic in quality.  The foundation of this ideal is The Edge’s guitar work.  He makes good use of delay, and by “good use” I mean “wrestles it into submission and makes the effect his very own.”  Whole reams of music journalism have been written about his playing on tracks like “Where The Streets Have No Name” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” (and, more subtly, on “Running To Stand Still.”  On the other side, he uses slide techniques he gleaned from a friendship with Keith Richards to approximate the sound of fighter planes and dive bombers on the hard-as-nails “Bullet The Blue Sky.”  The rest of the band puts in a yeoman’s work – including Bono, whose voice has never fit the music better, before or since – but The Joshua Tree is without a doubt The Edge’s showcase.

 

It’s not just about wide-open desert vistas, of course.  A big theme of the album is the Irish band’s love-hate relationship with America.  Before the recording of the album, Bono visited El Salvador to witness the civil war first-hand.  He returned deeply angry with the Reagan administration and American foreign policy in general – this was the heart of “Bullet The Blue Sky” and “Mothers Of The Disappeared”.  Ireland and the UK did not escape his anger, either:  “Where The Streets Have No Name” is about economic segregation in Belfast, “Red Hill Mining Town” is about the aftermath of the 1984 mining strike in the UK, and “Running To Stand Still” is about drug addiction in Dublin.  There’s also a sense of Bono being on a sort of spiritual quest for faith and renewal, with Biblical references, the yearning of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”, and the grief for a lost friend that forms the basis of “One Tree Hill.”

 

In the aftermath, the band would go on to become crossover pop superstars:  millions of albums sold, sold-out world tours, being taken seriously by world leaders.  Achtung Baby would be a good follow-up in it’s own right, but after the things that were charming on The Joshua Tree would become over-exaggerated in the harsh floodlights of global fame.  The Edge’s guitar work would strive to go further and eventually collapse into self-parody, then complacency.  Bono’s anger and spirituality would become tiresome, as he became another jet-setting European elitist making pretty speeches about poverty in the Global South, while conditions continued to deteriorate.  Simply put, U2 would never again be as good as they were on The Joshua Tree.

Chairlift – Moth

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Chairlift – Moth

Released January 22nd, 2016 on Columbia Records

Singles:

Ch-Ching

Romeo

Something, Chairlift’s second album, was a pretty solid record and a lot of fun.  On the strength of singles like “Sidewalk Safari”, “I Belong In Your Arms”, and the purely Eighties-biting “Amanaemonesia”, it got by on charisma and peppy synth work.  That was four years ago.  Since then, the world has become somehow even more inundated with bold, peppy synth pop.  CHVRCHES happened, and then happened again.  Chillwave pillars like Washed Out and Neon Indian became akin to cliches.  So when Moth was released today, it came out into a sea of similar albums by similar bands.

To it’s credit, the front half is loaded with good songs, from the agitated funk of “Polymorphing” to the twin-barrel singles “Romeo” and “Ch-Ching”.  Then “Crying In Public” happens and you’re left feeling uncomfortable and vaguely embarrassed, which I suppose brings out the idea behind the song but also makes you wonder why this lazily histrionic ballad wasn’t left in the 1987-marked bin it was discovered in.  The back half is yawning mediocrity except for “Show U Off”, which rediscovers the fun of the first four songs.  Then it ends on “No Such Thing As Illusion” and I’m trying and failing to come up with a reason to feel any sort of way about it; ambient balladry only works if there’s something to hang onto, and the walls of that song are smooth and blank.

Moth is one of those very common albums in popular music:  you’ll find yourself singing along to the singles on the radio even while the album itself gathers dust.

Young Galaxy – “Ultramarine”

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We’ve been living through an Eighties-indebted synth pop revival for, what, nearly five years now?  There’s a lot of music from that wild, coked-up, experimental decade to mine for inspiration, but for some bands the inspiration is beginning to stretch a bit thin.  Case in point, Young Galaxy:  here we have a band with a great vocalist and a good sense of that gently exploratory, somewhat numb vibe, but they ultimately can’t think of anything new to do with it.  Ultramarine goes over the same pop-structure safety that countless other bands have already done, with nothing new to add into the mix.  So why bother?  It’s nice enough if you’re in a synth pop mood and want to make your playlist as big as possible, or if you’re putting together a hip chillwave night, but otherwise there’s very little to recommend itself here.  Ultimately ho-hum stuff.
 
Verdict:

AVERAGE