Posts Tagged ‘grunge’

BLEACHED – Ride Your Heart

June 4, 2013

I’ll level, there are times when I feel like I’m getting bored with new “indie” music. Well, yes, okay, I’ve jumped around to Japandroids. Done the dishes to DIIV, each soapy sud plunged rhythmically against wet ceramic with palpable glee. Nodded along thoughtfully to Dirty Projectors, immersing myself in the rhythmic complexity as one would beneath a duvet cover full of sand: it’s warm! It’s rough! It’s comforting! It’s irritating! But however makeshift or weird, it’s still a fucking duvet at the end of the day.

Too often it feels like there’s little out there that really electrifies the blood; cuts to the core; bypasses the understanding of your analytical process and forces you to feel. This isn’t a new complaint. For some, the mid-’90s saw the end of indie’s full vitality, as grunge went overground and Britpop co-opted an alternative culture to make way for a new mainstream; one where the new, the different or the stimulating was skilfully ignored in favour of bland uniformity. Parochial tubthumping with a retro groove. Some even point to The Smiths as the beginning of the rot, when a post-punk-informed sense of adventure and experimentalism backed down in favour of traditionalism – an exhilarating but unfortunate return to jangling guitars and linear songwriting where the future had once seemed wide open; so full of boundless possibility.

Whatever, it’s all food for thought. But what irritates me about music in the 21st century – especially this so-called independent stuff – isn’t any of the above. It’s the way that, for all the promise of the internet and the depth’n’breadth of sound’n’song it’s supposed to expose, so disappointingly little seems to break through that truly and delightfully fucks with one’s head. We finally live in a world where neither radio nor record companies necessarily dictate the direction pop might take – videos go viral almost instantaneously, so all it takes is for a brief chain reaction of excitement before everyone can hear pretty much anything. Indie in its idealised form, one might imagine, would take advantage of this – audiences should be dictating how the media and music industries extrapolate and interpret popular culture, rather than relying on the same old sources to deliver über-polished, commercialist pop. And yet the best or most inventive acts – your Tunabunnys, your Micachus, your Trouble Bookses – are still playing in basements, unlikely to step up without the great Pitchfork seal of approval that (whether they would agree with this statement or not) seems to define how “indie” works. It’s not the bands’ fault, it’s just how the system functions nowadays, and it sucks.

Sorry. Deep breath. There’s a record at hand. And don’t worry, this isn’t one of those tiresome reviews where the author suddenly says “this record transcends all that” or “but this is different” before disproving the original point or attempting to prove by way of exception. Bleached – featuring Jennifer and Jessie Clavin, formerly of very ace post-riot grrrl punx Mika Miko – are a guitar-pop group that evolved from the scene based around LA venue The Smell.  With acts such as No Age, HEALTH and Abe Vigoda amongst its alumni – modern-day indie rock gentry, if not quite royalty – you’d be totally right in thinking that this band might be very symptomatic of everything I’ve outlined above – indie rock as media-distributed product that titillates but doesn’t challenge. But (ah, here’s the caveat!) despite all that, I like ‘em. Their debut Ride Your Heart doesn’t set its stall out as the throwing down of a sonic gauntlet; it’s indie music that feels like pop. Or maybe the other way round… it’s hard to tell now the lines are blurred.

Drawing on powerpop, new wave and girl group harmonies, this record is full of engaging tunes, doe-eyed dedications and wry witticisms. ‘Dead Boy’ is a comically-upbeat number about still being giddy for a deceased lover, while ‘Outta My Mind’ wears its battered heart on its rolled-up t-shirt sleeve. Best of all, though, is ‘Searching Through The Past’: simple melodic joy, recalling Blondie and The Bangles at their most spine-tinglingly catchy. From afar, it’s easy to be bowled over by its uncomplicated charm and bewitching sweetness; up close one can imagine feeling smitten enough to swoon. It’s like being a kid again and catching the first breeze that really whistles through you, tingling the skin; that really makes you question the external forces of the world, be they incidental to your daily existence or just generally driving it. Plenty of other pop songs will do this in 2013 – ‘Teenage’ by Veronica Falls has a similar way with keening straightforwardness, and draws on similar influences to boot – but it’s always great to be reminded that a dumbass hook and the way a voice bends when delivering certain notes can still make you feel as infinite as they did before you filled your head with all this context.

Which brings us neatly back to where we started. Yeah, some days I am tired of this whole shebang in the 21st century, particularly after the over-saturation of landfill indie and the endless, tedious recycling of pop culture into ever-more watered-down facsimiles of the original source material. I’m bored of dominant media culture dictating what’s hip and what’s not, even when those media cultures seem weak and anachronistic compared to the press power of previous generations (and yep, I’m aware there’s an irony to me using an album review to make that point). I’m fed up of having to wade through so much unsatisfactory sludge to find the good stuff, because our collective imagination hasn’t evolved (or, less pessimistically, hasn’t realised it hasevolved) to a point where it can place nerve-racking challenge at least on a par with comforting familiarity, which in itself specialises in the easy manipulation of false sentiment. But every now and again it’s worth being reminded that these hips were made for shaking, this heart was made for beating and some songs were made for no greater purpose than to get on down with the pair of ‘em. And some days, with the right record playing and all those elements in sync, I don’t feel tired at all. (7/10)

(Originally published by The Line Of Best Fit, 27/03/2013)

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TEENAGE ANGST HAS PAID OFF WELL: 20 Years Of ‘The New Nirvana’

June 4, 2013

The music industry is a strange beast. All too rarely does it seek out new sounds or ideas. It does not embrace change or futuristic concepts like ‘progress’. Basically, it tends to stick with a tried and tested formula:

1. Find band
2. Watch band get popular
3. Attempt to sign everyone else who sounds like the popular band
4. Desperately hope one of these bands gets popular enough to repeat the process
5. Swim in piles of money

Of course, stage one is often the stopping point, and the trouble with stage three is that all sorts of shite gets ground up in the wheels of capitalism (that sound you just heard was The Fly’s copy of ‘The Communist Manifesto’ falling out of our pockets). Stage five is the great, unattainable goal of an unsustainable business model, and it dangled most tantalisingly during the 90s. Alternative rock was booming, and record companies strove to find another act who might replicate the success of the one band everybody seemed to agree on. The decade became an endless, fruitless search for ‘the new Nirvana’; a buzz-phrase which seemed more and more ridiculous with every Candlebox that fell by the wayside. Here’s just a few of the acts who were chewed up (and occasionally spat out) out along the way…

STILTSKIN

Hopes were high for this Scottish collective, particularly when they scored a chart-topping single with their grunge-inflected debut ‘Inside’ in 1994. Heroically pioneering the ‘Levi’s advert = instant megastar’ method of climbing the ladder, they provided a template for future jeans-endorsing acts like Babylon Zoo when everyone heard the album and instantly shared the same revelation – specifically, that Stiltskin were a load of useless old cobblers. Huzzah! After an unsuccessful attempt to revive the band, vocalist Ray Wilson went on to front an ageing Genesis between 2006-8, a move which equated to surefire success in much the same way as Harry Redknapp’s stewardship of Queen’s Park Rangers equates to ‘a sensible, well-thought-out appointment, ensuring the footballing and financial success of the club for years to come’. Stiltskin brought out a new record in 2011. Nobody noticed.

BUSH

Difficult to work out exactly why Londoners Bush irked the British press so much. Perhaps it was the timing of debut album ‘Sixteen Stone’, just as the prevailing Seattle whine was beginning to be surpassed by Britpop’s parochial optimism. Maybe it was the commercialist feel of their glossy, written-for-American-radio grunge-lite. It could even have been their audacious habit of being popular across the Atlantic, in contrast to the failed attempts of more celebrated countrymen like Blur or Oasis. In all likelihood, however, it was because they were utter cack. Bush deflected the Nirvana-wannabe jibes by recording a ‘difficult’ follow-up record with Steve Albini, before going onto become one of the biggest rock bands on the planet: proof, if it was ever needed, that the vast majority of people are fucking idiots.

SILVERCHAIR

Mere whippersnappers when their debut ‘Frogstomp’ hit the stands in 1995, Silverchair’s ambitions grew beyond their early Pearl Jam apery. Their initial success ensured hero status in their native Australia, but by the time they reinvented themselves as alternative metallers with third album ‘Neon Ballroom’, the rest of the world was already losing interest. Frontman Daniel Johns later pushed the band in more broadly commercial directions, also incurring the wrath of ‘Neighbours’ fanboys everywhere by marrying actress-turned-popster Natalie Imbruglia. All of which is vastly more fascinating than the tedious guff they plopped out before going on hiatus in 2011. That’s right, Silverchair are a rectum in this analogy. Tee-hee.

RADISH

It was the unlikely figure of Nils Lofgren who first noticed Radish’s potential: with two independent albums under their belts by the tender age of fifteen, the band’s alarmingly precocious songwriter Ben Kweller sent a demo to the sometime E Street Band guitarist. One expensively-assembled demo later, a bidding war ensued to sign the self-described ‘sugar metal’ trio, with the adolescent rush of ‘Little Pink Stars’ burning briefly but brightly across UK radio in the spring of 1997. Essentially a goofier, grungier cousin of Ash’s effervescent ‘Girl From Mars’, the single flung the trio into the spotlight – major label debut ‘Restraining Bolt’ met with positive reviews, an opening slot at the Reading festival proved triumphant, and the band returned to the studio, excited by plans for an ambitious second album. Inevitably, the record was shelved; Radish were forced to seek a release from their contract, and that was the end of that. Kweller resurfaced at the turn of the millennium, pedalling Ben Folds-tinged country-pop under his own name.

IDLEWILD

A snarling bundle of sweat and chaos, Idlewild’s early appearances saw their sound famously described as “a flight of stairs falling down a flight of stairs”. Influenced as much by the angular pace of Superchunk as June Of 44’s dissonant post-rock, their art-school approach to Neanderthal punk energy made them heroes to skinny indie kids and muscular rock fans alike, before concerted efforts were made for the Edinburgh outfit to become (uh-oh!) ‘serious artists’. With journos hasty to rewrite their ‘new Nirvana’ spiels with the phrase ‘new REM’, it soon became apparent that the band were shooting for middle age too soon. Meanwhile, the band’s Roddy Woomble cultivated the worst haircut ever sighted on man or woman, before embarking on a fairly-well-received folk career. Which, one presumes, is lovely for him. Bit boring, mind.

LLAMA FARMERS

That’s right, Llama Farmers. Every now and again there’s a beat combo with a name of such jaw-dropping, face-palming, nation-uniting shitness that you want to stick them in stocks and allow infinite slaps to anyone who feels even slightly irritated by it. This Greenwich lot’s first two singles were decent enough to distract from their woeful choice in the moniker department, all hully-gully grunge riffs and shoegazey insouciance. Sadly, their transposition to a major label showed the gaping holes in their oevre – chiefly a lack of good songs or redeemably interesting features – and they passed unremarkably into the great indie dustbin in the sky. Nothing more was heard from them, but if you listen closely on a quiet night, you can still hear echoes from 1998; faint, ghostly whispers of angry voices seething at that bloody name.

PUDDLE OF MUDD

Fortune was never going to favour Wes Scantlin in the long run. Despite some independent success following Puddle Of Mudd’s formation in the initial grunge explosion, the phrase ‘discovered by Fred Durst’ doesn’t look good on anybody’s CV. Not even to Fred Durst. Trudging into a rock landscape razed to the ground by the ravages of nu-metal, the ‘workmanlike’ (read: bobbins) Muddsters suggested they might be due an extension to their excruciating 15 minutes of fame when worldwide smash ‘Blurry’ became another anthem for fans of knuckle-dragging yarlers like Nickelback and Creed. It was short-lived, however: before long a piss-drunk Scantlin sabotaged the band’s limited appeal with sloppy shows and embarrassing onstage rants. By summer 2003, nu-metal was a somewhat embarrassing stain on the 21st century’s trousers, and Puddle Of Mudd resumed their rightful place as a clump of dried jizz on the discarded, crumpled-up tissue of rock.

THE VINES

He looked like a star, and certainly tried to act like one. But things just didn’t pan out as Craig Nicholls had hoped – despite media proclamations that The Vines would save rock’n’roll with a handful of Mudhoney-esque stormers and a wealth of faux-psych ballads, the world just couldn’t stay interested. There was a crunching, cartoon-grunge charm to early singles like ‘Highly Evolved’ and ‘Get Free’, but ultimately audiences started to grow suspicious of garage bands called things like The Plural Nouns and started listening to post-punk imitators like Franz Ferdinand instead. Second album ‘Winning Days’ generated little but ripples of disappointment, while Nicholls’ increasingly-erratic behaviour (related to his as-yet-undiagnosed Asperger’s syndrome) alienated the band even further from their fast-dwindling fanbase. The Vines continue to record to this day, either ignoring or oblivious to their current status as a half-remembered anachronism.

DINOSAUR PILE-UP

By and large, the idea of discovering a ‘new Nirvana’ ground to a halt in the noughties; the triumphalist New Rock Revolution and cerebral tendencies of the post-punk revival were at odds with what used to be known as ‘the Seattle sound’. Sure, there was the odd bunch who’d generate lazy references to the Aberdeen angst merchants – the swiftly-forgotten Nine Black Alps, for instance – but rock’s reference points had undeniably shifted. So it was something of a surprise when Leeds trio Dinosaur Pile-Up emerged in 2009, almost completely obscured by a cloud of Cobain comparisons. They were LOUD! They were PUNK! They were, without a shadow of a doubt, THE NEW NIRVANA. Except they weren’t really. As a swift spin of their forthcoming second LP ‘Nature Nurture’ will attest, jauntily-pleasant mosh-pop doth not make for era-defining, paradigm-realigning, awe-inspiring rock’n’roll. Verily, it maketh for sounding like Feeder. And that can’t be the point, surely?

(Originally published by The Fly, 21/03/2013)

An Introduction To Sonic Youth

June 4, 2013

This week marks the 30th anniversary of Sonic Youth’s fearsome debut ‘Confusion Is Sex’. But where to begin for those looking to get started with this most user-unfriendly of bands? Picking through their immense back catalogue can be a treacherous business, so we thought we’d help you get started with a guide to ten of the American punk legends’ most earth-shatteringly great tracks.

‘100%’

A burst of feedback introduces a thunderous riff, with Thurston Moore snarling his sarcastic blues through clenched teeth. As close to pop as Sonic Youth ever got, not to mention as instant an album opener as you could wish for, this originally appeared on 1992’s ‘Dirty’. Butch Vig’s muscular production oversaw the band attempting to mesh their art-rock sensibilities with a genuine attempt to become major pop culture superstars. In that regard they failed, but boy, what glorious failure.

‘Bull In The Heather’

Mystery, dissonance and the unnerving sound of Kim Gordon monotonously intoning “tell me that you wanna bore me”. One of Sonic Youth’s most popular songs, the title came from the name of a racehorse, imprinted on a bumper sticker given to Thurston and Kim by Pavement’s Bob Nastanovich.

‘Eric’s Trip’

Possibly Lee Ranaldo’s finest moment. The pounding heartbeat of the drums drive their point home amidst an other-worldly haziness, virtually blocking out anything approaching melodic sense and mirroring the hallucinogenic hyper-awareness of the song’s bewildered narrator. The squalling splendour of 1998’s ‘Daydream Nation’ represents the band’s masterpiece, and this is just one of its many highlights.

‘Shadow Of A Doubt’

Heavily referencing Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Strangers On A Train’, this 1986 track uses sparse harmonics and foreboding percussive thwacks to weave a tapestry as starkly suggestive as anything conjured up by the master of suspense himself. Above the ominously restrained beauty, Kim breathlessly whispers a plea of “kiss me”, somehow managing to sound both compellingly sensual and completely psychotic at the same time.

‘Dirty Boots’

1990 saw Sonic Youth freshly signed to Geffen, following lengthy relationships with notable indies SST and Blast First. ‘Goo’, their major label debut, showed what happened when they lowered their eyes from the sprawling magnificence of the open horizon and concentrated on what was right in front of them – specifically, grunge. In the event, we get a solitary, explosive leap through the best chorus they ever wrote followed by heroic bursts of noise and a heart-bursting instrumental sequence that seems determined to escape the confines of mere sonics, ascending straight to the heavens in the process. Not quite the hit single they envisioned, then, but still: incredible rock’n’roll.

‘I Dreamed I Dream’

Originally appearing on their self-titled debut 12” in 1982, ‘I Dreamed I Dream’ was the by-product of a band immersed in the compositional guitar experiments of Glenn Branca and Rhys Chatham, whilst still half in love with the dissonant headfuck of New York’s briefly-sparkling no wave scene. Distinctly unmelodic, the song’s powerful rush comes from a hypnotic, minimalist bassline, with Kim’s flat murmurs melting softly into Lee’s howling mantras. Post-rock before post-rock; the first significant footsteps in a thirty-year adventure.

‘Death Valley ’69’

True horror committed to tape: guitars that sound like howling winds pitted against the tumultuous storm of the rhythm section, while Thurston duets with no wave icon Lydia Lunch on an account of the Manson family murders. Lifted from second full-length ‘Bad Moon Rising’, the song was a metaphorical depiction of the moral decay of 80s society: the idealism of the hippie dream torn to shreds by the cynicism of the following generation. With or without the horrific slaughter scenes of its accompanying video, it’s simply the sound of pure, unadulterated terror.

‘Expressway To Yr Skull’

Guitars that sound like doomed cathedral bells, melodies that hang heavily and moodily amidst a funereal trudge… the band pulled out all the stops with this astounding number. “We’re gonna kill the California girls,” Thurston wails, implicitly decreeing an end to pop’s mindless feelgood factor as the chaos escalates around him. Not for nothing did Neil Young describe this as “the greatest guitar song of all time” – where other bands expect to fly, this track effortlessly soars.

‘Teen Age Riot’

The definitive song from the band’s definitive statement, ‘Teen Age Riot opens with ethereal chords that crash against each other like waves in a chemical sea, before the pure noisepop thrill of the main riff throws everything into delirious relief. Supposedly envisioning a world with Dinosaur Jr’s J Mascis as president, the track represented Sonic Youth’s greatest success by that point, both artistically and commercially. There were many great records to follow ‘Daydream Nation’, but crucially, they never bettered it. Flawless.

‘NYC Ghosts & Flowers’

Something of a curveball when it appeared at the turn of the millennium, the album ‘NYC Ghost & Flowers’ was composed following the theft of the band’s equipment. Forced to work in unfamiliar circumstances, SY teamed up with Chicago experimentalist Jim O’Rourke (who would briefly become an official member of the band) to create their least immediate record since the early 80s. With Lee’s image-soaked poetry standing before a post-rock backdrop that shames the relatively-traditionalist likes of Mogwai or Explosions In The Sky, this title track is something of a curio, but thoroughly rewarding nonetheless.

STILL CURIOUS?

Wondering where to start? For the greatest works, look no further than the mighty triumvirate of ‘EVOL’, ‘Goo’ and the majestic ‘Daydream Nation’ – albums that define both the end of the independent era and punk rock’s major label experiment of the ‘90s. If it’s the serious stuff that intrigues you, then ‘A Thousand Leaves’ and ‘NYC Ghosts & Flowers’ contain their most ambitiously complex work, but genuine novices might want to head for the hits’n’faves compilations ‘Screaming Fields Of Sonic Love’ and ‘Hits Are For Squares’. Dive in!

(Originally published by The Fly, 01/03/2013 – opening paragraph by Alex Denney)

COMANECHI – You Owe Me Nothing But Love

June 4, 2013

Everyone loves a good freakout. Rock’n’roll’s tendency towards a certain type of pockmarked Hollywood camp means there are rich pickings to be found amidst its various asylums, although with certain notable exceptions, it’s often hard to distinguish between the actors and the genuinely unhinged. But that’s half the fun – horrendous voyeur that it is, rock history lauds and venerates the eccentric, the lunatic and the just-plain-out-of-control; perpetuating the myth that the music thrives on its medium being absolutely, irredeemably, brainfartingly, unf*ckingforgettably doolally.

So it’s won’t come as a surprise for seasoned listeners to hear Akiko Matsuura yelling “I’m losing my mind” over a sludged-out maelstrom of rough’n’tumble riffage – the script’s been written and frankly we expect everyone to follow it. As with most of the rock bands of our age, Comanechi always sound slightly too au fait with the plot to be truly out of their minds – the hooks too familiar, the angst too knowing. The reference points come thick and fast: blink and you might miss the flashes of Sonic Youth homage amidst nods to Mudhoney,Bikini Kill, Babes In Toyland, The Melvins and plenty more. Riot grrrl and grunge are the main sources of inspiration, and although they miss the pointed politicism of the former and the latter’s navel-gazing faux-nihilism, they nail the sounds pretty darn well.

And it’s all good. The pop-metal lurch of ‘Out of My Mind’ seethes magnificently, and ‘Mad’ comes with an imaginary Kathleen Hanna floating over its shoulder, guiding and instructing as only a furious projection of righteous femmepunk possibly can. Just like the yawningly-obvious majority of pop music before it, the main theme of the record is love (it’s released on Valentine’s Day, romance fans!), but with emphasis on its destructive elements rather than chocolates, heartbreak or eternity. As a study in human relations and their subsequent negativity, You Owe Me Nothing But Love comes across as less of a deconstructive psychological thesis and more of a disillusioned rant… or at least it does until ‘Patsy’, the album’s thrilling centrepiece. It’s the one moment where they create something truly unsettling – the sexualised horror of the lyrics (“Hi, I’m Patsy/I show my pussy to everyone/My brother fucked me/He’s a model”) is conveyed somewhere between a venomous growl and devilish insouciance, amplifying the tension spiked by Simon Petrovitch’s maraudering chords. The song’s main character comes across as a confused mess of victimhood, tragedy and indifference, veering from apparent accusations of incest to nonchalant claims like “I’m not into fashion/I’m into punk” before the previous lines have time to sink in. As the one moment where the raucous ambitions of the music truly come up against a more sincere depiction of mental instability – realistic and frightening, rather than fun and heroic – it makes for a difficult listen, but a compelling one nonetheless.

Comanechi’s second full-length ain’t a gnarly classic to file alongside Fun House or Philosophy Of The World (to name but two genuinely batshit contenders of yore), but it’s as raw and savage as hook-laden guitar music gets in 2013. We’re all a little too savvy to truly believe in the rock’n’roll woah these days, let alone fully commit to its glorious farce, so it’s a struggle to be convinced when yet another gang of skinny kids with guitars tell us they’re crazy. But playing along with the charade’s a lot more fun with songs like these. (7/10)

(originally published by The Line Of Best Fit, 08/02/2013)

Get the fuck up!

January 22, 2010

It seems quite strange to imagine that the length of time between the Minor Threat 7″ and Nevermind is now equal to how many years have elapsed since nu-metal’s heyday. I was 18 at the time and it was easier to go out, get drunk and bawl along to Limp Bizkit than i’d perhaps like it to have been.

It all seems faintly embarrassing now – has there ever been a musical movement so pointlessly angry? Grunge may have been full of self-pitying Gen-Xers with little to say for themselves, but at least a lot of the tunes and some of the bands still stand up. It’s harder to imagine
Rollin’ or Last Resort capturing the imaginations of future generations in quite the same way as Smells Like Teen Spirit or Touch Me I’m Sick still seem to. Although music is a funny thing – rule out a nu-metal revival at your peril. There was a time when it seemed like the 80s (‘the decade that taste forgot’) could never possibly be cool again.

Still. Ten years, maaan! How did that happen?