Re-evaluating Pearl Jam – Part Twelve: Gigaton

Well, as a bad band that probably wouldn’t have existed without Pearl Jam once said… it’s been awhile.

I’ve been blogging along at a pace so steady over the last few weeks, this website may actually be more active than it’s ever been (this coming after a couple of years of basically no activity). It seems appropriate to me that we revisit one of the series that arguably kicked the whole thing off in the first place, and that means that we’re going to talk about some Pearl Jam.

We were actually graced with a new Pearl Jam record at around the same time that everything was shutting down in North America (for the first time) in March. COVID-19 conditions actually wound up preventing the North American tour that the band were planning to coincide with the new albums release.

The craziest thing? I was excitedly looking into tickets for the tour. I thought that it would be really funny to go see a Pearl Jam show and write a blog about it. That didn’t happen, but I think that I need to admit that my series of blogposts intended to make fun of Pearl Jam has led to me actually becoming kind of a fan of Pearl Jam. I’ll never stop making fun of them, but now I do so lovingly.

It is in this spirit that I will finally listen to Gigaton, which was released to moderate fanfare in March 2020.

Who Ever Said

PJ opens up their seven-hundredth studio album with some of their distinctive fuckin’ around noise, before opening up to a steadily bopping but rote garage rock riff. The kings of modern dad-rock have shuffled off of the couch, gang. Get ready to cross your arms and nod your head.

This song is totally fine. There are some pretty neat chord progressions in the pre-chorus and chorus proper. I prefer my PJ opening tracks to rage and roil, but this is more just… competent rocking. The bridge is a little long and feels kind of directionless, which winds up making the song feel a lot longer than it needs to be.

Vedley sounds great, though!

Superblood Wolfmoon

When this track opens, I’m instantly struck by the contrast of a pretty fun garage-pop guitar strut and Eddie Vedder stumbling through a lyrical hook that is too moronic to have been an ad-lib. It’s really dumb. I actually enjoy it, that’s how dumb it is.

This song seems a little confused on whether it’s playful and poppy or full-throttle rock stuff. It never really successfully nails the latter, but it’s a fun enough slice of rock ‘n roll. Some of the gang vocals are hooky and satisfying, and there’s a very daffy but great guitar solo bit.

It is absolute nonsense, though. Yow! Very dumb.

Dance of the Clairvoyants

I remember when this song got released as a teaser for the album and I got very, very excited. To be clear, I got excited because I thought that it was a very embarrassing direction for the band to take and I couldn’t wait to make lots and lots of fun of them.

I like it a little more now, but the overall vibe of the verses is still… pretty hilarious. The toot-toot synths are ridiculous and Edward is just barking like crazy over what can only be described as an old man’s interpretation of danceable music. Eddie also just sounds like he’s just spitting off the dome, throwing out lines about knowing that girls want to dance and boys want to grow.

A classic Pearl Jam experimental misfire! I’m secretly thrilled by it!

Quick Escape

The band wrote this song after listening to Led Zepplin’s “When the Levee Breaks”, I think. The drum opening is practically lifted. That being said, the bass groove fucking rocks and sounds like it is very fun to play.

“Quick Escape” is from a pretty standard rock mold, but I kinda dig it. The vocal yelps in the chorus are peak unhinged Edwin Veddleston. The bridge/guitar solo is also extremely great. More of that, please.

This is maybe my favourite track so far.

Alright

…alright. It’s ballad time.

“Alright” has some experimental tones and textures at play, but they work a little better than the goofy shit in “Dance of the Clairvoyants”. It does just kind of sound like a standard Eddie acoustic song with unique production flourishes pasted in. Later on it sounds like they grabbed the 12-string guitar that Alice In Chains used on “I Stay Away”, which seems like a brave choice, considering the fact that it’s been over 25 years since anyone has dared pick up a 12-string guitar.

Overall, this song’s title is very appropriate. Meh.

Seven O’Clock

You can sing “Hunger Strike” over this track, so it’s got that going for it. It is nowhere near as good as “Hunger Strike”.

The chorus underwhelms. There’s a lot of kinda subpar keyboard work on this album so far. Wonky tones that don’t work and boring/clumsy lines. It’s kinda weird.

The song has a big outro, but it doesn’t add up to much. Totally would hit skip on this track if I were to spin this record again.

Never Destination

I was going to say that this was another standard dad-rocker, but then Eddo starts singing and it sounds like when the Spin Doctors sang “liddlemissliddlemiss can’t be wrong” and I laughed, so there’s that.

Very straightforward rock song. You could hear this song 100 times and not remember a thing about it. It sounds like they’re having fun, though, so it would probably be fun to go hang in the garage with these dads and crack a Carlsberg or something.

Is growing up and becoming like their own fathers the “Never Destination”? Because mission accomplished, dudes! You’re probably all the “cool dads”!

Take The Long Way

This rocks a little harder and features some off-kilter change ups that have been mostly absent from the other songs. I like songs like this because there’s a bit of a nervous energy happening, whereas so many of the modern PJ songs sound like a band that could just write a sluggish garage rock song in their sleep.

Some nice background vocals bolster the chorus and bridge, and the bridge switches up the rhythm nicely. This tune is decent enough! Guitar solo is a bit shit, though.

Buckle Up

Buckle Up… for a piece of shit!

“Buckle Up” is a No Code level bummer of a craptrack. I hate it, guys!

Comes Then Goes

This one sounds like it’s an Eddie joint and it carries the preferred presentation of being just an acoustic guitar and that rich, deep baritone that we all hear as we fall asleep each night. We all hear that, right? Eddie Vedder crooning us to sleep?

This song is a nice enough slab of folky balladry. I do not mind it. It does not, however, justify its over six-minute length. Eddie Vedder? More like Edit-me Better!

Have I already used that one? If not, I’ve still got it. That’s one of the best ones I’ve ever come up with.

Retrograde

Oh shit, the 12-string is back!

This song makes virtually no impression on me beyond that. A five-plus minute mid-tempo slog. Not a single memorable hook or riff. I dunno, this one is a bummer. The production on the big “epic” outro does sound appropriately big, but it’s in service of a pretty flat tune.

Nah, dudes.

River Cross

Pretty glad that they chose this as the album closer over “Retrograde”, as I find this to be a more effective and meditative track. It isn’t tremendous, but it is a decent vibe track with an interesting central chord progression performed on organ and an emphasis on the lead vocal.

On a record with a few more gems, this could have been a nice capper. It’s still nice, but it’s low energy following about three or four low-energy tracks, so I’m already feeling a little bored.

The song builds to yet another “big outro”, but I think that this one manages to work by feeling a little more stripped-down to a central idea than just a dog’s breakfast of ideas.

The Verdict

I’ll have to update my ULTIMATE PEARL JAM ALBUM RANKING POST with this new album.

Gigaton is a decidedly middle-of-the-road rock album with a few mildly amusing gems and lots of duds. Attempts at experimentation are largely more humorous than successful. A few quite good rockers (“Who Ever Said”, “Quick Escape”) can’t elevate this release beyond the lower-middle of the pack. 

It’s a good thing that they’ve already sort of won me over, because this record isn’t going to net them any new fans, I don’t think. Mega-fans will probably like it fine.

For me, it’s not even that hilarious. Luckily, though, so many things are bad right now, a mediocre PJ record coming out actually feels pretty comforting!

I have missed these rock daddies and I still hope that live events happen again one day so that I can go laugh at them in person.

Great Job, Robot: “Communication” by Disq

There are times when the collection of ones and zeroes that comprise whatever profile it is that Spotify uses to manipulate me will truly impress. “Great Job, Robot” is dedicated to those songs that the Spotify algorithm gods throw at me that I think are quite excellent or otherwise noteworthy picks. Please be advised that these posts will concern themselves with saying mostly positive things about tunes, unlike the unreasonable slag-fests that occupy most of the real estate on this blog.

“Communication” – Disq

As much as I wonder if it’ll ever by truly hip on a Top of the Pops mainstream level again, there’s really nothing that tickles me quite like a song built almost entirely around one terrific guitar line or chord progression. “Communication” revolves around a warbling and winding guitar figure that manages to be at once hooky and hypnotic. It is strangely enhanced further by the fact that it sounds slightly out of tune at times, as if the guitarists are slamming on strings procured from some ancient pawn shop.

The song that stretches out around the central guitar line is a terrific blend of modern indie rock and throwback 90s alt guitar pop. The vocal melodies intertwine with the guitar, magnifying their effect without aping them exactly. By the time things build to a big ol’ rockin’ instrumental outro, I’m in bliss. The kids are all right.

I like “Communication” by Disq. Great job, Robot.

Reevaluating NINE INCH NAILS: Part 8 – The Slip

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Nine Inch Nails’ seventh studio album, The Slip, was released for free under a Creative Commons license on July 22, 2008. The album peaked at number 13 on the Billboard 200 chart.

Having gotten some middling enjoyment out of the other 2000s-era Nine Inch Nails albums, what am I to make of the album that Trendy Ricepaper thought so little of that he gave it away for free?

I guess there’s only one way to find out.

999,999
The Slip opens up with 90 seconds or so of rhythmic whirring that can’t really be called a “song”. It could be called “reasonably interesting sounding”. This was so obviously designed to bleed into the next track, I’m not sure why it isn’t just properly a part of the next track. But whatever.

1,000,000
The drumbeat into crunchy bass riff thing is such an obvious NIN touchstone by this point, it would have actually been a pretty shocking departure for this record to have started off without a song that sounds like “1,000,000”. The Terry Razor take on industrial pop-rock is a boilerplate now, and this track doesn’t stray too far from its progenitors. Beyond perhaps being a track that sounds like it was written in order to get the central riff licensed by some tech firm to sell some really swell new graphics cards or something.

Near the end some background vocals come in where T-bird mumbles “a million miles away” into one of your ears and it sounds like he recorded it on his phone and pasted it on top of an otherwise complete mix of the song. It’s really weird.

Also, the drums sound kind of crappy in the way where I’m not sure if it’s crappy sounding artificial drums trying too hard to sound real or if it’s just real drums that have been produced terribly.

This song may not be one in a 1,000,000 but at least we only have to sit through one of it, am I right?

Letting You
See, these fake-sounding drums and this distorted bass sound is already much more interesting than the previous song. “Letting You” captures a glimmer of the speedy, amped-up glory of past NIN gems like “Gave Up”. The production on this record is squelchy and farty, which works pretty well with this chaotic track and its fitfully bananas chorus section.

Pretty good. Really good, actually.

Discipline
This album is all buzzy bass grooves, huh? No complaints about that as far as “Discipline” is concerned, because this groove is catchy as fuck. This may be as close as Trunk Rumbzler gets to straight-up pop music, and it works very well. Even when things are brought down and some predictable NIN creepy whisper vocals come in, they’re delivered in a pretty hooky fashion.

Once he starts he cannot stop himself, guys.

Echoplex
I’ve come around on the drum sounds on this record. They’re kind of hilarious and great to me now. “Echoplex” is also pretty catchy, built around a great guitar figure that sounds like it is very fun to play. The song straddles its dance-y hook and spooky atmospherics in a very handy Nine-Inch-Nailsian fashion and concludes with a vintage T-Rez repetition jam-spiral. This is a great one.

Head Down
Hahaha. The vocals on the verses here fulfil the requirement of embarrassing almost-rap spoken word/bad idea from ol’ Trinty. I’m glad that we’ve gotten that out of the way. Luckily, the glitched-out track beneath it is just terrific. The chorus is also tightly melodic and filled with a great sense of tension. Overlooking the really silly vocal approach, “Head Down” is another winner. The sounds are really spectacular.

Lights in the Sky
After all of these fun bangers, it’s kind of a surprise to find a haunting and hushed piano ballad plopped in there. But “Lights in the Sky” is soft Terry Razor at his best. As soft as terrycloth! Terry Razor cloth! Which doesn’t actually sound soft at all. I’m getting off-track.

I’m not sure that there’s been a NIN ballad this good since “Hurt”. The chord progressions are terrific and the song is sad and unsettling in the way that all good mellow music ought to be. Uplift me later, pal. I gotta go get Reznor’d.

Corona Radiata
The final piano stroke of “Lights in the Sky” blends into this 7 minute-plus ambient drone track that is all kinds of terrific. Whatever occasional misgivings I have about T-roz as a songwriter, I cannot deny that he is a master of instrumentation, tone and texture. “Corona Radiata” is fascinating in a way that feels reminiscent of “A Warm Place” from The Downward Spiral, but without feeling derivative of that piece. This is great. I could listen to it all day.

The Four of Us are Dying
We’re brought into the home stretch by The Slip‘s penultimate track, “The Four of Us are Dying”. As this is another instrumental, I have no idea who the four of them are and even less of an idea of what’s killing them. Maybe they all slipped. Maybe this album is about four people who all slipped on the same patch of spooky ice and that’s why it’s called The Slip.

Anyway, we can come back to my very good and reasonable theories about the album’s thematic content later. I’ve gotta say that this instrumental track was very enjoyable. It simmers and burbles for several minutes before boiling over in a way that seems more restrained and composed than I feel a younger act would have gone for. Working together as pieces of a whole, the last three tracks have taken the very fun front half of this record and given depth and gravity to the album. This is a good one!

Demon Seed
It’s drum-time again! The album closes with “Demon Seed”, which sounds like a classic Nine Inch Nails outro repetition spiral for its entire duration. Plenty of great sounds on display and fun to listen to, but it feels rather minor compared to some of the other tracks on this album. I almost wonder if the album should have ended with the three songs that immediately precede “Demon Seed”.

This isn’t a deal breaker for me, though. This song is solid enough without sounding like the epic conclusion that I feel like it should have.

The Verdict
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I’m pretty surprised right now, guys!

I thought that Year Zero and With Teeth were both okay and I was expecting The Slip to continue the trend(reznor) of NIN records that are just fine but mediocre when compared with the high water mark of The Downward Spiral. It seems impossible, but I found so much to enjoy on The Slip… is this the best Nine Inch Nails record since TDS? That feels ridiculous to say for some reason.

If The Fragile were cut down to one LP of just its best material, I don’t think that I would bother considering The Slip as its superior. I’m just struck by how consistent and enjoyable the album is. It rarely knocks any track completely out of the park, but I don’t think that I would skip any tracks either.

Prior to this, I would have considered With Teeth to be the “fun” Nine Inch Nails record. The Slip trumps WT in the fun department pretty handily, though, and features a great ballad and two great instrumentals to boot.

I’ll need to do some calculations at the end of this series to determine where all of the albums truly rank, but I expect that The Slip will rank far higher on my list than any latter-day Nine Inch Nails record has any right to.

This record bangs!

 

Album Review: Thrice – Palms

As I may or may not have ever mentioned before on this blog, Thrice is and has been my all-time favourite band for years. I first discovered the Orange County four-piece in 2002 when I was in my last year of high school, around the release of their second record The Illusion of Safety. At the time, I was taken not just by the band’s energetic buzz-saw riffs and the way they married punk and metal, but by the emotional and thematic depth of Dustin Kensrue’s lyrics, full of evocative imagery and metaphors, a treasure trove of allusions to literature, philosophy, and politics.

It wasn’t until their breakout 2005 record, VHEISSU, that they really began to grow in their sound, abandoning much of the metal influences for more measured, mature song structures and diverse, experimental influences from shoegaze and grunge to arena and blues rock, but that nevertheless retained all the qualities that I had loved from the start.

Thrice took a hiatus in 2012, after the release of their eighth album, Major/Minor, and a double live album, Anthology, which chronicled their farewell tour. I didn’t know at that point whether I would ever get new music from them, but they reformed a few years later and put out what would end up being my number seven record of 2016To Be Everywhere Is to be Nowhere. Now, they’re back with a new record, and since I’m pretty much genetically predisposed to give it a perfect score, I thought in the interest of fairness to the reader, it would be a good idea to enlist the help of my illustrious colleague to render a more even-handed verdict.

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Palms is the tenth full-length studio album from American rock band Thrice. It was released on September 14th, 2018, and is their first album to be released via Epitaph Records. Palms was produced by the band with Eric Palmquist, who previously produced their 2016 album, To Be Everywhere Is to be Nowhere. It was promoted in advance of its release with two singles: The Grey, on July 10th, and Only Us, on August 14th, as well as a sneak preview of the song The Dark, two days before the album’s release.

Mark, let’s break this down track by track.

1. “Only Us”

Josh: This synth stuff isn’t entirely new for Thrice, if you’ve listened to the Water EP and songs like “Digital Sea,” but it is a bit of a departure for them to rely on it so heavily outside of a concept record like that. This has a cool, 80s vibe I dig, but it breaks down into a more traditional post-hardcore bridge that chugs along with a nice energy. Big vocal hooks here right out of the gate, and I dig the humanist lyrical themes of the song (“Finally when will it be enough / to find there’s no them / There is only us”) in lines like “the system that terrifies you should terrify me.”

Mark: I actually love the backing track to this song. It sounds like the opening of a John Carpenter movie. I’m a little less sold on the way that the vocal approach weaves into it, as it is very “rock dude” in its vibe and delivery. Strongly melodic, though, and it builds to a pretty satisfying anthemic back half. This is such a strange combination of being totally up my alley and something that I think is a little cringe-worthy. I have no idea where to fall on this!

2. “The Grey”

Josh: This is the album’s first single. Back to the guitars here, with some of those classic Thrice licks. This is just an all-around great song of the kind you expect from this band. It’s got a tight rhythm section with an emphasis on big sound and interplay between all the band members. Everything is coordinated really well in that there is a lot going on but the instrumental parts all make space for each other. There are some nice bluesy undertones and a proper build up to that huge chorus. Really dig the subtle background vocals that come in during the later iteration of the chorus.

This is also a good time to point out what feels like an emerging lyrical theme on this album. With the opener’s emphasis on coming together, and lyrics here like “find another way to fight,” it feels like Dustin is recalibrating his perspective on the world and looking for common ground. But that will come up more later.

Mark: Really fun riffin’ and rhythm opening up this track. By the time we reach the chorus, things start to feel a little rote to me. The bridge bring back some interest for me, involving a few twists and turns that I was missing from the more calculated-feeling four chord chorus. It’s big, there’s no doubt about it… but it feels very familiar in a way that this track’s better moments manage to avoid. This song is okay. It sounds like the closing credits song from a modern action adventure film.

3. “The Dark”

Josh: This one’s moody. I like the rather spare way it opens with just the drums and guitar and then gives way to a big anthemic chorus. Months ago when they were planning this song, Thrice put out a call for fan submissions to be part of a choir that they would mix together for this song. I sent one in, and while you can’t make out individual voices, I have no reason to believe I’m not one of them that appears at the end of the song. It’s a really cool touch because the decision to include hundreds of fan voices on the record adds to the inclusive feel of the record generally, but especially this song, which focuses on standing up and refusing to be ignored. That’s a sentiment that a lot of people can relate to for a lot of reasons, and it’s also something that feels easier to do with people in your corner.

Mark: I love the guitar work that opens this track. It’s also nicely arranged, the bass hits coming in with a dramatic flourish accompanied by a great-sounding organ. The inclusion of a big fat sawtooth bass synth during the chorus doesn’t hurt at all either. I like this song okay! Great work on the chorus, Josh! I think I can hear you the most!

4. “Just Breathe”

Josh: Damn if this isn’t one of the band’s best songs ever. It has a lot of that punk energy from their older stuff, with a big emphasis on bass—Eddie Breckenridge gets a lot of room to shine all throughout this album. But hooboy that pre-chorus/chorus comes out of left field, and it rules. Set aside for a second the absolute uplifting spirit of this song, which asks you to “stay deep in the moment … just breathe” and instead notice it as an example of how good a vocalist Dustin Kensrue has become. Light years from the kind of whiney screaming he did on the first couple Thrice records, his vocals here are so controlled and beautiful. The addition of guest vocalist Emma Ruth Rundle was a great touch, as the pair mesh so well together. The closing section of the song in which the instruments mostly drop out to make room for just their voices is *chef’s kiss emoji.*

Mark: Yeah, this one is pretty good. The bass guitar sounds particularly terrific and the songwriting in general is busy in a way that feels lively but never obnoxious. The vocal work in the chorus also has a little bit less of the “rocker dude” vibe that I’m not huge into. Probably the best song on the album thus far.

5. “Everything Belongs”

Josh: I’m fairly sure Mark will hate this one, as it’s this album’s version of “Stay with Me” from TBEITBN, a much poppier sound than much of the band’s work. “Everything Belongs” is an arena ballad that relies heavily on piano and sounds as close to Coldplay as any Thrice song you’ll hear, which means your mileage may vary. I think, though, if you removed the vocals completely, this would sound closer to Explosions in the Sky. It’s a song about learning to see how we’re all connected, and that’s earnest in the way It’s a Wonderful Life is. I can see how that won’t be everyone’s jam, but it works for me as an album track consistent with a theme. The line about how “the spaces make the songs” is very apt for this album, which is full of knowing restraint. But, yeah…this song is the clearest giveaway that Dustin spent time during the hiatus playing in a megachurch.

Mark: Hahaha. You’re right. This sucks.

6. “My Soul”

Josh: Really nice guitar tones here, and more of those really clean, controlled melodies from Dustin. I think guitarist Teppei Teranishi might be playing a wurlitzer at points on this one.  This is one of those Thrice songs like “Words in the Water” that you can only describe as beautiful. It’s soulful and melodic, with incredible production and vibes of Sade and Chris Cornell. It’s a love song that balances the desire to be loved with anxieties of being unlovable. There hasn’t been a lyric this year more relatable to me than “What if I’m broken from the start / and what if I never heal?” But like everything on this album, it’s deeply-infused with hope, as demonstrated on the frequent refrain “What if I open up my heart / and somehow we stumble into something real?”

Mark: This one is nice. Good production, nice use of keys, a pretty swell moody-sounding guitar. It totally does sound like Chris Cornell covering Sade or something, actually. I wonder how they’ll pull off these album tracks live. This album is produced-as-hell so far. I think this one includes a stand-up bass. Somehow I doubt they’ll cart one of those out when they play a show.

…don’t mind me, I’m just typing my thoughts.

7. “A Branch in the River”

Josh: Another song that feels more like traditional Thrice, with a chunky bassline and Dustin’s more wailing vocal style. It reminds me of “Backdraft” from the Fire EP, but with very similar imagery to “Words in the Water.” This is a band used to playing mid-sized clubs, but so far every song on Palms sounds like it would be suitable for an arena. The breakdown at 3:19 is a lot of fun, but really brothers Eddie and Riley Breckenridge—on bass and drums, respectively—bring the house down on this entire song.

Mark: I really like the bass tone that they’re using on this record, and the guy’s work is typically pretty good. I think that the chorus to this song is very fun! A good rock tune overall and it does indeed have a breakdown that will totally make your day. This is good stuff.

8. “Hold Up a Light”

Josh: This is a pretty straightforward rock song, but one that I imagine will be an absolute barn-burner live. It’s another one where Dustin lets loose and his voice feels less controlled, more gravelly. Dustin’s fascination with the elements has gone way back, most notably on the series of element-themed EPs, The Alchemy Index, and he’s going back to that well for the lyrics of “Hold Up a Light.” I’ve often thought of putting together playlists from across the band’s catalogue based on times they cover similar thematic territory. Here, fire represents hope and the will to live and to keep fighting. The line “cities are claimed by the smallest spark” feels like it’s straight out of The Last Jedi, which naturally means a lot of douchebags hate this song.

Mark: I can sing “About A Girl” to this, kind of, so for that reason I like it. Beyond that, this song seems like a good song to point to if you’re ever trying to explain to someone what an “album track” is. Unless I’m wrong and they make this one a single, but surely they wouldn’t. Would they?

“Hold Up A Light” sounds kind of tossed-off, but also includes probably the heaviest metal-inspired flourishes on the record so far. That makes it perfect for getting licensed by some pro wrestler somewhere!

9. “Blood on Blood”

Josh: There’s been a heavy Radiohead influence on Thrice since at least Beggars. That comes through most clearly on this album in “Blood on Blood.” This one would have felt very on brand for the band’s last album, as it’s the song here with the most overt political references, here to foreign policy, refugees, and war. The line, “Don’t have to look in the devil’s eyes or see his infant son / Just like a bolt from the bluest skies, but it’s still blood on blood” makes it feel like a sequel to “Death from Above,” an evocative song about drone bombing. “Blood on Blood” more generally questions the various ways we justify violence, and wonders if peace is possible. Important questions for our time. This song is all-around tight, and the whole band is on point. My only gripe with the album in general comes in this song, and it’s in how the weird little harp breakdown part-way through feels like it’s gearing up for a much heavier section like you get in “For Miles” (from VHEISSU) but instead goes back to more of the same. You do get a really nice vocal bridge towards the end here, where Dustin goes full crooning wail. It’s great.

Mark: When the band kicks in proper on this song, it reminds me a lot of Minus The Bear. Which isn’t a good thing or a bad thing. Just a thing.

Something about this song has me thinking again about the way that this guy’s vocals sometimes clash with the way that I think that the song ought to sound. I’m not necessarily saying that this would work better with a Thom Yorke croak on top of it, but there’s something incongruous about the sound of this song for me.

The harp section is ridiculous.

10. “Beyond the Pines”

Josh: Thrice has always been solid with choosing album closers, and this is no exception. This is a fucking gorgeous composition, musically and lyrically. This makes a great companion to “Just Breathe,” as it imagines a place to feel at peace, but also in the company of others. Minor spoilers for the second season of Westworld, but the imagery in this song really evokes the scenes of ‘digital heaven’ that were featured in the finale. There’s so much joy in the image—taken from Rumi—of a place “beyond the pines … a field where we can walk / leaving all our names behind.” The phrasing of the lyrics throughout this song is really great, and I love the way it holds back in the first verse and chorus before the second guitar comes in with that airy, emotional sound Teppei is so good at. The whole song feels vulnerable, down to the near-whispered bridge section. This is one of those songs you can put on headphones and lie on the floor and just get lost in.

Mark: One thing about this band that I’ve appreciated since their mid-2000s records is their very good use of baritone guitars. The solitary baritone guitar work that opens up this song sounds just terrific and makes me want to buy a baritone guitar.

As Josh mentioned, this song is an appropriately grand closer. The vocals line up a little better for me here than on some of the other tracks. As a point of personal preference, I feel as though this track kind of peters out in a way that underwhelms me, but its a minor quibble. If they had returned for another huge chorus, I’m sure that I would have found a way to complain about that too.

THE VERDICT

Josh: I said that To Be Everywhere Is To Be Nowhere was the perfect album to capture the tumult of the Trump campaign, a record that fixated on the apocalyptic and the violence of the state, but sought comfort in those we love even as we feared losing them. Palms, written deep into the presidency and a seemingly endless parade of hatred and division, is absent any of its predecessor’s cynicism, leaning instead into the optimism of an idea of utopia, even if that’s in the Undiscovered Country, or the place “beyond the pines.” There was that one great vocal melody on TBEITBN‘s “The Long Defeat,” but Palms is absolutely chock full of moments like that. It’s a record that feels like a balm to a wounded heart, a record brimming with hope that I know I’ll put on regularly when I’m feeling down. It’s a radical departure from their heavier sound, a direction they’ve gone increasingly over the years. But the songwriting continues to be inspired and take chances, even as it feels more focused. I think this is Thrice’s best record since 2009’s Beggars, and I can’t envision a scenario where it’s not in my top ten for the year. Five predictable stars.

Mark: I’m not sure that Thrice will ever be one of my favourite bands. Their early work was a pretty competent take on music that sounds absolutely laughable to modern ears, and what has followed always involves elements that I can really dig into and appreciate, but contains some element that turns me off enough that I keep them at arm’s length. This album is no exception. The tracks that I enjoy the most are, I think, much better than all of their last album, which I did not enjoy very much. There are songs on Palms that might be up there with my favourites from the group, which means that they might wind up living in my Apple Music shuffle list for awhile.

For all of my misgivings, though, I do think that this is a very good Thrice record. The production is largely terrific and there are some tremendous performances. If you’re a fan, you’ve probably already heard it. If you’re just a fan of modern rock, Palms is worth your time for at least one spin. Three predictable Markstars.

Alice in Chains — Rainier Fog

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The following is true: I just hit a deer. I just totalled my car. I’m stuck in a little town alone and every hotel room in this town is booked up. The midnight-shift dude at the Comfort Inn is into grungy guitar rock and he’s nice enough to let me hide in the lounge, hidden out of sight from the main doors, so long as I don’t fall asleep. He gave me some coffee pucks to run through the coffee-puck machine, to keep me awake. Nice guy. He’s rocking out to some awful cover of Tears for Fears’ “Shout”.

So stay up I will, and listen to grunge rock I will. Which got me thinking of the fact that Alice in Chains has a new record.

Alice in Chains, if you don’t know, were one of the big grunge rock acts of the ’90s. In order of their reverence, there was Kurd Cobain and Nirvana, there was Veddie and Pearl Jam, and—before Soundgarden captured all our attentions and took their rightful place with the near-perfect Superunknown—there was Layne and Alice in Chains. Gifted with a singular voice and a plainness in his lyrics that made Kurdtdtdt and Veddie’s words seem opaque and avoidant, Layne Staley sang frankly about his use of hard drugs and the lifestyle that came with it. He wasn’t asking for pity or for judgement, only putting words to what he saw in front of him. Combined with a soaring vocal range, a strange mix of growl and whine, and most importantly for teenaged-me, constant interesting harmonies with band-leader Jerry Cantrell, Layne’s singing always stood out to me in my formative years. In retrospect, many 90s bands were kind of shit, but Cobain and Vedder and Staley were all objectively excellent singers.

But when you sing about heroin and you live a life of using heroin, eventually the heroin wins. Alice in Chains recorded three LPs, two EPs, and an MTV Unplugged before the band decided, for reasons never I’ve never seen discussed, to go on an indefinite hiatus. A few years after that Layne died from a speedball overdose.

Jerry Cantrell, the primary songwriter and guitarist and melody-writer and general brains behind the Alice in Chains operation, toured as a solo act for a while. But eventually, the band wanted to play together again, to have fun, to keep going. They brought in a new guy, another very good singer, but everything I’ve heard from their output, he is always in the background, second always to Cantrell, the founding member. Cantrell’s voice is thoroughly fine but no standout; it’s a perfect harmonizing voice, but maybe not meant to take the lead.

So in a different configuration with a different band member and a different singing arrangement, Alice in Chains started making music again. Unlike other revival acts, they kept putting out records, touring, treating themselves as a real band and not some reunion or celebration-of-what-was. But it wasn’t for me anymore. I had loved their weird scales and punishing guitars and amazing harmonies as a kid, but as an adult I found their songs unnecessarily long (so many third verses and choruses!) and without any interesting movement. So I lost the thread on my teenage-favourite band and let them do their thing without my judgement.

But then I hit a deer and totalled my car and stranded myself in a town until the first ferry arrives at 6:30am. It’s 2:06am. I’ve been thinking about doing a review for Fraudsters (Mark’s got a bunch coming up and so I want to at least try to keep up). So let’s listen to the new Alice in Chains record, Rainier Fog, for the first time!

The One You Know — Starting on an ugly chord, working their way to an ugly-chord riff. The rhythm section is lively but boy it’s plain so far. Jerry’s got much more bite to his vocals than he used to, which is to his credit. He sounds a lot more like leading-man material, but still not quite there. The chorus is actually kind of great in a pop-rock way, in a way that reminds me of AiC’s third, interesting-but-kind-of-weak record (“Tripod”, the dog-cover record). But back we go to this weak riff. There’s a wah-wah solo, always Mark’s favourite, but it’s pretty interesting and would probably be amazing if there was more going on with that stupid riff. To AiC’s credit, this song actually has a nice, subdued bridge with some interesting harmonies, but this is very much Jerry’s show, and the new singing gent (William DuVall) is unfortunately sidelined even though his voice is strong. Overall, this is exactly the single you would expect Alice in Chains to release in 2018, for better and for worse.

Rainier Fog — A much more interesting riff this time. Rainier, if you don’t know, is the name of a mountain in Washington. The vocals are, again, far improved from old Cantrell, but the absence of Layne Staley and the weird quirks, the strange wrong-but-right melodic ideas he added, is still obvious to me. … A whole verse and chorus has passed with nothing new happening, so that I almost didn’t notice it passing. Another really interesting breakdown in this song, though, with a clear 80s influence (chorus bass, spacey drums), and it makes me wonder if Alice in Chains is getting tired of being Alice in Chains. There’s some interesting lead work in this bridge that sounds unfamiliar, but ultimately the good will is spent on an unnecessary third verse and chorus.

Red Giant — This sounds like a riff from their earlier era, filtered through a 2018-pop-metal lens. There’s something weak to the way the drums are recorded. It’s too bad. Sean Kinney is a superb drummer who has always been playing down, mostly keeping his noodley inclinations in check for this grunge band. Here, he’s much more lively, but it’s undercut by a soft production touch. Hah, I’m not sure if I’ve even heard the bass yet on this record. Not a good sign. Between the loud guitars, endless riffs, extended solos, and vocals, this record feels very much like the Cantrell show. Mostly that’s for worse, but there’s some good solo work here. Boy this pre-chorus and chorus is dreck, though. Too long! All of these songs would be better songs if they dropped the last verse and chorus, or the verse at least, or the chorus. Instead, they go on and on.

Fly — We’ve reached the acoustic song on the record. Sort of. Still lots of lead guitar. Still lots of rock drumming. Boy, this is bad. What is this about? What is he talking about? “Fill up on love when you’re hungry”? This isn’t great. It’s definitely leaning somewhere between Bon Jovi’s “Dead or Alive” and Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters”… but more optimistic! “Waiting out the storm until the skies are clear to fly.” This is what boring dad music used to be, before boring dad music became the National. And guess what? Third verse and third chorus that is exactly the same as the two that preceded it. The shortest song so far has was 4:49.

Drone — Riff riff riff. One of the thing I used to love about Alice in Chains’ riffs is that they sounded weird. Yes, they leaned on rock and metal standards, but they were chromatic, or in odd scales, or strangely musical. Here, instead, it’s all blues rock and none of the weird. Again, some interesting drums. Again, wah-wah mini-solo. Again, bland vocals (albeit one or two interesting harmonies). There’s an interesting tempo/acoustic transition here, but the part that follows is mostly interesting because it’s different from what came before it.

I can’t believe I hit a fucking deer. What an awful waste.

Jesus, this song is still going. There is a second wah-wah solo in. They’re back to the original rhythm for—yes—a third verse and chorus. After the punishing repetition of these songs, I can’t help but consider that maybe Alice in Chains was always just sort of bad and that I’m only being so critical because I’m hearing this for the first time in 2018. What would younger me have thought of this? … I hope I would have found the vocals dull, at least. But I bet I would have loved this. I was terrible. I am terrible still.

This song is still going.

Deaf Ears Blind Eyes — Not exactly an auspicious start, with a song title like that. But there’s some interesting stuff in the opening riff. The verse seems to promptly quash any hopes, BUT then the chorus comes in and it’s legitimately a little weird and interesting and actually evokes an uneasy mood/feeling. It’s no great track, but at least it’s doing something? God, I’m reaching here. This is really-well-produced nonsense.

There’s not even a Denny’s in this town. I was told that “the Tim Horton’s might be open all night if they have anybody to staff it.”

OK, a couple of interesting parts in this song, and as I was writing this sentence, the third verse began.

It was more that the deer hit me. But still. God it sucks.

Some interesting riffing at the end here.

Maybe — Maybe not, amiright? Some questionable vocal choices, into our Jovi acoustic rock again. So many harmonies but they… I don’t know, jive too well, don’t interact but act as one boring organism. God these chord progressions are killing me. Bad choice of words, all things considered tonight. “Let it die.” If they had ended the song here, it might have been an interesting choice. Instead, the song is only one third done, another five and a half minute ride through lines like “Maybe you should know I’m feeling lonely and I’m tired… Maybe this will show I’m feeling empty, uninspired.” It’s showing, Jerry. “Let it die” he says again right before a beautifully recorded solo that has none of the movement and inspiration that I remember when I was a kid. Maybe I imagined it all? No third verse, but we get the full third chorus. “Let it die.” Yeah. OK.

So Far Under — I once played with Mark and some other dear friends at a place that had a name like Jimmy’s Wing Shack or something. They had one of those punching bag machines and a drunk woman sat on our friend’s/drummer’s lap. This riff is exactly what I imagine a band playing Jimmy’s Wing Shack would play. From there, we go into a pre-chorus and a chorus that are mostly just more riff. And repeat. “No one gets off of this ride alive.” Some of these lines make me think Alice in Chains is screwing with me. I think maybe DuVall is singing some of the leads here? It’s hard to tell. The choruses sound different. Some interesting solo work here.

Never Fade — I haven’t pulled an all-nighter in some time. I’m fading.

Again, this sounds like DuVall might be taking over some of the singing duties. The verses are kind of weak, but the choruses are well sung. And the trading off between Cantrell and DuVall livens up the listening experience, hearing DuVall do two lines, and Cantrell follow with two more. It suggests what this band could be. That said, DuVall really is sort of squandering these verses. When the chorus repeats a second time, I’m just as excited and interested to hear them trade lines as the first time. Extended solo time. Boy, Mike Inez (their bass player) is just barely on this record. He’s like one or two steps from being Fieldy on a Korn record. This is not a timeless song, but for me, this chorus is as interesting as the record has been so far. “Never faaaaade!” I’m trying, man.

All I Am — The closer. Starting on a Jovi-acoustic-rock meets “Hotel California” vibe. OK, I’m being a little cruel, but it does evoke that a little. It’s almost 3am. All of these songs are longer than they need to be. This has an interesting mood, and not an abjectly bad vocal delivery in the chorus, but whenever the singing is good, it reminds me that the lyrics are bad. … OK, fuck it, I’m into this fake Hotel California nonsense. I think if they took a song like this and built some more dynamics into it, they might be able to make it interesting. As it stands, the whole thing essentially feels the same volume; you can feel it’s supposed to get louder during the choruses, but the song has no extra headroom. Some interesting time-signature stuff here. “I don’t recognize the face before me. It’s unfamiliar.” That’s the last line on the record. OK.

200

Verdict — Alice in Chains have managed to make me question my confidence in my memory. Was it always this mediocre? Was I? Why couldn’t the deer have jumped the other way instead of into my lane? The album sounds wonderfully recorded and produced but simultaneously gutless, with a nearly absent bass on standard headphones, and with drums that feel thin and uniform. The guitars sound ripping and have a few inspired moments, but the vocals are just a smear of uninteresting choral work rather than the interplay between two vocalists. The Jovi-esque moments were unfortunate too.

So the verdict? I should leave Alice in Chains be. They’re not for me anymore. This is probably awesome music for somebody, but even for that somebody, I wonder if they should maybe trim off more third verses, at the very least.

3:08am. I wish I hadn’t left my toothbrush in the busted-up car. I wish I hadn’t killed a deer.

Reevaluating SMASHING PUMPKINS: Part 2 – Siamese Dream

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Smashing Pumpkins’ second studio album, Siamese Dream was released in July of 1993. It debuted at #10 on the Billboard charts and went on to sell over 6 million copies worldwide. It has been certified four times Platinum in the both the United States and Canada.

Mark: I’m on the record as being a person who isn’t especially fond of Billiam Corgan’s music. I didn’t own any Smashing Pumpkins albums when I was younger and I don’t currently have any of the music bookmarked on streaming services. When I witness the devotion that this band has garnered from some of its more fervent fans, I find myself at a bit of a loss. The fact of the matter is, though, that this band was (and is) a big, big deal. There’s a good chance that I’ve perhaps been missing something, which makes a good case for reevaluating the Pumpkins’ material in the first place.

When I reviewed Gish, I found it to be a relatively solid but very generic early 90s alt-rock album. I was impressed that I didn’t absolutely hate it, but I wasn’t exactly moved to listen to it again. Now I’m facing down the prospect of having to take a listen to what may be BCorg’s most revered work (perhaps only surpassed by the double album that was released a few years later). When I was a teenager, it seemed as though everybody had this album except for me. It seemed to be a totally ubiquitous album cover to come across while flipping through a stack of CDs at just about anyone’s house. Surely all of those folks just bought it for the singles, though. Right?

I’d like to give Siamese Dream a fair shake and I’ll do my best to be open-minded about what Rolling Stone considers to be the 362nd best album of all time. Truthfully, though, I’m prone to knee-jerk dismissals and I may miss out on what makes this such a beloved album. This being the case, I’ve decided to reach outside of the Fraudster’s Almanac and seek the assistance of one of the experts.

Shaunna Quin collects her excellent writings over at dietcoke4breakfast.com and is the creator and host of the Pop & Down podcast. She also knows more about Smashing Pumpkins than anyone I have ever met in my life. If anybody is going to help me understand this band, it’s her.

Thank you for agreeing to act as my tour guide through Pumpkinville, Shaunna!

Shaunna: Hey, Mark! Thanks for letting me in on your re-evaluation of SP!

To give a bit of background, I’m was (am?) a “fan is short for fanatic” type for the Pumpkins, and Siamese Dream changed everything for me. Once Siamese Dream was in my hands, it was goodbye to Color Me Badd, En Vogue and Mariah Carey! I traded my Digable Planets CD for the Singles soundtrack. Nowadays, I still enjoy all of the music I mentioned, but Siamese Dream remains my favorite album of all-time.

Look, I was a pretty emo tween. The songs spoke to me; the themes of not belonging, fraught parental relationships, being heartbroken, and just wanting to be yourself in a world that tells you that you suck. Billy Corgan wrote lyrics with flowery, pretentious language that made it seem all that more “deep” and “meaningful” and therefore, special to this young gal.

Billco sang with a feminine vulnerability, which contrasted to the sausage party that alt-rock seemed to represent (my town was too small for me to know what a riot grrl was and Hole hadn’t yet released Live Through This). I loved that there was a woman in the band. Bassist, D’Arcy, was a trendsetter. She was all red lips, platinum hair and overplucked eyebrows, sparkly shirts, horizontal stripes and ripped jeans. And in the music video for “Today,” guitarist, James Iha, was wearing a dress. His willingness to play up his androgyny made me feel less alone, too. As a burgeoning young queer, SP had a queer sensibility that I gravitated towards. James and D’Arcy were my immediate fashion icons and crushes.

Anyways, mayonaise (see what I did there?), I feel like 362 is an incredibly low position for Siamese Dream, but who cares about arbitrary listicles?! I was one of the many who bought it after liking “Today” and “Disarm.” Sure, lots of folks liked those two songs and skipped the rest. But for me, Siamese Dream was my first real album that I loved from front-to-back and resonated with me on an emotional level. And still does!

Let’s do this, Mark!

Cherub Rock
Mark: Alright, this is a rock solid jammer and I love it. The central guitar riff is terrific and doesn’t sound like anything that the other big alt bands of the time were doing. I feel as though the style became aped to the point of ubiquity just a few years later. The guitar solo is also just a huge pile of discordant gold.

The video is early 90s to the point where I start smelling a mildew-y old thrift store just by watching it.

This song is crunchy and catchy in the way that the best 90s rock music dreams of being. A tremendous way to start and album and probably one of their best songs (that I’ve heard). Great job, Punpins!

Shaunna: That opening snare roll is iconic. It clearly states, “This is not a grunge song,” the same way Gish’s opener, “I Am One,” does. But while “I Am One” is “Welcome To the Jungle”-via-Jane’s-Addiction, “Cherub Rock” is Cheap Trick’s “Oo La La La” and Rush’s “By-Tor and the Snow Dog” with a sprinkle of shoegaze and, well, actual pop perfection! I thought becoming a Pumpkinhead was me saying goodbye to pop for my teenhood, but this is a great pop song, as well as a great rock song, and one of my favorites of their singles . It’s my favorite all-time opening track. I promise I won’t slobber this much over every song, but c’mon! Cherub Rock rules!

Quiet
Mark: “Quiet” feels a lot more like a boilerplate “grunge rock” song than the song that precedes it. A fairly tuneless procession of riffs that is brightened up only by a pretty bonkers guitar solo and a change-up in the time signature late in the track. I can’t believe that this is the second track on this album. It isn’t great!

Shaunna: Now, this one I won’t slobber over. I like how the prettiness of Billy’s voice contrasts the “rockin’ness,” and the solo is kickass. But “Quiet” has never been a favorite. I never saw it live, and I feel like if I had, I’d be excited at first but if I was seeing multiple shows, I’d get real sick of it. It’s probably for the best that I don’t think they played it much outside the Siamese Dream tour.

Today
Mark: Everybody knows this song and most people who know it love it. Including me. So there’s not much point in talking about it. Let’s talk about the video instead!

Am I alone in feeling like Barney Coriander from the early 90s when he had hair is a completely different person from cartoon supervillain DarkLord Billy Corgan that exists today? It’s like the hair humanizes him or something. Which is really bad news for me!

This video just radiates the kind of weird nostalgic pining for innocence that seemed to underpin so much of Gen X’s artistic expression. It feels like an independent film of the era and there’s something really comforting about it. The costumes and the colours are just terrific.

I like this!

Shaunna: Okay Mark, the differences in Cilly Borgan can definitely be categorized by his hair (or lack thereof). Gish = long hair = DRUGS. Siamese Dream = short hair = … I guess human is a good word! Again, this song is pop perfection, and it’s pretty wild that this song came out of his suicidal ideation at the time.

Like I mentioned before, “Today” was my first time seeing or hearing SP and I was immediately struck. The four of them, painting an ice cream truck and their faces seemed so damn cool. And then all of the horny teenagers making out in the desert. I couldn’t wait to do both of those things. I’ve never painted an ice cream truck, though, and I can live with that.

Hummer
Mark: The disintegrating guitar figure into bass groove into smooth guitar buzz works really well in “Hummer”. The central jam riff and the quiet-loud-quiet formula work for me as well. I find the chorus to be a somewhat lifeless string of chords without a great hook, but this seems like a solid album track to me overall. This album has a number of really great guitar solo sections so far!

The mellowed-out closing section is nicely performed but makes the track a little too lengthy for my tastes. Tighten up, Bill!

Shaunna: Mark, I was worried about this one! I’ve had at least three different favorite SP songs, and “Hummer” has been at the top for awhile. In fact… its appearance on the setlist for the last tour is what convinced me to purchase (secondary market, less than face value) tickets for the Toronto show! Being too young for Lollapalooza 1994 (I was in Toronto that weekend and begged my parents to drive me to Barrie, but that was a hard no), I’d never had the chance to experience “Hummer” or “Soma” live!

This song is fucking pretty in a luxurious way, with the solos and the glittery strums and Belly’s angelic-to-growly voice all working hand in hand.  I’m too old to really care about lyrics, but “when you/decide/that your live/is a prize/renew/revive/it’s all right, honey” and “happiness will make you wonder/will I feel okay?” still resonate (and might even more so with live experience).

I’m glad you like it, cuz this is a great example of SP at their best.

Rocket
Mark: Unlike “Today” which featured a song and video that were roughly equivalent in greatness, “Rocket” is a very great video that has been created to accompany a song that I find mostly very boring. The four-chord chorus churns along sounding like a much less inspired version of “Cherub Rock”. Outside of a few neat guitar noodles, this song is kind of a stinker.

But the video’s colourful suburban portrayal of kids playing make-believe and the pumpkins turning into old people at the end (roughly what they look like now, tbh), is completely charming and well-made.

Shaunna: Wow, my first “How dare you!” If “Rocket” stinks, then call me Pepe LePew! I never get tired of “Rocket!” The guitars are crunchy, it’s got a funky bassline and it’s got some cool imagery in the lyrics. Speaking of imagery, “Rocket” was the Pumpkins’ first music video collaboration with Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, who’d go on to direct some multiple MTV VMA-winning videos for them, as well as films like Little Miss Sunshine and Battle of the Sexes. The video is cool, the kids are cute, I love the glittery space suits, they’re all wearing eye makeup and D’Arcy’s hair looks cool.

And, wow! That last sentence is rude to Jimmy and James, they both look great! And it’s too kind to Bill!

Disarm
Mark: I’m sure that “Disarm” was an effective ballad when it was released, but I’ve spent 20 years or so making fun of it and shouting “THE KILLER IN MEEEEE IS THE KILLER IN YOUUUUUUU” at people when I’m being drunk and obnoxious. So I have a very hard time taking this one seriously, and I get the impression that Bilbo expects that this song be taken very seriously.

Or maybe not. I find it really hard to believe that anyone would put over-the-top bells into their song and not be doing it for jokes. Maybe this song is just for lulz!

Regardless, we all know this song and you probably know whether or not you like it already. I think that it is a very silly song, but it is a very silly song that I will never change the channel on when it comes on satellite radio in a rental car. Whatever that’s worth.

Shaunna: I can’t bother to “how dare you!” you on this, but I’ll just smashsplain “Disarm,” from my point of view!

“Disarm” came on the radio in spring of 1994, and was on Rick Dees’ top 40 and everything. It was orchestral and over the top and pretty. It was a ballad, but it didn’t make me roll my eyes like Boyz II Men and All-4-One did.

I feel like with “Disarm,” the Pumpkins were able to showcase something that no other pop, R&B, hip hop or rock band was able to on the radio at the time; male sensitivity and vulnerability on a song that isn’t a love song. Billy was open about his childhood trauma before it was something men in rock really did, and I’ll give him props for that.

Soma
Mark: This song is based around a perfect chord progression and I could listen to the intro section looped for hours without getting tired of it. The band gets absurd mileage out of the progression, as it simmers and builds toward its inevitable rock-out climax. “Soma” is certainly one of my favourite Smushy Punkins songs and if you don’t think that it’s one of the best tracks on this album, I don’t even know what to say to you.

Shaunna: “Soma” is one of the greatest classic SP tracks of all-time. It’s E*MO*TION, pre-Carly Rae. It’s pretty and sad, angry and petty. It’s spacey, hypnotic and dreamy and the old quiet-loud-quiet thing is masterful. The guitar solo on this one is, like, a total mood. The vocals are crystalline. And my favorite R.E.M. member, Mike Mills, plays piano on it!

James Iha co-wrote “Soma,” so that should tell you something about the dude’s skillz in creating the best of the Pumpkins’ sound.

Geek USA
Mark: “Geek USA” has the sound of a song that was written by a band jamming out in their practice space. This isn’t an inherently bad thing, but it leads the vibe of the track to be more memorable than any individual turn of songwriting on display. It just chugs and chugs until the very silly tempo shift into the bridge and subsequent shift back up to “fastest song at the high school battle of the bands” territory. Props are deserved for the half-time breakdown that caps the song off, though.

I feel like Silverchair ripped this song off in at least a half-dozen was and did a shittier job of it. So… good job, Punkins?

Shaunna: We’re kind of opposites here on why we like this song. For me, the tempo change is the best part, as well as the breakdown. “Geek USA” is the first instance of loud-quiet-loud, as opposed to quiet-loud-quiet on SD, so that’s probably why I’d put it down a few pegs after “Hummer” and “Soma.” Its sensitive bits are in the middle, with its cock-rock tendencies front and center.

Also I bet B0lly would hate to know that I’ve parodied a lyric from this. “Emojis can’t define what I feel inside who needs them?”

Mayonaise
Mark: You can sing “Apparitions” by Matthew Good to the intro of this song! Give it a try.

“Mayonaise” is a tuneful little slice of alt-rock that edges close to shoegaze territory. It’s a mode that suits the band pretty well, and results in a very listenable tune. The guitars fuzz and feedback in a really pleasing way. This is a great track. Of all of the songs on this record that I hadn’t heard before, this may be the best.

Shaunna: Wow, rude to bring Matt Good into this, Mark!

“Mayonaise” is not just a fan favorite among hardcore fans, but for casual fans, too! Why is it called “Mayonaise”? Bill used to have this analogy about writing a song about a chandelier which emits red which you can’t wear around bulls so you name the song cow. IDK about that, but the song has always just sounded so creamy and dreamy to me. This song is just so… pure to me? It’s just such singalong goodness, and I’ve had those everywhere with “Mayonaise” from bible camp to the last show I went to in August. Also, I prefer mayonnaise on my french fries to ketchup, so mayon(n)aise rules!

James Iha also co-wrote “Mayonaise,” which proves that Billy and him should’ve co-written together a lot more often, but of course they couldn’t because of Billy’s narcissism.

Spaceboy
Mark: I’m not going to say “no” to any track that wants to heavily feature a mellotron, although I do find the solo-Billy sections to be fairly cringe-worthy. The fully arranged sections are okay, but I find them to be kind of unremarkable. “Spaceboy” being buried in the back half of the record makes a lot of sense to me.

Shaunna: I love the mellotron and strings on this one. And the “I want to go home” refrain has stuck with me from then on, whether I was at school, at work, at a family gathering, whatever I wanted to escape! “Spaceboy” is a cute song and there’s a sweet melancholy to the closing strings. Billy wrote this one for his little brother, Jesse, whom he’s described as “he’s like a Rain Man type of character. He’s got certain things probably greater than someone else and he’s lacking in a few things that most of us just take for granted.”

Silverfuck
Mark: The beat that this tune arrives on wasn’t something that I was expecting and has a fun off-kilter churn to it. This is the first time that I’ve thought that this drummer hasn’t been completely mediocre and a minute or so in, “Silverfuck” has a good, spirited bop going on.

Wait… this song is almost nine minutes long? Fuck you, Smarching Pungiuns.

My interested waned entirely by minute four. You’re not The Doors, Billy Corgan. (The Doors are also terrible)

Shaunna: Okay, first off JIMMY MF’IN CHAMBERLIN IS A TRAINED JAZZ DRUMMER HOW DARE YOU!

“Silverfuck” is a loud-quiet-loud rock epic that a lot of SPeeps herald as the gold standard and want all of their shows to end with 30-minute extended jams of it. For me, I only really have the patience for it because of history. I’m less enthusiastic about this one than most fans, but I still have love for it.

Sweet Sweet
Mark: This minute and a half long tune almost makes up for “Silverfuck” being so completely and pointlessly bloated. It kind of lives up to its name in a way that feels a little too on the nose, but it’s a nice little ditty. I… I’m getting pretty tired of Billy’s voice.

Shaunna: “Sweet, Sweet” is absolutely nobody’s favorite Smashing Pumpkins song, and probably no one’s favorite on Siamese Dream, but I’ve never encountered anyone who actively disliked it. Like Mark said, it’s a nice little ditty and it’s the perfect little transition between “Silverfuck” and “Luna.”

Luna
Mark: I think that “Luna” is a legitimately well-constructed song and works very well as an album-closer. It brings strings back into the mix in a way that feels a little more effective and a little less overwrought than “Disarm”. The guitars sound pretty terrific as they shimmer and plunk away at genuinely pretty chord progressions, and this is one of the songs where Billy’s breathy vocal delivery actually works with the song instead of kind of clashing with it. No complaints about “Luna”.

Shaunna: If “Silverfuck” is the gold standard of “rawk” SP, “Luna” is the gold standard of ballad SP. This was my favorite song when I was a teenager and the one that made me fall in love with them forever. This song is special. The strings and guitar are lush and the sitar is the magic ingredient for making “Luna” the stellar ballad that it is.  It’s a love song, and it’s a relatively happy one about head-in-the-clouds love. You don’t get much of these from Billco. Perfect album closer. Try singing this moon song to your new baby sometime, Mark!

The Verdict
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Mark: Well, surprisingly enough, we found a lot of common ground on this record. Perhaps it is unsurprising, given how generally well thought of Siamese Dream is. I really can’t argue with the fact that this is a pretty solid album and a great example of alternative rock in the early 90s. You can see this album’s fingerprints all over the place in the work of other artists.

As I’d never heard the whole record, I was even able to find a few songs on here that I had never heard before that I liked quite a bit. Loads of great guitar work on this album as well. There are really only a few total stinkers to be found, which is a pretty good hit-miss ratio even for bands that I truly love.

One thing that bothers me though: One of my favourite moments on Gish came when Billy ceded lead vocal duties to D’arcy for a track. That doesn’t happen here and I think that’s a bummer.

Good album, though. I’d be preeeeetty surprised to find out that they’ve got a better one, especially given that the next album is a… (*gag*)… double-album.

Shaunna! I appreciate your smashsplaining and good delivery of context to help me wrap my head around the Billyverse! There were really only a few “How dare you!” moments, and for that I am very glad. Thank you!

Shaunna: It’s pretty neat to me how polarizing ol’ SP are, even within the fan community. Most folks prefer the rawk, folks like me prefer the soft and lush and then there’s a whole group of sycophants who’d call BC’s belly rumbles brilliant and demand them on limited-edition chartreuse vinyl. Since I consider Mark to be a metal guy and I’m a pop gal, I figured we’d have a lot less in common than we do with Siamese Dream!

IMHO, Siamese Dream’s influence is best represented on The Pains of Being Pure at Heart’s second album, Belong (2011), which was recorded at Stratosphere Sound (formerly co-owned by James Iha) and, funny enough, produced by Flood and Alan Moulder– who actually produced Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness! We haven’t yet mentioned that SD was produced by King Butch Vig, and I think it’s his greatest achievement, don’t @ me, Nirvana fans!

I like your point about the D’Arcy vocals, Mark! She provides backup, but maybe if “Sweet, Sweet” was sung by her, or a duet, that would’ve added a little something extra special to the album.

Mark, it’s been genuinely fun to read your perspective and give my “expert” two cents. I’m sorry to say that the Pumpkins don’t have a better album than Siamese Dream! Nevertheless, I can’t wait to sludge through Mellon Collie with you and I wonder if the songs we love/don’t love will match up!

Reevaluating BLUR: Part 1 – Leisure

This blog has been operating (on and off) for around two years. While there are a handful of people who enjoy reading it, my wife only tends to take a look when I write a long post that includes our vacation photos. I’ve determined that this is because I almost never write about anything that interests her in the slightest. It seems that it would be good of me to correct this.

During the 1990s, when I was waist-deep in the swamps of grunge, punk and metal music, my wife was spending much of her time enjoying Britpop. Britpop is a music scene that I loathed during its heyday. I couldn’t fathom wanting to listen to anything catchy or upbeat or uplifting, and the dearth of British music featuring distorted power chords struck me as some kind of UK-centred deficiency.

One of my wife’s favourite groups of the era, Blur, were exactly that to me. I have no memory of anything that this group released until “Song 2” came out and I said “finally a British band has learned how to use a guitar properly”. Anything prior to that must have caused me to quickly change the channel to something more interesting.

I can recognize that I’m capable of knee-jerk reactions that are often later proven to be poorly reasoned. I’m only human. It is possible that 90s Britpop contains gems that my life has been missing. I will take a look at Blur’s discography for the sake of my marriage, and will perhaps then move on to rethink my stance on other British bands of this era. Blurst things blurst, though.

She’s So High
I’ll start off by saying that Damon Albarn is wearing an absolutely tremendous t-shirt in this video. Boy, that’s a great shirt.

The first impression that I get from “She’s So High” is that it sounds like these guys just discovered reverb and are very, very in love with it. Good lord, is there ever a mountain of reverb on the vocals and drums. The lyrics become mostly unintelligible and the snare drum rings out like it’s in the middle of an empty coliseum. That said, it kind of works for the tune in an early college-rock sort of way.

The verses of this song are pretty underwhelming, but the chorus holds some hooky satisfaction. The reverse-guitar bridge/solo section actually holds the most interest for me, as the bass & drums lock into a pretty tasty groove. It all sounds very of its time, but I wind up liking this tune well enough.

Bang
“Bang” opens with a pretty solid application of a stereo-panned tremolo/snipping pedal that hearkens back to fellow British guitar guy Johnny Marr’s work in The Smiths. The groove that the band settles into when the song properly begins sounds a little stock and uninspired to me. The drum beat is essentially just the drum beat that a competent high school drummer will kick out as soon as they get behind a drum kit.

This song is a little lackluster, the chorus again faring better than the verses overall. As rote as “Bang” seems, it feels like a good opportunity to single out the fact that Blur is one of those British bands with a singer who sounds unapologetic British. The snotty and vaguely punk-tinged vocal delivery works in the band’s favour and gives them the edge that their sometimes rather flat-sounding weaker material desperately needs.

Slow Down
Although this song was not a single, it bangs harder than the two songs that precede it. The crunchiness of this song is satisfying, although it for the most part continues the lolling, sing-song feel of the album so far. The song kicks into high-gear for a rather inspired bridge section that rocks in an off-kilter sort of way that I deeply appreciate. This is the good 90s, everybody.

Except for the lyrics, which seem to be fairly weak across the board on this album.

Repetition
“Repetition” sees the band toying with a sluggish dub-inspired rhythm that erupts into a fuzzed-out but also draggy chorus. The production and performance allow the track to line up with it’s overall vibe, so it isn’t entirely unsuccessful, but it winds up being kind of a drag to listen to. It’s evidence of the band’s willingness to experiment, even on their debut album.

Bad Day
The melodica-driven musical hook that opens “Bad Day” is pretty delightful. The rhythm section shines throughout the tune, and I’m willing to forgive the gratuitous use of wah-wah effects on the heavily-layered guitar. Vocally, the song feels rather low-energy and is not their greatest showing. Decent enough album track, but not great.

On this song, one can really see the shared musical DNA between Blur and Radiohead’s earliest work. This is perhaps unsurprising given that both acts are full of silly British men.

Sing
“Sing” is built around great repeated piano figure and I kind of love it. A song this long would usually bore me and bum me out, but there’s something about the constant bop of of the piano riff and the great bassline that works well for me. The guitar atmospherics are lovely and the vocals have been wisely pulled back from the forefront to blend with the rest of the band.

Given my relative ignorance in terms of what Blur songs are regarded as “the good ones” by Blur fans, I’m not sure if I’m missing the mark by considering this to be a pretty interesting outlier on this album so far. But I dig it.

There’s No Other Way
It seems as though all of this album’s singles are the album’s worst songs. This one is a very 90s-ass 90s song that sounds like it was thrown together by a bunch of teens fresh from a class that teaches kids to rock weakly. To be fair, they were probably kids when they wrote this, but I don’t enjoy it. It sounds like a mid-90s commercial for fun deodorant.

Check out this fuckin’ 90s-ass video, though! Wow! Nice bowl-cut, Emo!

Fool
The definition of an album track, this song kinda blows. The band rocks pretty hard in the chorus, but the whole affair is largely uninteresting. Some reasonable drum work on the bridge doesn’t save it. Yawn, buds. Yawn!

Come Together
This is not a Beatles cover, thank god. Probably because it’s not an Oasis album. Thank god.

The running theme of this album seems to be that the songs have choruses that are way stronger than their verses. I suppose that this is how music is supposed to work, but I really just works out seeming like every song has shitty verse sections.

The chorus of “Come Together” rocks reasonably hard and although I think that the bass player plays his ass off to try to save the rest of it, the song is otherwise uneven. It seems like this drummer is proficient at roughly one beat, played at slightly different tempos. This song also outstays its welcome by at least 60 seconds.

Still better than a Beatles cover, though.

High Cool
This song has the “squeedly bop” kind of groove that was completely rampant through the 90s and went unnoticed by me at the time. I now see it as kind of a plague. It’s the kind of sound that bands like Phish made their whole careers on. Luckily it only pops up in some spots on the records of bands that are actually worth listening to.

Let me also say: I’m glad that we hear a lot less of guitarists just kind of doing simple pentatonic solo noodles as an additional guitar layer on every goddamned song like they used to so often in the 90s. It’s never good and it’s all over this track.

Birthday
This guitarist loves effects pedals! The sounds are actually pretty neat, and they lead to a terrific chord progression. After Damon complains about his birthday for a while and the song simmers, the band erupts into a pretty satisfying rock ‘n roll outro noise jam. There’s not a lot going on with “Birthday”, but I like it.

Wear Me Down
“Wear Me Down” sounds chunky and heavy in a way that I hadn’t really associated with Britpop in the 1990s (save the aforementioned “Song 2”). The band lays it down nice and thick in the verses, for a change, and switches it up with a more sparsely arranged chorus. Despite the fairly ballsy riff that the song is centred around, it’s on the long side and feels a little monotonous overall. The tune isn’t embarrassing or anything, but it is far from what I would consider an inspired closing number.

The Verdict
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Leisure is definitely more of an early 1990s alt-rock record than my initial expectation of Brit-pop semi-glam excess. It’s quite listenable and has a handful of inspired moments, but – as with many debut LPs – one gets the feeling listening to this that it’s the work of a band not yet fully formed. The tracks that attempt to reach outside of the stock alt-rock toolkit are actually the ones that point to the possibility that this group might have more than just a one-note career ahead of them.

Bizarrely, I came into this review with my Blur-related knowledge being primarily focused on Damon Albarn, his work on Blur’s biggest songs, and his work on the Gorillaz records. On Leisure, Albarn is possibly the least remarkable element. Having heard a sampling of more interesting work from later in their career and beyond, it’s very apparent that Albarn has seen a lot of growth as an artist.

Leisure is a fine early alt-rock record, but fails to stand out against the glut of early alternative rock from the dawn of that era. It does, however, involve some t-shirts that I think are very impressive. The t-shirts remain impressive to this very day!

Reevaluating SMASHING PUMPKINS – Part 1: GISH

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The Smashing Pumpkins’ debut album was released in May of 1991. While it was not an overnight smash, it was well-reviewed and would eventually be certified Platinum by the RIAA.

Bilbo Corgan and his Smashykins pop up in the news every year or two. For the better part of the last 15 years, these mentions have largely concerned themselves with Billy doing something strange or saying something ridiculous. Sometimes Corgan will rocket back into relevancy for a week simply by virtue of the fact that we all love making fun of him.

1437777701-billy-corgan-disneyland-sadWhat I mean to say is that for the last 15 years or so, when we hear mention of Smashing Pumpkins, it is almost never actually about the music.

The most recent Pumpkins news, while still somewhat bogged down by Barely Competent’s big fat dumb mouth, has actually been kind of about the band. The Pumpkins are reuniting! Kind of! Most of them! And they’re going on tour! And yes, this series of posts will also find me working very hard to come up with different names for Billy Corgan, as I’ve been doing with Trent Reznor’s name in my Nine Inch Nails series. Deal with it.

This tour may have been greeted so far with possibly damaging press and lackluster sales, but it at least seems to be pointing to the fact that the Smashing Pumpkins were at one time one of the most massively successful bands in the world. And, true to the purpose of the Reevaluation posts on this blog, they were a massively successful band that I couldn’t have cared less about.

With the exception of their biggest singles, I avoided the Smashing Pumpkins whenever I could. Their whole aesthetic turned me off, and I thought that Burly Cardigan was the worst vocalist in rock music. I would have rather listened to Les Claypool sing “My Way” than listen to more than a track at a time of the nasal wailing found on a Smashing Pumpkins record.

I’ve been encouraged by a few people to give this band another try and with their (kind of) reunion just around the corner, it seems as though this may be a good moment to dive in. We’ll begin with 1991’s Gish, an album that I think that I’ve only ever heard one song off of.

Should be interesting.

I Am One
I think that it is pretty funny that Billy starts his first record with a song called “I Am One”. Imagine this song was actually about his first year of life? Imagine that the second song was “Now I’m Two”? And he just kept doing that for every song on the record and it was a concept album about the first ten years of his life?

Sadly, this is not the case.

“I Am One” kicks off with the most 90s sounding progression of 90s-ass drums, 90s-ass bass guitar lick, into 90s-ass guitar licks. That being said, it sounds pretty good to me. Some of the riffs slam pretty hard, and Corgan’s vocal performance manages not to be completely grating. The central riff serves as kind of an interesting bridge between Guns N Roses’ “Paradise City” and proper grunge, a characteristic that this song shares with Pearl Jam‘s early work.

This song and video couldn’t possibly feel more dated, but it feels dated in an enjoyable way. Just as clips of a bunch of dirty hippies at Woodstock winds up being kind of charming to watch, this clip of early-90s GenX rockers kicking out the jams very seriously serves as an amusing time capsule. I enjoyed it!

Siva
Another totally vintage 90s banger, “Siva” provides ample evidence that early music from bands like Our Lady Peace never would have happened without the Smashing Pumpkins. This is not a terrible early-90s rock track. It manages to provide some interesting moments that bring the sound down to a simmer, and they make the more hackneyed elements easier to handle in context.

Again, it seems that early Pumpkins shares Pearl Jam’s cock-rock hangover, with little noodle-solos and meathead riffs littered all around the track. As grunge music has typically been described as a stew containing elements of punk, college rock and 70s hard rock, this early stuff serves as a reminder that alternative music winds up sounding a little conspicuous when you include too much hard rock beef. It doesn’t ruin the song, but you have to wonder what they’re trying to prove by just throwing Zeppelin-lite flourishes everywhere.

“Siva” is alright.

Rhinoceros
The Smashing Pumpkins’ fingerprints are all over the bands of the early 90s, if these first three tracks are any indication. “Rhinoceros” falls more on the shoegaze end of the 90s spectrum, while also boasting a classically catchy three chord chorus and a by-the-numbers riff-rock bridge/solo section. It winds up being a pretty well-rounded song, if not a super energetic or singularly interesting one.

Is this the first documented appearance of Barney Kerrigan wearing a shirt with a great big star on it? How funny are these videos to you? Because they are hilarious to me.

Bury Me
Given my familiarity with their later material, I was really not expecting the Pumpkins’ debut to sound cut from the same cloth as early Pearl Jam as it does. “Bury Me” sounds only a step or two removed from something off of Ten. The vocal approach is quite different, obviously, as Bentley Bornagain couldn’t pull off Eddie Vedder’s steamy baritone on his best day.

An album track if I’ve ever heard one, “Bury Me” is an uninspired chugger that outstays its welcome by at least two minutes. That’s not including the thirty seconds of tripped-out reverse guitar effects tacked onto the end. While we’re talking about burying things, this track should have been buried on side B.

Crush
The band brings things down a notch with “Crush”, a song that might by low-key interesting if it didn’t have an insufferably breathy vocal performance stumbling all over it. If you were at a coffee house in the 90s for an open mic and saw this performed, you would wonder who let the drunk drama student onstage.

It’s a shame, as there are some fairly neat structural elements at play in this tune, and some interesting effects involved in the production. I just can’t see my way to overlooking the vocal performance, though. It’s awful. Nobody working this hard to convey emotion while singing should be surprised when people don’t accept it as sincere.

Suffer
This song opens up with a very Alice In Chains style drum lick, which felt very appropriate in relation to the song title. Instead of an Alice In Chains song, though, we’re given a meandering take on psychedelic balladry that is not entirely unpleasant and not entirely memorable.

Snail
This track is a moderately exciting alt-rock song that builds to a very cool prog-lite outro section. It feels like an album track, but one that manages to cultivate a fresh (relatively speaking) idea. Were I a fan in my teens, this would have been one of those album tracks that I would stubbornly insist was my favourite song on the album for a few weeks. This is the kind of thing that a person will do when trying to express to others that they are somehow unshackled from the mass-appeal of hit singles. It’s a pretentious thing to do that is really fun to do. So I still do it.

Tristessa
This song kind of sounds like they took a couple of the other songs and put ’em in a blender and then added water to thin it all out. Blissfully, it is on the shorter side of things. I’ll give a tip of my hat to the end of the guitar solo featuring a long, slow detuning of the low-E string of the guitar, which is basically the most excessive and hilarious thing that a guitar player can do in order to get attention, short of putting the guitar behind their head or playing with their teeth.

Window Paine
Another slow burn track arrives as the album nears its conclusion. I enjoy the patience employed by “Window Paine” in its gradual build toward a bridge section that simply accelerates in a cartoonish fashion and ruins the whole song. I tuned out after that, so if something cool happens after the really dumb bridge, I wouldn’t know. Lemme know if you’ve heard anything about it.

Daydream
The album concludes with a merciful break from listening to Binky CarpelTunnel sing. Vocal duties are instead carried by the bass player, D’arcy Wretzky. Her last name is what happens when you try to come up with a really concise nickname for Wayne Gretzky, but when it comes to singing, she’s not The Great One. She’s just okay.

The song is a reasonably nice capper. The swelling strings and shimmering acoustic guitars work well with the sparse song structure to create something that could have come from an indie pop band a decade or more later. Having another vocalist actually is  a nice break in the context of a Smashing Pumpkins album. His performances aren’t universally the worst, but a whole album of Billy was tough to take.

The album truly ends with a secret song called “I’m going crazy”. It should have remained a secret.

The Verdict
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You know, I enjoyed Gish more than I was expecting to. The record certainly sounds dated, but how many records released in 1991 can be claimed to sound timeless? As mentioned, I wasn’t quite prepared for the amount of bonehead riff-rock found on here, but I suppose that it makes perfect sense.

My distaste for the vocal performance and quality remains strong. The lyrics and delivery on Gish seems particularly breathy and garbled at points, and I’m curious as to whether or not this is due to a low-budget recording or if it is intentional. On the album’s best tracks, I can put my issues with Billy’s voice aside and enjoy a fairly well-realized and varied debut album.

I’m not convinced that the band is deserving of all of the attention that it has gotten over the years, but I cannot debate that they had some interesting ideas that were clearly mega-influential.

I expect that I will appreciate their next record (Siamese Dream) the most and that I will find a great deal to make fun of on every subsequent Smashing Pumpkins album. But who knows? Maybe I will develop a begrudging respect for Beebee Cornypen and the Plunkin’s and I’ll be plunkin’ down my own hard-earned bucks to see their (sort of) reunion tour.

Stranger things have happened.

The Weezer Theory

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Being a fan of Weezer is a funny thing. Admitting it to others is generally met with looks of derision, even after you feverishly explain that you (of course) only like the group’s pre-2000s output. Hell, admitting it to one’s self can be tricky, causing all manner of self-doubt and shame.

When fans meet other fans, they don’t speak about the music enthusiastically, as they may have fifteen years ago. Instead, we admit this to each other with a sense of resignation. “Yes,” we say. “I love Weezer. I love Weezer and I am long past being able to help it.”

Although many of us have given up on the group in the course of the last twenty years or so, there are still those among us who partake in a strange ritual. When a new Weezer album is released, we will unfailingly seek it out in the hopes that it might demonstrate that the band has recaptured some glimmer of what had made their first recordings so impactful. It is a cycle of disappointment and shame that may never be broken.

As time has worn on, I’ve realized that I’m a huge softy for any band that manages to sound even remotely like old Weezer. I’ll hear a song, recognize the authentic Weezishness within it, and instantly grab the album and listen to it for weeks. It has happened so often, and for so many years, that I have developed a theory.

Weezer isn’t a band at all. Weezer is a style of music. And while the band Weezer hasn’t been a Weezer band in years, there is still approximately one good Weezer song released each and every year. You’ll have to follow me on this.

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A Weezer song is generally performed best by younger people. Weezer were younger people when they made Weezer music, and now that they are old men, they are unable to properly write Weezer music. This is not a rule without exceptions, but it should be taken as a general guideline.

A Weezer song should be in the arena of alt-pop guitar rock, and should heavily feature both wry lyricism and intricate harmonies. A Weezer song need not include a male lead singer, as one of the greatest early Weezer songs featured Rachel Haden on lead vocals and is an unimpeachable example of good Weezer.

A Weezer song can lean heavily on the side of the Blue Album‘s brand of punked-up classic pop, or it may be more along the lines of Pinkerton‘s more complex dark quirkiness. A Weezer song cannot sound like Weezer’s Green Album, as the Green Album is not a Weezer album.

Above all, a Weezer song must inspire both a joyful feeling and a wistful feeling in the listener, prompting them to think “man, this is some good Weezer” while also thinking “…why doesn’t real Weezer sound like this Weezer that I’m listening to?”

Realizing all of this, I’m starting to feel way better about Weezer. Young people are going to continue to be young, and a certain segment of them are going to continue to write Weezer songs. As I’ve said, the songs have continued to arrive with a frequency of about one per year, although there have been some dark years that have contained no Weezer songs at all.

In order to bolster my theory, it is my pleasure to present to you a list of some of the best Weezer songs from the last 15 years. There seem to be more of them than ever recently, and I believe that it has something to do with young people liking anything that they were conceived to.

Charly Bliss – Ruby (2016)
Charly Bliss released a great record with last year’s Guppy, and they’re a fine modern alt-pop band in their own right. It’s difficult to deny the Blue Album-era Weezer vibes of “Ruby”, as it marks off all of the right poppy and propulsive check boxes. See also: Guppy’s “Westermarck”, which has a chorus hook as big as a whale.

Ozma – No One Needs To Know (2007)
The inclusion of Ozma on this list is a little bit on the nose, because they sound so much like Weezer it’s kind of sickening and shameless. Like, I don’t actually know how they’ve gotten away with it. A handful of tracks on 2007’s Pasadena  manage to hit the right mix of playfulness, catchiness and cleverness to warrant mention on this list, “No One Needs To Know” being the best of the lot.

Pup – Guilt Trip (2014)
PUP have carved out their own reputation by now, but when their self-titled album dropped with “Guilt Trip” acting as lead-in track, my immediate thought were “This sounds like drunk Pinkerton”. And it does. It’s kind of glorious, and they’ve yet to release anything that I like nearly as much. This is an absolutely glorious Weezer song.

Jeff Rosenstock – Novelty Sweater (2015)
If you’ve been wondering what a Pinkerton-era Weezer might have done with modern chiptune sounds, look no further than this Jeff Rosenstock track, which is irreverent and fun enough in its own right to not sound like an absolute clone of its source influences.

Great Grandpa – Teen Challenge (2017)
These lil’ buddies manage to crank out a pretty decent Weezer song here, which includes both a Blue Album chorus and a Pinkerton freak-out bridge. Young people are the future.

Weezer – L.A. Girlz (2016)
Against all odds, Weezer themselves managed to release potentially the best Weezer song of 2016. It sounds like an outake from the period between their debut and Pinkerton, and it is essentially a perfect Weezer song. It was enough to get my hopes up and then break my heart all over again when Pacific Daydream came out this year and wound up being possibly the worst album that (the band) Weezer ever released. Goddamn it, Weezer.

Pixies – Velouria
Weezer covered this song, and the Pixies version of “Velouria” is one of the best Weezer songs. This is pretty confusing, as it was written and released before Weezer debuted as a band, meaning that the Pixies actually originated the style that I have come to designate “a Weezer”. Hang on, this is going off of the rails a little bit. Maybe I just really like the Pixies and I hate Weezer.

I have to rethink this whole thing. I’ll get back to you.

Reevaluating NINE INCH NAILS – Part 7: Year Zero

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Nine Inch Nails’ fifth album, Year Zero, was released on April 17, 2007. It reached number two on the Billboard 200 chart, and sold over 187,000 copies on its week of release.

Hyperpower!
Trunt decides to open the album with a fuzzed-out one-note groove on the instrumental “Hyperpower!” While it builds to a reasonable crescendo of chaos, I can’t help but feel as though this track was intended to get people pumped up, and it leaves me feeling underwhelmed. It sounds more like an improvised warm-up jam than a carefully composed introduction to an album. Even the squalling “lead guitar” and nightmare sonics seem a little half-baked.

The Beginning of the End
I suppose that this song is fine. It’s a fairly straight-ahead rock n’ roll song, even more so than the previous album’s primary single, “The Hand That Feeds”. A hook certainly exists in here, but a rather dull hook. The noisy “solo” section is far and away the most invigorating section of the track, but is not enough to shake the underwhelming feeling that I’m getting.

I will concede that it does land near the beginning of the album, and therefore it is an appropriate song title.

Survivalism
This song sounds like a pale and goofy shadow of the menacing glory that Nine Inch Nails reached with “Wish” on the Broken EP. It features the same kind of “sing a thing, then a riff, sing a thing, then a riff” shtick as that song, but none of the intensity. It’s kind of dorky, to be honest. Good fuzz effects featured in the atmospheric audio, but kind of a derivative stinker in my book.

The Good Soldier
“The Good Soldier” manages to be a more successful attempt at a playful, hooky vibe that the previous tracks, and sports a vintage Nine Inch Nails-ian outro that works very well. Great sounds. I don’t think that this is anything stellar, but it is more to my taste than anything I’ve heard so far.

Vessal
There are some fairly embarrassing vocal work on this album, and the “Oh. Mah. Gawd.” chorus of “Vessal” exemplifies it. That being said, this track has a lurching quality that reaches out to me, and the squalling outro is actually quite inspired. This album is at its best when it sounds like a smart cross between tropes that would later become dubstep and… a dial-up modem.

Me, I’m Not
Yet another track based around the rhythmic repetition of one note. This can be brilliantly effective, but when it doesn’t work, the song feels hopelessly without melody. This track drags and relies on an underwhelming vocal performance to generate interest. I’m getting the impression that there’s a story being woven by this album, but I’m not feeling drawn in at all. This is the fourth song that has only seemed interesting when some glitchy sound enters and sputters around for a period of time as the track winds down.

Oh, yeesh. This is a long album, too. This isn’t good.

Capital G
Holy fuck, what does he think he’s achieving with this vocal approach? It is cringe-inducing.

Pretty solid hook in the chorus, and fun synth noodles abound. I feel as though I would like this song well enough if the verses didn’t make me want to light a couple of Q-tips ablaze and shove them into my ear-holes.

Nothing on this album rages, and it is bumming me out.

My Violent Heart
Classic terrible Troy Raisin spoken word poetry is featured on this track, which is a real damn shame given that the chorus is actually fairly spirited and fun. The back half of the song holds some pretty brilliant instrumental work and atmospherics, bouncing between some classic Nine Inch Nails synth stabs and something akin to… jazz?

Honestly, does anyone even enjoy the spoken word Nine Inch Nails tracks? Why does he keep on doing this? Does everyone enjoy them but me? Is it me? It’s me, isn’t it?

The Warning
Warning: Your album might be bad.

Actually, I enjoyed this one. The daffy bass line, chunky kick drum and vaguely hilarious storytelling are all kind of fun. Tell us another story about the sky-people, Papa Trent!

God Given
A rapping Trent Ruzzles is a bad Trent Ruzzles. This song sucks.

Meet Your Master
Terrific chip-tune synths and distorted bass guitar open up this track, and the chorus has more piss and vinegar than anything featured on the album thus far. It doesn’t reach the heights of the best Nine Inch Nails tracks, but there’s a solid enough chug here to make it a winner for me. The introduction of shimmering strings beneath the instrumental bridge was both unexpected and pleasing.

A good one!

The Greater Good
Fantastic sounding bass synth had my hoping that Trent wouldn’t come in with a vocal part that totally ruined the whole thing. Luckily, the vocals work primarily as atmospherics and lead to the most beguiling and compelling track on the album. “The Greater Good” is a winding hallway of a song, and would hold its own with some of the best tracks off of The Fragile.

I like it.

The Great Destroyer
For much of this song, it hews close to a style of alternative guitar rock that seems distinctly un-Trentlike. The strummed chords and melody seem conventional in a way that this act simply is not. As the song reaches its climax and Trent exclaims “I AM THE GREAT DESTROYEEEEEEERRRR” and is silenced by two minutes of farty glitch-drums, I decide that this may be the funniest Nine Inch Nails song of all time. Great punchline!

Another Version of the Truth
Thematically, this album is totally on point. America (and the world at large) has basically traveled down the nightmare rabbit hole laid out here by Trentstrodamus, albeit without any space aliens. That we know about.

The latter day NIN trend of instrumental tracks that manage to deliver a multi-layered impact beyond that of their lyrical cousins holds true here. “Another Version of the Truth” is a stunner, and is certainly one of the best tracks on this album. Terrific.

In This Twilight
Year Zero gets stronger as it goes, and “In This Twilight” reaches the moody, atmospheric heights only hinted at by the album’s early tracks, while managing an interesting and atypical melody. It is suitably haunting stuff to work, and it works well with the album’s rough narrative. Good stuff that I could see myself returning to.

Zero Sum
There are some interesting musical ideas at play here, and the spoken word segments are slightly less embarrassing than other entries in Trent’s Poetry Slam. The faux-gospel chorus may be a little much, but serves it’s function of bringing a fairly audacious concept album to its conclusion. Most concept albums avoid subtlety as a rule. Year Zero is no exception.

The piano noodles are very nice.

Trent Reznor 2007 Fashion Round-up


Here is a well-groomed Trent, sporting a very sharp leather jacket/fashion scarf combo. Very nice. It says “I read a book, but also GRRRRRRR!”


Here is an ensemble that screams “restraining order”.

The Verdict

I enjoyed this album much more by its end than I did off of the top, and perhaps I would enjoy it more were I to give it multiple listens. I do not feel compelled to do so, however, as that sounds like a lot of work and I would rather just listen to one of the other Nine Inch Nails albums that I consider to be much better.

Some terrific instrumental work peppers this album, but I’m left feeling baffled and put-off by the way that many of the vocals were approached. As someone rapidly blossoming into an “old guy”, it is difficult to listen to what sounds like an old guy trying to figure out what sounds cool without feeling deeply ashamed for them and with them.

Stick to what you know, ol’ Trendly. Stick to what you know.

This is a very shaggy album, overlong and lacking the immediacy of the best work off of With Teeth. That said, this is a concept album and works of this sort are often overstuffed just due to enthusiasm and ambition. Year Zero wraps up with a decent pile of interesting tunes, and while it won’t wind up near the top in a list of Nine Inch Nails’ output, it has its merits.

 

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