Album Review: ‘Singles: OST’

I discussed the reissue of the soundtrack of the grunge era, Singles: OST.

The soundtrack is better than the movie. A quarter century later, this is true of the Singles: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack. This is no fault of the movie, which is a fine rom-com; but while the movie may have left little resonance in its wake, its great music lives on, a mix-tape of the early ‘90s that sends you back to another time. Sequencing and song choices complement each other perfectly, and its various artists didn’t just throw leftovers at quick product: there are songs here that rank among the artists’ finest. Singles: OST is also a nearly perfect primer on and microcosm of the grunge/alt-rock scene that was then nearing inescapable cultural phenomenon status (so much so that a rom-com was made around it). Indeed, as artists on its roster were going platinum, so too did the soundtrack. Think of it as Alt Rock for Dummies.

But if you were or are a fan of grunge and/or alternative rock, you knew all of this already. Discussing the solo of Smashing Pumpkins’ “Drown” and how it’s the best and worst of the band’s career, or arguing that Pearl Jam’s “Breath” would’ve made Ten an even better record is stuff for a 25th anniversary column.

We’re talking about Singles today because of the deluxe edition’s bonus disc, more than a third of which is previously unreleased material that’s not just vault-clearing fluff. Much of what’s offered further solidifies the album as the best point of entry into early 90’s rock. Demo and alternate versions of songs from the original release, coupled with the inclusion of obscure and/or defunct bands from the Sub Pop roster (i.e., short-lived grunge acts Truly and Blood Circus), alone makes this a must for fans.

Paul Westerberg’s jangle-grunge gem “Dyslexic Heart,” for example, perhaps the ex-Replacement’s finest solo moment, takes on two different forms. There’s a campfire-like acoustic take and a folky instrumental called “Blue Heart.” The former removes all the “na-na-na-na”’s (except for the bridge), adding greater emphasis to its low-key pop melody and clever, heartfelt lyrics, while the latter demonstrates that Westerberg’s songwriting easily translates between genres.

Elsewhere, the fantastic Alice in Chains live performances from the film (“Would?” and “It Ain’t Like That”) finally get a CD release, as does Soundgarden’s performance of “Birth Ritual”. Having both studio and live versions of these songs available is a joy and proves just how powerful these two bands were in either setting.

If there is inessential material here, it’s Mike McCready’s swampy “Singles Blues 1” and the “score acoustic” version of Westerberg’s “Waiting for Somebody”. While the former is a fun, two-minute instrumental jam, it’s largely a curio that really only warrants a couple listens. The latter, meanwhile, is only worth hearing if you enjoy Westerberg’s other superb track whittled down to the “Some-bod-a-hay” line on loop.

The reissue of Singles: OST arrived one day after Chris Cornell’s death, leaving an unfortunate shadow looming over it. While unintended, the soundtrack does provide an epitaph, if only because he appears across its two discs more than any other artist. This includes the final two songs of the collection, “Ferry Boat #3” and the instrumental “Score Piece #4”. Both are cautiously optimistic, yet in light of the details surrounding Cornell’s death it’s tempting to read into the final words of the collection: “And when you wake to your loss/ To blame your dreams won’t relieve you of the cost/ Help me, I don’t know what I’m doing.” It’s semi-inspirational as Cornell reassures the listener with variations on the ‘not all who wander are lost’ theme. It works both as a farewell to the greatest vocalist of the grunge era and a fitting end to the soundtrack that defined a generation.

100 Best Songs of the ’90s: #90 – Britney Spears | “…Baby One More Time”

Spectrum Culture continues with 10 more songs on their ’90s list. Here’s my entry for “…Baby One More Time”:

Max Martin may be credited as songwriter and producer, but he’s neither; he’s a military strategist and an evil overlord, and Cheiron Studios is his volcano lair. It was clear from the outset that he was bent on world domination, and with *NSYNC and Backstreet Boys he was well on his way. To fully achieve his goal, he needed a number one hit, and found it with Britney Spears.

Martin had big singles with other artists, but with “…Baby One More Time,” he successfully weaponized pop music. While Spears seemed little more than a means to an end (the song was famously turned down by TLC), she owns it by alternating between her come-hither slink and demanding presence. As the debut single and title track of Spears’ first LP, “…Baby” was a guaranteed career-launching smash hit. Naturally, being engineered for greatness certainly helps, especially that supernova of a chorus. Yet after the first half-dozen listens, hidden elements reveal this as more than just a few catchy melodies. The three-note piano line, wah-wah guitar and hiccupping bassline are all tiny hooks themselves, further solidifying the song’s permanence in your brain.

Still, the song may be even better known for its music video than for its mega-hook. Taking the song from inescapable hit to cultural touchstone, the four minute video of outfit changes (some cringe worthy) and choreography formed the blueprint for every teen pop hit of the late ‘90s and early ‘00’s. After “…Baby One More Time,” Martin and Spears would go on to make fantastic singles together and separately, but this first collaboration is still the peak of both careers. And, yes, that includes “Since U Been Gone” and “Toxic,” respectively. In their defense, this song is fucking perfect.

 

100 Best Songs of the ’90s: #93 – Smashing Pumpkins | “Mayonaise”

Spectrum Culture is doing a 100 Best Songs of the ’90s list. Here’s my blurb for Pumpkins’ “Mayonaise”.

That the Pumpkins struggled under the pressure to follow up Gish—addiction, a breakup, writer’s block, suicidal thoughts—is well-documented. That Billy Corgan and company rose to the challenge(s) with Siamese Dream is unquestioned. That Dream contains some of the band’s finest performances and some of Corgan’s best songwriting is canon.

And, of course, this includes “Mayonaise,” of which Rolling Stone declared, “In some ways, it’s the ultimate Smashing Pumpkins song.” Readers agreed by naming it the band’s greatest song in a 2012 poll, beating out “1979,” “Cherub Rock” and “Soma.”

The question, then, regarding its greatness isn’t what or where but why: Why is it so revered by fans and critics alike? Beyond the obvious answer of being a near-perfect composition, it’s rather simple: “Mayonaise” is vague. Its discussion of struggling to understand one’s own identity is clear enough, but exactly why the struggle is happening—that’s the song’s key. In that unexplained space, the listener is free to insert whatever troubles s/he is going through, making Corgan’s lyrics that much more accessible. In other words, less is more. To wit, this is expressed in four words: “Words defy the plans.” As standalone lyrics, “Mayonaise” is brilliant because it’s both precisely opaque and opaquely precise.

Having beautiful music as accompaniment always helps, though. The soothing guitar melody bookending the song and the warm blanket of multi-tracked riffing throughout is premier comfort food. Even the moody, insecure solo—perhaps representing the song’s (and band’s) inner turmoil—is quickly silenced by gentle acoustic strumming as if to say, “It’s gonna be OK,” with a friendly pat on the shoulder.

Besides being the album’s crown jewel, “Mayonaise” is Siamese Dream’s purest distillation: six minutes of naval-gazing with tangents through self-doubt, anxiety and hard-earned confidence. Corgan wrote abstractly about inner conflict, but it’s clear he was talking to himself as much as anyone else. “And I fail/ But when I can, I will,” he assures himself (and us). “Try to understand/ That when I can, I will”. The Smashing Pumpkins may have written better songs, but they never wrote a more relatable one.

Album review: Suffocation | ‘…Of the Dark Light’

I reviewed the new Suffocation album, …Of the Dark Light, for Spectrum Culture.

Since reforming in 2002 after a four-year breakup, Suffocation’s output has been promising, if a bit spotty. The quality of the band’s albums trends upward, yes, but it starts at a fairly shallow point. Their records go from the band awkwardly finding its footing (2004’s Souls to Deny), to slowing the pace down for improved results (2006’s self-titled LP and 2009’s Blood Oath), to making one hell of an impressive display of sheer aggression a quarter-century into its existence (2013’s Pinnacle of Bedlam).

Bedlam is easily Suffocation’s best offering since 2002, and among the best in their career. Yet, if there is a flaw to be found within it, it’s the same flaw that has plagued much of the band’s catalogue: too often the band mistakes mindless jackhammering and apathetic brutality for songwriting. Sure, blast beats and endless riffing are cool and easy to headbang to, but the slope of diminishing returns is steep. The closest they came to shedding it was Oath, a record that shifted the focus from headlong sprints to groove-based compositions but suffered the same issue regardless.

Sadly, the band hasn’t fully shed that tendency on their new record, the often brilliant …Of the Dark Light. While breakneck jackhammering is still prevalent throughout (especially on “Return to the Abyss,” “The Violation” and “Some Things Should Be Left Alone”), the songwriting is more varied than Bedlam. In this way, Light appears to borrow ideas from its two predecessors and combine the results. As an example, “The Warmth Within the Dark” is mostly a mid-tempo stomp (with bursts of speed that equals anything they’ve done) with a main riff during the quasi-chorus that has a slightly uplifting feel and is even catchy.

But Suffocation knows when to borrow from other bands to break up the monotony, too. Immolation, a fellow New York death metal institution, seems to be a source of inspiration on the opening of the punishing “Your Last Breaths” and the psychotic title track with their eerie leadwork over frenzied guitar crunch. Notably, the title track also slows down as it progresses – mimicking the passing of time in the lyrics – making it one of the few truly different compositions offered.

And then there are times when pummeling concrete does serve a purpose. “Some Things” illustrates this the best. It’s a sci-fi horror scene that finds some innocent strangers encountering a creature from another dimension that kills them purely for “wrong place, wrong time”. The song’s lyrics paint a grisly picture (“Spines snapped/Heads cracked/Carnage ensues”) as flailing riffs and light-speed drumming attempt to match said carnage. The song ends with vocalist Frank Mullen stating that the unlucky person(s) to stumble onto this “scene of malevolence shall be forever scarred” which is then followed by a delirious solo from lead guitarist Terrance Hobbs, as if to imagine the thoughts of the unlucky.

In keeping with a tradition dating back to 1995’s Pierced from Within, Suffocation ends …Of the Dark Light with a re-recorded track from 1993’s Breeding the Spawn. This time around it’s the fantastic “Epitaph of the Credulous,” riff-fest that describes a winged creature searching for “helpless victims” to feast upon. Mullen notes that, “The beast has no feelings/ It sees no remorse”, which is an apt description of the band itself. Suffocation begins its fourth decade next year, and there are no signs that this beast can be stopped.

Album review: Arcadea | ‘Arcadea’

I wrote about Brann Dailor’s latest project, Arcadea, for Spectrum Culture.

For his new project, Arcadea, Mastodon’s vocalist and drummer Brann Dailor joins forces with two keyboardists and vocalists, Core Atoms of psychedelic weirdos Zruda and Raheem Amlani of black metal experimentalists Withered. The trio’s self-titled debut is a concept album that the band has described as envisioning “a future five billion years from now, where the impending collision of galaxies creates a new order of planets…where cold, distant moons pledge alliance to new suns and expanding gas giants implode into black holes” and where “Arcadea reign supreme as the last surviving space wizards since the final extinction.”

It is within this context that you begin to understand what Arcadea is: namely, a frontrunner for oddest album of 2017 and the silliest thing Dailor has ever been a part of—and keep in mind that Mastodon once made a record about a child’s soul traveling into the body of Grigori Rasputin via astral projection who tries and fails to overthrow a Russian czar…or something.

If the explanation of the record’s content isn’t ridiculous enough, simply refer to the lyrics. When the vocalists aren’t busy singing in the first person as a group of electrons (“We spin freely/ We breed orbit/ Velocity/ We crash to ignite, we are electric”), they’re trying to sell absurdist word salad (“Crystals that form on the outside of life/ Lifeless the seas that have sent them in waves/ Perfect destruction, we’re floating away/ Swim through the static, the ocean alive”) and cosmic beat poetry (“Push past the pulsar phantoms with future kind/ Erase, replace, deface, create the space”).

The assumption, then, is that it’s better to focus on the music and melodies, right? Well, mostly. The darting, nimble melody of “Gas Giant” and the ethereal vocals of Susanne Gibboney’s guest spot on “Neptune Moons” suggest as much. Hell, the vocoder-heavy vocal melody of “Through the Eye of Pisces” sounds like the first draft of a Daft Punk song, and “Motion of Planets” has an actual groove. The majority of the album, however, imagines oddball scenarios like electro-funk having an epileptic seizure or a pinball machine doing an impression of an Atari 2600. Keyboards and synthesizers pulse, twinkle, fizz, bubble, jab and stutter, yet to accurately describe this record is to traverse dangerously close to Dr. Seuss territory with onomatopoeic non-words like “skwonk,” “squink” and “twonk.”

Either way, Dailor’s drumming throughout demonstrates his unwavering faith in the proceedings. His effort to break up the wall of bong-ready keyboards and synths via his insistent jazz-style playing is both Herculean and Sisyphean in equal measure. Even on subdued compositions “Neptune Moons” and “Through the Eye of Pisces,” where he largely acts as time-keeper, Dailor can’t help but let a few fills seep out as if to imply the songs weren’t interesting enough as is.

Still, the record is not a total loss. Sure, there’s undeniable, right-brain creativity here, like when the keyboards in the left and right channels have a ray-gun fight (“The Pull of Invisible Strings”) or when the band attempts to soundtrack electrons colliding (“Army of Electrons”). Even the jam session that closes the record is loosey-goosey fun. But, it’s that esoteric nature which ultimately becomes Arcadea’s downfall. Weirdness is good in art, maybe even essential. When weirdness goes unchecked, though, it tends to suck away good ideas into oblivion—kinda like a black hole.

Queens of the Stone Age | “The Way You Used To Do”

qotsa new single 2017

In which the band’s trademark robo-rawk is supplanted for robo-groove, likely thanks to the “Uptown Funk” guy, who produced the upcoming LP. (Not that it’s a surprise, but there’s a strong dance element to this – including handclaps and a flippantly sashaying guitar riff). Perhaps fittingly, Josh Homme wrote about his favorite topic (read: fucking) to match the artificial sexiness of the whole affair. Basically, imagine the next logical step after Era Vulgaris but with Mark Ronson calling the shots.

The Killers | “The Man”

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“The Man” has a fun enough strut to it, despite being borrowed nostalgia faux-disco. Meanwhile, Brandon Flowers continues to believe he sell anything through sheer willpower, even tongue-in-cheek machismo like, “‘Cause, baby, I’m gifted/ You see what I mean?/ USDA-certified lean”. Meh, call it a wash.

Byzantine | “Trapjaw”

byzantine new album 2017

Second single from The Cicada Tree is gnarly, vicious, and catchy. In other words, it’s a Byzantine song – and a solid one at that. The pedestrian lyrics (“You trade the here and now for everlasting lies/ Just a barrier to divide those side by side/ They seek to define”) follow a well-worn path, but that’s about the track’s only downside. More of this, please.

Living Colour | “Come On”

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It’s a decent, blues-ish anthem from the funk-metal vets’ upcoming record, Shade,  but it’d be better without the electronic elements that not only date it to 2017, but also come off as a cheap ploy to sound modern and hip. Guys, all you had to do was rock out, that’s it. You’re trying too hard.