1994: Jawbox - For Your Own Special Sweetheart
Ignited by the commercial success of Nevermind, the major label signing frenzy of the early 90s was something to behold. Anchored in the notion that the day’s slew of post-Grunge and post-Hardcore bands could rein in mass appeal based on their inherent aggression and tunefulness became a popular one in many board rooms. Ultimately the phenomenon had an array of commercial outcomes that found some bands faltering under humdrum marketing efforts (Teenage Fanclub) and bad timing (Poster Children), with others succeeding under the disguise of emergent, underground curio (Sonic Youth) and MTV enshrinement (Soundgarden). Still others broke even, relying for better or worse on the sweat and artistic integrity that got them there in the first place. Enter Jawbox’s 1994 Atlantic Records debut, For Your Own Special Sweetheart. Reissued and re-mastered along with the Savory +3 single, it now exists as a rare gem from a strange and bygone era in contemporary music.
Generally regarded as the best in a stellar trilogy of albums (which also includes 1992’s Novelty and 1996’s self-titled final album) Sweetheart is status quo Jawbox – static on static, the crash of metal. Not particularly noted for evolving in their duration as a band, Jawbox hit the scene locked and loaded, unleashing the same disparate traits of fury, restraint, and melody that propelled some of the band’s more obvious forbearers like early Joy Division (think “Digital”) and the Minutemen. On Sweetheart, more so than any of their other albums, these traits are used with great versatility, allowing frenzied songs like “Chicago Piano,” “FF=66,” and “Jackpot Plus!” to sit alongside haunting, tense, and harmonious ballads like “Savory,” “U-Trau,” and “Cooling Card.” Only when these effects merge within single songs like “Reel” and “Breathe” does Sweetheart establish itself as one of the best albums of the 1990s.
Emerging in 1989 from a D.C. hardcore-punk scene that spawned Minor Threat, Rites of Spring, and Government Issue (of which Jawbox guitarist/vocalist J. Robbins was a part for a time), Jawbox recorded both their debut LP Grippe and follow-up Novelty for the indie-stalwart Dischord Records. Then they leapt to Atlantic where they recorded their final two albums. The decision to sign to a major, along with the pre-release speculation that Jawbox would be next in a dull line of punk-come-alternative bands, did nothing to forecast the spit-bite beauty of the final product. “This code is cracked,” Robbins shouts in opener “FF=66,” introducing us to an opus of similarly themed art-punk declarations that perpetuate the intensity that the band established during their short life in the underground.
Still, aside from the album’s lead single “Savory” (and perhaps “Cooling Card”) all signs pointed to an early dismissal from the major label ranks. Indeed, for the band’s next and last album, Jawbox was relegated to TAG Recordings, an Atlantic “alternative” subsidiary before being dropped altogether. It’s a homecoming of sorts then to find this reissue on D.C./Maryland-based Dischord and DeSoto Records. As ever, it finds J. Robbins either hollering or singing his skewbald, post-industrial poetry over left-field chord progressions. Though it was apparent in its initial release, this re-master brings forth a pummeling rhythm section that connects each song with sheer abrasion, menace, and varied time-signatures.
As it did for the Jesus Lizard earlier this year, this reissue takes on a re-contextualizing and canonizing effect. Examined 15 years after its original release, For Your Own Special Sweetheart emerges from an era of unprecedented corporate feasting as an unlikely and oft underappreciated surprise. With its influx of flailing hardcore tendencies, poetic abstraction, and nimble musical ability, Jawbox created a masterpiece the likes of which the trend-grabbing bandwagoneers and corporate big-wigs never truly understood.
6. Cooling Card
7. Green Glass
8. Cruel Swing
9. Jackpot Plus!
10. Chicago Piano
13. Whitney Walks
14. Lil’ Shaver (Savory +3)
15. 68 (Savory +3)
16. Sound on Sound (Savory +3, Big Boys cover)
1997: Harmonia & Eno ‘76 - Tracks & Traces
Rock history is littered with stories of almost-but-not-quite collaborations between various heroes and icons, leaving room for many a debate over what might have been if figures like Hendrix and Davis or Stipe and Cobain recorded together. Consequently, when such recordings of seemingly fleeting collaborations actually do surface, they are often greeted with anticipation but held to impossibly high standards. When Rykodisc offered the listening public an aural peek at the then unreleased 20-plus year's old meeting of Brian Eno, Hans Roedelius, Dieter Moebius, and Michael Rother in the form of Tracks & Traces, it was already the stuff of rock obsessive's fantasies. Now fulfilling fantasies of a higher order, Grönland's augmented release adds rediscovered material from that same dreamy collaboration to the mix, offering us an even wider window onto this previously unavailable vista.
At base level, both versions of the album live up to lofty expectations. Having more than proven himself as a forward-thinking solo artist with both populist and esoteric tendencies, Eno's 1976 encounter with Harmonia -- itself already a German supergroup composed of current and former members of Cluster, Neu, and Kraftwerk -- was for a long time known as the incidental precursor to the Cluster & Eno and Eno-Moebius-Roedelius albums issued in the later 70s. These sketches, first partially revealed in 1997, fall into that period where Eno's fabled experiments with ambient music were just beginning, and it's obvious that he was finding both inspiration and support from his krautrock conspirators. In fact, at the same time, Harmonia was already trending towards a new ambiance and away from the more driving, percussive sounds of Neu! and Cluster. As restless and jagged as Rother's guitar work is in "Vamos Companeros," its sheer repetition quickly dissolve into something more meditative. The rest of the collection toys with gorgeous analog synth haze as a defining element, evoking beauty and mystery in equal measure. It's a marvelous bridge from the (sometimes ironic) urgency of these artists' early-70s periods to the atmospheric fixations of their later work.
While it was Roedelius who assembled the first version of this release, it's only fitting that Rother, the member absent from the later 70s collaborations, is the one who has unearthed the new tracks and more fully fleshed out the set. With "Welcome" and "Atmosphere" now opening the record, there is a greater build to that almost-aggression of "Vamos Companeros," which works nicely to shift the overall pacing. And adding "Aubade" to the end, through both its title and hopeful (though still gauzy) guitar, offers a greater sense of completion. If 1997's Tracks & Traces was a rare and unexpected answer to rock nerd prayers, then 2009's edition is a most welcome and satisfying, if improbable, second coming.
3. Vamos Companeros
4. By the Riverside
5. Luneburg Heath
6. Sometimes in Autumn
7. Weird Dream
9. Les Demoiselles
10. When Shade Was Born
1978: Eno, Moebius & Roedelius - After The Heat
The second collaboration between Brian Eno and Cluster (here credited as constituents Hans Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius) arrived only a year after the trio’s first collaboration, Cluster & Eno. By the time of their first meeting, Eno had released his first proper ambient album, Discreet Music, as well as a handful of pioneering pop records. Cluster had steadily moved away from the free-form ambient style marking their debut, Cluster ’71, to the slowly shifting, pulsating krautrock on landmark releases Zuckerzeit and Musik Von Harmonia (with Neu!’s Michael Rother). After hearing these releases, Brian Eno was eager to collaborate with Moebius and Roedelius.
Although krautrock legend Conny Plank co-produced After The Heat with the artists, Eno seems to have had the biggest impact on its creation. Even more so than its predecessor, the album essentially sounds like a Brian Eno solo record. Considering the personnel order, the prevalent atmospheres and textures, and even the almost entirely English tracklist (compared to the mostly German Cluster & Eno), it’s hard to imagine Moebius and Roedelius adding much to the proceedings. There are hints of motorik repetition in the static bass lines of “Oil” and the pulsing piano of “Tzima N’ark” (a track featuring fellow krautrock luminary and Can bassist Holger Czukay), but Eno’s ideas most often take the spotlight.
The evidence abounds. The lush synths of “Old Land” recall Another Green World, and the bass line's major fourths and fifths in “Foreign Affairs” seem due in part to Eno’s obsession with tribal and “world” music, materializing in more realized form in his first collaboration with David Byrne. “The Belldog” also sounds like another Eno solo track, while “T’Zima N’ark” even includes a reversed vocal track from Before and After Science. More than anything else, though, Eno's vocals on After the Heat’s final three tracks cement his lasting mark on the album.
Although certainly progressive at its time, some unfortunate sonic choices -- the artificial wind sound and synthesized strings of “Base & Apex” -- betray After the Heat's era, making it sound rather dated. It’s an album worth investigating, though, as it shows Eno at a transitional point in his musical career. References to the past abound, but there are several hints at future endeavors (“The Shade,” in particular, sounds similar to the successive Ambient 2, a collaboration with pianist Harold Budd). While Heat is a solid entry in Eno’s expansive catalogue, it’s surprising these three innovators didn’t challenge each other more.
2. Foreign Affairs
4. The Shade
5. Old Land
6. Base & Apex
7. Light Arms
8. Broken Head
9. The Belldog
10. Tzima N'arki
1997: Camp Lo - Uptown Saturday Night
Hip-hop is forward-looking by design. While rappers constantly utilize samples culled from obscure 1970s soul classics, mainstream rap rarely features dudes spitting hot, nostalgic verses. Since its inception, hip-hop has been all about the here and now, about current status and living in the interminable moment. Apparently Camp Lo never got the memo. On Uptown Saturday Night -- a nostalgia-laced record right down to the Cosby-movie-cribbing title -- Lo members Geechi Suede and Sonny Cheeba succeed at using the past to further a clear, cool musical statement; for the same reason, however, they sometimes fall oddly flat.
Uptown was released in 1997, around the time that Wu-Tang Forever came out and jokers like Mace and Puff Daddy ruled the hip-hop airwaves; Camp Lo fell somewhere in-between. Although labels like No Limit put out some grit, most of the harder gangsta rap had yet to become truly mainstream. It was the perfect time for a record like Uptown, with its near total lack of profanity and softish, inoffensive sound. It's not surprising that "Coolie High" became a radio hit, with its Janet Jackson sample and sexxxy-smooth lyrics; of course, as is often the case, it's one of the album's weakest songs. Much more successful are jams like "Swing," which revels in hard knocks and delivers a few funny, pithy lines -- like the one about "Forrest Gump niggas with shades and S-curls" -- over a strong, shuffling beat.
About the beats: Uptown's biggest strength is undoubtedly its production. Ski, hot off his work on Jay-Z's stellar breakout Reasonable Doubt, provides the backing tracks for all but one song, and the results are mostly extraordinary. The songs, like those on Doubt, are fluid and organic, though a bit more staccato, a bit more concise. "Krystal Karrington" opens the record with a terse, booming bass line that evokes a sort of tension unfortunately absent on the rest of the record -- an edgy red herring on an otherwise laid-back record.
The rest of Uptown is staunchly focused in its nostalgia -- nearly every sample used here originated sometime between 1970 and 1980. Even the record's cover is a visual homage to a painting portrayed on a Marvin Gaye album jacket and in the opening credits to Good Times. When it comes to time and place, Camp Lo ain't messing around.
The lyrics follow suit. Much of the time, they deliver the sort of nonsensical word associations one might expect to read in George Clinton's personal diary. Lines like "Above the aquapool/ Hovercrafts teleport my lubricant/ Golden axe, who's the drunken monk/ Uno delegate" pepper the album, and although their weirdness threatens to drag some songs down, Suede and Cheeba's unique tone and rapid-fire delivery somehow keep them afloat. At times it's as if the pair care more about the actual sound of their lyrics than the ideas behind them. In this respect, one could draw the line to The Beats, although Cheeba and Suede might remain dubious about the comparison. It is clear their allegiance lies a decade or two later, with Clinton, Sly Stone, and the other weirdo funksters of the 70s.
Their insistence on remaining committed to such a narrow musical framework ultimately keeps Uptown Saturday Night from reaching true classic status. While the album is mainly creative and enjoyable, it suffers from an over-utilization of the same old musical and lyrical clichés. Thus, Camp Lo's experiment in time and place becomes somewhat self-defeating: what initially seemed like something fresh and different becomes dangerously close to self-parody by the end of the record. That Cheeba and Suede would go on to guest on Will Smith's Big Willie Style is entirely beside the point, but it belies another limitation of Uptown, which is its general mildness. On the other hand, in a famously fast and forward-looking genre, sometimes a time machine is a wonderful thing to have.
1. Krystal Karrington
2. Luchini AKA This is It
3. Park Joint
4. B-Side to Hollywood
5. Killin' Em Softly
7. Black Connection
9. Rockin' It AKA Spanish Harlem
10. Say Word
11. Negro League
12. Nicky Barnes AKA It's Alright
13. Black Nostaljack AKA Come On
14. Coolie High
15. Sparkle [Mr. Midnight Mix]
1998: Ben Folds Five - Naked Baby Photos
Ah, record label cash-ins. They’re a time-honored tradition in the music industry, from the American Beatles releases in the 60s to the “Special Edition” of Sarah McLachlan’s Fumbling Towards Ecstasy that your mom bought at Best Buy yesterday. They were an especially big deal in the 90s, when major labels were snatching up “alternative” bands from smaller labels, leaving indies with vaults full of radio sessions and unwanted outtakes.
Case in point: Ben Folds Five, who put out one LP on Caroline Records before jumping ship to Sony for two more. We don’t know for certain that cashing in was Caroline’s motive, but consider the chronology: Naked Baby Photos came out less than a year after Ben Folds Five’s Sony debut, Whatever And Ever Amen, which went platinum. Hmmmm.
To be fair, however, Naked Baby Photos was apparently done with the band’s involvement, since Folds’ comments grace the album’s liner notes. And to give credit where it’s due, this is a pretty damn good cash-in album. Of course, there are tossed-off songs that are interesting only for showing the band’s personality, but many of the live performances and B-sides are worthy additions to the band’s canon.
Leadoff track “Eddie Walker” -- which Folds notes was “the first song to click in rehearsal” -- is a charming picture of the young band. It contains all the trademarks of the Ben Folds Five sound: the quiet introduction, the dramatic build, the distorted bass freakout. The melody, too, is quintessential Folds, fit for a Broadway musical or vintage Elton John album. Other studio highlights include “Emaline” (which would later resurface on Ben Folds Live), a rare Ben Folds Five song to feature guitar; the 7-inch version of “Jackson Cannery” that convinced Caroline to sign the band; the goofy “Tom & Mary,” which foreshadows songs like “Sports & Wine” and “Kate.”
Live and alternate versions of fan favorites are also included here, and they work well enough: the KCRW rendition of “Alice Childress” (which Folds notes was the terrified band’s first radio performance); a live version of the pitch-perfect 90s “non-conformity” parody “Underground” (“Hand me my nose ring. Show me the mosh pit.”); and live takes of “Philosophy” and “Boxing,” both highlights of the band’s first album. The album's real gem, however, is the live cover of Built To Spill’s “Twin Falls,” a song that unexpectedly lends itself to a piano trio. “This song is beautiful and at the time we’d have been happy to be a Built To Spill cover band,” notes Folds in the liner notes.
Where the compilation falters is in the band’s wacky antics, such as the white-guys-rapping “For Those Of Y’all Who Wear Fanny Packs,” which doesn’t hold up after repeated listens, especially given its six-minute runtime. Likewise, the live metal parody “Ultimate Sacrifice” falls embarrassingly flat. (Though its sibling, “Satan Is My Master,” works because it’s a piano ballad with “Satan” in the title. That whole “fine line between clever and stupid” thing? So true.)
So what lesson can we learn here? Don’t document your hip-hop parodies if you’ve got a song like “Boxing.” There’s no need.
1. Eddie Walker
2. Jackson Cannery (original 7" version)
4. Alice Childress (live on KCRW)
5. Dick Holster
6. Tom & Mary
7. For Those Of Y'All Who Wear Fanny Packs
8. Bad Idea (original demo version)
9. Underground (live)
10. The Ultimate Sacrifice (live)
11. Satan Is My Master (live)
12. Julianne (live)
13. Song For The Dumped (live)
14. Philosophy (live)
15. Twin Falls (live)
16. Boxing (live)
1989: Nirvana - Bleach [Deluxe Edition]
Nirvana is often accredited with single-handedly mainstreaming the paradoxically titled "alternative" genre, a style and attitude that would go on to define the direction of rock music for the next two decades. Between the hyperbolic praise lavished upon them by the great mass of rock dilettantes and the dismissive accusations of plagiarism from the cognoscenti, it's easy to see why Nirvana's legacy has remained so controversial in spite of almost universal popular acclaim. Twenty years after the release of their full-length debut and fifteen after Kurt Cobain's suicide, I feel like we're finally approaching a place where we can look past Nirvana as Gen X zeitgeist, Nirvana as cautionary tale for the media-age, and Nirvana as megalithic cultural phenomenon to objectively assess Nirvana as an honest-to-goodness rock band.
Bleach is often regarded as something of a footnote to Nirvana's rather spare catalogue (or more appropriately, as “the CD with ‘About a Girl’ on it”). I remember hearing it for the first time and not quite knowing how to make heads or tails of the plodding audio-sludge drooling out my speakers. The instantly memorable hooks, the cathartically explosive choruses -- both seemed completely subsumed beneath abrasive, dirge-like melodies and on-the-cheap production. Hell, the aforementioned “About a Girl” sounded like it made its way onto the record by accident. Bleach is alternately praised and criticized as being Nirvana's most authentically “grunge” album, Cobain himself claiming it was shaped under pressure from both his label and the Seattle grunge scene to play “rock music.” Looking back with the power of hindsight, however, the differences between Bleach and mega-breakthrough Nevermind feel almost cosmetic. Although heavier and rougher than its more melodic counterpart, Bleach was already steeped in the loud/quiet dynamics they so famously copped from The Pixies, and more importantly, it had some freaking great songs.
“Love Buzz” fashions a repetitive, hypnotic bass lick into the backbone of an unexpectedly sprightly rocker. The more bottom-heavy but equally energetic “Negative Creep” features one of Cobain's roughest vocal deliveries. Along with “School,” the song highlights Cobain's juvenile sense of humor, an aspect of Nirvana's music that's too often overshadowed by the tragic circumstances of his death. Great songs such as these are easy to lose, however, amid the preponderance of heavy-for-heavy's sake tracks, especially on the record's second half. And while “School” and “About a Girl” show Cobain hitting his stride as a singer, much of his vocal work lacks the pathos that characterized his later efforts.
Sub Pop's 20th anniversary remaster ups the sound quality and throws a light on some of the album's more unique moments. It also includes a previously unreleased live recording from 1990. Although not necessarily essential listening, it is a nice bonus, especially for the early version of “Sappy” (a.k.a. “Verse-Chorus-Verse,” a.k.a. “the secret track from No Alternative”).
At the end of the day, Bleach is still the weakest of the band's full-length albums, but there's enough good stuff to merit a spin. The best moments point to a band that was already straining against the Led Zepplin-meets-The Melvins aesthetic dominating the Seattle scene. And while I'm sure that the success of their sophomore album came as a shock to many, the seeds of its brilliance were here all along, waiting to be unearthed by anyone daring enough to sift through the sludge.
2. Floyd the Barber
3. About a Girl
5. Love Buzz
6. Paper Cuts
7. Negative Creep
9. Swap Meet
10. Mr. Moustache
12. Big Cheese
14. Intro (live)
15. School (live)
16. Floyd the Barber (live)
17. Dive (live)
18. Love Buzz (live)
19. Spank Thru (live)
20. Molly's Lips (live)
21. Sappy (live)
22. Scoff (live)
23. About a Girl (live)
24. Been a Son (live)
25. Blew (live)