1997: Jonathan Fire*Eater - Wolf Songs For Lambs
Jonathan Fire*Eater’s story is unfortunately all too common in the music business: band releases strong EP, band signs to major label, band releases major label debut, band is never heard from again. DreamWorks released Wolf Songs For Lambs on the heels of mountains of buzz, only to see the record fizzle despite critical acclaim. Yet it’s hard to imagine Jonathan Fire*Eater failing in 2007. In the blog era, the Washington, D.C. band’s brand of carnival organ-driven garage rock would surely find fast popularity through word of mouth; nowadays, bands with fewer hooks and more abstract approaches to rock music easily sellout clubs and find their songs playing on teenage TV dramas.
“When The Curtain Falls For You” begins the album, acting like a declaration of principles. It fades in with a slinky guitar playing mysterious minor and major chords, followed by a martial beat on snare. Then comes Stewart Lupton singing “What do children do with these colors so hallow/ Yes, I know their will is true” in a Mick Jagger bark. This is followed by a glorious mess of organ, which, mixed with the aforementioned ingredients, creates something resembling organized chaos.
Indeed, “When The Curtain Falls For You” is the record’s strongest track, but it’s followed by 13 other songs that go down like vodka at a dirty burlesque. The garage rock of “No Love Like That” recalls ? and the Mysterians, while “These Little Monkeys” steadily thumps like a cross between Motown and This Year’s Model-era Elvis Costello. Meanwhile, “The Shape Of Things That Never Came” (a reference to Ornette Coleman) is yet another song that should have been a hit.
Instead of having hits, however, Jonathan Fire*Eater broke up shortly after the album's release, while three of its members – organist Walter Martin, drummer Matt Barrick, and guitarist Paul Maroon – formed The Walkmen. It’s easy to recognize Jonathan Fire*Eater’s influence on that band’s breakthrough record, Everyone Who Pretended To Like Me Is Gone, with its reverb-heavy production and cocksure percussion. That record manged to find an audience (thanks to an 8.7 rating on Pitchfork and an appearance in a Saturn commercial); Wolf Songs, on the other hand, makes its presence felt in cut-out bins. What a difference five years makes.
1997: The Damned - Damned Damned Damned
Before punk won the hearts and minds of the jaded and socially exiled, it destroyed rock ‘n’ roll. It condensed lavish guitar solos into throbbing, four-note whines. It transformed drawn-out psych jams into bursts of rhythm and power chords. Mystical/neo-romantic poetry decayed into 90-second cultural reprimands. Punk empowered anyone with a voice, a pawn-shop drum kit, or enough sheer nerve to join a band. Suddenly, the individual mattered again; rock music ceased its tenure as a phenomenon and became a creation, deities fell and became androgynous vampires, the glue of rock crusted away, to be replaced by three chords, spit, and a safety pin. On both sides of the Atlantic, punk was a welcome and revered deviation from mainstream rock, if not a shocking one. The early progenitors of UK punk held a new banner for chaos, disorder, and social challenge, and their musical output remains startling, yet earnest even today. Their ranks included The Clash, The Buzzcocks, The Sex Pistols, and irrevocably, The Damned.
Occupying the sonic bridge from early 1970s glam rock, The Damned were perhaps the most flaunting members of early punk. Each player -- Brian (guitar), Rat (drums), Captain (bass), and Vanian (voice) -- had a penchant for the limelight, merging glam’s bratty strut with punk’s lewd power. The Damned were in as many ways pioneers, as they were the first punks in the UK to record a single and the first to share a stage with their US counterparts. Damned Damned Damned was also the first UK punk LP, beating the Sex Pistols’ more illustrious Never Mind the Bollocks by several months. Without foresight or agenda, it became a model for punk rock releases, signing to the then fledgling independent label Stiff Records and garnering an underrated producer in Nick Lowe. It was Lowe who kept the record’s production down, giving it a gritty, organic quality that contrasted with the Pistols’ sharp lucidity.
The songs themselves fit and pound and surge; they holler out anti-anthems like “Neat Neat Neat,” “Fish!,” “Stab Your Back,” and “Born to Kill.” There’s the haunting narrative of “Feel the Pain” that reads like a gothic rendition of The Velvets’ “Venus in Furs.” These songs don’t resound the way The Sex Pistols’ and The Clash’s first albums did; that is to say, Damned Damned Damned offers nothing that could be stitched to a leather jacket or spray-painted on the walls of Parliament. Instead, there’s a deeper, embedded aesthetic at work. Within the unrelenting backbeat, the howling guitars, the bounding, precise bass, and David Vanian’s undead-Elvis croon we find expressions of both torture and absurdity.
Take “New Rose,” the album’s first single: it begins almost as a romp on a 1950s sock-hop before it delves into lines like, “I don’t deserve somebody this great/ I’d better go or it’ll be too late.” “I Fall” follows a similar bent: “I'm a falling angel, falling down/ Be a falling angel, won’t you come round?/ Don’t be scared to follow, it’s no crime/ You’re a falling angel before your time.” And it’s here that The Damned reveal an emotional authenticity that exceeds the occasional social posturing of the other early, memorable punk albums. The 30-year anniversary edition of Damned Damned Damned, with its two (slightly redundant) bonus discs, serves to further capture this spirit. Disc 2 compiles John Peel sessions, B-sides (including a double-time take on The Beatles’ “Help”), early singles, live tracks, and demos. Despite the scattershot recording of Disc 3’s live gig at London’s 100 Club, it succeeds in bringing forth The Damned’s sheer power and disregard for rock ‘n’ roll.
That said, there’s no one device that makes Damned Damned Damned worthy of a massive year-30 anniversary reissue, which could perhaps explain its general regard in punk history as a near-classic that failed to inspire the masses the way that Never Mind the Bollocks or The Clash did. Rather, the sum of its parts and the blood on its hands made this a punk’s punk record, an unmolested expression of all things worth fighting for: love, power, brutality, and the contrary right to destroy all of it.
2000: Ghostface Killah - Supreme Clientele
Top five reasons (amongst many others) why Ghostface Killah’s Supreme Clientele is among the best hip-hop albums of our current decade:
1. Ghost rhymes “big microphone hippie” with “Poughkeepsie,” probably the first person in the world to ever couple these words. Never mind that they wouldn’t rhyme had anybody else said them. Never mind that he outshines almost every other MC on the planet with this couplet. However, you may want to take into account that this all comes within 15 seconds of his first verse on the record. Kinda makes “It’s gettin’ hot in here/ So take off all your clothes” seem like it was written by a five-year-old, doesn’t it?
2. The man knows how to pick beats. A perfect example of his now-trademark cherry-picking: jacking Inspectah Deck’s self-produced beat for “Elevation” for his own “Stay True,” immortalized by the original tracklisting where it’s called (what else?) “Deck’s Beat.” Even since Supreme Clientele, Ghost has continued to display the ability to sift through filler and pick out only the hottest shit, whether it’s stealing a simple loop or calling in a proper collection of should-be higher-profile producers, like Juju of the Beatnuts for “One.” The majority of Wu solo albums were unable to accomplish this same feat after 1997, although they certainly tried (see Raekwon’s Immobilarity and GZA’s Beneath the Surface).
3. “Who Would You Fuck” is the best hip-hop skit ever made, bar none. And it only gets funnier with age. Every guy has conversations with buddies about famous women they would sleep with. But this team is the first to put it on an album, which makes it all the better for treading the line between stupidity and brilliance. It sounds like the crew just decided to press record when they were up late smoking blunts and drinking beers, talking about things guys talk about. Naomi or Tyra Banks? Nia or Halle Berry? Ahh, the wonders of hypothetical sex.
4. Raekwon talks all kinds of shit about a pre-fame 50 Cent on the “Clyde Smith” skit. In hindsight, his recognition of 50’s controversial “How To Rob” street hype seems to be a prophetic way of decrying media stunts in the current hip-hop mainstream. Perhaps to avoid too much drama, Rae’s voice is rendered unrecognizable, but heads have come to realize that it was indeed he who says, “I don’t even know why he tried to do that dumb-ass shit right there.” Still, the whole situation provides a subdued counterpoint to the overblown Game/Fiddy G-Unot nonsense that has inexplicably dominated message boards for the past few years.
5. Endless slang invention. For kids in the suburbs, Supreme Clientele is like hieroglyphics; it takes years of training to figure out how to translate it. It would be easy to equate his rhymes on this album to the works of a poet, but Ghost is no Wordsworth or Frost. He speaks in a highly encoded language, coming across as completely alien on first listen, but if you pick apart his verses, they make profound sense in small portions, as if he were spitting clear stream-of-consciousness thoughts straight from his brain. Slowly but surely, the listener is able to put his stories together, figuring out something new every time they listen. This isn’t just poetry; these are street puzzles, God. For real.
1977: Fleetwood Mac - Rumours
The oxymoronic matrimony of harmony and heartbreak proved to be an especially stimulating and fertile musical cocktail for Fleetwood Mac during the recording of their aptly titled album, Rumours – the most popular and critically acclaimed work in the canon of the ever-evolving band.
In 1974, founders Mick Fleetwood (drummer) and John McVie (bassist), as well as McVie’s wife, Christine McVie (singer/keyboardist), were joined by Lindsey Buckingham (singer/guitarist) and his girlfriend, Stevie Nicks (singer/pianist). Together, they formed the most gifted ensemble of songwriters and musicians in the band’s history. Having already recorded one successful album in 1975, the self-titled Fleetwood Mac, the band was reaching an artistic zenith, as the recently minted lineup self-actualized into a musical entity.
Each musician's disparate strengths and influences -- from Fleetwood and McVies’ funk-inspired grooves to Nicks’ esoteric melodies and rhythms to Buckingham’s affinity for riff-driven ‘50s styled rock -- coalesced flawlessly to create the engaging mood and exciting songcraft. This hallmark sound is best displayed on “The Chain,” the sole track written by all five members. The fractured song unites, despondent and ebullient, with striking results, as a richly ornamental Buckingham guitar riff enlivens an ominously pulsating McVie bassline while august harmonies juxtapose bleak lovelorn lyrics: “If/ You don't love me now/ You will never love me again.” Although “The Chain” produced the album’s signature mantra, the buoyant “Never break the chain,” turmoil in the band’s numerous amorous relationships led to painful breakups, which were never rekindled during the recording of the album.
As the band was reaching musical concord, each member was experiencing emotional discord. Their incestuous relationships left them writing about and recording with bandmates they once, but no longer, loved romantically. The most musically interesting of these separations was between Buckingham and Nicks. Both songwriters treated Rumours as a cathartic canvas for their broken hearts to decant out onto. As Buckingham sardonically cries, “I ain't gonna miss you when you go,” on his anxious opener, “Second Hand News,” there is Nicks harmonizing with her jilted lover. Buckingham returns the favor, as Nicks more sanguinely sings, “I don't want to stand between you and love/ Honey” to him on her bucolic “I Don’t Want To Know,” creating a fascinating dynamic that resonates throughout the album.
Christine represents the dissolution of her marriage to John with her trademark joyous, sunny pop. Excising any feelings of bitterness and remorse from her palette, she instead composes with invigorating optimism about the future (“Don’t Stop”), showcasing a resolute fondness for romance as she repeatedly professes: “I love you” (“Songbird”). Fleetwood was not freed from heartbreak himself, as his wife had an affair with his best friend. Although Fleetwood and John were not able to express themselves lyrically, Fleetwood’s passionate drumming on “Go Your Own Way” and “Don’t Stop,” along with John’s bluesy basslines on “You Make Loving Fun” are at their finest.
Although recorded over 30 years ago on a foundation of sorrow, Rumours doesn't sound dated or stand as a testimonial to acrimony and gall. Instead, by portraying the timeless themes of compassion, absolution, and perseverance with pleasing, accessible aesthetics, it remains an enduring touchstone of pop music.
1993: Seefeel - Quique
When Seefeel started to gain notoriety among college radio DJs and skinny, pale kids after their debut release Quique, traditional rock critics around the globe sighed a collective, worried “Fuck.” Their worry had nothing to do with the music itself, but instead regarded the inevitable onslaught of lesser talents that would soon flood the already low-barrier entry shoegaze market. My Bloody Valentine had opened the gates wide, and, as always, when a “new” musical style (particularly one that does not require much presence or sophisticated musical ability) gets popular, hordes of star-eyed followers will soon follow in suit -- it can sometimes destroy a whole genre. Grunge was mauled by angsty, bass-voiced Eddie Vedder wannabes, while the image of house music will forever be tainted by countless Garage Band teenagers hoping to be the next Oakenfold. Shoegaze, as a genre, was neither necessarily revolutionized nor annihilated by the multitude of artists who followed Seefeel’s example of adding electronic drum loops to cumbersome sonic layers -- but Quique still managed to shine through as a special album, indiscreetly drifting between many musical scenes over the past 14 years.
Originally released by Too Pure/Astralwerks in 1993 and re-released as a two disc Redux in 2007, Quique – at 14 years old – still sits comfortably alongside today’s synth heavy artists like Ulrich Schnauss, Strategy, and Stars of the Lid. Accordingly, the main reasons why Quique, or any enduring album for that matter, still survives are the indescribable, intangible elements that critics have a tough time putting into words, and copycat bands have an even tougher time duplicating. The foreign drones somehow ring familiar; the guitar feedback feels warmer than the now-standard glacial Icelandic variety, and the undemanding, beautiful melodies stop short of haunting, but linger in your head long enough to make you question the meaningfulness of the rest of your musical collection.
Throughout the album, Mark Clifford, Daren Seymour, Sarah Peacock, and Justin Fletcher appear to meld together three seemingly disparate musical approaches. First, on their better-known songs (“Climactic Phase No. 3,” ”Imperial,” “Plainsong”), Seefeel harnesses the spirit of Moondawn-era Klaus Schulze by weaving loopy, fantastic textures with heartening rises and falls, leaving off stylistically where Mouse on Mars and Cornelius eventually pickup. Second, the band infuses their local flavor into ”Polyfusion” and ”Industrious,” with gloomy grooves that probably earned them head-nods from their (pre) grimy British contemporaries, Tricky and Portishead. Third, the band further explores the fringes of the aural universe with dim-washed ambiance like on closing tracks ”Filter Dub” and ”Signals.” The perfect instrumentation and minimalist restraint on the final tracks prove that the indefinable qualities that make this album age so well are actually the result of thousands of knob adjustments on the synths and millimeters of difference in microphone placement. They just made it seems so easy.
Though the members of Seefeel made a few more records and eventually split to pursue separate music careers, Quique remains their ghostly masterpiece. And although we often laugh today at the majority of the early ‘90s musical output, Quique stands proudly alongside Loveless and Dummy as the relevant diamonds in that period’s musical rough.
1991: Superchunk - No Pocky For Kitty
Superchunk are the Saint Maria Goretti of indie rock -- so pure and chaste, releasing every record since 1993 though their own label, Merge -- though their super-frenzied punk-pop could have easily made a serious splash in the major leagues. Twin guitars buzz and rumble over bracing, joyous melodies, and Mac McCaughan’s tattered yelping somehow sounds both embittered and encouraging all at once. “Life-affirming,” I guess you’d call it.
No Pocky for Kitty, Superchunk’s first full-length on Merge and last with original drummer Chuck Garrison, was recorded in Chicago by Steve Albini, on a three-night hiatus from the band’s first nationwide tour. In the liner notes, McCaughan recalls how the engineer shared Chunk’s “insane work ethic” and how he scored the lowest rates at the Chicago Recording Company by booking the 6 PM-6 AM shift. “It’s hard to believe now, but at the time it didn’t seem at all crazy to be going about things that way,” admits guitarist Jim Wilbur, who, in the spring of ‘91, was still recuperating from a semi-serious bronchial infection.
Albini receives no sleeve credit (as per usual), but Pocky is one of his best works; the signature “Albini sound” -- unbuffed mistakes and harsh, massive guitars -- click with the songwriting instead of working against it, like on The Wedding Present’s Seamonsters or PJ Harvey’s Rid of Me. These songs are huge. “The Chapel Hill, N.C. quartet writes about mundane, everyday occurrences -- a slack co-worker, a teetering relationship -- and shouts about them from the rooftops,” praised the Chicago Tribune.
Indeed. “Skip Steps One & Three” is about a reckless driver. Or a pot smoker. “Seed Toss” is about a bitchy girlfriend. “That’s the fun of it,” said McCaughan. “The challenge is to take a small thing and make it into something worth talking about, even though it probably wasn’t to begin with.”
Rock, even punk rock, doesn’t sound like this anymore -- raw, vital, unstoppable. Listen to No Pocky for Kitty, then anything by Against Me!. Sounds like music from a Bugs Bunny cartoon.