1997: Primal Scream - Vanishing Point
There’s been a lot of celebration for the 20th anniversary of Primal Scream’s breakthrough album Screamadelica and, sure, I can understand why. Released on the zenith of the rave revolution, the album came to define both poles of the smiley-faced culture – the dancey and smooth sounds of electronic outfits like 808 State and the more rock oriented strain of bands like the Stone Roses. Bobby Gillespie and company crafted an album that condensed an era in its groovy, sample-happy guitar vamps. Personally, I don’t think it’s that good. Side A is stellar, no doubt about it, but around the time “Come Together” appears, the album starts to drift towards long pieces revolving around clichés of the era (diva vocals, chill beats). And that’s not mentioning Mudhoney’s superior use of the sample from the movie The Wild Angels.
On the other hand, 1997’s Vanishing Point takes the sound and approach of Screamadelica and goes deeper into its druggy corridors , letting them resolve into their natural conclusions, no matter if they lead to dark and heavy territory. The album is as eclectic as its guests (The Memphis Horns, original Sex Pistols bassist Glen Matlock, and Jamaican dub legend Augustus Pablo), but it has an atmosphere that ties everything together. It contains a cover of the song “Motörhead” that sounds closer to Hawkwind than Lemmy’s subsequent band, while “Medication” is an irresistible Stonesy boogie and opener “Burning Wheel” is a dubby layered song of narcoleptic grandeur.
It also represents a musical step forward, although it’s one that happened without the larger public noticing it. Vanishing Point married the tradition of psychedelia – from the space rock of early Pink Floyd to the experiments in terror of Psychic TV – with well defined songs, but it most importantly revolutionized sound with its approach. Primal Scream usually wrote songs and then played with the results, and many of them would rise from warping and reusing old material. They were one of the first rock bands who didn’t think their guitars and recordings were holy, and they committed sacrilege in the name of creativity to produce something superior, even if it meant mangling their most celebrated artwork.
Here’s the video for “Kowalski”, based on the movie that gives this album its name, which I also recommend.
1998: V/A - Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels: Music From The Motion Picture
Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels is British director Guy Ritchie’s take on the Tarantino-style quick-witted over-the-top gangster movie. Every element of criminal life is present: guns, drugs, sex, and violence. Characters have humorous/dangerous names like Hatchet Harry, Barry the Baptist, and Nick the Greek. It is both distinctly British – cultural quirks, accents, and slang included – yet relatable to pan-Western character sketches of criminal ruthlessness. And, in the tradition of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, Lock, Stock draws from a varied palette of rock and soul establishing mood and a general sense of cool.
The soundtrack starts identically to the movie, with “Hundred Mile High City” by Ocean Colour Scene. Its frantic pace and distinctly Brit-rock flavor instantly draws the listener in. But, much as the plot unfurls, audio clips and instrumental selections mirror the patchwork narrative, creating a dynamic listening experience. The slinky “Spooky” by Dusty Springfield follows “Police and Thieves” by reggae artist Junior Murvin, reflecting adjoining scenes taking place in a marijuana growing den and strip club respectively.
For veteran viewers of Lock, Stock, the soundtrack’s accuracy to the plot and choice quotes make it a close second to re-watching the movie. And, as the soundtrack ends with Big Chris’s quote, “It’s been emotional,” followed by “18 With a Bullet” by Pete Wingfield, you can’t help but agree.
1987-1990: Bitch Magnet
If one was coming up in the 1990s and listened to underground music (and was, most likely, a “dude”), the landscape of indie rock was pretty well shaped by a few preceding soldiers. One of the least talked-about was Bitch Magnet, a trio (sometime quartet) from Chapel Hill, North Carolina via Oberlin, Ohio who would give rise to a good chunk of the post-hardcore landscape of the time. Active from 1986-1987 through the turn of the 1990s, Bitch Magnet waxed three proper LPs (one for their own Roman Candle imprint and two for Communion), a live EP, and a couple of singles before disbanding. Vocalist/bassist and principal songwriter Sooyoung Park went on to form the delicately-paced but profoundly compelling Seam; guitarist Jon Fine later joined Vineland and eventually formed Coptic Light; and drummer Orestes Morfin went on to helm the trap set in Walt Mink. Their records – Star Booty, Umber, and Ben Hur – have been out of print for nearly two decades and are seeing a renaissance as part of a new three-disc set on Temporary Residence, remastered with a smattering of alternate takes and a few studio extras.
The late 1980s were a fertile time in underground rock, post-punk, college rock or whatever one wants to call it, and for a band that now seem ahead of their time, it’s pretty easy to put the pieces together – Hüsker Dü, Moss Icon, and Big Black were, to varying degrees, part of their early approach and those poles never really left. Half-sung and half-spoken/shouted vocals, often somewhat buried in the mix, were mated to a big, uncoiled swirl of guitar and motorik, stop-on-a-dime percussion (sometimes aided by a bit of Roland-style drum machine a la Big Black/early Bastro). All that being said, what Bitch Magnet had – and, with the exception of Codeine, in greater stead than their peers – was a real knack for writing wistful pop melodies that make a clean scramble out of the mud and thrash. A friend of this writer said of the group, in comparison with Seam, that the former was always too “tough” which, in retrospect, is curious. Sure, Fine’s massive chords and Morfin’s incredible technique could front a hard shell, but Park conveys an equally great degree of honest, even reined-in lyricism. It’s not entirely saccharine, but there is sweetness in his delivery of “Americruiser” that keeps the murmurs and strums from edging into Slinty territory. As a set, the Temporary Residence reissues move in reverse chronology, which is somewhat surprising since Ben Hur, while touted as the beginning of math rock’s stark precision, seems more like a cap on the preceding sessions’ wry Jekyll-Hyde approach to emotive brightness and raging post-punk.
2000: Jay-Z - “Big Pimpin’”
The other day, a Philadelphia-based emcee/producer and I were discussing the extensive malleability of hip hop. Unlike most pop genres, hip hop has an uncanny tolerance that allows its producers to imbibe other styles and genres with ease, while still retaining an authentic footprint. Generally, extensive genre-hopping is often criticized as unfocused or pretentious – in hip hop it is not only encouraged, but also wildly successful both commercially and artistically.
“Big Pimpin’” beautifully demonstrates this phenomenon. Jay-Z’s lyrics dance and skirt around a melody originally composed by Egyptian composer Baligh Hamdi, while Timbaland’s production adds little additional instrumentation. A slithering synth-line and a few extra rhythmic flourishes, maybe, but the strings and flutes leading the track remain unaltered.
Somehow it remains hip hop. And it’s not an isolated incident. Producers frequently snap up elements of soul, latin, jazz, classical, rock, reggae, and myriad other genres, yet the end result is always indisputably within the genre. Very few boundaries separate the clash of styles – there are no borders to define the rules of influence. Somehow, the hip hop community has bred some of the most innovative and eclectic production of the late 20th century while barely setting a template beyond the ubiquitous backbeat. It’s wild. It’s free. It’s… well, what is it?
1994-2000: Honey is Cool
I may as well just come straight out and say it: someone needs to re-release all those Honey is Cool records that were made before Karin Dreijer Andersson’s Knife/Fever Ray years. I can’t tell you how many clicks I’ve discarded in the search to get my hands on the bands final album, Early Morning Are You Working, and EP without success. I don’t want to join the Discogs community, nor order straight from the jaws of Rabid, the strangely calm and inactive label that was set up by the band to release Early Morning… and the Baby Jane EP (though it has to be acknowledged that Rabid have been spewing out Knife and Fever Ray records ever since, so that title is justified).
The reason for this (as fans always know) is more a question of justice than necessity. I can see how Dreijer Andersson’s early efforts might be of minimal value to her now, considering how far she’s ventured into lonely frontier territory of her own. For a listener, however, the value of the two albums – Crazy Love, Early Morning Are You Working, and the singles and EPs – lie in the way they tie up the strands of left-of-mainstream 90s guitar pop in a way that manages to be accessible but actually quite independent. The oddly compromised sound of so many powerful 90s studio bands – including the gems as well as the dud fillers that were cranked out from the pressurized cans of studios with their overly realized guitars – could rarely materialize into something worthwhile. On the rare occasions that it did, it was powerful stuff.
Honey is Cool made 90s albums that were recorded properly AND sounded like sincere pop statements, which, if you grew up buying disappointing sophomore records by bands that received too much attention the first time round, is something to be celebrated. Instead of converting their ‘next big thing’ status in Sweden into money, Honey is Cool pressed on with their creative agenda, making a deliberate decision in the late 90s to regain control over their creative output by starting their own label. Again, Rabid was the label that released all the good stuff from The Knife and Fever Ray, so there is a happy ending to this story – but no epilogue. Those Honey is Cool albums may be unsophisticated compared to Dreijer’s later work, but they’re pretty damn good considering they were made in that old cartoon-capitalist climate of the mid 90s music industry. Granted, the albums may be available floating around the net, but it’s the context that matters. Here’s hoping that there are no actual legal reasons why they can’t be re-instated where they belong: in Dreijer & Co’s catalogue.
1998: Less Than Jake - “All My Best Friends are Metalheads”
Nothing seems special about Less Than Jake. Just another Warped Tour band with ska horns having a jolly ol’ time. Of course, appearances and sounds can be deceiving.
Musically speaking, the song “All My Best Friends are Metalheads” is a party; lyrically, it’s a little bit sad. “Yet all this really mean is/ you’re one in a crowd and you’re paranoid of every sound/ another friend you won’t miss anyhow.” Few songs in the 90s talked about dressing the part but not being what you pretended to be in such a personal, relatable way – most were content to simply point an accusing finger at posers. By the same token, “All My Best Friends…” also addresses group mentality, which can feel like loneliness in disguise, especially when you can’t really know people as individuals. That isolation is echoed in the lyrics “Did we take the time/ to really discover/ how little do we know about each other?” It’s a heavy sentiment for a band whose contemporaries were, for the most part, goofballs doing funny covers of pop songs. Yet Less Than Jake also represent the “whitening” of ska by abandoning the issues presented by their ancestors, the Two-Tone bands and their racial concerns; not that its their obligation to preach integration.
Ska punk is contradictory, a genre that, in the 90s, mixed raging guitars, dumb lyrics and feel good dance music from the Bahamas. In general, it’s a sound that doesn’t appear complicated or deep on the surface, but one that can communicate good feelings and positive social politics.