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Sunday, March 20, 2005
A Break In the Clouds
A few weeks ago, I posted a treatise on Classic Rock radio, and how unimaginative it has always been. My thoughts on that haven't changed a whit; I can still rattle off the titles of everything they'll play tomorrow.
Radio did get a shot in the arm in the 1990's from another new format; one that came to be known as "alternative rock"
"Alternative rock" is often used as a genre classification by music vendors, magazines, and the like but it really isn't a classification of a musical style; rather it is a pigeonhole that was created in the wake of grunge for the new generation of rock artists that were too new to play on classic rock stations, and too aggressive for the pop stations.
Although the term wasn't used until the early 90's, it has been applied retroactively to bands that existed outside of the established rock media in the 80's; the postpunk indie bands (and was usually called "indie rock" in those days). In the 90's alternative rock often included major label releases; no longer strictly an "indie" phenomena, it came to represent grunge, emo, space rock, dream pop, electronica, low-fi, shoegaze, and pretty much any rock genre that wasn't classic rock.
Thus, groups as diverse as Nirvana, Green Day, Cocteau Twins, Luna, Teenage Fanclub, Uncle Tupelo, and Collective Soul all qualify.
So it is a useless way to tag your music, unless you wish to recreate the sound of alternative rock radio of the 90's. Which was a blessed breath of fresh air, even if it resulted in a lot of artists softening their sound and polishing the edges to get airtime. It was such a success it gave rise to a similarly broad and undefined sub-category: adult alternative pop/rock.
Of course, alternative rock radio has succumbed to much of the same atrophy rock radio did; it has become predictable and conservative, just like grandpa's radio did. But unlike classic rock, at least it isn't tethered to a specific age in time.
Since we've spent a lot of time in the distant past lately, this will help bring us back to the more recent past again. Tonight, a simple review of some of the artists who, for better or worse, were given that alt-rock tag.
I don't use "alternative rock" as a genre tag in my library, except in rare cases, so to create tonight's playlist I'll randomize the entire library of 17,021 songs and visually pluck out the artists who qualify, in the order they come up.
First 10 titles randomly selected in the above fashion are profiled, Jam tags, 1-5 stars, follow.
1. The Jayhawks: A Break In The Clouds *****
Led by Mark Olson and Gary Louris, a pair of guitarists/vocalists with a knack for big, shimmering, winsome harmonies, this band has been releasing tuneful country/folk/rock since 1986. "A Break In The Clouds" from Smile (2000) is pretty near irresistable; a Gram Parsons-esque country rocker with a gigantic hook for a chorus, broad harmonies and pedal steel guitar. Fans of roots rock and Americana would like these guys. Their sound has changed over the years, losing some of the more overt country influences, and adapting a more modern alt-rock sound. But it's still gorgeous music.
2. Of Montreal: Jacques Lemure ****
Euphoric, indie pop band from the Elephant 6 collective led by singer/guitarist Kevin Barnes. The Gay Parade is their whimsical attempt at a Sgt. Pepper style concept album. As such, this song works better as part of the whole. Still, it's a bizarre, busy, effervescent uptempo piano-based tune, with absurdist lyrics about the title character, a frustrated factory worker. An acquired taste, but worth a listen; it's genuinely creative, no small thing these days.
3. Collective Soul: Bleed *****
While I don't sit through their albums in one sitting, I've always liked this band's best tunes. With more hooks than a fishing tackle box, layered, textured guitar, character in Ed Roland's vocals, clean 90's production, their songs usually get me singing along loudly when they come on the changer in my car. "Bleed" has all of the above. Their peak appears to be long past now, nobody quite straddled the classic rock/alternative rock fence quite like they did.
4. Alanis Morissette: Precious Illusions ****
Morissette is a singer/songwriter at heart, but a smart one who has incorporated elements of rock, hints of hip-hop, smidgeons of electronica, and her unique wail into a pop-savvy sound, one that has sustained her relatively unchanged for over a decade. It comes down to a matter of taste whether you like her or not; I know people of taste who love her, and other people of taste who loathe her. While I'm no superfan, I do admire her best songs; she's the singer/songwriter who'd scratch your back I'm always a sucker for. "Precious Illusions", like the rest of the record, is written from the perspective of her seducer on Jagged Little Pill. But it's the music that grabs me here, a lush and full sound, with all the sonic details one has come to expect.
5. Soul Coughing: Super Bon Bon *****
From New York's 90's downtown club scene, these guys are hard to classify. M. Doughty specializes in stream-of-consciousness poetry, set atop improvisational jazz grooves, oddball samples, trip-hop, electronics, noise and sound fragments. The band descibes it as "deep slacker jazz". Whatever you'd call it, this is their undeniable classic, danceable and bass-heavy but cerebral in its crazed textures and effects. More of a trip-hop flavor than anything else; a great groove.
6. Cowboy Junkies: A Common Disaster ****
One way to describe Canada's Cowboy Junkies would be as a countrified Velvet Underground circa Loaded. Here Margo Timmins' voice is at a peak; expressive and full. The Velvets comparison comes into play when listening to the guitars on this recording; a reliable chug of rhythm with strange, discombobulated, lethargic leads in the background, particularly before the last verse. This one is a little more richly produced than their earlier music; it brought them a wider audience. They achieve this without compromising their individual sound.
7. Stone Temple Pilots: Sour Girl ****
Stone Temple Pilots took a lot of crap when they debuted in 1993. Scott Weiland's voice was unfairly compared to Eddie Vedder's; they were derided as grunge wannabees, second rate posers. They've since outlived most of that criticism; they generally get respect for what they were; a more tuneful band than their grunge cousins. "Sour Girl" takes their tunefulness and gives it a late 60's trippiness; it falls somewhere between Neil Young and the Association. It's great radio candy; hummable and full of chiming guitars.
8. The Verve: Life's An Ocean *****
The Verve came up in both the space rock and shoegaze playlists, and they fit in here, too. Master experimenters with texture, they successfully shed thir shoegaze pigeonhole here with a bottom-heavy bassfest. Richard Ashcroft's bad-buzz white soul vocals are eerie and compelling and Nick McCabe offers clean licks and reverb echoes. Convincingly funky, no small feat for British space rockers. Perhaps the closest band I can compare this track to would be the Happy Mondays; as with all three Verve albums, this is a must-have.
9. Dada: Here Today, Gone Tomorrow *****
This trio was hyped a lot at the time of their debut, but faded fairly quickly after that. Much of the music on their fine debut, Puzzle, is tuneful, melodic, guitar rock, typical of their #27 single, "Dizz Knee Land" (The title was changed from Disneyland after Disney complained). "Here today Gone Tomorrow" is something entirely different; a noir-ish raving of a strung out bank robber on the lam in L.A. with a fuzzy garage band sound to it. A great track, great lyrics. Pity these guys never capitalized on this impressive start.
10. Hole: Violet *****
Courtney Love's career has largely been spent careening from one train wreck to another, with little interruptions of brilliance in-between. Live Through This probably would have been considered one of the most important albums of the 1990's if it hadn't been overshadowed by the suicide of Love's husband Kurt Cobain four days before its release. As edgy and combative as she is, the album is an explosion of noise that waxes tuneful through the din; it also isn't short on hooks. Love rarely sings below a holler, yet her voice is instantly likable. "Violet", the leadoff cut, is one of the best songs on the album, a good place to start for Hole novices.
One of the better sounding playlists in a while; a lot of personal favorites came up. We'll re-visit most of these artists again as we get to more genre playlists. This is just a wade in shallow alt-rock waters.