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Sunday, April 10, 2005
Sunday Morning Playlist #2: Noise Pop
Noise Pop is a subgenre of indie rock and alternative rock. It is pretty much what the name would imply. Noise pop is pop music at its heart, but with layers of feedback, white noise and dissonance creating a hypnotic, hazy, fuzzy sound, often with predominant guitar textures obscuring the vocals. It can be bright and uptempo, or murky and slow.
If one were to trace its roots, Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. would be among the earliest influences (as would the ubiquitous Velvet Underground's noise experiments, if you want to go way back). The chief architects of the noise pop sound would have to be Jesus and Mary Chain and Yo La Tengo. There were bands that could be called noise pop on both sides of the Atlantic; even rootsier lo-fi American indie bands like Pavement and bizarro experimenters The Flaming Lips qualify. Other bands have much in common with dream pop, space rock, and shoegaze; many shoegaze bands in particular used Jesus and Mary Chain for a template, and some bands could qualify in more than one of these subgenres. Noise pop's heyday was roughly from the mid-80's through the mid 90's, although it survives, in a variety of forms and styles, to this day.
A playlist of influential and important noise pop tunes follows:
1. Jesus And Mary Chain: Just Like Honey
This essentially was the album that defined and launched the genre. "Just Like Honey" was the single, opening with an echoey big beat reminiscent of "Be My Baby" before launching into a muted, melancholic, fuzzed-up vocal, sorrounded by an almost stately wash of feedback. Jesus and Mary Chain was led by brothers Jim and William Reid. While they never sold that many records (Psychocandy peaked at #188 on the American charts) their influence is immense; their final album was released in 1998.
2. Velocity Girl: Crazy Town
Velocity Girl had its roots in the DC-area music scene in the late 80's. After several lineup changes and indie releases, they were signed by Sub Pop in 1992, which earned them the moniker "bubblegrunge". Led by that point by vocalist Sarah Shannon, their debut album Copacetic came out the following year. "Crazy Town" is the most well-known cut, although the entire album is an excellent listen; it alternates between slabs of echoey, fuzzed up, wall-of-noise jangle pop and straight-ahead power pop.
3. My Bloody Valentine: Only Shallow
Here is where noise pop branches off into shoegaze. Kevin Shields and Bilinda Butcher's soothing vocals are blended into one and ride atop a roil of overdubbed and processed hard strumming guitars, warped rhythms, and a dense narcotic haze. Debbie Googe plays a heavy metal bass underneath it all, while Colm O'Ciosoig batters the drums in constantly shape-shifting tempo. Loveless, the album is a masterpiece, indispensible to the development of 90's rock. The cover art captures perfectly the sounds inside. Strangely, although the band signed with Island after this release, they never released another album after this one.
4. Yo La Tengo: Barnaby, Hardly Working
This opens with a siren-like wail of processed guitar loop that remains throughout the song, before kicking into an eerie, propulsive rocker, punctuated by some tasty fuzz slashes, and a bad-buzz vocal. Yo La Tengo is a restless band that is nearly impossible to pigeonhole. While they have the requisite Velvet Underground influence, they'd dabble in a vast array of styles and sonic experiments, all with retaining an underlying pop sense. Leader Ira Kaplan was a music critic before he formed the band.
5. Pavement: Summer Babe
Led by Stephen Malkmus, Pavement were among the practitioners of the early 90's lo-fi sound and movement; they specialized in off-kilter arrangements, cryptic lyrics, white noise, strange effects, Malkmus' Lou Reed-esque vocals, and an overall slacker aesthetic. "Summer Babe" is the leadoff track from this influential album, and moves along with a real tunefulness. Much of the rest of the album is primitive sounding, full of hiss and static; the songs themselves turn pop conventions on their heads.
6. The Flaming Lips: Turn It On
Flaming Lips, from Oklahoma City, has a long and storied career full of musical experimentation and risk taking. They only had one chart entry in their career, the extremely quirky "She Don't Use Jelly" from 1994; their best selling album came out in 2002, 17 years after their debut. "Turn It On", leadoff track from Transmissions from the Satellite Heart, which also features "She Don't Use Jelly", opens as an acoustic number before giving way to incresingly layered electric guitar noise, and a middle section full of clanging, crunching, swirling guitars and a coda that sounds like a spaceship collision in orbit. It's also a remarkably catchy tune, with a hooky chorus.
7. Ride: Kaleidoscope
Ride were like a psychedelic version of My Bloody Valentine; more melodic, with an obvious debt to the 60's, they briefly seemed on the verge of striking huge in England. "Kaleidoscope" actually sounds like a super-fuzzy Byrds to a degree, with chiming guitars ringing under the static and distortion. Nowhere, their debut, reached #14 on the charts and is often compared to Loveless as one of the best noise pop/shoegaze albums ever. The band would clean up their sound and emphasize the 60's sound to the point of cliche on later releases, but Nowhere is still a great listen. Ride disbanded in 1996.
8. Mercury Rev: Chasing A Bee
Along with virtually every other name on this list, Mercury Rev, from Buffalo, has had a long, strange, peculiar career. Originally an aggregate who worked under the tutelage of minimalist composer Tony Conrad, the band shared similarities with The Flaming Lips, whom they toured with in the early days. "Chasing a Bee", from their 1991 debut, is an ambitious and cinematic 7-minute art-pop epic. It runs through a smorgasboard of textures and sonics, with arcane sound effects adding to the intermittant washes of noise and the space between them. Mercury Rev's history has always been rancorous and disorganized, with key personnel shifts and assorted other problems, but have managed to continue making challenging and progressive art-noise pop to this day.
9. Sparklehorse: Homecoming Queen
Basically a vehicle for singer/guitarist Mark Linkous (ex-The Dancing Hoods), Sparklehorse has been releasing albums since 1996. Linkous was one of the more prominant lo-fi artists of the mid to late 90's, recording much of the material at home. Taking his cues from folk and country as much as noise pop, Sparklehorse featured a surprisingly organic, melancholic sound on their debut,
Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot. Recorded at a time when noise pop was starting to recede into the background, the album is understated in comparison to earlier noisefests. Still, its hazy sound, which erupts into surprise noise bursts, as well as other devices, merits its (or his) inclusion on the list.
10. Archers of Loaf: Web In Front
Part of the Chapel Hill, NC scene that also produced Superchunk and Polvo, Archers of Loaf specialized in an edgy, tense noise pop that shared some similarities with Pavement and the sonic dissonance of Sonic Youth. "Web In Front" was a college radio hit in 1993. Gravel voiced singer Eric Bachmann sings and growls atop a swirling, noisy, two-guitar attack. Archers of Loaf's debut Icky Mettle stands as their best, although all four of their albums (plus one live) are worth exploring. The band broke up in 1998.