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Favorite 90s Albums: #1 – PJ Harvey – “Rid of Me”

November 16, 2011 Leave a comment

Writing this list of 90’s albums has forced me to spend a lot of time thinking about what I value in music.  Looking over the final list, I think there’s a few traits that have popped up repeatedly:  Originality, emotion, charisma, ambition, and a little bit of weirdness, to name a few.

It’s fitting, then, that the top album would be by PJ Harvey, who I think has come to exemplify all of those traits with her music over the years.  I consider her the best artist of the 90’s and one of the best singer-songwriters of all time, male or female.  And when deciding which album should be number one on the list, I couldn’t bring myself to pick an album besides Rid of Me.  To me, it’s an album that has everything:  It’s largely unlike anything that came before it (or since), it has more emotion and angst than anything else I’ve ever heard, it’s the creation of an incredibly distinct artist, and in its own way it’s a work of great ambition and scope.

More than anything else though, Rid of Me is just plain crazy.  It is and will always be the definitive “crazy ex-girlfriend” album.  I don’t know what happened to PJ Harvey while she was living on a farm in England that inspired this, but few albums have the sense of catharsis and emotional release that Rid of Me does.  It wants to shock you, and it does so immediately with its haunting cover art of a topless PJ thrown against a wall with her medusa-like hair coiled around her.

There’s lyrics like “I’ll make you lick my injuries and “I’m gonna twist your head off” from the title track.  There’s a song about the hand-job from hell (“Rub ‘Til it Bleeds”), another about Tarzan’s poor girlfriend Jane (“Me-Jane”), and at one point a poor ex-boyfriend has his legs severed by PJ in one of the album’s most harrowing moments.

The lyrics are just part of Rid of Me‘s groundbreaking madness.  For the album, PJ brought in Steve Albini, who gives the album his distinctive raw production, full of the kind of noise he helped to pioneer as a member of Big Black and an engineer of the Pixies and Breeders.  With its lyrics combined with the production, everything about Rid of Me is taken to the extreme. Many were turned off by Albini’s production, and PJ later released the demo versions of some of the songs on 4-Track Demos for fans put off by all the noise and abrasiveness.  There’s also remixes of the album floating around on youtube that put PJ’s vocals higher in the mix.

It might just be that I’m a Steve Albini fanboy, but I’ve always found his production integral to Rid of Me‘s greatness.  It’s just another way that the album is completely uncompromising, almost to the point that it seems to be actively antagonizing listeners that aren’t prepared for its full-on assault of the senses.  The sound of the live instruments gives the album more life, and as a result makes its contents terrifyingly real.

At the center of all of the carnage and noise is PJ herself.  While Rid of Me is extremely conflicted, it’s clearly the work of an artist who is incredibly sure of herself.  The way the album forsakes all taboos and conventions, particularly for a female artist, only adds to the its considerable power.  On “50 ft Queenie” she flaunts her cocksure bravado and badassery: “hey I’m the king of the world/you wanna hear my song?”  While Rid of Me is an album that had potential to alienate a lot of people, it’s as if she knew deep down that people wanted to hear her crazy songs anyways.

In the final track, PJ wails “I’m in ecstasy.”  After nearly 45 minutes of blood and guts being spilled everywhere, it’s an incredibly fitting conclusion that represents the album’s unique catharsis.

Rid of Me was released during grunge, the female singer-songwriter boom, and riot grrrl, and at times it’s been lumped in as a part of each of those genres.  However, it separates itself clearly from that large pack based on how intense and brutal it is and how fearless its creator was.  Much like Loveless, I see Rid of Me as the perfection of an idea.  While radio-friendly artists like Alanis Morissette and others gathered more buzz for their anti-boyfriend screeds, none of them compare to Rid of Me‘s artistry and flat-out insanity.  In the 18 years since it was made, I still don’t think anything has topped it in terms of sheer intensity and emotion.

Rid of Me was the last album made by the original PJ Harvey trio, as PJ went on to a more artsy solo career with other 90’s classics likeTo Bring You My Love and Is This Desire?  She changes her sound and image on every album, and her work is always interesting.  But I don’t think she’s ever topped the thought-provoking, ugly descent into madness that is Rid of Me.  It’s one of the boldest rock albums of all time, and in my opinion the best of its decade.

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Favorite 90s Albums: #2 – My Bloody Valentine – “Loveless”

November 11, 2011 Leave a comment

One of the elements of music I find most interesting is the idea of building on the past, the way that bands take in certain influences and hallmark albums and try to build on them or improve them in some way.  But a recurring theme in this series has been the idea that the very best albums simply can’t be replicated.  Albums like In the Aeroplane over the Sea, Homogenic, and pretty much all the others are too much a product of the genius of their creators and the specific time and place that they were made.  They’re also such perfect distillations of the genre or sound that they’re trying to accomplish that there’s no point in even trying.

Perhaps no album exemplifies that idea more than My Bloody Valentine’s 1991 masterpiece Loveless.  By pretty much any measure, this is one of the most influential albums there is in indie music.  In fact, it’s one of those albums that seems to be a building block of what “indie music” even is, given how vague and all-encompassing the term is.  Bands have tried to replicate it in the 20 years since its first release and none have come even remotely close. The most successful have been ones that merely borrowed bits and pieces of Loveless instead of trying to capture its entire aesthetic.

Much of that is due to its creator, Kevin Shields.  Shields had the idea for Loveless in his head and paired it with a relentless commitment to bring it to fruition.  As a result, the recording sessions for Loveless have become somewhat legendary, as Shields spent two years cycling through various engineers, meticulously recording the sound of the album in various studios, and nearly bankrupting Creation Records (who promptly released My Bloody Valentine from their label following the release of the album).

Of course, all of the craziness by Shields is what makes Loveless what it is.  Despite having few coherent lyrics, it’s a uniquely powerful album, one that is difficult to explain and simply has to be experienced.  It finds beauty in the previously ugly realm of noise in music and for the most part was unlike anything that came before it.  And its songs also show surprising pop craftsmanship but are also nearly impossible to pinpoint due to the abstract sounds and lyrics.

One thing I sort of miss about the current state of music is that feeling of throwing an album into a record or CD player and just letting it spin, without really knowing what you’re about to hear.  That sense of nostalgia for an era that I didn’t even really experience that much comes up a lot when listening to Loveless, mostly because of the opening track “Only Shallow.”  Has there been a better two seconds in music than the beginning of this song?  It starts out with a drum beat that sounds fairly normal, but a second later the walls of guitar come in and it’s unlike anything I’ve heard before.

Loveless not only perfects its aesthetic (primarily known as “shoegazing”, another unnecessary musical genre term that I could live without), but also takes it in many different areasThere’s more traditional rock songs (“Only Shallow), but also lush, dreamy pieces featuring Bilinda Butcher’s vocals (“Loomer”) and more abstract, sonic dirges (“Sometimes”). There’s also “Soon”, which takes the style and puts a dance beat to it, which caused Brian Eno to call it the vaguest music ever to be a hit in the charts.

20 years later, My Bloody Valentine still hasn’t followed up on Loveless.  Shields has only sparingly been involved in music publicly, collaborating with various bands but doing little in the way of his own music outside of a My Bloody Valentine reunion in 2007.  He’s thrown out music that he doesn’t deem good enough for release, and sounds like he simply refuses to make an album that isn’t as good as this one.  Given that, I wouldn’t get my hopes up for another My Bloody Valentine album, because Loveless simply can’t be improved upon.

Favorite 90s Albums: #3 – Sleater-Kinney – “Dig Me Out”

November 7, 2011 Leave a comment

At this point, I’m sure people are aware of my deep, abiding love of Sleater-Kinney.  They’re my musical religion, the band that, to me, represents everything that music should be about. All of the elements that make them a definitive rock band to me are present on their 1997 album Dig Me Out, which many fans would argue is their high point as a group.

Admittedly, I’m a big dork about rock music.  For me, it isn’t for blasting in the radio or playing at a party.  Rather, I like to take the term literally:  It should “rock” you, make you think, and wake you up from the constant doldrums of life and humanity.  Alleged “rock” bands that don’t do these things are frequently the target of my ire and it’s a constant disagreement I have with other people.

Dig Me Out is one of my all-time favorite rock albums because it has such a sense of purpose.  It isn’t just trying to sound cool or to be a fun soundtrack to a dance party (although some of the songs are quite danceable).  It wants to jolt the listener, to move them and inspire them.  And for a certain group of people, the types that are disenfranchised with the status quo in both the real world and music world, it does just that, which might explain why the band has such a rabid (but relatively small) following.

For Dig Me Out, Sleater-Kinney brought in a new drummer, Janet Weiss, to go along with Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein’s two-pronged guitar and vocals assault.  Weiss immediately gave the band a new-found sense of confidence and swagger, and as a result Dig Me Out sounds like their first album in which they’re aspiring to be a great all-around rock band rather than just a punk outfit.  Her presence was immediately felt in the opening title track, which I consider one of the band’s signature songs.

After the release of their 2000 album “All Hands on the Bad One”, music critic Robert Christgau said of the band: “locked into a visceral style and sound that always maximizes their considerable and highly specific gifts, they could no more make a bad album than the Rolling Stones in 1967.”  It’s a bold statement, but one I find completely true:  Not only can I not imagine Sleater-Kinney making a bad album, it’s hard for me to picture them making a bad song.  Corin Tucker’s attention-demanding vocals, Brownstein’s complex riffwork and vocal chemistry with Tucker along with Weiss’s drumming made Sleater-Kinney into a machine.  It’s apparent on Dig Me Out, which comes storming out of the gate with three of the band’s best songs and never lets up from there, providing an exhilarating 36 minutes of rock and roll.

The oddball song on the album is “One More Hour,” a more personal song that (apparently) details the break-up between Tucker and Brownstein that happened in the early days of the band.  Sleater-Kinney’s style makes the song work perfectly, as the ping-ponging guitars and vocals also play into the idea of the two having had a relationship.  I think it’s one of the all-time great indie break-up songs and it foreshadows the shift Sleater-Kinney would make on their next album (“The Hot Rock”) into more personal territory instead of rousing, occasionally feminist anthems.

I’ve always thought that all-female bands occupied a strange place in music, which might be why I’m so fascinated by them.  The female listeners they’re often trying to inspire often just listen to sensitive guys strumming on guitar, while a lot of male listeners look up to male rock idols in order to seem “manly.”  The band seemed to channel a lot of those concepts into meta songs about being in a band, like the infectious “Words and Guitar.”

The band’s greatness has eventually caused me to dub something called “The Sleater-Kinney Effect”, based on how lame the band is able to make other artists (especially their male counterparts) sound after listening to them.  The effect becomes even more pronounced through time, as 90’s guitar rock went by the wayside and Sleater-Kinney towered over unoriginal post-punk bands and wimpy indie pop in the first half of the 2000s.  In 1997 things probably felt the same way, as Dig Me Out provided a jolt of legitimate female empowerment at the height of the Spice Girls “girl power” movement, and surely inspired many women (including one of my favorite current artists, Marnie Stern) to pick up a guitar.

Despite how convinced I am that they’re one of the best bands ever, I’ve come to accept that Sleater-Kinney is a love-it or hate-it proposition.  Tucker’s vocals are difficult on the ears a lot of listeners and a lot of people are put off by the band’s apparent feminist sloganeering.  At the same time, the idea of listening to Dig Me Out and not being inspired by the passion put into each song is foreign to me, even as a guy who isn’t really the target audience.  More than any other band, I feel like people that love Sleater-Kinney “get it” on a level beyond typical music listeners.