Skid Row: Skid Row

I spend too much of my time defending hair metal. Like anything else, there was a lot of crap that went along with it, but the baby doesn’t need to get thrown out with the bathwater. You wouldn’t throw out Nirvana because of Candlebox, so why throw out Skid Row and Guns N’ Roses with Trixter and Slaughter?

It’s a tough case to make since the genre was founded on an awful lot of ridiculous showmanship. The hairspray, the leather pants, the very pretty lead singer, the lyrics almost entirely about banging hot chicks, and even the squealy guitar solos replete with scrunched-up faces: Skid Row did not escape any of this. But they fucking ruled.

Their self-titled debut ages well, but not exceptionally well. There are catchy, rocking songs from start to finish, but the weaker songs in the bunch aren’t quite good enough to overcome the eye-rolling treatment we give to songs of the time. The machismo, I-ams-what-I-ams lyrics of “Piece Of Me,” “Here I Am,” etc. seem to be written explicitly to appeal to adolescents frustrated with family and school life, looking for a way to aggressively express their frustrations. That’s fine, sure, but it doesn’t stand up to future generations.

The three best songs are the three hits: “18 And Life,” “Youth Gone Wild,” and even the power ballad “I Remember You” all stand the test of time better than almost anything from the era. You can call them formulaic, but what you have to realize is that this stuff was setting the formula. It’s only really formulaic post-hoc. Also, the disc sounds awesome. Almost 25 years later(!) and I still can’t reliably get music that sounds this good.

Like I’ve said, I’ve spent too much time defending hair metal’s redeeming bands, songs, and albums. I don’t want to do it anymore. This album goes into the required listening bucket. If you want to have a conversation with me about it, listen to this, Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite For Destruction (possibly the best album of all time), Too Fast For Love (Motley Crue’s only good album), and this album’s follow-up, Slave To The Grind.

– “Big Guns,” “Sweet Little Sister,” “18 And Life,” “Youth Gone Wild,” “I Remember You”
– “Can’t Stand The Heartache,” “Piece Of Me,” “Here I Am,” “Makin’ A Mess,” “Midnight/Tornado”
– “Rattlesnake Shake”
Filed Between: Skeleton Key (Obtainium) and Skid Row’s Slave To The Grind
Song Notes: After the jump
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Mad Season: Above

This is like my fourth attempt to like this album. I don’t like it…because it pretty much blows. It’s singer Layne Staley (Alice In Chains), guitarist Mike McCready (Pearl Jam), drummer Barrett Martin (Screaming Trees), and bassist John Baker Saunders (The Walkabouts) (one of these guys doesn’t belong), so it’s got an all-star cast. But they’re just trotting out the same, tired grunge tropes that Alice In Chains had already worn out by the end of their 1992 album Dirt.

Everything here seems obvious and re-heated.  There are enjoyable moments, but never is there a surprise or a new sound. It’s slow like they’re being reflective of their recent rehab (Saunders and McCready met up in rehab in Minnesota), but it just ends up being tortured-young-white-rich-male pity-party plodding. They overplayed their hand, and even I wanted something different by 1995.

Even the names seem like they were just pulled from Pearl Jam and Alice In Chains cast offs: “I’m Above” (also very reminiscent of Gruntruck’s “Above Me”), “River Of Deceit” (the obligatory mix of nature with negative human social construct), “Lifeless Dead” (as opposed to the vivacious dead?), and “All Alone” (guys, the teenage boys who were so into your bands a few years ago have all lost their virginity now).

Staley and Martin are the only ones really doing anything here. I mean, it’s really their band…their fingerprints are over this the most. McCready…well, this is not his best work. He’s a guitar wizard well-suited to arena rock and blazing solos. This is slow bluesy stuff that Alice In Chains’ Jerry Cantrell does much better. And Saunders…I don’t know what his deal is. It’s like token bassist. You guys left all the songwriters back in your other bands.

They never put together one solid song, and with the last two being complete throwaways, it’s obvious that the biggest failing here is a lack of material. There are moments in the first four songs, even the created-in-a-sterile-grunge-factory “River Of Deceit,” that hint at what might have been with a more fully realized product. But this is just half-assed from top to bottom.

– “Wake Up,” “X-Ray Mind,” “I’m Above,” “Lifeless Dead,” “I Don’t Know Anything,” “All Alone”
– “River Of Deceit,” “Artificial Red,” “Long Gone Day,” “November Hotel”
Filed Between: Yo-Yo Ma (The Protecting Veil) and Made In Minnesota – Volume One
Song Notes: After the jump
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Screaming Trees: Dust

0000526870_500It’s conventional wisdom that the four year break between Sweet Oblivion and this album is what prevented Screaming Trees from being big stars; in other words, they didn’t capitalize on the Seattle boom of the early 90’s. And sure, no output from 1993-1995 surely hurt them. But just as big a factor, I have to think, is that this album just isn’t that good.

Of course the two can’t be teased apart all that easily. The band folded after this record, and it seems likely to me that they were headed down the breakup path during its recording and release. They’ve got a new producer on this album in George Drakoulias, and the sound is just…different. It’s not as muddy as it was when I was complaining about it on their indie albums, but Lanegan’s voice is higher, even falsetto in some places, and the guitar sound is too clean and radio-friendly. The guitar is also missing the hooks. So without the amazing guitar melodies and Lanegan’s voice, is it even really Screaming Trees?

It’s not like the band lost its sense of aesthetics during this time. In 1994 Lanegan released the excellent Whiskey And The Holy Ghost, and of course he’s gone on to have an incredible career that’s kind of even exceeded that of his original band.

So they ended up with an album that’s a bit aimless. It’s not quite clear what they’re going for, but you can be pretty sure they didn’t hit it. There are a few good tracks on here, particularly on the back half of the disc, but that half also features the god awful, outrageously dull “Traveler.” I’m no fan of the opener, “Halo Of Ashes,” either, and when I hear the opening riff to that song I have to remind myself that some good songs are coming up in order to hang on through it.

Even though the last two songs are very good, in particular “Gospel Plow,” I think in my mind the band will always have ended at “Julie Paradise,” going out on top.

– “Sworn And Broken,” “Dime Western,” “Gospel Plow”
– “All I Know,” “Look At You,” “Dying Days,” “Witness”
– “Halo Of Ashes,” “Make My Mind,” “Traveler”
Filed Between: Screaming Trees’ Sweet Oblivion and Screwed Soundtrack
Song Notes: After the jump
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Los Lobos: Kiko

Aside from “La Bamba,” this is kind of the defining release of Los Lobos’ career. It seems to be the album I see the most cultural references to, and I think a big part of that is that they really stretch out the range of genres they work with here. For the most part it’s a bunch of great songs over a ton of styles, including some new stylistic recipes. It’s a bit much, though, at 16 tracks that seem to run longer than their stated 53 minutes. A bizarre choice to bunch the weakest tracks up at the beginning also reduces any impetus there may be to pop this one in. I love a lot of these songs, but as a cohesive album it’s a bit wanting.

– “Angels With Dirty Faces,” “Saint Behind The Glass,” “When The Circus Comes,” “Short Side Of Nothing,” “Two Janes,” “Whiskey Trail,” “Just A Man,” “Peace,” “Rio De Tenampa”
– “Dream In Blue,” “Wake Up Dolores,” “Reva’s House,” “Arizona Skies,” “Wicked Rain”
– “That Train Don’t Stop Here,” “Kiko And The Lavender Moon”
Filed Between: Los Lobos’ The Neighborhood and Colossal Head
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Screaming Trees: Sweet Oblivion

Just a ridiculously good album…nearly perfect. One of the rare occasions where a band’s best-known album is its best.  And one of the even rarer instances where a band’s best-known song (“Nearly Lost You,” which also appeared on the Singles soundtrack) may actually be its best. Just a great album, unfortunately still overlooked relative to its worth, one of the pillars of Peak Grunge. Beautiful vocal melodies, awesome guitar leads that cut through everything, great sound.

– “Shadow Of The Season,” “Nearly Lost You,” “Dollar Bill,” “More Or Less,” “Butterfly,” “The Secret Kind,” “Winter Song,” “Troubled Times,” “No One Knows,” “Julie Paradise”
– “For Celebrations Past”
Filed Between: Screaming Trees’ Uncle Anesthesia and Dust
Song Notes: After the jump Continue reading

Tipsy: Buzzz

Ugh, this is the suck. It’s kind of a mix of cartoonish electronica and lounge, and some of the sounds are really cool, but good gawd there is no ability to write a song here. And I don’t mean that like it’s free and soundscape-y…it’s like there should be a song but it’s just nothingness. If they cut this s**t down to like 30 or 40 second songs, a la Fantômas or something, I think there’s some potential here. As it is you have to wade through three minutes of bad background music to get to the kernel of an idea that works only on its own.

And it’s too bad because I want to love it. When you listen to just snippets here or there it’s so lighthearted and fun with such a keenly exuberant rhythm you just fall in love…and then 20 seconds later you’re bored out of your skull.

I don’t stand very strongly behind my heart ratings here. I just dislike this and want to stop listening to it. Suffice it to say that I think if you culled the best ideas in this album you’d have two or three full hearts.

– “Hot Banana”
– “Midnight Party,” “Swingin’ Spaceman,” “Electric Blue Eyelashes,” “Big Business,” “Good Little Demon,” “Up ‘Til Dawn”
– “A Night On The Town,” “Lipstick Tree,” “Sweet Spot,” “Chocolate Moon,” “Chop Socky,” “Kitty’s Daydream,” “Kadonka,” “See The Beauty, Touch The Magic,” “Wet Rainbow”
Song Notes: After the jump Continue reading

My Brightest Diamond: A Thousand Shark’s Teeth [sic]

The single most important word to understanding what you’re getting from My Brightest Diamond, one of those individuals-under-name-of-band things, is “chanteuse.” For a long time it was the only word I’d jotted down as a note in my review, and a few days later I saw it used in the quote from NPR on the back of the promotional CD I have, which was pretty validating.

Shara Worden’s got an artier-than-thou vibe going on throughout this album, including the liner note photographs, and it works really well. It may take a few listens to get underneath the seemingly directionless crooning (mostly that’s at the beginning of songs in the true chanteuse tradition) and learn the songs enough so that you anticipate and welcome their twists and turns, but they’re effortless listens and so worth it.

On first listen everything feels affected and superficial, but after a while you find there are parts that downright rock (“Inside A Boy”), are extremely passionate (“To Pluto’s Moon”), and have wonderfully cool but understated wacked out instrumentation (“Ice And The Storm”).

The artists I’m constantly reminded of is tUnE-yArDs and her 2011 album w h o k i l l (she’s got a thing for formatting). Which is kind of a shame because this was three years prior, at least just as good, and the only reason I’ve heard of it is because “From The Top Of The World” was on that 80-song playlist iTunes gave out in 2008 to students.

– “Inside A Boy,” “Ice And The Storm,” “Apples,” “From The Top Of The World,” “Black And Costaud,” “To Pluto’s Moon,” “Bass Player,” “The Diamond”
– “If I Were Queen,” “Goodbye Forever,” “Like A Sieve”
Filed Between: Music To Floss Your Ears With! (RCA promotional disc from 1996) and My Dying Bride (The Angel And The Dark River)
Song Notes: After the jump Continue reading