Babes In Toyland: Spanking Machine

spankingmachine

It’s wonderful to think that in 1989, years before I would hear of this band, legendary producer Jack Endino (Soundgarden, Nirvana, Mudhoney, and on and on), or the phrase “riot grrrl,” Minneapolis band Babes In Toyland trekked out to Seattle to work with Jack Endino on their debut album, Spanking Machine, which would be released in 1990 on Minnesota label Twin/Tone Records. It’s also wonderful to hear that, even a few years before they would make their biggest mark on the scene with 1992’s Fontanelle, an album that only could have sold as much as it did in the major label gold rush of the post-Nevermind era, this trio had just as much energy, rage, and skill as they would a few years later.

“Why did you leave me/When I was still inside of you,” Kat Bjelland howls on the wonderfully angry “Pain In My Heart,” while her guitar scrapes along against the brick and metal of the cold, dark alley her voice is stumbling through. Digging out of her angst she picks up steam midway through the song to unleash a torrent: “Fry fucking fry fucking fry fucking my blue boyfriend.” It’s raw. There isn’t a lot of twenty-something angst that still registers much more than an eye roll in this mid-life shell of mine, but it’s impossible not to be pissed at The Man and really just everything when you listen to this.

Keep in mind this is five years before Sleater-Kinney’s debut album. Five! And this is significantly better. It’s far more well-crafted: the songs are more songy, the rage is better channeled but no less potent. Now, Sleater-Kinney would move on from this kind of sound for their second (and subsequent) albums, and for good reason given that Babes In Toyland had already broken up by that time and, in my opinion, basically mastered the riot grrrl thing. Now, I realize it’s kind of icky for me to compare two punk bands made up of three women each, but to be fair I really do think S-K’s debut album looks back pretty clearly at Babes In Toyland’s discography, a distinct sound I really haven’t encountered elsewhere.

There are some meh points here, notably in the middle of the album where I feel like they sequenced some changes of pace to try to break up the emotional and sonic assault they bring at the top and end of the album. “Dogg,” a bluesy dirge sung by drummer Lori Barbero, works, but “Boto (W) Rap” and, though less of a divergence, “Never,” lose my interest a bit. But everything else you would get from Babes In Toyland on their later albums, like the raging, in-tune-only-when-we-want-to-be howls, tempo shifts, uncompromising lyrics, downtuned guitars, evocatively palm-muted guitars, and, amazingly, sing-along (scream-along) vocal melodies. It’s a great start to an all-too-short career for this band.

Rating:
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Mix: “Fork Down Throat”
Really Like:
“He’s My Thing,” “Dogg,” “Pain In My Heart”
Like: 
“Swamp Pussy,” “Vomit Heart,” “Lashes,” “You’re Right,” “Dust Cake Boy”
Meh: “Never,” “Boto (W) Rap”
Song Notes: After the jump Continue reading

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Strange Wilds: Subjective Concepts

subjectiveconcepts

Being a trio from Olympia, on Sub Pop, and sounding an awful lot like Nirvana’s dirgier songs is pretty much a guarantee that your album is going to find me and that I’m going to give it a few spins. Furthermore, if your songs all have hints of hooks in them but don’t really develop into anything more than a collection of riffs over their four minutes, being all of those things I mentioned at the top is pretty much guaranteed that I’m going to listen to your album 20 times trying to love the damned thing.

Strange Wilds is billed as sounding a lot like Bleach-era Nirvana, but I think there’s plenty of Nevermind and In Utero in here, too. Some of the songs sounded so similar to parts of Nirvana songs that I did a quick run through the Nirvana catalog doing some comparisons looking for the direct musical quotes, but couldn’t find them. It is possible they tapped into something in the air or water (or heroin) down in Olympia and were able to channel some unwritten or possibly discarded Nirvana riffs from throughout the years.

That possibility hung before me, a child of the 90’s, like a beacon of hope that maybe, just maybe, what with Alice In Chains’ successful resurrection, Soundgarden at least attempting one, and Pearl Jam’s penultimate album being quite good, grunge could have a true second coming (and not that second wave of grunge crap led by Bush, et al.) with the veterans and the rookies locked arm in arm, guitar in guitar, battling against and vanquishing moody hipster Brooklyn iPad shit.

Unfortunately, that beacon is, at best, a light at the end of a very long tunnel. Beyond the muddy production (which is a good thing here) and those riffs that seem ripped from my high school years, these guys shouldn’t really be compared to Nirvana at all. Apart from a few throwaways on Incesticide, these tracks don’t compare to Nirvana songs. There’s more of an exhausting noise merchant vibe going on here than one of pop songcraft.

Still, I can’t write these guys off completely. This is only a debut album, and maybe if they tour the country and get a little more optimism in their life than Olympia can offer they’ll develop some more song-crafty sensibilities, which I’m willing to admit might be more of a late-breaking skill. I’ll almost certainly give their second album a try, too. So I guess being a trio from Olympia, on Sub Pop, and sounding a lot like Nirvana is enough to get me to listen to at least two of your albums.

Rating:
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Meh: “Pronoia,” “Starved For,” “Autothysis,” “Don’t Have To,” “Oneirophobe,” “Disdain,” “Pareidolia,” “Terrible,” “Lost And Found,” “Outercourse”
Dislike: “Egophilia”
Song Notes: After the jump Continue reading

Mother Love Bone: Apple

appleSo here it is, the legendary Apple, Mother Love Bone’s sole album. You can read more of the band’s history in my review of their EP leading into this, Shine. The short version is that charismatic lead singer Andrew Wood died shortly before this album was scheduled to be released in March of 1990. The album was postponed until July. Then Temple Of The Dog. Then Pearl Jam. History.

It’s a great album, rivaling Pearl Jam’s best (which, for the record, is Ten). As I said with regard to Shine, you know “Crown Of Thorns” from the Singles soundtrack, but for my money the band is best on the uptempo tracks (e.g., “Come Bite The Apple,” “This Is Shangri-La”) which takes nothing away from the fantastic slower tracks (“Gentle Groove,” “Stargazer”). The disc loses half a clown due to some clunky lyrics here and there (which is surprising given how fantastically vivid the lyrics are throughout), most notably on “Man Of Golden Words” and “Holy Roller.”

It’s a testament to the talents of guitarist Stone Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament that they went from Green River to Mother Love Bone to Pearl Jam, able to support those three very different lead singers each doing their own thing.

The album stands up well 25 (!) years later. Many have suggested this give a glimpse into an alternate history where instead of heading the grunge/alternative path we go on this glam/alternative path. With Mother Love Bone instead of Pearl Jam, things would have been quite different, but you still would have had Nevermind, Facelift, and Badmotorfinger. Personally, I prefer to just appreciate this as a really nice little recording of a place and time that was amazing and fleeting and sits chronologically right at a point where the music industry was about to get its feet pulled out from under it. Everybody thought Andrew Wood was going to do that…nobody is thinking about Kurt Cobain here. It’s just an amazing document with that perspective, and a hell of a listen even without it.

Rating:
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Mix: “Stardog Champion,” “Come Bite The Apple,” “Stargazer”
Love: “This Is Shangri-La”
Really Like: “Holy Roller,” “Heartshine,” “Capricorn Sister,” “Gentle Groove,” “Mr. Danny Boy,” “Crown Of Thorns”
Like: “Bone China,” “Captain Hi-Top,” “Man Of Golden Words”
Filed Between: Mother Love Bone’s Shine and Stardog Champion
Song Notes: After the jump Continue reading

Mother Love Bone: Shine

shineMother Love Bone is essentially required listening. They had a massive impact while only putting out an EP and an LP. Lead singer Andrew Wood died right before the Seattle scene really het up, and guitarist Stone Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament would join forces with Eddie Vedder to form Pearl Jam. When Green River (of whom I’ve written extensively) broke up, it was to form Mudhoney and these guys. So, given the legacy and the ease with which you can listen to the entirety of their recorded output, why haven’t you done so? It must be something inferior about your innate being.

Anway, another nice feature of their small catalog is this EP is really a nice warm up to their album, Apple. It’s five (or four or six or seven depending on how you count them) tracks much in that style, but with a little bit of a rawer, less polished feel. Wood’s lyrical abilities and vocal charms are in full effect, as are the songwriting chops of Gossard, Ament, Bruce Fairweather, and Greg Gilmore. There’s a strong blues and glam influence and the band does a wonderful job of running with legs in both the world of catchy pop metal and that of alternative radio of the time. Which, given that this was 1989, sets them up just about perfectly for the coming merging of those styles in the early 90’s, grunge and otherwise.

You know “Chloe Dancer/Crown Of Thorns” from the Singles soundtrack, but the rest of this material rocks considerably harder. My favorite is probably the “CD Bonus Track,” “Capricorn Sister,” which might have even gotten a Mix rating if it hadn’t been for the bonus track tacked on to the end of it which also features some silly dialogue and laughter at its end.

In my mind, I can hardly separate this from Apple. I came to them at the same time, and the music of the two is barely indistinguishable. The biggest difference is the bigger production of Apple, when the band managed to get to work with Terry Date. Which is maybe why it didn’t bother me too much when, post grunge blowup, the record label stuck both of them together onto one CD and named it Stardog Champion. SO JUST GO LISTEN TO THAT ALREADY!

But this is about Shine. If I had to pick which of the band’s releases was worse, fine, I’d probably pick this one. But it’s five tracks long and all of them would have worked on Apple, so your Mother Love Bone journey, which, again, is required, isn’t complete until you’ve taken this in.

Rating:
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Really Like: “Thru Face Away,” “Mindshaker Meltdown,” “Chloe Dancer/Crown Of Thorns,” “Capricorn Sister”
Like: “Half Ass Monkey Boy”
Filed Between: [I don’t know I Haven’t unpacked my CDs yet] and Mother Love Bone’s Apple
Song Notes: After the jump Continue reading

Rose Windows: Rose Windows

rosewindowsWow, I just noticed how much more awesome that album cover looks at 500 x 500 pixels instead of whatever little thumbnail shows on my phone when I play it. Yeah, we’ve lost something in the move to streaming-only. But seriously, bands shouldn’t make album covers that look like that anymore. They figured it out moving from vinyl to CD, but can’t seem to make the jump further.

I downloaded this album accidentally. There was all this hype on Sub Pop’s Twitter feed and then I think I mixed them up with somebody else that I thought I liked on Sub Pop. Then when I listened to it and hated it I tried to figure out where I’d heard of them before, and it was from that Sub Pop Soundcloud playlist and man was I harsh on that song.

But because I hate myself, I trudged through, needing to finish what I started. And I’m kinda glad I did because it really ended up growing on me to the point of liking it. You kinda get everything they say on the album in the first four songs. After that there are five tracks that range from pretty good to meh, but don’t break any new ground (except the cricket/cicada sounds used in “Aurora Avenue” are pretty awesome). The worst is how they end with two tracks that are both legitimately fine sleepy-eyed album closers, spesh “Hirami,” but to have two of them there is awful.

The band’s unique sound comes from having a flautist and a keyboardist (along with what you’d expect), but that just ends up feeling like bullshit Millenial communism. The best aspects of the band come between the interaction between lead guitarist Chris Cheveyo and vocalist Rabia Shaheen Qazi, particularly on “Blind.”

But communism never works, and the band broke up almost immediately after this album came out, and they canceled their tour with hardly any explanation. Fine, hippies, fine.

Rating:
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Mix: “Glory, Glory,” “Blind”
Like: “Blind,” “Strip Mall Babylon,” “Come Get Us Again,” “The Old Crow,” “Aurora Avenue”
Meh: “A Pleasure To Burn,” “Hirami”
Song Notes: After the jump Continue reading

Alice In Chains: Facelift

faceliftI’m probably the only person ever who thinks this is Alice In Chains’ best album, but there you have it. I love Dirt, which was their giant blow-up success, but there’s a bit of a Superunknown syndrome going on there. Their crowning glory is their 1990 debut.

The thing about Dirt is that it’s kind of the ultimate grunge album. It’s called Dirt, first of all. Then it’s just dark song after dark song about drugs, evil, drugs, darkness, heroin, death and drugs. I mean, they went for a theme and nailed it. But it’s 57 minutes and 13 tracks long and includes song titles like “Rain When I Die,” “Hate To Feel,” “Angry Chair,” and “Down In A Hole.” I mean, even at the sexually-frustrated age of 17 I was a little full up on anger and bitterness by the end of that.

But we’re here to talk about Facelift. At least I am. I don’t know what the hell you’re doing here.

Seriously, though, Facelift is a much more balanced album. It’s still hella dark, with song titles like “We Die Young,” “Man In The Box,” “Sea Of Sorrow,” and “Love, Hate, Love.” But by the time you get to side two things lighten up a bit. Not a ton, but just enough to give you a different taste of another side of the band…a side we’d never see again. There’s a groove, a shuffle to the back side that they execute perfectly (go listen to “Put You Down”), but, and this is purely conjecture, Ima guess they and their management saw the way the winds were blowing after this album came out (which was a full year before Nevermind, for context) and thought, yeah, let’s emphasize that dark thing we do so well.

There are some amazing songs on Dirt I’d never want to do without, but if I want to listen to Alice In Chains electrified (because Sap‘s such an entirely different mood), I usually pull out Facelift, probably the first, and still one of the best, grunge albums. And Jesus, I didn’t even get into Jerry Cantrell’s solos, so wonderfully musical and unlike any other guitarist. Just perfect.

Rating:
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Mix: “We Die Young,” “Love, Hate, Love,” “It Ain’t Like That,” “Put You Down,” “Real Thing”
Love: “Man In The Box,” “Sea Of Sorrow,” “Bleed The Freak,” “I Can’t Remember,” “Sunshine,” “Confusion”
Really Like: “I Know Somethin (Bout You)”
Filed Between: The Airborne Toxic Event (All At Once) and Alice In Chains’ Sap
Song Notes: After the jump Continue reading

Playlist Review: 2014 According To Sub Pop

Sub Pop calling this Soundcloud playlist 2014 According To Sub Pop doesn’t say a lot for 2014 or for Sub Pop’s place in it, both of which I think probably deserve a little more credit than the quality of this playlist would indicate. My faith in the wisdom at Sub Pop combined with the 14/27 meh ratio confirms my theory that there’s just a lot of meh out there; a bunch of hipsters gazing at their navels and iPads, with nothing to say beyond reveling in simple percussion and snoozy snooze tunes.

Here’s the good stuff. This playlist has inspired me to check out albums from Luluc, J Mascis, The Notwist, Lyla Foy, and THUMPERS; and maybe Chad VanGaalen, GOAT, Mogwai, and King Tuff. Everything else I don’t need to dig any deeper into.

And the standout is The Notwist. All three of their songs get “Like,” but that’s like a “really like” for them. And since they’re all great but not shout out loud rise above awesome, I get the feeling the thing might work really well as an entire album.

Anyway, on to the song notes.

  1. Hide From The Sun – GOAT – Off to a good start here as this is just a flat-out good song from Swedish band GOAT. It’s got an upbeat tempo and a Middle-Eastern vibe. Not quite an instrumental, but the only lyrics are “ah ah ah.”
  2. #CAKE – Shabazz Palaces – I don’t understand what’s so mind-blowing about Shabazz Palaces. This is about eating cake. Repeatedly. If you can get past the repetitiveness, it’s a-ite. Maybe the hype was just all from a prior album.
  3. Where Are You (Hooray For Earth Remix) – Chad VanGaalen – The best of VanGaalen’s three tracks on here. The drum beat is what makes it stand out.
  4. Under These Hands – Dum Dum Girls – Zzzzzzz. Dum Dum Girls have a lot of hype around them, too, and maybe that’s also due to a prior album, because there’s nothing to this.
  5. Luluc – Small Window – This is great. I want to hear more from Luluc. If they’re able to mix it up, this kind of stuff can be awesome. If not, it will get old really quickly.
  6. J Mascis – Every Morning – Why did I not like Dinosaur Jr. in high school? I like everything I hear from J Mascis now.
  7. Matamoros – The Afghan Whigs – Not crazy about The Afghan Whigs, but I really like this song.
  8. So What – Avi Buffalo – And here we enter the first extended snooze fest of the playlist. This is nothing. There is nothing to this. Repetitive. Plus it’s repetitive.
  9. Oak Tree – Mirel Wagner – This is nice enough for its genre, but way too repetitive, spending way too much time on the main two chords.
  10. They Come In Gold – Shabazz Palaces – Better than his other one. If I were into listening to lyrics, I might figure out what’s awesome about this guy.
  11. There Is A Light – Rose Windows – Zzzzzz. I bet those All Songs Considered douches love this shit. Inoffensive with some blurry sounds and vocal harmonies. Fucking millenial hippies. I guess if you couldn’t get enough Fleet Foxes or needed them with a female singer, there’s this.
  12. Run Run Run (Ada Remix) – The Notwist – Yes! First new artist on the playlist that excites me, and they do it with all three of their tracks. To be fair, I really do like that Luluc song, but it’s not so much exciting. This is even a bit on the mellow side, but still, hipsters doing sonic experimentation with electronics and they didn’t forget about the songwriting aspect.
  13. Monster – Chad VanGaalen – Too repetitive/squeaky in chorus, but nice lyrics in verses.
  14. Work Work (feat. Cocc Pistol Cree) – Clipping – Again, seems like standard hip-hop to me, not sure what’s so amazing about them. Maybe I should stop taking my amazing cues from the Sub Pop twitter feed. I like the percussion, spesh at the top.
  15. Algiers – The Afghan Whigs – And I like this more than I usually like The Afghan Whigs, too. This would fit on a Gutter Twins record.
  16. Black Is The Color – Shearwater – And the champion of boring, as always…
  17. Where Are You? – Chad Van Gaalen – Like his last one, pretty nice, but a bit ponderous.
  18. Kong – The Notwist – Here’s jangly, upbeat, more straightforward kinda thing, but more awesome. The falsetto is so perfectly off key.
  19. Mercury Dime – Death Vessel – Annoying.
  20. Feather Tongue – Lyla Foy – One of my favorites. Definitely passes some good will on to her second track on here. Sweet synth sounds up top. Could use a bit more development on the songwriting front, but the raw material here is great.
  21. Ilsa Drown – Death Vessel – much better than her prior one on here. That one is probably dragging this one down the same way Lyla Foy’s first one pulls up her second one. Though I think “meh” is a more than fair rating.
  22. Close To The Glass – The Notwist – Closing it out strong for these guys with a cool percussion sound and beat dominating this off-beat track.
  23. Lost Boys And Girls Club – Dum Dum Girls – Kinda hard to believe neither of the Dum Dum Girls tracks got hate given how boring they are. Meh.
  24. Remurdered – Mogwai – Like so much of Mogwai, a real grabber at first, then six minutes later you’re like, “Still?”
  25. Easy – Lyla Foy – Pleasant. Again, pretty much all of the material is presented in the first 45 seconds or so and there’s not a lot of emotional development after that. Still, good.
  26. Unkinder (A Tougher Love) – THUMPERS – A real in your face rocker.
  27. Eyes Of The Muse – King Tuff – Almost a like. Quite a rocker, but there are points where I just…can’t…take it. For the longest time could have sworn he was saying “Look into the eyes of the moose,” which I like a lot better.

Mix: “Every Morning” (J Mascis)
Like: “Hide From The Sun” (GOAT), “Where Are You (Hooray For Earth Remix)” (Chad VanGaalen), “Small Window” (Luluc), “Matamoros” (The Afghan Whigs), “Run Run Run (Ada Remix)” (The Notwist), “Kong” (The Notwist), “Feather Tongue” (Lyla Foy), “Close To The Glass” (The Notwist), “Easy” (Lyla Foy), “Unkinder (A Tougher Love)” (THUMPERS)
Meh: “#CAKE” (Shabazz Palaces), “Under These Hands” (Dum Dum Girls), “So What” (Avi Buffalo), “Oak Tree” (Mirel Wagner), “They Come In Gold” (Shabazz Palaces), “There Is A Light” (Rose Windows), “Monster” (Chad VanGaalen), “Work Work (feat. Cocc Pistol Cree)” (Clipping), “Algiers” (The Afghan Whigs), “Black Is The Color” (Shearwater), “Where Are You? (Chad VanGaalen), “Ilsa Drown” (Death Vessel), “Lost Boys And Girls Club” (Dum Dum Girls), “Remurdered” (Mogwai), “Eyes Of The Muse” (King Tuff)
Hate: “Mercury Dime” (Death Vessel)