Tuesday, September 29, 2009

"Drain You" / Nirvana / Nevermind

I don’t see any point in rehashing here what has already been said and written about Nirvana and their influence on music and culture. As with Michael Jackson, others have said and written more extensively about them and much better than I ever could.

I will say this though, about the period in which they “broke” - I was definitely surprised that they did at all. In the early 90’s, my friends and I were still very much into metal. I had just attended the “Clash of the Titans” tour to see Anthrax, Megadeth, and Slayer. Nirvana actually first got a break by having “Smells Like Teen Spirit” played on Headbanger’s Ball; in fact I remember seeing this early interview in which Rikki Rachtman takes on a dress-wearing Kurt Cobain.

I liked the song, but it was obvious to me it wasn’t “real” metal. So, when it blew up to pop radio, 96 Rock, and everywhere, I was genuinely surprised that something so raw and angry became that popular.

I must say that “Drain You” is one of my favorites on the Nevermind album, along with “On a Plain”. In fact, those are the only two off this album which are in my itunes library. I think it’s because, due to radio saturation, songs like “In Bloom”, “Come As You Are”, and “Lithium” are completely. Played. Out. And that’s a shame.

(Though, surprisingly, their most famous song.., “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, doesn’t get old for me. Ironically, it’s the least played of all their hits off this album, and something about the drums crashing in at the beginning and the screaming at the end keeps me listening each time)

Lyrically, there’s some pretty cool imagery here about dependency. Some speculate Cobain was writing about a one-sided relationship with Bikini Kill's drummer Tobi Vail which he felt was sucking his soul away (hell, just the song title alone should tell you that).

The creepy chorus brings up, to me, thoughts of a helpless baby (be it a bird or fetus) relying on another for sustenance

Chew your meat for you
Pass it back and forth
In a passionate kiss
From my mouth to yours

To swallow (ha ha) this disturbing material, Cobain couches it in his now famous sing-along melodies. Of course, this is the genius of Nivana – making hard music and difficult lyrics palatable through irresistible hooks and choruses. How many people buying Nivana CDs in 1992 had just the previous year bought MC Hammer, Milli Vanilli or C & C Music Factory CDs? How many of those kids had a clue that Nirvana was satirizing and condemning them all through the album? Cobain pulled an awesome bait and switch, but then became resentful and self-loathing about doing it, fearing the “wrong people” were buying his music and not understanding it at all.

Musically, “Drain You” is propelled by Nirvana’s secret weapon – Dave Grohl. As the endurance and massive success of Foo Fighters has shown, he was a HUGE part of what made Nirvana so great. One thing I love about this song is the double-snare he puts in the verses...that “ tap, taptap” beat really propels the song and it’s such a simple musical choice to make to be so effective (see :21, :23, :25,etc. on the video for an example of what I’m describing)

I also really dig the middle of the song. After the second chorus, Cobain keeps the song in the minor key that finished the chorus instead of going major again and back to the melody (1:46). This gives the song an immediately ominous tone, and again Grohl does a great job with a constant bass drum beat. So begins a weird, unsettling, noisy interlude with chimes, buzzsaw guitars, and other strange effects. It’s not unlike a bastard Sonic Youth song, one of Cobain’s admitted influences. After a few bars of it, we have the classic (but enjoyable) musical trope of the “big buildup”, starting at 2:31 when they finally kick back into the familiar verse at 2:41, it’s awesome and exhilarating.

For all Cobain’s posture about not trying too hard with his music, it’s obvious he had a gift for songcraft and took great care to fully realize it. That he was already experimenting with expanding his style on “In Utero”, and the realization that we will never see where it could have gone, is a tragedy of modern music.

And just so you don't forget how kick-ass they were in concert, here's a live version

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

"LDN" / Lilly Allen / Alright, Still

I'd heard of Lilly Allen though her (at the time) unique, 00's style success story, blowing up through her MySpace page which led to a record contract. When my buddy (and unlikely indie music guru) Mike came down for a visit a couple of years ago, he brought his hard drive and I, er, "borrowed" a bunch of his music, including this.

It's not without it's charm. Hard to resist a cute, outspoken British chick with an attitude and mean streak to boot. All in all, I think she was a little bit overrated, as the music media became obsessed with her as a person and a story and left the music as a secondary concern. Nothing more than simple pop tunes, easily digested and quickly forgotten.

This song takes a really simple conceit, that things aren't at first what they appear to be, and stretches it out for, oh, a couple of verses. It seems she became bored with the idea and then just decided to finish the song halfway through by repeating it's refrain ("When you look with your eyes / Everything seems Nice / But if you look twice / You can see it's all lies") and chorus ("The sun is in the sky / Oh why of why would I want to be anywhere else?") until three minutes are up. And let's face it...she's not exactly Shakespearean (or Peartean) as a lyricist. Though it's adorable to her the words "crack whore" in a baby doll cockney accent.

This song was also included on a special mixtape I made when my daughter was born in which all of the songs had "London" in the title. Can anyone guess some of the others?

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

"It's a Wonderful Life" / Fishbone

I wondered how long it would take for a Fishbone song to make its way in. I have 86 songs of theirs on itunes, covering seven albums in all. I will say that at one point in the early / mid 90's, they were a top five band of mine. Though some of that passion has cooled, and they have not just fallen off the proverbial map but careened off the chart, I still dig their stuff. Plus, how can you not love one of the greatest, most iconic logos in rock history?

This is one of those instances when I can very well recall the moment I first heard and liked a band. In 1991, fresh out of high school, my friend Marty and I went to Georgia State University in Atlanta to see Primus (one of our big bands of the time) and Fishbone play. We watched Primus and had a great time moshing around to "Tommy the Cat" and the like, then we decided to stick around to see what Fishbone was all about.

So, they begin the show with "Party at Ground Zero", and let me tell you, when they hit the meat of that song with Angelo's scream after the long into buildup (:13 on the video here), the explosion both on stage and on the gymnasium floor was chaotic. I had never, ever seen anything like it, and as I was swept up in the pandemonium of the churning crowd, I caught a glimpse of Marty and imagined I wore the game bug-eyed grin that he did.

Indeed, a fan was made at that very moment. Another funny thing I remember about that show was Angelo crowd surfing to the back of the gym where people were actually sitting in seats and getting into an argument with a girl who said the song they were performing at that moment was "sexist" (The song? A sweet little ditty called "Lyin' Ass Bitch"). Dude lit into her big time, saying something along the lines of, "If this was Michel fuckin' Stipe singing this, you wouldn't be saying that, would you?"

Not long after this show, I was reading Spin or Rolling Stone and read an interview with Scott Ian of Anthrax in which he name-checked Fishbone's newly released album The Reality of My Surroundings, at which point I went out and bought it (yeah, Scott Ian had that kind of pull with me back then. Still might, actually). To this day, that sprawling, brilliant album remains solidly in my top 25 albums of all time.

The great thing about that album is what's great about Fishbone overall - no adherence to any genre, a refusal to be musically pigeonholed, and a unbelievable sonic curiosity. It's easier to list the types of music they don't play than what they do (though they do get most of their hype as a ska band). Reality indeed has ska, but also pop, metal, rock, and funk. I bought all of their available CDs after that, and while they had their moments, none reached the height of Reality of My Surroundings.

Of course, as I've mentioned before on this blog, I'm nothing if not a loyal music fan, and through the 90's I continued to support the 'Bone, until the disaster of 1996's Chim Chim's Badass Revenge, which aside from the single Alcoholic, was a hot mess. I gave them another chance with The Psychotic Friends Nuttworx, a final, sad stab at mainstream relevance with Gwen Stephani appearances and Sly Stone covers, but it was over. Since, the band has had an ever rotating lineup of members (still faithfully fronted by Moore, though) and bizarre tales of kidnapping and brainwashing. It's sad now to see what was one of the most potent live bands ever, as well as one of the most respected underground acts of the 80's and 90's limp along as they do.

So here's "It's a Wonderful Life", a strange little single based on the movie of the same name. It was released a part of a Christmas EP (WTF?) that's now out of print. In a way, it's Fishbone to a T - brazen, unexpected, silly, skillfully executed, all in one tune.
How about the first verse, setting up George Bailey's rescue of his brother -
The ice was freezin'
My brother almost drowned
I jumped in to save him
On his way, way down
Then it went black and I went in

And so on and so forth. It's given the typical Fishbone treatment, a fast-paced, two minute ska romp with some horn accents thrown in on the chorus (and I love the "be-de-du-dip" Angelo sings during it). My favorite part is the little bridge in the middle, though (1:08 on the video)

Angel made me numb
The angel made me void
Got thrown out of the bar
Then I wrecked my car
Got socked in the jaw
Cussed out by my mama
Someone stole my money
Screamed at by my honey
Things was gettin' worse
Things was gettin' worse
Things was gettin' worse
Things was gettin' worse

The juxtaposition of scenes from the Jimmy Stewart classic (and one of my favorite movies, actually) with the incredible presence of Angelo Moore is pretty funny. Fishbone is almost better seen, either live or on video, than heard, just so you can get the full on , hyper-assed, manic Angelo effect. I have to get me another one of those Fishbone logo T-shirts, man.