Favorite Albums: Failure, Fantastic Planet

Credit: discogs.com

Credit: discogs.com

Say hello to the rug’s topography / it holds quite a lot of interest with your face down on it…

I distinctly remember hearing Failure for the first time; their debut Comfort had been released just as I started my senior year in college, and our FM station, WERS, had received a promotional copy, which I soon found in the freebie bins outside the studio (aka the “here, this sucks and/or is too commercial-sounding and we won’t play it” bins, given the station at the time).  I’d heard a lot of great things about the band and the album, even despite the incessant and often misguided comparisons to the ubiquitous Nirvana.  I can see where they’d get that, if you think loud guitars + quirky chord changes + odd lyrics = Nirvana or one of its clones, but I always felt that was a cop-out, a weak and lazy way to pigeonhole a newly-popular subgenre.

I played “Submission” and “Pro-Catastrophe” from that first album on my radio show on our AM station, WECB, where I was the music director that semester, and I thought they were well worth checking out and sharing with others.  My enthusiasm didn’t get too far, of course, considering WECB’s low-watt reach was ridiculously sketchy, not to mention by that time, the alternative rock purists were refusing to listening to anything remotely commercial, and that WFNX was playing Nirvana, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam every fifteen minutes or so.  Failure unfortunately could not sneak in edgewise into anyone’s playlist.  I don’t blame the band for that at all; in fact, I have to give them mad props for remaining true to the sounds they wanted to create.  They weren’t as Led-Zep as most grunge bands were, they weren’t as hard as any metal bands out there, but they also weren’t deliberately outsider anti-commercial either.

They released a second album, Magnified, in early 1994, which I unfortunately never picked up at the time, as that was during my broke years in Boston, but I did eventually pick it up a few years later while working at HMV.

That was where I fell in love with the band again.

In August of 1996, about a month before I started working at the record store, the band released the video for the single “Stuck on You”, a brilliant and almost shot-for-shot takeoff of the opening credits to the James Bond flick The Spy Who Loved Meand I was immediately hooked.  I mean, listen to that crunch–it’s drop-tuned a half-step to give it a powerful low end, and balanced with a high end distorted riff.  The whole thing just punches you in the face from the first few seconds, and doesn’t relent until the last few.  Lead singer and songwriter Ken Andrews delivers great vocals here too, drifting lazily through the verses (which, interestingly enough, are about getting a song stuck in your head) but belting them out during the choruses.

One of the first promotional freebies I got from the record store was a copy of this single, a two-track cd shaped like the head of the spaceman on the album’s cover and featuring the album version and the radio edit of the track.  Suffice it to say this track got a lot of play in the back storage room at the time.  Fantastic Planet was one of my first purchases when I first started working at HMV.  As the lone shipping/receiving clerk for the store, I often hung out up back, pricing and security-tagging and processing them into the stock database, but during all that time I’d have a radio going.  That was one of the first things I did when I started the job, actually–I got a hold of a cheap boombox at WalMart and brought it in specifically for backroom listening.  [It wasn’t just for my own entertainment, either…I did that because I knew the label reps would want us to sample some of their wares during their visits.  That worked quite to our advantage, actually.]

I knew I’d love it even before I heard any other tracks from it–the fact that they named it after the 1973 animated French film of the same name (a movie I’d taped years before off USA Network’s Night Flight and watched repeatedly) was definitely a selling point, but I’d heard a hell of a lot of positive reviews as well.  I even snagged a promotional album flat for it as well and had it posted prominently for pretty much the entire time I was at the store.   And yes, I played the hell out of that album for years to come.


The history behind the album is quite interesting, as Ken Andrews and bassist Greg Edwards explain in this recent interview as well as in this promo for the album’s 2010 vinyl reissue both point out that it was recorded during their most tumultuous times as a band.  Come 1995 they’d had issues not just with the label (Slash Records) not quite knowing how to sell the band, and drugs and personal issues were also causing fractures.  And yet, they retained a crystal clear idea of what they wanted the album to sound like, and took delicate care with each and every track before considering it done.  This included the production as a whole–they took care to ensure the running order was perfect as well.  The album also both starts and ends with the same trinkety sound effect loop, but it could be taken two ways: the album is either an unending cycle, or they’re a prologue and epilogue to gauge just how much the cycle has changed from one end to the other.

It’s hard to say exactly what the album may be about, really…while there is a theme of space in the science fiction sense–thus the title–it’s also about emotional space and one’s self within it.  There are songs about drug addiction and psychological breakdowns, but there are also songs about redemption and clarity as well.  Even the opening track, “Saturday Savior”, could be taken more than one way–either a throwaway relationship, or addiction denial.  The album almost has a similar lyrical and musical feel as Pink Floyd’s The Wall, where we don’t quite notice until a few songs in that things are starting to get dark and desperate.  It’s not until “Smoking Umbrellas” that the imagery becomes trippier, the chords of the song drifting in unexpected directions.  The frantic “Pillowhead” follows it up, and the narrator knows full well that he’s deep in addiction now.  By “Dirty Blue Balloons”, he’s at his “Comfortably Numb” phase, wasted beyond help, and at “Pitiful” he’s hit rock bottom.  We’ve hit the halfway point in the album, and we’re not sure where he can go from here.

And that’s when “Leo” arrives–a moment of clarity, where he’s finally able to see himself, and he doesn’t like what he sees and feels.  There’s pain, a misplaced hunger, a sense of paranoia that he can’t quite place.  There’s no real resolution, at least not yet.  The first step is a cleansing, in the form of “The Nurse Who Loved Me”.  A brilliant, beautiful angelic song (which puts A Perfect Circle’s cover to shame) that’s not just about the narrator’s coming clean physically but emotionally as well.  It’s one of the best tracks on the album, deliberately constructed to build tension both in sound and pace, right up until the last second…and ending with a breath of exhaustion and relief.  And by “Another Space Song” and “Stuck On You”, he’s back on the mend.  There’s still addiction–emotional addiction this time–that needs stopping and healing.  He faces it head on on “Heliotropic”, one of the heaviest and angriest tracks on the album.  He’s forcing himself to admit guilt and turn away from the temptations once and for all.  Redemption and relief finally come to him in the epic closer “Daylight”–he’s gone through hell physically and emotionally, most of it his own doing, and he’s made peace with it…now it’s time to make peace with himself.


When I first heard this album, I did pick up on the addiction references, but I also chose to see past them for the overall mood of the album, just as I had back in my teens with The Wall–it wasn’t so much about the actual story being told that intrigued me as it was about the way it was told.  I don’t really pay too much attention to the literal meaning of the lyrics; instead I see the peaks and the valleys in this album as if they’re part of a novel or a movie, with its sequencing taking us on a deep spiritual and emotional journey.  It tells a story, and it tells it without flinching.  It’s because of this that it fell into heavy rotation during my writing sessions for the Bridgetown Trilogy, and helped inspire the ending scene in A Division of Souls.  It’s remained one of my top ten favorite albums, and still gets heavy play–I even have it on the mp3 player I use at the gym.

Favorite Albums: The La’s, The La’s

Source: discogs.com

Source: discogs.com

If you want I’ll sell you a life story
About a man who’s at loggerheads with his past all the time
He’s alive and living in purgatory
All he’s doing is rooming up in hotels
And scooping up lots of wine

Many of you already know this band as a one-hit wonder with their single “There She Goes”, which hit the American airwaves in early 1991 and appeared pretty much everywhere in the early 90s, from tv shows to movie soundtracks. You may have also heard the oft-told story of lead singer Lee Mavers’ never-ending search for the perfect sound for their music, and that the album was released against his wishes. Their single self-titled album is listed on all kinds of best-of lists even today, and is highly praised by many music critics.

But is it as excellent as they say it is? I would definitely agree that it is. Let’s put aside the argument of “…but it’s not the album that Lee Mavers wanted put out.” Let’s be honest, I can see where Mavers was coming from, but sometimes your creation doesn’t quite match what’s in your brain, and you have to make do with the end result if it’s close but not perfect. Steve Lillywhite, the last producer to work with the band, pretty much had the job of making a finished product for Polydor Records, whether or not Mavers was happy with it. Let’s take a look at the end result.

The La’s were (are?) a Liverpudlian band who wore their influences openly and proudly–the pre-fame Teddy image look of the Beatles (as well as their ’64 Dylan-inspired folk rock sound), the simple-yet-catchy songwriting of Buddy Holly, with a dash of the lo-fi DIY of 60s garage bands. Mavers’ songs were the kind you’d kick around with your buddies in your uncle’s back shed, songs of love and longing, of frustration and irritation. At the same time it’s a dedication to craft, filled with intricate guitar picking and tight band playing. They’re well aware how to write a song correctly, where no tracks ramble or lose direction.

“Son of a Gun” kicks off the album and sets the scene: a tale about a man entering the 90s, who may have had an exciting and adventurous past, but now seems lost and listless. You’re not quite sure if he’s talking about a friend of his or if he’s actually talking about himself but hiding his failure behind third-person narrative. He returns to this directionlessness multiple times throughout the album: the folky skiffle “Doledrum” , the slow doom of “Freedom Song”, the waltzy “Way Out”…and in a brilliant move, he returns one final time to this theme in the excellent epic closer “Looking Glass”.  By this final contemplation, however, he’s come to the conclusion that he’s got to break the cycle once and for all if he wants to escape it–in fact, he comes to terms with the fact that his past is gone, and the only way he can move is forward.  Not that the whole album is a study on suburban Brittish ennui; there’s a number of uplifting songs involved as well, from the big single “There She Goes” and the perky “Feelin'”, and the love of music in “Timeless Melody”  Each song delivers its own take on Britain’s blue-collar listlessness, condemning it, celebrating it, and ultimately breaking free of it.

The La’s was released in October of 1990 in the UK, but did not reach American shores until March of 1991, where it was an instant hit with the growing alternative rock crowd.  In Boston, where I was in college at the time, many tracks off the album got airplay on both WFNX and WBCN, and remained a favorite on both of those stations throughout the 90s.  Even after the rather twee take on “There She Goes” by Sixpence None the Richer, the original still version still gets played to this day.


On a more personal note, this album came out right about the time I was finishing off my sophomore year in college.  I was rooming with Mike on the fourth floor of Charlesgate, and I’m pretty sure I drove him nuts by listening to this album in those final months of that semester.  But this year was also the first summer where I stayed in the city rather than head back home for the season–I rented out a room at a Fisher College dorm just down the street from Emerson College’s old Back Bay campus and retained my job at the Emerson library media center.  As nearly all of my college friends had gone home and my then-girlfriend was still in high school, I was pretty much completely on my own for those three months.  I did a lot of thinking, a lot of working things out, a lot of future planning…and a lot of writing, both words and music.  A few weeks into the season I ran into Lissa, a girl from my circle of friends at the time, and we hit it off as friends.  We’d end up sharing an apartment for about a year, spending my entire junior year in a spacious apartment on Beacon Street (this was well before the city got rid of rent control, so we could still afford to live there).

I remember listening to The La’s incessantly during this period, as it seemed to mirror a lot of what was going on in my own life.  I too was listless and directionless, having come to the frustrating conclusion that as a film student I doubt I’d ever get close to making the dream of actually making films a reality; my relationship with my girlfriend at the time had started to deteriorate and would finally come to an end by the end of 1992; and even my friendship with Lissa would become strained.  I found myself listening to “Looking Glass” on repeat in an attempt to remind myself that I couldn’t wallow in pathetic self-pity–I simply had to move forward, one way or another.  It would take much longer than expected to get my shit together and move ahead, but I was bound and determined to make it happen, despite all the setbacks.  In late 1993 I would start gathering my ideas for a story based on this time in my life and named it Two Thousand.  I have various incomplete versions laying about and have this on one of my backburners.  And around that same time, I’d start writing my first science fiction story, which would, after nearly twenty years, end up morphing into the Mendaihu Universe and The Bridgetown Trilogy.

Tell me where I’m going…
Tell me where I’m bound…
Turn the pages over
Turn the world around
Open up the broken door for all lost will be found
Walk into the empty room but never make a sound
Oh tell me where I’m going
Tell me why I’m bound to tear the pages open
Turn the world around…


Fly-by and Shameless Plug Time!

Yeah, best laid plans and all that…I had some interesting ideas to toy with for a new post, but kind of got distracted by my Great Office Cleanup Project.  In short, I decided that my old arrangement of printed manuscripts on the bottom shelf (and partially blocked by a file box) and unsorted piles of stuff on the shelf above wasn’t working.  What I thought would take one day ended up taking both Saturday and Sunday, as the cleanup also included the partially obscured bookcase next to the loveseat, the four small storage boxes next to the desk, and the rest of the tall black bookshelf.

All told, I got rid of about twenty ancient spiral notebooks, most of them over a decade old, that I haven’t used in ages–I ripped out what few pages I did use and sorted them into their proper piles and threw the remains in the recycling.  There’s also a box full of stuff that can either be shredded or tossed, and one final smaller box of non-writing personal bits and bobs that I need to sort through.  I reorganized by putting all related project stuff together, putting trunked and unimportant projects down on the bottom shelf, and current projects up on the second.  All poetry and journals are together on another shelf, and all the reference books are up on top.  In short, it’s still a bit messy, but at least I know where the hell everything is now!

We shall return to our regularly scheduled writing this week, and I’m planning to get another post out ASAP. Thanks again for your patience!


That said…


Please check out the Kickstarter for Decomposure’s latest possible album project!

I’m plugging his project for two three reasons:

1.  I’m a big fan of his music, and it’s worth checking out, especially 2012’s Eating Chicken.  He’s done everything from experimental sound textures to lovely balladry to quirky angular pop.  He’s quite the excellent songwriter and I love what he’s done creatively.

2. I like the idea he came up with for this current project, as it’s got some parallels to what I’m doing here with Walk in Silence, by revisiting his childhood via roadtrip and writing an album about it.  I’m quite curious as to how this will unfold and would love to hear new music from him.

3.  Like many creative people, he actually records music as a labor of love, as he actually has a full-time career outside of the music field.  I’ll pay forward to anyone who’s that dedicated to their craft.

So yeah–check it out, and give him some love and cash if you can! 🙂

Writing Walk in Silence, the book

You may have seen my occasional tweets, or my weekend updates at my trusty old Live Journal, in which I’ve been voicing my surprise at how quickly Walk in Silence, the book, has been coming along.  As of today, I’m a few pages in to Chapter 5, in which I talk about key events of 1986 that bring me closer to my long-standing obsession with alternative rock–in this case, MTV’s addition of The Monkees, Monty Python’s Flying Circus and 120 Minutes, as well as my discovering college radio during spring break.

I chose to plot this book similar to how I’ve seen a number of creative non-fiction books written: the opening prologue introducing the ultimate key moment of the entire book (my discovering college radio), and in the ensuing first few chapters explaining how I got to that point.  In this case, this includes my other musical obsessions, namely the Beatles, listening to radio in general, and being a part of the first generation of MTV viewers.  Other things pop up, including Miami Vice, classic rock, American Top 40, and other decidedly non-alternative points.  Now that I’m back to that same prologue point, I can move forward focusing mostly on the alternative sounds from here on in.

The bit that surprises me the most is how far I’ve gotten in such a small time.  This is definitely a rough and relatively short first draft, as the word count is only at around 12k, but given the chronology I’ve given myself, I still have a ways to go.  I music collection did not expand nearly as much until around 1986 or so anyway.  Once I hit that Defining Moment, I was not only buying new alt-rock music, but catching up with the older stuff as well.  A good portion of this book will actually focus around 1986-1989–both around the time the genre started gaining more ground, as well it being a time of personal growth for me.

I haven’t given myself a hard deadline to get this first draft finished, but I have made a tentative guess that I should be done with it by the end of summer, perhaps sometime into early autumn.  By far the fastest I’ve ever written any book, first draft or no.  I think I’ve chalked this one up to the fact that I’ve been thinking about this stuff since the time the music came twenty some-odd years ago, and that I’ve been doing light research on it for at least five or six.  At this point I’m putting it all in focus and getting it all down on the screen.   Do I know how long the future drafts and revisions will take?  I’m not thinking about that right now, to be honest.  I just want to get it all out at this time; I’ll start fixing it on the next go-rounds.