More on Revisiting the 90s

I can easily divide up the 90s on a musical and personal note: the college/post-college years (Jan 1990 – Sept 1996) and the HMV years (Sept 1996 – Sept 2000). And I often do, because I approached my listening habits according to how much money (or more accurately, how little) I had in my coffers at the time. The former was filled with mix tapes of things recorded off the radio, dollar bin raids at the various used record shops I frequented, dubs from friends, and the occasional splurge when I really should have been paying a bill. [I’ll totally own up to that. But they were of course few and far between.] The latter was filled with meticulously crafted mix tapes of things bought at a discount from my store, freebies, even more dollar bin raids, and, erm, maybe a few dubs surreptitiously made in the back room of the store? The music of the post-HMV years, aka the Yankee Candle years, would be informed almost entirely by Newbury Comics. I’m pretty sure I singlehandedly kept them in business then. But that’s another post.

Personally, I would say the personal delineation is around the same time, and surprising no one, was informed by financial reasons; I was finally able to pay off overdue bills and stop deferring my student loans. I would also posit that it was also the time I got my shit together and started my writing career on a much more serious level. Whatever worked to dislodge myself from the spiral I’d found myself in. And once I found myself in a better mental and emotional state, there was no looking back.

I couldn’t listen to those early 90s years without feeling a sense of failure. I could have been such a better student. I could have applied myself better. I could have done this, I could have done that. Giving into my moodiness and lack of self-esteem far too often. So it’s with no surprise that I avoided obsessing over that era here at Walk in Silence for quite a number of years. The HMV years were much more positive, not to mention directly tied in with my Belfry years writing The Phoenix Effect and the Bridgetown Trilogy.

So why now? Why am I picking up these pieces? Well, it’s been three decades on, and I’m in a much better place. It’s time for a bit of closure on a lot of things related to that time. Make peace with what I couldn’t achieve, and celebrate everything else I’ve done since. I’m listening to these albums and singles the way I’d wanted to in the first place: without all the extra baggage. Experience them as the creative endeavors they are, and if I’m lucky, learn to appreciate them a hell of a lot more.

Updating the mp3 players

I’m ridiculously picky when it comes to updating my mp3 players. I currently have three, which I’ve acqured over the years: a Creative Zen Mozaic, an older SanDisk Sansa Clip, and a newer SanDisk Sport Plus. Do I use all three? Yes, of course I do! Normally I tend to have them filled up with specific themes or sounds; the Zen is usually reserved for new and recent releases plus the Beatles discography (because come on…do you know me?) while the Sansa Clip has older favorites.

Now that I work in an office again (grumble grumble), I’ve been putting all three to good use throughout the day. I don’t have direct access to my music library unless I use up a significant amount of phone data via our Plex server, so I make do with the old-school travel-sized players.

Lately I’ve been playing around with a new possible writing project (no promises yet) in which I sort of decided its soundtrack would be the music of the early 90s up to the early 00s. Why? Good question, but I won’t go into detail just yet. Suffice it to say, I’m going to start listening to these albums for first time without equating them to the Bridgetown Trilogy. I’m not doing it on purpose, it just happened that way. But in the process, I’m getting to revisit these songs with fresh ears and no prior influence.

But more importantly, I get to revisit these songs without the emotional attachment I’ve long had with most of them. I’ve written so many blog posts about those lean post-college years, and about the music I listened to during that time, but this time out I’m finally giving them a spin without getting caught up in all the personal drama. I’m listening to them in the context of what was going on in the world during the time of their release. [I suppose in a way you could say I’m purposely not making it all about me this time. Heh.]

Also, it’s kind of fun to revisit some of these songs and albums that I know pretty well but haven’t visited in ages. In particular, I’ve been making it a point to revisit some of the mainstream pop albums I enjoyed — the downside to being so into alt-rock is a habitual avoidance of all things pop — and getting something new out of them. It’s to the point that I’ve been tempted to do another visit to Amoeba Records’ dollar bin to find more of those albums that passed me by.

And who knows — maybe I’ll rediscover a few tracks that flew under my radar!

I saw the decade in…

[A little something from my daily words that I wrote the other day…]

I’ve been listening to more music from 1990-1992 again, because why not? I’m still a bit fascinated by this era, where the sounds have grown larger than (and out of?) the college rock scene, but before the giant wave of Britpop and grunge. The music is lighter, less moody, even kind of positive in a way. It’s sort of like the early Beatles, or the early hippie scene, where it’s working from its surface, or perhaps from a more honest core, before the moods and the darker drugs and the hyped-up scenes came in.

I was on the back end of my freshman year at Emerson and just starting sophomore year, torn between the escape of my small town and being tied to it. It’s the era of the happier times and looking optimistically into the future. The end of the Cold War and the start of the Middle East wars — the first war televised In Real Time that Generation X could watch, bringing a lingering horror that we could possibly be dragged kicking and screaming into it whether we wanted it or not. We had Bush I in office which was essentially Reagan II, more of the same conservative bullshit. But we knew better…we could go further.

We were fighting with our blood and our emotions to break out of the old bigotries and passive ignorance. But it was also the era of great creativity: the new independent movie directors. It was an era of our generation deciding we were sick of the exhausted tropes and music-by-numbers and took a page from what we knew: our own takes on REM and The B-52s and French New Wave and so on. We were nerdy artists and we were having fun riffing on our own creations, knowing full well that we could now get away with it. In short: we were coming of age and we realized we’d had voices of our own. We were irreverent. We were saying fuck the world, let’s do it ourselves if they won’t help us. We were a generation that was seen as an amusing sideline

Out of the mire of my freshman year (and that frustratingly slow last summer working for the town barn) came a much healthier and more positive outlook. I’d grown past my attempts to fit in with the alternahipsters (I was just too square for them, I guess?) and relearned how to gravitate towards the people who would become close, if temporary, friends. There was a positive vibe coming across, despite the situations we often found ourselves in. I wrote some of my best songs to date, created Murph, worked on multiple screenplays for classes. And I listened to even more music than before, because I had so much more access to it: I had WFNX and WBCN and all the college stations (including my own) and I had all the record stores I could shop at.

It was a strange time, as I was indeed seeing the decade when it seemed the world could change in the blink of an eye. And it often did, slipping into so many different subspaces and subgenres before we could even notice it happening. I stayed within this positivity because it was so much needed at the time. I let myself open up to a lot more people. I started opening up my mind a bit, let myself experiment with different ideas and thoughts because I could trust myself now. What I started thinking about, feeling, doing at that point in time, that was when I first let myself go further. Let myself find out who I might be underneath all of this, without all the barriers and without having to put everyone else’s needs before mine.

That was when I chose to stay in the city the coming summer. I knew that going back would have been going in the wrong direction. I had to go forward, live a different life. I was poor as fuck and I spent most of the summer eating bad foods and barely scraping by, but I was bound and determined to break out of my old shell. I’d crash and burn (and spectacularly at that) just a few years later, but it at least gave me a direction when I could start over again.

Speaking of the 90s…

That decade definitely had its share of one-hit wonders and almost-hits, didn’t it? From a former record-store-clerk standpoint, there was definitely a HARD push to get everything and anything out there to cash in on The Latest Sound. This was pretty much across the board in multiple genres. I remember the weekly visits from the distribution reps as they upsold the big names as well as the copycats and the underdogs. Some of it worked, a lot of it didn’t. Sometimes the music just wasn’t as good, but sometimes it was just luck and timing.

Here’s some tunage from the 90s that I thought was well worth the attention but unfortunately didn’t get past the first few hurdles here in the US. I’m pretty sure many of you have never heard of these, or will spark that wonderful ‘oh, that song!’ memory.

Favorite Albums: Spacehog’s ‘Resident Alien’

In late autumn of 1995, having just gotten all my anger and frustration out of my system after moving back home from an extended stay in Boston, I reconnected with an old friend of mine from high school and we started hanging out. To be honest it was a friendship of convenience at the time, considering a) we’d both boomeranged back to our home town that we’d both been so vocally desperate to escape five years previous, and b) there weren’t too many others we knew of in the immediate area that we could hang out with. She and I spent a lot of time driving around central Massachusetts, listening to music, smoking cigarettes, going to a few shows here and there, and making ridiculous plans to escape the clutches of our hometown once more. She’d escape in a few years; it took me almost nine more to do the same.

Spacehog’s Resident Alien was on heavy rotation during that time, partly because she had a mad crush on the guitarist Antony Langdon. There was also the fact that their debut single “In the Meantime” was getting mad airplay on all the local alt-rock stations we could get in, and I loved that they’d cribbed Penguin Cafe Orchestra’s “Telephone and Rubber Band” and used it brilliantly as the backbone sample of the entire song. We saw them at Pearl Street in Northampton not that long after its October release, and we stayed behind after the show to mingle with the band. While the the brothers Langdon (Antony and bassist/singer Royston, later to become Mr. Liv Tyler) were their usual strange and silly selves, lead guitarist Richard Steel and drummer Jonny Cragg were more laid back and amiable. [I remember surprising Jonny by mentioning I knew him from when he played in The Hollow Men back in the early 90s!] They were an unabashedly fun band to see and hang with.

They wore their Bowie influences not just on their sleeves but pretty much all over the place. You can hear traces of most of Bowie’s 70s output throughout the entire album, going from psychedelic Hunky Dory grooves on “Starside” to bluesy Ziggy Stardust riffs on “Candyman” to ridiculous Lodger camp on “Space is the Place” and back again. There’s even a nod to Tin Machine there on track two, “Spacehog”, in which that band’s “Crack City” is quoted near the end. [This is no fluke; during their tours for this album they would do a cover of the song, which ended up on their Hamsters of Rock EP.]

I think what makes this a strong record for me is that it shows that the band was solid and confident straight out of the gate; not only could they swagger like Bowie, they could balance their sillier songs with some truly heartfelt ballads. I also liked that there was a consistent sci-fi theme throughout, whether it was implied (such as “Shipwrecked”) or direct (such as “Starside”). And ending the album with the absolutely stunning epic track “Zeroes” is always a big winner for me.

They ended up being a bit of a 90s one hit wonder for the most part, but they’ve put out three further albums (the latest being 2013’s As It Is On Earth) and each of them has their own distinct charm, a healthy dose of Bowie influence, and of course their trademark goofiness. They’re all worth checking out, but I’ll always come back to Resident Alien as a solid mid-90s alt-rock album that’s stood the test of time.

Favorite Albums: Primal Scream’s ‘Screamadelica’

It was summer of 1991 and I was living in a rented top floor dorm room on Beacon Street facing out over the Charles and the Esplanade. I was working in the drafty basement of the Emerson College library during the day and staying up way too late at night, trying to figure out far to many screwy things in my life.

My musical tastes could have gone either way, really. Most of my friends were digging the guitar-heavy sound coming from Seattle, but I found myself veering more towards the music that was coming from across the Altantic: Britpop and shoegaze. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the swampy, heavy rock of Soundgarden and Nirvana and all those other bands (I may not have gotten along with my freshman year roommate at all, but he did introduce me to some fine Pacific Northwest bands)…I just found myself drawn more towards the, shall we say, more positive sounds coming from the UK. I was a huge fan of Jesus Jones, EMF, Inspiral Carpets, The La’s, Lush, and all the rest of them.

Primal Scream’s “Loaded” was already all over the place since the single dropped way back in February of 1990, with its ‘Hey Jude’ chord progression and Stones-y grooviness, not to mention the great opening salvo, a quotable sample from The Wild Angels. It was a blissed-out remix of “I’m Losing More Than I’ll Ever Have” from their 1989 self-titled second album and it caught on like gangbusters on both sides of the pond. I couldn’t go a day without WFNX playing it and raving about it.

By September I’d moved in to an off-campus apartment with my friend Lissa and scraping by with the library job, but somehow I was able to save up to buy a few albums here and there when I wasn’t furiously dubbing other peoples’ collections. There was a ton of great UK music coming out at the time and I wanted as much as I could get.

I remember first hearing Screamadelica at the basement Strawberries in Harvard Square over in Cambridge. It was one of the first times I spent an extended time in a record store for the sole purpose of listening to an entire album, it was that phenomenal. Primal Scream had been a semi-psychedelic indie band for a few years by then, but for this album they’d shifted in the direction of house and techno. The mix of the two genres worked perfectly for the MDMA-soaked rave scene blossoming in the UK.

“Movin’ On Up” is a wonderful opening track for the album, stating its case with a celebratory gospel chorus. It’s a simple ‘all you need is love’ song full of positive vibes, but it does its job perfectly. We’re going on a trip, and it’s going to be amazing.

It’s followed up by a beat-heavy headtrip cover of Roky Erickson’s “Slip Inside This House” originally from 1990’s Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye tribute album. This also sets the tone for the rest of the album, with the tracks bouncing between fun and funky guitar-centric songs and extended techno beats.

A few tracks later I’d be blown away by one of the most gorgeous, head-trippy tracks I’d ever heard and still one of my all-time favorite songs of that era, “Higher than the Sun”. It perfectly captures the sound of 1960s psychedelic rock and intertwines it seamlessly with the LSD-laden dreamlike feel of rave.

The first side of the US cassette ends with a unique mix of another fun uplifting track, “Come Together” (which samples, of all things, Sex, Lies and Videotape!). [The UK version of this track is a different longer mix.] It’s a bookend track similar to “Movin’ On Up” both in its positive mood and message, and finishes off Side One on a pleasing, celebratory note.

Side Two opens up with the now-popular “Loaded”, and the rest of the album starts veering towards the after-party comedown, with slowly drifting tracks like “Damaged” before returning with an extended experimental retake of “Higher than the Sun”. It all ends with the quiet contemplation of “Shine Like Stars”.

Screamadelica is a record for partying and after-partying, but it’s also a record for sitting down and listening, and that’s one of the main reasons I gravitated towards it. Andrew Weatherall’s amazing co-production work on it makes it pleasurable whether you’re grooving to it on a crowded dance floor or kicking back on your bed with headphones on.

I highly recommend getting this record into your collection if you don’t have it already. [The 2011 twentieth anniversary version provides a great extended review of this album, including numerous mixes, remixes and b-sides.]

Twenty Years On: Spring 1999

Time to catch up on the 20YO series again! This time out we have a whole slew of fine records that became my favorite records of that year. Many of them were played heavily during writing sessions in the Belfry, but many of them were also getting play in my car as I expanded my weekend pleasure drives and long commutes. I was still feeling that nudge of discomfort coming from various angles (mean boss, low funds, frustration with my writing projects), but at the same time I felt stronger and more confident than I’d ever felt that entire decade.

Porcupine Tree, Stupid Dream, released 6 April 1999. I didn’t discover PT until their next album (2000’s Lightbulb Sun) but I immediately checked this album out once I did, and it became one of my favorite mid-catalog records of theirs. Steven Wilson (you may know him now as the producer behind all those 5.1 remixes of classic albums getting released lately) and the rest of the band really found their niche with this record, easing back on the extended jamming and leaning towards more concise melodies. Highly recommended, whether you’re a prog fan or not.

Ben & Jason, Hello, released 9 April 1999. Ben Parker and Jason Hazeley were a UK duo that wrote and sang absolutely gorgeous indie folk but avoided the sometimes saccharine twee of most other bands in that genre. They only put out three records and a handful of singles but they were one of my all-time favorite finds at the time. Definitely worth searching for if you can find them.

Electronic, Twisted Tenderness, released 17 April 1999. The third and last album from Bernard Sumner and Johnny Marr’s side project, this is a fantastic album and in my opinion the best and tightest of them. It got a delayed and ignored release here in the States, which is too bad, because there are some really strong singles on this one. And quite possibly my all-time favorite version of Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home”, featuring some of the best Marr guitar work I’ve ever heard.

Ultrasound, Everything Picture, release 17 April 1999. Another import find that quickly became one of my favorite records at the time. It might be a bloated overlong mess but it’s a hell of a lot of Britpop/psych-rock fun and I still give it a spin every now and again.

Lamb, Fear of Fours, released 17 May 1999. Lamb is a fascinating electronic band in that they’re more about exploring and experimenting with soundscapes than they are about being played in a club, and I’ve always loved their records. This one’s fascinating in that it’s an experiment in unconventional time signatures, with very few tracks actually being in 4/4 time. (Track 4 is even untitled, and features nothing except a seven-second single bleating synth sound.)

Moby, Play, released 17 May 1999. Say what you will about his bouts of sort-of-creepy weirdness in his latest memoir, Play remains an excellent record and worthy of its accolades. It’s clever, inventive, and a wonderful listen.

Travis, The Man Who, released 24 May 1999. This record broke them in the States (where it was released a few months later). It’s less noisy than their debut record but it’s a lot more introspective, and truly shows just how great they are as songwriters. Every single track on this record is wonderful, even the hidden tracks! [This is the record they were touring on when I met the foursome after a show in Boston; they were all lovely people and I’m glad they made it as big as they did.]

Smash Mouth, Astro Lounge, released 8 June 1999. Yeah, I know, I could easily have used the “All Star” meme here, but I didn’t, because the rest of this album is actually pretty damn great! It’s a fun listen — it’s tighter and perhaps a bit poppier and more commercial, but that works to their advantage here.

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Coming up soon: Thirty Years On, in which I briefly talk about The Best Album Ever! 🙂

Sifting through old data

I’ve been doing some major cleaning back here in Spare Oom thanks to buying new furniture, and let me tell you, it’s been a wild ride on the Wayback Machine lately.

One of the things I’ve been doing the last week or so is going through my old 3.5″ floppy disks; I had three file boxes full of them that have been collecting dust and slowly degrading, so I figured it was high time that I saved what I could to an external drive, deleted what I didn’t want, and recycle the whole lot once I’m done. The earliest of these date back to 1994 when my ex-gf and I were writing True Faith. Every document dated up to around 1999 was a WRI file, given that I used MS Write exclusively until I finally got a copy of MS Word.

So as you can imagine, I’ve got all these songs in my head from that era that fit nicely with The Future Is Internet. Some of the songs are from horrible-but-great SF films like Johnny Mnemonic and Strange Days and Virtuosityand Hackers, while others were part of my ongoing writing soundtracks for TF and thereafter into The Phoneix Effect.

Enjoy some mid-90s Tunage Of The Future!

Favorite Albums: Duncan Sheik

Just before i started my job at HMV in late 1996, a new record popped up that hit the airwaves of both alternative rock and pop stations; even though it was primarily filtered down to Adult Alternative for its easy and melodic sound, the songwriting was so unexpectedly tight and adventurous that it got picked up everywhere. It was not the bombast of Collective Soul’s self-titled record, or the earnestness of Live’s Throwing Copper; it was simply a lovely album to listen to.

But that lightness is betrayed by darker, gloomier lyrics. James Hunter of Rolling Stone likened Sheik’s music to Talk Talk and The Smiths, perhaps for that reason: the musicianship is top notch from start to finish, the melodies are wonderfully creative but not overly complex, and the songs definitely get stuck in your head.

If you’ve only heard “Barely Breathing”, I suggest you check out the rest of the album — it’s definitely worth it.

Bonus Track: A year and a half later he popped up on the Great Expectations soundtrack from early 1998 with another fabulous track, “Wishful Thinking”, which got a lot of airplay at the time.

His later albums unfortunately did not get the attention they should have — partly due to changing tastes and partly due to the late 90s industry shake-ups — but they too are well worth looking for. He’s also kept busy since the mid-00s by writing and scoring music for multiple stage plays and musicals, his best known being Spring Awakening.