Twenty Years On: April 1998

April 1998: I’d just broken in a new notebook to continue the longhand writing of The Phoenix Effect, the predecessor of the Bridgetown Trilogy, still writing it in the mornings before starting my Day Job at HMV.  It was also around this time that I’d started ramping up the road trips in my trusty ’92 Cavalier, making weekly trips all around Massachusetts and New Hampshire for comics, books, and used cds and tapes.

Stabbing Westward, Darkest Days, released 7 April. Louder and angrier than their previous albums, yet more melodic and introspective. Saw these guys open up for Depeche Mode later in the year and they were by far one of the loudest bands I’d ever heard in my entire life.

Tones on Tail, Everything!, released 7 April. Okay, technically it’s missing 3 remixes (which were released as a promo EP called Something! the same day), but essentially this is the entire discography of the band that features Daniel Ash and Kevin Haskins (Bauhaus, Love & Rockets) and bassist Glenn Campling. More post-punk than Bauhaus and not quite as psychedelic as early LnR, but just as fantastic.

Massive Attack, Mezzanine, released 20 April. I just mentioned this one in a previous post about perfect albums, and this is indeed a perfect album. While previous albums Blue Lines and Protection were great trip-hop platters, this one blows them both away. The cover outside fits the sounds perfectly: dark and dangerous moods like the beetle, and delicate and spacious as the white background. And “Teardrop” is indeed one of the best 90s songs ever, and up there as one of my favorite songs of all time.

The Urge, Master of Styles, released 21 April. This band could easily be confused with metal-funk buddies 311, but they’re just as bright and fun. Nick Hexum from 311 pops up on their surprise hit from this album. They’d put out a few more albums over the years, though never quite achieve huge success.

Bernard Butler, People Move On, released 21 April. The ex-Suede guitarist released his solo debut, and it’s a hell of a great album. I know numerous Britpop aficionados who swear by this record. It didn’t quite click with me right away, but eventually I realized just how fantastic it really is. Definitely worth checking out.

Dave Matthews Band, Before These Crowded Streets, released 28 April. A much darker, maybe even a bit weirder album from the DMB gang, I seem to remember it dividing fans. Some (like me) loved it for its evolution away from his poppier jam-band style and more into straight ahead rock, while others wanted more of his pop-single sound. Regardless, it’s a great record.

Eve 6, Eve 6, released 28 April. This was a band that I found myself listening to far more often than I expected to, and it’s due to their flair for writing extremely catchy hooks and fun lyrics. A perfect example of the great readio-friendly alt-rock that was out there at the time.

Francis Dunnery, Let’s Go Do What Happens, released 28 April. I believe I first heard “My Own Reality” from a CMJ cd mix, but as soon as I got a promo of the album I was hooked. Dunnery’s music is quirky and introspective and amazingly catchy. His solo career has been relatively obscure and laid back, but he’s also a fantastic producer and backing musican, having worked with Ian Brown, Chris Difford, and Robert Plant.

VAST, Visual Audio Sensory Theater, released 28 April. One day the WEA rep handed me this album and said “listen to this, it definitely sounds like something in your wheelhouse.” How right they were! Jon Crosby’s one-man band is a tour de force of epic soundscapes, alternating between hard alt-rock, goth, and delicate balladry. And he’s still going strong 20 years later, putting out his own albums and EPs at his own website.

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Up next: May 1998!

Thirty Years On: April 1988

April 1988 will of course be the month when The Flying Bohemians were born. I’d floated the idea of starting a band of sorts sometime in March if I’m not mistaken, but it wasn’t until the following month that Chris and Nathane and I made any serious plans about it.  It would be after their spring break trip, so the band would have its auspicious debut jam session on the 22nd of that year.  Meanwhile, I’d started songwriting in earnest, pulling out lyrics old and new that could possibly used for our future sessions.  I still had a hell of a lot to learn at that point, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me.

Meanwhile, here’s some of my favorite tunage that was getting play both on college and AOR radio, and on my turntable and tape deck.

Thomas Dolby, Aliens Ate My Buick, released ?? April. Third album from the geekiest synth musician out there. It wasn’t a big seller at all, but it was definitely a fun listen. It’s got some of his goofiest songs on there.

Bright Lights, Big City soundtrack, released ?? April. I’d picked up this soundtrack simply because it’s got an excellent line-up: MARRS, New Order, Depeche Mode, Prince, and Bryan Ferry, to name a few. The movie hasn’t aged well at all, nor has the book (though its unconventional use of telling the story entirely in second-person present tense POV did open my eyes quite a bit as a burgeoning writer at the time), but the soundtrack is still quite excellent.

The Wonder Stuff, “Give Give Give Me More More More” single, released ?? April. A ridiculously fun and witty British band from the Midlands, these guys were a listener’s favorite on college radio almost immediately upon arriving in the US. It would be another few months before their album would drop, but this was an excellent teaser.

Joe Jackson, Live 1980/86, released ?? April. This is an excellent live cross-section of his hits, including an absolutely amazing reinterpretation of his US hit “Steppin’ Out”, turned into a slow, elegiac jazz piece here. I remember ordering this from Columbia House back then just for that one track alone.

Graham Parker, The Mona Lisa’s Sister, released ?? April. WMDK and other AOR stations loved playing Parker’s stuff over the years, and this one got a lot of play as well. I used to love this particular track quite a bit.

In-D, “Virgin in-D Sky’s” single, released ?? April. Ah, Belgian techno…you never quite caught on here in the states, but I loved you just the same. Two club DJs from Antwerp got together and recorded three dance singles (and calling the style ‘New Beat’), and this was the one that somehow caught on with college radio.

John Adams (composer), Nixon in China, released 5 April. I remember this one coming out because it was such an unconventional subject for an opera. That, and Main Street Records down in Northampton had it set up on their endcap at the front of the store, so whenever we walked in, the first thing we’d see was the box set. It would be a few years before I’d finally give it a listen, and many more years until I finally saw it live (with Adams present, as he’s a Bay Area local!). It’s a strange one, sure, but it’s quite fascinating.

The Jesus & Mary Chain, Barbed Wire Kisses, released 18 April. The J&MC’s first collection of b-sides and rarities (they’d release quite a few over the course of their career), it’s an interesting mix that showcases just how far they’d come, from their early feedback screech to their sludgy alt-rock. [Also, the first of a few albums that were ‘borrowed’ from the radio station I worked at then…I mean, was an AM, low-watt, lite-pop, satellite-fed station ever going to play this? I highly doubted it.]

Erasure, The Innocents, released 18 April. I absolutely adored this album when it came out, and “Chains of Love” became one of my favorite tracks of the year to to that point. Another band given a lot of love and promotion by Sire (thanks again, Seymour Stein!), this was heavily played not just on 120 Minutes but during regular daytime MTV. Classic album worth having. [Also, another ‘borrowed’ album. Heh.]

Soul Asylum, Hang Time, released 25 April. One of many punk bands from Minneapolis, these guys were often seen as the slightly less inebriated little brothers of the Replacements, but they rocked just as hard and recorded solid albums right alongside them. They’d finally get their share of major fame in the mid-90s, but this album — their first for a major label — was the one that pricked up the ears of the college radio crowds.

X, Live at the Whisky a Go Go (On the Fabulous Sunset Strip), released 29 April. Another live album that got a lot of airplay on the college radio and AOR stations, it’s an excellent mix of all their classic underground favorites. This was actually the first X album I owned (again, thanks to Columbia House) and “Hungry Wolf” soon became one of my favorite tracks of theirs.

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Up next: May 1988!

FM

fm movie poster
Back when I was a kid, one of my favorite records that I used to love taking out of the library — aside from The Beatles 1962-1966, which I did not yet own — was the soundtrack to a 1978 movie called FM.

It was an amazing double-album filled with huge rock hits of the last few years: Bob Seger’s “Night Moves”, Steve Miller’s “Fly Like an Eagle”, The Eagles’ “Life in the Fast Lane”, Boz Scaggs’ “Lido Shuffle”, Boston’s “More than a Feeling”, and more…and of course Steely Dan’s classic theme song.  Pretty much a perfect cross-section of what would become the classic rock genre in future radio programming.  [It’s still available on CD at this time, by the way, and highly recommended.]

I don’t remember the movie ever playing anywhere close at the time of its release (April 1978), but then again, I was only seven at the time.  The soundtrack was good enough for me.  Still, it would be another few years before I finally saw it when it was shown on one of the local independent TV channels a few years later.  I enjoyed it, even if some of the more mature issues (like Eric Swan’s sexual encounters or Mother’s consistently-baked persona) went right over my head.  The short version of the plot is that Q-Sky, an LA-based rock station with committed fans but not much profit, is being threatened by upper management to play more commercials and less music to make more money.  The stalwart deejays (your classic tropes here: the smooth-talking overnight guy, the ex-hippie still living in the previous decade, the young and spunky morning host, the cute and friendly girl everyone loves, the popular prima donna, and so on) decide to go against upper management to keep the station alive and rockin’ at whatever cost…even if it means going on strike.

[There are definitely shades of WKRP in Cincinnati here, but please note that the show was actually in pre-production talks when this movie came out; they’re not connected to each other in any way.]

It wasn’t until I read Richard Neer’s 2001 book FM: The Rise and Fall of Rock Radio (also highly recommended) that I renewed my interest in the film.  It took me another number of years to finally find a dvd copy.  Years older and more knowledgeable about the way radio works, I’d discovered that the movie, for all it’s worth, was actually quite accurate in its portrayal of a radio station’s ups and downs during that time.

FM rock radio was in fact becoming the preferred choice for younger listeners by 1978, bypassing AM radio’s previous popularity — thus the riff ‘no static at all’ in the theme song.  It was also the zenith of rock radio to that point, with numerous bands releasing platinum and gold selling albums that are still highly regarded to this day.  At the same time, however, the financial woes of running a popular radio station had started taking its toll on the programming.  It was becoming harder and harder to be a free-form station where the deejay could play anything they wanted, when the business itself needed to make a profit to stay alive.  FM was in fact a spot-on commentary of this, even when it veered into the occasional Hollywood movie silliness.

Running a radio station nowadays is still just as hard as it’s ever been.  The issue is that it’s not built to be a moneymaker; it’s built to be a community service.  It provides free entertainment and information to its listeners; its money is made from its advertising or donations and fundraising events.  Most owners and station managers try to keep the moneymaking part of the business as unobtrusive as they can.

But that’s another post altogether.  I’m just here to talk about one of my favorite movies and soundtracks!

Recent Purchases, March Edition Part 2

Here’s another huge blog entry featuring some truly excellent tunage from an excellent month of releases.  Enjoy!

The Naked and Famous, A Still Heart, released 9 March. Another ‘unplugged’ album, and it’s a lovely one, with a mix of old favorite tracks from the band mixed with some excellent new ones, including a cover of Massive Attack’s “Teardrop”.

David Byrne, American Utopia, released 9 March. The always twitchy, always worldly Byrne treats us to another great album of the odd alt-pop he does so well.

Embrace, Love Is a Basic Need, released 9 March. I love this new record of theirs. It’s tender, it’s beautiful, and it’s got a hell of a lot of heart to it. One of their best records.

The Neighbourhood, The Neighbourhood, released 9 March. Proving they’re much more than just a one-hit-wonder with “Sweater Weather”, this band continues to release fascinating and slightly weird music worth checking out.

Editors, Violence, released 9 March. One of my favorite bands of the last decade or so, their new album isn’t as dark as the previous one, but it’s just as tense.

The Decemberists, I’ll Be Your Girl, released 16 March. A slight change of sound and mood for this Portland band, finally embracing their 80s post-punk influences. Very unexpected sounds, but they pull it off beautifully.

Meshell Ndegeocello, Ventriloquism, released 16 March. Cover albums don’t always work as well as we wish they would, but this one is absolutely stunning, covering 80s and 90s R&B hits from Prince, TLC, Funkadelic, Al B Sure, Janet, and more. One of my favorite albums of the month, hands down.

Preoccupations, New Material, released 23 March. After changing their name to a much less controversial one (they were formerly known as Viet Cong and released one album under that name), they’ve only gotten better and better. Their new record has a distinctly late-80s-college-radio sound (this particular video even looks like it would have been right at home on 120 Minutes back in the day) that I love so much.

Failure, In the Future EP, released 30 March. Failure returns with a new project, a science fictional-themed album that will be released as a handful of EPs (and will be released as a full album later on). Looking forward to more from this amazing band.

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Coming Soon: April releases!

Recent Purchases, March Edition, Part 1

Another month almost near the end! Here’s the best of what was purchased over the first couple of weeks of this month, most of which I’m still listening to quite heavily. I say ‘purchased’ and not released, because these all had a drop date of the 2nd, and I had to keep an eye on my bank account!

The Breeders, All Nerve, released 2 March. A welcome return to the original Last Splash-era Breeders, with classic chunky riffs, noisy production, and the always off-kilter lyrics of Kim Deal. This one’s definitely going to be a summer listen for me.

Moby, Everything Was Fine, and Nothing Hurt, released 2 March. This one’s quite similar to his classic Play album from 1999, mixing twitchy upbeat songs with quiet mood pieces. There’s even a hint of trip-hop in there as well.

Lucy Dacus, Historian, released 2 March. She reminds me of Beth Orton in a way; not just a singer/songwriter but a sound sculptor. This album starts out soft and sedate but it features a lot of unexpected — and sometimes loud — turns, which keeps me coming back to it.

Moaning, Moaning, released 2 March. Apparently taking a page or three from Red Lorry Yellow Lorry, this Sub Pop band comes straight out of 1985 college radio and doesn’t give up with its walls of guitar and reverb. Which of course means this album is tailored just for me!

Lucius, Nudes, released 2 March. The first of a few ‘unplugged’ albums that show up this month, and it amazes me how well Lucius translates to alt-folk in the process. Especially the new track “Woman”, which is simply stunning with its dual-lead harmonies.

Buffalo Tom, Quiet and Peace, released 2 March. The Boston boys are back with another great record of brash alt-rock and excellent songwriting. There’s even a hint of Springsteen influence on this album, but I’m not complaining.

Tracey Thorn, Record, released 2 March. The vocal half of Everything But the Girl releases her first solo album in six years, and it’s a welcome return.

Andrew WK, You’re Not Alone, released 2 March. The professor of All Things Party releases an album that screams EPIC, but also talks honestly about life. Meat Loaf-esque hard rock bombast (but without the ten-minute operettas, thankfully) shares the same space as spoken-word interludes on being the best you can be at whatever you aim for. Noisy and uplifting, just how AWK wants your life to be lived.

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Up Next: The rest of the month!

Perfect Albums Meme

Name an album, in any genre, that you think is 100% perfect – where you don’t skip 1 track. – @MOBOAwards

Of course I fell prey to this meme.  Here’s an obviously partial list:

The La’s, The La’s — Singer/leader Lee Mavers might think this masterpiece of his is incomplete and nowhere near what he was hearing in his head, but to me it’s a perfect album.  A mix of the blossoming alternative rock sound of the late 80s-early 90s, Liverpudlian guitar folk, and just a pinch of psychedelia for flavor, and it became an album that I will always think of as my favorite albums of the 90s, tied with…

Failure, Fantastic Planet — On a completely different plane of existence, it’s an incredible record filled with amazing songwriting and production.  It’s loud, it’s devastating, and it leaves me breathless every time I listen to it.

The Beatles, Revolver — Of course, I could list almost any other Beatles release here, but their 1966 album remains my favorite of theirs because it’s the moment where they changed from lovable mop-tops writing songs about love to adults writing about life.  Just after their folky Rubber Soul and just before their psychedelic Sgt Pepper.

Global Communication, 76:14 — If you need to own just one ambient album, let it be this one.  It’s a lovely album to get lost in and let your mind wander.  Where a lot of ambient instrumental albums can sometimes meander into navel-gazing boredom, this album keeps your attention all the way through.

Massive Attack, Mezzanine — “Teardrop” is right up there as one of my favorite songs of all time, and the album it’s from is equally excellent.  A great example of trip-hop moodiness and clever sonic creativity — especially with this album, which uses quiet and empty spaces as part of its soundscape.

Depeche Mode, Violator — Another album that signifies a band’s change.  This is where they went from their classic synth-and-sample sound they’d been known for, to a full-band sound complete with guitar.  Martin Gore’s songwriting evolved at amazing speed here; “Enjoy the Silence” remains one of his crowning achievements to this day.

Beck, Sea Change — Before this album, he’d been known as that “Loser” guy who wrote weird and goofy Mad-Lib-style lyrics with the occasional foray into odd but listenable folk rock, but this album was where he proved just how serious of an artist he really is.  It’s haunting, sometimes heartbreaking, and extremely personal, but it’s also an absolutely gorgeous album.

UNKLE, Psyence Fiction — A very fitting title for this record, it’s a mix of hip-hop, trip-hop, alternative rock, rap, and more, all with a science fictional subtext.  James Lavelle has always been an amazing musician/producer who creates chilly and cavernous soundscapes, and this is a perfect example of it.

Indigo Girls, Indigo Girls — Ever have one of those albums where you kinda like a few songs on it, then once you finally sit down and listen to it all the way through and realize just how freaking amazing it is?  Amy Ray and Emily Saliers are brilliant songwriters, but they’re also brilliant at crafting a perfect vocal duet.

And one more I forgot to mention that I thought of today:

Tears for Fears, Songs from the Big Chair — It’s their most famous album (I still hear “Head Over Heels” on the radio to this day), but it’s also one of my favorite albums of the 80s.  Poppy, jazzy, and even a little experimental, every single one of its tracks has a certain amazing quality to it.  [Listen, for example, to the Gershwin-esque “The Working Hour” with its slow build and blistering sax solos.]

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I could of course come up with so many more albums to add to this list, but I’ll hold myself back.  For now!

Twenty Years On: March 1998 in Review

March is right about when the doldrums of first quarter taper off, the post-Christmas sales of older titles have quieted down, and more exciting new releases start popping up.  Some of my favorite albums of the year surfaced around this time, albums that remained on heavy rotation for quite a few years afterwards.  Here are a few for you to enjoy.

Madonna, Ray of Light, released 3 March. I’ve been a passive fan of Madonna since her Like a Virgin days (which goes to show how old I am), and interestingly her albums always seesawed between phenomenal and lackluster. I consider this particular album one of her crowning achievements; it beautifully and seamlessly blends her signature dance sound and the brilliant electronica of producer William Orbit. It’s an amazing album from start to finish.

Fastball, All the Pain Money Can Buy released 10 March. Yes, it’s that song, their one-hit wonder (and there were many in 1998), but the rest of the album is actually quite a solid one worth checking out, with equally hooky riffs.

Morcheeba, Big Calm, released 16 March. One of many rock/electronica hybrid bands making the scene at the time, Morcheeba could be alternately loud and chunky or soft and sexy, sometimes within the span of a few tracks on their albums.

Cornelius, Fantasma, released 24 March. Keigo Oyamada has been called “the Japanese Beck” by certain critics, and they’re not wrong. Adventurous, experimental, weird, and often amusing, his work as Cornelius is a feast for the ears.

Semisonic, Feeling Strangely Fine, released 24 March. This band could have ended up a one-hit wonder with “Closing Time”, if it wasn’t for singer Dan Wilson’s brilliant songwriting, which kept the band in the spotlight and has carried his post-Semisonic career to achieving numerous award-winning hits. The entire album is catchy as hell and a lot of fun to listen to.

Superdrag, Head Trip in Every Key, released 24 March. After their snotty, punky mega-hit “Sucked Out” from 1996’s Regretfully Yours, this trio was bound and determined not to be pigeonholed into being another snotty-punk clone, and released a phenomenal album…which, alas, the label hated and proceeded to drop them unceremoniously. Surprisingly mature, often Beatlesque, and full of lovely melodies and introspective lyrics, Head Trip actually proved that they were a strong band, carrying them well into the early 00s and beyond. Highly recommended for your collection.

Sully, I Have Much to Report, released 24 March. An obscure Canadian band from Ottawa, this band nonetheless managed to pop up in the background in numerous shows and movies in the mid-90s. I love this album purely for its murky Cocteau Twins-meets-Sneaker Pimps ambience.

God Lives Underwater, Life in the So-Called Space Age, released 24 March. GLU’s second album is a change from the aggro-electronics of their first album, and in effect it sounds darker and more experimental. It’s a great album for headphones and long writing sessions, though! One of my favorites from this year, it got a hell of a lot of play down in the Belfry for a few years.

Scott Weiland, 12 Bar Blues, released 31 March. Scott’s debut solo album is quite the mix, alternating between weird and unstable, and heartfelt and beautiful. It features a few older tracks (“Lady Your Roof Brings Me Down” is from the Great Expectations soundtrack from a few months earlier, and “Mockingbird Girl” is a rerecording of the song he contributed to the 1995 Tank Girl soundtrack) alongside some fantastic new ones.

Pulp, This Is Hardcore, released 31 March. Jarvis Cocker & Co follow up their brilliant Different Class album with a decidedly darker and sinister outing about the more questionable side of life. This isn’t about the have-nots, it’s about the don’t-give-a-shits.

Harvey Danger, Where Have All the Merrymakers Gone, released 31 March. Another band that sadly became a one-hit wonder, despite multiple albums and excellent songwriting. A fun and exceptionally nerdy band, their entire discography is well worth checking out.

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Next Up: April 1998!