A Bit of Bowie

I’ll admit, it took me years to actually grok what David Bowie’s music was all about. I was of course familiar with all the tunes you hear on classic rock radio: Rebel Rebel, Fame, Ziggy Stardust, Space Oddity, and so on… I was also familiar with his early 80s output, thanks to MTV: Let’s Dance, Modern Love, Ashes to Ashes, Fashion… all those poppy songs and weird videos. But I didn’t even own a Bowie album until high school when I found The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust in a Salvation Army bin for fifty cents.

I was a huge fan of his Tin Machine project, especially since I’d felt 1987’s Never Let Me Down was, to put it bluntly, quite dull and lifeless. Tin Machine revealed a much-needed energy that was lacking in most of his 80s output.

And it really wasn’t until 1997’s Earthling that I finally decided to actively start checking out his back catalogue, and figured out why he had such a huge following.

I started picking up the Rykodisc reissues and got myself caught up. I finally figured out why the Berlin Trilogy is so revered. I was intrigued by the numerous evolutions of his style and look in the 70s. And interestingly, I found myself really liking a lot of the less famous tunes of his! Over the years I’ve finally acquired most if not all of his discography, and I’ve really come to appreciate just how creative he was.

Shoegaze is alive and well and living in my mp3 library

Back in 1991, when I was at college in Boston and Nevermind was on superduper heavy rotation on WFNX alongside Soundgarden and Alice in Chains and all the other northwestern bands, I found myself shifting in the opposite direction, looking eastward over the ocean and listening to the sounds of roaring walls of wobbly guitar noise from My Bloody Valentine and Ride. There was just something about the otherworldly dreaminess of the sounds of the Creation, 4AD and Rough Trade labels. Grunge was alright and all, but it couldn’t hold a candle to my beloved shoegaze.

In 2019, having become a constant listener to Seattle’s KEXP, I realized that shoegaze wasn’t just experiencing a small comeback over the past few years. There were more bands out there embracing that wall-of-reverb sound than the previous years, and they were all releasing singles and albums that were absolutely fantastic. They weren’t just emulating the sounds of 1991…they were owning it and making it their own. And they weren’t just from the UK, either…they were from all over the world.

We have Dead Horse One from Valence in southern France…

We have Lo! Peninsula, from Imphal, India…

We have Tallies, from Toronto, Canada…

We have Pinkshinyultrablast from St Petersburg, Russia…

We have Deserta from Los Angeles, CA…

I never get sick of this sound. Sure, it’s essentially the MBV-tested equation of playing augmented guitar chords, fed through heavy reverb, turned way the fuck up high, and the extremely liberal use of the whammy bar to achieve that soaring wobble. But man, it’s that dreaminess the sound achieves that just hits all the right buttons for me.

And I love that it’s alive and well, and all over the world.

Recent Releases, Summer 2019

Oops! I’m a month late on this, so this is going to be a slightly longer one, encompassing the various releases I’ve been raving about from June to September. Enjoy!

Silversun Pickups, Widow’s Weeds, released 9 June. Always twitchy, always off-kilter, and always amazing.

Hot Chip, A Bath Full of Ecstasy, release 21 June. A rather laid back and mellow record for them, bu this style suits them extremely well.

Hatchie, Keepsake, released 21 June. One of my favorite finds thanks to KEXP, they’re good alt-poppy fun with some killer bass riffs!

Drab Majesty, Modern Mirror, released 12 July. Highly recommended if you like that 80s gothy synth sound. Definitely reminds me of Clan of Xymox.

311, Voyager, released 12 July. As said before, whenever 311 drops a record I will always pick it up. Good funky fun.

DJ Shadow featuring De La Soul, “Rocket Fuel” single, released 24 July. Another KEXP find, this has to be one of my top favorite songs of the year. It’s a fantastic throwback rap tune you’d have heard in the late 80s. Definitely a nod to Run-DMC on this track.

Jay Som, Anak Ko, released 23 August. Light and lovely guitar alt-rock topped with dreamy vocals. But not shoegaze! “Superbike” is another track that’s been stuck in my head for months.

NAVVI, 25O2 EP, released 30 August. Filed alongside HAELOS as one of my go-to bands for blissful dance alt-pop. It’s a short five-song EP, but it’s got some ace tunes on it.

Tennis System, Lovesick, released 6 September. This band reminds me of Swervedriver with their loud and dissonant shoegaze guitar crunch. Surprisingly a great listen for my writing sessions!

Pixies, Beneath the Eyrie, released 13 September. The long-awaited new Pixies record is strangely spooky this time out. I’m not too surprised considering Frank Black’s forays into weird subject matters, but the creepiness translates well in this case.

Brittany Howard, Jaime, released 20 September. The Alabama Shakes singer brings us an amazing soulful and jazzy solo record filled with blazing funky riffs. Excellent stuff.

blink-182, Nine, released 20 September. We got to see this band live at Outside Lands this year and they were just as amazing as I thought they’d be. Older and ever so slightly more mature, they’re still tight as hell.

The Beatles, Abbey Road Super Deluxe Edition, released 27 September. Of COURSE I have to have this on the list! I’ll give you all a much more detailed response to the release once I finally get my copy (it’s in the mail at this time), but from what I’ve heard via streaming, Giles Martin has remixed it just enough to improve on what is already a fantastic album. The extras are also a hell of a lot of fun!

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: Oasis, ‘Heathen Chemistry’

Oasis is a band you either love, or love to hate. I’ve been a fan of them probably since hearing “Live Forever” on WBCN way back in the day (I love how it starts off with its slow, slinky drums before Liam Gallagher’s northern sneer kicks in). And those who are fans have their own particular favorite record of theirs…the fans-from-the-beginning will of course sing the high praises of their 1994 debut Definitely Maybe, and the majority will agree that 1995’s (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? is indeed a fine album. They will also most likely agree that 1997’s Be Here Now is a bloated and self-indulgent mess. And…yeah, all their other albums tend to be seen as leftover table scraps.

Heathen Chemistry from 2002, however, is a band finally deciding to mature. By this time, bassist Paul ‘Guigsy’ McGuigan, guitarist Paul ‘Bonehead’ Arthurs, and drummer Tony MacCarroll had left the band, replaced by ex-Ride bassist Andy Bell, guitarist Gem Archer and drummer Alan White. The ever-feuding Gallagher brothers were the only remaining original members. Perhaps the newer line-up was a plus, as it changed their sound considerably. Heathen Chemistry sounds like a band finally taking themselves seriously and it contains some of the Gallaghers’ finest songwriting.

The record kicks off with first single “The Hindu Times”, a strong rocker similar to those from Definitely Maybe with an added nod to psychedelia, with a noted sitar-like riff from Noel. Unlike their previous records, this sounds a hell of a lot less like posturing and more like an honest love song.

It’s followed up by interesting deep cuts “Force of Nature” (a boozy Lennonesque blues track featuring Noel on vocals) and “Hung in a Bad Place” (a boisterous two-chord rocker) before hitting gold with the powerful and lovely ballad “Stop Crying Your Heart Out”. It might be yet another nod to their heroes the Beatles — this one definitely has a 1967 Pepper feel — but it’s a gorgeous song and one of their best. I sometimes wish they’d play this rather than “Wonderwall” on the radio!

It’s followed immediately by what would end up as the fourth single from the record, “Songbird”, and the first single written by Liam instead of Noel. It’s a short and simple semi-acoustic ballad that has perhaps a bit of REM in there, but it’s a nice track and shows that Liam’s songwriting had improved vastly over the last few years.

And to fill out the first half of the album, Noel comes back with a fantastic track and third single “Little By Little” — a double-A side with a later track we’ll hit momentarily — and it’s a deeply personal one compared to their previous songs. It’s one of Noel’s best to date, and one can tell he put is all into it.

The second half kicks in with a brief instrumental interlude, “A Quick Peep”, written not by a Gallagher this time out but Andy Bell. It’s like a miniature entr’acte before we’re brought back into the sunshine glow of yet another Beatles nod, “(Probably) All in the Mind”. Intriguingly, this song sounds a bit more like late-60s Stones than Beatles, despite the obvious title reference to Yellow Submarine and the White’s drumming nod to “Ticket to Ride”.

It’s followed by “She Is Love”, the other half of the above-mentioned double-A single, and it’s another powerhouse track from Noel. It’s a nice acoustic track that is not only devoid of any of the trademark Oasis swagger, it’s full-on that trademark Oasis psychedelia and full of heart and joy.

Next up is an amazing song written by Liam that definitely should have been a single. It’s dark and brooding, and while the lyrics and subject matter may be a bit simple compared to their other more well-known songs, it’s nonetheless a stellar track that helps finish out the album.

The last song (plus its hidden track “The Cage” at the far end) is “Better Man”, which feels like another stab at post-Beatles Lennon, especially during his Some Time In New York phase. It’s grouchy and full of sloppy, crunchy blues guitar. It does feel a little bit like an afterthought but it’s actually a perfect final song for the album as it helps end it on a positive, uplifting note. It’s the band closing out the record on a loose, freeform jam that makes the entire record worthwhile.

*

I wouldn’t say Heathen Chemistry is Oasis’ best album, nor is it the most perfect one, but for me it’s their most consistently enjoyable. It was a step in the right direction for them, one they needed to take after working on the same classic sound over multiple records. The new style was hinted at with 2000’s Standing On the Shoulder of Giants, but that particular record felt more like a transitional one than a thorough evolution. This was Oasis growing up, and it fit them incredibly well.

It shows even now in the brothers’ solo output; Noel’s latest work with his High Flying Birds moniker shines with his stellar songwriting chops, and Liam’s work both with Beady Eye (essentially Oasis sans Noel) and on his own is just as strong. They may still be the same quarreling brothers who can’t be in the same room without eventually throwing a punch (their verbal snipes at each other on Twitter and elsewhere are often quite hilarious), but that hasn’t gotten in the way of them remaining fine musicians.

We Are All One

When the world brings us down or drives us crazy, we try to find temporary reprieves to help us recharge so we can face it again. For me, that reprieve has always been music. It”s helped me find clarity when my brain and emotions are in overdrive, it’s inspired me to find new ways to face tough situations. (Not to mention its near-constant ability to inspire my writing!)

One of my favorite ways of taking this break over the years has been watching the music videos of World Order. It’s the brainchild of musician/goodwill ambassador/former mixed martial artist and kickboxer Genki Sudo. Their visual style is that of business suits and robotic movement, hinting at the stereotype of the lifeless Japanese businessman. The music itself is pop-idol dance, but it fits their visuals so perfectly that it’s hard not to love them.

Their videos are always such a joy to watch; they’re clever and creative, and they always provide a positive message even in the face of adversity, which happens to be Genki Sudo’s motto: We Are All One. Enjoy! And stay for the end of the videos, as they nearly always leave us with a nice easter egg.

Bonus: I do love that they even wrote a song about a certain “leader”… 😉

Favorite Albums: Green

REM’s first release for their freshly-inked deal with Warner Bros Records, having moved on from their indie years with IRS, usually gets passed over due to the albums surrounding it: 1987’s Document features two of their biggest commercial hits, “The One I Love” and “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine)”, and 1991’s Out of Time features “Losing My Religion” and “Shiny Happy People”. What does 1988’s Green have, though? It’s a bit disjointed (on purpose), it’s a shift away from their classic pastoral folk sound (on purpose), and even its lyrics are less obscure and more understandable (again, on purpose). But it’s a hell of a fine album with some absolutely stunning and gorgeous tunes from start to finish.

REM has always worn their politics on their sleeves (this particular album contains a recurring theme of environmentalism), and in the release of Green was actually timed to coincide with the 1988 Presidential election with a brilliant promo postcard sent to record stores and radio stations:

While the ’88 election may not have finished the way they’d hoped, that didn’t stop them from continuing to use their voice for progressive reasons. Though this particular album may not be as overtly political as some of their previous releases, it certainly did bring issues to light by revising how they wrote their music. Singer Michael Stipe had requested the band “not write any more REM-type songs” in order to change their style.

As was becoming habit, the album kicks off with a lively, upbeat pop song, literally called “Pop Song ’89”, welcoming the listener to tune in and have a bit of fun. The video for the single (released in May 1989 and directed by Stipe himself) is goofy fun, featuring four topless dancers — including himself. When MTV asked to censor the video for airplay, he cheekily responded by providing an edit with black bars on all four bodies.

It’s quickly followed by another uptempo rocker, “Get Up”, which seems to actually be about asking someone to get up and out of bed. [Wikipedia states that in the late 90s, Stipe told an audience that this is indeed the case and was about bassist Mike Mills, who had been oversleeping during the sessions.] It became the fourth single from the album, and while it didn’t dent the charts, the video did start the career of one CalArts student named Eric Darnell, who went on to be a successful director of several CGI-animated movies like Antz and Madagascar.

Next up is a change of pace, hinting both at their earlier folk sound and later mandolin-heavy sound, with “You Are the Everything”. It’s a simple love song, but it’s a gorgeous one, and one that I’m pretty sure I used on a mix-tape to my then-girlfriend some months later.

Returning to the upbeat pop sound, they return with the fun and goofy “Stand”, right up there with “Can’t Get There from Here” as proof that the band definitely has a sense of humor. It’s such a chipper song that it’s hard to take seriously — even Stipe cracks himself up at the end of the video. This would be the second single from the record, and still gets airplay to this day.

It’s followed up, however, by a one-two punch of darker, more somber songs to finish up the first side of the record, with “World Leader Pretend” and “The Wrong Child” — both songs that at first listen seem to be about other people, but in actuality are about the narrator. One focuses on the inner turmoil of breaking down self-imposed barriers, while the other focuses on the outer turmoil of social acceptance. Both are about the strength needed to change and accept the self despite its physical and emotional obstacles.

Side Two kicks off with one of my favorite REM songs and the most overtly political song off the album, “Orange Crush”, and the album’s first single. It’s powerful and relentless in its energy, even during the breakdown halfway through. It has a deliberately mixed message, seeming to be pro-military while consistently reminding us of its horrors (the title refers to Agent Orange, used as herbicidal warfare in Vietnam).

It’s followed up by another song that uses this deceptive messaging to great effect: the positive and upbeat “Turn You Inside-Out” may sound like a fun rocker of a track, but its lyrics barely contain its bile. Its message seems to be “I could make your life really fucking miserable right now, but I’m going to be the better man instead.” During a stop on their subsequent tour, Stipe would dedicate this song to Exxon, whose Valdez oil tanker had struck the Alaskan coastline and spilled thousands of gallons of oil.

The record comes to a close with three deep tracks that have their own special charm, starting with “Hairshirt”, with its tender message of remaining human in the most adverse of situations. [This seems to be about Stipe’s methods of dealing with fame and privacy; he would later have a conversation with Radiohead’s Thom Yorke about this very thing, inspiring Yorke to write “How to Disappear Completely”.]

It’s followed up with “I Remember California”, a surprisingly post-apocalyptic tale of a west coast decimated by rising oceans and climate change. It’s haunting in that it’s not so much about the destruction (or even the destructive powers), but the sadness about What Used to Be, through the eyes of someone who can no longer return.

The record ends on an unexpectedly high and positive note with an upbeat untitled song (officially called “Untitled Eleventh Track” on some discographies) where, at the end of the day, despite its struggles and frustrations, we are all here for each other. [It’s been said that drummer Bill Berry thought the drum pattern for this song was so stupid he refused to play it; guitarist Peter Buck fills in instead.] The song does seem a bit like an afterthought or an epilogue, but it does help bookend the album quite nicely.

I remember listening to this record a hell of a lot during my senior year in high school. I also remember quoting many of its lyrics on the blackboard in my first period Humanities class (a friend and I often wrote a ‘quote for the day’ before class started, and the teacher didn’t seem to mind at all). I would see them on tour in early April 1989, with Indigo Girls opening up — thus introducing me to yet another fantastic and long-loved band. The album has always stayed with me over the years as their most accessible and enjoyable from start to finish. It pretty much cemented my love for the band. It’s not their most popular, but for me it’s their most solid and most adventurous work.