To Bring You My Love

to_bring_you_my_love

Album: To Bring You My Love

Artist: PJ Harvey

Released: February 25th, 1995

Highlights: To Bring You My Love, Meet Ze Monsta, Send His Love to Me, The Dancer

“To Bring You My Love” presents a combination of qualities that is, to say the least, very unlikely. On one hand, it is a record of intimacy, featuring a collection of songs that (with the exception of the ruthless banging of “Meet Ze Monsta” and “Long Snake Moan”) are quiet and subdued; as such, it is an album that forces listeners to lean in so they can enter its universe appropriately and grasp everything PJ Harvey is trying to say. At the same time, though, her third work is also positively fierce, and while it deals with feelings that usually indicate a sullen atmosphere, such as maddening love and death, the album turns the table on these topics; rather than being sucked down into defeat by them, it opts to stand tall in the midst of the misery, expose its suffering soul for the world to see, and bask in the courageous glory of the act. “To Bring You My Love” is, therefore, a triumph of displaying relentless passion in a restrained manner.

The keywords for that achievement are heart and performance. In her two previous albums, “Dry” and “Rid of Me”, PJ Harvey had already shown she had plenty of those. Her lyrics, entwined with blatantly stated emotions so powerful they sometimes spilled into threats or violence, had turned the indie rocker coming from the English countryside into a somewhat dark menacing figure in the minds of her audience. To further enhance and validate that impression, she and her band executed these tunes ferociously: the sound was raw, as if performed from within a dirty garage; the playing was loud as well as rough, concocting a peculiar mixture of blues with punk; and PJ Harvey interpreted her lyrics with the authenticity of someone who had lived through them, screaming in pain, shouting in anger, singing in defiance, or staring her target down in hatred when necessary.

It is not a surprise, then, that “To Bring You My Love” is a masterclass of performance. Considering the wild nature of its predecessors, however, the true shock here comes from how PJ Harvey has almost completely shifted gears when it comes to expressing herself. Instead of breaking into her lover’s house and screaming on his face while building a fabulous racket with her guitar, in “To Bring You My Love” she is taking a sneakier approach, luring listeners into the inner workings of her psyche and exposing – in a much calmer and sinister manner – what goes through the veins of her body. It is, essentially, the distinction between performing a revealing emotional monologue on a stage and whispering those same truths to a an individual that is inside her home.

With a lot of room for emotion and little space for either instrumental flourishes or ornamental touches, “Dry” and “Rid of Me” were basic, minimalistic, and raw. In another glorious turn of incongruence, given how different it is from those records, those characteristics are also valid for “To Bring You My Love”. However, needless to say, once again the record gets to them in a very distinctive way. As PJ Harvey’s break into the mainstream, the album’s production is much more full-fledged: the sound is clean, stripping nearly all punk and garage ethos from the music; the instrumentation is varied, as pianos, keyboards, strings, and light electronic treatments come into play; and all of these are combined to give the work a sleek luster and some carefully engineered atmospheres. Yet, even if for the first time accompanied by so much decoration, PJ Harvey’s inherent rawness is not drowned.

A good portion of that victory stems from the fact that, quite boldly and despite the extra treatment, many of the tunes are left in a very bare-bones instrumental state. The title track, in fact, may be the finest example of that approach, because even though an additional louder guitar punctually emerges and a few haunting keyboard lines are occasionally played, the song – which goes over the five-minute mark – is mostly carried by PJ Harvey’s voice and her electric guitar, as she delicately picks a quiet (yet mighty and threatening) blues-inspired riff. Those who have listened to “Dry” and “Rid of Me” may expect, like in many instances from those albums, the tune to explode into a furious thunderstorm at any moment as tension slowly builds when the other two instruments come and go as well as when the singer puts an extra force behind her hypnotizing words, but PJ Harvey never attacks, intimately declaring – instead – the insane sinful lengths through which she would go to be with her lover, and leaving the dark clouds to just loom in the distance ominously.

Various other tunes follow suit. “Working for the Man” is even more naked, as despite the nigh constant presence of a very light jangly guitar, its leading instruments are the steady drums, the simple but catchy bass line, and PJ Harvey’s whispers about picking up a whole lot of lovers while driving around. “C’mon Billy” is essentially made up of an acoustic guitar and voice, and as she sings from the point of view of a woman who tries to convince the father of her child to meet their kid with the intent of seeing the man again, she does so with the intensity of someone who is playing a vicious rock song. “Send His Love To Me” is another acoustic track, but one that has some percussion and a spectacular combination of strings with an organ. “Teclo” features nothing but a voice and electric guitar duo that slowly builds up emotion as PJ Harvey states the death of her lover will also be her end. “Down By The Water”, in which a woman drowns her infant daughter, has tasteful and eventual orchestral touches, but is guided by a nasty noisy organ, bass, and drums. “I Think I’m a Mother” is a stripped-down blues number drenched in effects. And “The Dancer” builds an epic ballad with an organ and watery guitars.

From a cynical perspective, these are tunes that should not click. They are mostly long; they are not very dynamic; most of them have no pronounced choruses; and their structures are not very well-defined. However, not only do they work, but they are utterly gripping. PJ Harvey, drinking from the bluesmen of old, throws a load of religious references into her songs, as if only supernatural forces – be those of God, Jesus, or Satan – could understand her woes or help her get rid of them. Meanwhile, channeling one of her idols, Howlin’ Wolf, she pours herself into these tracks madly, whether it is to shape dark atmospheres (“I Think I’m a Mother”), emerge like a threatening giant of immeasurable force (“To Bring You My Love”), or throw herself down in utter despair in search of a higher power that can save her (“Send His Love to Me”). In that context, the basic but impossibly catchy instrumentals are accompanying music for her performance, and her feelings are delivered via uniformly excellent melodic work that will subtly sneak up on listeners.

“To Bring You My Love” is then an album of clashing values. It is intimate, but ferocious. It is sleek, but raw. It is straightforward in instrumentation, but unbelievably involving. It is basic, but sonically diverse. It is melodically subtle, but inevitably catchy. And, ultimately, it is one of those rare breakthrough albums that package the artist for the mainstream without compromising their essence. Working alongside Flood and John Parish as a producer, PJ Harvey abandons her garage beginnings to find a sound that is bare-bones, unique, and challenging, but also approachable. In its rawness, it stays true to her early music. In its simplicity, it allows her to keep on leading the way with her unfiltered emotions. And as it supports one encounter between inventiveness and spotless songwriting, it produces one of the rock’s masterpieces.

five

On Avery Island

on_avery_island

Album: On Avery Island

Artist: Neutral Milk Hotel

Released: March 26th, 1996

Highlights: Song Against Sex, Where You’ll Find Me Now, Naomi, April 8th

There is nothing incredibly romantic about the Avery Island that lends its name to the first album by Neutral Milk Hotel. In the real world, it is nothing but a salt dome covered by swampy land and surrounded by the bayous of Louisiana. However, the combination of the record’s cover, depicting a distorted yet colorful carnival, and the music contained within it, constructed by Jeff Mangum and given flight by the arrangements and production of Robert Schneider, materializes the image of a whimsical but odd location. In it, as if unable to grow up when confronted with the sheer brutality of the world, the playful innocence of childhood has – instead – been corrupted and driven wild, retreating to a somewhat safe realm that it has created for its own sake.

It goes without saying that many are the elements of “On Avery Island” that contribute towards forming that image; a work of art that is this consistently themed cannot, after all, be built on a single trick. But most of the credit for that achievement has got to be attributed to the talent of Jeff Magnum. The singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and – by the time the album was recorded – only official member of Neutral Milk Hotel approaches serious topics, such as suicide and the heartbreaks generated via what he perceives as meaningless sex, by using words and sentences that exhibit a degree of naivete, as if he were unable to comprehend those subjects thoroughly or express himself without being clumsy. And to boost that frail nature, he proceeds to sing his lyrics with a visible vulnerability that is somehow coated in the layers of self-defense which are only exhibited by those who have dealt with these troubled matters way too often.

In spite of the awkward surface, though, there is not – almost miraculously – anything uncomfortable about the way Jeff Magnum approaches those points; he comes off, instead, as likable and sensitive. Consequently, the blows land fiercely. When writing about the death of his grandmother and the regret he felt for not being there beside her when it happened, for instance, he uses the simple imagery of one who has just recently learned the concept of spirituality, singing “As her spirit is climbing / Through the hospital wall and away / And I wanted to hold you / As you made your escape”. Delivered with so much sweetness and with a voice whose lack of formal qualities adds a high degree of sincerity to the feeling described, one cannot help but be moved by it.

Given the fragile quality that underlines the album, it would be easy to picture Magnum quietly going through the tunes of “On Avery Island” while sitting on a bench and shyly strumming an acoustic guitar. The work, however, carries a noisy lo-fi aesthetic that gives a totally unique edge to the material. It is not, of course, that the recording style was a stranger to the indie rock genre. Earlier in the same decade when Neutral Milk Hotel put out their only two efforts, the boys from Pavement had already built a successful career on such sounds, and “On Avery Island” does have a bit of a lazy lethargic aura that could draw comparisons to Stephen Malkmus’ group. The originality of the album actually stems from the unlikely pairing of the folk heart of the tunes with the noisier side of the lo-fi ethos.

With three exceptions, Magnum’s voice barely gets a rest from having to climb over thick walls of feedback to be heard. On some occasions, they come in temporary bursts, which is what happens in “You’ve Passed”, where the wave of noise rises and falls back as the electric guitar is punctually strummed. Mostly, though, the barrage is a relentless attack, giving these songs, which are very much pop and melodic at their core, a heavy distorted underbelly. It is a move that creates a constant mixture of irresistible hooks and nigh-hardcore buzz, one whose closest widely known comparison is perhaps the first trio of albums released by Weezer; with the difference being, naturally, that where Rivers Cuomo is a power pop fanatic who is unavoidably awkward, Jeff Magnum is merely a reserved guy who drinks from folk.

His brand of folk, though, is not just noisy. It is also filtered through a very well-constructed psychedelic lens. It is through it, in fact, that “On Avery Island” gains the carnival contours that appropriately fit in with its cover, complementing the innocent wonder of Jeff Magnum’s lyrics. Adorning the record’s sonic assault are keyboards and horns that bring an extra wacky component to the already frantic music; and while the electronic sounds of the former instrument make it seem like the theme park’s carousel is spinning uncontrollably in slow-motion, the brass gives off the impression that the place’s marching band has collectively spiraled out of its mind due to an unfortunate blend of drugs. In addition, this psychedelic value carried by “On Avery Island” is also responsible for firmly tying all of the tracks together, as thanks to the way the tunes smoothly transition between one another the record feels like an atomic whole, further establishing a powerful aesthetic coherence.

In this wild imaginary space built during “On Avery Island”, the introspective and the noisy stand side by side comfortably. The album’s three quietest cuts – the mostly acoustic trio of “A Baby for Pree”, “Three Peaches”, and “April 8th” – are sad delicate beauty, but even if they are more soothing than the rest of the songs on the record, they are not without their share of weird sounds as the last two have low drone-like hums that add a haunting aura to the atmosphere. Meanwhile, the work’s more cacophonous side, although quite uniform, smartly draws from different sources: “Song Against Sex” is a torrent of words and images delivered in ways that challenge the concept of metric, vaguely recalling what Bob Dylan tends to do; “You’ve Passed” sounds plodding, threatening, and exotic, with its dissonant instrumentation recalling “Venus in Furs” by The Velvet Underground; “Gardenhead” is so reckless and heavy it almost qualifies as hardcore; and the sweet melody of “Naomi”, when paired up with its slower pace, nods to the more emotional branches of punk.

At times, the conceptual psychedelic side of “On Avery Island” happens to get the best of it. Clocking in at a ridiculous thirteen minutes, closer “Pree-Sisters Swallowing a Donkey’s Eye” is motionless instrumental noise and reeks of unnecessary indulgence. “A Baby for Pree” and “Where You’ll Find Me Now” are essentially the same song, with the latter being the much better and more developed version of the former. And “Someone Is Waiting” is more of a coda to “You’ve Passed” than a standalone track. One might say instances such as these, besides contributing to the album’s thematic cohesion, also go along with its ramshackle lo-fi vibe, and that argument is certainly not invalid. Nonetheless, they indicate that, as fully formed as it may sound, “On Avery Island” is not the full realization of a musical idea. Such peak would only truly come with its sequel, “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea”; regardless of that shortcoming, though, Neutral Milk Hotel’s debut is one incredible musical trip down a rabbit hole of corrupted innocence.

New Adventures In Hi-Fi

new_adventures_hi_fi

Album: New Adventures in Hi-Fi

Artist: R.E.M.

Released: September 9th, 1996

Highlights: New Test Leper, E-Bow the Letter, Leave, Bittersweet Me, Electrolite

As the 1980s became the 1990s, R.E.M. concluded its transition from an independent group that toiled away in a small label to global superstars that would go on to sign what was, by then, the largest contract in the industry’s history. However, true to their commitment to musical craft, the band continued to act in their own way. Case in point, despite ranking as gargantuan commercial successes, 1991’s “Out of Time” and 1992’s “Automatic for the People” were not backed up by highly-anticipated global tours, events that would have certainly caused the records to sell even more copies than they originally did and the vaults at Warner Bros. to receive obscene amounts of money.

When 1994 came around, though, and the band had at its disposal the glittery and delightfully decadent set of rocking tracks from “Monster”, which were far better suited for large arenas than the acoustic introspectiveness of its predecessors, R.E.M. felt it was time to hit the road for the first time in six years. Inspired by one of their greatest musical idols, Neil Young, who recorded a full album of original material (“Time Fades Away”) amidst one of the biggest tours of his life, the band decided to do the same, and the result of that experiment in creativity would come out in 1996 under the title of “New Adventures in Hi-Fi”.

In common, “Time Fades Away” and “New Adventures in Hi-Fi” share the fact that the respective series of shows that birthed them were filled with trouble. For while Neil Young and his crew spent their nights emotionally wrecked and consumed by all sorts of illegal substances, R.E.M. had to deal with plenty of medical emergencies, which culminated with drummer Bill Berry having a life-threatening aneurysm during a concert in Switzerland. In approach, though, the albums are greatly different, as “Time Fades Away” was put to tape as new songs were haphazardly performed in front of an audience that did not want to hear them, whereas “New Adventures in Hi-Fi” not only lacks drunk debauchery, but is also a mixture of tracks recorded during shows, in soundchecks, in studios, and even a little instrumental piece put together inside a dressing room.

In a sense, “New Adventures in Hi-Fi” was not the first time R.E.M. took a shot at making the so-called road album; after all, their sophomore full-length work, 1984’s “Reckoning”, had been written on the road and, thanks to the emotional effects of the band’s inaugural long tour, displayed lyrics centered around traveling, distance, and homesickness. But the two efforts could not possibly be more distinct, because besides obviously capturing the group at very disparate points in their career, the influence that constant motion has on the albums is simply not the same. Surely, with a handful of tracks (not to mention a cover) that nod to the concept and consequences of movement, there are some moments when “New Adventures in Hi-Fi” overlaps with aspects of “Reckoning”; but where the latter is a slick, controlled, and focused product of the studio, the former is a sprawling package: a collection of disparate photographs that have an interesting lack of unity due to how the subject they portray is always on the move.

Clocking in at sixty-five minutes, “New Adventures in Hi-Fi” is the longest R.E.M. album. Although that size is more a consequence of the length of the tunes (with nearly all of them going over the four-minute mark) than of the amount of tracks the disk contains (fourteen), the band makes use of that space to shoot at a surprisingly vast number of directions; and much to the joy of fans who admire the group’s ability to change their sound and to the credit of Berry, Buck, Mills, and Stipe, very little of “New Adventures in Hi-Fi” can be tied to what R.E.M. did before it. There are echoes of “Monster” in how the record often chooses to simply rock out, but rather than showcasing the glam aura of their 1994 work, these instances have a large open sound that is clearly the outcome of the arena environment in which the tunes were gestated. And there are tinges of accessible pop rock, but they are twisted by unusual length, abrasive arrangements, and raw production.

“New Adventures in Hi-Fi”, therefore, erodes a lot of the commercial value the band’s music slowly gained during the period between 1986 and 1992. The prime example of that turn is leading single “E-Bow the Letter”: featuring Michael Stipe emotionally reciting a cryptic text with considerations on love, fame, and distance while the band plays a haunting march and Patti Smith shows up to deliver a heart-wrenching refrain, the piece is frequently pointed out as commercial suicide and as the main culprit behind the album’s relatively low sales, which were especially disappointing in the United States. Yet, in spite of its blatant lack of marketable traits, “E-Bow the Letter” is absolutely stunning, and it is in that fine balance between impressive quality and absent financial viability that much of “New Adventures in Hi-Fi” exists, even if it does contain a couple of immediate hits, like “Bittersweet Me” and its catchy flirtation with the band’s jangly past, the folky match-up of piano-and-banjo seen in “Electrolite”, and the transformation of a Nirvana-like riff into the backbone of a rowdy alternative rock song executed in “So Fast, So Numb”.

“How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us” carries a beautiful chorus, but its alluring sparse, mysterious, and subdued verses are more like the R.E.M. of “Murmur” than the one that signed to Warner Bros. “The Wake-Up Bomb” is an utterly explosive thrill, but similarly to other rockers of the album, such as “Undertow” and “Binky the Doormat”, its wide sound clearly indicates it was recorded live. “New Test Leper” is a flawless piece of alternative country, but its marvelous lyrics – focused on a talk show guest that is ostracized by both host and audience – do not exactly have mass appeal. “Leave” is dark, epic, noisy, and has Stipe and Buck simultaneously landing on a great melody and on fantastic guitar hooks; but the fact it is one of the best tunes the band has ever recorded ends up somewhat obscured by its seven-minute length, the long acoustic instrumental segment that opens it, and an urgent buzzing siren that constantly stays on the background. “Departure” has a marvelous poppy edge, but it is a blistering and fast attack of vocals and guitar. “Be Mine” is an electric ballad that could easily be a hit, but it is purposely stretched. And “Low Desert” is great, but it achieves that position via a sweaty, heavy, and tense slow-tempo dirge.

Even through their very successful streak of “Out of Time” and “Automatic for the People”, R.E.M. never truly stopped being guided exclusively by their desires, since those albums reached notable sales more by accident than by design. “New Adventures in Hi-Fi” is, therefore, not too different from its popular siblings; still, it drives home that point far more obviously, as – in its case – artistic freedom clearly works against commercial value; a turn that certainly did not please many folks at Warner Bros. and fans that jumped aboard the train due to universal hits like “Losing My Religion” and “Everybody Hurts”. Regardless of such nature, “New Adventures in Hi-Fi” is completely masterful, be it for its stylistic range, its ability to blatantly broadcast the fact it was done while the band was on the road, or the sheer quality of its tracks. As such, although its musical flexibility can cause some of its songs to have varying effects on different people, the impressive amount of undeniable hidden gems it contains is rare enough to make it qualify as one of the best works of the decade and one of R.E.M.’s finest moments.

The Holy Bible

the_holy_bible

Album: The Holy Bible

Artist: Manic Street Preachers

Released: August 30th, 1994

Highlights: Yes, She Is Suffering, Revol, Faster, P.C.P.

If there is one accurate term to qualify a work as powerful and challenging as “The Holy Bible”, the word used to achieve that tough task would have to be the adjective miraculous. And that is in no way an attempt to draw a parallel between the third album by the Manic Street Preachers and the sacred book of the same name, because even though they share a title, both are widely different in content. As told by the band’s guitar player and main lyricist at the time, Richey Edwards, the record was dubbed as such to indicate that the material contained within it had to be legitimate: a precise and vivid description of the world as it is, with no truths being swept under the rug regardless of how inconvenient they may be.

And given Richey, around the period of the album’s conception, found himself at the very bottom of the well of drug addiction, alcohol abuse, depression, anorexia, and self-harm – problems that had haunted him for quite a while – the reality that “The Holy Bible” portrays is visualized through the lenses of an individual who was unable to glimpse a thread of light amidst the chaos of life, with his sensitivity leaving him particularly vulnerable to the horrors of human nature. Consequently, the album holds no relief, standing as a shocking depiction of the limits of one’s psyche and working as a gut-wrenching final statement by a man who would, six months after the record’s release, completely disappear following what is believed to have been a suicide carried out by jumping from a bridge.

Unlike most efforts put together under such dire mental conditions, though, there is nothing gloomy or resigned about the tone of “The Holy Bible”. From the very start, much thanks to the combination of Richey’s vicious pen and Bradfield’s aggressive guitar playing, the Manic Street Preachers had tackled themes that were inherently dark and depressive with a strong rebellious fire, replacing sadness with violent anger. And “The Holy Bible” is the culmination of that merger.

Gone is the polished and artificial production that softened the blow of the tunes of their debut, “Generation Terrorists”; and equally absent are the poppier hooks that the group tried to infuse in their sophomore outing, the irregular “Gold Against the Soul”. What remains, as such, is the essence of the band during the Richey era; which means that, “The Holy Bible” is, in music as well as in words, rough, explicit, messy, confrontational, distressing, and thrilling. In sound, those qualities are linked to a stripped down production that shoves the band to the punk side of hard rock, as guitars, drums, and bass hit listeners in their rawest possible state. In lyrics, meanwhile, they are present in how Richards, when writing the verses which James and Sean would add music to, clearly poured out his soul onto the paper without passing it through any sort of filter, be it one that edited the words to make them less blunt or one that formatted the lines so they would be more ideal to be turned into tunes.

And therein lies the miracle of “The Holy Bible”. Under common circumstances, putting melodies and instrumentation behind the poems Richey threw into his notebooks would simply be impossible. They shun metric, constantly changing the number of syllables and words of each sentence without a care in the world; they lack flow, often degenerating into mad sequences of terms that alternate between striving for meaning and going for sheer shock; and they rhyme sporadically, with matching sounds appearing more as a result of coincidence than as a consequence of craft. Yet, somehow, James is able to tame these shape-shifting monsters into submission.

He does so by running through the lines madly trying to make the words fit into the melody, a strategy that is very visible in the opener “Yes”; by turning some of the tracks into structural oddities that deploy multiple bridges, codas, and pre-choruses in an attempt to create a mold that can accommodate and give form to Richey’s cascade of feelings; and by assembling flexible instrumental parts that push the bare-bones setup of a rock band to the edge, with some tunes having the makings of four-minute mini-suites. It is a marvel of musical composition, and although the astounding acrobatics James has to pull off generate a listening experience that is neither as immediate nor as purely enjoyable as the ones seen in other records by the Manic Street Preachers, not only is the band still able to land on a handful of hooks that are remarkable, but the extra thick layer of abrasion displayed by the songs is a perfect fit for the matters Richey takes on and the manner in which he does it.

In a way, “The Holy Bible” is like an extremely gory and realistic movie that, rather than cutting to another scene or shifting the camera away when the most extreme moments are about to come up, chooses to zoom in on the brutality, grabbing its audience by the neck and forcing them to look closely at it. Through the course of thirteen tunes and nearly one hour, Richey takes a graphic and violent look into prostitution (“Yes”); sees humankind corrupted by a psychological worm that makes it have a disturbing affection towards authoritarian leaders (“Of Walking Abortion”) and merciless executions (“Archives of Pain”); simultaneously, by weirdly pairing up the names of leftist leaders with sex-related phrases, points out the inherent failure of relationships and politics (“Revol”); dives into the depths of his personal problems by looking at his disappointments with a vicious society (“Faster”), his anorexia (“4st 7lb”), his suicidal tendencies (“Die In The Summertime”), as well as the pain he sees in desire (“She Is Suffering”); and does not shy away from approaching genocides, racism, the dangers political correctness poses to freedom of speech, nuclear annihilation, sexual mutilation, clumsy foreign interventions executed by the United States, gun control, and others.

None of it is treated lightly; none of it is exposed with a caring touch; and none of it is handled with taste. Richey makes a point that human nature and those subjects, which he sees as natural consequences of the inborn corruption of people, do not deserve such a treatment, and that perhaps shock is the only way for us to wake up and notice the synergy that exists between both. It is not pleasant; it is not comforting; and it is not fun. But thanks to a musical miracle operated by James Dean Bradfield, it becomes a farewell letter that, albeit sad, is also palatable and oddly electrifying.

Nowhere

nowhere

Album: Nowhere

Artist: Ride

Released: October 15th, 1990

Highlights: In a Different Place, Dreams Burn Down, Paralysed, Vapour Trail

Rock history has plenty of albums whose art work captures quite perfectly the material contained within. In a single picture, guided by both artistic sensitivity and power of synthesis, they are able to convey the main musical nuances of the record as a unified and mighty piece. “Nowhere”, the debut of the shoegazing band Ride, certainly ranks among the finest examples of that phenomenon. The uncrested wave depicted in its cover is a fine fit for the sound displayed in the eight songs that form the effort: it is quiet music that moves slowly; yet, in the way that it swells over and surrounds those it touches, it reveals the true magnitude of its incredible size and volume, washing away everything that stands in its path and, through its strong undertow, pulling listeners into a world where their senses are challenged.

That highly stimulating experience, which is only possible through great studio trickery in sound engineering and musical arrangement, may come off as being unusually advanced for a first album. However, “Nowhere” is actually the culmination of a creative cycle; one that, during the year of 1990, yielded three EPs in which the band slowly fine-tuned the process of giving birth to their vision by traveling all the way from what was merely a slightly noisy take on alternative rock to a fully developed perspective on the shoegazing fever.

As part of that genre, “Nowhere” features all the characteristics one familiar with the style is well aware of. The soundscape it paints is lethargic and dreamy, as if listeners and musicians alike are either under the influence of a substance that slows down time or in a watery environment that makes the musical waves propagate leisurely. In the midst of that angelic bliss, though, there is a fierce battle constantly taking place, for while the soft vocals and sweet melodies try to take the music to an accessible spectrum, the almost omnipresent noise and the indifference with which the lyrics are sung threaten to make the tunes inscrutable.

The result is part pop and part psychedelia, but the mixture brought forth by Ride is somewhat different from the one contrived by their more popular genre peers of My Bloody Valentine. Because where in Kevin Shields’ band the struggle between the beautiful and the rough produces a sonic assault that feels like the shrill of a supernova, in the work of Ride that conflict is less fierce. There is noise, but rather than serving to drown the music, it works towards adorning the songs. Consequently, the vocals appear more prominently in the mix, and instead of being forced to rise and face the cacophony, the guitars are allowed to be played with a more traditional approach. As such, Ride puts a heavier emphasis on the pop side of the balance, serving as a clearer bridge between the shoegazing movement and the Britpop fever that would be its offspring.

That softer strategy has both good and bad ramifications. By leaving the vocals out in the open, the album highlights the strength of its melodic peaks; listeners are not forced to dig for the beauty amidst the cacophony, because bliss will find them. At the same time, though, that relatively naked scenario means instances where the record falters cannot be hidden: when melodies lack a moving spark, their weaknesses will be noted; and the same applies to the fact that Mark Gardener and Andy Bell, though able to carry a tune with some competence, are not exactly excellent vocalists, a reality that becomes rather obvious when the pair attempts to harmonize or reach for higher notes.

Save for “Decay”, however, none of the tunes are completely sunk by those faults. Whether through interesting catchy hooks or via alluring instrumental shifts, the record’s other weakest melodic moments – “Seagull”, “Kaleidoscope”, and “Polar Bear” – find some success: the first because of its unique vicious pace, its outbursts of noise, and its frantic drumming; the second due to its very basic and fast-paced approach to the genre; and the third thanks to how layered guitars with different clashing effects divide the same musical space with a soft acoustic strum. That final element, in fact, points to the second positive trait found in Ride’s tamer brand of shoegazing: the opportunities a cleaner soundscape creates for a wider instrumental palette.

And the band certainly takes advantage of that, extracting the record’s finest moments out of that open window. “In a Different Place” is downright gorgeous, as a beautiful delicate picked guitar riff is accompanied by steady drums during the verses until the song is elevated into a chorus that is both ethereal and noisy. Also dabbling into dreamy balladry, “Dreams Burn Down” features a guitar that occupies a large space despite its light tone, as if it were being played by U2’s The Edge, while also ringing stunningly through the water in which the song is apparently embedded. “Paralysed”, with its excellent instrumental coda, is the album’s best combination of the unplugged and the electric. And “Vapour Trail”, the closing and finest track to be found in “Nowhere”, is carried by a constant and simple riff that is, despite its changeless nature, transformed as the tune goes along due to very tasteful changes in both melody and the mix of instruments that accompany it.

As such, even if the lack of the usual shoegazing sonic assault ends up making the stumbles in “Nowhere” much clearer than they would have been had they been drowned in noise, the space opened up by that lighter approach allows Ride not just to give their own spin to the style, but also to find remarkable gems that are enough to turn their debut into a milestone; one that may not be flawless, but that is nevertheless enjoyable through most of its run.

Leisure

leisure

Album: Leisure

Artist: Blur

Released: August 26th, 1991

Highlights: She’s So High, Bang, Sing, There’s No Other Way

There are bands that put out debut records that indicate they seem know where they want to head to but clearly display they are still ways away from getting to the place they have their eyes on. Meanwhile, there are groups that produce first works that are so fully formed and confident that a listener unaware of the artist’s rookie status would think the album was put together by wise veterans. And then there is the case of introductions such as the one created by the Britpop giants of Blur. “Leisure” is a major oddity; an initial step that stands so distant from everything that would come later that it could, save for Damon Albarn’s recognizable voice, easily be blindly labeled as an effort made by a group of English blokes somewhere between 1989 and 1992.

Its placement within that four-year interval and inside the geographic boundaries of Great Britain would not be without reason, and that is because “Leisure” reeks of the era in which it was made: a time when British rock, though still producing a solid number of remarkable works, was stuck in the patterns established by the shoegazing of My Bloody Valentine and the Madchester of The Stone Roses. Inside that spectrum, “Leisure”, despite its balance between noise and pop, is far more in line with the latter than with the former, as it is more concerned with sugary hooks than sonic assaults. Its problem, however, is that such an alignment might be too close for comfort.

One can, of course, find distinctions between what Blur does in “Leisure” and what The Stone Roses did in their self-titled masterpiece. Although both records have reverberant and colorful underwater soundscapes, the guitar approach of Graham Coxon greatly differs from that of John Squire, because where the second was an orchestrator that followed on the footsteps of The Smiths’ Johnny Marr, the first emerges as a noisy pounder whose dirty and mighty distortions become cleverly hidden by the pop flavors Albarn likes to throw into the compositions.

And for those very same reasons, “Leisure” could – in a way – be linked to the rest of Blur’s output, as during its fifty minutes Albarn reveals his nose for catchy melodies; Coxon engages in some fearless racket; and the duo of Alex James and Dave Rowntree join those diverging spirits via some firm yet lively playing. Two key ingredients, though, are missing in “Leisure”: creativity and personality. It does not quite do enough to carve out a shape of its own, and Albarn’s lyrics, which would by 1993 develop a social sharp eye akin to that of The Kinks’ Ray Davies, are frequently dull and feel unfinished, even if the words to “Bang” do show glimpses of what would come later.

In fact, it is a comparison to the band’s inaugural Britpop effort, “Modern Life Is Rubbish”, that reveals where “Leisure” falters the most. Because in that album, Blur was able to mix old-school English musical traditions with absolutely contemporary sounds in order to forge music that was as quaint as it was current. Here, contrarily, listeners will surely get the contemporary; that is, the pop of The Stone Roses with tinges of the noise of My Bloody Valentine.

What they will miss, though, is the classic dosage that lifted Blur to stardom and allowed the group to find their own acre of land in the widely varied Britpop scene. Amidst the criticism it deserves, there are bright points to be seen in “Leisure”. The three singles extracted out of it are genuinely great. Following a clearly defined formula, they stand out thanks to impossibly catchy melodies and stellar guitar playing. “She’s So High” is backed by a gigantic guitar wall whose riff pounds as well as it cuts; meanwhile, “Bang” and “There’s No Other Way” have all the playful bounciness of Madchester. However, given the recipe that is used in the creation of those standout moments is repeated over and over again during the course of the album, many of the other tracks end up merging into one another due to a mixture of excessive similarity and utter lack of remarkable traits. And although many of the tunes that use that mold cannot truly be labeled as bad, except for “Slow Down” and “Repetition”, they can be accused of being generic.

To be fair, “Leisure” does – in two of its twelve songs – step out of the confines of its basic framework. Those instances are “Sing” and “Birthday”, and in them the band plays around with constructing ominous and noisy atmospheres that broadcast feelings of suffocating depression and endless lethargy. Though equally interesting in purpose and experimentation, their results could not be more different, for while “Birthday” manages to both be lyrically lousy and feel long despite lasting for under four minutes; “Sing”, with its drone piano, steady drums, and ear-piercing effects, is nothing short of a master work, one that is – in an album filled with safe choices – so strange in its inventiveness that it would be used as the basis for one of the best songs, “1992”, of the group’s most wildly experimental album, “13”.

Its greatness, however, cannot save “Leisure” from being – at most – harmlessly average. Its four best tracks are certainly a mandatory listen for anyone who is even just remotely interested in the fantastic trajectory of one of England’s greatest rock bands; the rest of its tunes, and the record itself, though, are only worthy of the time of Blur fans or dedicated music aficionados, because not much about it hints of what was to come with the arrival of 1993 and the beginning of Britpop, making the leap between “Leisure” and “Modern Life Is Rubbish” stand as one of the best and most impressive transformations in rock history.

Alice In Chains

alice_in_chains.jpg

Album: Alice in Chains

Artist: Alice in Chains

Released: November 7th, 1995

Highlights: Grind, Heaven Beside You, Head Creeps, Over Now

Time and geography have always made it somewhat easy to label Alice in Chains as a grunge band; after all, any group jumping out of the Seattle era during the early nineties was bound to receive such a classification. Musically, though, the quartet challenged that notion. Their tunes were often so heavy that comparisons to Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi were not rare, a fact that put them much closer to the metal genre than to the style practiced by their local contemporaries such as Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden. Yet, their tunes, most of the times, dove so deeply into thick sludge they gained slow tempos that did not make them stand firmly beside heavy metal acts either. And that diverging nature pleasantly stranded them in the indescribable middle of the road.

However, the trait Alice in Chains possessed that truly gave them the ability to elude categorization was certainly a highly melodic nose, for all the darkness and despair created by Jerry Cantrell’s guitar work was smoothed out by the unlikely beauty that emerged from the way he was able to harmonize with lead singer Layne Staley. And the band seemed to be so aware of that unique characteristic that they went on to explore it greatly in the making of two soft and gorgeous EPs: “Sap”, released in 1992; and the astoundingly commercially successful “Jar of Flies”, published two years later.

The self-titled “Alice in Chains”, the group’s third full-length effort, arrived not too long after the latter, and following two detours towards the delicate embrace of acoustic strums, not to mention the highly-regarded “Dirt”, itself an album that thrived in the merging of heaviness and softness, one could easily expect the group to keep on going down that fruitful path. “Alice in Chains”, nevertheless, shuns it almost completely. It is certainly hard, probably much harder than any of their previous efforts; it unquestionably has a nice amount of notable riffs, and they are as sludgy and ominous as ever; and both Cantrell and Staley join their voices in stunning harmony so frequently that it feels like the band has two lead vocalists.

What is missing, therefore, is melody. It is hard to tell whether that result originates from a conscious decision by the group or from the simple reality that, by 1995, Jerry Cantrell had simply run out of hooks of the sort. But the bottom line is that “Alice in Chains” is obviously lacking in that department, and although that characteristic allows the band to explore a different vein of their music, one that is cruder and more violent, it also harms the final output, because it is missing one of the key components that had made them so great in the first place.

“Alice in Chains”, truthfully, is not completely devoid of great melodic moments, as these do come up from time to time. The problem is that they are considerably outnumbered by duller sequences. As such, tunes where the record truly shines in the traditional Alice in Chains fashion are a bit rare. Opener “Grind”, for instance, has a mean guitar crunch in its verses and finds beautiful relief in its chorus; meanwhile, closer “Over Now”, which is almost relaxed when compared to the rest of the album, offers a nice and balanced pairing between acoustic and electric instrumentation, as Cantrell combines two guitars while extracting the best of both of them: delicate picking from the former and a fantastic solo from the latter.

Moreover, “Heaven Beside You” and “Head Creeps” also find success, but they do so in a slightly different manner: by exploring the two central facets of the band to their utter extremes. With lyrics centered around a failed relationship that Jerry Cantrell went through, the first one is a sorrowful ballad that unlocks melodic beauty without abandoning a brooding aura. The second one, quite contrarily, ranks as the nastiest of the songs of “Alice in Chains”; penned by Layne Staley on his own, and ridden with bizarre distorted vocal passages, it is a glimpse into his heroin addiction that is noisy and terrifying, but that never loses sight of the value of a good melody.

Through the course of its other eight tracks, though, “Alice in Chains” oscillates too much between the decent, the average, and the outright bad. At times, the songs themselves are not blatantly problematic, such as “Sludge Factory” or “Frogs”, but their general slowness and lack of very memorable moments can become boring when their long length – seven and eight minutes respectively – is considered. And that reveals another minor issue that holds the release back from being better perceived: its excessive sixty-four-minute running time, which is a bit too much given the monochromatic soul that permeates most of the album.

The very good “Facelift” as well as the masterful “Dirt” were almost equally long works, but even if they did not vary in terms of theme, they found musical space to flex their muscles. “Alice in Chains”, on the other hand, remains stuck in the deathly grips of anger, depression, and drugs, but fails to bring forth as much stylistic breathing room. And if, in a way, that consistency is very helpful when it comes to pulling listeners into the hopeless Alice in Chains universe, which is exactly where anyone playing their records expects to go, the songs contained here make it harder for one to enjoy the twisted trip.

Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness

mellon_collie

Album: Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness

Artist: The Smashing Pumpkins

Released: October 23rd, 1995

Highlights: Tonight Tonight, Zero, Bullet with Butterfly Wings, To Forgive, 1979

Billy Corgan envisioned “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness” as his generation’s equivalent of The Beatles’ “White Album” and Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”. They were certainly high bars to aim for, but Corgan – always rightfully convinced of his greatness as a songwriter – was fully aware that he could pull off something of the sort. The Smashing Pumpkins’ third work is, however, far removed from those albums. Although its two discs are meant to represent the passage from dawn to starlight, its music hardly evokes that transition, and the lack of an overarching theme (save for Corgan’s usual melodramatic angst and depression) makes it fall short of the conceptual greatness of “The Wall”. At the same time, despite the fact that “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness” does show the band stretching their wings past the walls of guitars that dominated “Gish” and “Siamese Dream” and venturing into new musical terrain, it does not quite embrace as many styles as the schizophrenic “White Album”.

However, not being any of those records actually does “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness” quite a whole lot of good. Containing two hours worth of material and twenty eight songs – hence making it far longer than the two works that inspired it – the album ends up amounting to a mesmerizing set of rock songs rather than an opera (“The Wall”) or a vicious, ultimately unfocused, competition between two songwriters (“White Album”). It is, undoubtedly, a lot of content, which makes getting through the album’s full length one challenging listen; still, even though it is undeniable the record could have been edited into one amazing fifteen-track piece, “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness” is one double album that does not reek of overindulgence. Firstly, because blatant duds are rare (with the shouted “Tales of a Scorched Earth” probably being the sole exception); secondly, because even the songs that are not flawless gems have redeeming qualities, such as one or two strong melodic moments; and finally because the album catches Billy Corgan at such an astounding songwriting groove that the twenty eight tunes offer a nice balance between instant classics and curious experiments.

When The Smashing Pumpkins go loud in “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness”, they usually trade the long buildups and instrumental passages of “Siamese Dream” for more immediate tunes, such as the guitar crunch of “Jellybelly” and “Zero”, the explosion of “Bullet with Butterfly Wings”, or the highly melodic “Muzzle” and “Here Is No Why”. In “Porcelina of the Vast Oceans”, “Thru the Eyes of Ruby”, and “X.Y.U.”, though, the band expands upon the lengthy nature of their past compositions and builds tunes that are borderline progressive in their complex construction. The album also holds space for gorgeous guitar-centered ballads (“To Forgive”, “Galapogos”, “By Starlight”); grandiose orchestration that is stunningly integrated into sweeping rock (“Tonight, Tonight”); acoustic introspection (the amazing “Thirty-Three” and the merely solid “Take Me Down”); brushes with pop music (“Love”, “In the Arms of Sleep”, and “Beautiful”); violent attacks with overdubbed guitars (“An Ode to No One”, “Where Boys Fear to Tread”, and “Bodies”); piano-based tracks (the title cut and “Cupid de Locke”); and, of course, a moving classic about coming of age where The Smashing Pumpkins integrate Corgan’s sensibilities, a soft guitar riff, loops, and samples (“1979”).

“Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness” could indeed have been a better record. Most of its hits, and a considerable portion of its greatest tunes, are found in the first disc, meaning that a more sober track sequencing could have avoided the front-loaded vibe many listeners will get from the album. Additionally, in spite of how Corgan succeeds in connecting to a younger and angry audience via his depictions of pain, broken expectations, and other hurtful experiences, he occasionally veers too far into caricature, uttering sentences that would only have worked as parodies of teenage angst and that will automatically sink a handful of the tracks to some. Nevertheless, “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness” is a perplexing achievement, for it sees one of the nineties’ greatest bands and one of the decade’s finest songwriters pour the results of their talent and prolificness into a highly ambitious double album, and – on the way – produce more hits than many artists are able to come up with during their entire careers while also daring to be artistically bold at some points.

Trompe Le Monde

trompe_le_monde

Album: Trompe Le Monde

Artist: Pixies

Released: September 23rd, 1991

Highlights: Planet of Sound, Alec Eiffel, U-Mass, Motorway to Roswell

“Trompe Le Monde” is the fourth and final album the Pixies released in their original run of madness and greatness, marking the end of a career frequently hailed as nearly immaculate before the band walked into the studio (albeit without bassist Kim Deal) in 2014 to release the often maligned “Indie Cindy”. Given its arrival came roughly one year before the group’s conflicted separation, “Trompe Le Monde” is usually accompanied by a narrative that sees it as some sort of drop; a result of the increasingly distant and hurtful relationship between bandleader and main songwriter Black Francis, and Kim Deal, who – blocked from contributing creatively to the band – had formed The Breeders on the previous year to serve as her artistic outlet. In a way, it is a story that is backed up by the music: Deal’s sweet backing vocals, always a powerful counterpoint to Francis’ insane screams, are nearly absent; moreover, “Trompe Le Monde” is indeed more inconsistent than what came before it. In another way, though, the plot does not hold, because while “Trompe Le Monde” may actually have a few holes in it, it would have been celebrated as an achievement if produced by any other band.

With a whopping fifteen tracks that somehow deliver their messages within less than forty minutes, “Trompe Le Monde” executes the usual Pixies formula of entering the ring, punching listeners with quick loud songs filled with catchy hooks, and walking out victoriously. Barely none of the tracks last for over three minutes; they efficiently lure fans into their grasp with the seemingly impossible consonance between punk guitars, aggressive vocals, and pop skills, and move out into the sunset, making way to the next barrage of delightful lunacy. There is eardrum-rupturing screaming, blissful quietness, and sheer sugar-coated melodic goodness, usually all combined into the same two-minute tracks, but also occasionally being individually used as the backbone for some compositions. “Trompe Le Monde” falters in the tuneless talking-singing of “Space (I Believe in)” and “Subbacultcha”, which are quite dull despite their hilarious subjects: a dude named Jeffrey, but with only one F; and the mocking of groups of people who try too hard to be cool, and succeed only inside the bubbles in which they inhabit.

Everywhere else, the album presents varying levels of greatness. The title song is an exciting combination of rough instrumentation and floaty vocals. “Planet of Sound”, about a space traveler, and “Alec Eiffel, centered around the French architect, are easily among the Pixies’ greatest songs. “The Sad Punk” takes the band’s quite-and-loud dynamics to an absurd extreme, being spit into a shouting segment and a highly sweet and melodic portion, resulting in a three-minute rock opera. “Head On” turns The Jesus and Mary Chain’s original, sung by an amusingly bored Jim Reid, into a high-energy punk anthem, a description that also applies to “Distance Equals Rate Times Time”. “U-Mass” uses a brainless riff composed when Francis and Santiago were in college as the support for a song about the brainlessness of a wild campus life. “Palace of the Brine” and “Bird Dream of the Olympus Mons” slowly build into incredible hooks. “Letter to Memphis” is the most straight pop-rock tune in the Pixies’ four classic albums. “Lovely Day” toys with lo-fi ethics. And “The Navajo Know” is hypnotic in its clockwork-like progression.

No other tune on the record, though, is as great as the magnificent “Motorway to Roswell”. A rarity for the Pixies, and a suiting exclamation point for the end of their run, it is a five-minute epic with a ballad-like acoustic strum in its verses, a climatic chorus, and a masterful guitar performance by Santiago that chronicles the Roswell UFO incident from the perspective of the friendly extraterrestrial that decided to pay humans a visit only to be dissected by scientists not long after his crash landing. Although it is not positioned as the album’s closer, which is perhaps another minor shortcoming of “Trompe Le Monde”, it displays the band’s incredible creative force lasted until the final seconds of their trajectory, and sends the Pixies’ original lineup straight from record players around the world to the pantheon of musical greatness. They rocked fiercely, loudly, boldly, weirdly, and relentlessly until the very end.

Dance Hall At Louse Point

dance_hall_louse_point

Album: Dance Hall at Louse Point

Artist: PJ Harvey and John Parish

Released: September 23th, 1996

Highlights: Rope Bridge Crossing, That Was My Veil, Urn with Dead Flowers in a Drained Pool, Civil War Correspondent

By the time “Dace Hall at Louse Point” came out, PJ Harvey had already published three full-length records in which she had, masterfully, explored different flavors of blues-influenced garage rock. Despite her rightfully earned critical acclaim, therefore, she had yet to mutate into the musical chameleon that would go on to put together stylistically unique albums of genres such as contemporary rock (“Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea”), haunting piano balladry (“White Chalk”), and English folk music (“Let England Shake”). As such, “Dance Hall at Louse Point”, her collaborative effort with her band’s guitar player and friend, John Parish, marks the first time PJ Harvey showed signs of the multifaceted artist that lay within the rough, sexual, and violent image she had held up to that point.

Truthfully, much – or perhaps all – of the experimentation that exists within “Dance Hall at Louse Point” stems from Parish, not Harvey; after all, with the exception of one cover (“Is That All There Is?”) and two brief instrumentals (“Girl” and the title song), all tracks have their music penned by Parish, while it was left for her to focus on the lyrics. Still, “Dance Hall at Louse Point” gave listeners a first view of Harvey out of the confines in which she was musically born. The album does not completely abandon blues and rock: those are still the cornerstones on top of which the songs are constructed. However, Parish’s approach to those genres is far more unusual than Harvey’s. In common with her songwriting, Parish’s is in equal parts rough and discomforting, but while Harvey uses those characteristics to build fully formed tunes that lure listeners into their claws, Parish does not smooth the rough edges of his compositions.

Such a quality means that “Dance Hall at Louse Point” sometimes feels too unstructured or unfocused for its own good, as if it is the work of two friends who were more concerned with pushing one another to new places than with using that methodology to create music that is uniformly enjoyable. As a consequence, there are instances in which the experiments work; and there are times when the resulting pieces of music fail to be engaging. Parish’s adventurous song structures never take Harvey out of her comfort zone when it comes to lyrical themes: she is still usually penning and singing quite powerful takes on women who are either broken by a former partner or anguished over the mixed signals sent by a new potential lover. What his music does, though, is challenge her to lay down melodies over rather abrasive surfaces.

Therefore, when Harvey succeeds in doing so, the album clicks in place, as it happens in the acoustic blues of “Rope Bridge Crossing”; the folk “That Was My Veil”; or in “Urn with Dead Flowers in a Drained Pool”, which is quietly aggressive and violently explosive like Harvey’s usual brand of garage rock. On the other hand, when the melodies and music fail to stick together, “Dance Hall at Louse Point” is left meandering throughout a barren musical landscape in search of melodic centers of gravity that are just not there. As a result, PJ Harvey and John Parish join forces to produce a record that is rather irregular and that does not yield much that is truly remarkable aside from a few songs. The most important outcome of “Dance Hall at Louse Point”, though, is not the tracks contained within, but the experimental and stylistic push that it provided to PJ Harvey so that she felt willing and confident to tackle new and bold musical grounds with her future works. History has already proven such jump-start to have been quite valuable.