The Mollusk


Album: The Mollusk

Artist: Ween

Released: June 24th, 1997

Highlights: Mutilated Lips, The Blarney Stone, Buckingham Green, Ocean Man

Whenever an outrageously idiosyncratic band signs a deal with a major label, there is always – understandably – some concern among fans that the pressures that come with a contract of the kind will harm creativity freedom. Take the case of Ween, for example. Before signing up with Elektra Records in the early 90s, the duo formed by Aaron Freeman and Mickey Melchiondo had spent over five years working independently and cultivating quite a reputation with amateurishly recorded lo-fi tracks that jumped between countless genres and boasted lyrics drowning in juvenile jokes. Out of that phase, the pair was able to squeeze not only a vast collection of cassette tapes but also two full-length releases – “GodWeenSatan: The Oneness” and “The Pod” – that together carried more than two hours of material that was absurdly noisy, highly experimental, unbelievably eclectic, positively crude in humor, and occasionally quite catchy to boot. Yet, as unlikely as it may be, and probably because of that last characteristic, by 1992 Freeman and Melchiondo were dragged into the bowels of the music business.

Their first two albums as part of the ruling system, though, showcased Freeman and Melchiondo had opted to be a nuisance from within rather than a cog in the machine, since “Pure Guava” as well as “Chocolate and Cheese” were – like their predecessors – works so big they felt unedited, so varied they could come off as unfocused, so abrasive they were bound to please only established fans, and so thematically ridiculous an unaware listener would probably conclude the lyrics were written by high school students. As such, at least during that period, Ween fans could safely sleep in the knowledge that the wackiness of their favorite music maniacs had not been tamed by the powers that be; and it is precisely at that point that “The Mollusk” comes in.

Released in 1997, “The Mollusk” sees Ween putting together, for the first time ever, a work that falls into the definition of what the boring general public perceives as an album. Obviously, that does not mean its predecessors were not proper records; they were, when it is all said and done, sequences of songs published under a name and with beautiful cover art. But thanks to their length, variety, and noise, they were more likely to be seen by most human ears as wild experiments in madness to see what sticks to the wall than as calculated efforts that are intended to deliver some sort of message. “The Mollusk”, on the other hand, is notably well-behaved: it clocks in at only slightly over forty minutes, it is almost devoid of lo-fi aesthetic, and – more shocking than everything else – a good look at what is sung in it reveals it might even have a degree of thematic cohesion. In other words, “The Mollusk” is Ween sitting down and making a normal album.

It is possible to say that before “The Mollusk” Freeman and Melchiondo had already done something of the sort. After all, one year earlier, the pair had gone down to Nashville, gathered a bunch of experienced musicians, and released “12 Golden Country Greats”: a concise trip through all corners of the titular genre that does not leave the duo’s signature humor out of the equation. However, given that project’s focus on a singular style, the Ween stamp it carries is a bit faded, as if it were a little detour on the journey rather than an actual stop. “The Mollusk”, on the contrary, has the band’s fingertips all over it because despite its cleaner production and controlled size, it is a wild journey through a kaleidoscope of genres, which is what one expects out of Ween.

Truthfully, when compared to works like “The Pod” and “Pure Guava”, the genre exploration conducted by “The Mollusk” is not so significant. For starters, the record does not have enough room to be so wild since it only has fourteen songs whereas its older brothers either approach or break the twenty-track threshold. Secondly, as revealed by its title and cover, “The Mollusk” has a notable lean towards maritime music and sounds that nod to the ocean, which narrows its boundaries considerably. Yet, inside them, the record has quite a ball, going through an old-timey vaudevillian ditty (“I’m Dancing in the Show Tonight”), a drunken pirate song akin to Tom Waits’ carnival period (“The Blarney Stone”), a slice of medieval balladry (“Cold Blows the Wind”), an art pop exercise on imitating Peter Gabriel (“Buckingham Green”), and an irresistible gem that either single-handedly inaugurates the underwater folk genre or at least marks its peak (“Ocean Man”).

The king of the proceedings, though, is undoubtedly psychedelic pop. It is hard to pinpoint exactly why Ween decided to go so strongly in that direction, but the fact is that the genre benefits the record in at least three visible ways. The first is that it opens the door to a myriad of sonic oddities that lend “The Mollusk” the necessary quirkiness that fans want from Ween; the best example of that result is in the hilarious effects thrown into the vocals of “Mutilated Lips”, which is a fantastic and trippy pop song. The second is that it equally unlocks production trickery that helps the album attain its aquatic soundscape, like the keyboards that imitate woodwinds in the title track, the unsteady wave-like rhythms of “Polka Dot Tail”, and the lush ambiance on the obscenely silky-smooth pop of “It’s Gonna Be (Alright)”. Finally, betting on a genre that is – at its best – cleverly melodic and technically skillful plays right into the hands of the band’s greatest abilities.

Although humor and eclecticism tend to be the terms most closely associated with Ween, they had always been a group that thrived on melody and on technical prowess, especially the one exhibited by Melchiondo with a guitar in his hands. Nevertheless, in most of the material that preceded “The Mollusk”, songs in which these two variables met were not so easily found because one had to sift through a good deal of wildness to locate cuts that went for one without leaving the other behind. In “The Mollusk”, however, the balance between technical goodness and melodic excellence is the norm, and guided by the light of catchy and musically rich psychedelic pop, Ween delivers an absolute barrage of great tracks that are memorable from a singalong standpoint as well as from an instrumental perspective; the solo in “Buckingham Green”, for example, should be mentioned in any list that attempts to rank epic guitar moments.

Of course, this being a Ween album, there are still a few moments when Freeman and Melchiondo go a bit too far into the joke and hit bum notes: opener “I’m Dancing in the Show Tonight” lacks creative spark, “I’ll Be Your Jonny on the Spot” nods to their noisy lo-fi origins without leaving much of a mark, and instrumental “Pink Eye (On My Leg)” is a bit dull. However, by any standards, “The Mollusk” is a major musical victory. It proved Ween could find a balance between their impetus for wild experimentation and the focus usually required to produce a solid album, and it manages to hit that target perfectly without relinquishing any type of audience they may have. Fans will still find humor, eclecticism, and eccentricity; while outsiders will encounter a tuneful work filled with catchy and fun tracks. As it is the pattern for Ween, “The Mollusk” is dubious enough to leave one guessing whether the duo is tackling these genres out of love or out of mockery; what is not questionable, however, is the caliber of its songwriting genius and the joy that can be found in this pleasantly watery collection of tunes.




Album: Painful

Artist: Yo La Tengo

Released: October 5th, 1993

Highlights: Big Day Coming, Double Dare, Nowhere Near, A Worrying Thing

Saying that, by 1993, Yo La Tengo had yet to release anything of significance would be a rather misguided statement. Up to that point, the New Jersey indie rockers had put out a wide assortment of marvelous tunes that embraced quite a few styles: there was the unsung jangle pop anthem “The Cone of Silence”; the surprisingly introspective union of gentle electric strums and relentless noise heard in “Barnaby, Hardly Working”; the immaculate folk harmonies of the gorgeous “Alyda”; the half country-like instrumental and half loud shoegaze lethargy that made up “Detouring America With Horns”; the pop rock bliss of “Upside-Down”; the blistering guitar fury of the nine-minute “Mushroom Cloud of Hiss”; and countless others. Nevertheless, despite all that excellence, Yo La Tengo certainly did not feel like a fully-formed group.

The reason for that was simple: almost a decade and five albums into their career, the band did not have a defining full-length release. There were cases when still budding songwriting abilities produced records that were part greatness and part filler, with the debut “Ride the Tiger” being the most blatant example of that problem; there were moments when musical concepts were not thoroughly developed to the point of yielding works that felt complete; there was an album of decent country covers; and there was plenty of stylistic soul-searching, since Yo La Tengo was such a weird confluence of varied musical inspirations that sometimes one could tell the band had trouble either sticking to one road or finding a middle ground between their influences that the trio could claim as its own.

Then came 1993 and, with it, the release of “Painful”. In a way, it was a continuation of the evolution that had been displayed by its predecessor, “May I Sing With Me”, which had showcased Yo La Tengo was at last ready to bring their music to full maturity in a work that felt complete. However, “Painful” had not only a greater degree of musical cohesiveness, but also a firmer grasp on songwriting goodness and a mightier dose of the key element that had been eluding the band for so long: focus. And with those tools in hand, Yo La Tengo succeeded in delivering their first truly essential album; the one in which they proved the genre-hopping of their past had given way to a very defined identity.

The fact “Painful” has focus and stylistic consistency does not mean, however, Yo La Tengo abandoned their adventurous eclecticism before heading into the studio; if they had done so, they would have also lost a major part of their personality. Consequently, this is an album that has crispy guitar jangle, touching folk picking, country harmonization, furious noise that flirts with the wilder moments of The Velvet Underground, hazy introspection that borders on dream pop, and guitar walls that nod to shoegaze. These are ingredients so disjointed that it is hard to conceive how a band could pull them into a unified whole; it would be much easier, in fact, to see them coming together to form a sprawling delightful mess that could rate as the “Exile on Main St.” of the 1990s. But, quite contrarily, Yo La Tengo fuses these pieces into forty-eight minutes that feel more like an alternative rock suite than a collection of disconnected ideas.

What “Painful” ultimately proves is that Yo La Tengo is a band that follows no rules. They can write and execute small tracks that feel like interludes, regularly sized songs, or more sprawling tunes whose length would be daunting to average listeners. Although somebody who is used to the more adventurous corners of rock music would expect the big cuts to be the ones where the band goes wild in their noisy trips while the shorter tunes remain the most accessible, that is simply not the case, because Yo La Tengo is a band that is constantly pushing against one or more predefined standards, and settling into any of those patterns would be giving up that attitude almost completely. And so, through the entirety of “Painful”, the band is seen succeeding in subverting concepts and forging their unmistakable brand of indie rock.

On the shorter side and qualifying as the two tracks of the album that most clearly display the shoegaze influences of Yo La Tengo, “From a Motel 6” and “Double Dare” turn tall screaming guitar riffs into their choruses and main hooks, making those loud moments nicely contrast with the soothing vocals of their verses. Almost equally concise, clocking in at slightly less than five minutes, “Sudden Organ” is another excellent racket, but one built on a distinctive and nigh tribal drum pattern, a nasty guitar that delivers a notable low hum, and – as the title implies – an organ so wild that comparisons to The Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray” are not absurd. At the same time, though, the band also uses brevity to put out a trio of calmer tunes: the mesmerizing interlude of “Superstar-Watcher”; the whispered and only suggested beautiful melody that hides in “A Worrying Thing”; and the breathtaking “The Whole of the Law”, which transforms the original by power pop band The Only Ones from a drunk country tune into a song where a gently strummed guitar and punctual percussive touches are all that accompany Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley as they stunningly harmonize.

When it comes to the lengthier numbers, “Painful” confirms an ability that had already been insinuated by the band’s previous releases: their knack for excellently extending tunes that would normally have no business being so long. Opener “Big Day Coming” boils down to an organ and background guitar feedback that stay steady whilst Kaplan slowly delivers a trio of stanzas; it is simple, but the beauty it generates is so grand its seven minutes breeze by. “Nowhere Near” is similarly stripped down, with the key difference that it eventually disintegrates into noise during its second half; yet, its six minutes could loop forever that nobody would wish for the end of the dream-like state produced by the instrumentation and Georgia’s gentle vocals. “I Was the Fool Beside You for Too Long” has Kaplan repeating the title for nearly a whole five minutes, but behind him such a mass of noise that could escape at any moment builds so intensely one cannot help being anything but gripped. And closer “I Heard You Looking” is a seven-minute instrumental centering on a riff any guitar amateur could pull off, but the way the band dynamically sustains it for so long is sheer talent and magic.

What is most impressive about “Painful” is that even though it is invariably pushing boundaries to form its own take on alternative rock, the record never puts a wrong foot forward. Although some of its song lengths might indicate that is the case, the wild adventurous spirit of Yo La Tengo never goes too far here. “Painful” is far from being an accessible album that can please anyone with a love for alternative rock of the early 1990s because be it melodically or instrumentally, Kaplan, Hubley, and McNew are always throwing curveballs that can be slightly hard to swallow for some even if they happen to appreciate some of the band’s folk and country influences, which can still be heard to a point. Yet, the truth is there is not a single tune in its tracklist that fails to deliver some sort of musical gem, be it an irresistible strum, a gripping instrumental passage, a moving melody, or all of those items combined. And with so much to offer, it is no wonder this first instance of greatness by these indie legends rightfully stands among their best works.


Da Lama Ao Caos


Album: Da Lama ao Caos

Artist: Chico Science & Nação Zumbi

Released: April 1st, 1994

Highlights: Banditismo por Uma Questão de Classe, Rios Pontes & Overdrives, Samba Makossa, Da Lama ao Caos, Computadores Fazem Arte

Located in the northeast region of Brazil, one of the country’s poorest corners, Recife is similar to many of the other metropolises found in the South American giant. While it has an elite that is able to flirt with Western European living standards, its most destitute inhabitants – which make a huge portion of its 1.5 million population – struggle in conditions that are much closer to those of many African countries. Recife, however, has its particularities, and the most important one might be its swampy river shores, known locally as mangues. As the city grew, these wetlands were often regarded as undesirable sites, with – in a turn of ignorance – some even going so far as not caring for their preservation. And this derision heavily contrasted with the nearby beachfront, which was coveted by those who could afford it.

With time, in a rather unsurprising sequence of events for a place with so much inequality, Recife split into two: its coastal neighborhoods, facing the Atlantic Ocean, became pristine marvels of tropical wealth. Meanwhile, in many cases just a couple of miles from these glistening streets, the poor were relegated to the chaos of uncontrolled urbanization, having to find a way to build precarious homes by the swampy undesirable inlets. Since life always finds a way, one man’s trash soon became another’s treasure, and Recife’s lower class quickly learned not just to survive in the wetlands, but make a living out of them, as the exchange between salty and fresh water caused the submerged vegetation of the rivers to be brimming with fish and, especially, crabs.

In normal circumstances, absolutely none of those matters would have anything to do with music. “Da Lama ao Caos” (which translates to English as “From Mud to Chaos”), the debut album of Chico Science & Nação Zumbi, completely changes that, though; and fully understanding what it contains necessarily goes through grasping the nature of Recife itself. The band comes from the muddy side of town; and looking around him, Chico Science, their leader, sees a city with clogged arteries. These blocked veins are not just streets ridden by traffic jams that resulted from unbridled urban expansion: they are the poor stuck in the inhuman conditions of the riverside slums; they are the growing inequalities; they are the violence generated by lack of opportunities; they are the old desire to destroy the mangues suddenly becoming the wish to wipe out the environment where the poor have built their precarious homes; and they are the lack of contemporary cultural activity in a place where one half spends life climbing the corporate ladders of capitalism while the other only has enough energy to try to survive.

Chico Science & Nação Zumbi attempt to cure Recife of its illnesses through the only way they can; that is, via music. And taking one step ahead, they opt to do it by igniting the spark of a totally new movement, dubbed manguebeat. Although plenty of bands around the city at the time were part of that cultural wave, “Da Lama ao Caos” is its most mainstream example, succeeding in breaking o bit ut of local frontiers to reach a nationwide stage. The record, however, ranks as a little more than that, because its elaborated ideas, when paired with the band’s social consciousness, turn it into a manifesto that is broadcast in the shape of fourteen songs, making it no surprise it starts with a speech.

To a global audience, the best way to summarize the sound Chico Science & Nação Zumbi bring to the table in “Da Lama ao Caos” would be comparing it to internationally known rock figures; and in this case, the closest one would probably be Rage Against the Machine. Chico Science, frequently using images of crabs and mud, raps much more often than he sings and even when he steps out of social matters, all one needs to do is dig a little deeper to discover there are always political undertones to what he is saying. Meanwhile, Nação Zumbi could neatly fit into the alternative metal box: when the guitars come in full force, they land with volume and weight that nod to Black Sabbath (in terms of sludgy tempos) and early Metallica (in terms of nasty tones); but when not flooring audiences with volume, their guitar and bass duo know how to drink from funk to build scratchy syncopated rhythms over which Chico Science can spill his characteristic poetry.

Comparisons to Rage Against the Machine, however, cannot account for how, rather than relying on explosive and somewhat predictable choruses, the hooks of “Da Lama ao Caos” actually emerge from Chico Science’s creative flow as well as his smart usage of similar word sounds that bounce off of each other, sometimes forming wild tongue twisters. Furthermore, tying the band to international standards would be even more criminal because Nação Zumbi ultimately sports a sound that could only have come from Recife itself. The main trick is that this early formation does not feature a standard drum set, which is replaced by a section of four percussionists, with two of them using a specific type of local drum called alfaia. Taking inspiration from the regional genre maracatu, an Afro-Brazilian rhythm of notably distinct percussion work, Nação Zumbi dumps a heavy dose of entirely genuine African heritage into the heart of rock music, and there is not a song in “Da Lama ao Caos” that does not feature absolutely stunning rhythms that are pivotal to the essence of the tracks.

As the album goes on, Chico Science, sometimes via brief memorable sentences exploding with power, summarizes a multitude of feelings that should be recognized by the children of Recife’s swamps. He understands the extreme necessities of poverty breed crime (“Banditismo por Uma Questão de Classe”); he depicts the chaotic rush of daily life and shows how the death of a poor man is treated with indifference by a town too busy to care (“Rios, Pontes & Overdrives”); he points out the quick growth of the city only amplifies inequalities (“A Cidade”); he sees culture and music as tools that can help one escape reality, celebrate their identity, and even maybe get a better life (“Samba Makossa”); he urges his peers to open their eyes and ears to their surroundings in order to become culturally and socially aware (“Antene-se”); he longs for a love to add colors to his life (“Risoflora”); and, on the album’s most acid moment, he perceives hunger as an obstacle that stops people from thinking critically, implying its existence may be the intentional consequence of political projects (“Da Lama ao Caos”).

Through its run, “Da Lama ao Caos” finds good variety in the realm it creates: the title song is a guitar-based sludgy metal crunch that drags listeners into the swamp; “Banditismo por Uma Questão de Classe” is a fiery and funky rap-rock; “Rios, Pontes & Overdrives” has a surprisingly modern danceable beat; “Samba Makossa”, as its title implies, speeds up the slower maracatu percussion to nod to the famous samba of Rio de Janeiro; and “Computadores Fazem Arte” is a cyclical, hypnotic, and highly melodic moment. Yet, with most of its highlights centered on the first half, “Da Lama ao Caos” drags a bit towards the end thanks to two merely decent instrumentals, a long closer that is a somewhat failed experiment, and a trio of tunes (“Maracatu de Tiro Certeiro”, “Antene-se”, and “Risoflora”) that though good do not live up to the rest. Still, it is hard to think the cultural revolution idealized by Chico Science and others could have had a better initial display. Twenty-seven years after it, Recife remains divided between a rich coast and riverside slums; the album’s message, however, resonates in its alleys. Hopefully, the fruits it has produced and will certainly still generate should eventually bring forth the major change both the city and the country as a whole so desperately need.


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.


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


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


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.



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.



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


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.