Painful

painful

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.

five

Blue Weekend

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Album: Blue Weekend

Artist: Wolf Alice

Released: June 4th, 2021

Highlights: Delicious Things, Lipstick on the Glass, Play the Greatest Hits, The Last Man on Earth

While the indie class of the 2000s was interested in either reviving garage rock ethos or exploring the value of bombastic compositions, that of the 2010s had its eyes firmly set on the introspection of dream pop. Be it innocently playful or overwhelmingly depressive, the independent scene – the apparent final bastion of rock music – spent most of that decade producing artists who loved gentle guitars, whispery vocals, as well as intimate songwriting. At times, that inspiration veered towards an earthly folk sound, giving birth to more organic acts like Big Thief and Phoebe Bridgers; on other occasions, though, the tunes floated straight to the ethereal realm inaugurated by the Cocteau Twins, and drifting in the vastness of that space one could find bands such as The xx and Daughter.

Coming from London and putting out their full-length debut right in the middle of the dreamy 2010s, Wolf Alice certainly belongs to that second group. Yes, singer and guitarist Ellie Rowsell may have started the act as an acoustic duo, but proving that in the minds of her generation folk music is not too distant from dream pop, the project began gaining members and shape until it slowly transitioned into a more ethereal atmosphere by the time of “Blush”, their 2013 EP. Yet, even then, there clear signs Wolf Alice was looking to explore far more than the gloomy quietness that their indie peers were keen on tackling; Ellie and the boys also wanted a piece of the furious guitar walls frequently exhibited by My Bloody Valentine, and they were more than willing to pack the two dream pop factions into the same work.

There is plenty of criticism that can be directed at “Blue Weekend”, the band’s third album. For starters, from a purely artistic standpoint, it showcases no significant evolution in relation to its predecessors; starting with “Blush”, Wolf Alice was quick to announce what they wanted and, eight years later, they are still doing it, because although “Blue Weekend” has the dream pop calmness often seen in the indies of the 2010s, it also contains an untamed guitar fury that is usually forgotten by members of that scene. Moreover, a complaint can also be aimed at the excessively derivative nature of the band’s music, which by closely embracing the shoegaze movement in its two key facets – the noisy loudness of My Bloody Valentine and the reverb-laden melodic beauty of Slowdive – ends up not finding the same level of originality encountered by other bands that are part of its class.

Certainly, there is truth to these points. However, they are not strong enough to disqualify “Blue Weekend”. Stylistically, it might not be very different from the two records that came before it, but it is not totally stale because it brings the Wolf Alice sound to its peak. And sure, the transformation it applies to its inspirations might not be enough to let the band claim the music as its own; this is by no means comparable to what fellow indies The White Stripes did when they brought blues to the garage or, to pick a more contemporary example, to what Phoebe Bridgers executes when she uses her love for Elliott Smith to bring singer-songwriter folk sadness to a new generation. Still, ultimately, all music is derivative in one way or another, and even if Wolf Alice might cross the line that makes one say similarities are just too big to ignore, it is undeniable that the emulation that they perform is not just well done, but also without parallel in the scene in which they were born.

Nevertheless, if a listener wants to look past the fact “Blue Weekend” is an excellent recreation of the sound of major shoegaze acts and visualize other qualities, they will most likely be able to do so. The first greatly positive trait is how the album blatantly pulls from a myriad of influences and consolidates those sources under the same cohesive musical umbrella. The muffled guitar of opener “The Beach” coupled with a melody that slowly gains steam makes it seem that, like a tune from a 2000s indie band that dabbles in bombast, such as Arcade Fire, the track will eventually explode into catharsis. The waves of reverb-infused guitars in “Delicious Things” recall Slowdive. The high-pitched vocals of “Lipstick on the Glass” and the track’s floaty aura nod to the Cocteau Twins. “Smile” has verses with so much nasty noise that it flirts with industrial music. “Safe from Heartbreak” has a heavy reliance on acoustic picking, which makes it the album’s most obviously folky moment. “How Can I Make It Ok?” toys with the electronic influences of shoegaze. And any time the guitars kick into overdrive to construct impenetrable walls of distortion, it is impossible not to think of My Bloody Valentine or Ride.

The second major strength of “Blue Weekend” is simply how melodically gorgeous it is. Always keen on building moving soundscapes, the dream pop genre has always heavily relied on channeling beauty through ethereal instrumentation and vocal work, and when it comes to the latter, Ellie Rowsell undoubtedly delivers. This is not the type of shoegaze which tries to hide uninspired melodies behind astounding walls of sound. That description may apply to “Feeling Myself”, which is the sole point of the album where the vocals meander; however, everywhere else, whether she is betting on full-fledged choruses (“Delicious Things”), recurring phrases that serve as hooks (“How Can I Make It Ok?”), or a more free-flowing structure that slowly rises to splendor (“The Last Man on Earth”), Ellie is constantly enchanting.

More than summoning beauty like never before, “Blue Weekend” also sees Wolf Alice take its other major facet (the noise-making) to its most fully realized state. Given at least half of the tracks eventually launch into guitar cacophony, examples of the proficiency with which the band rocks out are abundant, but the finest and most definitive one is unquestionably “Play the Greatest Hits”. Following a pattern established on the previous two albums, the track plays the role of the only cut in the work where the group goes loud and fast from the beginning to the end; and breaking the tradition, rather than being the dullest moment on the record, it is actually a strong contender for being the best one. Ellie’s voice still breaks into a somewhat silly childish wail when she chooses to scream, but the tune’s hook is so massive and the noise is so fierce that the punk attitude that seemed unauthentic in songs of the type in the past comes off as absolutely genuine.

“Blue Weekend” may not be revolutionary and it may emulate its sources with a proximity that is too close for comfort. Nonetheless, its power and quality are simply undeniable. From the get go, Wolf Alice always stood out among a sea of bands made up of dream pop fans on account of its choice to aim for shoegaze grandeur instead of going for quiet introspection with modern flavors. It was a move that worked well to isolate the group, but it was also a choice that led them to imitate sounds that had already been explored thoroughly in the early 1990s, making the whole experiment come with a large question mark attached to its value. With “Blue Weekend”, though, these doubts and questions can be put aside, because, sure, the album does not push the genre to new places; however, it shows Wolf Alice can put out a work that is a worthy addition to the hall of great shoegaze records.

five

Path Of Wellness

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Album: Path of Wellness

Artist: Sleater-Kinney

Released: June 11th, 2021

Highlights: High in the Grass, Worry With You, Method, Bring Mercy

Through their career, Sleater-Kinney has achieved the miracle of never sounding like they were treading water creatively despite being a band that has always operated within a tight scope. Born inside a scene heavily influenced by the ethos of punk rock as well as those of the American underground hardcore of the 1980s, the group that has rarely employed anything other than two guitars and a drum kit managed to retain both integrity and artistic merit via small stylistic leaps. Their opening trilogy of records, which culminated with “Dig Me Out”, saw a smooth progression in the balance between aggressiveness and songwriting chops; “The Hot Rock” was a marvelous exercise in quiet tracks brimming with guitar interplay; “All Hands on the Bad One” and “One Beat” exhibited the accessibility of turn-of-the-century indie rock, which had started to flirt with the mainstream; “The Woods” was a catchy wall of noise; and “No Cities to Love” matched the briefness of punk with the luster of contemporary production.

Then came “The Center Won’t Hold”. Released in 2019, the predecessor of “Path of Wellness” certainly did not break the streak of creative freshness; what it did, in fact, was quite the opposite, as the album saw Sleater-Kinney working alongside St. Vincent – appearing in the role of producer – to re-engineer their music like never before. Sure, the rock band, the guitar interplay, the songwriting, and the unique voices of Corin and Carrie were still there, but working behind the board, St. Vincent infused Sleater-Kinney with her brand of avant-garde pop, throwing electronic beats, vocal effects, outlandish guitar distortions, and other tricks of the sort into the mix. The result of that venture was one of those albums that split journalists and fans into two different camps: while the former group loved it deeply, perhaps somewhat influenced by the meeting of two critical darlings; the latter party hated it, probably thanks to a sound they did not recognize as being Sleater-Kinney and due to the fact turmoil during the record’s production led to the departure of otherworldly drummer Janet Weiss.

Two years after what might rank as the most delicate moment of their career, Sleater-Kinney puts out “Path of Wellness”, and the record sounds like a type of compromise. Tackling the task of producing the album themselves, Corin and Carrie undo the weird artistry of “The Center Won’t Hold” as if conceding to fans that the road they took back then was not ideal. And in executing that move, the duo reverts to the sound of the “No Cities to Love” era: a basic type of rock that, based purely on guitars and drums, is rare and therefore quite important in contemporary music, but also one that carries enough smoothness not to come off like a blatant nod to the band’s garage beginnings.

In a way, emulating “No Cities to Love” is far from being bad; after all, that work was by all means a marvelous return from a beloved indie outfit that was emerging following a hiatus that bordered on ten years. But for a band that has always found a way to move forward, the reversion executed by “Path of Wellness” is inevitably disappointing, since – for the first time ever – Sleater-Kinney is officially treading water and presenting the world with a work in a style they have already done and mastered in the past. Still, even if it is a retreat to safe grounds, “Path of Wellness” is not without traits to define it among other records of the band’s discography; and those characteristics would certainly have to be its generally slower tempos and the quiet nature of its tunes.

It is impossible to say “Path of Wellness” never rocks out, because it certainly does. At one point or another, all songs explode into guitar hurricanes: sometimes they are ringing, sweeping, and beautiful (“Worry With You”, “Method”, and “Shadow Town”) and sometimes they are noisy and nasty (“Path of Wellness” and “High in the Grass”). But there is no tune in the entire work that spends all of its length in attack mode, since from the very start there is a clear plan to oppose quieter verses with lifting choruses. In the first, the drums play simple patterns while the guitars weave into each other, one usually taking on the lower end that would otherwise be covered by the bass and the other focusing on higher notes that are often picked. In the second, meanwhile, Corin and Carrie unleash the simple catchy melodies that they know rather well how to write whilst making a considerable racket. However, it is worth noting that even when they do step on pedals to release those signature Sleater-Kinney rough guitar sounds, the girls frequently do so without going beyond a mid-tempo threshold.

When combined with a large set of tunes that do not pick up significant speed at any point (“Method”, “Tomorrow’s Grave”, “No Knives”, and “Bring Mercy”), those characteristics may cause some to say “Path of Wellness” displays Sleater-Kinney in a tired state and that Corin and Carrie have run out of energy after all these years. Perhaps, the assessment is not totally unfair, since “Path of Wellness” does feel paler than other Sleater-Kinney albums. However, such evaluation overlooks the strength that can be found in the record’s more subdued approach. For starters, the quiet-and-loud dynamic works wonderfully in tracks such as “High in the Grass” and “Worry With You”, whose choruses are major moments of melodic delight with noisy undertones. Moreover, two of the slower tunes, “Method” and “Bring Mercy”, are easily among the most beautifully introspective songs the band has ever coined, matching some of the material in the wonderful “The Hot Rock” as well as the classic “Modern Girl”, from “The Woods”.

The real problem of “Path of Wellness” is its irregularity. Its highlights are excellent; the opening title track is not melodically brilliant, but it becomes pretty fun when it explodes in its second half; “Complex Female Characters” has Corin and Carrie switching vocals, with each one singing rather distinct portions of the slow track as if they were two different sides of the personality of a woman who is talking to herself; and “Down the Line” inverts the usual dynamic of the album by pairing a more aggressive verse with a lighter, and very much engaging, chorus. Sadly, though, the four-track sequence that goes from “Shadow Town” to “No Knives” – which is stuck right in the middle of the album – is a lackluster group that has instrumental value given how Corin and Carrie play off of one another like very few guitar duos in rock history, but is a mess of uninspired melodies that never build to anything significant.

Paired with the fact it is a bit of a stylistic retread, that irregularity puts a considerable dent on “Path of Wellness”. Undoubtedly, the level of damage is far from being enough to make it a bad album: as of their tenth release, Sleater-Kinney has yet to produce a dud. Yet, “Path of Wellness” runs the risk of landing on the ears of some fans as if it were one, because even though the guitar interplay, the weird vocal inflections, and the solid songwriting are all present, the prevalence of slower tempos, the absence of the irreplaceable drumbeats of Janet Weiss, the record’s artistic tameness, and its uninspired moments may be too much to some. Yet, analyzed on its own, “Path of Wellness” stands; it might not be revolutionary or excellent, but it is a good set of songs. And despite playing it too safe, the talent behind them is still sufficiently strong to infuse most of them with quality.

five

Van Weezer

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Album: Van Weezer

Artist: Weezer

Released: May 7th, 2021

Highlights: Hero, The End of the Game, I Need Some of That, Sheila Can Do It

In a career that has spanned over twenty-five years and produced more than a dozen albums, there is one specific criticism that has constantly followed Weezer wherever the band has gone: the fact that their leader and songwriter, Rivers Cuomo, has frequently fallen victim to his uncontrollable corniness. With the exception of the band’s debut, the classic “Blue Album”, there is not a single record in the group’s whole discography that can escape such comments. Most of the time, the fair complaints have stemmed from Rivers’ inability to stop himself from sounding absurdly melodramatic as well as from his apparently non-existent capacity to approach his feelings with maturity. However, negative remarks of the sort have also been caused by the band’s numerous failed attempts to come off as hip, modern, and cool, which have all gone as spectacularly as one would expect given they were executed by an extremely geeky group of guys.

With that in mind, the choice to give their fifteenth album the ridiculous name of “Van Weezer” is absolutely genius. In a way, it is yet another unbelievably corny move: after all, not only are they paying homage to Van Halen in the most awkward possible manner, but they are also inevitably setting themselves up for comparisons against the genuinely cool hard rock legends. As if that were not enough, the title and cover may also trigger thoughts of the extravagant hair metal produced during the 1980s: a scene heavily influenced by Van Halen and that coined a type of sound and aesthetic which, much due to their cheesiness, have radically fallen out of favor with contemporary audiences.

“Van Weezer”, therefore, concentrates in concept alone a shocking amount of corniness in the same package. And it is precisely because of that high density that the album is so smart. There is so much cheesiness to it that the only explanation for the embarrassing awkwardness is that it was deliberate. More than being a homage, then, the record is one of those bad jokes told by a comedian who is fully aware of its foul quality. If the audience opts to laugh, they are admitting to have some fondness for the terrible material; if the public chooses to criticize the act, that means they are too sour and dull to appreciate the lovable silliness. In conclusion, there is no way those listening to the joke will come out of the experience looking too good; it is impossible to win against such cleverness.

The title of “Van Weezer”, though, is not just an open declaration of corniness. It also happens to be a letter of stylistic intentions, as the band signals that after five albums hopping between a myriad of genres, they are ready to rock out again. And as the nod to Van Halen reveals, Weezer pulls out pedals and amplifiers aiming for the loudness of hard rock. It is a premise that should make longtime fans think of “Maladroit”, the fourth release by the group, which exchanged their usual power pop sound for large riffs of heavy metal inspiration. But, truth be told, “Van Weezer” is not as weighty as that work, emerging – instead – as a solid compromise between the group’s signature constant distorted strums and the testosterone-infused riffage of the heavy metal world.

Much of that needs to be credited, for the good and for the bad, to the production. “Maladroit” was raw and dry; it felt like a series of tracks recorded by a band playing live and loud inside a garage, with little to no touches being added after the music was first committed to tape. Contrarily, in “Van Weezer”, there is a bit of a hair metal gloss. Thankfully, the drums drenched in gated reverb and the tacky keyboard noises (two hair metal staples which were also among the greatest musical plagues of the 1980s) are nowhere to be seen. Yet, “Van Weezer” clearly trades part of its potential roughness for a brand of hard rock with pop leanings, meaning that even though it is among the heaviest works by the band, it does not go as far in that direction as it could have.

That subdued approach is somewhat harmful to “Van Weezer” because it diminishes its capacity to be a rather unique entry in the group’s discography, since the combination of distorted guitars with simple song structures and catchy melodies seen here has been prevalent in more than half of Weezer’s albums. Nevertheless, the record carries a few exclusive traits. For starters, the fact it balances the band’s usual strumming with extravagant riffing makes the segments of a few songs be more heavy metal than power pop; the opening of “Blue Dream”, for instance, flagrantly borrows from Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train”. In addition, the tones of the solos tend to have a bright screaming quality to them, recalling the ones seen in the early albums of Metallica. At last, as a whole, the choruses of the tunes are anthemtic energetic singalongs, exhibiting melodies that would cause metal fans in a stadium to do some fist-pumping before realizing the music is excessively poppy and the lyrics talk too much about feelings.

Undoubtedly, there are some dull moments in “Van Weezer”, and they happen to be concentrated towards the second half of the record: “Blue Dream” has a great riff, but does not build to anything significant; “1 More Hit” has an embarrassing pre-chorus and a heavy metal break that does not gel with the rest of the track; “She Needs Me” is melodically uninspired; and “Precious Metal Girl” is a forgettable acoustic closer. But everywhere else, the combination brought by “Van Weezer” works. “Hero” explodes out of the gate; “All the Good Ones” begs for listeners to clap along; “The End of the Game” has a chorus whose melodic beauty would be worthy of the “Blue Album”; “I Need Some of That” has an irresistible call-and-response refrain; “Beginning of the End” is melodically moving; and “Sheila Can Do It” is pure power pop goodness.

Despite the fact it uses deliberate excessive cheesiness as a shield, it is impossible to let “Van Weezer” get away from criticisms concerning clumsy lyrics, which are indeed abundant. Yet, even if combined with the weaker tracks, which make up almost half of the record, Cuomo’s unshakable corniness is not enough to bring the work down completely. In a discography that has nearly as many good album as it has bad ones, “Van Weezer” can be easily filed among the enjoyable group. The heavy metal motif could have yielded more significant results with a rawer production, but the bottom line is that, through ups and downs, “Van Weezer” is a fun listen. Clocking in at thirty minutes, it is a short, relaxed, and satisfying effort put together by four guys who were clearly having a blast trying to emulate their hard rock heroes as best as they could. And in the midst of muscular riffing, screaming guitars, and fist-pumping choruses, the band finds enough inspiration to breathe a little freshness into their sound while being able to both take advantage of their well-known strengths and showcase their familiar awkward weaknesses.

five

Sweep It Into Space

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Album: Sweep It Into Space

Artist: Dinosaur Jr.

Released: April 23rd, 2021

Highlights: I Ain’t, I Ran Away, Garden, And Me

The canon of rock music has no shortage of groups that made a career out of regurgitating the same format over and over again. AC/DC has spent nearly half a century writing variations on the same blues-infused hard rock framework; the Ramones were so technically limited all they could play were fast down-stroke tunes that were coated with lovely pop hooks; Motorhead put out twenty-two albums of furious and concise heavy metal nuggets whose brevity and speed were almost punk; The Fall became legends by creating thirty-one records in which a drunk curmudgeon from Greater Manchester rambled endlessly and unintelligibly over a clockwork-like industrial post-punk clang; and Dinosaur Jr. has been out in the wild for more than three decades mostly betting on the same recipe of loud guitars played with reckless abandon, beautiful melodies delivered with lazy vocals, and – of course – blistering solos that display mind-boggling skill.

Out of that entire list, which certainly could be longer, Dinosaur Jr. is the band that has been more successful at avoiding criticisms of artistic stagnation, and it is possible to understand why. Unlike AC/DC, the trio from Massachusetts never came close to having enough worldwide appeal to rake in millions of dollars via albums and tours; unlike the Ramones, they were never crowned the kings of a specific genre; unlike Motorhead, their output has neither been constant nor too prolific; and unlike The Fall, they are not lead by mad a man who has left a trail of bad attitudes behind him. As it turns out, there are benefits to being the lovable slacker underdogs of a genre that is, by nature, underground, and Dinosaur Jr. has absolutely taken advantage of all those perks.

Starting their thirty-first year as an active band and going into their twelfth album, nobody really expected J Mascis, Lou Barlow, and Murph to do anything different. After all, theirs has been a winning combination that has yielded no flagrantly bad works and given them an untouchable cult aura in the eyes of the few who have heard about them. Moreover, always followed by a slacker fame that has probably grown annoying, J Mascis is simply not the kind of guy who seems to have enough energy to leave his comfort zone. However, in “Sweep It Into Space”, Dinosaur Jr. sounds quite different.

It is not that J Mascis and the boys pull out synthesizers, go acoustic, or embrace the contemporary quirks of indie rock to perform singalong anthems. There is nothing that radical here. Much to the relief of Dinosaur Jr. fans, “Sweep It Into Space” is an album that respects the band’s signature: its constitution is guitar, bass, and drums; it features all the rough corners, in writing and performing, of garage rock; it sports lo-fi ethos; its guitars are loud; its songs have humble lengths; its melodies are of a captivating relaxed beauty; its instrumentals are almost always on attack mode; its solos are an utter thrill; and it is sung by a man whose weird nasal high-pitched drawl would be enough to keep him away from the microphone in any band where he is not the boss. What makes “Sweep It Into Space” so different are the little details, which within the group’s limited scope of work combine to bring change of a relatively big scale.

It is hard to establish where the shift stems from; maybe the guys just wanted a change of pace. But the album’s credits point to the man controlling the soundboard: Kurt Vile, of The War on Drugs fame. Out of all Dinosaur Jr. albums, “You’re Living All Over Me”, from 1987, had been the only one in which J Mascis did not act as a producer. In “Sweep It Into Space”, he shares the duty with Vile and the result is a bit tamer than usual. Gone is the screaming loudness that made listeners feel Mascis was always on the verge of blowing up an amplifier as they wondered if the album should not have come with some sort of label warning that putting one’s face too close to the stereo whilst playing some tracks could lead to deafness or mutilation. That big and dirty Dinosaur Jr. guitar chug is obviously still present, because that is what Mascis and his peers do, but what was once an impenetrable wall of furious sound is cut down to an angry parapet.

It is arguable that some damage is done in that process: Murph’s drums, which were usually given a very frontal space in the mix, are sent to the back and lose their usual pounding force; fans who prefer a more aggressive tone may look at “Sweep It Into Space” as the first time in which Dinosaur Jr. has sounded old and safe; and the fact Mascis’ voice is not shrouded in a loud instrumentation makes its natural awkwardness, which is usually lovable, the center of attention. But “Sweep It Into Space” also gains quite a bit from that new approach. Perhaps influenced by the knowledge his vocals would be upfront, Mascis pulls off a great performance within his limitations, almost going as far as expressing the feelings his lyrics talk about. More importantly, be it as a consequence of the emphasis on voice or due to inspired writing, the melodies are simply the most consistently excellent ever since those of “Farm”, the 2009 delight that proved the reunited original Dinosaur Jr. trio could still put out records that matched those from its classic era.

In addition, thanks to the production, “Sweep It Into Space” has some extra color in its tunes. Surely, as a Dinosaur Jr. work, there are examples of nearly all kinds of loud guitar playing: in “I Ain’t” they are a constant underbelly of noise; in “I Met the Stones” they flirt with metal crunch; in “To Be Waiting” there is a soloing guitar that draws sweet melodic lines on top of a basic strum; in “Hide Another Round” they play with start-and-stop riffs until letting it all loose in the chorus; and the list goes on. However, mellower details are also thrown into the mix, and they bring a nice variation to the album. “I Ran Away” as well as “And Me” underline their electric racket with crispy acoustic guitars that recall those of poppy The Cure classics “Just Like Heaven” and “In Between Days”, giving a breezy forward motion to these catchy tracks; guided by a piano, “Take It Back” swings in its chorus, making it feel like it was recorded while the band members danced around the room with joy, which is rather unexpected and unlikely; finally, Lou Barlow’s “Garden”, which might be the best cut of the record, has quiet-and-loud dynamics that enhance the inherent beauty of its gorgeously moving chorus.

Allied with the production, these details make “Sweep It Into Space” easily rank as the softest album Dinosaur Jr. has ever put together. As such, one’s enjoyment of the material contained within it will strongly depend on how tolerant that listener is to watching a band known for their volume and noise tone it down a little bit. If that notion is accepted or overcome after multiple listens, “Sweep It Into Space” should earn its place as not only one of the strongest works by the band since their 2005 reunion, but also as the most accessible and universally enjoyable point of their wonderful discography. Because, unquestionably, in their previous eleven records of racket, Dinosaur Jr. has eventually been more intriguing and downright better than they are here; but as beloved underdogs well into their fifties, these alternative legends have just put out their most unique work, and they did so without losing sight of their unmistakable essence.

five

Endless Arcade

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Album: Endless Arcade

Artist: Teenage Fanclub

Released: April 30th, 2021

Highlights: Home, Everything Is Falling Apart, The Sun Won’t Shine On Me, Back In The Day

Out of the numerous often subjective sub-genres that rock music has spawned over the years, absolutely none are as hard to grasp as alternative rock. Originally used as a very general net to encompass all artists that worked away from the mainstream market, that label has been employed to qualify all sorts of bands: hard rocking grunge acts like Nirvana, post punk children like R.E.M., avant-garde noisemakers like Sonic Youth, and even softer groups like Coldplay, which are one among many that earned the tag long after alternative rock had stopped being a synonym for underground music. Beginning their career in 1989, therefore prior to the moment when the lines between what is alternative and what is mainstream were blurred, Teenage Fanclub are yet another act that proves how colorful – and undefined – that category is.

Labeled as alternative due to their underground and borderline lo-fi origins, the Scottish group has – for more than three decades and ten studio albums – been extremely loyal to the power pop style. Built on smooth chord progressions, steady guitar strumming, and mid-tempo rhythms that materialize in relentless walls of sound, their songs carry sweet melodies that recall the pop song-craft of Brian Wilson and that are boasted by innocent starry-eyed harmonies that nod to the earliest phase of The Beatles or to The Beach Boys themselves. In the midst of that impeccable regularity, the parameter that has defined the different eras of Teenage Fanclub has been noise; more specifically, how much buzz they infuse into their guitar walls.

Early on, in their first two releases, that parameter was set quite high. Their great 1990 debut, “A Catholic Education”, could stand up to the loud shoegaze of My Bloody Valentine; and its follow-up, “The King”, threw such a grand load of noise into the formula the radical thrashing nature of the material was too much to bear. Ever since reaching that extreme point, which deservingly earned the band a critical scolding, Teenage Fanclub started a lengthy process of dialing down on the racket. At first, when an ideal balance of noise and melody was accompanied by a maturation in songwriting, the results included power pop gems of the stature of “Bandwagonesque” and “Grand Prix”. Soon afterwards, though, starting from 2000’s “Howdy!”, their aggression began to be too diluted for the group’s sake.

Initially, there was a bit of charm in the general calmness of the music; after all, here was a band that, following ten years of hiding their heavenly melodies in varying degrees of distortion, opted to do something different by letting them stand on their own. However, as time and records passed, Teenage Fanclub seemed stuck in an inescapable sequence of increasingly mellow works that made fans yearn for the electric sparks that had once lent the act so much personality. As of 2021, therefore a whopping two decades after the beginning of that slide down the rabbit hole of peaceful pastoral production, Teenage Fanclub has yet to find their energy back because, sadly, “Endless Arcade” continues to follow the same path.

Perhaps it is a bit too harsh to treat the quartet from Northern Britain as if they have been creatively dry during the past twenty-one years; that is simply not true, since throughout that stretch, which includes six albums, there is not a dud to be found. It is a fact, however, Teenage Fanclub has been creatively stuck, because aside from their collaboration with Jad Fair (a vocalist with a singing style that recalls Lou Reed), it is quite hard to give distinct definitions to the records from that era. “Endless Arcade” is not different, and consequently, what fans will find in it is a continuation of what Teenage Fanclub has been doing for a while.

Clocking in at seven minutes and featuring two instrumental breaks with lengthy guitar solos, opener “Home” teases that the album may go in a unique direction, given it flirts with the wild guitar workouts of the band’s early years. Nonetheless, quickly, “Endless Arcade” reveals it is mostly business as usual: its tunes are compact and melodic; its harmonies are tight and beautiful; and its guitar tones are gentle and clean. Truth be told, there are moments when the band threatens to break away from that mold: “Warm Embrace” bounces with a joyous energy that is maybe exaggerated; “The Sun Won’t Shine On Me” has a combination of folk rock jangle and harmonic work that summons memories of The Byrds; and “In Our Dreams” sports a noisier guitar hook that bumps on colorful psychedelia. But whether individually within the scope of the tunes in which they appear or inside the album as a whole, these elements are not enough to make “Endless Arcade” distinct.

From a critical standpoint, though, “Endless Arcade” presents a bit of a conundrum. Sure, as it is the case with nearly all Teenage Fanclub releases after “Howdy!”, it can be rightfully accused of being artistically stale. Yet, when it comes to songwriting, there is hardly a bad tune to be found here. “Home” stands out due to its nature as a somewhat loose, but well-behaved, jam; “Everything Is Falling Apart” shines on the meaty chug of its guitars as well as the relative furious explosion of its chorus; and both “The Sun Won’t Shine On Me” and “Back In The Day” enchant deeply thanks to their melodic beauty. But there is not a song here that goes by without delivering a notable melody, a tasteful chord progression, or an irresistible guitar strum. It is true that the stylistic sameness of these less memorable tracks causes them to merge into one another and also into many of the cuts of the mellow albums that preceded “Endless Arcade”, but – as the ultimate Teenage Fanclub seal of quality – this is a record that, after two or three spins, will have listeners randomly humming a few of its melodies.

As the first work following the departure of longtime bassist, singer, and songwriter Gerard Love, “Endless Arcade” could have been a big opportunity for Teenage Fanclub to break the trend in which it has been stuck since 2000. However, the mental synergy between the group’s trio of leaders has always been so extreme that the absence of one of them ends up not making much of a difference. Without their friend, Norman Blake and Raymond McGinley are forced to carry a heavier load, having to write six songs apiece instead of the usual four each composer tended to get. But, for the good and for the bad, the results remain the same, and with twelve tracks of melodic beauty but slightly excessive mellowness, “Endless Arcade” is yet another good work by Teenage Fanclub that could have been more interesting if briefly soaked in the electric spark of the band’s alternative origins.

five

Neon Bible

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Album: Neon Bible

Artist: Arcade Fire

Released: March 5th, 2007

Highlights: Black Mirror, Intervention, Antichrist Television Blues, No Cars Go

“Neon Bible” is the second album released by Arcade Fire. And if there is a word that unites it with its predecessor, “Funeral”, it has got to be the adjective apocalyptic. As perhaps the most influential and recognized members of a movement that brought, to indie rock, many of the feel-good hippie vibes that had seemingly died with the sixties, it may surprise outsiders to notice there is so much doom and gloom in the material of the band. But perhaps taking a good look around and dreading the possibility the world is going down the drain soon is very much something to be expected out of a group of people who try to view reality through lenses that might be a bit too loaded with positivity for their own good. And perhaps as proof of that, “Neon Bible” packs more than enough despondency to intrigue skeptics and pessimists who are naturally repelled by the colorful peace, love, and hope ethos of a band like Arcade Fire.

The apocalypse of “Neon Bible”, however, is quite different from the one portrayed in “Funeral”. In their debut, affected by the loss of numerous relatives, Win Butler and his crew envisioned a dark world in which the adults were dead while the kids were left to fend off for themselves in the midst of a cold dystopia. And when not busy with fiction that hit quite close to home, the band approached the tales and hardships that inspired the disturbing images of its core suite, ultimately fearing that with nobody else left to protect them, the weight of responsibilities and of a reality full of lies would perhaps be more than what they could carry.

In spite of its look at a few worldly matters, “Funeral” was mostly a domestic affair: an album concerning the battles and pain that occur within the walls of a house or a neighborhood. “Neon Bible” climbs over those to get a more general glimpse at the horizon, and – to nobody’s surprise – what it finds is not exactly comforting. In fact, it actually makes it all seem even more miserable, since the world outside is not going to help any wounds heal; if anything, it will make the state of affairs even worse given that when domestic life is in disarray, the struggles away from home can become even bigger than they already are. Not accidentally, then, the monument to sorrow that “Neon Bible” builds feels bigger than the one constructed by “Funeral”: in the debut, it was a broken house; here, it is a Gothic cathedral of massive stature.

The fact “Neon Bible” brings forth images of grand religious architecture is not accidental. As the record’s name implies, religion is the central theme here. Yet, the subject is not approached in a very broad sense. Win Butler seems to have his eyes set on the power of televangelists; people he perceives as hypocritical and whose popularity may be a symptom of an illness that afflicts society. In a way, some might look at “Neon Bible” as a sequel of sorts to “Funeral”, one in which the abandoned and hopeless kids of the first album look for solace in the word of God as preached by television personalities. But, naturally, the work is a bit more global than that, since it seems to understand that absolutely everyone has the type mental weaknesses that those figureheads explore for their own gain.

The title “Neon Bible” is in itself a source of mockery and fear for the narrator. Alluding to the fiery and often exaggerated religious claims made by televangelists, who turn a scared book into entertainment business, he ridicules the constant threats that viewers are going to hell for relatively inconsequential sins; at the same time, at the back of his mind, there is this little concern that if what is being said is true, he and pretty much everybody else are doomed. As the album goes on, he analyzes the hypnotic mind-controlling power of television (“Black Mirror”); looks at people whose only solace in life comes from religion and desperately attempts to wake them up (“Intervention”); tries not to be manipulated by a world of propaganda (“Ocean of Noise”); goes biblical and uses a parable to talk about the inevitability of sin (“The Well and the Lighthouse”); dives into the power-hungry psyche of a televangelist and his exploration of his daughter for financial gain (“Antichrist Television Blues”); fights to defend the little parts of his life that are still free of control and consumerism (“Windowsill”); and searches for a way to escape (“Keep the Car Running” and “No Cars Go”).

“Neon Bible” is clearly an album at war with mass media, and it depicts that struggle with a huge sound. Truth be told, despite of its domestic nature, “Funeral” already felt pretty large, especially in its communal and anthemic choruses. But “Neon Bible” takes that grandeur to a new level. When the songs are intimate, they are drenched in thick and dark layers of synthesizers that threaten to drown listeners into the overwhelming despair and anxiety the characters feel when trying to remain in control whilst living in a world that wants to engulf everyone in its zombie-like rat race. Meanwhile, when they are explosive, “Neon Bible” shows it is the Arcade Fire album that best knows how to create bombast, betting on organs and on an almost omnipresent orchestra to generate soaring movements with enough power to make the walls of a concert house tremble. The result is an album that is sonically consistent in its Gothic darkness while also being pretty varied.

“Black Mirror” has steady instrumental patterns, soaked in a sinister hum, that perfectly replicate the hypnotic nature of television. “Keep the Car Running” uses a mandolin and a bouncy bass to propel an otherwise typical slice of catchy Arcade Fire alternative rock. Washed in a pipe organ and strings, “Intervention” is the best cut of the album; an epic of historical proportions that has the band going through the tune with the passion of people who are trying to save a loved one from being brain-washed by televangelists. “Ocean of Noise” musically replicates tides, swelling and deflating as it goes along, with the instruments dancing around as if aboard a ship that is being hit by tall waves. “The Well and the Lighthouse” recalls The Cure’s colorful pieces of pop rock: moved by a pronounced bass in the verses, the song eventually peaks when it is decorated with jangly guitars. “Antichrist Television Blues” is a rockabilly freight train, coming at listeners at a rising pace while it bounces on a notable bass line. Decorated by an accordion and strings, “No Cars Go” is essentially made to serve as a marvelous moment of catharsis in concerts. And “My Body Is a Cage” is a keyboard, percussion, and voice track that seems inspired by the darkest moments of Nine Inch Nails.

“Neon Bible” is the type of sophomore effort that had a lot to live up to. Loved by some and hated by others, “Funeral” is one of those rare works in rock history that truly deserves being labeled as seminal, since its spirit was the spark that ignited a whole movement. “Neon Bible” cannot claim the same credentials, but it is just as good: save for the dull “Back Wave / Bad Vibrations”, it has no weak tunes; in fact, the writing is so inspired that nearly all of its tracks are at least excellent. And in addition to showing one of the era’s best bands working at the peak of their powers, this is an album that does not tread water. Yes, it is still quite apocalyptic; it still has plenty of anthemic choruses; and it still holds thematic ambitions that materialize extremely well. But this is a totally different creature, and sitting beside the neighborhood of “Funeral”, the cathedral of “Neon Bible” is sure to forever stand as one of the grand monuments of rock music.

five

Da Lama Ao Caos

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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.

five

Bug

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Album: Bug

Artist: Dinosaur Jr.

Released: October 31st, 1988

Highlights: Freak Scene, Yeah We Know, Pond Song, The Post

As a more extreme and less popular version of the punk rock movement which inspired it, the American hardcore scene of the 1980s also naturally featured a far lower degree of professionalism. That is not to say the people involved in it did their job poorly or amateurishly; in many cases tasks were actually performed with much more passion than in its seminal counterpart. But given the corporate world of big labels and magazines showed little to no interest in taking over the reins of the music that was being made in the underground, the influence of money was minimal and positions – whether they were on the stage as a band or behind the scenes as part of the network that supported hardcore musicians – were far more accessible to anyone who was willing to give it a shot.

Ultimately, what this wide entry point meant was that nearly anyone with a guitar or the wish to say something could find a way in; a reality that for punk rockers in the 1970s quickly dissipated when the huge companies stepped in to attract its most famous offspring. As a consequence of that fact, American underground bands like Black Flag, Minor Threat, the Minutemen, Fugazi, and the Butthole Surfers, which were mostly made up of individuals whose visible artistic talents did not match up with the expectations of the mainstream, could plug in to the amplifiers and rock.

In their midst, however, roamed one guy who was a bit out of the curve. J Mascis, the leader of Dinosaur Jr., was certainly a member of this independent environment. His talents, though, were more akin to those of folks who transited in the pop music charts. He could play guitar with a high degree of technique and he would showcase that ability clearly by frequently stepping into blistering solos. He could write songs based on classic chord changes that exhibited a smoothness that recalled power pop. And, on what was perhaps the biggest challenge to the ethos of a deliberately noncommercial scene, Mascis could write melodies with the potential to reach thousands. As such, it is no accident that to many of his musical peers, the vocalist and guitarist of Dinosaur Jr. was always seen as the man with a gift.

In spite of these greatly marketable skills, Mascis and his band never made it big, which means that something stood in the way. Anyone listening to “Bug”, the third release by the group, ought to recognize at least one of the elements that ended up keeping Dinosaur Jr. out of the big leagues; and that would be noise. Mascis enjoys playing as stridently as possible, making it sound like whatever amplifier he is using is about to implode due to the volume. Because of that, his simple, approachable, and lovable pop writing is drenched in a vicious guitar attack that veers into the limit between what is tuneful and what is feedback. If that is not enough of a tall barrier to widespread recognition, then Dinosaur Jr. builds it higher thanks to the vocal drawl and slacker attitude of Mascis.

Those two characteristics need to be mentioned together because they are nearly inseparable. Like a moody teenager or a stoned uncle, Mascis sings as if he is totally detached from both the feelings he is talking about and the noise he is making; his attitude tells listeners that he either does not care or is simply too cool to make an effort. Locked inside this unique lazy demeanor that would go on to construct the careers of a few bands, such as Pavement, Mascis does not even try to sing within the parameters of what most would judge as merely adequate; likewise, although his inborn creative greatness hands him a bunch of pop rock gems, his choice is to leave them unpolished and augment their original roughness by giving them a bath in underground noise alongside his bandmates Lou Barlow and Murph.

This battle of accessibility versus laziness and abrasiveness not only defines the entire career of Dinosaur Jr., but also firmly puts them in the underground scene they would otherwise not be a part of. “Bug” is particularly notable for being the point in which that combat reaches its most interesting level. It is not a stalemate, because laziness and abrasiveness certainly win the round, but the balance feels just about ideal. Whether they are pushing forward furiously (“Let It Ride”) or floating in a lazy haze (“The Post”), the members of Dinosaur Jr. here are always pairing up the right amount of melodic goodness to keep one attentive with the correct dosage of ear-splitting madness to stop the whole project from diverging into the mellow terrain its sweet hooks could lead it into. The sole exception to the norm is “Don’t”, which – sung by bassist Lou Barlow – is a cacophony of screaming vocals and guitars, hence shifting the equilibrium too much to one side.

Like it happens with nearly all other works by the band, it is nigh impossible to say the murkiness of “Bug” is polished, but the album holds a few touches of care that greatly benefit its excellent material. “Freak Scene”, the best cut of the record, is a delightful constant barrage of fuzzy strum, but its melodic beauty is enhanced by an accompanying acoustic guitar on its second verse; and that element reappears with even more constancy in “No Bones”. At one point, “They Always Come” brings down the noise to let the melody shine, but Mascis humorously turns the tables by singing in an unusually muffled tone. “Yeah We Know” has a rhythmic driving force that when combined with the cold vocals recalls The Jesus and Mary Chain. “Pond Song” seemingly nods to R.E.M. by featuring jangling verses and a chorus that tames the feedback slightly. “Budge” has a hook played on a relatively clean and slim guitar that nods to Sonic Youth’s more conventional moments. And before getting to its glorious chorus, “The Post” has a large, sparse, and dark soundscape on its verses, which indicates some post-punk influences coming from The Cure, Talking Heads, and even Joy Division.

“Bug”, therefore, is not just an album in which the struggle between pop rock sensibilities and freewheeling hardcore noise-making that defines Dinosaur Jr. gets to its most ideal level. It is also a work that knows how to nudge its sound, even if ever so slightly, towards interesting places that add an unexpected variety to the band’s usually steady music. Given his slacker spirit, it is unlikely J Mascis will ever admit putting effort into bringing out the best of the tunes he wrote for the project or even working on any of the songs until they were truly complete. And anyone listening to the album is sure to feel parts are missing or that “Bug” was not finished. But the fact is there is nothing really missing, and the record is as complete as pretty much any mainstream release. The noisy, chaotic, and lazy mess is just how Dinosaur Jr. operates; and although that has certainly kept them out of the top of the charts, it has also made their greatness even more interesting. And that quality has never found a better display than “Bug”.

five

Zen Arcade

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Album: Zen Arcade

Artist: Hüsker Dü

Released: July 1st, 1984

Highlights: Something I Learned Today, Never Talking to You Again, Pink Turns to Blue, Turn On the News

For a scene that was as much about music as it was about attitude and having freedom to express one’s ideas, the punk rock movement sure had a lot of unwritten rules that needed to be followed. This weird dichotomy between liberty and restrictions was present at the heart of the genre from day one, and anybody who dared to step out of pre-established expectations, be it by signing to a major label or by not playing songs that were loud and fast, was bound to be shunned by many. It is possible to argue such extremist thoughts were the natural result of a musical ideology that rose to combat, among many other ghosts, the artistic excess and elitist lifestyle of musicians of the 70s; therefore, keeping it all as pure as possible was important. Yet, there is something ironic about the fact that people who often sang against oppression and narrow-minded attitudes were so quick to establish a few guidelines themselves.

Whatever rules punk had, the hardcore movement – its American offspring – seemed to take them to a whole new level. If the Ramones played fast, Black Flag played faster. If the Sex Pistols had simple tunes, Minor Threat made them simpler. If Wire did not care about song structures, the Minutemen created a whole career out of the concept. And if The Clash, even after going into a major label, still did not bow down completely to capitalist practices, as evidenced by the fight the band put up to release the double “London Calling” and the triple “Sandinista” at normal prices, Fugazi simply never gave in to large corporations, going on to sell quite a whole lot of records solely via independent labels and distributors.

Still, in the midst of a scene with so much admirable ideological statements, there lies a monolith of ambition by the name of “Zen Arcade”. If both punk and hardcore pushed against excesses, then “Zen Arcade” is an offender in two senses. Firstly, it clocks in at seventy minutes, a length that takes it closer to the flashy psychedelic extravaganzas of the 70s than to standard hardcore albums, which tended to barely make it to half an hour. Secondly, as if such indulgence were not enough, the record commits the sin of being a concept work centered on the life of a young man who runs away from a toxic home; a nature which ties it to opera-making dinosaurs of the previous decades like The Who, with their “Tommy” as well as “Quadrophenia”, and Pink Floyd, of “Animals” and “The Wall”.

However, rather than attracting pitchforks and torches, “Zen Arcade” ended up being widely celebrated, and for good reason. Theoretically, this is an album that could be disastrous. Besides being a statement, the briefness of hardcore works was also a wise choice born out of the understanding that, for a genre so stylistically tight, putting too much into one package was a recipe for dullness. Yet, Hüsker Dü was far from being a run-of-the-mill hardcore group. Sure, they played fast; they sang furiously; they had little technique; their recordings were of famous low quality, even after they went big; and Bob Mould wielded a guitar tone of blistering deafening nature, playing a buzzsaw guitar that had seemingly been drowned in acid. But, as they had lightly shown in the material they put out before “Zen Arcade”, Hüsker Dü did not mind throwing some pop sugar into the wild racket.

Much to the benefit of the album, and as the main reason why its seventy minutes are not excessive, this is where the band’s signature melodic work becomes established. Bringing twelve solo compositions to the table, Mould is responsible for the more muscular anthemic tracks, those that rock furiously and invite the audience to shout along as the choruses get to their hooks. Drummer Grant Hart, meanwhile, is the sensitive core of the band; penning six tunes on his own, his tracks are ballads often disguised in hardcore presentation, and if his highly emotional lyrics are not enough to drive his explosive feelings home, his screaming without a care for formality is sure to do so. It is much due to the distinct personalities of its creative leaders and thanks to their consistency in finding good melodies that “Zen Arcade” escapes whatever stones someone was looking to throw towards it; and the alliance of these qualities with its bold artistic ambitions propels it to a classic status.

The strong melodic work is not the only reason why “Zen Arcade” manages to find stylistic variety, since Hüsker Dü also happens to take some unexpected detours throughout the album. “Never Talking to You Again” is an acoustic number whose frantic strumming does not let listeners forget the band’s hardcore origins. “Dreams Recurring” is a vicious instrumental piece played backwards. “Hare Krsna” is noisy and certainly punk, but its repetitive chants nod to psychedelia whilst replicating some bad acid trip. “Standing by the Sea” has some loud-and-quite dynamics, with Hart seemingly screaming in the middle of a cacophonous storm when the track explodes. Both “One Step at a Time” and “Monday Will Never Be the Same” are short piano interludes. “The Tooth Fairy and the Princess” is another cut that is played backwards, with the distinction being that it carries a dreamy atmosphere due to whispered vocals and jangly guitars. And “Reoccurring Dreams” is a fourteen-minute instrumental jam that, like an opera, keeps returning to the same catchy central theme repeatedly when the band takes a break from making a beautiful racket.

Surprisingly, most of these weird turns work, with the annoying “Hare Krsna” possibly being the sole exception. The backwards instrumentals are thematically appropriate to replicate the character’s dreams. The short piano pieces offer nice breathing room between the guitar attacks. “Never Talking to You Again” is among the album’s best tracks. “Standing by the Sea” is an unlikely successful theatrical and dramatic moment. And “Reoccurring Dreams” is a musical achievement: a long instrumental piece that never feels tired or indulgent. That does not mean, however, “Zen Arcade” is not dented in the slightest by its length. Although it begins flawlessly with four strong opening tunes in a row and closes mightily in the seven-song sequence between “Pink Turns to Blue” and “Reoccurring Dreams”, its mid section can drag a bit, because the weakest melodic moments of the album are all joined in this segment, giving birth to the most common downfall of hardcore groups: making sequences of songs that are too hard to distinguish from one another.

Despite that irregular portion, “Zen Arcade” has highs that more than make up for such stumble. “Something I Learned Today”, “Broken Heart, Broken Home”, and “Chartered Trips” would go on to serve as fantastic blueprints for future Bob Mould classic compositions that are equal part muscle and melody. “What’s Going On” has enough energy to outdo an atomic bomb. “Turn on the News” has an irresistible call-and-response chorus that urges the protagonist to return in order to face real life. And “Pink Turns to Blue”, which depicts the moving sad desperation in the witnessing of an overdose may as well be the best song produced by any band of the hardcore movement; a scene that took the punk spirit to sometimes shocking extremes, and that happened to find its finest hour in an album that went against many of the rules that first brought it to existence. Ironically or appropriately, “Zen Arcade” is the ultimate hardcore classic.

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