9/26/2013

Milk It

NIRVANA 
In Utero: 20th Anniversary Edition
[DGC-2013]

It’s a bittersweet irony that the 20th anniversary edition of In Utero was released on another anniversary: that of its predecessor, the album which made Kurt Cobain a household name and In Utero was seemingly a reaction against. The latter meme has been bandied about for decades and a song itself (“Radio Friendly Unit Shifter”) has been cited as the torchbearer for Cobain’s disdain for Nevermind [DGC-1991]. But in the end the gambit backfired: In Utero has never eclipsed Nevermind in any way, shape or form, and despite being the final studio album by the most significant rock band of the ‘90s, it has largely receded to background status, barely eclipsing Bleach [Sub Pop-1989] in that regard. Its best songs remain powerful, yet rarely heard these days (“Serve the Servants”, “Heart Shaped Box”, the aforementioned “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter”) and its two most enduring tunes (“Pennyroyal Tea” and the sadly, beautiful “All Apologies”) live on in their stripped down versions from the band’s live MTV Unplugged album instead. Nirvana never did become The Jesus Lizard 2.0, either.

If there’s one thing accomplished by this expanded 20th anniversary edition—which includes the album’s original mix, a 2013 mix, and assorted b-sides, outtakes, demos—it’s to shine a light on how finely tuned a microscope there was on Nirvana at this point in the band’s career. The infamous original mixes by producer Steve Albini for singles “Heart Shaped Box” and “All Apologies” (which garnered so much animosity and controversy between the various factions involved, not to mention feeding the press’ obsessive appetite for all things Nirvana in the wake of Nevermind), are not that far off from Scott Litt’s later mixes. The Albini mix for  “All Apologies” has louder, slightly more nuanced guitars. That’s it.

As for the reissue itself, the main criteria from the fan P.O.V. remains the same for In Utero as any other: Do you love this album enough to repurchase it, along with the extras included in an expanded version? Nirvana’s studio epitaph probably deserves better than a blunt, plain invitation to your collection—the 2013 Albini mixes could be reason enough to re-evaluate In Utero, or at least judge it in a slightly different light—but if its creator’s intent was to alienate and distance ourselves from his last batch of songs, simply because we were partial to the ones which came right before it, we should, at the very least, contemplate honoring his last musical request.

9/17/2013

Their Aim Is True

ELVIS COSTELLO & THE ROOTS
Wise Up Ghost
[Blue Note-2013]

As he pushes 60, it’s obvious to even the most casual of observers, punk’s literate Angry Young Man has mellowed considerably over the years. But Elvis Costello’s penchant for placing himself in different and sometimes disparate settings from his own has been a constant throughout his career: from the album of country covers Almost Blue [Columbia-1981] to his collaborations with The Brodsky String Quartet and Burt Bacharach, respectively, the former Declan McManus likes to mix it up, as it were.

And when you couple that with the rare music geek/musician combo that is Roots leader ?uestlove, and release your efforts on the legendary Blue Note label for that extra bit of hip cachet, this is the kind of joint venture that should’ve gone down ages ago, just for the marketing orgasm alone. But don’t believe the hype. Not most of it anyway.

Wise Up Ghost is the proverbial mix of chocolate and peanut butter making a valiant attempt at reaching for Reese’s Pieces glory and only intermittently getting there. (“Viceroy’s Row” might be the perfect distillation of their respective talents.) Both sides rise to the occasion for the most part, but it works best when Costello pushes The Roots closer to his corner, as opposed to the instances where he seems a bit lost, as if he recognizes the buildings but not the neighborhood.

9/09/2013

Here Comes Your Band

THE PIXIES
EP-1
[self-released-2013]
 
It was probably not necessary to time the backlash against the Pixies—once the dudes put out an official release sans bassist/vocalist Kim Deal—who quit the band in the midst of the sessions for this EP and made it formal this past June—the knives would be sure to come out. Maybe an egg timer would've sufficed.

First in line is—who else?—Pitchfork with their 1.0 review, which declares “There is no Pixies in this Pixies” and derisively aligns the song “Another Toe in the Ocean” with Weezer circa their self-titled 2001 comeback record aka The Green Album. (How the mighty have fallen: not even Weezer can escape the wrath of P4K’s bullshit revisionist history.) “If one of these songs had started playing over the credits of an American Pie knockoff...you would not blink.” Who barfed in your Fruit Loops, dude?

To be fair, the first three songs on EP-1 (“Andro Queen”, the aforementioned “Another Toe in the Ocean” and “Indie Cindy”) might be a tad more Frank Black and the Catholics than the mothership. Which is all the more surprising since it was helmed by none other than Gil Norton, who produced Doolittle, Bossanova and Trompe le Monde for the band. But the fourth and closing track, “What Goes Boom”, is what you’d expect from Charlie Thompson and his co-horts at this stage of the game: a nod at their past that’s not too reverential but nevertheless makes a point of reminding you what in fact you’re listening to.

So, is it a classic? Of course not. But it’s no embarrassment. And even though EP-1 is the band’s first official release of a new collection of songs since 1991, expectations aren’t as high as those faced by MBV, another beloved alt-rock institution which also hadn’t put out anything official since Nevermind

The Pixies are back as a regular recording unit, and if the nomenclature of this EP is any indication, there will be more where this one came from. Bottom line: Can’t see Pixies fans not enjoying this. Unless they’re a self-absorbed, Johnny-come-lately twit at an influential but ultimately harmful, noxious music website. All others proceed at will.

Subterranean Homesick Aliens










RADIOHEAD
Pablo Honey [Parlophone-1993]
The Bends [Parlophone-1995]
OK Computer [Parlophone-1997]
Kid A [Parlophone-2000]
Amnesiac [Parlophone-2001]
Hail to the Thief [Parlophone-2003]
In Rainbows [ATO-2007]
The King of Limbs [ATO-2011]

On September 13th, 1993, comedian Conan O'Brien made ​​his debut as host of Late Night with Conan O'Brien. As it turned out, his first musical guest was a British quintet from Oxford named after a Talking Heads song, with a growing buzz and whose debut album had been released in February of that same year.

It's not surprising, given what has transpired since Feb. 22, 1993, that the band's latter day fanbase would shun a debut album which led the object of their undying and unwavering obsession to be nicknamed "the British Nirvana"the record was produced by the renown "grunge" team of Sean Slade and Paul Q. Kolderie, of Pixies and Hole fameand was named after a Jerky Boys skit. (Of course this tidbit is somewhat shocking proof that the Oxford quintet once had a sense of humor.) But rather than a skeleton in their proverbial closet the band's uneven initial long player has its moments, including "You", "Anyone Can Play Guitar", "Ripcord", "I Can't" and–-to Thom Yorke's everlasting chagrin, we imagine–-their most famous song: the anthem of self loathing known as "Creep".
Although Pablo Honey held the title of Radiohead's weakest album until The King of Limbs showed up and blew it out of the water 2 years ago, it's not the filler-laden dud many would lead you to believe. In reality, it's always been a snapshot of a young band with a few decent songs attempting to find its footing. That their songwriting grew in leaps and bounds over the following two albums has sharply overshadowed Pablo Honey's simple charms in the two decades since its release. (Even Jonny Greenwood believes it's been underrated.) At the very least, it hints at what was to come just two years later.

If for some reason Radiohead had called it quits after Pablo Honey, "Creep" would have been its lone claim to fame; their legacy a "one hit wonder" label forever affixed besides their name. Fortunately, this was not the case. What followed was an amazing album, a remarkable leap in terms of songwriting and production and, arguably, the blueprint for '90s Brit-pop. Produced by the great John Leckie (Stone Roses, XTC ) and engineered by Nigel Godrichthe latter to become a close associate and collaborator of the band in the years to comeThe Bends elevated Radiohead's status via five singles"High and Dry", "Planet Telex", "Fake Plastic Trees", "Just" and "Street Spirit (Fade Out)"as well as album tracks that became favorites ("Bullet Proof ... I Wish I Was" and the title track). In fact, Cast, Coldplay, Travis and a host of others should cough up royalties to Radiohead, grateful for having created this record. But the band's big musical statement was just around the corner.

 What else can be said about OK Computer that has not been repeated ad nauseum in the more than decade and a half since it was released? That it's an incredibly visionary album in which Radiohead further pushed their own musical boundaries? That not only is it one of the great albums of the '90s but of all time? That it was Dark Side of the Moon for a new generation? That producing it established Nigel Godrich's career? All that and more has been written and discussed about this great album that managed to presciently capture the empty feeling of the crushing daily routine, rampant consumerism, political disenchantment, and social and emotional alienation that marked Western life in the beginning of the 21st century.
Only three singles were released from the album: "Paranoid Android", "Karma Police" and "No Surprises". But despite the high caliber of these songs, OK Computer works best as a concept album, though it wasn't formally conceived as such. 

With a couple of classics under their belt, Radiohead once again surprised fans with a new musical direction on their next album. Disturbed by the legion of groups copping their style and disillusioned with the traditional parameters of rock music, vocalist and main songwriter Tom Yorke was motivated to go for a change of musical scenery. (Although, it must be said, "The mythology around [rock music] has run its course" is truly one of the most pretentious statements ever made by Yorke or any other rock star.)

Despite experimenting with an electronica-based sound, Kid A managed to retain much of the majesty of their previous album and reach the top of the album charts shortly after its release, later winning a Grammy for Best Alternative Album on the strength of "Everything in its Right Place", "The National Anthem", "How to Disappear Completely", "Treefingers", "Optimistic" and "In Limbo", among others.  

Amnesiac, meanwhile, is on the same wavelength as the previous album and was recorded during the same sessions as Kid A. But lacking similar presence, not to mention the same kind of impact as Kid A and taking into account that were recorded at the same time, it's not difficult to conclude that Amnesiac is a weaker, watered down version of Kid A, despite notable tracks as "Pyramid Song", "I Might Be Wrong" and "Knives Out".
  
The initial burst of faux studio verité–-a guitar being plugged into an ampmay well be an inside joke, signaling to Radiohead fans that the quintessential rock and roll instrument–-and a big part of the band’s early soundwas back to the fore. But the fact that the very next sound is an anxious, programmed beat is what’s most telling: the promised return to The Bends-era guitar play was not to be this time out. However, the beloved six-string is featured more prominently than on the previous two releases and ultimately lets Hail To The Thief come across as a more conventional recordfor Radiohead, anywaythan either Kid A or Amnesiac. This isn’t a dig: in fact, the songwriting and arranging are both close to the same level of artistry found on their masterpiece OK Computer, with Hail To The Thief including some of their very best work (“2+2=5”, “Sail To The Moon”, “Go To Sleep”,“There, There”, “A Punch-up at a Wedding”). This is the work of a band trying to find a compromise between classic songwriting and progressive/avant-garde experimentation; struggling between being true to the muse and not alienating and leaving its loyal fans behind. In lesser hands, this could spell death to a promising career. But Radiohead succeeds here way more often than not, and in the end that’s what makes this album such a wonderful listening experience: a love/hate relationship between man and machine that humbles one and humanizes the other. And we get to sit back and enjoy it.

After the expiration of their recording contract with EMI, Radiohead chose to release their next album on their own and let the public decide how much they would pay
–including nothing, if they so chosefor the digital download of this new album. This unleashed a whirlwind of opinions for and against from every conceivable corner of the music business: established and aspiring artists, critics and marketers, insiders and fans, etc. etc. etc. All this chatter eventually overshadowed the album itself, the brilliant In Rainbows

Kicking it off at a satisfying intensity level with the skittish, electronic Aphex Twin-influenced intro of “15 Step” and the krautrock-meets-Sonic Youth drive of “Bodysnatchers”, Radiohead’s heavily anticipated seventh studio album revels in moods and more often than not fails to return to the driving pulse which it starts off with. Sometimes it manages to do both. And the breathtaking, “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” is a wonderful example. Further on, the haunting “All I Need”, with its hints of Massive Attacklike flourishes is probably the most straightforward Radiohead song since “Karma Police”. And yes, it’s a love song. ("House of Cards" is another highlight.) As for the rather uncharacteristic album title, the music certainly evokes the mood and peacefulness that comes with that calming celestial bridge of colors.

Because of its mostly abstract and static nature, The King of Limbs sparked polarizing reactions at the time of it release. A few critics and some fans alike considered it a throwback to the less interesting aspects of Radiohead's heavily electronic incursions, while others found it to be both beautiful and inspiring. Notwithstanding the divergent views, The King of Limbs sold respectably and was nominated for five Grammy Awards.