Mar 25 2022

Song Review: TLC – Waterfalls

When I was a kid, I had no idea “Waterfalls” had a rap verse for a long, long time. This actually happened with a lot of R&B songs that had rap verses. Blackstreet’s “No Diggity” is another one that comes to mind. Because my local pop radio station had this infuriating practice of cutting the rap verse “for time” during the midday shifts, but when I listened in my bedroom in the evening, suddenly I would hear the full song, rap verse intact. I suspect my local station wasn’t the only station in America that did this, and I also suspect it wasn’t done “for time.” If the whole point was to get to the commercials quicker, wouldn’t that logic still apply during the evening hours? I was still hearing ads, but now I was hearing rap verses.

Of course it was racially motivated; maybe the station just thought white listeners, who weren’t used to hearing rap verses on their radio in the 90s, would change the channel. Sure, they were playing chart-topping R&B hits, which were integral to modern Black music, that had Black messages, but the rap verses? That was a bridge too far, I guess. We couldn’t have that. We couldn’t have the best part of the song.

In the case of “Waterfalls,” the rap verse from Lisa Left Eye Lopes is not only the best part of the song, it’s actually the most important part of the song. It’s the part that explains the song’s message in the most explicit terms. It’s a message of tough love, of realism, and ultimately of hope. In “Waterfalls,” we get two sung verses about young people making bad decisions, and of course, the chorus, which uses a metaphor of a waterfall to act as a word of caution. But the rap verse is the one that lays it all out, that talks about Black American struggle, of poor American struggle, of the challenge of keeping one’s faith. “Waterfalls” is a very REAL song, that deals with real shit. It was like nothing else on the radio. Especially that rap verse.

There’s a moment after the second verse of the song, sung by T-Boz. In the verse, she talks about a young man who falls victim to HIV because of his decisions. It’s a tragic few lines, but at the end, before the chorus kicks in, T-Boz sings “y’all don’t hear me.” It’s a poignant moment, mainly because it’s true. The majority of people who hear “Waterfalls” likely aren’t listening too closely to the lyrics, they’re vibing to the song. The production is laid back and casual and evocative of the style of hip-hop at the time. The horn samples and effects-laden guitar are based in funk; they’re certainly more playful than the lyrics they’re attached to. The effect should be jarring, but it actually helps “Waterfalls” not get bogged down in its message. It pairs perfectly with the overall thesis, which is ultimately one of optimism, especially that rap verse from Left Eye. “Dreams are hopeless aspirations / In hopes of coming true / Believe in yourself / The rest is up to me and you.”

Score: 10/10

Mar 23 2022

Song Review: Bryan Adams – Have You Ever Really Loved A Woman

Move over Ricky Martin, here comes Bry- oh just kidding. The Latin explosion of the late 90s was a real, authentic, notable moment, but before that, flamenco flourishes in Anglo pop music were mostly a novelty, especially when deployed by a balladeer like Bryan Adams. And no amount of Spanish guitar could save this track from becoming yet another work-for-hire theme for another forgotten 90s movie soundtrack.

The Spanish-tinged production (courtesy of Mutt Lange, hilariously) likely has something to do with the movie the song is tied to – the Marlon Brando / Johnny Depp rom-com Don Juan DeMarco. I haven’t seen this movie, but I have read its plot synopsis on Wikipedia, and it sounds very, very dumb. It has a 70% on Rotten Tomatoes, and it made money at the box office, so perhaps Brando’s performance gives it the gravitas it probably needed. Apparently, however, Depp has a fake Spanish accent, so yeah…. doesn’t sound great!

Adams, for his part in his latest Hollywood escapade, does not pretend to be a Spanish person. The results would have been undeniably terrible, but at least interesting. Instead we get another plodding movie ballad from the raspy Canadian crooner; the effect is the same as that of his previous #1 songs. I’m not sure if I could tell them apart without that flamenco guitar, to be quite honest. The main melodic hook is memorable, but overused, and the song drags along far too long, with Adams’s overwrought, wannabe Rod Stewart delivery fully at the forefront. The lyrics describe getting to know a woman so intimately that you can “taste her” and “see your unborn children in her eyes.” As the kids would say, they are cringe af.

Tom Breihan’s Number Ones column revealed to me that Tori Amos and Michael Stipe were considered for a song for Don Juan DeMarco instead of Adams, and they even wrote and recorded one that has never been released. Oh, what we could have had.

Score: 3/10

Feb 28 2022

Album Review: Def Leppard – Hysteria (#MWE)

Let’s state the obvious first: Hysteria is a monster of an album. We’re talking thundering drums, loud-ass guitars, screeching solos, to-the-rafters vocals from Joe Elliott, in-the-pocket background vocals from everyone else, unforgiving hooks. It’s an hour-plus of Mutt Lange-produced maximalism. Even when the tempo slows (as on hit “Love Bites”), everything is still in the red. The choruses are confrontational, even when you know they’re coming (and you always know when they’re coming). It’s an album of its time. You can vividly see all of the big hair if you close your eyes.

Hysteria sold 20 million copies worldwide, buttressed by hit songs like the deathless stripper anthem “Pour Some Sugar On Me” and the fucking excellent title track. But anyone who bought the record probably wasn’t disappointed with the rest; every song follows the same template, and it all sounds, rather gloriously, like the summer of 1987.

Four years had passed since Def Leppard had broken through to the masses with their smash album Pyromania, and the band almost missed their shot to capitalize on the glam metal takeover that would come to define the decade. The band began work with Jim Steinman before parting ways; apparently the Bat Out Of Hell mastermind was too grandiose and not pop-focused enough for Def Leppard’s objectives.

Tragedy struck the band when drummer Rick Allen lost his arm to a horrific car crash; the ensuing overzealous media coverage inspired the album’s title. This event, of course, delayed recording, but probably the biggest slowdown was Lange’s meticulous attention to detail; he had ambitiously sought to make the hair metal version of Thriller, where every song could conceivably be released as a single. This resulted in a laborious process of stacking and processing background vocal harmonies and painstakingly filtering drum sounds through a Fairlight CMI sampler.

I love the 80s, but the whole hair metal thing has eluded me. There was something about the sameness of the sound, the overused, indistinct template of big gated drums and screeching guitar solos that I found slightly off-putting. As a fan of big hooks, pop production, and pyrotechnics, there are moments and songs I have enjoyed, but as a whole I had dismissed the era as dated, something that you had to be there for to truly enjoy. It was slightly before my time, which means that by the time I was paying attention to what was in fashion, hair metal was very, very uncool – old enough to seem out of touch, and not old enough to have been critically reassessed.

With that background in context, I really enjoyed my cursory listen to this grandiose, expensive-sounding album. Hysteria is a lot of fun, if completely trapped in the moment it was created. Most songs work by themselves as potential radio singles, but taken as a whole it all starts to sound the same. That’s one misstep from Mutt Lange and the band, I think. They completely overdid it – in an effort to make the glam version of Thriller, they forgot an important element to that blockbuster album from Michael Jackson. It works as a collection of great pop songs, sure, but it’s also a fantastic album – a diverse listen from start to finish (and of adequate length). Hysteria has too much going on, and a lot of it is the same thing over and over. No amount of monster hooks is going to fix that issue.

The whole ordeal of recording and producing Hysteria was excessive and expensive and the end result was shiny and glossy and ready for mass consumption. Are those Ronald Reagan samples in “Gods of War?” Is Hysteria the most 1980s album ever? I will not attempt to answer these burning questions. Instead, all I can say is that the entire listen is egregiously slick, regularly brilliant, and occasionally overcooked. But, more than anything, it’s a thrill ride.

Score: 7/10

Feb 27 2022

Album Review: They Might Be Giants – Flood (#MWE)

The Johns were always oddballs. Out of all the bands my older cousin Joe introduced to me in my most formative years, They Might Be Giants was the weirdest. But unlike another bizarre group in his CD collection, Primus, TMBG weren’t dark or sinister, but rather playful, quirky, slightly nerdy… ok, they were very nerdy. And the Brooklyn duo, consisting of Johns Linnel and Flansburgh, were also kid-friendly, which led to placement on Tiny Toon Adventures, and, eventually, children’s albums from TMBG themselves.

Flood is, by a long shot, their most successful and recognized album, though the jury’s out on whether it’s their best. They Might Be Giants albums are a bit of a mess. A fun mess, sure, and always an adventurous, diverse listen, but a mess nevertheless. Flood is no different, featuring dalliances with country and Western music, polka, and and oldies-era rock’n’roll.

There’s plenty of quirky arrangement here, as well. Lead single “Birdhouse In Your Soul” has a trumpet solo, and, thanks to the marvel of MIDI sequencing, injects a rather off-kilter key change. The song is told from the perspective of a night light, which, yeah, sounds about right. They Might Be Giants are perhaps best known for their novel, strange lyrics and imagery, which never quite enter the realm of straight-up comedy or satire.

“Lucky Ball and Chain” is a fairly straightforward heartbreak song, though the Western pastiche renders it a bit too tongue-in-cheek. The duo’s cover of “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” is likely their best known song, and for good reason; it’s an unbelievably fun baroque pop rendition held together by violin and a good sense of humor in vocal delivery. “Dead” follows, a strangely beautiful and sentimental piano tune about being reincarnated as a bag of groceries.

Only on a TMBG song can clever political commentary, accordion, drum machines, and sudden shifts in genre all combine for a completely enjoyable track, as on “Your Racist Friend.” Fan favorite “Particle Man,” meanwhile, is guided along by an oom-pah cadence and an abstract tale of a group of men (all with peculiar descriptors) who are fighting with each other. “Twisting” borrows a lot from an old school rock’n’roll template, enough that, were it not so… uh, They Might Be Giants-y, it might have been destined for PA systems at baseball games.

Once they get into the swing of things, the duo begins repeating themselves, rendering Flood with a good chunk of filler. The biggest and best moments on the album are the songs we all remember, and the rest come off as a bit corny. This was They Might Be Giants’ first time in a proper recording studio, so the story goes, and the sessions were utilized for a bit of studio experimentation with sampling and vocal effects. Near the middle section of the album, this focus produces some flat-out melodic duds, like the disaster “Hearing Aid” and the eyeroll-inducing interlude “Minimum Wage.” When the Johns focus on building innovating left-field pop melody, as on “Letterbox” and “Whistling In the Dark,” the album truly shines.

Even though it’s their most commercially successful album, Flood has many moments that could have been left on the cutting room floor. At times, the songs feel too undercooked, and at other times downright off-putting. This has been a typical flaw for many They Might Be Giants releases, however, and when the duo gets going here, they deliver some of their career-defining material.

Score: 6/10

Feb 26 2022

Album Review: Pearl Jam – Ten (#MWE)

If you had introduced me to Ten instead of Nevermind, I’m not sure I would have jumped into 90s alternative as fervently as I did. That’s not to say I don’t like Ten, or the music of Pearl Jam, music I’ve heard my entire life. I just always had a preference for when grunge was reacting against, rather than building from, classic rock.

Admittedly, because of this approach to their sound, Pearl Jam are a bit of a blind spot for me. I was never drawn to the elongated guitar solos, the self-serious tone, the impassioned timbre of Eddie Vedder (which, through no fault of Vedder’s, slowly became a bit of a caricature thanks to imitators like Scott Stapp). I guess I always liked my rock stars to evoke the nonchalance of Joey Ramone rather than the vivacity of Robert Plant. Putting all this aside for my first proper listen to the band’s debut, Ten, I can attest that the sound is not for me, but it is still an incredibly enjoyable album.

Now, I’ve heard songs like “Even Flow” and “Alive” about a bazillion times, but I’ve admittedly never paid much attention to the lyrics. And by far the most intriguing thing about Ten, to me, now that I’m all ears, is what Vedder is singing about. I was today years old when I discovered the actual story of “Alive,” and I’m doubtless NOT the first person in the world to have this realization. Thanks to the on-the-nose dramatization in the music video, I know all about “Jeremy” (far and away my favorite single from this album), but overall I was surprised at the array of dark topics throughout Ten, like murder, suicide, depression and homelessness.

In terms of the sound of the album, it is very distinct, more or less the template for what became known as Seattle grunge, even more so than the punk-adjacent style of Nirvana. By the time Pearl Jam came together, and Ten was recorded, all the members had cut their teeth in bands like Temple of the Dog and Mother Love Bone. The scene would see its share of tragedies in the decades ahead, but perhaps the members of Mother Love Bone experienced the first of it with the sudden death of Andrew Wood. The trauma is evident throughout Ten’s sullen mood and reverb-layered production. The album, in spite of its massive rock radio appeal, is grunge’s auditory equivalent to a contemplative dirge.

We all know the story: Pearl Jam reacted pretty negatively to the trappings of sudden fame, and retreated almost immediately from the spotlight. Because of Ten’s impact, and its enduring legacy as one of a handful of canonical grunge albums, the band never could truly disappear into obscurity. Based solely on the success of Ten, it is ensured Pearl Jam will headline festivals and stadium tours for decades to come, much like the classic rock icons they emulated so well. Unlike their peers, the band has mostly avoided tragedy and inner turmoil, which has allowed them to soldier on, while Nirvana, Alice In Chains, and Soundgarden have either been forced to call it quits or replace iconic members for second-rate comebacks. Of the Big Four, it is my opinion Pearl Jam are the least interesting, but Ten is still a very good grunge album, and its legacy for reshaping rock is deserved.

Score: 7/10

Feb 25 2022

Album Review: XTC – Drums & Wires (#MWE)

When I was in college radio, every on-air shift I had, I played “Making Plans For Nigel.” I played it so much, in fact, that other students started calling me the Nigel Guy, or kept asking me, what was the “Nigel song” I was always spinning? XTC’s lead single from their commercial breakthrough is, to my ears, a new wave masterpiece. The then-nascent gated reverb drum technique (from engineer Hugh Padgham and producer Steve Lillywhite) guides the listener through an odd tempo and a perspective of the titular Nigel’s parents, who are assuring themselves of his future with British Steel. Not only is the single a staple of the then-burgeoning new wave sound, it is an example of XTC’s catchy, but still quirky, evolution to more straightforward pop songcraft.

Building upon the success of the aimless energy of Go 2, the band hired more conventional guitarist Dave Gregory to replace keyboardist Barry Andrews who had departed after an American tour. After the well-received, less angular one-off single “Life Begins At the Hop,” XTC recorded and produced Drums & Wires in just under a month, making a strategic move for more commercial success while staying in the lane of what the group did best.

The oddness is still there, as on the jittery, yelping, Devo-esque “Helicopter,” but the sound is grounded a bit by deftly structured art-rock tracks like “Day In Day Out” and the skank-worthy bounce of “When You’re Near Me I Have Difficulty.” The rivalry of Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding provides a necessary tension and anxiety to the band’s delivery, and only serves to strengthen the songwriting. The hook-filled “Real by Reel” deals with Partridge’s paranoia of government surveillance, while polyrhythmic transitions keep Moulding’s “That Is the Way” unhinged without going off the rails. Things perk up for the punky “Outside World” before the pleasantly menacing “Scissor Man.” Album finale “Complicated Game” tackles Partridge’s existential malaise with a buzzing ambience provided by Moulding (and an actual electric razor).

With Drums & Wires, XTC aimed for loftier goals and a more structured approach, and the success is evident with every diverse, interesting and fun track. While other new wave peers were coming across as maybe a bit more robotic, XTC stood out with their unabashed English sensibility and left-field pop charm.

Score: 9/10

Feb 24 2022

Album Review: Hüsker Dü – Zen Arcade (#MWE)

A hardcore rock opera? Sign me up. Midwest punks Hüsker Dü set the blueprint on fire with their second album in 1984 and decided instead to craft a concept album about a kid who leaves home, joins the military, dabbles in spirituality, finds love, gets his heart broken, and ultimately discovers the world kind of sucks (which, wow, that’s pretty much American Idiot in a nutshell).

The buzzsaw guitars and rapid-fire bass lines are all here; this is still most definitely a hardcore album from the 1980s. But underneath the surface is something more tuneful and melodic, and underneath that still is an earnest narrative about growing up and the realization of the harsh reality of life. Bob Mould and Grant Hart, not yet nemeses, brew up a fascinating pot of driving alt-rock noise, with dalliances in piano, psychedelia and even acoustic folk. These experiments were unheard of for a band of their ilk at the time, which is a testament to Zen Arcade’s influence on modern genre-hopping post-hardcore acts like Turnstile. The album sounds like it was quite a laborious undertaking, rendering the reality all the more impressive: the band recorded most songs in one take, and the whole thing was completed in about four days.

The band’s harmonies consistently hit the mark, as on acoustic rocker “Never Talking To You Again;” elsewhere, an in-reverse mindfuck interlude (“Dreams Reoccurring”) segues into the fast-tempo “Indecision Time.” We are treated to some far-out Bo Diddley action on “Hare Krishna,” while the band channels just a taste of 70s glam on “What’s Going On.”

The diversity of styles makes for an engaging listen, even if some moments fall flat, as on aggressive filler like “Pride” and “Masochism World” and the pointless psych excursion “The Tooth Fairy and the Princess.” However, critical moments in Zen Arcade’s timeline are also late-album highlights: the tuneful “Pink Turns To Blue” is the moment when our protagonist loses his romantic interest to a drug overdose, and the eternally prescient “Turn On the News” serves as a harrowing return to reality. By the time we realize the entire story was all a restless nightmare, the album closes with the 14-minute instrumental reprise “Reoccurring Dreams.”

Zen Arcade, originally a double album on vinyl, runs a little long, and some ideas don’t quite stick the landing, but the project is admirable because of its flaws, not in spite of them. Pardon the cliche, but the album is truly greater than the sum of its parts. Hüsker Dü swung for the fences and mostly hit it out of the park with this one, and the transformation was just beginning.

Score: 7/10

Feb 23 2022

Album Review: Pavement – Slanted & Enchanted (#MWE)

“Summer Babe (Winter Version)”, the first song on Slanted & Enchanted, the debut album from Pavement, is a perfect introduction to the slacker rock of the band, initially a three-piece that belted out a catchy concoction of nonchalant noise. At first, the distorted guitar and drum mix is reminiscent of Smashing Pumpkins, a similarity that is humorous in retrospect, given Pavement’s mini-feud that would ensue with the Pumpkins later in the decade. Once Stephen Malkmus’ shrugging, Lou Reed-like vocals come in, it’s clear, however, this is not a Billy Corgan creation.

However lethargic Malkmus sounds, his voice leads the way throughout Slanted & Enchanted, stopping his carefree drawl occasionally to deliver a half-hearted “lalala” as on “Trigger Cut/Wounded Kite at :17” or a brief howl, as on the refrain of “No Life Signed Her.” The lyrics are just as noncommittal, a half-winking, half-genuine abstract mess delivered sardonically, consistently.

It’s important, however, not to focus on the presentation too much, because it is all extremely beguiling. Pavement, over the course of the 90s, earned a reputation for making incredibly good music sound like easy work. But anyone listening will recognize the monster hooks hidden beneath low grade production and apathetic posturing. One clear example early on in the album’s runtime is the undeniable melodic hook on “In the Mouth a Desert.” “Zurick Is Stained,” later on, trades in the fuzz for twang and lackadaisical strumming; the sturdy song craft remains, however. Pavement even try their hand at a shout-along stomper via “Two States” before returning to the California indie haze in “Perfume-V.”

Even if the disorganized guitar riffs, haphazard drumming, or Malkmus’ vocals grate at the listener initially, underneath there is structure and warmth to be discovered, which gives the album a repeat-worthy, ageless glow. It has allowed Slanted & Enchanted to stand the test of time; it sounds remarkably modern, even thirty years later.

Score: 9/10

Feb 22 2022

Album Review: The Breeders – Last Splash (#MWE)

This has been well documented elsewhere, but the 1990s were a great time for music and music lovers, particularly for fans of rock music. Pockets were deep, and labels were flush with extra cash to spend on more experimental acts and new sounds. Back when “alternative” meant something a bit more substantial than a slightly off-kilter but still homogenous radio format, you never knew what you might hear (or see on 120 Minutes) next.

The Breeders, PIxies bassist Kim Deal’s side project turned main outfit, were a significant band in this era, and they did their part to keep heads turning with their landmark album Last Splash. Deal and her twin sister Kelley were not afraid to mix things up in the studio, incorporating unusual instrumentation and playing with genre. The result is 40 minutes of genuinely thrilling alt-rock.

“Cannonball,” of course is the biggest track here, a start-stop, quiet-loud wallop of distortion, gliding bass lines and infectious melody. It’s easily one of the greatest songs from its moment in rock music. After the sturdy violin accompaniment on “Invisible Man,” we are treated to a dabbling of surf music on “No Aloha,” followed by the psychedelic “Roi.” Each dalliance is supported by strong hooks, and no song is long enough to wear out its welcome. The band’s live energy shines through on instrumental interlude “Flipside”; elsewhere, “I Just Wanna Get Along” is spoken-word pop punk, while twangy Ed’s Redeeming Qualities cover “Drivin’ on 9” hints at the Deal twins childhood love of The Everly Brothers.

The dynamic twins Kim and Kelley Deal, who had been making music together since they were kids, brought all their chops they honed in Dayton, Ohio, to The Breeders, and the band is now known as one of the best of all time. And their classic album, Last Splash, is still a guitar-heavy wonder to behold.

Score: 8/10

Feb 21 2022

Album Review: Slipknot – Slipknot (#MWE)

In hindsight, Slipknot is the genre of metal taken to its most logical next step, but that still doesn’t explain its commercial success. The nine-piece (!) Iowa band, all donning homemade horror masks and wearing red jumpsuits, is the gimmicky excessive endpoint for a style of music that had reached its critical nadir with the rise of nu-metal in the late 1990s. The band looked absurd, a walking, screaming punchline for haters of the genre and where it was headed. But in the end, the truth will out, and the truth is that the music of Slipknot fucking rips. This is no more evident than on arguably their best album, the self-titled debut they dropped in 1999.

Even before Fred Durst was hopping around on plywood at Woodstock 99, nu-metal was already showing its hand: an over-reliance on a stale regurgitation of moods, aggro lyrics, and D-tuned riffs. Slipknot, by contrast, were a slight deviation; they were more interesting than the next Theory of a Deadman or whoever. It isn’t necessarily Corey Taylor’s vocal delivery (which is varied and impressive, but not really unique) or his nihilistic lyrical themes, but rather his backing band, who incorporate the then-trendy rap metal tropes and adorn them with industrial, thrash, and death metal sounds. Taylor at times will moan like Jonathan Davis; other times he’s rapping like Papa Roach’s Jacoby Shaddix, before screaming like Phil Anselmo. Meanwhile, the percussion pummels, the start-stop guitar riffs transfix, the turntable scratches jolt. There are traces of other bands before them, but Slipknot’s energy is trademarked.

This is probably why the album, and Slipknot’s sound in general, has aged so well; it was more aggressive, less downtrodden and more authentically angry. It perfectly encapsulates the feeling of a chaotic Slipknot live show (a testament to producer Ross Robinson’s skills). It broke with trends just enough to attain contemporary success and still sound fresh decades later. And it doesn’t hurt that the album inspired a new generation of rockers to build upon the sound, evolving subgenres like metalcore in the process.

Score: 8/10