Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Blog on Brief Hiatus

I'm in Cincinnati grading AP Music Theory exams and my brain is fried from listening to the same sight-singing exercise over and over again. So, the blog is on hiatus until next week. Sorry, 2003. We will see you soon.

I think I also short-changed 1993 by a day. Perhaps I can squeeze one in before returning to the 21st century.

Until we meet again...

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Song #216 of 9999 - Cannonball by The Breeders

Song #216 of 9999 

Title: Cannonball

Artist: The Breeders
Year: 1993
Album: Last Splash

Nineteen ninety-three was a good year for women in pop apparently. I've already featured Björk and Mazzy Star, and there's also good stuff from Belly, PJ Harvey and Liz Phair I will probably not get to. But the biggest hit (and perhaps the catchiest record of the bunch) comes from Kim Deal, formerly of The Pixies, and twin sister Kelley, who make up one-half of The Breeders. "Cannonball" became an indie smash, catapulting their debut album to platinum status.
"Cannonball" is one of those songs that seemingly has nothing special about it. Essentially two chords throughout (okay, the chorus adds a third), the song is driven by a prominent syncopated bass line and a cool electric guitar lick that makes clever use of a whammy bar. The lyrics are unintelligible and there is virtually no melody. But it works, I think, because of the arrangement which is filled with well-placed breaks and machine-gun fire in the snare drum and electric guitar during a chorus that begs you to get on your feet and....I don't know, bop up and down? Kim Deal's cool approach to the lead vocal during the verse and the distortion on her voice in the chorus add to the overall effect.
I don't have a great sense of the sound of the 1990s, but, perhaps second only to Nirvana, I'd say "Cannonball" is the defining song of the decade.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Song #215 of 9999 - Fade Into You by Mazzy Star

Song #215 of 9999 

Title: Fade Into You
Artist: Mazzy Star
Year: 1993
Album: So Tonight That I Might See

Some songs just seem like they were made to be listened to in the dark. On repeat. With a bottle of wine you have no intention of re-corking. "Fade Into You" is one of those songs. Sleepy vocals by Hope Sandoval reverberate amid a wash of slide guitar and ringing tambourine. This unlikely hit from the duo known as Mazzy Star tends to show up on television a lot, especially in quirky dramas. Kind of an unnecessary fact, but that's all I have.

Tell your friends about this blog and search for the playlist on Spotify (now visible in public searches!)

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Song #214 of 9999 - Human Behaviour by Björk

Song #214 of 9999 

Title: Human Behaviour
Artist: Björk
Year: 1993 
Album: Debut

I profiled Björk in post #151 while discussing her 2001 album Vespertine. By the turn of the 21st Century, Björk was no longer Björk Guðmundsdóttir the singer, but Björk the artist. I mean that as a compliment—she had elevated her work to a level well beyond pop, especially when considered in the context of her video productions. I said then and I'll reiterate that the videos are museum-quality works of art and she deserves all the accolades and prestige that has been bestowed upon her.

That said, it's a bit of a joyous retreat to retrospectively listen back to the first track from her aptly titled Debut. Here, Björk is just one year removed from her stint with The Sugarcubes and is still very interested in showcasing her other-worldly vocal talent. "Human Behaviour" is not about art, it's about play. Björk's voice breaks, growls, yodels, sighs, and barks in sympathy with Nellee Hooper's mechanized and sinister accompaniment. Still not quite comfortable with concealing her Icelandic accent, the words are lost amidst a sea of punctuation, but that makes it all the more entertaining. 

I normally don't make a case for videos—I'm here to write about the songs—but this video is worth checking out for its cartoonish stop-motion action and Björk's over-the-top gesticulating, which makes the song even more fun that I thought possible. A debut dripping with charm, "Human Behaviour" is an adorable look back at the precocious finger paintings of a future master.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Song #213 of 9999 - Disarm by Smashing Pumpkins

Song #213 of 9999 

Title: Disarm
Artist: Smashing Pumpkins
Year: 1993 
Album: Siamese Dream

A few weeks ago we were listening to some Smashing Pumpkins in the pop music class we offer at school and I was struck by how dramatic the songs are. I mean, I was aware of the band's style but had forgotten just how effective the combination of an intelligent arrangement and Billy Corgan's versatile voice could be.
"Disarm" is perhaps the ultimate example of this juxtaposition. My favorite Pumpkins song by a lot, its effect has been diminished slightly by the fact that I played it like a million times in 1993. But listening now, I'm reminded of the chill-inducing effect of the violin and cello duo snaking their way around Corgan's chugging guitar. Corgan's vocal vacillates between a whisper and a growl, perhaps in sympathy with a lyric that seems just as schizophrenic. Although the words have been interpreted in a variety of ways (most disturbingly as being anti-abortion), there is no denying the powerful phrasing and imagery of a refrain like "the killer in me is the killer in you."
This was probably the best song of 1993. Just stunningly beautiful and more than a little devastating.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Songs #211 & 212 - It's TWOsday!

Song #211 of 9999                                                  Song #212 of 9999

Title: Web in Front                                                   Title: Tilebreaker
Artist: Archers of Loaf                                              Artist: Polvo
Year: 1993                                                               Year: 1993
Album: Icky Mettle                                                   Album: Today's Active Lifestyles

In the pop music class I sometimes teach, we talk a lot about regionalism, which used to be a big deal in pop music but is almost non-existent today. One can easily classify early blues music from the Mississippi Delta or the Piedmont or East Texas or Chicago. In fact, there is a very good chance that if you grew up in one of these areas during the first half of the twentieth century, it was the only music you knew. But during the modern era, these regional associations waned and now have virtually disappeared thanks to the internet. So it's always interesting when local scenes like Minneapolis pop in the early 1980s or Seattle grunge in the early 1990s emerge and become well-known nationally or around the world. (Let's set aside a special area for New York and London, two cities that always seem to have something new brewing.)

Were it not for the Seattle scene, perhaps the are known as The Triangle in North Carolina would have gained more national prominence in the 1990s. A lot of interesting acts (most of them signed to burgeoning Merge Records) emanated from the Chapel Hill/Raleigh/Durham area, including indie favorites Superchunk, Corrosion of Conformity, Squirrel Nut Zippers and, most famously, the Ben Folds Five. 

Although these groups span a fairly wide range of genres, the most prevalent Chapel Hill sound in the early 1990s, as exemplified by these releases from Archers of Loaf and Polvo, is guitar-based rock with healthy doses of noise and irony. When AOL singer Eric Bachmann sings "you're not the one who let me down/but thanks for offering" in "Web in Front," you can almost hear the smirk. I'm not as familiar with Polvo, but a few tracks from their 1993 record are squatting in my iTunes folder, courtesy of my ex-wife, who introduced me to her NC stomping grounds, including the iconic club The Cat's Cradle. Compared to AOL's relatively accessible melodic rock, "Tilebreaker" adds an extra layer of noise and pitch-bending discordance while burying the vocals deep into the sonic saturation.

Welcome to 1993!

Monday, June 4, 2012

Song #210 of 9999 - This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody) by Talking Heads

Song #210 of 9999 

Title: This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)
Artist: Talking Heads
Year: 1983 
Album: Speaking in Tongues

"This Must Be the Place" is a classic example of keeping things simple and in their right place. There is absolutely nothing complicated about this song—in fact, it's quite repetitive—but it is just one of the most satisfying pieces of music. According to the band, the "Naive Melody" refers to the accompaniment, especially the bass line and drums, which are essentially loops, offering no variation. But the sound bytes that dot the piece—listen for snippets of electric guitar, keyboard punctuation, percussion strikes, percolating synths, marimba trills—come together to form the audio equivalent of a Seurat masterpiece. Talking Heads have always been brainy, but this is one time we actually get to hear the synapses firing in the stereo field.
I have to think much of the musical accompaniment for this track was assembled or directed by Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth, who were, by this point, well-established as the dance club band Tom Tom Club. This track embodies much of the glee found on their 1981 debut. But the music really finds its footing when paired with David Byrne's imaginative lyric and (relatively) subdued vocal performance. Byrne aimed to write a love song that wasn't so obvious, using phrases that evoke feelings but never simply spelling it out for the listener. Ultimately, "home" is the metaphor Byrne exchanges for "love" and when he says "home is where I want to be," it's a universal statement everyone can understand.
(The official video has some additional noise that gets in the way of the song, but it's a charming little film. Click here for an unadulterated version of the song.)

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Song #209 of 9999 - Everyday I Write the Book by Elvis Costello and the Attractions

Song #209 of 9999 
Title: Everyday I Write the Book
Artist: Elvis Costello and the Attractions
Year: 1983 
Album: Punch the Clock

It's funny to read about how much Elvis Costello doesn't like this recording and how he didn't really have an investment in this song he wrote in ten minutes, but "Everyday I Write the Book" seems to connect with people nonetheless. It was the first Top 40 hit in the US for the songwriter and yet he seems to hold such disdain for the recording, admitting that he likes to sing the song now (in an adapted arrangement) but doesn't care for the recording.

I'm not sure what's not to like. The song percolates with pop goodness. There's a really nice groove established from the outset and the plucky keyboard is a hook all by itself. The lyrics are quite clever, even if (probably because) they were written as an exercise. Costello is also starting to explore the soulful side of his voice that would pretty much take the place of his post-punk self. The backing vox offer a rich counterpoint to the melange of instruments perfectly blended into this very busy arrangement.

If you'd like to hear an arrangement that is more to Costello's liking, check out this beautiful acoustic version by Ron Sexsmith (and Elvis and others) which begins with Costello explaining pretty much everything I told you in the first paragraph.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Song #208 of 9999 - Shore Leave by Tom Waits

Song #208 of 9999 

Title: Shore Leave
Artist: Tom Waits
Year: 1983 
Album: Swordfishtrombones

Tom Waits's breakout album Swordfishtrombones came out in 1983, but it could just as well have come out at any time in the past or the future. If you've never heard it, the thirty years that have elapsed since its release will have little to no impact on the way you perceive it. Waits himself is now sixty-two years old, but he could have been sixty-two when he recorded the record and he may be forty-two next year. What I'm trying to say is he is a rare timeless artist and so is his art.

It was hard to decide which track to choose to feature tonight—they all tell such vivid tales, even the instrumentals. I like "Shore Leave" because of the arrangement and the lyrics, but it's also a prototypical Waits track with its moto perpetuo bass line outlining a twelve-bar blues while exotic instruments frame Waits's storytelling. Every line of the lyric offers a detail so real, you feel like you're right there with this forlorn soldier. To me, the song captures the irony of being in a crowded, busy place with so much to do and still feeling lonely because you're missing the one you love. I love the couplet "Well I was pacing myself trying to make it all last/Squeezing all the life out of a lousy two day pass" because it relates how much the protagonist could long for a few days leave, even if only to spend it feeling home- and love-sick. Great track from a great album.