Stop fooling yourself again.

The conventional wisdom on Sparkmarker, when there's any such thing to be found, is that their best stuff was recorded with their original lineup, back when Ryan Scott was singing. After he left the band, they recorded an album, "500wattburner@seven", with original guitarist Kim Kinakin on vocals, and although it came out on Revelation subsidiary Crisis, making it their most widely available album, most who already knew Sparkmarker considered it a dropoff in quality. I don't know what kind of sales numbers it did, but I'm pretty sure they were seen as disappointing at the time, and either for that reason or for others, Sparkmarker quickly disappeared.

I've been listening to that album, "500wattburner@seven", a lot lately. The main reason for this, at least initially, was that I'd found a CD copy at a sidewalk sale for a dollar. I'd had a dubbed cassette of the album for years before this, going back to not long after it was released, in fact, but when I finally purchased a copy, I hadn't heard it in a long time. In my memory, it was a Quicksand soundalike that did too little to distinguish itself on most songs, and which slipped into the background too easily. Therefore, I was somewhat surprised when I put it on a few days after purchasing it and found myself being drawn in, in a way I never had been by my old dubbed copy. I don't know what it was that made the difference; maybe I'd just never been in the right mood to connect with it. Either way, I've been playing it a whole lot lately, and I think maybe a reappraisal is in order.

Now, don't get me wrong, it's not a work of genius or anything. The Quicksand influence is indeed readily apparent, and there are a few songs on the record that don't work that well. Furthermore, and this is something I never knew until I bought the CD, there is a hidden "bonus" track that is 28 minutes long and consists of Kim Kinakin reading a short story, made up of a series of diary entries, overtop of a noise track. The first time I played this album, I tried to listen to the entire thing, but after a while, I found myself thinking, "My god, is this EVER going to end?" Eventually, I couldn't take it anymore, and turned it off. Maybe it'd be a bit easier to handle if I listened to the story Kim was telling instead of letting his voice fade into the background. I'm not going to try that anytime soon, though.

I understand why people think this album is of lesser quality than the work of Sparkmarker's original lineup, too. First of all, it's less original, without a doubt. Second of all, the sound Sparkmarker came up with on "500wattburner@seven" is not only similar to Quicksand but seems like what you might get if you attempted to get Quicksand's sound down to a science, and then reduce it to its essential component parts. Sparkmarker sound, on this album, more like Quicksand than Quicksand ever sounded. The entire album revolves around a particular midtempo speed, and the riffs are almost entirely based on repetitively strummed octave chords alternating with off-tempo chugging. I think maybe it's the kind of thing that would get boring for a lot of people. I think it probably used to get boring for me, in fact. But lately I've been finding it hypnotic.

"2:20", the first song, is the one that diverges the most from the album's template. It's slightly faster, slightly shorter, and slightly more spastic than most of the other songs here. The beat is slightly frantic, and Kim spends the chorus riffing on the title; "Two minutes, twenty seconds, twenty-second best... second best ain't good enough!" he finally screams, and the band frantically pounds on the riff behind him. "Chrysanthemum", which follows "2:20", establishes the more typical sound of the rest of the album, slipping into that midtempo groove that will become familiar very quickly. The thing that makes this work for Sparkmarker, when it does work, is that they are able to use hypnotic repetition and lack of tempo shifts to create intensity. Plenty of bands use slow, pounding riffs to do this, and plenty more use blinding speed for the same purpose, but it's rare for a band to attempt intensity through midtempo speeds, and that's because it's hard to do. It's easy to reach for that feeling of shuddering nervousness, but if you don't hit it just right, you end up boring the listener. And sometimes, Sparkmarker come close to crossing that line.

On the better songs here, though, they're in no danger of such a thing. One of these songs is "Keep The Quarter", which begins with strange electrical static that sounds like a connection on an amp shorting out. Soon, another guitar comes in underneath these static sounds, and it quietly brings in the rest of the band, switching from one intro riff to a completely different one once the rhythm section starts playing along. After this intro is over, the guitars dissolve into feedback, then begin chugging quietly along with the bass notes. "We have this nasty habit, and we don't talk about it", says Kim. He mutters darkly over the rest of the verse about pretending that nothing's wrong, ignoring situations that are going bad. The switch from verse to pre-chorus is marked by guitars going from chugging to strumming, as Kim starts yelling, "This is a bad connection, and I feel so disconnected." The song gains intensity in this transition, but picks up even more as the pre-chorus moves into the chorus. The chords the guitars are playing ascend, and Kim's voice becomes more strident, finally reaching a crescendo at the chorus. "Tell me something I didn't know! I didn't know I didn't know you!" Kim screams, as the band pounds behind him, still at the same midtempo groove, but hitting so much harder now than they did when the verse began. "How could I know? You never told!" Kim screams, detailing the shocked response of a person on the receiving end of a meltdown that's been a long time coming. The desperation in his voice is an emotion I know well; I've been on the receiving end of the sorts of freakouts he describes in this song several times myself. They're the sorts of freakouts that come when a person with a pathological fear of confrontation bottles up everything they've been feeling that's been the slightest bit off-kilter, until one day they can't take it anymore and everything that's bothered them for the last several months comes pouring out at you at once. Often, an explosion like this amplifies the original problems, which might not have been that big a deal on their own, and might have been easily solved at the time, through a bit of discussion. However, once they've become part of a huge ball of issues that's all coming at you at once, they can be almost impossible to solve. When the music drops back down at the end of the chorus, into the quieter chugs of the verse, it sounds a bit more menacing than it did the first time through. This is a good approximation of how things are in relationships once there have been one or two of these freakouts. There's a permanent tension in the air, and things can't ever settle down again but so much. As the song runs a second time through its sequence of quiet verse, louder prechorus, and intense crescendo on the chorus, it seems like things are heavier, more intense this time. Sure enough, once the chorus finishes a second time, the song doesn't return to the verse. It gets quiet again, but this time, instead of chugging, the guitars make disorganized noise underneath Kim's tense vocals, then suddenly switch right back into the chorus, louder than ever. Finally, after going through the chorus for a longer time than usual, the song dissolves back into the electrical static that it began with, as if whatever relationship the song depicted has finally fallen apart for good.

The next song, "Tom Foolery", makes an oblique but ultimately easily understood statement in its lyrics. Kim Kinakin was one of the few openly gay hardcore musicians in the late 90s--not that there are all that many now--and "Tom Foolery" addresses this, though you might miss it if you aren't looking for it. Kim addresses how rare this is in the chorus: "'I'm not the only one,' my friend said to me. 'I'm not the only one, but sometimes I seem to be.'" Kim isn't happy with this situation, both where he's concerned and for gay men and women in general: "If you want to hear my heart break, you got to listen closely to the words I can't speak." Finally, he declares that he won't be silenced. "I'm telling everyone that I'm playing for the other team, because you know, it hurts to assume and it kills to hold it in." This statement is delivered over a relatively quiet moment in the song, so that any listener would notice it from first listen. I know that I did--in the 10 year span between when I originally dubbed this album from a friend and when I finally bought it, that lyric was the only one on the whole album that I remembered. But then, I was struggling with issues of sexuality back then (not that I'm not now), so maybe I was more attuned to it. Regardless, it's good to hear. It's often tough to feel OK with being out when it's so much easier to hide one's non-heteronormative proclivities. Just hearing it from a band you like, knowing you're not alone, can sometimes help more than it seems like it should.

"Five Letter Words" is probably my favorite song on this album. Once again, it's got that same midtempo groove going on, but its chorus is based around possibly the best riff on the album. The verse isn't bad either, and the pre-chorus has some memorably intense chugging, but the best part is when the pre-chorus reaches its end. There's a brief pause before the chorus, during which Kim begins to sing the first line of the chorus: "You're just sitting on the sidelines." The pause sounds like it should naturally last two beats, and the music should come back in after the first two words, but instead, the band holds back until the beginning of the word "sidelines", adding what's either two or three extra beats to the pause. The way this trips up the listener, disrupts the constant head-nod that this album produces, is just as awesome in its own way as the hypnotic rhythm that the pause disrupts. The second time they switch from the pre-chorus to the chorus, they change it up again. Having prepared you to expect a longer-than-natural pause, this time they do the more natural thing and only pause for two beats. Once again, the hypnotic rhythm is disrupted, thereby making it all the more satisfying when it kicks back in. There's something I love about that--the moment of contrariness in the middle of an entire album seemingly dedicated to an unceasing, monolithic rhythm. It's perfect.

"500wattburner@seven" contains both strong and weak songs, and if a listener isn't in the right mood, I'm sure what seems intense at some times can also seem boring. However, if you're able to enter the headspace necessary to tap into this album's constant midtempo groove, you're really in for a treat. And never mind if it sounds like Quicksand; the truth is that Quicksand never did anything this single-minded. In a way, that's a strength for them. But the fact that Sparkmarker were able to do something this single-minded is in turn a strength of its own.

Sparkmarker - Keep The Quarter
Sparkmarker - Five Letter Words



"Damien Rice is a pussy." And I love him for it.

It's getting towards the end of summer, and the weather's been reflecting that. Before I sat down to write this, I was standing at the window looking out, and it was raining, but now it has stopped. It'll start again soon, and even if it doesn't, it'll stay cloudy.

Inside my room, at 2 PM on a dreary afternoon, I'm listening to the first Damien Rice album, "O". It's fitting for the weather, but that's not why. The reason is that I'm a contrary motherfucker with unsophisticated tastes that tend toward the maudlin and overly vulnerable. Or so might say some of the people I interact with on message boards--the ones who make fun of me about Fall Out Boy and My Chemical Romance on a regular basis. See, this morning, someone on a message board where I post brought up Damien Rice, and mentioned that she was listening to "O" for the first time in a few years. She then began to complain about how she could ever have liked the album, and started talking about how a friend of hers always told her that Damien Rice was "a pussy", and that she'd never seen it until now. This led to a bunch of posts in which people called the guy "pussy", "faggot", "nancy", and other demeaning terms for someone who isn't properly manly, I suppose.

Now, when I was younger, I used to freak out over pejorative terms like this. I hated the sexism and homophobia that were embedded in these and so many other insults that my friends and peers tossed around like they meant nothing. However, as I've gotten older, I've gotten burned out on giving a shit. It's too much work for too little reward. Most people, regardless of whether they understand your complaint about the history of oppression they're carrying forward by using such insults, don't care whether it's true or not. They want to toss around offensive words and they don't want to think about whether they should or not. So OK, I've come to accept that people are going to call people they don't respect "pussy" or "faggot" or whatever. And 9 times out of 10 it doesn't bother me.

The reason this Damien Rice discussion was the 10th time has less to do with the words "pussy" and "faggot" themselves than what I saw as a deeper meaning behind what these people were saying. Before I go on, let me explain something about Damien Rice's music. It's acoustically-based, and generally quiet. Damien's lyrics tend to be about love and loss, and he sings them in an emotional tenor that sometimes seems like it's close to cracking. He never veers into the tear-stained warbling that is Conor Oberst's home territory, and I think this is a lot of why I like his music even though I hate most of Oberst's work. Well, that and the fact that Conor's musical backing is substantially inferior to the music that backs Damien Rice. It's close enough, though, to be the sort of music that a depressed teenager or twentysomething might listen to when they're feeling at their lowest. And I think this is why, five years on from the release of "O", it's no surprise that there's a backlash from some former fans. It's no surprise that some people are naturally inclined to throw around terms like "pussy" and "faggot". Because, see, Damien Rice's music has become tied in their mind to a period when they were feeling terrible, when their emotions were a huge mess and they were full of turmoil and suffering. Since they don't feel the way they once felt when they listened to Damien Rice, the tendency is to say, "What was I thinking?", and to write off his music as crap.

I've talked plenty of times on this blog about the way a severe emotional response to music is seen as inherently teenaged, and that there's a widespread belief in our culture that, as we get older, our emotions settle down and we become adults who don't feel things with the sort of intensity we felt them as teenagers. I've also talked plenty of times about how I feel that this is a convenient falsehood perpetrated by adults who want to explain away their own growth into the sort of emotionless suburban adults that they once swore they'd never resemble. And really, the truth is probably a little of both, and the reason it doesn't seem that way to me is probably because I've chosen a lifestyle that leaves me living like a starving artist long after such a lifestyle is accepted and endorsed by society. The deadline on that social endorsement, by the way, is 25, as far as I can tell. After that, if you're not trying to go work in an office, move to the suburbs, and raise a family, society tells you that you're stuck in a period of arrested development.

Anyway, I'm sorta digressing, so let's get back to the point, which is that Damien Rice's music is every bit as emotionally exposed as the kids calling him a "pussy" said it was. They're not wrong about that, not at all. The problem I had with the things they were saying was that they were painting this sort of emotional exposure as necessarily bad. I hear this a lot, really--that art in which emotion is stripped bare is bad art, that good art must necessarily obfuscate the emotions that it depicts beneath layers of subtlety and understatement. I've been really frustrated lately with my attempts to sell short stories that I've written, primarily because, even before the rejection slips start to roll in, I can foresee them coming. It's because the things I write are filled with emotion. Everything I read that's being published by the leading purveyors of short fiction is coming from that Hemingway/Raymond Carver school of thought, in which the important parts are never shown, no one ever reveals how they're really feeling, and any emotional impact a story carries must be gleaned by reading between the lines. Everyone's rewriting "Hills Like White Elephants" and "Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?", and there's no room in a zeitgeist that values stories like this for the kinds of things I write. It drives me nuts, and I'm digressing again, but really, this has a lot to do with my point, because the short story writers and publishers who don't have time for the kind of thing I do, regardless of how good it is (and by the way, I'm not saying my stuff necessarily is good, though I'd like to think so), are the same sorts of people in the musical community who don't have time for what Damien Rice does, regardless of how good it is. They'd rather hear Bill Callahan and David Berman and Will Oldham or at least people who will imitate their sensibilities, rather than some Irish guy pouring his heart out over melodies that, too them, are just too straightforward.

You know, maybe I'm the equivalent of a Starbucks housewife who loves Norah Jones, merely by virtue of the fact that I'm writing this stuff about Damien Rice. That's a bit daunting to consider, but honestly, I think I'm willing to accept that judgment. Fact is, I like this guy's music. Right now I'm listening to a song called "The Blower's Daughter", and it's a good example of what I like about Rice's songs in general, so let me try to explain why this stuff seems good to me regardless of how accessible it might be. The song begins with Rice singing over no music, and only after the first line does his softly strummed acoustic guitar come in underneath his vocals. It drops out at several different points over the course of the song, too, especially once the string section comes in at the end of the first verse. The strings are much more attuned with his vocal than his guitar playing, which is actually rather simple, consisting of only a few chords. The strings embellish the more complicated vocal melody that Rice creates as he sings the verses, telling a story of an attempt to move on from a lost love. "And so, it is just like you said it would be," he sings. "We'll both forget the breeze most of the time." The end of the relationship is something that he accepts, but the choruses make clear that he doesn't like it. "I can't take my eyes off of you," he sings, over and over. Much of the time, while singing the chorus and being backed by the string section, Rice plays guitar minimally, or even, towards the end of the song, not at all. It's as if he's so into what he's singing, and the emotion that lies behind it, that he forgets to play guitar. This is something I used to see Bob Marley do during live performances, and I always found it endearing. Even if I've never been a big Marley fan, I could respect just how into his songs he got while he was playing them. The same is true of Damien Rice, and I guess I like melodic, emotional Irish folk songs better than I like reggae, because I don't just find it endearing here, but positively fascinating. And even more fascinating for me is the point, towards the end of the song, where a female voice joins his. "Did I say that I loathe you?" she sings back to Rice. "Did I say that I want to leave it all behind?" This is a divergence from the way songs like this are often written, in which the protagonist has no sympathy for the person on the other side of the interaction, and we only hear one side of the story. Granted, the woman in the song (here played by Rice's female backup singer, Lisa Hannigan) only has a few lines, but she's at least given a chance to speak for herself, and make clear that she wasn't intending for things to end as badly as Rice has depicted them.

The most interesting part of this song comes at the very end, with less than a minute left. After the verse sung by Lisa Hannigan, Damien keeps singing the chorus lyric over and over, and as he does so, he's deserted by his backing musicians. Of course, he's long since stopped playing guitar, leaving only the cello behind him, floating a countermelody to his vocal through an empty space created by the lack of any rhythmic musical accompaniment. When the cello drops out, Damien himself quickly loses the melody line of the vocal, and is left mumbling to himself. Finally, he whispers, "Until I find somebody new..." and almost before the last word is out of his mouth, the next song, "Cannonball", starts. Now, "Blower's Daughter" is a ballad, and it's definitely accessible, which is provable by its prominent role in the movie "Closer". A lot of other Damien Rice songs have showed up on various television dramas, following the "Gray's Anatomy" modus operandi of including music in their soundtracks that is considered indie/alternative but is still very melodic and easily appreciated by the adult contemporary crowd. The same thing's been done with "Cannonball" and "Delicate", two other songs I love from this album. "Cannonball" is structured around a gorgeous acoustic lead guitar line, and "Delicate" builds from almost nothing on its verses into intense crescendos on its choruses, with Rice singing mournfully, at the top of his voice, "Why'd you sing hallelujah if it meant nothing to ya?"

Yeah, it's true, I eat that sort of thing up. It's no different, in my mind, from what Taking Back Sunday was doing on "A Decade Under The Influence", when Adam Lazzara sang "I thought it through and my worst brings out the best in you" while Fred Mascherino sang "I've got a bad feeling about this" behind him. Intensity, desperation, emotional trauma... these are things I relate to in music. Taking Back Sunday mixes pop hooks with hardcore noise, and that appeals to me greatly, but there are other musicians, like Damien Rice, who keep it mellow and appeal to me just as much. And believe me, I'd much rather hear lyrics that make plain these emotions, and give me something to relate to, than oblique tales that contain no real emotion and leave me puzzling everything out. All that literary obfuscation is overrated. I'd rather listen to Damien Rice.

And hey, sometimes he does really interesting things with his music, things that no one could have predicted and that would never fly during an emotional closing montage on "Gray's Anatomy". "Cheers, Darlin'" is the best example of this that's present on "O". It begins with people talking in the background, as if it's recorded in the back of a restaurant or something. There are several other moments like this on "O", in fact, moments in which there is background noise unrelated to the song, such as children playing or birds chirping. This type of ambient background noise helps emphasize the space that is present in a lot of Damien Rice's music; a lot of times, it seems like the loudest thing you're hearing is not his voice or an instrument but the sound of the room, and all of the space in it that is not being taken over by the quiet music. This space is one of the most interesting elements of the entire album for me, and it's a big player in "Cheers Darlin'". The song starts out with a clarinet solo that leads into a waltz-time backbeat mostly constructed of what sounds like someone tapping on a wooden table and a pint glass. Once the backbeat has been playing for a few measures, the clarinet drops out and is replaces by a softly plucked single-note acoustic guitar line that is almost inaudible. Rice's vocal on the first verse is also restrained, as if he's speaking quietly in a somewhat crowded restaurant, and you the listener can barely hear him even though he's right across the table from you. Once the chorus rolls around, he sings a bit louder, and the soft acoustic guitar and tapping percussion are joined by a shuffling drumset and a louder lead guitar line. By the end of the chorus, a piano and string section have come in too, but they drop right back out as the chorus ends. Rice goes back to singing over chiming pint glasses and almost inaudible acoustic guitar, and by now it has become obvious that the words he's singing are a kissoff to a former lover. "Cheers, darlin', here's to you and your lover man," he says bitterly. "I'll just sit around and eat from a can." Things get more and more uncomfortable, as he declares all the things he would have done, would have said, if he'd only known how it would all end. Eventually, he's whispering almost inaudibly, biting off his words as he's speaking them: "What am I, darlin? The boy you fear? Your biggest mistake?" At this, the song's quietest point, all of the instruments suddenly come in at once, and Rice howls over them, in obvious pain. Finally, he mumbles, "I've got years to wait," and the music dies behind him, limping along for another minute or two before ending the song completely.

I don't care if message board indie rockers think Damien Rice is a "pussy" or a "faggot" or what. It's moments like this that are why I listen to music. Maybe the fact that I can't get into any but the most early Smog records makes my tastes sophomoric, and maybe the fact that I don't write like Raymond Carver makes me unsophisticated, but I don't care. I write and listen to what I like, and if I like displays of emotion that are seen as distasteful by society at large, then so be it, I guess. But if Damien Rice is what "pussy faggot nancy" singers sound like, someone should probably recommend me some more of them.

Damien Rice - The Blower's Daughter
Damien Rice - Cheers Darlin'



Rainclouds, oh, they used to chase me.

I googled myself yesterday. Not really sure why; I guess I read something online that made me think about such an activity, and on the spur of the moment I did so. It sent me to a bunch of places I expected, or could have expected, including an article I wrote for a local music magazine a couple of years ago that I'd had no idea was on the internet. It also sent me to a couple of totally random places. For example, I found the twitter account of an old friend who moved to Chicago two or three years ago. Apparently, she saw someone on the street who looked like me and was moved to post on twitter about it. And finally, the weirdest one--I found a website dedicated to a summer camp I used to attend.

The website is specifically maintained separately from the continuing official online presence of the camp, as well as the church it's associated with (the Episcopal Diocese of Southern Virginia--an organization I definitely want nothing to do with). The introductory page says something about "parents aren't always happy about what goes on at camp", which is something I know all too well. Apparently, campers and counselors from a long time ago decided to start this site in order to maintain their memories of the camp, which are, of course, far different than a church group who maintains a summer camp would probably want to admit. The reason I found my own name is because the site contains huge lists of every camper who attended every summer session for a great deal of its 40 year history, and my name shows up several times on those lists.

The site blows my mind. A lot of the people who post on it most regularly are counselors I had back in the late 80s and early 90s. There are names and pictures scattered throughout the site that bring back memories of people I haven't thought about in over a decade. The most insane thing I found, though, was a pdf file of the 1992 "Smoke Signal", a newsletter published at the end of each year's session and mainly consisting of messages sent from campers to each other. It was something to take home by which you could remember your experience at camp. It also had contact info for everyone who'd been at camp that year. In 1992, I worked on the "Smoke Signal", and there's a spot about halfway through the issue where I handwrote Rites Of Spring lyrics and a strange message. I took a screen capture of it from that website, and here it is:

Yes, Chanco is the name of the camp, and I guess I've now given you enough information that you could probably google and locate the website all this information comes from. So if that's your kind of thing, knock yourself out. Part of me is really embarrassed at the thought, but I'm sure no one who reads this blog would look at that website and find anything but strange non sequiturs. For me, though, it's an intense and haunting reminder of what life was like when I was a kid. I first attended camp at this place when I was 10, and the last time, 1992, was when I was 16. I had some wonderful times there and some terrible times there. In the summer of 1992, I was struggling to keep myself sane, about to become a senior in high school and still feeling like an underdeveloped mutant loser because I had never kissed a girl in my life. I had painted toenails and a really unorthodox mohawk (as the screen capture suggests) because I didn't really know who I was yet but I wanted badly to declare myself to the world as someone worth paying attention to. It worked, in some ways, but it sure wasn't getting me girlfriends. And it wasn't keeping me from being profoundly depressed. Since I still struggle with depression to this day, it's weird to say that anything has changed where all that is concerned, but truthfully, a lot has. When I wrote those Rites Of Spring lyrics into the newsletter, it was because that record was busily burning itself into my brain throughout that summer. I'd discovered that the hardcore music I'd loved for a couple of years at that point could not only express anger and frustration but also alienation, loneliness, and deep emotional suffering. Rites of Spring was a lot of what was keeping me alive at that point. But it was just one of the many bands that really mattered to me at that age.

The band that is most strongly connected with that summer camp, in my mind, is the Stone Roses. The main reason for this is probably because of the dubbed Stone Roses cassette that I own to this day, which was taped for me by my friend John while at camp in summer 1992. He had a 90-minute tape full of songs that had been singles or B-sides or were otherwise not on the self-titled Stone Roses debut, at that point the only release by them available in the United States. He was casually playing this tape in his cabin one afternoon, and I bugged out. Absolutely had to have a copy. Fortunately, I had a tape with me that I was willing to erase, and even more fortunately, we were able to locate someone who could use their boombox to dub tapes. That cassette John made me is full of dropouts and weird spots, but for at least a year, it was the only way I could hear any of those songs. He dubbed it for me with a few days remaining in our camp session, and I walked around with it in my Walkman constantly after that. To this day, when I hear songs like "One Love", "Standing Here", and especially "Sally Cinnamon", I think of that summer camp. Most of the songs that were on the tape John made for me eventually came out domestically on "Turns Into Stone", and the remainder appeared on "The Complete Stone Roses" a few years later, but for me, that dubbed cassette full of dropouts is the one on which I've heard them the most.

"Sally Cinnamon" is probably the single Stone Roses song whose fame is most out of sync with its quality. This is an outstanding three minute pop song, full of the psychedelic atmosphere that John Squire was always so good at creating with his guitar lines. Drummer Reni and bassist Mani were a singularly funky rhythm section, especially for a couple guys from Manchester, England, and they added a lot to the Stone Roses' sound, but for me, John Squire's guitar playing has always been what makes The Stone Roses. The jangling verses and choruses on this song, and the much more distorted leads, which twist and turn around Ian Brown's vocal lines, are all perfect. And speaking of Ian Brown, I'm not sure what it is about his voice that makes him sound perennially flat and off-key in live recordings, but whether it's just a function of his being drunk/high/unable to hear himself in a live setting or whether it's just how he sounds at all times, it's something that was never allowed to sneak into the studio recordings of his vocals. Thank god for that; it sounds terrible on pretty much every live recording I've ever heard. Considering that the Stone Roses did all of their recording before autotune, I think it's probably just a problem he has live anyway. Whatever, that's not the point I was going to make here. Ian's vocals and lyrics are sometimes only serviceable, and although I can generally ignore that and just concentrate on Squire's guitar playing, "Sally Cinnamon" stands out in the Stone Roses' recording career because I don't have to do that here. The lyrics are kind of cliche once you write them down, and honestly, they're the sort of sappy-love-song lyrics that have nothing to say about my current life. But as a teenager, they described an idyll I desperately hoped to find--an idyll, by the way, that I probably built up too much. This would certainly explain the troubles I've had in relationships over the years. Anyway, I still am impressed with one part of the song--after a false ending 4/5 of the way through the song, there's another verse hidden at the end. This verse adds another layer to the cliche sappy-love-song lyrics and improves the lyrical quality by a good bit. "Then I put the letter back in the place where it was found," Ian sings. "In the pocket of a jacket on a train in town." Previously, the chorus has been "Sent to me from heaven--Sally Cinnamon, you're my world." On this last verse, Ian changes it to "Sent to her from heaven--Sally Cinnamon, you're her world." In reality, this sappy love song he's been singing the whole time has been a found love letter in the pocket of a forgotten coat on a train. One assumes that the sincerity of the sentiment has touched him, but it's not something he's feeling himself. Maybe this is why I always related to this song so much--that feeling wasn't mine either. In fact, all these years later, it still isn't, and maybe it never will be. But it is touching to see it in anyone, and that's something that "Sally Cinnamon" captures very well.

"Standing Here" is another love song, and it doesn't do nearly as much to rescue its lyrics from the realm of cliche. However, I still think it's great, and this time it is entirely because of John Squire's guitar. The noisy, ringing notes that feedback over the opening intro soon bring in a song on which Reni plays an incredibly complicated rhythm and Squire lays down intertwining layers of single-note guitar melodies. The one lower in the mix is also less distorted and more conventionally melodic, but it is joined much of the time by an overdriven, more psychedelic lead guitar that gives the entire song a sharpness that isn't present in a lot of the Stone Roses' more poppy material. "Standing Here" also has the sort of drawn-out, hypnotic ending that is present on several of the Stone Roses' songs, which are quite often their best ones. The drawn-out ending on "Standing Here" is not the sort of psychedelic instrumental breakdown that ends a song like "Fool's Gold" or "One Love"; instead it is quiet and subdued, featuring near-whispered vocals by Ian Brown and a lead guitar line that is less distorted and more melodic by a good bit than the one that laces throughout the main section of the song. Eventually, it all fades out, but as it does so, it gives the impression of the sort of jam that could go on much longer than it does.

When I got the tape home from camp, I filled the 9 or so minutes of blank space at the end of side two with the 8 minute ending track from the Stone Roses' self-titled debut, which, in addition to being my favorite song from said self-titled album, also fit perfectly into the alloted blank space. "I Am The Resurrection" had been just as important of a song for me in the summer of 1991 as "Sally Cinnamon", and really, the entire dubbed tape John had made me, became in the summer of 1992. I'd purchased my cassette copy of "The Stone Roses" only a few weeks before leaving for camp, and hadn't really gotten to know it before leaving. When I got to camp that summer, I found that the combination of melodic British pop and hypnotic, introspective psychedelia that was contained on "The Stone Roses" was a perfect soundtrack for summer camp. I had started attending that camp while living near Richmond, Virginia, and by the early 90s was still attending it while living in the mountainous rural areas of the western part of the state, but most of the attendees in any given year came from the Hampton Roads/tidewater district of Virginia. Therefore, a lot of the campers that I met in any given year fancied themselves surfer dudes and had a completely different fashion sense and personality type than anyone I was used to. Quite often, such a thing was alienating in the extreme, but sometimes it also seemed really cool to me--every bit as cool as those campers thought they themselves were.

"I Am The Resurrection" features lyrics that I don't think I ever related at the time to my own conflicted feelings about the other campers at camp. They were way cooler than me, they were always judging me, they made me hate them, they made me hate myself. Looking back, I think maybe I was a lot more real and sincere than a lot of them, and being real and being sincere of course put me in line for a lot of abuse. That's just kind of how the world works, I suppose. Anyway. "Down down, you bring me down. I hear you knocking at my door and I can't sleep at night." These lyrics over what is undoubtedly the catchiest song the Stone Roses ever wrote. I could relate, even though I wasn't sure exactly who I saw these frustrated sentiments directed at in my own life. "Don't waste your words, I don't need anything from you. I don't care where you've been or what you plan to do." And then, after the final chorus, these words flowed into an uplifting final bridge; "I am the resurrection, and I am the life," Ian sang, stealing a lyric from a well-known Christmas song. "I couldn't ever bring myself to hate you as I'd like." He's told interviewers that this song's lyrics were written to protest unthinking Christianity, which makes it doubly ironic that I fell in love with this song at a church camp. It always meant something much more personal than that to me, though, and I guess I've already articulated it as best I can.

The song is a tour de force, musically speaking. As I've said, it's undoubtedly the catchiest song the Stone Roses ever wrote. The poppy, jangly verses at times remind me of The Byrds, though they aren't as folk-influenced as anything the Byrds ever did. I would say that The Stone Roses replace the folk influences that appeared in the music of the Byrds with influences from the melodic guitar-based Britishisms of The Smiths, another Manchester band whose influence The Stone Roses couldn't have avoided. That being said, there's a different texture to "I Am The Resurrection", one that comes from the sort of late 60s English psychedelia that featured on the second Nuggets box. I wouldn't have known this at the time, but hearing the song now, I can't imagine that John Squire didn't have records by The Move, The Pretty Things, and the Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd in his collection.

But there's something else to "I Am The Resurrection" that was a completely new idea in the late 80s. The extended psychedelic breakdown was certainly nothing new in and of itself, and plenty of bands had done this sort of thing plenty of times decades before The Stone Roses ever attempted it. What separates the lengthy ending section of "I Am The Resurrection" from anything that came before, though, is the way the Stone Roses incorporated the rave culture, which was dominating the underground music scene in Manchester at the time, into their psychedelic pop-rock music. As the lengthy breakdown in "I Am The Resurrection" begins, we hear chiming bells in the background of what is otherwise a pretty standard rave-up solo. Along about 4:30 into the song, though, the backing musicians drop out and John Squire plays a riff that leads the entire band into a completely different key. When the rhythm section comes back in, bass and drums are joined by bongos, ambient echoes that might be guitar feedback, and the aforementioned ringing bells, which drive the song's groove into a pounding dance beat. This beat begins heavily, but only swells to a higher and higher crescendo as it goes, growing and growing in intensity until... the whole thing stops. It sounds like the end of the song, but after an 8-beat pause, the guitar and drums come back in, introducing another phase of the song with a thematic riff before plunging directly back into the pounding, pulsing beat. This time through, things seem a bit more ambient, and the song's intensity decreases rather than increases, eventually resulting in a takeover by the ambient feedback noises, which usher the song out on a bed of softly shaking percussion. The intricate construction of this section of the song is fascinating, and makes plain that, despite the Stone Roses' firm grounding in pop and rock music, they were listening to what was going on in the rave clubs that dominated their town at the time.

When I hear these songs now, I often zone out and think of walking down paths through forests. I see faces in my mind of people I haven't known since I was half of my current age. I remember various experiences that now blur together in my mind, which I realized upon looking at the website that started this whole train of thought in the first place. There were huge chunks of my summer camp experience that my mind had muddled and blurred together, sometimes resulting in a memory that featured conflicting details. I remembered events happening in a certain order, then in turn remembered that some of the people I visualized being present for some of these events couldn't have been there. Slowly I unraveled details in my mind and came to the conclusion that some of the camp sessions I remembered were actually multiple years that had blurred together in my mind. My having stayed in the same cabin with completely different cabinmates in the years 1990 and 1991, then in a different cabin on the other side of camp in 1992 but with the same cabinmate I'd had in 1991, were some of the details that made specific memories hard to unravel. And that was just the beginning of the confusion. It's easy to think that you remember everything that happened in your life pretty distinctly and pretty well until you start analyzing it in detail and comparing your memories to factual evidence of what happened at the time. This sort of thing reminds you of all that you don't remember.

And maybe, just maybe, a lot of things you don't want to remember. The fact that I'm not sure whether I want to become a member of this website that is nonetheless totally fascinating to me is a good clue of my own ambivalence about this time in my life. I can't help but think that, no matter how good a time I remember having at that point in my life, the truth is actually quite embarrassing. I can't help but wonder what the friends I had then might have thought of me, or how lame I'd seem to them now. I don't know if I want to re-establish contact with anyone who only knew me at some of the most painful times of my life. And I definitely am not sure that I want to add memories that I have to the site's archive of things that went on at the camp. I know I have plenty of stories to tell, and I know that a lot of them are so personal that they'd be a window into an experience of that camp that no one else had. But I don't know if I want anyone to know how I felt at the time, and what I was going through. I just can't imagine talking about experiences from that point in my life without opening doors to embarrassing memories, doors that might be better left closed.

The Stone Roses - Sally Cinnamon
The Stone Roses - Standing Here
The Stone Roses - I Am The Resurrection

I have a feeling that this entry is incoherent and poorly constructed, and if so, I apologize. Not everything I post on this blog comes out in a complete, finished form, and sometimes I think that the things I'm posting are too delicate, too ephemeral, that if I really worked hard on fitting them together and making them coherent and well-organized, that I'd give up on writing them long before I finished the work necessary. This is one of those entries. The subject of this post won't bear too much thought without my embarrassment reaching critical mass. As embarrassed as I am by its half-finished form, I know that if I tried to finish it, I'd be too embarrassed to post it at all. So I'm afraid this is the best I can do, this time. Hope that's OK with everyone reading this... assuming anyone actually is.



Eric Avery, unsung hero.

After mentioning them in passing while writing my Blind Melon entry, I found myself thinking a lot about Jane's Addiction, and over the last couple of days I've been listening to their music a lot. I have pretty much everything they've ever released on cassette, because that's how the 90s was for me--when I wanted a reasonably popular album that was unlikely to have vinyl, I bought it on cassette. I didn't start buying CDs on any kind of regular basis until around 2000. But anyway, since I have "Jane's Addiction", "Nothing's Shocking", "Ritual De Lo Habitual" (with the censored first amendment cover), and even "Kettle Whistle" on cassette, I wanted to get them on my Ipod and therefore had to download them as mp3s. Before I go on, I just want to make note of the fact that I will download anything for any reason and never feel any shame about it, but that I feel especially OK about downloading mp3s of albums that I own either on LP or cassette. So yeah, no shame in my game.

Anyway, I found all of Jane's Addiction's albums pretty quickly; my Google skills are strong where concerns locating mp3 downloads. They had all been uploaded to Megaupload and the links had been posted on a message board. When people do this kind of thing, they sometimes just include links to the album, but at other times include all sorts of random information about the album. The person who had done these posts had chosen to include track listings for each album, complete with track times and songwriting credits. It was those songwriting credits that inspired this entry, because what I learned from the credits is that Perry Farrell, all by himself, is credited for having written almost all of Jane's Addiction's songs.

It's this kind of thing, this egotistical self-aggrandizing bullshit, that makes me hate Perry Farrell as a person no matter how much I love his art. See, I happen to know that Farrell has pretty much no musical talent, and that, furthermore, the lion's share of the music for Jane's Addiction was written by Eric Avery. Somewhere or other, I have a copy of the issue of Spin magazine that contains a 16 page oral history of Jane's Addiction. It was a cover story at the time of their reformation in the earlier part of this decade, right before they released "Strays" (the one Jane's Addiction album I not only don't own but consider ersatz, by which I mean it's not a real Jane's Addiction album). I didn't dig it up to write this blog entry, and I probably should have, because instead of quoting extensively from it, I'm now just going to paraphrase and hope that my memory has preserved it accurately. But whatever; this is a blog entry, not a scholarly treatise. If I ever publish it anywhere, I'll edit the exact quotes in.

Here's the thing I remember from the article, the thing that really helped me understand where the best elements of Jane's Addiction's songs come from (and further helped me understand why I was so underwhelmed by "Strays" when it came out shortly after I read the article): several people, including Dave Navarro, discussed the fact that a lot of the songs from Jane's Addiction's first incarnation came from Eric Avery. Avery would apparently come up with complex, melodic basslines and play them incessantly, repeating them over and over and not changing at all. I don't remember who said it, but the article explained that the first song he ever brought in to the band was "Mountain Song", and that when he brought it in, it was just that repeating bassline that starts the song, played over and over with no changes. Navarro and Stephen Perkins built a song around that repeating bassline, one with verses and choruses and other changes, but the foundation, the heartbeat of the song continued to be Avery's bassline, even after the song was completely finished. Elsewhere in the article, when confronted with this fact, Farrell responded dismissively, saying that without his own drive to succeed, Avery would have been a kid sitting in his garage with tapes full of really good basslines that no one ever heard. And this might very well be true; after all, since the breakup of the original incarnation of Jane's Addiction, Avery has stayed out of the public eye, releasing one album with Navarro as Deconstruction, a few EPs under the name Polar Bear, and now finally, this year, a solo album called "Help Wanted". Meanwhile, Jane's Addiction has reformed several times to progressively greater accolades (and money), Dave Navarro has become a megastar through his time in the Red Hot Chili Peppers and his marriage to Carmen Electra, and Stephen Perkins has stayed in the background but always had steady work as a drummer for several Jane's Addiction-related bands.

You get the idea, from reading about him, that the reason Eric Avery never participated in later Jane's Addiction incarnations, the reason each of his musical projects has had a lower profile than the one before, is because Avery doesn't care to be rich or famous. He wants a simple life, he wants to be left alone, and he wants to play music for its own sake and not because there's commercial demand for it. The fact that he performed with the other three original members of Jane's Addiction earlier this year at an NME Awards presentation, and that there's been tentative talk of further collaborations between he and the rest of the Jane's crew, does not, at this point, make me think that Avery's finally bowed to the siren song of money. He's had plenty of opportunity for that in the intervening years. Instead, it gives me hope that the Jane's Addiction guys have finally realized that they're crappy without him, and have finally decided to focus on existing as a creative unit rather than a band that reforms every five years when the members start running out of money.

OK, that's a bit too much "human interest" coverage for my tastes. Let's spend the rest of this entry focusing on the music. After all, that's what really matters. I mentioned "Mountain Song" already, and it's one of the songs people know best by Jane's Addiction--primarily because of Avery's hypnotic, repetitive bassline. But what about some other songs of Jane's Addiction's that only existed because of Eric Avery? Well, here's another story I remember from that Spin article: one night, early in Jane's Addiction's career, they were setting up their equipment onstage at some tiny club. The soundman had been playing a funk record over the PA system, and when Eric Avery got his equipment set up first of the four members, he started playing bass along with it. After a few minutes, the rest of the band were ready, and the soundman cut off the funk record. But Avery kept playing the bassline he'd come up with for it, and after a moment, Navarro and Perkins joined in, jamming with him for a few minutes on the riff he'd inadvertently found. This jam eventually evolved into "Pigs In Zen".

Then there's the song that starts "Nothing's Shocking", a simple yet beautiful piece called "Up The Beach". Avery starts the song, alternating between two harmonic bass notes and playing them in a rhythm that speeds up and slows down but always comes back to the beginning in the same place. After a few seconds, the rest of the band begins crashing in on the beginning of each bassline, with Farrell's wordless cries and Navarro's echoing guitar sounding like the crashing of waves on a shoreline. As the song continues, the band builds up to a slow, swirling jam that emphasizes this oceanic atmosphere, making it a perfect intro to the album and specifically to its second song, "Ocean Size". Perry Farrell's high, keening falsetto, generally not resolving into words, adds extra layers to the echoes provided by Navarro's guitar, and underneath it all, Avery's bassline stays the same, grounding the entire song in a hypnotic pulse. (By the way, Farrell is solely credited for this song. And, for that matter, for "Mountain Song" and "Pigs In Zen".)

There are a lot of other Jane's Addiction songs that are obviously constructed around Eric Avery's basslines. You can hear it when you listen to them. This is true for everything from "I Would For You" to "Ted, Just Admit It" to the first half of "Three Days". "Summertime Rolls", long one of my favorite Jane's Addiction songs, takes the slow, hazy atmosphere of "Up The Beach" and expands it, stretching out the bassline to include a much more melodic, rising pattern, and stretching out the song itself to give much more room for Perry Farrell's gorgeously impressionistic lyrics. I've always felt that the part at the end of the song, where Farrell says about his girlfriend, "I love her, I mean, it's as serious as serious can be", is impressive in its sincerity. It rings true even in the midst of lyrics about buttercups helicoptering and crazy bees, mad about somebody. This kind of thing is why I can't hate the guy's music, even if I think he can be a totally lame person. He's written his share of brilliant lyrics: "Ocean Size"'s "I was made with a heart of stone, to be broken with one hard blow. I've seen the ocean break on the shore and come together with no harm done"; "Had A Dad"'s song-length metaphor about the absence of god in our modern world; the heartbreaking final verse of "Then She Did", in which he discusses his mother's suicide; and the simple yet amazing declaration in "Classic Girl": "They may say those were the days, but anyway, you know, for us these are the days."

Don't get me wrong, Dave Navarro and Stephen Perkins deserve plenty of credit too. Perkins's drumming, with a much more tribal, tom-based style than that of your standard rock drummer, is also an important part of what made Jane's Addiction sound like they did. He has a few songs of his own that seem like they'd never have existed without his drumming; "Chip Away", which ends the band's self-titled debut, is the most obvious, and it's incredibly catchy despite being almost entirely percussion and vocals. Dave Navarro's guitar playing is another really important element of Jane's Addiction's sound--it's his fiery, sure-handed playing that drew most of the comparisons to Led Zeppelin that this band ever got. Well, that and Perry Farrell's falsetto. Anyway, Navarro is capable of creating the perfect guitar textures for many different moods, from the contemplative acoustic jams of "My Time" to the blazing noise fury of "Stop" to the swirling chimes of "Kettle Whistle". There are even times in Jane's Addiction's catalog that demand all three of these styles at different points in the same song; "Ocean Size" and "Three Days" are prime examples. Navarro never falters, no matter what demands are placed on him by the needs of the song, and in fact often pushes things to a higher and more intense level than they'd ever have reached without him.

But in the end, it all comes back to Eric Avery. I'm not going to say that he's the only thing that makes Jane's Addiction good, because if nothing else, I love the song "Kettle Whistle", which was written and recorded with Flea on bass. However, without Eric Avery in the band, Jane's Addiction lost quite a bit of overall quality, and their consistency went right out the window. It's the reason why "Strays" is mediocre and forgettable, and it's the reason why I wouldn't bother to go see one of their reunion tours--no matter how much I'd undoubtedly love the songs they'd play--unless Eric Avery was on board. Maybe the guy isn't focused or determined, and maybe he doesn't have Perry Farrell's drive to be more famous than Jesus, but he's got an idiosyncratic and outstanding musical talent, and for Jane's Addiction to ever think that they are even a shadow of their prime era without him in the band is pure foolishness.


Movie diary, 7/30/08-8/23/08

7/30/08 (Part Two)

Oh and hey, today was a two-movie day. I watched "48 Hours" tonight, one of the many movies that people are generally stunned to learn that I haven't already seen. Generally, with my recent decision to try and catch up on movies, I only see stuff that I have a particular interest in, hence my decent knowledge of Italian horror movies and almost total lack of knowledge of 80s action movies, despite the later genre being far more popular. I decided to see this one, though, because Eddie Murphy is in it, and I love that dude. At least, I love the Eddie Murphy of the 80s. He really hasn't been the same for the past 15 years or so, but what are you gonna do? Anyway, this movie was interesting--it was like a transitional movie between the darker, New-Hollywood influenced action movies of the 70s, such as "Dirty Harry" and "The French Connection", and the flashier, funnier action movies of the 80s, such as "Die Hard" and "Lethal Weapon". Said transition made the movie a bit awkward at certain points--the darker vibe that parts of it had would occasionally run up against the obvious comic relief of Eddie Murphy's character in manners that strained the credibility of the overall plot, for example. However, as a whole, the movie worked about as well as any action movie does--which is to say that one must disregard the plot holes and glossing over of details that would obviously be problematic in real life. I did like how "48 Hours" was more realistic about one particular problem of this type than most action movies are--several times throughout the movie, Nick Nolte's character would be running through some crowded public area waving a gun and firing it rather indiscriminately, and he'd be stopped from completing an arrest by uniformed police officers who didn't recognize him as a fellow cop and just wanted to stop him from causing any further destruction. One could see this as the same sort of political preaching that the makers of "Dirty Harry" memorably engage in by letting the crook that Clint Eastwood busts get off scot-free after Eastwood apprehends him in an extralegal and overly violent manner. And maybe that's exactly what it is; I don't know who Walter Hill, the director of "48 Hours", is, and I don't know his political agenda. However, "Dirty Harry" nearly ruined the movie for me with its obvious and heavyhanded preaching, and "48 Hours" worked much better for me because it made its point (if there even was a point being made here--my initial interpretation of these moments in the movie as a concession to realism might actually be the case) without beating the viewer over the head with it and without straining plausibility too far in the direction of "Oh, the liberals will let anyone get away with anything, we need some old fashioned FASCISM around here!" bullshit that "Dirty Harry" engages in.

Overall verdict--not an outstanding movie, because too much of the time the line it straddles between 70s era and 80s era action/crime movies leaves it in an awkward position, where it is sort of like both and sort of neither. The makers couldn't have predicted that it would seem this way, of course, since doing so would have required watching 1987-era action movies 5 years before such things existed, but regardless, this transitional aspect dates the movie and, as I said, makes it awkward. Thankfully, Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy do a good job in their roles, and the plot is exciting, and it kept my interest as it moved forward, which was enough to make up for some of the awkwardness the movie displays in other aspects. Not outstanding, as I said, but solid and enjoyable.


I watched something last night called "New York 1977: The Coolest Year In Hell". It was on VH1 Classic and I have no idea if it was a theatrically/video-released movie or something that was specifically prepared for VH1, but either way it ruled. It was a documentary about the exact thing the title would lead you to believe it was about--New York in 1977. They talked about everything from the Son Of Sam and the heated mayoral race to the power blackout and graffiti on trains to the twin explosions of disco and punk. The fact that they were able to accurately explain why all of these things happened at the same time in the same place, and that all of them probably fed off of each other, was really fascinating. And I particularly enjoyed the discussion of the way that a completely fucked socio-political environment could lead to a booming artistic environment. In a lot of ways, I know it sucked, but still, it made me wish I could have lived in New York back in the late 70s. I could empathize with the people at the end of the movie who talked about how New York was so tame now compared to how it was then, that it just bored them now.


Hey, I saw Tropic Thunder last night! I would say it's closer to "OK" than "awesome", as some would have it, though I must admit that Tom Cruise was outstanding. The part where he lays down some serious wisdom to Matthew McConnaughey while simultaneously dancing to "Apple Bottom Jeans" killed me. Other than that, Robert Downey Jr. was the best part of the movie, and honestly, I thought it started to lose steam towards the end. Too much plot. When you have a silly insane movie that is basically a shitload of jokes strung together, you don't want to get too complex with the plot, because it just kills the momentum. I don't think this movie was too terribly complex with it, but at the same time, they were more complex than they needed to be, and as a result some of the later parts were too much plot not enough laughs. That's OK, though, because there were a good many laugh out loud parts in the movie, and they were spread pretty well throughout. Not an outstanding example of a slapstick comedy, but a very good one nonetheless.

Addendum, 8/23: I wasn't really focused on writing a good movie diary entry when I wrote this, and now that I am, I feel I should mention that the biggest problems with this movie came towards the end, when too much backstory was attempted for Ben Stiller's character. This was where things really started to lose steam, and I started to notice time passing, which is something a viewer of a comedy movie shouldn't ever notice. If a good 10 minutes of Ben Stiller backstory had been cut, this movie would have been much better, and since it was some of the most plot-oriented and least humor-oriented stuff in the movie, it really slowed the film down and hurt my overall opinion of it. It was still a really funny movie, but I probably would have enjoyed it more if I had been watching it on DVD on a couch at a friend's house, and we had gotten bored and had minor conversations over most of the Ben Stiller plot stuff. Which is a shame, because most of the rest of the movie is outstanding, particularly Robert Downey Jr. and Tom Cruise.


I finally watched another fucking movie. "The Public Enemy", from 1931, famously starring James Cagney smashing a grapefruit into Mae Clarke's face. This movie could probably have been better if it was made 10 years later, as there are definitely points in it where I could see the motion picture industry's growing pains. The dialogue is sometimes stilted, the action sometimes overly telegraphed... lots of scenery-chewing, I guess, though that's not exactly how it seemed as I was watching it. It was just the adaptation of the film art to the possibility of understatement, which wasn't yet a completed process. You can see some of this in another movie from 1931, "M", which I unabashedly love. Peter Lorre, oh my god. Anyway, that's not the movie I'm talking about right now, and the movie I am talking about right now is not quite as amazing as "M" (I probably say that in part because I'm not a German speaker and therefore rely on subtitles and don't quite pick up on how much chewing of the scenery is actually going on in the film), but "The Public Enemy" still had moments that sliced through the awkwardness of early motion pictures and hit home in a big way. That one with Cagney and the grapefruit was one of the best--a real honest moment of human interaction in the middle of a movie that's sometimes overly riddled with cliches, at least to a 21st century viewer. Then again, Cagney's such a great actor that at least his part completely overrides the fact that it's the stuff gangster movie cliches were eventually made of. Edward Woods as his sidekick Matt Doyle is not bad either, especially since his less tough-as-nails portrayal draws a necessary contrast between his character and that of Cagney's Tom Powers. I also really enjoyed Leslie Fenton's portrayal of Nails Nathan, the oil-slick gangster-turned-socialite gladhanding everybody.

Problems: the female characters were pretty much NOT fleshed out at all. Jean Harlow, about whom a big deal is often made when this movie is discussed, is pretty much a cute mannequin. Sure, she's kinda cute in her flapper chic, but she barely talks! Mae Clarke is only interesting as a recipient of a grapefruit to the face--which is not to say that this scene could be even one iota more awesome. I was afraid that all the hype I'd heard about it over the years would dull its impact for me, but I shouldn't have worried. That said, I wish the women had more to do in this movie. They're almost all doormats, just objects for the men to react to. Yes, it's typical for 1931, but that doesn't make it OK. By the way, Ma Powers is a notable exception, perhaps only because of her portrayal in the last scene, happy that her son is coming home... even as a scene of unimaginable bleakness is unfolding elsewhere in her house. Speaking of which, I loved this ending, and although the impact was slightly blunted by a moralistic title card inserted directly afterwards, it still blew me away. The scene near the end, of Cagney staggering through the rain with a bullet in his gut and blood running down his forehead, was also pretty outstanding. A lot of the plot during the middle of the movie just blurs together for me, all the booze-running and such, but I found the opening scenes with Tom and Matt as kids, played by child actors, to be surprisingly vital as well.

This movie is about as good as one can reasonably expect for a film from 1931. There were definitely moments in it that I felt presaged the French nouvelle vague, which I'm sure also makes it a big influence on the American noir films of the 40s. But of course, one can't deny the awkward, stiff moments, which are there to some extent. On the whole, flawed, but quite good nonetheless. And I'm gonna have to see some more James Cagney movies.


Woke up early this morning, decided to finally make myself watch "The Bicycle Thief". It was not what I'd wanted to be at the top of my Netflix queue when it came, and I've heard nothing but depressing stuff about it since it got here, so it's taken me three weeks to get around to watching it. That's three weeks in which my Netflix payments have been totally wasted. So of course, I wanted to get it out of here, but I felt bad sending it back unwatched, and I really didn't want to watch it, so it took me a long time to put it on. But I woke up this morning with some extra time and it seemed like the natural point at which to get it over with. So I put it on.

You can't call this a noir movie, or an Italian New Wave movie, or anything like that. It's from 1948 and it takes place almost entirely during bright sunshine (there is a scene that involves driving rain, but even this is in the evening). But boy, did it have a bleak feeling to it. It takes place in postwar Italy (because that's where and when it was made) and it's about a guy who finally gets a job placement from the government--which is apparently a relief, since everyone is living off of welfare rolls that it seems are providing slightly less than subsistence-level funds. The guy needs a bicycle for his job, and he's long since pawned his, so he goes home and tells his wife, and she pawns the sheets that were given to her as part of her dowry, which provides just enough cash for the guy to get his bicycle out of hock. So he goes off to work the next day (after dropping off his 8 year old son, not at school, but at what appears to be a job sweeping up at a gas station), works for a few hours wheatpasting movie posters, and has his bike stolen while he's up on a ladder. The thief gets away from him, and it's all downhill from there. The rest of the movie is he and his son desperately searching for the thief and the bicycle, with things getting worse and worse as they search. I don't want to say any more, because while that description might make you think the movie gets boring pretty quickly (I was expecting it to), a lot actually happens during their search. I wasn't expecting anything good to happen, and my expectations were met. By the end of the movie, sure enough, I felt terrible. It was a heartbreaking movie, and reminded me of every time something really random and unjust happened to me in my life, and I had no recourse. That powerless feeling is possibly the worst emotion a human being can feel. I'll give director Vittorio De Sica credit for capturing it, and doing so powerfully, but man... I was right to not even want to watch this movie. It was a bit too much, in the end. Ruined my mood for hours.


Apparently I am a creature of extremes where watching movies is concerned, because I've now seen another movie--"Who Gets To Call It Art?" This is a documentary that tells two stories at once: the life and times of Henry Geldzahler, an influential curator of contemporary art in the New York City art scene of the later 20th century, and a history of the art scene that he was involved with, encompassing postwar abstract expressionism and pop art. I randomly DVR-ed this movie months and months ago because I was flipping through a list of movies that were going to be on Sundance (and IFC as well, no doubt) in the then-near future, and thought it sounded interesting based on the description. I didn't know anything about Henry Geldzahler before I watched the movie--had never even heard of him--and didn't know anything more than the most basic facts of the art scene he was involved with. Still and all, I found the movie fascinating. I'm generally interested in any avant-garde, underground art movement of any sort, and even though the visual arts are probably the creative art I pay the least attention to, that statement is no less true of movements within the visual arts. So I was interested for that reason, and loved all the period footage of artists working in the grotty decrepit New York loft-studios they had at the time (and, for that matter, all the footage of these now-much-older artists giving interviews in their nicer but still kinda grotty current studios). I was also immediately impressed with the film due to its opening credits theme being "We Do Wie Du" by The Monks. There were several other songs by The Monks interspersed throughout the film, as well as songs by The Pretty Things, Can, The Velvet Underground, John Cale, and Eric Dolphy. In fact, I really enjoyed a song that I didn't recognize in the film, figured out from the end credits that it was John Cale's "Gideon's Bible", from his album "Vintage Violence", and have now downloaded and am listening to that album (which rules). Anyway, as to the movie, Henry Geldzahler had a really interesting life, being both a curator and a peer to the contemporary artists working in that scene at the time. He participated in the events and "happenings" that people were giving at the time, hung out with Andy Warhol at the Factory, and would have dinner and pose for pictures by some of the foremost artists of the time. Since I know so little about visual arts of any era, I didn't have the problem that I often have with documentaries about music or writers, where I know everything the movie tells me before it gets around to telling me, and therefore I learned a lot from it. Audio from a lecture Geldzahler gave at some point before his death was used as narration for most of the film, telling the story of his life from his point of view and giving it a narrative structure, which then alternated with interviews, both period and current, with artists and other important figures in the story. They had interesting stuff to say, Henry did too, and the narrative constructed was fascinating and entertaining. Really, my only complaint about this movie was that, at 80 minutes, I wish it had gone on longer. Excellent and highly recommended for anyone who enjoys post-1950 American art.



The new Metallica song...

...is here.

My thoughts about it, as originally posted on a message board, are as follows:

Aaah, this is crappy. The opening half reminds me of "Unforgiven 2", which was on, what, "Reload"? An attempt at bringing back the slow, heavy, yet emotional thing they were doing on some songs on the black album, which was in and of itself an attempt to continue the string of successful songs like that on the three previous albums, those being "Fade To Black", "Welcome Home (Sanitarium)", and "One". If you ask me, they were already pretty unsuccessful at it by the time of the black album, so of course "Unforgiven 2" was a total travesty, being a sequel to a song that was kinda crappy anyway. And now the first half of this song reminds me of that travesty. Just not good. The second half doesn't seem to have all that much to do with the first half. It's not a horrible riff, but it's pretty mickey-mouse simple and gets old after a while. It isn't fast, just midtempo, and Hammett's leads aren't even a shadow of the kind he once played back in the 80s. And also, Lars's drums sound like he recorded them using a kit from that video game "Rock Band". Plus, as has been mentioned, they're way too loud.

Metallica's been trying to get back on a righteous path ever since "Reload", and they've failed with every attempt. This is no different.



Rundown, week of August 20th.

It's been a while since I've done any writing about comics. So, without further ado, I present commentary about every comic book I bought this week:

MOON KNIGHT #21: The second issue with Mike Benson writing solo, first with him doing an ongoing story arc rather than a one-and-done. I hate to say this, since in theory I love anything Charlie Huston writes (basing this mostly on the fact that I fucking adore his Joe Pitt novels), but I think now that Huston isn't involved with the title anymore things are a lot clearer. I also think this is a good time to start reading this title. Moon Knight has been even more insane than usual since returning to the caped-crusader scene, and has killed or nearly killed a lot of people. The government has run out of patience, and they're after him. Is it possible that Moon Knight has lost his mind any more than he already had? If so, it looks like maybe he has... or maybe he's actually getting better. Either way, he's dressed all in black and appears to have shed the spectral presence of Khonshu, his god of vengeance. But Moonie's only in about 6 pages of this issue, the rest being setup for a major reckoning that's coming down the pike. I'm looking forward to what's coming, especially since it's going to look fucking gorgeous with the art team of Mark Texeira and Javier Saltares on the title. Love these guys' work.

IMMORTAL IRON FIST: ORIGIN OF DANNY RAND: Other than a 2 page intro by Matt Fraction and Kano, this is a straight up reprint of Iron Fist's first appearances in Marvel Premiere #15 and #16, back in 1974. I'm one of those people who tends to think that any comics made more than a decade ago are utter shit 99% of the time, so I was surprised to find two issues obviously churned out by Marvel Bullpen regulars of the time (Gil Kane, Len Wein, Roy Thomas) to be pretty decent. Don't get me wrong, this isn't great writing, and it gets pretty cliched at points, but it's not the kind of churned-out crap I expect from just about anything this old, so that in itself is a compliment. I probably could have done without this comic--if I'd realized it was almost entirely reprints, I wouldn't have bought it--but having gotten it, I don't regret doing so.

AIR #1: Never read anything by Willow Wilson before, but have heard good things, so I figured I'd check out her new Vertigo title. SO glad I did! This is excellent writing, excellent art by M.K. Perker, and something like 48 pages crammed in for a regular-comic price of $2.99. Great enticement to keep me sticking around on the title, and even though I don't completely understand what's going on, I love the character of Blythe the acrophobic stewardess, and want to see what happens next with her. It's really hard for me to tell which of the shadowy organizations using commercial airlines for their own ends in the post-911 world are really good guys and which are really bad guys, and I question whether any of them are 100% one or the other, but that only makes it more human and more interesting. Definitely on board for more of this. Also, I found out from Willow Wilson's afterword that she's straight-edge, which is cool because a lot of times in the world of comics, where everyone's either down the pub knocking back pints or doing hallucinogens and chaos magick, I feel like the only sober one in the pack. Nice to know I'm in good company there.

1985 #4: This is an action packed issue of a title that started out quite calmly, with a lot of exposition. If I'd gone straight from issue #1 to this one, I wouldn't have recognized it as the same title. The Marvel supervillains that have been unleashed on little Toby's town are running completely amuck, and most of this ish is nonstop action as Toby and his dad try to avoid the chaos erupting and make sure each other and Toby's mom are safe and accounted for. By the end of the comic, Toby's realized that drastic action is called for... and wait til you see what he does. It kicks the whole thing up to another level, at a point when I didn't think this comic could get any more intense. Between this title and the few of Millar's recent Fantastic Four issues I've checked out, he's on a serious roll with the Marvel universe, and that's not to mention his creator-owned title Kick-Ass. It's all the more remarkable that I'm saying this in light of the fact that I usually have nothing but hate for Fantastic Four, and would typically have to be bribed to read it. Oh, and by the way, Tommy Lee Edwards' art on this title is outstanding. I don't know where this guy came from, but I hope to see more of his work soonest.

SCALPED #20: This is the final issue of a story arc that was the darkest yet in Scalped. All of the action has basically been cleared up, and this issue is more a denouement than anything. Things are going pretty much as expected for all of the characters, and our long-suffering hero Dash Bad Horse is getting the worst of it on pretty much every front. Meanwhile, his girl Carol, who's got demons of her own, is exposing him to some bad elements, and with no relief in sight, Dash gives in to temptation and gives this comic about the most downbeat ending possible. I actually yelled out, "No, don't do it!" as I read the second-to-last page. I really want to believe that the next arc will introduce some much-needed hope for these beaten down characters, but I don't see it happening. Realistically, there's nowhere to go from here but down. I'll follow it all the way, and I'm sure I will appreciate the talent it takes to create such a fascinating storyline, but I don't know that I'm really enjoying this anymore. I feel like I'm reading the closing chapters of "Heavier Than Heaven" again.

CAPTAIN AMERICA #41: Ed Brubaker's storyline has been complicated and requiring of close attention ever since I started reading this comic around issue #21, and I think I've finally read enough of it that I'm starting to understand everything I need to understand and get every reference I need to be aware of. This is the first issue I've gotten in a while that I didn't feel required my rereading the previous four or five in order to understand. There are a couple of bigtime shake-ups in this issue, too, and they seem to indicate that things are looking up for our heroes, but we won't really know for a while, will we? Either way, the writing is even better than it is complex, and I continue to love Steve Epting's art, so this comic stays solidly in my good graces.

AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #568: This title has been fluctuating from "Hmmm... I don't know" to flat-out "I fucking hate this crap" ever since the execrable "Brand New Day" concept was unveiled, and that fluctuation has everything to do with who is writing the title at any given moment. They've given the lion's share of the post-BND issues to the worst of the four regular writers, Bob Gale, but every time I'm about to cancel the title entirely, to walk away and never look back, someone pulls me back from the brink. This time around it's been a double-whammy: first a three-issue arc by Marc Guggenheim that was the best writing the title has featured since Dan Slott's opening arc, and now a double-sized issue featuring the beginning of a new storyline by Dan Slott and a backup feature by Mark Waid. OK, OK, I will continue buying this comic--for now. This story is looking pretty good too, though Dan Slott's been forced by the Bob Gale-ization of the title as a whole to retain some of the stupid crappy-writer exposition that Gale loves, and those moments definitely irritate me. John Romita Jr's art is also solid as always. One thing that gets my goat a bit, though--why is it that the big ominous reveal on the last page is the SAME EXACT big ominous last-page reveal as that of Moon Knight #21? The first time I saw it, it was cool, and it would have been equally cool if I saw the second use of this trick two months later, but reading these two comics almost back to back had me responding to this big ominous ending the second time I read it with outrage. That could easily have been avoided. Sloppy executive editing, Marvel people!

And finally, my comic shop did not receive any copies of Anna Mercury #3. In fact, they told me it had been delayed. FUCK THAT.



Why am I even here? I wonder.

If I'm going to write about Blind Melon, particularly their first album, with an aim to recommend it--and make no mistake, that's exactly what I'm about to do--then there's an elephant in the room, one that I have to dispense with right away. So here it is: I hate "No Rain" just as much as any of you. I was around in the early 90s when it first became an unlikely hit for them, and I sat through the mid-90s when you couldn't get away from it on almost any rock radio station, and now it's a 15-year old song from a band a lot of people would probably consider a one-hit wonder so it shows up on "best of the 70s, 80s, and 90s" radio stations. I could cheerfully have never heard that song again by fall 1993, but unfortunately it clicked with the same crowd of clueless BMW-driving bourgeois pseudo-hippies that loved Dave Matthews Band two years later (and don't even get me started about that guy/band), and it's become a staple. So I'm stuck with it, and so is the culture in general. It taints people's minds when you mention Blind Melon--they go, "Oh, the 'No Rain' band? I hate that song," and then you have to explain that that song doesn't really sound like the rest of their stuff, and that you hate it too, and I guess that's what this paragraph is about, and now let's move on to the rest of the album.

Because see, I just put it onto my Ipod after years and years of not owning it and not hearing it at all, and it's led me to rediscover just how great the rest of the album really is. When I listen to it, I'm careful to skip "No Rain", even though I didn't mind that song so much when I first heard it. It was the fourth single from the LP, or at least the fourth video they'd released to MTV, and I'll bet they had no more expectations for it to be a breakout hit than I did. I thought it was the weakest track I'd heard from the album thus far, but I didn't really mind it that much before the overplaying blitz hit. I will even admit to having loved the video--the storyline, about a little girl who just wanted to dance in a bee costume and how she couldn't find anyone who understood her, until one day she came upon a whole field of people dancing in bee costumes--really touched a nerve for me. I don't specifically remember it now but I'm sure I cried the first time I saw that video. I was 16 years old, a senior in a rural high school where I had, no lie, 2 friends, and even those friends weren't into the same stuff I was. I saw that video and thought, "That's me. I am that bee girl." I've actually used that metaphor a whole bunch of times in the years since then to explain my own feelings of alienation to other people--because everyone's seen that video, and everyone gets the reference. For an annoying song, it has a really awesome video.

But anyway, let's stop talking about "No Rain" like I said I was gonna after the first paragraph. I was hanging out with a couple of friends earlier today and mentioned that I was gonna go home afterwards and write a blog entry about the first Blind Melon album. One of them, who is a good bit younger than me, told me that the album had always made him feel a bit weird, because it sounded so happy and yet the singer on it was dead. I told him that I'd gotten into it when Shannon Hoon was very much alive, so my experience of the music was different. He said, "It's just weird. I heard that album, and someone told me the singer was dead, and that didn't seem right, because the music was so happy. Then I started listening to the lyrics, and it made more sense." At that point, I could see exactly what he meant.

"Change" was a followup single to "No Rain", and though it didn't do quite as well, it hit with the same demographic that liked "No Rain" due to its upbeat acoustic sound. Apparently Shannon Hoon had this song before Blind Melon even got together. It's an acoustic song that only has limited backing instrumentation, and it appears right before "No Rain" on the album. They're the last two songs on side one. It has in common with "No Rain" the fact that, as cheery as it sounds, the lyrics are rather depressing. "I don't think the sun's coming out today," Shannon sings to begin the song. "As I sit here in this misery, I don't think I'll ever see the sun from here." Later on, though, he attempts to bring in a more positive, motivational message: "When you feel your life aint worth living, you've got to stand up, take a look around you, then look way up to the sky. And when your deepest thoughts are broken, keep on dreaming boy, because when you stop dreaming, it's time to die." This, the second verse, is the only section of the song in which the whole band plays, backing up Shannon's acoustic strumming with a swinging, shuffling backbeat incorporating mandolins and more acoustic guitars. At the end of that verse, Shannon sings, "I know we can't all stay here forever, so I wanna write my words on the face of today... and then they'll paint it." This last, wry aside, thrown in as a self-deprecating afterthought, adds a hint of levity to lyrics that might otherwise seem a bit downbeat. Of course, as my friend pointed out, they're belied by the upbeat, spirited backing music.

Most of the record, though, isn't really acoustic at all. Blind Melon's normal sound, so different from that of the few songs that were hits for them, is what I really like about them. The songs rock, and have a psychedelic edge to them that was actually rather uncommon for the grunge-infested early 90s. If anything, their music reminds me of Jane's Addiction's more electrified material, but with the prominent Led Zeppelin influence in Jane's Addiction's sound replaced by a big, fat dollop of Grateful Dead. Again, don't worry--I hate the Grateful Dead, too, just like I hate "No Rain". But there are times when I hear a band with a Grateful Dead influence who mix that influence with their others to create something really great. It's why I'm a big fan of Ryan Adams's more recent work with backing band The Cardinals, and it's why I like Blind Melon even though most of the modern "jam band" scene makes me want to barf.

"I Wonder" was the third video Blind Melon released to MTV, and it probably got the least amount of airplay out of all of them, which is a shame, as I like both the song and the video the most out of all of their singles. It starts with an acoustic intro that really isn't part of the proper song, and actually ends after a minute or so, with the real song coming in after that and sounding, if you weren't looking at the track display on your CD player, like a completely different song. The arpeggiated electric guitar riff that the main sections of the song are based around is somewhat mournful, or at least contemplative, which fits well with Shannon Hoon's lyrics, in which he complains, "They're watching everything I say. Why won't they leave me be?" Not long before this point in the song, he says, "I'd like to daze away to a place no one has known, in a state of mind that I could call mine that only I could own." It's a pretty essential statement of Shannon Hoon's existential problems, the ones that basically ended his life. He wasn't a guy who ever felt comfortable in his own skin, and he did even worse with that whole thing once he became famous, instead replacing his searching tendencies with drugs to numb the pain, until they finally killed him. "I Wonder" isn't a particularly heavy or intense song, but the riffing is catchy and the song has a constant forward motion, even to some extent on the quieter verses. On the solo, the rhythm section plays double-time and the lead guitarist plays a catchy melody line that could almost come from an Allman Brothers song. This part of the song is upbeat, but it quickly changes once the solo ends, with the band dropping back to the original, slower tempo and Shannon crying, "Won't you stop watching me? I said they're watching me, watching me, watching me." As the song comes to its end, he sings, "I only wanted to be 16 and free," and around him the music slowly drifts apart, bubbling noises replacing the drums as he sings, "Oh, I wonder." This is the Blind Melon that I love--the Blind Melon that incorporates psychedelic and hippie influences into the early 90s alternative rock sound, and puts lyrics over it that I can understand, that mean something to me.

"Paper Scratcher", which follows "I Wonder" on the album, is catchier and more upbeat, at least musically speaking. The hippie-jam influence is more pronounced on this song, though they still manage to rock at points on it. The part that I most love, though, is the chorus, on which Shannon Hoon shows off his high falsetto voice, singing, "My mind is a mind I've come to know" over delicate guitar arpeggios playing a gorgeous countermelody that intertwines with the melody of the vocal to create a beautiful multilayered pattern. Shannon's depressing contemplations are still present to some extent on this song, most noticeable when he leads into the song's solo by declaring, "When I die, thank god, my soul will be released." The surprisingly distorted guitar solo that follows seems more appropriate in light of the vehemence with which he sings this line, even as the rest of the song is delivered in a much mellower and higher-pitched tone.

I'd never really paid too much attention to "Sleepyhouse" before--it's on Side Two of the album, and with Side One featuring the 5-song sequence of "Tones Of Home", "I Wonder", "Paper Scratcher", "Dear Ol' Dad", and "Change", I'm generally so overwhelmed by it that I don't really even notice the quieter, more contemplative Side Two. However, my friend that I was talking to earlier about Blind Melon mentioned that it's his favorite song on the album, so I paid a little closer attention to it when listening to the record this afternoon, and I can now see exactly why someone would pick it as their favorite. It's definitely a quiet, contemplative song, fitting with my memory of Side Two as the mellower of the two sides, but the things it has to offer are just as awesome in their own way.

The song is driven by an echoing electric guitar, floating around and laying down a single-note melody line in a way that sounds like no notes are ever picked, as if they're just generating themselves. It's some sort of effect, I'm sure, but it sounds pretty neat either way. In the other speaker, the other guitarist strums along on an undistorted electric guitar, laying down the chords of the song, as the rhythm section keeps the beat and a constant undertone of sitars buzz and hum beneath it all. The lyrics of the song are obviously from the point of view of a stoner, but in a lot of ways I can relate to them even though I don't do any drugs. "No time frame for what I need to do today," Shannon begins. "Here at the yellow house, I think I'm gonna play." I know how that is. My favorite days are indeed the ones where I don't have to do anything at any particular time. There's still a bit of melancholy underneath the ostensibly carefree lyrics, though. On the chorus, he asks, "Aren't you feeling fine as I was as a little child?" He responds to this question for himself by saying, "I'm feeling better when I'm high." The words to the chorus belie its musical tone, too. The words seem like they should be happy, but the music has a sadder feel, perhaps created by the use of minor chords (though really, I can't tell). When Shannon sings, "I'm feeling better when I'm high," he doesn't sound like he's feeling better at all. He sounds like he's longing for something to cheer him up. In a later verse comes something that just might be an explanation: "If I could only show you how I feel, then you wouldn't bother me. And then maybe you'd see why we dont mind being blind."

I get a vibe from this song, and really, from this entire album, that I find hard to explain. It reminds me of times when I've felt all alone in a crowd of people, or maybe when I've been in places that were beautiful and really moved me, but been there alone. Like, when I'm the only one walking down a street while everyone around me is walking in the other direction, or when I'm sitting on a beach at night, alone. Those are moments that seem prime for soundtracks, because no matter how many people are around you, none of them see you at all, so you might as well be alone. And when you really are alone, again, they seem like the perfect time to retreat into the music in your head.

I guess what I'm really talking about is the way I feel lonely a lot of times for reasons that have nothing to do with where I am or who is around me. I feel lonely on a deeper level. It's been a long time since I was in a romantic relationship, and even though I have quite a few friends, some of whom really mean a lot to me, I don't spend nearly as much time with them as I sometimes feel like most people spend with their friends. The older I get, the harder it feels to try and make someone understand what it's like to be me, and what life feels like to experience it from my point of view. I end up just not even trying, going through life with a soundtrack rather than companionship. That's what this Blind Melon record reminds me of. It evokes emotions in me that I don't know how to explain to other people, and I get the feeling that Shannon Hoon knew where I was coming from. Which, sadly, is not all that reassuring, because he's been dead for a long time.

So there you go, another blog entry. Another outpouring of words in which I try to explain why a record is good as a cover for really trying to explain how it feels to be me, and why I connect with certain records that sound a certain way. I like to write, and I like putting what I write out there for other people to see, so it's not something that I consider futile, and I'm sure I'll keep doing it. But in another way, I know I'm never gonna say what I'm really trying to say in words that anyone else will understand. I'll write my words on the face of today, and even if no one paints over it, no one's really gonna get it. But that's OK, I guess. I guess.

Blind Melon - I Wonder
Blind Melon - Paper Scratcher
Blind Melon - Sleepyhouse



We kiss in his room to popular tunes.

Despite the fact that I've owned and loved the debut album by Suede ever since I was in high school in the early 90s, I've never really checked out any of their other albums. At the time they were releasing their follow-up records, I was made nervous by guitarist Bernard Butler's departure from the band, and when downloading albums became a possibility a decade later and I located some of their later work, I don't think I was really in the right place to hear and enjoy a new album by a band like Suede at all. I was a little too hung up on fastcore at that point in my life. Anyway, I downloaded "Dog Man Star", the only other Suede album with Bernard Butler on guitar, and after listening to it a time or two, I got rid of it. I should probably go back and listen to it again sometime soon, since it's a lot more up my alley now than it was then.

Anyway, lately I've been listening to their self-titled debut quite a bit. This is something I do once every few years, going all the way back to 1993 when I bought a used cassette copy and proceeded to spend months driving around aimlessly, playing it in my car cassette player at top volume. That was how I spent a lot of my time back when I was a senior in high school; there wasn't much else to do in the tiny rural county where I went to high school, and I didn't have many friends to speak of anyway, so driving around aimlessly by myself seemed like a worthwhile way to spend the times when I absolutely had to get out of the house. If I'd been born 15 years later and was in high school right now, with gas prices as high as they are, I have to wonder whether I would have lost my mind without that particular way to blow off steam.

The first song that drew me to Suede was "Metal Mickey", the first American single, which had a video that played quite often on MTV's alternative rock video program, "120 Minutes". I wasn't allowed to stay up until midnight on Sundays (my parents strictly imposed a bedtime all the way up to the very day I moved out of their house), so I would set our VCR to record the show and then watch it the next afternoon after getting out of school. Suede caught my attention immediately with a sound that struck me as somewhat similar to what Morrissey was doing at that point; his most recent album at the time, "Your Arsenal", had been produced by former Bowie guitarist Mick Ronson, and had a harder-edged sound than anything he'd done previously, both solo and with the Smiths. Suede's music took that same sort of harder edge from the glam rock sound of the 70s, bearing casual resemblance to "Ziggy Stardust" era Bowie and to T-Rex's classic albums "Electric Warrior" and "The Slider", and then added to it the flamboyant dandyism of singer Brett Anderson, whose very voice betrayed him both as indisputably British (generally considered commercial suicide in the American market) and defiantly un-masculine. While guitarist Bernard Butler wore leather jackets onstage and slashed at his guitar, sneering at the audience insouciantly, Anderson flounced around in women's blouses, striking the sort of poses that led to inevitable questions about his sexuality. He answered them in inimitable fashion, telling an interviewer early in Suede's career that he thought of himself as "a bisexual man who has never had a homosexual experience". This struck home with me, a 17 year old boy living in the middle of nowhere and only starting to wake up to feelings of attraction sometimes felt towards atypical, unapproved targets--including men. Despite Suede's relative lack of international fame, this quote made it onto "120 Minutes", and in fact, I think I saw it listed as "Quote of the Week" before I'd even heard "Metal Mickey" or of Suede at all. It was only a couple of months later that I even figured out who Brett Anderson actually was.

I liked "Metal Mickey" pretty well; it was a good rocking tune with an original sound, and I was listening to a lot of Britpop at the time anyway, so it was right up my alley. Second single "Animal Nitrate" did a bit less for me, although I do really like it now. But the Suede song that really hit home for me, that made me decide that I absolutely had to have their album, was "The Drowners". Released as the third single in America, it had been their debut single in Britain, and had only been held back in America, one assumes, due to the subject matter. Looking back, they were almost certainly right not to lead with this song in America; in fact, I'm still kind of amazed it was ever released as a single here.

"The Drowners" is a song driven by hesitance contrasted with desire, and this emotional dilemma is captured just as well by the music as by the lyrics. The main riff of the song is, in fact, based on hesitance--every time the band plays through it, it stops with four beats left and lets the final chord ring, at which point drummer Simon Gilbert has to count the band back in with four hits on his hi-hat. It's the sound of a reluctant lover having to be coaxed through an initial experience that he is hesitant about, and contrasts nicely with the song's chorus. The verse riff is a grinding, distorted affair, cranking out that sort of macho toughness that your average Ziggy-era Bowie song always had in its guitars. Bowie would proceed to subvert those overdriven guitar lines with his anti-macho vocal style and overall presence, and Brett Anderson does plenty of that on the verses of "The Drowners", but even ignoring Anderson's vocal, the chorus of "The Drowners" is subversive on its own. On it, swelling keyboards and what might be Mellotron effects rise out of the mix to steal the guitar's musical dominance and create a beautiful, euphoric feel that totally subverts the harsher sound of the verses. If the verses are the sound of hesitance, the chorus is the sound of at least momentary release, and by the end of the song, when the chorus is repeated several times before the fade and the keyboard/Mellotron effects grow louder and more intense, it's obvious that release, surrender, has won the day.

All of this is present in the song even without knowing any of the words, but once the words are known, it only seems ten times more obvious that this is the subject of the song. From the second line of the first verse, Brett Anderson is dropping deliciously deviant hints. "He writes the line that's wrote down my spine", Anderson sings. "It says, 'Oh, do you believe in love there?'" Where? Well, what's at the bottom of the spine? Where, indeed. I think we all know. I surely knew what he was getting at when I was 17 and listening to this record alone in my room, wishing for some company. And then, just in case anyone didn't get it, the second verse removed all doubt. "We kiss in his room," Anderson sings, "to popular tunes." Well, if Brett is a he, and he's kissing someone else in "his room", it seems obvious what's meant, doesn't it? If, as he said in the press, he'd never had a homosexual experience, "The Drowners" makes it obvious that he's at least thought about it. As the lush chorus hits, Brett sings, "Slow down. You're taking me over," but the pleasure in his voice puts the lie to the idea that he really wants it to stop.

I didn't have all that much money back when I was in high school (my parents paid for my gas, ostensibly so I could go back and forth to school. They'd sometimes wonder why I seemed to use so much), so I was always looking for a bargain when I'd hit the record shop. This was how I ended up originally buying an EP by Suede rather than their full-length album. The EP was a combination of the British singles for "The Drowners" and "Metal Mickey", with those two songs starting the disc in that order, and followed by "My Insatiable One" and "To The Birds", as well as one other B-side, the name of which I've forgotten. Unfortunately, I sold this EP sometime in the mid-90s, at a time when anything in my collection deemed "not punk enough" might at any time be sold to finance the purchase of some new 7 inch single. I'd love to have it back now, but I'd be willing to bet that I'll never run across a copy of it again. It's a shame. "My Insatiable One" was easily as good as the two A-sides, a fact acknowledged by Morrissey himself, who was known to cover it on his "Your Arsenal" tour. It's also on the "So I Married An Axe Murderer" soundtrack, which I also owned back then, but don't have anymore either. I can still remember the song's chorus in my mind, and it was really good, but that's about all. I'll have to hunt it down again sometime soon.

Anyway, getting back to the album itself, which I did finally buy once I ran across a used cassette copy that was only $3, it has a good many other amazing songs that weren't singles. In fact, "So Young" and "Animal Nitrate", the other two singles, were definitely good songs, but I still listen to the album and hear other songs that would probably have worked better. "She's Not Dead" is unfortunately taken out of the running by the use of the word "fucking" (which for some reason didn't earn them a "Parental Advisory" sticker). That said, it's an incredibly powerful ballad (no, not a "power ballad", that's something else entirely). The guitars on the song are acoustic rather than electric, and they're backed by Mellotron effects imitating flute and cello sounds. Over all this, Brett Anderson sings, his voice heavily treated with reverb and echo effects. The echoes of his voice combine with indistinct echoing sounds that might be guitar feedback, buried deep in the mix, and it all combines to create a sound that is desolate and empty--even with the entire band playing underneath his vocals. He sounds like he's standing alone on a windswept cliff at night, overlooking the sea.

The story Anderson tells in his lyrics is both bleak and affecting, even as it's mostly told through inference and hints. "She'll come to her end locked in a car somewhere with exhaust in her hair," he begins, as if the entire song is a dark prophecy that hasn't yet come to pass. However, his tense changes from here, first to present in the second line of the first verse--"she's fucking with a slip of a man while the engine ran"--and then to the past tense for the second verse and the rest of the song. "In the car he couldn't afford, they found his made up name on her ankle chain," the second verse begins. These three lines combine to paint a picture of something horrible that is never spelled out. But what is this horrible thing? It's nearly impossible to tell. The easiest conclusion to jump to is that the man in the song has murdered the woman, but on the chorus he insists that "She's not dead, she's just gone away." Can we trust him? Could it be that this is his attempt to deny a crime for which he's responsible? Or has she instead committed suicide? And what about the final chorus, in which our narrator tells us, "She's gone away to someone else's bed." Could this entire song be nothing more than the homicidal fantasy of a jilted lover? The lyrics leave questions, but no answers. One thing's for sure, though--it's a dark, depressing song. Possibly one of the best on the album, but certainly not single material.

One song that could have almost certainly been a single if it weren't for Anderson's bent for twisted lyrics is "Animal Lover". The title carries a double entendre that is never completely spelled out in the lyrics, but boy, is it ever hinted at. Over one of Butler's best uptempo glammed-out guitar rockers, Anderson sings "I see you're moving in with her. You'll pierce your right ear," and then, "This skinny boy is one of the girls." Is he hinting that the boy he's singing to isn't moving in with a "her" at all? It's never made clear, but soon we're distracted from that question by a more pressing one. "I know you've been inside," Anderson sings to end both verses. "But what were you in for?" The chorus provides a possible answer, as he repeats the song's title over and over: "Animal lover." Does he mean it in a Trent Reznor "I wanna fuck you like an animal" sense? Or is it a reference to bestiality? Good question--it's never made clear. There are hints in both directions contained in the second verse: "I see you're moving like wildlife from the waist" could mean either, or even both. There may be nothing all that clear in this rocking, uptempo tune's lyrics, but they hint at enough deviance that their label probably decided not to risk it, especially after having already released "The Drowners" as a single.

"Metal Mickey", which I've mentioned several times before, nonetheless deserves more attention than I've given it. The element of this song that really catches my ear is Bernard Butler's guitar. He plays with a distorted, fiery abandon at many points on the album, but "Metal Mickey" is his real spotlight, and he pushes his guitar to new heights of noise. The song begins with him feeding back and scraping his pick along the strings, and while the verses and chorus are slightly more restrained than this, that edge of noise is always percolating under the surface, waiting to explode. It does so on the song's solo, played through a variety of effects and at times replacing notes with pure distortion. The whole band has to stop for a second and catch its breath when Butler reaches the end of his solo, and when it slams back into the song's final chorus, it both highlights the melody of the song and the wild, unrestrained noise of the guitar. Undoubtedly, this is why it was chosen as the debut American single, and it's just sad that it didn't get more mainstream airplay. It could have been, should have been, a lot more popular than it was.

"Pantomime Horse" is another song that caught my attention in a serious way when I first got this album, and it's still one of my favorites. It begins quietly, with undistorted guitars picking arpeggios and the drummer doing cymbal washes underneath. Brett Anderson begins singing over this almost non-existent musical backing, and gives us a tale of alienation and self-loathing from an autobiographical perspective. "I was born as a pantomime horse," he sings, "ugly as the sun when he falls to the floor." The very idea of the sun being ugly seems paradoxical somehow, but nonetheless I know what he means. I've had days like that myself--where I was so depressed that a bright sunlight just looked like a bare bulb shining down at me from the ceiling of a prison cell. "I was cut from the wreckage one day," Anderson continues, "and this is what I get for being that way." This first verse is followed by a pre-chorus, but instead of reaching a chorus, the song just drops back into a second verse. The music has been building slowly in intensity throughout the song, and by this point, it's much more present than it was during the opening lines. It's still pretty sedate as the second verse starts, although Bernard Butler has switched from the acoustic guitar he played underneath the first verse to an electric guitar. The second verse ends with Anderson declaring, "This is what I get for my beautiful head." He then asks, on the pre-chorus, "Did you ever go round the bend?" It's at this point that Bernard Butler fully unleashes the guitar fury he's held in check throughout the song up to this point, bringing the band into the chorus for the first time and playing the melody line of the chorus in a loud, dark single note pattern. The band returns to a somewhat quieter sound for one final pre-chorus, but then, going into the final chorus, they get even louder than before, Bernard slashing at his guitar as Brett sings, "Have you ever tried it that way?" They're still playing at the slow, restrained tempo of the opening chords, but now, instead of sounding like a ballad, it sounds somewhere between a dirge and a slow-motion freakout. Brett wails and moans, and Bernard lays down several competing tracks of equally loud and distorted guitars. Underneath this, the rhythm section stays simple and solid, keeping the song together as Brett and Bernard go for broke, finally wearing themselves out somewhere past the five-minute mark and allowing the song to slowly drop back down to its quiet beginning point.

It's true that Bernard Butler only played on one other Suede album, and it's further true that, with a lot of what I love from Suede's sound on this album deriving from its raw, dirty guitar sound, I can't really imagine an album without Butler doing as much for me as this one does. That said, I think the time has finally come to listen to the other stuff they recorded. While I question whether they were ever able to be this good again, I can't imagine that the dropoff in quality is anywhere near severe enough to make their later recordings bad. Their first album is just too awesome. I owe it to myself to find out if any of their other records are as well.

Suede - The Drowners
Suede - Pantomime Horse