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Saturday, November 16, 2019

Britpop: A Deeper Dive

I would be remiss not to post about 90's Britpop, and it has taken me far too long to get around to it!
I am going to assume that most of you know about the megalithic, indominable pillars of Britpop: Oasis' first three albums, Blur's "Parklife" (or... really any of their albums), The Verve's "Urban Hymns", Radiohead's "The Bends", Pulp's "Different Class", and Supergrass's "I Should Coco".
(If these aren't ringing a bell, PLEASE go listen to them right now!!!)  
As an aside, this list is likely more helpful for non-UK residents. Most of the following groups/ albums achieved at least some degree of commercial success in their homeland. I want to bring them to the world (or at least the 3 people actually reading this).

The La's (1990)

Let's be clear: THIS IS AS CLOSE TO A PERFECT ALBUM AS YOU CAN GET. When I first heard it, it was a revelation. That's because Lee Mavers and co. honed these songs to a scalpel edge; playing them for years on the club circuit before committing them to wax. The tracks are concise, melodic, catchy, invigorating, memorable, charming (in an unmistakably Liverpudlian way), and timeless (see, for example, the aptly named "Timeless Melody"). Mavers is a's that simple. It is impossible to pack more pop goodness into a 2-3 minute track than The La's do here. Unfortunately, Mavers' genius proved to be the end of the La's, who would never release another album. Displeased with the debut album's mixing, Mavers began working feverishly on the follow-up...which, almost 30 years later, has yet to see the light of day. What happened? Rumours abound...but Mavers' perfectionism, and the gargantuan scope of his artistic vision almost certainly contributed. Apparently a young Noel Gallagher once said that he began Oasis as a way to "finish what The La's started." 
When I want to thrash on an acoustic guitar until my knuckles bleed I pull out one of The La's more rollicking tracks---ex: "IOU" or "Feelin'".

I Can't Sleep:

Cast- All Change (1995); Mother Nature Calls (1997); Magic Hour (1999)

Fortunately, not all was lost. From the opaque, swirling limbo enveloping The La's emerged Cast- fronted by (ex-La) John Power. In fact, a couple tracks originally written by Power for his previous band surface here (including the brilliant "Alright"). While The La's were largely about jangly and earthy acoustic rock, Cast tend more toward the "modern guitar rock" end of the scale. Fortunately, the songs are still anchored by impeccable craft and melodic sense. Their live recordings reveal a band completely at home in a "stadium rock" setting, not unlike The Who in their heyday.      

Beat Mama (from 1997' "Magic Hour" album):

Longpigs- The Sun Is Often Out (1996)

My favourite podcast of all time, "The Ricky Gervais Show" (hosted by Ricky Gervais, Stephen Merchant, and Karl Pilkington), featured a segment called "Rockbusters". Pilkington would provide a "cryptic clue" and an initial to the listener (much to the chagrin of Gervais, who expressed his disdain for the segment at every opportunity), who could call in and guess the band Karl was thinking of. It is still a joy to listen to, and I have linked a few excerpts below:


For me, it wouldn't get any bigger than being featured on Rockbusters. Longpigs achieved this honour. 
Clue: "You'll get a load of bacon off them. Initial 'L'." 
If that distinction doesn't have you convinced, just listen to some of the perfect pop on their debut album. Tracks like "She Said" (the group at their most brash), "Far", and "Dozen Wicked Words" are easily among the best of the genre.


She Said:

Dozen Wicked Words:

The Charlatans-Tellin' Stories (1997)

Another beneficiary of the "Rockbusters" treatment:
"Those people can't make up their minds whether to sit in the sun or not" (Charlatans= Shall-I-Tans?).

Again, this list won't be a deep dive for some. The Charlatans were hugely successful, and continue to maintain a rabid fanbase. In fact, this album captures them at their commercial peak (3 smash hit singles). Still, it wasn't until recently that I familiarized myself with brilliant tracks like "One To Another", and "How High" (after seeing the album listed on Q Magazine's 100 best records of the 90's list). I generally avoid the more dance-inflected/ "Madchester" scene groups- I am more of a guitar-rock kinda guy...but The Charlatans are an exception. They retain enough grit, swagger, and rawness to win me over. The electronic flourishes are garnish here, and the main dish is impossible not to love.

Out Of My Hair- Drop The Roof (1996)

Here's a genuinely overlooked entry. Breezy, jangly, effortlessly charming, and distinctly English- it's amazing that this group doesn't get namedropped more often. 

Songs like "Mr. Jones" (not to be confused with the Counting Crows song of the same name) and "In The Groove Again" showcase Simon Eugene's (AKA Comfort's) dulcet and playful-yet-earnest vocal delivery. 

Mr. Jones: 

Ocean Colour Scene- Moseley Shoals (1996)

This is pure, no-nonsense British rock: Reverence for tradition paired with modern punch and production values. Moselely Shoals captures the group at their peak, and begins with the unbeatable one-two punch of "The Riverboat Song" and "The Day We Caught The Train".   

The Day We Caught The Train:

The Seahorses- Do It Yourself (1997)

Though featuring ex-Stone Roses guitarist Chris Squires, The Seahorses favoured a more direct and less electronic attack than the Roses had. Singer Chris Helme also proves himself a compelling frontman. Unfortunately, this was the group's sole release (not including stand-alone single "You Can Talk To Me") before they split.

Love Is The Law:

I Want You To Know:

Dodgy- Free Peace Sweet (1996)

Workmanlike Britpop mainstays with a string of successful, radio- ready singles (one of their best, "Found You", appearing on this album...along with 3 other top 20 UK singles). Check out the dual chorus melodies and pure rock bliss of "You've Gotta Look Up". 

Found You:

You've Gotta Look Up:

Suede (1992)

The masters of dark romanticism. Sex-charged, self-consciously excessive, and revelling in crunchy, dense glam riffage--the debut is as good a place to start with Suede as any (although critics usually gravitate towards the follow-up: the darker, more esoteric "Dog Man Star").

Metal Mickey:

Gay Dad- Leisure Noise (1999)

With a lineup including an ex-Mojo Magazine music journalist (Cliff Jones), this group kinda had to be good (imagine the glee of tearing into a critic unable to back his words with actual musical talent). Fortunately, Jones retained both his street cred and his entrails.

Oh Jim:

My Son Mystic:

Oasis- Whatever (Single) (1994)

Yes, I know everyone is aware of Oasis. If not, you should be- they're brilliant.

What audiences outside of the UK may not know is that the group released a stand-alone single (unavailable on any full-length album until the deluxe reissue of "Definitely Maybe") to bridge the gap between their debut, and the now legendary "(What's the Story?) Morning Glory".

"Whatever" is an ambitious (almost 6-and-a-half minutes in length + featuring a full orchestra) anthem for the defiant, the proud, and really anyone seeking a sense of affirmation--- an uplifting "take me as I am" statement from the pen of one of rock's most tuneful songwriters, and the lips of one of its most defiant and confident performers. In short, it richly deserves its almost 55 million(!) plays on YouTube. "I'm free to be whatever I- whatever I choose and I'll sing the blues if I want".

Heavy Stereo- Smiler (Single) (1995)


The Real People (1991)

Liverpudlian pop-connoisseurs who rubbed shoulders with Oasis (including a couple guest credits on early Oasis tracks---Tony Griffiths provided backing vocals on "Supersonic", and Chris Griffiths co-wrote "Rockin Chair" with Noel Gallagher) and The La's. Seem to have taken cues equally from The Stone Roses (electronic textures and rhythms) and The La's, while retaining a wholly unique personality and vision all of their own. Hugely underrated!

Window Pane:

The Truth:

Drugstore-White Magic For Lovers (1998)

I usually stay away from anything branded "dream pop", but this one appeals to me nonetheless. Hands-down the best track here is "El President"- an ethereal duet between Isabel Monteiro and Thom Yorke (YES, THE ONE FROM RADIOHEAD).

El President:

Hurricane #1 (1997)

Step Into My World:

Travis-Good Feeling (1997)

U16 Girls:

Starclub (1993)

Embrace- The Good Will Out (1998)

One Big Family:

The Boo Radleys- C'mon Kids (1996) 

Let's end on a rocker. 
C'mon Kids:

Hard To Get:

Friday, December 21, 2018

The Falling Wallendas-Belittle (1997)

CD Design: Jimmy Olson; Photography: Mary Osmundsen
This interesting bit of alt-rock exuberance came across my desk awhile back (and by "came across my desk" I mean "I ordered it on Amazon"). It's a nice companion to VPN's "Small Wire" (a couple posts back)- a good album for those looking for clarity and punchiness with just a touch of experimentalism in the melody department, and some esoteric lyricism. "Captain Beefheart" is one of a few stunners here- showcasing the tightness of the band's attack (precision bass riffing and driving percussion dissolving into a sunshiney chorus hook). Don't expect many echoes of the actual Beefheart though- this isn't as avant-garde or abrasive (and I like it all the better for that). Still, be prepared for the unexpected; for sharp melodic detours like the chilled-out block party verses of "Porn" splintering into frantic blasts of amp-testing evil.
Available on iTunes

The Merrymakers-Bubblegun (1997)

Design: Nancy Brennan, Kato-Chin Club, Pelle Hokengren. Photos: Megumi Seki, Miharu Saito/ City Publication Inc, Anders Hellgren
As a massive powerpop fan, and a frequenter of powerpop/ 90's rock blogs, I am angered and dismayed that it took so long for this album to appear on my radar. In the end, it was the ever reliable "Dig Me Out" podcast crew who alerted me to the existence of this group. Perhaps they were better known in their native Sweden?
The Merrymakers will, perhaps, never escape comparisons to Jellyfish...and that group's Andy Sturmer gets a couple of writing and production credits...but that comparison never hurts! The Merrymakers' approach is perhaps a bit more straightforward and a bit less theatrical than the aforementioned group--but they always deliver on their implicit (and explicit, for that matter) promise: to "make merry".

Saltwater Drinks:

April's Fool:

Sunday, October 14, 2018

VPN-Small Wire (1998)

Sleeve design by Tonya Hudson & Austin Hughes; Photography by Austin Hughes
Literally ones (perhaps even twos) of people have been asking me what's up with the blog. I've been back in school, so have had very little time for posting. Figured I'd better give the people what they want though.

I have been meaning to alert the masses to this band for a while.
As far as I can tell, VPN (or "Very Pleasant Neighbor") released just two albums-this being the first.
This is one of those groups that seemed to emerge from the ether fully formed: no timidity, no areas requiring growth, no derivitiveness, no's all toned and honed.
The writing reminds me a bit of "She Said She Said" era John Lennon--taking all sorts of melodic risks-veering off at unexpected angles before resolving into something surprisingly lean and accessible (See tracks like "Patty Hearst", "Skywriting", and "Submarine").
Eleanor (Has Four Arms)--which includes lyrics like:
"Eleanor, you've traded your two legs;
Eleanor, your two legs for two arms"
and "She Has A Leak" showcase the band's knack for dark surrealist/ psychedelic scene-setting. There's always something...a looming threat...just below the surface, and it will keep you on the edge of your seat. A big ol' toothy barracuda smile coming up to snip-snip your toe-tips. Well played, VPN- very well played.

Link to the album on Spotify:

Band photo by Elain Ahn


Saturday, August 25, 2018

The Liar's Club-Drop Dead. (1994)

(Photographs by Steve McElrath; Design by Ben Thompson with Jayson Jarmon)
With songs referencing Fred Astaire, Holly Golightly, and Elvis (almost added "Twin Peaks" to the list, but actually that was pretty current at the time...and has indeed become very current again), The Liar's Club always seemed a bit before their time (even the name appears to have come from a 60's/70's game show). That's not necessarily a bad thing for a pop/ rock group of their ilk, but it is always a looming presence. Fortunately The Liar's Club don't spend much time pining over some "golden era gone by"; they spend their reverential energy on crafting pop hooks with the same care and attention to detail as their forefathers (Lennon, McCartney, Emmit Rhodes, Ray and Dave Davies...) and adding that distinctly 90's "tang". Unfortunately, as the Wikipedia article points out, these guys were from the Seattle area (Tacoma to be exact), and everybody knows what the Seattle zeitgeist was in the early 90's (and yes, it was frickin' awesome!)...and it wasn't this (frickin' awesome in a different way). Sometimes this "band against the world" ethos surfaces in subtle ways-perhaps most pointedly on the wonderful "Whatever..." which appears to poke fun at the hip "affected cynicism" of the time ("Whatever I say, whatever I do,  "whatever" is all I ever get from you..."). It skips along on the legs of a melody that would have sounded as good now as in 1967...or, for that matter, probably as good as it would have sounded at the time the first Ichthyostega pulled itself from the primeval seas and drew its first gasping breaths- easing itself forward on it's newly evolved forelimbs under the hot Devonian sun."Fred Astaire", "Triage", and "The Redundant Romantic Fool" are other can't miss moments.
There's also a sort of running joke underpinning the album's marketing-I pulled this from the Discogs page:
"The concept behind Drop Dead was simply: a band so desperate for commercial success - they faked their own deaths hoping to pique consumer interest.

The catalogue number (614) was taken from the Dewey Decimal classification for "Forensic medicine; incidence of injuries, wounds, disease; public preventive medicine"

And, as you can see, this joke carries through into the album's packaging and artwork. I particularly like the legal notice on the back of the jewel case: 

"WARNING: A curse be upon ye who would defile our memory or disturb our bones. 
Unauthorized duplication of this recording will be met with swift retribution from beyond the grave"

I should add that the group would not release another album until 2013, so those who had initially laughed at the whole "death joke" were probably getting a bit concerned.

Unfortunately this is the only (out of 4) Liar's Club album NOT on iTunes. I can't find much on Youtube either- but here's what I have unearthed:
"Triage" live on The Spud Goodman Show: 

"Cinnamon Smiles":

I cheated and got my copy online, but if you ever come across it at a used record shop I recommend-no, PLEAD- you pick it up. And of course, check out the albums that ARE available on iTunes (although this is their finest in my opinion).

(Art/Design credits same as above)

(Charlatan Record Cartel-CRC 614)