Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Neutral Milk Hotel

Sound Familiar?

“In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,” “Holland, 1945”

Who Are They?

The king of indie bands (and carrot flowers).

For most casual ‘90s enthusiasts (those who own the odd compilation album and are aware of the existence of Nirvana), the name Neutral Milk Hotel doesn’t ring a bell. Not recognizing the name isn’t a criminal offense. I’m not gonna go all Pitchfork on your ass and berate your taste in music just because you’ve never heard “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.” What I will do is give you the lowdown on the magic created by Jeff Mangum.

In the early ‘90s, Jeff began experimenting with music in the band The Olivia Tremor Control, and later recorded some of his own stuff under the name Milk. Neutral Milk Hotel began as just a recording project for Jeff as he wandered the country jobless, homeless and the epitome of the phrase “starving artist.”

It wasn’t until after the release of Everything Is (a 4-song EP) and On Avery Island that NMH became a full-fledged band. Before that, it was just Jeff and some other guys who happened to be hanging around. Julian Koster, Scott Spillane, and Jeremy Barnes joined the party as permanent members and work on the follow-up to Avery Island began in 1996.

The masterpiece In the Aeroplane Over the Sea was released in 1998 to high praise from critics and almost no response from the public (everyone must have been too busy listening to “My Heart Will Go On” for the millionth time).

Aeroplane definitely stood out with its inventive instrumentation (I’m pretty sure NMH is one of the only bands to use a singing saw) and passionate (albeit confusing) lyrics. As the legend goes, Jeff’s inspiration for the album stemmed from reading The Diary of Anne Frank. Although he has never confirmed that Aeroplane is all about her, it’s still a pretty popular theory.

Not even a year after the album’s release, Jeff became disenchanted with the music business (a plague that seems to haunt most ‘90s artists) and the band went on an indefinite hiatus. In a decidedly Cobain-esque move, Jeff went into hiding, only reemerging for the odd private show.

Where Are They Now?

No longer a band, although Jeff keeps the memory alive.

While Jeff was in hiding, his bandmates started projects of their own. All three of them continue to release music under different names (Julian as The Music Tapes, Scott as The Gerbils, and Jeremy as A Hawk and a Hacksaw).

In 2005, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea was re-released by Domino Records and re-evaluated by critics. Pitchfork gave it an almost unheard of 10/10 rating. Can we just stop and take that in? That’s on par with Harry Potter riding a unicorn into Oz. This doesn’t happen every day, folks.

Jeff has become an infamous recluse for about a decade. He’s played a handful of private shows across the US, but no new recordings have surfaced.

But Why Neutral Milk Hotel?

Why, indeed? Well, Jeff Mangum is still alive. His latest appearance was at the All Tomorrow’s Parties Festival (yes, a festival) in the UK this past weekend. He also started a new website where he’s self-releasing a box set of Neutral Milk Hotel albums and unreleased tracks, but no new material as of right now.

Because the man is apparently an enigma (and cameras seem to be scarce at all his shows), I can only give you a taste of one of his live performances.

What Does Sam Think?

I’ll try my best to make this comprehensible (but I can’t make any promises).

I will admit that I have not been a Neutral Milk Hotel fan since the beginning. I had only heard the name mentioned by just about every music publication on the face of the earth. After some vigorous recommendations (or threats, rather) from friends, I finally gave this mysterious band a try.

And magic greeted my ears in the form of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea’s title track.

It’s very rare for me to immediately like a band upon first listen. It usually takes me a few tries to get into new music (see my love affair with Animal Colllective). However, NMH impressed me beyond reason.

So I’m sure you’re sitting here asking yourself, “What makes this band so damn special?” It’s difficult for me to give you a straight answer, so I’ll smash all my jumbled thoughts into this cliché expression: They’re so wrong, they’re right.

The distortion is almost oppressive, the horn section wavers in and out of tune, the lyrics make no sense, and Jeff’s voice leaves something to be desired. I don’t know if it’s sheer talent or just plain witchcraft, but all these seemingly atrocious qualities all work in the band’s favor.

If you forget everything you think you know about good music, you can hear the raw acoustics, the strange and subtle variation in instrumentation, and the pure emotions flowing from Jeff’s carefully constructed words.

I do acknowledge the fact that NMH isn’t for everyone. If you don’t like it, even after multiple attempts to like it, that doesn’t mean you have terrible taste in music. But once you “get” it, you’re hooked for life.

In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is a beautiful album (as is On Avery Island) and Jeff Mangum is truly an artist. And I’m not just saying that because I’m a Mangum fangirl (although that may be part of the reason).

Still not convinced this band belongs on “best of” lists all over the Internet? Consider this: without Jeff Mangum and Neutral Milk Hotel, you probably wouldn’t have Franz Ferdinand or Arcade Fire.

--Sam Boyer, reporting from the ‘90s.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Red Hot Chili Peppers

Sound Familiar?

“Give It Away,” “Under the Bridge,” “Scar Tissue”

Who Are They?

Those crazy Californian funk rock mofos who aren’t afraid to show off their, erm, socks.

In the beginning (or 1983), there was Tony Flow & the Miraculously Majestic Masters of Mayhem. Founding members Anthony Kiedis, Michael “Flea” Balzary, Hillel Slovak, and Jack Irons played their first show under this catchy name. The gig was only supposed to be a one-time thing since Hillel and Jack had day jobs with a band called What Is This?, but the crowd went nuts for them (probably due to some intense improvisation and Anthony rapping a poem he wrote.) So after a quick name change to Red Hot Chili Peppers, the boys booked some more shows and eventually got noticed by EMI.

Hillel and Jack still considered RHCP as a side project, so they quit to focus on What Is This? (and I’m sure they’re so happy with that decision now.) That was no biggie for Anthony and Flea, who recruited new members Cliff Martinez on drums and Jack Sherman on guitar just in time to record their first self-titled album in 1984.

The album didn’t sell, but airplay on college radio and MTV (ah, the good ol’ days) helped the Chili Peppers establish a fan base. During the tour, however, Anthony and Jack Sherman locked horns over where the band was going musically and Jack got the boot. Hillel took his place, but only because he was tired of What Is This? (or perhaps he just had a good feeling about this Chili Peppers thing).

The legendary George Clinton produced the band’s follow-up, 1985’s Freaky Styley. He helped the boys harness that funk power we all know and love, but yet again, the album just wouldn’t sell.

By 1986, Anthony and Hillel were battling serious heroin addictions. EMI gave RHCP a budget of $5,000 to record a demo tape, but Hillel and producer Keith Levene decided to set aside $2,000 of that budget for heroin and cocaine. Cliff couldn’t deal with all the drug abuse going down, but refused to quit, so Anthony and Flea fired him.

After Anthony’s short stint in rehab, the band recorded The Uplift Mofo Party Plan, released in 1987. Anthony was so happy he turned back to drugs to celebrate after just 50 days of sobriety. Hillel followed him into the drug underworld, but didn’t make it out alive. His death in 1988 shook the band to the point where Jack left to join Pearl Jam.

But Anthony and Flea decided to continue with RHCP in memory of their fallen friend. After several auditions, they settled on John Frusciante and Chad Smith. The first album with the new lineup was 1989’s Mother’s Milk, which ended up being infinitely more successful than the previous three efforts.

After a label switch to Warner Bros. and a producer switch to Rick Rubin, the Chili Peppers got this crazy idea to record their next album in the Harry Houdini’s (supposedly haunted) mansion. Don’t try to tell me that’s not coolest idea you’ve ever heard.

The resulting masterpiece was Blood Sugar Sex Magik, which unfortunately shared a release date with another masterpiece by the name of Nevermind. Nonetheless, the Chili Peppers rocketed to fame, grabbing Grammys and VMAs on the way. But John just wasn’t digging this sudden popularity. He quit in the middle of the 1992 tour and was eventually replaced by Jane’s Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro.

Dave stayed on board for Woodstock ’94, a tour with the Rolling Stones, and One Hot Minute. Despite the commercial success of One Hot Minute, Dave left in 1998 and the rest of the band fell into a rut. Meanwhile, John was dealing with a serious heroin addiction, which left him in poverty and near death. He eventually checked into rehab and upon completion of the program, decided to reunite with the Chili Peppers.

Now one big happy family once more, the band released the immensely popular Californication in 1999. They ended the decade with an appearance at the disastrous Woodstock ’99, a festival infamous for the inferno caused by angry concertgoers (this is why we can’t have nice things like Woodstock anymore).

Where Are They Now?

Still a funky force in the music world, sans Frusciante.

Immediately following the tour for Californication, the band set to work on 2001’s follow-up, By the Way. The recording process left Flea feeling a little left out. He was engaged in a musical power struggle with John, who had radically different ideas about the band’s sound. While Flea still wanted to bring the funk, John felt that the funk had been worn out and wanted to create more melodic songs. Flea considered quitting, but ultimately everything worked out nicely.

The double album (and to me, double disappointing) Stadium Arcadium was released in 2006. But since I have no authority in the music world, Stadium Arcadium ended up winning five Grammys, including Best Rock Album and Best Rock Song for “Dani California.”

Because of the nonstop touring and recording since Californication, the Chili Peppers took a much-deserved break in 2008. Anthony released an autobiography, Flea started taking music theory classes at the University of Southern California, Chad worked with the supergroup Chickenfoot, and John released a solo album.

Once the hiatus ended, John revealed that he was leaving yet again. Josh Klinghoffer, who was originally the band’s backup touring guitarist, replaced him and work began on the new album.

But Why Red Hot Chili Peppers?

Their tenth studio album, I’m With You, dropped last month and they’re also on the ballot for the 2012 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductions. In other words, life’s pretty damn good for these guys.

And check out the '70s porn 'stache Anthony's sporting.

What Does Sam Think?

Before I whine about how much I miss John Frusciante, let me just say this band is mega talented. Something that initially came off as strange and unmarketable turned into a huge commercial success. Sure, they had to compete with the grunge trend in the early ‘90s, but they didn’t fade into the background. Out of all the major bands to come to fruition in this crazy decade I obsess over, RHCP is among the most successful (along with the likes of Pearl Jam, Radiohead, and Green Day). You may not like their new stuff (I know I don’t), but you can’t deny that these guys are still relevant almost 30 years after their formation.

So let’s take a step away from their longevity and look at their sound. The Chili Peppers are primarily funk masters, mostly due to Flea’s insane bass skills. (If you haven’t noticed, I love bass. Hence why I’m such a huge Primus geek.) Anthony is a great songwriter and he’s got the personality and stage presence of Mick Jagger and Steven Tyler’s lovechild.

But I think it took John’s technical prowess to harness all this energy. He wasn’t familiar with funk when he joined the band, so what did he do? He found a way to blend his own melodic style with the rest of the band’s free-form approach. I’m not saying Anthony, Flea, and Chad ran around in a sugar-induced haze while John tried to corral them into the studio. John helped by giving them a new element to work with, which contributed to a much more original sound. Just listen to the differences between The Uplift Mofo Party Plan and Blood Sugar Sex Magik.

You can even hear a difference between Blood Sugar Sex Magik and One Hot Minute. Despite appearances, Dave Navarro is a great guitarist, but his style just wasn’t right for RHCP. And I don’t mean to write off Josh Klinghoffer either. I just feel that John was the perfect fit.

That said, this new album really isn’t doing it for me. I was already disappointed with Stadium Arcadium, but I’m With You deviates way too much from the Chili Peppers’ signature sound. And while it’s always great for bands to experiment and try new things (and perhaps go through new members), sometimes it just doesn’t work.

--Sam Boyer, reporting from the '90s.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011


Sound Familiar?

“John the Fisherman,” “Jerry Was a Race Car Driver,” “Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver”

Who Are They?

Musical connoisseurs of cheese, pudding, and pork. (Mmm. Steamy.)

If that made no sense to you, you are obviously not a Primus fan. And you also need some schoolin’.

Primus (or Primate, as they were known back in 1984) was a little project started by bassist Les Claypool, guitarist Todd Huth, and a drum machine. Citing artistic differences, the drum machine split and was replaced by Vince “Perm” Parker, and later Tim “Curveball” Wright. After about 187593432 other drummers joined and left the band within a span of about two years, Tim “Herb” Alexander got comfortable behind the kit. Then Todd left and Larry “Ler” LaLonde stepped in to complete what most fans claim to be the ideal Primus lineup.

Claypool and company’s first album was actually a live recording from two Berkeley concerts called Suck On This, released in 1989. Their first studio album was 1990’s Frizzle Fry. It may have been the super rad vibes coming from Frizzle Fry, or the fact that they were touring with the one and only Jane’s Addiction, that got Interscope Records mighty interested in Primus. Whatever the reason, the boys signed to the big bad major label and released 1991’s follow-up Sailing the Seas of Cheese. (And yes, every Primus album has a completely ridiculous name.)

Seas of Cheese singles “Jerry Was a Race Car Driver” and “Tommy the Cat” got Primus noticed pretty quickly. They toured with the likes of Rush, U2, Anthrax, and Public Enemy, and even made a cameo in Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey. Whoa, dude! Excellent!

Pork Soda, released in 1993, didn’t fare as well. Perhaps the always delightful themes of murder, suicide, and alienation rubbed audiences the wrong way, or they were just scared away by the video for “Mr. Krinkle.” (Watch it. The pig getup will haunt your dreams).

Regardless of the minimal success of Pork Soda, Primus ended up headlining 1993’s Lollapalooza tour and also made an appearance at Woodstock ’94 (or Mudstock, as many have lovingly dubbed it). They were pelted with mud during their set (who wasn’t?), and Les made the infamous comment (as you can hear in the video), “You know, when you throw things up onstage, it’s a sign of small and insignificant genitalia.” Truer words were never spoken.

But Primus’ bizarre talent wasn’t professionally recognized until 1995’s Tales from the Punchbowl. The album’s first single, “Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver,” earned the band a Grammy nod for Best Hard Rock Performance (they lost to Pearl Jam), and became their most successful single to date. (And the video is probably one of the best music videos of the ‘90s. Check it out below.)

As with most bands, Claypool and company didn’t take well to their newfound fame, and since “Wynona” was being played to death, Les disowned it. If you happen to see Primus on their new tour, don’t expect to hear the tune.

Tim Alexander left the band in 1996, probably due to playing “Wynona” about a million times. He was replaced by Bryan “Brain” Mantia, and just in time. Two nobodies named Trey Parker and Matt Stone approached Les and the gang to compose a theme song for this little cartoon called South Park. Perhaps you’ve heard of it?

After 1997’s The Brown Album and 1999’s Antipop (which was littered with guest musicians like James Hetfield and Tom Morello), Primus went on an indefinite hiatus in 2001.

Where Are They Now?

Back together (with another yet another new drummer!) and still cranking out songs about the strangest things (this time salmon and squirrels).

During the hiatus, Les got into the jam band scene with projects Oysterhead and Colonel Claypool’s Fearless Flying Frog Brigade. (The latter is probably the single greatest band name in the history of music.)

Tim released two albums with the band Laundry, and also performed with Blue Man Group and A Perfect Circle. Bryan and Larry joined forces to produce two experimental records and tried unsuccessfully to open a recording studio.

Primus reunited with Tim in 2003 to record a 5-track EP, which was released alongside the epic music video collection/live DVD Animals Should Not Try to Act Like People. The boys commenced the “reunion” tour, playfully dubbed the Tour de Fromage, to back the DVD package. They took another break, then toured again in 2006.

Tim became disenchanted with Primus yet again and was replaced with current drummer Jay Lane. Primus announced a new tour in 2010 (which I attended!), but there was still no news of new material surfacing any time soon.

Then, by some great miracle, a new album was announced to be in the works in March 2010. On September 12, 2011, Green Naugahyde was born.

But Why Primus?

That new album I just mentioned? It’s their first new album in 12 years. In case you haven’t noticed, that’s kind of a big deal. Also, it’s super fantastic. Read my review (in which I fangirl over Les Claypool’s superb bass skills).

What Does Sam Think?

PRIMUS SUCKS. In other words, they’re radtastic. Saying “Primus sucks” is kind of a pet term fans use when proclaiming their love for them. But if you say it in a friendly conversation with Les Claypool, he will punch you in the face. Why? Because like “Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver,” he is sick to death of hearing it.

But I digress. Primus is a great band simply because there are no other bands like them. If you heard them on the radio, there would be no doubt in your mind that it was Primus.

But because they’re on their own plane of existence, they tend to alienate some audiences (probably intentionally). You either like Primus, or you don’t. Simple as that. I think the “weird-out” factor is the idea of a band based around a bass player, rather than a vocalist or guitarist. It’s pretty obvious that Les is the mastermind behind Primus (but Larry and just about every drummer are just as talented). Upon first listen, the bass smacks you in the face. That’s just how the band works. And Les Claypool plays a mean bass (he was denied a position in Metallica because he was just too good, or so the legend goes).

If I had to describe the band’s sound, I’d probably go with “thrash funk pig rock.” Yeah, that sounds about right. It’s dirty, but doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Still confused? Don’t sweat it. Listening is the best alternative to my inane ramblings. Take in a few songs, or an entire album (Tales from the Punchbowl is my personal favorite). You’ll either be pleasantly surprised, or completely disgusted. Or perhaps a nice mixture of both.

--Sam Boyer, reporting from the ‘90s.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Pearl Jam

Sound Familiar?

“Jeremy,” “Even Flow,” “Better Man”

Who Are They?

Arguably the most successful (and radio-friendly) band of the Big Four Grunge Acts©.

It all started with Stone Gossard, Jeff Ament, and a little band called Green River in the mid-‘80s. When that project disbanded, Stone and Jeff teamed up with Andrew Wood to form another little band called Mother Love Bone. After Andrew’s unfortunate death in 1990, Mother Love Bone called it quits and Stone and Jeff began jamming with prospective Pearl Jammer Mike McCready. Then they realized that not having a drummer or a singer was kind of counterproductive.

Cue gas station employee Eddie Vedder. Eddie was already the lead vocalist for a local band called Bad Radio when he received a demo tape from Stone and the gang. He recorded vocals for three songs (including a little ditty called “Alive”) and sent the tape back. Stone, Jeff, and Mike’s collective eargasm resulted in Eddie's being flown to Seattle, where he auditioned (was there really any need for an audition?) and joined the band within a week.

Before Pearl Jam took off, Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell approached Stone and Jeff with the intention of collaborating on a few tribute songs for Andrew Wood. This project ended up as the short-lived band Temple of the Dog. Eddie and Soundgarden/future Pearl Jam drummer Matt Cameron also joined in. So before we had Pearl Jam, we had a pretty rad supergroup (which I guess wasn’t really a supergroup at the time because nobody had any idea who Eddie Vedder was).

But back to the Pearl Jam chronicles. When the boys finally settled on Dave Krusen as their drummer, they needed a name. Mookie Blaylock, anyone? No? Well, that was their first choice. Unfortunately, the name was trademarked (by a basketball team, if you’ll believe it), so Pearl Jam was used instead.

As the band began to record their landmark debut Ten in 1991, Dave decided to check into rehab. Matt Chamberlain replaced him, but ended up leaving after only a handful of shows to join the Saturday Night Live band. Dave Abbruzzese stepped in as a replacement for the rest of the tour.

When Ten was released (the same month as Nirvana’s Nevermind), sales were slow, but eventually exploded by the second half of 1992. The album stayed on the Billboard charts for more than two years and success came in wave after luxurious wave.

But Pearl Jam began to grow uncomfortable with all the popularity, especially Eddie. Tensions between the band and their label mounted when the boys refused to make a video for “Black.” When Cameron Crowe asked them why for his Rolling Stone article, Jeff explained, “Ten years from now, I don’t want people to remember our songs as videos.” (This is kind of ironic considering the band’s biggest single, “Jeremy,” spawned an intensely controversial music video).

Eddie and the gang continued to stick it to the man when they boycotted Ticketmaster for adding a service charge to tickets for their shows. They refused to be seen as a commercial product, so they stopped making music videos and releasing singles.

But not everyone in the group agreed with all this boycotting business. Dave was wary of the Ticketmaster nonsense, so he was promptly dismissed from the band after Vitalogy was recorded. Former Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Jack Irons replaced him.

The Vitalogy tour ended being a disaster because of the Ticketmaster fiasco. Surprisingly (or maybe not), no other bands joined Pearl Jam in the boycott, and they were forced to play shows outside of the US for the next three years. Apparently Ticketmaster is a sponsor for virtually every venue in America. Weird, right?

No Code and Yield did not come even remotely close to the success of Ten or Vs., although the single “Do the Evolution” from Yield was accompanied by the band’s first music video since 1992.

As the ‘90s came to a close, Jack ditched Pearl Jam and was replaced by Matt Cameron (who was initially temporary, but became a permanent member because, hey, what else are you gonna do when a band like Soundgarden breaks up?)

Where Are They Now?

Still fighting the good fight and selling out stadiums (even the ones affiliated with Ticketmaster).

In 2000, Pearl Jam released Binaural, an experimental effort with some pretty dark lyrics. The somber aura surrounding the album came to a head when nine fans were crushed underfoot and suffocated to death at the Roskilde Festival in Denmark.

That same year, the band celebrated their tenth anniversary with a three-hour set at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. After ten years together, it was time for a break.

Fast-forward one year. Pearl Jam went back to the studio to record Riot Act and also released a few b-sides for use in movies like Big Fish.

Fed up with their previous label’s shenanigans, the band made the decision to move to J Records to release their self-titled album in 2006. During the tour in support of Pearl Jam, the boys headlined both Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo. That’s right. Two major festivals. In the same year.

Their latest album, Backspacer, was released in 2009, along with a video for the album’s first single “The Fixer,” directed by Cameron Crowe. (Note to journalists: If you write a story about Pearl Jam for a major music magazine, you will be able to direct one of their music videos. This may or may not be true.)

But Why Pearl Jam?

Eddie and the boys are celebrating their 20th anniversary this year with a Labor Day festival (might I suggest the name Pearl Jamapalooza 2011?). It will also feature Queens of the Stone Age, Mudhoney, and various other acts. Oh, and there’s talk of a new album soon. But we’ll just concentrate on the present (even though you’re probably all giddy with excitement about new Pearl Jam material now).

What Does Sam Think?

To be honest, I just consider myself a casual Pearl Jam fan. That is slightly problematic when it comes to seeing this band live (which I did).

You can’t be a casual fan at one of these concerts. Why? Because Pearl Jam plays for the die-hards, something most bands don’t really consider. Say you’re in a fairly successful band. You’ve had a few hits that earned some heavy airplay. You’re going to play those hits at each show because that’s what your fans want to hear. And everyone is happy because they know a couple songs during your set.

This is not what Pearl Jam does. Pearl Jam plays the deepest cuts imaginable and discards most of their biggest hits. You may still hear “Alive” and “Black,” but forget about “Jeremy.” That may never see the light of day again, outside of your iTunes library.

That being said, I can’t judge Pearl Jam too harshly since I’m not a die-hard fan. I do enjoy Ten, though (who doesn’t?). But if I had to rank the Big Four Grunge Acts© by how obsessed I am with them, Pearl Jam is at the bottom. That isn’t because I dislike the band. They do make great music. I’ve just kind of overlooked them because they didn’t jump out at me.

I can hear people calling blasphemy right now. I know critics pretty much fawn over Pearl Jam (kind of like Radiohead, but slightly more subdued), and they probably have good reason. I will admit that certain songs (“Better Man”) have successfully won me over, but Pearl Jam’s catalogue as a whole is kind of lukewarm to me.

Now feel free to pelt me with rocks and copies of Vs.

--Sam Boyer, reporting from the ‘90s.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Smashing Pumpkins

Sound Familiar?

“Today,” “Bullet With Butterfly Wings,” “1979”

Who Are They?

The pleasant (yet still very angsty) alternative to grunge. (An alternative to an alternative genre? How novel!)

This is a story of romance, success, and general jackassery. Actually, that kind of makes things seem a little too epic. Most of this drama comes from one person, and that person is Billy Corgan.

He’s no Liam Gallagher, but that still doesn’t make him a saint.

But let’s not point fingers here (we’ll get to that later). Let’s start at the beginning, way back in 1988, when Billy Corgan met James Iha and a band of epic proportions was born. D’arcy Wretzky was recruited as the bassist and ended up having a short-lived love affair with James. For the band’s first official show, they decided to use a drum machine instead of an actual drummer, which really wasn’t a surprise considering Billy and James’ obsession with The Cure.

When drummer Jimmy Chamberlin finally joined the group, he felt a little out of place. He knew nothing about alternative rock, and was certainly clueless as to what the hell Billy meant by “sad-rock.” But Jimmy eventually opened everyone’s eyes to a much harder sound, helping to create a sound that got the Smashing Pumpkins compared to Jane’s Addiction.

Their 1991 debut album Gish was only a minor success, although the single “Rhinoceros” got some mainstream airplay. During the recording process, Billy was determined to make the album perfect. So he played most of the instruments himself. Nobody else really appreciated that.

During the tour behind Gish, problems galore began to arise. James and D’arcy went through a messy breakup, Jimmy became addicted to drugs and alcohol, and Billy went into a deep depression. Inter-band tensions continued to mount during the recording of the Pumpkins’ infinitely more successful follow-up Siamese Dream.

Despite being adored by critics, the Pumpkins faced hostility and general distaste from the alternative rock community. Instead of just being called sellouts (as is custom among music elitists and people who are jealous of others’ success…did that sound bitter?), they were dubbed “the grunge Monkees” and labeled as “careerists.” In the 1994 song “Range Life,” Pavement lead singer Stephen Malkmus refers to the band with the lines, “I don’t understand what they mean/And I could really give a fuck.” Stephen maintained that he was just dissing the band’s status and not their music.

After a massive amount of touring (including a slot on the 1994 Lollapalooza tour), it was back to the studio to record what would become the adventurous concept album Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. The Pumpkins exploded into the mainstream with singles like “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” and “1979.” Malls all over the country started selling Billy’s iconic “Zero” shirt and MTV played Mellon Collie’s singles to death.

Towards the end of the Mellon Collie era, Jimmy was arrested for heroin possession and was fired from the band as a result. Billy, James, and D’arcy recorded the electronica-influenced Adore without Jimmy and adopted a darker look to match the albums gothic undertones. The Pumpkins ended the decade by simultaneously reuniting with Jimmy and ditching D’arcy for good.

Where Are They Now?

The name remains, but the lineup is not the same (that rhyme was unintentional and I’m actually laughing at myself for it).

The year 2000 marked the beginning of the end of the original Smashing Pumpkins. Former Hole bassist Melissa Auf der Mauer replaced D’arcy on the tour supporting Machina/The Machines of God. The album was a welcome return to the more traditional rock sound of previous albums. After the release of Machina II/The Friends and Enemies of Modern Music, the band called it quits.

Billy and Jimmy reunited to form the short-lived supergroup Zwan in 2001. Zwan only released one album, then Billy presumably got bored with it and released a solo album titled TheFutureEmbrace. Jimmy started an alternative/jazz fusion band called The Jimmy Chamberlin Complex, James enjoyed a brief stint as the guitarist for A Perfect Circle, and D’arcy disappeared off the face of the earth. This is, until she was arrested in February 2011 (check out the lovely mugshot).

On February 17, 2004, Billy basically disowned the entire band on his personal blog. He called D’arcy a “mean-spirited drug addict” and blamed the breakup on James. Now that’s not a way to make friends, kids.

In 2005, Billy announced a Smashing Pumpkins reunion. And everyone lived happily ever after.

Just kidding. James and D’arcy refused to be anywhere near Billy, but Jimmy agreed to the reunion. Billy and Jimmy recruited bassist Ginger Pooley and guitarist Jeff Schroeder and released Zeitgeist in 2007. The album received mixed reviews, but Billy assured fans that the best was yet to come. That was after Jimmy left and Billy became the lone member of the band.

But Why Smashing Pumpkins?

Billy’s massive Teargarden by Kaleidyscope project is being released one song at a time. In the meantime, he’ll release another Smashing Pumpkins album titled Oceania, set to be dropped on September 1. How do I know all this? I happen to stalk him on Twitter.

What Does Sam Think?

Let me just say this: the Smashing Pumpkins are not the same band without James Iha, D’arcy Wretzky, and Jimmy Chamberlin. Of course the original lineup will never reunite because we live in a bleak, unfair world. And because no one can get along with Billy Corgan.

Now, Billy may be kind of a dick, but he’s a great musician. I guess I’m just slightly bitter because when I saw the Pumpkins live, I was just seeing Billy. I’d like to think of any band as a group effort and not just a superstar at the forefront with some nobodies behind him. But I do still respect Billy as an artist. The man is responsible for one of my favorite albums of all time, for God’s sake.

So let’s talk about the music, shall we? In case you weren’t aware, I’m in love with Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. “I’m in love with my sadness” just went through my head as I wrote that. I’m now having a “Zero” moment.

Anyway, the Pumpkins have (or had, at least) this innate ability to mix so-called “gothic” lyrics and imagery with some absolutely beautiful instrumentation. So what’s the difference between the Smashing Pumpkins and The Cure? Aside from the lack of a synthesizer and Robert Smith’s crazy hair, the Pumpkins have a certain hardness related to their style. They kind of got lumped into the whole grunge movement, but they definitely didn’t belong there (really the only connection they had to grunge was Billy’s relationship with Courtney Love, not that it has any merit).

It’s almost impossible to go back to the sounds on Gish and Siamese Dream. The early albums contain the purity of the Pumpkins’ signature sound. Mellon Collie found them at their peak of their creativity, but things unfortunately went downhill as the original lineup disintegrated.

Moral of the story: Being in a band is like being in a marriage; if one person starts taking all the credit, he’ll just be left making beautiful music by himself (in his mom’s basement surrounded by cats).

--Sam Boyer, reporting from the ‘90s.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

PJ Harvey

Sound Familiar?

“Down by the Water,” “Man-Size,” “C’Mon Billy”

Who Is She?

One of the most prolific female songwriters the ‘90s could have spawned.

Polly Jean Harvey surrounded herself with music at a young age. Her parents introduced her to blues, jazz, and art rock as a child-- genres that would heavily influence most of her own music.

At the tender age of 17, Polly joined a band from Bristol called Automatic Dlamini. She toured with the band through Europe and even contributed backing vocals and some guitar to Automatic Dlamini’s only album, Here Catch, Shouted His Father (which was never officially released).

Polly didn’t sing very much during her initial venture into music. She did, however, learn to play a mean guitar and began developing her own unique stage presence. Thank fellow band mate and “musical soul mate” John Parish for that.

After Automatic Dlamini dissolved in 1991, Polly formed her own band. And what name did she settle on? Her own, of course. The band PJ Harvey consisted of Polly on vocals and guitars, Rob Ellis on drums, and Ian Olliver on bass (all three of whom had previously worked together in Automatic Dlamini).

The trio released its debut single “Dress” in October 1991 to generally positive reviews. Dry, the band’s first LP, was released in 1992. To give you an idea of how great it was, I’ll just mention the fact that Kurt Cobain listed it in top 20 favorite albums ever (a list that appeared in the book Journals). Because success is apparently measured by how many times I can mention Nirvana in this blog (which is every entry).

A strong cult following and media attention accompanying a topless appearance on the cover of NME helped to propel Polly and the gang to major label Island Records. The last album the band recorded together was 1992’s Rid of Me. Tensions mounted while on tour in America and Polly finally went solo in 1993.

That happened to be the right career move, considering that Polly Jean’s first solo album To Bring You My Love melted the panties off every music critic you could think of. When it was released in 1995, it ended up being voted Album of the Year by The Village Voice, Rolling Stone, USA Today, People, (deep breath), The New York Times, and The Los Angeles Times. Plus it ranked third on Spin’s “Top 90 Albums of the ‘90s.” Is that enough to convince you of its awesomeness?

Where Is She Now?

Continuing to make music that sounds nothing like anything she’s ever done.

Polly greeted the new millennium with radical experimentation in her sound. For her 2000 album Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, she had the audacity to mix melodic pop rock with the gritty punk energy of Dry and Rid of Me. And just to add some intrigue to the project, she recruited Thom Yorke to sing on three tracks.

Four years passed until the release of Uh Huh Her, which actually charted higher than Stories from the City, but failed to garner the same kind of praise. Polly played every instrument featured on the album and even produced it herself.

By 2007, it was evident that Polly hated repeating herself. White Chalk marked a startling departure from anything she had previously released. The album consisted mainly of piano ballads.

In 2010, Polly performed a new song titled “Let England Shake” on BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show. Strangely enough, she decided to use an autoharp for her performance. This served as an appropriate preview for what was to come.

But Why PJ Harvey?

Her eighth studio album Let England Shake was released back in February and she’s currently blowing everyone’s minds with her live performances. Spin recently gushed about her “harrowing” set at Coachella over the weekend. Yours truly has yet to experience Polly Jean in a live setting. Sad face.

What Does Sam Think?

I just started listening to PJ Harvey last year. I have no idea why I waited that long. Shame on me. I have a thing for strong female artists (see my obsession with Fiona Apple) and Polly Jean is no exception.

Her voice is raw and desperate, but she still manages to put that feminine touch in everything. Most people compare her to Patti Smith, but I don’t think it’s possible to compare her to anyone. She does her own thing and she stands out in her own way. In direct contrast to artists like Lady Gaga or Britney Spears, she doesn’t overtly assert her sex appeal. And while we all like to see a little T&A now and then, sometimes it’s best to just focus on the music and leave the rest to the imagination.

Musically, Polly is so insanely diverse. Her first two albums have this guitar-driven punk energy that just drips with quintessential ‘90s girl angst. But she’s not a riot girl. On Dry and Rid of Me, she seethes with subdued intensity. She grumbles to herself instead of spitting in your face like Bikini Kill.

Surprisingly (or maybe not if you’ve accurately gauged my taste in music), I’m not a huge fan of her recent stuff. It’s just a little too out there for me. Don’t get me wrong; I love experimentation (I’m a loyal Radiohead fan, if that tells you anything). But Let England Shake hasn’t struck a chord with me yet. It’s just so radically different that I don’t know what to do with it. But I still admire Polly’s creativity and dedication to her craft. There aren’t enough genuine female artists in the world. While not everyone can be PJ Harvey, women can still follow her example and just take some chances. We have enough half-naked pop stars floating around. Give me more girls with guitars and unresolved angst.

--Sam Boyer, reporting from the ‘90s.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011


Sound Familiar?

“Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Come As You Are,” “Heart-Shaped Box”

Who Are They?

Now honestly, if you haven’t heard of Nirvana, just leave now. No excuses.

Innovators. Definers of grunge culture. This blog’s namesake. When discussing ‘90s music, Nirvana is usually the first band to come to mind. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” regularly graces “Greatest ‘90s Songs” lists as the #1 choice, and 1991’s Nevermind is often cited as one of the greatest albums of all time. Twenty years ago, Nirvana was the biggest band on the face of the earth. And Kurt Cobain realized how much he absolutely hated that fact.

Nirvana didn’t actually start as Nirvana. Before Kurt became good buddies with bassist Krist Novoselic in 1987, he was involved in a short-lived project with Buzz Osborne, founding member of The Melvins. This project became known as Fecal Matter. Catchy, eh?

After such name considerations as Pen Cap Chew and Ted Ed Fred, Kurt and Krist settled on Nirvana and proceeded to go through drummers like tissues. Aaron Burckhard, Dale Crover, Dave Foster, and Chad Channing took turns sitting behind the drum kit. Chad stuck around long enough to lend his skills on the band’s debut, Bleach (which was recorded for a mere $606.17).

After touring being Bleach, Nirvana went back to the studio to work with the almighty Butch Vig. During these sessions, Chad became increasingly frustrated about not being involved with the songwriting. So he ditched the band and Kurt and Krist were left to recycle drummers. Following repeated recommendations from Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, a relatively unknown musician by the name of Dave Grohl auditioned. Turns out he was pretty damn talented.

The sessions with Vig produced Nevermind, and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was chosen as the album’s first single. And all was right with the world. Angsty teenagers finally had a theme song and bands like Poison and Twisted Sister were left in the (glittery) dust.

As Nirvana began to conquer the world, Kurt quickly became disenchanted with his newfound fame. He was the anti-star, which ironically just made him even more famous. He resented being compared to other rock idols and even refused to ride in a limo to his own performance on Saturday Night Live. By 1992, Kurt had begun to withdraw from the rest of the band, causing Dave and Krist to become closer.

Incesticide, a compilation album, was released in 1992. Because everyone was still drooling over Nevermind, Incesticide wasn’t heavily promoted (which is a shame because there are some gems on that album).

In an attempt to distance themselves from the glossy sound of Nevermind, Nirvana chose to work with underground producer Steve Albini to record In Utero. The album was miles away from its predecessor. Christopher John Farley of Time put it quite simply: “Nirvana hasn’t gone mainstream, though this potent new album may once again force the mainstream to go Nirvana.”

The band appeared on MTV Unplugged in late 1993, and in typical Nirvana fashion, opted not to play their most popular songs. Instead, they performed several covers, most notably a rendition of David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World.”

After a suicide attempt in early 1994, Kurt was convinced to commit himself into rehab, but escaped after less than a week. On Friday, April 8, he was found dead of a self-inflicted shotgun wound to the head in his Seattle home. And so ends the legend of Nirvana.

Where Are They Now?

Gone, but the music lives on.

Because of the tragic loss of their front man, Dave and Krist thought it only appropriate to retire Nirvana for good. Of the two, Dave found the most success. He formed Foo Fighters in 1994, and also teamed up with Josh Homme to record with Queens of the Stone Age and Them Crooked Vultures (for the full story/my witty banter on Foo Fighters, click here).

Krist continued with music for a short time, forming various short-lived bands with old friends. He became a full time member of the band Flipper in 2006, but departed two years later. Krist is also active in politics as an elected State Committeeman, most famously supporting libertarian Republican Congressman Ron Paul in the 2008 Presidential election.

Dave and Krist recently teamed up on Foo Fighters’ upcoming album Wasting Light. Krist plays bass and accordion on the song “I Should Have Known.”

But Why Nirvana?
This week marks the 17th anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s death, which still remains one of the most devastating tragedies in music history. Also, Nevermind will be celebrating its 20th birthday later this year. So break out the flannel and light a candle for Kurt.

What Does Sam Think?

I’m just gonna put it out there: Nirvana is one of my favorite bands of all time. Whether you like them or not, there’s no denying how much of an impact they made in the music industry. Without “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” without Kurt’s sense of anti-fashion, without all that feedback, a lot of the younger bands today wouldn’t exist. So yeah, they’re kind of a big deal.

But I’m sure a lot of people wonder how the hell Nirvana got so big. Some write off Nirvana’s sound as just plain noise. I can see where you’re coming from, anonymous music-basher. Kurt definitely wasn’t the greatest guitarist in the world, and he really couldn’t sing either. But that didn’t matter. It was his songwriting that caught people off-guard. He had the power (and the background story) to engage the social misfits of the world. To them, he was the ultimate symbol of despair and alienation. His words reached kids some would deem unreachable, and, whether he liked it or not, Kurt became the ultimate idol.

But it’s not all about Kurt. Nirvana was a group, not just one man with a guitar. Without Krist, we wouldn’t have the tasty bass lines in “Sliver” and “Lounge Act.” Without Dave, we wouldn’t have the overall incredible drum work that glued everything together. It all sounded so wrong, but when everything was said and done, it just worked.

Nirvana took the raw energy from punk rock, injected some smoky metal undertones, and packaged it all together with a few simple chords. It sounds easy, sure. But if that’s the case, why didn’t someone else think of it first?

This band did what other bands wish they could do, and that’s introduce a whole new side to music that no one had experienced yet. Kurt, Krist, and Dave single-handedly defined an entire decade. What have you done lately?

--Sam Boyer, reporting from the ‘90s.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011


Sound Familiar?

“Black Hole Sun,” “Spoonman,” “Burden in My Hand”

Who Are They?

One of the “Big Four” grunge acts of the early ‘90s. (Has anyone coined the term “Big Four Grunge Acts?" If not, I’m claiming it. Intellectual property!)

Think all the way back to 1991. The terrible fad of ‘80s glam metal had been crushed by an army of angsty, disheveled kids from Seattle. Flannel and unwashed hair replaced spandex and the noxious fumes of too much hairspray. Leading the movement were the Big Four Grunge Acts©: Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, and Soundgarden.

This epic tale usually describes grunge just kind of appearing out of thin air, citing Nirvana as the band that started it all. You know how it goes: “Then ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ came out and everything just changed, man.” Actually, man, Soundgarden had already formed long before Kurt Cobain even thought of the name Nirvana.

Chris Cornell and the former bassist of Hiro Yamamoto formed a little band called The Shemps in the early ‘80s, which later evolved into Soundgarden. The original lineup featured Chris on drums and vocals, Hiro on bass, and Kim Thayil on guitar. Scott Sundquist rescued Chris from the difficulty of pulling double duty, but bowed out after playing a few gigs. Matt Cameron (formerly of Skin Yard) replaced him, and that’s when people first started to take notice.

Soundgarden signed to Sub Pop in 1987, released a couple of E.P.s, switched to SST Records for their debut album Ultramega OK (which earned them a Grammy nod for Best Metal Performance), then made the biggest underground band faux pas by signing to major label A&M Records. They were basically excommunicated from the Seattle scene, and even Hiro Yamamoto ditched them. One album and two bassists later, Soundgarden settled into an established lineup (now with Ben Shepherd on bass) and stormed into the ‘90s with 1991’s Badmotorfinger.

Although Badmotorfinger was overshadowed by Nirvana’s Nevermind, Chris and the boys found mainstream success a few years later with 1994’s Superunknown. Their most popular single “Black Hole Sun” helped the album to debut at #1 on the Billboard 200 chart and earned the band an MTV Video Music Award, plus two Grammys.

The slightly less heavy Down on the Upside didn’t see as much success as Superunknown, and Soundgarden officially decided to call it quits in 1997.

Where Are They Now?

Back together and gaining momentum.

After the breakup, the foursome went their separate ways. Chris released a solo album in 1999 (as most front men like to do when their original bands dissolve). In 2001, he teamed up with then-former members of Rage Against the Machine Tom Morello, Tim Commerford, and Brad Wilk to form the delightful supergroup Audioslave (yours truly saw them live twice!). Audioslave released three albums until they disbanded in 2007. Chris released two more solo albums, his most recent being the Timbaland-produced Scream.

Kim joined forces with punk royalty Jello Biafra (formerly of Dead Kennedys), former Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic, and drummer Gina Mainwal for one show as The No W.T.O. Combo in 1999. He later contributed to projects by Steve Fisk, Dave Grohl, and the band Sunn O))).

Matt worked briefly with Smashing Pumpkins on their album Adore, then became Pearl Jam’s permanent drummer in 1998, recording four albums with them.

Ben turned his attention back to his side project Hater, originally started in 1993 when he was still with Soundgarden.

On January 1, 2010, Chris alluded to a Soundgarden reunion on his Twitter, writing, “The 12-year break is over and school is back in session. Sign up now. Knights of the Soundtable ride again!” Only Chris Cornell can make a medieval reference and not sound like a geek.

The band played their first show since 1997 at the Showbox at the Market in Seattle on April 16, and after months of rumors, it was announced that they would appear at Lollapalooza in August. I can tell you from first-hand experience that the Lolla performance was AMAZING.

But Why Soundgarden?

“Black Rain,” a previously unreleased track and the band’s first single since 1997, was included on the compilation album Telephantasm: A Retrospective. Their first live album, Live on I5, will be released on March 22 (same day as Green Day’s live album, strangely. There’s a random plug for you). Oh, and there’s new material floating around, just in time for their first album in 15 years. But no big deal.

(Random thought: Does this video remind anyone else of Dethklok?)

What Does Sam Think?

First things first: Soundgarden really shouldn’t be considered a grunge band. Technically, the only real grunge band out of the Big Four was Nirvana. Soundgarden is more of a metal band, but not in the typical sense. There are grunge undertones, but the sound isn’t totally embraced. It’s…quasi-metal. Yeah, I just made up a genre. Sue me.

Genre speculation aside, this band’s talent needs to be recognized. Don’t compare them to Pearl Jam or Nirvana (I broke that rule, but that was for introductory purposes). Soundgarden sounds like nothing else. Listen to Superunknown in its entirety, and maybe skip over “Black Hole Sun” because we’ve all heard it so many times (that doesn’t mean it’s not a great song, though). One of the best Soundgarden songs is “4th of July,” simply because it’s dark, brooding, and just sounds like it comes from the depths of Hell.

But honestly, the best album has to be Badmotorfinger. It’s pure, feral, filthy music made of liquid gold and primal screams. I’m just gonna come out and say it: Chris Cornell has the voice of an angel. Seriously. Nuns cry when he opens his mouth. Put on “Jesus Christ Pose” and try to stop the hairs on the back of your neck from standing up.

Okay, I’m done gushing.

Anyway, words can’t express how excited I am about new Soundgarden material. The guys are taking it slow, which is actually a great idea. Chris told Spin that they’re “putting the music first.” In his own words: “We don’t have a schedule…The process of writing, recording, and being creative together is the most important thing, not meeting a deadline.” Aw, band love. Why can’t all bands do that? Actually, I take that back. I’m a pretty impatient fan. But I’ll wait just for Soundgarden.

Now enjoy some faces that will haunt your dreams.

--Sam Boyer, reporting from the ‘90s.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Foo Fighters

Sound Familiar?

“Everlong,” “My Hero,” “Learn to Fly”

Who Are They?

Dave Grohl’s venture into post-Nirvana territory.

The year was 1994 and music had suffered a devastating casualty with the loss of Kurt Cobain. While Nirvana was obviously done for without the reluctant idol, Dave Grohl did not go quietly into that grunge-less night. He started a one-man project, recording the songs he had kept to himself during his stint as Nirvana’s drummer. Before the release of 1995’s Foo Fighters, Dave figured he needed a legitimate band to tour with. So he recruited fellow Seattle friends Nate Mendel and William Goldsmith (formerly of Sunny Day Real Estate), and threw in Nirvana’s touring guitarist Pat Smear for good measure. And when their powers united, Foo Fighters were born.

After spending most of 1995 touring behind the debut album, the boys settled down in Washington to begin recording their follow-up in 1996. But the initial recording process didn’t go as smoothly as expected. Dave, dissatisfied with how the mixes were turning out, removed Goldsmith’s drum parts and replaced them with his own. That didn’t fly with Goldsmith, so he left the band. But rescue came in the form of Alanis Morissette’s touring drummer Taylor Hawkins, just in time for the release of The Colour and the Shape. And there was much rejoicing.

Foo Fighters saw mainstream success with singles like “Everlong” and “My Hero,” making disgruntled Nirvana fans murmur, “Say, that drummer guy can actually write songs! And good ones at that!” Whodathunkit, right? Unfortunately, Dave didn’t have the same success with band mates. Pat Smear ditched the group and was replaced by Franz Stahl, but Franz left shortly before the band started recording There is Nothing Left to Lose. Terrible decision considering that the album spawned “Learn To Fly,” Foo Fighters’ first single to reach the US Hot 100.

Where Are They Now?

Far from the colossal shadow cast by Kurt Cobain.

After lending some help to Queens of the Stone Age on their album Songs for the Deaf in 2002, Dave turned his attention back to Foo Fighters with new inspiration. The original demos of what would later become One By One were re-recorded, but after the album’s release, the band expressed their displeasure with it. Dave admitted that, “Four of the songs were good, and the other seven I never played again in my life.”

Subsequent albums In Your Honor and Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace earned the band commercial success. Singles like “Best of You” and “The Pretender” transformed them into stadium rock superstars. You couldn’t turn on the radio without hearing Dave scream, “Is someone getting the best, the best, the best, the best of you?!” But no one got the best of these guys. To date, “Best of You” is the band’s only single to reach Platinum status in the US. It also earned them a Grammy nomination for Best Rock Song in 2006. It was so good, Pat Smear returned as a touring guitarist. Now that’s talent.

In 2009, Dave took a break from the Foos to reunite with Queens of the Stone Age front man Josh Homme on his new project Them Crooked Vultures. The supergroup also included bass master John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin. Too good to be true? Think again. The band’s self-titled debut produced the Grammy Award-winning single “New Fang” and proved not only that having John Paul Jones on your side is a win-win situation, but also that Dave Grohl can still rock out on a drum kit.

But Why Foo Fighters?

Their seventh studio album Wasting Light is slated for release on April 12. “Rope,” the first official single, dropped last month and Foo Fighters fans are practically salivating for more. And then there’s this ridiculously cheesy video for “White Limo,” featuring Motörhead’s Lemmy Kilmister. Ah, classic Foo video magic at its best.

What Does Sam Think?

Being part of one of the most influential bands of the ‘90s (and probably of all time) can potentially be a hard image to shake off. At the time, I don’t think many people really expected Dave to find success in anything else. Krist Novoselic dropped out of the music business altogether, so Dave was pretty much on his own. But even with all the doubt, he stepped up and found his own sound. Granted, he was heavily influenced by Kurt (a fact that he’s proud to admit), but you’d be hard-pressed to find a Foo Fighters song that sounds even remotely like Nirvana. Dave hasn’t completely distanced himself from his former grungy glory; he’s taken the necessary ingredients and created a monster to call his own.

However, that monster seems to have developed a mind of its own in recent years. While the band’s first three albums are fantastic, the last three have been a little disappointing. That is just the way I see it. Now cue the chorus of, “Blasphemy!” But it’s really not blasphemy, folks. Dave said himself that One By One wasn’t his greatest accomplishment. That album kind of started a slightly bland modern rock trend. “Best of You” was great…the first thousand times I heard it. And with Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace, I kept thinking to myself, “Wait. I think I’ve heard this one before.” I was afraid that the Foos had lost their touch. But “Rope” proved me wrong. If the rest of Wasting Light sounds like that single, I’ll shut my mouth.

But there will always be a special place in my heart for The Colour and the Shape. It’s raw, yet catchy, and “Everlong” brings on a whole new level of nostalgia. Plus the video is incredible. Michel Gondry, you are a genius. And Dave Grohl, keep on keepin’ on.

--Sam Boyer, reporting from the ‘90s.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011


Sound Familiar?

“Creep,” “Fake Plastic Trees,” “Karma Police”

Who Are They?

The hugely successful British quintet that gave Oasis some tough competition. Thom Yorke and company emerged on the music scene with 1993’s Pablo Honey and its lead single “Creep.” The song got the boys some attention from British critics, but not all of it was favorable. NME initially wrote them off as a run-of-the-mill rock band and BBC1 Radio just couldn’t fathom playing a song as depressing as “Creep.” But Radiohead found sympathetic ears in angsty American teenagers.

The Bends, released in 1995, seemed to have the opposite effect. It struck a chord with British fans, but was lost on American fans, who were probably expecting another anthem about self-loathing. Radiohead maintained some popularity with help from R.E.M. front man Michael Stipe. Let’s face it: if Michael Stipe likes your band, the rest of the world is bound to follow suit.

And then there was Ok Computer, and it was good. Actually, it was better than good. Rolling Stone readers voted it as the second best album of the ‘90s, beaten only by (wait for it) Nirvana’s Nevermind. Critics praised it, fans loved it, and all the other Britpop bands were kicking themselves for not thinking of it first.

Where Are They Now?

On top of the world. Radiohead decided to change things up for the new millennium. Albums like 2000’s Kid A and 2001’s Amnesiac featured diverse and textured instrumentation, as well as a sudden obsession with electronic gizmos. But it certainly worked in their favor. Kid A won the band their first Grammy in 2001 for Best Alternative Album.

Critics accused Radiohead of “treading water” with 2003’s Hail to the Thief, as it didn’t really bring anything new or mind-boggling to the table. After a brief hiatus, the band gave birth to the immensely successful In Rainbows, which fans could pay a pretty penny for. Or not. In a surprising move, the album was released through the band’s official website as a “pay-what-you-want” digital download. Whatever you thought it was worth, critics thought it was worth much more. In Rainbows earned Radiohead another Grammy for Best Alternative Album and cemented them as a music critic’s wet dream.

In 2005, Rolling Stone ranked Radiohead #73 on their list of “The Greatest Artists of All Time.” Not bad for a band everyone assumed would be a one-hit-wonder.

But Why Radiohead?

The band’s eighth album The King of Limbs dropped last week, along with a bizarre, yet oddly hypnotic music video for the first single “Lotus Flower.” Spoiler alert: Thom Yorke is actually a crazed dancing Muppet masquerading as a droog from A Clockwork Orange.

What Does Sam Think?

There are plenty of people out there who would call Radiohead overrated. Who these people actually are and what they’ve been smoking, I couldn’t tell you. The fact is that Radiohead are an incredibly talented band. Rolling Stone actually got something right there. They’ve remained relevant for two decades by experimenting with their sound and taking risks. And while they’re certainly not the first band in history to do so, they’ve mastered the art of it all with flying colors.

The general consensus among fans is that Ok Computer and Kid A are the two biggest contenders for the “best” Radiohead album (although my personal favorite is still Hail to the Thief. But alas, I am just one person). Between the two, my vote goes to Ok Computer. Surprise! I picked the ‘90s release. But when it was released doesn’t really matter. The album has a well-rounded sound while still managing to be fresh and intriguing. The lyrics aren’t as personal as those on The Bends, but are instead contemplative and observational. Thom Yorke is no longer a detached loner, but a philosopher of the new millennium. The best example of this? “Paranoid Android,” the three-part transcendental epic.

Comparing the Radiohead of the ‘90s to Radiohead now is almost unfair. If you listen to Pablo Honey and The King of Limbs back to back, it’s like listening to two great, but drastically different bands. The instrumentation, the vocals, and even the lyrics are polar opposites. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Radiohead accomplished what most bands wish they could, and that’s creating an almost entirely flawless catalog. I may go as far as to say that these guys can do no wrong. After hours of relishing in the wonders of The King of Limbs, that may be true.

But for old time's sake...

-- Sam Boyer, reporting from the ‘90s.