Wednesday, January 25, 2012


Sound Familiar?

“Common People,” “Disco 2000,” “This Is Hardcore”

Who Are They?

The Britpop band that rode the waves made by Blur and Oasis, but was--in fact--the most original.

When you think of the Britpop explosion of the mid-‘90s, what are the first bands that come to mind? Oasis? Blur? Maybe even Suede?

Among all these one-name bands from across the pond, there was Pulp, making music way before the Gallagher brothers exchanged their first “fuck yous.” Formed in 1978, Pulp’s musical style mirrored the Sheffield sound (electronic New Wave, like The Human League). Their first album, It, was released in 1983 and largely consisted of romantic pop songs influenced by Leonard Cohen.

The album was a commercial failure, leading founder and vocalist Jarvis Cocker to throw a hissy fit and threaten to break up the band. After a handful of lineup changes, Pulp was signed to Fire Records in 1985. (Fun fact: Soon after signing to the label, Jarvis fell out of a window while trying to impress a girl with his Spider-Man impersonation. He had to use a wheelchair for a while, which he proudly performed in onstage.)

The next release (1987’s Freaks) failed to meet Jarvis’ standards, but bassist Steve Mackey, who joined the band in 1989, introduced Jarvis to the magical world of house music, pulling Pulp into a more dance-oriented direction.

The band left Fire Records and signed to Island Records, which proved to be a good move. Once His ‘n’ Hers dropped in 1994, Jarvis finally began experiencing the success he has so desperately craved since Day 1. Pulp ultimately had their first Top 40 hit with “Do You Remember the First Time?,” an ode to popping the cherry. (Fun fact: A short film was produced to promote the track. It consisted of a series of interviews with fans and celebrities describing their “first times.”)

Pulp’s success was due in part to the massive media interest in Britpop and the moderately huge single “Common People” from 1995’s magnum opus, Different Class. The album was pretty dark compared to (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? or even Parklife. Jarvis’ lyrics were highly sexualized, and the single “Sorted for E’s and Wizz” became a lightning rod for “pro-drugs” accusations.

Despite all the controversy (or maybe because of it), Different Class garnered immense critical praise and catapulted Pulp into their own little spotlight (I can’t say the spotlight because they were kind of overshadowed by all the other Britpop bands). (And another fun fact: At the 1996 BRIT Awards, Jarvis invaded the stage during Michael Jackson’s performance of “Earth Song” and “wiggled his backside” at the audience. Michael was pissed and Jarvis ended up spending the night in Kensington Police Station charged with actual bodily harm and assaulting the child performers. The charges were later dropped.)

After the circus that was the Different Class era, the band began to disintegrate. Jarvis developed a cocaine addiction and key member Russell Senior ditched the group. This Is Hardcore, released in 1998, mirrored the band’s real-life struggles, touching on even darker subject matter than its predecessor. (You don’t have a dirty mind for thinking the title track is a reference to porn. It really is.)

Where Are They Now?

Reemerging from a hiatus for a new tour!

Pulp released one last album (2001’s We Love Life) before calling it quits. To no one’s surprise, Jarvis became the most successful member after the breakup. He’s released a couple solo albums and the BBC is basically in love with him.

Jarvis also ventured into acting, lending his voice to Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox (as Petey) and playing the lead singer of The Weird Sisters in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. How can you not love this man?

Bassist Steve Mackey has also been busy. He’s produced tracks for M.I.A. and Florence + The Machine.

Pulp reunited in 2010, playing various festivals in the UK and touring Europe and Australia in 2011. They co-headlined the Reading Festival and the Leeds Festival with The Strokes in August 2011.

But Why Pulp?

Though they’ve been back together and touring the UK for a couple years now, Pulp is making an appearance at this year’s Coachella Festival, the first show in the US in a decade.

What Does Sam Think?

Out of all the musical movements of the ‘90s, Britpop has always seemed the stalest to me. I like Blur, but I have a love-hate relationship with Oasis. (My love for Radiohead is irrelevant because they really had nothing to do with Britpop).

But Pulp kind of changed my mind. They played disco-influenced pop rock songs with ridiculously sexualized subject matter. My confession: I love disco. And sexy songs. I love sexy disco songs. No shame.

Pulp can definitely hold its own with a sound like that. Different Class is such a fun record, even if it does take a dark turn. Listening to “Common People” just brings a smile to my face. It’s like the disco version of “Wonderwall.” It makes you want to grab that boy/girl of your dreams and dance the night away (and maybe grind a little when no one is watching).

Their darker material (anything from This Is Hardcore) isn’t exactly party music, but it’s got a lot of soul. Jarvis’ demons drive the record, but Pulp’s signature sound isn’t lost at all. The darkness actually makes things more interesting. And writing a song about the porn industry also helps.

If you’ve never listened to Pulp before, you’re definitely missing out. Even if the mere mention of disco makes you cringe, give this band a chance. You may find yourself breaking out the platforms and spandex and having your own little “disco inferno.”

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

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Cranberries

Sound Familiar?

“Linger,” “Dreams,” “Zombie”

Who Are They?

Irish hit-makers who sold more albums than all of your favorite ‘90s bands combined.

Before the British invasion of the mid to late ‘90s (courtesy of bands like Oasis and Blur), a few guys from Ireland decided to start a band. In 1989, brothers Mike and Noel Hogan formed The Cranberry Saw Us, the first incarnation of the group we all know and love. In order to become The Cranberries, original singer Niall Quinn had to beat it to make room for Dolores O’Riordan.

The reason to hire Dolores? She auditioned with a rough version of a little song called “Linger.” Perhaps you’ve heard of it?

With a new singer and a new name (Dolores made the executive decision to switch to The Cranberries), the four-piece recorded a demo tape and made sure it spread all over the UK. Soon, they were signed to Island Records and released their debut album, Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We?, in 1993.

“Dreams,” the first single, was released a year prior to the album. Surprisingly, neither song nor album garnered much attention. It wasn’t until they started touring with Suede that The Cranberries caught the attention of MTV. The power MTV wielded in the ‘90s was pretty impressive (music television? Imagine that!), so once the video for the second single “Linger” was put into heavy rotation, everyone and their mother knew The Cranberries.

The airplay on MTV catapulted Everybody Else Is Doing It to #1 on the UK Album Chart and paved the way for the band’s second, more successful offering, No Need to Argue in 1994. How much more successful? Well, the album went triple platinum within a year and spawned the number one hit “Zombie.”

Unfortunately, the novelty of an obviously Irish band began to wear off after the release of To the Faithful Departed in 1996. Critics loved it, but audiences didn’t dig it as much. Faithful did manage to squeeze out one last number one hit for The Cranberries (“Salvation”), so it wasn’t a total waste.

By the time Bury the Hatchet was released in 1999, rumors of Dolores’ impending solo career began to swirl. Everyone knew that The Cranberries were nearing the end, but no one was willing to admit it.

Where Are They Now?

Reunited and it feels so good! (You wouldn’t believe how long I’ve wanted to use that reference in one of these entries).

Wake Up and Smell the Coffee (released in 2001) was the last gasping breath from our Irish heroes before their hiatus in 2003. The Cranberries finished up the biggest tour of their careers in July 2000 and went on to open for The Rolling Stones in 2003.

Even though they teased fans with new material during those early-2000s shows, the hiatus came before the release of a sixth studio album.

Dolores released her solo album Are You Listening? in 2007, while her bandmates started new projects (Mono Band and The Low Network, among others). The (inevitable) reunion occurred in January 2009 in celebration of Dolores becoming an Honorary Patron of University Philosophical Society (Trinity College, Dublin).

First came a North American/European tour and the continuous denial of a new album. Two years later: “Just kidding, guys. We were recording a new album the whole time.”

But Why The Cranberries?

That new album that they refused to tell us about is called Roses and it drops on Feb. 27. Mark your calendars, kids.

What Does Sam Think?

I’d like to make a confession: I love bands with heavy accents. Admit it, you do, too. If you can listen to “Zombie” without immediately falling in love with Dolores O’Riordan’s sultry Irish crooning, there must be something seriously wrong with you.

Accent fetish aside, I love The Cranberries. Everyone loves The Cranberries. Your mother probably loves The Cranberries. Seriously. Go ask her. She’ll start singing “Linger” and you’ll get uncomfortable and feel embarrassed for her.

There’s a reason why this band was so huge in the ‘90s. Yes, they had catchy tunes, but they also infused that marketable alternative sound with a little Celtic fire. Americans love European exports. Anything that doesn’t remind us of baseball and apple pie is on another level, man. (Sorry. The snark is heavy today.)

The Cranberries had what bands like Oasis and Blur had: mainstream appeal and foreign intrigue. They weren’t foreign in the sense that they spoke another language (they didn’t anyway). They were foreign to us because they weren’t part of the dominating “Seattle sound.” Everybody Else Is Doing It came out when grunge was still a thing, yet it crushed the competition. That’s impressive.

Aside from the foreign appeal, the band was just plain talented. Whenever I hear “Zombie” or “Linger,” I just feel like everything is going to be a-okay. Maybe it’s the nostalgia embedded in my soul, or maybe this snarky blogger actually has a heart. Either way, The Cranberries owned the ‘90s and they’ve got a fan in me.

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

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Nada Surf

Sound Familiar?

Who Are They?

One of many one-hit-wonder bands of the late ‘90s, yet one of the few one-timers to stick with making music.

The year was 1992: a time when grunge is at the top of its game and Sir Mix-A-Lot graced the airwaves with his ode to the booty. Nada Surf was just a garage-rock dream shared by guitarist/vocalist Matthew Caws and bassist Daniel Lorca at that point. It wasn’t a serious venture for either of them until Ira Elliot (formerly of the Fuzztones) joined the party.

Upon becoming a trio, the boys scored a gig at the Knitting Factory and just happened to run into former Cars frontman (and Weezer producer) Ric Ocasek. They gave him their demo tape, thought they didn’t expect much more than a smile and an empty promise of, “Yeah, I’ll give it a listen.”

Three weeks later, Ric called and offered to produce the band’s first album. Believe it or not, that was bad timing for our heroes. Nada Surf had been finalizing a contract with Elektra Records at the time. Ultimately, negotiations with the record company didn’t pan out (probably due to some Ocasek witchcraft), so Ric connected the band with Maverick Records. The result was 1996’s High/Low, which yielded the first and most successful single “Popular.”

During the summer of 1996, Nada Surf toured the US with fellow one-hit-wonders Superdrag. Meanwhile, “Popular” was gaining momentum and ended up becoming a summer anthem. The band toured overseas and released a follow-up (The Proximity Effect) in Europe in 1998. When record execs couldn’t find a radio-friendly single on the album (and Nada Surf refused to write another “Popular”), the band got the boot.

Nada Surf spent the remainder of the decade struggling to get the rights over The Proximity Effect, which they finally won in 2000.

Where Are They Now?

Newly independent and jonesing for a comeback.

After being booted from their record label, Nada Surf took three-year break from music. Matthew, Daniel, and Ira took regular day jobs to pay the bills. In 2001, they got back together to record Let Go, produced by a couple close friends of the band and paid for in $1 and $5 bills. The single “Inside of Love” received decent airplay, but was nowhere near as successful as “Popular.”

Two studio albums later, Nada Surf seemed to all but disappear from the face of the earth. Until now.

But Why Nada Surf?

The ‘90s alterna-kids are releasing their seventh studio album, The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy, on Jan. 24. Check out the first single!

What Does Sam Think?

The ‘90s were riddled with one-hit-wonders like Nada Surf, especially in the latter half of the decade. Oddly enough, those random songs by artists you can never quite remember the names of are the ones that stick with you. Face it, people get way more nostalgic over “Baby Got Back” than any Radiohead tune.

Considering the importance of these songs, let’s dissect “Popular,” shall we?

The song begins with a group of girls gossiping about another girl “going steady” with some football player named Johnny. Through spoken-word verses, Matthew Caws gives us the lowdown on how to break up with someone in the most “high school” sense of the phrase.

There’s part 1 of the appeal. This is a song about high school relationships (with emphasis on cliques and popularity, hence the title). But it doesn’t glorify high school in any sense. It’s bitterly sarcastic. Just look at the these lines from the last verse:

I think if you’re ready to go out with Johnny
Now’s the time to tell him about your one month limit
He won’t mind, he’ll appreciate your fresh look on dating
And once you’ve dated someone else, you can date him again
I’m sure he’ll like it
Everyone will appreciate it
You’re so novel, what a good idea

This, my friends, is exactly what every ‘90s high school outcast was thinking. And it’s probably still relevant.

Part 2 of the appeal is the chorus. We go from spoken-word sarcasm to a catchy, Weezer-esque melody. This is just proof that not every one-hit-wonder has to be about a girl’s ass (though it does help).

Now about Nada Surf as a band. I applaud them for standing up against the big bad record company when they were being bullied into making another hit (You go, Nada Surf!). But now they just kind of fade into that generic alternative band category. They’re not bad, but they’re not spectacular. As silly as it seems, they’re missing that ‘90s angst, as evidenced in “Popular.”

I wouldn’t call myself a huge fan of Nada Surf, but it’s great to see a band continuing on in the music business, even without finding much mainstream success.

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