Wednesday, March 28, 2012


Sound Familiar?

“Loser,” “Where It’s At,” “The New Pollution”

Who Is He?

A postmodern pop art collage of musical styles hailed as one of the most creative musicians of the ‘90s alternative scene. Sounds pretty legit.

After dropping out of high school in the mid-‘80s, a young Beck Hansen traveled to Europe to become a street musician (as most college drop-outs tend to do.) He decided to head back to the states a few years later to become involved in the punk-influenced anti-folk scene in New York City.

While hanging around with the beatniks in NYC, Beck recorded a cassette called Banjo Story. He returned to his birthplace, good ol’ LA, and ended up living in a shed because, well, being a freelance musician isn’t exactly the most lucrative career choice.

But near-poverty didn’t stop our hero from continuing to develop his music. Beck had a habit of sneaking on to stages at various venues in LA to treat the unsuspecting audience to his music. During this time, he met Presidents of the United States of America founder Chris Ballew. They performed on the streets as a duo until Beck recorded his first studio album, Golden Feelings, in 1993. (Only 500-700 copies of this album exist, which is probably why you’re staring at this thinking, “There was an album before Mellow Gold?”)

After the release of Golden Feelings, Beck signed to Bong Load Custom Records (that name kills me) and released a little ditty called “Loser.” Radio host Chris Douridas got a hold of it and played it on Morning Becomes Eclectic, the flagship music program from Santa Monica college radio station KCRW. “Loser” created a sensation and led to a bidding war among larger record labels to sign Beck.

Geffen eventually snagged him, offering the least amount of money, but the greatest amount of creative freedom. Beck’s major label debut, Mellow Gold, was released in March 1994. Beck became a mainstream success and Mellow Gold received sky-high praise from just about every music publication on the planet.

A month previous to the release of Mellow Gold, Flipside Records released Stereopathic Soulmanure, a 25-track album comprised of some of Beck’s most ambitious (and nonsensical) recordings. It contained fan favorites “Satan Gave Me a Taco” and “Rowboat.” (Johnny Cash covered “Rowboat” on his 1996 album Unchained, and Allen Ginsberg called “Satan Gave Me a Taco” one of his favorite contemporary works of pop poetry.)

After a world tour and a slot on the main stage at the 1995 Lollapalooza tour, Beck released Odelay in 1996. Singles like “Where It’s At” and “Devil’s Haircut” put all the one-hit-wonder talk to rest and cemented Odelay as one of the best (if not the best) Beck albums to date.

Odelay’s follow-up, 1998’s Mutations, was plagued by label complications. Apparently the album was originally slated for release by Bong Load Records, but Geffen said, “Fuck that” and released the record against Beck’s wishes. Everyone starting suing each other and the conflict remains unresolved to this day.

Despite all that nonsense, Mutations earned Beck a Grammy for Best Alternative Music Performance in 1999.

Beck ended the decade with Midnite Vultures and a tour of high-energy performances.

Where Is He Now?

Making some pretty rad music under the radar.

Beck started the ‘00s by releasing a handful of B-sides and soundtrack-only songs, including “Deadweight” for the A Life Less Ordinary soundtrack, a cover of David Bowie’s “Diamond Dogs” for Moulin Rouge!, and a cover of The Korgis’ “Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime” for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

In 2002, Beck released Sea Change, his first US Top 10 album. Conceptualized around one unifying concept (the end of a relationship), Sea Change was a melancholy departure from Beck’s playful body of work. But critics loved it (and so do I).

Guero (released in 2005) marked a return to the Odelay-era sound and enjoyed critical acclaim from most critics (with the exception of Pitchfork, but they’re pretty hard to please anyway). Singles “E-Pro” (which samples the drum track from the Beastie Boys hit “So What’cha Want”) and “Girl” received heavy airplay.

In 2006, Beck performed at the Bonnaroo Festival with a set that featured many songs from Guero, along with a group of Beck lookalike puppets. (Why can’t more artists incorporate a puppet show into their live shows?)

Beck released two more albums (2006’s The Information and 2008’s Modern Guilt) and a handful of songs for the Scott Pilgrim vs. The World soundtrack in 2010.

But Why Beck?

Since the release of Modern Guilt, Beck’s been quietly releasing new songs on various film soundtracks. Last July, he announced that he was working with Dwight Yoakam on a new album, which has yet to surface. But Beck’s still a busy bee, collaborating and producing albums with the likes of Thurston Moore and Charlotte Gainsbourg.

What Does Sam Think?

There really aren’t many artists like Beck, if any, so he’s got that whole “one of a kind” thing going for him. And he’s also ridiculously talented, so there’s that, too.

The ‘90s alternative scene needed someone like Beck. This is a guy who introduced himself with a track like “Loser,” which seems like came straight out of left field. I mean, listen to the lyrics: “In the time of chimpanzees I was a monkey / Butane in my veins and I’m out to cut the junkie / With the plastic eyeballs / Spay-paint the vegetables / Dog food stalls and the beefcake pantyhose.” This was a mainstream hit, people. This isn’t underground shit.

Beck is one of those artists whose appeal puzzles me. I’m not saying he doesn’t deserve all this critical acclaim of anything, and I’m certainly not saying that I don’t like his music. I love Beck, but I’m not sure how he’s managed to attract such a diverse audience.

Granted, he plays with so many musical styles that he’s bound to catch someone’s attention. But with songs like “Satan Gave Me a Taco” or even “Loser,” it doesn’t sound like he’s trying to produce a mainstream hit.

Beck is a musical genius when you really think about it. He takes all the different aspects of folk, country, Latin, and hip hop, and melds them together into this entirely new sound. He has the ability to produce both high-energy tracks (“E-Pro,” “Devil’s Haircut”) and gentler, more personal tracks (every song on Sea Change) without sounding out of his element.

And whenever he contributes a song to some indie film, it’s a huge deal. (In my eyes, Beck is Sex Bob-omb).

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

Wednesday, March 7, 2012


Sound Familiar?

“Violet,” “Doll Parts,” “Celebrity Skin”

Who Are They?

An often-overlooked grunge band with a tenacious cherry bomb of a frontwoman.

Hole formed in 1989 after guitarist Eric Erlandson responded to an advertisement in the punk rock fanzine Flipside. The ad simply said, “I want to start a band. My influences are Big Black, Sonic Youth, and Fleetwood Mac.” The inquirer? Some chick called Courtney Love.

The band’s first rehearsals basically consisted of Courtney, Eric, and original bassist Lisa Roberts playing something noisy while Courtney and Lisa started screaming their poetry for two or three hours. That is how magic happens, people.

Once they picked up a drummer and a third guitarist, Hole started playing shows in nightclubs and seedy bars in Los Angeles. After a couple lineup changes, the band released their debut album, Pretty On the Inside, in 1991. Courtney wanted desperately for Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon to produce the album, so she sent Kim a letter, a Hello Kitty barrette, and copies of Hole’s early singles. Kim agreed, probably because of the Hello Kitty barrette. Who wouldn’t say yes to that?

Pretty On the Inside received high praise from underground critics, especially in the UK where Hole did an extensive tour with Daisy Chainsaw and Mudhoney. Spin loved it, ranking it in their “20 Best Albums of the Year” list.

In later years, Courtney panned the album and referred to it as unlistenable. Whatever you say, Courtney.

During the Pretty On the Inside tour, Courtney became romantically involved with Kurt Cobain. The two would eventually become the notorious grunge power couple we all know today, finally getting married in February 1992.

Once Kurt and Courtney welcomed daughter Frances Bean into the world later that year, Courtney wanted to change up Hole’s sound. She wanted to transition from the gritty punk rock style to a more melodic, pop-influenced rock format. Bassist Jill Emery and drummer Caroline Rue didn’t want any part of a poppy version of Hole, so they split.

Frustrated and desperate for a stable lineup, Courtney ran another ad, this time more specific. It read, “[I want] someone who can play ok, and stand in front of 30,000 people, take off her shirt and have ‘fuck you’ written on her tits. If you’re not afraid of me and you’re not afraid to fucking say it, send a letter. No more pussies, no more fake girls, I want a whore from hell" (taken from Dirty Blonde: The Diaries of Courtney Love).

Drummer Patty Schemel and bassist Kristen Pfaff signed on in late 1992, and work on the new album began in 1993.

Meanwhile, our grunge power couple was riding a downward spiral into heroin addiction. Kurt and Courtney both checked into rehab in 1994, but Kurt checked out shortly after arriving there. He was found dead in his Seattle home in April 1994 of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.

Hole’s second full-length album, Live Through This, was released just four days after Kurt’s death. Amidst the hysteria surrounding Kurt’s passing, Live Through This became a critical success. Singles “Violet,” “Doll Parts,” and “Miss World” exploded on MTV and alternative rock radio. Just goes to show that changing up your sound a bit can work wonders.

The Live Through This tour came to a halt early on when Kristen Pfaff died of an apparent heroin overdose. Hole pulled out of Lollapalooza that year and disappeared from the media spotlight, only to return in September 1994 with new bassist Melissa Auf der Maur.

Following the tour, Courtney scored a lead role in the 1996 film The People vs. Larry Flynt and Hole was put on the backburner.

The band’s third studio album, 1998’s Celebrity Skin, adopted a more pop-oriented sound. It received unanimously positive reviews while Courtney received nothing but hate. Acclaim for both Live Through This and Celebrity Skin was undercut by rumors that Kurt actually wrote both albums. The band collectively denied the allegations.

In 1999, Melissa Auf der Maur quit Hole to become the touring bassist for Smashing Pumpkins. Patty Schemel bowed out before the release of Celebrity Skin, and her replacement, Samantha Maloney, left with Melissa. Eric and Courtney officially disbanded Hole in 2002.

Where Are They Now?

Living on through Courtney Love.

After the split, everyone took on different projects. Courtney released a solo album in 2004 called America’s Sweetheart, Eric worked as a producer and session musician, and Melissa embarked on her own solo career.

In 2009, Courtney announced the reunion of Hole…without informing any of the original members.

Apparently she decided to release her second solo album, 2010’s Nobody’s Daughter, under the name Hole. Eric and Melissa were surprised by Courtney’s announcement, considering the fact that neither one of them had been invited to contribute to the record. Eric revealed that contractually no Hole reunion could take place without his involvement, so Nobody’s Daughter was technically a Courtney Love solo record.

Nobody’s Daughter received mixed reviews, with most critics concluding that Courtney is only as good as her collaborators.

But Why Hole?

Eric, Melissa, and Patty recently announced that they will reunite as Hole for a special show in Hudson, NY on April 8. Unfortunately, Courtney refused to take part. Instead, she’ll be working with the new “Hole” lineup on a new studio album.

What Does Sam Think?

Rant: This section will not be about Courtney Love’s relationship with Kurt Cobain. If you want to read about Nirvana, head on over to my entry on Nirvana. Hole is a completely different band and should be treated as such. And Courtney is so much more than Kurt Cobain’s widow. End rant.

So I obviously dig the grunge scene in the ‘90s. Hole was the perfect mix of down and dirty grunginess and pro-feminist riot grrrl edginess. Pretty On the Inside is a perfect example of this mesh. It’s this visceral, in-your-face monster of a record that definitely leaves an impression.

But the band didn’t stick to that sound. Professionally, that would a good option. If they had chosen to churn out another Pretty On the Inside, we wouldn’t have Live Through This, which is honestly one of the best albums of the ‘90s.

Live Through This is made of blood, sweat, and tears. While it’s not as aggressive as its predecessor, it still has that raw intensity of a woman scorned. It also has a softer side, one that puts Courtney into a vulnerable position. Look at “Doll Parts.” The lyrics are so incredibly personal. When you add in Kurt’s death, that song just becomes heart wrenching.

Celebrity Skin took the pop aesthetic a little too far for me, though. Yeah, the title track is great, but without all the snarling and distortion, it just lacks depth. And don’t even get me started on Nobody’s Daughter.

Okay, get me started. Nobody’s Daughter isn’t a terrible album ("Skinny Little Bitch" is a pretty rad track). It’s decent, but it kind of sounds like a different band. Oh, wait. It is a different band. It’s Courtney Love and some other guys. That’s not really Hole, just like whatever Billy Corgan is doing right now isn’t really Smashing Pumpkins.

I think the world would be a better place if Hole’s original lineup got back together to record an album, or at least go on tour. I mean, Courtney really hasn’t ruled that out yet. There’s still hope for angry young women everywhere.

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