Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Marcy Playground

Sound Familiar?
“Sex and Candy”

Who Are They?
Classic ‘90s one-hit-wonders responsible for one of the most frequently asked questions of the decade: “What the hell is disco lemonade?”

Marcy Playground (named after the elementary school front man John Wozniak attended) achieved success early on with its debut self-titled album and this little ditty called “Sex and Candy.” Prior to the band’s formation, John had already recorded an album of his own called Zog BogBean – From the Marcy Playground in 1990. Two songs from that record (“Our Generation” and “The Dog and His Master”) would appear on later Marcy Playground albums.

After attending notable liberal arts school Evergreen State College, John moved to New York and hooked up with his pal Jared Kotler. Once bassist Dylan Keefe joined the band, Marcy Playground began to play shows in NYC and eventually signed to Capitol Records in 1995. Unfortunately, John and Jared couldn’t get past their personal problems, so Jared split and Dan Rieser stepped in just in time to record Marcy Playground in 1997.

The album’s first single, “Poppies,” failed to make a splash, but once “Sex and Candy” hit the radio waves, the band’s popularity skyrocketed. (Fun fact: “Sex and Candy” knocked Oasis’ “Wonderwall” out of the number one spot on Billboard’s Modern Rock Tracks list.)

But what does “Sex and Candy” mean, you ask? Well, according to John, the title is a reference to an evening he spent in his girlfriend’s dorm room when he was 17. The girl’s roommate walked into the room and said, “Oh, it smells like sex and candy in here!” John liked the phrase, so that’s why we have a song called “Sex and Candy.” As for the meaning behind the lyrics, your guess is as good as mine. (But according to Urban Dictionary, “disco lemonade” is actually a tasty cocktail made with vodka and lemonade.)

Marcy Playground released its follow-up, Shapeshifter, in 1999. The album didn’t do nearly as well as its predecessor (hence why the band is considered a one-hit-wonder), and Marcy Playground went on a short hiatus.

(Fun fact: The cover art for Shapeshifter had originally been conceptualized by Paul Leary of Butthole Surfers for the Surfers’ aborted project After the Astronaut. After the artwork was used without permission, Paul was ready to fight. Fortunately for John and company, it was Capitol Records who had stolen the artwork, not the band, so Paul let it go and John had a mini fanboy moment when he realized that a member of Butthole Surfers had designed one of his album covers.)

Where Are They Now?
Touring till death do them part.

After a brief hiatus, Marcy Playground released its third studio album, MP3, in 2004. It didn’t achieve mainstream success, but “Deadly Handsome Man” was featured on the Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back soundtrack and “Punk Rock Superstar” was featured on an XBox 360 playlist.

But the boys remained positive about their future in music, especially on the track “Hotter Than the Sun,” in which John reflects on the band’s short success.

Leaving Wonderland…In a Fit of Rage followed MP3 and Marcy Playground began touring along the California coast.

Lunch, Recess & Detention, a collection of rarities, b-sides and new material, new released earlier this year. Marcy Playground spent the summer touring in support of it alongside fellow ‘90s heavyweights Everclear, Sugar Ray, Lit and Gin Blossoms on the Summerland Tour (which I had the privilege of attending).

But Why Marcy Playground?
There’s the album, the tour and the band’s determination to keep touring no matter what. These guys have another album or two in them. Just wait.

What Does Sam Think?
I have a soft spot for most ‘90s one-hit-wonder bands, mostly because a lot of them deserve more than one hit. Marcy Playground is number one on that list.

“Sex and Candy” is one of the best songs of the ‘90s (though it was ranked criminally low on VH1's list). It’s simple, but murky and just plain sexy. The band’s debut album as a whole is pretty quiet and minimalistic, and I think that really works to its advantage. The late ‘90s was chock full of post-grunge bands wanting to be as loud as possible and Marcy Playground was a welcome alternative to that mindset.

Marcy Playground was heavily influenced by bands like Van Morrison and Nirvana, and you can definitely hear that on each album. The band’s music is a little dark, but not the black metal kind of dark; it’s the art school kind of dark.

As far as live performances go, these guys definitely know who their audiences are. They make light of being one-hit-wonders and always, always play “Sex and Candy” at least once (they usually let the audience sing it a few times). Seeing them live actually prompted me to listen to the rest of their discography, which is pretty solid.

So will Marcy Playground come back to rock radio with a vengeance? Probably not. But I think this band has some more secretly great music up its sleeve. And if these boys continue to tour in support of that new music, they will always have a faithful audience.

If you tour, they will come.

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

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Nine Inch Nails

Sound Familiar?
“Closer,” “Wish,” “The Perfect Drug”

Who Are They?
One of the most influential industrial music projects in music history.

Though Nine Inch Nails is usually referred to as a group, producer/singer/songwriter/instrumentalist/deity Trent Reznor is really the only official member. Trent started out playing keyboards in a band called Exotic Birds in 1987. Once he quit that group, he landed a job as assistant engineer and janitor (what a combo!) at Right Track Studios. One day, he asked studio owner Bart Koster for some studio time to record some demos. Unable to find a band that could do everything he wanted to achieve with the demos, Trent decided to play all the instruments (minus the drums) himself.

After playing a few shows with Skinny Puppy, Trent signed with TVT Records and released Pretty Hate Machine under the name Nine Inch Nails in 1989. (Fun fact: Trent said in 1994 that there is no meaning behind the band name. He chose it because it abbreviated easily. Other rumored explanations include a reference to Jesus’ crucifixion with nine-inch spikes and Freddy Krueger’s nine-inch knife fingers.)

Pretty Hate Machine was praised by critics, but failed to break the Top 70 on the Billboard charts. The album did, however, become one of the first independently released records to reach platinum status.

Three music videos accompanied the album, but it was the explicit video for “Sin” that gave Trent his first taste of controversy. If you’ve never seen the video, you’re not alone. The full version never made it to air, but you can watch the whole thing here. (Warning: The video is definitely NSFW because it contains images of pierced genitals. So if you’re not into that, avoid it.)

(Fun fact: During promotion for Pretty Hate Machine, Trent and his touring band were asked what shows they’d like to appear on. They jokingly replied with Dance Party USA. So what happened? They were booked on the show and actually made an appearance. Be careful what you wish for.)

After the tour, Trent and company faced pressure from TVT to produce a follow-up record. Trent tried to get the label to terminate his contract, but of course, that wasn’t going to happen. So he began recording under various pseudonyms. The result was the Broken EP, which was released in 1992.

Broken marked a drastic change in NIN’s sound. The songs were much more abrasive, which was a preview of what was to come. Two of these tracks (“Happiness in Slavery” and “Wish”) earned Nine Inch Nails two Grammy Awards, both for Best Metal Performance. (Fun fact: After winning the award for “Wish,” Trent joked that his epitaph should read: “REZNOR: Died. Said ‘fist fuck,’ won a Grammy.” “Wish” is still the only Grammy Award-winning song to include that phrase.)

NIN’s second full-length album, 1994’s The Downward Spiral, was recorded in a studio Trent built in the house where the Manson Family murdered Sharon Tate. Charming, eh?

The Downward Spiral debuted at number two on the Billboard 200 (ahead of Soundgarden’s Superunknown) and remains NIN’s highest-selling release to date. The record’s success was mostly due to the lead single “Closer” and its bizarre music video.

With “Closer” came more controversy. A heavily edited version of the video received frequent rotation on MTV, but it still didn’t sit well with people. The video features graphic sadomasochistic and sacrilegious imagery (but no genital shots, so it’s perfectly safe for work).

NIN also gave a particularly aggressive performance at Woodstock ’94. It’s so good that I’ve included it for your viewing pleasure. (I actually watch this at least once a week because I’m just that obsessed with it.)

Five years after The Downward Spiral, NIN released the double album The Fragile at the tail end of the ‘90s.

Where Are They Now?
Apparently planning to release some new material (finally)!

Six years elapsed between the release of The Fragile and 2005’s With Teeth. During that time, Trent was battling alcoholism and substance abuse. The album is heavily influenced by his struggle and eventual recovery.

Along with being a criminally underrated album, With Teeth featured a “leaner,” much less abrasive sound. With Teeth is also the last NIN studio album to have a Parental Advisory label.

In 2007, NIN released Year Zero, which Trent refers to as “the soundtrack to a movie that doesn’t exist.” Essentially, it’s a concept album that revolves around a futuristic version of the United States where the government has seized absolute control of the country and reverted to a Christian fundamentalist theocracy (or “Year 0”). It gets a little more complicated, so I won’t give you the entire synopsis here. I will say that there’s apparently a TV adaptation in the works.

After releasing Ghosts I-IV and The Slip in 2008, Trent decided to make NIN “disappear for a while” and focus on his new project, How To Destroy Angels, and win an Oscar for Best Original Score for The Social Network.

But Why Nine Inch Nails?
Trent recently answered some questions for fans on Reddit and revealed that 2013 looks like a good year to bring Nine Inch Nails back. He will also appear on the next Queens of the Stone Age record.

What Does Sam Think?
I think I’ve alluded to my love for NIN quite a few times on here, and now I finally have an excuse to gush about it.

First of all, The Downward Spiral is one of the greatest albums of the ‘90s. Period. I know I say that about a lot of albums, but this is seriously a masterpiece. This is also a pivotal album for NIN and Trent. This was the record that defined Nine Inch Nails after the softer-edged Pretty Hate Machine. Though I do love PHM, The Downward Spiral just has a much more aggressive sound.

And can I just mention how amazing the Broken EP is? I mean, two of the songs on that EP won Grammys. Yeah, Grammys don’t mean much, but it’s still a big deal for a band like NIN to win some.

Let’s not forget about With Teeth either. It’s pretty underrated, in my opinion. It’s probably the most personal NIN album considering the road Trent was on when he wrote most of the songs. With Teeth isn’t classic industrial NIN, but it’s still great.

If I could wish for one thing for Christmas, it would probably be for Trent to get his head out of his ass and stop with the How To Destroy Angels thing because it’s just lame. Nine Inch Nails is great. His film scores are great. We don’t need How To Destroy Angels. There, I said it. Come back to the light, Trent.

Ahem. Sorry about that. Anyway, I’m pumped to see where Nine Inch Nails will end up with this new material. For now, I’ll just have to watch the Woodstock ’94 performance about a million more times and creep out the small population of the world that hasn’t seen the “Closer” video.

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

Wednesday, November 7, 2012


Sound Familiar?
“Buddy Holly,” “Say It Ain’t So,” “El Scorcho”

Who Are They?
Power pop geeks with enough successful singles to make blink-182 jealous.

Four geeks from Los Angeles played their first show in 1992 opening for Keanu Reeves’ band Dogstar (yes, that was a thing). A year later, Weezer recorded its debut album with producer and Cars frontman Ric Ocasek. The band’s first single, “Undone (The Sweater Song),” was an instant hit, but Weezer’s popularity really exploded with “Buddy Holly.”

The Spike Jonze-directed video for “Buddy Holly” featured Weezer spliced into an episode of Happy Days. If you’ve never seen this video, shame on you. It’s hands down one of the best music videos of the ‘90s (and perhaps of all time).

Fueled by the success of “Buddy Holly” (the four VMAs and two Billboard awards kind of success) and the fairly popular third single “Say It Ain’t So,” Weezer (or “The Blue Album”) went triple platinum.

After that whirlwind of fame and fortune, Weezer took a break from touring and frontman Rivers Cuomo began to piece together the next album with an eight-track recorder. The original concept was a space-themed rock opera called Songs from the Black Hole. Thankfully, that idea was dropped in favor of Pinkerton.

Though initially viewed as a commercial failure and labeled as “one of the worst albums of 1996” by a Rolling Stone readers’ poll, Pinkerton eventually achieved cult status and is considered one of the greatest albums of the ‘90s. (And if I can’t convince you, and Pitchfork’s perfect 10 rating can’t convince you, maybe you should just listen to it for yourself.)

(Fun fact: Rivers took college classes at Harvard and Berklee College of Music off and on between 1995 and 2006. He graduated from Harvard with a bachelor’s degree in English.)

Following Pinkerton, Weezer decided to take a break. Due to frustration and creative disagreements, the break turned into a hiatus until 2000.

Where Are They Now?
Releasing mediocre albums and playing shows on cruise ships (this sounds worse than it really is).

Weezer reunited in 2000 for the Fuji Rock Festival in Japan and released Weezer (or “The Green Album”) in 2001. Thanks to heavy MTV rotation of “Hash Pipe” and “Island in the Sun,” Weezer was able to enjoy renewed success.

Meanwhile, bassist Mikey Welsh was checked into a psychiatric hospital. He mysteriously went missing after the filming for the “Island in the Sun” video.

The recording process for 2002’s Maladroit was a little different from previous albums. Weezer decided to download demos on to its official website in return for fan feedback. The fans weren’t exactly helpful. The band’s original A&R rep Todd Sullivan said Weezer fans chose the “wackest songs.”

So Maladroit was released without fan feedback and ended up receiving generally positive reviews from critics. (And can I just say that "Keep Fishin'" is one of the best Weezer videos? I mean, it features The Muppets! How can you not love that?)

Make Believe, Weezer (or “The Red Album”) and Raditude followed Maladroit. I group them together because they’re basically the same mediocre album released under different titles. “Beverly Hills” (off Make Believe) and “Pork and Beans” (off Weezer) did do very well on the charts, but that doesn’t really make up for all the other songs.

After the release of Hurley in 2010, the band was hit with devastating news. On October 8, 2011, former bassist Mikey Welsh was found dead in a Chicago hotel room. Weezer performed in Chicago the next day and dedicated the concert to Mikey.

But Why Weezer?
There’s supposedly a new album in the works, but we may not see that for a while. For now, the band is heading to Australia in early 2013 for its first Australian tour since 1996.

What Does Sam Think?
Weezer was heavily influenced by my favorite band (Green Day, if you’re new to this blog), so me liking this band is kind of a given. (Also, check out the cover of "Worry Rock.")

Weezer is a band that floats between power pop and pop punk. What’s the difference, you ask? Answer: the word “punk.” I’m not going to get into an argument with anyone about what punk really means, so let’s just keep it simple, stupid. Power pop = bands like The Kinks, The Knack and Cheap Trick. Pop punk = bands like Green Day, blink-182 and Hüsker Dü. Listen and learn.

Back to Weezer. This band’s first few albums are golden. The Blue Album is an almost flawless debut album and Pinkerton is just genius. Songs like “Buddy Holly” and “Say It Ain’t So” are poppy enough to be played on mainstream radio, but have an underlying abrasiveness to them that appeals to the underground kids.

And let’s not forget about the “geek sheik” image. Rivers Cuomo’s black-rimmed glasses make all the ladies swoon and gave all those nerdy guys in bands something to hope for. That image definitely gave the band a universal appeal, as everyone seems to like nerdy boys-next-door.

Before I leave you, we should probably talk about Pinkerton in detail. I do consider it to be Weezer’s best album to date (and I’m probably not alone on this). It’s a bit more abrasive than The Blue Album and feels a bit more personal, especially with songs like “Tired of Sex” and “Across the Sea.” Each track is virtually flawless (both musically and lyrically), and admit it, "El Scorcho" is the best drunk sing-a-long song. I know from firsthand experience.

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