Saturday, September 24, 2016

Nirvana's Nevermind and the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Blood Sugar Sex Magik were both released 25 years ago today.

September 24, 1991 was a great day for music. 25 years ago, Nirvana released its second album, Nevermind, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers released their fifth album, Blood Sugar Sex Magik. Both albums were commercial breakthroughs for their respective bands. Nevermind has been celebrated for bringing an entire genre into the mainstream and signaling an authenticity-driven reaction against synth-heavy '80s music, even though the album itself has been criticized (including by Kurt Cobain) for being too slickly produced.

These albums came out a little too early for me to pay attention to them at the time, when I was just 10. But when I started getting into music and playing guitar a few years later, these were two of the very first albums I got, and they both shaped my approach to music.

They're both the kind of album you listen to straight through, over and over, not skipping over any tracks, because each one feels essential, from the hits to the songs you might have forgotten about but are happy to hear when they come on (Nirvana's "Lounge Act," RHCP's "My Lovely Man").

When I made a list of "the 40 greatest grunge songs," I ranked "Lithium," from Nevermind, #1.

Back then, I wrote:
The band members themselves assumed that this would be the song that would break them into the mainstream. They never expected it to be overshadowed by you-know-what . . .

What really makes this song for me is Krist Novoselic's bassline. While the guitar part in the verse starts at the bottom and climbs upward, the bass starts at the top and descends. He wasn't generally a flashy bassist, but he clearly gave this song some extra attention. He also does some tasteful noodling in the "I'm not gonna crack" section.

The chorus of "In Bloom" is brilliantly self-referential in mocking the whole idea of a band with fans, while being much more lovable than that concept sounds. "He's the one who likes all our pretty songs, and he likes to sing along . . . but he knows not what it means . . ."

"Drain You" was one of Kurt Cobain's favorite Nirvana songs. My favorite part is how in the place where you might expect a conventional guitar solo, they instead do an eerie instrumental interlude with disorienting guitar noises and dissonances, culminating in a frenzied crescendo that leads back to the beginning. Grunge genius.

Meanwhile — that same day! — the Red Hot Chili Peppers were putting out a 17-song funk masterpiece, Blood Sugar Sex Magik. "Give It Away" captures the essence of the band: gleefully sexual, deceptively simple, rhythmically infectious.

"Breaking the Girl" is an uncharacteristically acoustic Chili Peppers song with an electrifying percussion break (starting at 3:03). Chad Smith's propulsive drum beat gives a remarkable momentum to the song.

"Under the Bridge" is a haunting portrait of heroin addiction. I get chills when I hear the choir-like backing vocals start to sing: "Under the bridge downtown . . ." The beautiful interplay of the guitar (John Frusciante) and bass (Flea) at the end is worthy of comparison to George Harrison and Paul McCartney in the Beatles' "Something."

"Power of Equality" kicks the album off with an urgent note of social awareness ("American equality has always been sour"). The Chili Peppers' singer/rapper, Anthony Kiedis, was clearly self-conscious about his white band being deeply indebted to many black musicians: "My lily white ass is tickled pink/When I listen to the music that makes me think." He makes his call for racial equality explicit: "Death to the message of the Ku Klux Klan!" The song ends with an earnest lament:
People in pain, I do not dig it
Change of brain for Mr. Bigot . . .
Misery is not my friend
But I'll break before I bend
What I see is insanity
Whatever happened to humanity?

Monday, September 19, 2016

Mama Cass

"Mama" Cass Elliot of the Mamas and Papas was born Ellen Naomi Cohen on September 19, 1941. She would have turned 75 today. She died in 1974 at age 32.

Here's "Monday Monday":

"California Dreaming":

My mom, Ann Althouse, comments on the "Monday Monday" video:

I remember how it felt to see them on TV like that -- looking so different from other groups of the time. The men were like the other men, but the women were different, because of Cass and because of her contrast with Michelle [Phillips], who would have stood out as phenomenally pretty anyway, but standing there next to Cass, she made a fantastic contrast, and there were many people who were suddenly discovering that the fat one was even more attractive. It was kind of like with The Beatles, the way many girls thought Ringo was the most attractive, when, by conventional standards, he was the only ugly one. Back in the 60s... when everything was a revolution.
I respond:
Now it's hard to imagine anything being a revolution!

I rarely think any Beatles cover is an improvement on the original, but one exception is the Mamas and the Papas doing "I Call Your Name" (by John Lennon):

Mama Cass and Johnny Cash were charming together:

And here's Mama Cass on her own, singing her signature song, "Dream a Little Dream of Me":

Monday, September 5, 2016

Best. Rock singer. Ever.

Freddie MercuryQueen's lead singer and pianist, who wrote many of the band's most beloved songs ("Bohemian Rhapsody," "We Are the Champions," "Killer Queen," "Somebody to Love") — would have turned 70 years old today. He died in 1991 at age 45.

If you asked me who the greatest rock singer of all time is, I'd probably think for about one second before saying: Freddie Mercury.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Pearl Jam's Ten turns 25

25 years ago today, on August 27, 1991, Pearl Jam released its debut album, Ten, which most people would probably agree is the band's best.

The most affecting song on the album was the third single, "Jeremy." When I made a list of "the 40 greatest grunge songs," I ranked "Jeremy" #2. I wrote:

Pearl Jam has never been one of my favorite bands. But I give them a lot of credit: they sincerely tried to make a work of art with this song, and they succeeded.

When it comes to musical composition, most bands are satisfied if they just write a nice melody for the verse and then another nice melody for the chorus. Not many bands are willing to devote this kind of care and attention to individually shaping the melody of each line to fit the lyrics and create a whole musical/dramatic arc.

Here's the disturbing video for this disturbing song:

"Even Flow" is Pearl Jam's take on homelessness.
Rests his head on a pillow made of concrete again . . .

Even flow
Thoughts arrive like butterflies
Oh he don't know
So he chases them away
Someday yet
He'll begin his life again

Eddie Vedder wrote "Alive" based on his own childhood. His parents divorced when he was a baby, and his mom quickly remarried. He grew up believing his stepdad was his dad. His mom finally told him the news when he was a teenager, but by then, his biological father, whom he had only briefly met, had died of multiple sclerosis.

"Black" is a transcendently beautiful breakup song.
I know someday you'll have a beautiful life
I know you'll be a star
In somebody else's sky . . .

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Democrats and elections

Democrats during the 2008 general election: "Who cares about having a long record of experience? What really matters in a president is the ability to give soaring, inspiring speeches. And if you disagree then you're racist."

Democrats during the 2016 general election: "Who cares about soaring, inspiring speeches? What really matters is for the president to have a long record of experience. And if you disagree then you're sexist."