22
Jul 01

TEN YEARS AFTER – 1991 Into 2001

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No, not Nirvana. I could talk about it, but you know, no. In the cold light of history “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is a dividing line for better or for worse, though NWA’s chart-topping feat with Efil4Ziggan or Dr. Dre’s smash success with The Chronic the following year is as much as an indicator, if not more so. Look at the bands of the now, and everything seems perfectly distilled from the implications of all three of those events — hip-hop’s own continuing reach, the explosions of anger=intensity=perceived depth via rough-voiced rage and disaffection and the ultimate combinations of the two that produce bands like Limp Bizkit or Linkin Park.

But in 1991 the things were a little different for me than the above — well, a lot. Esconced in the hothouse environment of college radio at UCLA’s KLA, for one thing (obscure and obsessive even for that medium — no actual broadcast tower, a station the size of a couple of closets if that, a staff numbering about fifty to seventy-five people on a campus of thousands). A semi-incipient Anglophilic obsession that seems to grip plenty of people in my position meant following Melody Maker religiously, learning about shoegazing bands and the echoes of baggy, going to Ride/Lush tours and things like that. An era when one could talk about the chart-topping efforts of Jesus Jones and mean it — and hell, I saw them twice that year, one time right outside of KLA’s door in Ackerman Grand Ballroom, and they rocked the place very well, dammit. Armed with my well-worn copies of the third and fourth editions of the Trouser Press Record Guide, inspired by Chuck Eddy’s newly published Stairway to Hell (the first time I think I fully realized that one could easily talk in depth about pop without shame, regret or loathing, catalyzing my own public stances from there on in). Watching MTV, watching 120 Minutes and good ol’ Dave Kendall (in retrospective, no less moronic than anyone else, no matter how loathed at the time), going to shows, talking music music music with fellow obsessives — well, those last two parts haven’t changed any.

So what exactly happens with bands you start following in such a time and keep going as you keep going? Where does the initial hot flash of revelation take you? And above all, what if those bands aren’t the overripe gods of the sixties and seventies, but the inescapable products of them, either in worship or in reaction or both? Not actually a question I specifically dwell on, though I do still follow along with bands long after people consider them past a sell-by date — or ironically when they outlast the initial reputations they have to achieve a status nobody might have dreamed of. But what do I think of them? Do they impact me at all, do they challenge me, should they challenge me? Are they ultimately just the background music of a new age, an accepted buzz as I’m looking away from cul de sacs?

The albums of choice are the Charlatans’ Wonderland, Mercury Rev’s All is Dream, Stereolab’s Sound-Dust, Spiritualized’s Let It Come Down, and New Order’s Get Ready. New Order I was already following for several years before 1991, so that’s a bit of a cheat, but everyone else I first heard about or started listening to that year, and they’re all out right about now, in a bizarre confluence of dates that brings everything back without trying.

The Charlatans were the only band I actually saw in that year, in fact also performing essentially in front of KLA at Ackerman Grand Ballroom, supporting their baggier-than-thou Some Friendly, rather audaciously (so I thought — and it still is, in retrospect) playing the ‘hit’ first, “The Only One I Know” dispatched with energy and then everything else dealt with. There were liquid psych projections, that Madchester beat, Tim Burgess singing about this and that in his not-really strong voice, but the album was okay enough and when something really connected, it did — the concluding version of “Sproston Green” was an honest-to-god monster, and it’s no surprise it’s still played to this day, never a single but The Song, as much as “A Forest” is for the Cure. And now the band can look back on baggy with a wry smile, not to mention Britpop, riding both waves with stuff stolen from everyone else and somehow finding their own way as a result, a melange band that never is perfectly individual but somehow works. And Wonderland works surprisingly well, even better on relistenings, as much a grab-and-devour experience as any rock band can hope to do in a world of instant recontextualization, where the sampler doesn’t so much reign surpreme as center everything by default. The big beat “Judas,” the steel guitar twang and slight psych of “A Man Needs to Be Told,” the growling techno buzz and clatter of “The Bell and the Butterfly,” the more open psych then slam of “Is It In You?” and above all else Tim Burgess’ nutty trick of using a falsetto much of the time, initially unsettling but surprisingly the killer touch. He finally sounds like he’s meant to be the center of the music rather than the unexpected guest wafting through it, and when he’s not actually there he’s missed. The beats hit incredibly well, the music has tons of classic rock in it but it doesn’t piss me off, it’s just comfortable enough, just different enough. It’s not the Super Furry Animals’ astonishing Rings Around the World, say, but it doesn’t pretend to be. The Charlatans may never be cool, but they sound like a band I can appreciate even more — like a bunch of guys who know that they want to sound a certain, specific way, but keep listening to other things and use them in their own style. Much to my surprise, I find myself inspired by them. I don’t so much want to be them when I grow up — I never did — but I like where they’re at. They’re actually not old somehow, not yet.

All Is Dream‘s start might as well be “You Only Live Twice,” which would make for an interesting twist that that collective hasn’t tried yet. It’s not quite that song, though, but in some perverse way it suits them. Mercury Rev came to my attention through Melody Maker — a weird way for an American band to get known, perhaps, but not so surprising when you consider their then label Rough Trade was about to finally go under in the States. Prompted thus, I picked up Yerself is Steam and was all the better for it, especially given that nobody else seemed to have it because the album had barely been released. For all the band’s odd evolutions since then, that remains the watermark for me; I was honestly and truly bowled over by what the Rev did back then, David Baker’s weird ass way of singing up down and all around (he’s near the top of the ‘where are they now’ file I keep mentally — one great album as Shady, some production work, then silence), the feedback, the rollicking death stomps, the dramatic orchestrations, the static, the wibbling. For a first album it felt like a fifth or even more, and learning more after the fact how Jonathan Donahue had clearly built on his time in late eighties Flaming Lips didn’t keep me from being any less impressed. I got pissed at hearing about all the great live shows in the UK that I had no chance of seeing, practically barked with annoyance over the fact that at a festival in Finsbury Park (where they were put on the bill by the Cult, of all people) they invited a bunch of little kids to dancing around in bee costumes while hitting things during “Chasing a Bee” — a moment of ‘planet Tharg’ genius, to quote a review of the time, that I could never see. And will never see, because All is Dream isn’t like any of the previous albums, maintaining an admirable winning streak of near constant change (well, okay, Boces was Yerself redux to an extent). I’ve heard the Beatles/Supertramp/Flaming Lips triangulation and it makes sense but this feels more like a Pink Floyd album than, say, Amnesiac does, though like Radiohead there’s a similar borrowing of elegantly wasted keyboards, but the Rev uses steady rock stomp, string-laden sweep and swoop, post-David Gilmour electric arcs into the infinite with a dollop of Neil Young here and there, like if The Wall wanted to be heartfelt instead of miserably empty. I regard them with an endlessly bemused eye these days — I’ve had the chance to interview Baker, Donohue and Grasshopper at various times, still for the life of me can’t figure them out. They connected once again, didn’t they? I may not obsess, but I appreciate.

Stereolab were just a name to me in 1991, only just, but I was already vaguely intrigued by what I heard — something about Marxist drones and references to McCarthy, about whom I knew nothing. Later years would take care of the revelations as well as the amusing realizations — in an era where eight million neo-Krautrock bands can be found, comparing things to the early nineties is instructive. The motorik sprawl, the slabs of noise, the easy listening vocals delivered over the top by Laetitia Sadier and the unfairly ignored Mary Hansen, nearly everything has been taken and revamped by tons of others since then but in individual approaches or focuses, not as a unified aesthetic. Stereolab themselves stopped caring and then got into things like Brazilian jazz psychedelia and other stuff and now Sound-Dust. “Space Moth” shows how they’ve taken it in their own way, relentless rhythms first mysterious and chiming and slowly but surely concluding with an easy good time vibe, the brass and ‘doo doo doo’ making for an upbeat jam session experience. The sparkling horns are a lovely touch throughout, really, and the whole thing is an example of how the lack of volume need not mean lack of creativity — perhaps an obvious point, but still worth the remembering. More to the point, it’s a different kind of tension, where tempo shifts aren’t automatically prog rock signifiers and blithe spirits don’t mean things are necessarily happy. It isn’t new for Stereolab, but after the misfire of Dots and Loops and the more welcome return of Cobra, sterility and hesitation has been replaced by a new lushness, and if the High Llamas influence on the groop has never been higher — one can tell within two notes where Sean O’Hagan is sitting in on piano — it’s still Stereolab at heart, where silence and the disappearance of any sort of beat at points now truly becomes as important as all the more obvious signifiers.

Spiritualized and the whole Spacemen 3 world was just intruding in on me in 1991, thanks to Sonic Boom’s solo album Spectrum, but initial reports and thoughts about singles indicated something was up. Acquiring The Perfect Prescription helped ground myself more thoroughly in Jason Pierce’s own work, and the pristine glow of the singles before Lazer Guided Melodies, not to mention the album itself the following year, helped introduce me to an idea that psychedelia was not so much dead and buried as simply recast into more structured and obsessive realms. Thus they became the gateway drug to a lot of different stuff like Loop and Main and more, while like Stereolab the fusion they helped pioneer became all the more prominent over the course of the decade, though that was mostly with bands rediscovering Spacemen 3’s approach while at the least listening to the newer stuff. Painfully loud, deathly quiet, gospel as not-gospel with gospel singers, they were a rush and a thrill, sonic joys for sonic joys and sonic depths for sonic depths. Let It Come Down wryly includes a nod to the followers — Low covered “Lord Can You Hear Me?” from Spacemen 3 days and Jason remade it with Mimi from said band, matching his ever-more expansive tendency for mega-arrangements to his past. Like All Is Dream, orchestration is key, a signifier rejected by punk and abused by Britpop, but in the right hands for all its fripperies and indulgence successful precisely because it is frippery and indulgence, the band — whatever there is of the band — swallowed whole by it, explosions like “On Fire” and “The Twelve Steps” notwithstanding. Jason sings over the strings or gets dominated by them, and the strings lead the way — perhaps after firing every last member ever it’s simply the only way he can operate, his ever-obsessive, circular ponderings about emotion and love and drugs and god no less present, navel-gazing as smeared portrait of sadness that never ends. And even when navel-gazing like on “Don’t Just Do Something,” it sounds like a universe building up and ripping out, the merest move of a molecule the Apocalypse, a mountains-into-molehills-into-mountains approach. Perhaps Jason is the secret goth nobody ever realized was the case, the Morrissey of a generation not so apt to wear hearts on sleeves. And for me? He still thrills, but he still in the end essentially is tweaking. The guy who whipped up “Walking With Jesus” and “Things’ll Never Be the Same” simply keeps increasing his compositional palette, expanding outward and outward, from electric guitar to symphonies and back, to repaint the same portrait within the same lines. Lazer Guided Melodies in some respects still says it all, but there’s something more immediate about the sheer scope of Let It Come Down that even makes the vast flow of Ladies and Gentlemen seem small. Gigantism was never so precise.

But somehow above and over and just plain better than everyone and everything else, New Order. New Order seem, ahem, eternal to me. They seem like they’ve always been there, even though I only first heard them in the mid-eighties. One of my first concerts — them touring Technique 1989, mindblowing, loud, incredible, a version of “Temptation” was pure surge and exaltation. What made them connect so well? How did they do it? Sooner than the Cure, even sooner than Depeche Mode, more so than the Smiths or many others they were on top 40, more than MTV favorites, even if “True Faith” went into eternal rotation. Were they speaking to my soul in odd, hesitant ways, the way Bernard Sumner didn’t so much sing as softly question or puzzle, the most unlikely mainstream lead vocalist ever, a role he took out of tragedy to a status that says so very much to me still? Stephen Morris’ ‘doesn’t matter if they’re electronic’ drums, Gillian Gilbert’s sprightly then melancholy keyboards, THE BASS. To me not liking them seems, well, wrong, and even if Republic is forever complained about in some corners, it has “Regret” and that alone is more than most can ever do. So they weren’t defining 1991 per se — though the Electronic album came out that year, so puzzle that one out if you will. And 2001? They define nothing — instead, they perfectly transcend it. Somehow this should be called dated but can’t be, somehow this should be comfortable but it isn’t. Whatever has happened over all this time, now they’ve found each other again they’ve recorded an album rather than recording a New Order album, they aren’t indulging in the pointless retroactive crap of U2 these days. Not as experimentally dour as the earlier eighties, not as hyperactive as the late eighties, not as gently comfortable as the early nineties — reflective yet impassioned, beat-laden but not reviving twenty years ago, absolutely comfortable in and of itself but somehow still having an indefinable, beautiful it, and every so often finding the frenzy once again, an energy both new and old, a sound both then and now. Britpop, nu-metal, bling-bling, all ignored — Get Ready doesn’t even need to acknowledge it, and the bits with Primal Scream and big beat drums and all sound like a particularly majestic New Order song more than anything else. Even the most self-consciously ‘mature’ song, “Run Wild,” has that spark — maybe because Sumner never has to worry about losing his voice, sounding eternally 26. If there’s a moment, when I stopped for enthrallment, surely it was “Take Me Down.” And why not — my own nineties musical hero above all else save Kevin Shields, the ever-maligned Billy Corgan, sung and played guitar, his fragile backing ghosting Sumner like a delicate web, the music at once familiar and astonishingly new, the combination of everything from the Velvets’ “Sister Ray” trance that Joy Division took inspiration from to disco’s endless invocation of the beat, from psychedelia’s invention to elegant collapse, two avatars suddenly locked in endless swirl. It could have gone on forever.

So ten years on and what has changed? Everything, nothing, who knows? My worries and fears take on new forms in reaction to new events, my desires plow their own strange paths, my hopes reconstitute themselves anew daily. And what was once sudden newness generally now feels…pleasant, but every so often something more. The bleeding edge is far away, assuming any of the groups in question had it in the first place, and maybe aside from New Order they didn’t. But even if my new kinds of kick circle out endlessly forwards and backwards in time, these bands are still here. And you know? I’ll keep them. My twenty-year-old self loved them all and still does.

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