Tag Archives: alternative rock

Song of the Day: “Fell In Love With a Girl” – The White Stripes

An explosive song that clocks in at just under two minutes, “Fell In Love With a Girl” just might be the coolest song to be released this century. Everything about the song – its violent riff, Meg White’s anarchic drumming, Jack White’s insane “ahhhhh-ahhhh-ahhhhh-ah!” screams – blasts out of the speakers and pummels everything in its path.

“Fell In Love With a Girl” just might be the best thing Jack White ever recorded in illustrious career. Inside those chaotic two minutes is a culmination of rock itself: blues chord progressions played at Zeppelin-esque volume; the DIY ethos of garage-rock and punk; the unbridled energy of The Who and the fierce attack of The Stooges; the power-pop sensibility of The Beatles.

A lot was made of the garage-rock revival at the beginning of the century. Some bands were really good (see The Strokes’ Is This It), others I thought were decent at the time but eventually realized were terrible (see The Vines) and some were fashion statements with instruments (The Hives). And  then there were the ones whose music you heard before back when they were called Joy Division. (Interpol, I’m looking at you.)

But The White Stripes established themselves above the rest with one single swoop. Whereas other bands felt like they were trying too had, “Fell In Love With a Girl” seemed spontaneous and off the cuff. (For the record, I do think Jack White does try too hard sometimes. Remember Get Behind Me Satan?)

The rest of White Blood Cells didn’t reach the height of “Fell In Love With a Girl”. The rest of the songs found on the album were very strong, but “Fell In Love with a Girl” was and too intense and too badass to be pushed by the wayside. The only way for White to eclipse or circumvent the song’s power was to create something more repetitive and simple sounding and double-down on it. “Seven Nation Army” might be on its way to becoming the most famous guitar riff of all time, if thousands of sports fans have their way.

But I’ll never get tired of hearing “Fell In Love With a Girl” in all its glory. To quote Bob Dylan, “Play fuckin’ loud.”

 

Song of the Day: “Monkey Gone to Heaven” – The Pixies

Placed mid-way through the classic Doolittle, the mid-tempo and atmospheric “Monkey Gone to Heaven” is a stark contrast to the abrasiveness found in the rest of the album. Almost every other track on Doolittle finds the Pixies alternating between two extremes: their famous soft/loud dynamic, which of course set the template for Nirvana.

Even when Black Francis screams near the end of the song, the song never truly flies off into noisier territory. The key to the song is actually restraint: something that you wouldn’t normally associate with The Pixies. There’s a guitar crash to open the song, but the music in the verses is surprisingly stark: just Kim Deal’s think and swampy bass lines and David Lovering’s steady drums and some distant strings. There’s a stickiness and humidity to the song that feels almost unbearable: like a hot summer night when the evening’s heat actually feels worse than the day.

Joey Santiago’s guitar returns for the chorus, but it’s really Kim Deal who steals the show here with her ghostly refrain behind Frank Black. It’s distant enough to like someone walking behind you, creating an eerie feeling. “This monkey’s gone to heaven,” Francis and Deal sing (somewhat) in unison.

Black’s lyrics are equally disturbing and filled with images of disaster and doom: “And the ground’s not cold and if the ground’s not cold…then we’re all going to burn, we’ll all take turns.” Is it ecological or some kind of Biblical showdown? It’s always hard to tell with Francis, since after all this is a guy who wrote a S&M styled retelling of the story of Samson and Delilah. During the bridge, Francis counts off the order of the world: “if man is five, then the devil is six…and if the devil is six, then God is seven.” It sounds pretty convincing and menacing under his trademark scream, but the questions remains: what the hell are numbers one through four?

 

Song of the Day: “Ball and Chain” – Social Distortion

In high school, I had a clock radio that I used to listen to while doing my homework. I could only pick up a few stations, but one of them was DC’s premiere Alternative Station, WHFS. Though I’ve heard from various people that HFS was past its prime in the late ’90s, it was still the definitive place to listen to cool and interesting rock.

I formulated a lot of my favorites artists based on what was being played on that station. The ’90s were a good time for rock radio: most of the bands that were being played were stylistically different in subtle ways, yet were still able to fall under the umbrella of “alternative”.

One song that definitely stood out above the rest was Social Distortion’s “Ball and Chain”. The first time I heard it, it felt oddly familiar. It still seems like it has existed forever. There’s a thread in the song that runs deep: the narrator feels like an outlaw who’s seen too much and doesn’t know how to get out of the mess he’s made.  But that’s ok, because admitting he’s at the brink is the first step to moving on.

I didn’t have to live a life similar to the one in “Ball and Chain” to relate to it as a young adult. I could feel the pain and anguish in Mike Ness’ lyrics. There was an honesty to the song that made it stand out among the rest. Other artists on WHFS were also letting their hearts bleed on record, but much of that distress was masked in distorted guitars.

It’s no secret that Mike Ness is a huge Johnny Cash fan. “Ball and Chain” is probably the most obvious song with Cash’s influence. Lyrically, it’s not hard to imagine the Man in Black himself singing the song. And underneath the electric guitars, “Ball and Chain” is really just a country song at heart.

Review: “Disconnect” – Monks of Mellonwah

 

11351315_10153312285431904_917159193717518160_n

When Alternative Rock turn into Alt-Pop? That’s a question I keep asking myself, every time a new “alternative rock” act emerges, and the focus seems to be more on the pop side of the spectrum of than the rock.

Australia’s Monks of Mellonwah seem to have taken that route to heart on their latest EP, Disconnect. Every vocal, instrumentation and arrangement here seems made with the intent of creating a hybrid of pop-rock. The vocals are pushed up front and the music itself, while clearly made by a band is layered enough, so as not to be confrontational or offending in any way.

Unfortunately Monks of Mellonwah never really seem to embrace either genre completely. Their songs are too melancholic to be considered “pop” and they never really catch fire a as band in any way. Opening track “Never Been Good Enough” starts with a synth track and processed drums that could be mistaken for a remix. Mid-way through a brief guitar solo breaks through, as if to tell the listener than Monks of Mellonwah are not, “pop” with a capital “P”.  Monks of Mellonwah would be wise to take a page out of Cheap Trick’s book if they want to have melodies and want to rock. Or, better yet take a listen to Sirius XM’s Alt-Nation to see how other Alt/Pop acts have crafted their songs.

The closest they get to a fully realized sound and vision is the piano-driven title track. It’s a sort of camp-fire song in the tradition of early Coldplay, but there’s a lack of passion in it that keeps it from becoming truly epic. The vocals are almost too polished and perfected for it to be believable or convincing.

And ultimately that goes for the entire EP as well. Try as they might, there’s little for the audience to actually grab onto, making Disconnect a pretty apt title.

Song of the Day: “Gold Soundz” – Pavement

I’ve tried for years to really like Pavement. They’re one of those bands that I feel I should like. Yet, try as I might I’ve never been able to get into them. “Gold Soundz”off of Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain is the only song by them that I listen to with any sort of regularity.

Unlike a lot of other Pavement songs, “Gold Soundz” has a pretty discernible melody. There’s also a hint of melancholia in its arrangement too, which I like. The brief guitar solo while pretty, also contains a bit of sadness. Steve West’s slightly aggressive drumming gives the song a bit of a shuffle that ensures the song isn’t too depressing. “Gold Soundz” also contains one of my favorite lyrics too: “You can never quarantine the past.” The band must have thought the line was memorable too as they used it for the title of their best-of collection.

 

My Life in 33 Songs: #31- “The Queen Is Dead”- The Smiths (A Childhood Favorite)

 

The+Queen+Is+Dead+PNG (1)

My sister and I are separated by seventeen years. She’s the eldest of my four siblings. While she was in graduate school learning the finer points of poetry and writing, I was still learning to walk and talk. Despite our age difference, I always looked forward to seeing her come home during breaks.

All my siblings have had some sort of musical influence on me in some way or another, but my sister’s is probably the one that started the earliest. In the mid-80’s with College Rock in full bloom and she quickly introduced me to the then current acts who are now considered classics of the genre: The Smiths, R.E.M., The Waterboys and The Clash.  As a six year old, I definitely had the coolest taste in music.

One of my favorite possessions was a mix tape she gave me. Included on it was The Clash’s “London Calling”, The Waterboys’ “The Whole of the Moon” and The Smiths’ “The Queen is Dead” among a few others. I loved all the songs and would bounce on my bed to them (much to my parents chagrin, I’m sure.)  I felt like I was being let in on some big secret that only my sister was letting me in on.

In a way, I guess I was. The ’80s may been now seen as a sort golden age for Alternative Rock, but it was still underground. College and graduate students like my sister were listening to Alternative Rock, but the rest of the majority of the nation was. And kids my age certainly weren’t. I had no idea that the tapes and songs that my sister was giving me were cutting edge or part of some big cultural shift. They were just songs that she was sharing with me.

Of all the songs included on the tape, “The Queen Is Dead” was my favorite. With its thunderous drums, aggressive bass and slashing distorted guitar. Everything about seemed epic – from its intro sample of the Music Hall song “Take Back to Dear Old Blighty” to the false ending. The six minutes felt like an eternity to my six-year-old brain. I loved every minute of it as I jumped up and down to the song on my bed.

The nastiness of the lyrics went completely over my head. Half the time I couldn’t understand a thing Morrissey sang, which was probably just as well, considering the song’s take down of 1980’s England. But I still sang along to the lyrics all the same. It must have been pretty amusing for my sister to hear her kid brother belt out lines such as “and the church will snatch your money” without having an idea of their implication. I’m sure my English mother didn’t appreciate it, but perhaps she thought I was just babbling.  Oblivious to the politics of the song, I just figured that he was being funny when they declared, “the queen is dead, boys.”  Of course, she’s not dead! Silly singer!

An an adult, I fully understand Morrissey’s position of 1980’s England. Lyrically, it’s one of his best songs. He manages to be both scathing, self-deprecating and hilarious on the track, which is no easy feat. His trademark wit is just as razor-sharp as his take verbal take-downs. Take the scene where he breaks into the palace and has an audience with the Queen. Any other writer would have written it completely differently. But Morrissey’s version of the Queen not only recognizes him, but tell him he “cannot sing.”  His response? “Eh, that’s nothing. You should hear me play piano.”

The kid in me however, finds it hard to truly view the song as a piece of protest music. It’s tied too much to my childhood for me to really grasp onto it the way it is intended. Every time I hear the song I’m back to my bedroom, looking forward to my sister’s visits.  If I hadn’t been exposed to it as a kid, I might view it the same way I do “God Save the Queen” or any number of Billy Bragg songs.

“The Queen is Dead” makes me happy and reminds me of my youth in a way that would enrage Morrissey, I’m sure. Here’s hoping he does it with some of the wit found in “The Queen is Dead”.

 

 

New Music: “Pb (Lead)” – Dust Engineers

 

 

BandSelfieDustEngineers

About a year ago, I got a chance to interview Zachary Meyer from the terrific Dust Engineers. The group has returned with an eerie new song “Pb (Lead)” which will be included on their debut full-length next year.  The song conjures up sounds of the desert with its dark guitar strumming and haunting vocals by Sarah M.  It’s the type of spooky song that wouldn’t have fitted perfectly against the back-drop of Breaking Bad.

Check out “Pb (Lead)” below:

 

Song of the Week: “1979” – Smashing Pumpkins

 

This song always reminds me of summer with its laid-back groove and smooth bass-line.  It’s also the closest thing that the Smashing Pumpkins ever came to writing a pure pop song.  Indeed, it’s light weight feel comes as a welcome relief to the heaviness that surrounds the rest of Mellon Collie & The Infinite Sadness.  Billy Corgan isn’t usually one who comes off as fun, but “1979” sounds downright fun compared to some of his other songs.  Even the name is bouncy compared to such other song titles as “Fuck You (An Ode to No One)”, “Bullet with Butterfly Wings”, “Cherub Rock,” etc.

What’s odd though, is that’s its’ not the melody that gets stuck in your head but the background voice that is looped throughout the entire song.  That’s the part that everyone remembers about the song.

The video seems to capture the song’s feel and brings in a feeling of nostalgia.  There’s parties abound: a roll of toilet paper being thrown at Corgan as he sings.  It’s a direct contrast to the video for “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” where the band plays in a mud-bath.  That video screamed self-loathing as did the song’s famous hook.  But “1979” offers something much simpler, which is why even when I grow tired of The Smashing Pumpkins and Corgan’s ego posturing, I still love this song.

 

Album of the Week: “Document” – R.E.M.

 

At the time of its release, Document was R.E.M.’s most mainstream album. Michael Stipe’s infamous mumbling was given some added clarity, and the rest of the band turned up their instruments. Peter Buck’s trademark arpeggi chords were replaced by a thicker and louder riffs. Bill Berry’s drums never sounded so menacing and urgent. Mike Mills’ (one rock’s most under-rated bass players) comes up with of his best playing particularly on the opener “Finest Worksong” where his slaps open up each verse. Scott Litt’s production gives the band some weight and power, but he never washes over the band with a slick gloss.  With all of those factors in place, it’s not surprising that Document would be the album would put R.E.M. on the map and take them out of the college circuit.

Underneath the band’s bid for a wider audience, Document is unlike any other in the band’s catalogue. Several of the songs (“Welcome to the Occupation”, “Exhuming McCartney”, “Disturbance at the Heron House”, “Lightnin’ Hopkins”) contain no real chorus. Unusually for R.E.M., there are no ballads – though “King of Birds” comes the closest – instead the album is full of tight rockers. There’s a lengthy instrumental in “Fireplace” which contains a slightly cheesy saxophone solo. Meanwhile the main hook of “Lightnin Hopkins” is Mills’ chant of the “crow”.  Then of course, there’s the “Subterranean Homesick Blues” homage “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”.  Since it’s been overplayed (and perhaps misunderstood) it’s easy to forget how weird of a song it really is.

Document is also the band’s most political and world weary album. Previously, R.E.M. never shied away from politics, but here Stipe ‘s targets are direct, even if his lyrics are cloaked in bizarre wordplay like “you’re sharpening stones, walking on coals, to improve your business acumen.” Elsewhere “Welcome to the Occupation” criticizes the US’s involvement in Central America with a call “to hang your freedom higher.”  That lyric was originally intended to be “hang your freedom fighters”, but changed due to Berry’s objection. (A wise choice.)

As serious as many of the songs are, R.E.M. still manages to have some fun throughout.  The Wire cover of “Strange” is stomping fun. Even though Stipe may have been attracted to its lyrics “there’s something going on that’s not quite right” and its fits with the overall theme of the album, he’s sounds like he’s having a blast singing it On “Lightnin’ Hopkins”, Buck fires off some distorted bluesy riffs while Stipe manages to let loose a few enthusiastic whoops. At the tail end of “Oddfellows Local 151”, the band seems to play without regard to anything except playing.  Buck strums away violently for over a minute, and the rest of the band seem to follow suit.

Document is and remains of R.E.M.’s best albums. Due to the nature of the music and Stipe’s lyrics it contains a focus that lacks in some of their other albums. There are no fillers, and every song is played with an attack that the band never matched. (Though on the un-even Monster, they certainly tried to replicate Document’s harder edge.)

The 25th Anniversary Edition released last week, contains a bonus disc with a show from the band’s legendary Work Tour recorded in Holland. It’s a good portrait of R.E.M. as a live band, but like The Who, this addition would have meant more to me about 15 years ago.