Latest Reviews

Second Look: Pink Floyd – The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn

By John Ulmer; April 17, 2012 at 12:00 AM 

Every Pink Floyd fan has his favourite era of the band’s music. For the casual listener, the obvious essentials are Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here. These are indisputably great albums — masterpieces in their own right — but I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.

Usually I don’t go into first-person narratives with my reviews, but it seems appropriate to do so here. I wasn’t exactly a big music buff until my mid-teens; around the age of 15 or so, for whatever reason, I suddenly gained a huge interest in music, and hungrily devoured a lot of classic rock in my effort to self-educate myself, since I hadn’t grown up in a household that embraced popular music. Somewhere along the way I struck Pink Floyd and Dark Side became an object of regular rotation.

And then someone, somewhere, mentioned Syd Barrett to me, and I delved into Piper on a whim. To my surprise, I became somewhat enamored with not only the album, but Barrett himself. As is the case for many of his fans, something about his enigmatic personality only made the music more appealing. He was still alive at this time, and I found it fascinating that an artist could produce such a masterful work and then, for all practical purposes, drop off the face of the earth and live in relative obscurity, only to be photographed on rare occasion during daily trips to the candy store (a diabetic, he reportedly became quite addicted to sweets in his old age).

I like to think, too, in an admittedly sad way, that I related to his alienation and introspective nature that had been translated through his music. I was at a transitory period in my life, that awkward stage between adolescence and adulthood; much as many teenage boys find connections with Cobain and Morrison, I could relate to Barrett. And, as also with Cobain and Morrison, the tragedy of Barrett’s personal life seemed to only enrich his music over the years. Cruelly, the level of cult attention he now receives may have been enough to lift him out of whatever state he was in. Instead, he slowly lost his mind, lost in a haze of psychedelic drugs and depression, perhaps even schizophrenia.

All of this having been said, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn is unlike any other Pink Floyd album, and yet showcases some of the group’s best work. The psychedelia of tracks like “Take Up Thy Stethoscope and Walk” may sound somewhat dated, but the songs as a whole still hold up brilliantly. “Lucifer Sam” has one of the best riffs of all time, playful and fun with an impossibly catchy, abrupt chorus.

For those who are more accustomed to the band’s later works like Dark Side and never delved into their early material, Piper is essential listening. The Barrett era of Pink Floyd and hear a very different band, lost in a haze of psychedelia and acid trips but still firing on all cylinders.

Second Look: Pink Floyd – The Dark Side of the Moon

By Will Ryan; March 19, 2012 at 12:01 AM 

It’s 2012. The Dark Side of the Moon is 39 years old. I’m 23. Pink Floyd’s breakout eighth studio album was a hearty fifteen years old by the time I was born. For me, The Dark Side of the Moon sits along side the Star Wars Trilogy, LEGOS, and 1-800-COLLECT ads as a piece of the collective zeitgeist that pre-date any of my conscious memories. They’re all elements that seem to inhabit in an incomprehensible fog bank between pre-existence and recollection. It’s a perspective I’ll never share with some Brixton teenager who immediately dropped cash on Pink Floyd’s newest record in 1973 because he liked Meddle a whole helluva lot. Or anyone of an age with myself who made the off-hand decision to download DSofM because she’d heard syncing this Pink Floyd album and The Wizard of Oz was a great way to spend an evening with a cooked brain. Dark Side was a fixture of long car drives with my dad through rural Vermont back roads in the later hours of evening. The car’s headlamps and the clear field of stars above the only light in the world.

Unlike the toys of my childhood and the ads of the pre-cell phone society, DSofM has managed to stay relevant and personal to me – growing and changing as I continually revisit the universe that sits inside its forty-two minute run. There’s also an immersion unique to Dark Side that fosters a palpable sense of its place in my memory. As I’ve developed the critical mindset that has brought me to where I am now writing this review, it continues to be a challenge to try and approach DSofM with any amount of objectivity. For me, the climatic space battle at the end of Return of the Jedi is still the pinnacle of any and all special fx-driven awe, and similarly DSofM is gospel, written in stone as readily as any kind of moral identity I might possess and the sense memories that belong the place where I grew up. Everyone has these subjective cultural touchstones that come baked into their development and imagination and subsequent identity, and for DSotM, a record that’s sold roughly 45 million copies (the third best selling album worldwide) as it was being remastered for the second time, culturally it’s an oddly fitting place to occupy.

For the a large portion of my generation Pink Floyd is a group whose reputation precedes it in such a fashion as to become passe and immediately quantifiable. The latent hype of their place in the collective unconscious creates a sort of divot rot from overexposure. The critical specificity regarding the group’s place has become so well worn – not to mention associated with the enthusiasm of aging generations who obviously have no idea what the kids are into – as to create an image of undermining generality defined by classic rock station playlists that include “Money” and “Have A Cigar,” making it easy to write Pink Floyd off as “trippy” (a descriptor everyone should stop using for anything ever) as if we’ve all already heard everything they’ve had to offer via osmosis. The Beatles get this treatment. Bowie gets this treatment. Elton John. The list goes on and on and on. Where Pink Floyd differ from that shortlist is in that Roger Waters and David Gilmour are hardly household names. Pink Floyd’s image is built almost solely from iconography, mythology, stereotypical fans, and, well, music. And The Dark Side of the Moon is a bit of clarity beneath that cultural distortion.

DSotM is, arguably, the starting point for Pink Floyd’s classic era. Following a more minor breakout in 1970’s Meddle. Dark Side was the first record to sport one of Floyd’s most impactful and influential elements in a full album concept. It’s a concept album. Probably the most notorious if you’re willing to forget about Sgt. Peppers and the Lonely Hearts Club Band. In any case, it’s hard to argue that any group had committed so fully to their LP concept up to that point. Pink Floyd tied together a sense of sound design in original spoken word segments and field recordings and a move toward overt pop structure built from a foundation of gospel, blues, proto-electronica, psychedelia, jazz, and a forward vision with a lyrical concept revolving around the general human condition in its many states and effects. This is all well-covered ground.

Pink Floyd would go on to record more sophisticated and detailed conceptual visions on The Wall and The Final Cut, making goes at personal and intricate character studies and anti-war commentaries. Yet DSofM remains the group’s most recognizably Floyd-ian statement and their most immediate and accessible record. Its in part due to the broader and more general nature of Dark Side’s concept. It’s a record that seeks to deconstruct the broader strokes of humanity and there’s a relatability in the simplicity and more general outlook of its conceptual trappings. DSotM is a record that has come to define the solitary listening experience. It came out in an era where that was often times the only available option, but even in its extended legacy it fosters a quiet air of introversion. The record goes down like a pending Ambien-induced sleep teetering at the edge of in vitro dreams. DSotM isn’t so much psychedelic as it is wholly atmospheric, and it was one of the first and most approachable documents that could claim as much.

The Dark Side of the Moon’s place in the pantheon of legendary rock album legends is as a personal and individual experience, which seems to play so fiercely against type. It’s an album that captures the unconscious that connects us all both emotionally and intellectually. It’s most visceral and affecting moment is a track about death based around a four-minute outpouring of wordless vocal ecstasy and its immediately comprehensible (“Great Gig in the Sky”). In other words, it doesn’t need words. My experience growing up with the record is almost allegorical to the record’s content. That place it occupies as a classic record bubbling up through our psyche with the potential for adolescent discovery is, in a sense, exactly where DSotM belongs. There’s a short mostly inconsequential titular documentary about the album, Pink Floyd: The Dark Side of the Moon, discussing the background and creation of the album, but it ends on a memorably down note. David Gilmour is oddly wistful as he makes the point that he never had the experience of listening to The Dark Side of the Moon for the first time and that he wished he had.

Second Look: Madonna – Music

By Josh Becker; March 13, 2012 at 12:00 AM 

Since her humblest lace-bra-and-dangling-rosaries beginnings, Madonna has been an artist of image: through her music videos, fashion choices, and concerts (cone bra, anyone?) she’s tied her music to various visual tropes that provide a stylistic context through which to hear her music. While she pretty much set the benchmark for pop music self-promotion since the advent of MTV, such an approach can make it difficult to appreciate her music on its own terms.

Well, that and the fact that she’s never released a front-to-back great album. As a big Madge fan, I’ve long since come to terms with the fact that even her most critically praised efforts — Like a Prayer and Ray of Light — are imperfect records, each with a small but not ignorable amount of filler. So when I think of my favorite Madonna album, I don’t think of what’s necessarily the best or most flawless. Instead, I think of what’s weirdest. When has Madonna most playfully toyed with her sound the same way she toys with her image?

The answer was released in 2000, and it’s called Music. Notably, it’s her first album to have been largely made outside the United States, with the majority of recording sessions taking place in London. While she once again collaborated with William Orbit (who was chiefly responsible for achieving the airy electronic sound of Ray of Light), she also worked with French producer Mirwais Ahmadzai, whose chopped-and-screwed approach would come to define Madonna’s follow-up LP, American Life.

But Music hits the sweet spot between the futuristic atmospherics of Ray of Light and the more avant-garde effects of American Life, and it’s for this reason (along with the wonderful pop songwriting on display throughout) that I find myself turning to this album more than the others in Madonna’s discography. It hits the ground running—strutting, really, as it opens with the title track that became an international smash (as well as her first Billboard Hot 100 chart-topper since the 1994 ballad “Take a Bow”). It begins with a voice — Madonna’s own, in fact, distorted to the point of sounding almost creepily masculine — instructing a DJ to “put a record on.” And then the peppy, midtempo beat drops, along with a spartan synth line and more vocal distortion (this time with the pitch turned way up instead of way down). It’s an altogether eerie introduction to the lead single from the album that would serve to launch her globe-spanning Drowned World tour.

“Eerie” isn’t a bad thing, however. In fact, I think the distinctly minimalist feel of the track — in terms of both instrumentation and melody — is what’s made it so versatile in her discography. Each time Madonna has performed the song on tour, she’s given it a complete aural makeover while retaining its hedonistic core with each performance. Check out this discofied version of the song from her Confessions tour, or this pumped-up rave reworking from the Sticky and Sweet tour. Whether or not you agree that she’s being a “rebel,” you can’t deny the strength of a single that can succeed in its original form as well as in a variety of adapted live permutations.

Then… well, then we get the album’s two weakest tracks. (Hey, like I said, there’s never been a flawless Madonna album.) I suppose “Impressive Instant” is fun in a more traditionally upbeat way, but it’s difficult to get past lyrics that vacillate between hackneyed and downright cringe-inducing (“I like to singy, singy, singy / Like a bird on a wingy, wingy, wingy”). “Runaway Lover” is less egregiously embarrassing but still ultimately forgettable.

Not to worry! The seven remaining tracks on Music are uniformly excellent. “I Deserve It” surprises the listener with warm, untouched vocals and refreshingly simplistic acoustic folk; later, prairie-home harmonies and electronic background noises lend the song a trippy, frontier-of-the-future air. Next up is “Amazing,” which seems to find Madge and Orbit building off the psychedelic-pop base they constructed for 1999’s “Beautiful Stranger” while fleshing it out with tender piano and space-age cosmic atmospherics.

Now, most Madonna albums are frontloaded with the best tracks, presumably so as to make for convenient listening during the morning commute or on the treadmill. Music, however, is unique in this regard, saving its greatest moments for its final half. Specifically, I’m talking about the unbeatable one-two glitch-pop punch of “Nobody’s Perfect” and “Don’t Tell Me.” The former cleverly employs autotune as an ironic device, meant to exemplify the perfection that the song’s protagonist is unable to achieve. With disarmingly straightforward lyrics (from the chorus: “Nobody’s perfect / Nobody’s perfect / What did you expect? / I’m doing my best”) and some of the most bittersweet chord changes I’ve ever heard in a Madonna song, it illustrates the value of studio collaboration: mix two parts Madonna pop expertise with one part Mirwais artful disjointedness, and the results are both heartbreaking and utterly listenable.

Upon first hearing “Don’t Tell Me,” some listeners actually worried that their copy of the album was defective; why else would the folksy guitar sample be so clipped, the beat so stuttering, and the silences so sudden and numerous? And what’s with the seemingly unhinged violin that shows up halfway through? The whole track is redolent of the drunken memories of some sexed-up hoedown, sputtering to life with patience and purpose. Madonna’s voice has rarely sounded better, her learned vibrato sung with effortless confidence. What’s more, the moment at which the rhythm finally coalesces is practically a revelation. I’ve found this single to be among her most enduringly beloved, and that’s probably the result of its unique spin on country-western pop tropes. America has long held a fascination with the mythological cowboy (or cowgirl, as it were), but rarely has a pop star tinkered with the sounds of the heartland with such aesthetic inventiveness or commercial success.

Music closes with three slow burners, each more mellow than the last. “What It Feels Like For A Girl” sounds slick, chic, and fashionable, like the aural equivalent of an edition of Vogue. Of course, the lyrics rail against this very superficiality: a woman wearing “tight blue jeans, skin that shows in patches” is “strong inside but you don’t know it / Good little girls, they never show it.” This is hardly Madonna’s first song with a feminist bent, but it might be her least heavy-handed. Its chorus is a question that confronts the male listener with his privilege: “Do you know what it feels like in this world, for a girl?”

“Paradise (Not For Me)” is the most avant-garde track here, combining bilingual spoken-word lyrics with space-age lounge pop that probably takes itself a little too seriously but is ultimately redeemed by its haunting vibraphone and (unintentionally) prophetic lyrics: “Your paradise is not for me,” Madonna sang, as she was preparing to marry Guy Ritchie (from whom she split a couple years ago). And album closer “Gone” is among the most lyrically expressive tracks she’s ever recorded, grappling with notions of regret and disillusionment as a lonely guitar rings out in sympathy. It’s sort of like a sequel to “I Deserve It,” only more thematically interesting and with a more memorable hook to boot.

Overall, Music represents a creative zenith for Madonna’s 21st century output. Despite talk that she’s “over the hill” or “trying too hard” these days, the album remains a surprisingly experimental joy to revisit. At equal turns touching, grooving, and exploratory, she has yet to best it.

Second Look: Coldplay – A Rush of Blood to the Head

By Harrison Suits Baer; December 2, 2011 at 12:00 AM 

I don’t have much time to write this article. Once this hits the internet, I’ll be discovered. I’m already preparing to flee at a moment’s notice. I have the necessary documents prepared to change my name and start a new life. Being an indie music enthusiast is a dangerous thing, I tell you, because once you have the wrong opinion, they’re after you, torches and Pitchforks in hand. It is at great risk to me and those to whom I am close that I reveal to you my deepest, darkest secret: I like Coldplay.

Somewhere, a festival-goer’s dreadlocks have shot up on end. Somewhere, a plaid-clad college freshman has just spat out his PBR in disgust. Somewhere, a blogger trying to uncover the next big indie thing has shed a single tear. Liking Coldplay is just not something you’re supposed to do once you become a music hipster. Sure, the unwritten hipster code allows you one guilty musical pleasure, but A Rush of Blood to the Head is no such thing. Damn it, it’s an honest-to-God pretty damn good record. I don’t care that he-who-liketh-Coldplay shall surely be subjected to snobby derision (Tangari 5:1), as long as I get to enjoy one of the greatest pure pop albums of the past decade again and again.

I mean, what hormonal high-school sophomore couldn’t have been immediately taken by the hypnotic arpeggios of “Clocks,” or the fist-pumping drums and soaring, weeping guitar hook of “In My Place,” or the pleading, pensive piano of “The Scientist”? In that day, A Rush of Blood to the Head was possibly the best album of all time for many an angsty teen. Yet, almost ten years after its release, the album still stands as Coldplay’s best argument for why they are the biggest pop band in the world.

It’s by no means a pop masterpiece, though. What we have is a collection of damn solid songs that know how to tap into the appeal of a mass audience. After the sudden success of “Yellow,” and its host album Parachutes, Coldplay took their game a step further. What A Rush of Blood to the Head became was a majestic refinement of the ideas on Parachutes. The first charging chords of opener “Politik” belie the band’s stadium-filling ambitions, while the band meditates their position in the pop music world. “Look at Earth from outer space / everyone must find a place,” sings Chris Martin. He expresses dissatisfaction with the past on the equally expansive arena-jam “In My Place.” Even the album’s ballads (“The Scientist,” “Amsterdam,” “Warning Sign”) are embellished to the point that they would level a smaller venue, something slightly hinted at on such Parachutes cuts as “Shiver” and “Trouble.” “Green Eyes” provides a jaunty mid-album respite from the grandiosity, while still managing to sound bigger than anything on Parachutes. Elsewhere, the album’s title track explores the political situation of that day. “I’m going to buy a gun and start a war / if you can tell me something worth fighting for,” Martin sings, expressing frustration at the patriotic eagerness of America and Britain to go to war in the Middle East. Finally, “Amsterdam” shows that Coldplay had saved the best for last. The track begins as a cry for help set over a simple but heart-tugging piano hook, before releasing the rest of the band in a cathartic explosion of guitars and drums. It ranks among the best songs Coldplay has ever recorded, and is a perfect closer for an album like this, beginning with echoes of the quietude of Parachutes, and slowly growing bigger and bigger. It’s the evolution of the band encapsulated in a single song.

Coldplay have in the past expressed that Parachutes is their least favorite record, which may explain why each song on A Rush of Blood to the Head takes the intimate and personal lyricism of that album and turns all the musical and production dials up to eleven. It is, effectively, their application for the position of “Biggest Band in the World.” Application accepted. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to run. I see an angry mob outside, and they’re all wearing plaid.

Second Look: Bjork – Homogenic

By Cole Zercoe; November 21, 2011 at 12:00 AM 

Although a solo artist by definition, Björk’s success from album to album has always been contingent on her collaborators. The success of these collaborations – ranging from work with recurring figures like producer Howie B to left field choices like Timbaland – has been a bit of a mixed bag. For every time Björk hits one out of the park, it’s just as likely things won’t work out nearly as well on her next go around. This tendency has increased in recent years – Volta was as close to a complete disaster as an artist such as Bjork can likely reach, and her follow-up, Biophilia, even at its best, reaches nowhere near the heights of some of her previous efforts. And yet, despite her undeniably spotty track record, Björk’s artistic credibility and critical acclaim has remained relatively steadfast throughout the years. Why? The answer is 1997’s Homogenic – a work of such awe-inspiring artistic achievement it only comes around a few times each decade.

One of the most underappreciated musical movements of the 90s in terms of its quality, influence, and lasting musical legacy was the emergence of trip-hop – less a genre than an easy way of referring to a collection of albums that shared one common characteristic; electronic work that was piercingly dark in tone and often impossibly beautiful. Along with Portishead’s Dummy and Massive Attack’s Mezzanine, Homogenic completes a sort of holy trinity of this musical aesthetic – an aesthetic whose influence can be found in contemporary artists ranging from R&B savior The Weeknd to rave-staples such as Crystal Castles.

What these three albums destroy is the idea that electronic music can never create or inspire emotion as effectively as traditional instrumentation can. Following the lessons of Depeche Mode and New Order, utilizing digital instrumentation in a way that finally moved it out of the realm of cheese or gimmick was arguably at its apex in the 90s, and not only in the trip-hop arena. Elsewhere, artists such as Trent Reznor and Billy Corgan were also solidifying the now undeniable power and possibility that stems from giving keyboards and samplers as much stage time as stringed instruments.

But as much as a record like The Downward Spiral or a song like “Ava Adore” stand tall in the seamless blending of electronic and traditional instrumental work that ran through so much of the 90s, there’s something perhaps more precious, and more powerful, in the art of trip-hop. It’s a musical approach that sounds almost voyeuristically personal – a sound discovered in an unlit alleyway or behind the closed doors of an upstairs bedroom. And yet, what makes Homogenic unique in this category is its ability to retain this unique brand of darkness while at the same time evoking a sense of hopefulness that contradicts it.

The two masterminds of Homogenic – producer Mark Bell and Björk – are equally vital in their roles of crafting this complex musical space. Everything that represents the core of what makes their work on Homogenic so flawless – staggering beauty, haunting atmosphere, and a musical tone that manages to be as grandiose as it is intimate – is found on the album’s second track, “Joga.” Electronic work that sounds like bombs dropping in the distance is coupled with soaring strings to create a song that, production-wise, pulls the listener deep into its darkness. Björk serves to balance the proceedings – rallying against the darkness by soaring above it. Elsewhere, tracks such as the abrasive “Pluto” and the lurching “Hunter,” find Bjork and her musical backing as equal players, each working to create an atmosphere that is as threatening as it is beautiful.

And it is precisely this approach that makes the Icelandic singer’s otherworldly vocals feel more at home on Homogenic than they do on any other of her works. Whatever Mark Bell’s production work calls for – whether a counter to its darkness or an aid to its fragility, Björk finds a way to blend in seamlessly, never once demanding the greatest attention. Even on the aforementioned “Joga,” a song that features her most piercingly beautiful vocal performance ever, the strings accompanying her can just as easily be considered the star of the show. In essence, Homogenic is the work of two artists so intertwined in the world they are crafting that the absence of either of them would cause the entire thing to collapse. This is a far cry from Björk’s tendency to dominate whatever music accompanies her – a problem that is often unavoidable given her larger-than-life vocal persona.

What this all adds up to is an album that represents Björk at her most artistically tangible; a record perfectly suited to her strangeness that manages the impossible task of playing to her strengths and eliminating her weaknesses. But Homogenic goes far beyond simply being the best Björk record; like all great art, the album presents an identity so deeply layered, unique, personal, and filled with masterfully crafted contradictions it is impossible to imitate or ignore.

Second Look: Guns N’ Roses – Use Your Illusion II

By John Ulmer; October 31, 2011 at 12:00 AM 

If volume one was the angrier of the two Use Your Illusion records, then II is its sadder counterpart, filled with more ballads and less vitriol. Sure, UYI I had its share of emotional tracks – “November Rain” the most glaring inclusion – but even those were filled with a bit more cynicism and spite (“Rain” was, after all, essentially about the end of a relationship, and the video showed a pill-swallowing, liquor-swilling man on the verge of suicide). UYI II is a bit more contemplative, nostalgic and accepting. I was denial, anger, bargaining; II is the depression (“Estranged”) and acceptance (“Yesterdays”).

Of course, let’s not look too much into all this: the album, after all, houses two of the band’s worst songs, “Get in the Ring” and “My World,” not to mention an unnecessary remake of “Don’t Cry” which pales in comparison to the original, if only because the melody is the same and, well, it’s not the original.

But it’s still interesting, in retrospect, to view the album as two distinct parts, and to consider whether the thematic differences in tracklisting were purposeful or incidental. It is easier, too, to perceive the record as a reflection of the band’s state of mind rather than one concerning romantic relations; the music video for “Yesterdays” in particular is eerily prescient, featuring black-and-white clips of the band playing in an abandoned warehouse (a possible homage to “Sweet Child O’ Mine”’s iconic vid) interspersed with photographs of the Appetite for Destruction days. The band members look happy in these pictures, and in the present day seem to just be going through the motions; the change in their appearances is also startling (Axl, dressed simply in jeans and t-shirt, with his hair in a ponytail, has never looked more average or everyman; and while Slash is sporting a hat, it’s not his signature one. Rhythm guitarist Izzy Stradlin is noticeably absent, as by this point he had altogether removed himself from the group).

It’s one of their best songs and one of the few from the Illusions that isn’t vastly over-produced or overlong; at 3 minutes and 16 seconds, it is indeed one of their shortest tracks, and effective as a sort of meta-comment on their break-up before they broke up. At least one of them possibly foresaw the future and ran with it.

But that’s not to say the overproduction on the album is a flaw. Well, it is — but it’s an endearing one. The Illusions are, after all, most fondly (for some) remembered for their excess and self-indulgence, and elsewhere on II we have the Spinal Tap-ish Socially Conscious Rock Star cliché in full effect (evident on “Civil War,” where W. Axl Rose, a man who legally changed his name so that its anagram would spell “WAR,” implores us to consider “what’s so civil about war anyway?”), a 9-minute track inspired by Vanishing Point, and a song that opens with some kind of Middle Eastern-inspired riff, and whose lyrical hook turns out to be, “She’s pretty tied up / Hangin’ upside down / She’s pretty tied up / And you can ride her.” What?!

Though it may, overall, have a couple weaker tracks than its counterpart, Use Your Illusion II is the more cohesive of the two albums and simply more fun to listen to despite a more somber tone. The band took a lot of heat for covering “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door,” with critics citing their increasing number of cover songs as a sign of selling out/losing touch/whatever (a version of Wings’ “Live and Let Die” was featured on UYI I), but the truth is that GN’R had been playing the song live for years – it’s even included on the setlist for their legendary Appetite-era Ritz show from ’88 (definitely worth YouTubing if you want to see the group at their peak). Truth be told, the real sign of their losing touch was the production on the track itself – at one point post-guitar-solo, someone felt it was appropriate to include a bizarre answering machine recording, where someone threatens a mysterious fellow named Jack that he won’t have any more of his “rank subjugation” and chastises him for his “tattered libido.” Huh?! (Also: the alternate version of this song, included in the Tom Cruise movie Days of Thunder, apparently featured dialogue snippets from the movie itself on top of everything else. You’ve gotta love the ‘90s.)

But, it’s awesome. Broad, bombastic, anthemic. When you think of GN’R at their most popular, this is the exact kind of sprawling song that comes to mind, for better or worse.

“Get in the Ring” and “Shotgun Blues” are back-to-back on the tracklisting, which is nice, because it makes them so much easier to skip. To be fair, the former of the two at least has a nice melody – and pretty solid little riffs and basslines by Slash and Duff McKagan respectively – but it’s ruined by Axl’s ego at its worst, chastising irrelevant music publications and record execs and inviting them to “suck his fucking dick.” “Shotgun Blues,” on the other hand, is mediocre at best on a musical level, and abhorrent in its lyrics; written in response to a feud with Vince Neil, Axl invites the Motley Crue singer to “suck his ass,” which continues his odd fascination with the idea of other men sucking questionable areas of his body.

“Breakdown” is the sort of track that an average fan probably wouldn’t appreciate, but has been singled out as a fan favourite by many over the years – it’s too long, sure, but at this point, criticizing a song on these albums for being “too long” almost seems redundant. The whole Vanishing Point thing was apparently tacked on to the end because Axl had seen the movie on TV one day during the recording sessions and thought it was cool; 20 years later it’s hilariously misguided and amazing at the same time.

Another fan favourite, “Estranged,” is a song that should have been the album’s closer; a nine-minute ballad that might not be stuck in your head as easily as, say, “Don’t Cry” or “November Rain” (the supposed prequels to a trilogy of thematically-linked songs), but is probably one of the most emotionally draining and musically heavy pieces the group has written; it is, once again, very much an Axl Rose song, and he is the sole credit for its lyrics, but Slash has two of his best solos here – so good that Axl went out of his way to thank the lead guitarist for his work on the song in the record’s liner notes. It would be more logical to compare “Estranged” to “Coma,” from UYI I, in terms of how it is structured: it’s the sort of track that won’t be on any Greatest Hits compilations but would probably be on most fans’ Best-Of lists.

Considered wholly two decades later, the Use Your Illusions represent many things, but mostly these: a band given free reign and a music industry at its height. As mentioned in the Use Your Illusion I retrospective: this type of record really wouldn’t be possible today. The double LP is essentially dead as we delve deeper into the digital download era, and the fleeting nature of the modern pop star has rendered such excess and self-indulgence as seen on display here extinct – Donald Trump even lined up outside Tower Records to purchase these discs back in ’91, to give you an idea of how universally-anticipated they were.

Use Your Illusion I and II have been heavily criticized, from the day of their release to the present; however, over time, some of these criticisms have become strengths, and as a whole they represent a compelling encapsulation of a band at their peak, never failing to bore even at their most bloated. Keith Richards, a man all too familiar with the excess of records such as Exile On Main Street, once said that Guns N’ Roses could have been the next Rolling Stones. He wasn’t too far off.


Read John Ulmer’s Second Look at Use Your Illusion I here.

Second Look: Pink Floyd – The Final Cut

By David Skinner; August 26, 2011 at 12:12 AM 

Pink Floyd songwriter/bassist Roger Waters has never been a very humble person. Whether it be dismissing fellow band members, writing a semi-autobiographical album about the hardships of his rock superstardom (1979’s The Wall), or simply taking credit for the work of others, Waters has always had an egomaniacal sense about him. By the beginning of the 1980s, Waters’ attitude had begun to wear on his fellow bandmates. With keyboardist Richard Wright being forced out of the band following the release of The Wall, and Waters’ growing sense of entitlement and forcefulness in the studio, the rest of the band began to feel exceedingly hopeless. This conflict reached a boiling point during the recording of Pink Floyd’s 1983 album The Final Cut. The sessions were notoriously heated, with Rogers refusing to give up his artistic vision, since he felt like he had compromised his vision on the band’s previous album The Wall. It was a dreary moment in the band’s illustrious history. However, despite Waters’ egomania, The Final Cut remains Pink Floyd’s most understated (and underrated) album, as well as a classic in the minimalist rock vein.

Much of the album’s weight is carried through Waters’ emotional vocal delivery, as the majority of the album is devoid of excessive instrumentation. In the opening track, “The Post-War Dream,” Waters whispers the line “Tell me true, tell me why, was Jesus crucified? Was it for this that daddy died?” over the sound of distant trumpets, his vocals reeking with anguish and an almost child-like curiosity that tugs at even the coldest of hearts. It is clear that Waters is holding nothing back emotionally. He is exposing his soul for all to see. On tracks like “The Final Cut” and “Two Suns in the Sunset,” Waters will release an exasperated wail full of pain and frustration one moment, and the next he’ll sound close to tears. This emotional ride is simply heightened by the album’s simplistic instrumentation, as the use of gentle guitar plucks and orchestral tracks, coupled with Waters’ often echoed vocals, give a sense of internal strife. It is an aesthetic that creates a shockingly intimate atmosphere to The Final Cut’s anti-war themes.

In many ways, The Final Cut feels like an album of redemption for Waters, as The Wall shows signs of artistic compromise. The band collectively decided to gravitate towards an arena rock style for several of The Wall’s tracks (most notably the songs “Comfortably Numb” and “Run Like Hell”). Waters, however, wanted the album to be stylistically similar to The Final Cut. When The Wall became successful because of these compromises and not because of his vision, Waters became resentful. He refused to make the same mistake twice. The Final Cut (which is comprised of tracks that were rejected by the band during The Wall sessions) avoids any sense of arena rock, choosing instead to focus on minimalism and subtlety. This may have alienated much of the band’s fan base, but it makes The Final Cut a more focused artistic effort than any of Pink Floyd’s previous albums (yes, including 1973’s Dark Side of the Moon).

Ultimately, Pink Floyd’s The Final Cut is evidence that beauty is an offset of chaos. In all intents and purposes, The Final Cut should have been a failure as a result of the band’s growing entropy, as well as the animosity surrounding the album’s recording sessions. Much like the album’s recording sessions, The Final Cut is a dark and difficult album. However, it is this struggle that makes The Final Cut a much more satisfying experience. In the end, The Final Cut remains a classic album and a cult favorite amongst fans of Pink Floyd – and rock minimalists alike – in spite of Roger Waters’ inflated ego.

First published November 16th, 2009

Second Look: John Coltrane – A Love Supreme

By Evan Kaloudis; August 26, 2011 at 12:00 AM 

A Love Supreme is a one of a kind album. It’s complex, deeply spiritual, ethereal, and at the same time very concise, wrapping itself up in under 33 minutes. A Love Supreme also marks a fascinating point in Coltrane’s career. At the time he was at the crossroads of two very distinct styles. On A Love Supreme he meshes the two of them: the very clean and precise, hard bop style he had become famous for in his early career and a looser, free jazz style he had embraced later.

When people think jazz, people generally think about music that is highly influenced by swing and bebop, held together tightly with fast tempos, and concise structure. Whereas Coltrane’s past works of say, Blue Train and Giant Steps, may fit the bill, A Love Supreme is a vast deviation. It’s full of emotion, hooks, and at times, sheer chaos so a new-found jazz listener may just dismiss it as an unfathomable mess.

Coltrane’s quartet for this album consists of tight-knit group of players consisting of Jimmy Garrison on bass, McCoy Tyner on piano, Elvin Jones on drums, and of course, John Coltrane on tenor saxophone. The album is a suite, broken into four different movements, “Acknowledgement,” “Resolution,” “Pursuance,” and “Psalm.” The album maintains a spiritual theme; Coltrane expresses his gratitude and ‘acknowledgement’ of his skills and talent and admits that that skill is owned by a higher power or God.

The spiritual journey of A Love Supreme begins with the banging of a gong “Acknowledgement.” It’s quickly followed by cymbal washes from Elvin Jones, Coltrane plays his brief intro of notes, the piano builds tension with a tremolo and slowly the cymbal washes fade out as bassist Jimmy Garrison enters with a four-note motif upon which the whole movement is based. The drums and piano soon enter and Coltrane begins his lively solo. After soloing over different variations of the motif, the motif eventually becomes a vocal chant of “A Love Supreme,” chanted by Coltrane himself. The purpose of this movement is to show that he “acknowledges” the existence of God and asks for strength and guidance to overcome the addictions (including a devastating heroin addiction of his which tore apart former playing groups) which had plagued him through most of his musical career. The chanting of “A Love Supreme” is a proclamation of his love for God that cannot be matched. As the tracks slows to a finish, Garrison’s bass fades out into the next track.

“Resolution” opens with a continuation of Garrison’s bass solo, which consists of some very low, but lively muted bass riffs, full of double-stops and a swing feel. Suddenly, the piece explodes as Coltrane enters about 20 seconds in. This opening solo is full of pure emotion. It’s dynamic, audacious, and simply breathtaking. In the background Tyner lays down his minor-key piano chords, supporting Coltrane, until Tyner takes the helm and enters with his solo. Tyner’s solo style is so drastically different. It’s seemingly the only fitting way to follow up Coltrane powerful opener. Tyner uses less of a range of notes; he’s clear and concise but very much on point. It all makes for a very strong solo. Coltrane then reenters for a second time, repeating the theme from the beginning of the movement. This second solo has more angst. Coltrane distorts his tones this time around by blowing more vigorously on his mouthpiece. This is perhaps representative of the pain in his life before rediscovering God. In many ways, “Resolution” can be seen as Coltrane’s mighty return after reaching out to God for help. Here Coltrane is at his finest: explosive, powerful, and transcendent.

Part three of the suite, “Pursuance,” opens with a roaring drum solo from Elvin Jones. The word ‘pursuance’ is defined as “The action of trying to achieve something.” This is conveyed through Jones’ determination as he plays through his solo and pounds on the snare drum. Jones follows the tempo set by drummer Garrison, and fills his solo with double-stops accordingly. After a minute and a half, Coltrane enters for a solo, but is quickly followed by a piano solo from full of cadenzas that finds him all over the keyboard. He then begins playing chords that lead into Coltrane’s second solo. This time around, Coltrane has a full three minutes on his hands. In it he reintroduces the six-note theme from the beginning of the movement. Concluding the piece is a bass solo from Garrison. The free-flowing solo is similar to that on “Acknowledgement” in that he repeats the three-note “A Love Supreme” theme.

Alas, we reach the conclusion of A Love Supreme, with “Psalm.” This incredibly moving track is based around a poem by Coltrane, dedicated to God, which is included in the album’s liner notes, also titled “A Love Supreme.” The track, in ways, is a “reading” of the poem in musical form. It’s a wordless recital of sorts. The saxophone solo is set to the meter of the poem. Elvin Jones creates a beautiful atmosphere by playing tympani as Coltrane emblematically reads the poem. This heartfelt and highly emotion performances from Coltrane ends on the line “Elation. Elegance. Exaltation. All from God. Thank you God. Amen.” And thus A Love Supreme comes to a close.

Remarkably the album was recorded in a single late-night session by Coltrane’s quartet, consisting of Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner, and Jimmy Garrison, on December 9th, 1964 at the Van Gelder Studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. This marked the first time that Coltrane had plotted out an album. For the most part, the tracks on the album were recorded in only one or two tracks. This was surprising for the time because previous to this Coltrane was known for being a perfectionist. He would record tracks over and over again until he was satisfied them. This marks another change in Coltrane’s life with this album. This is particularly amazing in that “Pursuance” and “Psalm” were recorded together in a single take. It begs the question, how could such a groundbreaking piece of art be constructed in so little time and in such few takes?

Not only does A Love Supreme showcase John Coltrane in his prime, encompassing flawless playing, emotional power, and rawness but it also marks several transitions in his life. First, is his change is from hard bop to free jazz style of playing. Second, is embracing of God which thematically dictates the whole album. Last is his transition from being more improvisation and winging the structure of his songs, while constantly re-recording for perfection to premeditating his pieces and recording in few takes. A Love Supreme also showcases one of the finest jazz quartets ever assembled. The four of them understood each other completely and played with such audacity, while laying down some of the greatest jazz solos ever played.

A Love Supreme is one of the most soulful recordings of all time. It’s spiritual, timeless, and transcendent All the while it remains the best selling Coltrane album to date. A Love Supreme may just be the greatest jazz record of all time. There’s no question, it’s certainly John Coltrane’s finest achievement.

Second Look: Guns N’ Roses – Use Your Illusion I

By John Ulmer; August 19, 2011 at 12:00 AM 

“Now when you hear this on the record, I put a lot of symphony to it… I’ll be lucky if I can remember the words.”

This warning from Axl Rose, lead singer of Guns N’ Roses, preceded the first-ever live performance in 1991 of “November Rain,” a track that became a chart-topping single later that same year. (You know this song: it broke both production budgets and MTV viewing ratings for its time, and even today, in the Bieber era, it has 50 million views on YouTube alone.)

Rose’s words back then said a lot. When he declares that he, specifically, had added a symphony to the studio version of the track, and that he would be lucky to remember the words, it isn’t incidental; by this point in time, the band, for all practical purposes – at least in Rose’s eyes – belonged to him. The rest of the group was too drugged-up and complacent to realize what was happening until it was too late, musically and legally. And that distanced, fragmented nature is part of what makes the Illusion records so great: everyone’s functioning on their own level, in their own world, some of them barely hanging on. The result isn’t remotely cohesive, but it’s never boring.

Of course, it’s no wonder why the group members were doing their own thing: In 1986, on the cusp of their historic debut album, the band all lived together in a squalid townhouse. By the turn of that decade, they were featured on every magazine cover, their lives under a microscope. As bassist Duff McKagan later remarked, they went from existing as a family to suddenly having their own mansions, their own limos and their own lives.

But it was Rose, in particular – perhaps due to his overtly rebel image, or maybe just because he was the singer – who was most immediately established within the music industry, flying the world by private jet (even when the rest of the group flew together) and adorning the cover of Rolling Stone.

The yes-men were already surrounding him, whether it was wannabe writer Del James (whose short novella was a supposed inspiration for “November Rain”) or the greedy record label executives (probably the same responsible for allowing Chinese Democracy to gestate for nearly two decades). So that little seed of excess that could be heard in bloom on Appetite for Destruction (the synth keyboards on “Paradise City,” for example, which Rose added unbeknownst to his bandmembers) soon blossomed into completely overblown theatrics – inspired in part (ironically enough for an alleged homophobe) by Elton John and Queen.

Conceived wholly as a double album but released as two separate volumes, the Illusions’ first chapter is its angriest. The record begins with the blistering “Right Next Door to Hell,” the lyrics written by Rose in response to his then-neighbor’s accusations of assault.

It’s that intrinsically personal ranting that makes Use Your Illusion so memorable. Yet Rose also has a penchant for writing in ambiguities – he obviously has specific targets in mind for some songs, but as on tracks such as “November Rain,” the general themes can be applied to anyone: unrequited love, bitterness, envy, hate, despair, loneliness, addiction. (And, conversely, that’s precisely why “Get in the Ring,” from this album’s sequel, turns into such an awful track: built upon a promising, boozy blues-riff by Slash, the song leads into an embarrassing bridge where Axl, shrouding his lead guitarist’s solo, begins rambling off a list of names: magazines, pop culture figures. Listen to this in 2011 and none of it matters; most of the people/publications named aren’t even relevant anymore. For the most part, however, UYI I is thankfully spared these embarrassing moments.)

Other bandmembers manage to take the spotlight at times. “Dust N’ Bones” features the underrated Izzy Stradlin on vocals, but the song itself is ultimately one of the less memorable here. (For what it’s worth, his solo albums have been generally solid.) Stradlin takes over vocal duties again (with Axl in tow) for “You Ain’t the First,” a tongue-in-cheek (maybe?) ballad that sounds like something cowboys would sing around a campfire. A fun track, but not really substantial enough to stand ground against some of the other material.

“Don’t Cry” achieved notoriety not just because it’s a great ballad, but because of the death of Shannon Hoon, the singer of Blind Melon. Rose and he were close friends; Hoon was invited to record backing vocals for multiple tracks on the Illusion albums, and Rose, in return, helped him achieve more mainstream recognition. The song is one of the band’s best, if you can appreciate their ballads. (It’s also worth noting that it was during the music video shoot for “Don’t Cry” that Stradlin, who bailed prior to Guns’ Use Your Illusion World Tour, first abandoned the rest of his band, declining to appear on set and instead sending along a brisk note informing Rose that he was unwilling to further cooperate unless certain terms were met. They weren’t, and so he is absent from the video.)

Then, of course, there is “November Rain.” The music video was the most expensive of all time; it hit the top of the charts and stayed there for ages, and – over the years – almost became symbolic of the band’s peak and subsequent demise. It represented the furthest removal from their Appetite for Destruction style, and is often the punchline to jokes about the group (or, more specifically, Axl – perhaps because he linked the music video so inherently to his personal life, even going so far as to cast then-girlfriend Stephanie Seymour as the bride-to-be).

But the song is simply great. For all its excess, it’s bold and beautiful and has a couple absolutely killer guitar solos. It’s been favorably compared over the years to epic rock ballads like “Stairway to Heaven” and “Layla,” and can comfortably share the same space with them on best-of lists. And Slash has pretty much built his entire brand around his iconic image from this video; it wasn’t long after this that he basically refused to ever remove his top hat.

Despite a couple softer ballads, Use Your Illusion I is, as has been mentioned, the harder, angrier and more vitriolic of the two Illusions. You have dirty, uncomfortably catchy tracks like “Back off Bitch”: originally recorded for Appetite, re-recorded here, and backed by the band’s most Stonesy riff, there’s nevertheless something both nastier and more abrasive about it than any of the spiteful or misogynistic lyrics on Appetite (but maybe that’s just because the polished production qualities clash against what should instinctively sound rawer and grittier). You also have tracks like “Don’t Damn Me,” which once again reflect the paranoid mindset of a singer who previously railed that the world was out ta get him.

And that’s Use Your Illusion in a nutshell: frustratingly brilliant. Flawed. Sprawling. Grandiose. Self-indulgent. Indecisive. Songs veer between near-perfection and utter disaster. There is not a single album in existence that perhaps sums up the perils of rock n’ roll decadence as these two volumes ­– you can practically hear the band rising and falling, exploding and imploding, coming dangerously close to a parody of the rock n’ roll cliché without ever fully embracing it. And with the traditional music industry dead and music stars as fleeting as the headlines they’re courted by, there will probably never be another album like it, because very few artists will be afforded the opportunity to achieve such excess.

(The review should close there. But one thing must be noted: the album’s final track, “Coma,” is also one of the band’s most underrated cuts – ever. It is both the signature sound of the Illusion records – sprawling, over-produced, overlong, bombastic – and the signature sound of its authors, Rose and Slash. Rose’s lyrics – wordy, ambivalent, vague, and borderline nonsensical in their phrasing at times – are at their most pained and introspective, and the verses after the last guitar solo are some of the most powerful he’s written. And Slash’s solos are two of his most creative and emotive. The song is a monster, perhaps not as well-regarded as it should be simply because of its long running time.)

Second Look: Blink-182 – Enema of the State

By Jon Blistein; August 17, 2011 at 12:41 AM 

I must have been 10. Driving down East Wynnewood (pronounced: Win-wood) Road, my mom slowing to a stop at the intersection at Bowman Avenue — a few blocks from my elementary school — me sitting in one of the captain seats of our forest green Mercury minivan talking about what I wanted to get at Borders.

“It’s an album called Enema Of The State,” I said.

“Jonathan!” she said after a beat. “Do you know what that word means?”

“It’s like enemy, right?”

“No. Just don’t say it.”

I went home empty handed that day. (And I didn’t learn what an enema was until a friend explained it—but that’s neither here nor there.)

I don’t remember where or when I first heard Blink-182, but it was one of two places: I was a pre-pre-teen discovering music on my own for the first time either on the radio, or MTV, where I spent my afternoons deftly flipping back and forth between cartoons on Nickelodeon and music videos (channels 38 and 40 respectively), hoping my parents wouldn’t walk down to the basement and catch me ogling—completely dumbfounded and confused by basic biology in that pre-pre-pubescent kind of way — video girls. What I do remember most is the video for “All The Small Things.”

At the turn of the millennium the music world as I knew it could be divided into two factions: rock and pop. (I think hip-hop was kind of on my radar, but I didn’t really become aware of it till The Marshall Mathers LP dropped in 2000, but that’s a whole different essay entirely.) On one side there was the Backstreet Boys, N*SYNC, and Britney Spears; on the other Green Day, Limp Bizkit (yeah, I listened to “Break Stuff” and “Rollin’” when I was 10. You didn’t?), and Blink-182. And because you’re at that impressionable young age when you first start to realize that girls are, y’know, like pretty and nice but there’s still a part of you that’s convinced your friends will think you’re a sissy if you like what they like or hang out with them, that meant you sure as hell were not listening to the Backstreet Boys or Britney Spears despite the fact that maybe, deep down, you thought it was kind of catchy. No matter, you were going to make fun of it mercilessly because that’s what the maxim dictated: “That stuff’s for girls.” So then here I am watching TRL and there’s Blink-182 – three tattooed guys in baggy pants and spiked hair calling out every cliché in Lou Perlman’s book and, most importantly, the song fucking rocked. If bubblegum pop was the obvious enemy, these three had to be the good guys.

Ok, autobiography is not what you’re here for. But Blink-182 is one of those bands that came at just the right time for a lot of (for lack of a much better term) millennials. This was the first rock band that I loved. This was the first band that a lot of my peers loved. Blink-182 was, for many of us, the first rock band that we loved that our parents (a) did not introduce us to, or (b) did not necessarily want us listening to. I eventually snagged a copy of Enema Of The State thanks to a friend who burnt me the CD (probably the same one that informed me of specific hygiene products) and wore that disc out. These guys rocked. These guys were badass. These guys made fart jokes. At that age I think it would have been impossible not to love Blink-182.

And then I stopped loving Blink-182. Because by the time I was 13 that first maxim was replaced by another stupid one: “If it’s popular, it’s not cool.” Granted, Blink-182 was never the biggest rock band in the world, but Enema Of The State did go five-times Platinum in the U.S., while its singles fared quite well on Top 40 radio and dominated rock and alt-rock stations. Their follow-up (not counting their hilarious live recordThe Mark, Tom, And Travis Show (The Enema Strikes Back!)), 2001’s Take Off Your Pants And Jacket moved over 2 million, and in 2003 their eponymous record pushed 1 million. Impressive numbers, considering the record industry had already begun its decline. Point is, these guys were popular, which meant that they wrote boring, hackneyed, and uncreative songs. What I initially saw as genuine rebellion, was now, obviously, commoditized rebellion. Budding music snob that I was, I couldn’t be caught dead listening to Blink-182 even if I still liked the music; it was easier to just talk shit about them. Besides, Nirvana was so much cooler — their frontman had killed himself!

All this matters because I was an idiot (I was also an idiot when I was 10 in re: liking Limp Bizkit; but again, unrelated). Last summer I became friends with a guy who had a pretty similar musical background to mine, not just in terms of artists and bands we liked, but at what points during our lives we liked them the most. Blink-182 was one of the bands that kept coming up, and next thing I knew I’d re-downloaded their entire discography and was listening to Dude Ranch, Enema Of The State, and Take Off Your Pants And Jacket as regularly as I had 11 years before. None more so than Enema Of The State.

It was Blink’s third record and first with new drummer, Travis Barker, a stoic, fully inked, spikey-haired drumming machine. Barker was impossible to ignore even though he never directly sought attention, and his addition evened out the Blink-182 equilibrium with bassist Mark Hoppus and guitarist Tom DeLonge splitting vocal duties — a dynamic best described as: Tom a nasally, shrill Beavis to Mark’s comparatively sonorous, low-pitched Butthead — leaving Blink without a de-facto frontman or any sort of popular hierarchy. The difference between 97’s Dude Ranch, with original drummer Scott Raynor manning the sticks, and Barker’s debut on Enema is staggering. Both are quick, talented drummers, but Raynor just sounds sloshy and uncertain; specifically, his snare hits are mushy and muffled compared to Barker’s taut pops and cracks that usher out the splashy, opening moments of Enema’s first song “Dumpweed,” refined thwacks landing on each half-beat with such a precise elasticity and perpetual force that you’d think they could cause whiplash.

“Dumpweed” immediately sets the tone of Enema Of The State: songs about liking girls, hating girls, hating your parents, being stupid, being immature; songs with up-tempo, driving drums that you can’t help but try to tap along with, bass lines that flip easily between tense and rubbery, plenty of shredding, and enough palm-muted power chords that build up during the verses, paving the way for just as many shout-out-loud choruses. It’s a brilliantly crafted record, the shamelessly pop melodies and structure constantly at odds with the band’s anti-pop image. Of course you’ve got your hits like “What’s My Age Again?” and “All The Small Things,” two of the record’s finest songs, the former a twisted, self-depreciating examination of man-children, the latter a hook-riddled love song whose chorus makes both very little sense and all the sense in the world. Elsewhere, tracks like “Don’t Leave Me” and “Going Away To College” are rife with honest reflections on unfulfilled promises and crippling insecurities; while “Dysentary Gary” and “Mutt” take the low road, both cuts about a guy whose lost a girl to someone else so he masks his misery with a shit-eating grin (choice lyric from “Dysentary Gary”: “He’s a player, diarrhoea giver, trying to grow his hair out / Cause his friends were listening to Slayer”). Standout “Aliens Exists” uses X-Files-era paranoia as a way of tackling loneliness, detachment, and neglect, topics the band deals with more candidly on closer, “Anthem.”

Honestly, I think Enema Of The State is a close-to-perfect album. There’s not a single song that feels half-assed or uninspired or cheesy — Mark, Tom, and Travis are masters of form. There may not be a whole lot of musical innovation going on, but when it came to capturing the dissatisfaction, confusion, and angst of being 15 — and the humor that stems from all of it — no one did it better than Blink-182. But, granted, they also did those things on their debut Cheshire Cat and then on ‘97’s Dude Ranch; just listen to “M&Ms” or “Dammit.” What made Enema Of The State different, and more significant, is it marked the point where Blink-182 became, for all intents and purposes, a serious band.

“Adam’s Song” casts a long shadow over the entire record. It was, at that point, the darkest song the band had ever written, they placed it smack in the middle, right in between “Dysentary Gary” and “All The Small Things,” and it’s arguably Enema’s best song. The guitars are tuned down, it’s slow, and it’s pretty damn sad — the lyrics recreating vignettes of a suburban purgatory and a slowly crumbling marriage and family. Of course there’s that build during the bridge with the appropriately bleak, piano that rumbles until it releases into the song’s final chorus, a build that leads only to an anti-catharsis. It’s a pop trick, obviously, but Blink-182 nail it, and suddenly the isolation and delusions of “Aliens Exist” seem much eerier, and “What’s My Age Again?” feels more like a warning rather than a gleeful celebration of immortal immaturity.

This is what makes Enema Of The State such an important album. When it came out, the pop-punk scene had been growing smoothly and steadily, with bands like Green Day and The Offspring seeing plenty of success (fun fact: The Offspring’s ‘94 record Smash, released on Epitaph, is the biggest selling independent record of all time) and others like Disconnected, MxPx, and NOFX gaining moderate mainstream recognition. Green Day especially played a crucial role as the genre’s first success story, bearing the brunt of the “Sell out!” accusations, which allowed their successors a bit more room to breathe at the top. Soon the genre/movement had it’s own traveling circus, Warped Tour, it’s own aesthetic, and fit in neatly with the rise of the X-Games and energy drinks — this was music for riled up adolescents who wanted nothing more than to piss off their boomer parents who paid for their concert tickets. Enema Of The State changed all that because even with all of its toilet humor, it demanded the genre take a good hard look at itself, maybe take itself a little more seriously, and admit that, yeah, maybe I do actually have some emotions that I’d like to express in ways that aren’t covered in five-layers of bullshit. I think you’d be hard pressed to find a record (made, mind you, by three guys in their mid-20s) that so accurately captures the myriad hormone-riddled emotions coursing through a teenager’s mind — sex, sadness, solipsism, stupidity, and all.

But this is also why people hate Blink-182, because what happened next complicates everything. Enema’s success perpetuated pop-punk’s viability on mainstream radio, which is where Blink’s progeny — bands like Fall Out Boy, Simple Plan, and New Found Glory — would receive a decent amount of airplay. These bands heralded the next evolution of pop-punk, which involved a cross-contamination of punk, pop, hard-/slowcore, emo, and not to mention elements of goth culture, creating a Megazord of branded rebellion, which you could purchase in bulk at the Hot Topic in your neighborhood mall. Honestly at this stage the music is kind of whatever — I’ll admit to thinking Simple Plan’s “I’d Do Anything” is a pretty solid pop-punk song — but lyrically these tracks were much more saccharine and too overt, made even worse by frontmen who seemed to whine more than sing. All of these bands openly adore Blink-182, and Blink-182 adores them back, they’re all on Warped Tour together and Mark Hoppus is making cameos in their videos, and by 2003, when Blink releases their eponymous, and (at that time) final, record it’s just as sad and mopey as all this stuff (though they do it pretty well; I’ve got a serious soft spot for “I Miss You” and “Feeling This”).

That, however, isn’t even the end of it: Remember how FOB and NFG were all getting a decent amount of Top 40 radio play? That meant the next generation of kids listening to those bands were hearing them side-by-side with Top 40 pop and dance, and so when they started creating their own music that aforementioned Megazord suddenly gains a few more limbs in the form of mass-produced dance and pop music. These groups, like All Time Low (who count R&B producer The-Dream as a frequent collaborator), Cobra Starship, Paramore, and Metro Station — not to mention the serious fringe acts like Blood On The Dancefloor (look them up at your own risk) — are, again, on Warped Tour or the Honda Civic Tour, and you get exclusive ticket/merch/CD deals at Hot Topic, and oh! there’s Mark Hoppus in an All Time Low video cracking wise about how ATL and FOB rip off Blink-182. Today, Blink-182 are basically the elder statesmen of this whole movement, and their continued involvement in it immediately renders them guilty by association. From plenty of perspectives, it’s easy to draw a direct line between Blink-182 and Blood On The Dance Floor; and, critically, that’s an immediate death sentence, retroactively negating anything great Blink-182 has done. In contrast, Weezer is very much involved in today’s pop-punk scene (Rivers Cuomo co-wrote a song on All Time Low’s newest record, and did some guest vocals on a Simple Plan song this year), but they still keep themselves at somewhat of a distance (e.g. the recent shows alongside Flaming Lips; the awesome line-up on the Weezer cruise), allowing us a non-distorted view of “The Blue Album” and Pinkerton.

As of right now, Blink-182 isn’t afforded that kind of luxury. Though that might be changing: recently, the obvious influence of Blink-182 has been creeping into the music of plenty of indie darlings. Best Coast and Wavves are probably the best example — both So-Cal natives who openly admit to loving the band (Best Coast covered “Dammit” on her last tour); and Hoppus has reciprocated on both his Fuse TV show and Twitter — but you can also hear Blink in the frantic, antsy tunes of Cloud Nothings, and hell, even though they might not be channeling Blink directly, Fucked Up’s new record is chock-full of pop-punk tropes. Just as important, over the past year or so I’ve talked to many others my age, who (I guess to put it bluntly) aren’t involved in the Warped Tour scene, but remember Blink-182 as one of the defining bands of their childhood and their albums remain all-time favorites. If you wanted to be cynical, you could chalk it up to a side effect of the current 90s revivalism, or, even worse, cry, “ironic hipster appreciation!” But frankly that’s just not the case.

Last September New York Magazine music critic Nitsuh Abebe wrote an article called “How Pavement Became the Greatest Band of the Nineties This Year,” pointing out that it was time for Gen Xers to take their victory lap and have their reunion tours; and I don’t think it came to anyone’s surprise that Pavement was the band leading the way. It’s not like Pavement was critically overlooked or underappreciated that everyone suddenly realized they’d blanked on; they created, defined, and epitomized ’90s indie rock slack, and rightly reaped the rewards of their brilliance—a huge reunion tour and topping a few best-of lists. I think we’re going to see something similar happen with Blink-182. Now I’m not saying Blink-182 is the best band of the ’90s, nor am I putting them on the same level as Pavement (you can lower your torches and pitchforks now). What I am saying is that as any generation comes of age, they look back and elevate the cultural events that they deem most important — and for Gen Y, I think that’s going to include Blink-182, whether those millenials are still Warped Tour fans or indie geeks. Especially on the side of the latter — where admitting you like such a band can still be greeted with haughty sneers — enough of us care about Blink-182 too much to allow them to be sucked into world that they, admittedly, do belong in, but should not be exclusively defined by. Because when I listen to Enema Of The State I’m not thinking about how I need to hide it from others, or how ironic it is. I’m thinking about what it was like to be 14, what it was like to be that confused and frustrated and uncertain and so amused by the dumbest stuff. Enema Of The State isn’t just an accurate depiction of all those things, it’s one of those rare records that allows you to relive those moments, a record where every song conjures up a specific memory or emotion that you could have only felt when you were a teenager. And as awful as those feelings could be, there’s something about them that should be cherished.

Read about our scores and rating system here
Latest News and Media
Features More
Twitter icon_twitter Follow

Banquet Media