Odds & Ends: the 1990s

Apples in Stereo -- Belle & Sebastian -- Guided By Voices -- The High Llamas -- The La's -- The Lemonheads -- Bill Lloyd -- My Bloody Valentine -- Liz Phair -- Suede -- Teenage Fanclub -- Velvet Crush

At least I managed to get started on a page covering the final decade of the millenium before the Y2K bug destroys civilization as we know it. In the '90s rock music as a genre approached middle age, when the arteries harden, the mind closes, the body fat thickens, and the mind rehashes faded youthful glory as the winter of old age looms over the horizon. Rock isn't as good-looking or sprightly as in its prime, but its bank account has never been fatter. Is there a future left for youth rebellion music now as firmly an entrenched part of the conservative establishment as Eisenhower? "Guitar bands are on their way out," record executives said -- to the Beatles in 1962. The no future the Sex Pistols sang about is now our reality. Rock is dead, long live rock! -- the biggest cliche in the rock crit business since 1974. Rock's been dead and buried many times before -- remember the situation in the pre-Brit Invasion early '60s? Can the music rouse itself out of its self-satisfied slumber once again? Well, it did a few times for a few bands in the '90s, but not nearly often enough. Overall, a very depressing decade. Hopefully we'll do better in the coming century.

Apples in Stereo: Tone Soul Evolution (1997) ***1/2

As they say, a pleasing power-pop album a day will keep the doctor away. Here's yet another tuneful little indie-pop band that filter the sweetest elements of the Beatles, Beach Boys, Hollies, and Kinks into a charmingly low-key package. There's nothing the least bit earth-shaking about this music; it's nothing more than collection of chewy morsels to snack on between doses of more filling artistes. Leader Rob Schneider (yep, that's his name, and no, he ain't related to the actor) pens crunchy little pop-rock readymades that update '60s AM pop verities with '90s low-fi chic, roughly analogous to a better-produced, less ambitious Guided By Voices. The opener "Seems So," sums up the Apples' jingly retro-pop perfectly for one of 1997's best potential singles (that naturally wouldn't get any airplay in today's musically conservative climate -- anything that is not rehashed disco, rap, or heavy metal est verboten!). Not that the Apples aren't content at their modest level of success, as "Heard About Your Fame," laments a friend's misfortune. Bouncy early Kinks riffs abound under sunny pop melodies, as the Apples fancy themselves writing for "Tin Pan Alley." They try to "Find Our Way," wherever that is, but they're sure they'll "Get There Fine." Unfailingly pleasant and mellow despite the ringing guitar hooks, which is no doubt due to the band's allegedly copious pot use, Schneider & Co. just want to hum la-la-la's all summer long, and why shouldn't you? It's a pleasant way to waste the time.

Belle & Sebastian: If You're Feeling Sinister (1996) ****1/2

Belle & Sebastian (a seven-piece band [not that you'd know it] from Glasgow and led by singer-songwriter Stuart Murdoch) are wimps, and they've created some of the loveliest melodies of any band in recent memory. Yes, that's right, melodies, which '90s pop somehow finds in short supply, the type that can take your breathe away with their precious, fragile beauty. And 'precious' and 'fragile' are the appropriate adjectives for this band; they never, ever even think of 'rawking out, dude' and stick to the same low-key, muted folky pop formula for the entire album, never showing any real variety or range. Which is the only reason I'm not notching this album up a half star higher; otherwise, it's as perfect as pop music gets. Murdoch's voice drips with milksop, the voice of the skinny kid in the back of the class who nobody ever paid much attention to and never said a word to anyone out of painful shyness, but who quietly observes everyone around him with a keen, detailed eye. Lyrically, Murdoch hits clever bullseye's all over the place, which really matters with music quiet enough that you have to pay attention to the words: "I only wanted to sing the saddest song / And have you sing along / Then I'd be happy," sums up his ethos. After listening to this album over a dozen times, I'm hard pressed to find a weak track; some of the songs stand out in my mind a little better than others, but the band's modest approach is so consistent that it all bleeds together into one very nice, gentle mood -- lullabies from heaven. Of Murdoch's Glasgow denizens he observes, my favorite is old codger in "Me and the Major," who "remembers all the punks and the hippies too / And Roxy Music in 1972." Or is it the girl in the title track, who's "into Bible studies and S & M"? Murdoch watches Don't Look Back on the VCR, feels sorry for hungry foxes in the winter, advises one to go see the local minister if you're feeling sinister (must be that Scottish Presbytarian guilt), encourages his friend Judy to dream of horses, and admires track & field stars (Murdoch doesn't sound like the athletic type himself). Belle & Sebastian aren't pushing any musical envelopes or raging against the cosmos, simply making some of the most pleasurable, winsome music of the decade. By the way, their name comes from a children's cartoon -- how appropriate.

Guided By Voices: Bee Thousand (1994) ****

At their best, GBV sound like lost '60s Brit-pop A-sides retooled for B-sides (or is it the other way around?) for the post-punk era, bringing to mind Syd Barrett fronting the Kinks hastily knocking off throwaways in a basement with an ample supply of cheap beer, tuneage too raw for public consumption but pretty cool to dig up on an obscure bootleg. At their worst, GBV sound just like the above -- it's a matter of digging through the lo-fi fragments to find jewels amidst the rubble. All of the GBV releases I've heard sound pretty much the same; the better ones simply have good songs outweighing the filler, and the worst ones vice versa. After spending nearly a decade in obscurity, releasing a string of ultra-obscure albums that never got any notice outside of their native Dayton (if even there), GBV's sixth album became a surprise breakout amongst the alternative crowd, scoring critical accolades and tour slots supporting fellow Daytoners the Breeders. Recording at a prodigious rate, leader Robert Pollard obviously subscribes to the "quantity, not quality" theory of artistic production, recording and releasing seemingly his every fit of drunken inspiration. This perpetually alcoholic, sloppily attired 40-something (and looks it) ex-schoolteacher certainly doesn't fit the mold of your typical rock star, and neither does the shambolic gang of fellow middle-aged beer-swilling family men locals (who were fired by Pollard, to fans' regret, after the recording of 1996's Under the Bushes, Under the Stars). They've never released a beginning to end great album, and never fucking will, because Bob Pollard cannot, and will not, edit his good ideas from his bad ones -- every GBV release sports at least several perfect little pop songs side by side with aimless whimsy and grating noise fragments. Each release contains a bewildering amount of songs, all quite brief (many clocking in at under a minute), that makes their albums difficult to absorb all at once -- separating the wheat from the chaff takes time (Pollard has said that his favorite album is Wire's Pink Flag, and the influence of that punk-era masterpiece of fragmented, angular minimalism is clearly evident).

On Bee Thousand, at least, the wheat outweighs the chaff, and most of the songs are complete songs, with only a handful of blurry, seat-of-the-pants fragments thrown on an official release just for the hell of it. Pollard's nonsensical lyrics give insight to a man who has sacrificed the best years of his life to teach fourth-graders, dealing as they do with such Alice-in-Wonderland subjects as robots, demons, elves, pigpens, all sorts of flying objects (including UFOs), and of course plenty of animals, too. If it sounds a bit like Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, well, that's another key influence, perhaps an even more crucial key to unlocking the GBV sound than Milwaukee's finest beverage products. Casually politically incorrect in the way that middle-aged men tend to get when they've had one too many, GBV toss off a little ditty entitled "Tractor Rape Chain," and pen a barroom classic, "Hot Freaks" ("She baptized me with salt and said Liquor! / I am a new man"). Barraging through a clutch of garagebeat pop full of wannabe-glory buried underneath tons of 4-track hiss, bothering to tune or rehearse only if they damn well feel like it, Pollard's offhand melodies poke through and ocassionally, such as on the sumptious "Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory," or the anthemic "Gold Star For Robot Boy," (currently my favorite GBV song), they actually come close to realizing their ambition of recording a career of Beatles B-sides. Tobin Sprout, roughly McCartney to Pollard's Lennon, gets in four sweet little pop songs that fit in nicely, particularly the quite Macca-esque "Scenes From Ester's Day." "Her Psychology Today," rocks; "Kicker of Elves," is GBV's most compellingly unfinished, weird fragment; and the best-known tune, "I Am A Scientist," could have been a hit single if it were better produced. But, as with all GBV music, Pollard insists upon the lo-fi, hit and run aesthetic: the cheaper sounding, the better.

Guided By Voices: Alien Lanes (1995) ***

Remember upthread when I said that the difference in quality between GBV albums came down to whether the wheat outweighed the chaff? Well, on their followup to their breakthrough, Pollard & Co. eschew "lengthy" tunes for the most part and populate this record with a string of pop/noise fragments that sometimes sound pretty okay but probably wouldn't stand up stretched to the standard 3-minute (or even 2-minute) length. 28 tracks within roughly 40 minutes makes for some mighty choppy listening, and, as you might have guessed, by no stretch of the imagination do all -- or probably even the majority -- of these (I guess you have to call them) "tunes" deserve release. It's as if Bob and the boys got drunk one evening in their 4-track studio, bashed out a handful of solid full-length songs, goofed around a lot, and threw the whole shebang together unedited as Side One. And then did the same for Side Two the next night. Wait, now that I think about it, that scenario's more than likely very close to the actual production of this GBV product... And the thing is, there are enough fully realized tunes to keep the listener frustrated that Pollard and Sprout couldn't just spend some more time and release an entire album of tunes as bright as "Game of Pricks," (rushing power-pop with a misleadingly vulgar title) and "My Valuable Hunting Knife," (potential Boy Scout anthem). I realize that such anti-professionalism is these guys' whole schitck, but so much of this doesn't seem so much rough-edged as lazy and sodden. Not that some of the fragments aren't interesting -- the one introducing the "giggling faggots" always makes, hee, giggle, and the one where the ex-supermodel's boyfriend writes music for soundtracks now has a cool little storyline to it. Tell you what -- just throw this puppy in a cheap Walkman, slap on the headphones, and when you're walking around it all mushes together into its sub-Side 2-of-Abbey Road gestalt. Music like this was meant to be listened to on the shittiest equipment possible.

Guided By Voices: Under the Bushes, Under the Stars (1996) ****

Ah, now they're finally getting it together -- in a complete turnabout, GBV release an entire album possessing only a handful of fragmented tunes, and even those fragments are more fully developed than usual. If you're a newcomer, this might be the GBV to own -- it's certainly more accessible than their previous work. Track after track mines the same winning post-power pop formula of jangly guitars, fake Brit accents (except when Pollard's unleashes his newfound Michael Stipe imitations), Beatlesque melodies, and sweet/tart post-punk hooks. And, curiously enough, that's the album's main flaw -- on first or even second listen, it all flies by as too similar sounding. This is in contrast to the wildly veering eclecticism of Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes -- maybe when you're cramming 18 songs on one album (24 including the bonus EP), you need a few bad songs to make the good ones stick out? Eventually, I've grown to enjoy nearly every little gem on here, except for the first four songs -- for some reason none of them stick to me, until "Official Ironmen Rally Song," kicks in as a potential chart-topping single (well, in an alternate universe where I set the standards). Pollard's songs don't seem like much on the third or even fifth listen, just pleasant little pop-rock ditties, until suddenly they bury their hooks in you and you've got his refrains boring themselves into your head all day. In particular the haunting "I can't tell you anything / You don't already know," from "Acorns & Orioles," has me mouthing it at the oddest moments (and now that I've just mentioned it in this review I'm going to have the damn thing stuck in my head all night...) Sprout's tunes are sweeter, more conventional, and slightly less memorable; my favorite here is "Atom Eyes," which sorta reminds me of Keith Moon circa "Girl's Eyes". Important fact to note: the original CD was released with 18 tracks. Don't buy it. Instead, only buy copies that tack on a six-song EP released shortly afterwards, because the 6 bonus tracks constitute perhaps the most consistent and best GBV release I've heard so far. The EP contains Sprout's best-ever song, "It's Like Soul Man," and Pollard's "Big Boring Wedding," has one of the catchiest buzz-phrase refrains ever: "Pass the word, the chicks are back." If I ever get married, I'll make sure they play it at the reception. When I'm in a generous mood, I'd give this release an extra half star because of the EP, but probably not -- no GBV release deserves higher than 4 stars. Which is a pretty high rating, anyway.

The High Llamas: Gideon Gaye (1995) **

Critics peg these technically accomplished soft-rockers (ironically an offshoot of angry post-punkers Microdisney) as holy grailers for Brian Wilson's lost Smile, but what I hear are the genteel strains of a more easy-going, warm and friendly Steely Dan (an oxymoron, I'm aware), particularly given leader Sean O'Hagan's uncanny Donald Fagen imitations (albeit with a noticable Irish accent). O'Hagan has a gift for creating the type of unfailing pleasant, melodic pop that goes down as smooth as Dom Perignon -- and that it is utterly and completely derivative, and will put you too sleep faster than Aja at half-speed. Not bad as background music, and he gets high points for doing his homework -- in the absence of any worthwhile Steely related music since 1982's The Nightfly, tunes such as "Giddy and Gay," (the lad's nothing if not clever, I'll grant) and "Checking In, Checking Out," are reasonably amusing facsimiles of the real thing. Hagan's Beach Boys fixation seems to express itself here on the new age-y post-Friends instrumental pieces that come close to dominating the album (not a good sign), leaving a mere five vocal pop songs to hold whatever meager interest the High Llamas obtain at their best. Now to stop wasting my time listening to this when there are Van Dyke Parks albums still in print... ___________________________________________________________________________
The La's: The La's (1990) ***1/2

Released five years too early (or twenty-five years too late) to ride the crest of the Brit-Pop insurgence, the La's only album remains a sparkling power-pop gem lost amidst a sea of noisy shoegazing outfits that constituted the UK scene of the time. Leader Lee Mavers delivers one effortless slice of jangly pop froth after another, strongly recalling the Hollies in spirit and sound -- nothing in the least bit edgy or gritty (aside from Maver's nasal Frankie Valli-styled voice, which at times can grow annoying, but at least adds a bit of needed vinegar to the honey), simply enjoyable pure pop. Oasis took such retro '60s musical fixations to the bank in the middle of the decade, but the La's are the more interesting band -- there aren't any oversized arena rawk anthems, as the La's focus on a smaller, more perfectionist scale, and they have the sense to vary their approach from song to song so that monotony never creeps in. Ranging from garage punk ("Failure") to Kurt Veill-ish oomphas ("Freedom Song") to Byrdsy pop (most of the rest), the La's display a promising range that unfortunately was never fulfilled due to their premature breakup. If there's a problem, it's that the single, "There She Goes" -- the greatest pure pop single of the decade, a breathtakingly lovely swoosh of falsetto romanticism -- overshadows the rest of the album so much that on first listen one might be tempted to overlook the surrounding good (but not nearly as stunning) material. Though it's not for lack of trying -- the La's come closest not on the excellent, if immodestly titled "Timeless Melody," but on the nearly eight-minute epic closer, "Looking Glass," which on closer inspection seems to have been the rip-off source for Oasis' inferior "Champagne Supernova." After the band's breakup, bassist John Powers found a warmer reception for his new band Cast, who had the good fortune to play this type of music in the much more appreciative environment of the mid-'90s.

The Lemonheads: It's a Shame About Ray ***1/2 (1992)

Evan Dando missed his calling as a post Simon & Garfunkel troubador(a cover of "Mrs. Robinson," was tacked on after the Lemonheads cashed in on the rerelease of The Graduate) two decades late, after all pop save that with disco flavoring was banned from Top 40 radio after the early '80s Micheal Jackson-Madonna accords in Geneva. Possessing a knack for pleasant pop hooks and melodies, an attractively husky voice, and an even more attractive physical profile that drove Sassy readers planetwide with glee in the early '90s, Evan Dando could've been a contendah for teenpop stardom. Unfortunately, his lack of discipline, apparently due to serious drug addictions that put him out of action for a few years in the mid-'90s, prevented Dando from being more than a minor Gen X celeb -- or coming up with consistent albums. This, their commercial breakthrough effort, is by nearly all accounts their peak effort. Whatever -- even if the rest of their albums aren't that great, this one justifies their existence as one of the better purveyors of catchy power pop in the '90s. Backed by Juliana Hatfield on bass and some other guy on drums (not that it matters, since Dando is the Lemonheads at this point), Dando almost never veers from his lukewarm formula of crisply strummed electric/acoustic mildy folky pop (and mild certainly is an adjective for the Lemonheads -- no, make that "mellow", man). Dando's sweet little ditties about his crack addiction and the people he meets in Boston always keep me tappin' and hummin' along, and if he'd kept up the consistent quality of "Confetti," the title track, "Bit Part," "Alison's Starting To Happen," and two or three others throughout the entire album, I'd unhesitatingly raise my grade a good half star. It's too bad, then, that he throws around unmemorable bits like "Rockin' Stroll," and goofs like "Frank Mills." Oh well, you know how people who smoke too much pot can find it hard to focus.

The Lemonheads: Come On Feel the Lemonheads (1993) **1/2

Dando's followup to their alternative-nation breakthrough to semi-stardom finds him going too much for a low-key country-rock feel (he'd obviously been listening to Gram Parsons), which makes for a pleasantly bland album that snaps out of its pot-induced mellow stupor in too few spots. The catchiest song easily is "Into Your Arms," a song that Dando didn't write; the fact that it became the Lemonheads' second big hit roused suspicions among casual observers that Dando relied on covers because his own material wasn't very strong. Untrue, of course; Dando could come up with decent original material,' just not very consistently. And it's not a good sign that side one's second most striking song is a tongue-in-cheek country ballad (with pedal steel, even) entitled "Big Gay Heart." It seems the drugs have started to take their toll; "Style," with its "don't wanna get stoned / don't wanna not get stoned" chorus, is repeated twice, the second time with guest vocals by sympatico crackhead Rick James. Lyrically, Dando's still singing 'bout nothing very important, imploring Juliana Hatfield to give up her virginity on "It's About Time," and dedicating another song to Belinda Carlisle. Does Dando personally hang out with the ex-Go Gos? Who knows? Who cares? The album starts off strongly enough, but pretty soon it's obvious that Dando's content to coast on autopilot while he smokes a bowl between takes, so wait until a compilation that picks up the best songs from here and the rest of the Lemonheads' albums.

Bill Lloyd: Set To Pop (1994) ****

Having spent the late '80s as half of the popular country duo Foster & Lloyd, Lloyd released his second solo album (a mid-'80s, pre-Foster & Lloyd LP that got little attention at the time was his first) which didn't sell much since it wasn't marketed as country. With Radney Foster out of the picture, Lloyd reveals himself as an ardent power-popster, covering the Kinks' "This Is Where I Belong," co-penning the exuberant "Man Who Knew Too Much" with Marshall Crenshaw (unsurprisingly, the tune sounds like it could've fit on Field Day), and penning some of the cleverest, catchiest melodic jangle-pop since the heyday of Nick Lowe. The 15-track CD is filled to the brim with well-produced, commercially-minded rock-pop with modern country leanings, and should've been a smash in "A Better World" - which underscores how crucial marketing is in chart success; though there is plenty of melodic pop with jangly guitars that becomes successful because it is marketed as "new country", Lloyd made the commercial mistake of marketing his melodic, jangly pop as "power pop", which is the kiss of death commercially (since it's seen as the reserve of the type of record geeks who own all the Roy Wood solo albums and have favorite Badfinger members). For once someone takes advantage of CD-era lengths in a way that works, as Lloyd peppers the inter-song stretches with clever sub-song snatches - the lovely Brian Wilson heaven-pop before "The S.W.A.T. Team of Love" and his toying with AC/DC's "Back In Black" riff as a bluegrass banjo duel before "In the Line of Fire" are nifty touches. And anyone who has the good taste to sample the "when there was no meat, frogs, or crawdads, we ate sand" dialogue from Raising Arizona mid-song is mega-cool with me.

My Bloody Valentine: Isn't Anything (1988) ****1/2

Let me make this bold assertion: this is the finest album of pure psychedelia that I've ever clasped ears upon. Which shouldn't be confused with diluted pop psychedelia a la Love or the Doors; for despite the clear (if lazy) melodies and short song concision, this isn't really 'pop' in the purist sense, since My Bloody Valentine elevate atmosphere above all else. To put it another way, it's not really pop in the way that Television's Marquee Moon wasn't really pop despite the clear hooks and melodies and songcraft, since the guitar interplay was always the prime focus of the music. And the clear focus in My Bloody Valentine's music is the background. That is to say, Kevin Shields' talent is for brilliant, unconventional song arrangements for songcraft that is highly melodic, but in all other aspects merely adequate. Wispery vocals (some Shields', some bassist Belinda Butcher's) are buried within the mix as merely another competing instrument, inverting traditional pop/rock values which foreground the vocals. Overlaid above all glides the repetitive drone of Shields' uniquely gauzy guitar tones, obliquely reclaiming the role of guitar hero for more modest, non-macho times. Though clearly influenced by noise merchants Sonic Youth and particularly Jesus & the Mary Chain, unlike the latter Shields doesn't lazily throw distortion on top of simplistic pop tunes but fully enmeshes his guitar tone within the music and makes that distortion an integral part of the songs' construction; and unlike the former, Shields uses distortion and odd guitar tunings not for deliberately ugly anti-pop noise, but for translucent, fragile beauty. It's proven a highly influential sound, the most important (perhaps only) new sound for guitar-based bands in the '90s: the entire late '80s/early '90s shoegazer movement owes its primary debt to MBV, and such US bands as Sugar, Garbage, and the Smashing Pumpkins have built their career around remodulating Shields' techniques.

MBV had released a string of EPs and one album in the '80s, but their second album was the one that got them their first real exposure and critical acclaim; if Daydream Nation hadn't also been released, this would've easily been the most important album of the year. Most critics consider the followup, 1991's Loveless to be the band's masterpiece, but here I part company with conventional wisdom: Isn't Anything, while it doesn't contain the masterful, rich guitar tone Shields achieved on that 1991 alternative touchstone, is the better album, since it not only contains more memorable melodies, but has something Bloodless sorely lacked: variety. True, many of the mid-tempo rock tunes sound a bit too similar, but fortunately they're not all in the same place (or else they'd blur together as on Loveless); betwixt them are a handful of soft, glistening ballads that soar into ethereal bliss thanks to Butcher's lovely vocals ("Lose My Breath," might be my favorite number). And a few faster rockers such as "(When You Wake) You're Still in a Dream," raise the energy level, a good idea since like that title implies, MBV's music sounds very dreamlike, at times seemingly less like thought-out music than a collection of random background sounds emerging from the subconscious -- the ultimate aim of psychedelia, right? But matters shouldn't get too dreamlike and lulling, after all. Not that MBV's strategy of fusing the seemingly opposed elements of crushing, heavily distorted, cranked to full volume guitars with understated, feminine, ethereal lullabies ever truly gets boring, even with the second half noticably weaker than the first. The Achilles' heel is that, at first glance, it all tends to sound the same; after a few listens, the nuances of individual songs makes themselves felt, but there's still the sense of a sort of vague, hazy drifting of one song into the other....but I suppose that's what you get when you prize texture over songcraft. Anyway, it's not a serious problem on this disc, though it would be on the next, which I'll be reviewing shortly.

My Bloody Valentine: Loveless (1991) ***1/2

Hailed by every other critic except me as a flawless masterpiece, this represents the ultimate end of Kevin Shield's artistic aims -- which so far has remained a dead end (MBV haven't released any other music this decade; rumors of a followup have taken Holy Grail status among indie acolytes). This is the most important guitar rock album of the '90s on purely sonic terms, but I don't actively listen to this extremely influential CD very much -- by which I mean "active" is not the verb to ascribe an album that, while blisteringly steely and volume heavy, rocks less than it approaches an Eno ambient. Distinguishing between individual tracks takes effort, as the "songs" on this CD ebb and flow into each other like one long, organic/orgasmic contraction. Complaints of repetition and formlessness miss the point, because this album works best at providing the soundtrack to the half-asleep, half-awake state that some people spend their entire lives in, but for me usually only lasts till about noon (unless I slept in that morning). Entire tracks hang themselves on little but Shield's narcotic "gliding guitar" and breathy, disembodied "ooo-wah"'s (see "He Knows When," and "Blown a Wish," which might as well be interchangeable for all I can tell). Shields proves himself a master sonic architect, creating a soundscape that feels like smothering clouds of pillows trapped underwater, but a not particularly compelling composer -- too much of this album relies solely on pure atmosphere, with fully formed songs such as "When You Sleep," (dig that chimelike melody) the exception. As with Tony Iommi did on Black Sabbath's Master of Reality, Shields discovers a rich, powerful guitar tone, and creates a concept album revolving around that tone; but as with that Sabbath album, the problem is that the tone alone is not enough to cover up the weakness of much of the material. However, these are problems only if you're trying to pay attention to this CD actively -- if you simply let it sink in the background, this provides a blissful soundtrack to spring cleaning.

Liz Phair: Exile In Guyville (1993) ***1/2

Liz Phair's wonderfully bland, everday voice sounds like the girl next door reading her diary entries aloud to herself, and by doing so Phair kicked off an explosion of girls-next-door dominating the airwaves with their diary entries within a few short years. Phair has the attitude and looks of a proto-Ally McBeal, a pretty skinny chick from a privileged suburban mid-American WASP background who casually shocks reactionary prudes with her admissions that yes, despite being one of those stereotypical upper-middle-class "nice girls", she not only thinks about sex and enjoys it, but she even has fantasies so filthy they can make your redneck uncle blush. Everyone who writes about Phair's debut gets to the titillating parts pretty quick, so let's get this over with: she claims she's "a real cunt in spring," pens an ode to cunnilingus ("Glory"), and infamously brags that she'll "be your blowjob queen." Yeah, she's got a potty mouth, but while that got her headlines, the music itself has to hold up to merit serious attention -- and for the most part, her flimsy, awkwardly shaped indie-rock songs do (this is another double album that would've made a dandy single). The best song, "Fuck and Run," is catchy and cutting enough to ring out of radios if not for the blatant title; Phair laments boys who fuck her and don't call back, moaning that she wants a real boyfriend who writes letters and "all that stupid old shit," wondering if she'll spend her whole life alone. To be fair, Phair's vulgarities aren't that commonly sprinkled throughout the CD, popping up in only a few tracks like "Flower," and "Dance of the Seven Veils." She's only singing about the same things men sing about, in the same language; and the only shock comes from the double standard that says that girls aren't supposed to talk dirty. Anyway, her amateurish chords and talk-singing twist the songs into oddly tuned melodic shapings, some of which are strikingly novel, and some of which are simply too amateurish to go anywhere. The album starts, climaxes, and ends strongly, but there are stretches of dead weight that bring the whole down. The second best track, "Divorce Song," sets Phair's casually conversational, unconventional song structures and direct lyrics to one of the sharpest (and certainly true-to-life) breakup songs ever written, but the preceding "Girls! Girls! Girls!" despite the provocative title, sits flat in a corner and refuses to budge. A bit of editing couldn't have hurt; more nicely detailed slices of everyday problems like "Help Me Mary," where Phair deals with unwanted guests would have been nice.

P.S. The album's supposedly a song-by-song analog to the Stones' Exile On Mainstreet, sung from a female POV, but I don't see it. The title is a reference to the sexism of the Chicago indie rock scene (this is the city Steve Albini, formerly of Big Black and Rapeman, hails from).

Liz Phair: Whip-Smart **1/2

On her followup, Phair tries the same old tricks with fuller production and a real backup band; at first I was puzzled a bit at why I found this so dull, since this doesn't sound all that different from the debut, but it possesses little of the bite or insight (not to mention hooks). The problem with shock value is that the trick only works once, I suppose. Phair does write odd, interesting melodies from her chords, but her purposely (?) dry and monotonous speak-singing flattens them, so that you don't notice many melodies at all unless you're paying close attention. It's actually more consistent than the debut, with no obvious gulfs -- or peaks -- which is actually a minus, since rolling on the flat, grey plains of this album makes it one of the most boring to sit through in my collection. She maintains a nice lyrical knack, and has even improved somewhat in that department -- though the most vulgar lyric, about doing it doggie-style so they can fuck and watch TV, is tellingly the most striking. "Supernova" kicks in as an altogether too obvious attempt at a crossover rawk anthem, but this gonzo-bonkers lust song ("you fuck like a volcano"?!) is easily the most lively tune on side one. Side two's catchiest song is, of all things, a Malcolm McLaren ripoff (the title track). Now that's a low. That "you gotta keep fear in your heart," refrain from "Shane," will always stick with me, though.

Suede: Suede (1993) **

Suede are the reason the words "heavily hyped new U.K. band" strike dread into the hearts of cognizant music fans; built on an empire of hype, Suede instantly became the Next Big Thing before they even had an album out, conning critics and trainspotters to assume that if there's smoke, there has to be fire. Wrong. Suede somehow combine the worst excesses of Bowie, Queen, and the Smiths with none of the virtues -- Brett Anderson daintily swoons with the most affected, obnoxiously camp voice in the history of British pop, no mean feat; his market-tested 'coming out' ("I'm a bisexual man who's never had a homosexual experience," whatever that means) feels like a tired retread slavishly following in the media footsteps of his idols, not a brave or heartfelt admission. Needless to say, most of Anderson's lyrics self-consciously deal with kinky sex (the chorus to "Pantomime Horse," asks, "Have you ever tried it that way?"), which means that he sounds really pompous and silly, desperately trying to find abnormality and decadence in things that in the '90s are the epitome of normal. The band has precisely one thing going for it, Bernard Butler, a genuinely talented guitarist with a knack for crisp, tightly compressed riffs of the Mick Ronson school; as with the Smiths, I keep wishing the guitarist weren't stuck with such a lousy, mopey, drama-queen singer. Butler's catchy fretwork makes the faster rockers tolerable, and one song, "Moving," absolutely terrific -- a genuine addition to the canon of first-rate glam-rock, no doubt because Suede are rocking so hard, sleek, and fast they completely overpower their singer. The slow, drawn out power ballads are another story -- Anderson goes for broke with overdramatic, lush atmosphere, and winds up inducing sleep when he's not actively annoying. "Sleeping Pills," indeed. Butler's work on harder rockers like "Animal Nitrate," and "Animal Lovers," (what, is this some sort of bestiality theme?), makes it halfway worthwhile sometimes; he's since left the band for a solo career -- smart move.

Teenage Fanclub: Bandwagonesque (1991) **1/2

In a gaffe they continue to apologize for at every opportunity, the critics at Spin chose this as the best album of 1991 -- over Nevermind, Trompe Le Monde, Out of Time, and many other worthier choices in the year that punk broke. Teenage Fanclub's brief splash in the public's eye, due almost entirely to overhyping critics and incessant college radio play, didn't break Big Star-style power-pop into the mainstream, which left this rather bland and predictable by-the-numbers indie rock album in the cutout bins within no time. I was actually excited to get my hands on this release when it came out, due to the critics' ravings, and witnessing their terrific live appearance on Saturday Night Live. The first track, "The Concept," turned out to be killer, its whiningly overamped Crazy Horse guitars fuzzing under a heavenly pop melody, with clever lyrics to boot ("Says she won't be forced against her will / She don't do drugs but she does the pill"). The second track, "Satan," was a lame piece of Sonic Youth-ery, but it only noised things up for 1:22, so what? The third track, "December," was forgettable, but #4, the sublimely catchy, Chilton-esque "What You Do To Me," made me look forward to the rest of the goodies awaiting me. And then............................................................................. ................................................................................................................ ................................................................................................................ .................................................................................the rest of the album was completely forgettable. I just put this album on for the first time in several years -- just earlier this night -- and I still can't hum any of the remaining tunes from memory. I do remember that all of the tracks are very, very repetitive repetitive repetitive repetitive repetitive repetitive repetitive repeti-

There are some junky, jokey '70s references ("Metal Baby," "Pet Rock"), and these lads think they're so bright and clever ("Alcoholiday"), but they're not. The opening lines to "Sidewinder," made my jaw drop with their utter banality: did they just rhyme "true," "blue," and "you"? "Is This Music?" the final cut asks (in the title; it's an instrumental) -- well, yes it is, but it's boring, completely derivative and insanely predictable music (you know that if a chorus begins early in a Teenage Fanclub tune, it will be repeated ad naseum at least a dozen times with no variation, and there will be no surprises or interesting chord changes or bridges to keep you awake -- just the same old repetition of the first 30 seconds of the song, give or take a guitar solo). Neil Young and Big Star made some great records in the '70s that these lads like a lot, and so should you -- buy those instead. I'm being lenient with my grade because I really like those two songs, and their next pair of releases, which dropped a lot of the guitar noise to reveal the bland country-pop band within, are even more lackluster.

Velvet Crush: Teenage Symphonies To God (1994) ***1/2

The title's from a Brian Wilson quote, but this Illinois trio's basic template is Crazy Horse with Big Star pop harmonies on top. The three share the songwriting credits equally (except for Matthew Sweet's donation of the uninspired castoff "Something's Gotta Give"), though drummer Ric Menck is rumored to be the driving creative honcho. This album exemplifies the strengths and limitations of pursuing classic-rock drenched power-pop in the '90s as if the innovations of the previous two decades didn't exist. Nearly all of the tunes are well-crafted, thoughtful, and moderately exciting/catchy; but Velvet Crush bring nothing new to this well-established genre, and though their material possesses a solid consistency (there's not a real bummer amongst this dozen), none of their songs grabs you by the throat with the transcendent magic that their forebearers the Byrds and Beatles were able to deliver at their very best. In short, Velvet Crush's mere excellence can't hope to compete with true genius. This album rocks, the songs are good, and the boys have done their homework, ripping through shaggy-Neil rockers and wheatfield country rock with equal grace and aplomb. Now as for individual songs -- well, none knocks me out, and none really irk me much, and they all seem to be more or less about the same quality. I mean, I've listened and enjoyed this album for about 2 or 3 years, and I've never gotten around to reviewing it until now simply because I couldn't for the life of me think of anything interesting to say about this music. The cover of Gene Clark's long-lost "Why Not Your Baby," is a nice touch, and the emotional highlight of the album; the '50s style 'Contemporary Pop Music' cover is cool; both of these facts show a sense of history (perhaps too much -- wouldn't want to stink of retro, now would we?). Never fear, the guitars are amped up to appropriate '90s post-grunge levels. If one of these guys was named Tom Petty, these songs would be ringing out of radios in every Sonic Drive-In in America; heck, this is better and more consistent than anything Petty's cranked out in years. That last sentence should tell you all you need to know about whether or not you should purchase this album.

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