Archive for the ‘1996’ Category

(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.)

To my ears and soul, Life Is Sweet is not just one of the greatest lost albums of all time, but one of the greatest, period. It’s glam. It’s rock. It’s operatic. It’s art.

The story behind it: While touring in support of her country-rock classic You Gotta Sin to Get Saved in 1993, one of the members of Maria’s band is said to have given her a mixtape of classic glam and glitter tunes. Maria listened. Loved. Obsessed. And then wrote and recorded a set of songs, released in 1996, that blended those glittery hues of yore with dramatic colors of her own design.

“Scarlover,” the opening track, is a great example. It’s rough, ragged and refined all at the same time, with guitars giving way to strings that give way to guitars, set to Maria’s seemingly stream-of-conscious admission that “ugly inside of me taught me of beauty/I wouldn’t trade that work of art.”

As a whole, the album explores self-doubt, self-loathing and, ultimately, self-acceptance. At times, yes, it’s stasis in darkness (aka Sylvia Plath set to song). More than that, however, it’s Maria McKee unshorn, seemingly exploring her rapid-cycle bipolar disorder in ways that both replicate it and make it relatable. It’s the Bowie homage “Absolutely Barking Stars” with lyrics that delve into yin-yang duality… 

…and the dramatic “I’m Not Listening,” in which she attempts to ignore the voices inside her head that are taunting and haunting her. 

The utterly catchy “Everybody” explores celebrity and Andy Warhol’s infamous “15 seconds of fame” maxim: “We’ve all been flirting/with the perfect day/when they think we’re perfect/Yeah, but who are they?” There’s also a flat-out incendiary guitar break:

“Carried” is another highlight:

And, of course, there’s the title track, which may well be the greatest song she’s yet written or recorded. 

Geffen, her record label, hated the album. AAA radio stations like WXPN, which embraced and promoted the hell out of You Gotta Sin, refused to play it. Some critics slammed it. Some fans did, too. Artistic growth often comes at a price, and in this case the cost was Maria’s major-label career. Life Is Sweet failed to sell, and she left Geffen not long thereafter. The album also fell out of print, and has never been reissued, even digitally. (A true crime against art.)

Twenty-plus years since its release, however, and it sounds as fresh and hauntingly familiar as it did upon first listen. If you like Anna Calvi, Bat for Lashes, and similar dramatic acts, seek it out. You won’t be disappointed.

The track list:

  1. Scarlover
  2. This Perfect Dress
  3. Absolutely Barking Stars
  4. I’m Not Listening
  5. Everybody
  6. Smarter
  7. What Else You Wanna Know
  8. I’m Awake
  9. Human
  10. Carried
  11. Life Is Sweet”
  12. Afterlife

My original plan for this week’s Top 5 was to countdown cool songs from 1996, when the Netflix series Everything Sucks! is set. If you haven’t seen the show, it’s a comedy-drama about a handful of high-school kids, and two of their parents, in Boring, Ore., that’s cut from the same cloth as Freaks & Geeks. (I won’t say more for spoiler reasons.) It’s good, if flawed, hitting the funny bone as often as it tugs at the heartstrings.

But that would’ve required a time commitment that, this Sunday, I couldn’t make. So, instead, here’s one song from ’96 – an overlooked wonder that kicked off the American Routes radio show today on XPN – and four relatively new releases.

1) Dale Watson – “A Real Country Song.” This song, which laments the disappearance of authentic country music from the airwaves, was released in 1996. Sad to say, 22 years on, real country music remains on life support.

2) Kasey Chambers & the Fireside Disciples – “The Campfire Song.” The Aussie country singer-songwriter (one of my favorites) announced this week that her next album, Campfire, will be released in mid-April.

3) The Last of the Easy Riders – “Unto the Earth.” I discovered this Colorado-based band, whose music conjures the Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers, via a review in the most recent Uncut, and listened to their full-length debut, Unto the Earth, this morning. It’s quite good. (Side note: The opening guitar solo in this, the title tune, recalls Blondie’s “Call Me.”)

4) Caitlyn Smith – “Scenes From a Corner Booth at Closing Time on Tuesday.” The singer-songwriter has co-written songs recorded by Rascal Flatts, Garth Brooks, Lady Antebellum and Meghan Trainor, among others, but only released her debut, Starfire, earlier this year.

5) Violetta Zironi – “Oasis.” I don’t know much about this folksinger beyond this: She’s Italian; has a gorgeous voice; and released her debut EP, which doesn’t include this gem, last month.

(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.)

In early 1996, a few months after the passing of fellow traveler David Briggs (1944-95), Neil saddled up the Horse and took it for a much-needed ride. The result: Broken Arrow, which was released on July 2nd of that year. It’s an oft-overlooked gem, overshadowed for some by the classics that immediately preceded it (Freedom, Ragged Glory, Weld, Harvest Moon, Sleeps With Angels and Mirror Ball) and unknown to many younger fans simply because…well, where does one begin with such a prolific artist?

That said, it’s one of my favorites by Neil. It’s somber, reflective and celebratory, essentially the grieving process set to song. It’s hypnotic. But rather than delve deep into its grooves, as I often do with my Essentials, I thought I’d share my original review of the album, written not long after its release…

First listen: Long, loping songs (“Big Time,” “Loose Change,” “Slip Away”) with thick guitars reverberating ad infinitum, seemingly nothing more than retreads of themes previously visited on numerous Neil & CH classics. Throw in shorter tunes (“Scattered,” “This Town,” “Music Arcade”) that, again, echo past classics and even previous tracks, plus a conclusion (a cover of Jimmy Reed’s “Baby What You Want Me To Do”) that sounds like it was copped from a bad-sounding bootleg. Short and sweet review: Mediocre.

Second listen: Gets better. The long, loping songs are still long and, yes, they still lope. But “Big Time,” “Slip Away,” “Loose Change” and “Scattered” possess hypnotic, near narcotic qualities that circulate and percolate through the mind long after the music has stopped. Lyrically, the songs make a fitting tribute to the late David Briggs, Neil’s longtime producer and friend: “I’m still living the dream we had/for me it’s not over.”

Third, then fourth, fifth and sixth listens, all played LOUD: The chords cleanse the soul. “Music Arcade” has proven itself an acoustic gem that serves as this album’s piece de resistance, featuring an impassioned, hushed vocal: “I was walking down Main Street … dodgin’ traffic with flyin’ feet/ that’s how good I felt.” And that bad-sounding, bootleg-esque ending? Guess what? It works. After a while you forgive the bad sound and just get into the groove…and, man, what a groove! (A+)

The songs:

  1. Big Time
  2. Loose Change
  3. Slip Away
  4. Changing Highways
  5. Scattered (Let’s Think About Livin’)
  6. This Town
  7. Music Arcade
  8. Baby What You Want Me to Do