Posts Tagged ‘1990s’

So I watched the Oasis: Supersonic documentary on Netflix last night. The 2016 film, which I recommend, makes ample use of home movies, archival footage and fresh interviews to chronicle the band’s ascent to U.K. superstardom, which culminated in 1996 with back-to-back headlining gigs at Knebworth for 250,000 fans. (Some 2.5 million applied for tickets.)

A similar level of success in the States was not theirs to be had, though they did do well – especially with their sophomore set, (What’s the Story) Morning Glory, in 1995.

I enjoyed their guitar-driven music at the time, especially on that album, but found brothers Liam and Noel Gallagher blowhards and, language-wise, unnecessarily crude. So it came as a surprise to me when, during the doc, a self-aware Noel explains what made that second set resonate. “The songs on that record, they’re extraordinary songs. And they’re not extraordinary songs because of anything that I did. I only wrote them, and we only played them. It’s the millions of people who f***ing sing them back to you, to this day, that have made them extraordinary.”

It’s a remarkable observation – putting the onus on the listener/fan – because it’s a truth often missed by artists, fans and critics alike, and yet is applicable to every song ever written and every song yet written. While the inspiration, intent and development of a song are (usually) interesting, they can and will never explain why it does or doesn’t connect with the listener(s). That’s the great intangible. Or as Noel puts it, “We made people feel something that was indefinable.”

It once was customary for songs to come our way without their backstories shared in interviews for months or even years after their release. The tunes simply floated in from the ether (aka the radio or our turntables), and we made of the lyrics what we would. We interpreted them, debated them, and saw ourselves in them. In today’s age, when over-sharing has become the norm, my fear is that artists confide too much of the whys and wherefores of their art. (To borrow a phrase from Iris DeMent, let the mystery be.)

(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

Years long ago, on the early evening of Saturday Sept. 6, 1997, Diane and I saddled up our faithful Dodge Colt and traipsed the trails fantastic to the Tower Theater in Upper Darby, Pa., to see Nanci Griffith at what must have been the apex of her touring career. And eight days later, we set out on a longer sojourn, this time to the Grand Opera House in Wilmington, Del., to see her again. Supporting and joining her on both occasions: the Crickets (aka, Sonny Curtis, Jerry Allison and Joe Maudlin).

The Tower fits a little more than 3000; and the Opera House a bit more than 1200. I’m not sure, now, if one or both were sold out, but given her popularity at the time, I’d guess that, if they weren’t, they were close. She’d been on something of a commercial roll since her major-label debut in 1987, Lone Star State of Mind, with each new release expanding her audience while simultaneously expanding her sound. She didn’t approach her music as a lather-rinse-repeat exercise, in which every new release sounded like the old, but as a mode for artistic expression and exploration. Pop sensibilities surfaced on the classic Storms (1989) and less-classic Late Night Grand Hotel (1991), for example, but receded for her 1993 collection of folk covers, Other Voices, Other Rooms and what may well be her finest album ever, 1994’s Flyer, which were both folk- and folkabilly-minded affairs.

Blue Roses From the Moons, released in March 1997, was both solid and sad, however. Primarily recorded live in the studio with her longtime band, the Blue Moon Orchestra, and the Crickets, it veers from the sublime (“Everything’s Comin’ Up Roses”) to the ridiculous (a cover of Nick Lowe’s “I Live on a Battlefield”) and back again, and revisits old themes (“Saint Teresa of Avila”) and even old songs (“Gulf Coast Highway,” this time with Darius Rucker subbing for James Hooker). And, truthfully, her voice often sounds shot.

To the shows: The Crickets didn’t open. Instead, Nanci and the Blue Moon Orchestra came out first and played for 40 (give or take) minutes, with the Crickets joining Nanci for the Sonny Curtis-penned theme to The Mary Tyler Moore Show, “Love Is All Around.” With the baton thus handed off, the Crickets then played for about half an hour, with their set including – as one would expect – a few Buddy Holly chestnuts. Nanci and the Blue Moon Orchestra then closed out the night.

My memory of the Tower show is near non-existent despite the ticket showing us as having very good seats, while my recall of the Wilmington show is slightly better, though I don’t remember meeting members of the Crickets afterwards, which Diane says we did. That said, I do remember leaving both thinking that the concerts were solid, but not sublime, with my favorite moment of each being…the MTM theme, plus the older material, especially “Trouble in the Fields” and “The Wing & the Wheel.”

The Crickets were fun, and Nanci and the band were in good form – but placing ‘50s-styled rock ’n’ roll in the middle of Nanci’s country-folk stylings didn’t quite jell the way one might think it would or should.

That said, one of the encores, “Well, All Right” (from the Not Fade Away Buddy Holly tribute CD released in 1996) was a delight.

This was the set list from Denver a few months later: 

Speed of the Sound of Loneliness
Across the Great Divide
Two for the Road
These Days in an Open Book
Love at the Five and Dime
Ford Econoline
Gulf Coast Highway
Love is All Around
Do You Wanna Be Loved
I Fought the Law

Oh Boy
Lover You More than I Can Say
Maybe Baby
Everyday
Summertime Blues
I Gotta Pass
The Real Buddy Holly Story
True Love Ways
Peggy Sue
That’ll Be the Day
Rave On

Everything’s Comin’ Up Roses
The Flyer
Tecumseh Valley
She Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere
Boots of Spanish Leather
It’s a Hard Life Wherever You Go
I’ll Still Be Someone
Walk Right Back
Not My Way Home
This Heart

Encore:

Well Alright
Trouble in the Fields
The Wing & the Wheel
Darcy Farrow

I’ve written before of Da Boot!, the fanzine I was involved with during the late 1990s, so I won’t go too deep into it here. Suffice it to say, however, that it was a good idea, but about a decade too late. If we’d launched it in, say, 1988, when the CD-bootleg boom was just beginning and the Internet had yet to become a threat to both newsprint and the music business, we would have had a nice decade-long run instead of two years. (My only complaint about it, now that my eyes are 20 years older, is the small type used to squish all the words onto the page. I find it hard to read.)

The issue, as the above cover shows, featured my freewheelin’ second interview with David Crosby, which occurred in his Atlantic City hotel suite when he, Stills and Nash were headlining one of the casinos. (The entire exchange can be found here.) The second story was related to the first, in a fashion: I turned a lengthy phone interview with guitarist Jeff Pevar (of Crosby’s other band at the time, CPR) into an “as-told-to” piece that charted his career. It meant not just transcribing our talk, but rearranging his remembrances so that everything flowed in chronological order, and then checking with him on the changes. (That article can be found here.) I was also proud of the accompanying graphic, which I created – I imposed a cut-out of the Peev over the artwork of the first CPR studio album.

I’m bypassing both of those interviews, however, and focusing on the reviews. So, without further adieu, here’s today’s Top 5: March-April 1999 (via Da Boot!):

1) Kelly Willis – “What I Deserve.” Diane tackles What I Deserve, the third long-player (and fourth overall release, as she’d also released an EP) from the Oklahoma-born, and North Carolina- and Virginia-raised country-flavored singer. “What Kelly Willis has long deserved is widespread recognition in the music world – and hopefully, the stripped-down production that allows you to hear Willis’ voice in all its glory combined with her usual excellent selection of songs will draw her closer to universal acclaim.”

If I recall correctly, we saw Kelly twice in the late ’90s – on a tour prior to What I Deserve, and then on the What I Deserve tour. And based on those shows, and this album, she definitely did deserve more…

2) Lone Justice – “Drugstore Cowboy.” I tackle a Maria McKee bootleg, Absolutely Barking, and the Lone Justice compilation This World Is Not My Home in a twin-spin of a review. Of the former, which featured a crystal-clear DAT recording of a London ’98 show, I wrote “Maria is in more than fine voice, she’s in total command. The as-yet-unreleased ‘Be My Joy’ is just one highlight. From the opening chant of ‘feed me, feed me, feed me, baby/need you, need you, need you, baby’ onward, you’re in the audience pushed to the edge of the stage and swaying side to side in time to the beat, experiencing sonic bliss.” Of the latter, after lavishing similar hyperbolic praise on the previously released Lone Justice songs, I wrote that “it’s the band’s previously unreleased demos that prove most earth-shattering. The Maria-penned “Drugstore Cowboy,” for example, is a shotgun blast of authentic cowpunk – and far, far more.” (If you squint real hard, you’ll see that I cribbed part of the review for use in my “Essentials” entry on the Lone Justice debut. I subscribe to recycling, don’tcha know.)

3) The Who – “Baba O’Riley.” Jim tackles the Who bootleg Always on Top by noting that it’s a copy of another bootleg, Who Put a Better Boot in 1976, and also listing where some of the content is legitimately available. He also notes that “[t]he performance is excellent throughout, with the usual over-the-top, maximum volume performance that the band was famous for. There are six songs from the rock opera Tommy included, as well as staples ‘Summertime Blues,’ ‘Baba O’Riley,’ and ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again.’ There is also some funny, between-song banter included as Keith Moon and Pete Townshend introduce the songs.”

4) Lucinda Williams – “Right in Time.” When Diane and I saw Lucinda in June ’98 at the TLA, she arrived late due to, I think, fog – her afternoon flight was waylaid to New York, forcing her to hop a train to Philly, and then pray the audience didn’t grow restless and leave. The opening act, Jim Lauderdale, went on a little after nine; and she didn’t hit the stage until a little after 10. But despite her travel nightmare, and the delayed start, she still clocked in a two-hour show that was everything Bruce describes in this write-up of Lucinda’s January 1999 concert at the John Harms Theater in North Jersey six months.

One difference: Bruce was “[e]quipped with a recordable Sony Mini Discman MRZ-50, 2 blank 74 minute discs and a AIWA microphone.” In today’s age, when many shows are lit up from a sea of cellphones (really, folks: dim your damn screens!), it may seem bizarre to young folks to learn this, but there was a time you could get tossed from a venue if you were caught recording. And you also had to make tough choices due to the technological limits of recording gear, as Bruce did this night when he chose not to capture opening act Patty Griffin’s “short and sparkling set.”  Which makes this all the more remarkable: “An incredible version of ‘Joy’ developed into a fifteen minute guitar interplay jam that ended the first set at the 74 minute mark of the first disc!”

But because I used “Joy” in that prior Da Boot! piece, here’s another song from the night…

5) Bob Dylan – “The Death of Emmett Till.” In his take on The Third One Now, a three-CD set of unreleased Dylan gems, Jim chimes in on the freedoms – or lack thereof – afforded to American citizens in the 1950s. “Of the first seven songs on disc one, six are from what is referred to as the ‘Smith Home Tapes’ in 1962, and one track (actually two songs) is from the Oscar Brand Folk Festival from WNYC in New York in 1961. The sound is extraordinary on all of these and the performances are that of a budding musical genius finding his foothold and his confidence. Historically significant to be sure, but the subject matter of songs like ‘Death of Emmett Till,’ which deals with racism, is still significant all these years later.” (And almost 20 years on, it still remains relevant.)

And one bonus…

6) Neil Young – “Give Me Strength” (1976). The Neil Young bootleg Rolling Zuma Revue made me livid – and the review, honestly, makes me laugh. I write that “Wild Wolf, the ‘label’ behind this two-CD set should be skinned for its fur, with its carcass left for the maggots to infest.” I go on, and on, and use some profane language, while explaining that they coupled two 1976 shows – Chicago and Osaka – and arranged the tracks so that the Chicago songs opened each disc while the Osaka songs closed them. I.e., they split the shows in half. “What is this?” I ask. “Ring around the f-ng rosy?” I then go on to answer myself, and fill in readers: “the Chicago set offers stellar sound but the Osaka section sucks.” Which meant that if a fan did his or her due diligence, and asked the store proprietor to play a song or two on the in-house stereo system (as was common), he or she might be fooled into buying it.