Tag Archives: 1995

10th Favorite Album: The Bends, by Radiohead

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The Bends. Radiohead.
1995, Capitol. Producer: John Leckie.
Purchased, 1999.

IN A NUTSHELL: The Bends, by Radiohead, is a mighty collection of guitars and weird sounds and swooping, swerving melodies. The band writes mini-symphonies, and singer Thom Yorke delivers them with power and conviction. Multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood throws a million different things into the background, rewarding multiple listens. The band evokes many emotions within a single song.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
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“Life is Suffering,” they say the Buddha said, but it’s very likely this is not true. Sure, Life IS Suffering – that is definitely true – but it’s doubtful the Buddha said these words. From a historo-linguistic point of view, he most certainly never said those three exact words, as certain as he never said, “Bro, check this out,” before speaking them. He didn’t speak English. But from a less ridiculous, more theological and philosophical perspective, it seems that he didn’t mean what those words together connote.

Still, I’ve always found solace in the words, despite my misapprehension of them. The fact that the basic state for humankind, perhaps for any-kind, all the way down to bacteria and viruses, is suffering is an inspiring thought because it allows one to take pride in one’s happiness and in the simple joys, as they’re evidence that you’ve done work to overcome life’s basic state.

Of course, I’m a man in a (somewhat) advanced Western society, basking in all that my privilege affords me, so I try to stay aware of the myth that my suffering is just like everyone else’s. It isn’t. And the gap between my suffering and that of people in different situations than mine has very little to do with anything I’ve done. I’m the right collection of chemicals fortunate enough to be placed on the planet when and where I was, and then I didn’t fuck up my good fortune.

“What the heck are the blues?”

Still – I’ve had some shitty times. My blues are real to me, and my pains, well, they hurt. I’m lucky that they’re not compounded by the bullshit that society lays on those who don’t look like me, love like me, earn like me, or live like me. But this luck doesn’t do much to lessen the suffering that I, as a member of “Life,” endure. But there is something to help me endure it: music.

As a nerdy teen who listened to nerdy music, I spent hours in my room listening to records. The Blues are probably the natural state of most teen-agers, and it’s useful to find something to help them through it: books, music, comic books … For me, it was comedy – whether TV, movies, radio programs, stand up albums, funny songs – and rock music. In the 80s, when my concerns were acne and school dances and making the basketball team and trying to get out of band practice, well, a little rock music could help me work my way through it all. One meditative excursion through “La Villa Strangiato” or “Starship Trooper” or Gaucho or Van Halen II could perk a kid right up.

It also has helped me in adulthood. When my oldest kid was little, and I was moving into my mid-30s, I started to grow frustrated with almost everything about my life. Like many new parents, I was stressed out, unsure, lost in the care of others, feeling the weight of responsibility, and generally wigging out. My wife and I had recently moved across the country and we were both seriously questioning the decision. Everything about the “old life” seemed golden. Everything about the “new life” seemed horrible.

I was astounded by the deep love I felt for my kid, and this definitely helped guide me. But virtually everything else seemed to suck. My career was boring to me. I was trying to “make it” in the stand-up comedy business, but family life seemed to be throwing up insurmountable hurdles. I fought often with my wife. And I drank too much, and even felt the pull of opioids, after a tumble down some steps gave me three broken ribs, a chest wall injury and a prescription for Percocet. The usual things that people turn to in such times – family, friends, therapists, community – weren’t really doing much for me.

But music was there for me. In particular, the Radiohead album The Bends.

I’ve probably written this before, but when I first heard Radiohead, in 1992, I thought they sucked. Their song “Creep” was all over MTV and the radio, and I couldn’t stand it. (Although Chrissie Hynde later did a version that I love.) At a party, in 1995 or ’96, a friend told me that The Bends was one of the best new albums he’d heard recently. I kept my mouth shut about how bad they sucked.

Then, in 1997, I saw the strange video for their excellent song “Paranoid Android,” and I picked up their record OK Computer. I became a fan. I remembered my buddy’s praise for The Bends, so I went out and got it. It was just fine, but I didn’t become obsessed until I had that rough patch of life in the early 00s.

I’d listen to it regularly, always on headphones. I don’t even remember now how it became so important, or when, exactly, I started listening. But I have memories of lying down, baby asleep, house quiet, and letting the music work its magic. It soothed me, expressed feelings that I felt but didn’t understand, and kept me sane. I took to thinking of it as my “CD of Restraint,” akin to a chain that a werewolf attaches to himself while in human form to prevent his horrible, transformed lycanthropic self from running wild through the glow of a full moon.

Now don’t get me wrong – it’s not as if, without the record, I’d have gone on some killing spree, or would have awoken to find myself devouring a live goat at sunup. I don’t think I was that desperate. But it definitely helped my mental state at the time, from the opening winds of “Planet Telex.”

Phil Selway’s drums- in particular the strong bass drum – immediately grab the listener. Then Colin Greenwood’s bass enters with a loopy line, and all the sounds build to singer Thom Yorke’s entrance. His thin tenor sings lyrics that, frankly, probably resonate with anyone feeling down and out and wishing to wallow a bit. The chord pattern in the chorus, beginning at 1:20, is beautifully sad. Guitarist Jonny Greenwood adds cool guitar through the third verse, beginning at 1:55. I love the verses, and chorus, and how the band uses dynamics – a characteristic of most all Radiohead songs. When the bass re-enters about 3:40 and the song recedes with a little guitar riff outro, I find myself asking, “Was that the perfect song?”

And the band follows it up with another great song that hits you from the get-go. The title track, “The Bends.”

“The Bends” showcases Radiohead’s orchestral tendencies with an opening fanfare full of pomp. They scale things back so Yorke can sing – and once again, listening to the lyrics, I can see why I connected with them at the time. But despite the sad lyrics, the song is powerful and aggressive – as at 1:02, when another orchestral-sounding riff and bass set the stage for Yorke’s pre-chorus, then the guitars play simple chords as he sings. The band builds up to the chorus which Yorke sings with more power in each successive verse. This is another song that just sounds perfect to me – all the different pieces – and has one of my favorite guitar solos ever, beginning at 3:03, as Jonny goes back and forth between single notes and chords over top a furious band. It’s simple, but it’s wonderful.

After a couple barn-burning, aggressive songs, the band scales things back with “High and Dry” and “Fake Plastic Trees.” “High and Dry” shows the band can pull off the sad, acoustic numbers with ease – and while adding their own signature: guitar sounds, noises, and dynamic changes. It’s a lost-love song, and Yorke sings it well. The previous songs were sad but powerful – this one’s just sad.

“Fake Plastic Trees” is also sad, although the lyrics are about plastic surgery.

This is another of my favorite songs on the album. I think there are five or six favorites out of 12 great songs. It’s a showcase for singer Yorke, who sings sweetly until he opens things up, about 2:25, when he starts to really emote as the band goes nuts behind him. Then, at 3:34, he wonders if he could “be who you wanted, all the time.” It’s a song that still speaks to me, 25 years (!) after its release. (On a comment on the Official Video for this song, someone stated “Radiohead is the one band that can make you cry and cure your sadness at the same time.” I know what he means.)

The next song, “Bones,” returns to the guitar rock sound, albeit with a mid-tempo groove thanks to Selway and Colin Greenwood. I love when Yorke shouts “You got to feel it in your bones!” It’s a straightforward rocker that the band makes their own.

After rocking out, then slowing down, then rocking out, the boys mix things up with a song that seems to be one thing but – gloriously – can’t decide which it really is. It’s called “(Nice Dreams)” and it’s another favorite.

It’s a sweetly-swinging, 6/8 singalong song, almost like something you’d sing at camp as a kid. Swirling sounds support Yorke’s mystical lyrics. There’s great countermelody backing vocals the second time through the chorus, at 2:07. Then at about 2:24, it sort of goes a bit nuts, with Jonny squawking all kinds of squawks – or maybe it’s second guitarist Ed O’Brien. Then the song fades away – rather like a dream. A nice dream, actually. Perhaps a (nice dream).

The next song, “Just,” has a great groove, and nice doubling of the guitar and vocals. It’s one of the few songs on the record with lyrics that seem kind of angry. Jonny’s soaring guitar is really terrific, and the band again goes between soft and loud – they may be the band that does the most with dynamics outside of Pixies. In 2001, the Classical Music critic for The New Yorker magazine profiled the band and made connections between their songwriting and some of the “tricks” used by classical composers. Maybe that’s why the songs sound so good?

My Iron Lung” is another song, like “(Nice Dreams),” that has a section in the middle that comes out of nowhere, as if a different song was dropped in. This isn’t a criticism! I like it. It opens with a cool guitar riff, and a pumping, simple bass line that pushes it forward. It’s mid-tempo and peaceful, and builds in power, but nothing prepares the listener for the raucous section at 1:55. And while the lyrics say “this is our new song, just like the last one, a total waste of time,” this album means too much to me for me to agree. Even my least favorite song on the album, “Bulletproof … I Wish I Was,” is a song I like. The final song on the album, “Street Spirit (Fade Out),” is another I don’t love … but it’s still very good.

Sulk” has all the majesty and pomp of the best Radiohead songs, its four-note guitar riff chiming like symphonic violins. Yorke emotes and howls the tale of disintegrating love.

“Black Star” is another of my favorites on the album. It has a swerving melody that Yorke sings at the top of his register. Jonny plays some terrific lines behind the verses. This song also has a harmony vocal, which is kind of rare for Radiohead, but it also has a tricky time-signature change, which is more common for them. It’s a song about things falling apart, and when the lyrics “this is killing me” appear at the end, it’s easy to see why it connected with me during the rough times.

I’ve had more rough patches since those days nearly 20 years ago. And I’ve had some amazing patches, as well. Either way, music has been an important tool in helping me through the pain and the glory. I often wonder if I’d like this record as much if I hadn’t stumbled onto it at that particular time. Who knows? Life is suffering, so I try to just accept the good things when I find them.

TRACK LISTING:
“Planet Telex”
“The Bends”
“High and Dry”
“Fake Plastic Trees”
“Bones”
“(Nice Dreams)”
“Just”
“My Iron Lung”
“Bullet Proof … I Wish I Was”
“Black Star”
“Sulk”
“Street Spirit (Fade Out)”

 

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41st Favorite: … And Out Come The Wolves, by Rancid

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… And Out Come The Wolves. Rancid.
1995, Epitaph. Producer: Jerry Finn, Rancid.
Purchased, 1995.

IN A NUTSHELL: Nineteen powerful, hook-laden, short and fast songs come at you in rat-a-tat style that overwhelms – in a GOOD way. Bassist Matt Freeman is a master, and co-guitarists/vocalists Tim Armstrong and Lars Frederiksen put their limited vocal abilities to excellent use on melodies that will stick with you. Don’t hold it against them if they sound like some other bands that came before them: this is a record that stands on its own!

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
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In fifth grade, at Ebenezer Elementary School (yes, that was the name), my terrific teacher was Mr. Keesey. This was in 1977, ten years after the big splash made by the Summer-of-Love, and the ripples of the Hippie culture were still being broadly felt, even in my little PA town. His thick, round glasses, close-cropped brown hair and penchant for pull-over sweaters made Mr. Keesey look far more “straight” than “hippie.” And while I’m sure there were hippies of all shapes and sizes, Mr. Keesey’s short stature only intensified his outward appearance as a square. But he brought the Hippie message of peace and love to my classroom.

Mr. Keesey was Ebenezer’s “celebrity teacher,” a prize for certain lucky kids in their last year in elementary school, supposedly a cool, fun guy, (a reputation my older sister confirmed when she had him three years before me) with a place-your-desks-anywhere policy and a wooden tower in his room that allowed for activities both six feet off the ground, or in the secluded Underneath. On the first day of class I knew he was different than anybody who’d ever stood in front of my classrooms when he delivered a monologue stating he didn’t think of himself as the leader who made rules and yelled at kids for breaking them, and forced everyone to do whatever he wanted them to do; but instead thought of the classroom as a shared space for all of us, in which we all make the rules together and help each other to stay within them. He said he’d play guitar for us some days, we’d have class outside some days, and we could call him “Jim.” He invited anyone to challenge him to a game of chess on the chessboard on top of the tower, and pointed out the big, round signs hanging in the room, each with a single word: “IALAC.”

This stood for “I Am Lovable And Capable,” and Jim wanted us to say that phrase to ourselves whenever we saw the signs.

To put it mildly, this was NOT a teaching style that I, or any of my classmates, had ever seen before!! It was as if an egg-headed, rod-fingered alien had come to Ebenezer to speak to us from a beautiful future we could not comprehend. Either that, or a hippie. The level of unease felt by my classmates and me at this (for our school) radical style of pedagogy was such that, while we loved the tower and the chess and the signs and the rule-making, no one ever took him up on the invitation to call him “Jim.” He was always “Mr. Keesey.” We all respected him so much that we felt we HAD to call him that.

He put us into groups for math and reading, and I got put into the “smart-kids” group, with my buddies, Greg and Bruce, and a girl, Juli, who would later go on to graduate high school a year early to attend M.I.T. For Reading/Language Arts, our group used a cool workbook called The Dopple Gang, a hip, 70s, cartoony book that reminded me of a groovy paperback version of The Banana Splits TV show.

Mr. Keesey was big on reading. Together as a class we read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; The Hobbit; The Phantom Tollbooth; and The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. In our individual groups, we took part in a reading program called “SRA,” a color-coded system by Science Research Associates in which students read a group of ten or twelve individual non-fiction stories at their own pace, answered 20 questions after each story, and then, when a sufficient number of questions had been correctly answered, and all stories in a color were complete, moved to the next color. The readings and questions got progressively more advanced as you moved through the colors. If you made it through all the colors, you’d end up reading 100 to 150 stories. In our group, Juli flew through the colors. Greg, Bruce and I did not.

I’m sure there have been many times in my educational career when I bent the rules, sneaked a look at a classmate’s paper, or “borrowed” homework answers from a friend; but I generally didn’t cheat. School was one of the few things I felt really good at, so proving I could do well on my own was a point of pride. So to this day, as a 50 year old man, I remain ashamed of the enormity of the cheating scheme undertaken by my buddies and I on those damned SRA cards.

You see, kind and trusting cool-guy that he was, Mr. Keesey allowed us to sit anywhere to do our SRA reading, and – so we could grade our own work – gave us access to the SRA Teacher’s Box that contained individual answer-key cards for each story. So as Juli’s performance really started to outpace our own, and my two pals and I felt completely outclassed, we realized we could choose to read our SRA while sitting in corners, or underneath the tower, or even out in the hallway. And since the Answer Cards fit neatly against the pamphletized stories, it was not difficult to select a story, select an answer card and scuttle off to a dark place to cheat like hell. As Juli completed four or five stories in 30 minutes, we could complete three or four ourselves, instead of the one to three we could do on our own. (We never did the same number or more than Juli: we were smart enough to realize nobody would buy that.) We finished the entire SRA reading program in a few months, several days after Juli, while many kids never made it through one color on their own. We felt like stars, winners. I did for a brief time, anyway.

We’d answered Mr. Keesey’s love and kindness with – at least in this instance – cheating. It felt wrong to me then, and it feels wrong today. I’m sure many kids did the same; perhaps even Juli, that vaunted intellectual prodigy, was cheating as well. (After all: she was no dummy.) And maybe, ol’ Jim knew what was happening but figured the benefits of providing an opportunity for ten year olds to take on individualized reading projects with little oversight outweighed the risks of a few sulking, pride-wounded boys cheating. (After all, we weren’t graded on the SRA program.) Still, I wish I’d done the reading without cheating.

I don’t dwell on this episode much, but I was reminded of it while considering my #41 album … And Out Come The Wolves, by the band Rancid. This is because many people – whether they understand it this way or not – think of Rancid as cheaters. Nobody really uses that term when discussing the band, but it’s what they think. The band “cheats” because they sound, unapologetically, like The Clash. Some people are very anti-Rancid over their sound. And I wonder – as someone who’s felt guilty about cheating – if maybe some folks’ dislike for the band is driven by the guilt they feel over their own past indiscretions. “These guys are cheating, and they don’t even care!!!”

When I heard the band’s hit “Time Bomb” on the radio in late 1995, I was immediately taken with the band. Singer Tim Armstrong’s slurring singing on lyrics about their music scene, the punky/ska beat, the fun video … I liked it. I liked the organ, and the catchy chorus and I went out and bought … And Out Come The Wolves.

As a big Clash fan, I was excited that someone was trying to carry on in their tradition. As I’ve written before, I tend to seek out artists who sound like my favorite artists. All music is loaded with the musical inspirations of those who write it; there are very few truly “original” artists out there. And the ones that do sound like no one else, I guarantee you’d hate. And while it’s true that any punk or punk-ish band since 1977 will bear some resemblance to The Clash (punk itself being a rather specific, sound-limited genre), Rancid’s double guitars, dueling singers and ska-influenced tracks made them particularly ripe for the comparison. Sure, the band’s mohawks and chains seemed a bit dated in 1995, but I didn’t care – the songs were great! But I found when I played the album for others my age who also loved The Clash, most were dismissive, at best; others were downright angry. “If I wanted to hear The Clash, I’d listen to The Clash!” “They’re totally ripping off another band!” “What’s this retro bullshit??” They thought the band was cheating.

But creativity is weird. It’s a personal experience that isn’t as simple as finding an answer key and secreting it away to a hidden spot. A band of young Clash fans in their basement writing songs inspired by their heroes haven’t cheated at all.

Actually, they’ve added their own twist to the sound they love. Consider the bass in “Maxwell Murder” (particularly beginning at 0:58) and compare it to any bass line by Paul Simonon on any Clash song. I think you will hear a difference.

It’s less than a minute and a half of energy and power, and Matt Freeman’s frenetic bass is the engine. His bass solo at about 0:59 is one of the coolest I’ve heard – and is unusual in a punk rock song, where the fast pace of songs relegates many bassists to simply bashing through the root notes of chords. As with most of the songs, the lyrics border on unintelligible, but in this case they seem to be about a hit-man.

Freeman’s bass is one of the defining features of the album (and the band) and powers such songs as their follow-up hit, “Ruby Soho,” and “Disorder and Disarray,” one of many songs about these punks’ discomfort with the big record labels who descended on them in the wake of the success of bands like Nirvana and Green Day.

But what really powers the album is – believe it or not – the sequencing of the songs and the very small space left between the songs. Nineteen short songs that are fun and catchy and powerful and that come at you in rat-a-tat fashion, each one a wave at the beach that smacks into you just as you groggily rise in the surf from the last one. It’s a relentless album, and it’s difficult to recreate that feeling in words, but if you have 50 minutes or so, try to listen all the way through.

After “Maxwell Murder” comes “11th Hour,” a D.I.Y. anthem calling fans to action. It features two other key aspects of the Rancid sound: squawking, somewhat-in-tune vocals and harmonies (that sound awesome, somehow) and guitars that play off each other, not unlike the two guitar sound of The Clash (it must be said.)

Guitarist/singers Tim Armstrong (the lefty) and Lars Frederiksen (the righty) also frequently trade off lead vocals, as in “Roots Radicals.”

It’s a hyper-catchy song, with a jumping bassline, and Armstrong and Frederiksen harmonize brilliantly, particularly given their limitations. The band wears their “if-we-can-do-it-you-can-do-it” ethos on their sleeves, and many of the lyrics (like those in this song) tell the band’s story. I think for many kids in the rock era, bands like Rancid were a key to coping. Songs like the excellent “Listed M.I.A.” (Which may be the most upbeat song about suicide ever!) talk about the hard times; songs like “The Wars End” tell you things can get better.

A terrific triumvirate of totally torrid tunes (sorry about that) begins with the excellent “take me away from the big city” lament of “Olympia, WA.”

The riff is killer from the beginning. Armstrong leads the snarling verse, then the excellent, singalong chorus begins at 0:45, with Freeman’s bass leading the charge. It’s one of the most-fun choruses to shout ever! It’s followed up by another shout-along classic, “Lock, Step & Gone.” It’s more of the same: awesome bass line (with another bass solo, about 1:22!), dueling guitars, sneering harmony vocals. But somehow it doesn’t sound the same.

That one is followed closely with another favorite of mine, “Junkie Man,” featuring lyrical help from poet/Basketball Diarist/”People Who Died” guy Jim Carroll.

I think it may actually be about Carroll, a well-known junkie who definitely could tell you what the story is, as the song asks. It’s got a neat scratchy breakdown, with spoken words written by Carroll.

There are 19, YES NINETEEN, songs on this album. Some are better than others, most are great, a few are merely very good. “Daly City Train” is another autobiographical gem. It’s a ska song, and it’s fun and rocks and makes me want to shout and dance along – as almost all of the songs do. At 2:40 it features a kind of rap that may be the most unintelligible rap I’ve ever heard. And I love it!

So many great songs. “Journey To The End Of The East Bay.” “She’s Automatic.” The super-excellent “Old Friend,” which I can’t believe I didn’t write about more! “As Wicked.” “You Don’t Care Nothin.” “The Way I Feel.” Any of these songs would be part of a great mix-tape, and when they’re placed end-to-end with hardly a break, they’re a battering ram. Just as the band states on the song “Avenues and Alleyways.”

So, listen. I’ve forgiven myself about that fifth grade cheating incident. I swear. But I understand if you were in that class with me and worked your ass off to get through the Blue cards, only to find out the “smart kids” were cheating their way all the way through Brown!!! It’s just not right. And it might trigger your senses of justice and vengeance. And that’s fine, take it out on a cheater like me. But don’t hold it against a band like Rancid. They didn’t cheat! They just wear their influences on their sleeve. And if you get past your resentment, you’ll find there’s an excellent record waiting for you to hear!

Track Listing:
“Maxwell Murder”
“The Eleventh Hour”
“Roots Radicals”
“Time Bomb”
“Olympia WA”
“Lock, Step & Gone”
“Junkie Man”
“Listed M.1.A.”
“Ruby Soho”
“Daly City Train”
“Journey To The End Of The East Bay”
“She’s Automatic”
“Old Friend”
“Disorder And Disarray”
“The Wars End”
“You Don’t Care Nothin”
“As Wicked”
“Avenues & Alleyways”
“The Way I Feel”

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