Tag Archives: 90s Alternative

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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57th Favorite: When I Was Born for the 7th Time, by Cornershop

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When I Was Born for the 7th Time. Cornershop.
1997, Warner Bros. Producer: Tjinder Singh, Dan the Automator, Daddy Rappaport.
Purchased 1997.

7th-time-album-cover

squirrelIN A NUTSHELL: An album that is really hard to categorize, featuring everything from turntablism to country to raga. UK-born Tjinder Singh leads his group through style after style, but keeps the music fun and tethers it to its trance-inducing Hindi roots. It’s music that’s hard for me to adequately describe – my usual “guitar/bass/drums” verbiage doesn’t really work. But I like the way it sounds – it makes me feel young!
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In about six months I’ll turn 50 years old.

I’ve always equated “fifty” with “elderly.” Sometime around 1985, there was a contest sponsored by Canada Dry to win $1,000,000 OR: a date with Joan Collins. Collins was a TV star whose best work is generally agreed to have been her role as the villain “The Siren” in the 1960s TV show Batman. By 1985, however, she was the star of some ridiculous – and ridiculously popular – nighttime soap opera called Dynasty. Winning a date with a star has been a time-honored Hollywood tradition for years, but what joan-collins-datewas interesting about this contest was that the prize wasn’t some young, teenage heart-throb, but a fifty year-old woman. FIFTY!!! (Or a million dollars.)

I was in my first year of college, and my fellow 18 year old, male, heterosexual (I think) friends and I were aghast. “Who would take the date with a 50 year old??” we wondered. It was an age older than most of our mothers. Only one of us claimed we would take the date, and he did so because “I’d want to see if I could [share intimate physical contact with] her.” (He also later spent time in prison, not that it matters. (Although maybe it does.)) The rest of us were further aghast. FIFTY was old.

FIFTY IS OLD. It’s the age you becomederek AARP-eligible, a fact that has been exploited for laughs by American spouses for 30 years, a membership being the ultimate BIG 5-0 gag-gift, as it’s humorous but also useful. Rock-Music-Wise, Roger Daltry sang “I hope I die before I get old” in The Who’s “My Generation,” and he certainly meant well before age 50. FIFTY is even older than Spinal Tap bassist Derek Smalls was when he lamented growing old in rock-n-roll.

But big whoop. Who cares? The fact is, I’ve felt old at every “Big X-0” birthday since I turned 10. (Although at 10, “old” was a good thing.) Time moves in one direction, and such markers whiz past like telephone poles viewed from the bed of a speeding pick-up truck. When I turned 20, I hadn’t yet performed comedy, but I knew Eddie Murphy was a star by that age, so it seemed too late for me. When I turned forty, my kids were still so young and it seemed like it would be years before I’d get a little free time for my own – and by the time it arrived I assumed I’d be too old to enjoy it.

The author's 10th birthday was the last time in his life that a birthday ending in '0' brought contentment rather than anxiety.

Now I’m turning 50, and I actually don’t feel as old as I thought I would. 30quoteSure, physically, I’m a little more achey than I used to be, and a nice long walk now substitutes for an hour’s worth of pick-up basketball, but emotionally I’m not experiencing anywhere near the level of concern I felt when I turned 30. Of all the X-0 birthdays, 30 hit me the hardest. That was the one that grabbed my lapels, slapped me in the face, spun me around with a kick in the pants and said, “Get on with it, boy! You can’t goof off forever!”

I’ve never forgiven 30 for telling me that.

bernalI was living in San Francisco with my cool girlfriend, in our cool neighborhood, with one cool cat and one mentally disabled stray cat we called “Lenny,” after the big sad character in Of Mice and Men. But even Lenny was cool! I was in a theater group, writing and acting in plays, I was performing improv – and getting paid for it, and I was doing some stand up comedy. I was having a blast – but the BIG 3-0 hung over my head ominously.

All of my artistic pursuits were fun and important to me, chemisthowever I was still earning my living as a chemist in the pharmaceutical industry. I thought of myself as an actor/performer, but I had a series of W-2s going back 6 years that told a different story. The time had come to either ditch the well-paying job and dive headfirst into performance, or quietly admit to myself that despite my pursuits’ fun and importance, I really enjoyed having a comfortable lifestyle with an income I could count on. I quietly admitted to myself that performance – improv, standup, acting – was an AVOCATION.

This was all happening in the mid-90s. In a different era, there may have been music on the radio to help soothe my anxiety and stress. But not in the mid-90s, which was an era of some of the worst music imaginable: pseudo-alt-rock – a ripped-off, corporate-hijacked, style-over-substance form whose ridiculousness was perhaps topped only wingerby the spiraling absurdity of the late 80s hair-band phenomenon. Pseudo-Alt-Rock was similar to the follies of the late-80s hair-bands in that a once-inspired musical style (in the case of hair-bands, Heavy Metal; in the case of pseudo-alt, College Rock/Grunge) had been fed through the record label Xerox machine so many times that only the faintest outline remained of the original form. All the subtle intricacy of true expression and unique character was lost, and a bunch of nondescript blobs were spat out and called “alternative rock,” in the hope that listeners wouldn’t notice the difference. And it was all over the radio.

As my 30th birthday approached, I felt my carefree youthhourglass slipping away, and I decided to make a last-ditch attempt to hang on by renewing my interest in what was new on the musical map. I decided that 1997 would be the year I would resume buying good, new music – a favorite pastime of mine that had peaked in the early 90s, but had waned some by 1997. It was a dubious era in which to claw back into the musical stew.

1997For every Yo La Tengo or Radiohead, there was a The Prodigy or a Creed. It wasn’t hard to enjoy Sleater-Kinney, and then be tricked by Veruca Salt. It was the era of the Trapdoor of the Catchy Alternative Pop Song, a phenomenon in which a tuneful song that immediately grabs your ear by a random Smashmouth or New Radicals, or even – shockingly enough – a Hanson, could, if you didn’t give the song a second and third go-around to really listen, cause you to consider buying an album, and in doing so plummet, screaming, clutching in your hands a virtually unlistenable and un-re-sellable piece of shiny, plastic trash.

I did a pretty good job of avoiding the really lousy albums from the really shitty bands of the day. I didn’t buy anything from Matchbox 20 or Bush or Third Eye Blind. I wasn’t tricked by a catchy single into buying albums from Luscious Jackson or White Town or OMC.

But I did purchase one album that summer on the basis of one catchy song that turned out to indeed be a one-hit wonder … in the UK. And after re-mixing. In the summer of 1997, Alt-Rock Radio – that foister of tepidry – was playing a Catchy Alternative Pop Song that could have been a trap door. ashaThe song was “Brimful of Asha,” by Cornershop, sung in a definitely-noticeable Hindi accent. It was part of Corporate Modern Rock Radio’s apparent push towards some bit of multi-cultural awareness, a song churned onto the playlist via some strange algorithm that also allowed a Los Lobos song to be played once a month, but still couldn’t spit out any hip-hop songs onto the playlist by any bands other than The Beastie Boys. It caught my ear, and I read good things about the album (probably in Spin magazine) so I went out and got it. I wasn’t disappointed.

“Brimful of Asha” is a terrific guitar pop song, with great drums and a great beat. It starts quietly and simply: an easy electric guitar riff and basic drums. The song builds with each verse, adding organ and strings. By the time of the “Everybody needs a tjinder-concertbosom for a pillow” chorus, it’s got a full sound. The song’s lyrics are a salute to Bollywood playback singer Asha Bhosle, and the band’s love of 45s. This is probably as good a time as any to mention the band’s Indian-UK heritage. Singer/Songwriter Tjinder Singh’s music incorporates his Hindi background into 90s-style UK funk, and the result is unlike anything else. For example, in “Brimful of Asha,” the repetitive guitar riff functions somewhat like a “drone” in Indian classical music, setting the table onto which the rest of the song is placed – including a pumped up bass drum, hand claps, and samples of orchestra strings.

That Indian drone technique is used throughout the album, and there’s something compelling about it. Sometimes I will find it repetitive, but most often it draws me in and keeps me hooked. A good example is the first track on the album, “Sleep On the Left Side.”

There’s not a lot happening in this song, but there’s an awful lot happening, too! What I mean is, the five notes that make up the drone are unchanging and run through the whole song. But throughout, the electronic squawks and cornerband-1accordion riffs and orchestral wiggles and flute trills and Singh’s laconic vocals provide the listener with much to consider. The lyrics seem to be a reflection on life in, and pride for, an Indian neighborhood in the U.K. (The name “Cornershop” is a reclamation of a UK slur for Indians and Pakistanis, so-called because of the many who owned convenience stores (aka cornershops) in the U.K.) It’s got a trance-inducing groove, but in a good way.

The band’s Indian roots are on full display in one of the most Hindi-sounding pop songs I’ve heard since The Beatles’ “Love You To.” The song is “We’re In Yr Corner,” and the sitar starts flying immediately.

In addition to the sitar, the song is sung in Punjabi (apparently, from what I’ve read). I couldn’t find any English translations for the lyrics, but the song is catchy and melodic. At about 1:45 there is some spoken cornerband-3-sitardialogue that sounds terrific. As with the first two songs I mentioned, there’s a repetitive drone aspect to the song which a) I love, but b) makes it hard for me to write about. I’m used to saying, “I like the guitar in the chorus,” and “How about those drums in the bridge,” but many of the songs on When I Was Born for the 7th Time have no guitar, chorus or bridge. However, the drums always sound great – whether drum kit, tabla, bongoes, or some other type with which I’m unfamiliar! But the sounds move me. And Western aspects are tossed in, such as the breaks around 2:50, or the false ending or the “IBM and Coca-Cola, motherfucker!” lyrics. The band has a knack for taking the unfamiliar and making it sound familiar.

So the band flies its Indian flag in all its songs, however, as I’ve said in many of my album write-ups, I love variety! Nothing makes me tire of an album quicker than a repetition of sound, and Cornershop is fluent in many styles. My favorite song on the album almost sounds like a Beck song: “Funky Days are Back Again.”

Drummer Nick Simms shines on the track, propelling it forward with tight rolls and syncopation. The typical cornerband-2Cornershop beeps and blips supplement the song, as Singh celebrates the 1990s good life, in lyrics that are clever and fun.

The album also contains a sort of turntable jazz song, “Butter the Soul,” that features a really cool-sounding turntable riff broken up by solos on Indian instruments, complete with bursts of applause from the “audience.” Also impressive is a country song, sung as a duet between Singh and American singer Paula Frazer. The song is “Good to Be on the Road Back Home.” It’s got typical country lyrics – how the road wreaks havoc on the traveler. It’s also got that Indian drone – with few cornerband-4chord changes and a constant chugging acoustic guitar. The band is just very creative.

This creativity, the desire to expand in sound and genre, leads to several songs that – for me – really miss the mark. “When the Light Appears Boy,” with lyrics by Beat Generation hero Allen Ginsburg, who also speaks the lyrics, is much better in theory than in execution. “What Is Happening” sounds like supermarket announcements read over raga drumming. Others are just fragments, really. But some of the experiments succeed wildly – like “Candyman,” another trance-inducing groove that sounds great!

Maybe the coolest song on the album – and I state this as an unabashed and irrational Beatles fan – is Cornershop’s cover of “Norwegian Wood.” Sung in Punjabi. Listen.

To me, this song is what the album is all about: taking the old (old songs, old styles, old languages) adding a bit of yourself (Anglo-Indian roots, love of rock and hip-hop) and creating something new and wonderful. tjinder-concert-2In fact, this is probably what life is all about – take what’s come before you, add a bit of yourself, and make things better for those coming behind you. It’s why I probably shouldn’t get too worried about getting older – life was here before me, life will go on after me. I’m just here to improve things a little bit. I’ll let Cornershop have the last word, with another song I love for its song structure and beat; but most of all for its great message. Because as I approach 50, and I sometimes worry or fret, it helps to keep in mind: Good Shit’s All Around.

Track Listing
“Sleep on the Left Side”
“Brimful of Asha”
“Butter the Soul”
“Chocolat”
“We’re in Yr Corner”
“Funky Days Are Back Again”
“What Is Happening?”
“When the Light Appears Boy”
“Coming Up”
“Good Shit”
“Good to Be on the Road Back Home”
“It’s Indian Tobacco My Friend”
“Candyman”
“State Troopers”
“Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)”

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88th Favorite: Dig Me Out, by Sleater-Kinney

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Dig Me Out. Sleater-Kinney.
1997, Kill Rock Stars. Producer: John Goodmanson
Purchased 1997.

dig me out album

nutIN A NUTSHELL – Peppy punk pop from a band with no bass, two guitars, a cool drummer and a voice that gets better each time you listen. They seem to have a formula for good songs, and can pull them off without sounding formulaic. Emotion and urgency and lots of fun. WOULD BE HIGHER IF – I was pissed off more often – it always sounds best when I’m in a lousy mood!

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“Just gotta get used to it/
You irritate me, my friend.”

-The Who, “Another Tricky Day”

Is there a more existential crisis-inducing phrase than “You’ll get used to it”?

Whatever “it” may be, the phrase implies that this thing you now find annoying or terrifying or disgusting or risky or unconscionable will – with just a bit of time and repetition – become, at worst, tolerable, and maybe even enjoyable. When someone you trust tells you “You’ll get used to it,” the implication is that you will be changing, significantly.

This is frightening for a few reasons.

The first is that most people – well, people who are free from mental illness – spend most of their time feeling pretty satisfied with who they are at this moment. satisfaction They may have some characteristics they’d like to improve – drop a few pounds, volunteer more, finish that degree – but on the whole, they feel like they know themselves pretty well and feel good about who they are. Informed that a change is coming, many people will naturally wonder if they’ll still like themselves after the change.

For the sake of this ridiculous blog, let’s use the following ridiculous example: From now on, all peanut butter will have to be CHUNKY instead of SMOOTH. peanut butterIt’s just how it’s going to be. People decided there could only be one type, and after much debate the decision was CHUNKY. In an imaginary place, where people will have cared enough about peanut butter textures to participate in public debates on the matter, many folks will have a self-identity strongly tied to their peanut butter choice. There will be folks who’ve always thought of themselves as the type of person who only likes smooth peanut butter, and more than this, they’ll have enjoyed viewing themselves as a “smooth” type of person. smug peanut butterThey’ve likely considered Chunky-lovers to be, well, a little arrogant, with their whole “oh, MY peanut butter has real hunks of peanut blended right in” demeanor and their “you actually have to CHEW to eat my peanut butter” condescension. lice pick

So telling a smoothie “You’ll get used to Chunky” will elicit more than just feelings of disappointment over having to either chew bits of peanuts or comb through their peanut butter sandwiches with a lice pick before eating. It will elicit feelings of despair that “I’m losing my identity, and one day I’ll become a CHUNKY-LOVING ASSHOLE!!!”

Getting used to Chunky is about so much more than simply mouthfeel.

I understand the fear of becoming what we despise. Among the types of people who used to annoy me were fans of the time-wasting game Sudoku, sudokuwho would constantly tell me how much fun the game is. “Ugh,” I’d say. “I don’t really like math games.” Invariably, the reply would be, “But it’s not really math!” I would smile and repeat, inside my brain, “It’s not really math! It’s not really math!” in a satisfying elementary-school-playground-mocking voice.

Eventually, curiosity (and great respect for a number of the game’s enthusiasts) drove me to an iPhone app that included a convenient version of the game. I played a game or two to kill some time, and before you could say “addictive personality type” I became hooked. It wasn’t long until I heard next genmyself repeating to an acquaintance those dreaded words “… but it’s not really math.” I cringed a bit, in a familiar manner – the same as I’d cringed when I heard myself say “… but The Next Generation isn’t really Sci-Fi,” or “You know, back when I was your age …” I had become a member of a club I’d resisted – or more than resisted, a club whose existence I’d actively agitated against!angry dad

When you “get used to something,” you risk joining such a club.

Another reason “You’ll get used to it” is frightening is because the implication is that the speaker may know you better than you know yourself. In addition to feeling satisfied with ourselves, we also all like to believe that we are complex individuals, with intricate emotions and beliefs, inscrutable to the outside world. “True,” we think, “you may have known several other Smoothies who’ve grown accustomed to – and maybe even eventually preferred – chunky peanut butter. But you don’t understand the depth and elaborate nature of my own devotion to Smooth.” We don’t want to believe that our attachment to Smooth is as tenuous as every other peanut butter eater who’s ever slathered some Wonder Bread. “I am different!” we confidently declare.

It’s shocking to find out that our human nature can be so predictable, so identical to those around us. I remember when my kids were small – 2004 or 2005 – taking them to some kind of chain krustyrestaurant – Applebee’s? Uno’s? Whatever … it was some kind of restaurant whose name would cause most of my fellow New Yorker-reading parents to gag on their homemade hand-rubbed organic cage-free quinoa-infused root vegetables (a reaction that is the most enjoyable part of eating at such a place). But it was cheap and the kids could get actual vegetables with a meal, so it worked great for us when nobody wanted to cook. As my family sat down, I heard Roxy Music’s “More Than This” playing.

“Wow,” I thought. “This is a rather obscure, somewhat hip song for such a place to be playing.” As we ordered, I noticed that now The Smithereens were playing, and again I thought, “All right, Big Chain Restaurant! This location sure does play some great songs!” 120 minutes

A parade of similarly obscure but cool 80s and early 90s songs followed, bands from Talk Talk to Material Issue, and I ate my food amid happy memories of MTV’s 120 Minutes, drinking Natty Bohs, nat bohand passing out in neighbors’ doorways. I imagined the cool restaurant manager who must have painstakingly scoured his record collection to put together such a nice selection of songs, and I wondered if I should ask the waitress to talk to him [her?] so we could compare musical notes. As I sat there bobbing along to the music, record collectionreassessing my disgust with conglomerate-owned restaurant chains, reassessing my disgust at myself for patronizing them, and enjoying the fact that the place included tater tots on the menu (and who else but me would order tater tots, right!?!), I looked around and noticed that a fair 70% of the patrons were – like us – white families consisting of parents in their mid-30s with children under 6. A significant proportion of the parents bobbed their heads along to JoBoxers as they admired their kids’ placemat artwork. And ate tater tots.

“Am I really this predictable?” I wondered. ” Can I really be such a true distillation of my demographic???”

As “Don’t Let’s Start” popped up next on the now-obviously-computer-generated playlist, I dejectedly signed my receipt and shuffled out to the mini-van.

minivan

This is what “you’ll get used to it” implies – that you can be known. That you already ARE known … That some big corporate boob can hire flunkies with spreadsheets to write a couple algorithms and come up with a music playlist that will help to herd you and the rest of the flock through a little doorway to a plateful of warm, greasy slop. tatertots(And delicious tater-tots, let’s not forget.) Repeatedly.

The term itself – “used to” – is an odd one to see written. When spoken, the words flow together. “Eustu,” we say. “I’m eustu it.” As spoken, the meaning of the individual words are lost, and we’re left with a phrase that we hear and recognize as “accustomed to.”

But when you see the words written, you’re forced to reckon with what the term really entails. “Used,” it says. To use. To be used. I, a human, have been used. I have been used, and now that use has left me different. Like a broken tool, I have become the product of use. Through use I have been inured. A callous has been worn onto my soul, a scar on my very being. My former self no longer exists. I have been used.

metaphor

As in the sentence, “I have gotten used to Eric’s overwritten paragraphs.”

To get used to something doesn’t usually connote a positive development.

Perhaps most offensive of all, “You’ll get used to it” also implies that your tastes and opinions are insignificant. “But wait,” you say. (Whine?) “I REALLY LIKE smooth peanut butter! I don’t WANT TO get used to Chunky!!” Maybe your dad gave you a jar of Skippy Original on his death bed, and so the issue hits protestclose to home with you. Maybe you’ll indignantly hold onto the affront, start to agitate, politically, for Smoothie rights, or work with the Smoothie Underground. You could come to personify the struggle for Smoothie inclusiveness. And good for you, if your feelings on a matter are so strong. But it could also be true that some of your tastes and opinions are, when viewed objectively, indeed insignificant and could use a little bit of reconsideration.

Because after you’ve gotten used to something, you may actually find it enjoyable, and you may realize you didn’t have to give anything up when you came to appreciate something new. Beets, Little League baseball, dance recitals, Microsoft Excel, driving standard transmission, What Not to Wear, Senior Residential Communities, Unitarian Universalism, Ikea … wntwthese are all aspects of my life that twenty years ago I would have told you I’d never get used to, but that have come to be, if not enjoyable, then certainly more than just tolerable. Sometimes you have to allow yourself to be open and resist the urge to immediately say “No.” If you’re unsure of yourself, that can be a scary idea – like a teenage boy, considering if he could accept the fact that a friend is gay, wondering, “But what if he asked me out on a date, and I accidentally said yes, and he accidentally kissed me, and I accidentally liked it?!?”

And sometimes you have to give some things more than just one chance. People continue to change, and those changes can allow you to appreciate more of life, leave you exposed to richer experiences and a wider array of possibilities. As you get used to more things, you have more opportunities to experience more things. It’s what you might call “maturation.”lifecycle And some of the things you get used to will become – with experience – important favorites. And if you’re ever inclined to make a list of favorite things, you may wish to include it on the list.

Such is the case with album #88, Sleater-Kinney’s Dig Me Out.

In the late 90s I approached 30 … and then rushed right by it, into middle age, like spotting a gas station on the highway, down an exit you just passed. Up through about 1995 I kept a close eye on what was happening musically. I saw lots of great shows by a lot of cool bands of the era – acts like The Lemonheads, Hole, Matthew Sweet, The Breeders, Buffalo Tom, Juliana Hatfield, Nirvana, Dinosaur Jr. … 90s bandsI bought a lot of music, too, and attempted to find new acts to share with and impress my friends – acts like Guided By Voices, The Sea and Cake, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion …
sea and cakeBut sometime in 1996 I noticed that I hadn’t seen a show in a long time, and I hadn’t bought a new CD since Neil Young and Pearl Jam put out Mirror Ball.

I was very active in theater and comedy at this time, and somehow all that activity pushed aside my music appreciation. As my 30th birthday approached, I saw my musical drawdown as convincing evidence that I was becoming an Old Fuddy-duddy, and I vowed to kick my music awareness into a higher gear to forestall the inevitable. fuddyduddyI bought more music magazines, and started frequenting a record store where all the workers were utterly pompous assholes, and most of the music they sold was entirely unlistenable, but which sent out a cool new thing called an “e-newsletter” listing new albums via this cool new thing called “email.”

I vowed to get back on musical track.

By the end of 1997, I realized I had failed. The only new records I bought that year were Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, by Lucinda Williams (hardly a new artist), When I Was Born for the 7th Time, by Cornershop (a cool record, but hardly evidence of a deep dive into the now sounds of ’97), and Dig Me Out (which I hardly even liked.) But even though I didn’t buy a lot of new records that year, I liked what I got … eventually.sk band 1

What I found most memorable about Dig Me Out on first listen, and what you will too, is that the lead singer tends to shriek and warble. At the same time. Don’t believe me? Try the opening track, particularly about 30 seconds in:

At first listen, it was hard for me to appreciate the song because I kept being distracted by that shriek. The track has a great opening riff that is strident and memorable, like some kind of call to arms. The drums begin a tom-tom pounding and within a few bars the song is barreling ahead with pace and urgency. Corin Tucker’s vocals mimic the guitar pattern, and are intense and powerful. When she begins the “Dig me out! Dig me in!” the third time, the vocals have a shrill nature that might be hard for some listeners to hang with. It was hard for me to hang with, I know that!

janetBut the drumming on the track is excellent, and the song’s two melodies – the first one aggressive, the second one sweet – work together in a satisfying way. This is a great song with great guitar and drum performances.

There was something about the music on the album that pulled me in, but I was also repelled by Tucker’s cacophonous singing style. I played it a few times, but it wasn’t in my main rotation of music. Over time, I began to see the album show up on “best-of” lists, and friends whose tastes mirrored mine also spoke highly of it. When I mentioned my difficulty with Tucker’s voice, most said … “You’ll get used to it.”

corin singNow, I like some annoying singers that others find really objectionable, and I dislike some annoying singers that others find unassailable, but I can’t really tell you why certain annoying singers are okay and others aren’t. I guess that it mostly has to do with the context in which the voice is presented. As I’ve stated repeatedly, I’m a big guitar/drums/melody guy, and I love songs with energy. Sleater-Kinney fits the bill there, and the more I listened to the band, the more I did – indeed – get used to Tucker’s voice. sk band 4It fits with the music, and certainly brings out the emotions of the songs. The entire album sounds best when I’m pissed off and I have it cranked loud. I’m not even sure what all of the songs are about, but when I’m in the right/wrong frame of mind, and I hear her start to wail, I want to go out and KICK SOME ASS! (A statement which – if you know me – may have just caused you to fall over with laughter.)laughter

Slowly the album worked its way back into my music rotation, and when I was re-listening to all my CDs to create this list, I was struck by just how great I think this record is, and how much I really love listening to it!

The one song on the album I always loved is probably the catchiest song on the album, “Little Babies.”

The lyrics are either about the joys of motherhood or the oppression of women rockers by their male counterparts, depending on who’s listening. And the counter-melodic backing vocal provides a cool undertone to the lines – however you wish to interpret them. (I tend to think the latter interpretation was intended …) carrie 2I like how the band kicks right into the song with no buildup, giving it an urgent sound. And the drums in the verse are coolly sparse, but interesting, using the toms to accent the vocals. It’s a fun, danceable song – even though the band doesn’t have a certain key necessity for playing dance music …

Sleater-Kinney is a three-piece band – two guitars and a drummer. As a bass player myself, this lack of what I think of as “complete” instrumentation saddens me. However, the arrangement suits the band’s songs. They are aggressive, fiery songs and I don’t find myself missing the bass in them.

As if to show me that they can, indeed, play dance songs, they named one of their songs “Dance Song ’97.”

This is probably my second favorite song on the record. The drums propel the song, and the piece again features the characteristic Sleater-Kinney motif of catchy guitar riff and cool melody. janet 2This one also features some moody keyboard thrown into the chorus, as well. It’s a very poppy, danceable song, even without a bass. The lyrics are straight-ahead “you’re the one that I want” lyrics, the type that are right at home in a “Dance Song.”

A song that greatly demonstrates the interplay between the three instruments is the song “One More Hour;”

To set the tone, there’s a bouncing guitar riff, carriea line that might be played on the bass in a different band, and a cool, hiccupping snare beat to support it. The second guitar enters with a discordant flourish, and Tucker sings a song about the end of a relationship.

The song features another thing I like about the band’s songs, which is a counter melody from the backing singer, Carrie Brownstein. In many songs, while Tucker is ferociously belting her lines, Brownstein provides a balance – in both lyrics and melody. When this album came out, it was still a big deal, culturally, that Tucker and Brownstein had previously been in a romantic relationship together – they were both women, after all (!!) – and that this song was apparently written about the breakup. But many bands – Fleetwood Mac, No Doubt, The White Stripes – have former couples in them, and nearly 20 years later, the “Oh my goodness, they’re lesbians!” angle has been filed down significantly. The stresses endured by former couples rocking together have generated some cool songs over the years and this is another one.

(I didn’t find a lot of great music videos or live clips of songs from this record, but here’s one that I like of “One More Hour,” with the band playing in a record store.)

carrie janetSleater-Kinney has a “riot grrrl” reputation – a label that connotes to many songs decrying the patriarchal hegemony, and destroying the gender-dualistic paradigm. But as with most labels, this one doesn’t exactly fit. Most of Sleater-Kinney’s lyrics are indirect and open to interpretation. And many feature that most time-tested theme since the 1950s – a simple desire to ROCK!

For example, the driving “Words and Guitar.”

This is a song that captures everything I’ve been writing about the band – the voice – particularly strident and keening here – the dueling guitar lines playing off each other, and Weiss’s interesting drumming. It also has the countermelody backing vocals from Brownstein, which I love.

Another song from the tried and true “let’s rock and roll!” genre is “It’s Enough,” which is an ode to the magical pull of a great rock record.

It’s easy to hear why some macho dudes machomight feel threatened by the band and toss them into the Riot-Grrrl pot. “That chick’s screaming about feminism and shit like that. They’re always angry. I don’t like them.” But as with most bullshit concerns some men have with feminism, those concerns are not based in fact, but more likely a projection of more personal fears.

corin sing 2While the style of the music does have an angry edge (and I must say again that I enjoy this album most when I’m pissed off) most of the lyrics on the album don’t particularly have much venom in them. The lyrics aren’t patriarchy-smashing, penis-chopping, Lifetime TV Movie-inspired anti-man rants. They’re really oblique and open to interpretation. Even songs whose titles sound like they might be polemics – like “Things You Say” and “Not What You Want” and “The Drama You’ve Been Craving” have lyrics that are indirect and unexpected.

Also, the stereotypical Riot-Grrrl band would have, according to the way some tiny-dicked men describe it, no sense of humor. However, guitarist Carrie Brownstein is now most-recognizable as a comedienne starring in, and writing, with Fred Armisen, the hilarious TV show “Portlandia.”portlandia

Here’s a funny little clip.

The songs on this record all have a definite “Sleater-Kinney Sound.” sk band iconThey hit on a formula that works – excellent drumming with a fast, driving beat, dueling guitars and multiple vocal parts create songs with energy and urgency, that evoke big feelings. The only song on the record that doesn’t exactly fit this bill is the, well … I guess it’s kind of Sleater-Kinney’s version of a ballad? Maybe? It’s called “Heart Factory,” and it’s Sleater-Kinney with a slower pace:

Dig Me Out is a record that took me more than one listen to appreciate. It has a lot of what I look for in a rock record, but it was hidden beneath a voice that kept me away. When I finally “got used to” the voice, I found I didn’t mind saying I’m a Sleater-Kinney fan. sk band 2I also found I wasn’t much different than I’d been before – a fan of rock music. I got used to it, and everything was fine. Existential Crisis?

“It’s just you having fun/
No crisis!!”
– The Who, Another Tricky Day.

TRACK LISTING
Dig Me Out
One More Hour
Turn It On
The Drama You’ve Been Craving
Heart Factury
Words and Guitar
It’s Enough
Little Babies
Not What You Want
Buy Her Candy
Things You Say
Dance Song ’97
Jenny

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