Tag Archives: 90s Alternative

Odelay, by Beck – Album #134


Odelay (Spotify Link)
1996, DGC Records. Producers: Beck Hanson; The Dust Brothers; Mario Cataldo, Jr.; Brian Paulson; Tom Rothrock; Rob Schnapf.
In My Collection: CD, 1996.

(Five minute read)

IN A NUTSHELL: Odelay, by Beck, is a record entirely of its era, an amalgam of genres, ideas, styles and choices from the mid-Clinton-era United States. Beck’s creativity never wanes, and even when he’s channeling his earlier, “Loser” self, he keeps the songs interesting and catchy. Beck demonstrated he was so much more than a one-hit-wonder, and his success into the next three decades confirms what many suspected the first time they heard Odelay: Beck is here to stay.


~ ~ ~

I’m old enough to remember when Beck was the hippest, hottest, most groundbreaking sound around. If you’ve read a bunch of these 100 Fave posts, you’ll know that I can remember farther back than that. A lot farther. And even farther than that. But for now, we’ll just settle into the soft glow of the mid-90s, when the nation ignored the creepiness, crimes, and ugly policies of the President because his opponents were even worse. When Silicon Valley was flexing its muscles and trying to disrupt things, but still mostly whiffing. When my girlfriend and I were buying our first computer together, by far the most valuable object we co-owned, and actually getting married. Oh yeah, that’s right. We got married in 1996.

We’d been sharing an apartment for a year an a half, and getting married seemed like the natural next step. By natural I mean in a practical, step-wise sense. Just like a growing lizard must shed its skin, or CO₂ must enter the Calvin Cycle, after deciding to mingle finances on a home, a couple must both have access to good, cost-effective healthcare. You see, while I was pursuing acting and comedy gigs in San Francisco, I held a job in the biotech/pharma industry that had pretty decent healthcare benefits. My girlfriend was finishing up a Master’s degree and working as an intern for the US government, so she had no healthcare. What better reason to enter into the contractual obligation of marriage (in America, anyway, with its fucked-up healthcare delivery system) than obtaining good healthcare?

So we woke up one morning, called in sick, called her old roommate, a professional photographer, and asked him to be our witness, went to San Francisco City Hall, and found the Marriage and Domestic Partner Commissioner’s office[ref]In 1996 the city of San Francisco granted marital rights to domestic partners. The City was so far ahead of the rest of America on Human Rights.[/ref]. It was a lovely ceremony, lasted 15 minutes, and cost $110. A friend who was out of work came along, and left an hour later having been made a San Francisco Marriage and Domestic Partner Commissioner! (She pointed out that her brother in Rabbinical School had to wait 4 years to be able to marry people, and she earned the privilege in a few minutes.)

This little story, to me, is a microcosm of the 90s. You might not realize it today, in 2023, but the idea of getting married without a big plan was pretty strange in 1996. (Later that day we bought plastic rings at a variety store because we didn’t think our friends would believe us if we didn’t have rings.) But ideas of marriage were changing. In 2023, folks are used to seeing all different kinds of people with different arrangements and approaches to creating a family. And in the mid-90s, particularly in places like SF, the seeds of this cultural shift were being planted.

There have always been folks on the edges of cultural propriety, doing things that cause the rest of society to gasp in dismay. But the 90s felt like the time when doing things differently from the norm began to take hold and become the norm. Just as the nerds in high tech were causing Americans to reconsider what was “cool,” Gen Xers were questioning all the unwritten rules of culture, and culture was responding with “You know, you have a good point there.” The Hippies did this in the 60s and 70s, too, but culture continued painting them as weirdos. Gen-Xers were the kids and younger siblings of the Hippie generations, so it was just how we were.

LGBTQ awareness and tolerance was growing, as stars like Greg Louganis (1994) and Ellen Degeneres (1997) came out. It wasn’t perfect, but by 1998 America reacted in horror to Matthew Shepard’s murder, a stark contrast to the indifference shown less than 20 years earlier during the initial AIDS epidemic. The first medical marijuana law was passed in California in 1996, and by ’99 four states had legalized it outright. The spiraling decline in religion over the past two decades began in the 1990s[ref]I generally think of this as a positive development, although it’s clear over the past thirty years that this decline has acted as a kind of zealotry distillation apparatus, in which the kinder, more thoughtful believers have evaporated from a given faith, and the hardcore assholes are left behind, which leads to a Supreme Court with five high priests whose dumbass invisible myth restricts women’s rights.[/ref]. And in music, the genre wars of the past were beginning to end, and musicians were combining all sorts of new ingredients in their melody stews.

I’ll never write about “nü-metal” or “rap-rock” because I never connected with it. (Except for Rage Against the Machine. I guess they’re in that category? Who knows; the whole music categorization thing is so weak.) But even before 90s acts like Korn and Limp Bizkit were metal-izing hip-hop motifs, there had been rap/rock hybrids surfacing every now and then. Metal fan Ice-T featured hard rock guitar in songs in the 80s, and famously led the hardcore band Body Count. Rap/rock collaborations, like 1991’s Anthrax version of the Public Enemy song “Bring the Noise,” crested with the 1993 Soundtrack to the film Judgment Night. But blending hip-hop and rock didn’t simply result in rappers rhyming over metal guitars or metal bands rapping. Many of hip-hop’s production techniques started to be heard everywhere, particularly in popular alternative rock songs.

Cake’s “Going the Distance” featured a tootling synth line, just like the one lifted from Parliament and featured in Dr. Dre’s “Let Me Ride.” Foundational elements of hip-hop, like sampling and DJ scratching, were heard on songs from acts like The Verve, and Sugar Ray. Hell, The Beastie Boys even had the privilege[ref]Wink, wink.[/ref] to become alternative rock stars. By the end of the decade, hip-hop motifs were a necessary ingredient for alternative rock one-hit-wonder stardom – just ask Len and Wheatus and Crazy Town.

But to my mind the coolest, perhaps purest, blend of hip-hop and rock (and several more styles than that) was Beck’s 1996 album Odelay. In 1993 I’d pegged Beck for one-hit novelty song status, expecting his 1993 top ten smash “Loser” to land somewhere between “Pac-Man Fever” and “Rock Me Amadeus” in terms of artistic legacy. But repeated listening to “Loser” reveals that there’s much more happening there than simply a fun, sing-along chorus and a few DJ scratches. Beck amalgamated sounds in a way that Buckner & Garcia or Falco hadn’t even attempted. I didn’t buy Mellow Gold, the album featuring “Loser,” but when I heard the first few singles from Odelay, I rushed out and bought the CD.

“Where It’s At,” the first single, is a ramshackle, folked-up-hip-hop singalong that takes all the elements of “Loser,” substitutes an electric piano for the acoustic guitar, and “two turntables and a microphone” for “I’m a loser, baby,” then ratchets up all of the sampling and studio shenanigans.

I always put links to the lyrics of songs. For Beck songs, however, I don’t know how helpful it is to read them. Much like Yes or early R.E.M., Beck’s lyrics tend to live in some space where cool words and catchy phrases carry their own meaning apart from whatever it is that, grammatically and linguistically, the combination of words would typically denote. (In other words, if you know what “Shine your shoes with your microphone blues/ Hirsutes with your parachute fruits” means, well god bless ya.) But the phrases are memorable. (“The jig-saw jazz and the get-fresh flow.” “Bottles and cans, just clap your hands.” “Members only hypnotizers.”) And the sounds and samples (the robot vocal; “That was a good drum-break;” “I rock the most;” “what about those who swing both ways? AC-DCs?;” “Let’s make it out, baby”) jell perfectly with the mellow groove of the song. Even the little drum break before “Where it’s at!” sticks in my head. It’s a super memorable song. And it has a way-cool organ solo outro (3:14.)

The next single was the lead track on the CD, “Devil’s Haircut.” When I’d heard “Where It’s At,” I thought it sounded like “Loser – Part 2,” but I liked it. “Devil’s Haircut” made me think there was probably more to the album that I’d really like.

For one thing, there’s a melody that’s sung by Beck! The lyrics are as bizarre as ever[ref]Love machines on the sympathy crutches/ Discount orgies on the dropout buses?[/ref] but there’s a catchy, if repetitive, tune to them. And the song is quite repetitive. I’m pretty sure the bass the same four notes for the entire song – but somehow all the noises and samples keep it from driving me insane. Plus the drums, like at 1:06, keep propelling it forward. There’s also a cool harmonica solo after the first chorus. The next single after “Devil’s Haircut” follows a similar script: catchy repetitive hook pumped up with found sounds, and strange lyrics. It seems to be about a woman this time. But somehow “The New Pollution” doesn’t really hold my attention.

Despite those similar tunes, Odelay is actually a stylistically diverse record. Take, for example, “Jack-Ass,” where he really goes into singer-songwriter mode. I think it works brilliantly.

This is a terrific headphones song – so much is happening in the background. For one thing, the bass is doing interesting, simple swirls in the background. And the organs create a spiraling, dreamlike atmosphere. And Beck’s thin voice is actually full of emotion – even if I don’t know what he’s singing about it sounds like he surely does. It’s a nice song, one of my favorites on the record.

But it’s hard to ever know what Beck’s singing about. Is “Hotwax” really about a karaoke weekend in a suicide shack? I doubt it, but it sounds really cool, nonetheless. With it’s old-timey guitar, distorted harmonica, and gross-fart-synth noise, it’s a funky soundscape that repeats the “Loser” vibe with style. (Plus it introduces the “enchanting wizard of rhythm.” (3:17.)) Then again, the slow groove “Readymade” actually seems to have a point, about moving on and freedom. He uses cool self-harmony and what sounds like an actual band, as opposed to a bunch of samples. It’s a mellow singer-songwriter turn, but keeps enough trashiness to be unmistakably Beck.

He turns even more singer-songwriter on the subdued “Ramshackle.”

His voice is flimsy but expressive on this little ode to couples and togetherness. Lyrically, it’s a sort of abstract modernist update of The Beatles‘ “Two of Us.” The song shows off just how wide Beck’s range of influences is. It’s a song you wouldn’t expect to sit next to “High 5 (Rock the Catskills),” a straight-up, heavily-sampled hip-hop track. (Which totally rocks, by the way, in a Beastie Boys style.) Then there’s a track like “Minus,” which is kind of heavy rock? It definitely demonstrates Beck’s versatility, but also shows that not everything necessarily works well.

Another genre featured on Odelay is, believe it or not, honky-tonk. Well, Beck-style honky-tonk.

“Lord Only Knows” would sound at home on a 1960s Waylon Jennings record. Except for the freakout opening, studio noise and weird guitar solo (1:31). Also, the lyrics are a bit too indirect – but it’s a great song! Variety is what makes an album re-listenable to me, and Odelay has it throughout. “Derelict” would NOT fit on a Waylon album. It’s creepy slow funk slop, and it just works. It’s hypnotic, Moroccan[ref]I guess? I don’t know Moroccan music, but it’s what I imagine it sounds like?[/ref], and has the standard Beck word-salad lyrics.

Novacane” also rides a funky beat, with a shaggy rap on top. It’s another spin in the “Loser”-mobile, not particularly distinctive. I would pick “Sissyneck” as the most perfect distillation of what Odelay has to offer. It’s got cool samples, a bit of a country flair, a nifty riff, and a great melody. The drumbeat is fun, and the harmony vocals stand out. The lyrics are once again opaque, but Beck delivers them with style. It’s one of my favorites on the record.

Odelay is a kitchen-sink record. It’s got everything. It accepts the world around it, immerses itself in diverse sounds and thoughts, and doesn’t stand on bullshit like tradition and institutional conventions. It’s what the 90s were like. It’s what America is like. Sure, in this era there are scared, whiney-baby trolls trying to fuck it up. But even myth-worshiping judges and hateful bigoted governors can’t stop what we started. Go listen to Odelay and you’ll understand.

Devil’s Haircut
Lord Only Knows
The New Pollution
Where It’s At
High Five (Rock the Catskills)


Exile in Guyville, by Liz Phair – Album #125


Exile in Guyville, by Liz Phair
1993, Matador Records. Producer: Liz Phair and Brad Wood
In My Collection: CD, 1994.

(Five minute read)

IN A NUTSHELL: Exile in Guyville, the 1993 album from Liz Phair, helped usher in lo-fi 90s rock. It’s a diverse record, with some songs qualifying as rockers, a few as singer-songwriter musings, and some that are downright strange. The production from Phair and Brad Wood, who also drums and plays bass, places Phair’s unusual voice at the center of the proceedings. Whether she’s belting it out, using a lilting soprano, or delivering lines in her slackery, raspy growl, she always sounds good. And the lyrics are varied, too, even if they mostly focus on life as a young woman in music. Sometimes they’re direct, sometimes they tell a story, often they’re simply poetry. Eighteen songs may be a handful too many, but overall, this collection stands the test of time.


~ ~ ~

The lucky among us will eventually arrive at that nebulous, confusing, perhaps decades-long holding pattern called Adulthood. Before we get there, we spend a lot of time trying to understand it.

As young kids we ape the grown-ups on TV, playing spies or house, as we try to figure it out. We fantasize about becoming mechanics or doctors or basketball players or dancers, but Destination Grown-Up lies in the distant future. Regardless of whether we pursue those childhood dreams through our ever-changing adolescence, an annoyance common to Adulthood gradually reaches into our lives: obligations. We have to pay for things. We have to meet people we don’t want to meet, and be places we don’t want to be, and plan for a future beyond Saturday night, all because it’s what mature people do. Adulthood looms over everything, and we try to keep it at bay in bars and ballfields and video game screens. Still, we know the inevitable awaits.

So how will we know when we arrive? Obligations are always part of the picture. I’ve been buying baseball cards with my own money since elementary school, and was compelled to attend church until I finished high school. As a young man/old boy, I guessed that when all the frivolities of youth were finally stamped out, I’d know I was an adult. When I no longer played pickup basketball, and stopped doing stand-up and acting, that will be the sign. The day I finally blocked up my new-music ears and started the adults-only complaint that “the music today just doesn’t compare to the stuff from my youth” … then I will have, sadly, arrived.

I first listened to Exile in Guyville in late spring, 1994, at an afternoon party, of sorts, in the apartment of an older couple who were friends of my new girlfriend. A recent emigre to San Francisco, I’d been dating Julia about 6 months, and this party was going to be one more new experience in a year full of new and exciting experiences. Determined to evince the persona of an ever-intrepid sampler of new and exotic encounters, I’d offered a resounding “Yes!” when she’d asked me, “Do you want to go meet Sharon and Jim’s newborn twins?” A part of me couldn’t believe I was going to spend an afternoon with a couple of incontinent, drooling, crying weaklings. (The twins, not the parents.) And even though I’d met and enjoyed the company of Sharon and Jim many times, now that they’d become parents, it felt impossible that I’d have anything to discuss with them. But … obligations, y’know?

We sat in the couple’s sunny living room, and Jim handed both Julia and me a swaddled little bundle like he was handing out hoagies from A&M Pizza. (I needed some assistance to properly hold the kid.) He moved to the stereo as we cooed and chirped at the sleeping infants and chatted with Sharon about her new life as a mom. Then Jim put on Exile in Guyville. As a new music fan and longtime subscriber to Spin magazine at the time, I’d heard a couple tracks on the radio and read a few things about Exile in Guyville over the past few months. The song “Never Said” was getting a lot of airplay. But I hadn’t heard much of it.

I don’t want to overstate the impact of the moment, but that’s about when I knew I was an adult. We were doing non-youthful things – handling babies and talking about parenting – but also enjoying new music. I felt as if I was in a scene from some TV program from the 60s, The Dick Van Dyke Show or Bewitched, and instead of placing Coltrane’s A Love Supreme on the Hi-Fi, my neighbor just slid Exile in Guyville into the CD player[ref]Thankfully, this was not a 60s sitcom, so nobody tumbled over a footstool or conjured Paul Lynde with a twitch of their nose.[/ref]. I liked the record, we discussed it, and I went out and bought it soon after. Even as an adult I could like new music. I kept playing basketball and performing comedy and acting, too.

Exile in Guyville opens with a song that exhibits most of what makes the album tick. The subtly rocking “6’1″.”

It opens with a strumming electric guitar, and the bass and drums entering quickly to propel things along. Phair’s facility with melody and unusual song structure is also on display. It’s bouncy and catchy, but warmly unpolished. The entire record has a lo-fi sound that was popularized at the time by bands like Guided by Voices and Sebadoh. Phair’s work is a bit less messy, but still, her thin, inexact voice and rough guitar give the record an immediacy and energy. This isn’t to say I don’t like her voice – I really do! And the harmonies sound great, as well. The lyrics are about standing up to the douchebag boyfriend, in which the 5’2″ Phair acts as if she’s 6’1″.

The same features are on display on the rousing next song, “Help Me Mary.”

This one’s a bit more driving, with Brad Wood’s bass pulsing throughout. The guitar riff is pretty cool, and Phair’s gruff voice is perfect on this song about being a strong, resilient woman in a scene dominated by thoughtless (or worse) men. Her words about locking doors and memorizing rules, and the seesawing self-esteem that such efforts cause, ring true. Meanwhile, Phair plays some great guitar lines throughout.

The album is 18 songs long, and as with many lengthy records (but not all) I think it could have been trimmed down. However, 18 songs is key because that’s the length of The Rolling Stones’ masterpiece Exile on Main Street. In early interviews, Phair claimed Exile in Guyville was a song-by-song response to that Stones record, an idea doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. (Try it – you’ll see.) However, this type of endeavor is just the sort of thing that gets (mostly male) music-nerds hyped up and arguing over whether or not it’s true. And since the record is partly about Phair’s experience among those music boys, this sounds to me like both a clever joke at their expense and a way to get them to listen. Anyway, “Glory,” a brief cut that may be about either a creepy guy or a lovable dog, isn’t one of my favorites.

Dance of the Seven Veils,” featuring just Liz and her Fender Jaguar, is also just okay, although I like how she varies her voice as she hits the chorus. It also displays her penchant for using “bad words” (the “C” word here), which caused a bit of controversy back in the day, as well. But when her songs work, Phair really produces gems. For example, “Never Said.”

The vocals are the key to this song, with Phair rasping the lead while also layering background vocals behind it. The music’s ascending chords are simple but catchy, and guitarist Casey Rice rings out a single note over top. It’s a very laid-back sound, perfectly supporting Phair’s vocal delivery. The lyrics actually read as an angry rebuke, but the song has a more Gen-X, slacker “whatever, dude” vibe. “Soap Star Joe” has a really cool strummed guitar pattern, with squawky harmonica and distant drum cracks highlighting sections. It’s an unusual-sounding singer-songwriter piece that may be about the silliness of male models. The harmonica that finishes the song is great.

Phair returns to the quiet place on “Explain It to Me,” a subtle piece with inscrutable lyrics. (I would like someone to Explain It to Me.) “Canary” introduces the piano into Phair’s repertoire, recorded in a lo-fi way that suits her voice. Exile in Guyville was among the first wave of alt-rock records by women. Coming just after Juliana Hatfield and Belly, joining artists like Hole and Fiona Apple, these were welcome voices in a testosterone-heavy rock scene. “Canary” offers a look into what it’s like to be a young woman making a go in a traditionally man-dominated field.

The next song, “Mesmerizing,” builds brilliantly from those slow songs.

It starts off sounding like another slow, dreary piece, but adds a bass drum and maracas, which are enough to kick up the energy. Phair’s voice is watery and distorted, and it sounds great, particularly the “I-I-I-I-I like it” (1:38). The guitar playing is terrific, with a nifty solo from Rice at 2:02. It’s one of the few songs on the record that does kind of reflect Exile on Main St., with the sparse arrangement and a guitar solo overtop. Then there are the lyrics, which seem to comment a bit on “Rocks Off.” In a way, this all reminds me of a softer White Stripes kind of song.

Up next is another number that had folks clutching their pearls in ’93. After decades of men bragging about their varied, numerous sexual exploits, some people weren’t prepared to hear a young woman sing “Fuck and Run.”

Whereas the dudes have always sung about their lack of feelings over these situations, Phair actually explores the emotional impact of the situation. (Something I’m certain those dudes always felt, as well.) The lyrics are great, as Phair asks for a boyfriend (with great self-harmonies), and all that “stupid old shit/ like letters and sodas.” It’s actually a very romantic song. Musically, it’s bouncy and light. I like the transition when she sings “I can feel it in my bones/ I’m gonna spend another year alone” (1:49). “Girls! Girls! Girls!” is almost a companion piece to “Fuck and Run.” It’s a strange little guitar number with creepy vocals responding to the main lyrics, which offer a different perspective of her love life, with Phair now relishing in manipulating men.

My favorite song on Exile in Guyville is “Divorce Song.” Despite its lo-fi production and Phair’s gruff voice, the song packs an emotional wallop documenting what sounds like the last time a couple will have the same fight they always have.

The song takes a long time to finally get to the chorus, but when it does Wood’s bass drives the song forward. At 1:48 the bass rings out some high notes behind Phair’s “you put in my hands …”, and for some reason that really adds to the lonely feeling of being in a fight with a partner. The song sounds great and has a cool little harmonica-led coda, as well. “Shatter” is another slow song, not too distinct from the others, about Phair’s devotion to a boyfriend. “Flower” continues Phair’s efforts to make your grandparents uncomfortable, as she sings her desire to get very physical with a guy she’s into. She proto-raps the dirty (and funny!) lyrics behind weird guitar spikes and an angelic vocal riff, which enhances their effect. Hey, if Robert Plant can say he’s gonna give his lady every inch of his love, why can’t Phair say she wants her man’s fresh young jimmy?

Another favorite of mine is “Johnny Sunshine.”

it starts as a sound-collage, a meditation on one chord. Two crunchy guitars support her as she lists all the shitty things her partner did. The second time through, she adds a lament in a higher register. Phair has a voice that can go many places, and in this song she shows it off. At 1:17 she breaks out her light and airy soprano voice, as the song slows to a turtle pace. It’s really a terrific vocal demonstration, and it’s also a pretty weirdly constructed piece of music. “Gunshy” is a gentle, weird song with great guitar picking. (It also includes a reference to the 70s comic book sensations Sea Monkeys!) It’s the best guitar song on the record, with multiple parts fit together like a puzzle.

As I said earlier, this is a long record, and I’d have liked it better if it was cut down to the 12 best. But it finishes on a couple strong notes. “Stratford-On-Guy” starts with a flange, and describes a flight landing in Chicago, her adopted home town. She delivers her very poetic lyrics in her typical slacker style, and I like the chorus. “Strange Loop” bops along to end the record on an upbeat note. Well, musically, anyway. Lyrically, it’s a precursor to “Divorce Song,” expressing a desire to stop fighting.

Even though I’m now an old(er) man who has supposedly been a grown-up for decades, it’s not hard to recall the confusion of what adulthood would mean. It seemed to click for me when I heard this record, but that doesn’t mean I understand it 30 years later. I’m still not sure if I know what I’m doing, but I still like listening to Exile in Guyville.

Help Me Mary
Dance of the Seven Veils
Never Said
Soap Star Joe
Explain It to Me
Fuck and Run
Girls! Girls! Girls!
Divorce Song
Johnny Sunshine
Strange Loop


10th Favorite Album: The Bends, by Radiohead


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.

“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[ref]From my 3-minute google search, which definitely does not give the issue the consideration it really deserves.[/ref] 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[ref]If you choose to consider them “life.”[/ref], 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[ref]Whatever that means.[/ref]” 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[ref]For a while. They got pretty experimental and electronic pretty soon, and I didn’t really understand it. But I still admire them![/ref]. 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[ref]Guitarist Jonny Greenwood studied musical composition in college and now scores films, and was nominated for an Oscar in 2018.[/ref] 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[ref]Which doesn’t say “Baby’s got Depends.” It’s not an adult diaper ad.[/ref] 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[ref]”Liam,” actually.[/ref] 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 Dream]” 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 Dream],” 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.

“Planet Telex”
“The Bends”
“High and Dry”
“Fake Plastic Trees”
“[Nice Dream]”
“My Iron Lung”
“Bullet Proof … I Wish I Was”
“Black Star”
“Street Spirit (Fade Out)”



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.


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!
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[ref]By both me and my high school best buddy, Dan.[/ref] 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[ref]Or so I hear. I won’t find out for another few months.[/ref]. 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.

[captionpix imgsrc=”https://www.100favealbums.net/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/10th-255×300.jpg” captiontext=”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[ref]A girlfriend so cool that I now realize she was already my wife by the time I turned 30![/ref], 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[ref]Obviously not a lot, but still …[/ref], 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[ref]Hanson wasn’t properly “Alternative,” but their hit had a certain guitar/drumbeat/production sound that gained it a couple spins on SF’s Live105, apparently to see just how far the suits could push this whole alternative-genre thing. This type of push also got Jewel some “modern rock” play.[/ref], 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[ref]Which isn’t to say I am to be trusted as the arbiter of what is lousy or not. I have had plenty of lousy albums on my list, and I expect some more will show up as well![/ref]. 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[ref]To coin two words and a phrase.[/ref] – 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[ref]That is until the fucking Bloodhound Gang came along. 90s Modern Rock radio skipped all those other (black) hip-hop artists, but okayed the bloodhound gang??? Zoinks.[/ref]. 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[ref]A playback singer is the person who sings the songs that are lip-synched in a Bollywood film.[/ref] 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.[ref]Which just goes to show how ridiculous bigotry is – the fact that diligence, entrepreneurialism and hard work could be turned into a supposed slur![/ref]) 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[ref]This song was a hit in the UK under the alternative title, “Good Ships.”[/ref].

Track Listing
“Sleep on the Left Side”
“Brimful of Asha”
“Butter the Soul”
“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”
“State Troopers”
“Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)”


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


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!

“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.


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.


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.

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

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