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52nd Favorite: Superunknown, by Soundgarden

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Superunknown. Soundgarden.
1994, A&M. Producer: Michael Beinhorn and Soundgarden.
Purchased, 1995.

IN A NUTSHELL: An album that is complex yet direct, mathematical yet artsy, loud and quiet and always compelling. I can’t say enough about drummer Matt Cameron, who keeps the changing beats steady and accessible. Guitarist Kim Thayil and bassist Ben Shepherd bring the crunch and bounce, but the handsome singer Chris Cornell often steals the show with his wide-ranging voice – maybe the best in rock in the past thirty years.
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I’ve played music for a long time. Like many kids I banged on toy guitars and toy drums, blew through toy trumpets, and pounded on my family’s upright piano.

The author playing guitar in his first band, ca. 1970, with sisters on tambourine and horn-ette and cousin on drums. As is typical, the band broke up due to squabbles over use of the drum chair and incompatible bedtimes.

But then shit got real beginning in second grade, when I started going to Mrs. Bombgardner’s house on Canal St. for weekly piano lessons. This lasted until the summer of 1976, when I began learning the trombone through my school district’s band program before entering 4th grade.

In these beginner lessons in piano and trombone – after we figured out how to make a sound on the trombone – most time was spent learning to read and understand the written music that was placed in front of us. All those numbers and letters and circles and dots and lines and Italian words … it all meant something and someone had to teach us what.

Learning to read music progresses exactly the same way as learning to read words does. Just as books for beginning readers have large letters, few words and cute pictures, beginner music has large notes, short songs and cute pictures. Easy concepts are introduced; repetition is stressed. Beginning word readers spend a lot of time on words that rhyme and opposites; beginning music readers spend a lot of time on “Hot Cross Buns.”

As you read musical notes, you develop muscle memory. Your fingers learn to move across the piano keys based on what your eyes see. On the trombone, your arm learns where to slide, and your lips and jaw learn how to buzz and adjust, respectively. With practice and repetition you learn what the numbers and symbols and Italian words mean, and you start to play increasingly complex music while spending less time thinking about the notes, or what your fingers (and feet), or arm and mouth are doing. Eventually, you can look at a new piece of music and play it pretty well the first time you try without really thinking much at all – a skill known as “sight-reading.” This is, again, similar to learning to read words: capable readers no longer drag a finger along the text and sound out letter combinations – the decoding and comprehension are immediate.

This is about the level of musicianship I reached on the trombone when I stopped playing in high school – sight-reading well with a good-sounding tone. The muscle-memory I developed over 8 years was ingrained to a degree that to this day if I see certain bass clef notes, my arm still wants to move along; my jaw still stiffens or relaxes.

After high school I started learning to play the bass, but I didn’t start at my local fourth grade band room (which would have been really creepy), and I didn’t look at any notes. I learned from friends, like Dr. Dave, and he didn’t write anything down for me, he just showed me where my fingers should go, and I just sort of figured out what sounded good by playing along to Beatles and Tom Petty songs for several months. Eventually I became able to play along by ear with most any rock song, and to jam along on the blues with strangers at local dive bar open mikes. On the trombone, I could never play anything by ear, I always needed music. However, I could play some pretty complex trombone pieces by sheet music, and I can’t do that on the bass. I became proficient on both instruments, but in much different ways. The trombone playing, from written music, feels “in my head.” The bass playing, by ear, feels “in my heart and bones.”

But whether playing by ear or by reading music, my level of musical understanding has remained very basic. I learned to transform dots and lines and Italian words into sounds on a trombone, and only on a trombone. I learned to hear and mimic rock and blues on the electric bass, and only the bass. But there are dozens of instruments, capable of making a multitude of sounds across a seemingly unending range of pitches. All of these sounds can be organized together by pitch and tone and rhythm and timing in myriad pleasant-sounding ways. And that organization is based on – and can be described and communicated in – precise, mathematical terms that are concrete and anchored in physics; and these terms are then translated into musical symbols. I know nothing about all of that. I am fluent in trombone like an American high school Spanish student is fluent in Spanish; I am fluent in bass guitar like an intelligent, yet illiterate, Spanish speaker is fluent in Spanish. However, people who truly understand music are like linguists who are not only fluent in Spanish and all the other Romance languages, but can also explain the relationships between them. There are orders of magnitude in difference between my musical knowledge and that of, say, a music theory major. Yet I’ve helped write some really good songs.

The fact is, all those connections and relationships, and all those explanations of why notes sound good together based on physics and mathematics, are extremely UNNECESSARY in creating a great song. A great song exists in an artist’s brain, or a band’s collective brain, and it can be transmitted via sounds whether an artist is aware of chordal relationships and time signatures or not. And the ability to WRITE IT DOWN is certainly unnecessary – just as a story can be told aloud without writing it down. In fact, I’d wager that among all the musicians on all the albums I’ve covered, fewer than 10% can even read – let alone write – music. I’d further wager that if we don’t count session musicians who may have played on some of these records, the percentage of musicians on the list who can read music would plummet to below 1%.

Written music is unnecessary in rock music. Even if one member of a band writes a song and brings it to the rest of the band to play, it’s very unlikely that any written music is involved. There may be some chords written down, but these are likely to be represented by letters (A, B, C, D, E, F, G, plus assorted sharps and flats and minors, as necessary) instead of dots, lines, Italian words, etc. The fact is, just as you don’t need to understand those dots and lines to appreciate a song, an artist doesn’t need to understand those dots and lines to write a song. Artists such as Michael Jackson, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton … none of them could read music, and they wrote thousands of songs. (Paul McCartney’s even written classical pieces, relying on arrangers to transliterate the instruments’ parts to notes on the page.) If you have the music inside of you, if you have that feeling, you will get it out of you and into an instrument some way, somehow, and others will feel it, too.

The point is this: it matters little whether a musician can read or write music. All that matters is that it sounds good when it gets to your ears. And the reason I like Superunknown so much is that it touches the music-reader in me and it touches the music-feeler in me. It has unusual time signatures throughout that would seem to be challenging to read or write, but it’s got that straight-ahead driving rock sound, the guitar/bass/drums, the power that I love. The band has stated that they didn’t even think about, or concern themselves with, time signatures when they wrote the songs. They just played what sounded good and let the Music Majors figure out the math. And that process led to a masterpiece.

One of the most well-known examples of an unusual time signature is in the hit song “Spoonman.”

That first riff, right off the top, has seven beats to it – which is unusual in rock music. Rock and roll started as dance music, and since humans have two feet, dance music works best when there’s an even number of beats to a measure. So seven beats can feel awkward – and I mean “feel,” not “sound.” But drummer Matt Cameron, who’s responsible for keeping the rhythm flowing, is able to stay steady, constant, to a degree that you may not even notice there’s anything particularly different about the beat – but there is. That main riff is simply one of the best ever in rock, powerful and memorable, and I love the riff in the chorus, as well (which switches from seven to a regular four/four beat, just for kicks). The lyrics are actually about a man named Artis the Spoonman who played the spoons on the streets of Seattle, and who also played them on this track. I love the sound of this song, from Ben Shepherd’s rumbly, chunky bass at 2:00, and again at 2:50, to Kim Thayil’s slashing guitar throughout. Also, Chris Cornell has one of my favorite all-time voices in rock, and it’s on beautiful display on this one. This was a big song from the album, and it got a lot of airplay, and it deserved it.

Another song I love despite (because of??) its odd-feeling time-signature is the powerful “My Wave.”

Count along with Cameron’s snare drum, which goes BAP … BAP-BAP/ … BAP … BAP-BAP. If you count such that the first “BAP” is on two, and the “BAP-BAP” is on four-five, and start over immediately, you’ll be counting in 5/4. Despite this unusual beat, the song drives forward relentlessly. What catches my ear next are the strong vocals from Cornell. His melody is sparse but catchy, but it’s very rhythmic and sounds terrific with the 5/4 time signature. Guitarist Kim Thayil plays that simple, catchy riff, but throws in some neat sounds, particularly in the “My Wave” chorus, first at about 1:48, then he and bassist Ben Shepherd have some cool interplay around 2:15. The lyrics are sort of a “live and let live” manifesto, but the song is really about the sound and power. At about 3:40, an outro starts that changes to 4/4, sounds Eastern and then gets almost nursery-rhyme-ish. It’s probably my favorite song on the album.

But the craziest time signature on the record is unquestionably “Fresh Tendrils.” I’m not even sure how to count out a beat on this one …

It’s in 6/4, then 4/4, then 6/4, then at about 1:24 it goes all haywire and I can’t figure it out. Cornell’s voice is once again front-and-center, on inscrutable lyrics, but Thayil’s riff is really cool, too – he gets an unusual, trebley sound out of his guitar. Bassist Ben Shepherd shines, too. And for every song, just take it “as read” that I love what Matt Cameron’s doing on the drums. This band can really play, and I love this album!

I didn’t get into the band or the record because of its strange time signatures. I had heard of them way back in the late 80s, when my friend Eric used to go see them when they’d come on tour. They, and singer Chris Cornell, were featured on the very cool Singles soundtrack, and I liked a couple songs from their 1991 album Badmotorfinger. I heard the first single from this album, “Black Hole Sun,” and I hated it. But then I heard “Fell On Black Days,” and I loved it. I went out and bought the CD.

Of course, given my history, I notice right away that the song’s in 6/4, but I also notice the cool little bend that Chris Cornell, playing rhythm guitar on this one, adds to the main riff, and Matt Cameron’s terrific kick-drum introduction at about 15 seconds. I haven’t mentioned much about bassist Ben Shepherd yet, but I love his rolling bass line on this chorus of this song, heard first at about 55 seconds. Cornell’s lyrics are a little more direct this time, about life with depression, and his delivery at times gives me chills. Lead guitarist Thayil again has that trebley, trembling guitar sound on his solo, beginning about 2:20.

It’s probably time for me to say a few words about Chris Cornell. First of all, I find him quite handsome – to a degree that I almost wrote about being heterosexual but sometimes seeing a man and thinking, “wow – he’s attractive.” But more than that I think he has one of the best voices in rock. He can sing sweetly and soft and he can shout and scream with the best of them. One of the first times I listened to him was on his solo song from that Singles soundtrack: “Seasons.” It’s just him on guitar and singing, and it’s excellent. And he’s also excellent when he belts it out – as in the title track from Superunknown.

It’s got a great Kim Thayil riff to open it up, and Ben Shepherd plays a cool bouncy bass line. But it’s Cornell’s show, howling and shouting lyrics about … geez, I don’t know, being yourself? I guess maybe. I really love these types of rockers, and Thayil’s Eastern-sounding guitar solo, at 3:52. (Speaking of Eastern-sounding, check out Ben Shepherd’s track, “Half.” Sheesh!) Another great rocker is the opening track, “Let Me Drown,” which has a cool, grinding riff and features Cameron’s inventive drumming and Shepherd’s bubbling bass (plus some authentic 90s-era scratching thrown into the chorus!). They also go all-in on the punk sound on the short, peppy “Kickstand.”The band sounds powerful on these driving rockers, but they also sound powerful – and plenty heavy – when they sling the slow, sludgy sounds of Seattle despair.

A good example is “Limo Wreck,” in which the band demonstrates it can do odd time signatures at a slow pace, too. It’s got cool guitar harmonics, a bass line that sounds like it doesn’t fit and lyrics about something. Another sludgy song is the excellent, but probably too-long, “Head Down.” And “Mailman” is definitely the sludgiest of the bunch. “4th of July” is also a good one in this style, although the beginning of the song makes me want to turn it off – but keep listening, ’cause it gets really good.

The album’s final song, “Like Suicide,” is my favorite of the slow ones.

Fittingly, given my love of his drumming, it starts with a martial beat by Cameron. Cornell shows off the full range of his voice on the song, singing lyrics that came to him when he saw a bird fly into his window and die. I like how his melody at times doesn’t seem like it fits the song, but it does. At 3:30, it starts to kick in, and Cameron plays some excellent fills. At about 4:31 Thayil plays another Eastern-inflected riff, a prelude to his cool solo at 5:15. It’s a great album-closing song, featuring everything I love about the album – except for the fact that the time signature is straight 4/4 the whole way!!

When I began learning to play instruments, I had no idea that the specific musical knowledge I picked up would affect my appreciation of all music. However, this doesn’t mean I immediately try to tear apart all the songs I like. I do not take such a logical approach to music, like a physicist attempting to reverse-engineer a product by pulling it apart and seeing what’s inside and how it works. I simply listen and like what I hear, which I believe is the spirit in which artists create. The underlying math can describe and communicate, it can enhance understanding, but that’s all in one part of the head. The artistry comes from a different part, the part that feels like the heart and the bones, the part that’s called the “soul.” This is how music connects with me, how Superunknown connects with me. Everything else is just lines and dots and Italian words.

Track Listing
“Let Me Drown”
“My Wave”
“Fell On Black Days”
“Mailman”
“Superunknown”
“Head Down”
“Black Hole Sun”
“Spoonman”
“Limo Wreck”
“The Day I Tried To Live”
“Kickstand”
“Fresh Tendrils”
“4th of July”
“Half”
“Like Suicide”

A reminder: RESIST THE TURD IN THE WHITE HOUSE AND HIS BIGOTED, HATEFUL, UNAMERICAN POLICIES! TAKE ACTION!

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53rd Favorite: Riot Act, by Pearl Jam

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Riot Act. Pearl Jam.
2002, Epic. Producer: Adam Kasper, Pearl Jam.
Gift, 2003.

IN A NUTSHELL: A complex album that grows more interesting with repeated listenings, and that best works – for me – as a complete unit instead of individual songs. The playing is excellent, particularly drummer Matt Cameron and guitarist Mike McCready, but it’s Eddie Vedder’s stirring baritone voice that really carries most of the songs. There are rave-ups, some slow jams, and even a bit of the blues, and together it all sounds great.
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There was a delicatessen in West Philadelphia in 1985, somewhere around the corner of 42nd and Chester. Google Streetview makes me think it must have been right on the southeast corner, as the other buildings in the vicinity clearly have never housed a business like a deli. It wasn’t a deli as one might imagine, with a display case of cold cuts and cheeses, side dishes and salads, and chalky salamis in slender nets hanging from the ceiling like catawba tree cigars. It was really just a convenience store that had a small sandwich station inside, but they did have a sign outside that featured the word “deli,” and that sign caught my eye when I arrived in the neighborhood that fall for my freshman year of college.

There were no delicatessens, as such, where I grew up, but I’d seen enough TV shows set in big cities, John Belushi skits and Woody Allen movies to know what they were. From these entertainment touchstones, I was familiar with terms like “pastrami on rye,” and “grilled Reuben,” and “potato knish,” but they were exotic to me, akin to lions on the Serengeti, or Dutch wooden shoes. I knew neither my parents, family members nor friends had ever experienced a delicatessen, or if they did it had been as part of a trip to somewhere else, a captivating detail that would help to clinch a successful story about a journey taken: “… and on the way to The Empire State Building, we rode in a taxi and ate a sandwich from a real delicatessen!” I walked past that West Philly deli on my way to class every day, and at a certain point that fall it dawned on me: Hey, right there’s a delicatessen, and I’ve never been to one!

I tend to overstate my meager upbringings in 1970s steel-town Pennsylvania. My family didn’t have a lot, and there were struggles at times, but there were plenty of folks whose families were worse off than mine. But when I got to college, I was really broke – as were most college students. Sure, there were a few people with weekly allowances from well-to-do parents, but for the most part everyone at college was forever near-penniless. I had a work/study job at the gym refereeing intramural sports and keeping score at school basketball games, and after socking away what I could to help pay for school, and spending the odd couple of bucks each week on coin-op washing machines, or blue test booklets at the bookstore, this left me – like most of my classmates – with a few bucks for the weekend to meet the $3 admission to the all-you-can-drink frat parties. I still can recall the joy at finding a random dollar bill somewhere – in a pocket, on the street – and adding it to the short stack of one dollar bills that I kept in my desk drawer for spending money!

I didn’t have much money to spend on food, and in fact I knew my folks had purchased the college’s full-time meal plan for me so that I WOULDN’T spend money on food. But there was that damned delicatessen that I walked past every day, and I became fascinated with the idea of going in there and getting myself a sandwich. I couldn’t shake my enchantment of being a big-city guy and going to a big-city deli; or better yet becoming – among my friends and family – THE big-city guy who GOES to the big-city deli, not just someone who breathlessly tells his friends about the one time he ate a pastrami on rye.

It seemed like a decadent idea. First, the fact that I would spend money that I knew I shouldn’t on a sandwich; but also the idea that someone behind a counter would prepare it for me. A sandwich! Simply bread, cheese and meat, yet I’ll have someone else make it for me? Decadence! And when I finally overcame my niggling morals and entered the deli, rationalizations having scrubbed away images of slathering my hard-earned money with brown mustard and greedily shoving it into my mouth while at the same time I flushed down the commode a nicely prepared, pre-paid, multi-course meal from the cafeteria; that’s when I realized just how decadent this sandwich would be: FOUR DOLLARS AND TWENTY-FIVE CENTS!!!! Why, I could buy two loaves of bread and a pound of pastrami for that amount!! And another thing – what the hell even IS pastrami??!! Or rye bread, for that matter?!? I had no idea. I was a lunatic for doing this thing. It was madness.

I left the deli with a heavy, taped-up, wax paper ball containing a sliced turkey and provolone on rye. At the last second, the word pastrami had lodged in my throat, enmeshed in a wad of shameful dread at the thought of realizing I hated the stuff and being forced to toss it in the trash, and so “turkey” sprung forth instead. The deli man was amused, or confused, by my denial of all the amenities he offered: no lettuce, no tomato, no onions, no mayo, no brown mustard, only yellow. No cole slaw. I was excited by the realization that the two pickle spears were free. And I was further encouraged by the later realization that, in fact, I was not further impoverished by this sandwich purchase – I still had some money the following week. Also, my parents didn’t know about it and they didn’t need to know – I’d bought the thing with money I’d earned, after all. Decadent or not, it was my decision and I had no regrets, felt no remorse. Instead I felt good, relieved, proud; like I’d arrived at some station toward which I hoped I’d been traveling on a train I wasn’t sure made the stop. All things considered, it was the most satisfying sandwich I’ve ever eaten.

I’ve been surprised, as I approach 50, that this sense of arrival, of finally finding yourself on-course and situated when you never even felt off-course and restless, recurs regularly with age, over events and actions both large and small. The birth of children, helping with a small home repair, navigating the rough seas of elderly parents, starting a daily exercise routine – each of these have provided me a version of that “First Decadent Sandwich Decision” feeling, a sense that I’ve joined a group that I was unaware existed.

As a music fan, I felt this sensation in my early 20s when I realized the artists I was hearing and enjoying were no longer older than me but were now my age and had lived my life. Until my early twenties, the music I’d enjoyed my whole life was made by people older than me. But with the introduction of “grunge” and “alternative” music, I began listening to songs that I enjoyed by people my own age.

Much has been written and produced over the years about the impact of Nirvana’s Nevermind album. I’ve already written about how much I love the record, but something I didn’t include in that post is the impact of the band members’ ages on their success. Some of the most enthusiastic supporters of Nirvana, and in fact of all of the grunge and alternative acts of the early 90s, were, like me, about the same age as the bands, and we felt that this “new” sound (with apologies to The Stooges, The New York Dolls, Pixies, etc, etc) could be “our sound,” and fuck you if you don’t like it!

Each “new” music form of the rock/post-rock era has held a special resonance for many of the people of the same age of those producing it. If you were 20 to 25 when Dylan emerged, or The Beatles, or The Grateful Dead, or Led Zeppelin, or The Clash, or Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five … if you were about that age, then the new music you were enjoying wasn’t just something else that sounded good, your enjoyment also incorporated a sense of pride in being a part of the “new generation.” It included a rejection of what had come before; or if not flat-out rejection, then it certainly held a bit of condescension: “Pete Seeger is fine, I guess,” you said, “but he’s nothing compared to Dylan!” This special resonance is that “First Decadent Sandwich Decision” feeling of having arrived.

When grunge broke big in 1991, the two towers of the genre were Nirvana and Pearl Jam. Bands like Soundgarden and Alice In Chains had their day, and others, like Screaming Trees and Gumball, gave it a good shot. And sure, Mudhoney remained the choice of those music fans “in the know,” but Nirvana and Pearl Jam were anointed, somehow, and in certain circles (mine, for instance) this meant a choice was to be made.

This choice wasn’t a Sharks vs. Jets situation – very little impressionistic group dancing was involved – but there was a general sense that if you liked Nirvana, Pearl Jam were kind of classic-rock pussies, and if you liked Pearl Jam, Nirvana were kind of screaming babies. At the time, I threw in with the babies of Nirvana. I liked some Pearl Jam songs, and they certainly touched that 70s Classic Rock spot in my heart, but – despite the obvious passion with which they performed (particularly singer Eddie Vedder) – I preferred the mayhem and noise of Nirvana. For me, the feat of Nirvana’s $600 album Bleach, on Sub Pop, was more impressive than PJ’s story of Seattle Industry Darlings/Supergroup Debut on Epic.

I grew to appreciate Pearl Jam, and I bought some of their records, but by 2002 I wasn’t really following them or their career much anymore. They were almost starting to feel like “oldies,” left behind with Smashing Pumpkins and Bush. Sometime in 2003, my hip, young sister-in-law visited my family from New York City and brought with her a slew of albums for me. Among them was the most recent Pearl Jam offering, Riot Act. “Wow,” I said, “these guys are still putting out records?” She made me listen to that one first, and it eventually became one of my favorites. I didn’t love it right away, but I did keep finding myself listening to it and remembering it, until it finally burrowed into my Top 100.

Riot Act, for me, is an album of the “whole is greater than the sum of its parts” variety. I like the individual songs, but I most appreciate the album when I have the time to listen from start to finish. It begins very subtly, with “Can’t Keep.”

Drummer Matt Cameron provides a martial beat behind a clangy acoustic guitar, and singer Eddie Vedder starts in with three swirling electric guitars building behind him. Vedder is an expressive singer, and his voice lends itself well to the classic Pearl Jam touch of hang-on-note-during-crescendo-until-big-release, as in 1:47 to 1:56 of “Can’t Keep.” It’s an interesting song in that it sounds somber and brooding, yet the lyrics and Vedder’s voice are uplifting and celebratory. It’s the type of opening track that doesn’t blow me away, but that gets my attention and makes me want to listen again.

The second song, “Save You,” is a lot more direct, and quite memorable as a big-riff rock song.

There’s a great article on Billboard that gives the band’s reflections on Riot Act. There I found out that guitarist Mike McCready came to the band with the big, opening riff, and the rest of the group just ran with it. It’s driving rock and roll, with a really nice little break-down section at about 2:07 that keeps it from getting monotonous. The lyrics speak of the frustration felt by friends of addicts, of trying to offer help but being rejected, yet still believing there must be some way to help the person. It could’ve been a hit song, but having a chorus with the words “Fuck me if I say something you don’t wanna hear” repeatedly probably kept it out of the mainstream.

By the end of that song, I really feel the album building nicely, and it leads into what may be my favorite song on the album, “Love Boat Captain.”

The song opens with a quiet organ, played by touring-Pearl Jam keyboardist Boom Gaspar, who also co-wrote the song with Vedder. This is really a showcase for Vedder, his voice ranging in tone but always consistent in its intensity. It has another Pearl Jam crescendo, building to the 2:12 mark, where I always get chills, and continues building to bigger chills at 3:02. The lyrics are a call for humans to love one another, referencing The Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love,” “It’s already been sung/but it can’t be said enough/all you need is love.” They may sound like light and fluffy sentiments, but in Vedder’s stirring voice, they come across as imperatives. The lyrics also refer to a Pearl Jam concert tragedy in Denmark in 2000, where 9 fans were crushed to death. Guitarists McCready and Stone Gossard play some nice lines behind the vocals, but this one is all about the vocals and lyrics.

The next song is all about rhythm and time signature, so it makes sense that it was written by the band’s drummer, Matt Cameron.

“Cropduster” rides along nicely in its 7/4 time signature, with a nifty, descending arpeggiated guitar. During the verses, the band shifts easily between 4/4 and 2/4, driving forward to a cool little McCready solo at 1:19, and a breakdown at 1:32. All the while, Vedder sings some mystical words (“I was a fool because I thought I thought the world/Turns out the world thought me”) and bassist Jeff Ament plays a rolling countermelody. It’s not quite a 4 minute song, but with its multiple parts and time signatures, it’s reminiscent of my beloved prog rock. Bassist Ament contributes the next song, the rocker “Ghost,” which contains some of McCready’s best soloing on the album.

The band puts together a couple slower pieces next, and together they may be the highlight of the album. As I said, this is one of those records that I appreciate as a single unit – not really the same as a concept album, but the flow of songs does appeal greatly to me. The first of this pair is the uplifting “I Am Mine.” It’s got the feel of a sing-along Sea Shanty, but with humanist lyrics instead of those of toiling and death on the vast ocean. A Pearl Jam crescendo is included, of course, to a great closing solo by McCready. The band follows it up with the tear-jerker “Thumbing My Way.”

Vedder’s baritone vocals again steal the show on this one, put to great use on a song about loss and regret. For someone like me, who tends to be overly-self-reflective, lines like “All the rusted signs we ignore throughout our lives/Choosing the shiny ones instead/I turned my back/Now there’s no turning back” echo thoughts and feelings of my own. Musically, there’s nice stuff happening behind the vocals and acoustic guitar, and a cool little extra “hesitation measure” about 2 minutes. This band knows how to do emotion – or maybe that’s too Gen-X cynical. Maybe this band is just in touch with emotions.

You Are” is up next, and it’s got some terrific guitar sounds all over it. The instruments have an early grunge feel, and this is one of the few songs where I’d like to hear less of Vedder and more of the sounds of the band. Drummer Cameron wrote this one, and the next one as well – the powerful, aggressive “Get Right.” I love the song’s interplay between he and Ament, and also McCready’s guitar-hero solo at 1:26. “Green Disease” is a rave up with a super catchy chorus that I love. “Help Help” is okay – but weak compared to the others, I think.

Bu$hleaguer” is the song that – in the frenzied, America-fever days of the early 00’s, when people were still claiming Iraq had nuclear weapons, and still claiming the entire Iraq war wasn’t just a means for Dick Cheney to get filthy (in more ways than one) rich – caused some controversy by having the audacity to point out the truth about G.W. Bush (and, actually, every Republican presidential candidate after Ronald Reagan): “Born on third base/Thought he hit a triple.” I don’t love the song, but I love that it’s here.

The band picks things up with the bluesy, classic-rock groove of “1/2 Full.”

I really love the 3/4 swing to the song, and Matt Cameron is the engine driving it. The guitars are great, featuring a classic Stratocaster sound, as are Vedder’s vocals on lyrics that belie the suggested optimism of the title. There’s a sense of finality to the song; maybe it’s because of the way the song builds to a close, maybe it’s just because I’ve listened to the album so much, but it feels like an ending. The next song, the short piece “Arc,” is almost an interlude, which makes the final song, “All or None,” feel like exit music.

I really like the bass guitar in this one, and the understated guitar solo beginning at about 2:00. But once again, Vedder’s vocals and lyrics steal the show. On the third verse he sings in a higher register, and none of the strength of his voice is lost. And for someone who has a reputation for over-the-top performances, he remains understated throughout the song. It ends with another great guitar solo, and as it ends I’m reminded of the first song, “Can’t Keep.” Both have a mix of sadness yet hopefulness, perfect bookends to a powerful album.

Riot Act, is a mature record that reveals itself with repeated listenings, and at the close of the final song I once again feel as if I’ve arrived. When I first heard Pearl Jam, and other bands of this era, I also felt like I’d arrived – but it didn’t mean I’d stopped moving. We all keep arriving, throughout our lives, but our travels aren’t complete. More Decadent Sandwich Decisions await us, and we’ll only understand when we get there.

Track Listing:
“Can’t Keep”
“Save You”
“Love Boat Captain”
“Cropduster”
“Ghost”
“I Am Mine”
“Thumbing My Way”
“You Are”
“Get Right”
“Green Disease”
“Help Help”
“Bu$hleaguer”
“1/2 Full”
“Arc”
“All or None”

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64th Favorite: Nevermind, by Nirvana

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Nevermind. Nirvana.
1991, DGC. Producer: Butch Vig.
Purchased ca. 1991.

nevermind album

nutshell64IN A NUTSHELL: Super-catchy melodies and incomprehensible lyrics sung in screams and whispers and everything in between, backed by loud guitars, and a heavy-yet-melodic rhythm section. Today this record sounds rather tame, but when it was released it sounded like it had the power to change everything. And maybe, in some small way, it helped do so.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
dudesI used to be very homophobic. I’m approaching 50 years old now, and until my late college years, or thereabouts, I held “the homosexual lifestyle” in great contempt. I didn’t really think about it that much, but when the topic of being queer arose I reacted with disgust. I’ve tried to push it from my memory, but I’m sure I argued with people against the acceptability of gay school teachers, against gay marriage, and even against the notion of gay hate crimes.

I’m now 180 degrees away from homophobic, and I’m not proud martyof my past outlook. But I’m not self-flagellating over it, either. I simply offer this explanation for my previously-held views: I was born in 1967 in rural(ish) Pennsylvania. To be sure, there were people in rural PA who in the 70s and 80s were tolerant and accepting of gay people. For me to discount the views I held as a young man by claiming “It’s how everyone was!” would be dismissing a great number of people who were on-board with humanity and dignity for others for a long time, even against a tide of hateful people around them. But I was part of the large majority of the general public around me who thought being gay was ripe for humor, contempt, ridicule, pity … basically any allowance other than respect. Looking back now I can’t remember why. It feels so foreign to me.

My parents taught me to be kind and polite to everyone, regardless of how different they were from me. But I was also taught that gay teachrelationships were best left undiscussed, or if necessary, discussed with an edge of distaste. I remember watching an episode of The Bob Newhart Show as a fourth-grader with my family in which Bob’s therapy group gets a gay member, and Bob has to remind the group to treat him with respect and dignity. I distinctly remember asking my mom, “What’s ‘gay’ mean?” and her responding, with great discomfort, “It’s a man who likes other men.” She didn’t say it was evil, she didn’t call them names, and she wasn’t upset that Bob would argue that his patients should accept the man (played by Dr. Johnny Fever himself, Howard Hesseman) into their group. But she definitely made it clear it was a situation of “otherness” of which she wasn’t a fan.

As with most things in life, my outlook started to change when I gained some experience and maturity. In college I had a girlfriend who had a brother and many friends who were gay men, and I went to some of their parties and guess what? They were all just fun parties! When I joined a band and started hanging out more with musicians and artists in cities larger than my little town, I met more people who were gay, and guess what? san franThey were just like everyone else! Some were cool, some were assholes. I eventually moved to San Francisco, and the “gay culture” was more or less just another strand in the tapestry of “San Francisco culture,” a tapestry I adored. I made great friends who happened to be gay and lesbian. Additionally, family members I’d known my whole life turned out to be gay, and so more and more the distinction of sexuality became irrelevant. It was an evolution I remember well, and in addition to becoming a kinder man, I also got a pretty good stand-up comedy bit out of it!

Another part of my own changing attitude towards sexual orientation was the fact that throughout the same years, the 90s, America as a country was beginning to ellenawaken to the fact that gay and lesbian people are NORMAL PEOPLE, as many beloved Americans “came out of the closet.” And, as often happens when a friend or family member does the same, America realized their sexuality had no bearing on its opinions. Comedian Ellen DeGeneres – star of one of the hottest sit coms in America – turned out to be gay, and people thought, “Hey, she’s funny! I really like her!” Diver Greg Louganis – one of the most accomplished athletes of the 20th century – turned out to be gay, and people thought, “Hey, he’s amazing! I really admire him!” Actor Nathan Lane – hilarious star of The Birdcage and The Lion King – turned out to be gay, and people thought, “Yeah, I figured that. (And I really like him!)”

When I look back at my younger self and his hostility, I can’t understand it at all. I suppose I found the idea of two men, or two women, expressing emotional connection through physical contact off-putting. But I wasn’t hostile toward straight couples, even though I didn’t want to see them making out (or worse). And I didn’t mind straight couples holding hands, so why would it bother me so much that two men might hold hands? Would it immediately conjure images of sexual contact between them? If so, that really says more about me than about anyone else. holding handsBut if hand-holding implies sexual contact, well, frankly, I can’t think of any couple – straight or gay – (or group, for that matter) whose sexual contact I want to think about. My parents? My family? My neighbors? Ugh. The fact is that two men holding hands doesn’t “flaunt” their sex life any more than any couple’s holding hands, and to ascribe sexual significance to it – again – says more about the person perceiving it than anyone else.

cobain screamSo, it’s true I was homophobic, and I know that I was, but even though it was me holding those ideas, I can’t get my mind to remember what it was like to be homophobic. It makes no sense, even though I know it to be true. In a similar way, I can’t get my mind to remember how crazy Nevermind sounded to me when I first heard it. I know for a fact that it sounded different from anything else I’d heard – Kurt Cobain’s screaming, the crunching guitars and pounding drums, all around catchy, hummable tunes – and I know it sounded like some final destination of rock music, one cul-de-sac of many in the neighborhood first planned by Chuck Berry and Little Richard, but I listen to it now and think, “Really? This was crazy, game-changing music?? It sounds so … pleasant!”

As with many bands I came to love, and many albums that will make this list, I first heard of Nirvana via my old punk rock roommate, Eric. I won’t rehash everything about he and I and music, but I will say that we lived and worked together for about 8 months in 1990, and in that time I gained an appreciation for the D.I.Y. mentality of punk rock. kidpunkI came to understand that “punk rock” – by the late 80s and early 90s – really just meant making music your own way. It could be noisy or melodic, weird or poppy. It could have raging, arena-rock guitar solos, or guitars that weren’t even tuned. I didn’t listen to all of Eric’s music, but I was deeply intrigued by this idea that there was an entire world of music and art that was happening all around me, that was vibrant and loved and created by folks like Eric, a world I was COMPLETELY unaware of, mainly because I was bound to commercial radio, and its insistence that if it wasn’t heard there, it wasn’t worthwhile.

In 1990, Eric was a longstanding member of the famous Sub Pop Records’ “Singles Club,” a club that sent him a different 45 record every month from one of Sub Pop’s loud, rockin’ bands. In the fall of that year he told me about a great song he’d just received in the mail by a band called Nirvana. Titled “Sliver,” it was all about what it’s like when you’re a kid and you stay at sliver diveyour grandparents’ house while your parents go out, and you fall asleep there and then wake up on the car ride home. I thought, “That’s the basis for a song? A Punk Rock Song?!? That can’t be right.” He played the song for me, and it was exactly as advertised. But it really rocked, and it was super catchy. I couldn’t get it out of my head. It ended with a funny phone call between the record label and Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic. The B side had a raucous number that at the time I couldn’t get into. But I listened to “Sliver” a lot.

Fast-forward a year, and my own band was playing all over the East Coast, trying to get some record label interest. We landed a cool spot on the CMJ New Music Marathon, and among other fun things there, I got to talk (briefly) with Vernon Reid, guitarist for Living Colour. He was just one person, out of thousands, who couldn’t stop talking about Nevermind. I loved it too, and by 1992 I was hopelessly hooked on Nevermind. Eric had moved four hours away from me, and when I drove out to visit him I played it on repeat the whole ride out and back again.

Now, to certain people – like my buddy Eric – who had been fans of underground rock and punk for many years, the band’s sound wasn’t very Earth-shaking. The guy screamed, the band played loud, big deal. Even older folks who’d been fans of, say, The MC5 met the release withnirvanaband2 a bit of a shrug. But most American music fans, particularly of my generation, were still dealing with the horror that was ’87-’91 Hair Band Rock, in which a bunch of dudes in their late 30s grew their hair out in the finest Michelle-Pfeiffer-Married-To-The-Mob style, and squeezed themselves into spandex to dance lamentable Temptations-inspired steps while they played cheesy pop songs that somehow were marketed to (and swallowed by) the public as “hard rock.” To us, Nirvana’s music was like an explosion, an upheaval; to many, it was an “I remember where I was when …” type of event. You see, when radio keeps telling you bullshit like “the latest song by Firehouse is a real rocker,” the minute you hear “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” your teeth fall out of your head.

Yet listening to it today, it’s not shocking at all. In fact, it sounds like a nifty, catchy little pop song.

It’s a song the band has said they were nervous to release because it sounds so much like a song the Pixies would write. What has always made the song special to me is the build up from quiet to loud, the “hello, hello” part from about 0:40 to 0:59. One of the first times I heard this song was at The Melody Bar, in New Brunswick, NJ, where my band used to play quite a bit. One night after kurt upsideour set, the track played, and the dance floor became a huge mosh pit, and when that build came the entire place jumped along to the song until “With the lights out …” broke and it became utter mayhem, crowd surfing, bodies flying, and bouncers reaching into the pile and pulling out drunks. The thing was, these moshers weren’t punkers or skinheads or metal dudes … they were boring college party people, folks who two years ago were inviting each other to “pour some sugar on me.” This could be evidence that Nirvana was selling out the spirit of 80s punk DIY to impress frat boys and sorority chicks. Or it could be evidence that the music was actually touching nirvana watersome spirit within those collegians that they didn’t know they shared with the DIY kids. It’s probably a mixture of both. All I know is that I loved the sound and was blown away by the energy.

Kurt Cobain’s singing was another aspect of the band that – at the time of Nevermind‘s release – sounded brand new and exciting. The fact that you couldn’t understand the lyrics to their hit song really pissed off some people and was astutely parodied by The King, Weird Al. But beyond the fact of the incoherent words was the fact that he used his voice very effectively, and actually sang really well. On a song like “Lithium,” the juxtaposition of a sweetly sung melody in the verse with a howling “Yeah” in the chorus (that “yeah” is the only word in the chorus) sounds downright chilling.

While there certainly are some similarities between Nirvana and Pixies songs, with both singers prone to screaming fits, to me there is a noticeable difference between the screams. Pixies lead singer Black Francis sounds like he’s screaming because he’s crazy. Cobain, however, sounds like he’s screaming to keep from going crazy. There’s a certain vulnerability to Cobain’s screaming that’s absent from Black Francis’s. Or maybe he just seems vulnerable because of his penchant for coming up with childish (in a good way), sing-song melodies. For example, “In Bloom.”

The chorus features lyrics making fun of those collegiate airhead types that I witnessed forming a mosh pit at The Melody Bar, but it’s such a catchy ear-worm that even those who “know not what it means” find it a “pretty song” and like to “sing along.” It’s such a clever, multi-layered diss! kurtsingsBut what I love about the song, and what I believe is the real secret weapon to Nirvana, is the rhythm section of drummer Dave Grohl and bassist Krist Novoselic. Grohl hits the drums HARD, and his fills – as heard in the intro to “In Bloom” – are as catchy as the melodies. (It should be noted, too, that Grohl provides the excellent harmony vocals throughout the album, particularly noticeable on “In Bloom.”) And Novoselic always seems to find the right counter-melody in his bass lines, keeping the songs bouncing along even when Cobain’s guitar is simply feedback and power chords.

The bass is particularly good in my favorite song on the album, “Lounge Act.”

kristThe vocal melody for this song is a bit busier than many of the others on the album, but I like it, particularly when paired with Novoselic’s bouncy, wide-ranging bass line. The lyrics are, apparently, about an ex-girlfriend, are hard to decipher, but sound cool nonetheless. And Kurt’s screaming them out in the third verse exemplifies that kind of vulnerability I hear – it sounds like he needs to scream about his friend who makes him feel that he wanted more than he could steal.

“Lounge Act” is one of the few songs without Grohl’s harmony vocals. Harmony vocals have been a staple of rock music since The Everly Brothers and doo-wop groups, through the sixties and seventies, where bands like The Beatles crafted fine three-part harmony, and even Keith Richards provided grohlexcellent support of Mick. Fleetwood Mac, U2, The Clash, R.E.M. – all through the 70s and 80s, harmony vocals were important to rock music. But by the 90s “alternative revolution,” harmony vocals seemed to go the way of guitar solos – perhaps thought of as “filler” by the era’s new tastemakers – and were rarely heard. I always loved that Nirvana (as well as Green Day, it must be said) kept the old fashioned harmonies (and guitar solos, for that matter) in their songs. Two songs with harmony vocals I particularly like are “On A Plain” and “Drain You.”

“On A Plain” is another sing-along melody whose lyrics feature several couplets ranging from nearly revealing (“The finest day I ever had was when I learned to cry on demand”) to downright Steely-Dan-esque (“The black sheep got blackmailed again”). Grohl’s drumming again demands comment, particularly in the bridge (beginning at 1:34), where his rhythms carry the song.

“Drain You” is almost a companion piece to “On A Plain,” with it’s couplet-style lyrics. In both cases, the band keeps the songs heavy and crunchy despite the sweet melodies. It’s the cliched assessment of Nirvana songs, particularly those on Nevermind, but it’s true. But the band does crazy, unsweetened melodies as well, in songs like the pro-feministTerritorial Pissings,” and the pro-population-control “Breed.” “Territorial Pissings” sounded particularly crazy and a-musical to my ears when it was released. I remember skipping over it at many gatherings, as its raucous screams made conversation impossible, although Novoselic’s introductory quote of The Youngbloods was nirvana band1always pleasing.

I should mention the down-tempo songs, as well. “Come As You Are” was released as a single, and was the song that made some of my friends admit that there was more to the band than they’d previously thought. It again features Grohl’s great harmonies and “melodic” drumming. The “I swear I don’t have a gun” lyrics are obscenely ironic now, given Cobain’s fate. “Polly” is an acoustic song with lyrics describing a kidnap and assault inspired by true events. It’s a tough song to listen to, and creeps me out. “Something In The Way” describes Cobain’s life as a young homeless person, and while I like the chorus melody, I find the verses uninteresting. But overall, the song is saved by the mellow cello in the chorus. That’s the end.

orlandoJust as I was putting the finishing touches on this post, the terrible events at the gay bar The Pulse, in Orlando, FL, USA, were happening. There is still so much hatred in this world, even though so much has changed in the past 25 years: the music, the culture, the technology… But perhaps nothing has changed as much as I have. Included in the myriad feelings I have when I hear news of gay-bashing – whether mass murder or assault, or even a hurled epithet – is a small feeling of guilt that I ever shared similar views with a perpetrator of violence. Sure, I know why I was that way, and I know that my actions were never extreme in the context of my surroundings. But whether I myself would have conducted violence is beside the point: the fact that I may have helped perpetuate ideas that led to harm just makes me feel bad.

But I also believe that that these acts of violence will decrease, and maybe even cease. orlando2 I know for a fact that people can change. And as people change, the culture will change, and as culture changes maybe violence can decrease. It’s not an accident that in thinking about Nevermind I think about how my attitudes have changed. Cobain and his bandmates were huge advocates of tolerance, going so far as asking in the liner notes to their album Incesticide that homophobes NOT buy their records. This request was one small piece of information that I consumed, and reading it didn’t change my attitude overnight. But it was one more chip resting on the correct pan on some internal scales measuring Love and Understanding against Hatred, and for that reason it is important to me.

nirvana3Nevermind is an album that I listen to nowadays and think, “My goodness, how times have changed.” And despite the pain and sadness that still exists in the world, I think it’s obvious that times have changed for the better. The fact that Nevermind sounds so different to my ears today than it did in 1991 is strong evidence for it. It’s one of many things that sounds different to me now.
fmarried

Track Listing
“Smells Like Teen Spirit”
“In Bloom”
“Come As You Are”
“Breed”
“Lithium”
“Polly”
“Territorial Pissings”
“Drain You”
“Lounge Act”
“Stay Away”
“On A Plain”
“Something In The Way”
(Hidden Track: “Endless, Nameless”)

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