Sunday, October 30, 2011

ruminations: nirvana- 'live at the paramount'

Let the 'Nevermind' 20th anniversary madness continue. After having lived with the newly released 'Live at the Paramount' DVD for over a week now I have come to regard it as a treasure. It shows Nirvana in their absolute prime playing a hometown headlining show with Bikini Kill and Mudhoney that can only be described as 'triumphant.' 'This is about big, sweaty redneck men who rape,' Cobain deadpans before launching into an early version of 'Rape Me' which is lit by women in black leotards and clown masks doing a dance routine with handheld spotlights. Simply glorious. Once again time shows us that the band did, indeed, know how to put on a show. Considering the fact that Cobain is so stationary at the microphone stand for so much of the night he thrashes and moves for much of the time he is there which is not to mention all of the rolling-around-on-the-floor moments during the guitar solo in 'Breed.' I've always loved the performances from this show that could be found on the 'Live Tonight: Sold Out' video and DVD. This is probably my favourite 'Polly.' I love how Dave Grohl requests that they play it, clearly because he is in need of a well-earned breather. The Fernandes guitar with the 'Vandalism: Beautiful as a brick in a cop's face' bumper sticker living its final, glorious hour. My eyes get teary during the shot where one of the cameramen manages to get Cobain, Grohl and Krist Novoselic all in the same frame during this song.

They even play several songs from 'Bleach.' I get a similar feeling from this performance footage as from the 'Year Punk Broke' footage- they are clearly enjoying themselves onstage and truly putting everything into what they're doing. Cobain was never one to hold back for any reason- one of the most engaging things about his scream being how torn, ragged and worn-down it could become without losing an ounce of its potentcy. It is the scream of a man who is incapable of holding back. While watching it does carry a bit of a sense of foreboding- there are times when they seem uncomfortable with the immensity of what they now find themselves a part of. There is a bit of that malaise that is captured so clearly (and quite uncomfortably) in the 'Live Tonight: Sold Out' video, but really if you look at the timeline Cobain and Courtney Love aren't married yet, there is no omnipresence of tabloid trashing so far but it is possible (I can't really remember the timeline that clearly) that Cobain has begun his period of extended heroin use.

What remains most important is the ferocity of the performance. Ferocious it definitely is: 19 songs stretched over 72 minutes. Probably the best 'Endless Nameless' live performance. The 'Nevermind' songs burn with an intensity that is missing on the record. 'Aneurysm' has always been a live Nirvana favourite of mine to hear on bootlegs and I always thought it was pretty amazing that they used to open their shows with a B-side. Not just any B-side, mind you, but one that outshines so many other bands' best A-sides. It's also always been a joy to watch this performance as well as the ones in 'The Year Punk Broke' and be able to pick out moments that were inserted into the 'Lithium' video.

My one beef: I'd read reviews saying that the DVD included in the 'Nevermind' 4-disc box set included this performance as well as all of the 'Nevermind'-era videos. I was a bit bummed when this showed up on my doorstep without those videos. I've told my wife about the 'In Bloom' video tons of times but it always ends with me making it sound stupid, kind of like when I would try to describe 'Kids in the Hall' sketches to her. Has to be seen to be believed. The 'Come as You Are' video has also always been a favourite of mine among their videos- probably the first Kevin Kerslake video I'd ever seen of all of his excellent videos (i.e. 'Fade Into You' by Mazzy Star, 'Beauty Lies in the Eye' and 'Shadow of a Doubt' by Sonic Youth).

I'm not sure why I was surprised that I would absolutely love this DVD, but for some reason I put off buying it because I'd heard that the 'Live at Reading' one wasn't that good (I still haven't gotten that one, but I probably will now) and was worried that this live set would be disappointing. One thing I still find mystifying about its existence is why it's taken so long to be released- professionally shot, recorded and mixed by Andy Wallace... why has it taken so long to surface? I'm looking forward to the 20th anniversary of 'In Utero' in two years as I'm hoping they'll release the entire live set from MTV's Live New Years Eve special (yup, MTV used to put together some decent bills for these- New Years Eve 1993-94 was supposed to have Pearl Jam and Nirvana but Pearl Jam pulled out of it at the last minute and Nirvana stepped in and gladly picked up their slack- kind of like they had with 'In Utero' when 'vs.' showed up and was kind of weak) as I think I only saw the whole thing once. Not even my best friend had a video-taped copy of it.

Friday, October 28, 2011

review- florence and the machine- 'ceremonials'

Yup, I got my dirty little mitts on the new Florence and the Machine record early. A friend recommended I listen to 'Lungs' one night after hearing me rave about Neko Case (as anyone who knows me will tell you, I often rave about Neko Case). 'Lungs' has always been somewhat of a guilty pleasure for me- I'm not sure why, there's really nothing embarrassing about listening to it- it's very powerful and provocative pop music. I suppose any blatantly pop music that I listen to, I do so with a bit of trepidation and 'Lungs' would fall firmly into that category. What I found was that I liked several of the songs a great deal, but often despite a particularly light pop chorus or some kind of production flourish that I often found annoying in most typical pop fare. There were some undeniably powerful songs and ideas being knocked around throughout that little pop album, though, there was no denying it. This is what made my first listen to 'Ceremonials' such a joyful event- basically Florence Welch took the massive commercial capital that she has been tirelessly building over the last two years and not only expanded immensely on all of 'Lungs's best attributes, but she managed to mature light years as a songwriter, artist and arranger in the process beyond my wildest imaginings. 'Ceremonials' is a fantastic album, period. The fact that it will doubtlessly blow up Florence's already gargantuan popularity even further does nothing to diminish this either.

Of the songs on 'Lungs' my favourites were always 'Dog Days Are Over,' 'Cosmic Love' (possibly one of the most fascinating love songs I've ever heard) and 'Blinding.' Somehow these songs have all been managed to be met and bested in this set time and time again. The album simply never lets up. To me the closest thing to a 'weak' track would be 'Lover to Lover.' It's a bit like listening to 'Purple Rain' and being amazed that 'Computer Blue' is the weak track. The songs are infused with a graceful vibrancy that can't be faked (most try and fall on their faces) and a great deal of the imagery that fills the lyrics concerns the surreality of memory, the elusive beauty of life and even a healthier-than-expected serenity that shouldn't be so firmly entrenched in someone so incredibly young thrust so quickly into the spotlight. And yet, such is just a part of Florence's substantial gifts. She wisely retained her backing band, obviously utilized their talents as a springboard for her ideas and songs to their absolute maximum effect and somehow maintains a humble perspective over something which her cult of personality could easily tower over. Call it a miracle of English reserve- most would crumble under mountains of hubris were they in her shoes. Isabelle Summers remains the fulcrum of the band, an emphasis on percussion continues to be the recipe for what moves everything forward, plenty of harp and beautiful use of strings continue to be the main order. Somehow these songs all blossom in this particular arrangement in wildly unpredictable ways that never even hint at falling into anything even remotely resembling familiar territory. The gospel backdrop that is wrapped around several tracks here (the most notable example being the five minute plus single 'What the Water Gave Me') is nothing short of breathtaking. These elements should not work together, and yet here they do as if that were the only way they could. It's like listening to an entirely new musical vocabulary being created. It reminds me of listening to 'Hounds of Love' for the first time.

The extras on the deluxe edition are worth their weight as well. The acoustic version of 'Breaking Down' actually bests the full arrangement from the album and the extra tracks do little to validate their place as extra tracks- they hint at vast and exciting future possibilities themselves (i.e. the Siouxsie Sioux-worthy murk of 'Bedroom Hymns,' which could/should be twice as long as it is).

Florence has been quoted often as saying that the album was easy to make. This would explain the way that it seemed to appear completely out of nowhere right on the heels of an American tour that could only be described as a victory lap. Florence, we kneel before you. If only all of our guilty pleasures were as good to us as you have been.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

diary 10.6.11- and here we are, nowhere...

diary playlist for october, which is turning out to be quite a strange month full of high highs and low lows. i've gotten a jumpstart on the november playlist- so much cool stuff coming out. mixcloud link to follow soon.

song- artist- album
1. teenage riot- sonic youth- '1991: the year punk broke'
2. magnetic moon- crystal stilts- 'shake the shackles' 7"
3. crystal baby- dum dum girls- 'coming down' 7"
4. vulture like lovers- wild nothing- 'golden haze'
5. overload- the cardigans- 'super extra gravity'
6. undiscovered first- feist- 'metals'
7. lover of mine- beach house- 'teen dream'
8. 14 horses- mary timony- 'the golden dove'
9. vibrato- acetone- 'york blvd.'
10. the ballad of richie lee- spiritualized- 'amazing grace'
11. dancing on the highway- elliott smith- b-sides
12. does this always happen?- mogwai- 'earth division'
13. tonight's the night- solomon burke- 'tonight's the night' 7"
14. let it loose- rolling stones- 'exile on main street'
15. sea of sound- pale saints- 'the comforts of madness'
16. nowhere- ride- 'live at the roxy 1991'
17. i'm coming home (parts 1 & 2)- the staple singers- 'the best of the vee-jay years'

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

ruminations: '1991: the year punk broke'

With the big 20th anniversary of 'Nevermind' the sharp contrast of how differently the record industry functions now as opposed to then has never seemed so readily apparent. The catapult-like rise of Nirvana has left one of the most indelible marks on my music-listening life, as I'm sure it has nearly everyone in my age group. Thinking about it now it seems so much more serious than it did at the time. I suppose that's the case with witnessing a cultural shift- you can never be sure that one's even happened until much later after it's gone, but it is beyond a doubt to me at this point that Nirvana was at the epicenter of the biggest cultural shift of probably the last 40 years. I was 12 years old when 'Nevermind' came out and there really was nothing like it. Like most popular things amongst a vast majority of people, I found its quality suspect but it was always undeniable how great the record and the band actually were when I would sit in my room listening to music while doing my homework. It was unlike any other record I'd ever heard both stylistically and in its construction- the trajectory of quality spread across the tracklist is nothing short of masterful. Radiohead are famous for getting into band-breakup causing arguments over the tracklistings for their records. 'Nevermind' is a good example why- it is probably the platonic example of a perfectly constructed tracklist. My version of the CD was an early pressing that didn't have 'Endless, Nameless' after 20 minutes of silence, so what I had was a 12 song album that clocked in at just over 42 minutes. The album does have two distinct sides as well (as any Nirvana enthusiast will tell you, this was deliberate- during the planning stages of the album Kurt Cobain had seperated the album into two distinct sides: a boy side and a girl side). I was always partial to the second side (which I suppose was the girl side, maybe)- it was 'Drain You' that made me fall in love with the band- such a beautiful and strange song. That said the quality of the first side was unquestionable- 'In Bloom,' 'Breed,' 'Come as You Are,' 'Lithium,' etc.- all great songs. The second side had all of the darker, less run-of-the-mill songs- 'Drain You,' 'Lounge Act,' 'On a Plain' and 'Something in the Way.' Those were the songs that would blow me away every time when I would listen to the record alone in my room- the way that 'Stay Away' collapses and crashes to death in the whir of a dying tape machine, the disquieting 'did I just hear that?' guttural moaning sounds at the end of 'Lounge Act,' the rubber ducky noises that manage to have such an air of menace during tense middle section of 'Drain You,' the a cappella harmonies that end 'On a Plain' giving way to the rather harrowing, stark beauty of 'Something in the Way.' This is the kind of stuff that really drew me in in a way that I had never experienced before. All of the things I describe do much to bely the whole 'tossed-off, right-place right-time' kind of talk that surrounds this album. These are textural additions that were borne out of spontaneous moments that the band were smart enough to recognize as adding something to the overall proceedings and therefore purposely left them in. There's a reason that the songs are so great- because the person writing them was a great songwriter. There's a reason that the record connected with people- because the people making the record figured out ways to do so. To write it all off as dumb luck does so much to cheapen what makes the record and the phenomenon so special.

Now that I've set the scene I'm going to talk about '1991: The Year Punk Broke,' which finally came out on DVD (a prospect that has been talked about since 2004). It is a documentary that simultaneously pays homage to and makes fun of 60s concert documentaries. The subject in this case is a two week tour of European festivals that Sonic Youth invited Nirvana on with them just before the release and explosion of 'Nevermind.' This would be what Nirvana did instead of accepting stadium tour opening act invitations from Guns 'n Roses and U2. The film plays so matter-of-factly and seems tossed-off and unable to take anything seriously except for the music- which constitutes a wealth of fantastic live performances from Sonic Youth and Nirvana as well as Dinosaur Jr., Babes in Toyland, the Ramones and Gumball. Ironically the tossed-off nature has been rendered unbelievably poignant and beautiful in the aftermath of Cobain's suicide, which is to say nothing of how unbelievably different the music world is now. The performances are ragged, raw, noisy and incredibly passionate. Nirvana actually sound like they are ENJOYING performing 'Smells Like Teen Spirit.' To put things into perspective further, Nirvana's performance at the 1991 Reading Festival is documented here- it is more than a bit curious to consider it next to the DVD of their headlining performance at the next year's festival. Their offstage antics show them in such a wide-eyed and innocent phase that irrevocably shattered once they became platinum-selling artists, which is incredibly poignant in its own way. It's almost heart-breaking to see them this way. This documentary also sold me hook, line and sinker on Sonic Youth when I watched it in 1994 on loan from my best friend in high school. I remember watching videos for 'Kool Thing' and 'Dirty Boots' when they were still new and not being impressed until I saw the video for 'Daydream Nation's 'Teenage Riot' on an episode of '120 minutes' hosted by Thurston Moore on which Beck was the special guest (it was when they smashed a telephone with baseball bats during the interview) in 1993. Then there were these versions from 'The Year Punk Broke' which made me a convert. I still pine for this era in Sonic Youth's history- fresh off their best run of records- 'EVOL' on through 'Goo.'

What ended up happening for me with Nirvana was I ended up liking Pearl Jam more until the release of 'In Utero' and then the 'Unplugged' set (the DVD of which is one of the best of many great gifts given to me by my sister). I do, indeed, remember the details of the day when Kurt Cobain's body was found. My sister was home sick and had been watching TV all day and told me the second I walked in the front door. I spent the rest of the day (and the next two or three days probably) watching the endless loop of MTV coverage and when that finally stopped I watched my taped copy of 'Unplugged' over and over again. Ask anyone in my age group and they have a similar story.

Had I never heard of Nirvana there are so many of my favourite bands that I never would've heard of (this would definitely include Sonic Youth, for instance). They brought indie music to suburban kids everywhere- I grew up in Kansas and listened to Sebadoh and My Bloody Valentine. Without hearing of Nirvana I see no way that this would've been possible. I'll close with an appropriate anecdote: in 1995 the band I was in with my two closest friends were playing a punk show at the Harmon Park Pavilion that we had set up ourselves. We did a really heartfelt cover of 'Territorial Pissings' which elicited some wiseass comments from some of our high school-aged peers at this show, some of whom went on to play some truly by-the-numbers pop punk in their respective bands. My best friend and I were talking about it after we played and he said, "What the fuck ever. None of these kids would even know what punk was if it hadn't been for Nirvana."