Archive for music reviews

Beck in black

Posted in music, pop culture with tags on July 23, 2008 by Gena Radcliffe

Beck, Modern Guilt (Interscope, 2008)

If you were to ask me to name one song that personally encapsulates the golden era of the early 90s, it wouldn’t be Red Hot Chili Peppers’ ‘Give It Away,’ or Pearl Jam’s ‘Alive,’ or even ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit.’  While those are certainly all great, timeless hits of my generation (and lord Jeezus did I just feel my age typing that), the one song that will invariably send me reeling back into the salad years of flannel shirt and concert tee ensembles, driving aimlessly around southern New Jersey while either on the way to or coming back from a Wawa hoagie run, before MTV started showing garbage like A Shot at Love With Tila Tequila is Beck’s ‘Loser.’

Consider that up until ‘Loser’ came out, the top songs on the radio were slick, vapid, overproduced cheese logs like ‘I Wanna Sex You Up’ and the lethal ‘I Will Always Love You.’  What an epic moment in music history the first time ‘Loser,’ a grimy, jumbled mess of brilliance in which the singer, apropos of absolutely nothing, yells out “GET CRAZY WITH THE CHEEZ WHIZ!” at one point, was played on top 40 radio.  I was taken with it the very first time I heard it, simply because it was so wonderfully different.  Even the video had the cheap, grainy look of something that was filmed in someone’s back yard, as opposed to the glossy exercises in ego many performers were putting out, some with budgets larger than feature-length films. 

The album that spawned ‘Loser,’ Mellow Gold , ultimately became part of a veritable Renaissance period in alternative music, coming out at the same time as Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral , Soundgarden’s Superunknown, Pavement’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, Beastie Boys’ Ill Communication, and Weezer’s debut.  Yet, ‘Loser’ was generally perceived as somewhat of a novelty hit, something that would coast on its goofy charm for just so long before fading into obscurity, leaving young Beck Hansen wherever the members of Right Said Fred and Deee-Lite are today (most likely being interviewed for VH1’s umpteenth ‘Top 100 Whatever Whenever’ special).  Doubters and critics were silenced however with the release of 1996’s Odelay , an album far more polished than Mellow Gold  but without a bit of Beck’s own special brand of weirdness missing.  It’s hard to choose the best moments in Odelay; it’s one long best moment, from the opening track, the hit ‘Devil’s Haircut’ to the seven and a half minute long closer ‘Ramshackle.’  Winning a Grammy for best alternative album, it’s also in my opinion the best album of the 90s.  Five years later he’d earn another superlative in my book with the release of Sea Change, a low-key, mournful change of pace from his previous work and the single ‘Lost Cause,’ my pick for the best breakup song of all time (followed closely by Ween’s ‘Baby Bitch’).

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Viva la Coldplay

Posted in music, pop culture with tags on June 20, 2008 by Gena Radcliffe

Coldplay, Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends (Capitol, 2008)

There is little else that strikes a harder blow to my insufferable music snob credibility than admitting I like Coldplay. It’s true, I’m a Coldplay apologist. Despite being one of the most successful pop-rock bands in the world, they’re also among the most hated, especially by young, male, painfully hip music fans. It’s not just them, though, even The New York Times referred to the group in an album review as “the most insufferable band of the decade,” an insult that is both unfair and patently false when you take into consideration Nickelback and Matchbox Twenty.

Admitting you like Coldplay is sort of like admitting you like Disney World, in that you have to prepare yourself for the occasional smirks of derision. It’s just not cool. Well, I like Disney World too, and I can’t figure out why so many people vehemently dislike Coldplay. Is it Chris Martin’s moist-eyed earnestness? The fact that they’re clearly trying to model their career on U2, another wildly successful band people love to hate? Is it the fact that their best and so far most successful album, A Rush of Blood to the Head, is essentially one long apology to an ex-girlfriend of Martin’s, and that the followup, X&Y, is essentially a love letter to his wife? Is it because in interviews they constantly brag about how anti-being rock stars they are? Is it Martin’s occasionally piercing falsetto? Granted, I don’t really give the “why do so many people hate Coldplay” question nearly as much thought as it would appear here, I’ve chalked it up mostly to the notion that people simply just enjoy pissing on stuff that a lot of other people like (i.e. the Star Wars backlash), and that Coldplay, honestly, they just don’t rock.

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A lot of something for nothing

Posted in music, pop culture with tags on June 10, 2008 by Gena Radcliffe

Nine Inch Nails, The Slip (2008, self-released)

There are two kinds of Nine Inch Nails fans, those who prefer The Downward Spiral, and those who prefer The Fragile. It’s not that they can’t get along, just that’s there’s a distinct difference of opinion where that’s concerned. There are those who will tell you that The Downward Spiral will always be Trent Reznor’s finest hour, one of the greatest albums of the 90s and one that still sounds as fresh and delightfully out there today as it did back then. Everybody who owned a copy either got drunk or high, had sex, contemplated suicide or some combination of all three while listening to it. Even ‘Hurt,’ despite being hijacked by babygoths who needed song lyrics to quote on their MySpace pages, and then blown out of the water by Johnny Cash’s cover, still holds up pretty well. Those who prefer its follow-up The Fragile will tell you it’s Trent’s epic masterpiece, nearly two hours of pure, snarling industrial rock excellence, with a little bit of hip hop, some KISS samples, and a pretty little piano tune called ‘La Mer’ to keep you on your toes. It’s one of his darkest albums, though that seems to suggest he has light albums (probably the closest you’ll get to an “upbeat” NIN album is the danceable With Teeth). I’m of the former camp, The Downward Spiral has long been one of my desert island discs, I have the original copy I bought back in 1994, and honestly I’m amazed I haven’t worn the lettering off of it yet. It warrants more relistens and new appreciation than any other release from that time period (yes, even Nevermind). Just recently I rediscovered the joy of ‘The Becoming,’ a real audio bonecruncher that ends with Trent’s voice tweaked to a mechanical shriek, repeating it won’t give up/it wants me dead/goddamn this noise inside my head, until dwindling out to a chorus of moaning. It shouldn’t work at all, this psychotic jumble of noise and lyrics, and yet it does, tremendously. It’ll put you in a loony bin if you listen to it enough times, but it works.

I try to avoid comparing each new Nine Inch Nails release to The Downward Spiral, appreciating it on its own merits. With Teeth was just fun, while Year Zero, last year’s concept album, featured what turned out to be one of my all-time favorite NIN songs in ‘Zero Sum.’ None has quite measured up completely, but neither have they entirely failed either; that is to say, even Nine Inch Nails’ worst album is still a lot better than much of the crap clogging up the record bins. Such as is with their (his? I never know) latest release, The Slip.

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