Friday, September 3, 2010

1991: I Misunderstood

Richard Thompson: I Misunderstood


I remember reading a review of Richard Thompson’s album Amnesia in 1988. I had never heard of him before, and here was this review that talked about this brilliant guitar player who could also write songs pretty well. Now, I knew all about brilliant guitar players. They were the guys who played these amazing solos, really ripped it up. The best ones never lost track of what song they were playing, always wandered far afield but found their way back. So, I put Amnesia on the turntable, and prepared to be transported. Didn’t happen. There really weren’t any solos. Sure he played loud, but Thompson never went anywhere. There were a couple of great quiet songs, but they had nothing to do with great guitar playing as I understood it then. So I was disappointed, and I resolved to regard the music of Richard Thompson with suspicion from then on.

Fast forward three years. Now it was 1991, and Richard Thompson had a new album out, Rumor and Sigh. More to the point, I was no longer an I, but rather part of a we, about to be married. We heard 1952 Vincent Black Lightning on the radio. Now that is a brilliant song, no doubt. But it’s also the only song like it on the album. Soon enough, we were hearing Feel So Good, Read About Love, and of course I Misunderstood as well. These were more like what I remembered, and I wasn’t that impressed at first. But my now-wife latched on to the lyrics. And Thompson is a wonderful writer. So, being in the same car, Thompson stayed on. And his music grew on me. And grew. Just like in Where the Wild Things Are.

So here’s how I see it now. Richard Thompson is indeed a great guitarist, but in ways I didn’t understand at first. His talent has as much to do with what he doesn’t play as what he does. His playing can carry a song, as it does on Vincent Black Lightning. But he can also pull back and be part of the band. And, when Thompson writes, he knows which approach will be better for the song. I thought I didn’t like him at first, but I misunderstood.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

1991: Visual Kei

x-japan old2
Don't you wish your girlfriend was a freak like me?

X Japan: Joker


Buck-Tick: Sakura


Luna Sea: Moon


So far we've mostly talked about what Americans were up to in 1991, until David just highlighted a Swedish group in the last post. Many of you have asked me what the Japanese crowd were busy with that year. By "many," of course, I mean "none." Still, I remain convinced you lot are undoubtedly wondering about it, but an unusual shyness has come over you.

X Japan, the premier Visual Kei group, was at their peak. The term Visual Kei was somehow derived from one of X Japan's catch-phrases, "Psychedelic violence crime of visual shock." It is probably more accurately translated as, "Your parents are gonna have (Hello) kittens when they find out that you fangirl us." The tune here, "Joker," is from their 1991 CD, Jealousy. Have fun playing "guess the English words" with this song. It's a pretty straightforward speed-metal rocker and showcases Yoshiki's intense drumming style that led to neck surgery last year and a bunch of cancelled concerts. At the end of this month, X Japan will finally play their long-delayed US tour, hitting Los Angeles, Oakland, Seattle, Chicago, Vancouver, Toronto, and New York City. You lucky stiffs!

Buck-Tick (from "bakuchiku", or firecracker), another mover and shaker in the VK scene, released their sixth major album that included Sakura (Cherry Blossom). This is not to be confused with the classic Sakura I posted during Public Domain week. I get all tongue-tied trying to express the awesomeness that is Atsushi Sakurai, their lead singer. I'm clearly not the only one who thinks so, if the fanvid on YouTube is anything to go by – it's set to Tom Jones' Sex Bomb.

Luna Sea makes for a nice end to our threesome. Moon is from their eponymous first album. They, too, are reuniting this fall with a "20th Anniversary World Tour Reboot -to the New Moon-", slated to show up in LA, Germany, Hong Kong, Taipei, and Tokyo in November. Luckily for Sugizo, one of Luna Sea's guitarists, this doesn't overlap with X Japan's tour – he's in both bands at the moment.

1991: Golden Age

Union Carbide Productions: Golden Age


Union Carbide Production was a hellraising group of young men from Gothenburg, Sweden who quickly became known as the roudiest bunch in town, both for their chaotic live shows, but also for their arrogant attitude.

Early U.C.P. may have sounded a lot like The Stooges, but these were no thugs, junkies and petty criminals from Ann Arbor. These were snotty upper class kids with money to burn, straight outta da fancy suburban neighbourhoods. They talked in interviews about how much they loved playing tennis, spening obscene amounts of money, driving expensive cars their dads bought for them, and chilling in the tanning bed. And how they only played rock 'n' roll because their decadent livestyle was boring.

Throughout the gigs, frontman Ebbot Lundberg would insult the audience, especially during shows in America where he would spend more time talking about how fat and disgusting everyone was than actually singing. Wherever they went they got on everybody's nerve, just as intended.

It's interesting how punk rock was supposed to be provocative and against the grain, but once you provoke the punks and the rockers themselves and go against their grain, they couldn't hate you more if they tried. When they really should appreciate it. When punk and its aesthetics become generic and evolve into little more than rules you must follow in order to be punk... That's the moment the polar opposite becomes punk.

That's when you need spoiled rich kids telling crusty drunks with a mohawk living in a dumpster just how pathetic they are. Those who don't get that, don't know what punk was supposed to be in the first place.

U.C.P. knew this perfectly well and stopped playing raunchy Stooges rock the moment they realised that's what people expected them to do. Instead they mellowed out and embraced darker and more psychedelic sounds on the 2nd album, and by the third one (from which the song Golden Age is taken) they were downright folksy and Rolling Stones-y.

After recording their fourth album Swing in Chicago with Steve Albini (during which time they got a fan letters from everyone from Sonic Youth to Kurt Cobain), U.C.P. called it quits in 1993. Several members, including singer Ebbot Lundberg and guitarist Björn Olsson, would go on to form The Soundtrack Of Our Lives. Another excellent band worth your time.

1991: Big Sky Country

Chris Whitley: Big Sky Country


We’ve heard from some of my fellow Star Makers that 1991 was a distracting year. Me, all I was doing was getting married. So I didn’t have time to watch videos on MTV all day, and find new music that way. MTV was moving away from music anyway, and they were also starting to feature music I didn’t like. I also had less time to read music magazines. So how was I to find music? In the first part of the year, what I did have was a lot of time in the car with my fiance. And after we got married, we still spent a lot of time in the car. We live close enough to Philadelphia to hear their radio stations, so we listened to a lot of WXPN from the University of Pennsylvania. Maybe you’ve heard of the station, because of a program that is now nationally syndicated: The World Café with David Dye. 1991 was the year that the World Café first went on the air.

It was on WXPN that I first heard Big Sky Country. There was no heavy beat, the synthesizers were subdued and joined by “real instruments”, the singer sounded like a human being rather than a processed electronic something… In short, the 80s were over, musically. Now I enjoyed much of the music of the 80s, but I was ready for something new. Big Sky Country had passion without screaming vocals or guitars. There was subtlety, and there was an instrument I had never heard before, the resonator guitar. This was my something new.

Chris Whitley was a late bloomer. In 1991, he was my age, 31. And this was his debut. In my married life, I have found it harder to keep track of an artist’s career than it used to be. So I lost track of Chris Whitley, and, in fact, I got this album long after the fact. In researching this post, I found out why I haven’t heard anything about Whitley recently. Lung cancer took him in 2005, at age 45. I hope his music does not get forgotten.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

1991: Girlfriend

Matthew Sweet: Girlfriend


1991 was a weird year for me. I finished college December of the previous year, and was out on my own for really the first time. I moved into a depressing attic apartment, and spent a lot of time feeling lonely and sorry for myself.

As others have mentioned, 1991 was the year grunge broke. But for me, it was the year popular culture started to pass me by. I never got into grunge, and a look through my 1991 releases shows a lot of boxed sets, best-ofs, and a few new albums from "established" artists.

One album, however, was a breath of fresh air for me: Matthew Sweet's Girlfriend. It had melodies and harmonies, but it also rocked when it needed to. And with guitarists Richard Lloyd (Television) and Robert Quine (The Voidoids) on board, how could it not?

In retrospect, it was probably the album that hooked me on power pop.

It was hard for me to pick just one song to represent it. While the ballad "Winona" is probably my favorite song on the album, I'm going with the title track, a first-rate rocker.

Monday, August 30, 2010

1991: Elmira St. Boogie

Danny Gatton: Elmira St. Boogie


For this weeks theme I've chosen an instrumental. 1991 saw the beginnings of the grunge era but this isn't about that. Danny Gatton comes in at 63rd on Rolling Stone magazine's '100 Greatest Guitarists Of All Time'. Sharing a place in Nashville in the mid 60s with Roy Buchanan, they also shared the title, 'The World's Greatest Unknown Guitarist'. His most common nickname 'The Humbler' was given to him by Amos Garrett, the guitar player on Maria Muldaur's 'Midnight at the Oasis', due to Gatton's ability to out play anyone in a jam session. Gatton even mentored an 11 year old Joe Bonamassa, coaching him on various styles of guitar playing, including jazz, rock and country. In 1992 '88 Elmira Street' received a Grammy nomination for Best Rock Instrumental Performance. That might have been his best shot at receiving the recognition he so greatly deserved but it was not to be. The award was won by Eric Johnson for 'Cliffs Of Dover'. Gatton was appreciated by his musical peers however. Admirers include folks like Eric Clapton, Willie Nelson, Les Paul, Steve Earle, Albert Lee, Steve Vai, and Slash from Guns N' Roses. I find it very troubling that Gatton and Buchanan shared one last similarity; they each took their own lives. That is the official position; in Buchanan's case, friends and family have disputed that. Over a three day period in January 1995, $25,000 was raised for Gatton's widow and daughter in a series of tribute shows at Tramps club in New York. Capping the three day event with Les Paul, Albert Lee and James Burton all on stage together for a twenty minute jam. So, from 1991 and the Grammy nominated 88 Elmira Street, here is Elmira St. Boogie.

1991: Brothers Unaware

mental jewelry

Live: Brothers Unaware


I think for this round, boyhowdie has chosen one of the strongest years in music. (Not that I was much aware of it at the time with a new baby---let's just say I had to make up for lost musical time somewhat later.) Grunge, which gave us arguably the year's top album in Nirvana's Nevermind, was gradually giving way to Post Grunge, an odd categorization that defines a genre by what it came after rather than what it is.

A whole bunch of bands who would become huge in the 90's released strong, memorable albums in 1991 (and I'm guessing we'll see some of these here this week). R.E.M.'s flagship Losing My Religion showcased Out of Time. Soundgarden's Badmotorfinger and Pearl Jam's Ten kept the spotlight on the Seattle scene, while Toad the Wet Sprocket's Fear and the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Blood Sugar Sex Magik represented southern California.

Live, a band from Pennsylvania with a particularly craptastic name (one that's fairly hard to track in a database, at least), debuted their first major-label album, Mental Jewelry. Many of the songs are based on the writings of an Indian philosopher. These quasi-religious themes continued in their later music. Sadly (perhaps predictably), the positive introspection they embraced in their songs is nowhere to be found these days among Live's band members – they're currently caught up in a rather nasty lawsuit over songwriting credit and royalties owed.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

1991: Night Parade

Robbie Robertson: Night Parade


Once upon a time, Robbie Robertson was in a band called, eh, The Band. They got their first gig backing Bob Dylan, and then went on to invent what we now call Americana music. Then Robertson went solo, and all of that went out the window. I can’t think of anyone who reinvented their sound more completely as a solo artist. On Robertson’s second solo album, Storyville, from 1991, that meant atmospheric music with a great groove. Night Parade leads off the album, and sets the tone perfectly.