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Saturday, July 16, 2011

27. The Shins: Chutes Too Narrow

The inspiration for this post (the last one until mid-August...vacation time!) came from my five year old son watching one of his favorite shows, Yo Gabba Gabba! Floating through the house to my sensitive eardrums from midway through this 2009 episode of space-pop meets life-lesson-via-robots kids show was a performance by The Shins (singing "It's Okay, Try Again"). Catchy little me thinking about the band and its current state of hiatus. Debuting as The Shins in 2001 (it was actually a deviation from frontman James Mercer's band Flake Music), they gained praise and popularity immediately. The band's following continued to grow throughout the decade (including a big boost when Natalie Portman's character Sam touted the band to Zach Braff in the 2004 movie Garden State. She plays "New Slang" from their debut Oh, Inverted World and assures him "You gotta hear this one song. It'll change your life...I swear."). They released three wonderfully different albums, and then, James Mercer, in a chest-thumping, alpha-male, let's-not-forget-whose-band-this-is move fired half of the band. I don't know...I guess I can't speak for him, but he then went on to form Broken Bells with Danger Mouse, and announced replacements for the sacked Shins members, keyboardist/guitarist Marty Crandall and drummer Jesse Sandoval.

All this leads me to the old adage "If it ain't broke, don't fix it". It seemed to apply in the case of The Shins. On the heels of a highly successful debut album (2001's Oh, Inverted World) the expectations for the band were extremely the eyes of fans and critics alike. Oh, Inverted World was universally and uniformly enjoyed and this was a band primed for the all too common sophomore slump. That, however, was not to be. The second album, Chutes Too Narrow (2003) traveled down a different avenue than did the debut. The Shins exchanged the hazy, lo-fi, hushed-reverb sounds of Oh, Inverted World for a more guitar rich, crisp complexity. On Chutes... Mercer's voice takes center-stage (whereas the beautiful harmonies, at times, seemed to amalgamate with the other instruments on the previous recording). And it's a voice worth listening to...a smooth falsetto, yet filled with nervous tension. He has an incredible vocal range and makes the most of it in these forty minutes...especially on the first track, "Kissing The Lipless", where he takes your ears to another place in the line "You told us of your new life there". 

Another standout track is the first single "So Says I", a hard-rocking pop tune that picks up where Oh, Inverted World left off. "Mine's Not A High Horse", "Saint Simon", and two slower songs "Young Pilgrims" and "Pink Bullets" are also favorites of mine. The strangest of these, "Saint Simon" is magnificent. It transitions seemlessly from unequivocal pop hooks to melancholic choral sections (complete with strings) and coalesces into an aural masterpiece.

Apparently, The Shins are back. The new lineup is slated to play a few festivals this year. I'm hoping they can pick right up where they crashed, but having to replace Crandall and Sandoval is a big blow. For all of Mercer's talents, he's not much of a stage presence. All of the crowd interactions were orchestrated by Marty Crandall at center stage while James Mercer planted himself off to the side (which I always thought was odd). Here's a video of The Shins performing "So Says I" on Letterman followed by a great live performance of "Kissing The Lipless" in Sydney, Australia. Much like The Shins, I'll be taking a break from the blog as we're heading to the Netherlands for a bit. Unlike The Shins, there will be no firings or lineup changes in my household.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

26. Screaming Trees: Sweet Oblivion

No doubt the early 1990s will forever be known as "The Grunge Years" thanks to the commercial success of Nirvana's Nevermind and Pearl Jam's Ten. Those releases sparked an international interest in a musical style that had gone unnoticed (outside of the Pacific NW) prior to 1991. The following year, the movie Singles and its accompanying top ten soundtrack exposed the world to even more artists of the genre. Seattle bands Alice In Chains and Soundgarden, as well as Smashing Pumpkins (who were Chicago-based, but were desperately searching for a Seattle apartment...just kidding) all cashed in on the newfound success. Perhaps the best band of the lot never achieved the level of success of their aforementioned contemporaries. Seattle's Screaming Trees produced one of the greatest albums of the time, but were unable to gain momentum and build upon it.

In 1992, Screaming Trees released their sixth (that's right, sixth) studio album, Sweet Oblivion. While newbies such as Alice In Chains, Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots, Nirvana, and Smashing Pumpkins were just starting to wear Pull-Ups, bands like Screaming Trees, Soundgarden, Mudhoney, The U-Men, and The Melvins had been around for years. Screaming Trees had worked with smaller labels (Sub Pop and SST) for their first four releases from 1986-1989. Their fifth release in 1991, Uncle Anesthesia, marked their major label debut. That album received some radio airtime, however Sweet Oblivion was the album that was to put them over the top. It did make them stars, to some extent, but bad timing and infighting hurt them and they lacked the staying power of their peers.

Sweet Oblivion opens with the dark "Shadow Of The Season". (Sidenote: My wife told me to post a light, summer-appropriate album, but I wanted an album from the 1990s, and the 90s just didn't go there for me. Seems like all my favorite music from the 90s was dark and depressing. Was I unhappy throughout the 90s? If anyone can remember, please let me know.) The 1970's psychedelic, classic rock influence hits you immediately with force. Once Mark Lanegan's gravelly, whiskey-riddled voice kicks in, you realize this band's been through the ringer and has stories to tell..."The hour's ended can't you see/There is no way now to be free/In the shadow of the season/Without a reason to carry on..." Following the excellent lead of "Shadow..." is the cut from the Singles soundtrack, "Nearly Lost You". It's definitely at the top of the heap here. I can't tell you how many times I've listened to this track over the years. It received more radio/MTV time than any other Trees song, and should have been the springboard to bigger and better things for the band. I haven't been able to confirm it, but I believe the album was released just months before the Singles soundtrack, which meant there wasn't the anticipation for a new Screaming Trees release for potential fans...bad timing hurt sales.

Other standout tracks include the softer hit "Dollar Bill" with its sweet acoustic verses building to hard rock choruses, "Butterfly", and "Julie Paradise" (also using the crescendo tactic, building to a rousing conclusion). Truthfully, the album is strong all the way through. Each track stands tall from the thick and fuzzy "More Or Less" to the bouncy "For Celebrations Past". The draw for Screaming Trees is Mark Lanegan. His voice is a gravel road at it's best...tightly packed and smooth. If you have a difficult time reaching high notes...he invites you to sing with him. It's a voice...deep and guttural, yet as silky as any you've heard.

I mentioned infighting, and it prevented the Trees from releasing a follow-up album until 1996's Dust. Whatever momentum they'd built with Sweet Oblivion went out the window when all that time passed. The tension between band members was present in October of 1993 when I saw them perform at LaLuna in Portland. A great show was cut a bit short when Lanegan stormed off the stage, for some reason, in mid song, while the rest of the band extended the now instrumental version of the song (can't remember which) waiting to see if he'd return...never did...still loved the show though, and the opening band Flop was terrific.

Sweet Oblivion is the best of an overall body of work superior to that of many other more commercially successful "grunge" bands of the time. Here's the video for "Nearly Lost You" capitalizing on the exposure from Singles, and a live version of "Dollar Bill" from the BBC Late Show in 1993.

P.S. Should also mention that an unreleased album recorded in 1998/1999 will finally see the light of day. Titled Last Words: The Final Recordings it should be available digitally on August 2nd...with CD and vinyl release in the next few months. Unfortunately, they have squelched any talk of a reunion.

Monday, July 4, 2011

25. Big Star: #1 Record

While it's too bad that some great bands have discographies as short as a Willamette Valley dry season, it often leaves them welcomely shrouded in mystery. Performers who are consistently producing records, making TV appearances, and touring are no longer strangers to their fans...that can be good, of course, but bad as well. A long list of records almost certainly contains some duds (especially as bands age and more current music sounds nothing like the music of the past). And fans are always craving something new...something unfamiliar. Some of the most influential bands had short careers...think The Clash, Joy Division, Pixies, The Smiths, and The Doors...and they all left their fans wanting more. Another band to include amongst those greats is Big Star.

Big Star was an American power-pop band and the brainchild of Alex Chilton and Chris Bell. The two became smitten with the sounds of The Beatles during their 1964 U.S. tour. They decided then, at age thirteen, that they would someday be their own Lennon/McCartney songwriting duo. The most productive years for Big Star were from 1971-1974. In that time they recorded three beautiful albums, #1 Record, Radio City, and Third/Sister Lovers (though Third was not released until 1978). The 1972 debut, #1 Record, contains twelve songs that could've all been singles. There are obvious 60s influences at work here (The Beatles, The Kinks, and The Byrds to name a few), and a strange flow to the album. The abrupt mood changes are exciting and a bit hard to get used to at first.

The opening song "Feel" provides a chorus that sounded familiar to me at once...even though I'd never heard it before. And for the first song from the debut album to bemoan the words "I feel like I'm dying/I'm never gonna live again/You just ain't been trying/It's getting very near the end" shows both confidence and, unbeknownst to the band, an incredible sense of foreshadowing. Internal strife and the frustration of critical accolades coupled with being commercially unsuccessful killed Big Star too soon.

The high-powered tension of "Feel" is followed by the wonderfully glowing melancholy of "The Ballad Of El Goodo" which takes its refrain..."There ain't no one going to turn me 'round"...from an old spiritual which had become a slogan for civil rights in the 60s. Soon after is "Thirteen", a song Rolling Stone includes in its list of the 500 Greatest Songs of all Time (#396). The song is based on Alex Chilton's inspiring Beatles experience from 1964. It's a mellow stroll of a song with no percussion, and covered by many throughout the years. "Thirteen" gives way to the high-energy "Don't Lie To Me" continuing the roller coaster pattern of contrasting moods.

The second half of the album is softer overall. "Give Me Another Chance" could've come straight from an Elliott Smith record. So strong is the connection between the acoustic strumming, the lyrics, and the vocal style of Chilton and what Elliott Smith provided his fans with decades later. And "Watch The Sunrise", though void of percussion as well, builds such a rolling momentum. It's a beautiful song that was responsible for the start of the band. The story goes that Alex Chilton, who recently had a number one hit in "The Letter" (when with the soul group The Box Tops), approached Chris Bell with the desire to get a Simon and Garfunkel thing going. Bell said no dice, but invited Chilton to come hear his band Icewater (which included Big Star bassist Andy Hummel and drummer Jody Stephens). Chilton came, showed the band one of his own songs and the band sucked him up on the spot. That song was "Watch The Sunrise".

Big Star combined dark, nihilistic themes with the sounds of the British invasion of the 60s and the jangly/power-pop sounds of the day into an overall body of work that became the seeds of today's alternative music. Big Star has been cited as a major influence for artists such as Elliott Smith, Wilco, R.E.M., Teenage Fanclub, The Posies, Primal Scream, and The Replacements (whose 1987 song "Alex Chilton" includes the lyrics "I never travel far without a little Big Star")...just to name a few. The band lasted only a few years, yet it continues to influence generation after generation of indie bands. As it does so, the popularity of Big Star grows and grows. Below is the song "Thirteen". No real video accompanies the audio as I wanted to include the album version. I've also included a video of "The Ballad Of El Goodo" from their 1993 reunion concert at the University of Missouri.