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1990s Reviews

Splint Spiderland

The following 1990s artists have their own dedicated page:

Jeff Buckley
Crowded House
Faith No More
Jellyfish
Freedy Johnston
Pavement
Pearl Jam
Sam Phillips
Portishead
Radiohead
Red House Painters (on the Mark Kozelek page)
Ween
Paul Westerberg
Wilco

Because I was a teenager through the 1990s, my relationship with the decade’s music is a little different; I’d probably appreciate bands like Oasis and Nirvana more if I wasn’t saturated with them. I also think that mainstream rock largely ran out of steam, and the most interesting music is on the fringes or in other genres.

Another issue the 1990s have for albums is the advent of the Compact Disc – CDs allowed for longer running times, when for a lot of bands around 40 minutes is the optimum running time for an album.

This page collects album reviews for artists who don’t quite qualify for their own page.

Eric Clapton | Dream Theater | Fountains of Wayne | Ben Harper | Dream Theater | Alanis Morissette | Oasis | Liz Phair | Primal Scream | Rage Against The Machine | Slint | Stone Temple Pilots | Supergroove | Teenage Fanclub

 

Eric Clapton

Unplugged

Eric Clapton Unplugged1992, 5.5/10
Jumping on the bandwagon of MTV Unplugged Specials, this live album thankfully steers clear of Clapton’s 1970s AOR hits, and sticks to mostly traditional blues songs. Clapton also avoids his early career; the notable exception is a reworking of ‘Layla’, which lacks the power of the original in this format. There’s a classy and restrained performance from his backing band, with dual acoustic guitars and classy bluesy keyboard noodling. But with Eric Clapton, who is just about the least charismatic lead vocalist in existence, fronting Unplugged, it’s difficult to get excited about this popular live album.

Of course, the famous song from Unplugged is ‘Tears in Heaven’, a tribute to Clapton’s infant son who fell from his apartment. Despite its overplay and inherent sappiness it’s not as terrible as its reputation warrants, even if it does reinforce the album’s adult contemporary flavour. Conversely the highlight of Unplugged is ‘Running on Faith’, the other song with the least blues influence, which has a touching gospel feel.

Elsewhere Unplugged works when there’s a sense of fun; ‘Alberta’ is a light-hearted Huddie Ledbetter piece filled with rollicking piano, while ‘San Francisco Bay Blues’ pulls out a showstopping kazoo solo. Most of the highlights are clustered in the second half of the album, and it’s a test of endurance getting to them through boring blues songs like ‘Hey Hey’ and the watered down version of ‘Layla’.

Unplugged isn’t without its good qualities, but I just don’t find Clapton interesting enough to be able to sit through it.


 

Dream Theater

Images And Words

Dream Theater Images and Words1992, 8/10
After their debut bombed, Boston’s progressive-metal Dream Theater recruited high pitched and operatically trained James LaBrie, launching this grandiose mixture of terminally uncool progressive rock, hair metal and AOR balladry. Dream Theater’s biggest draw-card is the member’s impressive instrumental abilities; if you could prove that intricate solos and riffs automatically equated to good music, and there are music fans for whom this is certainly true, Dream Theater would be top of the pile. LaBrie’s high pitched vocals can be off putting, but he fits in nicely to the sound of the band even if he does come across as soulless at times (it doesn’t help his credibility that he doesn’t write any of the lyrics); the purity of his voice on this record is often gorgeous. But the primary reason for the success of Images And Words is that the group have some straightforward, memorable tunes on occasion, balancing the more intricate and demanding pieces.

The centrepiece of Images And Words is the ten minute ‘Metropolis-Part 1’; a complex progressive piece full of insane instrumental breaks, memorable melodies and an involved story-line that was later expanded to create 1999’s album Scenes From A Memory. ‘Take The Time’ effortlessly explores difficult rhythms, while Petrucci’s solo in ‘Under The Glass Moon’ was designed to be so technically challenging as to be impossible to copy. Of the more accessible songs, the simplistic structure of opener ‘Pull Me Under’ works when coupled with the group’s blazing chops. ‘Surrounded’ turns a beautiful piano piece into a full blown rocker before dropping back into ballad mode. On the negative side of the ledger, ‘Another Day’ drifts a little close to adult contemporary with its saxophone solos, and the closer ‘Learning To Live’ could have been trimmed.

I don’t know that I recommend Images And Words per se – there are music fans to whom it just won’t appeal – but I enjoy its blending of pop hooks and progressive shredding, served with an extremely hearty dollop of cheese.

Awake

Dream Theater Awake1994, 6.5/10
I own three Dream Theater albums, and to me that’s perfect for this band – I feel like owning any more would reveal a lack of substance behind the facade and destroy the mild affection that I have for them. Awake tends to be their third most acclaimed album after 1992’s breakthrough Images and Words and 1999’s concept behemoth Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes From a Memory, although 21st century records like Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence and 2005’s Octavarium are also well regarded.

At 75 minutes, Awake is nearly twice as long as Images and Words, and it doesn’t have enough strong material to justify the doubling in running time. More importantly, it doesn’t have as convincing pop hooks as Images and Words – while ‘Innocence Faded’ has a memorable chorus, often a song’s refrain is simply shouting the title at a higher pitch than the rest of the song. ‘6:00’ has some impressively fast riffing, ‘Space-Dye Vest’, contributed by outgoing keyboardist Kevin Moore, is a nice closer, and ‘The Silent Man’ is a memorable acoustic piece.

But at 75 minutes, there’s not enough substance on Awake to hold my interest, and I usually just cherry pick the highlights.

Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes from a Memory

Dream Theater Metropolis Pt 2 Scenes from a Memory1999, 8.5/10
On their 1992 album Images And Words, Boston progressive metal band Dream Theater included the fan favourite song ‘Metropolis-Part 1’, causing speculation about the existence of a sequel. When this sequel emerged seven years later, it wasn’t merely a song, but an entire eighty minute concept album about a young man haunted by the spirit of a girl who was murdered in 1928.

Metropolis is Dream Theater’s first concept album, and it’s very much a throwback to the big thematic works of progressive rock’s 1970s heyday, with repeated instrumental themes. Dream Theater’s collective virtuosity is lifted even further by the addition of keyboardist Jordan Ruddess, whose ragtime interludes (‘The Dance of Eternity’) help to boost the band’s arsenal of sounds even more. James LaBrie’s voice has lost the pretty high end that he had on earlier albums, and he’s a little unconvincing on the more emotive songs. Highlights include the thirteen minutes of ‘Home’, with the sitar-like guitar leads, and the delayed gratification of the harmonised chorus. ‘The Dance of Eternity’ has lots of entertaining jamming, while ‘Fatal Tragedy’ has plenty of plot exposition and hooks.

While I’m not brave enough to venture too much further into Dream Theater’s discography, Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes from a Memory is generally regarded as their magnum opus, and it’s a cohesive and accomplished concept album.


 

Fountains of Wayne

Fountains of Wayne

Fountains of Wayne debut1996, 7.5/10
Former schoolmates Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood formed Fountains of Wayne, christening themselves after a garden furniture and statuary store in Wayne, New Jersey. Although the pair recorded their debut largely independently, they were joined on tour and on subsequent albums by guitarist Jody Porter and ex-Posies drummer Brian Young.

If the quality of pop music could be measured by the quantity of memorable choruses and hooks, there’s a case for Fountains Of Wayne being the greatest pop band since the 1960’s British invasion. But because this band’s capacity for pop-craft is resolutely orthodox and traditional, their stylistic scope is limited, especially on this debut. Their lyrics lack any form of personal conviction or empathy, instead serving up irony-laced stories of office workers and suburbanites. It’s hard to offer any of this up as a criticism; Schlesinger and Collingwood are intelligent pop operators who know exactly what they’re doing, and their detached brand of pop is well-crafted, and plenty of other celebrated pop bands, such as Steely Dan and Beck, have pushed the detached element of their music further.

Their debut is their most stylistic homogeneous record, which is generally a good thing as this band’s often strongest at straight up power-pop. Accordingly, Fountains of Wayne often sounds like Big Star’s Radio City stripped of its angst and looseness, marrying abrasive guitars to bright pop melodies. Only the slowed down, reverb-heavy closer ‘Everything’s Ruined’ deviates from the formula, although standout track ‘Sick Day'(“Lead us not into Penn Station”) throws in jazzy keyboard breaks and acoustic guitars. And there’s plenty of enjoyable riff rockers like the dorky ‘Leave The Biker’ (“I wonder if he ever has cried/Because his kitten got run over and died”), ‘Sink To The Bottom’, and ‘Radiation Vibe’.

Occasionally Fountains of Wayne verges on banality, like ‘Please Don’t Rock Me Tonight’, but mostly this is fun, not earth shattering, pop; totally soulless and disposable, yet without compromising on intelligence or pop-craft.

Utopia Parkway

Utopia Parkway Fountains of Wayne1999, 8/10
For their sophomore effort, Fountains of Wayne trade the straight up power pop of their debut for a wider lens; while there are still plenty of guitar rockers like ‘Denise’ and ‘Lost In Space’, they also veer across the pop map, from the string soaked balladry of ‘Prom Theme’ to the psychedelic ‘Go, Hippie’. This confidence results in a stronger album than their debut, as it has a core of excellent songs that are superior to the best songs from the preceding album. But countering this, there are a few too many songs that simply don’t work; the goofy ‘Hat And Feet’, the sappy ‘Prom Theme’ and irritating ‘Laser Show’ all exacerbate the group’s inherent goofiness.

Take away the three missteps above though, and there’s an excellent twelve song album here. ‘Troubled Times’ is a glorious piece of acoustic driven power pop, sounding more heartfelt than almost anything else in the band’s catalogue (“Maybe one day soon it will all come out/How you dream about each other sometimes”), and incorporating a soaring chorus, a beautifully constructed middle eight, and a monster bass hit in the pre-chorus. While songs like ‘Denise’ and ‘I Know You Well’ are elegant in their simplicity, some of these tracks are much more intricate; the verse of ‘Amity Gardens’ is disarmingly melodically and rhythmically complex, while ‘Go, Hippie’ launches into a heavy guitar attack and impressive solo. Canadian singer/songwriter Ron Sexsmith guests on backing vocals on the pretty ‘Fine Day For A Parade’.

Utopia Parkway needs pruning, but it still stands as the band’s best album to date. After Utopia Parkway failed to break the band as a major commercial act, they took a break, with Schlesinger rejoining his previous band Ivy, and Collingwood forming country-rock band Gay Potatoes, before reconvening for 2003’s Welcome Interstate Managers.

Welcome Interstate Managers

Welcome Interstate Managers Fountains of Wayne2003, 7/10
Welcome Interstate Managers featured the hit ‘Stacy’s Mom’, which amusingly won a best new artist Grammy for a band who’d previously released two major label albums. Despite the extra attention that Welcome Interstate Managers received, it’s a little weaker than their previous albums. It’s too long, and the artifice that’s always been a niggling feature of this band is too clearly showing over the album’s sixteen tracks

Welcome Interstate Managers is very-front loaded – the opener ‘Mexican Wine’ is the strongest song with its arrangement that leaves out the rhythm section until the second verse; the extra tantalising keyboard riff that leaves the listener dangling before the second verse is a piece of arranging brilliance. The hit ‘Stacy’s Mom’ is hooky and overtly poppy, and it’s probably the song that Fountains of Wayne will be remembered for, for better or worse, while there’s more memorable power pop with ‘No Better Place’. Pretty songs like ‘Halley’s Waitress’ and ‘All Kinds of Time’ helps to make the later parts of the album enjoyable, but all the best songs are near the start.

More than ever for Fountains of Wayne, Welcome Interstate Managers is pushing into guilty pleasure territory – there are good tunes, but it feels too insincere to love whole-heartedly.


 

Ben Harper

Ben Harper The Will To LiveAmerican musician Ben Harper occupies the middle ground in many aspects of his musical career, whether in musical style, race, and even market positioning, covering the same black socially aware folk-pop crossover that Tracy Chapman did with her debut five years earlier. Harper’s signature instrument is the Weissenborn lap-slide guitar, which gives many of his songs a distinctive tone. While he’s managed crossover hits like ‘Steal My Kisses’, ‘Faded’ and ‘Diamonds On The Inside’, he’s largely evaded mainstream success, and remains in a strange nether region between mass-popularity and a cult following, although he’s very popular in my home country of New Zealand. He can sing well, play well, writes solid songs, his lyrics are thoughtful, and he covers a fair amount of stylistic ground in his later records; he’s adequate in every facet without being particularly outstanding in any. He’s not without talent, but he’s not really interesting enough to avoid feeling burnout after listening to too much of him; I regard him as a pleasant second tier talent, and it’s maybe worth hearing an album or two of his.

Welcome To The Cruel World

(1993), 5.5/10
Welcome To The Cruel World is centred around acoustic singer-songwriter material, rooted in folk and blues. While I guess it has a nice earthiness and authenticity to it, it does become wearying over the course of the entire album. A few songs do stand out – ‘Forever’ is a pretty acoustic ballad, ‘Pleasure and Pain’ uses a memorable and elegant minor key melody, and the piano driven anthem ‘I’ll Rise’ ends the album on a triumphant note. The other track that stands out is ‘Mama’s Got A Girlfriend’ but for all the wrong reasons; musically it dabbles in soppy Paul Simon world music territory, while its lyrics go out of the way with their political correctness to show Harper as an open-minded modern man. This moral superiority that permeates Harper’s lyrics is distracting; he tends toward potentially interesting social commentary, but it often seems like he has an agenda of proving how enlightened his attitudes towards lesbianism and marijuana are. In essence Welcome To The Cruel World is a bunch of competent acoustic blues songs in succession.

Fight For Your Mind

(1995), 6/10
Fight For Your Mind is more ambitious than Harper’s debut, with a few epic tracks that are more intriguing anything previously, but it’s not really an improvement, stretching out to nearly seventy minutes without breaking out of acoustic gospel, folk, and blues territory. This time around the good songs are more distinctive than previously and make more of an impact, and there’s more of a jam vibe and band feel to the best songs, but the longer running time cancels out any benefit of this, and the net effect is much the same as previously. The most interesting song on Fight For Your Mind is the twelve minute slide epic ‘God Fearing Man’, where Harper’s Weissenborn shines, while ‘Ground On Down’ also features excellent slide work. The string drenched ‘Power Of The Gospel’ at least has a haunting atmosphere going for it, and it’s another of the record’s most interesting pieces. But ‘Burn One Down’, where Harper expounds on how he can smoke pot in a politically correct way, severely diminished my respect for his work. When Fight For Your Mind works, it’s when the energetic and ambitious playing propels it to new levels.

The Will To Live

(1997), 8/10
For my money, Harper peaked with The Will To Live, which is more eclectic and has better quality control than its predecessors. It starts strongly with the single ‘Faded’, which has an aggressiveness and jaded lyric that’s out of step with the rest of the material. The abrasive edged songs ‘Roses From My Friends’ and ‘Glory And Consequence’ blend in well with subdued ballads ‘I Want To Be Ready’ and ‘I Shall Not Walk Alone’, while the picture is rounded out by jazzy touches in ‘Homeless Child’ and ‘Mama’s Tripping’. The Will To Live is a remarkably even record; at worst ‘Jah Work’ drags a little, but everything else works really well. Enjoyment of The Will To Livehinges on appreciation of Harper’s lyrical content to a greater extent than is usual for a music album. Harper’s melodies, and on his occasion his lyrics, aren’t as arresting as they need to be to propel The Will To Live out of the shadows of what’s proceeded him, but it’s still a tasteful and impressively consistent effort.

Burn To Shine

(2000), 4.5/10
I’m not sure if Burn To Shine really is the worst Ben Harper album to date, or I’m just really getting sick of trudging through his discography, but either way I’m not very impressed by this record. Essentially it’s half comprised of boring dark rockers like ‘Less’ and ‘Please Bleed’ and half disjointed miscellany like the string soaked ballad ‘Beloved One’ and the Dixieland ‘Suzie Blue’. It’s full of unfortunate contrasts like the jump from the delicate and pretty ‘Two Hands Of A Prayer’, straight into the bludgeoning and awkward ‘Please Bleed’. And lyrically, instead of the social and spiritual themes that dominated his earlier work, it’s relying on lyrics about relationships. Burn To Shine starts weirdly with the low key, repetitive ‘Alone’, and never really picks up steam. There were some excellent rockers on the previous two records, but there’s practically nothing here – there are too many ugly pieces like ‘Less’ and ‘Woman in You’. The most effective tracks are the most diverse – the Dixieland ‘Suzie Blue’ and the pop crossover ‘Steal My Kisses’ are arguably the best two songs here, both with memorable arrangements and melodies that are lacking elsewhere.

Diamonds On The Inside

(2003), 7/10
This time around, Harper makes the diversity work in his favour, and the result is much more satisfying. Diamonds On The Insideencompasses reggae, country, folk, hard rock, blues, as well as the a capella ‘Pictures of Jesus’ with Ladysmith Black Mambazo. With such an incoherent range of styles, it is not surprising that Diamonds On The Inside doesn’t coalesce particularly well.  The individual songs that don’t work are ‘Pictures of Jesus’, which sounds like a dull Graceland outtake, while lead off single ‘With My Own Two Hands’ is formulaic take on reggae. The title track is a lovely country tinged ballad, while ‘Everything’ is an infectiously bouncy pop tune, ‘Blessed To Be A Witness’ is wonderfully minimalist while ‘She’s Only Happy In The Sun’ closes proceedings on a nice somber note. ‘Touch From Your Lust’ is a dynamic rocker, while ‘So High So Low’ launches into a furious assault from a gentle introduction. Best of all is ‘Amen Omen’, with a satisfying sense of spirituality. Diamonds On The Insideis more a collection of individual songs than a cohesive statement, but it’s such a good collection of songs that no one’s complaining too loudly.


 

Alanis Morissette

Jagged Little Pill

Alanis Morissette Jagged Little Pill1995, 5/10
Jagged Little Pill was the only time that I’ve ever jumped onto a music bandwagon, then regretted it afterwards. My sister and I pooled our resources to buy Jagged Little Pill. Later I tired of it and my sister insisted on buying out my share on the basis that it introduced her to “good music”.

Jagged Little Pill is a definitive record of the mid 1990s; with her aggressive, confessional lyrics and lite-grunge sound, Morissette hit a commercial sweet spot, and hits like ‘Hand Over Pocket’ were inescapable in early 1996. ‘You Oughta Know’ with Flea guesting on bass and Dave Navarro on guitar rocks hard enough to hold up, and as insufferable as Morissette can be, I still find her preferable to Anthony Kiedis. But the mellow songs like ‘Not The Doctor’ emphasise the unpleasant whine in her vocals, while songs like ‘Perfect’ and ‘Mary Jane’ have overwrought themes without anything to make them musically compelling.

Morissette is so confrontational on Jagged Little Pill that it’s her lyrics that make the biggest impression, and because her voice and her lyrics often make me squeamish, the music doesn’t generally do enough to compensate.


 

Oasis

(What’s The Story) Morning Glory?

Oasis What's The Story Morning Glory1995, 8/10
Oasis were over-hyped by the time of their second album, but (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? is appealing now that it’s clear they were a good band, not a great one. Oasis’ brash goal was to combine The Beatles’ song-craft with The Sex Pistols’ aggression, and in retrospect they came close. They created an attractive and aggressive wall of sound, Liam Gallagher’s swaggering snarls are an effective topping, while Noel Gallagher’s songs are generally strong.

Oasis are often accused of pilfering from The Beatles, but there are less explicit thefts than a recreation of the general vibe. Most tangibly, ‘She’s Electric’ has a cutesy McCartney feel, ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’ steals the first couple of chords from ‘Imagine’, while the liner notes name check John and Paul. One thing that Oasis neglected to steal was The Beatles’ propensity for brevity; the over-long running times of most of the songs is Morning Glory?‘s Achilles Heel.

‘Wonderwall’ and ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’ (sung by Noel), both classic slices of Brit-pop, are the well-known singles, but there are other high points; ‘Champagne Supernova’, featuring The Jam’s Paul Weller on lead guitar and backing vocals is the arguable highlight, with an aching verse and a soaring chorus, while ‘Roll With It’ is propulsive and infectious.

In hindsight, (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? is less significant and accomplished than it seemed at the time, but it’s still an enjoyable piece of retro fun. Oasis were unable to maintain the same artistic level since; general consensus is that their first two albums were their best.


 

Liz Phair

Exile In Guyville

Liz Phair Exile in Guyville1993, 5.5/10
Illinois based critical darling Liz Phair started her career recording songs in her bedroom, leading to her signing on Matador. Purportedly a song by song response to The Rolling Stones’ 1972 classic Exile On Main Street – Phair claims that this was because she had no idea how to structure an album from scratch – the unpolished and explicit nature of the album won her immediate attention and it was hailed as an instant classic. It’s still revolutionary; some of Phair’s lyrical assertions are shocking in their frankness. But Exile In Guyville is far more potent in societal terms than in musical terms; lines like “I’ll be your blowjob queen” are far more memorable than most of her tunes. Phair’s unusual song structures and melodies do reveal an interesting talent, but at eighteen tracks and lots of slow draggy songs Guyville could benefit from some drastic trimming.

Despite the aggressive sexual assertion of songs like ‘Flower’ and ‘Dance Of The Seven Veils’, it’s the insecure admissions of ‘Fuck and Run’ that is the album’s most emotionally affecting moment. “I want all that stupid old shit/Like letters and sodas”, she complains, revealing a sweetness that’s not apparent in other moments; “I can feel it in my bones/I’m gonna spend my whole life alone/It’s fuck and run/Fuck and run/Even when I was seventeen.” Even discounting the most provocative moments, her lyrics are often excellent: “When you said that I wasn’t worth talking to/I had to take your word on that/But if you’d known/How that would sound to me/You would have taken it back/And boxed it up and buried it in the ground….Burned it up and thrown it away” is a particularly telling couplet from ‘Divorce Song’. Even if Phair is an insightful writer, Exile In Guyville isn’t consistently musically engaging; for every well constructed piece like ‘Fuck and Run’ or ‘Stratford-on-Guy’, there’s a dull tuneless meandering like ‘Canary’ or ‘Shatter’.

There is a more substance to Exile In Guyville than there usually is for an album rated at this level, but ideally it would be enjoyable to listen to as well as being ground-breaking.

Whip-Smart

Liz Phair Whip Smart1994, 6/10
Exile on Guyville was such a unique record that it was inevitable that its follow-up would be more normal. Whip-Smart is far closer to regular Indie rock than its predecessor. The song structures and lyrics are more conventional, and the arrangements are punchier. This takes away a lot of what made Phair unique, but I find Whip-Smart more listenable than its predecessor. Still, there’s no single song that comes up to the standard of ‘Fuck and Run’.

The two most significant songs are at the beginning; ‘Chop Sticks’ bears the closest resemblance to Exile, with the detached vocals and dirty lyrics at their most evident. ‘Supernova’ is the unabashed attempt at a hit single, with a purposefully big chorus; it’s not as embarrassing as her later attempts at commercialism, but it’s not particularly convincing. I’m sure that her lover was flattered to be compared favourably to a volcano (it’s probably more flattering than being referred to as a “fountain of youth” – see below), but it’s cloying and the music is vapid. Elsewhere the album is just middling quality the whole way through; Phair has plenty of personality, but there’s scarce little that’s memorable and nothing that’s outstanding on a musical level. The “you’ve got to have fear in your heart” chorus from ‘Shane’ sticks, using the numbing repetition of Phair’s low key voice effectively. There are effective rock songs in ‘Go West’ and the title track, and Phair’s skewed take on the genre is more interesting than many of her generic mid-nineties contemporaries.

Still, it’s not a good sign when the primary reason that I prefer this album to its predecessor is because it’s significantly shorter.

Whitechocolatespaceegg

liz-phair-whitechocolatespaceegg1998, 6.5/10
Whitechocolatespaceegg is my favourite Liz Phair album, although that’s not saying much. I’m not sure if that says something about my tastes; maybe I’m too mainstream to enjoy her two earlier, rough-edged and more provocative releases. But stripped of her individuality, there’s nothing to recommend her over more musically talented contemporaries; there’s the occasional nice chord sequence or winsome melody, but nothing particularly significant. Many of her original fans were disgruntled by the clean production and inoffensive nature of the record, claiming it as the point where Phair lost her inspiration and creativity – a theory supported by the song ‘Shitloads of Money’, where Phair unequivocally states that “It’s nice to be liked/But it’s better by far to get paid.”

Even though her lyrics are less remarkable than previously, due mostly to a lack of explicit sexual imagery, they’re insightful and read well on paper, so it’s a shame that she can’t convey them better musically. ‘Polyester Bride’ is my favourite Liz Phair song, combining a memorable chorus and eloquently feminist lyrics into a concise package. She also manages memorable and plaintive melodies on ‘Uncle Alvarez’ (another winner) and ‘Go On Ahead’, while ‘Love is Nothing’ is almost too poppy for Phair’s oeuvre with its blatant hooks heading straight for the pay dirt. ‘Headache’ even gets trippy, with a catchily repetitive bass line. Still, it’s hard to be too excited about Whitechocolatespaceegg; it’s too uniform, with most tracks based around clean rhythm guitar textures, and there are too many throwaway tracks like the dorky rockabilly of ‘Baby Got Going’.

There are worse 1990s acts out there – I like Phair enough to sit through four of her albums – but I’m not sure if she’ll be remembered beyond the shock effect of ‘Exile in Guyville’.

Liz Phair

liz-phair-self-titled2003, 3/10
The strange decision of this formerly controversial indie queen to hire Avril Lavigne’s producers and aim for the mainstream has been met with widespread bemusement, and it’s not difficult to see why. The whole package is so misguided and fraught with inner contradictions that it’s almost impossible to take seriously. Phair has explained that she’s always wanted a hit single, while apologists have tried to explain that the album reflects Phair’s confusion as a mother and divorcee; this explain the slick production but not the incoherent and laughable mishmash of lyrical content.

While the album’s often too slick and overproduced for its own good, it’s the lyrics that are the main problem. On the positive end ‘Little Digger’ is touching enough, stating Phair’s attachment to her child and her confusion regarding her estrangement from the child’s father, although it gets condescending fast with lines like “Now you’re thinking little thoughts about it”. Elsewhere the lyrics range from generic, to teen generic (“Baby, baby, if it’s all right/I want you to rock me……ALL NIGHT”), to a level of ridiculousness seldom equalled in the history of popular music. “Oh baby know what your like?/You’re like my favorite underwear/And I’m slipping you on again tonight” is the punch line of ‘Favourite’, and it’s hard to imagine anything more cringe-worthy. That is, until Phair outdoes herself with ‘H.W.C.’; backed by some innocuously bright country rock, Phair extols the virtues of semen as a beauty aid. A fountain of youth is, in fact, the exact metaphor she uses to describe her lover.

Liz Phair isn’t without musical appeal, but it loses any possible credibility with some of the dopiest lyrics in the history of recorded music.


 

Primal Scream

Screamadelica

Primal Scream Screamadelica1991, 8.5/10
Almost twenty years after Exile On Main Street, Glasgow’s Primal Scream successfully replicated the spirit of the Rolling Stones’ 1972 landmark. Rather than Keith Richards’ pharmaceutical eclecticism, Ecstasy is the sole drug of choice, and the setting has moved from the French riviera to London clubs, but the same sense of drug induced decadence and gospel derived grandeur permeates both recordings.

While Screamadelica effectively ushered in the dance scene, it’s still comprehensible to classic rock enthusiasts; opener ‘Movin’ On Up’ is produced by Exile-collaborator Jimmy Miller and quotes Can. Screamadelica is supposedly an accurate aural representation of Ecstasy; the songs were originally recorded in straight up rock and roll fashion before were suddenly invigorated with dance remixes. The end result is sometimes drawn out, but more often than not it’s infused with an irresistible sense of grandeur. Paradoxically, on such an influential dance album, the songs that stand out are the most organic; ‘Movin’ On Up’ cruises along on a warm piano groove, while the gorgeous ‘Damaged’ is acoustically meditative. Elsewhere, the dance oriented material runs the gamut from pretty ambient pieces like ‘Inner Flight’ to upbeat material like ‘Step Inside This House’.

It’s not quite consistently entertaining enough to garner full marks, largely due to the long running times of the tracks, but Screamadelica bears most of the other hallmarks of a significant record; the swagger, the historical significance and the mood are all palpable.


Rage Against The Machine

Rage Against The Machine

Rage Against The Machine 1992 Debut1992, 4.5/10
Rap with guitars existed before Rage Against The Machine; Run D.M.C. effectively pioneered the genre, and bands like Red Hot Chili Peppers and Faith No More also attained popularity. But Rage Against The Machine added a political edge; the Tibetan Monk self-immolation on the cover is only the tip of the iceberg, with Zack de la Rocha’s lyrics addressing US intervention, capitalism, and radical leftist politics, although in a contradiction the band were signed to a major record label. With a powerful, funky rhythm section, and a a very creative guitarist in Tom Morello, the Rage Against The Machine sound is intoxicating.

For one song at a time. ‘Killing In The Name’ is one of the 1990’s great singles, with a pounding riff, a squeaky Morello solo, and memorable coda.

But a full album of De La Rocha yelling political slogans over metallic guitar with no relief and no stylistic variation is like being sand-blasted. In small doses, Rage Against The Machine is invigorating, but a full album at once is mind-numbing.


Slint

Spiderland

Splint Spiderland1991, 9/10
Slint were a Kentucky band, who originated from punk band Squirrel Bait. I never connected with their Steve Albini produced debut Tweez, but their Spiderland, their second and final album from 1991 is a significant album. Although again it had little commercial impact it’s almost indisputably recognised as alternative classic and extremely influential record. What’s remarkable is the range of moods and textures that the band is able to coax out of a simple two guitar, bass, and drums band – it’s often pointed to as a pioneering record for post rock, but most other post-rock bands have a more a wider sound sound palette. It takes a few listens for these songs to sink in, but Spiderland is a fascinating record; there’s plenty happening with the shifting time signatures, the uniquely dry sonic palette and production, and the expert use of dynamics.

The most accessible material is at either end of the album – the precise riffs of the opening ‘Breadcrumb Trail’ and the album’s best known song is the cathartic ‘Good Morning, Captain’ both feature relatively audible vocals and almost headbanging climaxes. ‘Nosferatu Man’ is surprisingly abrasive and heavy with its constant guitar riffs, while ‘Don Aman’ slowly simmers over its ominous four minutes before suddenly launching into bursts of guitar noise. ‘Washer’ probably covers the most stylistic ground on the album over its nine minute running time and the only disappointment is the penultimate ‘For Dinner’, which is pretty much non-eventful apart from the spasms of guitar noise. Spiderland is a landmark record that any open minded rock fan should try; it’s not quite a flawless classic but it’s idiosyncratic and personable.

Apart from a two song EP in 1994, Spiderland was Slint’s last record, and members have appeared in other bands including Tortoise and Billy Corgan’s Zwan. The iconic black and white cover photo with the four band members immersed in water was taken by fellow Kentucky musician Will Oldham.


Stone Temple Pilots

Purple

Stone Temple Pilots Purple1994, 6/10
I’m not an especial fan of 1990s grunge, so this second tier act fails to excite me. For my money, 1990’s grunge wasn’t the most exciting era in rock; a lot of the groundwork was done by groups like Husker Du and the Pixies, carrying the torch from punk until Nirvana’s Nevermind struck big. When the Stone Temple Pilots surfaced at the right time with the right balance of grungy disdain and mainstream appeal, they became a commercial success and a target for frustrated critics; less dangerous than Nirvana and Alice In Chains, and a step behind Pearl Jam. They try hard to be artsy, with vague stream of consciousness lyrics (“Smoke a cigarette and lie some more/These conversations kill/Falling fast in my car”), but with such a straightforward musical approach it’s difficult to shake the impression that they listened to one to many Kiss albums while growing up.

Despite a lack of originality, Purple is an accomplished album; frontman Scott Weiland has a voice that’s simultaneously warm, powerful and ragged, while his band-mates Eric Kretz and the DeLeo brothers are all talented enough musicians. And some of the songs are competent; the effortlessly burbling hit single ‘Interstate Love Song’ is the most obvious example, while ‘Pretty Penny’ is a pleasant enough acoustic song. There are signs of creativity, especially the out of control guitar freak-out at the end of ‘Silvergun Superman’, while the lounge singing bonus track provides some much needed stylistic variation.

Purple is competent, but it’s an artistic dead end, like Kiss and Aerosmith updated for the 1990s.


Supergroove

Postage – The Best of Supergroove

Postage Supergroove2003, 8.5/10
The compilation Postage distils the legacy of New Zealand’s Supergroove into one disc. Supergroove barely made an impact outside of their home country, but in 1994 they were inescapably huge in New Zealand. Their blend of hip hop, funk, and metal was arguably a little behind the curve by the time their first album, Traction, was released in 1994; bands like Red Hot Chili Peppers, Faith No More, and Rage Against the Machine had enjoyed success with the template earlier in the decade.

But Supergroove bought enough originality and personality to stand out. Notable features of the band included strong musicianship; bassist Joe Lonie is particularly accomplished.  The group’s most successful line-up blended two vocalists with distinctive styles; the smooth Che Fu, went on the enjoy solo success in hip hop and R&B, while Karl Steven is nervy and hyperactive. Supergroove unabashedly made party music, but without sacrificing intelligence; there’s enough substance it’s not surprising that group leader Steven went onto complete a Ph. D in Philosophy

The compilation covers their career from the early singles, their debut album Traction, their EP Traction, and 1996’s sophomore effort Backspacer, but the basis of their legacy is the run of early singles leading up to, and stemming from, Traction. Songs like the metallic riffs of ‘Scorpio Girls’ and ‘You Freak Me’, ‘Sitting Inside My Head’, which uses the odd couple vocals of Che Fu and Karl Steven effectively, and the infectious ‘Can’t Get Enough’. The Tractor EP continued the excellence with ‘The Next Time’, but the group changed direction before their second album, dismissing Che Fu and morphing into a guitar based alternative band.

1996’s Backspacer was a major disappointment, and the band broke up shortly afterwards. But Postage is a valuable summary of an act that could have easily blown up internationally, and remain as one of New Zealand’s major singles’ bands.


 

Teenage Fanclub

Four Thousand Seven Hundred and Sixty Six Seconds – a Short Cut to Teenage Fanclub

Four Thousand Seven Hundred and Sixty‑Six Seconds – A Short Cut to Teenage Fanclub2002, 9/10
In 1989, Raymond McGinley’s neighbour died. In her will, she bequeathed the young Scottish guitarist a washing machine and a refrigerator. Raymond sold these and used the proceeds to finance demos with his newly formed band, Teenage Fanclub, who were yet to play a live show. McGinley, singer/guitarist Normal Blake, and singer/bassist Gerard Love, who make up the nucleus of the group, recorded demos for A Catholic Eduction, the first album in a vaguely wayward but largely satisfactory career. Because they’re almost determinedly retro, it’s difficult to label Teenage Fanclub as significant as nineties contemporaries like Radiohead, but in terms of the basic components of melody and harmony the band have few rivals from their era; even Oasis declared them the second best band in the world. While the influence from the Big Star/Beatles axis is well documented, the less conventional Sonic Youth also informs the group’s sound, and the heavy guitar layers are more complex than traditional power pop. This collection takes in highlights of their career between 1990 and 2002; I haven’t heard any of the group’s studio albums, but this flows extremely well as a compilation and at precisely 4,766 seconds long it’s good value for money as well.

Classics include ‘The Concept’ (the first track on 1991’s Bandwagonesque, which Spin infamously named as album of the year ahead of Nevermind) with its opening line “She wears denim wherever she goes/Says she’s gonna get some records by the Status Quo”, Love’s anthem ‘Sparky’s Dream’ and Blake’s stuttering ‘Neil Jung’. Of the three new songs, Blake’s ‘Did I Say’ is a terrific hard driving yet lilting ballad. It’s hard to point out too may low points; although McGinley’s writing is generally less accomplished than his band-mates, he still contributes the excellent ‘My Uptight Life’. I’m not always in the mood for idiosyncratic ground-breakers like Pere Ubu or Captain Beefheart, but I’m always happy to hear Teenage Fanclub.

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