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Use Your Illusion

“Once there was this rock n’ roll band rollin’ on the streets
Time went by and it became a joke”

You could put either of these records on your 50 Worst or 50 Best rock records of all time lists. I could easily make a case both ways.  I find these releases to be every bit as baffling today as I did 20 years ago and nearly every bit as compelling. I thought about just discussing Use Your Illusion I or about doing separate posts about each of these records. In some ways, they are distinct records, but all of the material was recorded at once, much of it was written in the same period, and the band wanted it released as a single release. So I’ll take that tack here and treat it like a single release.

This album is, by turns, brilliant and awful. If you’re the kind of person who has to view your music through a political filter, there’s probably nothing to like about this album…unless you’re a really awful person. Almost everything about this record was just wrong for the time, but it somehow became the biggest thing out there. The macho cock-rock attitudes on half the songs couldn’t have been much more passe in the wake of grunge. There is so much overblown rock decadence on this album that it’s almost amusing at times and, yet, in a time when the media was saying that grunge represented the triumph of the punk aesthetic over that of metal and hard rock, much of this album channels punk’s attitude and energy in a way that Pearl Jam or Soundgarden could never hope to do. In spite of that, there is so much seemingly cynical commercialism involved in this thing that it’s a little grotesque in places. There are songs that are clearly meant to be rock radio singles. There’s shit that’s just weird. There’s shit that’s a little too hard and raw to make it onto the radio, at least at the time. Really, how could “My World” and “November Rain” exist on the same album?

The only thing that should be clear in retrospect after listening to this thing is that this group of guys would never write another album together again. Izzy Stradlin probably wrote more music on this release than anyone else. He was channeling early to mid 70s era Rolling Stones really hard at the time. The songs that he wrote entirely by himself as well as the first release from his “Izzy Stradlin and the Ju Ju Hounds” band are almost an homage to them. Stradlin does vocal duty on three songs. The stuff Axl & Slash wrote together mostly sounds like what you’d expect from Guns N’ Roses. The stuff that either of them wrote with anyone else is all over the place. At their best (and maybe at their worst, too) the lyrics on this album are painfully raw and honest. If you wanna see the ugly side of someone’s thought processes, it is laid out here. This was the first full length album they released after they became famous. Like with a lot of sophomore efforts, there’s a lot here about fame and being famous. The prevailing attitude is definitely one of hating the media and hating being famous, but also at times hating yourself for pursuing fame. There’s no “pity me because I just wanted to play music and somehow ended up famous” here.

G N’ R were often criticized for being sloppy as a band. You couldn’t deny the talent of any of the individual musicians, but what they sounded like together was often a bit ugly and disjointed. They were most definitely not a bunch of pretty boys who could kind of play. I don’t think sloppy or lazy or any of that is right. I think that what they are or were as a band is chaotic. The fact that this was a band that caused riots and challenged other musicians to fights and sometimes tried to physically attack them wasn’t a schtick. It wasn’t self aware. It was a by product of the rolling carnival of booze, drugs, and interpersonal dysfunction between and among the members of the band. So was their sound. It’s a sound, by the way, that’s not all that hard. At its hardest, it’s a little hard for commercial radio, but damn little of their recorded material was really metal even though they came out of that mid 80s Los Angeles metal scene.  Rock musicians have riffed on rock critics for basically as long as people have been writing about rock. But I don’t know of anyone before G N’ R who called them out by name and challenged to kick their asses in a song a la the spoken word rant in the middle of “Get In The Ring”:

And that goes for all of you punks in the press

That want to start shit by printin’ lies instead of the things we said
That means you Andy Secher at Hit Parader, Circus magazine
Mick Wall at Kerrang, Bob Guccione jr. at Spin
What you pissed off ’cause your dad gets more pussy than you?
Fuck you! Suck my  fucking dick!

You be rippin’ off the fuckin’ kids
While they be payin’ their hard earned money to read about the bands they want to know about
Printin’ lies, startin’ controversy
You want to antagonize me? Antagonize me  motherfucker!
Get in the ring motherfucker and I’ll kick your bitchy little ass! Punk.

Some of the crap on this album is cartoonish. It doesn’t matter whether individual lyrics are a story from a character’s perspective or something the author actually meant and felt in the moment they were writing. A lot of the lyrics are narcissistic as hell, but as I said before also just raw to the point of being uncomfortable to listen to. In that sense, I can’t help but feel like some of what they did here rises to level of actually being art. It’s rare for me to pull these out and listen to them, but when I do I find them really compelling. At their best, some of the stuff on this album is subversive and dangerous sounding even now. It’s easy to write provocative lyrics like Axl Rose did on their previous release’s “One in a Million”. There’s really nothing quite like that on this album. Most, but not all of the dangerous sounding stuff comes from Rose here. What makes it seem dangerous is not that he’s in your face with some provocative words. It’s that it feels like you’re getting some raw truth from a really unstable mind, the mind that might belong to a guy who was about to spend a decade as a crazy recluse working on an album that had no chance of ever living up to the legacy of this one. Since this is, technically, two albums I’m going to attach five songs. They’re songs that I think embody what I’ve talked about here at different levels and different ways. I’m not including any of the dreadfully overplayed ballads, though. “Pretty Tied Up” and “Get in the Ring” are quoted directly in the post. “Locomotive” may be the one song on the album that most completely ties all of the threads that I talk about here together. “Right Next Door to Hell” and “Bad Obsession” are just to of my favorites. As usual, the music is here under the fair use provisions of copyright law, but I’ll happily take it down upon the request of the copyright holders.

Get in the Ring

Right Next Door to Hell

Locomotive

Bad Obsession

Pretty Tied Up

In A Lonely Place

It’s hard to have a music focused blog and not write about your favorite band. On the other hand, if you spend enough years as a die hard fan of a band and have any social awareness, you know that no one else cares about your favorite band nearly as much as you do. If, dear reader, all you know of New Order is the radio friendly dance pop of songs like “Bizarre Love Triangle” and “True Faith”, I hope you’ll take a listen to some tracks I’ve attached to this entry.

If you were just to listen to what New Order recorded between 1981 and 1986, it is really a remarkable evolution. It is truly an evolution, too. There’ s no point where their whole sound just shifts dramatically. Though many fans seem to look at Joy Division as if it were Ian and some back up musicians, the three guys in New Order were the band in Joy Division. From the track “Warsaw” (which was one of their first) to any track on “Closer”, Joy Division’s final studio album, is just as much of an evolution. The combined journey of these musicians from 1976 to 1986 is probably more impressive than for any other band I can think of. They were pioneers in two genres of music and way more influential among their contemporaries and bands that came after them than most people know.

I know that I will never be able to write anything that imparts my love of this music to you. At any point for more than twenty years now if you ask me who my favorite band is, the first words out of my mouth are “New Order”. Sometimes, that may also get an “and Joy Division” after it.  Sometimes, it may have got some other second group. If you have a band you can say that about, then you probably get how much I love this stuff. Here’s another way of trying to say it. There aren’t many things I can say I believed when I was twenty that I believe today, just shy of 40. One of them, I learned directly from watching my parents without ever being told it by them. Your friends are everything. The extent to which you are loyal to your friends and they are loyal to you is and will be a defining aspect of your life. The second one is this: if you listen to the first three New Order albums and the various b-sides or non-album singles that were out along with them until you know every note and every word by heart, you’ll know more about me than I could ever tell you. Since I’m fairly certain that no one will ever do that, here are eight of my favorite tracks from that era. Yeah, I know it’s a lot more than the two that I normally do. That’s what fan(atic)s do.

Your Silent Face

Dreams Never End

Face Up

Procession

Leave Me Alone

Ceremony

Thieves Like Us

In A Lonely Place

The Drums

The way this is supposed to work is that I listen to my music library until something strikes me as worth writing about. That usually comes from listening to the whole library on shuffle or, sometimes, just a particular genre on shuffle. Eventually, I’ll focus in on one artist and then one album by that artist. For nine of the last ten days, I’ve only listened to one band, though.  It’s music that’s new to me. I don’t have years of exposure to it. I haven’t mulled it over. The band is called The Drums.  I’ve primarily been listening to their 2010 self titled debut album. I’ve also listened to their 2009 e.p. “Summertime!”.  I discovered the band via a post by one of my friends over at  Seamstress For The Band. Though after I bought the album and the e.p, I did realize that I’d heard one of their songs in a commercial.

Their e.p. is solidly in the realm of bands that are doing retro surf pop influenced stuff. It’s a really good string of songs. I can hardly get enough of “Let’s Go Surfing”, for example. The e.p. is nice, but the self titled full album debut is heaven. There were songs on the e.p. where you could hear a strong Peter Hook influence on the bass playing. They dialed that up to 11 on the album. They borrowed so heavily from the New Order song book that you easily could have convinced me that it’s another Peter Hook project. I was immediately struck by how many little things they took from the first two New Order albums, but as I listened to this record over and over again, I could hear things that reminded me of bits from damn near every New Order album including the final one. Their singer sounds nothing like Bernard Sumner and so the sort of top layer of sound and the vocal pieces keep you from thinking you’re listening to a band that’s trying to sound like New Order, but the music is so dead on. I won’t dig into each and every element in each and every song, but here’s what jumps out at me. I will probably continue to take these songs apart piece by piece in my own head for weeks ahead. Seriously, if I could make music, this is as close to anything I’ve ever heard to being what I would make. I’m a little obsessed. Even though I might normally be inclined to slam a band for so perfectly aping an influence, in this case I’m just in love with it.

The awkward synth beat that opens “Best Friend” could be straight off of Power, Corruption, and Lies as could much of the lead guitar.

The beat to “Forever and Ever Amen” reminds me a bit of “Krafty” from New Order’s final album. The synths are so right in the sweet spot of New Order’s first three albums that I can’t even pinpoint it. I just effing love that song even though, in some ways, it’s one of the least New Order-y songs on the record.

The bass on “Me and the Moon” could be half the songs on “Brotherhood”.

The opening bass line to “Let’s Go Surfing” is more Joy Division than New Order.

The lead guitar on “Book of Stories” is more “Power, Corruption, and Lies” type stuff.

“Down by the Water” doesn’t sound like New Order at all. It is definitely in that late 50s to early 60s pop inspired zone and it’s one of the best straight up love songs I’ve heard in ages.

“It Will All End In Tears” doesn’t sound quite like any song from “Movement”, but it does sound like New Order when they were trying to get away from sounding like Joy Division, but still sounded like them. It’s the kind of song that might have turned up on the 2nd CD of New Order’s Substance 1987 as a formerly b-side only track.

“We Tried” is another track that starts off sounding like it would fit on “Power, Corruption, and Lies” perhaps right between “Ecstasy” and “Leave Me Alone”.

From about 30 seconds to 45 seconds in on “I Need Fun In My Life”, I could swear I’m listening to a lost, pre-1985 New Order track.

“I’ll Never Drop My Sword” would fit in nice on Brotherhood. The last 30 seconds sound so damned much like New Order that I can hardly stand it and the guitar in the last 15 seconds sounds so much like the end of so many New Order songs that it makes me want to punch something.

If I could, I would make every one of you who reads this entry (and since that’s probably not so many of you) or even knows about this blog listen to these two albums at least half a dozen times. I’d like to add every song from the self titled album to this entry. Instead, I’m going with my normal two song limit.

Forever and Ever Amen

We Tried

Beth Gibbons and Rustin Man: Out of Season

There was a period in the 90s where Portishead was nearly, literally inescapable for me. That was not a bad thing. A few of my friends were pretty die hard fans. The two albums they put out in the 90s seemed to play in all of the places that I frequented a lot. One of the bartenders at my favorite coffee place could be counted on to play the self-titled album at least once whenever she worked. Their singer, Beth Gibbons, has an amazing voice. She is one of those singers that I really could listen to sing just about anything. Via other people, I probably listened to those two Portishead albums more than anything else that I didn’t own. I didn’t need to buy them at the time. I heard them that often.

After a few years without a major release from Gibbons or Portishead, I was pretty happy to see her show up on eMusic with an album under her own name in 2002. The album is credited to Beth Gibbons and Rustin Man. I did not know who he was at the time. Chances are pretty good that if you specifically like Portishead rather than just generally liking trip hop, you’ll like this album. Whoever wrote the article about it at wikipedia called described it as “largely a folk album with jazz leanings”. I can’t say that’s exactly wrong, but it’s a massive simplification of the album’s sound. A lot of the songs start off in a rather acoustic tone, but build to something much more complex. There’s definitely a more direct jazz influence than on those first two Portishead albums. The list of musicians and instruments credited to this album is massive.  It has a very rich sound that clearly takes something from trip hop, but without falling into that genre at all. It’s the kind of album that I could actually hear coming out today and being widely acclaimed much more so than in its own time. It’s not an album that I listen to a lot, but it’s an album that has usually stayed on my main music player ever since I first got it. When I am in the mood to hear this, there’s really no substitute. I’d probably attach half the album if I hadn’t made this rule about only attaching to two tracks to any entry. Although there’s a definite similarity of sound among the the tracks on this album, I think of it as being like looking at a truly world class type of tile mosaic. It’s not the variety among the tracks, but the intricate detail of the sounds that really makes this album.

I’m including “Romance” which is probably the jazziest track on the album. In fact, Beth Gibbons is clearly, intentionally channeling Billie Holiday here. She sounds more like Holiday than she does herself. The other track, “Drake” is just one that I happen to really like. I think it’s a gorgeous song.

Romance

Drake

Rio

Next time, I’ll do something more contemporary.

Depending on how you define “first record”, I have several potential candidates. Is your first record the first one that you owned? If that’s the case, then (no joke) my first record was the soundtrack for the movie Xanadu. My parents bought it for me with the record player that I got for my 6th birthday. I should ask them why they chose that record, actually. That’s a very weird choice. If it’s the first record that you ever obsessed on, then it was The Beatles’ Abbey Road. Shortly after my parents bought me that record player, I “borrowed” that album for somewhere between weeks and months. If it’s the first album you ever bought for yourself, then we have to fast forward a few years to my purchase of a cassette copy of Duran Duran’s Rio in 1983.

(Coincidentally, as I started writing this a friend linked this site that has some amazing photos from LA in the 70s and early 80s, including several of Duran Duran in 1981.)

I am an unabashed Duran Duran fan. That is something that has always been true for me. I sat and watched their entire performance streaming from Coachella this year on my laptop and was thrilled to have the chance. The cable company in my little city didn’t carry MTV in 1983. It took another year before it showed up. By then, Duran Duran pretty much dominated MTV. It’s easy to forget what massive stars these guys were for a while. In their career, they’ve had 21 “Hot 100″ singles in the US.  Ten of those made it to the “Top 10″. In just five years between 1981 and 1986, they had ten “Top 20″ singles.  Almost thirty years after first seeing them, in my head, the prototype of “rock star” isn’t Robert Plant or any member of The Beatles. It’s Simon Le Bon and John Taylor from this period.

I can’t claim that Rio is a truly great album or even that Duran Duran is a great band. It’s a pop album. It’s not high art. The guys are solid enough musicians, but the only one of them that might ever really impress you on that level is Nick Rhodes. He’s a definite pioneer in the whole synth geek aesthetic. What Rio does have are a handful of catchy, infectious songs. If the whole album rose to the level of “Rio”, “Hungry Like The Wolf” and “Save A Prayer”, it might actually be a classic album, though not one that would blow you away with its technical wizardry. Certainly, some bands go an entire career without producing three pop songs as good as the ones I just listed. Because they were one of the first bands to dominate MTV, it can be hard for someone my age to divorce the band from the images we have of them. I don’t know whether the clothes, the make up, and the fact that Le Bon and Taylor are both good looking guys are part of the magic of Duran Duran or if they detract from it. What Duran Duran has is a very distinctive sound. That’s a magical thing. When you hear a Duran Duran song, you know who it is that you’re listening to. There are so many successful bands who are basically interchangeable with others in their genre. When those retro 80s influenced bands started popping up in the late 90s, how often did you hear something and say or think “This sounds a bit like Duran Duran”? I had that thought more than once.

I typically attach two songs to these posts. I’m going to do that here.  I changed my mind about the second track, though. Instead of “Hold Back The Rain”, which was originally attached, I’ve substituted “The Chauffeur”. The other is one of their signature songs: Hungry Like The Wolf. I would suggest that you really take a listen to it. You’ve probably heard the song so many times that you take it for granted. Give it three and a half minutes to really listen to it. It’s a damn good pop song.

Hungry Like The Wolf

The Chauffeur

World Clique

I feel like I’m intentionally going to have to pick a different time period to write about in my next entry. I do think the period between 1989 and 1992 happened to be an incredibly fertile one. For my money, the rest of the 90s largely failed to live up to its start, especially in the first few post Nevermind years of “We must wear flannel and show you our angst.” rock. But I digress. On to better things…

Put simply, Deee-Lite’s World Clique falls into that rare category of album that utterly changed my musical life. For most people there’s probably never a time in your life where you’re likely to be as attuned to different types of music and new styles of music as late high school and college. When World Clique came out, I was aware of house music. It was hard not to be if you were listening to a lot of UK dance music at the time. Few of the acts I was listening to had started putting house influences in their own studio tracks at this point, but one or more of the remixes on their 12″ singles were often given the full house treatment. Even when that wasn’t the case, a couple of the local club DJs  were mixing house records in with this stuff. It was fun to dance to, but it all seemed a bit disposable to me. I was neither a hater nor a fan. I hadn’t yet heard a house record or a house infused record that I thought was worth spending money on before this one. There is something about the combo of house, funk, soul, sampled disco, and hip hop on this record that was pretty damn revolutionary for a studio record at the time.

The record geek in me kind of wishes I could say that I’d heard some pre-release, DJ only Deee-Lite single before they sprung onto the the national scene. The truth is, like most people who weren’t in the New York clubs at the time, I first heard them when I saw the video for “Groove is in the Heart” on MTV. It’s a great fucking single. If you liked it when it was out, it’s pretty likely that you could go listen to it right now and feel like dancing and singing along to it. I always do. It’s such a great single that the rest of the album often doesn’t get its due. Within days of hearing that song, I went out and bought the album on CD. I’m glad I bought it in that medium rather than tape or vinyl. I fell in love with the record way before I ever got to the song that had inspired its purchase. The CD version was the only original pressing to open with “Deee-Lite Theme”. For my money, the combo of that track and “Good Beat” is the best opening to any album that year. It’s one of the best album openers ever. If you like dance music and those two tracks can’t put you in a good mood, then brother, you need a therapist or pharmaceutical help. Those are the two tracks I’ve attached at the end of this entry.

We don’t have to fit
Into your fixed trip
Our clique is the world
The world is our trip

Prior to my exposure to this record, I’ve got to say that even the dance music I listened to was kind of gloomy. Anything that was too happy immediately became suspect in my mind. Sure, you could even get the gothiest of goths out on the floor with something like The Beastie Boys’ “Hey Ladies”, but for the most part the music that was in my clubs was the stuff that had been or would bocame the staples of “dark wave” and goth nights for years. Right at the same time period, a lot of the new stuff that was emerging from the UK onto the US alternative scene was significantly different from what had dominated in the 80s, but was probably still not what the average Joe would have called good time party music: The Stone Roses, The Charlatans, etc. Deee-Lite was joyful, sexy, and fun, but it wasn’t mindless. Some of what they did just beautifully captured the moment where the whole retro hippie, LSD inspired psychedelia was bleeding into the birth of ecstasy raving in the US. It was probably the first unapologetically happy dance music to enter my life that was also smart. It was playful and clever. To this day, I find most music that tries to be sexy to be lacking. It either apes motown soul without adding anything original or it is just sleazy and cheesy. Often, it’s both. There is something in Miss Lady Kier’s delivery that is so heartfelt, that lines that may look silly on paper give me goose bumps when she sings them.

What’s the real question in your mind mind mind
I’m inclined to ask you all the time time time
Do unto me as I want to do to you
Try me on, I’m very you

Twenty one years after first hearing “Try Me On, I’m Very You”, I don’t know that I’ve heard a more compelling take on what it feels like to meet someone, feel a hot chemistry with them, and want to just give in to that chemistry than the lyrics quoted above. Reading the lyrics, though, they just don’t have the punch that she injects into them when she sings it. Even though Deee-Lite’s future albums moved into a mellower and more psychedelic groove than World Clique, the combination of sexuality, sensuality, and literally wanting to merge your being with that of your lover that comes out in a few of these songs is a mainstay of what they did. It fit in beautifully in an album full of the kind of trippy mind meld stuff that was apparent in half the other songs on the record. There’s not a bad song on this record. For me, the weakest is probably “Deep Ending”. I don’t know whether this is just true in retrospect, but it’s the song that sounds the most like a conventional pop R&B single to me now. That’s just not what I listened to Deee-Lite for. I had some of the best times of my life with music from this record playing in the background. Most of those stories aren’t for public consumption. :)

Deee-Lite Theme

Good beat

Joy 1967-1990

Another post so quickly? Hmmm. This must be new relationship energy new project enthusiasm.

In my mind, Ultra Vivid Scene’s Joy 1967-1990 falls solidly into the category of unrecognized gems. It was generally well reviewed when it came out. A couple of the singles got airplay on Mtv. It never seemed to find a huge audience, though. I bought this particular album because on whatever day I went into the record store it was the only thing on the 4AD label that was in stock and that I didn’t already own. I had not heard the record. I didn’t know anything about the band.  In fact, for most of its existence Ultra Vivid Scene was really just a solo project for Kurt Ralske. To date, I don’t think I’ve ever seen this in the collection of anyone else who wasn’t either an all around record geek or a fan of 4AD. I’m sure there must have been some other small mass of fans out there, but they aren’t people whose record collections I encounter.

I was a pretty quick convert on this one, though. I think it’s kind of a timeless record.  It’s packed full of mid tempo pop rock songs. Most of them have a buzzy, mellow pleasantness to them.  I love Ralske’s languid, often breathy vocals.  Some of the production choices are dated. The specific background synths definitely mark it as being from right around 1990. Some of the drums sound synthesized.  The right band could easily cover many of these songs today and they would sound fresh. Many of them could just as easily be covered as straight up pop songs as they could be done in a full blown neo-shoegazer style. The closest thing to a thoroughly fast track on the album is the single “It Happens Every Time”. Even it’s a deceptively slow track. One of my favorite things about this album, in fact, is that so many songs have deceptive tempos. Some slow songs break into screaming guitar solos that momentarily make the the track feel harder and faster than it really is. Some of the more energetic background lead guitar is on tracks that are otherwise fairly mellow. Some of the faster songs have some of the lazier paced vocals. The song “Three Stars” starts off with a almost punk rock tempo, but shifts after maybe 15 seconds to something much slower and then breaks into that very fast tempo for a few seconds at a time in a couple other places in the song. The tempo changes and the little tricks to mask the actual tempo of songs keeps the music from being boring. An album with the general tone of this one could easily have been boring, but it’s not.

This is not an album that’s been in heavy rotation in my collection over the years. However, I doubt there’s been a year in the last 21 where I haven’t played it. Usually playing it once, leads to playing it several times over the course of two or three days before I put it away again. The two tracks I’m featuring here are “Guilty Pleasure” and “Special One”. The latter track may remind you of a couple different songs by the Pixies a bit, especially when then label mate Kim Deal comes in on supplemental vocals. “Guilty Pleasure” is probably right in the center of of the sound of the album. It’s not one of the very best songs of the album, but it is a good song and pretty representative.

Guilty pleasure

Special One

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