Favorite 90s Albums: #5 – Björk – “Homogenic”

At this point, it seems like Björk is one of those artists that is known for everything but the music she makes.  Instead, we primarily hear about how weird she is, the swan dress, the music videos, and the various multimedia work she does.  Talking to people my age, I sometimes feel like Björk is more of an abstract idea than an actual person:  She represents the dreaded “weird music,” the type that just “isn’t for me” or is “too out there” for them to enjoy.

Now certainly, a lot of this is because Björk is, in fact, weird.  But why is weirdness considered such a bad thing by so many people?  Personally, I’ve always thought weirdness was one of the most crucial attributes for a musician — I frankly have very little interest in hearing some normal guy or girl playing music.  I want to hear weirdos, the weirdest weirdos imaginable, the kind that make music because they’re so damn weird that music is the only thing they can do to keep what little shred of sanity they are still holding to.  I want weirdos that are so weird that even other weirdo musicians find them weird.

I love Björk because she is a special kind of weirdo, gifted with an incredible voice that is one of the wonders of the modern world, but also with a knack for the avant garde and a relentless creative ambition.  Obviously, her music won’t be everyone, but I think it’s far more accessible than most would think given all the second-hand things they often hear about her.

This brings me to Homogenic, which I consider to be the highlight of Björk’s magical career, and one that also represents one of the many changes in style for her.  After her first two solo albums, “Debut” and “Post”, played up her quirky pixie image, Homogenic departed from that, instead focusing on cool strings and beats to create a much more ominous and grandiose sound.  While “Post” was noted for being a hodge-podge of influences and styles, Homogenic was, as the title would suggest, a study of one sound.

That doesn’t mean the album is samey, but rather that it is incredibly consistent and cohesive while still having a lot of variety.  When it was released in 1997, Homogenic was on the cutting edge of pop, electronic, dance, and avant-garde music, and nearly 15 years later it still feels that way to me.  There are no dud tracks, and the album flows perfectly from each to the next, covering many different moods, from the looming opener “Hunter” to the magestic final track “All is Full of Love” (which, with its amazing robots-in-love music video, seems to be a precursor to just about all Pixar films).

 

In between, there are many other highlights that perfectly toe the line between accessibility and avant-garde.  “Jóga” is one of the career highlights for Björk, a stately dedication to a friend and her homeland of Iceland.  It’s likely the album’s most breathtaking moment and one of the most beautiful songs of the 90’s.

The most epic moment on the album is “Bachelorette,” which was conceived as a sequel of sorts to Post’s “Isobel.”  It has a huge, foreboding sound with its thudding beats and Björk’s voice soars even more than usual.  The music video, directed by Michel Gondry, is also one of the all-time greats (in general, the music videos of this album are fantastic and a testament to Björk’s appeal as an artist).

There are also quieter moments on Homogenic, including the lovely “Unravel”, as well as some of her more up-beat dance numbers like “Alarm Call”, which, like the rest of the album, also has great lyrics.  Although hearing Björk say “I’m no fucking buddhist” is always jarring, as she doesn’t seem like she should be capable of swearing.

Overall, this is one of my favorite electronic and pop albums and I find it to be a perfect summation of Björk’s strengths as an artist.  When people say they’re not sure if they’d like something like Björk, I usually tell them to listen to this album.  I don’t think they ever do, but if they did, they may be surprised at how beautiful the music is, and how authentic Björk is compared to some of today’s musicians who just put on a weird costume and are considered artists because of it.  Björk is the real deal, and I’ll always be a fan of her for that, even if others find her (and me) strange.

(Note: #6 in this series was Helium’s The Magic City.  Read all about it here: https://thenoisemadebypeople.wordpress.com/2011/06/15/helium-the-magic-city/)

Favorite 90s Albums: #7 – Spiritualized – “Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space”

“Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space” is a colossal, heartbreaking album that came out of one of the most classic rock music traditions.  Before the album, Spiritualized frontman Jason Pierce had his heart broken by band member Kate Radley, who secretly married The Verve’s Richard Ashcroft.  Two of the best albums of the decade, The Verve’s “Urban Hymns” and this one were very likely written about Radley, who became like a britpop version of Pattie Boyd.

After enduring that experience, a lot of musicians would make a mute, plaintive record, baring their emotions that way.  What makes “Ladies and Gentlemen…” so great is that Pierce does just the opposite:  He brings in strings, horns, a gospel choir, and clearly does a whole lot of drugs in an attempt to drift as far away from his problems as possible.  In other words, he floats in space,  and he brings the listener with him.

Despite all those indulgences, everything about “Ladies and Gentlemen…” feels earned, in part because Pierce’s emotional core is always there in the songs.  It’s not an exercise in masturbatory excess the way some of the similar 70+ minute albums of the time period were.   For Pierce, who since his days in Spacemen 3 had specialized in drony, spaced out music, “Ladies and Gentlemen…” is his most triumphant artistic statement because, despite it’s space-rock sound, it is firmly grounded in reality.

The album has one of the greatest openers ever with the title track.  Kate Radley, who is still in the band at this point, says the opening words “ladies and gentlemen we are floating in space” for full ironic effect before the orchestral strings and Pierce’s echoing vocals come in.  The song borrows lyrics from the Elvis Presley song “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” which created some legal problems when the album was first released, but now the song can be experienced in its full glory thanks to a recent reissue and some changes in songwriting credit.

That song segues into the second track, “Come Together”, which is one of the most straight-forward rock songs Spiritualized have recorded.  In general, the album offers an ideal mix of Spiritualized’s drone and space rock tendencies with more straight-forward numbers, which is what helps make it the band’s masterpiece.  “All of My Thoughts” is one of the saddest songs on an already sad album, with Pierce lamenting “I don’t know what to do on my own/because all of my thoughts are with you,” after which the song explodes into spaced-out noise with squealing horns and guitar.

The centerpiece of the album is “Broken Heart,” which represents the peak of the album’s sadness.  Along with The Verve’s “The Drugs Don’t Work”, it’s one of the most relentlessly bleak songs of this era, thanks a beautiful seven minute string arrangement and Pierce’s rock bottom lyrics:  “I have a broken heart/but I’m too busy to be heartbroken.”  If anyone ever asks me what the saddest song ever is, this is usually one of my answers.

The album closes out with the 17 minute “Cop Shoot Cop…” and I can only hope that Pierce was able to exercise some of his demons with this record.  “Ladies and Gentlemen…” falls into what I like to call “experience albums.”  Listening to it takes you to a different place, which is one of the best things that music can do.  Spiritualized has never really reached this level of greatness before or since, but on this album everything clicked, and the result was one of the best heartbreak albums ever, as well as one of the finest arguments for using mind-altering substances to make music.

Favorite 90s Albums: #8 – Portishead – “Dummy”

 

Released in 1994, Portishead’s debut album Dummy is one of the most groundbreaking and influential albums of the decade.  Its sound — which, along with Massive Attack’s album Blue Lines was credited with inventing a downbeat electronica genre called “Trip Hop” — was relatively new, but the album is also notable for how it took disparate elements of music and made them into a cohesive whole.  On her own, singer Beth Gibbons would just be another mopey female singer-songwriter (albeit a very good one).  Her bandmates, Adrian Utley and Geoff Barrow, would just be two more British guys who like sampling from their large record collection, spy soundtracks, and hip hop beats.

Together, those forces create Dummy, and it’s one of the most fully realized debut albums from any band.  Perhaps more than any other, Dummy is able to evoke a very specific feeling of setting and mood — it’s hard to listen to its gloomy electronica sounds and distinct crackling vinyl without thinking of being a sad person walking the lonely streets of some foreboding town in the middle of the night while it’s raining.

A lot of Dummy‘s acclaim is based around the fact that it helped to popularize the “trip hop” genre.  However, Portishead rejected the term, and it’s hard to blame them.  It strikes me as one of those media buzz terms for a sound that doesn’t really have an actual scene attached to it. I tend to think of Portishead’s music as far too individual and unique to be associated with a larger genre, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that their music has aged better than most of the other stuff that was being labeled as “trip hop” around that time.

First and foremost, I think of Dummy as a tour de force by singer Beth Gibbons.  It’s fairly obvious at this point that I have a deep, perhaps disturbing love of female singers.  As a result, I’ve heard a lot of them, and I’m not sure if any gives as strong of a performance as Gibbons does on Dummy.  It’s not just that her voice is amazing, but also how she is able to bend it and twist it to fit so many moods within one album.  On one song, she’ll sound like a seductress (“Numb”).  On the next, she’ll sound like she just lost her best friend and all hope for living (“Roads”).

Barrow and Utley are able to craft the perfect compliment to Gibbons’ often heartbreaking songs with a variety of instruments and samples.  Opening track “Mysterons” uses a theremin better than any song since “Good Vibrations.”  “It’s a Fire” (a personal favorite that inexplicably wasn’t on the UK release of the album) has an organ and chilly strings to back Gibbons’ lament (she sings “this life is a farce” in the chorus).

Perhaps the best track is the closer, “Glory Box”, which is certainly the most sultry song on the album.  “Give me a reason to love you/give me a reason to be a woman” Gibbons croons over a rare Adrian Utley guitar solo.  While Dummy is mostly a bleak, depressing album, it at least ends on a vaguely hopeful note (kind of).

There’s an aura of mystery surrounding Portishead that I think, in a way, makes their music even better.  Little is known of Gibbons personally, as she’s shunned most interviews and rarely speaks of any motivation regarding her lyrics.  Not knowing exactly what she’s so sad about gives the songs a more universal feeling that lends more power to her words.  The band themselves have done a good job avoiding overexposure, as they’ve released just two albums since Dummy and seem mostly non-committal about recording another any time soon.  Given the strength of Dummy and their other releases, I think I’m okay with that.

St. Vincent – “Strange Mercy”

One of my favorite things in music is to hear a talented artist that finally puts the pieces together and begins to live up to their potential. On her forthcoming album “Strange Mercy”, which is currently streaming on NPR, Annie Clark (aka St. Vincent) does just that, and in the process asserts herself as one of the top artists in music today.

Clark’s 2009 album, “Actor”, was one of my favorites of the last few years, and it established Clark as a unique voice and talent.  Yet, it was abundantly clear that the artist behind it was capable of doing a lot better.  For one thing, despite proving on stage that she is a tremendous guitar player, “Actor” was curiously devoid of many great guitar songs, with Clark instead focusing on disney-type strings that were only occasionally punctuated by noisy guitar blasts.  The songs were well crafted and enjoyable, but also frustratingly coy and conventional for someone that could be capable of rocking souls.

My desire for St. Vincent to embrace her inner rock goddess only intensified a few weeks ago, when she did an earsplitting cover of Big Black’s “Kerosene” at the This Band Could Be Your Life show at the Bowery Ballroom.  Rather than do a quirky, “unique” cover of the song, Clark instead opted to embrace Big Black singer Steve Albini’s misanthropic rage, and, while some may think it came off as phony, I thought she did a pretty admirable job on a song that seems really difficult to truly replicate.  It was the exact kind of thing I had been hoping to hear on “Strange Mercy.”

I am happy to report, then, that “Strange Mercy” fulfills what I wanted it to be, and I think it’s one of the best albums of the year.  In every way, I think it’s a quantum leap over “Actor” (which, again, I liked a lot).  Clark’s voice continues to develop, as she’s able to convey more emotion and sound less detached from her dense arrangements.  The lyrics are better too — still sinister like they were on “Actor”, but decidedly more personal.

Most of all though, “Strange Mercy” is weirder than “Actor”, and it’s much better off for it.  Clark continues to use strings, but rather than be the focus, they’re more of a complement to her guitar playing, which finally begins to shine on this album.  There’s funk undercurrents, like the synth solo at the end of “Surgeon”, which is one of the album’s surreal highlights.  All of the bizarre touches on “Actor” are ramped up here, and while it may drive some listeners that appreciated her poppy side (like on her first album “Marry Me”) away, I think it makes her music far more compelling.

Not that “Strange Mercy” doesn’t have its pop moments.  Lead single “Cruel” is one of the best songs of the year so far, and it showcases Clark’s unique ability to turn all of the sounds and influences into an accessible rock song.  While there are layers of strings and woodwinds, Clark’s guitar shines through with the repeated twangy riff and a couple solos in the middle and end.  It’s also one of the best music videos I’ve seen in a long time, as Clark gets literally buried by all of her domestic duties after getting kidnapped by her family.

On “Cheerleader”, maybe the most personal song Clark has ever written, she sings “I don’t want to be a cheerleader no more.”  That chorus, which explodes after the more delicate verses, is one of the best moments on the album, and in a truly hacky piece of music criticism, I decided that this was more than just a song about trying to stop being a pushover:  It was Clark rejecting the idea of being an indie pop princess.  Many had pegged “Strange Mercy” as a commercial breakthrough for her — and it still very well could be — but I think this music is far too weird, psychedelic, and sinister to be showing up the next iPod commercial.

My other favorite song is probably “Northern Lights”, which is the guitar song I’ve been waiting for from St. Vincent.  It’s pretty much pure noisy rock more in the vein of the Pixies or Breeders, with some roaring guitar solos and a constant build up to the end.  I think Clark could still use to sing more forcefully at times, and this one of the moments on the album where she approaches that idea more, particularly towards the end when she begins to sound more hysterical.

As good as “Strange Mercy” is, I think there’s still room for improvement for St. Vincent.  But this album proves that she’s someone who is going to follow her own muse and evolve musically, which is the most important thing to me.   Her ability to put that ambition into well crafted rock songs is a large part of what makes “Strange Mercy” one of the best, most exciting records of 2011 in my book.

Wild Flag

If you’ve been reading this blog from the beginning (which I can only hope you have been, for continuity reasons), you may have noticed that there’s been a distinct lack of actual new music on it.  This is sort of intentional:  While I’ve actually liked 2011 quite a bit and have been making a conscious effort to listen to a lot of new stuff, I still think that something has been missing from current music.  I’ve grown a bit jaded about how most of the hyped bands of the day all seem to chart the same influences, to be following the same basic formula, and constantly living in the past.

Enter Wild Flag, a four woman supergroup consisting of singer/guitarist Carrie Brownstein and drummer Janet Weiss from Sleater-Kinney, Mary Timony from Helium and a solo career, and Rebecca Cole of the Minders.  Those names probably don’t mean a whole lot to many people reading this, but for me and many others its a dream collaboration, a veritable Traveling Wilburys of indie rock goddesses.  From day one, the band has had a massive amount of hype and expectations from rabid Sleater-Kinney fans, the kind like me who think rock music has been circling the drain since the band went on indefinite hiatus in 2006 following their colossal swan song, “The Woods.”

The expectations for Wild Flag are expected, but also unfair.  In reality, there’s no way the band could capture the unique chemistry and passion that defined Sleater-Kinney.  However, their debut album, which is streaming on NPR, is nonetheless an immensely satisfying collection of tunes that fills many of the gaps left empty by today’s indie kids.

See, Wild Flag make rock music.  Not “indie” rock or “noise” rock or whatever other lame qualifiers people seem to put in front of it now.  This is fun, energetic rock music that is never boring, and in today’s musical climate that qualifies as a revelation.  It doesn’t have the urgency of Sleater-Kinney or the dark combativeness of Helium; rather, it’s a pure, unpretentious showcase of everything that rock can offer from four women who know a lot about it.

A common knock on supergroups is that they’re more a collection of individuals than a cohesive band.  Wild Flag defies that, as they’re instantly able to craft a unique sound that separates themselves from their previous bands.  It’s a diverse collection of songs, from the almost power pop lead track and first single “Romance” to the woozy psychedelia of “Glass Tambourine”.  Brownstein and Timony mostly trade vocals and harmonies, and each brings a different energy to each song.

While the hype around Wild Flag has mostly surrounded the Sleater-Kinney semi-reunion, it’s actually Timony who may be the band’s MVP.  In the later days of Helium and the beginnings of her solo career, Timony flirted with being sort of an indie fantasy pixie girl, as she sang about magic and dragons and played quirky songs full of lush instrumentation.  She doesn’t do that on Wild Flag (although she does sneak a “dragonslayer” reference into “Electric Band”), but her more laid back, mystical qualities make a nice foil for Brownstein’s hyperactive wildness.  It’s illustrated on album closer “Black Tiles”, my favorite song so far, and the only one where they exchange lead vocals and put that duality on full display.  Both are also tremendously gifted guitar players and are able to rip a lot of memorable riffs and solos in each song.

Of course, Wild Flag is also anchored by Weiss, who continues to prove that she’s arguably the best rock drummer in music today.  I know absolutely nothing about drumming, but I can still tell that Weiss is really, really good at it, and she brings a ton of life to each song with her thunderous playing.  Rebecca Cole (who I’m mostly unfamiliar with) also gives the songs some extra bounce with her keyboards, which add an extra dimension that the group’s previous bands didn’t have.

In the end, Wild Flag meets their lofty expectations and provides an absolute treat for Sleater-Kinney fans like me that were too busy failing at life to get into them before they went on hiatus.  But beyond that, it’s possibly the most refreshing album of the year so far — a much needed shot of energy and life into the increasingly dull music landscape.

Life Without Buildings

Listening to Life Without Buildings for the first time was a thoroughly confusing experience.  On first listen, the band’s songs were hard to differentiate from one another and seemed like they were all over the place.  I also thought the singer might be mentally challenged and had no clue what she was babbling about.  Despite that, I was intrigued, so I made a mental note to revisit the band later.

So Life Without Buildings sat on my iPod, metaphorically gathering dust.  Occasionally I would scroll past them and try to remember who they were, then tell myself “oh yeah, the band with the weirdo singer” before I moved on to whatever I was going to listen to.  Then one day, I made a Facebook post about how I couldn’t get into Joanna Newsom despite my love of weirdo indie females, which reminded me of another weirdo indie female that I had forgotten about.

That weirdo singer was Sue Tompkins, a painter and sound artist from Glasgow who fronted Life Without Buildings.  Tompkins’ distinctive talk-sung vocals were the calling card of the band.  She took the ideas from her sound art and applied the to the music, basing songs around repetitive phrasing, random exclamations, and sometimes what appeared to be just plain gibberish.  In a typical Life Without Buildings song, she’ll talk-sing non-stop, jabbering and stuttering weird phrases, squealing with childish glee, and in general sounding a little bit like a toddler.

On the second listen to their lone album Any Other City, I was suddenly obsessed.  By about the fifth, I wanted to be Sue Tompkins’ best friend.  It’s now one of my favorite albums ever and I don’t think I’ve been so obsessed with a band since I got into Sleater-Kinney.  But, while I have an easy time explaining why Sleater-Kinney is so great, I find it a bit more difficult to articulate the brilliance of Life Without Buildings.

I think Life Without Buildings is one of the few bands that just has a magical aura about them, and it’s mostly due to Tompkins.  While indebted to previous talk-singers like The Fall’s Mark E. Smith and various female post-punkers, she has a vocal style that is unlike anything else in music due to her lyrics.  While it would be easy to write off those lyrics as the improvised workings of a crackpot, I’m convinced that there’s a deeper meaning to them.  I’m just not sure what yet, and that’s part of the band’s allure:  Every song is like a riddle that is impossible to fully crack.

Perhaps the genius of the band fully set in when I listened to their live album Live at the Annandale Hotel.  While I’m typically not a fan of live albums, this one is an essential recording of a rare performance from a short-lived band, and features Tompkins’ adorable stage banter and breathless enthusiasm.  Most shockingly of all, the live versions of the songs are near carbon copies of the ones on record, proving that there’s a real method behind Tompkins’ madness.

Lost in all this blathering about Tompkins is that the band behind her was extremely good as well.  Led by Robert Johnston’s melodic guitar playing, they’re the perfect complement to Tompkins’ ramshackle vocals.  Rather than be flashy and show everyone how great they are at playing their instruments, they’re willing to take a backseat and complement Tompkins with strong rhythmic playing.

As mentioned, LWB only made one album, Any Other City.  Along with a couple songs off singles, they have 14 songs in total (along with the accompanying live versions from Live at the Annandale Hotel).  I’ve been playing the crap out of all of them, treasuring every second that the band recorded and constantly wishing there was more.  Unfortunately, the band broke up, partly because Tompkins wanted to go back to pursuing her art.

While their scant amount of material is disappointing, it’s acceptable when the quality of everything is so high.  The band mostly had one trick anyways, so it’s hard to know what they would have done after Any Other City.  On that album, they use pretty much every variation of that trick perfectly, delivering a set of songs that are more different from each other than they appear on first listen.  The first track is “PS Exclusive”, the fastest paced and most rocking song on the album which immediately asserts the genius of Tompkins, who cycles through phrases like “the right stuff” and “this is not advice” until they’re burrowed into your brain.

More than any other band, there are specific little moments in each LWB song that I absolutely love, and it’s easy to collect a list of favorite phrases from the eminently quotable Tompkins.  “Let’s Get Out” has some of her best lines, including “LOOK AROUUNDDDDD”, “look back and say that I didn’t!” and “come complete!”  The spiky instrumentation makes it possibly the most post-punk track on the album, but Tompkins’ vocals always separate LWB from the post-punk revival bands that would follow them (usually gloomy Joy Divison knockoffs).

While I love all of their songs, “The Leanover” stands out among them and is, in my opinion, one of the best songs of the last decade.  It’s wordy even for LWB standards, and I love reading different interpretations of the song (one rumor is that it’s about fellatio; I prefer to think of it as being about the beginnings of a relationship in general).  It’s littered with pop culture references (M-B-V would seem to be a nod to My Bloody Valentine, Virginia Plain, etc) and more Tompkins-isms like “I don’t trade”, “contact!”, and “he’s the shaker, baby!”  The rest of the band gives it a perfect background with a more laid back, dreamy sound.

There’s numerous other highlights on the album:  The mostly spoken-word finale “Sorrow”, the jaggedy pop of “14 Days”, “Juno” with its tempo changes and ringing guitars.  I think every song is worth checking out, although the band is obviously an acquired taste:  What makes Tompkins such a genius is also what likely drives a lot of people away from the band.  Regardless, in a decade that I thought was marked by a lot of boring and unoriginal music, Life Without Buildings stood out as a unique band that had more charisma and personality than any of their peers.

Favorite 90s Albums: #9 – Nirvana – “In Utero”

Nirvana occupies a strange place in music history.  In the 90’s, they were universally seen as the most influential band on what came to be known as alternative rock, which was one of the defining phenomenons of the decade.  But in the last few years, it seems like the entire idea of alternative rock has gone by the wayside, replaced by a swath of indie bands that have gained increased exposure due to the internet and music sharing.  The so-called alternative rock stations of yesteryear are largely ignored and mocked, at least among people I know, as they play bands like Nickelback and Three Days Grace that copied Nirvana’s sound but sucked all of the energy and spirit out of it.

So what does all of this mean?  For one thing, it’s likely that Nirvana has influenced more bad music than any other band in the last 20 years, and in a way I think that has detracted from their legacy.  While the band always had haters, it seems like more than ever it’s become a popular thing to call Nirvana overrated, to chide them for being unoriginal, or to label frontman Kurt Cobain as someone who only has achieved the level of fame that he did because he killed himself at age 27.  Oddly, little of this discussion seems to be about the music:  Calling Nirvana overrated has just become another tool that people use to try to sound like they’re cooler than other people.

Of course, based on their placement of them on this list, you can probably guess what I think of these people.  I think they’re wrong.  Completely, insanely, embarrassingly wrong.  The kind of wrong that makes me wonder if they really have brains that are capable of rational thought.   Nirvana is largely deserving of all of the accolades they get and the reputation that they earned, and it is mostly due to Cobain, who is similarly worthy of all the praise heaped upon him.  It’s not a result of dying young (although I’m sure it helped), it’s a result of him being a genius songwriter and the perfect frontman for his generation.

What’s easy to forget about Cobain and Nirvana (even though I think it’s said a lot) is just how different they were from what had always existed in mainstream rock music before them.  The typical rock frontman before them had to be full of cocksure bravado, presenting himself with shirtless, chest-beating machismo.  Cobain was the complete opposite of that:  A sensitive, troubled guy who would often wear layers of sweaters to try to hide his scrawniness from the public.  And he replaced the typical rock male arrogance and swagger with an altruistic view of music:  While the typical arrogant male rock star would pat himself on the back for his success, Cobain was always willing to admit that he ripped off the Pixies, to credit contemporary bands that he enjoyed, or to trumpet his own favorite obscure bands of old.

Nirvana also came around at the perfect time.  They were different, and America badly wanted something different, particularly in rock music, which had been dominated by the bombastic hair metal bands of the 80’s.  They broke through with “Nevermind”, a great album that remains possibly the last truly game-changing moment in music.  But, while that album may be their most important (and one of the most important in rock music history), I think “In Utero” has always been the more interesting album.  “Nevermind” made them the biggest rock band in the world; “In Utero” is the fascinating follow-up from a band and frontman who never really seemed comfortable with that level of popularity.

While “Nevermind” was a huge album, the one criticism of it generally centered around its slick, radio-friendly production.  The band wanted to avoid that on their second album, so they brought in indie rock maven, punk rock icon, and all around badass Steve Albini to produce “In Utero.”  The choice of Albini fit perfectly with how uncomfortable Cobain was in the spotlight:  The band was seeking to get away from their mainstream image, and there was nobody more out of the mainstream than Albini, who would froth at the mouth at the very mention of signing with a major label or selling a song to a commercial.  He also gives “In Utero” his patented noisy sound, with very wide dynamics, vocals lower in the mix, and more of a “live feel” in general, which makes it sound better (to me) than “Nevermind.”

I’ve already mentioned that I think Cobain was a genius songwriter, but it’s admittedly a more subtle kind of genius.  It isn’t the kind of genius that immediately shows itself with amazingly complex thoughts that are beyond anything you can understand.  Rather, Cobain’s genius lies in simplicity.  His uncomplicated song structures, simple lyrics, and seemingly basic melodies never seem like they should be great, but they turned out to be transcendent.  He had a knack for finding that simple little melody or lyric that would just stick with you, such as “I tried hard to have a father but instead I had a dad” off album opener “Serve the Servants.”  It seems meaningless or nonsensical, but for some reason it’s a line I think about a lot, and that is a testament to Cobain’s abilities.

One of the aspects that I always enjoy about “In Utero” is how it seems almost like an attempt at a flop by Nirvana.  The band had gained a massive following, and in many ways the album seems like a test of that audience, an attempt to weed out the posers and fakers that Cobain believed had misappropriated their music.  “Scentless Apprentice” and “tourette’s”  in particular are far cries from the radio-friendly tunes of “Nevermind”, with each featuring Cobain howling over a massive amount of noise.

The ironic part is that “In Utero” became a big hit anyways, in part because Cobain just couldn’t seem to help himself when it comes to writing great rock songs.  Singles like “Heart-Shaped Box” and “Pennyroyal Tea” are both perfect examples of Nirvana’s quiet-loud dynamics (something they “borrowed” from The Pixies) and huge rock choruses.

The album also showed some growth and perhaps hints at maturity from the band, like on the world-weary album closer “All Apologies.”  While most of Nirvana’s songs prior to it had been straight-forward grunge rock, “All Apologies” sounded more folk influenced with its cello and Cobain’s bleak lyrics.  At the end, he refrains “all in all is all we are”, a typical Cobain-ism that sounds more significant than it should be.  “All Apologies” is the ideal closing track to Nirvana’s brief career, and a glimpse at what may have lied ahead for the band had Cobain lived on.

Cobain’s death makes it difficult to evaluate his career objectively, and certainly it has been romanticized.  But I don’t think it’s an accident that Nirvana is the one band from the scene that continues to be acclaimed, the one that continues to be listened to, and the one that continues to inspire people.  “Nevermind” was the commercial breakthrough, but I think “In Utero” does a lot more to explain why this band continues to be cherished by so many.  It’s a daring, ambitious, progressive album from a band that probably could have put out anything and had it sell like hotcakes.  More than anything else, I think that sense of ambition and punk spirit is what separates Nirvana from their grunge counterparts, and makes them one of the best rock bands of the 90’s.