Tiger Trap

There’s few words in the English vernacular that I hate more than “twee.” If you’re not familiar, according to the top result on Urban Dictionary, twee means “something that is sweet, almost to the point of being sickeningly so.” In music, it’s been used to describe fey, cutesy pop bands that play non-threatening, inoffensive music for lame sweater-wearing indie kids to sip tea to. I have a hard time explaining my hatred for the word, but something about the way it sounds and the people it’s used to describe drives me nuts.

Of course, this is all leading into me liking one of the bands that is synonymous with twee pop — the short-lived all-female foursome Tiger Trap, who were on the K Records label that housed most of the top twee bands. Named for a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon, the group played energetic, sugary sweet noise-pop songs that are unabashedly girly, almost always about liking boys and sung in an almost child-like way by frontwoman Rose Melberg.  They only were in existence for about a year, with most of their songs compiled on the 1993 release Tiger Trap.

Tiger Trap has made me think a lot over the past few months, because they’re quite different from music I typically like and am trumpeting on the blog. I rarely enjoy pure pop and I like music to have an element of danger or risk to it — yet I found myself loving Tiger Trap, who make music that is about as threatening as a kitten. They were somehow able to transcend all of my twee hate and pop music preconceptions.

Eventually, I came to a realization: A band can take a lot of risks and actually be quite bold without necessarily appearing that way on the surface. Tiger Trap was released in 1993, which I consider an incredibly strong year for rock music, particularly if it involved women trying to balance the male-dominated field: PJ Harvey released one of my favorite rock albums ever with Rid of Me, the Breeders released Last Splash, Liz Phair released Exile in Guyville. All the while, Riot Grrrl was beginning to enter the mainstream consciousness. Yet, in that same year, Tiger Trap released this collection of disarmingly innocent pop songs.

I guess what I’m getting at is that, despite how innocuous they seem on the surface, Tiger Trap were a pretty adventurous, gutsy band. They were, dare I say it, punk. There’s something very rebellious to me about them releasing such a non-rebellious collection of songs at perhaps the peak of feminist politics in rock music. In its own way, it’s a statement that they could make whatever music they want, regardless of what the current trend was.

All that helps give Tiger Trap a timeless, nostalgic feel that might be why it evokes more meaning to me than typical pop music. It doesn’t seem attached to specific eras of music and has aged superbly as a result. It makes me think of being a kid on the playground, of summer days playing outside, and a bunch of other things that I don’t really experience anymore and are rarely communicated in music. While listening to them, I can practically hear the ice cream truck come jingling by and remember my excitement as I ran out to buy a bomb pop without putting my shoes on.

The songs are also obviously a big part of Tiger Trap’s charm. It’s brief, with 12 songs clocking in at a scant 30 minutes, but I consider Tiger Trap to be a classic guitar pop album, one that can be seen as a direct influence on indie bands of today like Best Coast that traffic in similarly sunny, carefree territory. Almost every song has a memorable guitar riff and hook, which combined with the child-like lyrics and vocals make the band impossible to resist, even for a malcontent, soulless bastard like myself. Tiger Trap has the power to turn even the most jaded pop-music skeptic into a believer.

Favorite 90s Albums: #1 – PJ Harvey – “Rid of Me”

Writing this list of 90’s albums has forced me to spend a lot of time thinking about what I value in music.  Looking over the final list, I think there’s a few traits that have popped up repeatedly:  Originality, emotion, charisma, ambition, and a little bit of weirdness, to name a few.

It’s fitting, then, that the top album would be by PJ Harvey, who I think has come to exemplify all of those traits with her music over the years.  I consider her the best artist of the 90’s and one of the best singer-songwriters of all time, male or female.  And when deciding which album should be number one on the list, I couldn’t bring myself to pick an album besides Rid of Me.  To me, it’s an album that has everything:  It’s largely unlike anything that came before it (or since), it has more emotion and angst than anything else I’ve ever heard, it’s the creation of an incredibly distinct artist, and in its own way it’s a work of great ambition and scope.

More than anything else though, Rid of Me is just plain crazy.  It is and will always be the definitive “crazy ex-girlfriend” album.  I don’t know what happened to PJ Harvey while she was living on a farm in England that inspired this, but few albums have the sense of catharsis and emotional release that Rid of Me does.  It wants to shock you, and it does so immediately with its haunting cover art of a topless PJ thrown against a wall with her medusa-like hair coiled around her.

There’s lyrics like “I’ll make you lick my injuries and “I’m gonna twist your head off” from the title track.  There’s a song about the hand-job from hell (“Rub ‘Til it Bleeds”), another about Tarzan’s poor girlfriend Jane (“Me-Jane”), and at one point a poor ex-boyfriend has his legs severed by PJ in one of the album’s most harrowing moments.

The lyrics are just part of Rid of Me‘s groundbreaking madness.  For the album, PJ brought in Steve Albini, who gives the album his distinctive raw production, full of the kind of noise he helped to pioneer as a member of Big Black and an engineer of the Pixies and Breeders.  With its lyrics combined with the production, everything about Rid of Me is taken to the extreme. Many were turned off by Albini’s production, and PJ later released the demo versions of some of the songs on 4-Track Demos for fans put off by all the noise and abrasiveness.  There’s also remixes of the album floating around on youtube that put PJ’s vocals higher in the mix.

It might just be that I’m a Steve Albini fanboy, but I’ve always found his production integral to Rid of Me‘s greatness.  It’s just another way that the album is completely uncompromising, almost to the point that it seems to be actively antagonizing listeners that aren’t prepared for its full-on assault of the senses.  The sound of the live instruments gives the album more life, and as a result makes its contents terrifyingly real.

At the center of all of the carnage and noise is PJ herself.  While Rid of Me is extremely conflicted, it’s clearly the work of an artist who is incredibly sure of herself.  The way the album forsakes all taboos and conventions, particularly for a female artist, only adds to the its considerable power.  On “50 ft Queenie” she flaunts her cocksure bravado and badassery: “hey I’m the king of the world/you wanna hear my song?”  While Rid of Me is an album that had potential to alienate a lot of people, it’s as if she knew deep down that people wanted to hear her crazy songs anyways.

In the final track, PJ wails “I’m in ecstasy.”  After nearly 45 minutes of blood and guts being spilled everywhere, it’s an incredibly fitting conclusion that represents the album’s unique catharsis.

Rid of Me was released during grunge, the female singer-songwriter boom, and riot grrrl, and at times it’s been lumped in as a part of each of those genres.  However, it separates itself clearly from that large pack based on how intense and brutal it is and how fearless its creator was.  Much like Loveless, I see Rid of Me as the perfection of an idea.  While radio-friendly artists like Alanis Morissette and others gathered more buzz for their anti-boyfriend screeds, none of them compare to Rid of Me‘s artistry and flat-out insanity.  In the 18 years since it was made, I still don’t think anything has topped it in terms of sheer intensity and emotion.

Rid of Me was the last album made by the original PJ Harvey trio, as PJ went on to a more artsy solo career with other 90’s classics likeTo Bring You My Love and Is This Desire?  She changes her sound and image on every album, and her work is always interesting.  But I don’t think she’s ever topped the thought-provoking, ugly descent into madness that is Rid of Me.  It’s one of the boldest rock albums of all time, and in my opinion the best of its decade.

Favorite 90s Albums: #2 – My Bloody Valentine – “Loveless”

One of the elements of music I find most interesting is the idea of building on the past, the way that bands take in certain influences and hallmark albums and try to build on them or improve them in some way.  But a recurring theme in this series has been the idea that the very best albums simply can’t be replicated.  Albums like In the Aeroplane over the Sea, Homogenic, and pretty much all the others are too much a product of the genius of their creators and the specific time and place that they were made.  They’re also such perfect distillations of the genre or sound that they’re trying to accomplish that there’s no point in even trying.

Perhaps no album exemplifies that idea more than My Bloody Valentine’s 1991 masterpiece Loveless.  By pretty much any measure, this is one of the most influential albums there is in indie music.  In fact, it’s one of those albums that seems to be a building block of what “indie music” even is, given how vague and all-encompassing the term is.  Bands have tried to replicate it in the 20 years since its first release and none have come even remotely close. The most successful have been ones that merely borrowed bits and pieces of Loveless instead of trying to capture its entire aesthetic.

Much of that is due to its creator, Kevin Shields.  Shields had the idea for Loveless in his head and paired it with a relentless commitment to bring it to fruition.  As a result, the recording sessions for Loveless have become somewhat legendary, as Shields spent two years cycling through various engineers, meticulously recording the sound of the album in various studios, and nearly bankrupting Creation Records (who promptly released My Bloody Valentine from their label following the release of the album).

Of course, all of the craziness by Shields is what makes Loveless what it is.  Despite having few coherent lyrics, it’s a uniquely powerful album, one that is difficult to explain and simply has to be experienced.  It finds beauty in the previously ugly realm of noise in music and for the most part was unlike anything that came before it.  And its songs also show surprising pop craftsmanship but are also nearly impossible to pinpoint due to the abstract sounds and lyrics.

One thing I sort of miss about the current state of music is that feeling of throwing an album into a record or CD player and just letting it spin, without really knowing what you’re about to hear.  That sense of nostalgia for an era that I didn’t even really experience that much comes up a lot when listening to Loveless, mostly because of the opening track “Only Shallow.”  Has there been a better two seconds in music than the beginning of this song?  It starts out with a drum beat that sounds fairly normal, but a second later the walls of guitar come in and it’s unlike anything I’ve heard before.

Loveless not only perfects its aesthetic (primarily known as “shoegazing”, another unnecessary musical genre term that I could live without), but also takes it in many different areasThere’s more traditional rock songs (“Only Shallow), but also lush, dreamy pieces featuring Bilinda Butcher’s vocals (“Loomer”) and more abstract, sonic dirges (“Sometimes”). There’s also “Soon”, which takes the style and puts a dance beat to it, which caused Brian Eno to call it the vaguest music ever to be a hit in the charts.

20 years later, My Bloody Valentine still hasn’t followed up on Loveless.  Shields has only sparingly been involved in music publicly, collaborating with various bands but doing little in the way of his own music outside of a My Bloody Valentine reunion in 2007.  He’s thrown out music that he doesn’t deem good enough for release, and sounds like he simply refuses to make an album that isn’t as good as this one.  Given that, I wouldn’t get my hopes up for another My Bloody Valentine album, because Loveless simply can’t be improved upon.