Friday, August 12, 2011

Joseph's Picks Of The Week 8/12/11 - Yuck and Nirvana

It’s already happening. In fact, it’s been underway for a while. What, you ask? The rumbling of ‘90s nostalgia, that’s what. The tried and true two-decade cycle continues, and I’m fairly confident it’s going to prove an experience full of the occasional peak and a whole lot of valleys that will manifest itself across the spectrum from slick pop to deepest underground. The contempo indie scene has recently registered an early entry in this spectacle-slash-sweepstakes via the self-titled debut from London, England’s Yuck. Here’s a band simply unimaginable without the precedent of Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth, which means that yes Martha, Yuck’s ‘90s revivalism is indirectly indebted to the ‘80s, but I do stress indirectly, since the Dino-esque and Youth-ian moves they cop are of the more streamlined, post-Barlow and Geffen-era variety; the guitar squalling on opener “Get Away” sounds like it could’ve been surgically removed from a GREEN MIND outtake, for instance. Throw in some sleepy but smooth Thurston-ian vocal styling and a great big fat Pixies bass line and the cut of Yuck’s jib is bluntly apparent. Surely lots of folks are going to ponder whether such blatant style pilfering is a positive activity in the here-and-now, and I can relate. But it’s important to keep things in perspective and consider examples on an individual basis. Yuck are at times quite obvious but not retro. They have more variance in their ‘90s-inspired attack than many of last decade’s ‘80s-referencing groups possessed, even some of the critically lauded ones. Amongst other elements in Yuck’s arsenal, I hear some Built To Spill crossed up with the Spin Art pop aesthetic, an attribute that also extends into some winsome guy/gal vocal territory (think of some of the more typically and endearingly indie selections on the essential ONE LAST KISS compilation) and a nudge or two toward Robert “Elephant 6” Schneider. There is also a healthy portion of Matador-era Pavement at their most straightforward/least eccentric. What this all sets up is a promising situation. Yuck’s debut is a solid, at times very good LP that stands up to repeated listening and therefore really bears watching. The band’s best qualities are their songs and a nice sense of dynamic control. Their weak points manifest themselves in at times underwhelming lyrics (“Shook Down”’s “You could be my destiny”/”You could mean that much to me” really should’ve been reconsidered) and an occasional too strong emphasis on vocals in the sonic mix. Since they are youngsters (members barely into their third decades, in fact) these are forgivable lapses easily corrected; if they develop as lyricists that’s great, but if not then mixing down the singing is definitely the smart way to go. Rock music generally sounds best when the clarity of the voice is compromised anyway. And it would really bode well if Yuck continued to branch out and learn some more lessons from the bevy of top-notch (and legitimately indie) bands that proliferated in the early ‘90s who just happened to draw from the same core set of influences. I’m talking Archers Of Loaf for starters (whose ICKY METTLE has just been given the limited edition [blue vinyl] reissue treatment by the upstanding folks at Merge, special order it by name at yr local independently owned wax shack post haste!), but also important and in some cases neglected groups like Crain, Grifters, Versus, Sleepyhead, Polvo, Unwound, Unrest and even Doug Martsch’s pre-Built To Spill outfit Treepeople. That’s a hefty helping of one word band names that would certainly push Yuck toward the heavier end of ‘90s melodic indie affairs. While I’m no guidance counselor, I do think absorbing some ideas from these (or other) bands would/could widen their palate considerably, and that’s going to make a huge difference as scores of acts start appearing with the same core influences of SY/Dino/Pavement/Martsch. Of course, I’m getting ahead of myself. It’s uncertain if Yuck will even record another album. If they don’t this debut will likely fall short of classic status, at least in my book, but that’s in no way a dismissal. This is a perfectly fine if undeniably derivative record and while it’s not going to change my life I like it just fine. Yet it’s important to keep in mind that it just might have a profound impact on the lives of some young people with hungry ears that don’t know Sonic/Dino/etc. Yes, curiosity killed the cat, but it also creates and shapes the musicians and fans of tomorrow. YUCK could easily serve as the gateway for thousands into some unabashedly classic material. If you don’t know the stuff I’m referring to, well that’s my point. But the album is also good enough to stand on its own hind legs on the cusp of an inevitable trend. Hearing it kinda makes me feel I’m hanging at the Black Cat in Washington DC circa the mid-‘90s, listening to the CD Jukebox (a then newfangled contraption possessed with much novelty value) and waiting for flash-in-the-pans Veruca Salt to open up for Bikini Kill. And as much as I disdain nostalgia trips for their own sake, that’s not a bad one to take.

As we move beyond twenty years since they exploded for good and ill all over contemporary music, it’s going to be interesting to sort out the differing viewpoints on and interpretations of Nirvana, specifically in regard to the assured part they will play in the aforementioned ‘90s nostalgia wave. Interesting in my perspective because Nirvana’s music, popularity and industry behavior were actually quite divisive during their too brief lifespan and if Kurt Cobain’s suicide insured the group’s subsequent canonization and served to soften a large part of the vocal detraction over the band (people generally don’t like to speak ill of the dead), I doubt it ultimately did much to change most people’s already formed notions over the music. As someone who basically watched Nirvana unfold in real time, buying BLEACH in the fall of ’89 and the ”Sliver”/”Dive” single the following year, I wasn’t totally caught off guard by the massive popularity of NEVERMIND. This is to say it was a surprise but not a shock. I also wasn’t bothered by it like some of my punk/indie/noise/u-ground peers. Something was going to happen, indeed had to happen to stir up the stagnating popular music industry, and that it was Nirvana was unexpected yet somewhat fitting. NEVERMIND’s main weakness is its overproduction, but that problem is easily counterbalanced if not entirely overcome by some great songwriting and the fantastic addition of Dave Grohl on drums. Sure, I understood almost immediately that the band’s breakout success was far out of proportion to their actual level of quality, but that’s no crime and in this case, for me anyway, it was actually part of the appeal. To expand upon a few points, I’d already read plenty of negative opinions over the Pacific Northwest phenomenon in the music press (from Spin to ratty self-published zines) before Nirvana’s part of the equation went titanically global, specifically in connection to Mudhoney, Soundgarden and Tad. The idea was essentially that the Seattle/Sub Pop experience was far too based in retrograde hard-rock riffing and bombast, and for some folk’s ears that’s obviously true. And I won’t deny that good-to-great records like Tad’s GOD’S BALLS surely flaunted headstrong arrogance over their adulation of early heavy metal that, while sorta attitudinally punk, wasn’t always what the doctor ordered; I like GOD’S BALLS just fine but if I’m not in the mood it can just sound like an overwrought/overweight attempt at badassery, a problem Melvins simply never had. Nirvana wisely redirected much of their energy away from this polemical lumberjack metal vibe via the influence of legit punk (The Wipers, Black Flag), ‘80s weird-meats (Butthole Surfers, Spacemen 3, Daniel Johnston, Half Japanese) and Cobain’s twee-pop fascination (The Vaselines, Calvin Johnston’s K Records). But still, it wasn’t enough to win over many die-hard detractors. Like The Pixies slightly before them, Nirvana were popularizers. And when you’re responsible for bringing to the masses the spoils of a long established scene, you’re certain to receive a wide diversity of reaction: worship (thank you thank you thank you for delivering me from Whitesnake!); derision (everything was cool until those guys came along. Now every jock in the mall knows my favorite bands); points in between (they were GREAT early, but then they SOLD OUT). That Nirvana’s music can inspire and withstand such a spectrum of response shows how worthwhile and necessary they ultimately were. IN UTERO is in my estimation their best studio album, but if I were somehow limited to one Nirvana release, I’d want it to be the compilation INCESTICIDE. It assembles a very choice batch of scattered material that finds the band refining and straining against the parameters of their early sound to great success. Nirvana were sneakily better suited for crafting killer singles than full length albums, as the first two tracks on INCESTICIDE illustrate. In contrast to the music of some of their Seattle pals, “Dive”’s throbbing slab of punked-up hard rock actually feels written and not simply grafted from parts of somebody’s uncle’s moldy record collection. “Sliver” however is the real goods, easily one of the best noisy-pop knock-offs of its era, and much more representative of the core friction of Nirvana’s sound; Cobain’s (and Novoselic’s) sincere inclination toward tweeness (and the vulnerability and alienation that comes with it) was very feminine and in direct contrast to the muscular, unashamedly masculine (some would charge macho) rocking that was the largest part of the early Sub Pop gestalt. Once Grohl brought his John Bonham on a quart of espresso rhythm attack to the band (the drummer on “Dive” and “Sliver” is for the record Mudhoney’s Dan Peters) this friction played out in an often fascinating way. The John Peel BBC sessions included here are illustrative, including two covers of songs by Scotland’s amazing Vaselines, “Molly’s Lips” and “Son of a Gun”, both which explicitly show Nirvana embracing fragile shambolic sweetness as an antidote for too much testosterone. The cover of Devo’s “Turnaround” is also a well considered diversion from the norm of 1992, since Mothersbaugh Casale and company had yet to fully shed their inaccurate and unfair rep as new wave phonies. By this point covering Devo was a knowledgeable and confidently punk gesture. But what INCESTICIDE ultimately provides through numerous examples is the recipe for Nirvana’s success, and it’s a simple one; high quality songwriting married to well-practiced group interaction and smart delivery. Great rock in a nutshell. If I had to pick a favorite from the non-covers collected on INCESTICIDE it’d probably be “Beeswax” (originally [and yes somewhat ironically] from the exceptional KILL ROCK STARS compilation) since it teeters on the brink of jumping its rails in such galvanizing fashion (I can distinctly recall playing it numerous times in ’91 and concluding that yes Nirvana were indeed a great band). The mid-tempo pummel of “Aneurysm” isn’t far behind though. Nor for that matter is “Stain”, “Been a Son” or “Hairspray Queen”. But in an attempt at summation I’ll stress again that Nirvana’s accurate claim to historical fame isn’t as musical groundbreakers but as popularizers. For instance, I persist in wondering how much of the New Weird America movement can be traced back to Cobain tackling and promoting Leadbelly through “In the Pines”. Nirvana were just so deft and erudite at integrating the examples of precedent they swiped into their own sound throughout their existence as a band that many still persist in crediting them as originators. It isn’t the first time this has happened. Some people still think Elvis invented rock ‘n’ roll. Naturally many people now know differently regarding both Presley and Nirvana. Once upon a time almost everybody thought the world was flat. These days it would be extremely difficult to find a true-blood non-contrarian Flat-Earther. One interesting aspect of Nirvana’s sound as it relates to the second decade of Century Twenty-One is how, as many youngsters begin unavoidably nicking riffs, themes, atmospheres and attitudes from the band wholesale, they will also be grasping bits and pieces from such worthy names as The Wipers, Meat Puppets, Melvins and Beat Happening. Part of the function of music writing is to educate these well-intentioned young upstarts sooner rather than later, because through clarity comes an increase in quality. For me, a guy who’d be perfectly happy writing about punk obscurities and jazz records for the rest of my existence on this astral berg, tackling the subject of Nirvana honestly feels a bit like I’ve morphed into a newspaper gossip columnist (do they still have those?) penning a think piece on the life of doomed Edie Sedgwick. But just as there was assuredly more to Edie than meets the Public Eye, so too is the case with Nirvana. INCESTICIDE is a perfect example of what I mean. Those who’ve somehow managed to avoid connecting in a meaningful way to this very important band should make it Exhibit A.

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