Thursday, March 30, 2017

Pitchfork's 50 Best Britpop Albums

I fell for the clickbait again and read through yet another Pitchfork top 50 list of a poorly defined genre from a poorly defined era of time with a completely predictable top ten that reiterates the great things we already know about the albums that we already knew were great.  In this instance, they're barely even pretending there's an actual genre to tie the list together.  It's a list of mid-90's British indie rock (hence it's the 50 Best but not the 50 Best "of all time" ... which would be redundant because we're essentially talking about a four year window in the 90's save for the rare exceptions for the likes of the La's).

It's kind of embarrassing when so many of the bands were never lumped in with the Britpop I knew at the time (SFA, Denim, Mansun, Placebo, the list goes on and on) or were outwardly hostile to Britpop (Manic Street Preachers, Auteurs) and would be appalled to see themselves on a list like this.  Inasmuch as an actual genre of Britpop can be defined, it was one of the most top heavy scenes ever, with a small number of excellent bands at the top, a handful of mediocre curiosities with a couple of passable hits, and very little else.  When you narrow the eligibility criteria to such a degree (UK indie rock bands who released their debut album after "Parklife" and placed at least one album in the top 30 of NME's year end list in either 1994, 1995 or 1996!) even Echobelly and Sleeper can wind up on a "best of" genre list.
Predictably, only Tom Ewing brings any interesting ideas to the table as he stops to consider the Britpop that never really was in his short takes on Saint Etienne.  What would have been if Britpop had been more like the introverted, cosmopolitan urban dance pop model of Saint Etienne instead of the extroverted, beer and football loving anthemic chorus model of Oasis?  More than anything, the best bands of the time exuded confidence (or arrogance, depending on one's viewpoint) that made them far more exciting than Saint Etienne could ever hope to be (and I love Saint Etienne).  Pulp, Blur, and Suede each had their visions of music (completely different from each other) that were rooted in uniquely British traditions and each was 100% convinced that their music was the most worthy distraction against the then-dominant stodgy American grunge rock.  However, the fact that Blur had their biggest hit with a grunge song a few years later was an irony only the most British of British bands could pull off though.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

A Spice Girls Puff Piece

As a breezy, easy to read summary of a group and a time and a place, this short Spice Girls history isn't bad.  The context isn't really there, nor would I expect it to be in a fluff piece like this (the photos and video clips provide most of the context the piece requires).  It's true that boy bands ruled the charts in the UK for most of the 90's, but girl groups like En Vogue and TLC were big in US at the time, and worldwide it was a near golden age for female solo artists (Celine, Alanis, the Lilith Fair artists, and countless others).  So the Spice Girls' world takeover was hardly unprecedented, but they were still revolutionary in that no other contemporary group had been marketed in that way (five divergent looks, five unique personalities) and they were marketed specifically to girls, i.e. they competed with the boy bands for the same fan demographics and won.  

In reading histories like these, I'm always struck by how short-lived their fame was, compared to how all-encompassingly long it felt at the time.  Spice Girls were at the highest strata of pop dominance.  They were everywhere -- on the radio, in movies, in the tabloids -- with market penetration and omnipresence that only the likes of Michael Jackson, Adele, the Beatles, and a handful of other pop stars can lay claim to.  And it all lasted little more than two and a half years -- from "Wannabe" in the summer of '96 to Geri leaving the band and their final Xmas number one, "Goodbye", in the winter of '98.  It was still enough to make them the biggest selling girl group ever. 

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

RIP John Lever

Tributes have been slowly pouring for the Chameleons' drummer who passed away a few days ago. When you're a "cult" band (a unfortunate term, as Ned Raggett refers to it in his piece for The Quietus, but it is what it is) the proper recognition can take time to gather steam in death just as it did in life.

Chameleons belong in a select group of influential 80's bands that nobody has ever quite been able to duplicate (I'd put both The Smiths and Cocteau Twins in this category).  The combination of Mark Burgess' throaty vocals, Reg Smithies and Dave Fieldings' interlocking guitar lines, and John Levers intricate yet propulsive drumming somehow added up to more than the sum of their parts, as many have noted.  When I was first absorbing alternative music in the late 80's, "Swamp Thing" was the Chameleons staple heard most often on the radio.  But as the years went by, "Soul In Isolation" became their signature song for me, in no small part due to Lever's blowaway drum performance.

While recording the album "Strange Times", the band was pushed to record live as much as possible with no overdubs.  So rest assured that Lever played the complex opening riff for "Soul In Isolation" with two hands and only two hands.  In an alternate universe, its opening drum riff is as iconic as "Be My Baby".  It would be copied more often if more drummers were capable of playing it.

Few rock drummers could switch so effortlessly between the busy opening riff and the expansive, energetic drumming in the bridge and chorus.  Of course you can always stick together two ideas in a song to form an odd, schizophrenic pairing.  But the two drum riffs in "Soul In Isolation" don't come off sounding like that.  They're a logical progression in a cohesive whole.  And then the pattern repeats itself in the second half of the song!, i.e. yet another switch to the busy would-be iconic riff, and back again to the propulsive final stretch.

Jammed into the middle as the fourth song on a sixteen song CD (ten for the album proper plus six bonus tracks), "Soul In Isolation" arguably loses part of its impact in the post vinyl era,  On vinyl, it was the epic Side 1 closer, fading away in volume while the band surged on without the least bit of let up, with Lever's outstanding drumming leading the way. It reminds me of something once said about Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir".  It's a song without a clear beginning or end, it's practically all middle.  It passes by like a slow moving float in a parade, and while it's in earshot you get you hear a few (well, technically eight) scant minutes but you can't be sure how long they were playing before, or how much longer they'll keep playing after the float passes by.