The Clouds: Penny Century (1991)
You’d be hard pressed to come up with any female Australian artists from the Nineties who were taken seriously. the roll-call of males is impressive, from Peter Garrett to Paul Kelly to Robert Forster to Steve Kilbey to Ed Kuepper and so on and so on. I have a copy of a book listing 100 great Australian albums, and the closest it gets to Nineties female representation is the Hummingbirds (male songwriter) and Kylie Minogue – and even the Hummingbirds were 1989. That’s paltry. The likes of Bughouse, the Falling Joys, Frente and especially the Clouds have been entirely overlooked (that the Divinyls were also ignored in the Eighties selection is another travesty). It’s hard to understand how this slipped past, because it’s one of the very best Australian albums of the entire decade. The music is complex and intelligent, but entirely accessible; Jodie Phillis and Tricia Young come across as tough-minded but beautifully melodic, and tracks such as “Hieronymus”, “Soul Eater”, “Anthem” and “Foxes Wedding” are as catchy as you’ll find in the early Nineties. Best of all, there’s neither pretension nor pandering to an audience detectable in their music – it has an individual and expressive quality that creates its own context rather than feeding off something else. And there’s no filler or half-conceived songs here either – the deceptively simple tracks such as “Pocket” or Too Cool” play off well against the more epic sweep of “Fantastic Tear” or “Little Death”. I’m not saying Penny Century breaks new artistic ground, but it does offer a highly professional and finely honed statement that has retained its freshness over the years. It should be more highly regarded than it is.
Ride: Nowhere (1990)
Was there a point to the Shoegaze movement? It is perhaps seen as just another phase in pop/alt musical development, but maybe there’s a bit more to it than that. The idea behind the band members ignoring the audience and staring down or away in performance quite likely had a bit to do with stripping the ‘personality’ from the music, forcing the audience to listen more than watching, to identify with the sound instead of the band. But the music was fairly anonymous too, reining hooks in and burying them, which encouraged the listener to participate in the performance by filling in the spaces with their own experience. But this isn’t space in the way Slint or Mogwai intend it; there’s never a challenging void, merely a facelessness, which encourages communal participation rather than individual response. When done well, it succeeds in creating an intense group feel and a strong sense of identification. And that’s what we have with Ride. You’d think fans of the band would gravitate to this more shoegazy effort ahead of Going Blank Again, but it doesn’t seem to be the case. I think in the end Nowhere defines the band better. Opener “Seagull” comes on like the Byrds circa “Eight Miles High” – though it also borrows liberally from mid-period Beatles. But it’s not long before Ride are setting their own standards, starting with the shimmering “Polar Bear”. They really hammer their instruments, marrying slow tempo and rhythm to crash-bang-wallop. And over it, Andy Bell’s vocals wind on their own unassuming path, as if divorced from it all. “Vapour Trail” is the apogee of their style, a beautiful melody and vocal accompanied by brutal playing. Nowhere is a modern take on the psychedelic sixties, and original and insular enough to carry it off.
Built To Spill: There’s Nothing Wrong With Love (1994)
I started out listing Perfect From Now On as my Built To Spill recommendation, but I really wasn’t being honest with myself. I enjoy this one a whole lot more. There’s something about watching a band switch styles and experiment with sound within the context of the standard 3-4 minute song that’s really quite thrilling. Doug Martsch takes the ideas a lot further on the next album and creates a totally absorbing mood piece. Here, however, you can hear the ideas in embryo, and with a propulsion and momentum – and a snappiness – that makes for a listening experience both easy and challenging. You barely have time to marvel at the economy and verve of one track before you’re on to the next one. And at the risk of sounding contradictory, it’s not as if the tracks exactly bounce along; “Cleo”, for instance, is slow-tempo and evocative, it twists and turns as it goes, it really is like an epic track squeezed into four and a half minutes. And they stretch out quite a bit at the end of “Some”. Martsch’s intention with the band was to have a constant turnover of personnel, I assume to keep the sound fresh and continually evolving. But he had a hard time teaching new band members the increasingly complex arrangements and had to settle on a relatively settled line-up further down the track. You can see what he was getting at as these songs unravel – the spiky clatter of “The Source”, the left-turns in “Big Dipper”, the way poppy tropes on songs like “Reasons” and “Twin Falls” are undermined by shifts in tone. It’s fun, it’s like an experimental album has been shoehorned into a pop one. Depending on your taste, either this one or Perfect From Now On will satisfy your expectations – it just depends on whether you prefer breadth or depth.
The Chemical Brothers: Dig Your Own Hole (1997)
It took me a long, long time to get into this album. There’s ample evidence that the Chemcal Brothers have leaned heaviliy on mid-period Beatles experimentalism for the sound on Dig Your Own Hole. And yes, there’s a psychedelic strain running through the whole thing. But that’s not what you’re going to hear first up. The first thing you’re going to hear are beats. Heavy, forefronted, hammering, high-BPM noise. It’s alienating at first, and even after two or three listens you’ll find yourself struggling to find a path through it. It’s not just the drums that hammer away at your brain; everything sounds pushed up at you, as if it’s right at the edge of the speaker, bursting to get out. But if you wait it all unfolds eventually, especially on the final two tracks which change everything up. “Block Rockin’ Beats” is a great start to the album, because it hooks pretty hard. But you’re on your own after that – the title track has a million things going on, and then distortion takes over halfway through “Elektrobank”; there’s no real let up until “Setting Sun” – which is virtually “Tomorrow Never Knows Part II”. It dials things back just enough to accommodate Noel Gallagher’s vocals. As a marriage between hard techno and big beat, Dig Your Own Hole is a superbly assured effort. For an album that throws every electronic, dehumanising, disorienting scrap it can find into the mix, the result comes across as something quite human, delirious, playful. At times it sounds like a more macho version of Fatboy Slim, at others like nothing on earth. There’s enough variety to command attention from start to finish, but those hard techno beats hardly leave for an instant.
Block Rockin’ Beats
Billy Bragg and Wilco: Mermaid Avenue (1998)
Whenever I listen to Mermaid Avenue, I can’t help but think of Bob Dylan. Not only does it have a Basement Tapes feel, with Bragg’s interpretations alternating with those of Wilco, in the same way Dylan and The Band shared duties on their earlier album, but Dylan of course modelled himself on Woody Guthrie in his early days. I find myself wondering how he would have approached these songs. It would have been interesting, but this stakes out territory just as intriguing. It’s a clever idea, but even better than that it’s executed with panache and wit. Billy Bragg was approached in the mid-nineties by the daughter of Woody Guthrie, with the idea of setting some of Guthrie’s enormous stash of unused lyrics to music. The idea was to make them sound modern, but true to the spirit of Woody. Jeff Tweedy from Wilco got on board and the result was Mermaid Avenue, a rollicking set of near-irresistible songs. For mine, it’s hard to tell which approach was more successful; Bragg’s for his evocation of the Guthrie style in a new guise, or Tweedy’s for converting Guthrie’s lyrics into triumphant Wilco tracks. In the end it doesn’t really matter – the styles complement each other so well that it produces a coherent whole, with songs bouncing off each other in unpredictable ways. What really sets it off though is that you can hear the spirit of Woody shining right through. It’s a magical listen, a kind of creative alchemy, and there are great tracks everywhere – “Hesitating Beauty”, “One by One”, “Ingrid Bergman”, or the haunting closing number, “The Unwelcome Guest”.
Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key
Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy: I See a Darkness (1999)
There’s no escaping it, this is a depressing listen. It’s hard to escape that conclusion when faced with a trilogy of songs named “I See a Darkness”, “Another Day Full of Dread” and “Death to Everyone.” Though it’s not quite as simple as that. The sound is spare and minor-key, and the subject matter deals a lot with depression, mortality and melancholy; but the tone is one of acceptance, of the ways in which that ‘darkness’ can be a positive force. Just gong through those three songs again: “I See a Darkness” really deals with the strength of friendship during dark times; “Another Day Full of Dread” is quite flippant in the way it rejects the horror of dread; and “Death to Everyone” may be the sunniest of the three, with it’s ‘live life while you can’ message. Will Oldham left behind his various Palace Music guises in the mid-nineties, which seems to have precipitated an evolution of sorts toward more melodic writing. It freed up the sound while he continued with depressing themes and spare arrangements. Not just spare, but economical too – there’s nothing superfluous in the structure. He sounds a little like a restless ghost haunting the Appalachian Mountains here. There are times when the voice and the instrumentation compete to see who can attract the least attention, others where they appear to be stalking each other. But somehow all the songs are memorable, all insinuate themselves into your soul. I See a Darkness is probably the best and most accessible example of Oldham’s downbeat style.
Death to Everyone
A Minor Place
Boards of Canada: Music Has the Right to Children (1998)
Being an ambient electronic record, this does sound a little like noodling on first listen. The best thing to do first up is to let it play as background music; it’s unobtrusive, almost anonymous, a creation of texture rather than melody; but the impression it creates is anything but indeterminate. “Eagle in Your Mind” starts throwing in little tempo shifts and ripples and snatches of background voices tossed in here and there. At the end of it you won’t remember any of it except that unease it evoked. “The Color of the Fire” strips the syncopation and just scatters the phrase “I love you” about some spooky distorted notes. And while “Telephasic Workshop” and “Turquoise Hexagon Sun” both feed melody lines into the mix, it’s probably not until “Roygbiv” that you’ll feel your attention is being totally commanded; it starts a run of three startlingly beautiful tracks, those deep keyboard tones giving way to aching melodic splendour that doesn’t let go until the end of the ecstatic childhood delirium that is “Aquarius’. This is where the album is at its most approachable, and most fun as well, with all those random numbers and kids repeating “Yeah… that’s right”. Music Has the Right to Children maintains a very, very light touch throughout, with sweet keyboard runs and swirls dominating most of the pieces. Every now and then vocals intrude, usually spoken phrases, repeated, or just a snatch of dialogue wafting through. If not revolutionary, it is a highly individualistic approach, utilising sounds a little reminiscent of Jean-Michel Jarre, but more ethereal, wispier. It takes the techno ambience of Aphex Twin and Autechre, and shifts it somewhere entirely new.
Snoop Dogg: Doggystyle (1993)
How much does Snoop Dogg owe Dr Dre for his success? Everything. Snoop would have had a career, but he wouldn’t have been the megastar he became, not without The Chronic, and not without Dre’s sure touch and assured production. How much does Dre owe Snoop? Well, that’s a good question. Snoop gave The Chronic a lot of its lyrical flow and did a lot to make the sound sly instead of brutal. How much do they both owe George Clinton? Clearly, there would have been no G-Funk without P-Funk, so there’s your answer. I’ve shied away from rap a bit. The Notorious B.I.G., Ice Cube, 2Pac, all released very good albums in the Nineties, landmarks of the genre, and I’d recommend them if gangsta rap is your thing. But there it is, that’s my blind spot. I connect with it in odd places, and this is one of them. Snoop has a languid, insouciant style and a sly sense of humour, and of course he has Dre firmly behind him here. You’d need a serious case of arrested development – or to actually be a teenage boy – to believe in G-funk lyrics, which are mostly about drinking expensive liquor, waving guns about, territorial fights over girls and resentment of female attitudes. So forget the lyrics, and concentrate on the flow, the funk, and the delight Snoop takes in staking his claim. It’s broken up with short vignettes of life as a gangsta/hustler/player, which were all the rage at the time and tend to be a bit tiring if you’re not buying into the lifestyle. But the music – deeper and more filled out than on The Chronic, which this could be a companion piece to – more than makes up for it.
Gin and Juice
Who Am I? (What’s My Name?)
Tortoise: Millions Now Living Will Never Die (1996)
Tortoise have been acclaimed for what they’ve done with post-rock – breaking down the idea of song structure and track length, subverting expectations, introducing fluidity to musical styles and concepts, and so on. I’m not absolutely sure that’s what is going on with them, though. Let’s face it, electronic music has tested out wildly extended pieces at least since the days of Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk. This is pretty out there for the Nineties, though. “Djed”, the 20-minute opening track, comes cross more as homage than innovation, and the other tracks – all at a more digestible length – also conform more closely to what you might hear elsewhere. What Tortoise do have, in spades, is an intuitive understanding of flow and rhythm and a real instinct for what sharp turns to take and when to take them, which allows “Djed” to meander through a variety of styles without ever threatening to alienate the listener. There’s a Motorik feel all the way through, at times just the skeleton of it, at others close to a Neu! sound. There’s also a jazz sensibility to it, though I would say that’s strictly in the feel and the construction rather than the playing itself. I’ll leave you to break the track down rather than launch into any kind of description of the various parts. “Djed” of course dominates this album, and it’s a marvellous tour of Krautrock themes. But the other tracks are just as impressive, just as adventurous but more compact. “Glass Museum” is very Neu! indeed. What Tortoise do so well is keep the prog-rockiness of their work tight and focussed and propulsive – you never feel as if they’re wandering away from you. This one grows on you the more you listen, so persist with it.
Along the Banks of Rivers
Elliott Smith: XO (1998)
One of the difficult things about this list of albums is that once I’ve listened closely to one of them enough times I just want to hear to it over and over again. Checking out lyric sheets and reading other people’s interpretations of the songs drives me further and further into the music, and before I know it a couple of weeks has gone by and I haven’t moved on yet. It’s easy to write a capsule based on a couple of listens and a bit of research, but you’re never doing an album justice until you know it. I’m nearly at that stage with XO, but Elliott Smith is a difficult man to get a handle on. What can I find to say about a song like “Pitsoleh”, for instance? At heart it’s an ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ song, but it’s way deeper and way more precise than that. Here, as in other songs, Smith hits at a peculiarly male ambivalence toward love that has much more to do with self-image than feelings for another. If you’ve been there, it’s going to resonate strongly. Same with “Waltz No. 2”, the best known song from the album. Some say it’s about his mother, but I prefer to think it’s about an ex-girlfriend who’s now unknowable, but impossible to let go of – the key to it is the references to “Cathy’s Clown” and “You’re No Good”; they tell a story all their own. You get the feeling throughout XO that Smith is hyper-aware of his own deficiencies and simply can’t forgive them. Smith’s pop-consciousness reaches back to Beatles-era sixties, but it made a pretty large detour through XTC territory as you can hear on quite a few tracks here. Smith’s story is a sad one, and his end was quite tragic and affecting. If there’s any consolation, it’s that he allowed us to share his troubles on works like this, as transparent a window on the soul as you’d want.
Waltz No. 2