Wednesday, June 30, 2010

14. System of a Down vs. Pearl Jam vs. Weezer

vs. vs.
by System of a Down
from Toxicity
  "In Hiding"
by Pearl Jam
from Yield
  "Only in Dreams"
by Weezer
from Weezer

"Aerials" (7 plays at, unranked): There's so much to hear in this tune it's hard to know where to start analyzing it. You can find Alice in Chains, you can find Metallica, you can find Soundgarden, not to mention the band's eastern European influences and unique showmanship. As the best song on an album the band didn't know how to follow up, it has the bitter flavor of impending doom to it, but also has come to signify for me the final end of the 90s hard rock era. The rest of the field was in transition, with nu metal and the point-missers of nu grunge coming on. Hard to believe it's been almost ten years.

"In Hiding" (5 plays, unranked): It's amazing how hopeful so much of this album is, in the context of PJ's first three albums and the false start of No Code. Landing near the record's end, it caps the set with lyrics that aren't so much positive as they are looking toward positivity: "It's funny when things change so much/It's all state of mind." It's also a great and subtle showcase for the band's musicianship. Eddie Vedder gets some terrific Cornellian crooning opportunities in the chorus, while the variations within the tune provide ample room for different guitar approaches. By 1998 they had become a careerist band, and this is a careerist song, but it's one that should be among their best-loved mid-period album cuts.

"Only in Dreams" (5 plays, unranked): At the time I was simply amazed. The blue album was astonishing. Now it's diminished in some ways and grown in others. Opinions on the exact date differ, but there is a broad consensus that Weezer began to suck hard sometime from 2001 to 2005, and it's difficult not to let that suckage impact the older, brilliant material. At the same time, as an older, wiser music fan, I'm now able to hear more in a song like this. I can imagine this being a local band's first incredible song, the one that everybody shows up early to hear, that sells hundreds of copies of their EP. It's such a raw and unassuming song -- even more so than the rest of the album, and that's saying something. The combination of teenage uncertainty and garage-based guitar fantasy could never be made this organically on anything but a first record, and the way it bookends the opening cacophony of "My Name Is Jonas" is a feat unmatched in the modern era. An absolute classic; just writing about it is almost enough to make me forget "Beverly Hills."

VERDICT: "Only in Dreams" in a landslide.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

13. Cracker vs. Massive Attack vs. R.E.M.

vs. vs.
"Euro-trash Girl"
by Cracker
from Kerosene Hat
by R.E.M.
from New Adventures in Hi-Fi
by Massive Attack
from Mezzanine

"Euro-trash Girl" (4 plays at, unranked): In my mid-90s college days I bought a used copy of Kerosene Hat, mostly on the strength of "Low," but also after hearing this song on my school's radio station. To my horror, the copy I bought was the version distributed by BMG, which didn't contain any of the hidden tracks, including this gem. As a result I always considered this like a lost track or a rare b-side or something, which only added to its epic nature. It's probably the least gratuitous eight-minute song in the history of rock, and the subtle way it builds to its climax is stupendous. There's also something about it that sort of epitomizes its era of college rock, in a way that validates a lot of music that, 15-20 years later, doesn't get the kind of respect it deserves.

"Leave" (4 plays, unranked): And then you have R.E.M.'s most gratuitous song (most gratuitous good song, at least). The original version of this track includes a sweet little introductory dirge, while the main body features six straight minutes of knob-twisting by Scott McCaughey, which would certainly have been looped by a lesser band. The song is the peak of the band's music and ambition in the Monster/New Adventures period, which makes it such a disappointment that they've largely abandoned it for a shorter, thinner, quieter version that originally appeared on the soundtrack to "A Life Less Ordinary." It also makes for a great, though unintended, dénouement for the band's original line-up, and a high point that they have yet to reach again since.

"Teardrop" (1 play, unranked): Often when a song I love appears repeatedly on TV I'm done with it, but this track acting on the theme to House hasn't dampened my appreciation for it. If anything, it's a frequent reminder that I'd really like to listen to the full version, with vocals. Massive Attack is an atmosphere band working in an atmosphere genre, but this track -- perhaps on the back of its wooden beat and sparse piano chords -- takes it a step further. I'm writing this entry on a dark plane between Tokyo and Singapore, and it's taking all my effort not to simply declare this one the winner of the whole tournament and be done with it.

VERDICT: I think I can be objective enough to factor out my surroundings and gauge my typical standing enthusiasm for "Teardrop" a little lower. And in the battle of lengthy, era-defining songs, I have to give the edge to the era that's stuck with me a bit more. 1996 might be my favorite year of music ever, and "Leave" was a big part of that.