Sunday, December 25, 2011

17. Pearl Jam vs. The Hush Sound vs. Hole

vs. vs.
by Pearl Jam
from Vs.
  "Sweet Tangerine"
by The Hush Sound
from Like Vines
  "Miss World"
by Hole
from Live Through This

"Rearviewmirror" (6 plays at, unranked): It's weird how we map ideologies onto our tribes. In that strange time from the fall of 1991 to the spring of 1993, I was a devoted Nirvana partisan. I hated Pearl Jam and the, let's say, corporate rock that they represented. They were had an easily packaged angsty story that wasn't exactly buried under layers of subtext. They were in "Singles," the "Desperately Seeking Susan" of the early 90s. When people accused Stone Temple Pilots of ripping them off, I wondered how you could rip off something so fake.

But OK, I was 13, and by the time I turned 14 something clicked. Their superb performance on Unplugged helped, as did the advance hype for Vs. And though it set sales records on the strength of "Go" as the lead single, I suspect it could've done even more leading with this song, which was never even officially released as a single. Opening with a bouncing, simple riff, it's almost perfectly inviting, and is structurally magnificent. The breakdown and return sections work great as Eddie Vedder's vocals begin to strain and deteriorate. Vedder wrote the music himself and it really demonstrates his growth as musician, as the lyrics and music work more cohesively than anything on Ten.

Thematically, the angst and anger of Ten gives way here to emergence and escape, and does so without some of the really obvious poetry that fills both of the first PJ albums. This is a taste of where Vedder would go on Vitalogy. It's also the second of three amazing eighth tracks that the band would their career with, following Ten's "Porch" and preceding Vitalogy's "Corduroy," which is coming later in the tournament.

"Sweet Tangerine" (17 plays, tied for #40): The middle part of the last decade saw the quick rise and fall of a certain kind of male/female indie pop-rock epitomized by the Hush Sound. The form is basically already gone -- most practitioners have shifted noticeably harder (Tonight Alive) or softer (Gold Motel, featuring the Hush Sound's Greta Salpeter). The Hush Sound's second album is probably the foremost example of this genre, and this song is one of its several extremely catchy tunes that combines a plinky piano line with overdriven guitars to create a great, driving tension.

As great a song as it is, though, I'm not even sure it's my favorite song on this album. "Don't Wake Me Up" is also terrific, as is "A Dark Congregation" and a few others. So not a likely winner, but a solidly built and powerful pop song, of a kind that disappeared too fast.

"Miss World" (3 plays, unranked): Even as a Nirvana partisan, I don't know if there's a party line on Live Through This. It's trite to call it the "lost Nirvana album," and I tend to think there's some sexism in that legend, too (though I don't really feel the same about calling Celebrity Skin a Billy Corgan project for some reason). There's no denying the influence of Kurt Cobain here, but it's also nothing like what Nirvana had become by the time it was recorded in 1993. If anything, you can hear a reappraisal of Bleach and the early Nirvana singles in this album's fuzzed-out, simple guitars and pop song structures; if Nevermind was about ripping off the Pixies, Live Through This was about ripping off the Breeders.

"Miss World" itself was released as a single eight days before Cobain's suicide, and at exactly three minutes long, it is maybe the quintessential pop single of the original grunge era. The dueling crunchy and bright guitar parts play off each other beautifully, particularly in the repeated choruses toward the end; Courtney Love's vocals mirror this as she switches between sneer and sincerity. And of course, there's more than a little in there to glom onto in retrospect, realizing it all had to end. This album, Vitalogy and Soundgarden's Superunknown sort of form the firewall of 1994's clash with the future in my mind, and this song is where it starts.

VERDICT: I realize that it's now over 18 years old, and is edging very close to classic rock status, but that's a label that "Rearviewmirror" really deserves. As key a role as it played in turning me around on Pearl Jam, I probably could've written another 500 words just on its subject matter. It'll be interesting to see how it holds up next to some newer classics in later rounds.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

16. Queens of the Stone Age vs. Failure vs. Piebald

vs. vs.
"No One Knows"
by Queens of the Stone Age
from Songs For the Deaf
  "Stuck on You"
by Failure
from Fantastic Planet
  "Just a Simple Plan"
by Piebald
from We Are the Only Friends We Have

"No One Knows" (7 plays at, unranked): Every time I hear this song I think of something Kurt Cobain said in that big Nirvana interview with MTV around the time In Utero was released. He said one reason he was excited to have Dave Grohl join the band was that his drumming was so metronomic. I don't think that's more true on any other song than this one. The driving rhythm of his drumming and Nick Oliveri's bass is so key to making this tune work that I couldn't imagine it happening had Grohl not been part of this album. On top of that, this is both the quintessential QotSA song and the best song of Grohl's hard rock summer of 2002, as well as bring the rare breakout single that's both highly anticipated and totally awesome.

"Stuck on You" (1 play, unranked): As much as I liked Ken Andrews' subsequent bands, On and Year of the Rabbit, I never could get into his classic first band, Failure. This song is the exception. That squealing, opening lick is the kind of thing that makes you want to be in a band, just to cover it at the top of your set. Meanwhile, the grinding melody of the rest of the song makes for a great closer (as Andrews also later did with YotR's "Say Goodbye"). It's a real accomplishment to have a song that feels so much like the mid-90s but also seems to foretell a lot of what I would like in the hard rock of the following decade.

"Just a Simple Plan" (5 plays, unranked): Hearing this song as my first exposure to Piebald, I never would have guessed that they'd previously been a hardcore band, and that they angered many of their fans with a big shift towards pop. This was the record that really pulled me into the nexus of alt. power pop bands like OK Go and Troubled Hubble, but Piebald -- especially here -- always had a very unique flavor to how they did it. The music here is simple but with a subtle snark to it -- not Aquabats snarky, but something almost soundtrack-like. At the same time, Travis Shettel's vocals are clever and self-referential without seeming forced. The voice in this song (and the whole album, really) shows a perfect transitional state between the hardcore and "mature" versions of the band.

VERDICT: I will actually rock out to "No One Knows" in the car, nearly 10 years later. As much as "Stuck on You" still works for me, the edge goes to the song that was both the calling card and swan song of the real Queens of the Stone Age, before Oliveri went nuts and left the band's sound a trebly mess.

Monday, November 21, 2011

15. Charlemagne vs. Eisley vs. Interpol

vs. vs.
"Pink and Silver"
by Charlemagne
from Detour Allure
  "I Wasn't Prepared"
by Eisley
from Room Noises
by Interpol
from Antics

"Pink and Silver" (14 plays at, tied for #82): Leading off Charlemagne's second album, this tune's synthy, fuzzed-out folk pop encapsulates in many ways the preeminent Madison sound of the middle of the 2000s. It's hugely catchy and makes for a great, stage-guest friendly set opener. On the other hand, it's a little slight lyrically, especially when compared with the also catchy "Fave Unknown" from the same album. Possibly my favorite local song, but not a likely contender overall.

"I Wasn't Prepared" (4 plays, unranked): My first time through Eisley's debut LP, this was an immediate grabber. The song is so well structured as a showcase for Stacy DuPree's breathy soprano, without itself being overly fragile. And in fact, this was the song I kept coming back to for quite a while. But while this one a ceiling early on, others such as "Telescope Eyes" and "Trolleywood" have grown on me a lot, leaving this song's relative prominence a bit lower. Still, it's a big part of what drew me to similar acts such as Minipop.

"Evil" (9 plays, tied for #299): I never got into the first Interpol album, and I think the consensus over the last few years is that they're no good anymore. But I liked Antics a lot, and this was the song that opened the door. That sweet, simple bass line to kick it off builds to an awesome song structure that culminates in one of those great moments as it all peaks - "Rosemary, aw, heaven restores you in life." It brings things together to set the album's mood in a way that probably wouldn't work without this song.

VERDICT: This is sort of a weak round, but "Evil" stands out as the best of the bunch. The way it crescendos and glides back down really makes the whole album work and allows Interpol their best moment of their own identifiable sound.