So Hard

You gotta wonder what it is the Pet Shop Boys have to be so mournful about all the time. No matter how uptempo their beats are, in their hearts they’re always sad. I’m sure that in real life Chris Lowe and Neil Tennant are very fun guys who aren’t mopey at all. But on record, they’ve set their tone as ‘music to cry to after coming home from the gay bar all alone’. Which honestly is a niche that needed to be filled. You can give them credit for showing that synth-pop and dance music can be thoughtful and emotionally deep. To this day there’s a lack of deep thought and feeling in the genre, as though people who go out dancing don’t have those things either. There’s the argument that people go to clubs and listen to dance music to escape from the thoughts and feelings that haunt them the rest of the time, but that’s a little bit simplistic. I mean, there’s nothing more emotionally triggering than dragging your alienation down to the club only to discover that it won’t go away no matter how much you drink, dance and grind up on strangers. Also, we’re still having trouble letting go of the idea that music with synthesizers and beats in it is something you only hear at the club while wearing booty shorts. Sometimes it’s basically emo with Casio keyboards instead of acoustic guitars. Or when songwriters like PSB get ahold of it and suddenly it’s filled with the full emotional complexity of the human condition and stuff.

So Fine

Eek-a-Mouse has recorded about twenty albums, give or take, and I only listen to one of them. U-Neek is just one of those records that I’ve listened to so many times over I know every song, and it’s a record I put on when I want to leave my troubles at the door. I’m sure that some of Mouse’s other records are fine as wine too, but this one is just special. I can’t recommend a better party record, for one thing, if you’re into weird parties. It’s good for getting drunk and dancing alone in your bedroom like a goddamn teenager in an 80’s movie. Children like it. And it’s funny. Five stars, an absolute favorite.

So Far Away

When the occasional urge to listen to hard-driving punk rock kicks in, I put on some Social Distortion. It doesn’t happen very often, but sometimes a little angry music can be very satisfying. It’s one a very few things I’ve held over from my ex. Their eponymous 1990 third album is a favorite for those times when it’s necessary to get pumped up and overcome the gloomies. You can’t be sad if you’re angry, right?

Snake Drive

For your collection of classic albums nobody has ever heard of, add R.L. Burnside’s A Ass Pocket of Whiskey (1996), which is classic for that title alone. Also for what Burnside did bringing blues music up to the gates of the 21st century. I must admit that I actually like aggressive electric blues like Burnside’s a lot more than traditional shotgun shack blues of olden times. Having been raised on blues-derived rock music, this kind of high-leaded energy feels like what blues ‘should’ sound like, while the crackly acoustic recordings of the old masters sound a little alien to me. Palates change, of course, and I know that some things are acquired tastes. But this right here is what I, the modern listener, want from a blues record. Which is why even the most deep-rooted musical styles have to evolve or face extinction.

Snake

No retrospective about “Women of the 90’s” or “Women in Rock” in general would be complete without PJ Harvey. Which, in and of itself, would probably rub the artist the wrong way. Harvey never associated herself with politically energized musical movements like Riot Grrrl, being wary of earning a label that would overshadow her work. That was wise. Riot Grrrl and their angry zines may have been the face of 90’s feminism, but who still listens to their music? I mean, the main hurtful trope against feminists when I was a growing up was that they listened to bad music. PJ Harvey wouldn’t want to be defined by identity-based labels, and she’s not about to be defined by musical labels. Her work is too diverse for that. She draws from blues and punk, for all that abrasive rage. She also knows her cabaret and is well versed in all that confessional songwriting stuff, making her work both theatrical and intimate. In other words, a well-rounded artist. Who would never claim to be anyone’s mouthpiece or role model. But her rage is yours if you want it.

Smells Like Teen Spirit

I think we can say, with absolutely no hyperbole, that Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit is officially the definitive song of, like, the whole entire 90’s. At least, it was declared as such the minute it was released, in 1991. That may have been jumping the gun a little bit on the part of the music press, but it turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Smells Like Teen Spirit would be the rock anthem of the decade, and Kurt Cobain the voice of his generation. That was a load of hype even the most mentally ironclad person would have a hard time dealing with. Kurt Cobain was not mentally ironclad, unfortunately, and he could not deal. Which, of course, sealed his fate. Because minus the tragedy of all that snuffed-out charisma, Nirvana’s music really wasn’t all that different from the alternative and post-punk music of the 80’s. There’s no particular reason for this song to be anything more than just a really good rock song. Instead, what you’re hearing is a the sound of an entire generation’s first big grown-up rock star crush, followed by their first big grown-up taste of tragedy, loss and human frailty. It’s 90’s kids’ first pop culture trauma.

Smalltown

“There’s only one good thing about a small town, there’s only one good use for a small town – you hate it, and you know you have to leave.”

There’s only one valid statement about small towns, and Lou Reed just said it. Lou was talking, for broader context, about his friend and mentor Andy Warhol, who was from Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh is a fair-sized city, but it ain’t New Yawk, and for an outsize personality like Warhol, it certainly felt as constraining, judgmental and provincial as any one-horse nowheresville in one of the flyover states. Warhol left Pittsburgh armed with talent, ambition and unforgettable weirdness – and the rest is history. One of Warhol’s most towering gifts was, of course, his nose for interesting people, and he dragged a veritable army of interesting weirdo from all walks of life up out of obscurity with him. He was a fame funnel, making superstars out of thin air. The Velvet Underground et al. were some of his most important protegees, a group of creative outsiders who – unlike some of Andy’s ‘superstars’ who didn’t really know how to do anything except look funky – had a broad cultural impact that truly has not been overestimated. It was fitting that, upon Warhol’s death, Lou Reed and John Cale got together for a tribute album. (This despite the fact that they never really liked each other very much and were not exactly buddies.) Songs for Drella runs the gamut of emotions one would expect, from raw grief to gauzy nostalgia, and you could say that the sentiment behind the project is probably stronger than the actual finished product. But out of all the notes it hits, this one hits home the most. It’s a humorous ditty lightening up a pretty bleak concept, and it pays homage to Warhol’s irreverent nature. Delivered deadpan in Lou Reed’s signature Long Island-mook accent, with Cale providing the piano chops of a silent film accompanist, it’s just damn funny. And it’s sweet in its irreverence, and it’s truthful to the essential comic absurdity of Warhol’s life: he was just a weird kid who wanted something bigger, and he wound up being a one-man cultural revolution.