Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Nirvana - In Utero (20th Anniversary Edition)

"Serve the Servants" opens In Utero with four stick clicks from Dave Grohl, followed by the crash of a wholly unmusical chord before it launches into its verse riff, which implies 7th chords - an extravagance for Nirvana. Then Cobain declares "teenage angst has paid off well/now I'm bored and old". It's a kiss-off to its Nevermind counterpart. Whereas on Nevermind's fourth track he found it unnecessary to breed, by that point on In Utero he's asking to be raped. The next track on Nevermind is named "Lithium" after the mind-dulling chemical; its opposite number on In Utero is about Frances Farmer, who underwent more primitive treatment in a psychiatric hospital. Almost half of In Utero is taken up by noisier, less hook-oriented songs that people hadn't previously associated with Nirvana, but Cobain hadn't forsaken the classicist side of his songwriting by a long shot; "Pennyroyal Tea" and "All Apologies" employ the soft-loud dynamic that worked so well before, and the radically re-imagined versions on Unplugged in New York confirm their conventionally appealing songcraft, as if it wasn't obvious already. The other In Utero track to make that setlist, "Dumb", is in its element there, being acoustic and adorned with cello in the first place. The first single "Heart-Shaped Box" has arguably the catchiest chorus Cobain ever wrote. These opposing elements are a lot to do with why some found In Utero confounding at the time, yet also why history has been so reverent to it.

The immediately apparent news regarding both the remaster of the original album and the "2013 mix" is that, incredibly, far from being heavily compressed monstrocities, both are actually marginally more dynamic than the original master. In Utero was loud for 1993, but quiet for today. I've compared the original album to its remaster, though not exhaustively, and at this point I'd have to say the differences are nominal at best. The point, though, is that this version, which will be definitive version for future generations, fairly and accurately represents the album. The same is anything but true of the 20th Anniversary edition of Nevermind. The 2013 mix isn't just a different EQ job, but actually utilises different takes of some parts (including a vastly inferior solo for "Serve the Servants") as well as pushing some existing parts back and forward in the mix.

The inclusion of some early demos provides some insight into how some of the songs were perceived early on. "Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle" is somewhat funkier in its original form. "All Apologies", though, is the real treat here. The countryness of the central riff wasn't lost on the band, as it turns out, and this might be the only real glimpse into Cobain's early days leading a Creedence Clearwater Revival cover band. I'd love to have a version of it with proper vocals, but they're nothing but barely audible fragments in this recording.


Nirvana - Nevermind (20th Anniversary Edition)
Nirvana - Radio Friendly Unit Shifter (MTV Live & Loud)
Nirvana - Icon
My 200 Favourite Albums of All Time

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Bill Callahan - Dream River

I was going to say that my first listen to Dream River wasn't the first time Bill Callahan's music had evoked a dream-like quality - and it's probably true - but more often it's a daydream. This is true of Red Apple Falls, A River Ain't Too Much to Love, Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle and parts of most of his other albums. Dream River, however, definitely sinks into the subconscious. Callahan staples such as acoustic guitar strums, sparse arpeggios and snare cracks are de-emphasised or excised entirely in favour of phased electric guitar and hand percussion, the latter courtesy of Thor Harris, and a world away from the crazed thudding I was lucky enough to witness him perform with Swans earlier this year.

The first and last song take place in the "real" world while the others are dreams of the protagonist, or least take place inside his head. The reality is mundane - in opener "The Sing" we learn he's been sitting in a bar all day with a single purpose ("the only words I've said today are 'beer' and 'thank you' ") and "Winter Road" even tells us what's on the radio in the car ("a Donald Sutherland interview"). However, the real world concerns that occupy the reality also permeate the dreams. There seems to be a consensus that 2009's Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle draws its themes from Callahan's last breakup, or at least was influenced by it. Accordingly, Dream River could be the flipside, its writing having begun a year into his relationship with his now fiancée. But that's unimportant. The meta text isn't the point even with a teen pop idol such as Callahan and I shouldn't rehash what is no doubt all over the gossip rags. Either way, the importance of other people in any person's life is a significant theme. Callahan has claimed in the past that he "feels like an ex-con trying to make good", but if there's one universal truth to gleaned from Dream River, it's that being out of step with the world doesn't mean you have to navigate it alone.

Bill Callahan - Apocalypse
Bill Callahan - Rough Travel for a Rare Thing
My 200 Favourite Albums of All Time

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Tom Waits

2013 is the 40th anniversary of Tom Waits' Closing Time and therefore his recording career. Here are 17 YouTube videos - one song for each of his albums*. It's hard to pick just one from most of them.

* There are differing opinions over whether certain Tom Waits releases count as official albums. My list is everything released on Asylum, Island or Anti, excluding compilations and live albums except for Nighthawks at the Diner.

"I Hope That I Don't Fall In Love With You" from Closing Time (1973)

"(Looking For) The Heart of Saturday Night)" from The Heart of Saturday Night (1974)

"The Piano Has Been Drinking" from Small Change (1976)

"Burma Shave" from Foreign Affairs (1977)

"Whistlin' Past the Graveyard" from Blue Valentine (1978)

"Mr. Siegal" from Heartattack and Vine (1980)

"Swordfishtrombone" from Swordfishtrombones (1983)

"Rain Dogs" from Rain Dogs (1985)

"Yesterday is Here" from Franks Wild Years (1987)

"Such a Scream" from Bone Machine (1992)

"Oily Night" from The Black Rider (1993)

"Hold On" from Mule Variations (1999)

"No One Knows I'm Gone" from Alice (2002)

"God's Away on Business" from Blood Money (2002)

"Hoist That Rag" from Real Gone (2004)

"Hell Broke Luce" from Bad As Me (2011)

Tom Waits - Bad As Me
The Cookie Monster Has Been Drinking: Brilliant Tom Waits/Cookie Monster Mashup
Tom Waits Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

Sex, War & Robots