Is It Still Any Good: Bush “Swallowed”

“Is It Still Any Good?” is an on-going feature dedicated to examining pop-culture artifacts in order to determine if they still have any sort of relevance in the present day.

“Swallowed”

Remember Bush? Apologies for stirring up bad memories, but I was up late last night trudging through YouTube in a nostalgic and masochistic mood and I stumbled upon a few of their old videos so now you will have to feel my pain. Accept it. The year was 1996, and Bush was already lame. Their first album made me hate Nirvana as much as Nirvana made me like Nirvana. Now two years removed from their first abortion, Bush–for reasons unknown–decided to release a sophomore effort even more esoteric and alien than its predecessor.

I suppose if you’re going to rip-off a hugely-successful band, you may as well go all out. It’s remarkable how similar “Swallowed”–the lead single from Razorblade Suitcase (Jesus, seriously?)–sounds like the genre-defining “Heart-Shaped Box” from In Utero except that “Swallowed” eschews drums entirely during the verses in order to one-up Nirvana’s formula by way of some retarded pop-song derivative calculus.

The lyrics are really the high point here. Gavin Russdale Rashdale Rushdie, bless his heart, never quite grasped the concept of surrealism, and as a result listeners are forced to decipher lyrics that literally make no sense whatsoever (remember “Glycerine”?). Reading Gavin Rushdie’s lyrics gives me the impression that listening to him speak would be like listening to a martian approximate what it thinks English sounds like.

So, is it still any good?

It’s a question without an answer. It wasn’t good to start with.

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Should this Man be Arrested: Gillian Welch

“Should this Man be Arrested?” is an on-going feature that examines the minds of various songwriters through their lyrics. As lyrics are always 100% literal translations of a songwriter’s thoughts, we believe we can use lyrical snippets to answer the following simple, yet crucial, question: should this man be arrested?

Subject:

Gillian Welch–faux-Appalachian country-folk crooner, native of Southern California

Evidence:

“I cried, ‘My God, I am your child I am your child. Send your angels down.’ Then feeling with my fingertips, the bottle neck I found. I drew that glass across his neck, fine as any blade. Then I felt his blood pour fast and hot around me where I laid.”

“Caleb Meyer” (from Hell Among The Yearlings)

Thoughts:

Nothin’ better than a good old-fashioned murderin’ song! This one gets bonus points because it’s about a female murderer named Nellie Cane Gillian Welch who, supposedly acting in self-defense, is forced to kill Caleb Meyer while her husband is away in Bowling Green (wherever that is–seriously, is that a real place or is Gillian Welch just like making shit up now?). So the story goes Nellie Cane Gillian Welch is home by herself because her husband is out of town doing … farm work, presumably, and because of her fragile constitution she’s taken advantage of by Caleb Meyer, local drug-store owner/town rapist.

Verdict:

Guilty. We’ll never hear Caleb’s side of the story since he’s been murdered, but it’s safe to assume that Gillian Welch, local farm-hand/town whore, was begging for it while her husband was out of town doing … farm work, presumably. Gillian Welch, I hereby sentence you to live out the remainder of your bloodthirsty days on a barn. Oh, wait.

Should this Man be Arrested: Jeff Tweedy

“Should this Man be Arrested?” is an on-going feature that examines the minds of various songwriters through their lyrics. As lyrics are always 100% literal translations of a songwriter’s thoughts, we believe we can use lyrical snippets to answer the following simple, yet crucial, question: should this man be arrested?

Subject:

Jeff Tweedy–lead singer for influential country/folk/alternative/dad-rock band Wilco

Evidence:

“I dreamed about killing you again last night
And it felt alright to me”

“Via Chicago” (from Summerteeth)

Thoughts:

First of all … wow. I’m not sure who exactly he’s talking about here but it seems plain to me that someone has upset Mr. Tweedy quite considerably. Not only does he dream about killing the aforementioned someone, but he’s singing about a dream that he’s having again. Not only is he dreaming about killing someone again, but he says “it felt alright to me”. From my perspective, he’s a cold-blooded killer.

In fact, just to see if I could redeem poor Mr. Tweedy’s name from his clear status as a psychopath, I thought I would give him the benefit of the doubt and see if adding a few more lines to the above snippet would give him room to explain himself. Well, here’s what I found:

“Dying on the banks of Embarcadero skies
I sat and watched you bleed
Buried you alive in a fireworks display
Raining down on me”

Jaw drops … he can’t be … but he is … but he wrote “You and I” … oh God, I hope he wasn’t talking about me

So, is our favorite dad-rocker a criminal?

Verdict:

Guilty. It was a sly trick to cover up your actions through the humble dad-rock posturing of albums like Sky Blue Sky, Mr. Tweedy. Well played, sir. But we’ve got you now. I hereby sentence you to a lifetime of listening to “Shake It Off” on repeat until your head explodes from mediocrity.

The Case for God: U2 vs. The Smashing Pumpkins

The Case for God is an on-going feature that examines God within popular music. Songs featured in this series are either for the existence of God or against His/Her/Its existence. After each entry, a point will be given to the song that makes a better case for the existence of God. At the conclusion of this series, we will determine whether or not there is a God.

U2 vs. The Smashing Pumpkins

“In God’s Country”:

Perhaps the greatest first 15 seconds of any song in the history of popular music. As The Edge’s second (or eighth, who knows?) guitar soars over a triumphant acoustic rhythm section the entire world opens up before your … ears. It’s one of those classic U2 songs that you can’t sing along to because Bono is a better singer than you and a highlight on an album that consists of only highlights.

“Zero”:

Call me crazy, but I think it’s a bold move on Corgan’s behalf to include actual lyrics written by a middle school student on an album that was destined to become an international phenomenon. Wait, what? Corgan wrote it? But it’s meant to be taken sarcas–no? Well, nevermind then. Apparently God–or rather, my faith in the lyrical prowess of Billy Corgan–is empty, just like me.

Conclusion:

God: 1, Atheists: 0

Japandroids, Celebration Rock

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The new Japandroids album is loud.  That is the first, and most inescapable, fact about the album.  With drums insistently pushing the pace and thrusting every other part of the sound louder and louder, if Celebration Rock fails, it’s certainly not for lack of energy.  The next obvious fact is that it’s clear these guys have done their homework on guitar layering and delays, and are not afraid to point that out in every song.  It works, but we’ll get to that in a moment.  Finally, just to compete with the massive sonic landscape and propulsive drumming, singer Brian King is yelling in every song, as if turning up the mic was not the answer he was looking for.

This all adds up to a cathartic rush of sounds and adrenaline.  Celebration Rock is an ode to the type of youth we all hope to have, but few ever do.  It’s an ongoing rush.  It’s driving music.  It’s live music.  It’s been done before.  The difference here is that the songs are more about holding onto the liveliness of youth as it fades away, rather than being in the thick of it.  These songs, particularly “The Nights of Wine and Roses” and “The House that Heaven Built”, lay this vibe on thick and to perfection.  The music evokes a desperate grasp to maintain youth.   While there is a sense of melancholia throughout, there is also inspiration in the drive towards this goal, even if success is only fleeting.

All of this may sound heavy-handed, but the album is, as all truly great albums are, more than the sum of its parts.  Although some may have an issue with the lack of dynamics in the song (translation: every song is loud and rocking; no ballads here), the Japandroids were very judicious in their editing, keeping the album at just about 35 minutes with no filler.  This keeps the thrill and energy consistent for the listener throughout, without bogging down.

Although not exactly an innovative or classic album, for what Celebration Rock is going for, it succeeds unquestionably.  The only desire I have now is to hear this music live, where it was clearly meant to be all along.

Grade: A –

Bob Dylan, Tempest

Tempest

With every new Bob Dylan album comes a rearrangement of his oeuvre in order from greatest to worst. Blood on the Tracks, The Basement Tapes, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, and eleventh-hour classics like “Love and Theft” and Time Out of Mind rank high on any half-assed best of list and so the question must be asked: where does Dylan’s latest opus rank among his highly-venerated past?

The answer is sorta tricky. Tempest is his late-period Desire–a would-be contender held back by a few missteps. There are a lot of great moments on Tempest; at its best it’s a slightly more focused iteration of Modern Times, however, at its worst it’s Dylan on auto-pilot trudging through tired cliches while occasionally delivering the classic one-line zinger hipster-neophytes and old-timers alike adore.

Dylan’s greatest late-period album may be Time Out of Mind–and oddly enough Tempest makes a strong case for it. Produced by Daniel Lanois, Time Out of Mind featured a word-weary grittiness that perfectly meshed with Dylan’s scowl and bitter odes to love gone wrong, and while every album after Time Out of Mind has found Dylan rummaging through the same old-timey, washed-out, blues-tinged song cycles, they simply haven’t matched Time Out of Mind’s gloriously triumphant sad-bastard sonic landscapes.

There’s a certain Phil Spector-esque sheen that has pervaded Dylan’s work ever since 2001’s “Love and Theft”; the end result sounds a little too clean; a little too polished. The late-night-dive-bar murkiness that defined much of Time Out of Mind has long since been eradicated in favor of a cleaner, brighter, sometimes hard-rocking, but ultimately suffocating sound that sounds more like a static template for Dylan to ramble on about topics ranging from crazy women to John Lennon to–of all things–the Titanic.

Tempest is at its best when Dylan puts on his best Dirty Harry impersonation and calls for bloodshed–but not his own. The rocking numbers (basically every odd-numbered song on the album) are truly great; it’s the ballads that drag. The album’s even-numbered tracks fail to reach the seemingly impossible heights of classics like “Not Dark Yet” and “When the Deal Goes Down” while the “Desolation Row”-esque title track falls short of its 14-minute plus ambitions.

While the first half provides a few memorable numbers, Tempest remains a curiously innocuous album that finds Dylan further settling in to his late-period formula of vintage old-timey sound, trading rockers with ballads through a 10-song cycle largely devoted to the same themes he’s been harping about since 1997. Dylan’s raspy, angry vocals are as raspy and angry as ever; it’s just a shame the songs themselves lack any sort of bite.

Grade: B –