The ravages of time eventually claim everyone, but it’s a sad fact that some talents go before others. In light of the recent release of The Fountain, the eleventh album by the long-lived British post-punk group Echo and the Bunnymen, now is an appropriate occasion to ruminate on the premature loss of a great voice in rock music. While still very much alive, head Bunnyman Ian McCulloch’s vocal talents have unfortunately diminished in recent years. McCulloch long possessed a wondrous, powerful voice that rivaled that of U2’s Bono, but smoking, drinking, and age have clearly diminished what used to be an epic sound.
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One tongue. One set of lips. One titanic album, and the Rolling Stones had changed the course of rock and roll forever. Again.
When the Rolling Stones released Sticky Fingers in 1971 they had already surpassed the expectations of most rock and roll bands. They had proven themselves to be masters of the form with the release of 1968’s Beggar’s Banquet and its 1969 follow up Let It Bleed, the first two in a series of what could quite possibly be the four best successive rock albums released by any band in history. The two superlative discs were musical dictionaries that defined the concept of rock and roll for generations of aspiring musicians. In 1971, the Stones published a new dictionary called Sticky Fingers which defined the concept of rock and roll super stardom. Beggar’s Banquet was a lesson of simplicity, Let It Bleed was a lesson in authenticity and Sticky Fingers was a lesson in audacity.
Rock journalists have a habit of bending a band’s history into a Behind the Music-style template. Said band struggles through a few years of obscurity. Said band releases an album that catapults them into superstardom. Huge tours, massive amounts of drugs and internal arguments, combined with the inability to cope with newfound fame begin to corrode said band. And if the lead singer of said band band is famously standoffish to the press, and the follow-up album either contains no discernible hits or challenges listener expectations, the album is written off as a “career suicide” album.
Pulp’s This Is Hardcore quickly joined Faith No More’s Angel Dust and Nirvana’s In Utero as a perceived career suicide album upon its release. It certainly fit the career suicide mold: The album didn’t contain any instantaneously appealing songs like their previous album Different Class, the band was going through some heavy internal conflict and lead singer Jarvis Cocker opted to jet to New York to decompress over the holidays. Alone. Around this time, longtime Pulp guitarist/violinist Russell Senior left the band.
Down a longtime bandmember and in full isolation mode, Cocker could have easily written an album about what an utter bitch fame was. But just as he was able to strike a universal chord with the class warfare call to arms classics “Miss Shapes” and “Common People”, Jarvis tackled something even scarier than fame backlash: the inevitable acceleration of middle age.
I’ve always believed that the best songwriters have a bit of a shaman in them. They journey into dangerous emotional and spiritual terrain, engage with the darkest aspects of the human condition, and return with hard truths, insight, wisdom, and of course, sometimes more questions. True masters of the power of song are able to negotiate their shamanic gifts and write songs which resonate with listeners at the deepest, most personal level.
Rosanne Cash fits that description well; she is a deeply soulful and gracefully powerful artist. In her life’s journey, she has encountered the kinds of struggles that everyday folks deal with (divorce, substance abuse, unforeseeable medical issues), as well as struggles unique to being the child of Johnny Cash, a veritable legend. The work she has crafted out of these experiences is thoughtful, heartbreaking, fierce, and truthful.
In my opinion, Cash’s sonically inviting and emotionally cathartic 2006 release Black Cadillac is a good place to start for newcomers to her work. From there, it’s easy to navigate back to previous albums and find lots of other great work.
If I were to pick a definitive Smashing Pumpkins song, it would be the overlooked nugget “Hello Kitty Kat”, originally released as a b-side to the single “Today” in 1993, and later rounded up as part of the 1994 rarities compilation Pisces Iscariot. To me, the best Pumpkins songs always resembled huge swaths of color. The group was never afraid to be vulnerable or full-on rock monsters, and often did both in the same song, all while constructing walls of melodic guitar fuzz that built up to explosive finishes. “Hello Kitty Kat” is the Pumpkins at their best, incorporating all those factors while firing on all cylinders on a roller coaster of a song until the track practically collapses in on itself.
Speaking of melodic guitar fuzz, “Hello Kitty Kat” is sick with it. It’s no coincidence that frontman Billy Corgan’s best material was written between 1990 and 1996, a period when the man seemed inseparable from his Big Muff guitar pedal. Unlike lesser alt-rock guitarists, Corgan knew how to use the pedal in a way that the tone it generated enhanced his guitar parts instead of overwhelming them. The sounds Corgan coaxed out of his Fender Stratocaster thus served as the perfect missing link between psychedelia and grunge. That’s why I can never get hung up on Corgan’s nasally vocals like many of the band’s detractors do. At their artistic height the Pumpkins’ chief strengths were A) the guitars, and B) the arrangements. The more focus on both of those aspects, the better the song generally turned out. On “Hello Kitty Kat”, Corgan’s vocals are mixed unusually low, sounding insubstantial next to the architectural wonder he has constructed with his arsenal of guitar tracks.