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Tuesday, Oct 13, 2009
On its release, Pulp's This Is Hardcore was derided as a commercial and artistic disappointment. Not so ten years later. Was the music ahead of its time, or did critics just have to reach their 30s to appreciate it?

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.


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Monday, Oct 12, 2009
Artist/Producer PC Muñoz mines for gems and grills the greats, five questions at a time.

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.


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Sunday, Oct 11, 2009

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.


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Friday, Oct 9, 2009
One in a long line of one-hit wonders that deserve to be multi-hit wonders.

America has never fully embraced what I like to call frat rock – the blend of pop-punk perfection filled with crunchy hooks, lyrics that combine humor and attitude, and a keg-tapping, booty-chasing college guy mentality – even though some of my favorite songs would fit into that category.


Sure, Deadeye Dick’s “New Age Girl” became a Top 40 hit, peaking at #27 and selling half a million singles in the process. And “Flagpole Sitta” – the Harvey Danger song that ruled the summer of ‘98, at least for me – reached #38 on the Hot 100 Airplay chart (although with lyrics like “put me in the hospital for nerves and then they had to commit me, you told them all I was crazy, they cut off my legs, now I’m an amputee, goddamn you” the song should have been a number one smash).


But Blink-182’s arguably definitive frat rock song “What’s My Age Again?”, which stayed on the Billboard Hot 100 for almost five months, never charted higher than #58. The video, featuring Tom DeLonge, Mark Hoppus, and Travis Barker streaking through town, was both infamous and iconic, but unfortunately, the US didn’t seem to share their sense of humor. And SR-71’s awesome “Right Now”, which was a number two smash on the Hot Modern Rock Tracks chart, never came close to charting on the mainstream Hot 100.


So it’s not surprising that Bowling for Soup, a pop-rock band from Wichita Falls, Texas, didn’t have much luck with “Girl All the Bad Guys Want”. With a tongue-twisting chorus and hooks that refused to let go for hours or even days, the song should have been one of the bigger hits of 2003. Instead, it barely lasted two months on the chart, peaking at #64.


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Thursday, Oct 8, 2009
Director Marc Webb's deft, nuanced use of pop music does more than just enhance an already great film.

While the summer has now passed us by, many theatres in my town are still playing the hit rom-com (500) Days of Summer. The story of young lovers Summer and Tom marks the feature-length directorial debut of music video director Marc Webb, and with his use of pop music in the film, his pedigree shows. The music isn’t just confined to the soundtrack—it colors the story to the point where it almost becomes another character in the script.


It seems no accident that Summer herself is played by an actor who is also a singer and songwriter, Zooey Deschanel. Her main musical vehicle is the duo She & Him, “Him” being indie troubadour M. Ward, and their debut CD,  Volume One was released to critical acclaim in 2007.


Summer is portrayed as the ultimate muse, and Deschanel, well… she just married Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard. Girls like Summer/Zooey are worshipped by guys like Tom/Ben—intelligent, sensitive, slightly nerdy types possessed of depressive tendencies and more than a working knowledge of the Jesus and Mary Chain’s back catalogue. The kind of girl who can boost area sales of Belle and Sebastian’s The Boy with the Arab Strap CD single-handedly by quoting lyrics from it in her high school yearbook. Even at the karaoke bar, where even the best of us are reduced to Whitesnake’s greatest hits, Summer keeps her hipster cred intact with her winsome and incredibly charming take on Nancy Sinatra’s “Sugar Town”. Summer is the thinking man’s heartthrob.


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