PopMatters turns 10 this year and to celebrate we are looking back at the popular music that defined the year of our birth. Part 2 covers albums from March through June, highlighted by monster hits from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Moby and Dido.
Album: Black Foliage: Animation Music Volume One
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23 March 1999
The Olivia Tremor Control
Black Foliage: Animation Music Volume One
"Things come rushing in / Things come rushing out / When you’re in a dream / If you’re in a dream."
-- "A Sleepy Company"
Sometimes I think Black Foliage is just that: a sprawling trip into the hazy, aural subconscious. Its seamless flow calls to mind a surreal dream state, one that brims feverishly with more melody and harmony and psychedelia -- sheer, unbridled sound, really -- than most bands manage in a career. Tape loops rushing in. Acid-laced indie-pop rushing out.
Other times, it’s a sort of lo-fi symphony, an absolute tapestry of four-track static and multilayered loops, vibraphones and singing saws -- hell, even a thematic refrain -- that coalesce, somehow, into bright, triumphant pop. First you hear the melodic sensibilities and home-recording ethics of Guided by Voices or early Pavement. Then you notice the rampant Beach Boys fetish -- think Smiley Smile, not Pet Sounds. Then, finally, the Zappa-style sound collages, culminating with "The Bark and Below It".
The point, as PopMatters editor Sarah Zupko put it in a 1999 review, is that "you could listen to this record 50 times and never hear it exactly the same way twice." If there is an underlying thesis -- one that Black Foliage embedded deep into my own musical consciousness -- it is simply the notion that sugar-coated pop and avant-garde sound exploration need not be mutually exclusive. In fact, nothing on this record is more exciting than their paradoxical marriage. Just listen to "A Place We Have Been To", a breezy power-pop number that could surely be the Apples in Stereo if not for the carnival kaleidoscope of glitchy tape manipulation floating on top.
And that pairing, I think, is what makes Black Foliage the purest and most satisfying evocation of the Elephant 6 aesthetic to date. Of Montreal has always been too shiny, too glammy at heart; Neutral Milk Hotel too long-winded and obtuse for the job. And given its enthusiastic critical reception (even from Pitchfork’s Mark Richard-San, who smartly suggested a fresh box of Q-tips "for your ears to have a chance at capturing the 32,486,978 distinct sounds"), I wonder why this record has floated in underappreciated obscurity while In the Aeroplane Over the Sea grows in cult stature each year. Truly, after a decade of Pro-Tools and digi-compression, Black Foliage’s delirious sonic jungle only sounds fresher, more intoxicating than ever. And lurking in its depth -- from the fuzzy harmonic bliss of "California Demise (3)" to the bittersweet "Hilltop Procession (Momentum Gaining)" -- there remains one final, defiant truth: namely, that pop music is most exciting when teetering frantically on the verge of collapse. Zach Schonfeld
Album: The Man Who
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24 March 1999
The Man Who
Growing by leaps and bounds over their debut, Good Feeling, Travis’s The Man Who would go on to be one of 1999’s best selling albums in the UK. Filled with beautiful melodies and more restraint than its more rock-based predecessor, the album has a quiet, melancholic sound that would go on to influence many of their fellow British bands, such as Keane, Starsailor, and Snow Patrol. Coldplay’s Chris Martin has even said, "Coldplay would not exist without Travis."
Without a doubt, The Man Who is the album that started the trend that catapulted the above-mentioned bands into superstardom. Yet the kind of popularity achieved by these groups has in many ways eluded Travis. While The Man Who sold very well in Britain, their popularity throughout the rest of the world, most notably in the US, never reached the same heights of the bands that would follow in their footsteps.
The Man Who begins with "Writing to Reach You", a gorgeous, lilting melody that serves as a perfect introduction to the tone of the album. Lyrically, the album tends toward songs of love, disaffection, and paranoia, mixed with references to other hit songs of the time, such as Oasis’ "Wonderwall" or Beck’s "Devil’s Haircut". Travis’s gift for melody is fully on display in tracks such as "Driftwood" and "Turn" -- with sometimes vague and nonsensical lyrics that are nonetheless evocative. Perhaps no song makes this point better than the haunting "Why Does It Always Rain on Me", whose chorus ("Why does it always rain on me / Is it because I lied when I was seventeen") speaks to the album’s repeated themes of distance and isolation.
Mostly made up of quiet, tender, some would say lightweight songs, The Man Who is an album that created a template for launching quite a few other bands, good and bad. While Travis have certainly had their share of imitators, ten years later The Man Who still sits head and shoulders above many of these imitations and offers a glimpse into the beginnings of a movement that would dominate album charts for years to come. JM Suarez