This week’s 1001 Albums takes us to late 80s/early 90s America, and the variety of new sub-genres that came out of that era. I’ve heard a few of the definitive albums of the time – the Nirvana ones, ‘Ten’ by Pearl Jam – but I’ve always thought the era didn’t offer a lot that I’d be interested in. Let’s find out whether that’s true.
Alice in Chains, ‘Dirt’
Reading this band’s biography, with two of the band succumbing to addiction-related deaths, is a depressing read, and the band don’t offer many more cheers on this, their only appearance on the list. Mainly focusing on personal issues: anxiety and depression (‘Rain When I Die’, ‘Down With A Hole’) together with drug problems (‘God Smack’, ‘Junkhead’), the pervading gloom and heroin tempo make for a sombre listen. I’ve never been a fan of the vocal style Layne adopts here, and the band’s grunge/metal sound combines two of the genres I’m least interested in. Pretty dull stuff.
Dinosaur Jr, ‘Bug’
As with many of the albums this week, this was made while the band were falling apart, this time due to tensions between guitarist J Mascis and bassist Lou Barlow. A Sonic Youth-ish combination of distorted guitars and poppy melodies, sung variously in a Thurston Moore-ish half-assed drawl and a Neil Young tremelo, this reminds me most of Urusei Yatsura, on whom DJ were doubtless an influence. The album peaks early with ‘Freak Scene’, but mostly sounds pretty good. Heavy Barlow-sung ‘Don’t’ feels like the right choice for a closing track, although on the CD reissue, tacked-on whiny jangle ‘Keep the Glove’ actually finishes up.
Jane’s Addiction, ‘Nothing’s Shocking’
A rocky desert landscape is attacked by a massive, screeching pterodactyl, barking destruction through an echo pedal. Jane’s legacy involved influencing several of the bands here, but they feel like they have more to offer: their production is weirdly dark and foreboding, and the bass-heavy riffs put me more in mind of Killing Joke than Soundgarden. ‘Ted, Just Admit It…’, meanwhile, sounds like an aggressive take on Siouxsie’s ‘Join Hands’ album. ‘Nothing’s Shocking’ is best remembered for ‘Jane Says’, a terrible single with a steel drum outro of all things, but it deserves better.
Minor Threat, ‘Out of Step’
Kind of a cheat as this came out earlier than the rest (1983), ‘Out of Step’ gets out of the way after a mere 21 minutes: there’s not a second to lose. Full of energy and vitriol, the album is open to DIY aesthetics (there are crudely-played bass solos), gags, and laying out the sXc manifesto in the 80-second title track. On one listen, this album’s tracks do kind of blur together; that doesn’t mean that it’s not worth checking out.
Mudhoney, ‘Superfuzz Bigmuff’
There seem to be a few versions of this floating around: the list actually refers to the original 1988 EP (surely a cheat), there was a full-length 1990 album, and the Spotify version is a deluxe, million-track version from 2008; all three have a different running order. I listened to the first 14 tracks of the Spotify version (the rest are demos and other guff). Anyway: this record rules. If the effects pedals give the band their distinctive sound (a scruffy, damaged-cassette sound), then what gives them their hook are the cool riffs and sleazy groove: stuff like ‘In and Out of Grace’ sounds like a Death From Above 1979 template. The band’s dumb, cynical approach prevents things getting too heavy, and even with a seven-minute Sonic Youth cover this doesn’t outstay its welcome.
I was kind of dreading getting to this album, as it’s always felt like the most macho rock album ever: Led Zeppelin-influenced rock with wailing geezer and no jokes or sex. Perhaps aware of the potential for sonic monotony, Michael Beinhorn and the band do try to broaden the aural palette: Eastern wailing from the bassist on ‘Half’, that is-it-a-guitar-or-piano melody on ‘Black Hole Sun’ and, of course, spoons on ‘Spoonman’. The inherent Soundgardening brings it down though, and the band’s failure to edit anything off the album means that it’s a patience-thinning 70 minutes long. This probably isn’t the most monochrome album on the list, but it’s subjectively among the least interesting albums I’ve listened to.
Sugar, ‘Copper Blue’
Having left Hüsker Dü, Bob Mould’s debut with this group varies dynamically from many of this week’s selections as it eschews low, heavy riffs in favour of trebly REM-like strumming and melodies. It sounds okay, if very much a product of its era and perhaps a bit dated as a result. The closer sounds like an early Smashing Pumpkins album, albeit with malfunctioning organ track. Sugar don’t feature again; Mould’s remaining contributions to the list are just one Hüsker Dü album, so nothing from his solo career, ‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch’ cameos or run in the doomed WCW creative team.
Next week: things are getting cleaned up a bit as we return to the 1980s to look at the best synth-pop of the era.
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