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Genre: Alternative Rock
Preceded by: Surfer Rosa (1988)
Followed by: Bossanova (1990)
Related to: Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin II
What do Sgt. Peppers, Meddle, White Light/White Heat and Doolittle have in common? They are all among the respective bands’ best albums, with the absolute masterpiece at the very end of it. It’s 1989 and Pixies are at the center of the emerging alternative rock scene.
The Pixies formed in Boston in 1986, when singer Black Francis and lead guitarist Joey Santiago met at University. Kim Deal was the only person that responded to their absurd advert for a bass player and so she joined them without ever having played the instrument. After contacting drummer David Lovering and a random look in the dictionary they had a new band: Pixies. After releasing a first EP (Come On Pilgrim), the first LP quickly (it was completed in two weeks) followed in the beginning of 1988: Surfer Rosa. The raw guitar sound with little surf rock ingredients and the yowling voice of Francis gained the band acclaim in Europe.
So as measured by their record sellings, the Pixies were initially most successful in the UK. In the US, their music found its way to the listening crowd through the underground music scene, which was flourishing during the late eighties. While the radio stations played new wave and hair metal, youngsters were looking for pure guitar music and the Pixies offered them exactly what they desired. Together with bands like Sonic Youth they even nurtured the new subgenre of ‘grunge’. Kurt Cobain himself loved the band so much he wished he was in it. You can ask yourself which music stimulated the Pixies themselves to pick up this raw rock sound again. Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin (especially Led Zeppelin II) are often cited, just like Neil Young & Crazy Horse’s distorted guitar sound. But each time I listen to Doolittle, it sounds to me like a modern remake of The Beatles‘ White Album, with short uptempo tracks like ‘Glass Onion’ (with muscular intros and a scream now and then), happy melodic songs like ‘Bungalow Bill’ (with ‘naked’ verses and heavily orchestrated choruses) and simple musical intermezzo’s like ‘Why Don’t We Do It in the Road’.
First of all, Doolittle has a much cleaner sound than its predecessor, probably due to the quadrupled budget. Contrasting with this sound are the dark subject lyrics, ranging from surrealism to death and whores. No surprise the original album title was Whore, as Francis (who wrote all tracks) was inspired by the biblical figure of the whore of Babylon. All songs are separate shots of different kind of energies, which are launched at such a speed by their masterly intros that they’re already over before you know it. I think there’s only one ‘weak’ track on it (‘Dead’), and even that one has a nice sinister intro.
The other 14 tracks can be categorized in four kind of songs. First there are the happy sixties sounding songs that can bring you into a good mood on every moment of the day. ‘Wave of Mutilation’ for example has some very melodic vocals, reminding of the early Velvet Underground. Didn’t know until recently that the song is actually about suicidal Japanese businessmen. Even better is ‘Here Comes Your Man’, including catchy Byrds-style guitar riffs and some beautiful vocal harmonies in the chorus. No surprise this song was the commercial break-through for the band. At the same level is ‘Monkey Gone to Heaven’, which gave the inspiration for the album cover. It also has the riffs and harmonies, with the lyrics being about environmental disaster. The song features one of the absolute highlights of the album, being the crescendo bridge towards the end where Francis screams that God is seven. The ultimate sixties song on the album however is without any doubt ‘La La Love You’. It has this awesome intro and it’s sung by drummer David Lovering, who happens to sound exactly like The Smiths’ Morrisey.
Still melodic but averagely shorter and slower songs are ‘I Bleed’ (with this typical Pixies bassline), ‘Mr. Grieves’ (a kind of beatlesque sing along), ‘There Goes My Gun’ and (to a lesser extent) ‘Silver’. ‘There Goes My Gun’ always sounds to me like a retake of ‘Here Comes Your Man’, with the title covering all the songs’ lyrics. ‘Silver’ to the contrary prolly is the strangest song on the album, however very interesting. I think I can describe it best as Kate Bush meets some seventies instrumental western band like The Buoys. So are there also any longer tracks on the album? Yes, ‘No. 13 Baby’ and ‘Hey’, lasting 3’51” and 3’31” respectively. The first one really stands out for me because of its awesome instrumental outro. For one time, it’s not about the intro and the band takes its time for some pure instrumental performance like they did on Surfer Rosa. ‘Hey’ forms a beautiful tandem with this one and is even better, definitely a personal favorite.
What’s left are those songs that really defined that typical Pixies sound throughout the years: pounding drums, distorted guitars, yowling vocals and the characterizing soft-loud approach. First of all the album opener: ‘Debaser’. Already during the first 30 seconds of the song you get the idea that this album is about guitar music. Call it a ‘grunge-light’ song, with it’s clear bass notes and the surrealistic lyrics with references to movies like Eraserhead and Un chien andalou. This song immediately flows over into ‘Tame’. It can’t get more ‘quiet dynamic to sudden loud’ than this. The verses feature a simple bassriff and basic drums, ready to end up in a screaming chorus each time, bringing aggression into alternative rock.
Another ‘musical intermezzo’ is ‘Crackity Jones’, but a much more uptempo one than the melodic ‘There Goes My Gun’. Like ‘Tame’, the basic drum is there, the tempo is there and the aggressiveness is there. It just sounds like some crazy Spanish punk song, and happens to be about a former roommate of Francis, a ‘weird psycho gay’ according to his own words. But the absolute masterpiece (imho) is of course the final track: ‘Gouge Away’. The delicious guitar riff, the sharp vocals, the perfect soft-loud progression, this will always be an all-time classic for me.
Pixies released some more albums after Doolittle, but disbanded already in 1993 after tensions between Francis and Deal. Francis subsequently persecuted a solo career and Deal had success with her new band The Breeders. However, they never reached the same level again as on Surfer Rosa and Doolittle, two albums that can not be compared because of their different styles, but still both sound like masterpieces. Thom Yorke once said that, while he was in school, the Pixies changed his life. Maybe the same can happen to you, whether you’re in school or not.
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Genre: Alternative Rock
Preceded by: The Bends (1995)
Followed by: Kid A (2000)
Related to: Pink Floyd – The Dark Side of the Moon
In my last year at university I had a course called ‘Science Critics’. For the orally exam I had to prepare a discussion about “something that drew your attention and could be linked to the content of the course”, which was about people wanting everything and getting nowhere by doing so, meanwhile destroying their environment. I wanted to avoid I was going to be outtalked by this grey professor about Dark Side of the Moon, so I picked Radiohead’s version of the 90’s. It was the most pleasant assignment I ever had at university. Welcome to the world of OK Computer.
The nineties were reigned by what’s called ‘alternative rock’, an umbrella term for several genres that emerged from the independent music scene of the mid eighties. So in fact there’s no specific musical style to describe the genre, basically all the bands belonging to it have only one specific thing in common: their most important instrument is the guitar. While The Pixies and Jane’s Addiction paved the way for grunge rock in the US, it were The Smiths introducing an alternative to new wave in the UK, being responsible for the renaissance of the guitar. It opened the doors for typical britpop bands like Oasis and Blur. Just when grunge as well as britpop were within an ace of death, the English rock band Radiohead released their third album: OK Computer. Radiohead quickly became kings of alternative rock, but left the genre again only shortly afterward, trading it for experimental rock on their next albums Kid A and Amnesiac.
The band, consisting of singer Thom Yorke, guitarists Jonny Greenwood and Ed O’Brien, bass player Colin Greenwood and drummer Phil Selway, already formed in 1985 but only started to perform frequently in public in 1991, after all band members (except the young Jonny) were graduated from university. Soon followed the debut album, Pablo Honey, which wasn’t that great of a success, although ‘Creep’ became a massive hit, especially in the US. It was the follow-up album The Bends which brought the band its recognition in the UK. The album was characterized by rather personal lyrics, in huge contrast to their next one and one of the landmark records of the nineties, OK Computer (obviously). The album consists in fact of two kind of songs: melodic rock songs like they made before (but greatly improved) and kinda experimental songs introducing some ambient and electronic influences. They all have one lyrical theme in common: modern alienation.
Because the sequence of the tracklist, together with the music, the lyrics and the artwork, is one of the elements that makes this album immortal, I’m going to run over it chronologically. Opening track ‘Airbag’ gives you the crying voice of Yorke supported by a sinister electronic drum beat, as the band members were great fans of DJ Shadow back then. Not a genius song, but a very solid opening song, introducing you to the theme of the album. That’s why I always consider it a sort of prologue to ‘Paranoid Android’. This one is the first masterpiece, like you’re launched in somebody’s schizofrenic head with the altering moods of aggression, desperation and hope. The multiple sections remind of The Beatles‘ ‘Happiness Is a Warm Gun’, mixed with the ‘slow down and explode’ music of the Pixies.
‘Subterranean Homesick Alien’, is my least favorite song of the album of the album so I leave this one to you. The next gem is ‘Exit Music (For a Film)’. It’s a very naked song in the beginning, with only Yorkes voice (like later on ‘We Suck Young Blood’) and an acoustic guitar, progressing towards a climax in the end. Maybe this song reflects the spirit of the album best with Yorke singing ‘Breath, keep breathing’, ‘Sing us a song to keep us warm’ and the repeated ‘We hope that you choke’ towards the end. Some relief on the next track then, ‘Let Down’, which is driven by a very melodic, beatlesque guitar riff filled up with some nice vocal harmonies. Closing ‘side 1’ is one of Radiohead’s most famous anthems: ‘Karma Police’. It’s actually a quiete simple constuction, based around an acoustic guitar, Jonny’s piano and a very basic rock beat by Phil Selway. But the power of the song is the fact that when you whisper quietly to someone that you’re going to get him, it sounds much more powerful than if you would scream it loudly (and I don’t want to talk about The Beatles here all the time, but listen to ‘Sexy Sadie’ and compare the chord progression for yourself).
The album continues with the cold ‘Fitter Happier’, consisting of lyrics (typical nineties slogans) that are recited by a synthesized voice of a Mac. Not really a song, but totally creating the right atmosphere for the album. On ‘Electioneering’, Radiohead returns to its earlier rock sound, with guitar riffs, drum beats and Yorkes lyrics about political compromises pounding against each other. Following is one my absolute Radiohead favorites: ‘Climbing Up the Walls’. Just like ‘Exit Music’, it shapes a very dark atmosphere by its horror lyrics about serial killers and mental illness, and the powerful music with trip-hop influences. This always reminds me of the music Radiohead would later release on Kid A, Amnesiac and even Hail To the Thief. From horror to a a charming lullaby with ‘No Surprises’, considering the music with its acoustic guitar and glockenspiel. The lyrics however are about a very monotonous life in the modern world, which makes this an awesome contrasting song.
The album almost came to an end then, and after all the emptiness, bitterness and anxiety of the previous ten tracks, the future is again full of hope and lying in front of us. We were ‘Lucky’ of course, but maybe there’s still something in for us. It’s kind of a Floydian song (especially the intro) and also resembles the opening track ‘Airbag’, like this song finally explodes here, with a terrific guitar solo in the end. The album is definitely closed by ‘The Tourist’, which is (in my opinion) just like the opening song not outstanding, but a perfect clincher, easily sliding you out of the world of OK Computer.
This album is like a room with a secret camera with a different character walking in each song. That’s kind of how Tom Yorke once tried to describe it, and I can only agree with it. The interesting thing about this album is that Radiohead is searching for something, just like the characters in its songs. But the band is not searching to find something, it’s just searching because of the searching and is going somewhere nobody else went. The searching on this album resulted in an unquestionable rock classic, an album you absolutely must hear, apart from what your favorite music genre is. But to really experience the album, you have to make an effort. This is no background music, this is a documentary. (Try to) enjoy.