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Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Grunge Revisited

It's been 15 years since the hype. Almost a generation has passed since I was a highschool lad and all I heard about was Blew and Big Dumb Sex and Touch Me, I'm Sick. Lately I've been asking myself, "So what was it all worth? What's the legacy of all that music, all that money, all those flannels?"

In order to reflect on that legacy, I first wanted to go listen to the source material. There wasn't too much grunge left in the old music collection. I think I sold more Subpop albums than I kept, but looking at what still lines my shelves all these years later was a good place to start. And I make full apologies, but I wasn't old enough or urban enough to know anything about Green River or Skin Yard. Grunge purists will be angry... grunge purists be damned.

First and foremost, there was a surprising amount of Nirvana: Bleach, Nevermind, Incesticide, Unplugged and In Utero all survived. As I plowed through it, there were a few validations and a few surprises. My thoughts: I should purge Unplugged, Bleach and Incesticide from the collection; In Utero is still (by far!) their best set of recordings and definitely one of The 5 Best Seattle Albums Of the Era; Unplugged really showcased their warts; Dave Grohl really wasn't a very good drummer; Kurt Cobain, however, was a standout of the genre... A true genius. Ben Shepherd, the second bassist for Soundgarden, told me after Cobain's suicide that every Soundgarden song ever recorded should be considered an homage to Kurt. A bunch of those songs were written before anyone had ever heard of Cobain, but he's right anyway. Without him grunge would never have truly separated from the school of hair-metal, and bands like Soundgarden and Alice in Chains would have gone down in history as brief heirs to the throne left by Guns and Roses. Kurt made it safe for rock to have a brain, to have vulnerability, and for its inheritors to hurl grapefruits at Axl Rose. Sadly, it's not surprising that Krist and Dave have sucked in their post-Nirvana endeavors. Dave Grohl's Foo Fighters project is offensively pathetic from a Grunge perspective (they did contribute some funny videos to MTV though.) Novoselic had a brief affair with politics, organizing JAMPAC, lobbying for underage music venues, and generally abusing his bully pulpit. He also attempted a solo musical career but found the public uninterested in any Novoselic product that didn't involve a certain blonde fallen angel of Seattle. Krist switched axes to an electric 12 string guitar, but his first solo project Sweet75 was a bust. His newest recording, Eyes Adrift, sees him reunited with Curt Kirkwood from the Meat Puppets (the guys that saved Nirvana's Unplugged album from total irrelevance,) and honestly, it isn't bad. It's something of a survivors therapy group (Kirkwood's brother Cris died after a long battle with drug addiction, and the band also features the drummer from Sublime,) but it sounds more like typical Meat Puppets psychodelic country than grunge. And as for post-Kurt faceplants, I'm not even going to talk about Courtney Love. Except to say that I still smile when I hear "Well I went to school... in Olympia-ah-ah-ah." Twas our unofficial Evergreen Geoduck fight song for a couple years there.

How important was this show? I dunno, but it did feature three major players in the bloated Seattle grunge scene. Soundgarden rode their glory, and leadman Chris Cornell's sex appeal, all the way into arena rock self-loathing. Sometime after releasing Down on the Upside, Soundgarden must have realized that they were becoming the new Led Zepplin. Naturally they broke up. In the aftermath, Ben did some side projects, playing with Mark Lanegan (more on him later) and fronting an oddball group called Hater. Matt (10 times the drummer Dave Grohl was) has found steady work pounding the skins for Pearl Jam (less on them later) and has guested with lots of groups including Queens of the Stone Age. Chris went on to replace Zach de la Rocha and turn the beloved, seminal Rage Against the Machine into the less beloved, less seminal Audioslave. I think Kim just hangs out with old friends and drinks beer now. Soundgarden's greatest moment (and the only CD I still own by them) was undoubtedly Badmotorfinger. The album crunches with massive stomping rhythms and makes angry stabs at the heart of its enemies. It made MTV's Headbangers Ball watchable and stands up today as one of The 5 Best Seattle Albums of the Era.

After enjoying a little success, the Screaming Trees also broke up, giving birth to the wonderful solo career of former front man Mark Lanegan. Freed from rock band trappings, his Whiskey for the Holy Ghost album isn't really grunge, but the sophomore solo set is also one of The 5 Best Seattle Albums of the Era. A lot of interesting cats have played behind Lanegan, but the melancholy acoustic guitar contributions of Mike Johnson were the most critical. Johnson, formerly of Dinasaur Jr., also released a series of intermittently brilliant solo albums on local labels. And while his whiskey & cigarette baritone rivals Lanegan's, his song writing doesn't.

Tad Doyle, the Loser King, the fattest rock star ever (far fatter than Meatloaf even!) completely kicked ass. Tad's 8-Way Santa and Inhaler albums were big fat masterpieces. They helped define the abrasive metal side of grunge. Inhaler has been one of the joyful surprises of this research project. I've been listening to it as I write this post and finding it more listenable today than ever.

All I'm going to say about Pearl Jam is that they aren't grunge. They were never grunge. I'm guessing that I would like some of their later stuff, but their first two hit-laden albums are abhorrent to me. Eddie Vedder's vocal style and phony emotional gravity flouted every ethic that grunge stood for. I'm also not willing to discuss hair-metal refugees Alice in Chains (despite their heroin fueled cry for credibility) or Nirvana industry clone Bush.

The Melvins may be the surprise hit of this retrospective. Totally over the top and unapologetic, I have never been able to stop liking Stag and the even more fantastic Stoner Witch, which today merits the rank of one of The 5 Greatest Albums of the Era. The Melvins, perhaps more than anyone, defined the "intentionally unlikeable" side of grunge. I never saw Buzzo or the gang in action, but all the reports say these guys were as iconoclastic as they were prolific (Amazon lists 32 separate recordings, most full length albums.) They also earn special mention for their cartoon-loving album art. I especially treasured a 7" of theirs depicting Warlock's grisly reanimation of Cypher from Marvel's New Mutants. Too bad the Melvins never teamed up with Mudhoney to beat the crap out of Pearl Jam. Speaking of Mark Arm and crew, I like everything Mudhoney stands for, I just never want to hear another of their songs again. I'm afraid they'll never make my top 5 rankings.

Here's another surprise band that creeps in and nabs the final entry to the best album club. NoMeansNo's Wrong is scathingly smart, brilliantly spare and manically twisted. It's also one of The 5 Greatest Albums of the Era. NoMeansNo still representz in the music collection. Counting their collaboration with intellectual punkster Jello Biafra, I still own three of their cds.

So Nirvana, Soundgarden, Mark Lanegan, the Melvins and NoMeansNo are the artists responsible for the albums on my top 5 list, and I think they stand up as a worthy pantheon. The grunge movement may have been a ridiculous hype fest, and I probably wound up wasting a lot of time listening to a lot of crap, but that would put me in good company with the fans of any other music movement, be it Manchester or NYC. It was the music of my youth, and it was nice to have local bands fuel my requisite adolescent angst. As for legacies, grunge bands were either visionaries or just hard rock placeholders for bands like Limp Bizkit and Tool. Either way they got rock stars out of spandex and helped force Metallica to shave their damn heads and that's good enough for me. _Music



At 9/12/2005 12:11:00 PM, Blogger Johnbai3030 said...

I tried, not always successfully, to limit my discussion to bands that I see as being part of the grunge movement. A key part of that definition for me is an "intentional ugliness"... an eschewing of prettiness or perfection. Thus the name "grunge". This is why I don't see Pearl Jam as part of that movement. I also don't see SunnyDayRealEstate as part of the movement. Otherwise, I would have listed Jeremy Enigk's solo album, Return of the Frog Queen, as one of the 5 greatest albums of the era.

At 9/16/2005 03:37:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"We have no right to express an opinion untill we know all of the answers"

~Kurt Cobain~


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