Sunday, September 12, 2010

My top five most underrated and overlooked Jangle masterpieces.

I find that, as a fan of primarily new wave based rock music, the jangle scene is the one that has become the most rewarding to me. Excellent, but sparse, guitar playing and singers who are more interested in the overall vibe of the song, as opposed to stealing the show with their vocal performance. The bottom line though is: all of these bands were inspired chiefly by good melodies and, when you get down to it, writing the best pop song they could.

From the late 80's, into the early 90's, the scene was huge. Bands were intermingling and somebody would be Madchester for a few things, trip hop the next and then just a plain old hard rock act in the long run (hi, Stones Roses), all the while retaining somewhat of a jangly backdrop. So, I guess what I should say right off the bat here is that to describe any music as 'jangle' proposes an undefined thing right away.

So, for my definition, I'd say that, to me, 'jangle' means very little distortion, if any. And, if there is some, it's in that My Bloody Valentine/Slowdive/Shoegaze way that, while noisy, it's still pretty. And, ultimately, there's nothing more to the music than to just write a classic resonating pop song. Just, pure, guitar based accessibility.

And, let's just say right now, I do not make this list with any pretense of being a guru. Although I do fancy myself somewhat of a jangle nerd, I also realize I have a lot to learn. I would love your own list or any recommendations.

And, one more bit: all of these albums are incredibly good. I would at least consider all of them for a spot in my favorites of all time. They're all five star albums, easily. It was genuinely hard for me to pick their ranking order (outside of my #1 pick, which was a no-brainer) and I still have a bit of an issue with the running order. But it's the best I could do with a tough decision.

Finally, one last prologue: the influence of the Smiths over all of this music cannot be overstated.

So, countdown style, let's get into it.

5. The Feelies — The Good Earth (1986)

A slow, meditative affair. Peter Buck produced and sounding downright stately on their seemingly never coming second album, the Feelies put together arguably the first non-R.E.M. album of American jangle that was truly about the album. No real big apparent singles to be found (in fact, the album's catchiest song —'Slipping (Into Something)'— was also its most radio-unfriendly at six minutes in length). If someone were to listen to Crazy Rhythms and then this album back to back, it would be a bit confusing. But then, look at the years of release and it would probably feel like the most logical and amazing progression ever. When 'On the Roof' begins, it just feels like the most natural, most awesome side/one track evolution on a second album. It just follows, nearly relentlessly, with nine tracks of acoustic based strum and, overall, what has to be the most unwilling pop albums ever created. The vocals are mixed in defiantly low and the songs avoid choruses like they'd never been invented yet, but underneath it all is a melodic urge. Like the pop in these songs had to be suppressed. Pete Buck is also to be commended for his time-defying production. Even on some R.E.M. stuff you can hear the dated drum EQ'ing. But not here. When Glen Mercer sings, "It's gonna rise and carry us home" on 'The High Road,' it sounds to me like pure propaganda to the listener, in an attempt to get the listener to take the album completely to heart and just let it burn from beginning to end and soak in every last bit until it touches your soul. If that is the case, that's some effective stuff that totally works on me. A shout for the recent reissue, as it adds some great covers (of the Beatles and Neil Young) from b-sides of the time period.

4. The Wake — Here Comes Everybody (1985)

A notorious whore for Factory and Northern bands in general, I owe it to the undeniably good LTM label for making me aware of the Wake. Admittedly, I'm a noob: I found out about the band through Caesar's involvement in the Occasional Keepers but if Bob Wratten can co-sign somebody's talent, surely they're worth delving into. And delve, I did. Indeed, the Wake was certainly a stock Factory band at the outset (in a good way), but they have slowly opened up and, thanks to LTM's downright awesome reissue campaign, I've discovered one of the greatest 'forgotten' bands of the post-punk era. Holy mother, is this album just about the biggest forgotten piece of proto-90's indie pop British greatness ever or what? This came out on freakin' Factory, too!! Sweet hey-zeus, I love this album! Ok, sorry for all of that... Now that I've calmed down, I have to say: it's awesome. It's like New Order, but without the baggage. Certainly, Barnie and the boys have an influence that looms large over this album, but it's not like Caesar and the band are just copying every move in their playbook. It feels less like sheer imitation and more like a band trying to outdo their inspirations. After 'Blue Monday', those other Factory boys surely had a big weight on their shoulders to deliver more dance-pop hits, but the Wake had next to no anticipation, so if they took the dreamy synth/jangle cue proposed on some of the second New Order album's tracks, can you really blame them? New Order released Low-Life the same year as this album and while that is definitely an album I love and admire greatly, I'd say Here Comes Everybody has it beat within the first half. By the time this thing hits 'Melancholy Man', you'll be wondering if it will ever dip in quality (the answer is no). The stark, tan-on-white color scheme of the cover art is perfectly suited to the music. It's a wash of dreamy mini epics, with synth patches taking the harmonies and awesomely understated jangly arpeggios taking the unassuming lead. Make no mistakes, there is a definite formula here, but it's so unique when you consider the context that it just doesn't matter. The big clue here that the band was not just a New Order ripoff —besides the actual coherence of the songs— is the bass. Low in the mix and simply playing the root, it's just another layer in the seemingly endless bands of dreaminess. All eight songs are pure pop greatness. Three minutes short or seven minutes long, nothing is ever squandered and not a single second is wasted. When an album kicks off with an absolute gem on the level of 'O Pamela,' you know something's up. The surprisingly dark title track really makes things clear on this album: it's completely soul-bearing in Caesar's lyrics (not that you would ever know it from the way they're mixed in so low). This album is simply godlike. Another shout for the deluxe edition being the definitive, if for nothing else than that it adds the band's essential single from 1984, 'Talk About the Past' (featuring Vini Reilly on piano, so get your copies of Another Setting out for reference).

3. The Railway Children — Reunion Wilderness (1987)

Also released on Factory, inexplicably in 1987, the Railway Children must have faced the worst NME reviews for being the biggest Smiths ripoff ever. And yeah, those first few listens into this album might find any self-respecting Morrissey/Marr fan very cynical of 'A Gentle Sound,' but just let the needle spin past that first track (which you may even like after getting to know the album) and it'll become immediately clear that there's something completely different about these Wigan boys. It's almost as if Gary Newby thinks he's Otis Redding at some points (fyi: re-contextualize that for a jangle setting and realize that he's not exactly a pseudo-soul grunting whiteboy, but he's actually got very real emotion in his timbre). After the immediate highlight of 'Another Town,' the majority of side one presents a group of downright appealing Smiths ripoffs. However, the last track on side one is 'History Burns.' A somewhat funky (??!!) and just plain old relatable pop song is an eyebrow-raiser, to say the least. Turn the record and you're greeted by a xylophone. No, seriously. It morphs into a bass-led thing that may not seem that impressive at first. But, wait. That middle eight arpeggio, what's he's hinting at? Then, the glorious chorus enters and good god DAMN. Can you say, 'highlight'? What matters? What really doesn't matter? Dude, does it matter when you write songs this good? It all becomes so vague. Quite. Another thing called 'Careful' follows it up with another similarly-misleadingly 'ok' verse and then 'OH SHIT!' amazing chorus and it doesn't even feel like a surprise at that point. Just like, 'Yeah... this album is that good.' Like you knew it all along. So much... but not enough: a telling lyric as the Children went Hollywood after this album and churned out albums of faceless, sub-Madchester corporate rock. But... whoo, is Reunion Wilderness amazing. Check that photo: somebody paid 89¢ for it. . .

2. The Ocean Blue — Beneath the Rhythm and Sound (1993)

My love of this album has already been well documented on this blog. If anything, writing that post rekindled my love of the album after a period of kind of forgetting about it. In the past year, it's only grown ever larger in stature for me. The uber-pop of 'Sublime' and the pièce de résistance 'Bliss is Unaware' (I'm now convinced this is one of the greatest songs ever written) melting in with the partly shoegazey elements of 'Either/Or' and 'Don't Believe Everything You Hear' and the sincerely great ballads 'Crash' and 'Emotions Ring' all makes for one of the most nostalgically awesome 90's albums ever recorded. Truly one of the best of the 90's decade and easily in my top albums of all time. If the Wake is godlike, then this has to be equated with time-traveling levels of unknown, omnipotent awesomeness. If not awesomer.

1. Riverside — One (1993)
And it's fitting that not only was this album produced by then Ocean Blue-ist Steve Lau, but it's title is actually One. I don't even know where to start. Being that this is a list of underrated and overlooked albums, I couldn't do anything except put this at the top spot. There was nothing at the time that sounded like it because everyone had gone grunge and the rock (and even indie) landscape was not concerned with Britain any longer. Also hailing from Pennsylvania (like the Ocean Blue), the band was fronted by brothers Glen and Keith Kochanowicz (now shortened to Kochan) and it should make sense that the band kicked ass because Glen was the bassist and lead singer (are any of them not awesome?). I guess a quick description of this album would be the Ocean Blue with a bit more of a shoegaze influence. I mean, listen to the screeching feedback and hushed vocals of 'General Nature' and that would seem just fine. But there's something else at play here. Look at those guys on the cover photo. Do they not look like a prototype Backstreet Boys? What the hell is going on here?! 'Cinnamon Eyes' sounds vaguely Happy Mondays-ish, no? But what's with all these incredible hooks? Are these guys serious? The answer is yes. They are that good and they are more than ready to create one of the best albums ever. Amidst every single killer track and unbelievable chord change is that reverby, echoey wonderful jangle. If Beneath the Rhythm and Sound is very nostalgically 90's sounding, then One is the quintessential early 90's non-grunge guitar album. It's like it takes everything great about American and British jangle and summarizes it all into one ten-song, fourty minute album that perfectly encapsulates and simultaneously trumps all of it, in one magnificently gorgeous swoop.

~Austin

3 comments:

a horde of rand said...

Hullo! I was trying to research Riverside, as I am absolutely obsessed with this album and have been since it came out almost 20 years ago. I am sooooooo glad that someone else shares my fervor! (Even if I'm a little late finding you.) I see that they have recently reformed to play some gigs, but I can't seem to find an official website, myspace page... Nothing! However! I did find this. ...and it's great! I just thought that a fan would love to hear this. They recorded this second album before getting dumped from Sire. Some 10 years later, they finally released it. http://www.riversidetaste.com/indextaste.htm If you find anything, email me at ahordeofrand@gmail.com

Austin said...

Well, 'hullo' back at cha!

I have indeed purchased Taste directly from Glenn. It's also a right fine little affair, if not quite as sublime as One.

The site you linked actually *is* the band's official page. They were supposed to be self-releasing a new album this summer, but unfortunately I've not yet heard anything else about it. You can listen to four new songs at http://www.riversidetaste.com/

I'm sure Glenn will answer if you send a nice email to riversidecd[at]yahoo.com

I've had a couple of exchanges with him myself and he seems like a gracious fellow.

Thanks for stopping by.

~Austin

David Liso said...

Hello Austin,

I am one of the few people just like you. I consider One a masterpiece. It's in my 'Top 30 Favourite Albums Of All Time' since a year after it came out. Why? Because it took some time to grow on me! Very powerful piece of music writing. I can't spend a month without listening to one of the tracks. The Close Lobsters, Wall Of Voodoo, and a few other bands do this to me. I have tried to replicate the jingle-jangle heaven cascading 12-string guitars on my own,... It's pretty fun. I love the sound. Check out Dynamo Stairs (it's my band) on CDBaby or iTunes if you have a minute.

Ciao for now,


David