Better Than Ezra were a stunningly bad band. When you think of the most witless, gormless, reheated alternative rock of the mid-‘90s, Better Than Ezra elbow their way to the head of the queue with aplomb. Their playing is edgeless, featureless. Their lyrics are fresh from a high school creative writing workshop. The way they namedrop R.E.M. in the chorus of this dreadful song makes me understand why so many people started to hate that band. But I’ve reached a point in my thinking about music where I wonder if I don’t have to burn away the last of my taste prejudices. For people who think thinking seriously about music is a relatively serious matter, the current critical milieu is one in which we begin to deny the fantasy of objective judgement of popular art. It gets somewhat less pretentious from here!
Category Archives: 1990s
Portishead – Glory Box (1994, Go! Discs)
Why It’s Perfect: Most female songs about desire tend to be about the fun side, the playful blushing got-you-in-my-sights-ness of crushing; they don’t speak to reality so much as the basic pleasure of wanting or being wanted. Portishead’s Glory Box is about the weariness of love as much as anything, the painful honesty and intensity emotions take on well after the pubs have closed for the evening. It yearns. It’s kinda like Etta James’ At Last turned in on itself, dilated with the same all-consuming emotion but more cautious, fearful of being hurt, willing to give in to love again, but conscious of the consequences. The lyrics, which tell of a (supposedly) former wild woman looking to settle into a life of monogamy, sketch out some of the emotional space I’ve been describing here, but much of the nuance and characterization stems from singer Beth Gibbons’ performance. Her voice is beautiful and clear, but it has a touch of the cigarette smoke she constantly puffs, a slightly imperfect rasp that lends credibility to her story. On the verses she embodies the teasing self-confidence of a girl who knows what she’s got and how it effects a man; listen to the way she coos “Move over, and give us some room.” But each time the chorus hits she lets her guard slip, and the result is almost uncomfortably naked, this sense of an aging woman belatedly trying to settle into a more permanent love; “give me a reason to love you. / Give me a reason to be a woman.” It’s a pitch to a man certainly, but also to herself; she’s wants this man to be the right one so badly that he need only give commitment and she’ll do the rest.
Aside from Gibbons, the other star of the track is guitarist Adrian Utley. While Gibbons is more than capable of conveying complex emotion on her own, it’s Utley’s clanging, overdriven guitar that gives the Glory Box its captivating intensity. That melody he plays during the chorus is quite conventional save for the way he phrases it, just wrenching the notes out of the guitar somehow, creating this angular howl that contracts itself into a series of escalating climaxes. His solo is a gorgeous piece of work too, taking his time and letting you taste the metallic richness of the sound. It tears through the crackling vintage 45 production of the track, making very clear that for all it’s beautiful vocalization and haunting string arrangements, this isn’t some distant old soul record; Portishead have seen and felt too much since that simpler pop era to create such a comforting novelty.
Defining Moment: Towards the end of the song Gibbons cries “This is the beginning of forever… and ever…” It’s a strange, obsessive conclusion that doesn’t seem to be borne out by the rest of the lyrics, one of those decisions where someone wants something so bad they force it. As if responding to this, Gibbons’ voice becomes unexpectedly processed and distorted, as the soundtrack collapses into a huge, hollow trip-hop beat. It’s a twist you don’t see coming so late in a track, and effect is disorienting yet exhilarating for that very reason.
Other Great Songs by Portishead: While Glory Box is not especially indicative of the inventive programming and experimental nature of Portishead’s work, its cinematic (sorry to use that word again, but it fits) scope, bittersweet emotional tone and hypnotic sound are hallmarks of the band. All three of Portishead’s studio records, as well as their 1998 Roseland NYC Live document (which features a superb version of Glory Box), are classics in their genre and come highly recommended. For those seeking a wider sampling of their songs before diving in, Mysterons, Sour Times, All Mine, Over and Machine Gun are all magnetic wonders.
Dr. Octagon – Earth People (1995, Bulk Records)
Why It’s Perfect: Because prolonged exposure to hip-hop this unearthly has been known to cause mutated cattle, crop circles, near-fatal inhalation of psychoactive drugs and an indecent amount of ass-shaking. Well before the one-two punch of Deltron 3030 and the Gorillaz made whacko future rap quasi-mainstream, former mental patient and ex-Ultramagnetic MC “Kool” Keith Thornton dreamed up Dr. Octagon, a time-traveling alien masquerading as a gynaecologist (!) out to save/destroy the earth through questionable elective surgery and unorthodox rhymes. Such inexplicable extraterrestrial devilishness is certainly deserving of a calling card like Earth People, an introduction beamed directly from Octagon’s orbiting Jupiterian saucer to the underground electro clubs of NY, Cali and other environs. The backing track alone is a veritable smorgasbord of geek-funk musical delight, served up special by Keith and ace producer Dan the Automator, highlighted by its gloriously tacky pomp rock synth riff. It’s an arena-sized hook, but the production is lovingly detailed, from the oddly sinister plinking piano melody (of the type sometimes referred to at the Metal Archives as “horror movie clown masturbating”) to scene-setting quirks like the cheery-sounding girl who pipes in from time to time to contribute interstellar weather reports and personnel updates.
Yet for all the strange blinking lights on the exterior, the chassis of the U.S.S. Earth People is pure old school hip-hop not terribly unlike what Kool Keith had been up during the past decade with the Ultramagnetic MCs. The track has a certain physicality to it absent from most commercial rap, largely because it is constructed with a live DJ in mind. The marvellous DJ Qbert contributes some truly blistering manual scratching, while the underlying beat has the charming clackiness of pre-DAT tape turntablism. As for Keith as a rapper, well, the man is still batshit nuts and if you try to follow his flow logically you’ll probably end up crazier than he is. All of the strangeness which percolated under the surface of the old Ultramags records was allowed to surface in the Dr. Octagon project; how else to explain lines like “My nucleus friend, prepare, I return again / My 7XL is not yet invented” or “Astronauts get played / Tough, like a ukulele”? But, as with everything else on Earth People, it works. The bizarre litany of images and descriptions blend and complement the general alien vibe of the tune, and are in themselves often highly entertaining. Certain verses sound like nothing so much as an imaginative kid inventing the rules of a game as he goes along: “I got cosmophonic, pressed a button, changed my face. / You recognized, so what? I turned invisible.” Much of Octagon’s appeal is in his synthesis of naivety and grotesquery; strain that mix out through the lips of a gifted MC, and set it to a production as good as Earth People and, without fail, I am there at aluminum-intoxicant hyperspeed.
Defining Moment: Top three lines, in descending order…
3) “More ways to blow blood cells in your face / React with four bombs and six fire missiles / Armed with seven rounds of space doo-doo pistols”
2) “Now my helmet’s on, you can’t tell me I’m not in space / With the National Guard United States Enterprise / Diplomat of swing, with aliens at my feet”
1) “Face the fact: I fly on planets every day.”
Other Great Songs by Kool Keith/Dr. Octagon: Keith’s put out two records as Dr. Octagon, the first of which is the highly recommended Dr. Octagonecologyst (warning: Earth People might be the least strange thing on it). His catalogue is spotty to say the least, but those craving more of his bent outlook will probably appreciate the incredibly obscene First Come, First Served (released as Dr. Dooom) and Black Elvis (under his own name). Also, those into Run-D.M.C./EPMD-era rap are strongly urged to check out the Ultramagnetic MC’s Critical Beatdown, which is one of the finest records of its kind of the ‘80s.
Everlast – What It’s Like (1999, Tommy Boy)
Why It’s Perfect: Everlast’s sole solo hit single What It’s Like skirts the fringe of a category of hip-hop tracks I like to refer to as ”The Streets Is Bad!” PSAs (or SIBs). Pretty much every rap record’s got at least one, usually thrown in to excuse the cap-busting, bitch-slapping, crack-slinging lifestyle being promoted elsewhere by demonstrating how godawful things are for brothers and sisters on the street. 2Pac’s Brenda’s Got a Baby is probably my favourite example just by virtue of the almost ludicrous number of awful happenings he manages to cram into four minutes. It’s a rare ”Streets Is Fuckin’ Terrible!” PSA. (As an aside, I’ve more than once heard people arguing about how true that song is; Pac read an article and then made a bunch of shit up. Now quit it, you.) Anyway, What It’s Like has a few factors which make it distinct from the usual ”Streets Is Bad” PSA:
1. It is based on an acoustic guitar riff that could’ve been cribbed from The Counting Crows.
2. Everlast is white.
3. Not like, mulatto white or Capicalasian white or “a long time ago grandpappy got frisky with the help so I got a little bit of soul” white. White white.
4. Said white guy was the lead rapper on Jump Around by House of Pain.
These give the track no advantage over non-Counting Crows, non-white white, non-leaping inclined SIBs; in fact, earnest white people are almost invariably worse at them. So why, to repeat the question, is this a perfect pop single? Well for one thing, it’s probably the first real example of contemporary folk since Billy Bragg crossbred Woody Guthrie’s style with the attitude and volume of The Clash. Think about it: folk’s the people’s music, but the people haven’t listened to the music pigeonholed as folk in some time. Here we have a damn convincing fusion of folksy fingerpicked acoustic guitar with a kicking hip-hop beat (the current music of the oppressed), a surprisingly awesome mix which would eventually be rediscovered half a decade later by fellow rotund white rap dude Bubba Sparxxx on his superb Deliverance LP. In spite of the seeming incongruity of writing a song castigating people for not knowing the streets that sounds fit for an open mic at your local Starbucks, there’s a degree of honesty in Everlast’s decision to bridge these hip-hop and blues elements with what we might call for lack of a better word “white music.” He might be acting like Mr. Cautionary Tale, but it works because he’s not doing it over a cheap G-Funk beat with gunshot samples.
The track is at least as catchy as say, Jump Around, and nowhere near so embarrassing; whoever let Everlast know that his resonant, blues-inflected voice was better suited to this sort of talk-singing than the awkward b-boy flows of years past deserves a fucking medal, because his voice has a raspy sureness to it that inflects his very basic rhymes with something that sounds rather like wisdom. Plenty have dealt in song with the issue of teen pregnancy before Everlast, with most falling into a simplistic Let’s Talk About Issues/”Streets Is Bad!” category. Everlast’s take isn’t the most finely nuanced portrait out there, but he does admirably avoid casting the character as a one-dimensional hapless victim (“don’t you know she’s got a baby?!”). The lines, “And she sweared,/ ‘Goddamn, if I find that man / I’m cuttin’ off his balls’” do a much better job of capturing the frustration and hurt a woman might experience after being knocked up by a deadbeat than whole verses lamenting the socio-economic unfairness of her situation.
Similarly the last verse, regarding a drug pusher who “pulled out his chrome .45 / talked some shit / and wound up dead,” while a little obvious in its scene setting is also remarkably evenhanded in its portrayal of stupidity and tragedy. Like the best folk storytellers, Everlast manages to create a rich narrative space within quite modest means. That captivatingly circular riff doesn’t change much throughout the song’s deceptively lengthy running time (though it does build just the right amount of tension when it withholds the expected resolution for dramatic effect), and the chorus isn’t a barnburner, but it all feels more clear-eyed and sober than perhaps it has any right to. It just works, really, really well.
Defining Moment: Slang and curse words are rather unique in language in that they may be deployed as shorthand to establish a persona. What I mean by that is, saying “broke they heart” rather than “broke their hearts” or sprinkling a few f-bombs throughout a song can immediately create the impression of ‘realness’ or character. It’s often used rather cheaply to this end, and can easily lose its effectiveness, but when Everlast does it here it does add to the sensation that these are actual situations. The bad news is, the radio edit absolutely butchers the tune. I’m not sure why, but they went to town with the whitewashing, not only cutting out perennial objectionables like “fuck” and “shit” but also “drugs” and even “gun.” They fuzz out the castration reference (my pick for song highlight), which makes it sound like the girl got so distracted thinking about cutting off the dude’s balls that she accidentally got them caught in her mouth. Worse, the final verse becomes almost intelligible:
I knew this kid named Max
He used to get fat stacks out on the corner with [blank]
He liked to hang out late at night
Liked to get [blank] faced
And keep pace with thugs
Until late one night there was a big [blank] fight
Max lost his head
He pulled out his [blank]
Talked some [blank]
And wound up dead
What could Max possibly have pulled out that required a bleep? His penis? It baffled me as a teenager that anyone would write a song about cockfighting hoodlums, and it continues to baffle me now.
Watch the humorously butchered radio edit, with terrible music video to boot!
Other Great Songs by Everlast: The only other potential ‘great’ song Everlast ever cut by himself was Black Jesus, a similar composition to What It’s Like with more ornery guitars and a cranked up blues quotient. Put Your Lights On, his collaboration with Santana during the Supernatural sessions was equally excellent and proved a surprisingly good synthesis of his signature folksy hip-hop and the Mexican axe god’s sinuous soloing. Nothing else Everlast released is as good at either track, but his work during this period was still admirably solid and a nice reprieve from the more sophomoric rap-rock which was dominating the airwaves at the time. It’s worth checking out if you come across it.
Backstreet Boys – I Want it That Way (1999, Jive Records)
Why It’s Perfect: Although in my teen years I couldn’t abide this type of unabashed pop trifle, as I get older it seems increasingly absurd to hate something merely for being sweet. It’d be like running down the freezer aisle at the grocery store screaming “FUCK YOU, ICE CREAM!” Fact of the matter is, the Backstreet Boys’ unquestioned highwater mark I Want It That Way is one of the most sublime slabs of teen pop ever crafted. Produced by the controversial Max Martin, I Want It That Way is like some Swedish pop-bot’s idea of what sad music sounds like, replete as it is with pensive acoustic guitar picking and melodramatic synth accents, but it fails gloriously to inspire any emotion save for idiot grin sugar rush play-that-thirteen-times-in-a-row glee. The track’s great secret is the way everything subtly bounces; the percolating “drums” are a jaunty juxtaposition to the melodrama of the vocals, and the pizzicato strings both accent and sweeten the yearning chorus (an effect Martin would exploit to similar success on a number of early Britney Spears singles). But hey, don’t give Martin all the credit. Although the Backstreet Boys failed to produce a solo artist with the cleverness of Justin Timberlake, they were a hell of a group of pure singers and the harmonies in this song are simply exquisite. They have a natural interplay comparable to the best vocal groups, and it results in a much greater dynamic range than we hear from competitors like *NSync. The melodies and phrasings subtly shift over the course of the song, and it contributes not only to the sense of palpable lifting one feels when they hit the chorus, but to their ability to make that already heaven-high moment rise still further with each successive iteration.
Defining Moment: Brian Littrell’s showstopping “Teeeeeeeeeeeeeelll me whyyyyyyyy” in the last chorus. As far as teenpop nirvana goes, it’s a moment worthy of gospel. So worthy I had to resort to mixing the concept of nirvana and gospel to describe it.
Other Great BSB Singles: Though the Backstreet Boys never cut anything else at quite this level, As Long as You Love Me is another superb ballad let down only slightly by a limp bridge. I would argue that their second greatest effort, however, was actually the arena-sized sci-fi schlock Larger Than Life, which is, incidentally, arguably the least convincing “fame is hard” song ever written.