Stuck in the Nineties (Part II)

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Previously, on Stuck in the 90s, we cover the perils of living in the age before widespread adoption of the internet. In this installment, we will look at the dramatic impact of moving from MS-DOS to MS Windows 3.1.

Seven)  Ghostfather – Humpback Oak (1997)

It may sound like a nightmarish scenario now, but there was a time, before Internet, Pitchfork, Youtube and Spotify, where the only way to know new music was to read about it in music magazines. One such purveyors of good taste back then was this locally run monthly magazine named BigO. While BigO did provide coverage of many things not seen in the mainstream media back then, they also had a track record of missing the boat on some talented artists and then overcompensating by proclaiming a newer, but inferior artist as the next big thing. Case in point: BigO casually brushed aside PJ Harvey’s efforts, but somehow managed to give Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill, an album of meticulously-arranged angst, a perfect 10/10.

However, the gravest injustice was possibly the omission of Humpback Oak’s Ghostfather from 97’s best albums list. (After getting shit for their omission, BigO went on to include some forgettable local band in 98’s best albums list.) The omission was particularly absurd, because Ghostfather was not just one of the best local records of the year. It was one of the best records released worldwide in 1997. It took an ang-mo, Paul Zach, to spell out the ridiculous double standards that were prevalent at the time.

Anyway, Leslie Low and company had already established themselves as accomplished songwriters in their debut, Pain-Stained Morning, so it was not surprising that they would take what could be best described as Singapore Folk music in a more avant garde direction. Melodic songs such as Scared Scarred, If I Go Wrong and Stressed Out dealt with adolescent angst and would not be out of place on Pain-Stained Morning. However, on standouts like Bridge and Oh the Load Heavy Don’t Float, the band displayed an uncanny ability to experiment with their Red House Painters-inspired sounds to greater rewards. I particularly love the unique struggle between forlornness and dissonance on Oh the Load, which is rather moving in its own way. Unfortunately, it is also a sound that will not be attempted again, as Leslie Low moved on quickly to the far more esoteric Observatory.

If there were any complaints about the album, it was that it subscribed to the misconception that death obsession = good art, probably due to the zeitgeist of the day (see also: Eric Khoo’s excruciating 12 Stories). I wonder if Leslie Low would be embarrassed by the contrived Drop of Soul these days. Nevertheless, with the exception of B-Quartet’s debut, no other local bands really come close to Humpback Oak’s mix of accessibility and artfulness on Ghostfather.

Six)        Automatic for the People – REM (1992)

This is really the album that started it all for me.

Back in the 80s, I was mostly listening to Xinyao (which is essentially Singapore chinese folk music) and some generic chinese pop, mostly due to the influence of my sister who was big on those stuff. When the 90s came along, I started listening to the English pop on the radio. Back in those days, the airwaves were pretty much clogged with Mariah Carey, Boyz II Men and Whitney Houston’s very forceful “I will always love you” refrains.

Then one fateful night, while I was watching a music video program (America’s Top 10, or something like that), I caught the strains of this strange, enchanting and yet laconic tune of a black and white music video that simply consisted of one man bodysurfing in a mosh pit. It was pretty mind-blowing back then (yeah, I know, the threshold of getting my mind blown was rather low back in 92). Eager beaver that I was, I quickly figure out the video was REM’s drive. The title and artist being printed at the end of the video helped out quite a bit, I would admit.

So, one day, while I was browsing cassettes at my favorite music shop in Jurong East, I chanced upon Automatic for the People and decided to buy it. And thus began my downward spiral into the world of alternative rock. I kid, but life would probably be very different if I have not seen that video. Even though Nirvana was massive back then and was prominently featured on local radios, I didn’t really quite get them. After Automatic for the People, I became more adventurous in my musical preferences and I understood what Nirvana was about.

Much of the album is imbued with a tender, dirge-like quality. Sweetness Follows, Star Me Kitten, Night Swimming and Find the River are understated ballads that moved at unhurried pace to establish a sense of gloom. Everybody Hurts is quite overwrought, but still, it was unlike anything else on the radio back in 92. The album is not uniformly downcast though. Man on the Moon is a cheerful little ditty about Andy Kaufman and his antics (on the surface anyway. I am not sure if there are any deeper meanings).  Ignoreland doesn’t seem to belong on the album, but it’s a sound the band would revisit on the criminally underrated Monster.

In any case, it would not be amiss to say that if not for this album, I might be listening to the likes of Jay Chou or whatever is on FM93.3 these days. But then again, perhaps I would relate better to friends and acquaintances, and that might not be a bad thing? I can see a Back to the Future in the making here.

Five)       The Soft Bulletin – The Flaming Lips (1999)

“Magnum Opus” is a term that is often thrown around when reviews of The Soft Bulletin surfaced back in 1999. Often, such hyperbole would only be greeted with a skeptical “it’s way overrated”, but in the case of the Flaming Lips’ finest hour, the term “magnum opus” would be way appropriate. Prior to The Soft Bulletin, The Lips were best known for their semi-hit, She Don’t Use Jelly. Bad grammar aside, the song is catchy and good for a lark, but doesn’t exactly telegraph greatness in the near future. After all, this is the Flaming Lips we are talking about. The dudes who fantasize about killing bosses in their dreams and freeing all the animals in the zoo. Of course, the Lips did an experiment in sound with Zaireeka, but still, nobody was really expecting The Soft Bulletin.

Yet, the minute the strings, the soaring vocals and incredibly memorable pop melodies hit you in Race for the Prize, you know this can only be a great thing. Amazing songs just seem to come out of the woodworks on this record.  What is the Light? is possibly the most incredible paean to a love interest that somehow manage to approximate the sensation of falling in love. I love how the song just segues into the next track, The Observer, like it was the most organic and natural thing in the world. Meanwhile, multipart vocal harmonies introduce the Gash, before it evolves into a gospel-tinged fable about fighting the good fight despite adversity. Waiting for a Superman is a touching ditty about how expectations may weigh on even the greatest among us. However, my personal favorite is Feeling Yourself Disintegrate, and I will just let the lyrics speak for themselves.

“Love in our life is just too valuable
Oh, to feel for even a second without it
But life without death is just impossible
Oh, to realize something is ending within us”

While the sound collages, lovely strings, and affecting empathy in Wayne Coyne’s vocals may sound like a recipe for pompousness, the Lips never lose any of their charming personalities. I think the reason why I love this record so much is that it makes me incredibly hopeful for the future. If the Flaming Lips can reinvent themselves into this Technicolor entity while staying true to themselves a dozen years into their existence, perhaps there is hope for all of us.

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