Stuck in the Nineties (Part III)


Ah, the nineties, when Friends sat around doing nothing but drinking coffee all day, and listened to these records…

Four)     1977 – Ash (1996)

1996 was the best year of my life.

Back in my secondary school days (‘92 to ’95), my best friend was this guy who was sexually ambiguous (as he’s now married to what can only be described as a beard). That guy was also super annoying, had little personal boundaries and was getting on the nerves of the rest of the class. Being his best friend (and perhaps also due to a misguided notion about fighting social injustice), it became my personal mission to defend him from the insults and abuses that were coming his way. Unfortunately, that also left me ostracized from the rest of the class. In an ironic turn of events, my “best friend” pretty much told me to fuck off the minute he got attached.

In any case, I was pretty sick of it all. By 1996, I was finally moving on from the draconian daze of secondary school to a new beginning in junior college. To say the least, it was a thrilling experience moving from an all-boys school to a mixed environment. I was interacting with girls in a meaningful way for the first time in my life. There was no power-crazed authoritarian figure imposing arbitrary rules. At the same time, I realized that I was developing a penchant for writing. Even my GP tutor called me brilliant, something I rarely hear in life. Things were looking up.

In a way, Ash provided the perfect soundtrack to those halcyon days. 1977 is not an album that will be found in many (if any) top albums list of the 90s, despite it being a collection of perfect pop-punk confection. In the early and mid-nineties, grunge was the toast of the day. However, even though there were some good bands that came out of grunge, grunge was also bogged down by this tedious “I may sell millions of records, but I am too miserable worrying about being a sell-out” attitude as displayed by the likes of Eddie Vedder.

Hailing from Downpatrick, Ireland, Tim Wheeler and company had no such concerns. 1997 was simply an album about young boys in love with girls, geeky shit and life in general. There is an authentic naivety (band members were 19 at the time) when the boys sang about such important things in life such as Star Wars, Kung Fu and meeting that Girl From Mars. The album may had been incredibly loud, but it was chocked full of inspired melodies, with singles such as GoldFinger, Girl From Mars and Oh Yeah still sounding as immediate as it did back then. Tim Wheeler’s vocals also had an extremely endearing quality about it, conveying sensitivity against a backdrop of harsh guitar fuzz.

Innocent Smile saw the band experimenting with a harsher wall of noise (which Ash would explore in Nuclear Twilight), but ultimately, 1977 would be remembered for its relentless exuberance. If you are feeling down, just have a listen to Angel Interceptor. The swooning vocals, crescendo of guitars and drums and waves of yearning emotions will set things right immediately. In a perfect world, this will be the template for all pop records, instead of all the generic boy bands and girl groups that clogged the airwaves. Of course, in a perfect world, every year of my life would be like 1996.


Three) either/or – Elliott Smith (1997)

Back in 2001, I was in Redwood City visiting my sister, who had relocated due to my brother-in-law’s work. While I was in San Francisco (which was a skip away from Redwood City), I realized that Elliott Smith was playing at the Great American Music Hall. Predictably, the tickets were sold out by the time I got to the venue. There was a tout selling the tickets at an inflated price, but at the time, I thought it was kind of shady and decided not to go for it. Little did I know that Elliott Smith would be dead in two years’ time, and that was my only chance at catching him live.

Anyway, I am getting ahead of myself. I first heard Elliott Smith in Good Will Hunting – the movie that propelled Matt Damon and Ben Affleck to mega-stardom. Prior to that, I listened to other folky singer-songwriters before, but most of them can only be described as drowning in a sea of mediocrity. Then Between the Bars came on in a scene with Matt Damon and his onscreen lover. While it had sparse guitar playing, the song was extremely intimate, much like a friend confessing a secret to you under the influence of alcohol. Incidentally, there were some interpretations of the song being about alcohol addiction, although I suppose it could also be about sticking by a friend despite his/her alcoholism.

In any case, Between the Bar inspired me to buy either/or and subsequently, the whole Elliott Smith back catalogue. Yeah, my love for Elliott Smith was well known back then. An army friend gifted me a Heatmiser record, which was also good, but not nearly as great as his solo stuff. Despite its very sparse instrumentation, either/or still stands as the best Elliott Smith album. It had a more fully-formed sound than its predecessors and was not nearly as fussy with its production as later albums (XO, figure 8) would be.

Many of the songs on the record can be interpreted as various forms of addiction, but the ingenuity of Smith’s songwriting is that the songs can also generally be about individuals who are too trapped in their misery that they can’t see any way to improve their lives. Alameda went, “Nobody broke your heart / You broke your own because you can’t finish what you start”. Ballad of Big Nothing was doused with an even more hopeless sense of resignation.

“You can do what you want to there’s no one to stop you
Now you can do what you want to whenever you want to
Do what you want to whenever you want to
Do what you want to whenever you want to
Though it doesn’t mean a thing
Big nothing

Much of Elliott Smith’s work on either/or reminded me of people in severe depression. They would lie in bed all day long, with tears at the edge of their eyes, and are often too overwhelmed with bad thoughts to do anything to better their conditions. If anything, I would say he understood depression too well. Even the sweetest song on the album, Say Yes, was about a failed relationship, with the protagonist hoping that his ex-lover would say yes to a reconciliation.

either/or marked a time in my life when many things were coming to an end. Nevertheless, I still love this album to this date.


Two)      To Bring You My Love – PJ Harvey (1995)

Remember riot grrrl? No? Well, I don’t really care to either, since this is yet another American music movement where the social politics quickly overshadow the music, which, apart from a few exceptions, was pretty monotonic. What I did remember was that there was a proliferation of women in rock articles arising from the movement. And nothing says more about the state of women in rock music than the need to have articles about the state of women in rock music. After all, you don’t see many articles about the state of men in rock music, do you?

Anyway, while PJ Harvey was sometimes featured in these articles, having come from the UK, Harvey had nothing to do with the riot grrrl movement, which is fitting, since her songs have a far more universal appeal than the politically-charged feminist movement. If there is one constant in the evolution of PJ Harvey, it is the fact that she never repeats herself.

My own introduction to PJ Harvey was via her sophomore album, Rid of Me, which was a gutsy collection of gritty blues-inspired rock songs about sex and obsession. Harvey’s depiction of sexual obsession was more horrifying than sexy though, and kind of fractured my perception of the female psyche back in ‘95. That is to say, while it was an amazing album, it was pretty unreal. PJ Harvey did go on to admit that none of her albums were autobiographical in any way. There were pretty much personas she put on, much like actors taking on roles in different movies.

Things became clearer with the release of To Bring You My Love, where Harvey adopted a more theatrical approach while serving up a mash up of mutant blues, spaghetti western and swamp rock. To top it off, Harvey would appear in a red dress, abandoning her signature shirt-and-jeans combo. Truthfully, it takes a lot of guts to be defiant in the face of expectations and move off in a completely different direction. In the states, such a move will possibly constitute “selling out” and people will be calling for heads to roll.

Anyway, the move would mean nothing if the songs were not up to par. As the bluesy guitar riff and organ tones opened the album, you can almost feel a sense of foreboding as Harvey’s desperate, gruff vocals portend the changes to come. And change it did. Long Snake Moan was as close as it got to Rid of Me’s fury, but had a more full-bodied sound due to the whiplash of guitar parts thrown into it. Down By the Water was Harvey’s most accessible song to date, and was driven by impeccable basslines, organ parts and Harvey’s whispers, even though the song dealt with drowning a child. The Dancer will probably never get radio airplay, and you have to hear it to believe it.

I remembered feeling a slight sense of superiority to my classmates back in ‘95. And as stupid as it sounds now, it was mainly due to the fact that I was listening to PJ Harvey and they were not.


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