Monday, April 11, 2011

98 The Hard Way: Rock Week Part One - 'Devious stares in my direction'

Unlike the country charts, where for the most part I was coming to the songs fairly fresh and unimpeded by past opinions, the songs that were hits on the various rock charts I have access to were basically the soundtrack to my youth. I kept the radio in my room glued to our local rock station and reveled in the much heavier alternative leanings of the radio stations in my Dad's area whenever I went to visit him. I'm pretty sure that at this point a full half of my CD collection was made up of Muchmusic's Big Shiny Tunes compilations, which were pretty much NOW That's What I Call Alternative Music! samplers. So when I went into research mode to compile the list of songs I'd be tackling here I found that more and more often I had a single thought cross my mind.

Aw man, I fucking LOVED this song!

This makes the week's reviews a much more dangerous proposal for me. If I revisit these songs and hate them, I feel like I'm betraying myself – a version of myself I actually like nonetheless, a few years down the line this wouldn't be an issue – but if I kowtow to my memories of how much loved it when I feel just as disingenuous. What to do, what to do.

So consider this week an experiment, where both halves of the equation – 1998 me and 2011 me – will get their say. I'll start each review with a summary of where those two differ or align and a much more backwards-looking review than I would usually go for, especially in cases where the two opinions differ quite radically.

As for the songs chosen...well here's how that goes.
-Songs that were #1s on either the Billboard Modern Rock, Billboard Mainstream Rock or RPM Alternative 30 get reviewed, no questions asked.
-In order to fill out the roster to one entry per week of the year, runners up from said charts will be slotted in based on highest charting song that hasn't already been earmarked for review on the week in question.
-In the case of a tie – ie all #2 songs for a given unfilled week are possible candidates – nostalgia wins out over any other factors.

Now, let us begin ROCK WEEK!

Marcy Playground “Sex and Candy”
The Nostalgia Factor: Off the charts, really. I'm not sure if 12 year old me would have called this his favorite song ever or not, but it would definitely have been close, as embarrassing as that is to say. [10]
If I'd Only Just Heard It Today: I'm jaded by this, honestly. Given how derivative it is of the entire 90s indie scene it's easy for me to just write it off as boring, trite shit. [4]

The reason that I decided to do this particular set in this format was inspired by the two-mindededness I have about this particular song. No matter how much 2011 me wants to dismiss it, there's little old 1998 me waving it's arms in the air going 'but...but..but...' and preventing that from happening. A part of me will always love this song, no matter how much the rest of me wants to hate it. So I'll hedge and say that more than anything else, I'm glad that Marcy Playground prepared me to be blown away by Pavement and Archers of Loaf a few years later.

Days of the New “Touch, Peel and Stand”
The Nostalgia Factor: Mild. Honestly this didn't make anywhere near as much impact in my neck of the woods as either of the band's subsequent singles did – and that's including those from II – so if I heard this at all it didn't really register. [n/a]
If I'd Only Just Heard It Today: I'd be thankful that anyone used Jar of Flies as their main source of inspiration since that's never not gonna be the best Alice in Chains release. [7]

In light of how staid and frankly boring the other singles from the first Days of the New record came across as on revisit it's nice to see that the biggest one is also the one that holds up the best. That's probably because it lets the rest of the band come to the fore far more often instead of just confirming that this was a glorified solo project for Travis Meeks. Think about it, the rhythm section drives the track far more than the guitar, Todd Whitener's guitar solo is the highlight of the whole song and other than the last chorus Meeks' vocals are impressively understated. The fact that this is all done with acoustic instruments barely registers at all, which for something that could have been a huge gimmick/crutch is saying a lot about the song at hand.

Matchbox 20 “3 AM”
The Nostalgia Factor: Much higher than you'd think. Yourself or Someone Like You was one of the first CDs I owned so needless to say it had the shit played out of it in my younger days. This wasn't necessarily my favorite of the songs there, but it was definitely one I remembered. [6]
If I'd Only Just Heard It Today: I'd finally know when post-grunge morphed into the shit pile that is adult alternative. [4]

OK, maybe that last pronouncement isn't fair on either could easily say that “One Headlight” marked the real birth of AA and that the whole genre isn't necessarily a shit pile, but the point still stands. The whole sound and feel of the track lays the groundwork for the qualities of so called adult-alternative that I find the most trying on my patience; it's plodding, overdramatic, and most importantly of all, it's really uninteresting on a melodic level. Pleasant? Sure, but in a way that seems to actively discourage you remembering anything about it once its over.

Pearl Jam “Given to Fly”
The Nostalgia Factor: Moderate. In my radio rock days Pearl Jam were out of my preferred sphere so even though I probably heard this a lot it never sunk in. [n/a]
If I'd Only Just Heard It Today: I'd want a time machine to get my younger self to give it a better listen at the very least. [7]

It's oddly fitting that I only had vague memories of this song, because the whole enterprise here is incredibly vague in terms of...well, any aspect you could name really. The lyrics are obtuse and fragmented, the music is more evocative than relentless and the whole structure gives the illusion of grandeur without really going for it. Of course I'd have found it inscrutable at age 12 and more fascinating and replayable at age 25 – that's how things are meant to go here.

The Verve “Bittersweet Symphony”
The Nostalgia Factor: Cruel. Motherfucking. Intentions. [9]
If I'd Only Just Heard It Today: I'd appreciate the grandeur and the downtrodden anthem angle, but would easily call bullshit on it being the band's masterpiece since I'm in that niggling minority that thinks that Urban Hymns was a huge step down for them. [6]

While my two-mindedness here is nothing compared to “Sex and Candy” there's still an inner war as far as the rating goes. This wasn't just a good song from my youth, it was a fucking iconic song, one that was inexorably linked not only to its video – everyone's favorite at the time – but later on to the final moments of Cruel Intentions – once again, everyone's favorite at the time – and countless other small moments. It's basically a symbol of my tween years in a few ways, so revisiting it bound to stir up more that its fair share of memories and any sort of dismissal, no matter how well founded, will be met with an internal round of 'but's from my inner 12 year old. And since I don't want to kick my inner twelve year old's ass the way I do my inner teenager, I have to listen a bit.

Green Day “Time of Your Life (Good Riddance)”
The Nostalgia Factor: Seinfeld finale. Need I say more? I think it was also the de facto theme for my final scout camp around this time too so there's that. [7]
If I'd Only Just Heard It Today: I'd probably just dismiss it out of hand like I wind up doing with most non-resonant acoustic plinking. [4]

I appreciated the implied subtext that the parenthetical title gives what could easily be a simple, hell almost emo if you wanna go that far, 'I'll miss you baby' song. But without that extra detail, one that's been glossed over by history (when was the last time you heard this referred to as anything but “Time of Your Life”?) there's really no there there if you get what I mean. It's another one of those songs that I chalk up as being perfectly pleasant – though this one has that overdramatic, unnecessary string section to negate that qualifier a bit – without really having anything resembling strong feelings towards it.

Sarah McLachlan “Sweet Surrender”
The Nostalgia Factor: High enough. Surfacing was one of the only CDs that my dad owned for a while there, so any time we went out to visit it was the main spin given that my sister was a fan as well. It was probably the best song on there, but that isn't saying much. [6]
If I'd Only Just Heard It Today: I'd wonder how the same person that made “Possession” fell so far so fast. [5]

The points in this one's favor are there, namely the insidious sense of mystery that the production gives it, but they're undercut by how safe the whole venture comes off as. Given that McLachlan was unafraid to go to darker places lyrically even as recently as “Building a Mystery” there's really something about this one that feels like a pulled punch. The song sounds threatening and unknowable, but the words that are put to it don't add up to much of anything really. What a shame...

Loreena McKennitt “The Mummer's Dance”
The Nostalgia Factor: Medium-high. This was another of the few CDs that my dad owned though it got a lot less play as far as I remember. Even then it struck me as a bit watered down though. [6]
If I'd Only Just Heard It Today: I'd have similar 'how the mighty have fallen' reaction because her earlier material is much more resonant, but I actually appreciate it a bit more now than I did back then possibly because I'm more attuned to McKennitt's wavelength [7]

I think my dismissiveness towards this in my youth was a product of being Canadian and having a much greater wealth of moderately popular Celtic music to compare it to. And really, when you look at it next to Ashley MacIsaac's singles it comes off as a far too basic and unremarkable to make an impact. That said, in hindsight it's a much better song than I'd have given it credit for back then. It may not have the depth and swell of McKennitt's earlier material but there's a definite charm to its simplicity. And McKennitt's vocals are just as amazing as ever, which counts for a lot.

Black Lab “Wash It Away”
The Nostalgia Factor: High, actually. I remember this being an infrequent but always welcome addition to our local rock station's playlist, so I was actually moderately excited to revisit it. [8]
If I'd Only Just Heard It Today: I'd wonder what kind of crack I was smoking at age 12 to think that this was welcome. [3]

This one gets into the follies of memory. Like I said, in my mind this was a highlight of the radio landscape of early 1998 – a landscape I was much more in sync with then than I am now – one of those songs that was played infrequently enough to make each play count while popping up enough that I remembered it without much prompting. I don't know exactly what about this screamed 'great damn song' to 1998 me, but whatever it was it has the opposite effect on 2011 me. This is just plain dull. There's no memorable lyric, instrumental hook or even small moment that speaks to me as if to say 'THIS is why you remembered me'. There's a void, that's all I see in here now.

Van Halen “Without You”
The Nostalgia Factor: Moderate. Even though my history with VH only went back to Balance I was well informed enough to know that the whole III debacle was laughable. [5]
If I'd Only Just Heard It Today: I'd probably just think this was a lower level Extreme song. [4]

My capsule review up there pretty much sums it up: it doesn't matter if you look at this as a misguided attempt for Van Halen to recuperate from the split with Sammy Hagar or if you look at it as a bizarro world version of Extreme circa Waiting for the Punchline, it's just a really weak song. The chorus at least tries to do something of moderate interest, but the rest of the song is just...there. Even the solo is impressively faceless, almost as if Eddie had checked out already and was just marking time until they could reunite with one of their better frontmen.

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