Category Archives: Music

Formants: Hum, “Downward Is Heavenward” [USA, 1998]

An ongoing series on the albums that helped to shape the way I listen to music, and continue to make their way onto my iPod.

1998 should have been Hum’s year. In 1995, the Champaign, Illinois band scored an unlikely hit with “Stars,” a fuzzy-but-romantic slab of nerdy, stop-start alt-rock that doesn’t much resemble any other successful rock music of the period. The dense guitars were too crunchy for straight My Bloody Valentine worship, but Matt Talbott’s reserved, unpretentious vocal style was also miles away from his angst-ridden contemporaries, leaving the song (and its accompanying album, You’d Prefer an Astronaut, which wound up moving a not-inconsiderable quarter of a million copies) as an entity all its own. 1998 should have been the year they managed to capitalize on their unlikely success, demonstrate their true potential, and hit alt-rock paydirt.

Instead, they made Downward Is Heavenward.

The mid-90s was a fantastic time to be a rock band on a major label, some of the time. You got ridiculous budgets to produce music videos, significant advances, and a whole lot of production coin as needed. (On the other hand, of course, labyrinthine contracts often stiffed you out of a truly satisfying payday.) Accordingly, Downward Is Heavenward hasn’t aged a day, sonically speaking. Tim Lash and Talbott’s guitars mesh together in a thick, churning morass, equal parts atmospheric and bruising, often with an acoustic guitar tucked away in one speaker, not to mention the seemingly thousands of pedal effects percolating in and out of the mix. This thing sounds expensive.

Had I been working for RCA’s PR department at the time, I’d have handled Hum with greater care. I would not have placed the band themselves in their videos, for instance; the ever-bespectacled Talbott looks more accountant than rock star, especially when stacked next to the band they most frequently (and incorrectly) drew comparisons to, the Smashing Pumpkins. Despite the major label coin, they were an indie-rock band at heart, and were accordingly – for the period, at least – completely unselfconscious in their image. I’d also have made a different single choice; “Comin’ Home” is short, punchy and by far the most aggressive thing on the record, which might play to certain markets, sure, but it’s also saddled with a 7/4 verse and a paucity of hooks. Sure enough, in the age where music video was still the best way to promote a band, “Comin’ Home” got a particularly silly one:

The album debuted at #150 in the Billboard Top 200 on Valentine’s Day, 1998. Where the “Stars”-led You’d Prefer an Astronaut sold a quarter of a million copies, Downward took a year to barely break 30k. (That number jives almost exactly with the video’s total hits to date on YouTube. Eerie.) Not too much later, an incident of equipment theft doomed the band for good.

This was the thanks they got for eclipsing their breakthrough recording.

Downward Is Heavenward evokes a few records that came before, and a whole lot that have come since, but doesn’t sound precisely like any of them. The contrast between Talbott’s unadorned, unfussy vocals with the meticulous dual-guitar sound is already distinctive, but it’s Talbott’s sci-fi-leaning lyrics that really separate it from the angst-ridden fare that ruled the period. The apocalyptic closer, “The Scientists,” seems to dream up a David Brin-worthy yarn in a little over five minutes, equal parts doomed love story and hypothetical cautionary tale:

She says “keep this benzene ring around your finger
And think of me when everything you wanted starts to end.”
And I saw living lusters form in pools beneath her feet
Invertebrates that only she can see
And I said, “what on earth are all these ampuls for?”
She says “exactly, we’re not gonna wait around here anymore.”
Systems back down slow, watch the dust cloud resend
And I will keep you, I will keep you to the end.

One song earlier, another cosmic love story cuts a very different figure. “Apollo,” recorded live in a music hall rather than in-studio like the rest of the album, is spare, gorgeous, and touching, but never precious. Unlike the typical alt-rock ballad, it doesn’t bother with embellishments like a string section or a climax fit for the rafters. The song even eschews the thick production values of the rest of the album, favoring a live-off-the-floor feel that suits the simple, lovely sentiment that rests in the lyric’s delayed punchline.

What’s really vexing about Downward‘s spectacular commercial failure is that it’s not like the album doesn’t feature anything radio-friendly. There may not be another “Stars” (which is still regularly employed in commercials a decade and a half later, such is its appeal), but at least a few tunes here might have served as serviceable follow-ups. Again placing myself in fantasy-sports RCA PR Guy mode, “If You Are To Bloom” strikes me as the retrospective natural single choice, with its Incubus-inventing intro, massive guitar entrance, insistence verse rhythm, and clever chorus harmony on the hook. Assuming it gained any traction, the mournful “Ms. Lazarus” would make a fine follow-up, with its careful blend of acoustic and electric guitars, and sobering, unusually earthbound lyric (“the way your headstone shines / I only wish that it was mine”).

But of courseDownward is an art-rock record from the late 90s, meaning it is Meant To Be Listened to As An Album. On that score, it’s one of the most meticulously crafted of the era, perfectly sequenced and loaded with sprawling, complex tunes. Four tracks break the six-minute mark, but none overstay their welcome; of these, “The Inuit Promise” is the standout. A careful listen reveals all kinds of elaborate, even virtuosic riffs on the periphery, but it’s the song’s wistful drive that really distinguishes it from the rest of the record, existing in some nebulous space between awestruck and lucid. A spoken lyric, the only one reproduced on the album’s spartan packaging, contain more mystery than the entire Soundgarden discography, though it’s barely audible:

Your solvents frozen here on the petal rung
Is all we have to see
Enlarged inside as we espy
The warming sea.

Downward is a fantastic showcase for emotionally-driven songwriting that’s neither openly plaintive nor obnoxiously self-interested. In that sense, it was never going to find a significant following in its own time. The band has reunited for shows a few times in the last decade, including as recently as 2011, but there are no plans for them to ever return on a full-time basis. Unlike At The Drive-In and Refused, their music doesn’t command enough of a following for them to really cash in on aging gen-Yers eager to dive back into the music of their youth. And so Downward and the rest of the band’s discography continues to linger in between complete obscurity and popular reclamation, held in stasis much like the album’s oddly timeless sound. There are worse fates.

Tagged , , ,

Mixtape: City Sickness(es)

It’s pouring like hell in TO tonight, so now’s as good a time as any to throw this 8tracks mix I cobbled together into the blog…fray. The tracks are left mysteriously tagged on purpose. If you really need a track ID, that’s what the comment box is for.

Tagged ,

Formants: Manic Street Preachers, “The Holy Bible” [UK, 1994]

Looking back at records that helped to shape my listening habits. AKA the stuff I loved in high school and still make a point of revisiting regularly.

Because we live in a strange and irrational world, there are doubtless still a few out there who are certain that Richey Edwards is still out there somewhere. Should the guitarist and lyricist’s 1995 disappearance have turned out to be some kind of situationist put-on, to be sure, it wouldn’t have been entirely out of step with his band’s artistic and PR moves of the period. His childhood friends and bandmates in Manic Street Preachers – vocalist/guitarist James Dean Bradfield, bassist Nicky Wire, and drummer Sean Moore – wound up as test subjects of sorts in 1994, when Edwards presented them with his most abstruse, incendiary set of lyrics to date, and were expected to write music around them. The resulting album, The Holy Bible, was in a way just another gambit in a career made up of left turns and awkward grandstands. This was the same band who claimed that if their debut album, Generation Terrorists, didn’t go ten times platinum, they’d set themselves on fire on Top of the Pops; neither occurred. (While promoting The Holy Bible, they settled for donning balaclavas on the aforementioned program.) By October 1996, Wire, the band’s remaining lyricist, had discovered a newfound love of housework, so far had his reactionary streak abated. Edwards’s death seemed to domesticate the band – though they still produced, and continue to produce, plenty of worthy material.

The Holy Bible, then, represents the last time the band sounded dangerous, truly a separate beast from their Britrock contemporaries. “Yes,” the opener, establishes the record’s tone and intent even before Bradfield makes an appearance, through the first of the record’s many samples, this one from a documentary about prostitution. “You can buy her; this one here, this one here, this one here…everything’s for sale.” Bought and sold before the chords even kick in. Bradfield, the band’s principal musical architect, devises a novel verse rhythm, alternating between 7/8 and standard time, in order to better accommodate Edwards’s alternately clipped and verbose lyrics, which seem to detail the life of a prostitute. If you’ve never heard the Manics before, Bradfield’s voice is likely the first thing to perk up your ears. Sounding very much like a choirboy with anger management issues, he’s a perfect medium for Edwards’s mercurial pen, his voice both sonorous and prickly. Just in his delivery of the opening lines (“For sale / dumb cunt’s same dumb questions / Virgins? Listen / All virgins are liars, honey”), you can detect notes of both empathy and snide dismissal. There’s hardly a moment on the record that doesn’t feel in some way self-contradictory, and Bradfield’s versatile vocals reflect that uneasiness wonderfully. The song’s inwardly hateful chorus, too, manages to transform a mouthful into a hook: “I eat and I dress and I wash / and I can still say ‘thank you’ / puking, shaking sinking / I still stand for old ladies / can’t shout, can’t scream / I hurt myself to get pain out,” sung in a manner that feels both measured and literally breathless. Nirvana’s In Utero may have been the album’s chief inspiration, but Bradfield’s carefully considered cadences are the polar opposite of a tortured howler like Cobain. Still, as it turns out, you can’t spell “grace” without r a g e.

(The Youtube link above is from the US mix of the album. The standard – and correct – line is that this mix is superior when it comes to the more musically upbeat tunes, and inferior when it comes to the more atmospheric ones. There are significant differences between the US and original mixes, and both are worth a listen.)

Where Pulp were able to wring a massive hit out of class warfare with the cheeky “Common People” a year later, The Holy Bible takes on social injustice, murder, self-negation, American hypocrisy (no British band so unheard of in the States has ever betrayed such a fascination with it), misogyny, war crimes and racism in a much less audience-friendly manner. “Revol” ponders the sexual proclivities of tyrants, “Archives of Pain” appropriates (adopts?) a staunch pro-death penalty stance, “The Intense Humming of Evil” ponders the problem of grasping the scope of the Holocaust much as Claude Lanzmann did when crafting his nine-hour documentary Shoah. More stunning, and more off-putting, than any of these, though, is “4st. 7lb.,” a harrowing first-person account of how eating disorders warp the perception of those afflicted. “Trouble is, ‘diet’’s not a big enough word / I wanna be so skinny / that I rot from view.” The band adopts a stuttering, militaristic stance, like Joy Division on stimulants but no happier for it, before a dreamy closing section projects a phony paradise.

Structurally, the songs on The Holy Bible tend to favor an ABCABCDC-style structure, with “pre-chorus” sections that run parallel in length to the choruses and instrumenta/solo breaks (D) that feel like a (not unwelcome) leftover from their Guns n’ Roses-baiting days. The contrast between the unfashionable, even sometimes dated production choices and the bracing lyrics makes for a record that now sounds utterly out of time. That can sometimes grate – the outrageous flanged solo on “Ifwhiteamerica…” still elicits a cringe whenever it arrives – but occasionally allows for stunning moments. Bradfield’s brief-but-lyrical solo, aided by Moore’s insistent drum line, in “This Is Yesterday” might be the album’s sole moment of contentedness. It’s all the more noteworthy for managing to puncture the gloom in a song whose takeaway sentiment is: “Why do anything when you can forget everything?”

The Holy Bible belongs to an exclusive class of voyeur’s rock records: the final testament of the artist in question, knowingly or otherwise. Unlike In Utero, From a Basement on the Hill, or Sketches From my Sweetheart the Drunk, of course, there’s always that collaborative barrier complicating that dynamic. And unlike in the case of Nirvana, the Manics carried on after Edwards’s passing; it likely helps that, despite his centricity in terms of the band’s identity, his instrumental contributions were minimal compared to Bradfield, and he’d only served as principal lyricist on Bible. While many write off the post-Edwards period, the last fifteen-odd years have actually been kind to them, especially when compared to many of their peers. Yes, they mellowed, and yes, the agit-prop tendencies all but fell away (their last gesture in that direction being their 2001 concert in Cuba, with Castro in attendance) but they managed to churn out a few more solid albums and a sizable number of great songs. That’s why many (myself included) were surprised when, in 2009, they announced their intention to make an album out of Edwards’s disused lyrics, to be engineered by Steve Albini, who notably manned the boards for In Utero. It seemed like a step back at best, and a nostalgic cash-in at worst.

The resulting record, Journal for Plague Lovers, is their second- or third-best, benefiting greatly from the returning interplay of Bradfield’s delivery with Edwards’s lacerating words, as well as the relatively pared-down production. Though it contains at least a half-dozen of the band’s best rockers, I’ll always think most fondly of closer “William’s Last Words,” especially the Underworld rework that ends Journal for Plague Lovers Remixes. Featuring a rare vocal turn by Wire, who has described himself as having been the band member closest to Edwards, “Words” gives their departed friend the graceful sendoff not allowed by the pitch-black Bible: “I’m really tired / I’d love to go to sleep and wake up happy / Isn’t it lovely, when the dawn brings the dew? / I’ll be watching over you.” It’s probably a good deal more sentimental than the ‘94 incarnation of the band would have allowed, but it’s an apt way to close the book on their departed friend and collaborator; in his own words, as before, but with the benefit of time’s healing properties.

Tagged , ,