52 Weeks, 52 Moments in Music: WEEK ELEVEN

Week 11: You Made Me Realize

Music has the magical ability to link with personal experiences and be burned into your psyche forever. Musical deja vu is a beautiful thing and for me, it is something that I always try to explore. What is it about certain songs that make them stick with you through life? How do songs, albums or even snippets of lyrics cling to people, their memories and experiences in life? Through this project, which I will update on a weekly basis, I hope to explore the musical moments that have stuck with me over the years and get to the essence of what makes them memorable. It’s a chance to explore my old (and new) favorites and hopefully shed a new light on what makes them so unique. 52 weeks, 52 moments in music that shaped who I am today.


“Only Shallow”
My Bloody Valentine

Album: Loveless

Creation Records

1991

The opening track of My Bloody Valentine’s masterpiece, Loveless is an explosion of guitar wizardry. It’s a track that stops you cold in your feet. Its thunderous waves of sound swirl around your head for days. It’s an assault on your senses–a truly remarkable feast for the ears that sounds powerful through headphones and, when played live through monster amplifiers, produces sounds that tickle the nostrils.

Loveless’ opener, “Only Shallow” perches high above the rest on the short list of great album openers. Read as: while the phrase often comes off as cliche, this song literally blew my mind the first time I heard it, an appropriate response that I’m sure many others can relate to.

Shoegazers, distortion wizards, or heavy guitar rockers, pick your label of choice. In my opinion the music of My Bloody Valentine can be best described as the closest thing to flying through space.

To date, My Bloody Valentine only released two studio albums, with Loveless being its current swan song. But what a way to clear the stage.

Besides being the band’s masterpiece, Loveless is also one of the truly remarkable “studio” albums of all time. Its notoriety is unprecedented. Recorded over two long years, in 19 different recording studios, Loveless was the painstakingly-realized brain child of Valentine frontman, Kevin Shields. The album nearly bankrupted the bands label, Creation Records; was selfishly worked and reworked by Shields alone, with the other band members serving more as studio session musicians than as part of a creative congress; and was crafted in various mental states, often aided by a sampling of certain mind-altering substances, mainly ecstasy. While he might deny rumors of drug abuse during the long two-year stretch, it is widely rumored that Shields was rarely sober during its recording.

The album’s signature swirling guitars and waves of distortion required hours of over-dubbing and contemplation. Shields, and self-professed control freak played almost all instruments featured and recorded much of the album on little to no sleep.

The result is an album that was truly unprecedented back in 1991 and since its release will probably never be matched in terms of its shear brilliance and ambitions of creating an ethereal sound.

While often heralded as an essential album in rock and roll (Pitchfork Media’s pick it as the Best Album of the 1990s, and then bumped it down to a silver medal pedestal to make way for Radiohead’s Ok Computer), I was turned on to My Bloody Valentine late in the game. To put it bluntly: my university introduced me to Loveless.

I remember my father’s response when I told him that I would be filling some senior year elective credits with a music course covering the history of rock and roll during the 1970s and 1980s.

“So what are those tests gonna be like?” he would say. “An exam on how to play the air guitar?”

The truth is Andy Hollinden’s fascinating Z301 course opened my eyes to a plethora of new music, first and foremost among these musical revelations, a detailed and appreciated, albeit overdue, window into punk music.

Mr. Hollinden never played “Only Shallow” in class, in fact his lecture on the “90s Alternative” sub-genre breezed past My Bloody Valentine completely. Instead, “Only Shallow” remained a mysterious “extra track” on the courses listening syllabus (which was accessible online as either an MP3 stream or download. Tuition well-spent!). I happened upon the track late one night with my headphones snugly comforting my ears, the song’s true modus operandi for preferred listening experience.

Extreme moments of musical revelation are harder to come by in the digital age. We as listeners inhale copious amounts of music of all varieties and as consumers have access to everything at all times. As a result the discovery of a true gem, the kind of sound that makes you pause to speculate on what you just heard, ends up becoming the fix music aficionados pine for.

“Only Shallow” opens with four tight snare drum hits, immediately followed by an onslaught of menacing guitar riffs–calculated fuzz delivered with the kind of perfection seldom found in rock. What follows is a symphony of distortion that pierces the ear drums (My Bloody Valentine’s music beckons to be heard on speakers turned to eleven) followed by band member, Bilinda Butcher’s dreamlike, non-sensical lyrics cooling the raging fire.

It’s a hell of a way to open a record. A no-holds-barred exploration of what sounds can be unearthed with a guitar, a tremolo bar and a carefully executed recording process. It required an immediate repeat, followed by another, and eventually another.

The day after exposure, I bought Loveless and listened to the album’s song cycle as the ambient waves merged in and out of each other, never allowing for a break.

Loveless is an album that must be listened to in its entirety. The songs unfold as a kaleidoscope of sounds that push the limits on what a guitar is capable of. What’s most striking about the record is that despite the layered sound, the majority of Loveless was recorded using very basic equipment tuned and performed in a certain way, and rehearsed over and over again in order to secure that one-of-a-kind sound. The album was recorded pre-Pro Tools leaving much of the studio wizardry to basic techniques pushed to the edge. It’s as if Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” manifesto was digested alongside a couple doses of ecstasy and the music of Sonic Youth.

My Bloody Valentine disappeared completely from music after Loveless and its short-lived tour that followed its release. Shields lent his talents to a handful of side projects, most notably new songs for the soundtrack to Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation” and an experimental ambient/spoken-word record with Patti Smith.

Then came the brief reunion tour in 2008.

When it was announced that My Bloody Valentine would play a number of shows in the states, including one at Chicago’s Aragon ballroom, I was ecstatic. I had to get a ticket. I had to go. I had to see how this intriguing record might transfer to a live setting. Would it carry the same weight as the album I’ve played over and over again? Would “Only Shallow” pack the same punch as it does kicking off Loveless? Will the band even sound good 15 years later? My eager anticipation curbed any concerns. After all, it was My Bloody Valentine!

The show at the Aragon Ballroom, an admittedly lousy auditorium (if acoustics matter to you), remains the loudest concert I have ever attended. I scoffed when ear plugs were handed out at the entrance but was glad I took a pair once the band kicked off its set with the mesmerizing, “I Only Said.” That the band’s set was closed with its standard encore, “You Made You Realise” stretched to a twenty minute assault on the senses that literally made one concert goer standing nearby hold his ears, as if surrendering to the sonic chaos that filled the auditorium.

The show remains a highlight amongst many incredible concerts I have experienced in my life to date. The show was not exactly what I expected but it had enough surprises to keep it unique. Sure the beautiful melodies that make listening to Loveless a religious experience for anyone who finds spiritualism in rock and roll were replaced by ear-piercing noise, but the energy that exploded from the massive stacked speakers was unlike anything I had ever been a part of.

My Bloody Valentine took its name from an obscure 80s slasher film (the original was actually remade not too long ago) and it invokes an image of a metal band, the kind of music that takes its cues from skeletons and the color black. Summed up: before I actually heard “Only Shallow” I had no idea what to expect from the band’s oeuvre.

Loveless is an album that will be studied and listened to for years. Whether or not My Bloody Valentine comes through with new material remains to be seen and is irrelevant. Some bands get a pass for birthing a singular masterpiece and then clearing the stage. Mission of Burma is a definite candidate, as is The Stone Roses with My Bloody Valentine joining the ranks.

Like all the music covered in this humble project of mine, Loveless is a record that I cherish and return to constantly, though arguably one that comes with its own decorum, strict guidelines that must be obeyed.

1) It must be listened to on ear smothering headphones.
2) It must be listened to at night.
3) It must be listened to in its entirety.
4) An irresponsible volume level is understood.

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52 Weeks, 52 Moments in Music: WEEK TWO

Week: Two

Music has the magical ability to link with personal experiences and be burned into your psyche forever. Musical deja vu is a beautiful thing and for me, it is something that I always try to explore. What is it about certain songs that make them stick with you through life? How do songs, albums or even snippets of lyrics cling to people, their memories and experiences in life. Through this project, which I will update on a weekly basis, I hope to explore the musical moments that have stuck with me over the years and get to the essence of what makes them memorable. It’s a chance to explore my old (and new) favorites and hopefully shed a new light on what makes them so unique. 52 weeks, 52 moments in music that shaped who I am today.

“Release”
Pearl Jam
Album: Ten
1991
Epic Records

I am a child of the grunge generation; if that’s the label we’re sticking with twenty years later. While music enthusiasts will argue about the true pioneers of the alternative rock wave–for the record looking back on the progression of music at the time, it’s hard not to side with the “Pixies were the true forefathers of the movement” argument, over the more universally recognized credit to Kurt Cobain and Nirvana–my gateway to the genre was through Pearl Jam.

I was too young to fully appreciate The Pixies during its heyday (though my dad’s friend’s offering to me of Doolittle at the tender age of eight always intrigued me, what with lead singer Black Francis’ screeching vocals and obscure choice of terrifying lyrics). While I wish I could say I discovered Nirvana’s Nevermind instantly upon its release along with the masses, it was Pearl Jam’s debut Ten that was my first real musical obsession.

I remember one summer in particular listening to the song’s on Ten over and over again through a pitch black Sony boombox by day, and through a matching black Sony Walkman from a audio cassette ripped from said boombox by night–those were the days, weren’t they? The liner notes on my original CD copy of the album have been unfolded and refolded countless times (those in the loop will remember the notes unfolding to form a poster of the band members standing in a circle, hands raised high and joined in a badass high-five of sorts). And I can clearly remember looping the opening moments of “Porch,” since it was one of the few songs with cool sounding curse words–the opening line verbatim, “What the fuck is this world”–that I had managed to slip by my somewhat censoring parents.

Pearl Jam is one of the few groups from the era that has survived and is still relevant in modern times (hell, its latest album Backspacer was a breath of fresh air in the band’s canon). Part of its success is based on its loyal fans like me who were mesmerized by Ten.

The album remains the band’s masterpiece. It’s a flawless execution of a budding sound that was, with all respect to the band members, all due to Eddie Vedder’s soaring vocals, which somehow meld gritty and epic into a style that remains unrivaled.

It’s also one of the few albums out there with a flawless flow that begins and ends on two perfect notes. Even for this project entry I was torn between going with the album’s slow-burning opener, “Once,” a completely unassailable way to kick off the album, or its more restrained, dare I say beautiful closer, “Release.” Ultimately I had to go with the latter.

I don’t know how many mix tapes and CDs I’ve capped off with this song. It’s an epic. Like “Once” it takes it time to build, allowing Vedder to test his deep vocal tones in front of a wall of rising guitar crescendos. Of all the songs on Ten this is where Vedder really shows he’s a musical force to be reckoned with.

His vocal range alone is enough to send chills down the spine especially towards the song’s magnificent closing moments when he carries the line, “release me” through an onslaught of distortion and commanding use of the ride cymbal from drummer Dave Krusen.

Even the song’s instrumental outro that is linked to the song (a continuation of the intro to “Once”) is worth the time on the record, adding an eerie finish to the already perfect closer.

Lyrically this song is very much akin to John Lennon’s shockingly personal, “Mother” off Plastic Ono Band LP. Both songs are heartbreaking laments about a lack of strong or loving parental figures. In the case of Vedder, it refers to the two father figures during his childhood and coming to the grips with the passing of his true father. He was apparently raised by a cruel stepfather and never got to know his real dad on a personal level before his passing. He realizes that he carries a piece of his real father but he’ll never know how or which part of his makeup. It’s this realization that makes the songs truly heartbreaking.

Oh, dear dad, can you see me now
I am myself, like you somehow

Casual interpretations of the song can be linked to the lines,

I’ll ride the wave
Where it takes me
I’ll hold the pain
Release me

which could reference escapism through drugs or simply, the release of stress in life. Letting go and living how you want to live is very much the unofficial manifesto of the grungers (it’s also the message I take away from the song since it’s difficult for me to relate to Vedder’s personal story). Hell, even surfers could relate to this song since the lyrics remain intriguing in their simplicity no matter how you perceive them. When matched with the song’s grandiose music, it’s also easy to just focus on the elevating line, “release me.”

Mention must be made of the rumor that this song was written during the studio time in about 20-minutes while the band was doodling through possible riffs. If this legend holds true, then this backs the theory that some songs are just meant to be written and can arise in an almost spooky fashion. Artists have often commented on moments of brilliance coming out of nowhere during unexpected moments.

“Release” is a song that I can remember falling asleep to as a child and as an adult, one that I remember imagining in my head during daydreams. It’s a staple cut from a one of the greatest debut records out there and one that instantly made me a lifelong devoted fan of Pearl Jam. During the 2003 tour for Pearl Jam’s Riot Act the band opened its masterful set at Chicago’s United Center with “Release,” catching most of the audience off guard and cementing the song’s importance for me as I was carried away by its strength.

It will always be a headphone song, or the kind of tune that must be played through a car stereo at full blast while driving alone, preferably at night, with the windows closed to create the perfect sonic environment to ride the wave.