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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When Liner Notes Just Aren’t Enough

The Finest Album Companions

In the “digital age” of MP3s and iPods it’s easy to forget about one of the truly unique parts of an album; the liner notes. These little foldouts that come with CDs and the larger inserts that once were so caringly paired with vinyl, often serve as more than just outlets for the tracklisting and endless shout outs from the artists and producers involved in the recording. From song lyrics, album mission statements, recording session notes, to galleries for album art, liner notes enable dedicated listeners to crack the musical shell and dive deeper into the record’s artistic core. For true music übernerds or really anyone looking to learn a little more about their favorite albums sometimes liner notes just don’t cut it.

Back in 2003 a group of music enthusiasts started the Thirty-Three and a Third series, a collection of pocket size books for loyal listeners looking to enhance their knowledge of their favorite albums. The series set out to examine a diverse range of pinnacle albums of the past 50 years, everything from undisputed masterpieces (The Beatles’ Let It Be, The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, Neil Young’s Harvest), lesser known indie-gems (Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs, Belle and Sebastian’s If You’re Feeling Sinister), to overlooked albums from stellar artists (Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland, David Bowie’s Low). Consider this column a recommendation to fellow music lovers who may not be familiar with this wonderful series.

The growing anthology (50 books currently available with roughly 20 plus slated for future release) provides curious listeners with a look at how the album was created–from the initial incarnation, to the recording process, followed by the release and the album’s aftermath–and then discusses the records importance in the wide arena of popular music. These quick reads (average editions range from 100-200 pages in pocket size formats) are brilliant ways to explore another side of some classic albums for five reasons:

1) For starters, they’re highly addictive, providing listeners with an easy fix of background information pertaining to a slew of stellar albums. Some books use interviews with the bands or artists to tell the story others focus on the album’s shear importance; all provide that extra bit of insight not found on a mere record listening or skimming of the liner notes.

2) Pretentiousness is not the series forte. While the writers do choose to chronicle some universally agreed upon monumental albums (Pet Sounds and Let It Be for example) for the most part the authors and contributors are more interested in tackling the less obvious, under-hyped records (Nirvana’s In Utero over Nevermind, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn over Dark Side of the Moon) as well as lesser known picks (where else could you find an entire book devoted to the minister of weird, Tom Waits’, Swordfishtrombones or Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea).

3) The scribes range from well-known music journalists, scholars and even musicians (The Decemberists’ frontman Colin Meloy contributed a surprisingly disappointing self-indulged look at The Replacements Let It Be), giving each book a unique voice to tell the story of each album.

4) At eight to ten bucks a hit these books are cheap companion pieces to albums you already own or ones you may want to indulge in (and no I am not a savvy member of the company’s PR department, but rather a humble fan of the series who has been hooked ever since I discovered them two years ago).

5) Finally, with an entire history of noteworthy albums at their disposal and fans all around the world eager to learn more about the records that hold a special place in their hearts (the series’ official blog encourages readers to voice their opinions of which albums should be chronicled next), the possibilities for this series are endless.

The impressive canon so far is bound to provide at least something for everyone, from casual listeners to “High Fidelity”esque music elitists. Some books that I’ve read are disappointing (the daunting edition on Zeppelin’s IV spends more time discussing the mystery behind the band’s use of “zoso” mystic symbols/identities and fascination with the occult than the record’s conception or music) while other subject choices are a bit baffling (book #7 tackles ABBA Gold, a greatest hits compilation of the boisterous 70s Swedish band’s disco blahs and this December marks the release of a book examining Céline Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love). Still, because the series taps into every pop genre and sub genre spanning the second half of the 20th century, the books are in many ways a complete modern musical history told one signature album at a time.

Bookstores around the world are saturated with writings and ramblings on popular music. While an entire encyclopedia devoted to the career of Bob Dylan or the making of Revolver is warranted and welcome amongst avid music lovers, there is something comforting about the 33 1/3 series, which seeks out the less obvious album gems. Rather than utilizing pompous music historians the majority of this series channels the best music writers, the faithful fans.

We all have a short list of albums that truly changed our lives and what’s nice about this series is that there are others out there who share the same passions. For every Beatles or Stones aficionado there is someone who is equally passionate about a lesser-known group like The Minutemen (book #45 Double Nickels on the Dime) or Love (book #2 Forever Changes), or a singer songwriter like PJ Harvey (book #48 Rid of Me). The 33 1/3 series serves as a vehicle for the communal appreciation of great music going above and beyond the content found on the liner notes of the albums we love and cherish.

For more information on the series visit 33third.blogspot.com .

Yearning For that Second Coming


Ramblings on the “what if’s”

In 1989, The Stone Roses, arguably one of the most important players in the “Brit Pop” genre, released its self-titled debut album. Following a successful and rapidly growing performing career amidst the budding “Madchester” rave-rock scene in Manchester, U.K. The Stone Roses rocketed the band into international stardom and was welcomed with open arms by critics who would eventually label them “one of the greatest British rock bands of all times,” a title the band’s pompous but brilliant front man Ian Brown wore on his sleeve with pride. Then something strange happened. After a grueling five-year hiatus that included constant feuds with record labels, recording procrastination, and quite possibly fame overload, The Stone Roses finally released its delayed sophomore album Second Coming, an underrated follow up to its predecessor, which only recently has started to garner more critical acclaim. Shortly thereafter the band called it quits, despite being at the top of its game.

The Stone Roses joined a long list of short-lived bands or artists whose cannon can be summed up in one or two brilliant albums and then simply vanished. While some people may applaud musicians who record a couple of masterpieces and then clear the stage while they’re ahead (the safe route that avoids a career of ups and downs), I can’t help but wonder about the possible futures that could have arisen from these ephemeral artists had they simply taken some risks and headed into an uncertain future. Is it better to be remembered for a short but sweet career or for one with possible highs and lows? Afterall, if The Beatles thrown in the towel early on after its first couple bubble gum pop records the world of music might be a different place today.

Take late 80s atmospheric, noise-rock pioneers, My Bloody Valentine, a perfect example of a breakthrough band that mysteriously called it quits after a couple EPs and two unprecedented soundscape masterpieces, 1988’s Isn’t Anything and 1991’s Loveless. While there are myths and theories surrounding the hectic making of Loveless (some say Valentine’s mastermind Kevin Shields went a little crazy during the long drawn out and expensive recording process), the reasons for band’s ultimate demise remain fairly unclear and I can’t help but wonder where Valentine would have taken us next had it just taken the next step.

In 1998, ex-Fugees siren Lauryn Hill unleashed her monumental solo-debut, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, which remains, in my mind, one of the best albums of the nineties. Since then, with the exception of a lackluster and overly preachy live MTV Unplugged album and some minor guest appearances, she has strayed away from an official sophomore release. There’s no doubt in anyone’s minds that recording a follow up to any breakthrough album is no small feat, however, I’ve always been more interested in those who are willing to try even with the pressures of besting their best.

I’ve often said that Talking Heads was one of the best American bands because it explored its musical range over a solid twelve-year run with eight great albums (yes, I dig 1988’s Naked) and then called it quits to pursue other ventures. Modern groups such as Radiohead (a band that clearly takes cues from Valentine), Wilco, or as fellow writer John Dorhauer pointed out, the White Stripes, remain some of the more interesting bands working today because they are not afraid to take risks and thus have expanded their musical gamut with time rather than stopping prematurely and fading away.

Perhaps its merely wishful thinking on my part to question bands like Valentine’s musical volition or ponder over why my favorite Eric Clapton super group, Blind Faith, only produced one album since the music they did create will always hold a special place in my heart. I don’t think there is a music lover out there who doesn’t wonder what the future might have been like for a band like Nirvana had Kurt Cobain not taken his life or whether the Sex Pistols would have been as prolific as say its contemporaries, The Clash, had the original band not imploded after just one album. I suppose some things happen for a reason but as someone who is passionate about music I can’t help but think that these short-lived musicians who are alive and well may still have a couple aces up their sleeves.