Cover of Weezer's 1994 eponymous (self-titled) album, also known as the blue album.

#RethinkThursday: You Will Never Make Me Love Weezer

THIS IS PART OF AN ONGOING SERIES CALLED RETHINK THURSDAY, IN WHICH I REVISIT ALBUMS THAT I REMEMBER EITHER LOVING OR HATING, TO SEE IF TIME AND EXPERIENCE HAVE CHANGED MY OPINION. OR HECK, MAYBE THE DIFFERENCE IS JUST THE DAY THAT I’M LISTENING. AS I LISTEN I REVIEW THE ALBUM, TRACK BY TRACK PLUS OVERALL COMMENTARY, AND YOU GET TO THINK IT’S SO AWESOME THAT YOU GIFT ME ALL YOUR SHARES IN APPLE.

 


Today I’m listening to Weezer‘s 1994 self-titled album, which is called Weezer because it’s self-titled, but which everyone calls The Blue Album. I’m going to say some things that Weezer fans will think are mean. Know that I’m being extra caustic for effect, but that the core of what I’m about to say is still true.

I don’t get my friends’ obsession with Weezer. Every time the band puts out a new album, aren’t you kind of surprised? Like not surprised by the release, surprised by their existence. Doesn’t it always feel like a reunion album?

That’s how I feel about them. And The Shins.

That’s the truth about me.

Here’s an extra dose of truth: in my mind, Weezer is the second-most overappreciated band out there. (I still see you, Chicago.) A handful of memorable tunes from The Blue Album and what else? I can’t think of anything they’ve done that’s resonated with me.

(Except those cruises for Weezer fans to hang out with the band. Great move. Which has nothing to do with the music.)

What’s more, I’m not even convinced that the band itself has much to do with its breakout success. I have a friend, who is relatively prominent and who will remain unnamed lest I risk his reputation, who thinks that not a single one of this album’s megasweet guitar solos was actually played by any member of the band. Then who played them, you may ask? None other than producer Ric Ocasek himself, who was also frontman for The Cars.

Once my buddy told me his theory, all I could think was how perfectly power pop-y every solo was on all the singles released from The Blue Album. And all I could hear was The Cars. And my opinion of Weezer went downhill with every radio play. This is the part where we have Weezer tied up with rope and someone pulls off Rivers Cuomo‘s mask and there’s — GASP! — Old Man Ocasek screaming “And I would have gotten away with it too, if it hadn’t been for you kids and your lousy dog!”

Which is not to say these are dumb guys. Rivers Cuomo is pretty famously smart. He went to Harvard, kids. And he seems forward thinking and super creative in all kinds of free ways that I genuinely envy.

But The Blue Album. It’s always left me with a bitter taste in my mouth that wouldn’t let me take it seriously, since it was first released. Everything about it was trying too hard — its cover strikes me as a little too minimalist, too honest; the misspelled name was a little too clever; and that darn contrived Happy Days video for Buddy Holly. It was like some Wizard of Oz (Weezard of Oz?) (I’m sorry.) was hiding behind a marketing curtain, pulling levers and collecting money hand and fist. If this band was actually talented and not a flash in the pan, I wasn’t able to get past the smoke and mirrors enough to actually see that.

Anyway, look, you get the point. And you know the deal by now. I think I hate it, I think I’m gonna listen and keep hating it except for the singles that everyone loves because they’re part of our collective consciousness. Or maybe I’ll hate it all. Or maybe — just maybe — it’ll make me love Weezer.


What I think I’ll say when it’s over:

Yup. The Cars. Move along folks, nothing to see here.

Track 1 – “My Name Is Jonas”: I want to play Guitar Hero. Right. Now. Actually that acoustic line at the beginning is really nice, and the fuzz and the feedback and the lead vocals work out great. The quiet-to-loud juxtaposition is to be expected on a 90s album. Great tension on the “workers are going home” buildup going into the section where the snare and high hat hit every beat, which feels super apropos for the period when 90s punk was beginning to strike hard. The guitar solo at the end sounds like a harmonica. Cool.

2 – “No One Else”: This is just enough punk to work. And (you might think I’m crazy, but) it’s also just enough Cars to be The Cars. So many knee slappers in today’s post. You’re welcome.

3 – “The World Has Turned and Left Me Here”: I like that these guys used acoustic guitars without sounding like Hootie & the Blowfish. Also, I like Hootie & the Blowfish. Actually I haven’t listened to Hootie since the 90s. Future #RethinkThursday? Watch out. Back to the music. Great-sounding generic southern-California punk-inspired drones. It’s all right. The minor B section is a nice breath of fresh air. So far this is still sounding like the very nondescript band I’ve always believed they were. Or maybe they were descript(?) until everybody else crowded the space they carved out in pop music. I would have liked to listen to it at the 2nd Woodstock in a shirt that said Dookie.

4 – “Buddy Holly”: This is a perfect track. This is 90s Beatles. (Plus Cars synths. Sorry, it’s true.) Also I’ve always loved the feedback that peppers the bridge. I can’t listen to the song without seeing poodle skirts.

5 – “Undone – The Sweater Song”: Is this really great tongue-in-cheek social commentary, or just drivel? By the way there’s no way to resist yelling “AS I WALK AWAY” and “LYING ON THE FLOOR” when this is playing. Which is admirable, and I hope to record a song with that kind of mind-controlling power. The dissonance on the last “come undone” makes you think these guys were genuinely having fun, and maybe actually embodying a punk ethos behind all the pop perfection. Jeez this is a loud album. My ears are starting to hurt.

6 – “Surf Wax America”: So we’ve gone from 90s Beatles to 90s Beach Boys. Except I like this more than the Beach Boys. Sigh. Fine, Weezer. Show that you have a real sense of musical history. And write a fantastic pop-punk chorus that’s a romping call to join the movement. Fine. Just do it all perfectly. I bet The Aquabats started out covering this song.

7 – “Say It Ain’t So”: Whose piece of genius was it to take the laid-back weekend of these verses and twist it into an outlandish faux-hair-band chorus? I’m starting to get jealous. I want to see this live so I can shout the chorus with a really big crowd. And then the bridge hits and you realize this whole thing packs a mess of gravitas and I actually need to go back and listen to the track again and again.

8 – “In the Garage”: Dungeon Master’s guide and a 12-sided die, huh? Wonder why teenagers who felt out of place loved this album. I swear Ric Ocasek could’ve written this chorus: that first change is brilliant. And I’m starting to decide that if I’m going to write any successful pop progressions I’m going to have to listen to a lot more Cars and Weezer, and I feel sad. But I feel hopeful. It’s ok man. No, I’ll be all right.

9 – “Holiday”: I’m learning that power pop requires loud, reckless, abandon. Like it needs to not care about anything or anyone, it just needs to take over your ears. The louder the guitars the better. For being one of the weakest tracks on the album, this one’s pretty strong. The changes are totally outside of my writing repertoire. Listening to this album is making me a better listener, which is something I wasn’t expecting.

10 – “Only in Dreams”: I like how the melody and the guitar go from unison rhythm to call-and-response in the verses. That modulation halfway through the chorus is great. At first I thought this track, the album closer, was going to be a sleeping pill. But in true 90s fashion, subdued gave way to garish, and I’m kind of liking it. Not one but three layers of feedback before the last chorus, in case you were wondering if it’s Weezer. Like three Jedi brothers unleashing their light sabers in turn. Because Weezer is kind of nerdy. Ok now the bass forever. Fade out? FADE OUT? … No. This song isn’t going to end, is it? I’ve been sucked into some weird Weezer universe where all I hear is this bassline while guitar lines and feedback swirl around me. Then it explodes into one last solo jam… and the bassline… and this isn’t fun anymore… ok land on DO. Thank you.

What I’m saying now that it’s done:

New found respect. I’m going to have to learn these songs. It’ll make me a better pop writer. This album takes the best from a lot of great bands and makes it Weezer’s own, which I respect — and sometimes like. Some of the tracks are still snoozefests, and I still think these guys are stuck on being whatever it is they are. Too good for the glamour, to real for the scene maybe. Which is fine, and sometimes it sounds like they’re genuinely just having fun making music. But after this listening I still feel like they wear their idea of themselves on their sleeve just enough to make their music often feel stiff and stodgy. I’m not a fan. I don’t love. But yeah, now, I can respect.

 

 

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#Rethink Thursday: The Beatles, “Please Please Me”

THIS IS PART OF AN ONGOING SERIES CALLED RETHINK THURSDAY, IN WHICH I REVISIT ALBUMS THAT I REMEMBER EITHER LOVING OR HATING, TO SEE IF TIME AND EXPERIENCE HAVE CHANGED MY OPINION. OR HECK, MAYBE THE DIFFERENCE IS JUST THE DAY THAT I’M LISTENING. AS I LISTEN I REVIEW THE ALBUM, TRACK BY TRACK PLUS OVERALL COMMENTARY, AND YOU GET TO WRITE THE FCC AND TELL THEM NET NEUTRALITY’S OK EXCEPT NO ONE CAN READ ANYTHING ONLINE EXCEPT MY BLOG.


There are two kinds of people in this world: early-Beatles people, and late-Beatles people. I am a late-Beatles person.

Or at least I think I am. When I was a kid my dad owned The Beatles’ two best-of collections – the red one and the blue one (red: 1962-‘66; blue: 1967-‘69). Both were big 2-disc sets with like 13 tracks on each disc, and I remember thinking it was every song the Fab Four had recorded. (Spoiler alert: They recorded over 20 studio albums, so it wasn’t.)

Cover photos of two Beatles collections: 1962-1966, and 1967-1969.

You can’t love them both. It’s not allowed.

I always went straight for that blue set. The red-set stuff – the straight-ahead tunes struck me as canned, standard, worn out. More Stone Age than modern music. Most of the red tracks were released before the Beatles’ studio-is-the-instrument experimentations, and the setup of drums-bass-guitar-guitar felt too played-out for me to really connect to. Sure, the band kept that core arrangement till the end, but by the time they were making blue-set stuff (Sgt. Pepper and later) it was layer upon layer of anything else anyone could imagine.

The early Beatles recordings just sounded so… boring.

And I never got into them. I never cared. My friend Alan and his sister Lauren were real early-Beatles fanatics. Anytime I brought up the band they’d rattle off a dozen or so songs I’d never heard of, and I’d nod my head politely and wish I hadn’t said anything.

Then I’d see film of these circa-1964 mod girls screaming and tearing their hair out and I’d think, “Is that what 60s kids did to show someone they were falling asleep from boredom?”

So anyway, enough preamble. Tonight I’m sitting down with

The.

Album.

Please Please Me is the debut release that launched the most famous band ever to walk the planet. The Beatles’ first two singles had already sold like mad in the UK, and Parlophone needed to get a full album out to capitalize on the insanity. So the band recorded what I’m about to listen to, and it was released in the UK in 1963, and the rest is history.

Running from preteen mobs. Ed Sullivan. Shea Stadium. India. Rooftop. Yoko Ono. Seven years and seven bajillion dollars and an entire cultural revolution later, it was all over.

So we’ll take a look at the beginning. Before we start, two quick notes.

First: Because the Beatles’ albums aren’t available on Spotify (and because I never cared enough to own this one before tonight), I had to buy Please Please Me on iTunes. (Thanks Steve Jobs!) That also means you can’t stream it and listen along — you’ll have to find another way to hear it.

Second: This sucker has fourteen songs in about 33 minutes, averaging about 2:30 per track. There are several that don’t even hit two minutes. So I don’t have a lot of time to write about each track, but that’s ok: fewer words from me makes your life less painful. Go ahead and celebrate.

Ok let’s listen.


What I think I’ll say when it’s over:

There was more energy in that than I remember, but I still think those early-Beatle people are tripping acid. (Which is ironic.)

Track 1 – “I Saw Her Standing There”: One of the problems I’ve had with bands’ recordings is that they don’t capture the energy of their live performance. Everything sounds stale, rehearsed, lifeless. Not here. Not at all. Even the lead-in count has life in it.

2 – “Misery”: I wish I had more context about what recordings sounded like in late 1962 and early 1963, because I wonder if that intro would have sounded unique at the time. The piano fillers — the descending, skipping line as well as the one-note fill — are what give this track any stand-out power.

3 – “Anna (Go to Him)”: Pretty sure I saw on Wikipedia that this one isn’t a Lennon/McCartney product. I’m not surprised. Run of the mill. Nice — but run of the mill. Tightly played though. Take for example the legato/staccato contrast in the B section. Well thought out! I also read that this album was literally made from the band’s live show, like they didn’t really have anything else. I can tell how much those live shows made this a tight recording.

4 – “Chains”: The vocals releases aren’t perfectly together, and that gives the whole thing some fresh energy. Twelve-bar blues and a B section. Boring to my ears, but the boys pull it off with energy. Talk about a hokey concept for a song though. She’s got chains around me that you can’t see. Guess what kind they are… they’re chains of love! Got you, guys!!

5 – “Boys”: Energy. Energy! Oh yeah!! This is John singing, right? He’s not the best singer, but he throws himself fully into it, and that’s all I need. The drums are so perfect throughout this track, especially during the breakdown/intro sections to new verses. Another twelve-bar blues. No surprise there. (Just looked — this is Ringo singing. Awesome.) (I fully expect some Beatles fan to harpoon me in the comments for ignorant moments like that.)

6 – “Ask Me Why”: Meh. Tracks like this have never been my scene. Too mushy or something. Reminds me of Paul Anka, full of talent but super stuffy. By the way, one time I heard a bunch of Beatles vocal tracks with no instruments, and they often sounded like genuinely bad singers; this track could have been included in that collection. And yet it works ok.

7 – “Please Please Me”: Uptempo eighth notes in the bass are killing it!! And when they go unison with the guitar, I bet that was just magic live. I can see Paul and George(?) locking eyes and grinning ear to ear every time they hit those lines. Be sure to scroll down to listen to a really great cover of this one.

8 – “Love Me Do”: What a way to start the B side of the album. Love that the guy singing the low harmonies in the chorus, then takes the melody on the hook. Harmonica solo on the second B section’s super nice. The hokey bass guitar-crash guitar hit coming out of that section HAD to be Paul’s idea.

9 – “P.S. I Love You”: If this ends in a cha-cha-cha I’m gonna be upset. I dig the out-of-key chord change right before the hook. (Does it go up a whole step from the tonic, or down? Or something else? I’m have a hard time hearing today.) Ok track, not great. Didn’t end in a cha-cha-cha! Thank you George Martin!

10 – “Baby It’s You”: I completely love how free these lead vocals sound. That’s all I have to say about this otherwise-standard song.

11 – “Do You Want to Know a Secret?”: This reminds me of hearing two buddies of mine talking about how to pick up girls. Apparently it’s a good move to tell a girl that what she’s about to hear is a secret. Intimacy and stuff, I guess. Sounds manipulative and low to me. But hey George sounds nice on lead vocals.

12 – “A Taste of Honey”: Too-doot-n-doo to you too, sir! I’d rather hear The Kingston Trio do this one. Oh hey pickerty third!

13 – “There’s a Place”: Ok finally let’s breathe some life back into this album! Cool stops and breakdowns here, very Beatlesesque if that’s a word. The B section rocks — this has got to be a Lennon/McCartney. Checking, and… yep! Classic John and Paul. The more cerebral elements of the lyrics

14 – “Twist and Shout”: I mean, let’s just finish it with the perfect pop song shall we? Apparently John had a cold when they recorded the album, so this one was held off till last because George Martin was afraid the vocals would shred Lennon’s vocal cords. I can hear the saliva spraying onto the mic from back by his jaws. It’s awesome. And I love the slide up from the blue note every time John finishes a vocal line.

What I’m saying now that it’s done:

I’m half-and-half on this. There’s a reason we remember the songs we remember from this album, and there’s a reason you forget the rest along with so much early-60s pop. (Yes, I know today’s no different.) And the ratio is about one-to-one on this album, for me. It sounds like the band really believed in some of the tracks they were recording for their debut, and the rest they just did their best on. I don’t know, maybe the best-sounding, most energetic ones tended to be recorded early on in their marathon session. Or maybe they really are better songs. Every band deals with this, I’m sure — and so did the Beatles. To be honest, the best part about listening to this album all the way through is that despite its status as unquestioned hit and an unmitigated legend, it’s not perfect. That’s a lesson worth remembering when I’m making my own music. (Some of which I plan to post here, on this very blog, very soon.)

Bonus final note: You really should listen to this cover of “Please Please Me” by Wyckham Porteous. Yes that’s his name, and yes this track is fantastic.

#RethinkThursday: A Tribe Called Quest, “People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm”

THIS IS PART OF AN ONGOING SERIES CALLED RETHINK THURSDAY, IN WHICH I REVISIT ALBUMS THAT I REMEMBER EITHER LOVING OR HATING, TO SEE IF TIME AND EXPERIENCE HAVE CHANGED MY OPINION. OR HECK, MAYBE THE DIFFERENCE IS JUST THE DAY THAT I’M LISTENING. AS I LISTEN I REVIEW THE ALBUM, TRACK BY TRACK PLUS OVERALL COMMENTARY, AND YOU GET TO BEG KIM KARDASHIAN TO TWEET THE LINK TO ALL HER FOLLOWERS.


Disclaimer one (of three): I don’t believe I’ll ever put out anything with a longer title than today’s post.

Disclaimer two: I’m not a hip hop guy. That’s true. I’m telling you that right up front. I grew up in a small town in southern Indiana, about as far from hip hop culture as an American kid can get. I was raised on a regular diet of sweet corn and John Mellencamp. Mom painted watercolors and took me to piano lessons. The closest thing we had to the pain of the streets was when our dog, Poppet, would run away.

But that didn’t make me unaware of hip hop, nor completely uneducated. I remember with a mix of awe and nostalgia the energy, humor, and gravitas of the music that came surging out of (especially) New York City at the dawn of the 1990s.

Some 25 years before, myriad movements had risen to give black people their voice. By 1990 the children of those movements — literally born from those activists, I imagine — had grown up with a more fully-fledged sense of empowerment and expression than perhaps any person of color, at any time, in the United States of America. There was a sense, at least to my young eyes, that we might be at the dawn of an artistic renaissance for a population too long silenced in this country.

A new urban aesthetic was overtaking mass media. It was bright, colorful, loud, and proud.

And this was before the mid-90s when a rap sub-genre, dubbed “gangsta”, came along to glorify a different kind of black voice, and began its own kinds of stereotypes — stereotypes that thrive still today. This was a time that cried for continued change, but seemed to call for it from a cosmic place inside that looked for salvation in something spiritual instead of a growing collection of dollars, cars, guns, and women.

For me, no track has embodied the freshness and elation of that cultural moment than “Can I Kick It?”, which appeared on A Tribe Called Quest‘s debut album in 1990. The album, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, was never on my bookshelves at home. Not by any means. In fact, I don’t think I knew the title until a few years ago. But as long as I can remember, it seems there’s been a three-chord bass harmony cycling through my head — the song’s intro, sampled from Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side”:

Now, I haven’t listened to that track today; I’m keeping my appetite unspoiled for when I listen to the whole album in a bit. But you can hear it, can’t you? There’s joy in that track, and self-assurance. Maybe a sense of wide-open possibilities.

But I don’t recall loving everything about this album. There were stories and sentiments that I recall being expressed sophomorically, and tracks that felt self-indulgent in their length. Even in “Can I Kick It?”, I cringe a little at the organ sample’s clash against the rest of the track. Why? I ask myself. There had to be other options.

So I’m back, after several years of not listening to People’s Instinctive Travels…, to see if I can make sense of any of that stuff I didn’t like. Let’s dive in together.

Final disclaimer: I seem to recall some explicit stuff on some of these tracks, while others are totally, fully innocent. Like funnily innocent. So just listen with some caution.


What I think I’ll say when it’s over:

Nope. Still don’t get some of their choices. But MAN, those four guys put together beats that still pop today.

Track 1 – “Push It Along”: A baby’s cry and a lot of psychedelic sounds. This isn’t your grandfather’s hip hop. Actually it might be, but it’s a lot cooler than yours. Sorry kids. Anyway, how much thought to artists put into the symbolism in these sounds? Is this the birth of a new urban movement? Then that bass, that guitar… I guess these guys didn’t like being called “jazz rap” but they sampled some real cool cats, yeah cool, dig it. Two verses and two choruses later, how about a saxophone solo? Hang on I’m gonna go google the album because I’m pretty sure there’s a list of samples used on the album. … Ok I have Wikipedia loading in another tab but I had to come back because about 5:00 into this track, just when you think it’s over, a fade-in of a totally new feel (what’s THIS sample??), and back to some psychedelic effects, some echoes and some reverse-reverb. I’m listening with headphones right now — normally I listen on speakers to fill the room — and the stereo on this last section is much appreciated.

2 – “Luck of Lucien”: WHEN WILL THE SMOOTHNESS END. I hope the rhymes match how cool this is. … Yup they do. I love the high hat (or is that a really sharp snare?) on the backbeat. WHOA MORE STEREO IN FULL EFFECT. I didn’t even remember there were any French elements on this album at all, so there’s a ton of nice little surprises hidden in here. Ok let’s talk samples. Here’s the list of samples, courtesy of Wikipedia. The Marseillaise that leads into this track is a sample from “All You Need Is Love” by The Beatles. And they sampled it themselves. Huh.

3 – “After Hours”: No idea what this song is about, I’m on Wikipedia too much. I heard apple juice. This is some kind of story and I haven’t followed it at all, but the beat is killing it hard so I’m just gonna let that be my focus right now. Do you hear the reverb on the backbeat? Put on some headphones — it goes for days. More scratching on this track than I’d normally be into but such was the life of a 90s DJ. WHOA WAS THAT FIVE SECONDS OF METAPSYCHEDELIA? Awesome. I love that they put that in there.

4 – “Footprints”: FLANGE THAT SAMPLE LIKE THERE’S NO TOMORROW. Pretty cool that I can’t keep my ears at peace while that tone lasts, but then when the kick drum drops I don’t even remember that it’s there. Reference to the UNLV Rebels helps this track feel like a real time capsule. I’m a hand percussion hater normally, but they fit really well in the breakdown at about 2:30. And now I’m bored and going back to that samples list. This ascending-horn sample is so uncomfortable on top of everything else that’s going. And is this final stomping rhythm sampled from The Wall?

5 – “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo”: I remember hating this song. This time around I like the beat. The hook still sucks. And I get bored by stories, even if the rhymes are cool here and there. (Ugh, “I had the enchiladas and I ate ’em.” Yuck. And I don’t mean the food.) This appears to be the story of a man who wants to spend a ton of gas money so he can go back and get the condoms that are in his wallet, instead of buying replacements at a local store. It is still a low point on the album.

6 – “Pubic Enemy”: That doesn’t say “public”. A candid track about sexuality and venereal disease. This public service announcement brought to you by the Tribe.

7 – “Bonita Applebaum”: I remember this one being pretty overtly sexual too. Loving the electric piano — not sure where that got sampled from. And I’d forgotten that string sample (is that a sitar?) that The Fugees used in “Killing Me Softly”. Ooh! And I just discovered whosampled.com. (Here at the end it does get crazy sexual. And then more psychedelic chorus work. I love that that keeps getting reintroduced.)

8 – “Can I Kick It?”: The classic. The quintessential. Listening to it now, this is the first time I’ve ever heard the falsetto “Yes you can!” in the right channel. Seriously, put on some headphones and turn it up and listen to the Muppet in your right year. Ok let’s talk a little bit about Lou Reed because I can’t get enough of this bass line from “Walk on the Wild Side”. It’s playful, it’s simple, it’s confident, it’s melodic, it’s laid back and easy. It’s for all those reasons that I haven’t been able to escape it for more than probably a week for my entire life. What’s that glass-breaking sample? And who’s Mr. Dinkins, and why do we want him to be the mayor? And did I get his name right? I’m too busy to think about these things. On to the next track.

9 – “Youthful Expression”: Actually I’m still talking about that last track. Several months ago I went to a party held by a bunch of 20-year-olds, and I knew I liked the musical taste of a couple of them. But when Kesha gave way to “Can I Kick It?”, my respect went deep. “Body’s healthy, mind is wealthy.” See what I’m saying about positivity ruling the day in this era of hip hop? I love that. Even when change is demanded, it’s done in good humor: “No banana, I ain’t a primate.” Not scientifically true, but the point is made. We are listening to A Tribe Called Quest declare themselves representatives and leaders of a movement, and the music is confident enough to get us to believe in them.

10 – “Rhythm (Devoted to the Art of Moving Butts)”: Best title on the album. “It’s a new decade”, the first line in the song, continues to stress ATCQ’s place in what could have been a real movement. I’m still kind of mad at Snoop Dogg, Warren G, that whole school — maybe things would be better for race relations in the country if positivity had carried the lyrical day, instead of line after line about violent crime.

11 – “Mr. Muhammad”: NO BUT REALLY WHEN DOES THE SMOOTH END. It must be its only special kind of genius to hear such a minuscule piece of a recording and say “Let’s just repeat those two counts, over and over — trust me, it’s going to sound like genius.” This track’s got quality; too bad it’s stuck on the back half of the album, where it becomes forgettable filler. It deserves better.

12 – “Ham ‘n’ Eggs”: Silliness, and why not? It’s a hip hop song about the benefits of vegetarianism. They rhyme “yummy” and “tummy”. Like I said, I’m not a hip hop guy, but I don’t see Kanye taking a enough of a break from his ego to rap about asparagus. I can see these guys dancing and swaying and clapping in the studio, just giddy with how ridiculous this track is, even as they believe in it from the bottoms of their hearts.

13 – “Go Ahead in the Rain”: Just as I was getting a little tired near the end of the album, here comes that guitar. Wikipedia says Hendrix got sampled for this one, but I think it was the rain at the beginning, not the 70s scratch guitar. Ok I’m back to a little tired, and I think the production is a little tired too by now. I would have liked to see the same level of creativity go into this last stretch of the album as we saw in the first two-thirds or so.

14 – “Description of a Fool”: The beat’s catchy, and it’s put to GOOD use: we’re finishing off the album with a statement on masculinity and chauvinism in the city. Compare that with record after record that have come out since in rap and hip hop, full of womanizing and me-first. This is yet another testament that A Tribe Called Quest were doing something right, and I wish they’d done it longer.

What I’m saying now that it’s done:

I can’t think of more than a couple moments when I thought this album’s production choices were too weird. But for some reason I’m left with the feeling that the back half of the album just doesn’t match up to the front. Which is weird: “Description of a Fool” makes for a genuinely strong ending, and you know I love “Rhythm” and “Ham ‘n’ Eggs”. I guess I just wanted more aggressive creativity throughout this set. (I’ve always felt that way about The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, too.) But looking over the tracks, The only low points I can genuinely point to are “Mr. Muhammad”, which really isn’t bad, and “Go Ahead in the Rain.” In any case, speaking in specifics, I really respect the decision to — frequently — keep listeners on their toes by just ending tracks and jumping straight to the next one, with practically no silence between them. That’s good, and something I wouldn’t mind incorporating in my own recordings. The rhymes here are generally less early-80s hokey than I remember them being, and the feel is even more laid back than I’d recalled. This is a good album, guys, and worth repeated listenings (almost) all the way through.

Cover Artwork for Go, an Album by Icelandic Musician Jónsi

#RethinkThursday: Jónsi’s Solo Album “Go”, Five Years Old This Week

This is part of an ongoing series called Rethink Thursday, in which I revisit albums that I remember either loving or hating, to see if time and experience have changed my opinion. Or heck, maybe the difference is just the day that I’m listening. As I listen I review the album, track by track plus overall commentary, and you get to share that via social media with everyone you’ve ever met.


This week’s review is very different.

See, last week I did the unthinkable: for Rethink Thursday I pushed play on the entire My World 2.0 album by Justin Bieber. And a friend of mine, whose music taste I respect deeply, gave me something of a backhanded compliment on Facebook.

“I applaud your stamina,” he said, “to stoop so low and listen, nay, re-listen, to this pornography with a perfectly open mind.”

Well then.

Actually, I agree with him. And the truth is, for every Rethink Thursday I’ve selected music that really does rub me the wrong way. Aaaand I’ve sometimes picked music that’s purely mercenary and without any artistic merit. Also without any demonstration of talent. Because snark is easy and funny, and it’s easy to snark on stuff that sucks.

Not so today. In April of 2010 — five years ago, a month after Bieber’s album — Sigur Rós‘ frontman Jónsi released a solo album called Go. I saw press about the release on NPR Music and decided to check it out.

View of Zion National Park from Canyon Overlook Trail

I once listened to this album with my brother while we drove through this. flickr: zionnps

It quickly became my favorite album of that year. It turned into such a go-to (Go-to, get it?) that when my brother and drove through breathtaking Zion National Park that year to meet our sister, I insisted that we listen to this album and nothing else. He obliged, and we shared an experience we both remember as truly sublime.

When Jónsi announced a nearby concert later that same year, I made sure to get tickets. It was worth every penny. If you’d like to see really crappy footage of his amazing show, I took this video and this video.

So what made Go so special to me? What drew me in and kept me? I don’t want to spoil the surprises if you haven’t listened to it yet, but in Go I heard a pure artist experimenting with every analog sound he could find in order to create music that’s every bit as kinetic, and sometimes frenetic, as the electronic dance music that was becoming ever more ubiquitous at the time he was creating. There was a joy in this music that I had been hard pressed to find anywhere else. It was a joy that to me felt almost ecstatic, in the realest sense of the word.

I remember latching on to that. But it’s been a long time. I’m going to go into this listening fully looking for things to pick apart and dislike. But I also hope I feel that original joy again. Feel free to listen along:


What I think I’ll say when it’s over:

Maybe I won’t say anything. Maybe I’ll be in tears.

Track 1 – “Go Do”: I had forgotten two things about this, that I remember right off the bat. First, he didn’t just use analog sounds and play with them to make music that could resemble electronic music, he sampled a whole spectrum of musical sounds and cut them up with a modern EDM approach, and then built a whole fleshy animal around this cyborg. It makes for a technique that’s lush and endlessly engaging. Second, when the kick drum hits, it hits SO HARD. As the track progresses, though, I remember thinking that either Jónsi didn’t set out to make pop dance music, or he’s not very good at making it. There are too many breakdowns; the track meanders and goes too long for radio or club play. This is an analog-electronic dance-inspired composition… something.

2 – “Animal Arithmetic”: Ecstatic. I keep thinking about the word ecstatic. I keep thinking about how my brother reacted while we played these first couple tracks and looked out the windshield at Zion’s dramatic peaks, one after the other. “Wow,” we both said. And this isn’t just ecstasy. It’s an overjoyed romp through the joyful side of our modern-day absurdities. Jónsi’s found a way to look at the stresses and messes of daily life and find the sincere bliss in it all. Jeez, I didn’t think I’d draw any Jónsi-Sisyphus analogies today.

3 – “Tornado”: The contrast between the direct opening tracks and this rhythmically difficult, subdued piano part almost brings tears to my eyes. I feel totally lost, have no idea where the time signature is, until that kick drum comes in. Jónsi’s falsetto soars as always. The track plods along unnoticeably, albeit beautifully, until the instrumentation breaks down almost fully and we’re left we’re a straight-up soliloquy from Jónsi, in rare all-English. Then an instrumental re-entry, a climax, and a final breakdown. This ends up being a heart-wrenching confessional.

4 – “Boy Lilikoi”: Pretty, pretty, pretty. Dreamy, dreamy, dreamy. But never one I’ve loved. I see the late, low light of a spring day dancing through green leaves, and little else. Wait… wait I FORGOT we go kinetic again in this one! And that snare-ornamented breakdown-to-quick-build was breathtaking. Literally I forgot to breathe for a second. Did I mention that at the live Jónsi show all the drums and percussion were played manually, on real instruments? Think about that and listen to those percussion parts. Listen to that high hat. The drummer was spectacular — and, by show’s end — very sweaty. Holy crud this song just keeps toying with me. I keep thinking it’s gonna go one direction, and then it ebbs, then flows again. And the drums! You guys the drums! The high hat and the tom! “Your eyyyyes… your eyyyyes…” I think I just found a new favorite track on this album. I just never realized how wonderful this one is.

5 – “Sinking Friendships”: Oh gosh, speaking of breathtaking. WHO ELSE USES SILENCE AS AN INSTRUMENT LIKE JÓNSI DOES HERE? That’s one example of how EDM influenced this album, except I keep thinking he’s taking all those producers and showing them that their toys are his big-boy tools. I keep thinking I’m going to find a real let-down on this album. I keep waiting for it. And sure, there are moments when I would have changed the length of a section here or there, but other than that I can’t find anything. The arrangements are literally, literally flawless. And now that I’ve written that, we come to the end of the track and he proves me right again with the full-circle sung chords again.

6 – “Kolniður”: I’m listening to this track and still raving from the last one. Okay back to the present. “Kolniður” has a special place in my heart thanks to the animation that played as a backdrop to Jónsi’s live show, portraying hand-drawn wild animals of three kinds, at night: grazing deer, stalking wolves, and an owl observing the scene. I’m getting chills thinking about how the story unfolds. (Nope, wait, here come the tears. I feel like the girl from that eHarmony cat video. Sorry.) I’ll try to find a good video of the animation to post here — my own video, linked in the section above, doesn’t do it justice.

7 – “Around Us”: (How did the engineer get that piano to sound like ice?) I keep thinking this is the song called “Grow Till Tall” because he sings those very words in this one. But nope that’s next. The hits in this song (hit? drop? can orchestral EDM have a drop?) are the track’s strongest feature. At this point in the album, I’ve gotten a bit too used to the four-on-the-floor kick drum — I could use some sound sorbet to cleanse my palette — so overall sound on this track doesn’t feel special until we break into 7/4 time, then 6/4, near the end. But the arrangements are still nothing short of masterful. Still inspiring.

8 – “Grow Till Tall”: I wonder how Jónsi writes this kind of stuff. Is he sitting at a piano? With a guitar? without any clean attacks or rhythms it can feel like the melody meanders so much. Does he hear all these sounds as he sings it to himself in the shower? In any case, he apparently has at least two visions for this song. This one stays quite pretty throughout, very tonic and well within the boundaries my Western-theory ear expects. Live, the animation and lights worked together to create a powerful storm effect (lightening, leaves blowing by ever faster), and the music became much more chaotic. You can see video of that live version by following the second video link in the first half of this post.

9 – “Hengilás”: Another slower one to end the album, and I’m worried the energy won’t last. The electronic face has left us completely, and instead of kineticism Jónsi finishes with simplicity. The phonetics and melody of his exposed singing are beautiful, and I’m left wondering if this is Icelandic or Hopelandic, Jónsi’s own created language. I love hearing the breathing of the players in the background here. Just one more reminder that this is a living, organic album. Just one more testament to the whole thing’s sincerity. Oh, and there we go — when the lyrics end we’re left with just Jónsi’s voice as another instrument, flying high above the rest in the arrangement. The coda has imperfect intonation, and it ends on the V instead of the I, and yet I still feel like I’m home, right where I need to be.

What I’m saying now that it’s done:

I’m not in tears now, but for a moment during this listening I was. There are several words I had a hard time avoiding today: ecstasy, kinetic, organic. I remember feeling those words on my tongue every other time I’ve listened to this album, and today is no different.

But I’ll add one more today: gratitude. The hours of difficult work that went into this whole collection are so apparent, as is the care Jónsi put into every moment and every note. With some artists that hard work can, in the finished product, come across as pained. Painstaking, we say. But not here. Here, on Go, the sound doesn’t strike me as painstaking. It strikes me as fully, deeply pleasurable. For him to give that to me, it feels like a gift.

I’m going to put this album on repeat for the next month. I’m inspired every time I listen to it.

Leave a comment below, follow the blog, and remember to come back for more next #RethinkThursday.

Cover of My World 2.0 by Justin Bieber

#RethinkThursday: Justin Beiber’s “My World 2.0”

This is part of an ongoing series called Rethink Thursday, in which I revisit albums that I remember either loving or hating, to see if I was wrong about them. As I listen I review the album, track by track plus overall commentary, and you get to share that with everyone you know on Facebook.

Sadly, after I wrote today’s track-by-track review, WordPress deleted all but the first half of the post, which you see below. I’ve gone back and written my overall reaction, but this week will not feature a live review of the album. No, I don’t want to spend 40 minutes re-re-visiting a Bieber alubm.

Five years ago this month, you and I faced something of a reckoning. The Internet — and the heart of every female under 22 — had found a new god. He was Canadian, and he had very nice hair.

Justin Bieber doesn’t need much of an introduction, so I’ll mostly skip the usual lead-in and cut straight to the live review. But just a few things worth sharing before we jump in:

  1. The Biebs had just turned 16 when My World 2.0 was released in March of 2010. Which means he was 15, maybe even 14, when it was recorded. I’m keeping that in mind as we go.
  2. My World 2.0 was the first album since The Beatles to premiere atop the Billboard 200, and go on to sell more copies in its second week than in its first. SINCE. THE. BEATLES. (Granted, that was a Beatles compilation released in 2000. But still.)
  3. With this album, Bieber became the youngest male solo artist to hit #1 on the Billboard 200. Who held that honor up to the year 2000? Stevie freaking Wonder, in 1963. Forty-seven years before.
  4. The month after My World 2.0 came out, Justin Bieber was the musical guest on SNL. That was made even huger because it was the same episode with Tina Fey‘s triumphant SNL return, this time as host. The kid was still 16 years old. Know what I was doing at 16? Wondering if I should take the ACT, and trying to get Lara Gilliland to kiss me.

You and I can find a lot of reasons to hate on the boy wonder, but those are impressive facts. I’m trying to keep an open mind.

One more thing that’s helped me stay open to potentially enjoying this album is the recent release of a track by Skrillex and Diplo, who together are calling themselves Jack Ü, featuring none other than Justin Beiber. I heard it — and LOVED it — before I knew it was the kid singing. Here’s the song:

I told you it was good. And working with Skrillex is a surprise move that can give real street cred to a guy who’s been trying to find it in the wrong ways.

Ok. Mind opening. Hating over. Biases going out the window. Time machine set to 2010. Flux capacitor engaged.

Ready to go? I am.

WAIT NO I’M NOT!

*15 seconds of deep breathing*

Ok let’s do this.


What I think I’ll say when it’s over:

Now there’s 37 minutes and 37 seconds of my life I’ll never get back. Someone pass the valium?

What I’m saying now that it’s done.

I’m actually glad I went back and revisited this one. (I feel like I say that every week.) Sure, I suffered through 2/3 of this thing but there were some genuine, enjoyable diamonds among the fool’s gold of pop singles.

I’d skip the first four tracks and start right at “Runaway Love”, which differs from the rest of the album in that it allows teenage Bieber’s voice to resonate as it could have the whole time. I thought momentarily, when “Runaway Love” started, that Usher might have come across some lost recordings of a very young Michael Jackson. And the track could have been the creation of Quincy Jones himself. It was a scary moment for me: this was almost a gateway drug into Liking Justin Bieber.

The kid’s voice, at this early stage in his career, seems like it was better suited for pretty than for power: it lends gravitas to ballad tracks that without his gifts would have simply been Disney Channel fluff. (See tracks 7 and 9, “Overboard” and “Up”.) And on the straight-ahead pop songs, with all their production bravado, his voice actually pales in comparison to the big-room arrangements. (See track 2, “Somebody to Love”.) Not sure that would happen now.

I’m enough of a snob to feel shame when I tell you I’ll be listening to some of this album again. But I will in fact be listening. Especially to the highlights mentioned above — “Runaway Love”, “Overboard”, and “Up”. And for the first time in my life, I’m actually interested to see what The Biebs does with the rest of his career. I wish him the best.

#RethinkThursday: Jack Johnson’s “In Between Dreams”

What I think I’m gonna say when I’m done: I don’t smoke pot, but I sort of feel like I just did.


I’m leveling with you here. I actually have some fond memories of Jack Johnson‘s music.

Even if the guy’s success is probably what caused the masses to use the word “chill” for describing humans. Even if that phenomenon eventually popularized the term “chillax”, which as it turns out is the name of one of the horses of the apocalypse. You play me a track or two of Johnson’s surf-and-weed tunes and I might find a reason to smile.

I remember a sunny Saturday-morning ritual in college: we’d pile into cars and drive to the park for a couple hours of ultimate frisbee with friends. It was about the only relief we got from our hectic student schedules. (I went to a school where parties featured root beer floats, so yeah, stress relief wasn’t our forte.) Every week without fail, my roommate Rick would drive us in his gold Nissan Maxima, easily the nicest car anybody on the block owned. And every week he’d turn up the stereo and get good vibes flowing for everybody with a round of Johnson’s “Mudfootball”: “Saturday morning and it’s time to go,” etc etc etc. I still hear the ringing snare drum on that track, and even now the memory of that sound makes me want to walk away from every responsibility.

Nobody seemed to notice, by the way, that we were playing a way-less-manly sport than football.

But those memories don’t mean I have much awe for the guy’s music. Let’s face it: you’ve heard a hundred cocksure frat boys play Johnson’s songs — or at least his style — at any number of uncomfortable parties or open mic nights. And I bet more than a few played it better. Johnson’s a pretty good guitarist and songwriter, sure, but nothing I’ve ever heard from him made me think of him as a significant musician. I remember that he’s a surfer with a guitar. I remember laid-back strumming and an occasional solo line that was (maybe?) inspired by blues, or played by someone who had (probably?) heard of blues music.

I remember our plastic disc floating across a blue sky on the weekends. That’s about it. And yet there are people who have gotten permanent tattoos of this album’s cover — like this and this.

My disregard (even distaste) for Johnson’s stuff only grows because it’s the daily soundtrack for some people I have a really hard time being around. These include many of the people who want to make it very clear to you, all the time, that they’re chillaxing, bro. These are overly-wealthy white people who will be dancing badly and very drunkly to Jack Johnson on the backs of ski boats well into their 60s, as they have every Sunday for the last four decades, and they will believe this is the good life.

I don’t know, maybe it is and I’m missing something. But on to the music.

In Between Dreams, Jack Johnson’s third and best-selling album, is ten years old this month. So sticking to last week’s model, a revisit of Radiohead‘s The Bends as it hit 25, I thought I’d take a look at another popular album that I just wasn’t ever impressed with, on a significant anniversary. Maybe I’ll find out I really love it. In fact, I hope so.

I’m pushing play, writing a live track-by-track review, and then publishing whatever comes out. Can’t wait to hear what you have to say in the comments below.

Here it is. In Between Dreams:


Track 1 – “Better Together”: As I start this album I still have “Black Star” from The Bends in my head, from a week ago. I’ll let you know if that persists. … Aw freak you guys, the first thing that happened is that I feel chill. I’m writing this on a spring morning, and I look out the window and there’s not cloud in the sky, and I actually feel calmer inside. It’s not insignificant that my first impression is not about the music, but about the place it puts me in. Because this is a music blog I feel like I should be writing about the music itself. That comfortable, playful piano line that shuffles along — and is that a vibraphone? But almost my whole first impression is on an emotional level.

2 – “Never Know”: Was this or was this not cowritten with Maroon 5. Verse has nothing to draw me in — in fact, the relentless eighth notes on the guitar are a real turn-off for me. But the chorus turns that around. On a lyrical level, I get a little defensive about the “Knock knock” section about 2/3 through the song because, hi, I was a Mormon missionary for two years. And this song’s got tolerance written into its core, but makes no effort to understand people like me. And maybe I don’t make enough effort to understand overproduced fireside songs. Ok fine, we’ll have to agree to disagree.

3 – “Banana Pancakes”: Classic comfortable Jack Johnson shuffle. For a while all the good vibes I had from track one have gone away, but I think that’s more an effect of being called a zealot in the last song. “Laka ukulele/Mama made a baby” is a surprisingly fresh rhyme for me, every time. Ok, I’m disarmed. Chillax, people. (Wait! my music-snob self shouts. This guy’s a total hack! You’d hate this guy at a party!)

4 – “Good People”: “Oh the blues? Yeah I’ve totally heard of the blues a couple times.” That’s what Johnson has definitely said in at least one interview. The intro to this song isn’t doing it for me. Soft rap will keep you engaged long enough to bob your head, and a hook that you’ll whistle for a long time.

5 – “No Other Way”: As this song starts I literally don’t remember ever hearing it before. But the fret-noise slides up and down the strings are awfully reminiscent of a song I heard all of six minutes ago. Yeah, two tracks after “Banana Pancakes” I’m listening to basically the same line as an intro to this song. And… am I hearing that the guy isn’t hitting his pitches on the chorus? Yeah, I am! But — yeah, while I’m tempted to say that diminishes from the quality of the track, it actually enhances it. I like that detail a lot. Yes, I’m being serious!

6 – “Sitting, Waiting, Wishing”: If I remember right, this has always been the most engaging song on the album. The rhythm hits me the right way, even if playing it safe is still the name of the game as far as the songwriting and arrangement go. The C section, which I want to be just as hooky as the A and B sections, actually loses steam. As a matter of fact I forgot that the C section even existed in this song, while the A and B sections bubble up from my subconscious every couple months. That’s revelatory of its weakness.

7 – “Staple It Together”: Another one I forgot existed. Little-known fact about me: I hate hand percussion. But this intro’s custom made to fit into an Ocean’s movie, so I can’t complain too much. Ouch, but then the chorus is just trying too hard to groove, when the verses are so effortless. I think it’s the ride cymbal that’s killing me there. I wish this one would end faster than it does.

8 – “Situations”: Oh yeah! I forgot how pretty the melody is at the beginning of this song, and the vocals sound cool with the filter on it. … Wait, that was it? That was like a minute long. I love the rhythm fadeout while the solo line stays, but… okay on to the next one.

9 – “Crying Shame”: I get it, tired game and crying shame rhyme. Le sigh, Jack. More semi-funk making this album feel more and more like a wash of gray. Chorus is ok, but it’d be better showcased if the song around it contrasted with the rest of the album some. Losing the chill vibe in my frustration with a sound that’s becoming increasingly bland.

10 – “If I Could”: Slide right up and down that fretboard. Add in the hand drums. It’s a recipe for my disliking this track. But it’s a song about people you love, and now I feel bad about being so negative. This song is making me doubt my quality as a human being. Didn’t realize JJ would get me existential.

11 – “Breakdown”: I fully expect Israel Kamakawiwo’ole to sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in the intro. Not a complaint, that, just an observation. The chorus to this song is really great — it breaks free of its forgettable verses, and its steady quarter notes push their way right into your memory. I don’t have “Black Star” stuck in my head anymore, that’s for sure.

12 – “Belle”: Are there really more than 11 tracks on this album? Wait, there are 14? I’m getting to the point where I can’t tell where one shuffly acoustic slog-fest ends and another begins. Oh… wait, this one is different. Actually, now I realize this the song that everybody think’s I’m playing when I pick up my guitar and play anything Brazilian. Every single time. Which gives me a bad taste in my mouth for this one. But then the guy busts out a whirlwind romantic tour of Portuguese, Italian, Spanish, French, and a really clever English punchline. Fine, Jack. You win. That’s a good track.

13 – “Do You Remember”: Those fret-noise sliding lines actually work on this song. Please no drums. Please no percussion. Just let him sing this song alone instead of overproducing it … … … Please, take a break from the rest of how you made the rest of the album … … … All right! It’s a miracle!

14 – “Constellations”: This album wins the award for least-inspiring closing track.

Overall: Moments I would listen to this album all the way through: if I were on a road trip, if I were studying or working, or if I were sleeping. In other words, times when I really don’t want the music to get in the way. Times when the music itself should only emphasize what life is actually about. But for me, that means the music itself doesn’t matter. I could play this album at those times, or play anything that’s reasonably laid back, and just let it slide into the background. My taste is such that I like music that really sweeps my mind away, because I want to be engaged in what it took to make that stuff happen. To force myself to sit down and really listen to this album — to what amounts to a mood-inducing drone — is little more than drudgery. Is it quality for what it is? Yeah, you bet! But this is also not an album that leaves any kind of mark; it doesn’t have a life of its own. This is music that relies on you to breathe it to life by taking it along with you on the boat or to the park, on sunny days, when nothing matters. Ironically, In Between Dreams is the soundtrack to waking dreams themselves. And in the times between, it’s more a cloud, floating, existing and doing very little else.

#RethinkThursday: Radiohead’s “The Bends” on its 20th Anniversary

Note: This is the first in a planned series called Rethink Thursday. I’ll review old albums I have a specific opinion on, and see if I was wrong. Future editions will be shorter

Tomorrow — 13 March, 2015 — Radiohead’s The Bends turns twenty years old. I say that for three reasons:

1) I wanted to see the look on your face as your brain exploded. (It was priceless.)

2) I’m hoping Google picks up on this post’s huge pop-culture relevance and bumps me up the search rankings.

3) (This is the long one.) Among Radiohead albums, I’ve always considered The Bends to be the weakest. In fact I have never liked it. This is despite hearing Matt Pinfield say once that it was his favorite from the the Oxford quintet. (Others have said the same, to me personally, on a few occasions.)

I recognize that this opinion also completely ignores Pablo Honey, the band’s debut album after which I imagine Thom York just said “Hey everyone, hi yeah, uh, mulligan?” In my mind Pablo Honey has never really existed, and that left comparisons with the likes of OK Computer, Kid A, and In Rainbows. Next to those unquestioned winners, The Bends becomes the ugly, awkward kid in class.

There’ll be purists and hardcores up in arms, I’m sure. (Looking at you, Pinfield.) But Radiohead’s sophomore release has always struck me as, well, sophomoric. Take, for example, Thom Yorke’s lyrics here. Some standouts:

“I wish it was the sixties/I wish we could be happy/I wish that something would happen”

“Everything is broken/Everyone is broken”

 “Two jumps in a week/I bet you think that’s pretty clever, don’t you boy?/Flying on your motorcycle/Watching all the ground beneath you drop”

Not planning on a Pulitzer, are we Thom? On top of that, there’s always been this lingering feeling that, musically, The Bends is such a product of its time that its sound will never be able to transcend periods and trends like OK Computer can. Somewhere along the line, somebody REALLY must have wanted the sterilized-grunge sound of the mid-90s to slime its way through this whole release. No clue if that was the poor decision-making of a label exec, a producer, or an insecure band.

(Maybe a combination! Producer John Leckie to guitarist Johnny Greenwood through the studio glass: “Hey Johnny, Parlophone just called, and they REEEAALLYYY want you to sound like an amateur hack on this one.” Greenwood: “Oh you mean like those Bush fellows?” Leckie: “Perfect!”)

Whoever’s guilty, at several moments they made this album a downright time capsule for the first Clinton term. Listen to the title track from 1:05 to 1:17, or the bass line at the beginning of “Bones”. Even the principal guitar lick on the semi-legendary “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” almost demands a Chris Cornell vocal. It’s a small miracle the text on the cover isn’t printed in Courier New.

But I listened from time to time, usually with Pinfield’s voice echoing gravel-y through my head, and tried to force myself to like The Bends.

It never worked. I put it down. For years.

Until two weeks ago. From nowhere, guitar lines and drum beats from a long-lost memory came rushing back to me. I found myself absentmindedly whistling the chorus to “Sulk”, which I didn’t know I knew. (And then PASSIONATELY whistling it, which I didn’t know was a thing.) And I thought to myself: how old IS that album? Twenty years?

Hello, Wikipedia. Twenty years, it turns out, almost to the day.

So I decided on an experiment. The album’s old, to be sure, and it had been probably a decade since I last gave it a shot. What if I’ve been wrong this whole time, and The Bends isn’t the dumpster fire I always remembered it to be? What if everyone who’s sworn by this quote-unquote masterpiece was actually swearing to something true?

And what if this isn’t the only great album I’ve done this to?

So, here it is: the inaugural Rethink Thursday. Track by track, and then overall, was I mistaken about The Bends? I’m playing it once through, taking live notes, and hitting publish. Listen along if you’d like. Here goes nothing:

Track 1 – “Planet Telex”: If I remembered that the guitar work on this album was rudimentary, I was wrong. Greenwood’s cavernous opening tones attest to that. But the opening crash and drumbeat do genuinely affirm what I recalled: this is certainly a mid-90s album. Thom Yorke’s vocals are evocative and even darkly sensual, and the lyrics aren’t as direct as I remember: “You can walk it home straight from school/You can kiss it, you can break all the rules”. No clue what it means, but it keeps me wondering. The chorus is a wide-open-head-buster, to coin an awkward phrase on the fly, and well delivered. Tremolo guitar work throughout the hook/intro/outro is lovely, and is that a bit of OK Computer I hear in the creepy tone there at the end? This whole experience could be more pleasant than I thought.

2 – “The Bends”: The field recording at the beginning makes me think of the more recent track “Sorry” by The Moth & the Flame. Cool. But you guys, when the guitar intro (and Yorke’s Live-esque yell!!) come in, it’s still that 90s deal. And Johnny (presumably it’s Johnny) wraps up the prechorus solo with a really amateurish couple of notes. Like tasteless. Even the power of Thom’s periodic wails and Johnny’s later solos can’t save this one. I think this is the song that put the bad taste in my mouth for the whole album. It still might; we’ll see.

3 – “High and Dry”: The acoustic riff is a heartbreaker. In a good way. But then those atrocious opening lyrics. The whole verse! The whole first accursed verse! Gosh, this is a nice-sounding song. Why, Thom? Why? And just as the song starts to recover, there’s all this nonsense about “they will be the ones”/”you will be the one” that’s shoved in my face. Sorry, I just can’t do it. The guitar solo sounds custom made for an early season of The Real World. That wasn’t– not– funny!

4 – Fake Plastic Trees: This is the song I find myself going back to way more than any other on the album, like unwittingly. Because it’s actually perfect. A little overdramatic lyrically at times, maybe. But I think it fits. And look at the song structure. Three sets of AAB, each louder than the ones before it, all of them about why people put so much making themselves fake, for the sake of being better. The B section: “And it wears me out.” Repeat that whole idea three times, get more and more intense, and then finish the whole thing with a freaking subordinate clause! “And if I could be who you wanted all the time…” … … and that’s the end of the song. Pick your heart up off the floor. It’s broken btw.

5 – Bones: STEREO TREMOLO TO DIE FOR. Then a monster-slick bass line fit for the finest Pixies track. A withdrawn verse blows up, in perfect 90s fashion, into a massive explosion of a chorus. No clue what Thom’s singing in the chorus, but the guy certainly appears to believe whatever it is. Johnny Greenwood’s new take on a traditional blues feel gives the track roots that actually might come off too cute, but the chorus carries this one despite all the 90s moments.

6 – (Nice Dream): I keep wanting this track to be as great as “Fake Plastic Trees”, and it keeps not being. It’s a good one. It’s fine. The shiny acoustic guitar gives it the intimate authenticity necessary for any successful recording from the time period. but it kind of exists, and that’s all. Highlights: “She says she’d love to come help but/The sea would electrocute us all”. Love me some paranoid Thom Yorke. Also Greenwood’s whale songs near the end. Lowlight: The over-affected hard-alternative breakdown there at the end. Contrived, contrived, contrived, and never delivers emotionally.

7 – Just: Did Eve 6 just show up on this intro? In so many ways, this one is a step back musically, even if the video is pretty darn solid. The saving grace here, as it is so often on The Bends, is Johnny Greenwood. His first solo is one I’d aspire to play for sure, and after the chromatic breakdown he comes in with the tone of a banshee suffering through the Spanish Inquisition. Then his digital-ish tones after he climbs up and everybody else drops out — daggum, son.

8 – My Iron Lung: Ok we get it, Thom. It’s an extended metaphor. Driving bass line to keep us moving forward. More chromatic breakdowns to punctuate the thing, and was this track the inspiration for later Marilyn Manson songs? Electric piano foreshadows what we’ll see from the band in later albums. It’s ok and I can live without it. Could anybody else use a Red Bull right now? I know I could. And I hate the stuff.

9 – Bullet Proof..I Wish I Was: Yet more gorgeous, terrifying ambient stuff before the acoustic comes in. In some ways this one feels like a precursor to OK Computer‘s “Climbing Up The Walls”. I just wish the guitar on the chorus didn’t sound SO MUCH like something Angela Chase would listen to after a night with Jordan Catalano. Intricate work, with lovely effects that fell deeply out of fashion when everybody got tired of them a year later.

10 – Black Star: The fade in! The fade in! It lasts forever and it’s glorious! Actually, this song is the one that gets stuck in my head more than any other on The Bends, besides “Fake Plastic Trees”. The chorus’ descending vocal line that turns into a croon up top has a way of worming its way right into my brain. The track’s arrangement features some beautiful dissonance. Philip Selway’s beat here fits the rest of the arrangement perfectly, and the interaction between drums and bass carries just enough pathos without distracting from Yorke’s verse vocals. And when he sings “This is killing me” at the end, I really believe him. Nice stuff.

11 – Sulk: Back to the hardcore 90s at the beginning here. Ringing, repetitive guitar over a shuffling waltz. Thinly veiled innuendo in the lyrics. And I feel like Thom had a bad day in the vocal booth on this one. Not a bad melody, just not as well executed as he’s capable of. (I actually catch some Simon & Garfunkel through this song.) Is it realistic to say that Greenwood’s guitar has a sinister shimmer to it? I’m saying it. By the way, the bass through this whole track is like a Sunday dinner: just feast, just feel nourished, feel totally at home.

12 – Street Spirit (Fade Out): And then, as the album’s closer, the song that Radiohead reportedly said they were chosen — cursed — by the universe to have to play. Yikes, guys. That’s actually been enough to keep me from ever looking into the lyrics. The video’s pretty haunting if you’re into that. Also, who knew the universe would choose you to build a song around what amounts to a Metallica lick? My favorite moments come when those incessant descending background vocals enter. Chills me to the bone. And guess what I just realized: the album ends on the same note that it started on, but in a different key. Nice detail

Overall: I’m thinking of two albums that helped define — even revolutionize? — guitar work after hair bands gave way to Pearl Jam’s blues. Those two are The Bends, and Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. I think a LOT of people who made music in the early part of this century look back to that 2002 Wilco release as the rise of something really new. But seven years before, despite the power chords and chorus effects around him, Johnny Greenwood seemed to take a look at his instrument and ask what was possible, in ways others just hadn’t. If you ask me, he wasn’t quite able to free himself from the musical landscape and find his voice until 1997’s OK Computer. Still, as I look back now to The Bends, there are moments where his innovative genius really does come out. Thom Yorke wrote a couple classic songs for this one, even if by and large the selections here are forgettable, only powerful because of big arrangements in which the frontman was able to let loose vocally a bit. The whole band is steady, consistent, tight, and thoughtful, and still sometimes edging on bedlam, which is exciting. But they haven’t found themselves yet, and they’re leaning on outside forces to direct them, rather than trusting themselves as they did so well for over a decade afterwards. So will I go back to this album? Yeah. I will. And it’s well enough put together than I suspect I’ll gradually find new reasons to actually, maybe, like it.

Any suggestions for next week’s #RethinkThursday? What albums do you remember hating that you might love, or remember loving that you might hate? Seriously, I want to know. Comment below.