No thought was put into this

For the second year in a row, a curious thing has happened once autumn has settled in. For some reason, I suddenly want to listen to Nirvana.

Growing up as a teenager, I was firmly on the Pearl Jam side of the Nirvana/PJ debate, though I certainly liked and admired Nirvana. Even then, I recognized Kurt Cobain’s tortured musical genius (which was underrated then and is probably overrated now).

Lately I’ve definitely been going through musical phases. In early summer, I picked up the Smashing Pumpkins’ Zeitgeist and listened to the Pumpkins non-stop for about two months. After that I suddenly and weirdly shifted to the White Stripes, who previously I’d never really liked at all. But then came the cold weather, and with that, Nirvana.

It’s not happy music, which may be part of the reason I’m drawn to it around this time. It has none of the bouncy funk or whimsical blues of the Stripes or the hypnotic drone of the Pumpkins. It doesn’t have the comfortable, classic-rock feel of Pearl Jam. Nirvana’s music is as troubled as its primary creator, full of poppy riffs clashing with discordant notes and Cobain’s sorrowful keening.

There’s a darkness about their music, especially on In Utero, that I seem to dig around this time of year. The first Nirvana song I really noticed was “Heart-Shaped Box” (yes, somehow I missed “Smells Like Teen Spirit” initially), and it’s still my favorite. Though by 1993 the conventional wisdom in rock was that there was nothing new under the sun, “Heart-Shaped Box” was one of the weirdest rock compositions to hit the mainstream (though maybe the freaky music video affected my youthful perception of the song).

I know this will pass in a week or two, as it did last year, and I’ll move on to my November standbys (“Alice’s Restaurant,” anyone?). But given the odd fact that I’m once again listening to Nirvana in the fall, I wanted to discuss it here for posterity. After all, I’ve got to put something in this blog.

Working on a big post about Halo 3. Hope to have it up soon.


The year was 1996. Summer 1996, to be more exact.

I was a young lad of seventeen, a single year of high school between me and freedom from the parental units. This was to be my final summer of Magic: the Gathering, the collectible card game I’d started playing two years earlier and my main hobby at the time. (I would spend most of the following summer playing Diablo on my brand-new PC.)

Like any high school kid, I had a summer job. I’d spent the previous summer working first as a bagger, then a cashier at the local supermarket, but decided not to return to that particular slice of occupational purgatory. Instead, I wrangled a position as a temp worker at Sensible Solutions, a small software-packaging company housed in the Plymouth industrial park. Most of what we did was fold CD-Rom packages and stuff them with CD-Roms and FAQ pamphlets—or as my friend John called them, “Fah-cues.” The particular software we were packaging for most of that summer was Juno, a free dial-up email service. I think at one point SenSol was actually listed on the packages as the HQ for Juno.

I had a few different jobs in high school and college, but none were as wonderfully bizarre and memorable as my brief stint at SenSol, as we called it. Forget The Office; SenSol was peopled by grotesques that would put a Sherwood Anderson novel novel to shame. A good number of high school friends also worked at SenSol that summer and well all had our own unique experiences with the bizarre people who worked there.

Rock Star: Storm

DG suckered me into watching Rock Star: INXS last year. In my defense, it was interesting to see a show on prime time where live rock was played on a weekly basis; plus, they used a lot of music from the era during which my music tastes ossified (1991-95). But while the show was interesting, I wasn’t much interested in the outcome because I wasn’t an INXS fan.

This season seemed a little more interesting; rather than an established band with an established sound, they were creating a new band with Tommy Lee of Motley Crue, Jason Newstead (formerly of Metallica), and Gilby Clarke (apparently formerly of Guns ‘N Roses). I found this a bit more interesting since there was at least some possibility I might be interested in listening to this band’s CD.

Initially, the only contestant that interested me was Dilana. I picked her to win very early on. I remember the blondes—Jill, Jenny and Storm—blurred together originally. I was all about Dilana.

Pearl Jam^2

Last Thursday I ended up driving all over southern Mass. (long story), but it afforded me the opportunity to give Pearl Jam’s new self-titled album the kind of listen it deserves. Ever since Vs., I’ve never liked a Pearl Jam album on the first run-through. Ever. Some are easier to love than others—Yield and Binaural, for instance—but every time, I go in hoping against hope that PJ will have taken a page from U2 and put out a really great-sounding, commercial album; and instead I discover they’ve put out a thoughtful, artistic record with some great tracks, but rarely a single even close to “Even Flow” or “Alive” (though their two biggest hits ever were actually “Better Man” off Vitalogy and their cover of the creepy sixties hit “Last Kiss”).

In any event, I listened to the album twice over the course of my journey last week, and over the next few days I found some of the riffs and lyrics echoing in my head; a sure sign that I had gotten used to the album. I never know whether I like an album by PJ or anyone else on the first listen; I have to get to know it, like a new friend.

Pearl Jam is indeed a more aggressive album than much of their fare since Vs., but I wouldn’t say it rocks more than, say, Yield. My cousin Mike, a diehard PJ fan, said the album reminded him of Vitalogy. I can hear that in there, especially with “Comatose,” whose verse riff reminds me of the chorus riff for “Spin the Black Circle.” Also, the hook for “Severed Hand” sounds a little too much like the opening of “Porch” off Ten. Where are the spine-tinglingly epic hooks of “Alive” or “Even Flow” or “Jeremy” or “Rearviewmirror”? Even this “aggressive” album feels subdued next to their first two.

But a lot of the commercial, metal edge I’m looking for is in the mixing, not the music (for example, had Binaural been entirely mixed by Brendan O’Brien instead of Tchad Blake—and heavily promoted—I think it could have been a monster hit…for pete’s sake, “Breakerfall” wasn’t even a single!). Now that I’ve listened to Pearl Jam a few times and gotten over my initial disappointment that Pearl Jam again refused to clone Ten, I think this is one of their better albums. It quickly leap-frogged Vitalogy, No Code and Riot Act in my estimation, and it may even beat Yield to be my number two favorite (after Binaural; and I’m not counting Ten or Vs., because they’re classics and I’ve listened to those albums a million times).

As for the songs themselves: let’s see. “Life Wasted” is a good, straightforward rocker, as is “World Wide Suicide.” “Comatose” won me over with the riff during the line “Comatose with no fear of falling,” and once I got past the similarities with “Porch,” “Severed Hand” is definitely a lot of fun. “Markers in the Sand” is my current skipped track. I’m not sure what it is; the tempo is all wrong, the riff is a little wimpy; it’s just not my thing. However, I love the Beatles-esque “Parachutes.” Definitely one of PJ’s catchier tunes of late.

I didn’t like “Unemployable” when I first heard it on the radio, but coming after “Parachutes” seems just right, and I like the story Vedder tells. “Big Wave” is a wonderfully dumb rocker, a rarity for Pearl Jam, and it may be my favorite on the album. I could do without the “Wasted Reprise”; I wish Pearl Jam would stop with these indulgences on their studio albums (“Aye Davanita,” “The Color Red,” and so forth). “Army Reserve” was another one I had to get used to, but the lyrics won me over. Then out of nowhere is “Come Back,” a bluesy torch song by lead guitarist Mike McCready and Vedder. The album wraps up with “Inside Job,” which I haven’t really heard often enough to develop an opinion on.

For this fan, Pearl Jam is definitely an improvement over Riot Act, but it’s not quite as good as Binaural. Still, it’s great to have some new Pearl Jam, and even better, I get to see them at the whatever-they’re-calling-it-now Garden next week…

EDIT: I forgot about “Gone.” Another one I wasn’t sure about initially, but has now grown on me…I like the subtle opening with the build-up to the chorus. A depressing song, though.

I’m also wondering what the next single will be. I think it should be “Parachutes,” or maybe “Gone,” but for some reason, my instinct tells me it will be “Army Reserve.” PJ doesn’t seem to pick the most radio-friendly singles, for whatever reason. “World Wide Suicide” was a better choice than usual.

Ecstatic wax

DG and I saw Wicked at the Boston Opera House last night. I’ve yet to read the book, but DG had, and she said the story was quite different and simplified, but true to the themes and spirit. I thought the show was excellent, and was especially impressed by the performance of Julia Murney, who plays Elphaba (a.k.a. the Wicked Witch of the West). I highly recommend it to anyone with a fondness for The Wizard of Oz, musicals, or subtle but effective digs at the current administration.

I’ve been drawn into a discussion of Pearl Jam (the closest thing I have to a favorite band) over on OB1og (how do you pronounce that anyway? “Oh-blog”? “Obb-log”? “Oh-bee-one-ogg?”) and it got me thinking about a recent experience I had.

I went to a party Saturday night (yes—I attended a real social event rather than staying in and watching reruns of Spongebob Squarepants). At the party, the hosts had their iTunes running as background music, and at one point I heard the familiar guitar hook of a rock single I’d been looking for for ages. It turned out to be “Wax Ecstatic” by Sponge from their album of the same name. When I got home I immediately downloaded the song off iTunes and since then I’ve listened to it about a dozen times.

Now, if I’d decided to stay in that night, as I often do, I wouldn’t have heard the song, and thus wouldn’t have derived the later pleasure I’ve had in listening to it. It’s a small, over-simplified example of chaos theory in action. Small differences yield big results (the “butterfly effect”).

The song has also reminded me how commercial rock music just doesn’t seem as good these days as it was during the so-called Grunge Era. I wonder if I’ve already become calcified in my conception of what makes good rock music, as most generations seem to do, and that soon I’ll be sitting on my front porch in shorts and a white tank top, shouting at the neighborhood kids to get off my lawn and spraying them with the garden hose when provoked.

But what I hear on the radio these days just doesn’t seem to have the same depth of creativity and emotion as I remember from that time. The early nineties gave us Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, the Smashing Pumpkins, the Stone Temple Pilots, Rage Against the Machine, Soundgarden, Mudhoney, Nine Inch Nails, Tori Amos…I miss the days when that sort of music dominated stations like WBCN. Nowadays there are a lot of bands that sound like those artists but lack the same depth. Of course, this is all just my opinion. No doubt there are twenty-year-olds out there listening to their favorite rock stations and thinking, “Man, I miss the days when Limp Bizkit, Slipknot and P.O.D. were all over the radio.”

To that kid I say, “Get the hell offa my lawn!”