I remember hearing “Universal Heart-Beat” for the first time and thinking it sounded strangely jazzy for a post-grunge song. And with its slinky electric piano paired with loud power chords, the song still sounds anachronistic. But wonderful.
I’ve had a soft spot for Juliana Hatfield ever since her work on the Lemonheads’ It’s A Shame About Ray. And we all know how great her big songs were, including “Spin the Bottle” from Reality Bites and “My Sister.” She has a knack for mixing sweetness and grit.
Speaking of which, “Universal Heart-Beat.” I love the contrast between the slinky electric piano and the raw, fierce-out-of-the-gate guitars on the chorus. In a way, it’s everything I love about mid-nineties rock music: it was simultaneously experimental and unabashedly accessible.
Which isn’t to say Juliana Hatfield has gone all Sonic Youth here. This is still post-grunge alt-rock, readymade for radio and MTV. But that accessibility, I think, is why the song is so effective. The lyrics are all about how dysfunction is part of the plan, how abnormality is, in fact, completely normal. Beauty can be sad, you’re proof of that; a heart that hurts is a heart that works. Discord is life.
I think Juliana Hatfield is vastly underrated. She’s continued to put out good work over the years, and her best-of compilation Gold Stars proves that her biggest hits weren’t flukes (try, for example, her biting cover of “Every Breath You Take”). Her voice may be high and soft, but her songs—and her guitar work—are anything but. It’s a fantastic combination.
“The Diamond Sea” was the first song I heard by Sonic Youth. It was when they performed the song on Letterman in 1995. This was yet another instance when I thought to myself, “This is what they sound like?” Based only on descriptions, I thought Sonic Youth would be too inaccessible, too loud, too chaotic for my tastes. But this song was… pretty.
Shortly after seeing that performance, I bought Washing Machine, an album full of pop songs disguised as noise rock. Of the Sonic Youth records I’ve heard, this one is still my favorite. It accomplishes that near-impossible thing of a record that has a consistent sound but wildly different songs.
“The Diamond Sea” closes out Washing Machine in true Sonic Youth style: it’s a catchy 20-minute freakout. The single version featured below is only five minutes long, and as much as I love me some Sonic Youth freakouts, I think this shorter cut is the definitive version. However, it’s to Sonic Youth’s credit that the song can work so effectively in both settings; it can serve as a Crazy Horse-style marathon or as an acoustic cover by Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
A few days ago, I was waiting in a subway station. It was crowded and loud, but I could faintly hear a guy singing a melody that sounded vaguely familiar. Then I realized, without being able to make out the words, that he was singing “Waterfalls” by TLC.
I don’t mention this to somehow impress you with my subway listening skills. I mention this to point out how indelible this song has become, how everyone knows its very simple, but very effective melody. There are only three chords in the whole song, but you never think there should be more, or that the song is too repetitive. Even without the (excellent) whistles and bells of the recorded version, the song is never boring. It just is.
When I walked closer to the guy in the subway station, I saw that he was playing guitar, singing, and tapping a tambourine with his foot. It was an arrangement that complemented the song’s sad vision of the urban status quo (one made even more stark by the fact that the guy singing looked like he had seen better days).
Like “One Time,” “Waterfalls” isn’t cynical about poverty. It’s realistic, and if anything, it’s slightly more optimistic than the Roots track in that it leaves much about the characters’ circumstances up to individual decisions, leaving some room for hope. Then again, the song’s pivotal line—”I say the system’s got you victim to your own mind,” buried in Left Eye’s rap—ascribes blame to that same rigged game, the one that blocks the narrator of “One Time.”
Am I thinking too much about “Waterfalls,” a song we all love belting out at karaoke nights and in our cars during traffic jams? Probably. But that’s the great thing about music: you hear it in a subway station, and all of a sudden it’s new again.
I wish I had been more aware of the Boston music scene when I lived here in the nineties, because some amazing things were going on. The Pixies were finishing up their run as the city’s undersung heroes, Throwing Muses was taking a victory lap, and Letters to Cleo were cranking out power pop for the rock crowd. And then there was Morphine.
Unlike the rest of those bands, I saw Morphine in concert. The internet tells me that it was the summer of 1997, a the H.O.R.D.E. Festival (a lineup that also included Beck and Ben Folds Five). I remember them being relentless: playing the hell out of everything, to the extent that, at one point in the show, Dana Colley played two saxophones at once.
I feel lucky to have seen Morphine two years before frontman Mark Sandman died. They were a truly special band, and not only because of their unique lineup (which, famously, did not include a guitar). Their sound–all low end, with Sandman’s smooth croon on top–made their melodies and lyrics stand out. Their most well-known songs, such as “Buena” and “Honey White,” were boisterous and ferocious, but many of their finest moments found Morphine lurking in corners, ready to pounce.
A few years ago, I revisited the excellent Yes for a review on Tiny Mix Tapes. I was surprised to realize that my favorite song wasn’t “Honey White” but a song I didn’t remember called “All Your Way.” It’s a quiet, unassuming song, one as pretty as it is sinister. I love the lyrics, which seem to be about a stubborn woman who’s giving the narrator trouble but is actually about how stubborn a man he is.
Morphine existed for ten productive years, but I’d love to know what the band could have accomplished if Sandman hadn’t died. They were capable of great beauty, and there was surely more beauty lurking in a corner, ready to pounce.
Despite the fact that some of its songs are pretty sad, all of Tomorrow the Green Grass reminds me sunshine. Maybe it’s the harmonies, or the warm production, or that album cover, which features the Jayhawks hanging out in a forest. Or maybe it’s the fact that I first heard it after borrowing it from my friend Lindsay at summer camp. Whatever the reason, the album reminds me of warm (but not uncomfortably hot) weather. It just feels like comfort.
“Blue” is probably the Jayhawks’ most popular song, and for a good reason: it’s gorgeous. It’s also expertly written. This is another one that I didn’t notice had no rhymes, but now that I know it, I think that choice gives the song the disjointed aspect it needs. The parts seem to be in place–Mark Olson and Gary Louris, as always, sound beautiful together, and that acoustic guitar practically shimmers–but if everything truly was in place, how could this song ever convey the sadness within? Not everything matches or fits, just like the characters in this song. It’s so close to perfect, but not quite.
The thing I like most about “Blue” is the chord that happens when they sing the title word. It’s a G#, a “III” chord for the key of E (that is, G# is three whole steps away from E), and it appears nowhere else in the song. It’s not dissonant or discordant, but it’s certainly unexpected. It gives the song’s pivotal moment (and word) a point on which to pivot, a turning point that stops everything, if only for a second, on a dime. It also makes “Blue,” like “Nothing Left to Borrow,” “I’d Run Away,” and a handful of other songs on Tomorrow the Green Grass, a thing of beauty.
I love this song, but I’ve never known what to do with its lyrics. The images are interesting—mainly, throwing everyday objects, “whatever I find lying around,” off a cliff—but why? What’s it for?
That’s not a criticism. I take a lot of Bjork songs at face value, because I respect the fact that she’s doing something different. No matter what she’s doing, it’s always interesting, and I never feel like it’s inaccessible, that she’s trying to be smarter and weirder than everybody else.
According to an interview, this is what “Hyper-ballad” is about:
“’Hyper-ballad’ is about having this kind of bag going on and three years have passed and you’re not high anymore. You have to make an effort consciously and nature’s not helping you anymore. So you wake up early in the morning and you sneak outside and you do something horrible and destructive, break whatever you can find, watch a horrible film, read a bit of William Burroughs, something really gross and come home and be like, ‘Hi honey, how are you?’”
That’s a surprisingly simple idea from Bjork, so simple that it makes me realize that Post, an incredible record, is probably the most direct thing she did. As I said, I’ve never found her inaccessible, but Post, with its big band song and revenge fantasy, is a collection of songs about different things, with different sounds.
Post and Radiohead’s The Bends came out the same year, and in retrospect, they’re very similar. Not only are they each act’s second record, but they each point to the amazing things to come. The Bends, especially “Street Spirit (Fade Out),” has shades of the dystopia of OK Computer; the glitchy soundscapes of Post sound a little like those of Homogenic. If only we knew what we were in for.
“The Universal” is my favorite Blur song. The simple reason is that I think it’s gorgeous, but it’s also typically wry and funny, if darkly so. The song imagines a corporatization and globalization of your life, a vision that is oddly prescient for 1995. Maybe, with the Internet just emerging, Damon Albarn and his bandmates saw the writing on the wall: we’re all going to be watched, all the time, even more than we are. And we’re going to be used to sell things to ourselves.
That this message is wrapped in a lush, beautiful package is ironic, of course, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s lush and beautiful. How Blur ever arrived at this arrangement is beyond me (especially since the song reportedly began as a ska number), but I’m so glad that they did.
The Great Escape was Blur at their highest powers, with “Country House” on top of the charts and songs like “The Universal” cementing the band in the favor of critics. They’d score some more hits (“Tender” and “Song 2” were just around the corner), but The Great Escape was the band’s peak, and “The Universal” was one of the reasons.