Dave Grohl alarmed fans four months ago when he announced a Foo Fighters hiatus, but Kerrang! reports that the Foos’ frontman told James Corden at last night’s Brit Awards he would be entering the studio today with the band to begin work on their next album. Unfortunately, Grohl, who kept himself busy during the hiatus by drumming for Queens of the Stone Age and prepping his Sound City documentary, would not elaborate on a possible release date beyond, “Eventually.”
While Seattle is deservedly regarded as a nucleus of the 90s rock scene, there were some pretty exciting groups a thousand miles south in Los Angeles also responsible for some of the decade’s best musical moments. Stone Temple Pilots faced serious critical scorn, but quickly emerged as solid, consistent hitmakers. Red Hot Chili Peppers thrived thanks to the addition of guitarist John Frusciante and the universal appeal of songs like “Under the Bridge.” But while Sun 60 may not have been in heavy rotation on MTV or radio, their poppy but boundary-pushing sound makes their trio of releases required listening for any self-respecting 90s rock fan. Only, the band’s sophomore effort, might just be its finest hour.
“We had just finished writing the songs for the record and decided to really challenge our production and interpretation of our songs,” says Joan Jones, lead singer of Sun 60. That process led to a number of prominent guests dropping by the studio, covert recording sessions, and even the band obtaining a helicopter.
Under the watchful eye of Scott Litt (best known for his work with R.E.M. and Nirvana), the band wasted no time in bringing their diverse batch of songs to the next level. Several tracks boast a stellar back-up squad: Dave Navarro, the Jane’s Addiction guitarist on the eve of his ill-fated stint with Red Hot Chili Peppers; Jack Irons, already a veteran of RHCP, then playing drums in L.A.’s underrated Eleven, and later to join Pearl Jam; and Alain Johannes, a prolific producer and then the frontman for Eleven.
Sun 60 guitarist/pianist David Russo was happy to have the “remarkable” Navarro’s guitar work on two tracks. “Piano is my main instrument and I had just picked up guitar in order to bring some different textures into the mix but, really, I’m kind of dismal,” Russo humbly reflects. “[Dave] elevated ‘Never Seen God’ to a whole different level.”
Navarro’s impressive riffs on that funky track are matched only by his work on “Mary X-Mess,” Only‘s opener. Arguably the band’s greatest song, written as Jones’ “way of dealing with the holidaze,” it’s abstruse lyrics might not make it a favorite for carolers (though I certainly wouldn’t slam the door on anyone singing lyrics like, “Claim her drink tasted just the like the smell of the ham which made her sick 12 years ago”) but it’s certainly a good way to spice up a predictable Christmas playlist. It’s a perfect storm of Navarro’s wild guitar, Irons’ manic drumming, and Jones’ charming vocals (think a rockier Suzanne Vega).
The album offers more than chaotic rockers, though. Most of the band’s favorite tracks are the softer ballads, like “All of the Joy.” “That song came about quite simply and quickly,” Russo remembers. “I have a clear memory of the night and the joy. It held a lot of personal truths for me and the memory of sharing that with [Joan] is the most compelling.”
Jones cites “Pressure” as a particular standout. Written towards the end of the recording sessions, getting it on the album required some stealth on her part. “It was a Sunday and it was a day off,” she says. “I wanted to mess around in the studio and make up some stuff.” With the help of her friend Marc “Sugarshroom” Friedenberg, she began recording the song on free tracks of another song that the band was in the process of overdubbing. “[‘Pressure’] is moody and quiet ‘cuz we didn’t want to get in trouble for being in the studio that day,” she explains. Her plan was thwarted when a furious Russo unexpectedly came to the studio and kicked them out. But the bigger surprise came a day later, when Jones, expecting Russo and Litt to chastise her, learned that they loved the track. The group completed it and it became the album’s closing cut.
Truly, Only has something for everybody. There are inspiring anthems (“Hold On”), sludgy blues (“Tuff to Say”), warm acoustic numbers (“Tell Me Like You Know”), and harmonious grooves (“Water x3”). Whether that worked against the album commercially is unclear, but Jones has mixed emotions about the label’s commitment to the band. “Epic was a good record company for Sun 60 but there was always a battle,” she says. “They were one of the only majors that actually knew the value of college radio and touring. They did lack vision with the new wave of female performers that were not just rock or pop in a box. […] We battled on videos and imagery. They always wanted me to look like something I wasn’t.” Case in point: the director Epic hired for the “Hold On” and “Never Seen God” videos never finished them. The band members took it upon themselves to complete the videos, including a helicopter scene over Hollywood Hills.
Another problem with the label emerged shortly before the band’s publicity push for its third album, Headjoy, was about to start. A turnover at Epic removed much of Sun 60’s support base. With one album still left under their contract, the band could leave the label to get some much-needed cash. Hollywood Records was willing to sign Jones…as a solo act. For Russo, who was never interested in performing on stage, it was an easy decision. “Personally, I was ready to move on,” he says. “Sun 60, to me, was never more than an expression of my love for Joan. I never really cared about being in a band. […] It wasn’t an authentic life for me.” Since leaving Sun 60, he embarked on a European tour with Sheryl Crow; did various studio work; and scored over 40 films and TV shows, including Sin City, Pineapple Express, and Grindhouse. He’s currently scoring the third season of the CW’s Nikita. “I think what’s next for me is to continue to make music every day of my life in whatever fashion I can,” he says. “That’s really it.”
“It was a real shame that [David] and I couldn’t artistically move forward together,” Jones says. “The band had really become a well-oiled machine and was a lot of fun.” She has recorded several solo albums since leaving Sun 60, including 1998’s acclaimed Starlite Criminal. A regular performer at Arnold Palmer’s in La Quinta, CA, an injury kept her off the stage for most of 2012, but she’ll be back in action on New Year’s Eve. She also hopes to record next year.
Only is a record with a wide range of emotions, so it’s only fitting that Sun 60 shares that legacy for its creators. “Sun 60 is bittersweet for me,” Russo admits. “It was an unbelievable time for me and I was privileged to witness some magic that Joan created. She was a force of nature. A beautiful force of nature.”
For my money, fall is the most understated—and underrated—season. The weather is beautiful, the holidays are inspired (I don’t know which tradition I love more; handing out candy to trick-or-treaters on Halloween or handing out smallpox-infected blankets to native Americans on Columbus Day), and the days seem to pass with a perfect mix of productivity and relaxation. On the downside, though, compared to winter, spring, and summer, it’s difficult to find music that encapsulates the feel of fall.
It’s not just that this New York-based band’s self-titled disc includes a track called “Fall,” paying melancholy tribute to the descent of the leaves from the trees. It’s not even the sharp melodies or clever lyrics that are found at every turn on the album. This recording carries a certain aura throughout that makes it the ideal soundtrack to a cozy autumn night. Fossil isn’t entirely immune from the flaws that plague many artists’ debut albums, but this is a band that is remarkably—and justifiably—confident in its sound right from the beginning. Somehow, they managed to come up with a record that wouldn’t be out of place in a 90s alternative rock collection but doesn’t sound like anything else. Perhaps one could compare the group to Polaris, the jangly indie-rock outfit often heard in episodes of the classic Nickelodeon series, The Adventures of Pete and Pete, but suffice to say that even the most cynical of listeners couldn’t accuse Fossil of jumping on the grunge bandwagon here.
That said, the band does know how to rock out, kicking the album off with the energetic “Moon.” With a riff destined to seep into your subconscious, “Moon” was the obvious lead single here, and its cheesy space B-movie parody video should be enough to make anyone a believer:
“Moon” is clearly the band’s masterpiece, but the song that really exhibits everything great about Fossil is “Ocean,” a luscious example of the trademark 90s soft/hard dynamic. Layered with echo and decadent harmonies on the hook “Bury me in the ocean,” the ethereal track is an under-the-radar gem, buried in the middle of an album full of breezy, addictive melodies. “Molly” is another standout, not least because of the unusual titular character its lyrics describe: “Molly wears a leisure suit / No makeup, almost no perfume / She revels in her androgyny.” The guitars here are straight out of R.E.M.—rewrite the lyrics and make them about, I dunno, Andy Kaufman, and you’ve got a great Automatic for the People B-side.
As you might expect from “Molly,” Fossil has a knack for putting a twist on love songs. The slightly psychedelic “Martyr’s Wife” is from the perspective of a girl “dating a boy named Jesus,” and while I won’t spoil the twist in “Fiancée,” suffice to say the narrator might want to arm himself with a pre-nup.
Singer/guitarist Bob O’Gureck’s admittedly nasal, quirky vocals—think a male Gwen Stefani going through puberty—might be a turn-off for some, particularly on slower tracks such as the dismal, anticlimactic closer “Cargo of High Hopes,” but songs like “Josephine Baker” (a “Pictures of Lily”-esque ode to the deceased dancer) and the quaintly charming “You” transcend any awkwardness. It’s a moot point on uptempo cuts—his sharp conviction sells every bit of the lyrically underwhelming “Thundershower.”
Managed by Hilly Kristal, founder of the legendary CBGB, Fossil never recorded another album, and only a few other tracks (including a promo-only Christmas song) were ever issued. O’Gureck apparently makes his living now as a real estate agent in New Jersey, not the most expected fate for a guy who wrote a song about a heavily-tattooed transvestite (…or is it?). Either way, this is one Fossil well worth excavating.
In 1995, Garbage released their self-titled debut album and immediately received acclaim for their unique, hazy, female-fronted blend of pop, rock and electronica. Of course, while audiences latched onto the proverbial teat of Shirley Manson and company, serious rock fans knew that Garbage’s sound was nothing new–years earlier, the British band Curve presented a similar cacophony of evocative guitar-laced tracks, appropriate for either dancing or wallowing in misery, depending on your preference. This is in no way a slight against Garbage, because every great artist’s inspiration is at least partially born out of imitation, but Curve never seemed to benefit from Garbage’s success–while all five Garbage releases hit the Billboard top 20, no Curve album made a dent in the top 200.
Led by Toni Halliday, every bit as sexy as Manson in both looks and vocal style, Curve initially made their mark with three EPs before releasing 1992’s full-length Doppelganger. (Those early EPs were later assembled on the endearingly titled Pubic Fruit.) A quick look at its cover makes it clear that this is not your average shoegaze record: while the collection of naked Barbies and baby dolls–some decapitated, some merely torsos–may not be as inherently disturbing as the fetus-filled back cover of Nirvana’s In Utero, but it’s at least as nightmare-inducing as your average Courtney Love photograph.
The music, though, is a fiery mix that’s both aggressively beautiful and beautifully aggressive. Opener “Already Yours” packs an immediate punch with its staggered beat and hypnotizing “Ooh la la la” backing vocals. The sharp, heavily produced guitars provide a pretty good indication of what you can expect from Doppelganger, though the track eventually washes away into an array of jarring, grinding sounds (file that in the “aggressive” category). That’s followed up with the ethereal intro to “Horror Head,” the album’s second single. Like a sinister version of the Cocteau Twins, emphasizing style over lyrical clarity, you’ll have a tough time trying to rid your mind of its paralyzing chorus, which consists of nothing more than the word “Hey” being repeated thrice.
Perhaps the highlight of the album is “Wish You Dead,” which really showcases the best elements of the band: pulsating beats, jagged guitars, Halliday’s haunting vocal presence and dark, confrontational lyrics like, “You can filter your poison into my sleep / But I know it’s my heart / That you could never reach.” The sentiment may be harsh, but the world would be a better place if all death threats were this catchy.
But the strength of “Wish You Dead” also represents the album’s main weakness: the production and atmosphere hardly varies from track to track. So many songs boast the same intro (a jittery drum beat emerging into sludgy, whirring guitar riffs) that they eventually begin to blend into one another. That’s a problem, because each cut features something interesting on its own that may get lost in the context of the whole record. To truly appreciate what Doppelganger has to offer, listeners should digest each song individually. The start-to-finish experience is certainly worthwhile, but you’d be hard-pressed to point to any specific track afterward without first hearing it stand by itself.
About the only song immune from this is the slow, introspective “Sandpit,” which closes most editions of the album. (The U.S. version includes an additional track, “Clipped,” taken from one of the EPs.) It may not be as instantly appealing to fans accustomed to a rockier sound, but ending with less intense fare is a trademark of 90s alternative rock (see: Nevermind, Purple, Siamese Dream), and its comparatively hopeful lyrics (“I’m just trying to do the right thing”) are a welcome change of pace.
For modern listeners, it’s inescapable: lyrically, musically and sonically, Doppelganger is so uncannily similar to Garbage’s work (particularly their earlier material) that it will pack few, if any, surprises. But that doesn’t make it any less relevant 20 years on, and their later efforts–some of which we’ll undoubtedly explore at GrungeReport.net in the future–are just as valid. Whether Curve was ahead of its time or just never meant to be appreciated on a wider scale, one thing is for sure: though Garbage may have adopted (and, arguably, bettered) its sound, there’s no substitute for the original Doppelganger.
This new recurring GrungeReport.net feature is dedicated to forgotten 90s alt rock gems. It doesn’t necessarily have to be something obscure, just anything that’s been unfairly overlooked over the years.
FORGOTTEN ALBUMS OF THE 90’S: LIFTER- MELINDA
WRITTEN BY ANTH CUSUMANO
It’s an all-too-familiar tale: boy meets girl, they fall in love, girl dumps boy, boy’s band records concept album about their breakup for Interscope Records. And in the epilogue, the bassist of the band wins the third season of Project Runway.
Yes, the story of Lifter is a Shakespearean tragedy in many ways, but the saddest aspect is the fate of the band’s sole release, Melinda (Everything Was Beautiful and Nothing Hurt). One of the decade’s finest start-to-finish gems, it now survives only in the bargain bins of used record stores and, most likely, still spinning in the CD players of the few listeners lucky enough to be aware of its existence.
Melinda is filled with many of the trademarks of the 90s alternative scene—the soft/loud dynamic, the angst-ridden lyrics, the decidedly random yet oddly compelling cover art—but it elevates them with some of the strongest songwriting this side of the “big four.” Tons of long-forgotten bands released solid records piggybacking on the success of Nirvana and their peers, but Lifter is one of the few casualties that truly stings.
Indeed, what separates Lifter from the others is the fact that the label didn’t just carelessly release an album of crunchy guitar riffs and expect grunge devotees to lap it up via word of mouth. Someone who worked for Interscope back in the 90s told me that the label was very aware of the band’s talent and actually did make an effort for them to hit it big, even sending vocalist/guitarist Mike Coulter to rehab to deal with his heroin addiction before the album was recorded. They also produced a star-studded video for one of the album’s best tracks, the intense “Headshot.” (Ok, perhaps “star-studded” is going a bit far, given that Dave Navarro is its most famous participant, but still, it was enough to score some MTV airplay in 1996.) [In fairness, the label isn’t entirely blameless; they neglected to release a promised single from the album despite requesting that radio stations not play the band’s music before the single was available.]
As one could guess from listening to “Headshot,” with lines like “I’m damn glad I’m better than you are” and a reference to potential arson, Coulter specialized in bitter, phased lyrics that long for something distant that he’s either too angry or too apathetic to reach for. And really, what message could be more appealing to mid-90s teenagers? His indifferent yet agonized vocal delivery really sells what could have easily come across as pretentious, and bassist Jeff Sebelia and drummer John Rozas are strong supporting presences, never overshadowing Coulter but refusing to be overwhelmed by him either. Sebelia’s opening bass line on “Shutout” is one of the album’s best moments, calling to mind the intro to Nirvana’s “Come As You Are”—not coincidentally, Melinda was mixed by Andy Wallace, who mixed Nevermind five years earlier.
But Coulter’s songwriting is ultimately what really stands out, particularly on “402,” an anthem for anyone finding themselves wallowing in the scary depths of the real world: “I want to go back home and mow the lawn for my dad … Where is my honey-dipped life and my pretty wife? / Why can’t I leave this town and tell my mom I tried?” It’s one of the most downright depressing songs on the album, but its painful honesty is something that was beginning to disappear from rock at the time. Nothing on Melinda feels dark for the sake of being dark; there’s a purpose to the reflective anger it’s filled with.
Of course, if it’s catchy hooks you’re looking for, you’ll find them here as well. “Monkee” masterfully combines the band’s hard-edged flavor with pop sensibilities, just like Kurt Cobain so often did with Nirvana. The shimmering, optimistic—perhaps even forgiving—”Shine” is reminiscent of the Foo Fighters’ recent radio hit “Walk”—not the group’s specialty, but not uncharacteristic either.
Melinda may not have been the success it deserved to be, but if you happen to come face to face with the haunting unibrowed man on the cover when browsing the dusty corner of your local record shop, do yourself a favor and let him into your CD collection. He may not be a hot date, but Melinda is definitely a record you’ll want to settle down with…unlike its namesake.