Unfamiliar Territory

It feels like my life has no meaning ever since I got a little busier with the new job. Don’t get me wrong, I love the job (been in the same field since ’04), colleagues and opportunities it has given me. But I was just realizing the other day that I don’t have direction in my life right now. Maybe, it’s because I’ve not met as many people as I’ve had hoped when I move down to AZ few years back.

Recently, I joined a meetup group with AZ professionals in 20s and 30s. Basically, a hang out of professionals with their busy lives, yet be able to squeeze in few hours here and there for happy hour, hiking, movies etc etc. I plan on attending their new Members Meet & Greet next Saturday. Really, hoping I can find people to hang and connect with besides the people I already know. I’ve never felt like this before. I don’t mind if I live alone and be lazy but past few months, I can sense I need a direction, a change of what I’ve already known.

Stay tuned for new entry next Sunday (July 29)

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Siamese Dream

 

Gish got people buzzing about the band, and an excellent contribution to the essential Singles soundtrack (“Drown”) furthered an alleged connection to the grunge scene and bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam.

Next came a severe case of writer’s block for Billy Corgan before he penned the brilliantly uplifting anthem “Today,” a significant hit that put the Pumpkins on their way to stardom. The grungy power chords of “Cherub Rock” starts the album off with a classic rocker that’s an angry putdown of the indie community who had shunned them for not having “paid their dues.” Sorry, but greatness couldn’t wait, and with this big (in every way) second release the band blew away their competition (See ya, Pavement).

Layers upon layers of guitars seamlessly intermesh to form the backbone of louder tracks like the rumbling “Quiet” and brilliantly epic arena rockers such as “Hummer” and “Rocket.” The band also proves adept at switching gear, as their dreamy melodies often erupt into blasts of power chords and shards of feedback. The band’s reliance on these soft-to-loud dynamics (the changes in volume of which can be quite jarring) can seem inevitable at times, but the end result still thrills on songs such as “Today,” “Soma,” and “Mayonnaise” (my favorite song here which also has an absolutely gorgeous guitar intro going for it). Elsewhere, “Disarm” (a major hit), “Luna” (which ends the album on a beautifully optimistic “I’m in love with you” high), and “Spaceboy” (about Corgan’s disabled half brother Jesse) are all highly impressive, lushly orchestrated ballads.

If the album has a flaw it’s in a little too much doodling down time (after all, progressive rock is a primary influence), but though the willful experimentation on songs such as “Silverfuck” seemingly overstays its welcome, the band becomes well worth indulging when the screeching guitars search for transcendence. Apparently the album caused much friction among the band members, as it was later revealed that band leader Billy Corgan insisted on playing the majority of the guitar parts himself, untrusting that his cohorts could capture the many textured splendor of the sounds roaming inside his head.

So call Corgan an arrogant control freak if you must (he thankfully let Jimmy Chamberlin put in an incredible drumming performance, which has to be heard to be believed; check out the dynamic “Geek U.S.A” for starters), but don’t deny that with Siamese Dream he crafted a landmark early ‘90s masterpiece.


The Evolution of Beliefs

Considering that I have spent most of my life as a student, the past few months have brought exciting change with new observations. I’m going to try and write about a couple of views and how they have evolved.

  • Belief: Looks do not matter.
  • Evolution: Surely they are not the bottom line, but dressing slightly formal does no harm, and the world is not free of convention yet.
  • Belief: The best is blunt and straightforward.
  • Evolution: When the blunt and straightforward seems rude, replace it by the diplomatic!
  • Belief: It is your skills and talent, that are the absolute drivers of success.
  • Evolution: Until you are the owner of your own business, precede these by “inter-personal relations”, and bear with the evolution of your other beliefs!

Black Gives Way to Blue

Initially when I heard about this album my thoughts were negative, as I felt that the Alice In Chains moniker should’ve died with Layne. Let’s face it, if Cantrell’s solo career had taken off this reunion likely would’ve never happened, but then I got to thinking that Alice In Chains were primarily his band (essential though Layne was to their overall sound), and it’s not their fault that Layne died on them. What’s shocking to me is how good this album is; though it doesn’t scale the mindbogglingly great heights of Dirt or Jar Of Flies (both of which this album recalls at times), this is another really good album that’s comparable to the rest of their back catalog.

Somewhat controversially, rather than continue as a three piece the band replaced Staley with one William DuVall, who shares lead vocals with Jerry and who also plays guitar and happens to be black, thereby increasing the surprise factor (but not in a bad way). And while he’s no Layne Staley (one of the best vocalists ever), he’s plenty good enough and their harmonies are still uniquely haunting (in fact when DuVall sings harmony at times he does sound eerily like Layne), while the band’s overall sound is still wonderfully atmospheric and heavy as hell. Although Layne is not around anymore, his ghost haunts this entire record; whereas earlier albums were the narrative to Layne’s drug-fueled self-destruction, this album can be seen as what happens after that self-destruction takes his life and how it affects those around him. In a way it’s both an epilogue and a fresh new beginning, albeit one that was 14 years in the making. This is made clear on the leadoff track, “All Secrets Known,” a fitting album opener with great creeping riffs, those harmonies which still rule, and lyrics about this being a new beginning because “there’s no going back.” After that comes the smash single “Check Your Brain,” whose mind melting, disorienting riff is an absolute killer, plus its dual harmomized vocals and catchy chorus also mark it as classic AIC. “Last Of My Kind” deals with the band’s current state as the only grunge band from their era, besides Soundgarden and Pearl Jam, to still be standing.

Maybe it’s a bit generic and overly reminiscent of “Damn That River,” but more good twisting riffs and a deliciously dark aura more than compensates. The next song, “Your Decision,” is the emotional centerpiece of the album. Musically recalling “Nutshell,” lyrically this song is obviously about Layne’s drug addiction and death. Filled with sadness, pain, regret, and even a sense of betrayal, the song also features more affecting harmonies and some soulful, searing guitar work from Cantrell, whose playing is in fine form throughout. Rather than get into a track-by-track analysis, I’ll note the rest of the songs that I consider highlights. “When The Sun Rose” is more acoustic and somewhat exotic due to its creative percussive flourishes, with more nice guitar work, while “Lesson Learned” flat out rocks and has a good chorus. “Private Hell” is mellower and has more haunting harmonies, but it also has massively powerful surges at times and is lyrically affecting, while the title track ballad, featuring Elton John on piano, again directly addresses Layne’s death, but this time it’s a soothing and kind remembrance, which fittingly ends the album on a hopeful note.

As for the rest of the songs, “A Looking In View,” “Acid Bubble,” and “Take Her Out” aren’t bad either, they’re just less impressive than the rest and bring the album down a bit on the whole, as it seems a bit samey sounding at times over its hour plus duration. Then again, releasing a shorter album would’ve seemed cheap after such a long absence, and the album holds up well as an entire entity and gets better with repeated plays. They may have spawned a lot of inferior imitators, but with or without Layne few can replicate the emotional resonance and impact that this band achieves when they’re on their A game, which happens far more often than I expected.

Indeed, with this album Alice somehow managed to make a heavy rock album that appeals to rock radio without selling out, that’s true to their past without being a retread, and which pays the proper respects to Layne while proving that there’s a future for this band after all. In a way it’s their Temple Of The Dog tribute to Layne and it finally closes that last chapter in satisfying fashion. Whether future albums by this new incarnation of the band will measure up remains to be seen, but if not that won’t take away from the fact that this album has earned its place in the band’s legacy, and unlike the lead up to this album I won’t be negative about the next Alice In Chains album. In fact, I’m looking forward to it.


Underneath the Colours

You know what a “spontaneous hook” is? A totally subjective, but nevertheless relevant thing worth mentioning – well, okay, I’ve only just decided to call it that way but I do need to have a special term for that kind of thing, especially when I’m dealing with INXS albums all the time. A spontaneous hook is a hook which is only active while you’re actually hearing it, but has no staying power or memorability whatsoever. (Of course, this doesn’t apply to extreme cases when a conscious effort is being made to memorize the song – I mean, heck, after a couple hundred listens even Mariah Carey records will become memorable).

Underneath The Colours is easily the best LP to demonstrate the power of spontaneous hooks I’ve heard so far. Every song on here becomes interesting on second or third listen, and you have no right whatsoever to doubt the compositional talents or the intelligence of the composing team. But nothing actually agrees to stick in your head, not even a tiny bit, and I know I’m not alone on that issue, either, so there just must be something strange about the record. There must be something weird. Maybe it’s the lack of emotion; in fact, now that I’ve said it, I’m pretty sure this is the basic problem of the INXS, just as it used to be the basic problem of XTC in the Seventies. Underneath The Colours is a lot of fun while it’s on – it’s jumpy, bouncy, and modernistic without being too annoying in a bad Eighties way or too dependent on their influences, especially now that they have toned down the ska thing. But it’s also a cold, cold, unmoving record, an exercise in soulless formalism. Or maybe it’s just a kind of soul that I don’t ‘get’. Whatever.

With this, there’s just no emotional substance to the hooks, and since you don’t have a really colourful pattern to accompany the chords, there’s no hope to really memorize them. That’s how it looks to this particular reviewer, anyway. That said, while the album is on, it’s still a gas. You just have to get past the opener, ‘Stay Young’, which tries to get by on the force of the atmosphere alone – a ridiculous attempt, with all those breathy whispered vocals in the background and thin wimpy isolated synthesizer bleeps instead of full sonic landscapes. Even so, there’s a great guitar line almost lost in amidst all the mediocrity, which just goes to show that the INXS didn’t suck at having interesting ideas, they sucked at applying them and putting them into context.

In a certain sense, one could just argue that at this particular point Hutchence’s sense of romance vastly differed from the commonplace one. ‘Horizons’ is lyrically a love ballad, but musically just a minimalistically arranged New Wave “popper”. Maybe there are even people in this world that can be moved by the way Hutchence croaks out ‘I see the horizons of your love’, but I wouldn’t know about that anomaly. Gimme some Al Green instead, please. Or, at least, if we’re talking INXS here, something bouncier and snappier like ‘Big Go Go’. Now that’s a good song while it’s on. Raunchy, energetic, aggressive – ‘watch the world GO GO, it’ll spin ’til it stops… people gonna FLY OFF… when they turn it off’. But nothing remains once it’s over.

Probably the best hookline on the album is the chorus to ‘Fair Weather Ahead’, although the song itself is rather senseless, more like a blind lyrical imitation of Jim Morrison than anything else. Who are the ‘strange new creatures’, are wonder, and what’s their connection to fair weather? And is that hookline really good, or is it just because they repeat the chorus for so many times?

The dumbest thing of all is how everything on here sounds the same even if the songs are essentially different. There’s slow moody atmospheric stuff like ‘Horizons’ and ‘Just To Learn Again’. Or poppy upbeat stuff like ‘Big Go Go’. Or even a couple of really fast rockers like ‘Night Of Rebellion’. But the production sucks big time, with the same minimalistic grooves over and over again. Very few ska beats, like I said, mostly Police- and XTC-inspired New Wave pop rhythms, with a steady drumbeat and, say, a three- or four-note ringing guitar riff. And synthesizers, of course. All very tasteful, subtle even – but none of the musicians are virtuosos, and none of them can add any soul to the performances. And all of this is in major dire contrast to the nature of Hutchence’s lyrics, which – with a few disrespectful exceptions like ‘Fair Weather Ahead’ – are surprisingly mature and evocative.


Gish

With screaming guitars cutting through the famously propulsive Pumpkins chug, “I am One” and “Siva” start the album off with the band at their most hard edged, “Gish” presented a readymade and highly original hard rock force.  However, “Rhinoceros” presents a softer side to the Pumpkins that is also apparent on most of the other songs here, most of which inevitably erupt as well.

As for the rest of the songs, “Bury Me” brings the rock big time, again with screaming guitars aplenty, the lush “Crush” is a beautifully low-key ballad, the trippily atmospheric, Eastern-tinged “Suffer” would later be brilliantly sampled by Tricky, the soaring “Snail” is the album’s most impressively epic arena rocker (along with “Rhinoceros”), “Tristessa” is stylistically similar to “Bury Me” but isn’t as good, “Window Paine” has its ups and downs but its ups are genuinely exciting, and the charming finale “Daydream” is a lightly dreamy change of pace sung girlishly by bassist D’Arcy in her only lead vocal with the band. In retrospect, Gish was the blueprint for even better things to come, but the album should still thrill the majority of the band’s legions of followers. Led by Billy Corgan, this was a band born for big things that knew exactly what they wanted right from the start (according to Corgan, he wanted to “combine the atmosphere of goth-rock with heavy metal”), aspiring towards everything that all of their indie “peers” despised by refusing to check either ego or ambition at the door.

Granted, Corgan’s geeky, grating vocal whine takes some getting used to, but producer Butch Vig manages to smooth over its rough edges just enough, and his voice certainly is uniquely his own. Though it pales in comparison to its subsequent big brothers, on which Corgan’s songwriting would grow by leaps and bounds, Gish was the necessary first step that made those brilliant albums possible, and it remains an exciting and estimable first effort in its own right.


Lincoln Inspirations

I’ve been recently listening to the Team of Rivals, and interviews of Doris Kearns Goodwin about Lincoln (besides snooping around on Biography.com for more about the man). Like millions of others, I find myself mesmerized by the almost-mythical stature Lincoln commands in history.

There is a lot that can be said about him, but a quality that intrigued me most, perhaps because of its absence in the political scene of today, is Lincoln’s uncanny knack to be able to oppose his political foes with respect, without questioning their intent. Even as he opposed slavery, Lincoln could empathize with folks on the other side. Instead of demonizing them, he said:

They are just what we would be in their situation. If slavery did not now exist amongst them, they would not introduce it. If it did now exist amongst us, we should not instantly give it up.

By doing so, Lincoln is able to oppose the issue and let others ‘come to him’, instead of adding to flames of bitterness. It is not only a sign of good character, but also a smart political strategy.

In the midst of these thoughts, I am reminded of Gandhi, who called Jinnah his brother. I am reminded of Barack Obama, who called McCain a patriot and hero, while opposing him in an election. These qualities are not wholly absent, but rare, perhaps for a reason…

On the landscapes of history, only a thin horizon separates the skies of statesmanship from the seas of politics. Perhaps it is this essence of Lincoln, a sense of balance that calls you to rise to the highest levels of emotional strength while keeping your feet grounded in reality.