My Year in Lists chronicles one blogger's quest to understand why music matters to us and what makes it a lasting aspect of our existence. To facilitate this examination, three music fans have contributed a list of 52 essential albums. Each week this year, one album off of each list will be analyzed in an attempt to understand why some music sticks with us and what it means for our lives.
"My friend was saying I shouldn't say there are too many bands. All right"”there's too much writing about music then. I'm at this point now where I probably read more about music than I listen to it, which is a terrible state to be in. Most criticism nowadays seems to be concerned with trying to keep music romantic and interesting."-Stephen Malkmus
We have spent longer examining the ins and outs of Nurse With Wound than we have any other artist in this feature, dedicating a full month to wrapping our heads around the immensely influential (in a certain set), enigmatic, and at turns brilliant and frustrating avante garde experimental musician. The question has yet to come up, however, of whether Steve Stapleton plays well with others. The original incarnation of Nurse With Wound was a group, but the "real" Nurse With Wound has always been a solo effort by Stapleton, with occasional guests appearing when absolutely required. Today we'll look at two collaborative albums and try to fit them properly within the Nurse With Wound canon before saying goodbye to NWW and moving on to continue our journey through Tab's musical headspace.
Released in 1988, Nylon Coverin' Body Smotherin' is a collaboration between Nurse With Wound and a band we will explore more in depth next week, Current 93. Though I've yet to explore Current 93, and will surely try to determine if this is correct next week, I would say that this cd puts neither group's best foot forward. The title track is interesting if only because it's a Nurse With Wound track that actually contains vocals (sung by Jim "Foetus" Thirwell). Sure, they are so harsh and angry they sound more like an attack dog than a human being, but they bring a dimension to NWW that we haven't seen before. By comparison, the first Current 93 track, "The Great in the Small" comes off as a bit silly, almost like a band playing out of their depths trying to sound like Nurse With Wound. There's a lot of hammering and chanting and eventually vocalist David Tibet enters, first saying and then screaming "Antichrist." If there's a deeper meaning to the track, its lost in the din, and it comes across as either woefully naÃ¯ve or an outright parody of the sound Stapleton manages on the previous track.
"Chicken in Drag" is similarly ridiculous. Credited as "A Token Sylvie and Babs Ditty," in reference to the collaborators Stapleton used on The Sylvie and Babs High-Thigh Companion, the song mostly plays with the theme song from Dragnet, speeding it up, slowing it down, and generally doing little of interest to it. Even if you love Dragnet and its theme song, you're unlikely to find much joy in "Chicken in Drag." The rest of the album sounds like early-period Nurse With Wound, trading in surrealism and spooky noises. The best of the bunch is probably "Glory Hole," whose obscene title seems to be playing with the dark side of religion, at least if the chanting that repeats throughout amid screams is to be believed. All of the tracks are decently surreal, but none of them are stunners. Ultimately, Nylon Coverin' Body Smotherin' is kind of a boring record for anyone who has been as immersed in Nurse With Wound as I have over the past month. Its likely to shock anyone who has never heard the artist before, but fans or frequent listeners will probably find little to love about it.
In 1993, Nurse With Wound teamed up with Anglo-French indie band Stereolab to release Crumb Duck, a more interesting collaboration if still one that fails to reach the heights of Stapleton's capabilities. This increased quality is likely due to the fact that this is, for the most part, a standard Nurse With Wound record. The CD release of the album features six tracks, four of which are solely Nurse With Wound tracks. The opening track, "Steel Dream March of the Metal Men" is standard NWW industrial work, a building, repetitive industrial beat with sprinklings of melody throughout. "The Dadda's Intoxication" is standard Nurse With Wound surrealism, tinted with more industrial tones than much of his other work, but still retaining the dark and ominous surrealistic feel of much of his output.
The two tracks Stereolab was involved with are actually just remixes of their work, not original tracks in which they collaborated with Stapleton. "Exploding Head Movie" is a remix of their song "Jenny Ondioline," which makes it by far the most melodic song ever to be packaged under the name Nurse With Wound. I have never listened to Stereolab, but if "Exploding Head Movie" gives any indication, they are the sort of band I will be checking out when I have the chance to listen to music outside of My Year in Lists again. "Animal or Vegetable (A Wonderful Wooden Reason)" plays the vocal track in reverse, adding layers of wildly distorted guitar on top of it. The song, whose title provides a reference to Faust, allows Stapleton to pervert the Stereolab track (if the term "pervert" can be used without a huge negative connotation), turning it from an upbeat and fun indie rock track into a haunting, desperately lonely cry. The song is still deeply moving, however, and Stapleton's remixing abilities should be praised.
abilities should be praised.
Neither of these collaborations, when considered in total, can top the best Nurse With Wound we have looked at over the last month, but there are spots of brilliance on both (particularly on Crumb Duck, which had Stapleton stepping out of his comfort zone and still achieving wonderful things). After a month spent listening to Nurse With Wound, it would be impossible not to show some affection for Steve Stapleton (at absolute worst I'm sure I would have developed Stockholm Syndrome). I have developed a great respect for what Nurse With Wound does, for the sound he creates and for how far off the beaten path he can go without losing sight of what he's looking for. I have also developed true admiration for his ability to create meaning out of what might otherwise be a collage of sound, a cacophony of noise. I will never be calling Nurse With Wound one of my favorite musicians of all time, but at this point I can certainly see why someone would and what an important part of modern experimental music he has become.We return now to Pavement, who we last looked at as they released their breakthrough opus Slanted and Enchanted. In the ensuing tour, the group experienced some friction, especially in the form of increasingly drunken antics from drummer Gary Young, who had taken to handing fans cabbage and mashed potatoes at the door to venues, doing handstands during songs and running around the venue while the band tried to play. At the conclusion of their 1993 tour of Australia, Japan, and Europe, the group held an intervention in Copenhagen, and Young's best friend in the band Bob Nastanovich asked him to leave the group. He was quickly replaced by Steve West, and the group released their next album, and Ashley's pick this week, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain in 1994.
The band abandoned the lo-fi sound that had characterized Slanted and Enchanted for a more standard indie rock sound, and the result is the group's most accessible album. "Cut Your Hair" became the group's closest brush with superstardom. A snarky ode to bands selling out and a declaration about the decreasing importance of musicians to the music industry, it is ironic that the song went on to become the band's most popular and commercially successful single of all time. Irony aside, though, the song is excellent, a solid rock song with enough attitude to keep it lodged in your head for quite some time. While "Gold Soundz" failed to achieve the success of "Cut Your Hair," the song has a similarly catchy sound. Perhaps the band never connected with audiences on a sonic level, but managed to break in with their ode to never selling out, a big point of pride in the early "˜90s. At a point when alternative rock could actually become successful and mainstream, its die-hard fans were looking for musicians who didn't want to achieve that success. Pavement almost certainly did want to be a bigger band (I think most bands with a sound as mainstream as theirs have to have greater aspirations), but their song about how much they didn't want to be successful is the only one that truly connected with a large enough audience to make them successful.
"Range Life" gets a lot of mileage for its seeming mockery of alternative rock superstars Smashing Pumpkins and Stone Temple Pilots, but Stephen Malkmus insists the song intended no offense. It doesn't take much to piss off Billy Corgan (in fact, simply mentioning Smashing Pumpkins probably did it), but the song never sounds like it's more than gently ribbing the other bands. The whole song is so casually catchy and mellow that it is difficult to imagine it was directed at anyone with any sense of malice. Instead, it simply sounds like Malkmus is trying to get a handle on what the bands surrounding him in the alternative rock movement actually mean in a cultural sense, and that's an activity I can clearly get behind. "Fillmore Jive" is an almost seven minute long jam session that seems to be taking digs at an overabundance of criticism, as Malkmus describes in the quote that opened this column. As a result, the song seems to get lost in melody, with seemingly spontaneous guitar and drum solos sprinkled throughout. It's a song that cares more about music itself than the perception of music, and a refreshing message from a band that pumps out a lot of very intelligent music. For once, Pavement wanted to stop thinking and just rock out; it worked.
Pavement never became the alternative rock superstars they really should have. They had the talent, they had the consistency, and they had the sound, but for some reason all of that was mostly looked over by fans who were desperate for more grunge and not yet willing to let their musical icons attain the success they deserved.Norman Quentin Cook (born Quentin Leo Cook) sounds like the name of someone who should be trying to assassinate a president. Which is probably why Cook goes by Fatboy Slim, a paradox, to be sure, but not a name that strikes fear into the heart of Oval Office dwellers. He released his second album, and Collin's pick this week, You've Come a Long Way, Baby in 1998 and it almost immediately became a landmark of the big beat genre, releasing several songs that have become classics of the genre and are vastly influential to anyone working within it. The album's opening track, "Right Here, Right Now," which samples the James Gang song "Ashes, The Rain & I" and takes its title from a sampled snippet of dialogue spoken by Angela Bassett in the movie Strange Days (which I have previously written about when discussing director Kathryn Bigelow). "The Rockafeller Skank" is probably one of Fatboy Slim's best known songs, yet because of the extensive sampling (the iconic lyrics are sampled from rapper Lord Finesse, and the song also samples "Sliced Tomatoes" by Just Brothers, "I Fought The Law (And the Law Won)" by Bobby Fuller, "Beat Girl" by John Barry and His Orchestra, and a guitar line from "Peter Gunn" by Art of Noise) Slim receives zero royalties from the song, giving 25% to each of the artists he sampled. I could make an argument for why that's completely fair, but that's a discussion for a different column.
"Gangster Tripping" also contains a wide range of samples, including songs by DJ Shadow, X-Ecutioners, The Sugarhill Gang, Dust Junkys and Anne Robinson. The iconic video had possibly the shortest script in the history of the form. It simply read: "Blow stuff up." The most famous and enduring Fatboy Slim song, "Praise You," focuses on a sample from "Take Yo' Praise" by Camille Yarbrough (a song you almost certainly only know from the sample used on this track).
I have issues with albums built almost entirely from samples, but that too is something I feel would better be discussed elsewhere. However, even with my anti-sample bias, I have to praise (sorry) Fatboy Slim for You've Come a Long Way, Baby. It's a consistently entertaining and inventive album that at least figures out how to use what it borrows in inventive and original ways. Slim may not be writing his own original compositions, but at his best, you can barely tell he's cobbling his hits together from the successes of other artists. And that's about as high a compliment as I can pay to such a sample-heavy album.
After spending a month digging into Nurse With Wound, a second week looking at Pavement, a week analyzing Fatboy Slim and roughly nine months writing about music on a weekly basis, I have to ask myself whether Stephen Malkmus had a point. Is there too much writing about music? If there is, I'm certainly just contributing to the din. Am I only concerned with keeping music romantic and interesting? I'd have to say no. Over the past nine months, much of what I've been doing is discovering how romantic and interesting music can be at its best. If all I can do is convey that fact to someone who has yet to fully embrace music as a medium, that's enough for me. But if I can manage, even once in a while over the course of this year, to help guide myself (and maybe a few readers too) toward an understanding of the greater meaning of an artist, an album, or a piece of musical culture, then I think it's worth attempting. We've come a long way, baby. And we've still got a ways to go if we're going to shed light on all of the magic and the romance music can hold. Groove with me for a while longer, and we'll see if I'm just the noise that stands between you and true musical transcendence.Read more My Year in Lists here
Next week on My Year in Lists:
We see Current 93's Nature Unveiled, listen to Guided By Voices' Bee Thousand, and feel Godspeed You! Black Emperor's Slow Riot For New Zero Kanada.