Why Grunge Matters

“In short, Rock and Roll had become the music of the cool kids, of the “in crowd.” Grunge changed that.”

     When one thinks of revolutions in music, doubtless the mind fills with images of tie-die clothes, psychedelic use, and thousands of people crammed into a small dairy farm in Bethel, New York.  However, while rock music’s peace-loving, hair growing coming of age story is certainly one for the books, it isn’t what I want to focus on here. In 1969, The Beatles sent hippies diving through their psyche with their seminole classic, Abbey Road, but we find ourselves 20 years later, fists in the air and heads banging to Nirvana’s 1989 debut, Bleach.

R-409348-1150567266.jpeg   To understand the importance of Grunge, we’ll need to first understand where rock music was by the time of the late 80’s. The fire and experimentation of the hippies had not only died,  but much worse, been commercialized. The punk movement in the mid 70’s had undercut the trend of sprawling, conceptual pieces of art in favor of the fast, loud, and simple approach espoused by groups like The Ramones, and this format was much easier to be mimicked, chopped up, and broadcast in three minute snippets on the radio. By the time we reached the late 80’s, groups like Motley Crüe and AC/DC had reached massive arena’s with their blend of hard and punk rock, and even though records like Appetite for Destruction brought something of an edge, and groups like Metallica were beginning to take the underground metal world by storm, the image of the modern day rockstar was still that of a longhaired sex symbol who sung about fast cars, women, and parties. In short, Rock and Roll had become the music of the cool kids, of the “in crowd.” Grunge changed that.

   In 1991, the guard changed in a big way with the release of four monumental records: Pearl Jam’s Ten, Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger, the Chris Cornell and Eddie Vedder super project Temple of the Dog, and, of course, Nirvana’s Nevermind. These each followed the release of Alice in Chains’ debut, Facelift in ’91, meaning that Grunge music’s big four was fully established within one year, and the genre spread like wildfire. In January of ’91, Nevermind famously overtook Michael Jackson’s Dangerous at the top of the Billboard chart, Pearl Jam’s “Ten Tour,” sprawled across most of North America and Europe, and names like Chris Cornell and Layne Staley became infamous. What was so different about grunge, though?

   To a casual listener, grunge may sound like a short-lived offshoot of the growing heavy metal movement of the day, and while Alice in Chains somewhat toes the line between the genres, grunge is actually quite sonically unique. It focuses more on the lower end of the pitch spectrum, contrasting the wailing screams of both the vocals and guitar work with groups like Aerosmith and Guns N’ Roses. They also preferred melodic guitar work to the thrashing style of early 90’s metal, and lyrics touched on far heavier topics than the classic “Sex, Drugs, & Rock n Roll.”

51l2kFk6CnL   Its also worth noting the vastly different inspirations between the grunge movement and the previous decade’s radio rock. Virtually every grunge band of the early 90’s had a deep affinity for early blues artists like Robert Johnson, with Kurt Cobain notably stating that Leadbelly was Nirvana’s “favorite singer,” during the band’s iconic Unplugged performance. Eddie Vedder’s visual storytelling and extended metaphors are reminiscent of folk singers like Bob Dylan and even as far back as Woody Guthrie. And the heavier acts like Soundgarden and Alice in chains seemed to be acutely aware of earlier works from Black Sabbath. Beyond this, nearly all of the grunge movement, including the less famous groups we haven’t discussed as much, leaned heavily into the live performance techniques pioneering punk bands like The Ramones and The Sex Pistols.

   If you haven’t caught the theme hear yet, I’ll state it outright: grunge music didn’t respond to the popular music of the day, but instead attempted to build off of the earliest foundations of older movements. Seattle, a city which was, especially in the early 90’s, quite secluded and unconnected to the rest of the world, became the perfect breeding ground for brilliant artists who were willing to unplug from pop culture of the day, and essentially rediscover rock and roll on their own terms, and with this completely new brand of music, the outsiders once again took center stage. However, no discussion of grunge rock could possibly be complete without mentioning its relatively short life, and brutal downfall.

41m3VZWVNLL._SX355_   It’s often been said that grunge’s lifespan can be tracked perfectly by following the life story of Kurt Cobain. A tortured outsider and brilliant writer helps to craft a record unlike anything the music world had ever heard, finds his way to superstardom, but cracks under the pressure and eventually takes his own life, with the whole process taking only about five years. In some ways, this appraisal of the genre’s short history is accurate, save for leaving out a few important albums after Kurt’s death in ’94, but in other ways, I think one key difference causes this parallel to miss the point. The difference is this: unlike Kurt’s death, which was tragic and violent, the death of grunge seemed almost preordained from its inception, and the bulk of its members knew this.

   Their extensive understanding of early music movements meant that all were likely aware of what our culture does to new and unique styles of art. We chop them up and palletize them endlessly until they either homogenize or fall out of the mainstream. This is why Nirvana stands as such a wonderful measuring stick of the genre’s progress. ’89’s Bleach is chaotic, experimental, and perfectly underground. Nevermind is polished, full of life, and brought the band to Beatles levels of popularity. In Utero is dark, emotional, and bemoans the monetization of one of the last great movements in rock. Where as this process took nearly a decade with psychedelic and hippy rock, the industry was remarkably efficient with grunge.

81eaKFGNhSL._SL1500_   Kurt died in ’94, and Nickelback debuted with Curb in ’96, replacing the burning passion of the grunge movement with a gas fireplace of an album. Grunge was effectively melded into the mainstream cannon of rock music, and we are now still subject to the endless barrage of corporatized versions of it with bands like Breaking Benjamin and Nickelback.

   Since then, rock music has been a bit stagnant. The early 90’s were certainly the last bastion of rock’s stranglehold on radio play and popular culture, but to this day, any knew movement in rock is essentially just a rebirth of old styles, be it Neo-punk bands like IDLES and Protomartyr, or the rebirth of psychedelia in the form of Greta Van Fleet and company. Grunge was the last great musical revolution.

   Grunge matters, not only because the music is fantastic, not only because its meteoric rise is almost unmatched in music history, or even its seamless melding and reinventions of older styles, but because it was the last dying breath of rock and roll’s rebellious ethos, because, finally, the outsiders had taken over rock music once again, and because grunge artists had the foresight to expect their own falls from the cultural zeitgeist, and crammed as much incredible music into our veins as they could in the short time in which they were granted in the spotlight.

Why Jason Mraz Matters

One man is almost single-handedly responsible for rescuing a genre that had been relegated to coffeeshops and small bars. That man is Jason Mraz, and this is “Why Jason Mraz Matters.”

     In July of 2015, Ed Sheeran announced that he would be playing three nights at the historic Wembley Stadium in London. The stadium seats 90,000, and has been sold out by the likes of Metallica, The Foo Fighters, AC/DC, and Madonna in her prime. Sheeran, however, planned to play these three shows completely solo, and while doubts swirled about one man’s ability to fill one of the largest stadiums in the world, they were quickly silenced when he sold out all three nights in just over five minutes.

   So, how did we get here? How did one nerdy ginger with a soulful voice, an acoustic guitar, and a surprising ability to blend hip-hop elements into his more folksy base, sell out Wembley Stadium? Many music fans might point you toward the success of acts like Joni Mitchell and Neil Young in the mid-seventies, or even earlier, with artists like Bob Dylan finding fame as early as 1962. The most astute fans of folk music may even mention Woody Guthrie who released his first record in 1940. One man, however, doesn’t get mentioned nearly as much as he should in this discussion, despite the fact that he may be the most important piece of this puzzle. One man is almost single-handedly responsible for rescuing a genre that had been relegated to coffeeshops and small bars. That man is Jason Mraz, and this is “Why Jason Mraz Matters.”

   In the late 90’s and early 2000’s, folk music was just beginning to morph into the coffeehouse sound we know today, and it was finding massive success, album sales wise, on college campuses all over the country. There were a few acts that had risen to the top of the heap, but for the most part, each artist was mostly independent and rarely stayed on top for more than a few months. That all changed, however, in 2002 with the release of Mraz’s debut LP, “Waiting for My Rocket to Come.”

   This album was seriously revolutionary. It was catchy, geeky, and above all, fun. Mraz drew from the cheesy, heartfelt love songs of coffeeshop music for “You and I Both,” while infusing hip-hop flows and drums to make hits like “The Remedy,” and “Curbside Prophet.” Still not done, he would toss in some reggae instrumentation for “I’ll Do Anything,” and write an impressively emotional ballad in “Absolutely Zero.” In short, Jason Mraz, on his debut album no less, took one of the oldest genres of music that still exists in the mainstream and used it as a core to fuse with any and every other influence on which he could get his hands. The album went platinum and instantly made the then twenty five year old kid a household name.

   He would follow this success with what is, I believe, his best album to date, Mr. A-Z in 2005. While the cleverly titled project was slightly less successful than its predecessor, being one of only two albums in his discography to miss the million sale mark needed for a platinum rating, he’s able to improve on his debut in virtually every respect.

   The hip-hop influence is stronger, coming through strongly on “Geek in the Pink,” and more subtly on “Did You Get My Message?” He adds more instruments to his pallet, pulling in a piano to lead “Mr. Curiosity,” and a variety of new guitar styles on “Clockwatching,” and throughout, he endears himself to his audience by drawing from the geeky, self deprecating humor which had been used a decade earlier by groups like Weezer to a similar effect. Overall, this album was considerably less impactful in the music industry, but established Mraz, along with the brand new brand of coffeehouse/hip-hop/folk music which he was pioneering, as a force to be reckoned with. His upward trajectory, however, wouldn’t come to fruition until 2008 with the release of his career defining third record, We Sing, We Dance, We Steal Things.

   Now, I must admit that this third installment is, possibly, my least favorite of Mraz’ debut trilogy, but its success is likely the most important part of his story, and the qualities which made it such a hit are obvious.

   It has fantastic singles, namely “Lucky,” featuring Colbie Caillat and “I’m Yours,” which is certified nine times platinum. In addition, the introduction of the ukulele on nearly every track contributed to the overall laid back feel of the record and made it infinitely listenable. Even the album cover was influential as it would lead to a rash of simplistic, single-line drawings which seemingly adorned every single coffeehouse album released for the next two years.

   The album is certified three times platinum, but perhaps even more important for the purposes of this article, it launched a massive world tour on which he visited five continents and even performed with Eric Clapton. While it may be true that he often played these shows with a band backing him up, the fact remains that he alone was the attraction, and he was laying the groundwork which would eventually allow future, similar acts to drop the band all; a number of fantastic live records released over this time period contributed to this as well. In just six years, Jason Mraz had taken a fledgling genre which was just beginning to gain traction on college campuses and pretentious coffeehouses, tossed it into the mixing pot with influences from every popular genre he could think of, and brought this it to the masses in a way that had never been done before.

   He went on to release two more albums, Love is a Four Letter Word and Yes!, both of which are quite impressive, but for the purposed of examining his effects on the industry, its these first three projects that really matter.

   Today, our billboard charts are consistently topped by the likes of Ed Sheeran, Bon Iver, Passenger, and Hozier, but there doesn’t seem to be enough attention drawn to the fact that, twenty years ago, one man with just his guitar and his voice could scarcely fill a dorm room lobby, let alone Wembley Stadium. Jason Mraz changed all of that, and that’s why Jason Mraz matters.

HEAR JASON MRAZ:                          https://open.spotify.com/artist/4phGZZrJZRo4ElhRtViYdl

Why Jason Isbell Matters

     The term “savior” is thrown about all too often in the music world. Kendrick Lamar is called the “savior” of lyrical rap, Greta Van Fleet is often called the “savior” of Rock n’ Roll, and Chris Stapleton has often been called the “savior” country music. It’s only the final label, though, which we will discuss today, but I would attach it to someone far more deserving: Jason Isbell.

   Jason Isbell is an Americana/Country artist based in Nashville Tennessee. He got his start with The Drive-By Truckers, outlaw country royalty in their own right, but was kicked out of the band after a three album stint, due to serious drug and alcohol problems which made him a nightmare to work with. From there, he released one more solo effort to lukewarm reception before entering rehab for alcoholism.

   It was after his admittance, however, that he began to shine. He married his then girlfriend, and fellow country songstress, Amanda Shires, and she joined him on his best record, Southeastern. He went on to put out one more solo project, as well as three hits with his newly formed band, Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit.

   So, why do we care? Of course, it goes without saying that there’s not a bad album in the bunch, and that his long and illustrious career holds tremendous value to anyone interested in country music, particularly the recent outlaw movement, as his work mostly pre-dates contemporaries like Stapleton, Musgraves, or Simpson. But the question we need to answer is whether Isbell holds any importance to the average music fan, and to the music industry as a whole. So let me make my case for why Jason Isbell matters.

   The first important point to make, as alluded to before, is the history of his career. Not only did he work with probably the most important Southern Rock act of the early 2000’s in the Truckers, but he worked with them on two of their best albums to date. Even in the presence of giants, so to speak, his writing stands head and shoulders above his band-mates, especially on tracks like “Decoration Day,” “Danko/Manuel,” and “Goddamn Lonely Love.” Even after leaving the group, his solo work, and records with The 400 Unit are of a higher quality, and receive more critical praise than any other album in the genre, almost without fail. Isbell has been at the very forefront of Country music throughout two major era’s now, and that is truly rare. But why is that? I would say that it all has to do with his understanding of not only the genre he’s writing in, but the culture he’s writing about and for.

   See, Country music as a whole aims toward a fairly specific, and rapidly aging demographic. Chiefly, the hardworking, blue collar men and women of Middle and Southern America. Tracks like “Last of My Kind,” and “Tupelo,” on his newest record seem to address these people directly, bemoaning the exclusion he faced as a young man, unable to fit in outside of this world.

   This is also, by all accounts of current events, a dying breed of people. The world economy is leaving once booming industries like coal mining in the dust, and recent influx of people living in larger cities has meant that blue-collar America has also lost their grip on the zeitgeist of modern culture. Gone are the days of Westerns in the theatre and Willie on the radio. Instead, superheroes battle in New York City to dominate the box office, and the music industry favors industrial genre’s like rap and rock. Some artists have chosen to ignore this, and continue writing as they always have for smaller audiences. Others water down their messaging to appeal to those who’ve never lived the life they sing about. Still others recognize this shift, but fight it and blame others. Jason is one of the very few to take a different path.

   Perhaps the best way to explain this is to compare two songs. Lets look at Toby Keith’s “55 Mile an Hour Town,” contrasted with Jason’s “Speed Trap Town.” Both deal with the same issue: a grown man returns from life on the road to the one-horse town from whence he came. He’s greeted by a single mothers, as his father has passed away, but they seem bewildered by the fact that this small town isn’t the same as they left it, but here’s where the differences are found.

   Toby blames this on the world changing. Chiefly, the lack of God in schools, the trend of less parents spanking their kids, the shifting demographics, and violence shown on television today. To quote the song itself, “Spare the rod and you will sour this 55 mile an hour town.” Toby seems to think that the world has changed beneath his feet, but Jason would disagree.

   See, in “Speed Trap Town,” Isbell makes it clear from the first lines that he’s the one who has changed. This is not to be confused with saying that he’s the one who is flawed, but rather that he’s finally old enough to see the flaws in his home town, his late father, and his childhood as a whole. Put simply, Toby Keith, and others like him, tend to prop up a false image of the blue collar culture, that of a simpler, more pure world which is being mercilessly destroyed by the godlessness of modern society. Isbell, on the other hand, performs an autopsy of the culture he came from, and attempts to see what good may be salvageable, while ruthlessly bringing light to its weaknesses.

   Tracks like “White Man’s World,” “Children of Children,” and the aforementioned “Speed Trap Town,” criticize Southern and Midwestern cultures’ tendencies toward racism, teen pregnancy, and infidelity. Even in his earliest writing with the Truckers, this is present. “Decoration Day,” speaks on the glorification of violence and tribalism while “Outfit,” wonderfully dismantles notions of toxic masculinity. Even Southeastern, though its the more personal album in the discography, touches heavily on the substance abuse and alcoholism which runs rampant in these areas.

   It would be wrong, however, to say that Jason sees no good in this culture. “Something More Than Free,” praises the work ethic which is ingrained within these people, while “’68 Cadillac” and “Cover Me Up,” speak to the strength of southern women. Above all “Molotov,” and “If We Were Vampires,” give a glimpse at the focus on love and family which is so strong in this culture.

   Country music, and the culture which accompanies it, faces a massive challenge. The world is changing, and it threatens to leave quite a bit behind. The genre, on the whole, has seemed to ignore this challenge, either by doubling down on their outdatedness, or by watering down their message and sound so much that nothing “country” remains. They do this, in my opinion, because they’re afraid of the challenge. They think that, should they face it head on, they may find that there is nothing of this once great culture which can stand the test of the new world.

   Jason Isbell disproves that. He simultaneously shows us what’s great about the country culture, while fearlessly pointing out its flaws. He seeks to distill the true power of Country music, while removing all remnants of imperfections, and this may be the only way to see this genre survive. That is why Jason Isbell matters.

HEAR JASON ISBELL: https://open.spotify.com/artist/3Q8wgwyVVv0z4UEh1HB0KY

Why Tool Matters

Here’s the first of hopefully many pieces in my “Why it matters,” series, “Why Tool Matters.”

     Tool is an alt-rock/prog-metal four piece who rose to popularity in the early 1990’s thanks to their unique sound, bizarre live performances, and a fantastic demo EP called 72826 which came out in 1991. At this time, there sound was heavy, often droning, and far more melodic than the majority of the underground metal in the early nineties.

   Fast forward almost three decades and the group is currently on a small stadium tour, from which they took a break to headline one of the biggest rock festivals in the world at 2018’s Rock on the Range. They’ve released only four studio albums, the last of which is more than a decade old at this point, but they’ve amassed an incredible cult following, most of whom are clamoring for the new LP which is supposedly coming this year, and they are generally considered one of the great, all-time rock bands. For an outsider, however, this question must arise: why? Why are fans willing to wait more than ten years for a new album, willing to spend large sums of money for physical copies of their records, willing to sell out stadiums for a band with only four LP’s in thirty years. As one of those fans, allow me to tell you just why Tool matters.

   The first, and most obvious answer to this question is just this: they’re good. Really, really good. Their tracks switch tempos and time signatures multiple times, often between single measures, on top of a general concentration on extremely difficult instrumentation and vocal work. Danny Carey is one of the greatest rock drummers in history without question, Justin Chancellor consistently crafts some of the best bass lines in the business, Adam Jones has an ability to choose his openings well, and his ear for melody is second to none, and Maynard is, well, Maynard. Maybe he’s another good place to start.

   Maynard James Keenan is certainly a modern renaissance man, but his first and foremost claim to fame is as the lead singer for Tool. His vocal, in contrast to the raspy screams of most nineties metal, is often droning and almost etherial. He has an ear for vocal melodies which is genuinely one of the most unique in music history, and his lyricism is second to none in the genre. Topics of religion, death, aliens, psychedelics, personal growth, and human evolution are just a few of his favorites, and the saga of tracks dealing with his mother, her sickness, her devout religiosity in the face of torment, and her eventual death is one of the best recurring themes in modern music, as it plays out across not only Tool, but his other two bands: Puscifer and A Perfect Circle as well.

   The band’s mythos doesn’t end with their music, but extends into their public personas as well, or lack there of. While each member is, by all accounts, quite kind and appreciative of their fans, (Yes, even Maynard) they make no qualms about their preference for seclusion and distaste for fame. Maynard spends his time running his own vineyard in Arizona, while Danny and Justin do some work with far less infamous side projects, and Adam seemingly just hides in a hole somewhere until its time to record again. The group rarely, if ever, gives interviews, their social media accounts are nearly empty, save short posts informing fans of upcoming performances and teasing a release of the new album, and even the screens at their live performances don’t show their faces, but only prerecorded segments of music videos. While we’re on the topic, lets talk about those live shows.

   Seeing Tool live is unlike any other concert, and it’s certainly the quickest way to turn an outsider into a diehard fan. Their music feels almost primal when played live, and the actual performance is quite unique. First of all, Maynard’s hermit tendencies come into play as he sings from a platform in the back of the stage, as apposed to the front, which is split by Adam and Justin. As I said, the screens don’t show the faces of the band members as they play, but instead, they project images from the groups famously dark and disturbing, claymation music videos, which are made by Adam Jones, himself. With songs as difficult as Tool’s, they still find a way to sound absolutely fantastic on stage; Adam’s guitar in particular is turned up loud enough to blow away a crowd with a single thump but, of course, he wields this with expert skill and concentration, as does every member of the group.

   Even the packaging on their albums is artistic, forgoing the traditional band picture and comic lettering, and creating several iconic images with no album or band name, mostly using forms of primitive psychedelia. They even attached glasses to their last album, which turned the booklet into three dimensional images.

   If you’re seeing a theme here, its intentional. The members of Tool don’t like to show their face, or even promote the band’s name when its not necessary. In fact, they’d probably rather you didn’t even know their individual names. Why? A more cynical mind might infer some kind of conceit, but I think the answer is actually far more honorable. As far as Tool is concerned, they don’t matter. What matters is the music, the videos, the performance, the packaging. What matters is the art.

   Their discography speaks for itself. 1993’s Undertow is heavy and defiant, ’96’s Aenima is nothing short of a rock masterpiece, perfectly toeing the line between prog and hard rock, 2001’s Lateralus is conceptual, creative, and melodic, and 2006’s 10,000 Days is emotional, longwinded, and beautifully written and performed. Tool matters because in an era, a genre, and an industry which focuses on vanity and personality, Tool focuses on the art and only that.

   They’re especially important now, with the rise of social media and celebrity culture, because Tool doesn’t advertise to you. Their music isn’t even available except via physical copy, because Tool’s music isn’t about selling, or promoting. It’s music for the sake of music, art for the sake of art, and that kind of dedication to a concept is nothing if not refreshing, and desperately needed in our modern music industry.