So we are back with our third installment of this series: “Out of the Box”. The idea with these posts was to go back to the CDs in our basement or closet that we stored away with the advent of digital music – discs that were no longer as convenient as the digital format, but we still did not want to part with. We previously looked at the early and mid-’90s, so here are our thoughts on discs from the late ’90s that we’ve gone back and taken another listen to.
The late ’90s were probably my most eclectic music listening period – still listening to vestiges of grunge with Soundgarden and Pearl Jam, mixed with other hard rock bands like Smashing Pumpkins and Rage Against The Machine, while also adding in doses of “alternative rock” like Weezer and Radiohead and then mellow stuff to chill to. The large span of music really tied into the mood I was in and whatever emotions I was feeling. It was the time period when I got my first “real job” and I often turned to music to vent my frustrations with my first conflicts with the corporate world. On the plus side, these years were also when I met the woman who would become my wife. We took a lot of road trips up to Maine, Vermont and all over New England, and I have fond memories of playing CDs in the car from Live, Counting Crows, Fiona Apple, Alanis Morissette, and many others. By the way, I recently bought a new car, trading up 15 model years from 2004 to 2019, and was excited to see the new vehicle still came with a CD player, so I have at least another decade of CDs in the car.
Coil – Toad The Wet Sprocket (1997)
When you start to love the non-singles from an album even more than the hits, that’s when you know you’ve crossed over from casual fan to a true follower of an artist. This album, their fifth, was the album that made me a complete Toad fan, which was unfortunate in that this would effectively be their last album of their run. At one point I owned two copies of this CD, as they were giving away a CD with every ticket purchased to their concert (this one was in Avalon on famous Landsdowne St. in Boston – it was a great show). I probably sold the second disc, but I might have needed that second one as I could have easily worn out the first one from how much I played this. Going back to those deep tracks I enjoyed – “Rings”, “Don’t Fade” and “Throw It All Away” were my favorites, although there wasn’t a bum track on the whole album. Toad had garnered a good amount of airplay with their previous album Dulcinea, but for some reason, this album did not catch on as well, other than the single “Come Down”. For me, this album marks the high point of singer/songwriter Glen Phillips, with creative and heartfelt lyrics and confident vocal delivery. Despite this creative high point, within a year the band was broken up, although they did get back together and record another album in 2013, which oddly I have never given a listen.
Bonus: “Crazy Life”, the only song not sung by Phillips, has a lead vocal by guitarist Todd Nichols. This song meant a lot to me as it was about American Indian Leonard Peltier, who was wrongly convicted in 1977 of killing two FBI agents. Around this time DJ and I marched in Washington DC in a parade organized to try and free Peltier, but sadly he is still in jail today and will probably never make it out alive.
DJ: I am a big Toad fan from the Dulcinea days, which to me is their best album, but will agree that Coil is really good too. Toad still makes my regular play list including some of Glen Phillips solo work and the last album they released New Constellation in 2013, which is a solid compliment to the rest of their work. It’s worth a listen. My favorite song on Coil has to be “All Things in Time”, just a beautiful piece of work. Seen these guys twice and was close to seeing them in NH this past August. Maybe next time.
Live – Secret Samadhi (1997)
Like Coil, this was another follow-up album from a band that had just reached new commercial heights – in this case, the monster smash Throwing Copper from 1994. I loved Throwing Copper front to back, as did many fans, so it was a huge challenge to live up to that level of success, and by most standards, the band was unable to do that. Commercially they would never approach the sales of Throwing Copper again. It was easy to peg Secret Samadhi as too much of a cerebral artistic departure, I mean even the title seemed obtusely pretentious, and though I did appreciate the two radio played tracks, “Lakini’s Juice” and “Rattlesnake”, I didn’t give it the attention it deserved. I was fortunate to have a friend clue me in to Live with their debut, Mental Jewelry (1991), which was one of the few times I had never heard one track from a band and loved their album on first listen. When you take the three albums together, there is a kind of method to the madness in songwriter/lead singer Ed Kowalczyk’s lyrical progression. Maybe you could call it a maturity, as the band was only in their late teens when Mental Jewelry was recorded. There is more intensity, and sometimes more anger, in Kowalczyk’s writing and vocals on Samadhi, but there is also an obvious exploration of both themes and styles on the album. You can feel him pushing the lyrical and vocal boundaries on songs like “Graze” and “Insomnia and The Hold In the Universe”. On “Freaks” Kowalczyk goes on a diatribe against American media exploitation of lower-class people living on the fringe. Before giving this album a re-listen in the past few years, I could only name two songs from it, but now I’ve come to appreciate the musical variety and songwriting that I passed over before.
Bonus: The song “Ghost” is the first Live track they recorded with a guest vocal – by Jennifer Charles who founded the band Elysian Fields.
DJ: I agree out of their first 3 albums, this one is third and the one I own that I revisit least often but it is solid. I loved the first two so much that I was pumped for this release similiar to Pearl Jam’s Vs. album, but it doesn’t quite live up to Throwing Copper. After this album, it was mostly middling recording outside the singles “Heaven” and “Dolphin’s Cry”, although I hear they just reunited so maybe some good recordings to come?
UPDATE: Apparently they recently recorded and released an Ep entitled Local 717.
Neil Finn – Try Whistling This (1998)
As I’ve mentioned before in this blog, I’m a huge fan of Crowded House and their pre-cursor Split Enz, but for whatever reason, I haven’t given those bands’ frontman and creative engine Neil Finn his due on his solo albums. Try Whistling This was Finn’s first solo album since the breakup of Crowded House in 1996. I bought the disc right away and listened to it for a while, but in a time period in my life with a lot of competing music (see my intro), it didn’t survive to be in any regular rotation. This is one of those albums that doesn’t have specific standout tracks that would make them radio-friendly but is satisfying when played as a whole. Probably the closest stand-alone track is “Sinner” which was released as a single and probably got some adult contemporary airplay. Musically, this album keeps a pretty even tone, although there is some experimentation, such as Finn using voice distortion over subtle industrial sounds and strings on “Twisty Bass”. “Loose Tongue” is the most upbeat rock song, with some harder electric guitars on the musical bridge. As I said, I enjoy this album when played in its entirety, but if I had to pick a favorite song I would pick “Truth”, which feels like he’s looking back on his career and the fame that comes along with it. I’ve always found Finn’s voice to be consistently smooth and controlled, something he is even able to replicate on-stage in the several chances I’ve seen him play live, either solo or with the House.
Bonus: Finn’s skills as a songwriter have long been underappreciated, although his vocal and guitar abilities were obviously known enough to be recognized by Fleetwood Mac, who picked him to replace Lindsey Buckingham on their current tour. If I could swallow spending $400 on a ticket, it would be great to see him on tour with them.
DJ: Split Enz and Crowded House are two of my top bands and Neil Finn is a huge reason why. His solo albums for me have been hit or miss. This one and One Nil probably being the most solid. I admit I probably need to relisten to them more. The great thing about Finn is I can go back and listen to his recordings and always find something new. My picks on this album are “Astro” and “Souvenir”. I would recommend giving a listen to his recent solo releases Dizzy Heights and last year’s Out of Silence. His newest release is with his son Liam, called Lightsleeper, which is very different but also with some good tracks. I could write about Finn and his bands all day but I expect another post at some point to go more in-depth.
Here we go again the last bunch of packaged up CD’s. For me, I guess I stopped at 1997 because all three of my picks were from the same year. I admit I have had fun digging into these and really gotten to reconnect with some great music that streaming and the ability to buy one song has killed, at least for me. Being forced to buy a CD because you heard one good song would be foolish today with so many ways to hear the rest of the record first. It’s a good time to look back on though.
Flaming Pie – Paul McCartney (1997)
I have been a huge fan of The Beatles since I was a kid. I know every song they ever recorded as a group. You would think that I would be the same way with The Beatles solo work but that is not true at all. When I was a kid, they were all making radio hits and I liked plenty of those hits but full albums never appealed to me, mostly because they were so inconsistent. The only ones I owned were my all-time favorite All Things Must Pass by George Harrison and the 50% good Double Fantasy by John Lennon and Yoko Ono. I also had a McCartney greatest hits but that doesn’t really count. Then somehow in 1997, I heard through either a friend or a review that McCartney’s Flaming Pie was an excellent album. The ’90s was a buy before you listen kind of time for me. With no radio hits that I could remember it was a gamble but it was worth it. I had packed this one away and surprisingly never burned it to my computer or iPod. I came across it and said “I think this was good” and after re-listening, it’s more than that. It’s clearly his last best album. He always had great singles, even later ones such as “Press” and “My Brave Face” were fantastic but a complete album was tough to find. Maybe there was a convergence of things, his wife Linda had just been diagnosed with cancer (her last album appearance) and he had just finished work on the Beatles Anthology which he credits with a refresher of the songs he used to make. Many of these songs sound like they could have landed on The White Album. The two standouts for me are the album opener “The Song We Were Singing” about a time he spent with Lennon and “Calico Skies”, a perfectly beautifully written song. The rest of the album is strong as well, it’s an album that is the perfect music to listen to while reading or relaxing. There is even a duet with Steve Miller.
Bonus: “Really Love You” was written by McCartney and Ringo Starr the first writing credit they ever shared, only took 30 plus years.
MG: I know you guys love to label me as a Beatles-hater (not true) but for McCartney’s songs, I’ve always found his solo stuff more interesting. I did actually listen to this album back when it came out, although I did not own it (maybe I borrowed it from you). I found it to be appealing at the time.
Surfacing – Sarah McLachlin (1997)
I was a huge Sarah McLachlin fan in the nineties, I loved her breakthrough album -Fumbling Towards Ecstasy. I even saw her at Lillith Fair at the formerly-titled Great Wood Center in Mansfield, Massachusetts. So when her follow-up album Surfacing came out I had to buy it. But as the years went by I packed it away and completely forgot about it. I do have a couple of the hits on my listening rotation but generally, I only remember McLachlin when I see her in the animal commercials. I assume she released more albums, a holiday one I believe as well, but I apparently didn’t seek them out. Like Flaming Pie, I realized that I had been missing something with Surfacing. It has four hits all which are very good, starting off with “Building a Mystery” about insecurities, also including a surprising F-bomb (album version only). “Aida” is my favorite of the singles, it’s about letting someone down and feeling responsibility for others. It’s beautiful and emotional with mostly McLachlin playing a solo piano. The other two singles “Sweet Surrender” and “Angel” are strong as well although “Angel” has been overplayed in those commercials I mentioned. “Do What You Have to Do” is also a beautiful song and the line “I don’t know how to let you go” is powerful and McLachlin’s voice carry’s with it that sense of struggling to move on. “Full of Grace” and “I Love You” are other non-hits that work. The last song on the album “Last Dance” not to be confused with a Donna Summer hit is an instrumental, a nice way to close out the disc. McLachlin’s writing is powerful and it’s another great album to play on a Sunday morning or anytime when trying to chill.
Bonus: Monica Lewinsky wrote about “Do What You Have to Do” as a reference to her “relationship” with President Clinton who apparently had the album.
MG: So this album was often played during, uh, certain times with my girlfriend back in the late 90’s, but knowing Monica and Bill were also having sexy time to this is a little weird. I’ve listened to this album a ton, and it was a nice counterpoint when I needed to mellow out and/or take a break from hard rock stuff. She was (is) an amazing live singer, and both times I saw her in concert she was nearly flawless. Often I’ve found live albums disappointing, but Mirrorball, released after Surfacing, was another one I really enjoyed.
The Color and the Shape – The Foo Fighters (1997)
I know the last two albums were on the Adult Contemporary playlist and maybe the was the direction I was heading to in 1997 but there was another 1997 album that I was playing which was far from Adult Alternative. The Foo Fighters debuted in 1995 which their self-titled album. For me it didn’t make a huge mark, “Big Me” was ok as was “I’ll Stick Around” but I didn’t buy it. Then I saw the video for “Monkey Wrench” and picked up a copy. By the way, this is the same way I bought Dave Grohl’s other band’s disc after hearing “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. I also have a strong affinity for “Everlong” which I will mention later but outside of that, I forgot about the other songs. Not sure why I still like songs the Foo Fighters release in the present day. Relistening to it I see that it should not be packed away. The disc actually starts out pretty mellow before it gets to the blistering “Monkey Wrench” with “Doll” a nice way to ease into it. “Hey, Johnny Park!” is a great song with great lyrics and musical shifts. Dave Grohl has stated its about 15 different things which is awesome. “Up In Arms” is another song on this album that starts slow and then gets amped up. What I love about Grohl is he understands music and musical history he is not afraid to take influences from The Beatles, The Jackson 5, The Knack or Black Sabbath. He can write a hard rock pop song and he loves all music. For me “My Hero”, one of the other big songs, is not one of my favorites on this disc and it’s possible that its overuse in pop culture has overpowered me. The other non-singles round out the album well and despite it being all over the place it’s still very cohesive. Back to “Everlong”, this has to be in my top 10 songs of all-time. It just plain rocks, the drumming, Grohl’s singing, it’s a perfect song. It gives me emotions which is what good music does. Grohl created a near perfect second album doing most of the responsibilities himself. I wrote about him before as being one of the best things from the grunge age and this album needs to be on the list too.
Bonus: The title for “Hey, Johnny Park!” was a made-up title using the name of a boyhood friend he had lost contact with and was hoping he would see it and reach out to him. Wonder if he did?
MG: This is a disc I had, but don’t think I do anymore, which is a travesty. Funny your comment about “Everlong”, as I consider “Monkey Wrench” to be in my top 10-20 songs of all time (if we ever get around to writing that X list of songs to rage to, it will be on my list). As good as the album is, I feel the same way about “My Hero” – as it has nearly become unlistenable to me. Otherwise, this is a solid album that for me almost serves as a bridge between grunge and post-grunge hard rock, if there is even a real difference. Perhaps just less flannel.