Originally published in The New Times, February, 1993. Editor, Steve Sylvester.
Based on pure pleasure alone (and we should be suspicious of any review criteria that doesn't account for the joy of listening) the three best albums of 1992 — the ones that spent the most time in my CD player — are: Please Panic, the Vulgar Boatmen; Wisteria, Arson Garden; and Girlfriend, Matthew Sweet.
The last nomination (and they are only nominations because there's a lot of stuff I haven't been able to listen to) is somewhat of a cheat: it was actually recorded in 1990 but didn't receive widespread attention and distribution until '92.
Nevertheless, it's quite possible that pop music hasn't sounded this good, this pure and effortless or rocked this hard since... well, call me hyperbolic, but not since "I Wanna Hold Your Hand."
But, of course, such seeming effortlessness required a great deal of forethought and ingenuity on the part of Sweet and his co-producer Fred Maher. If you care about how the recording was put together, I strongly recommend Bill Wyman's excellent article on Girlfriend (Zoo/BMG) in the Chicago Reader.
From the galvanizing and cynical "Divine Intervention" to the year's most durable and wonderful single, "I've Been Waiting," through the epiphanic harmonizing of "Your Sweet Voice" and the remarkably human "Holy War," Sweet's songwriting, vocals, and tough guitar playing — and even his taste in the fabulous Tuesday Weld cover photo — make the disc just about perfect.
Somewhat less perfect (but only somewhat) rock 'n' roll can be found on Please Panic (Caroline Records). In fact, I look back in chagrin on my review in The New Times of the Indy indie compilation Black Brittle Frisbee in which I called the Boatmen (an incarnation then called Right to Left) "trendy."
Subsequently, having nothing to prove to anyone, the band has put out two wholly original, thoroughly enjoyable and energetic rock albums, the first being You and Your Sister.
Like Sweet's, the Vulgar Boatmen's approach to pop is basic, but even more stripped down than Sweet's studio-savvy recording. This is guitar, drums and vocals, plain and simple, albeit modestly garnished with plaintive fiddle-playing.
But your response to this music will be anything but simple. There are all sorts of appropriate listening positions possible — from contemplative, stretched-out in a corner booth toe-tapping to sweat-soaked packed-to-the-stage rock-bar dancing as a loyal crowd of Chicago fans have discovered.
On the other hand, Arson Garden's rock aesthetic is anything but familiar unless you put a lot of seemingly disparate musical threads together as the five creative minds of this band have done.
Hyperbole and unabashedly biased promotion on the part of the rock critic establishment produces a lot of "Next Big Thing" bands that in the next year or so disappear off the face of the earth. For proof of this you only have to run down the nominees of the Grammy for Best New Artist for the last decade. Within this discourse, lots of descriptive terms pertaining to the originality of the acts are tossed around, but those proclamations are meant to line the pockets of recording company execs who've never seen the inside of a rock club, not to mention wouldn't know original if it bit them in the ass (David Geffen, no exception).
Thus in an atmosphere where nonetheless worthy bands such as Teenage Fanclub or even Nirvana and unworthy ones like the Spin Doctors (did anyone else hear "Sweet Home Alabama"?) get touted as original or "unlike anything you've ever heard," I contend that Wisteria (Vertebrae Records) is the single truly unique recording of 1992.
To again prove this fact to myself, Wisteria was the first disc I listened to with my brand new Sony MDR-V6 'phones that I got for Christmas. And once again I was overwhelmed by the sheer sonic power of it all. Compared to the twists and turns and contortions and wounds the three guitars make in this music, and the authority with which April Combs sings, the briefly fashionable guitar-wash noise bands such as Curve or Lush sound like the Cocteau Twins... or the Thompson Twins for that matter.
Arson Garden is punk, spanked and put through music school; Arson Garden is Brit art-rock mugged, rolled over and gene-spliced with '70s American hard rock chops and given an honorary PhD by Richard Hell. Band of the Year, no question. No ensemble works their own inimitable rock vision any harder than Arson Garden.
Given my current economic situation, uncooperative promoters and entrenched urban rock criticism, most of the live performances I saw this year were, gulp, on television. Unfortunately, most of what I saw were embarrassments.
The B-52s parodied themselves on Saturday Night Live, proving that they'd probably be better as hosts of their own Saturday morning kids' show; it couldn't be any weirder than the silly queens who do "Riders in the Sky", and besides, Fred Schneider is the perfect replacement for Pee-wee Herman. Also on SNL, Morrissey proved, if not what a falsely modest, self-promoting creep he is, then definitely that he is a lazy, uninspired vocalist-cum-poseur who doesn't deserve the cute rockin' little band he's got.
On the same series, Annie Lennox proved, of course, that she's Diva; Madonna proved that she's not (why couldn't they have booked Supermodel RuPaul? If I want to hear another "Vogue" retread, I at least want to hear it from someone who's actually done it - like a six-foot, six-inch drag queen, on Tommy Boy records, natch.)
Nirvana proved on SNL and on the Grammys that they don't give a damn, which is worth a few beers in my book.
Finally, Robert Palmer's amazingly clueless impersonation of Harry Connick Jr. impersonating Steve Lawrence on The Tonight Show represented new lows both for Palmer and for Jay Leno who chatted him up on the origins of Palmer's affinity for sleazy lounge music.
Say what you will about David Letterman, but Paul Shaffer would've been deadpanning Palmer's part in some lame skit on the show that had Sonic Youth and the Lemonheads in one week and L7 the next.
Speaking of Sonic Youth and more disappointment, their live show at the gorgeous but too-big Riviera Theater in Chicago was the biggest letdown of the year.
The band played well but seemed bored and detached from the audience this time around and they didn't even play some of my favorite songs off last year's great "mainstream" release Dirty (Geffen Records).
To make it worse, the pit was ugly, mean, and way too crowded; the opening act, Royal Trux, was stinky and somnolent and I paid 25 bucks for it all.
On the other hand, I'm just glad I had a free pass to see The Year Punk Broke, featuring the Youth, Nirvana and others in the stupidest, most boring and poorly recorded piece of self-indulgent fan-boy video-making I've ever seen. The high points were seeing Bob Mould (Hüsker Dü, Sugar) serve chili to the bands and watching Kurt Cobain throw himself once again into the drum set.
In contrast, L7's show at Chicago's Metro was the most fun big show, with lots of girls moshing (ones who weren't out to prove their suburban manhood by shakin' over skinny guys like me).
This all-girl band rocked hard and harder, especially on the grandly blunt and brazen "Shit List," for almost two hours, stopping once to encourage the audience to attend a pro-choice rally the next day.
And then they proceeded to rock their ever-lovin' butts off.
Hey, rock 'n' roll and politics really do mix or at least get along pretty well. And from a social standpoint, girls (or rather, grrrls) in the pit is a significant political accomplishment in itself.
Not to mention fags in the pit.
And that brings me to my favorite show of the year — Fifth Column at Czar Bar, a homely but homey (looks like your parents' basement: pool table, fake-wood paneling, et. al.) hole-in-the-wall run by friendly Polish folks grateful for a bar-full of scuzzy beer-guzzling homos and assorted queer-friendly riff-raff.
Riding the wave of an international movement (yeah, right) loosely designated Homocore (so-named after a seminal underground queer punk zine put out almost a decade ago in Toronto), this all-dyke band motored their way through a long exultant set of loud thrashy rock 'n' roll that sounded more like fuzzed-up accelerated surf music or protopunk than hardcore.
But hey, it sounded great, it sounded queer and it created the friendliest damn pit I've ever been in — along with a warm, fuzzy rock 'n' roll afterglow to bathe in afterwards on a barstool or at the pool table.
You can get the band's recent fiery single, "All Women are Bitches," backed with the transcendent and lovely ode "Donna," named after Donna Dresch (whose high-tops, by the way, you are not worthy of licking) for $5 from K Records, Box 7154, Olympia WA 98507.
Other cool discs issued last year include the Lemonheads' jocular and irresistible It's a Shame About Ray (Atlantic); the sublimely laid-back Lunapark by Luna3 (Elektra); a rough-and-ready singles compilation called Tossing Seeds (Merge) that features one of the world's great lost work songs, "Slack Motherfucker," from that expert Canadian garage band Superchunk; the Beastie Boys' third rock/rap/funk fusion experiment Check Your Head (Capitol); the bracing punk-a-billy of Social Distortion on Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell; the moody British dance pop of the Wendys on Gobbledygook (EastWest); the ragged, rolling, mournful guitar rock of Buffalo Tom on Let Me Come Over (Beggars Banquet); and the musically ambitious and stylistically diverse British acid-jazzers, the Brand New Heavies, on their hip-hoppin' joy ride Heavy Rhyme Experience (Virgin).
Finally, you should find some way to hear the music that's on the four-disc Bob Marley compilation Songs of Freedom (Tuff Gong).
I'm always reluctant to recommend multiple-disc sets not only because of the usually prohibitive price but also because such releases cater to the esoteric expectations of the collector or historian.
Marley's music, however, clearly transcends any such limitations and the succinct but telling liner notes enhance rather than divert attention from the listening experience.
These songs seamlessly interweave politics, sex, drugs, spirituality, music, even fashion and ground them firmly back from where they emerged — life itself, proving that for some folks at the margins, simply being alive necessitates political resistance.
That Marley's life was that and more and that he produced songs of such enduring beauty ("Soul Rebel," in the ethereal version included here, is surely one of the most moving and gorgeous songs ever recorded) under the circumstances he lived, makes this compilation worth hearing.
This isn't the kind of crass and valueless inspiration that corporate America (and that includes some of its churches) tries to sell you every night on TV, and for that opposition alone Marley's music is still revolutionary.
Inspirational lyric for the new year (with apologies to Michael Stipe): "It's the end of the world as Bush knows it/ And I feel fine."
1993. Peace already.