DYRT90s // Foo Fighters: Big Me

Even those, such as myself, who wouldn’t necessarily consider themselves Foo Fighter fanatics would have a hard time arguing that Dave Grohl is one of the true modern day G-ds of Rock and Roll.  He’s kicked assholes out of his concerts from the stage, insisted on recording 2011’s Wasting Light in a garage on analog tape,  randomly filled in on drums for bands of much less stature, and, after showing up not just on time but early for a festival gig, happily unleashed a set of classic-rock covers on an unsuspecting beach crowd when a rapping R&B crooner took the stage over half an hour late.

During his tenure with the Foo Fighters, Grohl has established himself as an undisputed champion of whatever right and good is left in today’s hostile and discouraging entertainment climate in such a dominating fashion, it’s almost impossible to believe that this hero of the aughts and beyond was in a former life a member of one of the most critically heralded, mystic and legendary bands of all time.  Morose as the line of thinking may be, one is only left to wonder how things would have worked out if Nirvana did not end in the exact manner in which it did.

Even without Kurt Cobain’s still highly conspiracized suicide in 1994, it’s entirely possible that 1993’s In Utero could have been Nirvana’s final album: A row over songwriting royalties in the immediate wake of Nevermind‘s unfettered success caused a deep-seated rift among the band’s three members and Cobain’s health problems – an interconnected melange of alcoholism, severe heroin addiction and a chronic, yet undiagnosed, stomach condition – began threatening Nirvana’s solvency as early as the spring of 1992.  Add to that the classic tropes of a major label unhappy with a band’s finished product, the band unhappy with the producer’s final mixes and a cancelled world tour, and In Utero begins to more and more take the shape of the precipitate of a buzzband’s demise.

But as the unwitting poster-children of the commitization of the Pacific Northwest’s “grunge” culture, it is indeed far more likely the music industry would have kept Nirvana churning out records until their utility had expired; and Cobain’s tortured public persona and private life – including a toxic and tumultuous relationship with Courtney Love – had already begun to exhaust the good will engendered by his seminal songwriting even before he tragically took his own life. Nirvana existed in a time when every band regardless of talent seemed inevitably doomed by the superficiality of popular music in general, and – by almost any calculation – the fall of Nirvana would have been set against (and probably expedited by) one of the ugliest cultural backdrops of the last 50 years.

A true second act in rock and roll is a luxury afforded to a very seldom few, and while the timing and nature of Nirvana’s dissolution probably caused Dave Grohl more stress than ease, it may have left more daylight for a true follow-up than if Nirvana ended battered and destroyed a decade later. Still, as the grunge audience surrounding the 1995 release of Foo Fighters’ self-titled debut began to take on the appearance of nothing more than a series of splinters, Grohl was forced to both start from scratch and exist in one of the largest and darkest shadows of the era.  That he emerged at all – let alone as the leader of what has become one of the most successful and popular bands of all time – is an astonishing testament to his musical talent and seemingly preternatural knack for handling almost every situation in the most awesome way imaginable.

MP3: Foo Fighters: “Big Me”

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DYRT90s // Better Than Ezra: Good

As a young teenager growing up in the greater suburbs of Chicago, my knowledge of Better Than Ezra’s catalog started and ended with their 1993 breakthrough Deluxe, which didn’t come to my attention until Elektra re-released the album in 1995 and it quickly went platinum on the strength of #1 Modern Rock single “Good”.  But just as quickly as I “discovered” Better Than Ezra they slipped off my radar in favor of the next light-alternative rock band to produce a well-written, flawlessly executed power-pop ditty that seemed to perfectly capture the American young-adult zeitgeist du jour.

(I use the term “discovered” extremely loosely here, as during the halcyon days before the Telecommunication Act of 1996 precipitated the implosion of commercial FM radio and MTV moved away from a programming panorama that highlighted videos from every genre of popular music over the course of any given week, “discovering” music didn’t take much effort nor was it something in which people – or at least people my age at the time – took a self-congratulatory amount of pride.  In a major market like the greater Chicagoland area, the legwork required to find breaking artists was left up to the sea of disc jockeys flooding the FM dial; experienced, well-connected musicheads empowered to play songs largely of their own choosing and expected to be on whatever cutting edge existed before the internet flattened the music world once and for all.  There was no real venue outside of limited circulation fan ‘zines or a savant record store clerk to get a band-knowing leg-up on your peers, nor was there a real need to do so, for there was a brief moment in time when the radio and MTV seemed to perfectly serve all the needs of even an avid music consumer.)

That is, of course, until I moved to New Orleans four years ago, a city where Better Than Ezra’s fan base still thrives, boasting in its ranks men and women of all ages and dispositions. Because while Better Then Ezra was a charming one-hit-wonder in many parts of the country, locally they are a band that formed at LSU in 1988 and have been consistently recording and relentlessly touring for almost 25 years and counting, long before and even longer after their time in the national limelight.

It’s a cool reminder that – even at a time when songs can get pinged across the globe within seconds of being recorded – music comes from somewhere; not just in the figurative sense of emerging from some mystical tranche of the creative ether, but in the literal, functional and geographic sense.  The commoditized version of the product may drift in and out of cultural relevance, but the majority of the human beings making the songs that once dominated independently programmed radio stations and now surge through the Hype Machine ranks are actual people who live to make music.  And even though there will never be a lack of manufactured tween pop-stars fueled only by widespread popularity, they will always be outnumbered by hardworking artists with enough perspective to understand the fickle and mysterious nature of the music gods and enough talent and wherewithal to make decent music regardless of how long their mainstream success lasts or whether it even comes at all.

MP3: Better Than Ezra: “Good”

DYRT90s? // Soundgarden: Black Hole Sun

Almost 13 years after calling it quits following a worldwide tour in support of their fifth studio album, Down On The Upside, Soundgarden announced on New Year’s Day, 2010 they were reuniting and hitting the festival circuit (including a stop at our own Voodoo Music Experience later this month).  It was welcome news, not only for Soundgarden die-hards, but for supporters of decent music everywhere.  After Soundgarden disbanded, Cornell’s work was inexplicably and tragically dismal.  I mean, if you would have told me in 1994 that a band featuring Chris Cornell and 75% of Rage Against The Machine would suck as hard as Audioslave, I would have called you crazy; and his solo work offered little respite or consolation for those hoping Cornell could put his uncanny vocal range and proven writing chops to any good use in the 2000s.

But his forgettable post-Soundgarden output speaks less about his particular talent as a songsmith – Superunknown and even Badmotorfinger can rightfully be called triumphs of the mainstream grunge era – and more about the fickle and obscure nature of all creative talent. Who really knows why some artists craft timeless epics and others middle away in uninspiring mediocrity, or why the same person can create magic in the company of a select few individuals and absolute dreck with a different set of co-conspirators or when left to his own devices. I guess it’s just one of those eternal mysteries that makes art in all its forms so compelling.

MP3: Soundgarden: “Black Hole Sun”

DYRT90s? // Beck: Where It’s At

No matter how often I requested it, the DJ that worked my middle school dances refused to play this song, citing its alleged offensive content.  I could certainly tell the song was “weird”, with the spoken word passages and an accompanying music video full of what I later found out to be homages to William Shatner and Captain Beefheart; but as an otherwise sheltered 11-year old, I was baffled by his accusation that any of it was more inappropriate than, say, the horrific Grease medley that seemed to perpetually blare through the gymnasium’s under-powered PA system during these bi-monthly sock-hops.

It took me years to finally figure out that much of the music I, as a youth, found enjoyable but “weird” could be more accurately described as “experimental”, a characterization that certainly applied to the genre-spanning collection of songs on Beck’s Dust Brothers-produced Odelay.  Even later I figured out that the difference between “experimental” and “offensive” may be hard to discern for (and/or meaningless to) a 40 year-old man who spends his Friday late-afternoons teaching disenchanted tweens how to do the electric slide.

MP3: Beck: “Where It’s At”

DYRT90s? // Counting Crows: Mr. Jones

In a decade infamous for songwriters who laughably overreached in their attempts to craft earnest, deep, clever or otherwise emotionally resonant lyrics, Adam Duritz is in a class by himself.  Even with stiff competition from the Edwin McCains and Jakob Dylans of the world, Duritz is the undisputed king of melancholy hyperbole, filling the Counting Crows debut album, August and Everything After, with heavy-handed metaphors and imagery so intentionally morose it borders on satire.

But at the end of the day, does it really matter that I want to grab and shake anyone who can sing along to a line like “gray is my favorite color” without pausing to acknowledge how ridiculously over-the-top it is?  Counting Crows have sold over 20 million albums worldwide and Adam Duritz managed to bed a murder’s row of famous starlets including Jennifer Aniston, Courtney Cox, Monica Potter, Nicole Kidman, Winona Ryder, Samantha Mathis and Emmy Rossum (and all during each lady’s prime, mind you).

Most musicians don’t have either the talent or the ambition to create anything transformative, and the best they can hope for is the opportunity to make a decent living pursuing their artistic inclinations and, of course, to get chicks.  By these perfectly noble and respectable standards, a decent argument can be made that Adam Duritz is the most successful musician to emerge in the 1990s.

MP3: Counting Crows: “Mr.  Jones”

DYRT90s? // Jill Sobule: I Kissed A Girl

With WTUL and WWOZ on the local dial, there is really no excuse to ever listen to commercial FM radio in New Orleans.  Even if the Crescent City wasn’t blessed with two of the greatest listener-supported stations on the planet, I still don’t imagine I’d make a habit of checking out Top 40 radio with any regularity.

So it took me until the fall of 2008 to actively listen to the ubiquitous hit of the summer of 2008 and realize it was not actually a cover of this 1995 classic.  And I still don’t understand why people thought Katy Perry’s song was so controversial, considering Jill Sobule addressed the joys of carefree lesbian experimentation over a decade before Perry’s songwriting team did.

MP3: Jill Sobule: “I Kissed A Girl”