Alternate title: Unjustly Forgotten Albums.
In compiling the creepily self-indulgent and onanistic blog series known as “This Used To Be My Playground” (Alternate title suggested by the ex-wife: “How Dare They Not Like Me”), I have been listening to a lot of old favorites from the one decade that seems doomed to inspire almost no nostalgia at all. According to the annoyingly still-prevalent Baby Boomers, the 60’s were the pinnacle of Western Civilization (can we unplug their feeding tubes, soon, please?), the 70’s garner a certain shameful, shaggy-dog affection for their hideous aesthetics in all things, the 80’s are now the super-cool decade for the new generation too young to really remember them, but the 90’s are passed over with a few grunge-flannel-Monica Lewinsky references. Maybe not enough time has passed for true nostalgia to really set in, but since VH1 has already trotted out their “I Love the 90’s” series a couple of years ago, it seems they’re fair game for a little “remember when” encapsulation.
Music buying has come full circle since the 1950’s and early 60’s. Once again, thanks to iTunes, “singles” are the dominant format. Only instead of a flat ring of vinyl that spun at 45 revolutions per minute on a record player, we have audio files that can be downloaded at a buck or two a pop. Budget-friendly and hook-heavy, the single was – and now is again – the go-to. But for at least two generations, beginning in the mid-60’s, the album was primary format of music consumption. Which places the 1990’s in the final quarter or so of the “Album Era.”
Some albums are immortal. The Beatles’ Revolver. Led Zeppelin’s IV. Michael Jackson’s Thriller. U2’s The Joshua Tree. And they’re immortal as albums — that is, entire collections of songs, even if certain individual songs from the albums may not be up to scratch (anyone waxing rhapsodic over Thriller’s “The Lady in My Life” or Joshua Tree’s “Trip Through Your Wires”? Didn’t think so.) But as recently as ten or twelve years ago, the album was still the thing, and if you were interested in an artist, by God, you bought their album. Vinyl was (temporarily) dead, so singles existed in the form of “cassingles,” which were for twelve-year-old girls with lots of jelly bracelets, or “CD-singles” which were for no one. If a song or an artist interested you enough to want to own it, you tended to go with full commitment – shelling out fifteen bucks for a dozen or more songs. (Usually more than a dozen. Albums got longer in the CD era. Value for dollar aside, this was not always a good artistic decision.)
As someone who loved the antiquated ritual of going to a store, buying a CD, and racing home with it, I bought albums far more often than I should have without being too discriminating, so I am thus the owner of hundreds of CDs of 1990’s vintage. They currently fill a half-dozen apple boxes wedged deep in the back of my storage unit. (See pic at left.)
Some of them were not worth the polycarbonate plastic on which they were pressed and are not worthy of further attention (Hum’s You’d Prefer An Astronaut or Jawbreaker’s Dear You, anyone? Anyone?), some of them entered the pantheon of Classic Albums (Nirvana’s Nevermind, Radiohead’s The Bends), and others became the lost middle ground – and that’s the topic of our little visit today. These are albums that came out big, sold well, were reviewed well, and then…forgotten. I own a lot of these.
From the informal feedback I’ve received, it seems my loyal readership skews either a little older or a little younger than myself, so hopefully this will prove informative. Those of you who are pretty much my age will know what it’s like to be rooked for fifteen bucks for the Possum Dixon album (what a piece of shit.)
Our first entry in “Tales From The Apple Box” is the Rolling Stones’ 1994 album Voodoo Lounge. The Rolling Stones had been announcing themselves as “The Greatest Rock & Roll Band in the World” since 1969 (when the Beatles were conveniently breaking up). What began as a pretty ballsy statement of chutzpah has been argued with less and less as years turned into decades and the Stones showed no signs of slowing down. But we all know they stumbled badly in the 80’s – and even their 1989 “comeback” album Steel Wheels sounds hopelessly dated and a slave to the worst elements of 80’s production: heavily-processed drums, cheesy keyboards, unnecessary horn sections, etc.
After Steel Wheels and its subsequent world tour, the Stones went one of their increasingly-frequent hibernations. Original bassist Bill Wyman quit, Mick and Keith released well-regarded solo albums (both also now-forgotten), and when it was time for the Greatest Rock & Roll Band in the World to come back out of mothballs in ’94, they made the correct decision to stop chasing trendy sounds (a habit of theirs that’s both a blessing and a curse), and acknowledge the classic works of their past. Mind you, not by ripping their younger selves off and making an album of simple re-hashes, but by using modern techniques, a fresh perspective, and a new co-producer, Don Was, who favored leaner, simpler sounds to create an album reminiscent of the spirit of everything from 1966’s baroque Aftermath, through the balladry of 1971’s Sticky Fingers, all the way to the lazy, decadent funk of 1976’s Black And Blue.
“Love Is Strong” –This is a riff-heavy slow-burner, which rumbles along in low gear, driven by a cool harmonica lick, interlocking guitars (a Stones trademark), and Jagger’s sly, purring vocal. An obvious attempt to create a new “classic” single in the mold of “Satisfaction” or “Start Me Up,” it almost succeeds in that department. It definitely succeeds as a strong album-opener.
“You Got Me Rocking” – As simple as they come, this track rushes through its kinda dumb rough-draft lyrics to get to the chant-along chorus – a song designed to get an entire arena on its feet when performed in concert. No points for nuance, but that was not the intent. Again, crunchy guitars to the forefront of the mix.
“Sparks Will Fly” – Third riff-based rocker in a row – the Stones know their signature sound and aren’t afraid to rub your face in it. But the attentive listener will feel the pace picking up. “Love Is Strong” was heavy and lackadaisical, “You Got Me Rocking” was just a little beyond mid-tempo – but “Sparks Will Fly” finally pushes the pedal to the floor, and drummer Charlie Watts might actually be breaking a sweat. The lyrics are a leering, gleeful tribute to, um…a certain type of sexual congress that, um…involves certain anatomical areas…that are normally, uh…off-limits for the most part. If you get my drift. The song gets pretty damn explicit about it, so you’ll certainly get the song’s drift. Or thrust. Oogy lyrics aside, the sound is intense and infectious. (The main part of the riff is currently being used as the intro music on one of my favorite podcasts, The Mike O’Meara Show.)
“The Worst” – As “Sparks Will Fly” screeches to a close, the tempo winds way down, allowing the presumably sore and bow-legged listener to catch a breather, and Keith Richards takes his first lead vocal of the album. Basically a gentle acoustic country song, with some subtle Caribbean overtones, “The Worst” warns any potential mate that the singer is not good boyfriend material. Keith’s raspy voice has never wrapped very well around a melody, but he’s great at emoting and creating a mood.
“New Faces” – For the first time on the album, the Stones’ past sounds are not an underlying subtext, but emerge as an overt pastiche of the Aftermath era. “New Faces” blows the dust off the circa-1966 harpsichords and harmoniums and channels the ghost of Brian Jones to create an Elizabethan-sounding background to the tale of an older gentleman feeling threatened by his companion’s attraction to a younger man.
“Moon Is Up” – An interesting track, and truly unclassifiable. A ballad of sorts, but heavily percussive, with phased, watery guitars, shimmery vocals, and Watts’ “mystery drum” (later revealed to be an aluminum trashcan lid). I guess there’s touches of 80’s style blue-eyed soul mixed in there, but nothing in the Simply Red discography is this off-kilter.
“Out Of Tears” – The Big Ballad – every major rock band of the 80’s/90’s was expected to have one of these as their album’s centerpiece as a concession to the MTV audience, who gobbled them up like Skittles. Aerosmith came to specialize in them. Although no one would accuse “Out Of Tears” of being in any way subtle, it perfectly nails all the expected marks (soaring chorus, lyrics lamenting lost love) while being mercifully free of the ham-fisted power chords that made similar work by Aerosmith and Bon Jovi so grating. A great slide guitar solo by Ron Wood, too.
“I Go Wild” – Another pulsating, mid-tempo rock anthem designed to be played on tour. “You Got Me Rocking, Part 2.” Although Keith has always been the Stones’ resident Guitar Hero, second fiddle Ron Wood once again proves his worth with those tasty slide guitar parts that nestle so neatly against Keith’s churning chords.
“Brand New Car” – The real love-it-or-hate-it moment on the album. Jagger pushes the car-as-girl, driving-as-sex metaphor to almost comic extremes. (“Jack her up, baby, go on open her hood/I wanna check if her oil smells good/Mmmmm, smells like caviar.” Shame on you, Mick.) However you feel about the lyrics (c’mon, they’re actually pretty hilarious), they play out over one the meanest, funkiest, bottom-heavy grooves the band has ever laid down.
“Sweethearts Together” – A simple, sentimental love song with a very Euro/waltz flavor, playing out over mostly acoustic guitars, accordion, and possibly finger cymbals (!). Reminiscent of a relic from the earliest days of the Jagger-Richards songwriting partnership (think “Blue Turns To Grey” or “As Tears Go By”), it sounds like it would have ended up on the odds-and-ends collection Flowers from 1967. The words may be a little saccharine, but this is an impeccably arranged and produced track. It’s also nice to hear Mick and Keith sing together again, instead of relying on professional back-up singers to provide the harmonies as they had been doing recently.
“Suck On The Jugular” – Sweaty grindhouse funk of the Prince variety, with chugging wah-wah guitars, a reggae-tinged organ, squawking horns, some more X-rated lyrics, and Jagger wailing on harmonica in a way not heard since the days of “Midnight Rambler.” A second-half highlight.
“Blinded By Rainbows” – Voodoo Lounge’s first real misfire, an attempt at making a U2-style quasi-religious, socially-conscious anti-war song that’s so vague and muddled that even a pretty chorus and the usual stellar playing (including yet another awesome Wood solo) can’t really save it. Lyrics about Semtex bombs and severed limbs don’t really belong in a Stones song, but kudos (I guess) for trying something new.
“Baby, Break It Down” – For all the great guitar playing we’ve heard so far, Voodoo Lounge took until Track #13 to give us an insanely memorable, simple riff that could truly be described as a “hook.” This song is a good place to acknowledge the talents of new bassist Darryl Jones, whose prior work had mostly been in the jazz field. His playing was not as frisky and bubbly as Wyman’s (listen to Wyman’s bass on “Start Me Up” or even “Rock And A Hard Place” to see what I mean), but definitely took the Stones sound to darker and funkier territory.
“Thru And Thru” – As much as I love Keith, his second lead vocal on the album must stand as misfire #2. Meandering tunelessly for six minutes, Keith’s melody-free vocal compares his love to all-night fast food service. No thanks. Even the guitar-playing seems half-assed here.
“Mean Disposition” – The band closes out the album by going back to their earliest days as a scruffy R&B cover band working the London nightclubs of ’63 and ’64. “Mean Disposition” sounds like a lost Chuck Berry outtake from the heyday of Chess Records, complete with Berry’s trademark blues-meets-country guitar licks and Johnnie Johnson-style piano tinklings.
So it’s no Exile On Main St. It’s no Let It Bleed. Or even Some Girls. But it’s a damn sight better than the three hideous 80’s albums that preceded it, and the two that followed it. (The Stones returned to flavor-of-the-month trend-chasing with 1997’s Bridges To Babylon and its Dust Brothers techno production and drum loops. 2005’s A Bigger Bang was an improvement, but the Stones have been quiet since then.) And you know what? I think Voodoo Lounge is better than “classics” like Aftermath and Tattoo You. It’s certainly one of the best albums of 1994, it was the very first album to win the Best Rock Album Grammy Award (a new category that year – now known as the “Foo Fighters Award,” since they’ve won it three times, and seem to be the only mainstream rock band left in existence), and for that, Voodoo Loungedeserves to be remembered.