0405: “Sleep on the Left Side” by Cornershop

Cornershop scored a cult hit here in the States in 1997 with “Brimful of Asha,” a brilliant and catchy little number that meshed the band’s Middle Eastern flavor of Britpop and electronic music. “Brimful of Asha” is the second track on When I Was Born for the 7th Time and it is legitimately terrific; that guitar hook is as catchy today as it was twenty years ago. It is the opening track, “Sleep on the Left Side,” though, that is the crown jewel of the album. It’s starts with a brief accordion played in a French melody before shifting to a bass-heavy beat that is mellow, to the point of sounding like the auditory equivalent of dispensary quality weed. But weed analogies aside, “Sleep on the Left Side” is a jaw-dropping track that mixes psychedelia with modern production polish. Samples of flutes whir by airily and keyboards sound like they’ve been played backward in such a way that the song sounds newer while also capturing the essence of the late ’60s. This song, with its creative textures and dreamlike lyrics, could have appeared on Sgt. Pepper’s. I can absolutely imagine Lennon or Harrison singing “Sleep on the left side/Leave the right side free/Hope gets salted/As those around you leave.” Some people may hear this track as an oddity not worth revisiting, but to me this is music joy. One of the best songs from the ’90s that you probably have never heard.

0317: “Time For Livin'” by Beastie Boys

In 1986, as rap had begun moving from Brooklyn to Manhattan to mainstream America, the Beastie Boys landed on the scene with Licensed to Ill. It was fueled primarily by the rock-rap anthem “Fight For Your Right,” which encapsulated producer Rick Rubin’s musical worldview to a tee: a guy who was absorbed by rap and hip hop, and who also produced Slayer’s landmark debut album. “Fight For Your Right” was the perfect sophomoric track that could connect a white suburban audience with a black genre. On the surface it looked like the Beasties were going to be a white novelty trying to cash in on black art but three years later they teamed up with the Dust Brothers instead of Rubin and dropped the seminal album Paul’s Boutique, a sprawling masterpiece that expanded the boundaries of sampling, and added more sophomore humor peppered with random Hawthorne Wingo references. Hip hop icons such as Rakim and Chuck D were blown away by what these dudes were doing; these weren’t just three dorks with a hot video on MTV. Three years later the Beasties released Check Your Head which added a layer of heaviness (the West Coast sound was becoming mainstreamed too) but still kept the odd sampling and ironic prowess. Almost exactly in the middle of Check Your Head is a cover of Sly and The Family Stone’s “Time For Livin'”—the only cover they ever did on a studio album. Their version is half the time of the original and instead of trying to capture Sly’s soulfulness they, uh, went the polar opposite route and made it into a kind of garage thrash rendition. The biggest departure that Check Your Head represents from their previous two albums was that it included instrumental tracks and tracks where the Beasties are playing instruments instead of relying on sampling. Their version of “Time For Livin'” is unlike most of their catalog: raw, loud, and kinda punk. The Beasties had a little chameleon in them, which endeared them to the casual fan and the professionals, which made them more than just three white dudes trying to rap and get on MTV. “Time For Livin'” is one of the best rock songs of the ’90s.

0315: “Motoroller Scalatron” by Stereolab

Stereolab’s brand of Moog-powered Kraut rock lounge music(?) establishes a like/dislike demarcation point right off the bat. There’s really no kind of liking this band. Their sound, Laetitia Sadier’s French-accented and very poppy vocals, and their lyrics of a socialist bent force your hand into a quick decision. Stereolab, for all their gifts of making catchy, quirky little pop songs,[1] have never made one that broke through to even a brief mainstream flirtation. True, Stereolab tries to stay fiercely independent but even Sonic Youth had an accidental minor hit with “Bull In the Heather.” “Motoroller Scalatron” starts out like an old Kraftwerk track with its whizzing and oscillating murmurs, setting you up for an 8-bit bleep-bloop oddity. Instead, a full-bodied oddity arrives—a track that, in the wrong hands, would sound like it was pressed in a kitsch factory, but is in fact made by a group that is genuinely inspired by trying to modernize pop lounge music. It doesn’t always work but when it does it is some of the most entertainingly weird music, as you would expect from a group of avant-garde political theorists.

[1] Though they do indulge in longform explorations from time to time.

0310: “Hey Jack Kerouac” by 10,000 Maniacs

There was a span of time when I was nineteen where I was rather depressed. Seemingly everything around me was changing—friends splintering different ways, aimlessness of my job and direction of my life and schooling—and I didn’t handle it particularly well. I slept a lot, withdrew from just about everyone, and generally just went through the motions day-in day-out with the energy of a tranquilized cow. But during the beginning of this span of time I tried to surround myself with people and places. I hung out with co-workers after clocking out and hung out with people I went to school with but what I eventually discovered was the age-old cliché that being in a room with people is sometimes the loneliest place to be. What I found to be helpful was, counterintuitively, to be completely alone, to go straight home after work and smoke pot in my room after midnight and listen to music and to sometimes play Madden ’96 and NHL ’95 on Super Nintendo (okay, more than sometimes).

I’ve always been a lightweight when it comes to weed so I never had to smoke much to get high. I’d sit in my room high and listen to music and play games, or paint or draw, or flip through some oversized Andy Warhol or photography books, or make mixed tapes (I had two 6-disc CD players, dual cassette deck, an equalizer, and a mixer). The albums that I listened to the most during this time were Astral Weeks by Van Morrison, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn by Pink Floyd, The Name of This Band is Talking Heads by Talking Heads, Exile on Main Street by The Rolling Stones, all four Velvet Underground studio albums, Surrealistic Pillow by Jefferson Airplane, and MTV Unplugged by 10,000 Maniacs.

Sometimes, I’d go to the record store and scour the used CD section and one day I found the 10,000 Maniacs Unplugged disc for I’m guessing $2.50 and I think I grabbed it for two reasons: money burned through my wallet when I was inside record stores, and I think I just filed it away for a future listen. I was never really a big fan of them but I figured what the hell. The disc probably gathered dust for about a year and then one day I was looking for something to play while I was painting and I threw it in, and I fell in love with it almost immediately. It’s a good balance of their hit singles and the best of their deep cuts (with an instant classic cover of “Because the Night” too), and also the recording quality is great which is a good thing to have with a live album. There was something very comforting about Natalie Merchant’s voice while I was in my room alone; her short story style of songwriting and her everywoman kind of voice found me at the right time. This disc just sat on an unused shelf until it was played nearly every day. There’s a timing with art sometimes.

You would think that as a college-aged guy smoking weed alone in his room that I would’ve had some thoughts or insights about Jack Kerouac, but he never really appealed to me. I got what he was doing and I get why people dig him but he was never my cup of tea—kind of like how Bob Dylan isn’t a lot of people’s cup of tea. Natalie Merchant, for nearly four minutes every time I hear this song, makes me care about Jack Kerouac and his orbit of people. One of my favorite lyrics from “Hey Jack Kerouac,” because it’s just a great simile, is when Merchant sings the following about William S. Burroughs (or Bill Cannastra, I’m not 100% sure): “Billy, what a saint they made you/You’re just like Mary down in Mexico on All Soul’s Day.” This song is all about build-up, as it starts right into the melody from the get-go with a kind adult contemporary version of a stomp and its skating organ weaving in and out the whole time and ends with Merchant singing “What a tear-stained shock of the world/You’ve gone away without saying/Saying goodbye.” “What a tear-stained” is sung softly and pauses before the rest of the lyrics are sung with sustained away-way’s and stretched out say-ay-ay-ay-ay-ings. The way these lyrics are sung isn’t fundamentally arresting or an example of technical perfection because that’s not who Natalie Merchant is. She doesn’t wow you with virtuosity; instead, she gets you to into these little worlds and stories in her own way. All those years ago, sitting in my room, all her words and the music it was set to made sense to me. This performance turned out to be the band’s swan song. Merchant left the band shortly before its release. The album has sad songs about cruel injustices and broken love followed up with up some happier numbers that nonetheless feel cloaked in doubt. This album was a goodbye—a safe goodbye, but one nonetheless. It fit perfectly with where I was at the time as a background soundtrack to trying to figure out where to go and what to do to get out of my depressive rut. I still listen to this album every now and then. “Hey Jack Kerouac” is still one of my favorite live songs to listen to. When I listen to the album as I have gotten older I can’t help but laugh a little when I think of sitting in my room because the me of then had no idea that that time back then was pretty easy all things considered, but I suppose we all feel like things are never going to get better and some art, in whatever form, helps pull us out of our heads even in little increments.

0301: “Blue Lines” by Massive Attack

[In which we skip hip data to get the anti-matter…]

There is really no other way to put this: Blue Lines, the debut album by Massive Attack, is the coolest album I’ve ever heard. The word “cool” gets ascribed to music a lot but for me cool has always been used as a modifier for an artist’s image or their music videos—everything but the actual music. The actual music of an artist or song I like more times than not will elicit greats, awesomes, outstandings, iconics, instant classics; a trip to the thesaurus is usually in order. Blue Lines is every ounce of the word masterpiece and every synonym of great, and it’s also just so fucking cool. Like Lee Morgan’s trumpet in “Blue Train” level cool. This album represents the zenith of the short-lived genre of trip hop, a genre born in the U.K. (specifically Bristol, in England) that combined experimental elements that could never really fit the traditional mold of hip hop. “Blue Lines” has a beat that feels like what some American hip hop would eventually sound like a few years later but also the way that Tricky, 3D, and Daddy G rotate vocals can sound extremely unique to American ears, not simply because all three are British but because the entire space and borders of the song have room to breathe. Every note and syllable are perfectly placed and has weight and no single thing is wasted. The whole album is like this: nine tracks of otherworldly music with subtle samples and spot-on rhythms and perfectly matched vocals to complete the whole (every track with Shara Nelson singing is a damn show-stopper), a gem of an album from across the world from a scene unlike anything that was happening in the States at the same time, an album created by some kids confident in their creativity. Trip hop may have never caught on and Blue Lines may not have created a sizable footprint in the U.S. but it is a bona fide masterpiece—a piece of art that is inspired by everything from Pink Floyd to Isaac Hayes and comes out sounding like the coolest jazz album ever made, an album that will make you move your feet but move your head even more.

0203: “Burning Wheel” by Primal Scream

“The music in the film is hippy music, so we thought, ‘Why not record some music that really reflects the mood of the film?’ It’s always been a favorite of the band, we love the air of paranoia and speed-freak righteousness. It’s impossible to get hold of now, which is great! It’s a pure underground film, rammed with claustrophobia.” — Bobby Gillespie, 1997 interview, New Music Express

For all of the attributes of mind exploration, spiritual journey, airiness, and overall soundscape qualities that psychedelic music can contain, there is, like hallucinogenics, an element of paranoia always hiding somewhere in waiting. Vanishing Point, Primal Scream’s fifth album is based off of the 1971 film of the same name. The bulk of the album tries to mirror the paranoia and the heaviness of the film and it does so with admirable skill in that it works as both a nice tribute to the movie, and as a standalone composition if you are unaware of the origin of its influence. “Burning Wheel” is the opening track on the album and its introduction is of a more dictionary definition of psychedelic: higher energy, lots of little whirs and textures added, airy-sounding vocals; the good LSD without the paranoia. This is a track made by people who seemed to have had a young ear for The Piper at the Gates of Dawn and Their Satanic Majesties Request but were equipped more bells and whistles and a “Madchester” aesthetic to boot. At a hair over 7 minutes long “Burning Wheel” traverses the final act of the first psychedelic era in a snakelike way to build the bridge to the album’s ultimate darkness and heaviness. Primal Scream’s catalog is pretty wild and varied (befitting of a band who paid homage to an obscure film) and this is one of the best songs from it.

[Editor’s note: below is the full playlist of hour two.]

0201: “Djed” by Tortoise

[Let’s go away for awhile. Almost exactly twenty one minutes in fact…]

When I was growing up, the Chicago Tribune had a section called Tempo. It was kind of a hodge-podge of (mostly local) entertainment info and profiles if my memory serves me right. I think the crossword puzzle and Dave Barry’s articles were in there too. Anyway, before the Internet the Tempo section made up a part of the overall pie chart of how I discovered new music—the radio, my friends, overheard conversations of people I didn’t know who were talking about a new band, the guy who worked at my neighborhood record store who oddly looked a little like Roger Clemens, and MTV were the other pieces of the pie chart. In 1996 there was a write-up about a few Chicago bands that were labeled by the Tempo writer as being post-rock. Tortoise was one of the bands and there was a glowing review of their sophomore album Millions Now Living Will Never Die included as well. So I went to my local record store and Roger Clemens Look-a-like ordered it for me.

“Djed” is the opening track on the album and while the term “post-rock” wasn’t something I thought of when I first listened to it, but at a hair under twenty one minutes long and being an instrumental song comprised of multiple sections (mirroring the Djed in Egyptian mythology) with nary an overreaching electric or acoustic guitar to be found, I was definitely mesmerized by it and found it to be unique. Though the song is anchored by a bass guitar, it’s all of the melodic flourishes that make it such a virtuoso recording: the xylophones, the keyboards, the little electronic and production textures that sound like a whistling fly rod or a wind tunnel and missile sounds or dreamlike scratching or like the song is melting that make it so captivating. It’s a longform song that patiently conveys an abstract story that gets its name from the spine of Osiris, on an album named after a phrase used by the Jehovah’s Witnesses about a century ago. “Djed” is a track that is the dictionary definition of the word soundscape, an otherworldly instrumental that can transport one to places not heard outside of some of the best works in Brian Eno’s catalog.