The Silence Kit | Alternative
Indie rock, Alternative rock, Modern Rock, College Rock, the list goes on. There is a lot of overlap here, but generally speaking, its considered to be a bit more experimental, and a bit less conventional that standard fare "rock" or "pop" music. There's a good amount of the original alternative rock bands here, and its probably worth pointing out that, in addition to influenced The Silence Kit, they also influenced a lot of the later-day bands, some mentioned here, some not.
College Rock & The Birth of Alternative Rock
Lloyd Cole and the Commotions is "college rock" band in the truest sense of the term. Their first album "Rattlesnakes" is smart, jangly, and so overflowing with pop culture references a college professor could teach a course based solely on this album. And if they did, they'd get through only about 1/2 of the material in a semester. Each song on “Rattlesnakes” is melodic, clean, articulate and precise, and it’s pretty widely recognized as a college rock classic. "Four Flights Up" and "Forest Fire" are two of my favorites from this one, but each song is pretty spectacular. Sadly, most people, including the band members themselves, dismiss their second album too quickly in my opinion. I find myself listening to that second album more often than their first, in fact. “Easy Pieces” was produced by the team that were doing Smiths and Madness albums at the time and their presence is felt here. Gone are the stripped down, lean arrangements of the first album, in favor of full-blown productions. Strings, violins and keys provide counter melodies to every song, and each song’s lyrics detail a short narrative of its own, reminding me of something along the lines of J.D. Salinger’s short story character-studies "Nine Stories." I also get a feeling that the Jack Nicholson film ‘Five Easy Pieces’ played a part in influencing this album - "Why I Listen to Country Music" especially. There are some dated production techniques in the album – particularly the drum machines and backing vocals. But, they’re pretty easy to put into context and look past, because the material, and the arrangements for the most part, are of such quality. "Perfect Blue," "Long Weekend" and the b-side In short, you can’t go wrong with either album, but since most people prefer the first, it is the only Commotions album still in print. “Easy Pieces” makes a good find in a used bin somewhere.
American Music Club. My friend James in Apple of Discord got me into American Music Club, but before he played them for me he warned me, “they aren’t the easiest band to get into.” And this is true. Their catalog, and to take it even further, almost every ALBUM they put out is laughably, maddeningly inconsistent. It seemed they took on new genres and new combinations of genres for each song, as a challenge to themselves. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. But underneath it all was Mark Eitzel’s heartbreaking, confessional lyrics and self-aware, cynical wisdom. "Everclear" is my favorite album and the songs "Sick of Food" and "Ex-Girlfriend" are proof positive that the band was capable of reaching new heights in expressing emotion, within the confines of a more-or-less straightforward rock song.
R.E.M. Back when I was in high school, my older brother and I were playing music for each other, and he took out some records to play for me (yes, RECORDS). One was “Blizzard of Oz” by Ozzy Ozbourne (he only played this due to my insistence after catching a glimpse of it), and the next was “Fables of the Reconstruction” by R.E.M. Before he put it on I told him, “Oh yeah, I like R.E.M. Losing My Religion, and the Automatic for the People album…” And he said, “This is their best album. They should have stopped after this one.” He put it on and I was mesmerized. The album sounds like nothing I’d ever heard. Listening to it now, I guess it sounds a bit like a darker, less polished version of what the band turned into. And I’ve read that the making of this particular album was a particularly arduous and hellish experience, resulting in incredible band tension, frustration at the label, the producer Joe Boyd, and more. One listen to the first song, “Feeling Gravity’s Pull” and you’ll feel that tension. And you’ll also find yourself checking to make sure that the album you just put on is really R.E.M. That’s how different it sounds. Instead of Peter Buck’s typical jangle, the song is based around a dark, twisting guitar lead that seems completely foreign to anything you’ve ever associated with the band that brought you ‘Losing My Religion,’ ‘Stand’ and ‘Shiny Happy People.’ The mood is omnipresent and the tension rarely lets up, even during the pop songs, which have an underlying creepiness to them that you can’t quite place. The faux-funk, saxophone-soured “Can’t Get There From Here” is the one weak point (and of course, was chosen as a single). But along with opener “Feeling Gravity’s Pull,” other songs like “Driver 8,” “Maps and Legends” and Old Man Kensey” are all high points in the album, and the band’s career. My brother was half-right. I agree that this is their best album, but if they had stopped before “Out of Time” and “Automatic for the People” we all would have lost out on some amazing songs…
Concrete Blonde was actually named by Michael Stipe (R.E.M.), who was apparently friends with the band, from their early days. “Bloodletting” by Concrete Blonde is one of the first full length CDs I ever bought. Not easily classifiable, but whatever it is, it’s amazing. The guitar sound, the heavily reverbed drums and multitracked guitar solos and vocals all make this one dynamic, layered, melodic rock masterpiece. Johnette’s voice is at its raspy, heartfelt best, and the songs are eclectic and work great together. The guitar player James Mankey is one of my favorite guitar players, and he’s at his peak on this one. The band’s previous album “Free” is another favorite of mine, and each of their other albums have good songs on them, but if I had to choose just one, I’d go with “Bloodletting” every time.
Alternative Rock from the 80s-today
Radiohead is probably the band I've seen live most often. The first time I saw them, they were playing the Trocadero in Philadelphia, in support of “The Bends.” I had no idea what I was in for, and I still remember how overwhelmed I felt that night, listening to the band tear through versions of “Black Star,” “My Iron Lung” and “Bulletproof” and even hearing “Lucky” for the first time. When OK Computer came out I was working in a record store and I got an advanced copy on cassette a month or so before the album was released. I put it in my car’s tape deck and let it play all month, just letting it flip over continually. It took a bit of listening to absorb it all and once I did, I was sure of two things: it was my favorite album, and “no one else is going to like this at ALL.” That’s kind of funny in retrospect. I saw them in support of that one, at the Electric Factory and it was another religious experience. Mindblowing. My friend Dennis and I drove to VA to see them on their Amnesiac outdoor-venue tour and after a couple hours of getting rained on, the promoters decided the show was cancelled. We had to wait to see them make up the show in northern NJ, and it was the best show yet. Somehow, all that fresh air, the breeze, and backdrop and all only added to the experience, and helped make this my favorite Radiohead show.
Mazzy Star. From the moment I put on Mazzy Star, I feel like I’m somewhere else entirely. The “So Tonight We Might Sleep” album and its follow up “Among My Swan” are both incredible, otherworldly landmarks in neo-psychedelia and alternative rock. These albums made me realize once and for all that context is everything. Basic blues chord progressions, slide guitar, massive reverb, shakers, droning feedback, and organ can be beautiful, beautiful things in just the right amounts. And the Love cover? I’m sure it’d be hard for him to admit, but I can’t imagine Arthur Lee ever thought his song (“Five String Serenade”) could be so perfect.
Sonic Youth had been creating their updated brand of noise-meets-melody for over a decade when the band put a good word in for a band called Nirvana at DGC. And by the time the dust settled, they'd launched alternative music onto the masses. Terms like "Punk," "Indie Rock," "Alternative Rock" and "Grunge Rock" were getting thrown around everywhere. Sonic Youth couldn’t have known it then, but "Dirty" was the perfect album for the band to release at the time, since it was heavily influenced by the so-called "grunge" bands like Nirvana that were originally influenced by them, and that was all the rage at the time. Only difference was, Sonic Youth weren’t playing 3 or 4 chord songs. They were playing monstrous, beautiful, sprawling epics, with caterwauling, cascading feedback and noise, shimmering textures and melodies galore. This is the album where it all came together, and with Butch Vig behind the board for the second time, the production finally gave it all the clarity and ambience it needed to really captivate listeners. Also recommended: the band’s previous album "Goo," and the one right before that "Daydream Nation," which are both landmark albums in their own right. Once you’ve got all those, check out "Evol" and "Sister," which are classics from their earlier days.
Nirvana changed my life. No band ever commanded my attention until I found Nirvana. There is Before I Saw Nirvana on SNL and After I Saw Nirvana on SNL. I bought a guitar because of Nirvana, and the first songs I learned to play were Nirvana songs. I got into punk rock and indie rock because of Nirvana, and more specifically, because of Kurt Cobain. There isn't a description, or anything historical to write about Nirvana that hasn't already been written a trillion times, so I won't bother with that. But "Nevermind" connected with me in a way that only a few albums ever have. And it was the first to do so. I tracked down a copy of "Bleach" afterward (it was hard to find at the time, believe it or not), and started trading bootleg tapes on Prodigy (pre-Internet) to get, concert tapes from Amsterdam, Belgium, Seattle, Philadelphia and more, but also 3rd-generation dubs of songs like "Hairspray Queen," "D-7," "Aneurysm" and "Token Eastern Song" before they (or some of them) were finally released a year or so later on "Incesticide." In this way, I got to hear material from "In Utero" well in advance of the release date, by trading for a copy of their bootleg from '93, shortly before the album was released, where they debuted a lot of the new songs live for the first time - the Bosnian Rape Benefit in San Francisco. "In Utero" is brilliant, although I think parts of it were overcompensation - All Apologies and Pennyroyal Tea were clearly better as acoustic songs, and the overamped dynamics on the In Utero album didn't do anything to make them better. I prefer the 'Unplugged' versions of those. But "Milk It" has my favorite guitar solo ever and it, along with "Radio Friendly Unit Shifter," and probably 4 or so other songs from this one are some of my favorite Nirvana songs. They were a weird band, though, and I love how weird they are, and that's probably why "Incesticide" is, in a lot of ways, one of the best representatives of their sound and spirit, as far as I'm concerned.
The Violent Femmes
Indie Rock in the 90s-today
Slowdive is a band that The Silence Kit’s old guitar player Nick Franklin got me into, and every time I listen to them, I feel a need to call him up and thank him again for that. He’s gotten me into some great music over the years, and this is right up near the top of the list. It reminds me a bit of Mazzy Star, although they sound pretty much nothing alike. I think it’s that woozy feeling both bands give me. Their first album is great, but their second, “Souvlaki,” is my album of choice. The album has a lot of phaser, delay and reverb, a lot of textures and layers, and a really amazing set of songs to keep your head swimming right through to the end. Slowdive is usually called "shoegaze" and are generally not as highly regarded as My Bloody Valentine, but I actually prefer Slowdive because I feel like they are more song-based, where MBV always seemed more sound-based.
Fugazi was spawned from the ashes of Minor Threat and Rites of Spring, and they quickly became known for their community activism, five-dollar shows, ten-dollar CDs, refusal to sign to a major-label, and their ability to get things done in a grass roots, DIY way, in place of more mainstream methods. But - and this is the important thing - they wrote incredible, passionate post-hardcore music, that was cathartic, melodic, inventive and inspiring. Everything from their earliest "13 Songs" through their last, "The Argument," showed a graceful maturity and mastery of their talents. There are many sides to Fugazi's sound, and "Repeater" is the first album I bought, so it will always have a special place in my heart, but "Steady Diet of Nothing," "In On the Killtaker" through "Red Medicine" is probably my favorite 3-album era.
Chokebore was a band from the 90s who toured with Nirvana, the Butthole Surfers, and more. Apparently they were received really well in France, where they recorded some of their best work. Their second album “Anything Near Water” is a mixed bag of an album, full of great songs. The band is hyper-dynamic, going from soft, twinkling guitar parts to loud full-on, raving rock at the drop of a pin, mid-verse, mid-line at times. Led by singer Troy Von Balthaazar’s inimitable delivery, and cryptic but compellingly visual lyrics, Chokebore went on to record their follow up “A Taste for Bitters” in France, where the slowest, saddest song reportedly became a radio hit. The next release “Black, Black” fully embraced this sound. Everything (except one song) slowed to an absolute crawl, with their sense of absolute dynamics still intact, but bringing a heightened use of melody (albeit, the saddest melodies around) to this album. The one song I mentioned earlier is “Alaska” which is probably the fastest song the band ever recorded; it’s absolutely seething. When listening to an album this slow, at song #9, it’s the catharsis you expected early on and then decided wasn’t coming, so when it finally appears, it just about knocks you over, and the impressionistic lyrics are difficult to interpret but you can be certain they are grappling with something very serious, very urgent. The album is a haunted house full of guilt, repression and depression. And it’s burning down around you. Check out the song “Valentine” to get a good idea of what to expect.
Milkmoney is a band from Boston, MA that I stumbled upon when looking through the 2-for-$5 Used bin at a local record store, back in the late 90s. Their album is called "Wheelie" and it spoke to me in a way that not many albums ever have. They were a three piece, slowcore, indie rock band with a girl singer/bass player, and their songs are as stark as can be. The slowly arpeggiated guitar and drums lead the way most of the album, and the singer sings softly and sweetly but gradually goes raspy and sometimes shouty and then back again in the course of a song. It always feels natural, and there are even some "hooks" in there, although you have to listen a few times to really find them. The lyrics are stark and a bit minimalist as well, but certain lines have stayed with me for years, because of a little something called sincerity, which is hard to find & harder still to explain, but when you hear it, you know it. The songs are pretty long, they flow freely, one instrument drops out, the songs deconstruct a bit and then build themselves back up again, and you can't do that in under 5 minutes typically. And again, it's Slow music for the most part. So, you have to be in the mood for it when you go to put it on. When I'm in this particular mood, nothing else comes close, nothing else with suffice.
I Love You But I've Chosen Darkness
Early Day Miners is another band that The Silence Kit has had the pleasure of playing a show with. "Offshore" is the album that got me into them and was the album they were supporting when we played with them. I've since gotten into their earlier albums as well, but "Offshore" is a great introduction to the band, in my opinion. The album somehow combines the mood of late Talk Talk with the tribal drums and primitive feel of post punk ala Joy Division and Pornography-era Cure, while still almost falling into the genre of alt-country at times. It's a beautiful album, front to back. Reviews I'd read of it didn't do it justice, for certain. After this album, they did an album that I really didn't like, honestly. They seemed to be going into more of a pop-influenced direction, and although it worked, it really wasn't my cup of tea. Nick knew I was let down by this last album so when he discovered their most recent release and found that it was more of a return to their Offshore sound, he actually bought me a copy, and it is something I've been listening to constantly ever since. It picks up right where Offshore left off. There are a couple songs where they follow through on their more pop-oriented slant on their sound and it works nicely, but the majority of the songs build off of the foundation set up in "Offshore." Oh, and for some reason (and this confounds me) they decided to change their name to EDM for this release. When we played with them at The Khyber in Philadephia, we got the chance to talk to the band and the singer in particular had a lot of nice things to say about our set, which meant a lot to me.
Sunny Day Real Estate released "Diary" and the so-called 'pink album' or "LP2" on Sub Pop Records in the 90s, and inadvertantly changed a million lives. Both of these albums are brilliant, and are a culmination of things that seem inevitable, and simple, but are so much more than the sum of their parts. Pretty, chiming, clean guitar parts for the verses, that give way to big distorted choruses, but the background vocals by guitarist Dan Hoerner added much more to their sound than he was ever properly credited. He was the original singer of the band before Jeremy joined, and he adds a layer to the sound of those albums that is missing from the later SDRE albums, which don't have Dan singing backup. "Diary" and "LP2" was the sound of an emotional hardcore (as in Rites of Spring) band with a singer who had a great voice and a surprising range, and a guitar player who could actually play really melodic, intricate leads, and a rhythm section that absolutely Killed. When the band broke up, plenty of bands rose up to try and fill the void, but none had the sound quite right, because they were trying too hard.