22 February, 2011

Album Review - Bush, Razorblade Suitcase

I’ve had enough conversations about music to finally put opinion down about it beyond a Twitter feed. So hopefully this will be the beginning of a weekly discussion of music, both in terms of personal impact and social impact, as well as a solid review of content. This week I start with one of the best barometers of taste out there: Bush’s much-maligned sophomore album Razorblade Suitcase.

All good stories should start with this: There was a girl, and we were good together, except when we were bad together. Often we would get into fights about things that don’t really matter in the grand scheme of real relationships, such as music, movies and games. However, this relationship was only based around these things, which meant that any shift away from total agreement led to a civil war between us. One of the first battles that was fought between us was based on her undying love of Razorblade Suitcase, a love I could and would never figure out. Since I was such a contrarian during our time together, I’d love to tick her off by claiming that the Bush record was the worst thing I’d ever heard. This would cause a horrendous falling-out with unnecessary yelling on both parts, at which point we would separate and vow to never do this again, only to fall into this shallow argument the next day.

That embarrassing story aside, it explains a lot about my relationship with this record, and this woman in hindsight. When based on the surface level pleasures of dating such a person, it seemed to be a pretty good combination. However, when I looked at this at a closer, deeper level, there was nothing really there. Such is my feeling of listening to Razorblade Suitcase; all the parts are there, and it should work on paper, but analyzing the record shows that there is so little substance to this album that it honestly amazes me that it was representative of alternative music in 1996. Then again, somehow that makes perfect sense as well.

So let’s see what should have worked: It was quite obvious that Gavin Rossdale, lead singer of Bush and alt-rock poster-boy, could get people talking about how much they hated him. This was because Rossdale represented everything that was wrong with music videos before Cobain and his ilk blew the pop-metal scene off MTV’s radar. He was pretty, his hair flowed in the right way, and when he sang girls paid attention to him. Add in the fact that every guy who once beat you up while listening to Guns N’Roses now was giving you swirlies while singing “Little Things,” doubling the torture you experienced. Bush had made it safe for poseurs to enjoy In Utero-styled music without needing to actually feel anything remotely deep. It didn’t matter whether teenagers actually knew or cared that they knew who Elvis was, because they could choose to believe that he wasn’t dead and that Mickey Mouse had grown up a cow (yikes).

Moreover, there was so much alt-rock-friendly posturing occurring within the production of the record. Moving the production away from the polished sheen of Sixteen Stone was needed if Bush was to be taken, y’know, seriously as artists. So who better to take over behind the boards then Steve Albini, respected minimalist producer of stark records such as the Pixies’ Surfer Rosa and Nirvana’s fanbase-shedding In Utero? But that’s not all: Even the album design was done by Vaughan Oliver, who also worked on Surfer Rosa. Look at the album cover above, and then look at the original Surfer Rosa interior artwork.  Subtle these boys ain't.

Putting all this together doesn’t take a rocket scientist, but that’s why Bush was successful in the first place. There’s a pretty lead singer with an admittedly great, gutteral voice; a bald man that can play that slide guitar as if he knows more than three chords; a bass player who’s so good he’s actually invisible until you realize that the band would suck if he weren’t there; and a drummer that knows when to hit the snare drum for maximum effect, as well as managing an eerie resemblance to Rossdale. Make no mistake, this was a manufactured band with a manufactured sound, calculated by producers and handlers to sound just like what the kids would term a “hot record.”

And you know what? It’d all be fantastic if the record wasn’t a total shambles of boring sounds without hooks.

Where to start? Not with the first track, “Personal Holloway,” which has a dog growling to try to scare people off from critical analysis. Unfortunately, like the lyrics to the music, there’s no bite to its bark, and the begging of somebody to “bleed life/breathe life” rings as hollow as the drum sound that Albini pulls . How about with the lead single “Swallowed?” It was easily the most requested song of 1996 on Z103-FM, the “alternative” station within my town. Albini’s production has pulled all the sheen from the guitars, leaving only an open wound when Rossdale’s pick scrapes across the strings, and the parts where the band is playing off each other represents a mastery of the slow-fast-slow-faster-fade out dynamics making up the grunge era. I especially love the beginning of the second verse. Here the bassist picks at his ascending riff while Rossdale sings and scratches at his guitar absently before launching back into the chorus. The musical combination is really potent, but it doesn’t matter at all because the lyrics make zero sense.

Warm sun, feed me up
I’m leery, loaded up
Loathing for a change
And I slip some, boil away

In the middle of a world
On a fishhook
You’re the wave, you’re the wave, you’re the wave

From the moment Rossdale plays his guitar, you can tell that these songs mean quite a bit to him, yet there’s nothing to explain why I’m caught in the set design for Waterworld. Quick, name me one lyric from this album that you carried with you throughout your high school years, or a phrase from the album that meant the world to you. You can’t, can you? That’s because those life-changing mantras don’t exist. (And before anyone attacks me with the comment that lyrics don’t matter at all, I concur completely. I’m a huge Oasis fan, but if I presented Noel Gallagher’s poetry to a gathering I’d be likely to hang myself in shame afterwards. Also, the less said about brother Liam’s “writing,” the better. Sample “Little James” lyric: “I’m singing this song/fer you and yer mum and the dog-uh”)

And the worst part is that the video of “Swallowed” highlights all the surface weirdness that is meant to cover up the banality of the lyrical non sequiters that pop up throughout the song. Ask yourself what a bunch of leather-clad geriatrics and a suffering pregnant girl have in common throughout this video. If music videos were supposed to offer an interpretation of the artist’s intentions with the song, then congratulations to the director for putting all the pointless imagery together with shots of Gavin Rossdale trying to look poignant. I don’t know what’s worse: that I’ve written over four hundred words about how the song is a vapid pleasure at best, or that it’s the best song on the album.

The other singles are also representative of the problem that comes with trying to be the voice of a jilted generation. “Cold Contagious” has the closest thing to a melody within the album, which is Rossdale’s cooed threat that “You will get yours.” “Greedy Fly” tries to coast on a Pixies-lite melody, with an unintentional reveal into Rossdale’s nonexistent lyrical thought process (“Make/up your mind/I need some help/to find this mind, mind, mind”); also, the less said about its video, the better.

And it took another electronic nineties remix record to make “Mouth” even halfway interesting, because at this point the song doesn’t have any teeth; the original version shows how the reductionist principle of Albini’s production had the opposite effect on Bush’s music. By keeping the production sound so spare, it tears away any chance that the listener won’t hear how precious and flimsy Rossdale’s music and start/stop tempo can be.  Don't believe me?  Listen to the different versions below.  The first is the catchy single that was released in time for An American Werewolf in Paris to bastardize a horror classic, and the second is pure dross that for whatever reason contains scrolling text of Rossdale's abhorrent crimes against the English language.

Finally, “Insect Kin” can’t hold anyone’s attention long enough to keep them listening. I’ve listened to these songs all week, and I couldn’t tell you one hook from them even if I tried.

Sadly, all the vitriol I’ve given to this record doesn’t even consider the fact that it is very top-heavy; the second half of the record will put you to sleep if you are driving through the flat Midwest because it never comes close to finding a hook in the subdued noise. “Communicator” is a narcoleptic track that relies too heavily on distortion and goes nowhere. “Bonedriven” is a rip-off of Bush’s own “Glycerine.”  “Straight No Chaser” does horrible things to a beautiful skeletal melody by injecting atonal violin noise into the middle of the song for no other reason than Albini fell asleep at the controls due to the boring nature of Rossdale’s lyrics. “History” sounds like an approximation of the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Zero,” but without an understanding of the dynamics and tension that band used so well during this same period.

Bush almost pulls it together for “Distant Voices,” which distinctly rips Nirvana off within its structure. Not coincidentally, this is also where the band sounds most inspired. At 2:52 into the song, Rossdale is singing “Shine!” while the band plays the main riff from Incesticide opener “Dive.” Go ahead and check both songs out, and just listen to how similar they are (listen to Nirvana first, and then go to Bush’s song at 2:52 into the track).

Rather interesting, right? Yet just when the band seems to be breaking into something worthwhile, Bush pulls the plug on what was the most interesting element of the piece, retreating back to the sonic malaise that was created for this record. Only fitting that right after this happens, Rossdale, sounding defeated by trying to be sincere, sings “Sooner or later, masturbate or lose.”

This is one of the true crimes of Razorblade Suitcase, and one of the reasons why this album hits so close to home for me. Just when things finally seemed to be pulling together with this relationship, hubris and mania were the elements that seemed to come into the coupling; things never stayed in focus long enough to form a coherent statement. This is the worst part of Razorblade Suitcase, and easily one of the most frustrating, constant sources of struggle for bands in the 90’s. It isn’t even all of the factors that I’ve mentioned, but rather that the potential for greatness was within the band’s grasp. Bush lost the plot at the worst possible time in their careers, and never really recovered. The closest they ever came to recapturing the zest and glory of those singles from Sixteen Stone was their last album with the original lineup, the wrongly ignored Golden State. Had the band issued this album instead, things might have gone differently for the group, and we wouldn’t be referring to Rossdale as Mr. Gwen Stefani.

So what happened? You know those twisted procedural shows from the turn of the century, such as Millenium? Early in those shows they would show images of shirtless guys with frosted hair and tribal tattoos smoking cigarettes and listening to music with scratchy vocals, chunky guitars, and tin drums to signify that these were bad dudes! Often that music was Bush, which became a stand-in for the implied musical preferences of crazy people. It’s not hard to pinpoint that influence: Just go to the 1996 film Fear starring Mark Wahlberg and Reese Weatherspoon to see where the producers of such fare would get an idea. “Comedown” and “Machinehead” were both featured prominently within those tracks to signal just how dangerous David McCall (Wahlberg) could be, as well as how rebellious and sexy his perversions could be; like the movie that featured these songs, the music of Bush was often that rare combination of unfocused and precise (lyrics and music, respectively). The potential for what Bush could represent was vast, and made a good tense picture for the tube.

And make no mistake, Bush’s music is sexy. Rossdale’s growl still sounds potent years later, and he’s backed by capable musicians (particularly that bassist!). If his intention was to make a decent-sounding racket, fine, mission accomplished. However, the band distinctly set themselves up to be the next Nirvana, with Rossdale keenly trying to take on the role of the voice of the jilted generation. But the most poignant statement he can make is “Hell is where the heart is”? Oh well, whatever, never mind. Maybe I’m not supposed to get it, and maybe it’s art, but it was never positioned to be anything less than the second coming of alternative nation, and in that regard Razorblade Suitcase fails in every conceivable way.

So next week I’ll be making a complete turn and going to one of my favorite albums of all time. Not surprisingly, it’s another sophomore album, but this band improved leaps and bounds upon the blueprint that was laid out on their first record. Next week it’ll be the Get Up Kids classic Something to Write Home About, which has the distinction of being the only record that’s probably more important to me today than it was when I was sixteen.


Justin said...

ok, moody. i see your point. however, i think you are missing yours.

what is alt-grunge-90s rock? is it not more of an escape that more often than not makes no fucking sense in the first place? is it not something to blast through your speakers to piss your parents off because they will never understand the way you feel? is it not something that, when listened to, puts you in the mood to break something, even if you were having a walt disney world type of day?

by those accounts, razorblade suitcase is a fantastic record. now before you cast me out with the soddomites, let me reiterate my opinion that the record itself is fantastic in its own right. i, however, am not a fan. i prefer a record that places its lyrics as the foundation. fuck the music, three chords are good enough. what is the song saying to me? this is why alt-rock isn't that much of a staple for me unless i want to be pissed off for no reason. it has its place, just not on a regular rotation. and speaking of lyrics, 'a mosquito, my libido,' is in the same vein as, 'on a fishhook, you're the wave.'

you say bush was primed to be the next nirvana. as whose appointing? who says bush ever wanted to be that? (they obviously did, everyone did. but for arguments sake, let's say they didn't). i would say when the group was formed, it wasn't on the basis of being bigger than nirvana. at some point, there had to be a focus on making their own music, the way they wanted to. while they came up short, they sure as shit came close. they are technically solid and with rossdale's prowess as a lead man and his voice, bush could have taken over the world.

so why didn't they? could it have been the ridiculous influx of like-minded, like-sounding, like-everything bands of the 90s? probably. or was it the fact no one could live up to kurt cobain so what's the fucking point? a few got a glimpse of what it would be like, maybe none closer than bush. but they, unfortunately, they didn't have enough of their 'own sound' to sustain.

did razorblade suitcase put me in a bad mood? did it make me want to rebel against anything i saw in front of me? did it make me want to swallow glass so maybe my throat would sound as gnarled as gavin rossdale's? yes, yes, and yes. in my book, razorbalde suitcase is exactly what it was meant to be - an offering of 90s rock glory. complete with ludicrous lyrics. but who cares if the lyrics make no sense, neither does anarchy. that's the point.


Eric Lahm said...

I am extremely frustrated right now because I wrote a long and witty response to this piece and Jake's response, however my internet ate it, and now I don't have the energy to re-type all that bull shit. so I'll sum it up.

I sort of agree with both of you. I think this album is both a turd and a success at the same time. In reality it's a turd, but it so well sums up that era (at least in the mainstream) that I'm fairly nostalgic about the sound. In the meantime, I'm left with the desire to go throw on my roller blades (grinding kit and all), pull on my Jinco Jeans, build a sweet ramp, and act like the suburban bad ass white kid that I am.

"I don’t know what’s worse: that I’ve written over four hundred words about how the song is a vapid pleasure at best, or that it’s the best song on the album." (I laughed my ass off at this)

Chris said...

Sigh, I wish I had more to offer up rather than the whole, “it takes me back to a simpler time and that makes me happy” defense of Razor Blade Suitcase. Actually, I only want to defend Swallowed because the rest of the album is pretty terrible. I always enjoyed Swallowed, it’s is one of my many middle school anthems. It’s didn’t hold a higher position in the musical court of Chris Baldwin circa 95-97 as say, Lakini's Juice ( BTW Kyle, if you ever going to review a LIVE album, make it Secret Samadhi, and not Throwing Copper as everyone loves and has already said everything there is to say about Throwing Copper!) Desperately Wanting, or anything Oasis produced in this time Period. I was in 8th grade when it came out, reading The Shining for the first time, (yes all pop culture connects back to Stephen King in someone way for me) it was around Christmas time when it started playing on the radio, and I was about to get an N64. The Shining and Nintendo 64 have nothing to do with that song but that’s what I think of when I hear Swallowed. The song makes me think of anticipation, of Jack and Danny Torrance, and about growing up and discovering cooler, “edgier” things. So does nostalgia have any weight in artistic criticism? Isn’t a song a success if it makes you feel something good or bad? And conversely, isn’t the worst kind of music something that makes you feel nothing? Could we say the same for any work of art in any medium? Ah, another debate for another day. On a technical level, I agree with Kyle, the lyrics are god awful, and nonsensical. The music is only slightly better, I do love the throbbing guitar in the chorus and the slow build up to it, but it could have been from any similar band of that period. There is nothing distinctive about it. Look, I’m by no means a Music expert, I love music, but I don’t play an instrument or write music, I have a different kind of appreciation for it. I can recognize why some music is better than other music, but only to an extent. I certainly could not dissect any album at the sub atomic level like Kyle has so expertly done here. He explained all the reasons why I should not like this song, and he did it with confidence and insight, but at the end of the day I’ve still got a soft spot for Swallowed. I am a singles whore. What can I say?

Eric Lahm said...

one last critique I have of this blog in it's infancy... I'm a fan of the background image, but can you make the color block behind the text solid? For some reason all this makes the text give me a migraine....