THE WOOF 200 FOR 1993
We’re officially into the part of the countdown where I get to each progressive song and think, “How can I have this so low on the countdown?!” only to have my question answered with the songs that follow it. Landing in the 90’s feels like a letdown for such great tunes, but then I realize that I started with 600 and perspective makes it all a little better. Yeah, it’s all good from here on out.
New York sleaze rock merchants Spread Eagle first hit my radar with their 1990 debut and the killer “Switchblade Serenade” track. Like every other act of that scene their 1993 follow-up died an instant death thanks to the loss of MTV and radio interest. More the pity, since Open To The Public was an excellent album that was among the best of the genre even if nobody heard it. This is about as close to a ballad as they came and it works thanks to Ray West’s gritty vocals which give an urgency to the otherwise slow shuffle of the tune.
I introduced you to Canada’s I Mother Earth back at #152 with “Rain Will Fall” (and a couple of honorable mentions), but they’re back here with my favorite track on the album. The album opener, it’s not really meant to be a single, instead serving as a two-minute introduction to the band’s sound that is both trippy and explosive, just chock full of interesting sounds for such a short song. There’s some really phenomenal guitar work here, equal parts jangly, precise, reckless, and scorching. Just a tremendous statement of purpose right out of the shoot.
If I have one complaint about solo Sting it’s that a lot of what he produces is at a mid-pace, which tends to be my least favorite style. I generally prefer music that is furious and energetic, or stark and somber. It’s therefore a testament to a guy like Sting that even when he’s pumping an easy going shuffle like this it still manages to move me. The debut single off of Ten Summoner’s Tales is just a beautifully crafted song, featuring his usual excellent lyrics and thoughtful arrangements. Some artists are just too smooth for words.
John Hiatt is one of those junior Bob Dylan’s who’s probably more famous for covers of songs he’s written than he is for his own recorded output (which is extensive) thanks most likely to his somewhat offbeat vocal style. Like Dylan he is a genius lyricist who also crafts catchy tunes. I have several of his solo albums and they all fit nicely alongside the like of John Mellencamp when I’m in the mood for rootsy rock, but it’s hardly stuff I’ve ever played with any regularity. All that is, for his surprising 1993 album Perfectly Good Guitar, of which this track is the first of three to hit the countdown. Produced by Matt Wallace, who had made his rep mixing and producing for edgier bands like Faith No More and The Replacements, the album is a departure sound-wise from the rest of the Hiatt’s catalogue. Wallace adds a thicker sound to John’s usual countrified leanings and the whole album rises because of it. The noisier guitars really accent Hiatt’s ragged vocals in a way I had never heard before, turning what it usually a bit of a negative for me into a positive. Meanwhile Hiatt’s writing continues to impress, but now with a little more urgency, as evidenced by this track, which kicks off with a foot-stomping drum beat and never lets up. Love this album.
Like Brother Cane and Jackyl, Blackfish showed up in the early 90’s ready to deliver a really grimy kind of southern rock that was mixed with an AC/DC kind of simplicity and love of riff. The whole album is chock full of catchy bar rock that showcases a real sense of fun. Yeah, these guys don’t take themselves too seriously. This song in particular makes the countdown thanks to what is perhaps my favorite lyric of the entire year with this nugget: “You never wanted to see me, unless you felt you were runnin’ the show, I thought you were a CD of U2, you’re just an 8-track of Kevin DuBrow”. Yeah, it’s a cheap shot against the (now deceased) former lead singer of Quiet Riot, but what the hell, it makes me laugh every time I hear it. Sometimes that’s all it takes (although again, the riffs help). Check out “The Fall” for more of their inspired boogie n’ blues.
I was mildly excited when Pat Benatar made her “return” with 1993’s Gravity’s Rainbow album, having been a little disappointed with her 1991 turn towards blues standards. I wanted the Pat Benatar that rocked, and I got it, for the most part. The album took me awhile to grow into, as I initially felt that her singing was a bit too restrained, but over time I found that I was just wrong about that assessment. Like John Hiatt two slots ago, I also found that the slightly grittier sound of the guitars from Pat’s husband and longtime guitarist/collaborator Neil Giraldo helped moved her sound into the 90’s without sounding like a sellout. Here the duo slow things down a little bit with a really thoughtful song that shows off the less in-your-face aspects of her vocals, particularly on the pretty crooning she does under the chorus.
Billy’s final studio album featured two decent sized radio hits in the pairing of “The River Of Dreams” and “Lullaby (Goodnight My Angel)”, but it was the deep album cuts that really ended up speaking more to me than the “hits”. There’s pretty much never any filler on a Billy Joel album and River Of Dreams was no exception. While the album itself was at times pretty angry given the personal financial upheaval he was facing at the time, he still managed to find pockets of hope (the aforementioned singles being prime examples). I absolutely love the way this song starts so simply, with just Billy and his piano, and then just swells over the course of its five-plus minutes, turning into a very stirring romp that pushes him to surge into the uppermost register of his voice in order to match the intensity of the music and words. As always, the man is a master craftsman. ‘Tis a pity he stopped recording, as he’ll forever be one of my top 5 favorite musical artists of all time.
The trippy, laconic sounds of Mazzy Star is one of the most 90’s sounding things I can think of. The radio turnover of that tumultuous time in music pushed a lot of acts like this to the forefront, whereas before they had been lingering on niche radio stations that I was never likely to visit. What resulted for me was a deep appreciation of this kind of ethereal rock that seemed to be rooted in a very old school country blues. The Sundays and the Cowboy Junkies are two other bands from that time which really started grabbing my attention by the time 1993 rolled around, and as a result I was totally ready for something like Mazzy Star to fall into my lap. This song is beautifully lazy, sauntering along at a pace that perfectly matches the desert landscapes featured in the video. A perfect tune for driving straight into a setting sun.
I remember clearly this song being released on a radio promo sampler without any artist credit attached to it, Warner Bros. hoping to slip a now out-of-favor hairband onto radio thanks to – GASP – strength of song! The magazine that included the sampler published the feedback in the following month’s rag and most of the guesses at the time were that this song was the long-awaited Steve Perry solo material. I remember laughing at the time because to me it sounded like the BulletBoys from moment I first heard it. How anybody could confuse it for Steve Perry or Journey was beyond me. But over time I’ve come to see how that happened, as the song, particularly Marq Torien’s strained vocals, very much reminds one of late 70’s Journey, namely “Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin'”. I guess at the time I was thinking of the polished Journey sound of the 80’s and didn’t pick up on the very basic blues structure and 70’s simplicity of the song. Not bad for a bunch of L.A. sleaze merchants previously best known for a song called “Smooth Up In Ya”.
Third and final entry on the countdown from the mighty Mr. Gordon Sumner (you had to know I’d get at least ONE reference of his real name in). My complaint back at #88 about Sting’s tendency to stay at a mid-pace goes out the window here at this tune picks things up quite a bit (at least by his standards) with some fun countrified guitar picking and a snappier drumbeat. I’m also a sucker for the layered vocals he uses come chorus time and the organ-styled keyboard shading really helps too. Again, Sting the solo artist is so wildly different than Sting the leader of The Police, as his arrangements show off his incredible musical ear in a way that The Police’s more punk-inspired work could never (and should never) have. I’m also digging the really playful vibe of this live-in-studio video as they’re clearly having a blast playing the song and not taking any of it too seriously.