No Code by Pearl Jam

Buy No Code

No Code by Pearl JamIn 1996, Pearl Jam created a stoner rock classic with their fourth studio album, No Code. Here, the alternative grunge pioneers branched out with diverse music tracks which incorporated elements of blues, country, psychedelia and world music. The resulting record is not quite as forward and accessible as previous efforts by the band but does feature subtle, droning riffs, layered percussion, and philosophical lyrics all mixed with Pearl Jam’s established signature, hard rock sound.

As Pearl jam gained fame in the early 1990s, they grew increasingly uncomfortable with their success and began to rebel against the industry by refusing make music videos, issuing CDs in non-standard jackets and boycotting the Ticketmaster agency, which resulted in limiting the venues where the band was able to play and eventually led to the cancellation of their 1994 summer tour. There was also some internal strife within the band. After Pearl Jam finished the recording their third album, Vitalogy, drummer Dave Abbruzzese was fired for “political differences” when he disagreed with the Ticketmaster boycott. Abbruzzese was replaced by former Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Jack Irons, who joined the band in backing Neil Young on his 1995 album Mirror Ball, which in turn spawned two songs which landed on Pearl Jam’s 1995 EP, Merkin Ball.

On No Code, the group worked with producer Brendan O’Brien, with whom they had worked on 1993’s Vs. as well as Vitalogy. Work on the album began in Chicago during the summer of 1995 with other recording sessions taking place in New Orleans and their home studio in Seattle.


No Code by Pearl Jam
Released: August 27, 1996 (Epic)
Produced by: Brendan O’Brien & Pearl Jam
Recorded: Chicago Recording Company, Chicago, July 1995 – May 1996
Track Listing Group Musicians
Sometimes
Hail, Hail
Who You Are
In My Tree
Smile
Off He Goes
Habit
Red Mosquito
Lukin
Present Tense
Mankind
I’m Open
Around the Bend
Eddie Vedder – Lead Vocals, Guitars, Sitar, Harmonica
Stone Gossard – Guitars, Piano, Vocals
Mike McCready – Guitars
Jeff Ament – Bass, Chapman, Vocals
Jack Irons – Drums

No Code by Pearl Jam

Written by vocalist Eddie Vedder, the opening track “Sometimes” is subtle and quiet, almost jazzy, as it feels like it is on the verge of exploding any moment but never does. In contrast, “Hail, Hail” is a strong rocker with a sound like the Pearl Jam of old in their full glory. Released as a single, this track reached the Top 10 on both the Mainstream Rock and Modern Rock charts. An odd but cool percussive intro by Irons ushers in “Who You Are” before Vedder’s vocals and a guitar riff by Stone Gossard cut through in a simple song structure, which gradually progresses and builds as it goes along. This track has a very Eastern feel in its vibe and lyrical message.

“In My Tree” works as another rhythm-driven track with more animated and soulful vocals than anything presented thus far. While most of this song feels distant and slightly under baked, near the very end it builds into a driving and droning hard rocker. Bassist Jeff Ament wrote the music for “Smile”, a Neil Young inspired driving rocker, complete with harmonica and a consistent, solid beat. “Off He Goes” is a pleasant acoustic ballad with reserved lead vocals and a fine mixture of lead guitars by Gossard and Mike McCready on top. This song unfolds in a very methodical way, making it a nice reliever of the tensions of some of the more potent, shorter tunes on the album. Speaking of tension, “Habit” is tight knit rocker where some heavy blues meets strong alternative vibes, while “Red Mosquito” was inspired by Vedder’s bought of food poisoning and features a buzzy lead guitar played by McCready using a Zippo lighter.

Pearl Jam

“Lukin” is a very short, two verse, one chorus punk rocker where Vedder strains his voice to the point of nearly being unrecognizable, followed by “Present Tense”, a slow and moody, almost dark track featuring differing guitar textures by McCready. The most unique song on the album is “Mankind”, written and sung by Gossard, with a sound approximating seventies glam rock. The artsy “I’m Open” has spoken vocal narration with wild guitar effects, synths and some piano for a New Age atmosphere, while “Around the Bend” wraps the album as an acoustic, almost country arrangement, save for the unique, tom-fused drum beat by Irons.

No Code debuted at number one in the US and topped the charts in several countries. In spite of this, much of the band’s fan base were dissatisfied with the change in musical direction and this album ultimately became the first Pearl Jam album to not reach multi-platinum status.

~

1996 music celebration image

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 20th anniversary of 1996 albums.

Someday Maybe by The Clarks

Buy Someday Maybe

Someday Maybe by The ClarksAlthough this group has had a long and fruitful career which continues to this day, The Clarks only had one major label release. The 1996 record Someday Maybe is a solid and steady effort full of steady rock/pop tracks crafted in multiple sub-genres. While neglected its due amount of promotion, this album is on par with some of the highly popular albums of the same era, making it a largely unknown or forgotten gem of the mid nineties.

Based in and around the Pittsburgh area, the group derived from a college band called The Administration, featuring vocalist/guitarist Scott Blasey, guitarist Robert James Hertweck and drummer David Minarik. After several lineup changes and the addition of bassist Greg Joseph in 1986, they changed the name to “The Clarks” as a generic nod to a common name in Western Pennsylvania. Next, the group began to focus more on original material and in 1988, the Clarks began independently recording their first album, I’ll Tell You What Man…, which sold modestly well in the Pittsburgh area. Two more independent albums followed, a self-titled release in 1991 and Love Gone Sour, Suspicion, and Bad Debt in 1994.

The steadily growing popularity of The Clarks finally scored them a major label deal for two albums with MCA Records in 1996. The group immediately began working with LA-based talent, producer Tim Bomba and engineer John Siket, to record Someday Maybe.


Someday Maybe by The Clarks
Released: November 25, 1996 (MCA)
Produced by: Tim Bomba
Track Listing Primary Musicians
Stop!
Courtney
Mercury
Rain
Caroline
Never Let You Down
Fatal
The Box
One Day In My Life
No Place Called Home
Everything Has Changed
These Wishes
Last Call
Hollywood
Lost and Found
Scott Blasey – Lead Vocals, Guitars
Rob James – Guitars, Vocals
Greg Joseph – Bass, Vocals
Dave Minarik – Drums, Vocals
 
Someday Maybe by The Clarks

In a bit of irony, the opening track “Stop!” starts abruptly as a solid rocker throughout. This strong opener features a choppy rhythm guitar riff and bluesy lead licks, while the chorus lyrics borrow from Buffalo Springfield’s hit “For What It’s Worth”. “Courtney” follows as a catchy, pure nineties pop/rock track with a bright acoustic and electric arrangement. “Mercury” leans towards folk/rock or almost alt country with plenty of fine riffs and hooks to accent the overall vibe, while “Rain” is a slow acoustic ballad which moves like a waltz and features slight desperation in Blasey’s lead vocals as well as a short but excellent ending guitar lead by James.

The heart of the album begins with the radio single “Caroline”, which is presented as pure new wave pop with rapid lyric delivery and much energy throughout. “Never Let You Down” may be the hardest rocking song on the entire album, due to the rapid riffing and relentless rhythms by Joseph and Minarik. Next comes the most unique track on Someday Maybe, the excellent, soft jazz “Fatal”, with some very interesting changes and rewarding musical interludes and duet lead vocals by guest Kelsey Barber.

the clarks

Coming down the stretch, the album returns to simple and straight-forward form. “The Box” and “One Day In My Life” are strong and steady rockers, with the latter one highlighted by the rich backing harmonies in the choruses. “No Place Called Home” is a folk/Americana acoustic ballad with dramatic lyrics from the point of view of a reluctant outlaw, while “These Wishes” is built on Minarik’s interesting drum shuffle. The album concludes with “Last Call”, a late night barroom anthem with a catchy sing-along hook.

The Clarks’ big label reign was short-lived as MCA fell into financial disarray before Someday Maybe received any notable promotion and, ultimately, their contract was terminated. However, after a short break, the band continued to record independently and remained a strong regional draw for years to come.

~

1996 music celebration image

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 20th anniversary of 1996 albums.

American II: Unchained by Johnny Cash

Buy American II: Unchained

American II by Johnny CashBuilding on the momentum of his 1994 comeback album, American Recordings, country/rock legend Johnny Cash decided to do a sequel in what would become a very successful late career series. However, where the first album was sparse, dark folk with just Cash and his acoustic guitar, American II: Unchained features much richer and brighter arrangements due in large part to the musical help of Tom Petty and (three of) The Heartbreakers.

While not a huge commercial hit, American Recordings had much critical acclaim and won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album. A revitalized Cash said that the reception and response was one of the highlights of his career, which at that point dated back forty years. Later in 1994, Cash recorded a solo cover of Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young” and joined up with Brooks & Dunn for his own “Folsom Prison Blues” to contribute to the AIDS benefit album Red Hot + Country. Cash also revitatlized his acting career by appearing with his wife June Carter on a number of episodes of the television series Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.

Along with producer and label owner Rick Rubin, Cash decided to enlist contemporary rock musicians for this follow-up album. Fresh off the success of his solo record Wildflowers, Petty was enlisted along with fellow Heartbreakers, guitarist Mike Campbell, keyboardist Benmont Tench and bassist Howie Epstein, to be the core of the backing band. Other cameos on this album included Lindsay Buckingham and Mick Fleetwood from Fleetwood Mac and bassist Flea from Red Hot Chili Peppers. American II: Unchained is made mostly of cover songs with a few Cash originals sprinkled throughout the album.


American II: Unchained by Johnny Cash
Released: November 5, 1996 (American)
Produced by: Rick Rubin
Recorded: Sound City & Ocean Way Studios, Los Angeles and The Cowboy Arms And Recording Spa, Nashville, TN, 1995-1996
Track Listing Primary Musicians
Rowboat
Sea of Heartbreak
Rusty Cage
The One Rose (That’s Left in My Heart)
Country Boy
Memories Are Made of This
Spiritual
The Kneeling Drunkard’s Plea
Southern Accents
Mean Eyed Cat
Meet Me in Heaven
I Never Picked Cotton
Unchained
I’ve Been Everywhere
Johnny Cash – Lead Vocals, Guitar
Tom Petty – Guitars, bass, Vocals
Mike Campbell – Guitars, Mandolin, Dobro
Benmont Tench – Piano, Keyboards
Marty Stuart – Guitars, Bass
Steve Ferroneh – Drums, PercussionAmerican II by Johnny Cash

With a fantastic array of acoustic and electric guitars above a moderate classic country beat, the album begins with a cover of Beck’s “Rowboat”. Here, the guitars are delivered in various country and rock styles with Cash’s simple and somber vocals making this an overall sonic treat. “Sea of Heartbreak” is a brighter and more upbeat cover with fine chorus harmonies by Petty. The song was originally a Country hit for Don Gibson and features acoustic guitar by Buckingham and percussion by Fleetwood. Cash’s cover of “Rusty Cage” is the most striking and unique song on American II: Unchained. Originally written and recorded on Soundgarden’s Badmotofinger, Cash’s vocals follow the droning acoustic riff through the first two verses before breaking into an unabashed rock arrangement for the latter half of the song. This hip and timely track ultimately won a Grammy Award for Best Country Album.

Cash returns to form on the pure, classic country of “The One Rose (That’s Left in My Heart)”, which features a fine slide guitar lead by Campbell throughout. “Country Boy” and “Mean Eyed Cat” are two remakes of Sun Studio recordings from the late 1950s and each provide a nice slice of sonic nostalgia to add to the album’s diversity. “Memories Are Made of This” is presented as a bright folk song with upbeat, brushed drums, later joined by fine piano and distant whistle organ by Tench in a very good recording. Next come a couple of spiritual songs, the first of which is simply called “Spiritual”, a somber track which is a little drawn out and melodramatic. Written by several in-laws, The Carters, “The Kneeling Drunkard’s Plea” is a more upbeat cry for redemption as told by a third party observer.

Johnny Cash 1996

The later third of the album features more diverse songs. The inversion “Southern Accents” is presented as a soft acoustic ballad, where the Heartbreakers back Cash on their own song from their album of the same name a decade earlier. “Meet Me in Heaven” is a Cash original and presented brilliantly with a bright acoustic by Petty mixed along with Campbell’s softly picked electric and Tench’s piercing keys. Originally a hit by Roy Clark, “I Never Picked Cotton” is a fun Country classic which changes keys frequently during the two and a half minute duration and features some backing vocals by Petty. The title track “Unchained” is a soft acoustic ballad cover by Jude Johnstone and features some cool Chamberlin strings by Petty and Tench. Wrapping it all up is the fun jaunt “I’ve Been Everywhere”, which completes the album with upbeat rockabilly music and impressive, breathless rap by Cash as he lists the cascade of locations in each of the four main verses.

Although it had much crossover appeal, American II: Unchained was a much bigger commercial success on the Country charts than the Pop Charts. This recipe for success continued with more albums in the “American” series by Cash and Ruben, extending into the early part of the next century.

~

1996 music celebration image

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 20th anniversary of 1996 albums.

Trial By Fire by Journey

Buy Trial by Fire

Trial by Fire by JourneyFor Journey‘s most avid fans, the 1996 album Trial By Fire may be best described as one last guilty dip into the group’s heyday of the previous decade. With that in mind, it’s really a shame that the music here nods back to the group’s post-fame eighties rather than the far superior pre-fame late seventies sound. In any case, this was the first time in a dozen years that the five-piece lineup which brought Journey its greatest success got together to make a record.

Following the phenomenal success of 1981’s Escape and Frontiers along with the subsequent major tours, Journey took some extended time off. Lead vocalist Steve Perry released his debut solo album while guitarist Neal Schon participated in the short-lived “super group” HSAS, fronted by Sammy Hagar. Turmoil ensued during the recording of their next album, Raised On Radio in 1986, as bassist Ross Valory and drummer Steve Smith were dismissed from the band due to “musical and professional differences”. Although that album was a commercial success, Perry went on an indefinite hiatus, leaving the group in limbo for several years.

In the early 1990s, keyboardist Jonathan Cain joined Schon, Valory and Smith for a series of tribute concerts. This indirectly led to the early 80s lineup of Perry, Schon, Cain, Valory and Smith reuniting in 1995 and recording this new album with producer Kevin Shirley in 1996, making it the first new Journey album in 10 years.


Trial by Fire by Journey
Released: October 22, 1996 (Columbia)
Produced by: Kevin Shirley
Recorded: Ocean Way Recording Studios, Hollywood, CA, The Site and Wildhorse Studios, Marin County, CA, Summer 1996
Track Listing Group Musicians
Message of Love
One More
When You Love a Woman
If He Should Break Your Heart
Forever In Blue
Castles Burning
Don’t Be Down on Me Baby
Still She Cries
Colors of the Spirit
When I Think of You
Easy to Fall
Can’t Tame the Lion
It’s Just the Rain
Trial by Fire
Baby I’m a Leavin’ You
Steve Perry – Lead Vocals
Neal Schon – Guitars, Vocals
Jonathan Cain – Keyboards, Guitars, Vocals
Ross Valory – Bass, Vocals
Steve Smith – Drums, Percussion

Trial by Fire by Journey

The group’s core members of Perry, Schon and Cain wrote the bulk of the songs on Trial by Fire. One of the few exceptions is the opening “Message Of Love”, which was co-written by lyricist John Bettis. The song swells in with some backwards-masked voices before strong beat-driven, perfectly fine, albeit ultra-ordinary pop song. This is an interesting slight nod back to the 1983 hit “Separate Ways” just prior to Schon’s lead guitar. “One More” starts with a movie-like string arrangement by David Campbell before breaking into Valory’s bass-driven rhythm to accompany Perry’s interesting and slightly dark vocal melody. “When You Love A Woman” is a classic Journey ballad with rocking piano, strategic guitar overtones and soulful/romantic vocals. The song reached the top of the Billboard Hot Adult Contemporary chart as well as becoming a Top 10 hit on the American pop charts, the group’s last such hit to date.

“If He Should Break Your Heart” continues the parade of slick, love-oriented songs and, while the theme is unoriginal, this one takes on a pleasant mellow rock vibe musically. On “Forever In Blue”, the verse music is driven by a spunkier, choppy guitar riff with some fine snare clicks by Smith, For his part, Perry does get a bit soulfully strained as the song goes on, which works to add a bit of authenticity to the sound. Schon provides a wah-wah fused blues guitar between each verse line of “Castles Burning”, along with a later simple but exciting, squeaky rotating riff over the bridge to bring the song to a higher sonic level. This sparks the best sequence on the album with “Don’t Be Down On Me Baby” laid out like a classic Soul ballad with a simple, rotating piano phrase accompanied by Perry’s soaring lead vocals and “Still She Cries” featuring nicely picked guitar motifs in intro sets before the mood settles with steady rhythms throughout this ballad.

Journey in 1996

Unfortunately, there are many superfluous songs beyond this point. “Colors of the Spirit” does employ world-music inspired sounds through its long, jungle-like intro before unfortunately reverting back to standard fonts for the song proper. “When I Think of You” is, perhaps, the nadir of album as an uninspired ballad, while “Easy to Fall” only works later on with some fine, bluesy/jazz guitar work by Schon. “Can’t Tame the Lion” is a pure rock song that remain upbeat and rocking throughout before the mood is once again brought down with the ballad “It’s Just the Rain”. The title track, “Trial By Fire”, provides welcome relieve by this point of the Goliath-length album as Smith provides some odd beats accompanying Valory’s cool bass and Schon’s jazzy guitar for an overall fine vibe, while the “hidden” “Baby I’m a Leavin’ You” features a heavy Caribbean-influence with musical flourishes and a nice, light way to complete the album.

Trial By Fire reached #3 on the album charts and Journey appeared to be back in top commercial form as they prepared for a subsequent tour> However, Perry injured himself during a hiking, rendering him unable to perform for over a year. By 1998, both Perry and Smith were out of the group and Journey continued as a patchwork band into the new century.

~

1996 music celebration image

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 20th anniversary of 1996 albums.

Billy Breathes by Phish

Buy Billy Breathes

Billy Breathes by PhishAs their sixth official studio album, Billy Breathes is an early indication of Phish moving towards more mainstream rock music. Here, the four-piece group combined folk, rock and psychedelic into standard-length, accessible numbers with a good sense of melody and song craft. As a result, this 1996 release remains one of the most popular albums by a band better known for its jam-band fused live performances and moderately sized by avidly dedicated fan base.

After the release of their first two official studio album, Junta in 1989 and Lawn Boy in 1990, Phish began to design intricate and highly interactive concerts. Guitarist and front man Trey Anastasio led the band in giving musical cues for the audience to react in certain ways and band members would often switch instruments to make their live shows truly original. As a result of the band’s growing popularity,they were signed to Elektra Records with 1992’s A Picture of Nectar being Phish’s first release on that label. This was followed by the studio albums Rift and Hoist in 1993 and 1994 respectively and the live album, A Live One, which became the group’s first gold-selling album in 1995.

After rehearsing at their independent recording studio in Vermont, the group migrated to Bearsville Studios in the Catskill mountains of nearby New York state to record in early 1996. Produced by Steve Lillywhite, the album features an almost equal split of compositions co-written by Anastasio and lyricist Tom Marshall and songs credited to all members of the band.


Billy Breathes by Phish
Released: October 15, 1996 (Elektra)
Produced by: Steve Lillywhite
Recorded: Bearsville Studios, Bearsville, NY, February–June 1996
Track Listing Group Musicians
Free
Character Zero
Waste
Taste
Cars Trucks Buses
Talk
Theme from the Bottom
Train Song
Bliss
Billy Breathes
Swept Away
Steep
Prince Caspian
Trey Anastasio – Lead Vocals, Guitar
Page McConnell – Keyboards, Vocals
Mike Gordon – Bass, Vocals
Jon Fishman – Drums, Vocals
Billy Breathes by Phish

The only song that can be considered a “hit’ from Billy Breathes is the opening track “Free”, which reached #11 on the Mainstream Rock charts. Starting with a straight and direct droning rock background, this inventive song crams a lot of differing musical phrases into its less-than-four-minute duration. The start of “Character Zero” is a sparse blues arrangement before breaking in with heavy rock elements, including a driving drum beat by Jon Fishman and a bouncy bass by Mike Gordan. “Waste” is mainly quiet acoustic ballad, with a kind of “slacker love story” theme. As the song progresses, there is a subtle building in arrangement and a good sense of melody by Anastasio. The bridge is the first real place where the song fully realizes its dynamics and is followed by an exquisite piano lead by Page McConnell.

Almost like a musical exercise in maintaining odd timing and rudiments, “Taste” gives the impression that all band members seem to be playing contrasting parts but somehow this all works at a certain tension-filled level. In contrast, McConnell’s short instrumental, “Cars Trucks Buses”, falls into a nice groove throughout and gives much space for his organ and piano leads. The same dreaming, descending acoustic riff is repeated through the entirety of “Talk”, with differing musical accompaniment along with a sing-songy vocal melody. At just under six and a half minutes, “Theme from the Bottom” is the longest track on the album. It starts with a simple, dark and dissonant piano which is soon joined by upbeat rhythmic groove for a nice counter-effect. The second half of the song comes a mainly instrumental blistering rock section. The urban-folk sounding “Train Song” was co-written by guest Joe Linitz and Gordon, who provides whimsical lead vocals for the track.

Phish

The latter part of the album features the products of many improvisations during the album’s pre-production. “Bliss” features slow acoustic textures which gradually fade into an atmospheric instrumental. The title track, “Billy Breathes” hearkens back to seventies soft folk with modest, understated vocals along with rich harmonies in the chorus. Then comes the excellent and unique bridge section with banjo joined by slight and sharp brass songs before Anatasio’s top level guitar lead ushers the song with interesting chord pattern behind to make it a high point on the album. The final three tsongs complement each other and sound like they could’ve been a single, cohesive suite. “Swept Away” is quiet and reserved acoustic folk in a very short moment of mood, like it could have been an intro to some television or theatrical performance. “Steep” is pure psychedelic driven by keyboard and pedal effects before a rich vocal section dominates the second half of short track. “Prince Caspian” meanders in before an electric riff acts as bedding for the song’s main hook. The song proper of this closer is quite repetitive to get its lyrical point across before it again slowly dissolves into a fade with one final “shock” rock riff reprise to end the song and album.

When recording was wrapping for Billy Breathes, the band made a snap decision to use a a closeup shot of Mike Gordon’s face as the album’s cover, something Anastasio later said he regretted. Nonetheless, the album sold very well and remains, along with 2000’s Farmhouse, as one of the commercial peaks of Phish’s long career.

~

1996 music celebration image

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 20th anniversary of 1996 albums.

Yourself or Someone Like You
by Matchbox 20

Buy Yourself or Someone Like You

Yourself or Someone Like You by Matchbox TwentyA blockbuster debut for Florida-based rock band Matchbox 20, the 1996 album Yourself or Someone Like You hit the post-grunge sweet spot with popular music fans as it became a big hit worldwide. This success was especially true in the group’s native United States, where the album reached Diamond status by selling in excess of 12 million copies. Further, the formula employed on this record was strongly influential in the wake of its release.

Originally called “Tabitha’s Secret”, the band was formed in Orlando, Florida by composer and vocalist Rob Thomas, bassist Brian Yale and drummer Paul Doucette. Eventually, session man Adam Gaynor and classically trained Kyle Cook were recruited as the band’s guitarists to complete the quintet as Matchbox 20 earned a recording contract with Atlantic Records.

Yourself or Someone Like You was recorded in Atlanta in Spring 1996 with producer Matt Serletic, a former member of Collective Soul. Nearly a decade after its release, the subject on the front cover sued the band, claiming the photo was taken as he was walking down the street after being asked to pose.


Yourself or Someone Like You by Matchbox 20
Released: October 1, 1996 (Atlantic)
Produced by: Matt Serletic
Recorded: Atlanta, GA, June 1996
Track Listing Group Musicians
Real World
Long Day
3 A.M.
Push
Girl Like That
Back 2 Good
Damn
Argue
Kody
Busted
Shame
Hang
Rob Thomas – Lead Vocals, Guitar
Kyle Cook – Guitars, Vocals
Adam Gaynor – Guitars, Vocals
Brian Yale – Bass
Paul Doucette – Drums

 
1996_matchboxtwenty-yourselforsomeonelikeyou_150

All the songs on Yourself or Someone Like You were written by or co-written by Thomas and the album is quite top-heavy in the sense that the first six tracks were all released as singles. The opener “Real World” starts with strong, twangy guitars in the intro, setting an upbeat pace for the album with choppy, vocal-driven, theatrical verses and a chiming guitar lead before third verse. “Long Day” makes a sudden, acoustic entry before suddenly smashing into a strong electric rock arrangement after two lines. This song builds much tension until it is dispelled by a twangy guitar lead before the acoustic bridge, which in turn leads to a strong song outro. “Long Day” was the first single from the album, released in late 1996, but was not as successful as future singles through 1997 and 1998. One of those successful songs, “3 A.M.”, was composed by several group members along with John Joseph Stanley back in the days of Tabitha’s Secret. This features a patient, in turn acoustic and electric intro, with a catchy leading riff preceding each line of the verses. Bittersweet to the core, the true genius of this song is that it can be interpreted in many different ways, making it the best overall song on the album.

“Push” is another one of of the band’s successful singles as a melodic ballad with enjoyably strummed electric guitar and ironic lyrics which are delivered through the ever-intensifying chorus sections. “Girl Like That” seems to hearken back to the pop music of the early eighties, with a new-wave fused pop/rock and plenty of accessible décor, including sharply stopped riffs and a slight backing vocal chorus. The longest track on this album full of succinct songs, “Back 2 Good” includes a rich arrangement of orchestral instruments to add to the overall melancholy mood. Technically, this 1998 single release would prove to be the biggest hit song from Yourself or Someone Like You, due to discrepancies in charts.

Matchbox 20

The album’s second half is much less effective as several tracks seem to cover well-tredded ground. “Damn” is a methodical rocker with a steady rock drum beat which persists throughout and “Argue” is another pleasant rocker musically. “Kody” is a moderate acoustic track with twangy electric overtones and somber lead vocals, while “Busted” and “Shame” feature differing levels of pop accessibility. The closing, somber acoustic ballad, “Hang”, features inverted roles as Thomas plays some acoustic guitar and Cook shares lead vocal duties.

Yourself or Someone Like You charted in countries around the world, reaching the top in Australia. It would be nearly a half decade before Matchbox 20 would release their second album, Mad Season, in 2000. Through the decade of the 2000s, the group would have steady but declining success, solidifying this debut album the commercial peak of their career.

~

1996 music celebration image

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 20th anniversary of 1996 albums.

Test for Echo by Rush

Buy Test for Echo

Test For Echo by RushRush evolved from the synth-drenched style of previous albums with the 1996 release, Test for Echo. The musical style delivered by the Canadian trio hearkens back to the hard rock sound of the group’s earliest years but with a definite diffusion of lyrical themes. At first listen, the songs may be a bit thick, but once you get through this opaque outer atmosphere you can hear the real underlying genius of this record.

Rush started to move away from its 1980s style with Presto and, to a lesser extent, on their early nineties albums Roll the Bones and Counterparts, both of which were produced by Rupert Hine. In each of these cases, it was evident that the band was attempting to forge a distinct and relevant sound.

Their sixteenth studio album and first one beyond the trio’s twentieth anniversary, Test for Echo was produced in collaboration with Peter Collins. Released three years after its predecessor, this album marked the first time that such a lengthy gap happened between studio albums as each of the band members embarked on outside projects. During this time, drummer Neal Peart studied with jazz great Freddie Gruber, which led to his radical decision to change to a more traditional grip from that point forward in his career.


Test for Echo by Rush
Released: September 10, 1996 (Atlantic)
Produced by: Peter Collins & Rush
Recorded: Bearsville Studios, New York & Reaction Studios, Toronto, January–March 1996
Album Tracks Group Musicians
Test for Echo
Driven
Half the World
The Color of Right
Time and Motion
Totem
Dog Years
Virtuality
Resist
Limbo
Carve Away the Stone
Geddy Lee – Lead Vocals, Bass, Keyboards
Alex Lifeson – Guitars, Mandola
Neil Peart – Drums, Percussion, Dulcimer

Test for Echo by Rush

Test for Echo starts suddenly and dramatically with a strong but measured chord pattern that builds ever so subtly before erupting into a classic-Rush style rudimentary riff. Stylistically, this song seamlessly passes through multiple repeating sections, while thematically it is a somewhat poetic commentary on life. The song reached #1 on the Billboard Hot Mainstream Rock Tracks chart and nearly topped the Canadian Singles Chart, making “Test For Echo” Rush’s most successful single in about a decade. The equally intense “Driven” starts with a hyper-tense riff in an odd-timing with a strategic verse break of Alex Lifeson‘s acoustic guitar to temporarily break the tension. Lyrically, this song explores the dangers of over ambition.

“Half the World” is another philosophical rocker with animated and entertaining music throughout. Here, Geddy Lee provides some of his finest bass work on the album, with Lifeson layering some great electric and acoustic guitar textures. “The Color of Right” has a heavy blues rock feel in the vein of AC/DC through the intro, while the rest of the song drives through with nice, upbeat textures, making it a fine listen, but just short of its full potential as it doesn’t unravel like it could. While including some of the regrettable eighties-style synths, “Time and Motion” does thankfully settle into a guitar-centric riff jam for the verses and choruses, while “Totem” features another musical jam, albeit a mocking tone lyrically against people of faith.

Rush, 1990s

While still an entertaining listen, the album becomes a bit disjointed and uneven from this point forward. “Dog Years” may be the nadir of the album lyrically, while “Virtuality” is the most grunge-centric musically with some very dated lyrics;

Net boy, net girl send your signals around the world…put your message in a modem and throw it in a cyber sea…”

Yikes!

The highlight of the later part of the album is “Resist”, which starts with moderate a piano and acoustic verses, accented with fine bass and lead vocals. This is a true change of pace for the heavy rock album and gives it some real depth overall. Following the bass-driven near-instrumental of “Limbo” with slightly comical elements, “Carve Away the Stone” closes things out with Lifeson’s majestic electric guitar and Peart’s lyrical theme about removing obstacles in life.

Test for Echo reached the Top 5 on the album charts and was followed by an extensive North American tour by Rush into 1997. However, personal tragedy in Peart’s life lead to a five-year hiatus by the group into the next century.

~

1996 music celebration image

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 20th anniversary of 1996 albums.

 

Beautiful Freak by Eels

Buy Beautiful Freak

Beautiful Freak by EelsAlthough it is officially the debut of the rock trio Eels, the 1996 album Beautiful Freak is in reality the third album by composer and performer Mark Oliver Everett, who goes by stage the name “E”. The collaboration of four studio producers (including Everett), this album is filled with simple tracks of moderate tempo which employ exquisite arrangements and production methods to deliver a unique listening experience.

A native of Virginia, Everett migrated to Southern California in pursuit of a music career. In the early 1990s, he released two solo albums (under the name ‘E’) on Polydor Records, A Man Called E and Broken Toy Shop. Released in 1993, this latter solo album included drummer Jonathan “Butch” Norton. However, with limited commercial success, E was in search of a new record deal and identity. Along with Norton and bassist Tommy Walter, the group “Eels” was formed, with the name chosen in part so group records would be placed next to E solo albums in record stores.

Eels were one of the first groups to sign with the new DreamWorks Records and they spent the early part of 1996 in the studio recording Beautiful Freak with producers Jon Brion, Mark Goldenberg and Michael Simpson.


Beautiful Freak by Eels
Released: August 13, 1996 (DreamWorks)
Produced by: Jon Brion, Mark Goldenberg, Michael Simpson & E
Recorded: 1996
Album Tracks Group Musicians
Novocaine for the Soul
Susan’s House
Rags to Rags
Beautiful Freak
Not Ready Yet
My Beloved Monster
Flower
Guest List
Mental
Spunky
Your Lucky Day in Hell
Manchild
E – Lead Vocals, Guitars, Keyboards
Tommy Walter – Bass, Vocals
Jonathan “Butch” Norton – Drums, Vocals
 
Beautiful Freak by Eels

Throughout the duration of Beautiful Freak, there are original and eccentric pop-oriented tunes with contrasting lyrical themes of melancholy and despair. “Susan’s House” features spoken vocals and Everett’s observations of human misery as he walks towards the home of an ex-girlfriend and musically features a sampled piano from an older recording by Gladys Knight & the Pips. The song is followed by grunge-oriented “Rags to Rags”, which features an interesting drum pattern by Norton as well as a strong overall rock arrangement during the choruses. The album opener was also the first single released by Eels, “Novocaine for the Soul”. Co-written by Everett and producer Mark Goldenberg, this track features a pleasant and steady rock arrangement with good melody which helped make it a minor international hit.

“Beautiful Freak”, the album’s title song, features electric piano and very somber vocals by Everett, While the lyrics are a little weak on this track, the surreal and sad mood makes up for this deficiency. Co-written by guest guitarist Jon Brion, “Not Ready Yet” is a sad tune about recovering from disaster and feeling the isolation of that situation. The longest track on the album, this song leaves plenty of room for musical grooves as it is bass and rhythm-driven with several guitar overdubs. “My Beloved Monster” with a very slight banjo before the electric guitar-driven song proper begins and, during the second verse and beyond a bouncy bass and feedback effects add a real edge to the sonic qualities of this song. Co-written by Keyboardist Jim Jacobsen who provides a cool  synthesized choir, “Flower” may be the highlight of the entire album. Melodically and lyrically this track works very well as a sad slacker creed with the clever refrain; “everyone is trying to bum me out…”

Eels in 1996

The later part of the album has more solid tracks which remain within the spirit of the overall album while also introducing some nice new methods. “Guest List” is built on funky, descending bass while “Mental” features an upbeat bass/key riff by Walter and some hard rock chording in the choruses. “Spunky” has a lyrical sense of reserved enthusiasm which matches the song’s title as “Your Lucky Day in Hell” is soulful with cool rhythms, effects and high-registered vocals. The album wraps “Manchild”, the most traditional, “lover’s lament” ballad on the album, co-written by Jill Sobule, with a long, surreal fade-out with sound effects to usher out the album.

Following the release of Beautiful Freak, Eels toured extensively throughout the United States and Europe. Although Walter departed from the band in September 1997, Eels would go on to release ten further studio albums (to date) and have had a long and distinguished career.

~

1996 music celebration image

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 20th anniversary of 1996 albums.

 

Odelay by Beck

Buy Odelay

Odelay by BeckOdelay is a rich sonic tapestry which incorporates elements of grunge, punk, folk, country, blues, rap and other elements, including a heavy use of sampling from established songs. The album was the fifth overall and second major label release for Beck and became his breakthrough effort into mainstream critical and commercial success. Overall, this record is an eclectic, zig-zagging experience which seems to employ an effort to include something for various groups of musical fans.

A pre-high school drop out from Los Angeles, Beck Hanson worked a stream of menial jobs while trying to establish a career as a folk and blues performer in the late 1980s. After migrating to New York, Beck became involved in the East Village’s anti-folk scene and began to write free-associative songs. In 1992, he recorded the experimental, hip-hop infused anthem, “Loser”, which was released as a limited, 500-copy single in early 1993 but received heavy radio play and topped the Modern Rock Tracks chart. Between 1993 and 1994, Beck released three independent albums; Golden Feelings, Stereopathetic Soulmanure, and One Foot In the Grave; as well as the major-label debut Mellow Gold in 1994. Beck also began performing on major tours and festivals, a workload which made it quite ironic that he was deemed king of “the slacker generation”.

In its original sessions, Odelay was slated to be an acoustic-driven album. Eventually, Beck abandoned this approach and enlisted the Dust Brothers (E.Z. Mike Simpson and “King Gizmo”) as co-producers, who infused their heavily-treated, layered percussive back-beats to many of the tracks. Odelay was also the first full-fledged production where Beck had the time and budget to indulge in compositional creativity.


Odelay by Beck
Released: June 18, 1996 (DGC)
Produced by: Beck Hansen & The Dust Brothers
Recorded: various studios, 1994-1996
Album Tracks Primary Musicians
Devils Haircut
Hotwax
Lord Only Knows
The New Pollution
Derelict
Novacane
Jack-Ass
Where It’s At
Minu
Sissyneck
Readymade
High 5 (Rock the Catskills)
Ramshackle
Beck Hanson – Lead Vocals, Guitars, Keyboards, Bass, Harmonica, Percussion
Mike Boito – Keyboards, Trumpet
Joey Waronker – Drums, Percussion

Odelay by Beck

Most of the songs on Odelay were co-written by Beck, John King and Michael Simpson, starting with “Devils Haircut”. This opener features a heavy rock riff with the first of many sampled electronic rhythms, complete with well-placed sound effects between the verses and choruses. “Hotwax” changes direction with a bluesy acoustic intro, soon joined by electric elements in an enjoyable groove through the heart of the song as well as a slightly hip-hop vocal approach by Beck. “Lord Only Knows” replicates the Rolling Stones’ many renditions of country/rock, especially in the vocal delivery and upbeat acoustic rhythms with slide electric overtones. “The New Pollution” is a basic, repetitive sample song with a decent vocal melody until the mid-section, which includes a distant saxophone and some good keyboard effects, while “Derelict” features a longer and more complex repeating percussive pattern in trying to accomplish a certain dark vibe. “Novacane” is the first track on the album which goes full hip-hop, excessive scratching et all.

The album regains focus with the sixties flavored folk/pop, “Jack-Ass”. Featuring a good mixture of acoustic and electric guitars and a sharp xylophone pattern. This song samples a cover of the classic “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”, originally by Bob Dylan on the album Bringing It All Back Home. The even more popular,
“Where It’s At”, features a great, laid back electric piano during intro and verse before launching into full robotic hip-hop chorus chant as a nice fusing of genres. The song was written and first performed in 1995, and features some of the better lyrics and rhyming on the album;

Pick yourself up, off the side of the road, with your elevator bones and your whip-flash tones / Members only, hypnotizers, move through the room like ambulance drivers…”

“Minus” is a track that is a bit different, production wise, as it gets into a decent but thick rock groove before unfortunately breaking apart near the end. The whistling intro of “Sissyneck” soon breaks into a quasi-country/rap, which is at once stylistic but also partially farcical. Ultimately, the fine slide steel guitar by guest Gregory Liesz makes this song worthwhile as a fine listen.

Beck

The album wraps up unevenly with its three final disparate tracks. “Readymade” delves back into the avante garde, driven by Beck’s bass and guitar rhythms and vocal melody along with short flourishes of interesting lead instruments. “High 5 (Rock the Catskills)” is the dreadful nadir of the album as a kitsch hip-hop rendition which detracts from the finer elements of the album. The album concludes with the excellent dark ballad “Ramshackle”, with a laid back acoustic arrangement and slightly harmonized vocals during the choruses that sweeten it up just enough to make it all soar.

Odelay was a Top 20, platinum selling album on both sides of the Atlantic and received several Grammy nominations in years subsequent to its release. In the wake of its release, the album at once propelled Beck’s career and opened up scrutiny on the legalities of album sampling use in new albums, which pretty much assured that this exact approach would not be replicated again.

~

1996 music celebration image

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 20th anniversary of 1996 albums.

 

Load by Metallica

Buy Load

Load by MetallicaFive years in the making, Metallica took a semi-radical turn on their sixth studio album, Load. The album incorporates elements of alternative rock, blues, southern rock and even country while remaining rooted in the group’s traditional brand of heavy metal. While this musical progression caused a bit of controversy among long time fans, the album was an immediate commercial hit and was their fastest selling out of the gate.

The group’s 1991 breakthrough, Metallica (“The Black Album”), brought Metallica to the mainstream and sparked several years of touring throughout the world, including a headlining slate at Woodstock ’94. In the summer of 1995, the group took a short break before returning to the studio later that year.

Songs for the album were mainly written by lead vocalist / guitarist James Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich, while lead guitarist Kirk Hammett played a large role in shaping the sonic direction of Load with the many guitar styles and textures. The album was produced by Hetfied, Ulrich and Bob Rock, who was instrumental in migrating the band’s sound closer to the mainstream.


Load by Metallica
Released: June 4, 1996 (Elektra)
Produced by: Bob Rock, James Hetfield & Lars Ulrich
Recorded: The Plant Studios, Sausalito, CA, May 1995–February 1996
Album Tracks Primary Musicians
Ain’t My Bitch
2 X 4
The House Jack Built
Until It Sleeps
King Nothing
Hero of the Day
Bleeding Me
Cure
Poor Twisted Me
Wasting My Hate
Thorn Within
Ronnie
The Outlaw Torn
James Hetfield – Lead Vocals, Guitars
Kirk Hammett – Guitars
Jason Newsted – Bass, Vocals
Lars Ulrich – Drums

Load by Metallica

The strongest trait of Load‘s nearly eighty minute odyssey is how cohesive the album is in spite of its abundance of genres and tones. The opener “Ain’t My Bitch” is nearly a pure pop/rocker with choppy riff and rhythms, which made it a hit on the U.S. Mainstream Rock charts. “2 X 4” starts with Ulrich’s drum intro into a slightly bluesy hard rock, featuring slide guitars by Hammett. “The House Jack Built” goes through several distinct sections as the song unfolds, with a very theatrical feel overall. Sound effects from Hammett’s guitar act as a dramatic guide throughout, climaxing with a wild talk-box lead section.

“Until It Sleeps” starts with fretless bass section by Jason Newsted before it breaks into the melodic verses. The picked electric riff throughout is the highlight of this track, which remains laid back and moderate throughout and became Metallica’s first and only Top 10 hit on the pop charts. “King Nothing” starts with wild feedback effect before Newstead’s driving bass ushers in the building main riff, in an arrangement very similar (right down to the middle nursery rhyme section) to “Enter Sandman” from the previous album. In all, this is the most traditional-sounding and raw song on the album thus far.

The best overall track on the album, “Hero of the Day” is built on Hammett’s simple but brilliant guitar pattern and executed with differing arrangement elements from heavy rock to strummed acoustic with electric accents. The later lead section is equally simple but ever more excellent and the song ends in hard-rock crescendo making it an instant classic which still sounds potent 20 years later. The picked guitar and bass intro of “Bleeding Me” shows the band pointing towards an alternative rock / grunge approach, in the same manner as bands like Alice in Chains. This song remains fairly moderate and consistent until about 5 minutes in, when it takes a more direct, metal approach for the duration. On the eighties-flavored “Cure”, the guitar textures are fairly interesting but the composition itself is rather weak, while “Poor Twisted Me” has guitar tones which fall somewhere between Van Halen and ZZ Top reaching legit rock heights towards the end, making it an overall fine track. “Wasting My Hate” starts as pure upbeat blues before breaking into an intense hard rocker with cool, returning riffs.

Metallica in 1996

Hetfield wrote the ballad “Mama Said” about his difficult relationship with his mother, who died of cancer when he was 16 years old and is a real heartfelt folk song by Hetfield with emotional intensity throughout. Acoustic throughout, when this song fully kicks in, it is almost country with pedal steel and later a heavier slide guitar, while the bridge contains further layered guitars and harmonized vocals. On “Thorn Within”, the group returns to a slow metal format with multiple riff variations, not as strong as this album’s best, but certainly not a throwaway track either. “Ronnie” works its way in with an excellent, bluesy riff and keep the simple blues/rock anthem feel throughout. While the song is five minutes long and repetitive, it never gets stale because if its excellent execution and tonal qualities, making it a highlight of the latter part of the album. Unfortunately, the album concludes with the unfocused and bloated “The Outlaw Torn”, a nearly ten-minute droning and slightly interesting track, which is far from the best way to complete the album.

Load debuted at number one on the Billboard album charts and went on to top charts in over a dozen countries around the globe. Metallica’s momentum continued as they headlined Lollapalooza in mid-1996 and followed-up with the 1997 “sequel” album, Reload, which featured many tracks started during the production of this album.

~

1996 music celebration image

Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 20th anniversary of 1996 albums.