I've been listening to 1993's No Alternative compilation recently. It's hit and miss, and outtakes and live versions make up a third of the comp, but mostly it's pretty sweet: The Smashing Pumpkins' "Glynis" reminds you how actually really talented Billy Corgan used to be, bands I wasn't familiar with like The Verlaines and Barbara Manning and the San Francisco Seals turn in good work, American Music Club further convince me I really need to start listening to them and Nirvana's "Verse Chorus Verse" is Nirvana's "Verse Chorus Verse".
The undisputable highlight, however, is Pavement's "Unseen Power Of The Picket Fence." In an ealier attempt to write about NA from a slightly different angle, I noted that the track
might be the single best song the band ever did, a paean to R.E.M.'s Reckoning so good it bests nearly everything on that album. You haven't lived until you've heard S.M. shout "'Time After Time' was my least favorite song. 'Time After Time' was my least favorite song!"
And I stand behind that. I've listened to a lot of M.B.V., but I don't think I've ever heard guitars woozier than the ones that open "Unseen Power Of The Picket Fence," all metallic clang and hazy swoosh. Malkmus' vocal performance is pretty restrained, really stoned-sounding, and he never really betrays his love of Reckoning in his straight-faced yelps (we know of course that SM adored R.E.M. and especially Reckoning, from the lyrics but also from the fact that his band would cover "Camera" in 1994, albeit somewhat poorly). The song trudges forward, its rhythm section barely discernible as Malkmus narrates the R.E.M. story confusingly, mentioning Chronic Town but omitting Murmur and listing about half the songs on the record. In the next part--you could hardly call them verses and the song's structure eludes me--Malkmus describes the band in a way that does his (and Stipe's) lyrical elusiveness justice while succinctly capturing at least three-fourths of R.E.M.:
The singer, he had long hair
And the drummer he knew restraint
And the bass man he had all the right moves
And the guitar player was no saint
From there, the song evokes William Tecumseh Sherman and launches into a coda featuring what would appear to be Civil War Soldiers shouting to one another about wagons and artillery. At this point the metallic sounds pulsate dissonantly, a weird but convincing evocation of Sothern Gothic. It's its own beast; nothing even Pavement did has ever sounded like "Unseen Power Of The Picket Fence."
I've been thinking about the track recently, partly because I think about it a lot, partly because it was the first Pavement song I ever heard, but mostly because I've been listening to another love letter to an album in song form, The-Dream's "Kelly's 12 Play."
I should say that I think Love Vs. Money, the album which features "Kelly's 12 Play" as its last track, is easily one of the best albums I've heard in 2009. I haven't been obsessing over new releases lately, but the only discs I've heard this calendar year that I've liked as much are Morrissey's pissed yet stately Years Of Refusal and Amadou and Mariam's incredible Welcome To Mali (nerds may quibble that Mali was released in the Old World last year).
The song is a sultry R&B jam about how Dream and his lady enjoy doing the nasty to R. Kelly's much-loved sophomore album 12 Play (the disc features such classily-titled jams as "Freak Dat Booty," "I Like The Crotch On You" and "Sex Me Pts. 1 & 2"). The lyrics are nothing special--the rote loverman persona The-Dream adopts is the most boring thing about his album--but the production buzzes and whirrs magnificently. It sounds sexy and sterile, a thoroughly chopped and screwed affair probably too weird to release as a single. But it's great, and I'm happy to know that the kids are still paying respect to the old masters.
[stream] The-Dream "Kelly's 12 Play"
(I can't find a video or stream of "Unseen Power"; both No Alternative and the much-expanded L.A.'s Desert Origins reissue of Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain contain the track)
Earlier in the post, I mention that I already tried to write about No Alternative. I was trying to compare the superior NA to 2009's inferior Dark Was The Night. It came of as rambling, but I would still like to make the following point about the latter compilation, lifted from those ramblings:
Pitchfork, among others, has taken pains to stress that the album represents a survey of indie in 2009. I've been offended because the compilation highlights indie's often boring but very popular folk-pop strain. It also hurts that the tracklisting leaves out nearly ever artist I enjoy and respect in the underground. Still, it's weird that nothing even vaguely resembling punk rock, the music that birthed and has often sustained the underground, makes an appearance. That Beach House (covering Queen!), were relegated to the digital-only version of the album is another slap in the face.