[Originally published 1994 |
Updated here 1999.06.20
Oh, knock off those Christmas carols. I've had enough already. The short days, the long, cold nights, and the dirty slush one bikes through while fingers freeze 'round handlebars all impel me toward loud restorative rock music. Three artistes of note, for wildly different reasons:
Bad Religion, Stranger Than Fiction. For all the reasons to love Green Day – their gratuitous cussin', their fondness for drag queens, their lyrical conception of shrinks as female and whores as male – that trio would be ringing up double-doubles, Hustler, and Sinu-Tab for pot-bellied bikers at Interstate truck stops were it not for Bad Religion, a seminal, long-lived ensemble that magically turns punk rock, a genre so old you could carbon-date it, into an emblem of the here and now.
I would do virtually anything Bad Religion's raspy peaches-and-cream singer/songwriter Greg Graffin asked of me, anytime, anywhere (and not just because he's 6'4" and wears, like, size 13 shoes – you figure it out). No, it's his trash-compactor technique of jamming ideas sequence – always expressed in full polysyllables – into the rat-a-tat-tat of drums/bass/guitar.
Like Erasure's, Bad Religion's albums are all virtually interchangeable and worth buying (shop for used CDs – both bands have extensive back catalogues). Stranger Than Fiction is a product of that same assembly line, though I admit to a mild preference for Recipe for Hate (1993), whose "American Jesus" exemplifies Graffin's complexity: "He's the farmer's barren fields, the force the army wields, the expressions on the faces of the starving millions, the power of the man, he's the fuel that drives the Klan, he's the motive and the conscience of the murderer… he's the nuclear bombs and the kids with no moms, and I'm fearful that he's inside me!" With this ring, Greg, I thee wed.
R.E.M., Monster. Don't believe dumb-ass mainstream critics who proclaim that R.E.M. has finally cranked up the amps and let 'er rip. That's another way of saying "Jeez, I was gettin' tired of that fuckin' girl music. Rock on!" Nay. What R.E.M. has rediscovered is its own long-lost weirdness. (I'm tempted to call it queerness, but that would be revisionism, wouldn't it? "Queer" was still an insult at the dawn of the R.E.M. era. To Michael Stipe, it may still be.) Murmur and Reckoning were epochal for the muffled stream-of-delirium words emanating from Stipe's mouth. Over the years his diction has improved as rapidly as his bank account; on Monster he has decided to simply kiss the microphone, metaphorically and concretely. The spooky, reverb-laden "Crush with Eyeliner" (it's about Courtney Love, she herself declares), the album-ending shimmer of "Bang and Blame" that doesn't actually end the album ("You" does), the hammily inhaled breath at the outset of "King of Comedy" – it's all immediately gripping and takes on a comforting air with repeated listens. If you skip song one – the gratuitous rocker single "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" – you can play this record continuously for hours.
And if I'm not mistaken, among the economically-expressed, fuzzy-edged, somnambulant imagery in "I Don't Sleep, I Dream" is a clear reference to getting head. Or giving it. One can never tell with Miss Michael Stipe.