November 23 – Odd Hit Was A Piece Of Cake

Not quite rock, not quite hip-hop, not quite Mariachi (although they’ve been described as all of those), Cake are a unique sort of band and on this day they scored their first top 40 hit with this one in 1996. “The Distance” eventually would be used in ads for Amazon.

In 2011 they finally got a Billboard chart-topping album with Showroom of Compassion but may have peaked with Fashion Nugget, from which this single arose. The single described by allmusic as “suburban, melodic white-funk” was a top 10 hit in Australia and a top 30 hit in the UK and made the album one of two platinum-sellers for them in the U.S. The single itself reached #4 on American alternative rock charts and eventually was certified double-platinum, making it their biggest hit even though they’d later have a #1 hit on the Alt Rock charts with “Never There.”  “The Distance” introduced us to the band’s trademarks – John McCrea’s monotone sing-song delivery, Vince DiFiore’s trumpet flourishes as well as those cool, retro-50’s looking album covers!

The Sacramento band is still officially active, over 30 years in and has been teasing fans with an expected release of their seventh studio album , tentatively entitled Age of Aquarius , for some time. However, there are no updates about it on their website…but that’s not out of keeping for Cake. Currently the website has a picture of a pig and a quote from Rhode Island politician David Cicilline : “It’s no secret Live Nation-Ticketmaster is an unchecked monopoly” on its homepage. The news page has links to stories about the reemergence of Chestnut trees and recycling. Quirky, for sure, but we hope Cake has a little bit more of The Distance to travel for us.

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November 17 – Carpets Got Their Feet On American Ground For First Time

Inspiral Carpets had their first taste of success in North America on this day in 1990 with “Commercial Rain” hitting the Billboard modern rock charts.

Founded in 1983 in Manchester, they were noted for Clint Boon’s swirling organ playing and along with the likes of Happy Mondays and the Chameleons UK were responsible for the “Madchester” sound. Like many of their contemporaries, they found Manchester in the ’80s rather dismal and escaped into music young – drummer Craig Gill was just 14 when he joined! Mute Records, who also had Depeche Mode, distributed the band and obviously knew a thing or two about the American market. “Commercial Rain” would get to #27 on the Modern Rock chart and help get their debut album, Life, noticed but in their homeland it wasn’t even included on the record… although another song on it, “This Is How It Feels” would make it up to #14 there. Even Entertainment Weekly took note, saying the record “straddles the post-punk present and psychedelic ’60s with hook-filled songs.” They went onto slightly greater U.S. success in the early ’90s with singles “This is How it Feels”- released later on here – and “Two Worlds Collide” but might have had the most impact on the music world because of their staff. Noel Gallagher, later of Oasis, worked as a roadie for them!

Coincidentally, Inspiral Carpets called it quits around when Oasis began their quick run up the charts, in 1995 but recently announced a reunion tour of Britain next spring although there’s no indication yet of them putting out any new music.

November 7 – Lemonheads Hit More Sweet Than Bitter

Hitting #1 on Billboard‘s Modern Rock chart for the first time on this day in 1993, the Lemonheads showed the world they could be as hummable as Simon and Garfunkel (before that they were best known for their cover of “Mrs. Robinson”). Although it missed the top 40 singles chart, “Into Your Arms” stayed at #1 on the specific chart for nine weeks, longest of any song that year and at the time, tying U2’s “Mysterious Ways” as the longest running #1 on it. The song was a cover of an obscure ’80s tune by Australian Robyn St. Clare.

The Lemonheads are a Boston band which was formed in 1986 by Evan Dando, the main writer, guitarist and singer, and the only constant member of them to this day. Although the band’s had a rotating door of other members, one of the best-known of them sang backing vocals on this one, Juliana Hatfield. She’s put out 19 albums to date, and had her own Modern Rock #1 the same year with “My Sister.” 

“Into Your Arms” did make the UK top 20 and helped push the album it was drawn from, Come On Feel the Lemonheads, their third on a major label to gold status in both countries. It remains their biggest hit to date, although they did score one more British top 40 and North American alt rock hit in ’96 with “If I Could Talk, I’d Tell You.

October 26 – Fourth Time Might Not Have Been The Charm

The ’90s were drawing to a close and so too, perhaps was the defining sound of it from this side of the ocean – grunge. That made the Stone Temple Pilots fourth album, imaginatively titled No. 4, an appropriate release for this day in 1999. It sounded a bit like a full stop to punctuate both, with little indication of what the next chapter might be.

They drew upon their strengths getting the album ready, namely bringing back Brendan O’Brien to produce as he had on all their previous efforts, and going with the tandem of singer Scott Weiland and bassist Robert DeLeo to write the tunes. And the 11 tunes they came up with had interesting titles, like “Heaven and Hot Rods,” “Church on Tuesday” and “MC5”. But they also returned to their worst habits of the past; Weiland was sentenced to a year in jail for drugs just before this one’s release, which soured Atlantic Records on them and the promotion for it a little.

The overall impression of No. 4 was they were a harder, less melodic outfit than the one which had come up with the surprisingly catchy Tiny Music... a couple of years earlier. Which is not to say they didn’t veer away from playing it safe entirely. They brought in a few new instruments to broaden the sound, including a zither played by Robert on “Glide” and a steel guitar for Dean DeLeo on “I Got You.” And for all the heavy rock there was a standout pop tune in the mix, “Sour Girl.

Weiland was quite candid about that song. “’Sour Girl’ was written after the collapse of my relationship with (his first wife) Janina. It’s about her. ‘She was a sour girl the day that she met me’ I wrote, …’she was a happy girl the day that she left me’” he said, adding “she had finally rid her life of a man who had never been faithful.”

Critics had seldom been kind to STP, and this album didn’t change that in any big way. Rolling Stone gave it 3-stars, Entertainment Weekly an equally middling “C”, while in Britain the NME managed to think it worthy of one-star, although CMJ did like it and label it “powerful and cohesive.” EW figured “much of No.4 sounds like it’s from a catalog. It’s generic and phoned in. If Ikea made easy-assembly hard rock songs, they’d sound like the dour ‘Down.’” The NME was blunter, calling it “inspiration-free…a gutless musical dead end.” Years later, retrospective reviews weren’t much greater. Allmusic did give it 4-stars, but complained “it’s as if STP decided to compete directly with the new generation of alt-metal bands who prize aggression over hooks and riffs,” reminding us Weiland & Co. “always sounded better when they concentrated on melodicism.” They did find some things to like however, like “Church on Tuesday” (“a great pop tune”) and both “Sour Girl” and “Atlanta” which “have a sense of majesty.”

Thanks to Weiland’s forced new address, there was no tour to support the record when it came out which might have played a role in its lessened success compared to the previous three of theirs. Or maybe listeners just agreed with the NME! Either way, while both “Sour Girl” and “Down” made it into the top 10 on both mainstream rock and alternative rock charts at home, the album was the first of theirs to miss the UK top 100 altogether. While it did make it to #6 in the States, #5 in Canada, it fell off quickly and was noticeably below their earlier works in sales. That said, it did go platinum in North America. As a reminder of how many discs were being sold in the ’90s, even though it was platinum in both the U.S. and Canada, it failed to end up as one of the top 100 sellers of the year!

 

October 19 – Kurt & Co. ‘Box’ed Their Way To The Top

For the second time in their brief career, the (allegedly) ultimate alternative rock band topped the Billboard alternative rock chart. Nirvana‘s “Heart-shaped Box” was #1 on it this day in 1993…and Kurt Cobain was probably ticked off about it.

It was the lead single off In Utero, Nirvana’s third and final studio album, and most importantly first after the massive success of Nevermind. As Entertainment Weekly pointed out at the time, “Kurt Cobain hates it all”, listing everything from success to naysayers of his wife, to reporters to record company staff that he seemed to abhor. It’s well-known that despite the huge popularity of Nevermind, or possibly because of it, he wasn’t happy with the record and at times said he’d sold out by putting it out. So he, and ostensibly the other pair (Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic) wanted a grittier sound for the new record. Cobain picked Steve Albini to produce it, since the latter had done work Cobain loved with The Pixies. The label, DGC, wasn’t happy so Nirvana paid Albini and for his Minnesota studio time themselves. After a multi-platinum hit, Geffen wasn’t going to argue with them too much.

Until they heard the product. Apparently it was too noisy and unrefined, too grungy – and they threatened not to release it. So the band made a compromise, bringing in Scott Litt to have a go at production and remixing what would be the singles, including this one and the follow-up, “All Apologies”. It may not have been much of a compromise in truth, it’s well-known Cobain was a fan of R.E.M.’s less-than-in-your-face sound on albums like Out of Time and Automatic for the People… albums Litt had worked on. And just after Nevermind had begun to sell, Kurt told some reporters his next album would be “more raw on some songs, more candy pop on others.” Which ended up being what In Utero delivered, with this pleasant-sounding tune presumably being part of the “candy” in the equation.

Heart-shaped Box” is a song that’s spurred on numerous debates, probably more than most topics in rock music in fact.  Suffice to say it’s known that Courtney Love once gave Kurt a, yes, heart-shaped box as a gift, and we know he got the title from that although he wanted it to be called “Heart-shaped Coffin.” Courtney says the song refers to her “Heart-shaped Box” – her, umm, lady parts – while Cobain scoffed and said he wrote it about children with cancer after seeing a TV show which “makes me sadder than anything I can think of.”

Regardless, the final result was pleasing enough, thanks in no small part to Scott Litt who worked with Kurt to clear up the vocals, add harmonies and acoustic guitars to the final mix. It ended up getting to #5 in the UK, their biggest chart success there, and was a top 10 in New Zealand and Ireland. Domestically, it wasn’t put out as an actual single so it didn’t make that chart at all, but it was #1 on the alternative one, their first since “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in late-’91. It helped In Utero go 5X platinum at home, and sell something like 15 million copies worldwide… about half of the predecessor, but still a highly respectable tally by any measure.

“Heart-shaped Box” ended up being the very last song anyone heard Cobain sing. It was the final song on the last Nirvana concert, in Germany early the following year.

October 14 – Crows Kept Counting The Hits

So this is September? The Counting Crows followed up their surprising debut smash, August & Everything After, with Recovering the Satellites, which came out this day in 1996.

The Crows had veered hard from the conventional rock and alt rock sounds of the day for their first album, which was modernized folk that various people found reminiscent of Van Morrison or R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People. For this one, they changed producers, going to Brit Gil Norton in place of American roots-rocker T Bone Burnett. Given that Norton had made his name working with new wave-ish bands like Echo & the Bunnymen and China Crisis, it’s surprising how little the sound changed. In short, if you liked August & Everything After, you were going to like this one. On the other hand, if you didn’t…

The northern California band led by dreadlocked Adam Duritz, their vocalist and keyboard player (including accordions this time around) was their frontman and primary songwriter, although drummer Ben Mize and guitarist Dan Vickery got some credits on a handful of the 14 song effort. The sextet played the music well, a blend of folk and modern rock that at times seemed dreary or depressed that came to be synonymous with them..

Reviews were somewhat mixed, though generally not that complimentary. Britain’s The Independent especially called it “self-pity” and derivative of both Bruce Springsteen and R.E.M. and thought Duritz was annoying since “he just won’t shut up about himself!”. Entertainment Weekly kindly graded it a “C” but didn’t like Duritz and his voice, a mix of “yowling and moans.” Rolling Stone however, liked it and gave it 4-stars, considering it and the band full of “serious worthy ambitions…which they largely achieve.” Somehow they even compared them to Patti Smith in the review. Years later, allmusic gave it 4-stars but were somewhat slagging in the review which they called tha album “angst-ridden” in and similar to the debut but “(Duritz) is lacking the muted joy that made ‘Mr.Jones’ a hit”, but offering that “when they scale back their ambitions to simple folk rock, such as on the single ‘A Long December’, they’re at their most articulate.”

Derivative or articulate or not, the public liked it… though not as much as they did August & Everything After. The album itself got to #1, but didn’t have the staying power of its predecessor, It was top 10 in most other “Western” countries like Canada, Britain and Australia and ended up double-platinum thanks to songs like the title track, “”Daylight Fading”, “Angels of the Silences” (an American radio hit and a top 10 in Canada) and “A Long December,” which hit #1 in Canada and on Billboard‘s adult contemporary charts and #6 in the UK.

The Crows are still counting, with largely the same lineup, having put out five more albums since, although none have quite matched the popularity of their first pair.

October 8 – Song Won U2 New Hearts They Desire-d

Bono got to sing from the rock & roll pulpit on this day in 1988… that was when U2‘s “Desire” hit the U.S. top 40. It gave the public their first taste of the band’s shift in direction that was Rattle and Hum, the album which came out a few days later.

Guitarist The Edge at the time said of that record “music’s become too scientific, it’s lost that spark and energy it had in the ’50s and ’60s,” suggesting “that missing quality was something we were trying to get back into our own music.” To do that, they went to a new producer, Jimmy Iovine, after recording a couple of very successful albums with Eno and Daniel Lanois (The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree) and looked to the U.S. both geographically and musically for inspiration, visiting the sites where much of the old Blues and R&B music they loved had been made.

Although “Desire” was built around an old “Bo Diddley beat” rhythm and The Edge fashioned his guitar work on it somewhat after The Stooges, the song actually was one of the minority on the album to be recorded back home in Ireland. They had the idea for the song early on in the recording process, cut a demo of it there and then re-recorded it in an L.A. Studio. However, they liked the grit and power of the demo better, and ended up keeping that, although they did do some re-mixing of it in California, which resulted in the alternate “Hollywood Mix”, utilizing back-up singers Edna Wright (of Honey Cone) and Alexandra Brown, which is used in the Ameri-centric video.

The song’s lyrics seem a mix of the band’s drive – the “Desire” to succed – and potshots at American life, gun culture and televangelists for example. Bono said “on one level, I’m criticizing the lunatic fringe preachers ‘stealing hearts at a traveling show’, but I’m also starting to realize there’s a real parallel between what they do and what I do.”

Perhaps there is. The band certainly were able to steal a few hearts with their traveling “Joshua Tree” tour that some of the album was culled from. The song – and later the whole Rattle & Hum album – proved to Americans, among others that the success of The Joshua Tree wasn’t a fluke. “Desire” was a worldwide hit, getting them gold records in the States, Canada and New Zealand and going to #1 in Britain (their first there), Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Spain and Ireland (where it was their fifth chart-topper) among other places. In the U.S., it was helped along by being used in Miami Vice, and it reached #3 but was #1 on the speciality Mainstream Rock and Alternative Rock charts. It was their first on the latter chart..but that’s no surprise as it was only the fourth #1 song in the chart’s history, Billboard having only begun it weeks earlier.

October 7 – All Clear For Everclear To Land A Hit

The grungiest of non-grunge of the year’s albums? Maybe the non-grungiest grunge record? Either way, Everclear made a splash 25 years ago with the release of their third album. So Much For the Afterglow came out this day in 1997.

Everclear were, and still are, a Portland band which is essentially Art Alexis and friends. Alexis, a guitarist and the singer, has been the only constant in their now 30 year history. He was nearly 30 years old when he started the group, making him a bit older than most of his contemporaries. He’d spent his teens and twenties moving around from his L.A. birthplace to places like Houston and San Francisco, being in various punk and cow-punk bands along the way and developing a near fatal addiction to various drugs which he’d finally overcome.

They put out an EP and an LP by themselves in 1993, which got them signed to Capitol Records the next year. Capitol saw them, it would seem , as their answer to Nirvana, although Alexis bristles at that. “I don’t think we sound like a grunge group,” he said back then, “those people (who call us one) haven’t really listened.”

They’d had decent success with their big-label debut Sparkle and Fade, thanks to the single “Santa Monica.” For this one, Alexis seemed to be determined to try to separate the band from the labeling, so even though they recorded it mostly in an empty warehouse, he says while “Sparkle and Fade was a rock record with pop influences. This time we tried to make a pop record with rock influences.” Around then he listed his influences as including the Beatles, Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Costello.

While the other two in the band, bassist/keyboardist Craig Montoya and drummer Greg Eklund, shared in creating the tunes, Alexis (who played a number of instruments besides guitar including mandolin, synthesizer and “toy piano”) was the lyricist, singer, chief producer and all-around focus of the group.

The 13 song (including the hidden track “Hating You For Christmas”) release came at the tail-end of the grunge revolution, and while Alexis may have hated being called “grunge”, it was easy to see how people would figure that given the look of the album cover and song titles like that one, “Amphetamine” and “White Men in Black Suits”. However, there was more to it than that and it found a willing home on various radio formats of the day.

Although the instrumental “El Distorto De Melodica” garnered them a Grammy nomination, the two standout tracks were the downbeat “I Will Buy You a New Life” and “Father of Mine.” The latter, a venomous letter to one’s dad, longingly looking back to when “you would take me to the movies, you would take me to the beach” before “he gave me a name and then walked away” was “one of the very, very few songs that are autobiographical” the singer admits.

Reviews were, and still are, mixed for the record. At the time, Entertainment Weekly gave it a C+, Rolling Stone 2.5-stars and Spin 8 out of 10. EW liked the “anthemic power chord blasts” but declared “Alexis has an average, logy voice and Everclear have no real distinguishing features.” The thought more of it though, suggesting “Alexis sings with a raw intensity (and) Lennon-like candor”, all the better to highlight the conflicting sounds – “sweet, sunny Beach Boy-style chorale is abruptly swamped by pummeling rock.” Later on, Pitchfork gave it 8/10 appreciating that “the difference between Alexis and the average rocker is that he’s been through it so it comes across more like a diary than fantasy.” Allmusic rated it well but slagged it in the review, noticing it “lacks anything as catchy as ‘Santa Monica’” and its production made it “sound(s) cluttered, not symphonic.”

Cluttered or not, it was by far the band’s biggest seller (in the three million neighborhood) despite not getting as high on the charts as some of their others – it peaked at #33 at home and just #49 in Canada despite going double platinum in both lands. The songs “Father of Mine” and “I Will Buy You A New Life” both were top 10s on alternative charts, making the other single off it “One Hit Wonder” not prophetic as it turns out.

Everclear have put out eight albums since, although none since 2015.

September 15 – ‘Express’ Fast-tracked L&R For Success

It was “the first time we were really exposed to music, when we were at the age where we could really appreciate it,” David J says of 1986, “and we were like little sponges …Bowie, T-Rex, the glam thing (also) Roxy Music and the electronic artists like Kraftwerk and before that, Can.” Thus Love & Rockets second album, Express which came out this day that year came to be a rich, different-sounding kind of album that drew from a fair number of inspirations. Seemingly the band’s earlier version, Bauhaus (the members of Love & Rockets were three-quarters of that band, with only singer Peter Murphy missing) was one of the least important ones. Gone was the brooding-in-black Goth; in was wild psychedelic pop they’d hinted at with their debut, Seventh Dream of Teenage Heaven the previous year.,

Drummer Kevin Haskins held the fort behind the kit and added some synths here and there, but the band was essentially a partnership between Kev’s brother, David J, and Daniel Ash with both having times at the mic; David playing bass and Daniel guitars and saxophone to boot. Ash wrote the majority of it but the bassist contributed two of the eight tunes on the original LP. Those who were ahead of the curve technology-wise got a bonus – the CD had three more tracks, including a brand new one (“Angels and Devils”) , a remix and their previous single, a cover of the Temptations “Ball of Confusion.” That one had been a hit on American college radio and was on some editions of Seventh Dream... but had been omitted from some due to length constrictions.

That one notwithstanding, the new songs were the album’s real draw, particularly the trio of singles – “Kundalini Express”, which got used in Miami Vice, “All in My Mind”, their first to hit U.S. mainstream rock charts, and the enigmatic and energetic “Yin and Yang (and the Flowerpot Men.)” Despite its bizarre title, its inspiration was apparently quite straight-forward…if you were British. There was a popular kids TV show called The Flowerpot Men.

Most publications seemed to miss Express when it arrived, but remarkably metal-loving Kerrang gave it a listen and then rated it 4-stars. Later on allmusic outdid that, giving it 4.5-stars. They offered that producer “John A. Rivers outdid himself with the sound in this disc” and praised its “rich in sonic detail” approach, “guitars spiral to dizzying heights from beds of sound, arrangements swirl, songs change and mutate.” Diffuser FM seconded that idea, noting it was “tighter and more focused” than their debut and “more diverse…than Bauhaus…mixing psychedelic pop and vintage glam.”

As good as those reviews were, it was a case of those who liked it, liked it a lot…but most ignored it. It did well on North American college radio and on the alt rock superstations, finishing at #45 on L.A.’s KROQ year-end countdown and in the top 10 to the north on Toronto’s CFNY. However, they’d have to wait about three more years to find widespread popularity and gold and platinum success, with their self-titled album and the song “So Alive.

 

September 6 – Sugar Sweetened Up Grunge Sounds

One of the great alt rock releases of the grunge era arrived this day in 1994. With a band led by one of the genre’s beloved “founding fathers”, a guy who Nirvana nearly picked to produce their mega-seller Nevermind, and whom rehearsed at R.E.M.’s private space in Athens, Georgia, one would assume this was going to be a sales titan. Yet, inexplicably Sugar never came close to the mark set by those other bands or many of their contemporaries. Nevertheless, File Under Easy Listening (sometimes abbreviated with the acronym “FUEL”) , their third and final regular release sold decently and was one of those albums where it seemed those who liked it liked it a lot.

Sugar was a trio of bassist David Barbe, drummer Malcolm Travis and, most significantly, guitarist, singer and all-around leader Bob Mould. Mould had been the driving force in Husker Du, the ’80s trio that were among the first to create the sound that eventually would morph into grunge. After they split up, he put up two solo albums , both of which were well-reviewed but not big sellers. That, coupled with his manager’s selling off his publishing rights for those works without his knowledge led him and Virgin Records to part ways and Mould to start over. He formed the power trio in Athens, yet first signed to a British indie label, Creation Records. Soon they got brought on board by Rykodisc for North America. They managed to merge the intensity and punk feeling of Husker Du with the melodies of classic pop and their first album, Copper Blue, was named by the NME and several other publications as the best album of ’92. That was followed by a darker EP, Beaster.

Which led to this one, by which point Sugar was, Mould admits, more or less just a pseudonym for himself. The other two played what they were told, with Mould writing nine of the ten songs entirely by himself (Barbe was given co-writing credit on one song) and producing the album. He described it as “pretty punk rock. Not real fast, just pretty basic…real beautiful and harmonic, but (also) real pile-driving.” Songs were kept compact because “I’m really starting to hate guitar solos.”

Reviews were good on both sides of the Atlantic. When it came out, Rolling Stone gave it 3.5-stars, New York’s Village Voice graded it “A” as did Entertainment Weekly. In Britain, the NME gave it 9 out of 10. In later years, allmusic would grade it 4.5-stars and Pitchfork 8 of 10. EW suggested “if Sugar has a signature sound, it’s frontman Bob Mould’s punk-pop hybrids” and called it their “most engaging release yet.” Q called it a “structured barrage of pop noises,” and allmusic noted “beneath the loud guitars lie the friendliest, most relaxed pop songs Mould had ever written”, suggesting the finest moment was “‘Gee Angel’, a powerhouse melodic scorcher.” Pitchfork opted for that song as well as “Your Favorite Thing” and “Gift” as “three of Sugar’s best songs.” Others pointed to “Panama City Motel” and the more acoustic “Believe What You’re Saying” as  highlights.

For all that it had going for it, File Under Easy Listening was hardly a powerhouse at the cash register. “Believe What You’re Saying” was a minor hit in the UK while “Your Favorite Thing” was their second top 40 hit there and reached #14 on Billboard‘s alternative rock chart. The album stalled at #50 at home and #32 in Canada, but did make it to #7 in the UK.

Sugar put out one more album of b-sides and outtakes but broke up by 1996.