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PopCulture25YL – April 1994: Blur’s Parklife, The Alienist Novel

This month in PopCulture25YL, we’re taking a look at the music, shows, video games, and whatever else we want from the month that was April of 1994.

VHS in the VCR

The X-Files   by John Bernardy

Scully and Mulder The X-Files

April of 1994 offered us four new episodes as Season 1 neared its close.

“Shapes” was written due to Fox executives’ suggestion to focus on more conventional monster-of-the-weeks, but instead of going full-on werewolves, we get the Native American legend of the shape-shifting manitou. The best part of the episode? The monster wreaked havoc on a reservation where Sheriff Charles Tskany is played by Michael Horse, everyone’s favorite Deputy Hawk. At the time, I was fairly freaked out because I still had PTSD from Twin Peaks and I was expecting the episode to go as dark as a moonless night, but it never did. It was compelling, just not scarring (this is a good thing!). Behind the scenes had one of the best stories though: Horse brought a picture of him and David Duchovny dressed as Denise Bryson on set, and he had the crew absolutely convinced he dated Duchovny’s sister back in the day.

“Darkness Falls” was a lot like “Ice” in that Mulder and Scully were trapped in a remote location, but instead of parasites we got ancient bugs unearthed when loggers cut an old tree deep into its growth rings. I liked this one quite a bit, but I enjoy the cabin in the woods kind of stories when the cast of characters need only make it until daylight. Where it ran heavy on ecological statements it ran even heavier on suspense.

“Tooms” follows the serial killer from earlier episode “Squeeze,” in the only direct sequel of the season. Why? I couldn’t tell you. I didn’t like Eugene Tooms myself. But others did, so there you go. We get to see his creepy nest at the end of the episode, and Mulder kills him in an escalator, so I’d say all’s well that ends well.

“Born Again” happens to be an episode that Duchovny himself states he “detested.” I didn’t remember this episode, and the plot sounds like a mess of earlier season plot points all pushed together. I’m just glad this wasn’t the season finale–that’s next month–or we’d have never gotten that glorious second season.

As you can probably tell, Season 1 of the X-Files is not my favorite. It’s not bad, it just didn’t quite know exactly what made it tick yet, so we get some unevenness. If I had to recommend a viewing slate from this month, I’d say watch the first two and skip the last two, but “Tooms” is better than my personal taste gives it credit for, so maybe three episodes are on your watch list this month.

At The Bookstore

Caleb Carr- The Alienist   by J.C. Hotchkiss

The Alienist was a popular favorite for a TV adaptation, which it finally got in 2018.

“Prior to the twentieth century, persons suffering from mental illness were thought to be ‘alienated,’ not only from the rest of society but from their own true natures. Those experts who studied mental pathologies were known as ‘alienists’.”

—”Note” at the beginning of the novel

This was seen at the beginning of both the 2018 series, and for the purposes of this PopCulture25YL, Caleb Carr’s 1994 novel, The Alienist. The novel, written from the perspective of one John Schuyler Moore, follows the story of himself and his college friend, ‘alienist’ Dr. Lazlo Kreizler in New York City, 1896. Kreizler calls on Moore to investigate with him, as Moore is a crime reporter for the New York Times, the body of a young boy found on the still yet to be completed Williamsburg Bridge. The body, gruesomely mutilated, echoes a case of two children that were in the care of Dr. Kreizler. Throughout the investigation we meet several others who make this chilling historical story a fantastic read. Sarah Howard, an old friend of Moore’s is the first woman to work in the police department, Theodore Roosevelt—yes, that Theodore Roosevelt, and the Issacson brothers, two police detectives that are adept in using newer investigative techniques. This Victorian CSI team (as I liked to call them) make this a very interesting and riveting story, as it’s woven through in call backs as the story is told in retrospect from the year 1919.

This story captured the time period beautifully. What was known as the Gilded age and a time where Astor’s 400 existed. Evangeline Holland wrote for her blog, Edwardian Promenade.com, “It was Ward McAllister… who coined the social index “Four Hundred”–a reference to the people who mattered in society, and the number of guests who could fit into Mrs. Astor’s ballroom. Carr made sure that what he’s written down on the page materialized in your mind just as clearly as that definition. It makes knowing why it took so long to get an adaptation to a screen, film or TV, since rights were purchased way back in 1993, that much more clear as well. It is a very detailed book. Highly enjoyable reading, as I said to anyone with a love of history and psychological suspense, The Alienist delivers both. The characters are so perfectly imperfect, you may not completely understand their motives throughout the book, but you can appreciate the thought that goes behind them. I would recommend this book to anyone looking to capture the historical heyday of New York City society mixed with a little Sherlock Holmes like murder mystery. Although slightly more morose and horrifying, The Alienist delivers a story, that maybe even make you start to question your own motives and thought processes.

CDs On Rotation In Our 6-Disk

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds- Let Love In   by Matt Armitage

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds Let Love In Album Cover

While fans are somewhat divided regarding Let Love In, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds eighth studio album, there can be no denying that it proved to be a commercial turning point for the band, and possibly also an artistic turning point, capturing the moment where Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds began the move from a true band towards being more of a solo artist with a supporting band.

Fusing almost perfectly the clamour, discord, and noise of early Seeds albums (and it’s deadbeat dad The Birthday Party) with the ethereal dark ballads of later Cave, Let Love In sounds infinitely more cohesive than the previous studio album Henry’s Dream, and stands out as one of the most cohesive of all the Seeds albums, whilst not content to rest in one particular mode that a lot of later albums seem to.

Framed by the two part “Do You Love Me”, the album ranges widely through angry rock tracks with “Jangling Jack” and “Thirsty Dog”, ballads with “Nobody’s Baby Now”, and the gospel-influenced “Lay Me Low” and “Ain’t Gonna Rain No More”. The track that has resonated with most people is, of course, the apocalyptic “Red Right Hand”, which is now used as the theme of Peaky Blinders.

You’ll see him in your nightmares
You’ll see him in your dreams
He’ll appear out of nowhere but
He ain’t what he seems.

There may be better Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds albums, and depending on your preferences there are definitely more raucous, more rocky, and more soulful and haunting albums, but if you’re looking for one that defines The Seeds range and complexity, Let Love In is absolutely the one to get.

Nas- Illmatic   by John Bernardy

Nas illmatic Album cover

Even though he comes from the same time period of New York as the Wu-Tang Clan, Nas’ lyrics are autobiographical and don’t need to rely on skits or martial arts skits to make his album stand out from the rest. The way he mixes poetry into a sort of journalistic picture of what his neighborhood looks like, there’s no one who does it better.

The production of “NY State of Mind” and “Represent” remind me of Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), which came out 5 months earlier, except with more jazz elements. “One Time For Your Mind” still had the Wu-Tang flavor but with even more jazz, and “Life’s a Bitch” is like a harder version of the De La Soul jazzy hip hop with no trace of Wu-Tang at all. And “The World Is Yours” fits stylistically in between the two styles. Illmatic feels like a solid in-between point from hip hop in general and Wu-Tang, and ended up influencing just about everybody who came after this.

Nas mixes smoothness with hard beats and makes serious subjects into an extremely easy listen. “Memory Lane (Sittin’ In The Park)” reminds me of a tougher “Summertime” by Dj Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince. “One Love” could’ve easily shown up on The Roots’ albums Illadelph Halflife or Things Fall Apart. And “It Ain’t Hard to Tell” has an unmistakable sample of Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” that doesn’t take away from the song’s hard beat or Nas’ individuality–and it even has an Iron Sheik reference! Not that that’s the best lyric by any stretch. Nas has a reputation as top notch poet for a reason and Illmatic is as easy to listen to as it is quality. My favorite part though? It does all this and it avoids diving into misogyny. The album’s a classy production at all levels.

Live- Throwing Copper   by John Bernardy

Live Throwing Cooper Album cover

Short-lister for Ballad of the Decade “Lightning Crashes” is what everyone will remember from this album, but like so many albums from this year, that’s only one of many selling points on this album.

For one thing, it starts with a classic slow-building power song by the name of “The Dam at Otter Creek” that gets stronger the longer it rolls down hill. Ed Kowalczyk’s voice is angry and powerful, going into a refrain a minute and a half in. By the time the snare hits at the two-minute mark, I’m done. The song owns me, and so does the album.

“Selling the Drama” almost has a country vibe at the beginning before turning into the post-grunge Live is. “I Alone” is pure grungy hybrid rock/ballad, and most of the songs on this album fall into this category. You’ll know “All Over You” the second you hear it.

Of the songs not in the style of the radio hits, “T.B.D.” has a quiet power not unlike Otter Creek’s beginning but it’s much smoother until the 3:30 mark when it temporarily explodes.

There’s a political bent to the lyrics on Throwing Copper, or at least an exploration of all the injustice the band saw in the world as they wrote this album. “White, Discussion” exemplifies this, talking how freedom and flag are not the same thing, all the while having a funky guitar line in the verses. If you had to have one song that exemplifies this album, that song is it. It’s got a little bit of everything that made all the songs particular to Live.

Blur- Parklife   by Steve Wandling

blur Parklife Album Cover

In 1994, British alternative rock band released their third album, Parklife. Damon Albarn, Graham Coxon, Alex James, and Dave Roundtree were at a crossroads in their career. Already a well established band in the U.K. Blur’s previous album, Modern Life is Rubbish, had not performed as well as their debut record, placing it in the dreaded sophomore slump category. All that was about to change as Parklife would turn out to be not only a defining record for Blur, but a genre-defining game changer and a milestone in British rock history.

Albarn has described Parklife as a concept album of sorts, a record documenting the every man and woman’s day to day existence in Southern England. Dry, witty, and revelatory, Blur took their sonic experimentation to new heights on Parklife. From discotheque opening track/single “Girls and Boys,” the album swings in all kinds of different directions but nothing ever feels out of place. The album covers everything from psych rock, punk, synth pop and a lot in between. It not only sold five million copies world-wide and spawned four hits singles in the U.K., Parklife was the culmination of a new moment in British rock history: Britpop.

Oasis’ debut Be Here Now would arrive the same year, starting one of the greatest feuds in rock history. So who started Britpop? Who cares? Parklife spoke to me as a disaffected kid dying to hear songs that I could relate to. “Girls and Boys” felt sexually liberating and a little bit naughty to dance alone to as I was questioning my own sexuality. There was a freedom in that music that made my bedroom a stage. And the title track, Parklife, contained lyrics that I could actually relate to.

Here’s a song that is maybe the most defining song of Britpop itself and it still strikes a chord because this song could be me (and millions of others) as the narrator. That’s the charm of the entire record actually. Parklife is full of sing-along worthy anthems about and for regular people getting by, living their lives, and doing the best (or worse) that they could. It’s a refreshing honesty that I had never heard before in my life. Suddenly lyrics about Lord of the Rings didn’t seem so cool to me anymore. I wanted to hear what was going on down at the pub, why living working class was shit but not as bad as being anything else.

Parklife maintains its cheeky wink-wink attitude throughout, but Albarn sneaks in more personal themes. “To the End” is one of the best songs I have ever heard about a couple desperately trying to make things work even when they know the relationship is really over. One of my favorite lines from Damon Albarn is from the next album’s big single “Country House.” It sums up much of the attitudes on Parklife quite nicely and never left me. Damon sings “I’m a professional cynic but my heart’s not in it.” Experience has taught him otherwise, but deep down he’s still a true romantic. That world-weary realism had a romantic heart at its core, just like Blur.

It was Blur’s records, Parklife especially, that made me be conscious to always tell the truth in my songs. To not be naïve, but to never lose hope in mankind no matter how ridiculous, repetitive, or shitty the day to day world can often be. Sonically, the record opened doors in my head as I was trying to figure out what type of songwriter I even wanted to be. Blur gave me the answer in Parklife: I wanted to write songs about real boy and girls just trying to get by. And when all else fails and the world tries to bring you down, spin it around and see the humor and actual beauty around. It’s there if you look hard enough. After all, we’re just going round and round through our own park life, aren’t we?


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