Welcome to the first edition of Music25YL. Every month, we’ll be looking back at the music from 1995 to explore why these albums are still relevant to us 25 years later. This month brings us Jewel’s Pieces of You, Tricky’s Maxinquaye and The Fall’s Cerebral Caustic.
Jewel—Pieces of You, Reviewed by Rachel Stewart
I’ll start by saying I’m in deep denial that the 1990s are now 20+ years out of my grasp. I’m not having a midlife crisis (although who knows, it might strike at any moment) but sometimes it felt like literally yesterday. There are a few albums that can sonically take me back to being a teenager. Jewel’s Pieces of You is one of those albums.
So let’s get the obvious out of the way: the singles “Who Will Save Your Soul” and “You Were Meant For Me” were everywhere and unavoidable when this album dropped. They’ve entered the lexicon to become karaoke fodder (even for Jewel herself in Funny or Die’s Undercover Karaoke video). In my day, they ended up on mix CDs alongside the likes of Sarah McLachlan, Sheryl Crow, and Heather Nova.
But there’s something more organic about this album, and it’s something Jewel has never really recaptured again (for me), even though I’ve liked a few of her other efforts (Spirit and 0304). Prior to signing with Atlantic Records, Jewel had been living in the back of her van, singing in coffee shops, and a few of album cuts were actually recorded live, showcasing her powerful, raw vocals, buoyed by just her acoustic guitar and her eclectic vocal training (yodeling and opera).
The spare liner notes are peppered with poems, long before her now-infamous chapbook dropped (of which I was so jealous, with my own battered composition books full of scribbles taking up space alongside rejection slips). The proof was in her songwriting, though, and her storytelling abilities are striking in songs like “Painters” (about an aging couple) and “Adrian” (about a boy who was in a canoe accident). “Morning Song” straddles the same universal lines as “Who Will Save Your Soul” and “You Were Meant For Me” with her begging her lover to call into work and come back to bed. Then there’s the longing of songs like “Don’t” and “Foolish Games,” which with its lush piano is better set next to the likes of Fiona Apple and Tori Amos.
In my eyes, “Foolish Games” is the showstopper of the whole damn album, and I will never ever in a million years understand why it ended up on the Batman & Robin soundtrack, other than it was supposed to be the next “Kiss From A Rose.” But it’s much more than that. It’s the exquisite longing of wanting someone who can’t commit and all those shared moments crystallized deep in your heart:
“You’re always brilliant in the morning
Smoking your cigarettes and talking over coffee
Your philosophies on art, Baroque moved you
You loved Mozart and you’d speak of your loved ones
As I clumsily strummed my guitar
You’d teach me of honest things
Things that were daring, things that were clean
Things that knew what an honest dollar did mean
I hid my soiled hands behind my back
Somewhere along the line, I must have gone off track with you
Excuse me, guess I’ve mistaken you for somebody else
Somebody who gave a damn
Somebody more like myself
And for all Jewel’s quirks and earnestness, she’s not without anger, as the title track and “Daddy” both deal with deep seething hate and the injustice it brings. (I often think of Jewel’s “Daddy” as a spiritual companion to Sylvia Plath’s poem of the same name.) The album closes with two tracks that almost skew as spiritual (“Angel Standing By” and “Amen”) but ends up feeling more ethereal and calming.
When I spin this album these days, it stands out as raw and seemingly fragile. But it’s on repeated listens that you can feel its true strength and structure. It reminds me of rainy weekends filled with frantic writing and teenage longing as well as summer singalongs in the back of my friends’ cars. This is the Jewel I’ll always love the most, “somebody more like myself.”
Tricky—Maxinquaye, Reviewed by Laura Stewart
Genre-blurring seemed like a revolutionary thing in the ’90s. “Alternative Music” bled from rock to rap and metal to reggae. Beck and the mid-’90s Beastie Boys and the Orange-era Jon Spencer Blues Explosion all made great music, but at that time, they were a bit of a novelty. Tricky’s Bristolian pals Massive Attack and Portishead merged their styles, too. Dub was mixed with Bondesque strings with breathtaking results. Blues and punk mixed together like coffee and cream. But there wasn’t anything fun about Tricky, and there didn’t seem to be anything calculated about his fusions. It might have seemed like an attention-seeking move to cover Public Enemy’s “Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos” as a damaged postpunk hymn, with a sultry woman whispering where Chuck D had boomed. But from Tricky, it felt like something that had bubbled up from a fertile subconscious. And Maxinquaye, Tricky’s first album, released 25 years ago, remains Tricky’s defining work because it’s the purest dive into that mind.
Tricky’s mystique is a great place to start. He had grown up in a white Bristol ghetto and spent time in prison. He wore dresses and smeared eyeliner. Onstage, he looked like he was built of pure sinew, and he’d do whole shows without looking at the audience. His was the most oppressive, dark voice on Massive Attack’s Blue Lines, an album full of heavy and dark voices. It wasn’t what Tricky said that mattered; it was the way he used his voice—murmuring and rasping, creeping and insinuating, like the devil talking you into selling your soul. The things he said were so layered with ambiguity that they seemed to radiate mystery, “Reduce me, seduce me, dress me up in Stussy.”
He met Martina Topley-Bird—the singer whose soft and intimate notes gave Maxinquaye much of its dynamism—when she was 15. She was still a teenager, and the mother of Tricky’s child, by the time Maxinquaye was released.
For a few years after Maxinquaye, Tricky really did seem to be the future. He dated Björk, which seemed perfect and which maybe would’ve been if Tricky hadn’t been a terrible boyfriend—something he later owned up to being. (If the Tricky/Björk/Goldie love triangle happened today, it would set the internet on fire.) But trip-hop, as it morphed into vaguely hip boutique music, turned out to have little use for an artist as grim and messy as Tricky. Portishead and Massive Attack at least held onto their audiences.
Tricky, wary of labels and distrustful of his own fame, made music that was increasingly intimidating and paranoid. He made one or two more great records—Pre-Millennium Tension and Angels With Dirty Faces—but he wasn’t interested in holding on to the vibe he’d conjured on Maxinquaye, and before long, he had disappeared from view. A revival of that early, murky strain of trip-hop could come along at any second and Tricky is still out there, still making records, still refusing to acknowledge anyone else’s expectations. Maxinquaye is still one of the most gorgeous albums of the ’90s and still sounds as seductive today.
The Fall—Cerebral Caustic, Reviewed by Chris Flackett
What do you do if you’re The Fall: You’re just a couple of years shy of your 20th year and you’ve hit a bit of slump. No, Mark E. Smith didn’t fire his band, not this time. Instead, he brought somebody back to “The Group” (the word “band” was forbidden).
Not just anybody, either. This was somebody MES knew intimately well.
It’s funny to think that for all the talk of firings (exaggerated to a point; a lot of people like Steve Hanley, Craig Scanlon and the last Fall Group were there for years), a couple of people were actually invited back. Tony Friel, the group’s first bass guitarist, came back for a spell in the early ’90s. And now here was Brix, rejoining her former spouse against the odds. The first fruits of the reunion were 1995’s Cerebral Caustic.
MES had a fascinating attitude toward sound. He believed in feel and instinct; he knew when something sounded right. Influenced by ’70s German sound experimenters Can as much as by the tough, working-man rock ‘n’ roll of the likes of Link Wray, he abhorred slick, shiny, radio productions, happy to embrace the murk and strangeness if it sounded right.
Which is a shame for Cerebral Caustic. Because the sound here isn’t experimental or strange (with one exception, which we’ll come to). No, the record sounds paper-thin and flat. While the guitars have a little bit of bite on occasion, the whole effort is pulled back by the production, like a straining dog being held back by a firm and insurmountable hand.
Regardless, how about the songs themselves? Honestly, a mixed bag. While an improvement on the previous year’s underwhelming Middle-Class Revolt, the album underwhelms as much as it excites.
Brix brings a welcome alt-rock/college rock feel to proceedings, which, while not in line per se with a good chunk of her previous work in The Fall, was a natural progression from her work in the late ’80s with The Adult Net, slotting nicely alongside the feminine L.A. power-pop work of The Bangles and The Go-Go’s. Yet the songs don’t always have the quality you would hope for.
When the songs hit the target, an argument can be made for The Fall to soften their more obtuse edges and play to the college rock crowd; there’s an aptitude for it. “Feeling Numb” has a great singalong chorus that soars from the tension of its verses. “Life Just Bounces,” a re-recording of a slightly older song, sees MES revel in the excitement of its dizzying ascending and descending guitar lines and relay an obscure tale of “Doctor Boring” and the pharmaceutical industry.
But safe college rock is not what many people listen to The Fall for and, when married to weaker material, such as “Pearl City,” “The Aphid” and “I’m Not Satisfied,” it presents a forgettable collection that is not bad as it is inoffensive—a larger crime in the world of The Fall.
Divisively, MES tried to shake things up by taking one of Brix’s favourite songs from the sessions, “Shiny Things,” a slow, anthemic strumalong with a big chorus, and proceeded to pitch shift Brix’s vocal to chipmunk levels, put strange phase effects all over the music and add his own description of a mundane music festival (“Would all people who want vegetarian burgers go on the left and those who want meat burgers on the right”), naming the resulting experiment “Bonkers in Phoenix.” Bonkers indeed. But would you have expected anything less from The Fall?