Monday, September 7, 2015

B-sides the '90s: Foo Fighters, Kristin Hersh, Pixies, and Pearl Jam

B-sides the '90s is a recurring feature that highlights some of my favorite songs, covers, and live tracks that are hidden away on the b-side of a vinyl/CD single from the '90s. You can see all of my B-sides the '90s features HERE.

When it comes to pop culture, there's an understood 20-year cycle rule in effect. While the rule can seem like a gross over-simplification to a multi-layered issue, there is certainly much truth contained within it. We're currently in a resurgence of 1990s pop culture, much like the 2000s seemed to have a bit of an unending gaze cast towards the 1980s. Of course, it's not a complete retread that happens every 20 years, but there's no question that elements of the two-decades-prior pop cultural landscape pop back up en masse.

In the 1990s, there was no question that the 1970s were quite en vogue as well. My favorite chunk of Nick at Nite programming was anchored by '70s shows like Welcome Back, Kotter, Mork & Mindy, Laverne & Shirley, and Taxi. Movies like Dazed and Confused, Forrest Gump, and Spirit of '76 expertly captured the spirit of the '70s for a '90s audience (especially for those of us too young to have experienced it for ourselves). This '70s-fest was heavily prevalent in the '90s music scene as well, especially on the alternative side of the house. That's what this episode of B-sides the '90s is all about - '70s songs being covered by '90s bands. More specifically, ones tucked away on the b-sides of singles. So dig into these gems and you know, "Have A Nice Day" man.

“Ozone” by Foo Fighters (1995): As much of a platinum-selling, globe-trotting powerhouse band as Foo Fighters have been for the past couple of decades, sometimes it can be easy to forget that the group started out as just a one-man band. While Dave Grohl’s post-Nirvana project blew everyone away on musical merit alone, Foo Fighters self-titled debut album is even more impressive in light of Grohl playing all of the instruments himself (save one single guitar part on “X-Static” from Afghan Whigs frontman Greg Dulli) and completing the entire album (with help from producer Barrett Jones) in a one-week marathon recording session.

Grohl ended up releasing five official singles from Foo Fighters and “I’ll Stick Around” has always been one of my favorites from that initial batch. Not only is “I’ll Stick Around” built around one of the most instantly recognizable guitar riffs of the ‘90s, but the UK and Japan imports of the single contain one of the few covers from the early Grohl-only period of the band. “Ozone” is an Ace Frehley song that originally appeared on his 1978 self-titled debut solo album that was released in the middle of his run with KISS. While Foo Fighters are a band that has become known for having fun doing a wild variety of cover songs, “Ozone” has the unique sonic imprint of that raw early Foos sound and is driven by Grohl’s embryonic pre-arena-filling vocal skills.

"Ozone" - Foo Fighters ("I'll Stick Around" single)

“When the Levee Breaks” by Kristin Hersh (1994): First things first, yes, I know that “When the Levee Breaks” is NOT a Led Zeppelin original. However, while Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie first recorded the song in the 1920s, it was Led Zeppelin’s thunder-drummed cover from their 1971 Led Zeppelin IV album that brought the song into prominence (along with providing us with one of the most sampled drum loops of all time). It is the Led Zeppelin cover that most often provides the template for the covers that have followed theirs, therefore most version get credited as Led Zeppelin covers. There, we good now?

After releasing a string of albums as the co-frontwoman of Throwing Muses with her stepsister Tanya Donnelly throughout the 80s and 90s, Kristin Hersh decided to put out an acoustic-based solo album in 1994. The result was Hips and Makers, an album that was met with both praise for its rustic instrumentation and intimate performances, and also criticism for its quieter, less abrasive, non-Throwing-Muses-ness. I fell in love with the lead single “Your Ghost” for, among other reasons, its inclusion of Michael Stipe’s duet vocal and its appearance in one of my favorite movies, With Honors. The “Your Ghost” single featured Hersh’s stark, dual-acoustic cover of “When the Levee Breaks” as a b-side makes the stand-alone single worthy of seeking out to add to your collection.

"When the Levee Breaks" - Kristin Hersh ("Your Ghost" single)

“Winterlong” by Pixies (1990): While most critics give Pearl Jam the lion’s share of the credit for Neil Young’s inspirational induction into the alternative music sphere of the ‘90s, the truth is that Young’s influence – especially his heavy-handed use of distortion and feedback in the early ‘70s and late ‘80s – is evident in the sound of many of the genre’s frontrunners. In fact, a tribute album to Young called The Bridge came out in 1989 that featured such alterna-acts as Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., Soul Asylum, and the Flaming Lips turning in distortion-laced dedications to the so-called “Godfather of Grunge.”

One of the more stunning standout tracks on The Bridge was Pixies’ sugar-and-salt version of “Winterlong” – a track that originally appeared on Young’s 1977 Decade album, as well as early promo pressings of his 1975 Tonight’s the Night album. Pixies later used their cover of “Winterlong” as the b-side for their “Dig for Fire” single from their third studio album Bossanova in 1990. Pixies have always been know to turn in excellent b-sides that are practically as strong as (or in some cases even stronger than) their album-worthy contemporaries. “Winterlong” is no exception, masterfully blending Frank Black and Kim Deal’s vocals into that inimitable dual-voice sound that hallmarks so much of their fantastic catalog.

"Winterlong" - Pixies ("Dig for Fire" single)

“Sonic Reducer” by Pearl Jam (1995): Speaking of Pearl Jam… The first time I ever heard Pearl Jam cover “Sonic Reducer” from first-wave punk band Dead Boys was during the 99x broadcast of their April 3 concert at the Fox Theater in 1994. At that time, I had no idea what this awesome punk song was that they were playing between “Once” and “Porch,” but I knew that I really dug it. Luckily, I was taping the concert and had my cassette to refer back during my slow-going dial-up internet search for the lyrics to find out about the song. This was how I first discovered Dead Boys and their Young Loud and Snotty album from the year of musical transcendence that was 1977.

A couple of years later I came across Pearl Jam’s studio version of “Sonic Reducer” from their 1992 Christmas fan club single, as well as a live version of it from their 1995 Christmas fan club single. While the 1992 studio version is a pretty cool snapshot of Pearl Jam’s early days on the scene, the 1995 live version has the added benefit of featuring punk legend Joey Ramone on joint vocals and his unmistakable “Oh yeah” that kicks the track off perfectly. There’s also a nice running-off-the-rails vibe on the frantic live version that adds an appropriately unstable layer to the punk standard. Since their first fan club release in 1991, Pearl Jam’s Christmas singles have proven to be a bit of a treasure trove for original rarities and inspired cover songs. Of the latter, their live “Sonic Reducer” is unquestionably one of the best of the bunch.

"Sonic Reducer" - Pearl Jam (1995 Christmas fan club single)

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