Nearly a decade ago now, I cut my teeth writing about music in the student paper at my university. A year later I was employed as staff editor of that university’s union. To allay boredom and balance out the less fun work (that is, the bits that weren’t about cinema, comedy, music or other forms of popular culture) I found myself writing the odd review or conducting the odd interview for that year’s editors of the student paper. The routine was usually as follows: dinner and a smoke late in the evening, a listen, and then a bit of ‘gonzo’ journalism (which I was in the process of re-naming ‘Dombo’ journalism; I even adapted the ‘gonzo’ dagger-cum-letter opener that would appear in the front pages of Hunter S. Thompson tomes… sick, huh! But it’s crazier than that – before I took to signing everything with the slightly tilted ‘Dombo’ logo, I used to use the pseudonym ‘[Secret] Nigel di Weird’. The explanation would take far too long so either lie awake at night if you have to or just forget about it.)
Morphine and silverchair were both hip, indie, three-piece bands. The former, from North America, were getting ever so slightly long-in-the-tooth as they were finally reaching the audiences they deserved. The latter were a bunch of school kids from Newcastle who were fulfilling most school boys’ dream of being in a rock band.
I read these now and don’t cringe as much as I thought I would, but I can’t help noticing how the recurring themes appear to be youth, rutting and alliteration. Life was so much simpler then!
Morphine is essentially a rhythm section, but more testosterone-laden than most, for the saxophone is not just a saxophone, it is a baritone sax. And the bass is no mere bass, but a two-stringed slide bass. Remember what Zappa had to say about bass and sax? “Bass is balls and a sax plays sleaze…”, so multiply that one to the power of however many you’d think John Laws must have to make his voice that low, and you have the basic essence of Morphine.
Opening track ‘Honey White’ is frantic and urgent, beginning with saxophone trills and then a relentless sax riff, often with squealing overtones squeezed out to accentuate the frenetic nature of this track. The sort of urban American fables with a moral,, the likes of which Dylan, Petty or Springsteen could only construct with a lot more words. Morphine create the mise-en-scene with minimal arrangement and laconic lyrics. The understatement works to excellent effect.
The tension in the opening motif ‘Whisper’ is produced by sliding very close intervals on the two-string bass. The sax breathes unlaboured passion throughout. The only problem encountered, really, is the lack of melodic invention; some tracks are too minimalist for their own good. ‘Yes’ the song, for example, invokes a resounding ‘no’. Not enough words, or enough good ones, at any rate (and let’s face it, ‘rate’ is what this is all about) to counter monotony in the melody. That’s not to say there aren’t some real gems. ‘Jury’, with its breathy narration, a la Robbie Robertson’s ‘Somewhere Down the Crazy River’. ‘Sharks’ with the saxophonic squawking and rapid bass twanging, and ‘Super Sex’, with its stream of consciousness lyrics building and building until its release, are ones that you’ll need a cigarette after.
But if you want to grab the metaphor by the short ’n’ curlies, ‘Free Love’ is the act; the baritone sax has never been more Laws-like, the bass squeals its glissandos not caring that it is caught in flagrante delicto. And the cigarette after is ‘Gone For Good’. Its theme is departure and resilience after the fact. The only ‘ballad’ on the album, it features an acoustic guitar.
Sexy? Yeah, in that depraved, musk-scented moose-rutting-until-there-ain’t-no-energy-left sort of way. A ‘beer ’n’ mull before foreplay and keepin’ yer boots on while yer doin’ it’ sort of album if ever there was one.
A Froggy would a-wooing go…
Silverchair are at that difficult age: too old to be cute and too young to be sexy. Decked out in big dacks and backwards caps, image is everything; isn’t that why an amphibian gazes out at us from the cover of Frogstomp? The frog: cute, in the traditional sense of ‘ugly but interesting’, is that testosterone-laden deep-voiced creature so symbolic of adolescence.
And fittingly, from the first fabulously fulsome flatulence of the distorted ‘ugg-ugg’ ugly bass guitar riff that launches opening track ‘Israeli’s Son’, the listener is thrust headlong into the throng of surging, lunging grunge. The tightness of this trio belies their short time together; Daniel Johns’s voice is mature beyond its age. What gives the band away as pit-faced precocious pretenders whose pitiful posturings are the equivalent of perpetrating pub-entry under false pretenses with pilfered proof-of-age is the lyrically lacking songs such as ‘Suicidal Dream’ and ‘Mad Men’. Pure juvenilia.
‘Pure Massacre’ lives up to its name, though: an aural assault whose lyric-to-noise ratio favours the less listener-friendly side of the equation. The use of devices such as a false ending on ‘Leave Me Out’, like the tempo change on ‘Faultline’, are false sophistication, but the band pulls it off. On the other hand, ‘Shade’ painfully consists of barely more than one note. Johns’s habit of ‘mooing’ suspended fourths and ninths from previous or subsequent chords enables all the songs to be liked or disliked virtually as one. After all, every frog looks pretty much like any other.
And yet, the frog as metaphor is priceless: silverchair embody that place in adolescence where going down to the stream to gather tadpoles with boys abruptly gives way to going down to the stream to disseminate tadpoles with girls. This album is one that many adolescents will try to ‘lose it’ to, and many post-adolescents will attempt to recapture it with.