There was a time when it didn’t seem like “taste” was a factor in whether a rock song hit it big or not — it was more a matter of just fabricating a patriotic, machismo-heavy message and yelling louder than the other guys doing it. Today, it seems, with rock having ebbed to the level of being on life support in terms of radio popularity, you do, arguably, have to actually be good. In turn, the hit songs of this last decade by Hozier , James Bay, Imagine Dragons and Twenty One Pilots all seemed pretty artistically “trim” — sort of humble in what manifested as a magnetic focus and also free of too much egotistical embellishment.
I would argue that the 1990s, a decade that furnishes all three of my chosen albums for this post, for all its critical pitfalls , was also a time when the QUALITY of a song still mattered, in rock, and not just the general, cultural marketing bulldozing that went behind it. One intriguing thing about the ’90s, particularly within the latter half, was that the line between rock and pop was thin to the point of almost being non-existent, juxtaposed starkly against the hip-hop beats, aesthetic factor and autotuned vocals of today’s mainstream “pop.” Acts like Sarah McLachlan and Savage Garden, for instance, both of which were popular in ’97, dealt with unscrupulously romantic themes and sang without the deliberate construction of rage or anger typically requisite in any radio rock following September ’91, but made music that was still richly guitar-based. The Wallflowers would be another example of a group that basically DID rock music but just wasn’t a bunch of acne-covered psychos and so didn’t frequent the “rock” stations, as a general rule .
This point will be well illustrated, too, by the fact that, though I think of all three of these albums as “alternative rock,” two of them (First Band and All the Pain) typically lodged on pop frequencies contemporarily to their releases, the other one typically worthy of the barbaric “rock” moniker for its caterwauling volume and intense, urgent and even unsettling lyricism.
With Fastball, the elephant in the room is that I just don’t think it’s possible to sufficiently emphasize HOW underrated their contribution to the alt-rock world truly was. For evidence of their staying power, aside from me hearing it like a million times on satellite radio, you need only look to Machine Gun Kelly’s hit “Bad Things,” which didn’t actually SAMPLE “Out of My Head” by Fastball but basically did everything short of that in complete mimicry, sort of like what Shaggy’s “Angel” did to the old, ubiquitous radio hit “Angel of the Morning,” more or less.
I mean, this is a band that everybody just seems to claim “sucks” or “isn’t that great.” But aside from their lead single “The Way,” a catchy smash based on the true story of two old people going on a road trip and forgetting their way home, eventually dying on the road, there was the pervasive, catchy “Out of My Head,” as well as “Fire Escape,” a juggernaut in its own right. Likely the best thing the band ever did, “Fire Escape” is an infectious, indescribably gratifying “love song,” of sorts, that I remember hearing a snippet of one time on a The Real World episode. From top to bottom, the lyrics just seem like an amazing denouement of the whole “slacker” movement: “I don’t wanna be president / Superman or Clark Kent / I don’t wanna walk ’round in their shoes”; “I’ll be the rain falling on your fire escape / And I may not be the man you want me to / I can be myself / How ’bout you?” Somewhat like the contemporaneously pervasive “Sex and Candy” by Marcy Playground, the theme involves, in ironic stature to otherwise prominent radio rock themes, the entire de facto relinquishment of the PHYSICAL realm, in the scope of behavior of me, entirely. That is, Marcy Playground’s John Wozniak taking apparently the approximate kinetic energy of a statue, within some café or something (in true cheeky, ’90s “slacker” form, of course), with Fastball’s Tony Scalzo taking it a step further and, through metaphor, mystical transubstantiation, or whatever process you’d like to explicate, actually abandoning his “human form” and becoming one with the falling rain (such an abandonment of said form would theoretically be corroborated by his apparent complete lack of conventional human ambition, at least in the Apollonian sense, of being “president” or “Superman,” et. al.).
“Fire Escape” pretty much says it all and then things jolt into this egregious Jesus and Mary Chain ripoff (“Happy Place”) that is “Better Than it Was,” although a passable ripoff seeing as there are probably less cool bands to rip off than JMC, as well as the fact that it’s a pretty groovin’, head-nod-worthy tune, in its own right. “Which Way to the Top?” is an unflagging, disillusioned account of Scalzo’s own life (there are reports of him working the night shift at a bagel bakery around this time) that posits brilliant lyrics of “In the bar we sit like blackbirds / With our broken wings / Like clocks without their string / Just like time doesn’t mean anything”. Also, you’re going to think I’m joking, but I swear to you I used to hate “Sooner or Later,” envisioning a bunch of 40-something Margarita-swilling women doing really cheesy dances to it, but it finally “got under my skin,” so to speak. Tony Scalzo just sounds so adamant in his persistence and also like he just smokes a ton of cigarettes, giving his voice a really cool sound.
What is the rest of this album? It seems to move along with the crispness of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, I’d say, with a little less ham-handed, arduous emotion, and a little more good-ol’ ’90s sense of humor, a la “Charlie, The Methadone Man,” which refers to the drummer character as a “metronome man” and outlines his habit of “Sporting his leopard skin thong”. There’s “Out of My Head,” obviously, the venerable single that led to that essentially left-brain Machine Gun Kelly expedition, but to me an essential jam in the album’s mid-section in “Slow Drag.” Scalzo sings of taking a “Slow drag on a cigarette” and “Lying in (his) bed”, setting up at once a pretty ominous scene right away. Though homicidal, too, Scalzo’s declaration of “I wanna see you dead / Laying in the muddy ground” gives way with expedition to the relatively victorious chorus of “You’re nothin’ to me / Nothin’ to me / Nothin’ to me no more”. It’s living proof that there’s a real person behind all this mainstream late-’90s sheen, labeled grunge or classic rock rip-offs by so many and hated for their success, but still too scrappy and substantial not to make their voices heard, at the same time. Each of the tracks on this album provides its own significant deepening of the album’s overall identity but my other favorite has got to be “Nowhere Road,” a staunchly pragmatic and rough-edged take on contemporary American culture and the waning potential for achieving a sort of emotional prosperity.
To be honest, through a lot of the ’90s, I almost had this weird sort of fear of listening to whole CD’s, instead of just hit singles. It was like an apprehension they would suck, and would demote my opinion of the artist, maybe not as bad as Spacehog’s Resident Alien , or anything, but still enough to disappoint and set an ominous cloud over what was a shining take on a certain famous rock act. This was probably true of my Fastball CD, to an extent, though I certainly never remember having an overly adverse reaction to it or then, save for maybe hearing “The Way” like a hundred times on the radio in summer ’98.
With The Cardigans, there was never really this threat because I heard “Lovefool” and was basically just appalled by it. I figured, the ideas this girl is furnishing, of lying and pretending in order to maintain a vanquished love affair, have nothing to do with my life as a seventh grade dude, and encompass a stupid mindset to inhabit, even if you’re an adult. Of course, I wasn’t as humanized to the concepts of satire and “tongue-in-cheek,” at this point in my life.
Still, upon close listens to the band’s ’96 album First Band on the Moon, it becomes obvious that “Lovefool” didn’t actually represent the choice musical cuts available for singles selection. Far more likely, the song was issued as a way of brandishing a coquettish, ditzy persona of a woman that would have fit in with other unfortunate pop themes like the Spice Girls and Aqua’s “Barbie Girl” (which of course is also a satire though probably not one glimpsed as such by each and EVERY radio dial patron).
I don’t know how to be long-winded, poignant or grandiose about this fact but I just LOVE “Been it.” And maybe this stuff is just humbling to me — the authentic, undeniable emotion and frustration fused with this razor-sharp wit and staunchly sacrificial adherence to uncomfortable realities: “I’ve been your sister / I’ve been your mistress / Baby I was your whore / Who could ask me for more?” But it’s quintessentially “’90s” to me for one key fact: this music is fu**ing great. Sure, it makes attempts at “meaning” something, at broaching issues, but the issues it broaches are personal, not political (Nina Persson is not standing up for general “women’s rights,” but rather just her own), and it selfishly indulges in a musical interface that’s intrinsically, aurally gratifying all on its own, complete with nifty, phrase, annexing bridges, some gorgeous “Ah-ah-ah’s” and of course the grating but strong and emphatic quality of Persson’s voice that cements the catchy song rubric into something classic, in my opinion.
Elsewhere, the elephant in the room would be their bizarre and hilarious cover of Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man,” like much of their work on this LP and elsewhere, seems to absorb this head-scratching sort of Frank Sinatra, smooth jazz influence, inanely indulgent on other projects but somehow flanked with enough tension and rocking energy all throughout First Band on the Moon to warrant repeated, gratifying listens.
So Seven Mary Three… are they Third Eye Blind? Are they the same band? Sure, no doubt, all these grunge-aping, sweaty, long-haired ’90s groups tend to blur into one, to an extent. Seven Mary Three, anyway, hail from Virginia, and sing about a “water’s edge” and other Huck Finn-type settings, to 3EB’s posh, urban romantic squalor and ghetto fomentation. Any close follower of this website (if there is such a thing) will notice my selection of “Cumbersome” on my last, heavily grunge/alt-rock-leaning playlist which emits the throwback title of “Revv up the Answering Machine,” at that (people born before 1986 or so will know what an “answering machine” is). Those are pretty much my favorite three ’90s rock tunes to play in juke boxes these days, with maybe some “The Day I Tried to Live” thrown in there too, and though it might not sound as textural, metallic and utterly glorious as these “Plush” remasters seem to (to hear “Plush” in a new rented car with a killer soundsystem is to have entered nirvana), but it’s got a scrappy, confrontational quality to pillar the considerable element of the self-derogating surrender, hence making it a welcome addition to the vast wilderness of grunge. It’s sort of like really playbook alt-rock, but just has the intensity, ugliness and emotion to sell it, hence maybe galvanizing the album’s otherwise questionable title choice of American Standard.
“Water’s Edge” perennially cuts the mustard, too, buoyed partly by Jason Ross’ vaguely Southern drawl (which ends posturing more as just a “grunge drawl,” like Scott Weiland might unleash on any given Stone Temple Pilots number). He’s a man with a persona of a grizzly bear and a crystalline memory of some apparent atrocity he witnessed, now left with the brutal devastation of knowing he could have helped prevent an atrocity.
I just clicked on the “Cumbersome” track on Spotify to see where the time marker was at and whoa, that album cover jumped out at me for the first time. Sure, the obvious statement is that the slaughter of meat is what feeds the “standard” rudiments of our larger economy and livelihoods. There’s also, though, an element of the “chaotic ’90s” prevalent therein, in the form of that young person who looks confused and aghast, rather than informed and obedient, and that backdrop of wide-open wilderness, as opposed to some proper, Apollonian edifice or estate, the type of thing that would have instead signified a sort of prosperity or order.
“Roderigo” ambulates along unassumingly like a reincarnation of Better Than Ezra with a more intensely effusive lead singer in terms of vocal technique (an intensity that in this case generally works for its focused placement and surrounding melodic elegance). “Lame” is a classic acoustic dirge like Acid Bath’s “Dead Girl,” another instance of a band taking down the volume level but losing none of the emotion or intensity, for some captivating and genuine campfire rock. For the rest of this album, the band rock out like the guileless Virginians that they are and I like it for just that — their influences and playbook are utterly undeniable so it’s a case of vividly maximizing their mindset and resources, with the wolverine pipes of Jason Ross certainly a welcome, vociferous addition, in their own right.
 But boy is this song just claustrophobically “romantic,” the exact opposite of two precocious offerings from the year before, Train’s “Drops of Jupiter” and The Calling’s “Wherever You Will Go,” each of which disguises itself ostensibly as being about a lover but really directs itself at a family member.
 This collection of what I perceive as myopic examinations on the part of the press includes, ironically, the belittlement of post-grunge (LIVE, Collective Soul, Seven Mary Three and others), and also that of Smash Mouth, a band which essentially grafted their existence and genesis on being an optimistic, melodic foil to what they called “heroin rock.”
 The sad part is that with mainstream rock radio (of which the denizen in South Bend is 103.9 “The Bear”) this malady STILL hasn’t really been reconciled — all the artists are like these orangutan psychos with one-track minds so bad it’s comedic. There’s still a ton of good indie rock being made these days but FM won’t pick it up because I guess it’s seen as like a sign of “weakness” to broach any lyrical paradigm other than one of the basest, he-man animalism. So music is weakness, in other words. That’s nice and reassuring.
 Ironically, “In the Meantime” from this album is probably one of the 20 best rock singles of the ’90s.