I Guess I Had It Coming

The other Erotica from 1992: a good bargain bin find surfaces on 100 Albums.

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Every Street Light Reveals A Picture In Reverse

R.E.M.’s Automatic For The People (aka the album that changed my life) gets its due over on 100 Albums.

Just One Look and I Can Hear a Bell Ring

Get out your bellbottoms and put on your white sombrero: 100 Albums covers Abba Gold over on Haunted Jukebox.

If There’s A Secret Can I Be Part of It?

100 Albums returns with a new entry over on Haunted Jukebox: XTC’s Nonsuch, proto-Britpop released at the height of grunge (as usual, the trio from Swindon were slightly out-of-step with the times).

Tori Amos, LITTLE EARTHQUAKES

little earthquakes

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #31 – released February 25, 1992)

Track listing: Crucify / Girl / Silent All These Years / Precious Things / Winter / Happy Phantom / China / Leather / Mother / Tear In Your Hand / Me And A Gun / Little Earthquakes

I’ve mentioned before that 1992, the year I turned 17, is when everything changed in regards to how music shaped my life. Likely, the same thing happened to you, if not at 17, then probably somewhere near there: as we come of age, we’re at our most impressionable, feeling like we’re experiencing everything for the first time because more often than not, we genuinely are. It follows that the next thirty-odd albums I’ll be covering here all came out between 1992 and 1997 (and I heard a majority of them for the first time during that era). While a good writer is aware of nostalgia’s pitfalls and studiously tries to avoid them (no matter how tempting), any assessment made about some of these albums would seem incomplete and false if I did not divulge in personal details or anecdotes directly related to their impact on me.

There’s one night from this period I still hold particularly deep in my heart, so much that I remember the exact date: July 5, 1996, a Friday evening in Milwaukee. After playing multiple rounds of Connect Four at an East Side coffeehouse, a few friends (all female) and I drove down to Lake Michigan and set off for the rocks lining the shore north of Bradford Beach. Climbing those rocks was forbidden, but we didn’t care—the worst that could happen would be a cop spotting us and telling us to leave (no one did). Sitting there after midnight under a clear, starry sky, listening to the waves and the occasional vehicle zooming by along Lincoln Memorial Drive, one of us began to sing a song from Little Earthquakes. I don’t remember which song, exactly—it might have been “Silent All These Years” or “Winter”—but we all joined in, and then sang a few others, probably “Precious Things” and “Crucify”, maybe even “Leather”. Nearly two decades removed, it admittedly seems a little corny, but let me tell you at the time it was absolutely profound, to bond over sharing this secret, special place with each other, singing songs from an album we spontaneously discovered we all adored.

If it’s now difficult to fathom how beloved Tori Amos was at her career peak in the early-mid 1990s, note that at the time, just as many people reviled the very idea of her. She was often called twee, pretentious, precious and other derogatory terms. Every other music writer seemed to accuse her of sounding too much like early Kate Bush—a fair observation musically, I suppose, although vocally I still don’t get how anyone could possibly mistake Amos’ unique timbre for Bush’s equally distinct tone. At 17, even I curtly dismissed the videos MTV aired from Little Earthquakes as “girl-with-a-piano” stuff, only coming around when I heard “God”, the first single from her follow-up album, Under the Pink (1994). Sinuous, playful and a little audacious (“Do you need a woman to look after you?” she asks the titular deity), it got my attention. Under the Pink proved an intriguing, if demanding listen; when I finally checked out the earlier album some time later, its relative accessibility clicked right away for me, the melodies and textures deepening and revealing new facets with each spin like any great album should.

So immediately and extensively does Amos establish her persona across Little Earthquakes’ first three tracks that, upon listening to them again nearly a quarter-century on, any skepticism towards her relevance or ability to connect with an audience quickly evaporates. Her opening salvo, “Every finger in the room / is pointing at me / I wanna spit in their faces / then I get afraid of what that could bring” conveys her candor and a confessional nature whose lineage one can uncover all the way back to Blue. Then, she takes a few steps further, linking religion to sex (“looking for a savior beneath these dirty sheets”) to guilt (she has enough “to start her own religion”) and self-immolation (“I’ve been raising up my hands / drive another nail in”). She steps back, hinting at a little self-deprecation (“Just what God needs / one more victim”) before declaring her defiance in the chorus (“Why do we crucify ourselves?”). As with every song on the album (save for one), the piano is the dominant instrument, although the airy, booming percussion is just as prominent here.

Both return for “Girl” along with some sampled synth-strings (and in the bridge, a few unexpected, intricate overlapping melodies). Switching to the third-person lyrically, it feels less intimate than “Crucify” but the chorus’ feminist observation that “She’s been everybody else’s girl / maybe one day she’ll be her own,” resonates instantly. With “Silent All These Years”, she returns to the first-person, singing from the vantage point of someone in a relationship stifled by her partner, summoning the desire and courage to be heard. Although she teases him about “a girl who thinks really deep thoughts”, this is more a declaration than just mere comment. The force with which she sings, “Sometimes I hear my voice and it’s been here” is massive, placing glorious emphasis on that last word, showing a proficiency for the soft/loud/soft dynamic favored by contemporary alt-rock bands like the Pixies and Nirvana only in a far more delicate orchestral pop setting. Such a confluence of personal, deeply felt affirmation and an indelible melody has made “Silent All These Years” the album’s true standard and biggest “hit” (even if it never made the top 40).

From there, Little Earthquakes goes off on tangents that occasionally return to, but more often complicate and alter our expectations of Amos set up by the previous songs. “Precious Things” opens with a low hum of noise followed by a skittering piano and an accompanying sound perhaps resembling a person running, trying to catch her breath. Amos’ voice enters calm and slow over the unusual, anxiety-ridden time signature. She remains in control as the arrangement goes practically mental (not to mention metal), drums pummeling all over the chorus until we hear a guitar and a thunder crack, followed by her magnificent, intense wail as if all hell has broken loose and she physically cannot remain silent anymore. If you’re listening to the album for the first time in sequence, you might as well wonder, “What happened to that nice young woman with the piano from the first three tracks?” Here she’s far closer to the fury of someone like Trent Reznor (note how she references him via “those demigods with their nine-inch nails”) than Joni Mitchell, and all the more admirable for it.

Much of the rest of the album alternates between serious, reflective orchestral ballads and playful, whimsical diversions. With its lone piano and crystalline melody, the opening of “Winter” stands in great, gripping contrast to “Precious Things”. Amos almost effortlessly aces this sort of thing, the orchestration stirringly weaving in and out of her piano and vocals, lending depth to what could’ve too easily ended up another monochromatic ballad. “Happy Phantom”, on the other hand, is a palette cleanser, deliberately jaunty and upbeat, the piano even breaking into a boogie-woogie on the pre-chorus while making room for joyous “woo-hoo’s”, some dulcimer during the bridge, imagery like “chasing nuns out in the yard” and an abrupt, dissonant outro. “China”, in contrast, is another slow one; this time, the orchestration is smooth and richly textured, enveloping Amos with elegance and grace—it’s not too far off from one of Madonna’s classier ballads like “Oh Father”. “Leather” follows, baring its lack of guile from the very start (opening lines are, “Look I’m standing naked before you / don’t you want more than my sex”), its arch, staccato notes fitting in nicely with a suddenly revealed sense of humor (the affected, exaggerated tone Amos lends to the words “nice big fat cigar”), all coming off like a teasing-but-knowing cabaret number of the sort one upcoming 100 Albums artist practically built her career on.

In theory, such vacillation should make for a jagged listen. I can’t fully determine how “Mother”, a nearly seven minute piano-and-voice number that takes its sweet time in getting to where it wants to go sits comfortably next to “Tear In Your Hand”, a more conventional, lush, radio-friendly breakup song. Likewise, I can’t explain how flawlessly the hushed, demure “China” seems to follow the exceedingly giddy “Happy Phantom”. Still, for all her changes in tone and demeanor, Amos is obviously the glue holding it all together. What remains constant throughout all of Little Earthquakes is both her fearlessness (Madonna’s the only other person in ’92 who would even attempt a lyric like “so you can make me cum / that doesn’t make you Jesus”) and her vulnerability. They play a vital part in the album’s final two songs, both of which find Amos going even beyond those parameters she has so far set.

“Me and a Gun” has no orchestra, no guitar, no drums, not even a piano—just Amos singing a melody simple enough for a nursery rhyme, although it’s far more suited to a murder ballad. She bluntly recounts being raped, just “Me and a gun / and a man on my back.” She remembers the harrowing, traumatic experience as if reliving it, talking herself through it (“You can laugh, it’s kinda funny / the things you think at times like these / like I haven’t seen Barbados / so I must get outta this”). Naturally, recording the song a capella suitably renders it almost unbearably intimate, heightening its emotional impact. I can imagine how startled first-time listeners would be, completely unaware that it’s coming. To place it any earlier on Little Earthquakes would be too soon, with no chance to process everything Amos has divulged in those first ten tracks; to end the album with it would be far too brutal—an ending without any hope.

Thus, after Amos sings her last note in “Me and a Gun”, the title track/album closer promptly begins. Its first measures are soft yet cavernous, one dominant droning chord over which Amos lets out seemingly stream-of-consciousness lyrics until the chord changes and she sings, “and I hate / and I hate / and I hate… elevator music,” but also less trivial things like “the way we fight”. On the chorus, she laments, “Oh these little earthquakes / doesn’t take much to rip us into pieces,” easily a summation of everything else she’s sung about here. From that point, the song builds like a volcano ready to erupt: a brief, deceptively lighthearted piano lick at 3:17 soon gives way to loud, impassioned cries of “Hey, can I reach you?” until everything drops out at 3:57, with Amos and assorted voices repeating this, the album’s key mantra: “Give me life, give me pain, / give me myself again.” It’s sung six times, gaining in volume and power until the key changes again and Amos repeatedly wails with the force of one thousand earthquakes (I can’t do justice to exactly how her 26-syllable wail sounds by writing it down). A grand act of catharsis and an attempt at redemption, this part is the song’s emotional climax; all that’s left is for Amos to do is quietly return to the chorus once more and bring this whirlwind down to a resolved close.

Amos set the bar for herself so high with Little Earthquakes that if she never recorded another record, or one at least half as good, her place in the singer/songwriter firmament would still be secure. I agree with those who maintain she never topped it, but her subsequent career proved so rewarding and wide-ranging that I have trouble defining her solely by it. As I continually revise this list of 100 Albums in my mind, Amos has two other records I periodically consider including—don’t be surprised if at least one of them makes the final cut.

Up next: To age gracefully.

“Precious Things”:

“Little Earthquakes”:

Pet Shop Boys, DISCOGRAPHY

discography

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #30 – released November 4, 1991)

Track listing: West End Girls / Love Comes Quickly / Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money) / Suburbia / It’s A Sin / What Have I Done To Deserve This? / Rent / Always On My Mind / Heart / Domino Dancing / Left To My Own Devices / It’s Alright / So Hard / Being Boring / Where The Streets Have No Name (Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You) / Jealousy / DJ Culture / Was It Worth It?

“West End Girls” is maybe the unlikeliest number one hit of the 1980s and, at the same time, the most emblematic. It quietly fades in, ambient street noise almost immediately consumed by a ticking drum machine and a wash of synthesizers. Then, the bass gives away the song’s primary melodic hook, to be sung later when the chorus comes around. However, the verses are rapped, only this hip-hop approximation has more in common with Blondie’s “Rapture” than Run DMC or even the Sugar Hill Gang. What’s more, the rap is delivered in a slightly posh, unapologetically fey, white, British male voice, so lacking in swagger or braggadocio anyone hearing it for the first time today might struggle to even discern that it’s a rap. The sung chorus, however, is catchy enough to pull all of it—the rap, the synths, the soulful female backing vocals into focus, creating a vivid portrait of a modern, diverse London rustling with class boundaries (the “East End Boys” versus the titular figures), everything suffused with a mid-1980s urban ennui.

That this most British song not only topped the charts in the UK but also in the US was an unexpected coup for this cheekily-named duo (comprised of vocalist Neil Tennant and instrumentalist Chris Lowe), but it also must’ve been daunting to reach such great heights so early on. “West End Girls” remains Pet Shop Boys’ best-known, career-defining song, but even in the US, they weren’t exactly one hit wonders, scoring four more top ten hits within the next two years. All of them are on Discography, which plainly, dutifully collects the band’s British singles in chronological order, from 1986 to 1991. Album purists would probably find the very concept an abomination, especially as the four albums this compilation draws upon (Please, Actually, Introspective and Behaviour—the Pets love their one-word titles) are all worth hearing, and diverse enough to carry the same weight in the band’s overall, um, discography. Regardless, in this case I prefer the greatest hits simply because, taken altogether, this is a brilliant run of singles, both consistent and far-reaching enough to stand with any other of the decade.*

In their singles immediately following “West End Girls”, PSB almost resemble a synth-duo equivalent of Steely Dan in how they wed hummable melodies and arena-sized pop hooks with knowing (if not quite as pitch-black) satire. “Opportunities” spells out what a calculated, lucrative game pop music is with bell-like clarity (and insider knowledge—Tennant, after all, was formerly a journalist for Smash Hits magazine), exemplified by that killer chorus, “I’ve got the brains / you’ve got the looks / let’s make lots of money.” Meanwhile, “Suburbia” appears period-iconic to the degree where it could easily soundtrack any John Hughes film, although Tennant’s pleading to “blame the color TV” (among other things) forgoes any sweetness about the suburbs, staying coolly observant while retaining a point of view that could only come from lived-in familiarity with the milieu. Still, it’s telling that “Love Comes Quickly”, the UK follow-up to “West End Girls” was a flop. This had nothing to do with the song’s quality—it’s actually aged better than the singles surrounding it and is one of the band’s own favorite songs to boot—but its utter sincerity and unabashed awe at the Power of Love may have thrown listeners for a loop at the time (especially those used to hearing such advice from the likes of Huey Lewis and the News).

With the singles from Actually (1987), PSB elevate their status from exceptional to era-defining. They accomplish this primarily by subverting the very notion of what a pop song can contain and express, often concealing its true meaning under layers of irony, allowing for multiple, conflicting readings. Musically, “It’s A Sin” is “West End Girls” on crack, ramping up the urgency to disco-era “I Will Survive” levels, wringing grandiose drama out of something as elemental and omnipresent as Catholic guilt. In the first verse, Tennant reaches across the entire spectrum of sinful admissions: “When I look back upon my life / it’s always with a sense of shame / I’ve always been the one to blame.” However, in the second verse, he sings, “At school they taught me how to be / So pure in thought and word and deed / They didn’t quite succeed.” Again, the lyrics are just broad enough to be open to interpretation, but consider the phrase “pure in thought and deed”, along with Tennant’s foppish demeanor. Watch the video, directed by Derek Jarman, for god’s sake. Even without knowledge of Tennant’s homosexuality (he’d publicly come out around the time of Discography’s release), it’s not difficult to discern what one of the sins, or perhaps even the biggest one Neil’s singing about is—that is, if you’re attuned to it. In 1987, “It’s A Sin” might not have become the band’s second UK chart topper had these lyrics been more explicit and less coded.

For the next two years, Tennant and Lowe could seemingly do no wrong with the record-buying public while sneaking in a depth of heady content not commonly found at the top of the pops. “What Have I Done To Deserve This?” revivifies ‘60s blue-eyed soul icon Dusty Springfield, giving her an up-to-date glossy ‘80s sheen while expertly complementing her perennial strengths as a vocalist and mere presence. The resulting girl/boy duet between her and Tennant, sung in the guise of ex-lovers, startles for how smashingly their two disparate voices go together (today, it’s also drily amusing for the fact that Springfield was also closeted at the time). “Domino Dancing” delves into Latin freestyle, going so far to employ Lewis Martinee, producer of chart-topping girl group Expose. Gleefully piling on live horns and flamenco guitars over a tart electro backdrop, the track exploits a then-hot trend, but it’s far more sophisticated and complex than the stuff it draws from, and its video’s slight homoerotic bent further muddies just who the song is about and whom for.

Even on relatively simpler compositions such as “Heart” (written for and rejected by Madonna!) and a radical, electrodance cover of the Elvis Presley/Willie Nelson chestnut “Always On My Mind”, PSB continue to push boundaries and make great pop music by appealing as much to the mind as, well, the heart. This apotheosis reaches an early peak on “Rent”. A gently percolating ode to transactional love and affection (“I love you / you pay my rent,” the indelible chorus goes), it seems like nothing more than that on first listen, a personal equivalent of the professional relationship proposed in “Opportunities”. The decidedly heterosexual video supports this reading, but come on: the title alone conjures up thoughts of the term “rent-boy” for a specific swath of listeners. It’s just as likely Neil is singing about a gay relationship as a straight one, or a prostitute/john one, or even a dominant/submissive combo. As its gleaming synth pop helps to wash everything down easily, the song’s carefully-chosen lyrics suggest that even the most genuinely loving and equal relationship is not entirely devoid of transaction, whether it’s monetary, nurturing or taking shape in the form of, say, compromise.

As PSB slipped off the US charts for good (“Domino Dancing” was their last top 40 hit), their ambition skyrocketed. Introspective (1988), a club-centric LP with an average track length of six-minutes-plus conveys this, especially on “Left To My Own Devices”. Helmed by uber-producer Trevor Horn (ABC, Yes, The Art of Noise), it’s purposely baroque, overstuffed with strings (both fake and real), dramatic harp glissandos and enough drama for an entire opera. Even with the single edit slashed down to just under five minutes from the eight minute LP version, you sense PSB applying this kitchen-sink approach to a pop song simply because they can. Behaviour (1990) leaves behind the club for the cinema. Among its three selections, “So Hard” might be as hummable as “Heart” and constructed from the same string-synth stabs found in “Always On My Mind” but it also substitutes lovesick plentitudes for musings one might find in an existentialist noir or maybe even an Antonioni picture (“We’ve both given up smoking / cause it’s fatal / so whose matches are those?”); alas, even a silver screen might prove too small for “Jealousy”, a slow building lament forever threatening to transform into a lachrymose Broadway showstopper, which it kind of does with its sudden, massive orchestral fanfare outro.

These are all terrific songs, but none of them are as touching, eloquent or simply perfect as the remaining Behaviour single, “Being Boring”. Another lengthy, lushly orchestrated mid-tempo ballad, it announces a far more mature and refined PSB. The song’s narrator reflects on being young and “find(ing) inspiration in anyone who’s gone and opened up a closing door.” From there, he’s off to find himself, having “bolted” past that closing door; change is inevitable as the decades fly by, but as he notes in the chorus, at least “we were never being boring / we had too much time to find for ourselves.” Not until the third verse, however, does he reveal the song’s true agenda: “All the people I was kissing / some were dead and some are missing / in the nineteen-nineties.” It’s no stretch to read this as an AIDS elegy, one made all the more haunting and resonant by the following lines:

“I never dreamt that I would get to be
The creature that I always meant to be
But I thought in spite of dreams
You’d be sitting somewhere here with me.”

For a band often accused of being too clever or arch, this is powerful stuff—sentimental, yes, but deeply felt. The masks PSB tend to cloak their songs in aren’t fully lifted—AIDS is never mentioned by name—but “Being Boring” is a key turning point in their discography, although Discography itself tapers off somewhat after it. Following another wacky cover only notable for setting a magisterial U2 standard to a sequencer rhythm and mashing it together with a Frankie Valli oldie, we get two new, previously unreleased songs, both promoted as singles around the compilation’s release. You may not remember them because neither is in the same class as “West End Girls” or even “Domino Dancing”.

Still, they’re each significant for another reason. “DJ Culture” extends Behaviour’s fixation on dancefloor decadence and after-hours melancholia and once again returns to the spoken verse/sung chorus well. Dreaming of “living in a satellite fantasy” but struggling to articulate what that actually means, it’s cerebral to a fault, almost: in the final verse, Tennant raps, “Bury the past, empty the shelf / decide it’s time to reinvent yourself.” On “Was It Worth It?”, he elaborates further, claiming, “I reserve the right to live / my life this way and I don’t give / a damn when I hear people say / I’ll pay the price that others pay.” He sings this defiantly, triumphantly over an euphoric disco-house beat—it’s a grand moment of release, of coming clean, feeling miles away from the conflicted narrator of “It’s A Sin”. Concluding Discography with these two particular tracks is no arbitrary decision (even relegating “Miserablism”, one of their sharpest songs from this era, to a B-side): thematically, it neatly closes one door for PSB and bolts open another. As we will see some entries on, this action will prove tremendously liberating for Tennant and Lowe, arguably encouraging/allowing them to create their very best work.

Up next: Really Deep Thoughts.

*Madonna, the era’s greatest singles artist, bar none, doesn’t appear on 100 Albums because even her best compilation, The Immaculate Collection is flawed, excluding great songs and substituting inferior remixes and edits of others.

“Rent”:

“Being Boring”:

Concrete Blonde, BLOODLETTING

Bloodletting

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #29 – released September 19, 1990)

Track listing: Bloodletting (The Vampire Song) / The Sky Is A Poisonous Garden / Caroline / Darkening Of The Light / I Don’t Need A Hero / Days And Days / The Beast / Lullabye / Joey / Tomorrow, Wendy

Autumn, 1990. I’m not yet listening to any of the artists I’ve written about here so far. I have the taste of an average 15-year-old (albeit without much love for rap or any for metal), formed almost exclusively by top 40 radio and MTV. Thus, like 99% of the rest of the world, “Joey” is the first Concrete Blonde song I hear, although it comes from their third album. A few songs from the first two (“Still in Hollywood”, “God Is A Bullet”) were marginal “hits” on college radio, MTV’s 120 Minutes and other outlets I had little exposure to at the time.

Preceding the album’s release, “Joey” was a summer college radio smash that crossed over to pop, reaching #19 on the Billboard Hot 100 in November. A classic, direct ballad, it even kicks off with an instantly recognizable “Be My Baby” style drum roll, just like The Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Just Like Honey”. However, any hint of retread vanishes when Johnette Napolitano’s darkly expressive voice appears on the first verse. She’s not as trailblazing or charismatic as Chrissie Hynde or Patti Smith (or even Ann Wilson of Heart), but she’s a firm progenitor of all the female alterna-rock vocalists that followed her in the ‘90s, from PJ Harvey to Liz Phair. She adeptly shifts from quiet tenderness (“Joey, honey / I’ve got the money”) to forceful maelstrom (“I know you’ve heard it all be-fo-oh-ore”), wringing so much passion and nuance from the lyric that you’re convinced the song is a letter or diary entry directed at an actual person, not a character or a construct; Napolitano would later reveal the song’s subject to be ex-Wall of Voodoo guitarist Marc Moreland, whom she later recorded with under the moniker Pretty and Twisted.

For a few weeks, “Joey” was seemingly everywhere; afterwards, as it fell down the charts, it assumed the status of all former hits: occasional play on various radio formats and a place in the collective memory of once-popular songs, fondly recalled by fans and surprising those hearing it for the first time in many years who had forgotten it. Historians and music nerds forever remember Concrete Blonde as a “one-hit wonder”, for they never had such crossover success again. For some time, to me they were simply the band who did “Joey” and nothing more.

Spring, 1994. WARP, Milwaukee’s first alt-rock radio station is pretty lame, playing canned, automated playlists (occasionally identical week-to-week!) on a fuzzy AM frequency, but it’s where I first hear The Smiths and XTC so it’s revelatory at the time. They also incessantly play two tracks (“Heal It Up” and “One of My Kind”) from Concrete Blonde’s recent fifth album, Mexican Moon and the band re-enters my consciousness. With encouragement from A., a friend who adores them, I purchase Mexican Moon and Bloodletting. Both are fine, but I’m concurrently acquiring so much new music that neither rises to the top of the pile of stuff making the most profound impact on me.

As a college freshman, I begin frequenting Mad Planet, a club in the city’s Riverwest neighborhood (a few years before it underwent considerable gentrification) that hosts 18+ Saturday nights. Not explicitly a venue for goths, it clearly attracted what then passed for an alternative crowd: young men and women decked out in black clothing, Manic-Panic’d hair, multiple piercings and Doc Martens, most of them big Depeche Mode fans in high school, at least some of them questioning their sexuality. Needless to say, my friends (mostly female high school classmates) and I had little difficulty fitting in, even though I didn’t really look the part—for one thing, I was just starting to grow out my hair.

Not a fan of the harder stuff they played (Ministry, Front 242), I still heard a lot that I loved, from The Cure to, well, Concrete Blonde. Without fail, the DJ would spin Bloodletting’s title track every week. Subtitled “The Vampire Song”, it doesn’t cloak itself in any ambiguity—it is emphatically a brooding anthem about being a vampire and doing what vampires do: “going down to” New Orleans (was Charlaine Harris a big fan?) to feast on human blood. Even Robert Smith could not devise a more perfect goth anthem if he tried. Curiously, Concrete Blonde’s earlier records barely hinted towards such subject matter, instead fixating on Mexican/Catholic imagery and the seedier side of L.A. Rather than hopping on any bandwagon, it simply sounds like Napolitano thought it would be fun to write a vampire song. Just as it set a rich, defining tone for the album with its descending bassline and evocative air of sensual menace, “Bloodletting (The Vampire Song)” also sounded fantastic at Mad Planet, a dependable staple we all danced to, some of us even miming the decadently silly sucking noise Napolitano makes in the instrumental breakdown after the guitar solo.

Autumn, 1994. A. gives me a cassette including the band’s 1987 self-titled debut on one side and Walking In London, their fourth album from 1992 on the other. Both it and a dubbed tape of Bloodletting are always in my Sony Walkman throughout my sophomore year of college. I’ve moved out of my parent’s house and into a dorm, where I continually play these three albums nearly as much as the compatible Rocky Horror Picture Show soundtrack. Whenever I think of afternoons spent perusing used record stores up and down Brady Street on Milwaukee’s East Side or hanging out on Madison’s State Street while visiting friends attending the University of Wisconsin, I recall those four albums more than anything else I was listening to.

Much of Concrete Blonde’s appeal stemmed from Napolitano. In an ideal world, a rock trio fronted by a bass-playing woman with a powerful voice would not be a novelty, but back then for me it most certainly was. I’ve already praised her expertise as a front person, but it bears repeating, for throughout Bloodletting, her vocals bring out emotional shadings and layers arguably undetectable from the backing tracks alone. For instance, “The Sky Is A Poisonous Garden” would be very much the routine, up-tempo thrash rocker if not for the personality she almost effortlessly injects into the lyrics, like her sudden exclamation of “young naked PREY!” or her insistent reading of the song’s title, especially at the very end. Likewise, “Days and Days”, whose main hook is arguably Napolitano’s killer bassline, feels less generic and more personable as she rattles off the verses in a near-inimitable spoken-word rush, setting up a nice contrast to the fiercely sung chorus.

That’s not to take anything away from the rest of the band, for guitarist Jim Mankey is nearly as crucial to Concrete Blonde’s sound as Napolitano. While his solos tend to be a little samey, he contributes significantly to each song’s atmospheric pull—try to imagine “Lullabye” without his melodic riffs supporting Napolitano’s wail or his more somber contributions to “I Don’t Need A Hero”. Completing the band on Bloodletting is former Roxy Music member Paul Thompson, the latest in a series of revolving drummers. As with his work on such classic Roxy albums as Country Life, Thompson provides unflashy but solid support. Together, Napolitano-Mankey-Thompson make an inspired trio, one fully attuned to some of Napolitano’s most wrenching and emotionally open lyrics to date, baring her soul about the alcoholic “Joey”, the estranged “Caroline” and the specter of a friend that haunts “Darkening of the Light”.

July 4, 1995. A. and I and two other people are driving home from visiting a friend at a mental health facility in Waukesha County. It’s evening, Independence Day, but no one feels much like watching fireworks or partying; we’re all pretty speechless for obvious reasons. We silently listen to Concrete Blonde’s Still In Hollywood, a rarities compilation that also serves as a postmortem, the band having split up the year before. Among all the B-sides and cover versions, there are acoustic takes on two Bloodletting tracks: “Joey” (performed on a show called ‘”Hangin’ With MTV”), and “Tomorrow, Wendy” (from a concert at the Malibu Nightclub on Long Island, New York).

The latter was Bloodletting’s sole cover, written by another ex-Wall of Voodoo member, Andy Prieboy for his great, long-out-of-print solo album also released in 1990, Upon My Wicked Son. “Tomorrow, Wendy” is about a woman dying of AIDS, rare subject matter for a pop song at a moment when that health crisis was near its peak. Prieboy’s lyrics alternate between poetic reverie (“We can make believe that Kennedy is still alive / We’re shooting for the moon and smiling Jackie’s driving by”) and angry candor (“I told the priest, ‘Don’t count on any second coming / God got his ass kicked the first time he can down here slumming’”), preparing us for the chorus’ plainspoken, affecting bluntness: “Tomorrow, Wendy is going to die.” Himself a friend of Napolitano’s, Prieboy contributes keyboards to the luxuriant, wall-of-sound rendition that closes Bloodletting; naturally, her dramatic reading fully devastates, illustrating the ridicule, despair and loss Wendy endures.

Still In Hollywood’s version is radically different from the Bloodletting one, stripping the arrangement down to the bone: one guitar, nimble percussion and Napolitano’s voice. In this intimate setting, Prieboy’s song turns almost unbearably poignant and urgent, reminding us that death is not simply unjust, inevitable and unavoidable—death is the end, and yet, as Napolitano says in the spoken intro, “We all go through it.” As much as death is certain, it’s still absolutely harrowing for both the victim and those close to them. Napolitano startlingly emits both sympathy and terror, particularly when she suddenly shifts into a daringly higher register than what she attempts on the studio version; so chilling and starkly powerful, this version is what first resonated with me on that long drive home. Regarding the friend we visited, her illness had nothing to do with AIDS (and thankfully, she did get better), but the song nonetheless seemed complimentary—it reminded me how helpless I felt sitting with her at that facility, trying to offer my support and comfort, feeling perplexed as to what she was going through, not understanding how she could go through it at all. Rarely had I identified with any song so closely before.

Autumn, 1999. I’m walking down Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge towards Porter Square, Concrete Blonde playing on my Discman. Suddenly, I feel five years younger, once again walking down Brady Street, hair much longer, clothes a bit more ragged, altogether blissfully unaware of the life changes ahead. This sensation lasts only for a few seconds, but it leaves behind a nostalgic glow as I re-engage with the present and the different place and state of mind I am in now (though truthfully, not all that different regarding the latter). It’s not as if I haven’t listened to this band in the two years since I’ve moved to Boston, but other bands and songs have obscured and overtaken that heightened place I once automatically reserved for Concrete Blonde in my affections. I associate them with the past—one of the more formative periods of my life, but still the past.

As I age, Bloodletting’s appeal inevitably diminishes, but I doubt it will ever entirely fade for me. I even bought the 20th Anniversary edition released in 2010 (among its bonus tracks are the languorous “I Want You” (from the movie Point Break!) and that live version of “Tomorrow, Wendy”). Every Halloween, I’ll put on the title track and often listen to the entire album. In recent years, I’ve come to love a three-song sequence on the first half. It begins with “Caroline”, the flop follow-up single to “Joey”: a brisk, minor-key lament teeming with echoing guitar chords, it’d be witchy enough for Stevie Nicks to cover, although Napolitano attains just the right mix of menace and longing. Next comes “Darkening of the Light”: featuring R.E.M.’s Peter Buck on mandolin (a year before “Losing My Religion”!), it reveals a more vulnerable side to the band, almost coming off like a beguiling electric folk murder ballad. That leads into the even more fragile and mysterious “I Don’t Need A Hero”: with guitar softly coloring in the background, Thompson’s fills silently twitch in the verses and forcefully tumble through the choruses while Napolitano forever keeps her cool, her every word imbued with wisdom but not overthought, perhaps best embodied by her wonderful, casually defiant “I don’t wanna be your mother” towards the end.

So I try to have it both ways, loving Bloodletting in context of those times when it was the soundtrack of my life, while also returning to it, hoping for that same profundity or, perhaps, something new in it to adore and dissect—after all, “I Don’t Need A Hero” was never one of my favorite tracks until I hit my 30s. Last year, I began my essay on Blue with a Geoff Dyer quote about how the meaning of art changes as it ages although literally, the work of art stays the same. I think of that now as I wrestle with Bloodletting, a remnant of my past that still holds meaning for me, just not the exact same meaning it once did.

Up next: Subverting the System.

“Joey”:

“I Don’t Need A Hero”: