Smells Like Unclean Spirit

It’s been 14 years, seven months and twenty two days since Kurt Cobain died. Not that I’m counting. I always loved Nirvana but I wasn’t a crazed fan. I just knew that they blasted open a special place in music for millions of people and are one of the few bands of our era, the grunge era if you will, which will stand the test of time as Important Bands Of Rock.

Kurt on the Nirvana Unplugged MTV special
Kurt on the Nirvana Unplugged MTV special

Sure there are many detractors; those that say they weren’t so hot, those that think they were ripping off my beloved Pixies, those that are mad that Kurt killed himself or hated flannel, or those that think that Dave Grohl’s Foo Fighting is a better sound to pump your fist at. Personally, I think Grohl is in danger of becoming the next Steven Tyler or Anthony Kiedis…which is not a compliment. If he uses the same riff in one more identical sounding, watered down song, then I will have to nominate him to write the movie theme for Armageddon 2.

There was something about Smells Like Teen Spirit which was an undeniable anthem. It pretty much summed up the angst of those who were raised by disillusioned baby boomers, talked down to by older “Greed is Good” 80’s siblings and not quite old enough to count ourselves as part of the clever bohemia which was Generation X.

As most eras and fads do, music recycles. We’ve been going through a somewhat amusing or down right annoying (depending on the artist) 80’s post punk, electro clash revival. Some of it I enjoy. Anyone who takes a Gang Of Four sound and adds a stomp and swagger to it, is fun in my book…but the American Apparel “Let’s Get Physical’, jazzercize crap, and the synthy dance mash ups and bastardizations of Thriller are getting on my last nerve. Perhaps it wouldn’t be so annoying to me if I weren’t old enough to remember wearing that tripe the first time around. I think I knew enough to be embarrassed even back then.

Seriously, not a good look.
Seriously, not a good look.

So if to everything there is a season, then it makes sense that the Grunge era is coming to the 2000s. Though it makes me shudder to think that I could be rocking out, shoulder to shoulder with kids who weren’t yet in school before Kurt offed himself, I welcome back music with a bite, a growl and a yelp.

Luckily, just in time for some new Nevermind, I was able to see some of the new class of new grunge and gut rock who are coming up through the ranks right now.

Apollo Sunshine's Sam, multi-tasking
Apollo Sunshine's Sam, multitasking

On a recent trip over to Silverlake, I caught up with Apollo Sunshine who were winding their way across the country in support of one of Rough Trade’s best albums of 2008, Shall Noise Upon. These Boston boys all met at Berklee College of Music. That T stop was once my old stomping grounds back in the beginning days of Grunge, when skateboarding was more something you did to annoy your elders, rather than a multi million dollar sport you could get fat and rich on.

Apollo Sunshine brighten up Spaceland
Apollo Sunshine brighten up Spaceland

Apollo’s 60’s style harmonies may hearken to a bit of CSNY, but that is misleading. Once you’re sure you’re in for a night of folk rock, their songs veer from feedback laden rock, to hippie psychedelia to afro beat styled songs which fall somewhere between The Rapture and Ozomatli. They are a genre all their own. In fact, their added percussionist, Oliver, is an incredible addition to the touring band. His drumming calisthenics, not to mention his scratching abilities on the NuMark decks, were a shot in the arm to a crowd that had seemed to have been tied off before they hit the stage.

Which brings me to a tangent…now grouse all you want, but fashion is often part of any music scene. Even the anti fashion of the grunge era was a statement in of itself. I can get behind some Ramonesy heroin addled, ripped jeans and a leather jacket. Yet, I’ve always been more of a fan of the lads who borrow from Adam Ant’s Pocahontis pirate theme or perhaps the fab four’s military duds. I cannot figure out why, for the life of me, so many men today dress like a down home, Kentucky friend version of the Sweat Hogs.

the stylishly bereft
Kotter's Sweathogs: devoid of style

The sweat band, dolphin short, just got back from a tennis workout look isn’t fooling anyone if you’re a pasty hipster. And the Alabama hippie with an ironic mustache or back mountain grizzly beard thing isn’t any woman’s first choice…but we will deal with it. As long as you don’t also smell like you’ve walked here from Alabama and haven’t bathed since you left.

The band on stage had been living in a van for several days…and they looked more kept and clean that the hogs that filed in front of the stage. Apollo Sunshine were working hard for their money, sweating it out under the lights…they had earned the right to smell…not the odious man standing next to me whose only exercise was lifting the large pint of Pabst to his mouth. Come on, guys. Be better for us. Smell better for us.

A whiff of new music was like sonic smelling salts to bring me back to consciousness. Headlining were a new five piece from Athens, Georgia, Dead Confederate, who have been billed as an alt country/ grunge act, whose tracks on myspace fall somewhere between Skynard and Sonic Youth. They have the distinction of being Rolling Stone’s one of six to watch which is either a golden ticket or something that they must live up to, depending on the octane level of their live performance and the staying power of their new release, Wrecking Ball.

Dead Confederate walked out on stage in almost complete darkness and with smoke that could fill the Staples Center, let alone choke anyone standing within the dinky walls of Spaceland. The hazy figures struck a chord both literally and figuratively. Lead singer Hardy howled into the mic a la Cobain, promoting the grunge aesthetic that the song and the lyrics aren’t necessarily the message itself, but the way that the song is delivered IS the message. How else would a song that spoke of an albino, a mosquito, capture the world so strongly? Even Chris Cornell, whom I believe to be a monogamy deal breaker wrapped in plaid, knew that his croon which slipped into a growl was cutting through to the core of both male and female fans alike.

Dead Confederate in a smoky haze
Dead Confederate in a smoky haze

As Dead Confederate powered through their shoe gaze+classic rock songs, it struck me that the scenario was so much like the Smells Like Teen Spirit video, that to not make the comparison would be criminal.

Smells like Dead spirit
Smells like Dead spirit
Smells like Nirvana spirit
Smells like Nirvana spirit

Plus the likeness of the mood, sound and spirit enlivened me to the point that I almost wanted to start a mosh pit…until I realized I was wearing expensive shoes…ah how the grungites have fallen prey to the material world. Have I become that which I used to rail against?

Rah Rah Anarchy!
Rah Rah Anarchy!

I thoroughly enjoyed the set and with any indie luck this band will knock My Morning Jacket off their Southern Rock perch, further cementing the return of grunge, with a modern Southern rock twist.

In between my rounds of welcoming the new guard in, I decided to take in a band which was actually there during the first Grunge pass. Growing up in Boston as a Pixies fan was a rock fan fantasy. I even got to meet Frank and Kim after sneaking in to a show, underage. I was a huge fan of Surfer Rosa‘s punky take on the surf guitar twangs. By the time Doolittle came out, my new favorite band was cemented in Ali history. So the Breeders were a nice respite from a gap in Pixies recordings and live shows.

The Breeders
The Breeders

Tonight the Deal sisters were back at the Wiltern and the music brought me back as if it were yesterday. As a confident adult, I felt a twinge of anxiety and excitement as I listened, the way I did when I first heard them and wasn’t sure what I wanted to be when I grew up or how exactly I’d get there.

My friend Lo and I did feel a bit of homesickness, or era-sickness, staring at the sisters Deal who looked a considerable deal older. So did the crowd. As my friend James mentioned, grunge at twenty is cool, grunge at 40? Well that’s a different story. Long, shoulder length dirty hair on men isn’t nearly as anarchic when there is a receding hairline. Still it was quite charming to see 40 year olds pogoing with abandon once The Breeders launched into their hit punky treat, “Cannonball”. And it was nice to know that as these people got older, they found the value of a good bar of soap. Growing up doesn’t have to be all bad.

Part of my job is to look back and listen to the past so that I may find hope in the future. And stumbling upon The Yelling was a little bit of both.

For those about to Yell, I salute you
For those about to Yell, I salute you

If you’re looking for some hard rock mixed in with your grunge then you’ve come to the right place. Though, the Echo was filled with handlebar mustaches, Motorhead t shirts and tight jeans, I took it to be a good omen that one of the t shirts at the merch booth had an iconic print of Alice Cooper on it. Fuckin’ school is out!

Lead singer Nathaniel Cox has the nasal intonation of Kurt but the angst is transformed into the raw energy you’d see from Wayne Kramer, while kicking out the Jams. Despite a lackluster response from the early crowd, The Yelling played hard like Highway Stars. In fact, the guitarist, Robert Davis, reminded me of when musicians used to play with their guitars…you know, the ones who play as if they’re constantly thinking about sex.

The Yelling giving every inch of their love
The Yelling giving every inch of their love

This music is the stuff of girls who o.d. on black eyeliner and chew on coffee stirrers during home room class. It’s smoky bedrooms with record players and purple bedspreads hung on the wall. Though the grunge comparison is there, they play heavy enough to be mentioned in the same breath as The Sword and Danava, but they have actual songs underneath the heavy riffs and swagger. It’s not all smash and crackle, but it is Zeppy blues and ACDC loud.

Rebel Yelling
Rebel Yelling

Are these newcomers the second coming of Cobain? No, but they don’t have to be. If their only job right now is to unplug the rash of synthesizers and bring loud raucous guitars back to rock, then I’d say it’s a step in the right direction. A good revival isn’t just a retelling of an old era. It should pump new blood into the theme. Yeah, sure things seem a bit the same: one Iraq war traded for another. A stock market crash thrown in here or there plus the promise of hope from a new democrat…but it IS a different era and the music should reflect that.

I just hope that the future sounds from the the kids coming up the ranks will inspire me to rock out and hold up my lighter once again. I hope it inspires youngsters to write in their journals or pick up a guitar for the first time. I hope it inspires people to question authority and not take the television ads at face value. I hope it’s loud howls and yelps and six string poetry will leave an indelible mark on the entire nation…and if change is really coming…if Zeus is really listening to my plea…I hope it might inspire some guys to bathe.

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