There are few things I love more than when a band sells out.
When they decide to rein in their worst impulses, focus and tighten their songwriting, and apply some discipline – that’s when the magic happens.
Of course, there’s also the added bonus of seeing the hipsters seethe about how their favs are now accessible to the plebes of society. “Oh no……..they realized that if they want to make money they have to make music people actually enjoy listening to,” they moan.
Modest Mouse was a good one. The aptly titled album Good News for People who Love Bad News was pop songwriting perfection, a concise package of hits far removed from their expansive noodling. It deservedly gave them the spotlight after years of toiling away.
The past decade has been difficult in this respect. With the music industry in shambles and the Old Ways long gone, bands no longer have the motivation to write crossover hits like Modest Mouse did. Seasoned acts became legacy acts, up-and-comers indulged in experimentation, and new artists were given almost no priority. The major music labels have begun gobbling up the rights to legendary catalogues like Bowie, Springsteen, Young and others with no intent of fostering new voices. Why take a risk on an unproven act when you can sell “Born to Run” to Yoplait for a Go-Gurt commercial?
Barring some sort of cultural revolution, Twenty One Pilots’ 2015 album Blurryface may very well have been the final alternative breakthrough album ever released. It’s hard enough for industry plants to get traction nowadays; an artist honestly working their way up to the big time may be another long-dead part of the American Dream.
I bring up Twenty One Pilots on purpose – it’s an acolyte of theirs that gives me hope.
I don’t know much about Oliver Tree other than he has a strange predilection for making himself appear as unattractive as possible with makeup and haircuts, and he sounds like the Twenty Second Pilot. I’d been seeing his name pop up on iTunes and other online outlets for a bit, but the songs were a little too goofy for me.
Last year’s “Life Goes On” got my attention with its hook and semi-seriousness, but it was this week’s “Cowboys Don’t Cry” that has me thoroughly hyped. Not only is the melancholy 90s alt-pop song an instant classic, but take the look at the very 90s album art:
This is undoubtedly an artist who is trying to make a legitimate hit. Oliver Tree wants to break through.
Last week I tore into experimental UK act Black Country, New Road because their new song “Chaos Space Marine” was a jerky mess that wanted nothing more than to kill its own momentum with abrupt structural changes. This week frontman Isaac Wood left the group, either giving them a path to creating more listenable music or sealing their fate as 2021’s buzz bin has-beens. They’ve got a chance to “sell out”. Let’s hope they take it.
When I was in high school my favourite band was Linkin Park. I defined myself almost entirely by Linkin Park. After all, they were the band that got me into rock music. But when I was in high school I was also a contrarian to the point of self-sabotage. I would do absolutely anything to be different from everyone else, even if it meant giving up my own happiness in order to be an edgy rebel.
So to the public, my favourite band in high school was Stabbing Westward. A defunct industrial rock group that were essentially the proto-Linkin Park; they sounded like if Nine Inch Nails wanted to be U2. Turns out you can be miserable and have soaring choruses simultaneously.
I was THAT guy when it came to Stabbing Westward, constantly pushing this semi-obscure, mostly irrelevant group to anyone and everyone in my classes for a whole two years. I wrote poetry based entirely about their discography. When frontman Christopher Hall began a new band called The Dreaming (who were virtually identical to Stabbing Westward) I went through the convoluted process of getting a money order to buy their first EP.
In Grade 12 I pivoted hard to indie rock, and later to emo. I rarely listened to either Stabbing Westward or The Dreaming anymore, though I did give a few spins to their 2008 album – mostly to hear how the fully produced versions of their EP songs sounded like.
In 2015 The Dreaming came back with a new album. I had long phased out hard rock from all my playlists at this point so I wasn’t clamouring for it but I gave the iTunes previews a listen, downloaded two songs, listened to them for a month or so because they were decent, and that was that.
And now we’ve come full circle as OGs Stabbing Westward have returned with new music 20 years after disbanding. High school me would be sulking ecstatically. Current me is both pleasantly surprised and not at all surprised. The Dreaming were essentially a through line between both iterations of Stabbing Westward, so it makes perfect sense that new song “Ghost” sounds identical to what the band was releasing in the late 90s. The same style of arpeggiated guitar riff, the same spooky synths, the same melodic vocals. Also the same depressing lyrics, which, like with Gary Numan last year, makes me sad for seemingly beleaguered frontman Hall.
I’ll likely give “Ghost” more than a few spins, if not for nostalgia’s sake then for the fact that Stabbing Westward, like most other late 90s hard rock stalwarts, are utterly uninterested in caving to hip modern trends. “Ghost” has an instrumental hook, traditional song structure (a middle-8 bridge?? for real?), the cleanest production possible, and one of my favourite alt-rock staples – the guitar chord fade out to finish the song. It’s real throwback hours over here.
Two other throwbacks popped up this week, both being much more prominent 90s institutions. The Red Hot Chili Peppers have returned with “Black Summer”, and as refreshing as it is to hear the classic Chilis sound again, there is something way off about the production.
Anthony Kiedis’ vocals – bizarre sea shanty inflection aside – sound like they haven’t been mixed in at all, giving listeners the feeling that he’s singing over a karaoke track. It’s like in Guitar Hero when they couldn’t get the rights to original tracks so they had cover versions in their place. This is a multi-million dollar band. They shouldn’t sound this flat.
Liam Gallagher’s production on new song “Everything’s Electric” is more robust – if a bit distorted. The song itself is…entirely listenable. There is a bit of disconnect between the minor key verses and the major key choruses, but the latter are strong enough to carry the tune, which sounds like Oasis circa 2002. The one thing I find funny is that Liam’s singing has improved a thousandfold since his days so he sounds more like his arch rival Noel Gallagher, except for brief moments when his nasal sneer pops up and he has to fight it back down.
It’s the best song Liam’s ever done on his own, and though it’s not as adventurous as brother Noel’s solo work, it’s much more interesting than the blues rock he’s been releasing since Oasis’ demise.
Grimes is arguably the best producer in modern alternative music; new song “Shinigami Eyes” is a crystal-clear example of her talent behind the board. However here is where I must temper my praise because the fantastic chorus that appears in the first minute of the song for some reason decides not to make an encore. Instead the hook of the song is the unfortunately monotonous “Are you ready to die / got my Shinigami Eyes”. And when I say monotonous I mean it’s literally one note. It wouldn’t be a problem if it were used to fill time between choruses and verses, but it is absolutely not strong enough to act as a foundation for a whole song. The Daft-Punk-meets-Kylie-Minogue loop is squandered on this subpar melody – though a good remix may remedy this by adding a proper second chorus.