Primal Scream’s “Screamadelica”

Album cover for Screamadelica

This week, I’ve been listening to Primal Scream’s third album “Screamadelica” from 1991. At the end of the 80s, critics speculated that grebo-baggy music were going to be the sound of the 90s. These genres found new energy in combining psychedelic alternative rock with dance rhythms of acid house. British bands like EMF, Jesus Jones, and the Escape Club brought these sounds to American MTV. This was right before Nirvana’sSmell Like Teen Spirit” grabbed everybody’s attention and changed things. While I liked some of it, grunge didn’t really catch me as hard as it did others. Had I heard “Screamadelica” when it came out, I probably would’ve loved it. I had the same difficulty with it now that I have with the band Muse, several of the songs sound like direct combinations of two or three other songs. More derivative than inspired.

Movin’ On Up

So, that brings us to the opening track “Movin’ On Up.” It’s a good song on its own; However, to me it sounds like The Rolling Stone’sSympathy for the Devil” played like The Who’s “Magic Bus” after listening to George Michael’s “Faith.” The first verse opens with “I was blind, now I can see, you made a believer out of me.” This verse makes an allusion to “Amazing Grace,” where the chorus’s “I’m movin’ on up now, getting out of the darkness; My light shines on.” recalls both The Rolling Stones’ “Shine a Light” and the gospel anthem “This Little Light of Mine.” Screamadelica decidely wrote a rock n roll gospel anthem. I’m not sure what they’re believing in: perhaps it’s rock n roll and perhaps it was ecstasy.

The verses follow a I-I-I-I-V-IV-I-I chord progression, over which lay a gospel-blues melody. A female choir joins for the chorus, with a V-V-IV-IV-ii-IV-I-I progression. This jump up to the fifth for the chorus provides the feel of a key change without actually entering one. In addition to the Who-Stones inspired acoustic guitar riff, piano and choir support the gospel feel of the recording. Then an electric guitar provides an excellent solo that sounds more than a little like the solo in Sympathy for the Devil without the danger and edge.

Primal Scream’s love of The Rolling Stones stands out through much of the album. I definitely cannot blame them; my past few years of listening to the Rolling Stones have had a tremendous influence on my work as well. But sometimes I kept being reminded of specific songs by other artists strongly. The song “Damaged” kept making me want to listen to the much better “Moonlight Mile.” I think most of us as musicians try to avoid that. We might say, “I want to make a song like this one,” but our intentions are to emulate what we like about that song without copying the song itself.

Don’t Fight It, Feel It

After the opening track that blends gospel with 60s rock n roll, band jumps into acid-house track “Slip Inside This House.” This cover of a 13th Floor Elevators song from 1967 provides their sideways step into a seemingly disparate genre. Then they make full plunge into house with the third track “Don’t Fight It, Feel It.” Apparently, their intention was the produce a modern verse of Northern Soul music. Music about dancing, for dancing, with groove and soul.

It’s definitely modern (as of 1991) and makes you dance. It has the house synthetic piano chords that comes and go. It has layered soulful lyrics about getting high and dancing. It has a great bassline and house drums. It has an annoying chirping synth. It goes on and on for seven minutes that I would only find bearable if I was dancing to it in a club, and even then I wouldn’t be sad when it was over.

Loaded

The band update their earlier song “I’m Losing More Than I’ll Ever Had” on the epic middle track “Loaded.” The earlier song, from their 1989 self-titled second album. I prefer the earlier version, of course, with its more guitar-rock sound and “Sympathy For The Devil” inspired bridge.

“Loaded” opens with a sample from the movie “The Wild Angels” with Peter Fonda declaring they “want to be free.. get loaded and have a good time.” This freedom sample is appropriate, considering the song’s strong resemblance to George Michael’s “Freedom 90” from the previous year. Like much of the synth drum patterns of the early 90s, this one dances with the extra hops during the third beat. The synth piano also plays the jazz-inspired chord rhythm patterns heard in a lot of house music of the period. Guitars come and go riffing in a distinctly rock style.

Primal Scream most succeeded in combining house with rock on this track. It proceeds through a journey, with different phases. This keeps the song interesting. While they use house’s tendency towards drawn-out repetition, they’ve found a compromise between what’s appropriate for listening vs. dancing. A dance-club audience thrives on that lengthy repetition, whereas a listener needs variety.

Nirvana’s “Nevermind”

 

This week, I’ve been listening to Nirvana’s 1991 album “Nevermind” for what I can learn as a songwriting musician. This album hit record stores and the video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” started getting played on MTV when I was 14 years old. An adult gave me this album a few months after its release, because they decided they didn’t actually like it. When people call Kurt Cobain the “voice of a generation“, they’re talking about my generation. It’s a label that neither of us cared for. This album is credited with performing various miracles for the world of rock. All of this “blah blah blah” makes it difficult to appreciate the songs. So, I’ve tried this week to forget the myriad of words said about this album over the past 26 years and just listen.

Power barre chords cover this album from start to finish. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” starts the album with a strong example. The opening riff has become one of the most recognizable guitar riffs, which is amusing considering even Kurt Cobain commented on its similarity to the chorus of Boston’s “More Than a Feeling” and The Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie. That it’s already such a classic rock guitar riff is why it works so well. The song grabs you immediately and you know it’s going to rock.

These are guitar-centric songs written on guitar to be played on guitar. Most tracks are built around a single riff. The bass often bounces under the guitar, even in a head-bobbing early 1960s rock sort of way. While Nirvana was drawing on their alternative rock influences like Sonic Youth and the Pixies, they were also returning to early rock music. People say so much about Nirvana’s use of quieter parts for verses and louder parts for choruses. This is perhaps why the songs can be so repetitive without boring me like Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” did. Even though it wasn’t a new concept, the influence was soon seen. Next year’s ep “Broken” by Nine Inch Nails blew me away by pushing this quiet-loud contrast to more obvious extremes.

Rhythmically, the guitar often gives space for the snare drum. This great technique shows up frequently in rock music. Basically, the snare drum will hit on the 2nd and 4th beat of the measure and the guitar riffs will have a brief rest to allow the snare to punch through, like in “In Bloom“. You can often hum the guitar riff and the click your tongue for the snare. For the most part, the use of rhythm is this album is straight-forward. An interesting variation though is in the chorus of my favorite track, “Lithium“, the rhythm accents the 1st beat and then an eight-note after the 3rd and 4th beat.

Kurt was an amazing vocalist. His voice at times cuts through as a raspy howl and at others coarse but mellow singing. It was an influence on me early on, even though I doubt I would’ve admitted it. I was particularly floored by his singing for their 1994 performance of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” for MTV’s Unplugged.

The lyrics are raw visceral documents of anger, confusion and disillusionment. They don’t tell stories or even have a meaning in a traditional sense. I can imagine him writing individual phrases and then combining them to form songs. One line will express some raw emotion and then the next line will balance that with a degree of sarcasm. The lyrics express, without romanticism, the difficulties of being an outsider teen in a way that many people experience in an isolated way. It’s no wonder this album took hold and remains important. It’s perfectly adolescent in a way that is summed up in the line “Oh well, whatever, nevermind.”