Sounds Like Teen Spirit

by Sacha Molitorisz
Nov. 1, 1997
Sydney Morning Herald

Special thanks to Sally Johnstone for transcribing this article


Popular music is forever shifting direction. Melody, harmony and reflective tunes are making a comeback. And the audience is loving it. Sacha Molitorisz reports.

Two weeks ago, in a candle-lit, sit-down venue called the Harbourside Brasserie, a string quintet, FourPlay, took the stage. After a few songs, the elegantly attired musicians launched into an incongruously gentle cover version of Nirvana’s 1991 anthem, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” the reluctant icon of the fledgling “grunge” generation earlier this decade. Copying Cobain, an international army of imitators suddenly had long, greasy locks and every other band (Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, Silverchair) was whining apathetically over noisy, fuzzy guitars.

Now, half a decade on, FourPlay had replaced those noisy, fuzzy guitars with cello and violin. And it went down a treat: the rendition brought smiles to most of the faces in the crowd.

What is going on? Rolling Stone editor Andrew Humphreys says we are witnessing a shift in the direction of popular music. “People are saying that grunge is dead,” he says. “It certainly appears dead as far as radio programmers go, and if it isn’t dead, it’s on its last legs. And, at the same time, we’ve seen the rise of women singer/songwriters.”

Melody and harmonies are back. Not that they’d ever completely disappeared, mind, it’s just that for a few years they’d been difficult to make out through all grunge’s noisy ennui. Now they’re back, stronger than ever. For one thing, there’s been a proliferation of folk singers.

“Everyone’s deaf after the last decade,” says Tim Freedman of The Whitlams, the piano-based Sydney band who played at the Harbourside Brasserie on the same night as FourPlay. “So now we can all reast in piano bars with our tinnitus and listen to some nice harmonies.”

If you’re after a turning point, look no further than April, 1994. That was when Kurt Cobain shot himself. It was also the month another young American singer was performing solo shows, having just put the finishing touches to his debut album, which, like Nirvana’s Nevermind, was to become a pivotal, defining work.

The singer was Jeff Buckley, the album Grace and the sound was the antithesis of Nirvana. Although Grace had moments of noisy aggression, the album’s themes were sex and spirituality, beauty and vulnerability. A romantic masterpiece that owed a debt to Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, Grace was remarkably accomplished and brave: Buckley’s angelic falsetto complemented his immaculate guitar work.

As Buckley said then: sensitivity isn’t about being wimpy; it’s about being so painfully aware that a flea landing on a dog is like a sonic boom. While Cobain had been yelling, Buckley had been brooding. Many critics dubbed Grace the album of the year, and although it didn’t sell as many copies in Australia as releases from Tina Arena or Mariah Carey, it proved profoundly influential.

“You could say that album was a turning point,” says Gemma Deacon, singer and songwriter with the Sydney acoustic/folk/pop band Cactus Child. “One of the reasons Jeff Buckley made such a big impact was because he was so melodic.

“And I noticed that that album encouraged a lot of people who were closet melody writers. A lot of guys, especially, felt Buckley was allowing them to write more melodically, whereas before there was probably a musical peer pressure to write more like Kurt Cobain.”

Whether or not Buckley was responsible, a rash of local bands is now lustily pursuing melody, a fact particularly remarkable given Sydney’s (and Australia’s) traditional commitment to pub rock. Five years ago, at the height of grunge. Cactus Child played their first live show. “It was harder back then,” admits guitarist Ian Shadwell.

Deacon laughs. “You just keep plodding on and eventually, if you stay around long enough, people catch up to you. With what we do, it’s almost like every part in the band is playing a melody: the bass line is really melodic, so is Ian’s guitar line, and I always try to write a really strong melody for my vocals.”

Cactus Child share a commitment to strong, seductive, catchy tunes with bands such as Eva Trout and Leonardo’s Bride (whose single “Even When I’m Sleeping” has gone gold – that is, sold 35,000 copies) and singers such as David Lane and Diana Ah Naid. Ah Naid – a young Lismore woman wielding an acoustic guitar and attitude -made a big splash with her first single, “I Go Off.” Her recently released debut album is likely to be a hit.

Cordrazine are a young Melbourne band who wear their Jeff Buckley influence on their record sleeve. Also from Melbourne, the Earthmen, Dave Graney, and the Blackeyed Susans are turning heads with smooth, sensual sounds as indigenous singer Archie Roach spins personal yarns and sounds deeply folk on his latest release, Looking for Butter Boy. Meanwhile, the new album Siva Pacifica, which harnesses the singing and chanting of the Pacific Islands, is exotic folk.

After fronting the viciously aggressive Birthday Party in the late ’70s, Melbourne’s Nick Cave evolved into the Prince of Darkness, singing black songs of violence and destruction. This year, however, Cave came over all sensitive and sweet on his latest album, The Boatman’s Call. Most of the tracks are love-affirming ballads in which Cave’s vocals are sparsely accompanied by his piano playing.

Then there’s singer/songwriter Paul Kelly, a man who happily admits folk legend Woody Guthrie was a prime influence. In June, after 20 years in the industry, Kelly released a greatest hits compilation. The timing was perfect. Songs from the South went gold within days and continues to hover near the top of the national albums chart.

Melody’s return is a global phenomena. Take Oasis, a British band who are almost a parody of the Beatles. In 1995, Oasis created an international anthem with their hit “Wonderwall.”

In the United States, guitar prodigy Ben Harper continues to blend soul, blues and folk superbly on his new record, while the piano-laden pop of Ben Folds Five recalls the likes of Joe Jackson. And Alanis Morissette, a Canadian barely in her 20s, has sold a staggering 850,000 copies in Australia of her debut album, Jagged Little Pill, with all its melodramatic lyrics and catchy hooks.

Music industry cognoscenti suggest two main reasons for the return of melody. One is that pop music follows cycles. As in, we’ve had the noisy stuff, now it’s time for the sweeter tunes. The other involves a cynical appreciation of the record industry.

“What happens is that there’s a strand of music that’s there to alienate parents and grunge served that purpose very well,” says the Herald’s veteran music commentator Bruce Elder. “Grunge managed successfully to break the nexus between parents and their teenage male boys, replacing heavy metal, which had lost its bite.

“But the real money is always with the music that appeals to people from the ages of six to 60. Therefore the record companies, no matter how they may cater for the alienated teen male market, will soon soak themselves back in catchy harmonies. And the most successful example of that would have to be The Corrs.”

The Corrs are four photogenic Irish siblings – three sisters, one brother – who blend traditional Celtic influences and contemporary pop structures. This is pure anti-grunge: the four live with their parents, where they apparently enjoy sitting around and listening to music. And, probably, the odd game of Pictionary.

Few artists sell half a million records in Australia, but The Corrs managed it with their debut album, Forgiven, Not Forgotten, which has sold 520,000 copies in Australia. The follow-up album was released last week.

“The return of melody is always a kind of return to conservatism, a return to music acceptable to all members of the family, to music that’s not music as rebellion,” says Elder.

“The perfect example of that is Elvis Presley. The very early recordings, up to and including “Hound Dog” and “Jailhouse Rock,” were there for a specific teen market. But by the time “Blue Hawaii” and “Wooden Heart” came out, he was back in there with ballads and accessible melodies.”

A return to conservatism? “What do you reckon it’s saying about society?” asks Cactus Child’s Shadwell. “Is the return of melody about the rise of the bourgeoisie? Is it about comfortable times? I reckon it is. A lot of economies are looking on the up. In Britain, America, Australia, the economic indicators at least are good, so there’s not that much angst.

“And I reckon Oasis are the prime example. There’s something about everybody singing along to “Wonderwall,” where the lyrics don’t make any sense at all, and that’s probably the very joy of it all.”

While grunge tapped into global discontent, shaking an apolitical and apathetic (and usually young white male) fist at the face of authority, melody is anything but anti-social. Alienation is replaced by unity. As in, “Things must be OK, we’re all humming along to the same chorus.” John Gordon is a 33-year-old folk singer from the tiny Queensland town of Allora. After writing a track that appeared on Wendy Matthew’s 1993 hit album, “Lily,” Gordon recently released hi modestly beautiful seven-track debut, Notre Dame. It may just prove to be the right record at the right time.

“I think we’re getting to the end of it – thrash, grunge, whatever you want to call it,” Gordon says. “And maybe folk is coming through – I’ve had that feeling for some time now – music where the lyrics are very plain and there’s some sort of message in it. But then, folk might be coming through as just part of a spectrum.”

Indeed, more than ever, popular music encompasses an array of diverse styles. A recent top 20 included rocky folk (Bob Dylan’s son’s band, The Wallflowers), seductive folk (Leonardo’s Bride) and true-blue folk (John Williamson), as well as fluffy pop (Hanson), punk pop (The Offspring), rocky pop (Jebediah), synth pop (Daft Punk) and nostalgic pop (the Bee Gees), plus ambient trance (Pendulum), aggressive dance (the Prodigy), smooth gospel (Quindon Tarver), gothic rock (Nine Inch Nails) and even grunge (Silverchair and the Smashing Pumpkins).

Given this splintering of styles, larger trends are less pronounced, more difficult to spot. After all, melody never disappeared completely: at the height of Nirvana, Crowded House were thriving. Beyond the resurgence of folk, can one even say melody has made a comeback?

“Absolutely,” says Triple J announcer Jane Gazzo, pointing to an emerging posse of electronic bands, including the Sneaker Pimps from the UK. “Electronic music is so big now, and with dance music you need a strong melody, otherwise you can’t sing or dance along to it. The purpose of it is to make you feel good and the way to do that is to have a catchy chorus with a strong melody.”

In the words of Tom Kristensen, guitarist with a gentle, evocative Sydney band called Love Me: “I think most people are worn out by the nihilism of grunge. All that really is depressing, and spiritually after a while isn’t wearing to keep going through all that. Catharsis is all well and fine, but it’s got to finish some time.”

On June 5 this year, Jeff Buckley’s body was pulled from the Mississippi River; his second album will be released later this year. While Cobain’s death marked the end of a pop era, Buckley’s probably did not. In terms of the musical ebb and flow, it seems Buckley died far too soon.

©1997 by Sydney Morning Herald. All rights reserved