Saturday, December 31, 2016

Marcy Playground vs. The World

Every few months or so, I fix a drink and (only half-) jokingly posit the argument that Marcy Playground’s self-titled debut album is better than anything Nirvana ever recorded. Now I realize this argument has obvious flaws and does not hold up to many serious (or even casual) listeners. I am merely making the statement because it always leads to an amusing, albeit intense, discussion which I am more than happy to instigate. Ultimately, I have no problems conceding that Nirvana is the better band; but at its best, Marcy Playground is honorably reminiscent of Nirvana, and there is nothing cheap about it.

Nirvana has been and forever will be remembered as the face of grunge. Supposing a casual listener was asked to imagine a grunge group from the 1990s, most would probably picture Nirvana. Certain rock groups like Mudhoney in the mid-80s had more to do with its inception, surely, but the rock band from Aberdeen brought grunge into mainstream popularity. And Nirvana was at the forefront of this scene, inspiring countless rock musicians after them. Marcy Playground was one of these groups inspired by the grunge wave.

With the tragic suicide of Kurt Cobain, the band ceased making music and remaining members pursued different projects. This shift marked the end of grunge as the most popular form of rock music in America. I’ve often thought Cobain single-handedly brought about this change. Britpop bands such as Blur and Oasis rose in popularity, pushing the harder grunge out of the limelight. On the other side of the country, roughly two years after the death of Cobain, Marcy Playground became a part of this tail end of grunge and the beginning of the new, post-grunge.

Marcy Playground may have enjoyed a longer career than Nirvana, but they have received far less notoriety in the world of music. For whatever reason, Marcy’s fame has been largely reduced to a single. Back to the original argument, however, Marcy Playground’s 1997 debut album, taken as a whole, is a near-perfect example of rock music from the 1990s. Of course, its legacy does not compete with, say, a 10x Platinum selling album like Nevermind, but it definitely deserves to be discussed in the history of rock in the 1990s. At the very least, it deserves better acclaim than it has received. It should be remembered as a suitable tribute to Nevermind. Even looking at the track-listing shows that Marcy owes something to Nirvana and are paying it back with this album. So, I am not comparing the two albums directly to decide which is better; instead, there are multiple occasions in which Marcy Playground can be depicted accurately as a proper tribute to Nevermind. And to me, the two complement each other in such a way that makes them equally important. They should come up in the same conversation. This can best be observed by listening to the albums side-by-side:

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“Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Poppies” Little more can be said of Nirvana’s explosive opener to Nevermind that has not already been said. The first several chords are unforgettable. Cobain’s wailing, nearly unintelligible lyrics haunt the entire song. Complete with heavy riffs and watery bridges, the song serves as a perfect opener for a strong album. There’s a reason it is VH1’s best song of the 1990s. It is (rightfully) the first song most people think of when they think of Nirvana. The allure of “Teen Spirit” is aggressive for five full minutes, as Cobain dares you to participate in the anarchy of punk rock. Instead of being frightening, however, the power of the song is welcoming, even addicting. In short, the song serves a dual purpose: it is catchy enough to ensnare casual listeners and raw enough to reach fans of heavier music. It is Cobain’s “ultimate pop song” and it is an incredible beginning to the sounds of Nevermind.
     In sharp contrast, “Poppies” is just that--poppy. It is a short song with bouncy guitar and lyrics that just carries with it a good mood. Indeed, the song is catchy enough that it sounds like a radio single. Yet, underneath this fluff, there lies power chords that clearly demonstrates the influences of Nirvana and the rest of the grunge movement. Interestingly, the upbeat pace of the music is juxtaposed with fairly dark lyrics. The song tells a loose story of the influx of opium from China in the early part of the 20th century. Considering the possibility, even probability, that this album is a tribute to Nevermind, these lyrics are the first of many allusions to Nirvana in the form of Cobain’s battle with heroin addiction. All in all, “Poppies” is a short opener on a short album and it sets the tone nicely for the rest of the tracks.

“In Bloom” and “Sex and Candy” “In Bloom” rocks hard. It is the heaviest song on the album, and, as a result, it reasonably bridges the gap from 1980s metal to 1990s grunge. As the final tones of “Teen Spirit” drone out, the opening chords of “In Bloom” take over the listening space. Dave Grohl’s drums guide the song into the lilting, powerful verses. In fact, there is not a song on this album that more clearly exhibits Grohl’s drumming talent. Many moments in this song hang directly upon Grohl’s ability to carry a measure with a seemingly effortless drum fill. The lyrics, somewhat sardonically, are meant to reveal to listeners that Nirvana is more than just a pop act. Sure, the songs are catchy, but therein lies a deeper meaning, one that the average listener might not “know what it means.” Furthermore, a bridge towards the end of the song displays the pedal-driven, distorted, and woozy sound that was emblematic of a time period which included shoegazing acts. “In Bloom” successfully linked its metal audiences with popular music of the time. If “Teen Spirit” was enough to grab listeners, “In Bloom” subsequently kept them excited.
     “Sex and Candy” is, as everyone probably knows, the song that gives relevance to Marcy Playground. Charting at number one for fifteen weeks, it was by far the band’s most successful single from the album. It has maintained a moderate level of popularity, even appearing at #73 on VH1’s (highly) subjective list of 100 songs of the 1990s. And it truly is an enjoyable song. It is short and sweet (no pun intended) and to the point. Some of the lyrics may be corny, to be sure, but compared to some other lyrics of the decade, these fit in nicely. Stripped down, the song portrays a possible romantic affair between the band’s lead singer and an attractive girl who is apparently soaked in various sweets. The video is no help either. All I can gather is that the lead singer is nonplussed by large spiders. But the melody is bouncy, and the lyrics are mellow, making it an altogether catchy tune. The unfortunate fact remains, however, that this is the only remembrance of an otherwise forgotten band.

“Come as You Are” and “Ancient Walls of Flowers” At first, “Come as You Are” sounds a bit like a departure from the first two songs on the album. Sure, the chorus creates a headbanging attitude, and the guitar solo, one of the longest you will find in any Nirvana song, is distorted just enough. Coming off the heels of “In Bloom,” however, this song elaborates on another side of Nirvana, a mellowness we have not yet seen in the first ten minutes of the album. The tempo is quick and upbeat, but a smooth, pervasive guitar riff from Cobain carries on throughout, consistently grounding the song. Chronologically, it was the second single from Nevermind, and it charted well, showing a diversion from hard rock. Three years later, “Come as You Are” appeared on their MTV Unplugged in New York live album as the most well-known song in the collection. Because of the acoustic setting, the song fits in easily, where other, harder songs might not have.
     From the beginning, “Ancient Walls of Flowers” sounds noticeably different as well. An acoustic guitar picks up a slow groove. Drums come in subtly after a few seconds and it begins to feel like a true blues song. Once again, I have no idea what the lyrics mean (not at all uncommon on this album), but I am forced to presume that substances are involved, causing the vocalist to “mess his mind inside.” That said, the song sounds very comfortable and laid back. The folky blues tones are very refreshing; the acoustic solo near the end of the song is incredibly appropriate. Not overdone and complex, the solo represents a minimalist tone that is common throughout the album.

“Breed” and “Saint Joe on the School Bus” About this time into Nevermind, I am always struck by the significance of the album’s iconic cover. As I’m sure you’re aware, the cover depicts a nude baby swimming after a dollar bill on a fishhook. Without fail, a half minute into “Breed,” I realize that this album sounds as though it is being dragged through water. Not in a literal sense, of course, but the compressed tones and controlled reverb acts in such a way that creates in my imagination sounds from the bottom of a pool. Masterful producer Butch Vig mastered this album unlike any other hard rock album. Cobain himself called the recording “perfect.” “Breed” is the perfect example of this production value. Following the coolness of “Come as You Are,” its edginess is amplified, but in no way does the transition seem abrupt. The heavily distorted flows right from the previous song like a crashing wave.
     “Saint Joe on the School Bus” was the second single from Marcy Playground and also the second most popular. Moderately conceptual, it tells the story of a young person who is antagonized about his poor family life. The is fairly obvious, especially considering the album jacket literally says, “This song is about being picked on.” Incidentally, it sounds like it would fit easily on an album like Nevermind. It is the heaviest, most grunge song on the album. Power chords cycle throughout the song on guitars that are distorted like a Nirvana track. Lead vocalist, John Wozniak, channels Kurt Cobain as he utters the chorus a few times over with a slight growl. It is a darker, more intense song, making it very different from the first few songs.

“Lithium” and “A Cloak of Elvenkind” Made apparent by the song’s title, “Lithium” is about drugs. Throughout the song, we hear the words of someone (though not necessarily Cobain) “in a daze” seeking normalcy, trying not to “crack.” The title is absolutely perfect. Lithium is a mood-normalizing drug, and the song works to convey this sense. The music makes the words seem accurately spoken by someone from a manic-depressive perspective. From the verses to the chorus, there is a constant swing from tranquil to intense. In fact, this tranquility is directly juxtaposed with the hard hitting “Breed,” establishing a diversity of sounds on the album as a whole. “Lithium” is probably the best song on this album and possibly the best song Nirvana has ever done.
     For the most part, I have tried to think about this collection of songs fairly objective. This is the only time during the overview for this album that I must think personally on a song. For some reason, inexplicable even to me, “A Cloak of Elvenkind” became my favorite song on this album upon first hearing it and remains so even today. It is a short song, not very complex, and largely forgettable. I cannot say I have a major affinity to Dungeons and Dragons, and the fantasy-like lyrics mean nothing to me. There is just something about this song that made me smile when I first heard it. There is a pleasantness about the transition from the verses to the chorus and back again, all while the main riff curls around the whole piece. It was not long before this surpassed “Sex and Candy” as my most listened to track on the album, and even now it makes me happy.

“Polly” and “Sherry Fraser” “Polly” is, without a doubt, the most laid-back song about kidnapping ever recorded. Whether or not the rumors are true that the titular subject of this song is a kidnap victim, the lyrics seem to point in that direction. Furthermore, Cobain sounds weak and even a little sad. It is a unique song, to say the least. There are absolutely no elements of the hard grunge of the rest of the album. Mostly, the song contains contains acoustic guitars and Cobain’s somber voice. Discounting whatever meaning the song may have, it is a soft, easy listen. And the song happens to provide one of my favorite moments on MTV Unplugged in New York: the band launches into “Polly” about midway through their set and the crowd is audibly excited. While the song is, of course, recognizable and on Nirvana’s most popular album, I’m convinced that the song provoked such a reaction because the audience thought they were getting “Lithium.” The first twelve seconds of each song are strikingly similar, and on an acoustic set, they would be nearly identical. Listen to it. You’ll see what I mean.
     The third single, “Sherry Fraser,” is written in the form of an open letter to its namesake, Sherry Fraser, a friend of the band and co-writer of the aforementioned “Ancient Walls of Flowers.” The references to Sherry are direct and personal. As a result, the song is very charming. Throughout the song there are appeals for her to “come back,” implying that she is deeply missed. There is a sense of true friendship lost and a desire to restore the relationship. I believe these emotions work on listeners as well. After several listens of the song, it conjures fond memories of friendships from my life. Sherry becomes a character who is a part of everyone’s past. As odd as it may sound, the song makes it possible, even plausible to fall in love with this girl named Sherry Fraser.

“Territorial Pissings” and “Gone Crazy” Side two of Nevermind begins with bassist Krist Novoselic yelling the chorus of a 1967 song by the Youngbloods. That is only the beginning of “Territorial Pissings,” the craziest song on the album. I say crazy, because it actually sounds dangerous, as in it could incite a riot. As Novoselic’s outburst fades out, Nirvana launches into a song that may as well be a speed metal anthem. The guitars are distorted to sound almost toneless. Grohl’s drumming is quick and incessant. All the while Cobain presses the need to “find a better way,” although we really do not have enough context to know what he is trying to do. It may only be slightly over two minutes, but no other song on the album is as hard-hitting and in-your-face as this song.
     Conversely, Marcy Playground’s second half begins with the infinitely relaxed song “Gone Crazy.” It concludes a trio of songs that sound equally light and happy. It sounds like you should hear this song on a beach covered by Jack Johnson. Again, the lyrics are difficult to follow, and I have no idea who or what the song is about, but nothing else in the song is complex. It is simply a sunny, carefree track. There are also some very cool fills from an acoustic bass guitar that are worth noticing. Although it is one of the more forgettable songs in the collection, it is exemplary of the album’s minimalist style.

“Drain You” and “Opium” “Drain You” is an intriguing song. At 3:43, it seems longer than it is because it is situated in the middle of three songs under two minutes. The lyrics sound convoluted, but according to Cobain, most were invented on the spot in the studio, which I find admirable. The verses and the chorus sound different enough to be parts of other songs mixed into one. But what makes the song most compelling is a full minute of a psychedelic interlude about two minutes into the song. This interlude is complete with grating guitar and odd screeching and hissing sounds that were made by, what else, but a toy rubber duck. It is this type of ingenuity that makes Nevermind a special album. Then, just as subtly as the interlude started, it blends seamlessly back into the chorus perfectly. This band was simply doing something right, combining woozy noise rock and heavy metal.
     Unsurprisingly, “Opium” sounds very drug fueled. It encompasses the highs (“so happy / I’m in heaven”) and lows (“the seizures come from opium”) that have become common to portrayed images of drug use. The song does such an effective job conveying the narcotics that at times Wozniak’s wailing lyrics are downright chilling. If the previous three songs were very light, this song begins a series of several dark and depressing songs. From a musical standpoint, this song also signals a shift to a heavier side to the album. For the first time in awhile, we hear full blasts from the guitar that dominate the space. I adhere to my thought that this album, particularly the latter half, is a sort of tribute to Nirvana. This is the second song title that alludes to heroin, which I think, by extension, refers to the sadness of losing a figure like Kurt Cobain.

“Lounge Act” and “One More Suicide” Truth be told, I’m not sure why this song is called “Lounge Act.” It is far from relaxed; instead, Cobain sounds vindictive and infuriated. His last verse is angry guttural screaming. One thing for sure about the song, though: the first ten seconds are great. It begins with Cobain softly moaning from the back of his throat. He sounds exhausted as if he is building himself up. Then Novoselic’s bass line slides in and, for a few seconds, his notes are the only sounds heard. Finally, drums and a fairly clean guitar kick in and the song takes off. For such a quick and angry song, it does not fail to sound intelligent.
     As the song title would suggest, “One More Suicide” continues a trend of some of the more depressing songs on this album. As a highlight, the track makes good use of extra instruments in this song. A cello features prominently throughout the song, notably at the bridge about ninety seconds into the song. The rest of the song, though, is pretty bleak. It is comparable to a ballad or an especially sad folk song. It tells the story of a character who kills himself and the effects on said character’s mother. The deeper meaning shows that the media, in this case the newspaper, trivializes such terrible tragedies by simplifying the headlines to just “One More Suicide.” I believe this is yet another expression of remembrance to Cobain. The main verses of the song sound like mourning, to be sure.

“Stay Away” and “Dog and His Master” “Stay Away” feeds directly off the rapid conclusion to “Lounge Act.” It is another song that hearkens back to Nirvana’s metal roots. Boiling drums open the song, and a quick bass line threads behind. Cobain screams constantly, imploring everyone to “stay away” from him. The final moments come crashing down, not unlike one of their famous set-smashing live performances. One facet that has always stuck out to me is that Cobain manages to fit in a defiant shout of “God is gay” as his last line. I still cannot decide if he is trying to squeeze in a quick political statement or merely seeking attention. Either way, the song thrashes for three quick minutes that pick up right where the previous song left off.
     When I listen to an album, I like to do it as a whole. Skipping songs seems to me an insult to the rest of the album. And although I speak glowingly about Marcy Playground, I just do not get this song, “Dog and His Master” and have no issue passing through it. Sure, it is nice and upbeat, but I find it pretty void of meaning. For one, the nonsensical lyrics mean nothing to me. Maybe it’s just me that doesn’t get the meaning. Then, there is that horrifying verse (“One little, two little, three little idiots...”) that I find frankly annoying. I’m sorry, but for such an otherwise stellar album, this song leaves a sour taste in my mouth.

“On a Plain” and “The Shadow of Seattle” “On a Plain” is one song that is seemingly all about drugs. There are some pretty terrifying lyrics where Cobain claims he is “so high that / I scratched ‘til I bled.” Aside from being a typical heroin infused rock song, it is bookended by some very cool moments. The introduction begins with about eight seconds of a noisy guitar riff and accompanying hand claps, before launching into the main part of the song. The final seconds fade out with Cobain’s cooing voice. Interestingly, his “oohing” had actually been there the whole chorus, but it only becomes eerily evident in the final seconds. The middle part three minutes of the song really aren’t bad either. Also worth checking out, is the Unplugged version of this song. It is very well done. For what it’s worth, the Unplugged version does a better job capturing the sadness of the song, but then again, sadness seems to be a theme throughout the complete set.
     Truthfully, my entire concept of Nirvana and Marcy Playground being somehow related hinges on this song alone. Even the title, “The Shadow of Seattle” seems to refer to the Marcy being shrouded by the image of Nirvana. From the beginning of the sound, it sounds like it could be a B-side from In Utero era Nirvana. The first chord progression is nearly exactly the same as the chord progression of “Teen Spirit.” At times, Wozniak’s lyrics sound like Cobain demos. But do not get the impression that this is a cheap knockoff of Nirvana. It is instead one of the coolest, most honest sounding songs of the collection. This could be the most underrated song on the album, but on an album this underrated, does that say anything? At any rate, let this song soak in; it is truly a highlight of the album.

“Something in the Way / Endless, Nameless” and “The Vampires of New York” The final song on Nevermind is surprising compared to the rest of the album. It is subdued, calm, and deeply introspective. It sounds as if Cobain could easily perform it by himself on an acoustic guitar. In fact, he was known to do this at least once. The chorus does not get much louder than the rest of the song; the vocals and even the drums are only slightly elevated above the rest of the song. The chorus also includes some very neat use of a cello. The cello is noticeable immediately because it adds a distinct sound that had not yet been heard on the album. Contrasted with the explosiveness of the beginning of the album, this subdued four minutes is a near perfect close to one of the finest albums of the decade.
     On some versions of the album, however, it is not the end of the album. After about ten minutes of silence after the end of “Something in the Way,” the grating sounds of “Endless, Nameless” come to the forefront. I distinctly remember jumping the first time I heard the pulsing of the song, having thought the album was over. Incidentally, the song’s title is probably the best name for an untitled hidden track at the end of an album given its function. I think either this or “Something” can be seen as the last song, because each provides a different conclusion to the collection as a whole. If you shut your CD player off after “Something,” you’re left with a slow and personal hymn. If you opt to wait the extra ten minutes, you will be jolted through six minutes of hard rock that has echoes of future scream metal. The song crashes to a halt as if another live set has been destroyed. It is jarring, of course, but it is definitively more Nirvana. The choice of which is the true ending to Nevermind is up to you, but remember, as Mr. Cobain aptly put it, “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.”
     I find “The Vampires of New York” to be a pretty good closer as well. It may require a few listens to sink in, but it does sound like an appropriate finale. It is a simple song that details presumed observances of degenerate citizens of New York City. Being that the band is actually from the city, I imagine there is some experience behind these lyrics. The lyrics are silly and meaningless in some parts, but it still seems like there is a personality behind the words. There is also a nice combination of clean guitar sounds in the verses and grungier guitar parts in the choruses, although the song is never heavy. The part that I find most endearing, though, is the final moments of the song. The song rounds a chorus and feels as if it is going to continue, but it comes quickly to an unexpected halt. The hurried ending leaves the listener wanting more, of both the song and the album. At least, that’s how I feel. In fact, I find the song hard to listen to only once. It is nothing if not enjoyable.

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You may observe that, for the most part, I have nothing but good things to say about either one of these fine albums. I tried to overemphasize my praise while glossing over my qualms. This is because I truly do love both albums unequivocally. Also, here I have no reason to pick at faults. My purpose is not to establish which is better. The two really are not very comparable albums. While they share certain similar characteristics, they are barely of the same genre. But Nirvana’s influence on Marcy Playground is obvious, nonetheless. Because of this fact, I have always associated these two albums with each other.

Of course, it is fundamentally absurd to maintain the argument that Marcy Playground is better than Nirvana or any one of their albums. Nirvana’s oeuvre is simply too great: three terrific studio albums, an amazing back-catalog of tracks, and possibly the best live recording of the decade (1995’s MTV Unplugged in New York). Marcy Playground, on the other hand, has done little else of note besides their debut. Yet, Nirvana is immortalized and Marcy is forgotten. Why is this the case?

Since 1991, Nevermind has sold over ten million copies and was the number one selling album in the US for two weeks in 1992. Marcy Playground only sold one million copies and charted highest at #21. An obvious conclusion is that consumers no longer cared about grunge. Considering the strongest era of grunge faded out with the death of Kurt Cobain, Marcy may have been several years too late. Furthermore, since grunge had become less evident, Marcy was competing with different genres of alternative rock and, therefore, a variety of bands. Cobain was far more charismatic than Marcy frontman, John Wozniak, which probably attributed to the heightened popularity. All in all, Nirvana legitimized a genre of rock music which made them far more memorable over time.

Another distinction that highlights the two bands was the length of their respective careers. An important reason why Nirvana’s music is so remembered is that it is so limited. They made excellent music in a short period of time; they never had the chance to fade into the obscurity seen in Marcy Playground1. Consumers of music consistently ask, “What have you done for me lately?” when there is only a finite amount of quality music a band can put out. Marcy Playground is still making music today and their debut, now over 15 years old, is slowly being buried. This is unfortunate, but true. Granted, I have not given the time to Marcy Playground’s later albums2, but it pains me to still see new releases from them, considering they are so extremely under-publicized.

I’m not going to pretend that listening to Marcy Playground was this visceral experience that defined my understanding of music. I am also not going to say the same for Nevermind. I cannot remember anything special about the first time I listened to either album. I can say, however, that I will always juxtapose these albums when I hear the first chords “Smells Like Teen Spirit” or “Poppies.” These two albums are forever inseparable in my mind, intertwined with each other. I remember paying $12.99 for Nevermind from a Borders Bookstore; I remember paying $0.50 for Marcy Playground from a local pawn shop. I bought one (admittedly) for “Teen Spirit” and the other (admittedly) for “Sex and Candy.” I remember being pleasantly surprised listening through Marcy Playground and pleasantly un-surprised (possibly even a little disappointed) upon hearing Nevermind. This is, in truth, the root of my love for the former album. I went into Nevermind expecting to love every song on it, and my expectations were met. I went into Marcy Playground with no expectations at all and was shocked at what I found. I bought because it was only fifty cents and so I could put it into my CD player for “Sex and Candy.” It took me several listens of that song alone before I took the time to listen to the whole album, and it hooked me. Thankfully, it was only fifty cents or I might have missed it all together.

In the end, I know I will never convince anyone that Marcy Playground is better than Nirvana. And they’re really not. I love Nirvana (although I prefer and Bleach to Nevermind and Unplugged to both). I bring it up less as a serious statement and more as a way to get a conversation (or a rise) out of people. But, as long as some listeners take the time to try more than just the one song they heard on the jukebox at a bar from a CD called “Super Hits of the 90s,” I consider that a success. I promise it will be a worthwhile listen.

1 This is fairly commonplace in music. The Doors in 1971, Joy Division in 1980, or the Smiths in 1987 are three examples of bands whose limited collection makes them incredibly well-respected. Conversely, some respected bands, like the Rolling Stones, continue to make music for decades.
2 Although, their third album has an unspeakably clever title: MP3. Honestly, I think that’s genius.