{Wed, 24 January, 2007}   90s New Rock Alternative (or, when I still listened to commercial radio…)

Best albums… Had you asked me twelve years ago what would be crowned the 90s top album, I would have said, “Vitalogy“. Two years later, my thoughts would have shifted to Pinkerton. Two more years, & I would have offered The Soft Bulletin or Aquamosh (I’m serious). But, looking back, thru the lens of what has come since the turn of the willenium, I can say, with all clarity (but not Jimmy Eat World’s) in mind, that the best, & definitive, album of the period 1990-9 is Wax Ecstatic.

 Yes, the sophomore effort from Detroit’s “grunge*a*be” quintet. Yes, the album of only ten tracks & one single (the eponymous third cut). Yes, the one with Vinny Dombrowski’s gold tooth front & center on the cover.

By what rationale do I reach this verdict?

I judge this album on three criteria: what had emerged before, from Sponge & other bands; the album considered against itself; & what resulted, not necessarily in Sponge’s wake, but certainly with a “Spongian” motif.

To the first, we must examine the nineties prior to ’96. Nirvana & the ghost of N.W.A., the latter, though, with perchance its strongest, singular album Niggas4life, had beckoned in the early nineties, with re-constructed punk & de-constructed funk, but with one shotgun blast to the head & the acrimony attendant too many cooks, each band slinked off, their legacy secure but their peak surmountable.

In the wake of the twin, if not simultaneous, collapses of those two seminal 90s bands, Pearl Jam rose to the zenith of alt-rock, while Wu-tang Clan returned hip-hop’s center of gravity to New York City. Each, too, deserved its privilege. Vitalogy has proven to be the last great “concept” album, while 36 Chambers bridged the braggadocious poli-party rap of mid 80s Mid-Atlantic rap with the sci-fi heavy, out-of-leftfield nerd-core that is contemporary “backpacker” rap. Neither album proved an insurmountable effort, though, & with each increasingly noodling PJ record & the fragmentation of the Wu, it seemed likely that their perch atop pop-music’s live-today-die-tomorrow Olympus would be short-lived.

It was. Enter 1996. A year of top debuts (Eels, Self), brilliantly rendered follow-ups (Rage Against the Machine, Beck), & one out-of-time masterpiece (Tiny Music… Songs from the Vatican Giftshoppe), pop was clearly parting way with the indie ethos that had guided rock since ’83 (the emergence of R.E.M.) & the blunts-&-forties diktat that served as hip-hop’s sign-post. In its place, we found retro-kitschen-sink collage (Beck), heavy rock with samples & electro touches  (Limp Bizkit’s debut; forgotten, now, that it was unleashed over a decade ago), aging indie-ites cashing in (Butt-hole Surfers, Jawbreaker), & the first burbles of what would be the emotive wet-dream of ’99-00 (PinkertonJimmy Eat World’s Static Prevails, the first Promise Ring record).

& buried beneath much of that, much of which would be pop detritus by willenium’s turn, from Detroit… Wax Ecstatic. A ten-songs suite in tone but not theme, this album has echoed in me whenever the phrase “neo-garage” or “New New York” (the second, as relates to the reappraisal & apportionment of the Velvet Underground, Television, NY Dolls, et. al., by today’s musicians). Herein is the sludgy-but-not-profoundly-so frame of what the Strokes have shat out for going on three albums, what Hives & Jet trade in, & that which has fuelled every late first willenium emo band effort to remain relevant. The petty crime & three-weeks-without-being-washed-grime of the not artful nor independently wealthy enough to be bohemian, but not rhythmic enough to get into discoteques is on Sponge’s second.

Whether it be the chugging drums & ascending guitars of the eponymous third track or the positively Strokesian (an adjective used anachronistically, as though Julian Casablancas wasn’t still playing AD&D 2nd Edition in ’96) propagandist’s creed “Silence is their drug”, the piano ballad but not as in Elton “Have you seen Mary?” or the bloozy chant of “Drag Queens of Memphis”, this is second willenium rock n’ roll, yeah, if I’ve ever heard it. Just, it was released five years before anything Jack White implied about his possibly illicit carnal knowledge of Meg mattered.

The infatuation with females as icons (“I am Anastasia”, “My baby said”), but not necessarily as sex objects? Check. The drugs (“Wax ecstatic”, “Got to be a bore”)? Check. Even a direct nod to Lou Reed (“Velveteen”)? Check.

Sponge’s Wax Ecstatic is the album of its “decade” (yes, I know, the 90s encompass ’91-00), & quite possibly that which follows. (As of now, their fellow Detroiter Marshall Mathers is giving them a good run with the still-as-brilliant-as-seven-years-ago Marshall Mathers LP.) It is dirt & mischief, screeching guitars & shotgun drums… It is rock n’ roll.

Pity nobody remembers this.


Listener says:

Most of Sponge’s other albums are mediocre or even bad, but Wax Ecstatic is amazing.

[…] 90s New Rock Alternative (or, when I still listened to commercial radio…) […]

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