The History of Rock Music: 1989-1994

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(Copyright c 2009 Piero Scaruffi)

Between Individualism and Populism


(These are excerpts from my book "A History of Rock and Dance Music")

Bleak folk, 1990-94

TM, r, Copyright c 2005 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.

In a sense, the 1990s "were" the decade of the singer songwriter, as more and more artists decided to go "solo" rather than look for a band. Both the technology (that allowed individuals to arrange their own compositions) and the loose networking of the post-punk generation (that favored more fluid partnerships) helped increase the number of musicians who recorded simply under their own name.

In general, singer-songwriters of the 1990s tended to be more subdued and humbler than in the 1980s and in the 1970s. Their masters were Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, not Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen. One of the most influential styles of the 1990s was the moody and depressed one pioneered by Chris Isaak, Smog and American Music Club in San Francisco. It spread like a disease and almost became a stand-alone genre. Bleak dirges were strummed everywhere.

Georgia's Vic Chesnutt (2), confined to a wheelchair, shared with Smog the honor of having pioneered the style. West Of Rome (? 1991 - ? 1992) and Drunk (? 1992 - ? 1993) took southern gothic to a very personal and highly emotional level. Later his art became not only more pensive but also more austere via longer compositions and a penchant for sound that sometimes obscured the singing: Silver Lake (nov/dec 2002 - mar 2003), with a full-fledged roots-rock band; Ghetto Bells (sep/oct 2004 - ? 2005), with VanDyke Parks on accordion and Bill Frisell on guitar; North Star Deserter (win 2006-07 - aug 2007), with a small orchestra of post-rock soundsculptors.

The Screaming Trees' Mark Lanegan (12) sculpted the agony of Winding Sheet (dec 1989 - may 1990), a journey through the eternal damnation of a soul that was both lyrical, existential and lugubrious. Even more rarified and metaphysical, Whiskey For The Holy Ghost (? 1993 - nov 1993) ventured deeper inside in a tender and doleful register, halfway between Leonard Cohen and Nick Cave, while the atmosphere was reminiscent of David Crosby's first solo album, and occasionally claustrophobic like in Tim Buckley's psychedelic nightmares. Lanegan's dilated mind seemed to be imploding on the fragile Scraps At Midnight (? 1998 - jul 1998).

In Los Angeles, Mountain Goats (3), John Darnielle's project, was a bizarre experiment for voice, acoustic guitar and cheap organ whose major career was devoted to concept albums such as Zopilote Machine (? ? - jul 1994), Sweden (? 1994/? 1995 - ? 1995), and Tallahassee (? ? - noiv 2002), mostly about disintegrating relationships, which were as lyrically ambitious as musically humble.

In Oregon, Heatmiser's singer and songwriter Elliott Smith (1) employed spare, acoustic arrangements and anemically whispered lyrics on Roman Candle (fall 1993 - ? 1994) to pen tuneful vignettes of daily life that merged Nick Drake's melancholia and Simon & Garfunkel's romanticism. Smith kept delving deeper into the human psyche with Elliott Smith (jan/feb 1995 - jul 1995), that focused on heroin addiction, and Either Or (? 1996 - feb 1997), but then resorted to Brian Wilson-ian arrangements of violins, reeds and keyboards for Xo (? 1997/? 1998 - aug 1998).

In New York, Jeff Buckley (1) was condemned to re-live his father Tim's turbulent and brief life, but Grace (fall 1993/may 1994 - aug 1994) boasted a denser sound, more reminiscent of Van Morrison's soul-jazz ballads.

Toronto's Ron Sexsmith (1) crystallized the idea in the naive/tender style of Tim Hardin and Paul Simon on Ron Sexsmith (? ? - may 1995), while wedding it to Jackson Browne's arduous meditations.

Dinosaur Jr's bassist Mike Johnson (2), who had also collaborated on Mark Lanegan's masterpieces, became the most credible candidate to the title of "Leonard Cohen of the 1990s" with the funereal ballads of Where Am I (? ? - nov 1994), Year Of Mondays (? ? - feb 1996), which marked the zenith of his angst, and What Would You Do (? ? - aug 2002), which marked an emotional nadir.

His main competition for that title was Nebraska's Simon Joyner (4), a philosopher equipped with Leonard Cohen's deep baritone and doleful vision, but also with a much grander musical ambition. After formative works entirely played by Joyner in a spartan folk style, such as Room Temperature (win 1992 - ? 1993), he turned to atmospheric textures with Heaven's Gate (? ? - jun 1995), arranged with a small chamber ensemble, and achieved his maturity with the long oneiric elegies of Songs For The New Year (? ? - ? 1996). The trilogy recorded with Mike Krassner, beginning with Yesterday Tomorrow and In Between (? ? - ? 1998) and continuing with the lengthy ballads of The Lousy Dance (apr 1999 - oct 1999) and Hotel Lives (win 2000 - ? 2001), progressively increased the complexity of his compositions, capitalizing on an impressive cast of distinguished jazz, folk and rock musicians (Ken Vandermark on clarinet, Fred Lonberg-Holm on cello, Jeb Bishop on trombone, Ernst Long on flugelhorn, Will Hendricks on vibes), that augmented a rock trio (Ryan Hembrey on bass, Glenn Kotche on percussions, Michael Krassner on guitar). It was a wedding of chamber and pop settings that transported the slow, hypnotic music to a metaphysical dimension, while retaining a deeply-moving, humane dimension.

Suicidal dirges and stark odes to loneliness were the soundtrack of the 1990s. Notable albums in the style included: Matt Keating's Scaryarea (apr/jun 1994 - oct 1994), from New York; Dave Schramm's Folk Und Die Folgen (aug/oct 1993 - ? 1994), from New York; Karl Hendricks' Misery And Women (aug 1992/feb 1993 - ? 1994), from Pennsylvania.

Neo-pop, 1989-94

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However there was a powerful countercurrent. The century-old tradition of the pop songwriter, that had peaked in the period between the "Brill Building" and "Motown", was restored to its original glory by a new generation of shameless tunesmiths.

The scene was dominated by Boston's Stephen Merritt (14). His multi-faceted career began under the moniker Magnetic Fields as a humble amateur of pop music who vented his fear and nostalgia via formally impeccable melodies and arrangements. The formative Distant Plastic Trees (? ? - oct 1991) and The Wayward Bus (? 1991 - ? 1992), sung by Susan Anway, and his first masterpiece, Holiday (? 1993 - sep 1994), which was also the first album sung by Merritt himself, coined a form of "introverted kitsch" that quoted the Sixties without sounding derivative and that employed electronic rhythm and instruments in a discreet manner. Despite being light like feathers, Merritt's ditties sounded like tributes to Brian Eno's early albums and to the classics of synth-pop. The concept album The Charm Of The Highway Strip (? ? - apr 1994), his second masterpiece, perfected the idea. Leaving behind his synth-pop roots, Merritt wed the idyllic register of a Donovan, neoclassical orchestrations and the persona of a bashful lunatic. The algebraic precision of his musical artifacts was only apparently a continuation of Brian Wilson's and Van Dyke Parks' program: Merritt shunned their symphonic opulence and favored the small, intimate format of the chamber ensemble. Get Lost (? 1994 - sep 1995) was, first and foremost, an exercise in laying out chamber instruments; but it was also his bleakest statement, and thus redeemed the indulgence with deeply felt emotions. At the same time, Merritt's mission was very much a thorough reexamination of the pop tradition, from Burt Bacharach to Phil Spector, from Tin Pan Alley to doo-wop: his ultimate sin of vanity, the colossal 69 Love Songs (apr 1999 - sep 1999), was a catalog of variations on cliches of pop music. Merritt had managed a synthesis of historical proportions but he carried it out with the humble attitude of an everyman who hardly knew anything about history. In the meantime, he had also released albums as the 6ths and the Future Bible Heroes. The 6ths albums, Wasps' Nests (? ? - mar 1995) and Hyacinths and Thistles (? ? - sep 2000), were collection of sugary ditties performed by impressive casts of guest vocalists. The importance of arrangement and production had eventually taken over the importance of lyrics and melodies, and thus wrecked the whole idea of innocent, sincere, heartbreaking music. Most tunes on later albums such as I (2004), credited to the Magnetic Fields, The Tragic Treasury (? 2000/? 2006 - oct 2006), credited to the Gothic Archies, and Distortion (? 2006/? 2007 - jan 2008), credited again to the Magnetic Fields, did not serve any purpose other than Merritt's post-modernist strategies, but a few songs revealed that he still had a soul, the soul that in the 1990s had conquered the indie-pop and pre-emocore generation.

In Britain, David Gray was a sophisticated bard in the tradition of Van Morrison who scoured a broad emotional and musical territory, from the passionate confessions of A Century Ends (? 1992 - jan 1993) to the vibrant power-ballads of Sell Sell Sell (? ? - apr 1996), from the fragile pop vignettes of White Ladder (? 1997 - nov 1998) to the bleak introspection of A New Day At Midnight (? ? - oct 2002).

Disguised as Divine Comedy, Irish songwriter Neil Hannon rediscovered orchestral pop for the nostalgic operetta Promenade (oct 1993 - mar 1994) and then anchored Casanova (jun 1995/jan 1996 - apr 1996) to old-fashioned arias.

Several veterans of the alt-rock movement recorded albums in this "neo-pop" style.

Husker Du's Bob Mould (4) was unique in excelling both at dejected, personal statements and at catchy popular music. The cathartic self-flagellation of the mostly-acoustic Workbook (dec 1988/jan 1989 - apr 1989) led to the brutal and bitter introspection of the wildly electric Black Sheets Of Rain (mar/may 1990 - may 1990), which evoked Neil Young's storming and martial nightmares. Both albums were trips into his fragile psyche, mythomaniac orgies that collapsed into the punk contradiction of a nirvana of eternal damnation. Copper Blue (? 1990/? 1992 - sep 1992), instead, credited to his new band Sugar, offered guitar-driven power-pop which was only slightly neurotic and alienated, and the solo Bob Mould (sep/oct 1995 - apr 1996), on which he played every instrument, crowned his quest for a sound that was both the sound of his music and the sound of his psyche, and turned out to be his most melodic effort.

Violent Femmes' drummer Victor DeLorenzo (1) found an unlikely balance of country-rock, expressionist cabaret and noir soundtracks on Peter Corey Sent Me (? ? - oct 1990).

Frank Black (1), the new alias of former Pixies' vocalist Charles "Black Francis" Thompson, now relocated to Los Angeles, indulged in his trademark "scream of consciousness" on his solo albums Frank Black (? 1992 - mar 1993) and Teenager Of The Year (? ? - may 1994), still characterized by erratic structures and reckless melodies.

Scottish transplant Chris Connelly (1), who had played in Chicago's industrial combos Ministry and Pigface, reinvented himself as a pensive pop crooner on albums such as Shipwreck (mar 1994 - oct 1994) and The Ultimate Seaside Companion (? 1995/? 1997 - oct 1997), the latter credited to the Bells.

In Australia both the leaders of the Go-Betweens recorded solo albums, and at least Grant McLennan's Horsebreaker Star (? 1994 - nov 1994) lived up to their reputation.

Neo-folk: the men, 1990-94

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Los Angeles happened to be the next stop in the evolution of the genre. Beck (2) Hansen turned eccentricity into stardom and changed the way singer-songwriters sounded and were perceived by the mainstream. With the carefree eclectism of Mellow Gold (? 1993 - apr 1994) Beck invented folk music for the age of hip-hop and proved that stylistic confusion can appeal to the masses. A more organic approach to the fusion of folk, blues, rap, garage-rock and pop enhanced the overall sound of Odelay (? 1994/? 1995 - jun 1996). The fact that his lyrics were free-form associations, and only vaguely hinting to social reality, was somehow consistent with his superficial approach to musical integration (an operation that other musicians had carried out at a deeper level). Mutations (mar/apr 1998 - nov 1998), reminiscent of Radiohead's subtle orchestrations, and Midnite Vultures (jul 1998/jun 1999 - nov 1999), a sort of tribute to soul music, rapidly removed the sheen from one of the decade's most over-rated artists.

Beck may have learned his tricks from an obscure and insane folksinger, Paleface, whose Paleface (? 1991 - ? 1991) was a bizarre product of the anti-folk movement.

Far more original was the artistic mess concocted by former Red Hot Chili Peppers' guitarist John Frusciante (1) on Niandra Lades And Usually Just A T-Shirt (sum 1992/late 1993 - mar 1994), a neurotic and hysterical version of Daniel Johnston halfway between agonizing blues and demented singalongs.

Neo-populists, 1989-93

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The populists (a` la Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, John Mellencamp, etc) were mainly veterans of the punk generation.

A witty populist, sadly overlooked, delighted Canada: Blue Rodeo's keyboardist Bob Wiseman (1) penned the hilarious philosophizing of In Her Dream (? 1988 - ? 1989) in an eclectic range of styles, and the desolate heartbreak of Theme and Variations (? ? - sep 2006).

The greatest of this (not so wild) bunch was perhaps Freedy Johnston (3), a New York transplant who introduced himself as Neil Young gone cow-punk on the effervescent, edgy and eclectic Trouble Tree (may/jun 1989 - ? 1990), but then was rapidly converted to a smoother and streamlined sound. The bleak stories of betrayal, failure and guilt on Can You Fly (jan/dec 1991 - apr 1992) and This Perfect World (dec 1993/feb 1994 - jun 1994), featuring guitarist Marc Ribot, cellist Jane Scarpantoni and drummer Butch Vig, relied on impeccable melodies, as if Simon & Garfunkel were playing funeral music. By the time Never Home (? 1996 - feb 1997) came out, Johnston had transformed into a more superficial pop auteur.

The solo work of former Dream Syndicate's vocalist Steve Wynn (1) favored melancholy and introverted confessions at the intersection of Lou Reed, Bob Dylan and Neil Young. Kerosene Man (? ? - apr 1990) was too obviously derivative, but Melting In The Dark (? 1995 - jul 1996) let loose his passion for Sixties garage-rock, which overflowed on the propulsive, noisy and emphatic My Midnight (? ? - apr 1999). Wynn's quest for a balance of youthful punk-rock and adult roots-rock, of a music capable of roaring, sweating and bleeding, culminated with Here Come The Miracles (? ? - apr 2001), a survey of his emotional territory, a varied set of solemn, mournful, upbeat, tender, romantic, rough, demonic and harsh ballads and rave-ups.

Firehose's and Minutemen's bassist Mike Watt (1) entrusted the vignettes of Ball-Hog Or Tugboat (may/sep 1994 - feb 1995) to an extraordinary cast of vocalists.

The Replacements' Paul Westerberg remained a bard of ordinary anguish, but only Suicaine Gratifaction (? 1997/? 1998 - feb 1999) went close to fully realizing his vision.

Neo-blues, 1991-94

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White blues singer-songwriters were obscured by the stars of lo-fi pop and neo-pop. Canada's Sue Foley, a Bonnie Raitt-soundalike, came to prominence with Young Girl Blues (? 1991 - feb 1992) but matured as a songwriter with Walk In The Sun (? ? - jul 1996). Texas' Chris Whitley used his spectacular guitar technique to vent teenage angst on Living With The Law (? 1990 - jul 1991) the way punk's anti-heroes did. Los Angeles' Ben Harper (1), an eclectic African-American folksinger, debuted with Welcome To The Cruel World (? 1993 - feb 1994), a monumental exercise in stylistic excursion.


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