As any musical historian (or those of us who grew up among the misfit 90s culture) would quickly relay, as monumental as the movements of hip-hop and grunge proved as far as mainstream acceptance and success are concerned, it was predestined. It’s foolish to point to the wholesale purchase of a scene by major labels as a symptom of the 90s; it was an occurrence well entrenched in the DNA of music-as-business for the better part of 30 years. The lavish spending and open courting were the differences introduced during the decade, A&R and labels full of Me Generation grads who wanted to flaunt money and possessions for bands that came from meager upbringings. Though gangster culture embraced the power and wealth of fame and a fast lifestyle, the trappings appealed to the hair-in-the-face alterna-crowd as well. Who isn’t somewhat enamored with money, even those who give up everything in service of a cause—money makes the world go round and major labels were flush with it.
The results weren’t just seen on Billboard charts, radio and MTV. Labels would sneak out an unexpected album because a song or style could cultivate an audience; maybe a disinterested kid would buy an album that wasn’t earmarked to sell more than 10,000 copies, but they’d be sucked into the vortex of mega-acts. This is how Metallica and Nirvana were initially brought to majors, executives unaware of the stardom and heavy sales both would bring (making those who signed them seem like geniuses ahead of a never-ending curve).
This isn’t an article about those bands or albums. Yet it stands as testament to three albums that were reflections of an agenda to indoctrinate teenagers into major label machinations. So Tonight That I Might See from Mazzy Star, Cure for Pain from Morphine and Anodyne from Uncle Tupelo are benchmarks for albums equally behind the time and ahead of that fog-laden curve. Music from bands digging deep into a past that mainstream had long forgotten, creating music that immediately erected cult followings that flashed dollar signs in A&R eyes. None abandoning their signature sound by being swiped by major labels, none receiving anything more than a fleeting glimpse at greater successes—but each album stands as a torchbearer to greater movements that have metamorphosed and blossomed into the rooted tendrils of modern genre identifiers.
So Tonight That I Might See
Buoyed by the success of lead single “Fade into You,” it’s likely a wistful generation of puberty-riddled teens in search of an album’s worth of longing gravitated toward So Tonight That I Might See. Its poetic title and the magnetic whisper of Hope Sandoval were Pied Pipers to disenchanted youth full of Jane Austen lust.
(Mazzy Star – “Fade into You”)
But the album they discovered beyond the first song was one few chose to follow. An album heavy with psychedelia and shoegaze, So Tonight That I Might See wore its influences on its sleeves. Where people heard a simple chord progression and star-crossed lyrics within “Fade into You,” the banner Mazzy Star flew was evident throughout the minor hit. The desert haze and acid noir of the song was just a primer for the heady innards of a band far more in touch with a passing generation than the one that constituted their audience.
The Bay Area bummer of “Bells Ring” is the lift-off for the trip of So Tonight That I Might See. Sandoval’s weary delivery amidst the lazy summer melody plays as California’s eternal summer crumbles into the sea. There’s little coincidence Mazzy Star cover unheralded 60s psych-folk pioneer Arthur Lee (Love) with “Five String Serenade,” a delicate reimagining with the rainbow production of Love’s version stripped bare, replaced by nothing but a clean guitar, quiet strings and the space between Sandoval’s voice and the microphone. It’s the same aura that surrounds “Into Dust,” the reflective bacchanal of an era past its prime but still worth its historical weight.
(Mazzy Star – “Into Dust” live on MTV)
When the album decides to grab the classic psychedelic influences by the throat and shove it against the jukebox, So Tonight That I Might See flashes its real gifts. “Wasted” is a sexual catwalk across the bar floor, Sandoval transforming from mysterious gypsy into bluesy vixen, drunk on the celebration day of all things past. The monstrous title track closes the album, a beast of many colors and textures that seems to spite the fragile façade of “Fade into You,” despite the effortless circular flow. Sandoval turns into a beat poet with visceral energy, reciting hippie love thoughts amongst Dave Roback’s repetitive constant. His solos provide the color, jabbing the hurdy-gurdy mood with a sharpened blade.
So Tonight That I Might See wasn’t the only album of the era to delve into the psychedelic past but it served notice that the idealism of the past still had much to deliver. Twenty years on, we can’t shake (nor should we) the blistering trip. And the dose-on-the-tongue of Sandoval, Roback and Mazzy Star’s ’93 classic is still as satisfying and relevant as it ever was.
Cure for Pain
The jazzed drawl of “Dawna” plays as “Thus Spake Zarathustra,” an ominous jubilee of triumph and chaos that speaks to Morphine. The trio stood out not only due to the use of saxophone but the lack of guitar. Bass and drums were all the grunge Morphine needed to speak to the low and dirty; those who paid no heed of trend or style.
Cure for Pain was released nearly 25 years after Miles Davis’ fusion classic, Bitches Brew but stood in the same defiance of expectation and role as the gargantuan classic. Though most youth were unacquainted with the cool of Davis and his contemporaries, Morphine provided a bridge between the power of jazz and the immediacy of alternative music. The melodies were rebellious but carried a darker—if sweeter—edge than products of the alternative factory.
(Morphine – “Buena”)
Striking of Cure for Pain is the many arenas in which the trio existed over the span of one album, and how those disparate sounds existed on one plane. “A Head with Wings” has the sass of Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots are Made for Walkin’” without the generational kitsch (though one would argue an emphasis on brass during the distorted 90s came with its own brand of gimmickry). It’s the beatnik vibe that runs through “Let’s Take a Trip Together,” that plays tricks on the clueless; a quiet cry of counterculture with the cool of a neglected era. “Miles Davis’ Funeral” was a moody finally, borrowing from ominous Mexican folk; the gringos Day of the Dead salute to the jazz giant who passed in 1991. “Thursday” sprang from the same New Orleans specter that gave birth to the Afghan Whigs’ Gentlemen, though Morphine’s take was a bit more authentic thanks to their choice of saxophone sexuality.
Morphine’s influence was minimal upon the scene as it stood in 1993 but the band experienced its fair share of successes, in no small part due to the love of other, more popular acts using Morphine as an opening act and second stage festival attraction. But the swoons and swagger of Cure for Pain are now found in a host of fragmented scenes.
Uncle Tupelo’s station as Anodyne became a reality was that of a band who had grown up together and was eager to do it their own way. Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy weren’t the brands they are now, but nonetheless carried cache with a loyal audience of people who found their blend of folk, country and punk excitingly fresh. Though Uncle Tupelo owed much to bands like X, The Replacements and Husker Du who had toyed with country sentimentality amidst a backdrop of punk, Farrar and Tweedy often produced the inverse; punk attitude within a set of beautifully crafted torch songs that captured youthful angst and the unknown with the sense of urgency of former troubadours such as Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams and Townes Van Zandt.
Anodyne was the band’s major label debut and subsequent swansong. It was also the band’s finest hour, the two-headed creatives in lockstep in owning their sound. Uncle Tupelo was still repurposing influences but rather than piggybacking off of them, Anodyne forged its own path through the thickness.
It’s surprising Anodyne was even recorded, as an influx of new members and Tweedy’s growing confidence caused strife with Farrar. Furthering things, Anodyne was the band’s fourth album in as many years and they were a constant on the road, a large reason why Sire took the chance in signing the band. They were a draw live and the growing divide between Tweedy and Farrar was becoming the rocket fuel propelling them to loftier heights.
(Uncle Tupelo – “The Long Cut” live on Late Night with Conan O’Brien)
As a standalone album, Anodyne couldn’t have been more anti-alternative (despite Uncle Tupelo retroactively being credited with the creation of the alt-country genre). It had its moments of blissed out rock (“The Long Cut” and “Chickamauga”) but the band’s punk preface was being continuously whittled. Distortion wasn’t a part of the Anodyne equation, Tweedy and Farrar both leaning on traditional storytelling rather than prevalent trends.
(Uncle Tupelo – “Chickamauga”)
The best of Anodyne stuck out because it avoided easy categorization by radio and press. “New Madrid” is a lazy jangle of banjo and love struck innocence. “We’ve Been Had” was the catharsis for the alt-country brand, rowdy punk observation wrapped in outlaw country ethos, right down to the twangy choral riff. Follow-up “Fifteen Keys” transformed its slide interlude into a de facto solo, moody and face down. It lent more to depressed farmers and laid off factory workers wearing flannel, much the same way Seattle’s breakouts wore the material—it was cheap and readily available. It spoke to no fashion sense. “Acuff-Rose” was a beacon to a country music appreciation of two stories songwriters that were out of time and sync with the world that now stood in admiration of Tweedy’s cultural nod to a history they had no idea existed.
Above all else, Anodyne now stands as the testament to Tweedy and Farrar post-Uncle Tupelo. Tweedy wrangled the rest of Uncle Tupelo, formed Wilco and released A.M.–an album whose sound was grounded in Tweedy penned works like “No Sense in Lovin’.” “Chickamauga” hinted at the bombastic guitar rock that riddled Trace , the debut album from Son Volt, in between more reflective fare.
But central to the album is its title track. Farrar’s words speak not only to interpersonal relationships but that of his and Tweedy’s childhood friendship—and Uncle Tupelo—coming to an end. It’s an open apology to fans who believed Uncle Tupelo an oasis among the pop and alternative charts. Its Spartan approach was the archetype for Wilco and Son Volt’s penetrating softness.
These are just three albums of a few (previously mentioned Gentlemen from The Afghan Whigs, Today’s Active Lifestyles by Polvo and A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders) that not only stood out among the 1993 pack but continue to have juice twenty years on. Each defined a movement they never knew to exist, now twisted into variants we’re still chasing. But it’s how they were part of the major label machine that makes them interesting all these years later, separating them from other brilliant and back-to-the-future albums of the time (including those mentioned at the top of this paragraph).