Thursday, January 25, 2018

Notes From The Record Room: Quarter-Century Nod to the American Jesus...

As a perpetually bummed out teenager, I’d like to pretend that I wasn’t culling my chosen social identity from MTV’s hit parade, but that wouldn’t be true. I was as tuned in as most of my peers, especially once the channel began to venture beyond the plasticity of pop music and expose us sheltered types to the language, garb, culture, and sounds of the underground. The college set of the late 80s were already up on 120 Minutes, but us budding types were suddenly becoming hip to it as well, a younger generation now fascinated with Seattle’s dirt rockers and a sudden slew of maverick bands whose preceding years of blood and sweat was suddenly paying off.

You know the rest.

In 1994, the same year Green Day released its major label colossus, Dookie, I pulled the cellophane off of a CD called Stranger Than Fiction, another major label debut but from a veteran band whose origins dated back as far as 80s hardcore. The band was Bad Religion.

As the majors continued to hit up the indies for talent, Bad Religion signed with Atlantic, leaving their home at Epitaph Records. Stranger Than Fiction was my BR primer, and it led to a strong fascination. I explored BR’s back catalogue, enjoying the early hardcore of their 80-85 compilation, the hyper-melodic edge of both Suffer and No Control, and the emotional resonance of Against the Grain. Generator? It wasn’t my favorite at the time, though I was a fan of “Atomic Garden” and “Heaven Is Falling.” I enjoyed this period of discovery, fortifying my developing CD library with what I thought were intelligent albums, the band’s penchant for complex language written out as harmonized stanzas with aggression as their backdrop.

While in the throes of a nostalgia bender recently, I located and listened to a couple of old episodes of 120 Minutes on YouTube. I wasn’t necessarily looking to relive anything, but instead be reminded of a time when music belonged to me and reacquaint myself with this now-antiquated medium of delivery. “American Jesus,” the lead single from Bad Religion’s 1993 album, Recipe for Hate, came on. At that point, I hadn’t listened to Recipe for Hate in quite some time. Some albums just gather dust, either falling victim to overplay or just forgotten for a little while. Other times, you just grow out of certain bands or genres. I’ll admit that other bands of BR’s ilk, namely Epitaph’s own NOFX, Pennywise, and Rancid have become points of embarrassment as the years have advanced. Many of these relics of my skater days have been traded away. But, not my Bad Religion CDs. I can’t say that they’re so meaningful to me that I would repurchase my whole collection on vinyl, but I’ll certainly keep them forever.

 

Anyway, that wiry intro riff from “American Jesus” began to play and I had to listen. I felt some level of enthusiasm, perhaps calling back to how I would’ve responded to this song at 16 or 17. It’s still a good song: Certainly of its era, but that riff stays with you and the hook is gratifyingly anthemic.

I didn’t immediately clean the dust from my copy of Recipe following this, but the CD made its way to my car stereo a day or two ago. I remembered every word, every change, every vocal inflection. I hadn’t realized how indelibly present this album remains, permanently etched into the grey matter. Recipe was never my favorite Bad Religion album, but it was the one that fascinated me the most. It’s a more varied listen, its rapid pace, ten-dollar vocabulary, and harmonized resolve offered different means of presentation. There were indications of a desire to experiment a bit in Against the Grain and Generator, but this desire sounded like more of a commitment in Recipe, the structural oddity of “All Good Soldiers,” the Western influence of “Man with a Mission,” and the dirge-laden folk of “Struck A Nerve,” which featured vocals from Concrete Blonde’s Johnette Napolitano.

There’s also “Time to Die,” a militaristic snare roll leading into a sturdy and melancholy guitar rhythm that never really breaks its stride. Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder contributed vocals to this song, which in some ways solidifies the album’s significance and relevancy to the era. 

 

Recipe was initially released by Epitaph. After the ink dried on their contract with Bad Religion, Atlantic picked up the album and reissued it almost immediately. I’m speculating, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Vedder’s involvement with this project had fueled that move, his star power bolstering the album’s potential for sales.

In June, Recipe for Hate will be 25 years old. I’m going to be thinking a lot about 1993, the year I’d finally acquired a CD player and really began to build a personal soundtrack. I’m normally not one to reminisce, but ’93 was a pinnacle year for the music of my generation and for me. So, expect a few potentially self-indulgent strolls down memory lane in the coming months. You’ve been warned.

Sincerely,
Letters From A Tapehead
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