When bands fall into overzealous hands
Belly, Smashing Pumpkins suffer similar fates
By Kristin Fiore
Overzealous production has existed longer than big production
budgets or 24-track studios (operas relied on the crowd-awing
It’s becoming more and more common, however, as unknown bands
are thrust into the limelight and burdened with expectations. In an
effort to create an album that lives up to those expectations and
the money poured into it, many bands end up with an album that
reflects more of the producer than it does of them.
The latest releases by Belly, The Cranberries and Freedy
Johnston all follow up successful albums that showcased the
artist’s unique talent. But too much fine-tuning and
instrument-layering turn some of their honest, emotive songs into
clichÃ©d radio ditties.
Belly’s debut was filled with sparse and unusual arrangements,
such as "Untogether" or "Low Red Moon," that accentuated the
songwriting Â nothing extraneous there. But while the
follow-up album has equally strong songs like "Seal My Fate" and
"Superconnected," they seem forced into the "punk-pop" format that
irons out the idiosyncrasies that made the debut so compelling.
Butch Vig did wonders for Sonic Youth and Nirvana, honing their
unique edges without watering them down, but his work on Smashing
Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream and Freedy Johnston’s This Perfect World
drowns the bands in superfluous instrumentation and pedestrian
sentimentality that don’t do justice to their prior work .
"Disarm" is powerful in its own right, but added strings make it
melodramatic and forged, void of the rawness of Gish. The album is
so flooded with feedback that it’s hard to find the Pumpkins at
When bands go au naturel, the response is often overwhelming.
MTV Unplugged albums by Nirvana, 10,000 Maniacs and a horde of
others sell like hotcakes. The acoustic renditions of 10,000
Maniacs’ tunes sound much better than the group’s string and horn
heavy counterparts on Out Time In Eden, not to mention the
nauseatingly poppy Blind Man’s Zoo. And though it wasn’t a
commercial smash, Kristin Hersh’s acoustic Hips and Makers was one
of the most intense albums of 1994, leaving her Throwing Muses
material in the dust. Some of the most noted songwriters are known
for such simplicity, like Neil Young or Bob Dylan.
Even bands known for great production and songwriting tend to
fall into the big-money trap, as if they were thinking, "Hey! We’ve
got a 24-track studio. Let’s use them all!!" It’s frustrating to
wade through $350,000 worth of "my equipment is bigger than your
equipment" to get to the song smothered inside, especially when its
demo probably sounded better. Take "Country Feedback" (from Out Of
Time), one of R.E.M.’s most underrated songs. Only a demo, this
song’s emotion and stark beauty make the following violin-laden
"Texarcana" sound cumbersome and contrived.
The bands that fare best are those that have been on indie
labels for more than a few albums. Bad Religion’s era with Epitaph
left the band seasoned enough to make albums that reflected its
singular style of fast punk and tight vocal harmonies. And Green
Day’s latest does not differ much from its releases on Lookout
Records. Compare "Welcome to Paradise" on the indie release
Kerplunk and on Dookie and you’ll find the same energy and
adolescent attitude. How did their sound survive? Bad Religion has
developed a strong following in the past decade and found its niche
long before the public found it. Green Day, on the other hand,
either doesn’t give a shit what anyone thinks, or feigns the
attitude to lure the preteens.
Covering a great song with unneeded accompaniment is like
putting catsup on fillet mignon. With labels looking at more
diverse bands than they have in years, it’s disappointing to have a
group’s unique musical flavor washed out in the mix. Producers must
walk a fine line between developing a band by fleshing out its
songs, and recreating a band by drowning out its songs.