In an effort to dig deeper into the creative and personal influences behind new music, we recruit artists to tell us about five records that they consider "Essential" by any definition they like. Cecil Frena creates dense music under the alias of Born Gold, and he's selected five albums from the '90s that deserve revisiting or reevaluation.
Is there a more insufferable label than “_____ for people who don't like _____?” Most of the time the artists who get burdened with it grew up studying and loving whatever ______ is, then had a harsh noise phase or whatever, then returned to the contentious genre they originally fell for. You'd have to be resisting or just ignorant not to hear Top 40 in Born Gold's music, but Cecil Frena must always live with being “pop, but actually good” to some: he has a simultaneous mastery of its tropes and a willingness to push them into harsher, more abrasive climates. Frena's latest LP I Am An Exit is pop without the hot breath of labels fogging the vision, with the raw sonics of a demo left to construct a shiny disco in an Edmonton tundra.
But the nice thing about artists like Born Gold is that the music urges you to reconsider other sounds in a disposable age. Discovering pre-Internet albums and artists you love on your own requires focus and dedication. And if music is just background noise for your digital life, why bother? Just allow the press to determine what is and is not a classic, spur the labels to repress it on vinyl, and stream it on Soundcloud as you check Twitter. It's easier that way. Things have changed, and Frena is willing to accept that, but he hopes that as the Internet becomes the hub for us to experience music, forming a deep and personal connection with it won't slip to the borders.
For this edition of Essential Albums, Cecil picked five albums from the '90s. Some were overlooked and underrated, some were hugely successful and demonized. But Cecil breaks down exactly what makes these records great, both on a personal and critical level. Read it, then go back to your high school bedroom, find your old CD booklets, and canonize something for yourself. But leave the laptop at home.
Ace Of Base, The Sign (1993)
That record is pretty strange even though it doesn’t necessarily get treated that way. First of all, Swedish reggae synth pop that crosses over to the United States is pretty unusual in the first place. The batting average on the record is unusually high. There’s probably like six stone-cold classics on that record and even the deep cuts aren’t that bad.
Lately I’ve been thinking of Ace of Base as the total commercial realization of Peaking Lights. Know what I mean? Drum machine-based reggae but executed so flawlessly. And [Ace Of Base] were really singular on the pop landscape in the 90’s until Lady Gaga made that song that sounded exactly like an Ace of Base song, they were really singular. There are definitely straight up reggae songs that were charting, but this weird Swedish synth-pop hybrid were pretty unique. I feel like there's room for that still. The songs sound so fresh if you put them on right now. A lot of them are very dark but still have a nice reggae pulse. So yeah, no idea why they haven’t had more imitators.
Their guitarist was a Nazi at one point, I read.
I heard that too. If that’s true, that sucks.
Failure, Fantastic Planet (1996)
I think they’re a really interesting band because they’re one of those bands that really influenced a lot of other bands but didn’t make a huge commercial impact in their time. Apparently Ken Andrews, the singer from Failure, just mixed the last Paramore record, which is kind of a crazy development. And Paramore actually cite Failure as a major influence ,which you can’t really hear except for maybe the last song on the record.
Fantastic Planet is their masterpiece. Probably the best one is “Stuck on You” which charted a little bit. The other interesting thing about Failure is that they wouldn’t be signed today – it just wouldn’t happen. They kind of represent the old economics of the music industry. Which is too bad because you were getting bands that were fundamentally strange and doing weird shit that were on labels and their songs were being pushed on the radio. But now the system has changed.
And Failure had an interesting Depeche Mode connection. Failure have the same weird melodicism. A lot of the chord progressions are unintuitive and odd but they sell it. And Depeche Mode were probably the highest commercial realization of that form of melodicism, like “Enjoy the Silence,” which actually charted. If you break it down it’s a weird song. And Failure covered it and Depeche Mode said they actually preferred it. So they’re a really interesting band.
Alanis Morisette, Jagged Little Pill (1995)
She seems to be pretty timely right now because a lot of club people are sampling her vocals. The reason I find her record interesting is how unusual and idiosyncratic it is in terms of being pop music, but you also can’t divorce it from her character. It’s completely saturated with her personality. When you’re able to find that music that finds that perfect intersect is so exciting for me. When it’s extremely immediate and direct and it appeals to a wide range of people and is completely unique and uncompromising in its individuality.
I didn’t realize to what extent Alanis is a singular figure until I revisited the record. And I guess Katy Perry really wanted to be Alanis Morissette until she became Katy Perry, because Perry’s second record has the hit-to-miss ratio of Jagged Little Pill, [which] had six or seven big songs on it, and the non-single cuts are notably weaker. I’ve also been kind of getting into mid-period Avril Lavigne and I feel like she kind of took an Alanis turn.
I find that a lot of the music I’ve been interested in lately intersects with Alanis. Also, one of my buddies, James Brooks of Default Genders, his music is very Morissette-y. It has a conversational style. I really like that record.
Gin Blossoms, New Miserable Experience (1992)
They’re really interesting because a lot of commercial rock music in the '90s was really bombastic and anthemic and they were just a really understated band that wrote really, really good songs. The sonics aren’t super interesting but the songwriting is so, so good. They managed to hit this perfect anthemic, melancholy self-debasing vibe in the lyrics that complimented perfectly with the vocal melodies. They’re just really really beautiful pop songs that stand the test of time. They’re also precursors of Arizona buddies Jimmy Eat World. I think that Gin Blossoms' instrumentation is never offensive and always really pleasant. In terms of emotionally resonant songs, they’re really good.
What do you take away from music that you qualify as inoffensive as opposed to music that’s a bit more challenging for you?
One of my favourite records from when I was younger is Burn Piano Island Burn by the Blood Brothers. The record made no sense to me, but I just left it in my car so that I could listen to it when I drove. One day it just clicked. Like, “The vocals are dissonant, but deliberately.” And you can’t articulate how that just clicks and makes sense, but it feels like a little victory. Same with Nirvana’s In Utero. I didn’t get it, but I listened to it every day as kid delivering flyers. So I think there is some value in investing in music to reap its rewards. If we’re going to call [Gin Blossoms] “inoffensive music” that’s not immediately abrasive or challenging, that’s fair.
I also think that the way people listen to things have changed. It seems like there’s difficult music that gets a press platform and people then take the time to appreciate it, but most music needs to be immediate to get through at all. But I don’t listen to music the way that I used to. I will usually listen to a record once and then if I like it I’ll revisit it.
Harvey Danger, Where Have All The Merrymakers Gone? (1997)
They had the one-hit wonder “Flagpole Sitta,” but the record is really fucking good. They have great production. It’s really raw and live. But the songs are really accessibly melodic and smart in a way that’s not patronizing. The vocalist has a way of writing emotionally-resonant lyrics that kind of explore the complexity of his relationships without seeming corny. Like a proto-Death Cab, but they never achieved that commercial status. Their second record is really good too, but wasn’t nearly as commercial. But their first one is really worth revisiting. It’s a collection of really strong and smart pop songs.
One thing we’ve been doing has been listening to Hot 100 Charts and hearing what songs were hits. And the one-hit wonders tend to be the most aesthetically singular artist on the chart. They don’t tend to match the mould. And if you investigate their albums, they’re often times really cool. And nothing I’ve mentioned today is something that people wouldn’t be able to identify. I’m not revealing secrets of the music Freemasons. It’s just interesting to reconsider '90s pop music and try to understand how it relates to music from today.