Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Art of the Album: Live – Throwing Copper

1346396400 What You Need to Know: Another week, another 90s touchstone – Live’s 1994 effort Throwing Copper has sold some 8 million copies since release, and for good reason. It’s an album composed almost entirely of singles or of songs that could easily have served as singles, and I completely forget about it only to discover it anew a couple of years later.

Copper effortlessly and organically combines big, arena-ready chords and choruses with the ragged edge and loud-quiet dynamics of the confusingly-dubbed “alternative” movement. It’s like U2, if U2 wasn’t a group of sissies fronted by an insufferable douche.

Lightning never struck (crashed?) twice for recently-defunct Live, a Pennsylvania outfit that knew how to chart a single but not craft an album. One could charitably describe their follow-up to Throwing Copper (1997’s Secret Samadhi) as completely tuneless, especially by comparison, and every album after alternated between regurgitating Copper and shoving an only-in-the-entertainment-industry puree of vague spiritualism down your throat. You can safely ignore the rest of their catalogue – Throwing Copper is the only one of their recordings that you need.

The Songs You’ve Heard: This depends, I suppose. Were you grown or growing up in the mid-1990s? If so, the answer is “every other damn song on the album.”

“Selling the Drama”, “All Over You” and “I Alone” are three of the album’s five (!) singles, grouped together here because they’re cut from the same cloth – quiet, amiable verses that explode into choruses tailor-made for concerts and the radio. It’s all very “alternative” of them.

The remaining two singles from the album push the six-minute mark, an eternity for a radio-friendly single, but they both manage more or less to pull it off. “White, Discussion”, the lesser of the two, builds from a solid bassline and steady drumbeat into a crescendo of mid-90s noise angst (I believe the Germans call it Sturm und Whine). Meanwhile, “Lightning Crashes” deviates from the verse-chorus-verse formula of the other big singles to give us a truly fantastic ballad, beginning with just a guitar for backing and building to the signature Live combination of hummable chorus and arena rock riff.

The Songs You Haven’t: I said at the beginning of this piece that most of the songs on Throwing Copper could have been singles. Well, maybe not quite – as with many albums, there is a certain difference between the album tracks and the single tracks, though in this case it’s more a difference in approach than a difference in quality.

“Top” is one of the songs that could have been a single, continuing roughly in the style of “I Alone” and “All Over You”, though “Iris” misses because of its wordiness. “The Dam at Otter Creek” and “T.B.D.” are definitely album tracks, both quiet and wordy and missing the hook that the album’s singles so effectively set.

My favorites among the album cuts are “Shit Towne,” which one of my high school friends and I always assumed was about Harpster, Ohio, and “Waitress,” which I like both for its crunchy stop-start guitars and also because it’s about how you really ought to leave a tip for your waitress because even though she was a bitch maybe she has a kid or something.

The last song, a hidden track called “Horse” in some places and simply untitled in others, is not quite of a piece with the rest of the album, but it’s a very nice change of pace with its acoustic instrumentation and lilting country-fied guitars.

Why I Like It: For this column, I try to highlight albums that transcend weaknesses of individual songs to succeed as a body of work, and Throwing Copper is no exception. Yes, if I’m paying especial attention, maybe I’ll press skip when “Pillar of Davidson” comes up, or maybe I’ll start the album with “Selling the Drama” instead of “The Dam at Otter Creek”, but if I’m driving or at work I can put Copper on and let myself sink into the sweet, uncomplicated sounds of the 90s without needing to skip around or build a playlist to accommodate bad songs or songs that interrupt the album’s flow.

One of the things I like the most about Copper is (in fact) its impeccable flow, how easily “Selling the Drama” slides into “I Alone” almost without you noticing, despite both songs being instantly recognizable and distinct from one another. This is a set of songs that fit together sonically and work together as part of a cohesive, generally excellent whole. Can’t ask for better than that.

Desert Island Tracks: “I Alone”, “Horse”, “Lightning Crashes