As with most people, musicians tend to take it easy at the end of the calendar year as they contemplate how to attack the upcoming one. Album releases seem to be few and far between during this transition. On New Year's Eve 1991 however, a little known band of four friends from York, PA dropped Mental Jewelry (their first under the name Live, they released The Death Of A Dictionary under the name Public Affection in 1989) which helped to usher in a decade of what would come to be called Alternative music.
I first discovered Live on MTV's 120 Minutes. This was back when MTV not only played music but actually ruled the industry in terms of which bands and artists broke into the big time. Now, the network is a shell of itself and needs to go off the air. Perhaps I should've become a program director or television executive, I digress.
"Operation Spirit (The Tyranny of Tradition)" starts without any build up whatsoever as the words "did you give it up" along with a rolling, tribal drum beat pairs with a matching, funk-infused bass line, and the song is off and running. The video is as chaotic as the music with quick edits of the band playing the song at night around a fire, running frantically on a beach (mostly shirtless for some reason), and back to playing again. The sound was distinct and different. It had purpose and meaning behind it. These guys cared and so did I.
I cannot remember when, but I bought the album based on this song alone and immediately fell in love with it. It wasn't hard rock, metal, or punk. It wasn't rap. Those were the genres I was listening to without fail and this wasn't any of that. It reminded me of R.E.M. (who also doesn't fit any of the genres mentioned) but funkier and angrier. The album sounded mystical. The lyrics were philosophical, sarcastic as times, but always seemingly uplifting. The band wrote the music together (Ed Kowalczyk- lead vocals, rhythm guitar, Chad Taylor-lead guitar, backing vocals, Patrick Dahlheimer-bass, and Chad Gracey-drums) and Ed wrote the lyrics. His style, in addition to what I mentioned previously, had an inquisitive and challenging aspect to it. As an angry and inquisitive 18-year-old at the time, I was drawn to lyrics that challenged conventional wisdom. My favorite passage from Operation Spirit is a perfect example of this:
"Heard a lot of talk about this Jesus A man of love and a man of strength But what a man was two thousand years ago Means nothing at all to me today
He could have been Telling me about my higher self But he only lives inside my prayer So what he was may have been beautiful But the pain is right now and right here"
I knew right then and there that this band had something to offer me that I wasn't getting from too many other bands at that time.
Sonically, Mental Jewelry is heavy on rhythm (thanks to the funk-inspired playing of one of the most underrated bass players of that entire generation, Patrick Dahlheimer, and the tireless and groove-laden drumming of Chad Gracey) and atmosphere. The album was produced and guided by Jerry Harrison of Talking Heads fame and his input is as responsible for the record's unique and "alternative" sound. Speaking about Harrison in 1994, drummer Chad Gracey said:
“The main thing he brought to us for Mental Jewelry is arrangement. Putting the songs together and making them as strong as they could be on a record. And he understands that because he’s made plenty of them.”
Looking back 30 years is never an easy task, but with music it's a bit easier because if you're like me, you remember moments because of music. 1991 was a watershed year for music and culture. EVERYTHING changed that year and it's important to look back and understand why. Live has sold over 20 million albums to date but they seem to fall through the cracks sometimes when discussing the bands who shaped music and culture in the 90s. They've endured some inner turmoil throughout the years, Ed left and came back, sales dipped, and some fans moved on. No matter how you slice it though, Live deserve their place in the history of one of the greatest years for album releases with Mental Jewelry in 1991 and overall in the decade of the 90s, especially with their 1994 massive follow-up, Throwing Copper.
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