90s singer/songwriter, Tracy Bonham was as good as anyone at the time but didn't get the same attention as her contemporaries
In an earlier post about female musicians who exploded during the 1990s, I failed to mention Tracy Bonham and her terrific debut album, The Burdens Of Being Upright, and that was a mistake.
For those who may remember those days you're probably thinking that Bonham got lots of attention and praise for The Burdens Of Being Upright, in large part due to the smash hit, "Mother, Mother" in 1996, and you'd be right. My point is though, the record on a whole is great, but it was known more for its lead single than as a full album and the music media didn't give it its proper due once "Mother Mother" left the charts.
Released as a single on March 12th, 1996, "Mother Mother" would reach the number one spot on Billboard's Modern Rock Tracks chart by mid-year. It was the last song by a female solo artist to top this chart until "Royals" by Lorde in August 2013, by which time the chart had been renamed Billboard Alternative Songs.
The song, as well as the album, personified everything that 90s rock was about. That means it has loud, catchy guitar riffs, mixed with jangled strumming, in a verse-chorus-verse song structure. It perfectly executed pretty harmonies, sung with great vocals, and blood-curdling screams at just the right time. Lyrically it was brash, defiant, and aggressive but introspective and contemplative at the same time.
Bonham, a classically trained violinist and pianist, as well as a two-time Grammy nominee (Best Alternative Album, and Best Female Rock Vocal Performance), was just as good, if not better than many musicians on the scene at the time. She took creative chances by using her talent as a violinist and meshing that with her alternative sound. It worked.
"Mother Mother" isn't the only hit the album produced, but it was its biggest. With a simply strummed acoustic guitar rhythm, Bonham almost whispers her way through the first verse:
"Mother, mother, how's the family? I'm just callin' to say hello How's the weather? How's my father? Am I lonely? Heavens know
Mother, mother, are you listenin'? Just a phone call to ease your mind Life is perfect, never better Distance makin' the heart grow fond"
The pre-chorus comes in much louder, electric guitars, and bombastic drums included, but you can tell it's building to something bigger. This is hard to pull off because of its simplicity and sometimes the simple songs are the best ones. It's a gradual, natural climb and the payoff is massive.
"When you sent me off to see the world
Were you scared that I might get hurt?
Would I try a little tobacco?
Would I keep on hikin' up my skirt?"
This leads to a bit of a quiet breakdown where the initial part of the chorus trades off between vocals and music until we get one of the best lines and screams of any song from the decade:
"I'm hungry, I'm dirty
I'm losin' my mind, everything's fine!
I'm freezin', I'm starvin'
I'm bleedin' to death, everything's fine!"
"Everything's fine" is highlighted in red because that's where the blood-curdling screams come in and if sounds had colors, that scream would absolutely be red. I know we talk about some songs from the 90s as being "anthems", well this was one and it has tons of lasting power as far as I'm concerned.
The Burdens Of Being Upright had other hits as well. The punk-infused (with a hint of surf music), "Navy Bean" is a jolt of a song that starts fast, slows down just enough to catch its breath, picks back up again, and ends in a frenzy. "The One" follows suit with cool riffs, big drums, and catchy vocals throughout.
Speaking of drums, helping to add some great rock sounds on both "Mother Mother", "Navy Bean", and a total of six of the twelve tracks on the album, is drummer extraordinaire, Josh Freese. If you're not familiar with Josh, you should be. He's played with an absolute all-star list of rock bands and artists such as, The Vandals, Devo, Paul Westerberg, Juliana Hatfield, Guns N' Roses, Chris Cornell, Rob Zombie, Weezer, and list goes on and on.
The Burdens Of Being Upright is littered very good songs, smart lyrics, beautiful vocals, and plenty of 90s attitude. It's a record that needs to be in any collection that contains albums from artists such as Hole, Alanis Morissette, Liz Phair, No Doubt, etc.
Tracy Bonham has continued to release music and play live, and has even created her own music company geared towards younger generations of musicians called Melodeon Music House. The 1990s musical explosion produced larger than life figures who overshadowed much of what was going on around them. It was a decade full of talent, creativity, and inspiration for those who came after.
Tracy Bonham had the best of both worlds. She had big-time fame that enabled her to share her music all over the globe, but without the trappings of such white-hot fame that damaged so many of her 90s counterparts. That's not a bad way to enjoy a career.
Image from Tracybonham.com