Confession: I would not have known this album was released 19 years ago today if not for Vernon Reid’s Facebook post. But I’m glad I saw it, because it gives me an opportunity to talk about it. In fact, I took the opportunity to talk about Stain last summer for my PopMatters feature 10 Albums That Supposedly Suck (But Don’t) (link here).
19 years ago: I remember exactly where I was. Grad school. In my snug Resident Advisor room hunkered down trying to read 100 books in one calendar year (I exaggerate, but not by much). Suffice it to say, money was tight. But then, as now, I’d give up food for music, and when Living Colour’s third album dropped, there was no question that it had to be acquired. (Obligatory reminder for today’s whipper-snappers: this was not only way before the digital era of samplers and/or online stealing, this was when compact discs cost a disgusting amount of money.)
I loved Vivid and I really loved Time’s Up (which I’d put on the short list of the decade’s best). After what seemed an interminable wait for my hungry ears, I could not have been more excited to slap this baby in the machine. And…I hated it. At least the first few times. I wasn’t ready for it; I simply was not prepared for this sonic assault. It was abrasive, unapologetic and angry. Just the inside photo of the band was frightening: these were some bad-ass motherfuckers. This, I asked myself, is how you follow up the sophomore masterpiece that landed you on the cover of Rolling Stone? Within a week or so my mind adjusted and I understood: the answer was affirmative. Of course this is how you do it. They were making the music they wanted to make. Like any band with integrity, they were making the music they had to make. Pretty simple, really. And, like so many albums I’ve come to cherish, it was impossible to get an accurate read during the first several spins. Certainly, some music reveals itself, immediately, as masterful and it’s love at first listen. But so many challenging, worthwhile albums require you to embrace them on their terms, no compromise or equivocation.
Stain is not only a brilliant album, it’s –especially with the benefit of hindsight– very much an album of its time: there are the inexorable nods to grunge (this was 1993, after all), and a musical/lyrical reaction to the social issues of the day (this era, lest we forget, was an uneasy cauldron of racial tensions, coming in between the 1992 Republican Convention, Rodney King and the cultural clusterfuck of the O.J. Simpson trial). Stain is a prescient album in several regards: on one hand, Clinton had been inaugurated less than two months before, ending a 12 year Republican stranglehold: life was good again, right? Right. Except for the fact that so much was wrong. As impossible as it may be to recall, this was a time where racial matters (see: Rodney King, etc.) and sexual preference (see: Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and the political debacle that turned into) where still toxic, third-rail type distractions. Of course, Clinton’s unsuccessful attempt to reform Health Care proved that America was simply not ready to act in its collective best interest (some things never change, right?). Put in more stark terms, 1993 was a year when Chevy Chase had his own talk show. Needless to say, America was a very confused place in many regards.
Here’s the thing: so much music made in the early ’90s sounds astonishingly dated, and the copycat impulse was in full effect –everyone wanted to sound like they came out of Seattle. A little bit of that went a long way. And while, as already acknowledged, Living Colour certainly tipped their creative caps to what was going on around them, they were also carving out a deep, dark sound that still sounds, well, vivid, almost two full decades on. Even though they did not go on to own the decade, like they may have, they sort of did anyway.
My assessment of the album, from this summer, is below.
Even though Living Colour is still making excellent music today, they are mostly remembered as the band who did “Cult of Personality” two decades and change ago. Some people remember that their second album, Time’s Up was an improvement on the (outstanding) debut, and for a minute Living Colour was one of the biggest bands in the world. Then they made a third album and… that was that—at least for another ten long years. That third album was many degrees harder, darker and more difficult than their first two albums, which might explain why it did not go over. But how to reconcile the lack of love with the fact that in some regards Stain was their best album yet?
Losing the brilliant bassist Muzz Skillings, who bolted after the second album, could have been a crippling blow (he was that good) but when ancient school session wizard Doug Wimbish stepped into the mix the band did not miss a beat—literally. Wimbish brought a funky, in your face dynamic and he and drummer Will Calhoun formed an unbreakable rhythm section: deep, elastic and loud. The star of the show, as always, is Vernon Reid, who is a human encyclopedia of sound. From the hat-tip to grunge stylings in “Go Away” to the typically ear-burning pyrotechnics of “Leave It Alone” to the Robert Fripp-esque atmospherics in “Nothingness”, Reid covers all the bases while refining his own idiosyncratic style.
So what’s not to love? Well, for one thing, this is definitely not a flawless record. A handful of songs, like “Ignorance is Bliss” and “This Little Pig” are rather paint-by-number—not to mention lyrically clichéd. Some of the songs, like “Postman” and “Never Satisfied” may have just been too severe for the delicate ears of alternative rock fans, circa 1993. Some of the songs may have been a bit too much, like the disorienting “Hemp” or the mirthfully provocative “Bi”. And none of the remaining songs were destined to be radio hits, and little on this album is as user-friendly as most of the material on the first two albums. Take it or leave it: no other band on the planet could ever make a song like “Wall”, which is capable of shaking you, making you smile and seeing the world with new ears.
All of which may explain why this one did not help Living Colour become the most popular and influential band of the ‘90s, which they would/could/should have been. Even for fans who got it, then, and endorse it now,Stain is a grueling, confrontational album, and one that leaves the listener more than a little exhausted. These are the types of albums that are considered uncompromising, courageous, even ahead of their time. They are also the types of albums that don’t sell a ton of copies or necessarily convert new fans. “WTFF”, indeed.
By the way, I should also have mentioned that the tour for this album, in summer of ’93, produced one of THE best live performances I’ve ever seen.
It was an appropriately hot (I mean steaming hot) evening, and the venue was the old WUST Arena (now the relocated 9:30 Club), which was located in a sketchy part of town. The venue was small, tight and absolutely crammed with fans. Keep in mind: this was 1993 so the mosh-pit craze was in full (and annoying) effect, which meant that what would/should have been the first 10-15 rows were necessarily allocated to shirtless d-bags doing the man dance. Nevertheless, the band was in killer form and the set, which drew heavily –and appropriately– from Stain was scorching. It was a revelation to actually watch each of these artists do their thing: the lanky Wimbish manhandling his bass, Calhoun beating the drums within an inch of their lives, and Reid locked and loaded, effusing cool and gritty elan. But Corey Glover, who had by this time shorn his dreads and (wisely) retired his body-suits, was the main attraction. Dude was en fuego: snarling and prowling the stage and (this was 1993) doing copious stage dives. At one point he shimmied up one of the speaker towers and, I am not exaggerating because I was in the upper deck, at least twenty feet above the floor and was essentially eye-to-eye with him for a few seconds, just dropped into the crowd. They caught him, of course. But that was just balls. It wasn’t like he said “Catch me” or made some big dramatic overture before diving; he just got up and then got the fuck down. But the crowd was there for him.
I was soaked through by the time the gig was over, and aside from the sweat, beer and blood (figuratively speaking, from 20 feet up) those 9o minutes were more like a prizefight than a concert. I’ve seldom seen a band more focused and intense and, as I drove home that night, I really did think they were about to take over the world. Like I said, they sort of did anyway.