(Two music articles in a row?)
(Yeah, the back end of August was full of sound stuff)
See, the music we looked over two weeks prior (it's just down at the bottom of this article) has a sweeping cohesive sound, a sense of time, a goal of connecting with their core fans plus the possibly of a wider audience, and an organized and uniform presentation of itself.
Liars don't have that.
Other music suggests/implies/symbolizes bloody noses or bleeding hearts.
Liars are all about blood spurting out from the corner of spinning eyes.
Other music tickles your fancy and holds up a reflection to your own feelings and memories.
Liars squeeze your lower intestine and convince you that you were probably the clone all along.
They have a new album called, TFCF (which stands for 'Theme From Crying Fountain', which seems to be a red herring, a non-existent film, which is doubly confusing because their last project was doing a soundtrack for an actual movie called 1/1), and it's all the mysterious brownish-purple bruise liquid that slowly leaks out of one corner of your old basement fridge.
Liars are a secret club that doesn't have to work hard in keeping it a secret. Most of the world won't really be into it. Everyone is welcome to try, try, try, but if it's not for you, if you just get the toilet-hugging feeling, no worries, there's other great stuff out there for you.
But for those that allowed for their 2006 album Drum's Not Dead to touch you just at just the right spot (show us on the doll...), let us wonder and worry together. Let us gnash our teeth and hurl our foreheads against the mirrors of today, breaking reflections into a thousand pieces and then accidentally stepping on the broken glass. Because there is a new Liars album, and that is a very good thing.
[it feels a bit hollow and rotten to bring up band facts and behind-the-scenes type history for this sort of artist, but this has to be addressed. Or maybe it doesn't. Maybe of all the bands in the whole wide world, this is the type where one shouldn't have to acknowledge that this person left and that person is the sole remaining member from the original line up. Maybe we music fans just create a theory about what a 'band' actually is, and that in some cases it's not the individual members but the cohesive sound that is made under the moniker. Or maybe that's a bunch of shit and come on let’s be practical here you need certain people's fingers plucking the strings and turning the dials otherwise it doesn't count. And with a restless concern over whether the new music is going to be just as good as what came before, it will now be proclaimed/reminded/admitted that drummer Julian Gross left around the time of the 2014 tour, and that multi-instrumentalist Aaron Hemphill left earlier this year, making Angus Andrews the only original member of the band, which means this new album just might almost be considered a solo album under the Liars moniker. So yeah, big shoes to fill, but Angus is like six-five, so...buttons?]
Okay, with the square brackets placed in the proper corner of our minds we press play and sink into TFCF. Having listened to it numerous times and slaughtered the corresponding wild animal souls with robot venom, we are pleased to announce that it is another stellar auditory trip and fall through the future ruins.
Most of Mess (their previous album) was glossy and pounding. A nightmare in a club.
In comparison to this, TFCF is closer sonically to the band's 2012 album (and still one of this decade's best) Wixiw, where the panic wasn't created from crushing percussion and rusted riffs, and an actual (surprise!) acoustic guitar could be heard from time to time.
But TFCF is no retread.
Liars don't do retreads.
Liars can't do retreads. Must be something amnesiac about the water they drink. They couldn't follow past footsteps even if they wanted to. There are demented winks to past successes ,sure, but part of the 'fun' of this band is how many left turns they've done without ever crashing into themselves (or maybe they've constantly crashing into themselves, and we aren't caring).
TFCF is the machine breaking down. The paint cracking, the wallpaper peeling, the oceans becoming unnaturally silent. The energy here is a dark, quiet one. The words offering only shreds of hope. Angus repeats horrid, resigned mantras throughout the opener, 'The Grand Delusional', over ominous simple guitar strums. Until the crunch comes in. And for a band that has essentially sworn off normal living drums since 2002, 'crunch' is the right word in terms of percussion.
The mock majesty of 'Cliche Suite' follows, with its drunken marching band stomp, and quickly runs into the face of a swinging hammer. Each of the eleven tracks has traces of song craft that is soon sucked out of shape. TFCF is a skeletal experience, with only hints of flesh hanging off the ribcage, jawbone, or femur. A highlight is the Thom Yorke wet dream, 'Face to Face With My Face'. Bloops and bleeps fading in and out of an interstellar parking lot.
The acoustic and quieter pieces on Wixiw were reassuring, standing in contrast to more caustic and pulsating tracks. On TFCF, the simple instruments of guitar and piano are dripping with dread. The two most upbeat and catchy tracks, No Help Pamphlet and No Tree No Branch (such careless negativity in the titles!) are exercises in mindless fun repetition, the chorus of the latter repeated a half dozen in times in a little over three minutes. It's a perfect balance of panic and relief, claustrophobic screaming and a creeping expanse.
Several songs have twenty or thirty second audio, sonic collages or quasi-song snippets tacked onto their ends. A bit like the layout of early Boards of Canada albums, actually. It's disorienting on first listen, but become something like palate cleansers after you return to the album a couple times. You imagine them to be the natural background noises in between the songs, the instruments and inspirations getting their shit together before starting anew. Birds chirping and oars cutting through the water in the background harken back to the end of Flow My Tears the Spider Said from their 2004 dead in the woods masterpiece They Were Wrong So We Drowned (it's an album that thematically is about witches and witch hunting, and astoundingly, they nail that sound perfectly. What's the sound of witches and witch hunting? It seems like an impossible question to ask, since it seems erroneous to assume sounds can encapsulate that. But no, Liars came up with forty minutes of sounds that do it. If you think such sounds would include a lot of screaming...you would be right).
You recognize the building blocks of songs while listening to this album. You find yourself naturally seeking out natural rhythms and melodies, but the band only teases these things for a few bars or half a chorus. 'Face to Face With My Face' could become a dark club banger, but the beefiest riff is always cutting out, and for longer than you would expect.
But while this might be a bit frustrating, you can placate yourself with the knowledge that this was done intentionally. This song was supposed to break down right here, and re-assemble there. It was decided that these should be the words and this is how they will be sung (fuzzily). And trying to figure out why the artist did it all this way is the role of the critic (and, when there was still a viable musical press, it was their meal ticket, too).
And Liars have always been a bit cagey about it. Whether an interview with DIY magazine or a Reddit AMA, Angus has been amusing and direct with some answers, and boringly opaque with others. Describing the process is rarely as exciting as the result, and ultimately prosaic aspects of song mixing levels has to be acknowledged when creating art, with all its lofty intents and purposes.
Maybe if you have the knack to write music, you have the flashing warning sign choice early on in your career of either: A) trying to reach as many people as possible via accessible pop friendly music through whatever is left of the industry, knowing that that there will be a jaw dropping amount of compromises along the way and you still might fail completely; or B) just writing songs you like and trying to connect with any sort of fleeting fan base/commercial success, and see how long you can ride it out while being honest with yourself and your artistic/career choices before having to go to whatever job you had before.
But then 'Cred Woes' plays, and it so succinctly frames the matter of industry and influence and success with fuck you lyrics and a fuck you beat:
'I'd like to say when kids are calling me out,
That they should follow my footsteps instead of foolin' around'
And who wants to comment on your song when said song can be construed as the comment?
[and let's call this a paragraph break and leave that rhetorical question hanging]
This album sounds like....
-if Deerhunter never stopped vomiting
-if Grizzly Bear were molested by Grizzly Bears
-if Radiohead sweat peyote
-if Kanye West ate Nick Drake's brains
-if Death Grips did a seance with Bruce Springsteen
If the Liars' previous discography was the car crash (and especially the muscle-bound Mess), then this is the record for after the car crash. The album that pierces the still raw emotional and physical wounds as you walk away from the twisted metal and flames.
Which hey, doesn't sound like that much fun. There's enough people who would find the band's we talked up in the last music article (War on Drugs, LCD Soundsystem, Arcade Fire) too dour or too weird (even when they go to number one on the charts, these artists ain't Ed Sheeran or Taylor Swift). Liars crank this up to eleven and then triple it.
And maybe the debate is whether people want or need this kind of music. It's a bizarrely complicated world out there, where you can cherry pick stats from one angle and see that they world's more peaceful and less impoverished than ever or take a different view and realize that we're on the road towards an environmental disaster/technological dystopia.
If things are good, why seek out a singer moaning about darkness and crawlspaces? And if things are terrible, why make it worse by hearing a guitar carefully treated to sound like a circular saw powering down?
Because some people like this sort of thing. For some people, this is the best way to deal with and navigate through the darkness on both a personal and public scale. For some people who consume music like other people breath air, the further down you mine into the deep fringes of the blurring genres of recorded sound, the richer the rewards.
Liars deserve a special notice because of sixteen years of creative brilliance. Their eight albums create an idiosyncratic trajectory of 21st century sound, and TFCF is a uber-worthy record to their canon. And let's just cut that hard sell short right there. We obviously have to think it's pretty damn good to spend about two thousand words on it. We have to like the way it drags us into our more than happy place. We have to like the way it turns on dimes in the twilight. We have to like the way the last two short tracks (Ripe Ripe Rot into Crying Fountain) put us beautifully to sleep with visions of poisoned sugarplums dancing in our head. And let's just cut that soft sell short right there. It's Only Rock N' Roll, after all.
Album of the year?
Hard to say. Liars don't do calendars. They barely acknowledge time. TFCF might be thirty eight minutes or thirty eight thousand hours long. Halfway through the record, it feels like it might never end, that it's absorbing and evolving everything around it as the music soars and shambles along.
War on Drugs will be good.
Arcade Fire will be bad.
LCD Soundsystem will be impossible to call.
Are these declarations accurate? Who says them? Fans? Critics? Industry people? An aggregate on various websites of other various websites? Do sales and streams figure, and if so, how much? Does anything with a number involved even matter, or are these albums successful if they change just one person's life for the better?
Music is a historical artifact, the sign of a civilized society and can change the shape of your heart, but that only means so much to its makers before they realize - as Dylan puts it - 'you can' eat applause'.
This is the music industry, and even though it's still going through shrinking pains, there's money in those hills. Kinda. We're fans, but we don't really have to pay for any of these things.
If you got the cash and the devotion, you buy vinyl. The step down is digital, then its Spotify or Apple Music, and then its YouTube audio clips (some official, some unofficial).
And hey, if you're fans of the two big aforementioned bands, you get free CD copies (yes, that's right, compact discs) of their new music when you buy tickets to shows on their current tours. A bit of a two for one purchase incentive, a bit of a way to boost reported album sales (and when there's the appearance of good album sales (must've worked, both went to number one), that just furthers the promotion momentum).
So these are three bands worth talking about. More importantly, these are bands worth having stories about. Narratives, if you will, of their scrappy beginnings and intense hard work to become the next big thing, the still big thing, the big thing back for more after a much hyped retirement. We like stories. Move stories, TV stories, so why not music stories? Sure you have to fold, spindle and mutilate actual people's skills, personalities and unique life experiences into a inherently superficial and narrow story structure, but that hasn't stopped academic journals, click bait entertainment sites, and any moron with a quasi-glorified blog from doing just that.
And so, our players:
War on Drugs have been around for several years (and three previous albums), but are the 'big new thing' hype train.
We've seen Arcade Fire on many different types of trains. 'The big new thing', 'the strong followup', 'the mainstream platitudes', 'the expansive White Album-esque'.
LCD Soundsystem had a wonderful series of trains, and then they retired at the top of their game, but now are back in the rail yard, hanging around and seeing if there are any locomotives with the doors left open. And all us passengers are worried that the new ride will be a pale shadow of ones past.
But that's where we are now in how we absorb culture (and politics, sadly). Even when cobbling together artist 'stories' we'll take just the headlines, the bullet points, the quick comparisons to The Beatles (which one is your 'White Album' again?). If you like music even a teensy bit more than Top 40 radio (and its Spotify or Apple Music equivalent), it won’t take much investigation and reflection before you find yourself comparing and rating band discographies like an all you can eat sushi menu.
Fortunately the narratives created are simply the words for discussing the creation and presentation of the music. The music can speak for itself. Kinda. We're going to have to be here and try to merge the two spheres of overly-self aware critical analysis and 'fuck yeah, this beat rocks'.
[deepish breath. A Deeper Understanding breath, actually]
The War on Drugs is escaping. Getting personal because politics is getting more poisoned than ever. Get into that crappy car and crank the Springsteen-esque melodies stretching out and out as far and epic as the horizon. Throw caution into your recycling bin folder and put the uber pedal to the metal. You know those synthesizers which are supposed to represent the cold, detached robotic beats of 1980s new wave? Well they're back, but re-purposed and re-packaged as electronic fireworks of overflowing emotion. Even when it gets down tempo - and War on Drugs can get mesmerizingly down tempo - there's a beautiful forlornness in the slow strum of the acoustic guitar that anchors almost every song.
This is a band that goes for your heart, goes for your past, goes for the things you've learned to cherish, because you either lost or managed to hold onto them. Through the sweeping, monumental record that is A Deeper Understanding (a pretty apropos name for the feel of the it), the band uncovers memories you didn't know you had. Maybe they're feelings cobbled together from television and anecdotes you barely paid attention at the type of parties you don't go to anymore.
This spell weaves its way through all ten songs, most of which sit around the six minute mark. Each one is a mini-epic, and the band is on point at every moment, although special recognition must be given to frontman Adam Granduciel who plays the heartbroken but hopeful master of ceremonies, channeling his inner/outer/on the sides Springsteen, Petty and Neil Young, but with an orchestral sonic perfection. Every note feels laboured over, but that doesn't make it sound staid. Quite the opposite. There's life all over the place, the propulsion of 'Up all Night', the slow, towering refrains of 'Strangest Thing', the mid song break down of 'Thinking of Place'. The guitars wail at the perfect tone and volume and mix. Love your guitar. Steady that rhythm like the wheel for a ship. Send the solos off like a rocket. On each listen there's another instrument to pick out and swoon over. Court the piano, applaud the harmonica, and like in every great rock band, the rhythm section is so good you unfortunately take it for granted.
A slightly nasal delivery (echoes of Tom Petty), that - when Granduciel holds it - is a desperate pleading, which makes the occasionally conventional lyric all the more affecting ('I want to love you but I get knocked down', comes off as aching as a Shakespearean sonnet in the song of the same name).
It's a total package album. It shines in the dark. It's the music we all could use right about now. Everything is lined up for The War on Drugs to be the next big thing.
The slow rollout of songs, the simple music videos (some of which are fuzzy, found footage style shots of Granduciel walking around parking lots of empty factories, or playing with the band on a boat), the appearances on (what's left of) radio, TV, and anything online.
But it's never just about the new record. It's the new record in the context of all that came before.
The first is breakthrough on the simplest level (that an artist can assemble ten or so songs and tour them without breaking down and not losing money). The second and third prove you weren't a fluke. The fourth album can be where you plant roots as a great theatre-level act that will now have a devoted fan base for years to come, or where you explode into mainstream consciousness.
Or it just sucks and the momentum train jumps the tracks and explodes as it smashes into an orphanage.
Fortunately the latter is not the case with A Deeper Understanding. Hype can be worse than stultifying for the artist. It can ruin the entire idea of the band for their current and prospective fan base. Good thing this album is easily one of the best of the year. War on Drug rises to the challenge of needing to top yourself without making it look like you're topping yourself.
Which is a good as any observation to bring up Arcade Fire, a Canadian-American hybrid that merges the best of pre-Kid A Radiohead and pre-before they started sucking U2.
Arcade Fire made their big splash with the same sense of urgency. Their debut may have been called Funeral, but it was all about waking up and moving forward and placing the past in a proper trajectory to find the power to move towards a better future.
But Arcade Fire needed to crash. The window of success for the band nailing five in a row (and once again, not just five albums filled with great songs, but five events in a row (album, its release/promotion, ensuing tour)), is incredibly small.
This downturn was almost guaranteed for 2013's Reflektor, coming after the Grammy-winning third album The Suburbs, but Reflektor was big enough, energetic enough, strange enough (part of its release was a video of the music being played over a full length 1960s Haitian film), and Bowie-filled enough to keep the naysayers at bay.
And four years later, Everything Now arrives. An album that already seems to comment on the zeitgeist (yeesh, are we playing music review bingo?) before the first sounds of it are heard. And even that gets a bit tricky, because Everything Now is meant to be a loop, beginning and ending with not quite the title track, an ambient, drugged out version of the actual title track, which comes second.
And hey, a slightly spacey intro is kind of nice, and 'Everything Now' (the song) is a pretty good paint-by-numbers bit of music of everything we like about Arcade Fire. But most of the rest is a bit too familiar. The dance vibe cuts hard through this record, but it never breaks out of a rather small and timid club floor. The hooks are a bit smaller, and the sloganeering lyrics never really catch fire (and unfortunately, perfect mixing and/or marketing can't make 'Peter Pan' a good song)
Now, Arcade Fire is too talented to make an unlistenable record. Most of Everything Now is okay, but Arcade Fire has never given us 'okay', so it feels (and we really mean 'feels', not sounds) awful in comparison. You keep giving us gold, and all of a sudden it's 'what's with this bronze shit?'
At least they know how to end an album. The last two tracks ('Put Your Money On Me', and 'We Don't Deserve Love') are some of the best of their career, each one playing to the band's two main strengths. 'Put Your Money On Me' is all defiant muscle mating with a steady beat, with Win defiantly spitting out the verses between the rest of the band coming in for the falsetto chorus hook. A hook that will get stuck in your head like it's a commercial jingle, but that's how pop music is meant to work. Hell, that's how everything now (and 'everything now') is designed these days.
'We Don't Deserve Love' is the band's flip side. A slow ambient reflection, floating above us all perfectly, built out of pieces of musical sky. Regine's refrain dances in and out of choruses. It is a release from the half-hearted attempts that stumbled through most of the album. And then you loop back around to the beginning thanks to the two ambient bookends, and it's Everything Now all over again.
It's as if the band meant to create an album that is disposable and winking. The marketing campaign certainly suggests this, with artwork as if each song was a different product, and mock infomercials and banner ads boasting the virtues of the Everything Now ‘Corporation’. Heavy-handed, perhaps, but we're living at a time where the heaviest hand usually get the most attention. And not always positive attention.
The whims of whatever counts for the musical press these days are never easy to ascertain. A stream of cynical distaste for repetition or similarity and a too early appreciation for the novel, perhaps. Arcade Fire has been critical darlings for well over a decade. A discographic trajectory continuing up (or even plateauing) becomes all the rarer as the artist continues. Not only because of the possibly finicky whims of the critics, but the challenges for the musicians of creating newer music of equal quality to past triumphs. And is all of this in the heads of the listener as they put on 'Everything Now'? Depends what they think of 'Wake Up', 'My Body is A Cage', and/or 'Here Comes the Night Time'. It depends on their own personal expectations for the band after waiting four years from the last release. And it depends on a host of other uncontrollable factors, from the sound of Win's guitar on 'God God Damn', to whether the Pitchfork/Rolling Stone/Q/Prefix critic got up on the wrong side of the futon this morning. We were all ready for the band, they were ready for us, but after listening to 'Electric Blue' yet again, it feels like something never quite worked this time around.
But don't worry, Arcade Fire. Now you're allowed to reserve seats on the comeback train (departure time: approximately three years).
And now, a necessary aside:
(You've already read this letter (or had someone drunkenly mumble it at you some shit new dive cocktail bar in TriSoHo), but that doesn't mean we can't write one)
You're messing with precious things. With our wonderful memories of LCD Soundsystem circa 2002-2011. You did incredible. You went from putting your record collection into a blender of sound and ended up headlining Madison Square Garden with its contents. You encapsulated your exit perfectly. You managed to leave on the highest of high notes.
It was beautiful.
It ended, and that was beautiful too. Because you made a career of being too smart to take music too seriously but it all worked too well and we all took it seriously and started to...oh god...care. But you got that, because you were one of us. We were all at those first Can shows. Then you rode off into the sunset and sold fancy coffee. A happy ending.
Yet now you're back. James, and I thought I needed more time. I know this has been over a year and a half in the making. Your note on returning was sensible and heartfelt, but that doesn't change the fact that you’re back at my front door, requesting attention.
Attention that I can deny, of course.
But people are talking, James. And not just critic-y music people who also wonder about bands with two v's instead of one w. Friends who don't have a lot of time for music these days because of kids and marriage and careers and worrying about saving money. They all say this new album of yours is really, really good.
Damn it, James.
So I did it. I bought it. A digital copy, which might be a slap in the face, I don't even know anymore. But I know that it took me over two hours to get through the whole damn thing because I had to play a couple of the songs several times because wow, wow, wow, this is a really good album. And that sort of basic slobbering over Record C after sticking my nose up to Record B might sound hollow. But my feelings on wanting to reject the album outright due to its mere existence is also hollow.
The comeback story is usually a heroic one, but it's typically after a failure, a misstep, not a triumphant exit off the stage. And when it does happen, the new performance is rarely up to par. Or maybe we quietly don't want it to be up to par. Or maybe we just can’t tell the difference between the two, which makes us all the sadder.
But this album shakes this cynicism off. Not quickly, but steadily and surely. A slow, blooming of the very best of what your band used to do, James. The ambient, sleep in your eye opener of 'Oh Baby', the follow up punch of 'Other Voice' (both of which show your cutting wit hasn't lost any of its power), your howls on 'How Do You Sleep?' (an incredible, chugging, builder of a track that is a reference to one of the most famous diss tracks on all time), the freakout energy of 'Emotional Haircut' and 'Call the Police', the quiet reflection (and Bowie send-off) of 'Black Screen'. It's all what it's supposed to be. An album we didn't know we wanted or needed, but here it is, 'American Dream'.
You needled that thread while skydiving in a snowstorm, James.
And that's all there is to it really.
[something tugs our arm]
Oh, there's a new Liars album?
Well that'll change everything.
Lots have good albums have been released this century, and a lot of them have been covered by the music press and by music fans (some of it here). Here are some albums that have been released this century, but perhaps have not gotten the recognition (or the right sort of recognition) that they deserve.
Metallica - St.Anger (2003)
Metallica fans hate this album.
Alienated, bitter former-Metallica fans who thought they went soft with The Black Album and are just metalheads hate this album.
Music critics and most music fans hate this album.
Hell, even Metallica hates this album (they only performed two songs from St Anger on the tour supporting it, stopped playing any of it on ensuing tours, and made sure their follow-up, Death Magnetic, sounded nothing like this one).
But this album is amaaaazing. It's so fucked up and loud and angry in a way that metal albums never are supposed to be, including other albums by this band. Metallica made their millions by sticking with the formula of playing thrash metal very fast, singing (well, growling) about nuclear war, addiction, injustice and death, boozing and partying it up in your free time, and repeating this on very long tours across the world.
But what happens when you get tired of all that?
You get St. Anger. A metal album professionally recorded that sounds like it wasn't. Clanging drums and nary a squealing guitar solo to be heard. With lyrics that have more in common with Marcel Proust's ‘Remembrance of Things Past' rather than beating the shit out of somebody. Recorded between bouts of group therapy, the documentary about the making of this album (Some Kind of Monster) got better press than the album.
It breaks the image most fans might have had about Metallica, and heavy metal music itself. Stripped to the bones, it's just pounding guitar riffs over teenage diary emo freakouts. And the band embraced this and was pilloried for it.
Which is supposed to be part of the plan. After all, mainstream society is supposed to hate metal. Even when the genre first starting selling records by the truckload in the early seventies, it was still derided in the mainstream music press. In the eighties it was criticized for helping to destroy a generation of youth. And Metallica was even more menacing and heavier and thrashier than anything that came before.
And eventually they got super-popular doing it. Until early fans thought the Black Album was too commercial, and that Load/Re-Load were cheesy attempts to incorporate nineties alt-rock into their sound, and that the band cut their hair, and then they sued their fans in the Napster debacle. So then of course the very worst thing they could is go to group therapy and then make an album about how sad they are (sample lyric, that could almost come from a Top 40 ballad: 'love is control, I'll die if I let go').
Like therapy and metal, St Anger is soul crushing, repetitive, and goes on too long. James Hetfield sang about insanity, isolation, and addiction on past albums, but now he and his bandmates were confronting these ideas as very wealthy middle-aged men.
Personal regret, mid-life crisis, you've climbed every mountain so now what, I don't want to hear my self-doubting thoughts once the cheering crowds have finally faded away. Time is ticking away, and since metal was never very subtle, Hetfield is actually screaming, 'tick, tick, tick, tock!' on the opening track. It’s an album that managed to miss every single possible target demographic overlap.
St Anger was practically dead on arrival in the summer of 2003, and ensured that Metallica would for the most part be an oldies act from this point out (sorry, guys). But it makes for a good monument for a lot of other music happenings in the early twenty first century. The death of the major record label's industry clout. The death of rock and roll as the forefront of popular music. The death of (or at least herd thinning of) the multi-million dollar band that plays by its own rules. The death of danger and risk in art on a massive, monocultural scale.
So many nails in this coffin.
But at least it fucking stomps and screams. At least it's going out in a blaze (not 'of glory', mind you. Just a blaze). And oh hey, so how did therapy work for you guys?
[the album's closing words are the answer, and it's pretty...metal]
Emily Haines & The Soft Skeleton - Knives Don't Have Your Back (2006)
Connections. We all want to make connections. I want to compare this record to the general recording output to another artist, but I feel it would be a disservice to both Emily Haines and the other person. Emily Haines is just Emily Haines, but she is very busy and is probably better known as a member of Metric and of Broken Social Scene. But in and around those gigs she found time to write some songs for the piano.
And they are lovely songs, my goodness. Maybe she's actually painting perfect portraits of people and their hopes and shattered dreams in higher plane places but in this dimension it comes out as sound.
If the overwhelming frustration of being alive and mostly powerless in the 21st century is a clenched fist barely restrained for Metallica, then it's dangling, feather-light fingers swaying in the air for Emily Haines.
A quiet familial reflection full of...(ready for it?)...mostly waving. A bit of bass, some light horns. The bare bones, hence the 'soft skeleton' as accompaniment.
I picture a series of rooms for the songs on Knives. Small rooms because that's what we have these days but that's okay because they don't need to be big. Lyrics written neatly on lined paper and then taped upon the walls.
Maybe she is there on a chair or loveseat, reading a magazine until you're finished being yourself for the moment, passively observing and already writing lyrics in her head. There's probably a keyboard in one corner or arranged neatly beside a bookshelf to conserve space because you couldn't fit an actual piano in here (although certainly the instrument setting would be to 'baby grand').
Everything is so relaxed and proper. She's whispering, letting the black and white keys scream while her soothing and delicate voice just reassures that everything will ultimately be okay. Given enough time everything falls into place. Even the broken things have a role to play.
On 'Nothing & Nowhere' she tells us that our life isn't insane on paper, and we all should want that paper and get it framed.
MGMT - Oracular Spectacular (2007)
This album is on here for because of how it relates to representation and self-worth in millennials, the music aging relevantly with them in real time. And hey, if you're going to have something that means so much on a socio-cultural level, it may a well have ten 'hit' (intentionally in quotation marks) songs that do it.
This is probably the album of the century for the people who like to have fun and don't devour Pitchfork with a spoon. It's hard to overstate how many people will ultimately recognize Oracular as one of their favourites once it starts playing and one after another catchy, buzzing, pop-filled but still weird songs leaps out of the speakers. Even the single-less second half is set up like the first (never more than twelve bars away from a 'nod you head' moment, all the vocals sound a bit underwater during the verses and on the top of a mountain during the choruses). It feels calculated but it's not. Well not exactly. It's an indie release that caught fire in the all the right places at just the right time. When singles seemed to be the new way for people who don't obsess over vinyl to listen to music, MGMT released the perfect answer. It's setup feels like an album from another time. Ten songs, forty minutes, all of them with radio play potential, just neat and tidy from start to finish.
It's Rumours for millennials. They never even made it to adulthood to experience heartbreak and disappointment. Instead they fell into the soundtrack of party dreams and there was nothing around to wake them up. What was 2007 like? Not much different from 2017, save for how much data your phone had. Still numb to the realization that the millennium will not be the end of poverty nor the beginning of space travel for all the young adults.
The album sold like contemporary entropy through western civilization. Slowly, steadily, almost evenly, selling at least two thousand copies a week for years, guaranteeing it would remain in the Billboard 200 (just as its irrelevance was beginning to show in times of extreme downloading) long after most albums make their rise and fall. The background radiation of a generation that sees thirty on the horizon and can barely comprehend it.
Oracular Spectacular clings to and buoys your hopes in four minute bursts. For these brief moments you can have everything you ever wanted because the music wills it so. A fine consolation prize to a world that can't possibly offer such a future to all of us.
Mos Def - The Ecstatic (2009)
There's a skit on here that's actually amazing. (note: throughout the course of modern music skits or spoken intros and outros have been tolerated but never excitedly sought out)
And it's playful, bizarre, and disquieting. Just like this album.
And no, it's not the opening soundbyte of the 'average man' calling for revolution.
Even in the form of a pilot's message it can at first come off as trite or forgettable. But the helium in the voice picks up, holding your attention as it overlying and underlying gets more and more unstable.
It's disorienting and it's a thrill.
It's (The) Ecstatic.
Socially conscious hip-hop is a tough sell. Pretty much the only group that broke out and got huge was Public Enemy and they needed the lightness of Flavor Flav to balance out the heavy brilliance of Chuck D. Mos Def and Talib Kwali released the classic Black Star in 1998, but it's a tough road to hoe out there if you want to change the world (or at least a couple minds) with a song.
So on this album Def doesn't so much work on this end goal, but instead focuses on what he can control. Making the best damn album you could with the tools at your disposal. And ‘The Ecstatic’ lives up to its name. It’s punchy, fast, deep, with a great mix of disparate genres packed into sixteen tracks and forty five minutes. There’s no time for complacency. Def won’t allow it. ‘Twilite Speedball’ and ‘Dog Bite Hard’ are boogie grooves that would hit singles in the just civilization he seeks. Influences and inspirations fly in from the rest of the world. Middle Eastern influences hover and drip through 'Auditorium' and 'The Embassy'. The two Spanish-tinged tracks hooked up to each other (No Hay Nada Mas, Pistola).
But 'Life in Marvelous Times' is the centre-piece. It's maximalist percussion, synths and horns will be perfected by Kanye on next year's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
Def opens up on looking back, telling us how it wasn't so good in the early eighties, but not that much better now, even if we have so much more. But more of what? Is that what you want, or even need? What about just some Roses’? Wouldn’t that be better? Something simple? Why not appreciate what you have right now? What is the moment, if not a Marvelous time?
And it’s not like the end of the album will give you an answer. Hell, the search has taken Def across several continents and through a couple names. This album is a starting point, not an ending one. The energy is there to push every listener off towards their own destiny, which they choose at every moment in these marvelous times.
What can be done, what should be done.
The search for peace, the search for The Ecstatic.
Wyrd Visions - Half-Eaten Guitar (2009)
Sit by the campfire, son or daughter. Warm your bones on this uncharacteristically cold night.
Pay no mind to the man with the guitar. He's always been here.
Soon he will begin to play, and you will feel warm, at peace, but also a thousand kilometres away. That is the trade you must make. You will hear voices that sing, croon, and speak, but those that provide them will not take physical forms here in this forest clearing. They will float in and out of the ether, because this is hallowed ground, which attracts that sort of thing. A strong, restrained energy, flowing through everything, although you must seek it out. It will never come to you willingly, pleasantly, with its neck or chest exposed.
For certain gains come certain costs.
The pluck of each string is done with care, consideration, a focus that has to hold the entire night together, in tandem with the day. There is magic in this sort of repetition. There is harsh truth, the sense of emptiness, of loss. But also of permanence, of visions, of power.
Small price to pay, certainly. This music is not a haunting. It is a cleansing. It will regenerate over time like the swaying leaves on the trees. It will give you a sense of belonging stretched out across the forest, like every flourish of green is a point in a tapestry, like you're floating over Mount Eerie on a rare clear night.
Liars - Wixiw (2012)
For when things break down.
In fact, I hear they are replacing all fire extinguishers in hospitals with this beautiful, reflective, paranoid, explosive album. It's that important for the right now.
Holding these truths that divide against each other to be self-evident. Backwards and forwards, the title remains the same. Pronounced 'Wish You', and it's that kind of obfuscation the band specializes in, but this time the aural utterance is an outward plea. Incomplete, of course ('wish you...what?'), but the responsibility to finish it falls upon the shoulders of the listener. There is agency here. There is a query regarding your prescribed role (on Brats: 'Maybe I should dance').
Liars' substantial discography is filled with sub and superhuman riffs, beats, and screams. A handful of four-on-the-floor-punk tendencies then a suffocating post-rock crunch not long after, sometimes within the same song.
They seemed to have opened up every other organ for detailed inspection and interrogation except the heart. So of course when they finally do on their sixth album, it's surprisingly fragile and straightforward. They'll never make music that'll burn up the charts, but this one smoulders perfectly in the corner forever and forever, opening and closing with tender delicacies (a 'yes really' acoustic ballad to send us into that good night).
In between that, 'No 1 Against the Rush' bubbles with fresh energy, the title track spirals out and around like a menacing satellite, singer Angus Andrews begs his bandmates Aaron to 'tell him it's a lie' on the sharing kalidescope beats of 'His and Mine Sensations'.
It's all fraught with tension, going back and forth from desire for connection to demand for isolation. The first verse of 'Flood to Flood' ends with 'teach me how to be a person'. The second ends with 'keep me home away from people'. The third: 'I refuse to be a person'.
This is how you break up and move on in the first half of the twenty first century, whether with your partner or a way of life.
Freddie Gibbs and Madlib - Pinata (2014)
Wow, that's a good fucking cover.
Yeah, that's definitely the cover for this goddamn album.
World weary pleasures. A chance to sit down and take in the playground on a summer's day. A simple pleasure for a busy man who's clearly seen a lot of shit.
Gibbs is your tour guide through the tough as nails streets and ghettos, the local cinema spilling out with Blaxploitation film trailers and dialogue clips lovingly slotted in between beats by the one and only Madlib. And the producer's love of all the forgotten sounds of seventies is perfect for Gibbs' 'so lock me up forever, but this shit is everlasting' attitude.
He's Madlib's best partner since Doom. Stuttering funk samples is where Gibbs feels most comfortable, it's up-tempo beats working seamlessly with Gibb's energy (if 2004's Madvillainy had some slower jazz-style samples, it's in part because that's the speed which is perfect for the more relaxed and verbose Doom).
There's a timelessness here, a past that is unfortunately becoming true again, with crime, poverty, and urban squalor remaining a cold reality for millions. Seventies sounds, nineties memories, and today’s feeling that nothing is ever gonna change.
Retro on repeat. A gangsta rap album that feels like it was created both before and after the genre’s heyday. An album unstuck in time.
There’s an anger and edge on some many moments here. Gibbs counts off family members and friends that he’s lost to drugs, violence, and the law. But he carries these mental and physical scars with Herculean power, as if it bring them to light can offer some sort of justice or completion.
And with that in mind, it makes sense that Gibbs seems to recede into the morass for the last third of the album, as guests begin to clog up mic space. He opens the door for other voices, and that means the album changes, he becomes a father figure, looking over rappers who are ten years younger than him.
As Mos Def uses music to bring a more philosophical approach to social change, then Freddie Gibbs is using his skills and his own experiences as a reporter, as a witness, as a strong-willed but cynical participant. Incrimination of the self in hopes that it would both stop and scare imitators.
Just listen, so you’ll never have to touch.
2814 - Birth of a New Day (2015)
This is the antidote you didn't know existed for an ailment you didn't know you had. This is room to breathe. This is how your room breathes. This is the sound of the future.
Right at home in the vastness of space and the multi-cross walked super corners in mega-cities like Tokyo.
Whispers open the album, and then a light piano loop begins, but its sound seems to echo, to radiate outwards, to become less like a traditional musical instrument and more like a beacon, a lighthouse, a glowing point in four dimensional space. And very slowly other instruments join in, are turned into something different that gyrate and pulsates, before receding back into the silence.
But that is by design, and that what makes this form of electronic music substantial, essential, modern/contemporary from this point on. Vaporwave is too self-aware and self-effacing to be properly maligned as knock-off ambient. It is/was designed with failure and broken down-ness in mind. Vektroid's Floral Shoppe (with it's slowed down seventies soul samples and chopped up sound collages) is the blueprint, but Birth of a New Day is the album you'd actually want to live in.
It is the building and falling of sandcastles. Skittering hisses of indivisible grains and rolling waves, never too far in the background. 2814 (a Japanese duo who are involved in several other similar side projects) tried to class the vaporwave joint up a bit, and succeeded too, too much. There is a maturity and patience to the long, drawn out tracks. The eight tracks perfectly flow from one to the next, ready to soundtrack you work day or Pilates class or nightly adventures. This is album is so good it drew in the wider world of electronica, and is ready for the wider world in general.
The sirens. The trains. The artificial bells and lost footsteps.
The sounds of the city.
Even as everything gets too crowded and too damn expensive, the future remains the city. And this album is the city’s pining, wistful, steady heart.
Hey, everybody! Protesting's cool again!
Oh sure, there's always been the fringe elements on both sides of the political spectrum that will stand in front of government offices waving signs and shouting arrhythmic slogans, but having to divert your walking trajectory by thirty degrees was usually all it took to ignore the issue at hand (we shouldn't bomb here, we should bomb there, fund this, de-fund that, etc.).
Now it's whole city blocks. Now it's oodles of required permits and police presence and reporters filming with cell phones and sound system setups so we can all hear the speeches that contain the typical stuff that isn't very surprising because we all know why we're here, right?
In the wake of (un)populist decisions being made by governments (and their wealthy backers, let's just get that out there) across the world (not just America, as there's been huge demonstrations across the globe, and not just because of America), the masses can - as one protester's sign noted - do this every weekend. And this is all great, this is what all the grassroots organizing that those dang hippie egalitarians have always been pushing for (connect first in cyber space, then in real life), this is what change is going to look like going forward in the certainly uncertain twenty-first century.
But you know what hasn't come back around to being cool again?
Oh, there are musicians who are making their political opinions heard, and many of them are playing charity shows or donating a portion of album sales (which aren't much these days, let us remind you) to worthy causes, but writing songs that are addressing and are emblematic of the challenges and fears that confront us going forward? Not so much.
At least not in popular music (which can be tracked better than ever thanks to following streaming numbers and play counts). Writing a protest song risks blowback from fans who disagree, critics who see pandering or schlock, and a half-interested public who want music to be an escape, not a reminder, at how difficult and doom-filled life is becoming. And all these reasons are fair and understandable, since on top of that, the song - in addition to addressing the subject it's tackling - has to be so damn good it's irresistible to the human ear. What's the point of writing protest music if it's got a mediocre melody, and forgettable chorus, which means no one' s going to bother listening to it?
Here's where we write 'it wasn't always this way', and then provide examples of social issues being rought to the forefront of people's minds through medium of music. Let's name drop Bob Dylan and the entire folk movement of the early sixties (your Seegers, your Baez's), the powerful R&B soul music from Sam Cooke and Nina Simone to Marvin Gaye and Sly Stone (What's Goin' On? There's a Riot Goin' On), the calm, reflective militancy of Bob Marley, and all those rock and roll one-offs when the now-rich white dudes decided to pen a song about something other than sex, drugs, and itself.
But bad news: These were exceptions to the rule. That's history re-writing itself. That's boomer nostalgia over-representing their actions and impact. For every song like 'A Change is Gonna Come' and 'Revolution' that climbed the charts and became mainstays in the public consciousness, there were ten 'Respects' and so many other silly love songs. History overlooks the unimportant, and so much of popular culture is inherently unimportant. Woodstock Nation didn't end the Vietnam War. Through the latter half of the twentieth century, protest music was the background of the protest (and unfortunately, in the twenty first, protesting itself seems to be on its way to becoming 'only' background* (this asterisk is big blob of writing and much further down).
All of which sounds like we’re arguing that any reason to seek out or ask for protest music is unnecessary, but that is not the case at all. The shattering of the monoculture (which is much less exciting than it sounds) means that it is impossible to predict what bit of culture can and will go viral, which tweet, gif, soundbite, sign, scene from a Netflix series will suddenly speak for millions and millions of people.
Even if people aren't paying for music, so much of it has never been so easily accessible. It is still a form of entertainment that people seek out, and the ability to put an inspiring message at its centre should never be ignored for those looking to push for any sort of sociopolitical change. Wherever people get their political energy or however they get into their inner protester/activist groove, stoke those embers if it's through a good line and catchy beat.
Protest music is not everything, but it's not nothing, either. And that's important to remember, because even if these sorts of tunes are storming up the charts and blasting out of every earbud is only as frequent as a leap year, it's always being made, ready for somebody to get excited for it.
Case in point: After the Sex Pistols fizzled out and punk grew one hell of a conscience, it's about the same time when the entire movement tumbled off the charts and returned to bars and basements (except for The Clash, but The Clash's brilliance would result in a lot of exceptions of questionable activity permitted for them. From all of Sandinista, to opening for The Who in 1982 on a stadium tour). A DIY aesthetic throughout, rejection of the bourgeoisie middle class, setting up small festivals like 'rock against racism' or playing charity shows in high school gyms. Punk welcomed anyone who felt like they didn't fit in, and that alone made it a form of protest. It was a hippie ethos, with louder and faster guitars.
Similarly, soul and funk from the 70s had an activist edge (James Brown said it loud, Sly got cynical, Harold Melvin asked everybody to wake up), even as most fans would have danced to anything with a disco beat. When that morphed into hip-hop, Public Enemy became the most dangerous band in America talking about oppression, corruption, and racism coming from the powers that be, but their reign it didn't last much longer once NWA's debut dropped.
Protest music comes in and out like platform shoes and travel bans, and sometimes they are just as fashionable and enjoyed as those two items.
Compared to the overly saccharine 1980s, multi-artist charity tracks like 'Do They Know It's Christmas' and 'We Are the World', the Rolling Stones' 1968 banned single 'Street Fighting Man' seems to be a wonderful anomaly. First off, it begins with a killer riff so that even if all the words were gibberish (or were completely absent), it would still be great to listen to. Bruce Springsteen calls the chorus 'What can a poor boy do, but sing for a rock 'n' roll band?' is one of the greatest lines of all time. And there's no particular line that feels outdated (‘my name is called disturbance, I’ll shout and scream, I’ll kill the king and rail at all his servants’), and the musical energy pushes forward all the way to the buzzing sirens in the outro (fun fact: played on a shehnai). It's certainly still got teeth, since Rage Against the Machine covered it in 2000.
That's the year Rage - probably the only band that routinely burns American flags at their shows while scoring a couple number one records - broke up. Now they occasionally play on 'don't call it reunion' shows.
But maybe this year will be different. So far most of it has been novelty tunes (Father John Misty's 'Trump's Private Pilot', and 'Pure Comedy' takes on the dizzying frustrations of the 2016 election and whatever it's aftermath will entail) or tweets, but what's going to work is something with a more lasting, inspiring presence.
Beyoncé - the living museum piece that embodies power, grace, independent, sexuality, and hot sauce - skirted the surface with 'Formation', since the call for getting organized can refer to anything from strengthening worker's rights in unions to planning a neighbourhood BBQ.
Run the Jewels ends their new (amazing) album with the strongest piece of music of the Trump era by far (even if it was written before he even won the election). The first thirteen tracks are the typical high caliber swag and braggadocio (plus some personal reflections), but the two part 'A Letter to the Shareholder : Kill Your Masters' is a good a throw down as they come (Certainly in the vein of Dylan's early poison penned diatribe, 'Masters of War). The track also features Zach de la Rocha, best known as frontman for the aforementioned Rage Against the Machine.
Like revolutions, even protest music can come full circle.
But because things are complicated these days, it's suitable to find some music written by a group of overthinking, over analyzing perfectionists, whose lyricist first worried about social isolation on a personal level, before moving onto social isolation on a global scale, and then global catastrophe outright. Yes, it's...
Radiohead Protest Songs
(Oh, hey look. The site that likes Radiohead a whole lot found another excuse to write about them, and connect them with current sentiments across the globe. Bra-vo. Slow...clap. Slow...clap)
First off, they wrote an album called 'Hail to the Thief', which is probably one of the best politically minded records ever written (and sounds like it was recorded in a bunker), and that's thanks in part to the loose, timeless sort of dread and fear that permeates through the entire thing. As Chuck Klosterman noted, "if you need the words on Hail to the Thief to be political, they certainly have that potential; if you need Hail to the Thief to explain why your girlfriend doesn't love you, it can do that, too." A lot of their songs can serve this function, and that's why it works as protest music for hipster and millennials, who are suspicious of anything to straightforward and earnest, because it usually means someone is trying to sell them something.
'Bring down the government, they don't speak for us.'
Written back when hating on globalization was just starting to be a thing (and 'Electioneering', an earlier track on OK Computer, has a lot more chaotic venom directed pay to play politics). Sung with a tired weariness, as the song itself is much more introspective and regretful than a call to the streets. Took on more expansive meanings in the years at 9/11 and the war on Terror. Seems pretty straightforward at this point.
2+2 = 5
'Are you such a dreamer, to put the world to rights?'
The opening salvo of Hail to the Thief is Orwell encapsulated, and is pretty much a perfect, slow build to manic climax, three and half minute rock song. With the rise of 'alternate facts', we may as well go back to the original, although Yorke adds nightmarish scenarios of January with April showers (thanks, climate change) and delusional crossed-fingers that everything will be okay. And it won't...because...YOU HAVE NOT BEING PAY ATTENTION.
Like Spinning Plates
'While you make pretty speeches, I'm being cut to shreds'.
The dark acid trip version (bereft of a single recognizable instrument) on Amnesiac has Yorke's vocals sing backwards, full of alien fragility, which suggests a higher purpose, ego-husking type death. Live, however, the song becomes a swirling piano ballad, and the words become a plea for sense of recognition from a world that doesn't seem to understand or care what it the consequences are, hidden in plain sight.
'We'll take back what is ours, one day at a time'
Fresh of their latest (2016's A Moon Shaped Pool), it's about as close to straightforward lyrically to a protest song (it was originally titled 'Silent Spring', after the famed environment book), and even it's soft acoustic guitar melody makes it pretty damn accessible. The heavenly strings and back and forth piano makes it a garden full of sonic delights, so even if you come back for the music, the lyrics about how 'the people have this power' will begin to seep in.
'This is really happening'
Cold frantic beats. The synths as alarms, the drums as everything around you exploding in perfect syncopation (For a real treat, watch some of the live performances of this song. They're so good it almost makes the studio version on Kid A a little bit flat). The lyrics are wails of panic that are repeated frequently, angrily, incessantly. Each of them a perfect title for a perfect essay explaining how the hell we got into this mess that is 2017.
* - Protest In the Era of Post-Truth
Money has become a louder voice than ever (thanks, Citizens United!), and while traditional protests can do great things in terms of a sense of togetherness and are reassuring in that you can see that there are thousands of people who share the same ideals and value as yourself, the transition from people standing and chanting into actual policy change is particularly weak.
If the money spent just getting to the protest (or the money lost by not going to work and instead attending the protest) was instead spent on non-profit groups that already push for similar policy changes or actions that the protest supports, that would help the issue/challenge much more in the long run.
In other words, if everyone who attended the Woman's March in Washington (and other cities) protest stayed home and donated $50 to Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, Oxfam or the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (and certainly many people spent much more than $50 travelling there), that would do a lot more good than everyone standing around in a park for an afternoon, listening to speeches we've read/heard elsewhere.
Yes, the media coverage of the event would be beneficial because it helps many more people see that protests are occurring, that there is a peaceful rejection/alternative to major policy changes, and that can inspire more people to join/follow, but that doesn't necessarily translate to policy change in 2017, and it needs to be remembered that this is the goal: Change.
As everything becomes less physical and more digital/ethereal, protesting and activism will follow suit. Thousands of pairs of muddy feet doesn't mean as much as it used to.
This applies to protests that have the 'luxury' of railing against problems that appear to be on the horizon (ex. the policies of President Trump). Protesting in the streets and yes, calling your local congressman or member of parliament, can still be of great importance for much more direct and immediate issues (war, a vote in the halls of power the next day).
Without question, the most powerful tool in the activist playbook (that doesn't include donating money to NGOs or other causes) is getting other people to come out and vote on Election Day. That is how democracy works best, when as many people as possible are making their voices heard at the ballot box.
"They'll never, ever reach the moon,
At least not the one that we're after,
It's floating broken on the open sea (look out my friends),
And it carries no survivor."
-Sing Another Song Boys (1971)
Oh, Leonard. You can't leave us now. There's always been something in the air that was unquestionably your presence, floating in and out of the banality of life and adding some much needed wry, tempestuous wisdom.
And now that's gone.
Certainly we have your songs, your poems, your novels. Certainly the twisting and yearning dark to light and back again emotions that fill us and overflow throughout our lives can find a glorious truth in your well procured words. Certainly the quietly brilliant melodies and inner consciousness rhythms of words will ensure that the hooks and choruses will get stuck in our half-broken heads for generations to come.
But it's not the same.
Oh, Leonard. We're sorry if we ever came off too cold or said the same about you. We weren't sure if you were listening in the room next door, a glass against the wall, but we'll admit now that off all the people who might judge us on our improprieties, you seemed like a even-handed magistrate, having committed several fascinatingly fun sins yourself. Like a fellow Canuck organ grinder said, we don't know what we got 'til it's gone.
Passing away at the beginning of November. With the leaves dying en masse and the nights stretching longer and longer, day by day. You may have tipped your impeccably fashionable hat for good in warm and sunny L.A., but your heart, brain, lungs, spleen, and other essential organs felt eternally very much somewhere else. Canadian winters, a Jewish upbringing, and absorbing cultures from Keats to Hank Williams. Your first three albums are too quiet and inward looking for the brightness of day or the expanse of the outside. A series of secrets between friends who've never met. And even when you pushed a bit further away from mainlining folk, incorporating a fuller rock band sound and orchestral arrangements and dealing with a gun-toting Phil Spector, it was still an overcast afternoon with a biting wind. And then it was the eighties, when the gaps between the music got wider because if there was nothing to say then take the silence, so that when you do open your mouth and offer the world a now-baritone rumble of brooding wisdom and romance, it’s only grade-A meat.
Oh, Leonard. Your manager running away with your money while you were off meditating on a mountain is straight out of a song that you might have discarded three decades ago. But it got you back on the road and you became an inspiration for all those aspiring seventy five year old poets who dream of doing one hundred and fifty theatre shows a year, from Brussels to Melbourne.
In the promotion of You Want It Darker (up there with Blackstar as 2016 albums with somber titles that became all the more sadder once their respective creators passed on not long after its release), you said you were (at 82) ready to die in one interview and that you planned to live forever (or at least 120) in another. Keep us guessing, keep it playful, keep the darkness in plain sight but at bay.
One of the coolest men on the planet has said good night and good luck. A guy who, on the cover of his debut album from 1967 (the year psychedelic rock exploded and bright neon hippie gear was the rage), wore a conservative-style suit and offered up the face of bored bank teller. Who seven years later released a ramshackle live album, with a cover where he's coolly smoking a cigarette, wearing a white t-shirt and jeans, sporting a military-level crew cut. A guy who briefly joined the Church of Scientology because he heard it was a good place to meet women.
A born romantic at the end of the world, which is a mask that's been worn in one way or another since the beginning of time by those hopelessly sideways people who never got too caught up with the doings and happenings of everybody else.
People most likely find out about Leonard Cohen before hearing Leonard Cohen. A joke about depression on a comedy show, a lyrical nod in a song from a genre a light year away from folk (notably 'Pennyroyal Tea'), Ween's album cover for 'The Pod', metal heads who get off on lyrics like 'your skin is the flesh that I wear', people with too many art degrees (more than one typically) who feel that it just can't be Bob Dylan whose lyrics are worthy of analysis, trivia about Canada meant to prove it's not a country full of Mounties, bears, donuts, and geese.
Oh Leonard you ran away from Montreal and into the lap of the world. Walking in London before it began to swing. Getting addicted to pills before it was cool in a tiny cabin of a Greek Island (before that was cool) and writing a semi-comprehensible, post-modern novel about threesomes, native Canadian saints, mental institutions, people being torn apart by dogs, and shooting up holy water (this would be Beautiful Losers, an exhausting masterpiece that continually folds in upon itself). Ending up in New York in the mid sixties, forsaking the hippie enclaves of San Francisco and London for a place that was a bit colder, a bit darker, but therefore a bit more real, a place you couldn't just stick your fingers right through like a fad.
Trying to make it as a singer-songwriter, realizing it's a string of connections with the right people, turning the right people onto you, getting the famous producer of Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Billie Holiday and Pete Seeger to say you got the stuff (this would be John Hammond), and consequently becoming a rock star hilariously late (debut album at 33).
Oh Leonard, you have to help us here. This letter of praise is veering dangerously close to a sad, staid obit that's written by a half-robot whenever a person of note turns sixty five because after that age time is almost certainly not on their side. It's starting to feel like the brick by brick, stages of social media grief is a fire sprinkler system extinguishing any sort of genuine and passionate outpouring of emotion that comes when a beloved figured shuffles off the mortal coil. We have to run quickly into the tiny little tunes of New Skin for the Old Ceremony just to feel better about our current goals. To not necessarily get a clear head, but a head that is excitedly spinning with curiosity and desire. Your words ebb and flow and pour out like a steady river, each syllable and cadence perfectly placed but still a surprise for the fans. The paradox of the listener not knowing how the next line will compliment the preceding one, but knowing it will fit perfectly and that nothing else could have possibly been said once it's heard. Tapping delicately at the rock that hides the words like Michelangelo chipped away the sculpture that was hidden inside the marble slab.
And we have to balance this comparison with the masters with the acknowledgement that while you brought us up so high with noble towers of songs, it came at the cost of showing us a world so low, with scathing pronouns (I, you, we) suffering the brunt. And this dichotomy is too narrow a take, as well. What about the laughs, Mr Cohen, what about the laughs? Not just 'Don't Go Home With Your Hard On', not just eating bananas on album covers, not just proposing a threesome with Iggy Pop and the woman who said she wanted to date a man with the intensity of Pop and the brooding of Cohen.
Instead it's a much more structural, integral laughter. As a device to overcome the deep and profound trials and tribulations of life. Chuckling into the devil's teeth. You finally knock down the wall of despair and there's undoubtedly the endless field of the absurd beyond it that you just have to laugh at. And if you understand and accept that a careless abyss is at the centre of the universe then you may as well be a poet. When reason and facts fail (or fail to lead to the logical, rational conclusion), you don't so much choose the aesthetic as a form of expression as fall screaming into it. A feeling or vibration that rumbles under everything ('and what can I tell you, my brother, my killer, what can I possibly say? I guess that I miss you, I guess I forgive you, I'm glad you stood in my way' - Famous Blue Raincoat).
Even when you were up on Mt Baldy for years and years, there was a something in the fresh and stale air, waiting patiently for all the moody flaneurs walking into alleys half curious and half drunk to stumble across your words and melodies in a near empty bar, a stranger's bedroom, a hole in the wall record store whose owner was feeling like the entire universe was conspiring against him and put on the first side of Songs of Love and Hate to cope.
Oh Leonard you told us you were always falling apart but you never sounded like that was case. A cold, mournful confidence braying about masters, slaves, exhausted hearts and razor blades. A detached, reporter's perspective of your own life breaking into a thousand pieces, each shard to be inspected individually and catalogued with the perfect five or six words to keep it separate from its brethren. That transubstantiation of the idea into word and then back into an idea, as the record player needle, CD player laser, or series of specific ones and zeroes, turns a noise representing a thought you made long ago into a fresh memory for the listener. These common clumps of matter composed into the presentation of an album released and promoted by a record company which sends you out to talk about what you were thinking when that first noise was made into a microphone. Reliving your little bits of past before it's usurped and intermingled with our own experiences as we press play again and again. A sort of magic for one dollar (or $1.29) a hit.
Oh Leonard you made god human and she was all the better for it. Picking over the bible for the lonely and forgotten, transplanting the myths with the Clinton street junkies. Bending time over backwards so we pine for Joan of Arc as we consider crack and anal sex. Conjuring up images of heartbreak on a barren, faceless landscapes and holding hands in a tiny bedroom as the fire pulsates orange in the corner.
Oh Leonard I hope you're comfortable in - as Cobain noted - your, 'afterworld, where [we] can sigh eternally'. Holding court as a smoking shadow that cut a strange and idiosyncratic swath through popular and not-very popular music. Your last few interviews seemed to depict a man at peace with his accomplishments and regrets. A dignified send off at the end, which makes the memories going forward that much warmer, and the hole in the world you've left - while massive - at least bearable.
Oh Leonard, the trees don't get me hard anymore.
Oh Leonard, I'm afraid that all the unhappy accidents will start to get me down now.
Oh Leonard, how can you say goodbye just when your poetic cynicism is coming too, too true?
Oh Leonard, it's always too early to leave the party if you're the finest guest.
Oh Leonard, we can't take Manhattan without you.
Oh, Leonard, the sheets never felt so cold.
Oh Leonard, we'll get by eventually as we always seem to do, but let us laugh and cry and laugh about it all again.
“[entirety of ‘Who By Fire’]”
-Who By Fire (1971)
Thirty five years after Elvis Presley (who loved the teen girls right into his forties) shocked America by slow-grinding to 'Hound Dog' on TV and broke rock and roll into the mainstream, Kurt Cobain (who loved the heroin right up until he shot himself in the head) mumbled his way through 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' on a high-school gym-like film set and got the kids ga-ga over grunge.
Thirty four years after Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five released the seminal, trenchant, and other music critic words, hip-hop single 'The Message', Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, Drake, and Danny Brown released four screwy, silly, spasmatic, sloppy, stumbling, super dense, and psychotic albums. This is the grunging of hip-hop.
[People like events linked up one after the other, with the implication that the first event caused the second, and it's all just a neat proper set of dominos falling into each other right up to the present moment. It's never this simple when it comes to great moments in world history, and it's rarely this simple when it comes to much less important events in history, like rock and roll music compared to hip hop music. These are the words of warning. Take heed.]
[Take heed redux: New names for genres can easily be an eye-rolling pain in the ass. 'Grunge-hop' is a pretty annoying term, but brevity is king, and that definition trumps 'grunge-influenced hip hop', and will be used throughout]
The easily recognizable story arc of a musical genre is dependent on a lot of things, but in the heavily commodified world of popular music, it's most dependent on people forking over money on it. Rock and roll (aka, Keith Richards) has been the dominant musical type of the second half of the 20th century, and its rise, sustainment, and fall has been well documented. Hip-hop crossed into 21st century being the number one contender and since then has thrashed guitar-based three and four chord music soundly in terms of sales and cultural impact upon the youth (which is what is most disheartening to hardcore rock fans. It was always supposed to be the energetic music of the youth, and that's gone now. And in 2016 the biggest rock news is that a bunch of seventy year olds were playing their greatest hits in a desert, at a festival nicknamed 'Oldchella').
But this change-up of popularity makes sense. Rock could only re-invent itself so many times. Hell, even hip hop can be broken up into smaller genres and movements. In fact, let's compare the two right now, their years side by side:
The birthing pangs (1955-1963 and 1982 to 1989), the explosion of mainstream dominance and first experimentation (1964-1972 and 1990 to 1999), the bloated, overboard period and underground rebirth (1973-1980 and 1999-2004), the shiny over the top rebound (1980-1990 and 2004-2014), and the grungy, weirdo response to the shiny (1991-1996 and 2015-present day).
'Smells Like Teen Spirit' smashed the music world in the face in the fall of 1991 (it was 25 years ago...that Kurt Cobain hit a bouncer in the head with his guitar in Texas and almost caused a riot), forcing grunge into the TV and CD players of the day, and here in 2016 hip-hop is unquestionably the music of the same demographic (sans TV and CD players). Youth angst and alienation is always worth something in the marketplace, even when practically everyone has a way of getting all their music today for almost zero dollars.
Typically once the large-scale corporate media declares that 'the next big thing' is here, its initial creators are calling the whole movement over (see: hippies. By the time newspapers jumped on board with Woodstock, everyone who had taken part in 1967's summer of love were realizing that any sort of society based on LSD-drenched peace and love was just a pipe dream). Sometimes it's very hard to tell the difference between authenticity and the appearance of authenticity. Punk rock in the late seventies was all the rage in the UK, but its 'three chord, fuck the man' attitude never really spread across the rest of the world in a big way until it was grunge, fifteen years later. And it didn't take long for that to get watered down and the accusations of 'sell out' began flying all over Seattle.
Rock spooked the establishment but made money, and when it started to get a bit stale, new genres within it were able to piss off and then annoy the establishment (and still make money). Hip-hop did (and is doing) the same thing right now.
Grunge seemed to be all about sloppiness, indifference, mumbling, middle fingers, and noise. It's not that far off the mark, really. Generation X was supposed to reject the baby boomers that came before them. A level of cynicism towards the American Dream of 9 to 5 in an office to earn a house, a spouse, a kid, a pension and then die. And this attitude was fuelled by a simmering underground of punk and electronic music that reached colleges before it reached MTV.
Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic famously stated after his band went to number one: "we don't try very hard, but from now on we're going to try a whole lot less."
To be glib, hope was replaced with dope.
Grunge fashion is back, too. Check out the styles from West's 'Yeezy Season 4' (CHECK) fashion show at Madison Square Garden, which doubled as the debut listening party for 'The Life of Pablo'. Pale, earthy colours, thin fabrics with uneven hemming and stitching. It's like heroin chic, but costing three times as much.
So now it's hip-hop's time to run with the big music change up. Everyone's kind of getting tired of ripping off 2005-2010 Kayne West (including, first and foremost, Kanye West). It's mid-life crisis is on the horizon (only a few more years before the big four-oh), and with music sales sliding because no one makes much more than a dime off streaming, there are less gold chains to go around than ever before. Paranoia and worries about internal and external pressures. Your own life and the lives of all the people around you. News that seems to remind you that things are getting more chaotic every day (regardless whether it's true or not). Sweet soul samples aren't necessarily the right melodies and rhythms now. Sometimes with all this...angst...you need some sonic templates that are a wee bit stronger.
And there were clear signs that it was going this way.
Plenty of artists on the comparatively underground side of things were making this sort of music for years. Madlib can be considered the Steve Albini of hip hop. Releasing critically acclaimed weirdo rap and jazz albums with alter-ego after alter ego (Quasimoto, Lord Quas, Yesterday's New Quintet) that never sold well, and eventually became better known for his tireless producing skills (working with Kanye, Erykah Badu, Talib Kweli, and, of course, the mighty and magnificent DOOM on their 2004 collaboration album, Madvillainy, which is so good that all superlatives have been exhausted, all praises have been frozen in stone, and all blunt fired up in its honour cannot be re-lit).
Death Grips may as well be the Sonic Youth of 'grunge-hop' (ugh, I throw up in my mouth a little with that term). Abrasive, prolific, confrontational, and slightly dickish, they blazed a path that only truly weird people would have interest in stomping along, but they influenced many. Their first single from their 2011 mixtape is 'Guillotine', and the song - coupled with the video of frontman MC Ride freaking out in a car - is a pretty good summation of hyper-aggro weirdness that many other artists will pilfer and water down in the coming years.
It might be a drum machine, it might be drummer extraordinaire Zach Hill. And sometimes they replace cold synths with broken glass and screaming. They'll break up, re-group, not show up for shows, make a whole album around Bjork wailing into a microphone, and put a band member's penis on an album cover,
Can't get more grungy than that. They even brought in one of those electric guitar things for their 2015 album, ‘Jenny Death’, to very loud and crunchy effect.
And then there's ‘Yeezus’.
Forty minutes of burning bridges, and not just thematically. Compared to what West gave us before (even considering 808 and Heartbreak) ‘Yeezus’ - with its screaming, its fluttering feedback from the first second and sharp sample cuts to the last, its dips in and out of auto-tune, and lyrics that shoot to kill (including Kanye himself) - is the sound of burning bridges.
Three years later it's lost some its power and complete shock and surprise as the follow-up album to Watch The Throne/My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, but it makes up for that by being a record that gets better with age.
A disorienting listen that looks inward and outward, and 2016 is no more reassuring and peaceful as 2013. It was torn to pieces only weeks before its scheduled release date, and was taped back together with help from Rick Rubin. Yeezus has more in common with In Utero (also recorded in only a couple weeks) than any other big name rap album of recent memory.
2016 is the 1992 of 'grunge hop'. It's exploded, the big names can't help but absorb the sounds and influences that have been bubbling under the surface for years, and us fans are all just picking up the pieces with our ear-buds.
'The Life of Pablo' continues West's obsession with slicing up beats with several different producers, alienating his fan base with hooks that flash in and out like airplane lights, and admitting that he's a 'thirty eight year old eight year old' who is still looking for 'real friends'. Life is great until it's not. God is looking out for me so why do I still fantasize about fucking random women at social events?
Kanye has always been pushing for new sound and new styles, so maybe the best comparison for the artist(s) that made the leap from being huge in the 80s to remaining alt-rock darlings during the grunge wave would be U2 (who after having massive hits through the 80s, scored big with the electronica influenced ‘Achtung Baby’, which also came out 1991). Just as Kanye was huge in the comparable 'over the top' period of the second half of the oughts, he was able to re-invent his sound with ‘Yeezus’ and continue with ‘Pablo’, bringing Mdlib himself onboard for production of one of the album's standouts, 'No More Parties in LA'.
The first standout is the first track, 'Ultralight Beam', which is so good it's almost inevitable that the rest of the album couldn't measure up. It's probably for the best. If the album was fifty five minutes of UB-quality, the listeners' heads might simply explode.
It was almost three years since ‘Yeezus’, and everyone was in quite the froth for the first six weeks of 2016, waiting for Kanye's big followup, and in grand tradition, he switched the title around, delayed it several times, and only made it available on a single streaming service (Cobain wanted to release In Utero on vinyl and 8-track (in 1993!) weeks before it would be available on CD).
But that wasn't the only big name drought that was supposed to end this year. Sure, Drake gave us a not-free mixtape in 2015, but the followup to 2013's 'Nothing Was the Same' was ‘Views’, which was, well, pretty much the same, if you somehow vaped a shitload of heroin. Drake gives us a big puddle of slow sad. A long puddle of slow sad. Eighty minutes of mid-tempo laments, with five woe-is-me lyrics for every one I'm-so-great. What West typically says in three or four lines about how success doesn't necessarily make you better or happier, Drake stretches and stretches this idea to such a repetitive extreme that a numbness descends. And since ‘Views’ broke the streaming records that were broken only a few months previous with ‘Pablo’, apparently most people are totally fine with this stratospheric stupor. We're all having 'fun' listening to Drake tell us that it's good but not great, and that he doesn't know what to do next (and he's already wearing the grunge flannel).
‘Views' success was by no means surprising. Nothing is surprising about Drake. He's the Teflon don of the game. And this must be slightly disappointing to Drake.
If the album flopped, he could at least be sad about that, and then have a reason/the drive to do better and/or change on the next one. But instead he's stuck with being the biggest name in the game.
The best, however, is reserved for Kendrick Lamar.
His album of leftovers/afterthoughts, 'untitled, unmastered', is still the best lyrical performance of the year. This doesn't make it the best album of the year, however. Grunge was never about virtuoso performances, but rather the attitude and energy put into the performance. Which is not to say that Kendrick doesn't pour his honest heart and powerful soul into these songs. Untethered from the expectation and (heavy, reflective) fulfillment of ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’, ‘untitled, unmastered’ can instead focus on the exercises and techniques of not only the skills of the MC, but the skills of the producer(s) as well. In that sense, the title does instill a sense of expectation: raw and unpolished. Names of the beats and accompanying lyrical performances are non-existent. No preconceived notions of choruses or themes. Just flexing the muscle, crushing the rhythms, prowling around the room with a smoke-filled party above and below. And his words are panicked, desperate, drunken, full of an entire cast of characters. It's supposed to not be 'Pimp a Butterfly', and it succeeds wildly at being that. It's the cynical, after-morning hangover of Pimp's party/protest.
Which is what Lamar has earned. Who always wants the role of making the grandest, most-well crafted statements? Let the man relax and get his Incesticide on the year after he released his Nevermind.
And finally, onto the pumping heart of this entire 'grunge hop' thesis. Danny Brown is the wild card. An easy role, since he sounds like the wild card. His new album 'Atrocity Exhibition' takes its name from a Joy Division song (and a harrowing JG Ballard book) and the first track is named after Nine Inch Nail's biggest album, 'The Downward Spiral' (although FYI: the best NIN album is ‘The Fragile’). Brown's manic, nasal, cackle of a voice is immediately off-putting to some, and a powerful tool of captivating disorientation for many others.
It's alien and otherworldly, even if he is simply blending very familiar tropes of gangster rap and modern R&B. Half Freddie Gibbs and half The Weeknd plus a bonus dollop of shittiness (his opening anecdote is about getting soft during a threesome).
‘Atrocity Exhibition’ works so well because the music compliments Brown's bizarre vocals and presence perfectly. Sirens and garbage can cymbals as percussive beats, even as the chorus of 'Pneumonia' is a hooky as you can possibly get. The havoc-filled horns and synths on 'Ain't It Funny', as he asks eagerly and half drunk ('ain it? AIN'T IT?'). The music is spiraling 'round and 'round as he declares that rehab is for pussies. It's high energy and still sloppy. 'When it Rain' is all glitchy Aphex Twin (who was pumping out his first notable EPs during the rise of grunge) with one of the best mic performances of the year. Even when it's something you can dance to (Really Doe (featuring that Kendrick Lamar guy), Dance in the Water), it's more a speed-fuelled rave than a traditional four-on-the-floor beat.
The tracks are short. As soon as you get caught in getting into the rhythms, it switches up. Comfort is not the fallback here. You're going to be on edge the whole time, waiting for another drink, another smoke, another line, a text or phone call from the person you've been waiting to hear from all day and all night. It’s easily the album of the year if you’re never sure what’s going to happen the morning after.
[And what of Danny Brown's anti-matter duplicate, Chance the Rapper? A study of contrasts, certainly, starting with album titles: Atrocity Exhibition vs. Coloring Book (what would you rather look at? Your answer probably says a lot about you, including what album you'd rather listen to). Chance has guest stars on twelve of fourteen tracks, Brown has four on fifteen. Chance has the best-sounding church social you can ever imagine, Brown is what you and your buddies listen to as you speed away from one earth shattering party to an alley to throw up in at four in the morning]
And these are just tips of the grunge-hop iceberg: The top talents of 2016 going weird (and they all might be outshone if Run the Jewels drop their third album before the end of December). For further education, the entire Odd-Future collective can be seen as the hip hop equivalent of Ween, the Butthole Surfers, and Primus all splattered against the wall with buckshot.
So yeah, grunge-hop is a lousy term, but labels have always been the bane of ever-evolving musical genres. 'Alternative' was a catch-all term for music that wasn't exactly cracking the Top 40, until thanks to grunge, 'alternative' (which included grunge) broke through and became the Top 40. At which point a lot of its snarling, anti-established edge was shaved off and 'alternative' became a meaningless phrase that vaguely meant the use of guitars in your music.
We're at a similar point in rap, where albums by Death Grips, Kanye West, Danny Brown have all been classified as 'experimental hip-hop', which is a category just as meaningless as 'alternative rock'. But who cares about labels these days? As grunge tried to suggest, if you’ve got the music down, then just DIY.
What do you do?
Yes you, the listener. Yes you, the creator. Yes you, the glancing passerby, noticing a relationship between the first two parties.
It gets warped over the years. Slowly. Like a wooden kitchen table. Sturdy, dependable, and that means ultimately you take it for granted. You assume it will always be there, always functioning as intended.
The creator represents X. The listener is Y. Z is most certainly the relationship between the two. And these are variables, but you've forgotten that and assumed that they were constants. Human frailties. Makes you who you are.
And now you're at phases and stages in your life where it feels like it's time to make decisions about the future. Which came faster than you anticipated.
There is no way around this.
There is no time to delay it any further.
I am not sorry.
You have to look at your priorities. At what you have. At what you lost. At what you can salvage among the ruins that still have to be yours because no one wants them anyway.
We all have to do this a few times in our lives, whether we play piano or type away on a keyboard.
We all have to get better as we get worse.
We all have to give more than we're getting.
We all have to make sacrifices.
We all have to fall into A Moon Shaped Pool.
EVERYTHING BUT THE MUSIC
Five years (cue the Bowie).
The King of Limbs (album number eight) came out in February 2011. A slow, infrequent promo trip and some bonus singles came out over the rest of the year, and in 2012 they toured behind it.
And then they disappeared into the murk. 'They' being the band as a whole. The parts of the sum kept themselves busy with solo albums (some super heavy into the blips and beeps, some super heavy into the singer-songwriter), movie scores, being good family men, occasionally taking part in some sort of climate change/social justice protest.
Fans and media asking questions when they pop their heads out to promote some of the above, never giving a concrete or definitive answer about when the next album will be delivered into our (computer's) hands.
But buzz is buzz and time is time and ultimately there are Instagram shots from artistic cohorts and violinists who are doing sessions with the band, suggesting that they've been recording. A woman breaking a non-disclosure agreement and announcing that Paul Thomas Anderson shot part of a video for the band in her house.
And on the last day of April, the band that set up their own website the mid nineties and famously 'leaked' their seventh album themselves with a pay what you want setup, sent out some postcards in the mail to online fan club members. 'Burn the Witch' it read (a song that had been kicking around since the Kid A recording sessions), along with 'we know where you live' (ominous, until you realized they mailed it out, so of course they know the address). Snail mail. A person placing paper at your door. A method of communication that is becoming more and more obsolete by the year. Certainly not very 2016.
And a few days later the band's accounts of 'very 2016' platforms of Instagram and Facebook begin deleting its older content. And over several hours the band's website faded to white. A disappearing act. The band, as far as they were concerned, did not exist on the World Wide Web. Which means everyone else on the web who even had an inkling of familiarity with the band would comment on it. Even if the speculation couldn't possibly add up to anything more concrete than, 'well, maybe something will happen now'.
(After years of waiting, something changed)
Dawn Chorus, May 1st, Witches' Day.
(It all makes sense! Wait, does it? Should it? Stanley instagrammed a photo of a red moon way back in January then quickly deleted it. Was that supposed to be the easy hint? The no hint? The hint only in retrospect? It's all just buzz, right? And if your fan base is rabid and fidgety with a bit of time on their hands to speculate and complain and drool, why not throw some maybe morsels in their general direction?)
And then a bird chirping.
The uptempo story video.
The downtempo mysterious but visually stunning video.
Your politics (are the villagers getting even with the snooping bureaucratic? Is the sensible bureaucratic being burned as a sacrifice by the loonies?) and then your personal (Thom Yorke is looking for something in room after room, mouths along to only a couple lines, finds his place in a mountain cave and speaks backwards in front of a campfire).
And then on Sunday, May 8th, at 7pm BST, the website changed and you could plunk down some money and buy 'A Moon Shaped Pool'.
This was a synopsis. A rather flat emotionless story. About the band releasing a new album that people had been waiting five years for.
But these things matter. This is how we inhale/absorb/experience these events. With a narrative leading up to the so-called payoff. How did we get here? Who cares if it doesn't involve car chases and intrigue? With hype bubbling over and click-bait lining pockets, you need to stoke the fires with something, anything related to the breathless anticipation for the moment when you can finally listen to the new album.
And maybe this is the paragraph where we try to say why this narrative is all super-important because this band is 'that band'. And even if its members are able to not drag that label into the studio with them and let it sit hunched over like a expectant and demanding vulture, fans and critics can't help but embrace, fondle and fuck the hell out of the idea of 'that band' (and for many, the label 'their band' might be more accurate). And the band with this twenty five year history, with past successes and accolades and artsy-fartsy weirdness that makes any music nerd drool with puzzles to solve and influences to unpack, who cannot make music that is separate from their past.
Paul McCartney can't make new music without it being compared to his Beatle output, and those fifty year old songs are ingrained into listener's heads in such a way that anything made after it (including his Wings stuff) would almost certainly not measure up in the ears of fans and critics, even if the songwriting was of the same caliber. Music and memories harden into indomitable nostalgia. Critics are able to rewrite the 'story' of the band (album y was a bit of a misstep, but they came back strong with album X), which can alter new listener's perspective of the artist.
And this band (which is also 'that band') has the added burden of stylistic advances and left turns with every album. An incredible string of awesomeness that raises the bar for every successive release (to the point where some reviews of 2007's In Rainbows pleasantly opined that the band was tired of trying to do this an instead was focusing on just amazing songwriting). A one hit wonder band that became anything but by touring like maniacs in the mid nineties and always pushing themselves in the studio and taking everything almost too seriously.
And that's just the band. Five guys from Oxford who you've never met.
[compared to most big-name artists, the band is a fairly insular group. The same producer since The Bends' b-sides (Nigel Godrich), and their idea of guest artists are an eighty year old trumpeter (Humphrey Lyttelton and Portishead's percussionist (Clive Deamer). Meanwhile, Kanye and Taylor are essentially musical directors that bring in the most talented songwriters and producers together into a ten-writers-per-song clusterfuck]
What the songs mean to you is another massive slab of matter entirely. You can slot in where you worked, who you dated/broke up with/married, where you were, and what amazing/terrible things you did, in and around their discography.
And because they are a platinum selling, festival headlining band, you're not the only one whose hearts and minds they've turned to putty. Not a band for any particular generation, but one that floats like a massive, pulsating hyper-aware brain covered in glue, picking up a host of people - young and old - who are drawn in and suddenly hopelessly stuck to its melodic and manic nodes.
They're 'that band'.
A Moon Shaped Pool is pretty much perfect, said with an emotionally exhausted shrug.
Folk meets orchestra, with Yorke's still powerful warble dancing atop the melodies. Jonny Greenwood playing the conducting wand more often than guitar, Ed O'Brien carefully filling gaps with his own six string flourishes, and Phil and Colin providing a carefully arranged rhythmic engine.
And is that it? Need we say more? Is adding anything more to the review just going to ruin the experience for you? Should we assume that if you're even reading this you don't need to be convinced to listen to A Moon Shaped Pool, that you've probably already listened to the album several times and just want to see if we say something particularly illuminating and agreeable to you?
Want a one line gonzo review? How about 'Deranged adult contemporary'? And if you want a one line professorial dry as a desert review, it's 'a mature and reflective framing of wistful timelessness'. How about 'wiser about loss because there's more string sections'?
What does that even mean? Reviews that run out of ideas after talking about the music start to tell a story about anything even slightly related to the music (see section above). So instead let's mention the return of warm acoustic guitars, leading the way on Desert Island Disk and Present Tense (which is a sweet as British candy track, bouncing along like a joyful ghost, with more and more restrained and swirling guitars added as it goes along). We can giggle over the fact that Identikit is a four and a half minute monster, with half a dozen musical ideas crammed into it (a glitchy beat, a choir singing the weirdo chorus, a loopy outro guitar solo). Why not be enthralled by the piano on 'The Numbers', dancing maniacally all over the front and back and side to side.
And then there's Glass Eyes.
The tiny three minute masterpiece right in the middle. Greenwood's string brilliance easing in uneasily as Yorke tiredly recites the monotony of rail travel into a cell phone. And even that description makes it sound more experimental than it is. The band makes music that is available for unpacking if the listener so chooses. Or they can leave it at 'wow, what a nice song'. This band consistently keeps both options available (they are the Schrödinger's cat of music).
It's a headphones album, but that's how a lot of us are listening to music that means so much to us these days.
A private experience even on a busy street. But because the experiences and emotions described on the album are universal because they don't pinpoint, it's a multi-layered, shared experience. A Moon Shaped Pool is 'about' endings, new beginnings, salvaging what you have.
But songs on every one of their albums - thanks to Yorke's oblique lyrics - can be said to focus on these themes. As Klosterman noted about their 2003 album: 'If you need the words on Hail to the Thief to be political, they certainly have that potential. If you need Hail to the Thief to explain why your girlfriend doesn't love you, it can do that, too.'
'With you, I'm lost', Yorke warbles in 'The Present Tense', sounding helpless and resigned, but maybe a little be relieved. At lease you're 'with' someone in some fashion (take what you can get?). 'Burn the Witch' is the lead single by default (uptempo but not the kraut-rock freakout that is 'Ful Stop'), and we get the best slogans 1984 can buy over leaping strings.
The tracklisting is alphabetical, which might not be so much of a statement than a way for band members to not argue over the running order (in the past they have almost broken up over this process). Another things for obsessed fans to argue over (why do it that way? Are they encouraging us to make our own track-listings? Maybe take off 'True Love Waits' as the final because we already got it as a lovely closer on 'I Might Be Wrong', the 'mini' live album, and one thing we don't like seeing this band do is redundancy).
And there are other tracks, and they are all great ('Daydreaming' might be their best piano ballad since 'Pyramid Song'), which sounds so offhand and flippant, but that's how easy it is for these guys to toss off brilliant songs. That's why The King of Limbs was so druggy and disjointed. They didn't want to repeat the method that worked so well with In Rainbows.
So A Moon Shaped Pool is not a repeat of TKOL. Bringing back melodic 'live' song production, yes, plus the most amount of orchestra the band's ever had on one release (so let's bring our hands together for the London Contemporary Orchestra).
Are you not entertained?
Does it just have to be better than the last one?
It's their third record of their third phase.
First phase: Construction
Second phase: De-Construction
Third phase: Renovation
Yeah, there's not many bands out there that get their discography analyzed like ice core samples, and that means you can get some pretty finicky and obsessive fans, but it also means you have a reliable base of people plunking down hard earned cash for special edition vinyl and concert tickets.
And it's easy to go off on tangents with this band. A quick comment about their previous album can unleash a volley of opinions like a dam just burst, re-contextualizing it in the now changed, A Moon Shaped Pool-existing present.
Hey, that's what the following square brackets are for!
[So In Rainbows was their most accessible since OK Computer (hell, maybe since The Bends), and TKOL was when they again climbed up into the treehouse and pulled the ladder up after them, leaving us to try and climb up the branches to figure out what was going on (2 points for the album reference).
They released two singles, both of which are arguable better than any single song on Limbs (that would be the piano-ballad-into-headbanger 'The Daily Mail', and best space-docking-sequence-music-since-Blue-Danube, 'Supercollider'), but still would not have fit on the record for a myriad of different reasons.
TKOL was a murky, electronic exploration of natural themes. A swamp or marsh, quiet, shadowy lakes (meanwhile, AMSP is the opposite, with plenty of live instrumentation with a soaring, sky-like lightness to it, lending further credence to the Radiohead creed: Don't repeat yourself).
Some of the consensus about Pool is that it's an album fans and critics were afraid they didn't have in them anymore, the punchline being: 'a good one'. Which is a dig at The King of Limbs but really it's one of the best relaxed, nature-focused psychedelic albums ever made, great for weed and hallucinogens. Laid back, but still quirky and strange (almost like Animal Collective's whole discography condensed into one album (Bloom is the glitchy electronica side of Merryweather Post, Magpie is bubbling energy of Feels, Little by Little is the acoustic-ness of Sung Tongs, Feral is Here Comes the Indian's freak out, Lotus Flower is the poppy electronica side of MPP, Codex is the haunting beauty of Spirit They've Gone, Give Up the Ghost is Campfire Songs, Separator is the glossy weirdness of Strawberry Jam)).]
A Moon Shaped Pool ends with 'True Love Waits', it's either the sensible end to eleven songs arranged alphabetically, or a massive, throbbing sign that must be unpacked at all costs. Why revisit this twenty year old track? Especially one that's been released already?
[More square brackets fun: They're also probably the only band who have unreleased songs that could, at various points of their career, be considered some of their best. 'Lift' was worked on through 1996 (sandwiched between The Bends and OK Computer, with one foot in each), with the best known version being professionally recorded at their Pukkelpop festival performance. 'Big Boots' was the first attempt at a James Bond theme (and a lot more dread filled panic than last year’s ‘Spectre’). 'I Froze Up' is a piano tune with lyrics about how 'you're the cream in my airport coffee']
The album's music is the band at it's most mature. No real fuzz rock bangers, as 'Ful Stop' is a very focused sort of kinetic energy. Certainly no 'Electioneering', 'National Anthem', or 'Bodysnatchers' here. But these guys don't do stale or stately. There's always a worm in the apple, but that's probably what makes their music irresistible, why people put it under a microscope it and make it emotional tentpoles for moments in their life. It's weirdness for everyone, and very reassuring at that.
O O O O THAT SHAKESPEHERIAN RAG
And so you live your wee little life and the longer it goes the loops of routine seem more routine and memories of the present blur together and memories of that past when things were fresh and different more often seem to fade away entirely.
But throughout all this you reach for glory, warmth, and beauty. You want to be reassured that you make a difference. You want to feel the good kind of different, a peacefulness earned, or even simply a peacefulness discovered. You want the screwing around to diminish, or at the very least, ultimately mean something.
You'd like 52 1/2 minutes of music to get right to the heart of being this man, this woman, this person, at this age at this time, in this little corner of a green-brown-blue rock shooting through space.
Sometimes it's too much to ask.
Sometimes it doesn't matter how often the writer over-waxes poetically about a band's long-awaited ninth album.
Sometimes you just need to take a moment to take a moment in.
That's when it's time to take a dip in A Moon Shaped Pool.
A Moon Shaped Life of Pablo
Kanye West will take a quiet life, with handshakes and carbon monoxide.
Radiohead, meanwhile, is on an ultra-light beam.
The two most influential artists of the last twenty five years that can still headline festivals across the globe (that's a fairly important caveat, I'd say) have released brand new albums within three months of each other.
A study of promotional contrasts. Kanye has been teasing a release throughout 2015 (dripping tracks, tweets, and clothing lines), and then there was the chaotic, yes, no, maybe, no, probably, here it is (kind of), no really now here it is release of 'The Life of Pablo'.
Meanwhile Radiohead has worked in near silence save for a Christmas Day Bond theme song classic that wasn't used because...[unknown. Maybe because of the band's refusal to participate in cornball promotional activities, which they swore off after OK Computer].
And what's a music article without a crazy theory:
Life of Pablo. Radiohead's first album is called 'Pablo Honey'.
Is Kanye's album secretly the autobiographical life of Radiohead (or more specifically, Thom Yorke)? The acknowledgement of the challenge of being the biggest and most important artist in the world, and balancing that with your personal life and viewpoints? Which means it's always teetering on total collapse.
No, it isn't.
[Wait, did Kanye ever even meet Thom? Yup. Well, kind of. At the 2009 Grammys. Backstage.
Kanye said, 'I'm an artist, too'. Thom (walking away), 'yes, I've heard of you'. Kanye not pleased at the perceived snub. Complains about it on VH1 Storytellers]
But let's screw around.
First three songs are about growing up in Oxford. A child's voice opening the album, trying to mimic their parent's values. Asking for help, for understanding, an ability to grow and get better. Meanwhile both parts of 'Father Stretch My Hands' are the more selfish and silly sides of growing up. Apologizing for breaking rules, for trying to understand women (but he's a creep!). And then it's all a blur. Parents' job losses, divorces, everything getting messed up, not achieving your goals. Chaotic, with Panda samples and robot voices (In university Yorke DJ'ed and was part of an experimental group (Mushroom Cloud) when he was't working with Radiohead).
Famous is about getting famous, and how everything changes. Everyone wants your freshness and swagger. It's when 'Creep' broke in 1993, making Pablo Honey a platinum seller.
Feedback is what you get after you're famous, even if you don't want any of it. You got the money ('the paper'), trying not to sell out, people gunning for you. Saying the wrong things in public as the ego and self-doubt grows in tandem (Yorke describes himself as becoming an unbearable person around this time, doing jean adverts and cutting his hair in public).
Lowlights is needing to buck up after being written off as a one hit wonder.
Highlights is achieving this with The Bends and OK Computer.
'Freestyle 4' is the post-OK Computer critical worship and subsequent breakdown.
'I Love Kanye' is about people missing the old Kanye West. Substitute how some original felt about Radiohead after the band went 'weird' with Kid A.
'Waves' and 'FML' is about the reaction of Kid A and Amnesiac (wondering if they 'fucked their life up').
Real Friends and Wolves are tender songs about loneliness and isolation. The band after Hail to the Thief, taking a long break and no longer having a record company above them.
Long break is also 'Silver Surfer Intermission'.
'30 Hours' and 'No More Parties in LA' is In Rainbows. Just as these two tracks are returns to form for West (melodic beats, samples, an upbeat rap-happy Kanye), In Rainbows was the same for Radiohead.
Facts and Fade takes us up through the present. Facts is slight navel gazing, which is a criticism levied against The King of Limbs. The legend is solidified with the latter, a crazy funk beat about walking into the sunset on top, at your best.
Possible? Possible. But really? Nah…unless 2+2=5...
After Ziggy it was Halloween Jack, but save for the orange hair and the eye-patch, no one remembers that guy (it was for the Diamond Dogs album. He had that look on the cover, but everyone seems to remember the back cover more, since his lounging body morphs into the lower half of dog with a rather large dick. Diamond Dogs was supposed to be much more of a concept album (like Ziggy), taking place in some sort of 1984-like dystopia, but the Orwell estate wouldn't sign off on the play he wanted to write about it in great detail, so the album's only got a vague Big Brotherly feel running throughout. It's got his most covered song, 'Rebel, Rebel', which underscores the point that if you got a killer riff and a catchy chorus, it doesn't matter if you place it in a weirdo art-glam rock clusterfuck of hideous nightmare lyrics, people will find it and never let you down).
David Bowie passed on last weekend, a couple days after the release of his twenty-fifth album, Blackstar, a twisted, dark electro-jazz record preoccupied with sin and death and loss.
And here's where I ply you with powerful and inspiring statements about Bowie's natural talent (his voice, his multi-instrument prowess, his ability to craft a tune), his chameleon (the $10 word in all the obits)-like persona (creating different characters for certain albums and tours, like an actor (he credited himself as 'The Actor' when he produced his own material), from 'Ziggy' to the 'Thin White Duke' (and I prefer the latter to the much better known former, but probably because I like Station to Station a lot more than Spiders from Mars), his fashion and art sense (which ranged from eternally cool to temporarily insane), his restless experimentation by infusing pop with whatever other sort of musical influence he absorbed by cerebral osmosis (folk, glam, soul, R&B, kraut-rock, electronica (70s), new wave, grunge, industrial, electronica (90s), etc.), and his productions and collaborations with many other greater and lesser known artists which ultimately benefited the both of them (Lou Reed, Iggy Pop (in 1972 he released Ziggy, toured extensively behind it, and produced career-defining records by Reed and Pop. How's that for twelve fucking months?), Brian Eno, Trent Reznor, John Lennon, Queen, Mick Jagger, Tina Turner, and Nile Rogers, which meant that essentially Bowie was a major artistic hub that you were ultimately going to land in, and that you once you found him you spent some time checking out whoever else he worked with).
It's the last quality that is probably going to be slightly under-acknowledged when it comes legacy accounting. Which makes a bit of sense. When (re)creating a narrative for a public figure who has recently died, you pretty much narrow their story into a very straightforward and digestible trajectory, and you don't need to hype Bowie up by saying that because he worked with x and y he introduced generations of fans to the music of x and y. He has enough hits that even people who never spent a dime on him could recognize him and name a song or two. He gets front page without it having to mention who else he worked with until much later in the obit.
And in the wake of his death, his hits are listed, his platinum and gold records are gestured towards, and the always up to date digital record sales show that his latest album (death + new music = synergy) and his greatest hits are selling like delicious hot cakes.
Which is wonderful. It's great that old and new fans and have a chance to (re)discover the Bowie. Because if you dig - and not necessarily too far - you'll find that not only are there incredible front-to-back, back-to-front albums, you'll find all the people who helped in creating these albums (whether being in the recording studio, or in the back of the big man's brain, like Burroughs and Nietzsche, and lesser known artists ranging from Mantegna to Bell to McQueen). Going through Bowie's deeper discog is fun work. Even his lesser albums are that strong kind of weak (and at least he didn't pump them out at a ridiculous rate. Half of Hours, Earthling, Outside, and Black Tie White Noise – his 90s output – are pretty good).
And after gorging on his work, where do you go from there? Bowie is a beginning (or middle), but never an end. How many people found Iggy Pop and The Stooges or Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground because they found Bowie first and noticed those names coming up?
Impossible data. Almost like what Brian Eno said (allegedly, kind of, etc.) about The Velvet Underground: ‘Only 10,000 people bought their first album, but everyone who did started at band’. The numbers are exaggerated, more legend than truth, but that’s fine, because that’s what art and culture can offer: endless, dream-like opportunities and situations.
Speaking of which, if any of the hazy, ethereal Berlin trilogy grabs you (but namely Low) and never releases its strange sinewy grip, you will almost certainly fall into the orbit of Brian Eno, who is like Bowie's weirder, art school brother (he might have even out-Bowie'd Bowie for dressing up like an androgynous alien in the early seventies). Whatever you liked on Low, imagine it all expanded to its most ridiculous and extreme, and you got a sense of Eno's 70s output.
Bowie went big-pop in the eighties, absorbing the synth-pop, new-wave influence that he helped create in the late 70s. Maybe that's why it began to fall flat. He was imitating others who were imitating him. Something about not shitting where you eat, maybe.
And the nineties! Newer haircuts and piercings! Swallowing hip-hop beats, dance and industrial whole (The standout that made onto the greatest hits: 'I'm Afraid of Americans', where his work with Trent Reznor worked quite, quite, quite well).
You could stumble into Bowie just by turning on the radio or TV at any of these periods (Oh yeah, he was also a big video guy. A big visual guy, really. Appreciated the power of the image, knowing that if you did it proper, you can boost up the results and get a picture to be worth about three thousand words. Singer-songwriter, yes, but he first started opening for bands in the mid-sixties at underground events as a mime. As his popularity grew, the opportunity to interact with people as an invented character meant a larger investment in connecting through the visual medium. Bowie photo shoots were simply an extension of how he was behaving most of the time. Clothing makes the alien, after all. The point was to be set apart, at the forefront, unique, and make all of it seem terribly natural and with little forethought. Paint a bulging beige circle on your forehead, because it can symbolize a source of knowledge and/or because it looks weird. Wear pants that you can only wear, not walk in, because you'd fall down. Fashion for the sake of fashion, utility being so last year. And it wasn't just himself, but how'd he surrounded himself when he was busy acting on stage. Lavish stage props and decorations? That's a Bowie).
(Now trawling through Wikipedia doesn't exactly count as hardcore research by any stretch of the imagination, especially if you've read enough about Bowie in actual bios and article to know about his cocaine and red peppers diet, the thing with his eye, his terrible relationship with his managers in the 70s, his terrible relationship with his wife in the 70s, etc. But Wikipedia did reveal this hilarious bit about the problems on the Diamond Dogs tour: "The show in Tampa, FL, was performed without any of the stage props because the truck driver driving those components was delayed after being stung by a bee.")
His 'Ashes to Ashes' is usually seen as the 'big music video' statement just before MTV kicked into high gear. Most expensive, maddeningly symbolic to show it was deep, Bowie gives 110% in his Pierrot costume. It's aged...okay...but that's usually how it is goes, being the first of something (case in point: everything off his debut album, which is like 'The Kinks get lobotomized). Glossy 80s videos when he was in his glossy 80s phase, gritty, cool 90s videos for that phase (highlight: 'I'm Afraid of Americans' again! Co-starring Trent Reznor in his own 'fat elvis' period. Without going too personal, while I'd heard of David Bowie growing up as a popular artist of the 70s and 80s, this was the song/video that caught my teenage self's attention and had me wanting to learn more). And the two videos for the new album (title track and 'Lazarus') is going to be looked at as calculated part of his passing. 'Blackstar' has a woman stealing a jewel-encrusted skull out of a corpse's spacesuit (which is not the weirdest part of it), and 'Lazarus' has our hero writhing around on a hospital bed, crying out that he's in heaven. Not David Bowie dying, mind you, but 'David Bowie'. The guises of David Jones that has been given to the public time after time, for over forty years. That's what has died for us, the record listening, lighter waving public.
Certainly also a husband, father, and friend to those that knew him personally, But Bowie made little secret that roles and identities for him were quite fluid, and sometimes opaque (close friends and associates only found out he was ill when the news broke that he died). He said he had to quit being Ziggy before it overtook him. And while that might be the exact sort of thing an actor might say...well, that makes sense.
Trying something new for him could be more than writing a song in a different style. There was an attempt to become a completely new person, and thereby make the art wholly unique than what was made before. Having a semi-fascist Coke addict write and produce 'Station to Station' wasn't part of the gimmick, it was all gimmick. Which might mean there's no gimmick at all when it's a complete extension of yourself (which is why you better hang on to yourself).
This effort was not lost on the many people who discovered across Bowie at various times while he cut and cleared a pop culture juggernaut path through the last fifty-odd years, and found a kindered spirit in joyful strangeness. He made it easy, not because he was a kind soul who embraced all his fans, but because part of his act was appearing to be a kind soul who embraced all his fans. Or a freaky alien sex god. Or an amoral, heart-as-ice crooner. Or your cool, weird uncle. Or a fucking mime.
You're a weirdo? Nobody understands you?
Give me your hands, because you're wonderful.
David Bowie was the world's greatest and most successful freak.
And he made everyone feel just a bit more okay with their own inner weirdo/freak, regardless of whether it was a small or massive part of themselves. He made it acceptable to 'be' anyone, and if at one point that anyone isn't doing it for you, then by all means, change accordingly. He's been hailed rightfully as a gay icon, a social critic (asking MTV VJ's in the early eighties why they don't play more videos by black artists), a fashion pioneer, a pop celebrity, a painter (but of course he is! Who isn't a painter?).
But if your meal ticket was music, it wasn't enough that you crafted intriguing personas and were on the cutting edge of fashion (or owned an easel).
You had to bring the tunes. Something for the many or the few to dance, smile, cry, or cling to. You can't become a legend without having that insane drive to work and work and work again. And Bowie's deep catalogue means that even if you buy the albums for the singles on them, there's so, so much good shit to discover that you can frequently find yourself loving the deeper cuts more. As if the hits were for everyone, but everything else was all for you.
Even when the characters were retired, and there wasn't much of an appearance reinvention, the music was always restless, new artists and genres always pursued and absorbed. Even the silliness of 'Hallo Spaceboy' was perfect for 1995. That's what David Bowie should sound like, if he replaced Keith Flint in The Prodigy.
If you're totally comfortably with Ziggy (glam rock) being the only dose of Bowie you need, then its predecessor, 'Hunky Dory' is highly recommended. If you want more of the party pop, there's Young Americans and Let's Dance. And if you like speed (the drug or the experience of moving very fast recklessly), most of his nineties stuff can pack the punch you want and need.
For me, the five album streak from '76-'80 is one of the strongest in modern music. The Berlin trilogy bookended by Station to Station and Scary Monsters (Bowie and Neil Young are the solo artist heavyweights of the 70s. Brilliant, challenging albums all the way through, not giving too much of a shit if anything sold well (and knowing the muscles they needed to flex if they did want to boost sales a bit)). Station's ten minute opening title track doesn't get enough love from the universe in general. It's the archetypal build from a slow scratchy feedback to an orgasmic climax. More things in the world should be like Station to Station. Coke-fouled kraut-soul bleeds into the Low/"Heroes"/Lodger hybrid (kicking drugs, licking Eno like he was one of those poisoned/hallucinogenic toads, letting music from around the world seep in, especially on the eternally underrated Lodger), and it ends with the grand mission statement of Scary Monsters, which is terrifying pop that pretty much did the eighties than anyone else would in the next nine years. That album ends with 'It's No Game - Part 2' (more bookends. Bookends upon bookends, which suggest a planned opening and closing, a cohesive statement, a plan from start to finish. Impressive, Bowie, most impressive), in which Bowie calmly recites bonus lyrics from 'It's No Game - Part 1' (something about flinging camel shit on the walls). And then click, click, click, click...end scene (after this Bowie got stadium big, selling many millions and making movies and doing what most people who started out in the sixties did in the eighties: not suck while still making a lot of money).
And that's my Bowie. That's what made my heart swell and my mind expand and was full of emotional sonic peaks and valleys I imprinted upon my memories and genetic makeup. It wasn't the side of the effects of the cocaine, I was thinking that it might be love. Oh, and to be insulted by these fascists is so degrading.
Bowie probably doesn't get enough credit as a lyricist. It all blurs together because a lot of the times it comes out of either the character he's playing at the moment, or a flash of inspiration from the music (which apparently came first almost all of the time) and a glance out the window.
And that's why it's hard to tease Bowie's intentions and goals apart. It's all intentional, which sounds overtly obvious, since nobody 'accidentally' makes an album or dress like a French clown. To be a convincing act as 'X' was always the goal, to being a consummate performer onstage and off. The motherfucker worked hard, even up the very end, as accounts of him going to the studio or the opening of the play he wrote music for right after rounds of chemo. He was an inspiration to all those around him, musicians, colleagues, friends.
Dunno about listening to 'Teenage Wildlife' anytime soon. That shit will still sting.
It's a tough death for us fans to take, when it's a man who has buried who he was in the past over and over again.
David Bowie is dead. What the fuck else is new?
(guaranteed no number lists)
Damn you, expected release dates.
(yeah, as if that's the biggest problem the music industry has right now)
The slow boiling excitement is gone. Forget lining up at midnight in front of record stores (ha!). Now we don't even press the buy button on itunes or the 'play' button on streaming sights like spotify or rdio or Tidal (ha!) at the same time. Instead we all have to get used to lightning quick punches in the face. Leaks from somewhere within the process of getting the album from the artist's hands to the executives to the pressing factory/uploading location and suddenly... music!
Probably through tinny speakers and headphones. It's unlikely that you'll hold out and wait for the vinyl release and play it on quality equipment.
Once even a bit of the music leaks, the artist and record company have to open the floodgates, otherwise the entire promotional schedule will be for nothing. If it leaks three weeks early, then pretty anyone who wanted to would have already heard it, and when you can finally buy it on the official release date, it's dead on arrival. Suddenly there is even less money flowing into the ever shrinking pockets. It's hard enough to compete with free. But competing with 'free and early' is impossible.
And our perspective on music changes with this leaky setup. Critics complain that they are suddenly expected to have a thoughtful and unique perspective on a record they just heard yesterday (because they have a role in promotion, too. If they wait a week for a review, it's possible that all interest in the album - no matter when it's released - is gone, and the page hits for the review (which mean ad revenue) will be minimal).
But maybe, in terms of finding things to say, they got it all right the first time.
Maybe when critics lament the surprise release dates and the expectancy to have a well-formulated opinion about the album wasn't about not having time to properly digest the album, but not having time to actually write (you've got to also factor in time to play Angry Birds/Clash of Clans/Candy Crush/Last Voyage, sip coffee, stare at the wall, listen to Boards of Canada, etc.). Sure, you'll need more time if you want to make a detailed analysis of what Kendrick Lamar sees when he looks in the mirror compared to hip hop auteurs in the past, but a day or two of initial reactions typed out should be sufficient.
(that is, if the publication's meal ticket is based partly on it's up to date music coverage. Here at the abandoned station, the fuck's we give are fewer and less deadline based)
But hey, there was music released in the last six months. Some of it on time, some of it early. And here's us writing things about it.
(two months early)
Sometimes the story of the making of the album is central to understanding it (not necessary, but extremely helpful). This is Bjork's breakup album (from long time partner and fellow eccentric artist, Matthew Barney), and her heart isn't just on her sleeve, but being emphatically extracted from a haunting hole in her chest (the album cover art depicts this literally, but in a Bjork-literal sort of way, which means it's both more explicit and beautiful and weirder than in reality).
Now you don't have to know this to appreciate the fact that this is the most Bjork-like album of her career (in an interview with Pitchfork, she noted that Arca, her co-producer on this album, frequently referenced tracks and styles from her previous work during the recording process). That means there are fewer surprises and left turns, yet the craft and performance are impeccable. In fact, because the electronic beats and swirling string/synth rhythms hark back to the sounds of her two-decade-plus career (although 'Atom Dance' with Antony Hegarty on guest vocals, stands out as a towering new achievement), what stands out is her incredibly powerful voice and heartbreaking words (especially on 'Lionsong'). Bjork doesn't go acoustic, but she's a master singer-songwriter, and here it's her heart that's unplugged.
On a related but lesser note:
Rebel Heart, Madonna
(six tracks released three months early after a leak)
Wait, Madonna is a 'lesser note'? Isn't her whole career a overtly sexy exclamation mark? How did this happen?
Well it's been ten years since 'Hung Up', the last Madonna song that people came name if they aren't ardent superfans (and even that tune came out at a time when many people had written her career off as one in irreversible decline).
Diminishing returns typically hits pop stars quick, but 'that's showbiz'. If you can line up many hits in a row, you're legacy is much more secure, but ultimately the icon overwhelms the music, even if they're still making music (see: Paul McCartney, The Stones, any other sixties bands that's re-re-formed. And even Madonna's metal contemporaries, Metallica, who also released their debut in 1983, two days apart from her own).
Like Bjork, it was another attempt by a music icon to pour their middle aged soul onto the mixing board.
(and both are long! Vulnicura is Bjork's longest album ever and the deluxe edition of Rebel Heart has nineteen songs)
(a related aside concerning the above: Digital bonus tracks have become the way for the iTunes store (mainly them, anyway) to charge a couple extra bucks for the album. For those who still care about the album as a complete and cohesive statement, the bonus tracks are pretty much C-sides (which, y'know, is a comment about b-sides, which are also pretty damn archaic these days. I think Jack White is the only one that cares about them)).
And like Bjork, ‘Rebel Heart’ sounds a lot like Madonna you know. But without as much excitement as in the past. And the same can be said for anyone making music for several decades. The image of the artist and the listener's past experience with the artist's music is so large and unwieldy that it's hard to parse the new music from the legendary work (the possible exception is Radiohead, who seem to change their sound/approach with every record. The trajectory of their albums means I can't even begin to guess what the next one might sound like).
'Living for Love', 'Ghosttown', only seem like pale imitations of older Madonna hits because everyone is so damn familiar with Madonna. And if you try your very hardest to excise her from your experience with the song, then it sounds like everything else on the radio. Which in some ways sounds unfortunate, but at the same time, that's what pop music is supposed to be. Over thirty years, Madonna bent the charts to her will, and everyone followed. And now the Real Madonna can't stand out.
To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick Lamar
(one week early)
Then there's the Kendrick Lamar approach. Which really isn't exclusively Kendrick Lamar. It's the scorched earth policy of many artists who hit the mainstream and weren't thrilled with what they found (perhaps encapsulated best by Neil Young: "Heart of Gold [his #1 hit single from Harvest, his best selling 1972 album] put me in the middle of the road. Travelling there soon became a bore, so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride but I saw more interesting people there.")
To Pimp a Butterfly is a sprawling, angry, hopeful, reflective (upon reflective) album, and much deeper than a swimming pool. It's Black Messiah's sound with In Utero's lyrics.
And you get that on the first spin. Critics like to say that this is the kind of album you need repeat listens to properly digest, but repeat listens won't change this initial impression (what you will definitely notice on repeat is just how damn clever Kendrick is with his wordplay (although this shouldn't come as a surprise), and how off-hook and deep the production is).
Leave it to 1997 Puff Daddy to nail it almost perfectly on the head: Mo' Money, Mo' Problems. But not exactly. Different problems would be more accurate (Mo' Money, Diff' Problems?).
Good Kid, maad City was so amazing and so successful that it would be completely understandable if Lamar buckled under the pressure and released a fast paced, radio-friendly follow up (four 'Swimming Pools', four 'Poetic Justices', two kind-of strange tracks). Instead he made a sprawling, eighty minute album about pressure buckling.
Sprawling, angry, forgiving, unrepentant, Butterfly wants to be fun but also a chastisement of said fun. For every 'Alright' there's a 'The Blacker the Berry'. The man's career is only five years old and he's already released his White Album (another nod to how big the Beatles are. You can use their discography as a comparison to any other artist's discography. Lamar talking to a dead Tupac is his 'Revolution 9').
Lush, full, a bit hazy and ragged, with a party atmosphere half the time (with the other half being the awful comedown), it's a jarring contrast to the words. Even on the most upbeat song, ‘King Kunta’, Kendrick is talking down to the people who didn't support him when he was starting out and the people who were there early but trying to cut him down now. A diss track that doesn't name names.
There's families that fall apart ('These Walls'), celebrity that fall apart ('Wesley's Theory'), but most of it is Kendrick falling apart ('u').
To Pimp a Butterfly is looking for balance and immediately second guesses what it finds. And you don't have to be one of the best MCs in the game to understand what he’s on about (although it might help). It's unquestionably the grandest gesture of the year.
Carrie and Lowell, Sufjan Stevens
(on time, but previewed a week beforehand)
Speaking of personal, there's the track 'Fourth of July' on this album.
Here's the youtube link, from Stevens' official channel. Click and listen, we'll wait here:
(four and a half minutes pass)
Yeah. How's that?
Inspiring, poignant, and soul-crushing all at once.
Sometimes nothing comes to the music critic/writer. Sometimes it hits home in a way that you can't find the words. Sometimes it feels pathetically empty and pointless to say, "This is a return to the dominant sound of Illinoise, acoustic, reflective, singer-songwriter focused, as the orchestral swirl of 'Chicago' from that album was the exception."
Or: "Like Bjork's album, this is an extremely personal record for Stevens, as the Carrie and Lowell in the title are his parents."
A tremendous disservice to the music, but you talk/write about it because it emotionally moves you and you want other people to know that hey, maybe you'll like it, too. For how pretentious/scathing/irrelevant art criticism can be, it's rooted in the idea of simply, ''hey, here's what I think about this".
And it's hard to really elaborate with 'Carrie and Lowell'. It's there, and it'll just break your heart.
(on time, but previewed a week beforehand)
You goddamn fools.
You forgot about the steel fields of sound. That wild punch of well orchestrated power madness. The sonic image of ice giants bowling with meth-addicted elephants as balls. Metz can make this real. For a half hour they will take you on a tour of a fun-pop, soft-rock, mainstream-blah slaughterhouse. Where the easy music is sent to die.
'Kicking a Can of Worms' is the bone-crunchingly heaviest song of the year. There will be no others. You can knock buildings over with this track.
And we love the line, 'I'm waiting for the ambulance...again". Mania on repeat. The same crazy shit, the work ‘rock’ like Zeppelin sounds in perfect dreams.
You probably can't listen to this album while operating heavy machinery because the bulldozer or crane will come alive and inadvertently kill you as it tries to headbang and mosh.
If 'Carrie and Lowell' is all heart, Metz's second album is all overheated superconductor.
The Epic, Kamasi Washington
Of course it's on time. It's jazz.
In the late seventies, Frank Zappa commented, 'jazz isn't dead, it just smells funny'. Almost forty years later, not much has changed, attitude-wise. The pisspoor prejudices remain (too long, too winding, you can't dance to it), and sometimes the attempts at reconnection with the masses require a massive symbol that’s half an open palm and half a middle finger.
The Epic invites both diehards and casuals with catchy rhythms, soaring solos, tight playing, and rich, flowing vocals (really). It’s also unrepentantly long, winding, and un-danceable. The titles is accurate. Almost three hours of music, and half of the seventeen tracks go near over ten minutes. Washington sensibly breaks up the music into three discs, and when absorbed in these manageable pieces, the powers of the players and the production start to show.
It’s an incredible accomplishment, the sort that would get more attention than the fact that bandleader Washington played on Kendrick’s new album, too. But hey, that’s how we first heard of him, reading about To Pimp a Butterfly. And here’s how the music critic can play that vital role for the music fan (no matter how often the two parties may butt heads). It’s great to take the suggestion of the critic (sometimes mostly blind and unfamiliar with what they are recommending) and listening to something new and being blown away by what you hear. That so many more doors of fresh, original music that you were completely unaware of all this time has suddenly opened up to you .
And jazz has had a major role in this setup for a long time now. It just bides it’s 5/4 time in quiet little clubs and halls, waiting for a select few of people who are going to find it, love it, and never let it go.
And The Epic is a wonderful treasure for them/us.
In Colour, Jaime XX
Side project does good.
Groovy. Yeah, things can be groovy in 2015.
Friendly-weird. We just made that term up and it’s a perfect description for in Colour.
It’s faultlessly accessible.
And by now these sorts of descriptions are sounding more like they belong in a report trying to spin bad news.
And In Colour is actually the sort of thing that’s an antidote to bad news.
Jenny Death, Death Grips
Okay, here the fuck we go:
DEATH GRIPS ARE FOR EVERYTHING ELSE
When you're done with everything, don't worry, Death Grips are here. They are for everything else.
They are Beyond Alive.
They have Inanimate Sensations.
They Break Mirrors With Their Face in the United States.
They are undeniable, and that's based On GP.
[these are titles from the second half of their new double album]
[the second half of their new album is called Jenny Death, and it is their best hunk of music since their official debut, which was called The Money Store, whose cover is a crude illustration of a smoking dominatrix holding the leash of an androgynous slave with a dog mask]
[actually scratch that. It's better than The Money Store. Jenny Death is a towering, dirty, caustic, inspiring 49 minute masterpiece masquerading as a car crash rap-rock album]
[We're pretty sure 'GP' stands for 'General Principle', but we also like the fact that we're not 100% positive]
Death Grips are not for everyone when they are awake. Their music is not soothing. It is for the corners. It's for the frustrations of 2015, but even that's cheapening it by fastening it to some sort of temporal state. Not that this music would exist forty years ago (or four hundred years ago), but that the chaotic feelings that this music seems to nail down and embrace so effectively certainly has (and always has. It's hideously, amazingly human).
And the band itself pairs well with this sort of natural unsettling. They seem to move forward like blind sharks. With laser beams attached to their heads.
The 'Guillotine' music video from their Ex-Military mixtape is a wonderful introduction to the band. The premise is simply MC Ride rapping along to the song in the passenger seat. Angular in its (non)violence, seizure-like, jarring, with bursts of static threatening to overtake the whole screen. But extremely simple for all four minutes (they are fascinating even when they seem to be repeating themselves).
Snapping, punching, crushing, beating.
You can't trust them.
Which sounds weird because what the hell does 'trusting' artists mean? That they'll never let you down? That they'll always follow the script?
[the script is the career trajectory of the artist, which comes in a couple flavours. Examples: The champs, the underdogs, the anti-champions, the flameouts]
And it seems like they'd be flameouts, but it's more like their break up/down made them stronger. A healthy punk volatility that you can appreciate when its not the show in your hometown that's abruptly cancelled.
They released a critically acclaimed debut album, signed with a major label, didn't tour like they said they would and then quickly recorded and released their second album for free which got them dropped from the major label (fun fact: No Love Deep Web's album cover is Zach Hill's penis with the name of the band scrawled on it in black marker), made tour plans, cancelled tour plans, made new tour plans, didn't show up for concerts (but sometimes their equipment did, which angry fans destroyed), appeared to break up, released half of a planned double album (with Bjork vocal fragments on every track), broke up, released the other half of the double album which is Jenny Death, which is amazing), and maybe didn't break up after all, since they're touring this summer. They've made a rap-rock double album that will almost certainly piss of fans of rap and fans of rock.
An experimental rap trio adding a guitarist and organist.
Sometimes the music and the band doesn’t work, but all of Jenny Death does.
It’s apolitical and mad, and in 2015 that makes it political and sane.
Never hold a hammer while listening to Death Grips. The soundwaves will undoubtedly alter your brain's chemistry and take control of your arm, hand and fingers and you'll start to swing, swing, swing.
Here's a fun thing to do.
On Kendrick Lamar's uber-excellent, life-questioning-reaffirming, no-real-hit-singles new album To Pimp a Butterfly, imagine instead of the song 'u', where he has a miniature breakdown staring at himself in a hotel room mirror, the whole 49 minutes of Jenny Death plays instead.
From the opening psycho-screech of ‘I Break Mirrors With My Face in the United States’, through barreling guitar riffs, pounding live/processed drums, bizarre and penetrating words from MC Ride, right out to the virtual reality immersion of closer ‘Death Grips 2.0’. It’s jarring, aggravating, fist-pumping, navel-gazing, inspiring, stupid, ridiculous, crazy, and wonderful.
Kendrick Lamar is for the waking world.
Death Grips are for everything else.
(butchering a 'Dark Knight' quote)
Coming back is hard to do, but sticking around the whole damn time is even harder. Sometimes you don't even know you're gone because no one tells you. Becoming a 'known person' (in the words of comedian and 'known person' Louis CK) creates a perception of you that is based chiefly on what you're known for, and that perception can wax and wane over time for a myriad of reasons.
Let's start with example alpha:
John Lennon is a legend frozen in time, a brilliant songwriter and activist who pushed for peace before being tragically shot down in his prime (even if Double Fantasy, his album that came out days before his death, is mediocre at best).
Paul McCartney is living an active life full of touring and albums and pushing good causes, and consequently it is also a perception of diminishing returns with very few exceptions in the past forty years or so.
As McCartney himself said in an interview in the early nineties, "it's like everyone thinks John wrote all the songs and I'm just the guy that sang 'Yesterday'."
He's also in the unlucky position that nothing can top the Beatles (although this was readily apparent not long after they broke up). Wings could top the charts throughout the seventies, 'Mull of Kintyre' can be the UK's bestselling single for years and years, and he can release a string of critically-lauded albums in the nineties and early oughts, but nothing can compete with the Fab Four.
Lennon goes and with one or two exceptions his solo work has never been salvaged by critics. McCartney stays and each new record gets a weaker shrug from the critics and public. The more you release after your peak, the more chances they have to dilute your entire legacy.
[NOTE: Clearly this not how most artists see the creation and release process. You keep making songs or sculptures because that's what you want to do, not because you concern yourself with whether the new stuff will help or hinder what people already think of you and your abilities]
And that's what you really carry with you. Not just the songs or the stories or the painting, but the art and the public reaction to and perception of it. The story of yourself (ideally coming from less than ideal circumstances and travelling around your country by bus or living in a crappy part of town before being discovered), your work, and what the public thinks of both, blurs into one big blob of awareness. Which is not exactly fair (such is life).
Noel Gallagher pointed out that in he and his former band's case, the 'story' would be better if, instead of his first two albums with Oasis selling tens of millions of copies and the next five selling less and less, it was a long crawl of getting better and more popular so that hypothetical albums four and five were the super-selling breakthroughs.
An artist may not be able to destroy this narrative (in fact, any attempt to make a radical change - whether to their art, or to their public persona - will only be absorbed into said narrative), but they can certainly tinker with its parts.
And the easiest way to do this is press a very large pause button.
Vacation, break(down)(up), hiatus, 'suffering from exhaustion', just plain stopping and doing something else with your life. Actually give a relationship 110%, raise a family, get fat, stare at the ceiling fan, obsess over collecting buttons, learn some different type of artistic endeavour, get addicted to something, kick something.
And to a much lesser degree the narrative will fester and bubble and how long you're gone will be taken into account - was it just a half-year breather, a year or two 'find yourself', or a multi-year transformation into a recluse - and included into the public's perception of 'you'.
Until you come back.
And coming back is not the same thing as having 'a comeback'.
The former is the process of deciding to return to whatever made you a 'known person' in the first place. Recording another album, painting another series of paintings, making a new film, publishing a new book. Shaking off the rust, looking for new inspiration, trying to make the same old brand new, turning setbacks into jumping off points, turning self-doubt into self-exploration. Ideally with an eager fanbase/general public on the edge of their seats in anticipation, hoping against hope that you'll once again fill their lives with joyous (albeit temporary) meaning.
But what does the latter - a 'comeback' - look like?
A bit more quantifiable, sadly. Even if the artist is wholly satisfied with the final result, that's not necessarily what the public sees or appreciates (and of course the artist can decide whether they give a damn what anyone thinks).
'Comebacks' require sales that match the numbers of the early high points, with the critical reception agreeing that the new material is as strong as the classic old stuff (even if the classic old stuff is only a few years back). Trumpeting these numbers (units sold and five stars and ten-out-of-ten) is a great (and easy) media angle for the artist, and with more attention comes more sales (probably of concerts tickets) and fans both old new and stand side by side to worship at the large, eighteen flatbed truck altar of their risen lord in the local basketball and/or hockey arena.
This is the perception of success, the perception of sustained brilliance, of always coming back with more that's worthwhile.
The narrative of struggle of hard work in the trenches (of some terrible job or constant rejection) only to eventually come out (and stay) on top.
Pure Horatio Alger, in the words of Hunter S. Thompson. Who happens to be a writer who found success with his raw notes being published as an article (and helping fashion the gonzo journalism style) after years of going about it the old (normal?) way. And the public loves these narratives. The best known writers, like JK Rowling (on government assistance in Scotland when Harry Potter was picked up) and Stephen King (substitute teaching and living in a double wide trailer when he got the big payout for Carrie's paperback publishing rights), are examples of real-life success stories that occurred thanks to the ability to create fake worlds.
Which is another thing that must be considered. Creating pieces of art and culture certainly has formulaic aspects, but for the most part it is a very odd and idiosyncratic process compared to other forms of employment. In most jobs and careers, 'overstaying your welcome' isn't really a concern. It's simply coming to work every day for years and years and years.
In arts and culture, the matter is not necessarily so prosaic. Grinding out stories, songs, scripts, and performances, isn't the same as restocking shelves or balancing another excel spreadsheet (although no doubt for the artist, it can feel that way from time to time). And because of this unusual position in society (not exactly essential, but overwhelmingly beneficial), people are free to like or dislike (or love and hate) the work of the artist for a plethora of reasons, good, bad, and ridiculous.
It's hard to always come across as fresh, new, and innovative. Sometimes people want more of the same, sometimes they want something completely different, sometimes they didn't know they wanted it until they were able to experience it.
As hard as it is to make a single dent in culture, it's even harder to do it several times. And even if your appeal is a niche one, it's hard to tap into a dedicated fanbase and be able to rely on their support for years and years.
The second law of thermodynamics is not just for entropy. The longer it lasts, the hard it is to maintain, the opportunities to fall apart increase.
And it's no small matter, either. It's not just the artist all by themselves. Big money is relying on making bigger money. Certainly the physical and mental health of the artist is important, but so is the financial health of the entire personal apparatus attached to the success of the artist. All the individuals required to help create the material. Production and film crews, assistants, management and financial teams (and perhaps friends, family, and associates). The only that you could possibly need after success is more success.
Consequently, publicists - and, if you're big enough, entire public relations teams - will advise you to space out your presence. It doesn't matter if you have another novel or album all ready to go.
Suddenly it's like running a marathon, and you now have several people relying on you and giving you advice on how to properly pace yourself so everyone can benefit.
Coming back after years of inactivity can get fans and critics (who, if writing about an impending return, can maybe attract new members to the fold) into a froth all over again. Finally, a change in the artist's narrative. No longer a 'to be continued', now a new chapter can be written and of course almost everyone is hoping for the best while trying to not believe too much of the hype.
Careful metrics involving polls and sales and comparisons to the return of other artists are used to decide 'how long away' is long away enough.
But 'how long away' can depend on the size and scope of the artist.
In early 1990, Bono told audiences that U2 had to go away for awhile and dream the whole thing up again. They released Achtung Baby less than two years later.
In the sixties it was even more truncated, thanks mainly in part to the perspective that musical artists were only going to be popular for a handful of years in the first place. The Beatles 1968 White Album was supposedly their 'return' after Sgt. Pepper, even though the latter album came out only eighteen months before, and they released an EP (Magical Mystery Tour) and four singles in the interim (this is the original British chronology, initially the Magical Mystery Tour LP - which include the EP tracks plus some singles - was a US-only release, but please excuse me, I'm beatle-ing out here).
Hell, even The Godfather, Part II came out only two years after the first.
Since that time, there are mainly amusing examples of artists from across the arts/culture spectrum taking a very long time to release new material. Sometimes the anecdotes surrounding the delay are better than what actual came out.
Boston took six years to release a followup to their sophomore album, and by then perfectionist seventies easy rock had been superseded by pretty much everything else. And it was okay.
Guns 'n' Roses shed everyone but the singer and took seventeen years to finally release Chinese Democracy in 2008 (and that's a bit of a weird thought, that it's actually been around for almost seven years now).
And it was okay.
The Pixies acrimoniously broke up in the early nineties and didn't reform for over a decade. And frontman Black Francis/Frank Black was quite open about reasons: "the last time it was for art. This time it's for money.'
Which is both refreshing and disappointing for its honesty. But it doesn't matter if you are reforming to finish paying off your mortgage, as long as you can still knock 'em dead, and when the Pixies came back, they still could:
But then they released an album called Indie Cindy that collected their three recent EPs (recorded and released in 2013 and 2014).
And it was okay.
Which is kind of a cheap term to write off all the blood, sweat, tears and anticipation with. But that's because nostalgia for the old can very easily affect the overall impression of the new.
The new piece can be seen as too different from their previous material, too similar to their previous material, or of poorer quality (regardless of similarity of difference) when compared to their previous material.
The latter is common when the previous material is held in particularly high esteem in the fanbase and critical circles. When they love you, it comes with a lot of baggage. In the last few years, it's veteran electronic artists pushing away the cobwebs of their long dormant narratives to release new music for the first time in anywhere from seven to thirteen years. Let's look at Daft Punk, Aphex Twin and Boards of Canada. Three critically acclaimed artists that don't sound very much alike (which reinforces just how large an umbrella the term 'electronic music' is). They've all built up solid reputations for at least fifteen years, releasing several seminal works in their genre and laying sonic blueprints that many lesser artists have pilfered, smoothed out and made much more commercially successful music with.
So how are their new albums?
The lead single of Daft's Random Access Memories, 'Get Lucky', was poised to be the song of the summer for 2013 but it was played out before June 21st. Too big, too soon. It wasn't a slow rolling boil. More like a greasy fire.
But Daft Punk's always been about quick hooks, the beats that have you nodding your head by the fourth set of four. They're easily the best known of the three artists here, for their crossover hits, quirky videos and face-covering 22nd century helmets (a gimmick while also preserving anonymity. Good two-fer).
So come on, how was the new album?
It was... okay. A bit long. Long to the point of long-winded. And very polished. Maybe too polished to the point that all the edges were sanded off and so even the beats fell a bit too soft. Assistance from aging disco pioneers and indie rock (a term that should also be considered loosely) stalwarts Julian Casablancas and Panda Bear kind of muddled the overall product. It was like we were too aware of the guest spots, too excited about hitting the next level of amazing thanks to the perfectly laid hype.
Random Access Memories had all the chances to be big, brash, and gonzo fun, but it took a swing and missed. Apparently we liked the idea of Daft Punk coming back more than the music that was meant to be the foundation of their comeback.
(my hope (although it's fading at this point) is that the duo would tour, as 2006/2007 tour really put the album they toured behind then - Human After All - in a much better light. In fact, the live album from that tour - Alive 2007 - is, pound for pound, the best Daft Punk release)
Compared to Daft Punk (a big enough name to still have MTV, Stephen Colbert and Will Ferrell wanting to do promotion with them in some way), Aphex Twin and Boards of Canada operate in much smaller, but no less devoted, spheres.
Aphex Twin might be a bit better known of these two, thanks to his bizarre nineties music videos and constant big ups from Radiohead's Thom Yorke.
His 'Selected Ambient Works' albums from the early nineties laid the blueprint for a lot of electronic music to come (and the pop and dance music it inspired). But instead of doing any sort of cashing in he made a string of much more complex, caustic, and 'overdosing telephone' music (uber-highlight: 'Richard D. James Album', which happens to be the man's actual name). Then after 2001's double album 'Drukqs', he went silent-ish.
Until last summer, when blimps with logo were seeing in London, and suddenly we were getting Syro.
So how was the new album?
Well, it's like a cross between 'Selected Ambient Works' and his more manic stuff. It's a happy medium for the crowd that thought Drukqs was too insane (it ws insane, but a good insane).
Not that Mr. Twin was catering to anyone. Syro feels like a man who had thirteen years to do other things. If he's mellowed because of family (which he has, and his wife, child and parents appear as chopped up vocal tracks across the album), then it's certainly reflected in the music.
In fact the closer, "aisatsana ", a beautifully simple stand-alone piano ballad, an ending that makes the whole thing feel like advancement. Which is certainly a good thing, even if it's not the same leaps and bounds that the 'Richard D James Album held. Even glorious baggage is still baggage.
Compared to Boards of Canada, Aphex Twin looks like Daft Punk in terms of promotion and popularity. At the same time, the music itself is a stark contrast to the sound of Aphex Twin, even if both artists use the same sort of electronic equipment. BoC is much more muted and down-tempo, slow and winding, full of what must be but obviously isn't natural sounds (since its creation is done mostly via computer). Soft ambient pieces wax and wane into each other, sometimes the odd vocal sample (counting! Leslie Nielsen!) drips in. If Aphex Twin punches you in the face or gives you an Indian burn, BoC is like a nice massage (if someone told us that Boards of Canada was somehow another pseudonym of Richard D James, we would only be half-surprised).
Under the radar in almost every possible way, 2013's Tomorrow's Harvest (which is a long way from 2006's Trans Canada Highway EP) had promotion that was strictly for die hard fans with a lot of time on their hands. A series of six digit codes were uploaded to fan message boards and youtube videos, and when combined you would get a password to be able to read about and order the new album on the official band website. And now this little game/diversion is part of the story of the album release. Something else to talk about, to fill that endless blank space of what people say to each other in person or online.
So how's the new album?
Aw, it's pretty good. It's broods a bit more than their earlier material, which can once again be written off as a sign of maturity (it seems you rarely get happier and more energetic as you get older as an artist, something about the world slowly beating you down as your body wears out). More uncertain than reassuring. And for fans, this change is an opportunity to ask why, and while the BoC duo is rather mum on the subject, theories abound. It's about the apocalypse, death and rebirth, and whatever the so-called subliminal messages hidden inside (according to the band) whisper to you when all the lights are out. And that's a hell of thing to think about, while listening to an electronic record influenced by 70s movie soundtracks.
So what of it?
Did they fail? Pass with B-minuses? Were able to keep their legacy in tact without damaging it?
It's not fair to say that an artist's newer material will never be as good as their earlier works that made them a respectable and appreciated (adored?) in the first place.
Just as the artist changes, so to does their audience. In fact, it's much more common for the fanbase to imprint much more personal importance on artist's work at a particular point in their lives, with the result being that anything the artist releases afterwards (whether two or eight years later) cannot possibly have the same effect as the earlier material.
Entropy is real. The more you’re around the more opportunities there are to fall apart and/or wear out your welcome.
The fault lies with no one, unless you want to personify the passage of time. People change. The artists, the fans, the critics, the public. And the relationships between all these groups of people also change. Huge nebulous terms like personal experience, nostalgia, and market expectation can immediately alter the reaction to an attempted comeback. And at this point everyone knows that's in the cards. It's something the artist and the audience carries through the process.
So maybe Neil Young was wrong. If you're gone, you can come back. But perhaps we should add a Nine Inch Nails' lyrical disclaimer from one of the songs on their 'return' 2013 album, Hesitation Marks.
You just come back haunted.
Offspring's punk megaseller Smash turns twenty this year. And to celebrate, the band (who has just turned the rip old age of thirty) was performing the album in its entirety on tour this summer and fall.
Because that's what you do when nobody buys (your) music anymore. You criscross your respective country on the nostalgia circuit, which is getting more and more recent.
And a bit shocking to this particular writer, as Smash was the first album he ever bought, along with The Lion King soundtrack (it was that weird age when a Disney animated film and a song with the line 'you stupid dipshit goddamn motherfucker!' held equal appeal).
Twenty years is the first 'celebratory' anniversary, because it's typically seen as the length of a generation. Two decades of no Kurt Cobain. And while there's certainly been genre shifts and mega stars, no one's come close to encapsulating the epoch (how's that for snob alliteration?) like the Nirvana frontman. The acclaim, the sales, the influence, the doors blown wide open for the terribly nonspecific term of alternative music, and the rise and fall of the person who was quickly made its poster boy and got sick of the attention before the attention got sick of him.
In the aftermath, there was suicide's too good for me Nine Inch Nails, Ticketmaster's not good enough for us Pearl Jam, Alanis Morisette leading the much-needed and all to brief explosion of female singer-songwriters dominating the charts, the let's get high and whatever Green Day, the let’s get high and fuck you Eminem and the let’s get high and get your hands up Jay-Z. And many, many flashes in the pan. Offspring was one of them, although they did get a strong resurgence by going straight up pop punk in 1999 with their hip-hop-wannabe-mocking 'Pretty Fly for a White a Guy'.
In terms of mid-nineties punk Green Day seemed to win the sprint (Dookie outsold Smash) and the marathon ('Time of Your Life' buoyed them through the lean, turn-of-the-millennium years until American Idiot), but Offspring won the boxing match. Smash kills (as the Incredible Hulk might say).
It's heavier and tighter than Dookie (certainly helped by the fact that they have a lead guitarist named Noodles (ah, punk, never change from being juvenile) which can leave Dexter focussing on the riffs and singing). It's more politically and socially aware than Dookie (ah, punk never change from being irresponsibly pissed off at the world). It's got amazing production values, especially for an album released on a DIY independent label (ah, punk’s eternal paradoxes. The movement dying before it was born when Malcolm McLaren thought it would sell more t-shirts at his shop).
Or maybe I only think all of these things are true and no one else will get that 'fuck yeah!' feeling when they put this CD (ha! Compact discs!) on for a reminiscent spin. Maybe I'm overhyping an album that's good at best and flukey at worst. After all, when you discover something when you're twelve (and still have a hard time getting Hakuna Matata out of your head), when you are at your most formative and easily influenced, it sticks like glue in a very particular way. Just because you listen over and over again to songs that decry with punk fury genocide, violence, the state of politics and bad relationships doesn't mean you're going to be participating in marches, writing letters, or be responsible in relationships (you're twelve, after all). But you will file that away and be aware of these things as you get older. It's a light dusting of a learning experience. The door to a more complicated world. But only if it rocks as well.
As how Smash holds up today? Well, as pointed out above, I'm probably not the one to ask for a more objective viewpoint. Maybe the fact that I'm talking about it is already a big thumbs up for the album, that for some people it is a worthwhile talking point (and perhaps underrated, which is a label that gets plenty of hipsters in a froth). It's hard to plot out how anything will fare over twenty years. It's not like anyone can or does plan for that - especially pop-culture-ish material - when creating something. But critics and writers will always look for connection between these relatively neat and tidy tentpoles of then and now (like the Lion King! It came out twenty years ago, too! And it was the most successful Disney film ever until it was best this year by Frozen (even though it came out in late 2013), so for those of you who are counting... there's another thing you can count!)).
A single decade is a bit more manageable. You can picture 2004 and it doesn't seem that different (compared to 1994, when CD was king and only Phish fans used the internet). And hey Kanye's College Dropout turned ten this year. Ten! Ten years of Kanye (to be fair, he was doing some acclaimed producing prior to 2004), and what do we have to show for it? A startlingly brilliant run of albums that pushed and subverted the boundaries of the genre with a guy who's weakest talent was on the mic. Production skills, check. Good rhymes that make you think or at least grin, check. Larger than life personality, check. The one thing that seemed to matter most for an MC, West has been able to demote and deflate. And that takes a mindboggling amount of talent in every other facet, especially if you can release a string of number one, critically acclaimed albums and go on a batshit weird tour supporting the most recent, batshit weird album. Apparently album number seven is getting secret listening parties, so who knows what'll come out of that.
Will it be MBDTF Redux, or continue the 'weirdness' of Yeezus ('weirdness' being a relative term, since hip hop albums like 'Dr. Octagonecologyst' and 'The Unseen' are a lot more left field than anything West's put out so far). It's great going back to listen to the pop-friendly tracks on College Dropout (All Fall Down, Through the Wire) and compare them to the dark brooding masterpieces on Yeezus like 'On Sight' and 'Hold My Liquor'. That's an intense ten years in the spotlight, for creative leaps and celebrity faux-pas. You don't have to worry about the game changing if you're the one doing the changing.
But instead of albums that were released decade(s) ago, how are the artists who were around then faring now? In 1994, U2 was touching down and taking a rest after three busy of writing Achtung Baby and Zooropa and touring them around the world in the bizarre and barely money making ZooTV tour. Radiohead was becoming a bitter jukebox by touring 'Creep' into the ground. Aphex Twin was releasing EPs and compilations that would come to define the harsh and soft extremes of electronic music (sometimes, like on the Richard D. James album, within the same song). He also recorded and then shelved Caustic Window, which was finally released in June thanks to a kickstarter campaign, which, let's be honest, is probably one of the blueprint/case study examples of good crowdsource funding.
And this strange trio of British Isles superstars is back and their attempt to stay hip and relevant is more about marketing and release than new sounds. New Aphex Twin, New U2, new Thom Yorke, the last two of which released their music by blitzkrieg. And the music is all what you would expect. And that's an 70% compliment.
Let's start with Aphex Twin.
A recluse who put his face on album covers and on hordes of little children in his music videos (see: Come to Daddy. It's SFW, but perhaps not your peace of mind). A practical joker who takes his creative process very seriously. A workaholic who hasn't put out an actual album in thirteen years.
And he's made up for it recently. Caustic Window was made twenty years ago but was released three months back and Syro is the brand spanking new album that came out a couple weeks past (with a pretty standard and tame marketing rollout of a blimp with an Aphex Twin logo floating about some major cities a month ahead of the release date to build old school hype).
Caustic Window feels like 1994, in that it's very similar to AT's output at that time. High energy and glitchy. If there music that seemed to ape a meth experience, it would most likely be stuff like Stomper, Mumbly, and Cunt. Ice cold, jagged, shrieking, all to be sampled and tempered and by DJ's and producer in the coming years (it's the Circle of Life).
Syro, meanwhile, is much more mellow in comparison. Mid-tempo beats shuffle, and anything harsh only flares up on occasion. It's never the focus of the tunes on here (named after the machines, or settings on the machines, like 'produk 29 '), which annoying music critics doing cheap psychiatrist couch gags would associate with AT getting older, getting married, and having a kid. Or maybe he just didn't feel like repeating where he was thirteen or twenty years ago, and this is what he found. This answer doesn't exactly fall into a typical artist narrative arc, but of all artists who would be least interested in such a thing, it's Aphex Twin.
Expectations get fuzzy for old and new music by artists who have a big enough reputation to have their history charted and analyzed by people who do that sort of thing for a living or out of genuine interest.
If someone's first exposure to Aphex Twin is reading about the album release on Pichfork, hearing a track or two on Youtube, and then gorging on music from a torrent site and information on youtube, they are going to have a much different relationship to Syro than someone who was there twenty years ago.
There's less of a past than every before, as you can experience it all in an immediate and somewhat truncated form thanks to the internet.
So who knows how a person who just heard the new U2 album react when they go a listen to 1980's Boy. Of these three new records, we'll go right out and say that U2 fares the worst, but the Irish quartet (how's that for making them sound like a jazz band?) have been in the game long enough that the actual worst they would ever do is be boring. The level of risk and reinvention that was there for the Achtung Baby/Zooropa and Pop sessions is nonexistent. They've got too much of their 'greatest band in the world' reputation at stake for that (Radiohead on the other hand, has no problem playing with the killswitch, as they've almost broken up over tracklistings in the past). So Songs of Innocence is okay (Miracle is the blueprint leadoff power single, Volcano is a nice enough short, sweet standout, but everything else could have been from their last three albums, which means they are unremarkable and - wait for it - okay). But most U2 fans can be happy enough with that. It's not 1987, 1991, or - for quite a lot of people who like All That You Can’t Leave Behind - 2000 anymore. Good enough is good enough, and the fact that it's free with only one string attached (you have to have itunes and click on a button to have the songs download and play), is a nice enough gesture. People are much more forgiving and open minded about gifts than something they shelled out $9.99 for.
Contrast U2's 'now most of the world has it' approach with Thom Yorke's 'first you have to download BitTorrent software and pay me six bucks' strategy. The former is trying to make this as simple as possible. Meanwhile, the Radiohead frontman wants you to be completely cognizant of how you are buying and accessing his new album. Not only are you without a doubt paying for it (called a 'paygate', as opposed to the previous 'paywall', which I suppose sounds a bit more impenetrable without illegal activity), but then you can see that there really is a community of people that have the files and are helping it being seeded across the 'net so that everyone can download it all the more quickly. Part of the idea being that even if you leave BitTorrent open after you download the files, you are helping others download the file quickly by keeping it 'up' and available.
Oh, there's also music involved in all this. Yorke's love of Burial is loud and proud, as the beats are all murky, muted and on repeat. Soft gallops of artificial percussion, the silence after which hangs in the air for a breath, waiting it to come back around, the quiet being filled with glows and shines of synth sounds, as well as Yorke's still baby-smooth falsetto.
There's less tightness than AMOK, which is Atoms for Peace jamming chopped up and reassembled into more straightforward tunes. The result that Yorke almost had an obligation to make an album with a full band sound, no matter how much drenched in his electronic whims.
Tomorrow's Modern Boxes feels a lot more relaxed and looser. There's a lot more rhythm that takes its sweet time, even when it flirts with an uptempo beat like 'The Mother Lode'. Diehard fans (and there plenty, as the album's been downloaded 400,00 times already) 2006's The Eraser was more tuneful. If this were a Radiohead album, 'Guess Again!' would be the Lotus Flower-esque lead single (for a band that changes it sound as often as Radiohead, sometimes the only signpost can be the most recent record), and 'Interference' would be the standard, heartbreaking piano ballad. And now, with his stylish electro-whims satisfied, Yorke can now go back and work with Radiohead on The Bends II, to be released next year, just in time for the 20th anniversary of the original album.
I am tumbling down Van Gogh bloody ear hallways because the reverse speakers full of kick drum howls are cracking the fibreglass floors and pieces of tooth ceiling are falling like yellow stalactites. It's likely that I'm fast asleep in dreamland but instead I've just closed my eyes as I walk to the grocery store. An unseasonably cool wind blows. The sun keeps losing against the grey skies. 'Vox Turned to DED' playing on my not exactly expensive headphones.
Liars are back but really they never left since they released Wixiw in 2012 which is hella damn good probably the best thing committed to audio or digital or whatever tape this decade so far no kidding no fingers crossed it's really the bomb a bit of manic punk electronica dream psych thing that's all the rage with the kids these days but never so good as these eleven tracks from Exact Colour of Doubt to Annual Moon Words and it still feels like a secret 'cause you see these guys in venues that never hit/fit four figures.
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, our happy weird trio from New York/Berlin/LA are kicking out new and fancy jams, this time compiled under the name Mess, and is available now. These guys have names, faces, hobbies, socks, but there has always been something inhuman about the work of the Liars. Even though they tour and you could see the three of them (with the occasional backing band members) in the flesh, the live shows are bursts of manic punk energy that have had to give up a bit of the demented, grandiose atmosphere caught on tape.
A sacrifice of strange, creative powers to get in a bus and tour to bring home the bacon. It's no surprise that 2004's They Were Wrong So We Drowned was recorded in a cabin in the woods. It certainly sounds like the kind of album where there were witches killed near the so-called studio.
If Mess follows any trajectory, it's the continued shattering of the mirror of whatever was their last album. There are faint and jagged reflections of Wixiw, but for the most part it's fresh as hideous daises.
The sounds of the shadow gods partying through Dionysian nights and then moaning and groaning the next morning thanks to the thunderbolt heavy hangovers.
Screaming as an instrument. Percussion that sounds like broken bones. Glacial drones that melt and freeze rise and fall pool and bubble and explode out of the wilderness.
And it's this damn close to being ohmigodreally dance-able.
Mess is a pumping, paranoid monster, and that's coming from someone who has gorged on their entire discog, from 2002's They Threw Us All In A Trench and Put A Monument On Top onwards. Seven albums that are never quite the same, never quite different, never quite never quite anything.
The idea of anyone stumbling across this inadvertently while driving their kids to soccer practice makes my body hair stick up on its hind legs, woofing excitedly, ready to hump your unprepared limbs. This is an album that has to be slipped into the drink of the world for the populace to properly enjoy it. It will change you from within.
However, in a slight more prosaic description, Mess is a high energy first half that winds down into some Joy-Division like atmospheric tracks in part two. It's as if they replaced the squealing jagged guitar sounds from their debut with squealing jagged synths sounds.
Angus Andrews' signature falsetto takes the latter half of 'I'm No Gold' to dizzying heights while the drums and robot electronics pound in tribal circles far below (Julian Gross is a great drummer, so for this project they seem to have built a half-robot version of him which he may then control and/or break. I think Aaron Hemphill just set fire to anything that made sounds in the studio and recorded and edited the result with protools).
Words? There are words. Some are shrieks, some are angry pontifications that are hard to make out because of intentional microphone fuzz:
'I'll die before the fire's out, out, out'
'Cast out of culture, compound impatience'
'We are the warning light, we crawl in capsules falling.'
'Read my lips this is not life'
'And I'm burning up'
Tragic schizophrenic mantras.
And because you can't hear them cleanly it's like a new jumbled bit of poetry with each listen. The experience ripples and shimmers differently, depending on your own mood, what you the listener brings to the table.
Confidence in their creepiness, with the second half trio of Darkside, Boyzone, and Dress Walker simmering and crawling like mutant sound experiments. The vocals haunt the background, and you try to grab them as they are the most familiar thing to your poor, naive ears as you fall further into this rabbit hole.
Which is familiar territory for the band. It's not a matter of doing the opposite of whatever worked last time. It's a matter of burning the forest you just forged a path through so your next adventure is related to the last one only as a wavering memory, a handful of ash or dust (so you can find and show that fear to aimless, unsuspecting passersby).
Liars albums takes time to sink in. Like microscopic mites slowly burrowing into the flakes of your dead skin that cover your guts and bones (that's the science fact of the day: All of the skin cells on your the surface of your body are dead, and are constantly flying off as you move).
Mess is a powerful and immediate pummelling up front (lets also add 'instinctual, reactive, explosive, chaotic'). Then the second half is they body trying to heal. Their previous, Wixiw, is perhaps their most mature and reflective album to date. Certainly it was the most labour intensive one (this observation comes from interviews circa the record's release. In other interviews around this time, the band also noted that regarding their personal lives' at the time of writing and recording, one of them began a serious relationship, and another ended a serious one. From this one can infer (but not necessarily should infer) that this album is about relationships, although the lyrics are vague and strange enough to always be open to wider interpretations than this. Perhaps I shouldn't have mentioned this fact at all, since doing so can shape observations and experiences by the listener if they know this going in. Maybe - despite mentioning such personal events in the interview - the band would distance itself from the opinion that their personal lives had any sort of connection to the music. But then that's the benefit/problem with New Criticism: now any observation can be the basis for a long and winding interpretation).
Okay. (twiddles thumbs, waiting for you to go by this on iTunes, vinyl, CD, cassette, etc.).
It's hard to write about seventh albums that hit you like a ton of brick on the first few listens and only worms its way into your heart after another five or six (or thirty) spins.
The album opens with a robotic-ized Angus Andrews commenting on faces, how he would like you to eat his (and take his pants off, for the record). The fuzzy hammer blows begin soon after, and you're either bobbing your head with a warped sense of glee or wondering why you're putting yourself through this.
Are you supposed to find something else beneath the beats? Are the electronic crunches and swirls suggesting something more than energy for energy's sake? What more do you fucking want?
How about subtle politics? If Wixiw (pronounced 'wish-you' which sounds pretty personal) is about relationships, why can't the big, brash, boom of Mess be about bigger things? The unease of the musical tones and atmospheres says as much about discontent and confusion as the ambiguous lyrics. (in his less than enthusiastic review, Geffen sees a connection to Radiohead's approach on 2003's underrated Hail to the Thief).
This isn't a band that wears only its heart on its sleeve. Organs - both vital and non - are sliding and leaking all over their tattered robes.
Compared to the rest of their material, which can range from sparse, haunting arrangements to a brutal cacophony of noise involving guitars, horns, and tin garbage cans (probably), Mess is a strange, alien indulgence. It's the band's longest album, with the last two tracks pushing to seven minutes and beyond (the longest in their discography, if one omits the half hour looper, 'This Dirt Makes That Mud', that closes their debut).
'I'm No Gold' is one of the standouts on the first half, but the tinny little 'Can't Hear Well' that is sandwiched between the stompers 'Pro Anti Anti' (how's that for politics in a nutshell) and 'Mess on a Mission' (the on-off, up-down lead single) shouldn't be discounted.
But as the album slows and winds down, it's clear that Perpetual Village is the nine minute ultimate penultimate. Personal and public laments abound, the state and the self analyzing its reflection in Andrews' mournful, Thom Yorke like-falsetto. The 4/4 beat creeps in quietly a third of the way through, the false ending two thirds of the way. It bends and curves like a river in the night.
Dancing in the alleys, beneath railways tracks that scream out rusty iron squeals as train brakes are applied all through the night.
The dread has rhythm. It's a silver lining I'm willing to take.
Mess ends with 'Left Speaker Blown'.
A tour of a desecrated, deserted ancient town.
Fog gives way to nothing which gives way to dust.
You don't even have to close your eyes to see it.
Andrews warbles with plutonium-heavy dejection, 'I hope you never learn to play music'.
A dying wish, a final curse.
It closes with snippets of samples from what sounds like a fifties instructional video for children, but is probably not. 'Say the word limb', 'say the word once', 'say the word nag', 'say the word dime'.
Repetition. Education. Confirmation.
A travelling back to a simpler, quieter time?
A mournful, reflective slow burn ending that doesn't exactly fill you with joy. You find the past much the same as the present (making it a 'Perpetual Village', perhaps?).
High energy to low energy can be a stylistic choice (as the band has noted), or it can be a commentary on entropy, that is, the slow decay of all matter in the universe (which the band has not at all noted), which would end with - ready? - quite an extensive but microscopic Mess. And inevitable.
The double-vinyl release makes this difference all the more stark. The first record is the high energy party for weirdoes. The second is slower, fragile, and maybe - just maybe - a bit more accessible for people who embraced Wixiw so fondly.
Mess is a chaotic vomit experience that ends with a reflective but uncomfortable chin wiping.
Opining that 'this music is not for everyone' is always a shit line in the fake sand. A kneejerk elitist statement, suggesting that a majority of the populace will hate or be indifferent to the work while a small segment will recognize its greatness.
And greatness is certainly debatable, since how can it be great if only a couple thousand people think that's the case? Aren't they drowned out by the silence of the mostly indifferent and unfamiliar? Music critics have traditionally been the water bearers for the artists that never burned up the charts, with the Velvet Underground, Big Star, and Wire being prime examples of bands whose back catalogues burn brightly and whose influences are wide ranging.
Liars almost fit into that mold.
Their works are certainly well-received, they have enough of a fanbase to tour three continents, they subconsciously graze the mainstream culture (that nebulous, practically formless blob of communication and things 'we' like), but connecting dots to other artists or genres that bubble near popularity is hard for a band like Liars.
You can't pull a synth, drum beat, or even the howling vocals (although distinctive) and affix it to something you heard on the radio in the last few years, but there's a background microwave radiation-like thing going on.
The organ swirling, falsetto-laden final third of 'I'm No Gold' sounds practically disco, a universal musical trope that draws you immediately in.
It's a complicated mixture of these sounds and visuals that are then diffused above and upon the city of Los Angeles and beyond.
An intermingling cloud of style and form.
This kind of twisted high energy dance beats have been part of popular music for a good decade.
The band didn't lead the pack in this genre, Liars just bend it to their own left-field whims much more enthusiastically than many other artists.
But are you supposed to think about all this when you take Mess for a spin?
Good music should grabs your ears and not let go, always keeping you away from such chin scratching. Only after the fact did I think about the Liars' reputation/influence, because I wanted to say something substantial about them because I think their new album is amazing. I want people to know this. Sharing is caring, after all.
But I'm going to stop writing now and start Mess again from the top, so 'scuse me while I kiss the sky.
They cannot be overrated.
It is known.
Even if you dismiss them as a poppy boy band who stole from other genres to mediocre effect (I actually felt like an idiot for typing out the words of such a ridiculous sentiment), their popularity meant that how they handled their fame as cultural icons paved the way for how music was made, consumed, and marketed in their wake (and is unquestionably still being felt today). They have become the archetype for the existence of a massive pop culture event, and not events solely limited to music, either.
The speed of The Beatles' rise and fall in the public eye - and all the positive and negative aspects contained within - is mind-boggling. It is paradoxically long and short.
Twelve years as friends and partners (Paul and George met John in 1957 (and met Ringo not long after), they stopped spending any time together by mid-1969). Seven years in the recording studio (mid-1962 to mid-1969). Seven years as the biggest band in the world (Beatlemania began in the UK in the summer of 1963, and the Beatles were officially no more when Paul announced as much in April 1970).
Touring incessantly for nearly six years, if one includes their residencies at Hamburg bars and strip clubs, where they played up to eight hours a night seven days a week for months on end. Working on their chops, their stage banter, and
(okay, hold up. Do you need a reason to write about the Beatles? It's not like you have something terribly original to say. You aren't exactly shining a light on a talented band that for too long as has existed in the footnotes of music history. What are you contributing to with this article? Another few thousand words on the laudatory heap made of millions more dedicated to The Fab Four? )
If there can be one thing that separates The Beatles from other artists that came before and after was the incredible speed at which they transformed from a fad-like pop band singing lighthearted songs about relationships to the distinguished artists who created out of the creative ether works like 'Eleanor Rigby' and 'Tomorrow Never Knows' (if I may use two songs from Revolver as examples of wholly perfect art and experimental rock music).
Music for twelve year olds was supposed to be as disposable as being twelve. Something that was lighthearted, silly, and energetic, lasted for a while, but then is moved on from and appreciated only in context.
Even fifty years ago fads were measured in months, so it's no surprise that record industry executives and even manager Brian Epstein pressed the Beatles to churn out hits every few months to make the most of the assumed brief time in the spotlight.
But Lennon and McCartney rose to the challenge even in the middle of an insane schedule of promotion, touring, and movie shoots. The longest amount of time between any fresh release of new music was a maximum of six months, which could be singles or albums.
Nowadays, two years is the minimum amount of time between albums. Six months to year of promotion and touring after the release (a year and a half if it happens to be a blockbuster). Today the record company strategy is concentrated, heavily promoted bursts of music, appearances, interviews, etc. For The Beatles and many bands in the sixties it was a constant push, because it was expected to end at any minute. There was no long game in rock and roll. No one expected a band's catalogue to be worth much years down the road (oh, The Beatles kind of changed that, too).
The Beatles released Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band in mid 1967 followed it with the Magical Mystery Tour EP (or LP) in late 1967, all while releasing five more singles before releasing their actual next album, The Beatles (known as The White Album), in late 1968. To compare this, Michael Jackson followed up Thriller five years later.
This kind of pump-it-out pressure is good for some people. McCartney talks of the band always wanting to better themselves with each trip to the recording studio, always wanting to add an unusual chord change, a more complicated middle eight, or a new lyrical twist to each tune. They may not have explicitly asked themselves, 'Why don't we completely blow the fuck out of this decade musically?', but that's pretty much what happened.
The only competition they really had in terms of innovation and popularity is Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones, but even combining the sales of these two artists don't touch how many Beatles albums flew off the shelves.
Estimates range from 600 million to 1 billion albums sold. No one else comes close. That doesn't include singles, most of which never appeared on the albums that were recorded and released around the same time. Twenty number one singles in America. That averages out to about three per year while they were actively in the studio. Nearly twenty two million singles sold in the UK. Topping the charts across the world, and frequently with people covering their songs. Yesterday wasn't released as a single in England by them, but it hit the top of ten with Matt Munro's version, released a couple months later (this happened a lot in the sixties, although it wound down as the decade went on, The Beatles effectively making the expectation that the artist would write his or her own material that much more dominant).
People keep coming back, new legions of fans every decade. They had the best selling album of the first decade of the 21st century - the compilation 1 - even though they'd not been in the recording studio together since 1969.
An almost unavoidable lesson/experience/stopover to becoming familiar with one of the most important cultural periods of the 20th century. And that's simply as a curious fan of music. If you're in the music industry (it's still around) in any capacity, as artist or promoter or executive, not stumbling across the Beatles is unthinkable.
Everyone bought Beatles records. And the rest who didn't had their taste shaped by avoiding The Beatles.
One would be driven to seek out more unconventional musical tastes, only to find that The Beatles got there first. Country, blues, soul, calypso, Indian, dancehall, avant-garde/experimental, and all the variations of 'rock' (surf, prog, hard, etc.) all of these were dumped into the stew, all could be picked over and plugged in.
Every laudatory comment about The Beatles' abilities has to be quickly followed up with the acknowledgement that they were also the most popular artist in the world at the same time. It puts the matter in a difficult to grasp context.
They evolved at a rapid pace and their popularity never waivered. In fact, as their work matured and drew inspiration from more unusual musical and aesthetic styles, the attracted new fans who might have at first written them off (as the older guard are wont to do) as poppy lightweights.
The Beatles weren't following the expected trajectory.
If you didn't burn out/break up like most pop/rock groups did (after a couple years, and especially after hitting it big), you were supposed to get bloated and repetitive. You didn't risk killing the golden goose by taking risks.
And while managers were pushy and overbearing typically, The Beatles got along with Brian Epstein. Which made discussing future plans easier. The power to say no. Which required not a only sitting on top of a shit ton of money, but integrity (no, really), and being able to stand up to the record company. Stop touring. Labour in the studio as long as you wanted. Be opinionated, and talk about (or shoot your mouth off regarding) segregation, Vietnam, cultural traditions, and your band in relative size to the messiah.
You weren't supposed to change your method of doing everything and still be ridiculously popular.
They complicated what it meant to be a cultural epoch and in doing so became even more iconic.
Oh, and they wrote their own songs.
It sounds rather ridiculous to make a point of that, but being an accomplished songwriter and performer was not the norm in the industry at the time. You did one or the other.
Even artists that did involve themselves in songwriting at the time typically did so with a seasoned but offstage professional.
It just so happened, though, that John had Paul and Paul had John. Two and half incredible songwriters. A perfect mixture of natural talent and an incredible amount of hard work from their teen years on. The easy by-line on this was that McCartney's lightness and pop sensibilities balanced out John's darker and heavier experimentations. But that's oversimplifying it in the wrong way. Sometimes they wrote songs spoofing the other's perceived style (McCartney penned the brief and bizarre ditty, 'Why Don't We Do It In the Road?' knowing that it was Lennon's type of thing). The better oversimplification was that they were songwriting partners and friends, who could support each other's work, tweaking chords, bridges, and lyrics to tighten up the overall piece. A second pair of ears, if you will, that had been listening, playing and socializing with the other for years and years.
[oh hey, since you're here reading about good music, here's a strange appendix to the 'best of 2013' that we didn't get around to in time for the year in review thingy. Julia Holter's Loud City Song is an incredible album that needs to get at least a bit more attention. Part folk, part jazz, part electronic, it's kind of like if The Beta Band was one talented person from New York with an angelic singing voice]
[and new Liars' album coming at the end of March! Wheeee!!!!!]
The Beatles were a tight band with plenty of chops, even if none of the guitarists were Claptons or Hendrixes, and the drummer was a far cry from Bonham. And it just so happened that the two primary songwriters also had incredible singing abilities, able to croon, serenade, lament, and scream whatever their creativity required (Paul's extremes: Mother Nature's Son and I'm Down; John's: Julia and Twist and Shout). With George and Ringo no slouches either (Ringo used his limited range beautifully), the vocals on Beatles records were always impeccable.
They were pioneers in so many ways that I'm finding it frustrating to arrange them in any sort of order. So I'll note here how they took advantage of advances in recording techniques. Were they first to treat the studio like a laboratory? No, but most people's first listening experience with backwards guitar and vocals was 'Rain' (the same with tape loops (the foundation of electronic music) in 'Tomorrow Never Knows').
They also made movies. Good movies. And in the plot of 'Help' was ridiculous, who cares, within five or six minutes you're going to get a sweet tune to make you forget that Ringo might get killed by a curling stone.
They were lucky that they only had to play themselves, and that they could do that to rather entertaining degree. A Hard Day's Night looks like a documentary on paper. Learning how to be smartasses (or for Lennon, just refining what came naturally) in Hamburg served them well when the reporters asked dumb questions and the movie cameras started rolling.
Dylan may have brought a literary bent - via folk and the beats - to rock, but The Beatles brought it to the masses already eating out of the palms of their hands.
Making things popular just by taking a genuine interest in them, and it doesn't even have to be musical. Harrison's interest in Indian culture went far beyond the sitar, for instance.
Even their style and appearance quickly absorbed the counterculture, made it dominant, and then they were off to the next iteration before the last one was passé. To wit: Introducing rainbow-like hippie threads at the advent of 1967's Summer of Love, dressing like walruses, rabbits, and eggmen (no, really) in late '67 for the Magical Mystery Tour, and then ditching all of it to introduce in the casual-formal-hipster look in 1968.
Maybe a catalyst for social and cultural change for the baby boomers of the West was inevitable, but that it manifested itself in a pop/rock band with incredible talent meant that whatever crashed and burned (peace and love in a yellow submarine), at least you'll have a collection of great songs at the end of it.
Tipping points, perfect storms, the goldilocks temperature, so many things had to line up just right to allow The Beatles to have the impact they did. And to make this more of a 'lightning in a bottle' type epoch, it has to be mentioned that The Beatles were friends. They got along well with each other, and while relationships eventually deteriorated, for the ten plus years of living and working together, it was undeniably important that they could simply hang out and enjoy each other's company.
Even their failures became archetypes. When any other artistic relationship goes wrong,
it's compared to how The Beatles artistic (and personal) relationships went wrong. As successful as they were, spending so much time with each other was beginning to wear thin by the late sixties (Yoko was really just a small factor in Lennon's growing disinterest in Beatle-dom). From writing songs 'eyeball to eyeball', John and Paul wrote diss tracks to each other on their solo albums.
The Beatles were also subject to terrible, terrible business decision and contracts. Lennon and McCartney owned minority stakes in the publishing company that owned their songs. Brian Epstein signing away American merchandising rights for only 10% of the profits. This happened to practically all sixties artists, and on a Beatles scale, the amount of money pocketed by others was enormous.
Their drug influences and problems were contained to a period of months while for others artists they might have been years. Like dabbling in musical genres, they only dabbled in drugs for brief periods, and the respective creative poison can be attributed to certain (pot for Help/Rubber Soul, acid for Revolver/Sgt Pepper). Heroin meant shitty album output for years from some bands. For The Beatles it meant that Lennon was so stoned in early 1969 that he needed help from McCartney to work out the chord changes to 'Don't Let Me Down'.
The level of fame they reached. When it happens to anyone else, it's compared to Beatlemania. The Beatles came to the forefront of popular culture at a time of great social upheaval in the West. John, Paul, George and Ringo embraced many of the elements of the counterculture that became dominant.
Powerful enough to shape their own destinies, to decide not to tour, to not make films, spending more time (and therefore money) on albums than anyone. When they included 'Revolution 9' on The Beatles (aka The White Album) they created the most popular, well-known piece of avant-garde music by default.
The critical appreciation and influence is unparalleled. It's not just Rolling Stone constantly praising the Fab Four. It's not all marketing geared towards the Baby Boomer's endless thirst for nostalgia (although a lot of it is that, since they're the ones who still have a disposable income to spend on music they already own).
And even if there is the whiff of re-re-repackaging of their albums, one of the happy accidents from the PR push is that maybe it will attract a handful (or more) of younger listeners, who will become captivated the way their parents (or grandparents) were fifty years ago.
The Beatles rapid maturation as songwriters with the eyes of the world upon them is a wonderful experience at a time when the world was going through hectic changes as well. But while critics can wax philosophical about Lennon's 'Revolution' and the protests of 1968, The Beatles had a much greater impact on the personal lives of their listeners. So many of their fans grew up alongside with them, expanding their minds from 'Please Please Me' to 'Paperback Writer' to 'Happiness is a Warm Gun' (and for the diehard fans, there's always great joy in stumbling across the (slightly) lesser-known Beatles tracks like Blue Jay Way, All Together Now, and I Dig a Pony). It's teenager music exploding into endless creative brilliance, created over the length of time that the teenage years lasts. It's just what an adolescent needs at just the right time, but it's just as poetic and fun no matter how old you are.
[google lyrics for 'I Want to Tell You' right now for a zen take on life experience in general]
The Beatles' music and The Beatles' story are so good (and so well documented), that it exists as treasure that anyone can stumble upon and be enthralled by. Now excuse me, I’m going to listen to ‘The Ballad of John & Yoko’ and revel in the fact that a guy can make a catchy rock song which can speak to all of us about hardship, even though it’s about how difficult it was to get married to a Japanese conceptual artist.
Here is a link to Steven Hyden's request for rock:
In this excellent series of articles on uber-popular rock and roll bands from the 1970s to the present, Mr. Hyden (should I call him Steve?) closes with a request for bands that utilize a guitar, bass, drums and occasional keyboard to make music for the masses again. Using the model of The Black Keys as the lone hope for guitar riffs selling by the millions, he speculates that too many bands in New York and LA are content with playing to a rather narrow audience: 25 year olds in New York and LA who don't mind spending upwards of five dollars for a coffee and proudly don't own a television.
It's a bit of a stretch. There are plenty of rock bands out there that have a least a drop of pop sensibility, and the work ethic of playing hundreds of dates in clubs and theatres each year.
Who are they? Bands like fun, The Lumineers, Mumford and Sons (folk cranked up to eleven!), Fall Out Boy (remember them?), and veterans like The Foo Fighters and Depeche Mode (did you know they have a new album out?).
Wait a minute, you may say, those bands don't rock! Not in the way that [insert a band you think rocks] actually rocks!
Rock has always been a bit of paradoxical cultural touchstone. It's popular but its mythos is based largely on the idea of it being rebellious and iconoclastic. It's pushed the musical boundaries of noise, improvisation, and bare emotional energy, but it's been most successful commercially when it's barely acknowledged any of those things.
[The Beatles are probably the exception here, but exceptions for most cultural standards and practices must be made for The Beatles]
It encapsulated a 'fuck the man' attitude while being peddled mainly by 'the man'.
Rock's always had an identity crisis. It was made for teenagers, and frequently acts like one: Moody, irresponsible, loud, disgusting, curious, not giving a shit, trying to be cool. And when it 'grows up/matures', it's proclaimed dead, and another generation of teens are needed to rush in and sneer, spit, and crunch power chords again.
Nostalgia is a fickle mistress, especially when involving an experience in the formative and wilderness years. The idea that rock was the soundtrack to your youth and your friends' youth was enough evidence for you to assume that for a certain stretch, rock was the biggest and best thing on earth.
It wasn't. Rock is like any other genre of music. Add a healthy dollop of pop ('pop' being a method to round more the jagged unpalatable edges of any bit of culture to make it more appealing to the masses) to rock, electronic, country, jazz, etc. and the chances of it selling by the millions increases dramatically.
The problem with rock is that it went from what was believed to be a moneymaking fad and little more to something else entirely. Its fusion to the general 1960s counterculture meant that it was the part of the social revolution that had a beat to it, a Timothy Leary/Abbie Hoffman approved moment of leisure. And while other forms of music have also been associated with such social changes, rock did it on an unprecedented scale.
Youth had more money and freedom than ever before. And some of it went to records, stereo systems, concert tickets and band t-shirts. It created a market for rock journalism, which meant you could make money writing about rock music for an audience that wanted to read about rock music, expanding its reach and introducing people to some of the lesser known artists (of course, rock journalism was still dependent on the cooperation with the record labels, which in part led Frank Zappa to quip that rock journalism meant, 'people who can't write interviewing people who can't talk for people who can't read').
The genre's staying power was in some ways incidental. The pervasiveness of baby boomer culture (and the many reactions against it over the years) have made rock both invulnerable to criticism and the most criticized piece of 20th century culture. It was the powerful soundtrack of a new generation of people who grew into a society that was pushing for greater equality, acceptance, and social justice. On top of that, years down the road, it was the the painful, sellout reminder of how much this generation changed when they were no longer young.
Rock was fortunate that it matured as its fans did. The Beatles in 1964 ('A Hard Day's Night') are worlds away from The Beatles in 1966 ('Tomorrow Never Knows'). In this way its simplicity of having three or four core instruments playing three or four chords made it that much malleable when it came time to experiment, which the Beatles pioneered sonically, as Dylan did lyrically. Perhaps if modals were as easy to grasp as riffs, the sound of the sixties would have been John Coltrane and Miles Davis.
Rock's own mythos has gotten in the way of the reality that it was sold the way Justin Bieber is today: Across a wide platform, with as much cheap, pointless swag and media hype as possible. Regardless of quality of their artistic output, Eminem, Marilyn Manson, Slayer, N.W.A., The Sex Pistols and Prince became more popular as the debate over their work and actions were derided by the old guard and concerned parents.
Just as Elvis wouldn't be filmed from the waist down. Just as the entire genre was seen as a threat of desegregation (that is, the concern that it was music influenced by black musicians, being bought by white kids). Just as The Rolling Stones were the antithesis to The Beatles, pissing on gas stations and doing covers of still controversial blues music (the BBC initially refused to play their records, saying that Mick Jagger sounded 'too black'). Just as having long hair - whether on stage or in the audience - was a hopelessly easy way to draw a line in the sand and say 'I/we're different'.
And the kids ate it up.
Rock and roll itself exploded in many different directions, and, depending on who you ask, it achieved perfection with Chuck Berry's mid to late fifties singles, The Velvet Underground's first record, The Stooges' Funhouse, Led Zeppelin's IV, the Stones' Exile on Main Street, The Sex Pistols' Never Mind the Bollocks, Metallica's Master Of Puppets, The Pixies' Surfer Rosa, Nirvana's Nevermind or Radiohead's OK Computer (Homer Simpson would go with the year 1974). In the early years, rock bands were mocked for their appearance and lack of musical chops. Soon lyrical topics and themes breached which was then considered good taste (or, in the case of mid-sixties Dylan, difficult-to-grasp-unless-you're-down-with-Howl taste). This made it possible for Lennon and McCartney to write an acoustic/orchestral epic about reading the newspaper (oh, boy).
The initial 'corrupting the youth' reaction to rock was a touch of genuine concern from the greatest generation and a massive push of record company and media hype. And it hit the financial jackpot. Rock was portrayed as rebel music. A rebellion sold mostly through giant record companies that made billions, but rebellious none the less (if only because it made Mom and Dad tell you to turn that racket down).
And as much as the record companies would take an occasional risk on a new sound, there was (not surprisingly) the tendency to double/triple/quadruple down on a replica the current big thing. For every innovator there were ten copycats. The British Invasion and Folk Rock in the sixties, glam and punk in the seventies, New Wave in the eighties, grunge in the nineties. Sometimes the innovators were critically and commercially successful immediately, and sometimes the innovators were under-appreciated by critics and fans alike, only gaining recognition years down the road. Sometimes the copycats made millions (most of which went to the record companies), and sometimes the masses could smell a hackneyed ploy to rob of them of their money a mile away.
Water it down in sound and appearance and then it flies off the shelves. Pop-drenched covers of Dylan songs initially outsold his own records. Gram Parsons barely made a cent, but The Eagles took his sound and made millions. Bowie was so influenced by The Velvet Underground he made it up to Lou Reed by producing his breakthrough solo album, Transformer. Take the snarl and speed out of Metallica's riffs and replace lyrics about pain of living with the pain of love and you have Jon Bon Jovi and the dozens of offshoot bands like them (and a license to print money).
Bands that had the talent or mastered the formula sold millions and toured in arenas. Bands that kept off the beaten path were still able to sell in the tens or hundreds of thousands and tour theatres. Everything was right enough with the rock and roll world, and it would certainly never die (hey, hey, my, my).
This is a rather familiar and cynical rundown of rock and/or roll being presented to us for the last sixty-odd years. That there's always money to be made of disaffected youth in some way or another, with a record company typically selling something vaguely familiar, but cautiously offering something completely different on the side, just in case it might capture the zeitgeist (at which point you adjust promotional materials accordingly).
Hyden's series of articles on the 'Winners' of Rock 'n' Roll made for a nice twist on this narrative. He looked a success from mainly (some might say almost exclusively) a commercial perspective. The bands that tweaked formulas - some already popular, some existing mainly in the fringes - and through hard work and luck, sold millions of records and made millions of dollars. Most also had critical acclaim for a decent stretch of their careers, which always helps on the greatest hits and reunion tours.
Of course, there were many other bands that followed the same formulas as Aerosmith, Kiss, and Metallica but ultimately went nowhere. Or not very far, releasing some albums that did okay at best, no matter how hard the record company push was behind them.
It underscores the point that success requires a lot fortuitous components coming together at once (including a dash of luck), and such occurrences are beyond the control of the record industry. They're stuck groping blindly in the dark, always on the search for the next big thing, which meant big companies took risks on bizarre little bands. The Stooges were on the same label as The Eagles and The Doors (Electra). The Velvet Underground was on Verve, an offshoot label of MGM, that mainly released jazz records.
By Hyden's standards, neither of these bands were 'winners'. None of their albums cracked the top 100 when released, and while they were occasionally placed on festival bills, they mainly put on shows in small clubs and bars (The Stooges' final show (first lineup, anyway) famously took place in a biker bar outside Detroit, where singer Iggy Pop got the shit kicked out of him at the end of it, having goaded the audience the whole night through).
The Stooges explosive, angry sound and manic live performances wasn't simply a musical 'fuck you' to the world from four guys living in Detroit. It was also attempt to, y'know, sell some records and make money by doing something you really liked.
The boundary pushing wasn't so much symbolic of social upheaval or commenting on contemporary music as it was something that the band thought sounded good (a factor that critics can sometimes have difficulty with infusing into the narrative or angle of their argument). No one goes into the recording studio with the single thought of, 'well, chances are our music will barely crack the Top 200, but decades from now people will see it as a seminal and groundbreaking record that will influence scores of artists to come'.
And while The Stooges sounded like a battle of twisted life and psychotic death on record, their commitment on getting as big and popular as their eventual legendary status is quite questionable, as heroin and alcohol abuse tore the band apart twice in three years. Members were too stoned to play gigs or even record from time to time. Certainly they weren't trying as hard as Hyden is hoping bands of today will. So are Wavves, No Age, Death Grips, and Spoon to take more cues from Kiss than The Stooges, at least in terms of work ethic and promotion? Not that a lack of apparent effort to hit that sweet spot of mainstream is strictly at 21st century phenomenon. Pavement was mocked (by Beavis and Butthead no less) for internalizing the slacker attitude of the nineties way too much. In the wake of Nirvana's success, bassist Krist Novoselic quipped, 'we don't try very hard, but from now on we're going to try a whole lot less'. This doesn't seem to be the proper frame of mind in which to foster a revitalization of rock.
But then, why try and start up a band at all? What's the point? Too push the aesthetic? Make money? Be famous? Have sex with groupies? Change the way people listen to and appreciate music? Rock their fucking faces off? Have fun onstage and to hell with everyone else? To not give a shit? Or at the very least appear to not give a shit?
Certainly it's a mixture of some of those things, but that makes for a difficult measure of success. Which is why numbers are always reassuring. You can't dispute how many records you sold. You can't argue with the fourth quarter earnings or the square footage of the mansion that your twenty nine date sold out arena tour bought. Those numbers are ironclad, and can be compared to lesser and greater acts up and down the rock parthenon.
These numbers (ideally in millions) are rock's lifeblood, which throughout the sixties and seventies fought only with poppier derivatives of itself for chart supremacy. This is not to disregard the work of the artists that only sold in the thousands, but the fact that rock and rolled blew the minds and bleed the ears of millions around the globe for decade after decade is why its pulse is constantly reassessed.
At least until the last ten plus years, where rock really has fallen off its perch and wallows amongst the lesser gods of country, hip-hop and dance (genres that have also benefited from pop-infusion, since Willie Nelson is as far from Carrie Underwood as The Sonics are from Nickelback). Sales have cratered, record industry profits are hemorrhaging, and everything which might sell that surrounds the music (concerts tickets, t-shirts, song licensing) has become that much more valuable. Even if bands try to go a bit more corporate while maintaining their own sense of integrity (hurrah, Black Keys!), winning in the Hyden sense has become much more difficult. And Hyden's enthusiasm through this series of articles is wonderful. It's great that with a guitar and an attitude you can conquer the 'world' (by which I mean play to a packed house in the Continental Airlines Arena).
Unfortunately, the main problem with this wish is simply economic. People don't buy nearly as much rock music anymore because they don't have to. They either steal it outright or are content with streaming it off the band's or an online music publication's website. And if there's no money flowing in, there's no major record label interested in pushing the music to a larger audience (which the label hopes would result in even more money flowing in).
While some of rock has gotten weirder, most of it is not that far off from (or as difficult as) Zeppelin, Nirvana, and other platinum selling bands of the past. There is probably an arena tour-sized audience out there for Metz, Spoon, Wavves, and Godspeed You! Black Emperor (although Godspeed might not make it to the radio), but with a fraction of people buying the music, it affects the value of all aspects of the music culture, from tangible things like ticket sales to more abstract notions like anticipation for a new release (these things exist still, but on a much smaller scale).
Rock used to be big enough to absorb all its contradictions. Now the money's just not there anymore. Tame Impala makes more money letting their songs play in cell phone commercials than they do from record sales. Is this selling out? How can it be, when many fans have valued the artist's work at $0? And it's kind of hard to accuse a band of selling out when selling has always been the point of the music industry.
You can't win in the same way you could win pre-Napster (if we have to whittle illegal downloading of music to a single, recognizable term/event). There's not enough room on the podium, which really means there's not enough money to go 'round.
Which is why you have to rely all the more heavily on familiar formats, even if they are offering steadily diminishing returns. The much vilified Nickelback is one of the biggest rock bands of the 21st century. They've perfected the formulaic three and half minute rock song, and unleash twelve of them every three years. If this was the second half of the 1980s, they would be Bon Jovi. If it was the 1990s, they would be Creed.
The Black Keys are not like Nickelback, even if the two bands can play the same sized venues. And even if the two of them market their music in a very proactive, synergetic, 21st century way. And even if they've changed their grittier album sounds to something more radio friendly by using pop-oriented record producers. And even if the two of them decry the supposedly lofty position that indie rock holds in certain music circles ('certain' being physical places like Williamsburg and Silver Lake, or the virtual places that mimic such physical places, like Pitchfork and Tiny Mix Tapes), they should hold dear the very practical reality that they are financially set for life. Which is something very few bands that exist today can claim.
But unlike Nickelback, they also get critical respect, which means there will always be rock writers willing to write about them and say nice things (like Steve Hyden). They get narratives. They get questions about what their music means. So this means they have the opportunity to be written about years down the road as being important the way Zeppelin and The Stooges were important. It means they will be remembered in a way that they can do a tour fifteen years from now and still sell a good amount of tickets.
And they may be the only working band today that came to prominence this century - save for Arcade Fire - that occupies that rarified position of big money and big respect.
Hyden seems to believe that this can change, that lesser known rock bands can reach the level of mainstream success that The Black Keys has. He contrasts them with the art (?) rock band - from Williamsburg - Grizzly Bear, who, with two top ten albums under their belts, could be considered constantly on the cusp of making it big(ger). He even quotes Grizzly Bear member Ed Droste, who said he thought his band were writing pop music, and wondered why they weren't on the radio.
I'll field that one: Because mainstream radio's fate is tied to the fate of the record labels. People's behaviour is changing because the way they engage with culture is changing. This is boring, 'duh' level stuff, but it can easily be forgotten when we talk about something we cherish. I love the NYC/Berlin/LA-based band Liars, and sometimes I catch myself wondering why they mostly play in tiny venues in large cities and aren't bigger, but then I catch myself and think about what 'big' has to sound like and be presented as in 2013. And it's more than just getting your music in a few commercials. I've heard the Eagles of Death Metal in a phone ad recently, but you're probably furrowing your brow, trying to imagine who the hell they are. The Black Keys have licensed their music to over 300 different films, tv shows and commercials. Getting big is obviously still about hard work and making music, but promotional tactics play a moe essential role than ever, because that pie is always shrinking.
Hyden laments that fewer bands are willing to play this game. But it's not just a 'hipster cred'/'I don't really care' thing that is stopping other bands from stepping up (except for perhaps The Strokes, who really don't seem to care, as if the spirit of Pavement is alive inside them). There's nothing much to step up onto, so for a lot of bands there's no temptation to make any sort of concession, from how their music sounds to how they promote themselves. Maybe The Black Keys are a perfect storm (of a rock sound, of a protestant tour ethic, of marketing, of good timing), which means they can also remind us of how often these (crossfire) hurricanes occurred in years past.
Once upon a time rock and roll meant a weird combination of individual rebellion and corporate cash. Even when success was sneered at, the artists almost always took the money and ran. But now the money's dried up and it seems like individual rebellion in the form of making and listening to music is something for snobby hipsters who embrace thirty minute bone-shaking epics from Swans and seizure-like freakouts from Death Grips, instead of safe, meat-and-potatoes rock like The Black Keys.
It's not the fault of the artists, it's the fault of the marketplace, which no one likes to admit (including myself, because I sound like a soulless record executive). Even as the industry shrinks, the industry still know what sells and what doesn't. Which is why Bieber is pushed with the power of a freight train, why folk/country with a pop twist wins Grammies, and why The Beatles entire discography got remastered, and the Stones' biggest albums got deluxe re-releases with oodles of bonus tracks.
That's where the money is.
And that fact shouldn't get you down.
After all, it's only rock and roll. It doesn't have to be big. It just has to be there.
A slow rolling bombast.
A gathering storm that explodes into deep powerful thunder.
A chaotic and seemingly unending din.
Predictions of a bleak future? Nah, I'm just rocking out.
Is it getting harder to do such a thing, here in the waning months of 2012 Actually no, it just takes different forms when compared to how your older brothers and sisters, your parents, and your grandparents raged against the machine by listening to guitars, drums, and basses.
Sure the instruments are the same today, but technology and cultural re-hashing has demanded a tweaked everything else.
Nevertheless, sociologist Bryan Adams noted years ago that everywhere he goes, kids want to rock. That's still true, but they're a bit less interested in paying for it, and thanks to the internet, they don't have to. Bands that sold records in the millions now sell in the thousands, and bands that sold in the thousands now sell in hundreds through a tiny label or internet donations. Consequently, anything but the most accessible and audience tested pop music is promoted by the decaying record industry. This means moderately rocking acts have been pushed to the margins, and those that bring the fucking crazy have almost fallen off the radar completely.
Which is maybe where they kind of belong, anyway. Not that they shouldn't be popular, or don't deserve the big money that comes with filling a stadium, but punk, post-rock, and drone were in part a reaction to the bloated easy rock and defanged grunge that hovered over the sixties, seventies, eighties, and nineties like a cheap cloud. This is not to suggest that the music of Wire, Big Black, Joy Division, the Pixies, Sonic Youth, Slint, and My Bloody Valentine (to name but a few) were wholly reactive, but for the few fans that found them (few only when compared to other bands during the same periods which sold in the millions) they were a much needed antidote to whatever happened when what was originally edgy (rock in its many guises) gets blunted and watered down by the mainstream.
Nirvana is the prime example of the underground - with only the lightest sheen of poppy-sounding production placed upon their major label debut, Nevermind - coming to the fore and selling millions (and having water downed copy cats and watered down copy cats of the first round of copy cats sell millions more). And it probably won't happen again. Today money is extremely tight in the music industry (unless you're releasing the catchiest of pop tunes, like Taylor Swift or Adele), and so finding anything that sounds remotely bit different than what's on Top 40 radio or iTunes Charts will require the average music listener to invest a bit more legwork (which is really finger work).
And there's plenty out there, especially if you want to find sounds that are, well, out there. Intense, epic noisemakers Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Swans - both having reconvened in 2010 and recently released new albums - are violently fucking our ear holes with the wild abandon you would have thought died when Britney Spears invaded in the late nineties.
Even by indie rock standards (although that standard is meaning less and less as the mainstream shrinks), the subgenres such as post-rock, noise-rock, experimental-rock, can be a rather daunting. Regarding the work of Godpseed and Swans, the first thing noticed when examining their discographies is that songs are typically long, upwards of thirty minutes. They build slowly. When they reach their peak (sometimes about halfway through the tune), the crushing noise of massive drums and a multi guitar crunch can make Slayer seem like a light fare. Sometimes there are many minutes of guitar feedback that ranges from squealing to a faint, almost soothing hum. Live shows -a different beast altogether - can be very, very loud.
A lot of people don't want to wait to rock, even if the anticipation is meant to make the rock all the more amazing and orgasmic when it comes. But that's not a dig. All the power to them and their embracement of the bands that deliver those goods. But for those who need something stranger and more intense, it's become easier than ever to get that fix.
The actions of these ears-shatterers can be followed on their own respective websites (Godspeed's rather cryptic, Gira rather forward), or on a handful of internet music sites like Pitchfork, Tiny Mix Tapes, and Stereogum, which has become the more 'traditional' way to get music news (if you want to know more about mainstream popular music, you can simply watch a glut of commercials, since most artists have something to do with them).
Godspeed You! Black Emperor surprised us all with a new album last month, Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend! The music is as explosive and demanding (and exclamation filled) as the title. And since there are only two twenty minute tracks (only!) on this release, Allelujah! is more of a compact punch from the Canadian collective, at least when compared to previous releases, which are all at least a decade old now.
The field recordings and sampled monologues are gone, except for the very beginning of the opening track 'Mladic' (a brief snippet of what might be soldiers trying to close in on a target 'with his arms outstretched'). Quite quickly we get bending violin strings, shimmering bits of percussion, and guitars with hints of feedback, as if the band is actually just beginning to get used to their instruments again after their hiatus. It takes about five minutes. And when they do get back into the rhythm of things - and boy fucking howdy do they ever - the sound is as raw as the field recordings. On their albums, Godspeed You! Black Emperor mastered the creation of a seamless transition between the sound of unusual and intense people talking and the unusual and intense music they make. In 'Mladic', the head of steam that final explodes around the nine minute mark (and continues for another three) is probably the greatest moment of music in 2012.
Overall, it - to use a reductionist term that is the theme of this piece - rocks.
'We Drift Like Worried Fire' ain't too shabby, either. And the two ambient tracks provide necessary palette cleansers which show that the art of actually constructing an album with flow is not dead.
Meanwhile Swans does more with... well, I suppose there's less people in Swans, but other than that, their new album The Seer has everything plus the kitchen sink (probably filled with blood).
Swans - led by founder Michael Gira - were loud and angry in the eighties (sample album titles: Filth, Greed, Holy Money), loud and sombre in the nineties (sample album titles: White Light from The Mouth of Infinity, Soundtracks for the Blind), and today seem to be a combination of all three qualities. We should probably toss in the word repetitive, but in the sense that one Swans song would bang the shit out of a single riff, with pounding primal drums behind it. And Gira would shout and wail about submission, decay, and betrayal.
While Godspeed has more of a classical bent in terms of controlled and measured orchestration, Swans always seems to hold that punk idea of chaos and a few chords close to their hearts, where all their music offers the possibility of being five seconds away from everything simply exploding into violence. On The Seer, even a ninety second acapella piece ('The Wolf') squirms with the sense that it could go wrong at any second.
Take the thirty two minute title track. It begins with sounds of what could be drunken bagpipes, moves into a chugging mid tempo section that begins to spin faster and faster and faster (with a few words even!), before exploding into some barely rhythmic noise that even Godspeed would shy from holding onto for so long. And then it unravels, deconstructing itself into static crashes of all the instruments, a massively slow march with no end in sight. But somehow it does, with a squealing guitar in the background. Not a conventional guitar solo, mind you (Swans - or Godspeed, for that matter - don't play that game), but just a guitar that might be turning into a vacuum cleaner. All over (or underneath, really), pounding drums and fortress like bass.
Like Godspeed, Swans takes their time. There are eleven tracks on their new two hour album, so clearly they have no problem with letting their musical experiments and ideas slowly gestate into full blown ear shattering aural statements. It's just about as radio unfriendly as you could get.
Swans is the hardest band in the world. It's a difficult term to qualify without actually listening to the music, I know, but I don't know another word for them. 'Heaviest' can always be debated - usually in the realm of metal - but I think 'hardest' has something different attached to it (and beyond the literal, 'hardest band to get into'). A cold professionalism. Jagged steel and empty shipping containers. There's heart and sweat, but it's part of an ancient ritual that worships amoral forces like wind and dirt.
But first and foremost it's gotta be loud and it's gotta rock.
Slightly more manageable bits of upturned intensity have come out this year by Liars and Ty Segall. Liars have turned it down slightly by a notch with the ambient-electronic-infused Wixiw (read more about that HERE), but the left-field power and dread is still there (the track 'Flood to Flood', especially). Ty Segall's Slaughterhouse (his second of three albums released this year) has been compared favourably by critics to The Stooges' manic 1970 album, Fun House (the song 'Wave Goodbye', for instance, is some of the best stoner/robot rock since Queens of the Stone Age, which makes us get all the more excited for their new album, due out sometime next year).
There are riffs, rhythms, and creepy vocals - from howling to muttering - in all the music I've mentioned above. It's all there for enjoying the fuck out of a genre of music that people always say is dead or dying.
And if music sales is anything to go by, it is. None of these bands crack the billboard top 100. It's even hard to claim that there are millions of people downloading the music illegally, because that should translate into these bands being popular enough to play in venues bigger than a 1000-person capacity in large cities, but that's not the case.
Is it just rock for a smaller circle of folk, like punk was in America during the eighties, or - on a slightly larger scale - metal was before Jon Bon Jovi got hold of it?
Can it just be headbanging for headbanging's sake, or does it have to be anything else?
Critics - like me, I suppose - drool over these unusual, lesser-known bands, and in doing so, are wont to wax hyperbolic or even attach a great cultural significance to their work.
For one, it gives them a career writing about something they really care about, and two, it's simply something they care about, and you always want to heap importance on that, whether it's food, cars, or music.
In the case of Godspeed, it's easier to make a mountain out of a very loud molehill, since the band is intensely political, without ever uttering a single lyric. Liner notes in their albums have linked defence contractors with major record labels (it should be noted that all bands mentioned in this article are on independent labels) and decried the treatment of the Palestinians in the Middle East. In a recent email exchange with The Guardian, Godspeed expressed sympathies for protesting Quebecois students and acknowledged that music itself can be considered a political act.
Is loud, angry, and impenetrable the new folk? Where the words take a back seat the more nebulous and harder to define intensity and atmosphere of the music? That heavy instrumental passages are to have us rise up and fight the man because it just 'feels' like the right thing to do?
For this to work - 'work', being define loosely as fans learning about political issues and concerns via listening to the band and reading up on them - you need a devoted fanbase, and Godspeed, Swans, Liars, and Ty Segall all have such a thing.
But when it comes to straight politics, Godspeed would have to stand on its own. For the rest, such things might be a personal matter of great importance for individual members, but the function of the band is almost wholly focused on a sound that seems to be naturally divorced from every hint of contemporary societal concern.
Perhaps what this music best has going for it in terms of critical evaluation is its utter indifference to what is going on in the world as it is released, even in a cultural sense. There is a timeless quality to post-this, that and the other thing (loud?) type of music that suggests its attraction is something purer and more primal, a more natural step in cultural and artistic exploration. Contemporary society provides nothing essential. The work of Godspeed, Swans, Liars, and Ty Segall follows a more independent, fearless, and confrontational path. The chaos that is found in humanity's darker recesses is given not a voice but a sort of background soundtrack. It's loud. It's angry. It's made for few, but accessible to the many, who only have to bend their expectations ever so slightly to begin to appreciate the music's power.
It rocks and it's beautiful.
Aaah! Liars are back! Fuck yes and finally. The increased buzzing in our heads can finally be temporarily halted and we can inject forty-three minutes of gooey, creepy-and-unlimited-energy-from-your-basement-walls music straight into our auditory lobes.
Two years ago we wrote about Liars (click here for that) and now we’re writing about them again because their new album is unabashedly amazing.
Real horrowshow and all that. And considering the state of the economy, the music industry, Mute Records, and the guys in the band, they could all really use your traditional form of financial support. Buy the new album, buy a ticket, or perhaps both. It may be a bit ostentatious to go right out and tell you to do this in a review (one hundred or so words in, in fact), but fuck it. Read on, and you’ll find the subtext that’s found in every laudatory review, but here it’s smiling benignly with nothing to hide.
Wixiw (pronounced ‘wish you’, as all reviews are expected to explain this) is lighter, brighter, weirder, and mellower than any previous Liar album but it’s still a Liars album in the way that it still punches you in the face, cuts your cheek wide open, and uncomfortably tickles your gums with it’s lotion-drenched fingertips. You can’t kill the stone shadows of past albums, which loom large over this one. There is still screaming and madness, but perhaps with a glass of wine on a breezy spring evening coming first, then as a light intermission, and once again at the end.
The music of Liars seems too drill into the more subconscious corners of the mind (even the title of the opener, ‘The Exact Colour of Doubt’ suggests a concept impossible to consider in a wakened state), where a single rhythm or melody will rise and fall, strengthen and weaker, fatten and thin, over the course of the song.
The loud-quiet-loud dynamic of the Pixies – and used to great commercial effect for Nirvana and Nine Inch Nails, to name just two – was perfected by Liars on their first album, They Threw Us In a Trench a Stuck a Monument on Top. And each successive album broke the arm and legs of this formula. Guitars as screams and saws on They Were Wrong, So We Drowned, as haunted building-sized percussion on Drum’s Not Dead, and as an infection upon pop and indie rock on their self-titled fourth album and Sisterworld.
With Wixiw Liars sets their sights on electronica, but not necessarily the heavy, four-on-the-floor Daft Punk beats. Instead there are traces of the more warped (records?) and reflective work of Boards of Canada, Aphex Twin and Autechre. Pushing Aaron Hemphill’s guitar and electronics, Angus Andrews’ vocals, and Julian Gross’s percussion through this new filter is an extremely rich and rewarding endeavour.
The album is framed by two quiet pieces that rely on light pieces of guitar and splash of warm sounds that probably was born out of a computer on the verge of tears. We’re being let into this these waters carefully, feet, legs, then trunk.
But if you’ve gone swimming here before, it’s positively benign to the scorched earth policies of Drowned and Dead. In some ways it can be argued that this the closest the Liars are going to get to a shot of commercial appeal.
The lead off single, ‘No.1 Against the Rush’, is almost MGMT-level electro-pop, with Angus’s voice so soothing you’d never think that he singing about “putting myself away today”. And in the last forty seconds the song morphs into something else. Not a howl of noise, but of a misbegotten second song that never goes anywhere except in circles. And why not?
It’s that mismatch that keeps listeners on their toes, and something the Liars seem to demand with a shrug if you want to buy a ticket and take the ride. Some things are not going to add up perfectly, but it’ll only make things more interesting and worth coming back to.
After the first four songs, ‘Ill Valley Prodigies’ is a shuffling palette cleanser. A dock scrapping sound over a slowly meandering acoustic guitar. It’s strange that they really haven’t made many tracks like this, but seems to have already nailed the formula. To the wall.
The title track is a quaking monster that’s best listened to on headphones or in a sedan with powerful speakers. Confined spaces for a track full of constant explosions of sounds. An impenetrable synth shiver that bears down upon you like a wall for six minutes.
But the album is arranged in such a way that the pull the rug out from the oppression on the next track, ‘His and Mine Sensations’, the cold drum beat is up tempo but around and above it is filled in with slow and careful blobs of sound and guitar strums. It’s practically backyard summer music.
And it’s more personable lyrically as well. The song has Angus pleading in his soothing falsetto for Aaron to tell him ‘it’s a lie’, and quickly provides his own reassuring response. This looping setup of immediate gratification is mirrored through the music as well. From comforting to chaos and back again.
‘Flood to Flood’ is a buzzing, clanging relentless at its start and becomes the ballast of a barely controllable missile. Andrews sings how the hopes of a man or woman or idea are quickly dashed upon the rocks. A kind of Frankenstein that needs lessons which never seem to work, culminating in ‘I REFUSE TO BE A PERSON’ before the three fingered solo. All while the guitars leak desert dry squeals. The percussion weaves in and out, with a call and response like tenacity.
‘Brats’ is a three-minute blast of dance punk that takes us back to that crazy first album. But it’s still more mature (which means what? Better production values, less crazy guitar?) and electronic than anything on Monument.
The closer, ‘Annual Moon Words’, is full on acid folk. Double-tracking Angus gives the whole song a more poignant, ‘I’m singing this from above and beyond’ feel. It has been employed on previous albums, but here, in more understated instrumental passages, it can come off as resigned wisdom as opposed as the foreboding prophet of doom (see: Drum’s two opening tracks, ‘Be Quiet Mt. Heart Attack’ and ‘Let’s Not Wrestle Mt. Heart Attack’, the latter of which will be the soundtrack to the earth when permanent darkness finally falls). With this last little song alone, our single satellite seems closer thanks to Liars.
If Drum’s Not Dead was an exploration of demented percussion, then Wixiw is an exploration of synths and robots sounds, but taken into smoother, more atmospheric conditions. This record breathes. Sometimes raggedly, sometimes as if it’s the very last breath that one may ever take, but in the end it always exhales and we can move on, wholly pleased with the experience.
We’re halfway through the year and this should sit outside the ‘album of the year’ type ranking because Liars typically sit on the edges of things like lists, orders, and categorization. Its just great and highly recommended and all that. Critics have noted that it has a Radiohead-ish vibe to it, and that’s certainly true, and if it sells a bit more copies because the Oxford Five are better known and have a pretty damn good reputation, great.
Because Liars can use all the help they can get.
So in the review here (LINK) of Hands & Teeth’s debut album Hunting Season (it’s no less amazing now, so why don’t you mosey on down to iTunes and spend a nice simply $7.92 on that as well?) it was lamented that the brilliant pop music found within was not the type of pop heard on the radio or pushed through mainstream music channels.
And with the Liars it’s a similar type of observation, albeit in a much narrower field of music listeners. This stuff ain’t Bieber, or even Smashing Pumpkins (to use the closest thing to alternative that’s currently on Billboard’s Top 10).
But it’s not an impenetrable piece of music that can only be appreciated by people whose record collections takes a full day to reorganize (or, more likely today, can be measured in thousands of torrent downloads).
It’s the good kind of challenge. Easier than climbing a mountain, reading a book, or even the first listen of Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica. Maybe we here at abandonedstation just believe that there is an audience for this type of music because it’s a successful scaling back of the Liars earlier oppressive freak thunder. And because expectation being what it is, this makes Wixiw seem more accessible to us longtime fans, who think, ‘hey, I can see people who like Coldplay liking this, and there’s apparently a lot of those people out there. Maybe it’s finally the Liars time in the sun.’ And they could use some sun. You can only spend so much time in the basement, even if there are a couple tiny windows to let scraps of light in.
But, as mentioned above, Liars are a bit too…weird… for this to be called their bid for a hit crossover album (in a recent full band interview, Gross spent the entire time in silence, drawing a picture of a man getting punched in the face), but it goes down a lot easier than the still amazing concept one about witches having fun until they’re killed (They Were Wrong So We Drowned).
Critics gobbled Wixiw up with a spoon, and while that’s no guarantee that the album will fly off the mostly digital shelves (ideally paid for), it’s nothing to scoff at today. An utterly insane PR blitz by the big (but shrinking) record labels is required for success from a group that hasn’t exactly found success before (perhaps a duet with Adele would’ve helped?), and that’s a risk that few have the bank accounts to take. Ideally to sell in the seven figures, an album would appeal to the generation that actually has the disposal income and the uncertainly of how to steal music. In lieu of this, there has to be a push from the people who listen to music professionally. This group of listeners with word processors (who are familiar with all the artists James Murphy lists on LCD Soundsystem’s ‘Losing My Edge’) helped bands like Arcade Fire, Broken Social Scene and Modest Mouse grow from theatre into arenas acts. Other artists can sometimes play this role. Opening for Radiohead certainly helped The Black Keys and Grizzly Bear (although one band that opened for them in 2008 hasn’t found that success yet. They’re called Liars).
So wait, why is this important? Isn’t enough that the small group of Liars fans are pumped by this excellent album? Why do we want to see the Liars succeed on a bigger scale financially? Is it because when you create something good you should be compensated accordingly? Well, that’s a difficult argument when it comes to art, since the masses and their wallets are defining what is good (Transformers, Two and Half Men, Nickelback, Thomas Kinkade, Dan Brown) from a strictly financial perspective. As Dylan said, you can’t eat applause (even if the critics clap louder). Certainly Angus, Andrew, and Julian wouldn’t mind building up a nest egg that can help them in their twilight years.
With that in mind, do Liars want to be bigger than they are? Certainly they’d like to sell out the small-ish venues they’re booked into. Sometimes their shows (oh yeah, they also happen to be an excellent live band and are touring North America now and Europe in the fall) in smaller American and European cities are sparsely attended (where fans could be counted in dozens instead of hundreds that the venues could fill). And hey, with Wixiw currently peaking at a less-than-stellar #192 on the Billboard Top 200, you could argue that a better chart showing will help them get them a rocket-powered car much quicker.
We want things we like to be popular. From a practical perspective (if things we like aren’t popular, they might go away. The excellent, eclectic Beta Band broke up because they weren’t selling enough units as they wanted to. Not that they wanted to have a second house in the Riviera, but being able to pay your mortgage every month is nice) and from a personal one. Even as a fan, there’s some vindication to be found when playing music for someone and seeing them enjoy it. That human biological trait of sharing and positive reinforcement.
And while that’s gotten easier thanks to the internet, putting a price tag on it is lost to the wind. And even if people are stealing Wixiw, hopefully there will be many of them who will be impressed enough to buy tickets to the concerts (still available!).
The point is…well, Wixiw is a great album and worth listening to. ‘Worth buying’ used to naturally assumed in ‘worth listening to’, but no more, since you can easily do one without the other. And fine, so that aspect of cultural commerce has crashed and burned. And while it’s easy to not feel bad about stealing the latest tunes from celebrity pop stars who can rake in millions through endorsements and corporate synergy, perhaps we should all shed a tear for the many talented weirdoes (Liars included) who got into the ‘business’ too late to see a steady albeit small stream of royalties.
Do we give them credit for not ‘selling out’ to any degree? Hell, maybe no one wants to put their music in a commercial or blockbuster movie trailer. Perhaps live performances, swag, and donations from wealthy fans/patrons will be the main income sources for artists today.
Steve Albini recently ended a defense of illegal downloading (first stating the technological advances can always destroy the industries based on now obsolete technologies, so this can’t be much of a surprise) by noting that ‘bitching is for bitches’. Fair enough.
This ‘review’ (really?) has wandered and we’re okay with that. It’s odd, however, that while we’ve seemingly ended on the contemporary state of the music business, the lament over the Liars obscurity could have been written for countless other great bands that didn’t get the attention they deserved when the music industry was raking in the dough (Velvet Underground, Big Star, Suicide, Kyuss, etc.).
So maybe the point is that it’s important to still have great music to praise, talk and complain over, whether money was exchanged or not. And the new Liars album certainly falls under that banner.
Not sure if an intro is needed, really. it's pretty straightforward. Some of the entries have comments. Some do not.
101 | Boards of Canada | Music Has a Right to Children
100 | Death from Above 1979 | You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine
The White Stripes go Hawaiian. No, wait, not Hawaiian. Thrash punk. Yeah. Thrash punk.
99 | Stan Getz & Joao Gilberto | Getz/Gilberto
Sleepy summer day latin jazz.
98 | Sigur Ros | Agaetis Byrjun
97 | Spoon | Kill the Moonlight
96 | Spiritualized | Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space
95 | The Sex Pistols | Never Mind the Bollocks
94 | The Beastie Boys | Ill Communication
Everything and the kitchen sink on this one. Paul Boutique gets all the credit, but this one has fatter beats, punchier punk, and tripper instrumentals. And hits (Sure Shot, Root Down, Sabotage).
93 | Burial | Untrue
92 | Ween | Chocolate & Cheese
Why they wanna see my spine, daddy? (repeat)
91 | Aphex Twin | Xylem Tube
Richard James hits hard. Sometimes an EP is all you need.
90 | Air | 10,000 Hz Legend
89 | GZA | Liquid Swords
Even the movie dialogue samples are cool. Concept album isn’t the right word, but I can’t think of a hip hop album that has a better atmospheric and stylistic vision throughout.
88 | Toots and the Maytals | Funky Kingston
87 | Jorge Ben | Forca Bruta
86 | Godspeed You! Black Emperor | Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven
85 | Saul Williams | Saul Williams
84 | Black Sabbath | Paranoid
83 | Emily Haines and Soft Skeleton | Knives Don’t Have Your Back
Just a young woman and her piano.
82 | Pulp | Different Class
81 | Aretha Franklin | Young, Gifted and Black
Probably the most underrated soul album ever. ‘Daydreaming’ is one of the best tracks that reminds you Franklin doesn’t have to belt it out to sound amazing.
80 | David Bowie | Station to Station
Bowie forgets making this unforgettable album. Cold pop detachment that heralded much of the clichéd music of the eighties. The Thin White Duke just did it first and better.
79 | The Smiths | The Queen is Dead
78 | Fela Kuti | Zombie
77 | Grateful Dead | Live Dead
‘They aren’t the best at what they do. They are the only ones that do what they do’ – Bill Graham
76 | Led Zeppelin | IV
75 | Sonic Youth | Daydream Nation
74 | Otis Redding | Otis Blue
73 | Olivia Tremor Control | Dusk at Cubist Castle
The common thread between the pop sensibilities and sound scapes on this album is the level of playfulness that pervades from start to finish. Arty but accessible. Ten tracks called ‘Green Typewriters’ are only disconcerting on the surface. All seventy three minutes of this album are positive and sunny like a warm summer’s day.
72 | Radiohead | Kid A
71 | John Lennon | Plastic Ono Band
70 | Nilsson | Nilsson Schmilsson
69 | Pink Floyd | Wish You Were Here
I think whenever a cool artist dies, all their fans should listen to ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’ as a twenty five minute memorial.
68 | Warren Zevon | Excitable Boy
67 | U2 | Joshua Tree
It’s good. Heart music for the masses.
66 | Herbie Hancock | Crossings
65 | Neutral Milk Hotel | On Avery Island
64 | Bob Marley | Uprising
63 | Kyuss | Welcome to Sky Valley
62 | Captain Beefheart | Trout Mask Replica
The requisite weirdo album for the young rock snob. What every lyrically ambiguous, wildly experimental record would sound like if it were made in a garage on the cheap. ‘Gimme Dat ol Time Religion…’
61 | Wilco | A Ghost is Born
60 | Nirvana | In Utero
The first and last lines of this album are seared in the minds of millions of gen x-er’s, but I prefer to remember the guitar solos on ‘Radio Friendly Unit Shifter’.
59 | Funkadelic | Maggot Brain
58 | Comets on Fire | Avatar
The heirs to Led Zeppelin. Heavy, melodic, mysterious, more energy than they know what to do with. This is probably their most cohesive album, although ‘Blue Cathedral’ is more intense.
57 | The White Stripes | White Blood Cells
56 | Neil Young | On the Beach
55 | Bjork | Vespertine
54 | Dr Octagon | Dr Octagonecologyst
“Oh shit! There’s a horse in the hospital!”
53 | Super Furry Animals | Love Kraft
52 | Tom Waits | Frank’s Wild Years
Caught between the Rain Dogs and Bone Machine releases, and happens to be slightly better than both.
51 | The Avalanches | Since I Left You
50 | Bob Dylan | Highway 61 Revisited
49 | Lou Reed | Berlin
48 | Pavement | Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain
Pavement tries just hard enough here. Fortunately it’s when Malkmus was writing all his best tunes.
47 | Bob Dylan & The Band | The Basement Tapes
Released in 1975, recorded (mostly) in 1967, and extracted from a timeless folk world in another dimension.
46 | John Coltrane | A Love Supreme
45 | The Beatles | The Beatles (White Album)
I have a hard time understanding people who call The Beatles overrated. The Beatles made popular music important enough to be rated in the first place. And Revolution 9 on this album kicks the ass of almost all the other avant-garde music out there.
44 | Beck | Odelay
43 | Radiohead | Hail to The Thief
42 | Department of Eagles | In Ear Park
The Owsley of ‘Acid folk’. It holds together humbly, and has probably the most tolerable banjo playing ever.
41 | Led Zeppelin | Physical Graffiti
40 | Iggy Pop | Lust for Life
39 | Quasimoto | The Unseen
Man, Madlib took so many mushrooms while making this album that you start tripping just listening to it. Come on feet!
38 | DJ Shadow | Endtroducing…
37 | Animal Collective | Strawberry Jam
Sometimes I think Merriweather Post Pavilion is proof than hype can kill. Strawberry Jam benefits from the perspective of being the calm before the storm.
36 | Electric Wizard | Dopethrone
Somewhere in the middle of the closing instrumental track ‘Mind Transferral’ there’s this feeling of being trapped in a subway tunnel with a train bearing down on you. I think all the vocals are done through a fuzzbox, because a human voice won’t work with such heavy riffage.
35 | The Jimi Hendrix Experience | Electric Ladyland
34 | Miles Davis | On the Corner
33 | Pink Floyd | Animals
32 | Nas | Illmatic
It’s not the first personal hip hop album, it’s not the most personal hip hop album, but it is the best personal hip hop album. Nas gives us his world with beats so steady you forget they’re there. It’s like a greatest hits album, really.
31 | The Velvet Underground | Loaded
30 | The Deadly Snakes | Ode to Joy
29 | Darkstar | North
The brilliant electronic album that 2010 forgot. If Burial is the sound of driving city streets in the night rain, then this is the overcast and hung-over morning after, trying to pick up the pieces.
28 | The Flaming Lips | Transmissions from The Satellite Heart
27 | Outkast | Stankonia
26 | LCD Soundsystem | Sound of Silver
James Murphy gets more complicated without losing his sense of the beat. When I saw them live they opened with ‘Us & Them’, and now it’s practically a call to arms. Well, a call to feet. To the dance floor.
25 | The Rolling Stones | Exile on Main Street
24 | The Clash | London Calling
23 | Sly & The Family Stone | There’s a Riot Goin’ On
22 | Nine Inch Nails | The Fragile
Nearly drowning for one hundred intense, crushing, expansive minutes.
21 | Angels of Light | We Are Him
I can’t believe how few people are familiar with the non-Swans work of Michael Gira. He’s still haunting and daunting with an acoustic guitar (and a fiendish backing band).
20 | Neil Young | Tonight’s the Night
Sheer mournful exhaustion. ‘Borrowed Tune’, ‘Tired Eyes’, and the title track(s) are ways to honour the person drowning right beside you.
19 | Liars | Drum’s Not Dead
18 | The Beatles | Abbey Road
17 | Joy Division | Closer
16 | Pixies | Surfer Rosa
15 | Radiohead | Amnesiac
14 | Wire | Chairs Missing
The best punk album. Wait, it’s considered ‘post-punk’? Whatever. ‘Too Late’ still rocks.
13 | The Beta Band | Three EPs
I think it’s generally accepted that this now a ‘single’ album, right? A single, brilliant album, right?
12 | Miles Davis | Bitches Brew
Sometimes an album comes along that makes most other albums in the genre seemingly redundant, even those by the same artist. Bitches Brew makes Sketch of Spain and In a Silent Way seem like pedestrian efforts.
11 | The Velvet Underground | VU
Yeah, it’s a collection of leftovers (that popped up on Lou Reed solo albums), but it’s still an amazing feast. ‘Ocean’ alone is one of the best ballads ever written. And that weird guitar outro to ‘One of These Days’ still gets me grinning.
10 | Bob Dylan | Blonde on Blonde
Should I copy and paste the lyrics to ‘Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’? Oh, you know them by heart and are already tearing up? Excellent, excellent…
9 | Brian Eno | Another Green World
You know this music. It powers those weird little moments in your life where you can imagine certain sounds and melodies in the not too distant background. Soft drips and echoes or jagged rhythms. Well, except ‘St’ Elmo’s Fire’, which is just an awesome song all by itself.
8 | Broken Social Scene | Broken Social Scene
This amount of people shouldn’t be able to be this on point. ‘It’s All Gonna Break’, but it never quite does.
7 | Queens of the Stone Age | Rated R
Drugs are cool.
6 | Madvillain | Madvillainy
Madlib: Hey, why don’t I dump all the annoying things in hip-hop music like choruses and synth beats and you rap about beer, shoes, and toothpicks.
MF Doom: Sounds like a plan.
5 | David Bowie | Low
Yes, I was one of those people that for too long thought little of the second side of this album. It feels like a sprawling thirty nine minutes, the cold guitar-synth boogie on tracks like Breaking Glass, the druggy haze of ‘Always Crashing’ and the brooding Warszawa and Subterraneans. Can you find the bad pun on the front cover?
4 | Liars | They Were Wrong, So We Drowned
Okay, um, let me explain. I’ve never heard an album so dark, twisted, creepy, and explosive. The band apparently recorded this in a cabin in the woods, but I think the machines they used must have been haunted. The idea of a wholly artificial forest. It’s this close to being a mess, but there a black-eyed riffs, thunderous drums, and chanting we weirdoes can all take part in (blood, blood, blood!).
3 | The Rolling Stones | Sticky Fingers
Greatest rock and roll band in the world, covering all the bases on this album. ‘Brown Sugar’ is the archetypal rock song, and ‘Moonlight Mile’ is the archetypal rock ballad. Everything sandwiched between them is just as good.
2 | The Beatles | Revolver
So this is probably the correct answer (everything The Beatles did right, they did most right on Revolver) because it’s perfect but with so much packed in that it doesn’t ever get boring. But…
1 | Radiohead | OK Computer
Because. It’s rare when mainstream critical acclaim intersects with the artistic vision and ability of the creators and the personal experiences of the listener. This album constantly sees something new when it stares at itself the mirror. And that’s art, on par with Velazquez’s Les Meninas. Even Electioneering.
Ahhhh…that’s the stuff.
A mellow, ethereal guitar noodling blossoming into a swirling burst of winter-warming melodies. This is our introduction to Hunting Season, the debut full-length album from Hands & Teeth, an unabashedly professional pop band with heapings of energetic edges to keep your ears from ever turning away.
And when Natasha Pasternak chimes in halfway through the opener, ‘It’s All Coming Back’, you realize something: This is a band that could, with its many secret weapons, overwhelm the brain of the listener as he or she tries to take in each musical muscle flexing, quickly leading us away from the central importance of rhythm, melody, cohesiveness, balance, fun, etc., but no: It’s got all that, too.
The band plays hopscotch with styles and familiar rhythms, moving just so to the left, right, up, or down when you’ve got the next bit pinned down.
But because they’re juggling the fundamental so deftly, it’s never wholly alien, never a moment where something goes wrong so you scrunch up your face and wonder where that came from and how it exposes the musical mechanics behind the velvet curtain of careful production.
Doesn’t happen with Hunting Season. If it’s paint-by-numbers power pop, the overall picture is so great you never notice the strings (it’s even worth the mixing of metaphors). The title track showcases a well-executed onslaught of vocalists assuring us that they, “are glad to meetcha’”, and with it they turn an already catchy rock song into a tent show revival. Sharp guitar lines and easily excitable drums follow this lead, dancing in and out of the bubbling rhythm. By typical expectations, it should collide into nonsense, but it never does. The broken loudspeaker vocals of ‘Sounds of Hamilton’ suit the dark underbelly of the song perfectly. And kudos to whichever band member (Tash? Pinto? Kev? D? Eh?) thought, ‘Hey, let’s add a seemingly random piano outro to ‘All That Was’ and make it work’. And good job to the rest of the band going, ‘Done!’
“She’ll cut you down, when you come around,” sings Pasternak on the start-stop tango of the wonderfully named “Le Petit Voleur”, her powerful yet playful vocals soaring over a Wilco-like groove. A song that conjures up the image of lovers close but always circling each other, the lyrics revel in the art and thrill of the hunt, while the piano-guitar interplay halfway through the track is as light and graceful as a trapeze act.
At this time in complementary reviews of this sort, the writer is supposed to make some sort of grand-ish statement, how the music fits into or challenges a local music scene, a genre, or a greater philosophical/current events issue. But all I want to think about is how many people are singing just perfectly on ‘Missing’. Or how ‘Parallel States’ suggest to me a beautiful hybrid of George Harrison’s ‘Wah-Wah’ and the rougher stuff off of Feist’s Metals.
I typically avoid listening to the radio very often (because I like to listen to music), but I don’t understand why this album wouldn’t be all over the airwaves. This is the sort of music that I feel people would want to hear as they go about their daily public lives, not simply sitting here absorbing aural fireworks in their living room like I am. I don’t know what could possibly cause any reservations by the music world at large. This could be the silver lining of the cloud that is office drudgery, traffic, and waiting rooms. It’s music to feel better to.
There are guitar riffs, jangling pianos, ooh-ooh aah-aah sing-a-long backing vocals, and melody atop melody. It’s so accessible it might just hold your hand or give you a high five halfway through. It’s the middle of the road if the middle of the road was fun and interesting.
And maybe that’s the problem with pop (ah, here’s the grand-ish statement! Just two paragraphs late) in the early twenty-first century. It’s put the bar so low that practically anything can trip over it and get recognized as such. By trying to not alienate anyone, it comes off mediocre for everyone. But just because that’s the current case, it doesn’t have to be, and Hunting Season is exhibit A. It should make the rest of whatever counts for Top 40 that much more ashamed of itself.
‘Song 8’ closes the album with everything and the kitchen sink crammed into three and a half minutes yet it’s still able to sound like an emotional slow burner.
And it’s about this time when realize that the way I have been raving about this album is getting sorted of unwieldy, where it seems likely I might next claim that Hunting Season can help you get in shape, unclog your rain gutters, and succeed in business without really trying.
Well it won’t do any of those things. I can’t even claim that it’s going to make Hands & Teeth superstars. What I do know is that the album consists of eight well-written, well-performed songs of love and excitement by five very talented people. It leaves you wanting more, and going back to the first track and listening to the whole thing again is a perfect filling of that hole.
Actually, listening to ‘Missing’ again, it’s so good it might somehow unclog your rain gutters…
Sometimes bigger is better.
Regardless of what you happen to examining or analyzing, it’s that ‘sometimes’ which of course makes all the difference.
It’s an aggravating measure to be sure, which is why it works particularly well in the tattered, postmodernist morass we currently find ourselves in, almost two whole years into the second decade of the new millennium.
When a society or culture has too much of a good thing and becomes dependent on that good thing, a figurative clock begins ticking towards its downfall. Before this there is the belief that what they have is working so well that the answer is more of it. A rapid expansion of a particular policy or ideal is undertaken. And while there might be naysayers, they are typically drowned out by the people living it up thanks to whatever this policy or process is.
Okay, enough abstraction that could be applied to all sorts of important things like bubble economies, deregulated markets, and unsustainable but essential social programs. I’m talking about shit like The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway.
The presence of the Double Album in its own insular, music industry/criticism world covers themes ranging from economics to history, technology to psychology, and maybe even a bit of art and culture to boot. They typically occur at particular times in the artist or band’s existence, and in many cases it’s a pivot point. Things aren’t quite the same after it appears in stores or online.
The ‘term’ double album is self-explanatory, but the popular formats for listening to music has changed the amount of music required to count as a double album. Many double vinyl products from the sixties, seventies and early eighties effortlessly fit onto a single compact disc. Initially this was part of the new format’s selling point (stickers pronounced, ‘two records on one compact disc!’).
While there remains no industry minimum for how long a single record has to be, there does for a double. If it can’t fit on a single vinyl record (which can support fifty six minutes before the quality of the grooves are compromised), then volia, you’ve either been promoted to a double, or have been told by your record company in no uncertain terms to cut a track or two, you don’t have the clout to release something more expensive.
Of The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street, Keith Richards noted that record company executives typically dislike double albums because they typically took longer to make (meaning higher recording fees), cost more to physically produce, and therefore had to be sold at higher prices, which may dissuade customers from purchasing them at all. When Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life was released in the fall of 1976, it retailed for a then unheard of price of $13.98, inspiring Billboard Magazine to say that it was, “one of the highest superstar prices ever”. On the other side of this coin, The Clash released their double album London Calling by telling CBS/Epic records that they planned to release a single album with a bonus free EP, which turned out to be another full length vinyl (in doing so, they were able to keep the price identical to that of a single record).
Moneys worth is kind of a dirty term when talking about the creation of art, but sacred when it comes to selling it. Despite a higher price, there are more minutes of music, which is supposed to even things out, but even there it can be a bit tricky to measure. The shortest double album that this writer is familiar with is The Mother of Invention’s 1966 debut, Freak Out, which is sixty minutes and a handful of seconds long. To get an idea how close this is to the lengths of certain single vinyl albums, Miles Davis’ 1973 jazz-funk classic On the Corner clocks in at just under fifty-five minutes.
In the mid eighties vinyl-to-CD switch, it was common for double albums that hovered around the eighty minute plus mark to cut a track – or shorten the running times of various songs – to fit onto the CD (Stevie Ray Vaughn’s Live Alive and DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince’s He’s the DJ, I’m The Rapper, for example). Suddenly the new format was not only a hindrance, but because it was the wave of the future it was able to dictate to the artist just how their music was going to be presented.
Those that remained double albums from the eighties onward retained one quality that the CD had otherwise removed. To jump from one song to another on vinyl, you had to lift up the needle carefully and then with surgical precision drop it on the right point, and that was if the song you wanted to skip to was even on the same side. CDs got rid of this, as with a remote control you could go back and forth to various songs – and various points within the song – with the click of a button. Only double CDs stood in the way having every track at your fingertips with lightning like speed. It was a practical obstruction which momentarily brought people back to what listening to music was like only a few years earlier: A couple seconds of effort between fifteen-to-twenty minute bursts of enjoyment.
The only other ‘numbers’ aspect to mention is the rather odd counting by Billboard and Soundscan charts, where both consider a sale of a double album as two albums sold. Considering that two records sold as single product and is seen by everyone involved as such, it’s as if the point was actually selling the vinyl itself and not the music was all that record executives were interested in. Consequently, on bestselling albums lists, double album appearances are wholly misrepresented. Their presence is inflated by 100%, and unless you look at selling records as a challenge – and the double album the equivalent of scaling the Himalayas – it seems to be wholly without merit.
So that’s the quantity factor – sliding time definitions, two as one counting as two – that should be simmering in the back of your heads as we proceed into the much murkier and subjective waters of quality.
Probably the most famous double album is the one whose name everyone gets wrong. ‘The White Album’ doesn’t mean anything, except to describe the cover of the album by The Beatles that is titled The Beatles. It’s an accurate description, as other than those two words and a pressing number, the cover is exactly that.
Because The Beatles are, in fact, THE BEATLES, they are subject to debates regarding the basic advantages and disadvantages of the double album more than any other recording artist (every aspect of The Beatles’ career is typically overanalyzed – there are books that focus solely on their breakup* – but it’s their own damn fault for writing better songs and being more popular than anyone else). Because of their popularity, people who might not know care much about music beyond whatever is playing on the radio can still have deep-seated opinions on the Fab Four’s recording output, including whether there’s too many damn tracks on this 1968 classic.
At the same time, The Beatles- okay, fine, you win, to make it easier I’ll succumb to common usage. At the same time, The White Album is perfect for this discussion because its length of ninety-three minutes means that it retained the double album label into the CD era.
Thirty tracks, ranging from fifty seconds to almost nine minutes. Thirty-three years later, it still seems like a big commitment from both the casual fan and the aficionado. Kind of like watching the first two Godfather films back to back. And for every mind-blowing track, there might two wonky ones. But with such a deep grab bag, it’s hard for everyone to agree on the keepers and kickers.
In the documentary The Beatles Anthology, the surviving members debate whether it should have been released as a single or a double record. Producer George Martin was pushing for a single album of the very best tracks. Ringo wryly agreed, saying that he thought it should have been broken up into two separate albums, The White Album and The Whiter Album (quote: “a lot of information on a double album”). George Harrison said it probably wasn’t going to happen because of the egos in the band, even if some songs should have been removed or turned into b-sides. Paul thought it was all great and so why wouldn’t you release it as one big set?
What The White Album did – more so than it’s two well-known predecessors, Dylan’s Blonde and Blonde and Freak Out – was showcase the eclecticism and experimentation of musical artists at the height of their powers (which was typically when an artist had the freedom to record and release that much material in one go).
In that way it became the dominant double album archetype. The artist pushing their own boundaries, moving into unfamiliar territory, releasing a milieu of styles and ideas.
In terms of ‘life after the double’, it pretty much shattered The Beatles. There was very little collaboration in the making of the music (it was a Paul song, John song, or George song more than ever before). Ringo quit halfway through – though he returned – Lennon found he’d much rather spend time with Yoko Ono to the point where she came into the studio and never left his side, and George hung out more and more with anyone and everyone else, from Clapton to Dylan.
In fact, Pitchfork Media writer Mark Richardson acknowledged the role that The White Album has had in this perception of future records, double or otherwise:
“Of the Beatles' albums, none-- not even Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band-- rivals The Beatles as a rock archetype. The phrase, "It's like their White Album"-- applied to records like Prince's Sign o' the Times, Hüsker Dü's Zen Arcade, the Clash's Sandinista!, and Pavement's Wowee Zowee, among many others-- has long been accepted critical shorthand. To use the expression is to conjure a familiar cluster of associations: The work in question is large and sprawling, overflowing with ideas but also with indulgences, and filled with a hugely variable array of material, some of which might sound great one day and silly the next. A band's White Album is also most likely assembled under a time of great stress, often resulting in an artistic peak but one that nonetheless scatters clues to its creator's eventual demise.”
Such a constant flux of opinions is perfect for our maddening, overloaded, always-consuming contemporary culture. There is something that everyone can like, and that has become a quality that actually bothers everyone. As the Ur-Double Album, The White isn’t exactly the best in the very best ways. To go wholly negative, ‘bloated’ and ‘indulgent’ crop up when talking about most double albums, and The Beatles’ effort was no exception. Initial criticism of it did indeed focus on the sprawl, but over time that’s been pretty much universally accepted as one of the album’s charms. It’s quite bizarre to hear both ‘Honey Pie’ and ‘Revolution 9’ on one twenty-four minute side, and the same can be said about ‘Julia’ and ‘Why Didn’t We Do It In The Road?’ (the former a love song to Lennon’s deceased mother, the latter a crunching scream experiment by McCartney, inspired by two monkeys in India having sex…in the road).
A lot of times the double album is the breaking point of the band’s career, the indulgent mess where no one in the band’s inner or outer circle has the guts to say ‘edit’. The Beatles fall into this category, but are also exempt because their second rate songs crushes almost every other band’s greatest hits. “It’s a lot of material but it’s The Beatles”, sounds like an argument based on some inherent exclusivity given to the band, and that would be accurate. As essayist Chuck Klosterman wryly observes:
“The Beatles are generally seen as the single most important rock band of all time, allegedly because they wrote all the best songs. Since both of these suppositions are true, The Beatles are rated properly by everyone.”
So even though The White Album holds all the advantages and disadvantages of the double album, it’s on another plane because, well, The Beatles were on another plane (see: ‘Mother Nature’s Son’, ‘Happiness Is A Warm Gun’).
So with that bit of unfairness in mind, lets see how the runners-up fared.
First of course is the band that was the closest thing to The Beatles in terms of competition, The Rolling Stones (friendly rivals, of course. The two bands would call each other up to ensure that they didn’t release singles or albums at the same time so both could go to number one). While The Stones’ response to Sgt. Pepper was the uneven but still underrated Their Satanic Majesties Request, which came out six months later, the band didn’t get around to releasing their double album until about three and half years after The White. But when they did, 1972’s Exile on Main Street, had the artistic range – covering rock, blues, soul, R&B, gospel, country and whatever ‘Turd on the Run’ is – the recording problems – committed to tape in Keith Richards’ stuffy basement in southern France, with some band members addicted to smack, others angry that they were, and at least one of them spending a lot of his time in Paris with his wife, Bianca Jagger – and the slow but eventually unanimous embrace of the critics. And just as The White Album sowed the seeds of The Beatles’ dissolution, it was the high-water mark for the Stones as well, with Richards’ going heavy into heroin and Jagger taking the band into a more polished, poppier rock sound.
The main difference is that Exile easily fit onto a CD, and despite a wild and wooly trip through eighteen excellent tracks, this has made it much more navigable. Goodbye the experience of four different sides (which in Exile’s case is a big shame, as the band intended for the second side – ‘Sweet Virginia’ through ‘Loving Cup’ – to be a late-night, laid back groove suite), and suddenly the album feels like it has shrank; that because it no longer carries the physical weight of a double album, it’s lost a bit of it’s initial experience, too.
Hendrix’s double album Electric Ladyland is probably his grandest statement. His creativity given free reign on tracks like ‘1983’ and ‘Burning of the Midnight Lamp’, besides some of his most radio-friendly tunes (‘Crosstown Traffic’, ‘All Along the Watchtower’, ‘Voodoo Chile’). After this, Jimi really didn’t have a chance to go bad. He died less than two years after Ladyland was released, in the process of making a studio follow up.
Elton John did have a chance to go bad, and after 1973’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (yay eleven-minute two part intro song!), he did exactly that.
Clearing the decks was also the reason given for some double albums (once again, George Harrison has said this about The White Album), and Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti from 1975 was a good example of this. They recorded about an hour of material during sessions in 1974, but deciding to flesh it out, they added a series of leftover songs from a two and three years earlier that was just gathering dust (while the tracks aren’t bad, you could tell they wouldn’t have added anything to albums III, IV, and Houses of the Holy).
Speaking of Harrison, his backlog of tracks shrugged off for years by John and Paul meant that he had enough for a double album in 1970. Yes, All Things Must Pass was a triple album, but the third disc was a just an endless, atrocious jam that no one really should listen to more than once. If the first two records weren’t amazing, this might be considered the worst, most indulgent misstep in the multi-album universe.
Sometimes the one period of intended recording can’t even fit on a double album. Wonder’s Songs of the Key of Life was already long enough to eventually become a double CD, but upon it’s initial release he had enough power to demand a free inclusion of a four-track EP (perhaps trying to justify the steep price) that also was taken from the sessions. And the album was a huge critical and commercial smash, so what happened? It kinda went to Stevie’s head and his next album was also a double (back to back?!), Stevie Wonder’s Journey Through the Secret Life of Plant (yes, it was real, it was mostly instrumental, and a soundtrack to a film of almost the same name).
Ostensibly, the first concept album was a double album, The Mothers of Invention’s Freak Out. Front man Frank Zappa claimed it was a satire of modern pop culture, which rings slightly hollow over the album’s four sides (sometimes your throwaway forgettable pop songs are just that), but it was the beginning of the ‘statement’ – that is, concept – album. And if your statement is big enough, well, maybe forty five minutes ain’t gonna cut it. And if you still really want it to at least seem like a big idea or story, well, pad it.
The Who released Tommy, a story album about a molested deaf, blind, and dumb boy who becomes a pinball champion. Half the time it works better than it sounds, but despite it’s initial success, it hasn’t exactly held up well over the years.
Strangely enough, the band almost learned its lesson with the follow up, Lifehouse, which was also supposed to be another double album with a concept running through it. Instead, the sessions fell apart and the band instead salvaged and released the best nine tracks as a single album, Who’s Next, the band’s greatest studio achievement. I say ‘almost learned its lesson’, because Pete Townshend went back to the heavy story stuff with 1973’s Quadrophenia (and it’s a loooong trek to get to ‘Love, Reign O’er Me’).
The ultimate story double album, though, is Pink Floyd’s The Wall. The crushing tale of a rock star becoming alienated from all the people around him has about eight great songs, which is a bit of a pity as there are twenty-six in total. Throughout the seventies, prog rock almost had a copyright on double albums, and Pink Floyd was wise enough to resist as long as possible, since ninety minutes of Yes or Genesis – whether you will telling a story or offering up a ten minute keyboard solo – is more appropriate for a time when the future seemed to truly be about the majesty and expanse of space, and not a slowly decaying planet.
It should be said that all of these albums are not without certain charms. How could they not be? You had to have some level of talent and commercial success to even be allowed to release this much music in one go. None of these bands were necessarily flashes in the pans, one-hit wonders, either. Even among the prog-rockers, it was acknowledged that there was a dedicated and large enough fan base to justify spending more money on the production of the double album.
Not to say that these albums were just for the fans, but it was typically the hardcore aficionados that would plunge into these albums head first and with eager ears and find that about half of it was brilliant, and the rest of it was bearable. Writing twenty good songs (or fewer, that would then have to be longer but still worth that length) in a set amount of time is no easy feat.
And so once again we fellate the uncanny ability of The Beatles, as having two and ¾ brilliant songwriters makes a massive difference when compiling this much material. No other band really had that level of songwriting ability, so of course there is going to be a quality drop-off when dealing with pretty much any other artist.
Punk was pretty much a loud rebuke to the bloated, indulgence in rock music that the double album perfectly encapsulated, so it’s little surprise that The Clash had slow down the tempo and branch out into reggae and ska to fill out London Calling (to be fair, they filled it out pretty damn well). It’s just that punk rage really couldn’t be sustained for an hour in concert, let alone an album.
And only a couple years after punk’s brief bubbling up to the mainstream, it was the dawn of the Compact Disc, meaning double albums became behemoths, almost impossible to digest in one sitting unless you’re on a road trip or a teenager.
The prototypical grunge ethos of the nineties – do it yourself, don’t try to hard, keep it short and straight (although drenched in fuzz) – didn’t deter The Smashing Pumpkins from releasing two hours of alternative rock in 1995 with the unfortunately named Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.
Nine Inch Nails brooded like there was tomorrow – literally and figuratively – on 1999’s The Fragile. NIN mastermind Trent Reznor said a decade later that he should have broken up the album into discs, citing the example of Radiohead splitting their 1999-2000 recording sessions into Kid A and Amnesiac.
Radiohead then, avoided the double-album pratfall (although front man Thom Yorke was for releasing all the material at once, he was talked out of it) but then fell into another one. Kid A was released first in the fall of 2000, with Amnesiac following in the spring of 2001, which some critics saw as an outtakes or leftovers album (even earning the moniker ‘Kid B’), which the band vehemently denied.
Taking The Beatles’ songwriters-working-separately to the ridiculous extremes, Outkast released Speakerboxxx/The Love Below with each member of the duo contributing a solo disc of their own work (they couldn’t even agree on a single album name!).
Some nineties rock bands waited until the new millennium before bothering with double albums (shit, the Eagles waited for thirty years!), almost as if they wanted to get it out of their systems before the physicality of the music industry collapsed entirely. The Red Hot Chili Peppers and The Foo Fighters both unleashed turgid slabs of new material when both bands were past their peak, as if they got to the ‘rock-band-story-arc playbook’, a decade or so too late.
But now here in 2011, maybe it’s fitting that the last artists that have released ‘big’ double albums (although certainly Joanna Newsom’s Have One on Me is overwhelming and in exhausting in all the right ways) were ones from a time when music was still purchased in a store where you were given something physical for your money. The Flaming Lips released both a six and twenty four hour song in the last month. Via internet download only of course.
Vinyl and CD, thank you for your time, but we’ve found the new way to wallow in the extravagant artistic creativity of others. Just as our money, jobs, and culture has gone digital, so has The Beatles.
*- even how The Beatles broke up is astonishing. Each member had their own unique and separate opportunity to quit!
It’s been over three months – a quarter of a year – so enough time has finally passed for a right proper review of Radiohead’s eighth album, The King of Limbs.
Radiohead and the music/art it creates is a bundle of contradictions – euphoric and somber, nostalgic and futuristic, engaging and distant – so it makes sense then that the new album could be both hotly anticipated and a surprise at the same time. No matter what was going to happen, the band was certainly aware that any release method this time around was going to be compared to the pay-what-you-want format of 2007’s In Rainbows, so rather than try to top it, they tempered it. Cutting the announcement-to-digital-release period to five days, and eschewing the name-your-price in favour of this-is-the-price (6 pounds, 9 bucks for the download). The $53 physical package – like In Rainbows’ $80 discbox – contains a CD, LP, art (including 625 bits of blotter artwork, LSD extra), but no bonus tracks. Yes, it seems like when compared to most Radiohead sessions of the past, The King of Limbs was a bit thinner when it came to finished material. So here is the obligatory sentence that has been seen in almost every review that notes that The King of Limbs is the band’s shortest album in terms of length and number of tracks (the only other tracks released in association with the record is the ‘Supercollider/The Butcher’ single released in April).
But quantity and quality are two very different bags of ferrets. When opening track ‘Bloom’ churns up with a wonky piano loop, pulsating synthesizer noises and ever-repeating drums, one isn’t exactly sure what’s coming next – ‘Airbag’ or ‘15 Step’ this ain’t – but by the time ‘Separator’ wraps up 37 minutes later, it’s clear that Radiohead has taken the listener tiptoeing and trampling through the tulips and tarantulas.
Despite constant denials that there is really ever a theme to their records, there is one here (another contradiction then). As both fans and critics have noted, this is the band’s most organic, nature-embracing album. Not the easiest thing to commit to audio save for the sound of birds chirping (and you’ll find that during the intro to ‘Give Up the Ghost’), but Radiohead isn’t one for giving up on songs – or ideas behind songs – that easily (the gestation for Amnesiac’s ‘Knives Out’ took 373 days).
The King of Limbs is named after a thousand-year-old English tree, four of the eight track titles mention animals, flowers, or states of nature, and three of the others mention turtles, lakes, the cycle of life, and fruit in the lyrics.
But the words are not only why this theme is successful. And while back-to-nature suggests an all-acoustic type album (Nick Drake’s Pink Moon), the one track that best exemplifies this with layers of non-electric guitars in ‘Little By Little’, the one track with no overt references to nature.
The rest court the natural with the alien and artificial sound machine. ‘Feral’ is replete with twitchy drum and moans, suggesting the untamed and wild. ‘Codex’ employs unlikely brass instruments like flugelhorns to create a tranquil atmosphere. ‘Morning Mr Magpie’ rushes by like a brittle wind, picking up speed gradually. Even the guitar ballad ‘Give Up the Ghost’ adds haunting Thom Yorke vocal tracks, giving an impossible echoing sensation.
‘Lotus Flower’ was released as the first single – which really just means that there was a video made for it – and the track is by the far the most In Rainbows-like:
The cleanest and most-straightforward production. The electronica-clipped percussion and sinewy guitar lines hark back to ‘15 Step’, but the words are less about repeating past mistakes and simply asking you to “listen to your heart” because that’s “where the weeds take root”.
Even while certain tracks begin to stand out, it’s clear that this album is meant to be absorbed as single organic piece of music. Most telling of this is the omission of ‘Supercollider’ and ‘The Butcher’ two tracks released as a 12-inch single in April (and offered for free to those who bought the album). While the former is by far one of the best tracks Radiohead has ever created, both are much more blatantly electronic and jagged, which certainly would not have fit on the album.
Because of Yorke’s multi-interpretive lyrics, finding a narrative thread means for holding to loose strings dearly, but a rather ambitious one I will put forth is that TKOL is the pacing of a life. It begins with ‘Bloom’ asking you to “open your mouth wide, the universal sigh”, signifying birth, and the address ‘Good Morning Mr. Magpie’ is a welcome into society and an all too brief childhood (full of mistakes, and losing its magic). ‘Little by Little’ is falling in love and getting to the “routines and schedules drug that and kill you”, with ‘Feral’ that smear of time passing that doesn’t seem to make sense. ‘Lotus Flower’ is moving into middle age, where “weeds take root” and you become addicted to the person or profession that you have devoted yourself to, no matter the size of their “fast ballooning head”. ‘Codex’s’ “jump off the end into a clear lake” because “the water’s clear and innocent”, suggests an acceptance of your life and its end – perhaps even suicide – which works well because that goes into ‘Give Up the Ghost’. This tune that somehow straddles mournfulness and acceptance surmises that, “I think I should give up the ghost into your arms”, which is certainly a just past the end of one’s live type decision. So we’re left with ‘Separator’, which is either heaven – which the bouncy euphoria of the track sounds like – or the seemingly cop out cliché that it was all in our heads: “it’s like I’ve fallen out of bed from a long and vivid dream”. On the other hand, it could be a reference to reincarnation, but without question it is the most hopeful sign off in all of Radiohead’s work. The postmodern dread and constant second guessing is of short supply on The King of Limbs, with the music and lyrics painting a much warmer (but not necessarily romantic) picture of one’s life, ideally one more in harmony with the natural world. Acceptance of this life cycle means one recognizes the environment that we all must temporarily live within. ‘Codex’ urges you to jump into the lake and be reabsorbed into nature (you are 70% water, after all), since ‘Bloom’ claims that this is where you came from (“and while the ocean blooms it’s what keeps me alive”). ‘Give up the Ghost’ even asks you to give up your spirit, leaving you as nothing more than perhaps a dream (‘Separator’). In other words, ideally, you leave no trace. Yorke – and to some extent, the rest of the band – are ardent supporters of green energy reform, so it’s not too hard to imagine that this is their subtle pro-environment album, as it stresses a symbiotic relationship with the greater world around us, stressing that we must play our modest part and that it’s thanks to complex ecosystems greater than ourselves that we are here in the first place. The special order physical ‘newspaper edition’ of the album supports this idea, with reminders on the packaging and the newspaper artwork that all of its contents is made with partially recyclable material and will eventually biodegrade.
Of course, all this interpretation can be tossed into the rubbish heap if you think the songs suck, and Radiohead is nothing if not divisive, having pissed off a certain collection of fans, critics, and weekend music fans alike with every release. In Rainbows, for instance, was described by many as a return to form, which is odd considering it sounds like nothing else in Radiohead’s catalogue.
And based on that, it should have been even less of a surprise that The King of Limbs sounds nothing like its predecessor, but everything like Radiohead. The band that made The Bends seems further away than ever, but if you’ve followed them this far, The King of Limbs should be acknowledged as another one of their masterpieces. ‘Codex’ is as heartbreaking as ‘Pyramid Song’, ‘Bloom’ is a perfect marriage of art rock and psychedelica, and ‘Separator’ is simply one of the happiest and energetic songs in recent memory (especially when one considers that Radiohead album closers are typically emotionally devastating affairs). Like all great albums, it’s a grower – another clichéd term for Radiohead’s work – which hey, is another kind of reference to the wonderful world of nature. There are no coincidences, only progression, and that is the underlying method behind Radiohead and its music. The King of Limbs can rightly take its place as the next proud step in the band’s momentum.
So there you are. The new Radiohead. Three and half years of waiting. But the feeling was that there had to be more. More releases with more tunes (there’s a website titled ‘kingoflimbspart2.com’), more meaning, more explanations, more secrets. But the band has been quiet, other than saying explicitly that there is no more material to come any time soon. And this doesn’t necessarily sit well with the band’s large and rabid fanbase (especially when In Rainbows allowed you take the trip for free), who know there are unreleased songs (‘The Present Tense’, ‘The Daily Mail’) somewhere in the vault. No word of touring doesn’t help either, which leads to that glaring contradiction again of a band being visible and hidden at the same time. Radiohead’s still Radiohead, and some people don’t know what exactly to do about that.
So now we move from pissing off certain hipsters to… pissing off certain hipsters. Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All is a no-longer-underground hip hop collective from Los Angeles lead by twenty year old Tyler, The Creator, who recently released his third solo album, Goblin, to plenty of hype, plenty of which is certainly warranted.
Many of the group’s videos have topped one million views on Youtube – which, let’s be honest, is becoming a better indicator of popularity than the Billboard charts – with ‘Yonkers’, the lead single off of Goblin, hitting ten million. Which is thrilling for many in indie hip hop circles, as their DIY promotional attitude is as aggressive and brash as their music. Forget the epic, sample friendly sounds of Kanye or the smooth beats of Wayne or Drake. Tyler’s music – and therefore, Odd Future – sounds like creepy piano rolls atop grinding machines and stale drums that shatter to pieces. His deep growl then fits perfectly, not only with the beats behind, but the words up front:
I'm loud as fuck, I'm ignorant
Punch a bitch in her mouth just for talking shit,
You lurking bitch, well I see that shit, once again I got to
punch a bitch in her shit,
I'm icy bitch, look at my wrist, because if you do, I might
blind you bitch (BSD)
Rape a pregnant bitch and tell my friends I had a threesome.
You gotta fuckin deathwish? I’m a genie it'll get done.
Nice to meet you but it's more pleasant to eat you
With a leaf, a salad and some dressing pourin' out a teacup. (Tron Cat)
Pretty strong meat there from Tyler the Creator. Or at least that’s what the overall effect of the music and lyrics are. In truth Tyler's lyrics aren't that much different from Eminem's or Kool Keith's (in his later incarnations). The former had a six-minute graphic diatribe of choking his girlfriend to death in the forest on his most successful and critically acclaimed album (‘Kim’ on The Marshall Mathers LP), and the latter rhymed about operating on women’s rectums for kicks (‘Real Raw’ on Dr. Octagonecologyst). And thematically, the material is similar to sentiments that blues artist Son House expressed on tracks like, 'Your Southern Can is Mine' (whoring out/terrorizing women, hitting them in the face with bricks, leaving them to die in a graveyard).
Lyrics and music accompaniment aside, the production value is absolutely pristine, with the few instruments (a simple but odd percussion line, a searing synthesizer loop, a piano or string sample) and vocals balanced out perfectly (especially between Tyler’s rhymes and the comments of his ‘therapist’). Returning to the idea of old themes revisited, the style is close to old jazz and blues records, with a rawness and immediacy that certainly makes the recording process seem simpler than it is/was.
What packs the punch – and what makes this music original and successful – is the combination of these words with the music and the well-crated (non) persona of Tyler. ‘(Non)’ because for every track that focuses on violence and random hate there is one where Tyler goes introspective and laments his absent father, lost friends, and admits to having suicidal thoughts. It’s a balancing act employed by Eminem and Kanye to great success, Tyler has just pushed the markers further in each direction. And now he has a no-strings-attached contract with Sony Records after releasing a series of mixtapes off of Odd Future’s website for free. They went from having a cold 2009, a simmering 2010 (when Pitchfork first got wind of them), and exploded in 2011 with career defining concerts on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and at Coachella.
But the fact that it's coming from a DIY collective of artists is throwing a lot of indie-scene veterans for a loop. I am sure there are many unknown artists - whether in punk, hip-hop, or any other scene - whose material can shock and horrify most music fans, so it makes sense that their appeal lies in the fringes. It is as if this large and disparate community has an unspoken understanding about hierarchy and how close certain forms of music under this umbrella can and will be chaffing the mainstream. Mistreatment of women and homophobic lyrics has been a trademark of hip-hop music (both on major and independent labels) almost since its inception, but it only bubbles over into a larger talking point when one of the artists is on the verge of selling a shitload of records.
This feeling of not-misplaced concern from this community has been climbing alongside Odd Wolf and Tyler’s rise. Best known is Sara Quin’s – of the folk duo Teagan and Sara – open letter on the band website, decrying the lyrical content of Tyler’s work and the media that is openly lauding him.
I almost read Tegan and Sara's letter as a disappointing query as to why this music is so popular in the first place. She notes that there is hype surrounding Tyler/Odd Wolf, tacitly admitting that 'out of sight, out of mind' (say, Odd Wolf in 2009, when few people outside of L.A. heard of them) is something she could begrudgingly accept, but now that this it on the verge of selling hundreds of thousands of copies, it's something to be concerned about.
Perhaps it’s nothing more than the culture’s endless unquenchable thirst for novelty. A new sound with enough familiar signposts for a wide swath of the populace to enjoy (sadly, the work of Madvillain still seems to be too weird and wild for the masses), focusing on the shock of rape and violence only on the most superficial level, so that by the time the next two or three albums by Odd Wolf are dropped in the same vein, it’ll be old news and fade back into the underground.
Shock tactics are the most basic way to get attention, and if you can do it with even some semblance of creativity, you’ll have a chance to build at least a brief career out of it (see Andrew Dice Clay). And with misogynistic themes commonplace in certain musical genres, to make it fresh again you had to brutalize the sound surrounding the words, which Odd Wolf and Tyler have done quite successfully. You almost feel like taking a shower after listening to all 73 minutes of Goblin, just to get the gunk off.
And of course, the most important measure is the hardest one: will Tyler's lyrics actually inspire men to abuse women or gays and lesbians? Will we see spikes in domestic/sexual abuse? The question of life imitating art is an old one that can never be properly answered. But Tegan and Sara might have a point that Plato had millennia ago when he lamented the state of Greek drama: what does it say about a society when some of the most popular aspects of culture are violent and inhumane? Is the fact that it is released under the auspices of ‘art’ and not ‘decree’ means it’s the safe way to release supposedly negative ideas and offensive language? Are we cheapening our own ideals and morals by enjoying art that extols activities we would abhor if they actually happened?
And speaking of the abhorrent, Lady Gaga’s second album, Born This Way, has just been released (cheap shot, sorry). The title track and first single sounds a hell of a lot like Madonna. So does the second single, ‘Judas’ (along with the mock religious controversy), and the third, ‘The Edge of Glory’ (with an 80s sax solo).
M.I.A. has made some comments regarding how Gaga has ‘borrowed’ much of her look and attitude, but simply turned down the politics and amped up the sex. Fair enough, but M.I.A. didn’t mention the one thing that truly separates her and the reigning Queen of Pop: a rotating mix of creative and bizarre producers/co-conspirators that makes her music unique and worth multiple plays (well, for Arular and Kala, anyway). Same goes for Swedish pop star Robyn.
Gaga is stuck in one gear that gets old halfway through every track. But I’ll give her credit where credit it due: Her aesthetic sense is certainly intriguing – the opening two minute intro of the ‘Born This Way’ video is better than the five minute of song that follows – and more interesting than her music. A good thing for a graphic/abstract artist. Not so much for pop singer.
She claims that David Bowie is one of her main influences. Call me when you reach your Berlin Trilogy, Gaga.
Let’s be clear:
The Beatles have made comparing the merits of other bands to their own legacy both easy and maddeningly impossible (in that you can’t really do it). No other musical artist or group in the twentieth century – a period when entertainment and leisure became egalitarian on a global scale when compared to any other period in human civilization – had as big a social, critical, and commercial impact as the Fab Four did. As much as they were products of their time – the emergence of the baby boomers and youth culture, coming into a world where many antiquated social morals were rapidly falling away – they helped shape it. Growing long hair and refusing to play for segregated audiences were just as important as Can’t But Me Love or Strawberry Fields Forever.
It’s hard to really fathom what early Beatlemania and the ensuing five or six years afterwards really meant to hundreds of millions of people around the world in the nineteen sixties, unless you were a part of it (just to be clear, I’ll say right here that I missed out). While not the first or last teen idols, they were a quickly metamorphosing pop band that wrote their own hit material whose quality rapidly expanded into bold and novel sonic experiments that inspired pretty much every Western band that came after them. They did this without losing any of their popularity, and only became more critically acclaimed and admired as they went along. As Chuck Klosterman put it, “The Beatles are generally seen as the single most important rock band of all time, allegedly because they wrote all the best songs. Since both of these suppositions are true, The Beatles are rated properly by everyone.” (Klosterman, pg.281)
The Beatles were pioneers in so many ways it’s easy for bands today – even those who appear to be contractual bondage with major record labels – to not realize that much of what autonomy they do have is thanks to just how powerful a single pop-rock group was nearly fifty years ago.
There will never be another Beatles.
I’m glad we’ve cleared this up.
But…for the sake of a nice, friendly argument…
Who else is there?
Not in terms of whether a group is as good or better than The Beatles, but simply whether there is one that could be compared in terms of ability and influence alongside them.
While the two of them were both functional, The Rolling Stones were always seen as the darker, rowdier versions of the Fab Four, although the rivalry was always friendly. While certainly closest to The Beatles in term of popularity and ability throughout the sixties and early seventies, The Stones have slightly sullied their chances overall simply by remaining a cohesive unit as recently as a year ago (having come together to work on outtakes from their last brilliant album, 1972’s Exile on Main Street, although 1978’s Some Girls and 1981’s Tattoo You are extremely strong outings). Most of their work from the mid-seventies onwards is rather forgettable and while their tours are still well attended and praised, much of the material focuses on song made in their first decade of existence.
U2 also makes the shortlist, but the diversity and experimentation of their discography is exaggerated – the jump from 1987’s Joshua Tree to 1991’s Achtung Baby is simply The Edge finding new guitar effects and Bono becoming self-deprecating – and much of their work post-1991 is a rehashing of past successes that grow staler with every release.
Bob Dylan’s influence on popular music cannot be overstated, and his enigmatic personality certainly lends to a rebellious streak that has kept critics and fans in his pocket for five decades now. Like The Rolling Stones, however, Dylan’s output from the late seventies to the late-nineties is hit and miss (although the 1983 outtake Blind Willie McTell is a masterpiece).
What The Beatles had was a prolific (averaging about two records of music per year from 1964 onwards) and near perfect body of work. It is when looking over an artist’s entire oeuvre that an accurate assessment of their worth can be made. From the same period, only The Velvet Underground could compete, although their records barely made a blip on the sales charts at the time.
So for the sake of argument – and to live up to the title of this missive – let me toss in another English band into the ring. A comparatively contemporary band, in fact. They are called Radiohead. They have sold a fraction of the amount of records The Beatles have, while existing on the public stage for over twice the length of The Beatles’ own lifespan.
Pegged as one-hit wonders from Oxford (with 1993’s ‘Creep’, which initially flopped in England when it was released the previous year), the band toured endlessly – nearly to the point of exhaustion – while releasing two highly acclaimed albums in the mid-nineties (1995’s The Bends and 1997’s OK Computer). Retreating from the public spotlight, they released more boundary pushing, experimental material that was never meant to be played live (2000’s Kid A and its more demented and intriguing counterpart, 2001’s Amnesiac). By this time they were well established as one of the most respected and influential bastions of ‘rock’ music (if that word can still be used with any semblance of meaning), with critical acclaim being matched by a large and devoted fan base. 2003’s Hail to the Thief was their longest, perhaps most indulgent album, with a mix of traditional rock songs and odd jazz and electronica experiments that many wish – including some within the band – was more condensed. Friction within the band meant the next record would be four years down the road, with In Rainbows being heralded as a return to form.
Sound relatively familiar?
One of the advantages of discussing The Beatles is that so many people who are familiar with music beyond a Top-40-something-to-keep-riding-in-the-car-from-being-silent mindset know enough of the band’s history that there doesn’t have to be a rehashing of their history here. In fact, re-reading the sizable paragraph above, you can replace the Radiohead’s albums with Beatles ones – in roughly chronological order – and the story would work nearly as well as brief bio for the Liverpool band.
Beyond this mildly intriguing narrative coincidence – that may unravel completely with Radiohead’s recent release, The King of Limbs – other factors have to be properly tweaked and contextualized for the two bands to be compared. While Radiohead have plenty of platinum album sales, their biggest seller – OK Computer – has shifted approximately five million units. This would be low-end not only for The Beatles, but for countless other acts – from Britney Spears to The Eagles – so right away, Radiohead’s audience is narrower, which means its cultural saturation is smaller (which the band has no problem with, it should be mentioned, as they had serious reservations of becoming a stadium rock band). It’s certainly not the miniscule, #199 on Billboard sales of The Velvet Underground’s first record where, “everyone who bought the album formed a band” (to paraphrase Brian Eno), but The Beatles (better known as The White Album) sold more units than all of Radiohead’s discography combined.
Fortunately, art and culture is the one realm of human endeavour where almost everyone can agree that quality trumps quantity. Longevity and relevance of a particular work is held in great esteem. Art that can contextualize a certain moment in time or move one bearing witness to a moment of personal reflection are marks of great importance. Critical acclaim goes a long way in keeping the work of niche artists in the public eye, even if only the periphery. Post-punk bands like Wire and Suicide have their discographies repeated championed by music critics and new generations of music fans that cast larger than average nets, meaning their influence can still be heard through such artists as Arcade Fire and M.I.A.
This is not to say the critics play the only role in cultural preservation. Those outside such circles must also connect with the art as well. This is the problem with the qualitative measurement: it’s not nearly as cut and dry as the quantitative one. Oddly enough, it is quantitative measurement of quality – through Top Ten, Fifty, or One Hundred lists prepared by critics, artists, and the general public – that is frequently used as a measuring stick of worth beyond album sales. As such, the works of both The Beatles and Radiohead are frequently found at the top of many of these inventories.
The Beatles legacy is held in such high esteem today that it’s hard to imagine that despite their popularity and acclaim, many publications took plenty of shots at them when they were actively making music.
In the band’s early days, the spectacle of Beatlemania typically took precedent over the music. The press noted the bands catchy love songs, but quickly moved on to focusing to the bevy of screaming girls and the last time John, Paul, George, and Ringo might have gotten a haircut. As the documentary The Beatles Anthology showed, some reporters tried to goad girls into admitting that The Beatles were no longer their favourite band at concerts. And while The Beatles rapid maturation as songwriters helped allay this fad-level of infatuation, they were not immune from critics’ pen. When The New York Times bashed “The White Album” upon its release, Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner – in his own magazine’s review – suggested that the Times music critic was, “either deaf or evil”. In 1969, Rolling Stone offered two reviews of Abbey Road, one praising it, the other deriding it. In 1970, the same magazine criticized Let it Be, going so far as to say producer Phil Spector – the one time George Martin did not play that role – deserved “stinging slaps on both wrists”.
Radiohead has had a similarly complicated relationship with the press. Considered a “lily-livered excuse for a rock band” and a Nirvana-rip off band around the time of Creep, it wasn’t until their second album was released that the critics started to take notice (around the same time the general public stopped, as The Bends didn’t do nearly as well on the charts as the band’s debut). By OK Computer, the band was being heralded as one of the top bands in the world, with an incredible live show to match their recorded material.
Such ebullient praise – coupled with larger album sales and a tentative graduation from theatres to sports arenas – took their toll on the band, and through all of 1999 were largely silent, only fuelling speculation on what was to come. Radiohead supposed turn to a more electronica-influenced phase in 2000 with Kid A was salvaged by many English critics, feeling that the band had sacrificed melody and accessibility for aimless experimentation (citing instrumental tracks like Treefingers and Amnesiac’s Hunting Bears, both of which share an ambient, navel-gazing atmosphere that any Beatles fan would recognize thanks to Magical Mystery Tours’ Flying).
Over time, critics have warmed to the material they disparaged. Rolling Stone put Abbey Road in the top ten of their top 500 albums of all time list, with Let it Be also bubbling under 100. Kid A was called the best album of the decade by Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, and The Times.
Of course there is always the dissenting opinion (certainly helpful to some degree, as it means these artists are still worth debating). The Beatles can be dismissed as a lightweight pop group, just as Radiohead is occasionally pigeonholed as a depressing, morose rock band. But in some ways, both of these are oversimplifications, an unfair and rather stereotypical assessment of large and varied discographies.
Comparing the actual music is far more difficult, as it enters into a realm that is so much more based on subjectivity. Determining whether Come Together is superior to Lucky or Fixing a Hole to Backdrifts is an episode in near futility, as there is no concrete answer save for personal taste. Chord sequences – regardless of how simple or complex – and words – regardless of how broad or clever – are only the bare mechanics of the song, with the much more ethereal qualities like energy and expectation – that both artist and audience bring to the work in question – determining its overall and ever changing worth.
With that, even critical assessment falls by the wayside to some degree, but then one can suggest that a permanent and near-endlessly supportive fan base can easily replace this downed pillar. An intensive and positive attention given to the band’s works is its greatest measure for relevance, and while The Beatles status here has been solidified thanks to steady sales and interest forty years after the breakup of the band (it was international news when the band finally released their music on the iTunes music store), Radiohead is in good standing to continue this trend, as their online fan community is one of the biggest on the internet.
With any level of objectivity best left for discussions around pints in a bar or a joint-filled ashtray, we move back to what can be considered a comparison of the two bands’ more agreed upon facts.
Lyrically, both bands predominantly dealt with the subject of love (or lack of it). While The Beatles were much more upbeat early on – She Love You, Love Me Do, I Wanna Hold Your Hand – by late 1964 songs based on failed relationships also entered the fore. No Reply, I’m A Loser, and Baby’s in Black kicked of Beatles for Sale (the following year, tracks like Ticket to Ride and You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away continue the exploration of this subject).
Similarly, Radiohead’s debut Pablo Honey obsessed over this common theme as well. Thinking About You and I Can’t are melancholy laments, but it is their breakthrough (eventually) single Creep that that perfectly encapsulated such a feeling of romantic loathing in a quiet-loud pop song. This preponderance continued – although with much more intricate and melodic instrumentation – throughout The Bends, on tracks like High and Dry, Fake Plastic Trees, and Black Star.
Finding mainstream success – although The Beatles did some on a much more epic scale – with this format, the two bands quickly looked for other sources for lyric topics. Influenced by Bob Dylan’s lean toward surreal and dense lyrics, The Beatles soon expanded their topic exponentially. McCartney’s Paperback Writer was the first number one single that focused not on a relationship, bur rather a man trying to get a book published. Eleanor Rigby – backed by strings instead of guitars and drums – was, in McCartney’s words, “a short story set to music”. By 1967, Lennon’s compositions frequently focused on the bizarre (I am a Walrus, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds) or the mundane (Good Morning Good Morning, A Day in the Life).
For Radiohead’s third album – OK Computer – Thom Yorke divested any aspect of personal writing, and instead wrote the lyrics as if each song offered commentary – explicit or oblique – on the state of the world around him, from politics to automobiles to aliens to tourism. From Kid A onwards, however, like The Beatles post-Revolver, all bets were off. The rapid word-imagery of I Am a Walrus can be seen on Hail to the Thief’s closer A Wolf at the Door. As Across the Universe is a dreamy acoustic track centred around a singular mantra, How to Disappear Completely is cut from the same cloth – although with gorgeous strings and an Ondes Martenot accentuating the guitar – centred around the phrase, “I’m not here, this isn’t happening”.
For both groups, the label ‘rock band’ was not a limit, but simply a plateau from which one could climb higher and further away into unexplored territory. As The Beatles infused their songs with such diverse musical elements such as jazz, classical, dance-hall, and avant-garde, Radiohead made such genres the foundations for the songs found on what critics call their experimental albums: Kid A, Amnesiac, and the recent The King of Limbs. In many ways, Tomorrow Never Knows begat Like Spinning Plates.
And while these novel methods of reimagining the limits of pop songs are enough to put both bands in a select and rarified group of artists who put artistic risk ahead of winning formulas, the form in which such material was released is also what put The Beatles and Radiohead at the top of their class.
For both artists, the album was seen as a single artistic statement, with the track listing and cover art just as important as each individual song. By 1965-1966 – a time when albums were typically made up of two or three hit singles and the rest being filler material – The Beatles were spending a comparatively inordinate amount of time in the studio, perfecting each of the fourteen or so tracks that would appear on Rubber Soul, Revolver, and respective singles Ticket to Ride and Paperback Writer. 1967’s Sgt. Pepper – regardless of how much of it can be called part of a concept album – was specifically designed to have songs fade into each other, making standalone tracks unheard of. The point was to listen to the album in its entirety, as it was supposed to be accepted as a single ‘song’.
Similarly, Kid A and Amnesiac were released in 2000 and 2001, when the popularity oft-disposable teen pop (Britney Spears, N’Sync) and the profanity-laced power chords of nu-metal (Korn, Limp Bizkit) were at their apex. Radiohead had almost broken up over arguments over the tracklisting of the two albums, as Kid A was especially meant to be heard as a singular piece of music (lending credence to this is the fact that no singles were issued from the record, a trait it shares in common with Sgt. Pepper).
While these are some of the most basic and blatant similarities, a smattering of other comparisons can also be made:
-awkward documentaries. The film Let It Be is now widely heralded as a chance to watch a famous band fall apart. George Harrison’s “I’ll play whatever you want me to play” comment still sounds like fingernails on a chalkboard to those who treasured the Fab Four as an inseparable unit. Similarly, Radiohead 1997-1998 tour documentary Meeting People Is Easy has the band travel the world with praise heaped upon them – along with the endless press questions, herd-like travel conditions, and photo shoots – to the point where nearing the end Thom Yorke is dejectedly complaining to Jonny Greenwood that “it’s all bollocks” and that “we’ve been running too long on bravado” before a show.
-a self-contained management apparatus. In The Beatles case, it would be best to call Apple Corps’ late sixties endeavours a successful failure. Designed as a company where the four of them can invest their money instead of having the tax man (ha, ha, Mr. Heath) take it, it became a record label, clothing/swag store, a publishing house, and film distributor. For the most part, it was a bust. But one band’s failure at a management level – understandable to some degree, as no one step into Brian Epstein’s shoes after his death in mid-1967 – could be a learning experience for all that followed. Radiohead’s company – WASTE, a reference to the secret underground mail system in Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 – sells the band’s memorabilia, concert tickets, and – since the band left EMI – their music.
-The Beatles released cheery, tongue-in-cheek Christmas messages each year, and Radiohead treated their fans to a 2002 Christmas webcast that included a cover of ‘Winter Wonderland’.
-the role of a single producer that helped shaped the band’s sound. The Beatles had George Martin overseeing the development of their songs through their entire career (although Phil Spector was brought into to remix the Let it Be tapes after the band had effectively split up in late 1969), his musical training coming in quite handy when it came to including writing scores for classical musicians, and sometimes playing piano or harpsichord on some tracks. In the same way, Nigel Godrich has manned the boards since 1995 for Radiohead, being credited for creating the dense and intricate atmospheres of Kid A and The King of Limbs. Similarly, as Martin has been labelled the fifth Beatle, Godrich has been deigned the ‘sixth member’ of Radiohead.
-the pre-fame years have some basic overlap, with both bands coming together when most of the members were in their mid-to-late teens, and working extremely hard on playing together as unit, honing their craft. While The Beatles received their ‘education’ in Hamburg, playing for eight hours a day, Radiohead actually earned university degrees, but still pursued the idea of being in a band on weekends, returning to Oxford to play and rehearse.
As mentioned in the large paragraph after Radiohead was first introduced, the trajectory of the two bands’ careers can be matched up with only some slight loose ends. Being quite familiar with the records of both bands will most likely make this table more palatable. (notes are below)
-some of these comparisons are obviously up for debate
-clearly I am focusing on order of release, not of recording (the Let it Be/Abbey Road switch).
-and no Yellow Submarine. Perhaps it would be suitable to compare it to In Rainbows’ second ‘bonus’ disc, but the dates do not add up.
-a large conflation was the first several Beatles albums with ‘just’ Pablo Honey. Perhaps slightly egregious and unfair, but keep in mind that many of these early albums included covers (Please Please Me was mostly those), and much of the early material – acknowledged by both Lennon, McCartney, Martin, and a bevy of critics and fans – was some of the weakest they released.
Klosterman, Chuck. Chuck Klosterman IV: A Decade of Curious People and Dangerous Ideas. Toronto: Scribner, 2006.
It ain’t easy bein’ Yeezy, but that’s why he is where he is today. Conflict, chaos and a Herculean restlessness flow through his blood. When the last two presidents name-drop you in any context, you know you’ve done something big, right or wrong be damned.
What is the listener constructing here as the opening track – “Dark Fantasy” – unfolds? What are we bringing to the table? Can we divide ourselves and not think of Kanye when listening to Kanye hate on Kanye? How many mirrors do we need to listen to this record? This is a man who has the world at his fingertips yet he calls his new record My Dark Twisted Fantasy, as if he really needs a dream to step into. But he does. Needs to get out. Find an emergency exit. The world is too much with him. He’s crossing people left and right and people are doing the same to him but apparently West isn’t the type to lick his wounds. Laying down tracks is far more satisfying.
My Dark Twisted Fantasy is an epic, a monster, a masterpiece, and an indulgent unapologetic mess that cleans up those lingering doubts. You’ll find hip-hop in its bones but a flesh made of prog, soul, pop, jazz, classical, and audio samples. And the skin, it’s oh so thin, with our MC calling himself an asshole, a grudge-bearer (‘I will never ever, ever let you live this down’), abomination, and a sell-out.
But it’s Kanye through and through. It’s a legacy that is built out of an eclectic discography that’s only six years old. His oeuvre is praised as much as his own behavior is criticized, and both of these qualities are dissected on My Dark Twisted Fantasy. Nothing is safe, nothing is sacred, except perhaps for the music that never hides behind the words but is always rushing alongside with them, dragging us in with insanely catchy hooks despite asking us to, ‘have a toast to the douchebags’. Musically, it is a finely crafted, spacious record, with guitar solos, extended breaks, emotive choirs as just another chopped up sample, and a three minute instrumental outro on “Runaway” which is pretty much exactly what the listener needs at that point: room to breath and take in what just happened and what’s to come.
Kanye’s background as a producer always served him well, but never so much as here, as the pacing of the songs – many ranging from six to nine minutes – being just as important as the pacing of the overall record. Guests are everywhere – Jay-Z, Rick Ross, Raekwon, John Legend – but they never overwhelm the stars of the show, Kanye the talent and Kanye the man. He knows he has put together some of the best music of the last five years (ten if you want to include his strictly behind the mixing board work), but is still never satisfied, which he admits is destroying the rest of his life (‘everybody know I’m a motherfucking monster’).
Coming to these personal revelations – and in the process maturing – on a record can come off hackneyed, but West is a brilliant lyricist and stays funny and clever so often the self-reflection never comes off too heavy. With obscure cultural references that rival MF Doom (“Fresh air rollin’ down the window, too many Urkels on your team, that’s why your Win(d)slow”), sometimes you forget about the Unbearable Lightness of Kanye.
And cultural references don’t stop at mere words. Props to the opening riff of “Hell of a Life”, which sounds a bit like Sabbath’s “Iron Man” through broken bass amp. All stops are pulled out throughout My Dark Twisted Fantasy. The interlude of “Blame Game” is a schizophrenic argument between many Kanyes, slightly altered vocals for each voice, creating a multilayered argument in verse.
‘Can we get much higher?’ a sampled, soulful voice asks us early on. There doesn’t seem to be a straight answer, and the rest of the album seems to respond with another query: Do you really want to? It’s tough to make contemplating suicide seem like a noble act out of a Shakespearean tragedy, but West does it on “Power”. It can’t just be his flow, or the words tumbling through it, or the production, or the persona that we all know that makes this album work so well, it has to be a noxious blend of all these things designed to overwhelm us, destabilize us, force to uncover a figurative car wreck that we cannot turn away from and perhaps even find beauty in.
The choruses are made for stadiums, the lyrics for the confessionals. Music being pulled apart in two different directions. It’s Joshua Tree meets Plastic Ono Band. A nervous breakdown with symphonies, grunge, and radio-friendly pop hooks. It’s the pop album of the year, despite its extravagance, density, and filthy lyrics (the line ‘”I sent this bitch a picture of my dick”, is actually rather topical). It’s an album to live and dream in, because we can obsess over all our shortcomings with the greatest backing band in the world, and imagine marrying a porn star in a bathroom without having to actually go out and do it.
2010 was a pretty difficult year if you weren’t a hedge fund manager, and while West is exactly the type of artist who might claim that My Dark Twisted Fantasy was as much about the state of the world as it was about himself, this record has already accepted the weirdness and confusion all around it and is more interested in finding a way to accept the let downs that appear at every corner, whether you are the artist or the listener. Apparently it takes a sweeping, triumphant record that cost three million benjamins to realize it’s all about the little things.
When someone asks you how you will survive in America, there’s only one thing to say:
“Yeezy taught me.”
Remember, Remember…the fifth of November…
I couldn’t name a song. I couldn’t name anyone in the band. This doesn’t matter with The Ultimate Most High. Being there is fucking enough. A loud, raucous audio-visual spectacle that is best appreciated in confined, narrow, dive-bar type space (which The Bates Motel is to a t) with an above average speaker system that cares not a whit if someone close by is trying to sleep at quarter to one on a cool but not cold early November night/morning.
The Ultimate Most High was scheduled to play at one, but due to a mix up that remains a mystery, they went on – for possibly the first time in rock music history – fifteen minutes early. The band seemed a bit jarred by this temporal error, but that can be expected. Before they actually begin, little of the T.U.M.H. seems to make sense. The bass player looks like he should be in a metal band. The ever-jolly drummer in an amphetamine-driven jazz band. The guitarist in a business meeting giving third quarter profit projections. The singer on the phone with his stockbroker in a much swankier martini bar.
Appearances can be wonderfully deceiving.
The Ultimate Most High cares not a whit for breaking musical barriers. They will happily settle for the destruction of your eardrums. Outside of the odd, flash-less guitar solo, the entire band is one rhythmic hardcore punk organism. Even the singer. No, check that. Especially the singer. Here singing is barking, and only the small talk between the sonic pummelings are you reminded that he is not a man possessed. Don’t know the lyrics? Doesn’t matter, it’s your turn to sing, the man with microphone is stuffing it in your face imploring you to scream into the transmission device by first doing it himself.
He leaps off the stage seconds after the drums, bass, and guitar kick in for the first song because the stage is simply three four-inch risers in the back of the bar. Which is beside the unisex bathroom, that the singer used as another room, another place, another way out, another thing to smash into, like he used the floor, the top of the piano and the bodies of the five or six people milling around the front of the ‘stage’.
The rest of the band says more or less stationary, just trembling with the reverberations of the singular sound coming from their instruments. Riffs. Fast metallic riffs. Even from the drummer, I swear. The music is like an old school tightrope wire: taut, strong and powerful in the centre, but frayed at the edges.
The Ultimate Most High becomes the pulse of the Bates Motel. Taking out your neck, spine and quaking hips, one riff at a time. The singer by his actions is imploring us to fall out of line and into chaos. Kiss the ground, motherfucker, your salvation is moving around the room like a psychotic rubber ball; try to grab it for even a second.
There is scarcely room to breath between songs, to let out a scream that you approve or can’t take much more, but you find yourself putting together tattered questions in awe. Are punk drummers allowed to be this good, this on-point? Punk is supposed to hate the drum solo, but why does it work so well here? Why stop playing a song so everyone can get their wits about them if you could just let the seemingly indefatigable drummer pull a Bonham for a crazed thirty seconds? How can they all play ramshackle and scatterbrained and still punch out a sound that unmistakably comes from a tight, well-oiled machine?
It’s a fine fucking line that The Ultimate Most High has a knack for bashing its head against repeatedly.
Most importantly, you ask why you’re asking these questions at all, what the fuck does it matter. Besides, The Ultimate Most High doesn’t have time for your queries. It’s already on to its next three minutes of mayhem.
Punk lore isn’t like from pop music lore, which has a cast of thousands for things like Woodstock or Live Aid. People beating witness to something great is counted in the dozens. I was not in the Detroit biker bar where Iggy Pop got his ass kicked on that fateful night in 1973 that brought the second incarnation of The Stooges to a close, nor I was not in Manchester in 1976 when The Sex Pistols played to an audience of forty that contained the future members of the Buzzcocks and Joy Division, but I was at the Bates Motel on the fifth of November in the year of someone else’s lord 2010, and after seeing that show, I do believe that lightning can strike twice, that raw power equals pure sound, and that The Ultimate Most High is one of the best things in Toronto.
I’m listening to Kurt Cobain scream out Radio Friendly Unit Shifter in France in 1994. The music is pummeling. The guitar is leaping back and forth from squeals of feedback to crunchy, unforgiving riffs (helped out, admittedly, by Pat Smear). Krist Novoselic is a very tall anchor on the bass. Through a thunderous pounding of the skins, Dave Grohl is forgiven for all the Foo Fighters albums after The Color and the Shape. I’m not there, it should be clarified. It’s just recorded history in the form of a bootleg titled, Va Te Faire Enculer, which, after running it through a translator program on my Macbook, is probably the best crazy album title ever.
‘Unit Shifter’ stumbles to its end and is replaced by super sludgy and sloppy cover of ‘My Sharona’. It’s oppressive and beautiful at the same time. As it fizzles out after a minute, Krist (or Dave, ‘cause sometimes it’s hard to tell them apart on the mikes, as they both exude a happy-go-lucky-mock-lounge-singer vibe) happily introduces the band: ‘Welcome! We’re Nirvana!’ It’s another ten seconds before Kurt sheepishly mumbles, ‘hi’. Then they go into a searing version of ‘Drain You’.
Nirvana remains an anomaly unheard of in popular music. Only The Sex Pistols come close to matching the career trajectory of this blatantly anti-commercial band – both in terms of sound and, to use a dirty word, ‘philosophy’ – that became incredibly popular and influential for an influential but short period of time. But 1977 wasn’t 1991, and by the time The Sex Pistols were huge in England they could barely get through a show before it became a riot (or was canceled before they got onto the stage). And they seemed more a novelty act when they toured America, which ended up signaling the death knell of the band. The guitars snarled, the singer spat out poison words about the death of England, and the bassist they ended up with could shoot smack better than playing his respective instrument. All essential components for an underground revolution to be sure. It was a textbook/cookie cutter example of a manager – in this case, Malcolm McLaren – selling a brand of rebellion successfully, and has been utilized many times, before and since.
Nirvana, though… Nirvana was just… weird. The Sex Pistols wanted to be the biggest thing in England so the whole country could see them take a dump on it. Nirvana seemed happy enough releasing an album, playing some earsplitting shows, and then retreating to their hole up in the Pacific Northwest. Accidental superstars to be sure, as nothing really suggested that they had any mainstream commercial potential. No easy to understand lyrics about smashing stuff up and making money. ‘I’m a negative creep and I’m stoned!’, Cobain screams over and over on the track sensibly called Negative Creep. You aren’t really supposed to scratch your chin over these lyrics like you would for ‘Desolation Row’, right? You could, of course, but it wasn’t necessary. In other words, it was DIY…like the grunge ethos itself.
The music, too, pulls the listener in two directions. A bizarre bait and switch of Beatles-like hooks drenched in feedback and Sabbath-like rhythms. By In Utero, you were practically wincing as the squeals of the guitars in Senseless Apprentice. But the best way to experience the band – and thank god for bootleggers – was live. Sixteen years on and it’s still a disorienting image, hearing this type of heavy, heavy, heavy in a sports arena (I’m listening to School right now, which might just have the best rock riff…ever). And that’s when it strikes you. Nirvana was fucking loud! Not in the same way that any good rock concert is loud, but that everything was on the edge of being too oppressive. The rhythm too fucking earthy, and the guitar alternating between a dying industrial machine and a shrieking violin. Plus the howl of a gangly frontman with a penchant for flannel who looked like – if he wasn’t onstage – he would probably fall over with a gust of wind (and considering he was more or less a heroin addict for most of the band’s existence, not far off the mark).
Another bait and switch. Finding stardom in spite of doing almost everything to avoid it. Despite the hard work they put into their records and shows, they didn’t give a fuck (Novoselic on the band’s initial success: “We don’t try very hard, but from now on we’re going to try a whole lot less”). The instrument smashing that could go on for ten to twenty minutes. The dress wearing. The French-kissing on national television. Admitting, ‘it only hurts when I pee’ in some bizarre nasal voice on Mexican Seafood (try picturing any other grunge idol singing that).
Few people did smartass like Kirst Novoselic. A bass player with a lead singer’s charm. Witness this brilliant bit of witty repartee from a show in Germany:
Grohl: "Donkey show"
Novoselic: "No! We're not supposed to talk about things like that!"
(‘Cause "Danke schön" – ‘thank you’ in German – sounds like something else. Har! Har! Har!)
Stranger than the music and the band that took just enough of themselves seriously was that it was embraced by so many so suddenly. When Grunge exploded in late 1991-early 1992, there were many bands on the cusp (Sonic Youth, Mudhoney, Dinosaur Jr.) that could have been the flag bearers of the supposed movement against the sleek and shiny pop of the 1980’s. Certainly a catchy little ditty called ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ helped, but the fact that instead of becoming a novelty it became everything that Generation X was supposedly trying to say suggests that there was a wealth of art and music ready to change the mainstream cultural landscape. Nirvana just got lucky to find themselves at the head of the class, and in the end it killed them.
Besides, there was always someone else ready to come and take the King of Pop’s place on the top of the charts. (another one of those symbolic shifts that ultimately didn’t mean anything. A number one album doesn’t mean much beyond units shifted. It doesn’t make an album great, or a movement legitimate) Remember the Nirvana-Pearl Jam debate? I don’t. I was ten in 1992. And I wasn’t a cool ten year old who watched MTV or Muchmusic and bought the latest albums. All I listened to was what my father listened to: The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Granted, that was and is the ‘eternally cool’ stuff, but it didn’t help on the schoolyard.
Looking back now, however, with cynical clarity, it seems safe to say that Pearl Jam was/is a rock band. A very good, sturdy rock band that sang about personal anguish that any Gen-Xer could identify with. In terms of musical sound, Pearl Jam was only a couple notches above Bon Jovi. With such a sound and a brooding way about them, Eddie Vedder became a golden god. A really serious golden god. I don’t own Ten – which even PJ thought was a sanitized version of their live sound – I own something better. A high quality Pearl Jam bootleg from an early 1992 concert that has all of Ten on it, plus a cover of Neil Young’s ‘Rockin’ in a Free World.’
And in some ways, that a great example of the difference right there. Pearl Jam did a note-perfect replication of a well-known rock anthem. Nirvana covered obscure songs (a Bowie song everyone forgets, short poppy Vaselines songs, stuff by Meat Puppets and Leadbelly…) with reckless abandon.
Compared to Pearl Jam (what Cobain called ‘corporate rock’) Nirvana was a punk band molesting The Beatles molesting Devo that made lyrical claims like, ‘My mother died every night, it’s safe to say, don’t quote me on that’.
How Nirvana got as popular as they did is beyond me. And that sounds like a dig at them, but it’s not. I will always take Nirvana over Pearl Jam. But how this band, one so loud and caustic became so famous – became the pinnacle for mainstream teenage angst despite singing lyrics in the style of second-rate beat poetry – is a question for the ages. How did kids identify with a frail, suicidal guitarist-singer with a wall of noise behind him? How did they so quickly go from Axl Rose to Kurt Cobain? Sure Axl Rose wrote tough songs about how badass he was and then sad songs about how difficult it was to cope with life, but most of them were written after the women and fame he had to endure after becoming the leader of the biggest band on the planet. Cobain wrote about living under bridges and sniffing glue even after he signed with a major label. The fringe was in his blood, in equal parts desolate and absurd.
Looking back on this now, twenty odd years later, grunge doesn’t feel like a novelty, but its influence is better seen in the ever-growing multi-genre cultural landscape called the ‘underground’ than in anything you’d hear on the radio today. That’s how grunge started after all, so it’s almost fitting to say that it surface briefly in the 1990’s, took a look around, sold some platinum albums and arena concert tickets, and then went back beneath the waves where it was always more comfortable in the first place.
It’s tempting to say that ‘everything changed’ when these bands sold millions of records but Madonna and U2 didn’t disappear during this time, and ‘Achy Breaky Heart’ was one of the biggest hits of 1992. Revisionist history states that the kids changed, that they did a 180 degree turn to alternative music and all things underground, but it rings a bit hollow. It’s like saying everyone became hippies between 1966 and 1969.
In truth, Nirvana was never for everyone, and no one knew that better than the band members themselves. Not long after their mainstream breakthrough, they tried to crawl back under the bridge they weren’t actually sleeping under. 1993’s In Utero did exactly what the band wanted it to do: Scare off record label executive and jock rock fans (who ran into the sullen arms of Eddie Vedder).
Listening to the band’s music now is not the same for me as it is for the people who heard it while it all happened. By the time I was aware of Nirvana, they ceased to exist. Trying to imagine the average MTV viewer watching a Nirvana video and liking it is hard to picture for me. Nirvana’s music is disturbing, but in a fun kind of way. It was disturbing when it came out in 1991 inasmuch as it was loud, confusing (MTV aired ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ with the lyrics running along the bottom of the screen), and it hasn’t gotten any more normal. Nirvana copycats were extremely watered down, and started to blot out all the true grunge bands within a year or two of the dam breaking. And while it can be argued that the influence of the band’s music can still be heard today in most bands centered around a nice strong guitar sound, nothing in the world of mainstream rock is currently as piercing as Heart Shaped Box or Lithium. And those are the hit singles. When you burrow into the deeper cuts on Incesticide like Beeswax and Big Long Now, you get crushing not-quite-power chords and dissonance with Cobain howling about being blind and how he, ‘got his ding-a-ling spayed.’ Few songs are as unforgiving as ‘Endless, Nameless’, a good enough name for the act of looking down the barrel of a shotgun as any.
It’s not serious, but it’s not a day at the races, either. It’s occupies that middle space where the music doesn’t compromise to anyone or anything, but offered up at the right time, can stop the average music listener in their tracks. Nirvana’s repugnant appeal lived a life of novelty without the band or the music actually becoming novelty. It was the hype that had the short shelf life and that was it.
An assessment of Nirvana as a whole is not an easy task. The band was a big bowl of contradictions, which thankfully doesn’t mar their legacy in the least. The words are typical the first thing a critic attempts to analyze and deconstruct, and the ‘poet’ Cobain thwarted that attempt by stressing to his band mates that the music comes first (Grohl’s stated that sometimes Cobain would scribble words out on piece of paper in the studio just before a vocal take). When in doubt, make the guitar screech. Not cry, not whisper, not even howl. Just screech. White noise barely allowing the words to be recognizable. Beyond the hype, beyond the critics, even beyond the millions of fans. All that’s left is a sound, a twisting, gnarled sound that will outlive us all and go beyond.
Okay, yeah, so it’s the new album by that Williamsburg guy who owns too much weird electronic music that he rattled off on that first single all those years ago. It’s still just beats, right? It starts quiet so you’re supposed to sway in anticipation, and then it gets loud and then you can dance. I get it. It’s like cold disco or something.
And yeah, so far the opening track – “Dance Yrself Clean” – is meeting these expectations to a tee. Quiet with a nice catchy flute-like sound… and then boom! The drums and cymbals hitting where they should, ‘cause after two great albums and a bunch of EPs, he’s become an expert at fusing four-on-the-floor with Another Green World. And now he’s howling about dancing myself clean, and that sounds like what anyone who goes to a club kinda wants to do…
So wait, why’s he now singing, ‘it’s the end of an era, it’s true’, and ‘it’s a thirty car pile up with you’? Why are you harshing my sliding backbone buzz, man? I’m just trying to shake it like the white hipster I am – I can’t dance but I can count so I know how I’m supposed to move – and it’s like you’re staring at your dusty scrapbooks in regret and concern.
Or begging, ‘take me hooooome’ on “All I Want”, which has a Fripp-guitar sound stolen straight from Bowie’s Heroes. As for the rhythms, this dude can lay it down with the best of them, but it’s the touches and flourishes of horns, pianos, and synths that make it special and propulsive.
But the dance floor isn’t supposed to be ground zero for a midlife crisis. That’s where you sweat out your fears of never besting your father and not owning a boat. I mean, titling a song, “I Can Change”? Are you supposed to admit that here in the strobe-lit dark, where drinks are spilled and the quaking boys and girls are plugged into some form of aural ecstasy?
And sometimes he’s not really speaking to whomever I’m picturing in my head. Not a special lady friend or some old war buddy or a bunch of people in packed little loft party (and I’m not hip enough for the name-dropping in “Pow Pow”). Sometimes I see him looking into a mirror, his backing band or pile of electronics just a bit further away so they aren’t part of the reflection. Only the words are supposed to be given a second, more careful look.
And hey, when did he fine the time to sing so well? Didn’t he, like, just used to speak or yell? Why are these emotionally drenched words suddenly catching up with the quality of the beats? How did this happen? I thought the impassioned epics from Sound of Silver – “All My Friends” and “Someone Great” – were anomalies, but apparently they were brilliant blueprints.
The music and vocals die away together at the end of “Somebody’s Calling Me”, forever intertwined, I can’t pull them apart, and suddenly I realize I’m bobbing my head to someone else’s catharsis but I’m so wrapped up in it that it’s a catharsis I want, too. Why is it working? I can see every angle and predict every corner. Electronic music isn’t supposed to be spontaneous, certainly not on the usually throwaway textual side of things. Why am I putting my ear up to the speakers to here the words – the confessions – that slide in and around of the beats? Why is this guy dropping Elliot Smith-like lyrical doubts so well?
What is this salty discharge from the corners of my eyes as I hear this man pine for home on the final track? Telling me that, “You’re afraid of what you need”. I feel slightly invaded, but more astonished that such a single line can make me question my own life decisions and my hazy future while I am still enjoying myself thanks to the music. I am being pulled in two different directions, and I don’t care as long as the sounds don’t stop.
But it does stop. “Home” winds down so peacefully, as if the last sixty-five minutes were a private therapy session set to music. And that’s okay. It all worked out. You’re healed. And in case you’ve forgotten, you danced the night away the whole time.
Ascribing words to phenomena is the most basic form of communication, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. In fact, as the title suggests, trying to encapsulate certain ideas or events can become confusing or ridiculous.
It can be particularly frustrating when discussing music, an art form that – while made with physical objects – is distinctly non-corporeal. This is why a popular form of describing music is the combining of two disparate genres, as it then forces the reader to use their own experience and imagination to make the hypothetical connection. Perhaps most famously, Kurt Cobain described Nirvana’s sound as ‘Black Flag being molested by the Bay City Rollers’.
Acknowledging this caveat is especially necessary for the New York born punk/drone band, Liars. Call them The Sex Pistols spooning Brian Eno. The Beatles crawling over Swans. The Clash plus a wolverine high on PCP.
Yeah, something like that.
A trio of art students – Angus Andrew on vocals/electronic sounds, Aaron Hemphill on guitar/electronic sounds/percussion, and Julian Gross on straight ahead percussion – every step of their career is essentially ruining established conventions (some of their own making) and doing so in the most unpleasant way possible.
Starting out in the early 2000’s as a post-punk band – the first of many not quite helpful genre terms this article will spurt out, once again proving that the only way to understand this band properly is by actually listening to the music – Liars evolved out of the two or three minute blasts of creepy, riff-hard, very nearly danceable sounds into something much more…arty. And insidious And oppressive.
It is not music for the heart, barely for the mind, and not at all for letting the backbone slide. It’s for the ancient reptilian brain. So much of it sounds like broken machines, wheezing, pounding, and squealing in perfect unison. The brilliance is that the fragile balance between chaos and cohesiveness is repeated not only through individual tracks but entire albums. Outbursts like this are supposed to lose their edge when confined to four minutes of music, but it never does with Liars. The music ebbs and flows, rising and falling, fuzzy grey exploding into momentary multicolour eruptions.
Their 2002 debut, They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top, only hinted at what was to come. An almost straightforward punk masterpiece, only the final track suggested that the band was willing to jerk its audience around for the sake of… something. This Dust Makes that Mud is an eight-minute dirge, with one small section of looped for twenty-two minutes more, pushing patience to a ridiculous limit. Is it a mistake, having the last half of your album sound like a factory?
While their sound has become more complex, the basic Liars song structure is the intellectual bastardizing and extreme separation of the loud soft dynamic that – while having existed in some form for as long as music has existed – was popularized by the Pixies and Nirvana.
The ‘atmosphere’ of a record is quite close to a mindless busy work term for critics who can’t think of a more exciting way to describe how the sounds of the instruments work together in the song. But Liars have found a way to go from sounding like they are chanting on the edge of a cliff to screaming riffs into your ear. Much like the work Reznor in the first decade of Nine Inch Nails, melody and familiar rhythm patterns are either buried under layers of screeching, unrepentant fuzz, or are only implied over a tumultuous cacophony of live and electronic percussion instruments. Aaron Hemphill is certainly the most accomplished experimental guitarist this side of Jonny Greenwood, as you are never one hundred percent sure how these sounds are created. Is he hunched over a keyboard, or a guitar neck screaming for mercy?
What does doom sound like? Film scores have used orchestras to conjure up these grand sounds of dread, but how does a group of three or four alt-indie-rockers do it? What do you have to feel or think about? What do you do for a laugh after pounding on a drum for three minutes while guitar drone overdubs fly overhead? Does your audience ever enter into your considerations? Do you cackle when you wonder how they are possibly going to stomach ‘If You’re a Wizard, Then Why Do You Where Glasses’?
Even the disparate, distracting sounds are only one of the tools the Liars employ to disorient the listener. Simply becoming familiar with the work of the band is fraught with difficulty. Attempting to remember song titles from the first three albums are quite close to episodes of futility. The opening track of their debut album is ‘Grown Men Don’t Fall in the River, Just Like That’. Those words are not mentioned at all throughout the song. Other tracks are ‘Tumbling Walls Buried Me in the Debris with ESG’. On the album Drum’s Not Dead, each track has either the term ‘Drum’ or ‘Mt. Heart Attack’ in the title (save one).
As far as what Andrew sings about, it is mostly bleak, morbid poetry that Burroughs might have unleashed in his more manic periods. Lyrically, there’s not too much of an evolution from, ‘they threw me in to the cement mixer’ (from The Garden was Crowded and Outside) to Drum and the Uncomfortable Can which has Andrew muttering, ‘Use your tiny screws, leave it in the wrists’, to ‘I dragged her body to the parking lot, I tried to find her, a savior right there amongst the cars…’ (from Scissor, their recent single)
Sometimes these are screamed, spoken, or given a beautiful falsetto by Andrew. It either compliments or contrasts with the music, which are reactions that are courted in equal measure by the band.
While the band was lauded for their confrontational and powerful blasts of post-punk on their debut, they followed the ethos of Brian Eno by not repeating whatever worked for the first time when it came time to record their second. Hence, They Were Wrong So We Drowned is perhaps one of the most oppressive albums ever recorded, up there with Reed’s Metal Machine Music, Suicide’s debut, and the bleak sound collage work of Igor Wakhevitch. Andrew is screaming ‘blood’ incessantly on the opening track (‘Broken Witch’) over drums that alternate between a lurch and a gallop, basement guitar sounds, and a schizophrenic second vocal track. The second track is an instrumental; like a UFO encounter gone completely wrong. The drumming throughout the album is always tense and thin. The guitar is broken and alive, and covered in toxic waste and trying to get the most out of its half-life. Each track is a serious of mental, paranoid explosions, culminating in the anti-church choir threnody, ‘Flow My Tears, The Spider Said’. Then it dissolves into less and less. Into wailing birds and exhausted nothings.
Spin and Rolling Stone gave it one star. It only endeared the band to the handful of ardent fans that believed they had found something original and iconoclastic. As the penultimate song on the album said, as if summing up this reaction, “Drowning angel got cold, but maybe now the grass will grow’…
The band’s third album, however, Drum’s Not Dead, received much praise from critic circles, as it was a slightly more palatable form of the audio experiments found on They Were Wrong. A concept album detailing the war between creativity and destruction, it even included what could almost be called a happy and hopeful song at it’s close, The Other Side of Mt. Heart Attack (‘I won’t run far, I can always be found’), proving that the band could write something heartfelt – as opposed to heart exploding – when it wanted to. As mentioned, atmosphere is a tough word to wrap one’s head around in sonic terms, but Drum’s Not Dead is bathed in an unsettling fog. The piercing highs and brooding lows are tempered in a valium haze and instead of being a hindrance joins the songs together into an single, graceful movement forward.
The two most recent releases, 2007’s Liars and 2010’s Sisterworld are only more conventional when compared to the three albums, but each have a bevy of superbly crafted songs, the former including the seminal ‘Plaster Casts of Everything’ and the joyous, falsetto laden ‘Houseclouds’.
With the recent Sisterworld, the Liars have perfected…something. It doesn’t sound like the skittery punk of their debut, isn’t as teeth clenching as the next two albums that followed, but rather is some level of what I am wary to call maturation, as Andrew screaming ‘kill ‘em all!’ on ‘Scarecrows on a Killer Slant’, doesn’t sound like a band going quietly into their second decade of existence. It’s never comfortable and familiar. Crisper sounds means you hear the thin structure and holes in ‘Goodnight, Everything’ before the bottom drops out and the sounds of chaos explode again. Horns are supposed to be a ‘safe’ addition to the material on your fifth album, but it doesn’t work that way here.
The sound is the key. Nausea and concern. It is a march through knives but you’re all the better for it when you make it through. In fact, you feel strong enough to return to the hurricane and pick it apart for pieces you may have missed. It’s not timeless, but it’s not representative of a particular period or genre. It hangs awkwardly in the air, daring you to define or defile it. It’s not easy, but the building blocks are familiar enough to give everyone a chance to decipher its industrial muck.
This changes to something much more visceral when the Liars perform live, which they happened to do earlier this month, as part of early promo tour in support of Sisterworld. Seeing them at the Rock and Roll Hotel in Washington DC and the venerable Bowery Ballroom in New York City, one realizes that sometimes caring about an album’s ‘atmosphere’ can really get in the way of rocking the fuck out and pummeling your eardrums.
The Rock and Roll Hotel is a dive bar in a crap section of Washington DC. Yes, yes it is. It is not the place you’d expect to see a band that has opened for Radiohead and played at numerous international music festivals to great acclaim.
But Liars were here. Between playing a lovely theatre in LA and the Bowery Ballroom in New York, they treated a small but fervent crowd in a little hole in the wall to a powerful, oppressive sonic punch in the face.
While they are a three person recording unit, on tour they add a bassist and extra guitarist – actually two members from the opening band, Fol Chen – and the add crunch was apparent from the get go.
Angus screeched, mumbles, wailed, and shook like a giant leaf with epilepsy. Aaron played guitar or some creepy electronic keyboard thing with gusto, always looking like he was playing hooky on a school night. Julian smashed the shit out of the drums.
The new tracks sat in well with the old. Scissor’s quiet-loud-quiet dynamic was the Pixies/Nirvana trick amped up to eleven. Here Comes All the People, tumbled out off the stage like a demented waltz, ‘counting victims one by one’.
Angus had heavy echo and reverb on his mic, and a small little device beside him that with only a handful of knob and dial twists add shrieking feedback to the heavy pounding rhythms of the four instruments behind him.
Overwhelming. Enveloping. You have to dig through the ugly ringing ears to find beauty in it.
Heads bobbed like necks were going to snap right off. Some had to get the legs and arms going. A core group at the front needed to push off the shackles of everyday life by smashing into their fellow men at high speed when Scarecrows on a Killer Slant and the penultimate set closer Plaster Casts of Everything erupted.
The encores were done as the main three piece, first of something from Drum’s Not Dead – not knowing song titles happens when all the tracks on that album have either the word Mt. Heart Attack or Drum, and neither have lyrics relating to the titles – and the ever creepy screaming opener from their second album, Broken Witch. Angus and Aaron both screamed for blood, and while I can’t guarantee that any of that was shed, there was definitely a hell of a lot of sweat.
The next night – at the Bowery – is something slightly different. It’s hard to put the finger one it, as this is a band that has made a history of breaking such proverbial digits. A nicer venue doesn’t mean a more refined set. It’s still a screamer. Louder, perhaps, as the sound system can hold the sonic onslaught better than the Rock and Roll Hotel, which probably had to deal with meter in the red the whole time.
Angus is chattier. The band plays harder, if that was even possible. The sound was fuller. It was less a bar band bent towards the madness of the abyss and more an art installation gone completely out of control. The crowd swings, sways, and runs riot across the floor. It is close as a bunch of white hipsters can get to dangerous fun. This time, leaning into the mosh pit at the front of the stage during Broken Witch screaming ‘blood!’ over and over again, Angus comes as close as possible to seeing what he – our temporary god – has wrought.
It is permissible madness. A spiritual maelstrom. New York never felt so far away, which is a miracle in and of itself. Liars can take you away, and after awhile, you wonder if you would ever want to go back.
Liars are something else entirely, but they are still human, so you can see them do their thing before your very eyes. You can watch the sound and the chaos that is somehow inherent and naturally occurring in every note. It is a sinewy web of violent sounds and images. It’s not simple, straightforward, or other terms people look for when it comes to forms of entertainment, but some of the best things in life never are.
Liars are beyond. Find them for a moment before they float away forever.
Electronic music covers a wide range of genres. It isn’t really an easily pinned down sound, like punk, which, despite it’s many subgenres, is ragged almost always based on ragged guitars, bass, and drums. The only thing that unites electronic music are the tools used in the music’s creation. It can sounds as poppy and friendly as Black Eyed Peas, as cold and impenetrable as Autechre, and as pumping and beats-heavy as Modeselektor (maybe that’s another common theme: Misspelled or made up names).
A live electronic music performance then, can also come in a variety of flavours. Sonically, anyway. Visually, not so much, as it’s just a guy standing in front of a computer or mixing board turning dials and bobbing his head (unless the artist sells out arenas, and has to present a dazzling light show to keep people from complaining that they shelled out fifty bucks or more to watch someone twiddle knobs).
Going into the hip basement that was Le Poisson Rouge, you’re not sure what to expect for your eighteen dollars. The venue and price suggests where most electronic artists are nowadays. Under the radar, and not really getting near the quickly dying idea of mainstream music.
Headlining was British artist Four Tet, respected ethereal beat maker within the ‘industry’, perhaps best known outside electronic music for his touring with and remixing of Radiohead. Opening for him was another Englishman, Nathan Fake, who also offers up beats, but has no problem adding squeals and pops on top of them, so your mind explodes as your body shakes. (another electronic music feature, at least in concert, is ear bleeding loudness)
And so, from 10:40 to about 11:00, an unassuming man in a plaid shirt stood in front of the electronic gadgets on a stage and made horrible sounds with them. No drums, no drum machine. No 4/4 time. Hell, no 7/4 time. It was alarm bells being given either thorazine or meth. Loudly. This wasn’t the throbbing, rhythm heavy Nathan Fake I was familiar with and expected.
And at first I assumed after a minute or two that this was the ‘build’ into a more familiar rhythm or song. But this moment never came. The ‘build’ leveled of into a plateau, but it was just as unrecognizable and sonically dissonant as before.
What is going on? Why is he doing this? I had never seen what Fake looks like. I knew he was English, and that didn’t help at all. Electronic artists aren’t really a talkative bunch, and a microphone wasn’t even set up over the decks, computers, and other equipment.
I’d seen photos of Four Tet (or Kieran Hebden, if we go by what’s on his passport) on some music websites, so at the very worst it would all be answered when he took the stage.
I only had a handful of Fake EPs, so I wondered if I had accidentally glossed over an album full of carefully orchestrated feedback. Perhaps on his myspace page he had mentioned that this current tour was going to me even more abstract than usual. Or maybe this performance was completely old hat and everyone else around me – who seemed to accept the disorganized howls with typical hipster interest-via-disinterest – knew exactly what was going on.
The drones and squeals rose and fell, but never with a moment of silence between. No song to pick out, no break from one suite to another. All was one, a single performance that stretched out from shrieking knobs and burping dials.
One almost had to will it into some sort of narrative or familiar pattern.
Energy was not spent wallowing in the rhythm by bobbing the head or bending the knee. It was all cerebral, making tenuous audio connections and trying to pick out nuggets of similarity or – just maybe – meaning.
I wanted this to work. I really did. I did because I enjoyed the music I had previously attributed to the electronic artist that releases music under the name of Nathan Fake. I had invested in a mental concept of him, and with his name appearing on this evening’s bill, I had made a connection that what I was to hear (and to a lesser extent, see) was going to reflect that concept.
And right now this reflection was being torn apart. I couldn’t see my idea of Fake up on that stage. I couldn’t find what was familiar and known.
The problem then became expectation.
But what should I be expecting? What right do I have to expect anything at all when it comes to artistic performance?
Even the act of buying a ticket does not guarantee that the artist is going to play their greatest hits, or ‘best’ material, or what you want to hear. The transaction – while financial – is a form of trust, an informal agreement where the audience gives the artist – as long as they show up – the benefit of the doubt as to what is going to occur in the act of performance. But there’s nothing legally binding as to what the show might entail. You can’t sue U2 if they don’t play Where the Streets Have No Name in your local hockey arena.
And maybe the smaller, more independent electronic artist can push this relationship to its breaking point more easily, but jesus, what was the point? Lou Reed’s feedback laden Metal Machine Music album was supposed to be the big fuck-you to both his record label and audience, but when he recently performed the material live he at least informed the audience that the show wasn’t going to be ‘Walk on the Wild Side‘ before tickets went on sale. Here it felt like Fake was deliberately misleading us, pushing this music as if it was challenge to audience: ‘Are you going to follow me to this new, unfamiliar, abrasive place?’ I couldn’t help but think it on behalf of all of us here, even if I was the only one contemplating such a question. How long were we going to take it before walking out, holding our ears, or just going to the bar and screaming over the din for a overpriced cup of beer?
I didn’t want to be the closed-minded philistine and so held my ground, even though this wasn’t the ‘Nathan Fake’ I knew. It wasn’t fun. Or enjoyable. So why didn’t I move? Why didn’t I walk to a quieter place in the room? Why I was I trying so hard to like it, to rationalize it, to understand why Nathan Fake would do such a thing? Was this becoming ‘high art’ because it was uncompromising? Because Fake was willing to challenge the audience’s preconceptions not only of himself, but of art in general? Is he becoming the true artist by caring not a whit for the public’s reaction? Yet what is the merit of that, if it alienates them, as you are burning the very bridge – the artist-audience relationship – that makes art possible?
And then I realized that I was agonizing over how I felt about the show in front of me (it was also a nice distraction from the unrewarding attempt of focusing on the music). I was deconstructing the artist, myself, and the relationship between these two subjects. And between music in general.
In other words, I was being a critic, pouring over – rather obsessively – what I just saw/heard. I cared enough not to just go ‘fuck it’. The problem and issues the music was raising had become constant thorn in my side. And not after the house lights went up, or as I was walking home, but while it was unfolding in front of me.
If that’s not a quality of great art, I don’t know what is. Reaction. Debate. Even if only in the audience’s head.
After a very long twenty minutes, the dying machine powered down and silence reigned for a few seconds before applause broke out. I joined in, and Fake walks offstage with a smile.
I get a beer and drown my confusion with each sip. I wasn’t sure who or what I just heard and saw, and it was both exhilarating and frustrating. I was in some unconfirmed borderland of culture. All was up for questioning, and my only solace was knowing that this had to be temporary. If the next person who takes the stage was the man I know to be Four Tet, then I can assume that the person before was in fact Nathan Fake. If the next person is just some stranger… well, then they have a chance to finally ‘be’ Nathan Fake. The labels are slipping of the people jars.
After about fifteen minutes, the next person to take the stage was a shaggy haired, pale white guy who began to fervently lay down drum machine beats with liberal doses of organ-like electrical pulses sprinkled on top. It was a song – yes, a song – called The Turtle, from the Hard Islands EP.
This was Nathan Fake. The Nathan Fake I knew and could break it down to. Suddenly all was right with the world. Expectations met and boundaries pushed, if only for a moment. Later – talking to some guy at the mixing board – I find that that what drove me to question the act of musical performance as a whole was a ‘bonus’ opener that the shows organizers added at the last minute; a fellow who goes by the name of Birdshow.
The answer. A possibility confirmed. I lodge in deep within my brain, like every other experience.
And then bobbed my head with joy to both the known and reassuring sounds of Nathan Fake and Four Tet.
Few forms of artistic expression can exist in this type of scenario. When it comes to a performance our expectations are either met or not, but in either case we know exactly why these things have occurred. (they didn’t play a particular song you wanted to hear, or did a bad job playing it) The third option has stand outside of this binary, and it is the absolute unknown. No background knowledge, the material offered completely tabula rasa.
And the first thing we do – our instinct – is to erroneously force the unknown into the things we do know, even though this almost immediately takes a wrong term.
If we don’t know what’s going on, we should end our musings and tendencies to let the mind wander right away, not grope blindly in the dark and come to some haphazard, incorrect conclusion.
This mental phenomena is called ‘argument from ignorance’, where we assume conclusions when there is no – or inefficient – reason to make any conclusions at all (‘I don’t know what’s going on, but it’s probably…’).
It’s not a problem – and rather intellectually engaging – when it happens when you are listening to music. It can have much more dire ramifications if you are engaged in pursuits such as public policy, international relations, and scientific experimentation.
Knowledge is power, so wield the blade carefully or not at all. Art is thankfully nothing but target practice.
It is tempting to fall into a very unremarkable media narrative concerning the solo career of Radiohead singer-songwriter, Thom Yorke. That it is nothing more than laptop-built electric beats that, most notably, dragged down the band’s sixth album, 2003’s Hail to the Thief.
The story begins thus:
In the wake of the widespread praise for 1997’s OK Computer, Yorke – in an attempt to find a new form of musical expression – Yorke snubbed guitar and the familiar ‘rock’ sounds, and purchased the entirely back catalogue of Warp Records, a label devoted exclusively to electronic music, notably Autechre and Aphex Twin. These were his primary influences when the band regrouped to record the fourth album in early 1999.
After a year and half in studios across three countries while battling writer’s block and almost breaking up the band, Radiohead had two records worth of challenging and unique material that was a far cry from early hits The Bends and OK Computer. Kid A and Amnesiac were taut, concise albums where the other band members – while initially overwhelmed by Yorke’s insistence on an original approach to composition via mainly electronic influences – tempered the singer’s wholly computer-driven experiments.
Hail to Thief, however, ‘suffered’ from glitchy beat tracks like Sit Down, Stand Up, Backdrifts, and The Gloaming (although the latter became a live fan favourite thanks to Greenwood’s pounding bass), and many of the b-sides from that album’s singles (I Am Citizen Inane, Paperbag Writer, Where Bluebirds Fly) felt like only one human had anything to do with the creation of them.
Further evidence to this scenario are the 2006 and 2007 releases, The Eraser and In Rainbows. Conventional wisdom holds that with his album The Eraser, Thom Yorke got all his Warp Records-influenced rhythms out of his system, allowing for Radiohead’s 2007 release In Rainbows to be a concise collection of ‘actual’ songs, which is why the album got Radiohead some of their strongest critical praises since OK Computer ten years earlier.
The truth, of course, is much more complex. It is not so much that the facts of the above narrative are incorrect, but that it glosses over much of the intricacies of the band’s – and especially Yorke’s – musical history.
Like a great many musicians, Thom Yorke has long drawn upon the many genres of music through his upbringing as well as the gestation of Radiohead. His first band, formed at the University of Exeter, which he attended, was an experimentalist punk group called Headless Chickens. This was followed by a foray into the vestiges of electronica, as he DJ’d around the city at this time as well.
Of course, it was with his high school band Radiohead that Yorke found success. And it was as early as the band’s seminal second – and ‘rockiest’ – album, The Bends, when Radiohead began embracing the world of electronica, as B-sides for the singles were remixed versions of the keyboard-enhanced Planet Telex track which opened the album. In various musical press at the time, Yorke personally encouraged fans to purchase the singles for precisely these tracks.
In early press for OK Computer, electronic artist DJ Shadow was frequently cited as an influence, as his seminal 1996, the all-sample, Entroducing… brought a new form of electronic music to the forefront. Yorke’s first prominent foray into electronic music was providing the lead vocals for the British duo UNKLE’s track, Rabbit in Your Headlights, a drum-and-piano laden electro-ballad in which the captivating music video almost overshadows the song itself.
Afterwards, in the wake of OK Computer, Yorke did indeed forsake the typical guitar rock – saying he was ‘sick of melody’ – but the idea that electronica alone drove the Kid A/Amnesiac sessions ignored what was – on a track-by-track basis – clearly the most dominant influence: jazz. As Davis’ Bitches Brew was yet another semi-obscure OK Computer influence, the work of Coltrane and Mingus can be seen on The National Anthem, Morning Bell, Dollars and Cents, and Pyramid Song. As well as the obvious choice, the Amnesiac closer, Life in a Glasshouse, which features jazz trumpeter Humphrey Lyttelton and his band.
Additionally, the idea that Yorke alone is the lone electronica advocate in the band is countered with the fact that guitarist Ed O’Brien has claimed he prefers ‘more ethereal sounds’ and that for the most part in Radiohead’s live performances it is multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood that utilizes the electronic instruments much more than Yorke, who limits himself to using a sequencer on Kid A’s title track.
So it is with all this in mind that one must approach Yorke’s solo output, which can be said to have properly begun with his first and currently only full length LP. Released in summer 2006 as Radiohead themselves toured and tested new material through Europe and America – and handy way to deny that the band was on the verge of a breakup – The Eraser can be considered one of the most commercially successful electronic records of all time.
Critics generally noted that it was almost exactly what they would have expected from the Radiohead front man. Pitchfork Media gave the album at 6.6 out of ten, noting that it felt a lot like the weaker aspects of Radiohead’s recent releases, which was not necessarily a great thing. Another critic flatly announced that the ‘apocalypse occurs somewhere around the sixth track’ on the record.
Despite the departure from the early sounds that he was known for creating in Radiohead, the tracks from The Eraser are not as unconventional as critics initially assumed (a charge also levied against the Kid A-Amnesiac-Hail to the Thief triumvirate). In fact, some of these songs had legitimate choruses. Even hallmarks of electronic music like track length that typically exceeds radio format was foregone. Adamant that what he writes is pop music, it could be argued that Yorke simply adds in a pad or beat sample in place of where a guitar – if what was being worked on was a Radiohead track – would be.
And if that observation was taken to the most logical extreme – that any instrument in Radiohead can be replaced to some degree by an electronic doppelganger – than it could be theorized that what truly makes a Radiohead song is Thom Yorke’s voice. It is a particularly strong argument when one considers how forward and formidable his voice is on all the tracks of The Eraser. While it was subject to heavy processing and speak-singing on the last three Radiohead albums, Yorke’s falsetto plays a dominant role which longtime Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich insisted be at the forefront, despite the singer’s resistance, who stated in 2006 that, ‘it annoys me at how pretty my voice is. Especially if what I’m singing is deeply acidic.’
So as cold and alienating the processed music may be, the vocals keep the songs from becoming frigid beats. And despite the synth-driven sounds, the rhythm is still body moving. ‘Rocking out’ may not be the most accurate term, but the man never lets the beat drop. And Yorke has no problem attributing the cohesive ‘song-like’ quality of the album to Godrich, who, according to the singer, was instrumental in putting together the loops and beats he created into actual pieces of music.
But it must be noted that the music on The Eraser falls in a much narrower category of sounds, never going to the electronic extremes of Aphex Twin’s quiet-deafening dynamic or Underworld’s unending beats. Nothing on The Eraser could be described as oppressive or indulgent, as only And it Rained All Night and The Clock could be considered frantic, too-uptight-for-the-dance-floor freakouts. Skip Divided seems to be cut from the same cloth as Packt Like Sardines in a Crushed Tin Box or The Gloaming, and Cymbal Rush feels like a distant cousin of Everything In It’s Right Place. Even compared to some of the most ‘difficult’ Radiohead tracks – Kid A, Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors – The Eraser comes off much more direct and approachable.
Initial reviews of Radiohead’s ensuing 2007 release In Rainbows compared the new album favourably to Yorke’s solo debut, noting that it was good to remember that Radiohead is band, and that member’s such as drummer Phil Selway and bassist Colin Greenwood are no match for the drum machines and bleeps found on The Eraser. Which is certainly true, but seems to miss the point. As Yorke has said about electronic music, its non-humanness is what attracted him to the form in the first place.
Thematically, however, The Eraser can clearly be seen as an extension of Radiohead’s previous album, 2003’s Hail to the Thief. Yorke tackles political manipulation, environmental disasters, mental breakdowns, and professional failure over the nine tracks. While the musical style may change as the man works by himself, the voice and lyrics remain constant.
In many ways, it is Yorke’s voice that keeps the album from being a competent-yet-unremarkable electronica album that would only appeal to a niche audience. On tracks like Analyze and Atoms for Peace, his voice hits peaks that haven’t been reached since 1995’s The Bends. On other tracks it may be more conversational or understated, but it always spearheads the music, giving it power. No instrumentals, no lengthy outros. Even lyrics-starved Cymbal Rush permits Yorke to croon wordlessly to the cold beeps, bringing warmth and familiarity to music which would otherwise be more at home on a Autechre album.
But perhaps the best example of the approachability of the album’s material is hearing it performed live, sans electronic manipulation. In the wake of the album’s release in the summer of 2006, Yorke made a number of semi-public appearances performing various tracks on piano and acoustic guitar. The Clock, done for the Henry Rollins Show and Analyze, performed at the Mercury Awards, were intense and fragile pieces, respectively, with the single instrument pushing the rhythm forth and Yorke’s voice accentuating it. Additionally, Cymbal Rush appeared at a handful of Radiohead concerts in the summer of 2008 as a piano-only encore, silencing crowds of up to thirty thousand people with its vulnerable plunking of ivory keys.
While it is unsure in which cases the electronic version was fleshed out before the acoustic/piano version (or vice-versa), what is more important is how well the two versions of the song complement each other. This reinterpretation of sounds built and constructed in a studio or on a computer is nothing new for Yorke, who was required to attempt the same feat with Radiohead when touring behind Kid A and Amnesiac in 2000 and 2001.
Besides the album, the singles from The Eraser – Analyze and Harrowdown Hill – offered a total of four b-sides for further audio entertainment. As with the b-sides of the Kid/A-Amnesiac sessions, these songs take on a more experimental edge when compared to the album in question. Jet Stream and A Rat’s Nest are both glitch heavy tracks with Yorke’s nervous voice carrying the beat forward better than the machines. Iluvya is at once both Yorke’s silliest and simplest attempt at building a song out of computer noises. The Drunk Machine, with its multipart structure, can almost be seen as toying with the Pixies’ loud-quiet dynamic in a disorienting four minutes.
In addition to the b-sides, other material released on the singles of various tracks was remixes of songs from the album. As noted earlier, all the tracks from The Eraser fit comfortably into the four-to-five minute range, despite the fact that one the chief hallmarks of the underground electronica that Yorke embraced is lengthy, winding pounding rhythm tracks. These traits were found in the remixes of The Eraser, which included work by some of Yorke’s favourite electronic artists like Burial and Modeselektor. Some remixes were relatively faithful to the original tracks, while other sampled only a single beat or loop and stretched the track to a ridiculous extreme. In many ways it was more familiar type of electronica record, despite the presence of Yorke’s familiar vocals.
After this flurry of Eraser related material, Yorke refocused on Radiohead, releasing In Rainbows and touring sporadically in 2008 and 2009, yet the last few months have given us another round of releases.
First was a 12” double A-side single of Feeling Pulled Apart By Horses and The Hollow Earth, the former a familiar ‘thrashy’ track that Radiohead debuted in concert in 2001, and was originally titled Reckoner, which found a place on In Rainbows, albeit in a very different version. This re-acquiring of the track solely by Yorke from what was earlier a full band composition is unique, as – with the exception of some piano loops provided by Jonny Greenwood on Cymbal Rush, The Eraser’s closer – Yorke solo tracks and Radiohead songs were clearly defined and separate. However, what is clear from these new songs – especially the other track on the single, The Hollow Earth – is how close they are in style and theme to the tracks on The Eraser.
This was followed not only by an addition of the new song Hearing Damage to the New Moon soundtrack – a sequel to the 2008 teen vampire hit that was based on a series of novels, Twilight – but the revelation that Thom Yorke had been rehearsing live versions of The Eraser material, and that he was prepared to do a weekend of show in Los Angeles in early October of this year. The most notable addition to the band was the Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist, Flea, who added life to the album’s robotic rhythms. In a live setting, it reinforced the idea that all this electronic material sits comfortably together.
And this is the crux of the issue at hand. While Radiohead is known for their constant evolution and creative metamorphosis, bringing new ideas and structures to not only their music but the audience-artist relationship, Thom Yorke’s solo material seems comfortable in a single, more conservative gear. Whether it be The Eraser or the recently released tracks, cool beats and warm angelic vocals are the standard. Almost paradoxically, it is when Thom Yorke – the main creative force behind Radiohead – works alone and without restriction that continual change seems uninteresting to him. This observation is not meant to dismiss or criticize the music, but only to put in context alongside a band that over the past sixteen years have done nothing but evade simple musical labels (Yorke has recently said about Radiohead: ‘we’re formless motherfuckers). So perhaps it is time to rethink the narrative that opened the piece. Instead of it being the challenging realm of electronica, Yorke’s solo material is where he can play it safe and work within traditional expectations with familiar styles and structures. It is Radiohead where the experimental side of the man – and his band mates – truly shines.
That said, what a wonderful traditional and familiar style it is. After all, a good beat is a good beat, whether it is from man or machine. Or – in the case of Thom Yorke – a bit of both.
Rapper Chuck D infamously said that, ‘Elvis meant shit to me’, and while I won’t take such an extreme view when it comes to my opinion of Michael Jackson, I would certainly say he didn’t mean much to the culture of my upbringing and current music collection. I slipped through the cracks somehow. Michael Jackson was never really an artist or entertainer to me. He was more a symbol of the dangers of having all your cracked dreams coming true. The glove, the moonwalk, the endless adulation of childhood innocence, and the…music? Is that last thing ultimately what I am supposed to accept as his legacy? Unmistakable, archetypal eighties pop beats beneath a smooth, near-asexual but still powerful voice? Or is it the man and his mysteries –not the music – that I should be standing in awe of? In some ways I feel obliged to care to some degrees about both, which is never a good start to trying to feel anything genuine.
I was born the year Thriller was released. By the time I was aware of a thing called pop culture – outside of the world of Sesame Street and the Ninja Turtles – some blond heroin addict from Seattle had made flair, spectacle, extravagant showmanship and the synthesizer seem, like, more trouble than it was worth, dude.
To be fair, I was even sheltered from the early rise grunge with my father’s incessant listening to the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan. Not that I was discouraged from listening to contemporary music, I just… didn’t. The first time I really thought about Kurt Cobain was when I heard on the news that he killed himself. But it was in this weird miasma of guitar feedback, flannel, and laughing at the mainstream while it tried to embrace this new, re-punked genre that I heard about Michael Jackson, who seemed to be antithesis of everything contemporary pop culture was.
He was still a massive star – I remember his Black and White video, where he vandalized a car at the end, and his Super Bowl performance where he vanished from the top of the stadium and reappeared on stage on the fifty yard line – but it was always echoes of some former greatness I seem to have missed.
The tag line with Nirvana’s Nevermind album is that since it displaced Jackson’s Dangerous from the top of the charts in early 1992, it meant that was grunge was overthrowing the shiny pop of the eighties. It didn’t seem like the music of last decade had anything left to say. Dangerous was Thriller the Third. Michael Jackson had enough drive and creative control to make sure that everything he did could be condensed into a successful formula, but that means if you keep doing the same thing, it becomes by definition formulaic. The snappy first single, the edgy self-titled track, the soft as a pillow ballad, and the g-rated protest song. I remembered hating the overbearing cheese of Heal the World when my grade four class did some sort of lip-sync dance/performance to it for a school concert. As far as the early nineties were concerned, Jackson was a song-and-dance man at a time when you played music with your gut and the volume cranked up to eleven. This meant the removal of tight choreography and carefully planned media events from your repertoire. The perception in 1992 was that the music mattered, and that anything else was too much effort (Nirvana bassist Kurt Novoselic on his band’s sudden success: “We don't try very hard. But we're going to start trying a lot less”). It’s a gross oversimplification, of course, but the shift from overall image to music was perceptible.
And Michael Jackson’s image was a huge part of his appeal, and it just so happened that he was a figure during my youth of – not only suddenly irrelevant music – but of controversy, as it was at this time that accusations of child molestation were first bandied about. Jackson went from weird to creepy overnight, as everyone my age learned about sexual abuse from allegations surrounding this eighties singer whose face was growing more and more doll-like every year. To my friends and I, he was just a very, very, very, very successful version of Gary Glitter. For every Michael Jackson song I would hear, I would hear a pedophile joke about what he had in common with K-Mart (‘both had boys pants half off’). He was a recluse who wore surgical masks everywhere, owned a zoo/amusement park, and when he did do press the fact that his rhetoric concerning his love for children wasn’t turned down at all was just disturbing. On The Simpsons, he voiced a big white bald guy in a mental institution, was credited as John Jay Smith, and had a imitator do the singing, all factors which really didn’t help his case as being… relatable. Or understandable.
An image of this superhuman artist was being replaced by with an institution that was essentially too big to fail, so instead began a very, very slow crash and burn. Michael Jackson always had to be something more than his creative output, because his creative output was sporadic, repetitive, and superficial. I mean, it was pop music crystallized. It had the friendliness of the early Beatles records with a dance floor beat, and didn’t aspire to ever be much more. It was hopelessly naïve coupled with ‘ee-hee-hee!’ It was the best kind of disposable music, which meant it wasn’t disposable at all.
But that doesn’t mean we had to like it.
The music was simple, direct, accessible, and that meant without a towering figure behind it, it would be instantly forgettable. Ever the iconoclast, Frank Zappa in his autobiography/criticism of the pop culture in general asked, ‘do we care about how Michael Jackson makes his music? No, we just want to know why he bought the bones of the elephant man.’ The difference between Jackson’s ‘Beat it’ and N’Sync’s ‘Bye, Bye, Bye’ is simply a more powerful computer on which to program the beats. Michael Jackson will be remembered for breaking sales records, but the music itself will always be a distant second.
And so this vacuum was filled with an image, first of his own crafting as a sensitive, charitable man-child, followed quickly during my teenage years with the press putting their own more uncomfortable spin on the man. Painkillers, hyperbolic chambers, pale skin, and a hypothetical face. This was what fame could do a person, holed up in a place called Neverland. Michael Jackson’s last fifteen years or so was a slow train wreck that only ended last week, as he was trying to prepare for a fifty concert run in London. Odds makers took bets saying it wasn’t going to ever happen, and it seems now like all the cynics that were supposed to have been born en masse in my generation were right.
In a recent article praising him, Gideon Yago noted that Michael Jackson made it, “okay to ignore reality if the production quality was good enough.” True, but Jackson the man lived in reality, whether he knew it or not. The nineties were a sobering time when both the highs and lows of life were – if not outright celebrated – then at least acknowledged in the form of a couple great tunes like Paranoid Android, Black Hole Sun, Jeremy, Hard Knock Life, and Smells like Teen Spirit.
This is why Jackson seemed like a relic throughout the decade, and by the time teen pop made a return at the end of the nineties thanks to the Backstreet Boys, N’Sync and Britney Spears, he came back as a spooky father figure with a wax face partying like it wasn’t 1999, but 1985.
And this wasn’t the music you were ‘supposed’ to like at the end of the nineties. Not without a hint of irony, anyway. The slick, manufactured pop sound was a thing of derision and mockery, a sign of superficial musical taste and lack of social awareness. Even the maligned rap-rock of Limp Bizkit and Kid Rock was considered more authentic and relevant than the lightweight Top 40 material. For those who liked their sounds more complex and nuanced, we had the epic melancholy of Radiohead, or the layered, neo-psychedelic sounds of The Flaming Lips. Jackson still had legions of fans, but they had the characteristics of cultists, treating the man like a deity and disparaging all those that criticized him.
I’m not sure what the world is supposed to take from Jackson’s death except for the dangers of fame. I won’t take the music that always rung hollow to a child of the nineties, and I can’t take the positive images of the man from the mid eighties when he was the world’s superstar because I was in diapers. And the less said about Jackson in the 21st century, the better. Like Elvis, his best work was decades behind him and his last years were full of bizarre moments that revealed him to be a shadow of his former self. It was a sad end to a life of dizzying highs and unspeakable lows.
Jackson for years tried to resist a hard truth that seemed to be ingrained into the very DNA of Gen X’s and Y’s, which is that believing in an eternal, unchanging happy ending is going to lead you to shattered dreams and disillusionment. In the words of ‘our’ superstar, who literally bit the bullet at the top of his game in 1994, Michael Jackson embraced, ‘a denial, a denial, a denial…’
Dividing and categorizing people have resulted in some of the most horrendous and vile events in the history of human civilization. From the Huguenots to the German Jews to the current genocides of certain tribal groups across the African continent. However, in the wake of recently having the pleasure of witnessing an epiphany filled evening at the Sound Academy concert venue, I think I can safely divide humanity into two the following two distinct groups. Animal Collective People and Non-Animal Collective People.
Obviously the main difficulty to this is that there are billions of people across the globe that has never heard of Animal Collective (and it’s their loss) but I remain confident that the current cross section of society that has heard of Animal Collective and formed an opinion of them can adequately represent the whole of the earth.
Animal Collective makes music. Music that is not for everybody. In fact, music that may well be for very few people. Friends I consider to be incredibly open minded when it comes to music have told me with hands over their ears to turn that shit off. They are frequently written off by anything even remotely mainstream as ‘a lot of noise’.
But that’s what music is. That’s what sound is. Dismissing Animal Collective’s music so quickly does it a great disservice. It’s when you get under the covers with it and start feeling your way around does the full, rich body of the subject reveal itself to you (wait, what’s are you trying to say with that metaphor?).
Okay, to backtrack slightly. The band is prolific. By standards of almost any other recording artist these guys make lots of music. Since 2000, they have released nine albums and three EPs, plus a handful of solo records from the four members. And suddenly I wander on topic and therefore, off topic. This band isn’t good with pigeonholing, and I feel I would be doing them a disservice by making too many standard rock article quips and comments as we go. So. Animal Collective. A bit of difficulty then. Good. Challenging music requires challenging words.
Describing the music of Animal Collective is like describing a cubist painting. Nude descending a staircase? How the fuck so? How do you describe that without seeing it? The words only get you so far. Labels stuck to this band peel and fall away quickly. Folk? Rock? Dance? Electronica? You see a guitar onstage, but they don’t seem to be treating it with the respect one would hope for. Even when Avey Tare (oh yeah, these Animals have stage names) strums it, it doesn’t sound like a guitar. It is like a reminder that instruments are elaborate ornaments, and that the real music comes somewhere between the mind of artist and mind of the listeners.
And this quandary can turn people off, but that’s their loss. Those that stick with it, those that see music as a journey and not superficial payoff after superficial payoff, will be rewarded. And that’s the divide. Putting your heart into listening to the music as much as the artists do when they are creating it.
Ringo Starr said it don’t come easy, and that’s certainly true for music in the 21st century. Top 40 radio is dying, and in its last industry-driven throes is attempting to burrow itself in your ears with anything that seems like an easy sell. Critical acclaim is fragmenting into smaller and smaller genres. Suddenly no one can possibly consume every ‘good’ piece of music popping up across the globe. It won’t be long before ‘music critic’ is a laughable term, to be replaced with such labels as ‘Dub Step Electronica Advocate’ and ‘Post Rock plus Irony Supporter’. Even ‘music fan’ won’t cut it. Now you’re a ‘local audio analyzer’ specializing in punk played in under-300 occupancy venues between Simcoe Street and 8th Avenue.
Fortunately, no matter what’s printed on your business card, it can all be narrowed down to one thing: Where are the beats? And are they worth getting to? In this case, the beats are in your head. Animal Collective is a drill, getting them out.
As far summer 2009 is concerned, Animal Collective is a drug infested robot that is climbing over the North American continent throughout May and June. Having had the chance to see them in their element – read: hunched over knobs and dials on a raised stage in front of a couple thousands drunk and stoned twenty somethings – one realizes that the ghosts are in the machine and are tired with creating anything but audio epiphanies.
Panda Bear, Avey Tare, and the Geologist are three of the four fine fellows who make noises with magic boxes. AWOL is Deakin, who usually plays guitar-ish type things (his no-showing meant I wouldn’t be hearing my favourite tune, For Reverend Green, which I don’t think has anything to do with the soul singer).
Stepping onstage as the curtains open to reveal audio consoles and a weather balloon-like ball hovering above them that will soon have spacey images beamed onto it like a spherical lava lamp, the band immediately launches into the friendly warm sounds of the fan favourite off of their first album, Chocolate Girl.
But as quick as the band giveth soothing melodic sounds, it taketh away. With a simple guitar strum, an inhuman braaaaaaaaang can suddenly be emitted from what looks to be a multicoloured shroud wearing a mixing board.
What Would I Want Sky comes along as sensible as its title, bathing the audience in counter melodies and atonal burps. Animal Collective has no problem with layering a simple pop song with insane drumming, processed human screams, or feedback that has been conducted with enough skill and grace to make it sound like sweeping arcs of rattling storm drains. Comfy in Nautica is the happiest song in the world that sounds like airplanes are about to land on top of it.
And the band seems to revel playing in the realm of mischievous extremes, either patting you on the head or biting you through the skull. The fun stuff like Lion in a Coma and My Girls from their recent masterpiece, Merriweather Post Pavilion (more newspaper-like pandering), is tempered with drip along squeal fests like Bleed and Slippi, which is a short burst of beach boys going punk by way of Swans. But it works, it flows, it comes out of the machines being created on the spot but all according to a master plan.
If Brian Wilson’s brain didn’t melt under the weight of record company pressure and drugs in the late nineteen sixties (christ, a second Wilson reference? Are you sure you’re listening to enough music?), he might – if he was lucky – create something as epic as Fireworks, which morphs from a simple folk song with a funky beat into an electro-psychedelic masterpiece. Fifteen minutes, with the return to the chorus at the end wrapping up a trip within a trip.
Despite the critical success and the commercial…nothingness… with the Collective remaining under the radar, it can almost mean having nothing to prove which means the band can be free to experiment and let loose with impunity. For a long time electronics were a taboo tool for live music, as it seemed like a difficult instrument to improvise around. Fortunately, technology has come to the rescue, and now, with only three people and extremely powerful computers, looped sounds can be repeated endlessly and manipulated, creating music as naturally as strumming a guitar. But why do that when you can play a real guitar, right? And Animal Collective understands this point perfectly, because their music doesn’t sound like it was/is made with guitar, bass, and piano. It’s wholly alien and original, but still tempered in lightly familiar melodies and rhythms. And having toured incessantly since their inception, they’re a formidable live act. Long, spacious atmospheric introductions to many of the songs show how comfortable the band is with tinkering with its materials parts.
But more importantly, it’s just fucking fun (you have to stress this?). For two hours minds were blown for a couple thousand people in this tiny downtown venue. It’s nice to get together like this because many people don’t understand. We are a group that is not ostracized or oppressed, but simply ignored. A group ardently following a small group made of disparate members and sounds – so much so that they have to call themselves a collective – coming together with the beauty of a slow motion car crash in reverse.
It’s hard to remember that it’s simply three people with knobs and dials. It comes out like fire. It’s soft as a sharpened rock. It laughs at melodic subtlety with a wall of horrible sounds. It makes chaos fuck order on an electric seabed. It’s Animal Collective. And we lucky few are Animal Collective people.
Please note: Offensive here does not mean bad (well, for one of them it does). Offensive in this context means shocking or obscene or music and lyrics that most people would find incredibly derogatory. Songs that makes you stop and say, ‘holy shit. That’s strong stuff’ when it’s over. If you can get to the end of them, that is.
10. Ice T and Body Count – Cop Killer
Not that they are the best gauges of culture, but you know you’ve got a hot potato on your hands when both the president and vice president make a point of saying they think your record is appalling. Police unions and foundations across America spoke out against it. Tipper ‘Allergic to fun’ Gore also got a chance to make a reappearance on the national media stage after the PMRC hearings in 1985.
Pressure was strong enough for Ice T to have the album pulled from store and then re-released without this track. Public outcry forced the hand of Warner Bros. Records, who refused to release other rap albums from some of their artists for fear of similar backlashes.
While the response was understandable, it was strange no one mentioned that the song is only pretty good to begin with. The music is boilerplate 80’s metal, which means it kind of feels outdated for when it’s release in 1992. On top of that, the lyrics weren’t that much different from anything that you’d find on NWA’s first album: “Cop Killer/Better you than me/Cop Killer/Fuck Police Brutality”. He also laughs at the families of dead police officers (“fuck ‘em!”). That’s pretty raw, but it’s the public’s reaction that puts this one on the list.
Further Listening: NWA – Straight Outta Compton
9. Captain & Tenille – Muskrat Love
This is the only gimmick ‘so bad it’s offensive’ song on the list. A squeaky-clean love song so syrupy it gives you type-two diabetes. Sample lyric: “Nibbling on bacon, chewin on cheese/Sammy says to Susie honey, would you please be my missus?/And she say yes/With her kisses”. What can you say to that? The grade three lyrics match perfectly with bland adult contemporary melodies that the world shat out en masse in the mid nineteen seventies (what the fuck is that shimmering sound made by? Wind chimes?). But why muskrats? Why not noble, proud animals like gazelles or horses? Muskrats are like lemmings without the mass suicide.
This tune was voted as the worst song ever in a poll a couple years back. That hasn’t stopped people from posting videos on youtube them lip syncing along to the song with their pet hamsters in tow (I guess muskrats make shit pets).
If there was one song that created the need for punk to bubble to the surface in the late seventies, this might just be it. There are even fake muskrat noises in the song! Jesus Christ!
Further Listening: Barry Manilow – Can’t Smile Without You
8. Suicide – Frankie Teardrop
Ten minutes of weird electronic sounds on top of a story about a guy losing his mind and killing his family. No singing. Just telling a story. It’s like when Jim Morrison got lost five minutes into The End, but a hell of a lot creepier. Alan Vega sounds like Marilyn Manson on a particularly bad day, alternating between nervous exposition and mindless screaming.
It’s hard to make atmosphere offensive, but these guys find a way to do it. The music is just unpleasant buzzing with the bare hint of an oozing rhythm, meant to grate and annoy. In the end, ‘we’re all Frankie’s, and we’re all lying in hell.’ How touching.
Further Listening: Throbbing Gristle – Hamburger Lady (funny title, but not at all funny)
7. The Velvet Underground – Sister Ray
You probably won’t realize this is a song about dope dealing orgy that ends in the murder of a sailor because you’ll be busy wrapping your head around the fact that it’s a seventeen minute jam filled squealing guitars and a Vox organ that overwhelms all the other instruments. Allmusic.com uses the term ‘oppressive’. Every act that came after and tried to make white noise and feedback instruments – Sonic Youth, Joy Division, Animal Collective - owes at a debt to this track.
Lou Reed has many chances to go over the scant lyrics, and each times he gets a bit more frantic. In some ways, listening to the entire length of this song becomes an endurance test, and it should be noted that live versions of the track were known to exceed thirty minutes. Take that, Grateful Dead!
Further Listening: Lou Reed – Metal Machine Music (Part 1, 2, 3, or 4) (Reed himself has said, ‘anyone who gets to side four is dumber than I am’)
6. Electric Wizard – Funeralopolis
Most songs on the list deal with incredibly explicit and profane lyrics. This tune takes an extra step, as the music itself is almost impossible to listen to if you’re not a fan of the sounds of apocalypse, let alone familiar with the concept of it. In eight and half minutes English doom metal experts Electric Wizard meet and exceed every heavy metal cliché very, very loudly.
The music slow is like a slow lurch, with piles of guitars echoing a feedback laden dirge. By the end, the solos begin to overwhelm the rhythm section and vocals, and it begins to sound like chaos, not music.
As far as the words, the Iron Maiden stuff those kids kill themselves in the eighties ain’t got nothing on this song. When Jan Osborn screams, even the lighter lines seemed caustic: ‘I don’t care/this world means nothing/Life has no meaning/My feelings are numb’. There’s even a swipe at abortion (‘condemned to die before I could breathe’).
And how about that ending chant: ‘Nuclear warheads ready to strike/this world is so fucked let’s end it tonight’
Sister Ray is longer, but the Velvets sound like they’re having a crazy party the whole time. Funeralopolis sounds like Electric Wizard is skullfucking you for eight minutes.
Further Listening: Monster Magnet – Spine of God (singer Dave Wyndorf says ‘I love everyone’ in this song, but I’m pretty sure it’s because he’s on drugs)
5. The Rolling Stones – Cocksucker Blues
The Rolling Stones were switching to a label that wasn’t going to screw them out of as much money, but they still owed a final single to Decca Records in the fall of 1970. They knocked out this nugget, a soulful acoustic ballad where Mick Jagger wonders forlornly where he could get his cock sucked, and his ass fucked. And that’s the chorus. Supposedly about a gay prostitute on the streets of London, it might be a not so subtle metaphor for the underhanded dealings of the many record executives of the sixties who preyed on young groups with empty promises and rigged contracts. And the bit about the cop that rapes the kid is probably how the band felt about the police at the time, considering all the drug busts.
Funnily enough, the next single the band did release was Brown Sugar, a track about heroin, S&M, eating pussy, and interracial, underage sex.
Cocksucker Blues was never released and has essentially been only available on bootleg recordings. Meaning you can now find it on youtube in fifteen seconds.
Further Listening: Son House – Your Southern Can Is Mine (old blues singer wailing about a pimp threatening to hit one of his prostitutes in the face with a brick)
4. Patti Smith – Rock n Roll Nigger
I suppose in terms of offensive protest songs, you could take Masters of War or any Rage Against the Machine track, but certain words are by themselves guaranteed to make people cringe and get pissed off. Rock n Roll Nigger isn’t very far off from Lennon’s Woman is Nigger of the World, using the key term to represent any marginalized group of people. Patti sounds like Grace Slick with a major chip on one shoulder and an empty whisky bottle balancing precariously on the other.
Also, it’s a got a great ‘fuck you’ riff.
Further Listening: Peaches – Fuck the Pain Away
3. The Anti-Nowhere League – So What
Rock n Roll Nigger had a point behind its abrasiveness. This one doesn’t: ‘I fucked a sheep, I fucked a goat/I rammed my cock right down his throat’. That pretty much says it all.
Further Listening: The Dead Kennedys – Too Drunk to Fuck (hey, sometimes it happens)
2. Eminem – Kill You
In terms of cramming a bunch of violent and sexually explicit lyrics into one four and half minute song, this leadoff track from Eminem’s second LP takes the cake (although D12’s Bizarre is also pretty unhinged. He just isn’t as good as Marshall on the mike). Raping mom, painting with people’s blood, taking pills and booze to quiet the voices (he also comes off schizophrenic, thanks to his evil alter ego, Slim Shady), it’s all here, plus chainsaw sound effects.
And of course, it’s not just content, but the form. Eminem sounds like he means it. He’s a gifted lyricist and a MC who knows how to contrast control with insanity. In a battle for Marshall Mathers’ mind, a host of different and dirty characters come out for the knife fight, bringing some of the most twisted lyrical topics you could think of: Sodomy on a camping trip, references to Psycho, killing fat people, a couple homophobic references, and he’s not even afraid to date himself, with references to both OJ and Columbine.
It’s over the top-ness is practically mocked within the song, when Eminem seems to be wrapping up the second verse but then announces he’s going to keep going and describe killing the girl for another couple lines.
Further Listening: A ton of hardcore rappers get close, but let’s go with DMX – X is Coming
1. Bob Dylan – Positively Forth Street
As Eminem quickly adds at the end of Kill You, ‘I’m just playin’ ladies, you know I love you’, you realize that many times there is a large disconnect between the artist and the words they are putting forth. Sometimes it can be obvious that they are saying or singing is not true (Eminem didn’t rape his mother, and the guys in Anti-Nowhere League never fucked a goat), and sometimes it’s clear the artist is using explicit lyrics in an attempt to make a greater point (Rock n Roll Nigger). As said in entry #2, Eminem sounds like he means it but we all know he’s joking. As for number one, Positively Fourth Street, you would swear that Dylan straight out believes ever word he sings. No, not only believes it, but actually pictures meeting the hapless protagonist while he’s singing it.
Like Eminem, he is able to create mental pictures in the listener’s heads, but while Eminem takes it over the top to the point of cartoonish ultraviolence, Dylan keeps it rooted it the prosaic and familiar.
Dylan talks directly to this person and gives a terrifying laundry list of their negative personality characteristics. How lousy it is to hang out with this guy, how he’s a lying, back talking hypocrite. What would usually be a line or two in any other song is something Dylan obsesses over. Every one of this unnamed person’s faults ripped open and dissected for all to see.
This isn’t just a putdown, but Dylan kicking a man in the teeth repeatedly. He doesn’t need any dirty words, either. And the music doesn’t fit right, but that only works in the songs favor. It’s got an upbeat organ in front with a pleasant folk rock backing rhythm.
In the end Dylan says,
“I wish that for just one time
Yes, I wish that for just one
I mean, holy shit! It’s vicious honesty that crushes the soul. When the sentiment ‘fuck off’ isn’t good enough, try this song. It burns like hellfire.
Sometimes the trees are so thick outside my window I don’t see forest, only a grey black mass with countless pointy appendages. Swallowing up those on either harmless afternoon walks or serious business. But if I am ever put in the position where I must venture through the snowy woods, I do not bat an eye or turn around to stare at my cabin with fears that I may never see it again.
I have the Fleet Foxes on my iPod, and I know they will lead the way.
The bridge between man and nature is this Seattle quartet, only three years old. But age does not matter here. Forget ‘paying your dues’. Incredible music comes along when it is ready, not when the world surrounding it is.
And sometimes true success won’t show up on the charts. With the slow death of the industry giants, pushing anything but the sure bets of established artists is too much of a financial risk. To find new music today requires a bit more effort on the individual’s behalf. Word of mouth becomes the most powerful promotional tool, which means the first question from neophytes is typically, ‘well what do Fleet Foxes sound like?’ And so begins the analogies. The Beach Boys in a forest. The folk Beatles. Wilco without the neuroses. The soundtrack of the woods on a snowy day in February. Sometimes we do a great disservice to art of all kinds by explaining their essence away with disparate comparisons.
The only thing I can say for sure is that Fleet Foxes do not belong in 2009. In fact, it’s a sacrilege that I am listening to them on such an infernal technological device like an iPod. If I was any fan at all I would carry around a gramophone with me at all times, cranking it with noble diligence.
Very little music can be labeled timeless. Usually the word itself holds little to no meaning at all. ‘To be of no time’ is to not dwell within the time and space of our universe. But this music – made by people who walk upright and breathe air like you and I – is able to borrow heavily from folk and sixties pop and still sound while still sounding like…nothing I’ve ever heard before.
Much of the credit has to go to singer-songwriter Robin Peckhold, who has the most unique and emotional voice since Thom Yorke. Sometimes the lone sound for miles, sometimes double tracked, it fills up the gap between the sparse instrumentation while leading the music at the same time. They are simple songs of love and loss, but Peckhold is able to make sound like is heart about to burst from his chest and fly up to the heavens.
‘Tiger Mountain Pheasant Song’ is a simple acoustic ballad on guitar with the vocals sometimes right up front and sometimes in giant church, echoes bouncing every which way. The end of ‘Oliver James’ is the sound of the band saying, ‘screw it. We don’t even need to play anymore.’ Peckhold just sings unaccompanied. And he kills it.
But it takes a crack band to know when to play its heart out and when to shut it down, and [band members] do it magnificently. A tight group, no flashy solos, it stands out because they play together so harmoniously. ‘He Doesn’t Know Why’ builds up and winds down in an epic three and half minutes. Guitar, piano, drums, vocals, never veering off a course that is familiar yet unexplored. Like a walk on an old forest path in fresh snow.
The two and half minutes of ‘White Winter Hymnal’ is the teaser and definite track on the album. You can hear Peckhold inhale in between the lines of the hypnotic chorus. The band step in and out like calming waves. And it’s these little things that makes this music feel that it’s alive and twisting in your eardrums.
Fleet Foxes have pushed aside the electronic and bombastic sounds of today and have crafted an album that harks back to a past I can’t imagine existing unless their music is playing at that moment. It creates images in your head of falling snow, burning fireplace logs, and a sky pregnant with possibilities as you walk beneath branches and over frozen streams. An atmosphere immersed in nature.
And this is only the beginning of their career. Wherever their forest path leads, we’d be crazy not to follow.
plastic cup of beer – after a thirty minute lineup – against this
festival’s main stage to inaugurate its maiden voyage
Rain, wind and
sunny breaks welcome us, and on the other side of bored security guards
barely patting me over is a rather empty music festival.
As an added screw
job, the wristbands that are affixed to your wrist do not allow you to
drink to your heart and wallet’s content. Each band has five removable
plastic tabs on it that are removed with each purchase, meaning no one is
to get more than five pints over the entire 10 hour concert. By early
evening the beer tent is getting more and more crowded. And people are
offering the serving girls bigger tips if they don't remove the wristband
tabs for each purchase.
This is a city
festival. The early afternoon exists for the music fans who wanted to hear
the small indie bands. As offices close on Friday, the bands get bigger in
stature, the crowds grow, and lying down anywhere you want to stare at the
clouds goes from childlike to naive to impossible.
And here would be
a good time to mention that the much touted ‘proximity to Manhattan’
existed in appearance only. With the skyline right behind you it gets
through your head that it's only a quick walk or swim away. It's not. Of
course, a huge factor in this is that getting thirty thousand people out
of the same location at more less the same time - even if just crossing a
road - is never going to be easy, but unless you wanted to wait for up to
an hour for the fifteen minute ferry ride, you were stuck with a sixty
minute public transit voyage involving two completely different train
lines and a long walk to the closest station.
-A picture of
George Bush Senior with the words, ‘I should have pulled out’
Christ, and The Roots were playing just one stage over. At least that’s a band that let’s their guitarist go apeshit for five minutes. And you gotta give props to a hip hop band (yes, band) that’ll cram in Zeppelin and Rodgers and Hammerstein into a jam on one of their biggest hits (You Got Me). And ?uestlove is the black Bonham.
Me and my compatriots left as the band finished off with the electro rave up, Idioteque. We headed back for the island with thousands of others, bathed in the afterglow of a band that pretty much wiped out any memory of every other band that graced the three stages the last two days. Damn crafty Englishmen.
And that’s the
danger of every music festival. It’s hard to dig in your heels and run for
years in this business by name only. Profits are based on lineup. People
can overlook bad lines and mismanagement and overpriced anything if the
bands playing are good enough. Radiohead fans would brave quicksand and
blizzard on the same night for a taste of honey. Ditto Metallica and Pearl
Jam fans (Bonnaroo snagged ‘em both this year). If you build it, they will
come. If you don’t, we’ll stay home. England’s crown jewel – Glastonbury –
had a weaker than usual lineup, and ticket sales reflected this. It’s show
business, and there’s no business without the show, and no show without
So yeah, I missed the third day, but I really don’t think I missed anything at all.
I wasn’t there…it wasn’t happening…
Damn Radiohead…they get into everything…
They're unsigned. They're on myspace. Five people went to see them at a bar last week...
I step into the dimly lit Smiling Buddha. There is a group of six people who have pushed two tables together and are eating appetizers, chatting loudly. Further to the back there are four young men hunched over a drum kit, tuning up some guitars and a bass. On television above the bar (and the bored bartender) is 60 Minutes. Including myself, I count twelve people. I am here to see Soup Kitchen Lineup. I know the bass player. We were once roommates. I do not know anything about them. No album reviews, no good word of mouth, no critics pick. All I had was a request to come via telephone. They are my friend’s band, so I had to show up.
The early twenty first century is a strange time to be in a band. With the advent of American Idol and record companies relying more and more on sure-fire bets like adult contemporary and non-threatening hip-hop, the term 'band' seems to be as loose as the term 'artist', so it would be best for us to define our terms first. A ‘band’ is being defined here as a recurring group of individuals who play mostly self-written music at live venues as well as record music in a studio for those people who cannot attend these live shows. In the past, bands would play in bars and clubs until a representative from a record company offers to sign them. Playing these songs in sports arenas and blowjobs soon followed. If the band is fortunate enough to pen two relatively popular albums, they may able to pursue playing and recording music until they die (which, judging on past precedents of rock and roll culture, may not be far off). In the past, getting a record deal was extremely hard. You had to have talent. You had to have the good luck to find yourself playing in a venue with a representative of a record label present. In the eighties, with the advent of MTV, which allows people to watch music as much as hear it, it got even more difficult, as you had to have talent (though not as much as before) and style (which had to ooze out of every pore). This didn’t change until the rise of the internet in the late twentieth century, and with it came a Do-It-Yourself type attitude for new bands, mainly because Warner Music sure as hell wasn’t going to do it for you anymore.
At first simply a haven for star trek geeks, the trading of words through cyberspace soon became the trading of sounds, and without explaining Napster to all those fourteen year olds out there who own 500 albums thanks to Limewire, suffice to say, paying for music has become as cool as paying your taxes. The record companies initially reacted the same way we all would if someone was stealing something you owned: They called their lawyers. But like a benevolent hydra, for every Napster they sent to lawsuit limbo, two more rushed in to take its place. Suing music fans was bad PR, so short of cutting many, many middle management positions and quasi-successful bands, the record companies did absolutely nothing. Taking it upon themselves, up and coming bands began post music, tour dates, and personal info on various social-networking websites, most notably myspace. The most popular success story was that of the UK band Arctic Monkeys, whose first album became the fastest selling debut in English music history thanks in part to having their music spread like wildfire through the bowels of the internet. Cyberspace makes it possible to have your band’s songs available to all corners of the globe and to connect with fans one-on-one, almost instantly. The internet also makes it almost impossible to get paid for these services rendered. Such is the catch-22 of the music business today.
I’m sitting on a stool in the Smiling Buddha, reading the closed captioning on the TV while drinking a cheap pint. Overhearing the group of six, I realize that they are the ‘headlining’ band plus their entourage, and that means Soup Kitchen Lineup is the opener. Only one other person has entered the bar by the time my friend leaves the stage and comes up to say hello. We have more awkward than usual conversation, which makes sense as he is essentially about to go to work. I am thanked for coming, and in return I don’t mention the turnout. He tells me they have a myspace page, and I tell them that that’s cool. In the five minutes before he’s called back to the stage by the guitarist, he orders a beer and we watch/read 60 Minutes in relative silence.
There are few things better than going to a small bar on a whim and seeing a great up and coming rock and roll band for five bucks. And there are few things worse than doing the same thing out of fulfilling a duty as a friend. There are unwritten rules about how to support a friend’s musical endeavors: You have to go to their first gig, their second gig, and after that, you are not obliged to appear in any way until they are playing at a venue larger than the usual bar or have a CD release party. Oh, you could go to every gig they do, but that’s a quick way to become a roadie, lackey, or groupie. A roadie means you will actually carry things and be useful to the band, while a lackey means you just kind of sit in the audience and try not to get on their nerves during sound check. Everyone knows what a groupie is (and does).
Yet almost every band still playing in a bar are a long way from dealing with roadies, lackeys, and groupies. The Do-It-Yourself work ethic is not so much chosen as thrust upon them (which is a shame, especially considering what groupies are for). It's the same in every city of modest size. Hundreds of young men and women toil in meaningless jobs during the day trying to 'buy their soul back at night', to quote poet James Dickey. Most will never escape this launch pad of bars and run down clubs. After all, there are only so many types of original music you can make in the corner of a room.
In every town and city there can be dozens of bands that you've never heard of, but almost certainly know. Remainameless is a rock trio that tries to be Nirvana and Led Zeppelin at the same time, and they succeed more often than you’d think. I’ve known the guitarist/singer for years, and I’ve probably seen more of his gigs than any of other small band, if only because they’ve lasted long enough to open for and headline above a shitload of other bands other friends have been in. Their myspace page states that they sound like, ‘the best damn rawk band in Canada’, and considering what one wants when they ‘rawk out’, they aren’t far off the mark. A couple indulgent guitar solos? Check. An
above average rhythm section? Check. Mostly understandable singing about love, loss, and cutting through the bullshit? Check. A closing song that feels like an epic? Check. The occasional guitar smashing? Check. Speaking of which…
A quick note on guitar smashing:
Most small-time bands cannot afford to break their instruments. The Who would lose money on tours because of always having to buy new gear. Nirvana didn’t have enough money to turn it into an art until they signed to a major label. That’s why it really is a treat to see a frenzied guitarist dripping with sweat during the final climax of the last song of the night destroy his axe in a small bar with a tiny crowd. You can see the madness in his eyes as he pulls the strap over his head, the crowd eggs him on with cheers, and just as he raises it above his head and the drummer plays the shit out of hi hat cymbals, he remembers that they have band practice tomorrow and rent is due next week. The guitarist’s enthusiasm sags and the arm muscle weaken. The guitar comes down on the stage with a light drop instead of a Kurt Cobain baseball swing. To salvage his image, the guitarist tries to mangle the strings before walking offstage with the swagger you’re supposed to have after breaking the neck of your precious.
What a letdown.
Oh the pretty things were once the big three, who at one point had four members, two of which were my roommates (one now plays with Soup Kitchen Lineup). One of the guitarists in the new group played in the early rap metal band Project Wyze that had a minor - but big enough - hit to get a slot on the Ozzfest tour. Then there were issues with the label, the band was stuck with a hefty recording studio bill, and subsequently dissolved (rock on, indeed). Compared to remainameless, who best epitomize a straight ahead rock band, oh the pretty things are bit more haywire onstage. The tall, cocky leader will think nothing of waltzing over to a keyboard mid-song and stop playing guitar in favor of pounding the keys. When he does play guitar he frequently breaks strings from constantly heavy riffing. At least one song in every set has to be a Stairway to Heaven-like epic, starting with a slow buildup and ending in an explosive finale, maybe even tossing in a squealing guitar solo that is done while wandering through the audience. He stops songs on a dime to have a sip of beer, and then goes right back into it, just to show that the band has the chops to do it. He heckles the audience better than they could ever heckle him. Anyone he knows who knows the lyrics and can carry a tune are ordered onstage. All of this is kosher when playing in a bar filled with forty people. In fact, it maybe necessary for you to remember oh the pretty things past the next week. The only downers are the singalongs, which are usually met with an awkward silence by the audience unless it's really easy stuff (yeahs, nahs, and ooohs are the best choices).
The last time I saw oh the pretty things they did a particularly spirited cover of The Beatles Oh Darling, inviting anyone to singalong. I was dismayed to see (and hear) that I was the only one singing (badly). I don't know if it was because of lack of enthusiasm, or lack of familiarity of the Beatles, but hoping against hope that the reason was not my generations disinterest in abbey road, anyone who has been suckered into attending a friend's anything will admit that you can't possibly have that much fun if you are spending the night in a bar out of obligation. In this case, you're lucky if the band will share their drink tickets with you.
Back at the Smiling Buddha, I realize Soup Kitchen Lineup sounds like the grateful dead without the acid, so they sound like Wilco without the insecurity. To further solidify this observation, they cover 'Cumberland Blues' at the end of their set. My friend keeps his bass lines in check, avoiding the rock and funk I know he enjoys playing. It helps the overall sound of the music, as the two guitarist vocalists don't overwhelm me with their playing, focusing more on the songs than virtuosity.
Despite a dead-ish quality, there are no twenty minute space outs. All in all the music gives off a nice warm, rock-country vibe, which probably means they'll never get anywhere unless they drive around the country in a van and play almost every night, where ever they can and build an audience one gig at a time. The headliners table claps politely after every song, but they don’t seem to be paying attention to the music in between. Sometimes the camaraderie between bands are so tight that you get sick of the fact that they're always headlining/opening for each other or - if one of the band members is your roommate - play 'Dust in the Wind' together at three AM in your kitchen. Sometimes the two don't know each other's names. Sometimes there is unfounded animosity between bands simply because of the cutthroat competition that can exist in the underground music scene. There just isn't that much cash to go around.
It is factors like these that make the early history of a band filled with short period of intense change and long periods of little to nothing happening. Bands will go months between gigs, and sometimes they’ll play at two different venues the same night. One band I knew called Stealing Sugar saw their lineup double in size to ten people in the span of two months, and didn't break up so much as get pulled apart by gravitation forces (and nearly impossible scheduling). Of course, any doctor of physics will tell you that some debris will still come together and jam again on drunken Saturday nights. These incestuous gatherings are nothing new. It's how Broken Social Scene got started.
And sometimes these spur of the moment musical flings are all that makes playing music worth it. In a new band you have to delude yourself and ignore the fact that the odds of anything coming out of all your hard work are astronomically small (sometimes because of devastating fact that the band sucks). Playing a gig in front of three people may be quirky once or twice, but any more than that and it because depressing. Connecting with people in a bar of all places is an uphill battle, especially if most of the attendees are just looking for a way to kill a Saturday night. Who wants to rehearse in a basement three times a week, put up a posters all afternoon that everyone ignores, lose money every time you rent out a place, play songs no one really listens to, and quietly find a new drummer because your current one is a drunk? The sacrifices one makes for that tiny shot of success is ridiculous unless you have that quintessential love for music itself. A clichéd assessment, sure, but if I ask anyone in the bands I've mentioned why they do it, their answers would be the same: 'Because', 'I have this drive in my heart', 'it's the sound of the guitar that just calls to me' 'I don't want to do anything else with life', 'Fuck you, help me carry this amp down the stairs'.
Of course, you might just do it all for the money, and if that's the case, you may as well just start a cover band. Speaking of which, as some quick advice for up and coming bands, cover songs (two tops per show for any respectable group) have to be chosen carefully. They are either a radical reworking of popular songs, or faithful copies of lesser known material. Bands know that there is a possibility that these songs are all that the audience will remember, so you may as well prove you've got unique musicianship (by reworking Karma Police) or unique taste (by playing Ella Guru note for note).
I stand outside the bar after Soup Kitchen Lineup’s set with my friend so he can smoke a cigarette. One of his band mates joins us. Even though I just saw them, I can’t remember what he played. All four of them kind of look like the Kings of Leon. Showing the courtesy the headlining band didn’t show them, Soup Kitchen is staying to watch the rest of the show. Just as I was bidding my friend farewell and making vague promises about attending future gigs, a young woman walks up to us and asks for a light. Small talk allows us to find out that this bar was her final destination. My friend’s eyes light up and asks her if she’s heard of his band. The young lady looks confused, and my friend explains they just played a great set inside. She remains nonplussed: ‘Oh. I thought it was karaoke tonight.’
I listen to music seriously. That doesn’t mean I won’t multitask while it plays (walking, typing, eating), but it means I usually put a lot of thought into the next album or play list for the journey that I’m going to be embarking upon (even if it’s just to the kitchen). Sometimes I am crippled by my multitude of choices and scroll though my music library for two or three minutes in an attempt to find the music that defines ‘me’ at that very moment (damn you, 20,000 song iPod! No wait, I don’t mean that. Sorry, Mr. Jobs, it’s a wonderful device). When I finally choose what to play, I am prone to zoning out or mouthing the words to the sonic masterpieces that pour out of my speakers or headphones. Not only do I pay attention to the lyrics and solos, but I even try to weed out the barely-there piano or drum fills. I have missed subways stops due to this pointless dedication.
But then, sometimes there is music out there that doesn’t require even half-assed concentration. Sometimes there are albums that are just great background music. This doesn’t mean that they are unfulfilling and dull if you lie on your bed with a pair of headphones and groove to it, but it doesn’t mean that you’re going to get down on your knees and thank god for the gift of sound when you hear the songs, either. Its music you can talk over, cook to, and hump during. Or pretty much do anything except just ‘listen’ to the music. Here are ten albums that you can put on and forget about…but not quite.
St. Germaine – Tourist
Jazz has always been pegged as ‘the’ background music by the musically-curious-but-still-small-minded-about-it crowd. And sometimes they have a point. Jazz – especially studio-recorded jazz – is about as exciting as a wallpaper. Sure it’s great for a lark for a moment or two, but do we really need nine minutes of, say, Miles Davis’ ‘So What’? Oh, right. It’s improvisation. Which means that while it is certainly technically challenging, it’s still as exciting as wallpaper 90% of the time.
Of course, rather than desecrate the jazz masters from fifty years ago, I’ll just choose the album all the people who say they love jazz but can’t pronounce ‘Thelonious’ bought. This electronic drum beats plus real jazz instruments mash up came out in 2000, and kind of struck a chord for pseudo-hipsters. Thing is, it’s still an okay album if you don’t listen too attentively. It’s literally paint-by-numbers music. Perfect for wine and cheese.
Neil Young [and Pearl Jam] – Mirrorball
Everyone likes Neil Young’s ‘Down by the River’, right? How about an hour of it? And imagine Crazy Horse suddenly became twenty years younger. Neil Young is up there with the Stones as veteran artists who have put out plenty of mediocre but never stupendously bad albums. This is one of those ones, but compared to, say, Hawks & Doves, at least its fun.
All the songs on here are good, but none are great. You can tune in and out and won’t miss a thing. The riffs don’t go very far.
Phish – Hoist
Unless you’re on a lot of drugs (and not blow), Phish’s entire discography comes off as a bit of a snore. The studio music is jazz-poppy, while the live stuff just… doesn’t… stop (chalkdust torture is right). This is their most accessible album, with no real jams except for a bit in the final song. Most of it is pretty contained and well put together, and while they don’t write the best tunes, these four guys don’t have much competition when it comes to playing well together. Too well sometimes, as these performances replace spontaneity with polish. But that’s okay, since background music has to straddle that odd line between uninteresting and uneven. And Phish just about hits that mark every time.
Stone Temple Pilots – Tiny Music (Songs From the Vatican Gift Shop)
It’s like Purple, but not as good, so it’s perfect for this list. Scott Weiland got too doped up to support the album with a tour, meaning it didn’t end up as successful as their previous album (the aforementioned Purple). But not being familiar with this album is half the fun. It will sound like you know it by heart anyway. STP was always known as a band that ripped off the best from other bands, but hey, they did it really well, so why should we hold it against them? Everything on here sounds like a semi-Jane’s Addiction song, a broken Nirvana tune, or an aborted Pixies jam.
And Big Bang Baby is the best B-minus rated alternative anthem ever.
Manu Chao - Clandestino
Sixteen tracks in forty-five minutes? Hell, it seems like Manu Chao made this one to intentionally blur together into a booty shaking haze you can’t totally immerse yourself in because he’s speaking three languages. Nothing really sticks out except the hit ‘Bongo Bong’, and that’s fine as the whole album seems structured to sound like a speed-fueled jam full of radio sound bites and whistles as you bounce between France and Brazil/.
By his own admission, Manu Chao’s songs are extremely simple. You don’t have to invest a lot of time and effort to catch the foot-tapping fever. You can drop it and pick it up later with minimal effort. Manu Chao knows what you want, and knows how to give you a good time. His live performances support this. Most of the band doesn’t stop jumping up and down for the whole ninety minutes. You’d swear they were on trampolines.
Kraftwerk – Autobahn
Background music par excellence. The 23 minute title track is supposed to simulate what it’s like driving on the German motorways, so in a way listening to this as background music is actually a deep, metaphysical exercise of cosmic awareness. Thematically, the music is background.
It’s a damn shame they don’t really sing, ‘Fun, fun, fun, on the autobahn’ (apparently it’s some actual German). That would have been beautifully cheesy.
AC/DC – Back in Black
It makes the list because everyone knows the hits on here front and back, and the rest of the material is like the hits, but more forgettable. Even though it’s a definite hard rock, speaker shattering classic, it just can’t escape the label of dumb, loud music. When played at the correct volume, it’s overpowering. But dare to turn it down a bit, and you’ve got yourself nothing more than a fast paced blues album sung by a shrieking Australian. Perfect for taking the starch out of that stuffy wine and cheese shindig.
Also, the constantly overplayed ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’ deserves to be pushed out of the spotlight as much as possible these days. Meanwhile, the tender, heartfelt ‘Givin the Dog a Bone’ gets no play at all…
Bob Marley – Legend
For too many Bob Marley fans, the reggae icon’s discography ends here, with this greatest hits album. Criminal, really. The Wailer’s debut LP, Catch a Fire is much more engrossing. But we aren’t going for engrossing here. Engrossing escapes from the speakers and instead of hovering over the room like a cloud burrows into your ears and makes a home. So instead I choose all the Marley we’re familiar with and can nearly dispose of. The fun hits, the vague political themes, all propelled by weed-drenched rhythms.
While I bet there are people who don’t like reggae music, I never met anyone who truly hates it. Which is exactly the reaction you want for a background album.
Handel – Water Music
Beethoven’s too thunderous, Mozart’s too catchy. So try this second-rate German composer’s attempt at winning over King George I (it worked). Water Music is perfect for when you want to seem high class and debonair but don’t want to drag out the Allman Brothers’ Live at Fillmore East. It is a short series of three musical suites that is both supremely regal and instantly forgettable at the same time. Sure classical music is poison to the ears for over 90% of the populace, but this is a nice, short antidote to pretty much anything else you’ll hear in the twenty-first century. Try it. You may learn something if you find yourself absentmindedly paying attention.
And if you really are unsure, did I mention it clocks in at eighteen minutes? Surely you can spare the time for something that short. Because of this, it’s usually paired with Handel’s Music for Royal Fireworks on CD. And while that’s good too, real fireworks are slightly more interesting.
The Rolling Stones – Aftermath
Before this, the Stones just wrote singles, while afterwards they began experimenting and then refining their sounds into cohesive albums. Stuck in the middle is this collection of…good songs. Just good, poppy rocks songs like ‘Under My Thumb’ and ‘Out of Time’. It doesn’t have the epiphany-like moments you get when listening to The Beatles’ Revolver, another album from the summer of 1966. And really, as far a background albums go, that’s a good thing. You don’t you look for (or get) moments of complete euphoria on background albums. All you get is a good beat and some lyrics you end up trying to hum along to. And sometimes that’s all music has to be.
Louder is better.
Right? – A Concert review of Queens of the Stone Age
And maybe to counteract the success that might be going to their heads, the band made sure this concert felt like a small town show, which is what exactly what the current leg of the Queens summer tour consists of: trekking to small cities just off the beaten path. A little treat for the farm kids, who spent their pent up energy pushing each other around and crowd surfing. And while the best thing about a small-town show is the small-town venue where you don’t need binoculars to see the whites (okay, reds) of the band’s eyes, most of these concert halls don’t really know how to handle a band that happens to be as loud as The Queens of the Stone Age.
A venue that is used to children’s book readings and Christmas carol concerts can’t really adapt to this wall of rhythmic noise, and regardless of how on point the band is, the overall performance suffers. Namely, the vocals barely peaking above the riffage. Even the ultra catchy refrain 'sick, sick, sick' from the song of that name required the audience to fill in the blanks themselves, as the backing vocalist/bass and guitar players couldn't be heard. It was even difficult to make out what Josh Homme was saying between the songs which is a shame as he is probably one of the more interesting and funny of the rock front men that engage in stage banter (Tool's Maynard James Keenan also comes to mind). A security guard he thought was being a bit too hard on the kids up front was subject to being pointed out with a flashlight and reprimanded (it probably helps that Homme is a bouncer sized 6'3).
The opening band was Cage the Elephant, which actually sounds like song QOTSA themselves might write, and they had the same sound problem. I had no idea what the singer was wailing on about because the pronunciation died in the mix. Fortunately his voice meshed well with the music, and became more an instrument of emotive sounds than of a fountain of crisp, clean lyrics. It’s just as well. Their music was definite sludge rock, full of sloppy simple riffs, with nifty little solos by the fro-filled guitarist. It complimented the steely-eyed power of QOTSA perfectly, who are about as tight as drug-fueled music can (and should) get.
While I could have done with a bit more tunes from the first two LP’s, the newest music blends in well with the older. 'Do it Again' and '3's and 7's' sit together like old war buddies having a beer at the legion, razor sharp guitars beside more razor sharp guitars. But tonight there is no sign of Homme's acoustic prowess like on 'Lightning Song' from Rated R. There is no shelter from the storm at this concert. The band is trying to appeal to your balls, not your heart. And I don’t know if Josh Homme is a real bastard slave driver in rehearsals, but these players are the best shave money can buy. With only a nod of Homme’s head, they stop and start on a dime. One small recurring beef: Turn up Josh's gee-tar for the solos. The man can play, and we wanna hear him (I guess this means I'm suggesting the concert should be even louder. Sorry, ears). It would make for a slightly refreshing change from the constantly propulsive sounds of the drum and bass rhythms of Joey Castillo (who gives Dave Grohl a run for his money regarding the title of best rock drummer today) and Michael Shuman, because while noise is a powerful, ear bleeding force, it also kills the aura of spontaneity, even if it is actually alive and well. 'Misfit Love' was subject to a nice lengthy, intro jam, but much other songs felt largely by-the-numbers, especially the fan-favourite 'No One Knows', which was missing the a cappella verse that graces the band's excellent live album/DVD, Over the years and Through the Woods.
Damn it, reading this over sounds like I had a crappy time. And I didn’t. Not in the least. It was fucking great, exactly what I expected and wanted. Money well spent and all that jazz.
My gripe about the sound, though, kind of opens up an interesting discussion about hard rock: Maybe it’s doomed to be played only at arenas and outdoor festivals. The Queens brought an arena show to a small concert hall, and kicked it’s ass a bit too effectively. The music overwhelmed the venue, and since the music and venue have to go hand in hand for an optimal sound experience, everybody in some sense lost (namely, they lost their hearing).
It comes down to sight versus sound. Venues are called intimate because everyone there can see the band. But that’s not the point of music, which is – at least if you’re a great live band – a sonic medium. If you can see band, but can’t hear them very well, what’s the point? If that’s the case, I’d rather see Queens of the Stone Age at a 15,000 seat arena where they appear to be little specks onstage, as long as the sound quality is mint (which it was when I saw them open for NIN in such a view a few years back). I mean, the only solution to having an instrument stand out of a muddy mix is to turn it up even louder, which is a great way to get caught in those goddamn vicious circles (if you turn up the guitar, then the bass is too quiet, so you turn that up to compensate, etc.). Music can be too loud to be fun, and while it wasn’t the quite the case at this concert, the racecar was certainly in the red.
But it was good music from the first note, so I got over it. Yeah, it's loud. Don't like it? Go home. The Queens of the Stone Age will play you out, wearing shit-eating grins and pounding away the whole time, laaaaaaaaughing...
The fifth annual Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival sprung up again like it usually does in its usually place, ushering in the summer with its endless buffet of musical treats under the hot Tennessee sun.
And certainly the best analogy is a buffet. With the exception of the headliners, with five stages playing simultaneously and not too far apart, you’re really not expected to hear an entire artist’s set (in fact, during songs breaks, you will hear other bands playing on the other side of the grounds). You make your rounds like the village whore or bicycle, taking in as many bits of diverse music as you can before you drop dead from heat stroke (body count for this festival: one, from said heat stroke).
And that’s the real star of Bonnaroo, anyway: The heat. It’s with you every step of the way. The hottest Bonnaroo on record, they say. You woke up at eight thirty in the morning because all of a sudden it was too hot to sleep. (nine o’clock sound checks on the What Stage didn’t help none, either). So you lie in your tent or RV for a couple hours trying to save all the energy your going to need for the rest of the day (which won’t end until three or four tomorrow morning).
‘Man is it fucking hot!’ you tell your companions. ‘Yeah, it’s ridiculous’, they reply. And that’s what an in-depth discussion regarding global warming sounds like at Bonnaroo.
But hanging around your campsite and smoking copious amounts of marijuana is only half of what Bonnaroo is all about. There’s also music. Tool, The Police, The White Stripes, Wilco, Gov’t Mule, and dozens of bands I’ve never heard of and will probably never hear again.
See, I tried to see a couple random indie-bands I wasn’t familiar with at least a couple times during the festival, but doing so was not without hazards:
1 – Bonnaroo scheduled almost all of them during the ‘immediate skin cancer’ period of 12-4PM, meaning it was a physical endeavor of epic proportions to last an entire hour long set in the blistering Tennessee sun.
2 – The guidebook was rather unhelpful and vague, as a majority of these bands were simply labelled ‘indie-pop’. This is rather large umbrella-like term for a wide variety of music. It could be a quirky little band from Idaho with a violinist who sings about auto-accidents in nine minute songs with bizarre time signatures, or it could be a Maroon 5 clone before they get famous.
I took a chance and saw the Cold War Kids. I didn’t know anything about them except that they were opening for The White Stripes for select dates this summer, which is about an as good recommendation as you could get. They were instantly forgettable. If I didn’t get a sunburn during the show, I couldn’t be sure that I was there in from of the That Tent at all.
Same with Dr. Dog. I saw them at this VIP thing on Thursday night. They were a tight, energetic young (?) band that I can’t for the life of me remember anything about. The lead singer was the bass player, and he had a beard and brown shorts on. The songs were catchy and well-constructed, and went in my right ear before immediately dribbling out my left.
Wandering from stage to stage (What Stage, Which Stage, This Tent, That Tent, etc. Which led to comedian David Cross observing that the name process is funny for thirty seconds, then is just damn annoying and confusing), one appreciates just how many people it takes to put together such an event. Those pitas won’t wrap themselves, the bad vibes won’t go away on their own, and you know at least three people have that god-awful job of pumping out the port-a-potty’s nightly. Most small bands play in tents, so it really is a great moment when you walk out to the massive expanse of the main (‘What’) stage.
Kings of Leon broke the seal Friday afternoon. Lead vocalist Caleb Followill wisely played guitar throughout the set as the songs from their new album Because of the Times would be rather sparse with just Matthew Followill on the axe. The show also gave the crowd the only drops of rain we would experience throughout the weekend. Surely if we knew that was it, we would have been much more welcoming. Following the Kings were The Roots, and they were excellent. They had a tuba player rocking the house with ?uestlove (boy is that name screwing with my word processor) hovering over it all on the drums like a shaggy black shaman. You know you have a crack live band when you’re playing a genre of music most people there don’t necessarily enjoy (hip-hop) but are still getting off on it. The Roots are like the Allmans of the ghetto.
As the sun set we got what was certainly the weirdest headliner
choice for any Bonnaroo: Tool. Their
show didn't deviate much from recent tour set lists, and it ran short of
the two-and-a-half hour runtime in the program (maybe two hours of
insanely heavy rock music was enough). I was personally hoping for an
encore of Third Eye, but we had to settle for Tom Morello guesting on
Lateralus as the treat for the night.
On Saturday I braved the eleven o’clock sun and walked into Centeroo before the throngs came in to kick up the dust, which was quickly becoming a bigger problem by the hour. For four dollars you could get a good enough breakfast burrito at a nice little tent, and afterwards I walked over to the cinema. After a half of hour of random shorts (how a girl who can’t stop hiccupping was exploited by the Today show, the life of an onstage-Santa dancer for the Flaming Lips), Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes started. Tom Waits and Iggy Pop (with one long, hangdog expression). Meg and Jack White (kind of a sneak preview of Sunday evening, although Jack didn’t use a Tesla coil onstage). Bill Murray and the Wu Tang Clan. All having small talk over coffee and cigarettes. Was I on the edge of my seat? Yes, but only because the seats were damn uncomfortable. The film was slow enough that even those in the heaviest dope hazes were wishing things would pick up. In the end, the real fun was simply remembering how nice it was in the air conditioned tent as soon as you stepped outside into the scorching sun.
Saturday’s headliners The Police were slightly more fun than getting busted. Andy Summers surprised me by being a better guitarist than I imagined a new-wave band member could ever be, and being an Oysterhead fan I knew the power of drummer Stewart Copeland, so I guess the blame has to fall on Sting and his songwriting (‘De DoDoDo, De DaDaDa’? I don’t care if it’s supposed to be ironic, it still sucks). Very little known fact: Andy Summers has released twelve solo albums since the Police broke up in 1983. Just keeping his fingers in shape for the inevitable reunion, I guess.
The Police were tolerable for me personally because I got around to downing a hit of LSD just as they started playing. After a lazy Saturday (which was needed as The Flaming Lips and Gov’t Mule were playing late that night), it was just what the mystery doctor ordered. Acid pumps you full of energy. It's a psychedelic red bull for your brain. Your poor body could be exhausted but your mind is traveling at a thousand miles a minute. And because your mind is telling your body what to do and not taking no for an answer, you find yourself walking, wandering, dancing completely care-free for hours on end. For once your body can swallow every ounce of perception reality is throwing at it. It is one big happy overload, until you start to come down and your neck and shoulder start to tense up, as if your head has really absorbed too much like a massive sponge and is beginning to sink into your body. It is at this point that most music (but especially Sasha & Digweed) starts to sound like rusty metal being scrapped against Styrofoam, and you suddenly wish you were back tripping quietly in your RV.
By late Saturday night the festival had the feel of a war zone. Bodies and dust everywhere. The first forty eight hours of drinking, smoking, and dropping everything under the sun had begun to take its toll, but that’s no reason for the music to stop. The heat and complete lack of rain kept the dust permanently kicked up. It shone in the night like some horrible fog, brightening 2AM to something more akin to a well lit military base. The only way to keep from coughing up a lung was to put on your just-in-case gas mask or to wrap a handkerchief around your face like a cowboy. Suddenly everyone at the festival looked like the outlaws the DEA said they were.
And maybe it was the acid, but suddenly you’re wandering what the point of all this was. Are we just getting away with ‘murder’ in a field for a weekend before having to trudge back to the real world? While hyping Bonnaroo as being ‘something special’ is usually just a marketing tool for the promoters, sometimes you wonder if there could be something more, besides fun and money. Certainly by embracing at least a bit of the old fashioned hippie ethos, Bonnaroo can be transformed from a festival to a launching pad for a future utopia, if only for an hour or two. During their 12-2:30AM set on the Which stage, The Flaming Lips front man Wayne Coyne appealed to the crowd for an end to the war and ragged on Bush to monumental cheers. And while he may have had a hard time finding the right words and therefore rambled on a bit more than was needed, it at least made it seem heartfelt and unrehearsed.
So while being a band that is just too damn strange to ever headline Bonnaroo, The Flaming Lips might be the one to define it better than any other group. The Lips and their crew are a tight knit group, holding the same kind of bonds that – ideally – the promoters of Bonnaroo want all festival goers to have. Emerging from a UFO/lighting rig, the Lips did songs about Jelly, Japanese schoolgirls fighting robots, and ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah’. It’s all in good fun, even though Wayne really wanted it to be so much more. He kept telling us how great it is to be here, and how much power people had when they came together for the right reasons. And damn it all if you didn’t want to believe him. And I forgot how good this band is live, even if you decided to ignore all the stunts like giant bubbles, UFOs, and cannon after cannon of confetti. They ended with a wonderful cover of the Stones, ‘Moonlight Mile’, and Coyne said it summed up the unity and communal aspects of the festival (I would have said it was more about an individual going through hard times that are almost over, but it’s a great song, so I’ll stop splitting hairs), and after two hours of solid over-the-top Lips, who’s going to call shenanigans on that? Maybe those who just spent six dollars on a cup of Budweiser.
And what about fun? Not to say that The Flaming Lips weren’t that to a ‘t’, but a lot of kids are just here to get high and ROCK THE FUCK OUT. Not long after the Lips wrapped up I wandered the grounds and my choices were trance (maybe if I was on ecstasy and it was 1988) or Gov’t Mule, who were finishing up their marathon set with their own ideas of community and politics. They were doing back to back Sabbath covers, ‘Sweet Leaf’ and ‘War Pigs’. And of course, the secret brilliance about Sabbath is how damn easy they made it for musical virtuosos (and Gov’t Mule is certainly that, while being sub-par songwriters) to build and improve upon the three and four chords riffs Tony Iommi churned out. I mean, these guys just shamed Sabbath. A jam band playing heavy metal faster and harder than the godfathers of the genre. While a heart breaking thought to some, none of the kids there gave a fuck. They’ll get their rocks off wherever they can, and to hell with supposed legacy.
By Sunday, joints were needed just to get out of bed in the morning. Bonnaroo is best experienced in a state of constant inebriation/intoxication. It’s what makes the heat, noise, crowds, expensive beer and mediocre food tolerable, as well as just improving the overall music listening experience. Fortunately, pretty much any poison under the sun is available to you with a simple walk through a campground village area (called ‘pods’, which are a series of tents that house food and trinket vendors, along with showers and first aid). What do you want? Pot, hash, mushrooms, acid, opium? They (well, someone) got it all. I even learned a new term for ecstasy (‘rolls’), making this whole thing a worthwhile educational experience. At Bonnaroo, it’s a seller’s market. Of course, this presents many opportunities for a piece of shit scum eater who would think nothing of ripping off a hapless, innocent concert-goer who’s used to buying an eight of pot in his hometown for thirty to forty bucks. In fact, I was deeply suspicious of the guy I bought acid off of (he charged $10 a hit, while others were charging $20), at least until I watched him tap out a bit of blow onto his wrist and snort it about ten seconds after he closed the deal.
Wilco should have been absolutely perfect for Sunday afternoon. Countryish-rock-pop all done with a stamp of approval from the critics, but at this point in the festival it's an endurance contest, and people are still holding out too much for The White Stripes to really give Jeff Tweedy their full attention. Even the pit seemed too mellow for it’s own good. It certainly wasn't full, which is the only reason I went in. And I left early, because I didn’t want to miss a moment of…
The White Stripes.
Jack and Meg in all their glory. A massive stampede of people came for
their set, sending a giant cloud of dust across the stage for the first
few songs. The two of them didn’t bat an eye, and just played the shit out
of their respective instruments. Old favorites like ‘Jolene’, ‘Dead Leaves
on the Dirty Ground’ and ‘Seven Nation Army’ sat comfortably alongside
rare stuff like ‘Cannon’ and the new ‘Catch Hell Blues’. See, Jack White
will always be a blues guitarist, and an underrated one at that. Which is
why their new single ‘Icky Thump’ would have been right at home on Led
Zeppelin II. Same with the Son House cover, ‘Death Letter’ (audaciously
played at the Grammy’s a couple years back, if I remember correctly).
Bonnaroo 2007, we hardly knew ye. Or maybe it just seemed that way because everything got dusty. Or hazy. Or both.
Summertime, and the living is easy. Why? Well, we’re not quite sure. In fact, with heat waves, increased pollution, gas prices through the roof, and strange tourists ruining all your favorite watering holes, you might say life in the summertime sucks balls. So with that in mind, we’ll provide you with a guide of one of the few respites to all this crapiness: Ear food. There’s nothing better than drinking a beer outside with friends and cranking up the music. Here’s a guide to make sure you don’t fuck up the ever-important tune selection.
Road Trip CD
The mix tape/CD and the MP3 player playlist are hallowed parts of the summer driving experience. When the destination is a cottage, festival, campsite, or pretty much any place where the goal is to drink a whole lot, a unique selection of music is needed to properly ‘pump up’ those crammed within the vehicle. While the organization of such an event may be a hasty and messy affair, there is no reason the music selection – sometime the single factor that prevents the ride from being a three hour slice of hell – should be. Follow these rules to make a kickass collection of songs:
1 – A good, foot stompin’ beat. Every song should boogie (except the sole ballad). It’s a prelude to the fun of the weekend. Leonard Cohen, Skinny Puppy, and everything Nirvana did after they got famous have to stay home.
2 – A mixture of old and new, popular and underground. The road trip is hallowed tradition dating back to the spring pilgrimages Christians used to make to holy sites across Europe in the medieval period. This doesn’t mean you have to load up your playlist with Gregorian chants, but there’s no point in putting together an assortment of songs that you could find on any Top 40 station. Mix the shit up.
3 – The ‘Road Trip’ theme. You’re in a car going seventy miles an hour down the interstate. The wind is rushing through your hair and is making such a racket you have to crank up the volume even more. May as well sing songs about road trips, cars, and almost dying in accidents.
Let the following be a fine example of a playlist that tries to cover all the important qualities of ‘road trip’ songs:
LA Woman – The Doors (nails two of three ‘rules’ right off the bat. Plus we get to meet Jim Morrison’s alter ego: Mr. Mojo Risin’)
Broken Up Adingdong – The Beta Band (even though the percussion goes on a bit, it still works even though I don’t know what the title means. Doorbells, maybe?)
Summertime Rolls – Jane’s Addiction (Perry Farrell’s weirdo lyrics about nostalgia don’t mean much until the band fully kicks in and he stars gleefully screaming the title over and over…)
Truckin’ – The Grateful Dead (probably works even better than ‘LA Woman’, but more jammy, less hooky)
Honky Tonk Women – The Rolling Stones (and this one is all hooky)
Draw the Line – Aerosmith (the perfect, clichéd 70’s rock nugget)
Black Thumbnail – Kings of Leon (a perfectly clichéd 70’s rock nugget, re-invented for 2007)
The Passenger – Iggy Pop (the title says it all. Na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na…)
Brand New Cadillac – The Clash (and the song would be even cooler if you were listening to the song in an actual Cadillac)
Missed the Boat – Modest Mouse (the one ‘slow’ song, but can still be sung along to)
Ray of Light – Madonna (perfect 90’s dance-pop)
Back in Black – AC/DC (perfect 80’s metal-pop)
Hey Ya – Outkast (perfect 00’s hip-pop)
Airbag – Radiohead (yeah, yeah, Radiohead isn’t the most cheery band in the world, but this song is not about dying in a car accident, but just almost dying in a car accident…)
Stuck in the Middle With You – Stealer’s Wheel (if there’s three people crammed in the back seat with luggage on their laps for the whole trip, this song is for them)
Camarillo Brillo – Frank Zappa (proof Zappa could have written accessible, catchy rock songs if he really wanted to)
Trampled Underfoot – Led Zeppelin (almost too hard for a fun playlist. Almost… and it’s about cars, anyway…)
Lazer Beam – Super Furry Animals (poppy weirdness from Scotland)
The Summer Deck CD
Okay, you made it to your destination, or, because you aren’t going anywhere, you’re sitting in your backyard or on your balcony. You need catchy, pop songs that can double as background music for when the conversation suddenly goes belly up.
Summertime Rolls – Jane’s Addiction (it’s good enough to be on both lists)
Hot Fun in the Summertime – Sly and the Family Stone
Be My Head – The Flaming Lips (Bob Christgau said Brown Sugar is so good it discourages exegesis. The same can be said about this one)
Sugar Never Tasted So Good – The White Stripes (sugar is fun!)
Cool it Down – The Velvet Underground (hookers are fun!)
Today – The Smashing Pumpkins
Can You Hear the Music? – The Rolling Stones (murky, spacey funk from the post-Exile ‘slump’)
Out on the Weekend – Neil Young & Crazy Horse (so laid back that it’s a stoner’s lullaby)
Satellite of Live – Lou Reed
Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except for Me and my Monkey – The Beatles
Concrete Jungle – Bob Marley (social inequality never sounded so groovy)
Just Dropped in – Kenny Rogers (summer is a time for drugs)
What I Got – Sublime (drugs is summer a time for)
Long Hot Summer Night – The Jimi Hendrix Experience (for time summer drugs a is)
Golden Years – David Bowie (a disco song about future nostalgia. Oh, the supposed irony…)
Wonderwall – Oasis (the one tune everyone can sing along to)
Bop Gun – Parliament (‘cause your party can never really be too funky)
Can’t Turn You Loose – Otis Redding
Summer in the City – The Loving Spoonfuls (obligatory summer song that doesn’t suck)
10 Classic Summer Albums (don’t have time make a personal playlist? Here are albums you don’t need to tinker with. It’s alllll good…)
Slanted and Enchanted – Pavement (indie hipster summer forever!)
Rated R – Queens of the Stone Age (fun heavy! Heavy fun! 42 minutes of drug abuse!)
Revolver – The Beatles (this is what happens what acid infiltrates the fab four)
Grace – Jeff Buckley (it’s this close to being overrated just because he’s dead)
Pronounced Leh-nerd Skin-Nerd – Lynyrd Skynyrd (even though only assholes yell ‘freebird!’ at concerts, it at least proves they have at least a shred of good musical taste)
10,000 Hz legend – Air (a French electronic duo puts together a project that is infinitely more successful than the maginot line)
Beastie Boys – Ill Communication (Hip-hop-punk-rock-funk-buddha-beats. And it's got 'Sabotage')
Music from Big Pink – The Band (recorded in a big pink, house in the country, for listening in a same kind of place)
Live at Fillmore East – The Allman Brothers Band (the art of jamming)
You Forgot it in People – Broken Social Scene (ambient pop. There are words that you can barely pick out from the ethereal sound waves, but why bother? )
Summer Concert/Festival Etiquette
Damn critics. As much as their verbose, over-analyzed praises for a certain band can rope in new fans, it can also turn off and alienate the average music listener who doesn't know - or care - what 'seminal' means. Because of this and a myriad of other reasons, so much great music slips through the cracks of popular culture and are only found by a handful of diligent, curious music lovers.
Below are artists and
bands that should have been much, much more popular than they ever were.
Or maybe they would have become shitty with all the popularity. Maybe some
music is best left for weirdoes and rock critics. Regardless, good music
Now obviously ‘early sixties artist’ means they don’t really have an album to recommend besides a greatest hits collection of their singles, but I strongly suggest you seek this guy out.
Multi-instrumentalist and viola-lover John Cale took Lou Reed's disturbing songs into the howling sonic nightmares. Their almost self-titled debut album (The Velvet Underground and Nico, the latter being a spooky blond singer Warhol attached to the group) covered everything your parents told you to avoid: sex (‘Venus in Furs’), drugs (‘Heroin’, ‘I’m Waiting for the Man’), and whatever the hell ‘European Son’ was about. The material never faltered after this album, either. Every noisy feedback jam owes a debt to 'Sister Ray' (a ditty about a transvestite smack dealer). Every shamefully personal love song owes a debt to 'Pale Blue Eyes'. Plus they wrote ‘Sweet Jane’ and ‘Rock n’ Roll’.
Chart success for this band was hitting #170. They were purged from their record label because of the drug references in their songs. By being the first dangerous, unpopular band, The Velvets made it safe for everyone else afterward.
All four of their albums released between 1967 and 1970 are must-haves.
In what I believe to be the secret to hide the absolute ghastliness of some of the lyrics, the Pixies utilized backing and multi-tracking vocals as effectively as the Beatles and the Beach Boys (check out 'Here Comes Your Man', 'Debaser', and 'Bone Machine'). It can't be all bad if it sounds like everyone is singing!
Twisted surf rock. Raw and warm at the same time. It was never clean music but it never made you feel like shit. It was frantic acoustic guitar, pounding rhythm section, and a lead guitar that bounced off the walls with shots of feedback. It was about as close as you could get to timeless, so it had no place in 1987.
Like the Velvets, we only knew what we had when it was gone, and The Pixies albums didn't really go gold until years after their 1991 breakup. Among those who give the band muchos kudos: Kurt Cobain, Billy Corgan, Radiohead, David Bowie, Weezer, and know-it-all rock critic Robert Christgau.
And maybe that was part of the problem. Suddenly The Pixies look like a critic-coddled, elitist rock band. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. Despite the darker than dark glint in the band's eye - or maybe because of it - The Pixies are for everybody.
Their first EP (Come on Pilgrim) and their first two albums (Surfer Rosa, Doolittle) are highly recommended. Their next two (Bossanova, Trompe Le Monde) ain’t too shabby, either.
Too mellow? Too meandering? Too experimental? Although this sounds like the Grateful Dead without the aging hippie masses, they are almost plausible criticisms of the beta band, a couple of fun loving Scottish chaps who know their way around a laptop as well as an acoustic guitar.
The Beta Band is like a slow moving airborne virus that - although you don't realize it now - will slowly envelope the world. Case in point: A pivotal scene in High Fidelity has John Cusack's character promising to sell 5 copies of the band’s 3EP collection within minutes of playing 'Dry the Rain'. Did it work in the movie? Who cares, it worked for me, and it'll work for you. When I played it for my friend, he bought their albums, not long after, he himself recruited a handful of converts. It’s a domino effect. If the band members are still alive in eighty years, they may just be crowned kings of the world.
The only tension on these albums is when you take a deep breath between songs. Its fun, laid back, Sunday afternoon lullaby music. Or summer road trip music. The Beta Band was one of the few bands who knew that ‘groove’ didn't just have to mean a fuckload of bass (check out ‘Dog Got a Bone’). It was about the interplay of a whole host of instruments. Their music is like an unfolding of musical sensibility. You can almost imagine the next layer of music (be it vocals, guitar, piano, hand claps) before it kicks in. It builds steadily, carefully orchestrated, yet still manages to sound spontaneous, which in itself is a talent akin to tightrope walking while on fire. Songs like 'Troubles', 'Assessment', 'Dr Baker', and 'It's not too Beautiful' are superbly crafted anti-pop songs, while 'She's the One For Me' is a chugging, stoner locomotive/epic rock track.
Of course music like this couldn't be appreciated by society at large all at once. The world would grind to a halt as we all bobbed our heads to 'Wonderful' from Heroes to Zeroes at the exact same time. So the Beta Band had to accept working in almost complete obscurity for its existence.
They toured with Radiohead, they disowned their debut album, they named their second album Hot Shots II (no relation to the film), they got help with album three from Nigel Godrich, and then they broke up. Tragedy in its purest form, really.
Get your hands on their 3EP collection, Heroes to Zeroes, and then Hot Shots II, in that order. The self-titled album has some treats as well.
The Deadly Snakes - This short-lived Canadian indie band is what The Band would sound like on ADD. Or a country-fied Nine Inch Nails. Maybe if punk went big band, with strings and horns. Unfortunately, all of those comparisons - while an attempt to be helpful for the uninitiated - don't adequately describe the diverse sound that The Deadly Snakes had. Two singers, both sounding like dogs, one whiny, one gruff. They were a band that dared give keyboards as much as attention as guitars and did it without sounding like Elton John.
After finding their legs with two okay albums, they released Ode to Joy in 2003, a party record that you don't want to play at party because no one would give it the listen it deserves. The album opens with a one two song punch about funeral taboos and drugs (‘Closed Casket’ and ‘I Can’t Sleep at Night’). There are also fun songs like 'There Goes Your Corpse Again' and 'I Want to Die'. To call their follow up and final album, Porcella, more mature is to use a tired cliché. The slightly fresher cliché would be that it's the somber hangover album that follows the party. Songs of loss, regret, and isolation. It's countrified marching band darkness. 'So Young and So Cruel' is for the best and worst girl in the world. ‘Debt Collection’ is an angry demand for money that almost makes the listener feel guilty.
The singer-organist also has the best stage name ever: Age of Danger. In live concerts he plays with so much enthusiasm that he always seems to be just about ready to float away from the organ, as if he can only stay grounded by keeping his fingers on the keys. Fortunately the rest of the band is right there with him, kicking ass and taking names.
The band broke up in 2006, without making much of a dent across North America. I wore black for a month.
Buy Ode to Joy and Porcella. Cry yourself to sleep with the knowledge that there is no live material available.
Funkadelic - being funkier, Parliament gets all the attention of this George Clinton collection of musicians. Despite it's name, Funkadelic sure as hell had no problem rocking out. Their masterpiece, Maggot Brain attacks almost everything head on except funk. 'Super Stupid' is Zeppelin-level heavy. 'Can You Get to That' is your traditional r&b tune after a couple big bong hits. And the ten minute title track is an instrumental guitar solo by eternally underrated axeman Eddie Hazel. His emotional, transcendent playing was the result of the band taking acid and Clinton telling him to play like his mother just died (now that's inspiration!).
The weirdness continued as the revolving door lineup of both Parliament-Funkadelic kept the music quality hazy at best, as most albums afterwards were half filler. Other highlights are ‘Funky Dollar Bill’ (from Free Your Mind and Your Ass Will Follow), ‘One Nation Under a Groove’, and ‘Cholly’ (both from One Nation Under a Groove). Some albums you can dismiss altogether, and sometimes George talks too damn much in the middle of the songs. But when Funkadelic got down, they made sure you wouldn't be able to get up for awhile.
At the same time the band has albums full of quality material that most people never get around to hearing. While many great sixties and seventies bands now broken up (Beatles, Zeppelin, Floyd, Hendrix) have had a steady resurgence of sales, it never happened for the Stones. I would guess this is because they are still in the limelight, forcing every up and coming generation to roll their eyes collectively and imagine the band has only eight or nine decent tunes that are overplayed on the radio, anyway.
It’s their loss, of course. Their early material reveals a young, energetic R&B band reinventing obscure blues songs. Aftermath and Between the Buttons practically invented Brit Pop. The psychedelic Their Satanic Majesty Request is an underrated summer of love offering. Even their 'bad' albums are at the very least 'good' when compared to almost every other artist. Goats Head Soup, It's Only Rock 'n' Roll, Some Girls, Tattoo You, Undercover, hell, even Emotional Rescue are all great rock and roll albums. Hell, one problem is that these albums above were never really compared to other albums released at the time, but to the masterpieces by the Stones from years earlier. In other words, they’ve always had an uphill battle when it came to reputation.
Just remember: There’s a reason the Stones are still called the Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll band in the world. Consistency. Something they have both onstage and in the studio.
The Rock Snob. A personality sub-category if there ever was one. Snuggled in nicely between movie buff and cat fancier, these guys (and occasional gals) were forced to listen to their parents music too early in life and either: a) wholly embraced it and started listening to music that was made before they were born, or b) completely rebuffed it and choose to rebel against them and society by listening to nothing that makes the Billboard Top 100. Either way, their record collections grew like rashes, eventually incorporating music the Rock Snobs bought because they had to, if only to be able to communicate with other Rock Snobs. Here is a list of six insanely valuable albums to have if you music isn't so much of a past time, but a way of life.
CAN – Tago Mago
Can plays two types of music. Weird, almost inaccessible electronic music and weird, completely inaccessible electronic music. Oh, they have guitars and drums don’t get me wrong, but Led Zeppelin this ain’t. Thing is, on the mammoth jam Halleluhwah, they get about as funky as any bunch of Germans possibly could. And although it hurts to type these words, Paperhouse is almost a straightforward rock song (albeit seven minutes long with singer Damo Suzuki whispering half the words). The second half of the album is more soundscape than songs (especially with Suzuki not so much singing as emitting noises). The closer sounds like Broken Social Scene if half the band suddenly died. But then, this is 1971, and even Pink Floyd wouldn’t even be going this far into arty weirdness…ever. You own this album because of its influence on electronic music, new wave, and having something talk about with anyone you meet from Germany.
Finally, play Peking-O at a party. Unless all the guests are on valium, it will not make it through its eleven and a half minutes unless you’re a linebacker that can keep the people away from the CD player.
The Beta Band – The Three EPs
Okay, real diehards would say this is a satanic compiling of three EPs that stand perfectly well on their own, but since most Rock Snobs also have to think with their wallets to save up for that Faces box set, this really is an incredible deal. The Beta Band never got the popularity they deserved (and I would also strongly recommend their final album, 2004’s Zeros to Heroes), and beyond the Dry the Rain opener, most of the material won’t be know to the public at large, which just makes it that much more of gem (save the meandering Monolith electronic mishmash). Most of these are simply nice songs written on acoustic guitar with layers upon layers of quirky electronic beats and effects heaped on top of them. And I suppose that might scare people off (as it would be too weird, or not weird enough for snobs), but here electronica has never been used with such masterful restraint. All the songs, B + A, Dog Got a Bone, Needles in My Eyes, are wonderfully mellow sing-alongs, and despite coming from three separate EPs, never seem disjointed or out of place as they flow from one to another. These guys are so good, they even make sped-up chipmunk singing work (She’s the One).
So here we have a great collection of commercially accessible songs (rock snobs are wary) that sold well enough only to be considered a cult favorite (rock snobs are reassured). It balances out to be Rock Snob nirvana.
Aerosmith – Greatest Hits
No, you read that right. Yeah, there are tons of Aerosmith Greatest Hits collections, but this one covers only their early years, and is under forty minutes. A delightful, compact collection of rawk ‘n’ roll that any Rock Snob could play for a friend who’s not much of a music fan (although I doubt they have many of those). And that’s the secret about Rock Snobs. They really like all types of music, but only in measured doses, and this collection is just what the rock ‘n’ roll doctor ordered (Little Feat!). You’ve got the radio hits Dream On (great how Steve Tyler old voice breaks around the end into his regular voice), Sweet Emotion, and Walk this Way. Draw the Line is probably the perfect average rock song. You can’t really remember it when it’s over, but while it’s chugging along you have to put everything down and tap your foot. Last Child is downright funky. The silly Kings and Queens tries to be serious and fails just like it’s supposed to. Everyone calls Joe Perry a second rate Keith Richards, but that’s really a compliment since most rock guitarists are fourth rate Keith Richards’.
Plus a decent cover of Come Together. Dude!
Radiohead – Amnesiac
Oh sure, everyone can own Kid A. When the band had a three date US fall tour when it was released in 2000 and went to number one, everyone went nuts (front man Thom Yorke described it: ‘We were the Beatles - for a week’). Then everyone went back to the regular top 40 elevator music. But in the spring 2001 Radiohead unloaded Kid A’s fugly little sister, Amnesiac. Skittery dance beats and steels drums open Packt Like Sardines in a Crushed Tin Box. Crushing piano chords whisk us away with the Pyramid Song. In a perfect world, You and Whose Army would open sports events, with its insanely catchy second half sing-along. Although there are guitars on this album, it’s just a trick. Hunting Bears is two minutes of guitar noodling, but it still seems to have the tightness and precision of the Berlin Philharmonic. Morning Bell Amnesiac sounds like as if the Kid A version of Morning Bell was left in a microwave for three minutes. In the most conventional sounding tune, Knives Out, Thom considers eating mice. The penultimate tune, Like Spinning Plates, is a swirling haze of beeps and drones that would be the soundtrack to walking though the gates of heaven towards god’s throne. Then it closes with an upbeat, jazz song about paranoia.
Comets on Fire – Blue Cathedral
These guys almost got too melodic on their most recent effort, Avatar. Almost. It’s still one of the best albums from 2006. Regardless, 2004’s Blue Cathedral is unapologetically heavy and feedback-laden. The album is a real…asskicker? Mindmelter? Brainsplitter? Ah, let’s just go with motherfucker. Lead off track The Bee and the Cracked Egg is probably the heaviest song since the live version of Nirvana’s Aneurysm, and the opening to the Brotherhood of the Harvest jam sounds like a daunting walk down a staircase with the knowledge that there’s a dead body at the bottom. Even the ‘single’, Antlers of the Midnight Sun, doesn’t pull any punches. The band wallows in raw excess, creating a Phil Spector-like wall of sound, but only if the wall is covered with loose wires, chicken guts, and is drenched in battery acid. What should be even more appreciated is the fact that we get two short soft musical pieces in between the lengthier bits as to dole out the heaviness properly. It’s a small thing, but it’s nice to see that band knows how to set up an album to give us a proper ear pummelling. The lyrics might be stupid or they might be brilliant. It’s hard to tell because I only understand what the singer is saying when it’s the title of the song. It doesn’t matter. Here the sum is much, much greater, heavier, and louder than its parts. Rock snobs might think this is too stupid, but that’s what they crave after pouring over alt-country all day.
Frank Zappa – Chunga’s Revenge
Ah, Zappa. Any rock snob worth their salt would admit the man was too prolific. Some would even point to this album, recorded with the ex-Turtles vocalists, Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan (appearing as ‘Flo and Eddie’), as evidence A, but I beg to differ. It’s a great mix of everything that Zappa was: Live weirdness (The Nancy and Mary Music, with some insane piano), demanding, overlong instrumentals (Transylvania Boogie), rock (Tell Me You Love Me is just an incredible rock song that never got the respect or airplay it deserved. In only two and half minutes, Flo and Eddie sound like they are going to explode, and that Zappa’s guitar might catch fire), light jazz (Twenty Small Cigars), somewhat mocking doo-wop and R&B (Sharleena, which is actually first class, straightforward R&B), and scathing social satire (Would you go all the way, which, thankfully, is the oft-repeated chorus). Plus a short drum piece called The Clap. With this purchase, the Rock Snob can finally appeal to their truly weird friends.
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