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Live review - The Ultimate Most High
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Drugs, Drums and Dust: Bonnaroo 2007
Bands that Got the Shit End of the Popularity Stick
Six Albums Rock Snobs have to own, even if they might not like them
Ballad of a Middle-Aged Man: Bob Dylan in the 1980s
From a David Remnick profile on Leonard Cohen:
One afternoon, years later, when the two had become friendly, Dylan called him in Los Angeles and said he wanted to show him a piece of property he’d bought. Dylan did the driving.
“One of his songs came on the radio,” Cohen recalled. “I think it was ‘Just Like a Woman’ or something like that. It came to the bridge of the song, and he said, ‘A lot of eighteen-wheelers crossed that bridge.’ Meaning it was a powerful bridge.”
Dylan went on driving. After a while, he told Cohen that a famous songwriter of the day had told him, “O.K., Bob, you’re Number 1, but I’m Number 2.”
Cohen smiled. “Then Dylan says to me, ‘As far as I’m concerned, Leonard, you’re Number 1. I’m Number Zero.’ Meaning, as I understood it at the time—and I was not ready to dispute it—that his work was beyond measure and my work was pretty good.” (Remnick, Oct.2016, New Yorker)
So Bob Dylan is beyond measure at what he does, and he has been doing it a very long time.
A sixty-year career seems absolutely mind-boggling. His first album was released in early 1962, when The Beatles were only big in Hamburg and Liverpool. And he’s still touring in 2022 (with the most recent album coming in 2020). A career that long means you don’t just look at individual years, but entire decades, and for Bob each decade had its up and downs both personally and professionally, with many of the ups being considered essential moments in the history of modern popular music*.
*-A not-quite-aside/reminder: For all the praise for his work that came before and after, his 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited is rock and roll’s ‘he is beginning to believe’ moment. An astounding work not just of lyrical joy and exploration that can be thrillingly oblique or nakedly obvious from one line to the next, but of a maturation of the sound of rock and roll instrumentation itself. Folk music is traditionally acoustic, typically a guitar with maybe some percussive backing, but by no means does that mean the chords and rhythms have to be simple. A rock band playing folk music doesn’t sound that shocking. And while some more poppy bands beat Dylan to the punch at it, Dylan and his assembled crew just punched that much harder. Getting the best session players and sneering through scathing accusations and surreal dream lyrics felt like rock was no longer for screaming girls and car-minded boys. From the organ blast put down of ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ to the lonely, reflective quietness of ‘Desolation Row’, Highway 61 Revisited is when rock and roll grew up AND became cool in fifty one minutes. In 1965, when it came to popular music, all bets were off, and Bob was the only artist doing it that wasn’t part of band like The Beatles or Stones.
Except for the 1980s.
As we’ve discussed earlier with the Stones and the Dead (HERE and HERE) this decade has been strange for plenty of artists that got their start in the sixties, had continued or increased success in the seventies, and then hit personal middle age as their professional careers hit adulthood.
While solo artists are by definition working alone with hired musicians behind them, Bob Dylan came off constantly contrarian in exploring different musical styles, and for whatever level of frustration that might have caused among his peers and fans, the fact that he constantly churned out good-to-transcendent work for years meant this frustration was absolutely tolerated.
Until the eighties.
Because we have to talk about Jesus, since Dylan did a heck of a lot of that as the decade began. Chalk it up to a mid-life crisis, or not having fun on tour, or cocaine finally becoming more of a hindrance than a help, but in late 1978 he was in the middle of a concert and felt like he was suddenly drowning, suffocating, when an audience member threw a crucifix onstage, and as soon as Dylan touched it he immediately felt better. A few days later he had a vision of Jesus in his Tucson hotel room, and from that point on he was changing lyrics to ld songs and writing new ones that extolled the wonders of Christ.
Now this conversion account is from Bob himself during the early eighties when he was deep in his evangelism phase, attending bible camp at the Vineyard Fellowship and trying to convert anyone around him.
Certainly the fact that other members of his touring and recording band were also members of the same ministry helped ferment a camaraderie that really is essential to keeping the evangelical fervour going, even if this was part of the more general turn to Christian conservatism plenty of Americans turned to after the disillusion and drugs of the seventies.
But no doubt about it, Dylan - born Robert Zimmerman to Jewish parents who were essentially non-practicing - gave it his all in his personal and professional life. Not since The Beatles embraced the Buddhist-inspired teachings of the Maharishi in 1967-1968 has a musical icon made such a surprising religious declaration. And of the Fab Four, George Harrison was the only one focused on including Indian music in the band’s sound at the time.
Meanwhile Bob’s output at this time still sounded like standard 70s era rock with female backup singers that definitely had gospel choir vibes, but for how much Dylan is known for his lyrics, that’s obviously what everyone is going to focus on.
1979’s Slow Train Coming was his first gospel-focused album, and as the new decade arrived, he was even more direct.
The original album cover for the 1980 album Saved was a hand from the heavens coming down to touch many hands reaching up from the earth. It was replaced for re-issues with just a photo of Dylan live onstage (perhaps making people assume it was a live album?). ‘A Satisfied Mind’ opens the record, and it’s a blues-gospel hybrid (with a chorus echo behind him), and if the theme of the song was simple, the quality of the words and how they’re strung together are certainly Dylan-esque. Just as he dipped into the folk and blues when we was starting out in the late fifties and early sixties, he had plenty of gospel music to quickly absorb and use as base to create his own version of it. Protest music was his medium in the early sixties, beat poetry was for the mid sixties, Americana was the late sixties, getting divorced and trying not to think about the divorce was the mid-seventies, and the late seventies and early eighties was Christianity.
Some songs are screamingly obvious (‘Covenant Women’) while the next could be much more oblique (‘What Can I Do For You?’) except for a few key lines.
A lot of rock songs extol women or a particular woman and how they made the singer’s life better, and Bob just swapped the ladies out for Jesus Christ. And when he refers to what’s going to happen to the unbelievers, you could easily imagine that once again something is happening and you don’t know what it is, do you Mr Jones?
This take on how to enjoy Dylan’s output from this period is obviously hindsight, and it really should be stressed that at time the critics and long-time fans took to this new phase in Dylan’s personal and professional life very poorly.
Going to a Dylan show in the early eighties meant no oldies, and that includes material from just a few years before. It was all the new gospel tunes, and even between the songs Dylan would sermonizing onstage, being exceedingly aware of the level of irony of what was going on:
“Years ago they ... said I was a prophet. I used to say, "No I'm not a prophet", they say "Yes you are, you're a prophet." I said, "No it's not me." They used to say "You sure are a prophet." They used to convince me I was a prophet. Now I come out and say Jesus Christ is the answer. They say, "Bob Dylan's no prophet." They just can't handle it.”
(No one could call him ‘Judas!’ this time)
When Dylan started playing with a backing band and using an electric guitar in the mid-sixties, folk fans hated it, but Dylan never blinked, never apologized, never looked back. He did that stuff, and now he’s doing different stuff. For those who found a way to like his old and new material (and this was being done in 1965) this change and experimentation became a quality of Dylan that was admirable and exciting for many.
But there was something less iconoclastic in joining an evangelical religious sect in the late seventies. It gives off a lot more of a groupthink vibe than a bunch of New York beat poets trying to impress each other. Plus there was the perspective from these ardent followers that not only was the Christian faith the absolutely correct one (and if you didn’t join, you’re going to hell), but that the apocalypse was just around the corner. No nebulous uncertain future. The final battle between good and evil would be taking place in the early eighties.
Spoiler alert, it didn’t happen.
Not coincidentally, Bob’s religious fervour seemed to wane as the eighties went on and there was still, y’know, human civilization.
Bob would later distance himself from any sort of organized religion (Jewish or Christian), but until then, the gospel music kept coming, with a slow mingling of non religious tunes.
1981’s Shot of Love had some standouts of the former (title track, Every Grain of Sand) and the latter, with ‘The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar’ a great rocker with lyrics that harkened his mid-sixties output.
Even with commercial production polish, there were some weirdo tracks, like the kinda sloppy eulogy for the boundary-pushing comedian Lenny Bruce (Dylan later said he wrote in five minutes, and that he didn’t know where it came from).
While 1983’s Infidels certainly had a fundamentalist ring to the title, the standouts were turning the other cheek. The cleverer-than-the-title ‘Sweetheart Like You’ is a wonderful romantic tune, ‘I and I’ is wary Bob on Bob, but the still Jesus-y ‘Man of Peace’ is so well done (great guitar work) that the message just melts like butter (like good gospel music should?).
Dylan was extremely busy during this period with touring and writing. In fact, he would typically write dozens of songs during sessions with only eight to ten making the cut for the album (more on this later).
Empire Burlesque is from
1985 and the opening drums sounds like the eighties synth sound down to a
t (the album cover looks it, too). It was his least gospel-infused album
since in 1979, and was also his best reviewed in nearly a decade. The best
song ‘When the Night Comes Falling From the Sky’ even sounds Christian,
and while there is a tinge of apocalypse, it only dances around the
religious symbolism, and that’s what it gives it power. The closer, ‘Dark
Eyes’ is the tease of a Dylan mask long since retired, since it’s just
him, guitar and harmonica warbling a tune that could easily find itself on
Freewheelin’. Retrospectively the whole album is just okay, as Bob seems a
little lost of where to find his muse. Without god, what are you going to
go back to singing about? Relationships, literary references,
How about helping people?
Dylan appeared at Live Aid in 1985 and ‘upstaged’ it by suggesting between songs that maybe some of the money raised for African poverty could also go to American Farmers (organizer Bob Geldof later said he was livid when he heard that, in the sense that it was taking the focus off the entire point of the event).
But out of that came Farm Aid, a series of annual benefit concerts that did indeed provide assistance to those farmers, with Dylan performing at the first two events (which seems like a very Dylan thing to do: Help create an annual music festival (that continues to this day) and stop showing up early on).
So if not god or charity, you have to pick up something, and Dylan picked up the bottle.
1986’s Knocked Out Loaded has multiple ways of saying that in the title alone, and the album really does make Empire Burlesque sound brilliant. It was a bit over half an hour, and of the eight tunes three were covers, and three others were co-written. So right away it seemed like Bob wasn’t fully into it, and while he still had a knack for making other people’s songs his own, ‘Maybe Someday’ is as uninspired as the title. Only the rambling ‘Brownsville Girl’ is overflowing with exciting potential (more on that later). There was no consistency in the band lineup, either, with so many different session musicians (eight drummers, seven guitarists, six bass players) it felt more like a bar than a recording studio.
Because why drink alone?
In 1986 and 1987 he toured with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and while Petty later claimed he loved the experience, Dylan hated most of it. He openly said he was at a creative low and felt over the hill, worried that his future was like, “an old actor fumbling in garbage cans outside the theatre of his past triumphs.”
He had ditched most of the gospel tunes and went back to playing songs from his entire discography (including the hits), so the audiences did come back, even if he wasn’t giving it his all. In ‘87 he also went on a stadium tour with the Grateful Dead (who were going through an unexpected resurgence of popularity at the time). Deadheads - no strangers to seeing musicians fucked up onstage - made a point in saying that Bob looked pretty zonked.
In Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann’s autobiography (Deal), he said that Jerry Garcia (who had his own addiction problems around the same time) had to constantly feed Dylan song lyrics while onstage.
One of the results of this tour was that Bob recruited the Grateful Dead’s lyricist Robert Hunter to help co-write a couple new tunes. And couple is the operative word, because the ensuing 1988 album was mostly covers, with two songs by Dylan-Hunter and two songs by Dylan alone.
It was called Down in the Groove and it was the second title in a row that doesn’t suggest energy or finesse (down ‘with’ the groove might sound better, but he certainly wasn’t that). Many of the covers were recorded over the last few years and deemed unworthy of earlier albums. They weren’t worthy here. Kristofferson’s ‘They Killed Him’ makes you long for Bob’s own take on protest tunes, but even the originals on Groove don’t work. The ‘Ugliest Girl in the World’ could maybe be punk-ish satire, but the female backing vocals make it unpleasant, and only ‘Silvio’ sounds better than average. But blink and you’ll miss the whole thing, because it’s only thirty two minutes long (uh, good…?).
As soon as Down in the Groove was released, Dylan went on tour (perhaps to quickly put the album behind him)…and never stopped.
The 1988 shows began what was eventually dubbed ‘The Never-Ending tour’, a term Dylan had been largely indifferent to when it was described to him that way in the early nineties, as he insisted that each tour had been different and that there had been plenty of rotating personnel throughout
In the last two years of the decade, doing 73 shows in 1988 and 100 in 1989 meant everything else - writing/recording music, being a normal human being with a family and friends - would be slotted in around shows.
Parts of this decade was spending time with his children in Minneapolis, and while Dylan’s divorce was his first wife was much more public in sense that it had an album accompanying it (1975’s Blood on the Tracks), his marriage to backup singer Carolyn Dennis in 1986 was so quiet and under the radar that most people (including fans) didn’t know about it until after it ended in 1992.
In the spring of 1988, between legs of the tour some happy accidents made one of the most iconoclastic, hard-headed artists of his generation (and beyond) join a supergroup.
George Harrison (yes, that George Harrison) was making a record with Jeff Lynne (you know, from Electric Light Orchestra) in Los Angeles and invited dining companion Roy Orbison (yes, that Roy Orbison) to take part. Harrison had to go back to Tom Petty’s house to get his guitar (first world problems). And with the difficult of booking a session at a professional recording studio on short notice, they went to Dylan’s home studio in Malibu.
While the song they all ultimately collaborated on - ‘Handle With Care’ was meant to be a b-side or a bonus track for George – they all agreed it was too good for that and began to write more songs together, which was helped by the fact that they had all met each other in years past. Dylan and Harrison had hung out in the decades previous, even collaborating on ‘I’d Have You Anytime’, which made appeared on the latter’s 1970 album, All Things Must Pass (as well as another Dylan tune, ‘If Not For You’).
This berthed The Travelling Wilburys, where they all took aliases with the last name Wilbury, suggesting a brotherhood of sorts (Bob chose ‘Lucky’ as his first name). The record itself was as breezy and simple as how it came together, and the fact that Dylan was now only having to write two or three tunes and maybe some verses in another, took a lot of pressure off.
When the album dropped in the fall, it was hailed as a comeback for all the members, getting rave reviews ands selling millions of copies.
So of course Roy Orbison had to ruin it for the rest of them by dying suddenly of a heart attack two months after the album was released.
Harrison was keen to continue in the new year, going on in part in memory of Orbison, but Dylan and Petty were eager to use the momentum the band had given them for their own solo work in 1989.
How does Bob recount these years? In typical Dylan fashion, he has somehow been able to be open and oblique with some of the challenges he’s had in his life, and when discussing the eighties in the first part of his memoir - Chronicles Volume 1 - he just focused on the making of Oh Mercy in 1989. He was at once quite open about being at a creative low in the back half of the eighties, but doesn’t say much about the Wilbury sessions from the previous year. He makes references to a hand injury a few years back that he described as mangled, but what Brian Wilson said was a broken thumb. Dylan was open from the start of having no problem Chronicles be being slippery with the truth (“Truth was the last thing on my mind, and even if there was such a thing, I didn’t want it in my house.”).
What can’t be denied is that the album which resulted was full of well written, well performed songs from start to finish with wonderful production taken care of by Daniel Lanois. Focusing on the atmosphere around and in the New Orleans recording studio and using the Neville Brothers backing band, Oh Mercy was called a comeback by the critics, and that was good enough to help it do better sales-wise as well, as most of what he did this decade wasn’t burning up the charts, either.
1976’s Desire was his last chart-topping album, and it was all downhill from there, because even bailing on the gospel music didn’t help Dylan’s commercial standing. Knocked Out Loaded only reached 53 on the charts, Groove hit 61.
Oh Mercy made it to 30 because of its warmer reception and it was certainly an improvement over what had come before (there’s no clunker in the bunch), but doesn’t reach the heights of Dylan’s true renaissance later in the nineties and into the next century.
Opening track ‘Political World’ is his response to Cohen’s ‘Everybody Knows’, ‘Ring Them Bells’ is wistful with a light religious touch, ‘Man in the Long Black Coat’ is a blues tango that works wonderfully and ‘Most of The Time’ pairs perfectly with ‘What Good Am I’, both slow, tender and reflective. It’s humility without the overdone evangelical flair.
Dylan’s singing voice was taking a raspier tone on this album, with the ‘power nasal’ era of the beginning of this decade disappearing by this point. Like Cohen on his own 1988 comeback album I’m Your Man, a bit of growl suited Bob quite well.
As soon as Oh Mercy sessions were finished, Dylan went back out on the road, doing 100 shows in 1989, reinvigorated in every way. It was to his credit (and a bit of luck) that the few ups and many downs – personally and professionally – of the decade ended on an up.
Calling the eighties a ‘lost’ decade is practically an understatement, because some of the best work from these ten years didn’t make it to the albums he released, or only in inferior forms.
While 8 to 10 tracks from the recording sessions is what made the final cut, the sessions might have yielded up to thirty or forty songs either demoed or making it all the way to final mixing.
Many of his most lauded songs from this period – ‘Blind Willie McTell’, ‘New Danville/Brownsville Girl’, ‘Dignity’, and ‘Series of Dreams’ - were outtakes that he didn’t want to keep working on in the studio and were temporarily shelved (despite the fact that even those in his backing band were telling him how good they were), or were finished and deemed not worth putting on the album. And while at first you’d think that the artist himself would know exactly what his best work was at the time…apparently not.
From the 1983 Infidels sessions, ‘Blind Willie McTell’ is named after the famous blues artist but instead explores the history of America in five perfect verses. Dylan plays a simple piano part while Mark (Dire Straits) Knopfler adds sparse guitar pleadings. Bob’s wail hits the notes that have to be hit perfectly. At first it sounds ridiculous that you could summarize the sins and triumphs of a nation in a line or two, but that is the fascinating, indefinable quality of art in general. Dylan is expressing all he sees in beautiful poetic language, but ends each verse by conceding that he can’t do it as well as McTell could. It is a song about attempted encapsulation, about a nation trying for perfection and clearly missing. From slavery to manifest destiny to prohibition to the fraying connection to the old world, it’s all here in fleeting word images, and the simple piano ‘solo’ between the fourth and fifth verse is perfect cleanser before the finale:
“Well, God is in his heaven, And we all want what’s his, But power and greed and corruptible seed, Seem to be all that there is,
I'm gazing out the window, Of the
Bootlegs of the Infidels outtakes revealed the song’s existence to diehard Dylan fans, and soon other artists were covering the song. It wasn’t officially released until 1991’s Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 (the first of many), which was 3CD collection of alternate recordings, unreleased songs and uptakes from the first three decades of Dylan’s career (and it’s wild to note that as of 2022, it was just his halfway point). When the masses finally had an opportunity to hear it, of course it was quickly deemed one of Bob’s best.
Contrasting perfectly with the brooding majesty of ‘McTell’, ‘New Danville Girl’ is a smart, funny, poignant, ridiculous, relaxed, and energetic all barely contained in a twelve minute epic. It was co-written with author Sam Shepherd in 1984 during the Empire Burlesque sessions. If ‘Tangled Up in Blue’ and ‘Desolation Row’ had a baby, here it is. Bob’s trying to remember a movie he might have seen a couple times, but also recalling a dazzling woman, zipping through Texas, running afoul with the law, and the passage of time. The ‘New’ in the title is due to its honouring of the Woody Guthrie song ‘Danville Girl’, whose original lines relating to her Danville curl is used joyously in this song’s chorus. Despite being inspired by Guthire and assisted by Shepherd, it always feels like Dylan voice and composition alone. It’s a mesmerizing spoken word/half-sung monologue that still follows a rhyming scheme which makes every couplet hit so much harder. You become eager to hear how he’s going to tie it all together before the chorus, and it always pays off. While ‘McTell’ had two people playing on the track, this one had a full band, and they play the hell out of it.
It was re-recorded years later with a different set of musicians, slightly different lyrics and with the new name ‘Brownsville Girl’, and released on Knocked Out Loaded. But the original ‘New Danville’ version is clearly superior, although would not surface until The Bootleg Series Volume 16 in 2021.
From the equally fruitful Oh Mercy sessions came ‘Dignity’ and ‘Series of Dreams’, the first Dylan thought producer Daniel Lanois screwed up the mixing, and the second (despite being championed as the opening track by Lanois) was set aside because…Bob.
‘Dignity’ throws you for a loop because it’s got a smooth groove with some amusing lines, but then it hits you right in the heart. Bob’s looking for dignity, and he goes from cops to angels and everyone in between asking about it, and one can’t help but think that the people he’s asking don’t have any of it, meaning it’s a sly social commentary baked into every line. The fact that it can also not be about anything but one’s own personal search is why so much of Dylan’s work holds so much power:
“Sick man lookin’ for the doctor’s cure, Lookin’ at his hands for the lines that were, And into every masterpiece of literature, For dignity”
It wasn’t released at all until Bob performed it live at 1990s Unplugged taping, but eventually the Oh Mercy version made it onto a latter day Greatest Hits collection. It totally deserves it’s place there even though it was never officially released beforehand, once again proving that one person who didn’t know how good a Bob Dylan song is was Bob Dylan.
While ‘Dignity’ had a sort of timeless, easy rock sound to it, ‘Series of Dreams’ is Dylan finally figuring out to make the eighties production sound his own. It has a U2 sound (back when you wanted that for the guitar and rhythm section) and gallops to greater and greater heights as the keys or synths soar above the traditional rock instrumentation.
Dylan sounds eager and confident about what he’s witnessed, as if the difference between wakening and sleeping had been shattered. Now he has already written songs titled ‘Bob Dylan’s Dream’ and ‘Bob Dylan’s 115 Dream’ (the first is folk-protest idealism, the second is absurdist beat poetry with a rock band, as if 114 dreams in between would do that to you). ‘Series of Dreams’ seems to stand above both of them, where there is no certainty, where “nothing comes up to top”. You want to apply meaning and symbolism to it, because that’s how we’ve been trained to listen to Dylan. But the lyrics remain evasive, not relying on any sort of reference point. “Where the umbrella is folded”, “In one numbers were burning, in another I witnessed a crime”. Nothing connects here, but that’s fine, and that’s the perspective Dylan maintains, because it’s just a series of dreams.
But the decade was over, and the 1990s meant more time between albums and the Never-Ending Tour living up to its name.
While Dylan may not have given a shit about anything being called a ‘comeback’ or ‘return to form’ (some people have been wanting that from him since 1965), the music industry and adjacent journalism were certainly frothing at the mouth for such a thing. His near-death experience in 1997 wasn’t as near as it was made out to be, but it was a good story to talk about around the release of Time Out of Mind, an album so good that people forgot about Oh Mercy, so now the late nineties was the true Dylan renaissance. This viewpoint would continue into the 21st century, when Love and Theft came out on Sept.11, 2001, and even though it’s all about a world before that seemed old fashioned, it might be a low key top ten album of the century.
By then the 1980s was clearly everyone’s rear-view mirror, and the general consensus by critics and fans of Dylan was that those ten years for him were…strange. Which for someone who has been called the voice of a generation and personally hated being called the voice of generation, is pretty par for the course, actually. Especially if all you remember about it is that it starred Gregory Peck.
Smiling on the Outside: May Music Releases
Couldn’t they have at least shaved Skinner’s head?
The UK band The Smile features the two chief songwriters of Radiohead (Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood), and in 2021 the two of them got together and hammered out some songs and didn’t bother calling up calling up other ‘head dudes Ed O’Brien (guitar, backing vocalist especially saying his own name), Colin Greenwood (bassist, Jonny’s chatty older brother), and Phil Selway (the dapper, handsomely bald Charlie Watts-esque drummer, who has released a few Nick Drake-Bon Iver-esque solo albums).
Instead the multi-instrumentalists Yorke and Greenwood played everything themselves except for the drums, and for that they called up Tom Skinner, an accomplishment jazz-familiar skin-slapper with a full head of hair.
The debuted at the ‘online only’ Glastonbury Festival in 2021, and recently released their debut album A Light for Attracting Attention to very positive reviews.
Most music critics couldn’t get to the second paragraph of their article before mentioning how this is the closest we have to the long overdue next Radiohead album, as it’s been six years since A Moon Shaped Pool. The conclusion in most write-ups is that it’s easy to see how this material certainly could (would?) be a Radiohead album if surface conditions were a little bit different.
That’s the ‘story’ of this album and The Smile in general.
It’s so close to the sound of the ‘head, but not exactly it, and if you didn’t know any better, if you only heard the songs and didn’t know anything background, you would swear it really is Radiohead (they even got longtime artistic partner Stanley Donwood to do the album cover).
And that just makes it all the more excruciating, because people can get Fan-Dumb.
It can happen to anyone if you like something - a person, place or thing - so much that how it exists and how other people react to it can get your feathers all ruffled. And in a wacky world that seems to be veering out of control, we cling to these things all the more tightly.
(See: Star Wars and everyone who likes it)
We seeks emotionally stability in art and culture, even if the material (song, tv show, sculpture is meant to take us for a goddamn loop). Not only has Radiohead offered up continued musical brilliance all this time, but the band has had the same lineup for over thirty years. The closest to changing the rotation in any way was adding a second drummer/percussionist (Clive Deamer) for recent tours.
And as the band members grew older, these concert legs became much shorter and more intermittent.
A Moon Shaped Pool arrived in spring 2016, and the band played only 27 shows that year to support it. There were another 27 in 2017 (a year which also celebrated the release of an expanded version of OK Computer for its twentieth anniversary*), and a final 24 concert in 2018.
*-and now we are at the 25th anniversary of OK Computer. The expanded edition from 2017 was named ‘OK-NOT-OK’, and boy, when we look back at the last five years, they really should have saved that re-issue for 2022.
But that was it (for…now?).
Knowing Radiohead weren’t touring like it was the nineties anymore, supporters became all the more intent on seeing all the shows they could.
In terms of fan followings, Radiohead's audience is similar in style that of a jam band's, but Radiohead doesn't really jam. But they do switch up their setlists every night, so there's always that pursuit of seeing different, rarer songs at different shows.
And the band delivers on this, whether intentionally knowing their fandom or not.
Of the fifty total songs that they played at two back to back Toronto shows in 2018, only three were played at both concerts.
Radiohead is/was the smart rock band that cared when rock was dying and caring didn’t seem so cool. There was a hard working earnestness to their work even as they were embracing the electronic sounds of the new millennium.
[Personal note: I’ve seen Radiohead live nine times (and have flown internationally to some of them), I’ve ordered the special editions of each new album since they started offering them in that fashion. This is not supposed to be a flex of any kind, as it suggests that for me the band is more of a joy/inspiration/crutch instead]
So when Thom, Jonny and new other Tom suddenly appeared as a new band last year, fans were excited and confused and worried all at the same time (like they normally feel when they listen to Radiohead).
The last twelve months was a drip feed of information and songs, and now The Smile is currently touring Europe and they are not playing any Radiohead material. They sound great, especially for a trio, because while you can be an engineering wizard in the studio, it’s hard to pull off that magic onstage.
In terms of historical precedent, of course there’s Cream, Motörhead, and Nirvana (although even they added Pat Smear as a touring second guitarist in 1993-1994). Hell, one of the best bands of the last ten years is the dreamy-surf-rock-ambient three piece from Texas, Khruangbin.
No matter the absence of half its members, with the two main songwriters (including singer) still there, boy fucking howdy is this material going to sound like Radiohead, and more so than either of Thom or Jonny’s solo work, since they’re collaborating in ways much similar to the work of their band.
Things is, what exactly does Radiohead sound like?
Every subsequent Radiohead album is a departure from the one that came before it (except Kid A and Amnesiac which both sprung from the same sessions, and was at one point considered to be released as a double album).
1993’s Pablo Honey is a mediocre grunge-lite album buoyed by one big hit, 1995’s The Bends is a songwriting masterpiece of bombastic Brit-pop, OK Computer is a chilly, pretty much perfect look into tech malaise with guitars, Kid A and Amnesiac is the Berlin trilogy for the 21st century, and Hail to the Thief is the electronic-rock hybrid that has lyrics and atmosphere so perfect for today it hurts.
Thief opens with the very first sound recorded in the sessions - Jonny fuzzily plugging his guitar in - with Thom quickly and sardonically adding 'that's a nice way to start, Jonny'. And this five second intentional glitch sets up the first track 2+2=5 and everything that follows: a sonic soundscape of the frantic and raw, immediate and paranoid, live and jittery. The songs can feel sloppy. Hell, the production can feel sloppy. But this is a record made by perfectionists who could have made it be pristine. Hail to the Thief supposed to sound this way. It captured the sounds of 2002/2003 (when it was recorded and released) and it captures right now just as terrifyingly.
To pick up after that aside, In Rainbows is indie-rock perfection, King of Limbs is a magic mushroom camping trip with pro-tools, and A Moon Shaped Pool is one of the finest baroque albums of heartbreak and loss.
So what’s the next left turn?
Apparently not using the Radiohead moniker while retaining a buffet of everything that came before. That’s not just a turn, that’s a complete switching of vehicles.
But at the same time, The Smile’s frantic, energized record was a perfect turn from the mournful A Moon Shaped Pool.
While overdubs are just the way of the world, the production does a great job at highlighting the percussion and bass with the piano or guitar standing out a top it. There’s still a couple synth-y streaks and of course Jonny can’t resist ringing up an orchestra for a bit of flourish, but the impression is that minimalism was the mantra for the recording.
Right from the start, Yorke is pleading for unity in the fuzzy dream opener ‘The Same’, but they aren’t afraid to rock, either. Will the screaming, bashing finger-pointer ‘You Will Never Work in Television Again’ change the world? Probably not, but sometimes getting the anger out in three minutes is the real point.
‘The Smoke’s thumping bass line is worth the price of admission alone (remember when you had to actually pay for music?), ‘Speech Bubbles’ is that wonderful ballad Yorke said he doesn’t like writing since 1995’s ‘High and Dry’, and of course when Yorke (or Greenwood) is at the piano, of course you’re comparing it to ‘Pyramid Song’ or ‘Codex’.
‘A Hairdryer’ merges a glitchy beat with Greenwood strings sublimely. Thom sounds downright playfully as he sings ‘shame on you’. It’s proof that most Radiohead fans have a hard time convincing skeptics about: of course you can dance to it.
This whole time you don’t have to imagine what these songs would song like if Radiohead as a whole recorded them.
In fact, the beautiful closer, ‘Skirting on the Surface’, has been around for many years and has been played at Radiohead concerts, further underscoring the point that this could certainly be the sort of song that that band would record.
(Ditto Open the Floodgates, another piano ballad that Yorke introduced as solo shows, when new songs at that point usually did become Radiohead tracks)
Does A Light For Attracting Attention cheapen the three other guys’ work on the band’s nine albums? It’s hard to say because in addition to the band making a point of crediting everyone for every song**, there remains a sort of mystery as to how a song goes from some plonking on the piano keys into something completely different. And it’s a mystery that doesn’t have to be solved. In fact, its unknowingness heightens the experience of every Radiohead album.
** - The Smile even gave songwriting credits to producer, Nigel Godrich, who also produced much of Radiohead’s oeuvre as well as Arcade Fire’s latest record, We, and maybe that’s why it sounds like six songs from The Bends cranked up and stretched out to eleven on the Spinal Tap knob. Earnest and bombastic, the Fire has no time for subtext when things are spiralling out of control. Cry or dance (and in some ways Black Country New Road’s album from earlier this year - Ants From Up There - beats Arcade at their own game).
From a practical standpoint, Attracting Attention can be dinged for being a few songs too long, but hey, the same could be said about Hail to the Thief, too (Yorke showed a ten-sing version a few years later on the band’s temporary blog, Dead Air Space, which thankfully still closes with the lovely ‘A Wolf at the Door’).
But even the wonky tracks definitely have their charms within the overall order, and the jarring moments from the heavy beats or occasional piercing guitar lines to the more ethereal tracks lend support to the idea that this is music for the chaos of right fucking now.
A Light for Attracting Attention was released on the same day as another highly anticipated album, Kendrick Lamar’s big, beefy double-vinyl (since we don’t really do CDs anymore) Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers.
Like The Smile’s debut, it is an album for right now, which means it is as exhausting as it is important and transfixing. What do you when you are so good at your job that no one has touched your greatness for a decade?
What Radiohead was to rock experimentation in the late nineties and early 2000s, Kendrick Lamar has been to hip-hop for ten years straight.
And he’s not gonna make it easy on you. Even with the slam-dunk singles on 2012’s good kid (Swimming Pools, Poetic License), he wasn’t afraid to dig deep and tell a complex stories from multiple perspectives in a way that is rarely seen on hip-hop records because…it’s so hard to do.
‘I breath different’ is a mantra in the Mr. Morale opener that goes into a song called N95. Heh.
Jerking you around and off with rapid fire half-verses that stop on a dime so we can all very briefly take a moment before diving back into the thick of it.
Lamar has used his art to show an extremely intimate portrayal of himself and those around him (real and imagined), all while keeping a relatively low public profile (as low as one of the greatest rappers of all time could ever have) in traditional and new media.
This gesture of non-promotion is a message of wanting the music to speak for everything.
His family is on the cover.
His wife narrates.
He confesses endlessly (from what he did wrong as a five year old to the times he fucked a white bitch) as if we could ever be suitable priests.
At least the microphone doesn’t judge.
If you thought five years between albums was too long (Black Panther soundtrack notwithstanding), his reply is simply: ‘I know I made you wait, but how much can you take.’
While you might not hear a recent Lamar track on the dance floor unless it gets remixed, something that too often gets overlooked because of Kendrick talents on the mic, so shout out to the - gulp - nineteen credited producers on this album.
‘Rich Spirit’ is pensive and perfect for the beat behind it…so of course it’s followed by emotionally wrenching screamer, ‘We Cry Together’.
But it’s what he sees around and beyond that is beyond his control that makes the album so penetrating and pursuant to right now. Because it’s a situation that we all feel like we’re in, artist or not.
Kendrick may have been the star of 2012’s good Kid maad city (subtitled ‘a short film by Kendrick Lamar’), but since 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly we’ve all become actors (even if only extras) in these audio plays that dive deeper not only into the experience of becoming a successful artist, but a black man in a society that continues to treat minority groups as second class citizens (and why the topic of transgender rights comes up so personally on ‘Auntie Diaries’).
The final song - Mirror - ends with ‘I’m sorry I choose me’, on repeat, but what can also get caught in your ear hole are the occasionally sound-bites from psychologists talking about mental processes that feed on happiness.
Sounds like Radiohead circa 1997.
OK Computer’s acclaim and sales from that year gave Thom Yorke the horrors, and he and the band retreated into the lyrically cryptic and sonically foreboding waters of Kid A/Amnesiac.
Lamar is clearly more comfortable with wearing his heart (all five parts now) on his sleeve.
Mr. Morale is the perfect album after Damn (a relatively more relaxed and daresay celebratory recording), just like A Light for Attracting Attention is the perfect album for Radiohead to make after A Moon Shaped Pool.
The problem is not only the nomenclature (which affects how we will all approach this album, at present and in retrospect), but my own particular want.
Over time excitement and support for something can warp into entitlement, and while it’s obviously less damaging to have this perspective change towards a band or film franchise than a living, breathing person, it’s still not a healthy mental process.
Why am I listening to this album and enjoying it, and then a part of me suddenly thinks ‘why can’t this be Radiohead’?
Who the fuck I am to even ask that question, to want such a thing as that?
A self-entitled fan who really has to get over himself and just ‘like’ this band again, and not cling so hard to the memories of seeing them live (sometimes like ten feet from Ed) or being gobsmacked when hearing Disc 2 of In Rainbows at a friend’s house for the first time because his collector’s edition arrived before mine did?
You start to feel like a parent, overseeing the upbringing of ‘your child’, even though this is absolutely not your baby. An emotional stake in some songs is not a real stake as far as the creators are concerned, and while they appreciate your continued allegiance, they certainly would like you to chill the fuck out.
There hasn’t been much promotion done by The Smile which involves them answering questions, probably because they don’t want to keep hearing ‘why not Radiohead?’ over and over.
Maybe those two guys just wanted a change.
Maybe the other three guys wanted a change.
Maybe Thom is absolutely tired of strumming and singing ‘Karma Police’ no matter how many tens of thousands of people are perfectly happy with him doing that ad infinitum.
Maybe there’s nothing more honourably artistic than leaving your legacy in the dust and blazing a new path.
It’s their band - both of them plus new Tom - and they can build, augment, blow it up however they so choose.
Which is why I’m not mad about The Smile, because it’s a great album at a time when high quality, emotionally affecting records are in dire need of existence.
If I am disappointed at first, then I have to come to grips with my own needs and wants and become Mr. Morale (thanks, Kendrick).
We all have to change, we all have to move on, we all have to hold onto things we cherish and then let go before we make a terrible mistake or even just embarrass ourselves.
Only after that can you look back, take a deep breath, and maybe even start to…grin.
Heavy Metal: Live it or fuck off
Heavy Metal isn’t much of a popular genre of music anymore, but don’t you dare tell a huge metal fan or even an industrial air conditioner that.
From N.I.B. to deadly Scandinavian excess to Slayer eventually appearing on The Tonight Show, even the history of metal is SO metal.
Caring passionately about music is nothing new, going back to what we call classical music of the 18th and 19th centuries (and was just called music back then). The composers were the rock stars of the day, making big bucks if the monarchy and nobility were digging their tunes, and even the headline acts like Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Grieg and Holst had moments of heavy with the 5th Symphony, 1812 Overture, The Hall of the Mountain King, and Mars, the Bringer of War (the last two even sounding like modern metal song titles).
Music fans back then weren’t all stuffy, and refined, either. As attending concerts could be loud and rowdy. There were ‘riots’ at the premier of Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’, but that might be an exaggeration and people just thought it was so dissonant and over the top. Of course this kind of wild myths and half-truths are perfect for a genre that has quite the relationship with a physical manifestation of pure evil that probably does not exist (and why Alastair Crowley is probably the next best thing).
But the music genre known as Heavy Metal could only exist in the post-industrial era where electrified sounds could be made so effortlessly that a dude with even a mild interest in strumming three chords on a guitar could turn it into a cacophony of buzzing feedback thanks to a relatively affordable (and portable) speaker/amplifier.
Garage rock (and roll) of the early sixties was only called such after the fact, because the bands that really put the focus on a heavy, blues guitar crunch (The Sonics, Count Five) never got very famous.
The closest big hit with this sound was The Kinks’ ‘You Really Got Me’ (and its follow-up copy cat ‘All Day and All of the Night’), and they quickly abandoned it for baroque pop and dance hall.
Even with the simple set-up of guitar-bass-drums, improved amplification and recording technology meant you could make these three instruments be louder and sound wilder than ever before. The edgy (for the time) riff on The Rolling Stones’ ‘Satisfaction’ was only possible because of Maestro Fuzzbox (the sound was such a hit that similar devices were snapped up by other guitarists before the end of the year), and according to Keith Richards it was meant to make up for the fact that the band wasn’t able to put horns there to beef up the sound like he wanted.
Four to eight to sixteen track recording consoles meant you could not only layer plenty of identical or different guitar, bass and drums on top of one another, but make the sounds coming out of them more like shrieking, roaring demons.
That’s what made it sound incredible.
Oh, and drugs.
While you don’t need drugs to enjoy heavy metal music, it seems that you - with very few exceptions - need drugs to make heavy metal music. While marijuana certainly made a sensible base to amplify the crashing percussion, throbbing bass and sequel in guitars, a nice sheen of LSD added a level of excitement and carelessness when it came to experimenting with dark repetitive sounds in the recording studio and onstage.
With the popularity of these chemicals in the late sixties, it meant that the giant balls of fire were ready to align into Heavy Metal. Psychedelic rock is the Cronus to Metal’s Zeus. The latter essentially had to kill the former to truly live and thrive.
Blues supergroup Cream broke up before the term existed, but the descending, dark riff of ‘Sunshine of Your Love’ betrayed its hippie title.
Jimi Hendrix is sensibly associated with psychedelic rock, but his opus, Electric Ladyland, straddles many different rock genres, with some moments on ‘Voodoo Chile’, Still Raining Still Dreaming and 1983 showing what was to come (as a bonus, Hendrix’s manager said he first heard the term when a concert review of a Hendrix show described it as ‘heavy metal falling from the sky’).
While The Velvet Underground is seen more as photo-punk, the seventeen minute industrial grind of ‘Sister Ray’ (and its fucked up story lyrics) was an exquisite middle-finger that the genre would happily embrace.
But the real event of import was back in 1965, when a seventeen year old from Birmingham named Tony Iommi accidentally sawed off the tips of his right hand middle and ring fingers with an industrial saw (think how metal it would be if it wasn’t an accident).
An aspiring rock guitarist, Iommi’s handicap necessitated a different playing style. He fashioned plastic tips as replacement appendages and detuned the strings so he could play them easier, making his guitar sound that much heavier.
With the previously aforementioned psych-blues bands as inspiration, Iommi got together with some other dudes from Birmingham, and started the rock band Earth. But apparently there was already a band with that name, so searching for a new one was a practical marketing decision that changed music forever: Bassist Terry ‘Geezer’ Butler suggested writing horror movie-like lyrics because people liked horror movies.
Necessity strikes again.
Declaring their intention right from the start, the first song from their first album (Black Sabbath on Black Sabbath by Black Sabbath) has all foreboding, crushing madness that would come to define the genre (with the bonus of it being written in the inverted tritone, which just happens to be known as ‘the devil’s interval’).
For many, Sabbath is metal, and it would be hard to disagree.
Iommi was the dominant riff-bible song writer, but the blessings and curses of being the frontman was never truer than for John ‘Ozzy’ Osborne (with legendary substance abuse and bat-eating stories), and Geezer and Bill Ward became the archetypal fates of the bassist and drummer who are both at once essential and replaceable.
The band’s second album - Paranoid - is so good it’s its own greatest hits record. They got spotty after that, but some songs after (Into the Void, Wheels of Confusion, Killing Yourself to Live, Symptom of the Universe) are pure pulverizing perfection.
Black Sabbath certainly carried the water for the entire metal genre for the first half of the seventies, although sometimes it was hard to take them seriously in the early years, and not just because in this video they’re playing ‘War Pigs’ in the afternoon with a friendly rainbow prop behind the stage at California’s Summer jam (https://youtu.be/XKiItcuUmeE).
Led Zeppelin would certainly sit comfortably in any headbanger’s record collection, but the band’s streak of lighter acoustic material throughout almost all of its albums gave them a sonic range that most metal acts rarely explored (and certainly not to the same extreme or overall success). In later years band members would distance themselves from being classified as heavy metal, but it’s hard to deny the connection when you listen to something like The Immigrant Song. A relatively short tune whose riff is always on the edge of bursting at the seams, but never quite does, which is how it can hook you in. Fortunately, Robert Plant's howls give the song the release the guitar, bass nd drums never quite does. Also, it's a fucking monster live, especially on How the West Was Won, where Jimmy Page can finally let loose. Like, 'how is the LA Forum and not a recording studio?' perfect.
Deep ‘Smoke on Water’ Purple would be the other relatively big band that could be name-checked, but it had its feet much more in the hard rock genre than what people generally associate metal with.
While Sabbath was critically panned when it practically flew the genre’s flag all by its lonesome in the early seventies, by the end of the decade and the into the next, metal began to diversify. It became more rhythmic, more melodic, more complex, more simple, more popular, more extreme in its reaction to popularity.
Judas Priest and Iron Maiden are credited with tightening up metal’s sound when Sabbath began to run off the rails, while Motörhead fused the speed and simplicity of punk (thanks too the actual speed Lemmy was doing throughout the seventies) to create the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (shortened to the very simple NWBHM).
Judas Priest’s 1980 album British Steel and (with ‘Breaking the Law’ as the ‘not as evil as the rest of it’ single) Iron Maiden’s 1982 album, The Number of the Beast (with ‘Run to the Hills’ as the similar crossover arena-rock hit) are the best representations of not only the sound of this sub-genre (get used to sub-genres), but the visuals as well.
Metal album covers ran the gamut from stomach-churning to silly. British Steel has fingers holding onto a large band logo razor blade, and The Number of the Beast features the band’s cartoon demon mascot (nicknamed ‘Eddie’).
But the heavy metal music videos are patently ridiculous, with Judas Priest robbing a bank with musical instruments in ‘Breaking the Law’ and stock footage undercutting any level of seriousness in ‘Run to the Hills’.
At this same time AC/DC was huge, with titanium riffs and happy howls …and they didn’t consider themselves metal, classifying their music as nothing but ‘rock and roll’. Aside from ‘Highway to Hell’ (which was practically a party anthem), the most overtly metal thing about AC/DC is how they effortlessly replaced their frontman Bon Scott after he died of alcohol poisoning. Brian Johnson simultaneously sounded like Scott but also had his own cap-centric personality to separate himself from his predecessor.
These millions upon millions of record sales got the ‘save the children’ brigade that never really dies into the act (they were against rock and roll a generation earlier and would soon go after video games). Accusations of putting subliminal messages both backwards and forwards on the records confused the bands, who thought they made their ideas clear enough with the actual lyrics and demon paintings on the album cover.
Of course having hearings and hand-wringings about it only made metal more popular and profitable, and that second word meant there was an opportunity to soften some of the edges of sound and presentation to widen the money net even more, and suddenly Bon Jovi and Motley Crue were pushing millions of units. While Jovi was practically soft rock with some specifically placed power chords, Motley Crüe took the theatrical route to cover up the fact that they couldn’t really put together a good guitar, drum or bass solo (or song).
And on the other side of this: Metallica.
That a band so inflexibly defiant in their sound and presentation could become so popular (and remain that way for four decades) is astonishing. You’d think there would be a story of them selling their souls to the devil for success, but even Satan seemed hollow and cheap to this band, as main lyricist and singer/guitarist James Hetfield focused on death, war, death, madness, drugs, corruption, depression, death and madness from war leading to death.
How devoted were they to the genre?
Well the word is right there in their name, they wanted to call their first album Metal Up Your Ass (with a hand clutching a knife sticking out of a toilet), and when their back up title - Fuck ‘Em All - was also turned down, it had to be Kill ‘Em All. While their debut didn’t rise to the height of this nomenclature anecdote, their next record - Ride the Lightning - absolutely did. The hyper-punchy opener, ‘Fight Fire With Fire’ is the only thrash metal song you would ever need if you could have only one for archival and awesomeness reasons.
Metallica was so hardcore that after the death of founding bassist Cliff Burton (in a tour bus crash, he fell out of a window and then the bus landed on him) they ruined their then-biggest album (1988’s And Justice For All) just to haze replacement Jason Newstead (they turned his instrument waaaay down in the mix). While the result is kind of like if the White Stripes record nine seven-minute tracks about how horrible life is, it featured the closest thing to a cross-over hit: ‘One’, about an injured soldier with no arms or legs, and can’t see, hear or speak. And it’s only a cross-over because it was the first time they bothered making a music video for MTV.
Metallica’s untitled 1991’s album was an all black cover, and got the nickname ‘The Black Album’ and usually while Beatles comparisons can blow up in a band’s face, this one paid off, as its one of the best-selling albums of all time and introduced the band to hordes of new fans. Now it pissed off some early followers who didn’t like that it was more melodic and had some songs that were under five minutes, but this wasn’t the first time someone thought Metallica wasn’t ‘metal enough’.
Dave Mustaine was the band’s original lead guitarist was too much for them in the sense that he was a drunken mess around three other guys who also had penchant for enjoying a beer or twenty. So they booted him out way back before they recorded their first album. In true metal style, Mustaine’s resentment and vindictiveness towards his former band mates was to create a hard, heavier and faster band to compete with them. And to his credit, he almost succeeded.
Megadeath is certainly Metallica’s goofy younger brother, which meant they were a bit more fun, operative word being ‘a bit’. The title track from their debut, Killing is My Business and Business is Good is just as heavy and ridiculous as you hoped it would be, and quite succinct (three minutes) in a genre known for chronological excess.
Of course then there’s Slayer, who sped things up even more while taking everything twice as serious and satanic as any other band. Play a seven minute Metallica song at three times its usual speed and you’ll get the average song on Slayer’s 29 minute opus, Reign in Blood (which is not quite the title of the popular track on the album, ‘Raining Blood’, because metal means confusion). It’s like everything on the album is a medley of several metal songs, so it’s only a small jump to imagine Weird Al playing it if he replaced the references to the occult with food.
But Slayer fans are certainly intense.
I was at a metal show and a guy being me yelled ‘SLAYER!!!’ at the top of his lungs after every song. Slayer was not playing. They weren’t even on the bill. It was a Mastodon/Opeth show.
At actual Slayer shows the band has had to angrily tell it’s audience to stop screaming for ‘Angel of Death’ and Raining Blood’ for the whole concert, saying they’ll play it closer to the end.
Many of these eighties metal bands reached the right group of fans at the right time, and can now reliably tour every few years with the knowledge that fans will still fill theatres and arenas who want to have their ears bleed to the greatest hits.
Of course, if proverbial ear bleeding isn’t up to snuff, there’s always Scandinavian Death Metal.
What’s heavier than some dude yelling about Satan atop crunching guitar riffs and thundering drum explosions?
Screaming over it.
Now most of the bands involved in heavy metal felt that whatever they were singing about was typically an onstage persona (except for the booze and drugs, that followed them around and vice versa). You don’t really worship satan, sleep in coffins or wear creepy makeup day to day.
Until we get to (primarily) Scandinavian groups of the late eighties and early nineties, who did all of those things.
In situations like this, the extreme stories quickly overwhelmed the music. This includes the mysterious string of church arsons throughout the region, a suicide and murder of members from the band Mayhem (here’s a sentence for the ages: ‘Dead’ killed himself, ‘Euronymous’ took photos of the corpse and made a necklace out of bits of the skull, and was eventually stabbed to death by ‘Burzum’, which he claimed he did in self-defense despite there being 23 stab wounds), other side murders, encouraging fans to mutilate themselves, cemetery desecrations, and even some Neo-Nazism (boo).
It’s a real mess, which is why some people avoid the Death Metal and Black Metal sub genres (both are quite similar) completely. The music cannot possibly match the darkness in these acts, but Burzum’s Until the Light Takes Us is probably the closest you can get (‘Hvis Lyset Tar Oss’ is the Norwegian title, but uh, don’t worry about translation issues).
The nineties were an odd time for heavy metal. Grunge was clearly inspired by it, and kind of overtook the now old genre as the new cool thing for the kids, with apathy and heroin replacing devil and cocaine. Some bands simplified their sound, some doubled down on not changing ever, and a few just released greatest hits album with two newly recorded tracks, but all of them seemed to agree that a lot of guitar feedback needed to be in every single solo. Tool was one of the only new bands with clearly metal overtures that bothered with being weird and good at the same time, choosing prog-rock time signatures and psychedelics as their calling card (plus a song about anal fisting that opens their best album, Ænima).
By the new millennium, the cratering of the record industry freed metal from the last corporate shackles of what ‘success’ meant, meaning the real money was not selling CDs to millions, but tickets and merch to thousands of the most ardent fans.
Once again, the brand of guitar-centric that was getting attention was not metal but rather garage and indie rock, which meant the sub-genre splitting was getting more amusing by the month.
Deafheaven bridged the rather unusual gap of black metal screaming and shoegaze ambience, which really means that in a ten minute song they’ll pummel and scream at you for the first half and then gradually transition to a much more melodic and serene portion with some actually understandable lyrics (shock, horror). Their 2013 album Sunbather is paradoxically perfect for enjoying alone in rooms with the lights off if you need to get through some shit. In terms of audio therapy, it was a lot cheaper than speaking to anyone while getting similar results.
If you’re still quite certain the rest of the world is the problem, of course metal has you covered. Usually marketing yourself ‘the heaviest band in the universe’ is a set up for expectations you can’t possibly live up to, but English doom metal (a slow pulverizing grind style) group Electric Wizard gets the job done, especially with their 2000 album, Dopethrone (and yes, the song ‘Funeralopolis’ is even better than its already awesome title as singer-guitarist Jus Osborn begs for nuclear annihilation).
Doom metal is not a genre borne out of this millennium, but its sound fits this time better than ever. With the accelerating speed of everything else in our modern era, music that slows the pace while still keeping the heavy stuff going can almost be meditative.
A great example of this is the pioneering metal band Sleep. Their first two albums from the nineties are lo-fi doom/stoner metal classics, and while their metal lore footnote is the hour long single track album Dopesmoker (and the challenge of it getting released in various forms), their best album by far is their reunion record, 2018’s The Sciences, which in itself should we viewed as a triumph.
It’s no secret that for the last several decades, when a band gets back together years after their initial existence (whether super successful then or achieving cult status afterwards), the album they record then is considered a cash-grab and meant to beef up the reunion tour promotion, with his quality politely ignored.
The Sciences however, improves on everything the first incarnation of Sleep was and sends it on a rocket to sludge space shambala. Especially ‘Sonic Titan’, the last three minutes of which is so hard it can turn air into diamonds.
Patience has never been so perfect, during and after the wait.
(Of course, if you want that head banger surge right away, the guys from Sleep started a second band during their hiatus named High on Fire, which is their thrash metal gear, and yeah, they got that shit down, too (see: Speedwolf on Surrounded by Thieves))
Doom metal really turned up the lingering guitar buzz after a bone chilling strum, but there were still chords and choruses and verses to sing and scream.
If that’s still too commercial for you, Sunn O))) (pronounced ‘Sun’, because metal is silly) will see you now.
Let’s say you got rid of the drums and bass and vocals and instead just strummed a guitar and then fiddled with knobs for ten to twenty minutes to have that one sound vibrate, squeak, soar and stumble along out of a speaker? Well you would obviously have to crank it up to eleven for people to hear it which makes it an interesting performance art piece that can deafen the audience…but is it even metal?
Great question, because it’s been a familiar query for many decades now!
So here we go:
Is it Metal?
-we start, of course, with The Beatles. ‘Helter Skelter’ is Paul McCartney’s response to The Who’s ‘I Can See For Miles’, a song that was described in a review as this over the top screaming, banger of a single from early 1968. So Paul gave it a spin and thought it was a good tune (it is), but wanted to try penning an actual screaming banger. ‘Helter Skelter’ was the result, a four minute pounding of cymbals and feedback and fake fade-outs. Of course it’s Paul’s amazing singing that can really throw you for a loop, even if he is just singing about going down a slide (Helter Skelter is the British name for a particular type of playground attraction). Charles Manson and his followers through it had something to do with a coming race war, and nothing helps something become metal than having terrible real-life events associated with it.
-Queen is a bonkersly talented band whose ouevre falls all over the music spectrum. From straight a rock to music hall to soppy ballads, sometimes all within the same song. ‘The Prophets Song’ is heavy prog rock about the apocalypse (with a wild vocal canon in the middle), and ‘Brighton Rock’ is a perfect example of a car crash of hard rock, with metal solo heroics embedded within a lovely little ditty about forbidden love on the English seaside. But it’s the proto-thrash song ‘Stone Cold Crazy’ that gets headbangers excited, even though it’s about shooting people… with a water gun (when Metallica covered this song, they tweaked the lyrics to make it a bit more violent)
-while we just noted grunge above, its impact on sludge and stoner rock cannot be denied, with bands like Kyuss, Soundgarden, Monster Magnet, and Queens of the Stone Age being lumped into these imperfectly made designations (although ‘sludge’ is a pretty awesome terms for the sub genre)
-Swans was Michael Gira’s noise project and was a hypnotizing mixture of mock evangelical mass, zombie march drums and loud swirling guitars. It was never fast enough to headbang, but when the frontman is screaming ‘Jesus Christ!’ as the band vamps behind him with throbbing thunder, easy rock it ain’t
-Godspeed! You Black Emperor is heavy as hell and is typically the post-rock pioneer, which really means metal fans might not totally embrace it because they sit on chairs onstage, don’t sing (or howl or anything) and are willing to use a violin
-Liars are an American band that might be Australian now because the only remaining member is from there. While mostly art-punk, their second album, They Were Wrong So We Drowned, is a terrifying head-pounding, dissonant masterpiece…but doesn’t have a single guitar solo
-psychedelic rock briefly rose from the dead via the Forgotten Fires of
the 21st century: Comets on Fire from the Pacific Northwest and Quest for
-while these last few bands have been more fringe that forefront, lets end it all by looking at a band that has sold tens of millions of albums with super bombastic performances:
Are they metal? They seem to prefer partying with women instead of demons, Metallica opened for them in the mid-eighties, the guitar wizardry of Eddie puts almost every other axe handler to shame, and had some wild and weird personnel replacements over the years. While their first single was ‘Runnin’ With the Devil’ (metal-adjacent), their biggest was ‘Jump’ (not so metal), the one song that can address the issue is a track from their second album (sensibly titled Van Halen II), ‘D.O.A.’
It is not only Van Halen’s best-kept secret, but probably 20th century music as a whole. It doesn’t just slap. It spanks, throttles and outright kills.
It is buried treasure in audio form, because it’s not on Van Halen’s greatest hits packages and was performed comparatively briefly throughout the band’s touring career. Coming across it, you can’t help but be amazed that more people don’t know about it.
The riff is absolutely gonzo, with string bend at its tail end that feels so good it’s almost cheating.
It’s one of Roth’s best vocal performances, sounding commanding, vulnerable, stoned, and being shot out of a canon, all within the same line. He makes getting arrested by the police for maybe killing someone sound like one hell of a fun party (“To a degree, Dave gets a lifetime pass just for proving that humans like himself can exist in reality.” – Chuck Klosterman).
While Eddie would get ten minutes of guitar theatrics onstage, the solos on the records are much more compact, and what he does with his section after the second verse/chorus is both patient and a fireworks show if all the rockets went off at once.
Then there’s the amazing ending. Why fade-out when you can first speed up and up, then stop on a dime and stomp out with what might just be another bout of six-string heroics? It leaves you ravenously wanting more and more of this irresistible sonic energy so you can rock on forever and ever.
And if that’s not metal, what is?
Built to Last: The Grateful Dead in the Nineteen Eighties
(Rock music went through some odd crises during this decade, especially for bands that began in the sixties. We've looked over the Rolling Stones (CLICK), and now it's time to cross the Atlantic and then all of America, to address those ten years for San Francisco's Good Ol' Grateful Dead)
The Grateful Dead started as a band…and become something that can never end.
For all the uninitiated, the musical group itself lasted thirty years, from 1965 to 1995, ending that year when their lead guitarist and co-lead vocalist (and kinda-frontman, although he denied it) Jerry Garcia died. During these three decades they performed over twenty-three hundred shows with a remarkably steady line-up save for the keyboardist position. They released thirteen studio albums and many, many (many) live albums, as they were known for their improvisational jamming and ever changing set-lists when playing in concert.
Okay, enough of the wikipedia basics, the Grateful Dead are sometimes wonderfully weird, toweringly trenchant, absolutely astonishing, and profoundly pitiful.
They're too hard for country rock, too soft for hard rock, too weird for soft rock, too jazzy for weird rock, too psychedelic for jazz rock, and too country for psychedelic rock. But it is a band made up of guitarists (Garcia and Bob Weir, who also handles lead vocals), drummers (Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart), a bass player (Phil Lesh, who occupies a strange liminal realm known as the Phil Zone) and keyboardists (give us a sec), so the rock genre it is.
While the lineup was steady, their sound was not.
It's great how 1968 Dead sounds different from 1974 Dead, which sounds different from 1983 Dead, which sounds different from 1992 Dead, and not just because of the rotating pianist/keyboard position and the declining singing ability of Garcia. But it is true that the piano player does influence it. Band co-founder Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernan is an old school rock and roller, and his simplistic organ playing shows this. Tom Constanten's brief tenure was part of their first foray into jazzier experimentation. Meanwhile, the Godchaux team (Keith and Donna) brought a softer and more professional feel on the keys and more soaring vocals, which is why 72-early 79 Dead is breezier than before. Brent Mydland brought a rockier sound back, but 80s Dead is less psychedelic and more earthy. In the 90s, Vince Welnick brought a more electronic-MIDI sounds to his keyboard playing, along with a high vocal range for harmonies, and the band reflected that (but also reflecting Jerry getting less healthy, which meant putting on shorter, occasionally sub-par shows).
In the sixties and seventies, 75% of shows were mind blowing, and because the Dead were adding, subtracting and jamming on different songs every night, it's worth listening to so, so many of these shows, especially compared to other bands who clung to their regular collection and order of setlists for entire tours.
By the eighties, 50% of the shows were mind blowing, and that drop off is due to a few things, including aforementioned issues of their not-exactly-frontman (regarding this decade: "I carried Garcia like a rented mule" - Weir), and the fact that the whole band had been doing this for twenty years and were getting older.
By the nineties, 25% of the shows were mindblowing, and by 1995 it dropped to about 10%. That means of the 40 shows they did in that final year, 4 of them still have some of that amazing, Good Ol' Grateful Dead magic you want. Now do these four shows sound as good as, say, Veneta ‘72? Of course not, these are great shows with the acknowledgement that it is a band full of fifty year olds who have been doing this for decades (and drinking, smoking and taking drugs the whole time).
While listening to the 80s and 90s shows you are always searching for magical moments, and while you will frequently find them, for shows in years like 72 or 77, you don't have to search at all, because you're always there.
But despite all these assurances that there is plenty of amazing music to discover by these guys, The Grateful Dead are kind of best known for screwing up.
Garcia noted how whenever there was a big moment where they could get more attention, they'd shank it.
They appeared at the Monterrey Pop Festival in 1967 and Woodstock in 1969, but the band either didn't play well or had the natural elements pitted against them (heavy rain at Woodstock and the band got 'lightly' electrocuted during it).
They were plagued by money problems early on because their management team was pretty lacklustre (they really were just a bunch hippies who liked to play music), and when they finally did get a bit more organized thanks to drummer Mickey Hart's Dad, the guy ended up stealing a bunch of money from the band in 1971. Their own record label ran into plenty of financial problems, a concert film Garcia insisted on directing himself went wildly over-budget, and because of that hippie thing, the amount of hangers-on around the band was huge (affectionately known as the Grateful Dead family, there was already forty of them in early ‘72).
In the seventies their records sold okay at best because of their devoted fanbase, but the bread and butter was touring and they did it incessantly to get themselves out of debt and finance other pie-in-the-sky projects (like playing beneath the Pyramids in 1978).
Which is why the Grateful Dead in the eighties was as high and low as you can ever imagine.
The decade began with a new album - Go to Heaven - recorded with their new keyboardist Brent Mydland, who replaced Keith Godchaux in spring of 1979 (with Keith leaving, his wife singer Donna did as well).
In terms of more superficial mistakes, the cover of 'Go to Heaven' is up there, with this hippie band wearing fancy, all-white disco suits against a white background. By 1980 ‘disco sucks’ had replaced ‘disco’, so even if the band was trying to be ironic, it was lost on old fans and potential new ones, and the Grateful Dead was accused of ‘going disco’ (even though their previous album, 1978's Shakedown Street, had more of a mirror ball dance-floor influence than this one, and since it didn’t sell great either, drummer Bill Kreutzmann commented: ‘we couldn’t sell out if we tried’).
To make Mydland feel like a member, Garcia encouraged him to write some tunes for the album, which was a nice gesture, and also a way to cover his own ass of not bringing a lot of material to the table (since he was the predominant songwriter from the beginning).
Opening track 'Alabama Getaway' by Garcia was a punchy start, but it quickly fell out of regular setlist rotation as the decade went on.
'Althea', however, remains one of Jerry’s crowning achievements. It’s unique because of its attractive mid tempo wandering, setting itself apart from Garcia’s yearning ballads or occasionally peppy rocker (see previous song). It’s an example of how the Dead was able to flirt with a funky beat while still making it sound light and airy, a testament to the unique bass playing of Phil Lesh and the harmonious interpolation of Garcia and Weir.
Speaking of whom, Weir’s combo of Lost Sailor and Saint of Circumstance (slow, pensive start turning into a happy-go-lucky rocker) is almost as good as his ‘Weather Report Suite’ from 1973’s Wake of the Flood, but it didn't last long on stage past the traditional 'new album support' period (although Circumstance was revived all by itself in the 90s).
While Mydland had an amazing vocal range and was great on the keys, songwriting wasn’t his forte, or at least not Dead-forte.
While Garcia handled the songwriting early on, and Weir began to match the output as the band reached the late seventies, but they only did the music, outsourcing the lyrics to Robert Hunter and Weir later adding John Barlow as his go to. These two writers were friends with the band, and were able to tap into this old-timey-Americana-hippie-underground vibe.
But Mydland just wanted to write straightforward love and breakup songs, and even if he had Barlow assisting, it felt like generic soft rock track (Far From Me, Easy to Love You) fell into the middle of your Grateful Dead album.
The last several studio albums had been a bit underwhelming, with some old covers used as padding to fill the two sides, and Go to Heaven was no exception, ending with a cheeky old cover that almost sounds like a cop-out: ‘Might as Well’.
The album got middling praise for its song quality and sound (and outright mockery for its cover) and only got to 23 on the Billboard chart.
The band wouldn't make another record for seven years.
Instead they did what they had always done best. Get up on stage and pluck those rusty strings just one more time. Well actually, a lot more times.
The Grateful Dead had always been touring machines (save for a brief hiatus in the mid-seventies) and the 80s were no different, as they averaged 72 shows per year for the whole decade.
But it would be inaccurate to say that this was the old timer circuit, playing in half-full casinos auditoriums to half-interested baby boomers.
For the many thousands of Deadheads across America (the band only did two brief tours in Europe during these ten years), following the band around from gig to gig and comparing notes (both musical and paper) was the only way to live.
The band had long permitted concert attendees to record their concerts and make copies of tapes to circulate among other fans. It was normal to see plenty of microphones at the ends of booms and steel rods at concerts, and it was seen as a public service among Deadheads. Long before everything was just on the internet, trading tapes via mail was the quickest way to hear shows you weren’t able to attend.
The fan base was big enough (and doggedly growing) that they could play three nights straight at basketball and hockey arenas in major cities. The money situation finally ironed out from the previous decade, and the band was doing very well financially.
Only playing your old stuff is a surefire way to appear like a boomer-friendly, greatest hits act, even if you don't really have any big hits, or play these non-hits with any regularity. But the way the band structured their concerts meant that old stuff could drop in and out of the song rotation, and certain tracks could stretch out into unique, one-night-only jams that made each show practically unmissable for fans (as for playing hits, Casey Jones is one of the band's best known singles. They only performed it four times in the decade after 1981).
While the Dead would jam on one track for thirty or forty minutes in the early seventies, that was largely abandoned in the eighties, with the sprawling ones rarely hitting half that length.
Now, no one wants quantity over quality, but the band constantly delivered both in their first fifteen years. The three and four hour shows became less frequent in the back half of the seventies, and by the eighties it was a one hour first set and roughly a ninety minute second set.
But within the latter would usually be one, uninterrupted hour and a half performance, loosely decided at the spur of the moment, just as the band regrouped from intermission.
Oh, except they started the decade bucking this trend. In the fall of 1980 the band did residencies in the Warfield Theatre in San Francisco and Radio City Music Hall in New York (in part to record material for a pair of live albums). Starting with an acoustic set and then doing two regular ones after made for real memorable shows that almost always reached four hours (including intermissions).
This large collection of theatre shows yielded two double-live albums released the following year, one acoustic (Reckoning) and the other electric (Dead Set).
Another taste for those thirsting to hear the Dead in their living room in better quality than what tapers with a single microphone could get at shows.
The people who had the nicest things to say about the early eighties shows were the ones who attended them, because even if you’d seen the band plenty of times in the seventies and thought they weren’t reaching the same heights these days, there was always the magic of never-knowing what songs you were going to get, what forms their interpretations would take, and maybe meet a bunch of new weird friends who will give you a lift to tomorrow night’s show (they might even give you a different kind of lift at that show as well).
The most common asterisk becomes the year:
It’s a good show…for 1988.
It’s a bad show…for 1973.
(During this eighties, the early Berkeley Greek Theatre runs (three shows a year, every year in the decade), the fall tour of 83, the summer tour of 84 and the fall tour of 1989 are particular standouts)
If the performances were a bit more uneven, the concerts themselves were like clockwork. A spring tour, a summer tour typically broken into two separate legs, and a fall tour. A couple one-offs or weekend run of shows around the Bay Area (since the band still called it home), and always a New Year’s Eve extravaganza.
Despite all this busy-ness, the problem was front and centre.
Jerry Garcia was addicted to an unhealthy lifestyle of junk food, cigarettes, liquor, and believing that standing onstage more or less in place for three hours a night counts as exercise.
Oh, and toss on plenty of marijuana and acid use since the sixties, sprinkle on a cocaine problem in the seventies, and top it off with a heroin addiction that only got worse as the eighties went on.
Going just by the photos, Jerry's wild bush of hair started to droop and grey in the late seventies, and while that doesn't mean anything in terms of performance, his voice went with it.
The band itself was obviously getting older, with most of them hitting their forties in the early eighties. Energy levels during performances were dropping, and it all came to a head in July 1986.
Putting an overweight heroin addict who just had cake for lunch onstage in 100 degree heat in the middle of the summer was recipe for disaster, and not long after playing what was arguably the band's worst performance at RFK Stadium in Washington DC (and one of the shortest, for what most could expect by now), Jerry Garcia collapsed and fell into a diabetic coma for nine days.
For the first time in over a decade, there wouldn’t be a Grateful Dead tour on the horizon, and more than that, the band’s future was obviously in doubt.
Considering the band was also a company at this point, fingers were continually pointed as to whether management kept pushing Garcia to go out and play when he obviously had a problem, or whether Garcia really did want to do both (heroin and perform), even though it was a combination that nearly killed him.
Garcia’s recollections of being under sound like hallucinations he might have had while taking LSD back in the sixties (and seventies…and probably into the eighties as well). He imagined travelling in futuristic space vehicles, having weird insects in his bloodstream, and communicating with potatoes in iambic pentameter (ask Shakespeare).
When this subconscious trip wrapped up, he had to re-learn how to walk talk, and play guitar, and actually did so quite quickly.
Coming back for a handful of shows at the end 1986 were a welcome occurrence (and strengthened his saint-like aura by hardcore fans), but to say that things were immediately back to normal would be generous.
Lesh noted in his autobiography that upon Garcia’s return there was slightly less fluidity, and effortlessness in his guitar playing.
Transitions between songs were lot less smooth, so calling the second set a continuous jam was a bit generous, as sometimes there would just be ten seconds of cymbals between one song and ending the next starting.
And that’s putting it lightly for what had been happening to his voice as the years went on. It’s really odd watching him smoke a cigarette onstage in one of the occasionally videotaped concerts, considering all he’d gone through.
So it was time to do something wild and crazy.
Like make an album, which is what they did in early 1987.
Since recording studios hadn't been the band's friend since (arguably) 1973, they recorded some new tracks in an empty auditorium. While the band had long played songs in concert before committing them to tape in a professional studio environment, usually it was only a few months between. In this case, many of the tracks laid down had been in their concert repertoire for years (in the typical weirdo Dead way, sometimes as an encore).
The album - In the Dark - came out that summer, with just the band's eyes (plus promoter and friend Bill Graham's) on the cover, and whaddaya know, it's a massive hit, selling millions of copies (the band's only top ten album), buoyed by the catchy single 'Touch of Grey'. With the refrains of ‘I will survive’, and ‘we will get by’, it was certainly seen as a positive commentary on Garcia himself and the band overcoming difficulties, and a sixties band making in comeback in the back half of the eighties was always a music news story.
The band even decided they wanted their MTV, as a 'Touch of Grey' music video was filmed. While it starts as the band playing the song 'live' straightforwardly, the quirk is that they are swapped out by skeletons on strings halfway through (a dog runs across the stage with a tasty leg bone at one point). By doing this, the band reached an even wider and younger audience, who were suddenly thrilled with the idea that they can to a Grateful Dead show and buy crazy drugs for cheap from old hippies who followed the band around religiously.
While the group had already moved from being able to fill theatres in the seventies to arenas by the eighties, the increased attention and success from In the Dark meant they upgraded to stadiums during the summer months (and doing three or four night runs in arenas in the winter).
The new fans were nicknamed 'Touchheads' (since ‘Touch of Grey’ might have been the only song they knew), which was meant to be slightly derisive by the old Deadheads, who didn’t like that this new gaggle of fans didn’t know what ‘Help-Slip-Frank’ meant.
While many fans were just as consummate drug users as the band (for shows in the sixties and seventies it was not unheard of to have the crew pass out acid to concert-goers), the old guard maintained that it was meant to always be a way to enhance the music, and not just a way to get fucked up and party, which is how they saw this new group of ‘Heads.
And in terms of perception and the hippie ethos, the audience wasn’t just the problem.
For those that had been around since the sixties (no small feat), the band became a Grateful Dead cover band as well as major industry in and of itself. While some of the hippie hangers on had been excised (like longtime manager Rock Scully, who had been the one procuring drugs for Garcia), there was now a well organized company whose profits were mainly dependent on the band performing seventy-plus shows a year.
No longer a cottage industry playing in theatre after theatre, but an industrial behemoth that was a small village traveling from city to city. At one point, the organization/company was one of the fifty largest in California.
The dancing bears, the lightning skull, the freaky skeleton, plenty of bands had iconic logos, but the Dead and their fans wholly embraced memes before it was a thing, and there was always official and unofficial merch to prove your love.
This sort of success suddenly meant engaging with other aspects of the recording industry that the band had a janky relationship with since the 70s, and had tried to avoid for most of this decade.
Another album, in other words. While they slowly crafted and tightened up the songs that became In the Dark, there was less of a development period this time around.
Going back to the well only about a year later - and giving more song space to Mydland - resulted in 1989's Built to Last, which...kinda sucked.
It felt like the 80s album that most bands that began in the sixties were destined to make. Not necessarily embracing the hallmarks of eighties music (the synths, the cold robot percussion), but just being a rushed, pale shadow of what could have been.
Certainly Mydland having a more dominant role can be point as being the chief fault, but that also shows that Garcia and Weir didn’t have much material to offer up in the first place.
Weir’s funky rocker ‘Picasso Moon’ and Jerry’s soulful ballad ‘Standing on the Moon’ (double lunar love) are standouts, and while Mydland’s ‘Blown Away’ is…fine on the album, it was a great vocal showcase for him in concert.
Everything else on the album is clunky as all hell, with ‘Foolish Heart’ probably Jerry’s weakest writing attempt, and you can tell the band wasn’t too thrilled with it as most of the songs quickly disappeared from set lists right away.
Built to Last came out at the end of October, but in Deadhead circles the album was practically second page news, because that same month the band did two surprise shows in Hampton, Virginia billed as 'formerly the Warlocks' (the band's brief pre-Grateful Dead name), where they dusted off the American Beauty track 'Attics of My Life' (last played in 1972) and good ol' Dark Star. Yes, Jerry’s voice was a ghost of its former self from twenty years ago (hell, even from five years prior when the song was last played), but it didn’t matter when he asked the tens of thousands of Deadheads, ‘shall we go, you and I while we can…’
That East Coast fall tour would be celebrated for years to come (and privy to many official live show releases), and the band would end the decade with a strong run of four shows at the very familiar Oakland Coliseum Arena, with the now traditional New Year's Eve show/party capping it off (where Bill Graham would ring in the new year in some weird way, this time riding a giant disco ball as it came from the ceiling, which intentionally cracked open, allowing a bunch of people in diapers to run out and start to dancing).
While the new decade would start with strong spring and summer tours, tragedy would befall the band when Mydland died from a drug overdose at the end of July 1990. The band was devastated, with Garcia calling it crushing, as it was certainly and end to a long period of personnel stability for the band (that almost perfectly bookended the 80s).
But they continued on, and rather quickly, with shows starting up again in September of that year. Deadheads still warmly received the replacement keyboardist (Vince Welnick) and occasional multi-instrumentalist (Bruce Hornsby) when touring resumed, but in hindsight Mydland's death was seen as many as the time to get off the bus. The band would slowly introduced new songs to the setlists (a mixed bag), and there were some initial recordings, but Garcia would continue to have health and addiction problems. While the band was as popular as ever in the nineties with hundreds of thousands of (many new) Deadheads effortlessly selling out stadiums across America, the shows became even more erratic, all the way to the last one in July 1995.
Which meant if you wanted to see and hear the Good Ol’ Grateful Dead, it’s very close to the truth that the 80s was your last chance to do it right (specifically the first half of the decade, and actually 1984, and definitely the summer shows at the Greek Theatre, especially the second show of that run, because in the second set they do a great version of…).
No But Really, Here are Seven (yes, Seven) Excellent 1980s Grateful Dead Shows
-all these shows are available for listening for free on archive.org. There are typically many different recordings for each date, because some were officially done by the band’s sound technicians, and others were made by audience members with recording equipment of varying quality
-notice that we didn’t say ‘best’, since that’s dang subjective, and please note that it’s in chronological order
-most of the ‘notes’ themselves about the songs are shorthand, so if you’re a Touchhead, you’ll have to take our word for it
San Fran, CA - Oct.14.1980 - a fall three-set (first acoustic) from this year. From set one: Nice dire wolf, roses and Cassidy, Jerry strains for China doll high notes but it's still fun. Great bird song, and everyone loves ripple. Second set has some great Bobby takes (greatest story, music never stopped, grow), and really nice slow version of 'friend of the devil' and a top 'candyman' from Jerry. The ending of grow-Wheel-stopped is amazing.
Lengthy final set, with Scarlet-fire, estimated, terrapin and playin', all before space. Even after that it's miracle, uncle John's, and morning dew. And double encore of US blues and brokedown.
It was the last show of the Warfield Theatre residency and it's one of the best of the year.
Fox Theatre, Atlanta, GA - Nov.30.1980 - this one is a wonderful early Brent show, a nice and long first set with top notch Cassidy, a burning rooster/bird back to back, sailor-saint is fresh, and it's the jammiest deal you'll ever hear to end it. Second set: one of the best Scarlet-fires ever, a soulful ship of fools, one of the best post-74 playin', a stretched out Wheel, good china doll/around, a rockin' Johnny (Brent on keys!), and a perfect uncle John's encore. No wonder there’s a commercial release of this one.
Dallas, TX - July.31.1982 - great stuff, long show, odd that out of bob's five songs in the first set four of them were covers, although his one original (music never stopped) is one of the best performances of it (Jerry doing candyman was awesome, strong deal to finish first set), amazing songs in the second set as a massive jam (Scarlett-fire, prophet, eyes, space/drums, uncle John, truckin', dew, Saturday night!!!)
(note that all 3 shows mentioned so far have the ‘Scarlet Begonias-Fire on the Mountain combo, but rest assured each is a little bit different)
New York, NY - Oct.12.83 - nice cold rain to start, minglewood is fun but wanders (and Bob should lay off the slide), a great Cassidy and Jerry is smoking on Cumberland, and one of the best/biggest energy ‘might as well’s to end set one. Easily one of the great Help-Slip-Franks of the 80s to start set two, and same with ‘woman smarter’. Good truckin’ out of space and strong peter. Crowd is super into NFA to end, with a fine revolution as encore (like they’re the best Beatles cover band)
Hampton, VA- Oct.9.1989 - this and the show before it, the band was billed on the venue marquee as 'formerly the warlocks' (their pre-Grateful Dead name). Tonight they dust off some (at this point) rarely played classics like 'dark star', 'no mercy' and 'attics'. First set is a standard but strong 89 show, with a top 'row jimmy' and 'stopped' (love that lengthy outdo) to close. Second set starts off with a very good playin'-uncle John's (are you the sort of fan who finds the band bungling Uncle lyrics a bug or a feature?), but then it gets very special once Dark Star hits. They don’t rush it and it feels like home. Then they freak everyone out with a wild ‘death don’t have no mercy’, with the shared vocals making even more of an emotional impact. Nice Stones as well.
Attics is a heartbreaking encore to end it.
The setlist quickly made this one of the most popular shows to hear, and while sometimes the appeal of rare songs can outweigh the actual performance (especially in the eighties and nineties), the band is definitely in top form here. It's the beginning of the late-89 to late-90 late-era peak.
(maybe we’ll do a list of great Dead shows from the sixties and seventies, but that’s a much more complicated task…)
The Forgotten One, Standing in the Shadows of Giants: Radiohead's Amnesiac
There is always intrigue with shadows.
They are and irrecoverably joined to the solid object that makes them, changing shape when its host moves, moving in a hypnotizing dance that comes to define both of them.
When it comes to influential, important and uh...good...albums of the 21st century, it's always Kid A, Kid A, Kid A.
But eight months later in June 2001, Radiohead drops another one - which would ever be attached to the aforementioned record - and they would title it Amnesiac.
Almost the entire album was recorded at the same time as Kid A, and at one point there was the possibility of the band releasing a double album of the whole thing, all ninety minutes of what they came up with. Yorke was for it, but other band members talked him down, saying it would be too overwhelming a listen.
(Interestingly, Trent Reznor made a comparable observation when looking back on Nine Inch Nail's 1999 double album, The Fragile (which is crushingly great). He said he should have split it into two separate records, and even cited the staggered release of Kid A and Amnesiac as the better way to do it)
The quick follow-up to a classic (although Kid A wasn't considered that right away) is a music industry standard (and there was still a music industry in 2000/2001), going back to when albums started to be things. In the sixties it was expected for you to milk your popularity and keep the hot streak going before the public's interest waned. The story of The Beatles has naturally seeped into the lexicon and language we talk about many popular artists (and how their own careers either mirror or diverge from that of the Fab Four), so the archetypal example of this is how Magical Mystery Tour sat in the shadow of Sgt Pepper. In the UK it was just an EP of six new songs, but in the US the record company added singles released over the last twelve months, creating a true patchwork of material (but it was The Beatles, so it was, y'know, amazing).
After 1972's mega-seller Harvest, Neil Young released a live album (Time Fades Away) of material that was written and demoed around the same time.
Nirvana's Incesticide follows up the big banger that was Nevermind, and among the covers and Bleach-era leftovers, there are some real gems.
U2 quickly followed Achtung Baby with Zooropa, both of which exemplified the band's experimentation and re-invention of the early nineties.
What Tom Petty didn't put on the super-hit Wildflowers he soundtracked the film She's the One with.
Springsteen had dozens of tracks left over after 1978's Darkness on the Edge of Town (his best record), but instead of cashing in the next year, he waited another three decades to put out The Promise.
After Radiohead, System of Down followed their hit album Toxicity with Steal This Album a collection done at the same time as the first record.
As time passes these quick follow-ups can get lost in the haze of 'the story of the band', so when new listeners arrive to explore they might skip over it initially.
Even Amnesiac's name lends itself to har-har 'what album?' jokes (oh, and 'Kid B').
'More of the same' is a stark contrast to pushing the boundaries, after all.
The big album becomes what everything after will be judged upon, the record that future fans will be told is all that and a bag of chips (or crisps) that you have to dive in to 'get' and 'appreciate' the band's talents.
This was Kid A, and going back to it the track listing feels frozen in place, like it could come together no other way. The first half feel more like a perfectly lined up song suite, ending with the soft warm guitar reverb of 'Treefingers'. Even the second half is twenty two minutes of experiencing the world going from okay to bad to worse to 'sweet' release (the band got into huge arguments over the song order). The songs don't work as well out of this order, and while this is by no means a concept album, it is certainly a 'context' album.
For Amnesiac, it's eleven separate stories instead of one big one.
Each track can stand or fall on its own.
Amnesiac is looser, freer, creepier, stranger, friendlier, angrier, the r's can go on forever.
It may be everything except...better...than Kid A.
That album was highly anticipated, the follow-up to OK Computer, which was the album that made Radiohead 'the next big thing'. But instead of more guitar-centric oft-kilter 'anthems' like Paranoid Android and Karma Police, it was a weird electronica-jazz album made by a rock band tired of being a rock band.
Kid A polarized critics at the time, although is now claimed to be loved by everyone who says they enjoy 'good' music in general. Hung up like a masterpiece on an art gallery wall.
Amnesiac was the afterthought that never had all this baggage. You could appreciate it 'as is'. It was Kid A without the preconceptions and expectations.
Yet its release was much more conventional compared to its predecessor.
Two singles (with b-sides that we'll get to), unique and mesmerizing music videos for each, and a more traditional summer touring schedule.
(Meanwhile, Kid A had no singles, no music videos (just short commercial-length 'blips'), a Mediterranean pre-tour mostly in old outdoor amphitheatres, a fall tent tour in UK and European parks, and only three North American shows)
The band even did an interview with an organization called...(looks at notes)...MTV. The VJ called Amnesiac 'a collection of outtakes', and Yorke called him out on that, saying 'wrong, try again'.
In other interviews in the late spring of 2001, Yorke compared the two obliquely (and therefore appropriately, considering the material), saying Kid A was like looking at something from a distance, while Amnesiac was being right there in the middle of the fire. Certainly comparing the cover art for both records supports this, with Kid A's being a jagged, abstract landscape with distant mountains. Meanwhile Amnesiac's is purposely inelegant. A red and black background is shabbily divided, as if the painter couldn't make a firm decision (or had the shakes). A weeping, Minotaur-like demon is practically graffitied onto the red section.
The art booklet in the CD case – once known as linear notes - contains some of Stanley Donwood's (the band's longtime artist and friend) best work, much of which was eventually included in his art book, Dead Children Playing. In it Donwood tells of the time he was trying to discover the secret history of London with a century old guidebook, getting lost in a city that should be much more familiar. What is supposed to be valuable is treated like trash, and what is hoped to be exciting and revealing is suddenly quite dull. He thought of the tragic greek monster the Minotaur, stuck in a forgotten place, a long-lost maze, the newly built directly on top of the old without anyone noticing.
Like memories themselves, the exactness of time can get hazy.
In the art booklet one will find fake library due dates from the past and future, as if the CD was a book. Among the art by Donwood are scribbles of hideous scenes by Yorke, some which feature lyrical fragments. While many of them unsurprisingly come from songs on the album, a handful would later be found on future tracks.
But for many fans, Amnesiac itself was already part of that 'future material' process.
During the Kid A pre-tour of June and July 2000 (the album would arrive in October), the audience were treated to a wealth of new material, with only half the played tracks finally arriving on Kid A.
The arrival of online file-sharing (plus good, old-fashioned concert taping) meant before that album arrived, big fans of the band had likely heard many live versions of the songs that apparently had no home, no place in time, no foreseeable future.
Getting Amnesiac in piecemeal form in 2001 because of Napster or Kazaa added to its disorientation, to a ramshackle form where different songs can be cut and pasted in different orders. In fact, in contrast to Kid A's ironclad, immutable tracklisting, turning on 'random' for Amnesiac's songs can be the sonic gift that keeps on giving.
And hey, after all this setup, you'll be happy to know that there also happens to be eleven songs on Amnesiac worth discussing!
For the fans that hoped Amnesiac would be a return-to-form of the guitar-centric albums The Bends and OK Computer, the glitchy, hollow percussion that begins 'Packt Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box' is wonderful dream-crusher. The opening lines, 'after years of waiting, nothing came', seem to express this possible disappointment.
It is a skeletal, simplified version of what you would expect from a Radiohead song. Melody replaced by rhythm, and plenty of lyrics are replaced by two or three scrap paper musings. The synth bloops and bleeps could have been guitars, sure, but this band's been there and down that. Now it's all 'WWATD?' (What Would Aphex Twin Do?)
'Pyramid Song' is the haunting piano ballad of all haunting piano ballads, with the prototypical fragile opening and the similarly expected 'boom comes the dynamite' halfway through. The lyrics are done twice, once in the tiny dark and again in the overwhelming light, with strings swirling like stars in distant galaxies.
Seeing this song performed live will give you appreciation for the production of Amnesiac (courtesy of regular band producer/collaborator Nigel Godrich). Because while it's beautiful performed in concert (with Jonny Greenwood channeling his inner Jimmy Page and playing guitar with a bow), the percussion coming in onstage doesn't have the same headphone shattering umph that you get on the record.
'Pyramid Song’ was also Radiohead's first single and music video in over three years, and of course it didn't feature the band. Instead, a polygonal humanoid-ish creature explores a completely flooded city, with the tallest skyscraper rooftops being tiny islands.
You can kind of find a cold, Kraftwerk-like groove in the first song (plus a chorus!), and the second is brain-meltingly beautiful, but the real 'hurdle' is the third track: ‘Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors’, since this track makes 'Packt' seem as pop-friendly as 'High and Dry'.
Sporadic Autechre industrial crunches (but not the headbanging sort) conjure up images of an impenetrable steel structure, running on forever like a terrible futuristic prison. The vocals aren't just full robot, they also deliver an odd, stilted monologue about different types of doors (as if only the words offer any sort of thematic respite from this sonic penitentiary). For many, this was further proof (with Kid A's title track and Treefingers as earlier evidence) that Radohead was being willfully difficult, that the band was purposely shooting themselves in the foot to separate themselves from the alt-rock clones that followed in their nineties wake. The band didn't exactly deny it, saying they certainly wanted to change their sound and recording approach, but didn't think these four to five minute songs were that much of a stretch. Cranking 'Pulk', though, could clear out a crowd in no time.
(Eventually an eight minute music video was made for both Pulk/Pull and a later Amnesiac track, 'Like Spinning Plates' and found a home on a different Radiohead video project, 2004's 'The Most Gigantic Lying Mouth of All Time'. Said music video is suitably bonkers)
'You and Whose Army' begins with a slow breath and meek warble, with Yorke asking us to 'come out' as if he was talking to a mouse hole. It's so plaintive and patient that you can tell that it's going somewhere, even if the buildup seems nonexistent. Sure enough, the quiet goading and the lonely guitar strum are overwhelmed halfway through, and like Pyramid Song, the drums sound monstrous (with a 'When the Levee Breaks' level of heaviness) along with the rest of the instrumentation galloping in time.
And before you can truly get on your steed and ride with them, it's over, the thundering percussion quiets to nothing, and Yorke's wail is all that you hear a final time, and the rest is silence.
All in three minutes.
'I Might Be Wrong' is the first time an actual guitar riff is featured. While previous Radiohead albums featured a mesmerizing mix of heavenly chord changes to create sublime melodies (The Bends' track ‘Just’ is a perfect example of this, which Yorke commented on by saying it was a competition between him and Jonny to fit as many chords as possible into a song), this one is considerably simpler. A whirling, hypnotic alt-rock thunderstorm, Yorke sings of uncertainty, and the tracks winds down with that same feeling, exhausted from the expended energy.
Much like 'Optimistic's role on Kid A, ‘I Might Be Wrong’ was lightly pushed by the record company as a promo single, meaning it was sent to alternative rock radio stations as executives thought the song might draw in more listeners than the piano-rific Pyramid Song.
The choice is a bit odd, because the song after 'Wrong' is 'Knives Out', which is has the peppiest, hook-filled sound of the bunch.
So of course it's about cannibalism.
The band and critics have noted the song's similarities to The Smiths (the band proudly cites them as an influence from their early years onwards). Here that seminal band's jingle-jangle brooding is cranked up to eleven, and stuffed into an elevator. The tense atmosphere never gives way, never boils over, just simmers for its four minutes, like the meat Yorke sings about being placed in a pot.
The music video is directed by Michel Gondry, which kind of says all you need to know. Designed to be an uncut four minute visual novel that takes place in a hospital room (with Yorke playing the concerned partner to his sick girlfriend), it takes very quick hallucinatory turns to the comedic, dark, absurd and meta (remember the board game 'Operation'?).
For reason unclear, no one involved with it was happy with the final results: neither the song (373 days passed from starting work on it to finishing work on it) nor the video (Gondry and Yorke didn't see eye to eye about certain things).
'Morning Bell/Amnesiac' is the jazzed-up Kid A track put through a microwave (dizzy, dazed and a little bit melted), and by doing so becomes of the best just-did-a-bong-rip-track at all time, being all super heavy in a way metal would never consider.
It is the mirror image of it previous incarnation, so while the song is generally agreed to be about divorce and taking responsibility (although with highly embellished and shocking lyrics), the Kid A version is sharp and full of bursting, frustrated energy, while this one is a hazy, drunken slurring of all the problems that comes with such an interruption to a person's life.
The haunting bass of Colin Greenwood and cavernous drums begins 'Dollars and Cents', which was sliced up like Collateral Debt Obligations of varying quality, shrunk down from a ten minute jam to a manic and frenzied five.
Fuzzed up percussive blasts go off like bombs and echoes of bombs.
While Yorke's lyrics would make a more direct-yet-oblique attack on politics with the next album (2003's Hail to the Thief), he and other band members had been critical in the past of globalization and corporatization (while also supporting the more celebrity friendly causes like the Tibetan Freedom Movement and War Child). The accusations in 'Dollars and Cents' feel all the more relevant twenty years later:
"You don't live in a business world and,
You never go out and you never stay,
We all have goals in a liberal world,
Living in times when I can stand it, babe"
You will be forgiven if Yorke's slurring force you to check a lyrics site to confirm some of the words, although the ones you can hear easily can be considered the ones he really wants you to pick up on:
"We're gonna crack your little souls."
"We are the dollars and cents" is a final declaration, the personification of the modern concept of power, as the shackling tambourine rattles like death.
'Hunting Bears' is less a song and more a feeling. The slow, bending notes hang in the air like tense breaths, what it might be like hunting bears, without ever finding any. Anticipation for a moment that never comes (which can be a callback to the opening words of the album).
But the band wasn't one and done with bears. During this period a popular logo for the band was the blinky bear, a thick-lined simplistic, symmetrical designs that's all teeth, eyes and ears. An early gif of it blinked thoughtlessly, giving it the nickname. When asked about it in an email Q&A Yorke attributed to being worried about genetic engineering.
'Like Spinning Plates' is the most sublime representation of these recording sessions. One of the most experimental tracks of the period, nary a real instrument is heard, with swirling burps of aural vibrations increasing in speed and density
Yorke's vocals are particularly fragile and slurred, which is because it is a recording of him singing the lyrics backwards then played in 'reverse' so it sounds very vaguely...human sounding.
An impossible machine begins its slow spin, picking up energy and then moving faster and faster until the din is both heavenly and overwhelming. Cranking up the music is usually an order for monster ‘Kashmir’ or ‘Fight Fire with Fire’ riffs, but here it should be as loud as possible on speakers or headphones to shake the brain within order to open up the third eye.
Yet when played live, it is a straightforward, stirring piano ballad.
If 'Dollars and Cents' was about power, and Hunting Bear was the tentative non-response, then the words of 'Spinning Plates' details the plight of the powerless:
"While you make pretty speeches, I'm being torn to shreds."
The final track was the only one recorded after Kid A was released, and that was due to it including special guests.
'Life in a Glasshouse' was first debuted in the band's OK Computer tour documentary, Meeting People is Easy (a jarring mix of raucous live performances and the existential, repetitive ennui of a long promotional tour). During a soundcheck Yorke does a snippet of the lyrics while strumming the melody on an acoustic guitar.
Not surprisingly, that sort of thing wasn't tolerated during in these recording sessions, but instead of sending Yorke's voice through a fax machine or adding Autechre buzzes, they get in contact with Humphrey Lyttelton and his band to make a wild, jazzy funeral dirge (when Coldplay do a high-profile collaboration, it's with Jay-Z. When Radiohead do so, it's with an eighty year old British trumpeter). A demented dance and paranoid lyrics is a match made in 'screw you Top 40 heaven', the album ends with Thom reminding us that there's someone listening in, and a final blast of horns.
Kid A was undoubtedly a disorienting listen for anyone expecting more guitar riff heroics and angelic Yorke braying. While seemingly much more conventional and familiar now (which underscores how influential it's been, and is further proof that Radiohead dragged not only their sound and fans into strange territory, but alternative rock as well), you would be hard pressed to name a more bizarre and challenging album that ever made it the top of the US billboard charts.
Amnesiac doubles down on these experiments. Even when guitars are present, they are cold ugly instead of warm beauty, and sometimes cut up and treated like pressurized wood (which works when the percussion sounds like two pieces of lumber being banged together).
The reaction was from the critics was a bit more muted, acknowledging old fans would remain disappointed, and that if you liked Kid A, you'll like this.
So while Kid A's standing has improved over the last twenty years, Amnesiac was just there, waiting to be (re)discovered.
And if you want more, there was more.
In the antiquated, Beatles-like way, the band included several different songs as b-sides to Amnesiac's two singles. To make it more confusing, there were more than one version of each single which meant different b-sides, so the amount of these additional songs amount to nearly a half hour of music. Unfortunately there is no companion EP like How's My Driving, which compiled (almost) all the OK Computer b-sides. Buying the compilation (maxi) singles of ‘Pyramid Song’ and ‘Knives Out’ add four songs to each.
The 'Pyramid Song' lineup is particularly hypnotic, with the bait-and-switch of Trans Atlantic Drawl (from an actual high energy rock song to a record-skip dirge in three minutes), the scary sexiness of ‘Amazing Sound of Orgy’, and the beautiful, soothing nightmare of 'Kinetic' with its power-up-power-down sounds.
And if you wanted even more, there was even more.
Five months after Amnesiac's release, a live album of eight tracks called I Might Be Wrong (four Kid A, three Amnesiac, one unreleased Thom-only guitar take of 'True Love Waits') is released, recorded throughout the spring and summer tour of 2001.
It is yet another strange choice. Only a third or so of a full Radiohead concert at this point, with no songs from their first three albums.
Many of the songs have a more wild and frantic energy than their studio counterparts, and ‘Everything in It's Right Place’ stretches out to almost become an electronic jam.
It wrapped up a very a prolific twelve months or so in Radiohead's history, as well as - considering the material - a surprisingly popular one.
They were the only modern rock band to get a number one album in 2000 (the chart was mainly dominated by hip-hop, Max Martin pop, and classic rock re-branding and re-issues). Even though Amnesiac 'stalled' at #2, it sold more copies in its first week than Kid A did.
Selling records was a big thing way back then, and the first few years of the new millennium were the best years for the recording industry ever (in 2000 the revenues were $21 billion), and it was happening at the exact same time that the technology which would quickly destroy it was taking flight (as the revenue today is less than half of twenty years ago).
For every benign take that the Internet made 'sharing music easier', there was the starkly obvious fact that you could get music without paying for it, because the chances of any penalty befalling you for copying and downloading mp3 files was practically non-existent. Your real problem was going to have a full hard drive (or iPod) very, very quickly.
While in the past fans derided bands that sold out, in the end they were the ones who would rip off the musicians so thoroughly that music had to become free (with ads) because only super fans with a disposable income bought vinyl, and now a song showing up in a commercial or movie/tv series is a sign of success, acclaim, and sensible marketing.
Radiohead famously addressed the 'free music' problem head on in 2007 by giving people the option of choosing how much to pay for their album, In Rainbows. It was an act that ultimately got more attention than the (very good) record itself, which is another example of how 'the Internet changed everything'. The 'story of the artist' is talked and written about just as much as the music they make. Radiohead's first album (Pablo Honey) was a 'one hit wonder', their second (The Bends) was a wild step up in quality, their third (OK Computer) solidified them as the 'next big thing in rock', and their fourth (Kid A) was the band deconstructing that expectation with electronic buzzes. Their sixth (Hail to the Thief) was a hybrid return to rock with some DJ-flourishes.
Number five is forgotten or simply an afterthought in the band's own story, and that record wouldn't want that any other way.
By being such an insult to memory, Amnesiac is a perfect compliment to Kid A. It doesn't have any history or expectation written upon it, which means listeners can always approach the haunting ballads and glitchy soundscapes with their own thoughts and memories.
If anything, that's something always worth remembering.
[and while we're here, in terms of good current music so far in 2021:
-Spirit of the Beehive's sometimes chill, sometimes very not chill Entertainment
-With Promises, Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders & The London Symphony Orchestra do their very best to pay homage to Coltrane's A Love Supreme
-whatever The Smile (madeup of Thom Yorke, Jonny Greenwood, and not-Radiohead drummer Tom Skinner) was doing for their performance at this year's not-Glastonbury was very good (and a welcome left turn from Radiohead's 2016 album, A Moon Shaped Pool)
-black midi’s Cavalcade is certainly full of quality controlled chaos]
Rock in the Eighties: The Rolling Stones’ Roller Coaster Decade
The Rolling Stones in the nineteen-eighties started on a high note, ended with the beginning of their (seemingly endless) twilight years, and everything in between was pretty nuts.
In 1980, the greatest rock and roll band in the world released Emotional Rescue, a criminally underrated follow-up to their 1978 'comeback' album Some Girls. It would be another number one, so the decade was starting off pretty well.
Ten years prior, The Beatles had imploded*, Jimi Hendrix choked to death on his own puke, Elvis was just getting fatter, and Bob Dylan was doing quintessentially Bob Dylan things. The Rolling Stones began as the seventies as the last big act standing from the sixties, and by releasing Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street in 71' and '72 (and going on the infamous 1972 North America tour**) they solidified themselves as rock and roll gods.
*-as far as Beatles versus Stones: The Beatles are better, The Stones are cooler. There. Done. Everyone wins.
**- this tour resulted in the banned documentary
'Cocksucker Blues' and the incredible book 'STP: A Journey Across
Then drugs, okay albums and the new lead guitarist
leaving happened, and by 1977 the now fifteen year old group was
considered a dinosaur band by
But 1978 brought the kickass album Some Girls (the Stones' own spin on punk and disco, which went to number one, thanks in part to the opening track and lead single 'Miss You' which reached the same peak), a kickass summer tour, and Keith got off with probation and just having to play a benefit concert for the blind (really).
People love comeback stories, and the Stones did it with style at the end of the seventies.
Could they stay on top for the Me decade?
Emotional Rescue was definitely following a similar blueprint to Some Girls. A disco-like opener ('Dance, Pt.1', which is an utterly ridiculous name for a song, sounding more like the title of an abstract painting), followed by a bizarre milieu of 50s rock, reggae, Latin-flavoured politics, punk, blues, and zombie disco. And it all works so goddamn well.
Mick knew that the lyrics didn't matter much if the groove was there, which is why ‘Dance’ and the title track gets away with being mostly yelps and falsetto monologues. He doesn't take them that seriously so neither do we, and that makes the tracks so much more fun and dance-able.
[So props again to the always underrated rhythm
‘Summer Romance’ sounds like it belongs in Grease, and if it was there it would crush everything else because it makes ‘Greased Lightning’ sound like a ballad.
‘Send it to Me’ is a take on reggae that is positively quaint and fun (a lonely Jagger listing off all the women he would love to meet).
‘Let Me Go’ is remarkable for being unremarkable (and Jagger’s nice, tired drawl), and the side ends with the wholly uncharacteristic 'Indian Girl', a slow and tender ballad about civil war in Central America and how it is affecting a young woman. But Mick sells it so convincingly and heartfelt that it's hard to believe he's the same singer from the last few tracks.
Side Two opens with the barreling punk rocker 'Where the Boys Go', with Mick sounding ever so English while Keith and Ronnie lay the guitars on thick.
'Down in the Hole' is a blues song par-excellence, because man is it ever blue. It trudges heavy because it's designed that way. By being so out of place it fits in perfectly.
The title track is wacky one to follow that dirge, a fresh disco beat and Mick doing high pitched monologues for so much of it that he sounds like a Barry White-like baritone when he finally starts to croon about coming...to your Emotional....Rescue.
'She's So Cold' is a catchy novelty song that burns into your brain. It's this close to both new wave bliss and Weird Al parody.
And Keith ends it with the slow-burning ballad, 'All About You', a real stinger about an ex-lover you just can't let go of. It can certainly be interpreted as the ultimate end of his long time on-and-off again relationship with Anita Pallenberg, whom he stole away from former Stones guitarist Brian Jones back in 1967 (she slept with Mick Jagger in the oddball sixties gangster musical film 'Performance'…but not just for the movie scene).
Overall the album worked as a strong follower to Some Girls and deserves plenty of re-evaluation, but Emotional Rescue is forgotten because of what happened next.
Plans for a big 1981 US tour in the fall was put into the works before there was much talk of having an album to support it, so associate producer Chris Kimsey, who worked with the band on the last two albums (which yielded dozens of outtakes and half-finished tunes) said they just should just cut and paste a new one out of the leftovers. The result was Tattoo You (apparently it was supposed to just be called Tattoo, and no one in the band can explain how the 'you' was tacked on), which is so good that people quickly forget that it's odds and ends. Even the big lead single 'Start Me Up' was written in the mid seventies and initially sounded more like a reggae song (‘Start Me Up’ is such a joyous, cheesy rock song with a classic Richards riff that radio stations ignored Mick's line about how this woman can 'make a dead man cum').
'Hang Fire' was another punk-like punch, again taking a political take (although a lot more tongue in cheek than 'Indian Girl').
'Slave' is a funky, hip-shaking sexy number which is the closest the band has gotten to jamming in the studio since 1966's 'Goin' Home'. Not many lyrics, but the chorus is damn catchy.
Keith's track is next, and instead of a ballad it's the straight ahead rocker, 'Little T&A', which is a terrible name choice, because the chorus is 'She's my little rock 'n' roll', and while that's pretty corny, it's still better than what they went with.
'Black Limousine' is a honky tonk, bluesy, kiss-off sort of song, and is so close to the sound of how the band started, it's hard to believe that they'd been doing this for nineteen years at this point.
The Stones were never a concept album sort of band, and the closest they got was this one, where the first side was hard rock and the second side was more ballad-focused.
So when you first played Tattoo You, it was definitely something to crank in your house late at night, even if it risks pissing off the neighbours.
Which is a great segue into the final track on the side titled 'Neighbours', since it's about Keith being a noisy one when he lived in New York in the late seventies.
The softer side is also great, because the Stones have always been a rock band that could flex their songwriting abilities effortlessly. Heck the first song Mick and Keith was a soul ballad (‘Tell Me’), that was light-years away from the hard-edged blues covers they were performing.
‘Worried About You’ is a dark horse classic, Jagger starting with that familiar Emotional Rescue falsetto before it starts to really build, kind of like power ballads that were hallmarks of what Top-40 Rock was in the late seventies and early eighties, but the Stones casually and effortlessly do their own spin on it.
‘Tops’ is a rags-to-riches ditty from 1972 (and actually has former guitarist Mick Taylor on it), and ‘Heaven’ is a bizarre outlier for the Stones in general. Almost an experimental sort of track, a strong ethereal sound to the guitar that was paired with slightly processed Jagger vocal. Too crisp to be druggy, and too slow to be spacey.
'Waiting on a Friend' was a lovely soft rock tune (complete with soulful saxophone) whose music video said a lot more about the state of the Stones than it first let on.
It begins with Mick outside in front of a New York apartment building, singing along, and then it cuts to Keith wandering down the street, smoking a cigarette.
He ends up meeting up with Mick and they seem happy to see each other, and then they walk down the sidewalk together and into a bar where (surprise!) the rest of the band is hanging out. They get onto the small stage in the back and perform the rest of the song.
While nice and simple, the underlying message is Keith Richards was back.
Specifically, he kicked heroin, and had plenty more energy to get involved in the writing, recording and band decision making process (which might upset one particular band member in the coming future).
But it was almost like he was passing the curse onto someone else, because Ron Wood was now hooked on the stuff.
He and Keith got on like brothers from a different mother (in part because they would shoot up together in the 70s), but now with Keith clean(er) and Ron still dirty, he was the one that was on the firing line. And since he'd only been a Stone for five years at this point, dumping him was certainly in the cards.
Concerns that Wood would miss or fuck up a gig on the upcoming tour because of his addiction problems led Mick and Keith to quietly advise occasional tour opener George Thorogood to learn the Stones' setlist, because he might be called in at the last minute as a replacement. It wasn't necessary, though, as Woody played like a dream and still ran around the stage like a lunatic, a perfect foil for Jagger when not engaging in the delicate art of weaving (and smoking cigarettes) with Keith.
Speaking of whom, he finally got the stage all to himself. In the 70s, Mick did backup vocals for live performances of Happy, Richards' best known song. But starting on this tour, Mick would go off stage for it and take a breather, while Keith would always have a this track and maybe a second all to himself just past the halfway point of the set.
The 1981 Tour was huge in every way. It was organized by legendary concert impresario Bill Graham, made $140 million in today's dollars, offered the first live pay-per-view music event, had a jaw dropping list of different openers (George Thorogood, Van Halen, ZZ Top, Iggy Pop, Tina Turner, Etta James, Prince, The Clash) and was the first tour to ever have a corporate sponsor. So a round of applause for the cologne and perfume company, Jovan Musk! (really)
It worked so well they did it again across Europe the following summer, eventually releasing an adequate live album (Still Life) and a decent concert film (Let's Spend The Night Together). There are only two reasons to mention the latter. One: In the middle of Satisfaction, Keith takes off his guitar to use it as a club to bludgeon a stage crasher and then goes right on playing (video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dv1bM0pp_o4). Two: During the performance of 'Time is On My Side', old photos and video clips of the band are shown, along with bizarre, old film reel shots of actual violence, like police riots, a monk sitting himself on fire, and a severed head on a stick. Really (video: https://youtu.be/7WgQUYuNL4Y, the weirdness starts at about 1:50). Newer versions of the song skip this bit, but it was there on the original videocassette version and is a real head turner and scratcher.
In terms of 'jet set rock star' scheduling, the band got together to make new music relatively quickly, meeting in Paris in late 1982 to begin the sessions that would ultimately become 1983's Undercover.
It is simultaneously their most AC/DC-like and most new-wave-ish-inspired record, and the last one under their own label (the cleverly named 'Rolling Stones Records'), as they signed a brand new big money deal with CBS Records that year.
The riffs are hard and fast, the rhythm section rattles like a machine guns or explodes like bombs. Mick sneers or screams through the whole damn thing. There's a hell of a lot of energy here, and the opener 'Undercover of the Night' is a perfect example. Everyone likes headbanging to lyrics about Central American politics, right?
'She Was Hot' was a towering rush of energy, like the elemental opposite of 'She's So Cold' (both songs had analog delay from the guitars), but now for keeps. It just boils over like a volcano in its outro, soaring into the sky.
'Wanna Hold You' is Keith's track, and it is by far tamest and radio-friendly song on the album (so of course it wasn't released as a single).
'Feel on Baby' is the one druggy, haunting slow-dance tune with plenty of reggae influence.
While 'Too Much Blood' is built around a slinky bass-line (which will fuse your brain to your hips) and Latin horns, Jagger half-improvised lyrics are ridiculous and shocking at the same time, and his yelping manic performance takes it over the top. Richards barely had anything to do with the track.
It ends with four punchers in a row, and that kind of meant they all blurred together. ‘Pretty Beat Up’ was 'mostly' written by Ron Wood, which suggests that neither Mick or Keith had much interest in working together to come up with enough material nowadays.
Best thing about 'All the Way Down'? Mick talking some of the lyrics about 'how the kids are now'.
'It Must Be Hell' is a heck of a closer after the last two albums had some ballads. A lightning crack guitar riff that would make Angus Young proud, Mick laments about the state of the world, but he could have just as well been talking about the band.
The frontman wanted to experiment with new (and popular) sounds, while Keith wanted to keep it rock and roll. And now that he wasn't strung out most of the time, this was hard to do for Jagger, and both of them found the other to be a real pain in the ass. So after its release in late 1983, there wasn't any talk of doing any touring after it.
And what did the public think?
Well, critics thought it was okay, and as far as sales it was the first Stones album in over a decade to not reach the top of the UK or US charts. And only one of the three singles cracked the Top 10, even though the band completely embraced (and wanted their) MTV.
The Rolling Stones have been making music 'videos' for years. Lip-syncing to your hit single in front of cameras is almost as old as the medium of television, and as recently as Tattoo You they still did that (for ‘Start Me Up’, ‘Hang Fire’ and (for the most part) ‘Waiting On a Friend’). But there were signs of change. 'Neighbours' had the band performing out of a cramped apartment window, and in the five nearby windows (on the set) were a series of bizarre scenes taking place as the song progresses (from some sexy fun to some bloody problems).
Of course by 1983 MTV has certainly happened, and if that's part of the promotion, the Stones would get on board to help shift units.
The three music videos made for the three singles (and the best songs on the album) - 'Undercover of the Night', 'She was Hot', and 'Too Much Blood' - are all certified bananas, and got banned or censored for sex and/or violence.
In the first, Mick Jagger plays himself, gets kidnapped by Keith Richards playing a criminal, and then Jagger plays the detective hired to find 'himself'. There is a bunch of wild shoot-outs, and in the end Keith shoots detective Jagger right through the chest (hard to miss that symbolism). At the same time, two teenagers are watching all this like it's a movie, and then flick back and forth to the band performing the song. When they start to make out around the end, they're interrupted by her parents, one of whom is a high ranking military official.
In 'She Was Hot', band members are just living their lives when a red-headed temptress enters magically and literally makes things hot. Mick catches fire, she smokes an entire cigarette in one breath in front of Keith, Ronnie's guitar wilts. Businessman 'watching' the video are literally bowled over by this model's sexiness, the buttons on their pants popping off. And for some reason at the end Charlie Watts (wearing some glue-on facial hair) is answering plenty of phones in an office.
'Too Much Blood' starts off with a lovely young woman trying to find something relaxing to watch on TV, and settles on the music video, which at first is just the band performing the song in some sort of medieval ruins. But soon strange things happen. In the video, Mick Jagger is suddenly in a kitchen and there are body parts in a fridge, and not long after that Keith chases him around with a chainsaw (hard to miss that symbolism). The woman (watching this) has had enough and decides to turn the TV off...but it doesn't work. And then her nose starts to bleed, and when she goes to the bathroom the faucet drip blood, and it's the same with the phone receiver, and the TV outlet, and the TV itself, and finally she throws it out the window and it explodes, while Jagger is screaming and freaking out and doing some impressive yoga positions for a forty year old.
All three videos have weird stuff happening while people watch a typical video performance of the band lip-syncing the song itself. It's the most meta the Stones ever got, and the closest anyone would get to the band when it came to promoting Undercover.
So if the Stones are going to break their routine of touring America every three years, what are they going to do in 1984?
Well nothing, since Mick spent the year recording his first solo album. Remember that nice big new album contract for the band in 1983? Jagger added a three album solo deal in the fine print and didn't tell the other guys (guess which one was particularly pissed about it).
And to really rub salt in the wound, he got Jeff Beck, Pete Townshend and a bunch of other all-star session musicians. The result (She's the Boss) was pure dance-electro-pop, when all three of those things were burning up the charts. 'Just Another Night' is the sort of track you play to rock fans if you needed them to give you the code to diffuse the bomb ASAP.
Despite the record doing pretty good critically and commercially for the traditional front-man solo album, the band reconvened in the spring of 1985. It had been almost three years since they'd started recording their last album, and time hadn't healed any wounds.
For the first time, the dominant setup was clumps of the band recording instrumental tracks and then Jagger would come in later to record the vocal separately. And it wasn't always the core of Richards and Wood on guitar and Bill and Charlie on bass and drums, because the four of them weren't always showing up either. Sometimes Ronnie played drums, sometimes a session musician played bass. Zeppelin's Jimmy Page did the solo on 'One Hit to the Body'.
To inadvertently drive the point home that there was friction, Mick and Keith performed separately at Live Aid that summer, with Mick 'dancing in the streets' with Bowie, while Keith (along with Ronnie) was backing Bob Dylan.
Session would continue on and off through 1985, and of the ten tracks that would ultimately make up Dirty Work, only three are credited just to Jagger and Richards. Wood gets co-write on four, keyboardist Chuck Leavell (from Allman Brothers, still tours with the Stones) gets one, and the last two are covers.
So while that says a lot about where the heads of the songwriting partners were, at least it helped make Dirty Work the last interesting Stones album.
In parallel universes, where Jagger and Richards never 'made up' this would be their last one, and it would be fitting, because it's an exciting disaster you can’t look away from.
First off, the cover neon horrifying. Charlie Watts is becoming one with the pastel blue background, and the other guys are trying to out scream each other in pink.
If rock and roll was about youthful energy bordering on anarchy and violence, you may as well have the now-middle-aged band that best represented this tear itself apart over two sides of vinyl.
Almost the entire track list is about confrontation:
One Hit to the Body, Fight, Hold Back, Too Rude, Winning Ugly, Back to Zero, Dirty Work, Had it With You.
It's not necessarily a problem when all the songs have a consistent them running through them, but unfortunately for about five of these tracks, they all sound like the exact same song.
And while that may not be surprising that a rock band will have plenty of similar rock songs on a rock album, the best Stones records are the ones that break up such monotonous track listings. One of the band’s not-so-secret strengths was how infused blues rock into whatever was happening at the moment. While it was psych rock, country, glam, punk, and disco in the past, now in the mid-nineteen eighties it was a mesh of new-wave, heavy metal and bright shiny pop, but it never really worked out as well since the song foundations weren’t as strong.
Keith's increased role in the studio meant that a lot of that bringt, shiny pop ended up on Jagger's solo endeavours. Correspondingly, the guitars are powerful, but being 1986 (and having noted new-wave producer Steve Lillywhite behind the boards) they are very crisp (even with effects), almost to the point of sterility. It is a tone that can work for Dire Straits and U2, but not so much with the Stones.
It definitely got old fast, because the opening track is all you really need of this sound.
‘One Hit to the Body’ is both ominous and monstrous (with Jimmy Page providing the guitar solo, since he wasn't doing much after Zeppelin ended). It's great how it starts with just an acoustic guitar and that an onslaught of electricity bombards you. Wyman and Watts don't sound like fifty year old men here (in fairness, Charlie was only 45). For how tired Mick might be with the band, he definitely gives one hundred and ten percent. What's new is...non-band member backing vocals. While Merry Clayton stole the show on 'Gimme Shelter' and John and Paul did some uncredited work on 'We Love You', usually anyone else singing on a Stones' track was Keith, Ronnie, or Mick via overdub. And all these new people at the mic worked great on 'One Hit', really adding to the tension in a fresh way for a Stones opener.
Despite this, the lead single was an old blues cover, 'Harlem Shuffle'. It is definitely the catchiest and most radio-friendly track on Dirty Work, and the band promoted it with a neon-bright, dancer-filled, half-animated music video, featuring cartoon cats drooling over a sexy black woman before everyone become 'real' (directed by eventual Ren and Stimpy creator, John Kricfalusi).
Mick Jagger's purple jacket in it makes him look like he's stole the Joker's wardrobe, but hey, it hit the Top 5 in the US!
‘One Hit To The Body’ ended up being the second single, but it barely skimmed the Top 30. The only thing memorable about the video was the band foregoing any symbolism at all and Mick and Keith don't seem to be pretending much as they square off and throw punches at each other.
So at first it seems like Keith's influence of going back to the band's roots is a net negative, since a lot of the record got damn same-y as it went on. But at the same time it's more like he gave the least interesting stuff to Jagger to sing, because after the pretty-good-ness of the two singles, Keith 'wins' Dirty Work by doing a fun reggae cover (‘Too Rude’) and the closing ballad, ‘Sleep Tonight’.
Whether it is an appeal for peace, a final send-off, or a subtle order, this last track would make a fitting end to the whole band history, its beautiful, simple melody, and a chorus of backing vocals soaring above Keith's weary, knowing, raspy voice. He wrote it on piano in studio, and it was developed just by him and Ronnie. It shows that even with a band in tatters, a bit of magic can be made.
But it's not quite over, and the last sounds on the album are even more appropriate for the end. After 'Sleep Tonight' there's thirty seconds of some honky took piano played by former band member Ian Stewart, who had died a few months before Dirty Work’s release, and was kept close to the chest by the band after they fired him way back in 1963 (before they hit big) because he didn't have 'the look'.
Stewart always played some ivories on the albums and for plenty of concert tours. He was also the band's road manager in the early years, and he would book hotels close to golf courses instead of the gig so he could get some rounds in. Band members have said they felt a bit bad for kicking him out, and since he was a friend and partner from the very beginning, he was the one guy who could give them shit about something. He said that he'd always seen the best concerts by the band all by himself, since they played better in rehearsals than onstage in front of thousands. And his sudden passing as the album was just about to be released was a huge blow to the internal machinery of the band. Mick said he was the one guy they were always trying to please. He wasn't afraid to criticize, either. When Stewart was onstage with them, he wouldn't play any minor keys because he hated them, and simply skip the notes. The short piano goodbye for ‘Stu’ on the album after a song called ‘Sleep Tonight’ spoke volumes.
Speaking of touring, even though they missed the ‘every third year’ mark in 1984, with a new album in the can Keith was itching get back on the road. Who cares if he could barely stand Mick Jagger nowadays? Concerts in 80s had reach stadium size for big bands, and stages were large enough that they would barely have to even see each other during the show.
But Jagger was insistent on not going through with any shows, and while it was easy to say it was because he was still eyeing his solo career, Jagger maintains that the band itself was in no condition to tour that year.
Drug problems, and not from who you would expect.
The straight-laced drummer, Charlie Watts got on the horse (geez, Charlie, we know you're a huge jazz fan, but this is taking it a bit too far). He skipped out on all the drugs and debauchery of the sixties and seventies, but in the mid-eighties, after all the powder had settled, he gives heroin a try.
He definitely looks like shit on the cover of Dirty Work, but there were behind-the-scenes issues as well.
During recording, when they're all staying in the same hotel, Jagger drunkenly calls up Watts in the middle of the night (they're both in their forties, mind you) and says he want to speak to 'his drummer'. Watts gets dressed up in a nice suit, goes up to Jagger's room, punches him in the face, and says 'I'm not your drummer, you're my fucking singer'.
[this is one of those stories that might not be true - like Keith Richard's snorting his dead father's ashes mixed with cocaine - but can be willed into being true with our collective consciousness acknowledging its awesomeness]
So with the bandleaders going through a mid-life crisis, an album that no one is happy with, Ian Stewart resting in peace on the ninth hole, and the guy that kept the rhythm all out of sorts, it seems like The Rolling Stones was ending just how a rebellious rock and roll band is supposed to end.
What can possibly come to the rescue?
Money and boredom, and bit of moral obligation.
If 1985 was Mick's year, then 1988 was Keith's. Not just because his solo album Talk is Cheap (gosh, I wonder who that was aimed at) was well received, but because Jagger's record for the year before (Primitive Cool) was considered a disappointment. And while Jagger was eager to expand his horizons and work with others, Keith had to be coaxed, as he always said if he was going to go solo, he'd still want Wyman, Watts and Wood behind them, so why not just work with the Stones?
What blew up The Beatles - two headstrong songwriting partners - ended up not happening here only because not talking to each other for three years was the best thing for Mick and Keith. Burying the past was easy when it was clear that the future wasn't that thrilling without the other.
In early 1989 they found they could at least stand to be in the same room again, and with a reunion being the best sort of thing for the narrative of a legacy act (and for their bottom line, with the ever growing staff and personnel around the band), plans for a fall 1989 tour of North America were being made before an accompanying album was completed.
And it shows. But with no treasure trove of forgotten 70s tracks to fix up (a la Tattoo You), Steel Wheels is the first record with some truly awful tracks. It's rather unnerving to find that Mick and Keith came up with about forty songs in the first half of 1989, and that these twelve were the best.
But the album itself is not all bad. Half the tracks are decent, even if they are slathered in slick, eighties, hard-rock gloss (sometimes Charlie's drums sound completely lifeless and sterile, even though he got clean for this).
Remember the lamenting above of how Undercover and Dirty Work had too many cookie-cutter rock tracks? While they 'fixed' that with Steel Wheels. There is the feel of different instrumentation and tempos and styles throughout. It's just that the songs themselves aren't great, no matter how you dress them up or tinker with their parts.
The best thing about lead single 'Mixed Emotions' is being told that it can be pronounced as 'Mick's demotion', suggesting that Keith finally stomped the pop-leaning impulses out of his partner, even if it's not true (the music video is nothing to write home about, and neither are the other visual accompaniments to the other middling singles). Of course, the whole song is all about 'burying the hatchet', so it definitely was able to help the narrative that the band was back together. But for the first time it could have been a song written 'for' The Rolling Stones. There wasn't any risk that it could have even been a misstep.
But there were plenty of those here, since the clunkers are pretty damn clunky. 'Terrifying', 'Hearts for Sale', 'Blinded by Love', and 'Break the Spell' are downright disappointing, and it's no surprise that only 'Terrifying' had a handful of live showings in the ensuing tour.
Keith does great, though. His 'Can't Be Seen' is a great rocker, and for the third time this decade, he closes it with a top-shelf ballad, ‘Slipping Away’.
'Sad, Sad, Sad' and 'Hold Onto Your Hat' are the high energy rockers that don't overstay their welcome, but the head (ear?) turner is 'Continental Drift', which is an astonishing anomaly in the entire Stones' catalogue.
It features Moroccan musicians (the Master Musicians of Jajouka, to be exact) playing a hypnotic middle-eastern groove, with more familiar rock sounds perfectly interpolated within it. The way builds and peaks over its five minutes makes it more challenging and exciting than almost anything else the Stones had done this decade. It also harkens back to band co-founder Brian Jones, who became interested in what would be called world music and tried incorporate it into the band's before he became a druggy mess, got fired in June 1969, and then drowned in a pool a month after.
For the first time, though, Steel Wheels is an album where you really have to wait (or you just skip) for the good stuff. It doesn't help that at twelve tracks, it's the longest Stones album since 1972's Exile on Main Street. Brevity always played in the band’s favour, and they seemed to willing give that up with terrible results.
This will continue beyond the eighties, as there is a definitely a drop in quality and 'raw energy'. The latter can perhaps be attributed to the glossy production (at least compared to 70s Stones) of (soon to be regular co-producer) Don Was, or Mick and Keith just getting older and less interested in making records that sounded like they were recorded on an eight-track in a basement.
Jagger/Richards' songwriting and the band's performance could always guarantee that there will never be a completely bad stones album, but there's no doubt that the amount of filler increased from the mid-80s to today. They seemed to erroneously make a point of using all the extra room you get with CDs, even though averaging five songs on two 'sides' of vinyl was always the best formula for the Stones (in fact, all Stones albums post-Dirty Work get a lot better when you crop them down to the best ten tracks).
Woulda, shoulda, coulda. When it came to Steel Wheels, enough fans were just glad they were back (although not glad enough to send the album to number one, as it stalled in the top 5 in the US and UK), and in the late summer and the entire autumn of 1989, the Stones would embark on the Steel Wheels North American tour, doing 57 shows and making $98 million. It would set another record for highest grossing tour of all in time
And then suddenly it's the nineties, and they had more tour legs in Japan and across Europe (including Eastern Europe, where the Soviet Union was in the process of collapsing).
While never completely becoming a greatest hits act because they'd always play a few new songs off whatever album (or single on a revamped greatest hits collection) they were ostensibly promoting, no one is fooling themselves into believing that they go to a Rolling Stones live show for 'Sad, Sad, Sad', 'Anybody Seen My Baby?', or 'Doom and Gloom'. The band always brings it energy-wise (even after original bassist Bill Wyman left in the early nineties, replaced by the very talented Darryl Jones), but they typically bring the same twelve songs plus a rotating cast of eight slightly lesser known tracks.
The 1980s could have been the end of the Rolling Stones, and they went through a lot of shit that would have ended other acts (feuding members, drugs, solo albums, backstabbing, death, declining album sales, critical panning) but they settled their differences and persevered, and still tour to this day.
And what's the reason for sticking together:
If you’re a fifty year old musician that made enough cash on the last tour, what else are you going to do with the rest of your life?
You may as well play as long as people are going to show up and have a good time.
After all, it's only rock 'n' roll.
2010s Cultural Wrap Up (including Best Albums)
Important Opening Bit:
It was an exhausting decade, so to start this off right, let's just say that the best overall cultural thing that could be absorbed in these ten years was the video game, 'The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild' (for the Nintendo Switch and the Nintendo Wii U consoles). It is a sprawling, open world masterpiece that lets you temporarily escape the real world so you can play in the fantasy one of Hyrule. There were a lot of great movies, series, music, works of art and other video games that came out between 2010 and 2019, but nothing tops Breath of the Wild for fun, excitement and 'what we need right now'. In terms of popular culture, Game of Thrones, (the return of) Stars Wars and the Marvel Cinematic Universe gave us huge fantasy worlds that you could watch in awe... but never explore for yourself. Breath of the Wild lets you take that the next step. Pure joy from start to finish (and you could decide when that was, maybe hundreds of hours after you began).
The "Last Decade" of "Movies" and "Albums"
Note the quotation marks. Caveats galore for this clickbait-y subheading. Although it is undoubtedly true that the crumbling of the moments which brought us together over all those decades in what was known as the monoculture (like Johnny Carson! And Whitney Houston!) has accelerated.
The rise of the internet just before and after the turn of the century made it much more unlikely that we were all listening to the same music, or watching the movie or tv show (since our viewing and listening options exponentially expanded) but it was in the 2010s that it fell into even more pieces.
The internet's transformation into a bloodthirsty everything coincided with the golden age of television/peak TV. 'Must watch' became 'I can't possibly watch it all unless I never sleep again'. Netflix's success spawned several imitators, and soon you might be getting a traditional cable package that includes five or six streaming channels instead of paying for them separately (the end is the beginning is the end).
Your couch is going to want you to pop the question. Why bother even going to the cinema if the blockbuster is going to be available on your 65-inch television in just a few months?
Actually, why bother just 'watching' something? Doesn't modern technology have something more immersive for me?
This was the decade where video games crept up on movies AND television/streaming series to become the thing to do for an entire generation. This is going to be the future going forward, where the line between blockbuster movie and triple-A studio game will blur. If you 'game' regularly, the amount of TV shows you will never watch will quickly pile up. Hell, the amount of other games that you will never find the time to play will quickly pile up.
Video games are telling more deeper and challenging stories (interrupted only by you the player shooting or sneaking (mostly shooting) across the ever widening and lifelike world the game inhabits), and movies are looking and feeling more and more like video games (especially the action sequences).
It's not just that gen X-ers, millennials, and gen Z-ers (to be renamed?) are choosing this pastime over passive watching more and more often, it's that these games are becoming more and more profitable. Avengers: Endgame became the top grossing movie of all time in 2019 with $2.8 billion in sales, but 2013's Grand Theft Auto V sez 'hold my beer', with $6 billion. Minecraft came out 2011, and that's pretty much a full decade of millions of people playing Lego in digital form. It’s the bestselling game of all time, available across different game consoles and mobile phones and has a massive chunk of YouTube server space. Microsoft bought it outright from Mojang games for $2.5 billion.
And if you want to talk franchises, Pokemon's total profits stomps on Star Wars and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, still going strong after twenty years, with such powerhouse games as Go, Let's Go (of course those aren't the same things, dummy!), and just to add a bit of pocket change, sure, let's even make a movie. The Mario franchise started up around the time the original Star Wars trilogy was wrapping up, and the plumber with titanium cavs and quads is one of the most recognized figures on earth.
There are so many different types of games available, it's gotten to the point where even if you just play Candy Crush on your phone you can be considered a 'gamer'. Whether it's playing several near-identical rounds of puzzle matching or stealing cars (and sometimes stealing airplanes) in GTA V, the amount of time this takes away from watching movies and TV is totally up to you.
Then there's that Breath of the Wild thing. It cribbed a lot from of other game styles out there, such as open world, survival and third-person combat, and offered up an immersive and wondrous experience that was so much better than the rest of them combined. Over one hundred hours of playability is practically effortless.
Which is actually a drop in the bucket of time when compared to online multiplayer games like Fortnite, Overwatch, and the Call of Duty series. Of course movies and tv series can be social experiences, but not on the same level that video games are. On top of the fun of playing with other people, there's also money in it, and putting an 'E' in front of sports is finally being taken seriously (knowing that video games are finally being taken seriously… fills me with determination. Save!). If video games rose up in 2010s, then the 2020s are going to be its domination.
Not that we should count out film. They'll just become the new 'theatre' (which is what film displaced all those decades ago). Despite box office records, movies aren't more popular than ever, but they are definitely more financial than ever. There are fewer people in cinema seats, but the ticket prices are higher. Movies cost more to make, and are expected to bring in hundreds of millions of dollars (or billions).
This means that it's always blockbuster season. A giant franchise-related property can drop in February or October, and they have become almost idiot-proof. Even a bad superhero movie now is more disappointing and formulaic than outright awful. It's hard to say what's wrong with a Marvel film except that you've felt like you've seen it a thousand times before (it's like Saturday morning cartoons come to life, and those were just comic book stories jumping off the page).
The new onslaught of Star Wars media is great, but if you grew up with the original trilogy it will never be as good because you watched those as a kid and that makes all the difference so trying to get the same emotions out of the new ones is an episode in futility so just try and enjoy them as movies, and not as a reminder that you're getting older and every day closer to death.
Even as Netflix and other streaming services pour boatloads money into new projects, the goal for these companies is still to reach a trusted and dependable demographic, which is why you really do have to go the tiny budget films to find some exploration and originality.
What of art, you might be asking, certainly there were some celluloid forms of that in the last ten years?
Paul Thomas Anderson did two character studies, The Master and Phantom Thread, each one exploring talented but difficult men with adoring people all around them. Biopics were all the rage this decade, but so many of them were glossy and cliched, with the depiction of everyone from Freddie Mercury to Martin Luther King Jr. coming off stilted and one-dimensional. Anderson was able to make two fictional people seem so much more real because of the care and complexity of the world they inhabit (oh, and it helps that he got Hoffman and Day-Lewis to play them).
Tree of Life is the quintessential Malick film, and the Grand Budapest Hotel is the quintessential (Wes) Anderson film. The first one proves that Brad Pitt is one of the finest actors of the last thirty years (up there with the two guys mentioned above), offers a better depiction of childhood than Boyhood, and Malick throws in some dinosaurs to boot. It's a snooty art film in so many ways that you feel you've seen before (slow and thin plot, long walking shots, janky cuts, awkward dinner conversation, obvious and subtle symbolism), but it does everything so well. The Grand Budapest Hotel is a comic masterpiece, that moves so fast from one line, one absurdity, one plot twist to the next, that you find yourself just holding on to the narrative for dear life, but when it does finally relax you are immediately touched by its heart. Anderson has a tendency to toss his past films in a blender to make a new one (always a dash of Bill Murray), but this one came out like a super-smoothie, much greater than the sum of its parts.
Inside Llewyn Davis
is not the quintessential Coen brothers film because that doesn't exist.
But just like the not-quite-biopics that
Then there is Holy Motors…cough.
Get Out is brilliant in its subtly, letting mood and atmosphere reveal so much of the story, which is rare and welcome for a genre flick (it's about brain transplants!). Its success - while certainly well-deserved - has almost overshadowed its accomplishments. Everyone on screen is bringing their a-game here, and that means you are rooting for Kaluuya and Williams as a couple (and are shocked and betrayed when...you know), know you can't trust Whitford, Keener and Root, and are pumping your fist every time Howery is onscreen (playing the comedy relief in a film like this can be a death sentence, but he does it perfectly). Peele put together this so well, and it feels like the entire moviegoing world wins when a movie that is both familiar and original rightfully hits the jackpot.
Upstream Color is Shane Carruth's follow up to Primer, and it's just as a strange and engrossing, but also has a much deeper emotional connection between the two main characters, who are trying to put the pieces of their lives back together after a bizarre...experience. Which is appropriate as this film itself is a bizarre...experience. There's not much dialogue in the last forty minutes, but if you made it that far ('worms under your skin' warning), enjoy the rest of the ride. Carruth did almost every job you can imagine with this film, and it is able to feel deeply personal and distant at the same time.
A Separation is a expertly crafted family drama that takes place in Iran, and for western audiences it gives a intimate and engrossing portrait of life in a country where Islam can dictate how lives are lived, depending on one's social status. Of course what makes it so powerful are the experiences and emotions that transcend any one culture or nation, which is why the end of the film is that much more heart-wrenching.
Parasite came out this year, but its impact was and is immediate. Balancing comedy, drama and thriller elements in a story that still addresses social issues in a clever and emotional way is no easy task, but Joon-Ho nails all of this. Domestic subterfuge might not sound like a theme that will necessitate visually stunning storytelling, but Parasite has this in droves anyway, reminding us that film is medium that should always revel in show instead of tell.
Ken Burns' documentary The Roosevelts is an incredible account of this powerful family, who endured hardship and triumph on Greek tragedy like levels (certainly this attests to Burns' storytelling power). There is an impressive and surprising amount of parallels between the early twentieth century and the effects the industrial revolution had on it, and the early twenty first and the digital revolution. Inspiring, complex, and hypnotic throughout is 13-hour, 7-part runtime, if you want to understand why the world is the way it is today - with a bunch of real-life soap opera twists added in - this will definitely be your jam.
At the same time, we would be remiss to ignoring the fact that despite the problematic 'franchising' of entertainment, there were definitely some amazing 'sequels' that showed up over the last 10 years:
Twin Peaks Season Three - retains the heart, excitement, and uber-strangeness of the original season. Got a light?
BladeRunner 2049 - slow, brooding and beautiful, and certainly a worthy successor to the sci-fi classic. This is not a television experience, rather it should be playing at least once a week at a movie theatre so people can enjoy its majesty on the big screen.
Paddington 2 - holy shit, it really is that damn good, isn't it? (And here’s a nod to the first Frozen, which is kind of a sequel to every single Disney movie before it by keeping and breaking all the right rules)
And then there's music...
It is everywhere and cheap, but here's our list of the Top 40 Albums of the 2010s. The last ten years have been the music business's stroke decade. The streaming industry was the aneurysm that cut off money to its brain.
There are still a lot of recording company executives making big money for their big clients, but so much income has been erased for so many artists who might have been making a decent living recording and releasing music twenty years ago.
Music has become a thing of patrons (a while ago we wrote about THIS) and (ahem) freeloaders. Society determines the worth of something, and music is apparently worth $10 a month or nothing at all if you're willing to hear a couple ads between the songs. Much like 'freemium' video games, 80% of the populace listens to Spotify, YouTube or Apple Music paying nothing, and the other 20% still buy digital files, vinyl, limited edition box sets, or...CDs. This 20% is keeping a lot of the industry afloat (unfortunately economic pressures on the general public means even people who would love to spend money on this hobby cannot do so, but that's a big topic for another sort of review).
There is also a shitload more music out there (at least listening to it is something you can do while also doing something else, unlike other media discussed above). While quality can always be debated, it is easier than ever to stick with the genre you love the most, whether it be folktronica, trap, or shoegaze death metal.
What is popular? Well now Spotify and YouTube play counts are how that measurement is made. Quantity can be agreed upon, but quality cannot. And sussing this out can be harder than ever. While there are always going to be Top 40-type music and music celebrities, it's been easier than ever to not only share your music with streaming services, but make it as well, thanks to a lot of cheap sampling and recording apps. Who knows, maybe your beats will be the one that is sampled by DJ Khaled and then used for a television commercial, and then you can be considered as success!
[NOTE: we've tried to cut down on lists over the years. It's been like half a decade since we did a big one.]
Some Honourable Mentions (on the actual top 40 list, artists are restricted to one entry, hence some big ones here)
UUUU - uuuu
It has one of the guys from Wire in it! You know, the punk slash post-punk band from the late seventies! You guys don't know Wire? Or even post-punk? Ah, you guys suck.
While this album has towering guitar drone and crushing percussion, going on for sometimes sixteen minutes at a time
You don't like that kind of stuff? Ah, you guys suck.
The Weeknd - House of Balloons
It was no surprise that Abel would blow up, and he has certainly navigated this level of fame and success deftly. Chart hits and big name pop-crossovers, the world is now his oyster, and good on him.
But hey, his first fucking party?
That's the real shit, man.
Janelle Monae - The Archandroid
It's huge and sprawling and the official title informs us that it's actually two records. It opens with symphonic swells and becomes a high energy exploration of the best R&B that you actually want to dance to.
That bass, tho. That George Clinton style funk (along with the sci-fi influence), too. Saul Williams and Big-boi on the same album is a bonus, but it’s Monae's vision of the future - along her golden voice – that keeps the whole thing bright.
Mellotron Variations - self/titled
Dat smooth robot sound. It's always the eighties on the brooding proggy slow motion dance floor that exists as vertebrae within the spine of the ghost in the machine.
Trust me, all these words will make sense together as you give tracks like ‘Pulsar’ and ‘Dulcimer Bill’ a hazy spin. This has bit too much energy for vaporwave, but if you travel in those circles this nice little nugget of an album will welcome you with open artificial arms.
Babyfather - BBF Hosted By DJ Escrow
What is music, and what is an audio art piece?
I don't know the conditions where you will listen to this piece of music for fun.
Over forty minutes, there might be maybe twenty five minutes of 'now this what you call music', and the rest of it is sonic collage chaos. What it creates, though, is an incredible and unnerving experience, putting together the unease and dread and strangeness of our chaotic technopia.
Bedwetter – flick your tongue against your teeth and describe the present
The most desperate, mind-bending verses that fill you with paranoia and dread. An extraordinary storyteller with tough a nail, minimalist beats, you don't even notice that he's not swearing. With topics ranging from kidnapping to mental illness, a few short instrumental pieces are a necessary recess.
The whole thing is only about 27 minutes long, and that's perfect. Any more and it would break us all in two.
Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
There is absolutely no doubt that Kayne West is the artist of the decade when we spell artist with capital letters. MBDTF is the final party that celebrates his first four albums, taking bits and pieces of what worked before and made it work brilliantly again. Obscure samples, obvious samples, auto-tunes, tons of guests that would seemingly outshine West but never do.
After this, all bets were off.
Broken Social Scene - Forgiveness Rock Record
This is the party rock record for people who don't like party rock records. BSS always sound like they're trying to make a White Album, with every release a sprawling collection of moods and feels, all of it strained through a couple hits off a joint. ‘Texaco Bitches’ and ‘Water in Hell’ are soothing singles for strange times.
And I don't know why, but the name is of this album is perfect.
Andy Stott – Faith in Strangers
When they survey the hollowed out remains of a dying prairie town via aerial drone, they can pair it with the first track (Time Away) from this record. Spooky is almost the right word. Certainly there is the feeling of getting lost in a museum after it’s closed for the night, and the sounds of this album suggests big rooms (atmosphere) and the smaller, arranged items (beats, rhythms) found within them.
Arca - Mutant
The sounds of steel becoming a real boy.
40. Deafheaven - Sunbather
Those drums, tho.
It's already dialed up to eleven the first second in, and even when it lets up, it really doesn't let up, it just lets you breathe for a bit so you don't suffocate. When they start screaming, you realize they’re going to be pummeling the catharsis out of you.
This is not an easy album and is better with headphones in a windowless room, but damn, can you really feel like mountains will crumble with your sneer when you finish it.
39. Grouper – A I A: Alien Observer
A dreamy swirl of gentle ambient waves that will carry you off across the galaxy. So easy and warm it’s better than a glass of warm milk at bedtime. Even extraterrestrials with the most malevolent intentions would chill out if we ‘blasted’ this audio into space.
38. Freddie Gibbs/Madlib - Pinata
Peanut butter and jam. Gibbs’ hard-livin’ spittin’, and Madlib’s gonzo jazz slash blaxploitation film sampling go together like. There are a lot of guest MCs on here which is perfect for the party atmosphere, but Gibbs is definitely elevated to the next level. It’s great that Madlib has that skill of finding the right the sound for whoever he’s working with. (MF) Doom with Madvillainy, is obviously exhibit A, and lots of Pinata impresses on that same level.
37. Weyes Blood - Titanic Rising
Higher up above we posited/lamented the end of film as the dominant cultural touchstone. Meanwhile, Ms. Blood is celebrating them with the brilliant, soaring track 'Movies' on this equally brilliant, soaring album.
It’s easy to overdo layers, but she knows just when to ease up on the gas and when to kick it into overdrive. A perfect balance between Joni Mitchell and Hans Zimmer. You didn't know you wanted it until it was poured into your ears.
36. LCD Soundsystem - American Dream
The reunion album has historically stunk, but LCD Soundsystem has always bucked trends. Murphy has lost not of his talent at crafting the best, thoughtful multilayered beats this side of New Order.
There are fewer high-energy tracks, but when they drop, they still bring the beat. And Emotional Haircut shows you that they can still punch.
And we certainly can't ignore How Do You Sleep?, a slow burning monster 'fuck you' track (that towers above the identically named 'fuck you' track by Lennon) amd is in the running for the best song of the decade.
35. Aphex Twin - Syro
Saying he's back is saying that he left, but saying that is saying that he was here in the first play. Richard D James seems like an elaborate con of several talented electronic musicians who released all their best work under this moniker.
You will be hard pressed to find an artist who has done more to change the sound of modern music of the last thirty years. So much of how music is made today - especially the beats and rhythms that make up 'pop(ular) music' - has its roots in what you hear on Selected Ambient Works, Xylem Tube, the Richard D James album, and Windowlicker.
Anyway, he/they released Syro in 2014 and it's just as dope.
34. Little Simz - Grey Matter
A lot of hip hop from the UK comes with an otherworldly coolness and confidence, and plenty of that is the contribution of the cadence. This is Little Simz’ third album, and on it she solidifies her place among the best MCs alive right now. Venom is spitfire madness over menacing cold isolated violins until the beat drops. 101 FM brings some playful Japanese garden samples, and even on these more relaxing tracks she’s telling street stories and bearing witness with impeccable flow.
33. Metz- II
If I had a hammer, I'd hammer your face in the morning-
-in the evening-
All over this fucking land
32. St Vincent – ‘self/titled’
“Oh what an ordinary day-
But there aren’t really ordinary days for Annie, now that she dances in the morning sleeps in the afternoon in fits and spurts and reads books with the TV on mute at night. Jesus comes by with a bouquet of flowers but isn’t impressing anyone anymore. All her stories step out of the speakers like a sunny day parade, the multitude of characters dressed like they’ve always been blind and born in reverse.
-take out the garbage, masturbate…”
Bonus: Check out her freaky-sexy-fun cover of The Stones' Emotional Rescue.
31. Arcade Fire - Reflektor
Rock never needed saving (indie or otherwise). You have always been stronger than you imagined. There are bedrooms and back seats that will always have deep wells of energy that are just waiting for you to dive into.
AF stretch out here with a bunch of six and seven minute epics, reaching out for the fans and the stars and catching them both with effort that seems effortless. Making hard sweat look easy.
And the message is always one of outlasting and persevering.
They have been with you every step of the way, even when there were stumbles, because they are you.
You/we can do this.
Just look at yourself/us in the mirror.
30. Jon Hopkins - Immunity
A slightly different movie plays in my head every time we listen to this album. Delicate piano flourish slowly give way to multilayered electronic abstractions that are still full of emotions.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, the right collection of sounds can be worth ten times that.
29. Boards of Canada - Tomorrow's Harvest
Feelings? Future? Sometimes you're not sure if society has much of either. After the warm psych rock influence on Campfire Headphase, BoC decided that the sound we need is some beautiful unease.
It's still got those wonderful pitter-patter rhythms that you can slip into, but everything layered on top of it pushes, pulls and stretches with cool, distant synths. Foreboding drifts through this entire record.
BoC might take longer and longer breaks between albums, but they still know how to deliver the goods.
28. The War On Drugs - A Deeper Understanding
Bruce Springsteen's not dead. (Checks Wikipedia) Oh, look, he's really not. But the spirit of Springsteen and the tough living and hard dying of the small town definitely lives on with this towering achievement, helmed by Adam Granduciel. You get the punch of Born to Run and the expanse of Jungleland, sometimes on the same song. You should be driving down driving long, flat country roads as the sun rises or the sun sets while listening to this album.
27. Timber Timbre – Creep On Creepin’ On
The swerve is that nothing on the album sounds as terrifying as the opening track, Beat the Drum Slowly (which is brilliant by itself, but reaches another level of ‘what did I just smoke?’ when you watch the Chad Vangaalen-direct music video). But the quality level as it slips into the more laidback side of freak folk stays very high. Grand Canyon is the most relaxing song ever about a plane crash, The Low Commotion demolishes its own pun-iness, and even the instrumentals are overflowing with hooks.
26. The Comet is Coming - Trust in the Lifeforce of the Deep Mystery
Wait, didn't jazz die like fifty years ago? Nah, it's alive and kicking as along as you can find a war machine drummer and a trumpeter with the lung capacity of a hurricane. The title of the band and this record suggests bigger things, and the energy found on this album seems to be the key to unlock it.
25. Yves Tumor – Serpent Music
R&B on LSD. Sometimes it’s a groovy bass line, exposed all naked, with not a single drum beat or cymbal crash to ground it. Sometimes it’s all studio sound effects, and you might be gliding through a swamp in pitch black darkness. If you want to know about album atmosphere, this is thiccc.
It might not be the best mood for sex. Maybe for hunting alligators. Having sex with alligators? Regardless, it's a listen that worms its way into your brain, makes you feel and maybe even see things
24. Sing Leaf – Watery Moon
Something carries these ten little tunes from its bleary eyed catchy opening to its deep-breath goodbye that is full of personal wistfulness. There is plenty of patience on most of these tracks, as little bits of electronics build up on top of easy guitar lines and tickling keys. And the vocals seem to give and take a bit of that Neil Young fragility.
So what’s the je ne sais quoi?
Oh yeah. A watery moon.
23. Flying Lotus - Cosmogramma
The little musical experiments on here are like audio appetizers, counterculture commercials, psychotic sound snippets, and for the time we live in, that’s pretty damn perfect. Listening to this album as you swipe through a news feed or recommended whatever on any sort of streaming site is a nice reminder that the medium is indeed the message. Even the title suggests an acknowledgment on the ‘noise’ that runs our lives. At least FlyLo turned it into art.
22. Julia Holter - Loud City Song
Oh yah, this is the good stuff. Holter is just melodic enough here, even when all the instruments fall away and it's just her fragile voice. Telling stories about the mundane never sounded so momentous and engrossing, appreciating the little things by making them big (like hats). In between playful jazz musings, there is hypnotic cry of 'He's Running Through My Eyes' and a city actually appearing out the mists of ‘City Appearing.
Holter's would stretch out wildly on Aviary, but Loud City Song is the perfect distillation of her sound and talents.
21. Parquet Courts - Sunbathing Animal
Punk never wanted to rule the world. It was perfectly happy with a couple of neighbourhoods in New York and London. Four guys from the Big Apple who make it sound like they put it together in a someone's living room. Despite (or because of) that, it's quite roomy. A buncha short and fast tracks, a couple relaxed slow jams, and some minute long instrumentals. The title track bites, Instant Disassembly ambles.
It's a grand adventure that still feels completely DIY and a zip around the block.
20. Angel Olsen - My Woman
She goes from Sheryl Crowe to Elliot Smith in the space of an album. Chronologically, even. The titles on the first half are all edgy, declarations and they pack the associated sonic punch. The later half are all past and people and the rhythm section seems to take a well-deserved smoke break. But with the songwriting strong on both sides, the journey from one to the other is a rich, rewarding one.
19. Tyler - Flower Boy
In terms of DIY, anti-hero musical auteurs, this was Tyler the Creator's decade. His early work as the architect of Odd Future was twisted, pummelling, scattershot, shocking, and plentiful.
It makes sense that as he matured his sound and lyricism, what would emerge is an excellent album start to finish, and Flower Boy shows off his dark swagger, his personal demons, and his incredible musical talent.
Bonus: One of the best sounding albums of the decade. Fresh as a daisy.
18. David Bowie - Blackstar
He was dying when he was recording it, and he died two days after its release. Death isn't lurking in the background on Blackstar, It is Blackstar. Even the name is a reference to cancer (which Bowie succumbed to). Most of the music is ominous and taut, a jazzy tightrope filtered through some hip-hop rhythms. His voice was powerful until the end, and he was never so lyrically open as with these ruminations about regret, loss and love. But Bowie was never just audio, and the two videos made for the album (title track, Lazarus) are among the decade's best.
It's a heavy experience, even at just seven-tracks and forty minutes.
It's more than enough, David.
You've always given more than enough.
17. Jaime XX - In Colour
It's hard to go back to The XX after this. Jaime gives the four and five minute aural dreams substance and weight here. It’s like he was giving a bunch of legos and while the instructions were clearly for a perfectly accessible pop album, he threw the manual away and did whatever the hell he wanted. The pieces are familiar, but are stuck together in unusual and exciting ways, and that’s always the best way to play.
16. Death Grips – Jenny Death (Part 2 of The Powers That B)
[Note: Death Grips released a double album over two years, the first part coming out in 2014 was called Niggas on the Moon, and the second part - which came out in 2015 - was called Jenny Death. Together they are unified - Transformers style? - to create The Powers That B.]
What if Rage Against the Machine crossbred with Aphex Twin and rapped mainly about Schopenhauer's concept of the will?
15. Run the Jewels - 3
RTJ is the best rap duo since Outkast (although to be honest I can’t think of many of ‘em since then). Their second album might be their best sample of their power, but 3 expands on everything that worked perfect there, and has a great selection of burners, bangers, and raised fist anthems. El-P wears producer and MC hats perfectly, and Killer Mike dominates the mic in such a way that ignoring him in top five lists should not be allowed.
There’s so much energy on here, each track is a punch in boredom’s face.
14. Dean Blunt - Black Metal
Blunt is also 'behind' Babyfather (mentioned honourably up above), but you would never think so. The sound and presentation on these records are remarkably different, but no less powerful and penetrating. Despite the name, there isn't any 'black metal' on here. Really it sounds like some quickly knocked off low-fi half-pop songs with two ten-minute grinder jams squatting awkwardly in the middle.
Because that’s what it is, and it’ll still get you hooked right from the start.
13. Hooded Fang – Venus on Edge
Bang! And a fun bang at that. Synths in the 2010s didn't usually have so much frantic energy. Yes, yes, there's a whole lot of drums-bass-and guitar, but the keys aren't just droning on in the background. They're right up front, fighting for attention after chopping up and snorting an MDMA pill. No album from the decade could make you want to dance and headbang like this one could.
12. Danny Brown - Atrocity Exhibition
Joy Division might not be the first thought when you think Detroit hip-hop, but Danny Brown always wore his weirdness on his sleeve. His manic drawl always seems like it's about to run off the rails, like he's about to just melt right into a pile of sex, drugs and the broken long arm of the law. Topics and tones are familiar in a general sense, but he and his producers (primarily Paul White) embraced an ‘if it ain’t broke let’s break it’ sort of rule for a lot of these tunes. In fact, the two most ‘commercial’ tracks (Rollin Stone, From the Ground) on here are the dullest. Everything else is pure Pneumonia.
11. Darkstar - North
When I listen to North I can see the future and it’s empty runways on giant towers halfway between planet earth and the beginning of outer space. There is a terrible explosion and the survivors are running to find each other, embracing in fear for what just happened and relief that they are still alive.
Yes, this is the soundtrack to a brooding sci-fi Bladerunner-like epic that hasn't been made yet. The beats don’t drop so much as they drip. Tense, exhausted, and sometimes triumphant. Auto-tune has never sounded colder and warmer.
Bonus: It also has ‘Gold’, which is one of the sexiest songs ever written.
10. Frank Ocean - Blonde
Fades in the stretch, but the first two-thirds is jaw-droppingly perfect. Even the ‘skit’ tracks push the music around it to new heights. Frank sounds fragile and free, even when he plays with his voice like it’s an instrument. Which he kind of has to do, because there’s a dearth of drums, bass, piano and guitars. But if you like a couple of synth sounds propping up a three minute lament on fame in a tech-addled society, you’re in luck!
(of course we all like that. ‘That’ is what we all are now)
9. Radiohead - The King of Limbs
Silly Radiohead, leaving some of the best tracks from these sessions as standalone singles (Supercollider/The Butcher and The Daily Mail/Staircase).
But those four songs wouldn't thematically fit on this twisted, forested gem of a drug album. It's named after a great big tree, so even though electronics and sampling play a key but subtle role throughout the whole record, the natural world is the star here. Song titles, lyrics, and sound effects all give off the impression of getting as far away from the modern world as one can (even if you’re listening to it with iphone earbuds).
It’s the five guys (plus Nigel) working together the same way they did with Kid A, and while one person’s ‘challenging’ is another person’s ‘boring’, Radiohead albums always have a way to draw you back in to find something you might have missed the first (hundred) time(s).
Psilocybin trips typically last for hours, but spending thirty-eight of those minutes listening to The King of Limbs is probably the best way to sonically squeegee your third eye.
8. Godspeed – Alleljuah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!
Well gosh, it certainly sounds like a Godspeed album title, but does the music stand up?
[skull gets crushed just past the halfway point of the twenty minute opening epic, ‘Mladic’]
Yes. Yes it does.
(but let’s also mention the two ‘short’ poison-cleansing feedback tracks, which prove that for some happily beating hearts, rock will never be ‘post’)
7. Sleep - The Sciences
"Look man, I'm not sayin' that this shit saves lives like one of those heart shock machines, but like, when Sonic Titan really takes off ten minutes in, I swear I can feel my bruises start to heal and I don’t need to wear glasses to see stop signs.”
“When Marijuanaut’s Theme begins the walls of my reality start to shake.”
“I built a time machine just so I could go back in time and visit my parents in the hospital when my mother was giving birth to me and convince them to change my name to ‘Giza Butler’.”
6. Ous Mal - Nuojuva Halava
Coming in for landing upon the ultimate playground. Robot sounds building up in a forest clearing. The audio commentary of a child’s mind on a Saturday afternoon. Not a pristine sort of beauty, but one scuffed up after a busy morning of play. A floating orb descending from our collective imagination.
[acknowledgement of musicians, instruments, etc.]
Sunny isn’t exactly a sound, but there are moments on here that get close.
5. Solange - A Seat At the Table
It's hard to make important albums. It's damn near impossible to make important, amazing albums. You can't force it. There has to be the right talent with the right time, and Solange threaded the needle perfectly with this one. The interview snippets between songs add emotional weight to what comes next, and the songs are crafted and performed with such grace that you never register that it’s trying to teach you something at every turn.
It’s not a call to march in the streets, but it is a wonderful and poignant reminder about triumphs and challenges of the black experience in America today.
4. 2814 - Birth of a New Day
It's been a busy decade for you. For us all. Just the way we live now, it feels like there is no respite.
Thanks to the Internet, we all live in 'the city', the virtual Sprawl, like the one Sonic Youth sang (well, talked) about all those years ago, based on the William Gibson megacity in his sci-fi novels.
Choosing to not engage is getting harder and harder.
So embrace it but carefully. And when you need to tune out the noise (and there is too, too much of that), this magnificent vapor-wave album is essential listening.
Walk through the city with no destination. Breath a bit. It’s the [insert the album title here].
3. Kendrick Lamar - good kid, mAAd city
Nicknames, personas, and characters have always played a key role in how hip hop tells stories, but no one slips in and out of them as effortlessly as Kendrick Lamar.
Even with plenty of guest stars, Lamar outshines them when he changes his cadence, his timbre, his tone. And while he might do this to a greater and more introspective degree on To Pimp a Butterfly (and is much more experimental in musical choices), mAAd city is where everything comes together perfectly.
Sure there are more accessible hooks here, but there’s also more emotional depth not just for Kendrick himself, dealing with living in such a place, but all the people around him as well. In addition stone cold classics like ‘Swimming Pools’, ‘Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe’, and ‘Poetic Justice’, there is also the twelve minute epic ‘Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst’ whose churning, rhythmic gallop ends with a lengthy church group sample, and the quiet reflection of ‘Real’.
It’s subtitled ‘a short film by Kendrick Lamar’ for a reason. You can’t help but conjure the visuals as you listen along, getting pulled into not necessarily a singular story, but a multifaceted communal experience. And this wouldn’t be nearly as effective if the production faltered in any way, but it doesn’t. The music is tight when it should be, loose when it can be, and the many dialogue pieces feel like they were field recordings. The album is a unique artistic achievement. And it fittingly rolls credits with ‘Compton’, with Dre giving his blessing in the best way possible.
2. Kanye West - Yeezus
There's no fat on here. Or muscle. It's just nerves and bone.
Air raid sirens and coughing drums.
Low-fi samples cutting in and out.
West’s lyrics on the first half of the album are as manic as his...uh...future tweet-storms. He goes back and forth quickly from claiming divinity to lashing out at a corrupt political system. Threatens people and then says he doesn't need anyone.
The song titles are political enough ('On Sight', 'I Am a God', 'Black Skinhead'), but being just that is never as interesting for Kayne as himself. And as the already short album crawls forward, he gets deeper and deeper into the mirror.
'Hold My Liquor' is for driving a bit too fast on an empty freeway at three in the morning. It actually makes drinking sound like the right step if you just want to clear your head (for legal reasons: it isn’t). A pounding headache rhythm and then a rise of keyboard and guitars. Like everything from 808 thrown in a swamp.
When you get flashes of old Kanye, it takes a dark turn fast, or mashed together with pummelling EDM. The Nina Simone sample that opens 'Blood on the Leaves' - her piano and delicate pleas - might make you think of 'Runaway', but then Hudson Mohawk-inspired beats eventually stomp in. A perfect progression to tell the story of love grown cold and bitter.
The only warmth comes at the end, and even then it's a bit jerky, a little bit silly, and West is not afraid to end the whole album on a deep cut reference to a 1993 episode of ‘Martin’.
Can one record still shake the industry wider music fans today? It’s hard than ever since the internet has made it easier to not pay attention to what everyone else is doing. But throughout the 2010s, Kanye West is the biggest global artist who can turn still turn many heads at once, and still make music that is worth exploring. While it can be debated how he fared as the decade went on, Yeezus was the man firing on all cylinders, and is an unforgettable, absorbing listen from start to finish.
1. Liars - WIXIW
Frontman Angus Andrews name checks his band-mate Aaron in 'His and Mine Sensations', begging him in soaring falsetto to ''tell me it's a lie'. Angus responds for Aaron, reassuring him in this mock duo, that yes, it is. And the music behind his soars as high as the vocals, climbing higher and higher and spinning faster and faster with more energy and cathartic wailing. This was life in the 2010s: Looking for help, looking for truth, and ultimately having to rely on a version of yourself for the answer.
Up until this release, Liars’ music was always about to burst, and when it did, it's equal parts raucous and horrifying.
WIXIW was the band's quietest and most reflective album up to that point, and it’s still damn chaotic. It opens gently and slightly unnerving, but closes with pure serenity. The nine tracks in between them run the gamut of horror, glee, desperation, and even a four on the four dark club banger for good measure (Brats).
‘Octagon’ and the title track are churning nightmares that are like boots on your head as you gasp in a puddle of dirty water. But each song is then followed with something that will pick up your beaten, disgusting body and hold it to the sun for rebirth.
‘Flood to Flood’ is a buzzsaw of protest song for no discernible reason, but you will certainly stand up and (not) be counted when Angus growls, ‘I refuse to be a person’.
Get caught in the soft vibrations of ‘Ill Valley Prodigies’ and ‘Who is the Hunter?’.
There is nothing exactly that ties this album to 2012 (the year of its release) or the decade, but much like They Were Wrong So We Drowned, (the even more terrifying album by these guys from 2004 (and one of the best of the previous decade)), the music here is timeless. But not in a cherished, sentimental way that the term is typically applied. It is without time in a way that jolts, discombobulates, alters.
You can’t exactly forget the world for these forty minutes, because WIXIW would rather bend the world to its own slightly familiar but always challenging sounds. A daunting task at first glance (or listen) for most, but Angus, Aaron and Julian make it effortless, especially on the smooth, ‘No. 1 Against the Rush’ (another ‘track of the decade’ candidate).
There was a lot music released in the last ten years. A lot of it was good. This album was the best one.
The Comet is Coming - Trust in the Lifeforce of the Deep Mystery
Frank Zappa once said, 'Jazz isn't dead, it just smells funny'. Well it's gotten a lot healthier recently, and it's here to remind us that we are the ones who are going to die, but that's the nature of the universe, brother.
Space is indeed the place (as Sun-Ra prophetically suggested many decades ago), and the long and winding musical history that started in the streets of New Orleans just kept moving further and further out. It slowly became one of the popular forms of music in the first half of the twentieth century (even considered controversial, with this ‘black music' supposedly corrupting the youth), and had dozens icons and popular artists. Miles Davis was the main pilot in the second half, driving the music into the sky just as often as he turned back and embraced primal rhythms, even while its popularity waned, with rock and roll and then hip-hop becoming the teen soundtrack.
It soon became synonymous with easy-listening, with elevator music, with horns backing soft and yacht rock.
But the more dangerous and mysterious energy has quietly persisted in clubs, alleys and loft recording studios. Kamsai Washington made the first cracks a few years back by playing with big name jazz artists (George Duke, Gerald Wilson), big name electro-weirdos (Thundercat, Flying Lotus), and then big name hip hop album artists (Kendrick Lamar, Run the Jewels). His first official release was The Epic, in 2015, and it lived up that name. A triple album with mammoth tracks stretching across the entire spectrum of jazz. On the cover he's calmly standing in front of a planet (with many more behind), calmly holding his horn.
Then there's Madlib, record producer and MC extraordinaire, whose Yesterday's New Quintet (with a dubious lineup) has been playing for many years not so quietly in the shadows, kind of like the aural version of the cosmic background radiation.
What has finally landed this year, however, is The Comet is Coming, a UK trio consisting of guys with whacky pseudonyms who bring trippy, rave-like energy to blowing horns. In fact, you might not just dance, but head-bang.
There's already hard jazz, so - because we can never have too many musical sub-genres - maybe we should call this heavy jazz.
This shit punches, with a lot of echoes of Miles in his early seventies dark funk period, but while he would clog up the stage or recording studio with over a dozen people, The Comet is Coming gets a high powered blast out of only three people. Sax, keys, and drums. The nine songs on Trust in the Lifeforce of the Deep Mystery are tracked perfectly, to rise and flow with quiet keyboards building up momentum to the galloping drums until the horn explodes. If life is hectic, overwhelming, and full of endless online chatter, then spare a moment to noble slab of this (almost) instrumental album and just listen to the whole feeling of 2019 condensed into a stomping jazz party.
'Summon the Fire' is a perfect raging locomotive, the sax screeching like yelps of anger and joy, with the drums and keys constantly propelling the rhythms forward.
'Blood of the Past' is full of Zeppelin-like crunch, 'Timewave Zero' is simply triumphant, reaching for higher than highest heights, and 'Unity' grooves alongside some Coltrane's best.
Say so much by saying nothing at all.
But if you are going to say something, why not make it sound longingly pretty, with the brain of Carole King in a jar beside your bed?
[that was the best we could do with the segue]
Weyes Blood – Titanic Rising
Baroque pop has always been easy-listening for weirdoes. When there were charts to burn up, it rarely did. Always on the cusp of being the next big thing, and it seemed like those that were classified (whether they wanted to be or not) as baroque pop were fine with that. The energy doesn't have the power to be catchy. There's work to be done on behalf of the listener to find the rhythms, to play catch-up with the chords, to tease out the slight quirks of each instrument. There's definitely an intricacy to baroque pop that 'just' pop doesn't have any depth or patience for.
Weyes Blood's Titanic Rising feels like it's trying just enough to make you consider that it's blowing your mind. It sound so warm, so familiar, but still slides just out of reach. It'll never play in a club, but definitely in a montage in a low-budget indie-film way too much inspired by Wes Anderson.
The art of the slight double-take, because you think you know where the song’s going from how it builds in the first few bars, and then Blood decides that naw, that isn't going to be the chorus...this is.
'Everyday' sounds like Harry Nilsson came back from the dead, better than ever. Bright and poppy and accessible, until it gets a bit freaky sideshow in the last minute, the fade out strangely too slow. Always some loose ends and worn seams, but still fits perfectly.
'Something to Believe' has beautiful George Harrison guitar twangs, and Blood's voice oozes like the best 1970s vocalists were combined and retrofitted for exemplary operation in 2019. Baroque Pop at its best can't help but sound at least a little bit like part of a Beatles track, but hey, when you're making high quality stuff, it's going to overlap with the definers of high quality.
'Movies' starts with a lovely looping synth going a thousand miles an hour to the future and back, which then weaves in and out. Blood is singing about themselves and about you, the listener, and how important the power of the moving images is, how it can hypnotize you into believing what isn't actually there, how it can help create your reality when you're growing up. And it breaks just past halfway through before building up again, even stronger, helping you imagine a virtual sunrise in 2100.
So why not get soft-as-Disney-schmaltz for its wraps up? 'Picture Me Better' is the classic slow closer...but it’s not, there's still a ninety second drooling keyboard runoff, just to keep you on your toes.
Eight songs, two minute-long instrumentals, and it's a wonderful forty-two minutes. Baroque pop loves to wallow in its own craftsmanship and beauty, but doesn't want to waste anybody's time (although for an impressive contrast, Julia Holter's sprawling album from last year - Aviary (which we mentioned very briefly in our 2018 review) - is like if Kate Bush dropped acid and then went to the symphony).
In a world that in many ways seems to be getting more unbearable (and the difference between 'seems' and ‘is’ is pretty much dependant on where you're living in the world and what kind of health benefits your job offers), isn't it a relief that we can still have an occasional nice thing?
But even though Blood sings 'It's a wild time to be alive' on the appropriately titled 'Wild Time' (thought not very wild, as the song sounds like a slow winding dream), in terms of the music we absolutely need for today...
The Most Important Album of the Year came out 25 years ago
Offspring's Smash came out in 1994, but it's really about life in 2019.
Not that it particularly feels futuristic. It's definitely a punk-grunge album that was still riding the wave that Nirvana built up three years earlier. Packed full of sneering, jagged guitar riffs and a bass-drum rhythm section that seems to be hooked up to a massive power station, it laos had juuuust enough of a pop-style mastering gloss to get into the Top 40. And it worked, selling over ten million copies worldwide.
Often mentioned alongside Green Day's Dookie (which was released two month earlier and also sold in the tens of millions), the common narrative is that these two bands opened the door for more playful, slightly upbeat and fun takes on punk and grunge in general. If Seattle bands brooded, screamed and shot smack in grinding sludge, California punk had that same amount of energy, but smoked a joint and hit the half pipe in the sun. If alternative rock had Lollapalooza, then punk had the Warped Tour, and a lot of people in both camps who said they didn't care about money made a lot of it, and a lot of people who represented these people in record companies made even more money. But the good times always end too fast, and somehow by the late nineties both genres were burnt out enough that teen pop strangled them with relative ease.
Like all too smooth single paragraph narratives, it ignores the fact that Offspring had another big hit album in late 1998 (Americana) that rivals Blink 182 in its lightness, and that Green Day became straight up stadium-sized elder rock statesmen with American Idiot all the way in 2004.
But what’s chiefly wrong with this narrative in regards to Smash is that the album - just like the foul year of our lord, 2019 - isn't light and fun.
The smooth voiced master of ceremonies that welcomes you to the album (and says a few words throughout) is a fakeout.
Smash is like its title. It's angry, frustrated confused, and points fingers at everything and everyone, including into a mirror. If the drums don't pummel you into submission from the first moment, then it's because the song is not-so-slowly boiling into a catastrophic fever explosion. And everything about it is fast. The tempo, the singing, the sense of urgency, the running time. Only one song on here exceeds four minutes (the last track includes about four minutes of silence and a hidden instrumental track), so you get in, you fuck around, you get out and count your scars.
Punk's supposed to punch you in the face. It doesn't trade in oblique and symbolic lyrics (Minor Threat summed this up well with their song, 'Out of Step With the World', where the title one of the five lines in the entire song).
Even the opening spoken word track (all of twenty six seconds of it) is dripping with over the top sarcasm...until Nitro kicks in, with the drums taking off like rockets as slashing riffs bloody your eardrums, and 'there's no tomorrow' being the easy to remember refrain.
'Bah Habit' tackles road rage, with a slow crawl kicking into death machine fury at the drop of a hat (or raising of a finger, or pounding of the horn). The backing vocals urging frontman Dexter Holland on with simple 'yeah, yeah' like the voices in our heads. Then it smashes into a wall, and crawls back with broken glass tension until Dexter tells you how he really feels:
'You stupid, dumbshit, goddamn, MOTHERFUCKER' doesn't reach the lyrical levels of Dylan or Cohen, but by god does it feel good to scream along to.
There is relief here, catharsis. But there's always danger in how one is righting perceived wrongs.
Whatever was broken in society in the early nineties clearly hasn't been fixed. Each song can be an issue that we - as both individuals and a society - are still struggling with today. Some of them were even able to address problems with technology that only existed in its infancy in the early nineties.
Road rage, simmering frustration and constant anxiety (Bad Habits), gun control (Come Out and Play), mental health (Gotta Get Away), drug addiction (What Happened to You), self-esteem (Self-Esteem), genocide (Genocide), political disillusionment (Something to Believe In), the global powers that be (It'll Be a Long Time), technological isolation (So Alone), all the generations before you who messed up the planet and civilization you're about to inherit (Not the Ones), and a fuck you to hipsters and the it-crowd before hipsters were even a thing (Smash).
Lyrically there's no real intellectual reach to transpose the themes of 1994 to today, because Dexter was just writing what 'was going on around him'. A feeling of unease and malaise, and in punk rock style, you don't mince words. You yell them in desperation, and there's no misunderstanding: 'We are the ones who are living under the gun every day, you might be gone before you know'. Separated from the music, the lyrics feel like a paranoid, angry blog post or snarky, on-the-nose message board comment.
Paired with the music, however, the power grows exponentially. Especially because it sounds so refreshing in 2019. Two guitars, a bass and a drum kit are not the typical instruments used to make music today, especially music that is so manic and heavy (the lightest moment musically is 'What the Hell Happened to You', a jaunty little ska track… about how drug addiction is ruining your life and will ultimately kill you).
Smash sold over eleven million copies, but seems to have not gotten the same love and critical attention over the last twenty five years as some other nineties music (maybe because the sounds of punk got watered down as the decade went on and ended up as Blink 182).
But going back to this album feels refreshing. Like there wasn't any cobwebs to brush aside or dust to blow away, that it was always waiting, in pristine condition, ready to pummel you all over again, the sonic blasts pushing the words forward with a sense of noble urgency.
For an entire generation that hasn't heard it, perhaps the crunching lamentations will be a reminder that you're not the only person who feels this way, that there was an entire generation who did. Which makes it only more frustrating that we have the same problems twenty five years on (and why Smash still resonates). Generation blaming is nothing new, and it always goes both ways. What the Baby Boomers and Generation-X thinks about millennials (spoiled, lazy, overly sensitive, phones, etc.) is not nearly as scathing as what millennials think of them, which is summed up pretty well on 'Not the Ones' (and yes, Offspring themselves are gen-X-ers here talking about baby boomers. It's finger-pointing all the way down).
Protest music has faced hard times since Dylan started writing acid trips, with punk music being the closest thing to calling out the ills and injustices in society and the individual (of course, a lot of this was done with heavy doses of nihilism (Sex Pistols) and suggesting to just sniff some glue (Ramones)). The Clash were probably the biggest group to make the attempt to talk about poverty, injustice and alienation earnestly (and they didn't really get commercially big until the thematically lighter 'Should I Stay or Should I Go'), but usually any band that tried to speak out really didn't get much traction.
Until Smash sold over ten million copies without every hitting number one.
We look back at nineties forlornly now, when it felt like the economy was working for all of us, when there was hope that we could still tackle society's problems before they became too overwhelming. Maybe that's why punk speaks so strongly to the youth, because both groups are looking for channels for frustration, both real and perceived.
And twenty five years later, the world has actually become what Offspring saw and sang about in 1994. At least in the west, we're angrier, poorer, paradoxically connected and more isolated, taking too many pills and drugs, and have completely given up on our government to do anything about climate change, poverty, and rising military tensions.
We're at a time where feeling is more important than fact (and while this problem has always been around to some degree, now it's built into how politics and society works), which is why Smash feels so current. The lyrics are powerful lamentations mixed with scathing screeds, and the music is an explosive, energetic wake-up call, a sound of buzzing guitars and a pummelling rhythm section that seems to have all but disappeared in modern mainstream music.
It doesn't give in to despair but brings the problem of then and today to the forefront. It shows how because we all feel this way that we aren't alone, that we are stronger than this, that we can rise up and make a difference, because Smash ends with the most basic and hopeful lyric you will ever find:
Kanye Eats Everything/Sleep Smokes Everything/Everything Else Is The Same
Remember May and June of this year? (It's 2018, by the way)
Kanye West said controversial things so people will write and tweet about it, since that's how promotion works these days. It's never enough to have an album come out. You also need people constantly agonizing over you and telling the world that they're doing it. It used to be hype for the album. Now it's an album in the middle of a hype storm.
If you're brooding over his political comments, regardless of how inflammatory or I'll-informed you feel they are, you're not listening to Kanye West properly.
Kayne West makes music. Great music. His words all always secondary, whether he's written the lyrics himself or had some assistance, whether he's tweeting or being overheard at a party or in an airport. Oh sure, there's been great lines and couplets over the last fourteen years since the release of The College Dropout (yes, for context his debut album came out when Dubya was still in his first term), but Kanye has been about the beats since day one. And day one was the five year stretch when he was strictly a producer, with credits that stretching back to 1999.
When he's out of the studio it's no filter ego. We only feel burned now because he's siding with people who the typical demographic who like him vociferously hates. He's always been a PR-car crash. Everyone liked it when said that George Bush didn't care about black people. Nobody liked it when he interrupted Taylor Swift. Most people were okay when he was cursing out paparazzi. When the mid-concert rants began, we were okay about it, since we knew the hits were still coming. Then he found Twitter and did to Twitter what Donald Trump ultimately did to Twitter. Say something, say anything, bathe in the adoring and damning attention that's heaped upon you, push it as far as it can go and don't apologize, just keep going blindly forward until it leads you to mental collapse or The White House.
In the pure sense of the word, Kanye West is as political as Donald Trump (which is fine if your main gig is making beats, but not even remotely acceptable if you're the president of the United States). If fame was West's only currency, then it makes sense we should (over)analyze his tweets. But he's not, he's one of the most influential artists of the century.
Kanye's been used to people saying they were done with him for ten years now. But he's still here, and people are still saying it, and it's because through all this the beats were always there. Even when he injected Joy Division into hip-hop (808), or stopped maximalism on a dime and switched to minimalism (going from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy/Watch the Throne to Yeezus), or did his own White Album (Pablo), there was always incredible music to listen to.
And now we have ye, but no we don't, we have so much more, and once again West is making us take a step back and look at how we engage with music, not just listen to it. Life of Pablo got released after many delays, and then it got tinkered with and released again, and then tinkered with and released yet again. Critics hailed this as the ever-evolving album, more an ongoing art-project than those staid, never-changing once it's done records of long past (West wisely got tired of this, however).
Dragging out the attention was the point. And nowadays, the impact of a megastar album or blockbuster movie or brilliant video lasts a week or two tops (remember Gambino's 'This is America'?), at which point we move on to hyping the next one.
So Kanye tried to get around this by running the whole month of June.
Five seven song albums from some of the biggest (or at the very least, most creative and promising) names in modern music. A trip across twenty five years of hip-hop and R&B, almost all of it put together in a ridiculously short period of time, the first five months of this foul year of our lord, 2018.
Nas's record Nasir is the nod back to old school gangster rap, since his 1994 album Illmatic remains one of the standouts of the genre. Teyana Taylor's K.T.S.E. represents the late nineties golden age of R&B, harkening the sounds of Mary J Blige, Aaliyah, and Destiny's Child. Kanye and Kid Cudi's album Kids See Ghosts is the more introspective and somber hip-hop experimentation that started with Outkast and included Kayne himself in the early 00s.
Pusha T's Daytona is a take on the more modern gangster rap album, the same sort of cold stories of growing up around drugs, crime and poverty but with a glossier sheen, a infusion of Westian pop hooks that he himself has seemed to have turned away from in recent years.
And that observation is supported by Kanye's own June release, ye, which is a weird listening test of Pablo leftovers.
His is actually the weakest here, yet there's still a lot of great stuff on it (a secret plus to short albums is that if it's not great, then at least it's not taking up a lot of your time being sub-par). 'Ghost Town' provides the perfect contradiction that comes with being a longtime Kanye West fan. Maximalism, minimalism, clattering drums, and ray gun synths. We're used to someone else singing, either a long forgotten sample or a re-imagined sample. A kind of raise your glass feeling, a laid back admission of guilt and failure, and it's still not Kanye singing. He just gives us a single verse in the middle, and of course it ends with soaring vocals, the catchiest, most triumphant part of the whole album. But the kicker line is this one:
'I put my hand on the stove, to see if I still bleed'
Don't be fooled as to who is really 'singing' here. Kanye West has been in the public consciousness for nearly fifteen years and has been a genre-bending cultural pioneer the whole time. In terms of typical pop culture fads and risings and fallings, he's indomitable, indefatigable. He's climbed every mountain. He's got everything he's ever wanted. So now what? What do you when there's nothing left to do?
You put your hand on the stove, to see if you still bleed.
In true Voltron and Mighty Morphin Power Rangers-fashion, connecting these tracks strengthens them all. Most of them are three minutes snippets of ideas. Not necessarily under-cooked or half-finished, but they're supposed to flow into one another.
Taken separately, these five twenty three minute
albums are sample platters, but put all thirty five tracks (okay,
technically thirty six because there's an intro track on
It's glorious and surprising especially if one of the Teyana Taylor tracks segues into 'Today I Thought About Killing You'. A good mixtape has some 'slam on the brakes' moments, and West seems to be enough a team player (or self aware self saboteur) to take most of those songs for himself. Stop having fun and grooving and listen to me now!
This current project has the collaborations baked right in, beyond the five artists who get top billing. From guest stars to extra producers, the people who worked on these songs in the studio number into the dozens. In a recent New York Times article, Kanye was more open than ever about ghost writers, a rather typical occurrence in hip-hop, just as in almost every genre of music (but can still cause some beefs, as Pusha T mused about Drake on 'Infrared', pulling a Kanye in terms of promotional buzz). People who can offer up a couple lines, a suggestion to bring up the volume of that sample or changing the tempo slightly. Since he's pretty charitable, if you sit down for more than five minutes on a couch in West's recording studio, you might end up getting a producer credit.
Despite the above, there hasn't been that much talk by Kanye, the other artists or their respective team about how these albums came together, other than it came together relatively quickly (plus the obligatory 'we always talked about working together' line). But how much of it was creating a great summer mix tape plan? They touched the most popular music genres of the last twenty five years. The last twenty five years of hip-hop/R&B distilled into a month's worth of releases.
If Dylan had the Basement Tapes to represent a blearily, laconic take on American folk, then Kanye's Wyoming Sessions is an urban music opus, held together by strings, but meant to be that flimsy and malleable. West haphazardly designed a mixtape for the summer (not just this summer, but the last twenty five summers), his name standing proudly atop it all, even if four other talented artists are officially sharing the bill.
But it doesn't sound exactly like the most popular music out there now. It's trying to follow and lead at the same time, the hook that would turn it into the song of the summer and then take a giant sonic step backward or forward.
Popular itself has become rather insular. More formulaic and similar than ever before. And this isn't just coming from someone who is going to heap praise upon a little-known stoner metal band a bit further down.
Following what are the Top 40 most popular songs in any given area is easier than ever. Forgot tracking sales. Now it's just following YouTube views and Spotify plays. Now they know exactly who is listening to this music and what they listened to ten minutes earlier and ten weeks before.
And with this information...they have made other songs that sound very, very similar. For them. If you'd like this...then we predict you'd love at lot more of this. Stick to the formula, deviate only slightly, and get some test listeners feedback on this before we go live.
Call it the Marvel-ization of the music industry, an industry so afraid of losing any more money that the major labels are this close to becoming straight up merchandise companies, pushing an artists' brand first and their music second.
You can debate the merits of a scientific study analyzing varying facets of popular music over the years (aren't there more pressing matters these days?), but it should come as a shock that music executives and producers are trying to give the people exactly what they seem to want, which is a dubious way to design anything.
Could West could have easily just chosen to work with current Billboard Top 10 artists Post Malone, Cardi B, or previous collaborators like Travis Scott or Drake? (yes) Would being the executive producer for any artist make the album more his than theirs? (maybe)
Music is made by committee more than ever before. You only try to write/cook number one's, since that increases the public awareness of the song and the artist, which might mean selling to a movie or TV show or an endorsement deal (aka, the real money). And just to catch someone's ear, every song has to have a bit of everything. Every single is a mix tape, a musical stew of this tempo, that hook, a twice repeated chorus after the third verse after the bridge (Not-so-secret recipe: add some trap beats to vapor-wave!).
This is not a complaint that all music sounds the same. Just that all the most popular, most pushed music sounds the same. Scores of different genres and sub-genres are just one slightly different keyword search and playlist away, but too many of us are completely satisfied with the same audio fast-food fare.
Counter point to this lament:
Who cares? Who caaaaaaaaares? It's just music, it's just fun, it's just entertainment, there's so many other problems in a person's life that they have to deal with so let them find some songs that have nothing to do with that! Let the kids listen to whatever the fuck they want to, and you/I can stick your/my chin-scratching, intentionally abrasive, ironically catchy, avant-grade ridden music for three hundred other miserable fans max up your/my ass!
Okay, but then what are we going to talk about?
Well let's talk about Sleep.
It's not always time to talk about Sleep, but it's time to talk about them now.
I was killing goats in the Sudan, just to rile up the locals, and getting them to despise their neighbours to the point of violence and bony-finger accusations of witchcraft.
Sleep offers the opposite of its name.
Sleep is loud, riff-heavy sludge rock (and loud) that goes gloriously on and even more gloriously on. The power (emphasis on power) trio started in the early nineties, released an album, tried to a release an album that was just one hour long song (Dopesmoker), kinda broke up, kinda came back together, and released The Sciences on April 20th (yup) of this year.
I was really stoned and fell down the stairs in a parking garage and every bone I broke sound like the crash of a cymbal and I was rocking out the whole time.
The new album opens with three minutes of guitar tuning/feedback just to get you in the mood, just get you anticipating for that first drop of overwhelming guitar-bass-drums sound wave. Sludges riffs, pounding percussion, almost indecipherable growls about getting high. Sleep never bothered much with self-reflection. Id, ego, superego, they're just words in the dopesmoke. And there's something in this simplicity that can keep a reviewer from being able to give analysis and symbolism to the music and lyrics...but so fucking what? If West's Wyoming Sessions is a series of carefully built sports cars speeding down the road in perfect harmony, then Sleep's The Sciences is a giant tank demolishing a building.
I was sending threatening letters to the person that was sending threatening letters to my sister because of something totally normal and bland on some message board.
Sometimes buildings need to be demolished, just like ears. Sleep is not for everybody, but everyone should give Sleep a chance. You might learn something about yourself. You might use it as a meditative tool, a menacing background noise to contrast with every deep breath and rise and fall of the shoulders as you sit crosse-legged, back-upright. But The Sciences is malleable, and it is totally acceptable to have it blast so loudly out of your headphones that you naturally fall to the floor and become a puddle (especially as 'Sonic Titan' revs up in the ninth minute or so).
I was ready to just beat the living shit out this customer because no matter how fucking pleasant I was telling them that it was going to arrive tomorrow they were acting like I was hiding it from them in the backroom.
Sometimes you don't want to get sonically punched in the face. And sometimes you do. Sometimes it reminds you that you still bleed (kinda like putting your hand on a stove). Immersed in only one very particular musical sounds means that when you cross into a completely different genre it can be lead to disgust or a raucous epiphany. It's a long way from 'Bodack Yellow' to 'Antarcticans Thawed', but sometimes those epic leaps are the most fun. Even though it doesn't seem like too many people are doing it. The Sciences didn't rush up the charts. It got a top page news article and 'best new track' on Pitchfork, but that's about as big as the promotion got.
Rock has been the new jazz for over ten years now. A dwindling diehard fanbase, enthusiastically supporting bands in clubs and theatres, when in the past they might have played arenas. Or some bands have always been having to live on the margins of success. Even when Sleep was first around, no one was really listening to Sleep.
I was listening to this person who I could have sworn loved and cared about say these awful things and I swear it split me into a thousand different pieces because that's what betrayal can do to you.
But when the world is a grind, you'll look for almost anything for a moment's respite, and let's not get too snobby over what kind of sounds sooth our own savagery. Kanye West revels in having his own turmoils spilled out across the internet, and makes the music a public therapy session. But if a great many people will lean on the over-easy and familiar, all the power to them, Post Malone will be there, knowing the music can be a connection between strangers, and a bond between friends and lovers, reminding them of a time they hope to never forget.
But sometimes you just need to go to Sleep.
And Sleep will be waiting.
Vaporwave is not going away
The world seems particularly bleak these days, so we're listening to a lot of vaporwave.
We've occasionally mentioned vaporwave here (like praising one of its highlight's, the 2814 album 'Birth of a New Day')...and now we're going to do it again...but with the added bonus of comparing it to Adorno's views on high and low culture (dope!).
According to the German theorist, art can make us better people by educating and encouraging us to better our society, if it is presented and internalized properly (this second factor cannot be understated, as every form of art risks the possibility of assisting us in fleeing, ignoring or not caring about the social and political responsibilities of modern society). But most forms of art - according to Adorno - is gutter trash that we are hopelessly addicted to, which we embrace over the actual tasks of improving the world (which means it's bad twice over). And sure, one can point out that what is considered low culture changes over time (prior to Dickens, fiction was consider a cheap form literature and writing, with poetry and philosophy the true forms of the pen), but we live at a time where there is an incredible overabundance of diversions that can keep people staring at a screen for hours, days, weeks. Binging used to have a wholly negative connotation (and in terms of eating disorders it was a medically dangerous one). Now the term is thrown around lightly when we watch gobs of television or play Zelda/Destiny/Overwatch until the sun comes up.
[Quick note: I'm sure Adorno would be aghast at the immersiveness of modern, open-world style video games, where we would spend many many hours in a virtual world, building an identity, accomplishing tasks, bring peace (typically by warring), and creating an entirely fake society, while neglecting the actual world around us]
Here's where music has a hidden sort-of secret weapon: You can do other things while listening to it. Other forms of entertainment requires a lot more attention, a combination of senses being applied at once. But you can still save the world while listening to tunes. And in terms of vaporwave, in fact, the music receding into a more permanent part of the background is one of its features (so right here we'll acknowledge its debt to ambient music, which electronic pioneer Brian Eno, designed to be a sort of sonic furniture for life).
Vaporwave doesn't reach out with melodies, hooks and choruses (or verses, for that matter). Vaprowave burrows slowly, ripples constantly, a sort of soundtrack to the universe's microwave background radiation. Vaporwave doesn't peak, in terms of both popularity and musical structure. It was created recently, in the grand scheme of the history of the universe, but once you listen to it for awhile, it seems like it's always been around somehow.
By combining elevator music, dialogue from old commercials, and an intermediate understanding of GarageBand software, Adorno can rest easy. We can now aim for higher standards in society while getting our very basic groove on.
With YouTube creators blurring the Proustian mundaneness of everyday life and moronic over sharing, graffiti becoming big money art investments, and cookie-cutter comic books movies dominating the barely holding together monoculture to the point where we look to them to start base and mostly hypothetical political discussions, one would think that Adorno's point of bad (read: pop) art being bad for society has been been over proven.
There is always a counterpoint in the corner. There's always a movement (whether the situationalists or punk rock) that's gearing up a pushback against the norm. It's the crack in everything so that a little light gets in (thanks, Leonard). The Internet has gotten a pretty bad rap lately (and for so, so many things, much deserved), but the antidote has been hiding in plain sight, too. We decided that the Internet was going to being people together (since that's what the technology allowed), and then over time we decided that it was actually alienating us and pushing us apart. But the same root technology is there - communicating with billions of other people across the planet in a instant - so the only thing that needs to change is ourselves. And even though one can make the case that the Silicon Valley corporatists have taken over these forums, we're always only one moment, one event, one decision away from flipping the corporatist structure on its head.
And Vaporwave will be the soundtrack to this change, because the music is already everybody's. Made in bedrooms and coffee shops around the world with people who might be musical prodigies, or neophytes mucking around with some cheap editing software, Vaporwave is corporate leftovers. Distorted and rearranged hooks and choruses that were meant to line the pockets of record executives. Snippets of ads that were designed to make you buy, buy, buy. Once these cultural artifacts have been rendered obsolete, they are plundered in plain sight and recycled. Boiled down to their base elements, it is then given a beat that is nice and slow, slow, slow. Because everything else is moving way too fast, whether it be the news (and now everything is practically the news, which means at the same time that nothing is practically news) or your money disappearing down another digital purchase, student loan, or ID hack. This music is the antidote to the early 21st century.
When everything on your heads-up-display of reality is always overwhelming, Vaporwave is there, revealing that there was no barrel bottom to scrape in the first place. Most of the genre's artists release all their material for free on YouTube, bandcamp, or Spotify (subscription plan or ads). Many of them use aliases (although it would be amazing if someone actually named their child 'CocaineJesus'), or multiple aliases. No interviews, no concerts, no hype bubble. Post-money, post-celebrity. Inherently communal and empty at the same time. If it ends, it ends, but it's still there (like all our cultural debris), ready to be found at a later date. Or not even then. Vaporwave seems to be totally okay with the second law of thermodynamics.
Paul McCartney's Solo Work is Secretly Bonkers
Yes, yes we all know The Beatles, and we all know that Paul was the cute one, but he was also the most musically talented of all of them by far. He was easily the most versatile singer with the greatest range, and while George was considered the lead guitarist but one of the best known solos was done by Paul (on Harrison's own 'Taxman'). McCartney became the go-to piano player, his bass lines were incredible, and the dirty little secret in the world of Beatles records was how often he replaced Ringo's drumming with his own (not just on 'The White Album').
Yes, John might be the indie-rock darling because he was a charming jerk singing about himself half the time, while George was always the spiritual dark horse, and everyone loves Ringo (because...Ringo), but it was Paul who pushed harder into different genres from the get-go, trying the flavours of country, calypso, dance-hall, experimental (Carnival of Light...which pre-dated Revolution 9), whatever the hell 'Helter Skelter' is (proto-punk? Early metal?), and children's songs.
One of the main reasons The Beatles music still resonates is that there is so much variation to their music. Sure the blurring genres and influences are filtered through Liverpudian rock-pop, but they effortlessly bounced from catchy doo-wop to mournful ballads to psychedelic drone, usually on the same album side. Paul sucked all this up like a vacuum, pushed for concept albums, album-side medleys, and trying to record without resorting to overdubs.
But then the band broke up. The main reason the Beatles fell apart was summarized by Mick Jagger: If there were ten things, both John and Paul wanted to be in charge of eight of them. Egos and power-playing. So when John was hitting the smack pretty hard in 1969, Paul took the reins and treated the others as sidemen for his ideas, which was more or less the breaking point.
So he formed Wings, where he had his wife and a rotating group of actual sidemen, playing whatever instruments Paul didn't feel like playing in studio and couldn't play live because of a terrible birth defect of only having two hands.
And Wings were safe. You know just enough Wings tracks that we don't need to talk about Wings, except to mention that Bond theme, 'Live and Let Die', which is all you would ever need for 'symphonic rock'. So let's talk about the two albums he made between Beatles and Wings (which were the self-titled McCartney, and then Ram), and the stuff that came after Wings broke up in 1981 (although I'm damn tempted to address the fact that there's a song called 'Morse Moose and the Grey Goose' on the 1979 Wings album, London Town).
To reiterate, Paul McCartney is unfairly portrayed as sentimental pop singer-songwriter, when his solo work is secretly bonkers. He can mold his abilities and instincts into whatever musical style you present to him, and he rarely stuck with rehashing 'Yesterday'.
There is certainly a whimsicalness to a lot of it, but in a twisted, Alice in Wonderland vein. His 1970 self-titled album is like Nick Drake's Pink Moon, if Nick Drake had just finished being part of the biggest band of all time. Home studio-recordings, two minute snippets of songs that feel unfinished but have their own touches of poignancy. 'Maybe I'm Amazed' is the best known track, and is close to the end, so it feels like the whole album is leading up to this song, as if each prior track is another unfinished sketch on the way to the masterpiece. Of course has it be listened to in order, in one sitting.
For his follow up, Ram, he recruited session players with fake out 'musicians wanted' ads, describing the gig as music for infomercials. It's a lot more polished, and a lot wackier, too. Even when he gives you the Top 40 stylings, he cranks the feels up to 11. If he's going to give you something soft and familiar, it's gonna be a lullaby massage and your best friend since pre-school.
Enter 'Uncle Albert/Admiral Hasley', so over-the-top British, so 'Waterloo Sunset' times ten, a mish-mash of a changing-of-the-guard story and a sing-along parade. A number one hit of extreme pleasantness. No one else can pull this off earnestly, or with a wink that's as genuine as the song is a mock-up. And it's on the same album that contains the English swamp rock of 'Monkberry Moon Delight' and its guttural vocal styling, which is sitting only a couple songs away from 'The Back Seat of My Car', which has all the epic-ness of 'Paradise by the Dashboard Light' but compartmentalize into four and a half minutes. Ram predicts the sounds of the seventies that doesn't include a direct influence of Kraftwerk.
Meanwhile, 1980's McCartney II is his take on new wave, and he's able to fuse it effortlessly with his songwriting talents. On first listen, 'Temporary Secretary' does not sound anything like a Beatles or a Wing song. It's incessant, jerky keyboard melody practically shrieks at you, and Paul is singing in this flat nasal voice...but upon repeat listens, it's hard to imagine anyone else putting together the track (it's an electronica song about a...temporary secretary. Sometimes the literal reading of a piece of art is more bizarre than any possible symbolism you can come up with). The lead off single of McCartney II, 'Coming Up', bridges the pop-new wave gap, and is about as catchy as you can get, with Paul channeling his inner Talking Heads.
This is McCartney's gift of imprinting, and when you realize he can and has applied to every major genre of contemporary and classical music, you can see how Paul McCartney is a - paradoxically - an iconic outlier, a popular experimentalist, a let's-throw-it-at-a-wall-and-see-what-sticks-and-by-the-way-I-am-an-expert-on-glue tactician of the auditory arts.
But to so many people who give little thought to a post-Beatles-and-Wings discography of the man, Paul will do soft-rock 80s better than anyone, to the detriment of his own legacy, and so even more people will assume he only writes forgettable soft-rock. You might know his R&B-infused collaborations with Michael Jackson (Say, Say, Say) and Stevie Wonder ('Ebony and Ivory'), but you probably don't know 'My Brave Face', the lead single from 1989's 'Flowers in the Dirt'. Yet in some sense you kind of do. It is the exact sound of what you think what Top 40 music sounded like in the summer of 1989. Around the same time was his Liverpool Oratrio, his first of many forays into classical music and...it's incredible that it exists as a project created by the man who also wrote 'Can't By Me Love' and 'Band on the Run'. And it's too weird to call it good. Quite plainly it's ninety minutes of strings and choir about life in Liverpool in the mid twentieth century, and that alone should make you furrow your brow and go 'really?' But it's there, it exists, because Paul McCartney willed it into existence, almost effortlessly in between world tours and recording pop music. And we're not taking the piss here. This album just underscores the title of this article.
He even went rave. The Fireman is a musical project McCartney undertook with Youth, a producer of early house music (most notable is his work with electronica pioneers The Orb). Three albums in fifteen years...and 'My Brave Face' this ain't. You won't find Paul's jangly piano or distinctive, intricate bass lines anywhere in the music. And don't even think about him singing a single note (unless it's first slowed, sliced, blurred, or buried in the mix). Long tracks of repetitive, robotic beats, with plenty of looping synths, and the odd weird cut-up vocal of himself or someone on the radio. Now at the moment it seems like I might be about to claim that McCartney created vaporwave. He did not. If you are at all familiar with The Orb, then you can see that that's where a lot of The Fireman's sound came from. Which Paul has been able to absorb into himself through some sort of sonic osmosis.
That said, if you know a bit of the various sub-genres of electronic musics, The Fireman certainly is Paul McCartney-esque of that form of music. Bright, shiny, with a big friendly beat. None of the hyperactive abrasive-ness of Aphex Twin, or the cold, atmospheric detachment of Autechre, or the short, inward looking smear of sounds like Boards of Canada.
There's his take on indie rock: Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, which brings a baroque, clean production (thanks to Radiohead producer Niger Godrich), and is full of charming, half-mournful pop music you could have sworn died years before. He's either channeling Calexico, or predicting (warning us?) Ed Sheeran.
But it's all good because Paul McCartney is all good. There's a perfectionist streak that makes his discography practically boring, because always doing great (even in genres certain listeners might loathe) can get pretty boring. Listening to a mix of songs taken from all the albums mentioned here is wonderfully disconcerting because you have to keep reminding yourself that it's the same, bonkers, uber-talented person the whole time.
'Within Arms’ Length': Whatever Liars are now, they are back
(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.
Coming Up, Sustaining, Coming Back: The War on Drugs, Arcade Fire and LCD Soundsystem
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.
Some Important 21st Century Albums
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.
HURRY UP PLEASE IT'S TIME: A Moon Shaped Pool Review
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...
Prince Has Ascended, Pablo Has Landed
Kid from Minnesota makes it.
How do you want your Prince Rogers Nelson?
Swirling dichotomies that were apparent and acknowledged by him on his records early on. Black, white, gay, straight. The quicker we get the petty details out of the way, the quicker we can move onto the cosmic fucking.
So far 2016 hasn't been kind to uber-talented, influential, mysterious, seemingly ageless artists. Especially with two of the biggest having been taken from so jarringly. Both releasing new music and/or touring, and suddenly...can you hear me, unpronounceable symbol? Can you hear me, unpronounceable symbol?
Bowie comparisons are apt. It compliments the legacies of both men.
What Bowie was to the 70s, Prince was to the 80s. Huge commercial success, restless experimentation, monster tours, lavish lifestyles. But if one of Bowie's identities was an artistic alien sex God, then that's what Prince was through and through. His only career shift was from body-mind-spirit was to sprint-mind-body, which occurred upon his conversion to a Jehovah's Witness in 2001 (which should not all be played-down or ignored in remembering him. He invested as much power and energy into his theology as he did his music and persona. He knocked on doors preaching, and refused any sort of operation that might rely on blood transfusions. Prince never did anything half-assed, and his theological leanings - which many people kind of follow with their fingers crossed behind their backs - was no different).
If Bowie died - as if death was just another one of his characters, albeit this being a much more permanent one - then Prince has now become something else. A more static idea, perhaps. Bowie seemed untouchable because you couldn't find the real man inside. Prince seemed untouchable because he was exactly the man he presented himself as. The mask never wavered because there was no mask. Tapping into some sort of the ground source energy to the hum/background radiation of the universe. And when you get connected to that, no matter what your field, there needs to be a correspondingly strong personality to see the work to its desired end.
In other words, Prince did not a give a shit.
And the drive and confidence would mean a whole lot less if he didn't succeed wildly. But he did, and this is where we would list the hits, the hits he wrote for other people, the marathon tight-but-loose concerts (he embarked on 27 concert tours since 1979, and just as it's known that carbon dioxide has one carbon and two oxygen atoms, it's agreed that Prince shows were generally mindfuckingly incredible (sad to say, we never had the chance to attend), sweat-filled, panty-loosening, and life-changing), the secret Paisley Park formula that ruled the eighties airwaves, and the 'controversy' that he had a 'dirty mind' 'for you' and would give you 'diamonds and pearls' for 'one nite alone' to get some 'lovesexy' and make you 'come' was just a 'sign o the times'.
And all the above has a lot to do with the legacy of Prince, but it includes a lot of the familiar ingredients that are found within many other iconic musical artists.
Once again, Prince did not give a shit.
All the things that so many artists have compromised on, or accepted as being part of the new way to promote and perform music in the 21st century? Prince didn't do it. Didn't care. Didn't have to, came up the old fashion way back in the late seventies, early eighties, when vinyl was for everyone, not just hipsters, and getting concert tickets meant waiting in a physical line, not a virtual one. And because he succeeded so strongly for so long, it never looked like anything was broken, so why bother fixing it? There was nothing to fix in Prince's world, and besides, if there was, he'd do it himself and let the world catch up.
Apologizing for offending people when he dressed like that, sang like this? Nope.
Selling your music in digital music stores that he didn't control? Nope.
Eventually backing down from a confrontation with your record label? Nope.
Letting fans upload videos of concerts and covers? Nope.
Starting shows on time? Nope (but playing for three hours, long past curfew, and sometimes doing encores an hour after the show ends to the remaining die hard fans? Oh yes)
The sex-dripping pinup posters, the leather and lace, the Horatio-Alger autobiographical films, the love spilling over into lust, the embrace of the cold drum machines and warm melting synths with a squealing guitar solo laid out on top (bass optional), the unpronounceable symbol. A man always expanding his musical and style horizons but never seeming to change.
And you're so enamoured and attracted to the persona as a whole that you forget all the necessary working parts that must exist for the persona to work. When something looks effortless and natural, you rarely think about the difficulty in learning to play the instruments, in mastering the building blocks of rhythm and melody, in commanding a stage night after night whether there's fifteen or fifteen thousand people in the audience, in proudly standing up for your values and beliefs even though by doing so as a public figure means you might be criticized, ridiculed, or threatened.
And never having a fail moment despite always wearing heels in public.
It took hours, months, years to learn all these skills, and so many other artists show the sweat and the strain, or make it part of their narrative from unknown to success. But not Prince.
It's hard to picture Prince screwing up a guitar part, or flubbing a lyric. Or even getting writer’s block in front of the piano when working on a song.
Success was part of Prince's identity. Even when album sales dropped, and critical praise wavered, it never seemed that it was him who was missing the mark. That would ruin everything. As if we're the ones that didn't understand his new music, or were a touch weak and begged for only the greatest hits at his shows.
Everyone wanted Prince to be perfect, pristine, endless, an identity he had to invest in every moment of every day. And he held up his part of the bargain right up to his death.
The man did interviews and press. Infrequently (compared to most musical artists about to promote a new album), but he was by no means a media recluse, appearing on CNN, Arsenio Hall, Lopez Tonight, and host of other television shows. He picked up and presented at award shows (saying, when presenting the 2015 Grammy for album of the year, "like books and black lives, albums still matter"), appeared on 'New Girl' as himself two years back, and even showed up on the short-lived Muppets tonight in the late nineties (because achieving phenomenal and sustained success that you felt you deserved from the get-go will make anyone kind of weird. Michael Jackson wanted the world to love him. Prince operated on the certainty that the world already did).
But doing any sort of press did not hurt his brand/persona or the perception of him being a hard-working non-mythical genius. No signs of slowing down, either, releasing two albums last year and being in the middle of a solo piano tour when he fell ill.
In terms of frequently and effortlessly knocking out (meaning both writing and performing) pop hits that absorbs beautiful bits and perfect pieces of so many other musical genres, Prince is up there with The Beatles, the aforementioned Bowie, and...
And then there's Kayne West.
No, no, no, you say. You can't make that leap, not yet. Too soon. That Kanye West guy can't play guitar or even sing. It's ridiculous to even consider comparing him to the Lord of Paisley Park.
Harrumph, I say.
Raging egomaniacs who rarely slept/sleep and brought/bring the hits and whose celebrity was a story in and of itself.
That's why everyone has stuck by Kanye for so long (The College Dropout was twelve years ago!). It doesn't matter what he says or does in public, as long as he does his part and blow our minds when we put the headphones on. The success of his run of critically and commercially successful albums (and influential on hip hop, pop, and soul and beyond) is certainly similar to Prince's grip on the 1980s. And their work went beyond their own albums, with both men writing hits and hooks for other artists.
West's longest gap between albums finally ended in February, with the release of The Life of Pablo. The slow drip release of The Life of Pablo. The kind of tease you'd expect from a nine minute Prince sex jam.
A year of promises and tossing out tracks (including a Paul McCartney/Rihanna collaboration that didn't make the album).
And then when it came out it didn't actually come out because it was delayed to add more tracks, then delayed again to remix some tracks, then delayed again to add another track, then it was released, and then was updated with different remixes of a couple songs (another Prince connection: Prince was about to release three different albums in '87, then slashed it to pieces and released Sign O the Times instead, and the next year he cancelled The Black Album at the last minute to release Lovesexy).
So...have we even heard The Life of Pablo as its creator intended? Or was Kanye intentionally challenging the notion of the presentation of the album as a final, fixed artistic object? Well the basic point of promotion is to get people constantly thinking about you and your product/art, and by that metric Kanye tweeting updates and changes and bizarre comments is a complete success (In lieu of actually having an interview with him, music and pop culture websites can feast on these scraps and speculate). The stress and tension of finishing an album and then promoting that many bands keep behind closed doors was disembowelled for all to see at the last minute.
And there were three days of last minutes.
The music goes well with this unveiling. It's a screaming, living, haphazardly existing piece of art (Frank Zappa would love this album).
To wit: The cover is a pale-orange background with a two amateur photos, one of a wedding, another of a woman's bikini'ed backside. The title is repeated and below that, 'which/one', also repeated. Repetitive, but questioning, having to make a choice of what kind of life to live. Unresolved inside and out, and this kind of dichotomy means that this record is bo-nanas in a great way.
It's a party and a wake. It's a club full of church pews. It's sin and then forgiveness. It's cheap and easy and priceless and rare. Full of middle finger dicks and breaking hearts.
It's like To Pimp a Butterfly if the world was populated by 7 billion Kanye Wests. If Kendrick's album was too tortured a reflection of where he fits as an artist/celebrity in a world still full of racial tensions, then this one is a reflection of West himself on mushrooms. An examination of marriage. And family. And celebrity. And overwhelmed businessman.
And if these are well-trodden lyrical paths for Kanye, the music that the words swim around and dog paddle is the super saving grace. West is a consummate producer, and even when he's got six other people on the boards, it's his show through and through (when you check out the credits for his first three albums, it's surprisingly sparse. As if the more people he brings in, the weirder he gets).
It's his Sign O The Times (which is Prince's White Album), and that's even taking into consideration that he has three albums that are longer. Most of the songs are short and never overstay their welcome. The beats are fresh and muddy at the same time. Sometimes the production is over the top, sometimes it's completely half-assed. 30 Hours is hilarious, so is I Love Kanye (The meta-ness reaching its zenith on these two tracks. He knows what the audience expects of him, so it's kind of ridiculous when the public are surprised at his antics, on or off the album. It's gotten to the point where even West's funny lines are considered demeaning and insulting. The Swift line, taking shots at his ex or his one night stands? The man's not a politician or a priest (he's noted that this is a gospel album plus swearing. He's a rapper/producer/artist and that's what he's going to put on his album (Biggie closed his best album zinging lines at all the woman he wanted to bang)). Fade doesn't sound like it should be the last song at all. The track listing is so lumpy, but the material is all very good or above, so everyone can re-invent, cut and paste, slice and dice the album when they listen to it on shuffle. And Kanye must be hyper-aware that this is how music is absorbed these days: With a finger always dangling above the 'next song' button.
30 Hours is 'here's the start of the bonus tracks because I know you're all going to bitch about taking three years to make another 40 minute album with no pop-friendly hits'. Kanye openly admits it in the song, remarking that he always like the extra stuff on deluxe editions of albums.
He takes a phone call at the end of it for god's sake.
But it's a great hook. Maybe the most easy-going on the whole record.
And they kind of feel like bonus tracks because we've already heard 'No More Parties' (the best rapping on the album, with Kanye feasting on Kendrick's energy), and 'Facts (Charlie Heat Version)' suggests it's a remix, which makes senses since remixes are always easy bonus track add ons.
Intentionally built in bonus tracks to create three acts. The two brief interludes separating the three sections. First is triumph, second is loss, third is recovery.
Critics have noted the battle of wills both musically and lyrically. Partying, high, energy braggadocio contrasted with quiet, soft, reflection. Kanye the superstar versus Kanye the family man, and his previous album, Yeezus, summed that up in two lines: 'Got a kid and the wife life/But can't give up on the night life.' (Later he coins the term 'swag-hili').
Unlike Yeezus, the guests are much more pronounced on Pablo. Chance the Rapper on 'Ultralight Beam' is pretty much his coming out party to celebrity, since it's so inspiring, brilliant and fun. The Weeknd has a hook on 'FML' that might be the best thing he's on since House of Balloons (and certainly part of the secret is that West has the ability to bring out the best of everybody. That he's a master of the beat (and flipping the beat, and pouring gasoline and lighting it on fire), which means he'll always bring out the best in everybody (we here at abandonedstation are 100% supportive of more Kanye/Madlib collaborations)).
Even with the overabudnance of producers, his own talent shines through. Whether it's dropping raga-rhythms in the second half of 'Famous', or the haunting, lonely piano keys on 'Real Friends'. When you're a pro, it's little differences that make the difference (the Swift line in 'Famous' sticks with you because of how West let's that word drag: 'faaaaay-mus'. It's just fun to say. In the early 2000s, he arrived on scene to a musical world exhausted by the slow grind death of gangsta rap and the anger-fuelled perfectionism of Eminem, and he made hip-hip fun again. An injection of chopped up soul samples was just a launching pad to expanding his pallet to incorporate so many other styles of music).
Leaping forward from short track to short track whether things go from zero to crazy in a matter of seconds, Life of Pablo feels like it's a car crash of just luxury vehicles ('feels like' should be broken down, with the two words together suggesting uncertainty and a comparison to something else, as if the matter could not be understood or observed directly, that further research and explanations are necessary).
Yeezus was minimalist, abrasive, confrontational, and Life of Pablo is all those things, but with its opposites. It's also operatic, melodic, reflective. Tortured? Sure. An artist being pulled in different directions? Yup. Kanye's political and moral outrage is woven into his own personal boasts and lamentations. The difference between public and private is collapsing for much of Western society, and here we have an album that capturing that feeling perfectly.
This shouldn't be surprising. When has Kanye ever let us down? He told us he never would on his first album, and he's kept his promise.
One hit wonders, flash in the pans, cash grabbing followers, these are the dominant characters in the narrative of popular music. The exceptions to these rules are much more fascinating, challenging, and weirder. And that’s a description of both the music and the people who make it. Prince never gave a shit and always brought the house down (usually hours after curfew). Kanye West is following these footsteps and not finding the shoes too big (maybe he turned the heels into limited edition sneakers). He could bring the goods live, too. The Yeezus tour was brilliant and wonderfully over the top.
Salute the honoured past, the wondrous present and the unknown future. Party like it’s always 1999, and a runaway toast to the both of them (the douchebags, assholes, scumbags, and jerkoffs, too).
David Bowie Is Dead: What the Fuck Else is New?
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?
MUSIC ROUNDUP FOR THE FIRST HALF OF 2015
(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.
THE COMEBACK: DIE A HERO, LIVE LONG ENOUGH TO BECOME
(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.
EVERYTHING THE BEATLES DID, THEY DID BETTER THAN YOU
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.
Apparently It's Been a Long Time Since We've Rocked and Rolled
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