Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Hall & Oates: The Essential Collection (1974-2001)


(BMG)

!!!!! AVOID !!!!!

Or, An Examination of the Progression of Mainstream Thinking Vis a Vis Hall & Oates. By Nathan Phillips.

"It really is very bizarre. I remember one of the local radio hosts doing a 'whatever happened to them' sort of thing about ten years ago and I feel like it dragged on over several days. They would have people call in and recount their H&O memories. At that point it still seemed largely ironic, at least to most involved, but it was a long time ago and I was much younger (and didn't really have much of an idea who Hall & Oates were). I could be remembering wrong. I am still largely unfamiliar with their work outside of a couple singles, but one of my friends played a best-of on a road trip once and it didn't do much for me. Some shit about 'where are the italian girls'."

That's my friend Mike giving an account -- at my prodding -- of the one-of-a-kind tale of Hall & Oates' popular appeal. I never knew of anyone who counted Hall & Oates as anything but a juggernaut of VH1 cheese until 2006, when I worked with a lady with legitimately great taste in soul music; we started discussing records regularly when she demanded to know how I knew the words to "My Cherie Amour" while I was singing it and making chicken grape salad. (Fun fact: working in food services is kind of boring.) She is the person who gave me my first compilation of Prince b-sides, specifically so I could hear the immortal "Erotic City." So when I lightly mocked "I Can't Go for That" one day as it played over the Muzak and she countered that H&O was "love makin' music," I tended to let my perception of them sit more than slightly challenged.

In my head, if Daryl Hall and John Oates qualified at all as soul music, they were whitebread. But I'd never even thought of them as anything aside from AM soft rock, what the kids now refer to as "Yacht Rock." To be honest, I kind of enjoyed "I Can't Go for That" whenever it came on, but I like lots of silly songs of the 1980s for various complicated reasons. (For instance, I like Rick Springfield's "Jessie's Girl" because it's blessed with a video that must be one of the most uproariously funny pieces of film ever shot -- Springfield is so consumed with his crush on Jessie that he breaks a fucking mirror with his guitar.)

Some years later, Hall & Oates are everywhere. People with a keen sense of the cool and the cutting edge consider them touchstones. Pitchfork covers them. The Bird and the Bee released a stopgap album this year containing nothing but H&O covers. All their songs were in Six Days Seven Nights or 50 First Dates or whatever that movie was called. A recent poll of music industry types found the duo landing (near the bottom, but still) on a list of 100 Greatest Artists for VH1. Suddenly it's taboo to dismiss Hall & Oates as bland antique welfare cheese as was once the conventional wisdom. And I, for one, am sick of it. What the flying fuck is all this about? The American people -- the people of the world, even -- were right the first time about these boring old lame asses.

Some friends of mine who disagree with me passionately about Hall & Oates recently helped while I attempted to trace their ascendency to hipdom, but none of them would contend that they had not always loved the group. I see no reason not to believe them, but there seems to be a gleeful shared joy in some former guilty pleasure suddenly receiving legitimate acclaim. So maybe these people always loved Hall & Oates; they just only got around to admitting it once the wave of press and criticism was on their side. John Oates' own account bears this out: "We actually never really felt, especially in the ’70s and ’80s, that our music and songwriting was appreciated. I think people didn’t really realize the depth and breadth of our work." Evidently the mountains of money earned from their hit singles wasn't enough "appreciation" for Mr. Oates.

At any rate, every conclusion my friends mustered up about an origin for the Great Hall & Oates Resurgence met a dead end. The first time I ever had much of a clue about this distressing revolution came in December of 2008, when I was wandering around bars downtown in this very community with a woman I was then close friends with and secretly attempting to date, in a fit of insanity I can't really excuse. We stopped at one we both frequented; alcohol was flowing along with about four kids the unimaginative might refer to as "hipsters," pierced hipsters at that, jumping and dancing on tables, the bar, and every other flat surface as the bartender blasted from her iPod what was at first a general "1980s playlist." This, within a couple of minutes, turned into a "Hall & Oates playlist." First "Private Eyes," then "Maneater," then "I Can't Go for That (No Can Do)," then whatever. And the dancing got wilder. More enthusiastic. One of the guys -- who happened to co-own the bar in question -- removed all of his clothes and jumped atop the bar. The bouncer informed me that his best friend's mom claimed to have inspired "Maneater." ("She was, like, a groupie, you know. One of 'the' groupies. The major ones!") My friend feigned unwavering enthusiasm, aided by the large quantities of alcohol she was now taking in, but in a loud moment leaned over and whispered to me -- still grinning -- "I fucking hate Hall & Oates." Which, I will confess, suddenly made me feel far less alone.

The night only got more neon crazy from that point. For one thing, the entire Hall & Oates playlist repeated twice, the naked bar-dancing continued, and only when some long-haired holdover grunge kid came in and insisted on putting a dollar in the jukebox for the dreaded bar staple "Creep" (followed by "Black Hole Sun" and, oh lordy, "November Rain") was the barkeep forced to mute her "Rich Girl"-generating device. And god bless the other denizens of the bar; they were so angry at the Radiohead creep they literally threw things at him. Mostly paper and coasters. He seemed not to notice.

The point being, this event predated most explanations I could find for the sudden explosion in H&O adulation from the Cool Kids. I suppose the Cool Kids being wrong about something is nothing new. Some of this sincerity seemed unmistakable, though. Largely because of songs that have sampled it, I have a soft spot for "I Can't Go for That" and played it while DJing exactly once, but received in return no less than five anecdotes from folks in the room about the size and quality of their collections of Hall & Oates 45's, LP's, and twelve-inches, right down to descriptions of the logos on their labels. Aside from Michael Jackson (and sorry haters, this was before he died), no artist I played generated more automatic excitement. There seems to be something there.

To be honest, some of this material is easy on the ear; in addition to the shimmering, unclunkily smooth "I Can't Go for That," the only serious fault of which is this duo's usual annoying-as-fuck stuttering vocals, there is some decidedly well-crafted pop music here in the form of the two massive hits "Private Eyes" and "Maneater," the latter blessed with a damned infectious rhythm and melody, the former overcoming a lot of irritating electric guitar and a discomforting similarity to "Kiss on My List" with genuine energy and smart, concise writing; it's possible to feel just the correct version of 1980s nostalgia rush here, whether you lived through and/or remember the decade or not. (Both Hall and Oates remain desperately unconvincing as vocalists; on even their best songs, the level of their disaffected laziness is staggering.) "She's Gone" as a recording sounds undeniably correct: technically able, untouchably polished pop music. "Rich Girl" actually toys a bit with funk minimalism in amidst its tiresome Doobie-isms. The rhythm section on most of these singles is flawless, and that makes it easier to accept how venerated they are in the music world.

But some of this -- actually, a lot of it -- sounds terrible. "Wait for Me" and "Kiss on My List" are dated embarrassments; I can't wrap my head around the modern attraction to the latter. I can't get even a modicum of pleasure from the generic production, the lazy hooks, and least of all the uninspired, annoyingly smug performances. And even the celebrated "Sara Smile" comes off to me as an amalgam of the worst tendencies in pop music of its time, and of some good tendencies gone awry -- it's too smooth, too logical, too "right": perfectly sliced American cheese readymade for Your Local Forecast. That such music could generate the kind of foot movement I witnessed that night two years ago, well, it does blow this old mind, I can tell you. Because except in "I Can't Go for That," "Maneater," and "Private Eyes," I don't hear the bouncing of rhythms here, I just hear everything disappearing into a depressingly undistinguished easy-listening sludge. This particular collection gets worse as it goes along, too, the second half filled with embarrassing fake hard-rock dickery and corny production and straight up stupid fucking songs, peaking with the incomprehensible "Method of Modern Love," which apes '70s Paul McCartney like "Maneater" apes '60s Motown, with an appropriate sacrifice of coherence and basic stability. The song features remarkably grating wailing and bopping in both channels while the title is (mostly) spelled out like we're all living in Bert and Ernie's house. Ask me for a song I hate more and the only thing I can even think of is either "Silly Love Songs" or "Let 'Em In."

Still, I can see someone getting off on "Modern Love" because it's funny/ goofy/ cornball. But all these people! They don't see it that way. It's not cornball anymore, and I understood the universe so much more when it was. When people heard these dumbasses brooding and mumbling and yelping over the Kenny G rhythm tracks and guffawed in great spirits because it's kind of hilarious and isn't life grand. When people would see the "Maneater" video come on and laugh their asses off at the ridiculousness of it. ("Are you a maneater too, Beavis? Huh huh.") I mean, tell me a Wham! revival isn't next. Please? I fucking miss those days when we all thought back on this in the same context as Oreo Big Stuf and bubble gum soda and Punky Brewster and Foofer and Walter Mondale. Remember when MTV used to run old videos with a "groan-meter?" I vividly remember H&O scoring mightily high on that thing, and somehow they were so much easier to take in that context as now-embattled former superstars, instead of goddamn Art. Or Soul, worse yet.

I begrudgingly admit that Hall & Oates had talent that did go slightly beyond marketing and accounting (they even look like guys you'd see in a Boater's World on a Saturday afternoon), but only when their music isn't headache-inducingly dull, which is when it was trendiest; to argue that these two were innovators seems disingenuous to me. At best, they were cunning followers of fresh ideas. I can't picture them inventing much of anything, but listen straight through to the first nine songs here and you can hear a progression happening, and they were able messengers of new waves in soul and rock, where they presented cool things other musicians were doing in an inoffensive Spam sandwich context safe for the grannies. God bless them.

I'm not crazy, though, right? This was all very, very different ten years ago, wasn't it? I was so much happier then. "Maneater" was not so long ago declared one of MTV's "25 Lamest Videos of All Time," which in all those legions of lame is saying something. But let's go talk to The People, shall we? In 2001, "goatsby" posted on Usenet a topic teasingly labeled "Top Albums of The '80s" that in fact opens thusly: "Well I was gunna do my top songs of the 80s but bugger it Im too drunk know to think of any but heres a list of 80s songs that I hate"; after a-Ha and just before Tears for Fear, he declares: "Hall & Oates - everything - I hate these bastages, every wedding reception there is always a poxy cover band that plays Hall & Oates. Apparentley one of them is not the full quid- hard to tell isnt it!!" Indeed. Now, in 2010, if an unsuspecting lady should dare posit on Amazon that maybe, just maybe, we remember these fuckers as more interesting than they actually were, then bam! 1 of 14 people find you helpful. Take that, bitch. (Just above her, Emily K. Nesington, whom Amazon promises is using her Real Name™, offers this cutting criticism: "Shipment was recieved at a reasonable rate. In great condition, brand new. This product consisted of 2 CD's. The first CD had great classic Hall and Oates songs but the second CD wasn't that impressive. Could have gotten the one CD and been satisfied. Description was accurate and helpful." For some baffling reason, only one person found that helpful as well.)

I suspect this is somewhat akin to the sincere movement within college-rock circles that feels that prog rock and the Grateful Dead and other unspeakable bilge were actually super-hip this whole time and the people who didn't/don't go along with it are just cynical assholes, man, who just want to hate whatever's popular! But a lot more of it can be pared down to the people you ask. Hall & Oates were always reasonably well-regarded amongst their peers, and everyone from ?uestlove to the Bird and the Bee cheerleads for them today. There's a good chance that the lion's share of people with non-ironic respect for Hall & Oates possess it because of what they'd term the technical genius of their songwriting... a distinction that falls upon them courtesy of other people who write songs, who know how difficult it is and can hear how interesting and different something like the verses in "Kiss on My List" actually are. But I don't write songs so I don't give a fuck.

I wouldn't be so angry, but c'mon. Some of this is really a little disturbing. Maneaters, rich girls, bitch girls, she who is gone, she upon whom the private eyes fall... in the narrative of the Hall & Oates repertoire, all of these female crazies are flocking around the family man like Pac-Man ghosts at an alarming rate. Sexism in popular and/or blues-based music is almost a given, sadly, but the cheerful way in which Hall & Oates deliver it is extremely tiresome, and worthy of open dismay; the endless army of whiny, needy bitches knocking on the dressing room door of these two infallible, open-hearted men who have resigned themselves to being practically magnets for hurt will always seem genuine, passionate, loving at first. Then out come the claws to rip our boys to shreds, the Black Widows who will murder them for their sperm and move on to the next all-too-willing victim. It's a songwriting tradition that stretches back to folks whose toilets Hall and Oates aren't worthy of scrubbing, Ray Charles back to Muddy Waters back to Robert Johnson back to however farther still, but the easygoing modern way they appropriated it has unfortunately opened the door for unabashed jerkasses like Ben Folds and Mark Hoppus to sell the story to legions of adoring teenage and college-age boys and girls. Surely this is where Hall & Oates' greatest level of influence lies, the joy and routine they brought to casual misogyny. God bless them, again.

It is very, very difficult to write the following without sounding like I am somehow condescending to the people who love this music, which isn't my intention by any means. I don't think I should have to offer this disclaimer, but you know how the internet is -- so this is just me, okay? But I don't understand. Not a bit. Whether the pleasure you derive is ironic or not, there is so much better music in the world, past but more importantly present, to sink your teeth into and fall in love with and enjoy, and moreover promote, because otherwise I wouldn't even bring this up, but hey -- these guys don't need your help and encouragement anymore! Their legacy's sealed. Let's celebrate pop music that doesn't come with this endless maze of caveats and baggage. By which I mean, stop bothering with the fake shit and listen to Prince. Or Bootsy Collins or something. Getting your funk/soul fix from Hall & Oates is like getting your power pop fix from The Knack or your rock & roll fix from Pat Boone. I can't offer a replacement for the soft rock injection because I don't think normal healthy human beings need one of those.

Daryl and John share inspirations with a legion of others -- it's plain that they loved a lot of the same music I love, that Prince loved, that George goddamn Clinton loved, that Peter Gabriel loved. But there seems to me something deeply and essentially cynical about their delivery of the style that set them off in such a polished, impersonal format. Their music feels bloodless, diluted, an anonymous variation on wonderful things. You can still hear those wonderful things buried in there, but not enough -- I feel as though Hall & Oates' current popularity is born out of a sort of a widespread contrarian tendency. The irony of falling back on something so simple, so easy, so basic seems automatically delightful. I feel as though that same anonymity in expression is being mistaken for universal appeal, a slippery slope indeed. Of course the more blandly vague something is, the more people it can let into its fold. But that's not what comes from the soul of someone. That's calculation. Greed, even. And frankly, it bores me. It is boring music by design, which is why it fills out Muzak playlists the world over. God bless it.

Anyway, here's the definitive statement on Hall & Oates, more eloquent than all the rambling above:



God bless them.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Hot Chip: We Have Remixes EP (2010)


(astralwerks)

RECOMMENDED

Hot Chip traditionally does a release like this after an album, collecting a few tracks treated by a few remixers specially selected by the band. This is the first such release I've actually checked out from them, in large part because I think their new album is their best to date and is special enough to me that I was keen on the idea of hearing a different angle on some of the songs.

I want to preface this by saying that I think One Life Stand is an effort most anyone could enjoy and love; as I've already said here, it's a beautiful, affecting album that's also full of warm disco built to make a room full of people come together and raise their hands and bounce around or whatever. It's the definition of a multi-purpose record. By design, though, We Have Remixes is aimed squarely at the dance floor. It doesn't tread any new ground and only one of the four tracks is really spectacular, but anyone who loves Stand as much as I do will appreciate it, as will anyone who could go for some solid, intelligent club tracks.

The standout of the disc is the closing Osborne remix of "Take It In," also the album's final track. The original is the sort of happy hangover haze of the LP, a declaration of groggy Sunday-morning love. This mix recasts it as a sprawled-out banger with the lovely harmonies sounding more vast and enveloping, the energy amped up and the deliberate laziness withered away until the song barrels forward while maintaining its crucial sweetness. Already a delightful album track, it thus becomes dance music to contend with "I Feel Better" or "Hand Me Down Your Love." It feels large and roomy enough to live in, and that communal feeling is contagious.

As dissected here, "Brothers" offers both the most radical revision of all the selections and is provided by the most famous remixer, the band Caribou. They do a wonderful job recasting this surprisingly touching ballad as an eerie, mysterious, robotic nightlife jam -- aggressive, relentless, druggy, dark, it's manipulative and unsubtle but makes the most distinct and memorable impression of all the EP tracks as compared to its album counterpart.

Prior to those, we get a brighter, almost throwback house variation on "Hand Me Down Your Love" -- the most primal and possibly the best track on the LP -- with the Todd Edwards Micro Chip remix. Just when the thumping beat is starting to wear thin, the track intriguingly loses shape and disintegrates into vocal matter that wobbles and hovers around the listener. The crowd-pleasing Hot City remix of "We Have Love" does more or less precisely what you'd expect someone to do with that song -- make the beat a little harder, expand it a bit, and mostly reemphasize the frantic pounding intensity of the original.

I'm the sort of person who still, to this day, must have every Depeche Mode remix that gets released. I often enjoy their 12" singles more than what makes their conventional releases. But there are very few bands to whom I'm willing to offer that kind of investment. Hot Chip may yet prove to be one, but for now, I mostly enjoy these four mixes as a complement to and recontextualization of an album I adore. One Life Stand is the main course and this is a most agreeable dessert.

[SEE ALSO:]
One Life Stand (2010)

Sunday, September 26, 2010

10,000 Maniacs: MTV Unplugged (1993)


(Elektra)

We just talked about 10,000 Maniacs recently in one of the more unkind entries I've posted so far. But I believe in balance, and eventually in offering a fairly complete picture of the bands I discuss here, and there's no getting around it: this live record is pleasant, and the best way to hear Natalie Merchant and 10,000 Maniacs. I guess there are two reasons why Unplugged succeeds where the studio LPs fail. First is that the band simply had some power that came to the foreground exclusively on stage; for sure, Merchant's passion seems more genuine outside the studied constraints of the albums, though her spontaniety and control as a singer would soon reach its all-time peak with the brilliant single "Carnival" -- just prior to which she split permanently from the Maniacs -- and never muster up any kind of wonder again.

The other reason is that the tracklist functions as a sort of Weakest Leak scrapbook, preserving only the most durable and (relatively) interesting songs in this catalog. Only "Don't Talk" and "These Are Days" fail to improve on the studio recordings; even the band's best song, the admittedly moving "Eat for Two," attains a sparkle and punch in the new setting. "Candy Everybody Wants" is far less obnoxious with a more muted arrangement; opening up a song like "Hey Jack Kerouac" does wonders for its emotional effect; "Like the Weather" starts to actually sound vaguely like pop music instead of easy-listening; the minimalism of "Trouble Me" -- save a stray electric guitar -- lets its sweetness come out, because its sentiment ("Trouble me on the day when you feel spent") is one worth trusting; and "Jezebel" is, frankly, just a beautiful song. It's on the whole easier in this format to get past the tired clichés in 10KM's sense of texture, which opened the door to the equally questionable Wallflowers; one more bit of organ "atmosphere" and they'd be pushing it.

As with the pointless Nirvana rendition of "The Man Who Sold the World," the best-known recording on 10,000 Maniacs' Unplugged is a cover, otherwise unrecorded in their catalog. "Because the Night" received considerable radio play across several formats; the band is correct to build on the song's drama and give it extra propulsion and size. Where it falls short is, ironically, in Merchant herself, ordinarily the band's strong point by far. She can't keep up with either the letter or the spirit of Patti Smith's (and Bruce Springsteen's) words or melody; a comparison to the Smith original reveals layers of confidence, emotion, and sensual ambiguity that Merchant is all too rote and by-the-book in her performance to suggest. Smith wrote her lyrics underneath an intoxicating haze of love and it comes through in the sweating vibrance of her singing on the track. Only once in the 10KM version does Merchant suggest this kind of energy, adoration, surrender -- it's when her voice breaks in the bridge on the second "take me now," which is precisely the sort of "mistake" 10,000 Maniacs would probably filter out in the studio (but it's maybe the most revealing, lovely moment in her entire career as a singer). All the more dubious are the changes made to the lyrics; every chorus now sings the praises of being "in your command," which seems counter to the song's purpose. Nevertheless, the flourishes, buildup, and excitement the band musters up capture Merchant well enough in the snowball that she goes mostly unnoticed; one's major reaction is wondering why this is the only time they ever sounded this good.

One of the violists (and backing vocalists) audible on "Because the Night" and the rest of this record is a woman named Mary Ramsey. Upon Merchant's departure, an eventuality of which the band was already aware at the time they recorded Unplugged, Ramsey would take over leadership of 10,000 Maniacs and provide them with one of their biggest hits, an inexplicable, odd remake of Roxy Music's "More Than This" that would turn out to be the last almost anyone heard of them. The accompanying album Love Among the Ruins flopped, hurt undoubtedly by the perhaps unfair publicity afforded the band for continuing without Natalie Merchant but perhaps more by its absence even of what songwriting skill Merchant possessed. Say what you will, but she did knock one out of the park occasionally, the key example being "Carnival," her first single without the Maniacs and her first (and only) top ten hit. 10,000 Maniacs continue in some form to this day. Their guitarist Rob Buck died young and their fan base has dwindled, but they go on playing these songs. Someone must care, and there must be enough magic for some in these old recordings to make that happen.

Lastly, it bears mentioning how severely inaccurate MTV's "unplugged" tag truly was. Yes, this record features mostly acoustic instruments, but so what? What's unplugged about having this many fucking people, including a goddamn string quartet, on stage? More embarrassingly, outside of Nirvana's installment (which doesn't move me but I think it probably would if I didn't have some weird gene that prevents me from being able to stomach Nirvana), this might be the best entry in the "Unplugged" CD series. (At least its radio hit wasn't insufferable like Eric Clapton's disgustingly smug AM-lite revision of "Layla.") 10KM remain bourgeois music firmly rooted in culturally oblivious Summer of Love-era protest pop. All that's missing is the flower power. But in this context, all that seems OK. The most embarrassing moment of the record, and the most telling evidence of the time in which it was recorded, is when Merchant's hysterically stupid Oregon Trail and/or Janette Oke-like narrative ahead of "Gold Rush Brides" (which will remind Beach Boys fans of "The Beaks of Eagles") -- "Three babies were born in our company that summer" -- elicits not one laugh from the MTV audience. Wow, just wow.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Tallest Man on Earth: Sometimes the Blues Is Just a Passing Bird EP (2010)


(Dead Oceans) [digital only for now; physical release in a few months]

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Don't call it a stopgap. There's no artist who's emerged in the recent past I've touted more than Swedish folk singer The Tallest Man on Earth, birth name Kristian Matsson, discovered last year via my girlfriend Amber. Matsson's first record, Shallow Grave is a gift from ye music gods in a number of respects: the darkly evocative folk songs designed to become burned into the brain permanently; the impressively unorthodox guitar playing; Matsson's haunting throaty yelp; melodies that feel simultaneously familiar and otherworldly. This year's followup, The Wild Hunt, is one of the four records out in 2010 that I think might be a classic -- the songs are subtler, prettier, more shifty, but the album feels like a journey unto itself. Matsson followed it up with a tour spanning several countries, possibly his last in venues so intimate.

To say the least, it's been a busy year for the Tallest Man. But he somehow has still found the time to issue his second EP (the first having predated Shallow Grave), and its most impressive attribute is how little it really feels like either of his long-players.

Musically, the lovely opener "Little River" could have fit well enough on the recent album, but its mood is different; the other four selections are new entirely. The songs are more brooding and longing, for starters ("If just tonight that I could be where you are near / And just forget where I am lost"; "We live so close that we've probably seen the same bird, the same time / They solumnly scream, one day, I'll find just that friend who can see / All this weird beauty thrown right at me"), and more significantly, Matsson has never sounded more soulful. Increasing his palette of influences to hyperemotional sleevehearted R&B (already suggested by the Sade cover we saw him play live in April), much as Joanna Newsom did in her "Baby Birch" a few months back, reveals his most impassioned vocals to date. This is most evident on "The Dreamer" and "Like the Wheel," which offer the powerful climax The Wild Hunt deliberately sidestepped. Following those two, Matsson spends "Tangled in This Trampled Wheat" and "Thrown Right at Me" chiming away into darkness -- achingly distant and delicate, unfalteringly pretty.

As every review of and conversation about the record as noted, "The Dreamer" -- one of the finest songs by anyone this year -- also offers Matsson's first use of electric guitar on a TMOE album. If anything, this fits with tradition: Shallow Grave featured a single track with banjo, The Wild Hunt closed out with a pleading piano ballad. Still, the intensity of feeling Kristian Matsson still gets in the changed venue of amplification is a tantalizing suggestion that there's no limit to what might be coming next from this exceptionally gifted performer.

For the Tallest Man on Earth's expanding cult, this EP is unmissable, offering five (half a TMOE album's worth) more songs to commit to memory, explore, sing along with. It's not unreasonable to assume that by the time album number three rolls around, that cult may have become a legion.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Big Star: Keep an Eye on the Sky [boxed set] (1970-74)


(Rhino)

RECOMMENDED

I appreciate and love a lot of major pop touchstones, things a lot of us have heard on the radio since we were in the womb. But you know something? When I really think hard about it, I understand why some people don't. It's because as universal as, let's say, Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams" is, the overwhelming number of contexts in which it's familiar might prevent one from really grabbing onto it as their own -- their own life, their own nostalgia, their own experience -- something I think is essential to really falling for a piece of music, even on a communal basis. Thousands of kids screaming along to a Get Up Kids song probably gathered up the desire to do so from a singular experience of their own, something that fell upon them specifically, like some magic trick. If your primary frame of reference for something comes completely secondhand, with some dull or annoying associations to boot, it's easy to see why many, at least initially, skirt past the components of their own culture: it doesn't feel like theirs.

And I think, in this example, it has nothing to do with how well-written or catchy "Dreams" is; the stereotype that depressed teenagers (which is all of them) and indie-rock hipsters (which are a myth) actually dislike accessible, catchy, hook-filled, well-crafted music is pompous nonsense. They just want accessible, catchy, hook-filled, well-crafted music to call their own, that doesn't feel like it's coming to them as a hand-me-down. Music that sounds like it should be known and loved and played over the loudspeaker at Five Guys, a flourish of adolescent Friday energy, or on Jack-FM every night... but isn't. Is, indeed, somehow still private. (Of course, the privatization and personalization of beloved capital-G Great art is the secret to which we all must then graduate. But let us all have this moment, first.)

This is a major reason why passions flare up to nearly dangerous levels when the subject of Big Star is approached. Big Star is that band, the one whose songs are so impossibly crafty and perfect and fall on the ear like candy, but who have managed to remain -- even now, for the most part -- a secret. A secret with tens of thousands of hearts at its mercy, sure, but still identifiably countercultural, underground, "alternative." What was once a tragedy (Chris Bell passionately wanted success, maybe more and for better reasons than any celebrated American rock star) is now the key to the band's appeal. At least, the key to what has sent ever-growing flocks from one generation after another to their records, then CDs, now downloads. What's kept those kids spreading the gospel is that their albums are even better, the keepers of more secrets, than one can possibly realize at first blush.

Better yet, there are only three of them, and personal issues aside (I've never gotten into "She's a Mover," and we can debate the "correct" tracklist of Third/Sister Lovers for the next ten hours if you like), they are about as flawless as rock LPs get. While Floyd and Zep were laying down eons of wank in the early '70s, Big Star issued two pop albums of snarling, economical, blissful precision and brevity. Dip in at any moment and the person who doesn't connect is either the person without a pulse or the person who's currently getting really pissed about that Floyd and Zep comment (not that there aren't shared fans to be counted, but you get my point), Anglo-'60s pop music without the innocence, awash with insecurity and drunk on the harsh realities of their time that have -- brief respites aside -- continued unabated up to now (and maybe this is a factor in their longevity as well). The third album is, of course, a sprawl, and it replaces the ridiculously expert pop genius, already showing cracks on album number two, with aching beauty and chaotic frenzy, but it is still a work of constantly affecting, shifty brilliance.

But you know all that. Probably. Let's repeat that number: three. Three albums, running somewhere just above a half-hour each. Oh, there's really a fourth album, a reunion deal (including two of the four original members, the same two on the third LP) from 2005, and I actually liked it, but that's another matter. There's also a reunion live album from 1993, an odds-and-ends rehearsal/live set on Norton Records, a very good radio performance out on Ryko as Big Star Live, and a few scraps here and there. A tiny catalog with perfectly reasonable supplements, I'd say. The first gigantic WTF to harm that standard was the incomprehensible Big Star Story, a "best-of" compilation. A three-album career (two of those gathered on a single CD, by the way) hardly seems to necessitate such compression, and the poorly sequenced mess that resulted failed to challenge that impression.

Honestly, the opposite seems no more necessary in the abstract. The existence of a Big Star boxed set is not a gigantic WTF. In some sense, it's a lovely notion. But here's the thing. I adore Big Star, seriously. In my adult life, few things have been more consistent than these three albums receiving regular attention. I also have most of the marginalia -- the aforementioned odds and ends plus three bootlegs, two consisting of studio outtakes. The bulk of this boxed set duplicates the content of those three albums and some of what's on the bootlegs, albeit packaged handsomely with a DVD and a nice booklet. Musically, then, would I seem to be the target of Rhino's lavish attention? Not really, but of course, the Rhino effect on a canon's strength in the marketplace is not to be underestimated, and I'm glad Big Star's now finally been the recipient of such treatment.

So maybe I can recommend this to a new Big Star fan or convert as a way to get the package in one swift move? I cannot. Along with the price of the box (at Amazon, $58 vs. $27 total for both of the CDs housing their three albums), there's the fact that while publicity touts Rhino's inclusion of every Big Star album cut, several, such as "Mod Lang," are presented in inferior alternate versions. You're better off with the twofer and Ryko's unattractively packaged but otherwise perfect edition of Third, both cheap in physical form and cheaper still as MP3 downloads (and you're not really missing anything by bypassing the respective discs; Brian Hogg's snobbish, wrongheaded essay included with #1 Record/Radio City is a horror well worth avoiding). The greater devotee will probably be excited about the DVD holding virtually all of the existing footage of Big Star in its original incarnation, but that pleasure is largely an archival one. The booklet is hard to resist, encompassing more photographs of the band than you ever knew existed.

The major hardcore fan who has to have everything will buy this regardless, and he or she will be most excited surely for the unreleased tracks included herein. One of these is a misnomer. "Manana" is just the intro to "Jesus Christ," now a minute shorter. The live show on disc four is interesting but won't give the lie to accusations that Big Star never had time to develop on stage. (The show on Nobody Can Dance is of slightly inferior quality to this, while Big Star Live is considerably better.) The first disc has to be the biggest disappointment for the Big Star cultist; Rhino's attempt to contextualize the band within their members' histories by including a post-Box Tops Chilton number from 1970 plus some Rock City and Icewater material comes off halfhearted and all too abbreviated. A greater quantity of this could have given more insight, but the short bites supplied don't add a lot. (And why no Box Tops, really?)

Still, Rhino wins me over in a big way with the Alex Chilton solo demos on discs two and three. I put off listening to all this because hearing Big Star was making me emotional enough after his death; losing Andy Hummel has now made "India Song" and "Way Out West" impossibly sad. I couldn't imagine how I'd hear Chilton in such an intimate format without feeling crushed. Now the beauty emerges and surrounds. "Life Is White" and "You Get What You Deserve" attain a vulnerability beyond the off-kilter sarcasm and nastiness of the studio versions. "What's Going Ahn," already gorgeous, has never been so powerful. Fast forward (if such a thing is possible) through the amplified angst of Radio City, the adolescently cynical truism of "I'm starting to understand what's going on, and how it's planned," the to-the-bone nudity of "I'm in Love with a Girl" and its unforced proclamation that he didn't know this could happen to him. A drugged up, slowed down version of the uncontrolled "O My Soul" awaits and turns that classic into a different song entirely. Two glorious Chris Bell chestnuts -- "I Am the Cosmos" and the shattering "You and Your Sister" -- close out the era.

At the end, there's a reward: There's so much material dealing with Sister Lovers that it begins on the second disc. Ten demos anticipate the album, the finest of these being a truly glorious "Blue Moon," a runthrough of "Thank You Friends" with the charm to fill a room, and a surprisingly subdued "Downs" that offers perhaps the finest glimpse at Big Star's "missing link," the moment at which their nervous power pop finally collapsed into a shambles of unfiltered, barely-sane emotion.

The "alternate mixes" of the #1 Record songs are a hype; I've heard "Thirteen" probably a thousand times and can't tell the difference in this new variation. But I would happily pay for a disc of nothing but these solo Chilton demos. I think there are enough here to stand alone as a release, which would be revelatory all on its own. And I repeat that I commend Rhino for laying out the carpet for one of the greatest bands in history like this. But be aware that if you lay down the cash for Keep an Eye on the Sky, a lot of what you're paying for is photos, a book, and some wonderful demos. These things have value -- certainly for me, they are ultimately worth it -- but you may not be getting exactly what you think when you purchase this. If you're new to Big Star, best to stick with the three classic albums first and save this for a holiday splurge.

But today, as a quiet afternoon commemoration of Alex Chilton and his peerless singing, songwriting, and lyricism, I'm glad this box is blaring away.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Walkmen: Lisbon (2010)


(Fat Possum)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Ask me point blank and I'll tell you that if you're a rock band, you have to be pretty sure of yourself -- and your audience -- to get away with actually naming something on your album "Torch Song." Were such a thing to occur, I might've assumed it would be some ironic gesture. Think of Devo mocking Rush or some such smug theatrical game. Visions of humanist sincerity surely wouldn't approach. That's because I very much doubt I'd take the Walkmen into account: who the Walkmen are, what their songs are, what they as a band have already proven they can do.

This is what a song like the meditative, person-to-person dispatch "Torch Song" by the Walkmen does: it regroups and even recasts reality, which is a keen trick in the distorted world of 2010, perhaps even more than it was three years ago when Radiohead did the same with the clear-eyed lovelorn delicacy of In Rainbows. Accidentally or on purpose (which doesn't matter), these bands both demolish preconceptions that reach far beyond their station: preconceptions about what purpose a rock band serves and who their listeners are. They demolish the notion of the pretentious hipster everyone complains about. This music levels the playing field to pure emotion, beautifully and subtly expressed; it is up to others to make class-conscious judgments about its appeal. And what a wasteful, dumb thing to do to something so wonderful. The opening song offers the truce: "Country air is good for me, no matter whose side I'm on." And appropriately, "Juveniles" feels like open space, the celebratory despair of the Faces' "Ooh La La" with chiming guitars.

The short version of this review is, you will love this record. Love it. You will take it with you where you go and you will cherish how its sounds collide with and fall over the things you see and the events you live through. Born of someone else's life, it becomes a product of your own. That's what this stuff is for.

The Walkmen are a band from New York City or Washington, depending on who and when you ask. If you're not a fan, you've still probably heard their songs "We've Been Had" and "The Rat." It really doesn't matter whether you have any of their prior albums yet; missing them isn't an affront to enjoying this one, but for the record, all four are excellent, though most folks seem to disagree with me about their third, A Hundred Miles Off. Comparatively speaking, after the youthful zest and hard-hitting immediacy of their earliest records, this one is a refinement and even a cooling down of the intimate, complex 2008 release You and Me. As with You and Me, its beauty is most likely to unfold gradually, repeated listens almost a narrative in themselves.

The noise of a gently propulsive rock band recording excellently crafted songs like these should be enough. If we must describe the sound and themes, well, the Walkmen are about adulthood and loss, as always. They are also about atmosphere, about New York, about the foggy sound of night streets and darkened alleyways existing mostly in hazy memory or dreams. Interpol and the National fit these profiles as well, but Interpol has failed to grow with the Walkmen, and the National take a harder-line, real-world approach where the Walkmen stand and ponder. Those wavering, tirelessly pretty guitars make it easy to conjure up images of the Jesus & Mary Chain or even the Cocteau Twins. But the Walkmen look over the horizon to even mistier peaks: they often bring to mind Television at their most romantic and quiet. On this album there is an even stronger classisist streak. Vocalist Hamilton Leithauster has always sounded a bit like (particularly latter day) Bob Dylan. But now the songs push him higher, higher than he can even reach, so that his voice frequently breaks charmingly over a Van Morrison-like crescendo. The tunes and their structures feel occasionally like heavily revised and tampered-with doo wop, legacies of a nearly unremembered time. Most of all, the Walkmen share with Television, Morrison, and earliest R&B a near-complete subservience to emotion, to the point that the band seems to long so much to express something that the songs threaten to collapse as an afterthought. They never do, of course, but the music has that wonderful drunken feeling of inarticulate elation and (as often) sorrow.

Happily, the songs that feel most like throwbacks here are as fresh and confident as the rest. "Blue as Your Blood" signals a widely-heralded debt to the country & western sound of the early Sun Records, tempered by the lushness of their NYC guitar jangle; the song's ample charm comes from this fusion and its rhythmic momentum. Though not quite so infectious, "All My Great Designs" is even stronger -- its murky, Verlaine-like guitar hook builds to a beautiful wall of vocals at the midpoint; no Interpol detachment or resistance to a climax here. And as brilliant as High Violet's endless tension is, it's a relief to hear songs that lead to such massive emotional payoffs.

Those yearning for the classic Walkmen sound that You and Me skimped on a bit will be delighted with the passionate, melodic explosion of "Angela Surf City," which still manages to integrate the off-kilter guitar tornados of the 1980s indie that seems to provide so much of this album's sonic framework. It leads on to the one track I'm slightly dubious about, the noisy "Follow the Leader," which might fit elsewhere in the Walkmen catalog but feels like an afterthought here, such that it seems no wonder they get over with it quickly (2:01).

The album's two larger-than-life anthems feel like a new exploration for the band. "Woe Is Me" is breakup blather turned into a confrontation, a lonely missive against the world -- the chorus as powerful, communicative, perversely joyful as any I've heard all year. "Victory," meanwhile, is something unique: a baroque waltz that becomes a pounding, assured celebration, even it equipped with some of that trademark Walkmen trepidation, but always the kind of looming doubt that comes with a smirk. These victories are fleeting but life goes on.

No doubt, the first half of Lisbon strikes faster than the second, but not deeper. The first time you listen to the album, you might even fail to notice the depth and strength of its two beautiful closing tracks, but try again and concentrate more and you feel the world swim away and you with it. "While I Shovel the Snow" stunningly captures the Walkmen pensively exploring an empty feeling in a winter landscape, its guitars and melody a masterfully evocative slow-burn. If it's the album's strongest ballad, the title track must be its most simply gorgeous. Slow, bent, inspiring, lovingly crafted, it is a simultaneous love letter and lament to solitude, the minimal, lyrical chirping of the guitar wrapping around Leithauser's lonely, trudging vocal. It's overwhelmingly sad, blissfully alive.

But on reflection, I think the peak of the record might be the song that clearly is designed to stand out the most -- which, indeed, is the only reason I hesitate to declare it such. "Stranded" feels like New York Beirut, or a Van Morrison funeral march. Phenomenally mournful brass rings out as Leithauser gets lost in the blues, more explicit than ever but also here at their most muscular and forcefully pretty. Depression has seldom seemed so triumphant. The song plants itself in us because it is so well-written and magnificently played it may as well have always existed. It's nothing new, these feelings, we're just discovering them. I mean, fuck the idea that this isn't universal music for everyone; it might not be, but is there any reason for it not to try? And that purity of expression is something to strive for, something I'm thrilled the Walkmen find as important as I do.

And some people actually think rock & roll is dead. If it is, this must be heaven.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Definitive Impressions (1961-68)


(Kent)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

The title is an out-and-out lie. This isn't the definitive anything; it fails to acknowledge the original Impressions and their association with Jerry Butler. It ignores the post-ABC recordings that followed leader Curtis Mayfield's emergence as a serious artist. But it does accidentally offer the ideal cross section of the seminal art-soul act of the '60s, Chicago's Impressions: with a heavy concentration on the first three post-Butler years, thus their most innovative work, it effectively skirts non-Mayfield material while avoiding the most heavy-handed extremes of their work on the Curtom label. All of these chronological ins and outs make the Impressions a notoriously difficult band to compile honestly and pleasingly. This is as even-handed and cohesive a disc of Impressions music as is likely possible.

To me, when I talk about loving them, the Impressions are the group they were from 1961 to 1965. I don't mean to discount Jerry Butler's contributions and the classic "For Your Precious Love," but he would always remain a separate concern from the entity the Impressions became. When Curtis Mayfield -- who was already beginning to compose in Butler's tenure -- took over the mantle, something magic happened, something that even today is scarcely appreciated beyond soul aficianados and record-collecting cultists.

How do you describe "Gypsy Woman" to one unfamiliar? The one faced with such a task has the option to attempt to define it in the safe terms befitting the period and genre, to compare and contrast with touchstones. It can only be ineffective because all points of reference lose their relevance when one is sunk into this brilliantly alien swamp of lust. The spell it casts can't be reduced to words or even to rock & roll terminology -- it's its own experience, and it defines, above all else, the darkest forbidden-fruit extremes of '60s music and popular music as a whole: through and through, it's a dangerous, delightful record.

The big secret is that this -- represented here by roughly fourteen heavenly tracks -- is music of gloriously understated emotional power; nearly every one of these songs, for all their willingness to play the R&B game, packs a shocking wallop, whether in lofty but cleverly contained wall-of-sound production or, more frequently, in the sheer magnificence and nuance of Mayfield's voice.

Mayfield's songs are a case study in themselves, of a form that is inherently sentimental -- popcraft within rhythm and blues and occasionally doo wop -- succumbing to not merely the simulation or duplication of emotion but the most genuine and unfiltered of feeling. The typical wall separating the archetypal singer from his or her audience seems to shrink and disappear when confronted with the purity of these melodies and vocal tics, quirks, liquid passion. His uniquely undisturbed evocation of the church does not merely integrate gospel but transposes it to new surroundings; that defiant waving of what other artists of his stripe and era might define as mere "roots" is a pivotal area of the Impressions' sound, brought in and tampered with unapologetically (rendering it ironic that the most directly religious Impressions record, the Christmas hit "Amen," is maybe their worst); as an ideal example, notice (as you inevitably will!) the sacred undertones and invigorating heights of "Sad, Sad Girl and Boy." The extremes and alarming peaks of the angelic "I'm So Proud" and the structural, aural, vocal eroticism of "I've Been Trying" are even greater. And behind Mayfield lies a nearly imperceptible weapon: the unerring smoothless, calm, confidence (but not soft-rock laziness) in the production, musicianship, and backing vocals -- listen to the low-key pop that retains a knife edge on "Little Young Lover." There is a moving sensibility within the rest of the audible talent of stepping aside for the main event.

For whatever reason, though, it is not the potpourri of varied and layered style and forms of musical bravery that have really provided the Impressions with a legacy. Mayfield's voice -- and what a voice, to be sure -- has proven a profound influence with his unconventional but felt tendency toward a higher-ground countermelody. His effect on, for instance, reggae (but black music in general, really) is as pronounced for sure as Otis Redding's oft-stated claim. And perhaps the Impressions could have explored this world themselves in some parallel universe, if the effortless (and timeless) jazz and rhythm of "Talking About My Baby" is any suggestion.

Yet any attempt to shelve these songs firmly with the sprawling and eclectic remainder of '60s soul reveals a chasm; the early Mayfield sides really sound like almost nothing else, their quirk, trickery, elation, melodic affection a sort of different class that's yet to be tackled again. It's laughable to position them with the rest of the most popular R&B groups of the time, from the Drifters to the Miracles. Above all else, their work bore an artistic conceit, a shying away from pop form and from mass appeal toward bold and starkly expressed, however usually joyous, church-sex music, a refinement and continuation of what the "5" Royales were winding down on when this all began. But the Impressions gain all the more power by being unafraid of minimalism: you might miss that "I'm the One Who Loves You" is as adventurously prophetic a soul song as the '60s gave us because its exhiliration is writ small and contained so masterfully. Never dispassionate, the Impressions still gain heaps of mileage from this tension. And these songs all manage to end well before they could; all are constantly surprising in the least expected ways.

The Impressions peaked in 1964 with the crossover masterpiece "Keep On Pushing," rhythmically, structurally, and thematically a more challenging record than any other of the year, defining the band's teasing innovations and fusions with its provocative "hallelujah" chorus. There are treasures, more pure crafted joy, more almost supernatural hooks and pleasure, more eloquent defiance against a backdrop of troubles, to come after: that minor-key twist in the bridge of "Woman's Got Soul" is to die for. One could be forgiven for getting stuck on the tiny instrumental breaks in nearly all of the Impressions' singles that seem to capture summer, vibrance, life in an unfiltered manner even Motown couldn't rival (a tradition founded with the irresistible closing guitar lick of "Little Young Lover").

Unfortunately, Motown's song-factory grind had a far-reaching effect on R&B radio, for nearly ten years effectively killing the market for soul music without pop trappings. The pleasing part is that Motown's producers, composers, and artists were masters of their craft, ultimately proving themselves more adept at pop than anyone else, except maybe the Beatles (and many times even that was dubious). The downside was that already-accomplished performers like the Impressions and (to a lesser extent) the Isley Brothers derailed their artful purity and career trajectories to attempt records that matched or duplicated the appeal of the Temptations, the Supremes, the Four Tops, and their ilk. Unfortunately, Curtis Mayfield is Curtis Mayfield, not Smokey Robinson; when one attempts to be the other, the result is -- for all its relative success on the charts -- nondescript and basically mediocre.

It's hard not to enjoy popular cuts like "Woman's Got Soul," "You've Been Cheatin'," and "You Always Hurt the One You Love," but hard to really appreciate them as anything but lower-tier Impressions, and pale imitations of ideas and formats carried out far more expertly by others, after the triumphs of this disc's first half. This faltering is tempered by exceptions like "Just One Kiss from You" (the clear inspiration for Feist's "The Limit to Your Love"), floundering into the past with its inventively tense drumming and arrangement.

The fourth and final stage of the Impressions' career is, today, their most famous; the novelty of a polite group of soul men who get radio airplay today alongside the Penguins, the Coasters, the Drifters, and the Marvelettes actually having a radical political streak has managed to overshadow the actual beauty and breathless creativity of the Impressions' early '60s records. It begins all the way back to the smart, wildly unconventional "Minstrel and Queen," sonically a meeting of the Beach Boys (well before anyone knew who they were) and Sam Cooke, lyrically either an alarmingly antiquated fairy tale or a sardonic take on racial tensions. But Curtis Mayfield's message-song agenda truly takes hold auspiciously with the brilliant "Keep On Pushing" and defines itself forever after with 1965's ghostly, evocative "People Get Ready," the most famous Impressions record and Mayfield's most beloved composition.

Allusions to the civil rights battle and pleas for social consciousness have always held a place in rock & roll but Mayfield may have been more explicit than anyone before him outside the folk idiom. It would take him many years to refine his serious-minded lyrics to the point that they left behind simple preaching and became masterful storytelling in their own right -- so many years, in fact, that the Impressions would be long gone by the time it happened. On the way to his ingenious '70s records, he would move his hit machine the Impressions to his own label and attempt -- at times successfully -- to craft political songs for a mass audience. Many of these records have aged poorly, particularly compared -- ironically enough -- to Motown artists Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye's openly left-leaning and beautifully expressive material. But "People Get Ready" has retained its anthemic power in large part because its messages are so elegantly simple, its metaphor of the train that must be boarded and must always move forward so timeless and universal, its feeling of somber but stalwart hope at the very least the equal of Sam Cooke's haunting "A Change Is Gonna Come."

And yet musically, "People Get Ready" already represents a kind of resignation; it is an easier, more conventional song than "A Change Is Gonna Come," barely a year after the Impressions were easily Cooke's equals in musical ambition, and by a longshot less unique and cutting than "Keep On Pushing," like the distance -- for you John Lennon fans -- between the brazen, fiery "Working Class Hero" and the watered-down Muzak of "Imagine." Sure, "People Get Ready" is superior to either of those two Lennon songs, but it's still a step backwards, however a small one, that represents the beginning of a regression.

The explicit nature of Mayfield's lyrics would begin to hurt for a while, but this disc's last three songs -- "We're a Winner," "We're Rolling On," and "I Loved and I Lost" -- capture a good moment, immediatly prior to the departure from ABC-Paramount: Sonically, at laest, they put the group back on the cutting edge and sound of a piece with Mayfield's best solo work.

And Mayfield on his own would turn out to be glorious indeed. But in a sense, something like "Pusherman" ("I'm your doctor when in need / Have some coke, have some weed") could never really top the emotional resonance of the beautiful, to-the-bone brevity of "People Get Ready" ("There's a train a-comin' / You don't need no baggage / You just get on board"). And for me, "People Get Ready" has nothing on the simple, foot-stomping statement of purpose in "It's All Right": "It's all right, have a good time / 'Cause it's all right, whoa, it's all right." That there, that is poetry. Isn't it amazing what maturity can steal from us?

Monday, September 13, 2010

Interpol (2010)


(Matador)

!! CAUTION !!

Yikes.

So Interpol came to my attention when they were already three albums in to their game and had gone from playfully melodramatic New York grit to pseudogoth pure pop style, the latter goofoff motif peaking with a mournful dirge about trying to get a girlfriend to agree to have a three-way, which to the best of my knowledge they always performed with the straightest of faces, as if their proposition had some ironic gist and artistic importance lost on all others.

Nobody liked Our Love to Admire. I can honestly say it was never terribly offensive to me on the whole because I heard all three albums for the first time nearly simultaneously; the shock of a downward spiral missed me since I wasn't even familiar enough with Turn on the Bright Lights and Antics yet to define what was interesting about them. But now, several apologies about Admire later (and a corresponding nosedive back to indiedom after that album's ill-fated Capitol deal), geez, fuck it. They're already on some kind of blurrily inconsequential carousel ride, self-repeating and perpetual.

I'm not big on extreme reactions and I'm not knocked down to the gutter by how boring I find this record, not least because part of me expected it to be a bit worse than it actually is. The other part retained cautious optimism, especially after the single "Barricade" was a reasonably fun, silly, catchy jam. That's one of the big problems: these privileged souls don't seem to have any serious complaints about anything, they just have the favored sound of The Mope. Witness the other song that advanced the LP, the labored gloom piece "Lights," accompanied by a nonsensical science fiction video. (It figures these guys would be all about Blade Runner.) It feels built on trends, like something you'd hear at a Hot Topic? Or maybe that's unfair. Either way, "Barricade" is an exception -- stupid rock stuff that inserts some levity and doesn't feel wholly strained.

The other issue is that the songs all sound the fucking same. Atmospheric rock doesn't have to be like this: I would have to think for a good long while to name all the songs on the National's new album, but I know them instantly when they come on. Interpol's always been about the vague along with the theatrical, but that used to be a major advantage; I took Bright Lights along for a long drive not long ago and verified this. I remembered all of the songs and still found they piqued my curiosity and evoked, signified, suggested something. The emptiness that persists now, well, that's incredible. Where initial peers like the Walkmen have progressed and discovered new ideas, new noises, Interpol, for all their popularity, is left coughing in the dust. It's a relief when a song like "Try It On" initially sounds like something different, a new experiment, a playful approach, but after a bit it devolves into the same old brooding, same-y nonsense.

After two listens, I can make out "Barricade" and "Try It On" as distinct songs, and track number one, "Success," comes close and is a decent cut I might actually decide I like if I hear it a few more times. The rest is sludge. People on the Net (including but not limited to the people at Matador; shocking!) are being cautiously optimistic about this record as a step in the right direction or a return to form or a return to non-shit. Though I find it hard to dispute that -- nothing here is remotely as bad as "No I in Threesome" -- I have a sneaking suspicion these boys are spent.

"Boys." Hmm. You know, speaking strictly in musical rather than behavioral terms, a lot of my favorite bands consist of men: the National, or the Kinks, or R.E.M., or the Clash, or Wire, or Radiohead; they might be immature buttholes for all I know or care but they sure as fuck sound like grownups who make grownup music for other grownups, right? But that's one faction of popular music. I don't have to remind you that some boys we love as boys. The Rolling Stones, always boys. The Replacements. MGMT (so far). The Flamin' Groovies. The Animals. Could keep going. But all of them at their peaks live(d) in the world, not in themselves. Even MGMT are stalwart believers in populist fun. Interpol's two latest albums are boy music with gratingly high-minded, insincere trappings; it feels like it's made less to identify with than to stare at, but for all that dust cloud, one feels duped. They seem to want to inspire the kind of awe and worship Radiohead does, only without taking any of the drastic evolutionary and experimental steps that justify the treatment awarded the older band. I can't figure out the motivation if it's not money, and that's none of my business, so speculation's where it has to end except that the result is not talking to me.

And also "Memory Serves" sounds like fucking Ozzy Osbourne. Gahhh.

Friday, September 10, 2010

The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators (1966)


(International Artists)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

This album is new to me and the first chance I've had to properly hear this band; these songs give me that elusive feeling of musical magic falling into place off some half-attentive cuff. Of course I've meant to listen to this for approximately a decade, but for whatever reason, it slipped my mind until Roky Erickson's quite enjoyable album with Okkervil River earlier this year. And what a delight to find such a fun '60s album to explore anew, even though I'm not sure "fun" is precisely what this band was aiming for. This is Serious Business, and for 1966, it feels surprisingly harsh and bold.

The Elevators are widely noted for their promotion of drugs, with band member Tommy Hall's sleeve notes explicitly advocating mind-altering substances as an aid for the enjoyment of the record (and life in general). But if this is truly the beginning of "stoner rock," it's in a spirit of greater levity and eclecticism than the music to which the term generally applies. This band could do more than one thing, and yes, this is druggy music, but it's also genuinely oddball in discernibly rational ways. Even as it, as my girlfriend pointed out, conjures up images of straight-haired blondes slouching against walls and sofas in yellow-wallpapared living rooms, it comes off as unlazily imaginative: a tornado hitting a beach party. The way some perfect Tom Wolfe version of the '60s might have happened.

Part of the reason I find this so irresistible is how it effortlessly dives into some of my favorite rock & roll gimmicks, it must be pointed out, even before the Velvet Underground released their debut album (but not before they were making such noises on stage). Perpetual drone, dirty garage sound, ranting and affected vocals, excessive tremolo, apocalyptic distortion, and lovingly buried melodies -- this is dream pop for me. Part of the mysterious vibe of menace it achieves is thanks to Hall's electric jug, which parades on like a monolithically bizarre backdrop, but one shouldn't discount the amateurish intensity of Stacy Sutherland's guitar playing, riddled with vague but hyperactive emotion.

The 13th Floor Elevators' most famous cut is their single "You're Gonna Miss Me," which you've heard and is more or less an example of classic garage sound, but with an ominous tension bubbling underneath, even with the boisterous (if raw) Erickson lead. It's a worthwhile sample of the most base ideas of the record, but even a quick, unexpectant entrance will throw the investigator of this LP for a loop, particularly the modern listener: song number two, "Roller Coaster," recalls the Stones and anticipates Pavement (the slapped-together-into-Heaven feeling) and relates surprisingly little to "Miss Me" with its still tense but subtler, more casual vibe, not to mention its improved (and calmer) songwriting. Still more startling -- "Splash 1," sideways balladry with the most memorable melody yet. The surprises peak a bit later with the provocatively arty "Thru the Rhythm," which sounds like... '80s indie rock? No wonder everyone was covering these guys by then.

Television famously covered "Fire Engine" at a lot of shows. The first time I heard a 13th Floor Elevators song it was that one, for that reason, and I admit to being disappointed that the freshfaced precision of Verlaine and pals on their punky, slicing version was traced back to a shapeless nightmare involving an actual siren and a lot of impassioned (terrified?) shouting. In the context of the album, I get it; "Splash 1" is peace and this is war. Its pounding beat and populist rockshow come out on repeated listens so it starts to feel really impressive and it, too, looks ahead to later touchstones: I hear some Pere Ubu in it in addition to the more direct line to Television and the New York scene.

For all that, the Elevators still belong to their time, and this produces a lot of the charm to be found here: just look at that album cover for starters. Roky wails in a cathartic, high-pitched manner no serious rocker would dare attempt after the heavy metal indulgences of the '70s; if anything, his Yoko-like yodel is more delicate, restrained, and status quo. But the fact that he could then get away with his more flamboyant and... fearless caterwauling in the former category legitimizes him against any tainting and reminds one of just how experimental the band was at the time. The drug thing is inescapable, sure, and if you listen to this long enough you start to sound like you've been dropping or smoking up yourself, as I just did when I actually said out loud during "Monkey Island" that "you can feel the space of the room here." But even if only occasionally, there's something to be said for the blankbrained release of intense red-light bad-trip psychedelic rock.

The baddest trip here? Oh, easy, "Kingdom of Heaven." As much as Erickson and company could sound like the Animals or the Kinks ("You Don't Know" Is the Kinkiest, with truly awesome guitarics) and even the Byrds ("Don't Fall Down" is shimmery music, its flighty mood alleviated only by the vocal deadpan), this is pure joyous self-imposed misery: the siren from "Fire Engine" returns amidst plodding drama to craft some addictive dirging that rivals the most methamphetamine-addled jams in the VU catalog (and certainly makes the Beatles' "I Want You" seem redundant and three years too late, even if only for a little while).

At the beginning, the 13th Floor Elevators were Texans playing rock & roll; Roky Erickson's subsequent tragedies and the short, sad life of the band itself seem irrelevant when faced with a record as teeming with life as this. Of course you can spend all your time gazing through the mind enhancement-addled clichés, and there are plenty to find, but you'd be missing the point: some of the purest, most enjoyable, and most artistically innovative and respectable garage rock ever made. I can't wait to check out Easter Everywhere.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Eels: Tomorrow Morning (2010)


(Vagrant)

If singer-songwrietr E is like, oh, any other person who's made a living creatively, he's sick of hearing people tell him that his older stuff is better. I can apologize in advance all I want but I still have to say that E's older stuff is better. What troubles me is that in his case, I'm not convinced it has to be.

Many alt-rock centuries ago (which is to say, fifteen years back), Billy Corgan released a double album called Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. It didn't seem as though this double album existed because Corgan had a whole bunch of great songs lying around, enough to make two CDs instead of one -- it seemed like it was a double album because Corgan wanted to make a double album. Its length was its own story. The ruse worked; people bought it. Now Eels are bringing us the final installment of a "trilogy" of albums E instituted with Hombre Lobo last year. Released in rapid succession, the three are song cycles about relationships or something. The songs are mostly half-formed, the lyrics are mostly godawful, but look! Eels just released a trilogy of albums! Let's all give them our attention.

Tomorrow Morning, the newest record, is firmly in the middle quality-wise. Hombre Lobo was an average Eels record; End Times was dismal dullsville. This one won't excite your senses but it's not a bad album, at least musically. Behind his weary croak, E throws in some strange nods to circa-1997 trip-hop, somewhat disrupting the sameness of the songs and allowing a few of them to hop and skip and cavort a bit. Don't call it innovation, though; it's appropriated the way Sting coopted 1980s lite-jazz: window dressing for average or sub-average tunes.

But then again, the songcraft is more or less fine on the brighter efforts here. "Spectacular Girl," "Baby Loves Me," and "That's Not Her Way" are slight but catchy, fun tracks, catapulting the idea of E as a manic-depressive Ian Broudie back into consciousness. E's voice is more a liability than ever; at his age, he shouldn't be sounding as tired and ancient as Peter Gabriel does on this year's turgid Scratch My Back, especially on the first two vocal tracks, formless dirges both. The bigger problem is what he's singing. I don't recall noticing E's lyrics on his best albums, which is a good sign. Here, they're difficult to ignore. On one song he rhymes "sick" with "dick" and "pig" with "gig"; on another, "disposition" with "fishin'"; yet another, "pee" with "E." Simultaneously, he complains about being "shushed" by a "librarian." Another choice selection involves a girl who "sees the beauty in things we all miss."

Fuck it, I could just fill the rest of this review with verbatim quotes from this album's lyrics. "With a lustful admiration / I look upon you / Can't wait until tomorrow / The things that we'll do." "I feel my heart changin' in mysterious new ways." "Used to kind of bitter / Always had a babysitter / Now I'm feeling much fitter." "Used to be kind of cruel / Kind of a tool / Like a damn fool."

This could easily just be a temporary symptom of the songsmith well running dry, right? A few more drafts, maybe, and these songs might have gone somewhere; a bit more time spent on production and they could be memorable. There's nothing really unsalvageable. But when you're determined to make a Trilogy of Albums, I guess you throw in everything you've got. I still say, wouldn't people fondly remember twelve good songs more than thirty-odd mediocrities?

But E is still street, y'all. On "Baby Loves Me," he offers us a truly universal sentiment: "The record company hates me." Well, we've all been there.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Kinks (1964)


(Pye [orig] / Castle [reissue])

RECOMMENDED

The first generation of British Invasion bands -- most specifically the so-called Big Four (Beatles, Stones, Kinks, Who) -- cut their teeth on a wide-ranging series of modern standards, most of them derived from U.S. blues and R&B. The base repertoire of artists admired and worshipped was universal, and in all of these bands, passionate. Perhaps no one in the early '60s UK scene had a taste for the most obscure and scarcely exported American blues quite like Ray Davies. And perhaps no one in the group entire seemed quite as uncomfortable singing his favorite songs as Ray did.

To state the deadeningly obvious, the Kinks stand apart from their three internationally beloved peers in myriad ways. They were never as popular as the others. They were driven disproportionately by one personality (some would say two, and they'd be very generous). They were never interested in a rebellious image like the Stones or the Who, much less a rebellious actuality like the Beatles at their youngest and dirtiest. But in investigating their debut album, which most people don't, the difference that matters most is that the Kinks simply weren't great at covering the American masters, a feat at which all three of the aforementioned bands, with whom they broke across the universe in 1964-65, excelled.

As a result, the starkly titled Kinks (or You Really Got Me, in America on Reprise sans three tracks) suffers. Let's get this out of the way: it's the worst Kinks album of the '60s, and as UK debut albums go, Please Please Me (or Introducing the Beatles, if you like), The Rolling Stones (or England's Newest Hit Makers, if you like), and The Who Sings My Generation (I don't even know if there was an alternate American version of this one) all pretty well destroy it. But if you're anything like me, in the time since you've listened to this record -- if you bothered at all, given its rep -- you've forgotten one fascinating thing that also sets the Kinks apart: on their very first record, their originals are already fully formed and accomplished, as much as they would be six years later; Davies' songcraft emerges from nowhere improbably developed, mannered, original, affecting. Only six original compositions reside on this album, but four of those are shocking, compelling winners.

This schism in the early Kinks output begins with their first 45, a miserable, tired-sounding cover of "Long Tall Sally," sequelled immediately by the infectious, sparkling "You Still Want Me," a Davies composition that feels exciting and new even today. Neither single charted but their third, "You Really Got Me," was in a different world and was a burning legend the moment it was pressed. In this case, the success was owed as much to Ray's brother Dave and his dangerously loud, bleeding guitar as to the basics of the songwriting. It's difficult to pare down the beginning of punk and garage to one record, but "You Really Got Me" lays claim to the groundbreaking of that parallel pop that was with us for decades after. Maybe "Louie, Louie" (also covered, badly, by the Kinks around this time) deserves equal distinction but it cannot match the urge of feeling, the (literal and otherwise) plainspokenness. Davies' hopping-mad, formless guitar solo offers the second moment in British Invasion rock when everything threatens to go screaming and howling off the rails and throttle us all into some bloody destiny, the second moment when that feels legitimate and in the realm of the possible (the first being John Lennon's apocalyptic, terrifying vocal on the Beatles' blistering cover of the Isley Brothers' "Twist and Shout"). Partisans for rock's dunderheaded quotient might make some claim that "You Really Got Me" marks the founding of hard rock; I hope the Kinks would rebuke such a dubious honor. Instead, the song and specifically that solo invents the underdog-guitar hero, the Lou Reeds and Thurston Moores who treasure emotionally draining insanity over technical prowess.

But "You Really Got Me," which is featured on this album, and its almost equally famous followup, "All Day and All of the Night," which isn't, don't actually say much about the Kinks except that they were capable of being loud. Having proven this, after one more soundalike single, they turned down their amps and -- for the remainder of their artistically vital period -- never really cranked them again. The Kinks' two most famous '60s songs have little to nothing to do with the actual appeal of the band, or the band's and Ray Davies' real characters. Nevertheless, "Really Got Me" drops a fascinating hint. The batshit screams of Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis had long faded from the airwaves by 1964, and it would soon be left up to another generation to go crazy in public. Still, surely a tradition had been established, one proudly taken up in the UK by both John Lennon and Paul McCartney, soon enough by others. The pregnant pause just before Dave's solo is the ideal moment for a release of primal tension, an "AAGAGAHHHHAGAHHAHH!" or a "WAHAHAHAHHAHAHAHHA"... but from Ray, who can't break his shy British boy dignity even in this moment of truth, all we get is a half-hearted, almost gentle shout of "Ohh, come on!" that sounds as though it was belted out at some manager or band member's annoyed insistence. Davies seems embarrassed by the outburst even while it's emerging from him. And the clincher is that, unless I'm forgetting something, this is the one and only time that an actual British accent was audible on any of the giant hit singles of 1964.

Everyone is obliged to comment about the Kinks being the most defiantly British of all rock bands, but most pinpoint this as a turn of events, not their natural state, that began sometime in the middle '60s. Their fourth album, Face to Face, is regarded as the ultimate radical departure. Undoubtedly it is, but the Kinks' style, the mode of expression they'd build on for the next seven years, is firmly in place here. "I Took My Baby Home" is no less an ear-candy pop masterstroke than "She's Got Everything," recorded four years later; you hear either song and can't believe it isn't worldwide-famous and a blazing all-time radio hit. "So Mystifying" is an antecedent to "Fancy." "Stop Your Sobbing" is punk cynicism, sarcastic love, pure beauty, smirking like the endlessly surprising character portraits on the sophisticated Something Else (1967). It becomes hard not to feel as though Davies was chomping at the bit to move beyond covers-band mode, knowing that others could record blues and R&B better than some surly white boys from Muswell Hill, that their time and talent could be more adequately applied. I cannot help feeling that Davies had interest in injecting literacy, nostalgia, articulate regret, classical insecurity into his songs long before the Beatles had the same idea. That he also had "You Really Got Me" in him only proves the depth of his rock & roll committment.

Davies is one of rock & roll's only poets -- it's an exclusive group that might include Smokey Robinson, Lennon, Leonard Cohen, Dylan on a good day -- and "Stop Your Sobbing" is a poem. To me, it's indisputable that the Stones and the Who were not cranking out originals as strong as it and "I Took My Baby Home" yet in 1964, nor would they ever match the dumb-luck perfection, distorted dirt, and spontanenous combustion of "You Really Got Me," the most exciting and immediate UK single of all.

Neither of the two remaining originals will stay with you as long but they are enjoyable: "Revenge" is a scrappy and fun instrumental, "Just Can't Go to Sleep" is the kind of dance music Davies could (and probably still can) write with one eye open. These two filler cuts are bettered by some strong covers: of Chuck Berry's "Beautiful Delilah," of the oddly affecting "I've Been Driving on Bald Mountain," and of standard blues "Bald Headed Woman." The rest of the album is overstuffed with shoddy, unnecessary covers; "I'm a Lover, Not a Fighter" bloodlessly redirects its New Orleans origins, "Long Tall Shorty" feels tired and overlong, and "Got Love If You Want It" just wasn't made for the Kinks. But worst of all are two rock classics: Bo Diddley's "Cadillac" and Chuck Berry's "Too Much Monkey Business," both of which make our Muswell Hillbillies sound like inexperienced kids in over their heads. Which may be what they were, but if they could write stuff like "Stop Your Sobbing," why were they bothering with trying to duplicate sounds of their gods? You're better off listening to Berry or Diddley anyway. Thankfully, the band would make no further embarrassing mistakes like this except for a slightly less misguided cover of "Dancing in the Street" on their second album.

And then there are the peripherals. Castle's compact disc of Kinks offers crucial context for this record with an incredible twelve bonus tracks, incorporating all the concurrent single and EP cuts, including the major hit and classic "All Day and All of the Night." Bonus tracks aren't really our concern here, but these make such a difference in appreciation of the LP I can't help pointing them out. Be sure you find the 26-track Castle version, not the 16-track CD on Sanctuary.

Overall, this is a frustrating album that's fun for hardcore fans of the Kinks and may be choppy for others. As evidenced by the quantum leap forward a matter of months later on the excellent Kinda Kinks, this band was already prepared to issue a knockout album that could have competed with the near-simultaneous Beatles for Sale. Was Shel Talmy holding them back? I'm sure third parties would say that they just weren't ready yet; the songs say otherwise. The evolution business model worked for the other three British Invasion biggies; they publicly grew into their own as composers until each developed a distinguished, separate set of ideas and styles. Ray Davies was formidable from the earliest; the Kinks needed no such hand-holding. They got it anyway. That's the music business, I suppose.