Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Saints: (I'm) Stranded (1977)



It seems that when the Saints are remembered at all in punk culture outside of Australia these days, it's merely as fire-breathing originators (arguably) of the archetypal Punk Cover Version of luminous classics like "River Deep Mountain High" and "Lipstick on Your Collar," both included as bonus tracks on modern CD issues of their debut album. To remember the Brisbane outfit as a novelty act, as punk marginalia, does them a great injustice indeed, but with equal disrespect typically afforded fellow pioneers the Damned, it's hardly surprising. The broad narrative of punk rock, it seems, can only find room for three bands: the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, and the Clash.

The Saints weren't as brilliant or as politically conscious as the Clash, granted, or as convincingly angry as the Pistols; and their appallingly early origin -- they formed and were playing essentially the type of music that would forever be defined as punk rock in 1974 -- doesn't dissipate credit that rightly belongs to the Ramones for singlehandedly inventing their craft. Much as the revolutionary flavor of the Ramones reveals a lot about the time in which they came to be, a time in which straight-ahead rock & roll was an abnormality, the Saints' virtual cofounding of the official punk rubric is quaint in the sense that their work hardly displays the threadbare purism or outlandishness that would quickly become associated with the genre. Indeed, what is special about the Saints -- and what survives about them -- is that they are not a confrontation, not even really a challenge. They are a powerful Stones-like rock band swept invisibly under the punk rug -- their songs full of muscle, rhythm guitar propulsion, and natural, emotive rock attitude.

This isn't to say that they're an ordinary band, just that it's become less and less useful to describe them in terms of their punk rock significance, the same way it doesn't hurt the Only Ones to declare them more power pop than punk outfit. And whereas the Ramones and the Clash sounded at times like displaced bands of the late '50s, the Saints seem propelled from a less distant period, mid-'60s England just when it was OK to be serious but before the folkies and druggies took over.

There is, honestly, one stone-cold punk classic here, even if it sounds as at home amongst the Jam, Nick Lowe, and the New York Dolls as with its closer brethren. "(I'm) Stranded" is a quite gleeful, grand anthem when you think about it, very reminiscent of Lowe's "Heart of the City" and drawing a straight line from garage or frat rock of the mid-'60s, which indeed gave rise to the "punk rock" term to begin with. The hook is to die for in the perfect "Wooly Bully" "Louie Louie" fashion but with, naturally, just a touch of wit and presence those songs lacked.

At first, it seems like the album of the same name can offer nothing to match the instant infection of that single. "One Way Street" and "Wild About You" are relatively low-key rock, the former firmly in Stones/Who territory, the latter toying with more guitar faux-heroics than most punks would allow and brushing with hard rock and metal.

But after that, the big Mick and Keith move comes, and the result completely turns everything around on this album, this band, this decade. "Sometimes you get that old lost feeling," it goes, "sometimes it hits you when you're feeling down." Yeah. "Messin' with the Kid" is a ballad of enough skill, on-point feeling, and shadily reflective, triumphant hooks -- completely, gorgeously drenched in guitar -- that it could rightfully make a claim as being punk's first masterpiece if it constituted punk in any real way. Not to discount anything those other bands did; fuck, the Clash is still one of the finest groups of men ever to do anything together in my opinion. But "Messin'" is nothing short of a classic rock ballad, perfectly wrought and executed as well as anyone ever has from the '50s on. It's not an exaggeration to state that it could be on Let It Bleed. And don't tell the punks, but the thing runs six goddamn minutes, all of them tremendous. It has the feel of an immediate touchstone, written by lightning and miraculously discovered somewhere in Queensland.

Once you've heard that, it becomes extremely difficult not to pay careful attention to what the Saints are doing. Writer and singer Chris Bailey is a maverick, unafraid of expression and exuding utter confidence for the full scope of the rest of the LP. Guitarist Ed Kuepper wouldn't be an ill fit for a stadium group. The band's rhythm section (bassist Kym Bradshaw at this point, and drummer Ivor Hay) is too adept and excitable to ever join the ranks of any one-chord wonders, and the songs give them plenty to do. "Erotic Neurotic," which delightfully quotes "I Wanna Be Your Man" (and accidentally, Dylan's "I Wanna Be Your Lover"), returns to punk and amazingly manages not to feel like a letdown after the stare-at-the-sun of "Messin' with the Kid." The second half opens with more classicist Ed Kuepper riffage, loud and fast but more garage rock than punk rock, on the irresistible "No Time," and the irreverent Elvis Presley cover "Kissin' Cousins," probably the best in their novelty repertoire. Yet again, though, the midtempo is where the Saints truly reign.

"Story of Love," which sounds uncannily like a certain song about teen spirit recorded fourteen years in the future, is a varied, oddly structured Beggars Banquet-like stomper featuring the kind of levity for which Bailey deserves greater fame, and a brilliantly timed Kuepper solo that gives reason to think of the Saints as more in line with Big Star than the Damned. This is two steps away from radio pop, ingeniously so, but the world was different then. Even a surface punker like "Demolition Girl" has trickier riffage and more playful, ambiguous humanity than Malcolm MacLaren would've ever allowed, and another New York Dolls chorus. It's hard to find a band threatening when they're so likable, in the end, but that's the thing; they don't need to be a threat, they're just good.

(I'm) Stranded ends much as it began -- with a loud, fast, vaguely dissatisfied banger, "Night in Venice," the oddity being that it rails off into a guitar and feedback tangent and extends to 5:41, forecasting Television and Yo La Tengo -- but the implications it leaves today in its mere half hour are enticing. It makes sense that a band spawned in 1974 would give a sort of missing link between the Velvet Underground, whose garage persuasions calculatedly masked a high (contextual) skill level and adherence to songs, and the Ramones, who learned what they were doing as they went. But what's so intriguing about the Saints is that they don't seem to have had anything to prove; they have no issue with displaying their chops (a big no-no in the punkiverse) and see no suspicious element to just banging out their songs as best they can, whether they're simple or ornately emotional or even instrumentally complex. They aren't interested in being part of a movement, in making impressions or force-feeding primitivist ideals. Does that make them less rebellious than their peers... or less conformist?

Fuck the intellectual breakdown, though; if you want to hear a great rock band playing great rock songs you've probably not heard before, get this shit now. It's worth blasting. A punk collection might seem complete without "Messin' with the Kid," but it sure would be missing a lot of soul.

Shabazz Palaces: Black Up (2011)

(Sub Pop)


In 2009, Digable Planets were scheduled to play a show at a venue I frequented. I don't typically respond well to reunion tours, but this seemed -- along with Television -- a crucial exception. True to form, as in their initial career, by the time word got around that a band of such magnitude was playing Wilmington, they disappeared; yet another bout of infighting had ripped them apart again, with barely a wisp of warning. In a way, it was appropriate that such a legendary unit would remain so elusive. Maybe seeing them would've lessened the still-searing impact of Reachin' and Blowout Comb, both near-masterpieces that stomp on the notion of early '90s conscious hip hop as a novelty device for the gen-Xers who sort of remember it. Maybe it would've been disheartening to witness Butterfly and Ladybug singing their hearts about in front of a crowd of well-meaning young parents who file "Rebirth of Slick" somewhere between "Rump Shaker" and "Bust a Move."

This respect for self-preservation through unattainability, a strategy regularly employed in the rockist world by luminaries dubious and non from the Beatles to Led Zeppelin, has informed Butterfly's handling of his latest project, Shabazz Palaces. As virtually every music writer working this album and the preceding EPs has excitedly pointed out, it was for some time quite difficult to glean Butterfly's involvement in SP, not least because he's traveling under the new title Palaceer Lazaro. I have a lot of suspicion about the increasing influx of anonymity in pop music, as both a gimmick and an act of cultural calculation. Why else it is so impossible to trust Gorillaz as much as we trusted Blur? In the case of the Weeknd, it divorces what might otherwise be intriguing music from any racial or societal context, rendering it (replete with Spiritualized-derived cover art) bite-sized acceptable for indiecrit zealots who can't handle the icky explicitness of modern R&B. In the case of WU LYF, it allows deeply uninteresting, superficial music to glean wildly overexcited press (especially in Britain, but what else is new). I wouldn't mind if Shabazz Palaces dropped the talk about being "ethereal" and came out in the open, because this music deserves better than mystery.

But Butterfly is unmistakably here, his flow still youthful and exuberant and filled with the same dead-serious wit as ever ("things are looking blacker, but black is looking whiter"; "clear some space so we can space out"), tempered by age only in the most artistically rich manner. At times during Black Up, I find myself thinking he's as good as Jay-Z and Black Thought, with each of whom he shares crucial traits -- Jay's sly, selective aggression; Black Thought's eloquent wariness of an at times dark globe. The thrill is how little Shabazz Palaces sounds like Digable Planets, hard-hitting and musically tangential and unencumbered. People keep saying there's "no jazz" here, but I vehemently disagree. If not jazz, what the hell do you call "Endeavors for Never," a work of tremendous freeflow with stark, urban, nocturnal, glorious musical rambles?

People say "no jazz" simply because that's not all this is. Not that I necessarily mind ringtone rap, but this is its dictionary opposite. Black Up passes itself between razor-sharp ideas with expert wisdom, and with the expectation that the audience is bright enough to stay with it; the ideas come fast and furious, typically in single tracks that seem to cast multiple songs under one umbrella, usually with an outrageously pretentious title. The individual cuts run together so much it becomes impossible to separate them, to contemplate one specific element as falling here or there, and so the record demands to be heard complete -- an increasing rarity, particularly in the context of an LP that deserves such attention. But in just 36 minutes (the titles may be uncomfortably lofty but the music keeps it clean and brisk), we're treated to the bottom-heavy club pound of a Timbaland-Elliott production, four on the floor house-funk, generally hard-hitting lurches between wildly unorthodox notions old and new, all at irregular intervals with only emotional logic. The opening cut "Free Press and Curl" curtains up on an electrofunk poetry reading before diving into twisted Halloween freakiness and wandering off into a bare-minimum, achingly slow house tangent; warm community devolves to ageless electronic paranoia. "Youlogy" brings a shadow of disorienting distortion across oldschool Bambaataa beats, reimagining Slick Rick and Kool Moe Dee as an entrance into disturbing, infectious avant garde; at 42, Butterfl-- er, Lazaro is recording real goddamn music still, everything old new again.

Shabazz Palaces do as they please, and while never boring, they intend to take whatever time they need to make their point however they wish. Deeply considered, restless, and brashly excited with possibility, this is music that demands to be played loud, and insists on devotion. It's a sonically disparate experience heard on good speakers or on good headphones, and it needs either (and both, at some point). Without hearing it on a good system at some point, you could miss how "Recollections of the Wrath" sounds like it's overtaking the room, how deftly it hides its illest soul persuasions. Without detailed listening, you could miss the brush of history. "Are You Can You Were You" opens on a bleak '70s Marvin Gaye landscape, and builds on a vague record skip like a transference (successful) of turntablism to a new age. "The ship I came here on vanished," laments Lazaro on one of his saddest, most playful lyrics, just before an incredible earthquake of a hook propels us up into grandiose soul, the kind of pure and familiar pleasure the record is careful only to offer in limited quantities.

How refreshing to hear an album that provides such a sense of journey with music that is strong and insistent enough to back that up and to provide the proverbial beat lover with so many new compulsions. And don't cast this off as "alternative" rap with no wider relevance; "A Treatease Dedicated..." runs nonstop through its sensual, barking flow as if to prove Nicki Minaj isn't the only one who can do this. So there are moments when the record seems to target the typical prog-indie Sub Pop consumer a bit too enthusiastically -- the backwards psychedelia of "Kings New Clothes..." seems too long even at 2:06 -- but hey, there are moments like that on labelmates Male Bonding's new album too, and don't tell me that Shabazz can't manage to convert anyone, an individual skeptic or a roomful of clubbers, to the fragments of synthpop and confrontation that gradually form the banger "Yeah You," a divine illustration of the irrelevance of where sounds initially came from in 2011.

The reason I want Shabazz to break into the mainstream, though, is their wholehearted embrace of African music -- a trait more frequently seen in recent years within white groups like Vampire Weekend, whose cuddly version is undeniably infectious and beautifully crafted, and tUnE-yArDs, who use it for the hit to the jugular I wish I heard more in modern hip hop. That's why "Swerve... the Reeping of All That Is Worthwhile" and "An Echo from the Hosts That Process Infinitum" are so valuable. The latter is dramatically unsettling, casting jungle-misery sample and beat against joyous instrumentation, even a kalimba. But grand finale "Reeping" is extraordinary -- a crushing multipronged beat at the outset renders Lazaro's latest rant nearly beside the point; guest vocalist Thee Stasia bursts forth with nightclub heat across generations, and after a fade, we tap back into the underground with a decidedly Digable-like, unashamedly nonwestern roll call of what Black is (you, me, us, free). Though it runs for less than half the song, less than a twenteth of the album, the moment is as celebratory and ingratiating as anything else here. Lazaro shed some light on his growing interest in the music of Ethiopia in an interview earlier this year:

My girlfriend was from Ethiopia, and that's all I was listening to, straight up. I love those melodies and those rhythms. A lot of that stuff sunk in, but I can't remember any names because I didn't know what any of them cats was talking about-- can I say that?

I was drawn to the emotion, even when it wasn't apparent. There were some barriers between myself and the music and the language, but I was able to absorb the sentiment of the music and get a deep sense of the emotion, of what the music was. That's what it was and what remains to me. It unquestionably has an influence on what I'm doing now. A deep one.

Very little in rock & roll, in hip hop, is new. But when it feels new, that's when the joy of discovery can overtake. For hardly the first time in his illustrious career, Ishmael Butler, a.k.a. Butterfly, a.k.a. Palaceer Lazaro, has found that moment. I doubt it will be the last time.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Afrika Bambaataa: Looking for the Perfect Beat (1980-2001)

(Tommy Boy)


For someone with a nearly religious belief in the transformative power and artful directness of rock & roll, it can be tempting to drop everything under the rockist umbrella. But that gives short shrift to hip hop, the sole major innovation in western pop music since the '60s. Punk might have crafted its own subculture, but at bottom it was a resurrection of the speedy '50s anthems once wrongly thought of as primitive. Rap music is its own art form, with its own rich history, but it is friendly to the rock mythologist because of its narrative parallels. When you think of the 1977-86 period as the '50s, it all becomes quite clear. The '50s were the decade of excitement, the '60s of ambition and sometimes wildly successful innovation. So it goes here. You still get a fresh rush out of the earliest Grandmaster Flash and Treacherous Three records, relentlessly thrilling in their uncluttered starkness and rampant flamboyance of pure creativity, the starry-eyed discovery of unlimited possibility in a new artform. And nobody's early records -- not in rap, not in rock, not anywhere -- were so explosively exciting as those offered up by Afrika Bambaataa, the brilliant, conscientious South Bronx DJ who laid a groundwork and lit a fuse that remains alight three decades after.

We think of the golden age extending well into the '90s, but the truth is that well before pretentious boneheads like Dr. Dre began to appear on the landscape, even heroes like Bambaataa were succumbing to the temptation to cop to "progressive" ideals, busying up their records with appeals to outside importance beyond their countercultural audience. As so often, the counterculture had it right -- it is in those early good-hearted, joyful, emotionally straightforward, at times bitterly angry hip hop records that the true potential of the genre was realized. Before those recording it even realized they were crafting art. Not to say that the well dried since then, or that there haven't been plenty of enormously vital and gifted performers in the field since then, but all of those who've laid down masterpieces, The Score to The College Dropout, owe their strongest debt to the conscious but body-driven arm-wave of hip hop's tirelessly lively roots.

On a personal note, I would give a lot to be able to craft a description of how Bambaataa's output in the first half of the '80s, exemplified by the first seven tracks on this fine collection, makes me feel. It is like nothing else in the pop music annals. More than just an admiration of Bambaataa's filthily efficient skills as a producer and an event-maker, more than the infectious enthusiasm that was always a feature of his work, and more than the indisputable positivity of his outlook (a heart in the right place rather than the supposed Right Words than an inexcusably bland Arrested Development or PM Dawn might put across), there's an almost spiritual rightness and beauty to "Jazzy Sensation" and "Looking for the Perfect Beat" that make them some of the most infectious and provocative music ever laid down. I've written before in this space of the way that great music refuses to accept being placed in the background by losing its shape when attention isn't being paid to it. Bambaataa's '81-'85 sides refuse to even allow that to happen. When they're on, it's impossible not to give them all of your focus -- and all of your body.

This set opens with the sole significant cut released under the Cosmic Force rubric, 1981's "Zulu Nation Throwdown," and it's one of the most impressive early rap records -- issued before I was born, it still sounds futuristic to me, a textured and wildly varied merry-go-round of disco-funk and space-hop with a genuine party atmosphere. Its funky flatness provides a backdrop for goofy, funny traded barbs leading up to a staggering verse by some force of nature named Lisa Lee. She make the ants crawl in your pants, put you in a music trance, and she is the climax of these seven minutes. There's another "Zulu Nation Throwdown" here, a totally different song credited to Soul Sonic Force, and it's comparatively quaint and sweet, dropping no bombs like Lisa Lee did.

But the disc only gains momentum after that. "Jazzy Sensation," "Planet Rock," and "Looking for the Perfect Beat" all lay claim to being Bambaataa's masterpiece, and the latter could quite easily be the single greatest hip hop record ever made. "Jazzy Sensation" outsteps in one regard, though, possessing the craziest and most relentless bassline ever; this pounding monster of a 12" flies through percussive vocal ideas ("the boys the boys") too fast to bother with much of a refrain, a relentless cascade of warmly funny and twisting, winding rhymes. It's a dance music thrill that doesn't deserve to be overshadowed by its two brethren, but they both make it nearly inevitable.

"Planet Rock," Bambaataa's most famous record, deserves credit for many innovations, not least of them being the virtual creation (out of nowhere) of the electro-funk subgenre by the simple but audacious act of using Kraftwerk as the basis for a hip hop cut. There's more to it than that, though; Afrika and the Soul Sonic Force don't just use "Trans-Europe Express," they appropriate its mildly off-kilter kitsch and emotional desperation as their own. In contrast to its usual jam-hailing boasts and enthusiastic mating calls, the track is almost horrifyingly stark, thereby crafting (courtesy of producers Arthur Baker and John Robie) a unique sensation of bearing muffled witness to something far more ominous than a mere party. There's a sense in which it's a pity that Bambaataa would achieve his lengthiest brush with mainstream fame (outside of New York City, where he regularly played venues like the Mudd Club) with a song so conceptually at odds with his typical righteous pushing of fun, love, and productivity. But the song is too brilliant, too assured and too unique, for that to matter for long.

Besides, "Looking for the Perfect Beat" marries that impressive sonic boom with a stargazing nightlife serenade so wide open it seems to lift the room. Clearly this track takes the dance floor potential of hip hop to its fullest, with an all-out enthusiasm, an embracing of the boogie night, that no one's ever duplicated. It also recasts the space funk of "Planet Rock" as something over the top and robotic, then undercuts it with a Wall of Sound hugeness. Rife with unconventional, cunning beats and palpable, busy excitement, it plants us in the middle of one of Afrika's famous block parties but also points us squarely into some scarcely imaginable, assuredly remarkable future. Not only is the music thrilling, it's gloriously optimistic; true to form, "Beat" still sounds astonishingly current, like something we still have to catch up with.

Those three juggernauts plus the Cosmic Force 12" can, when heard in sequence, make "Renegades of Funk" and "Frantic Situation" seem marginal, but don't be fooled. "Renegades" says a lot about Bambaataa's character, framing his work in context with a historical breadth that seems assured but never cocky -- and musically, in the context of the rockist sympathies of the time (even propagated by such supposed on-our-side forward thinkers as the Replacements), a heroic refusal to accept synthetics as a hindrance or a limitation. And "Frantic," while less catchy, gives long overdue attention to the sounds of Africa that must have permeated the artist's ears on his life-altering trip there in the late '70s. It has the most organic feel of anything he had laid down since dropping his live band.

With the broader context we now have, we might rightfully be wary of the purity of Bambaataa's message. Peace and love are, after all, the tantamount concerns of the Jurassic 5, the Black Eyed Peas, and Santana as well. But you have to consider how much Africa made this man, and how much the feelings that were stirred up by his journey there are audible in his music. "Zulu" isn't a buzzword for Bambaataa; it is a lifestyle of brotherhood and empathy, the virtues he witnessed laid against unspeakable strife. When the former gangland warlord began to speak out against violence and organize block parties to celebrate hip hop as a way out of such dead ends, his influence and intelligence allowed him to change the course of the music, and more importantly of generations worth of the disenfranchised. His story alone spits in the eye of any notion that hip hop (and rock & roll, because why not) isn't important. He represents, in the most real and inarguable way, the literally life-saving potential of the music.

But he also is an intelligent and ambitious guy, and he wanted the Zulu Nation on the pop charts. The pop charts tend to require sacrifice. On streamlined, evened-out later works from 1985 onward, such as "Unity Part 1" (the famous James Brown collaboration) and the rather silly "Funk You!" Bambaataa doesn't sound like the same man who laid the revolutionary foundation for the areas of early rap culture that remain most relevant even today. But one must accept that he was valiantly attempting to spread that same message farther. Still, when trading lines with Brown or John Lydon (on the enjoyable but equally silly "World Destruction," not included here), the scrappy punk-rock joy of Cosmic Force seems leagues away. The demands to be taken seriously, amidst ironically generic queries such as "Who Do You Think You're Funkin' With?" and, well, "What Time Is It?" seem surprisingly out of character -- free of character, even.

These pop and progressive persuasions (he would later, into the new millennium, branch off into abstract club music, trance even) didn't really fuck up Bambaataa's career, and his legacy was safe before even "Planet Rock" was released, frankly before he ever released any of his music commercially. His imprint and fortitude, his brilliance as a performer and a recognizer of talent, will echo in the streets of New York and in every beat of great hip hop that's released long after he's gone. And a big part of that legacy comes from his leadership and selflessness -- most simply, his determination to help others discover a better life through art; but also, at bottom, his willingness to give the floor to others. There was Mellie Mel on "Frantic Situation," James Brown serving up the hook on "Unity," and of course the unforgettable, ghostly Lisa Lee making those proclamations that seem almost like battle cries writing history in their fiery prescience, freshness, and razor-sharp rebellion.

This ain't a Broadway play or a high school plot
It's the real deal that makes you feel
Like, like you got sex appeal
Now party people in the place you feel the bass
Can you check out the highs, check out the grace
So wallflowers in the house, this is your chance
To show everybody that you can dance
Punk rock to the left, and Patty Duke to the right
Move your body now, you can do it all night.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Prince: 1999 (1982)

(Warner Bros.)

!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

Don't worry, I won't hurt you. I only want you to have some fun.

Things you're not allowed to say anymore, volume 1: 1999 is twice the album Thriller is. Across its sprawling seventy-one minutes is the liveliest fruition ever of what funk and R&B could once have been: a genuine kicking, screaming against ever-enveloping darkness, and that fits the world we live in even you don't think "we might die anyway," even if you're not "in love with God, he's the only way," even if, hey, 1999 was twelve whole years ago. If Dirty Mind marked the moment when the radio zeitgeist of the '80s became Prince's to own, 1999 is the point when you can actually hear Prince taking over the world.

Prince's prior two albums had contained some expert music, including his all-time masterpiece "When You Were Mine," but the difference on 1999 is two-pronged: its brilliant conception as a complete, stacked-with-genius double-LP entity, far beyond the song-by-song structure of Dirty Mind and Controversy; and more simply, the size and scope of its songs. The record is overrun with worldly, emphatic mastery, particularly on the first disc. Prince had written anthems before, but nothing even in a league with "1999," a perfect instance of a song so well-written its universal utility has failed to allow it to age, even with its antiquity in the text.

By transferring Prince's stark synth explorations of Dirty Mind to a full-band format, "1999" crafts a new kind of musical apocalypse -- quite literally, with its imagery of End Times fire and brimstone. And what is Prince really talking about, here? Is it truly that 2000 would mark some grand transformation or was it simply the idea of the last few hours of listening to one's body, of real freedom wrought by doom? It doesn't matter when the numbers still invoke a united catharsis, when strong and often passionate memories have given partying like it's 1999 an entirely separate meaning today, and when Prince has offered the finest opening lines ever penned down for a pop song, traded amongst his bandmates. "I was dreaming when I wrote this, forgive me if it goes astray." It serves doubly as the introduction to the golden age of Prince's career. But "1999" itself continues to rave on mightily as a classic, as weird and wonderful a release for private listeners and club inhabitants alike as ever. And by celebrating the weirdo, as personality and musician, in an unfettered pop context, filling this muscular piece of genius with noises and idiosyncracies you don't notice the first hundred times, Prince fulfills the promise of legions before him. He was the first geek superstar, and the first geek sex symbol since Buddy Holly.

"Little Red Corvette" may mark the moment when it became impossible not to consider that Prince might just end up in a pantheon with Holly, with Stevie Wonder and James Brown, which he quickly would. If "1999" is one of the finest club songs ever written, "Corvette" is one of the finest songs ever, period. Lyrically flawless, its ribald condom imagery, romantic longing, and sophisticated characterization are all far beyond the typical boundaries of the rock lyric. And even in 1982, which is three whole decades ago now, men and women had already spent decades if not centuries trying to pin down the emotion Prince so succinctly expresses with these eleven words: "It was Saturday night, I guess that makes it all right." He doesn't toss it off, of course, because he's Prince. He wraps his voice around it and grinds through it like it matters immensely, which it does.

Approaching "Corvette" historically, it could be the first instance of layered, undeniably emotional pop balladry in such an artificial, synthesized context; rock dorks could no longer deny that the drum machine had its place. It's songs like this, the low-key late night weekend anthems, that really alter the course of millions of adolescent lives and set the world on its ear. It is the tune of its type to beat, to this day. By the flight of fancy on the bridge, the "run into the ground" streetwise lost-soul that makes rockist notions of Saturday night loneliness seem absurd with banality, you are left marveling at the utility and durability of this music, of this sequence of tracks that has lived on already through so many hundreds of Saturday nights when it seemed to erase the distance between people.

That basic emotion elevated to insurmountable, stargazing heights carries through to "Delirious," a warmer song with band interplay that Prince's former chilliness could never have duplicated, despite its continued reliance on the all-important programmed drums. The single's nasty hook belies its thematic humanity, which elegantly runs down basic lovelorn folly without condescending, overreaching, or falling off into Prince's kooky shenanigans. "I get delirious whenever you're near," we've had millions of songs about that, but none that knew quite how to say it so well.

Still, Side One is where Prince leaves his eccentricity at the door, and if that's what you really want, you don't really love Prince, even if no one would deny that "1999" and "Little Red Corvette" are the champions of all four sides. What makes 1999 so breathtaking is what's still to come. The massiveness of "Let's Pretend We're Married," its arid soundscape and disgusting groove soundtracking insane tangents of graphic sex ("fuck you so bad it hurts / it HURTS") and eventually God (basically out of nowhere at the end), crunches along for 7:21 without becoming anything less than intoxicating. The song's intricate sci-fi detail would seem an odd fit for Prince's joyfully explicit come-ons, but the IBM setting works, and unlike on Purple Rain, Prince really lets the track spin out to its conclusion, leaving no corner of its soulful rudeness and power unexplored.

"D.M.S.R." is nearly as sick, a towering synth buildup that even in its first few seconds is already laying claim as a clit-kissing party anthem for all; it stands for dance, music, sex, romance, all of which it offers excessively. Few things feel better until Prince begins to let the darkness cloud over again. The first half of the album ends with a woman screaming for help, rather believably; is it conceivable that there are more threats in this surreal urban partyscape of Prince's than just the Christ war machine at two thousand zero zero? When he talked about "fun," was he being sarcastic?

Much of the second record is spent wrestling with the implications of that moment, which clearly expresses some fear in Prince's heart. Is open sexual permissiveness a bedrock for rape and abuse, or is that repression? Is sexual permissiveness itself truly the radical idea (Prince seems preoccupied with "free love" hippies, particularly in the middle section here), or is it far more outrageous that we're so afraid of sexuality? Or is he just reminding us that the bigger the party is, the seamier the underbelly? Picture 1999 as a tall building, each song one floor, the windows spreading out lights and music and shouting in many different orders, each party unaware of those above and below it but all in the end able to say in years to come that they were in Prince's building when this night went down. And some of them even heard the scream.

But the people on whatever floor corresponded with "Automatic" were having a blast. Though hardly a cultural behemoth on a level with "Little Red Corvette," this is the album's juggernaut -- a nine-minute bondage funk attack as far-out glorious as "Erotic City," an audaciously mainstream celebration of getting tied up and whipped and fucked. The song is barely there, a minimalistic backdrop for skittering beats and impossibly eccentric, feverishly humid vocals (it may be the first song in pop history to contain backing vocals consisting of weeping, and certainly the first to frame it as eroticism). Does anyone celebrate Prince's astoundingly prescient out-in-the-open promotion of alternative then-fringe sex? No, because people are still terrified to talk about that sort of shit, which proves his point -- a point he probably no longer even agrees with. But seriously, only Leonard Cohen sang about domination and submission so consistently, and only Depeche Mode were gauche enough to make it an anthem... but Prince came out and faced it and made it unmistakable, and steamy.

The second half of 1999 has no fear of weirdness; "Something in the Water (Does Not Compute)," though it forecasts the wildly divergent production style of Purple Rain, is the most sterile atmosphere of all, and takes far longer to understand than any other cut here -- but eventually, its groove strikes hard. More immediate, but still defiantly uncommercial, is the extended freakout "All the Critics Love U in New York," a nonsequitur blown up to bare-minimum funk theatrics like a series of half-formed ideas, impossibly catchy but disconnected, all strung together to make a perversely dizzying club track. It's like the Abbey Road medley as a 1:00am sex banger.

Prince proves he hasn't forgotten his roots, his original calling, with a pair of slow-jams that manage pleasingly to expand his balladeer horizons, though he would soon easily eclipse them with masterpieces "Purple Rain" and "Adore." For now, "Free" is the beautiful loverboy moment, built on a heartbeat and an itchy falsetto and triumphant melody line; "International Loverboy" the silly loverboy moment that climaxes (!) with Prince pretending to be a pilot on, yes, Prince Airways.

But if any single track gives some idea that Prince could go even farther than this, even more sophisticated, even more complete, even as this seems to do more with sex-funk and electro-urban dance music than anyone ever had or would need to, even as he seems to already be at the absolute top, it's "Lady Cab Driver." The guy didn't need to be even better, how could anyone be better than 1999? But this song contains so much, so many ideas that he and others would spend years reeling from and tweaking. Remember all that talk about Prince renaming himself The Artist many years later? Well, this is art. Not only is it a monster of a jam, pulsating and drifting and pounding like a space shuttle, it embodies a range, aesthetic and emotional, that would be fully realized on Purple Rain and especially Prince's greatest record, Sign o' the Times. Initially it sears with the same seduction as "Let's Pretend We're Married," maybe a tad more specific and sensual than just blatantly horny, but then you get to the part in the eight minute track when Prince begins fucking her and making a lecture while her orgasmic moaning persists.

What a moment this is. At first you think there's something nasty, indefensibly improper and monstrous in play when he begins naming injustices ("politicians who are bored and believe in war," "whoever taught you how to kiss in designer jeans") -- is Prince raping a woman because he doesn't like war? But no, he isn't raping her; soon, he's doing this one for me, yeah, and this for you. It's a fuck, a hard and fast fuck, as a rail against the bullshit. The place you have to live, the cab you have to drive, the rich, the tourists at Disneyland, love without sex. The thrusts are an act of defiance against whatever would rather they didn't exist, would rather short nerdy types didn't fuck lady cab drivers if the two of them wanted, would rather no one ever went out of their way for nothing more than shared pleasure -- which may finally be all that some have. Prince wants to please her, to take care of her orgasm, but also wants us all to know that he's doing this for himself too, and he's doing it because he's a person and because some things are worth believing in. The sun, the moon, the stars, God, women, and yes, sex. One wonders if in her PMRC crusade, Tipper Gore ever heard this rant, ever heard Prince making the lady cab driver come just to piss people like Tipper Gore off, and just to thrill the rest of us.

The PMRC is long past relevant now. So are Reagan and Gorbachev, so are most of the moral crusaders and crass public figures dominating the airwaves in 1982. And so, alas, is Prince, who will never be so bold as to bring it like this again. Maybe the world isn't even quite as scary now. But we have other moral crusaders, other crass people, we have others whose grand notion of justice is not letting people who like to fuck others of their gender visit their same-sex de facto spouses in the hospital. And we are nearly consumed by our own darkness, by a litany of debt crises and unemployment line, credit card declined; by rich and religious gluttons suspicious and disdainful of lady cab drivers who get paid nothing in shabby apartments; by a political landscape dominated by fear and hatred and a president whose promises of Change have been slow and compromised and anything but fierce. And what do we do in 2011 to get through this? We party like it's 1999, we fuck the ones we love and we have our Saturday nights even if we are ladies, even if we're cab drivers, and even if we're black. Or gay, or young and scared.

The idea of 1999 is simpler than it appears, then -- we can't escape the fear, we shouldn't embrace it either, but we can dance atop it without allowing ourselves to forget it's there. "My mind says prepare to fight," as the song goes. But have some fun. That's what They don't want. Perhaps this foreboding is a function of being in one's twenties and somewhat conscious of the world, but it rings as true for me here as on the more explicit (and less broadly pious, therefore more meaningful to me) Sign o' the Times. I know that 1999 invented the Minneapolis sound, but it seems to reach so far beyond that, to exist on a plane above a lot of those surely magnificent records it initially begat. It connects as if no time has passed at all, so awe-inspiring and smart it's scary, as brilliant an example as we've ever had, in any modern art form, of the personal found in the universal -- and finally, irreversibly becoming it.

Dirty Mind (1980)
Controversy (1981)

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Bon Iver (2011)


I love his vocals. As the current folk rock set goes, Justin Vernon's coos and cries hit the sweet spot many others wish they could; even when placed against uninspired music and melodies, he doesn't tend to sound forced, which is quite remarkable. On the opening track of the second Bon Iver record, "Perth," he manages to convey emotion against a heavily melodramatic musical backdrop that sounds like something from the old Family Channel show Crossbow -- something embodying that 1980s idea of what Medieval times were like. So while you may be distracted by the militaristic Mr. Mister sound (little drummer boy percussion and all), Vernon scores and gives the aimless emotional swells a target.

So it is for much of Bon Iver, the summit of a bizarre indie rock moment that has seen the vaulting of Air Supply's production style to veneration once reserved for the likes of Steve Albini. The record bears surprisingly scant aesthetic resemblance to the ingeniously calculated For Emma, Forever Ago, a far less proggy and more convincingly fallen-apart affair. The closest the sophomore effort probably comes is the lovely "Minnesota, WI," which complements a deceptively desolate yet lush log cabin sound with funky enough singing from Vernon to suggest another Kanye collab. The rest travels in either the direction of total subservience to pillowy, tempo-free yacht rock or ever starker Vernon noodling. (Someone said something to me recently about how good Bon Iver's drummer is; my unspoken reaction was "Bon Iver has a drummer?") The more Vernon attempts to score on his own adorability (see "Michicant" and the almost insufferable softcore porn soundtrack "Calgary") the less fun he is, and at the very least a throwback of this kind should be fun.

There are some nifty ideas here; "Hinnom, TX" provides an answer to the burning question of what happens if you remove the beat from a mid-'70s Bee Gees song, which is that you're left with what sounds like a fallen star's impression of post-rock. That's interesting enough, and it even plays to the artist's ample strengths as writer and vocalist, both of which he inexplicably ignores most of the time in favor of some over-the-moon artificial fragility. Vernon knows he's gifted, and he's right, he even knows where and how, but what he doesn't know is when to cut it out; most of these sticky-sweet recordings are just overload. "Holocene" compensates for an initial minimalism by building so much it subverts its own beauty, and the excessive tracking on Vernon doesn't make its chilly preciousness any more convincing. And if "Wash," a repetitive piano figure layered with vague atmospheres and vaguer singing, was any closer to nonexistent I don't see how he could collect songwriting royalties for it.

Vernon's current obsession with 1980s soft rock is less compelling than Dan Bejar's because he fails to sense anything playful about it, instead buying into the "Take My Breath Away" idea of beauty. It does work sometimes; "Lisbon, OH" is a splendid Summer Sun-like mood piece, and "Towers" hits hard because of atmosphere, but keeps its shape because of stronger, grittier instrumentation and writing than on most of the other songs -- and also because it's pure pop, never mind retro. Whatever message Vernon may have taken from his work with Kanye West, I'm wishing he interpreted it as a need to move farther in this direction.

At its most offensive, Bon Iver shows that Vernon's impression of pop music is basically a distillation of the dullest, most dunderheaded musical ideas he's ever heard over the Muzak machine at a mall. "Beth / Rest" is the draggiest piece of irksome indie-pop I've heard this year, and that includes Kurt Vile's album. It's a Peter Cetera song filtered through a Pure Moods ad, and it only conquers boredom because it's so appallingly tasteless -- but across five minutes, it never lifts itself enough even to give a purpose, satirical or emotional, for its skillful appropriation of antiseptic, dated Eric Carmen non-hooks and non-music. It is as objectionable in its own way as Odd Future. Those are your two enemies right now, rock & rollers: Odd Future and "Beth / Rest." Both couch emotional terror in bite-sized, convenient packages that will ultimately be to society's detriment. Both deserve to drift quickly to the bottom of cultural memory. Both are evil, pure evil. Luckily, nothing else on Bon Iver even comes close to being as inhumanely awful. Enya fans may like it; they can add it to the end of their Julianna Barwick mixtape and throw it on when they're feeling adventurous.

The perverse thing about Bon Iver, which was also apparent to a lesser extent on Emma, is that the music can be perfect for a background moment. Even listening while typing this I like it more than the three and a half times I concentrated on it. When you step closer, it loses detail, emotional signifiance. The music I love, from Pet Sounds to Prince to tUnE-yArDs, tends to work in precisely the opposite fashion. Try to ignore them and they'll sneer at you and blow out incomprehensible, displeasing signals. Put Bon Iver on during dinner or a lengthy conversation and you're likely to want to embrace it. It's also a handily succinct thirty-nine minutes, and that counts for something. But no, I don't think you're magnificent either, Justin.

The Faint: Blank-Wave Arcade (1999)

(Saddle Creek)

This is everything people who don't listen to indie rock hate about indie rock and think the whole of it embodies -- smug, smarmy, impersonal, self-consciously aloof. And "cool," of course. Not that plenty of cool and detached bands haven't been great, but there was always an undercurrent of sorrow or desperation this thoroughly lacks; see Joy Division. Even White Light / White Heat has some emotion and/or feeling besides clipped and edgy. This is music kids decided to write when they got bored with skating and wanted to foist their claustrophobic (lack of a) worldview on unsuspecting grownups. The Faint -- amazingly enough, formerly co-led by Conor Oberst, which is particularly ironic given his wide-armed heart-on-sleeve lyrics and vocals -- write chilly, sneering songs about what sounds like dreadful sex ("Sex Is Personal," "Worked Up So Sexual," "Casual Sex," sense a theme?) but you can dance to them.

Firmly in the Orange Juice / Joy Division / Suicide mold that would soon spawn Franz Ferdinand, because they think that stuff is really drab and deep and fail to sense its arch humor, this can be heard as innovative in its derivations if you like, and it certainly isn't the worst party album you could cue up. So the key to enjoyment is the same as when eating a hot dog: just don't think about what you're consuming, for even a second, and you'll have a decent time. (The hot dog's better for you, though.)

Friday, August 19, 2011

Fucked Up: David Comes to Life (2011)


I try not to waste too much time staring at empty white space hoping that blog posts will write themselves, but I am really at a loss this time. I'm convinced this is an intelligent and well-crafted record, but I'm incapable of liking it. I'm not a fan of hardcore at all, but I felt a concept album about a guy working in a light bulb factory might have enough pop appeal to let me in. Truthfully, I like the anthemic drift of some of the songs, giving some hope that I'd see past my initial prejudices as with Titus Andronicus, but as soon as Damian Abraham opens his mouth with that low-pitched guttural rush of growling testosterone, well, you've never seen anything like it. I shut off completely -- emotionally, critically, whatever. As with most really aggressive music, I can't see the good in it that I'm sure is probably there.

This disappoints me for a couple of reasons, chiefly that I know the members of Fucked Up are rather lovely individuals and I want to be supportive of 'em; I love reading Abraham's blog entries and I'm sure he's one of the smartest people in the business. Moreover, a nearly universal brigade of personal friends and choice critics whose tastes I trust are enamored of this album and while that doesn't tend to bother me too much, I'm naturally disappointed I can't share in their enthusiasm, not when it's a struggle to make it past the first verse of any of the songs. But a lot of them didn't like Cults, so we're even.

I have no criticisms of the album itself outside of my distaste for its genre and basic aesthetic, and those aren't really criticisms, except: I think it's way too long, in a year when even Yeezy and Jay compressed themselves down to single-LP size, and even for basic filthy rock & roll songs I don't really like the idea of a concept album. Not saying they're always bad, just the whole idea makes me cringe kind of a lot.

This is the worst review I've ever posted here and I'm sorry, but I would advise you not to listen to me on matters of Fucked Up or any other hardcore band. If "hardcore" isn't even the right word to describe Fucked Up, argh, rest assured I feel even dumber.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Alanis Morissette: Jagged Little Pill (1995)



Upon releasing this earthshaking album in 1995, during an anomalous boom period for the music industry, Alanis Morissette probably earned enough capital to set herself up for life. And there's evidence to suggest that's what she wanted, being already a pop star and celebrity in Canada -- now came the calculatedly legitimate nest egg. But what Morissette never seems to have received enough of is respect, for being both an outstanding pop musician who was just what millions of people, a sizable proportion of them young and female, needed at a specific time, and for being a spectacularly intelligent businesswoman who got her career precisely where she wanted it in a very short time, using this record to pull in enough revenue for a lifetime of creative freedom. And don't bullshit me about how this is all Glen Ballard. You don't sell 33 million copies of a Glen Ballard album.

But you don't sell 33 million copies of a pop musician celebrating her independence and her contradictions, either, at least not before or since the '90s. You could make the case that Morissette was simply a dilution of the riot grrl movement fused with increasingly popular adult contemporary textures. There's no doubt Morissette and her cohort Ballard, if not their record label, were completely aware that they had struck gold with this music. But their savvy makes it no less impressive that there was a time when pop songs, however slick, that so outlandishly broadcast their eccentricities and emotional complexity could become as massive as Thriller.

Maybe it's shocking because we're trained to expect women not to do that sort of thing. Morissette certainly felt the bitter taste success can bring when confronted with the onslaught of rock journos and pathetic Joe Publics determined to break her achievments down. The willful misreadings of "Ironic" -- it isn't really ironic; what a dumb bitch! -- are actually more excusable than the tireless excavations and mockery of her pop past, as though a lite-disco career in her employment history somehow precluded any attempt to be taken seriously in the future, never mind that the woman whose open expression, emotional complexity, and popular appeal was taken most seriously in the ten prior years was Madonna, basically a disco singer. Besides, if you can't have a new beginning in rock & roll, what's the fucking point?

It's probably a coincidence that Madonna's label is the one that signed Morissette and launched her to international popularity, but it has feminist suggestions that are worth considering. For one thing, as we have seen with Kanye West in the modern era, it is impossible for many people to accept that any celebrity or successful person might have, like, emotional difficulties or, ew, issues. And should one dare to express such ambivalence in pop song form, well, how dare you. We all have bills to pay. So the miracle is that not only did an artist in 1995 record an entire album of high-class vulnerability, it was a woman. A nice-looking woman, yeah, but one whose sexuality was visited and explored no less on her own terms than Madonna's. Is this stylistic posturing? If it is, what of it? Why not form vague ideas of identity and sex issues, all the shit adolescents are expected to magically know how to conquer, in delectable pop form? But it's not -- we've seen from her subsequent career that Morissette is basically for real, and maybe the fact she could never quite strike this kind of lightning bolt again proves it.

So Jagged Little Pill is less an album now than an artifact, a piece of history that made hundreds of careers begin or stall in its wake, a blockbuster whose repercussions are still evident, a legendary album that was pushed relentlessly until it generated hits for nearly two years. The format is simple, and ingenious, so much so that one wonders if it was all known by the artist and producer to begin with even as Maverick remained skeptical -- we have twelve cuts here, six of them ultimately singles, five of them massive hits and one a minor airplay hit, spread out through the set so that the buyer's interest is continually piqued even as the singles burst out of the speakers like nothing around them. It helps that these are six of the greatest radio songs ever recorded.

The classics are nearly wall to wall. "You Oughta Know" blisters thrillingly, its ache and anger as captivating as they are potentially phony (who knows if they are?), and it introduces the Morissette motif of making specific, usually highly adult, problems and emotions universal. Whether "Oughta" is about Dave Coulier or no one, the point is its catharsis is universal. Maybe it sounds a little too perfect on the record, but blasting from the television or radio (in a mildly amped-up mix, naturally) it's a monster, a brilliantly executed summary of angst-rock slickly filtered. Though played far less, "All I Really Want" presents emotional nudity as person-to-person plea for contact, an impressive thing to hear on the radio. "Hand in My Pocket" is arm-waving hysterics, a meaninglessly happy and tough-minded list song -- it sounds like triumph. "Head Over Feet" has a stronger hint of bullshit but Morisette's vocal is so persuasive and charming, the melody so infectious, that its delivery finally comes across as just as sincere as "You Oughta Know," which we oughta know could easily be about the same dude. If you grew up in the '90s and the first notes of "Ironic" don't give you a chill, you've a heart of stone; the massive hit is all the more impressive given its almost suffocating sense of sadness, approached with the best humor that can be mustered, tearful misused word and all. The song is gorgeous because its challenge to face up to everything blowing up is so warmly, familiarly expressed. Whatever pretensions to fame Morissette already possessed, they disappear for these four minutes. Against everything else on adult-contemp radio at the time, it was like an earthquake, and a decade and a half later it can still choke you up.

If you must level the argument of "invented" individuality against Alanis (a common argument against Avril Lavigne, in which case I agree, though how funny that men never deal with this charge... what wasn't "invented" about Jim Morrison?), it's conceivable that "Ironic" is a moment designed for such corporate-sponsored navel gazing, but what of it? A corporate-sponsored piece of self-examining comfort to millions of people is still a self-examining comfort to millions of people. But if such heartless types can find nothing to please them in "You Learn," one of the best singles of the '90s, a thrilling moment of thoroughly uncommercial music hitting peaks on the pop charts, they're just obsessive contrarians. Giving somewhat generically uplifting but pleasingly clipped advice, Morissette offers a rollercoaster of a vocal performance that makes every coffee table book word seem felt and important. Musically, the song's wild shapelessness is a bald challenge to the Lilith Fair crowd that would rise in this album's wake, the self-provided call-and-response vocals and scat singing a knife against a bed of pleasingly anonymous noise. It's as if some California studio's notion of what would sell records in 1995 was somehow chopped up into unrecognizable fragments, ominous bridge and all, and set against an undeniably potent sentiment... and somehow the whole package becomes not just successful but personal, affecting, lovely. "You Learn" is and likely shall always remain Alanis' greatest moment, and very nearly the most valuable moment of highly charted pop music in the mid-'90s.

As for the rest of the album, the first half is consistently explosive -- the remarkable, largely improvised "Perfect," the lyrically clever and revealing "Right Through You," the starkly beautiful "Forgiven" -- while the second half stumbles a bit with likable but less ingratiating preachings like "Mary Jane" and "Wake Up," though "Not the Doctor" is quite the sneak attack. The record ends much as it began, as a conscious piece of product that nevertheless is outfront and honest enough to be genuinely moving, and often. Yeah, yeah, it's the studio album recast as radio product push, as greatest hits record, but I bet most people who bought it listened to the whole fucking thing, not that it would matter all that much if they didn't. It's not a criticism to say that Jagged Little Pill is less praiseworthy for what it is than what it became, especially when there's a decent chance the latter was by design, and I bet it's saved more than a few lonely lives over the years. Or at least made them a lot more bearable.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Cults (2011)



The flood of girl group-infected pop music in the indie marketplace right now is unstoppable; such bands are a nickel a dozen, from She & Him to the Pipettes to Best Coast to Camera Obscura to Tennis, and those are just a few of the ones that have managed relatively mainline success. But when a smart pop musician like Lily Allen signs one such band to her new Sony imprint, I don't know about you, but I take notice. Except in certain outlets, Cults have thus far been met with a lot of the usual complaints about derivative songs and lackluster performances, infected with the charge of too-cool-for-school hipster music. Just look at the cover. Look at how smug they look with their perpetual movement and Columbia contract. Damn them. The record even begins lo-fi in the first seconds of "Abducted" before exploding, and then along come those deadpan harmonies by the guitarist. What is this, Pavement recast as a souffle?

Of course, the complaints about Cults don't hold water, and not just because the deadpan is delightful, the explosion is a monster, that cover is gloriously stylish, and what's so wrong with stylish? The music is more rough-hewn than the artwork suggests, for what it's worth. When compared to any of the Shirelles-derived revivalists named above, Cults are by far the most abrasive -- not only is Brian Oblivion's guitar louder, muddier, more aggressive than those peers would ever allow, the songs are slightly unsettling and off-center in the most ingratiating manner. Any twee sensibilities Cults' genre suggests are overcome by the assurance of their equally pronounced noise pop, and moreover by their dance music persuasions that spin all this around into the sort of body music She & Him will, I promise, never provide us with. And yeah, buddy, "Bumper" is insanely derivative (of "Give Him a Great Big Kiss," one of my all-time favorite 45s) but it's a delightfully warm, charming duet I dare you not to enjoy.

But style is nothing without some level of emotional honesty. Fortunately, singer Madeline Follin is unashamed of both her vulnerability and her toughness; by drawing lyrical inspiration from Jim Jones, taking the traditional submission of Brill Building female pop (and Best Coast) to its obvious and disturbing conclusion, Cults provide an implicit feminist critique of pop's celebration of the wide-eyed boy-crazy lover. This is especially apparent on the freakishly submissive "Never Heal Myself," its delightfully long and complicated lines dripping with sarcasm behind its wall of sound. Only the Cardigans have so successfully fused discomfort with bliss. The Jones connection is in the band's awareness of the power of a phrase (appropriately belted) like "You Know What I Mean," how they can match that with the ambiguous demand "Please come and save me" that attains new meaning when its doo wop texture slips into the gospel that gave rise to this music in the beginning. The melody is tricky and modern even as the sound seems to rise from another universe and time. The duo seems to be in a sort of groove of higher-up musical history than their brethren; if their supposed hip hop influence were more pronounced, I'd go even farther than that.

Of course, we had Blondie, who laid NYC guitar sludge over '60s pop decades ago. Cults will undoubtedly never be in a class with Blondie, but their guitars are more vicious and their pop more outlandish, right now. They're still young. They still come up with lines like "He took my heart away and left me to bleed out" rife with "He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)" allusions like they're the first to do it. That very naivete, so threatened in the age of constant access to music, is what's needed to keep the r&r train going. I don't recall Blondie ever casting a somber pall over their pop with samples of sinister Jonestown-ish revivals. The chunky Motown texture on "Most Wanted" climaxes with "What we most want is bad for us, we know" followed by a zombielike woman reciting the words "flirtation, drug use, and adultery." And the lilting Marvelettes melody on "Walk at Night" directly afterward jinxes itself without such help, perfectly expressing all the fear and paranoia of youth. Maybe the cult theme is just shorthand for the emotional violence captured by "Never Saw the Point," hurt all over the melody, but the compassion, swagger and assurance raise a middle finger, even as the guitar in the midsection grows ever more bruising, finally drowning out the voice.

They're no Robyn, but the vague dancehall of "Go Outside" is hard-hitting, and the song has its heart in the right place too, one of the rare sincere moments here. "I really want to go outside and make it light all day / You really want to hole up / Stay inside and not care where you lay," Follin complains, and the difficulty and crunch of the noise on the bridge express the frustration equally well, while her closing wordless coos don't hurt even if they make the song more conventional than it possibly needs. At only one other point, on the overbaked closer "Rave On," do they give in to a slightly annoying Tennis-style blandness, despite the great guitar and organ. In 34 minutes, these are the only stops in the momentum.

At one point in that half-hour, Cults come out completely from behind the veil of irony for the stunning "Oh My God," a deliberate lyrical recasting of the Supremes' "Love Is Here and Now You're Gone" and a passionately expressed paean to the fear of wasting one's life and youth, stuck in "the same ancient tradition": "I'm so tired of all these adult decisions / Oh my god, I'm ready to walk right out that door." Plenty of men have permitted themselves to express this claustrophobia; see The Graduate. But the way the vocal is complemented by the vibraphone, countered by the sludgy bed of guitars and bass, give us something resembling an anthem, not just about feminism but about breaking away, joyfully so, descending even into schoolyard chant at the "I can run away" mark. Fuck every self-regarding dismissal of this record -- the mastery of this track speaks for itself.

I wouldn't blame someone who couldn't see the same intelligence and wisdom in "Bad Things," which I nevertheless think is the finest song here, certainly the one that leaves my head spun the most. The startling intro, all gritty piano and handclaps, is straight out of the Shangri-Las again ("Walking in the Sand"), and the swooning and shapeless piece to follow reminds us how really appallingly oddball commercial pop music was allowed to be in the early '60s. Plenty of people have reformed Phil Spector and Shadow Morton's ideas in a shoegaze context, but it's still revelatory to hear a modern pop song given this level of enveloping, moody drone and strangeness. Makes me feel like I'm listening to Mickey & Sylvia. Ah, there it is again -- the sweep of history happening, and it's only history because these adolescent concerns are so ageless and perpetual. Deliver me from the days of old, indeed.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Buddy Holly: The "Chirping" Crickets (1957)



In a recording career that barely lasted three years, Buddy Holly released material on as many labels. Following his abortive and unsuccessful run with Decca, Holly nabbed two contracts -- one with Brunswick, for material with his band the Crickets, and one with Coral, for his solo work. The Decca songs are clearly a different beast, but the distinction between the Brunswick and Coral records is purely academic, akin to Parliament and Funkadelic fifteen years later. That is, until you sit down with either of the full-length LPs Holly made, one for each outlet. This is the prehistory of the rock album, but The "Chirping" Crickets and Buddy Holly present fascinatingly distinct portraits of a great artist and his range.

The disappointments that confronted Holly throughout 1956 failed to crush his innovations, as his songwriting and thunderous fusion of rockabilly, soul and pop became ever more economical and impressive. When on May 27, after a decision to ignore Decca's block of future recordings of the songs Holly'd made for them, Brunswick released "That'll Be the Day" back with "I'm Looking for Someone to Love," the entire remainder of the story was essentially written in one day -- up to and including Holly's death.

The confusion of what's a Crickets song and what isn't is a fool's errand to parse out, but the Crickets deserve more than the credit they receive as simply Holly's backing band. It is significant that they were credited with no individual's name out in front on their 45's and this LP, common in doo wop but not in rock & roll. All of the band members share equal prominence on this album cover. This is the invention of the rock band as we know it. But the Crickets matter because of Holly, humble though he may have been. It is his writing, singing, and guitar playing that drove the Crickets, that made them so mostrously influential, and that gave them the business savvy necessary to exist in a business cruel to teenage music.

In August, Holly and the Crickets played a legendary series of shows at the Apollo Theater, having been (legend has it) accidentally booked by someone unaware that they were a white group. The entire tour consisted of stops in neighborhood venues typically used by black performers, but inevitably the residence at the illustrious New York theater has a stranglehold on the Holly mythology. Stories vary regarding how long it took for Buddy to win over a suspicious crowd, but what is not in dispute is that he and the Crickets ultimately did so. It's a symbolic moment, perhaps now only intellectually, but it drives home the forgotten point that rock & roll was finally a music that transcended race in its beginnings, through a glorious period that would end all too quickly.

The "Chirping" Crickets is not a complete document of what Holly was doing in 1957. There's no sign here of "Words of Love" or "Peggy Sue," those introspective numbers reserved for Holly's solo LP. What Crickets has is roaring, booming momentum through its first eight tracks, a juggernaut of five major rock & roll songs interspersed with three solid ones containing major moments, a run not even eclipsed by anything on Chuck Berry's first three albums, which consistently dispersed their filler throughout rather than reservering it all for the end like Holly. No, an album is not really the way to be introduced to Buddy Holly or generally even the way to listen to him or any '50s rock & roller -- it's difficult for us to understand, but the album as a rock & roll format simply did not exist in 1957. That's why it's so impressive that this one is as well-crafted and pleasurable as it is. The same goes for Holly's followup, but it can't quite plow a person over the way the first two thirds of this one can.

Within the first fifteen seconds of The "Chirping" Crickets, before the proverbial needle dropper has even had time to sit down, we are through the first verse and chorus of the massive "Oh, Boy!" -- a propulsive, emotional rocker that's basically about getting alone with a lover for the first time, the enthusiasm of its titular exclamation mark shorthand for the same heavy petting and digital-vaginal contact the Everlys blushed about on "Wake Up Little Susie," confronted with unembarrassed aplomb by Holly. Buddy's voice and its catalog of clucks and chirps and grunts inaugurates the record like an alien signal, but the guitar solo on the bridge -- writing the next several decades of guitar music in a matter of seconds -- could scarcely have caused anything but awe.

After that brash introduction, "Not Fade Away" comes on gentle without canceling out any propulsion or sexuality, in contrast to the more crooning tenderness of the Coral 45's. The song reframes its debt to Bo Diddley as the stage for a complex, inarticulate yearning, all in evocative incomplete sentences. "You know my love not fade away," he sings in a different way -- a different voice, it seems -- each time, though perhaps nothing is as challenging and naked in its emotional depth as the way the line "A love to last more than one day" seems to control him, as powerful and rich a moment of rock singing as has ever been laid down to this day. And of course, guitar. Again, guitar.

The remainder of side one certainly lives in the wake of those two gargantuan numbers -- even the sassy, nerdy, androgynous hit "Maybe Baby," sensual as it is -- but it never ceases to cause astonishment, now at Holly's performance skills more than his songs. "You've Got Love" is a playful Roy Orbison number that calls back to Mickey & Sylvia's "Love Is Strange," a record Holly loved, with his oddball read of "I like the spin I'm in," an irresistible moment of incongruous whine and drone. (Never let it be said John Cale learned nothing from Buddy Holly.) Later, he reframes Chuck Willis' blues standard "It's Too Late" as street corner doo wop, a relatively minor prospect until the astounding echoed vocal on the bridge begins to demand attention, and all you want for the next minute is for him to do it again, wailing and crying like never before.

"Tell Me How" is the lost classic of the album. Despite its sped-up Johnny Mathis vocals, another haunting bridge, and some goofy chords in the verse, it is basically punk rock: hopping nasal confidence, detailed abrasion and thudding, and a prophetically basic guitar solo. Even on such an obscure LP cut, Holly is disinterested in slowing down his flood of ideas.

Side Two opens in a time warp of sorts, with the double-sided monster that effectively began Holly's career early in the same year (an eternity in '50s rock & roll). There is, of course, heavy competition, but is this the most beautiful rock & roll 45 of the '50s? "That'll Be the Day" is the most complete creation anyone had conceived in the form -- and I mean anyone. Elvis, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino all had enormously vital records just as good as this one, but all seem to exist as documents of their moments and none seem cut from its cloth of heavily considered popcraft. And in contrast to "Heartbreak Hotel" and "Maybellene," no one knows or cares what it's about (a playfully bickering couple challenging the depth of one another's love, revealing both a mutual devotion and a mutual disdain, an interesting enough lyric that recedes completely into the background) -- because what it's about, first of all, is the swagger and sex in Holly's bewitching vocal performance. And then the frighteningly prophetic big beat interlude on the second part of the bridge, the in and out drops of the guitar, the tolling of the nonstop and quite inventive backing vocals. That moment when, apropos of nothing, the Crickets decide to preserve the perfect moment just a bit with that knockout slowdown of "you. make. me. cry-hi" near the end. But everything still seems secondary here to Holly's own flooring performance, right up to his closing whispers of "That'll be the day / Woo-hoo."

Though far less celebrated, "I'm Looking for Someone to Love" is easily the equal of "Day." And this time, the words matter. Holly was only 20 when it was recorded, but its adult love problems are a far cry from the puppy affections frequently associated with malt shop rock & roll. In the end, "That'll Be the Day" was about fucking, about teasing and turning on; "Looking" is about being cuckolded and not at all willing to accept it -- the anger, the ferocity and force of his heartbreak, add up to 1:58 of delightful rage, with a deadly accurate rollercoaster of feelings. "Caught myself / Thinking of you... You can't love me and another one too!" It's revelatory to hear Holly's expressive chirps and calls in service of thoughts so far from "Everyday" and "Not Fade Away." The backing vocals and guitar are no less exciting than in "That'll Be the Day," and are more pronounced if anything in their insistence, even if the total package isn't as intoxicating as on the A-side.

And then splat. There's value to everything Buddy Holly recorded, every bit of his tiny catalog, but The "Chirping" Crickets trails off dramatically in its final four selections. Roy Orbison wrote "An Empty Cup (And a Broken Date)," one of the few direct lines to the Sun rockabilly artists whose illustrious work Holly fast eclipsed, and it's far more suited to his style than to Holly's. Holly was not and never could have been the resigned romantic that Orbison was, at least not convincingly, nor does he wish he was dead or for an end to all love the world over like Everly Brothers; see the prior song, which confronts these broken dates and threats with intense bitterness at the suffering, striving to move on immediately in the face of being wronged.

There are some fantastic, compulsive Holly tics in "Send Me Some Lovin'," which charmingly lets Holly work around a doo wop ballad, but the Crickets tend to annoy here and the song doesn't give them much to do instrumentally. "Last Night" is the same thing with a marginally more interesting melody. The "What'd I Say" ripoff "Rock Me My Baby" is a slight improvement and the Crickets do their best, but the material is beneath them, free of the substance and eroticism of the hits. The chorus is basically a nursery rhyme, which makes for a laughable comparison with the more evocative branches of the LP.

One wishes that the album could cause intense reflection on how this was the beginning of it all, looking back on where Holly led us. But sadly, this album was released barely a year before his death. He would get remarkably far in a very short time, but not far beyond this; the ballads would get refined on the next album, and alone at home he would continue reinventing the pop wheel in ways that are still being dealt with, but as a studio creature The "Chirping" Crickets is really the tower of his work in his peak year, 1957, in totality. We can never know how it would have fit in a broader context. Regardless of that, it still sizzles.

Greatest Hits (1957-59)

Jay-Z & Kanye West: Watch the Throne (2011)

(Def Jam)


Read my review at Metro Times.

This gaudy thing is an agreeable enough record, but it is most fun as an event -- it will lose this luster as time goes on. Any LP that adds a juicy phrase like "that shit cray" to the language is worth hearing, though. I'd say this is a "fans only" album but this being Kanye West and Jay-Z, most everyone (everyone sane, at least) is a fan. Jay-Z's disheartening recession is happily at a standstill here and he has some good moments, but West is at this point by far the more commanding performer. Anyway, you've surely heard this by now, so why am I even telling you all this? Do you think this will be remembered like an actual Jay-Z or Kanye album? I kind of doubt it, but I'd love to hear what you think.

Thank goodness they left "H.A.M." off, by the way.

Kanye West: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Daft Punk: Homework (1997)



When you're a young adolescent music fan, everything is us versus them. That's part of the fun, really. It's why kids in the '70s ignorantly shouted that disco sucked, it's why pogoing teenagers loved it when the Clash yelped "No Elvis, Beatles or the Rolling Stones / In 1977." Splits, beefs, dichotomies that seem downright silly a few years later attain great overzealous truth. So it is that the forces of evil pop music had been challenged in 1977 by punk (which I still partially believe, to be honest), defeated in 1991 by grunge, briefly, and now we were to wait patiently for the next Movement which would make everything good again, against the suffocating tide of Backstreet Boys and Spice Girls. But of course now that's all laughable -- not only do I now think the grunge bands were turgid and unimaginative, I think the Spice Girls were a brilliant group. The Backstreet Boys weren't quite so special, but they did record a few of the all-time greatest pop songs, which in another time would've been enough.

But when I was 14, I wanted something new, something to get swept up in. And that year, 1997, happened to be the point at which electronic music came closest, ever, to being fully accepted and embraced by the mainstream. I hadn't yet come to realize that recorded pop music doesn't function, now that it's passed its developmental stages, as a continuous narrative -- more like a thorny and complicated Möbius strip -- and I liked the idea that things were leading somewhere, that there was a "progression" to be discovered. Of course, that's the kind of logic that gave us Genesis, and jazz fusion, and a whole lot of classic rock bands that I know I should like but don't. Nothing against any of those, but it's not my thing. It's significant that at the time, I didn't know that yet. And electronica seemed like the Movement, the Big New Thing, that I should attach myself to, to which I should become a partisan.

This mindset was being pushed hard by music magazines and TV shows of the time, and by being sort of interested in the postrock-leaning alternative of Radiohead and Beck I had a foot in the door. I stayed up late to watch MTV's now deeply missed techno showcase Amp, usually on Sunday nights around 2am, and I can actually credit it with not only broadening my horizons to dance music but exposing me to hip hop back when the Jay-Z records I treasure now would have made me wince. Some of the stuff I saw I hated (such as Moby, who I later came to love), some was a little too far out for me (Crystal Method, Atari Teenage Riot), but much of it really intrigued me -- Amp's Wiki page lists Aphex Twin, Faithless, Gus Gus, the Orb, Orbital, Tricky, all of whom I remember seeing on the show and greatly enjoying. And that's discounting the dozens of forgotten lesser-knowns I probably saw.

Had I grown up a few years later, I probably would've immediately taken to the internet and investigated these artists through file-sharing. But in 1997, I was limited to what my allowance could buy me on compact disc. And of course, there were all those CDs by shitty alternative bands I couldn't dare miss. But when I was feeling adventurous, rather than delving deeply I stuck to the tip of the iceberg of the MTV electronica units, the ones popular enough to get airplay outside Amp. I never liked Fatboy Slim much, Prodigy was too aggressive for my tastes, so the first electronic CD I bought was Dig Your Own Hole by the Chemical Brothers -- possibly the best initial exposure to Big Beat anyone could have. I genuinely loved the album and caught up with Exit Planet Dust more quickly than I anticipated, especially since I'd heard not one of its songs prior to purchase.

Well, Dust was really something. It might be the reason I ended up not really appreciating Kid A as much as a lot of my peers -- when it ended, I had that revelatory moment of boundary-expansion that a lot of folks describe about the Radiohead LP. And if at no other point in my life, that was when I wanted everything to be electrifying dance music; it was one of those times when other music doesn't even exist anymore. I think it was that same week that I saw Daft Punk's "Around the World" video on MTV Live, a loose sort of proto-TRL also hosted by Carson Daly. So the then-mysterious French duo caught me at the perfect time. The video's brilliant, a marvelous showcase for Michel Gondry (whose name wouldn't of course have much significance to me for seven years), but it was the song's alien hook and bubbly joy that blew my mind. Homework shot to the top of my list of must-buys, and by the time I got the chance to pick it up, I'd also become familiar somehow with the even more beloved house single "Da Funk," though I can't recall how I heard it (because I didn't see Spike Jonze's oddball video for the song until many, many years later).

"Around the World" was the special one to me. It made me want to be a hedonist. It made me long for the kind of drugged-out rave moments it conjured up in my head. More than anything, despite its childlike exuberance, it made me want to be an adult -- the mirrorballs and strobe lights and warm bodies it suggested being so completely at odds with florescent eighth grade Monday mornings. And at less than four minutes, the single edit is just long enough to set the feet ablaze without becoming as annoying as a looped vocal over a d&b track might be. That's why I still find it a bit unfortunate that the song actually runs more than seven minutes.

Homework isn't nearly as accessible to the teenage electronica novice as the Chemical Brothers' first two albums. Daft Punk's early work is rather serious business. Though Homework is undeniably a great party record, I've never been much of a party person (even at the scattered points of my life when I sort of wished I was), so I've never heard it in that context. And fuck, anything is a great party record, even Pink Flag (proven).

Homework was conceived by Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo as a series of DJ singles. This comes through in its content. Though it opens with the cohesion of a Chems record (the smashing mindfuck intro "Daftendirekt" and introductory "WPDK 83.7 FM," with its quaint interpretation of U.S. radio), a certain repetition is quickly apparent. The majority of the songs operate in the same manner: crushing, insistent beats against loops that are first ill-fitting, gradually irresistible. The process usually takes around five minutes, sometimes six or seven. The first two examples, "Revolution 909" and "Da Funk," operate in very similar fashion, though "909" bursts out more impressively while "Da Funk" slinks around with a certain erotic obnoxiousness. With some exceptions (some divine like "Teachers," which finds time to namecheck both Dr. Dre and Brian Wilson amid an army of Detroit DJs, some oh-god-turn-it-the-fuck-off like "Oh Yeah"), the majority of the other tracks operate from the same framework, which suggests they could work better individually than as a group -- at least as personal headphones listening, which was my only option then. A bit more seasoned now with dance music, and having spent some time DJing myself, I can now detect sharp variances between "Phoenix" (sinister atmosphere, goofy bassline) and "Fresh" (surf music reimagined as acid house) that were impossible to detect when I was 14. But the heartbreaking thing is that whatever age I am, the album version of "Around the World" still feels much too long. Even when people are dancing to it (I used the single edit at my sessions).

Seven minutes is not, however, too long for "Rock'n Roll" and "Rollin' & Scratchin'," which I would still argue are Daft Punk's finest moments shy of 2000's "Face to Face." "Rollin' and Scratchin'" plays a feverish night out as a dramatic crescendo, building until it washes itself over the listener like a wave of glitter. Headphones are no obstacle to participating in this triumph. But "Rock'n Roll" is better still, for the opposite reasons. It isn't a celebration, it's claustrophobic -- the most relentless, frenetic beat I'd ever been exposed to, a rubbery loop stretching and contracting more and more unbearably until you fear it must pop, the tension sustained across seven harrowing minutes. It is to dance music as "Sister Ray" is to garage rock -- it takes every vague implication of the genre to its ugly, challenging conclusion. It's the most difficult song here. And oddly enough, I loved it even when I first heard it.

On the whole, though, Homework wore me out a bit. It seemed too long (74 minutes), too much of the same thing. Individual cuts exhausted their welcome, too, especially during the back half. I sensed that an electronic cultist would find far more there than I could, which inherently disappointed me because the thing was that I wanted to be in a cult, I wanted to be a seasoned dance-techno expert. Did this mean I couldn't be? I stopped trying to branch out, putting off various Orb and Leftfield CDs I was interested in and delving deeper into college rock (it was shortly after this that I became an obsessive R.E.M. fan, typically for me just as everyone else was getting over them). In retrospect, though, it seems that the Chemical Brothers and MTV Amp fixation probably played a larger role for me than I long suspected. By 2000, I was a cultist -- for synthpop, to which I remain deeply attached, and I can sense that the appreciation for abstraction, artificiality, and beats had its birth here. Even if the continued Chemical Brothers preference only proved that I needed songs, at least at first. (When Surrender came out, I loved it just as much, even though I'd mostly moved on.) Better yet, from synthpop I found disco, which is important to me like little else. So thank you, MTV. For once. Oh yeah, thank you for Beavis and Butt-Head, too.

I like to think that I've expanded enough now to hear Homework differently, and when I listened for this entry I did find it a lot more fun than I used to, at least in part because I had it on the speakers and wasn't by myself. It's still too long -- 74 minutes is too long for any album that stays this locked in a groove -- but the songs emerged more individually, and if you pretend it's a compilation it works really well. As background music, too (which is the closest I come to "party music" utility), it is flawless. The way it periodically presents itself heard from another room, or just during some other activity, really brings out its core -- I'd never noticed before, for example, what a perfectly constructed piece of work "Alive" is. And even "Oh Yeah" was tolerable, but it was Friday night when few things aren't.

I wish it was Friday now, and what's curious about Daft Punk is that that's an emotion -- a longing, vague nostalgia -- they conjure up, against all the "logic" that dance music is cold and detached and inhuman, another high horse I came to detest during that same period. I don't have a classroom to escape now. My life's great, I do what I want, and the mature security of adulthood is mine. But when I hear this music, I still feel myself wanting something, or at least celebrating it. Those flashing lights, that sense of freedom, that indescribable world apart from all routine and drudgery -- loud, young, restless, laughing, it's the opposite of Galaxie 500. But I need it for the same reasons.

DJ Quik: The Book of David (2011)



This West Coast peer of Dr. Dre is still a fantastic producer, arguably far stronger and more original than his most famous fellow Comptonite. The tracks on his latest, The Book of David, are admirably varied, often surreal -- a perfect touch of the druggy and dreamy in with the disorientingly minimal, funky old-school. But Quik's in his forties now, and he's still going on and on about bitches and hussies and critics and the same wack gangsta shit hip hop should've gotten over in the early '90s. Only real evolutionary progress is that unlike giant self-important douchebag Dre, Quik thinks he's hilarious -- in the way that your middle-aged uncle thinks he is. "You just exacerbate / what makes my sex life great / when you gotta masturbate." Uh-huh.

Much like when your uncle makes some embarrassing joke, it's at first hard to really get offended by Quik's prattling. But after a while, you just want to shush the guy. Check out "Ghetto Rendezvous": "You prolly mad 'cause you can't eat off me no more / Don't wanna hear you cryin' or offer you no dough / You tried to make my life shabby / With the Zodiac sign of the Cancer [!] you crabby." It gets better. "Your son looks like a fuckin' Al Qaeda / I'mma call him wop-daddy cause his chin to the side." What!? What!?

It's a pity because musically, the chilly nightclub textures of that song ("Ghetto Rendezvous") along with other lyrical duds "Do Today," the sleazy "So Compton," and the phenomenally tight '70s revival "Killer Dope" would soar if not for the weak, irritating MCing. None of the guests (including Bun B, Ice Cube, Dwele, and the remarkably annoying Kurupt) help matters. But the only absolutely stupid, worthless cut here is the shitty nursery rhyme "Poppin'"; if not for the bullshit flow, this would be a good record. And the archetypal but charming slow-jam "Real Women" doesn't suffer from any of Book of David's irksome tendencies, and Jon B.'s hook is solid. So I don't know, put the album on in the background or something. All in all, Quik -- you're a talented guy but you're too fuckin' old to be writing these lyrics. No offense; these lyrics are too fuckin' old for anyone to be writing them.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Adverts: The Singles (1977-79)



In many ways, the Adverts represent all of the most damning stereotypes about punk rock; when they began as a unit, they really couldn't play at all. They were pure attitude, pure sneering rage. But particularly in the context of UK punk, a survey like this of their career reveals that they both proved the depth and scope of music and attitude that the genre could encompass and offered the argument that there are infinite possibilities within even the most basic framework of rock & roll. They defied the Clash by refusing to evolve, aside from eventually growing quite competent on record; they defied the Sex Pistols with an emotional range as often tongue-in-cheek or self-deprecating as confrontational. Somewhere in these singles are the roots of a perfectly agreeable full-blooded rock band that never got the chance to materialize.

Happily, their legacy is tied to some classics that are capable of carrying the angry spit-of-hatred punk torch. But their absolute best single is their debut, the one that features a band that only knows one chord, and is monstrously, admirably proud of it -- "We don't give a damn," T.V. Smith sings on the hook of "One Chord Wonders," which despite its snotty attitude comes across with a stronger undercurrent of humor than Johnny Rotten would ever have allowed. But by denying themselves a rock mythology, by refusing to take even their own psychodrama seriously, the Adverts may finally be even more rebellious. "One Chord Wonders" is the best pop song ever written about sheer incompetence; it's banging, it's pathetic, and it's magnificent.

The Adverts' other classics have their appeal, even if none of them quite measure up to "Wonders." The beloved "Gary Gilmore's Eyes," a disturbing study of identity about a patient receiving infamous murderer Gilmore's eyes in a transplant, shows a literate playfulness already miles beyond most killer punk singles, aiming for long-term impact rather than the jugular hit. The other side of that 7" is "Bored Teenagers," a nearly perfect 1:46 anti-anthem that infuses the Ramones' poetic apathy with the fury only the British punks ever really offered. That song's sequel "No Time to Be 21" benefits from both cheerily ingratiating handclaps, just the kind of thing punk purists tended to loathe, and Smith's outstandingly preening vocal. Their songcraft may be rudimentary, but the Adverts put on quite a show.

By "Safety in Numbers," the Adverts are already getting adventurous and offering new wave material of considerable, if sideways, sophistication that no longer fits in with any simple punk aesthetic. Though it made no impact in the charts, it's an agreeable branching out. The elaboration continues with the multitracked guitar trickery of "We Who Wait," the almost heavy metal-like vibe of "Drowning Man," the echo-ridden psychedelia of "On the Roof," and the goosestepping apocalypse of "Great British Mistake," all recorded and released in the space of barely two years.

In general, though, the Adverts stick to slamming out pogoing, delectably simple guitar music that stings. For a band who made such a show of their own lack of skill, the Adverts turned out to be quite a durable unit. The rhythm section in particular -- drummer Laurie Muscat and bassist Gaye Advert, later Smith's wife -- has an impressive propulsion that coalesces and bites in a manner the Pistols never really did. And if Smith isn't nearly as strong a frontman as Rotten, he's actually better at giving in to a song, as when he surrenders to the surprisingly complex melody line on "New Church" and lets it carry him away. His wailing even redeems the baffling Joe Meek knob twiddling on "Bombsite Boy," though it's a relief when he launches into a frenetic, youthful, quick-step chorus. Smart kids playing strong punk rock is always, always, always a relief. And when you can't find no relief, then like someone said, there's no future for you.