Wednesday, December 17, 2008

1/5/09 - Some thoughts on music this year

Back in action after a month hiatus:

I love reading lists of top cultural moments/albums/music/singles/videos etc. of the year, and I'm not going to apologize for it. In some ways, it seems to be a somewhat moronic and arbitrary exercise, but in other ways, it makes perfect sense as a way to contextualize a discrete set of time. There's a certain rhythm that I've grown to love about the recurring lists.

Sadly, and this is a realization that pains me greatly, despite being a self-avowed devoted fan of music I simply don't have the stamina to keep up a comprehensive survey of new music released in a year. I think that very few people are able to do so. My personal way of taking in music over the course of a year usually winds its way through old music that I am catching up on, bands from previous years that I'm late to the party on, and the scattering of new bands that friends have recommended to me.

So in no way at all am I qualified to give any sort of best albums of 2008; search that topic on the internet and you'll be drowning in that particular list - chances are you'll be able to aggregate a pretty decent compilation of 10 albums or so that fit your particular aesthetic. What I can and will offer is a list of 20 songs that I've listened to more than any others this year, and a few tangential words about them. So, my own personal top 20 songs of the year, whether released this year or not:

(not ranked in order)

1. "Salute Your Solution" by The Raconteurs, from Consolers of the Lonely. Fuzz guitar, stairstep riff that reclaims the adjective "angular" for music that's actually catchy, and my favorite part, the 2nd verse, when Brendan Benson actually cuts loose and sings like Jack White instead of like the 18000th watered down Beatle imitator he usually patterns his vocals after. Also, a great half-time breakdown; what with all the indie rock, dance-rock, rap-rock, and Lil Wayne, it can get hard for a good old fashioned rock song to cut through the clutter; this one does.

2. "All Summer Long" by Kid Rock, from whatever Kid Rock's new album is. This song is indefensible: all my friends hate it, and with good reason. It basically steals two better songs to put together one that is much, much worse; so all I can say as to its merits is that by mashing up "Sweet Home Alabama" and "Werewolves of London" Kid Rock manages to rescue both from classic rock radio purgatory, where both of those songs have become mere aural wallpaper. Also, singing about singing "Sweet Home Alabama" and then busting out the guitar riff to same is the kind of ballsy move that has me still undecided if Kid Rock is a genius or a moron (leaning genius!)

3. "Pistol Grip Pump" by Rage Against the Machine, from Renegades. When de la Rocha is forced to rap about something other than politics, as in, covering someone else's song, Rage pretty much instantly transforms into the most badass gangsta rap rock band of all time. Too bad there aren't any others even in the arena. Every year needs a song to accompany moments of being righteously pissed - this is a great candidate.

4. "Chick Habit" by April March, from the Death Proof soundtrack. Basically accomplishes in 2:30 or so what Death Proof, the movie, took about 2 hours and change to do: unspool a tale of female vengeance that encompasses the yin/yang or modern femininity - the potential for seductive sweetness/vulnerability and the ability to unleash all manners of holy terror.

5. "Sequestered In Memphis" by the Hold Steady, from Stay Positive. One thing that Craig Finn understands about lyrics and storytelling is that the little details make all the difference, and the the more clear and particular one person's experience is delineated, paradoxically, the more universal it becomes. So the details of a one-night stand gone terrible awry in this song are highly specific - "we didn't go back to her place/we went to some place where she cat-sits", which crystallizes the univeral regret that all of us feel in the aftermath of bad choices made. Favorite lyric sequence of the year, personally: "In bar light/she looked all right/in daylight/she looked desparate/that's all right I was desperate too".

6. "Dondante" by My Morning Jacket, from Z. A perfect example of discovering a song way past the fact. I saw MMJ live and was blown away, and "Dondante" was the high-water mark of the show. And is, in fact, the high-water mark of Z. Rock music is light on accessible epics that really move between the delicate to thundering ends of the spectrum, but this song is a textbook example of it. Also reinforces the argument that to have a truly great band, you really need a great singer.

7. "Let The Beat Build" by Lil Wayne. I slept on Lil Wayne until my my significant other got obsessed, and so I'm a latecomer to this one. But man, when you get classic Kanye production married to someone that can actually Dwayne Carter says it best himself - this is how you let a beat build - laying back half the time, and half the time you just kill it; also, love the wave pool shout out.

8. "Volcano Girls" by Veruca Salt, from Eight Arms to Hold You. Veruca Salt got a ton of shit for being brass-ring grabbing sellouts in the '90s, but I think time has been kind to their singles. All it takes is to hear some lame faux-rebellious song like "I Kissed a Girl" to remind me that VS got a raw deal, seeing as how they're capable of the aggression/melody marriage that eludes so many other, more respected bands.

9. "Silver Springs" by Fleetwood Mac, from The Chain. Absolutely ridiculous that this song was left off of Rumours. It's an absolute classic. Having Buckingham and Nicks singing those last lines practically at each other is the extra gear that the Mac can slip into at any time.

10. "Baby and The Band" by Imperial Teen, from The Hair, The TV, The Baby and the Band. Still one of the most underrated bands I've ever heard. A fizzy pop song about getting middle-aged and not quite understanding how you got there.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

11/6/08 - Election results & happy endings

I can't believe it. It still hasn't sunk in. As I told a friend, I feel like this is the first national historic event I've lived through, before correcting myself and saying that is the first POSITIVE one, and my brain is still attempting to process its meaning and feeling.

On the history of the event, all that I can say is that I am immensely proud to have been alive when the US voted in its first black president. Trite, but I don't know how to say it in any other way that would not be too flowery and ridiculous. It is momentous enough that its importance needs only statement, not overstatement.

From a narrative perspective, what is so inspiring to me about the victory relates to something I've written about before in terms of sports - namely, that the "happy" or "right" ending is never guaranteed in life, which makes it all the sweeter when it does. The election of Barack Obama is like the ending to some Hollywood miniseries, what with the enormous symbolic power on display of a man redeeming the social sordidness of an ugly past.

What it reminds me of is the (possibly not true) story of how in early Puritan America people would stage Shakespeare's tragedies and change the endings to happy ones. In terms of the narrative that America prefers, there is a time and place for the warning tragedy, but what it truly near and dear to the national heart is the crazy against-all-odds Rocky kind of ending. Although, it would be fair to point out, Rocky lost.

But the beautiful loser/beautiful rebel strain running through the national narrative is no match for the overwhelming vector of the American happy ending (sure, Rocky lost in Rocky, but last I checked that was not the final word on the pugilist). In-no-way-realistic happy endings are the currency in trade, even when they seem trite, or unrealistic, or unearned. Unless you're talking about straight tragedies, the US likes its winners, and it likes them overcoming incredible odds.

Because the thing about odds is that they got that way for a reason. Every time an underdog fails it builds more a weight of evidence for the failure of the next underdog, on and to the next. So not only do we statistically know that the underdog is unlikely to win, we are conditioned by our own life experience to watch him/her fail. Aesthetically, narratively, Americans want their underdogs to succeed, which makes for a fascinating disconnect between American aesthetics and lived experience.

Functionally, it allows for that rush of pleasure when those aesthetics are matched in real life. "It's like a movie!" one muses, wide-mouthed in wonder, and the wonder comes from the disconnect between what we want and desire to happen and what so infrequently comes to pass.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

10/30/08 - In praise of the White Stripes

I'm wondering where the backlash stands on the White Stripes these days, as just in the last two weeks I've talked to people whose opinions on rocking I respect greatly that both possess an avowed dislike of Jack White and the White Stripes. One of these people is a drummer and I wonder if it is significant as another friend of mine that is also a drummer was the loudest anti-Stripes voice that I remember in college.

Both of them have not really given the Stripes more than a cursory listen, but both responded viscerally in the negative, which is interesting to me considering how much of breath of fresh air they were to me when White Blood Cells exploded out of the gate. But it's a strange band to write off sight unseen, as though they're just another Snow Patrol or Fall Out Boy, a mainstream act grabbing for the brass ring with an inescapable song or two and a blend of phoniness & ambition that marks the dregs of mainstream chart-dwellers.

In a lot of ways, the White Stripes seem to be victims of their own success, at least when it comes to perception, and the devil of it all is that they saw it coming. "Little Room" off of White Blood Cells is a simple metaphor for the plight of the artist rocketing toward success, and it clocks in at under a minute. After the release of that album, the Stripes were bound toward bona fide rock stardom, and figuring out how they got started sitting in their little room.

Aside: I remember seeing them at the Bowery Ballroom in NY with my friend Andrew right after White Blood Cells was released, and it was clear that the band was going on to bigger and better things. Probably the best concert I've ever seen. The amount of energy they poured into the place was nigh-destructive in nature; I've always wondered what it would be like to see some of the great high-energy rock acts at the go-for-broke club stage, your AC/DCs, your Nirvanas, your Rage Against the Machines, and this was what I imagine it felt like.

So, to me, the ways that the White Stripes are a great rock band, and why they don't deserve your hatred for their success:

1. Understanding of negative space. This was something that my friend Nate was talking about the other day (he is a drummer, he doesn't like Jack White and claims not to like the White Stripes either). The Stripes get a lot of shit for Meg not being a good drummer (especially from drummers), but I would argue that this criticism is a fundamental missing of the point of what they're trying to do. Meg is not a rhythmically challenged musical idiot - she keeps time just fine, thanks. What she doesn't do, ever, is play any fills. Her drumming is strictly patterned minimalism - when the band alters the sound of a section of a song, she'll switch from one symbol to the other, or hit the bass drum on the even beats, but she never plays a single drum fill. I think this is by design - the lack of drum fills makes the hits that are there much more powerful.
My friend Andrew observed that Elephant was a great name for a White Stripes album, because the band sounds like an elephant trampling through the jungle. This is due, in large part, to Meg's drums, which hit hard on the downbeats and nowhere else. The space created thus makes the downbeats hit twice as hard as they would otherwise. The difference between the way a Who song "rocks" and the way a Stripes song "rocks" is like the difference between being knocked out by a devastating series of technically impeccable jabs (Keith Moon style, a million hits on a million different drums/cymbals) and being KTFO with one solid Tyson uppercut (Meg). Technically, obviously, Keith Moon is a better drummer, and that's an understatement...but the style of each person's drumming fits each band's music equally. Jack White plays with a forceful blues primitivism, and Meg's downbeat heavy drumming brings it to life.

2. Jack's diverse songwriting talent - for all of their sonic limitations, the White Stripes hit a pretty wide range of moods, which is due mostly to Jack's facility with songwriting. He can write guitar ballads ("We Are Going To Be Friends"), country songs ("Little Ghost"), punk raveups ("Let's Build a Home"), Zeppelin-style blues stomps ("Why Can't You Be Nicer to Me?"), and piano ballads ("I'm Lonely But I Ain't That Lonely Yet"). So, even though the sonics are not diverse, the songs themselves are.

3. Jack's a skilled guitarist and singer. Bands these days rarely have talented singers and talented lead guitarists - Jack White is both. For evidence of White as talented singer, see "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground". He hits that Robert Plant quaver without the preening to illustrate the desperation of love gone wrong. For evidence of White as talented guitarist, refer to "Ball and Biscuit". Never has the digital whammy sounded so good.

4. A keen understanding of history/myth as they intersect in rock and roll. Unlike fellow 2000s breakout band the Strokes, who always seemed keenly uncomfortable with being cast as rich rock dilettantes instead of embracing the role of, well, rich rock dilettantes, White famously got in front of the star-making machinery, making up a story that he and his ex-wife were brother and sister, talking up his adventures in upholstery, and talking about his rabid love of the blues. A mix of truth and absolute, bald-faced lies, this gave White a persona and an escape route - he wouldn't have to answer Fleetwood Mac style questions about the fallout between his and Meg's relationship because he was lying from the start about the entire thing. Instead he could concentrate on his real loves, storytelling and the blues.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

10/22/08 - Devil Without A Cause (I'm Going Platinum!)

In Fargo Rock City, Chuck Klosterman's excellent memoir of an '80s pop-metal drenched childhood in North Dakota, he spills a lot of ink defending the music that gets popular over music that gets the nod from the critical establishment. In his formulation (and I paraphrase), a lot of what's considered beneath contempt at the time due to its lowbrow/lowest common denominator appeal winds up being more culturally resonant than what's championed by the serious musical critics and thinkers at the time. So, for example, Led Zeppelin, famously critically reviled, has since been a beneficiary of revisionist history by dint of their hugely influential discography. And likewise, AC/DC has outlasted and out-endured anyone that originally held them to be unoriginal and repetitive (sure, they are, but so is a Mantra).

This divide between popular and critical opinion is fascinating to me; half of the time I agree with music critics that take terrible acts like Matchbox 20 down a peg, but the other half of the time I think that the position of cultural arbiter goes to the brain and it becomes difficult to identify those artists with a certain kind of visceral appeal of the kind that AC/DC and Led Zeppelin both exemplified.

Which brings me to Kid Rock. Now, I'm not going to argue that Kid Rock is someone whose artistic output is any kind of shining peak of musical accomplishment, but there's a a reason that Devil Without A Cause sold something like 8 bajillion copies. At heart, Kid Rock is musically inclusive, and did a better job than anyone this side of Rage Against the Machine of integrating the cadences of hip-hop with the enduring musical idioms of blues-rock. And Rage, I would argue, for all their hip-hop influences, fall on the stiff side of funky- musically, they seem more out of the hectoring KRS-One side of the hip-hop lineage than the G-Funk party music side of things.

Kid Rock, on the other hand, is all about the party. This doesn't necessarily diminish his output - so is AC/DC. So is Snoop Dogg. So is Chuck Berry. The linchpin of Kid Rock's inclusive musical spirit is right there in his first big hit: "Get in the pit and try to love someone". What this means musically is a shotgun wedding between Southern/Midwestern sleaze rock with the bombastic boasts of hip-hop. When it works, it's an inspired fusion that could be called a truly original hybrid. "Cowboy", one of the Kid's high-water marks, lays out Snoop's Cali fantasies over a loping, funky rock bed, expanding the gangster boasts sonically by setting them to the sounds of self-confident southern rock.

Current hit "All Summer Long" is a rock mashup of "Werewolves of London" and "Sweet Home Alabama", a remix for the rock idiom in which the Kid spins out a summer fantasy straight out of Grease (well, with a lot more booze and weed) over the recontextualized sounds of summers passed. "Picture" is an old-school country duet with Sheryl Crow that showcases Bob Ritchie's embrace of the occasional classicist move.

Now, on the downside, Kid Rock I think is ultimately going to serve as more of blueprint than the finished edifice, more Elvis than Beatles, because for the most part his lyrics are terrible. He brings in hip-hop, sure, but he employs the couplet structure of early Beastie Boys/Run-DMC with only the occasional witty touch. For the most part, it's empty bluster; read any interview with the Kid and one comes away with the impression that he shares some traits with our soon-to-be-departed POTUS - a love of self precluding introspection and a self-satisfaction that impedes forward progress.

Nonetheless, some of Kid Rock's best songs apply the kind of rock/hip-hop fusion that points the way towards the inclusive musical future that we're all heading toward. And he carries the torch for the forgotten Midwest, a self-proclaimed American bad-ass who is going to wave the flag, chug Jack straight from the bottle, and let a midget rock the guest verse while a black woman holds it down on drums. Don't write the man off.

Friday, October 17, 2008

10/17/08 - Where Awesome Happens

So, a plug; here we are deep in football season, with the Fall Classic about to kick off, and the NBA season approaches with great stealth. I'm not sure when exactly NBA basketball became such a niche sport, more on par with the NHL than the NFL, but my purely anecdotal experience suggests that NBA fandom is narrow. The diehards are just as enthusiastic as those found for any other sport, but the vast casual middle seems much smaller.

Take another look, I urge you. Why? Two lines of argument - athletic/aesthetic and metatextual.

1. Athletic/aesthetic - Basketball played at its highest level is most often compared to jazz, and though the cliche is hackneyed (I don't really like jazz personally), there is an element of truth to it; namely, collaborative improvisation holds sway in basketball like in none of the other major U.S. sports. Football, which I do love watching, is military and industrialized - success is so often dependent on the industrial virtues of parts working together in harmony; pistons cranking to turn out a chassis, etc. There are great improvisational moments in football, for sure - the acrobatic TD catches, the scrambles away from pressure, the cutback runs, but a great deal of football plays consist of many discrete parts operating in harmonic concert. Baseball is almost anti-collaborative; a series of discrete 1-on-1 battles (interesting that basketball is accused often of being just that, when no hitter in trouble can ever pass to the corner for an open three, or whatever the equivalent would be). Baseball is a game played in many individual steps, with many pauses, and units of the game measured to within an inch of its life - strikes become outs become innings.

Basketball is fluid, closer to soccer, another game that has caught on as something to play but not watch in the U.S. in large part. Plays are called, plans are laid, to be sure, but there is an element of improvisatory danger in every possession, for every team. Zach Randolph airballing a three pointer for the Knicks last year is so batshit insane that it could a) only have happened on the Isiah Thomas Knicks and b) in a game of basketball. It would be like the Raiders attempting a FG but instead of kicking it Janikowski decides "screw this, I'm throwing a long bomb to my long snapper". Crazy on a basketball court, but it ACTUALLY HAPPENED. Absolutely inconceivable to even consider the equivalent in other sports.

The game is beautiful, athletic, and compelling. A common complaint holds that you only need to watch the last 2 minutes, that the rest is irrelevant, but any watcher of basketball knows how much the preceding minutes inform those final 2. Often everything that happens toward the endgame is foreshadowed and hinted at during the beginning and middle. The All-Star game, sure, only the end matters, but contrast that with the steady viselike effect of the ticking clock from the first minute of any regular season or (especially) playoff game - the game builds to those final 2 minutes. Sure, you could just watch the climax of an action movie, but you are missing the texture that gives that climax such force and power.

2. Metatextual. More than any other sport, NBA basketball has prompted the absolute best sports writing in the form of blogging of any major sport, no holds barred. The work of the cream of the crop of the NBA bloggers is so well-written and well-researched that the games themselves are elevated. Seek out the following and be awed. - the worst of pro ball. Vicious, endearing comedy. - get your Ph.D in NBA studies here. This year they didn't preview NBA teams, they previewed EVERY SINGLE GAME OF THE SEASON, in pithy, haiku-like snippets of glory. - Just solid analysis, in-depth and smart. - a daily podcast on the NBA during the season. Don't miss it. - Edited by the incomparable J.E. Skeets, of the Basketball Jones. Unique in the blogosphere, Skeets is hilarious AND inclusive.

Start there, but it's merely the tip of the iceberg. Enjoy the series, enjoy fall football, but if you love sports try re-introducing yourself to the NBA.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

10/7/08 - Rick Ross Was A Prison Guard - Cracks in the Hip Hop Persona

"JULY 21--Apparently desperate to distance himself from any affiliation with law enforcement, the rapper Rick Ross has recently denounced as fake photos purporting to show him in a former career as a Florida prison guard. But Department of Corrections (DoC) records show that Ross, whose raps detail the Miami gangster lifestyle and his supposed days trafficking cocaine, did, in fact, work as a correctional officer for 18 months."

When I first read this, my first instinct was to smirk and move on - surely, this was just of a piece with Vanilla Ice claiming some kind of blatantly plagiaristic ghetto background in an effort to give himself some legitimacy. Cred-seeking is no new story in music; every epitaph written for the Smashing Pumpkins mentioned the way that they released Gish on an "independent" label to bolster their indie bonafides in the grunge era even though there was already an agreement in place that Siamese Dream would roll out countrywide on one of the majors. Robert Zimmerman cast himself as Bob Dylan, enigmatic Woody Guthrie heir, so as not be written off as a Twin Cities pretender.

So Rick Ross is not alone, then. But I think that this particular expose/downfall/what have you points up a vexing dilemma confronting contemporary hip-hop and those that wish to be successful practitioners of the art in particular. Namely, it limits the form.

The distinction between Dylan/the Pumpkins/the White Stripes and all of the rest of the rock artists that have lied about personal histories and personas and what Rick Ross did is that the lies did not seem to affect the actual musical/lyrical content. The rock artists in question conjured biographical spice to take charge of the narrative that has grown up around music with the legitimization of the music press and its attendant musical hagiographies. In essence, by making up personal or business histories, these artists were adding spice to the biography to get the storytellers/mythmakers/audience to feel more invested in the music and the process. By mythologizing themselves or their process, they made the creation of their music more compelling.

What this didn't seem to affect, though, was the music. Jack and Meg White hold to the lie that they're siblings even after it's been defunct, but most of the White Stripes songs don't have anything to do with siblinghood or divorce. Or, if they do, they seem to be written from a psychologically penetrating place. It may add an extra frisson to the listener when Jack tackles the subject of infidelity if said listener has read up on the Stripes biographical liberties taken, but the songs themselves tend to approach emotions and subjects without incorporating biography into the equation. The music is mostly untouched by the myth.

Similarly, no matter who originally signed the Pumpkins, one gets the sense that Billy Corgan was going to write widescreen guitar epics, no matter that guitar solos, 70s pomp, glam rock, and titanic ambition were seen as out of fashion in the cred-obsessed 90s grunge scene. The business arrangement was cover for what Corgan was trying to do with the music - the band may have released Gish on an independent label, but in no way were the sonics altered - Corgan didn't strip out the guitar solos and produce it to sound like it was recorded in a trash can.

And in the case of Dylan, one gets the sense that he pretty much wrote about whatever the hell he wanted to, and appended the false biography so that people would cut him slack or find him more interesting, whichever he preferred at the time.

So, then, Rick Ross. I'd argue that one of the stark limitations of mainstream rap as it exists is an extremely narrow focus on the tropes of gangsta rap as laid out in the '90s by Dr. Dre, Snoop, Biggie, etc. It's long been lamented in spaces other than these that before the gangsta hegemony hip-hop seemed to be about to branch into many different directions (Rawkus records, De La Soul, Pharcyde, Deltron 3030 are some examples of alternate paths not taken), but with the incredible popularity of gangsta rap a hegemony of subject thunderously took its place at the top of the rap charts.

Billboard top singles in rap for the week:
T.I. - Whatever You Like
Lil' Wayne - Ms. Officer
T.I. - Live Your Life
Lil' Wayne - Got Money
The Game - My Life
M.I.A - Paper Planes
Jay-Z - Swagga Like Us
Ludacris - What Girls Like
Young Jeezy - Put On
Nelly - Body on Me

Subject matter - Money, drug dealing, cheap sex, crime. I would never dream to argue that these topics are going to lose their mainstream appeal: from film noir to summer action movies to beach-bound spy novels, these are the currencies of popular appeal. But in hip-hop the lyrical subject matter seems almost exaggeratedly narrowcast. Everybody's drinking Patron tequila in between bouts of selling kilos of cocaine to finance their various 'hos in different area codes, apparently, such that you could swap out today's T.I. from tomorrow's Lil Computerface, or whoever.

Also: the club. Apparently that is where it is all jumping off.

(An aside here to point out that there is a universe of rap/hip-hop outside the mainstream purview that occasionally crosses over to have a hit that has plenty of artists working in different subject matter - your Mos Def's, your Little Brothers, your Kool Keiths, etc. etc. etc. So I don't mean to paint all of rap with one brush, but it's the mainstream rappers that are going to get the cream of the production crop, the bulk of the marketing push from the label, and stand in for a genre in mainstream American culture).

Into the breach comes Rick Ross, such that he felt compelled to position himself as the king of Miami coke-rap. I mean, Miami coke-rap?? What. The. Hell. Because there are only a limited set of subjects that serve as gates to mainstream rap success, Rick Ross, EX-PRISON GUARD, felt compelled to present himself as the complete polar opposite of what he actually was. Every day he was hustling, all right.

Easy to mock, sure, but the larger point is a sad one. Instead of another drop in the bucket of raps about cocaine, a more artistically interesting way to use the form might be to, oh, I don't know, talk about working in a correctional facility. Rap can be an extremely expressive, poetic form, so how about some poetic thoughts on the conflicts/thoughts/feelings expressions of serving the prison/industrial complex in a nation that incarcerates its black men disproportionately. That's subject matter to sink the teeth in; not ridiculous rehashed Scarface fantasies that the next flavor-of-the-month is going to take a go at.

Lupe Fiasco's "Kick, Push" was a great song, sure, made exponentially greater by being about skateboarding. Come on, mainstream rappers - you're using a firehose of an artform to get a drink of water.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

9/30/08 - My Morning Jacket and the DNA of Lynyrd Skynyrd

I saw My Morning Jacket at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley; after said experience I will recommend it to anyone. They put on a titanically powerful show, dropping all of the reverb from their recorded output and pushing the rock throttle into the red. Of note and impressive was the facility MMJ displayed in moving from longer, moodier, almost Pink Floyd-ish songs to bashing rockers steeped in a hefty amount of Replacements-isms. Floyd, actually, is what I kept coming back to as a touch point, especially when the light show started playing through the Bay Area fog in earnest as Jim James unleashed his howling tenor. Usually, I'm a lyrics person, but I have to admit that with the exception of "Golden" and "Mahgeetah", I usually don't have the faintest idea as to what James is singing -partially because of the reverb-soak, but partially because he deploys his voice instrumentally- all high lonesome vowels with very little enunciation.

There was also a whole lot of righteous guitar soloing, which I support without reservation. As I've written before, the guitar solo seems to be a lost art these days, but MMJ pulled out some serious guitar duels throughout the night. Unlike the kind of white noise production that passes for instrumental passages for many rock bands these days, these solos were clear and piercing, and mostly melodic and forward moving.

Which got me thinking about Lynryd Skynyrd, since the guitar stomps tended to sound Skynred-esque, instead of Floyd-esque; they were swampy instead of spacey. I realized, though, that, much as Floyd has, Skynyrd has become a very specific aural touch point for bands in way that speaks to true cultural penetration. Not only are the sonic qualities of Skynyrd and Floyd instantly identifiable in the manner of most unique and potent bands, but they stand on for an entire aesthetic conception of music, a rarified height for a band to achieve. Even the most influential and respected bands do not always stand in as the ur-band of their genre; and even when a band is "first" to break through in that musical style they are not always blessed with ur-band status.

Skynyrd, though, stands as synonymous of Southern Rock to the point that in the hackneyed hypothetical of "If Aliens Landed And Asked What [Subject] Is..." you would hand said alien a copy of Gold and Platinum: Lynyrd Skynyrd's Greatest Hits and call it a day. If the alien was still confused you'd probably suplement it with an Allman Brothers album, but the Allmans are a little on the jammy side, a little jazzy, a little highbrow, a variation on the ur-text. Skynyrd is the pure strain, the Platonic ideal of Southern Rock.

It's always impressive, then, when another band doesn't just display influences from a band like that (because, really, the whole point of being the Platonic ideal is that everyone genre-wide is influenced by your sound) but rather starts to seem like a complementary piece of the fundamental picture. There were points during the show when MMJ would launch into a set of dueling solos where it felt like watching the next step of Southern Rock; that they had not merely taken Skynyrd as an influence but had fully integrated the sound and philosophy and were serving as modern emissaries of it.

This I know runs counter to MMJ's stated goals of innovation and boredom with traditional rock structures, and as Evil Urges gives way to the next genre experiment I have no doubt that MMJ will follow the Wilco path of expanding into fresh territories only to encounter diminishing returns (I hold that Being There was Wilco's masterpiece, not Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, because it marked a true experimentation with roots rock orthodoxy instead of leaving it behind almost completely). This evolution has not reached their live show yet, though - if you've ever listened to "Sweet Home Alabama" and had it go straight to the heart despite the ossification of classic rock radio, you owe it to the 'Merican South to see this band before it's too late.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

9/20/08 - RIP DFW

"I heard the news today oh boy..."
-A Day In The Life

When I found out that David Foster Wallace had killed himself, suicide by hanging, I was quite unprepared for how deeply it would affect me. He's not a writer I Grew Up With, by any stretch. In general, in terms of aesthetics, post-modernism is not something that interests or engages me. I like a good story, well-told, and formal oddities in the realm of the novel/short story leave me a little cold. I tend to respond to the workmanlike craftsmanship of a Stephen King over the pyrotechnics of a Borges or Barth, which doesn't mean that I don't appreciate the advances in the field, it's just that it makes it seem that Wallace would not naturally be an author that I engaged with.

I've never read Infinite Jest, never read any of his short fiction, so to me Wallace is not even a fiction writer. And in much of the praise for his work and his person it his achievements as a fiction writer that get a lot of play, that designate him as a VIP worthy of the magazine obituary. What has not gotten a great deal of emphasis is the fact that David Foster Wallace was the best American essayist and non-fiction writer since James Baldwin.

Storytelling, I would gather, was not necessarily Wallace's project, but when he latched onto a story in real life, or an idea rooted in reality, and then applied his formidable talent to it, he created entire worlds that lived inside one mundane experience. Whether it was watching Roger Federer play tennis, taking a luxury cruise, going to the state fair, or reflecting on the vapidity of athletic memoirs, Wallace was able to penetrate the subject and its attendant weirdnesses, twists, and turns to a degree that calls to mind the virtuosity of Glenn Gould playing the Goldberg variations. Which is not to say that Wallace fell into the perils of shtick - surely, the Wallace-goes-to-Middle-America pitch for an essay could have extended ad infinitum (imagine Wallace writing on Disneyland - the piece practically writes itself), but he wrote primarily on what was interesting to him, which was just about everything. So along with those masterful pieces were achingly hair-splitting essays on English usage, on Kafka, a book about the concept of infinity, etc. etc. etc. Forget the novels - Wallace's non-fiction was and is so penetrating, hilarious, and insightful that he deserves a place on the shelf and a section in every journalism course for that part of his career alone. I wish that he wrote essays about everything that I've ever done - literally, that's not an exaggeration - and treasure the experiences and ideas that he did deign to document.

Follow that link, read that essay, and marvel in the presence of a genuinely capital G capital W Great Writer. A short excerpt, just a brief slice: Wallace summarizing an evening of enforced fun aboard the luxury cruise ship the Zenith (which he has dubbed the Nadir, unable to resist deploying his formidable intellect for sub-adolescent name-calling):

"10:00 AM: Three simultaneous venues of Managed Fun, all aft on Deck 9: Darts Tournament, take aim and hit the bull's eye! Shufflboard Shuffle, join your fellow guests for a morning game. Ping-Pong Tournament, meet the Cruise Staff at the tables, Prizes to the Winners! Organized shuffleboard has always filled me with dread. Everything about it suggests infirm senescence and death: it's a game played on the skin of a void, and the rasp of the sliding puck is the sound of that skin getting abraded away bit by bit. I also have a morbid but wholly justified fear of darts stemming from a childhood trauma too hair-raising to discuss here. I play Ping-Pong for an hour."

Here is an authentic, masterful authorial voice. He mixes in genuine penetrating insight (the way that shuffleboard reminds one of death) with genuinely funny self-deprecating humor (the jellyfish incident) and the kind of perfectly chosen detail (choosing to play Ping Pong) that give you, in one short paragraph, what seems to be a full understanding of "David Foster Wallace": brilliant mind, thoughtful human being with a scalpel-sharp sense of humor, a little neurotic but not off-puttingly so.

That the "real" Dave Wallace struggled with, and eventually succumbed to severe and deep depression, only makes the achievement of his authorial voice all the more impressive - the gulf between Wallace as he wrote and Wallace as he lived required hard work and talent to bridge. "Shipping Out" is an essay laced with despair, sure, but that despair is played off against an everpresent desire for authenticity and connection that ultimately we all share. Postmodernism gets a lot of shit for not dealing with human feeling/emotion/connection; ironic, then, that its poster child was a fierce and tenacious champion of such things.


Monday, September 15, 2008

9/15/08 - Randy Newman Would Prefer You Get Off His Lawn

Of all the '70s rock dinosaurs, singer-songwriters, disco divas, and punk agitators, only Randy Newman now seems, in retrospect, that he had a plan all along on how to stay incisive, relevant, and consistently excellent: he decided that he was going to be old starting in his 20s, with his very first album, with his very first song.

Interviews with Newman, from his own website.

"Love Story (You And Me)", the song in question, traces the arc of a relationship, from the first verse detailing the courtship, the second verse describing adult life, and then the black-veined final verse:

"When our kids are grown/With kids of their own/They'll send us away/To a little home in Florida/We'll play checkers all day/Until we pass away"

Sure, Newman suggests in the song, there are songs to mine out of the experience of falling in love, but unlike so much of popular music's treatment the subject, from early Beach Boys to Usher, Newman follows it all the way to the (possibly bitter) end. Not just interested in the fireworks of infatuation, the push and pull of attraction, repulsion, and coming together, Newman drives ahead to the end, equally engaged with what happens at the end of a relationship, at the end of the life, and how the knowledge of that greater endpoint makes the initial feeling so much more special and poignant.

Newman's one-eye-on-the-endgame attitude has long made him an odd fit among whoever happens to be his contemporaries at the moment. My favorite photo of Randy is the recent one in Rolling Stone, showing him in the 70s with Lou Reed, Tom Petty, and Bruce Springsteen. The other three all wear the cloak of easy cool that comes from being rock royalty - the slouch and sneer of early Presley all shimmering around them. All three are smoking, all three wear T-shirts or V-necks untucked; loose rock star glamour.

Newman stands apart, his button-down shirt tucked in, his hands in the pockets of his khakis, his glasses and haircut making him look more like an offbeat teacher than a rock star. Who knows how much of this image is deliberately cultivated on his part, but still it's a bright bold line that he has drawn in his music over most of his career.

A lot of rock lyrics are written in the first person by the author's rock persona at the very least - presumably we are to assume that the Bruce of "Thunder Road" bears more than a passing resemblence to Bruce Springsteen himself. After all, rock 'n' roll is primal, and often gives a lot of play to expressions of the id. Randy Newman, by contrast, in interested in using songs as a medium to explore the psychology of character, often a kind of "Randy Newman" that is materialistic, shallow, and boorish, but often also characters that have very little to do with Newman himself. Thus, the huckster slave ship owner of "Sail Away", an angry God in "God's Song", a rich decaying New Orleans playboy in "Shame", and many others.

What is often shared in Newman's characters is a blithe ignorance of the kind of endgame awareness in something like "Love Story". The fallible fictional creations of Newman are often so concerned with their own localized pleasures and challenges that they have no sight of the length and arc of a life, and of how many of the shallow trappings they care so much about matter so little in the end, when having your kids put you in nursing home and you play checkers until you die actually counts as one of the happiest endings of all.

The fact that Newman is very aware of this, I think, is what accounts for the consistently high quality of his original albums. 1999's Bad Love has just as many great songs as Sail Away from the '70s. Many artists have recorded "return to form" albums, especially Newman's contemporaries in that photo, but if critics are honest there's no way the most of the rock stars of today can live up to their work when they first burst onto the scene. Newman is an exception, the man with the plan. If his vision strikes some as overly dark, it's possibly just because he's able to see a little farther into the tunnel at the end than most.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

8/31/08 Playing the self

I never used to watch much TV, but with the advent of Netflix and TV on DVD I've been conducting a kind of one-show-at-a-time cream of the crop skimming, picking up only those shows that have been close to drowned in critical plaudits: Six Feet Under, the Sopranos, Firefly, the Office, the Wire.

One thing that this TV viewing has done is given me new appreciation for the difficulties successful TV actors face when making the move to film. This was something I never did understand when I was younger, when I didn't really watch TV, when magazines like Entertainment Weekly would publish breathless articles about "Can Jennifer Aniston escape Rachel?" Big deal, I thought. Plenty of movie stars just play variations on a theme - it's not like Tom Cruise really disappears into the skin of his characters, unless those characters are tightly wound yuppies in need of comeuppance/life lessons/just a little lovin'. Harrison Ford, Schwarzenegger - surely if movie actors can get away with the same persona, then TV stars wouldn't have such a hard time. Plus, if they could actually act then, well, theoretically the sky's the limit.

What I failed to account for, though, was the way that the longevity of a TV series lends deeper and deeper imprints of a character in a way that movies do not. It's a cliche at this point to label televsion novelistic (in its best forms), but what is true is that some of the unique strengths of book-length narrative are present in long-running TV series. It's interesting to me that Hollywood is always adapting novels to the screen, when really movies are the narrative equivalent of short stories - in fact, the list of great movies adapted from short stories is a longer one than you would think:

In The Bedroom

Brokeback Mountain
The Birds
Rear Window
The Shawshank Redemption
Of course, there are plenty of duds in the bunch, but what's notable about those movies, as with other movies adapted from short stories, is that they don't have that curious truncated sensation common to movies adapted from novels. Adapting a full-length novel to film is by necessity transforming one form of narrative to another - cuts are required, mandatory, characters are lost or assimilated, plot is compressed - obviously, because a novel that may span centuries with multiple protagonists (Everything is Illuminated, say), becomes a Cliffs Notes version of itself by necessity.

Television, though, can work with the same long build and payoff of novels, when it is operating on all cylinders. Characters can cycle to the forefront and leave, long time periods can be explored, in general there is just so much more time available that the narrative universe is much larger and expanded - longhand to shorthand of the movies. Because of this long build, and the deep imprinteur the fictional universe can leave, actors in television series become much more locked in as their characters. Harrison Ford is Indiana Jones, but only for a grand total of 6-8 hours of screentime. Contrast this with, say, Josh Holloway as Sawyer on Lost: at 4 seasons of 22 episodes a season, that's ~100 hours and counting. In the popular perception, it's much more difficult to wrench one's mind around the fact that Holloway is NOT Sawyer than it is to accept Ford as NOT Indy.

This makes it difficult to watch prodigiously gifted actors like Isiah Whitlock, Jr. of the Wire appear in bad TV commercials - a work that has a purity of artistic voice and vision should be able to fully own Sen. Clay Davis, not share him with Virgin Atlantic or whoever. If anything, Whitlock should get the cream of the crop - let him work his way out of the Clay Davis groove with something meaty, not at the level of the Mac Guy. Such are the vagaries of the life of the actor, but it seems cruel for TV actors to be punished merely by the medium in which they work.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

8/18/08 - On Radiohead

I saw Radiohead at the Outside Lands Festival in SF, and, much like the previous time that I saw Radiohead (on the Amnesiac tour at Madison Square Garden), was left with an inescapable conclustion - Radiohead in the last five years have established themselves as peerless large-scale rock performers.

This is, in some ways, exceedingly strange. Radiohead is very different from artists like The Killers, or Kid Rock, or other bands whose stock in trade is pump-the-fist-toward-the-sky anthems. The last time Radiohead put out an album of fist-pump anthems it was 1996 and they called it The Bends. In fact, you could even argue that The Bends, though exceedingly guitar centric, is almost an anti-anthem album, seing as how it's shot through with the alienation of a band attempting to reject the hell out the success of "Creep". Which really means that you have to go back to 1993 and Pablo Honey to find a Radiohead album that finds the album consciously reaching for the rafters. It's hard to remember now, especially since the band has lapped Pablo Honey artistically again and again, but go back and listen to a song like "Anyone Can Play Guitar" and it makes sense why critics kept citing U2 as such an influence on early Radiohead.

The major chord chorus in that song is the "Beautiful Day" move, basically - after the grungy noodling of the verse, Yorke & the gang deploy that chorus like a set of afterburners: Pablo Honey Radiohead was looking for 60,000 strong singalongs.

But then they got it with "Creep" and took a left turn that just kept on going. "Black Star" and "Street Spirit" on The Bends are fairly anthemic, but the rest of the songs on that album, while definitely guitar-based rock, are not really stadium anthems, and then with each successive album the music got steadily more moody and introverted. Yorke's vocals reached more towards drone, and the electronic textures that were such dynamic accents on OK Computer were brought more and more to the fore. By the time of In Rainbows, the lead single was a moody ballad couched no longer in acoustic guitars and Yorke's falsetto choruses, but in electronic synth textures and a kind of meandering mantra-like chorus.

Which doesn't mean that it's not good - on the contrary, late-period Radiohead turned out to be way more interesting than anyone predicted when Yorke was rocking a dyed blond ponytale playing the MTV Beach house in the mid-nineties. But what the recorded discography suggests is a band that increasingly skews internal and moody and away from external and anthemic. This would seem to logically suggest that as a live band, Radiohead should have gone from better at performing large shows to being much, much worse. The Smashing Pumpkins are an obvious corrollary here - who in their right mind would prefer to see the Pumpkins on the Adore tour as opposed to the one for Gish or Siamese Dream?

Fascinatingly, however, the move toward greater introversion in their recorded output was matched by the sculpting of a ferociously dynamic live performance aesthetic, so that listening to Radiohead in the headphones is almost a completely different musical experience from listening to them rock a crowd. Live, they let the guitars drive the songs, just as they did on Pablo Honey and The Bends, but Johnny Greenwood uses the electronic accents developed through the latter albums to drench the songs in an otherworldly haze of sonic effects that make them harder, stronger, and more compelling.

"I Might Be Wrong" live is a towering, walloping beast of a song, complete with audience clap-along and tambourine. Similarly, the introverted anthems of late-period Radiohead are turned inside out, and Yorke expertly brings intimate dynamics into play at large-scale shows. This, I theorize, is the secret of Radiohead's success as a live band - they expertly scale up the dyanism of their songs, such that the quiet desparation of "Exit Music (For a Film)" is exquisitely balanced by the guitar explosions of a "Paranoid Android". I only wish that they would bring to bear all of this firepower for the next album; it seems strangely miserly to keep it only in the ephemeral realm of live performance. Although quite possibly it just keeps it special.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

8/14/08 Michael Phelps, Alicia Sacramone

The twin faces of the Americans in these Olympics to me were newly elevated golden god (according to NBC) OMG MICHAEL PHELPS, and Alicia Sacramone, disgraced (yet silver-medal possessing) gymnast. As per the old "Wide World of Sports", the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat personified.

There is something of a twin symmetry to Phelps's achievements and Sacramone's disappointments - it became too easy, at a certain point, to marvel at Phelps's sheer aquatic dominance and conclude that we were watching some kind of half-dolphin, half-man at play in its natural habitat. It was difficult to conceptualize this striving, the difficulty, the punishing training and the ascetic-style devotion to one activity only for days, months, and years at a time. All that we (the television audience) saw was someone closing the gap from potential to kinetic energy, destiny made manifest.

Which is not to say that Phelps made it look easy, necessarily. No, that honor goes to Usain Bolt, who looked like he could have won the 100, broken a world record, and still had time to eat a ham sandwich before crossing the finish line - in terms of smoking the competition, Bolt's only competition was Guo Jingjing, the Chinese diver that seemed to operate on a similarly higher plane.

Still, though several of Phelps's golds were indeed contested, that only served to sprinkle a little drama on top of those eight, to give the narrative of his quest its requisite bend and snap. Eventually, everything fell into place, and now he's got neck bling for miles. A quintessentially American narrative, featuring as it did challenges, adversity, and ultimately the triumph of the Yanks and a happy ending (plus a mom that NBC is about ready to spin off into her own show).

Sacramone, on the other hand, experienced the kind of Olympics that makes you realize that what these people are doing is extremely, extremely difficult. There's nothing quite like seeing someone fall off of the balance beam to make you realize, as a viewer, that the thing is just as narrow and scary as you might remember from long-ago gym classes, and that the women and men flipping all over it are just as vulnerable and mortal as any other member of the species.

In addition, the increasing nervousness that played across her face and overall demeanor as she was delayed, delayed, and further delayed speak to the shaking hands, the sweating, the choking that bulk of us feel in athletic endeavors. The terrible calm and quieting of the basketball game at the free throw line, the lining up of the game winning kick, the beginning of a vault that literally endangers life and limb - mastering these require a forced ice water of the veins, the kind displayed by Jingjing and Sacramone's teammates - the kind of terrible calm that is the envy of all of those who have ever had nerves get the best of them. That Sacramone undeniably choked when the pressure was on makes her as undeniably human and American as Phelps's glorious races against his own presssures and expectations.

Repeatedly, the gymnastics announcers emphasized that this was a young woman's sport; the Chinese gymast's age a point of controversy because young people are more flexible but also have a surfeit of abandon with which to throw themselves around in such acrobatic and terrifying flight. Alicia, at 20, had far more of the terrors of self that plague all of us from time to time than the younger Liukin and Johnson. For the inspiring, look no further to the 33-year old German medalist that beat her out at the vault. For the flip poignant side, look at Sacramone losing a judged contest to someone that landed on her shins, falling off the balance beam, and claiming a silver medal with her teammates in the all-around that should by all rights be gold, ages of the Chinese gymnasts dependent.

Monday, August 11, 2008

8/11/08 - Why Did Everyone Go Insane With Echo?

Maybe this is an elementary question, easily answered by the most neophyte music historian, but nonetheless it never fails to completely baffle me - why did everyone go echo-heavy in the '80s?

The occasion of my wondering is reading about Paul Westerberg's new album, which always gets me to go back and listen the Replacements stuff that I have since it's all so legendary and all that, and, though I readily admit that the band put out some classic, classic, songs, it's a strange legacy for me to grapple with because of issues of sonic quality. Quality not bad vs. good in this sense, but rather in the sense of sonic qualities, like "a sonic quality of Lil' Jon's club hits is a reliance on repetitive siren-like hooks" (YEEEEAAAAHHHHH!).

When I dove into the most critically respected part of the discography (Let It Be and Tim), I found that the songwriting on Tim, especially, was a high-water mark whose praises seemed deserved (Let It Be I think gets overrated - more filler on that CD than the critical conscensus would lead one to believe). "Bastards of Young" and "Little Mascara", especially, are simply two of the best-written and tuneful rock songs that any post-Beatles four-piece have put together. To me, those two songs sound the most like the Replacements conjured up by their critical reputation - desperate, a little unhinged, but melodic and empathetic and gorgeously and passionately sung.

But good God. They practically drown under all the production goop. The echo and reverb is so overpowering that it sounds like the band is playing in some kind of rock-flattening underwater room. The drive and kick of the songs is clearly detectable underneath all of the slathered-on echodrums, but only because they are so exceptional. Hearing the power of the songs, in some ways, requires listening past the way that they were recorded. Mountains of echo are all good when you're talking about Def Leppard, but the ragged glory of the Replacements at their best needed production that highlighted immediacy and volume - something like the way that the Rolling Stones were produced - another outfit that balanced ragged and tight.

So clearly there was an epidemic - this band was so reactionary (musically) as to record one anti-MTV screed and follow it up with a video consisting of speakers in an unmoving room, so it's not like they were necessarily lockstep with the sonic times. Randy Newman's '80s album drown in echo and synthesizers as well, and the man spent the '70s working a masterful variation of piano trios and orchestral arrangements. Plus, the Replacements were a rock band - Newman is an arrangement whiz that's done full-on legit film scores- his choices were undeniably deliberate.

What's even more strange about the echo epidemic is that modern rock production dials it completely back. The '70s rock production style is what's being approximated by Newman (on his most recent 2 albums) and every single guitar rock band to release a debut album in the '90s and beyond. The Strokes stand as an exreme - they bathe Casablancas's voice in echo, but the instruments are as clean and clear as obvious sonic touchpoint Television. The scrim of technology that the echo production lowered over every '80s rock song was raised again, making an entire decade of rock music (give or take) a constant battle between its production style and its songwriting.

Because ultimately, the siege of echo contains the energy spilling out at the margins that mark the best rock songs. "Pour Some Sugar On Me" is a masterpiece, but it's a pop masterpiece - there's no real danger or edge to the song. Impeccably sung, machine-buffed, not a note out of place, the production style fits with the glam aesthetic. But "Bastards of Young" is an anthem of listless confusion, a howl (or mumble) into the abyss of young adulthood - it shouldn't have the same drum sound as Def Leppard. For the pop end of the spectrum, echo/processed sounds were just another ingredient. But they seriously degraded (and continue to degrade) some top-notch rock and roll songs.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

8/7/08 - Olympics...So compelled!...So bored!...So confused...

I kind of love the Olympics, although I don't find myself particularly compelled to watch much of them, because the truth is that the televised summer Olympics are for the most part boring as sport. As spectacle, they're almost unbeatable, but I like spectacle with sports when the sports themselves are highly telegenic. And gymnastics is pretty telegenic, but it's also a solo act committed by small girls who I want set free from the tiny prisons of their bodies/training regimens.

But so much of the Olympics, as sport and a series of images removed from context, are fantastically boring. I'm as caught up in Phelpshype as anyone, but I have to convince my brain that it's exciting to watch eight guys swim really fast in a straight line. There was a window of time when the only 2 Olympic sports on were softball and beach volleyball, and I found myself channel-surfing to the food network, where a New York chef was making lame lion jokes in the middle of South Africa. My significant other claimed that the only Summer Olympic sports are track, swimming, and gymnastics, and was absolutely incredulous that beach volleyball was a sport. After watching a point or two of the match, I was inclined to agree except for the fact that I found the swimming to be just as yawn-inducing. Women's softball? I find an MLB no-hitter to be boring enough.

And yet.

Divorcing the events from the context of what they mean is a deliberate missing of the point, like eating fried chicken without the skin. The delights of the Olympics are all in the way that untelevised, un-telegenic sports like synchronized diving and table tennis and all the rest of the bizarre galaxy is infused through context with a grand master narrative. It's almost beside the point what the events are - as long as it rolls around every 4 years, and involves country vs. country action, there is enough large-scale narrative momentum to sustain the most mundane and/or bizarre of competitive "events".

So swimming is boring to watch, yes. But somehow everyone who had watched the astonishing Lezak rally couldn't stop raving about it; plugged into the communal Olympic spirit that charged an admittedly nigh-superhuman feat with the thrills that Lezak was doing if for 'Merica, dammit. We may not be able to invade the right country, and the French may have been right about the way, but they won't be able to...outSWIM us! I was not immune - I watched the whole thing replayed and got goosebumps all over my arms when Lezak touched the wall and the rest of the Americans screamed.

I would not have been so excited if not for the grand narrative trappings, the gloriously overstuffed opening ceremonies, the drama about China's cloudy skies and human rights record, the knowledge that just these minutes, these seconds are all the only windows that these athletes have to be venerated like the secular gods of the NBA, NFL, NCAA, etc. LeBron can have a bad night in at the Palace, but he'll be back next Thursday astride TNT like a colossus. Alicia Sacramone has these...minutes...and, not the steady uptick and downturn of a public athletic life, but a legacy that rests on the head of a pin. Context is all, as it is in most things, and to conclude: USA. #1.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

8/5/08 - Trope Dissection - Whaa! Power pop never has hits! Whaa!

A popular trope in music criticism is referring to whatever power pop band the critic is referring to as having songs that "should be" or "would be" hits in some idealized alternate universe, while bemoaning the fact that melodic guitar pop songs just don't become massive hits anymore. I'm going to have to call BS on this assertion, and I think it's interesting to look at why it gets made so often about it and why it's so wrong. I was reminded of this when I heard "Hey Jealousy" the other day on the radio, and remembered how critics always cited the Gin Blossoms as one of the few bands to escape the power pop ghetto to have honest-to-God hit songs.

The cause for all this bemoaning is, I think, rooted in nostalgia - Pete Townshend apparently coined the term in 1967 to describe the early Who, and the bulk of the critics that I used to read were formed by the musical output and developments of the '60s and '70s. Nowadays, when music can be plucked from the air thanks to filesharing & iTunes, or sampled without cost on YouTube/muxtape/internet radio, there's much more cross-pollination and acceptance of genre, but until Napster broke everything wide open, I'd say that musical subgenre was still something that critics put a huge stake in. Since guitar pop was pretty much the name of the game until disco & punk broke, there's a vested interest in the part of critics whose musical tastes were formed in those decades to champion the form. It's the same way that I respond instantly to songs from the '90s grunge mode - music etches its deepest grooves in certain years.

So, nostalgia - critics feel that breezy guitar pop songs should be hits, because they used to be.

Secondly, the genre name is a misnomer. Power pop in its ideal is a fantastic idea - in its practical term, the bands that get the appellation are often practicing something much different from the platonic ideal. What Townshend was speaking to was the way that aggression and angst form such an aesthetically pleasing dialectic when paired with catchy hooks and shiny instrumental surfaces. What results is a kind of musical sucker punch - the sing-along melodies draw you in, but the naked aggression (of, in the case of something like "I Can't Explain" the drums and manipulativeness of the lyrical narrator) provides the cathartic, emotional release.

Most of what gets labeled power pop is anything but - it's just shiny, empty, major chord guitar pop without about as much staying power as the deep tracks on a T-Pain album. For the most part, what gets labeled as power pop is a whole lot of pop with very little power.

Let's take a touchstone - "I've Been Waiting" by Matthew Sweet. So, this is off of Girlfriend, which says "melds all of Sweet's influences into one majestic, wrenching sound". Well, that would be nice, but there's nothing majestic or wrenching here. The song is about as saccharine as a ten-gallon bag of equal. Sweet hits every note without a trace of emotion, and the 12 string guitars jangle prettily, but it's pretty much all sweetness and light. Catchy it is, but there's no really no "power" to bounce the pop off of. Ok, he wants the girl, he's waiting, he may not get her, but nothing really feels at stake.

Contrast with "Sick of Myself:

This one's got more distortion driving the main riff, and the singalong chorus is a pure expression of self-loathing; instantly, much more dramatic friction around the same subject. Any wonder that "Sick of Myself" was Sweet's biggest hit?

In looking at the "power pop" bands/songs that have broken out and become hits, this comes into focus - either the instrumental parts are actually, you know, powerful and aggressive, or else the lyrics contain enough sleaze/depression/anger/sadness/twistedness to play off of the shiny surface of the instrumental part.

A sample:
"My Sharona", the Knack - all about leering at younger women.
"Hey Jealousy", Gin Blossoms - a drunk screw-up returns to his hometown to ask his ex-lover if he can crash at her place and maybe drive around and get chased by the cops.
"Semi-Charmed Life" - Third Eye Blind - crystal meth addiction
"Buddy Holly," Weezer - So what I'm a geek - I dig you, baby!

etc. etc. etc.

I would also argue that a lot of songs are classified as something else but should be power pop. Sorry, Kurt, but "Smells Like Teen Spirit" is a classic case - sing-along song crammed full of hooks, with volume & lyrics about alienation to provide the friction. For some reason, power has come to mean 12 string jangly guitars in the critical vocab, when everyone knows power comes from power chords (duh, it's right there in the word itself!)

Other songs that actually fit the "power pop" literal definition, not the music criticism version:

"When I Come Around," Green Day.
"Mr. Brightside", the Killers
"All The Small Things", Blink-182
"Interstate Love Song", Stone Temple Pilots
"Last Nite", the Strokes
"Remember", the Raveonettes
"Stars" - Hum
"A Praise Chorus" - Jimmy Eat World
"I Got You (At the End of the Century) - Wilco.

Ah ha! All of the sudden it looks like we have a viable subgenre on our hands, doesn't it? So let's throw our Rickenbackers in the closet and play some rock and roll already.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

7/31/08 - Modern Classics vs. Old Classics.

The other day my friend Jen and I had a long discussion over IM about 'modern' classics vs. 'old' classics. With some minimal editing, here's the bulk of the conversation.

Jen: have you seen a streetcar named desire

Jeff: no
i've read it though
way back in the day

Jen: i have similar feelings towards that movie that i do to [The Maltese Falcon]
i realize that its good, and can see some of the ways in which it was really groundbreaking for that time, but only really am enjoying it bc its supposed to be a classic

Jeff: yeah
that was how i felt as well
it's kind of like listening to run-dmc

like, guys you don't have to end every rhyme the exact same way you know
but they don't know
b/c everybody's just feeling out the medium

Jen: yeah
i havent listened to enough run dmc to say i agree but i believe you

Jeff: the "first of its genre" is always kind of strange

Jen: yeah, but streetcar wasn't necessary 1st in genre

Jeff: true
i guess i should say groundbreaking work

Jen: yeah, just classics in general

Jeff: not always
but often

Jen: yeah
not always
i think i can watch some classics and enjoy it just as being good

Jeff: agreed
and sometimes it's hard to reconstruct something where the achievement was something new
that has since been copied

Jen: but some i watch and think, would i have known this was good had someone not told me. Have you seen the apartment?

romantic comedy?

Jen: 1960 best picture with Shirley MacClaine
it was referenced in mad men, and now i want to see it
Billy Wilder

Jeff: hmm
never saw it
a classic that i enjoyed

Jen: example of you can enjoy
i agree

Jeff: pride and prejudice
wuthering heights

Jen: as movies or books?

Jeff: books

Jen: oh there are TONS of books
im talking movies

Jeff: movies i find harder

Jen: yeah

Jeff: esp pre-70s

Jen: yeah

Jeff: but what's considered classic
like is the Godfather considered modern?

Jen: just old i guess

Jeff: or classic?

Jen: haha
its classic but im speaking about old classic

Jeff: you're talking about something that's old enough to where the dominant style was different than what's done today

Jen: yes i think so

Jeff: so like the 70s classics fit
apocalypse now
would those be "classics" or modern movies?

Jen: mm, i dont know
i think they are modern classics
and then there are old classics

Jeff: my theory is that those fit as modern b/c those styles have been appropriated by modern movies
in terms of directorial style
and in terms of looking at the director as the "author" of the movie

Jen: and classics are just critically acclaimed, or ones that everyone thinks you should see

Jeff: so you're drawing a distinction between one set of classics and another
where one "feels" older
and the others are more modern classics
all can be considered classics
because they're widely critically/popularly acclaimed
but there's a distinction between "modern" classics
and "classic" classics
all I'm saying

Jen: yes
im saying for 'classic' classics
or old classics
modern classics i get
usually always
90% of the time
old classics, maybe 45% of the time
ok maybe 60% of the time
by get i mean enjoy and appreciate

Jeff: and my theory behind that is that modern classics are made in the same cinematic style/vocabulary/aesthetic as movies today

Jen: yes

Jeff: i.e. director driven

Jen: you think before they werent director driven?

Jeff: naturalistic acting
directors used to be just kind of hired guns
they weren't really considered the "author" or the movie

Jen: hm, i dont know if i agree

Jeff: example - who directed wizard of oz?

Jen: im thinking more like sunset blvd, citizen kane
very director driven

Jen: i dont know who directed wizard of oz without using wikipedia.

Jeff: gone with the wind?

Jen: but i also don't know who directed shakespeare in love. or chicago.
i dont know directors that well

Jeff: a good point
the theory that the director is the auteur of the movie, that the director's creative vision is the driving force, was first developed in the '50s
which is relatively recently
but think of the way that we discussed christopher nolan
and his body of work the other day
we talk about directors as though they're the authors

Jen: but you dont think that can be done with old directors?

Jeff: whether or not you know who directed one
you can retroactively apply it, but think about what that means from a business/creative standpoint that they weren't thought of that way

Jen: now youre arguing the director is now the 'author' of movies
the main creative force
you dont think its always been that way?

Jeff: well think about the difference between the way movies are made now
and under the studio system from the '20s to the '50s
where studios would produce movies with their stars, writers, and directors tied to long-term contracts
in that case the director is still the main creative force maybe, but the real power lies with the studio and the producers
but obviously movies are highly collaborative
so there's also been evolution of acting
towards more naturalism

Jen: yes
so this is the reason why i like movies more now?

Jeff: i think it's a factor as to why the style of what you're thinking of as "old classics" seem so alien
for me that holds true
like if a movie's made after about 1969 or so, it may feel like a 70s movie, but it feels "modern"
or an 80s movie will feel dated, but still modern
but movies made much before that feel like they're made with a different cinematic/acting/writing aesthetic vocab.
so i'm just speculating that that may be what you could be reacting to also
in your 90/60 % split
Star Wars
totally modern feeling

Jen: 70s though
so you think the cut off ist he 60s

Jeff: it's somewhere in the 70s
i guess
i just know that the 70s was the rise of the American auteurs

Jen: so godfather is 72 (im using wiki now)

Jeff: Spielberg, Altman, Francis Ford Coppola
and my theory is that it's their influence that really marks the modern film vocab.

Jen: one flew over the cuckoos nest is 75
which seems in old classic genre
director influence?

Jeff: yeah director influence
godfather you would say old classic or modern classic?

Jen: modern classic

Jeff: so 72 at least would be the cutoff then
but obviously those styles were new at the time
so you'd expect there to be plenty of "old classics" littered throughout the 70s
i doubt you'd find many (or any) in the 80s that would feel like "old classics"

Jen: hm i see

Jeff: like psycho i still enjoy just as much as a modern movie
but it still feels like it's on the other side of the divide

Jen: what year is that

Jeff: ‘60

Jen: hmmm

Jeff: The Excorcist – ‘73
Carrie – ‘76
i would pinpoint those as the first modern horror movies

Jen: yes

Jeff: also
until 64 all movies had to meet the Hays code
basically the industry censorship agreement put together in the 30s
spelling out what was morally acceptable
so the modern rating system was implemented in '68

Jen: yeah so there are a lot of other factors besides directors

Jeff: totally

Jen: camera technology
sound technology
make up

Jeff: for sure
but i think those are less of a factor
b/c think about the diff in those from a movie made in the early 80s to today
both feel "modern"
but camera, sound, costume, makeup, speech - all different
that's what i think the puzzle is
b/c there's clearly a line in there somewhere
where "modern" shades into "old"
that's more about aesthetics and less about technology/costumes/slang/etc.

Jen: but how much of this is colored by the decade when we were born
our earliest memories of modern movies were in the 80s

Jeff: totally

Jen: so if you asked my dad this, he might not draw the line at the same place

Jeff: very true

Jen: or ask a teenager
whats modern
i dont know if it would make it to the 70s

Jeff: right like a teenager today would probably feel anything without CGI is dated

Jen: yeah, like star wars is probably way too old
i think the 1st harry potter CGI is terrible

Jeff: haha yeah CGI can get horribly abused
BUT pre-CGI will feel dated, but I bet for teenagers now what will feel even more dated are movies without the rapid-fire cutting
think about how long the shots were in the first batman compared to the dark knight

Jen: interesting

Jeff: i wonder though b/c we've all seen lots of movies and then saw CGI come onto the scene
i wonder how a modern teenager would feel about Raiders of the Lost Ark

Jen: classic
and i feel modern

Jeff: a good argument then that style/aesthetic is more important than the technological prowess on display
but we have no way of knowing without access to a teenager

Jen: must get access to teenager

Jeff: haha yes

Jen: for experiments
movie perceptions

Monday, July 28, 2008

7/28/08 - In praise of the lead singer

I don't know when the lead singer sans instrument fell out of favor, but I'm just about ready for a serious comeback. The point I think was made, and made well, and probably first by Bob Dylan: you don't need a classically "good" voice to be a good rock vocalist. But Bob illustrated the other side of that coin, namely: sometimes a "good" singer would really, really improve a song. I think specifically of his croaking work on "Lay Lady Lay", which obscure band the Stands turned into a gorgeous pop song merely by subbing in some competent vocals. I pity the poor lady that Dylan tried to convince to get on his brass bed - had she not been able to see his face, she might have assumed she'd been kidnapped by an asthmatic bear cub.

But taking shots at Dylan's voice is too easy, and I do it out of lazy reflex - the man has proven himself to be for the most part an exceptionally expressive vocalist, even if his limitations do rear themselves every once in a while (ok, often). But not every singer/songwriter is on the level of Bob, able to turn a pretty abrasive instrument into a thrilling, expressive one. Sometimes they're just bad singers.

I think the DIY influence of punk and '80s indie rock caused a whole lot of bands to decide that they didn't need a good singer, that the songwriter behind the band could do just fine with his nasal whine/atrocious croak/etc. Some songwriters/band visionaries have great voices, and this works, but some could have really benefited from having some vocal talent behind the mic. And hey, sure, maybe sometimes a band can use the flawed voice of one of the songwriters, but keep a real singer around (see: the Who).

Bands that really could have used/could use a decent lead singer:

1. Dinosaur Jr.
2. Foo Fighters (love Dave Grohl, but he should be the Pete Townshend of this band's vocal output).
3. The Jesus & Mary Chain
4. Imperial Teen
5. Sebadoh
6. Drive-By Truckers (love Patterson Hood and Cooley, but their ranges are both limits on their songwriting ambitions)
7. Jellyfish (nothing ruins power pop like thin, reedy lead vox)
8. Calexico
9. Meat Puppets
10. Steely Dan (had one, got rid of him)
11. Smashing Pumpkins

Bands that have really benefited from a good lead singer:

1. U2
2. Rage Against the Machine
3. Pearl Jam
4. Magnetic Fields (lead singer farming out singing duties)
5. Van Halen
6. Guns N Roses
7. Blur
8. The Allman Bros.

Incomplete lists, both, but I'm ready to see the comeback of the lead singer in all of the bands just now flowering into being.

The trouble is one of range - the limited vocals of a J. Mascis are fine on one song, but they get wearing on an album length. When you've got an Axl Rose or Eddie Vedder, or even Stephen Merritt's stable of singers, to throw around, the songs are capable of being a lot more versatile.