Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Singles Of The Year

Nathan's Single of The Year
Bear (Feat. Michael McDonald), "While You Wait For The Others"
NS: Yes, the original album version of the song is great, but I implore any Grizzly Bear fan to find a version of this song with Michael McDonald on Youtube (it was the B-Side version on the original single). Do not laugh. Did you know that McDonald and Grizzly Bear's music are an almost inhumanly perfect match? You will realize that McDonald's voice, deprived of its usual smooth accompaniment, is a force of nature. That what sounded slightly arch and distanced on the original recording sounds completely emotional and alive. Among other benefits.

Aaron's Single Of The Year
Maxwell, "Pretty Wings"

The notes that open "Pretty Wings," grouped in metallic, rising clusters of four, are musical accompaniment to the Calder-esque mobile that opens the song's video: abstract, but with a powerful sense of melancholy. Maxwell's tale of love lost quickly abandons abstraction, but subtle instrumental touches abound. They are numerous, ingenious, and difficult to describe, dangerously open to that vile epithet smooth, but simply too beautiful for it to stick.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Critical Beatdown Round 3: 2009 Wrap-up

Destroyer, "Bay Of Pigs"
AM: Hard to say what this is, or why Dan Bejar might have undertaken it, though the first line provides a clue. So vastly different from the wooze-pop of his last two albums...and so much worse. The vocals are great, but the song has no kick before the guitar comes in around seven minutes. 2.5/5

NS: Like a lot of 13-minute songs, this one has a lot of chaff, and it takes the beginning in particular a while to get going. Still, there are plenty of good musical ideas which pop up occasionally, and I especially like the apocalyptic imagery, which is evocative and playful in a manner similar to Talking Heads' "Life During Wartime." 3.5/5

DJ Quik & Kurupt, "Nine Times Out Of Ten"
AM: Doomed to be compared to "Grindin," but like that song, damn good. Barely more than Kurupt's tense, terse rhymes and a drum machine, the latter of which practically ruptures space-time. 5/5

NS: This beat is a grower. Augmented by a Neptunes-ish drum pattern and a female vocal sample, Kurupt proves his lyrical worth even as his flow lags somewhat behind. Tests the limits of what I find refreshingly minimal in rap, but still an enjoyable listen. 3/5

Grizzly Bear, "Two Weeks"
AM: I really tried to resist the prim, wussy sounds of Grizzly Bear--hated Yellow House, saw them open a generally boring show. And yet..."Two Weeks." It sounds like a lost Wings single, played at 25 rpm. That's a compliment. 4.5/5

NS: Man, those pianos sound punchy, don't they? Yet another example of Grizzly Bear's inimitable instrumental touch, which finds no equal in any other band. The high vocals kill me every time, and as usual Grizzly Bear's drummer proves his mettle with a gentle instrumental flair unmatched in the business. 4.5/5

Flo Rida, "Right Round"
AM: I'm not sure if there's a rapper out there with less cred than Flo Rida. He leaves no imprint on this song whatsoever. Thankfully Dr. Luke has enough sense to dress up his graft in cool noises. 3/5

NS: Would I have at least enjoyed the sample this song is based on more had I never listened to the original Dead Or Alive song? Would I have liked the Watchmen movie if I hadn't read the original comic? Probably. Doesn't change the fact that awareness of this lazy piece of musical thievery does indeed color my critical judgment. Sorry. 1/5

Drake (Feat. Kanye West, Lil Wayne, and Eminem), "Forever"
AM: I resent Drake--he came from the world of Canadian teen soaps, never really proved himself before superstardom, and seems to be hedging his bets between singing and rapping. Remarkably little gets accomplished in this song's six minutes, unless you count lazy guest verses or faux-epic beats. 2.5/5

NS: The highest compliment I can give this song is that it is indeed a perfectly calibrated companion to the Lebron James documentary it features on. The force and punch of the beat on this song is beyond what popular radio is accustomed to, and I can imagine it becoming a perfect stadium jam. Of the rappers, Kanye is oddly the weakest. 4/5

Wale, "Pretty Girls"
AM: The only song I've heard off Attention Deficit with the horn-assisted smoothness of last year's killer Mixtape About Nothing--it brings back aptly-titled production team Best Kept Secret. Alas, not as lyrically intelligent as MAN's "The Manipulation," but this is a beat made for riding. 4/5

NS: I love this song despite its cruel intentions (essentially, to mock ugly girls at the expense of prettier ones). Horn samples pop up all the time in rap songs these days, but I've never heard a horn sample that sounds like this. Everything about the song, from aforementioned horns to Wale's delivery, is sheer quality. 5/5

Vampire Weekend, "Horchata"
AM: Much better than that other single, though not quite Ezra's guest spot on The Very Best's "Warm Heart Of Africa." Progresses from one nice bit to the next, the jumpy orchestral section being the best. 3/5

NS: I'm not a Vampire Weekend hater by any means, but I have to say that, despite some really good songs, they often indulge in certain musical practices that I find extremely lame. Unfortunately, this song has several of them, chiefly a sensibility that can be described as "overly chipper." 2/5

Fucked Up, "Do They Know It's Christmas?"
AM: If nothing else, proof that FU understand internet-era humor. The cacophony is toned down, but it's pretty fun. My favorite guest is Bob Mould. 3.5/5

NS: Weirdly righteous. I congratulate Fucked Up in finding the hidden awesome core of a song I simply assumed was irredeemable. Fucked Up is a band of many talents. David Cross' line, aping Bono, got a big laugh out of me. Merry Christmas. 4/5

Stay tuned for 2009's final Critical Beatdown, our Single Of The Year nominations.

The Favorite Music of Nathan Sacks, 2009

1. Future Of The Left, Travels With Myself and Another
With harder riffs, a fiercer and more macabre sense of humor, and a singer who possesses the rare gift of turning screams of disgust and anguish into catchy hooks, no album excited or amused me more (check out the conversation about great prison breaks in American film in "Lapsed Catholics"). Funny, provocative and unsettling, this album and its first song, "Arming Eritrea," became the Bible by which I now choose to deal with condescending individuals in D.C.

2. Raekwon, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx II
I've written in-depth about this album before. Suffice to say it more than makes up for its lack of any cohesive musical or narrative structure with sheer artfulness and craftsmanship on the part of Rae, Ghost, Meth, Deck and the rest. Hundreds of beautiful moments, anchored by Rae's streetwise sense of detail and buoyed by the still-fecund mind of the late J. Dilla.

3. Grizzly Bear,
Not a bad song in this collection of sly, virtuosic tone poems, proving that experimental music utilizing devotional church-type harmonies is the kind of gambit that virtually requires repeated listens. Primo art rock, and tuneful, too.

4. Them Crooked Vultures,
Them Crooked Vultures
I've written about this album in-depth as well. I can't account for its middling reception from critics, except to note that most of them seem to think that Homme doesn't have the chops or the songwriting skills to merit playing with a rhythm section of Grohl/Jones' caliber. These critics are stupid and completely, 100% wrong about Homme. This album is an intense, enormously rewarding journey in the most classic rock sense.

5. Tyondai Braxton, Central Market
This experimental, orchestral solo work from Battles' leader basically jettisons whatever remote pop instincts that group had in favor of more virtuosic passages of avant-garde noise. I enjoyed it enormously in the same way I enjoy a lot of Frank Zappa's longer fusion works. Not necessarily tunes that are containable in one's head, but eminently listenable if you are in the mood. If you're a fan of 10+ minute songs, this has one very good one.

6. The Almighty Defenders,
The Almighty Defenders
What looks to be a one-off collaboration between the Black Lips and the King Khan & BBQ Show has yielded this enormously impressive album. These soul-influenced lo-fi punkers and their songs of heartbreak and transcendence make this album the best of the year to drink alone to.

7. The xx,
This band gets my award for "debut album of the year that doesn't sound at all like a debut album." Smartly sequenced and immaculately produced, this album proves that all you need to carry a tune is a boy, a girl, and a bass, and everything else is merely timbre.

8. Passion Pit, Manners
I understand that this album is basically the aural equivalent of high-sugar junk food, and some of the songs are only a few D.O.C. samples away from becoming straight jock jams. Still, as I always say, one can't argue with effectiveness. The opening 25 seconds of "Little Secrets"? There's nothing that came out this year that gets me more pumped.

9. Morrissey,
Years Of Refusal
Morrissey's solo work this decade has yielded a lot of quality returns, but a lot of it still has the sort of jangle-by-numbers quality that has marred (heh heh) most of his post-Smiths oeuvre. Though Jeff Beck's work on "Black Cloud" is lax and "I'm Throwing My Arms Around Paris" is too damn short, this album may be the best and most creative he's ever made, and the final two tracks in particular may be his best solo songwriting, ever.

10. Wale,
Attention Deficit
Not a perfect album, unfortunately, which may make it sound like I am trying to affect some annoying sort of critical hometown boosterism now that I have relocated. I assure you this is not the case. Wale's flow isn't 100% spot-on, but he is one of the most intelligent and likable new rappers out there, and I guarantee you no other rap album sounds like this: if you want to know what D.C. contributes to the rap game sonics-wise, and you need an introduction, best start here. There will be more to come.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Aaron's Favorites, 2009

1. Dinosaur Jr, Farm
At first the songs seemed too long, the lyrics lazy even by Mascis standards. But beneath his slacker veneer, J has always been a perfectionist, a weird visionary for a sugary thrash no other band even dares attempt. Turns out the extended jams and warm production just give Dinosaur--as good a trio as has ever lumbered--more room to soar.

2. The-Dream, Love Vs. Money
An update of Dirty Mind in the post-crunk era. Unlike the Purple One, Dream isn't a game-changer, but he and collaborator Tricky Stewart's lavish, gorgeous songwriting--interlocking beds of synths, loverman coos, gang chants, and elastic rhythms--is miles ahead of the competition.

3. Wye Oak, The Knot
Wye Oak's 2007 debut was an often beautiful, occasionally awkward shotgun marriage of folk and shoegaze. The Baltimore duo's second disc tends towards the latter, and goes places the band simply couldn't two years ago. Jenn Wasner's plaintive vocals still keep both feet on the ground. Her guitar's mournful too, but the fucking thing sounds massive.

4. Morrissey, Years Of Refusal
"All you need is me," our hero intones, brashly. I believe him. As a vocalist, he's untouchable--operatic, masculine, nimble--and his band powers through the album's fantastic rockers and only slightly less-great ballads with aplomb. Oscar Wilde's favorite album of 2009.

5. Amadou and Mariam, Welcome To Mali
Vocalist/guitarist/songwriter Amadou Bagayoko and his vocalist/songwriter wife Mariam write songs completely their own--ringing and clear, with melodies at once accessible and elusive. An all-world set of collaborators help bring their visions to vivid life.

6. Sonic Youth, The Eternal
No new tricks here, but SY sound fiercer than they have in ages. Thurston Moore and Lee Ronaldo's fuzz-squall alchemy continues, with some typically cool-sounding vocals on top.

7. Raekwon, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, Part II
Unlike many of his peers, Rae has never been a natural on the mic. But what he lacks in the agility department he makes up with pure grit. OB4CL2 is miles better than its predecessor, just harder, with better beats, ace guest rappers, and some brutal OG wisdom.

8. Flaming Lips, Embryonic
Mindfuck music, in the form of an unexpected and very welcome left turn. Shit, it's not anthemic even once! While one of your speakers spools out bad-trip synths, the other blasts nightmare bass and spider guitar.

9. The xx, The xx
The sound of slow burn. These absurdly young upstarts make lust music, somehow synthesizing the aims of Sparhawk and Timbaland while infusing their songs with a potent negative space.

10. Camera Obscura, My Maudlin Career
Expert indie-pop. Tracyanne and Co. have spent as much time studying the C86 songbook as their purely heart-pained colleagues, but The Obscura have evolved into a symphonic, even muscular mope-rock outfit.

Monday, December 21, 2009

What a good decade!

Although certainly not without its share of terrorist attacks, mass murder, wars, odd and regrettable personal experiences etc., the '00s was a great time to be aware of America and its continuing cultural dominance. I've worked on and off on an end-of-decade album list that still poses certain problems, and I have an end-of-year list in the pipeline, but I thought I'd share some general thoughts about what I have enjoyed during the last ten years, because there certainly is a lot.

I may add more to this as I see fit.

Album of the Decade: At The Drive-In, Relationship Of Command
Runners Up: Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!, Jay Reatard, Blood Visions
Song Of The Decade: Of Montreal, "Disconnect the Dots" (the only song I played so many times in college that someone in the dorm next to me knocked on my door to make sure I was okay).
Runners Up: Outkast, "Hey Ya," The Magnetic Fields, "I Thought You Were My Boyfriend," Ted Leo & The Pharmacists, "Shake The Sheets"
Band of the Decade: Liars
Runners Up: Animal Collective, Radiohead, McLusky
Comeback of the Decade: Mission Of Burma
Disappointing Comeback of the Decade: The Pixies
Guitarist of the Decade: Josh Homme, Queens of the Stone Age
Bassist of the Decade: Brian Gibson, Lightning Bolt
Drummer of the Decade: Brian Chase, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Songwriter of the Decade: Jarvis Cocker
Renaissance Man: Nick Cave (five albums, a screenplay, several soundtracks, a novel, etc.)
Music Documentary of the Decade: Heima
Awesomely Apropos Soundtrack Moment in a Movie: Clive Owen meets his crazy-rich autocrat brother in Children Of Men to the tune of King Crimson's "In The Court of the Crimson King" (also notable for said brother recreating the cover to Pink Floyd's Animals outside his window).
Movie of the Decade: (tie) Nobody Knows (2004) and In The Loop (2009) [have not seen Avatar yet, however]
Director of the Decade: Clint Eastwood
Rap Act of the Decade: Outkast
Rap Album of the Decade: (tie) Only Built 4 Cuban Linx II and Deltron 3030
Loudest Band: Guitar Wolf
Best Canadian Collective: Fucked Up
Best Supergroup: (tie) Them Crooked Vultures and the Good, the Bad and the Queen
Worst Supergroup: (tie) Damnocracy and Chickenfoot
Appalling Rock Critic Moment of the Decade: Sasha Frere-Jones accuses Stephin Merritt of being a racist for saying in an interview that he liked some of the music in Song of the South.
Runners Up: Kelefa Sanneh popularizes a new straw man, the "rockist"; Jann Wenner shills for Mick Jagger's solo album Goddess in the Doorway.
Worst Anti-War Song of the Decade/Ever: The Rolling Stones, "Sweet Neo-Con"
Best Song Over 30 Minutes Long: Liars, "This Dust Makes That Mud"
Guitar Solo of the Decade: Dinosaur Jr., "Pick Me Up"
Radiohead Song of the Decade: "There There" (by a nose!)
Inexplicable Cultural Phenomena of the Decade: (tie) Lady Gaga, Black-Eyed Peas, American Idol, Fallout Boy-style punk, anything Cyrus or Jonas-related, the continued relevance of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the iPod, autotune, the Killers, etc. etc. ad infinitum
Best Song On Chinese Democracy: "Better"
Saddest Thing to Happen in 2001: (tie) 9/11; Fugazi go on indefinite hiatus
Most Apparent Instance of Rolling Stone acting toolish: (tie) the reality show I'm From Rolling Stone; Jann Wenner opens upscale restaurants with no live music.
Biggest Bid For Posthumous Relevance: J. Dilla
Fiction Book of the Decade: Generosity: An Enhancement by Richard Powers
Video Game of the Decade: Half-Life 2
Album of the Next Decade I Am Most Excited About: Dr. Dre, Detox
Douchebag of the Decade: Matt Friedberger
Beck Song of the Decade: "Girl"
Song That I Will Be Obsessed With For the Foreseeable Future: Bat For Lashes, "Daniel"
Greatest Rock/Film Criticism of the Decade: Steely Dan's Walter Becker and Donald Fagen on Wes Anderson's soundtrack choices.
Lyrical Maxim That Will Define the Decade: "My lifestyle/determines my deathstyle"--Metallica

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Stick With Me Baby, Stick With Me Anyhow

Back in October, Nathan suggested that I do a track-by-track take on Bob Dylan's unexpected Christmas album. I've taken the liberty of trashing Bob's other 2009 disc, Together Through Life, three separate times on this blog.

But I resisted for other reasons. Not only did Christmas In The Heart seem like a clunker, but I despise Christmas music. Treacly, staid, and, worst of all, explicitly Christian, Xmas tunes have never been my thing. In fact, to my knowledge the only good Christmas-themed songs ever recorded are Prince's "Another Lonley Christmas," Dump's brilliant cover of that song, and "Jesus" by Big Star. Those, and a great SNL sketch featuring comedic genius Horatio Sanz. Other listenable savior-related songs, like Modest Mouse's "Jesus Christ Was An Only Child," Slayer's "Jesus Saves," and The Birthday Party's "Big-Jesus-Trash-Can," among others, seem not to be sincerely about the birth of God's son (Jesus, not Nas).

But here I am with some free time on a Saturday, and an irrepressible curiosity about what a Christmas album from the Hibbing Jew sounds like. Is it a Tarantula-level disaster, or Masked And Anonymous-level disaster? Or, as the reviews suggest, actually OK? I only intend to listen to this thing more than once, so let's see:

1. Here Come Santa Claus
Dylan sounds cheery enough, backed by an all-male choir. The music is pretty much what you'd expect--part Americana, part pre-Elivs pop. The tune, rendered with a light skiffle, goes by in a pleasant 2:42. Not bad, not bad at all.

2. Do You Hear What I Hear?
Bob groans his way through this one, an odd pairing of syrupy strings, chime-y piano, and slide guitar. I'm hearing typical Jack Frost production so far--clean, upfront, but perhaps too perfect to give Dylan's band room to breathe. I'm digging the percussion.

3. Winter Wonderland
A female chorus sings the title hook, and the song's light Americana swirls around like tiny snowflakes in a snowglobe. Tidy, but oddly charming. A far cry from the dark, caustic songs on Together Through Life.

4. Hark The Herald Angels Sing
Looks like there's no originals here, and the song selection is pretty standard. But you expected that. This is a showpiece for Dylan's voice. People shit on it all the time, but I appreciate his command of bleating and crooning--it's occasionally a thing of beauty (listen to Modern Times' "Workingman's Blues #2"). Not so here.

5. I'll Be Home For Christmas
These songs are all rather sparse, but the production and backup vocals (the latter are rare on Dylan records) make them seem otherwise. They are also mercifully short. They don't overstay their welcome one bit--Dylan goes through 15 songs in just over 40 minutes. This one sounds a lot like the previous song, so that's why I don't feel like describing it.

6. Little Drummer Boy
Among the more execrable songs in the cannon of execrable Christmas music. Dylan's take at least has a cool, reverb-y guitar going for it, so I can pretend I'm listening to Tom Verlaine's "Cold Irons Bound" cover.

7. Christmas Blues
Dylan's take on Christmas is so out of touch with how modern Americans celebrate the holiday--from his album cover on down--you wonder why he bothered recording this at all. He's still on Tin Pan Alley in the era of the information superhighway, and even his sad Christmas song reflects that. A harmonica shows up, briefly.

8. O' Come All Ye Faithful (Adeste Fideles)
This one's gained some notoriety its first verse, which is in Latin. It's totally in keeping with the classicist spirit with the album, though, and I suppose it's become notable for a Latin verse because there's little else of interest here.

9. Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas
I swear I hear a Hawaiian inflection in some of the guitars on Heart, even on this song. I'm really impressed with the vocals on the album--Dylan has taken a genre that seems to play to his weaknesses, i.e. his lack of range, but he consistently nails these songs. The longest song on the album at barely over four minutes, it also goes by fast enough, even with the slow tempo.

10. Must Be Santa
The record's barnstormer, previously reviewed in a Critical Beatdown. The accordion reminds me of Together Through Life, but the band really barrels through this. The call and response is great--add another point to my previous score.

11. Silver Bells
The response to this album has been really interesting, because it deprives critics of their usual talking points. Dylan didn't write a single lyric for the album, and it exists outside of what I'll unhelpfully term "Dylan continuity." It's an aberration--a bizarre genre album that doesn't fit into the narrative about Dylan's work from Time Out Of Mind through Together Through Life. I suspect it will be remembered as what it is, a curio, sometimes entertaining but never great. We get not a whit of insight into The Man. But whatever it is, please don't ask yourself if he's fucking with us. He's always fucking with us.*

"Silver Bells" blows, by the way.

12. First Noel
This sucks too. Extremely corny, and I now want to recant my praise for Dylan's vocals. Strings, female choir, organ, blah, blah, blah.

13. Christmas Island
This song actually is Hawaiian-themed. I imagine Hawaiin's non-Christian indigenous inhabitants would take umbrage with their homeland being called "Christmas Island." But then the tune's inoffensive, which is not to say good.

14. Christmas Song
The last four songs have really taken a nosedive, quality-wise. "Song" superficially resembles the gentler moments on Modern Times and "Love & Theft", but lacks the wizened perspective of a song like "Mississippi." I guess no Christmas album would be complete without "Christmas Song," but my life will never be complete while I'm listening to it.

15. O' Little Town Of Bethlehem

Unbearably slow, sparse but without a hint of intimacy. The album--better than expected--ends after five shit songs in a row. Maybe I'll play this for my Mom sometime.

So 2009 has come and almost gone, and seen Dylan release two mediocre albums, something he hasn't done in the same calendar year since 1973. Still, I'm glad Bob's around, even if he's not.

*Fucking with us even though he's donating proceeds from Christmas In The Heart to charity in perpetuity. A nice gesture, but it doesn't mean he's not fucking with us. He's always fucking with us.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Tweeting in Cyberspace

In a two-pronged effort to increase this blog's traffic beyond the same two or three people and establish (carnal) relations with Roger Ebert, we now have an official Twitter account, which can seen here. Twitter being the obvious mixed blessing that it is, we're going to use this mainly as a means of finding like-minded (read: Gaga hatin') bloggers and expanding our "brand," if you will. And as with most Twitter accounts, you will want to check this one at least ten times a day in order to keep up with whatever we happen to be thinking about at the moment. And follow us or tell others to do so in your stead!

Lead us into Web 3.0, Mistah F.A.B.!

Friday, November 27, 2009

Great Guitar Solos #3: The Band, "King Harvest (Has Surely Come)" (Robbie Robertson)

Available on: The Band (1969)
Solo bits: 2:52-3:39

If Robbie Robertson comes to be considered the guitar hero he deserves to be and "King Harvest (Has Surely Come)" becomes his representative track, it will be in spite of Robertson's protests. A guitarist/songwriter who could play loosely with economic use of character while retaining an encyclopedic knowledge of all the disparate elements that would play a roll in rock music (i.e. country, blues, gospel), he makes perfect sense as a foil for someone like Bob Dylan, whom he played with during his fabled electric tour of the mid-60s. During this time, as Robertson put it, the chances to show off were plentiful, and Robertson's chops were such that he would have made mincemeat of any normal front man who was not Dylan. When the Band finally broke with Dylan and set up shop in Big Pink, Robertson made the crucial decision of jettisoning guitar solos altogether in favor of a type of songwriting that would sound homier and more authentic than what he observed in the San Francisco psychedelic scene. Nothing wrong with that, really, but it also could have been the catalyst in making Robertson the de facto leader of a group whose original strength was that they were all powerfully capable musicians and songwriters. Maybe if Robertson was less disturbed by the sort of guitar playing being utilized by Jefferson Airplane and the like, he wouldn't have gotten burned out as fast. But that's a subject for another thesis.

The Band is, in case you didn't know, an amazing band. Truly, one of the best this world has ever seen and ever will see. In fact, I wager I listen to their first three albums Music From Big Pink, The Band, and Stage Fright more than I have any Dylan album, which I realize puts me into a minority. People talk about the Beatles as an insane cross-section of talented individuals, but in terms of sheer musicality and individuality, it's difficult to beat Robertson, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, and Levon fucking Helm. In addition, they are also one of the coolest- looking bands. Anyway, Robertson must have realized this early on, that no matter how much he worked, he still wouldn't be considered the Band leader. So, he had to assert his dominance in other ways. He wrote most of the songs, and slowly phased out the songwriting contributions of his fellow band members, for instance (even though he couldn't sing). However, this obviously wasn't good enough, as Robertson was merely considered to be doing his part in what was still ostensibly a democracy: though he wrote all the songs, he didn't sing lead on any of them (unlike the rest of them, sans Hudson), and he didn't play anything besides guitar. He was a good-looking guy, but nothing compared to the paragon of manliness that is Levon Helm (again, I'm editorializing). He compensated by bogarting all of Scorsese's interview time in The Last Waltz and placing himself squarely in the middle of the stage, even though, I repeat, he didn't sing. This is obviously a man in a conscious, anxious battle with his own ego.

I say all this because that's exactly what the guitar solo at the end of "King Harvest (Has Surely Come)" sounds like--that is, a battle with ego. Throughout the entirety of The Band, wonderful album as it is, there is a conspicuous absence of solos, although Robertson offers several brilliant lead lines in songs like "Up On Cripple Creek" and "When You Awake" in lieu of this. On the last two songs, Robertson breaks this formula. "The Unfaithful Servant" has an acoustic solo at the end. It's not particularly groundbreaking, but it's bracing enough and serves as a nice counterpoint to Danko's affected aches. "King Harvest (Has Surely Come)," the following song, is another creature entirely. This is a mode of songwriting that has no serious precedent as far as I can tell, especially in how the chorus is so spare and minimal as opposed to the verses. I have a theory that this song may have influenced the Pixies in some way. I know everyone talks about how they were the first to employ the quiet verse/loud chorus formula, but these same people fail to mention how Frank Black flipped that structure around in songs like "No. 13 Baby," where Santiago stops playing and all that's left is Kim Deal's bass and Dave Lovering's drums. Obviously this is far more harmonically complex and utilizes a lot of techniques the Pixies never used, but the point still stands.

"King Harvest (Has Surely Come)" is one of those storytelling songs Robertson was so fond of in those days. This one is about a farmer who has a tough time making it but survives due to his union membership, or something. Richard Manuel, the late pianist, sings it at a lower register than what we are used to. Levon Helm contributes some brilliant drumming, particularly during the chorus when he pauses and then taps the high-hat for a snaky-sounding effect. Hudson is somewhere in the back, pumping on the organ. Rick Danko plays the bass, clipped and deliberate as usual. But it's Robertson who is the obvious center of the song. Throughout, he plays guitar fills that almost seem like the start of solos, but then retreats. It's a great moment when the chorus comes along and Robertson reduces his playing to single notes, in tandem with Danko; it's the sort of moment where he deliberately underplays for fear of breaking into self-indulgence.

The solo itself is one of those album-capping solos that I am particularly fond of. Yet even here, Robertson deliberately underplays. Given where it's placed in the song and how Robertson has set up the dynamics so far, this makes perfect sense. It's the kind of solo that's meant to sound quiet, but that doesn't mean it's any less intense. In fact, Robertson ratchets up the tension by trying to maintain that sort of feeling instead of going into all sorts of crazy directions. You can tell that some notes are barely being plucked, but it never seems like he's playing a wrong note. In interviews, Robertson has noted how hard it was to play a solo like that, which depends both on perfect timing and an insane sense of dynamics, and it seems here that he found the perfect medium between showing off his blooze skills from the Dylan days and acting like the socially responsible songwriter he obviously wants to be. Therein lies the tension, and therein lies the success of the solo.

I particularly like the end, where the instruments start picking up again, and Robertson plays two notes in tandem before breaking off into more familiar territory. The song ends so abruptly that you wonder where Robertson could have gone from there, but something tells that this isn't a situation, like "Little Wing," where the song is simply the victim of bad editing. Everything has a purpose, and it makes you appreciate the minute beforehand that much more.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Critical Beatdown: Round Two

Gucci Mane feat. Plies, "Wasted"
NS: I was originally embarrassed to note that I only know Gucci Mane through a verse he did on Big Boi's beautiful "Shine Blockas," but this anodyne example of shallow, corporate rap doesn't make me think I've missed that much. The beat is okay, the kind of thing Lil Wayne could leverage into something better on his next mixtape. 2/5

AM: A rarity--an ode to getting drunk as dumb and fun as the real thing. Attention minors: there is no such thing as a "Ghetto Public Service Announcement," so take Gucci's pronouncements with a grain of salt, or at least a glass of water. 4/5

Beach House, "Norway"

NS: Beach House could be blamed for not showing much depth in their trafficking of woozy soundscapes, but one can't argue with effective wooze, accompanied this time by vocals that really showcase the best of both singers. Top-notch songsmithing. 4/5

AM: Beach House always sounded out-of-focus, but now they're gone blissfully out-of-tune. If Vic and Alex are going to keep releasing killer first singles like this, I'm going to continue buying their albums the day they come out. 4.5/5

Califone, "Funeral Singers"
NS: Nothing Califone does these days seems as cool as Heron King Blues, but that's okay. The singer-songwriter angle is redeemed, as in the Beach House song, with odd male-female harmonizing, plus some gnarled electric guitar. 3.5/5

AM: They sound rootsy, and they sound worn-out. Neil Young this ain't, but Califone prove there's still plenty of gas left in the tank, if a bit of rust around the wheels. 3.5/5

Timbaland Feat. Nelly Furtado & SoShy, "Morning After Dark"
NS: I'm ambivalent about Timbaland's increasingly digitized direction--songs like this don't carry the luster of early work but this certainly deserves to be the biggest thing on the radio when contrasted with the latest Gaga or Cyrus. It's all about the chorus with this one, and it is a lustrous chorus. 3.5/5

AM: Shock Value's embarrassing moments--and they were legion--were redeemed by their creator's bug-eyed sense of humor and talent behind the boards. Here, Timbo autotunes himself beyond recognition and chases trends, rather than creating them. Just generic. 2/5

Bob Dylan, "Must Be Santa"
NS: It surely is predictably embarrassing, but what else can one say? Dylan-the-singer is worse than ever, he's performing a rather chintzy song written by someone else, and his accordion-laden arrangement is a deadly combination of obnoxious and unmemorable. 0.5/5

AM: Gonna be honest: I don't hate this. Dylan, who apparently has been sipping from the same cup as Gucci Mane, blusters his way through a song that, it must be said, has considerably more vigor than the entirety of Together Through Life. He's one of a kind, he can't help it. 2.5/5

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Great Guitar Solos #2: Pavement, "The Hexx" (Stephen Malkmus)

Available On: Terror Twilight (1999)
Solo bits: 3:36-4:28

I like to think that Stephen Malkmus became a great lead guitarist and soloist without even realizing it. In several interviews, particularly in Pavement's early days, Malkmus would talk about how the majority of guitarists he most admired were rhythm guitarists, and he felt his own inner jamminess was unremarkable by comparison. Of course this didn't stop Malkmus from playing extended guitar solos that became longer and more conventional as his career progressed (his recent solo album Real Emotional Trash is the culmination of all these disparate Dead and Television influences manifesting themselves in long, awesome yet empty guitar solos). This mirrored Pavement's rise from Fall-influenced indie stalwart to modern classic rockers. Malkmus was always in charge of Pavement (really, someone try to convince me that Spiral Stairs did anything), and by acting as the lead singer, guitarist, and songwriter, he set himself up as a Hendrix type as opposed to, say, a Mark E. Smith.

Malkmus was also, of course, way too laconic and guarded onstage to act as if he was the guitar genius that he was. As a result, he's not generally thought of as a guitar hero, at least not compared to other 90's stalwarts like Kurt Cobain, Graham Coxon, Jonny Greenwood, Kevin Shields, Doug Martsch, and a few others. What these guitarists all have in common is that they all tried in different ways to act like they weren't guitar heroes--but really, they probably knew they were, and took their role as an opportunity to fuck with audience expectations of guitar heroics. In terms of sheer ability, Malkmus could play as well as any of them, save perhaps Coxon and Greenwood. There are many cases of Malkmus' guitar genius at work on even the earliest of Pavement albums, but for me his crowning achievement is the second-to-last song on their last album Terror Twilight, which is entitled "The Hexx."

"The Hexx" stands out, as the title might suggest, as Pavement's spookiest song, a swirling dirge with an odd riff at the center that transforms into a righteous if obscure chorus. Placed as it is on Terror Twilight, it has an odd cleansing effect, given how tuneful and even pleasant the rest of the album sounds (Pavement was in full-fledged pop mode by this point). In fact, I'm surprised that this song even exists, given how puzzling and atonal the main riff is. However, several listens have confirmed to me that it works perfectly within the context of the song, and is in fact a very good example of Malkmus transforming odd noodlings into beautiful songs that automatically strike the listener as classic tunes. This is a gift that few possess.

The song starts out with the aforementioned riff, played by Malkmus, who also starts off singing about "Capistrano swallow" and God swallowing peoples' radars and stuff like that. Eventually the drums and bass kick in, as well as another guitar, although its purpose in the mix is negligible in my opinion until the very end of the song. After working through some very Pavement-sounding lyrics, the riff dissolves into some delicious chord changes, wherein Malkmus aches, "but I...I, I...saw you...reeling in the parking lot," with the "parking lot" part being reinforced by a sharper, more typical riff. After that business is done, Malkmus whispers something that sounds like, "for the pauper's grave," and the chords disappear into the stratosphere, leaving the arch-angular riff to fend for itself again. More nondescript noises are piled on. The drums come back, and finally, out of the ether, Malkmus plays his solo.

The first thing one will notice is that this is a remarkably bluesy solo for a song whose structure seems so ostensibly anti-blues: there's no real tonal center to hold onto, but Malkmus somehow manages to fit in a whole minute of perfectly-controlled blues playing. It sounds like he is playing laconically at first, and he never really gets around to building up speed, but somehow he manages to bypass that and ratchet up the tension simply by playing tiny, perfectly considered groups of notes that never really overlap with each other. Malkmus isn't afraid to wail on the same note over and over, nor is he really concerned with going up and down the fret board. He finds a happy medium, and plays his heart out without coming across as either showy or bored. The end of the solo is really nothing more than an arpeggio that remains constant through the growing sea of noise, and even as it changes around him, he once again finds the tonal center before breaking with it altogether and leading to the triumphal finish.

It's possible with solos like "The Hexx" that you won't really get it the first time you hear it. I know I didn't. It's such a small work of art that it's barely noticeable, especially on an album so full of good moments, but if you pay attention long enough, you see that Malkmus managed to challenge the entire entire idea of what a solo must sound like and where it should fit in, and for this, someone must recognize this beautiful moment for what it is. Listen to it five times in a row, and I guarantee you will know what I mean. Sometimes great expression means facing the challenges your own work faces in a way people won't immediately recognize.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Love It To Death

I was delighted to find this recently, and not because it's especially good. It's a Replacements cover of an Alice Cooper tune, and it literalized a realization that I'd been stumbling towards for the past couple months--that the great Alice Cooper song "I'm Eighteen" provided a blueprint for The Replacements.

I'm no Cooper expert--the early 70's work seems to get love--but I always associated the guy with cheesiness. Cheesy rock songs, cheesy makeup, cheesy movie cameos, cheesy everything. It seemed like an act designed to exploit adolescent boys.

But "Eighteen" is another matter. If you haven't heard it recently, take another listen (this six-minute version is the one you want to hear, and the one I'll discuss). It's a beast of a song. Cooper and guitarists Glen Buxton and Michael Bruce aim for the jugular and annihilate it. The central riff is unreasonably epic, and the wild soloing sounds like an electrical storm. Weather metaphors are all I can come up with to describe the mood--it sounds like clouds scraping the sky, lightning with nowhere to strike.

And Cooper nails the vocals. He doesn't start until almost a minute in, when he begins raging wordlessly. The first line is perfect: "I got to get out of this place." His solution, "running in outer space," isn't great, but then there's no escaping teenage angst when you're in the thick of it. The narrator's embrace of his adolescence--he doesn't just like being eighteen, he loves it--is the most ambiguous lyric, but Cooper's delivery strongly suggests that this embrace is a misanthropic one. Indeed, in spite of its attendant problems, the hormones that dominate an eighteen year-old boy do make him feel very much alive. And "I'm Eighteen" crackles with uncommon vitality, all these years later.

Fans of Cooper's contemporaries Big Star would do well to give "I'm Eighteen" a listen. The song turns Chilton and Bell's youthful melancholy inside out, lashing out with no clear target. Chilton only ever sounded like a threat to himself, but Cooper sounds like a menace to society.

Both artists were working against the grain, however, by retaining as their subject matter the lives of American teenagers. By the early 1970's most of rock and roll had left behind the puppy love and heartbreak of doo-wop and early 60's pop in favor of more "mature" fare. Think about The Beatles: everything about the band had transformed radically between Please Please Me and Abbey Road, and the Fab Four were a bellwether throughout their career.* The years after their break-up saw a proliferation of singer-songwriters and politically conscious R&B stars, now somewhat freer to release what they wanted. In any case, a lot of the albums we valorize from that era sound like they were made for adults.

Alice Cooper and Big Star weren't making music for adults. Still, their songwriting benefited from the growing up of rock. Both bands' visions of adolescence were grim--a wounded rage, in Cooper's case, a deep melancholy, in Big Star's--in a way that songs rarely had been.

Both of these qualities would later manifest themselves in Paul Westerberg's songwriting (with a big assist, one presumes, from Peter Jesperson). The Cooper connection is undeniable. The wildcat guitar on "I'm Eighteen" actually sounds like Bob Stinson, and may well have influenced him. The lyrics on "Eighteen" too sound like a direct predecessor to The Replacements. One of the reasons I've dismissed Cooper is that he frequently sounds like he's playacting. Not so here: he plays his part in "Eighteen" with such conviction and reckless abandon that I'm convinced The Birthday Party were listening. But that's off-topic. I hear something of the confrontational but hurt "Unsatsified" in "Eighteen." As a lyricist, Westerberg followed Chilton much more vocally, but it's Cooper who animates his earlier, angrier work.

Paul Westerberg would also, of course, pen some startlingly original and true rock and roll, but everything has roots. The real-time molotov cocktail of "I'm Eighteen" is one root. It's also a fantastic song in its own right.

*The mere existence of James Brown disproves this assertion, but it's true enough to function as an example here

We're Gonna Groove

There's no way to preface this except thusly: prepare for a massive JPJ geek-out.

Two momentous events this coming Tuesday: one, of course, being the publication of Sarah Palin's Going Rogue, the former vice presidential candidate's memoir of early years spent siphoning superpowers from her fellow mutants. More importantly, the Rockaliser-endorsed supergroup Them Crooked Vultures, a band that does not deny the existence of evolution, will drop their eponymous debut officially, a week after the entire album was leaked by the band and put on Youtube.

I've been listening to the album quite a lot in the last week, but I've yet to try and review the thing because I am honestly too overwhelmed. I also feel as if I lack a certain critical distance, seeing as I dearly, dearly love all the members of this band and was fairly certain that they would pull together a monster of an album. I was right.

Supergroups have a sketchy history, to say the least: for every awesome act like the Good, the Bad, and the Queen, you get a Chickenfoot or a Velvet Revolver. It goes without saying that even the most talented musicians won't necessarily gel together as a group, but reading about Them Crooked Vultures, it seemed to me to be very unlikely that they wouldn't sound awesome together. Obviously Grohl and Homme already work supremely well together (QOTSA was never better than in Songs For The Deaf). Grohl is the biggest power-hitter since Bonham passed away (and they seriously should have gotten him to play at the Led Zeppelin reunion this past year instead of Bonham's underwhelming son Jason). Homme, meanwhile, is the master of low-key (and low-C) riff blues, with a sense of rhythm and style that puts him more or less ahead of every other hard rock guitarist this decade. And John Paul Jones is, of course, the kind of guy who makes already good music seem severely better. So the fact that this album is good is not shocking.

Forgive me if I devolve into Jack Black-style paroxysms and start exhorting about "the redeeming power of ROCK!" or whatever. When you come across tunes as good as this, you want to share them with the world.

1. "No One Loves Me And Neither Do I." Grohl begins the album with a deceptively laid-back beat, accompanied by some gnarly but by no means extraordinary slide work (think "In My Time of Dying"). The first three minutes continue this rather boilerplate hard-blues pattern, with Homme singing typical nonsense. Then, at roughly 2:45, the song morphs into what basically amounts to headbanger crack. It's not the most smooth of transitions, but when the change comes, the musicians coil together like three snakes in a big snake orgy, and the groove is basically unstoppable. It evolves from slightly flaccid into a straight barnstormer, with the last 20 seconds really standing out.

2. "Mind Eraser, No Chaser." Yeah, there are a lot of song titles like these. This was one of the songs that was leaked a bit earlier than the rest of the album, and it provides a good introduction to Them Crooked Vultures' more rhythmically tricky MO. John Paul Jones' bass line sounds at first almost assembly-line snug, but when the chorus happens, he is as game as the rest of the band in going in and out of lockstep. I should admit that I won't concentrate on Homme's lyrics very much because they are his usual sort of discombobulated come-ons that lack any sort of internal structure. Nevertheless, I like his singing, and I was pleased to hear Grohl back him up on vocals during the chorus, something that I don't think happened at all in Songs For The Deaf (for shame!). The electronic effects in the middle don't work so well, but love the oompah number at the end.

3. "New Fang." This was one of the songs we discussed in our first "Critical Beatdown" column. I gave it 4.5 stars at the time, and while I'll stick with that rating, I think the song works far, far better as an album track than a standalone single. The tricked-out slide guitar works through the bridges like a knife through butter, but Homme's fat rhythm-playing is in its way even more impressive. And again, JPJ is just a machine on tracks like this.

4. "Dead End Friends." Whereas this song at least sounds the most like a single, while at the same time it's also the most Queensy. If you want to classify any of these songs to who is obviously the most dominant instrumental force, this one is unquestionably Homme's. It's still limber and intelligent rock, which probably deserves to be fleshed out more. Maybe I'm just so overwhelmed by the tricky rhythms and relentless Grohl-pummeling that songs like these seem less impressive by comparison.

5. "Elephants." Apt song title. Insane knife-edge rhythms and riffs, all threatening to come apart at any moment (and probably would with musicians of lesser caliber). None of the song is as exciting as the first thirty seconds or so, making this kind of the inverse, dynamically, of "No One Loves Me And Neither Do I." Still, we get the first of what are about five extremely Zeppelin-sounding moments, with what I guess qualifies as the chorus, utilizing some beautiful descending harmonies courtesy of Homme. Then it picks up again, and ends in a rather perfect, adrenaline-soaked denouement.

6. "Scumbag Blues." Nominally a blues piece by any standard, with a chorus that sounds like a 4/4 remix of the Mission: Impossible theme, "Scumbag Blues" is such a musically tense enterprise that I can imagine casual Zeppelin or Nirvana fans finding this suffocating by comparison. The aforementioned chorus helps, but damn if those three people aren't just clearly and cogently in sync, in the best possible way. With time changes that out-math even Zeppelin's most complicated stuff, it's even made more bizarre by the fact that John Paul Jones decides to add a "Trampled Underfoot"-style funk keyboard solo in the middle of this punishing riffery. Does it work? Absolutely. But it's also kind of terrifying.

7. "Bandoliers." Along with "Dead End Friends," this is the most straight-ahead "modern rock" one will find on the album. It is strongly, strongly reminiscent of a certain breed of post-punk that became popular in the mid-'00s--think the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Interpol for the most obvious comparisons. The only difference being that the former never had a bassist and the latter never had a bassist who went all over the fret board as Jones does here. There's some very nice Dave Grohl moments toward the minute, where he gets some time to trick up the beat and really nail home some grooves. Jones once again proves his magic with some keyboard work similar to "In The Evening" (we shall see its like again).

8. "Reptiles." If "No One Loves Me And Neither Do I" was crack for headbangers, "Reptiles" is just crack for Zeppelin fans in general. Particularly the type of fan who listens to Presence and In Through the Out Door on a regular basis (me). Part "Travelin' Riverside Blues" and part "South Bound Saurez" (I know, hardly the most indicative tracks, but you seriously have to hear it), "Reptiles" is awash in Jimmy Page chimy slide overdubs and a Bonham-esque steadiness that evokes his playing in "The Ocean." And the chorus is simply one of the best on the album, a slide-infused pastoral chugger with sweet harmonies, and Jones basically mangling his bass. I believe there is also some backwards guitar somewhere in here. The one thing that isn't very Zeppelin-sounding is Homme's vocals, which are actually kind of diabolical and scary (we shall see their like again, as well).

9. "Interlude With Ludes." This is, as it suggests, a brief respite from eight tracks of power-trio punishment. Although Grohl provides some very spacey and avant-garde drum fills, the music is obviously a John Paul Jones keyboard creation, and while it's not something I would probably listen to on its own, it is sublime as far as "interludes" go. If you can handle how obviously silly the song is deliberately meant to be, you're more likely to appreciate the "la la la" vocals and Jones' tricked-out keytar.

10. "Warsaw Or The First Breath You Take After You Give Up." At first it sounds like a more typical Queens (or even Kyuss) riff-grinder, with Homme up to his usual detuned tricks. But the chorus is something different. There's the falsettos, for one thing, but John Paul Jones seems to be behind an orchestra of noises, in addition to his note-perfect bass-playing. I'm afraid I'm already forgetting my rule of not gushing too much, but I defy you to just concentrate on John Paul Jones, to appreciate how dynamic and yet how stealthy he is. I always knew this guy was one of the best, but maybe he truly deserves to be ranked on top. Also notable: a longer-than-usual solo from Homme, which is more of an excuse for the three of them to stretch out their time-keeping skills simultaneously. 99% of the time, this is surely sketchy, but with these three, it's a foregone conclusion that this will work. This is a song with a breakdown that truly rules.

11. "Caligulove." Despite the awesome title, the song isn't quite up to that standard. Whereas most other tracks are a bit more fleet-footed, this is, well, traditional. Which is not to say that there aren't some odd dynamic shifts and instrumental passages. Here, we get what sounds like a marimba, plus some more eastern-infused keyboard playing from Mr. Jones. I would guess Caligula would find a song like "Scumbag Blues" more to his flavor. This is less a song than a collection of cool parts that at times are ill-fitting.

12. "Gunman." Grohl, Homme and Jones may have invented a whole new genre of malevolent Halloween party blues. With a riff that is aptly described by Youtube user "MetroidOOx" as "wuh wo wow wu waga waga wau woo!", this is the kind of groove that is often described by respectable critics as "shit-hot." Grohl gets a brilliant moment to himself, keeping time aided by what seems like electronically-treated drums straight out his contributions to Nine Inch Nails. But it's really about the awesome detuned riffing, one of Homme's best pure guitar moments ever. I have no idea how he would play this live--it sounds like some phaser/wah-wah action--but I would really, really like to see it.

13. "Spinning In Daffodils." First, Jones breaks out a romantic-flavored piano opening that absolutely rips (as we should know by now he always does), which segues into some Dave Grohl tom-playing that sounds briefly like Bonham's intro to "In The Evening." The rest of the song is basically a mighty Queens-type riff. Queens of the Stone Age albums almost always end with these slower blues-riff scorchers, and this album isn't different. I must say, part of the awesomeness of this song has to do with the fact that Homme is singing a song about dancing in daffodils, and it makes me want to do the same. It does get kind of repetitive after a while. Nevertheless: beautiful final 30 seconds.

Overall, I give this album an A+ for effort, and an A+ for execution! I know it must seem like I am extremely easy to please, but I would suggest holding your criticisms until you actually listen to the album. Which, again, comes out on Tuesday. I expect a litany of "No One Loves Me And Neither Do I"-related neck injuries by this time next week.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Oops. Realized today that, in a logic-defying movie, Rolling Stone awarded U2's pro-footwear 2009 album No Line On The Horizon five stars. That brings the number of five-star 00's albums up to twelve, not eleven. It also means that RS doled out fifteen stars to the awful triumvirate of Goddess In The Doorway, Working On A Dream, and Horizon. Oops!

In other news, simulacrum of a rock band Aerosmith announced today that Steven Tyler has quit. Let's hope the rest of the band follows suit. It appears that Honkin' On Bobo will stand as Aerosmith's swan song...

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Great Guitar Solos #1: Funkadelic, "Maggot Brain" (Eddie Hazel)

In an effort to both consolidate my writing and add more content to this blog, I'm going to occasionally copy blog posts from a different project I was working on that involved talking about guitar solos I liked a lot. I think it's legal, since I wrote it in the first place. Over the next couple of weeks I'll unload what I have so far, and hopefully in the future I will keep this as a recurring feature (unless it is of interest to no one).

My first post was on "Maggot Brain." You'll excuse the length--the writing here was culled from a longer piece written my freshman year of college when I had this idea to write a full-length biography of Eddie Hazel. Didn't get past the prognosticating stage but I did end up writing a lot of stuff, some of which is below.

By the way, Eddie's mother Grace Cook died a few months ago. One can't help but play "Maggot Brain" in a different light now.
Available on: Maggot Brain (1971)
Solo Bits: 1:15-10:19
Making "Maggot Brain" my inaugural choice, my candidate for solo par excellence, was not as hard a decision as I thought it might be. In actuality, it was the only logical place I could start, for several reasons. First and primary among them is that I know this song (as well as the rest of the album) inside and out as a result of a failed attempt at writing a biography of Eddie Hazel a few years back. Also, it is a very long and intense solo that's well-regarded by guitarists of all stripes, particularly by Hendrix acolytes, 80's indie rockers (it was once covered by J. Mascis & The Fog with Mike Watt), and alternative jam bands (Ween wrote a tribute to Hazel entitled "A Tear For Eddie," that did a decent job of imitating the hypnotic qualities of Hazel's playing). It's also probably singlehandedly responsible for Hazel's reputation, which is unfair considering his playing was always excellent, but at least it's the kind of thing that gets Funkadelic noticed in outlets like Rolling Stone. And what's more, the song is nothing more than extended guitar solo, bookended by brief monologues from George Clinton.

It's kind of a famous story in P-funk lore, and, for once, the evidence shows that the incident in question probably happened: after working out the basic idea for the track, George Clinton told Eddie Hazel to "play like your mama just died," and he did exactly that. For the ten minutes and eighteen seconds that constitute this track, Eddie Hazel attacks, commands, and distorts one's emotions in a way only few artists can claim to do. Throughout the rest of his recording career, going through his solo album Games, Dames, & Guitar Things (which I recommend if you can get a copy from Rhino), he would contribute uniformly excellent guitar leads, alternately dazzling in their technical ability and emotionally taxing, yet in the end it all comes down to "Maggot Brain." Few artists have been so defined by one book, or one painting, or one movie, let alone one ten-minute electric guitar solo. It is his ultimate triumph and, considering his later output, his tragedy.

The only instruments heard on this song, other than guitar, are a muted keyboard and an occasional, reverb-heavy snare hit. As far as I know, it is as austere a recording as had been yet attempted by George Clinton, a far cry from the sort of work he would do later, with 40+ members on stage at any given time, including the guy that works the flashlight. When Eddie's guitar comes in at 1:14, it sounds tired, dismissive. He plays small clusters of notes, leaving gaps where one recognizes how empty the recording sounds without his guitar front and center. He starts playing faster, slowly piling on the effects. Within the next five minutes he goes through all the stages of grieving for his lost mother: anger, denial, helplessness, acceptance. His guitar sounds, at different times, like it's crying, screaming, talking, laughing. At points he starts playing incredibly fast clusters of notes, as if losing control of his mind or his ability to live, but then pulls back, anchoring what few notes he plays in a wash of reverb. Like Hendrix, Hazel's playing runs counter to the notion of masturbatory satisfaction that came to typify guitarists of succeeding decades (even the good ones). It sounds like a genuine attempt at exorcism.

The little echoes you hear (or at least think you hear), make you feel things long after they have actually been played, but then at a certain point the other instruments drop out completely. Eddie keeps playing, employing more of what would stereotypically be called "funk" playing (palm-muting, rigorous rhythyms), which is funny given that he has no rhythm section to work off of. The result is an emotional lull. He's not hitting the high notes he normally hits, which means maybe he's in the middle of pondering something, or maybe he's in denial. In any case, in a jarring move, the back instruments come back, and Eddie is back where he started.

During the early reign of Funkadelic, this would be Eddie's solo showcase onstage, where he would emerge from a manufactured purple fog dressed in some garish pimp's outfit with a Les Paul guitar, letting all the manufactured pain bubble for the crowd to drink up. He would look intently at his guitar and move his head, cringing and bobbing along with what he was playing. Who knows what was going through his head when he played it? I was never able to see him play the song live, so I will never know firsthand what sort of reactions he could wring out of people by playing certain notes, but I know he could make people cry, and there's a short list of guitarists who could do that.

Critics of popular music tend to throw around the word "virtuoso" pretty liberally when referring to musical artists of a particular expressive power. Certainly Eddie Hazel is often tagged with this admittedly well-intentioned compliment, but doing so does a disservice to the amount of craft and imagination he was able to put into his playing. Eddie Hazel was no "virtuoso," at least not by the terms that virtuosity is often defined (like most rhythm & blues guitarists of the time, he was not one to notate his music, nor was he likely to play lightning fast scalar solos or indulge in fret-tapping)--he was simply a blues guitarist, and the more one looks at the Steve Vais and Joe Satrianis of the world, the more it becomes abundantly clear that blues playing has nothing to do with virtuosity. I don't think I'm generalizing when I say that electric blues playing has never been about playing fast or effortlessly--on the contrary, it's about striving, sweating, desperately searching for some sort of truth or happiness in the form of a well-placed note, upon which the blues player realizes that this note is far from perfect, and the journey must continue. The tone of melancholy that pervade 99% of guitar blues is, at its basest level, the guitarist struggling to achieve transcendence, possibly as a way of communicating with his or her audience, possibly as a way of keeping the hell hound temporarily off the trail.

I run the risk of not being sufficiently specific. On a purely technical level, and Hazel is as perfect an example as one can think of, blues guitarists often use fairly simple patterns and often involve the same notes played over and over again. What gives the guitar a special edge over many blues instruments is that, as a string instrument, it allows the player to bend the string and therefore slightly change the pitch, which simultaneously provides the player with two advantages: first, it can give the note a more interesting "crying" tone, moving the pitch back and forth as if it was a weeping baby, and second, it allows the guitarist to cover up for any mistake by bending the note to a more pleasing pitch. From the earliest delta blues records to Led Zeppelin, even untrained ears can pick up moments on studio albums where the guitarist flubs a note and quickly covers it up by bending it or moving it back to the original note.

Professional musicians wouldn't like to admit it, but it's pretty easy for even a novice guitarist to play a convincingly "bluesy" solo if he sticks to the same three or four notes in a particular pattern (I submit Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Freebird" as the absolute nadir of bendy three-note solos). But in the end, it's not about that. Great blues guitarists have personality and vocabulary that they make their own--they might play the same three notes over and over, but it's three notes that no one else would play in that particular way at that particular time. There's a reason one can tell that it's clearly Hazel and not fellow Funkadelic guitarist Michael Hampton playing the solo on, say, "Red Hot Mama," and it comes down to the fact that listeners learn to notice the particular choices that great, unique guitarists can make, even on the dime.

Eddie Hazel was a master and should continue to be respected as such. His later drug addiction didn't really do him any favors, and I think he could have exceeded "Maggot Brain" had he not become so dependent, but who knows? "Maggot Brain" is as austere, thoughtful, and emotionally riveting as any extended solo I have ever heard.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Critical Beatdown: Round One

A new feature, indebted to The Singles Jukebox (not a dating service) and Kool Keith.

Them Crooked Vultures, "New Fang"
AM: There is something crooked and predatory about this loud and limber jam. The participants bring their A-Games, but it's not quite the sum of Zeppelin, Nirvana, and Queens of the Stone Age. 4/5

NS: Might sound cluttered at first, but several listens yield a blocky groove of many variable genius parts. Oddly Franz Ferdinand-sounding (especially the fat guitar sounds), this song proves once again that the magnificent Dave Grohl is never better than behind the kit. Love the slide/strings/whatever that noise is. I want more. 4.5/5

Grant Hart, "School Buses Are For Children"
AM: Astoundingly similar to Ziggy-era Bowie, with a low-budget baroque kinda sound. It could sound like shit and it'd still make me happy Grant's around, but it's better than that. 3.5/5

NS: Firmly ensconced at this point as the fifth best songwriter to come out of Minnesota, Hart chooses to indulge his more introspective singer-songwriter chops. The best thing about this song for me is Hart's keenly affecting wail, virtually unchanged since the Husker days, but the song's whole lilt is supremely pleasant and uplifting. 4/5

Charlotte Gainsbourg and Beck, "IRM"
AM: Unlike Gainsbourg's recent film work, "IRM" is actually quite tasteful, perhaps too polite. Nathan's right to draw a comparison with the digital ramshackle of Beck's The Information, though this is tidied up. On initial listens I thought "IRM" had the sterility of its titular subject, now I think I mistook that for the rhythm. 3/5

NS: You can tell Beck (especially Beck-circa-2007) is all over this track. Gainsbourg's vocals are less effective, but at least they aren't textbook throwback French pop sort of coos, which one might expect from the kid of Serge Gainsbourg. Extra points for the drums, but this still doesn't feel like a completed song. 2.5/5

Girls, "Lust For Life"
AM: A youthful, adrenalized jolt that marks the entrance of a rock and roll true believer. Like if Jason Pierce spent more time in the sun. 5/5

NS: I'm predisposed towards blocking out these sorts of songs redolent of pastoral indie-ness, so maybe I'm missing out on a great pop song under all this. I was personally pretty bored by the guitar-work until maybe the 52-second mark. Songs like this are liable to make me really sad, because I'm pretty sure whatever Girls is trying to talk about is something I've never experienced and never will. 2.5/5

Miley Cyrus, "Party In The U.S.A."
AM: "Party In The U.S.A.," more than the Bush presidency, makes me ashamed to be an American. Trite, pap-rock, focus-grouped bullshit--all accurate descriptors, but they fail to penetrate the horror of the song's maddening buoyancy. 0/5

NS: While I appreciate Ms. Cyrus' willingness to try and mend a bitterly divided nation, I am completely incapable of relating to even a word of what she's talking about (something about culture shock and visiting LA). The worst thing about this song is the awful, awful canned drums that seem straight out of the dregs of the 80s. The paeans to Jay-Z/Britney hurt my ears. 1/5

Brother Ali, "The Preacher"
AM: Rap's foremost humanist takes a break to remind you he's a also a next-level MC. A retread of "Whatcha Got," but who cares? It's Ant who ups his game this time. 4/5

NS: While the uncharacteristically straightforward horns 'n' guitars courtesy of Ant are certainly cool, Brother Ali's lyrical abilities can't help but command attention. Just your good old-fashioned soul-classic rock-rap mishmash, with the Brother taking it to the next level. This is the one I'll probably end up listening to the most. 5/5

Monday, October 26, 2009

A list of this summer's jams, formerly on the side bar. No plans to start a Fall Traxxx or Winter Soundz at the moment. Go find your own music.

In no real order:
  • "If It's True" Yo La Tengo
  • "Auditorium" Mos Def feat. Slick Rick
  • "The Sky Children" Kaledioscope
  • "I Am Leaving" Blue Roses
  • "I Want For Nothing" Wye Oak
  • "What You Do" Chrisette Michele
  • "Walkabout" Atlas Sound
  • "Dream City" Free Energy
  • "VCR" The xx
  • "Panis Et Circensis" Os Mutantes
  • "The Sweetest Thing" Camera Obscura
  • "I Feel A Change Comin' On" Bob Dylan
  • "Take You Home 2 My Mama" The-Dream
  • "One Wing" Wilco
  • "Hang Fire" The Rolling Stones
  • "If It Were Left Up To Me" Sly and the Family Stone
  • "Madonna Of The Wasps" Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians
  • "Pretty Wings" Maxwell
  • "Over It" Dinosaur Jr
Which is your favorite? Mine is "Pretty Wings." A new Rockaliser feature is in the pipeline...

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Three Years (and Six Verses) in the Life of Benjamin Andre

Let's take it back to '03. Still reeling from that whole 9/11 predicament, our country was finding ever newer and more fractious ways of wasting time. Based on pretenses that once seemed reasonable, the US began its occupation of Iraq. Scientists finished completely mapping the human genome. Peter Jackson finished the third installment of a fantasy series that collectively was only a few hours shy, length-wise, of The Cure For Insomnia. And, for a while, the best-selling album in America was an album marketed as an Outkast release. In reality, it was two solo albums sold together, each generating multiple hit singles that satisfied consumers and critics alike. It was called Speakerboxx/The Love Below, and it was the album that got my tenth-grade guitar-head into rap.

Many arguments persist about which solo disc was better: generally, the fans of Outkast's more traditional southern-fried gangsta sound preferred Big Boi's Speakerboxx, while a more esoteric group of Prince fans, soccer moms, emo kids and vegetarians preferred The Love Below. I happen to like both albums just fine, and I acknowledge that there is a fair amount of filler on each, but I must give the edge to Three Stacks in this case. Dre's first single was a loopy pop number, with no rapping, played in 10/4 time. It also made a legitimate claim to being possibly the greatest song ever written. The rest of the album, though not as good, is deft and entertaining, and more importantly diverse: he was doing things with jazz, musical numbers, singer/songwriter material, and whatever else, all previously unseen in hip-hop.

One thing Andre didn't do much on that album, however, was rap. This led some to believe that his emcee abilities were lagging behind his partner's. This perception was reinforced after the release of the soundtrack to Idlewild, which was unfairly savaged as a poor followup to Speakerboxx/The Love Below that went further in capitalizing on Andre's mounting interest in classic blues, jazz and ragtime. Too bad, because Idlewild has a number of classic tracks on it (and the movie, by the way, is in its way far more watchable than Purple Rain). There were cries that Outkast had gone from being respectable elders of the rap community to outsized, self-important artistes, and a fair amount of the criticism seemed to stem from the fact that there wasn't enough rapping.

Now we are approaching the end of the decade, and Outkast has yet to release another album. The plan has been to release two more solo albums independently before moving on to the next proper Outkast release, but Big Boi's Sir Luscious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty has been in the works for at least two years and still has yet to be released (which is a shame: the tracks that have leaked so far have suggested that this album may well end up a masterpiece, easily besting almost anything on Speakerboxx). What is Andre to do in his spare time?

The short answer is that he has been completely blowing away the competition on other artists' tracks. Since 2006, there has been perhaps no rapper who has proven such severe lyrical dominance without releasing a single album of solo track. Mr. 3000 has done the impossible by establishing himself as the emcee to beat in a profession that tends to discard its elders quickly. For your benefit, I thought I would provide a list of guest verses Andre 3000 has done, accompanied by some comments.

UGK, "Int'l Players Anthem." This is probably the most high-profile release that Dre has yet guested on, and it also may be the track with the stiffest competition: his partner Big Boi is present, as are Bun B and the late Pimp C. I've written about how much I like this track before, but one thing I didn't mention is how successful the rappers are at carving out their own, minute-long niches. In reverse-order, Big Boi indulges his surreal side over a stripped-down bass and drum groove, the sound of a cash register, and some 'Kastian slowed vocals; Bun B offers his own characteristic paean to settle down with a girl over the manic repetition of synth handclaps; Pimp C describes some of the more lucrative aspects of the pimping game as the drum beat kicks in. And yet none of them can top the moment when Dre begins "So..." and the Willie Hutch sample kicks in, sans drums. I'm not a rapper, so I'm not really aware of how difficult it would be to rap without a beat, but Andre's tone and delivery strike me even more with the limited accompaniment. "Int'l Players Anthem" is a song about marriage, of course, specifically Andre 3000's impending nuptials, and simply the ability to talk interestingly about an institution without resorting to gloss and sentiment is a revelatory act in itself. He projects a humorous tone of humility about his predicament ("I'm no island/peninsula maybe") and explains in lucid terms why marriage can be a serious and important thing, even to self-described "players" ("I'd hate to see you frown but I'd rather see her smiling") and ends on a note rarely addressed in music, literature or film: as "spaceships don't come equipped with rearview mirrors" so does the marriage ceremony seem set up to foreshadow eventual heartbreak. Armed with this knowledge, Andre imagines himself in the company of friends, supporting his decision but telling him, "keep your heart, Three Stacks, keep your heart/Damn, these girls are smart, Three Stacks, these girls are smart. Play your your part." In a little over a minute, Dre spits at least four or five phrases that are deeply intelligent, original and well-written. It's not just great rapping, it's a great essay on love, commitment and fidelity.

Big Boi, "Royal Flush." This was one of the earliest leaked tracks off Luscious Left Foot, and one of the most refreshingly minimal. With Big Boi taking the lead this time and Raekwon following, one would think that the anxiety of influence generated by the "Skew It On The Bar-B" team would be unbearable. And yet once again Dre finds a way to turn the song on its head. It should be added that Big Boi and Raekwon's verses are also really, really good: Big shares his thoughts on American foreign policy and suggest relocating to Atlantis, while Rae, understated as always, returns to the familiar subject of crack dealing. But 3000 proves to be on a whole different level, and it's obvious that his partners understood that, because his verse gets more running time than the previous two combined. He takes time warming up, offering a series of blank portraits ("As a king standing on his terrace/while his partner shooting up at the rifleman") before offering advice to "Live life like there is no tomorrow/and if one come then that's the motto." It's one of those verses where the rapper keeps topping himself in terms of memorable catchphrases, reaching an almost feverish level of ingenuity. Dre drops lines both amusing ("Crack and I have a lot in common/we both came up in the 80s and we keep the base pumpin'") and devastating ("I thought the name of the game was to have a better life/I guess it ain't, what a shame"), and he ably diagnoses the fractured career aspirations of many young black Americans ("Dare make an honest living or make a crooked killing/Or do a bit of both until you're holding on a million?"). The track ends flippantly: "you do the hokie-pokie and you turn your life around." Throughout it all, Dre's voice remains calm and collected, almost journalistic, refusing to romanticize those who choose lives of crime or those who choose otherwise.

John Legend, "Green Light." This is one of those songs that begs multiple interpretations. On the surface, it seems to be about John Legend at a party, imploring some woman to give him the "green light" to take her home. Another scenario, strongly suggested by this video, can alternately be conjectured. That is, that Andre 3000 is giving John Legend the "green light" to temporarily relinquish his role as a smooth-piano cheese merchant and attempt something a bit more unorthodox and cool. In fact, the whole tenor of the video (which I strongly suggest you watch) is that Legend is a complete milquetoast until he borrows some of Dre's credibility. Further research corroborates my interpretation: Andre 3000 was quoted as saying, "This is going to be a surprise for a lot of John Legend fans, because it is a lot more upbeat than John is [...] this is a cool John Legend song." And, at the end of "Green Light," you can hear Three Stacks commenting that "sometimes you got to step out from behind the piano. Even Stevie Wonder got down sometimes" (question: when?). I do agree with Andre that this is high-quality music. Legend's boring lounge-croon is still a factor, but the spacy keyboard arrangements are really catchy and the beat (as De La Soul would say) is slammin'. Legend sings the verses and chorus, but Dre gets the opportunity to sing a bridge or two, and I was reminded of how much I like Andre 3000 as a singer, despite his lack of technical prowess in that department. Taken together, the song is pure sugar-pop euphoria, and Dre's brief verse at the end contributes to the track's sense of ease and well-being. In this instance, the subject of the verse closely mirrors that of the song. He describes encountering resistance upon asking to take a woman home: "What kind of a girl do you think that I are?/The kind that you meet in a bar?/You think you can get whatever you want 'cause you're some kind of star?" To which the answer is, "No, I'm a comet." 3000's demeanor breeches new levels of good-natured flirting, perhaps reaching its zenith in the line "I hope you're more like Anita Baker than Robin Givens." My only problem with the track is that Legend starts singing again as Dre is finishing up, so it's difficult to hear his denouement. Still, it's hard to listen to this and not be smiling.

DJ Drama, "The Art of Storytellin' Part 4." Similar to previous installments of "The Art of Storytellin'," this track is basically the two members of Outkast pontificating on social issues of the day. Chris Rock once said, in praising Lauryn Hill, that "people don't have a problem with conscious rap; they have a problem with conscious beats," a comment that made me reflect on Outkast's role as rap group that, uniquely, manages to write commercially-successful music with a conscience. In interviews, Dre has made comments to the effect that Outkast's music reflects a diversity that is equal parts party, gangsta, and conscious rap, and that it was important to him that one area wasn't disproportionately represented (indeed, one of the reasons that "B.O.B" remains as good as it is is because Outkast managed to mix and match such elements, sometimes in the span of a few sentences). I like this song a lot because it begins with Andre offering a critique of "Make It Rain" culture, to which he argues thusly (this deserves to be quoted at length):
I'm like why? The world needs sun
The hood needs funds, there's a war going on
And half the battle is guns
How dare I throw it on the floor, when people are poor?
So I write like Edgar Allan to restore, got a cord?
Umbilical attached to a place they can't afford.
Obviously, a lot of the value here is in the delivery, especially the way Andre enunciates "the world needs sun, the hood needs funds," etc. The whole thing, however, is just as vivid on paper, a brilliant example of narrative-derived rap. Drawing the line between rap star decadence, urban poverty, and American war culture? That would be something most rappers would only be able to do in twice as many lines. With Andre, it's just the beginning. The rest of the track follows this route, with Andre even offering a mild rebuke of his own behavior, as the disconnect between the life he currently lives and the people he left behind grows in metaphoric intensity. The rest of the track, I hate to say, is kind of a letdown.

Fonzworth Bentley, "Everybody." This is by far the worst tune that Andre has been associated with in recent years. You may remember Fonzworth as one of the more high-profile gofers in the rap community; he also made a memorable appearance in the video for "The Way You Move." Unfortunately, I don't think anyone was saving their best beats for Puff Daddy's personal valet, who also happens to be a very bad rapper. Kanye West features, oddly, not providing a verse but rather singing the hook, which everyone knows by now is a bad idea. Andre is more of a welcome relief here than a lyrical force, but there are a few good moments, most revolving around whatever "shorty" Fonzworth was directed crude and unimaginative innuendos toward earlier. I like the space after the line "Your granny must be Navajo," for instance. Still, this is a weak track in most senses.

Devin The Dude, "What a Job." This track, which also features Snoop Dogg, is perhaps too smooth for its own good. Or at least it would require quite a collection of emcees to make up for the limp musical arrangement. Which it definitely has. In fact, Snoop may have contributed better material than Andre. There is a very "Outkast" sounding moment, I'm not sure how to explain it, when a chorus starts straight out of "Ms. Jackson" provides accompaniment. The best thing about the song as a whole is its subject matter: the "job" in the title refers to the rapping profession, and messrs. Dogg, Dude and 3000 have plenty of reasons for liking their profession. The most commonly mentioned is how much weed they get to smoke. Andre, on the other hand, talks about spending all night working on lyrics, brainstorming ideas, and dealing with a culture that likes to illegally procure his hard work. But the best lines are below:
See, we do it for the boy that graduated
That looked you in your eyes real tough and said 'preciate it
And that he wouldn't have made it if it wasn't for your CD number 9
And he's standing with his baby momma Kiki and she's crying,
Talking about, that they used to get high to me in high school
And they used to make love to me in college
Then they told me about their first date, listenin' to my tunes
And he liked her fingernail polish
I say, hate to cut you off but I gotta go
I wish you could tell me mo' but I'm off to the studio
Gotta write tonight
Hey, can you put us in your raps? I don't see why not.
Andre goes from railing against supporters of file-sharing (a well-worn subject) to offering a symbolic compromise: the people to whom the music mattered most are honored by the artist himself, who considers them the primary reason for why his job gives him so much pleasure. It's heartening to see that as a reason, in addition to the normally-stated copious weed, money, hos, etc. Sentiments like this can be expressed badly (we can all think about terrible songs about "doing it for the fans") but Andre succeeds because he keeps things specific.

Speaking personally, if someone were to come up to me and state that he or she "got high to me in high school," I would view that as just about the most moving and life-affirming thing anyone could possibly say. I think.