Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Critical Beatdown: Round 6

The Black Keys, "Tighten Up"
NS: You can make or break a Black Keys song based on the quality of its central riff, and in the case of "Tighten Up" it is a good one. Far bluesier than anything the White Stripes have done in a long time and a lot lighter as well, this is a good track that reminds me what I once liked about the Black Keys: a punk-filtered bluesiness as authentic as it is catchy. 4/5

AM: Muscle Shoals guitar stabs, soulful white blues vocals, percussion nearly as wild as a certain Archie Bell and the Drells classic; I didn't realize The Keys had this in them. Although the song ends on a detour less exciting than the first 2:30, I can safely say I never thought I'd live in an age when Dan Auerbach's songwriting outpaced Jack White's. 4/5

The Hold Steady, "Hurricane J"
NS: I've never been much of a fan of the Hold Steady, but to my mind this song constitutes at least a slight improvement over what I've heard in the past. The lyrics don't make me cringe with their Springsteenian exactness, and Finn's songwriting has a lot of forward momentum, even if the melodies are typically generic. However, like most Hold Steady songs, it can't hold my interest for two minutes, let alone three. 2/5

AM: Who fucking mastered this? Every Hold Steady album sounds twice as compressed as the one before it. We're now at iteration eight or so of the good chick in bad company theme, and this fan is getting a bit tired. "Hurricane J" almost bored me, but Craig and crew make midtempo sound better than it should. 4/5

Orianthi, "According To You"
NS: Hearing those lead metal breaks force their way into this saccharine, hyper-calculated Disney-rock song that can best be described as "Avril-lite" has been one of the most unpleasant experiences of my 2010. Michael Jackson's former guitarist is a perfect storm of generic voice plus generic playing ability, saddled with an arrangement as plain and uninspiring as they come. To paraphrase her deceased boss: This Is Shit. 0/5

AM: "According To You" features unusually wild fretwork, at least by mall-punk standards, by the young singer herself. The lyrics could use a shot of grrrl power--don't let those boys define you, O--but it sure beats "Telephone." 2.5/5

She & Him, "In The Sun"
NS: Maybe I'm in a bad mood today, but boy, this song pushes all the wrong buttons. Zooey Deschanel has been in some good movies, but her voice is the lifeless instrument upon which this uninspired mish-mash of generic indie sounds hinges upon, and it has the musical staying power of airport jamz. If stuff like Sufjan Stevens' orchestrations and epic singalongs are your thing, then you might like this. I'm already asleep trying to describe it. 1/5

AM: No one asked for a peppy take on Cat Power, but M. Ward and Z. Deschanel deliver. Or maybe they decided an annoying version of El Perro Del Mar was in order. I'm not sure what they were thinking, but if the lyrics are any indication, they weren't thinking very hard. 2/5

Drake feat. The-Dream, "Shut It Down"
NS: Drake and The-Dream are two of pop music's preeminent maximalists: both of their productions are characterized by deep, epic synth lines and echo-laden drums. So it's sort of surprising how flimsy this is. It sounds indulgent and dirge-y at first, and only towards the very end does it progress in an interesting manner. Drake is not as good a singer as he is a rapper; this is even more obvious when he trades lines with The-Dream. 2/5

AM: Astute Critical Beatdown readers may have noticed me slowly warming to Drake, and I'm always game for some Dream. Producers Noah "40" Shebib and Omen lay down a slow, intergalactic soulfulness, and the principals coo words of devotion, as if to each other. Beautiful stuff. 4.5/5

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Some Kind Of Mixture

From: Noah

i really like some of it is great!...cuz ive never heard anything like it...but yea i dont really like the songs where albarn just wails to sad music


Monday, Mar 22 5:34 PM

Having just clipped twenty cat toenails, I was unhappy about everything, and not thinking about the end of M.A.R.C.H. A surprise text from my younger brother, on the topic of the new Gorillaz album Plastic Beach, and the ensuing e-conversation, brightened my mood considerably.

Noah and I share certain tastes in music: we both like the Wu-Tang Clan and White Stripes, for instance. But more often than not, our tastes diverge, even on artists with a lot in common: Noah loves Esham's KKKill The Fetus, whereas I much prefer Dr. Octagonecologyst. But his grossly misspelled texts got me to thinking, and I decided to close out the month with a track-by-track look--this blog's sixth!--at Plastic Beach. I invite Rockaliser's Damon Albarn expert, and anyone else with an opinion, to weigh in in the comments section about the album, which I just saw for sale at Whole Foods.

1. Orchestral Intro (feat. Sinfonia ViVA)
Something that sounds a lot like a film score, performed by a real orchestra. The mood is forlorn, and the wave-crashing introduces a nautical theme that will continue to confuse, but at barley a minute, there's not much to discuss here.

2. Welcome To The World Of The Plastic Beach (feat. Snoop Dogg and Hypnotic Brass Ensemble)
Commencing with an 8-horn pile-up, and then a pulsating synth sound that plays for most of the song. The structure seems unusual--Snoop comes in and drops a single line, waits while the song stokes itself into a neon frenzy, and returns a minute later. The production is fantastic, with elements constantly coming in and out of the mix, but a consistent, deeply digital funkiness. Damon Albarn could make a career as an avant-rap producer, if this song is any indication. But I can't say enough about the Boss Dogg's performance. As always, he's preternaturally calm, but he owns this beat, and his sparse, free-associative lines make his presence less incongruous. Probably the best thing Snoop's done since 2007, if not 2004. Since I enjoy rating things, I will give this song a 5/5.

3. White Flag (feat. Kano, Bashy, & The Lebanese National Orchestra for Oriental Arabic Music)
Another orchestra, another shanty (though not shabby) intro. The LNOfOAM do their thing for about a minute, and then a colorful SNES beat takes over. The manic bloops never achieve a coherent flow, and while Brit rappers Kano and Bashy team-tag respectably, they sound a bit lost. Eventually the strings come back, this time with the beat, but "White Flag" pales compared to what came before it. 3/5

4. Rhinestone Eyes
Presumably what Noah meant by "wails to sad music." The first time we've heard Albarn's untreated voice (he's in "Plastic Beach" very briefly). Damon must own closets of vintage synths, and on this song he'll have four or so going at once. The song picks up power and some menacing vibes as it progresses, with tension building between his monochrome intonations and the dark sounds that surround him. 4/5

5. Stylo (feat. Bobby Womack and Mos Def)
"Rhinestone Eyes," as it turns out, is fodder for the truly apocalyptic "Stylo." An unforgiving bass pattern dominates this song, and while the vocal performances are secondary, they all succeed in different ways. Mos Def, who's beadth of musical interests rival Albarn's, is a natural collaborator, and his fuzzy raps are as blunt as the bass. Womack is the more interesting choice, and his powerful, throaty words are nearly as intense as the notes which threaten to engulf him. Albarn sings about overloads, but the bass here dominates in every way, sounding like a reccord put on repeat shortly before the apocalypse, still playing in the absence of anyone to hear it. 4/5

6. Superfast Jellyfish (feat. Gruff Rhys and De La Soul)
There's absolutely no reason a transition from "Stylo" to the jokey "Superfast Jellyfish" should work, but the humor and art-jingle angle work wonders. A song with more of the spirit of Three Feet High And Rising than most of what De La have done since--I could hardly give a higher compliment. Any track with the line "All hail king Neptune and his water breathers/No snail thing too quick for his water feeders" rules in my book. 4.5/5

7. Empire Ants (feat. Little Dragon)
This song also starts out as a sad-music-wail number, and Albarn sounds genuinely weary in the song's first half. The song transforms into a glacier-cool dance number halfway through, with Little Dragon vocalist Yukimi Nagano providing a nice foil to Dame. Little separates her voice from Albarn's, in fact, aside from the fact that she's a woman and slightly more emphatic in her phrasing, but the slight differences make for a Janus-faced song, each half gaining something from the other. 4.5/5

8. Glitter Freeze (feat. Mark E Smith)
Eternal curmudgeon Mark E Smith--one of the most surprising cameos--blathers to introduce this one. This song, too, goes the synthy endtimes route, and lord knows it has a great title, but there's nothing of interest going on. Mark utters maybe 10 words, but "Glitter Freeze" sounds like it could soundtrack a montage in a robot anime. 1.5/5

9. Some Kind Of Nature (feat. Lou Reed)
Lou Reed gives the absolute shabbiest performance I've ever herad--in stark contrast to a backing chorus of Albarns--but there's something fantastic going on here. I hear a distinct echo of the Velvets in the jaunty piano, but it's transported into Albarn's version of the present, with a punchy drum machine, several supporting synthesizers, and chopped and screwed Lou vocals. Simple pleasures, to be sure, but lovely ones. 4.5/5

10. On Melancholy Hill
"definatly one of the best," wrote Noah, and I don't disagree. I'm not the first person to note similarities to "Waterloo Sunset"--one of rock's perfect songs, and a favorite of Albarn's--and a shared wistfulness is undeniable. Yet I hear more in common with "This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)." Like that Talking Heads classic, "Melancholy Hill" thrives on simplicity: nothing more than a handful of well-placed notes and the momentum to last four minutes. Unlike the antisocial "Waterloo Sunset," these are love songs, confused ones, maybe, but songs whose stories are told not just in their lyrics, but their joyful melodies. 5/5

11. Broken
Noah's criticism becomes more relevant with the slow "Broken." The wall of synths--including one that sounds like a coyote's whistle--and Albarn's eternally subdued vocals aren't thrilling, but the pieces all fit, and at least Damon isn't wailing about his personal problems. 3/5

12. Sweepstakes (feat. Mos Def & Hypnotic Brass Ensemble)
I don't care for this song, and I listened to Tru3 Magic all the way through. The problem isn't Mos Def's performance, but the radio transmitter bleeps that mar the entire song. Things pick up slightly when the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble join in, but I can't help but note that the soulless surroundings drain all traces of Mos' West Indian inflection. I also have no idea what this song is about, moreso than most of the rest. 2.5/5

13. Plastic Beach (feat. Mick Jones & Paul Simonon)
A mean spaghetti Western guitar introduces...a reunion of most of the living Clash?!? It doesn't sound particularly like a Clash song, nor a Morricone one. It does sound glitchy. I hear a bit of island music in the bass, so perhaps Simonon does insinuate his old band in there. 3.5/5

14. To Binge (feat. Little Dragon)
Plastic Beach's nautical-themed songs--and I think this is one--all remind me in a way of Wind Waker--they're out to sea and cartoony, even when melancholy. And they don't particularly sound like the work of a cartoon band. "To Binge" bounces along, somewhat glumly; Albarn outdoes Nagano this time. 3/5

15. Cloud Of Unknowing (feat. Bobby Womack & Sinfonia ViVA)
A short, atmospheric number, with a beautiful performance by Womack, who sounds wizened in that way only an old soul singer can. No percussion, just instruments that hover and give Womack his footing. 4/5

16. Pirate Jet
Wobbly synth, bouncing bloops, stomping synth, multitracked vocals--there's a lot happening on this insistent, dire, and intriguing closer. It all works, and yet at 2:30, the song feels far too short. It leaves you wanting more, but not in a good way. 4/5

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Frank Zappa's Ten Best Albums

I was reading this the other day, and I thought to myself, what other rock artist has the sheer depth of good material to merit a list as diverse as this one? I was thinking David Bowie, but he's only produced, at most, 12 great albums, and my choices would probably be predictable anyway (hint: Never Let Me Down doesn't make it). But then I thought to myself, who can match Dylan in terms of sheer recorded output? Lou Reed, maybe. And Frank Zappa.

Zappa and Dylan share a few defining characteristics: they're iconoclastic, genre-hopping, and not very good singers, plus they love to piss all over that already urine-drenched institution Rock Criticism (something they share with Reed as well, hm...). Upon closer inspection, though, it's easy to tell these were two people, vaguely defined as "pop stars," who nevertheless played wildly different games.

In the case of Zappa, he truly is the closest we've come to a great classical composer-as-rocker, as opposed to being merely a great guitarist or songwriter (let's forget about Roger Waters' operas, for now). The distinction between Zappa and virtually everyone else in the rock guitar game is as clear as day: for Zappa, rock music wasn't a way of life, it was merely incidental to his compositional and performance strategies. Nevertheless, he was also as prolific as they come, and having scoured through most of his repertoire (up to the 80s, honestly), I feel compelled to give my list of


(Note that I am lumping Frank Zappa, the Mothers of Invention, and all variations thereof because I think we can all agree they are all indelibly stamped with the personality of their primary creator.)

"You asshole," you're probably thinking. "Läther doesn't count--Warner Bros. wouldn't abide by Zappa releasing a quadruple album so the songs were split up into four lesser Zappa albums (Zappa In New York, Sleep Dirt, Orchestra Favorites and Studio Tan)." This is true, but it was eventually released the way Zappa intended, and it's as marvelous a 3-hour album as has ever existed, starting with some career-best fusion in "Regyptian Strut," continuing with the beautiful "Broken Hearts Are For Assholes," etc. etc. "The Adventures of Gregory Peccary" is one of his best longer pieces.

2. Zoot Allures
Unlike my No. 1, Zoot is lean and mean in addition to being a powerful experience, a showcase for some of the greatest guitar performances in rock history, including the opening blast of fuzz in "Wind Up Workin' In The Gas Station" and the mighty composition "Black Napkins," featuring fret runs so magnificent that a thousand budding electric guitarists gave up and became yuppies instead.

3. Hot Rats
The most beloved Zappa fusion album is also probably his best. Whenever I feel like having my mind blown, I listen to "Peaches en Regalia," and if for some reason I want to convulse to the guttural meanderings of Captain Beefheart, I sway along to "Willie The Pimp." The longer songs are front-to-back compelling and listenable, with none of the fat of some of Zappa's other fusion releases.

4. Over-Nite Sensation
Although this and Apostrophe (') are basically two parts are what is essentially the same album (so much so that a Classic Albums documentary lumped the two together), I prefer Over-Nite Sensation, slightly, if only because I love album opener "Camarillo Brillo" slightly more than "Don't Eat The Yellow Snow." I find the last minute of "Montana" to be irrationally exuberant, given its subject matter.

5. Freak Out!
For some people, Frank Zappa's first album with the Mothers of Invention will always be his greatest moment as a musician. In terms of weighing great songcraft against audacious experimentation ("Help, I'm A Rock!"), it certainly ranks up there. It's also probably Zappa's funniest album, and it has two of his greatest riff monsters in the form of "Hungry Freaks, Daddy" and the still-relevant "Trouble Every Day."

6. Apostrophe (')
Though, as stated earlier, I generally view this album as basically of a piece with Over-Nite Sensation, it functions as a great listening experience in his own right. The Yellow Snow/Nanook medley is a great three-part suite with wonderful drumming in particular, and the title track is one of the mightiest bass monsters ever concocted (played by Jack Bruce, I believe, whose personality didn't mesh with Zappa's at all).

7. We're Only In It For The Money
The Mothers' third album, which unlike Freak Out! takes quite a few listens to get into, WOIIFTM is still considered the classic anti-hippie polemic, featuring commentary that strikes me as alternately biting and overly simplistic. Nevertheless, it abounds with moments of compositional genius, my personal favorites being "Let's Make the Water Turn Black" and "Harry, You're A Best."

8. Waka/Jawaka
Though it will probably forever be known as Zappa's second-greatest fusion release, the only difference in terms of quality between this and Hot Rats is the lack of an opener as iconic as "Peaches en Regalia." The two shorter, poppier songs are as lovely as anything on Freak Out!, and the final title track begins with a great trumpet-induced frenzy of melody, almost Miles-ish in its exactness. It's one of my favorite moments on any Zappa album.

9. Absolutely Free
Equal parts sonic exploration and complete goof, the Mothers' second album laid out the blueprint for Zappa's future career, oscillating between longer medleys of melodic motifs and shorter, jokier songs (including yet another riff on "Louie, Louie"). I love the lascivious nature of "Why Don'tcha Do Me Right?" and the album includes one of my favorite rave-ups "Invocation & Ritual Dance of the Young Pumpkin."

10. Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar
A niche album to be sure, and a wildly uneven one at that, but if you're willing to sit through a lot to get through to those moments of beauty, this album acts as a great compendium for those wanting to know why Zappa is considered one of the greatest to pick up the guitar. There aren't many guitarists who can play for ten minutes and still remain as fascinating and memorable as they were at the beginning, but Zappa was a man of limitless, effortless skill and imagination.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

"This Sounds A Bit Like Goodbye/In A Way It Is I Guess"

I discovered Big Star when I was 18. Just in time, it seemed to me, before I outgrew the tales of adolescent insecurity and longing on my #1 Record/Radio City CD.

Five years later, and days after the death of Big Star guitarist/songwriter/vocalist Alex Chilton, I've come to appreciate the emotional complexity of Big Star's first two albums, and the supreme melodic gifts of Chilton, which I never expect to outgrow. The group's final album, Third, is a different beast, but ultimately no less true or, in its own way, gorgeous than Big Star's first two.*

Aside from a handful of 12" singles I spun during my college radio days, I don't know much about Chilton's post-Big Star career. Others, I hope, will give his life and work the appraisal it deserves. But the three albums Big Star recorded between 1972 and 1974 deserve to be heard by as many ears as possible. For Big Star's three albums, so different from one another, are linked by two elements: their wonderful, melancholic songwriting and Chilton's absolute honesty as a lyricist. In these qualities, and particularly the latter, Chilton's only real peer, aside from part-time Big Star bandmate Chris Bell, was Neil Young. The two songwriters, in drawing upon different strands of Anglo and American popular music, proved to be almost pathologically honest, desperately following their muses in whatever direction she led them.

This journey is audible on each of Big Star's records. #1 Record is reticent but wide-eyed, with an anthem-filled first side and more reflective second half. That record sold poorly, thanks to inept promotion and record label confusion, and follow up Radio City features an embittered Chilton, wounded and lashing out at the women in his life. After Radio City, also a commercial failure, something in Chilton snapped, and he recorded Third. A major sidestep, sometimes frightening to hear, Third was deemed so commercially unviable that Stax avoided releasing it for four years.

The three records have had long afterlives and became founding documents for generations of power-pop acts. But anyone who's ever loved Big Star knows how deeply personal Chilton's songs felt. Reading the comments on Chilton's obits on Thursday, I was struck by how many days his death ruined, how personal the loss seemed for people who had neither met Chilton nor seen him perform. Many simply quoted Big Star lyrics.

I'm one of those people, and this is my comment. It's hard for me to dispassionately assess the life of a man whose music has meant so much to me. And continues to: the problems that teenagers face never really go away, they just transform. I'm reminded of Roger Ebert's review of Ikiru, one of very few films, he says, that holds the power to change someone's life. Big Star were like that. Their music was so gorgeous, their lyrics so deeply felt, they seemed to come from some part of my own consciousness, and I know I'm not alone in feeling this.

My personal favorite Big Star song is Radio City album closer "I'm In Love With A Girl." In his appreciation of Chilton, Nathan noted how unique and devastating Chilton and Bell's lyrics can be. "I'm In Love With A Girl" expresses a sentiment I've never heard in other pop songs. A song that seems to presage Daniel Johnston and Elliot Smith, it seems relatively simple: just Chilton strumming a sugary guitar strings and singing about his love for a girl. What sets it apart are the three simple verses, and Chilton's vocal performance. The final lyric "I didn't know this could happen to me" is deeply ambiguous--does the narrator celebrate his feelings, or equivocate because he's apprehensive? I've always heard the latter, and it makes the song more heartbreaking than any song with that title has the right to be.

Dozens of such moments populate the Big Star catalog. People who have heard these can attest to the powerful feeling that they provide: that of not being entirely alone. RIP Alex Chilton.

*A fourth album, In Space, arrived bearing the Big Star name in 2005. This album will probably occupy a space in the Big Star canon similar to the one that Squeeze has in the Velvet Underground corpus.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Alex Chilton and the anatomy of "Feel" + "The Ballad of El Goodo"

Upon learning of Alex Chilton's death last night at the age of 59, I assumed that there would be the standard outpouring of love and uncritical devotion from the standard quarters, or the three M's, as I plan to call them: Middle-aged indie rockers, Memphisians, and Miserable teenagers. Apparently he cast a net a bit wider than that, evidenced by the number of trade publications announcing the death of "the lead vocalist of the Box Tops" on their front pages. The Replacements song "Alex Chilton," which is probably as famous and enduring of a musical love letter as any Big Star song, once seemed to be a missive from a parallel universe, wherein "children by the millions sing for Alex Chilton," conjuring ridiculous levels of adoration unthinkable for any modern artist, save maybe Michael Jackson. But...just a few hours ago, Rep. Steve Cohen of Tennessee decided to delay the health care vote an extra two minutes in order to pay tribute to the man (making this probably the first and last time many of these representatives will ever hear the words "indie" or "alternative" in their lives), and the SXSW Festival in Austin will probably be a far more muted event this year, so emotionally pervasive was his effect on musicians and fans of all ages (the reformed Big Star was set to play the festival on Saturday). So maybe this Westerbergian utopia is finally made manifest as it was intended--his death in Memphis, by no means marking a life tragically cut short, could be the catalyst for a groundswell of support and adoration from the millions of children yet to hear his music.

Like Greg, I also started to listen to Chilton's music in high school*, and though I haven't really given it up since, it's hard to come back to these albums without immediately feeling like I'm picking up where I left off at high school, as if those interim years boiling with hardbreak and madness are reduced to a simpler, more reflective period in my life. Big Star still remains emotional music for me, but the kinds of emotions it engenders are rooted firmly in my past, so when I say I'm mourning Alex Chilton I also feel as if I'm mourning the effect such music used to have on me, before I went to college and got more preoccupied with the nonsense all incoming adults must face.

In fact, when I started out listening to Big Star, my immediate reactions were so personalized that I first felt as if the music was some sort of canard, embodying as it seemed to do every single facile and petty emotion that made me the teenager that I was. At first, it made me feel selfish, given the easiness with which Big Star's music seemed to penetrate my adolescent fallacies. Chilton's voice, a tuneful, lilting whine, could be easily appropriated by someone of my limited vocal range; his guitar-playing, an always underrated component of his work, was chimey and complex, rooted in something bluesy and flighty at the same time, and when he felt like it (such as in "O My Soul") he could really turn it into a beautiful second voice.

It's perhaps inappropriate to point out at this moment that Chilton was neither the most prolific or daring of songwriters--his solo work in particular was always spotty, and the Big Star reunion record that came out a few years ago, In Space, was pretty terrible. But in a way that seemed to matter less with Chilton than it did for other artists. I would go after Mick Jagger or Pete Townshend for their lack of interest in putting out new material, but Big Star's moment in the 70s was so defined, so concrete, that I couldn't imagine anyone continuing to write that kind of music well into their 40s or 50s. Not only that: I didn't think I had the emotional facility to listen to any more of that kind of music, at least not without feeling like I was regressing severely.

Why was this? I'm not sure, but I do know that when I first started listening to #1 Record/Radio City, I would rarely make it past the first two songs "Feel" and "The Ballad of El Goodo." I trained myself to restart the CD upon hearing the first rumblings of guitar in "In The Street." For a while, I could never get past those two songs, and I wondered why this would be given the general quality of Big Star's music. Chris Bell's songs, of which "Feel" was one, were great, and in many ways Chilton improved as a musician after that first album, but I couldn't push myself to go further. For a while, those two songs were enough, in fact way more than I was capable of handling.

If you have 7:55 to spare today, I really encourage listening to those two songs in isolation, which each show Chris Bell and Alex Chilton play off the respective strength of each other. Those first descending chromatic notes of "Feel," played on both a chunky electric and (less audible) acoustic guitar, explode into a fiery miasma of bluesy apprehension, with Chilton's voice the anguished instrument overlaying the dramatic instrumentation. What comes after, however, is even more flooring in context: "Feel like I'm dying--never gonna live again." The way Chilton phrases that chorus is the rarest of things in popular music--the most articulate and yet most simple of poetry, inviting readings out of the most simple declarative sentences. I take the line "feel like I'm dying" to not have anything to do with anyone actually close to death, but rather it signifies a mental state all too familiar too anguished teens of all stripes, so unfamiliar with this new idea of having to make choices with permanent ramifications. And this is followed by the admission that the narrator is "never gonna live again," which again doesn't seem to have anything to do with death and more with the idea that we all will spend of the rest of our lives lonely, directionless, and ultimately unfulfilled. These are all sentiments that are heavily implied by an eight-word chorus. And for a teenager, it's about all you need to hear.

"The Ballad of El Goodo," on the other hand, is more specific in this regard, and yet it is somehow just as piercing as a lyrical accompaniment to the most insular among us. It begins: "Years ago my heart was set to live, whoa/I've been trying hard against unbelievable odds." It is completely unlike any opening lyric ever uttered in pop music previously--these aren't sentiments dictated by the rhythm or melody of the song, they're straight out of someone's diary. And then he follows THAT devastating remark with "It gets so hard in times like now to hold on," stretching out the penultimate word in that phrase ("hoooold on") as if he is grasping at something desperate, unattainable. The whole song functions as a series of insights almost too penetrating to bear, and all of this is in addition to a level of songcraft previously deemed impossible by any group of non-Beatles. Chilton's deft fretwork (at least I think it's Chilton) at the beginning of the track weaves its way around these insights, subtly and devastatingly highlighting the dramatic fulcrum of the song, continuing into the ether even as the rest of the band stops and starts around him. You can imagine how intensely I and many others could relate to this song. In particular, if I had had the technological capabilities, I would have spent a lot of my evenings listening to Chilton sing "hoooold on" repeatedly, on loop, accompanied by that back-and-forth high register guitar-playing.

Big Star's next two albums have moments of equal power, but for a while I saw no need to go further than those first two tracks off #1 Record. Nothing they did after, whether it be the famous "September Gurls" or even "Holocaust," had such an immediately wounding effect. And even as I am older and in nearly every way a more jaded individual than I used to be, I find it impossible to tire of those few songs. I think that every major music fan knows of about a dozen songs that become so familiar and so personal that they essentially become part of one's emotional DNA. For me, I can trace many of the best and worst decisions of my life back to my initial responses to those two seemingly innocent pop tracks.

So we can take comfort knowing, at Chilton's passing, that many others probably felt his songs even more deeply and profoundly than even I did, and I can't conceivably think of a more enduring legacy than that. Many bands have changed my life, but only Big Star managed to define the way I used to think and feel so specifically. For that, and for "Feel" and "The Ballad of El Goodo," I say this to Mr. Chilton with all the sincerity that a now-23-year-old white American male fuck-up can muster: Thank you, friend.

*I got it via Greg, actually, so thanks for that.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

My Christgau Problem

I'd like to invite you to look back, briefly, at early December 2009. This blog had been existing for quite some time, I had become a recent addition, and we had just got on the Twitter bandwagon. I was using this newfound tool as a means to tell Raekwon (or @RAEKWONICEWATER) that Schindler's List was an awesome movie, although (to quote myself), "the ending is slightly weak." My esteemed colleague then wrote the following at 5:45 PM on Dec. 9th:
slate's music club kinda sucks this year. where's christgau?
To which I replied at 6:09 PM:
Christgau is not the solution to the Music Club's problem (fad-chasing, strawman-bashing): he is the source.
To which he would later reply at 8:13 AM the next day:
to my colleague: not alarmed, but saddened by your xgau bashing. i'll keep my hopes up for the movie club
And now, three months later, I feel as if I should address my concerns about Christgau and the damage I think he wrought in detail, so depressed am I at the very idea that said esteemed colleague could be "saddened" by a(n admittedly overblown) tweet. So yes, it's true that I have a massive problem with Robert Christgau, the dean of music criticism, and the point of this post is to convince you the reader that it has nothing to do with those common canards such as professional jealousy, intense and/or frequent disagreements in taste, or dissatisfaction with the Village Voice mode of badass journalism (well...maybe the latter). These are criticisms born entirely out of odd and completely incongruous statements the man has made and continues to make, and I think he is directly responsible for the most technically showy but intellectually empty music criticism masquerading as journalism today.

Christgau has been writing non-stop for the last 40 years at least, so it's hard to sum up what I dislike about his writing without feeling like I'm cherry-picking arguments, so I thought I'd start with a bit of criticism that I'm pretty sure only I have paid attention to: a 1990 capsule review of a thought-provoking book (sadly out of print) called Signifying Rappers: Rap and Race in the Urban Present, written by David Foster Wallace and his college buddy Mark Costello. The book, and particularly Wallace's segments (the two alternate writing chapters), is probably one of the few extended pieces of music journalism I can think of where there is a genuine attempt to reconcile the authors' love of the music with their unease dealing with the subject of contemporary black America--a dichotomy that is entirely ignored by today's Tom Breihans and Zach Barons, whose uncritical love of the most hoary of hip-hop cliches (guns, abusing women, sociopathic behavior in general) goes unquestioned. I will quote the entirety of his review, which is short enough to get many of my points across:
With its Basquiat cover and footnoted text, Signifying Rappers: Rap and Race in the Urban Present might tempt the browser to lay down cash money for (ahem) "the first serious consideration of rap and its position as a vital force in our American cultural consciousness." Don't do it. The analysis is adequate to ignorant to barmy, and whenever the authors--Mark Costello an attorney and jazz fan, David Foster Wallace a philosophy grad student and writer of highbrow pomo "fictions"--get near a fact, it hangs its head in shame. Their revelation that "almost all established rock critics . . . tend to regard serious, ever new, non-crossover rap as essentially boring and simplistic, or as swaggering and bellicose and dangerous" will astonish the voters who made Public Enemy and De La Soul winners of the 1988 and 1989 Pazz & Jop Critics' Polls (and high finishers in Rolling Stone's more conservative tallies). I presume both acts qualify as serious and ever new because both appear in the pencil-necked discography (which proceeds directly from Run-D.M.C.to Raising Hell--there was one called King of Rock in between there, fellas). Costello says his "favorite rap ever" is an "untraceable 5-minute cut" he taped off the radio with an "inscrutable chorus" about a "Honeychild." Er, that wouldn't be Ice-T's "The Hunted Child," would it? B side of "High Rollers," later on Freedom of Speech? Nah, it's his favorite. Surely he cares too much to have missed anything so obvious.
Let's unpack this. First, there is the pissing match aspect of this--Christgau is basically waving his dick around pointing to the fact that he, unlike them, is aware of the Ice-T B-Side that Costello seems to have forgotten about (has to put in a plug for the Pazz & Jop poll too). Why point this out, especially in a paragraph-long review? Christgau obviously relishes, for no real reason other than puffing up his own rap scholarly bona fides and admonishing outsiders or casual fans. Of course, it should be noted that Wallace and Costello did in fact listen to every single rap album and single they could get their hands on, and the fact that Costello has a hard time coming up with the name of a certain track doesn't mean that both author's opinions are automatically invalidated. Read those final three sentences again. How are they not unnecessary, smarmy, and completely self-serving?

And then there's that line about Wallace being a "writer of highbrow pomo 'fictions'," the sheer condescension invoked in that descriptor being all but palpable. Christgau obviously doesn't know what he's talking about. At the time of this writing, Wallace had written two other books, his first novel The Broom of the System and the short story collection Girl With Curious Hair, both of which could be labeled "pomo" due to the obvious Pynchon and Barth influences, respectively. But "highbrow"? "Fictions" in scare quotes? There is nothing highbrow about either of these books,* and in fact both contain quite novel uses of popular culture (the town shaped like Jayne Mansfield's breasts in Broom; Pat Sajak and Alex Trebek pulling pranks on each other in Curious; a million other examples). And, with the exception maybe of the final story in Curious, both of them can be firmly designated as fiction (no meta-ironic commentary, no playing around with the novel form) not "fiction" (in a way that Barth's Lost in the Funhouse, to cite an actual pomo "fiction," does not). The irony here is that Christgau sees no problem attacking the authors for not doing proper research, but he obviously didn't know anything about Wallace or his "fictions."

So there you have two Christgau tropes, at least: a man prone to focusing on asinine, irrelevant details as a means of criticism, and a man eager to prove his superiority as a rock scholar to anyone who dares horn in on his territory (let's not forget, the appellation "dean of American rock critics" was entirely self-inflicted).

However, the review above is pretty lucid compared to a lot of the stuff he used to write for the Voice, particularly his consumer guides. I want to stress that it is difficult for me to get a lot of this down because reading what I've written so far could give the impression that I'm simply cherry-picking quotes that would sound more ridiculous than others, in the hopes of prematurely winning an argument (call it the "B.R. Myers tack"). If people have counter-examples, I want to hear them. But how do you defend something like Christgau's short review of XTC's first album White Music, wherein he writes:
Although it took a year and a half for this debut album by the premier English art-pop band to get released in the States, two Andy Partridge songs on side one aim directly at the American market--"Radios in Motion," which mentions Milwaukee, surely isn't about the BBC, and the avowed purpose of "Statute of Liberty" is to get a look up her skirts. The third, "This Is Pop," is why he missed--radio programmers resent anyone telling them their business, especially subversives who favor herky-jerk rhythms, jerky-herk harmonies, Lene Lovich radar noises, and depressing subject matter. Colin Moulding's songs, on the other hand, are aimed at bored Yes fans, which is why he missed--the lad doesn't know that Yes fans like being bored. B+
Just read that last sentence and tell me--what the fuck is he talking about? Let's put aside the fact that I hear no resemblance to Yes in Colin Moulding's songs. Yes fans like being bored? How is this? I hate Yes as much as the next guy, but I can see what fans might find exciting about them, and their love of being bored doesn't really follow. Who in the world likes being bored? My father has an old VHS tape of Yes performing in concert (which would become the live album YesSongs), and based on the few minutes I managed to watch, I know there are people in the audience that look pretty excited and amazed when Rick Wakeman starts playing Vivaldi backwards in a silk tunic or whatever. If people in the audience loved being bored, I would think they'd be more inclined to stay home and wait for YesSongs to come out on vinyl. If that.

One common component of Christgau's shorter writings is that there is no logical flow from sentence to sentence. Honestly, this is something I can find hard to do in our monthly Critical Beatdown segments, and it sure is hard to sum up a song (let alone an album) in a few sentences, but Christgau's reviews are particularly egregious because it seems like he is just laying down confusing observation after confusing observation with no regard for any sort of linear thought pattern or argument. To a not-very-observant reader, it sure seems as if Christgau is good, even a great writer--his sentences are punchy and lively, filled with odd and interesting juxtapositions of words, often succinctly describing songs in a manner that many (including me) probably couldn't replicate.

But take a closer inspection, and it all falls apart. I urge you to look at the above quote again. This sentence: "The third, 'This Is Pop,' is why he missed--radio programmers resent anyone telling them their business, especially subversives who favor herky-jerk rhythms, jerky-herk harmonies, Lene Lovich radar noises, and depressing subject matter." All of this sounds accurate--there's really no better descriptor of XTC than "herky-jerk," but why is he insinuating that "radio programmers resent anyone telling them their business"? Isn't that what they do, a lot of the time? Why is it that British radio programmers are somehow different from American radio programmers in this regard? Maybe there is something here, but I don't see it.

All of this seems pretty random, right? One more example, and then I'm done. Let's take a look at his capsule review of the New York Dolls' first album, one of his favorites (and one of my own as well):
At least half the white kids who grow up in Manhattan are well off and moderately arty, like Carly Simon and John Paul Hammond. It takes brats from the outer boroughs to capture the oppressive excitement Manhattan holds for a half-formed human being the way these guys do. The careening screech of their music was first heard in the Cooper Union station of the Lexington IRT, and they don't stop there. Mixing early-'60s popsong savvy with late-'60s fast-metal anarchy, they seek love l-u-v from trash and bad girls. They go looking for a kiss among the personality crises. And they wonder whether you could make it with Frankenstein. A+
This is not criticism. This is Christgau talking about affluent white people in Manhattan, followed by a few sentences working several song titles into phrases that are otherwise completely empty of substance or content. The A+ at the end tells you more about how he actually feels about the album than anything before it. Imagine if I wrote a review of Raw Power in which I seriously put forth the following: "You'd have to be on a DEATH TRIP with no SHAKE APPEAL to not see the RAW POWER inherent in this PENETRATION of an album. This album leaves me NEEDING SOMEBODY to GIMME DANGER." The only place where you find that kind of criticism is on the back of DVDs, usually from Gene Shalit or Joel Siegel ("Austin Powers is groovy, baby!"), and even that is becoming less common. So that's Christgau in a nutshell: an artier, fancier version of Jeff Craig from Sixty Second Preview.

It is possible that I'm being too harsh because of his shorter criticism, and I should pay more attention to his longer reviews. To be fair, a lot of these are indeed better. A while ago, my other enemy Jody Rosen tweeted that a column Christgau wrote for Barnes & Noble Review (?) was "the best piece of Weezy criticism ever written." He could be right--it is quite good. Unlike many of his other articles, it seems to follow a logical progression from beginning to end, it provides some insights I haven't heard elsewhere, and it generally stays away from the trap of vindicating Lil Wayne as some godlike, above-the-law rap maestro. But then I will come across something completely unreadable like this piece of self-aggrandizement, and I realize that my opinion of Christgau's writing, at least as far as I know, continues to be relevant. His criticism is two parts self-regard and one part flashy adjectives, which doesn't leave a lot of time for him to get around to the music.

I don't want this to be the end of the argument. If you think that I am willfully misrepresenting his writing style, and would like to point to counter-examples, I would like to read them. These are merely my responses after reading a good number of his books and commentaries, but my knowledge is by no means exhaustive. So, bring it on, Xgau fans**.

*Although "highbrow" strikes me as yet another word that tends to mean a multitude of things, most of them negative, all of them nebulous, depending highly on the writer. In this case, I assume he means that they are somehow inscrutable, allusion-heavy, academic, jargony, dense, allegorical, not-fun-to-read, etc. The Broom of the System is none of these things and Girl With Curious Hair is allusion-heavy in one particular story. And of course Infinite Jest is a whole different cookie, but in my experience the only people who consider it highbrow are those who haven't read it and are intimidated by its length.

**Mr. Christgau is of course also invited to respond.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Maybe They Will Shut Up If We Buy Them Happy Meals

Recently, a reader suggested that Kidz Bop would make for an interesting post. He didn't say what about it, and I don't know if Dave was kidding or not, but it's worth a try.

As of March 2009, 17 Kidz Bop compilations have been released, as well as 8 "special collections." The Kidz Bop albums' closest analogue is the U.S. Now That's What I Call Music! series. Beyond sharing individual tracks, which they often do, the two series have a similar M.O.: to rush out compilations, multiple times a year, of current hits. Kidz Bop albums have more PG song choices, understandably, and avoid the more risque hip-hop songs on the pop charts.

Despite that, the clear difference between the two series is that Kidz Bop feature interpretations of popular songs, rather than the tunes themselves, and if I were a betting man, I'd predict that the children's series will outlast Now That's What I Call Music, which merely repackages what I could have heard on the radio two months ago. It seems increasingly redundant in a world in which I can individually purchase, sequence, and listen to my favorite pop singles--often for less money than the cost of a CD.*

The near term future of Kidz Bop also seems assured given its sales: volumes 7-16 all debuted in the top 10, and the series has never debuted at less than number 2 on Billboard's humorously named Kid Albums chart. Strong opening weeks mean that either parents or children, probably both, are bombarded by Kidz Bop material and promos, and actually go out to purchase the albums the moment they become available. I'd love to know what percentage of purchases are by parents who assume their kids will shut up if they can bop, and what percentage are driven by kids who actually just love the music.

But what of the actual music? It is painful to listen to. The songs closely approximate the originals--in some cases they might use the same track--but always sound much chintzier. The vocals are identical on every song, regardless of lyrics, with tons of upbeat kids shouting, not always in tune. Oftentimes, an adult who sounds somewhat like the original vocalist takes the lead, though the kids will sort of answer him at the end his lines, and occasionally sing along with and overwhelm him. The videos are pretty weird, featuring presentable little kids acting like an eight year-old's idea of coolness. Surely there are pedophiles who enjoy Kidz Bop?

Kidz Bop covers completely drain pop of its element of danger. The chintzy arrangements don't help, but the children's choirs totally neuter the source material. And since sex is what makes the Top 40 tick, taking the sex out of Top 40 material makes for awful listening. Not that I'm arguing that children should listen to explicitly sexual music--they shouldn't--but desexed pop makes for awful listening for adults. Its like if you eliminated all traces of crime from any film noir: sure, you could still make a movie, but it'd be about an honest cop sitting at his desk.**

Perhaps the strangest aspect of the Kidz Bop phenomenon is its echoes of the Langley Schools Music Project. Still revered among fans of outsider music (and released in 2001 by Irwin Chusid, who compiled the bizarro Songs In the Key of Z albums), the LSMP was a choir of Canadian school kids in the 70's who sang disquieting takes on popular tunes of the time. The most famous are covers of Klaatu's "Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft" and David Bowie's "Space Oddity." Bowie was a fan of the LSMP's take on his song, and actually reenacted the project, calling it Langley Schools Revisited. He also, in an unguarded moment admitted
The backing arrangement is astounding. Coupled with the earnest if lugubrious vocal performance, you have a piece of art that I couldn't have conceived of, even with half of Colombia's finest export products in me.
Which he seems to have actually said (sources here and here). I bring up the LSMP because the obvious parallels suggest that society, not merely children, and perhaps even you, share a desire to hear scores of children's voices belting out the hit songs of the day. And that's pretty fucking weird.

*Now That's What I Call Music seems to be fairly cheap on iTunes--about $12 for 20 songs--so maybe it does have a future in the digital bargain bin.
**There probably wouldn't be any femme fatales either. If there were Venetian blinds, they would be of the chintziest variety imaginable.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

On Why Cameron Crowe Is Often Incorrect

I dig a lot of Cameron Crowe's work, such as Almost Famous, because it's hard not to appreciate the obvious love and energy he puts into any critical discussion regarding the vaunted beasts of classic rock. He's obviously sentimental about a certain (very limited) type of music, but he manages to sidestep Guitar World/Rolling Stone-type gratingness due to the sincerity of his beliefs and his ability to really meditate upon why particular components of something like, say, Tommy can remain so resonant. On the other hand, this guy has virtually nothing to say outside of classic rock, and like his fellow gatekeeper of boomerism Nick Hornby, he makes some particularly specious claims about the music he loves that reinforce every white classic rocker stereotype.

How untrue can a Cameron Crowe be, at times? He is perhaps at his worst when putting his obvious opinions into the mouths of characters that really should know better. Here's a famous moment from Fast Times At Ridgemont High, in a scene where Mike Damone (Robert Romanus) explains his five-point plan for getting chicks:
First of all Rat, you never let on how much you like a girl. "Oh, Debbie. Hi." Two, you always call the shots. "Kiss me. You won't regret it." Now three, act like wherever you are, that's the place to be. "Isn't this great?" Four, when ordering food, you find out what she wants, then order for the both of you. It's a classy move. "Now, the lady will have the linguini and white clam sauce, and a Coke with no ice." And five, now this is the most important, Rat. When it comes down to making out, whenever possible, put on side one of Led Zeppelin IV.
Conservatively, I can think of approximately 1,000,000 albums (making that 2,000,000 sides) that would be more conducive to making out than Led Zeppelin IV. Every other Led Zeppelin album, for instance. I know that Mike Damone isn't supposed to be an expert on the matter, and Fast Times is generally about naive, often idiotic high school students with no conception of what sex is actually like, but let's be real. You think the sputtering stop/start riffery of "Black Dog" works as a conceivable entry point (so to speak)? To be followed by the ear-shattering tumult of "Rock & Roll," as unsexy a rhythm as has ever been in blues? To say nothing of the Tolkien blather of "The Battle of Evermore" ("The pain of war cannot exceed the woe of aftermath"--not a sentiment you want to put out there) and "Stairway To Heaven," renowned for 30 years as the ultimate slow dance libido killer (the book Kill Your Idols has an entry on Led Zeppelin IV that revolves around a "Stairway To Heaven"-caused premature ejaculation episode at a high school prom). The only conceivably worse choice Mike Damone could have made was side two of Led Zeppelin IV, at which point I'm pretty sure the one-two punch of "Misty Mountain Hop" and "Four Sticks" will have your special friend feeling nauseous.

There's another time and place for a great list of make out albums, but right now I want to focus on another Led Zeppelin album that Cameron Crowe would have been smart to pay more attention to. In Through The Out Door gets a lot of crap from Rolling Stone for its forays into disco and synth-pop (before the term existed, I think), but as a collection of songs it betters Led Zeppelin IV as a smartly-programmed make out album. "In The Evening" is a great rock monster of an opener with a groove that flows continuously (unlike "Black Dog") and some heavenly John Paul Jones keyboards. Particularly, the interval between 4:24 and 5:00 is textbook smoothness-before-the-storm. "South Bound Saurez" may sound a bit more jarring in this context at first, but Bonham's propulsive rhythms match the lovemaking impulse far better than the sustained shitfrenzy of "Rock & Roll." "Fool In The Rain" (aka the "is this seriously Led Zeppelin?" song) is basically a tarted-up old soul number at heart, fitting in perfectly if you want things to go further.

The following track "Hot Dog" doesn't really fit my thesis (embarrassingly so--check out that wacky rockabilly number here if you haven't heard it), so you might want to delete that from your playlist. But, once again talking in terms of sides, I believe In Through The Door's second side has everything Mike Damone claimed side one of Led Zeppelin IV had. First we have the mighty and proggy "Carouselambra," a raucous and danceable track that slows its tempo considerably at 4:23, morphing into a melody as slinky and sexy as any in rock music. And, at over ten minutes long, it allows you to get a lot done. "All My Love" has Jimmy Page's mournful guitar patterns and John Paul Jones' swooning-with-sentiment symphony of keyboards, making it a logical next step as long as you forget that it's about Robert Plant's dead son. The last song, "I'm Gonna Crawl," is possibly the most romantic thing Led Zeppelin ever did, belonging in the fine tradition of slow-burning blues and soul numbers. If things haven't progressed at this point, there's something wrong with you.

If you happen to be one of those people who continues to follow Mike Damone's advice, I really suggest trying out side two of In Through The Out Door instead. If your love life doesn't substantially improve, I will never write about music again.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Listen to the Album That Recorded Itself

What do I like most about Liars? Since their 2001 debut They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top, the band has mined a form of groove-laden post-punk so schizophrenic that the band's imitators are basically non-existent--it's not that no one wants to sound like Liars, but pinpointing any singular characteristic of their music lies outside the power of even the most lateral of thinkers. I called Liars the band of the decade a while back and didn't leave anything in the way of commentary, and part of the reason for that was because they really pose a substantial problem for the average adjective-dependent critic sick of leaving it at "post-punk" or "experimental art rock." I want to really delve into the musical character of Angus Andrew and co., and I'm in luck, because their new album Sisterworld is not only pretty good, but also easier to describe than its predecessors. Still, be prepared for a few meaningless critical buzz words that can't be avoided.

Here's some commentary on Sisterworld. And keep in mind that I still like to listen to their 30-minute track "This Dust Makes That Mud" for fun, so this post may be aimed at a very small niche that enjoys the same.

1. "Scissor." One of the best non-musical things about this new album--Liars have clearly taken a cue from their last eponymous album and have basically jettisoned the long, inscrutable titles of the past. Luckily, "Scissor" is as incisive a title as it is a piece of clear-minded AB songwriting. Most Liars tracks can be divided into either dirges or rock monsters with dirge elements, and this is definitely something of the latter category. The first 1:40 utilizes the classic Liars trick of building a slow track both beguiling in its instrumentation and unsettling in its presentation. Then, like any good modern rock song, the band comes down hard on a riff/groove combo that is as clunky as it is brief. Then the slower part A picks off as if part B never happened, and then we're back to part B. End of song. Elemental, yes, and primal, and worthy of serious headbanging--all of these points and more make this song classic Liars. Were it not for this song, it would be the best ever written on the subject of hand-operated cutting instruments.

2. "No Barrier Fun." Remember "Houseclouds," the second track off Liars' last album? Few segues have been as jarring as between that and "Plaster Casts of Everything," and I wondered if I had accidentally picked up a Beck album by mistake. So to say that "No Barrier Fun" is the logical sonic continuation of "Scissor" is to say either that Liars have matured or become sadly typical as track programmers. Anchored by a Pixies-esque bass line and two scattered, interlocking grooves, this track is the sort of moody fun I like to put on the dark. There's also a stray violin about, making things sound a bit like Modest Mouse for a while, but once you realize that the melody is going nowhere, the groove becomes much more fascinating, with the journey really starting at 0:39. Also: glockenspiel?

3. "Here Comes All the People." The first guitar-oriented track, featuring a moody, repetitive lead line that appears to be briefly strangled by Bernard Herrmann strings at 1:05. There's also a piano somewhere in here, and the overall instrumentation evokes a feeling of something really implosive and unpleasant happening simultaneously. We finally get a payoff during the last 20 seconds, as what once seemed to hint at madness emerges as full-blown primitivism. Not Liars' most impressive songwriting moment, but here, for the first time since 2001, a consistent mood is finally established.

4. "Drip." Like "Scissor," this begins with some eerie ambient noises accompanied by Angus Andrew's chanting. Unlike "Scissor," we are presented with a tinny drum machine-sounding rhythmic accompaniment that sort of floats in and out of the arrangement whenever it feels like it. At this point the average listener is liable to wonder if Liars are laying on the mood too thick, like in They Were Wrong So We Drowned. At this point, we are in need of a Liars rocker before we drown in gooey dirge.

5. "Scarecrows On A Killer Slant." And on cue, we have ourselves a riff monster. Liars have a history of pulling off alarmingly simple-sounding riffs by virtue of the aggression embedded, as well as the likely rhythmic off-turns. Something else to note: this is a strangely quiet-sounding track for such an aggressive performance. Unlike virtually any of their modern rock peers, Liars defy our expectations to turn up the volume whenever distorted guitars are at the fore. The final, looping electronic pulse is, again, proof that atmosphere trumps the rock once again.

6. "I Still Can See An Outside World." Angus Andrew really likes breaking out the falsetto on this album. Like "Scissor," this is vintage Liars of the quietLOUDquiet variety. But like the previous track, the loud component is all fuzzy guitars and cymbal crashes but still oddly muted as a performance. The connecting tissue is how Angus Andrew's vocals remain much louder than everything else, and the way he harmonizes with himself is scarier than anything any guitar could pull off.

7. "Proud Evolution." This is where it starts getting really hard to talk about this album without repeating myself. "Proud Evolution" stands apart from the rest of the pack due to its Krautrock beat and some guitar work that sounds more like a doppler radar than any conventional tune. Being the longest song on the album, you expect tension and release, but I guess once again Liars knew what I was looking for and did the exact opposite.

8. "Drop Dead." Subdued and atonal, anchored by guitar work amateurish even by Liars standards, "Drop Dead" is filled with scary noises and not much more. Just when it seems to be going somewhere, it doesn't. It's a subdued, repetitive performance that just sort of ends in lieu of anything better to do.

9. "The Overachievers." Thankfully "The Overachievers" picks up the pace, in a manner that calls back similar outbursts of noise like "Plaster Casts of Everything." This is the Liars I love most--banging out the simplest groove imaginable and interjecting noise whenever the pace seems lacking. The shouted vocals also help to pick things up a bit, making this the most brisk rocker on the album, and one of the most enjoyable performances. Also nice to hear something resembling normal lead guitar here. As long as they don't make a habit.

10. "Goodnight Everything." This is the other Liars I like the most, slow and ponderous yet intense and melodic. The other surprise here: horns! I just love the intense, inscrutable drama emanating from the band's performance, sounding like the perfect tune to play the day evil has finally won (I'm keeping my iTunes calendar open for a November 2012 Palin victory).

11. "Too Much, Too Much." A bit of a downer as a closer, and I must admit I was distracted by severe melodic similarities between this song and Wire's "Practice Makes Perfect." Which makes sense, because why not--there is a line to be drawn between the independent post-punk spirit of Wire and Liars. Whether or not this was a deliberate homage, I don't know, but the song is otherwise treading on territory done better elsewhere on this album. Maybe the title is too accurate.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Imaginary Album: Rose Pink Cadillac

There are a great many brilliant things about the Rolling Stones--and surely just as many awful ones--but among the unequivocally good stuff nothing tops their catalog of country originals. "Sweet Virginia," "Dead Flowers," and "Memory Motel" attack country from different angles but rate among Jagger and Richard's best. The material consistently brings out Jagger's most arch, condescending poses, or else provides for unusually direct, irony-free moments.

Let's envision an alternate universe in which, during the Stones' classic period (1967-1978, in my book, but feel free to extend or shorten it a couple years in either direction) they only released genre albums.* You'd have a double LP of electric rockers, a blues disc, an EP of reggae tunes, and Satanic Majesties as is. I took the liberty of doing this for their country songs.

Before we get to the album, however, a couple notes. First, the definition of country is broad and not technical. Second, the imaginary album must follow the constraints of Rolling Stones albums from this period, so between 8 and 10 tracks around 45 minutes. Third, we'll leave out earlier songs--I'm thinking of "Some Things Just Stick In Your Mind" and "High And Dry"--because they don't have the right attitude, or else sound too English.

The tracklist, followed by a run through:
Rose Pink Cadillac, Side One
1. Country Honk
2. Dead Flowers
3. No Expectations
4. Dear Doctor
5. Sweet Virginia

Rose Pink Cadillac, Side Two
1. Love In Vain
2. Memory Motel
3. Far Away Eyes
4. Torn & Frayed
5. Angie

The fade-in of "Country Honk" gives us a sense of place, a dusty stoop on a minor road, with no sense of urgency. The song itself, a superior, countrified take on "Hoky Tonk Blues," with a wily fiddle and guitar work that sounds disinterested, or drunk. In this setting, Jagger's lyrics lose the sense of misanthropy, and sound more like bar room reminiscences, of dubious veracity, and more than a tinge of regret. The second song, and undoubtedly the lead single, is "Dead Flowers." An eminently bitter song, it's quintessential Stones. I've already examined the lyrics, but I will add that it's perfect, lyrically a summation of the vices that made the Stones tick, and musically a complete jewel. Charlie, Bill, and Keith, on rhythm, give the song an understated kick, and Mick Taylor's lead sounds as twangily insolent as the narrator. The piano and acoustic guitar never sound that present, but form a crucial part of the whole. "Dead Flowers" makes the case that invective sounds better drawled.

From there, a transition to straight-faced country and back. The spare "No Expectations" follows "Dead Flowers." Jagger doesn't deploy his country snarl here [it wasn't worked out yet], but an evocative, dejected slide carries the song, with an assist from Wyman. This narrator will grow up to sing "Dead Flowers," discovering that he had many more expectations than he realized. "Dear Doctor" injects some humor into Rose Pink, and keeps intact a transition that worked on Beggars Banquet. The guitars and harmonica chime, egging on the narrator to share his tale of ice cold feet on a young man's wedding day. Jagger's faux-female singing voice is as bad an impression as I've ever heard, and there's an egregious one to come. But, before that, wrapping up Side One, is "Sweet Virginia." A slow number that hits upon many of Jagger's pet themes, but with a rare generosity of spirit; the backup singers play an important part in this. The songwriting coalesces like little has before or since, Charlie Watts' lazy stomp laying down the groundwork for a wearily optimistic Stones orchestra of acoustic guitars, harmonica, ivories, and Bobby Keys on saxophone, who practically duets with Mick. It ends Side One because "Sweet Virginia" gives the listener as much incentive to go face the world again as she's likely to ever get. A pause seems appropriate.

Side Two of Rose Pink Cadillac begins with "Love In Vain" and the mood is as downbeat as the title suggests. Barnstormers weren't something the Stones did, and if you thought Side One was slow, or a bummer, best get off now. Not that you would: "Love In Vain" is the Stones' best Robert Johnson cover, a song with the unhurried gait of a man with nothing left to lose but plenty to wallow around in. The tune sounds more terse than it actually is--there are at least four musicians playing, including Ry Cooder on mandolin--but there's nothing wrong with being direct. Johnson's lyrics marshal a handful of simple phrases into three powerful verses, and Jagger's straight reading of the material complements the somber tone. The side's second track, "Memory Motel," features an electric piano that's not particularly country, but it's a beautiful ballad, country in spirit. Certainly paid-by-the-tear Nashville types would recognize their craft in "Memory Motel." It's the only time on Rose Pink that we heard the Richards' hoarse, soulful voice. It's also the fourth song sung from the perspective of a man who can't get over an old flame who did him wrong, though "Memory Motel" is the most adult take on this theme, downright sentimental. Easily the longest song here, its forlorn swirl makes 7:09 sound brisk.

"Far Away Eyes," practically dripping with scorn for its nearly retarded narrator, takes a different approach. Utilizing nearly every convention of country and western music--from a cozy shuffle to Ron Wood's pedal steel to the rural, God-loving narrator--nothing about the instrumentation necessarily suggests irony, though Jagger's insistent performance inclines me to read everything in that way. Probably a parody of the Bakersfield sound, but done with respect for the music, if not its listeners. As "Far Away Eyes" draws to its close, the ballrooms and smelly bordellos of "Torn & Frayed" take over, as does another beleaguered narrator. Uniquely, this one finds redemption in music, his shoddy coat be damned. And, though rendered with a light touch, the sweet chords of "Torn & Frayed" prod us in the same direction. The beat here is somewhat harder, the emotion genuine again; it sounds like something Dylan, Kooper, and the Hawks could have banged out in 1966.

As moments of desperation go--always a fine way to end an album, incidentally--"Angie" doesn't quite match "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," but it doesn't aspire to plumb the same depths. For one, the narrator holds out hope--he's only desperate because he knows he and Angie could still have it so good. Whether or not he's right--and if he's anything like Jagger I hope Angie heads for the hills--his conviction defines "Angie." It's downright mawkish--check the piano and those syrupy strings--but the melody redeems the tune. Rose Pink Cadillac ends on this more delicate emotional note.

*Today this exercise would be called making a playlist or, more generously, a fan-curated mixtape, but how much fun is that?