Friday, February 27, 2009

Walkin' On Down The Road (or, What Happened To The Red Hot Chili Peppers)

"Rob, top five musical crimes perpetuated by Stevie Wonder in the '80s and '90s. Go. Sub-question: is it in fact unfair to criticize a formerly great artist for his latter day sins, is it better to burn out or fade away?" - Barry, "High Fidelity"

Not Stevie Wonder, but some of his illegitimate progeny. Let's talk about the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Once every year and a half or so, I tend to start listening to the Chili Peppers, as one influence or another tends to lead me to them naturally. I think last time it was that I was reading the Jane's Addiction book and there was a lot of intermingling and the L.A. scene and blah blah blah. Last night, I was talking to my friend Brent and when I offhandedly mentioned that I really liked their early stuff and thought it was really underrated, he mentioned that it might be becuase their later stuff is so overrated. Which is a pretty good point. Unfortunately, on paper, they're certinaly one of the better rock bands around these days, and it's only old coots like me who long for the days when they were less-than-first-rate. But more on that later.

Coming of age in the early '90s, it's easy to forget how weird these guys must have seemed in the mid-to-late '80s. Colorful, grit-teeth manic, hyperactive funk that was so fast it sounds like thrash. Seriously, I've tried this... play some of their early hardest stuff at a slower speed and it starts to sound like a tight funk jam. It's just that the energy level was SO intense it comes across as spring-loaded. The first three albums... man. Nobody but me likes the first one, and I don't even love it, but after the remastering job it got a few years ago, it's biggest crime is underwritten material and weak production by Andy Gill. Yeah, Gang Of Four Andy Gill. Freaky Styley is way better beacuse of the return of O.P. (original Pepper) guitarist Hillel Slovak (truly gifted weirdo) and the production talents of Mr. George "Funk Yo Ass Up" Clinton. The Uplift Mofo Party Plan is a bit of a step back, but not bad, and then Slovak succumbed to a nasty heroin addiction. The rest of the band recruits whiz-kid 18-year-old John Frusciante, gets a little more serious (in ambition, if not musically) and puts out their real bid for mainstream acceptance, Mother's Milk.

Surprisingly, it worked. They got huge, riding the wave of their cover of "Higher Ground" (see how this all ties in to Stevie?), and were finally big business. They geared up to make the biggest record of their career (arguably) and in 1991, they were everywhere... selling millions of records and scaring the CRAP out of my parents, who were sure that they were trying to corrupt the youth. Blood Sugar Sex Magik is a great album. Like, a really and truly great album. Even it's stupider parts add to the whole of it, toning down the day-glo excesses and punky thrash of the early years and amping up a much more realistic party vibe that feels like a trip through Hollywood.

So why do I think that they haven't done anything great since?

Before they followed it up, they lost Frusciante to a smack habit, and struggled to find a replacement for their next record. When it came out, as a big Jane's Addiction fan, I LOVED the presence of Dave Navarro, but One Hot Minute is a case of "the less said the better". When he left, I thought that they were done. And when Californication came out, it was a really nice return to form, despite the fact that it didn't sound like anything they'd done before. Frusciante was back, maybe better than ever in his tasteful playing, but there were plenty of ballads to keep the "Under The Bridge" fans happy. But even the harder songs were tempered with a lot more melody than in the past. Now, while this makes them a much better band (emphasis in that sentence is on "band", not "better"), it does make them feel a little more homogenous. I can't expect these people to be the same band they were 25 years ago, and I don't. However, the mingling of the two styles makes for some middle-of-the-road moments. I didn't buy By The Way, and I only gave a couple of listens to Stadium Arcadium.

So why don't I like them? Frusciante is a masterful guitarist in the true artistic sense (even if he is still a little crazy). He plays in a way that I can only use "jazz words" to describe - tasteful, exploratory, adventurous. But he still rocks. Flea is, despite my aversion to modern-day slap-bass (and the cult that this style has attracted), one of the great bassists of the past 40 years, and the under-mentioned Chad Smith hits his HARD exactly when he's supposed to. Maybe it's Kiedis' undercooked poetic prose I don't like, maybe the yelping rap and warbly croon he uses, but I can deal with those. The lyrics can be a bit sophomoric, but they're not bad.

I have a theory...

During their height, the Peppers were part of the alternative rock vanguard that changed pop culture, but unlike their grunge contemporaries and the alt-rock singer-songwriter contingent, they were unabashedly MEN. Shirtless men, who liked to perform wearing one sock each and sing nasty, filty songs about women who they did nasty, filthy things with. They were like a four-piece walking libido. Grunge was sexless and self-loathing, with maybe the exception of Soundgarden's Chris Cornell, and the R.E.M. crowd was too into sex as an idea. But the Chili Peppers were young, shirtless, played funk and rock (the two most debauched musical styles), and were there to sex you up. As a boy, that kind of thing left an impact, and while at the time I thought they were dirty verging on ridiculous, as an amateur pop-culture sociologist, it was kind of important for someone to represent the sexual side of a youth movement. All of this has happened before and will happen again. Early rock'n'roll had Elvis to offset Buddy Holly. Psychedelia had Jimi Hendrix to offset Donovan. Alt rock had the Chili Peppers to offset Nirvana.

After falling apart after '92 and being on life support until '98, they came back knowing that their biggest hit was the ballad "Under The Bridge". They made sure that the follow-up had a clone in "My Friends", and sure enough, their big comeback hit was a ballad - "Scar Tissue". They realized that they had to castrate themselves to stay successful. Or maybe they didn't realize, maybe it's just that a sexless Chili Peppers is what the public wanted. Do they know it? Maybe not. They're older, they've slowed down, and they're one of the biggest bands in the world since Californication, so they don't have that youthful sex drive anymore, and that's OK. But maybe they should have hung it up after that, or maybe they'll surprise me again.

None of it matters, of course, cause they'll sell millions of records and be huge stars forever. And good for them. They deserved it back when they made Freaky Styley.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Cracks In The Cement (Or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Just Go Ahead And Not Like Pavement)

What started as a quick trip ended up as something else altogether...

In my excitement to dash off to a favorite writing location, hoping eagerly to squirrel myself away in a corner and bang out the current thing that's swirling around in my head, I hopped on the southbound train instead of the northbound. Not a big problem, as I just had to go south 3 stops to avoid paying another entrance fee, switch to the other side of the platform, and head north four stops, and I'm where I was going in the first place. Of course, once I hit the turnaround, I hear that there are a track delays on the northbound. Ugh... more time lost, and I was hoping to make this somewhat fast. It takes forever to get to my ultimate destination, even though it's maybe a half-mile from my apartment. My own fault, but c'est la vie.

But, you see, with the past year giving me a newly optimistic outlook, I take the opportunity, stuck on the rush-hour subway, to dial up some Pavement on my iPod, as they're my intended subject for this piece. Until now, I've never been a big fan of Pavement. But they've just re-released Brighten The Corners, which, as much as any, could be my favorite Pavement album. As "Shady Lane" turns into "Transport Is Arranged", the subway lurches foreward as the sun goes down west over the Charles River, and I feel, well...

[Pause Part I]

[Begin Part II]

When you're learning how to write in the more advanced stages of schooling, they teach you to open up long-form journalistic articles in a number of ways. One of the more"creative" is to use your storytelling powers in miniature, and since all good stories have a setup, a conflict, a climax, and a resolution, you can use this miniature framework to then put the larger piece in perspective. "He's stuck on a subway", "he doesn't like Pavement". "He puts on Pavement, has a moment with the sunset, the train clacking..."

"He still doesn't really like Pavement."

Now, boys and girls, I've lost some serious cred with friends, co-workers, and bandmates over the years, who just claim that I don't get it, or I haven't listened to it enough, or that I've heard too much of what's come after to understand how good it is ("Big Star Syndrome"). For years, in certain circles, I've been ashamed to admit my sort of ambivalent dislike of them, for fear of sudden hipper-than-thou cold-shouldering and cracks about how I should go back to the basics. I've finally realized that I can stand up and say with definition that I just don't care for them. No real ill will, I can think of dozens of other so-called canonical bands that I like less, but I'm sick of pretending that I really dig 'em.

Do I get it? Yeah, I do. I don't think my understanding of indie rock is really a question here. Although I hate the "slacker" tag, it's music by highly-educated graduates who sharpened their teeth on the pre-grunge college rock scene, taking equally from the American underground of rock like Dinosaur Jr, arty British post-punk like Gang Of Four and (sorry, guys) The Fall, and scratched-vinyl avant-garde underground stuff like Royal Trux. Smart enough to understand the lineage, they put these elements in a blender and made sure to come at it with a smirk, as though it was a thrown-together term paper to get a good enough grade, but have enough stuff in it that was over the professor's head that the joke's on him. Like referring to the masterful bass playing of Dale Nixon in the U.S. underground rock scene of the '80s (look it up, see what I mean?). And no matter how these guys deny it, this is "slacker-rock" to the core. A melange of it's influences, delivered with an ironic detachment, back in a time when irony meant something.

Have I given it a chance? Sure I have. In fact, I own the deluxe reissues of their first three records. Why? Because I periodically think that I do like Pavement. They have a decently-sized discography that's weird enough to be interesting, smart enough to be layered, and the reissues are without a doubt some of the best I've ever come across. Two discs, tons of liner notes, packed with extras, and usually for less than a single-disc album costs at Best Buy. Now that's a deal. But maybe I'm buying them more as a record collector than a Pavement fan. After reading about them, I'm always HOPING that I'll like the records more and more, and just in case, I picked up the deluxe versions, cause since they're so cheap, and since I used to work in a record store they were even cheaper, and why not have them so that "when I finally hear Pavement click for me", I can just wallow in their awesomeness. But no matter how many times I listen, that click hasn't happened yet. Maybe it never will, but just in case, I'm not selling those reissues anytime soon.

That article I once mentioned about Radiohead and Springsteen was going to be along the same lines... I wish I liked each of them as much as people who really like them like them. I realize that part of the appeal is supposed to be Steve Malkmus' tossed-off vocals, but those really do grate sometimes, and I like angular and lo-fi, but something about a lot of this stuff just seems disingenious. But maybe since I wasn' t really rocking the 7" vinyl in 1989, the idea of disingeniousness among a sea of lameass hair-metal was refreshing.

I have a lot of friends who love this band, or at least like them a whole lot, and I have no problem with that, but there are some who hold their love of this band like a badge, not just because they have a connection with the records, but because they think it guarantees them a certain safety credibility in a world of very snooty people. For example, just about any critic who likes them applies a comparison to them in even the least likely places. A friend of mine just sent me a couple albums by Butterglory, a band I'd never heard of until he sent them my way. To his ears, and mine, they sound like a band on Merge in the early '90s, which is to say that they sound a lot like Superchunk. While that could sound damning, as though they don't have an identity, I mean it more as a compliment to the band and label at a time when label identity made sense. If you said to me, "here's a band on Dischord", I'd have some idea where they might be coming from. There are always exceptions to the rule, but Dischord, Merge, Sub Pop, Matador, etc... they all had a sort of sound that made their groups familial. Yet somehow, several reviews I've read compare Butterglory to Pavement. That's just lazy criticism. Laconic vocals over slightly jarred guitars, singing clear pop melodies? Sure could describe Pavement, but as my friend Brent put it, people like to apply the "sounds like Pavement" tag to underground bands that play pop, which as I can tell, was a rather slight side of Pavement. My favorite moments of theirs, to be sure, but "Summer Babe" is not the song I would use to sum up their sound. Yet somehow, indie rockers play a pop song with out-of-tune Lou Reed speak-sing, and suddenly it's Pavement-esque. Is that fair to anyone? Nope. I understand that you really like this band, but don't tell me that every band that comes within a hundred miles of them sound like them. It'll just make me not want to listen to a score of bands that I might otherwise love. How would you like it if every time you asked me about a band I told you it sounded like the Butthole Surfers? Might scare you off of some things. Although I stand by my assertion that Sloan's Navy Blues is the spiritual follow-up to Psychic... Powerless... Another Man's Sac. And don't even get me started on how the last Okkervil River single just totally lifted the melody and arrangement from "I Saw An X-Ray Of A Girl Passing Gas." It's not fair to Pavement, though, to bitch about the fans. Although it does seem that punk rock finally had it's victory with them - there truly seems to be little definition between the band and the fans. The kind of people who listen to Pavement are the kind of people Pavement are. The divide between performer and audience is truly crumbled.

So rock on Pavement. You made good albums that I just don't really like. A far lesser offense than many, and you're never going to hear me say that they sucked. Just don't expect me to be first in line for the reunion shows.

[End Part II]

[Resume Part I]

...bored. I turn off the Pavement album, realizing that I've got about a hundred other albums on this iPod. I briefly think about some Prince bootleg, but end up going with The Telescopes instead.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Lunch Break At The Dream Factory

As mentioned in the previous post, the plan this week was to write a piece on the relative authenticity and merits of Bruce Springsteen, as well as the interesting fanaticism of Radiohead fans. However, that would probably turn to my usual Andy Rooney-esque griping about one thing or another, and anyway, I found something much more interesting...

Thanks to the wonders of technology, I am now the proud owner of a copy of some unreleased Prince albums. Now, while this would be cause for happiness in any situation, it's the particular albums that have me so worked up, so first, a little backstory...

Prince made Parade. Like all of his other albums, it sold more than I ever hope to, but it was by no means a success on the level of Purple Rain. So he goes back into the studio to come up with a new album with the Revolution, which he calls Dream Factory. Things get a bit tense with the Revolution (please see the Purple Rain movie for a fictionalized version of what this might have been like), and they end up getting fired. Prince keeps plugging away at Dream Factory. He eventually records a song called "Housequake", which features pitched-up vocals, which the Purple One likes so much that he decides to record a whole album this way, planning on releasing it under the name Camille. More recording ensues, and since the Revolution folded, he decides to combine the two albums (with a few new songs) into a 3-LP set called Crystal Ball (which has no real relation to the late-'90s set of the same name). He presents Crystal Ball to Warner Bros., who balk at the idea of releasing an extravagant 3-LP set after the relative failure of Parade. They convince him to whittle it down to 2 LPs worth of material, which is then released as Sign 'O' The Times.

SOTT is my favorite Prince album for a number of reasons, the least of which is that it's a critical fave. It's after he discovered new drum machine technology, making it funkier and harder-hitting than the synth-y drum sounds on the previous stuff. It's darker, weirder and more insular. And it's 2 discs, and more prime Prince is good Prince, right?

Well, after discovering it in high school, and finally finding some online info about Prince, I discovered the whole Dream Factory / Camille / Crystal Ball backstory and from then on, every time I read anything about Sign, it was more about what it wasn't, rather than what it was. And what it was was a near-perfect album.

So what's the deal with these unreleased records? Well, I don't quite know what to call it, but the collected recordings from this era, I feel, put the definitive stamp on the fact that this is surely Prince's finest era, a point when he was famous enough to have reign to do what he wanted, hungry enough not to repeat himself, and weird enough to ensure that this was truly a distinctive presence. This is it, arguably the last gasp of greatness before descending into a perfectly interesting and enjoyable, but relatively unexciting, pop music standard-bearer.

So where does that leave a music fanatic who must categorize and compartmentalize his listening into easily-defineable categories to make offhand references to among his fellow music snobs? It doesn't really leave me anywhere. But we have this body of work by a pretty radical artist, a pretty good portion of which is unreleased. Sure, plenty of songs from the Dream Factory recordings made it through every iteration, relatively unchanged, to emerge on Sign, but there are at least 2 LPs worth (maybe not full 45 minute ones, but still 2 LPs) of songs that never came out, except for a few strays appearing on b-sides and promo ephemera.

The question is, has this happened since? When was the last time a major recording artist was given carte blanche to suirrel away and create a sweaty paranoid psychedelic funk psychosis suite, funded by big label money, and having it ultimately remain unreleased? Sure, there have been examples of endless recording sessions ultimately resulting in little to nothing (Chinese Democracy, anyone?), but when was the last time that a record label forked over money for fantastic music only to bury it later? Juliana Hatfield's God's Foot might fit the bill, but as good as it may or may not be, it's hardly on the same level as Prince circa '86. Has the record industry consolidated to the point that it's only spending on things that it knows how to define and sell? Of course it does, that's no news. But it seems that over the past 20 years, their rare willingness to gamble is being lost.

For the life of me, I will never understand how Prince became such a pop culture sensation. Of course, he wrote amazing pop hooks and was a genius musician. But there are plenty of those out there, and a tiny sex-crazed one that appeared on his breakthrough record wearing a trench coat and bikini briefs in the puritan Reagan '80s, writing songs about threesomes and incest and being young and sexy is not the kind of thing that I imagine could blow up, even with the idea of it capturing the public's repressed naughty side. How in the world did some of his lyrics make the airwaves? I mean, there's obviously the racy-if-not-filthy ones, but I'm talking about the freaky, weird psychedelic ones. Not only was he sexually assaultive, but he was subversive, and people just let it go, culminating in the whole collection we're talking about. Most of the "dangerous" mainstream music since then has been at the very least label-sanctioned... run past the bigwigs to make sure it was "acceptably" dangerous, where my man Prince represented a real danger, even if he was too weird to be a widespread threat. People were happy to get a glimpse of the weirdo, but probably didn't want to get too close.

Would you want to sit next to Prince on the bus?

So I realize that this has been rambling, but ultimately, my point is this: there is often dispute about what the best Prince album is. Kevin Smith told me his was Purple Rain, and I told him mine was Sign 'O' The Times (I have a couple hundred witnesses, but didn't make the DVD - ask me some other time). There is nary a bum note on Purple Rain, it was designed to make the Purple One a superstar and it worked. But Sign is the sound of an mad genius reaching his fervent peak. And with the relatively recent electronic availability of the surrounding context (the three albums of unreleased material), it becomes both astounding that he was able to create this, amazing that the label was willing to bankroll something so bizarre, and unfortunate that he was never able to scale these heights again.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

R.I.P. Lux Interior, 1946-2009

I just found out upon getting to work that Lux Interior (a.k.a. Erick Purkhiser), lead singer for the Cramps and allegedly all-around good guy, passed away at age 60. Unlike most of his rock'n'roll-to-the-core bretheren, it was a pre-existing heart condition that did him in.

I was planning on writing something about Radiohead and Bruce Springsteen today, but somehow, none of that seems to really matter, 'cause I'm so bummed that Lux has moved on to the Great Go-Go Club In The Sky. Honestly, if it weren't for the Cramps, Shake would probably never have existed, and I wouldn't have had the opportunity to play some of the best shows of my brief career.

So go get 'em, Lux. Something tells me you're freaking them out already.