Monday, June 29, 2009

Race For The Prize: Who Gets Where?

This week, we here at the Central Target Research Lab are conducting an experiment. Given the same new album at the same time, will two people with (frighteningly) similar taste reach the same conclusion? Brent Shelley, our associate over at the wonderful Dogdoguwar has agreed to take part in this experiment, paving the way for next week's marathon joint live-review session! So, below is the Central Target review of the Lemonheads' new covers album, Varshons.

Let's get this out of the way: the Lemonheads' new, all-covers album sounds exactly like the Lemonheads.

They've had 3 distinct choices in cover material their whole career - the punky/poppy classics, the weepy country-pop type, and the "really?" fringe artist. "Mrs. Robinson" fits the first, the Empire Records-featured version of Big Star's "The Ballad Of El Goodo" is the second, and there was that unfortunate Charlie Manson cover on 1988's Creator. The Wire and Linda Perry covers here fit the first group, longtime Dando idol Gram Parsons gets the nod to fill the country quota, and Manson here is replaced by the cuddly-as-a-kitten G.G. Allin. However, there are a few little surprises.

It's far more acoustic than expected, for one thing. I was expecting Evan Dando to "Lemonize" these into fingerpoppin' brisk power-pop, which is the rarity here - seems ol' Evan would rather reach for the acoustic these days. You'd also NEVER know that this album was produced by the Butthole Surfers' ringmaster himself, Gibby Haynes. Dando's longtime buddy kept his weirdness off of this album, and honestly, it's the better for it.

However, nothing here is particularly revelatory. It all sounds good, and it's all well-perfomed, chosen, and produced. It feels like a collection that a friend of yours with a serious Lemonheads infatuation would hand you, saying, "Hey, here's a disc of all the covers they've done in the past 5 years." It all does sound "of a piece" (as opposed to the erratic production qualities a comp might have), but it never escapes the fact that it's a covers album. While it would be easy for a Cramps fan to pick "Green Fuz" as the highlight, it's the G.G. Allin cover here that's most interesting, as Dando's deep vocals push it to "Nick Cave Goes Pop-Country" territory. Frightening.

Three years since the last Lemonheads album leaves one wanting to hear more Dando & Co., and while it takes a lot of effort to make power pop that sounds effortless, and it's unfair to judge this by what it isn't, it's hard to shake the feeling of wanting to hear these guys really come into their own, rather than someone else's.


Friday, June 26, 2009

Le Roi Est Mort, Vive Le Roi!

I've never owned a copy of Thriller.

I had a dubbed cassette side of most of it when I was about seven years old. I didn't really need to own it. It's songs were ubiquitous. When I was a kid, playing my parents and friends' records, flipping the LP over was always a drag, cause it broke the rhythm, and the beginning of Side B was never as good. Thriller's "end-of-A-into-B" was perfect. "Thriller" into "Beat It" into "Billie Jean"? Flawless.

I always liked Bad even better. It didn't feel like it had as many hits, but it also had the good fortune to be HUGE once I was old enough to understand music. Bad was, in fact, badder, in a sense. It hit harder. It was darker. The video in the subway was cool, the Moonwalker movie felt like Brazil to an 8-year-old, and "Smooth Criminal" is still my favorite Jackson song.

Minor key, hard-hitting drum machine, it's on par with "Sign O' The Times" for urban paranoia, just smoothed out for mass consumption, "Smooth Criminal" painted Jackson as dangerously aware of his own self-image. He wasn't crying over Annie, he was the one who did it. I didn't know what Reagan-era social tension was until years later, but I knew what it sounded like. Mechanical, ominous, violent and paranoid, this was post-millennial pop made 15 years early.

How is it that something so ahead of its time was so successful in it's own day? It's because the King Of Pop appealed to everyone. Maybe it was his ever-changing look, but somehow he was rock enough for the rockers, hooky enough to dominate pop radio, Quincy Jones made sure he hit the R&B charts, kids loved him as a some kind of grown up version of one of us, and adults liked him because to them he'd always be a kid. He worked with Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder, made records that attempted to exorcise the demons that packed his closet but were still successful enough on their own that MILLIONS of people bought them. Until the unfortunate personal issues in the '90s, he was almost certainly the most beloved pop musician anywhere. He was the king. He will be missed.

I think I'm going to go out and finally buy Thriller today.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The New Space Rock (Of Martian Earwax Dream Frequencies)

OK, so I like the Flaming Lips, right?

I know what you're thinking. "Oh boy, another blogger talking about the Flaming Lips."

Yeah, I am.

"Oh, Mike hates everything, he's probably going to slam something about the Flaming Lips..."

Not really, no.

See, I have a long history with the Lips. I discovered them around 1995. I remembered seeing them around a few years prior (I was only in middle school at the time), and while I loved the colorful madness of "She Don't Use Jelly", I'd heard the Transmissions From The Satellite Heart album, from which their hit was spawned, and thought (wisely for a 7th grader, if I can pat myself on the back) "I don't get this yet. I like the catchy parts, but there's more to this than I understand..." "She Don't Use Jelly" and "Turn It On" were great pop songs, that little kid Mike could bop around to, but there was some serious freakadelica going on under there that was beyond where my little head could go. When I was 16 1/2 (I remember, because it was just after I'd gotten my license officially), I was at a hip coffee shop in the collegiate area of Cincinnati, and above the (completely "90s") coffee bar, there was a used CD store. I was an emerging record nerd, but like every 16 year old, I had very little money to speak of, so I had to choose carefully. I ended up with the Lips' Clouds Taste Metallic, which completely scrambled my little brain. To steal a critical buzzphrase, it was perfect "acid bubblegum." Pop songs wrapped up in weird production, static noise, strange psychedelia, and druggy atmosphere. Psych music was supposed to be boring and jammy, right? This was amazing! It was a favorite of mine over the next couple of years, a bit of a secret pleasure (punks don't like hippes, right?), since it was a follow up to an "alternative one-hit wonder" who'd been on 90210, but a wonderful headphone treat for late-night bedroom listening. I'd hear bits and pieces about the band, like they had a vast back catalog, that they had a 4-disc set meant to be played simultaneously, their guitarist had almost died from a spiderbite, etc.

It came at a weird time in my life as well. I was just emerging from the other end of high school, ready to go out into the world, and I remember it was all I could listen to in summer of 2000. I'd heard about their new album The Soft Bulletin, but heard that it was heavy on the pianos and strings, so i'll stick with my whacked-out electric bubblegum psych, thank you very much. I'd been in love for a couple of months, the weather was beautiful, but there was a change in the air. In fact, I can't even think about Clouds Taste Metallic without remembering the fact that that's all I listened to driving from Cincinnati to Bloomington, IN to go to college. I was distraught. The girl I loved and I had decided to stick together and see what happens, despite the distance. I listened to that CD over and over on headphones as I drove away on a rainy day, leaving behind the best thing that I'd ever had, not knowing what would happen next. I just can't divorce this album from that memory.

Once I was at school, I kept seeing people in Lips shirts, hearing murmurs about them, and I thought "College is awesome! People here are into this weirdo obscuro band that nobody cares about!" Of course, I didn't realize just how popular The Soft Bulletin was among certain indie channels, many of which I had yet to discover. Luckily college would ruin me as far as that goes. Some of the first CDs I bought at my favorite record store in Bloomington (which I later ended up working at) were the early Lips albums, with their fourth full-length, In A Priest Driven Ambulance just blowing me away. But whenever I'd run into someone in a Lips shirt, they'd be almost unaware of anything prior to The Soft Bulletin. A couple years later, I got a handmade (!) promo of their follow-up, Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, and loved it's futuristic prog-hop, as did everyone else, and the rest, as they say, is history. I've recently warmed to the songs themselves, but I fail to believe that The Soft Bulletin is REALLY as good as people say it is, and I don't trust anyone who claims to be a "big fan" but doesn't know a note prior to that album. Surely I'm not the only person in my age bracket who remembers that seven-year period where you could find Transmissions in every cutout CD bin because they were jsut a one-hit wonder band of weirdos. Clouds Taste Metallic was even more derided because it didn't even have the hit on it!

So what's my point? It's that this is a band with dual identities, and rarely shall the twain meet. The funny thing is, the fulcrum of this see-saw that they balance on is their most ambitious, mysterious project, Zaireeka, the 4-disc set, meant with all four discs meant to be played simultaneously. If you think of it as the dividing line, you can divide the Lips' catalog into the pre-Zaireeka "acid underground" music and the "grand progressive" era that follows. Each have their merits, and I generally prefer the earlier period, but the older I get, the more I'm digging on the later stuff. If you want to be glib about it, you can divide it into "guitar" and "synth" phases, but it's more than that. The outlook changed.

I spent most of last night listening to the post-Zaireeka albums and enjoying them. While I don't think they have the same brilliant spark that the earlier stuff had, it's more a case of people who have passed that stage experimenting with different forms. The fact that this music, poppy as it may be, has become some of the most popular rock music of this century so far is flabbergasting. Not to say it's not good, I'm commenting on the bad taste of the general public. But then I thought about it...

For years, I've been calling Radiohead "our generation's Pink Floyd". They fit the bill. Flirting with avant-garde textures, serious, each album a major musical "event". A band with very little in the way of public image (although with similarities to Public Image), making "serious music" that is both critically and popularly loved. But here's the fault with that. I run in nerd circles, where nerdsd flip out over Radiohead. If you step back, they're popular, but they're too self-consciously intellectual for the masses to really dig into without feeling stupid. Their fanbase is fantatical, and does whatever they can to dig deeper down the rabbit hole. Radiohead is the Yes of our generation. That's not a criticism (what with my previously noted distaste for Yes and their ilk), nor is it a comparision of the actual note-for-note music. However, as a handy critical shorthand for their place in the market, it fits.

What do dorm rats put on when they put towels under their door and smoke pot between classes? Who sells out festivals for the masses to get sufficiently freaky to? The music and the attitude is different, but the Flaming Lips are our Pink Floyd. Seriously. They're way more fun. But they're like "prog lite" for my generation. And that's cool. They do it well. They're infinitely more interesting on a personal level, and they strive to let people have FUN in ways that Floyd would never have considered. But is the spectacle of Wayne Coyne in a bubble on the crowd, or wearing 5 foot foam hands, or covered in fake blood that different from having a real plane crash into a 50 foot wall on stage? Nerds can examine the winding narratives of Coyne's lyrics while bro-dudes can mellow out to their squelchy, loping synth explorations, and rocker dudes can marvel at the interplay between Coyne and Michael Ivins and Steven Drozd.

Is this sacriliege? Is calling a band that started as (basically) a Butthole Surfers knockoff the new kings of prog-pop? Maybe. But I ask you to find me a band that better exemplifies the sort of mass appeal based on completely fearless freakery than the Flaming Lips do. Radiohead fans? Flaming Lips fans? C'mon... call me out. Let's hear what you think.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

"Someone Is Waiting" (I Am Not Waiting)

Enough, already.

I'm calling a sort of truce. I just read a story on Stereogum discussing how the Dirty Projectors' Bitte Orca may very well be the best album of 2009. This comes after a JANUARY 2009 opinion that Animal Collective's Merriweather Post Pavilion is the best album of 2009. My problem with these statements is not just the ridiculous levels of hype (please see this article for where I stand on blog hype).

I recently posted a link on my Facebook page to Mark Prindle's Record Reviews, specifically his "Micro-Reviews of Hip Bands That The Kids Dig" page. My friend found herself rather irritated at what she perceived as his "indie hating". She and I have a history of me teasing her for "indie favortism", and she calling me out as a biased punk rock nut. Writer Mark Prindle has an affinity for punk as well, although his site covers everything from metal to hip-hop, and his fondness of bands like Polvo, Superchunk, Thinking Fellers Union Local 282, etc., is well-documented. He's on Pavement's DVD for crying out loud! I found her position to be a bit defensive, as Prindle states at the head of the page that these are silly, first-impression reviews of bands by a writer known for a less-than-completely-serious style. Examples:

A Place To Bury Strangers - Fans of Bauhaus and Joy Division crank up the reverb and churn out the gothy post-punk. Pointless and idea-free.

Bon Iver - Acoustic strum with ambient wind tones and falsetto vocals. Without the falsetto, it'd just be boring; with the falsetto, it's unlistenable.

Fiery Furnaces - A brother and sister creating artsy (and shitty) indie rock from keyboards, guitars, drums, samples, special effects and haughty unlikeable female vocals. Even when the brother happens upon an intriguing musical loop or orchestral arrangement, the songs are no fun because the sister sounds like a schoolteacher or Patti Smith or some crap.

Joanna Newsom - A harp-playin' pianist woman with a ludicrously childlike voice. Might appeal to "Juno" fans. Sounds like a mixture of vomit and shit to me.

Jens Lekman - Swedish indie singer-songwriter keeps it sissyish and light, like the worst the 1970's had to offer. His music features sampled horns, accordions, strings, pianos, Caribbean percussion and all kinds of other terrible things. I was going to compare him to David Byrne's fruity late-period stuff and Jonathan Richman's post-Modern Lovers crap, but then I checked Wikipedia and discovered that he is already compared to both of those artists. So instead I'll just compare him to a pile of dog shit.

Now, please don't accuse me of baiting, as I know the latter three are bands that she likes. The first one is a band I like, which I added to be fair. Also in the interest of fairness, I just picked what I found to be some of the meaner, funnier ones, which happen to coincide with the sphere of bands that my friend enjoys. More power to her. I love debating music with her, and while our tastes often converge, they just as often differ. We spent many hours working at a record store together, even involving customers in our epic debates. She's wonderful and I respect her taste, so hopefully she reads this. Because then she can explain something to me.

I understand the appeal of bands like Fiery Furnaces and Dirty Projectors and Animal Collective. I make no critique of people for liking those bands strictly on their merits. However, I don't exactly understand what those merits are, apparently.

What makes an album like Merriweather Post Pavilion a 12-month early contender for album of the year? As I recall, that discussion began in 2008. It's adequate music played in a way that is not traditional but not entirely innovative that from a purely objective standpoint hangs together as an album well. How does that make this any different than, say, the latest offering by James Taylor? I understand that it's a different kind of music, but those criteria match, right? What is that magical ingredient that makes The Dirty Projectors special? I'm not damning them, and this isn't an indictment of "indie music" (whatever that term may mean by this point). I know music, I understand music, and I've been neck-deep in "non-mainstream" music for well over a decade. However, I do not understand what makes these hyped albums so special. Is there anything?

Now, I'm not stating that I don't feel that these albums are capable of praise. Sure. Especially if they encompass certain signifiers of the genre that make one pre-disposed to enjoy a certain genre. I, for one, hear a wash of heavily effected guitars and indistinct vocals and I say "That is like shoegazer music. I like shoegazer music, therefore I like this." While I could see a historical progression from bands such as Pavement (to many people, one of the very definitions of "early indie rock" in the "genre" sense of the name, which is another complaint for another time), it seems as though the parts of those bands that are appealing were removed, and what's left was used as the foundation for the next generation.

Now, I'm not a stupid man. I understand that what I just said was tantamount to waving a red flag for my detractors - by referring to what I find "appealing" is a apparently subjective moment in what purports to be an objective examination. What I'm referring to as "appealing" are the elements (all that I can think of) that are widely cited as elements that made those bands "important" and worthy of continued examination. Again, using Pavement as an example, what has generally been referred to as the elements that made them an important band were their use of noise within both traditional ("Summer Babe", "Cut Your Hair") and non-traditional song structure, their use of lo-fi recording techniques, and the atmosphere of "slack" (a terrible term) many attribute to a loose sense of collective rhythm and vocal technique. In critical shorthand, they were catchy, noisy, lo-fi and sloppy. But ultimately, they had songs. I own every Guided By Voices album, a good bakers dozen of the more important EPs, about 12 Bob Pollard solo albums, and even some Tobin Sprout albums, which, to some, makes me qualified to say that in my opinion, the reason that Bee Thousand was a breakthrough record and Same Place The Fly Got Smashed was not production (which was the same), but the songs. If Bee Thousand didn't have any hooks, nobody would have bought it other than the 30 people buying GBV albums up to that point. And when I listen to bands like The Dirty Projectors and their ilk, I hear "indie rock signifiers" without songs to back them up. It's the sound and the fury, signifying nothing.

Now, I'm not immune from this. I like a lot of rote garage bands, I like a lot of really awful punk bands that have nothing going for them but speed and whine. Power pop is arguably the least innovative form of rock music. My taste in dub reggae is, by definition of the form, is to find as many reworkings of the same rhythm track as possible. But rarely do I hear somebody say "Oh, you just don't GET it," about Jon Spencer or The Exploding Hearts. These forms (in many respects)are visceral, if it doesn't catch you, it doesn't catch you. And that's fine. But indie rock seems to propagate a "nerd revenge" attitude; "if you don't like it, you don't get it, so stay out." I spent 10 years in "indie rock". I cut my teeth in bands that adored Superchunk, saw Fugazi on my 19th birthday, worked at a CD manufacturing company that was owned and shared office space with three sucessful indie labels, and have worked at two indie-oriented record stores for a combined total of four years. But things in contemporary indie rock have evolved so far into "symbology + image" (in a rock history sense) that I often find myself wondering if there's any of the original spark left.

So yeah, what I'm saying is that things aren't as good as they were in my day. I'm getting old.

[And in the interest of full disclosure, while I have written a song called "Jens Lekman (Is Trying To Ruin My Life)", I do enjoy a fair number of his songs, if only because I had to listen to them at two different jobs for about 3 years. At least they're SONGS.]

Special Thanks to Mark Prindle for letting me reprint some of his comments here.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

This Is Going To Be A Problem: Best Records Of '09, Part 2

I was going to wait to do another "Best Of So Far" until I had more to write about... you know, in like 4 months But somehow, I've accumulated another FIVE albums since the last roundup. And I'm being picky! So, since reviewing "current" albums might help make this more of a... LEGITIMATE music blog, here's 'Part 2' of the "Best Of '09 So Far", this time in no particular order:

5. Green Day - "21st Century Breakdown"
I think over the past month or so, I've made my feelings on this album pretty well-known. However, to play by the rules, this is a damn fine hard-rocking concept album by an excellent band that has twice now lost cred due to their audience, not their abilities. I remember being a seventh grader who was into Green Day, so it's not the band's fault that today's seventh graders like Green Day. So what if they sell a billion records to the Hot Topic crowd? A well-written, immaculately-produced power-pop-punk by a talented band having a late-career renaissance. This album should have been unlistenable, but to it's credit, not only is it a worthy follow-up to the blockbuster American Idiot, it should be considered excellent all on its own.

4. Mos Def - "The Ecstatic"
Maybe it's me. Maybe it's the fact that I really, truly discovered Mos Def late in the game. His flawless first album knocked me out, and I even really liked the sprawl of his messy second album, The New Danger. But once I was a fan, and saw his third album released with no cover art and not much good music to speak of, all while watching his acting stock rise, i was convinced he'd traded one career for another. In hindsight, the "don't pay for it" True Magic had "contractual obligation" written all over it, I was just too disappointed to see it. The Ecstatic might not be perfect, but for an artist I'd all but written off (as a recording artist), this is an unexpected delight. Clear-eyed, impassioned verse over swirling, razor sharp beats that dissipate into vapor before your eyes, this is what modern hip hop should sound like. Production from some of the Stones Throw Records luminaries I already love doesn't hurt things, but this is Mos Def's game all the way. Maybe I'm too excited about this with the thrill of the new, but if more hip hop records sounded like this, I'd listen to more hip hop.

3. Sonic Youth -"The Eternal"
At this point in the game, Sonic Youth is what it is. Their impact on "alternative" rock music is unquestionable, and they can settle into their role as elder statesmen (and woman) of alt rock. Skronky guitars, jagged rhythms, sassy lyrics about being kool, you name it, they've got it. So why is it such a surprise to me that this is so good? Everyone raved about 2006's Rather Ripped, which was a welcome record to me if only 'cause it shortened song lengths, added more hooks, and got rid of Jim O'Rourke. This feels like the more lived-in version of that sound. It's rocking, edgy, but not trying to reclaim some lost youth. It rocks in a mature way, without feeling like a band past it's prime. And for a band to make a record this rocking, catchy, interesting and fresh THIRTY YEARS SINCE ITS INCEPTION is a pretty good deal for us listeners. To put that in perspective, if Sonic Youth were the Rolling Stones, this would be 1983. Blows the mind, doesn't it?

2. Meat Puppets - "Sewn Together"
Sadly, I'm pretty sure that when the big final list gets made next January, this one will be cut. There's nothing exceptional about it, but I'm sick of asking for exceptional things from my albums. What about a really, really solid record that doesn't break any barriers? Just because something perfects something that's been done before doesn't make it any less than something brand new. This is better than the first reunion album, 2007's Rise To Your Knees, and it's the sound of two brothers locked into a groove, playing vaguely psychedelic, country-tinged alternative rock. Every record they've made since 1985's Up On The Sun has been underrated, and while this isn't on par with their earth-shattering genre-defying second album, it's about as good an album as you could expect anyone to make. Hopefully the Kirkwoods keep making records like this for years, full of lovely songs, wonderful production, skilled performances, good energy, and acid-tinged atmosphere.

1. Dinosaur Jr - "Farm"
It doesn't have that same shock that Beyond had. But that was because the Mascis/Barlow feud ran so deep, and because nobody had made a record that sounded like that since 1994, not even J. Mascis. So finally hearing Farm just proves that this isn't a fluke. Am I bitter? A little. I've been championing this comeback since 2005, and everybody's acting like they haven't been calling me crazy for the past 4 years. My initial reaction to this record was strange, since, as I said, it didn't sound like a time capsule in the way that Beyond did. it's weird to hear Dino Jr take on modern indie-rock. Of course, that's just being really picky, as it still sounds JUST LIKE DINOSAUR JR. But ultimately, for better or worse, it's Sebadoh that's really had the impact on indie rock since the mid-90s. Imagine if your favorite Dinosaur record had more songs where J was trying to sound a little like Lou, rather than the other way around. But this is all details. This is Mascis' album, through and through. Every inch of this album has fuzz growing on it, Big Muffed to high heaven. It's a Jay-Lou-Murph Dinosaur Jr album released in the year 2009. It's got Marshalls and fuzzboxes and Jazzmasters all over it. I shouldn't even be talking about it, I should be spending this time listening to it.

I realize that these reviews spend a lot of time talking about the context, not the content. "Sonic Youth is old", "Mos Def's last album was lousy", "Green Day's fans are twelve", "Meat Puppets did something revolutionary once", and "Dino Jr reunited" could easily have taken the place of most of these reviews. But aren't I going to need something specific to write about once the list is finalized?

Monday, June 8, 2009

You're Only As Cool As Your Favorite Blog

Hey, remember our youth?

Doesn't matter how old you are, 'cause if you're young enough to use the internet, this will probably apply to you. I'm talking about the days when we only had a few channels (figuratively) to receive pop culture. The one radio station in your town that played the stuff you like, or in the case of my generation, MTV. We had a few ways to find out about the new cool thing, and since everyone in our sphere watched/listened to the same outlet (that's what made us "of the same sphere"), we all had access to the same material, specifically music.

2009: Radio's a lost cause, unless you live in a heavily college-oriented town, in which case you might pick up a good college station. MTV's a joke, since when they do squeeze in a video between episodes of The Real World and My Super Sweet 16, it's crap that somebody is paying a lot of money to hype. I don't mean that to be snarky, it's just the way things work anymore. So we've turned to other outlets. For most, it's the internet. What, you expected something else?

Now that everyone has limitless avenues of exposure to music and culture, one has to trust their outlet to keep them in "cool," if cool is what they're chasing. But since this isn't a unified outlet that everyone is tuning in to, they'll most likely be getting slightly different information, unless their blog is getting it's info from a bigger, more popular, and "guaranteed cool" source.

[Note: Not every blog on the internet is guilty of this offense. I'm merely speaking in generalities to illustrate a point.]

Now, there are a couple of problems with this model. Number one is the idea that there may be an "indie rock mother blog" that begins a trickle-down effect. If this is the case, we have to find it and kill it. Pitchfork, I'm looking at you. But this network keeps to it's own yard and is so afraid of being outré, that what you essentially get is a case of a million bloggers scrambling to be different just like everybody else. I don't care how many blogs post about them, I think that The Knife, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, and Joanna Newsom SUCK. But wouldn't you hate to be the one voice of dissent in the blogosphere? Suddenly you're uncool, and nobody trusts your validity as a tastemaker anymore. It's tantamount to badmouthing Nirvana in '92, after they get a new video into rotation. More than a few "what's WRONG with him?" glances have been shot for less grevious offenses.

[I do, by the way, understand the irony that I'm badmouthing those acts on a blog, thereby negating any credibility I might have had with their fans. I just don't care.]

So where does that leave things? Well, as stated much better elsewhere (and forgive me, Mr. Shelley, if I appear to be misconstruing any of your meaning), the music-based blog world is turning into a more technologically advanced version of the British music press. Why go to blogs? Sensational "I got here first" scoops, and "free" samples. Once you run out of good bands, however, you're forced to give "scoops" that don't necessarily deserve it, just to keep yourself reputable as a scoop-source. And it's easier to back up your case when you're posting new songs that sound like other songs that have previously been approved - how else can you explain electroclash? By that point, you've lost the point (and the plot). Once people realize that what you just fed them is crap (please see the electroclash reference), they'll spit it back out, a backlash will ensue, and then you'll have to come up with something new-but-not-too-new, and the cycle will continue. The build-'em-up, smack-em-down frequency builds up speed, and then you're just swimming in crap.

But you've gotta trust your blog. If not, you don't know what everyone else says that cool is. And if you don't know what define cool as being, how are people gonna respect you? Your taste?

Saturday, June 6, 2009

This Is Where I Came In

I had an insomniac idea for an article the other night, scribbled it down next to my bedstand, and I think it could be good stuff, but it's going to take some work, so maybe next time. Plus, I've got something rattling around in my head that's freaking me out enough that I oughtta get it out.

I'm starting to love the Bee Gees.

Not that mid-to-late '60s baroque pop. I don't like it when hipsters from Brooklyn do it now, I don't care for it when the Bee Gees did it years ago. And if I hear one more hipster compare Odessa to the Beatles and the Zombies, I'm going to punch somebody. I'm talking about full-on chest-hair, gold-medallion, warbly-falsetto DISCO-ERA Bee Gees. How the hell did this happen, none of you ask? I'm a-gonna lay it down for you.

I was sitting on the computer yesterday, and I came across the "Barry Gibb Talk Show" clips from Saturday Night Live. Used to irritate the hell out of me, but for no reason whatsoever I found it hysterically funny this time. Barry Gibb as a barely contained ball of furry rage that slips into falsetto the angrier he gets? Funny stuff. The thing is, the music they were using in the background wasn't far off the silky, string-laden '70s R&B I love. But this background music didn't go on and on as just an excuse to dance, this seemed like songs. So I go out into the internet and snag some greatest hits, if you catch my meaning. I also do a little research. Here's a band, way past their prime, and clearly a POP band, not a disco or R&B band, although they had their blue-eyed soul moments. You've got a songwriter hired to write some genre songs for what's certainly destined to be a cheap-o exploitation film. He decides to crank out a couple of songs, set 'em to the fading disco sound, and collect a check. End of story, right?

Now, I only saw Saturday Night Fever all the way through recently. And that was after I found out that the article it was based on ("Tribal Rites Of Saturday Night," Nik Cohn, 1975) was fabricated, and it was actually about British Mod culture. It was basically Quadrophenia with sillier clothes and different music. Dead-end kid finds an escape from his dead-end destiny in a youth culture where he has a moment as a big shot, only to be drug back down to reality by his dead-end friends and family, and end up back where he started? Yeah, totally feel-good popcorn fodder.

So the movie wasn't really about disco, and the soundtrack wasn't really authentic disco music (at least the Bee Gees parts weren't), but a finely-crafted fake approximation of said music by a pop expert. Essentially, the Bee Gees did the same thing for disco that Nine Inch Nails did for industrial: take the raw form of the music, then, like a blacksmith, hammer and shape it into something resembling the tried-and-true pop song formula, bringing it from the underground to the mainstream. Nirvana did it for grunge, even bands like the Beatles made psychedelia easier to digest for mass consumption. After all, Pink Floyd's "Interstellar Overdrive" might have been a bit much for the general public to take on right away, but "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds" is do-able, right? The Bee Gees, like the pop experts they had proven themselves to be, were able to take the elements of disco and translate them into some of the best-known singles of the past 40 years, and end up codifying the essence of disco in many people's minds.

Who cares? These songs are immaculately arranged and performed. There's some silliness, and I still hate the trappings of disco as much as I hate the fashion trappings of any subculture, if not more. Growing up, disco was my enemy, cause that was the enemy of the punks when they kicked up, 20 years prior, back when disco was a real threat, musically and culturally. I'm supposed to hate disco, and generally I do. I'm not blind, either... I grew up on punk rock but I'll be the first to tell you that punk has some of the lamest fashion statements EVER. But, taken without all the context, the Bee Gees disco era is as good as dance music gets. It works as both smooth music and propulsive music, on par with something like Aphex Twin's "dreamy melodies over skittering beats." Genre aside, the ability to craft music that operates in the fast lane and slow lane at the same time is something every few musicians can master, and it's certainly an impressive feat.

So as guilty-pleasure as it might seem, and remember, this is coming from a punk rocker, the Bee Gees disco-era hits, removed from the silly and absurd culture they sprang from and (for many) embody, are some of the finest danceable soul songs I've ever heard.

Screw your Odessa, hipster bitches... you should be dancin'... Yeah...!