Saturday, July 18, 2009

Overlooked Classics: "Good God's Urge"

Sometimes, when exposed to something at exactly the right moment, in exactly the right set of circumstances, one becomes connected to that thing, no matter how your rational mind may tell you otherwise, and no matter how incorrect it may seem with the rest of your life, there are things that we love, for which we can offer little to no excuse. We like them. And there's nothing wrong with that.

One of the benefits to this blind appreciation (I won't call it devotion, as there ARE limits to an otherwise sane person), is that one can then find elements of excellence that others would have overlooked, not being willing to devote the time or energy that someone who was more inclined to enjoy it would. And that's where I stand on Porno For Pyros.

Jane's Addiction was one of those things for me. So, just as I'll buy anything that has "The Stooges" printed on it, I'm inclined to check out anything "Jane's Related", from bootlegs to side projects. Some of these are excellent (the post-JA Deconstruction album), and some are unspeakably awful (*cough* the Chili Peppers' One Hot Minute *cough*). But some of them are not only worthy of your time, they're better than they deserve to be. Jane's worked because of the balance between members. Without guitarist Dave Navarro, leader/vocalist Perry Farrell got too artsy and freaky and self-indulgent, and without Farrell, Navarro would mire down in a sea of hackneyed metal cliche, for instance.

So upon the breakup of Jane's Addiciton, Perry Farrell started Porno For Pyros, and no Navarro or bassist Eric Avery meant it was going to be far more wigged out and pretentious than he has any right to make (*ahem* Satellite Party...), right?

Nope. Porno For Pyros' self-titled first album has its moments, but it's by and large a tight, rocking band that strays into the oddball at times, but is ultimately pretty satisfying. Guitarist Peter DiStefano was a lot more textural than Navarro, the band was by-and-large less aggressive, it was a nice soundtrack for the early 90s: intellectual, artistic, hooky, bohemian. This was a time when Dee-Lite's "Groove Is In The Heart" was ruling the charts. People were ready for freaky boho rock. Grunge had cracked the listening public right open and the world was ready to hear anything.

By 1996, however, their second album sank like a lead-lined rock.

1996, buddy! Korn was happening! 311! Tool! Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness was like quadruple-platinum! Alanis went huge and Metallica went alternative. The Fugees, No Doubt, and Rage Against The Machine all had number one records in 1996. You expect me to listen to your understated album full of acoustic guitars and tropical percussion? Freaky hippie stuff with soundscaping?

Well, yeah.

"Tahitian Moon" starts out with a crazy noise guitar and cuts loose into the sound of laying on a beach under the stars. Otherwise icky hippie hand drums and trippy songwriting is obscured with enough haze to make it absolutely delightful. I once spent a week canoeing to this album, and it somehow fits the outdoors, near the water. "Kimberley Austin", in particular, reminds me of a song that's been barely written, but caught on record in that magical period between songwriting and arranging, when something can sound fresh and spare at the same time. Could it, as a song, have benefited from a little more fine-tuning? Yep. No doubt about it. But the freshness of it completely overrides it - any more and it would be overcooked. I think that sums up this whole album, in fact. Despite the layers of overdubs on everyone's part, this album is absolutely a perfect example of being laid back.

The players, as well, deserve some credit here. Guitarist DiStefano is quite possibly more inventive than Navarro (who guests here) in a sonic way, and Mike Watt, possibly the greatest bassist in the past three decades, lays WAY back on the tracks he features on, avoiding his Minutemen-style bean jumping, preferring to slide into notes and let the lines breathe. Stephen Perkins brings the most intricate and well-placed percussion of his career to the table, and to Perry Farrell's credit, he keeps his ego in check, almost always coming across as just one of the group, never dominating the proceedings.

Good God's Urge had the misfortune of being released in one of the worst possible musical climates for what it is, and due to that, was largely overlooked, even by former Jane's Addiction fans. In this post-millenial musical world, the disc has enough variety for the iPod Shuffle generation, but stands as a remarkably solid piece of work as a whole.

In short, it's absolutely worth the $.99 it would cost you to pick it up out of any used CD bin in America. I love this country.

Voodoo Ritual: In A Silent Way

While I was a young man in college, I had a chip on my shoulder about jazz. You see, I was an outspoken proponent of the artistic merit of rock music. I worked in the rock and roll department of the Indiana University School Of Music, a prestigious music school to be sure. But we rockers in the staff were sneered at, belittled by the cultured classical divisions, as well as the jazz department, who felt that out music was often a blight on the school, a vulgar blight that was better left unmentioned among the cultured ponderings of so many jazz historians.

Seems silly, coming from guys whose music developed in brothels and bars, don't you think?

Were I feeling more academic, I'd consider spouting off about the heirarchy of popular music, how jazz was derided by the upper class in the early part of the century, only to be replaced at the bottom of the ladder by rock and roll in the latter half of the 1900s. However, I'm not in that sort of mood...

You see, partially because of my youthful ignorance, and then magnified by my resentment of the superior attitudes of academic jazz fans, I've never been a big fan of jazz in practice. In principle, I have no problem with the genre, but in practice, I've never been a big fan of it. I've studied it under some wonderful luminaries, but never fully appreciated it, at least, not to the extent that most jazz fans seem to. I have my problems with the attitudes of many hardcore jazz fans, but this is not about the fans, this is about the music.

Much of the more "classical" jazz music follows a particular format: start out with a "head", which is the main theme of the piece, let each member solo, returning to the head at either the end, or between each solo. My problem is that the "widdly diddly" soloing, while technically proficient, and in the best cases, really beautiful and melodic, has always been a drag to me. I don't really even care for guitar soloing - I'd much rather hear lead lines played in service of the song, not as an excuse for showing off or for "getting down" in the heat of the moment.

I realize this is a serious oversimplification of a varied genre, and please forgive what may come across as ignorance - it's merely conjecture. There are, however, two large exceptions to my listening taste when it comes to jazz. The first is free jazz. Wild excursions into dissonance, arhythimc sounds skittering across the air, bleating raw and wild... it's essentially the spirit of punk music with the opposite approach: you have to be REAL good to make this primal noise, rather than the anyone can do it approach of punk rock. Nobody ever accused Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane of not being able to play.

The other exception, and the reason for all that wind-up, is when jazz players take themselves and their abilties out of the equation, and play for the moment that's in the air, not the next one. When the music sits and thinks and pulses and flows like a living organism. Miles Davis' The Complete In A Silent Way sessions is a perfect example of this.

Not strictly downtempo, the closest comparison I can make in the rock world is Can's Future Days, it's jazz without being strictly jazz, ambient without seeming motionless, and experimental without losing grounding. Mysterious and murky in ways that the more "rock world" lauded Bitches Brew isn't. Bitches Brew has cultural importance on its side, but the funky rhythms of that album have tainted most other "fusion" music for my ears. On the In A Silent Way sessions (which, I should point out for the cash-strapped, the official album is more than representative of this box set, on which both album tracks appear), it never loses its status as jazz music, but it is perhaps the most subtle and atmospheric jazz music I've ever heard. Electric pianos abound, but not quite in that "instantly dated" tone that a lot of Bitches Brew has, and every element is clearly within the jazz realm, but somehow, the whole is more avant-garde than the sum of its parts.

Of course, my other favorite Miles Davis album/sessions is The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions, another dark, mysterious album that owes more to funk than jazz, but that's another story, and betrays what perspective I come at this music from. But the regard in which jazz fans hold In A Silent Way surprises me. While it has vague precedents in Miles' music, it stands as a major break to what he'd done before, while not quite ever sounding like anything he put out later. Sure, Filles de Kilimanjaro indicated, in hindsight, where things might be going, but Bitches Brew (released immediately after In A Silent Way) was a whole different creature, one that seemed to prove more influential on not only jazz fusion, but Davis' own future works. More percussion, more polyrhythm, and more creeping funk influence led to what is probably the pinnacle of that direction, 1972's willfully singular On The Corner, which seems like it's a descendent of a completely different lineage.

So what's so appealing about In A Silent Way? I dunno. And that's it. It's mysterious. I can only compare it to the moments BETWEEN lines in David Lynch's Blue Velvet, the moments of deep mystery, tension, danger, stillness... by removing the head/solo/head/solo format, as well as the aesthetic, Davis and the rest of the band have managed to create jazz without jazz, jazz as ambient soundscape. It's a voodoo ritual, writhing and pulsing, crouching in the darkest corner, waiting for you to poke your head in, never making the concession to come out into the light. Ultimately standing on its own, it's a recording that neither gives ground nor takes it, daring you to come closer, luring you in, never letting you know what's on the other side.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Prove It. Just The Facts.

Sometimes I wonder if Television's Marquee Moon is ever going to stop giving.

I purchased my first of several copies of it at J&R Music World when I went to NYC the summer after I turned 16. My incredibly cool aunt and uncle had to work, so they basically turned me loose on Manhattan, which would have made my mother worry her way into a coma. I hit every music and book store I could find. But Marquee Moon was the first disc I bought while I was there and spent most of the rest of the trip just wandering to the tunes of that and the Velvet Underground's White Light/White Heat. At the time, I figured "when in Rome, make sure you have an appropriate soundtrack". I'll admit to being both disappointed and confused with Television at the time, along with the fascination that kept me going back.

"It's a punk record!"

"Err... no it's not."

I was in about my second or third year of punk-ism. I'd read stacks of articles and books about the CBGB scene, and knew that Television wasn't standard issue punk, but was willing to give it a go. Even at the time I could tell it was important, but was a little disappointed in how measured, how polite, and how jammy it seemed. In hindsight, my blueprint of protopunk only included things like the Stooges, not Albert Ayler or King Tubby, so I didn't quite understand how (sonically) this was punk, how this was rebel music. I understood that it was MADE by punks, having practically memorized Please Kill Me even by then, but not punk in it's sound. Obviously, I came around as I got older. Having said that though, it's surprising that it didn't just go on the shelf for a few years to be admired and respected but never listened to. It was, however, an active part of my listening diet all through the rest of high school and into college. Once I'd hit that centre of education, one of my professors got me back into it in a big way, albeit from a different perspective: reminding me that this wasn't the "Marshall backline, Les Paul, epic stage show" sound that was so prevalent at the time it was made. With that in mind, I could hear how, to a teen in 1977, this must have been a revelation. It SOUNDS like it was made with a reasonable drum kit, a few gutars, and a few little Fender combo amps. Realizing that gave the album a fresh meaning to me, and it was like a new record again.

After college, I was a little lost as to what to do with my life, and I found the extended soloing to be both comforting and inspiring to just THINK to, as people in their early-to-mid 20s are wont to do. Recently, after moving across the country, gaining some maturity and realizing the power in subtlety (i.e., not all music needs to be drenched in fuzz and sweat), I keep different meanings in the same notes that I almost know by heart these days.

Will this album ever get old?

I just realized that I've written about Television before, in a blog post for an old, now defunct, blog back in 2006, and while the tone is a bit less refined, it's not awful. It does, however, have a completely different perspective, even three years ago. I was thrilled at finding a bootleg called Portable Electricity, happy that it finally gave Television the low end I felt they were lacking, and because the recording quality is muddy, the whole thing seems heartier and deeper, making them sound more like the punk godfathers they've always been touted as. While I understand that point of view, I don't know if I still feel the same. They were a guitar band, supposed to sound like subway brakes and clattering cityscapes. They didn't need to sound like what I was predisposed to want. Granted, the boot (which came from has been released as Live At The Old Waldorf) does make a case for them being a rockin' band, but after finally meeting Marquee Moon on it's own terms, it's even more enjoyable that whatever predisposition you'd want to lay over it.

And that, I believe, is the brilliance of this record to me. No matter what mindset I bring to the table, the album stands up to it. Punk rock? Listen to that rhythm guitar that opens "See No Evil": it's that "Subway Sound" that everybody talks about the Velvets having. Rock and roll classicism? "Guiding Light" has your 6/8 ballad down pat. The guitar interplay between Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd predicts Luna by about 15 years, and most of the songs have a push/pull that pretty accurately lays some groundwork for post-punk. However you want to listen to this, it will deliver.

Their discography, ultimately, allows for a this same range, but it's not quite as tied together. Bootlegs of their pre-MM material show a rougher band working closer to the garage bands of the mid-60s; their second album, Adventure is the softer, nuanced side of the band; the live collection The Blow-Up shows them stretching songs to their tensile breaking point, adding improv to garage tunes, creating an almost free-jazz-and-garage-rock hybrid, and their reunion album is spare to the point of ghostliness, sounding like nothing so much as post-millennial indie rock. But the brilliance of Marquee Moon is that it's all there from the outset. Not to take away from the later records, which often fit a specific tone, you can listen to Marquee Moon to enjoy any of those. My iPod usually has two Television records on it: Marquee Moon and whichever other one I'm feeling in the mood for. In a punky mood? MM plus a bootleg of the Brian Eno demos. Feeling heady and volatile? MM and The Blow Up. Introspective and reserved? Marquee Moon and the self-titled reunion album. You get the idea.

It's a rare feat to find an album that applies to everything while always sounding just like, and ONLY like, itself. This is one of those. The reissue makes it even more beautiful, by including their first single, the magnificent "Little Johnny Jewel". Highly recommended.

What I Learned In Music School

"...the fact remains that if you take one note, any note, and let two different people play it, what comes out of one's axe just might be nothing more than the note, whereas through some magic the other's note might be just a little more expressive, probably because there was something, a kind of inner urgency and yearning, behind it. And all the conservatories and theory books and virtuoso chop-flashings in the world aren't gonna make one iota of difference in regard to that one humble note."
-Lester Bangs, "Free Jazz Punk Rock", 1979

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Kittens And Sunshine

"Hi. My name is Mike, and I'm a 27-year-old man."

The group responds collectively, "Hi, Mike."

"... I'm a 27-year-old man, and I like Nine Inch Nails."

(smattering of applause)


See, I liked Nine Inch Nails in high school. Of course I did. It was the mid-to-late 90's, I was confused, and when I wasn't thrashing away at some punk tune, I was wallowing in that whole angst thing. We all did it in one form or another.

Once I got to college, NIN seemed like a rather distant memory. What was once cathartic seemed silly and overwrought. To put the dating in perspective, when I was in middle school, I bought The Downward Spiral, when I was in high school, I picked up The Fragile, and the next one came out after I graduated college. I didn't buy it. I was an adult, ready for adult things. Goth-y industrual pop for eyelinered post-adolescents was a thing of the past.
When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. - The Bible

But then things started to turn. I read about the alternate reality game that Trent Reznor used to market Year Zero, and it seemed really neat and creative. I followed the blogosphere's coverage of Reznor's one man war against the Big Label Machine. It all seemed cool, post-millennial, and ethically/morally right, as someone to the left of the Big Label Debate. But what about the music? I'd heard tracks from the first '00s NIN album (With Teeth), and they were OK, but squarely in the "heavy modern rock" category. Meh. I worked in a record store and at a place that manufactured CDs, and the heat-sensitive discface to Year Zero was awesome, but I didn't really listen to it. I picked up a promo copy of Ghosts I-IV becuase it was free and I like ambient records; it was good for a few background listens, then it went on the shelf.

So what changed? I gave up. I needed something new and aggressive and electronic-tinged and modern. Reznor's seemed to be loosening up in the past few years, with his April Fool's Day 2009 joke coming across with some serious hilarity (the Kanye-baiting cover, the tracklisting, the producer... comedy gold). I downloaded the free-to-the-world album, The Slip, and it was great. Cool, heavy, angry, intricate... a wonderful album, made all the better by the distribution method and the intent with which it was made. Distanced from the brilliant marketing, Year Zero is probably even better, I'm just totally over the whole concept album thing, so The Slip's concise songs-as-songs mentality appeals to me just a bit more.

The irony of something so resolutely in my angsty youth blossoming into one of the more interesting, most mature sources of music in modern popular rock is not lost on me. While Reznor hasn't been one of my favorite lyricists (he still treads in cliched darkness more than I'd like), the fact that it's forward-thinking rock made for an intelligent audience is fascinating to me. Especially since (with a few exceptions) most of the Nine Inch Nails fans I know in 2009 are people I'd rather not know. Unfortunately, I think that a lot of his potential audience feels like I did, with their (completely valid) preconceptions of NIN keeping them away from music they'd most likely enjoy.

So let's hear it for Trent Reznor. Congrats on getting sober a few years back, congrats on using that experience to allow yourself to move beyond moody platitudes, congrats on fighting the good fight against the corporate monster, and congrats on managing to be commerically viable while fiercely maintaining your own independence.

Please don't screw it all up now.

Make Sure The Mic Is Grounded. Otherwise You're In For An Angry Show.

I guess it was the name and the fanbase that kept me from getting into Built To Spill until well after I was out of college. Which is unfortunate, cause I would have LOVED them in college. So when Dave tells me he can't believe that I don't know them, and says he's gonna give me a couple tracks from their live album, I was like, "Whoa, whoa, whoa..."

I don't generally like live albums, you see.

But he sends me these tracks, which obviously I love, and then the whole record. And I totally flipped for it. Which is weird.

Not cause it's a solo-heavy "guitarist's record". Not cause it's anything but an awesome album.

It's because it's a live album.

I have a few live albums I like, and some of the better ones are the ones that were heavily studio "adjusted". Cheap Trick's At Budokan is about as good as a live album gets. Hell, it's about as good as ANY album gets. But overall, I'd rather hear the studio versions. If I really want to hear a stripped down, "just the band playing" version of a song, I'd rather hear a demo than a live version of a song I already know. Hearing a live album as the first time I'm exposed to a band is the kiss of death as far as my record collection is concerned. It's not because I'm against the idea of live records, it's just that they're often so much more flaccid, as most bands don't start playing a song live until they've recorded it anymore, and so then they're trying to recapture the magic of a moment created in the studio, and it's sad.

Built To Spill aren't any more of a "killer live band" than they are a "fine-tuned studio band". It's not like they're the Grateful Dead, who (allegedly) have to be seen live to be fully appreciated. So what made this so special? The production's thick enough that it may as well be a studio album. It's not that I'm enamoured of the jamming - as a rule, I avoid records that are full of extended jams; I think it's because there's a certain energy that pervades the proceedings that just relaxes and lets the songs happen. And not worrying about overdubs and space and the cost of tape, it's got a natural fluidity that is a very rare magic indeed. It's hard to find records where you can hear a song blossom, improvised, to realize it's full potential, while still remaining in the service of the song. A live record that shows what the band is capable of, but still manages to sound like a studio record that was recorded live, you dig? Think about it too hard and your brain will hurt. Luckily there's tons of AMP NOISE on the album. That'll make your brain stop hurting as much. And seriously, who leaves amp crackle and hum on their album?

So, the point is, most live albums suck. They're the defintion of cash-in, designed to bilk consumers out of cash for a version of a song they already have, and by recording at a concert, the cost to create the record is drastically lower than it is to create revised studio versions. But there ARE exceptions. Built To Spill's Live is one of them, At Budokan is another. While The Smiths' late-period live album is my favorite of their records, it wouldn't hold up in the pantheon of the greats. And I realize that the Sound Opinions podcast covered this EXACT SAME GROUND a few weeks ago, but the question is, what are the most underrated live albums of all time? You can keep your Live At Leeds and Get Your Ya-Yas Out!, I want to know about those secret gems that nobody ever adds to those lists, but realizes they should have two days later. Things like Spacemen 3 and Spiritualized, Suicide, Big Black, Black Flag, and even the Butthole Surfers. Im going to ponder this and come back later with which ones and why, but in the meantime, drop any suggestions in the box...