Sunday, August 30, 2009

D'You Know What I Mean?: A Long-Distance Look On The Messy Follow-Up

I had the idea for a series of articles for this blog, entitled something like "Middling Bands Make Great Albums", highlighting the one great moment by an otherwise adequate but dismissable band. The idea of writing a whole column about the Goo Goo Dolls' Hold Me Up, however, seemed like a bad idea before I even started, and the whole "Great Band Makes A Mediocre Album" seemed a little obvious and boring, and I don't want to listen to "Hail To The Thief" or "A Ghost Is Born" again if there's not a gun to my head. I've just been looking to contrast the difference in quality between an album and the work that came around it.

So in that spirit, let's talk about Oasis' Be Here Now.

One of the most highly-anticipated rock and roll records of my formative years, Oasis had raised the bar pretty high. I wasn't a fan at the time - too busy listening to serious angst - after all, I was an American who was looking for the next auteur after grunge... I couldn't be bothered with their hippie-Beatles platitudes. But, I couldn't deny that after the larger-than-life rock and roll of Definitely Maybe and the larger-than-that epic balladeering of the (What's The Story) Morning Glory singles factory, the excitement surrounding the imminent release of Be Here Now was palpable. The leadoff single was "D'You Know What I Mean", and it seemed that the lads in the band were about to enter their psychedelic phase, but with that punky edge that Liam's obnoxious sneer lent their tunes.

And they dropped the ball, or so the story goes.

Coming off not only two of the biggest albums of the '90s, but (from a "classic pop songwriting" perspecitve), two of the best albums of the '90s, they were doomed to fail, to some degree. Bands simply cannot sustain top-of-the-charts success for three albums in a row anymore, even in the heady days of 1990s Cool Britannia. The public is too fickle... a cruelly unforgiving, trendspotting mistress

Many might point to the Gallagher brothers' own assessment of the album to back up the popular opinion - Liam thinks it's genius, but he's a self-deluded prick, and Noel thinks it's terrible, but he lets the public define what he thinks is his best work. If Definitely Maybe was from a young band who wanted to beat the world, and Morning Glory was the sound of the biggest band in the world basking in success, where else did they have to go? They'd been too clear-eyed about their vision, too focused in their aim to be the biggest and the best, and suddenly, they made a sprawling, confused album that sounds messy, almost scared of its own place in the world. What now? "We have everything, and we're not happy, because we don't know where to go next." It might not have the immediate surface impact of the first two, because it has no "Live Forever", or "Rock 'N' Roll Star", or "Wonderwall", or "Roll With It", or "Champagne Supernova" and on and on. There aren't many great singles-type moments on the album, but as a piece, from a songwriting perspective, it's one of the great "we're huge, what now?" albums in the rock canon. It's the paranoid, insular, almost-falling-apart vibe that made albums like Exile On Main Street so fascinating. When you're that famous, when you're working under that level of expectation, you have no precedent at the moment. Who do you look to for inspiration? Nevermind the fact that the band was fronted by the two most self-obsessed rock-star types of their day, dead set on making their epic statement.

It should have been the concise record that made Britpop the biggest musical movement since '77 punk, but it was, in fact, the nail in the coffin. It was purchased in droves, then sold back the next week. It's not that it was a bad record, it's just that it's not the 35-minute singles bonanza that everyone put their money on. Records this messy and sprawling do not stick to people's ribs, they want the next immediate rush. Shit, I bought the hype and it's taken me more than a decade to come around.

Was the album a failure? Yes. It didn't sell as well, it was held in lower regard, it didn't have as many singles, and people still use it as the punchline to jokes.

Why? Because the hooks weren't as strong, the production was too thick and layered (requiring too much work on the part of the listener), and for a band that wrote effortless, inviting pop hits, it seemed too insular. Oasis has (as evidenced by their B-sides comp The Masterplan), probably three full albums of B-sides that are at least as strong as every song on Be Here Now, almost entirely written by Noel. By the third official album, but about the SIXTH if you go by song count, he handed some of the writing reins over to the band. Poor choice, but it's hard to blame the guy. I could make you a mix disc of Oasis material you've never heard and would blow you away. Give the guy a break.

But before it seems like I'm just covering for his shortcomings, let me note that ""My Big Mouth" sounds as good as some Definitely Maybe material; "Magic Pie" (despite some questionable lyrics) is at least as anthemic as "Some Might Say"; "Stand By Me" is their "All You Need Is Love" knockoff (which is to say, a loveable singalong with good intentions but a bit slight - but hey, we all saw them doing a version of that song coming, right?); "Fade In-Out" is, admittedly, psychedelic nonsense; and "All Around The World" is one of those sing-alongs that's so good you might hear it in a commercial. "Don't Go Away" and "Be Here Now" are still, I declare, better than most of the lameass post-Radiohead Brit-mope bands like Travis and (ugh) Coldplay. All in all, yeah, it's overlong, it's overblown, and the songs, while good, aren't up to the level of the first two albums and a lot of the early B-sides. So? Keane has built a whole career on songs like "Don't Go Away", and I LIKE Keane.

Don't believe it. This is a really good record. Not as good as the first two, but name me two albums by the same classic pop band that stand up as a pair like those do, and I dare you to see (if you can even name an example) the follow-up that stands up like this one.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Just What Is It That Makes Today's Homes So Different, So Appealing?

I was talking to someone in bed last night, and she and I were discussing the fact that the Information Age is helping us inch, musically, toward the melting pot of cultures that we've been promised since grade school. The examples on my mind for the purpose of this brief diatribe are Gorillaz and M.I.A..

I've spoken to a few people who took my M.I.A. piece a few weeks ago as a slight against her... far from it. It was more to illustrate (poorly), the effect the internet and global connectivity are having. The two acts listed above are prime examples of this effect. How would you categorize them? Not everything needs to be classified and pigeonholed, but for the sake of posterity, for the sake of our future music historians (who I can only assume will have the same filing system we do), how would you tag the genre for these acts on your iPod?

Me? I choose hip hop. Not because it's accurate. In fact, it stings a little bit because I know it's NOT accurate. But it's about the only style I can wrap my brain around this music being more than anything else. It has beats and a little rapping. Maybe not a higher percentage of that than pop or rock or indie rock or punk or soul or some world music I don't have a knowledge of, but it's got SOME.

Forget all the hype about M.I.A. - I was sick of her before I'd even heard her. Another Lady Sovereign, this one political and indie and Sri Lankan. Big deal. Bloggers were falling all over themselves to kiss her ass, hipsters were telling me how great it was, and I wasn't buying the hype. I still don't. Especially since the same fickle trendspotters have moved on to something else. Some I've talked to told me the appeal lied in hearing a form of music they'd never heard - South Asian hip-hop. Cool. Whatever. But that's not what caught me. It's the fact that, as mentioned in that previous article, the Information Age allows her to pick from the cultural rubble, using whatever she wants to paint her pictures.

Now, I'm not stupid. I know not to believe the tale of Maya Arulpragasam, wide-eyed and angry refugee from a war-torn country. I'd like to give her credit for being smarter than that. After all, she went to art school and designed the packaging for Elastica's second album as I recall. Craftily smart, she's able to pick and choose... with the technology available, any idea or sound is only a click away. It's complete recontextualization, something I've been railing for since I was a pop-art obsessed teen, but too shortsighted to understand when it popped up in front of me in a form I didn't expect. While I hate the fact that the term "postmodern" is misused and thrown around these days to indicate something modern, this is more in line with Jacques Derrida's work (or part of it, as I understand it) - complicated things come from a complicated origin, not something pure and simple. M.I.A. assembles collages like Richard Hamilton - the pieces used come pre-loaded with meaning and purpose of their own, she's either hijacking them or subverting them altogether.

And while Maya A. basks in the glow of a thousand blogs (a trend which I wonder if I'm critiquing or contributing to), the Gorillaz one-up her in a form - they're so post-modern they don't even really exist. Each member of this cartoon troupe is an archetype for either a musician or a gang member, I'm not really sure. They live in a floating castle of sorts and have adventures. It's escapist fantasy. Nevermind the fact that their real-life counterparts are combining rock, pop, hip-hop, soul, funk, electronica, spaghetti western soundtrack, punk, and whatever else. Sure, some of the parts in this case might be more recognizable, but that makes the effect of playing with purpose even more daring. Their self-titled album was great, but the second, Demon Days, took it even further, jettisoning original producer Dan "The Automator" Nakamura and bringing in enfant terrible Danger Mouse, fresh off his postmodern (again with this!) masterpiece, the hallucinatory Beatles/Jay-Z blender child The Grey Album. Genre for them in this case is merely a case of "what should we do now?" They don't add guitar parts, they add whole styles, taking whatever they want, because, hey - it's all just music, right? They are actually breaking down cultural boundaries, building a new concept out of old ideas, taking whatever they want, leaving it to sound like what it is, but somehow, with the magic of this "context blender effect", giving it a new meaning based on what it sits between, without stealing its identity, both culturally or sonically. In the past, an artist might sample something and conceal the sample sonically - fuzz it out, reverb it, EQ tweaking - to make it almost unrecognizable. The new wave of artists leave things as they are. They let your mind change what you hear.

Now that's revolution, baby.

[With these realizations, I'd like to formally submit Danger Mouse's The Grey Album and M.I.A.'s Kala to my best of the '00s list. Why Kala over the earlier and therefore more bracingly "new" Arular? Cause I like the sound better, and they're both really good.]

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Dirty Mike in: The Dead Pool (Best Of '09 Finalists)

Lots of posts, lots of confusion. Let's sum up our current contenders (alphabetically) for the best albums of 2009 (so far):

Asobi Seksu - Hush
The Breeders - Fate To Fatal EP
The Big Pink - A Brief History Of Love
The Dead Weather - Horehound
Death - ...For The Whole World To See
Dinosaur Jr. - Farm
Early Day Miners - The Treatment
Green Day - 21st Century Breakdown
Madlib - Beat Konducta, Vol. 5-6
Meat Puppets - Sewn Together
Metric - Fantasies
Mos Def - The Ecstatic
ofthemetro - Under The Sound
A Place To Bury Strangers - Exploding Head
Sonic Youth - The Eternal
Spinnerette - Spinnerette
Sune Rose Wagner - Sune Rose Wagner
The Vandelles - Del Black Aloha
Varsity Drag - Rock 'N' Roll Is Such A Hassle

Back To The Garage: More Top Albums Of '09

Dead Weather - Horehound
Jack White does not get an automatic pass into my top 10. People assume that I just rate anything he does, even if it's not his best work. However, those ain't the rules of the Year End Top Ten. It just has to be a better album than other things released that year, a target which he hits with alarming regularity. Is this album better than the best White Stripes album? Nope. Is it better than Chinese Democracy and whatever indie-folk messiahs came out this year? Without a doubt. Alison Lockhart acquits herself wonderfully on most of the lead vocals, but make no mistake, this is Jack's show. The Stripes are minimalist blues-punk, the Raconteurs are garagey power-pop, and this is voodoo grind. New Orleans evil blues, positively oozing with sinister vibes. And therefore worth contention for my top ten of the year.

Death - ...For The Whole World To See
No reissues and no re-releases, unless it's more than 60% new material: this is the first rule of the year-end top ten. Two of these songs were previously released on a regional single of 500 copies in the mid-70s, so I'm going to allow it, in lieu of the (sadly) inadmissable Volcano Suns reissues (which were merely "not ever on CD"). Punk before punk's revolution, black punk before the Bad Brains, soul/punk before the Dirtbombs, it's releases like this that give rock and roll archivists like me conniptions. On paper, this shouldn't exists, stylistically. But sure enough, here it is. Gritty, howling, provocative, and recorded on behalf of a major label. This is crazy. This is the kind of dangerously unhinged but pointed music that makes people pick up an instrument in the first place.

Varsity Drag - Rock 'N' Roll Is Such A Hassle: Live In Europe
Practially a Ben Deily greatest hits collection, this is a rip-snortin' power pop extravaganza. The tunes are melodic as all get-out, but they're speedy, short, and buzzy. For those who thought he fell off the face of the Earth a few years ago, the fact that he hasn't missed a beat since Creator (some of which features here), and it doesn't sound like a collection of tunes written over the past 20 years is amazing. The material from Varsity Drag's 2006 debut, For Crying Out Loud is bigger, tougher, and lived-in, the Lemonheads material sounds as good as it always has (which is to say, pretty damn good), and it's nice to hear any Pods tuneage get a wider release. Maybe the best pop band in Boston right now, any fan of punky pop 'n' roll should seek this out immediately. Download it from his site ( right away!

Friday, August 21, 2009

More Of The Decade's Greatest Hits

I'm suddenly wondering if Ash will make my larger pool of candidates, but while I sit and think about that, why don't you turn off your brain and just shake your backside?

Daft Punk - Discovery
I was a Daft Punk fan as of just post-Christmas 1999. My brand new girlfriend made her dad drive her out in lousy weather so she could get me a copy of Daft Punk's debut, Homework. When I reach for any of their records, it's usually that one, with it's rough-edged 808 beats. But it's Discovery that not only made them stars, but presciently predicted much of the danceable music of the decade. It was like a rainbow from the mid-80s were dipped in chrome and sent to the future and back - it was funny, hooky, positive, dancey, funky. Most wannabes on the radio still sound like they're trying to catch up.

Basement Jaxx - Rooty
As much as they might want to, NOBODY sounds like Rooty. Too weird, too insular, too warped, but more than booty-rumbling enough. Remedy was sweaty music for sexy Brit clubbers. Tracks like "Where's Your Head At" and "Get Me Off" were for the freaks. But hey, people, it's all a party, even the sexy people are invited, too.

Joe Strummer - Global A Go-Go
Streetcore is the more "classic Strummer", but the cultural mix up that this album plays while being a punk rock version of world music is infectously danceable. And leading the charge is the late, great Joe himself.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

A Decade Of Decadence: Mike's Fave Albums of The Noughties

Alright, so B. Dawg over at Dogdoguwar proposed that we team up and take on the greatest albums of the past decade. The problem is that I think he and I have listened to far too many records between us this decade. His recent post on the matter is put far more eloquently than mine, regarding the lack of zeitgeist-defining records... it's been a pretty scattered decade. I mean, 9/11 people. Never forget. To floss.

So, to get started at least, I've just started compiling a big list of records that were favorites of mine over the past 10 years, that I could honestly see on my end-of-the-decade list. Some of which are completely unoriginal, but just super-solid records, some are surprises even to me, because even though I've grown to love them,
I actively disliked them for maybe even the majority of the decade (Queens Of The Stone Age, I'm looking at you!). I have, however, tried to be a LITTLE careful in my choices, picking things that are notable on a medium-larger scale... I loved that first Varsity Drag record and a later Cheater Slicks album, two of my absolute favorites for the past few years, and even though I've listened to them more than other things on this list, they just don't feel right to put down, you know?

So without further ado, here's a list of a bunch of records I ended up thinking might make the list at the end of the year (and decade), in, I can't stress this enough, no particular order.

The White Stripes - White Blood Cells
Not even my favorite of their first three, but so tight, varied, and end-to-end listenable that it edges out even Elephant as their best so far for me.

The Dirtbombs - Dangerous Magical Noise
This album revels in the fact that it could have been made before OR after the so-called "garage rock revolution". Mick Collins is a god.

Queens Of The Stone Age - Songs For The Deaf
Written off by myself as nu-metal when it came out, I was turned by the tightness of the rock and the looseness of the groove. It absolutely slays.

Gorillaz - Demon Days
Paranoid, multi-genre hip-pop by a bunch of depressed cartoons. Perfectly post-millenial pop music.

Danger Mouse - The Grey Album
Not only culturally critical, but totally a great listen. If you could find it.

Madlib - Shades Of Blue
"Smart" hip hop has often leaned on jazz tropes... this actually samples from the Blue Note Vaults, and combines the mind expansion of classic jazz with the soul expansion of hip-hop.

Asobi Seksu - Citrus
Do you like guitars with effects? They do. They also love soundscapes behind lovely pop songs, like skipping through a good dream about good dreams, and when you wake up, you're still humming the tune.

The Flaming Lips - Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots
The sweet, hopeful flipside to the Gorillaz, no matter the weight of the message, they make you feel like they're right there with you. Neo-prog psychedelia meets bubblegum pop. Wonderful and life-affirming.

Primal Scream - XTRMNTR
More than any of the late-90s acts that tried to marry aggressive rock and electronica, this album melds the two like they were the same thing. Not even my favorite Primal Scream album by a long shot, but certainly one of the best.

Fountains Of Wayne - Welcome Interstate Managers
Not revelatory in the least, but a wonderful pop record about life in the midfield. Office workers, hormonal teenagers, broken-hearted sad-sacks and wistful New Jersey denizens collected in a Kinks-like catalog of fully fleshed characters, each more relatable than the last.

Guided By Voices - Isolation Drills
I was very, very surprised to see this on Brent's list as well, since I always had him pegged as more of an Earthquake Weather kind of guy. This will most likely not make my Big Ol' Final List, but it's a damn fine rock record. Just looking at the songs ("Chasing Heather Crazy", "Glad Girls", most of the other songs), makes me wish I was listening to it, and if "Teenage FBI" were on this, I'd have no bones about putting it on the list. Probably the finest "pop" record Pollard & Co. made after 1999.

Johnny Cash - American IV: The Man Comes Around
Probably not the best of the American Recordings series that so defined Johnny Cash in many people's minds, it had a sense of finality to it, as though Cash knew it would be his last, turning out harrowing performances of his own and others' songs as though it were the last time any of them would ever be sung. And it is the last time any of these will be sung like this again.

Gnarls Barkley - St. Elsewhere
To my ear, modern soul and R&B albums sound indebted to the past, no matter how good they are. Maxwell and D'Angelo are wonderful performers, but they're part of a tradition that leads back to Sam Cooke and further. On this album, Cee-Lo's fractured testifying meets Danger Mouse's bouncing production resulting in something approaching soul music in a completely new way. And the second side is the weirdest, most psychedelic album moment of the decade to hit the top forty.

Postal Service - Give Up
My memory of this album is walking the 3 miles from the record store to my recently rented, unfurished apartment to eat leftover chinese food alone while sitting on the floor in the middle of summer. But somehow, this record, summed up by my friend Kevin as "emotronica" at the time, made that situation OK. Hopeful, wistful, sad, optimistic, it was fresh in a way that pop electronic music hadn't been in years.

Luna - Romantica
I'd say it seems a little generic to make a list like this, but nobody else is making records like this. Mature pop, interesting without being inapproachable, subtle without being boring, it's the kind of music I imagined I'd listen to if I grew up to become a classy grown-up. Jury's still out on that one, but the record is wonderful.

Malory - Not Here, Not Now
Not entirely innovative, but probably the prettiest album I've heard in the past ten years. Just beautiful sounds.

Choosing To Remain Uncool

I've decided to come to terms with the fact that what I do will almost never be considered cool, and what is considered cool is far too methodically contrived for me to ever aspire to.

I'm reading a record review, published yesterday, that makes me sick to my stomach over both the album reviewed and the reviewer's so-called "style". I'm sure the album would be acceptable on its own merits, "acceptable" being key here, but I'll be damned if I just get angry when I re-read the article.

The record in question is one that I will not name, but I will say that it's by an artist that in certain limited circles, is critically lauded, and put out one so-called landmark album at the turn of the decade. The new record apparently shows his newfound love of black metal (no it's not Sonic Youth, they've been teasing us with that one for decades), and as this artist is neither a black metal artist, or, for that matter, very prolific, it's being taken as a big deal.

Big fucking deal, guys. For all the claims that this new album shows the influence of Xasthur and Leviathan, it doesn't really sound like it, and while every review I've read in advance of this album mentions that fact, it's completely out of the way by the third or fourth paragraph. Maybe due to the fact that despite the artist saying that, there is NO INDICATION WHATSOEVER on the record of any black metal influence. If a few moments of moody, runbling, dark sound is black metal, I've heard somebody fart a Burzum album on the subway.

The rest of the review spends time talking saying things like the following:
The story, then, emerges from the way these songs alternatingly devour or are born from the smoldering ashes of one another, clear skies giving way to ferocious muddle, which in turn begets light and insight anew. The lyrics, appropriately, deal in fundamental dualities. "My Heart Is Not at Peace" and "Summons" each posit wind as both "destroyer" and "revealer," "Ancient Questions" pits doubt against a sense of purpose, and closer "Stone's Ode" is divided into two distinct movements, one assured and awash in the clarity of day, one less so and detailing the onset (literal and metaphorical, one assumes) of night.
Which states, in a very elaborate fashion, nothing at all. Or at least that the author finally got his degree in comparative literature. What I glean from that Faulkner-esque bluster is that there are two different kinds of songs and sounds on the record, which are different. Maybe all the flailing adjectives were being used to cover up the fact that there's not much to the record?

I've heard the record. It's alright. It's not offensively irritating, like some other rather well-hyped records this year. But it's BORING. Painfully so, in my opinion. Hey, this artist is selling more records than I ever will, and his fanbase adores him, I've talked to him on the phone and he's totally a nice guy, and if this is what he loves doing, more power to him and him alone. But if this is part of what defines "cool", count me the fuck out. Not all music has to be rock and roll, but does everything "cool" these days have to be creaking wooden guitars and theremins? Can we please have some rock back now? That Dead Weather album was pretty good, but a man cannot live on it alone.

So that's my new location. Me, standing over here, not sulking in the center, angry at why people think certain things are "cool", but giving the finger to them while I crank up my Wire records* in my headphones. It's all a self-feeding cycle of bullshit music and hipper-than-thou hyping, so can't we please put them all on an island, let them have the big indie rock orgy, and then cut the radio lines to the island, letting it go on and on forever?

*[Although I haven't always liked Wire, their critical cache has remained constant over the years, so naturally, I only listen to them because it's hip. No wait, that's all those other fuckers that do that. I like Wire 'cause they're good.]

Friday, August 14, 2009

Noise Annoys: The Best Of 2009, Continued

3. The Big Pink - "A Brief History Of Love"
"Velvet" was my favorite new song of the year. I heard it, I loved it, I raved about it to anyone that would listen. Huge and intimate at the same time, bombastic and dreamy, it was like if My Bloody Valentine wrote anthems, or Coldplay with a lesson in Jesus and Mary Chain, but not garbage. The follow-up, "Dominos", was far more arena-chant (one friend called it Happy Mondays-esque) than I expected, but even after one listen I couldn't get it out of my head. The full-length doesn't have the concentrated perfection of "Velvet", but it's an astoundingly large-sounding record that never loses faith in it's big-beat shoegaze testifying.

2. Metric - "Fantasies"
An unexpected entry, as Metric has never really thrilled me in the past, although I've certainly not had anything bad to say about them. This one is a modern pop platter - emphasis on the modern - that sounds to me like if all the teen-poppers actually rocked. Catchy like the plague, intricate production, melodies that sigh and wail, with a sheen of glistening, icy, mirror-ball synths. It's the soundtrack to the party that everyone was invited to but nobody showed up at, so you just dance anyway. And extra credit to them for finally asking, on the album's highlight, "Who would you rather be? The Beatles or the Rolling Stones?"

1. A Place To Bury Strangers - "Exploding Head"
Noise Noise Noise. Sure they may be knocking off their noise-gaze forebears, but they're doing it better and with more style and consistency than anyone else. Their live show is stroke-inducingly strobe-a-rific, and the buzzing sighed vocals, white noise avalanche of guitars, and thundering robotic rhythm section are maybe one of the best things going these days. While the re-recording of "Everything Always Goes Wrong" is, in this writer's opinion, inferior to its earlier EP incarnation, the album version still annihilates any competition.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Guerrilla Warfare: Appropriation In A Post-Contextual World

The first time I heard M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes", I was really put off by the fact that the basis for the song was "Straight To Hell" by the Clash. Not that it was sampled, not that there was a reference, but if you removed the Clash from that song, there'd be very little left other than the vocal melody and some sound effects. The person who played it for me had never heard the original, and was a little defensive about it, ultimately claiming that it didn't matter, and the M.I.A. track was so brilliant.

It ain't bad, it was one of my favorite songs of last summer's hit parade, but it's existience brings up a lot of questions that I'm not sure of my feelings on. It would be easy to take the "old man" standpoint and grouse about the kids and their thievery, but I'm not so certain.

My first concern was that it would kill the power of the original. Now, I don't know if anything can do that, in this particular case. If it were something like "Footloose", maybe it would be a different story, but the original "Straight To Hell" was a wildly impressionistic view of the effects of the Vietnam war and culturual imperialism that was spreading faster and faster in a pre-Internet age. As a product of the British punk and post-punk culture, M.I.A. certainly understood this when she used the song, in my opinion, turning the sample into a soundtrack for the lyrics to be set to... her tales of young thugs, when set to the backing that has a pre-existing context of the poor and destroyed villages of Vietnam, conjures up images of herself as a third-world outlaw, swaggering Robin Hood-like through the slums, a self made queenpin of the ghetto, like Ivan in The Harder They Come. It's a starkly vivid image - for someone who knows the context of the original. Since I've known that Clash song for ages, I find myself wondering if people who DON'T know "Straight To Hell" would have the same response to it. In essence, does this song suffer for the fact that a large portion of it's intended audience doesn't get the message?

The flipside to this is the question of whether or not there is any potential loss of impact and meaning in the original song. The Clash will always be important to me, but by their very nature I don't hold their music sacred. Their records, I feel, will stand up to anything, so I don't need to champion them. However, is there a chance that if "Straight To Hell" is heard in a movie or on TV (because let's forget the radio), will it then be seen by post-M.I.A. listeners as "that song she sampled"? Sure, the song is powerful, but it has to be LISTENED to to retain that power. If it's summarily dismissed before it's even listened to, how can it retain the same impact?

Of course, this is all just a microcosm of the post-modern sample effect. Not that I hold too many sacred cows, but isn't there a danger that if everything is just a sound to be sampled, will there be any meaning left to anything when the dust settles? I've often claimed that by trendspotting and jumping from whatever is trendy to the next big thing, hipsters tend to hold everything at arm's length and never connect to anything. I firmly believe that the marketplace for creativity will ultimately prevail, but if there's no context for anything, how can anything have any emotional impact? If Puff Daddy sampling the Police didn't call to mind the melancholy of the original song, wouldn't his tribute to Biggie have just been augmented by a weird guitar line?

In my view, the point of sampling is to recontextualize a moment, which means placing the original moment, meaning and all, into another context, thereby transforming the new work's sentiment based around the original's subtext. Without that grounding, or something like it, everything becomes meaningless, just so much sound to be manipulated coldly, never intending to allow the context of the original moment through, merely creating an infinte digital cache of notes to be rearranged ad nauseum.

Is everything just sound? Does the concept of "purpose" have any place in the Digital Age? I don't know. I'm too old. But I think there is a major shift happening, when teen-idol pop stars can create "new" songs simply by putting a new melody and lyrics over a Beatles backing track. M.I.A. was most certainly aware of what she was doing, and while I guess she hit a nerve with my love of the Clash, she did a good job by using the original song's original meaning to enhance her new concept. It's just a shame that some of her audience isn't as well-informed as she is - they're only getting half the picture.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Pass The Coke, I Think I'm New Wave...

Shake is back. Kinda. We've re-arranged the lineup, so Shannon is no longer drummin', but playing her gorgeous baritone guitar in a bass-like fashion. Since her crazy Captain Beefheart sense of rhythm is no longer the driving force in the band (any band with that kind of drummer just has to accept that their drummer is, in fact, leading the band), the songs that we're coming up with are far more conventionally structured.

Maybe it's due to the fact that we're not playing with a drummer yet (know anyone?), maybe it's due to Shannon's relative inexperience on the bass, or maybe it's the fact that in the past 13 years of playing in bands, I've sorta gotten the "loudfastrules thrashthrashthrash" drive (largely) out of my system, but the music we're playing, while certainly punk rock, is nowhere near radical hardcore or anything. I have a feeling that with a drummer, we could gain some kick, but right now, our aggresssion level is set around, say Generation X. Certainly not easy listening, but SS Decontrol it ain't.

What I'm finding myself surprised by, although I shouldn't, is that we're starting to sound like that strange subset of bands labelled *gasp*... "new wave".

The problem is that I hate New Wave. The capitalization is important. I generally hold at arms' length the quirky, off-kilter, synth-driven form of pop music that immediately followed the initial punk explosion. It's usually all surface and sunglasses, and even though there are some great singles from that style in that era, if you throw enough shit at a wall, something is bound to sound like a good B-52's song, right?.

That's not the style I'm talking about really. I tend to follow the Keith Morris view that there is no such style as new wave in regard to punk, only a term used to describe the same music that is somehow less offensive in polite company. "Oh no, I don't like that disgusting punk rock, I like new wave music...". Didn't Seymour Stein invent the term so that people would still distribute Sire Records without the "punk rock" stigma attached to the Ramones and the Dead Boys? While this view is true, and as a punk rock sort of person, I agree... historically, there was a period immediately following the punk ground zero of about 1976 that lent itself to a stripped-down, pissed-off sound that was a little more literate, and maybe just a little more mannered than, say, The Germs. I'm thinking more of things like The Jam, Elvis Costello's "This Year's Model", the harder moments of the first Pretenders album, Blondie's "X Offender", etc. Things that aren't "punk" in the retroactively accurate sense of the term, but certainly aren't the quirky pop of XTC and Squeeze or the synth-driven sounds of the early MTV era.

Not that one man and a blog can make any difference in this matter, but can someone please help me defind this music? "Hard New Wave" sounds like a mid-80s gay porno, and to call it post-punk, while absolutely true, gives it a certain grey pallor that my mind usually reserves for bands from Manchester. Unfair, but that's the way my mind works. Talking Heads, while wonderful, were always too quirky, and rarely approached the straightforward "rock" sound that we're talking about here. R.E.M. was too folky and distantly collegiate, and Devo too contrived. Perfect example? "No Action" by Elvis Costello. Fast (but not too fast), simple, pissed off, well-put (so many turns of phrase!), and, if memory serves, all over in under 2 mintues. Now THAT'S what I'm talking about. Under two minutes?!?! I do, however, intend to stay away from any Cars comparisons, mainly becuase they're sacred in my adopted hometown of Boston. But if you dropped the synths from "Just What I Needed" and "You Might Think" and sped them up to about 130 BPM, you're in the ballpark. Fenway, to be exact.

What amuses me the most is that while I feel we're playing in this so-called new wave style, due to modern technology (and, oh, 20 extra years of music), we also sound like a half-decent mid-90s post-grunge act. Same situation. Take the raw nerve revolution (I'm trademarking that phrase, by the way), and see what sort of pop crops up after the initial blast. Superdrag? Veruca Salt? Green Day? Big, loud, pissed-off rock music that stayed stripped down but doesn't have the bile of the "musical reset" (trademark also pending) of the revolution that came before it.

Forget it. We play punk rock. Let's just leave it at that.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

"Must-See TV": Punk Rock Edition

Punk rock changed my life. It may not be as obvious a change as the kind of change that happened to Mike Watt or Ian MacKaye, but punk rock changed my life. When I discovered it, it was not just the music or the culture, but the ethic. The ethic of "do it yourself" and "don't be a jerk" was instilled in me by these people, and in a lot of ways, the music and culture was just periphery, although the best way to immerse myself in the ethic was to listen to these records which I loved both musically and philosophically.

Aside from a sort of knee jerk reaction at first which lent itself to dogmatic stringency, punk rock always freed me to be a more decent person. Help your fellow man, let's do this together. The system is fucked, let's have our own system. I used to think it was the so-called "sellouts" that made that "work within the system" argument, but I will, until my dying day, contend that the moral compass that punk rock either instilled in me or brought to the forefront (my pre-punk life wasn't exactly a morass of bad vibes and stepping on the little guy) lent itself to my being a smarter, more understanding man than I otherwise would have been.

Unfortunately, the majority of the world still sees punk rock as an adolescent loogie hocked upon the shoes of decent, upstanding society. US hardcore punk was one of the hardest-working, ethically stringent cultural movements in the past fifty years, but its' music is not approachable to mass culture - too aggressive, too intense. More "listenable" bands like the Sex Pistols got there first, and squandered the D.I.Y. with images of a bloody Sid Vicious spitting at teenagers. First impressions are, as I believe Shakespeare put it, a bitch.

But I had my own little victory for the punk culture last week, and I didn't even realize it.

I work in the news. My desk is in the newsroom, and more often than not, when I'm at work, my desk is on camera, and I'm being broadcast. It seemed weird at first, and eventually you don't even notice it. Last week, I found myself wearing my usual weekend uniform of Converse, shorts, and a button-down shirt, often open to reveal whatever clean t-shirt I could find that morning, which, that day, was the Misfits shirt I've got. At one point, I was standing next to a producer's desk, chatting, and realized that not only was I on camera, but that my shirt was pretty clearly visible. Which made me happy. The Misfits these days are, at best, a fun, trashy nostalgia act for those in the know, and with the proliferation of Hot Topic and the like, some of the trappings and symbols of punk rock have become a commodity, thereby losing some of its meaning. But I really felt proud for a minute or two once I realized it - here I was, the same guy I've always been, maybe a little more grown up, but I was putting a little punk rock moment on TV. Unintentionally, sure, but I wasn't paid to wear the shirt, I wasn't being asked to do it, but I was still able to get a little symbol of this culture that I love, that's still an outsider culture, broadcast to, what, a hundred thousand people? What percentage of them noticed? Probably less that 1%. But that's still a few hundred people who may have seen it and said what I would have sad: "Look! That guy in the background is wearing a Misfits shirt!" I was able to get a little bit of punk rock on large-market TV.

Once I realized that, it made me realize that while my viewpoints on many things have changed since I was 13, mainly due to experiences, changing times, etc., everything I did then and everything I do now is sort of filtered through this moral/ethical lens that was given to me by punk rock. I think it was Steve Albini (that paragon of righteousness), who once said about his band Big Black:
"You can be an asshole, or you can not be an asshole... and we didn't see any reason to screw people over."
It makes sense. I've found in this life if you treat people like you would HOPE people would treat you, often times they're so thrown off balance at you NOT trying to screw them over, they'll surprise you. Nearly any religion's basic tenet is "be a good person." The details differ, but being a decent human is what it often all boils down to.

I'm proud to come from punk rock. The music I play is only vaguely punky anymore, and some of my listening and fashion tendencies aren't exactly ripped from the Dischord handbook, but come hell or high water, I'm a punk. A proud one. And as long as I can bring that ethic, that sensibility to the world around me, I think I'll do alright.