Saturday, September 26, 2009

"Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before"



I was a Smiths fan in high school, despite the horrible, dated production on most of their records. Johnny Marr (who most of you kids would know from Modest Mouse), was a genius guitarist in the age of synths, and their tunes were undeniable. But there's the Morrissey Problem.

I'm not British, so he's not representing any segment of my youth culture (unless you count too-smart-for-their-own-good, self-styled poet-types), and anyway, I came to the party about, oh, ten years too late to really identify with his political views.

Put simply, Moz (as his MOST pretentious fans refer to him) was about as irritatingly affected and pretentious as a singer could get, just shy of Bono on the self-importance scale. So why is it that I've kept listening to his records for so many years?

The Smiths aspect of the equation should be self-evident: Johnny Marr. I love the way he plays guitar, I like the way he integrates himself into the sound of a band, and I like the songwriting style. Plus, he gave Morrissey a foil, in two regards. Firstly, he pushed Le Pompadour into his best singing to match the sparkling, overchorused guitar work, secondly, the personality clash kept the frontman in line. Lennon needs a McCartney, Mick needs a Keef, and dear God, Morrissey needs a Marr.

Once he went solo, he still needed that strong collaborator. On his first two (admittedly wonderful) solo releases, it was producer Stephen Street, who, by virtue of his having worked with the Smiths in the past, understood the man's strengths. After a nasty falling out, his second official album, Kill Uncle (sans Street) was terrible. He teamed up with former Bowie sideman Mick Ronson for Your Arsenal, which was once again wonderful, primarily due to Ronson's ability to keep "The Hair" in check. However, since then, he's allowed his self-indulgence to overwhelm, and despite a few enjoyable moments per record (especially 2004's You Are The Quarry, he's slipped into middling irrelevance.

"But wait", you're thinking. "You're telling me all the reasons that Morrissey sucks, not why you've been listening to him all these years." Well, that's true. The last piece of the puzzle is the fact that he knows how to write a great hook and melody. "William, It Was Really Nothing", "Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want", "Panic", "Girlfriend In A Coma", "Everyday Is Like Sunday", and "How Soon Is Now", among DOZENS of others have instantly memorable hooks and melodies. Since most of those titles are the hook, I can barely type them without singing them. Sure, they're beautiful melodies often delivered in the most affected, self-important way possible, but it's still a beautiful melody. Give it to someone else with a half a way with a tune, and let them sing it. It will STILL be a beautiful melody. The fact that a song like, for instance, "London", has such a good melody AND such interesting guitar playing is almost criminal. It would still be a great song with either or... it's almost unfair that it's got so much going for it!

Obviously, my critique is biased toward the "Smiths" years. His solo efforts do seem to wallow in melancholy and hyper-literate moping, but, for example, in "Everyday Is Like Sunday" the soaring glide of the vocals over the synthesized music really gives the images a beautiful power. The lyrics are alright, the music is alright, but that vocal pushes it into another territory altogether, making it even more frustrating that so much of his recent work has seemed so truly bland.

So I'm going to maybe stop bitching about what a douche Morrissey can be. That's not to say I'm any less irritated by his navel-gazing narcissism, it's just that this whole grudging respect thing is harder than it looks. And I don't want to have to stop listening to "How Soon Is Now" any time in the near future.

[Incidentally, a close personal friend of mine does an amazing dance whenever Morrissey comes on the radio - arms straight up over the head, wrists together fingers dangling, a saaaad look on the face and a little mopey hip wiggle. It's like the saddest, most effeminate palm tree you've ever seen. It's called the "Morrissey Dance"]

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Treatment Is In The Medium, The Message Is The Cure

Just when things get boring and I can't seem to find a new band to thrill and swoon to, the universe will unveil for me a reason to keep on digging. I've been experimenting with guitar ambience and musical space for a while now, and just as it seems like my only options are shoegazer gravedigging or moving on to power pop, I get the opportunity to see one of the (unfortunately) secret prizes of the Midwest or any region - Early Day Miners.

Now, there is a bit of bias here. I used to work with their record label, as I lived in their hometown of Bloomington, IN. But that's where the bias ends. They might be a perfect fit for the wide-open spaces of southern Indiana, their haunted guitar lines echoing through a thousand cornfields, but Bloomington is too often a fickle mistress, and while it's nurtured them, it's never given them the due they deserve.

Their new album, The Treatment, is not so much a departure from their previous work as another angle. People (well, critics) too often mistake a consistent artistic vision for complacency, but I'm going to lay it down for you: while their records often don't sound dramatically different from one another, EDM explores variations of a theme, mining (ha!) the space between notes for as much drama and depth as the notes themselves. Sparse has practically been the raison d'ĂȘtre for this combo, but the new album adds an unexpected twist: pop songs.

As much as I love the band, I'd be hard pressed until yesterday to sing you one of their songs. There are tracks that I like, and the melody in those songs tends to bury itself in the whole movement and breathing of the song, almost as if each inhale and exhale were the melody. Beautiful and intricate, with songs gently shifting from one to the next, but "poppy" wouldn't be a word for it. Last night, the lineup was certainly stripped down from the 6 or 7 piece version that I've seen over the past few years, consisting of drummer Marty Sprowles, bassist Jonathan Richardson, guitarist John Dawson, and vocalist and guitarist Dan Burton, who doubles on keyboards. The first surprise was the rhythm section - what was previously a rumbling monster, all tom fills and powerful drama, is now focused, sharp and driven. Sprowles keeps things here tight, clipped, and snappy, propelling the band with a motorik sensibility, even if his playing is more complex. Richardson's bass, however, is the anchor of the band. Never dull, never calling immediate attention to itself, but holding the bulk of the clearest melodic aspects, these two click into a post-punk groove that wouldn't sound out of place on the first Comsat Angels record. A bass-and-drums combo this tight gives the guitarists room to move by remaining steady as a rock, but not steady at the expense of soul. Rarely do I find myself watching the bassist and drummer at a concert as much as I found myself last night, marvelling at the way things seemed to click perfectly into place.

But as a guitar player, it was the guitar that's always seduced me on their previous records. Although it's anyone's guess what transpired in the studio, in the live setting, it was Burton's textures that laid a bed for Dawson's stinging leads to rest on. While Burton had his work cut out for him (at one point he was playing his keyboard, his amp controls, and his effects board at the same time), while it only took some well-placed echo and reverb to make the ringing leads seem larger than life. I'm still amazed every time I see them that this few people are able to create the sounds coming out of the speakers. So we've got a tight, snapping, growling rhythm section, slicingly concise leads, and more spatial textures than you can shake a stick at. Now what was that about pop songs? Oh yeah, I found myself and others in the all-too-thin crowd singing along by the second or third go-round of most of the choruses. There was even a little dancing. In the same way that great bands like Codeine, Galaxie 500, and the aforementioned Comsat Angels were able to create amazing pop songs that almost shunned attention - the songs passing themselves off like obvious secrets, inherently understood - the Early Day Miners write anthems without being preening. Had U2 not desired to rule the world and remained an atmospheric pop band (and maybe traded in that blowhard singer), they would be lucky to be making albums that sounded like this.

So what does all this mean? It means that all the people who have accused Early Day Miners of having the sound but not the tunes need to ear their words. It might be a bit of a development, but listening back to the earlier albums, such as 2005's masterful All Harm Ends Here, all the ingredients are there - the band merely seems like they were merely choosing to ignore the poppier side for the atmospheric until now, acknowledging it's presence and keeping it on the shelf for later. Now that they've chosen to release it, it proves just how adept they are at crafting soundscapes: these ones actually sound pretty catchy.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Add It Up: More Remainders From The Decade's Math Equation

[Here's another entry for the pool of those deserving of being considered for the top honors of the decade: my best-of-decade list. Maybe they'll make it, maybe they won't, but they deserve a shot... they could be contenders!]

The Raveonettes - "Chain Gang Of Love"
Snobs claim to like their first EP/LP better, their third album is nobody's favorite, and Lust, Lust, Lust is probably a better record, honestly. But this is about moments, not just records. When this came out at the tail end of the summer of '03, the heat was winding down, but the world was jsut warming up. 2002 started as a pretty bleak year, after all, and it stayed that way, right in the middle of the first Bush term. Things sucked. Suddenly there was a single on the radio that sounded like Phil Spector mixed with heavenly static, white noise... meaning it sounded just like the Jesus And Mary Chain. This optimistic song (seemingly) about love was slamming through of TARGET commercials, and noiseniks like me were sitting jaw-dropped as we heard what sounded for all the world like 1980s Creation Records noise-pop blasting out at us at Applebee's. Some could easily argue that A Place To Bury Strangers took the Psychocandy sound and updated it, rather than swimming in its simple pleasures, with APTBS ultimately bettering the earlier Raveonettes album. But I don't need to defend Chain Gang Of Love... I'll let the feedback do it for me.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

True Love May Wait, But It's Fans Will Tell You Just How Much Better It Really Is

It's not lost on me that I may have a reputation as a bit of a curmudgeon - a so-called stick in the mud when it comes to certain things that I'm supposed to be a fan of. I very much dislike being told what I like, and the rise of the indie rock blog critic has only exacerbated what I see as a nasty case of cultural elitism. You see, everyone wants to think that what they like is cool, and I have certainly been guilty of that in the past, and probably will be again. However there are two examples in the past decade that have driven me so up the wall that I felt I needed to step back and re-assess my opinion, just to make sure I wasn't holding an opinion purely for pride.

First, there's Wilco. I'm not going to talk much about Wilco, because after going back and listening to them again, I still don't like them. I understand why people like them, but I find them ponderous, faux-"regular guy" art rock and even the addition of the otherwise wonderful Nels Cline to their lineup can't save them for me. Sorry folks, but I'm just closing the book on that train with a handily mixed simile.

It's the hyperbole that swirls around the heads of Radiohead fans that irritates me in a peculiar fashion. It's not that I can't stand Radiohead, and it's not exactly a case of "good band, lousy fans". I'll admit that I still have a certain reactionary instinct regarding the band, but it primarily derives from what I feel is a lack of attention by their most ardent supporters to what the band is actually telling them, and a desperate movement to read what they want into what may or may not be there.

But let's rewind. I bought The Bends in '96 and remember loving it, but being actively teased in the eighth grade because it wasn't Nine Inch Nails and Soundgarden. I'm dead serious. Whatever. OK Computer comes out in '97 and I love it, as it perfectly correlates with my then-recent discovery of J.G. Ballard's feverish urban nightmares, Burroughs' post-modern cutups, and the idea that the 1997 "Next Big Thing" wave of electronica could be mixed with rock in a bracingly modern way. It was fantastic, and I distinctly remember biking up to K-Mart to buy it the week it came out. This time, just about everyone was on board (well, all the pseudo-musos in high school with me), and we were all living in a Brave New Age. I remember that my friend bought the first US edition of Now! That's What I Call Music, and it had "Karma Police" on it. Seriously. Sandwiched between Aqua and Everclear. It was a fantastic moment for a wonderful big-statement, capitol-letter Album, and deserves to be hailed as one of the first and most interesting records of the Modern Age of Music (despite its now 12-year-old vintage).

Between buying that and the next album, I went to college, in the first explosion of file-sharing. My university, in fact, was one of the first to ban Napster, after the lawsuits started flying, but there was no way to stop online music. I'd become a music hound, absorbing everything I could, soaking it up, spending fistfuls of cash at my local record store for everything from the Jesus And Mary Chain and Faust to early Kraftwerk to Phillip Glass to Ornette Coleman. It was like 50 years of music history (which I also took in school, natch) crammed into a two year period.

So when Kid A came out, I enjoyed it, I bought it, and I listened to it repeatedly... but I didn't find it particularly innovative. Interesting and fascinating to be sure, but there was very little there I hadn't heard on records that were 20 years old by that point. Not to say it wasn't well done, but for every "Treefingers", there was a Brian Eno song, and if "Idiotqeue" wasn't on your copy, I was pretty sure that you could find it on Aphex Twin's Analogue Bubblebath 3. And that's fine... because the band themselves were tellling everyone that it's wasnt revolutionary, it was just a reflection of what they had been listening to. It's not that it was boring, it was a wonderful sort of pop-distillation of the avant-garde that they clearly loved, and it was a wonderful way to both fuck with people's expectations of a prog/art-rock band and bring this esoteric material to the masses. Suddenly, I see Kirsten Dunst on MTV wearing a Radiohead shirt and get treated to a brilliant performance of "Idioteque" on Saturday Night Live. I believe Kate Hudson was hosting, and it was just shocking how wild it seemed. That performance always seemed to get edited out of the reruns, much to my chagrin. While my taste at the time skewed decidedly pop and punk, it's not like I didn't appreciate what they were doing.

Gradually, however, the press (especially that on the 'net), who I recall giving the album a bit of a cold shoulder at first, started winding up. It wasn't the initial reaction, though, which was one of confusion and frustration - where were the songs, maaaaan? We need another twitchy depressed anthem, a la "Paranoid Android"! After a while to let it sink in, it was as if Radiohead had saved music. Fans became fervent, slavering disciples, swearing up and down that you didn't "get" the band unless you heard this live version of the non-album track that they'd found online. Sure, it was nice to see so many people getting so passionate about a seriously interesting band, but I believe that the rise in this serious music, coupled with the sudden widespread usage of the web, made everyone a critic as dour as Radiohead was purported to be. This serious music had to be taken seriously after all, right?

As time went on, Radiohead got bigger and more important, and the more important they got, the less I seemed to care about them. Again, I can't stress enough how good the band was about attempting to defuse this hype - "messiahs" was a term put on them by outside forces, Yorke told everyone to go out and buy Neu! records to see where they were coming from. But suddenly everyone with a (then-new) iPod was a critic, and the line of the day was that if you don't like Radiohead, you don't like "real" music, and if you don't like them, you don't understand them. I understand them fine, thank you very much, but Amneisiac didn't appeal to me (although I wouldn't be glib enough to use the "Kid B" epithet so often thrown at it), and I felt that Hail To The Thief was interesting, but treading water. A band can only redefine music twice, right?

So in my old age (*ahem* twenty-three...), I suddenly became very anti-Radiohead. I still listened to them, but I preferred the records with guitars. As I became a better guitarist, I was aghast that the three-pronged guitar Hydra that twisted and gnarled and spit out The Bends had hung up the guitars in exchange for broken synthesizers and ProTools. I didn't expect them to make that type of record again, and there were certainly enough b-sides and ephemera from that era to tide me over, I just wanted them to do something I hadn't already heard. I was sick of being told that they were the greatest band in the world, and sick that everyone who loved them had a certain superiority complex. "I love music... what do you listen to?" "Well, I listen to Radiohead...", "Oh, you must be so intellectual." It was a sickening cycle of self-satisfaction feeding egotism that I wanted nothing to do with. Leave that to people like my arch nemesis in college (who I'll refer to as M.T.), a self-styled avant musician, comparing Radiohead to the likes of Sid Barret [sic] and telling everyone who didn't get it that they shouldn't bother. Fuck off. A friend of mine who shall remain nameless recently posted on his Facebook page that he thought that while Radiohead might be overexposed, he thought that anyone who said they truly HATED Radiohead was just being a contrarian. While I don't love their recent work, I thought his was a rather close-minded, indie-centric view (and I realize that a status update on Facebook doesn't qualify for a well-planned treatise). People HE knew couldn't hate Radiohead, sure. But I know plenty of brilliant musicians who know their history and would totally understand Radiohead and would probably just loathe them. I hate Antony & the Johnsons, but I bet ol' Antony has fans that couldn't fathom ANYONE not adoring their hero.

But you know what? I've moved on. The fair-weather musicologists are idiots, and I wish they'd move on to something else, but the fact of the matter is that Radiohead is the most interesting band most of these people listen to, and what they listen to is all they have. It's an amazingly interesting record, made all the more astounding by the fact that it was a hit. All the while, Jonny Greenwood is singing the praises of Mo' Wax Records and Amon Duul II, but nobody hears that, they only praise their heroes. It was a bit like Tommy, where, despite his protestations, his acolytes are just hearing what they want to, not caring about what they're being taught.* Nonetheless, for those who cared to listen to the rare interviews the notoriously press-shy band gave, they did their best, and having subsequently worked at the very record store I bought it from, was amazed at the number of people who DID end up discovering some of the influences through Radiohead. Good for the band, good for those brave enough to step up to the counter with an unheard album like Faust IV or Before And After Science.

With a bit of distance from that self-satisfied indie rock scene I ran in, I would go so far as to place Kid A on my list of top albums of the decade, in that not only was it an interesting record, but in the way that Nevermind brought the punk/grunge underground to the surface, Kid A did sort of the same... only this underground was a much older, much more rooted one that may very well be TOO difficult for the average John or Jane Doe. Liking Kid A does not immediately make Can's Ege Bamyasi or Paul Lansky's Smalltalk accessable to peoples' ears. Radiohead moved the mountain, though. They didn't bring the underground to the mainstream, so much as move the mainstream a few inches toward the avant garde. Maybe only a few inches, sure, but it's still a fucking mountain.

For creating a really wonderful album on its own merits, and for changing what a hit album could encompass, I'm adding Kid A to my list of best of the '00s contenders.

*[Of course, since the last act of Tommy was essentially a criticism of organized religion with the hero as a stand in for Christ, I've finally espoused myself into a corner. I'm comparing Radiohead to Jesus. You win, Internet - it's apparently impossible to author a blog without making that comparison.]