Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Central Target Research Lab

Well, 2010 is winding down, so it's time to keep running from the Man, as always. We here are proud to announce that we're moving into some new digs... the new Central Target Research Lab. It's essentially a private new hideout/base, replete with an in-house Indian restaurant, a recording studio, media center, library... and it's all "transport adjacent" for a quick underground or airborne getaway. If we can get that team of interns (forced labor) we're hoping for, there might even be a tiki bar.

We'll be keeping you updated with pictures of the installation as it progresses, but please forward your hate mail, marriage proposals, and kinky photographs to the new address:
Central Target Research Lab (CTRL)
Secret Lair, Deep Underground
Boston, MA 0212

(No C.O.D.)

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

How To Be A Grouch: Top Seven Of 2010

So it's that time again. I'm spurred on my by my colleague's mention of his impending list... and my own guilt about not really even thinking about mine in ages. See, 2010 was big for me. Got a good job that I like, that lets me write professionally... got married... moving to a nice new place before the year is out... and more specifically around here, started up a new musical endeavor of my own... which has tended to make me listen to more ambient/drone/experimental stuff than I have in the past.

So maybe, I've just been busy... maybe that's why I'm finding it so hard to muster up a top 10 albums of 2010. Scrolling through the digital Post-It (TM) that I've been keeping on my laptop for years... the one that says "Best Albums Of The Year"... it's December, and I've only got eight. The ones I've been thinking of adding would take my pool of candidates up to 13. Not the glorious two-or-three dozen I've had in some recent years to sift through and really decide what cut my jib the past 3-6-5. Nope, a slim, trim 13. So screw it. I'm calling it off. There will be no top ten this year (*waves arms in that "simmer down" motion to quell outraged threats and hysterical sobbing*)... no, not this year. In this year, I present to you a top SEVEN. Not a TEN, a SEVEN. There were plenty of albums, new to me, that I heard that I liked. A medium-sized percentage of them were even from this year. Several were even albums I really enjoyed listening to over and over, but they were like flings... nothing that really stuck. So here's a short list of what I REALLY, REALLY liked,

7. Wu-Tang Meets The Beatles - Enter The Magical Mystery Chambers
I just found this a week ago, and the earliest date my completely half-assed search for info on it pulled up was in January, so there. It is what you think it is, just spliced 'n' diced Beatles bits with the Wu-Tang swarmin' at you like a bad fever dream. Not revolutionary, in this post-Danger Mouse world, but it's a good example of how far sampleadelic culture has come since a JBs break first got lifted by an enterprising DJ. Well-done, with surprising sound quality and a nicely-put-together cover. The best part? It's the most fun you'll have if you're that rare breed that straddles a line between Liverpool and Shaolin. The re-contextualization appeals if you're jaded by hearing another Beatles song ANOTHER time, and it's fun to hear tales of feudal ghetto warfare over psych-pop breakbeats.

6. Sade - Soldier Of Love
My adoration for this record is based almost entirely on the title track. Most of the rest doesn't begin to live up to that pinnacle of (in my opinion) her career. But it's good enough to get the whole album on this list. Low on the list, though, but still... It's a great album, but my god, that song. It wouldn't have such power if it weren't sung by a returning champion we didn't understand... we hadn't seen her dark side. Hearing the jagged, murky landscape of this song, traced with a voice that is older, more nuanced... but still familiar? Fantastic.

5. The Dead Weather - Sea Of Cowards
I'm a Jack White fan, yeah, but I'm no patsy. I've said it before, but if Jack wants to make it on my list, he's gotta earn his keep. Lucky for him, it was a thin year, because this ain't his finest-ever. But so what? A greasy, sexy profanity of an album, it's dark, angry, sexually-charged, and loud. It's primitive, thudding, grinding rock music. Electric guitars turned up to "loud" and banged on rhythmically. And it's pretty great. And if he keeps making these, I'll take back most of the good things I said about the second Raconteurs album. promise.

4. Janelle Monae - The ArchAndroid
I can't really give a fair description of this record, because I don't really know how I'm supposed to be listening to it. Is it coming from an R&B/soul angle? Because it doesn't make sense as an R&B album. It's not a "rock and roll" album either. And forget pop, this is almost (nay, certainly) willfully weird. And that's its best trait. The songs are great, the presentation is great, the experimentation is great. One of the only reasons this wasn't my favorite album of the year is that it felt "still a little unformed". If Monae can keep her artistic freedom for another album or two, those will be the ones that really knock it out of the park. Like Prince, circa Dirty Mind... we'll be looking at it in ten years as the great warmup that's also a classic in it's own right.

3 Malory - Pearl Diver
It's the sound of dreaming about clouds while floating underwater in bright sunlight. Pensive, layered, thoughtful, beautiful.

2. Ceremony - Rocket Fire
Cold but human, noisy but pretty. I can't listen to it quietly, because there really is no quiet in there. Ceremony wraps synth-pop drum machines in the gauzy wrap of fuzz and static. If you're in a city sometime, close your eyes and listen. Start to isolate sounds... the radio across the street, honking horns, people yelling, that white-noise of a hundred thousand people moving around? Now fix in on the way that nearby construction saw's whine is rubbing against the screech of bus breaks down the street... now bring in that jackhammer a block over. Pummelling, pulsing rhythmically, but not too loud... just an insistient, continuous machine-gun "brrrap-brrrap-brrrap-brrrap". You suddenly realize the synchronization of those sounds... or your mind somehow glues them together... and you hear, in your head, just for a second, the way the sounds make some alien type of music together, like they're playing off of each other... that's what Ceremony sound like.

1. Gorillaz - Plastic Beach
...speaking of albums that will be better appreciated later. It's funny how after all those years of Albarn getting Ray Davies comparisons for his incisive Brit-life lyrics, he'd years later slide into that other Ray Davies role, that of underappreciated storyteller, the weary poet with a fondness for humanity, but not much hope that anyone will listen until it's too late. The way we can look back on some of the Kinks' mid-period work and ask "How was this a commerical failure?" This is great pop, it's danceable and it has catchy hooks. It's conceptual - after all, the band is made up of cartoon character ape-people who live in a floating fortress. It's post-modern pop music that makes a patchwork out of its genres and guest stars, painting slashing swathes of memorable (con)texture over unfamiliar backgrounds. It's social commentary, in a not-too-veiled way. It's the tabloid story of a phoenix-like second-chance career run from a former Buzz Bin bad boy, who's both a Royal National Treasure and a one-hit wonder. Here he's making the most personal album of his career, and even if it's not his best, it's his bravest yet.

Special extra credit to albums by Erykah Badu, John & Exene, Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, School of Seven Bells, Manic Street Preachers, Black Mountain, High On Fire, Beach House, and several others my mind is far too full to conjure up right now. Nice job!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Spirit Three - "Wartime (Missing Pieces)"

Outtakes & Rarities

"This is a collection of session outtakes and unreleased tracks. Some of them will sound familiar, as some of the tracks were simply more of what was initially released... just a few feet down the tape from where the one you know ended. Or was it before it began? How long did some of these tracks go on? Are all the recordings so far excerpts from much longer pieces of music?

Of note is the live recording from 2007, which was the first public performance of the Spirit Three, although at that time, the project was going by the name 'Midway Strange'. That composition, 'Time Is Violence' was first recorded at this performance, but had been playing in one form or another every hour since approximately 1998. "

- Mikey Shake


1, Drone Musik (Double Pink, Two Blue)
2, Somewhere Last Night, After You Left
3, Interlude, Variation 2
4, Split Decision
5, Melted Zip Decay
6, No Johnny, I Don't (The Well Of The Souls)
7, The Day After Revere (Wonderland, Pt. 1)
8, Closed The Park
9, Coedar
10, First Strike, Second Run
11, Time Is Violence [Live 2007]
12, The Crack In The Wall

Recorded 2007-2010
Front Room Studio, Boston, MA
Uncle Fester's, Bloomington, IN
Mikey Shake - guitar, bass, baritone guitar, piano, programming
Front cover by Upstairs Design
Layout by Mikey Shake
Special Thanks to Shake, Shannon, and ofthemetro

Part Five of the Spirit Three EP Series

"The Defilers": A Grammatically Acrobatic Film Review

While its sick violence and rampant mysogyny is unrepentant, "The Defilers" plays like nothing so much as a David Lynch film, with its themes exposing the brutal perversion underneath the sweet, sweeping soundtrack strings. However, this film has the added benefit of being ACTUALLY of the cinematic period that Lynch so lovingly and painstakingly recreates. The first blush of "anyone with a camera and a few friends" making their own small-scale masterpieces. It's just that "The Defilers" is of that era's "just give 'em sex and violence" exploitation wave. It's the air of low-budget, Golden Age Of Hollywood aspirations, combined with a punk rock sense of "cut the shit, get to the good stuff" that makes it riveting. However, it's the under-trained but highly ambitious cinematography, combined with the aforementioned collision of graphic thrills, faux-Hollywood glamor (and the attendant campy low-budget production value, acting included), and the disconcerting is-it-real-or-just-for-shock saturation of sadism, sexism and violence, that makes it damn near psychedelic.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Ram It Down: A Point Of Entry For Judas Priest To Deliver The Goods

After spending time, once again, debating with the best man at my wedding over the merits of Iron Maiden versus Judas Priest, I decided to commit: I'd listen to the nominal entirety of Judas Priest's discography, since, as a Maiden Man (uhhhh..) I was LESS familiar with the collective work of Priest. Granted, the tone of my analysis was not unbiased, since I was essentially comparing Priest, who I don't know really well, although I really like them, to Iron Maiden, who I already know I love. But I figured all it would do is make me like Judas Priest more, since I'd be more familiar with them, right?

So I dove in. On Thanksgiving. Five days after my wedding. Seriously. We drove to Thanksgiving dinner rocking out to Stained Class. Loud.

I love my wife.

So... here's my take this week in the case of Priest v. Maiden.

If each of these bands were a movie trilogy, Priest would be Max Max. Hot, sweaty, vaguely futuristic, most certainly surly, a little violent, but rooted in greasy machines. It will start out great (Mad Max/Sad Wings Of Destiny-Sin After Sin), get over-the-top awesome (The Road Warrior/ Stained Class-Defenders of The Faith), then peter out while doing the things you love in a familiar but tired way (Beyond Thunderdome/Ram It Down-Turbo). Iron Maiden, on the other hand, would likely be Lord Of The Rings -- probably went on too long, had lots of stages you could have done without, but when you're done, it's usually the more awesome stuff I remember.

For ME, I think my preference for Maiden comes from two things: context and production. Judas Priest sounds dated to me, thanks to their attempts to stay contemporary. A forgivable sin in the early 1980s, when all the technology to MAKE those sounds was new and wild, but now all that chorus on those guitars smothered in gated reverb remind me of the soundtracks to a million Saturday afternoon movie closing credit themes. Defenders Of The Faith is a particularly egregious example, which buries some of the band's best "hard era" songs in a digital reverb din that makes it impossible to separate from inages of Remo Williams duking it out with Action Jackson on top of a half-finished skyscraper. Maiden had their own production problems, to be sure (some of the synths on the post-Powerslave era are a bit airy to belong of an Iron Maiden record), but it seems like they held out LONGER for one reason or another, with simply a greater percentage of their so-called "classic period" sounding less specifically of its time.

The worst effect of this is on the dueling guitars that made each act so brutally awesome. Whomever it was that botched so many production jobs for Priest certainly owes K.K. Barrett and Glen Tipton their apologies. "Here's an idea for you, audio scientists: if you're going to have dueling lead guitars, why don't you give each of the players identical tones, so you can't distinguish between who's playing what!" Oh wait, you did that, and dampened the brilliance of one of the best twin-guitar lineups since Scott Gorham and whoever else was in Thin Lizzy at the time! Maiden's albums seem to have a distinction in tones between Dave Murray and Adrian Smith that allows you to hear another aspect of the guitaring that differentiates the two even further: melodies. Downing and Tipton RULE, alright? And while I would love to be in the front row banging my fucking head while they rip up some guitarmonies, on (overproduced) record, too much of that same tone turns into sort of a chorus-y, phased mush. It's to the players' credit that this isn't noticeable unless you're listening with a critical ear. Their soloing is astounding, and the riffage and melodicism of the solos is brilliant, but poor production harms it, and I've even listened to the remasters for this comparison. It's hardly the band's fault, and again, I'm sure that in the room it's practically a religious experience, but on record, and that's all anyone really has to go on, it's a little same-y. Maiden seems to utilize counterpoint melodies in the lead guitar parts, rather than intricate harmonies on the same melody. Which is a different beast, really, with a different number. But if you're doing an apples-to-apples comparison... I prefer the intertwining melodies version.

I wouldn't be stupid enough to compare Iron Maiden's Bruce Dickinson to Judas Priest's Rob Halford though. That's a fool's game. Both these dudes are as good as metal/rock vocalists come, and that one's strictly down to preference. However, we can talk lyrics. Maybe that's where my "mid-80s rock tone" pre-condition jumps in. Because honestly, my "bands to trilogies" metaphor up there didn't come out of nowhere. Judas Priest were bad boys, singing about cars and sex and being badasses (leather-and-studs image notwithstanding). Iron Maiden's Steve Harris was a nerd, through and through. He wrote about history and fantasy literature... a song based on the 1960's pop-art TV show The Prisoner? Dork. While the lyrics on either band's oeuvre of dust sleeves are all pretty silly, the macho strut of Priest somehow (and I don't pretend to understand why) comes off as sillier. Which makes me a complete nerd, but if you've read this far, you're pretty comfortable with that fact.

But the obsession with say, "hot rod metal" vs. "dragonslayer metal" has one other hidden facet -- the fact that they had different ancestors. Sure, they can both be traced back to early proto-metal like Sabbath and Zeppelin. But Maiden leaned a lot harder on European musical influences, while Priest was undoubtedly more fueled by American music. The boys in Maiden were more likely to incorporate some classical passages in with their galloping sound, with phrases that recall what many 20th century ears hear as the "old fashioned" central European sounds of movies featuring wizards and warriors. Add to this the scales of the British folk tradition (of which you can certainly hear shades in some of Iron Maiden's mid-period albums), there's a foreign medieval-ness to their sound that appeals to me. It's got just a little more of that "Battle Of Evermore"/Jimmy page version of Olde English folk to add a different texture. Judas Priest, on the other hand, are basically a blues act. Blues as filtered through John Lee Hooker's electric guitar, Elvis' frenzied gospel intermingling, Keith Richards' simplification of technique, Jimi Hendrix' amplification of sound into an almost physical element, and the giant scope of Zeppelin. But make no mistake, despite a few proggier moments on their earlier records, had they not discovered that their strengths were speed and aggression, they could have made a string of albums that sounded like Foreigner. Thank god they didn't, and once they found that recipe around the time of Stained Class, they transformed into a piston-pumping machine of greasy, full-throttle open road juggernaucity. (Nice, huh?) Of course, Maiden aren't off the hook either. Original vocalist Paul DiAnno often gets the blame for the less-than-awesome vibe of the first two Iron Maiden records, but it's lazy to attribute it solely to him. Bassist and songwriter Steve Harris was writing interesting songs that showed the path they would later take, but let's not mistake "interesting" with "very good". I like them, they have their charm, but each of these bands is allowed a few early missteps. I'm looking at you Rocka Rolla.

So ultimately, the bands certainly share some characteristics, but were separated by several years in making their first albums and really didn't sound all that much alike to music nerds. Once again proving that we're all wasting our lives, because in the grand scheme of music history, I don't see why I should even be able to distinguish between the two bands.

So, in short, I'm really, really glad I plowed through all that Judas Priest. i discovered at least 4 absolutely awesome records (Stained Class, Hell Bent For Leather, Unleashed In the East, and the almighty Screaming For Vengeance), none of which are marred by awful production. Incidentally, the last great Priest album, unmentioned here, is Painkiller, where the band finally caught up with the '80s thrash scene that they influenced. Brooooootal. I still prefer Iron Maiden, but I like my "epic fantasy rock" more than I like my "cars, sex, and being awesome" badass anthems.

Of course, Kiss annihilates both these sets of wimps with one giant ball of fire, but that's another column.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Spirit Three - "Who's Your Doctor?" EP


Recorded 2009-2010
Front Room Studio, Boston, MA
and Le Office, Boston, MA
Mikey Shake - guitar, baritone guitar, synth, sequencing
Front cover by Upstairs Design
Layout by Mikey Shake
Special Thanks to Shake, Shannon, and ofthemetro

Part Four of the Spirit Three Not-So-Live-Anymore EP Series

Monday, November 1, 2010

The Spirit Three - "Churchill UFOs" EP


Recorded live, Sep. & Oct. 2010.
Front Room Studio, Boston, MA
Live to 1-track digital recording.
No overdubs.
Mikey Shake - guitar
Front cover photo by Ed Albers, Upstairs Design
Layout by Mikey Shake
Special Thanks to Shan

Part Three of the Spirit Three Live EP Series

Friday, October 8, 2010

The Spirit Three - "Kelly's Revenge" EP

drone recordings, 2010


Recorded Sep. & Oct. 2010.
Front Room Studio, Boston, MA.
Digital multitrack recording.
Mikey Shake - guitar/bass/synthesizer/signal processing
Front cover photo by Ronnie Dobbs
Layout by Mikey Shake
Special Thanks to Shake (the band)

Bonus Release in the Spirit Three Live EP Series

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Spirit Three - "Sarah's Prize" EP


Recorded live, Sep. 9th, 2010.
Front Room Studio, Boston, MA
Live to 1-track digital recording.
No overdubs.
Mikey Shake - guitar
Front cover photo by Shannon Barker
Layout by Mikey Shake
Special Thanks to Shake and Sarah Strahl

Part Two of the Spirit Three Live EP Series

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Don't Kill Me, I Want To Be A Messenger

"Many people need desperately to receive this message: 'I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people do not care about them. You are not alone.'" - Kurt Vonnegut

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Spirit Three - "Full On Dub Kick" EP [Live]


Recorded live, Sep. 8th, 2010.
Front Room Studio, Boston, MA
Live to 1-track digital recording.
No overdubs.
Mikey Shake - guitar and processing.
Front cover photo by Shannon B
Layout by Mikey Shake

Part 1 of the Spirit Three Live EP Series

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Ladies And Gentlemen... The Spirit Three

The news has stopped for a few minutes, maybe I can wedge in a little overcooked musing on something or other... shall I give it a go?

I've recently been faced with an interesting creative challenge. With my interest in creating straightforward pop waning, I seem to spend a lot more time making experimental ambient music. Now, this is a strand of my musical diet that has always been there (since about the time I bought my first delay unit in high school), but has rarely bubbled to the surface, since it seemed tantamount to musical self-abuse - sure I have fun doing it, but does anyone really want to hear it?

The principal stumbling block is that in a mindset where repeatability is a key - i.e., it's no good unless you can repeat the process and get the same result... scientific musicality, in essence - an activity in which rolling around in sound, largely improvised, and unique to that performance seems somehow, well... false. Not bad, but not "real", whatever that entails.

But that was my own hang-up. In a world where recording exists, and in a medium (experimental music) where the recording and sonic manipulation is a given factor in the end result, it just doesn't matter... you only have to be able to do it right once. And sometimes, not even that, thanks to multitrack recording. Suddenly, the idea of it being a necessary factor to be able to play the same part the same way every time seems not outdated - after all, I still love pop music - BUT more than anything, it seems quaint. Suddenly, I'm working in a different field, with a different set of rules than before, and I'm finding that these rules offer a freedom of form that leads to new avenues of creativity.

The most interesting of which is that this inclination to experimental improvisation has been bubbling under for years. In 2004, we made the first Shake EP. It was intentionally primitive garage rock, inspired by the Oblivians, Cheater Slicks, et al. Only one of the songs was "written" before the recording session, and that was only in the most basic form, as it was only two different two-note riffs over a thumpy beat. The point was that between getting home and going to bed, the goal was to create, and then have the creation exist as a separate entity, outside my head, before the day was through. That forced creativity can create some excellent accidents, and is freeing in that there's a certain sense that it doesn't matter what the end result IS, simply that there is an end result, a product created for whatever purpose. In my mind, that physical end result of spontaneous creativity, whether subjectively good or bad (I had a metalhead plumber friend who LOVED the Instant Record EP and garage rocker friends who hated it), is the key to the whole thing, and the reason to even do it in the first place. What matters is that there is now a thing that wasn't. That didn't exist before you created it. And if one keeps doing it, one gets better.

Naturally, there are some hidden clauses in that freedom - i.e., I'll respect your right to make something like that, but there's a "minimum competency level" that my aging ears have begun policing. However, that level is still pretty low. I'm willing to listen to just about anything if that spark of mad creativity is there, even if the result is (and it usually is) less-than-aurally-pleasing. Of course, I don't want to make music that sounds shitty, but again, if that spark, that audible drive to push somewhere new is present, a bum note seems like a lot less of a problem and a lot more like a byproduct of improvisation and spontaneous creativity.

So now, I'm faced with a dilemma. I've come to terms with the fact that I have a limited audience... embraced it, even. Granted, I'd like my friends, whose opinions I respect, to LIKE it, but it's not necessary. Do I keep going down a road where I'm making music that pleases me with the sole intention of creation of an artifact and the enjoyment of making it? Or do I declare that art is invalid without an audience, and perhaps attempt to focus the energy on something more appealing to a wider group, thereby increasing my chances of this so-called "art" (blech) reaching a larger crowd?

The answer, of course, is the former. It doesn't matter whether or not anyone will hear (or if they do, care for) the music, it matters that this is a piece of something that wasn't there before. Sure, it might not be appealing, but it is an honest, true-to-life of a creative endeavor. It isn't forced, it isn't striving to fit a pre-determined style (it's not like I'm doing anything innovative, but I have no particular influences beyond "they play droning, heavily-effected guitars in a repetitive manner". There are a wondrous number of groups and players that have experimented with feedback and modulation. This is just another one. But the "keep doing it and get better" mantra fails me a bit when it comes to something this inherently structure-light. Without the classical pop format, the rules for whether or not something is good or bad get much more blurred. Right now, when I listen to the free-er end of avant/ambient/psychedelic music, my primary scale is "Is it boring?" That's not a lot of pressure to perfect a style, to be sure. But what if there were JUST enough pressure to keep things moving forward on a practical level, in a resolutely static style of expression? With a certain amount of pressure from a deadline, that's how. A deadline for a record series. One per month... a single at worst, and an EP at best. Some will be better than others, some will be worse than most of them. But they will be, and they will each have something appealing about them.

So please, in addition to Shake, welcome The Spirit Three into the world.

[And no, the name actually has nothing to do with Spiritualized and Spacemen 3... that's just a happy coincidence. You get an EP named after you if you're the first person to comment and say where the name comes from.]

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Help The Aged: Counting Down To The Year 2000 (When We're All Fully Grown)

As a certain type of youth, there's a certain appeal to a certain type of adulthood. The period between becoming a grown-up and becoming an adult. Adrift, probably surviving on cigarettes and whatever drinks you can scam a girl into buying you, and distinctly outside the norm. Over-educated and underpaid, you probably think you're under-appreciated as well, a self-absorbed intellectual, fascinated by social strata, since it's so easy to stand outside it, because who'd want to be a part of that anyway?

Which brings me to Pulp. To an American tennager in the mid-90s, Pulp held the seedy allure of an exotic sort of rinky-dink glamor, the kind that only that specifc kind of demographic above could create. They were certainly adult, what with their songs of sex and pubs and bad break-ups, and all the drunken hopelessness that comes with that. Their songs sounded like people making do with whatever they had, because none of it mattered anyway, but as Pulp frontman/mastermind Jarvis Cocker put it, "there's nothing else to do." Pulp comes across like a combination of Mississippi blues and Johnny Rotten: we're singing to make ourselves feel better... but there's really no future. I could never tell whether the group (whose spiritual guide is Cocker, without a doubt) was truly sticking up the common people, because they were all so clearly educated and intellectual in ways that "the masses" they often describe could never be.

Just like Jon Spencer, it's not so much a spokesman role, but works when you take Pulp/Cocker as an advocate and supporter - they love the realness of these people, the messy, visceral down-to-earthness, but, like Ray Davies, are ultimately just drawing sketches from the outside. I can sit in a bar near the docks at Chelsea and peoplewatch, and maybe even strike up some conversations... but I'm not one of those people. They're good people, but that's not me and it never will be. I'm not denying that Cocker probably grew up poor, and scraped to get by, and may not be a rich rock star (er, may not HAVE BEEN a rich rock star), but just like D. Boon and Mike Watt, coming from blue-collar doesn't necessarily make one that... sometimes you end up special, not like everybody else. Just like the country club set occasionally spits out a slacker with a contempt for it, a genuinely fey and pretentious poet can sometimes rise from the roughest background. That's not a slight... but something tells me ol' Jarvis wouldn't have done too well working down at the mill in Sheffield. But their examination of that segment of society, filtered with the "wasted art-school youth" of their backgrounds, had a way of making the tragedy of young adulthood seem romantic. And that romance is seductive. It's intoxicating.

There's an appeal in rooting for the underdog. We all know that. There's also an appeal in sticking it to authority, who tell you how things are supposed to be. In their prime, Cocker and Co, managed to do both... dancing in wood-panelled bingo halls with regular people on Wednesday night, flipping the finger to the establishment who had no time for the common folk. I think they had the right idea... it's all falling apart anyway, and none of us have any money, so why not have a little fun?

What's funny, is that on the other side of things, now that I am an adult (nominally), gently easing out of that period of my life, is just how nostalgic tracks like "Countdown" and "Mile End" make me for my own situation BEFORE I got there. Listening to songs of misspent young adulthood make me nostalgic for the years of adolesence when I listened to songs of misspent young adulthood looking forward to it. A therapist might have a field day, but some of my best memories of adolescence involve desperately trying to claw my way out of it. Granted, mine weren't as full of sordid sexual encounters and disco-going (I can't stand most clubs... something tells me i'd enjoy a disco in the UK in '94 a little more than most of the trance clubs these days...), but it's just funny how... well, CHARMING their brand of dirty-mirror, low-rent sleaze seems with the benefit of hindsight. Hedonistic and ever so dramatic, but charming nonetheless.

I should point out here that Pulp only briefly touched this magic observational balance. Let's say a couple of albums and a handful of singles. Their other work is wonderful, but it doesn't have the same sort of charm. In fact, almost as much as I loved Different Class and His 'N' Hers, I was listening over and over to their messy "sophomore" album (first album post-hugeness), This Is Hardcore all through my senior year of high school. I even have the band's logo from that album cover etched into my backpack in white-out if you don't believe me. Apparently that record was a giant cocaine-fuelled nervous breakdown set to music, but its soul-inflected film-noir sound spoke to my more dramatic (and depressive) tendencies. The title track in particular is a party-stopper. I'm serious. The buildup where the guitar comes in will KILL anything in the room with it's bashing bleakness. But it's worth hearing. It's just not the low-budget Roxy Music mod/disco of their "classic" period.

Britpop seduced me after I started to move beyond what grunge and alternative rock had become - a big, label-fuelled cash-grab full of artfully coiffured guitarists in silk shirts and leather pants, who'd been playing Poison licks only 3 years prior, but now they had a lip piercing and a tattoo. Oasis spoke to my populist tenencies. They wanted to pull my heartstrings with supersized anthems, and I damn well wanted those strings pulled. It was a good deal to cut. Blur spoke to my intellect... painting pictures of the way modern life in the suburbs really was, pulling back the curtain on convenience and showing the hollow core. A bit too clever for it's own good, but not pulling any punches and inspiring. But Pulp... Pulp spoke to my sense of romance. I wanted to be able to meet up in the year whatever with my friends, once we were all fully grown. Get sloshing drunk and wander around all night. I wanted to remember the sordid details of staying out all night fuelled by loud music and cheap alcohol. And now, listening to this music that painted pictures in my teenage mind of a life that I hadn't lived yet, I wanna go back to those days again. Not forever, just for a while. And Pulp can get me there fast.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Universal And The Fractal

At the risk of stating the obvious, sometimes greatest hits albums do serve their purpose.

I tend to follow the Bruce McCullough edict that "greatest hits albums are for housewives and little girls". Rarely does a band have a hand in choosing what's selected, so what you end up with is a smattering of what some label rep thinks is the best assortment of hits, usually in chronological order. That order usually stinks, because it exemplifies how a band fell off after their initial spark, or took forever to get going, making it an album you rarely reach for (I'm looking at you, Soundgarden). If it's not in strict chronological order, it's often in some random jumble that sticks 3 weak songs back to back (to back!) right in the middle of the playtime, leading me to turn it off once it gets boring.

But sometimes, a band is so good... that it turns out right.

The Best Of Blur
is one of those times.

Now, I was late to the band. I felt pretty cool for finding their '97 self-titled (traded to a guy in school for an Alice In Chains EP). I was firmly stuck in my punk phase, and even with broad tastes, hadn't really dug up much of the U.S. deep underground. For a teen swimming in the dizzying Second New Wave Era of '94-'98, who needed to look much farther? But it was a sad record, still packed with hooks, and the strangest, most gnarled production texture ever. Of course, by the time I made this epochal discovery, they'd risen and fallen as the biggest band in England, and led by future Gorilla (and then-aspiring agitator) Damon Albarn, their snide Kinksian British POP competing with Oasis' more thuggish lager-rock and ultimately turned their backs on their musical homeland, indulging guitarist Graham Coxon's fascination with American indie and lo-fi acts like Pavement and Sebadoh. But what did I know? I was a 15-year-old.

Of course, over the years, I became a massive Blur fan. I could identify with their perfectly suburban take on modern life... a certain distaste for the obsession with newer, sleeker, faster, prettier, easier... at the expense of preservation. Without a sense of history, all that shiny plastic may be alluring, but as Blur would say, it's mostly "rubbish". They probably ended the '90s as my favorite of the Britpop wave, just edging out Pulp's sordid backroom glamo(u)r. I liked Blur because I WAS Blur. Smartass, arrogant, bored, frustrated, ultimately hopeful, but not terribly optimistic. They were nostalgic for they way things used to be, they way they SHOULD still be, but didn't seem to be anymore.

After a canon of classic Britpop, an experimental lo-fi branching out, the difficult follow up ("13", and then an interesting denouement (Think Tank) without musical director Coxon on board, they all went their separate ways, before '90s nostalgia kicked in and their later work, initially dismissed in the U.K. as Yankophilic dilettantism, found itself suddenly "ahead of it's time". They came back, did a reunion tour, everybody loved it... cool.

But that's all framing details. Their greatest hits package works because at face value it's a collection of better-than-average songs in a thoughtful sequence that highlights their individual quality and the sustained strength of the songwriting and kaleidoscopic reach. But forget all that... greatest hits packages work in one of two ways. For the casual consumer, they say "hey, here's a band whose songs that I heard I liked, I should get this, those and others I like are probably on there without all that other stuff to wade through!" And those people would be right. But I look at one and usually say, ok, knowing what I know about this band, how well does the album collect representative highlights that I'll like from this band?" As a fan, listening to The Best Of Blur is like watching a half-hour of really good previews for great movies you've already seen.

A fractal is "a rough or fragmented geometric shape that can be split into parts, each of which is (at least approximately) a reduced-size copy of the whole"... you've seen these... they look like primitive computerized psychedelic art. Well, this album plays like one. Each of Blur's albums has a very particular mood set over it, and while there's often a lot of room for movement, and maybe it's just the state of my life when I acquired each album, but the sequencing and track list of TBoB is like a volley of memories flooding back. The *ahem* highs and lows of "Beetlebum", and the rush of "Song 2" bring to mind that scrappy, dirty, raw guitar vibe of that self-titled album, before zooming away on the funkified wheels of the slick and dancey "There's No Other Way", from their debut album, which managed to synthesize Madchester baggy and lush shoegazing (and which I seem to like a lot more than anyone else seems to). From there, it flits around, but the emotions are programmed correctly, giving no pretense as hanging together cohesively in it's kaleidoscopic reach, but working like a stack of photographs pulled from a box. flip through them, know they're from different trips, then mix and match. It's amazing how effective the songs are, which is obviously credit to the strength of the writing. Their first classic, Modern Life Is Rubbish is almost completely ignored, but not only is that album very, very unified, it's also very, very British. And not that these boys have ever really HID their heritage, but it would be very insular to put much of that on a greatest hits, innit?

Moments from Parklife hit hardest, though. When the bouncier title track or "Girls And Boys" pop on I want to put on my docs and pogo around the room, but "To The End" and "This Is A Low" bring with them, even in miniature, the resigned nostalgia for a time clearly past that made Parklife such a powerful album in its entirety. That's the magic. That each of these moments, sequenced this way, bring with them all the complex statements that the albums were attempting to communicate as well. so when I listen to "To The End", I feel like I've spent all day with Tracy Jacks, and the trainspotting Englishman who feeds the pigeons, and those kids who just got back from a Bank Holiday rave on Majorca. And we're all at the dog track, having a pint before getting home to watch the telly, and I just remembered that you can't go back to the way it used to be. That's a pretty complex feeling to deliver in just a few minutes. Now, as I said, it's the SONG'S job to do that (and lest anyone forget, this is a BRILLIANT handful of songs), but the sequencing makes sure that you never linger in one area too long. Within a few minutes, that same imaginary "self" is whizzing through his teen years to the strains of "She's So High". It's complex and messy, and not even a perfect analogy, but what is?

Of course, I'm probably wrong. My sick, desperate psyche is probably searching for some greater meaning in life right now, and I'm just strongly identifying with some emotional signifiers that I had connected with during a particular emotional development phase when I was younger and am suddenly finding myself looking for solace in the "simpler" days of high school and college... a respite from the hectic responsibility of the adult world.

But someone who put this together made sure to place "Song 2" second on the track order. I've seen countless "best of the '90s" CD comps with that track... and most of them bury it late in the teens.

So there's hope...

Saturday, August 21, 2010

I Have Seen The Future Of Rock And Roll...

It was after lunch. I had fish 'n' chips and a couple of scotches. We wandered across the street, to the giant flat City Hall plaza at Government Center. The bustle of the crowd on a breezy, cool summer day was intoxicating... or maybe it was the scotch.

After several minutes of wandering around the so called "Green Fest" aimlessly, while my traveling companions searched for free loot to fill their outstretched arms, we stumbled across them. They played their songs to an open area, full of a dozen folding chairs and a smattering of hula hoops, which were strewn about the concrete, being picked up by children and hurled around by surly teens. it was a motley crew on stage.. on the riser in back was a young drummer - and when I say young, I mean under 16 - and a keyboardist... head down, determined, fleet-fingered, and inaudible. And she was probably over 70 years old. Up front was the real draw.

To the left side was a singer with a tambourine playing only 16th notes over every moment... loosely in rhythm, louder than the sky ripping in half. How he managed to mic his tambourine while lifting his arms above his head to do that 'Magilla Gorilla with the DTs' "dance" is beyond me. I can only aspire.

To the right was a guitarist, gamely playing away while trying to man the soundboard at the same time. He'd seemed to make only one miscalculation in all the excitement, turning his chorus all the way up and his reverb all the way down... it was like getting punched in the face by 1980s Top 40 radio.

In the middle was a female singer. Looks shouldn't enter the equation when it comes to talent, and thank goodness she didn't have any. Of either. She sang from pages on one of those cheap silver music stands like I had in middle school band... her note pages blowing in the breeze.

Why did she need the note pages? Because these weren't just any songs they were singing... no, no, no... in the spirit of the Green Fest, these weren't simply SONGS.. they were standards you know, but with the lyrics (GET THIS!) reflecting the importance of the environment. Suddenly, I felt my hands float upward, taking my limp arms with them... because now I finally knew the meaning of the term "heavy handed". Over the din, I could make out snippets of a playlist assembled only by a madman... and just after they wrapped up what I can only describe as an experimental, avant/free-form version of Joe Cocker's "Feelin' Alright", I knew from the second the falsetto began. Echoing in my swirling head, I could just make out the words... "In the jungle, the mighty jungle... the lion is going extinct...."

I was transported. I still don't know to where.

Now, for all the accusations leveled at me about being a music snob, I still claim innocence. There may have been a time, yes. But I enjoy music from all walks of life. I have more guilty pleasures than I can count, and firmly believe that if someone truly loves something I abhor, that's wonderful... good for them for finding something that they love. I might not see eye to eye with that person, but never will I say that someone shouldn't enjoy something they love as long as it's not harmful to anyone. I might knock the music as an opinion, but that's my opinion for my little sphere. And the courage it takes for people to stand up in front of a crowd -ESPECIALLY an indifferent one - is an act of bravery. Putting yourself out there in front of a large group and displaying a skill of some kind is terrifying for most average people - I know it is for me. So I applaud their effort and courage and wish them the best in the future.

It was a dizzying combination of sight, sound, and intent in front of me blaring out of that tent. That said, they were easily the second worst band I've ever seen.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

So I'm watching TV, and an old movie I love comes on... I decide to stick with it, because it's such a magical film I never walk away without a spring in my step. Plus, I didn't really have anything else going on that day. As I'm watching this sequel of sequels, I find myself wondering about a particular plot point, which had never crossed my mind before. However, upon investigation, found that the ORIGINAL version of the script had a brief scene in which this plot point is addressed. However, it took quite a bit of digging to find, and as I know many of my readers are interested in fine cinema as well, thought I'd reprint it here. I submitted contact information with the original writer, and will certainly remove the post if he returns his thoughts in a litigious manner.

Deleted Scene From "Escape From L.A.":

(Scene: Medical Exam Room, right before Snake Plissken is sent out on his mission to get the President's daughter back. Or something.)

President Charly: This is a vitamin shot, Plissken... after the L.A. STD Wars, you'll need it.

(medic injects poison into Snake's neck)

President Charly: (less than a second after the injection gun makes that "hiss" sound) (yelling) Ha ha! No it's not! That was a POISON giving you only a few hours to complete my tasks and get back here and get the antidote from me before it kills you! (evil laughter)

(Uncle Ben or whatever that actor's name is twirls his moustache between his thumb and forefinger so you know he's evil, like when he was the bad guy in "Three Days Of The Condor". The one with Robert Redford. Man... that movie was pretty good. But the fashion and hair were SOOOO '70s! And wasn't the book called "SIX Days of the Condor"? What happened to the other days? Oh, wait... ummmm...)

Snake Plissken: Damn it! Not AGAIN! it's just like last time (looks into camera) like when this happened to me the last time I had to ESCAPE from NEW YORK!

(camera lingers extra beat on close-up of Snake with that "Captain Ron" smirk on Kurt Russell's face)

(profile shot of two men facing each other)

President Charly: What, you don't think stranger things could happen?
(long beat)
Look around! This used to be a STARBUCKS... (beat)... IN L.A.!

(both turn an look at the camera with a quizzical look, tilting their heads)

(that "wah-WAHHH" tuba noise)

(oh, and if that Biff Robertson guy is dead or whatever, just see if Rip Torn can do it. He probably needs the work, poor guy.)

(end scene)

OK, so that part up there was something I made up. Yeah, I actually DID write that, not some other guy.

I'll be taking my Oscar now, please.

Hanging On For Dear Life: Ceremony's "Rocket Fire"

In the music press, it's virtually impossible to write a review of Ceremony's work without mentioning the joint history shared with current noise-rock toasts A Place To Bury Strangers. I made an effort to avoid doing it and it ends up being the lead-off to this review. The two bands shared members in a Virginia band called Skywave, whose work is also excellent... but if A Place To Bury Strangers is the sound of a giant explosion, Ceremony is closer to the jet that dropped that bomb blasting into the stratosphere, blasting away so hard it feels like it's going to break apart. No more or less powerful, simply sleeker... and far more propelled. And they've never sounded better than on their new album, Rocket Fire.

It's a journalistic risk to recite the basic facts from a band's bio sheet, but for a group with such a sparse web presence (usually confused with a Bay Area hardcore band with the same name, who sounds NOTHING like our noisemakers in question), it might not hurt. Based around a guitar/bass duo and a drum machine, the band has released two other albums, or an album and a demo... or two albums and a demo... hell, I do this for a living and I'm having trouble pinning down just where their discography begins and ends. Like I mentioned, info on these guys is sparse.

Too sparse, in fact, for such a divine sound. If one end of the noise/shoegazer revival of the past few decades explores how to make noise into music (The Vandelles, APTBS, Ringo Deathstarr), Ceremony falls toward the other end, who use the noise for songs that would probably be just fine without feedback or static. They're all the better for it, but an ambitious tribute band could recast most of these tunes as spare, wiry, Luna-esque pop and the melodies would stand up. The shades of electronic-tinged post-punk (errr.. New Order comes to mind) certainly act as sonic touchstones, and the noisy, blurry sounds of some of the original shoegazers certainly aren't far off... but Ceremony doesn't quite sound like the Telescopes, or Ride, or the Swirlies, or any of the others from "back in the day", really. Sure, there are distant vocals, feedback crashes, white noise, and hissing programmed hi-hats. Sure, it could be described as a "wall of sound". You could name several bands that remind you of this one... but you'd still be a little off. I remember My Bloody Valentine's "Soon" being peppy and uptempo and danceable, but the speeds and hair-raising sounds on display here combine like an adrenaline rush.

The jet analogy above, however, has another layer... even if their tracks aren't all truly uptempo, there's a fantastic feeling of hanging on for survival, lest any of us fall off... and that urgency makes things feel breathless, even when the tension releases a little bit. Imagine trying to keep your grip on a seamless steel jet at 30,000 feet. It keeps pushing higher and higher, the sky gets darker and darker... and just when you think you're about to go weightless, things kick in and away you go again. It's no new concept that the enjoyment of a substantial amount of shoegazer music depends on one's ability to appreciate subtle variation within a fairly specific template... but Ceremony is able to keep Rocket Fire thrilling by focusing on (work with me here) variations of that subtle variation.

While that may sound like a microscopically silly way to praise...well... anything, the point is that the band takes comfortable and established concepts (lovely melodies filtered through the "shoegazer" sound), makes it feel riveting through their own abilities as sonic alchemists (subtle variation number one), but then -- most importantly -- plays with that jet-engine rush by tightening the tension and releasing it over the course of about an hour. By the end of it, you're simultaneously satisfied and wrung out.

Despite the logistical headache that fact-finding turns up very little info, there's something refreshing about a lack of ephemera about Ceremony. It hearkens back to a simpler time, when a good record stood on its own. Granted, technological development had a lot to do with it (I was a teen in the mid-to-late '90s), but I remember when a good record was it's own background info. Check the credits and thank yous to find other good bands, but that's about it. Before I could check Wikipedia pages or add bands on Facebook (and let's not forget following their minutiae on Twitter), all a band could give was a good album. If it was good, it was good, if not, then who cared? Ceremony is making me forget about all the information overload, and the fact that Rocket Fire keeps revealing secrets on the 9th or 10th spin is telling me all I really need to know.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

A Record Review, Finally.

For all the discussion on the ultimate purpose of art, sometimes it can all be boiled down to the fact that most people want their art to either reflect their emotions or help them escape them. Sometimes, these tasks are one and the same, and that type of moment can be transcendent, but it's a rarity. No, the nuts and bolts of it is that we either want to recognize our own current situation -- whatever that might be -- so that we don't feel like the only one, or we want it to give us a little vacation from your problems... to help us forget that we've got troubles, and allow us to forget them, leave them behind... be it for a minute or ninety. You can either laugh at the ridiculousness of a comedy, or be brought to tears by a drama, but ultimately it's escapism vs. solidarity.

The new album by Malory can give you both.

Malory is a German ambient band, not a lone woman. Their first album, Not Here, Not Now (2000) is absolutely enthralling, if not exactly innovative. Weaving ambient tapestries of not-quite-sure-what-it-is-making-that sounds and haunted production, it might be one of my very favorite albums of the past ten years, if only for the depth it brings. It's not melancholic, it's not euphoric, it's not contemplative, and it's not propulsive... but it's almost all of those things at once. Shades of Brian Eno are obvious, but without sounding derivative, the band manages to synthesize the best aspects of ambient pop from the last 25 years, from Slowdive to fellow Europeans The Ecstasy Of St. Theresa. Malory, however, is solidly in the Ramones camp; not in sound, but in the fact that while they don't have much stylistic diversity, they excel at their language of choice.

The new album, Pearl Diver, could be called more of the same... which is something I'm sure that would not be taken as a compliment by the band, but is met as one of the highest regard. Over the course of four albums, only the subtlest of changes has been rolled out... this album certainly has more hooks and vocals than the early work, but it's hardly a detriment - although, to be fair, I'm still not sure if it's an improvement. Some of the band's earliest Slowdive influence has receded, but the guitars are no less gauzy and the vocals no more emphatic. Once again, the melodies unfurl like slow motion parachutes, the percussion is often a wispy pulse from a half-remembered dream... in short, it's a beautiful aural vacation.

However, this isn't an example of cut-and-dry "reflection vs. escapsim". At least, not for this writer. While the tones and timbres are blurred... unclear... the melodies and music of it all is so utterly human, so primally basic, that you'll think most of the melodies on here are lullabies that you can't quite remember. No matter the mood, I keep coming back to this album again and again and keep finding that it's there to both reflect my feelings as well as escape them. If I'm feeling down, the gentle hum is there as consolation, and I keep finding myself lost inside its depth. If I'm feeling good, it's like doing the backstroke through clouds on a warm night.

I'd initially intended to go into detail about particular songs, but that would be doing the album a disservice. While you absolutely could listen to an individual song, it's best taken as a whole, even if you don't take the whole at once. Each bite is better knowing it's part of a larger tapestry. I was recently reading an interview with one of the members of German electronic pioneers Cluster, who said that while many other musicians were concerned with where the song was going, they preferred to swim in drones and static music to really create an environment, rather than continually move forward. By establishing a "space" using whatever sonic devices one chooses to use, it makes it all the more powerful and dreamlike when that whole world shifts just a little.

Now that's an album.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Too Much For Twitter...

I read a 2008 quote by Parker Posey this morning which basically explained how while she was working on both a TV project and a play at the same time, she enjoyed seeing how the mechanics that made up each medium differed. "I like going into different worlds and seeing what's backstage, ya know?"

I agree. While I absolutely adore being lost in the fantasy of good TV or film or theatre, it's seeing how each works differently, the organs that must hum and pulse and process each differently that fascinates me.

The irony, of course, is that I'm writing this on camera, but "behind the scenes" in a television studio. Realizing that I agreed with Posey while actually in the process of enjoying a backstage world was pretty funny.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

When It Rains, It Rocks... Top Albums of 2010 (So Far)

Talk about a drought.

2009 was one of the most overwhelmingly good years in recent memory for a music fan of my rather peculiar taste. Old favorites, new discoveries, a mixing of styles and even some genre surprises. There was nearly enough to make a list of the twenty best, rather than ten, and while 15-20 might've been a little stretched, it wouldn't have been filler for the sake of filler.

So what the hell happened?

I don't want to sound like I'm denigrating the artists who you'll read about below -they've all done great work, and would deserve a place in contention even if this year were flooded with other good releases. It's just that they've stood remarkably alone. There have been a few "good, solid" albums that I've really enjoyed and will continue to listen to that just aren't what I'm looking for in a "best of" wrap-up (Ted Leo... I'm looking at you!), but those listed below are certainly ready to slog it out when December hits, in the supreme year-end roundup.

5. The Dead Weather - Sea Of Cowards
I have this theory about Jack White. He knows that rock stardom is fleeting, and immortality comes only as a martyr or a legend (or both). He's no fool, and he's no con man either, no matter what his Tesla-spouting snake-oil salesman persona might indicate. He's as real-world shrewd as he is eccentric, and ever since he got his foot in the door, he's throwing out everything good he can do... the man just wants a legacy before Boethius's wheel throws him back down to the dirt once again. But none of that's important, really. This is, just like last year's album, a greasy slab of voodoo blues. It's the Exile to the White Stripes' Aftermath. There's really no better or worse, it's just that one's about overall vibe and the other is about songs. Lead singer Alison Mosshart is less enamoured of aping White's vocal style this time around, but the band grinds like The Birthday Party if they were mainlining crude oil. No highlights to pick, because this bastard's one big oozing grease smear.

4. Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings - I Learned The Hard Way
Like The Dirtbombs, the Dap-Kings are almost guaranteed a place on my list anytime they grace us with a record. It's not that I'm enough of a fan that I'll accept anything. It's just that they only really do one thing, but they do it better than anyone else. A 60's soul album cut in Brooklyn by a bunch'a youngsters and a force-of-nature soul singer. The songs and production are tight as a drum on this one, but if you liked their previous work, you won't have any surprises. Except maybe for how much you like it despite having heard their book of tricks before. Of course, I still love to watch breakdancers at work, so there are just some performance arts that seem to thrill every time. This is one of them.

3. John & Exene - Singing And Playing
OK, so this one isn't fair, really. I had the good fortune of being woken up to go see John Doe and Exene Cervenka play an acoustic, Storytellers-esque performance to a seated crowd. Apparently, before the tour, they went to a friend's place and recorded this EP of low-key new tunes, covers, and material from their time fronting punk legends X. Not only was the show an absolute thrill, but the CD-R EP that played in the car ride home was the perfect extension of the night. Recorded about two weeks before I purchased it, it's the sound of two people, who love to make music, doing it very well. Get your eBay finger working.

2. Sade - Soldier Of Love
Even if this wasn't a great record, the title track would have at least put it up for consideration. Sade, it should be noted, was music for my mother to listen to up until I heard this track. The soundtrack to hot summer days en route to a mall in Virginia, sandwiched between Phil Collins and The Police. Someone convinced me to give it the single whirl... it was only a click away to stream... so I gave it a shot. Every so often, R&B music seems to capture the times better than rock (which is a uniquely navel-gazing form, for all the alleged social change it's capable of). In the late-90s, it seemed like the robo-funk-hop of Timbaland and the Neptunes perfectly summed up the future-looking, crest-riding, hedonistic party that we were all headed to, intoxicated with our own self-assuredness. It's clearly a different time, and "Soldier Of Love" embraces our own (circa 2010) twisted solipsistic tendencies in an increasingly bleak world. For all the hope that's been bandied about the past couple of years, things have been pretty grim lately... for lack of a better term, it's been a fucked-up decade to become an adult. Wars that can't be won against enemies we can't understand... political unrest and division, society tearing itself apart at at the grey concrete seams. The vocalist's metaphor for emotional war plays out over a jittery, paranoid groove torn from Massive Attack and filtered through recent Prince. Far and away the best thing on a record full of grey, conflicted moods, it's an excellent starter for a day of wrapping yourself up in paranoid bad vibes, because they're the only armor you have.

1. Gorillaz - Plastic Beach
Speaking of bad vibes... these simians aren't usually dancing the night away. I'll admit, that while the first Gorillaz album was good, I saw it as the Britpop version of Prozzak... a successful but restless pop star has a fun dalliance into assumed cartoon character personae and multimedia experiments, plays some good songs, and then a "let's get back to reality, shall we?". I was wrong. Their second album, Demon Days, was, to my mind, the finest example of "post-millennial, culturally relevant musical cross-pollination" in the last decade. Which is to say it managed to summarize those darkest of days by throwing everything in the mix and sounding contemporary without dating itself. The key to the whole thing is that, well... it still cares. We might be completely fucked, but there's still a chance for redemption. It doesn't offer it, but it lets you know that some of us might make it out of this alive. If Sade was a bad night alone, this is the album for the day after. Guest stars float in and out of the mix over sounds that aren't easily pigeonholed... once again tossing hip-hop, dub, rock, world music, et al, into a musical Cuisinart. Lofty concepts would be interesting enough in print alone, but this is a great album... and doesn't everyone need something to listen to after the end of the world?

Friday, July 2, 2010

Brighton Rock

Perhaps, Richard...

But vitriol was the order of the day. In hindsight that last post could be seen as a meta-example of the very argument itself: transcendent writing must bring an understanding of humanity to the table. A sudden rush of emotion filterted through a creative outlet. I'm not saying it WAS transcendent Pulitzer material, but it's far more interesting to my sensibility as a READER than a rational recounting of emotional reactions days after the fact. Isn't it that same drive that inspires a poem to be authored, or a song to be written? That mad rush to grab an instrument of any kind and trap the animal, to contain it so that it can be shared with others, and exorcised from your mind? After all, what is art if not life simply filtered through the artist's perception? It's a shame that all that was taken from it seems to be the desire to write about "sore ankles" and "smelly markets", because to a certain sensibility, it's the aggregation of that type of detail that make up the human condition, and makes whatever flights of fantasy an author creates ring true.

Few people care about the nuts and bolts of a disagreement if they don't understand the context and weight that each side brings to the table. Perhaps that's an oversimplification, but it's not inaccurate. Many (but I'll concede that certainly not all) audiences prefer to ask why the clock has a bird in it, and what that means, rather than request a schematic for the mechanism. I respect that, but personally find schematics crushingly boring. I'd rather be reading Hemingway. And I hate Hemingway. I'm almost done with his works, but can't find the time these days.

Shoehorning one type of creativity into another shape simply because that's what the audience says they want does everyone a disservice... it gives the audience a weak approximation of the original spark, and usually only presents them with something they already know and like. That's fine and dandy to *ahem* "give the people what they want", but that impulse to be populist often stifles what might have been a truly inspired creative moment otherwise. That's the impulse that creates "cover bands" in local bars... picking up a guitar and playing someone else's songs over and over. Sure it's fun, and there's a place for interpretation, but there's no soul to grinding out recreations of someone else's actual creativity. It's an artistic dead end. Write your own! Even if it's malformed or ham-fisted, it's undeniably authentically artistic, and represents some aspect of the creator at that moment. Not all interpretations are bad, but interpreters, no matter their technical gifts, are rarely artists in their own right. There is a place for "confined" creativity (in this case, writing), but rarely does that transcend the forced template of its medium into a place that makes it truly artistic. In case our antagonist has ever been to Goodwill or, perhaps, St. Vincent de Paul, he might've seen thousands of books that meet any given set of criteria, but are lost to (or under) the dust of time because they had no soul, all they were was a set of writing rules that could have been passed out by any college writing instructor.

While this antagonist, who we can call "Duke", made a very valid point for the practical benefits of understading the technical qualities of the medium (i.e. brevity and a less self-aware persepctive), and is certainly well-informed and well-read enough that his opinion shouldn't be considered wrong, his taste is limited by the value system that he has defined over the years, learing what he likes and dislikes. He's entitled to filter out things that don't interest him, after all, why waste time when you know what you like? If what an audience likes is pre-determined, and an artist doesn't fit that finite scope, why should that artist try to "move the mountain". It's easier at that point in life to not waste time with that which doesn't interest them.

Which is a perfectly reasonable course of action. But one that precludes a truly objective sense of critical analysis.

But this is a music blog. While many find Ornette Coleman's untethered sonic experimentalism inspiring, others find it too "free" (in the jazz sense). I'm a fan of Coleman's work but know that "Duke" doesn't like jazz. Why attempt to play him Rashaan Roland Kirk or Miles Davis' On The Corner? To break it down to the rock metaphor that my readers tend to think in (and expect, becuase there's nothing here but consistiency): some people find Dylan's "With God On Our Side" inspiring. I find it didactic and tedious, no matter how it succinctly sums up the racial and political discord that was happening at that moment. I want more than reporting on the facts. Plenty of people turned their noses up at "Maggie's Farm" and "Phantom Engineer" at the Newport Folk Festival in '65. Pete Seeger was on the other side, looking at something that wasn't his, and since it wasn't something that was a part of him (an important contrast to "him being a part of IT"), he may have understood it, but it wasn't something that he could viscerally, emotionally connect to in any positive way. So he chose to wave around an axe and look for the power lines. It would be churlish to compare "Duke" to Seeger, because to do so would unfairly imply ignorance that isn't there.

I'd rather be a Bob Dylan than a Pete Seeger any day.

Have fun on the "Ariadne". Hopefully your German comes in handy. Of course, if "Duke" was right... I shouldn't even know what any of that means. The irony, of course, is that he made the mistake of giving me that in the first place. Hope this one wasn't too long like the last one...


Sunday, June 27, 2010

A Letter To Holly Martins

Dear Holly,

A great man once said "you're full of shit". He said it to me about 5 minutes ago. I'm pretty sure he was drunk. The argument was that great writing is based on economy of word. That's a cliche originated by someone who can't write, no matter what Plithy The Elder may have said. Nobody asked Faulkner and Steinbeck to 'keep it simple, stupid". Great writing makes the reader feel, makes them connect to something that's bigger than both the author and the reader. There's a bigger energy to be tapped into. The goal is to make the reader feel. Whether it's to feel what the author feels, to feel what the author wants the reader to feel, or to feel an imagined idea that emanates from neither is irrelevant. Ultimately, it's art. It exists independently of either, to hopefully succeed in whatever the author's intent was, but ultimately successful simply if it can represent anything. Anything at all. After all, these are just complex lines on a blank page.

However, what a reader wants is ultimately at stake. No audience will ever be swayed if they've decided what they like. I once gave a great man an album by Johnny Cash that based on evidence, was convinced he would like. It was a masterful comeback album, and no matter how much I pushed, he wouldn't listen to it with open ears. No matter what The Man In Black was saying, this listener decided it wasn't for him, and no amount of convincing would sway the mountain. A year later, the mountain called and offhandedly mentioned just how good it was after they'd picked the album up on their own. The audience must come to the art, and the art cannot move that mountain, and a smart artist should eventually realize that they've got better things to do than waste their time trying.

Writing cannot exist without a voice. It loses its life, becoming merely lifeless adjectives on a page, waiting to be strung together. Every writing has a voice, and no matter how prominient, it must be present.

I've spent the first part of this first-person narrative deyning that voice and find as a reader that it's insufferable, boring reading, suitable for fans of encyclopedias and Dan Brown novels. This great man argued at great length with me, over a great deal of wine, that a writer must get outside themselves to be truly great. This writer finds that to be completely ignorant of turly great writing. A great writer must be they eyes of every reader. If that makes said writer selfish by inserting themselves into a discourse, then that writer be damned (and I am, many times over). Let the audience read the true-to-fact adventures of Graham Greene and be happy that the details were accurately portrayed. Thank goodness Van Gough accurately portrayed the blaze of brilliant stars, and thank those stars that Monet was able to trace the finest, photorealistic detail of his landscapes.

Of course, the above is laughable in many ways. While brevity is critical (not to mention the soul of wit) , it's not everything. If brevity and economy of writing were truly the be-all-end-all of written communication, there would be no poets other than William Carlos Williams, and his writing is as awesome in its technical skill as it is boring. "Jaws" was on TV last week, and could easily be contained in a 30 minute serial where 3 men board a boat and kill a shark that has attacked people. "The Third Man" is simply a story of a drug smuggler faking his death, and not telling his friends. Had Welles (or Reed, depending on who you believe) not included the infamous "Cuckoo Clock" soliloquy, there might be no soul to the film, there might be no heart that makes the reader think that any of this matters either way. Simply conveying information in a effective way is the sign of a weak writer (which I have to do in a different fashion professionally), and if that pleases the reader, it may have achieved exactly what it was supposed to with who it's supposed to, but will never transcend that feedback loop and become art. Which is why I've never read more than one and a half John Le Carre novels. They're engrossing from a structural plotting perspective, but read like a transcription of a spy mission from back at HQ. There's no point in recounting details unless they make the reader understand the human element. I want to feel Smiley's heartbeat as he evades the enemy, to smell the fish stand next door, to taste the blood and feel the ache in his ankle. A writer must balance being an everyman, while still being themselves, giving every OTHER man a perspective from which to pinpoint where THEY stand. We've all smelled fish tasted blood, been afraid. Those who care about the (non-plot-essential) name of the fish stand or what type of bandage is on the ankle miss the point, and aren't who should even waste their time reading. They'd be better served doing something themselves, or at the very least, finding a writer who will give them what it is THEY want. Writing about that objectively is a waste of time and/or ink. You can't please everyone all the time, and it's a fool to try.

As this is a blog, it's selfish writing. I could have re-edited this as a series of wonderful third-person senteces that gave the reader the details, but that would be doing them a disservice. I don't assume my writers are stupid, or aliens coming down to earth and I have to explain things to them, because I don't want to waste my time writing to idiots. People are not evil, nor stupid. People consume art because they want to know what THAT artist's perception of the world is, and any other choice is simply collecting details like so many blank stamps. Can you picture a museum full of identical paintings? Sure, they fit the criteria, but are worthless to anyone who cares what it means. It's the difference between a bureaucratic memo and a poem. Why spend an afternoon looking at paintings when you could look at photographs that are much more accurate, right?

Apparently, by that logic, the true poet of the 1960's was not Allen Ginsberg, but Walter Cronkite.

That's a perspective that I do not share. As a person rather than simply a writer, it's recently been suggested that my personality is hung up on itself. The irony of mentioning this in my writing is not lost on me, after all, sir, as I told you earlier, I may be naive, but I'm not blind. As heistant as anyone SHOULD be to consider themselves an artist, no artist can truly remove themselves from the creative equation and remain an artist of any stripe. I write because I have to, and I'm pretty sure some of you will, if not follow, at least understand the persepctive. If not, you're wasting your time with this, and I suggest you look elsewhere.

See you in Vienna, and I'll call you if I make it to the States again... tell Valli I said hello.




To have someone apologize for giving you a gift that helped you become who you are is a humbling thing. Humbling and tragic, because to have a gift you value described by the giver as a mistake is crushing.

"Thanks for that dog you gave me all those years ago."

"Oh, no problem... it was a terrible dog, I wish I'd just put him down."

"Oh.... well, thanks anyway."

An artist (and again, implying that I am one is certainly bringing up some bile in my throat) should never forget where they're from, but sometimes, they realize that their life has moved to a different place. A place where their understanding is different. A place where they truly become themselves, and a place that they couldn't be had they not been given what they were, even if the giver doens't understand what they gave.

Sometimes the greatest gifts are accidental and misunderstood. While they may cherish what they once thought and where they once were, it snaps into focus that no one can truly go home again, sometimes figuratively, sometimes literally. And there comes a time in everyone's life where they have to face that fact. Maybe, just maybe, they'll be able to read between the lines and know when to call a cab.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

"Wait... doesn't 'What's The Story, 'Morning Glory'' really just translate to..."

"...'what's up, Boner'?"

Never mind.


I've got a math equation for you.


...multiplied by THIS...

... equals a whole MESS of fun.

Not much writing happening here recently, on account of all the writing I've been doing elsewhere. But I'm trying to make sure to practice more. Hell, once there's enough worth recording, I'll do that, and then maybe post it here too. Who knows? This is principally a "thoughts on popular culture" blog. But who cares? I'm my blog, and I'll do as I damn well please!

Anyway, I took these for other purposes, but thought I'd pass the love along, so that you, Dear Readers, can see the softer side of your humble narrator. And now here's a picture of a cat. Because that's what The Internet has done to me.

Back soon with more rantin' and ravin'.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

"Hey Baby... You Wanna Play 'William Tell'?"

Did you ever hear the one about the boy who got what he wanted? He had to fight tooth and nail to claw his way back to doing what he wanted on his own.

Your humble narrator recently got a job working as a writer. Professionally. Which is one of the more thrilling things that's happened over the past two head-spinning years, and a lot of things have happened. The negative effect is that the last thing on my mind is creative writing... after a 1 A.M to 7 A.M. shift of writing concise sentences about death and destruction for the morning news. While I wouldn't trade it for any other job I've ever had, it doesn't make it easy to do what I love in the way I love to. Any thought of writing... I mean real self-giving writing... has been buried in the back of any part of my mind, underneath a tarp that covers "run a marathon tomorrow" and "look into an all-bran diet".

I've been wanting to. Trying to. But it's been brutal.

Until now.

To help things along, I've been revisiting those things that made me fall in love with the written word in the first place. A few months ago, my radiant fiancee bought me a copy of J.G. Ballard's complete short stories, and after chewing through selections from that and a used copy of High Rise, I remembered that Ballard was a master at creating a nightmare of the same ingredients that make up everyday life. Modern life as horror, twisting technology with humanity. Which is a fascinating way to look at things... the idea that what is exactly the same as always has always been completely different, and nobody has time to notice. It's brilliant. But it wasn't enough. So I went to the source.

William Burroughs wrecked my brain. Once my teen mind got past all the graphic depictions of pederasty and heroin abuse, I understood that his brilliance wasn't as a storyteller, it was as a conceptualist. His art was utilizing both the meaning and the actual physical combination of letter symbols to make up a word. By (literally) chopping up sentences and recombining them to create new meanings from the way "Part A" juxtaposed with "Part B", which completely dislocated the meanings of everything before and after, his words and meanings became completely intertwined... just as he severed their connection. Sure, people say he could be a mean-sprited junkie, but if you had all the damage going through your head that he did, you might give him the benefit of the doubt. Or you might not. All that matters is that his work was brilliant, and devouring Nova Express, The Ticket That Exploded, Naked Lunch et al... revealed to me that not only was there a LOT more to the world than my eyes had seen (and I'd been all over Europe), but there was a lot more inside that had yet to be investigated. It was like it helped to unlock something that was always there but couldn't be described, simply because I'd never seen it before.

It's funny... just a few days ago, I was reminded of having dinner with my parents when I was about 15. We were always a family that had a sit-down dinner almost every night, they insisted. My mom once asked me what I'd been reading lately. In my sullen teen cloud of discontent, I told her that it was some guy called Burroughs...

"He was a Beat, you probably haven't read his stuff."

Then she told me about the time she meditated with Allen Ginsberg. Very few moments in my life have I been so shocked.

The older I get, the less I realize I know. Moving from where I was to where I am drove that point home in a wonderful way. I feel humbled and awed by things almost constantly now. Nearly every day, something happens to renew that feeling of discovery.

I've missed it.

Friday, April 16, 2010


Worlds are colliding...

In a personal side note to this usually very academic blog, I just recently discovered how to properly mic an amplifier. Prior to this point, I had amassed a large amount of musical equipment with which to play around and have fun with and not record. My recording setup lent itself to one particular sound (a very DIFFERENT sound), so that's what influenced my writing and recording. Now that I can learn to record that OTHER side of my style, recording is a high priority...

Which is a feeble attempt to explain the absence of recent updates.

More are coming, maybe with surprises, maybe not, but rest assured that your faithful typewriter-chained monkeys here at Central Target HQ are working and tapping diligently, preparing an invective that will MELT YOUR BRAIN.

Check Back Soon...

Saturday, March 27, 2010

It Ain't No Modern Miracle: A 32-Years-Late Counterpoint

In a recent article, I made reference to my longtime love for The Clash - which should be no surprise to anyone who's ever read my music writing, or whom I've talked with about punk rock. I love the band despite their many shortcomings, and in my reignited passion for them the past few weeks, I've switched back into "research mode", digging up tons of information on them while pumping their music through my headphones. The first of their albums I'd ever heard was a crackly, chopped-up tape dub of Give 'Em Enough Rope made for me by an 80-year-old man who lived across the street from my grandma. The same man who sold me a stack of punk and garage LPs at age 15 for a dime apiece (I was helping him sort out the "junk" from his recently purchased garage-full of albums). It was on the same 90-minute high-bias tape as most of the first Modern Lovers album (a good tape). I listened to that tape over and over and over that summer as I stained the new back porch for our neighbors, so my opinion is most certainly biased, but even so: why the hell does everyone knock that album so much?

Let's do some math. There are ten tracks, five of which ("Safe European Home", "English Civil War", "Tommy Gun", "Last Gang In Town", and "Stay Free") are stone classics. Of the other five, three ("Guns On The Roof" "Drug-Stabbing Time", and "All The Young Punks") are good, but a bit "Clash-By-Numbers", "Cheapskates" is an attempt to stretch out their sonic template a bit, and "Julie's Been Working For The Drug Squad" is topical, stylistically-divergent filler. Not bad, but it doesn't add much to a powerful record.

So why all the hate, general public?

If we work backwards, I'm willing to concede that "Julie" could have been left off, but it doesn't do a lot of harm there, and would probably fit better on the more freewheeling London Calling set, thanks to it's barroom piano. "Cheapskates" as well - I've always liked it, but it's not a great song, I'll admit.

So that's the bottom of the barrel. If "Guns On The Roof" didn't have the same exact riff as "Clash City Rockers", it would be a lot more forgivable, and does fit into that "Mott The Hoople Syndrome" of writing songs about the trials and tribulations of being in The Clash, along with "All The Young Punks". Some of the self-importance of the lyrics is offset by the brilliant arrangements of guitarist Mick Jones. Jones never really got his due (as many before me have stated) as a masterful arranger, and (unlike his bludgeoning contemporaries in the punk scene) wove tapestries of guitars to rise above the three chord blur that kept a lot of bands in the punk rock ghetto that The Clash escaped. Which brings me to "Drug-Stabbing Time". Not a great song, maybe even weaker than "Julie" in a way, in that it's so much of a musical step backward in an album that pushes to move forward.

Which leaves us with five amazing songs, and an unfairly slandered producer. I'm not saying that Sandy Pearlman is completely innocent, but he seems like a good enough dude, and for the world-beating scope of the music this band was writing, the muscular sonics he brought to the early Blue Oyster Cult albums he produced make (no matter what any punk purist says) perfect sense for the ambitious music The Clash were making at this point. BOC might have been the epitome of "non-punk" in 1978, but heard today, their first 3 albums sound more like Radio Birdman than Led Zep. Anyway, a smart musical director and arranger (Jones), combined with a producer who knows how to make things sound BIG (Pearlman), isn't a bad combination, unless all you want is wiry scrubbed guitars and inaudible bass.

So, the songs are slower (therefore longer, this wasn't a structural overhaul - it's still verse/chorus/verse), more "expansively" arranged, and less immediately topical (not as many "ripped from the headlines" songs as the self-titled debut). But what is there, under those parameters, might be among the best minutes the Clash released.

"Stay Free" is a favorite of mine. I love pop songs, and on top of that, when I discovered this album, I could identify with the protagonist of this song. I don't understand being on the dole in London in 1977, but I know what it's like to be a teenager dreaming of rock stardom, practicing my guitar "daily in my room", and getting into trouble. The bass-and-drums breakdown before the solo, the heart-tugging bridge... it's a charmer. It belongs in the middle of side two, but it fits perfectly there as a nice album track.

The bass guitar is what makes "Last Gang In Town" so great. The timing is a little rough, but that sells it. I already have a vision of the band as a gang of outlaws (I know they're art schoolers in reality, but why not give into the myth?), and it's just a solid "badass" song, with great Joe Strummer vocals and another good guitar arrangement. "English Civil War" is much the same, with a nice musical and lyrical reference to the "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" chant of the U.S. Civil War, and although there are few specific ways to recommend it (above others) in writing, isn't writing about music like dancing about architecture?

The lynchpins of the album, though, are so good that it's almost a shame they're stuck as the first and third tracks, even though one makes a perfect album opener. "Tommy Gun" has a nice Topper Headon touch with the machine-gun-emulating snare rolls, but it's once again Jones' suitably "epic" lead guitar playing that offsets a great chord progression and reaching vocal with even more emotional depth. It's beed deservedly hailed as a classic, and should be on any collection that attempts to round up the best moments by the Clash. The vocals are hurt, angry, demanding scathing justice for someone who will chop down innocent people... it's a personal reaction to a political subject, which is far more profound than merely reporting on it, or supporting/condemning it. I don't care about whoever it is that's willing to die for their cause in the lyrics, but I do care about how Strummer feels about it. That's one of the clever tricks of this songwriting team: even if you don't agree with all their political views, they're not telling you about the problem, they're telling you about their perspective on the problem. I watch the news every day for at least 2 hours, and I'm sick of it. I want to know the human side of these stories. The Clash can do that like no other band.

What does that leave? Ah, yes. "Safe European Home". For years, on my fuzzy cassette, I could only make out impressionistic snatches of the lyrics, trying to piece together an image when you only have half the pieces of the puzzle. It's the story of Strummer and Jones' songwriting trip to Jamaica (the reggae-loving bassist, Paul Simonon, is apparently still irritated at being left behind). They get there, get robbed, expect to see the rude boys and sound systems they've been listening to for years back in London, only to end up run out of town, scared for their lives, glad to be back and safe in their European home. Knowing more about the band's story, it's especially heartbreaking to hear how they were so thrilled to go, but the reality was so different from the fantasy... instead of lighting spliffs and vibing to some heavy dub, they were almost knifed and escaped with the clothes on their backs. The fact that they were largely honest in the lyrics is commendable - it would have been easy to write a song about the great time they had being punk outlaws in Jamaica, but why not be straightforward. "This isn't myth, this is real!"

Those powerful lyrics about the realities of fantasy are wrapped up in some of the most explosive three minutes and fifty seconds I've ever heard, and I've listened to a lot of goddamn rock music. It blasts out of the gate with a downstroke guitar stun, but cracks in half after the first line for a jumping-bean bassline and a call-and-response vocal. The chorus is a jarring, jagged call to arms. After being wrung out with more of that, suddenly, the skanking guitar line you almost hadn't noticed (but was playing underneath most of the song) becomes the only thing you hear, other than what seems to be a collection of only backing vocal tracks. Now that this other guitar is the fixture, a rhythm section fades up underneath it, playing in a slightly different tempo and style than before, marrying the TNT rock 'n' roll of the opening with a lithe, snaking, and above all, sheet-metal-metallic reggae sound, creating a coda for the song that surpasses any other famous rock and roll coda you've ever heard. It makes "Layla" look like a crackwhore. If this isn't the best song by The Clash, it deserves credit by making you absolutely believe that it is during it's play time.

(All) that said, why does this album get such a bad rap? I understand the U.K. press' initial backlash, in that with the Sex Pistols punk throne vacated after their implosion, the new kings were traipsing off to make an epic (label pun intended) hard rock album. On top of that, it didn't sound like it was recorded in a living room, and few of the songs were addressing the current issues in England at the time (furthering my assertion that purist punk should be viewed much as folk music was, or Public Enemy's theory that rap music was like "black people's CNN"). So maybe the initial reaction of "This isn't punk!" is justified, but as late as 1999 I was still getting shit for wearing a t-shirt with the cover on it. The contention then was it was a flaccid, overworked follow-up to a classic gritty record, probably still influenced by the original '78 review from Greil Marcus in Rolling Stone. I like Marcus' writing, and I certainly respect his opinion on the matter, but I'm not afraid to stand up and say that I think he was wrong then. That was 30 years ago, though; maybe he's changed his stance since, and I don't know about it.

Coming from a particular aesthetic view of the world, Rope must have seemed shocking after ONLY HEARING their first album. With hindsight, the Clash weren't just a great punk band, but one of the very best rock 'n' roll bands, as borne out by their follow-up, London Calling. But the world hadn't heard that when Rope came out. I'm willing to accept the badmouthing up until about 1980. Then the game changes. Was the world so much smaller in 1997 that a 20-year-old review from Rolling Stone still held that much sway over public opinion? There weren't that many info sources back then (before the rise of the current state of the 'net), so I guess a long review like that could taint public opinion enough that many critics afterward would have just lazily regurgitated from THE source of music news, before people realized that R.S. was a stapled supply of backup toilet paper. The fact that the only CD version of the album until '99 was one of the most poorly-mastered CDs in history doesn't help. The Clash were among the most deserving of a remastering campaign, as the initial versions of their album on CD were among the most abrasive, tinny, and anemic transfers ever. The used, beat-up LPs sounded better, and when the released the live album in '99, it was the first time I'd ever heard a real decent kick drum on a Clash song.

So you can keep your derision, you can save your "sophomore jinx" bullshit. The only reason that Give 'Em Enough Rope isn't considered an immediate classic boils down to punk didacticism, sloppy journalism, and the fact that it was bookended by The Clash and London Calling. So then next time I'm playing it (loudly), you can fucking keep your lazily regurgitated complaints. I'll give you some rope, you do the rest.

[For this and all other album reviews, I strongly suggest heading over to, who I am in no way affiliated with. Lots of free streaming music, and a great way to listen to songs from this album for free from anywhere without having to buy it first.]