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.]

Friday, March 26, 2010

Either Side Of The Divide

I was just reading an A.V. Club article about "pop culture that makes you feel old", and while I got a good laugh and startle at the fact that there are college sophomores who can't envision a world without new episodes of The Simpsons and Law & Order, it reminded me of another piece I read on the changing tide of pop-cultural savvy. The author suggested that when I was a teen in the mid-90s, it was important to be conversant in pop culture if you ran in the circles my friends and I ran in. References to '70s cop shows, able to quote Ghostbusters, and have an intmiate knowledge of Saturday Morning Cartoon Culture. And while some of the hip young elite of that era are still working, and still using that knowledge for good (a la Robot Chicken), they're the old guys, with the new generation (which I'm straddling the line of) not caring about any of it.

Now, I'm technically part of the "Generation Y" subset, and while I would love to distance myself from that as much as possible, I will only say that it's true that I was way more interested in the culture of people 5-10 years older than I was, and didn't have much time for the cultural interests of my peers. Which makes me both precocious and a snob. I was a clever kid, so I tended to follow not my high school cohorts, but what I read was happening elsewhere in the world. I missed out on a lot of "moments", but I stand by my choice.

So what happened? Where did Weezer's references to Kiss go? Why did nobody care about Thurston Moore's favorite breakfast cereals from the early '70s, as reported in Grand Royal Magazine? What happened to sitting around a record store and debating the guy behind the counter about which (still-sorta-obscure-even-then) Big Star album was the best one to get first? Why won't anyone believe that Urge Overkill's Saturation is amazing?

9/11 happened.

Boom! Didn't think I'd go all Giuliani on you, huh?

Now, I got a lot of crap from my friends about how I was stuck in the '90s when I was just post-college, wearing my Dinosaur Jr t-shirt and listening to Sonic Youth's Dirty 'cause it was sassy, maaaan. (I never did that last one). But that's what I knew and liked at that point, a line of taste that had been established only 5 years prior, but even by that point they were the "good old days". Who gives a fuck about the merits of the goddamn Smashing Pumpkins if you're worried about getting blowed up all the time? Our leader (ostensibly Slim Pickens from Dr. Strangelove) was reacting to the biggest attack on the U.S. since Pearl Harbor or earlier by waging TWO wars (can't say he wasn't ambitious)... suddenly our thoughts on the potential drug metaphors of H.R. Pufnstuf seemed a whole lot less important.

There was a gap where we were all freaked out, and when the dust settled, we young people found ourselves on either side of a large cultural divide. There were those who were old enough to entrench themselves, and those young enough to reset. I was on the former team. I have an additional theory that the younger set had their "irony circuits" scrambled in the shakeup as well, their "irony training" was disrupted prematurely. I understood the humor and culture jamming when I saw Adam Yauch in a Madonna t-shirt. Yauch was a former punk rocker turned rapper, Madonna was the queen of plastic pop in the 80s. Yes, recontextualization was fun, playing with semiotics was a good laugh, but this group (I say "younger", but it's a mental thing, I guess) ended up taking a lot of this at face value, scrambling the point. I see Rivers Cuomo extolling the virtues of Def Leppard, the first level I get is "he's talking about a crappy hair metal band, but he's in a catchy alternative band. That juxtaposition is ironic." The second layer below that is I happen to know that Cuomo, in his teen years, was actually a big metal fan. OK, even another interesting layer. But what I don't do is hear that and say "Rivers thinks Def Leppard is awesome. I like Weezer. Def Leppard must be awesome." Simplistic thinking like that is why we have people who have tricked themselves into liking crap like Journey. But the difference and value of being attracted to something directly vs. a few levels removed is another discussion.

My point is that after the dust settled (sorry), while amateur ironists and pop culture archivists like myself put that stuff on the shelf for a while. Other things took precedence, like being in our 20s and not being blown up on a plane. Things got grim. Things went from the kaleidoscopic Beastie Boys to the Ballardian imagery of Radiohead. Everyone said that OK Computer was ahead of its time. They were 5 years right. The first half of the decade, to me, sounded like a coma patient hooked up to a frayed wire, making it twitch. Whatever I listened to (especially older music) sounded like a dusty dream from the past, like finding a photo album in the attic. How could I listen to Pet Sounds in the intended way when we could all die at any moment? The navel-gazing anxiety of Death Cab For Cutie and Spoon seemed far more solipsistically appropriate for the moment than anything else, and even the larger-than-life stuff went from celebration to redemption as Coldplay, Travis, and their ilk flourished, while granddaddys U2 left behind their most interesting experimental phase (Achtung Baby - Pop)to reclaim their throne of overbearing, pandering Epic Rock... that I thought they realized better after Rattle & Hum.

And now I'm a relic. Most of my cultural peers, who were a little older than me, are now occupied with kids, careers, families. They'll occasionally pull out their LP copy of Check Your Head or Emperor Tomato Ketchup, but that's about it. I don't often connect culturally to my peers, due to my dislike of Dave Matthews and today's indie rock. And I'm starting to slip gently into that point where everyone more than 3 years younger than me is an idiot with terrible taste. I don't give a fuck about American Idol, and I sure don't care about this Lady Gaga crap (shitty dance pop is shitty dance pop). So what now?

I don't know. Does it matter? It's only pop music...

Monday, March 22, 2010

Get Damned Or Get Out

I've stepped away from rock music for a little while. I was just getting tired of whatever I was hearing. Every time I'd listen to a 4-piece guitar/bass/drums/vocals rock band I'd think "Heard it already!" and let my attention wander. So I dipped into some jazz for a little while (which isn't generally my thing, but it was pretty palette-cleansing), then electronica (heavily trip-hop), and one of my other loves, heavy instrumental dub reggae.

It was the dub that was critical in leading me back to rock recently. My nominal introduction to quality dub music was Mikey Dread's remixes and productions for the Clash, whose dub works I went back and listened to. Specifically, I wore the grooves out on the second side of the original Black Market Clash EP, which has "Bankrobber/Robber Dub" (not the version that's on the CD version!) into "Armagideon Time" into "Justice Tonight/Kick It Over". There's a fantastic bootleg out there that collects all of the Clash's dub material called "This Is Dub Clash". I won't post it here, but if you're inclined, maybe google it to see what comes up, or you could compile it yourself.

Anyway, dipping back to the Clash, one of my first musical loves, lit the pilot light on my rock-based listening again. Rock music still sounded like tired garbage, except for the purest, most incisive rock music out there, so over the past few days, I've slowly been reloading my wiped iPod with pure rock or punk bands, the bands that have the energy and madness and hooks and drive that seduced me in the first place. While the Ramones are practically a prerequisite for any "Mike's Favorite Music" assessment, it's been the U.K. punk that's really turned me over. My first punk interests were almost exclusively British and late-'70s. What I've found is how my perspective has changed. It would take a miracle for my idealized opinion of the Clash to change, but where I once saw the Pistols as trailblazing heroes, I look at them now as a bunch of peacocking brats whose way of giving authority the finger is recording about two amazing albums of noisy classic rock. I still love them, but the pose becomes more evident to me with each passing year. The Buzzcocks are the band I would most likely be in if I were in that era - classicist, catchy, relationship-obsessed songs, and maybe a little vulgar but not really very offensive. The older I get though, the band that really surprises me over and over is the The Damned.

The Buzzcocks (or even the Undertones, if you want to get all Irish about it) are the band I would most likely be in, but the Damned are swiftly becoming the band I would most like to be in. Unconcerned with politics, always there to undermine the gravity of the situation with a well-placed pie in the face, they weren't afraid to experiment sonically with weird psychy touches and funny effects (although the second album illustrates this well, it sadly wasn't very good), and under all the "we're just here for the beer"/class-clown image, they were a lethally potent rock band.

Listen to "New Rose". Producer Nick Lowe made those drums sound like I want every drum I ever record to sound, the band is flailing with manic intensity and stumbling over itself, there's a little "rock history" nod with the whispered Shangri-Las intro, the hook is enormous, and it's all over in under 3 minutes. Oh, and the b-side of this, their first single, is a Beatles cover. Huh? Even though it's admittedly the best song on the first album, the whole album is great in almost exactly the same ways throughout.

Not only that, but once they moved away from the ramalama Stooge-punk that left with founding guitarist Brian James, their more experimental work is just as good in completely different ways. Machine Gun Etiquette is funny and rocking and silly and colorful, The Black Album pushes punk into gothy psychedelic power-pop, and Strawberries is a backstep into poppy punk, but it may even be the best yet. They got no respect, were constantly shit on by the punk rock elite and those that believed what they were told by said elite (even me - reprints of the Pistols' magazine articles and interviews from the era were taken as gospel by my friends and I in that pre-"everything's on the internet" era), but in hindsight, until their dramatic fizzle in the mid-'80s the Damned were cranking out great-to-better-than-average rock albums, and when they came back in the mid-'90s, they were back to being great. Now that's impressive. "Least likely to"... yeah, right.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Because We All Want More Lists...

Alright, so here's the first go-round. I've been racking my brain for 5 months, and this is the best list I can come up with, although I'm sure I'll be obsessing over additions and corrections for most of the NEXT decade. Here's the "contenders" list for the "Best Albums Of The Decade". The list is made up of albums that were important to ME in some way, or reflected a particular aspect of the times to me in a specific way, or whatever. Not the "best collections of notes" or "most relevant to the most people", but all personal, and somewhere in between. If I do it right, what it SHOULD do is give a pretty clear idea of what new music I've been listening to over the past 10 years. However, it might be prudent to note the fact that my favorite musics include styles that peaked years ago, so this doesn't reflect the heavy listening to classic punk or garage rock or shoegazer or dub or any of those other styles that nobody is really making anymore.

The plan? To take this randomized list and divide it into two parts - the semifinals, baby. One side of the line will get a rose and move on, the others are going to have to go home, maybe a checkup at the free clinic, and then their own lists, VH1-style. Just kidding, I think. Although we'll see. Once we've whittled it in half, we're hoping to have a conference with Mister Brent over at Dogdoguwar, where we discuss the merits of our respective choices, now that all the turn-of-the-decade hullaballoo has died down, we can do it right. Without further ado... your contestants!

The Raveonettes - Chain Gang Of Love
The Strokes - Is This It?
The Big Pink - A Brief History Of Love
Dinosaur Jr - Beyond
A Place To Bury Strangers - s/t
Spiritualized - Songs In A&E
Joe Strummer - Global A Go-Go
Basement Jaxx - Rooty
Daft Punk - Discovery
M.I.A. - Kala
Malory - Not Here, Not Now
Luna - Romantica
The Postal Service - Give Up
Gnarls Barkley - St. Elsewhere
Johnny Cash - American IV
Guided By Voices - Isolation Drills
Fountains Of Wayne - Welcome Interstate Managers
Primal Scream - XTRMNTR
The Flaming Lips - Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots
Asobi Seksu - Citrus
Madlib - Shades Of Blue
Danger Mouse - The Grey Album
Gorillaz - Demon Days
Queens Of The Stone Age - Songs For The Deaf
The Dirtbombs - Dangerous Magical Noise
The White Stripes - White Blood Cells
Modest Mouse - The Moon And Antarctica

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Floating Away On Detritus Of Pop Music

Part of the charm of getting older is that you get to get bitter about what you view as the idiocy of youth... and specifically youth culture. As I spent my teen years as one of those weirdo cranky outsiders, it's actually quite nice to get less bitter as I get older, but it coincides with a downturn in the quality of popular music. If I were 27 in the early '90s, I could be an alt-rock type, in the late-90s, I could have been a Stereolab-loving aesthete, while still taking ironic pleasure in the harmless but vapid pop charts. Ten years out, there is very little mainstream pop music that's worth listening to.. and that's coming from a guy who's willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. To quote a writer named Huw Jones, from Slant Magazine:
"These days our stars are force-fed to us by Simon Cowell and reality television, our chart-topping singles merely cover versions of songs that were cutting edge decades ago, and the entire concept of "pop music" is relegated to fodder for our celebrity voyeurism: penned by the talented, performed by the beautiful."

Which is why I am thrilled to tell you that I love the new Gorillaz record.

Will it top my "best of 2010" list? Probably not. But I love the idea of a resigned pop star piecing together some entertainment through a motley group of outcasts and also-rans, making a record that sounds contemporary simply because it stands in such sharp relief to the prevailing trends of the day. Title allusions aside, this album reminds me of nothing so much as Wilson the beach ball from Tom Hanks' Cast Away - this is an album made to make oneself happy, to keep yourself active and happy, lest you become swallowed by the blackness of it all. It's got a touch of melancholy that things aren't as good as they could be, but it's still making an effort... and by continuing to hold on, it's the most hopeful record I've heard in years. Pretty strange stuff coming from a group of cartoons led by a former popstar.

I was cautious. Albums this loaded with name guest-stars are usually a red flag to me (see Massive Attack's "Heligoland"), but when Snoop Dogg's voice comes wafting out of the speakers, it triggers a strange familiarity. Here's an artist who hasn't been crucial in almost 20 years, but his voice is so comfortable, it gives you a way into the moaning keyboards and lurching beats. Every review I've read of the album makes note of the "weirdo grandfather" vibe that Lou Reed's appearance gives off, and the doomsday declamations of the Fall's Mark E. Smith... but these are just signifiers for nerd-types like myself. In a project this conceptual, the creators are banking on your familiarity with these voices - they want you to listen to this thing pre-loaded, so that you can appreciate the cast of characters. It really does help if you know past work and history by the likes of Reed, Mos Def, Bobby Womack, and De La Soul. It's like casting them all in a play, but typecasting every one of them. When your brain flips through a rolodex of larger-than-life characters, it's concpetual shorthand. They're not just bringing a performance to the table, they're bringing everything they've done. But by playing to type, pop listeners with no interest in the Velvet Underground will still get the "vibe" of the dry declamations by Ol' Lou.

Of course, none of this would work if the music didn't hold up. And as many have noted, the melange of modern styles that Gorillaz have combined since their first record in 2001 has become less state-of-the-art and more State Of The Union. Combining hip-hop and pop and electronic and indie rock in a highly-concpetual [i.e. cartoon] fashion is no longer as confusing and surprising as it once was, so instead of dwelling on the squelching hooks, we can focus on the emotion behind it. Musical leader Damon Albarn (you like how I didn't mention him until this far in?) long ago made his reputation as a pop writer, and on the last two or three Blur albums (depending on how you look at them) gave us his gift for setting moods through textures. And if the haunted machines of the first two Gorillaz albums didn't clue you in, his under-heard work with The Good, The Bad, And The Queen showed us that he could craft deep nests for throbbing bass grooves (courtesy of The Clash's Paul Simonon, who appears here, along with his Clash bandmate, Mick Jones). This album is nowhere near as fresh as the first one, but its depth isn't even discovered on the third or fourth listen. The pop is poppier, the murk is murkier, and by cobbling together something that stands as its own pop island, floating further and further away from Simon Cowell's mainland, waving goodbye, and ready to cobble together something from whatever it has left, one has to wonder why more people aren't building their own islands out of the scraps that nobody else seems to want anymore. Again... not bad for a bunch of cartoons.