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.