Thursday, January 24, 2008

Reassessing Bad Albums For Fun and No Profit

Though reviews and criticism are ultimately subjective, certain consensuses are often reached. Whether it’s that such and such an album is the best thing a band has yet done or that it merely points the way to better things, if you read enough reviews of an album you begin to notice a collective assessment of it. And so, you often find albums agreed upon as disappointing, sophomore slumps, vanity/indulgence releases, etc. (Please note that I don’t mean out-and-out shitty albums, because there’s rarely much to reassess about them) Some of these are due as much to critical shortsightedness and misunderstanding as they are to the artists themselves.

Anyway, let’s reassess some of the more recent offenders, shall we??

The Album: Some Loud Thunder by Clap Your Hands Say Yeah

The Offenses: Being too experimental; sounding too influenced by producer David Fridmann; having songwriting that classifies as spotty and weak.

The Reassessment: Some Loud Thunder is neither a secret masterpiece nor a total failure. It rests somewhere in between the two extremes, though I’d honestly say I liked it a lot better when I came back to it a few months after its release. Yes, it’s not as good as their debut, but it’s still a great album. It’s the difference between an A research paper and a B one, really.

The Album: Rehearsing My Choir by the Fiery Furnaces

The Offenses: Being a kind of radioplay/concept album/autobiography about the Furnace siblings’s Grandmother; being extraordinarily self indulgent; not working as an album or a musical; mostly featuring the vocal stylings of said Grandmother, which could be charitably described as “not very good and not befitting the music.”

The Reassessment: I’ve only managed to make it all the way through the album twice, if that tells you anything. Fiery Furnace albums are sort of like taking a shot of liquor: you just have to jump in and do it. Man up, as they say. Yes, their albums are overlong, complicated, and messy, but if you take the plunge and trust their instincts—as well as giving each album your full attention span for its run time—you are always rewarded. Rehearsing My Choir does not reward you, sadly. It’s more like taking a shot of liquor that you can’t quite get down because it turns out it was moonshine: it’s simply too much. Though every Fiery Furnaces album will inevitably be described as “great but just not as great as Blueberry Boat”, one can also safely say that everything they’ve released since and could possibly release in the future will be better and less indulgent than Choir.

The Album: Do The Collapse by Guided By Voices

The Offenses: Being a slicked up, overproduced GBV album; having weak songwriting; being a failed attempt at a major label debut and subsequently getting released on, oddly, industrial powerhouse TVT records; the-one-dude-from-the-Cars produced it and stipulated that the band couldn’t drink during its creation (seriously).

The Reassessment: The only song I can remember from the album is the opener, ‘Teenage FBI.’ Basically, Do The Collapse is like your least favorite album by your favorite band. There still remains all the things you love about them, but it still feels weak or a like mess or a misstep. And Do The Collapse is all three. And the “no drinking” thing just kind of pisses me off, frankly, because if you’ve ever seen or heard about a GBV show, you know that the drunker they get, the better they get. See their final show, captured on The Electrifying Conclusion DVD, for a good example.

The Album: It’s All Around You by Tortoise

The Offenses: Being a more-of-the-same, diminishing-returns kind of album; increasingly making the band into a Steely Dan-esque perfectionist studio beast without any blood.

The Reassessment: It’s All Around You is more of the same, with one or two twists—wordless vocals on ‘The Lithium Stiffs’, the noisy drum nightmare of ‘Dot/Eyes’—that are worth hearing for fans. Otherwise, it’s an entirely unnecessary and skippable release by a band who seem to have increasingly less ideas. And they desperately need to introduce some spontaneity and grit into their sound, because they’re beginning to sound like an austere museum piece.

The Album: NYC Ghosts & Flowers by Sonic Youth

The Offenses: Being too minimalist and noodle-y in some places, too self consciously noisy in others; having bad beat poetry for lyrics; being recorded after most of the band’s custom gear was stolen; representing the end-of-the-line if you didn’t like their 90s output.

The Reassessment: While being the weakest album the band have released in the past 15 years—actually, it’s more like “weakest album ever”—it’s still interesting and worth a few listens. Some of the lyrics are indeed embarrassing, but the music and overall sound of the album fascinate me in some strange way. It’s another side of a fascinating and still vibrant band that you may or may not like; you can say a lot of things about Sonic Youth and their development over the years, but they haven’t fallen into an old age trap of releasing boring, forgettable crap like, say…REM. Speaking of the devil…

The Album: Everything REM has released since at least New Adventures In Hi-Fi.

The Offenses: It’s sad to think that about a decade ago, people used to look forward to REM albums with the same fervor as they now do Radiohead ones. Yet in the past ten(+) years, the band has squandered their good standing with a string of releases that are utterly boring and unmemorable to the point that I can’t even distinguish them from each other. Sure, there are one or two good songs per album, but by and large, I sometimes forget the band hasn’t broken up already.

The Reassessment: Every time a new REM album comes out, some reviewer or critic will say it’s the beginning of a new creative phase in the band’s life. Or that such and such an album was a secret masterpiece, and we were all wrong to hate/ignore it. But…they’re all wrong. I want to be charitable to the band because they have released some amazing, timeless music, but they haven’t done this since the beginning of Clinton’s second term. My good faith has long since gone. Fuck REM.

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