Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Residents- Meet The Residents

For the album cover alone, 3 stars.

For the lyric "smelly tongues look just as they felt", 4 stars.

For making me simultaneously giggle and feel disturbed all at once, 5 stars.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Dylanology- Bringing It All Back Home

Dylanology is an ongoing series of blog posts in which I'm chronologically going through Bob Dylan's studio discography. There may be some diversions along the way.

In the sort-of-biopic I'm Not There, Bob Dylan going electric is portrayed as a literal attack on the folk audience. Dylan and band open fire with machine guns blazing like in some comical action movie, and the whole thing is played off with tongue firmly in cheek. While the whole “Dylan goes electric” story has by now grown into a myth through the re-telling and exaggeration, it's still clear that he was no longer going to be what the folk movement wanted. They saw him as useful for political ends; were it up to them, he'd have kept on, writing about Martin Luther King Jr. and Vietnam and the like. But it never occurred to them that Dylan would be more useful to the world as an artist instead of a spokesman. If they hated him and turned on him for it, he'd be much happier that way.

By now deeply ensconced in abstract wordplay, post-modern stories, and bluesy/folky rock music, it's actually a bit of a surprise how grounded most of Bringing It All Back Home sounds. 'She Belongs To Me' is a lovely ballad in the mold of 'Corrina, Corrina', while 'It's All Over Now, Baby Blue' is (rightfully) considered one of Dylan's masterpieces, a deeply poetic break-up song. Of course, then there's 'Bob Dylan's 115th Dream', a surreal narrative that portrays a modern colonization attempt of America with both historical and fictional characters thrown in. (My two favorite moments: the laugh breakdown at the beginning of the song, and the parting line about more ships arriving in America as Dylan flees the country back to Europe—“he said his name was Columbus/and I just said good luck.”) Even at their most nonsensical, like the litany of advice on opener 'Subterranean Homesick Blues', the lyrics are supported by Dylan's continued gifts for basic but memorable arrangements. 'Outlaw Blues' points the way to the more raucous moments of Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde.

The most famous thing about Bringing It All Back Home is the way the album is split in two, between the 'electric' first side and the 'acoustic' second side. This makes it a true transitional record, since the second side would be the last time we heard him purely acoustic for a few years. With only four songs, it shows Dylan in his deepest attempts yet toward creating a new folk songwriting style without changing the musical approach. 'Mr. Tambourine Man' is better known for its cover version even though the original's lyrics are easier to focus on, reading like his version of 'Puff The Magic Dragon', right down the supposed pot references. It also gave us the word 'jangle', so that's something. While one could argue that 'Gates Of Eden' and 'It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)' do have some political commentary, they feel like incidental results of the imagery he's weaving together rather than the focus. In one way of thinking, this was Dylan codifying and perfecting the style he'd begun with songs like 'Bob Dylan's Dream' and 'Chimes Of Freedom', songs that feel both very personal and about larger issues, too.

The album cover and title may be an ironic joke, but at the same time, it seems like they help describe where Dylan was at when Bringing It All Back Home was made. Feeling under siege from the folk community and the increasing social turmoil of the 60s, he retreated into an increasingly insular world—the fallout shelter-looking den of the album cover—but still commented on the external world. In that sense, 'It's All Over Now, Baby Blue' can be interpreted as a break-up song that compares the end of love to the world ending. The mistake of the folk movement and the “Judas!” accusations was in assuming Dylan ended his political persona for greater money or fame. In actuality, he had done it for personal and artistic reasons. As 'Like A Rolling Stone' would soon demonstrate, if he had to be one or the other, he'd rather be a folk hero than a political one.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Time To Go - The Southern Psychedelic Moment: 1981-86

Compilation albums are tricky things, particularly when it's a label comp. The best are often done by labels with a trademark sound, one that balances variety with an overt unifying aesthetic. The label comps put out by bigger, more diverse labels like Matador suffer from sounding like promotional mixes made for radio stations because most of the acts sound too different from each other. One of the best comps in recent times was the Welcome Home/Diggin' The Universe release from the Woodsist label. It's a touchstone for modern indie bands influenced by 60s psychedelic music, but also reveals how much these bands are stretching beyond the boundaries of similar older movements, like the Paisley Underground scene in American and the one in New Zealand centered around the Flying Nun label.

It's this latter group that's featured on last year's compilation Time To Go - The Southern Psychedelic Moment: 1981-86. And like the Woodsist comp, it focuses on the more experimental/psychedelic products of the label with a surprising variety of sounds. The one thing all of these bands have in common is that they're just as influenced by the acid fried 60s psychedelic rock as they were arty/druggy/dark bands like the Velvet Underground and 70s punk and post-punk. The noisy clangor of 'I Just Can't Stop' by the Gordons feels like a New Zealand cousin of contemporary 80s Sonic Youth. 'It's Cold Outside' by Victor Dimisich Band has a singer that croons like Bob Dylan during his country era, fronting a drunk and slowed down Felt. 'Psychic Discharge' by Max Block is a short interlude for melting instruments and stoned babbling. And then there's a song that approximates a sloppy early 90s Pavement cover of a Husker Du song ('Some Fantasy' by Doublehappys), which is better than that sounds.

The American Paisley Underground scene of the 80s got most of the attention, but Time To Go shows that we've been looking in the wrong place all this time. I've always found the Paisley Underground stuff to be overrated and forgettable. By contrast, the more I keep hearing of similar music from this period from New Zealand, the more I'm convinced 80s music wasn't as universally bad as I'd believed. Whereas I've been wearing out the Welcome Home comp because it's endlessly listenable, with a keen sense of flow and pacing, the Time To Go comp is essential for those reasons and because it's revelatory. I highly recommend getting the vinyl version: from the cover art to the liner notes to the fact it comes on two records with a MP3 download coupon, it's everything a vinyl compilation should be.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Dylanology- Another Side Of Bob Dylan

Dylanology is an ongoing series of blog posts in which I'm chronologically going through Bob Dylan's studio discography. There may be some diversions along the way.

Recorded in one long night session while reportedly finishing off a couple bottles of wine, Another Side Of Bob Dylan couldn't possibly have a more accurate title. The record is a casual and more personal affair by far than The Times They Are a-Changin', released at the beginning of the same year (1964). That Another Side followed it by only eight months is all the evidence you need that even with a tossed off and raw record like this, Dylan had begun one of the most legendary stretches in all of recorded history.

It's always been too tempting for me to skip ahead to the next three albums because they're some of my all time favorites. But missing out on Another Side Of Bob Dylan would mean passing over the initial bloom of Dylan as pop star (no longer a mere folkie) and unique artist. Actually most of Dylan's albums from this era kind of bleed into each other. With a punched up full band arrangement, it's easy to imagine the songs of Another Side alongside the best of Bringing It All Back Home through Blonde On Blonde.

Dylan had apparently experienced psychedelic drugs and Rimbaud by the recording of Another Side, and the increasing abstract and visionary lyrical content on display is almost haunting. You can practically hear the late night drunk and inspired mindset in his voice and occasional loopy musicianship. He was certainly getting rather post-modern and self-aware; it's hard to imagine the serious folkie of his last album writing lines like those on the winking 'I Shall Be Free No. 10.' Just as Stephen Spielberg sometimes has to do serious arty movies to get it out of his system before going back to the popcorn fun stuff, it's almost as if Dylan had to make a dark, political album to get it all out of his system to plunge ahead.

I might go so far as to argue that Another Side Of Bob Dylan is one of his hidden gems, because it isn't as well known as most of his stuff from this period. Until I finally sat down to give this album my full attention, I missed out on what a stunning set of songs it is. 'Chimes Of Freedom' sounds like a man possessed, a kind of surreal/imagistic celebration and bittersweet view of the ongoing civil movements of the time—and also a prototype for future epics like 'Desolation Row.' Mostly though, Dylan is puttering around with smirking abstractions and silly imagery. 'I Shall Be Free No. 10' is Dylan's version of those rare nights where you reach that point while drunk and/or stoned enough that you ramble out loud to yourself and make up weird little songs. It even predates Will Smith's 'I Think I Can Beat Mike Tyson' for jokingly calling out a boxer the singer clearly has no chance against.

The sound and atmosphere of Another Side Of Bob Dylan makes me think of the novel Steppenwolf. It's the sound of someone who grew old and far too serious before his time trying to reconnect with his former youth, idealism, and sense of fun. Of course, the guy in Steppenwolf screws it up. But as the left-in laughs on some of the songs, the long and purposefully overblown harmonica solos on 'Ballad In Plain D', and the “I was so much older then/I'm younger than that now” lyric of 'My Back Pages' all demonstrate, Bob Dylan had done it; he had reconnected. It wouldn't be long before the slidewhistles of 'Highway 61 Revisited' and the drunken crowd on 'Rainy Day Women #12 & 35' cheering to the calls of “everybody must get stoned!”

Monday, June 24, 2013

Deerhoof- Breakup Song

Let's return to 2012. Obama re-elected, the world didn't end, and the much longed for new season of Arrested Development began filming. A year unlike any other aside from one crucial way: there was a new Deerhoof album. Breakup Song is the 11th full length the band have released since their 1999 debut, and folows its predecessor, 2011's Deerhoof Vs. Evil. A short and frenetic record, it plays like the other side of the coin, staying in the same relative style over its 11 songs. It's almost as if Deerhoof have settled into the same prolific, creative groove they occupied the mid 00s, producing a string of guitar-based avant-garde noise/pop records that made them one of those “love it/hate it” bands that provoked arguments between hipster friends.

The huge difference with modern-Hoof is that they're are no longer just a guitar-based avant-garde noise/pop band. Over the last half decade, they've been adding in keyboards, samples, and other modern sounding electronic flourishes, sounding like something formed from a combination of the weirdest synth-pop band of all time and a noisy San Francisco psych-rock band. While there's certainly nothing on Deerhoof Vs. Evil and Breakup Song that is remotely as abrasive as their beloved mid 00s output, it's also true that it's easy to write them off as 'light' and 'pop leaning' without giving them their full due. If anything, one could view these two records as the band finally folding the styles of Friend Opportunity and the Green Cosmos EP into their post-The Runners Four style.

Part of me wishes Deerhoof would've taken a couple years off and combined the best bits of Deerhoof Vs. Evil and Breakup Songs into a modern sequel to The Runners Four. However, this would make for an exhausting listen. For all its variety wrung out of largely the same instrumentation, The Runners Four holds together perfectly and also works on a song-by-song basis. Breakup Songs by contrast, if blown out to twice its runtime, would be grating and tiring by the time you got to the last third. There's simply too much packed into songs this short. So what would they sound like if Deerhoof had slowed things down and, in general, stop trying so hard? Probably a more electronic sounding version The Runners Four.

Now that Deerhoof are free to use whatever instruments and musical styles they want to, it's kind of odd how they've lost some of their imagination and uniqueness. Taken in 20 or 30 second increments, the songs of Breakup Song might seem very different from each other; in actual listening conditions, however, they all kind of run together. Every song seemingly has to whip through three or four tricks of sound or structure before the band are satisfied. When you do this over and over, it stops being interesting and starts making everything sound the same.

If they didn't make their songs unpredictable and frenetic all the time, if they took a few breaths and let song arrangements develop organically, they might make something truly great again. Deerhoof keep putting out albums that don't sound like anyone else and I should love them for it. Instead, I keep thinking “well, maybe next time they'll get all of it right.” Offend Maggie and onward, every release is somehow unsatisfying and unmemorable but never bad enough to merit scorn.

Really, the main problem with the last few Deerhoof records is that they don't stick with me in the same way that their earlier works did. They're weird, but they're only weird in a cloying, self-aware way, like a death metal cover of a J-pop song, or Low playing a set of Misfits covers for a Halloween show. Back in the day you'd stumble on Deerhoof and you couldn't tell if they were playing their instruments very badly or extremely well; eventually you realized you didn't care either way. Now their music gives off the impression that everything is so easy to them that they're paradoxically trying too hard to compensate for it. There is still that same visceral rush and whimsical, devil-may-care abandon to the music they're producing these days, making these albums undeniably Deerhoof in spite of how different they sound compared to Apple O'...but I'm perpetually left wishing they would stop trying to push ahead and take a breather.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

My Bloody Valentine- m b v

On m b v Vs. Loveless

It's impossible to listen to m b v without the weight of years of expectations pressing down on it. Keep in mind, other bands have taken a long time to make albums, but usually it's because they completely dissolved or had legal troubles that prevented them from releasing music. In the case of My Bloody Valentine, however, we'd been promised a follow-up to 1991's Loveless since at least 1993, and kept on being promised one, even after most of the band members left around 1997. Compounding this issue of how long it took is that m b v isn't just one of those albums that took forever to be's also the follow-up to Loveless, widely regarded as one of the best albums ever made, every bit as influential and unique sounding today as it ever was. Even setting aside the context of history and expectations, m b v is neither the next step after Loveless, nor is it in the same league as Loveless in terms of influence and uniqueness.

On m b v As 'The Next Album From My Bloody Valentine'

I don't want this to turn into a critique of m b v which compares it to Loveless and finds it wanting in every regard. Not to mention, I don't mean to praise Loveless as though it's a flawless gem that makes everything else irrelevant. So while you can't really improve on Loveless, you can still do a lot of interesting things with the ideas and sounds therein...and that's basically what m b v is. Perhaps the easiest way to get past the years of waiting and lofty expectations is to think of m b v as 'the next album from My Bloody Valentine', and not as 'the sequel to Loveless.' That album will always be the gold standard of this kind of music, so take it as a sign of how good m b v is that I like it better than Isn't Anything and every other shoegazer album I've heard.

On How m b v Differs From Loveless

m b v lacks the cohesive, hypnotic flow of that 1991 classic and focuses more on self-contained sonic worlds. The variety of sounds is more akin to Isn't Anything and the recently released EP's 1988-1991. On the first few listens you'll probably be like me and peg m b v as sounding like a less memorable, less overtly melodic take on Loveless. The best way I can think to explain it is that m b v is one of those albums that slightly disappoints until you get over your expectations and let it grow on you. I'm reminded of Grizzly Bear's Shields, an album that did nothing to dispel the notion that Veckatimest is their best work but one that nonetheless grew on me because, not in spite of, it being less inviting and immediate. I don't think of m b v or Shields as challenging, per se, more that they are concerned with overall sound and feel rather than songwriting and genre innovation. Thus, in spite of its density and consistency of sound Loveless is a more memorable experience while m b v is, in some ways, more satisfying because it requires some patience and focus. Like Shields, it's more dreamy, hypnotic, atmospheric, less obviously structured than the band's previous work.

On m b v As Great And Allowing Yourself To 'Hear' It

Yes, I side with the camp who thinks that m b v is a great album. I'm not sure if it was “worth the wait”, since the way it ended up coming out felt so arbitrary and surreal, and I had long since given up on any new My Bloody Valentine music. Anyway, m b v may pale in comparison to the Loveless II I always heard in my head—for me, it would've been a mix between Loveless and the ambient techno of Boards Of Canada—but this is a fantastic record by any point of comparison aside from Loveless. If m b v had been released by another band, they'd have been praised to the heavens and derided in equal measure for using Loveless as a blueprint and doing something almost as good. As it stands, we finally got a new album from My Bloody Valentine and it's really damn good if you allow yourself to hear it for what it is. I suspect most of the people who find m b v disappointing or underwhelming are stuck in the mindset of wanting it to be something it's not.

On m b v As Early Birthday Gift To Me/On Wrinkles New & Old

I turned 29 in mid-February. Discovering the new wrinkles in My Bloody Valentine's sound, and how Kevin Shields folds them expertly into the established aesthetic, is one of the best early birthday gifts I've ever gotten. The clearest and most effective addition is the drum-n-bass beats on album closer 'Wonder 2', though the Stereolab influence other reviewers have spotted on 'Is This And Yes' is a close runner-up. Even when the band just kind of sounds like Loveless, as on 'In Another Way', with its booming drum loops and guitars that are simultaneously noisy and hypnotic, they do it better than anyone else. So: m b v is like Loveless but it isn't Loveless.

On m b v Vs. Loveless (Again)

No one can ever top Loveless. It's a perfect example of its genre yet is more unique and 'outside' of genre labels than anything else in said genre. It's like Bitches Brew; that album is jazz fusion, yet it's utterly unique and 'outside' of jazz fusion, too. You could listen to Loveless forever and never suss out where some of the sounds came from, or how all the elements came into place just so such that what would otherwise have been a great album became a timeless masterpiece. Loveless will always be a mystery you can't quite figure out, and that's part of its appeal and greatness. m b v is still a bit mysterious, but only in the way that most shoegazer albums are with their psychedelic guitar effects, vocals buried in the mix, and focus on dense sound over traditional loud/quiet/loud rock songwriting. So while you can “solve” m b v—that's a jet plane sample buried in 'Wonder 2' producing that flanger effect, right? you'll still want to keep listening to it because it's god damn good....

...and who knows how long we'll have to wait for the follow-up.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Dylanology- The Times They Are a-Changin'

Dylanology is an ongoing series of blog posts in which I'm chronologically going through Bob Dylan's studio discography. There may be some diversions along the way.

Although recorded before the assassination of JFK, The Times They Are a-Changin' can't help but feel like a solemn and serious response to that event and the continuing struggle of the Civl Rights movement. Indeed, I don't think you could fully understand what the early to mid 60s were like without hearing this album, since it is interwoven with the fabric of its time. Keep in mind, this is the post-Beatnik pre-Hippie era, a very short timespan that's easy to pass over because the cultural artifacts from either side of it are better known.

The Times They Are a-Changin' as a whole feels like Dylan realizing the fight will be long and hard. Even before JFK's death and the public outcry following an infamous, inebriated speech delivered while receiving the Tom Paine award (during which he said he 'saw something of himself in Lee Harvey Oswald), Dylan was displaying cynicism and weariness far beyond his years. Those unfamiliar with the early phase of Dylan's career might be shocked at how dark Times often is. Look up the story behind 'Ballad Of Hollis Brown' and 'Only A Pawn In Their Game' or take a listen to 'One Too Many Mornings', the latter of which would've made a great cover for Nick Drake. These songs are a bummer. There's no answers or hope to be had in these tales. On his first two records, Dylan leavened the serious/political stuff with some witty wordplay or contrasted them with a few lighter songs; not so much here. Consider the two songs with “blues” in the title from the preceding record, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. They're among the most fun and whimsical on that album, while 'North Country Blues' from Times is a depressing folk song about the ruin of a woman, a town, or both.

Since I've never really cared for politics being mixed into music, I find The Times They Are a-Changin' to be among Dylan's least enjoyable records. I'm not saying I disagree with its point of view, since I'd have to be a racist monster not to. Aside from 'Boots Of Spanish Leather' and the bitter but fun 'When The Ship Comes In', though, the entire record is far too dire and preachy for its own good. There is something to be said for expressing these feelings and telling the stories that need to be told to show the injustice of the world, but this also leaves Times feeling like a historical artifact, or even like rhetoric instead of music.

This era saw the beginning of American youth becoming deeply involved in politics, and Dylan was no different, it's tough to blame him for making a record like this. After all, if he had been focused on 15th century French poetry or horse racing, he'd have made songs about that instead. Times is a commentary on its environment in the same way other politically charged records from other countries and eras become touchstones for their era. The problem for me is that, while you can still enjoy There's A Riot Going On or some of Bob Marley's political stuff, The Times They Are a-Changin' has such a sparse musical style that once you've gotten the message, so to speak, it's not a great record on sheer musical/songwriting terms. Since Dylan immediately moved away from this 'voice of a generation' persona, never again focusing so sharply on political material, one has to wonder if he felt the same.

You often hear people describe great art or artists as timeless, and Dylan has produced more than his share of timeless art. However, the opposite is sometimes true. Great art or artists can be timely, and Times was timely (pardon the pun). As with his first album, the songs have not stood the test of time and feel very much 'of their time.' This doesn't mean it's a bad record by any means, just that modern listeners will have to do some research and contextualizing to fully grasp the impact this must've had when released in January of 1964. This strange period of time—post-Bob Dylan becoming famous/post-JFK assassination and pre-Beatles arriving in America/pre-Civil Rights Act of 1964—is captured eerily well on The Times They Are a-Changin' even if it doesn't make for a comforting, fun, or hopeful listen.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

JJ DOOM- Key To The Kuffs

After a prolific period in the early '00s, DOOM has become one of those artists who releases full albums so rarely that each one can't help but feel like a major event. Even setting aside the long promised collaboration with Ghostface Killah and the follow-up to Madvillainy, it's already going on four years since DOOM released a proper album of his own. For now, Key To The Kuffs is as close as we'll get. Expectations may have been unreasonably high for something that was more casually and rapidly finished than almost any DOOM project ever, but this doesn't change how muddled and just-below-standards the actual product is.

Produced by Jneiro Jarel, the collaboration dubbed JJ DOOM is the kind of DOOM record you can set your watch to. It's almost like a sampler platter of everything DOOM records have done in the past but without the same spark of inspiration and originality. The general British theme of the whole project was apparently inspired by DOOM's troubles with returning to the U.S. due to visa problems after a 2010 U.K. tour (not to mention, he was born there and has many fans/collaborators from that country) yet this theme isn't as focused as the food theme of MM..Food or the monster movie samples that unified the underrated King Geedorah project. Just as the production and rhymes aren't as good as past DOOM records, this attempt at a unified theme is hampered by the fact that it's been done before, and done better.

Lest this whole thing degenerate into a compare-and-contrast bitch fest, let me just skip to the chase and say that Key To The Kuffs is worthy of hanging in there with DOOM's impressive discography even if it isn't one of the highlights. If you're a fan of the Supervillain, you'll enjoy this record. Jneiro Jarel's production leans on programmed beats and electronic flourishes, recalling the best moments of the Viktor Vaughn records while also having its own feel. As I'm not familiar with his work outside of JJ DOOM, I can't speak to how much he brought to this project, except to say that he's as good a fit as Danger Mouse but not the dream team match-up of Madvillain. Meanwhile, DOOM's rhymes can be as sharp as ever, they just aren't always. I don't think this is a case of, “hey, at this point in his career, we're so used to him that a lot of this stuff can feel like he's going through the motions even if he isn't.” Indeed, I'd only nominate 'Guv'nor' and 'Bite The Thong' from this album to go down in history with DOOM's career highlights.

Despite the attempt at a unifying theme and production style, JJ DOOM ends up being the most schizophrenic and least satisfying project in DOOM's discography. I want to love it but that's not the same as actually loving it. To put it another way, whenever I listen to it, I do genuinely enjoy it...then when I sit down to collect my thoughts, I only remember flaws and things that bug me. The most egregious problem is that the record starts off so strongly and shrugs to a close. On first listen, you'd be forgiven for thinking Key To The Kuffs is brilliant, charging out of the gate as it does with a classic DOOM-style one-two punch of an opening instrumental that sets the tone followed by a commanding track with DOOM letting loose in peak form...but then the album ends with a tossed off one-two punch of the forgettable “could've gone anywhere on the album” instrumental 'Viberian Sun, Pt. II' and the mediocre 'Wash Your Hands.' The latter of which doesn't even feel like a proper closing song until the last 45 seconds of the track are abruptly highjacked by vocal samples in an attempt to tie the whole record together.

We had to wait so many years for a new DOOM full length and what we got wasn't so much the next version of Madvillainy (or even Born Like This) as it is a fun but casual record that doesn't dim the reputations of JJ or DOOM but does nothing to brighten them, either. Key To The Kuffs throws you for a loop because it starts out so strongly, seeming to have a sense of flow and purpose, and then peters to a close as carelessly as a free mixtape download. Again, perhaps my expectations do continue to color my perspective; after all, I do like this record when all is said and done, and I've listened to it off and on since its release. It's just that what I wanted was a full dinner and what I got instead was someone trying to pass off soup and salad as a meal. And while I'm no longer certain DOOM is hungry (in the 'rap game' sense of being hungry), I sure am.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Dylanology: The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan

Dylanology is an ongoing series of blog posts in which I'm chronologically going through Bob Dylan's studio discography. There may be some diversions along the way.

In perhaps the most clear example ever of avoiding a sophomore slump, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan is leaps and bounds better than the debut it followed. With this release, Dylan went from being a gifted but immature folk artist and unproven songwriter to a nascent genius and 'generational spokesman.' It's clear from just the tracklisting and writing credits that he had come a long way in little under a year. Whereas Bob Dylan, despite its title, had few Dylan originals, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan was almost entirely originals.

Some would argue that Dylan never topped Freewheelin' in terms of songwriting originality and maturity. While it is a hell of a sophomore effort, I'm not sure Freewheelin' would crack my top 5 Dylan albums. This says more about my taste and the wealth of excellent other choices from his catalogue than it does the album itself. Indeed, the mix of political and personal songs on Dylan's second album is perhaps unsurpassed in his 'back pages', so to speak, as far as balancing the serious with the whimsical. 'Masters Of War' is as polemic as he ever got, while 'Talkin' World War III Blues' is as close to a Shel Silverstein-esque parody of a “talkin' blues” archetypal folk/blues song as he could allow himself.

There are other lighthearted delights and impressive social commentary to be had. 'Corrina, Corrina', one of the few covers, has a lovely full band arrangement that wouldn't be out of place on future records like Blonde On Blonde or Love & Theft. Seeming to reference the album cover photo and drop a couple self-deprecating winks, 'Bob Dylan's Blues' may just be the most post-modern 60s folk song ever written. Meanwhile, the rich imagery and lamenting refrains of 'A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall' are the kind of direction he would increasingly go in.

From this point, Bob Dylan would only expand further outward with the social consciousness showcased on the following record, the dire and serious The Times They Are a-Changin'. He moves the opposite direction on the next record, returning to more personal lyrics and lighter fare with the appropriately titled Another Side Of Bob Dylan. But we'll get to those some other time. The point is, a good alternate title for The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan might be Both Sides Of Bob Dylan, because, here, that's pretty much what you're getting, at least thematically. Not to yet again foreshadow, but the eventual Bringing It All Back Home will give us both sides of Bob Dylan, at least musically. But I digress.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Ducktails- The Flower Lane

If Matt Mondanile were around in the early 90s, there's no doubt he'd have been lumped in with the Stephen Malkmus. He'd get labelled a generational spokesman and slacker prince even though, in actual fact, both men are actually trying in every sense of the word. In interviews they may seem like they barely care and don't take themselves seriously, yet their music is a testament to the idea that what looks effortless and apathetic is often a result of fertile, unobstructed creativity. Malkmus pooled his love of cryptic lyrics, The Fall, sports, California, and noisy pop to eventually become the hipster king we know and love. He's still vital yet he's long since crested the hill. Mondanile, meanwhile, is just about to get to the middle of his journey.

After unintentionally getting swept into the chillwave scene along with bands like Toro Y Moi and Washed Out, Mondanile spent the last Ducktails record, Ducktails III: Arcade Dynamics, with one foot in the past and one in the future. Perhaps it took the ascendance of his 'main' band, Real Estate, to spur him to do something more expansive and focused with Ducktails...? In any case, The Flower Lane sees him take command of a full backing band and various guests, wrangling them all onto a record that remakes Ducktails into something more akin to Panda Bear's “separate but equal” solo stuff outside of Animal Collective.

This means The Flower Lane is really god damn good.

If we're going with the premise that Ducktails are essentially a band now and no longer solo, The Flower Lane could be qualified as the true debut of Ducktails, since until now it was Mondanile fiddling around by himself with guitar psychedelics, electronic soundscapes, and scruffy vocals. Mind you, the leap achieved by The Flower Lane is one of overall sound rather than atmosphere. It's still somewhat retro and nostalgic and feels like a Ducktails album feels...but it sounds different. Ducktails to me always straddled the chillwave scene and the scene occupied by modern psychedelic contemporaries like the Black Angels, Mac DeMarco, The Fresh & Onlys, etc. The 'new' Ducktails are still both to an extent while also nodding to modern synth-pop and defunct brothers-in-arms like The Clean and the Flying Nun record label contingent.

Oddly I think The Flower Lane works as well as it does because it barely resembles the Ducktails of old. More than just putting out a polished version of Ducktails III, Matt Mondanile is also trying new things and doing them well. The syrupy guitar solo on 'Planet Phrom' reminds me of a particularly good Felt or Feelies tune, while the '80s digital delay sound on the horns of 'Under Cover' tips a hat to Destroyer's recent Kaputt. Anyway, if The Flower Lane doesn't sound enough like the old Ducktails you know and love, that's only a bad thing if you just want 30 more versions of 'Killin' The Vibe' and 'Welcome Home (I'm Back).' And yes, sometimes I, too, could go for more of those.


Still, there's no denying how far Ducktails has come. Try comparing songs like the mildly funky 'Assistant Director' to the repetitive, simple, bored-stoned-guy-screwing-around vibe of older stuff like 'Beach Point Pleasant.' No more lo-fi drum beats and guitars ran through a multitude of effects to make up for musical inability/apathy on this record! Now it's more like a sampler platter of saxophones, funky pianos/organs, gleaming neon synth sounds, and female vocals sprayed across a web of jingle-jangle guitars, lucid ruminations, and one of the most reverent and spot-on covers I've ever heard ('Planet Phrom'). With The Flower Lane Matt Mondanile has proven he's a songwriter and artist every bit as capable and imaginative as his better known contemporaries. We may not look back on this one as his masterpiece, but at the very least it's a big step in that direction.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Dylanology: Bob Dylan

Dylanology is an ongoing series of blog posts in which I'm chronologically going through Bob Dylan's studio discography. There may be some diversions along the way.

I've always been curious to listen through Bob Dylan's albums in chronological order. Part of the reason is that without forcing myself to, I don't think I'd ever listen to most of his stuff. The Christian era is perennially at the bottom of my list of albums I need to get to, and the early folk stuff never appealed to me until recently. All of that said, Bob Dylan is a solid if mostly debut folk album. History, and what Dylan went on to do, has increased its significance in the 50+ years since its release. This kind of thing often results in albums that modern listeners will be bored or underwhelmed by because they sound so sparse and basic.

In which case, it's best to do some research and contextualize Bob Dylan in terms of the other music and folk stuff being released at the time. In this regard, what sets Dylan apart is his amicable performances and song selection. Since he hadn't yet blossomed as a songwriter, his debut is notable mostly for the influences it reveals. The pre-rock n' roll music he would later adopt as an aesthetic from 2001's Love & Theft onward is glimpsed here, and it's worth noting that a track from this record, 'Baby, Let Me Follow You Down', shows up in a commanding, remade barrelhouse rock form on the legendary 1966 “Judas!” concert as captured on The Bootleg Series Vol. 4. Reworking songs into new arrangements would go on to become the standard template for Dylan's live shows, something anyone who's caught him on his modern 'Never Ending Tour' will know. But I digress.

If you're the sort of person who loves Nick Drake's Pink Moon, Elliott Smith's first few albums, and The Tallest Man On Earth, I think you'd be wise to seek out early Dylan immediately. You may find it same-y, if not formulaic, but as with any narrow music style, a great performer can wring a lot out of a little. Bob Dylan does this. And Bob Dylan certainly does this.

Though largely made of covers or harmonica/acoustic guitar based rearrangements of traditional songs, it's a record that foreshadows the breadth of Dylan's eventual talent. On his debut he mostly gets by leaning on rough charm: the harmonica and vocal affectations were in already place, and I don't think he gets enough credit as a guitarist. Listen to 'Highway 51' for some impressive strumming.

It's curious to hear the young Dylan singing all these old, dark songs about issues that probably haven't effected him personally. As Dylan aged and life threw some curveballs his way, it's almost as if he grew into the pre-rock-era songs he always treasured. It's similar to how in the mid to late 70s, Jerry Garcia became the troubled old man in so many of the songs he used to somewhat-convincingly sing during the first few years of the Grateful Dead. As Dylan toured with the Dead as his back-up band, this similarity is even more striking...

Anyway, the songs! 'Talkin' New York' is the first instance of a specific style of song in which he speak-sings a story between breaks for harmonica and guitar, with a meta-narrative that this time out fictionalizes his arrival in New York City. 'Song To Woody' tips a hat to Woody Guthrie and has taken on a symbolic quality ever since, as if he's simultaneously eulogizing Woody and his generation while also acknowledging he won't live to see the troubles and the triumphs to come during the rest of the 60s. 'See That My Grave Is Kept Clean' is a spooky nocturne, its heavy imagery brought to life by Dylan's vocals and wild, woozy sliding accents on guitar.

The two songs summarize what is great and slightly underwhelming about Bob Dylan. There aren't enough original songs by Dylan to truly judge him as a songwriter, but any simplistic lyrics or formulaic arrangements are salvaged by his committed performances and impressive musicianship.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Yo La Tengo- I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One

Whenever I meet new people and introduce them to music they haven't heard before, I try to go back and remember what it was like for me to hear it for the first time. These memories rarely stick for me at 29, since I tend to get albums in batches and thus don't have those meaningful, singular experiences with music as often as I used to. So, while I can remember the first time I heard Sgt. Pepper's (waiting in my parents' car during a family post-Christmas shopping trip, and continuing on the ride home), I can't bring back anything specific about I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One, in spite of it being one of the best albums of the 90s and one of my personal favorites, too. It's as if it was always there playing in the background during my life, even in, say, 1988 as I discovered Nintendo and Ninja Turtles.

Yo La Tengo was a similar—if I may borrow some Turtles parlance—radical discovery for me circa 2001, when I borrowed And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out from the local library based on a glowing review I'd read somewhere online. It took me awhile to come around to it, and in retrospect, I can see why. I just wasn't into such mellow, druggy music back then, and it's not terribly representative of the band's usual sound, which is more immediate and energetic. But I digress.

Back to I Can Hear The Heart..., which is the opposite of And Then Nothing... because it is the most representative Yo La Tengo album. By which I mean, it has some of everything the band had done well up to that point...and it was the initial showcase of the (at the time) new Yo La Tengo style, with their ability to slip into different musical genres/moods over the course of a long album while still keeping it unified and well-paced, somehow.

Setting aside the obvious classic of 'Autumn Sweater', the album is more about the overall flow from song to song than it is about individual moments. Noise pop tracks like 'Sugarcube' and 'Deeper Into Movies' would fit comfortably on Painful or Electr-O-Pura and prove the band still had the Velvet Underground in their bones. Meanwhile, there's also a smorgasbord of other styles to sample: the narcoleptic/nocturnal 'Green Arrow', mellow countrified pop of 'One PM Again', samba/Brazilian vocal pop of 'Center Of Gravity', the lengthy psychedelic noise/drone 'Spec Bebop', and the introductory instrumental 'Return To Hot Chicken', which sets the mood perfectly. Scattered in there are underrated gems like bassist James McNew's 'Stockholm Syndrome' and a Jesus And Mary Chain inspired rampage through 'Little Honda' by the Beach Boys.

I suppose this brings me to my opening, about what it's like listening to this album for the first time. Well, the best way I could put it to someone else is that it's like hearing one of the most underrated indie bands of the 90s continuously switch styles over 68 minutes, all while producing a distinctive set of songs that are never less than great and sometimes more than classic.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Animal Collective- Centipede Hz

There are so many factors going on with Centipede Hz that I could have spent the months since its release hitting one topic at a time and still not be out of talking points. It's an album that's worthy of an exhaustive, in-depth examination at some point, but this is not that time. I still don't have a complete grasp on everything about this album, and the mixed reviews it received from others only underscores my uncertainty. For instance, all and/or any of the following statements have felt true to me at one time or another:
  1. Centipede Hz is neither a misunderstood masterpiece, nor is it an unmitigated disaster,
  2. It has the most unique production style, songwriting, and overall structure of any Animal Collective album,
  3. It has the most accurate cover art of any album in recent memory, because it sounds like it looks: a druggy, borderline-amateurish mess with way too many layers,
  4. Centipede Hz is overlong, overproduced, and overwritten,
  5. Some of these songs are almost as good as the band's past high water marks,
  6. Most of these songs are muddled and forgettable

Centipede Hz frustrates me the most because it doesn't neatly fit into the usual slots. It's not great, it's not shit, and yet it's also not average or middling. It's a mess, and I don't mean that in a positive or negative way. It just is a mess. Perhaps the best explanation is that Centipede Hz feels like if a band made polished studio versions of formless demos without allowing themselves any editing or re-writing. In terms of overall sound, you can tell they spent a lot of time and effort making this record, but in terms of overall feel, it comes off like something thrown together over the course of a long weekend with too many drugs and not enough sleep. And then, in the end, they kind of gave up and put out whatever they had done without listening to it while sober and well-rested. For example, 'Wide Eyed', sung (badly) by guitarist Deakin, is like a joke of what someone imagines Merriweather Post Pavilion sounds like; clearer heads and more honest egos would have snipped it from the tracklisting. Yet the production details and transitions into and out of it from its neighboring songs are part of what makes Centipede Hz such an interesting record, and so in a sense it's one of the essential pieces of the Centipede mess.

Much has been made of the fact that this is Animal Collective returning to their experimental roots. On the surface that is true but it's also a lazy, ill-fitting conceit to explain what this record sounds like. After all, it's not the sound the band uses but what they shape that sound into that matters--adding some feedback to Loaded wouldn't make it White Light/White Heat. To put it another way, Feels and Strawberry Jam can be just as abrasive and “experimental” as their first few records, but the accessible framework that supports those sounds/textures makes the songs enjoyable. Centipede Hz tries to have it both ways and fails miserably. An experimental take on their modern sound without the noise and unexpected elements is boring, while enjoyable melodies without compelling, addictive songwriting is even more boring. Even the best tracks, 'Pulleys' and 'Today's Supernatural', sound like they're trying to cram all the sonic details and detritus of Strawberry Jam into four or five minutes and they're almost ruined as a result. Performed live, with layers stripped away, they could be classics.

So I have to ask: is Centipede Hz a live album trying to be a studio album? After all, the simplified hooks and melodies, planted inside a swampy electro-psychedelic production that does them only some favors, seem more fit for energetic performance and sing-a-longs than concentrated headphone listening. All of the songs run together and kind of sound the same, something Animal Collective have always purposefully done in concerts to make the transitions between old songs and newer material less jarring. As such, Centipede Hz is worth a listen just for how very dense the layers are, how the whole album's production gives it a unified flow, and how the songs play off each other. This focus on atmosphere, flow, and production reveals the band as being at a crossroads in their evolution. Having progressed as far as they could as songwriters and emotive vocalists, they're returning to the world of ideas and textures that they sprang from. The issue is that Centipede Hz didn't end up sounding very good when the ideas went from paper to product...which just goes to show you that while you can focus on ideas and textures, you can't use those tricks to make up for weak, half-finished songwriting.

After accusing them of that, it may seem strange to say that the songs of Centipede Hz are, if anything, overwritten. Wait, how can they be both half-finished and overwritten? Well, this comes down to one of the chief flaws of the record: the vocals. Not only have the band taken significant steps backward as songwriters, their vocals have suffered, too. Avey Tare still hasn't shaken the bummer vibes of his Down There album, and Panda Bear seems barely invested in the proceedings at all because (pick your favorite theory):

  1. He used all his good ideas on Tomboy,
  1. He forgot he was more than the drummer,
  1. He was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome during the recording sessions. 

This is all compounded by the fact that there are constant vocals going on during every song. When there are breaks, as on 'Monkey Riches' or during the transitions between songs, all it does is remind you of similar, much better moments from the past. Anyway, adding in one or two 'breathing room' instrumentals would make a huge difference because Centipede Hz comes off as the album version of that friend you have who dominates every conversation. You know the one: he or she has so many ideas and thoughts that they can't say things fast enough, and they don't give you a chance to respond or process. But I digress.

Radiohead's King Of Limbs continually comes to mind when thinking about, but not listening to, Centipede Hz. It, too, is a confusing, half-finished-sounding record from a band with an otherwise excellent winning streak. It, too, is going to be that album in the band's discography that is talked about much more than listened to, by turns savaged and shrugged off by critics and fans alike. As with Limbs, Centipede Hz (regardless of its band's pedigree) is interesting enough to prevent an outright dismissal.

But just barely.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Miles Davis- Agharta & Pangaea

I've gotten in the habit of listening to CDs through my TV via my Playstation 3, largely because I have a pretty decent 2.1 speaker set-up. As a result I've come to enjoy the visualizer with the changing, spinning shots of Earth in Space. It feels like the perfect way to listen to Miles Davis's 1975 end-of-an-era double live albums, Agharta and Pangaea because:

  1. they're named after a legendary city said to dwell inside the Earth's core and a theoretical supercontinent of the Earth in pre-historic times,
  2. they're equally spacey and Earth-y, like most of Miles's fusion era,
  3. along with the visualizer, they share a sense of things constantly shifting and changing yet also often seeming to stand still

As far as I know, it's still hard to track down copies of these albums. The early 90s CDs I have of each are plagued by muddy, poorly mixed sound, especially on Pangaea. I don't know if it's something endemic to the original live tapes or what. However, as with a bootleg tape of a particularly crackling show by the Grateful Dead, even poor sound quality can't hold back the essence of the music. And words like “essence” definitely spring to mind, since the stuff Miles Davis was doing live on stage in 1974 and 1975 was some spooky, voodoo, psychedelic, acid/funk/rock jazzy shit. There are moments of deep improvisation that recall other contemporary stuff that was being done by bands as disparate as the Grateful Dead, Fela Kuti, Frank Zappa, and King Crimson.

Miles was truly doing his own thing with his band, though. There are minutes at a time where you would never guess it's a Miles Davis album, since his trademark trumpet is only sparingly employed. And even when it is, it's usually run through a wah-wah pedal, making it more akin to guitar with the way he uses it to slash and yelp across the soundscape. This, along with the more often employed (and more divisive) screeching stabs he hammers out on the organ, seem to be as much about Miles contributing to the grooves as it is about directing the energy and movement of the band. Keep in mind, too, that this is Miles without a true keyboard player and with two guitarists and an electric bassist.

Thus by the recording of Agharta and Pangaea on February 1, 1975, most traditional jazz fans and critics had turned their backs on Miles. It's true he didn't have the trumpet chops he used to but there's no denying his vision and the totality of it. Some credit always has to go to producer Teo Marcero for his extensive edits and work on Miles's fusion-era studio albums, but presumably he had little say on the material on these live albums other than to record or mix them. So in a sense this is the purest music of this era for Miles, and certainly the closest he got to fully purging all the European influences from his band and, to paraphrase the man himself, getting down into 'some deep African things.' The band moves effortlessly between the textures and varying energy of Bitches BrewA Tribute To Jack Johnson, and On The Corner while only a few times actually playing any of the songs or basic themes from those records.

I'm not sure I would say this makes Agharta and Pangaea better than the well known studio stuff. There's no denying the genius of Miles Davis and producer Teo Marcero in constructing the finished products mentioned above; side one of Jack Johnson and the title track of Bitches Brew are all the evidence you need. Interesting, then, that most of Miles's fusion-era records were pieced together from long studio improvisations and jams. The most direct route, for those interested in this sort of thing, comes in comparing Live/Evil (which mixes in studio material and isn't strictly live) to the excellent The Cellar Door Sessions 1970 boxset, from which the live stuff was culled.

Agharta and Pangaea, however, are in a league of their own. This is alchemical music: the flaws and moments that don't work are constantly overshadowed by the sense of exploring the unknown corners where the borders between genres meet. I'd be interested to hear what Teo and Miles would have done if they had chopped these live recordings up into a studio album or something like Live/Evil. This means they aren't as consistently good as they could be with some studio edits, though the trade-off is that they feel more...authentic. Raw, perhaps, is a better word. They're like Miles's version of a Fela Kuti album: these songs are so long and morphing that it's nearly impossible to discuss the music itself. In that regard, you'll usually just get totally lost in the grooves and atmospheres, which is something I wish I could say more often.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Well hello, it's me again

So let me get this straight. I've been ambivalent and uninspired to write lately, and in the past few months: Boards of Canada finally announced a new album...Neutral Milk Hotel announced they're going out on a reunion tour....Avey Tare from Animal Collective announced some weird sideproject...My Bloody Valentine released a new album finally....there's a new borderline excellent record by Thee Oh Sees out. This is all some kind of weird joke or dream, right?

Next thing you'll tell me there's a new album by Blackout Beach, from my beloved Carey Mercer, which somehow came out without my knowledge, right? Ha ha, real funny.

Oh, wait....that did happen, too.


It's like music wants me to care again or something.

Anyway, enough clowning. I'm stuck in Toledo for another year so I'm going to get back in the saddle soon, because I have nothing better to do. Got some catching up to do and some changes to make around here, that's for durn sure.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Slayer- Reign In Blood

Maybe it's the fact that I'm trying to give up smoking and drinking, or that I've been stressed out and pissed off a lot lately...but hot damn does metal sound great to me all of a sudde. 

I confess: I used to always be that hipster music nerd type who claimed to have an eclectic taste but didn't really truck with a few genres. In my case it was hip hop and metal. I've long since come around to the former, but for some reason I always (incorrectly) perceived metal as the genre, and host of sub-genres, which all pretty much sounded alike and only varied in how fast the songs were and how screamy the singer was.

Perhaps it's the surprising variety coupled with the short run time, but Reign In Blood officially converted me to a metal fan a few nights ago. It's just such an extreme album that has lost none of its power and visceral force since its 1986 release; whenever I listen to it at work, I can't help but rock the fuck out even though I'm usually too self conscious to enjoy grooving to music if I'm not alone.

But I digress.

Just go listen to the damn thing via the YouTube thingie above. It's got a lot more dynamics and interesting song structures than you'd expect if you aren't familiar with this kind of music. So go, listen. Perhaps it's your turn to be baptized under a lacerated sky.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Glengarry Glen Ross

Renowned as much for its profuse and prolific profanity as the brilliant performances of its ensemble cast, Glengarry Glen Ross is one of those movies you see referenced and parodied everywhere to the point that watching the original is almost irrelevant. But I say 'almost' because the writing and acting is so consistently good that, like the similarly over referenced/parodied Pulp Fiction, if you can get past the fact you already know a lot of the things that happen and are said, you'll be delighted by one of the best movies ever made.

I think another good point of comparison for Glengarry Glen Ross is Full Metal Jacket, insofar as both films peak with their opening scenes. The boot camp sequence that opens Full Metal Jacket is definitely the best known and beloved part of that movie, and the drill sergeant played by R. Lee Ermey steals the movie even though he isn't around for the last 2/3 of it. Similarly, Alec Baldwin's legendary tirade against the loser real estate agents played by Ed Harris, Jack Lemmon, and Alan Arkin all but steals the entire film and makes the remaining hour and twenty minutes seem irrelevant because you feel like there's no way any of them can impress the sort of guy who swings literal brass balls at one point and liberally calls the men "fucking faggots."

It's always great to see a film where an older actor is peaking and a younger actor is just starting out, and Glengarry Glen Ross gives us this in the form of the above pictured characters played by Kevin Spacey and Jack Lemmon. You can see the seeds of outstanding future Spacey performances in Se7en and American Beauty in the uptight, deadpan office manager John Williamson.

And of course, Jack Lemmon's desperate older salesman character inspired recurring character Gil Guderson on The Simpsons. It's worth noting that Lemmon himself voiced a similar character in the episode where Marge starts the Pretzel Wagon business. You know, the one with the Asian mafia fighting Fat Tony's gang at the end--"But Marge, that little guy hasn't done anything yet. Look at him! He's gonna do something and you know it's gonna be good!" Anyway, if you've ever known someone who is pushy in an upbeat way and just won't take "no" for an answer, you'll delight in Shelley Levene's descent into madness and utter doom.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Radiohead- OK Computer Revisited

It's a little strange that I don't own OK Computer on vinyl, since I make it a point to get copies of all of my Favorite Albums Ever on vinyl. While I don't have all of them yet (due to rarity or price or their not having ever been pressed on vinyl) I do find something about the permanence of the format comforting. For instance, I have my Mom's vintage copy of The White Album and it still sounds great almost 45 years later. OK Computer is definitely the sort of thing I want any future daughters and/or sons to get from me as hand-me-downs, largely because it meant a lot to me in my youth but isn't as monolithic to me these days.

That isn't to say that I like OK Computer any less than I did when I first fell in love with it a few months after its release. If anything, I appreciate it even more now from a hardcore, knowledgeable music fan's standpoint because I'm intimately familiar with many of the record's acknowledged influences, like Can, Miles Davis's electric fusion era, and DJ Shadow. Sure, it doesn't sound as groundbreaking and fresh as when all its tricks and mysterious textures were mindblowing to my high school ears, but it's reached the stature and iconic status of many Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and Pink Floyd albums. They always show up on lists of “best albums ever”, they have lots of great stories about the recording sessions (often collected in books), they have famous cover art, and seemingly as soon as they came out, you began to see all sorts of bands being accused of ripping them off.

The final quality they share in common is that they're all simultaneously overrated and underrated at the same time. I believe I saw this idea on, but the basic gist is that a band like the Beatles is so beloved by the masses, so already covered to death, and so praised that they're kind of overrated. I mean, lots of other greats bands and music out there, folks! Yet that doesn't diminish either the impact they had during their release or their enduring influence and listenability.

Depending on your familiarity with music, you may take a few spins to warm up to OK Computer. I wouldn't say it's a matter of someone being too young or too old, or of the album being still-too-ahead-of-its-time. Moreso that not every song is rocking and/or catchy, by which I mean, I think it's fair to call OK Computer an art rock album. It sometimes rocks and it mostly arts. I don't think it's quite the instant classic, immediate favorite for most people like your Dark Side Of The Moon's or Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band's. You may take to it right away, or you My point is, by the time you're on the 300th or so listen, as I probably am by this point, you'll still find it a treat to listen to. 'Paranoid Android' may just be my most played song ever (the video is certainly my most watched video ever), and I love the way 'Subterranean Homesick Alien' pulls off the trick of using psychedelic sounds without seeming cheesy or dated.

Hmm, so what else? Well, imagine you found out Pink Floyd released an EP shortly after Dark Side Of The Moon, and it had b-sides and outtake material that was arguably as good as the album itself. Wouldn't that be awesome? Hey presto, Radiohead did just that with the Airbag EP. I think it's actually referred to as a “mini-album” on the U.S. version, but that isn't fair since it's not strictly new material and it includes a song from OK Computer. In fact it's the first song on both releases, so it's a little jarring when you listen to the EP and there isn't that little computer beep that segues into 'Paranoid Android' as on the album.

Lastly, any hardcore Radiohead fans out there who haven't watched the OK Computer-era documentary, Meeting People Is Easy, owe it to themselves to track down a copy. I have a well worn VHS tape of it that I paid way too much money for at Media Play (RIP) in 1999. I enjoy popping it in every now and then to remind myself of that desperate time period I spent listening to everything I could find by them, random website MP3s and sketchy Napster downloads my only sources, waiting for the next release. This was the time between the Airbag EP and Kid A's release in late 2000, which was only two years at the most but felt like eternity to an obsessive fan.

Where that obsessive fan went, I can't really say. Allow this, then: I still dig OK Computer. I wish I had it on vinyl. Or wax cylinder.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Breakfast Of Champions

Kurt Vonnegut's writing always had an informal, conversational tone to it, as if he were a wise Grandfather dispensing bittersweet lessons about life instead of a legendary professional novelist. With Breakfast Of Champions, he made the leap to full on meta-fictional conceits, inserting himself as a character and making crude-yet-charming drawings to accompany the text. It wasn't enough that he talk directly to the reader; in Champions there's a scene where he, as narrator/writer, and he, as a character in the novel, worry together about whether or not they'll commit suicide like his Mother did.

So, it's an uplifting book.

Though the aforementioned drawings are perhaps better known than the book itself, especially the simplistic asterisk-looking asshole (see below) which inspired the Red Hot Chili Peppers' logo, it's important to point out how they complement the often emotionless and literal descriptions Vonnegut gives of things in the world. It reveals how ridiculous and arbitrary they are while also showing that we take a lot of things for granted and don't question them. The bits about penis sizes and women's measurements read like scientific reports, as if to say that it's meaningless data and not something to fixate on. Likewise, the bits about how Vonnegut-esque writer Kilgore Trout refers to mirrors as "leaks" and how people name things what they do because they "like the sound of it" still ring true in this era of slang terms and ridiculous names for companies and products.

Written during a mid-life crisis, Breakfast Of Champions is as bleak and self-reflexive as Vonnegut ever got. With poignant passages undercut by his severe depression and characters borrowed from his other works, the novel is in many ways the most quintessential book Vonnegut ever wrote. One could also make the case that it has the most contrived, meandering, and plot-less premise of any book Vonnegut ever wrote...though that's by necessity. Many scenes seem thrown in just so he can hold forth on this or that subject, but then again, that was often the appeal of Vonnegut's style: that thrilling sense of an uncle or Grandpa telling you dirty jokes and irreverently mocking American society.

It's rare that fiction writers put so much of themselves into a novel without things crossing over into parody or pretension. It speaks both to his personable prose, full of repeated phrases and concepts, and to his disregard for telling a story in a linear order that the silly moments or matter-of-fact plot contrivances feel more like a whimsical god toying with his or her creations than they do self-parody or artsy fartsy, post-modern nonsense.

Hunter S. Thompson's Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas was published a couple years before Breakfast Of Champions and I think of them as parallel commentaries on American society during the early 70s. Yes, I think of both as being timeless works, too, but they also perfectly capture that time when the hippie movement was dying out and the self-centered cynicism of the full-on 70s was just beginning. Where Thompson sought escape and revelation in drugs and the counter-culture lifestyle, taking swipes at mainstream society and bemoaning the death of the 60s dream, Vonnegut came from the perspective of neither the hippies nor the 'silent majority' that Nixon spoke to. His problem was that bag drugs already existed in his mind, and the revelation that bad chemicals could make people do horrible things beyond their control seemed to bother him tremendously. He implies, to some extent, that we are like the robots who lack free will in the short story that sets off the main action of the plot.

Still, Breakfast Of Champions works not because it has anything concrete to say about the nature of man, free will, or American society. It works because it feels so personal and so raw. Vonnegut doesn't hold back and goes even further than Thompson, demonstrating that all of society was rotten to the core, that mankind was a blight on the Earth, and so on. It's odd to think that this was his follow-up to the beloved classic Slaughterhouse-Five, since bleak ruminations on suicide and lists of the precise measurements of different character's body parts and sex organs are not exactly the kind of material that holds a newly won audience. However, it would be difficult to imagine him as the cantankerous old cult hero he went on to become without books like Breakfast Of Champions.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Reconsidering Trouble In Dreams

"The message from the critical reception of Dreams was quite clear: we will not be listening to you any further. Of course some tension is created. Cosmonaut in a bread line, et cetera."---'Grief Point' off the Archer On The Beach/Grief Point EP

"I was on the outs for awhile but now things are alright."---'Blue Flower, Blue Flame' off the Trouble In Dreams album

Dan Bejar went through a period of creative turmoil about the time between the release of Trouble In Dreams and before he released Kaputt, whereupon he came back to us, creatively and otherwise. Following the difficult recording of Trouble In Dreams, he seemed to doubt music altogether, as on the above quoted EP he declares "I have lost interest in music. It is horrible." It could be I am misreading or misinterpreting some lyrics and interview comments from this era, but I don't think so.

Anyway, you may recall that I reviewed this album a few years ago. I still think that review is well written but Trouble In Dreams has been one of those albums that has persisted and grown with me since said writing...and I've been meaning to make it a regular thing for my blog where I go back to things I've written about before...and I've been meaning to start posting on this blog again after a long absence.

So here we are.

I've indeed grown to love Trouble In Dreams since 2008, though this is largely because it's since been contextualized by Dan Bejar's subsequent work with Destroyer and his other projects. It's perfectly acceptable to me now that this record isn't so much a follow-up or progression from Destroyer's Rubies as it is Dan Bejar's version of a relaxed, underrated, not-quite-triumph Destroyer album, kind of like his version of Bob Dylan's New Morning. Like that record, there's some definite career highlights and hidden gems ('Plaza Trinidad', 'The State'), but there's also some failed songwriting experiments (the overlong, unsatisfying 'My Favorite Year') and lazy bunts to pad out the runtime ('Blue Flower, Blue Flame' and 'Libby's First Sunrise'). More importantly, though, Trouble In Dreams didn't turn out to be the troubling (pun unintended) begin of a slide into laziness and mediocrity which my old review vaguely predicts. So why my change in opinion? Well, it's just that sometimes laziness and mediocrity are the product of a relaxed artist at the height of his powers turning in work that doesn't sound as inventive, committed, and fresh as it used to.


Just as Dylan made many albums better than New Morning, Dan Bejar has done better work than Trouble In Dreams many times over. Yet there remains a ragged appeal to both records partially because they aren't as ubiquitous as other works by the artists. 'Like A Rolling Stone' is still a groundbreaking song, but it's more enjoyable to hear 'One More Weekend' in some ways because you don't have it memorized or forced upon you by classic rock radio. Likewise I suspect the apocalyptic epic 'Shooting Rockets (From The Desk Of Night's Ape)' will be a novel, experimental thrill for Destroyer fans well versed in the 'European Oils'- and 'Kaputt'-style better known, accessible tracks he's done over the years. But I digress. Trouble In Dreams remains one of Destroyer's lesser works and I still wouldn't rewrite history to put it on my list of best albums of 2008, but there is something to be said for albums that stick with you and grow on you, and this one did.

On a side note, yes: Whiskey Pie is officially back from the wilderness.