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.