9.30.2011

No Reason

Sometimes these things come out of the ether like ghosts rising from the grave.

I love Garbage. Most of what they have released has been really solid, thought provoking music. They've had some great albums, a collection of artistically unique videos and one mammoth greatest hits collection. I love their sound, in general - all the churning electro elements and post-grunge guitars mashed together by a group of renowned producers, all of which compliment vocalist Shirley Manson's distinct voice incredibly well. It's a shame that they've mostly been going in spurts and sputters for the last decade, because I would always love to have more from them. Their last official album, Bleed Like Me, came in a series of fits and false starts after the lukewarm album that proceeded it. Beautiful Garbage was too slick and soulless for their own good - they went from taking the p out of pop music to becoming robots themselves. Bleed Like Me brought all the warts back in (mostly) the right places. As I have admitted in previous pieces on the band, they have yet to hit the heights of their earlier work, but there is a really great song that stands out on Bleed Like Me. 

When the band released the patchwork tune that is 'Why Do You Love Me' as the lead-in single to the album, they came out with both barrels blazing. The only problem was they ran out of ammo -it's easily the best, most memorable song on an album that runs out of steam. This song, though, is a monster. The opening guitar licks are massive, the tone so fat and raucous it hardly feels like a guitar. Abruptly, the song switches gears for what will be the first of a few distinct sections. The verses are skittering and light as Manson sings of not being a Barbie doll or "as pretty as those girls in magazines". It could easily come off as trite riot grrl posturing of yesteryear but the band and Manson sell it with such conviction you're willing to buy it at face value. The band's distinct use of layered guitar lines build in to the chorus, where the song breaks wide open. Over squealing guitars and pounding drums, Manson wails the title of the track over and over, making it into an obsessive accusation as much as a derisive rhetorical question. As a segueway the same over-stuffed guitars pop back in to transition to another verse. It also shows up in a quiet little break wherein Manson coos about suspicions of a cheating mate, the separate pieces of the song making a bit more sense as they repeat. 
This single, released in 2004, felt oddly out of time when I first heard it. Not in the structure of the song, mind you, but in its tone. Other than the layers of polish granted by modern tech, it could easily have been written and released back in the band's early period when they were full of drive. Here, though, it's a welcome reminder that not all music in the 90s was dour grunge and flannel - there were, and are, bands that can play with energy and conviction beyond the indie scene. In fact, in a curious move, this single has none of the trademark electronic bells and whistles of their typical sound. I'm sure, given the sources, that the guitars and drums are twisted and tweaked beyond any natural existence, but you'd hardly know it without any blatantly artificial noises. 
I wish the rest of Bleed Like Me was written out of the pieces they were stringing together to make this track. It feels a bit like there's a whole album crammed in to this one single. The rest of the album, while not a waste by any means, fails to live up to this high point. There are some solid rockers and an interesting breather or two, but at best it's a bit of a let down, just reminding the listener of how good they used to be. Considering that Beautiful Garbage was such a mess, I was surprised Bleed Like Me was this good, to be honest. It's not the best of their career, but if you're into them I would recommend checking it out. There's some good stuff hidden in it.   

9.29.2011

Feeling Blue

Sometimes I'm too stupid for my own good.

I remember being in 8th grade at my dilapidated middle school. It was Fall and the day was almost over. Everyone was grabbing their homework and throwing on jackets and backpacks. A friend of mine had a copy of Third Eye Blind's first album sitting on her desk, having borrowed it from a friend. Being a misanthropic little teenage snot, I started giving her grief over listening to such a blatantly poppy, radio friendly band. How dare she go out of her way to listen to music she actually enjoys, and on top of that it's popular! The horrors! Well, she stood up for herself (as she rightly should have) and I shrugged it off to go be opinionated about something else. Hindsight proved me to be pretty off the mark on that album - it was full of really catchy, strong songs. Even now, in the midst of my all-too-often played list of 90s songs, there are no less than three singles from that one album. 'Semi Charmed Life', 'Jumper' and 'How's It Gonna Be' are all insanely catchy, well written pop songs that, while not the hardest rocking tunes ever, are still satisfying. They've held up a lot better than some of the crud I was listening to at the time.

Sometime later, I think about halfway through high school or perhaps more, I found myself in the flipside of that situation. I found myself becoming obsessed with popular culture and the joys of mass appeal. I'd gone from being judgmental to feeling sheepish over diving in too far. Third Eye Blind's sophomore album was getting really strong reviews and the single 'Never Let You Go' was on heavy rotation on the radio.  In stride with the struggles over single-versus-album debate that I've written about before, I decided to throw caution to the wind and buy the album on the recommendation of a popular magazine. Maybe it was an attempt to feel like part of the youth culture I always seemed separated from. Maybe I didn't have sufficiently strong or well formed opinions of what I liked or would like. Who knows. Point is, I never learened my lesson about buying singles. So I bought Blue by Third Eye Blind. It seemed...alright. I wasn't blown away by it at the time. Looking back, even with my desire to fit in and be one of the popular kids, I wanted music with teeth. I still dug Marilyn Manson, NOFX and Method Man & Redman.  I still liked weird music. I was, in essence, trying to find a balance between my indulgent pop side and my indulgent art-rock side. Eventually, years later as I settle into a life I understand and out of which can make some semblance of sense, I think I've found that balance. In doing so I've come to appreciate that album.

In all honesty I don't know why I feel this strange, persistent pull to Blue. It was a bit of a flop, frankly. Maybe it's the fact that Third Eye Blind's first album broke so big and this one was so small that makes it appealing, like I can only rationalize enjoying the album if it's not ultra mainstream. Then again, I bought it in the anticipation of it being a big success, so what do I know about my own justification? Whatever my subconsciousness tries to tell me is really beside the point - there's something that makes me spin through these tracks every couple years and just see what shakes out. 
While it's not the great neglected album that, say, Neutral Milk Hotel can claim as their own, there are definately some superb little secrets here. The song most people would know from this album, the aforementioned 'Never Let You Go', is a pretty solid single, but not the best here. I'd make a passionate case for the likes of the shorter but sweeter and more punchy '10 Days Late', with its burbling bass line and snapping guitar chords, it's a great song about the terrors of unplanned p and how we cope with it. Another great, seemingly overlooked song is the wide open and airy 'Wounded'. It has some wonderful bits of echoed and reverberated guitars. 'Deep Inside of You', which I oddly remember being on the soundtrack to Me, Myself & Irene, is your typical millenium-era acoustic radio ballad. You know what, though? I don't care - sometimes I want to embrace some commercial-grade radio rock. It's easy on the ears and is really relaxing. I like singer Stephan Jenkins' voice. They're nice songs that don't stress me out.
Gun to my head, why do I like this album? I think the accessibility. The songs are strong, not mindblowing, but strong and enjoyable. Nice, poppy stuff for a bright and sunny day. That's what I was way off base about, back in middle school. I made the mistaken assumption that only (perceived) depth mattered. My pretentious angst-rock wasn't any fun for anyone but me - something I learned once I started driving and had control of the tunes in my car. You have to embrace what you enjoy, no matter who gives you guff. Within reason. We all have to have some accountability. Maybe I'm rambling. I'm rambling.

9.28.2011

Impending Music

My older brother took me to what I consider to be my first concert.

Growing up in the goon docks, I had only seen bands that would come through and play festivals. These acts were rarely of concern or relevance to me. Acts like Lynyrd Skynyrd and Twisted Sister and Alice Cooper were a big loud spectacle, even fun at times, but their shows were more an instance of causality than seeking them out. Rock Fest or (ugh) Country Jam would throw these festivals in the countryside, packing in as many inebriated attendees as possible, boasting lineups of bands well past their prime, all of it happening in a chaotic, messy amphitheater. Not to say First Ave is a pristine, sterile environment, but it kind of kills the excitement to see any live acts when mosquitoes and sunburn are of more concern than a band's latest album. Compounding these concerns was the reality that I was (and continue to make myself) an outsider - I was weird, made strange jokes, looked as awkward as I felt, liked unusual music. Basically I was a prototype of my modern self, which was great for embracing who I am today, but hard and lonely when surrounded by avid Kenny Chesney fans. So while I had seen concerts, I didn't consider any of them my 'first concert'.

The older brother fixed that with a birthday surprise - tickets to see Green Day as they toured to support their latest album, Warning. I was crazy excited, both for what I knew would be a great show and that my brother had made such a cool gesture - not only did he make a big investment (Ticketmaster was just as bad then as it is today) but he's never been a huge Green Day fan, either, so it meant he would make the most of it just to make me happy. I was really touched at the gesture. The night before we were driving up to the Twin Cities for the show I recall excitedly boasting to friends about the concert. In hindsight, they were polite but not as enthused. I get it, now. But I didn't care at the time - first show! Plus, it was a band that (in my mind) was huge! I never thought I would get to see them live, either by my tastes evolving or the band calling it quits. Fortunately neither have come true and I could see them again if I so desired. Interestingly, they seemed older then than they do today.

Warning is recognized today as a transitory album. In the wake of two major-label albums full of snotty punk anthems, Warning's predecessor Nimrod saw them wobble on their legs, ever so slightly. It was an album with experiments and the occasional misstep - for every up-tempo single, there would be a laid-back surf number or acoustic ballad. They were evolving as they grew older, as any band does. Warning exemplified that evolution. The song tempos slowed down even further, there were more natural sounds like acoustic guitars and harmonicas. More than ever, the band appeared to be putting greater thought into their song writing process. These weren't more of the band's standard fare of petulant take-downs and negativity. Instead, they offered songs decrying our coddled and pacified lives (Warning), examinations of faith in relationships (Church On Sunday) and fictional tales of dramatic doings (Misery). While some reviewers cried foul at the time, I really enjoyed the strange new sound coming from what had been a (fantastic) single-minded band. It was a fresh step, even if it sounded less youthful and energetic.
Despite the change in tone, the band was great live. If anything they sounded more vibrant in light of the more down-beat tunes. They played a fantastically energetic set full of old hits, new numbers that sounded just as intense (like the punchy 'Castaway' and 'Fashion Victim') and got the crowd really riled up. Green Day, at one point late in the show, brought people up on stage to play their instruments. Like an idiot, I crowd-surfed out of the pit only minutes before. Slight regret aside, it was a great show, one that had everything I wanted and some a great opening band, the Australian rock outfit The Living End. On the long drive back to our humble town we broke down our respective experiences, me being agog at the sound and energy, he being impressed with their quality live show and The Living End. Even with a two hour drive each way, it was still absolutely a more enjoyable experience than anything I had seen before, hands down.
The point I made earlier about transition and the band sounding older then than they do now is brought to light by their own work. After Warning came a lull in the band's career - they had made almost an entire album to follow Warning but the tapes were stolen from the studio. In a writing exercise and act of frustration, they started writing little 30-second suites to compose a larger number. This simple idea would usher in a new era for the band, selling millions of the rock opera American Idiot and even creating a Broadway show. They play with more piss and vinegar now, but they were just as passionate to perform back then, almost 10 years ago. A brief glimpse into an older, wiser Green Day showed that they were capable of new sounds, they just needed a bit of a push to get rolling. Warning was a transitional album, one that's full of great songs from a seemingly divergent band. You really ought to give it a listen - it's fascinating in light of where their sound actually ended up.

I always think of that killer first show whenever I hear this album. Songs from Warning first hit the airwaves around this time of year when it was slated for release, so when the sun sets a certain way, I flash back to high school and where I was when I heard them for the first time. Funny how the memories come together like connecting dots. I should thank my brother for that concert, the next time I talk to him. I don't think I conveyed how much it meant to me at the time. 

9.27.2011

Parental Records

The more the years go by, the more I see the influence of my father in my life.

Sure, this seems painfully obvious to an outsider observing two inherently link specimens, one the genetic and causal result of the other. But to one of the animals inside the experiment, the nature of the situation is not so readily apparent. Furthermore, the opening statement could be more appropriately phrased as: The more the years go by, the more I see how my life is shaped from what I take from my father. This understanding has come into sharper focus for me in the more recent years, but most identifiably as I read through a book he had picked up over the course of my wedding weekend. The book, Fire and Rain by David Browne, is a look at the state of the world of popular music in 1970 and how it shaped and was shaped by four entities - The Beatles, CSNY, Simon & Garfunkel and James Taylor. My experience in reading the book was no doubt shaped by my relationship with my father; my understanding of it colored not only how I perceived the music but how I perceived the reading experience itself. Both were revelatory, but I gained more from my burgeoning clarity than I did from the book.

Don't get me wrong - Fire and Rain is an interesting read, it just lacks teeth at times. It was fascinating for me to gain an understanding and clearer perspective on things that I had little or unfocused comprehension. While in town for my wedding, my dad decided to pass a rare lull in the action by wandering around a book store, something I'm more than a little pleased to see is an inherited trait. Having an appreciation for the artists studied in this book (like anyone his age, one could fathom) he picked it up as some light reading material for the evening and finished it while I was off on my honeymoon. When I visited them earlier this fall, he casually mentioned it as entertaining and insightful, not too challenging given the wide scope of the book. Always looking for more fodder, as well as a chance to share something with my father, I took him up on it and read through it this past week. As I said, it was an interesting, if light, read - pretty much his take on it, from what he's told me.

To be honest, sitting on the bus and reading his book 100 miles away gave me the same feeling I got from pinching his record collection when I went off to college. A neighbor of mine left me a gently used, but still serviceable, stereo that actually had a turntable built in with its modern components. Knowing his LPs weren't getting much action at home, I MAY have asked to borrow them. They also may have just ridden along with my stuff that was still boxed up from freshman year. The point is, I had been listening to his vinyl since I was about 14 and had first gotten the itch to figure out what this Led Zepplin business was all about, anyway. Some of my favorite times in college were spent sitting in my apartment with my then-girlfriend-now-wife and other friends, goofing off and drinking while spinning his original pressings by The Stones, CSNY, Eric Clapton and even Kool & The Gang. They really did sound different from the horrible, pirated mp3s we'd all grown accustomed to, and it was a distinct badge of honor to answer questions of origin with "Oh these? These are all my dad's records."

In addition to the sense of connection I gained from reading David Browne's book, I also gained a much stronger understanding of the world of music that I took for granted. It sounds foolish but with so many revered bands existing around the same time, it was strange to think of them as having overlapping careers. To read that Bridge Over Troubled Water came out the same year as James Taylor's Sweet Baby James kind of made sense when you hear them on the radio; to know that came out the same year The Beatles dissolved was a fresh context, though. Further, I found it surprising to realize the Kent State shootings happened and that CSNY's 'Ohio' was written almost immediately in response - the freewheeling 60s had come to an abrupt end and that song seemed to legendary to be almost dashed-off in a matter of less than 20 minutes. I had no idea that James Taylor, the gentle artist he always was, had not only had debilitating d a but also had himself committed on several occasions. Those kind of realizations change the way you see an artist as well as their canon of work. It became much more apparent why CSNY barely held together, as well as the notion that The Beatles had no choice but to pack it in, they didn't function as a unit anymore. Also? Not necessarily Yoko's fault. Shows you what old punch-lines and cliches really teach you.
These were musicians I've heard my whole life, through my dad playing them in the house (or the car, more likely) or from oldies stations. Knowing that they were real people, not just legends already on pedestals, made them (and their music, of course) much more relatable. Reading about Paul Simon fretting over his premature hair loss was endearing and humanizing. Learning that James Taylor was kind of nuts made him more appealing as an artist, frankly. I've only known him as the balding and gruff old man who plays folk songs. Getting a sense of who he was as a young man (and the troubles he endured) deepened my appreciation greatly. Reading all this knowing that Black Sabbath, Led Zepplin and Devo were right around the corner was just as illuminating as anything else in the book.

It's all about context. The history in the book, my relationship with my father, whatever you do in life. Understanding the larger picture makes such a monumental difference. My father is a man of self-discipline who still reads for pleasure - I've always read voraciously but only in the last few years has my control over my life really come into shape. My love of running absolutely ties back into his. Funnily enough, he hardly ever spoke of it, he just did it every morning. That seems to be a more effective way to ingrain a lesson into your kids - no lectures, just show 'em how it's done. He's told me before of his love of a good harmony, a peculiarity I also share with him (thus the CSNY, I guess). My musical roots fall squarely into his domain, as well. Reading this book helped me understand that. I'm glad he let me borrow it - unlike his records, I plan on returning it. 

9.26.2011

Frozen Embryo

Back at the wheel.

Over the weekend was the anniversary of Nevermind by Nirvana. Ask anyone and they'll tell you all about how it was such an influential record and it changed everything and yeah, yeah, yeah. At a certain point it becomes noise. I love that album, if it hasn't become apparent from related subjects. It is, indeed, fantastic - not a bad song on there, in fact. But while Nevermind gets all the clout, no one seems to give any props to the follow up.

 In Utero, released in 1993, is a more interesting album, one could argue. Nevermind was the band breaking big with fairly simply songs that just go verse-chorus-verse (to borrow an oft-used phrase from the singer himself) with repeated lyrics. As great as it is, there's not a lot of depth beyond that which we assign to it. In Utero, with its broader sounds and more twisted lyrics, becomes a more unique experience as years go by. It's a great album that always seems to be a "oh, yeah, that one too" inclusion in the band's canon, where it should be seen for the important evolution it signified. While we have these albums frozen in time to remind us of what a sea-change the band's breakthrough was, it's the wonder of what could have been that fascinates me. Where would Nirvana have gone to, had they not been abruptly halted? This album gives subtle indication of that elusive, unattainable alternate reality where Cobain persevered and made more music. 
Impossibly high hopes no doubt affected how the album was written. Nevermind was so omnipresent and adored that any meaningful following efforts would pale in comparison to the mega-seller. Cobain, being his normal difficult and confrontational self, made an album that was intentionally challenging and jarring. Nevermind was slick and polished, ready for the radio. In Utero was harsh, discordant a series of broken guitars and thudding drum and bass arrangements. For every accessible single like 'All Apologies' there was a bleating fury from the likes of 'Scentless Apprentice', which comes to such an unpleasant close that anyone but the most diehard fans are put off. There's the disarmed Beatles-inspired 'Dumb' juxtaposed with the band falling apart at the seams in 'Radio Friendly Unit Shifter'. When you try to find a common ground between all the tracks on In Utero, the closest you could come would most likely be the dynamic start-and-stop fury of 'Milk It'. The sounds in this song are carried throughout the album - the weirdly atonal little licks of clean guitars, the indistinct yet bobbing bassline and the absolutely massive drums parts. Elements of this sonic essence are found in 'Heart Shaped Box', 'Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle' and 'Rape Me.' 
While the record is definitely a challenge to get acquainted with, there are certainly pop elements that were emerging in Cobain's writing as his career edged towards the end. 'Dumb' is practically sedated in it's demeanor. 'Pennyroyal Tea' was a genuine radio-friendly single with its power pop chorus. The melody and riff in 'Very Ape' are, at their heart, quite catchy and hypnotic - they're just hidden under a layer of distortion and aggression. Had the album opener 'Serve the Servants' been played in their Unplugged concert it would have been almost too upbeat for the band. 
I feel like all of these signs pointed towards a band in mid-evolution, one that no matter the outcome would be unrecognizable in short time. Considering the change they experienced from the sludge of their debut album Bleach to their still-stunning Unplugged album, they were hardly a one trick pony. It's easy to forget this when all anyone talks about is the punk-meets-heavy metal grunge of Nevermind. They had their nuances, they were just overlooked in favor of their commercial successes. Had they been able to carry on, we most likely would have seen more of this weirdly experimental pop side to the band, Cobain becoming more and more comfortable with his softer side as his career went on. Instead, we have a band whose canon is heavily slanted towards negative energy and painful wailing, something that really only showed a part of their personality. Granted, they excelled at it. But that doesn't mean they couldn't write interesting, engaging pop songs. We'll just never know what would have been.

We would also (most likely) never have gotten the legendary Foo Fighters out of it either. Maybe that's more important. 

9.25.2011

No Saving

Singles are a strange thing. Or, rather, they used to be.


Now it's not a problem at all to pick cafeteria-style from the world at large. The album format is the oddity, where the single used to be a funny little thing. It seems so rare and note-worthy to listen to an album all the way through - not only is it a sign of dedication to an artist (or maybe not paying attention to my soundtrack) but a sign the artist is talented enough to carry an idea through more than just a handful of songs. Maybe it's just my modern age, technologically induced ADD that keeps me from even wanting to hear an album's worth of material. When I wrote about the double album Mellon Collie & The Infinite Sadness it felt like such an act of endurance and even an accomplishment to have listened to two hours of music, despite being split up over the course of two days. I guess that's more of a statement on the pace of our lives than the capability of an artist and the changing state of a medium, I suppose.
Back before the proliferation of digital distribution, singles were more of a vexing thing. If I was into a song, I couldn't rely on the single-minded nature and limited playlists of the local radio stations. MTV was already phasing out videos in favor of teen-centric marketing. If I dug something I could either plunk down a couple bones for a single, and then have to constantly be swapping discs out when I wanted to hear it, or go for gusto and buy the whole damn album, hoping the (minor) investment would pay off. Sometimes these purchases paid off, like with Fiona Apple's excellent sophomore effort or the rare stealth gem like Everclear's Sparkle And Fade. Other times, it was a frustrating disappointment, no matter how good the single was.
Take The Cranberries and their 1996 album To The Faithful Departed. Following the huge success that was their second album, No Need To Argue, one would expect them to keep on with their interesting mix of alt rock and politically aware, socially focused writing. Instead, they put out an album that just kind of fell flat, despite one or two decent singles. Personally, I loved 'Salvation', with its frantic pace and rising-and-falling melody, all doo-doo-doo-doo-doo's and hum-able lines. From the way it fell off the charts (and reading reviews in hindsight) it becomes apparent why I was frustrated with the album - it just wasn't that good. I was smitten with that particular single, yet the other 12 (12!) songs were just meh. Even the other singles were uninteresting to me, having been hooked by the thought of more aggressive tunes on the album. I had put out good money in the hopes of some good luck, instead I got a dreary album full of songs that sounded like they just weren't written with any passion. Judging by the way the band's career petered out after this album, it's possible they were running out of creative steam. I don't mean to slag them, but every artist or group has a high point; this was not that high point for The Cranberries.
Despite my harsh words, I do still dig 'Salvation'. I know it's preachy and heavy handed, the way singer Dolores O'Riordan rails against substance abuse. It's still an uptempo number that hits the right parts of my mind, hooking it in with the tightly constructed soundscape. I love the rush of it, the panic pervading through the track. Too bad it was the lone energetic track on the album. I've really tried to go back and listen to the album, to give it a second, third, fourth chance. I should have bought the single, instead.

9.24.2011

Not As Great

Evening gang.


I've had an up and down weekend. Awesome night out last night with my better half, followed by seeing an amazing piece of real estate belonging to some dear friends, the kind of home you pray for an invitation to. After that, a surprisingly fun-filled trip to the grocer wherein we scrambled for ingredients for a slow-cooking black bean soup. Unfortunately  as soon as my better half finished prepping the slow cook I went for a run, wherein I found out I've been pushing my running too hard, having had an unpleasant knee condition come roaring back to life. I was good and pissed.  To distract (and exhaust) my mind from the frustration, I took in a session of hot yoga; at the end of the hour I was an imbecilic pool of sweat and loose muscles. I had a wonderful dinner with my better half and took in a doc with her. Unfortunately, the doc was a middling affair, but one that deserves a look regardless.


The doc I speak of is Morgan Spurlock's latest endeavor - Pom Wonderful Presents The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. It was, without question, an engaging and relevant film made by a charming and talented artist. Unfortunately, it was a movie that lacked any teeth or grand sense of purpose. Despite that flawed nature, I would still strongly recommend seeing the movie, if only to achieve greater understanding of the manner in which marketing impacts our lives.
To cite the example made in the doc itself, Spurlock's method of creation here is almost an Inception-level of meta-artistry - he sets about making a movie about how marketing and the demands of sponsors influences the creation of a movie while seeking sponsors and marketing for the same movie. The idea, while cheeky at first glance, is very insightful. It's quickly apparent that companies are not comfortable with the idea of the marketing machine being turned back upon itself. The desires and motivations of corporations are soon lain bare as CEO and Marketing Directors turn down their respective offers to be a part of Spurlock's latest outing. Their apprehension is understandable, given his past as a modern muckraker. Eventually, though, they acquiesce and sponsors line up to get their share of ultra-modern commercialism. This is the first movie I've ever seen where honest-to-goodness commercials actually appear in the film itself. It's an inherently bothersome concept that not only brings to light the horrible state of marketing but also furthers the evolution of the notion while bringing it to a wider audience.
Therein lies the rub, for this doc. Spurlock is such an entertaining filmmaker that one could easily make excuses for why this movie fails to deliver. It's a rare, honest glimpse into the industry; still, Spurlock pulls every damn punch possible. It's like watching him set up a fascinating, scathing doc and then saying "Well the sponsors thought I should tell more jokes". Yes, you say, but isn't that disconnect the whole point of the movie? Shouldn't we be digging farther into what drives us as a culture, or how mass marketing is quickly becoming a more ingrained, yet less acknowledged, part of our lives? What gives? Spurlock hides behind his concept as if it should excuse him from accountability. His jokes about selling out are a little too accurate, it seems. 
I know this sounds really negative and holier-than-thou. It shouldn't - I enjoyed the movie, regardless. He brought a lot of novel concepts to light and may potentially reach a wider audience by making this movie. Still, having thoroughly enjoyed his previous works, I was let down by The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. Spurlock is a whole lot easier to get on board with than Michael Moore. I'll say this - give this movie a chance, just to get a better sense of what we're up against every day and how it affects us. It may not be a game changer, but it is hands down more intelligent and engaging than your typical product-pushing blockbuster. Not a bad weekend day, but it could certainly have been better without these little quibbles and frustrations.

9.23.2011

Hello Self

This is not unlike my internal conflict regarding U2.

I have, in general terms, no concern for Madonna. Why would I, really? Her music was never targeted to me and I never connected with what she was saying. Her impact on music - pop, dance, club and electro - is undeniable, though. Just because I didn't care for it didn't mean I didn't appreciate her legacy and influence. She changed the cultural landscape with her hyper-sexualized image and dace-centered tunes. She's had tons of hit songs and sold millions of albums. We just were never on the same plane, musically. I'm fine with that; there are plenty of artists whom I respect but don't bother with. I won't name names but legendary status doesn't necessitate patronage. In other words, I wasn't into what she was putting out. There was one single, though, that broke through the malaise.

It was fall of 1998. I think it was my freshman year of high school, which was also kind of a weird year in music. There was kind of a lull in music I dug - I had run the gamut of 90s alt rockers, draining the well of anything I found pleasure in. There was nothing to be passionate about. I remember feeling this terrible pall wash over me as I began to realize high school was going to be a worse, older version of middle school, at least for the foreseeable future. Same kids. Same town. Same teasing. I was unhappy but struggled to express or resolve the issues I was facing. I kind of wanted something melancholy to help see me through the fog affecting me. Had I known about Portishead and Bjork at the time, I would have been all about it, their albums of the time being longtime favorites of mine once I discovered them. I recall listening to Adore a lot, curiously exploring the subtle electronic undertones. The world was slowly growing colder and my mood dampened each day. I was your typical py teenager, all awkward skinny limbs and poor temperament. 

Madonna had seen a big success in her album Ray of Light, which was only on my radar due to the high volume of MTV I consumed at the time. Not of any interest to me, it didn't even register beyond its pervasive singles on pop radio. That changed, though, with the single 'The Power of Goodbye'. Unlike the many times I've been unable to cite an attraction to a song, this time I could break it down on a scientific level. I loved the ambient sounds, the electronic burbling the production. The chord progression was one of absolute satisfaction and resolution - I got such a sense of peace from the way the softly played tones shifted from one chord to the next. Madonna's self-aggrandizing nature and (mediocre) singing had been toned down, making it much more palatable to my fickle taste. Even the video for the song, which by that point in MTV's life span was receiving little play, was all mournful blues and agony over the ending of a relationship. Basically I loved everything about the song.

Except for what it was. 

As much as I loved 'The Power of Goodbye' it was (at least in my mind) totally unacceptable that I enjoyed it, especially among my peers. I already took enough abuse at school about looking and acting different than the standard high school, small town dude - blasting some sentimental Madonna tune would have brought on more torment than it would have been worth. So I never really got to enjoy it, as I always felt guilty for liking something so feminine and graceful. Now, of course, I know better. Forget all that noise - I love the things I love for exactly the reasons they're awesome. I've certainly shown in my posts here that I make no bones about my adoration for atypical pieces. I embrace my quirks and the ensuing results. Including this song. 
Now, as fall rolls in again, I find myself wanting to hear the song and remember what growing up was like. The feeling in the air at the time, the memories of where I was at that point in my life. I'm glad I've come to a point in my life where I have the confidence to be who I want, even if that gets the occasional eye-roll from my better half. 

9.22.2011

Car Crash Cacophany

Evening, gang.

I'm totally tapped. Had a massive day at the office, book-ended by a run around the lakes in the morning and a surprise yoga session in the afternoon. I would love to give you an emphatic recommendation buy at this point it would feel false. In the face of failure, I'll throw a bit of honest to goodness fiction in here, one of the first I ever wrote, to be compensated by a double post tomorrow. So, you hang tight and read this short, sad story and check back in for what I ought to have posted today. I'll see you on the weekend...


Keep your cards close – keep your cards close to keep your cash closer.  I hated that phrase the first time I heard it.  Felt so unloving – who would hold it as a life motto?  My grandfather told me that when I was young, and I learned as I grew older that he wasn’t a trusting person.
His wife, my grandma, was just as cynical.  I remember being upset as a young boy because it had rained on the day she was supposed to take me to the State Fair, and the lesson she passed on to me was “Nothing in life is certain, save death and taxes.”  Sick thing to say to a kid, perhaps, but at least she was leveling with me at a time in my life when the whole world was sugar-coated.  It was the kind of lesson you don’t realize you’ve learned until Life already has you bent over and waiting for it and things around you have fallen apart.  No one ever sees it coming until they’ve missed their chance.  

9.21.2011

Big Box

Welcome back.

I wrote a thing yesterday about box sets and how difficult it was to acquire rare or obscure material from artists whose canon was too brief. To act as a counterpoint, today's piece is about the overwhelming volume of material released by The Smashing Pumpkins during their Mellon Collie era. I've previously looked at the double album in two separate posts, taking the time to really examine what each disc contained and what the songs suggested in their grouping. As an act of self-loathing, let's dive into the box set I loved so dearly as a teenager, the massive five disc singles collection The Aeroplane Flies High. Rather than spread this business out over five days, I'm going for gusto here and running them all in one shot. 

The five singles were all excellent in their own right, songs that I reviewed in my posts on Mellon Collie. The Pumpkins had recorded a wealth of material during the sessions for Mellon Collie, well over the amount necessary even for a double album. When it came time to pick b-sides for the singles, Corgan and co. began releasing some of the unused tracks on the singles when the tone of the songs matched up. Where most artists tack on a live track or another mediocre album track, The Pumpkins ended up releasing an additional two album's worth of content with the singles. Their record label saw an opportunity to cash in on the multitude of music and decided for the Christmas season of 1996 they would release a 45-style box set of the singles, compiling all five singles (along with a neat-o book with pictures and lyrics) into a rad retro box. As a huge SP fan (then and now) I was in heaven. 
Interestingly the first single off the album, 'Bullet With Butterfly Wings', only had a single b-side, a soft ballad sung by guitarist James Iha and Nina Gordon of Veruca Salt. It's a lovely little tune, but Corgan wanted to go deluxe with the box set, so when this single was set for inclusion the band recorded covers of some of their favorite artists. Added to the CD were 'You're All I've Got Tonight' by The Cars, 'Clones (We're All)' by Alice Cooper, 'A Night Like This' by The Cure, 'Destination Unknown' by Missing Persons and 'Dreaming' by Blondie. These covers were an interesting look into the history of The Pumpkins as well as nice twists on the originals. The Cars cover saw the band get a little loose and rootsy, 'Destination Unknown' saw them mine their burgeoning techno and electro elements. Corgan feels totally at home ripping into Alice Cooper's 'Clones' with its manic little guitar lines and buzzing drone. I think their version of Blondie's 'Dreaming', with a rare vocal outing from bassist D'arcy Wretzky, is a great reinvention of the New Wave number, turning it into a sleepy, ethereal trip hop song. 
The second single, '1979', had the band show-casing their pop song craft instead of the angsty guitar-driven alt rock they were known for. The songs included on the single followed suit, being more reserved and introspective. 'Ugly' is just a drum click and some delayed guitars beneath Corgan singing about self loathing. 'The Boy' is a shiny pop song by Iha, with fuzzy little chords that fill the song with light. Iha also donated the peaceful 'Believe' to the single, a quiet acoustic song seems so fragile it might break under its arrangement. 'Cherry' is a slowed down almost to the point of spinning out tune that feels sad but really is rather optimistic. I love the twang on the guitar parts. One of my favorite songs ever is the haunting and subtle 'Set The Ray to Jerry'. Just a bubbling bass line and some solitary, sparse guitar leads, there's not much to this song. The air it creates, though, make it so unique and strange to me. I love how it changes a cool fall night when I hear it through some headphones. It's a great soundscape. 
'Zero' brings the band back into their guitar-shredding wheelhouse. 'God', with its furious riffs and declamatory lyrics, is Corgan ranting and railing against the world at his best, all gnashing teeth and huge sounds. 'Mouths of Babes' could easily have been a Siamese Dream-era b-side with its Quiet-aping central riff and mid-tempo beat. I love harmony in the guitar lines. The band's tribute to Johnny Winter (titled as such) is a series of blistering solos and show-casing, a fun one-off track that feels like the band is blowing off steam in appreciation of a music legend. 'Marquis in Spades' is an aggressive, hit-you-over-the-head number that has Corgan mixing sonic guitar blasts and licks with vocals that segue from whispers to wails. Somehow it works, despite any subtly. The country twang of 'Pennies' seems out of place on this single, but it's still a darling little song coiled around a catchy riff. At the end we have the 23 minute marathon titled 'Pastichio Medley', which takes just about every fragment and idea the band had between Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie and highlights a bit from each one. Citing over 50 songs, it's an exercise in endurance to listen to them all but there are definitely some fascinating bits in there, like a studio version of the live-staple Jackboot, bizarro takes on Cherub Rock's riff and my personal favorite - the long lost Depresso
Interestingly 'Tonight, Tonight' served as a jumping off point for a collection of acoustic and pared-down songs instead of more pomp and grandeur. It feels, from this point on in the box set, like the band is beginning to channel an old-timey music group from the 20s. The twine and stomp of 'Meladori Magpie' is strange, but a fun change of pace for the alt-rockers. 'Rotten Apples' is of similar execution but more somber and downbeat (and a bit more in step with their canon). 'Medellia of the Gray Skies' is ornate and fussy, but worth it once it gets to its lush chorus. The three solo-acoustic songs here are Corgan at his finest. 'Blank' is simple and earnest, a plea to be something other than himself. 'Jupiter's Lament' is a beautifully strummed number that he had higher aspirations for, but ended up keeping as a stripped down demo. 'Tonite Reprise' is just what the title says, a brief, bare bones reprise of the album's codifier. Here, though, it becomes much more intimate and personal with all the orchestrations removed. Corgan's voice cracks and breaks in parts, but it makes it so much more human. I love to hear the difference of the two versions. 
The last disc in the box set shows the band going farther to their extremes. Both 'Thirty-three' and 'The Last Song' are wonderfully written wistful songs, but they're a starting point from which we see two bands emerge. One, of the eventual Adore, is broken and healing, creating songs like the soft and loving 'The Bells' and the old-time standard of 'My Blue Heaven'. The other, a hidden dragon, is lying in wait for Machina, peeking out in the menacing death-pop of 'Transformer' and the long-form assault that is the eponymous 'The Aeroplane Flies High'. Eventually both aspects of the band would see their respective sides exposed in proper albums. Here, though, it was a clever (if unnoticed) hint as to what the future would hold. At the time I couldn't reconcile the two personalities of The Smashing Pumpkins. In hindsight it's apparent why - they were two different growth spurts that had yet to happen, ideas only roughly taking shape. 
If you're a fan of the band, this box set was mana from heaven. It was a non-stop stream of material from the band's most prolific (and some would arugue highest quality) period of work. Coupled with the album that spawned it, the Aeroplane Box Set raised the total output for the era to a staggering 56 songs, all mixed and polished to a professional standard. That's impressive for any artist, let alone a multi-million selling group known for their complex arrangements and agonizing over production. It's a fascinating insight into the recording process and creative process for a group. These days you can cherry-pick the songs off of any online source; back then, though, you had to have the box set. It was a cool piece of memorabilia to have, one I still dig through every now and then. Do yourself a favor and sift through this massive box - there's some real treasure in it. Just don't go all in, you'll get lost in the depths. 

9.20.2011

Boxer

Hey, howdy, how are you?


You have no idea how good you have it now, do you? Things are so conveniently available to the masses that its not even a question of whether or not you can get something, it's just assumed you can. Even before the advent of iTunes and Amazon and Bit-torrents, you had Napster and Kazaa and Blubster, all those horrible, unchecked file sharing services. Before all that existed, if you wanted anything even the slightest bit elusive or rare you were S.O.L. Imported?  Tough cookies. Out of print? Don't even bother. Now? It's assumed not only does it exist, it ought to be free. I get scoffed at by my friends (many of whom are in non-traditional, performing arts careers, mind you) for paying for music. I saw the writing on the wall, that the RIAA was going after anyone and everyone who downloaded anything, whether or not the cause was rational. 


So I stopped. No more shady downloads. I've never fried a hard drive or picked up a Trojan or gotten Lemon Partied. So scoff, amigos, but there are tons of artists putting out free music that is super sick, like Das Racist's first two mixtapes - they were so good I had to shell out for their first proper album (pertinent review pending, it's a thick album to unpack). When I was 14 I would have prayed and slobbered for file sharing, just to track down the rare things I desired. The best I could do were expensive box sets. I used to love the physical weight and tangibility of a box set, knowing there was so much rare gold in them. Before I delve into the massive and daunting Smashing Pumpkins box set I thought I'd take a look at my first box set, Nirvana's Singles.
I've written of my love for Nirvana before, not so surprisingly about their rumored lost tracks. While I had no means of contacting bootleggers and tape traders in my youth, I was able to drop some lawn-mowing/snow-shoveling cash on the collection of singles from their two major label albums, Nevermind and In Utero. As the back of the cardboard sleeve explained, there were 11 fresh tracks contained within, six of which were studio songs and not just more live tracks (which were always mediocre at best). When a band has such a short time of creation as Nirvana, every spare track counted. To have fresh content after their premature dissolution was amazing to me then and even now. I still love these songs, both for what they were and what they represented.
The stuff that wasn't live was great. The 'Teen Spirit' single had two like-minded rockers, the punk edge of 'Even In His Youth' and the dirty, grimy 'Aneurysm' which showcased Dave Grohl's drumming. The 'Come As You Are' single had an encapsulated version of the hidden one-off jam 'Endless Nameless', which brought their energy and impulsive nature to the Nevermind sessions. 'Lithium' was backed by the off-kilter and wobbly 'Curmudgeon', a song that vacillated between rolling verses and aggro-choruses. The 'All Apologies' single saw the band at their wit's end as they mucked around on the intentionally off-putting 'MV', whose embryonic roots were the basis for 'You Know You're Right'.
There was no hidden, great single in the bunch. No magical untapped genius - just a collection of one-offs and b-sides that meant the actual albums weren't the end of the band. There was this secret little trove of finished songs that extended their canon just that crucial bit, a way of prolonging their life in my mind. Now you can pull them all off iTunes or Amazon in any order you want. I like having a playlist of all their collected gems in one spot, as if verifying my collection's scope. This particular box set opened the door for me. I'll look at another tomorrow.

9.19.2011

Food Shelter

What's good?


Coming back to the work week is always hard after a weekend like the one I had. It was full of productivity followed by relaxation, a great one-two punch for relieving stress. I ate tons of curry and home-baked sweets. I shared some wine with my better half. I ran for an hour every day. Then I get to the office this morning and our kitchen sinks spewed foul, black matter onto the floor. I'm always amazed at how people can watch something happen and not intervene. Had I known immediately (and not been on the phone with building maintenance) I would have gotten to it as soon as possible. It took another intrepid coworker to strap plastic bags to her feet and lug some waste baskets over to the sinks to catch the funk. I'm grateful for her ability to act, it kept a bad situation from getting worse. It's the unexpected trouble that throws us; it's also the unexpected treats that put us back into balance. Having not been on Twitter as much as I normally am, I missed the release of the new single from Homeless, 'Epic Meal Time'.
I know I've written a great deal on this whip-smart and motivated rapper before - I'll keep doing it as long as he's on his grind. When you find an artist who possesses such conviction and talent, you can't help but throw your momentum in with theirs, drawing strength from it in a Captain Planet-style combination of positivity and ambition. What I'm trying to say is the guy is good and keeps getting better. I just want the world at large to have advance warning of his Minnesota-grown talents. They owe it to themselves to hear his latest salvo of cultural analysis packaged inside a shuffling soul beat.
'Epic Meal Time' is another offering from Homeless that shows his concern for our well being along with his frustration at the world he's forced to face. In the track he raps about our mental malnutrition as our youth tries to find nourishment in the vapidity of mass media. The hook has Homeless venting his anxiety over losing his drive from lack of positivity in the world and perseverance in the face of stupidity. How many rappers do you, indie or otherwise, who work so hard at reminding us of the wonders in the world and how we need to appreciate them? I can write about the silly exuberance of Das Racist all I want but I don't get sustenance from it like I do from this.
Homeless is still putting it down, line by line, track by track with Big Cats, New Tera and anyone fitting the similar ethos he embodies. Go download it and see what I mean. Here's hoping he keeps his momentum in this unforgiving world - we need more of his kind.

9.18.2011

Warm Fuzzy Viewings Five

Well, good evening!


It's pretty darn late as I type this. Late enough, in fact, on a Sunday night that instead of doing a full on, emphatic recommendation on something amazing, I'd rather do a Warm Fuzzy Viewing. It's one of those quiet, rainy Sunday evenings where the day has passed rather uneventfully (in my case, running a couple errands and making curry while watching the Emmys and doing laundry) and now I sit in the dark, typing away. This is basically prime time for a Warm Fuzzy Viewing, where in you watch something or do something that makes you feel like you're taking in this little, private thing that only you know about. Instead of a late-night cartoon, though, this one's on a game.
Super Metroid is, without question, one of the best and most critically acclaimed games ever made. It's so economical and perfectly designed in its experience that one feels guided through playing it without consciously realizing it's happening. You get nudged in the proper direction without explicit direction or hand holding, but rather through insightful, well conveyed contextual clues. My favorite part of this Super Nintendo classic has to be the moments immediately after the dramatic opening.


What unfolds is this: bounty hunter Samus Aran is summoned to a space station studying the deadly but lucrative Metroid by distress signal. Awaiting her arrival is Space Pirate Ridley, in the midst of stealing the titular Metroid. A battle ensues and Ridley escapes, as does Samus. Giving chase, Samus heads to the hideout of the Space Pirates, the planet Zebes. From there, a sprawling yet intricately constructed adventure takes place as Samus seeks to recover the captured Metroid. The arrival to Zebes is what necessitates this particular Warm Fuzzy Viewing.
 In masterful style, the player is introduced to the world in which the game takes place. Your iconic yellow spaceship lands on the surface in the middle of a rainstorm as night is falling. For a 16 bit game, it's a dynamic and mood-establishing stroke of artistry. There are no enemies present, no sense of urgency. It's just raining and dark out. You're left to your own devices to start the quest, slowly and with trepidation making your way into the Space Pirate lair. Its ominous and eerie - its quiet, a little too quiet. You make your way down into the interior of the planet, retreading old ground covered years prior. There's some familiar technology to make use of at the bottom of an abandons elevator shaft. Once you grab it, though, the spotlights go off and the guards come out in full force. The enemies are aware of your presence and the action starts. It's a fantastically crafted way to convey a sense of drama and adventure in  a game with almost no dialogue. 
I love this whole introductory sequence and how it unfolds in such a tense and quiet manner. You get to explore a silent, rainy world at your own pace. No one's around as you explore. It's no wonder this game routinely tops lists of the best games ever made

9.17.2011

Jackson Track

This shouldn't even work.


According to all logic, Das Racist shouldn't be able to make music this good. They often get dismissed as joke-rap or weed-rap, some cats from New York just clowning around and making mixtapes for the hipster scene. Well, they finally did one up proper and released their first actual album Relax. I was, sadly, dumb enough to hesitate and not download the finished product as soon as it was available. While I wait for it to come through my iTunes for a proper review, I've been listening to their single from the album, 'Michael Jackson', non stop. It is sick.
I find myself wanting to deconstruct 'Michael Jackson' and try to make some larger sense of it, yet I am fundamentally unable to do so. In a sense, it is exactly what it presents itself to be -  an insanely catch single with a heady, lolling beat that wraps you in with every repetition. MCs Heems and Kool A.D. spit verses that verge on antagonistic calling-out over the beat, rapping about how they're perceived by the community that gave rise to their popularity and then following that with verses about nonsensical non-sequiters about drinking carbonated water by the quarter gallon. In a way this dichotomy defines the group, their dual nature of absurdest rap coupled with their intelligent and nuanced awareness of social and political culture, despite both tones being delivered in a laid-back, almost dismissive delivery. It's awesomely flippant and modern, a sign of the times in its commitment to the inability to commit to an idea or belief. 
The hook is as deep as is it is shallow - "Michael Jackson. A million dollars. You feel me? Holler." I asked my better half what she thought of the refrain and what Das Racist might be trying to convey with it. Her response? "Aren't these the same guys who made a name for themselves rapping about Pizza Hut and Taco Bell?" Touche, my dear. It's as provocative as it is dada-ist. It would seem, from their name-drops and samples, that MJ is just as sacred to them as he was to the rest of us, so it's hard to assume they're being flippant, more that they're making pigeon-holing statements about getting a crowd on your side in a song. Here's awesome things, you dig? I dig.
The rest of the album is on the way, cued up for a series of repeat listens to see just where the rap crew is headed. If their two unparalleled post-modern mixtapes are any indication - we're in for an interesting ride. Get in while it's good. Jam to it. I'll see you manana.

9.16.2011

Sick As A Dog

I am ready for the weekend.


What's up? It's been a long week. I don't know exactly what did it, but I'm spent after the work week. Maybe it's the weather; it's so hard to get up in the morning when it's this dark out. Fall just peeks around the corner and suddenly there's no sun from 8pm to 7am. Not even October and already the ratio is dangerously close to more night than day. I've got to stay alert and ambitious if I'm to avoid a malaise.


So I took in a movie with my better half. Been a while since that's happened. I love horror flicks, she loves documentaries. While it would seem like there's little overlap, we find a common bond in the micro genre of outbreak/virus movies. I have no idea why but she gets such a thrill from society's collapse at the hands of a deadly disease. Okay, maybe I totally get it. Either way, we had a mini date night and saw Steven Soderbergh's latest offering: Contagion. It was...interesting. We might have done better taking in some popcorn flair, but it was thought provoking.
Allow me to clarify. Contagion was a well made, sobering hypothesis of what could certainly happen in the face of an unprecedented viral outbreak on a global scale. It has a cast littered with Academy Awards, from Matt Damon to Marion Cottilard to Jude Law. It has a scientifically plausible basis in reality. It also makes for a depressing Friday night, if I do say so. To summarize what trailers can break down in digestible fashion, Gwyneth Paltrow dies in the first ten minutes. I'm okay with that. She serves as a Typhoid Mary for an unidentified virus that spreads rapidly and has a high fatality rate. The CDC beings piecing things together, but not fast enough, sadly. Before the end of the movie you witness a steady and relentless breakdown of society. People's worst fears begin to come true as millions drop off, the government soon resorting to quarantines and mass graves. People panic, rioting and looting become the norm, social norms are abandoned. It's intense and unpleasant in every way possible. 
It's also a very well made film. Soderbergh has a steady and static approach that establishes scenes as reality. The writing is grounded and based in truth. Easily the best aspect to the film, though, is the cast. A number of top stars turn in great performances. Jude Law is wonderfully unbearable as a blogger who's reputation goes to his head. Matt Damon is a believable family man. Kate Winslet is passionate and throws herself into her role as a woman devoted to her career - made all the more impressive knowing her entire performance for the movie was shot in just ten days. Of particular note was Laurence Fishburne, who turns in a performance of strength and humanity I'd not seen of his previously. His role as a high ranking member of the Department of Homeland Security. He's tops in the film, a real notable performance.
As good as the movie is, there are flaws. Dramatic beats are lost to a bigger picture. Some massive gaps in logic persist. Hey, some of the riots and public reaction to the government's actions would (sadly) involve more of the (ugh) Tea Party than the movie depicted. It's not much of a fun Friday night; I came away from it thinking I need a conceal and carry permit and a better dry storage room. It might not be Soderbergh at the height of his game, but it's still a fascinating watch. Maybe you check it out on a more low key night. Just cover your mouth if you have to cough.