Thursday, February 19, 2009

Looking for the Perfect Beat

I pride myself on knowledge of the pop universe, but I suppose mine is more of an amateur historian’s approach – to put it plainly, it takes me a long time to warm to new music. Usually I’m too busy trying scouring the past 50 years of pop history to be bothered keeping up with the moment, which, depressingly, is kind of why I gave up my aspirations as a professional music critic. Even with concerted effort, I’ve heard and absorbed maybe 30 albums that came out last year; if I wrote about music for a living, I’d have heard hundreds. So I didn’t think it was fair to put together a “Best of ‘08” post when I barely knew what was out there.

Not that I didn’t try to catch up, but – and, as a proud foe of the old cliché that music keeps getting worse, I hate to say this – I wasn’t sufficiently impressed with what I found to keep going. In the first few weeks of 2009, I tried to amass a reasonable sampling of last year’s notable albums, and to the extent that I kept my ears from wandering I was plainly frustrated: did any great records hit stores in 2008? The list of critics’ picks that I’ve admired and actively enjoyed is substantial, but I’m such an asshole that I won’t come away sated until I’ve fallen in love; if there was an “In Rainbows” or “Under the Blacklight” among last year’s releases, I didn’t hear it. And for the first time I’m wondering if part of the problem is the dread “loudness” – dynamic overcompression that makes every note of every song on a CD sound distorted, producing an aural barrage that never lets up and ultimately induces you to hit the “skip” button. I’m no audiophile, but after reading a couple of tremendous articles on the practice, which is damn near everywhere these days, I’m convinced that it is partly to blame for my apathetic response to so much new music. That TV on the Radio album – impressive as hell, I agree, but thanks to the obnoxious mix I’ve never really warmed to it. Almost the opposite happened with the infamous “Chinese Democracy”; 13 mediocre songs that hardly screamed “Album of the Year”, yet every time I put it on my defenses fell instantly – the damn thing sounded great.

That’s not to say compression ruined everything I heard – beyond the maddening vagaries of contemporary record production, there just wasn’t much to love. Vampire Weekend, Hercules and Love Affair, Santogold – all excellent, none a revelation. Raphael Saadiq’s “The Way I See It” was a lovingly detailed platter whose striking simulations never quite escaped the turntable-I-mean-ipod. Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida” was indeed a surprise, but not because of any notable improvement in Chris Martin’s craft – more like, maybe that Brian Eno really is a genius after all. But these well-meaning Englishmen lack a unifying vision beyond expanding their own aural universe ever so slightly, and if Eno’s embellishments succeed beyond any reasonable expectation – and they do – they signal not an advance but a retreat into formalist pleasures first realized by Eno and his small army of art-rock coeaquals three decades ago.

Grasping for a tentative hold on the zeitgeist, I spent some two months learning to hear Lil Wayne, pop music’s Man of the Year if anyone was, and it was time well spent. Not only did I come to understand all the fuss about the erstwhile Dwayne Carter, but mainstream pop circa 2008 started to make sense to me again – which after at least a half-decade of contemporary radio/MTV or what’s left of it slipping me by was something of a relief. Wayne’s only one artist, though, and while the exuberantly annoying “A Milli” remains my pick for Single of the Year “The Carter III” itself is no masterpiece. Engaging, yes, and full of great songs – something to behold considering it was all but unreadable to me when I first picked up a copy in April. I’m glad to know the dude, but I don’t intend to show the same love for every purported genius who comes down the pipe until my ears agree with those of the few kingmakers amidst the blogosphere who still get paid. It could happen in 2009. But maybe it won’t.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Armagideon 2 - The Late Show: Guns N' Roses' "Chinese Democracy"

I've spent unhealthy amount of time over the past four or five years following the grotesque saga of Guns N' Roses, its elusive frontman (you know his fucking name) and the ridiculously long-aborning "Chinese Democracy," which finally hit stores to amazingly little fanfare last month. For a week or so I entertained the thought of trying to get my hands on a promo copy so I could review it in advance, but there were many more important matters to tend to and I'm not in college anymore. Besides, the band actually took the step of streaming the whole blasted thing on MySpace in the days leading up to the release, and if I were a good blogger I'd have simply checked out the stream and dashed out a review as fast as possible. But I'm not a good blogger (yet), I tend to procrastinate and so my review appears about a month after anybody who gave two shits made up their mind. Doesn't matter, really, because the last time this record would have mattered in any broader sense is long past.

It's amazing that the most expensive, most tortuously anticipated album in rock history is but a blip on the cultural radar upon its release in 2008. Bloggers and critics and fanboys and the remains of Axl's cultish legions were atwitter at the prospect of "Chinese Democracy"'s actual release, while everyone else had more important things to worry about, like the economy and the new president and Lil Wayne's sizzurp problem. Certainly Axl didn't help his own cause, staging a press blackout that would've looked like business as usual if his 17-years-in-the-making opus weren't actually, really upon us this time. Best Buy, the album's sole U.S. retailer, did what they could to promote the damn thing; without so much as a music video to excerpt, they were reduced to panning across snapshots of album artwork in T.V. ads for their prize product. Even for someone as notoriously erratic as Axl, the almost complete lack of publicity on his or the band's part was bizarre.

Then a funny thing happened a couple weeks ago: Axl showed up to chat and answer questions on several fan forums, promising a rerelease of "Chinese Democracy" with new artwork and even a video for the song "Better" (Like the album itself - we'll believe it when we see it). Asked to explain his silence upon the album's release, Axl went into his usual spiel, making vague references to various lawsuits, perpetual villain Slash, those liars in the press, "my attorneys", that two-timing sonofabitch Slash, "my lawyers", fellow recluse J.D. Salinger and that backstabbing asshole Slash. OK, dude, tell us what you really think about your old bandmates. But for fuck's sake, get back on MTV or pick a fight with Ralph Lauren or make a $4 million dollar video with Francis Ford Coppola directing like Old Axl. If nothing else, I guarantee you that Kurt Loder will shit his pants.

So what about the album? Well, "Chinese Democracy" is of course one of those records that you can review without actually hearing it, at least if you're an ideologue of a certain stripe. For indie-rock partisans and overly sincere progressives, it's bombs away. Really, I don't blame them, as almost every review of the album has made the following righteous points:

1) Taking 17 years and $15 million to make an album is disgusting.

2) You can't fake the kind of chemistry and raw firepower that makes for great rock n' roll, no matter how hard you try; professionalism and obsessive craftsmanship is no substitute for youthful enthusiasm. Essentially, "Chinese Democracy" is not and never could be the gauntlet that was "Appetite For Destruction".

3) "Chinese Democracy" is so self-referential, so insular, so far removed from the here-and-now, from anything else that's happening in music or the world right now that it's only relevant within the context of GN'R and Axl Rose's personal history. Absent of any real meaning or significance beyond itself, can a work of art be truly great or even good? Why should any normal person care?

Point taken. To be fair, "Chinese Democracy" is not a great work of art. But it comes closer than I would have expected. The explosive interactions of the old group are nowhere to be found; what's left is long on "craft" and short on memorable songs, but Rose has packed so much detail into these tracks over the years that they're fascinating even so. Ersatz porno-groove with flamenco guitars? Sprawling, portentous synth/sample intros? A page or ten from the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Jim Steinman songwriting notebook? Not one but two orchestras over a succession of meandering ballads with maybe one chorus between them? All present and accounted for, all godawful ideas on paper, all somehow listenable, even enjoyable, in practice. Give him this: the motherfucker believes in his schlock vision, and for that we should be...grateful? Heh heh. Awed, maybe.

Only the lyrics seem unfinished, often tailing off in mid-phrase and overall failing to generate the heat of the anthemic. There are several puzzling allusions to foreign lands and geopolitical struggles, none of which bear any apparent relation to the obsessive introspection of the rest of the record. Mostly they scream "writer's block"; there are few real hooks or grabby images here, and without any real hits the record has tumbled down the charts precipitously in recent weeks. A would-be masterpiece, "Chinese Democracy" is perhaps the most extravagant monument to a dead end that the vanishing music industry has yet foisted upon us. You may find Rose's excessive perfectionism intriguing, disgusting, or plain depressing. Or maybe, like 99% of the listening public, you've simply moved on. I don't blame you.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Hercules & Love Affair - some initial reactions

Lotta hype about these guys. Listening for the first time on this blustery December day, and of course it's not quite the watershed the hipsters have been priming us for, but it's pretty damn good.

I've been raring for a return to album reviews for like three years, and I figure it's only fair to mark the occasion with a knee-jerk style post in the blogosphere spirit of the day (ok, I'm dating myself here - kneejerk blog posts are so 2005, but I never latch onto trends until long after they've run their course anyway, so this is something you and I are just going to have to get used to).

As with a lot of modern dance music and pretty much anything that's endorsed by Pitchfork these days (about that - what the fuck, Schreiber?), the self-titled debut offering by Hercules & Love Affair offers some terrific grooves undercut by irritating vocals. Unlike a lot of modern dance music, the grooves don't just fritter away - these guys know their history, and if you can learn to hear past Antony's unholy cross between an ethered Scott Walker and potato-shaped tabloid queen Boy George (N.B. I mean the "queen" part as a compliment; it's the rest that's an insult, as the former George O'Dowd hit his Fat Elvis phase long about 1998, and from the sound of it Antony's already well on his way) you'll find the kind of beatmastery Larry Levan could only dream of.

In a development I never could have anticipated amidst the rockist fuckery of my teenage years, I've lately been evolving into the same sort of disco geek who used to frequent Levan's legendary Paradise Garage throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s - the golden age of modern dance music to my ears. So the nagging percussion, synth squiggles and mathematical basslines of this record are manna to somebody like me, although I still wish they were unhip enough to hire actual singers. Meanwhile, I look forward to untangling the grooves in weeks to come, which are proof positive of what I'd already figured out: disco geeks are the smartest music fans in the world.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Disco Lady Vs. Uncle Jam

"Disco Sucks". We're almost 30 years removed from the sorry summer of 1979, when such was the rallying cry of rockist neocons and crypto-bigots everywhere. We like to think we're past it, but in fact the disco/rock split informs how we hear just about everything we hear today, consciously or not. Soulja Boy, anyone? 16-year-old kid creates dance, sneaks in dirty reference, ruins hip-hop - did I miss something?

Stupid little dance tunes have been rock n' roll's bread and butter since Louis Jordan invented the shit. Cowering helpless at the feet of the Rock Godz (all that rollin' was just jive; no room for teenyboppers in the house of worship...) we tend to forget the original impulse that begat Messrs. Berry, Presley, Diddley, Penniman, Dylan, Lennon, McCartney was to get all the kiddies to dance - and in Eisenhower's 1950s dancing to a brand new beat was a subversive act indeed. Hate to break it to the Tull contingent, but if we didn't have 13-year olds twisting and shouting to those four longhairs with funny accents in 1964 we wouldn't have "Sgt. Pepper" and hence art-rock.

As everybody ought to know by now, "Pepper" along with Dylan's 1965-66 output was the bedrock upon which the towering edifice of Rock criticism was built - and the point at which meaty beaty big and bouncy "rock and roll" became static, self-serious, self-regarding "Rock". And it was sometime after this that all pop music which didn't aspire to the pomp and circumstance of "high art" became suspect in the minds of would-be revolutionaries and displaced jazzbos everywhere. Before the Beatles came along and Changed the World almost nobody took pop seriously, so maybe this was progress. But the good ol' boys at FM radio seemed to miss the point entirely as they set to the task of resegregating the airwaves long about 1968. By the outset of the 1970's, the deacons of industry had succeeded in dividing the pop audience into "Top 40" and "Rock" (read: white) and "R&B" (read: black) constituencies, and despite the advances of hip-hop and music video fragmentation continued apace for decades afterward.

-To be continued-