Friday, November 23, 2007

It's Funny, See?

So lately, like many people, I have been enjoying new shows like Flight of the Conchords and Metalocalypse. Also, I recently watched Wayne's World 2, so humor and music have both been on my mind.

Humor and music have a relationship extending back for generations, most notably in variety shows and Vaudevill-era travelling acts. In recent years they have been separated, but we are starting to see a reuniting of these auditory arts.

I think I probably speak for many people when I say that I can listen to Weird Al Yankovic for about 20 minutes, tops. I appreciate his talent and his ability to parody popular music (much of it deserved), but such humor seems to quickly lose its taste. I get distracted by the fact that the music is identical to songs I already know, but the lyrics are different; this begins to decrease my enjoyment. I'm a creature of habit. Weird Al's popularity spawned a number of imitators, most notably R. Kelly, who parodied R&B (and himself) so spectacularly with "Trapped in the Closet" that it didn't need to be parodied - though Weird Al did so, with the admittedly brilliant "Trapped in the Drive-Thru". R. Kelly perhaps achieved better longevity with the dual format of song and video: if the series had not been released in the music video format, it would probably have foundered in obscurity.

Enter TV shows like FoTC an Metalocalypse. Combining humorous songs with humorous shows, they seem to get the bost of both worlds: the songs are short and relevant to the episodes, which are carried by their own humor apart from the music. These shows also excel because they music they create is actually GOOD: though Dethklok's lyrics are usually inane beyond belief, the music is a wonderful collage of every metal cliche, done to perfection. Flight of the Conchords, meanwhile, come across like the Smothers Brothers. Their songs and harmonies are always catchy, and the lyrics (usually done in a folk/storyteller fashion) stand as well within episodes as they do apart from them. Their iTunes EP will probably be my first purchase of a musical comedian's work (my best friend growing up had all the Weird Al albums).

One other notable sector of musical comedy is the musical stand-up comedian, currently being popularized by Demetri Martin and Zach Galifianakis, to name a couple. Both these comedians use music in their acts, but usually only as background music to tell jokes over. Martin has tried one or two actual songs, but they are not very good. Here music serves a dual purpose - as a background, as a noted, but also as something for the comedians to do when picking their next joke, so they're not just feeling the pressure of dead space and silence. Both comedians have a more relaxed style, and appear to leave more time between jokes than other comedians (Dane Cook). While Galifianakis plays piano, Martin focuses on guitar but is also known to come up with more intricate setups (bells on the floor that he steps on, tape decks that he plays along with, etc.) that add a comedic element via their needless complexity.

Despite my earlier comments about Weird Al, he puts on a fantastic live show, which is a good reminder that comedy at its best is a shared experience, both with the performer and the audience. For a lot of readers of this little blog, another winter is starting - don't forget to laugh.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

It's Fall, right?

I'm still getting used to California. Today it was gray and rainy, which made me feel like I was back in Chicago or Wheaton... until I stepped outside and it was in the high 60s/low 70s. So yeah, it's a different world out here.

Fortunately, my prediction for the autumn seemed somewhat accurate - and I didn't even know about In Rainbows at the time!

The new Dashboard Confessional and Jimmy Eat World albums have both proved to be enjoyable and reliable, if not devastatingly revolutionary (I think we're past the point of expecting that from either outfit, though).

The new Foo Fighters album, on the other hand, single-handedly revived a band that's been aimless since the fourth track of One By One. Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace not only rocks and rolls, the songwriting is the best "pure rock" writing since Queens of the Stone Age's Songs for the Deaf. Before this album, Foo shows consisted largely of songs from the first three albums, with 2 or 3 from each of the last two albums thrown in for good measure. Now they have an entire new album's worth of material that works as well in the studio as it does on the stage. On top of that, they throw a number of actual rock guitar solos in, that sound nothing like Rush or anything remotely prog! Like Wilco, they found success in harkening back to 70s rock albums while still maintaining their own sense of self as a band. Easier said than done; just ask Jet.

The Spill Canvas also released a capable followup, but one not nearly as solid or endearing as their breakthrough, One Fell Swoop. Though it starts strong, "Saved" sounds like they were bored playing it, and rush through it without much thought. This starts a downward slide that is only slightly slowed by moments in "Appreciation and the Bomb" and "Lullaby." Where Swoop was endearing because of its over-the-top lyrics and deft musicianship, No Really, I'm Fine only rarely succeeds in spite of these.

Coheed & Cambria were poised to make the most outrageous, bombastic record of their (and perhaps their listeners') lives - instead, they finish their epic story with a whimper: a collection of mostly forgettable songs that delve deeply into the lore they have crafted, but forget to make it relatable or at least interesting.

Albums That I Want To Like More Than I Actually Do:
Motion City Soundtrack, Even If It Kills Me. Some really strong tracks on here, but lines like "She's the pizza of my eye" just leave too bad a taste in my earmouth (?) to be ignored.
New Found Glory, From the Screen to Your Stereo, Pt. II. The first half of this album is solid and provides for some sing-alongs, while the last half stinks up the joint. Proof that cover albums work best as EPs (Hello, On the Cover).

Release That's Making Me The Happiest:
Days Away, Ear Candy for the Headphone Trippers. How can this not inspire smiles all around? Days Away prove that the reason they're no longer on Fueled By Ramen is that no other band on the roster could compare to them. I was going to say it's the best label-free release recently, but that whole In Rainbows deal might have a leg up on them. But Days Away wins the concise and melodic awards.

Release I Wish I'd Started Listening To When It Was Released:
Matchbook Romance, Voices. If I have any friends who listened to this album and didn't think of me... well, apparently we don't know each other very well, after all. It has some troubles down the stretch, but for the most part comes across as Muse's snotty, younger brother, willing to sometimes forego intricacy so they can just rock out.

Release I'm Most Happily Surprised By:
The Most Serene Republic, Population. They're a Canadian ensemble and you probably won't be seeing them on late night TV anytime soon. Writing and performing "soundscapes" instead of songs, all I know is that its closest comparison is The Mars Volta. Songs are broken by dissonance and textures, but they never forget where they're going. Meanwhile, they're also less abrasive than TMV, with melodic cousins like Broken Social Scene, Sufjan Stevens, and even Margot and the Nuclear So & So's making a better comparison in that arena. Abram tried to get me to listen to their first two releases, and I didn't like them. I listened again after enjoying Population so much... and I still don't like them. Sometimes we just need to be grateful for what we have, though.

Release My Fingers Are Still Crossed On:
Saves the Day, Under the Boards. I'm just hoping and praying.

Sunday, September 23, 2007


I'm not dead, I swear. Between the move to California and not having internet - or a stove, or a fridge, or hot water - I've been kinda busy. But updates should be more regular, or at least that is the hope.

First off, I'd like to address a few comments that have been made recently:
- Stay on My Side Tonight (Jimmy Eat World) is not better than Futures. Perhaps the original ideas were more creative than some of the ideas found on Futures, but their execution is poor and usually repetitive. "Disintegration" displays Jim Adkins at his 80s-influenced worst, and "Over" sounds like a Static Prevails-era b-side. "Closer" is a bright spot, but even its big arena-rock riff at the 3:40 mark is eerily reminiscent of "If You Don't, Don't" (which is a much better song). Also, what I've heard of "Chase this Light" is less than promising, but I'm withholding judgement.
- Daphne Loves Derby is one of the most overrated bands in existence currently. I'm sorry, Lars, but it's true. If it weren't for current digital technology (AutoTune, anybody?), the band would still be just another PureVolume lurker.
- I saw the Starting Line last week, and while their live show is tons of fun, hearing new songs alongside older ones proved my point: they don't hold up as well. The show was going great until the started "Are You Alone?" and killed all the energy for 3+ minutes. "Direction" was hilarious thanks to the (seated, geeky) keyboard player doing most of the shouts and yells in the verses. High comedy. While they've admittedly become more technical, I think the newer songs have less instant melody, which has been a TSL staple. Better luck next time.

Lastly, I'm seeing the Foo Fighters tomorrow. In a venue the size of the Metro, for all of you familiar with that famous Chicago location. To say I'm stoked would be the understatement of the year, especially since their new album has proved to be their best one since "There Is Nothing Left to Lose," if not "The Colour and the Shape" itself. I'm prepared to take on any challengers of that statement (as usual), so feel free to fire away.

Love you all, hopefully you'll be seeing more of me soon.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Sticky Wickets

The seemingly-eternal “is downloading music legal or illegal?” question is really only a few years old, but it will be debated and argued for years to come, by the looks of it. Though the issue as a whole is too vast to address in such a miniscule manner (i.e. anything less than a book, if not a series), there are a couple of initial issues that can be explained relatively quickly:

1. Why bands encourage downloading until they get signed, and then “sell out” and stop encouraging (or actively discouraging) such activities:

When a small band creates an album, they usually put up the money for it themselves; they pay the studio where they record and any relevant people there (producer/engineer), they pay for the duplication of the record and maybe for the design and layout (many times they do this part themselves). Once they have paid for that album, what they choose to do with it is entirely up to them.
This is why smaller bands generally encourage downloading. Once they are signed to a label, though, they are no longer autonomous. This can include lots of benefits, but it also means that they are not free to tell people to share, upload or download anything - they are in a business partnership with a label and it is in the label's best interests to sell albums, not encourage downloading. The bigger the label, the more likely it is that more money is paid out (by the label) for promotion, recording, touring, merchandise, etc. (Whether these contracts are always fair or equally beneficial to the involved parties is irrelevant - once the parties mutually agree to a contract they are bound to uphold it unless and until the contract ends or a dissolution of the contract is sought.) And thus it becomes more important for copies of the album to be sold – for the benefit of the label, the band, and their continued business partnership.

The fact of the matter is, nobody truly “owns” the music. What they own is the right to distribute the music AS THEY SEE FIT. If a band enters a contract with a label, it is expected that they will record and release an album and the label will be able to sell it, when they want, where they want, for the price they want to. There is not total freedom, of course - market forces come into play. If you do not have the means to pay for the way which the band and label have agreed to distribute their musical recordings, though, you have no right to be in possession of it.

Many people decry the current state of record label contracts, a complaint which seems to have some validity. But again, no one is forcing any artist to sign with any record label; that decision may seem unfair, but if they agree to it they are implicitly stating that it is the best possible avenue for them to take at the given time. Seeing as more and more people are aware of this trend, as well as the rise of agents and managers taking interest in smaller bands and alternate (label-free) forms of production and distribution, this argument is less and less relevant as time goes on.

2. The argument that downloading is a benefit for all those “too poor” to afford the music:

If you have a computer and a fast internet connection (fast enough to make downloading albums a viable option), you are not too poor. Poor means "I have a hand-me-down Windows '98 computer with a 14.4kbps modem and neither the luxury of money or the time required to invest in that." Poor means “I don’t even have a computer, I can only use one at school or the library.” Maybe you are too poor to purchase every album you would “kinda-sorta” like to, but that does not necessarily mean you are too poor to purchase the albums you really want.

I admit that I've been guilty of downloading beyond my means. What I discovered, though, as I went through my computer and deleted everything that I had not legally obtained, was that I didn't really miss any of it. It was all overflow and junk, flash-in-the-pan songs that were never listened to after the first week. And if I did miss something, I'm willing to analyze how much I want it and if I'm willing to invest in it, and I think the average person can do this as well. If so, purchase it; if not, don't, and forget it. It's not worth thinking about after that. We live in a culture of people that feel that they have the “right” to freely obtain any music they would like. This is an extension of the “right” to have the latest and the greatest fashions, toys, or hobbies. These are not rights, though; they are luxuries, and the difference between the two is distinct, unchangeable, and quickly being forgotten.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Summer Bummer

Why Does Music Suck All of the Sudden?

I hate to admit it, but we’re in a slump. Forget complaints like declining sales, bland radio formats, and the lack of good spirits: I’m scrounging the internets, reading every magazine I can find, taking chances whenever possible (buying random albums, clicking on random links), and struggling to find a breath of fresh air of any type. Promising new artists seem extinct and new releases from established acts have been – almost across the board – disappointing. Every recommendation that comes my way seems mind-boggling; who could rave about the new Mae seriously? Even listeners who are enjoying new releases aren’t touting them as ground-breaking or amazing in any way. At best these albums are acceptable for the time being, but it is doubtful they are destined to become anyone’s favorite album or even end up on any top 10 lists at the end of the year. Whatever happened to the times of blasting Jimmy Eat World’s “Bleed American” while making a Slurpee run? Listening to “Understand This is a Dream” while ruminating the changes fall will bring to your post-high school relationships? Going on roadtrips where the music was a mix of the latest guilty-pleasure pop songs and Fall Out Boy? Those days seem much further away than they actually are. But fear not, friends, fall is almost upon us, and it looks to fulfill dreams we dared not dream this summer. In the meantime, here's a brief run-down of the latest summer releases:

Cartel, “Cartel”
Among the stronger releases this summer, Cartel still suffer from a severe case of takeourselvestooseriouslyitis. This is evident from the overwrought opener, brief though it may be. “Tonight” really gets the record going, however, and the next few songs are an enjoyable pop-rock set, though the marching-band brilliance of “Wasted” is again dragged down by lyrical missteps. The last few songs seem to have nothing in common with the first, though, and the band struggles through a number of songs before reaching the worst remix ever plastered together. Grade: B

Down to Earth Approach, “Come Back to Me”
One of the summer’s brighter spots, “Come Back to Me” follows almost exactly the same pattern as DTEA’s debut album, “Another Intervention.” And you won’t find me complaining about that. Musically falling between the Get Up Kids and the New Amsterdams (i.e. similar sound but middle-ground intensity), DTEA follow the time-honored tradition of verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus-chorus, but then again so did Sunny Day Real Estate’s “Diary.” While DTEA pumps out some good tunes, the lyrics lack a certain sing-a-long-a-bility, and are filled with non sequiturs and questionable grammatical choices. Also a bit of a letdown are the two tracks previously released as acoustic songs; their full-band incarnations seem like they’re trying too hard, whereas the acoustic originals were relaxed and easygoing. Grade: B+

Paramore, “RIOT!”
Paramore play to their strengths with their sophomore release, but reveal a striking number of weaknesses as well. Written and performed by mostly high school-aged band members (22-year-old bassist Jeremy Davis being the lone exception), their knack for catchy intros is, unfortunately, not paired with skills at writing the rest of the song. Most songs simply switch back and forth between two themes, never bothering to find a new melody or bridge. All that said, though, the majority of songs won’t drive you crazy, and you’ll probably find yourself humming at least a couple of choruses. Grade: B-

Mae, “Singularity”
What the hell? Mae is the perfect example of a band that has become more popular in an inverse ratio to the quality of their records. Their latest tour finds them supporting Motion City Soundtrack along with Anberlin, and their latest album is a Capitol Records release, engineered by the “great” Howard Benson (P.O.D., Blindside, Daughtry, Hoobastank, Papa Roach, Saosin, Flyleaf). Yet it also is their worst collection of songs yet, marred by uninspired lyrics (“Will you be my rocket?”), unoriginal melodies and poor arrangements. At its best it sounds like Switchfoot, Delirious?, and even Grammatrain at times; at its worst, it sounds like a poor mashup of two indistinguishable pop-emo bands (say, All Time Low and Amber Pacific), but slowed down. They also repeatedly succumb to letting their keyboard player play whenever he damn well pleases. Mae needs to take a cue from Chris Dudley of Underoath: the dude rocks out and, when necessary, has some smooth piano parts, loops, and atmospherics. Mae’s keyboardist Rob Sweitzer doesn’t “rock out” so much as “violently assault the air around him while playing,” which, I’ll grant you, is still entertaining. But worse than that, his musical contributions have now become overbearing and tasteless. The keyboards repeatedly ruin ideas that would be executed much more successfully with just guitars and bass providing the melody. To be honest, “Singularity” feels like a case of “too many Master Chiefs”; while talented musicians, they seem to have not figured out how to turn down any idea that is suggested, to the detriment of many bloated, forgettable songs. Grade: D-

Bright Eyes, “Cassadaga”
Bright Eyes meets Dylan, and everybody sleeps. Excepting “Four Winds,” which is phenomenal, “Cleanse Song” and “No One Would Riot For Less” are the only songs I didn’t find myself skipping through. Those three tracks would make the foundation of an A-grade EP; for the album, C.

Wilco, “Sky Blue Sky”
I just got this album from my brother a couple of days ago, but it is so far pretty damn good. I’ll give an extended review later, but I’ll give it a tentative B+.

The Starting Line, “Direction”
Did you like TSL’s last album, “Based on a True Story”? Then you’re going to love this album. Or maybe not. The thing is, “Direction” is arguably the closest a record has ever come to sounding exactly like the band's previous record. The band and producer proudly use the exact same drum, bass and guitar sounds, and even some of the same riffs (play “21” slowly and you’ve got “Bedroom Talk”). Ironically, then, what it boils down to is which batch of 12 songs the listener prefers. While “Direction” does have some strong moments (“Island,” “Hurry,” “Birds”), on the whole the band appears to be stepping a little too far away from familiar territory, though not erring nearly as egregiously as Mae. Also, expect TSL’s drummer to be replaced within the next year; it's obvious that he has reached the limits of his abilities and imagination. Especially since lead singer Kenny Vasoli has been performing and recording with Aaron Gillespie (all-star drummer of Underoath and the man behind the Almost), you can bet that his rhythmic expectations will continue to increase. Grade: B-

August Burns Red, “Messengers”
“Bone-crushing” is the first word that comes to mind when listening to this album. It’s intense. Almost too intense. And while ABR continue to thrill and excite with their phenomenal rhythm section and fierce vocals, they exhibit shortcomings similar to Paramore's, albeit in a much more terrifying manner. While the guitars have become more technical since their last outing, the band still relies too heavily on metalcore standbys like the jug-juggajugga-jug-jug-juggajuggajugga-jug-jug and the jug-jugjug-jug-jug-jug. You know what I’m talking about. Though they’ve mastered smooth transitions and memorable intros, most songs have interchangeable verses and choruses and run 60-90 seconds too long, each. But who cares? Have you heard their drummer?! Grade: B-

Coming Soon:

Saves the Day, “Under the Boards”
“Stay the Same,” currently streaming on their MySpace, is as intense and catchy as anything on their last release, “Sound the Alarm,” which is fitting, as “Under the Boards” is the second in a trilogy. The live versions of “Get Fucked Up” and “Bye Bye Baby” sound like contenders for Top 5 Songs of the Year lists. Needless to say, anticipation is running feverishly high.

Jimmy Eat World, “Chase This Light”
Having only heard one song in a live setting, I’m withholding judgment and trying not to get my expectations up. But when have Jimmy ever let me down? O.k., true, their post-Futures EP was sub-par, but let’s remember that this is the same band that wrote both “For Me This Is Heaven” and “The Middle,” so you never know what to expect from these guys.

Foo Fighters, “Echoes, Silence, Patience and Grace”
Can you deny first single “The Pretender” rocks? Yeah, I didn’t think so. Returning to the producer that helped make “The Colour and the Shape” such a classic album (Gil Norton, also responsible for the production of Dashboard’s “A Mark, A Mission, A Brand, A Scar” and Jimmy Eat World’s “Futures”), the Foo give every indication that this will be their best work since at least “There Is Nothing Left to Lose,” if not TCATS itself.

Motion City Soundtrack, “Even if it Kills Me”
MCS have grown on me with each release (I don’t own “I Am the Movie,” and it took me a long time to finally pick up “Commit This To Memory”), and the 3 tracks they’ve released so far are promising. Though not extraordinary, they have a distinct sound and are concise, and there is something to be said for getting rid of the extraneous.

Coheed & Cambria, “Good Apollo, I’m Burning Star IV, Volume II: No World For Tomorrow”
“The Running Free” is more boring than most of Volume I, but it’s also the lead single (and most likely the "most accessible" song on the album); C&C are impossible to predict, so this one will just have to be given the proper full-album treatment upon release.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Holy Cow (an addendum)

In my post about 10 albums at least 10 years old, I made a couple of unforgivable omissions, which I will nevertheless try to make amends for here. And, in the spirit of camaraderie, I will dedicate the first omission to Girdo and the second to Mikkele and Josh. Sorry, friends. (On the other hand, no one called me out on these omissions, so you could be considered culpable, too…)

Silverchair, Frogstomp
Does anyone else remember hearing this album in 1995 and thinking, “These guys are only a couple years older than me?” I know I do. This amazement was tempered by reading an interview a couple years later where frontman Daniel Johns explained each track on the album, mostly with variations of, “This song is about something I saw on TV.” Regardless, Frogstomp was never an amazing album in and of itself; it was, however, amazing that a bunch of bored 15-year-olds created the thing, let alone in the oft-ignored musical landscape of Australia.

Winning the chance to make a record through a radio contest, Silverchair knew there were no guarantees after this album so they strove to make it count. Opening slowly with the bass line of “Israel’s Son,” the track culminated in punk rock thrashing before segueing into the radio hit “Tomorrow.” Songs like “Pure Massacre” and “Undecided” wear their Nirvana influences on their sleeve, but others such as “Shade” and “Suicidal Dream” show a remarkable level of restraint before still-inevitable explosive conclusions.

The genius of the album is in its focus and consistency. For better or worse, every album since has seen the band trying to prove that they are more (or different) than a straight-ahead rock band, but to no avail. Freak Show tried too hard to upstage Frogstomp, and subsequent releases tried to rock tangentially, but the highlights of every Silverchair album are when they simply let loose and ROCK.

Songwriting is nothing without proper presentation, and here again Frogstomp shines brighter than its competitors and successors. Recorded in nine days, it contains a frenetic energy that is palpable even in slow and subdued moments. The drums are big and loud, sometimes threatening to break apart and wash away in the swell of their own sound. The guitars are raw and generic, but this helps their cause by furthering the “we just came from our garage” aesthetic.
Sure, the lyrics are wholly banal and forgettable, but they were still groundbreaking to a generation of kids who were playing guitar in their bedroom and trying to think of a rhyme for “girl” other than “world.” Young bands were still relatively few and far between in 1995, and Silverchair were HUGE. More than anything else, Frogstomp was the sound of possibility and dreams coming true, which is why the band’s career is a disappointment from that point on; honestly, where do you go from there?

Five Iron Frenzy, Upbeats and Beatdowns (Nov. 1996); Our Newest Album Ever! (Nov 1997)
Good lord, how could I leave these out? I must have hit my head or something…
The O.C. Supertones were the first huge Christian ska band, but 6 months after the release of their debut album, Five Iron Frenzy snuck up and clobbered them. Whereas the Supertones looked back to 1st and 2nd wave ska and tried to punk it up, FIF took everything current and added upstrokes and horns. Upbeats and Beatdowns was a goofy celebration, but one which never got boring or redundant. Punk songs like “Old West,” “Arnold and Willis and Mr. Drummond” and a cover of Amy Grant’s “Everywhere I Go” were offset by slower numbers like “Faking Life” and “Amalgamate,” as well as complicated rockers like “Beautiful America” and “Third World Think Tank.” The album’s strongest points are separated, one on each end, on the equal-parts wild and worshipful “Where the Zero Meets the Fifteen” and “A Flowery Song.” The Supertones may have been the latest band to make Christianity a little bit hipper, but Five Iron got kids singing the Doxology.

While serious issues were an FIF staple from the beginning (literally, as “Old West,” the album opener, was about mistreatment of American Indians during the settlement of the west), so was goofiness; but while the Supertones and other ska bands seemed to create a calculated goofiness, Five Iron’s was spontaneous and real, showing through in songs like “Combat Chuck” and the aforementioned “Arnold…” as well as the 4-second, self-explanatory “Shut Up.”

While Upbeats and Beatdowns was a phenomenal debut, the “sophomore slump” has been known to affect even the greatest of bands (I’m looking at you, Craig’s Brother), so the release of FIF’s second effort, Our Newest Album Ever!, was anticipated by many with equal parts excitement and nervousness. Lucky for us, it was arguably the band’s BEST album ever.

Released a year after their debut, Our Newest Album Ever! was light-years beyond it in multiple respects. Already forgoing punk rhythms for the more straight-ahead rock that would dominate their later albums, there was also a reduction in the amount of traditional ska upstrokes, acknowledgment that the fad that was originally their friend was quickly fading. What was more present was mature (yet still catchy) songwriting, and the strongest batch of lyrics the band ever produced. Though still goofy (witness “Kitty Doggy,” “Oh, Canada” or “Where Is Micah?”), the overall tone was much more serious, with songs touching on subjects as diverse as divorce, racial injustice, the futility of life, the futility of greed, and general roadweariness – yet remaining hopeful throughout.

Whereas Upbeats and Beatdowns had more than its fair share of high points, Our Newest Album Ever! was a steady succession of them, culminating in the definitive FIF song (and perennial concert-closer) “Every New Day,” a song which starts somber and sad yet finishes triumphant.

While 3rd wave ska seemed to come and go quicker than most fads, Five Iron Frenzy were able to adapt and succeed; their musical talent and knack for writing memorable songs assured them a place even long after the rude boys had disappeared or morphed into punks, goths and emos. Their early albums paved the way for these transitions, which is why they remain listenable even now.

*Music Irritant of the Week: A commercial is currently on TV with Sixpence None the Richer’s “Kiss Me” as the background music; but when a voice starts singing, it is simply a female voice singing “la la la” over and over, to the same melody and cadence as the original song. How dare they.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Oh, Irony

I recently watched a slightly schizophrenic love story in the form of The Holiday. I say “schizophrenic” not in a manic sense but in a true, split-personality sense. Following two story lines that do not appear together until the final holiday montage, it does not have enough time to follow either as close as could be desired (even though it is almost 2-1/2 hours long). But I’m not really concerned about the film at the whole (at least, not presently); I’m concerned with music. And irony.

Music is present in the film through two avenues – the traditional film score and soundtrack, and Jack Black’s character, a film composer by trade (amplified by Black’s own musical aptitude). Black spends various scenes talking about the importance of music in a film, how certain songs become definitive, making good scenes iconic, etc. etc. The irony is that The Holiday contains the worst (mis)uses of music I can recall in recent history. I was clued into this fact when Frou Frou’s “Let Go” – which was a captivating song even before it became the ultimate moment in Garden State, itself a defining (albeit divisive) moment in independent cinema – was used within the first 10 minutes of the film. That’s like rewriting The Usual Suspects to reveal Keyser Soze in the first act. While I never expect big-studio films to show particular care in their song selection and utilization, The Holiday kept grabbing my attention with its questionable uses of pop and orchestral music. Plenty of films have committed this crime, but Black’s character's occupation created a keen sense of irony, which began to overshadow everything else for me. There was even a scene where Black and Kate Winslet (who has surprisingly rebounded from her Titanic days to actually be attractive) walk through Blockbuster while he gushes about classic films and their scores, and how they helped highlight certain iconic moments, etc. (Chariots of Fire and The Graduate were two examples.) This created an additional level of irony as I realized that this film is not only not a classic, it doesn’t even contain a defining or pivotal moment of any sort; it is only notable in its mediocrity.

The Holiday also features Jude Law, in a role where he is somehow both shallow (sleeping with Cameron Diaz upon their first meeting – and while drunk) and sympathetic (widower with two young daughters). His role is a mess. Four years before this film, however, he appeared in Road to Perdition, which is, in all ways, the complete opposite of this movie. (I know it might be unfair and inadvisable to try to compare two vastly different films, but… I really don’t care.)

Where The Holiday is long and dull, trying to conjure up sparkling moments and impart some sort of enlightenment, Road is long and brooding, using its chilly ambiance to tell a story of loyalty, nostalgia, and the bond between father and son. By not attempting to impart a message but instead tell a good tale, we are taught something anyway. But again, that’s not really what I’m concerned with. I’m here for the music, man. And Road to Perdition features one of the most stunning soundtracks in cinema history.

The film itself has a number of elements which help the score become so effective: a green filter gives the scenes a gritty and hazy quality (the director and cinematographer reportedly aimed for an Edward Hopper-like feel); the cinematography is largely slow and sweeping; and the script is sparse, leaving long periods without any dialogue whatsoever. These elements leave plenty of room for the score to carry the film, and it does. In addition to this film, let’s see what else composer Thomas Newman has done:
- Revenge of the Nerds
- The Lost Boys
- Little Women
- The Shawshank Redemption
- Meet Joe Black
- American Beauty
- The Green Mile
- White Oleander
- Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events

Any questions? Among these, White Oleander also stands out in my mind as having a good score, and Lemony Snicket is also noteworthy. But Road stands above all the rest. Its crowning achievement is its main theme, which straddles the line between major and minor keys, allowing itself to slide to either side depending on the instrumentation involved and the intensity with which it is played. This mirrors life itself, which is rarely just one emotion, but usually somewhere in the midst of a lot of them. It is frustrating to see a movie and realize that the music was considered as almost an afterthought, as filler or, even worse, as a manipulator to explicitly dictate what you are supposed to be feeling. A good score, on the other hand, accentuates but does not overshadow the action on the screen, working together with the direction, acting, cinematography and sound as an important part of a larger puzzle.

There is a saying used frequently in the customer-service industry to the effect that customers rarely remember quality dining experiences vividly, but they always remember bad ones in specific detail. Applied to the cinematic realm, the saying still has merit, but Road is one of the good experiences you can't help but remember. Anytime I hear “XYZ film has great music,” I instantly think “Is it as good as Road to Perdition?” And then I think, “You are such a nerd.”

Friday, April 27, 2007

Ten Albums Ten Years (or more) Later

More albums are pumped out now than ever before, but how many have staying power? Not too many, sadly, but I've been noticing lately how often I keep returning to the "classics," as it were. So, without further ado, here are 10 albums that are at least 10 years old that could still take on anything similar released today (though, for most of them, there is no comparison to be made to any current release).

Sunny Day Real Estate, Diary (1994)
SDRE craft a defining debut album which is cathartic but not chaotic, beautiful but not sappy, and throws just enough curveballs (“Pheurton Skeurto”, “Grendel”) to sound as fresh on the last track as it does on the first. Even the artwork is cute and creepy at the same time, illustrating (literally) the fine balance between contrasts which even Sunny Day could not maintain forever. Best track: “The Blankets Were the Stairs.”

Poor Old Lu, Sin (1994)
It was not until years after my brother listened to this repeatedly that I began to understand its brilliance. The raw-but-professional sound of a suddenly-mature rock band cannot be contributed to any one factor, but rather the combination of talent and humility that allowed them to recogne their strengths and play to them. The vocals are odd and husky but flow freely with musings on life, love and faith; the guitars are so expansive and original that you forget there was only one guitarist; and the rhythm section works like a well-oiled machine, channeling everything from shoe-gazer (“Sickly”) to country (“Hope For Always”) to funk (“Bliss Is”) to all-out rock (“My World Falls Down”), somehow making such disparate genres sound related and relatable. Best track: “I Am No Good.”

Sometime Sunday, Drain (1995)
Hailing from the same region (Pacific Northwest) as the majority of the bands on this list (Sunny Day, Poor Old Lu, MxPx, Foo [sorta], and Slick Shoes), Sometime Sunday can be applauded for releasing two albums with one-word titles – and every song had only a one-word title, too! Though that may be the quickest way to distinguish the band, it’s not the best. Mikee Bridges delivers a vocal performance foreshadowing what was to come for the next decade – vacillating between a whisper and a howl, while remaining surprisingly understandable throughout. Backed by a trio that took the grunge sound and turned it on its ear, Drain was the band’s masterpiece. Songs were bursts of energy that seared and grooved simultaneously. Notable in the band’s sound is the heavy reliance on bass and drums (the last track is an instrumental, guitar-less jam), with no double-tracked guitars to be found – yet the group maintained an intensity and fury that remains rarely approached (just listen to Bridges ask, “Did you ever find the nails in your hands?” on the album’s centerpiece, “Stone”). Best track: “Eye.”

Black Eyed Sceva, 5 Years, 50,000 Miles Davis (1995)
The follow-up to their debut album, 5 Years took the trio’s formula of indie/folk rock with a touch of southern charm and turned it up a notch. The first four tracks display vocalist/guitarist Jeremy Post’s increasing confidence both musically and lyrically, while the last four (three live cuts and a cover of The Police’s “Invisible Sun”) showcase the band’s prowess and imagination, respectively. Post’s riff-writing ability was never better than in opener “Ryan’s Driveway,” making angular, monochromatic guitar lines sound smooth and melodic. “Ecumenical,” meanwhile, could arguably be considered the defining statement of the band, on all fronts. 5 Years foreshadowed an album they deserved to make, but sadly an album that was never written, as the band disbanded shortly after (eventually morphing into the inferior Model Engine). Best track: “Ryan’s Driveway.”

Sixpence None the Richer, This Beautiful Mess (1995)
Before “Kiss Me,” there was a rock band. A rock band whose poster was banned in our house, despite attempts by my brother and myself. Because, apparently, everyone in the band looked “like ghosts,” which was not too pleasing to the parents. Oh well. In any case, the album itself is a mesmerizing blend of surreal poetry, echoey guitars and ethereal vocals… but don’t think it’s a pop album, the dark undertones and driving rhythms are all rock, usually deceptively so. Best track: “Within a Room Somewhere.”

MxPx, Life in General (1996)
There have certainly been more successful “new school” punk albums (umm, by any of their peers), but has there been a better one? It’s up for debate. Ironically, MxPx made their attempt to break from the “Christian band” tag by making their shiniest record to date, a hook-laden tribute to all things young, dumb and punk. By their third album (and high school graduation) they’d passed their juvenile (Pokinatcha) and idealistic (Teenage Politics) stages, and entered a level-headed realist phase, which served as inspiration for their best songs, from the tongue-in-cheek “Middlename” to classic chick songs like “Do Your Feet Hurt?” to introspective rockers like “The Wonder Years” and “Southbound”. Even the campy “Chick Magnet” (which is arguably the band’s most well-known song) is equal parts sappy and inspired. The album art may have been a terrible idea, but everything else is solid gold. Best track: “Sometimes You Have to Ask Yourself.”

Foo Fighters, The Colour and the Shape (May 20, 1997)
Anyone that knows me knows I could probably write an entire book about this album, so I’ll just say… the only negative thing about this album is how no other rock album since (including subsequent Foo albums) has approached its level of greatness. Best track: “February Stars.”

Zao, The Splinter Shards the Birth of Separation (May 20, 1997)
Who knew this was released the same day as the album above? I never connected the two in my mind, probably because the release date was the only thing these two albums had in common. From the opening track – with the most menacing feedback ever recorded leading into Shawn Jonas’ yelp of “Once! Again! To! Strive!” – Zao scorched their way through 10 tracks of uplifting metalcore, setting the standard for years to come. The majority of Zao fans would probably choose subsequent releases like Liberate Te Ex Inferis or the self-titled album as the pinnacle of the band’s career, but in my opinion it was all downhill after this point. Best track: “The Children Cry For Help.”

Slick Shoes, Rusty (June 24, 1997)
I remember the first time I heard “Last” on a sampler CD, and the utter shock I experienced – not only because it was a great song with a screaming solo that paid homage to “Sweet Child O’ Mine” (and was the first real guitar solo I ever learned), but also because the song broke the 3-minute barrier, something which the band had failed to do on their debut EP (and which only happened twice on Rusty). Unlike many of their contemporaries, though, Slick Shoes didn't just play power chords and one-two beats, instead packing their short songs to the brim with breakneck drumming, snotty vocals and enough guitar riffs to choke a camel (these are all compliments). If you didn’t drive around in a Ford Pinto packed with friends and sang, air-guitared, and air-drummed along to this album in 1997… what was wrong with you? Best track: “Last.” (Or maybe “Walk Out.” Or “Cliché.” Or “Rusty.”)

The Promise Ring, Nothing Feels Good (Oct 14, 1997)
As an insightful friend once pointed out, “He has a lisp!” Sure, Davey von Bohlen’s distinctive, husky voice seems more suited to an unfrequented bar, but that doesn’t change the fact that The Promise Ring were among the first “indie” groups to be unashamed in their sugar-coated pop fun. Evidence of this is abundant on Nothing Feels Good, where songs have silly names and phrases are carried from one song to the next. Many songs had – at best – three lines of lyrics that were then repeated, rephrased, and rearranged to mine every ounce of impact from them. The effect is not annoying, though, but rather reassuring, as if with every repetition Davey believes it more and thus makes it truer. Despite this penchant, though, Nothing Feels Good is filled with a variety of riffs and rhythms, never copping out in the musical creativity department. The Promise Ring reminded us that it’s o.k to be silly, just not dumb. Best track: “Red and Blue Jeans.”

Friday, April 13, 2007

The Decline of Excellence (at the Behest of Perfection)

I’ve tried to fight it, tried to convince myself that it isn’t true, but it seems too pervasive to ignore any longer: music is suffering from a horrendous lack of excellence. More records are produced each year than the one before it, but the amount of variety is no more than usual, if not less. We’ve got genres, sub-genres, sub-sub-genres, and niche bands so exclusive that they do whatever possible to remain inaccessible (I’m looking at you, Deerhoof). Despite all this, though, we are forced to suffer through a whole lot of “perfect” albums and too few great ones. Or, hell, even good ones. Too many bands appear to have peaked previously (MxPx, anyone?), though most still keep slogging it out. Big bands always have enduring fanbases, though, which is as it should be. No matter how mediocre each successive Foo Fighters album gets, I will still buy it (and let’s not forget, Gil Norton’s at the helm this summer, for the first time since TCATS! Get excited!). What is of concern is the growing number of bands, and their overall attitude of turpitude. (Yes, it’s that bad.)

The internet explosion, particularly the MySpace explosion, resulted in the worst possible outcome: children of the Internet Age have come to view instant gratification as a right. The result for the music world is that no one is forced to put any effort into the music they create – what they ARE forced to put effort into is the means of creating said music. Once people started realizing that they could record their songs in the basement or the bedroom, they started doing so, at first with great results. Artists that had been striving for years unsuccessfully to get wider exposure were able to record their songs for cheap, on their own timetable, and then upload them to the internet for a (potentially) global audience to access. This positive soon turned into a negative, as any joker with a Dell could make a recording; a fair number even learned to make their recordings sound comparable to an album from a signed musician – at least, sonically speaking. What is largely missing, unfortunately, is the craft of songwriting. (I do not mean to limit the understanding of “songwriting craft” to traditional pop structures; this applies across the board.) Instant gratification now comes into play in reverse, as well: an artist now has to wait approximately 1 second before his finished work is available to a wide audience. This lack of effort on both sides (artist and listener) creates a synergy of dis-appreciation: the artist does not have to put any effort into getting his voice heard, and the listener does not have to expend any time, energy, or money to hear the artist’s voice. Phrased another way, the artist doesn’t care if the listener hears, and the listener doesn’t care if the artist speaks. Or , for that mater, is silent. Ambivalence reigns.

As this trend continues, it gets steadily worse. Pop any album into a CD player – err, I mean, download any album and import it into your iTunes – and you will be graced with crisp vocals, huge guitars, fat bass, and drums so steady you could set your watch by them. The production values are higher than ever – they’re almost unrealistic, in fact, and certainly rarely lifelike. And, after a while, boring. But this is what we have come to expect from albums – not good songs, but a good sound. Albums have muscle but no mind; they’re hip but heartless.

Has everyone already forgotten the fifth Beatle? Not Pete – George. George Martin, that is. His name is synonymous with every major Beatles release, and for good reason. While he didn’t write the songs, he proved to be an invaluable sounding board and resource. Who knows how the Beatles records would have sounded without him? For that matter, how would Nevermind have sounded without Butch Vig producing and Andy Wallace mixing? Would Nirvana still have exploded like that? Would Sunny Day Real Estate’s Diary still sound fresh and alive without Brad Wood at the mixing board? Would The Get Up Kids’ On a Wire been a better album without Scott Litt? Who knows? The point is that the role of the engineer/producer/mixer can be literally incalculable. While there are a number of artists that can successfully operate as a self-contained unit – and here I use the phrase “successful” to denote artistic achievement, not necessarily financial – most can benefit from the outside, more-impartial ear of a producer. As a musical unit, it is in an artist’s best interest to believe wholeheartedly in the goodness and merit of his music. As a producer, it is in his best interest to highlight the strengths of an artist and strengthen or eliminate his weaknesses. This role can be an immediate boon to the artist, as no one can be fully aware of their strengths and weaknesses, and to the artist’s audience as well. I hate to use the word “synergy,” but it seems appropriate. When bands forego the influence of a producer they risk wallowing in their own ineptitude, and this happens more often than not. Sadly, the George Martins of the world are disappearing.

Now, I know I appear to be contradicting myself, first stating concern for the overproduced nature of current music and then bemoaning the demise of the record producer. But it must be understood that the difference between “production” and “overproduction” is as important as the one between “cooked” and “overcooked” – one is tasty, the other, not so much. What is missing from music is humility and a desire for excellence – this is where producers first came in, offering an outside opinion with the goal of producing the best album possible. What is all too common in music is pride and bad ideas that go unchecked. In the process, albums lack soul and individuality. I know many “indie” artists and fans in particular like to praise the DIY ethic, but what I am lamenting is not the disappearance of major-label control or producer input; what is disheartening is the acceptance of mediocrity that has become commonplace. Any professional and dedicated visual artist is aware that his work is best served when he has an outside source of critique – whether a friend, a gallery operator, or even a complete stranger. The current music climate of self-production and promotion too often creates an insular world without commentary, creating self-absorbed “artistes” who really have nothing of value to say or share. The volume of music today (in both geometric and audio senses) is not enough to belie the dearth of talent, skill and work ethic (and this should play a factor). There are too many voices vying for attention, valuing self-expression over objective self-critique. The current musical landscape does a grave disservice to music by allowing any weed to flourish.

There is an additional aspect to this debacle: the value of investment and maturity. I hate to imply that it can be boiled down to an economic principle, but there are some similarities. In the pre-digital age, record production was largely reserved for the artists that earned it – for the ones that put everything they had into their music, worked their asses off, and had the talent and skills to handle it. This meant that many garage bands stayed in the garage, and that is not necessarily a bad thing. This also meant that artists were forced to mature, through time spent writing, performing, and honing their craft. They were forced to look at their work as any other artist or craftsman would. To return to the beginning of this whole sermon, the current climate allows a record to be created with little or no forethought or effort; as a result there is an increasing lack of afterthought, as well, and the (often realized) potential for no laboring to occur over the input or output of an album.

There is a potential danger for reaching a state of critical mass in the amount of music available to the global audience. When music becomes so prevalent it is not a conscious joy but instead an unconscious afterthought, the true artists will continue their labors and the rest will find fulfillment elsewhere.

Friday, April 6, 2007

On a Temporal Art Obtaining a Physical Space

Music is a temporal art form, existing only in the moment you listen to it. If you pause it, you cannot draw it out - it is necessarily silenced. There is no way to "look at it from a different angle," as it were. Any change to it or the way in which one is intended to experience it necessarily destroys the art or modifies it to such a degree that it ceases to be its original art; at best it becomes a work of art by a different artist (remixes, reinterpretations, etc.).

Despite its temporal nature, up until recently music has maintained a distinct embodiment in the physical space. In music's earliest history this physical space was created by the audience's experience - the lack of recording technology required people to be in the presence of both a musician and his instrument in order to experience music. This required being in the right place at the right time, and thus physical markers were tied to musical events. With the advent of music notation, a new physical marker was created: the musical score. Copies of popular scores were valued commodities, especially among musicians. Musicians themselves became commodities, hired on by individuals and institutions to create specific works. (Interestingly, while "selling out" is a phrase thrown around like a hot potato these days, many classical composers were under the employ of people and groups who would then dictate reasons for the composer to create [plays, cantatas, celebrations, etc]. This could be equated to modern record labels, though their dictates are usually based on the need to sell more records [and related products], and the music created rarely seems to have such staying power. In any case, the artist, like any craftsman, has always been inextricably tied to his consumers – for better or worse.)

Progressing into the modern era, recorded music became a popular investment, beginning with record disc singles. Music was still enjoyed primarily in a group setting, and recorded music in particular allowed youth a way to dance to the latest tunes without having to pay to attend a concert or hire a live group. Still, the means to play recordings were not widespread, remaining a luxury reserved for more affluent society. The rise of the Beatles in the 60s was a formidable force in the recorded music market. Teens everywhere wanted to have a piece of the Fab Four, and the falling costs of record players and record production enabled even the poorest to listen to their own recordings.

The ensuing two decades saw an explosion of recorded content, most popularly in the vinyl record format. Large 33-1/3 rpm records became the album standard, and the packaging itself became linked to the audio recordings it contained. "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," for instance, is probably more famous as a piece of visual artwork than an auditory one. In addition to the massive popular impact such recordings had, they also occupied a physical space. A music fan could be classified by how many records he had purchased. One could look in his house or apartment and witness the extent of his devotion; modifying attire to match a certain group or musical style also became popular. Such physical relationships to the temporal art of music continued throughout the next two decades: fashions changed from neon 80s pop to unkempt 90s grunge to the goth-influenced emo look that has pervaded the first decade of this millennium. Music's recording format has also shifted: from the record to the 8-track to the cassette and then the compact disc. The means for playing recordings also changed to become more convenient and portable. Turntables gave way to stereos, which in turn gave birth to car stereos, walkman headsets and portable CD players, culminating in the iPod and similar digital music players. And here is where the story takes a precarious turn.

The iPod, current king of convenience in the digital music world, allows for instant access to entire libraries of music. Each user's Kit Kat-sized player can hold any combination of music, pictures, movies, contacts and games that the space allows, all within the same inches-by-inches-by-fractions of an inch-sized box. Thus the physical aspect of music all but disappears. We no longer have shelves full of records, tapes or CDs as a monument to our interest in music. Without the physical space such recordings take up, music ceases to have a tangible impact on our lives. Sure we listen to it everywhere - in cars, coffeeshops, elevators, stores, restuarants, in movies, on tv, when working out, walking down the street, and even when on hold. But when it's gone, it's gone, and neither its presence nor its absence seems to make a difference.

Sadly, the iPod is the harbinger of music’s irrelevance. With our tiny little boxes we do not think about the work that went into creating the album. We do not think about the stacks of records or CDs the music would have previously inhabited, and how much time would have to be spent to listen to so much. We do not consider the money spent to acquire so many recordings. We do not appreciate the dedication someone would give to a passion, whether for music on the whole or a particular group or style. (My oldest brother used to have two things in his bedroom that took up the most amount of space: his racing bike, hanging from the ceiling, and his music collection. Ask me what his biggest passions were, and I could tell you. Ask me what he spent his money on, I could tell you. Today music remains a passion of his, but I no longer am amazed by the size of his music collection, simply because he doesn’t have one [or rather, one that occupies a significant physical space]. The closest I can get is jealousy that his iPod is bigger and better than mine, but that’s really a technological issue, not a musical one.)

Previously a person would have to make a point to go to a record store or other outlet, find his purchase and bring it home (or mailorder it). With the rise of downloading (both legal and illegal), even the slightest desire to hear a tune can be satisfied with a few clicks of the mouse. But what good is a desire if it is not left to simmer? Our instant gratification produces numbness and kills our appreciation for the artistic and aesthetic value of music. It instead becomes an unappreciated pacifier, a purchase instead of an investment. The iTunes "play count" feature can testify that many songs never earn a full listen, and one can even see the last time the desire for a specific song occurred.

This, of course, is just the tip of a vast iceberg. I'm reminded of Inigo Montoya after bringing the Man in Black back to life: "Allow me to explain: No; there is too much. Let me sum up:" The current cultural attitude toward music cultivates indifference and mocks the notion of appreciation.

*Ironically, currently the convenient iPod is servant to a larger unit: the personal computer. Though laptops come in increasingly smaller sizes they are still significantly larger than portable music players, and many users have their iPods linked to desktop computers which can be as big as record turntables. Until music providers do away with every step between the music and the user (i.e., building the music-purchasing software into the digital player itself and enabling wireless downloading), a larger physical (though not inherently artistic) presence will remain.