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.