Thursday, August 28, 2008

Kicking & Screaming

Recently I watched the purported "cult classic," Kicking & Screaming - no, not Will Ferrell's 2nd-worst film (Superstar is first, obviously), but Noah Baumbach's first film. You may recall Baumbach as the man who helped make Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic his least-successful (and yet somehow my favorite) film to date. Baumbach's influence on The Life Aquatic can clearly be seen upon viewing Kicking & Screaming, as his characters inhabit a sequence of barely-connected scenes that ultimately ends in a hope-crushing realization, relieved only by ignoring the present and looking wistfully upon the past. If you think about it, it's kind of like a Death Cab for Cutie album. Small wonder, then, that Death Cab seems to be under the influence of this mid-90s indie film. And I'm pretty sure I've got proof.

Exhibit A: Plans
Ben Gibbard stated that the title of their major-label debut was the punchline of his favorite joke: "How do you make God laugh?" "You make plans." This joke is told in a bar by a bartender/10th-year college student. If you feel like you've been learning some of the same lessons for a decade, you might be Ben Gibbard.

Exhibit B: "You Can Do Better Than Me"
This song, off DCFC's latest album Narrow Stairs, begins with the line, "I'm starting to feel we stay together out of fear of being alone." This sentiment is echoed almost verbatim in the film, except instead of being about lovers, it is addressed to the group of friends who can't seem to move on without each other.

Exhibit C: "Bad Reputation"
This song is played over the end credits, and was covered by Death Cab for Cutie for the iTunes pre-order of Plans. Tenuous connection? Sure, but when you see the movie as a Death Cab fan it's like the final piece of the puzzle, which brings us to

Exhibit D: Tone
You'll need to see the movie to understand what I mean, but the overall tone of the movie is so much like a Death Cab record that it's eerie. There are definitely moments of playfulness and humor, cleverness and wit, but a lot of it deals with the hardship and sometimes futility of life. Stating it like that makes both the movie and the band come across as much more dour than they actually are, but they share a spirit of wistfulness, whimsy, and skepticism. Lines from the film such as "Even though all 618 of us were wearing caps and gowns out there today, I couldn't help but think it was a coincidence that we were both wearing black," and " I'm nostalgic for conversations I had yesterday. I've begun reminiscing events before they even occur. I'm reminiscing this right now." can easily be imagined to be lines from Gibbard's pen.

I understand that these could all just be major coincidences, but I doubt it. The feeling of discovering someone's inspiration (I have yet to find any stated connection between the two) is actually kinda awkward. And ultimately, does it even matter? Probably not, but if you listen to any of the characters in Baumbach's film or Gibbard's songs, they'd probably support me.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Top 5 (nos. 2-4)

Somebody (J-Lew?) mentioned wanting to hear my explanations on the rest of my top 5 (see previous post), so here they are, in alphabetical order:

Further Seems Forever
Further holds a special place in my heart for a number of reasons. First of all, they were the first "local" band (when I was in high school any band from Miami to Tampa was considered "local" by the central FL music scene) that I totally fell in love with (not counting Delivery Boy - my affair with them was relatively short-lived). I first saw them live with Chris Carrabba in a small upstairs room, touring on their split EP with Recess Theory, and when Carrabba picked up an acoustic guitar halfway through their set (the Sammy Hagar signature model, he made a point to mention) and played "Shirts and Gloves" from Dashboard Confessional's first album (which, at the time, was unknown by anyone in the audience - or anyone outside of south FL), it was an incredible moment only surpassed by the fact that the band slammed into "Vengeance Factor" - arguably their most ferocious song - as soon as Carrabba played the last notes. The sheer velocity of the band at that time was mind-blowing. I recall them blasting through "Pictures of Shorelines" and "Madison Prep"; "New Year's Project" was full of jagged edges when they tore into it; "The Bradley" toed the line between a rollick and a steamroll; and I'm not entirely positive because it was a long time ago, but I'm pretty sure they played a dizzying version of "Monachetti" - first explaining that it was named for a co-worker who "worked so hard he deserved to have a song named after him". Finally, though, I recall them building the eerie tension of "Justice Prevails" until the explosive chorus, and watching the little stage (on skinny legs) sway and flex under the weight of five full-grown men pouring every ounce of themselves into a song.
Though Chris left, Jason came and went, and Jon provided a tuneful but awkward conclusion to the band, this is the thing I remember most about Further Seems Forever: they always left me wanting more. I wish they released more albums. I wish their albums had more than 10 songs apiece. I wish they had written longer outros to most of their songs. But mostly I wish I could help people understand the difference between art and commerce, and that pouring your soul into something is sometimes the surest way to fail.

House of Heroes
Despite having only released one full album that I have heard, these guys are in my top 5. How? Because they're that awesome. Their self-titled album leaves a bit to be desired, especially in the guitar tone department, but they more than make up for that with their songwriting and arrangement. Lyricist/bassist AJ Babcock develops thematic elements into beautiful analogies and scenes, while vocalist/guitarist Tim Skipper melds his melodies and rhythms so perfectly that not a single line sounds out of place or overwrought. It took me a long time to pick an example because there are so many to choose from, but here's the 2nd verse from "Friday Night," which starts out sounding like a nondescript radio-ready single before morphing into a vignette of false humility and greed:

"I like myself on the following conditions:
That I'm better than the next guy at everything I'm into
And my looks are important if I'm less sophisticated
And my girlfriend's a bombshell, and I'm all she's ever dated
Money's an object if it pays for my ego
Power's a drug and pride is the needle
And it rips through my skin, goes into my bloodstream
Oh, I feel like laughing
Ha! I feel like choking on it
Regret would require less arrogance"

The album showcases fresh takes on old subjects ("Mercedes Baby", "Make a Face Like You Mean It") and new takes on sometimes uncomfortable subjects, including church politics ("Buckets for Bullet Wounds") and vengeful ex-boyfriends ("Pulling Back the Skin", which begins with the lines, "No, I don't want you back, but I don't want you with him / No, I don't love you still, I hate him so, though" and continues later with "I would like to see you only if to see you cry / I would like to kiss you, only to kiss you goodbye"), concluding with the most poetic telling of seeing a loved one in the hospital since Copeland's Beneath Medicine Tree or Death Cab's "What Sarah Said."

And that's not all.

Poetic lyrics are rendered impotent if the music sucks, but that is exactly where HOH rise above their peers, managing to use their three-piece status to its fullest and creating huge songs that don't rely on standard chord progressions or song patterns, as well as riffs that rely as much on the space between the guitar and bass as they do on the parts they are playing. They create songs that are cohesive and complete, yet throw in enough curveballs so as to avoid monotony, yet craft those curveballs well enough that they enhance the songs, not detract from them.

I literally listen to their self-titled album, straight through, at least once a week.

Jimmy Eat World
This one probably needs the least explanation. Clarity is a desert island album, plain and simple (even with "Blister"). Bleed American is a milestone in that JEW financed the whole thing themselves and completed it before shopping it to record labels, which was pretty unusual at the time; also they completely changed their sound, and never really looked back. Though Futures (underrated) and Chase This Light harken back to the Clarity era slightly more than BA, they've never returned to the grandeur of "Table for Glasses," "A Sunday," "Ten," "Just Watch the Fireworks," "For Me This Is Heaven," or "Goodbye Sky Harbor". Even the more straight-ahead rock songs off Clarity (practically all the ones I didn't already mention) have more musical depth than most of what has come along since. Which is not to say that the last three albums haven't all been excellent in their own right.
Bleed American gave us bona fide classics in 4 out of the first 5 tracks (except "The Middle," of course), and the last five are at least solid, and sometimes spectacular ("If You Don't, Don't"). Futures featured (say that ten times fast) some of the best rock guitar work the band has come up with ("Just Tonight," "Work," "Polaris"), and they also managed to pace their songs better (though Futures has some lengthier tracks than its predecessor, it always feels quicker as an album). Not to mention, "23" may possess the best Jimmy chorus ever, first appearing in suppressed minor chords but finishing in an explosive major-chord progression that makes my heart skip a beat every time. Chase This Light, meanwhile, comes across as a combination of its immediate predecessors - again tightening song lengths and pacing themselves well, they rocket out of the gate and never look back. "Carry You" develops into a much bigger song than they would have previously allowed, and "Gotta Be Somebody's Blues" maintains a pulsing beat and an eerie tension that keeps the song from becoming a ballad. Other than those two tracks (and the dance-pop "Here It Goes," which puts every dance pop band to shame), every song is a big, guitar-driven anthem, propelling the album to its fittingly-titled conclusion, "Dizzy."
Obviously this has been more of a cumulative record review than an explanation of their place in my top 5, but at the same time it is the explanation. Jimmy Eat World reeled me in hook, line and sinker with Clarity, and even though I've had my share of dislikes on ensuing albums (the obligatory too-poppy track, if nothing else), they excel in the same way the Foo Fighters do - by writing good albums full of good songs. They are reliable in a way that few bands are these days, and for that, TOP 5!!!!!!!!!

Sunny Day Real Estate
I still don't know what these guys were doing half the time. Though Diary, for example, is composed of 10 songs that follow the same formula (intro, verse, interlude, verse, chorus, interlude, verse, chorus, out) and "Pheurton Skeurto", I couldn't play most of them for you. Shrouded by production which is simultaneously clean and yet thick like pea soup, Diary and LP2 in particular give away none of their secrets, instead reveling in their own hidden genius. Which really sums up Sunny Day Real Estate. You can listen to them and understand exactly what they're doing, yet you can't explain it to anyone. Which is why their music is still regarded, first and foremost, as artistic. Largely aided by Jeremy Enigk's indescribable vocals, the band's music also stands the test of time, turning simple arrangements into works of art. And like any good work of art, they have as many foes as they do fans. Plenty are turned off by Enigk's vocals and seemingly-nonsensical lyrics. Granted, their later, post-reformation releases showcased a more "typical" rock sound and lyricism, but even those remain accessible in many ways, which, in the end, was their greatest struggle: beginning as a band nobody understood almost on purpose, when they actively tried to be understood, nobody got it. Except me. And perhaps you. Sunny Day Real Estate ultimately only spoke to one person at a time, which is why they'll never be understood by a large audience - there simply isn't enough time. But their dedication to their attempts earned their way into my heart, mind, soul, and top 5.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Why Guitar Hero Sucks

Somehow amidst all the hoopla of guitar-shaped controllers and the bastard stepchildren of electronic drum kits, I have managed to keep from playing Guitar Hero, Rock Band, and/or any similar game. Admittedly, at first it was because I was being a total snob/asshole and didn’t want to be associated with the unwashed masses who could now, as phrased it, “play as if they have talent.” But as time has gone on I have come to completely loathe the games, and for reasons much subtler and sinister than any hipster trend: they actually attempt to demystify the art and beauty of music. By reducing songs to their intrinsic physical values – notes of a certain pitch played at certain intervals in the company of, and in relation to, other instruments and/or singers – the games remove the mystery of music, for musicians and listeners alike. Additionally, they promote the theory that music is only “good” if it is played “correctly” – bringing back nightmares of overbearing music teachers to many ex-students. Screw it up and you get the grating guitar-flub sound; too many, and you lose the round. (I don’t even want to get into the fact that it completely ignores the realms of dynamic and intensity – a tap on the button is the same as mashing it.)
One way or another, the games advocate the idea that when someone writes a song they are merely lining up colored buttons on a timeline, and that songs can just as equally be reduced to their components. I'm sure some will favorably compare the timeline found in Guitar Hero to sheet music, but the games, by their nature, remove the human element. Sheet music provides (often very strict) guidelines, but they are still only guidelines - each performance of the same music can vary in tempo, dynamic, and even pitch, affected by a player's skill, memory, and even mood at the time of performance. Not so in Guitar Hero - you learn, not to play music, but to play a monkey while the console grinds its organ.
Any artist will tell you that art is the truest application of the idea of “synergy”: though ultimately a song is just a series of notes played in succession to a particular rhythm, and a painting is just a collection of paint strokes with different colors and styles of paints, and literature is just a collection of ink marks on pages, they are made more than that by the artistic processes which place them in the contexts they eventually exist within. They cannot be reduced again to their original elements – but they can be destroyed, if you so wish.
(I realize I may be over analyzing what is, after all, a game, but as more makers and users of the games promote their “instructional” benefits, I begin to balk at the comparisons to real instruments and practice.)