Monday, December 21, 2009

Immortality in Rock Music

There are certain figures regarded as immortal in rock music. To name a few:

Jimi Hendrix
Jim Morrison
John Lennon
Bob Marley
Ray Charles
Marvin Gaye
George Harrison
Kurt Cobain
Joe Strummer
Johnny Cash
Stevie Ray Vaughn
John Bonham
Elliot Smith
Keith Moon

and the like. I don't necessarily agree with some inclusions (I'm not sold on Morrison and Cobain, for starters), but for all intents and purposes those are commonly known "immortals" in rock music. What holds these together? They're all dead. And this leads me to my first Immutable Law in Rock Music:

To be truly immortal in Rock Music, one must die.

Of course, this makes zero sense at first. If you're dead, how are you alive? You're no longer making music. But take a look. Posthumous careers for many of these careers have either overshadowed or recharged some careers. I'm going to pull a different example than some of the people I listed above to prove my point: Ian Curtis of Joy Division.

Joy Division were not really well known when Curtis died. They were on the rise, but not really at that point yet where they got it "good." And then, poof! Ian Curtis, gone from the world. And then everyone discovered "Love Will Tear Us Apart," and the landmark records Unknown Pleasures and Closer. Then, all of a sudden, Joy Division were kind of a big deal. This allowed New Order (the rest of Joy Division) to get a head start, and has furthermore led to reissues, reprintings, and box sets of Joy Division's work. If Ian Curtis had died, would Joy Division have been big? Sure. Would they have been as big as they are now had Ian Curtis died? Arguably, no. Ian Curtis' death casts a long shadow over the melancholia that permeates every Joy Division song. In light of his depression and epilepsy, Joy Division records and songs gain a whole backstory and a whole new meaning. Divorced from their meaning, the songs are quite obviously powerful, muscular, and constantly effecting, but with this meaning every Joy Division song becomes a tour de force that simply obliterates the listener when heard.

The context of death makes everything about the artist more striking, granting the band/artist an aura that is impossible to penetrate. To elaborate on the above example, Ian Curtis, on his dying day, watched a Herzog film, put on Iggy Pop's the Idiot, and then hung himself. Curtis has attained a sort of mysticism due to that. Marvin Gaye was shot by his father, John Lennon was assassinated, while Kurt Cobain and Jimi Hendrix died due to overdoses. They're all now seen with a sort of reverence, an air of the mystic thanks to their deaths.

Each person who has died in the midst of their career has, in a sense, gained a sort of "impenetrable fog" that protects them from any sort of heated criticism and guarantees them a favorable standing in the world of rock music. I'm not saying it's undeserved. Lennon obviously deserves the "impenetrable fog"; his work with the Beatles, Plastic Ono Band and Imagine are all stone-cold classics and monoliths in rock music, and as an activist his edge has been unmatched. But Walls and Bridges? Some Time In New York City? Neither record is much better than mediocre, in my humble opinion. But his death erased any sort of criticism that could be levied against him.

This is why I'm inclined to believe Paul McCartney often suffers in critic circles: he's still around, he's still pounding it out, but either because he's been oft considered as the "soft" Beatle or because of his long career which has led to a fair number of duds to go alongside his many, many studs, he's likely the least respected Beatle (though perhaps Ringo also is given this same title). Now of course, saying someone is the least-respected Beatle is saying the fourth-most respected artist of all time, but that's neither here nor there. John Lennon has two (to three, depending on your level of scathing) duds to go alongside his studs. Granted, it's folly to extrapolate a career and look at sample sizes to examine careers of rock musicians, but it should be duly noted.

I'm also not ragging against John Lennon. Let me make that clear. John Lennon is the fucking man. I observe his birthday and his dying day every year. I don't take the day off, but for that whole day, John Lennon, everything he did and everything he stood for is always on my mind. But his death has granted him a place in the hallowed hall of rock immortals, perhaps given a slightly easier screening process than others. As have countless others, for better or for worse.

If you look at the ripples caused by a musician's death, the effect is pretty obvious. At least nowadays, the artist in question is rewarded with many, many posthumous awards and accolades. George Harrison was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame shortly after his death. Ray Charles won a whopping eight Grammies from his record, Genius Loves Company, which was released two months after his death. Johnny Cash's American IV won a few CMA's and his rendition of "Hurt" absolutely slayed everyone and reaped some rewards soon after he passed (myself included...but his rendition of "Hurt" is great regardless of the circumstances).

The general rule? In rock music, sometimes it's better to die than to live. It doesn't make any sense, really, but it's true. It's truly a peculiar phenomenon. But it's observable. To refuse to acknowledge its existence is shortsighted. It's not talked about a lot...but it's there. Sort of like a dirty little secret. It's also something that should never be wished on someone. Death for the profit of afterlife. Perhaps it is the manifestation of "what could have been?" had they continued to be around; continued to be the great musicians they were.

Key, though, is to enjoy the careers that these immortals have brought us before their dying breath. In this sense, each album is worth more because there are less albums around. So it's therefore to critical to enjoy each landmark work each immortal brings us, to listen and bask in its eternal glory.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Record of the Moment: Iggy Pop - Lust for Life

Somehow, it is hard to imagine that the cheeky young fellow who appears on this record cover to be the same gaunt-faced man who gave the death stare on the cover of Raw Power. It doesn't seem to add up. Here, the dude is happy. Look at that smile. The man on the cover of Raw Power looks like he wants to tear your throat out and eat it in front of your children. And just look at the title of each record: Lust for Life against Raw Power. One implies positivity, the other implies negativity.

But that's where Iggy Pop ended up. After the royal collapse of the Stooges, and a stint in the hospital, Iggy Pop was back in business. He'd cleaned up, essentially (though this probably isn't totally true). But the glaring difference between the cover of the last Stooges and the cover for this record sort of perpetuates that myth. And in some sense, the music is a little lighter. By no means does this mean Iggy Pop went "lite" on the populace. Nope. I don't think Iggy Pop would be caught dead going "lite," because that is simply the way Iggy Pop is.

Compared to the Idiot, the previous release, Lust for Life is a return to form for Iggy Pop. Personally, in my historical pursuits as a rock scholar, I consider the Idiot to be a sort of half-Bowie, half-Pop record. It's obviously still Iggy. But the music is obviously a predecessor to Bowie's groundbreaker, Low. Therefore, the Idiot is sort of the lost brother to Bowie's trilogy (I'd argue that the Idiot should be included in the "trilogy"; thus expanding the concept into a "quadrilogy"). Some people disown the Idiot for its Bowie-ness. I refuse to do so, personally. Regardless, Lust for Life showed that Pop still not only had his own lyrical edge, but his edge as a musician.

The drums that kick off the record instantly blow open your mind. It's big, it's huge, and instantly memorable (and apparently easily sullied and stained: I'm looking at you, Jet). And then it kicks into gear. The younger and angrier Iggy Pop is largely missing; here instead is an older, wiser Iggy Pop, who knows better now that he's escaped his vices. But of course, he still acknowledges their existence (see: "Some Weird Sin"), because who couldn't? Your vices haunt you forever. Iggy captures it perfectly; after all, of all the people who are familiar with self-destruction, Iggy Pop pretty much tops the list.

But this Iggy Pop is largely over that hill and out of that Hell, and he knows it. The way "Success" gleefully careens along, almost teetering on the edge of collapse but always's infectious. "The Passenger" is similarly enchanting, but not because it's necessarily a "happy" track; it's an Iggy Pop seemingly at peace. The barroom rock of "Turn Blue" is indicative of Iggy's still-present edge, both morbid and scathing in its attacks, but almost sarcastic in its musings. The track is a reference to Iggy Pop's previous struggles with drugs, as easily discerned, but for all anyone knows the implications are much wider.

While the music itself is nowhere near as ear-bleed-inducing as Raw Power is (which was intentional), that is not to say that Lust for Life is toothless. Tracks such as "Neighborhood Threat" prowl along menacingly, with Iggy Pop's voice of "doom," so to speak, going from its tremble-causing baritone to shattering screams and yelps in a heartbeat...all constantly affecting, if sometimes slightly grating (or very grating, depending on your disposition towards the singing abilities of Iggy Pop). The funk-tinged (most Bowie-like) romp, "Fall in Love with Me" stomps along in a marvelous fashion, with Iggy half-crooning the title line over a contagious groove that is hard to deny.

I could speak at length about every track, but I will stop here. Needless to say, Lust for Life is essential. Standing alone, the record is perfect. Its influence is widespread. Lust for Life is a perfect example of proto-punk. Perhaps not as "punk" as what is typically evinced (see: Sex Pistols and early Clash) but indicative of the spirit of punk...ever-restless. Not necessarily experimental or groundbreaking, but essentially free-spirited at its core.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Man #4: Tom Waits

When I refer to "The Man," I refer to titans in my music world. Perhaps later they will warrant their own "The Man" entries (as you may have noticed, I am terribly ineffective when it comes to maintaining series outside of "Record of the Moment"), but there are three people who currently rank ahead of Mr. Waits:

1. Jeff Tweedy
2. Bob Dylan
3. Lou Reed

and one who ranks behind:

5. Joe Strummer

Given that this is my current list, it is subject to flux. However (and this is a potential next entry if I get around to it), Jeff Tweedy will always be my number one. See my second "Records of Great Influence" entry here for the tip of the iceberg regarding the debt I owe Mr. Jeff Tweedy. Or, if you prefer Stephen Colbert's name for the guy, Geoffrey Velvet. The rest are obvious. Dylan, Reed, and Strummer are immutable figures in rock music, gods among mortals like you and I. But Tom Waits is the oddball in this group.

And that's the way I'd describe Tom Waits to someone if they had never heard of him. He is a total oddball. But he's also far and away one of the best songwriters in the 20th century and beyond. But beyond that there's a necessary chasm between "early Waits" and "later Waits."

"Early Waits" is the barroom, lounge music Tom Waits. Pretty jazzy, a little simpler, heavily piano-based. "Later Waits" is probably the longer, more prolific period of Waits. Heavily based in old-school blues, delighting in peculiar instrumentation, peculiar percussion rhythms, it's basically the darker cousin of "early Waits." My description of later Tom Waits would go like this, since otherwise my description doesn't help:

"Imagine like walking into a real seedy bar in like the 20's or 30's and there's some bar band playing some strange burlesque, vaudevillian music. It sounds familiar, yet because of the way it's constructed, it sounds like the bastard child of Howlin' Wolf and the Devil."

The most obvious thing, though, is the voice. Early Tom Waits maintains a light barroom croon that sounds youthful and full. Later Tom Waits sounds world-weary, war-ravaged, dogged by the devil; ranging from a sort of sinister growl to a furious and explosive roar.

But that is not to say that "early Waits" is better than "later Waits" or vice versa. It's more of a "which Waits do I want to hear right now?" and it's there. Boom. Early Waits? I'll put on Closing Time, his superb debut. Later Waits? I'll put on his landmark Rain Dogs, his Grammy-winning Bone Machine, or even put on his mega-package Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers, & Bastards. Or if I'm looking for a sort of "here is all of Tom Waits" sort of deal, I'll put on his most recent live record, Glitter and Doom Live.

Why is he one of "the Men"? Partially because he is such an oddball. How has the guy maintained a career playing this sort of music? Not because it's bad, because I love it all to death (or why else would I be writing this?). But commercially, it at first seems totally, totally suicidal. Totally anti-commercial, letting his music exist without being sullied by the post-industrial landscape that so often stains music through commercialism. It's a perfect recipe for disaster, when you look at the landscape now. Still, like the vagrants, the homeless, and the drunks that Tom Waits often writes about, he persists in spite of the changing tides of music. The man does what he wants, and that's one of the other things I love about him. Not about to bend to the will of any man. He plays what he wants. And, well, if you mess with him, he'll probably sue you too (Waits has a long history of suing people for wronging him). Well, if I messed with Tom Waits I'd probably deserve to be sued, too.

That's why I love Tom Waits. That's why he's my Man #4. This favorite quote of mine sums up Tom Waits extremely well, via Tom Waits himself:

"My kids are starting to notice I'm a little different from the other dads. 'Why don't you have a straight job like everyone else?' they asked me the other day. I told them this story: In the forest, there was a crooked tree and a straight tree. Every day, the straight tree would say to the crooked tree, 'Look at me...I'm tall, and I'm straight, and I'm handsome. Look at're all crooked and bent over. No one wants to look at you.' And they grew up in that forest together. And then one day the loggers came, and they saw the crooked tree and the straight tree, and they said, 'Just cut the straight trees and leave the rest.' So the loggers turned all the straight trees into lumber and toothpicks and paper. And the crooked tree is still there, growing stronger and stranger every day."

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Record of the Moment: R.E.M. - Automatic for the People

Recently I have gotten into R.E.M., and I'm honest in saying that I never really heard them (in the way of placing a song to a band) before I somehow got the urge to pick up some of their records. Listening to them, I realize that I'd somehow heard many of these songs before, though I had never really associated them with R.E.M. Of course, that's changed now. R.E.M. is excellent stuff. I could have picked any assortment of records here (Murmur, Reckoning, Document could have been chosen), but I went with Automatic for the People in this instance.

This record is probably comes out as my favorite R.E.M. record thus far. Perhaps it is because ths record is a little more mid-tempo, and little more "folksy" than the others, but I connect to this record more than the others. But it's also easy to argue that R.E.M. were on the top of their game with Automatic for the People. R.E.M. wanted to change their musical direction, away from what they had done on the previous record, but it didn't happen. Perhaps it was just the residual of what they were doing previously, but the fact of the matter is the batch of songs on this record could not be expressed in any other way. Tracks like "Sweetness Follows" prowl along majestically in melancholy, while "Everybody Hurts" portrays a more personal, reserved melancholy.

Of course, the word repeated here is melancholy. This record is a lot slower, much more ruminative on "life" topics like love, life and death. Typically every songwriter's staple topics, but Stipe and co. execute much more effectively than your average dude. In some ways, this is a perfect alt-country record. No, R.E.M. were not an alt-country band, but this record shows those qualities and proves to be pretty damn catching and gripping. That is not to say that R.E.M. don't have a connection to the alt-country scene, as guitarist Peter Buck produced Uncle Tupelo's folk-revival masterpiece March 16-20, 1992. But this record sounds the part.

Drawing heavily from the folk tradition, most of the numbers are essentially ballads. "Nightswimming" and the like, you know. While this record has a copious amount of sadness and melancholy interwoven into it, those subject matters are never treated without dignity. And that is key. Too many groups "embrace the sadness" and become sappy affairs. At some point, take it too seriously and the whole thing becomes a massive caricature of itself. R.E.M. deftly avoid this problem, even as many of those ballads are accompanied by string sections written by John Paul Jones of Zep fame.

I can talk and talk about this song and that song and the way this part in the one song does this particular thing, but it's really the whole album experience that makes it. Something you just have to hear. And for that, R.E.M.'s Automatic for the People is my record of the moment.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

In Defense Of: The Velvet Underground - Loaded

You may be confused as to why I am choosing to defend this record. This is already a perfect record. I mean, it's the Velvet fucking Underground, right? But in this first entry for the In Defense Of: series, I choose to defend this record in comparison to the other Velvet Underground records.

Because let's face it, every Velvet Underground record is a masterpiece. The Velvet Underground & Nico? Please, let's move on, because A. I've already discussed it at length previously and B. if you don't like the record, you are doomed for an existence in the Hellscape of rock and roll. White Light/White Heat is an experimentalist's dream come true, with all the avant-garde elements finally coming to fruition in a hectic and chaotic wall of noise surrounding the disarming beauty of "Here She Comes Now." The Velvet Underground is a much quieter affair, focusing much more on that same unguarded beauty in "Here She Comes Now," with just as good results. It's still a visceral record, but it's a quiet sort of visceral, one that silently pulls at your heart rather than just sort of tearing it out.

But Loaded? It's sort of the black sheep in the VU canon. Lou Reed's voice was deteriorating at a fairly alarming rate (Doug Yule had to often pick up Lou's leads on tour when his voice gave out). And for the recording of Loaded, Moe Tucker, the percussionist, was out on maternity leave, basically. So you see, the original Velvets were losing it. The drummer gone and the lead man perpetually listed as "Questionable" on every day of touring or recording (this is a pro football reference, for those who do not understand)? Not a great recipe for success.

And since the Velvets had finally secured the funds to make something even remotely polished, this subjected them to the thumb of the record label (whereas before they were allowed to really roam as free as they wished). Hence the title, Loaded, 'cause all the label wanted was a record loaded with hits...get it? It's probably a behind-the-back jibe at the label, knowing Lou Reed. But with those extra funds to achieve a bigger sound came the risk of having to sacrifice artistic freedom for commercial viability (the crux of the issue for any self-respecting artist).

Loaded proved a couple of things: the first is that Lou Reed could write anthemic, truly catchy pop songs. "Sweet Jane" is as anthemic as it gets. You just want to scream "Sweet Jane" along with Lou. "Who Loves the Sun"? I don't, thanks to Lou (and Doug for the vocal). And so on and so forth. The second thing is that (at least in those days) it was possible to perfect art without sacrificing it for commerical viability. "Sweet Jane" and "Rock & Roll" were fairly large hits (and still receive play today) while still being legitimate songs in their own right, and being able to form those tracks and the others into a legitimate album.

While Loaded is already a virtual masterpiece, the "What could have been?"s that plague the development of this record lead us to figure that, man, if most of it could have been, how much more awesome could this record even get? Numerous Velvets have sort of ragged on the record itself. Morrison wanted all the vocal leads to have been done by Lou. Doug Yule himself thinks he may have been a little overused on the record (he even stepped in on drums in Moe Tucker's absence).

I am of the opinion that all this "What could have been?" talk sort of diminishes the view that people have on the record. Let's focus our eyes on the prize. Evaluate what you have, not what you could have had. You're better off that way. And when you take that, what you have is a record of pure pop perfection. The other thing that always puts a downer on this record is the past record of the Velvets. Pioneers in art-rock, proto-punk (and therefore punk), experimental, and avant-garde, where does this fit in? It really doesn't. Loaded is simply a pop record. But when disassociated from the rest of the Velvets' legacy, well, it turns out to be a fantastic record. And that is why I chose to defend Loaded in this entry, though it shouldn't need defense. Loaded is regarded as inferior because of its associates. That is no way to treat a masterpiece.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Double-Header: The Gumption Centers Mission Statement

I have not done too much substantive with regards to music this month, so I present to you a double-header today in a currently successful effort to put off whatever schoolwork I should be doing.

Now, my very very first post introduces everything, but a bit of thinking has led me to some interesting things:

1. I think it would be awesome if I eventually could teach a History of Rock and Roll class. Like at any University. Like, you know, MUS 252 at OSU. That would be cool.

2. I can already expect that I would do better than whatever scrub is teaching it right now.

3. But here's the rub, and where we get to my Mission Statement: with regards to "rock and roll" as we know it, the ALBUM is the highest form of music. There is nothing better. No A-side/B-side can ever conquer the sheer artistic perfection that an album can.

So here, let me restate that. The Mission Statement of Gumption Centers:

Rock and roll music is an esteemed form of popular music and, on the whole, music. In this genre, the masterwork comes in the form of the album. There is no greater joy to the ears than putting on the perfect LP, to be taken away to a different realm of existence for the duration of that LP. The LP, the record is the barometer with which all albums and any so-styled rock and roll artist should be measured. Any rock and roll artist who does not take the album seriously should therefore not be taken seriously.

The album is the greatest chance any artist has to make a real statement. While albums inherently haven't always been treated as total and coherent works (see: the Beatles' Please Please Me, With the Beatles, Beatles For Sale, Help!), it is still of paramount importance that the album projects a clear, coherent image of the group - how else do albums like the Beatles, Exile On Main St. hold up in all their splendor? The Beatles is a severely fractured record, with Lennon's searing confessionals, McCartney's dalliances with music hall styles, Harrison's increasingly successful forays into spirituality, and Ringo's general playfulness, so how can it hold up? Well, it's because the Beatles simply provided a coherent sound and existence as the group, no matter how far they were drifting at the time. It all sounded like the Beatles, and it all was good.

And so we come to this...what makes a good album? Heretofore, I list my criteria:

1. The album must be largely void of weak tracks. One exceedingly weak track severely hurts the album as an entire form. There is no forgiveness for a weak track, but there is always forgiveness if there is no "#1 World Single For The Next 50 Years" on the record.
2. The album must present a cohesive view of what the artist is trying to achieve.
3. The album must maintain proper flow. The artist should be mindful that in playing a record the entire way through that they do not want to put the listener to sleep with seven straight slow tracks nor pound the listener's head in with seven ear-bleeders (usually excepted in this instance: punk). But it is also of great importance that tracks flow into one another, with a minimal use of "reset buttons" to suddenly adjust the flow of a record (and excepted in this instance: switching sides on an LP or switching an LP).

Those are really the three criteria. It doesn't seem like a lot, but it actually is. And if it seems exceedingly harsh, I'd like to think that it is because that I take the album as an art form very seriously. Heretofore I will go through what I consider the top five records of all time and grade them based on my criteria (I am using my list from my very very first entry, which I still find correct):

1. Bob Dylan - Highway 61 Revisited
Weak tracks? Absolutely not. From "Like A Rolling Stone" through "Desolation Row," Bob Dylan is at the tiptop of his game. Every track is utterly visceral and totally gripping, as Dylan weaves words, stories, myths and dreams around the listener about such fantastical characters as Cinderella and Casanova in "Desolation Row" to Sweet Melinda in "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues." And as a bonus, there is the "#1 World Single For The Next 50 Years" so coveted by everyone, and its name is "Like A Rolling Stone." Is the album cohesive, in that it presents a unified view of the artist? Yes. Dylan is at his most obtuse here, but that doesn't mean whatever hazy view lyrically is supported by some hazy combination of instrumentation. The backing band here is on fire, providing Dylan a perfect and consistent backdrop with which to paint on. Listening to this record, you realize that Dylan paints in a similar fashion with each song, which ensures cohesion in the record. Proper flow? Check. Every track seamlessly flows into one another, with the proper amount of pacing from the open to the close. Done. No need to explain any more. IF you think I do, you have head issues. Not to offend, but seriously. This record is perfect in every way.

2. The Beatles - Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
You really can't write anything original about this record because it's already been said. It's an immaculately crafted concept album, thus satisfying every criterion. Next.

3. The Band - Music From Big Pink
No, no weak tracks here. Super-hit (and therefore maligned for its pervasive appearance in popular culture) with "The Weight." "Chest Fever" grooves just as good as James Brown, while the ballads like "In A Station" and "Lonesome Suzie" are impeccably powered along by Richard Manuel's angelic singing. This record is cohesive in that it essentially is representing America and its rural and core values (see my previous entry on the Band, titled It Must Be the Beards: "America" and "Common Sense" in Rock Music). And it flows lazily from one track to another, never hurrying but never lulling the listener into stupor with impeccably timed more upbeat tracks, but since the Band's sound and vision is so united, the flow is never "off" ever during the record.

4. The Clash - London Calling
Weak tracks? No, you can't really say that there are any exceedingly weak tracks. While "Koka Kola" isn't exactly "Rudie Can't Fail" or "London Calling," it's certainly not chaff, because it's an essential pastiche that plays an integral role in the record. You also have the major hit factor with both "Train In Vain (Stand By Me)" and "London Calling," so there's that criterion checked off. A cohesive view? I would argue that. It seems stylistically all over the place. There's heavy reggae influences in "Guns of Brixton" to the roar of the blues rip-off "Brand New Cadillac" to the light bar jazz of "Jimmy Jazz" (I swear that wasn't intentional). But the cohesive view? Punk has no boundaries. Punk is an aesthetic unbounded by genre and style and sound. The claim is that punk is capable of everything. And I think they accomplished it. The flow is certainly there, with enough energy to instill fear into the hearts of the ignorant and enough "downtime" (though I wouldn't really call it such) to allow for recharging before taking up the crusade once again.

5. The Beach Boys - Pet Sounds
This is also one of those records that is almost impossible to write about now. Flawless, stunning, and perfect in every way, it is an encapsulation of the innocence of youth, growing up (but sincerely not really wanting to), and the fond reminiscence of those youthful days where all that mattered was "you" and "me."

So there you go. There are countless albums that can be considered pretty perfect, but these five stand tall, heads and shoulders above the rest. Always and forever. It is highly unlikely that any record from here on out will conjure up the same effects on listeners that those five records have had on the rock and roll soundscape. For better or for worse, those records cast a shadow on everything else that has ever been and will ever be released.

Recent Record: Serge Gainsbourg - Histoire de Melody Nelson

Let me begin by tracing the extremely long and convoluted path that I took to finally listen to this record. Pitchfork has been gleefully documenting some strange Beck vs. Matt Friedberger vs. Radiohead fight thing. And then there's this whole Beck doing stuff with Charlotte Gainsbourg. And being curious I consulted everyone's friend, Wikipedia to find that she's the daughter of crazy Frenchman Serge, who I'd heard a bit about but had never been inclined to listen to. And voilà! Here we are. I've listened to this record, and with a little bit of backstory, here is my opinion on it:

This record is straight up funk-sounding. It grooves especially hard, trying to get you to feel it too, and groove along with it. And it does get you to groove along rather tastefully. This funk element is married to swooping string portions, which in some strange way works well on all levels. It's quite rare to find that strings and "funk"-based sound work together (if anything, it should join funk and horn sections), but Serge Gainsbourg deftly combines the two in an enjoyable manner. These funkier tunes are artfully balanced with softer, more traditional "pop" songs that accordingly play to Serge's strengths.

I will admit I have no understanding of French. But my research indicates that the lyrical material is quite racy. The general plot is that a much older man, in his fancy car, unexpectedly hits a girl on a bike. Said older man seduces said girl (Melody Nelson, hence the record), they do their sexual things (hear "En Melody" and her, uhm, cries of pleasure), and then she inevitably dies in a plane crash. For one reason or another.

What I get from my zero understanding is that this guy that Serge is portraying is a total player. And he sounds like it. He comes off as slightly sleazy, in some strange manner, and I'm going to guess that was the intended effect. And when taken on the whole with what is going on, it works. While on the "funkier" tracks Serge sounds like a total seduction-machine doing his thing, he sounds rather genuine in his affection. And this is through virtually no change in inflection. Perhaps it is a simple indicator that it's really the music behind the vocals that can change a mood entirely, but taken on the whole the feeling that something deeper is responsible is present.

I do like this record quite a bit. It's insanely catchy, and though I do feel oddly sleazy and/or dirty while listening to it, Histoire de Melody Nelson is, quite obviously, a very accomplished record. While those without experience with the French language (i.e. me) cannot really decipher what is going on story-wise (as the record is essentially a concept record), it really takes no time at all to get a sense of the goings-on just through what the band and Serge Gainsbourg himself are doing, whether it be affecting pop-crooning or funky seduction. The record is a great example of pop perfection, and as such I highly recommend getting around to this record if at all possible.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Greatest Game of All Time: A Temporary Divergence

...and your first question is, no music discussion? I say, read my very very first entry, not everything is about music. I'm actually quite surprised that it took me this long to write a non-music topic. BUT I found a discussion of "greatest game of all time" as an entry on the Relevant website ("Question of the Day" a little while back) and I was astounded by the amount of, well, terrible responses. Gaming has always been my little secret hobby (not too secret, I suppose). I play a lot of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (NO, I HAVE NOT GOTTEN MODERN WARFARE 2 YET, THANKS FOR ASKING >;( ). A whole lot. Back to the main point though, I sincerely love the Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time as much (actually, probably more) as/than the next person. It is, in fact, my second favorite game of all time. But it still stands miles and miles under this masterwork:

Resident Evil 4 is quite simply the greatest game of all time. No questions asked. Don't even worry about it. But to indulge you:

Perhaps in the context of the Resident Evil franchise, the fourth installment completely changed the game. The problem was that with the third installment, Nemesis, the side-shoot Code: Veronica, and the prequel ø, the franchise was beginning to stagnate. The pace of play was way too slow. The gameplay really dictated that. The puzzles were sometimes frustrating. I mean, you're getting chased by zombies, and it seems strange that you need "Ruby Jewel" to stick into a statue to proceed. But that is not meant to denigrate the previous entries, as they were all fantastic in their own right. Those problems weren't only a part of the Resident Evil problem, they were a part of the problem for the survival horror genre (see: Silent Hill series).

But something had to change, and change it did. Gone were the tank controls (and if you've played with them, oh, dear, how terrible), replaced with much more capabilities for smoother interactions with the environment and your bad guys. The puzzles? Not really there anymore. Sometimes you find some keys and pieces, but it's always a straightforward application rather than a long moment to ponder where "obscure piece A" is supposed to go. What happened? The gameplay was sped up. Enemies moved faster. You moved faster. It changed survival horror for the best (or for the worst, depending on your feelings for the genre).

The point is, the gameplay is intense and visceral. There are the small spaces where you freak out because a zombie guy (though in this particular Resident Evil entry, "zombie" is certainly a stretch on the normal term) has caught you in a corner. Or maybe because a crazy potato-sacked head man with a chainsaw is out to get your butt. Or maybe because you face severely long odds. Resident Evil 4 is essentially an action game. Everything is flawless.

There were several revolutionary points in the game, some meant for the franchise, the genre, but some even for gaming on the whole. For the franchise and genre, it meant the death of the slow pace of play. Given the clime (hello, Halo!), a slow pace of play wasn't really suitable. The controls were updated to suit the genre and franchise while still retaining the elements that made survival horror, well, survival horror. Small, enclosed areas, dark rooms, lots of zombies, insane plotlines, all those were still there. You were just walking the path perhaps a little quicker than imagined. But the game itself is so rich that even the fastest players still take 15 hours to complete it (I've played this game enough to be counted in that category).

On the "global" level, though, Resident Evil 4 introduced the "QTE," or "quick time event," into the game designer's arsenal. The essence is that any action can yield a QTE, wherein you get a cue for an event, and the player must quickly respond and press a button to continue on. This ranged from a cue to suplex a zombie and smash his face off, to surviving cinematic sequences (that was the real clincher). The cinematic sequences with QTEs really expanded the game atmosphere. It's sort of difficult to make the game interactive when your camera is normally stuck behind the character but the whole point of an event is to run away from a boulder coming from behind. So you flip the camera, make it a QTE, make the player frantically mash buttons to survive. Your problem of an entirely uninteractive scenario quickly became something not only interactive, but also engrossing and actually quite freaky.

The key here is that you involve your gamers in the cinematic sequences. In the majority of games, cue cinematic sequence, and boom! you lose your gamer, because a good percentage of players just want to play the game. They frankly don't care if some peripheral character dies, it's no big deal. "Just give me the controls and I'll just kill them all," they'll say. Well, the QTEs correct this problem. Quick-time events force the player to pay attention throughout the cutscene, because if they don't, the player won't get a chance to revenge because guess what, they lost their head too. So it forces players to keep their wits about them, gets the player invested in the storyline and keeps them involved (your ultimate goal as a game designer, anyways). There's a particular cinematic sequence in Resident Evil 4 that is absolutely flawless in design with regards to QTEs, and you will know it when you get there, so I won't spoil it.

By no means was this game shabby in the graphics department. It was cutting edge for the time, and cutting edge for the Gamecube. I'm not the kind of gamer who particularly cares really for graphics unless it drastically affects gameplay (and it usually doesn't), so I won't discuss this too much, but it's really the details that count here too. From the little textures to the nice touches to your gruesome deaths (oh, trust me, they happen to everyone when it comes to Resident Evil 4), graphics were still given a lot of consideration.

And for the record, despite all these changes to the franchise, 4 is still unmistakably a Resident Evil game. For one, it still is involved in the same universe, but the same sort of goofy plot (and the dialogue, for those fans of the terribly cheesy Resident Evil dialogue) is still there. Let's face it, the whole "zombie" phenomena is unlikely in and of itself, so there's no point in reducing the problem to be something as realistic as possible. So people are injecting themselves with viruses, mutating into crazy stuff. It makes the bossfights larger-than-life, downright gross (the point), and when necessary, downright scary. To reduce the whole point of "zombies" into something realistic would have been terrible, and wisely, Capcom avoided that problem here. The problem seems just plausible enough for you to be involved, but it's so fantastical and outrageous that the game becomes fun, in a sense, because you're transported to some wacky world (also a goal of game design). So, a win there.

The problem with the game might just have been the distribution. It was Gamecube only before it got ported because they realized it was good enough to make boatloads of money (because it was that good). And even then it was just PC and PS2. It was around this time when everyone was getting on the XBox trend, and so few to no players in America, at least, played it. There were very few reasons to pick up a Gamecube, not only because of its "family"-oriented mindset, but because there just wasn't a great selection of games (Super Smash Bros. Melee, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker come to mind as the two most worthy titles on the 'cube at the time). But for those who got to it (me, although supremely late and first on the Wii edition of the game) in some way, shape or form, can acknowledge this masterwork.

Now, there's always different strokes for different folks, but for those informed, this is typically a consensus top-20 of all time pick. For me, I definitely consider it the best game of all time. From the moment I started playing, I was transported into a different world. Gripping, intense, with utterly visceral, intuitive, and engaging gameplay, Resident Evil 4, in my humble opinion (as primarily a man of music), should really be crowned as the best video game of all time.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Revisited: Top 20 Albums of 2000-2009

No, my good friends, there is no rest for the weary. Even after initially publishing my list in August, I was still out on the hunt to make sure I constructed a good list, and alas! I did not. But most of the placements were right. With more research, I have been able to compile an even better list. However, this time I have chosen not to write blurbs about each entry, mostly out of sheer laziness (I call it nihilism for the whole process of journalism, mind you). But you, the reader, should use it as an excuse to listen to any of the records that you have not heard of. The majority of entrants in the previous entry suffered a drop in the rankings given an expansion to twenty albums, but the harshest fall was Loretta Lynn, bless her soul. But there were better records of the decade than that (and it doesn't age as well as I'd previously imagined), so I therefore must accommodate. Here goes:

1. Arcade Fire - Funeral
2. Wilco - Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
3. Radiohead - Kid A
4. Brian Wilson - SMiLE
5. OutKast - Stankonia
6. Bon Iver - For Emma, Forever Ago
7. Daft Punk - Discovery
8. Joe Strummer & the Mescaleros - Streetcore
9. The Avalanches - Since I Left You
10. Jay-Z - The Blueprint
11. The Strokes - Is This It
12. Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavilion
13. Modest Mouse - The Moon & Antarctica
14. Bob Dylan - "Love & Theft"
15. The White Stripes - White Blood Cells
16. Kanye West - Late Registration
17. LCD Soundsystem - Sound of Silver
18. Sigur Rós - Ágætis byrjun
19. Sufjan Stevens - Illinois
20. Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes

Note: There is a special Thanksgiving edit, because I forgot Daft Punk - Discovery, and I remembered.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Music Progenitor: The Velvet Underground

There are a few things certain in life: the Beatles are likely the best band to ever exist in rock and roll, but the Velvet Underground were likely the most influential band to ever exist in rock and roll. Now "hold on!," you might say. I admittedly have only recently come of this opinion. I still am of the belief that the Beatles invented most forms of popular music today. But a lot of their territory is gone in my mind because the Velvets simply did it better. Because, let's be frank: the Beatles were master popsmiths. If it didn't have a good melody, it wasn't worth it to them. And thank God for that, because they had a fucking ear for melody. But the seedy underbelly, the counter-culture, the reverse flow of music, that oft-forgotten side...that was the area the Velvets held tightly in their grasp.

If you thought the Beatles were already sort of counter-culture, boy, you're in for a surprise. The Velvets, with their first two records, pushed every boundary imaginable. No topic was left untouched as a lyric. "Heroin" was a literal description of, well, doing heroin, while the cryptic "Venus In Furs" documents a tale of sexual deviance. "The Gift" was a spoken word tale of a boy mailing himself to his girl only to get killed waiting to get out of the box. This wasn't your normal way. This was 1967, and even the Beatles never dared to venture this far with their lyrical exploration. The Velvets initially got a lot of crapola for their exploration of social deviance, but in retrospect it sincerely opened the door for virtually any artist to explore deviance in a meaningful way.

But on the music side, they pushed the envelope in many ways. The most striking thing about the Velvet Underground & Nico is the use of the viola. John Cale's experimentalism really drove the band forward within the first two records, and on the first record, it's through that viola. Instead of crafting elegant lines or whatever most people think a nice old viola should do, John Cale used the viola to create drones and a prickly bed of thorns for the rest of the band to play over...on the aforementioned "Heroin" and "Venus In Furs," those drones set the tone for the music and bring an intensity that could not have been constructed otherwise.

On White Light/White Heat, their experimentalism came from what John Cale had once called a quest for "anti-beauty." On the 15+ minute epic "Sister Ray," the apparent goal was to simply play louder than each other, with John Cale's organ fighting with Lou Reed's and Sterling Morrison's guitars, Moe Tucker's drums, and Lou's vocals, all the pieces (sort of) eternally locked in a battle to be the loudest. Previously mentioned "The Gift" is a spoken word piece, with the voice panned to one side and the instruments to the other, and in its strange way if you wanted to listen to an audiobook, you listened to the left channel, but if you wanted a jam, put in the right channel. Or you could, you know, put in both and enjoy it. But it was those little bits of experimentalism that made the record.

But the noise, oh, the noise. "I Heard Her Call My Name" is the prime example. Lou Reed's guitar runs wild like a depraved animal, squalling, sometimes off-key, deranged and self-destructive. But that was the point. It's so visceral, it rips you and forces you to listen, to be as raw as they were then. The sort of "guitar squalling feedback crazy weird solo" pops up time and time again in rock music, and it started here. You know, though, no one ever exerted less restraint with their solos than the Velvets did, and for that they proved to be the most dangerous and perhaps the most affecting.

I have vouched for the Velvets for their experimentalism, but they were not to be completely outdone on the pop front. Lou Reed knew how to write a good song, with catchy hooks aplenty. He just never indulged in it. They're seen early on in the Velvet Underground & Nico tunes "I'll Be Your Mirror" and "Sunday Morning," but until their third self-titled, it was never apparent. The Velvet Underground is a disarmingly quiet record, with not even a bit of feedback in sight. Every song except for "The Murder Mystery" (which is strikingly similar to "The Gift" but with many more interacting parts in it) is a bona fide pop masterpiece, from the mantra-like "Jesus" to the Factory-dedicated "Candy Says."

And then there's Loaded. Finally recognized for his pop sensibilities, Lou Reed was given a budget to sound like a pop star, and finally given a bit of production muscle, the record is, well, loaded with (potential) hits, with "Sweet Jane" and "Rock & Roll" actually becoming quite popular. It's a classic pop record, meaning that the Velvets were actually quite impressive pop auteurs...they just chose to not take the beaten path to get there.

Those familiar with Velvet lore know that Cale left the group ("ushered" out, whatever, it doesn't make much of a difference) after White Light/White Heat, thereafter replaced by Doug Yule. The word on the street is that this change from an experimentalist to another pop auteur changed the balance in the band. No one knows if this is true, but if it is, so what? The Velvets were an all-around damn good band regardless of form (mostly). Take it for what it's worth. They paved the way for experimentalists with the first two records and showed how anyone can write a good pop record with the last two...and no Squeeze IS NOT, IS NOT IS NOT a Velvet Underground record. It's just not. Don't even bother.

The argument then is that Lou Reed was the heart and soul of the Velvet Underground...and I'd have to agree.

But on their influence? The Velvets were proto-punk. See how "I'm Waiting For The Man" churns along, with Lou's sort of sneer-ish voice providing a groundwork for the nihilism of early punk. Their lyrical exploration empowered punk to do the same. While in a sense with all the instrumental experimentalism brought forth by the Velvets was dismantled by the punk bands, the point is still there. Post-punk titans Joy Division covered "Sister Ray" in some of their shows (not as long as the Velvets' original version, sure, but still a daunting task regardless). David Bowie loved the Velvets (and Lou Reed) so much that Bowie single-handedly revived Lou Reed's solo career with the Transformer record (a damn good one, when you think about it).

And the Velvets' influence is still around today. The Strokes have cited the Velvets as a key influence, and you can hear Casablancas do his best Lou Reed impression on their debut album, Is This It. The raggedy guitar solos done by Reed back in the day show up now and again, in works by Neil Young (his guitar-playing style is highly Velvet-ish, I would argue) to even Wilco (the cacaphony that surrounds the postlude to "At Least That's What You Said," with it's scraggly guitars and tense atmosphere can be traced to the Velvets at its core). Though they were decidely left-field, it's pretty obvious that the Velvets had a most widespread impact, creeping in and never letting go.

Convinced yet? I would hope so.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Post-Punk: The (Once) Wild Open West

In 1977, punk had basically already been declared dead. This was a strange claim to make, because the best of punk had yet to come (The Clash had not begun to flourish yet), but for whatever reason, the claim was made and essentially accepted. But this left a gaping hole in music at the time. Who now to guide music? Where would it go? This was answered by post-punk first, being particularly framed around the late 1970s to early 1980s, where it experienced the most success.

Punk was a format essentially thriving on (perhaps excessive) simplicity. If the construct was elaborate, it was torn down until it became uncomplicated. This allowed punk to serve as a format for political banter, fully embraced by many. But when punk was declared dead, this left many questions for those who came after. They wanted to remain true to those roots and be uncomplicated, but it was done before and, well, done as a genre. So where to go? A composite look at three bands answers that question. Talking Heads, Television, and Joy Division all together form basically the whole picture of the post-punk movement, with each band taking post-punk in a unique direction. What they all really had in common was their origins: they all loved punk, but when punk had died they all were left with no guide, and each forged their own unique identity to enter rock lore.

Talking Heads came from New York, fueled by the peculiar styling of David Byrne. As with all the groups, they began playing primarily derivatives of rock music, but even then they showed flashes of greatness, from "Psycho Killer" on their debut disc to the grandiose "The Big Country" and the sly reading of Al Green's "Take Me To The River." But with their next disc they began to explore what made them great (and different from the other post-punk groups); their love and therefore application of African polyrhythms led them to their creative peak, culminating in the masterful and essential Remain In Light record.

While Fear of Music represented a great stride forward with regards to generating their "sound," it was not until Remain In Light when it all came together. Drawing heavy influence from African music-making, from the unique polyrhythms to even the way they wrote and constructed the music, Talking Heads, with the guiding hand of Brian Eno, created an entirely new sound. The music was about the composite experience, not just the individual parts, utilizing only one chord throughout the song and let all the rhythms set by the percussion, the bass, the guitars, and even Byrne's voice do the unison. What makes the record so disarming is its restlessness, from Byrne's wandering, stream of consciousness lyrics to the undulating rhythms that drive each track to both everywhere and nowhere at once. Parts weave in and out, interact with each other as they float into the mixes for periods of time before mysteriously fading out. Suffice to say, this was one of the three peaks of post-punk, but to belabor the point on Remain In Light and Talking Heads in general seems to be a disservice.

The other great American post-punk band was simply named Television, hailing once again from New York City. While Talking Heads found their mine of gold through the integration of African polyrhythms, Television found their "sound" through the use of clever guitar interplay. The term "clever guitar interplay," however, really demeans and downplays what they accomplish on their flagship record, Marquee Moon (pictured above).

The album is basically the guitar player's Bible. There is not a note wasted, not a note poorly spent. It essentially made the claim that technicality in guitar playing was, well, merely a technicality. Dismissive of the pervasive "über-playing" of flashy blues players, Television successfully said that a bunch of fast notes played together hardly makes a solo or even a song. Each riff is meticulously planned, with each guitar weaving in and out of each other in perfect unison, complementary yet totally unique. There is a genuine sense of shape and melody with each line that each guitar plays, from the gradual buildup into epic moments on masterwork "Marquee Moon" to the cascading riffs that permeate "Friction."

But because Marquee Moon is the guitar player's Bible does not mean that any of the other qualities are readily discarded. Tom Verlaine is at his most mysterious here, and the geeky (and nifty) interplay between him and his band-mates on tracks such as the rollicking opener "See No Evil" and its follower "Venus" give the record the many little moments that can still shine on an album dominated primarily by the fantastic guitar work presented. Before Television came about, guitar playing was primarily about virtuosity and the ability to be technical, but in one fell swoop, the game was utterly rewritten.

The only Brits to significantly affect post-punk were a quartet of lads from Manchester known as Joy Division. Joy Division encountered a stranger route to success. Originally a rather blasé and not very unique band that played with the typical punk-influence, Joy Division did not come upon their style until they detached themselves from the time-honored tradition of playing at ludicrously fast tempos and slowed down. Only then did Joy Division find their niche and become wholly intense, visceral, and become, well, Joy Division. And what resulted were two of the most essential records in any person's music catalog.

Frankly, I don't wish to elaborate too in depth on each record, but the reason why Joy Division really separated themselves from the rest of the post-punk pack was the emphasis on ambiance and atmosphere, leaving space rather than filling it. While live they displayed none of the "ambiance" parts (instead becoming particularly ragged and aggressive in a live setting), their use of ambiance and atmosphere in the studio essentially defined genres to come. Perhaps primarily attributed to their choice of producer, Martin Hannett, Joy Division were pushed to entirely new levels of art. Combining the unique "cold" production (and if that term does not make sense, listen to the record and within one second of the record beginning you will understand) with the sheer muscle of the band, two masterpieces, Unknown Pleasures and Closer were born.

The only downer point, ever, on Joy Division is that, well, Ian Curtis was a bit of a downer himself. The lyrics are essentially depressing, and without a doubt they forecasted the bitter end that Ian Curtis would face (for those unfamiliar, he committed suicide before Closer was ever released). But Ian Curtis was a lyrical genius endlessly battling the depression that came from crippling epileptic attacks and a failing marriage. His lyrics, as surely as anything, reflect this, but never were his lyrics your typical "depresso" lyric style; never wallowing in self-pity as most often do, he altogether emphasized alienation and a genuine sense of loss that came as real. One can really only imagine what Joy Division would have been capable of if Ian Curtis were still around.


Taken together, Talking Heads, Television, and Joy Division all came to symbolize what post-punk did quite right, though none lasted very long. It would be inherently easy to dismiss each group, perhaps, on their short existences as groups, but to simply call them "flashes in the pan," given the work they did, is a gross oversight and misunderstanding. Perhaps through tragedy or strife, none of the groups (and the genre itself) made it beyond several years. But the relics they left behind, those records, all serve as time-worn monuments to the genre of post-punk that would go on the become a pervasive influence in alternative rock.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Best Kept Secret In All of Rock and Roll

Big Star are, quite simply, the best kept secret in all of rock and roll. Others have espoused on the history of this great band in more detail than I have, but it seems prudent to run through the generalities. Big Star were a 4-piece from Memphis. They produced magnificent pop records (#1 Record, Radio City, Third / Sister Lovers). But they were entirely sabotaged by poor marketing and distribution (does this sound like the best TV show ever, Arrested Development, to anyone else?). Alas, it was not to be, but let us not mourn overmuch and rejoice in the legend that is Big Star.

Big Star was essentially a power-pop outfit (I mean that in the traditional sense, not in the current Hellscape that power-pop has become these days), with big guitars, great harmonies, and the like. The group, through the decidedly Lennon/McCartneyesque interactions of its core duo, Alex Chilton and Chris Bell, respectively, created a unique identity that took the pop sensibilities of all the 1960s greats - the Beatles' penchant for melody, the Beach Boys' ear for harmony, among many other things and distilled it into one sound. This made Big Star the perfect band to represent the time they were in, but it obviously never came to be.

Though the Bell/Chilton dynamic only existed for the first release, it is hard to say that the departure of Bell severely weakened Big Star. In much the same way John Lennon thrived in a post-Beatles apocalypse, Alex Chilton's wanderings proved far too genius to be kept out of the game. Even as Bell still left his mark on Radio City, Chilton became the driving force behind Big Star. And though perhaps Radio City isn't the pop-perfect record that #1 Record was, Chilton's abilities are in full force.

And the last record. Big Star was mostly done, for one reason or another, but the last record produced, Third / Sister Lovers, can be considered as "ragged glory." It's a strange, hot mess, but there are too many good songs to discount the record and Alex Chilton. From the searing "Holocaust" to the airy "Femme Fatale," Chilton shows that power-pop in all its abilities can still be intensely creative and emotionally gripping. While it isn't necessarily the strongest of the bunch, the songs here still hold extremely well to previous efforts.

But enough about me waxing eloquent. Let the scores of artists who have looked up to Big Star speak for me. The Replacements (the leaders of American punk in the 1980s) idolized Big Star, even penning a track dedicated to Alex Chilton ("Alex Chilton"). Peter Buck, of R.E.M. fame, admitted this: "We've sort of flirted with greatness, but we've yet to make a record as good as Revolver or Highway 61 Revisited or Exile on Main Street or Big Star's Third. I don't know what it'll take to push us on to that level, but I think we've got it in us." Countless covers of Big Star songs (check this personally intense cover of "Thirteen" by Elliot Smith here). There have been Big Star tribute albums. Big Star has gotten its due credits after its disunion. And rightly so, even if it Chilton has said this about his own group: "I'm constantly surprised that people fall for Big Star the way they do... People say Big Star made some of the best rock 'n roll albums ever. And I say they're wrong." I say that Alex Chilton is looking from the wrong side of the glass.

On a personal note, if I had to tell you my personal music tastes, it'd all center around Big Star. How? Big Star draws on all my 1960s pop loves such as the Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Beach Boys, and has influenced all my favorite contemporary artists such as Wilco, the Replacements, among others. And it's strange to think that I did not discover them until a mere week ago. It appears that I'd been traveling around the center of the circle for the longest time...and I've finally reached center.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

And one more thing...

Call me blasphemous, but you could make the argument that music has united people in ways religion has only aspired to.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Music and Spirituality/Spirituality in Music: A (Semi-)Intense Discussion on the Matter

This came about when I was thinking. Before I give my views on the matter, let me define a few things:

Spirituality: The way in which any person connects to any sort of higher state (or to a higher power, if that's your belief).

Faith: The connection you have with the higher state that most usually dictates your mores and ways of being.

Religion: How a person connects with others over similar faiths or spirituality.

Spirituality fuels faith and religion and the "connection," faith dictates the way you go about religion and spirituality, and religion is how you interact based on your spirituality and faith. All interrelated.

Given those, let me say this: music is a form of spirituality. Put on a record, a damn good one, and it takes you somewhere else. You connect with something else. A higher power, something more than yourself. You feel...different. Everything sort of clicks when that record starts playing. All sorts of problems melt away and it's just you, the music, and that strange plane you find yourself on. This is what every good record does. It takes you somewhere else, it connects you with something bigger than yourself. A record doesn't have to deal with anything supernatural to connect you in this spiritual manner. Sigur Rós is a good example. Who knows what they're saying? It doesn't matter. Because it's stark and beautiful and when you put it on, you connect to something else. You put on the Beatles (i.e. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band) and you are literally transported to somewhere else. And because of how the Beatles were so damn good, the music itself connected you to a higher power. It doesn't matter that they weren't preaching anything. You don't have to preach it to be spiritual. Connecting to that higher plane or being is just as easy (if perhaps more easier) without all that preaching.

Music doesn't have a lot to do with faith, unless you're talking about those who tend to preach the art. Then you're getting dicey. Bob Dylan and John Lennon are pretty good examples of "faith" artists. Their faith fuels their music and vice versa. When done right it's extremely powerful, but when not done right it's downright pitiful. I don't care if you don't agree with John Lennon on the whole, but when he starts singing "God is a concept by which we measure our pain," don't you fucking believe him for a second? And that you're like "Well, shit, maybe..." before you reconcile your views with his and continue on your merry way. It's kinda like that.

Religion is a strange beast, because anything could be religious. Going to a concert, let's say Pavement (my current dig. Also...REUNITED! At least for a bit). You connect with others over the same thing (Pavement's music or whatnot) and by listening to their show you connect with that higher plane/power. That's just as religious as going to church, connecting with others over communion or the gospel and then connecting to basically Jesus or God, depending on the extension.

Let me get back to a previous point, "you don't have to preach it to be spiritual." This is why Christian rock sucks. I'm going to be honest. It is terrible, it's un-listenable. Even as a non-religious guy (but note that this is separate from faith and spirituality) I would be more inclined on exploring the more Christian aspects of existence if it weren't for the fucking terrible music. Call it really slight, really conceited of me, but pardon me for thinking that music has limitless potential in influencing people, and for that potential to be misused or not used at all kills me. It in no way facilitates any connection to any higher power. Part of this is its extreme gaudiness in whatever lavish praise it hopes to lay on. This is the analogy I would use:

Remember Indiana Jones & the Last Crusade? The almost final scene where they finally find the Holy Grail? All the greedy ones thought that the Holy Grail was the most lavishly ornamented, gilded cup, but guess what? They sucked it up and died...because they were dumb. But look at ol' Indy. He picks the least convincing cup. The most humble cup. And hiyo! Success.

Christian rock, in some extension (and probably exaggeration) is like that lavishly ornamented, gilded cup. It's unfit to be a proper vessel for spirituality. Laying on the praise in the way Christian rock does seems to me to be extravangant, unnecessary, and altogether detrimental to that spiritual process. It's un-intuitive, un-imaginative, and everything. If you concede (as I do) that there is a higher power out there, you have to think that he/she/it'd be pretty pissed and/or disappointed if they figured out what sort of janky vessel their "holy water" was being offered in. And if you believe that said being made us, they'd probably be still more pissed that all our creative energies (given that we are likely the only species that has developed this unique power of art) were terribly going to waste. And, if it's your kind of book, you figure that as the humble carpenter does his work, he is rewarded accordingly. Not in any way like it is now.

If you want to explore religion and faith in song, there are better ways of doing it. Tell a story with some meaning, put your characters in between a rock and a hard place and see where their faith takes them. That's more interesting and worthwhile. Challenge them and test their faith because if they aren't challenged, where do they go? Nowhere at all. Your characters do nothing, and by extension you aren't doing anything either as the listener or the creator. What use is that, really? You're not connecting yourself to that higher plane or that higher being. Then what are you even doing listening to music? You shouldn't be if that's your goal.

Alright, I'm getting off the soapbox now...

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Happy 60th, Boss

One of a of a kind.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Alt-Country: An Introduction

Alt-country has always had some peculiarities associated with it. Is it country? No, not really. Then what the heck is it supposed to be? The broader term that easily encapsulates the "genre" as it stands is Americana. Moreover based in "roots-rock," and I use the term liberally, Americana strives to describe the rustic life. So what are its roots?

Alt-country as a genre can be classified as a subgenre or offshoot of Americana, but let's take the broader look at Americana and its evolution. The essential argument that could be made is that Americana was born with Gram Parsons. Begin with the Byrds's Sweetheart of the Rodeo. That album is typically considered to be the first in the genre. If the Byrds didn't hire Gram Parsons, who basically steered the ship in that direction (away from Roger McGuinn's planned jazz-psychadelia-rock-pop fusion hybrid first hinted at with the Notorious Byrd Brothers), then this album would have never happened. This record is watershed for two reasons: A. it's not psychadelic, as was the current trend, and B. because it based itself heavily in folk, with a total of seven folk songs (out of a grand total of eleven tracks). This album is probably the easiest to pinpoint as a root of Americana.

Tracing afterwards the path of Gram Parsons shows what he was essentially gunning for the whole time, his whole entire goal of the "cosmic American sound," as he put it. Listen to the Gilded Palace of Sin, by the Flying Burrito Brothers, and it's a mish-mash of folk influences, searing pedal steel (provided by the absolutely brillian "Sneaky" Pete Kleinow), as well as developing its own sense of a rollicking good time. Continue along and you find these influences well-developed on his solo efforts, GP and Grievous Angel. But after that, Americana seriously dropped off the radar.

The other possible root of Americana that must be discussed is the Band (as per usual). Music From Big Pink and the Band both serve as case studies of the genre. The love for storytelling, the appropriation of rustic themes have long served as springboards for the Americana movement. And the distinction that the Band carries is that their music was somehow timeless and boundless, because you could figure it could from anywhere, from anytime. The "Gram Parsons Americana thread" can be considered dated in the sense that it sounds like it comes from a time period; the Band have no such issue at hand. Play the Band for someone unfamiliar and see if they can pinpoint it to a particular time period or a particular place. They probably won't get both. I've already given a lot of manlove for the Band, so I'll avoid that here, but it is important to note what they did for the genre (and for rock music and general).

So fast forward to the 1990s. In the midst of 80s pop and all its glamour and extravagance, America (especially Middle America, i.e. the Midwest) was, for the most part, left out of it. Same old life, same old town. This scenario is where "alt-country" was born. The most obvious root of this genre was a band by the name of Uncle Tupelo.

Based largely in Illinois, Uncle Tupelo originally channeled the sort of suburban/rustic discontent associated with the Midwest, primarily through a particularly strange fusion of folk and punk (also regarded as "cowpunk" by some). This is evident on their first record, where only a couple of folk songs appear as mere stopgaps between the fiery blasts of punk. But, for whatever reason, Uncle Tupelo mellowed out and made the defining album of the alt-country movement, Anodyne. Though from there they split up into the resulting entities of Son Volt and Wilco (commence common bickering of who's better and etc.?), the mark they left on the genre is indelible. Without a doubt, Uncle Tupelo created the alt-country genre. Their first album even spawned the genre's flaghsip "magazine, " No Depression. If you only had to listen to one alt-country artist, it would be defnitely be Uncle Tupelo, no exceptions.

The other commonly-referred champion of the alt-country genre is the Jayhawks. Largely based in Minnesota, they chose to more rather approach alt-country by taking the folk elements and filter it through a more "pop" (I hate to use this label, but I have not found anything better) lens. This makes for lighter listening compared to Uncle Tupelo. Hollywood Town Hall largely evinces their successful approach to the genre.

In some perverted way, the easiest way to determine the existence of some sort of genre is to assess the existence of any "supergroup," and by golly, there is one...Golden Smog. Featuring many of the titans of alt-country (i.e. Jeff Tweedy of Wilco/Uncle Tupelo, Gary Louris of the Jayhawks), they certainly hold their water in their efforts, consistently plumbing that "classic" alt-country sound (more akin to the Jayhawks line of work) into good songs and good records.

Since I have been in a list-making mood recently, I decided to compile a sort of top albums in alt-country. This means that I'm purposefully excluding the broader Americana genre. Without any further ado:

1. Uncle Tupelo - Anodyne
As I stated earlier, this is simply the greatest alt-country record around. Purposefully constructed, it presents all sides of the genre. But the greater achievement is that though it displays many sides of the genre, it sounds greatly holistic...always alluding to a greater sound. That was the only discernible weakness of Uncle Tupelo's previous efforts. More often than not, there were only two types of Uncle Tupelo songs: the raucous punk songs and the obviously softer folk numbers. It wasn't really until after that where the band managed to unify those disparate elements into one sound, from the rollicking romp of "Chickamauga" to the easier sitting "New Madrid" that Uncle Tupelo became truly great. While entirely different, those two styles seem to be cut from the same cloth. While Jay and Jeff couldn't have been farther apart, they couldn't have sounded more similar.

2. Son Volt - Trace
And so we essentially solve the "who is the more alt-country?" out of the pair. Trace also serves as a quintessential alt-country album. Jay Farrar had never written better (and arguably since) this record: the typical themes of road and essentially rural existence are never overused and overwrought. The sound that Jay whetted during his Tupelo days are here in full force...and the results from combining his writing and his songs are quite serendipitous. The case in point is the opener, "Windfall." You could argue that Jay has never written anything quite has good since. You can also argue it took Jeff Tweedy (forever pitted against each other, though unwillingly) a whole lot of time to ever write at that level. But that's how it panned out. Can't complain, could you?

3. The Jayhawks - Hollywood Town Hall
And the "other" alt-country band. I suppose that's a dubious title, but let's not kid ourselves, this is a good record. Like, really good. While the aethestic recalls the music of yesteryear, the filter its cast through makes this a perfect alt-country record also. It hints at the timeless Americana that the Band achieved, but considerably more modern (and so not so timeless).
Gary Louris and co. work together full-time to provide a consistently warm existence that makes this album an easy selection for this list.

4. Uncle Tupelo - March 16-20, 1992
Now I really normally don't like to put two of the same artist in any list, but as is obvious, the list of good alt-country artists (and good alt-country albums) is, well, pretty short. But I violate my cardinal rule moreover because of the record's significance. The most obvious comparison is that this is alt-country's Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Whereas Sweetheart of the Rodeo combatted the rampant psychadelia of the time, March 16-20, 1992 combatted the rampant Nirvana-ness that pervaded popular music. It was a masterstroke, both to affirm their folk/Americana roots and to out-punk and to out-sleuth the rest of the music world (the rumor is that this record led to MTV's Unplugged series). To go the straight opposite way was brilliant. Consistingly primarily of old folk tunes, Uncle Tupelo showed great maturity and essentially showed that they were ready to integrate the diametrically opposed punk and folk parts of their existence.

5. The Bottle Rockets - The Brooklyn Side
The Bottle Rockets are technically an offshoot of Uncle Tupelo: Brian Henneman was a swingman for Uncle Tupelo, but later split off (earlier than the actual breakup) to form the Bottle Rockets. To sum the band up quite simply, they channel alt-country through a sort of Creedence Clearwater Revival swamprock meets Lynryd Skynyrd sort of deal. It's rollicking good fun. The guitars are smoking, the music sets the stage. Therefore, it's simple to rank them here by just picking their best effort.

The cream of the crop is thin, and so we stop here, leaving the records that went beyond alt-country (i.e. Wilco's Being There and the Jayhawks's Tomorrow the Green Grass) and the almost-haves (i.e. Ryan Adams in general).

Monday, September 7, 2009

I think John Lennon described listening to this the best:

"It's been too long since we took the time
No-one's to blame, I know time flies so quickly
But when I see you darling
It's like we both are falling in love again
It'll be just like starting over, starting over"

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Record for the Ages: Arcade Fire - Funeral

And I'm serious, folks, this is a Record for the Ages. As the top record of the past decade (see previous entry), it inherently lends itself to some sort of distinction, but it's much more than that. This is simply one of the best records to ever grace the press. Others may disagree, but this would definitely be in my Top 50 records ever, if not Top 20. What this record achieves is boundless...Arcade Fire, on Funeral, achieved something entirely rare in music which must be commended.

On a broad note, most reviews classify this record as "art-pop" or some other derivative. But at the core, this record is has a strong, strong punk influence. See the way Neighborhoods #1-3 barrel along, the pure emotion, the strain of life bearing heavy weight upon Win Butler's voice, and the way the rest of the band responds, and then we see the punk. Even many of the slower tracks ("Une année sans lumière," "Crown of Love") eventually up the speed and the ante as they continue along. Pure feeling. Just because there is a certain lack of distorted guitars does not discount a record for being "punk" in influence. The Clash started out in the prototypical mold but quickly disproved that with their increased incorporation of reggae into their punk music without losing what they were.

While inherently punk has been increasingly political, the sad trend is that punk has become less personal, but it is in that realm where Funeral is armed to the teeth. Deaths in the family, along with happiness (Win Butler and Régine Chassagne, the two main members of Arcade Fire, had gotten married), lend themselves to existential ponderings on growing up ("Wake Up"), leaving your homeland ("Haïti"), and (perhaps obviously) death in the family ("In the Backseat"). The most remarkable aspect of the existential nature of Funeral is that it fails to become trite. Exploit the tack too much, and your record becomes far too contrived, . Perhaps the record avoids that with its inherently compelling backstory, but to me, the band plays with such urgency and feeling that it is impossible to not give them the benefit of the doubt.

It's true that the album is essentially indie-pop (whatever that means) despite its punk bent. Strings swirl around the band as they quest through existence, and the grandoise and precise arrangements tend towards the efforts of the genre. This is, however, a record that relies much more on the entire sound collage to work its magic, with no real instrument or player commonly taking command outside of Win's or Régine's vocals (and at points, the backing vocals).

And it's that singular sense of bodiment that allows the listener to buy wholeheartedly into the record. A sinister sense of desolation permeates the record, which leaves just you and the record you're listening to (and perhaps whoever you're listening to it with). Perhaps for that reason alone when you hear the record you get pulled in. But perhaps moreover it's that the record tugs at strings that all humans carry, and by pulling those strings each and every listener gets pulled into this record.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Top 15 Records of 2000-2009

As this decade winds down, it reaches the time where you have to start looking back on this past decade and music and see who did the best. This All-Decade list is a little more than that, though. The top of the list is pretty damn cluttered with all sorts of amazing records, so it becomes more and more imperative to look at the broader picture: given this decade, what can embody this decade the most? So records I can call best of 2009 so far (I'm looking at you, Bitte Orca) can fall on an all-decade list. As we all know, this 2000-2009 set of years was a real peculiar one, with great highs and lows, death, war, etc. etc., stuff you can hear everyone else elaborate on. Important, yes, but not really my business as it is. So, here we go:
1. Arcade Fire - Funeral
From the twinkling of the keys that start to the record to the climatic finish, Funeral grips you and doesn't let go. Every single moment on this record is heartfelt, and there is not one moment that won't snare you and give you the chills, because it is that good. Funeral barrels along its path like a rebel without a cause; Win Butler and co. certainly create the music with a sense of primacy and urgency that has been missing from music. And they certainly felt it. The much-repeated backstory about how various family members of the band members passed during the making of this record. It's all been documented in great detail, but the point is that few artists can embrace the sadness and create pure light from it. You believe Arcade Fire when you listen to the record. The record essentially alludes to the entire human condition, which is a level of depth virtually unattainble for any artist to achieve, and for that, Arcade Fire's Funeral is my record of the decade.

2. Wilco - Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
Regardless of my Wilco fan-ness and all, this record is perfect. This may be second only because Funeral might have the "better" story to tell, a broader and more compelling allusion towards the entirety of the human race. Obviously, this record sort of embodies the whole David vs. Goliath, small band vs. big label deal before it went crazy in 2007 with Radiohead's self-released In Rainbows...which inadvertently means that in some ways, with this album the CD as a format had begun to die. But in a sense, the more startling thing is that for America, at least, this album was unusually reflective in a post-9/11 atmosphere even though the material was written before (see "Jesus, etc.," "Ashes of American Flags" and you'll understand).

3. Radiohead - Kid A
Surprised to see this record this far down? Perhaps in the view of pure innovation and destruction of a group's traditional "identity" (power guitar-rock) and depending on who you ask, pure musicality, then yes, this has been the best record, because it deconstructed rock. Thanks to Nirvana, rock became a sort of "loud-soft" ordeal where you had to play your guitar or you were toast. Thanks to Radiohead, that's not the case anymore. Oh, no, it ain't. You could definitely argue that this record really blew the field wide open for magnificent exploring by many, many other groups. However, this record has been the polarizer. In indie circles it's hailed as a coup de grace of epic proportions, but to some it has been regarded as just far too weird to be worth anything. I'm more of the former, but I see the latter (and at times Radiohead is far too moody), and so Kid A is relegated to the third slot.
4. Brian Wilson - SMiLE
Who would have thought that this record would ever come out? Virtually everyone resigned themselves to the fact that the Beach Boys masterpiece that was owed to them would never come. The public was resigned to making their own cobbled-together versions of the record, hotly debating which versions of demos was the "right" version for it, and all that sort of business. But that was settled when Brian Wilson also settled himself down and completed what he had started all those years ago. And my God, what a record. Classic pop, grandoise arrangements, omnipresent optimism...this is as close as it will ever get to those sunny 60s ever again. Brian Wilson is one of the few remaining bastions of the 60s era, and when he "speaks," you listen, because he is that good.

5. OutKast - Stankonia
If I haven't surprised you so far on this list, you should be surprised now. Because if you know me, I think rap and hip-hop generally suck. But this record proves singlehandedly that the genre is not a bottomless black hole of death and destruction. Stankonia was light years ahead of its time, which is why it didn't do as well as it should have. Credit is due, because OutKast threw out the playbook. No stone was left unturned, from stabbing, angular guitars weaving on the title track to the balls-to-the-walls pacing of "B.O.B.," which is really the key track here. The duo, with the eclectic approach, made a record that appeals to a large swath of people (me included). Dizzying with its brilliance and its total construction, Stankonia is a hip-hop album for the ages.

6. Bon Iver - For Emma, Forever Ago
"And in our next installment of the little record that could..." The backstory has been talked about as much as the record. Cabin + winter + sadness = great record. It's not just the music, the endlessly beautiful voice of Justin Vernon, but it's the mood that is evoked that makes this record spectactular. You can feel the winter, and you can feel the "emptiness" (though I suppose that's not the particularly perfect word I'm looking for). As a listener, you begin to empathize with everything you hear, and for that it is a near-perfect (if not perfect) record. I cannot say enough good words about this album, which makes it slightly strange that I put it down here, but on my criteria, this is where it belongs (sadly).

7. Joe Strummer & the Mescaleros - Streetcore
Joe Strummer once said, ''People have told me songs I've written have changed their life. That's remarkable. That keeps your faith.'' The man is damn right, because I can say that he changed the way I existed. But enough about that banter. This is a pure rock record, in every sense of it. Even with the hints of the world music that he explored on Global a Go-Go, this is still rock, this is still punk. It's what punk should be, because in his own words, "I will always believe in punk-rock, because it's about creating something for yourself." Punk is what you make of it, not a bunch of power-chords and a snotty attitude. It's the worst thing in the world that Joe Strummer was getting his groove back when death struck. When I hear him say "Ok, that's a take" at the very end of the record, I just sit in wonder of this man who not only changed my world but in all cases the entire world.

8. Loretta Lynn - Van Lear Rose
I'm no country man myself, but when I hear a good record, I hear a good record. Produced with Jack White and backed by him and what would be the Raconteurs, Loretta Lynn gets fresh life breathed into her career with a rollicking good album. It seems peculiar at first...the militaristic and hard-rocking "Have Mercy" sounds altogether strange upon the initial listen, but then the realization hits, that it works, and that it's absolutely great. Working with Jack White really did wonders for the album, with his epic skills at life (I guess) but the greater story is that Loretta Lynn became relevant again. Brilliant writing and that classic Loretta Lynn singing cast in a raucous Jack White musical setting: what could be better?

9. Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavilion
Animal Collective always had a serious issue of being weird. Not only because they were always a little weird, wired a little differently in their approach, but because weird was almost branded on their calling card. But when they realized that they could ditch that calling card and let the unique wiring show off their abilities, you end up with the most accessible record of 2009, and when it comes down to it, flat out one of the more accessible indie efforts this decade. Avey Tare and Panda Bear have rarely worked together in the fashion shown on this record: in some sense, it's slightly Lennon/McCartney-esque in its brilliance (nothing can ever come close to that partnership, but to evince some sort of cooperation in music-crafting is always something to applaud). It's slightly a downer to see them temporarily pick up that calling card again near the end of the record, but it seems that Animal Collective realized it and recovered nicely to produce their greatest classic (probably ever, but I'd like to be wrong, you know).

10. Bob Dylan - "Love & Theft"
Late Bob Dylan is also great Bob Dylan. With another peak in his career, it's something virtually every musician would die become relevant once again. Beginning in the late 90s withTime Out of Mind, Dylan returns in full force, with lyrics becoming even spookier, his voice even more sinister. I don't think anyone figured that Dylan didn't have it in him to write good records, which is pretty obvious, but I don't think anyone had figured that it would be this late, that he would have to show those young punks how it is still done. And no one does it best like the one and only Bob Dylan. I don't think you can say anything else.

11. The White Stripes - White Blood Cells
Putting yourself on the map critically and commercially is no easy task, but that's exactly what the White Stripes did on this record. This was more than just garage rock; it was also post-punk, "dirty" blues revival, and alternative rock all wrapped into one neat little package. It's evident from the start of the record that White Blood Cells is a different beast. It struts, it swaggers like few records have done in this decade.

12. Kanye West - Late Registration
This record is Kanye's masterpiece, no doubt about it. No one has ever denied that the dude has had balls or swagger or an ego the size of seven suns, but when you look at it, he's sort of got the goods to back it up. But the real masterstroke here is Jon Brion producing. Kanye got his beginning cred from producing, but Jon Brion pushes his boundaries when Kanye steps up to the mic. Even for a guy who doesn't like rap, I admit that this crazy record is a great one.

13. LCD Soundsystem - Sound of Silver
Perhaps more originially known for having Daft Punk playing in his room, James Murphy knows how to do. On this album, he shows his best stuff, from all-decade song "All My Friends" to the just-as-good "Someone Great," proving that he has the goods to not only get people listening but to get people dancing. But it's more than that. James Murphy not only that he could himself be a mature and talented songwriter, but also that electronica/dance was capable of being that mature and talented.

14. Sigur Rós - Ágætis byrjun
Of all the skills that Sigur Rós are accomplished at, of particular import is that of building up to that moment. The point in a song where you just get hit by it all: it becomes simply emotional, heartfelt, and relatable, even though the great majority of Sigur Rós listeners probably are not aware of what they are saying. That skill of theirs is no more apparent than on this record. It's languid in nature, though that's not a bad thing on this record (sometimes however leading to an adverse reaction of deep slumber if sleep-deprived), because it allows Sigur Rós to do what they do best.

15. Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes
The lovechildren of the Beach Boys and the Band, Fleet Foxes created a sound on this record that is essentially timeless and placeless. To be able to craft such a boundless aesthetic is alone a great marvel, but reinforce it with the fact that as a first effort there is remarkable maturity and strength to the songwriting, you find yourself with a winner of an album right here. The best part about this album? If it's any indicator, Fleet Foxes are going to join the hallowed halls of the great bands of our time.