Wednesday, April 29, 2009

It Must Be the Beards: "America" and "Common Sense" in Rock Music

Not to do a dishonor against Johnny Cash and folks, but the real representation of America in rock music was basically a bunch of Canadians.  America, you should be slightly (and by slightly I mean entirely) ashamed of I wrong?  No American can come close to representing America but these guys.  I wouldn't disagree with someone who would make the argument that Johnny Cash was basically the "voice of America."  That voice exemplifies the Southern man more than anything else, but his music is distinctly country, and thus suffers from getting pigeonholed into the realm of country music, disqualified from represented the greater America as a whole.  But the Band?  The Band was the best vehicle for America that America has ever had.  Let me state my case:

If you consider the human body to be some strange amalgation of artists in rock music, one could easily make the argument that Bob Dylan was the brain.  The Beatles...well, they could be basically everything else but one thing: common sense.  Gumption, if you will.  Were the Beatles too good to delve into common sense?  Who knows, but that's not quite the point.  But gumption?  Well, the Band is that.  No frills rock and roll.  None of that psychadelic junk.  They exhibited a rustic attitude that embraced the American way of life.  All business, but not city business...more of a "business of living," delighting in the more worldly ventures life presents.  No tricks, no lies, just their stuff, straight and true.  "The Night They Drove Dixie Down" serves as the prime example, a candid retelling of the end of the Civil War, so achingly beautiful yet so simple.  The American way of life back then was admittedly simpler then too, mostly defined by its small towns, cohesive family units, and miles and miles of farmland.  A simple living, and the Band's arrangements exemplified this rustic life.

Beyond their normal setup of guitar, bass, keyboards, organ, and drum with some violin, mandolin and horns sparsely integrated, they exemplified the working American.  Touring on an incredibly intense schedule, there was no rest for the weary, until they went back into the studio.  This obviously took a toll on the band, eventually leading to its first and "real" demise.  That first lineup was magical, and it's virtually impossible to really consider latter-day Band as anything close to old-day Band.  But those studio albums...they changed the face of rock music, too.

Music From Big Pink is still their crowning achievement, despite all the crap it gets since "The Weight" showed up in Easy Rider.  Drawing heavily on old American folk themes, they spun strange stories about the things that mattered the most in small town American life: your faith, and your family.  Richard Manuel plays the distraught father in "Tears of Rage," rueing a recalcitrant daughter, while biblical images roam free on Robbie Robertson's "To Kingdom Come."  Everything centers on these few things, giving the loose yet articulate album a cohesion that few albums could ever hope to have.  This album changed rock music.  But I'm not really here to elucidate about my third favorite album to continue on:

You could argue that the Byrds got there first with Sweetheart of the Rodeo, but the Band did it better, and so they get the nod.  Rock music was an insanely drugged up affair at this time, delving wholeheartedly into psychadelia and pure rock star lifestyles, rich yet empty lives.  But then the Band came and, for all intents and purposes, said: "Here's the way.  Come, and you will be (mostly) healed."  Now, it's understood that the Band wasn't wholeheartedly immune from the rock star lifestyle, but at least at face value their music projected simpler things that could probably "heal" a hurt soul.  Regardless, this was the counter-counterculture movement.  Away from all the pomps and frills, back to the living where most people got started...a simpler time, a simpler music that was no less heartfelt (if not more heartfelt) than whatever was going on at the time.  This place was the "real America," where one could consider its heart and soul to be: in the countryside.  The Band exemplified the country; there was no way that it wasn't planned, but it comes off as uncannily easy.  It's a ragged, scrappy music, like the people who had to make do with what they had in the countryside.

And everyone followed.  The Beatles dispensed of their psychadelic freakouts and returned to good old-fashioned rock and roll on the Beatles.  Even the best group in rock music found something they couldn't ignore.  The Rolling Stones returned to their R&B roots with Beggars Banquet.  Eric Clapton wanted to be in the Band so much, but he had not the guts to ask, and so had to "settle" in his own right with Derek and the Dominos's Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs.  In some strange twist of irony, you either followed the Band with this roots movement, or you risked falling out of sight in the landscape of rock.  It's not necessarily the fact that they got the greater part of the world of rock to follow them, it's that in the sense that they pushed rock music farther forward by basically going as far back as possible, to its roots...though not its British but its American roots in rockabilly, folk, blues, and country.

Granted, the Band had an impressive pedigree already, as the Hawks behind Ronnie Hawkins and as Dylan's backing group (minus Helm) for the infamous world tour in 1966.  But that doesn't make their achievement as the real voice of America, of gumption in rock music any less awe-inspring.  There are few better ways to describe it than as simply an "American" sound.  It just sounds American, enigmatic in that it can't be pigeonholed, yet so firm in its stance that "Yes, this is American."  Or, if you will, "Americana."  No fancy adornments, like the people they essentially represented.  All you needed was a little elbow grease and some common sense to get something done in American society, and the Band was the personification of that.

They were America...placeless yet grounded in the American way.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Record Review: Bob Dylan - Together Through Life

I'm going to be honest, the first time I listened through this I was underwhelmed. I'm a massive fan of Time Out Of Mind, "Love and Theft", and Modern Times. I consider those great masterworks of Dylan. They don't compare to the 1960s triumvirate of his, but they come damn close. I expected another entry into that saga. What I got, and what you get when you listen to it, is something quite different.

To be fair to Bob Dylan, me expecting a masterwork every time the man puts song to tape is absurd, but when he releases masterwork material every time, what am I to expect? Another masterpiece? I wouldn't call this record that, but on its own it stands up particularly well. To grade this record by comparing it to his previous releases is unjust to the artist. That being said, the shtick, at first glance, is essentially the same as Time Out Of Mind, "Love and Theft", and Modern Times, but I get the feeling that this record is a different entry entirely. It sounds similar but the essence and stuff of it is distinct.

They say it's all based on those 1950s Chess Records. I can kind of hear the resemblance, and Dylan's growl comes off like Muddy Waters at times, but beyond that the resemblance becomes fuzzy. The songs here tend to sit much more plainly and loose. They also don't roll as tightly as they did on Modern Times or "Love and Theft", more or less idly working their way through at a slower pace. There are fewer straight up ballads on this record, the notable one being "Life Is Hard." The "box," provided by Los Lobos man David Hidalgo pops up all over the record, making his mark known, while Mike Campbell provides some pointed guitar lines that work well in the songs. It's a simple album musically. No frills, no nothing, just straight up music. The record flows reasonably well, without any perturbing turns of mood or extremely weak songs that allow the record to consistently survive multiple sustained listens.

Perhaps in some ideal world the album's production would have been handled by someone else. Time Out of Mind really excelled as a record (moreso than "Love and Theft" and Modern Times) because of different production values. I can particularly imagine this record becoming on par to his 1960s output with some Lanois, Time Out Of Mind-esque production. Dylan is by no means a bad producer (there are worse producers, that's for sure), but perhaps the songs could have been brought to that "next level" with a good old-fashioned producer at the helm. That's the only major knock on this record. The production is good, not great. Everything sounds lively and it all works in the end, but perhaps in its plainness some latent quality that could emerge to push the record beyond the barriers still remains lost behind the simple production.

What had initially bothered me were the lyrics. They were so plain, so simple, so...un-Dylan. Where did the trippy imagery, the whacked out Bible references, and general pissiness go? They're not really there in the typical quantities. Perhaps due to working with Robert Hunter, the lyrics have become much plainer than usual, moreover embracing life rather than sneering and growling at it. Once you get past the fact that Dylan is purposely not writing in typical Dylan fashion, it becomes a lot easier to accept and to thus embrace. Dylan serves up great lines on this record, and if they're not as kooky as they used to be they still prove that Dylan still has the stuff for lyric-writing. He's always had a knack for words, and it's no different on this record. You'd be suprised at the depth here, but I won't spoil those moments on the record when you hear them.

Dylan has always been a shapeshifter. Blues singer to folkie, to pissed off rock auteur to lonesome hobo, to Nashville-esque country star...he has evolved too many times to be pigeonholed once more. Most people probably had the guy pinned down after Modern Times, which is strikingly similar to the two works preceding. So naturally a guy like him has to change again. It's necessary, it's vital for his existence. A different form, a different time, a different album, a free-floating entry into the complex Dylan life and canon. It is what it is, nothing more and nothing less.


Monday, April 27, 2009

Record of the Moment: Derek and the Dominos - Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs

By God, I dare you to find me a more emotional moment in rock music than this part "Bell Bottom Blues":
Do you want to see me crawl across the floor to you?
Do you want to hear me beg you to take me back?
I'd gladly do it because
I don't want to fade away.
Give me one more day, please.
I don't want to fade away.
In your heart I want to stay.
To put the album in perspective: you're Eric Clapton, resident blues guru.  Cream and Blind Faith didn't work out, but that's no real deal, you're highly successful, you can go solo.  Then, the worst thing happens.  You're Eric Clapton, and you fall in love.  Not a bad thing, right?  But it's not just anyone.  The girl you fall in love with is married.  Bad enough?  Nope, she's married to a Beatle.  A Beatle, man.  Can it get worse?  Yup.  She's married to George Harrison.  But guess what.  You're best fucking buddies with George Harrison.  You supplied heartrending guitar to his "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" and he reciprocated by helping you write "Badge."  Yeah, things are pretty bad.  And so you take solace in an old tale involving a woman named Layla...and the album is born.

This album is a blues album, plain and simple.  The ripping blues solos, the slow grooves and the fast-paced boogies, they're all here.  Wow, how it grooves, boogies, and how it just "feels" like crazy.  The rumor is that Eric Clapton wanted to be in the Band so bad, and it shows.  The songs sit loose, and it does wonders compared to the airtight production that has recently made Clapton's efforts almost lifeless.  Finally, Clapton has some foils to work off of, both lyrically and musically.  Clapton is normally genius enough, but he has had issues getting too carried away at times...Duane Allman and Bobby Whitlock provided brilliant foils both with the guitar work and songwriting, respectively, and the album pays off so much more thanks to them.  Many of the songs, too, reach past the five minute mark in slide-fueled jams, but they never get old, remaining fresh and worthwhile with each listen.

It has astounded me that I had never heard this album until approximately four days ago.  Of course I had heard "Layla," and of course I have thought it was a good rock tune (at some point, I could play it in some regard on the ukulele).  It had no context for me then, and now it does.  The song itself becomes a much more emotional event, but it moreover becomes part of a heart-wrenching whole.  You've got to feel so bad for someone if drugs don't even help.  But to think that Clapton poured everything out in this album is astounding.  This is an album for the ages.  I can't believe that it took so long for me to hear this album.  Shame on all of you for not making me listen to this album sooner.

With regards to regular blog business, I'll probably review the new Dylan record in detail next.  It'll be the first record I grade here.  Oh dear, right?

Friday, April 24, 2009

Records of Great Influence (#1): the Clash - London Calling

I shouldn't have to defend this record for its artistic merit.  It's an utterly useless exercise (because it shouldn't need to be said), and if I honestly have to defend it I will go bonkers.  That being said, this was the record that changed my life. I'm really not going to lie about that. Let me state my case:

When I was in high school, for better or for worse, I got caught up in what I consider to be the "neo-punk" movement. Green Day, blink-182, the works. Not only is this not really what can be considered "good" to "great" music, it started me down a bad road. I'm not saying I got to the point of drugs or anything, but I started hanging out with less than savory crowds and who knows what would have happened if I had stayed there. To me, punk and "neo-punk" was a sound, pure aggression, little else. There was a bad guy, and a worse guy. Fight the power with any means necessary, while languishing in the recesses of society. That's the kind of view I was surrounded with. Perhaps in retrospect I'm simplifying the situation or casting my situation in the early high school years as worse than they actually were, but at least now in retrospect I see that period of my life as close to a dead end as I could have ever been.  But this record changed every single thing that I thought was true, and changed me.

I realized after this record that punk wasn't a sound. Punk was not about heavy distortion and power chords. It wasn't the balls-to-the-walls, blow-shit-up, or the backed-into-a-corner-and-about-to-explode mentality that I had thought it was. Thanks to Joe Strummer, I realized punk was an aesthetic. More or less, it was a do-it-yourself mentality. No one gives you your breaks; you make them yourself. But moreover, punk music is more or less what you make of it. This point was hit home on another record I might talk about down the road, the Minutemen's Double Nickels on the Dime.  There were things in this world that you could change, and that should be the driving force in all you can do.  It's common sense, but music often doesn't promote it.  But the Clash were common sense, in their own way.  In some ways they exhibited the tenets of "neo-punk" that I've railed against thus far, but the Clash differs in that they actually meant what they said.  They meant change.  "Neo-punk" loves staying in their corner, singing about how they'll explode and change the world, but doing nothing about it.  Utterly useless.  The Clash?  They meant what they said, and their word was good.

They meant good...they meant to change what they could.  Tales of generosity about the Clash are many, but the best (and funniest) concern the sales of their records at outrageously low prices.  To sell London Calling as a double album for the price of one, the story says they managed to con the record company into attaching another EP record (or similar short-play format) to their standard album by saying they were including a B-side when in fact they were including another disc entirely.  Reportedly, the Clash forwent the royalties on Sandanista! to sell the triple-album for the price of one.  And perhaps the most telling, Joe Strummer would wait and talk to every fan who wanted to talk, after every show.  These were real guys.  Fame didn't get to them.  They were real dudes, but they had a mission.  They weren't just malcontents, they were malcontents who knew they had every power in the world to make things right.  And that's the crux of the record.  And that's the crux of how I changed entirely.  Small changes can yield great results.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

A Little About Myself

About the Golden Age of Rock Music:

The first real thing I learned in high school was that the credible source is the best source.  So, in order to provide you my “credentials,” I present below:

 The Best Bands Around:

1.      The Beatles

2.      Bob Dylan

3.      The Band

4.      The Clash

5.      The Beach Boys


The Best Albums Around:

1.      Highway 61 Revisited

2.      Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

3.      Music From Big Pink

4.      London Calling

5.      Pet Sounds


Rock and Roll Credentials:

1.      Played some live shows in bands

2.      Economics Major in Undergraduate

a.       The major of choice for the frontmen of great bands, i.e. Mick Jagger

3.      Avid music listener

4.      I love live shows, and thus bootlegs.


and so on and so forth.  Now that you know who I am, your first question likely regards the “Golden Age” of rock.  When was it?  I consider it to be the 1960s and the 1970s, primarily.  While the 1950s did serve great importance with regards to the genesis of rock, the real Garden of Eden (to use the image kindly) did not really burst forth until the 1960s with the rise of so many great artists.  While beginning primarily as a sort of rockabilly or blues-based movement, it quickly outgrew its roots and moved into entirely unseen territory, yielding what we now know as the Golden Age of rock.  This lasted for over a decade, into the mid-to-late 1970s.  Why do I stop there?

I only need to present one word: synthesizer.  While synonymous with the 1980s, the synthesizer began to take hold in the 1970s, endangering the electric guitar and driving it to the brink of extinction.  This isn’t to say that the electric guitar is the only thing that separates a band from being rock and something else; it simply means that, for better or for worse, the electric guitar became more or less the everlasting icon of rock music.  Nor does it mean that the synthesizer is the antithesis of rock music.  The Who’s “Baba O’Riley” is probably the most well known example of great synthesizer use.  The decline of the electric guitar in rock music meant that its golden age would soon follow.  Thus, the Golden Age was over in the late 1970s.

So throughout the forthcoming blog series (is that the technical term?) I'll be addressing, or rather tire-ading (tirade, but I'll get tired of it, hence tire-ade...gotta love Ringo-isms) through a whole slew, nay, a plethora, of utterly meaningless quandaries relating to rock music.  Will there ever be another Beatles (probably not)?  Is there someone as self-referential and therefore awesome as John Lennon (surprisingly, yes)?  Who best represents "America" in the world of rock music (not an American group, I'll tell you that).  As these things come to me, I'll address them in some fashion.

If I don't feel like discussing them, you'll either get an "Influential Record" segment or some tire-ade on some actually current and therefore much more important events.  For example, records that have come out more recently than, say, 1990.  Or, I might even talk about something a normal blogger might, like the current political clime, or even just the clime of the earth and how everyone thinks the world will self-destruct soon (...something like that).

To address some basic blog things, I did steal a Talking Heads thing with the title.  Yes, the Talking Heads are awesome.  Currently, "The Name of This Week Is Talking Heads," but that's neither here nor there.  I'm trying to keep this from becoming Tweet-esque (or whatever that new-fangled technology is), so the entries will actually be A. fairly long and thus B. require you to actually sit down and read it, rather than let you walk willy-nilly staring into your Blackberry and thus either A. trip, B. fall, C. spill your coffee on yourself or D. negligently cause grievous harm to yourself.  See, I'm only looking out for ya.

May you always find gumption in all your daily activities,