Sunday, May 24, 2009

Jay Bennett Done Gone, At the Age of 45

Jay Bennett, best known as the former multi-instrumentalist of Wilco, has passed away just this past day. While I wrote earlier about the guy being kind of a big prick about suing Jeff Tweedy, this is still a major blow to not only the Wilco camp but to generally musicians everywhere. He was a consummate musician, multi-faceted in what he could do, as a composer, an arranger, and a musician. The guy could play any instrument you threw at him. That rarely ever happens.

When you consider modern bands today, you never really think anyone goes. When Johnny Cash died, while a distressing event no one was particularly surprised. The guy had as full of a career as any man could hope to experience. But so many have had their lives cut short. Jay Bennett is one of them. He was only 45. While perhaps in the scheme of "popular music" he might as well have been on life support, in the "regular music world" you still have 30 years on you if you're good. Hell, look at Bob Dylan.

But this guy hasn't left that shabby of a record either. Titanic Love Affair, and probably most notably his Wilco contributions. Being There was a great record that Jay was involved in. But probably his crowning achievement in music came with Summerteeth, virtually holing himself into some strange world with Jeff Tweedy, crafting some surreal pop that is both expansive, mindblowing, and just damn good. He even contributed "My Darling" to the record, which is one of the more underrated songs in the catalog.

Of course, everyone knows what happened during the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot sessions, but his probable douche-ness should not detract from him as a person. Jay Bennett was a perfectionist, and perhaps he and Tweedy just didn't agree anymore on what their vision was (as opposed to Summerteeth). The film obviously puts him in bad light, but the word is that the man was generous and a nice man to be around.

I have put on Being There and am working through Summerteeth as I write this. I plan to put on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and then his last show with Wilco (2001.07.04 for all you keeping track) to honor this man. One of the few consummate musicians of his era.

Rest in peace, and may God bless your soul, Jay Bennett.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Records of Great Influence (#2): Wilco - Being There

Ah, yes, step number two.  This is the first record, period, that grabbed me when I was "reborn" in the musical sense.  London Calling was like the nine months in a pregnancy.  Life first starting, everything was new to me.  I had thrown out all previous (mis)conceptions as to what rock music was, and I was ready to really understand it.  Being There is like a general roadmap to the world of rock; breathtaking in its scope, able to draw from all corners while being able to still remain an ultimately personable album for the ages.

Shame on you, if you have never heard this record before.  In my truly honest opinion, this is still Wilco's crowning achievement.  Not that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot wasn't an accomplishment.  That record was straight evidence that rock could evolve, that it could adapt to a modern world with funny sounds and the like.  Yankee Hotel Foxtrot represented what the "Americana" genre could bring to the table in the 21st century without coming off as old-school.  But Being There is different.  Perhaps because it came close to the end of the 20th century, or whatever, but it celebrates where rock music has been, what rock and Americana brought to the table in the 20th century and celebrated it to the greatest extent.

In a way, you could compare this album to Exile On Main Street by the Rolling Stones.  Objectively, Exile is still probably a better record, I do not think anyone is denying this, but in my books Being There ranks higher because it fits my music tastes much better than Exile does.  That's not the point, however.  They both are double albums.  That's the first thing.  But the other thing is the scope of the records.  They do everything.  No stone is really left unturned.  You can fault both records all you want for this, but for one thing I love it, and for another thing such ambition is remarkable and should be commended on every level.

Since this record is hardly as universally recieved as my previous "Record of Great Influence," I felt the need to perhaps defend the record from all ye naysayers.  But now to the more important part.  This record was probably the one thing that most greatly shaped my existence.  Since the first time that I popped this record in, I have been a diehard Wilco fan ever since.  If you know me in real life, you know what this is like.  I have an extensive Wilco bootleg collection.  I tracked their tours for a long, long time, looking at and grading setlists, however much of a fruitless practice that is.  As an aspiring songwriter I threw out songs because they sounded too much like Wilco and because none of them could do justice to my main inspiration for many years.  The only stain on the record is that I have only seen Wilco as a band once. I passed up a Jeff Tweedy solo show opportunity because I had no transportation, though I was able to see Glenn Kotche and Nels Cline perform solo and together.  Now, I'm a little less diehard, which is likely a good thing...

But the fact that Wilco was able to shape my behavior like that isn't what made the band (and this record) part of such a crucial point in my development.  I gained an awareness for the world.  In those "dark days," I had no awareness of what was going on around me.  This record has a remarkable sense of awareness about it, and in many ways I've tried to be like that, too.  It was also, essentially, was my first "experience with the light."  I finally became a person, and this record symbolizes that to me.  Expansive, ambitious, and all over the place.  Messy, sure, but that is inevitable.  But that is part of the charm of the record and, in its own way, has become a part of me.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Record of the Moment: Danger Mouse & Sparklehorse - Dark Night of the Soul

So this is my record of the moment.  Outside of the stories that surround this album, i.e. Danger Mouse can't release this record without getting his butt sued by EMI, and just as the record itself, I consider this a fine release.  Now, I'm in no way familiar with previous Danger Mouse or previous Sparklehorse or even previous David Lynch, who served as a supervisor or something like it.  So you're actually going to get a (gasp) pre-disposition free assessment, which for all intents and purposes is a pretty good record in my eyes.

This record largely consists of Sparklehorse and a whole boatload of guests, ranging from the Flaming Lips, Frank Black of the Pixies, James Mercer of the Shins, to Iggy Pop and even David Lynch makes some appearances on the record.  Most of the songs are sort of languid, as in that they don't really hurry to get where they are going, which establishes a sort of melancholy vibe (combined with the theme, of course).  The tracks that break from this trend, aside from the track that features Julian Casablancas (from the Strokes) are somehow the weakest ones, though perhaps deviating from the trend of the record only naturally perpetuated that.  It can also be said that those two tracks (with Frank Black and the other with Iggy Pop) try to be edgier and generally more metal, which doesn't fit the vibe of the record.  Perhaps my dislike for these tracks is a mere indication of my dislike for the metal genre, but that can't be helped in any particular way.

However, every other track does a swell job of fulfilling the vibe of the record.  The Flaming Lips track is delightfully haunting, as Wayne Coyne croons about how pain might as well just be some sort of sensation, and James Mercer of the Shins makes a fine appearance on "Insane Lullaby."  The best track, in all likelihood, is "Daddy's Gone," which features Nina Persson and Mark Linkous.  It's the simplest track on the record, which allows the song to simply breathe on its own, rather than try and layer effects.  The track is almost more haunting and more fulfilling because of its stark simplicity (though I mean this in a Danger Mouse producing sense, not in a strict instrumentation sense).

Overall, I really like this record.  For the sake of listening to the album as an album, I put up with the two psuedo-random metallish tracks in the middle because the payoff before and after is more than worth that price of admission.  Also, for the sake of Danger Mouse not getting his butt sued by EMI, it's worth at least listening to.  Did he ever want anything besides people listening to his works?  I would hazard to say that he has no real other intentions.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Record Preview: Wilco (the Album)

Ah, yes.  This puppy leaked yesterday evening.  So here goes:

Let's be perfectly honest, this one is better than Sky Blue Sky.  Not that Sky Blue Sky was a bad record, but in any case that was a record of a whole band trying to find its groove.  It's only natural.  Just as A.M. was Wilco finding its legs post-Tupelo, Sky Blue Sky was Wilco re-finding those legs after a long period of instability.  And by long period, I mean a really, really long period of instability.  But that's not the point.  The band has now found its groove, and it's finally shaping up to be what it could always be.

I don't want to spoil the album too much, so I'm just going to disclose some general thoughts.  Standout tracks, in my opinion, include "Deeper Down," "One Wing," and "You Never Know."  Opinion on that matter has been all over the place, but those are the ones that are the best in my eyes.  "Deeper Down" recalls the Soma version of Hummingbird (for all of you with the Wilco book CD from Learning How to Die, you will know what I'm talking about).  "One Wing" fits in the mold of "Impossible Germany" off of the previous entry, but it's more compact with a slightly darker feel.  "You Never Know" is basically George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord" with extra fuzzed out guitars and a different main break.  This is what disturbs me most about the track.  There's even straight up replication of some of Harrison's slide work on this track.  I love and adore George Harrison, and so "My Sweet Lord" gets its love too.  So yeah, "You Never Know" is a great track, and it wears its influence on its sleeve.

But as such a big fan of George Harrison, man, if I was Harrison (and alive, for that matter) I'm not sure if I would be pissed or honored with such an obvious take on the tune.  For Wilco's sake, I hope nothing happens with regards to any lawsuits.  I doubt anything will, because A. Copyright law is too stringent to protect everything and B. not enough of the track is exclusively replicated to justify any action, in my eyes.  So yeah, that's kind of my weird rant on the track.  So I love this "You Never Know" tune a lot, but I'm also sad that it takes to heavily from "My Sweet Lord."  It's one of the best tracks on the record, regardless.

The only real down point on the record "occurs" with "Country Disappeared," but in its own way it's a charming little number.  It has to A. follow "You Never Know" and B. pull the album back from a more expansive sound, so it satisfies its function pretty well, but on the whole it's probably the weakest track.  The other tracks are all solid to begin with, "I'll Fight" and "Bull Black Nova" are super groovy, while the Feist duet track "You and I" has a pretty well done backwards guitar part (though "I'm Only Sleeping" by the Beatles takes the cake with best backwards guitar parts).

With regards to "album album" things, like flow and coherency, it really does its job.  No sudden, unjustified turns, and at a crisp length of slightly less than 45 minutes, the record flows well while letting some of its more disparate ideas ("Bull Black Nova" and "Sonny Feeling" come to mind) stick out.

So, yeah.  There is nothing overtly wrong with the record.  It's a really good listen.  Once I (and you, if it really bugs you as much as it bugs me) get past the fact that a track is more of a recasting of "My Sweet Lord" musically than perhaps a homage, then it goes from good to pretty great.

76/100 (before forgiveness for the "My Sweet Lord" recasting)

I mean, I think I should be able to get over it, so:

84/100 (after forgiveness for the "My Sweet Lord" recasting)

Perhaps, though, I'm reading "You Never Know" too negatively.  Harrison tribute, perhaps?  If it is, then man, major marks in my book:

88/100 (if "You Never Know" is supposed to be a Harrison tribute)

Sunday, May 10, 2009

God Save the Bootleg!

Bootlegs have a special place in the history of rock music.  On the most personal level, acquiring a bootleg of the show you were at is pretty sweet.  For example, I went to a Flaming Lips show in 2006.  The show was awesome.  Well, it was more than a was a spectacle.  I have the bootleg of this particular show.  Now, if I want to relive that night (in some capacity), I can listen to that show.  Good bit.  Of course, I wish someone had bootlegged the Sonic Youth set too...

If it makes a difference, I am currently listening to a bootleg of Wilco, 2003.06.28 at Penn's Landing in Philadelphia.  For those who are looking for a good Wilco bootleg, I would not consider this a bad place to start.

But enough about personal stories.  Bootlegs have preserved many a historic event.  Take, for example:

To start an argument for another time, I would argue that this was possibly the most important night in the history of rock music.  More important than the Beatles on Ed Sullivan?  I would say so.  But that's for another time.  The point it, the moment of "Judas!" would have been a lost legend except for hearsay if it were not for the dudes who took up the noble mantle of bootlegging and, well, bootlegged this show.  In some ways, bootleggers are the scribes of rock.  They see, and they "write."  An external source that can "see it as it is."  Thus, they do serve some sort of function.  Perhaps it's even vital.  The most special moments are not always those (publicly) documented, so it's up to the concert-goer to take matters into their own hands and save it for posterity.

To be truthfully honest, there are those bands that are junk in the studio, but when they step onto the stage, they morph into some sort of extraterrestial being and play the lights out.  Bootlegs become the primary way to show the stuff to those who can't attend concerts.  A band can play a lights out show, and a friend can rant about how good it was, but if your money's tight (as it probably is for everyone right now), you're not gonna go with true proof.  And with a bootleg, you got your proof in the pudding.  Bootlegs can do wonders for those sorts of groups who are limited in what they can do in the studio.

The argument against bootlegging is that it takes money away from artists.  Supposedly a bootleg will prevent people from buying the real records.  There are two problems with this.  The first is the nature of the bootleg.  It's not a studio record.  It's not going to sound as good.  It can never replace a studio record.  A bootleg is not designed to replace studio records, it's supposed to document a particular event in time.  Given that perhaps a bootleg has the capacity to displace potential buyers, it's going to probably attract just as many potential buyers as it will scare them off.  A person impressed with a bootleg will be more likely to buy those records.  So really, the net change of people buying is not really going to extravagantly change.

The other issue with that argument is that the nature of the music business has changed.  For the typical band, the majority of the revenue for the group actually comes from touring and live shows.  Perhaps in the distant past this was more of a problem as groups would rely on record sales, but nowadays it's not a problem.  A bootleg will attract people to shows, and as a main source of revenue the tour will get minute boosts from those who choose to attend based on those...and there won't really be a loss in sales, since a concert-goer will likely not only buy a ticket but also some merchandise.  Thus the potential loss is minimal if not negative (meaning a net gain).  You get the gist of it.  I think I may have gotten a little to economical on that one, but such is the life of an economics major.

Artists have caught on to this bootlegging deal.  As with the legendary Dylan show, among others, have attempted to outbootleg the bootlegger, using them to get sales.  Perhaps it's reasonable to do so, but then when it's packaged from the artist, it's not really a bootleg anymore, it's just a live recording issued by the artist.  Bootlegging has a sort of romantic, adventurous quality about it.  Defying the odds, or simply being able to do it because the artist lets you, bootlegs gain a sort of charming roughness to them for one reason or another.  They're recorded by a fellow fan, which means they likely love this band as much (or likely more) than you do, and so it becomes a special gift from a fellow fan, not some "gift" from management.  This is no rag against live albums released by the band, but those are entirely different beasts that give and receive their own dues.  

So all this repackinging by artists comes off as a little douchey to me, because theoretically I should be able to acquire it in its true bootlegged form.  As someone who is familiar with bootlegs, I do not particularly care if there are hisses or cracks in audio sources.  They give the bootlegs their charm.  And I don't want to pay money for hiss/crack removal.  Case in point: Neil Young at Massey Hall, Toronto on January 19th, 1971.  I got this as a bootleg.  A year later, the dudes marketing Neil Young take the bootleg, spruce it up and perhaps clean it up to later sell it.  I like my hissy bootleg, thank you very much.  I give you your critic manlove, Neil Young, because you more than deserve it, but this "de-bootlegging" reeks and I can't condone that.

Perhaps I am some sort of "bootleg elitist" (?), but bootlegs are a fickle and idiosyncratic things that must be respected as they are, and any attempt to not is virtually criminal (and no, bootlegging itself is not criminal).

Friday, May 8, 2009

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

(More or Less) Breaking News: Jay Bennett sues former compadre Jeff Tweedy

I heard about this when it first broke, but I mean, read here. For those of you familiar with the film I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, Jay Bennett was kind of a colossal asshole in that movie. But that's not the point. It seems unlikely that the case will get very far, because a lot of the claims Bennett makes seem to be very strange, and you can find the brief here. So yeah. I'm not going to hate on the guy who had some hand in making Being There, Summerteeth, and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot what they are (extremely good albums), but something is fishy here.

For one, Jay is going after Jeff on royalties associated with the documentary I mentioned earlier. Besides Jeff being in this movie, I'm certain that Jeff really has nothing else to do with it. So for one, Jay is going after the wrong dude here. Sam Jones is the guy responsible for that movie, so if Jay is really looking to do this, he's got his guns pointed at the wrong man.

Then, you have to wonder a little bit about the timing. Those who kind of keep up with former Wilcomen (is that the proper term?) know that Jay Bennett actually needs hip replacement surgery. His hip has degraded and it's to the point where it's no longer salvageable. These procedures are expensive. And as a not prominent musician...he's probably lacking in medical insurance. I mean, have you, the most-likely average music listener, even heard of Jay Bennett outside of the context of Wilco? So yeah, I really feel bad for the guy. Nobody should have to go through this kind of stuff, especially without medical insurance. Such is an artist's life.

The kind of thing I'm thinking is that he is, in a way, suing now, of all the years he could have sued post-documentary because he needs the money for his surgery. But to really sue Jeff Tweedy? Sure, things went sour and he fired you, but in another regard he A. employed you, B. let you become part of something bigger which C. has inevitably defined your legacy. It's almost as if the guy is biting the hand that fed him...and I don't like that at all. Not one bit.

Plus, I'm sure if he had approached Wilco management, Wilco could have probably thrown something together for an old compadre (however bitter the ending was). Always gotta pay dues. From as little as a note and a donation link on Wilco's website to even a charity show for Jay Bennett would have probably gone a long way towards covering the procedure.

I'm forever grateful for what Jay Bennett brought to Wilco during that era, but man, this here stinks a bit of douchebaggery.

In the non-legal world, Wilco is putting out a new album cunningly titled Wilco (the Album) on June 30th, and they will be kicking off a tour on...gasp, June 12th in Cincinnati, Ohio. Hey, that's my birthday (and hey, I'll be there!).

Monday, May 4, 2009

Record In Motion: Ornette Coleman - The Shape of Jazz to Come

This "Record In Motion" segment is primarily for when I am listening to a record "in motion" (so basically for the first time) and will thus dish the dealio as it comes to me.  So without further ado...this record, Ornette Coleman's The Shape of Jazz to Come.

I picked up this album today because it was 99cents at the Amazon music store and because they crowned it "the best jazz album" ever.  Tall order, to say the least.  I'm no jazz buff, though, but regardless it gives any album a lot of pressure on its first spin.  I've heard some of the "more necessary" ones, like Miles Davis' Kind of Blue and Birth of the Cool, John Coltrane's A Love Supreme and Blue Train.  I liked all those, though I would rank A Love Supreme and Kind of Blue as superior works to the other two.  So being no real jazz cat, this album proves to be interesting.

From what I can understand, this record is the first avant-garde jazz record.  No piano to ground it down in chordal structures, so basically Ornette Coleman and his cornet-toting partner get to roam free, often playing the same lines or settling in implied harmonies.  There are slower moments on the record where the two saunter around in that strange, classy manner in which only a jazz cat can evoke, but there are those times when Ornette Coleman or his compatriot spew out fire at lightning speed.  Technically, it's really grabbing, and Coleman's skill is simply undeniable on this record.  Of course, being technically good at an instrument doesn't grant you "jazz cat" status immediately, in my opinion, so I must look towards more intangible aspects.

As this is free-form, avant-garde stuff, the (most) important aspect of it is to maintain flow.  To continuously play at 100 miles a minute for the whole record is not tasteful, nor elegant nor praiseworthy.  Neither is a record that simply sits on its harmonies without exploring melody, which is simply boring.  A player in this setting, from what I can tell, has to be able to adapt to all circumstances, to know when to indulge in virtuosity or when to delve deeper into harmonies and melodic exploration.  That seems to be key to me.  From what I can tell, Ornette Coleman and company do a fine job with this.  Coleman is obviously the leader, and he communicates his melodic ideas well, and to give major due props to the other members for being able to support and complement the guy's sax playing with deftness and grace, neither encroaching too much when Coleman takes center stage but more than capable to fill in those sonic holes when they need to be filled.

That's my general first hunch about this record.  To me, jazz is more or less an acquired taste.  It's not for everyone.  There are the typical jazz records, then there are the weird jazz records, and then there are the even weirder "jazz records" (I'm looking at you, Interstellar Space Revisited).  I know this method of classifying jazz records is in no way academic or near scientific, but to be honest jazz classification has almost gotten out of hand, so I'm simplifying it for my own use.  To me, this particular record fits in between the "typical jazz" and "weird jazz" for me.  But even at a first listen I do give this album its credit and my gratitude; perhaps this guy really knew what jazz was going to be "shaped" like and every other cat was just copying his groove.  I'm not able to conclude that so quickly, though.  So there comes with that a need for continued listening before I can place this in my favorite jazz albums list, however small that list may be...and so perhaps it's a list worth expanding.