Thursday, January 21, 2010

Chameleons in Music

Ah, the chameleons in the world of rock music.  Chameleons in the best sense preempt environment changes.  If the winds of music are going one way, the chameleon was, in all likelihood, there first.  But they ceaselessly reinvent themselves to the point where to try to describe the artist in one word, or even a sentence (or a paragraph, or so on and so forth...) is a fruitless exercise.  There are only a couple of chameleons in rock music that are of note, and I think it's necessary to at least examine each chameleon in some sort of detail or length.  These two are Bob Dylan and David Bowie, and they both have led stellar careers where each milestone coincides with some sort of reinvention and/or landmark work that either pioneered a genre or proved to be that genre's finest work.

But really, which image would best describe "Bob Dylan" as the man?  You'd be hard-pressed to pick one picture and say "That there is everything Bob Dylan was."

He was a folk revivalist, a neo-folkie who brought the genre back into the popular consciousness pushed its boundaries in form.  He then forsook folk for more fertile territories by going electric, infusing the ferocity of rock with a lyrical inventiveness that has never been replicated since.  But then he became "the lonesome hobo" and then a country crooner.  And then, in the wake of his marriage, became the epitome of lovesick and in one fell swoop created the "confessional singer-songwriter" genre, all while penning a classic album that simply is the best breakup album of all time, if not standing tall as one of the greatest records, ever.  Next he found himself and became born again.  That didn't last, though, as he changed his colors and became the world-weary, grizzled old wise man that he is today.

In every sense, he either invented the genre (neo-folk), or proved to produce the finest records in whatever genre he happened to be in at the time (Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde On Blonde, among the rest of them).  Perhaps you could make an argument that in strict terms of music, you'd be hard-pressed to find a genre that Bobby D actually invented for himself.  But I think that there's almost no such thing as a completely "new" genre: it's built from the blocks of older genres and appropriated and given a fresh new light, which is what Bob Dylan did.

Regardless, just by looking through the previous paragraph that condenses a 40 or so year career into a paragraph probably does Bob Dylan oodles of grave injustices.  No man has ever been as slippery as Bob Dylan.  Hard to get a hold of, because he is, and hard to get a hold of because he has changed too many times to account, to keep up with the times as they changed around him.\

Now, I could have also picked from a ton of possible photos for David Bowie, but of all the ones I could choose, I prefer this photo, as I wanted to avoid using the album cover for Low at every turn (because really, I would have no problem with that).  But David Bowie has led almost as long as a career as Bob Dylan, with almost as many twists and turns, which were arguably more drastic than Dylan's.

First plumbing psychadelic folk, Bowie later turned to glam rock, which later became a brief foray into soul and R&B before he went entirely experimental and avant-garde with the so-called "Berlin Trilogy," a classic landmark.  After "retreating" a bit into more accessible music for a long while, Bowie turned to electronica before basically spending his time reinventing his legacy.

While at first it doesn't seem like as many twists and turns as Dylan's career was, Bowie's were undoubtedly more revolutionary.  Bowie essentially invented glam rock with Hunky Dory and the Ziggy Stardust record.  He also pioneered the use of electronics in music and essentially helped form post-punk and New Wave with his "Berlin Trilogy."  Those achievements alone are astounding, but when taken in the context that it was all basically done by one man, who had either the wits or just the fleeting sense of creativity to change his musical appearance so drastically, then this proposition becomes mind-blowing.  Most artists spend their lives daydreaming about inventing genres and becoming a pervasive influence in music; David Bowie spent most of his time, well, inventing genres and becoming a pervasive influence in music.


And so, there you have it.  They're a little brief, but I hope you get the gist of it.  Dylan and Bowie were both quintessential chameleons: they never remained in a state of stasis for very long in their careers, as either they just kept on changing to their environment or actually creating a new environment around them.  Because of their successes in their changes, they both have had lasting influences in rock music and have both created, together, at least 50 records that must be heard before a person dies.  That's pretty damn impressive, right?

Saturday, January 16, 2010

This Record Probably Should Have Been Released...

...33 years ago.  So, released 2008 shoulda been 1975.

This record is like, Bruce Springsteen.  No, really.  The frontman, Brian Fallon, sounds like the Boss himself, except minus the growl and tear that develops in the Boss's singing.

But that's not really only it.  Both the Gaslight Anthem and the Boss utilize the same themes, perhaps recycled a whole lot, but still just as powerful: songs about late night films, old cars, the whole bit.  So why am I writing about this record, when I could be writing about the Boss himself?

Well, first off I don't feel like addressing the Boss himself yet.  That'll be later.  But this is a damn good record.  One reviewer put it this way (credit is due, yeah?):

Bruce Springsteen went and saw the Ramones once, and was inspired to write his hit, "Hungry Heart," which he was going to give to them.  But his manager, I think, wanted Bruce to keep it, because Bruce had often given away #1 hits.  Lo and behold, he kept it, and his first #1 hit.  But what if he had went ahead and given it to the Ramones?

And if the Ramones were doing Bruce, that's sort of what the Gaslight Anthem would sound like.  They're technically a punk band, but they don't sing "punk" in the typical sense: not like the Sex Pistols with the nihilism, not like the Clash with their activism.  They channel the furious roar of Bruce Springsteen, who rides a middle-class vibe.  Bruce's characters are sad and/or mad with their current position in society: they care about the situation they're in, but they're not going to create a riot over it...they will just cope the best they can and get the hell out of town.  Stories are carved through the stories of middle America.  That's what the Gaslight Anthem go for here.  So while they apparently play the whole Warped scene, they don't really fit at all.

And for all the imagery and lyric material that they plumb fearlessly, for all its almost cheesy language and abuse of clichés, it is not they are improperly applied.  Clichés are at their worst when applied poorly, or done without good intentions.  When Fallon sings on this record, you get a true sense of sincerity.  There's no sense of triteness, no sense of being sly, just all serious, all there.  When you hear him lift straight from Springsteen's "No Surrender," it feels like it belongs there.

For being such a modern record, its construction implies a much older age than, well, two years, give or take a bit.  There are no indicators of any sort of modernity: just the old way of going about it, pure muscle, feeling, integrity.  All the parts are simple enough, which also evokes those days closely following and around Springsteen's Born to Run era.  So that's why this record should have really been released back then.  But since it's here and not there, it's a brilliant and nostalgic trip back to those days.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Record for the Ages: David Bowie - Low

When most people think of David Bowie, they think of the Ziggy Stardust character he created, or him just being a weird guy.  Like, a really weird guy.  I don't blame them.  Ziggy is by far his most popular record, and David Bowie was weird back then (I am actually of this opinion too, but in a more...accepting manner).  But when I think of David Bowie, I think of this work of staggering proportions, Low: masterful, and groundbreaking.

That is not really to say that Low necessarily blazed the trail; in fact, Iggy Pop's the Idiot did it first.  But, for those familiar with the album, David Bowie had a heavy influence and guiding hand in the musical direction of the record.  In fact, outside of a couple of cuts, Bowie wrote the music to the Idiot.  Bowie's work on his friend's record allowed him to pursue his goals on Low with greater courage, dexterity, and awareness, therefore making this the far superior selection.

Much of Low's success can be attributed therein to his collaborator on the record, Brian Eno.  Eno has always been one of those unique figures in rock and roll.  Few know of his existence, but his influence is beyond widespread.  Besides his solo records which are avant-garde and experimental, Eno's producing and collaborative work itself reads like a best-of list of all the artists, such as:

Talking Heads - More Songs About Building and Food, Fear of Music, Remain In Light
U2 - The Unforgettable Fire, The Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby
Devo - Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!
David Byrne and Brian Eno - My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today

among countless others.

For one reason or another, working with Eno seems to elevate the quality of everything he touches...perhaps his challenges to rock conventions challenge the artist to be more, or maybe it is some insane sort of coincidences that align the full blossoming of an artist and their collaborator/producer in Eno towards one goal.  Regardless, while Bowie is still Bowie here, we can say that Eno probably pushed the record further into greatness than what could have been expected without him.

Low is also a peculiar beast in its sequencing.  Side B is entirely instrumental, while the songs on Side A are actually sandwiched between two instrumentals.  Side B is also cold, bleak, and desolate while Side A cultivates a brighter, warmer sound as it gleefully bounces around from thought to thought.  In a great sense, the songs present on Side A are not really songs, per sé, but more or less similar to the "art songs" of the classical genre of music.  Though instead of painting a story within the span of a shortened song (all less than four minutes long), Bowie instead often improvised lyrics that paint surreal pictures rather than clearly illustrate a story: how else can the bizarre lyrics to "Breaking Glass" be interpreted?

Side A, beginning with "Speed of Life," is filled with these "art songs," whose length per track is actually beneficial to the organization of the work as a whole.  While some tracks seem like strange cast-offs given their short length, if fully fleshed out and given length, my impression is that they would also lose their power.  The strength of Side A is the way it flits from picture to picture as if time is precious.  To move through Side A is to move through a powerful set of songs that pull at the gut and strain the brain as they all come by in quick and dizzying succession.  The strangely glittering parts to "Sound and Vision" is a particular delight, with its main recourse, "waiting for the gift of sound and vision," alluding to Bowie's search for both musical and artistic zen (as he was getting back into art once again).

Side B is the other side of the coin, the other half of Low.  Whereas Side A plumbed a brighter existence, Side B was the barren half that more closely resembled a futuristic leap into the depths of space (though I would argue that the tracks would fit very well with the plight of the commoner in the USSR, as evidenced by the titling of "Warszawa").  Through four dirge-like and languid instrumentals, Bowie paints a dark image: sometimes funeral-esque, sometimes sounding almost lost; but in a sense, as the saxophone finally drifts off at the end of "Subterraneans," and the outcome is unknown, the end is somehow fitting.  Bowie was just escaping the icy clutch of an addiction to cocaine, and his sense of insecurity about the future is somehow reflected on Side B.

Low is a record that stands tall with the best of them.  In my personal opinion, this record is an easy shot within a top fifty records of all time list, and I'd be even more inclined to include it on a top twenty(-five) records of all time list.  And while initially I scoffed at Pitchfork's placement of this record over London Calling as the best record of the 1970s, after many plays, I can see why they chose Low: it's quite simply a groundbreaking record, whose incorporation of avant-garde and electronic influences was unprecedented, forward-looking and still familiar at the same time.

Apparently, much of the instrumental material that appears on Low was written (at least primitively) by Bowie as the soundtrack for a movie he acted in, the Man Who Fell to Earth.  They were rejected by the director, as the rumor is that the director wanted a more folk direction with it.  I wonder how that guy feels now, knowing he passed up a masterpiece.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Debut Records...Debuting the New Decade!

Debut records from bands have always been given a sort of free pass; if it’s not fully formed, or if their sound isn’t quite discovered and is rather cliché, it’s passed off as the band simply not being there yet...and the band gets a bit of a freebie in that area.  A decent debut is considered about equivalent to a good second or third record (perhaps only the latter, as the second record is always, always the hardest to create, so in that sense a slightly less than decent second record is equivalent to the decent debut and good third record).

But me?  I’m better than that.  Sort of.  When a record is presented, that is the perfect time to present a cohesive vision branded with a group’s unique sound.  Any sense of derivation is perhaps allowed, but looked down upon with some degree of severity.  A group’s debut is not as if the band just formed yesterday and are recording immediately.  Most group’s debuts come a couple years down the road, so the group does have enough time to put something reasonable to release as a record.

This is not to say that the development of a group’s sound must have occurred only before their debut.  Change is necessary in a group’s sound; stagnation throughout a career is a surefire way to make an early exit.  Bands, groups, or artists with chameleonic careers (i.e. the Beatles, Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Talking Heads) have always been the most interesting, most groundbreaking, and the best catalogues.

The impression is that a debut record should be treated differently than a record farther down the line.  In some sense that is true, but on the greater whole, a record is still, well, a record.  So it must be good, first off.  Then the rest of the process is merely just making sure a record is just their first record.  In compiling a “best debut records” list, one can promote or demote good records beyond the normal criteria of a “good” record, to include the elements described above, strictly concerning cohesiveness of sound and lyric.  In addition, a good debut can be groundbreaking: forging a new sound that is copied earns that particular debut record brownie points in my book.

And, well, this is what I’ve done (surprise, surprise).  Without further ado:

1. The Velvet Underground - The Velvet Underground & Nico

Did you seriously expect any other result?  As a record, it stands tall as a titanic feat of achievement.  Absolute perfection in every facet of its existence, from the childish sounds of the celeste ringing in “Sunday Morning” to the cacophony that ends the record on “European Son.”  The same raw sound permeates the record, both forecasting punk as the first proto-punk record and the avant-garde experimentalism that would become the norm for any band seeking some sort of “credentials.”  For what it’s worth, this record is fast becoming a personal favorite of mine, and if I were to definitely construct a top records of all time (eventually, I will get around to it), this would be in the top ten, and perhaps even shaking up what once was, in my mind, a top five list (which has been discussed earlier at length).

2. The Sex Pistols - Never Mind the Bollocks

No, you have not heard me talk about this record before.  But yes, it is necessary to hear.  The Sex Pistols were the opposite side of punk compared to the Clash.  The Clash were activists in every sense, aiming to right the wrongs of the world with violence, if perhaps necessary.  The Sex Pistols, though, embodied the rampant nihilism of the genre, which acknowledged the dour state of affairs but simply refused to do anything about it, choosing to self-destruct rather than destroying the existing system.  This record is ranked above my beloved Clash mostly because the rampant nihilism had wider implications on the whole of rock music; while certainly there were a good amount of politi-punk bands running around, the lion’s share of the punk bands chose to be nihilists rather than activists.  That is not to say that this record is not as good as the Clash’s debut or, given argument, as good as London Calling.  Never Mind the Bollocks is quite simply one of the two finest punk rock records of all time.  And, mind you, one of the finest records of all time.

3. Television - Marquee Moon

I’ve talked about this record at length.  But it is incredible to note that the feat of achievement that Marquee Moon is it is a debut record.  It sounds as both a coming shot of perhaps what is to come but it also sounds like a final salvo of virtuosic bliss and the potential of post-punk, which, unfortunately, did not last as long as it could have.  The guitars weave in and out like swords in a dance of death, both perfectly moving in unison and creating a force perfectly complemented by the propulsive force of the rhythm section, which still recalls punk in many ways.

4. Joy Division - Unknown Pleasures

And another record I have talked about at length already.  This record is not only brilliant, but its application of atmospherics can be considered key to a whole host of genres, both in and out of rock music: dubstep, alternative rock, among others, owe a great deal to the path that Joy Division paved with this record.  Part of it is that you feel the record to the greatest degree; the application of such atmospherics means that the fading in of the album itself chills to the bone, and until the final track fades, you are in the merciless grip of Joy Division’s melancholia that is truly affecting.

5. The Clash - The Clash

As I mentioned earlier, this is the flip side to the Sex Pistols.  The activism and desire for change here are contagious, and undoubtedly around the time this record was released, many did probably go out and start their own “white riot.”  They saw the decay in their country and wanted to change it.  This record is considerably more raw than the Sex Pistols’ record.  That was likely a conscious decision by both parties.  The fact is, though, the Clash’s record perhaps embodies more of the “simplicity” inherent that had defined punk: keeping it simple...stupid.  The Clash seems to essentially be a live record: a testament to the righteous fury that punk was capable of.  The Clash perhaps chose the right route through activism, as the Sex Pistols combusted soon after their debut record, concerning “career opportunities” (I am terribly sorry for these puns, so I will blame it on the jet lag).  Regardless, this fact is a masterpiece of raw power, and it undoubtedly went on the influence many.

From there, the list really goes nowhere at all.  You can list them, but from this juncture it degenerates into an absolute mess of arguments without a clear set of rankings, unlike above.  What I would consider as other great debut records:

Pavement - Slanted and Enchanted
The Beatles - Please Please Me
Elvis Costello - My Aim Is True
Arcade Fire - Funeral
The Strokes - Is This It
R.E.M. - Murmur
Tom Waits - Closing Time
The Replacements - Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash
Weezer - Weezer
The Avalanches - Since I Left You