Dock Ellis As Icarus

The truth is never simple and yet it is. The truth is we did kill him. By silence we consented… because we couldn’t go on. But by Ares, what did we have to look forward to but to be discarded in the end like Cleitus? After all this time, to give away our wealth to Asian sycophants we despised? Mixing the races? Harmony? Oh, he talked of these things. I never believe in his dream. None of us did. That’s the truth of his life. The dreamers exhaust us. They must die before they kill us with their blasted dreams. – Old Ptolemy, regarding Alexander the Great, in the movie Alexander

Last night I watched No No: A Dockumentary, a documentary about the baseball player Dock Ellis.  He was famous for, among many things, throwing a no hitter on LSD.  The documentary was worth watching, really good even, but not exceptional.  The footage and the interviews were fantastic, but something about the way the different pieces were put together, the narrative arc, seemed a little loose and unfocused.

One of the things that I found disappointing, but did not take away from my enjoyment of the film, was the end of the film’s focus on Ellis getting clean and teaching prisoners how to reenter life.  Now this is true to life. I also don’t wish to discount what is obviously a noble pursuit for anyone.  But for most of the film Ellis is Icarus before the crash.  You know, because he is mortal, that his wings will melt, but you can’t help but enjoy watching him fly to close to the sun.  So often society wants the outcome of the Icarus myth.  They show a brief shot of his obituary and the newspaper’s headline says something about how he overcame drugs.  For much of his life Ellis was the black ball player that, during a time of extreme racial prejudice, refused to keep his head down.  He not only was a physical mutant, succeeding in MLB while being extremely high, but also quite fearless in his behavior.  When black ball players were expected to keep their mouths shut, enduring things that can only be seen as outright ignorance, Ellis refused to play by the rules of society.  He was never one of the silent masses, guilty by consent.

Early in the movie the film talks about how black ball players, in certain parts of the country, were supposed to stay in different hotels than the white players.  This is obviously insanely stupid.  Black ball players also had to deal with everything from racial epithets to threatening letters.  Ellis never let this kind of discrimination water down his personality.  He was bold and proud when the world wanted him to be meek, quiet, and safe.

Society, even today, wants people to know their place.  I don’t even necessarily mean this in a racial way.  It wants people to tow the line.  It wants people to apologize for their personal transgressions.  But the world needs people like Ellis.  It needs freaks and mutants that by design or will can’t conform.  Although there are many ways to challenge the absurdity of the world, one way is to match its absurdity blow by blow, to refuse to bend to the will of the ignorant.  For a longtime Ellis out-crazied the whirlwind.

He eventually takes it too far.  As one ages their body can no longer handle the excess of youth.  Society is more powerful than the individual and it eventually will take the edges off someone or destroy them.  Very few, like George Carlin, actually get bolder with age.  Even if you refuse to bend to the will of society, life will eventually defeat you.  But for a little while he was out their defying the powerful, even defying the gods.  He was up there in the clouds, free and beautiful, a mythic character in the flesh.

I’m not saying his later deeds do not deserve commendation.  His work with those on the outskirts of society were noble, good, and worthy of respect.  But don’t for a second discount his earlier accomplishments.  He was a heroic mutant, momentarily shaking off the shackles of the mortal.  I’m glad he was out there, for a little while…

No Church in the Wild

I’ve been listening to this track lately.  It’s batshit insane and I love it so.  Whether it is Lou Reed or the orchestral piece Sensemaya, I love music that sounds like it is going through the looking glass.  I of course love many many different types of music, of all different emotions, but there is something about when artists sound like a modern day Icarus, like they are flying to close to the sun, that appeals to me.

I’m not traditionally a huge hip hop fan.  Nothing appeals to me more in music than a unique singer singing their truth.  (Public Enemy has always been the one exception.)  However, I have tried to be more open to it lately, as I have often loved a lot of the production on hip hop records.  As a musician I have found myself being drawn to a lot of the stuff that Kanye produces because it is often quite musical.

The Myth of Rock N Roll and Icarus

I’m diving back into Marah’s catalogue after getting their excellent Mountain Minstrelsy of Pennsylvania album.  I found a gloriously fun song by Dave and Serge Bielanko, the two brothers that fronted Marah, at least until Serge went on hiatus to raise his daughter.  The song is called Livin’ On the Road.  It’s from a compilation called Camp Black Dog Presents: Rock & Roll Summer Camp ’98

The song is a ridiculous rock n roll tale driven by banjo.  It sounds like it came from somewhere between Ireland and the Louisiana bayou, but its spirit is completely rock n roll.  It features lines such as, “I was a cocaine addict, I did the cocaine a thousand times.”  Another choice line is, “I was a hooker’s lover, an undercover friend of whores.”  In lesser hands, my mind drifts to all the red dirt bands singing about whiskey, these lines might come across as fake rebellion.  But Dave and Serge have such great trashy rock n roll singing voices, and the song is played with such enthusiasm, that one can’t help but feel like defying the laws of decency and nature while listening to it. 

I think most rock n roll myths are pure bullshit.  However, when delivered in the right hands they do serve a purpose.  Most people, at least at one time or another, live lives dealing with some kind oppression.  The defiant rock n roller is like Icarus.  They are flying higher and closer to the sun than should be allowed, defying the gods.  You know that eventually their wings might melt, but they have made it further than most. 

We live in an absurd universe.  I don’t have to tell you that.  Just watch the news, or TV commercials, or politicians, or so many other things.  It’s often easy to feel like there is no sense to things and that the Creator went on vacation somewhere along the line.  Many people are forced to work jobs that they have no passion for, while others have to deal with sicknesses that aren’t their fault.  Fate can be cruel.  However, the rock n roller is like some weird mutant that can fly onward and upward, at least for a little while, in spite of such things.  I think that’s why so many want to believe in the myth of rock n roll, even if much of it is a myth.  To paraphrase the last line of Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle:  They are lying on their backs, thumbing their nose at You Know Who.  

Review of Arcade Fire’s Reflektor

Disclosure first:  Even though I knew from the very start of this blog that I would be talking a great deal about music that I either love or hate, I questioned if I should do any real album reviews.  I am a working musician and I feel that this puts me on dangerous ground.  In the early days of Hollywood most of the major studios were led by Jews.  Because there was still a stigma about Jews in America, they did not produce many movies that had Jewish themes.  As David Milch once said, who is also Jewish, they didn’t want to, “queer their own hustle.”   So I wade in lightly.  In fact I probably wouldn’t wade in at all, but I’m pretty convinced that most music reviews these days are written by bonobo apes, though even apes probably couldn’t butcher the English language with such regularity.

I already broke one of my fundamental rules when it comes to music reviews.  A writer should never take up space he could be educating you on what he or she is reviewing by talking about themselves.  The only exception is if talking about oneself leads to further understanding about the piece under review.  Anyway, I digress:

Arcade Fire – Reflektor

Arcade Fire is one of the most “important” rock n roll bands out right now.  I say important without being sarcastic.  They are one of the few bands that have large enough budgets to live out their Technicolor dreams, wherever that leads them.   On record and live they also play rock n roll with immediacy.  They are unafraid to tackle large themes  That being said, important does not necessarily translate into good.  It just means that their work should be taken seriously.

This is a long record, 75 minutes, and an incredibly dense one.  I have listened to the thing about five times since its release Tuesday, that’s over five hours if you are counting, and still don’t feel that I have a great grasp of the thing.  Because of the complexity and density of the recording and the themes it seems to tackle, this is a record that probably will take months if not years to bear all of its fruits.

I champion any band that is willing to take sonic risks.  On this album they employ Haitian percussionists, bring dance beats to the forefront at times, and layer the album heavily in effects like tape delay.  That’s not to say those things haven’t been done before, even by Arcade Fire.  If you listen to Neighborhoods #1 (Tunnels) on their first album Funeral, the drummer is playing a beat that has a dance element to it.  However, the way in which these techniques are employed on this record are new for Arcade Fire.  Sometimes this record feels like Funeral if it were mixed completely opposite.  The bass and drums are loud in the mix, with the wall of noise that the band is so good at being pushed further to the background, at least by their standards.  I am making an overall generalization, and this approach does change from track to track.

The record is a double album if bought in the physical form and there does seem to be a difference in the two halves.  (Again, I can’t state enough that this album has yet to fully reveal itself to me, and I wish more music journalists would be as honest.)  The first half seems more rhythmic while the second half seems more melodic.  There are moments on the first half that remind me of Sandinista by the Clash.  The second half of the record seems to go into more typical Arcade Fire territory.

If I have one general critique of Arcade Fire it is that I don’t feel like anyone plays with a distinctive personality.  Some would argue that it is because they are a large band, but so is the E Street Band, which has several players with instantly recognizable sounds.  You would almost never mistake Roy Bittan or Clarence Clemmons for anyone else for instance.  The E Street band can rise and fall together like a wave, but you can always pick out each of their individual contributions if you pay attention.  On record at least, the musicians in Arcade Fire seem to meld into each other.  Some might prefer this approach, but I think it makes them overall less distinctive than many of their influences.  I will say that they do have an instantly recognizable vocalist in Win Butler, which goes some distance in carving out an identity.

That being said Arcade Fire, even despite stretching their wings on this record, do have an overall sound.  They are stronger than the sum of their parts.  Their sound is somewhere between the American rock n roll of the E Street Band and post punk bands from England, like The Cure and those artists on Factory Records.  It is an expansive emotional sound.  There is often a sense of yearning on their records somewhere between the emotions of melancholia and joy.  That being said, it never comes across as forced as many other bands in their genre do.  You can like or dislike what they do, but they are good at it and it seems authentic.

There is also an organic quality to their records.  Even when playing music that is influenced by dance grooves, and I always view dance as having an urban element to it, there is part of their sound that is full of flesh and blood.  Their first album had moments that were very pastoral, and although again these elements have been pushed to the back, they are still there percolating occasionally along the edges.  Twinkling pianos and acoustic guitars do appear.  However even these pastoral moments are more in the spirit of Brian Eno’s Another Green World than any kind of Americana record.

Lyrically this album is still revealing itself to me.  I know from reading about it that it is partially influenced by the myth of Orpheus, but how this exactly relates to what is going on around it, I can’t quite grasp yet.  If I can be blunt, as lyricists I find them to be good, but not great.  There is nothing embarrassing.  They do have moments of poetry.  However, when listening to Cohen, or Morrissey, or Reed, there are often couplets that you can pull out of the whole, that are extremely memorable and quotable on their own.  Morrissey’s, “I was looking for a job and then I found a job, and heaven knows I’m miserable now”, says so much with so little.  Win Butler does not write lyrics with such economy.  This might seem as faint praise, but I don’t necessarily mean it that way.  The lyrics on this record are just more abstracted and impressionistic it seems to me.  They do enhance the music, which should be a lyrics first job, but they are not writerly.  I do believe there is a difference there.  At the end of the day I believe an Arcade Fire record fails or succeeds on the sound of it.  The lyrics come secondary to ones enjoyment of it.

Now comes the central question of a review.  Is this record any good and is it worth your time?  Despite any criticism I wrote above, I do believe that it is.  Again, because of the complex nature of this record, the final verdict appears sometime off.  However, in the movie Alexander there is the quote that, “All men reach and fall, reach and fall.”  The Arcade Fire are definitely reaching here, when so many artists seem content to retread past glories or make art based on what they believe will sell.  I cannot tell if they will fall yet.  This record is an artistic statement; there can be no doubt about that.  They’re not fucking about.  There are definitely moments of sonic greatness here, but is the record as a whole great?  I do know that this record will do what good art should make you do, which is to feel and think.  It is still too early in the game to claim if this is a grand success or a noble failure, but it is something to experience.  This record makes me think of another Greek myth.  That would be the myth of Icarus.  The Arcade Fire are definitely aiming to shake off their earthly bounds and do something great.  Have they flown too high?  Will their wings melt in the process, sending them earthbound once again?  Only time will tell.

I wanted to make an addition to this review.  One of the mandates I have set for this site is that I will not change, unless it is with the purpose of fixing mistakes or making clearer, a particular blog.  I can always change my opinion and write a new blog, but the original blog must stand as is.  However, because this review is ultimately supposed to help you decide if you want to spend your hard earned money on something or not, I feel I should make one additional distinction:

This is not an album that is full of super accessible pop songs.  That is not to say there aren’t some great melodies and songs buried within the record. That is also not to say that as I experience repeated listens there won’t be even more strong melodies over time.  However, that is not it’s intitial stength.  I am enjoying it at this point more based on the sound of it and the emotions that it creates.   If you are looking for something to sing along to in your car, this probably isn’t the album for you.  If you are looking for an interesting and rewarding musical experience, then you will enjoy this record.  It’s kind of like you are hearing this really sonically interesting music, and then all of a sudden a strong melody will emerge, only to have it melt back into the music a few minutes later.  I think that is important to point out as you decide if this record is for you or not.  I always think you should challenge yourself musically, try things new things out and see how they grow on you.  However, depending on how much money you have in the bank, you and only you can decide when you can afford such risks.