Mad Men, Mad Max, and Music

I’ve been taking some time off with friends and family.  I have many things I want to write about in depth, but just a few brief thoughts in the meantime:

1.  I will need to ponder the Mad Men final for awhile.  I thought it split the difference between Breaking Bad and The Sopranos. It gave the audience some of what they wanted and at the same time was interpretive enough that I think any quick judgment of it is misplaced.  My emotions and thoughts were complex while watching it.  I feel like any kind of summation at this point would not do the material justice.

2.  The new Mad Max is simply fantastic.  It is visually stunning, exploding with unique imagery, full of non-stop action, and batshit insane.  It’s entertainment with ideas and clearly directed by someone with true vision.  It makes other summer blockbusters look like marketing decisions.  I should throw in that it is emotional and subversive too.  But even if you just go see if for pure fun, you won’t be let down.

3.  Went on a walk today with My Bloody Valentine, Teenage Fanclub, and Chromatics.  Three great bands for enhancing a mood while still giving you space to think.

Eric Johnson’s Venus Isle Review

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A really beautiful album that I’ve been completely awestruck by lately is Eric Johnson’s Venus Isle.  It’s one of those albums that is overlooked, not only greatly by the general public, but also within Johnson’s career itself.  Johnson is an Austin musician that is most thought of as a guitar hero for his tasteful yet often extremely technical playing.  He is most famous for his album Ah Via Musicom, an album that won a Grammy and launched three instrumentals into the top 10 for the first time since the 60’s.  (That album came out in 1990.)  Although I hadn’t listened to much of Johnson’s work before recently, I used to have his most popular album and bop around the house to the instrumental Cliffs of Dover when i was 12.  As great as Ah Via Musicom is, its follow up Venus Isle is a truly extraordinary piece of work that is unique even within Johnson’s own career.

Venus Isle is an extremely elegant and regal album.  It has a psychedelic otherworldliness that is very dreamlike.  What makes it unique in Johnson’s catalog is that it doesn’t shift styles in the same way that his other albums do, at least not as overtly.  Some songs bleed into others and the whole album feels like a complete piece.  I almost feel like listening to any one track does not do the album justice.  The album is also as much about texture as it is about songs or individual parts.  Although the guitar playing on it is exceptional, it is often not showy in the way that one thinks of when they think of the term guitar hero.  This album also has more vocals than any other Johnson album except for maybe Tones, his debut.

The album sounds like a combination of Prince’s Purple Rain or Jimmy Hendrix’s Have You Ever Been (To Electric Ladyland) crossed with the moody likes of the Cocteau Twins or My Bloody Valentine.  That description is really only a jumping off point.  There are even more styles and moods stirred into the pot, but I think that initial description will give you some idea of the overall feel of the record.

Johnson is often called a perfectionist, and one of the biggest criticisms lobbied at him is that his work is too slick.  I think if you were going to judge this record only by rock standards you could maybe make that criticism.  Although this album is rooted in rock n roll, it is played with the precision of a jazz musician and almost at times appears to have classical aspirations.  Every piece feels perfectly sculpted.  If the Rolling Stones created ragged earthy paintings out of blood and dirt, this album is more like a marble sculpture.  I think one can hopefully appreciate both kinds of things.  If you are open to it, this is a really beautiful thing to behold.

Johnson dedicated the album to his ex-girlfriend who was killed during the making of the record.  Although it seems as if this album was well underway when that tragic incident occurred, although I can’t be 100 percent sure of the timeline, there is something about this record that reminds me of an epic poem or symphony that is trying to communicate the beauty of a lost love.  Although this album, at the time of its release, was no doubt modern music, and there is even something forward looking about it in the way that it seems like it is trying to communicate a new language, I can’t help but feel that it also seems part of some ancient past.

Johnson’s voice is light and mellow, and it is low enough in the mix that the lyrics are often hard to discern.  I find his voice pleasant enough, but it does not alone have a quality that, were it not surrounded by beautiful music, that I would necessarily seek out for itself.  I think the way it is used on this record, and on certain other things that he has done, it as another tool used to create emotion in the context of the larger piece.  On work this personal I would always want to hear an artist sing their own words than use someone else’s voice.  His voice perfectly fits into the larger aesthetics of the piece.

This is the perfect kind of album to put on at sundown and slip away into a dream to.  A unique moment in music is created, one that even Johnson never tried to repeat himself.  I know that there are those that look for more edge in music that would judge this for being too perfect, too slick, too painterly, but they would be using the wrong metrics.  I think nothing is more important then for an artist to create that one emotional moment that is true to themselves, that doesn’t look for any confirmation other than whatever light they have guiding them.  I think on this record Johnson achieved that.  The record was a commercial failure, but here it is after all those years, not in the least representative of its time or any other, still living on its own terms.

Here is an interesting piece in the Austin Chronicle from 1996 about Johnson just as he was about to release this record:

Eric’s World: The Many Fantastic Colors of

Onstage Volume

Shinyribs played a really great gig the other day at Brentwood Elementary School.  It was great because before us kids from the School of Rock played.  You should have seen these kids!  They were playing 70’s and 80’s rock and metal and simply killing it.  One of the songs that they did was a version of Metallica’s Seek and Destroy that was note for note perfect, and I mean with the shredding solos and everything.  These kids were better than most of the bands I see around Austin! 

One of the things that was also great about their show was seeing aggressive hard rock and metal played with a really clear sound out front sound.  They were loud, but never too loud.  This had to do with the players and their stage volume, the sound guy, and the fact that the show was outside.  But it is very rare to hear that type of music where the mix is clear.  So many bands mistake volume for aggression or attitude.  Yes, there are certain bands like My Bloody Valentine whose sound is derived from playing at extreme volumes, but bands like that are actually rare.  Many bands that are inexperienced, or have experience and are ignorant, destroy their sound with too much volume.  You end up hearing overtones and a giant wash of sound instead of the things that people are actually playing.  Whenever I walk into a bar and the music is too loud I usually leave.  Every once in awhile you will see a really loud band that is also happens to be really great.  However, most of the time if the band is too loud they are over compensating for something.  You know that feeling, when you walk into a club and it just sounds like someone is putting a microphone on a vacuum cleaner. 

I grew up on heavy metal music.  There are so many neat intricate technical things that go into that form of music.  I just broke out Anthrax’s Sound of White Noise the other day and I enjoy that album every time I hear it.  The guitar playing is so aggressive and the sound is so clear and crisp on that record.  But if a band were to play something like that in a small club at concert volume, all those intricate riffs would just be lost in a wash of noise. 

I’m talking about heavy metal because that music is associated with aggression and volume, but really any form of music would do that has a drum kit and an electric guitar.  If you spend all those hours practicing and perfecting what you do, I would imagine you actually want people to hear what you have come up with.  It’s a crying shame is something good were to go unnoticed because it got lost in a haze of noise. 

The other thing that you realize you lose when you play too loudly is dynamics.  When one person on stage is playing to loudly every else seems to match their volume.  People are trying to hear themselves above the din.  Those subtle dynamics that make music really exciting get tossed out the window! 

Except for a couple large outdoor shows where backline has been provided, I never use anything live but a single 15 inch Ampeg combo cabinet with my bass.  The instances where I felt I needed more have been few and far between.   Guess what, at all of those larger venues, there is a direct out on my amp that can pump it straight through the PA.  A 15 generally gives me all the stage volume that I need.  Anything larger would just be for show and would just be added gear that I would need to hump in and out of clubs all the time.  Anyone tells you that you need more than that, who isn’t playing to at least a thousand people on a regular basis, is either lying, clueless, or deaf. 

What’s Shaking On the Hill

There is probably nothing harder than writing about music, except writing about your own music.  Music is primarily an abstract emotional art.  Other than lyrics music is something that is supposed to make you feel, not think.  Words often fail.  Music is often something that takes the place of words.  Even when you have something more concrete, like a story song, the music, and that abstract emotion, is on equal footing with the words.

I have tried and failed more times than not to tell people what the band No Show Ponies sounds like.  Part of this is the trouble of change.  Our first album, The End of Feel Good Music, was mostly an Americana affair.  This is due largely to the part that we had grown bored with electric guitars at the time and when we first moved to Austin we brought in all of the players that we knew, that tended to lean towards this genre.  This was not a natural fit for us as my brother Ben, who is my copartner in NSP, and I listen to Americana about as often as there is a full moon; maybe less.  Sometimes art just turns out the way the gods intended, and you don’t’ have as much control as you would often like.  Everyone that worked on the album did great stuff.  I still believe in that album as a collection of songs.  I’m not trying to queer my own hustle.  All I’m trying to lay down is that the music on that record doesn’t fit our natural inclinations.

The record that is done in all but title, that we are releasing this fall, is more representative of us and our influences.  It’s a combination of our artier pretensions and at the same time our love for big classic rock n roll.  It may sound strange to say that it is one part Joy Division and one part Van Halen.  It is one part Public Image Lmtd. and one part Thin Lizzy.  It is the Replacements and My Bloody Valentine, it is the Police and Thomas Mapfumo, it is Fleetwood Mac and it is the Smiths.  I know what went into the pot.  Those are just a few of the things we were stirring together.  Lyrically it was influenced by the darker humor of Lou Reed and Morrissey and Leonard Cohen.  But it was also influenced lyrically by Kurt Vonnegut, Flannery O’Connor, David Lynch, Terry Gilliam, and a whole host of other artists and thinkers that have nothing to do with the music business.  To me the album is a rock n roll album in the classic sense.  Most rock bands of the 60’s mixed together a highly eclectic set of influences to come up with their sound.  Someone like Pete Townshend was an intellectual and a primitive.

You may get some of that or none of that when you hear it.  That’s fine.  We just hope that you get something out of it.  That it sounds good cranked up in your car.  We hope that it also sounds good on your headphones when you are alone and want to dive in deeper.

We recorded live to tape with minimal fixing and overdubs.  It’s raw and unpolished, but it’s true.  We redid the vocals, but we even sang into the same microphone at the same time to get it as live as possible.  It’s the sound of a band that can play their asses off all in the same room together.  It’s unhinged energy.

They say when you are slinging your own shit to come up with a catchy term to sell it to people.  I’ve never been able to do that.  I’d say it’s rock n roll, and it is, but that term has lost value as it’s been tied to everything under the sun that features guitars and isn’t country, blues, or jazz.

So again I’ve failed to explain exactly what it is that we do.  That is often death in a marketing sense.  But I believe in this record a hundred percent.  I hope that some of you will too.  Maybe as it gets closer to being released I’ll get some kind of divine intervention and come up with the perfect term or phrase to give this thing wings.

If you are curious about what it is we do, and happen to live in the great city of Austin, Texas, we’ll be playing live at the Continental Club this Friday.  We start at 10pm sharp.  Come out and see what’s shaking on the hill.  Make up your own mind.  As a listener that’s what you should be doing anyway.