Cleaning Out the Music Library Vol. 1

Probably the only people that own more music than me are other musicians or those who are obsessive compulsive collectors of music.  I may even lean towards the latter.  Music is both my passion, my career, and my hobby.  Despite all of the music that I might slag off if we were to have a conversation, there is an incredible amount that I love.  Even though a lot of the music I own is no longer in any physical form, I thought I would call it Cleaning Out the Music Library, where I would write about five great albums and keep them to a paragraph a piece.  Most of my newer posts deal with whatever I am listening to or inspired by at the time.  I thought this would be a good way to make people aware of some other great records that are out there.  I am picking randomly out of my iTunes library, on whatever the spirit moves me to write about.  If I have touched upon any of these releases before, it is only by shear lack of memory, as I have posted close to 2,000 posts here by now.

1.  Adam Ant is the BlueBlack Hussar Marrying the Gunner’s Daughter – Adam Ant – After Adam Ant spent years out of the music business due to personal problems, he returned with a double album.  The album was unlike most comeback records as it is a truly strange piece of work.  It is a low fi record that owes more to the early post punk spirit than a thousand indie bands combined.  This record wasn’t aimed at getting back to the top of the charts, but about creating something personal, unique, and actually artistic.  There are some great melodies and vocals on this record.  However, the vocals and the songs can sound slightly off the cuff, as if these could be perfect pop songs, but he decided to record them in a moment of inspiration and leave them be.  Many of the recordings are more like demos than finished studio tracks.  All of this works in the albums favor as it sounds outside of time.

2.  Build a Nation – Bad Brains – Produced by now deceased Beastie Boy MCA, this record was a return to form for the band.  MCA recorded the Bad Brains to analog tape and got some of the fiercest recordings out of them in some time.  Some critics complained about the amount of effects added to singer H.R.’s slightly diminished voice, but I think it only makes the proceedings weirder and more interesting.  The punk tracks, or whatever you call it when the Bad Brains go all out, as they are far more musically adept than most punk bands, are better than the reggae tracks, which miss the rawness of their early reggae work.  However, even those tracks are respectable and they serve to add some variety to the proceedings.  The record sounds great in the way that only tape can.  If you are a fan of their early work, or you like the creativity and insanity of early 80’s punk, this record is worth checking out.  True freaks of their time.

3.  Doug Sahm and His Band – Doug Sahm – Even though he was born in San Antonio, no other musician quite captures what I think of as Austin music quite like Doug Sahm.  Country, blues, rock, and other genres come together to create a unique Tex-Mex blend.  It truly is something that hippies and cowboys, or just fans of great music, could get into.  The music feels extremely loose on the surface, but there are a lot of hooks here.  It’s the work of someone that both knew what he was doing, and was free enough to live in the moment.  I could have picked other records from his long career, but this is a great place to start if you haven’t heard of him, or you have and have never actually checked his work out before.

4.  Raise the Pressure – Electronic – This is what happens when Johnny Marr and Bernard Sumner make an album together, though to be fair the music is slightly more weighted towards the kind of pop that Bernard Sumner is famous for in New Order.  (Though there are some great mid period Johnny Marr guitar hooks.) Some of the keyboards sound like they are from the 80’s, even though this album was released in 1996, but I’m not picking this record because it is hip.  It’s just full of great pop songs, great hooks, and some great British musical moments.  If you like pop music with effervescent melodies and great playing, this album has loads of both.  This record is really cool because it doesn’t even try to be, it’s just emotional and enjoyable.

5.  Popular Delusions and the Madness of Cows – Ramsay Midwood – My favorite Ramsay Midwood record is Larry Buys a Lighter.  I know many people that love his first album.  But Ramsay Midwood has never made a bad record and they are all full of his unique personality, lyrics, and way with a groove.  This album features a couple of my favorite Midwood songs in Jesus Is #1 and Planet Nixon.  Midwood writes lyrics that are often full of dark dry humor.  “Jesus is #1, I’m #2, and the rest of y’all is #3.”  His music can only be described as honky tonk music from another dimension.  People that think Sturgill Simpson is unique haven’t got a clue.  On nights that I’m not playing in Austin, if I am going out to see music, I would just as soon see Midwood play as much as anyone else.  But Midwood isn’t strange for the sake of it.  He gets how deeply weird this country is and holds a mirror back up to it.  If you pay close attention he’ll have you laughing at the strange truth of it all.

Mad Max: Fury Road Getting Rave Reviews

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Vanity Fair Mad Max Fury Road Review

Vanity Fair and just about everyone else are raving over the new film Mad Max: Fury Road.  It is currently at 98% over at Rotten Tomatoes.  I simply can’t wait to see it.  Here is a sample from Vanity Fair:

Fury Road feels brand new. In a movie season exhaustingly cluttered with never-ending superhero sagas and reboots, Fury Road arrives, despite its pedigree, as a daring, fascinating, thrilling jolt of original energy. It’s invigorating the way a big cinema spectacular should be, reveling in the medium’s towering possibilities, and transporting us to a thoroughly realized world that’s wholly unlike our own.

Over at Huffington Post Marshall Fine raves as well:

Here are some of the names that came to mind as I watched Mad Max: Fury Road:

Federico Fellini. David Lynch. Pieter Bruegel. Ralph Steadman. Stanley Kubrick.

The Problem With Pitchfork

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I read reviews at Pitchfork, even though I rarely agree with them.  Pitchfork at least takes reviewing albums somewhat seriously in an age where reviews seem more like tweets than actual criticism.  More and more magazines and sites seem to be mistaking a half a paragraph as enough information to base an informed purchasing decision on.  I’ll at least give Pitchfork their due in that they put out an awful lot of longer form criticism.  The problem, however, is that most of the opinions you encounter there are ones that you can pretty much guess in advance, especially when it comes to rock music.  Their writers seem to disparage anything where actual songwriting is involved.  The more an album is a collection of weird sounds, and the less it actually features well crafted songs, the better chance it has of being highly rated.

The thing is, really great songs are hard as fuck to write.  We actually need more artists that are actually saying something in a way that reaches people.  I love all kinds of music as long as I feel an artist is doing something that comes direct from their soul and they are not just following trends.

Their is a band called The Knife that I like.  Their last album, Shaking the Habitual, was a really interesting record.  It dealt in avant-garde soundscapes much more than it dealt in pop songs.  If it were a painting it would be more of a Jackson Pollock than a beautiful landscape.  But do you know how many times I actually listened to the entire record in one sitting?  I haven’t once.  It’s pushing the envelope and that’s important, but it’s not really enjoyable other than as an intellectual exercise.  As a musician I really appreciate that kind of thing, but it’s a hard thing to love.  Pitchfork gave it an 8.4 and called it the best new music.  If you read the artwork that comes with the album you know that The Knife have a political agenda, but you would be hard pressed to really get that agenda by actually listening to the music.

Meanwhile the new Morrissey record is really subversive politically and in a way that anyone listening could get.  It’s because he uses the form of the pop song as his platform.  There are intelligent lyrics that tackle everything from gender politics to animal cruelty, but they are all delivered with melodies that are undeniably catchy.  His new album World Peace is None of Your Business has some really interesting arrangements.  The album starts with tribal percussion and a didgeridoo.  I’m Not a Man, perhaps the most subversive pop song that I have heard in some time, with an incredible melody, even starts with a minute and a half of strange noises.  What I’m getting at is that this isn’t simple guitar, bass, drums stuff, although I love traditional rock n roll as much as anything.  But I can’t help but think that Morrissey was punished a couple points by Pitchfork because he actually dared write memorable melodies.  His album was awarded a 5.9.

The new U2 album got only 4.6 points.  I wouldn’t say that the new U2 album, Songs of Innocence, is one of their top three albums, but it’s really good.  Every song features really strong melodies and great playing from musicians that play as a true band.  I personally like it more than probably any record they have put out since Pop.  I think Bono as a lyricist was at his peak between The Joshua Tree and Pop.  However this new album has songs that deal with IRA car bombs and the death of his mother.  It’s not exactly bubblegum.  But out of the three albums it is the most traditional in terms of writing and arrangements.  This is a rock n roll band album by and large.  But anyone that has ever written songs with things like guitars and melodies will know that what they are doing on this record is not the kind of thing that is easy.  It would be much easier to get a bunch of weird instruments and make an atonal soundscape.

I want a world where I can hear both.  I like that I can flick on my iPod and shuffle between The Knife and U2.  Out of the three records I like the Morrissey one the best as I think it is the one that straddles the gap between the intellectual and emotional the best.  But out of the other two, I can tell you flat out I am going to listen to the U2 one way more.  It’s more emotionally resonant.  And also, even though it seems more traditional, creating great songs is actually the harder magic trick.

I feel lucky though that as a music fan I don’t have to choose.  There is different music for different occasions.  Everyone has slightly different tastes and opinions.  However, I can’t help but feel that Pitchfork tilts the scales too far in one direction.  I feel like our mainstream culture has been dumbed down too much. If you look at the music of the 60’s you will see that this wasn’t always the case.  There was a time when music could be popular and important.  Now Pitchfork alone isn’t responsible for this.  A great deal of it has to do with other aspects of our free market culture run amuck.  But sometimes I wish the writers over at Pitchfork would realize that intelligence and subversive thought don’t necessarily have to exist apart from accessibility.

David Mitchell and Haruki Murakami

 

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Two of the best living novelists have new books out.  David Mitchell and Haruki Murakami are both novelists that are able to entertain and deal in serious themes of the human condition.  

Here is an excellent review of Mitchell’s new novel The Bone Clocks in The Atlantic:  

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/09/review-david-mitchells-bone-clocks-the-cloud-atlas-authors-meta-masterpiece/379445/

Here is a review of Murakami’s new novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, by rock n roll legend Patti Smith:

I intend to read both of these novels.  I highly recommend Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, please god don’t see the movie, although all of his works are worth checking out.  My favorite Murakami books are The Wind-up Bird Chronicle and Kafka On the Shore, although again almost all of his work is excellent.  

Q Magazine World Peace is None of Your Business Review

http://www.morrissey-solo.com/content/1894-World-Peace-review-by-Victoria-Segal-in-Q-Magazine-(4-5-stars-Aug-2014)

As anyone that reads this blog will know, I am incredibly excited for the new Morrissey record, especially after hearing the tracks that have been released.  All the reviews I have read for the album have been 4 our of 5 stars and one was 8 out of 10.  For those of you that are fans like me, here is a link to the Q Magazine review.  For those of you that not, you should be!  It’s almost here.  

 

Review of Under the Skin

I saw Jonathan Glazer’s movie Under the Skin tonight starring Scarlett Johansson.  It is a highly contemplative movie that features a great deal of stunning original imagery.  It’s not as surreal as something like a David Lynch film, but it is way more art house than most American cinema.  An easy way to decide if you would like this film is to be honest with yourself about how much you like meeting images halfway to arrive at your own interpretation.  I loved it, but can say with certainty that it is not for everyone.

Scarlett Johansson plays an alien that has come to earth whose purpose seems to be to lure men into a trap.  She does this by seducing them.  Exactly what happens when the men are lured into the home she is using as a trap is slowly revealed piece by piece.  The movie moves along at a slow meditative pace, where each image is parsed for meaning.  She eventually develops empathy for her prey and things take a different turn in the second half of the film.  Part of the enjoyment of this movie is putting the puzzle pieces together yourself, so I don’t want to say anything else about the plot.  It’s not a mystery per se, so much as it is a film that doesn’t hold you by the hand, and uses the imagery on screen, more than any dialogue, to tell the story.

The movie is cinematically beautiful and haunting.  There are several scenes that I know will stick with me for awhile.  There were several shots in this movie that reminded me of Japanese art for the way that nature seems larger, more mysterious, and more powerful than the characters taking place in the foreground.  There is a sense of dread that permeates the film, but even in the middle of this dread the images still have a sense of wonder to them.  The movie takes place in Scotland and the rainy foggy Scottish countryside in the second half of the film seems every bit as foreign as the early shots that take place where Johansson brings her victims.  One scene in particular, of trees waving in the wind, had me thinking that the woods were as alive and enchanted as a dark fairy tale.

The film is full of ideas, but I think different viewers will take different things from it.  Sex and gender plays a role in the film, both in relationships between Johansson and her victims and during some scenes near the end that I would rather not spoil.  The film also contemplates mortality and what it means to be human.  I feel like I have only just started thinking about this film and over the next few days it will be running through my head.

Most good movies are like short stories with some even approaching the depth of a novel.  This movie is much more like a poem.  It is a stream of images, where the story is secondary to the ideas and visions of its director.

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.