A recording that has kept making its way into the back of my mind over the last several months has been The Cure’s The Hanging Garden. It is both atmospheric and exciting. Driving bass and a great receptive drum part create a giant foundation for the song, while other things come in and out of the mix. It sounds insane, while at the same time being a piece of work that is clearly done by people that know how to use the studio as an instrument itself. It is such an interesting and unique piece of work. Even The Cure, who came close with excellent songs like Burn and Bloodflowers, never did anything quite like it. The whole record it is off of, Pornography, is a dark masterpiece, but The Hanging Garden is extremely accessible, despite the menace of the piece, in a way that some of the rest of the record is not. Unlike a lot of indie music there is a bigness to this song. Yet, unlike a lot of rock there is a true strangeness as well. It’s emerged over the last year as one of my favorite recordings. Check it out. Hopefully it will inspire you to dive deeper.
As anyone reading along will know, I have been fascinated by The Cure lately. I have always liked them, but I think I understand their career better than ever before. They are so much more than what their media reputation would have one believe. An incredibly adventurous band with a strong enough personality to tie together an ocean of sound.
It is so common in the press to reduce things down to a one dimensional cartoon. Either through luck or savvy, Robert Smith and his band work on that level, but it’s a strange trick that they can be as experimental as they are and still hold a simple image in the collective imagination. It allows the casual fan in while giving them the freedom to really do whatever they want. You can always recognize The Cure, but they are as stylistically varied as Led Zeppelin or The Beatles.
Often viewed as a musical Tim Burton cartoon, though Tim Burton was influenced BY them, they are often reduced to goth or gloom or post-punk. Music for the sad teenager hiding in bed. They can work this way, but it is horribly reductive and only hints at what they have accomplished. They often incorporate the psychedelia of Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd, the dark artiness of The Doors, the cold drone of Joy Division, yet are probably more diverse than any of those bands. (I don’t mean more groundbreaking or better. But they are as unique and they belong to be mentioned with other great musical acts.) They are a classic rock band with roots in the post-punk scene. Play The Hanging Garden, In Between Days, The Funeral Party, and Six Different Ways back to back. Aside from Robert Smith’s vocal and a sense of atmosphere, think of how different those tracks are.
Although Disintegration might be there masterpiece, The Head On the Door might be the album that best sums up their career. At 10 songs it contains many of the various highs that their career holds in one short package. It might not contain one of their epic six minute-plus glacial paced distorted downers that the band seems to incorporate on many of their later releases, it might not do one thing as great as some other albums, but it does everything well that’s there and provides the listener with an idea of where they can go.
They really have so many great records. I love the dark animalistic blood lust of Pornography, the beauty of Disintegration, the post-punk mausoleum of Faith, the varied and sometimes poppy melodies of Wish, and really most of the things they do. Even later albums, which many fans don’t deem as great as their 80’s stuff, are full of treasures. They always do something unique to themselves with each album, even when they aren’t breaking new ground.
I have mentioned that no matter how diverse their material is, that they always have a personality and aound. First Robert Smith’s vocals are alway identifiable. If you are going to like them you need to get on board with his voice, as it is a constant. Even though he can sing with variation there is never any mistaking who is singing.
They also always create a sense of atmosphere. Even their guitar based songs are often drenched in palatial reverbs, delays, and choruses. Even on their relatively dry (for them) self titled album there is a sense of space.
I think more than anything they are involved in world building. Each song is its own little cinematic experience. The best of movies, even when they are fantasies, set up their own believable set of rules. Even if reality is different, there is an internal logic that seems true to itself. The Cure are like that. There songs rarely touch upon reality in the way cinema verte does. These little mini movies and symphonies that they create at the very least have a heightened sense of reality to them. Sometimes their work goes all the way out to fantasy. But even when they are at their realest, there is a sense that the emotions and senses are heightened. You are getting an emotion, and emotions are always slightly abstract, in the extreme. This is why they are often wrongly pegged as music for teenagers. But music should be emotional and that is why they have made so much great music. However, unlike so much of pop music, which is often aping emotion, you always get the sense The Cure are being true to themselves, that they are obeying the internal logic of their creations. Even at their most fantastic there is an element of their work that stays true to the human heart. This is why their music is outside of time and always relevant to someone.
I’ve been thinking lately about how technology affects the quality of art being made. Now art is not monolithic. Just because digital recording became the norm doesn’t mean that analog gear isn’t still used. Just because photography was invented obviously doesn’t mean that there stopped being painters. But I am talking about trends in general.
I have mentioned numerous times that I have spent a lot of time listening to The Cure lately. I want to use two of their songs as an example. I am going to post YouTubes, but it would be much better if you could listen to higher quality recordings to really get the details. First I want you to listen to Play For Today from their album Seventeen Seconds, which at the time was a low budget recording (However you are listening, I would recommend headphones):
Now I want you to listen to a song called Sleep When I’m Dead from their album 4:13 Dream album. This is a song that was written much earlier in their career, in what many fans feel was the best period of their career. I purposely picked this song because it was written at an earlier period. Although there are probably reasons this didn’t make a record, I wanted to get the argument that Robert Smith isn’t as good of a song writer as he used to be out of the way. I’m not trying to talk about taste in writing or performance, merely the technology to capture each song. (I personally like all periods of The Cure, though I have slight preferences for some.) Anyway, here is the song:
Now it is impossible to know what creative decisions went into recording each song. However, what is going on in each song is part of a bigger trend in music, so that I don’t think you can just base the sound of each recording to the taste of the artist. I would also imagine that the budget was much bigger for Sleep When I’m Dead, given the fact that The Cure has gone on to be a band that can play stadiums.
On the earlier song there is much more clarity to the way it sounds. Each instrument is discernible no matter how loud or quiet they are in the mix. There is also much more depth of field. When things get it seems like they are farther away. In a lot of modern recordings when things get quieter, part of the instruments seem lost in a way that does not happen naturally in reality. The newer song has less clarity and less depth of field, despite probably having a bigger budget for recording. This is also despite the fact that technology has progressed. I’m not doing this to knock later period Cure. Too many times fans of any band develop sentimental attachments to artists that don’t allow them to view their newer work clearly. I personally prefer the older song out of the two, but I am happy to hear any new material by an artist that I like. Plus, there are newer songs by The Cure that I prefer to certain older ones. It just comes down to the material itself. However, I feel that the way the earlier material was recorded gives it a better chance of flight. It has more sonic ambience and atmosphere in just the recording itself.
Anyway, I’m using music, but this really could apply to many art forms. Although there are certain movies that look great when they are filmed digitally, there is something about the way film looks, which is a longer and more expensive process, that often wins out on average. It always, at the end of the day, comes down to the choices that each individual artist makes and how they use a medium that matters most.
Technology often makes things easier and less expensive. This is good because it allows more people to express themselves. The downside to technology is that sometimes less of what is made, as a percentage, reaches a certain level of quality. It is easier to record than ever before, which means more recordings are being made. This is a good thing. However, even average quality recordings of earlier time periods usually have a higher standard that average quality recordings today.
I’m not trying to make a point necessarily. There are people on both sides of the argument. Both have valid points. I only am trying to get you to think about how technology can affect art both good and bad. Technology in art, as it does in life, can often make things better and worse at the same time.
In the van headed for a festival in Florida. Just read this list over at Stereogum, while listening to The Cure’s Faith on my headphones. If you happen to be a fan of the band this is a fun read, even if you don’t agree with it.
I was listening today to the Cocteau Twins. They were a band that came out of the post punk scene in the U.K., but they carved a very different path than many of their contemporaries. They hailed from Scotland. They are somewhat similar to The Cure in that they created reverb drenched dreamscapes, but they were much more abstract and lacking The Cure’s penchant for abrasive gloom. Some of the earlier Cocteau Twins stuff has some gothic undertones, but even then it is often quite beautiful. It kind of seems a cliché now to say it, but listening to them you can easily imagine yourself in some enchanted forest.
The thing that truly sets the Cocteau Twins apart from other bands is the ethereal voice of Elizabeth Fraser. She was singing in a way that was largely nonverbal long before it became trendy in the indie world. Although at times she sang nonexistent words, it really had more to do with her style than anything. Even when she sings in plain English it becomes lost in translation. Her voice becomes an instrument of pure emotion. Where often singing that obscures the words can be a crutch, a way to hide the fact that one has nothing to say; her singing is powerful enough to allow the listener’s imagination to fill in the gaps. This is a beautiful sounding instrument. One imagines that she was an opera singer in some other lifetime.
The band backs her up in a way that is full of empathy. They create the perfect bed for her voice to rest upon. However, their music is not art rock in the sense that it is something to be appreciated more than loved. There music is not purely intellectual. Melodies still come to the forefront that are as catchy as any pop song. If I was to think of a visual representation for what they do I would use impressionistic painting. There is enough detail there to connect with the song, but it is blurry enough to give one a different view into what a pop song can be.
Unlike a lot of the post-punk stuff that came out of the U.K. their work can be appreciated on a beautiful sunny day as well as a rainy one. I’ve gone on walks on both kinds of day and felt reality heightened just a little around me. There are some that might call this painterly approach to music pretentious, but there is nothing pretentious about creating something that creates strong emotions. Emotions by their very nature are abstract. Although the Cocteau Twins will leave you plenty to think about, they are band that makes you feel first.
If you are interested in checking them out I would recommend their best of which is called Stars and Topsoil. I don’t usually recommend compilations as a place to start, but this is a really excellently sequenced one. Although they changed sounds over the course of their career, their different periods sit nicely next to each other. Also, unlike most pop music that can eventually be figured out, their music will always remain somewhat mysterious due to its nature so that you will not tire of it. It is as good of a place to start as any and it will allow you to see the different shades of their career, while also playing like a great record in its own right.
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.
I am up in Seattle now. It has been raining off and on. No big surprise. I love it. I never thought I could miss rain, but I do. Down in Austin we have been in a drought for awhile. Rainy days, where you can hide away in your house, are rare.
There are certain books, movies, and films that just feel better when it rains. The Cure’s Disintegration would be one such piece. With books I think of something like Haruki Murakami’s Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.
I like to occasionally slide away into that land of dreams. Where you are awake, but touched by the realm of the mystical. The rain allows that. Let it rain, let it rain, let it rain…