Category Archives: There and Back Again

There and Back Again #7: The Troggs’ Wild Thing (Plus a few thoughts on Lester Bangs and Altered Zones)

the troggs wild thing

If you even remember what the “There and Back Again” section on this blog is supposed to be about, I have to admit that I’m cheating with this one.  The loose conception of “There and Back Again” was a feature on this blog where I choose a classic album that I’ve never listened to before, listen to it a few times, and then write down reflections about the experience.  There were a few reasons behind this- first, to remind people that just because you haven’t heard of one band or another doesn’t mean that you don’t get to talk about and enjoy indie music.  Sometimes all of this stuff gets way too snobby.  There’s a lot of bands I’m not familiar with, but I still consider myself to be a knowledgable music fan- so what if I never went through an obsessive Led Zeppelin phase?  I want my readers to feel this way, as well.  It’s also a good opportunity for other readers to remember a favorite classic of their own, revisit a forgotten album, or make fun of me for being lame (I realize I just contradicted myself, but hey, that’s how the world works).

The last “There and Back Again” I wrote was over a year ago, last May.  The reason I stopped writing them was Lester Bangs.  I chose The Troggs classic album, Wild Thing, as my next never-before-been-heard victim.  The reason was Lester Bangs’ incredible essay on the band, titled “James Taylor Marked For Death.”  As I listened to the album and reread the essay in preparation, I got a writer’s panic attack.  How could I ever, in my wildest dreams, write something as good as this: “This was a no-jive, take-care-of-business band (few of the spawn in its wake have been so starkly pure) churning out rock ‘n’ roll that thundered right back to the very first grungy chords and straight ahead to the fuzztone subways of the future.”  Oh Lester.  Maybe rock journalism really should have stopped with you.

I got intimidated over writing about it, but Wild Thing has crept its way into my listening habits.  I put it on every so often, and am now quite familiar with its “no-jive, take-care-of-business” sounds.  That’s why I’m cheating a bit.  I can no longer claim that I’ve never listened to this album before.  Today, though, seemed like a particularly good day to revive my arguments from the article that I never had the balls to write (Lester, you have such an effect on me, if only you knew).

Today sees the launch of a brand new, extremely confusing effort from Pitchfork called Altered Zones.  It’s not really a blog, and it’s not really an online music magazine, as I would classify Pitchfork.  Instead, it’s a group of 14 Pitchfork-approved bloggers, most of whom I deeply respect, whose goal is to cover music that’s further under the radar than Pitchfork can manage to cover.  Pitchfork writes, “In the last several years, there’s been an explosion of small-scale DIY music.  Today, Pitchfork launches Altered Zones, a team of 14 music blogs dedicated to exploring these merging musical worlds, traversing genres from psych and drone to electronic and underground pop.  The site’s mission is to highlight the most notable and adventurous new artists, and to serve as a focal point for the flood of creativity coming from deep within the music underground.”  To me, this reads: “There’s so much music happening right now that’s at least sort of good, but some of it’s too weird or there’s simply too much to cover on Pitchfork.  We can’t compete with smaller, cooler sites like Gorilla vs. Bear, so this is our way to stay relevant and perhaps generate more revenue, making sure that we can claim we are still the FIRST and the COOLEST name in the ever-expanding world of indie rock.”  We’ll come back to all this in just a moment.

For now, back to the past.  Let’s rewind through our fuzztone subways back to Lester and the Troggs.  My initial reaction to the album is about as fuzzy to me now as the fidelity of the recording.  I do remember realizing that Wild Thing was a key to my understanding of popular rock music, an “A-ha” moment, a realization of exactly what was going on long before punk exploded in 1974.  It’s primal and simple and brilliant, suggestive and crude without being filthy, and stands the fifty plus years that have passed since its creation.  In many ways, tt’s good because of its “firstness.”

I feel jealous when Lester writes about “Wild Thing.”  He wrote the article in 1971; the Troggs covered the song five years earlier in 1966.  That’s sort of like us talking about Apologies To The Queen Mary or Illinoise or Separation Sunday.  Lester loves The Troggs.  He apparently had routine wet dreams about the band.  He likes them because they’re so unpretentious, they really meant it. They just want to find some girl to sleep with, and they set it to music to match.  It’s not intellectualized, self-reflexive, nothing like that at all.  It’s just an expression of good old penis and vagina, or something much cruder and more creative, if I were Lester Bangs.

In the piece, he goes on to complain that nothing as good or as pure as the Troggs was happening anymore.  He questions the fact that kids went inside and watched television at the beginning of the summer, instead of running wild outside finding each other “till at least some of the scholastic poison accumulating like belladonna ever since September is plain crazied out of your soul.”  He claims if that’s the case, he’s an old fart and the pure, sexual message of “Wild Thing” was lost (he was 23 in 1971, the same age as me right now).

By our current sexual standards (it’s only a matter of time before pop music videos turn into straight-up porn), The Troggs probably seem pretty tame.  But that’s not what’s important about Lester’s argument today.  In 1971, rock and roll was only a decade or two old.  In 1966, just a few years old.  It’s at least sixty now.  The fact that Lester was even able to question that nothing as good as The Troggs was going on in music only five years after is a staggering fact to think about.   Because the entire scope of the history of the genre was so much shorter, he was able to make these really bold statements about rock and roll.  Critics (bloggers) today have to look at a much greater intellectual scope than Lester ever had to be held responsible for.  Can you imagine someone saying “There’s nothing really as good as Separation Sunday happening these days.  I think rock and roll is over.”  That’s just…that’s a ridiculous statement.

And now is where we come back to Altered Zones.  Lester Bangs was able to write so forcefully, so wonderfully, so absolutely and earnestly about The Troggs because there just weren’t as many bands.  There wasn’t nearly as much history, nor were there as many bands simultaneously existing at once because of recording and sharing technology.  The salty sweet Troggs were able to be more singularly influential than I can imagine any one band being today (and don’t you dare start Animal Collectiving at me, mister).  It seems like Altered Zones is the ultimate recognition of this fact.  To me, Pitchfork has become the gatekeeper for rock/pop music today.  Sure, it’s a little snobby, but it covers a lot of mainstream acts (and has made previous unknowns into mainstream ones) and nearly everyone I know checks it at least occasionally.  You’re supposed to hate it because of its hegemonic hold on the music industry, but you should also respect it because a lot of the times it’s right.  So why do they need an entirely new website to cover all the bands that aren’t quite big enough yet?  Shouldn’t they just cover what’s good and leave it at that?

But it’s true, music has fractured into so many pieces, so many good but not absolutely great bands, that Pitchfork can’t maintain its cool status by covering everything it needs to.  I see the logic in starting Altered Zones, but it’s also scary.  This signals that we really are sacrificing quality for quantity, to be able to say that we were the first to discover a good band, rather than to smartly declare one band ultimately great (what up, Chris Weingarten).  This leads me to a common phrase that rolls around my head: WWLT?  What would Lester Think?

Sometimes I think Lester would love so much of the music that’s around now.  He’d love bands like JEFF the Brotherhood, Double Dagger, Turbo Fruits.  If he truly liked what he said he liked about The Troggs, then he’d be sitting pretty today, digging every garage-sounding band putting their record out on their own little DIY label.  He’d be like some proud granddaddy of the kids, the never aging music critic god, smiling down at all of the young bands looking proud. That, or he’d be totally disgusted at our unoriginality.  The repetition of the form would bore him to death, even if the earnest nature of the bands delighted him.  So, Altered Zones, I don’t know.  Based on their first taste of musical selections, I like nearly all of their suggestions.  Still, those are bands I mostly like, not love.  I think we’ll all need to monitor how Altered Zones’ relationships with Pitchfork and monetary gains grow in the future.  Ultimately, I hope that they remember to absolutely keep it about quality and not discovery, though I am disappointed that Pitchfork couldn’t have merely done that in the first place.

I think Lester would be disappointed that those 14 bloggers (and myself) don’t just find a few tracks to listen to and go roam the streets of their respective cities looking for a good time.  In the meantime, I’m going to keep listening to Wild Thing.  This stuff is good.  I suspect that even if this record came out today, Lester would still be right about them.  They’d rise to the top, and Lester would still write, “Their music was strong, deep as La Brea without sucking you straight down into the currentless bass depths like many of their successors, and so insanely alive and fiercely aggressive that it could easily begin to resemble a form of total assault which was when the lily-livered lovers or pretty-pompadoured, la-di-da luddy-duddy Beat groups would turn tail just like the tourists before them and make for that Ferry Cross the Mersey.”  Take that, present day rock criticsm.

MP3: “I Just Sing” – The Troggs

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There and Back Again #6: The Band’s Music From Big Pink

Big Pink Cover 300

I’ve been attempting to write this There and Back Again for several weeks now.  I’d never heard the album before, but since I decided to write about it, I’ve listened to Music From Big Pink about a zillion times.  I’ve read up on all the folklore behind The Band, how this album was recorded written at Woodstock with Bob Dylan, their humble beginnings as a backing band, and of course, their infamous last show and subsequent Martin Scorsese documentary.  I even added The Last Waltz to the top of my Netflix queue in preparation for this column.  Admittedly, I feel asleep halfway through the move and never ended up finishing it because I needed to return the DVD to get the next disc in my current teen-drama television obsession, the exact name of which series is so embarrassing that it will go unsaid.

Despite the enormous amount of new things I’ve learned in preparation to write something about this album, I feel at a loss of things to say.  Maybe it starts with their name.  The Band.  The Band.  The name says it all.  The archetypal band from what might turn out to be the archetypal era of rock and roll music.  The late 1960s and early 1970s- right before the punk rock explosion destroyed all of our sincerity, and far enough into history that they were able to hearken back to a time before, while still retaining brilliant innovation.  Music From Big Pink is a relic of its era, and still holds up as impressive today.  In their cranking, rollicking Southern melodies I hear everyone from The Beatles to Eric Clapton to Band of Horses.  Rarely do you hear a band today that can play their instruments so well, probably another outcome of coming before the punk rock rebellion.  Rarely do you hear a band today that influences their peers and contemporaries in the ways that The Band did.

It is a little crazy that I’d never heard this album until now, but it still feels like it’s always been a part of my musical repertoire.  As I listen to the album, I get lost imagining myself in 1968.  The production and guitar solos suggest hipsters (the original kind) in fringed leather vests and hole-y jeans, flowers in long hair, and smoking weed at outdoor concerts- the kind of stereotypes I have from books and movies, despite my history degree.  About one third of the way through the album, suddenly and without warning, the familiar quarter notes come in on the kick drum and i hear, “I pulled into Nazareth…”  I’m yanked away from my Woodstock day dreams and right back into the present by a song that I’ve throughout my whole life.  “The Weight” is one of the best damn songs I’ve ever heard, and probably one of the best ever written.  Its turn into the chorus is so pleasant and so familiar that it makes the rest of the album feel like home, too.  It turns out my other favorite song on the album is, “Long Black Veil,” appropriately an old standard, just like “The Weight” has become.  I don’t like the song “Chest Fever;” the groove on the organ isn’t my thing.  At this point, I’d just be getting into a list of songs I like from the album (pretty much all of them), something I suspect everyone could do, but isn’t particularly interesting to anyone else.

Like I said, I don’t feel particularly guilty for never having gotten into The Band, because I feel like they’re already everywhere in my musical life.  Numerous Hold Steady references come to mind.  “My name is Rick Danko but people call me one hour photo,” and “My name is Robbie Robertson but people call me Robo,” from “The Swish.”  Levon Helm still plays all the time, and his tour dates make it onto the same music blogs as all the contemporary acts who are influenced by him, and may not even know it.  One thing I will say about the parts of The Last Waltz that I didn’t sleep through (I know!  I know!  I’ll rent it again, I promise), was that I was surprised to see how young they all looked.  Wearing their tight jeans with long hair and beards, I felt like I was watching almost any band today.  That kind of freaked me out, to know that a sound this important and now almost antique was made by a real band, by people the same age as we are now.  It’s nice to know that great rock and roll is real.  It’s nice to know that it lasts.

MP3: “The Weight” (The Band Cover) – Aretha Franklin

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There and Back Again #5: U2’s The Joshua Tree

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Recently at work, we got into a discussion about U2.  The gist of it was basically  whether or not U2 is a musically worthwhile band.  During the conversation I found myself making statements like, “Well, it depends what U2 you’re talking about.  If it’s the current album, well then, they’re absolutely rubbish.  But Joshua Tree  was legit.”  Or “Joshua Tree is a classic album, so that makes U2 circa-1987 an important band.”  About three days later, I realized that I’ve never actually listened to The Joshua Tree.  The history of U2 has been ingrained into me without me ever listening to the album.  Most music critics think of U2 as a once-great band that made a legitimate indie rock record (and a few before that, JT being their masterpiece), that has since become mainstream and lame.  I think we can all agree that Bono is absolutely ridiculous now, but does he deserve the accolades that many rock critics give his band?  Was The Edge ever really edgy?

I’ve heard many songs on this album before.  “Where the Streets Have No Name,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” and “With Or Without You” were inescapable growing up in the mid-90s.  Those are the first three tracks on the album, so when I first turned it on I felt like I was listening to a greatest hits cd.  No doubt these are all really, really great songs, but three great songs does not a classic album make.  As I continued further on into the album with “Bullet the Blue Sky” and “Runnning to Stand Still,” it hit me.  The time, order, and place in which you listen to things are so important, and this is the perfect example of that.  I’d always known more about U2’s later career (circa All That You Can’t Leave Behind), thinking of them as generic, irritating pop stars.  My main image of U2 was Bono’s American flag leather jacket at the Super Bowl.  However, listening to Joshua Tree has helped me understand that U2 has an incredibly distinct sound.  All those “woo’s” that Bono lets out aren’t just annoying, pop-y quirks in songs like “Beautiful Day” and “Stuck In a Moment.”  They’re something that U2 has been doing for quite a long time.  I now have a better appreciation for classic, legitimately musical U2.

On the other hand, knowing “Beautiful Day” and “Stuck In a Moment” so well from my mainstream-radio youth makes Joshua Tree  seem retroactively cheesy.  The truly stunning thing about Joshua Tree isn’t all those “woo’s.”  It’s the majesty and grandeur of an album that attempts to take on an entire country.  It’s the epic-ness of the guitar sounds on the album.  It’s the way songs like “In God’s Country” seem to be an endless look across the horizon, just like you’d imagine peering across the middle of America would be like.  Bono’s “woo’s” and irritating growled lyrics (“outside it’s America” just comes off as incredibly annoying to me) carry on to their later career, not unfortunately not the good things about JT.  But, knowing those later things so well cheapens this album for me.  I can only hear it in the context of U2 circa 2000.  I think that for many people coming of age in the 80s this was a very special album, but to me, it will always probably sound cheesy.

That’s why I’d like to reclassify this as a great pop album.  I’m not sure it belongs on lists of “best alternative albums” as I’ve seen it placed before.  U2 has become a pop sensation, and you have to admit that the first three tracks on the album are now considered pop songs- hook, line, and sinker.  They’re still played on top 40 stations as throwbacks all the time.  I bet that people would recognize them as U2 without knowing that they were from 1987.  They’d guess 2001.  So, in the end, I hate to say it, but this album can never be a rock album for me.  Instead, it might just be one of the first albums in a long, excellent pop career.

I’m sure people will tear me up for saying that.  Please go ahead; I’d love to debate it with you!  What classic albums have you never heard?  Any suggestions for my next TABA?

MP3: “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” (U2 Cover) – Damien Rice

MP3: “With Or Without You” (U2 Cover) – The Walls

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There and Back Again #4: Radiohead’s OK Computer

radiohead-ok_computer-frontalThis column just keeps getting more and more embarrassing.  I’m not sure how I got here.  A music-loving young person, a professional in the music biz, and I’ve never listened to what almost everyone would put in the top five albums of the nineties (Or not.  Let’s debate!).  My friend and bandmate gaped at me in amazement when I reluctantly admitted I’d never heard OK Computer before.  When I said that I was going to be writing this column on it, he rightly pointed out to me that I wasn’t going to be able to say anything new about the album.  That everything had already been said.  He’s completely correct, but that isn’t my intent with these musings on “classic” records.  I’m just trying to either help newbies realize they don’t need to be worried they haven’t listened to certain records yet, or bring up some fun discussion points for everyone else.

I think this begs the question, then, how did I miss the most popular album from one of the most popular alternative bands of my generation?  It makes a little sense, if you think about it.  (Maybe I’m just making excuses here, but bear with me.)  OK Computer came out in 1997.  I was eleven years old and in the sixth grade.  I had Hanson in my locker and asked for the N*Sync holiday album for Christmas.  Radiohead just wasn’t on my radar yet.  Luckily for me, my brother and sister saved me from teeny-bopper fandom and a life of top 40 radio, gifting me with important albums at every major gift-giving event throughout middle school (and to this day, for that matter).  By the time I was a freshman in high school at the ripe old age of fourteen, I had my own radio show and was spinning mostly Beatles, Velvet Underground, and anything else that happened to catch my fancy.  My father was a saint and would take me record shopping every weekend.  He’d let me pick out whatever I wanted without guidance, which often resulted in a strange mixture of albums.  I distinctly remember buying some sort of terrible new Elton John release along with my very first Bright Eyes album, Lifted.  Totally bizarre.  Anyways, that year, 2000, I happened across a cool looking cd with some mountains on the cover and a really catchy name.  Kid A.  

Boy did I love that album.  I had never, ever heard anything like that before.  It was weird.  I miss that feeling.  Putting something on and thinking how you’d never heard anything so totally bizarre in your life.  At this point in my listening career, I’ve heard a lot of really strange stuff, and I wonder if I’ll ever have that sensation again.  I hope so.  I played Thom Yorke’s yowling crawl of a vocal “Everything…in its right place…” incessantly on my weekly radio show.  I thought I was pretty cutting edge.  Oh, poor little high school Madalyn.  At any rate, my musical tastes were so schizophrenic at the time, I didn’t really stick with Radiohead, let alone any band.  There was too much to discover, and the internet wasn’t available in the same way it would be a few years later to classify and rank every album for me.

When Hail to the Thief came out in 2003, I knew I was supposed to listen to it, but at that point Radiohead seemed pretty mainstream to me, as far as I could tell.  I was also in that arrogant “politics are stupid” phase senior year of high school, and I knew the album was supposed to be about our current President.  It just didn’t sound that interesting to me at the time.  I did listen to In Rainbows (I in fact bought it for two pounds on-line) and thought it was good, but didn’t really have a context for it, as I’d pretty much missed out on Radiohead.  So that’s why Radiohead isn’t really an important band for me.  I see now that they’ve had a ton of influence on modern music, especially where merging rock and electronic is concerned (could Coldplay be a worse rip off of this band, or what?).  I was just never in the right time or place to appreciate this before.

Now that I’m done writing that explanation I realize it’s most likely incredibly boring to anyone but myself.  Discovering one album shouldn’t be such a process, and probably isn’t that exciting to most people.  I’d like to live in a world where that’s not true, though.  I suppose I should say a few words on my reaction to Ok Computer itself, now that I’ve given it several thorough listens.

Wow, I guess is what I have to say.  I don’t think I’ve heard any recent album that is so very ambitious.  I have no qualms with it being consistently ranked as one of the best albums of all time.  It’s seriously good.  The way that acoustic guitar riff keeps coming back in “Paranoid Android” is fucking brilliant songwriting, and the cohesive mood and message of the album are staggering.  The computer generated voice in “Fitter Happier” and throughout the whole album is a genius reminder of the time in which the album was made, and also just sounds really difficult.  How did they get that computer voice to sound so much like music?  What is there to say really?  It’s great.

That said, I don’t really like the album.  It is not pleasant to listen to, and it totally creeps me out.  Especially “Climbing Up The Walls.”  How creepy is that song?  Whoa, it makes me so uncomfortable.  It’s a little bit like Nabokov.  Lolita is a beautiful book, but couldn’t he have written about something other than a child molester?  Couldn’t Thom Yorke have been obsessed with anything other than the terrifying realization of technology in the modern world?  Okay, obviously it’s actually a brilliant theme, and while I recognize its brilliance, it makes me feel so, so uncomfortable (perhaps another mark of a great album).  I don’t think I’d listen to this album a ton, and I definitely wouldn’t have in high school.  Well, that’s it from here I suppose.  I’m off to go listen to The Bends.

MP3: “Exit Music (For  A Film)” (Radiohead) – Vampire Weekend

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There and Back Again #3: Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon

 

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For my first two “There and Back Agains” I chose albums from the early nineties.  I figured that for this one I should probably go a little further back into the catalog.  I looked at several (annoyingly) reputable and irreputable top 100 and top 500 albums of all time lists.  I thought hard about what albums are truly embarrassing I haven’t heard.  I finally settled on Dark Side of the Moon.  An album that seems so obviously entrenched in rock and roll history, so hegemonic an idea of a record, that I sort of forgot I’d never actually listened to it.  Which, after a little research, I’ve realized is an amazing feat in and of itself.  Did you know that it’s the third best-selling album of all time in the world, and 20th in the United States?  Maybe you did know that.  But what shocked me even more was that it STILL sells about 9,600 copies every week in the United States!!!  What??!!!  According to Wikipedia, one out of every fifteen Americans under the age of 50 owns a copy.  Clearly, I really missed the boat here.

I find this current popularity shocking because as I was listening to the album for my first time (I had heard the song “Time” before.  My father played it for me once when I was about ten.  I thought the clocks were incredibly disturbing.  Maybe that’s my excuse for never having heard it.) I was thinking to myself how this album has so little to do with music today.  Okay, okay, it’s a cool album.  The electronic noodling on “On the Run” sounds a lot like some of the electronic acts that we all think are so groundbreaking today.  I can see Animal Collective coming out with a similar song now.  But really, there’s something about this album that is so 1973 that it almost sounds funny or quaint when you listen to it now.  An element of datedness that other classic albums like a Hard Day’s Night or Tommy don’t have. 

Just look at the song titles.  “Money.”  “Time.”  The songs all ask broad, philosophical questions about life that wouldn’t be clever enough or would seem too obvious today.  Somehow, our post-post-modern (argh!) 2009 lifestyles ask us to move past these simple questions in our art.  I can just hear the stinging Pitchfork review of an album that discusses the existential crises of life so unironically (can someone please think of a recent example to prove me wrong here?).  As I was listening, I thought how appropriate it is that the album cover is one of the quintessential freshman year of college dorm room posters.  The philosophical questions about life the album poses are oh-so-important at that time of your life, but are embarrassingly simplistic by senior year after Derrida and Proust are old-hat.  That’s what I was thinking about when I listened to this album.  Yes, it was important.  But it’s kind of like that freshman year seminar- you do it once and you do it well, but then you move on to bigger and better things.  Dark Side of the Moon seems like the kind of album that is only good because no one else had done something like that before, and no one else really needs to do it again.  The other thought I had was, “Wow!  People did waaaay more drugs in the 70s.”  Maybe that’s part of it, too.  This particular moment in rock history came and most certainly went.

But then what explains the fact that this album is still selling so many records every week, when most people in America apparently already own a copy?  Maybe I’m just a short-sighted music snob?  I mean, there is some great stuff on here.  “Eclipse” builds up into a truly wonderful crescendo of 70s guitar fanfare.  The techniques used for a lot of the recording were completely groundbreaking.  Still, you don’t see a lot of important bands today citing Pink Floyd as an influence.  (Again, can someone please prove me wrong on this account?)  To be perfectly honest, it all just sounds a little silly to me.  But clearly, there’s something to be said for universal themes.  9,600 people apparently still relate to them each and every week.  Hey, I’m now one out of every 15 people in America who owns a copy.  

MP3: “Breathe” (Pink Floyd) – The Shins

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There and Back Again #2: Guided By Voices’ Bee Thousand (Plus a few thoughts on The Pains of Being Pure at Heart)

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Before this week, I had never listened to Guided By Voices’ 1994 album, Bee Thousand.  For many, this is not such an egregious omission on my part; I know plenty of die-hard indie fans who never really went though a Guided By Voices phase.  They are the kind of band that everyone always has in their peripherals at the very least, but I think for many go mostly unexplored.  My first real memory of Guided By Voices was my junior year of high school.  I recall this senior girl who I sort of knew sitting slumped in the hallway in front of her locker.  She would always wear jeans and a rotation of about five band t-shirts, all of bands that I considered somewhat superfluous since I was pretty much listening to the Velvet Underground and Pavement exclusively at that point in time.  Someone approached this girl, asking what was wrong.  She responded, “Guided By Voices broke up!”  My thoughts, if I remember correctly, were, “Hm.  They’re a current band.  Well, they can’t be any good.”

Oh boy was I wrong (not to mention that this girl was wrong, too, because Guided By Voices is more of an idea of a band than an actual band that can break up, in my opinion).  Bee Thousand is an absolute masterpiece, and Robert Pollard (the guiding force and only constant member of the band) is a genius.  It’s funny that I thought of them as a current band at any point in 2004, because I now identify them with the early nineties (ironically, much like the Pavement I was enjoying at the time).  I can’t emphasize enough the importance of listening to this album in order to understand indie rock music today.  My first impression when I pressed play was, “Wow.  This sounds horrible.  They weren’t kidding about the lo-fi thing.”  GBV is known for their basement recording methods, and are often credited as coalescing the lo-fi genre, a term you’ll hear me tossing around this blog frequently.  That’s all well and good, but is by no means the most exciting thing about this album for me.  Bee Thousand is thirty-six and a half minutes long and has twenty tracks, the longest of which is three minutes and five seconds.  Robert Pollard doesn’t write songs; he writes ideas and turns them into little gem nuggets of music.  The man entirely reinvents what the word song means.  Holy crap.  Take the “Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory” for example.  Pollard writes an angsty little melody that is so achingly beautiful I never want to stop listening to it.  He rides it out for a minute and forty five seconds.  It’s a fragment of beauty rather than a finished idea, and it is so much better that way.

Pollard is also an out-of-this-world lyricist, in more ways than one.  First of all, you have to love an album who’s catchiest song is a minute long and consists mostly of “Doo doo doo doo doo doo kicker of elves.”  Let’s not forget the absolutely bizarre/fanciful lyrics of “Gold Star For Robot Boy” and the song title “Tractor Rape Chain.”  But the thing that really kills me, the real kicker in all of this superb lyrical madness, is that every so often there’s a moment of such stark clarity it absolutely takes you by surprise.  My favorite song on Bee Thousand (I think, maybe) is “I Am A Scientist.”  “I am a scientist/ I seek to understand me/ All of my impurities and evils yet unknown/ I am a journalist/ I write to you to show you/ I am an incurable/ And nothing else behaves like me.”  That strikes me as so honest.  To assert your own absolute uniqueness in a song like that takes a lot of guts and intimacy, and you don’t hear that too often- especially sandwiched between elves and robot boys.

Listening to this album makes me think of some of the rhetoric around one of the latest contenders for top ten albums of 2009, The Pains of Being Pure At Heart’s self-titled debut.  Many critics are saying that the noise-pop album is a complete throwback to the very early nineties, merely an album derivative of bands often grouped together with Guided By Voices, like the recently reunited My Bloody Valentine.  Most are saying that even so, the album does what it does very well.  One sentence from the Pitchfork review (who are very pro-POBPAH) particularly sticks out to me.  “The Pains of Being Pure at Heart simply made a slyly confident debut that mixes sparkling melodies with an undercurrent of sad bastard mopery, and you’re just being a dick if you think the past has some kind of patent on that.  That’s just the way good pop music works.”  Aside from the fact that Ian Cohen called you a dick if you happen to disagree with him, this is a really interesting idea.  Does music need to be original to be considered great, or does it merely need to be great?

Bee Thousand is not only great because it has that unspeakable quality of awesomeness that makes your stomach turn when you hear certain fuzzy chord changes or distorted lyrics, but because it’s entirely innovative.  Pollard, like the Ramones before him, deconstructed the idea of a song.  He wasn’t the first person to write short songs (I just mentioned the Ramones, and there were plenty before them, too) and he certainly wasn’t the last (every other band that came after the Ramones), but what was done on this album, in the particular time and space of the early nineties, was groundbreaking and brand new.  So while we can appreciate POBPAH as a really good new album, I think that looking back at old albums like Bee Thousand shows us that we can’t discount the fact that it is retreading well-worn territory.  POBPAH is a very good album, in my opinion, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have to hold our music up to a standard of absolute ground-breaking perfection.  I’ll enjoy this recent release for now, but I’m still waiting for something great.  Thanks Robert Pollard.  I’m particularly glad that this was the first week I listened to Bee Thousand.

MP3: “I Am A Scientist” – Guided By Voices

MP3: “Come Saturday” – The Pains of Being Pure at Heart

BUY: Bee Thousand – Guided By Voices

BUY: The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – The Pains of Being Pure at Heart

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There and Back Again #1: Paul Simon’s Graceland

This is a new segment on the blog!  Every Wednesday (or so) I will go back and revisit an album that is considered to be a “great album” or a “classic album.”  It will also be an album I’ve never heard.  I’m doing this for a few reasons.  First of all, I want this blog to be an unpretentious place where anyone can come to get great music suggestions.  There is A LOT of great music that isn’t new.  I know that people who love music but didn’t spend their teenage and college years obsessing over rock n roll histories and top 100 lists often feel intimidated by the vast amount of musical history out there.  This will be a good way, one album at a time, to both discover new music and learn a little bit about rock’s musical past.

Secondly, this should be amusing to people who do know these albums.  There are a lot of albums I haven’t heard, and the fact that I haven’t listened to them is very, very embarrassing.  People can laugh at me and feel ever-so-slightly superior.  That’s always fun, and I don’t mind.  It really is an atrocity I’ve never listened to Pet Sounds all the way through.  There, I said it.  In my defense, my parents didn’t really listen to music in front of me except for 106.7 Lite FM in the case of my mother, and the White album on repeat in the case of my father.  I’m not blaming them; I love “This Kiss” and “Bungalow Bill,” but it wasn’t the most well-rounded of musical diets.  I also spent A LOT of time during my formative years getting into 70s punk instead of learning about classic rock.  I can name all the members of The Runaways and all their various side projects and albums, but I couldn’t tell you what the first track on Quadrophenia is.  I’m going to try and fix that.

Mostly, it never hurts to think about old great albums once in awhile.  You can’t truly listen to music now without having an understanding of where we came from.  For these posts, I won’t write reviews.  These are all classic albums and have been written about a million times.  Instead, I’ll just try to give a few impressions of them and explain why they’re important.  Hope everyone enjoys revisiting these old albums with me again or for the first time!

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graceland

For the first edition of There and Back Again, I’ve chosen Paul Simon’s Graceland.  I figured if I’m going to attack Vampire Weekend, I should probably understand where they’re coming from.  In the New York Times Arts & Leisure week interview I saw, Koening said of course he had listened to Graceland growing up, because everyone’s parents played it in the car.  Well, mine didn’t.  He also said that he doesn’t think Vampire Weekend sounds too much like Graceland.  Well, they do.

I’m very, very glad I’ve heard this album now.  It’s beautiful to listen to and completely inventive in its simplicity.  It still sounds incredibly relevant despite its obviously 80s synth sounds in some songs.  It introduced listeners to other influential acts like Ladysmith Black Mambazo and featured 80s favorites like Linda Ronstadt.  The album was recorded in South Africa in 1986 (the year I was born!), and was controversial at the time.  While some felt that Simon was breaking the South African boycott, others felt that he was supporting black South African culture by collaborating with black artists.

What strikes me most about revisiting the album is the way critics talked about it then, versus the way critics speak about the burgeoning multiculturalism in music now.  These days, indie reviewers eat up any acts with international influences.  It gives them something to talk about and seems to make them feel better about following what is sometime seen as an overwhelmingly white art form.  Reviewers of Graceland got specific about the South African influences in ways that not too many people have about Vampire Weekend.  Rather than talk about “African” influences, reviewers tended to focus on the fact that Simon was specifically interested mbaqanga.  Rolling Stone wrote, “But the music is not a westernized hybrid; it’s dominated by mbaqanga, and those who aren’t interested in foreign rhythms and chants shouldn’t waste time looking for another ‘Sounds of Silence.’  Although Simon’s lyrics avoid the accusatory stance of Sun City or UB40’s new album, his engagement with black musicians who are ruled by apartheid is inherently political.”

I think that quote from Rolling Stone is incredibly revealing.  One of the reasons Graceland is so good is that it’s culturally specific to a place and time.  It’s so rooted in the birth of the emerging struggle against AIDS and the fight against apartheid, it makes me wonder why so few indie artists have turned to the crisis in Darfur as politcal inspiration for their music.  Graceland is “not a westernized hybrid,” like so much is today.  I’d like to see more artists take note and explore the difference between hybridization and actual cultural understanding in their music.  I think the musical community is jonesing for another Graceland, but doesn’t have the cultural vocabulary or particular cause to articulate that at this time.  What do you think?  Did I get this wrong?

Below is a track of Grizzly Bear covering the most famous single from the album, “Graceland.”  Thanks to IGIF for the MP3.

MP3: “Graceland” – Grizzly Bear Cover

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