Monday, June 29, 2009

It's hard to know how to feel about Michael Jackson's death--as a person, musician, and celebrity he meant a lot of things, a lot of them irreconcilable. I was never his biggest fan, but like most people my age, I heard a lot of his music and learned quite a bit about his personal troubles. This experience is hardly geographically specific: I spent fall 2007 in Guanajuato, Mexico, and I remember being shocked how often, during my lengthy walk to school, I heard Thriller blasting from shops and cafes. In Michael's time, he really was the biggest pop star on the planet, perhaps the last of his kind. No doubt his music will endure--let's face it, it's already had to endure a lot.

A devastating LA Times article by Robert Hilburn demonstrates what an impossible life Jackson lead. That a handful of brilliant, beloved songs and albums remain from his tenure on earth is probably the best thing I can think to say right now, one of few redeeming features in an very tragic life.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Massive Furry Things

Tuesday will see the release of Dinosaur Jr's ninth album, Farm. It's their second disc following the 2005 reunion of the original lineup. The first of those albums, 2007's Beyond, was my favorite album that year, and remains my favorite Dinosaur album (sorry, You're Living All Over Me, you're a close second). I first heard it in May 2007, and it was a total revelation--J Mascis' towering torrents of guitar noise seemed to bury the apprehension and bewilderment in his drawled lyrics. I loved them both.

I later became an enormous Dinosaur fan, and it'd be an understatement to say that the release of Farm is a big deal around these parts. I preordered the album the first day it was available, and it arrived in the mail yesterday. I got the special 2xCD edition, with four bonus tracks, and as one of the first 200 people to preorder, I got an autographed Dinosaur poster(!). I listened to the album once while a friend was over, so I thought I'd share my thoughts on Farm during my second listening, track by track:

1. "Piece By Piece"--A melodic rocker with some monster riffing, par for the course as the first track on a Dinosaur Jr album. While not quite "Freak Scene," "The Wagon," or "Almost Ready," I nonetheless refuse to complain about a song this good. The guitars are warm sounding--if there was one legitimate criticism of Beyond, it was that it did sound a bit sterile--and Mascis' voice is really buried in the mix. 5/5

2. "I Want You To Know"--One of the songs released in the run-up to Farm, the stuttering rhythm and guitar line initially irked me. They still do, though I've warmed to the song a bit. It's remarkable, however, how much the reunion of J, Lou and Murph can sound like Green Mind/Where You Been period Dinosaur--during which Lou was kicked out of the band and Murph only ocassionally provided the drums. Murph really hammers the cymbals on this one. 3.5/5

3. "Ocean In The Way"--A bit more languid than the openers, and in 3/4 time, which I don't think most of J's songs are. I honestly wish I could hear the vocals a bit more, and I say this as someone who counts There's A Riot Goin' On, Exile On Main Street, and Murmur as three of his favorite albums. The song slows just after the 2-minute mark, with some quite nice bursts of sustained notes. Features an unusually slow guitar solo. 4/5

4. "Plans"--Slower yet, and with an opening riff that evokes some of the more heartbroken moments on Beyond. Chorus: "I got nothing left to be/Do you have some plans for me?"--hands up if that reminds you of "In A Jar." The chorus is answered with J's wail: "I know you do"; it looks corny on paper, but it's great to hear the country twang in his drawl again. Rather long at 6:42, but the album itself kinda sprawls. It's actually lovely. 4.5/5

5. "Your Weather"--Obviously a Lou song from the first moment onward, it's got the tunefully dissonant vibe he perfected with Sebadoh. I could actually see Jason Lowenstein writing something like this, and in any case it totally sounds like three-quarters of Bakesale. More bass-driven than anything that preceded it. 4/5

6. "Over It"--Just fucking absolutely sweet. J's guitar opens with a high-pitched and super catchy squeal, multitracked over other layers of his own shredding (I hope he's able to pull this one off live). The squeal actually adorns very little of the song, but the entire track has an unstoppable, punkish momentum to it. 5/5

7. "Friends"--The riff here wants to be at least three things at once, and while J can obviously play the thing, it could have used a little more time in the oven. The most appealing parts are a descending guitar line and the interplay of multi-tracked Jazzmasters towards the end. 3.5/5

8. "Said The People"--At 7:42, this is the third longest track in the Dinosaur catalog. Starts slowly, with Mascis communicating regret more through his guitar and voice than his lyrics. While his guitar has always been crucial, an incredibly expressive instrument, J's lyrics were always central to me. On this album, however, I can hardly hear them (not nearly as much on this track), and from what I can hear, Lou is right that they're not J's best. His subject matter is hardly new--alienation--but on Farm Mascis' lyrics are about as nimble as his vocal range, whereas usually they hold considerable mystery. This track could've been more concise, obviously, but there's seems to have been a logic to stretching it out. Malkmus would understand. 4/5

9. "There's No Here"--Insistent, aggressive instrumentation, especially from J and Murph, make this more of a throwback to early-period Dinosaur than anything we've heard so far (it's kind of "No Bones"-y). A towering post-chorus riff sounds more like the stuff of more recent vintage, but goes well with the rest of the song. The production here is much warmer than anything from Bug, say, and it likewise suits this track. John Agnello, who engineered this disc, also produced Sonic Youth's recent and fantastic The Eternal, which sounded way more metallic. 4.5/5

10. "See You"
--Vaguely funky in the way that certain moments on the Sire albums are. It's a warm, elastic funkiness unique to J's guitar. Mascis' vocals hardly sound like words, but his pleading tone works well. 4/5.

11. "I Don't Wanna Go There"--The single longest song on a Dinosaur Jr studio album; the success of "Pick Me Up" on Beyond seems to have emboldened the band to indulge. A cacophonous ball of confusion with a super-long (and awesome) solo that begins midway through the track and lasts for almost 4 minutes. Shit, I doubt there's more than a couple people on this planet who could even play that. 4/5

12. "Imagination Blind"--The other Lou song on the record, with a huge chorus that sounds right as Farm wraps up (no "Poldeo"s here). Though his other contribution was climate-themed, this is the one that pummels like a hailstorm. 4.5/5

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Shot Of Dylan

I've been reading the recently-published Cambridge Companion To Bob Dylan, a collection of 17 interesting if unimaginative essays about the Harp-Blowin' Hibbingsman. The prevalence of statements like "obviously his unparalleled body of work will live on forever" lead me to reflect on my own relationship with Dylan, one of the first musicians I fell in love with. While much of the praise offered up in the Companion is deeply unnecessary (the above quote being the best example), I nevertheless throw my voice into the fray and cherry-pick my ten favorite albums by the man. Not included is this year's dirge-filled Together Through Life, a pretty big disappointment.

Aaron's 10 Favorite Bob Dylan Albums

1. Blonde On Blonde

Every song creates its own sound-world, wicked mixes of crooked blues and over-enunciated wisdom.
2. Blood On The Tracks
As unguarded as Bob got, a real, beating heart revealed amongst lush and gorgeous instrumentation.
3. Nashville Skyline
Dylan's late 60's/early 70's country albums are his most underrated, and this is the finest among them. Modest in ambition but lovely in exectution, it even proved that Dylan could croon like a cowboy.
4. The Basement Tapes
Lo-fi transmissions from a vividly imagined, fictional America. Like if you and your buddies got drunk in the basement and recorded some of the best, murkiest and most eccentric Americana ever.
5. Bringing It All Back Home
The split between the jumpy, amphetamine-laced electric blues of side one and the paranoid, surreal folk of side two captured a messed-up songwriter torn between two worlds.
6. John Wesley Harding
A tight, unpretentious set of country-rock totally at odds with the swaths of psychedelia Dylan had wrought.
7. Highway 61 Revisited
Dylan snarls for 35 minutes before his despairing yowl takes over. An album with the force (and subtlety) of a lead weight.
8. Desire
An album-length duet between Dylan's furious, resigned and garbled (again!) vocals and Scarlet Rivera's nimble violin.
9. Modern Times
The best of Bob's late 90's/00's discs, an old man's honest and often spirited look backwards. Jack Frost lays on too much studio sheen, but the songs still sparkle in that heavy way.
10. Another Side Of Bob Dylan
Not even my tenth favorite Dylan album, merely an acknowledgment that of the folk albums, this is tops. Without the deadly serious folk puritanism, Bob's sense of humor, for once, shines through.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Half A Page Of Scribbled Lines

On his blog, my friend Geoff S. posits that

The word “dated” doesn’t compute for me, at least not as an indicator of quality. I am pretty good at determining the age of songs, but my favorite old songs aren’t those that have aged the best but those that are the best. Erasure doesn’t have better synths than Spandau Ballet, just better songs.

I'd be curious to know what prompted his reflection. I agree with Geoff that dated functions best as a value-neutral term. This is hardly ever the case--witness this RS takedown of The Cure's "Bloodflowers" that uses dated pejoratively, not pausing to explain why a dated arrangement is undesirable, simply accepting that it is.

Dated, however, makes more sense without this hint of judgment. In a few years, when Autotune begins to sound dated to us, as one imagines it will, the term will be able to work as it should, meaning "a sound easily identifiable as belonging to a certain era." Thus, we might say that The Replacements' "Asking Me Lies" sounds dated, as it bears the hallmarks of late-80's commercial pop-rock: precise instrumentation, lite-funk guitar, flat-sounding percussion.

However, dated does carry this hint of prejudice, and I'd argue it's because we like to think of our favorite music as timeless. This sentiment is implicit in Geoff's comment when he says "my favorite old songs aren’t those that have aged the best but those that are the best." To me, it's a strange conception of music as it exists in time. All music ages, and different kinds of music seem to age differently (though that's far too large a topic for this post).

The same songs even sound different in 2009 than they did in, say, 1989, literally and figuratively. In the literal sense, format differences ensure that songs sound different no matter what. In the case of "Asking Me Lies", the difference is exacerbated by the fact that I'm listening to the 2008 CD remasters on my computer in mp3 form, whereas in 1989, when Don't Tell A Soul was released, most listeners would have heard the song on viynl, cassette, or FM radio. The information my computer processes is literally different from what a record player does, and they provide related but distinct listening experiences.

More importantly, music changes over time because we only make sense of it in relation to other music. Today, Erasure sounds different because there are a whole wealth of new sounds it exists in relation to: we could chart its influence on music post-Erasure, or compare it to drastically different songs (the specifics of each listener and listening are relevant here). And it no longer exists in the present, as songs seem to in the months following their release or as they climb the charts. So I'd argue that this has aged such that the listening experience may be as enjoyable as it was in 1989, but that the experience is necessarily a different one.

Moreover, if it's true that songs simply are or are not good and that this judgment is a timeless one, what explains the periodic revivals that certain genres experience among groups of people all at once? The same songs speak differently to people during different times. This is in fact one of the joys of art, that in rereading a book, I can gauge how I have changed because the text has not (ignoring for the moment the literal types of differences discussed earlier). If every reading or listening experience was the same, if works of art just are, I don't think we'd keep going back to Shakespeare or The Beatles. What makes their art "timeless" is a certain richness that manifests itself differently in different eras, the timeless quality actually a perpetual timeliness.

So in the end, I have to disagree with Geoff--though I hope I haven't mischaracterized what he said--partly because I don't like Erasure or Spandau Ballet.