Sunday, August 23, 2009

Google Yr Idols

Two posts ago, I noted that Alan Sparhawk likes to talk about how he likes dub. To back it up, I googled it. I found what I wanted, but also discovered what googlers are looking for when they search for Alan Sparhawk: Unless there's an Alan Sparhawk who works as a drug dealer, I think that it's sad that the number one search result for his name is "alan sparhawk drugs." The guy's had problems, sure, but even higher than "alan sparhawk low"? Disappointed in internet users, but intrigued by the opportunity to glimpse at what people associate with some of my favorite musicians, I did a few more.

I suspected Courtney Love's would be sordid, but take a look at number three:I don't think I've ever seen it put that bluntly.

This one was pretty interesting. It turns out that people aren't interested in Craig Finn's favorite beers, but rather his favorite Drive By Truckers songs. But wait, what are numbers two and three?:
Turns out Craig worked as a divorce lawyer between Lifter Puller and THS. Or something. I clicked on both and found out nothing about his personal life, so instead of searching for "craig finnberg" I assumed he changed his name to Finnberg upon moving to Brooklyn.

Speaking of East Coat pretension...
Woah! Or at least that's what I'd say if "Kim Gordon's Panties" weren't a song by Rapeman, Steve Albini's late Eighties group. But that a song from a 1989 noise-rock album, especially one with that title, is the number one suggestion for Kim Gordon have to wonder about that.

An MF Doom (who now refers to himself as the more imposing but less googlable DOOM) search produced a couple of interesting resultsThe last one particularly captivates me. Could there be a video of the erstwhile Daniel Dumille slam dunking? Alas, the dunk is a sneaker. I was glad to know in advance that the second half of "mf doom ball skin" referred to a song title.

Finally, sometimes you can prod the search toolbar to produce fun (or disturbing) results:

Thursday, August 20, 2009

English Blood Runs Hot

I sometimes feel sorry when artist's work leaks to the internet. While Jack White and Radiohead-level freakout/hissyfits are uncool, and smell strongly of the big egos involved, you have to feel for a guy like Bradford Cox. He got angry when somebody leaked the new disc from his pals in Animal Collective, and couldn't understand why people didn't funnel their energy into recording their own versions of highly anticipated albums instead, like he did for Pavement's Brighten The Corners. When Microcastle leaked 6 months before the album was to be released, Cox reconvened Deerhunter to record a completely new album, Weird Era Cont., which was packaged with Microcastle. That is how you respond to a leak, people. (Weird Era also leaked prior to the double-album's October release).

This is all a preface, however, to my main point: sometimes, unavailable/illegal things are so awesome they deserve to be leaked (I'm looking at you, unreleased and now unclear-able Paul's Boutique-era Beastie Boys tracks). Such is the case with Cocksucker Blues, the unreleased documentary that follows the Rolling Stones on their legendarily debauched 1972 North American tour. The film, which legally can only be shown in the presence of director Robert Frank, made its way to the internet recently.

Cocksucker Blues plays like a film of deleted scenes, a succession of unnarrated, uncontextualized images that flash before our eyes. It's verite to the point that you can hear the cameras rolling. Much of the documentary is presented in a spooky, bluish B&W, which lends a certain menace to the film's prosaic scenes, and an outright villainy to its notorious ones--public sex aboard a private jet, groupies and hangers-on shooting up, Mick Jagger doing lines of blow.

Of course, outright menace underscores the entire film, as the '72 tour was the Stones' first since their disastrous concert at Altamont, then and now as potent a symbol as any of the death of 60's idealism. The ghost of deceased Stone Brian Jones, a flower child felled by excess, also haunts the proceedings. Indeed, the Stones of Cocksucker Blues are hedonistic and apolitical, in pointed contrast to the radical Stones Goddard offered four years prior.

The version I streamed seems to be missing the very end of the film, but it's still fascinating stuff. The concert scenes, filmed in color, sizzle--in particular a duet between Jagger and Stevie Wonder that begins as "Uptight (Everything's Alright)" and transitions into "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction," a brilliant bit of "Midnight Rambler," and footage of Jagger and Richards listening to "Happy" that segues into the Stones performing the song, with Jagger handling some of the lead vocals.

The film--for shame!--has little interest in Watts, Wyman, or Taylor, much less the touring musicians, but Jagger's magnetism compels. His on-stage persona is sex incarnate, and his sartorial decisions are as glam as glam gets. Off-stage, and in snippets of interviews we hear, he seems tired and conflicted, wanting both celebrity and peace of mind, to be and not to be Mick Jagger. Most telling are Jagger's visible relief at riding the tour bus (rather than taking the Stones jet and mingling with the on-board entourage) and inattentive response to a parade of half-sincere birthday wishes.

It's one of the film's few clues as to what made the Stones so brilliant, so fascinating. The menace is a part of it--the Luciferian affectations, profane grooves, and lyrical raunch--but it hardly explains how the group, from 1964-1981, produced one of the most consistently brilliant bodies of work in the history of rock music. And in 1972, the band was on an equaled but never bested hot streak, having, in the space of five years, released three-and-a-half of the greatest albums ever made.*

It seems the Stones milieu, disgusting and warped by excess as it may have been, was key to their music. The hedonism--as well as the prodigious talent of all involved--provided the irresistible boogie and salacious licks, while a certain antipathy towards this world accounts for the more reflective, honest moments (usually the country songs and slower blues numbers). The Stones had it both ways with Mr. D, it seems, or at least regretted their sympathy for the satanic. The second verse of "Dead Flowers" shares something of the two impulses, and captures the contradiction well:

Well when you're sitting back in your rose pink Cadillac
Making bets on Kentucky Derby Day
I'll be in my basement room with a needle and a spoon
And another girl to take my pain away

The narrator speaks to a sybarite but is himself a lowlife. Yet the sybarite was once a part of the underworld, and the narrator, with his easy access to drugs and sex, an alpha male of the underground. Neither has both feet in either world, an their coexistence and contradictions blur the boundaries between high and low society. The song's tone and lyrical content, a pensiveness via hedonism, clearly emanates from the ne'er-do-well, and there's little evidence of soul-bearing by his former accomplice (just as "Brown Sugar" is hardly introspective). The two poles of high society and demimonde are characterized by the popular perceptions of Jagger and Richards, respectively.

The value of Cocksucker Blues for Stones scholars is that while it exposes the band and its coterie's sybaritic side, the performances suggest that the self-proclaimed "world's greatest rock and roll band" may have been exactly that. A few fleeting images and sounds help us grapple with the questions why and how.

*Sticky Fingers has never been a favorite

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Trip To The Store

Temporarily in possession of a car last Tuesday, and without much to do, I drove myself to Minneapolis' Cheapo Records. There's a Cheapo four blocks from my apartment in St. Paul, but the Minneapolis branch is bigger, cooler, and, crucially, has a basement "Viynltopia." I blew an afternoon and a few dollars there, here's what I found:

Isaac Hayes, The Isaac Hayes Movement--Ike's at the height of his powers on this album of four lengthy covers. As a songwriter, he's part proto-hop-hip visionary, part master arranger and interpreter. He picks apart his source material, shuffling around and recombining an original's lyrics, melodies, and rhythms with his own words and arrangements. He often sees enough in a song to stretch it to three or four times its original running length. Accordingly, the bittersweet album opener "I Stand Accused" gains a five-minute spoken word intro in which Ike, speaking to his best friend's fiancee, says everything but what he really means--that he's in love with her. As the song transitions from the intro to the bulk of the tune, the sparse drums, piano, and guitar gradually gain strings, horns, and a gospel choir in a build that would make Jason Pierce jealous. Jerry Butler's lyrics, as sung by Hayes, are an affecting and desperate plea for love, all the more potent for following the Hayes-penned monologue.

The rest of the album is hardly a let-down. Side one's other track, "One Big Unhappy Family," can't quite compete with the twelve-minute "Accused," but Hayes' baritone sounds wounded there as well, and carries the song. As an interpretive vocalist, his only true contemporary was Rod Stewart (who the same year would release his great, mostly-covers album Gasoline Alley). Side two begins with the Bacharach/David tune "I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself." I hear it as the lament of "I Stand Accused"'s protagonist, after he wins and then loses the girl. The song's been drastically reconfigured, at least in comparison to the (also excellent) White Stripes cover I know, with an oddly lovely passage that features the gospel choir singing "Don't know what to do" in progressively higher registers.

The album closes with a 11:45 cover of The Beatles' "Something." While the guitar sounds eerily like George Harrison's, the song's sufficiently different to discourage comparison: let's just say they're both gorgeous. John Blair's contributions on violin nearly steal the song. 5/5

Low, "Santa's Coming Over b/w The Coming Of Jah"--Low's eerie UK-only Christmas single from last year. The packaging's cool--you can barely make out Low's name on the all-white cover--and the song's a grower. Creepy, quiet verses erupt into loud, nervous choruses. Deeply unsettling, even for Low. The b-side, a cover, is an attempt to merge Low's sound with reggae, a genre Alan's been name-checking for a while. It doesn't quite succeed, and that Al and Mimi invited their grade-school children to sing on the track doesn't help. 4/5

R.E.M., "Radio Song b/w Love Is All Around"--The song's got it's haters, but I've always enjoyed the upbeat, KRS-One-featuring "Radio Song." I bought this for the b-side, however, and I dig it. Mike Mills' vocals and Peter Buck's guitar render this delicate song even more fragile. Not as good as The Troggs version, still cool. 4/5

Charlotte Hatherley, "Summer b/w Commodore, S.M.U.T."--Hatherley's "White" is one of the best songs of 2009, and I enjoyed what I heard of 2007's The Deep Blue. "Summer" is culled from her first solo album. Power-pop sadly bereft of the fluid guitar work she's capable of, the A-side is enjoyable enough. The two b-sides are forgettable. 3/5

David Vandervelde, "Jacket b/w Murder in Michigan"--Vandervelde has a serious Marc Bolan fixation, but since when was that a crime? I bought this because it was cheap and had loved another T. Rex-biting tune of Vandervelde's, the towering, youthful "Nothin' No." "Jacket" works the same angle, to awesome, glam-tastic effect. The b-side is more "Ride A White Swan" than "Jeepster", and less fun. 4/5

Saturday, August 1, 2009

You Never Give Them Your Money

Today's Times op-ed by reliably readable "visual columnist" Charles M. Blow features a very interesting graph:The chart looks at the lifespan and profitability of various formats, and it's interesting to see how, as a new format gains dominance, it eats the sales of its predecessor. The chart indicates that, since the 1970s, these things have worked in ten year cycles. Notice that 8-track and Vinyl shipments both peaked in 1978, that cassette shipments saw their high watermark in 1988, and that CDs had their best year in 1999. Ten years later, digital downloads don't yet make nearly as much money as decimated CD sales, but that will change soon enough.

It speaks to capitalism's prerogative to constantly evolve as well as to the rate of technological change, I suppose. I suspect if you were to chart VHS, DVD, and Blu-Ray sales/shipments as Blow did for music formats, you'd see a similar, perhaps slightly slower progression.

In any case, the graph also charts how American tastes are shifting. Currently, individual track downloads earn more than digital album sales. While factoring in CD sales would reverse this relationship, at least in the digital world track sales account for more revenue than albums. Historically, Americans have shunned singles in favor of albums, but the graph suggests we're inching closer to the singles-loving Brits.

This shift has much to do with modern media players, which allow users to shuffle and recombine songs in ways previously difficult or impossible. It may also speak to the scarcity of CD singles, formerly a boon for album sales.

There's a lot to tease out of the information Blow provides, but I'm not sure he always gets it right. Witness:

•He points his finger at streaming music, which " is poised to seal the deal" vis-a-vis "the music industry's deathwatch." To blame are "teens" streaming online. Fucking teens! While streaming surely accounts for a drop in sales, Blow doesn't note that streams (including free streams, YouTube views, and internet radio) actually earn money for the music industry, usually through ad revenue. Curious, as his own paper wrote online streams up as a potential savior of the music industry last Sunday.

•Blow closes with this parenthetical:
I wrote this column while listening to “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill,” the last truly great CD I ever bought. Every track is a gem. When did I buy it? 1999.
The implication is that truly great albums aren't being made any more, contributing to weak sales. It's a total fogey sentiment, and clearly not the opinion of a man who's listened to The Chemistry Of Common Life, Farm, Love Vs. Money, or any of the other gem-laden albums released just in the past year. I bet Blow would like New Amerykah: Part One (4th World War).

•Blow writes "Apple is working with the four largest labels to seduce people into buying more digital albums." While he's right that it's "too little, too late," he neglects to mention that the contents of the seduction--interactive booklets--are a joke.

In parting I'll note that, for me, the scariest part of the column is that "of the 13 million songs for sale online last year, 10 million never got a single buyer." Guess the Long Tail theory is a joke too.