Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Problem With Jody

This is kind of old, but bear with me. I wanted to barely touch upon the response to my last Lady Gaga post. As I said before, I'm not interested in hashing old debates, nor do I care when things I say are willfully mischaracterized (nor do I, myself, like to be portrayed as having an outsized interest in the Young Money clan when I haven't even bothered listening to their album). For my own sanity, I wanted to say that I think that post is probably the best thing I have written in a really, really long time, and without trying to sound too self-congratulatory, I wish there was more criticism that would question the assumptions behind why we choose to talk about the music that we do.

Which segues quite nicely into a comment made about Slate's music critic Jody Rosen and his piece on Eva Tanguay. Like most people, I liked the piece due to the fascinating nature of Tanguay's personal history, and the parallels drawn (although sometimes forced) between her and today's pop stars. I am also not alone, thank God, in becoming increasingly irritated by pop critics' tendency to label anyone, from Tanguay to Elvis to John Dillinger or whoever, as the "original punk rocker." I can add that to my long list of rock critic statements that need to die.

Here's another word that needs to die: "pretentious." Almost always leveled by those seemingly ignorant of that practice/preach note of caution, it seems like the last 10 years of music criticism can be defined by a pocket of cultural experts who will go to any lengths to discredit any rock or guitar-oriented band who tries anything not aimed at the basest levels of the pop charts. Rosen and fellow Slate critic Jonah Weiner illustrate this obvious unease with discussing non-Billboard charting pap in a recent discussion of the Dirty Projectors' new song "Ascending Melody" on Slate's culture blog Brow Beat.

I've been a pretty regular reader of Slate since I was 10 years old, back in the days when my father would print out each week's issue and read it like he would any other magazine. Back in those days, I was particularly enthralled by the heyday of Slate's Movie Club, moderated by the great film critic David Edelstein and including in those days unbeatable company like Jonathan Rosenbaum, A.O. Scott, and, of course, the Ebert (I remained a fan until a series of crassly ignorant, liberal-baiting exchanges started by Armond White soured me to the whole experience--it has since gotten better again).

Its music criticism, on the other hand, continues to perplex me. Those who know me know how weary I am of this whole "poptimist" school, not because I'm opposed to pop music in any sense, but because it seems less and less about music and more about starting pissing matches with straw men referred to as "rockists" (or "racists," if you're Sasha Frere-Jones). So began a generation of writers who got off on making snide, ignorant generalizations about "indie rock," 99% of the time invoking that dreaded p-word as a way of shutting down those who would like to point out that hey, actually, most of what passes for music on the radio does indeed suck, and it shouldn't make me an elitist for pointing that out.

(Is the paragraph above itself rife with generalizations? It could be. Really, anyone who refers to him or herself as a "poptimist"willingly and knowingly deserves to be put in such a box).

So anyway, back to the curious nature of Slate's "Brow Beat" column. Unique among its contemporaries, it covers the few areas of popular culture I have no interest in, such as Project Runway and How I Met Your Mother. It's also a haven for the occasional dumping on indie bands. Here is what Rosen has to say about Dirty Projectors:
Unlike nearly every other youngish white inhabitant of the gentrified New Brooklyn, it took me a while to warm up to Dirty Projectors. In fact, I'm still only lukewarm. I respect them, I'm mildly awed by them, but I don't quite love them. It's my fault, not theirs. In general, I have a hard time with art rock, and the DP's tricky, showy songs are very arty indeed: trompes l'oeil—or trompes l'oreille—whose meaning and purpose, concealed beneath disorienting blasts of rhythm and melody, emerge only after a lot of close listening.
Style trick No. 1 of the so-called "poptimist." Introduce every indie act with a variation on the following: "Other people (usually Brooklynites or hipsters) like X, whereas I like Y." This is also the mode of criticism most favored by Armond "False Equivocation Pulled Out Of My Ass" White, but let's leave that alone. Plus, I bet I could walk down Williamsburg and ask any random hipster on the street, and I am willing to bet at least half of them would say exactly what Rosen says above. Everybody else likes so-and-so...except me. Substitute Radiohead, or the Beatles, and you begin to see my point.

I haven't even gotten into the meat yet of what they have to say about "Ascending Melody." Their beef with the band, and particularly songwriter/guitarist Chris Longstreth, is that the songsmithing is arch and arty and Longstreth himself possesses a voice too warbly and thin to be fit for proper consumption. They also don't like his lyrics. Here's Jody again:
Is it wrong of me to hate these lyrics as much as I do—to want Dirty Projectors to make sense, or at least to be less pretentious about their nonsense? The band is lavishly interesting, musically; I know that should be enough. But as with Radiohead, I can't ignore the doggerel. "Repine unfathomable enigma"! Bob Dylan used the word "repine" in a song once, but he's Bob Dylan. No one else should go near that word. Ever. Also, can we call for a moratorium on Williamsburg hipsters giving snotty life-advice to "businessmen"?
Okay. On the first point, who the fuck are you to say which words can be used by the many, many non-Dylans who populate the world of popular music? I'm not particularly enamored with Longstreth's lyrics either, but I'm not going leap to claiming that certain words must be indicative of a snotty fancy pants big city mouse mentality. Such an attitude is, dare I say it, Palinesque? And again, look at how he phrases it at the beginning: "Is it wrong of me to hate these lyrics as much as I do?" The message again: look how different my opinions are than most of my peers!

I believe that Rosen and Weiner both have a big problem with experimental, guitar-oriented rock 'n roll music. That's a question of personal taste, I guess. So why do they find Dirty Projectors moderately acceptable by comparison? It comes down to the song "Stillness Is The Move," which can be considered (I guess) as the band's big hit:
I tend to agree with you: I'm impressed by this band, but I don't enjoy listening to them, exactly. The big exception to that is no big surprise: "Stillness is the Move," the "breakout" single off Bitte Orca. In-the-pocket clatter, nagging guitar drone, Longstreth-free vocals, and Coffman doing a spry, note-vaulting, tricky-cadenced, Destiny's Child/Aaliyah impression. One of my favorite pieces of rock criticism last year was Solange Knowles' smart, lush "Stillness" cover, which made the song's R & B connection explicit. Between the Xx's "Hot Like Fire" and tUnE-YarDs' "Real Live Flesh," it's a good time for R & B-inflected art-rock.
Ugh. I would be very rich if I was paid every time someone said that they were "impressed" by some experimental band, but couldn't really "enjoy it" due to any semblance of artiness (I've always wondered: how is that possible?). Importantly, it gives us a window into the kind of indie music that Weiner and Rosen can admit to liking, which is music that basically takes its cues from popular R&B. In case you haven't heard it, "Stillness Is The Move" doesn't really sound like anything else on Bitte Orca; Longstreth's crazy rhythms and modal changes are reduced to a fairly simply 12-string figure that remains unchanged throughout, and the brunt of the melody rests on singer Amber Coffman, whose acrobatic, hook-laden harmonies draw a lot on the R&B/American Idol/autotune axis of evil permeating popular radio. Which is fine: it's a really good song.

But there are other good songs on the album as well, and it seems the only way Rosen and Weiner would find it in their hearts to validate Bitte Orca (or "Ascending Melody") as music would be if it was covered in its entirety by Beyonce's sister. Or you could go the other route, as suggested by The xx, and pledge your allegiance to the Ameries and the Aaliyahs of the world. All of this is perfectly fine: The xx in particular do a great job of evoking Timbaland strobe effects and tinny drum machines and the like. But if you're a rock band playing rock music, and you don't particularly care what is popular on the radio, and if you like playing with time signatures and adding weird electronic effects, Jody Rosen is going to call you "pretentious," no matter the shape of your melodies, no matter the quality of your cadences. It's a foregone conclusion. Anyone who is not Beyonce on the mic is automatically irritating (although David Byrne gets a pass, I guess), and lyrics with any sort of message will be mocked for using big words.

One last note on those lyrics: as I said before, I'm not a big fan either, but take a look at Jody's favorite song of 2009, and reflect upon the following statement: "I'm so 2008/You're so 2000-and-late." What single lyric, in the annals of either Dirty Projectors or popular music as a whole, could possibly be more irritating, self-regarding, and tin-eared than that? In fact, I would be almost inclined to use that certain word to describe it. I am ready to have this argument...

EDIT: By chance I happened upon the Pazz and Jop poll not long after posting this, and I note an article by Maura Johnston that sums up a lot of what I was feeling on the matter.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

This Is A High

[Editor's Note: Actually, two of them. 1) This article is cross-posted to my new, non music-related blog, which you can read here. As usual, commenting is encouraged. 2) I'm not sure how I feel about posting this--the MO of Rockaliser, as far as I can tell, isn't normally to act as PR for any band, no matter how much we may like the musicians in question. So, forgive me for trying to stir up hype in a not-very-critical fashion. Plus, I mostly do this because I'm interested in what my colleague Aaron M. thinks about Gorillaz, Albarn in general, etc.]

I've reached across virtually every Web 2.0 platform to relay the news: the new Gorillaz album, Plastic Beach, comes out on March 9. I had been hoping for another Gorillaz release in 2010, given Damon Albarn's relative lack of output in the last year or so. I first learned about the album a few weeks ago, when Albarn talked in an audio interview about getting together a list of guest stars that outdoes even Demon Days in terms of sheer, ridiculous diversity. They include: Barry Gibb, Lou Reed, Mos Def, Mick Jones and Paul Simonon (!), Bobby Womack, Mark E. Smith (in the Shaun Ryder part, I imagine), Snoop Dogg, and the Syrian National Orchestra.

I'm pretty sure that I'm the biggest Damon Albarn fan I know--his handsomeness and boisterous personality have resulted in a lot of bad press on this side of the Atlantic, but I could make a good case for Albarn as the forerunner for a lot of what we might call world music-oriented popular music, from M.I.A. to Vampire Weekend. He managed to prove all the haters wrong by making one great Blur record in 2003 without Graham Coxon, and that is in addition to forays with Gorillaz, the Good, the Bad, and the Queen, his solo album Mali Music, the Chinese opera Monkey: Journey to the West, and this mind-blowing song by Amadou & Mariam. Plus, he reunited with Coxon and Blur for a farewell tour that didn't result in any new music but did provide footage for an upcoming film that promises to rank up with the Beatles Anthology in terms of manipulative weepiness (protip: 13 outdoes even Sea Change in that department).

In short, Albarn has emerged as the only guy to come out of the Britpop scene who seems to have an enduring and evolving interest in different types of music (please compare with Oasis). Except maybe Jarvis, but was he ever as willing to cede the spotlight to such a sterling group of fellow musicians? Check out the new Gorillaz track "Stylo" here, and imagine a world where popular radio showcases Albarn, Mos Def and Bobby Womack trading vocals.

An additional note: What is this album going to do for Gorillaz, narrative-wise? The cover for the "Stylo" single features Murdoc and Noodle, the latter seemingly having finally reached puberty, but from what I recall, Noodle was killed after her floating island windmill was shot out of the sky by mysterious helicopters in the (epic and sad) video for "El Manana." Is it possible that Plastic Beach will lack the mixed-media unity of its predecessors?

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Ten Questions For the Lady Gaga Apologist

Lady Gaga is getting love everywhere, from Sound Opinions to Oprah. What is going on here? I was exposed to this woman at some point during the fall of 2008, shocked by the sheer lack of good ideas in songs like "Just Dance," and yet at some point she became some sort of counter-Britney, or something, or someone who is so archly aware of her celebrity that everything she does in an extension of some reflexive need to be constantly studied or acknowledged.

But the music? It remains a sore point for me. If forced to, I would listen to any Britney or Black-Eyed Peas song before being forced to sit through those lazy goo-goo synths of "Just Dance," a song that never justifies its reason for being. There's no reason to judge an artist simply by one single, though, so I pressed on, only to find that tracks like "Poker Face" and "Bad Romance" were even worse.

I am perplexed. Here are ten questions I feel I must ask of the Lady Gaga fan:

1. I will assume you find many members of our society who so cravenly latch onto fame (reality show stars, balloon dads) to be generally ignorant and awful people. Lady Gaga's whole art shtick seems to be about the debilitating and dehumanizing effects of chasing fame. Do you believe that Gaga's awareness of her own need for attention somehow makes her music better, as opposed to artists who retain a certain amount of critical distance from the subject?

2. What, musically, do you find most interesting about Lady Gaga's songwriting? Which songs stand out, and why? How does one differentiate them from the music of pop starlets' past, in any meaningful way (I'm talking about music, so nothing about fame, crazy costumes, etc.)?

3. If you were to not have heard a Lady Gaga song on the radio, but rather through a friend, and you knew nothing of her look or her methods of performance, would you find anything remarkable about these songs? Would you go home and download them?

4. Which do you consider yourself more of a fan: Gaga-the-musician, or Gaga-the-dark mirror-of our-fascination-with-celebrity? If you like her musical skills, are you more interested in her as a singer or as a pianist, or something else? Does she actually bring anything original to the table?

5. Ms. Gaga has said in the past that she doesn't really have many real friends, and prefers to interact with her legions of fans instead. Do you find this to be healthy or worth emulating? If not, do you think it still has a place somewhere in our culture? What benefit does this woman laying her psyche on us have, really? Are you ever concerned for her, or concerned that her music may become more and more of an afterthought, with her brand being the primary focus?

6. Do you think the majority of her fans see her as some sort of alternative to the pop starlet paradigm? Do you think that she represents a positive change in this regard because she is less sexualized than her predecessors and more focused on new and bizarre fashions? Boiled down, do you think it is more healthy to be a Gaga fan than a Ke$ha fan?

7. What important points does she have to say about our society, other than vaguely artsy takes on celebrity and dehumanization? What messages of value do you find in her lyrics? Do you find the message of riding around on someone's "disco stick" anything other than idiotic and plodding?

8. Do you see her as being rooted in any sort of tradition? Do you buy the comparison to Madonna, or vaudeville punk, or whatever else? Is this good or bad?

9. At its basest level, what is Lady Gaga's music really an alternative to?

10. How would you rank her music in comparison to the rank stupidity of the Black-Eyed Peas, Katy Perry, Flo Rida, half the people in American Idol, etc.?

Friday, January 15, 2010

Yo G Stick A Fucking Tape In It

Looks like Minneapolis' hip-hop/R&B radio station B96 has flipped formats, and is now a Top 40 station called 96.3 Now. I was listening to it this morning, and thought something sounded different. The impetus, apparently, was "market research showing music tastes have changed in the past year." The writing on the wall doesn't look good:
At noon Wednesday B96 became the new "96.3 Now", and played it's first song of the new format, Miley Cyrus' "Party in the USA" (link)
And you know how we feel about that one. It seems like a bizarre move, given that KDWB seems to have the Twin Cities Top 40 market on lockdown. 96.3's Program Director notes, with no apparent irony, that KDWB "play a lot of what I like to call 'Disney pop'." Like Miley Cyrus! Perhaps that first song was an insult on the airwaves, a negative statement of purpose? He continues: "We won't play that." Oh.

I wasn't a huge B96 partisan, but whenever I was in a car (I don't own one), that was my defualt station. The Hip-Hop/R&B charts have some terrible stuff on them, obviously, but they served a niche in the Twin Cities and at least their DJs had discernible personalities. DJ Peter Parker, Tony Fly, The Queen Bee, and Zany K the Minnesota Madman were characters. Occasionally, they gave exposure to local artists for an audience that doesn't listen to The Current (our NPR-run, indieish station). Mostly, I'll miss their Back In The Day Cafe, an hour-long afternoon block of older jams. They played a lot of G-Funk. Some bite size thoughts follow.

Possibly symbolic but I'm not sure how: B96 switched formats a day after the death of Carl Pohlad, who owns the Twins, used to own the Vikings, and owns Northern Lights Broadcasting, parent company of new 96.3 Now.

My now-abandoned thesis about B96: the station was an excellent example of the workings of contemporary culture and capitalism. The line between its content and advertising was thin when in existed at all, with lyrics and banter rife with allusions to record labels, brands, and other goods, and ads, in large part for night clubs and upcoming concerts, that mimiced the vocals and production of the station's programming. Hype men don't get much work on modern rap records, but they seem to be doing gangbusters in the world of commercial voice-overs. In a weird way there was something symbiotic about it, placing a music very much about product-pushing and salesmanship (i.e. Rick Ross, Young Jeezy) in a context where it was acknowledged as the commodity it is alongside hamburgers and the club experience.

Final two thoughts of a rambling post: Ice Cube's "Turn Off The Radio" is once again vindicated (though I remember B96 dutifully spinning his new singles, and they played "It Was A Good Day" all the time), and that there is a weird racial aspect to this, that what it came down to was that the certainly not-black suits at Northern Lights Broadcasting thought that reaching a whiter audience would be more profitable.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Great Guitar Solos #4: Mahavishnu Orchestra, "Miles Beyond" (John McLaughlin)

Available On: Birds Of Fire (1973)
Solo Bits: 3:17-4:03

About a year ago, I took a class on jazz improvisation with the hopes of immersing myself in one area of music that I found myself extremely lacking. It turned out that there are just some people that aren't meant to play jazz, at least in the sense that we were expected to play it, which would be to play only notes that fit the scale of the chord sign, or to play solos with proper "swing" patterns. These were things I had a difficult time doing. I believe part of my problem was the expectation I had going into the class: I wanted to play jazz like a fusion player, as opposed to anything else, and I wanted to learn in particular how to improvise something wild and off-kilter like what John McLaughlin does on the Mahavishnu Orchestra classic "Miles Beyond."

For those not familiar, John McLaughlin has quite a pedigree, as far as both jazz and rock are concerned. First appearing on the scene as the guitar prodigy in Tony Williams' Lifetime, he is of course most famous for being scouted by Miles Davis, an eerily prescient judge of young talent, and then appearing on his landmark albums In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew. Both albums showed that McLaughlin, among all Davis' musicians, was particularly receptive to Davis' new electric fusion style, so much so that there is even a song on Bitches Brew called "John McLaughlin," where he deftly plays against the weird keyboard stabs and funk rhythms.

Like many jazz musicians, Davis was always finding himself in new groups, and eventually McLaughlin left to go do other things. Among his better and more commercially successful ventures was the fusion group Mahavishnu Orchestra, a supergroup which consisted of McLaughlin, Jan Hammer on keyboards, Billy Cobham on drums, Rick Laird on bass, and Jerry Goodman on violin. Inspired by Hendrix and other psychedelic rock musicians, the group made experimental jazz that was commercially palatable due in part to the tunefulness of the songs, as well as the flashiness of the instrumentalists. They released two albums, The Inner Mounting Flame and Birds on Fire, and then lineup drama ensued.

These two albums are benchmark fusion releases and probably my favorite albums to come out of the whole scene, although I admit I'm fairly lacking in jazz fusion knowledge. If you want a fusion album that still has the muscular, riffy electric guitar playing so beloved by rock fans, Birds on Fire is a good place to start. The music is tense and the playing is showy, but never less than interesting, and some of the songs are simply good even without the wanking.

One of those songs is "Miles Beyond," a tune written by McLaughlin obviously meant to honor his former bandleader. The tune pays homage to Davis' cool-jazz style, but the stop-start dynamics are straight out of rock music. It's basically based off an awesome, devious sort of keyboard lick, off which McLaughlin and Goodman coerce strange noises out of their instruments and each trade teriffic solos.

One important aspect of a solo is how the instrumentalists choose to lead up to it. "Miles Beyond" contains not only a guitar solo but a violin solo, and it's useful to compare the two. The violin solo, done without the use of a bow, displays a lot of deft fingerwork but is played very gently, with minimal instrumental accompaniment. The solo builds up tension just in time for a breakdown, with lots of really out playing by Cobham. It's during this breakdown that the song sounds like it's coming apart--Cobham is flailing, Goodman and McLaughlin are playing squeaky one-note lead lines that sound on the verge of collapse, and then--two snare hits from Cobham and McLaughlin takes off, attacking one note like a bullet and alternating it with what sounds like shrieks or sirens.

McLaughlin is playing what sounds like a lot of 16th notes here, and it's worth noting how Cobham tries to play along with McLaughlin rather than keep rhythm for the rest of the band. The result is extreme intensity, especially for someone like me who is so used to drummers keeping the beat while other members of the band solo. It works extremely well. McLaughlin pulls out a few dive bombs, driving home the speed of his picking rather than the amount of notes that he's playing, then cycling through a few recovery lines that serve to embellish the lead. Towards the end of the solo, McLaughlin slows down as he moves to the top of the neck, playing faster yet again but then ending with a series of staccatto single notes, all the way up to the top of the neck. Then he ends with a burst of rawk lead-playing, and goes back into the lead riff with Goodman.

This is unbelievably tense stuff. The way McLaughlin plays doesn't seem that hard at first, nor does it seem particularly "jazzy," given the amount of distortion and the way he liberally bends the pitches. Still, it shows a remarkable amount of good sense on his part, to break away from the common jazz equation of speedy lead lines separated by clear phrases. He plays like a rock player does, really. Not like Jimi Hendrix, whose playing reportedly made McLaughlin consider doing more rock-oriented stuff, but maybe like Jimmy Page. Surely, what the two had in common was a sense of rhythm so deft that they could make any pattern of notes sound novel. As well as the preference for instruments with multiple necks.