Wednesday, March 17, 2010
(File under: When Good People Do Bad Things: The Worst Of The Best)
Writing great pop songs is harder than most people are willing to credit, probably 'cause the good ones sound so natural and effortless, like they already existed as some sort of Platonic Ideal and were just waiting to be plucked from the ether and converted into audio signals. Sustaining great pop songwriting past 4 albums is a different matter unless you happen to be The Beatles (Elvis Costello squeaks by, too, though he fucked up his streak by releasing an album of country covers for his sixth LP). The Ramones still managed to do better than most - no dreaded sophomore jinx, and the albums kept getting better and more complex (albeit in ways virtually undetectable to non-fans) as they went along - right up until album #5.
Sure, The Ramones were punk, but they were also pop, which is one reason they were great punk. All the Beach Boys/girl group/60s AM stuff was part of their songs from the beginning - "I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend", from '76, wouldn't have sounded out of place on the radio 10 (well, 11) years earlier. And of course these guys should have had hit singles, but if you're just now figuring out the world's unjust, you should probably cancel that vacation to Africa. The problem here is that not only did the band themselves think they should have hit singles, they thought this was the way to make it happen. Perfectly understandable - lots of people into punk/new wave thought the Old Ways were about to be swept away by the new (sub)cultural tide, but just like the '60s radicals, they mistook the values of their little community as being representative of society as a whole, and even the most cursory listen to commercial radio today should be enough to clue you in to the fact that that's not how this shit works. There was no way the Ramones were going to go to the top of the charts during their existence, and if they were, it sure as hell wasn't going to be because of any calculation on their part.
The main problem, in my mind, is that where previously they incorporated elements of '60s pop into their own unique sound, here they were merely indulging in nostalgia, trying to force the song into a hit by using the elements they thought it would take (really guys - a horn section? Not to mention the horribly misguided notion of getting Phil Spector to produce). The result being that, though I have no doubt they (or at least Joey) did remember rock 'n' roll radio - and fondly, at that - the song comes across as completely inauthentic. Not horrible, just mediocre - which is worse, in a way. And which still wasn't quite mediocre enough to make a dent in the charts. Even so, 4 great albums in a row is some kinda feat, and history will always be kind to them accordingly (and justly), no matter the failure of their later efforts (and though I'll grant Too Tough To Die belongs in the canon, not even the staunchest fans are going to make the case for Brain Drain or Halfway To Sanity as worthy additions. Not unless they've sniffed way too much glue - or Carbona, as the case may be).
26. Rush - The Trees (1978)
(File under: Bach Don't Rock: Prog)
Say what you will about Rush - I'm not here to oppress you! - but damn near every music geek goes through a metal/prog phase in their formative years, and unhip as these acts may be, even the crustiest dicks among us are not immune to nostalgia in some form. And so it is that I have pretty much all of Rush's 400 billion albums in my iTunes playlist. Oh, I stopped being any kind of real fan decades ago, but I still check out the new stuff, much like an abused spouse stays with their tormentor, in the vain, childish hope I'll catch a spark of the old magic. Even so, I submit to you, ladies and gentlemen of the jury(and let's get real: mostly gentlemen - Rush has got to be the most male-centric [me make up word!] act in God's Green Hell; not that I'm saying they're misogynistic or macho or anything, just that their music seems to attract guys at about the same rate it baffles women), that it could be worse: I present into evidence Yes, Styx and Jethro Tull as exhibits A, B and C (through Z). I rest my case and court adjourned.
Even so, this is what annoying hipster Anglophiles would refer to as weak beer. Wince! as the opening bars remind you of the kind of faux-madrigal bullshit that littered their previous album, "A Farewell to Kings". Cringe! as you realize the whole song's an allegory involving sentient motherfucking trees. Sigh! as they finally crank up the distortion, at least giving the song some forward momentum. Leave the room to take a shit! as they shift the dynamic back to wimpy for the middle section, which includes - wait for it - woodblocks. Throw your stereo into the sea! as you realize Geddy Lee will continue singing like that in the face of all that is beautiful and decent.
Surely I'm making it sound far, far more stupid than it could possibly be, no? Behold the introductory stanza: "There is unrest in the forest/There is trouble with the trees/For the maples want more sunlight/and the oaks ignore their pleas". How, oh how, will it all turn out for the poor goddamn little maples? Glad you asked. This being, ostensibly, rock and roll, the scrappy fuckers will overcome the authoritarian oaks with the Rightness of Their Cause and the Power of Rebellion, just like that kid in Twisted Sister's "We're Not Gonna Take It" video, no doubt. Let us become enlightened:
So the maples formed a union
And demanded equal rights
"The oaks are just too greedy;
We will make them give us light!"
Now there's no more oak oppression
For they passed a noble law
And the trees are all kept equal
By hatchet, axe and saw
Hot damn, there's a twist, wot? Yep, the band that gave the world exactly what it had never been waiting for, a 20-minute anthem based on the work of Ayn Rand, the shittiest, most tedious writer ever to be taken to heart by confused 16-year-olds everywhere, now did themselves one better (worse?) when they made their idiotic tree song all the more idiotic by turning it into a Libertarian rallying cry. I'm sure many (including lyricist Neil Peart himself) would claim the song was meant as a cautionary tale about the methods those in power use to suppress populist uprisings, but having been involved in many arguments with Libertarians over the years, I can't help but notice the hateful concept of equal rights somehow being confused with taking away the rights of those at the top. Not to mention the implicit idea that those at the top are there because of some sort of genetic (intellectual/moral/whatever) superiority - the oaks' only crime was their natural height! Why must society's lowliest dregs always make life so hard for the rich and powerful? And of course, once you start handing out the same rights to everyone, it's just going to drag the possessors of greatness down to the level of the losers, and mediocrity will reign. Might be a passable explanation for the state of network TV, but as a political philosophy it's pretty ill-conceived and anti-human. And while it's actually physically painful to have to read 1200 pages of this shit, it's no less ridiculous boiled down to a 5-minute song. Especially when it's being wailed at you by somebody who sounds like they got their nuts caught on the tank they were using to suck helium from.
Saturday, March 13, 2010
(File Under: You Broke My Heart, Fredo: When Our Musical Heroes Betray Us)
If you didn't come of age in the '80s, it's nearly impossible to understand how important R.E.M. was to "alternative" (we called it "college") rock - believe it or not, there was a time their music was considered weird and uncommercial (I have many memories of putting their songs on mixtapes for friends and receiving "What is this shit?" reactions, with Michael Stipe's voice singled out for special abuse). But they, along with Husker Du and The Replacements, carried the torch for the American indie movement that Nirvana (as well as R.E.M. themselves) would take to the top of the charts. They were certainly part of the holy trinity for me, personally, so it is not with joy but with sadness that I proclaim this song to be on a par, entertainment-wise, with slipping in the shower and shattering your pelvis.
It starts off pleasantly enough, with an Otis Redding/non-bluesified "Love In Vain" riff - and then the lyrics start, which is generally when the nausea sets in (there are no coincidences, kemosabe), and you wonder if this is Stipe's revenge on all of those fans who'd been wishing for years that he'd enunciate. John Paul Jones's string arrangement only adds to the overall gloppy sentimentality of the track; I swear, if I'd had any way of knowing there'd be a massive earthquake in Haiti nearly 20 years later, I'd have been able to predict this song would be used on the benefit album. It's that sappy - in fact, it sounds like it was written expressly to appeal to emo 13-year-olds (redundant, I know) who agonize for weeks over whether the schoolmates they heard laughing when they passed them in the hall that day were laughing at them. Sure, the band had made missteps before, but they always managed to shroud even their most earnest heart-tuggers in some kind of mystery, a quality painfully lacking on this effort. Hell, even "Shiny Happy People" held out the possibility that it was ironic.
Which is to say: The ballad form isn't the problem - the album it was featured on, Automatic For The People, was, with very few exceptions (the paint-by-numbers rock of "Ignoreland"; the goof "The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite"; the chorus to "Man On The Moon"), an album of ballads. But they were ballads that worked for the very reasons this one failed: they expressed adult (as opposed to adolescent) concerns (lotsa references to death - and not in any romanticized way), conveyed real emotions rather than settling for schmaltzy melodrama, and made statements without beating you over the head with their obviousness ( "Drive" may be about rock music's failure as a force of rebellion in the modern world, but it took me about 10 years to get it). There's nothing to "get" about "Everybody Hurts" - or, rather, nothing not to get. With this band, that equals unequivocal failure. But then, this song would have been a failure coming from Celine Dion. And if she's the yardstick by which your work is to be judged, you know it's time to seriously re-evaluate your priorities. Which usually doesn't mean putting out two more worthwhile albums, losing your drummer, and continuing on with a string of mostly forgettable easy-listening bland-outs. This is the kind of thing I dreaded the first time I saw "Adult Alternative" listed as a genre.
Wednesday, March 18, 2009
(File under: The Theory Of Alternating Decades: The '70s & '90s)
I've always had a soft spot for Queen - by which I mean a literal physical soft spot, right on my brain, because what else could explain it? Still, I make no apologies (though I will admit I pretty much abandoned ship about the same time the rest of America did, around '82 and Hot Space), because unlike pretty much every other band of the era who dealt in bombast and overweening pomposity (Led Zeppelin, the dreaded Styx, pretty much every prog rock act ever), Queen always seemed to do it with a sly wink, as if they were smart enough to realize what a joke it was and also smart enough to enjoy it strictly as camp. Until 1977 and News of the World.
There's no sly wink in these songs (grouped together since they were always played back-to-back on the radio upon initial release), which leaves merely bombast and overweening pomposity, a fact that no doubt accounts for their huge success (especially in America, where cleverness and wit have always been qualities viewed with extreme suspicion). If, as some critic whose name I can't recall claimed, "We Are The Champions" was written as a gay anthem, it would indeed add a layer to the song; but if that was the intention it utterly failed, since everything about it sounds like exactly what it's been taken for these past 3+ decades: something to blast over the P.A. at the end of sporting events. And when that's the function of a piece of music, it's not just a case of lowest common denominator - it means you're actually aiming for the outliers on the wrong side of the bell curve. If there is anything more brutally stupid and antithetical to art than an enormous drunken mob shouting inanities and waving homemade banners at a stadium sporting event, it's the same bunch of dipshits singing a victory song in unison. And that is what "We Are The Champions" (as well as "We Will Rock You") is really "about", especially at this remove. Hell, I'm not even necessarily against football chants - plenty of '77 punk could qualify, and New Order's World Cup anthem is pretty damned good - but this stuff seems to have been market researched to fit the bill a little too neatly.
"We Will Rock You" barely qualifies as a song at all - except for Brian May's patented dime-as-a-guitar-pick bit at the end, the whole thing is yobbish bellowing over foot stomps and handclaps, kind of a distant cousin to The Mekons's "The Building", except 90 times more stupid. Besides, everybody with half the brains God gave a donkey knows you don't tell people you're going to rock them, you just do it - otherwise you come off looking like either a smug asshole or a delusional fucking fool (in other words: Jeremy Piven). Also, the verses have nothing to do with the chorus. In its way, as lazy as any Eric Clapton solo album.
"We Are The Champions", for those who just returned from a long vacation on Saturn, is the queen mother (no pun intended) of power ballads, and I bet Bono's pissed that somebody beat him to it. The verses are basically "I Am Woman" for lunkheaded soccer fans, and the chorus is the kind of doggerel that's supposed to be rousing and empowering, and might even succeed if it had any connection to reality as most people live it. But then, we don't value our rock stars for being in touch with the concerns of normal human beings, do we? No, we prefer them elevated to God-like status, which mitigates the sense of shame and despair we feel after sucking their cocks backstage and being summarily tossed out into the alley afterwards. Believe me, I understand this. I just resent being told what Gods they are by the performers themselves. Especially in song. Especially especially when that song tops the charts. It's usually a mistake to believe a song somehow speaks to your particular circumstances; in this case, the ego is so much a part of the music it should get a composing credit. The epitome of why it was known as the "Me Decade".
Tuesday, March 10, 2009
(File under: I Ran (So Far Away): The '80s)
Oh, corporate rock. Not since "Trout Mask Replica" has a term so aptly described the music it referred to, motherfuckers (not that I think whoever's reading this is a motherfucker; I just hate to end my sentences with prepositions). Hell, you don't even have to hear songs by Journey, Boston, Loverboy, etc. etc. when you can refer to the handy "corporate rock" label - you can just use your imagination (remember that? It's a part of the mind people accessed before videos and the internet) and arrive at a fairly accurate approximation (probably come up with better melodies, too, unless you're a tone-deaf retarded farm hand). But for every hopelessly middle-of-the-road genre, there's an artist who stands squarely in the middle of that road, and in this case, that artist is Eddie Money.
The schlub's so blandly nondescript he was bound to have a few hits on U.S. radio, and I'll say this for the guy: Better him than Styx. Faint praise, to be sure, but when your stock in trade is mediocrity, praise is a commodity (and I use that word advisedly in this case) measured not in quality but in quantity. I bet Eddie's got every not-so-negative press clipping ever written about him in some dusty, musty photo album somewhere, and why not? It's probably more healthy than saving the horrible reviews and keeping a revenge list. Then again, Elvis Costello had a revenge list, and his music of the period blew this guy's stuff out of the water. I guess what I'm trying to say is: cliche though it may sound, great art is, more often than not, the product of people who are seriously fucked up in some profound way, or at the very least excessively neurotic and twitchy (Human Chihuahua Syndrome). How many well-adjusted, self-actualized Zen masters have put out albums that make you want to jump up and down and smash the walls? I rest my case.
So the guy's boring; that's not a crime (in the strict legal sense). In fact, he's boring right down to his "image" - with his basset hound visage, he looks like an ordinary slob; more like the manager of an Arby's in Manhattan, Kansas than a bona fide rock star. Normally, I find this look endearing; unfortunately, he adopts all the poses of a rock star, which make them appear even more comical than usual, especially with his shaggy, feathered 'do and doughy features that make his head look like a possum gnawing on a partially spoiled ham. Say what you will about David Lee Roth - and he does seem like the Platonic ideal of a big ol' dick - but he's got the presence to pull off the cock-rock bullshit moves without making you snigger more than rules of propriety demand.
His music, in case you just started reading at this paragraph, is as boring as his "personality". In fact, it's so ho-hum he can't even achieve true wretchedness, which is at least worth writing about. So why include him? Simple, mein freund: because on this song he shit all over the memory of The Ronettes' "Be My Baby", arguably the best Girl Group song of all time, as well as the song that introduced the opening drum riff that's been used more times (and in better songs) than Bo Diddley's patented rhythm. Not only did he commit this act of musical necrophilia, he actually got Ronnie Spector to sing that song's chorus. Such acts of cultural piracy are but one more reason half of the wolrd wants to drop bombs on New York, and should accordingly not go unpunished. I don't blame Ronnie for taking part - everybody's gotta pay rent, especially when their ex-husband's idea of alimony involves pistol-whipping - but Eddie was just thieving to add novelty to a(nother) weak-ass song, and it shows. Nothing about the rest of the song makes you think, "You know what would fit in perfectly right here? The chorus from an old Phil Spector pop tune!". And if it does, that probably means you're eating your meat loaf through a tube in your arm.
There are plenty of ways to ruin great songs - using them in commercials or crappy TV shows/films - but inserting a (re-recorded) snippet of it into your own horrific travesty of a radio-ready single has got to be the most underhanded. Then again, how many times can you insert a saxophone solo into your "hard rock" before you become a laughing stock? As gimmicks go, I suppose giving work to and reigniting interest in an underappreciated oldies singer is somewhat noble (heap big thanks, white man!). I just wish it had been done in the service of a song that wasn't a complete pile of bleh. It's enough to make you fart out a Hyundai.
Saturday, September 6, 2008
(File under: Heavy Metal Blunder: Hell's Jukebox)
If you're even a moderately reasonable human being who spent any time existing in the past 100 years, the very concept of German heavy metal should fill you with profound dread. What happens when you marry a subculture and a culture that have both been guilty of flirting with fascism (or at the very least, domination)? Why, stupid generic hard rock (merely) competently played, of course. You were expecting maybe brutally downbeat pneumatic drill noise performed by Aryans in stormtrooper outfits? If so, you obviously possess only the most tenuous understanding of the level of humor generally displayed by metalheads (not to mention Germans).
So, musically, this is hardly threatening - "slick" would be the adjective I'd use, sound-wise. As far as physical presence, I doubt anybody'd cross the street if they saw these guys coming, either - not with a midget lead singer who sports a balding-Richard-Simmons-on-a-commune 'fro and a bunch of blandly Teutonic-looking featherweights with the de rigeur "Look at my circumcision scar" tight-beyond-fuck spandex trousers of the period. Well, the drummer's a bit chunky, I guess, but what do you expect? He's a heavy metal drummer. Probably forgets he's already eaten breakfast by 11:00 and stops by the nearest 7-11 for some nachos (mit jalapenos!) on a near-daily basis. And that one guitarist even has a moustache! In 1984! Just like he's in Toto or REO Speedwagon or something. I ask you, is that rock and roll? Shirley knot.
What's it sound like? Well, in case you've spent the last 25 years in a submarine deep beneath the briny depths and haven't had the incredible opportunity to hear it yourself, it sounds pretty much like Free or Bad Company speeded up a couple BPM and produced to within an inch of its (already flatlining) life. Not much here to compel you to take up arms against the government, or even pop in a Fritz Lang DVD. But of course, it also has lyrics. Turns out - shock of shocks! - The Scorpions are of a somewhat sexist bent, albeit with a decidedly Germanic twist: reverse-anthropomorphizing women. In one line, diminutive singer Klaus Meine refers to the object of his pig-lust as a cat, in the next, a "bitch" (and in the next, for all I know, a ring-tailed lemur - I can barely decipher his heavily-accented English when he's not screeching, which is never). He further advises that, when dealing with said "bitch", you "give her inches and feed her well" ('cause she's hungry, see? You get it? Oh, these hard rockers and their sly innuendo). Will do, Klaus! Sounds like a smashing good course of action. The sad thing is, when you consider all this in light of 20th century German history, this actually amounts to progress.
In any event, one day in the not-so-distant future we'll all be dead, and none of this will matter in the least. Now - who's up for some pudding?
21. Jethro Tull - Thick As A Brick (1972)
(File Under: Bach Don't Rock: Prog)
Holy Jesus on a giraffe, Jethro Tull. First off, this song was the length of the entire album - which meant, in 1972, that you had to get up and flip it over after 22 minutes, utterly fucking up the flow (and your high - I refuse to believe anybody listened to this shit sober), an asshole move if ever there was one. Second, this ponderous muck sold millions of copies, proof positive that the hippie movement had reduced people's brains to soggy pencil shavings. Third, Ian Anderson's (main somgwriter/frontperson; Jethro Tull was a band name, like Blondie) brilliant contribution to rock was adding flute solos to his songs. Fourth, the band was known, at the time, as a heavy metal act (covered by Iron Maiden and beating out Metallica for a Grammy in that category), probably because they mixed sludgy blooze riffs in with their rancid olio of fey English folk, plodding chugga-boogie, madrigals, stoner freak-outs and ersatz classical - all of which is on display in this selection. Fifth, some sample lyrics: "The legends (worded in the ancient tribal hymn) lie cradled in the seagull's call/And all the promises they made are ground beneath the sadist's fall". Reads like some magnetic poetry jumble of Bob Dylan lyrics and Tolkein prose. Sixth: fucking flute sols? Are you goddamn shitting me?
I'm sorry, but if you can stomach even the 8-minute snippet included here without the benefit of a morphine drip, you should probably go join a cult or something. This is one of those cases where mere words are insufficient to convey the unbeleivable, unrelievable suckitude that is this "song". Is it the worst thing they ever did? Crap if I know. Arguing about which of Tull's songs is the most loathsome is like arguing about who's got the worst case of gonorrhea after a fraternity outing to a Tijuana brothel: not only is it beside the point, it actually adds to the sum total of human suffering by trivializing a painful experience. I did mention the flute solos, right?
Thursday, June 12, 2008
(File under: The Theory Of Alternating Decades: The '70s & '90s)
Or, as I like to call it, "This Song Is A Shitty Metaphor". Even granting that the titular phrase might sound good when sung (though not by this fool), the second half of the line - "I Want to ride it all night long" - makes absolutely no sense whatso-motherfucking-ever. Perhaps it's because my gift for interpreting symbolism sucks the proverbial fat one - for instance, I thought Moby-Dick was just a boring yarn about some neurotic blue collar schmoe assigning all kinds of unrealistic motives to a frigging whale - but I have yet to hear anyone offer a plausible explanation as to what "ride" is supposed to signify in this instance (though, to be fair, I haven't really brought it up much in conversation). And even discounting this glaring example of lazy lyric writing (and it's by no means the only offender here), why would you only want to "ride it" for one night? Am I to deduce from this that you desire to be dead in the morning? Because I can get behind you on that one. In fact, I wished you were dead about two bars into this steaming lump of festering songcraft.
It begins, as required by the laws of Junior High Poetry Writing, with "Life's like a road that you travel on", not so egregious itself I suppose, until it is followed (foreshadowing the chorus) by the idiotic non sequitur "When there's one day here and the next day gone". How exactly is that like a road, Tom? I think you're confusing space and time, no doubt a result of your extensive readings of Superstring Theory. Or perhaps you're merely functionally retarded. This is then followed by "Sometimes you bend, sometimes you stand". What the bloody fuck? Is this guy banana crackers? I can't tell if he's talking about traveling with a carnival freakshow or taking a whiz in a ditch. Can't say as I much care, either.
I could go on, but really, what's the point? The guy crams as many unrelated cliches into his lyrics as fellow Canadian Bryan Adams (and when you consider those two, Loverboy, Triumph and Celine Dion, doesn't it seem we'd have pretty good cause for startinga war of aggression with our neighbors to the north? If only they weren't so maddeningly polite), and he manages to convey them in a voice even more annoyingly generic than that douchebag.
What about the music, you ask? Your basic run-of-the-mill late 80s/early 90s corporate shit rock, played with what people who know more about horrible music than I do would likely describe as a "boogie" beat. Just think second-rate bar-band Van Halen (which is at least 4 different insults in one phrase) and you get the picture. Or, if you're feeling particularly masochistic, just download the thing. But don't blame me when it lodges itself into your brain, forever rendering that particular section of your memory useless for recording more important information, such as who played Flo on Alice or what you ate for dinner last Tuesday.