Wednesday, May 31, 2017

One Last Pick Through the Bins Volume 27: Liz Phair, and Corporate Rock Sucks

But not these guys....
For me, Liz Phair started more as concept than performer: a raunchy, female indie (still pop, but still indie) – artist. I came to understand her as a type before I knew her as a musician…and I’d say that’s on me, except I had only nice things to say about this Liz Phair. And then “Supernova” hit the airwaves (my mind still flashes to rowers when I hear that song), and I continued to think, “yeah, Liz Phair’s all right.” And “you fuck like a volcano” confirmed the raunchy thing.

Next, I heard (the fucking brilliant*) “Stratford-on-Guy” during all those looped listens of The Greatest Music Compilation of All Time. I can still play that song twice in a row to this day (*I just can’t explain why I find it brilliant).

And then about, oh, 10 years later, maybe 12, I spotted a couple Liz Phair albums on a hunting expedition – Exile in Guyville and Funstyle (bookended the career – yes!) - and I picked those up and, holy shit, infatuation, a full month’s worth of listens, etc. I fell that fast, that hard; I’d wake up in the morning, wondering what Liz was up to, what she had to say, that kind of thing. It only hits me now why that might be: my favorite song from each of those albums does something very different. Just a glance at the song’s titles (“The Divorce Song” (that link sucks, but I just found the original Girlysound recording - NEAT-o! (reference, what's Girlysound?); still like the official version) and “Beat Is Up”) should signal to the discerning listener that she should expect two very different songs.

And yet they’re not such different songs, at least thematically. The musical inspiration, sound, instrumentation couldn’t be more different – especially given that she wrote them both – but Liz Phair sounds comfortable with both approaches. When she’s being, writing and singing as herself, she comes off as authentic, and that makes the clear reaches on Funstyle come off. She has an ear for expression, for matching tone and theme; she’s neither perfect, nor universal, but she has a strong personality/persona/personal narrative that tells a good and interesting story, and I think a lot of people related to it. I know I can spend days on her songs (if more her lyrics than her music, though I’m thinking more about the latter after this week). That time she wasn’t herself, though…man, oh, holy shit. Dude, like, it wasn’t good…

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Pop Backstory, Chapter 6 - Louis Moreau Gottschalk: Loiusianan, American

Partying actually has to adjust less than inflation over time...
To start this post with what might feel like a random confession: I fucking love America.

I understand that there are a couple different “Americas,” even and especially within the United States of America, and I love one of them very much. Louis Moreau Gottschalk, the subject of this post and the first born-and-bred American composer of real consequence to bring our culture’s best, particular quirks to the Old World, draws the divide vividly with this:

“’Music,’ Gottschalk remarks in his journal, ‘is a thing eminently sensuous. Certain combinations move us, not because they are ingenious, but because they move our nervous systems in a certain way. I have a horror of musical Puritans. They are arid natures, deprived of sensibility, generally hypocrites, incapable of understanding two phrases in music.’"
Amen, brother. (Also, a refreshing break from Gottschalk's frequent resort to fruit metaphors.)

America, at its best, celebrates actual freedom. That's what I love about the quote above: Americans are at their best when they stick closer to the “freedom” vein, not least because dogma, reverence of tradition, and even nostalgia, are the enemies of innovation. Gottschalk's bent toward sensuality, as I’ll detail later, already made him something like the perfect ambassador to sell a specific variety of Americanism back to the Old Country. Or Old Countries because, as noted in this delightfully long and occasionally salacious website, the man got all the way around.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

One Last Pick Through the Bins, Volume 26: Japandroids, Rock's Sneaky Party Band

Yep, those two hooked up...
For once, I don’t need to lard this volume back-story/personal history (and I’m working on minimizing that part, too; it’s about the music, kid). I picked up Vancouver B.C.’s Japandroids album Celebration Rock because I caught their name in The Portland Mercury, thought it was neat and/or clever, etc. I listened to that album a few times and liked it well enough, but nothing about it really lit my fire, so I tucked it away and forgot about it until something made me go back to it. This project, actually. (And, in case you’re wondering, yeah, this about half the motivation – i.e., spelunking around my own music collection for lightly-neglected, sometimes forgotten, nooks and crannies.)

Only one song stuck from those first several listens: “Adrenaline Nightshift.” By that I mean, unlike the rest, I immediately recognized it when I listened to Celebration Rock over the past week. Even so, it’s hard to imagine “Adrenaline Nightshift” as some guy’s all-time favorite song, or as the doorway to some complicated girl’s soul. It’s a rock song, and a decent one, but there’s nothing special to the sound or deep or poignant in the lyrics. It rocks and…that’s it, it just rocks.

After reading about the band – fidelity to a DIY ethic, their struggles to get signed and related near break-ups, touring like goddamn maniacs, a “health emergency”* - it’s almost impossible not to pull for them (*and, yes, that last one makes really makes me feel like an asshole). For all that, I can’t bring myself to sell them as a band anyone needs to hear; they’re nothing revelatory musically; Japandroids sound like their influences (more later), but with enough twist that anyone who knows them can pick out a song as theirs – probably by the vocals (not their long suit, really). And maybe that has to do with their long struggle to make a paying gig out of music (but, again, how many bands I like except the biggest ones do that for long?).

Something about Japandroids - and this only comes through their music, not deep research - makes me think they’d take all the above in stride. Having listened to nearly everything they’ve put out (just four full albums, plus some random shit I just found; song I've heard from them...damn), they come across as guys doing this shit fer kicks. Their lyrics, at least so far as I’ve teased them out, revel in everything about youth – the bingo-ball-bin way people come together, living in the moment like nothing else matters, and, when it’s all over, remembering those times with (giddy, drunken) reverence (see, “Younger Us”). Japandroids don’t only talk about “drinking and smoking” (see, “The Nights of Wine and Roses”), but those come up as subjects a lot, even if not so blatantly. Broadly, Japandroids approach to music leans heavily into wall-of-sound guitar – some shimmer, mostly drone – lots of anthem/chorus hooks and all of it more or less up-tempo. Their Wikipedia page (link above; see “reading about the band”) lists their influences as “one part classic rock, and one part punk.” Mmm, I’m less sold on that. As much as anything, they sound like alt-rock from around the time the 80s bent into the 90s. Or they did at least.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Pop Backstory, Chapter 5: The Germania Musical Society, Europe's First Invasion

Artist, suffering.
“On the morning of the 2d of August, 1848, the good packet ship “Diadem” sailed out of its London dock, bearing to the New World, in the midst of much other more or less precious freight, a group of German musicians.”
24 musicians sailed with Diadem. They called themselves the Germania Musical Society, and they took the United States of America by the 19th-century equivalent of “by storm.” But that story starts with a back-story. And a premise.

It’s safe to call the United States of America, as a country, self-assured. That better-than-healthy ego has spurred countless of accomplishments (and a balance of atrocities), but it also carried the country through a lot and has generally left it, by world standards, fat and wealthy. Americans think of themselves as leaders – or, if not that, sort of “alpha people,” better than your average [insert name/nickname of nationality of your choice].

No matter the ferocity of that self-belief it can't possibly hold up across the board, and I’d drop classical music, as an art, somewhere near the places not covered by said board. I don’t know much about classical music (and now I have an excuse, a cultural one!), certainly not enough to baldly state that the U.S. has never produced a universally-lauded classical composer; it took some digging to find the candidates from later volumes. I can't imagine the number of Americans who could name an American composer in a street-ambush interview, and that could have everything to do with it being tiny in a level of pure mathematics. Classical music doesn’t move the zeitgeist much these days, even in American cities that shell out for resident symphonies. I don't have an answer for what causes that beyond calling us a nation of highly-individualistic pioneers, arguably unsuited to complex, group activities.

At the same time, Richard Crawford’s, America’s Musical Life: A History makes clear that classical music mattered. Classical music has had champions for as long as Europeans lived on U.S. soil, and Crawford had this to say about Theodore Thomas, a delightfully version of the species:
“Where most performers were obliged to respect audience taste enough to gratify it, Thomas worked to elevate public taste to a point where it would be worth gratifying.”
That’s as eloquent a way as I can think of to describe the specific tension between low-brow and high in just about any art form. Because this is a series on popular music, I'm trying to contain what I write about classical music, but I also believe that classical music gets held up as some clear and particular manifestation of the argument that Europe has “culture” whereas America does not. To stick up for the homeland a little, that only holds when you limit the conversation - aka, even if you don't like America's contribution to music, a lot of people all over the planet do. Even on the classical stuff, it's not like this is a country of unreconstructed philistines. And that goes back to the Germania Society, and others, which American audiences flocked to, even if it took them a while. Moreover, what is popular,if not something people pay to listen to and look at?

Anyway, back to the Germania Music Society, which I'll shorthand as "Germania" going forward.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

One Last Pick Through the Bins Volume 25: Lou Reed, A Decade in a Man

I love this picture. Something reaching the other side.
Among the musical legends to have died recently, Lou Reed occupies a curious space. That’s fitting in a lot of ways. A couple passed as icons – Prince and David Bowie, particularly – prompting a couple days’ worth of widespread reflection on their place in our culture (hmm...sensing a theme) and hours upon hours of reliving their music (Prince made it harder). It’s not that I didn’t see tributes to Lou Reed – this song, about the bond between artist and admirer, ranks with anything I heard or read about Bowie or Prince – but they showed up in fewer and smaller spaces.

That’s a function of specificity, in my mind. Over a long career, Lou Reed wrote and played music that appealed to a certain kind of person. His voice doesn’t sound right, and he talks about weird shit and in an off-kilter way. For instance, pop music obsesses about sex, but it mostly on the level of love, beauty, and infatuation; for Lou Reed, sex was identity, liberation, something unattainable or even self-destructive. Then again, this is the guy who, per Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain, would end a conversation by asking someone if they wanted to go to his place so he could shit in his/her mouth. Can’t remember the gender on that one (and I can’t find the quote), and that’s also fitting.

For some reason, I want to start digging into Lou Reed’s music by talking about New York, an album he put out well past his prime. It felt less like a comeback than a resurrection. Lou Reed never completely went away – he produced a couple albums through the mid-80s (and this after an entire, crazy productive decade in the 70s) – but New York seemed to revive interest in him in a way that wasn’t possible for a while. Basically, New York dropped at the beginning of the cultural moment when, as the awful phrase had it, “the alternative went mainstream.” The concept of “mainstream” has slipped a little – or maybe even a lot – now that everyone can burrow into his/her highly-specific pop culture niches, but, basically, a cultural space opened up around that time that was receptive to independent, off-beat, and, again, specific voices.

Dirty Blvd.” would probably be the song most people would remember from New York, and both the song and the album grew out of the time. “Dirty Blvd.,” along with a couple others (e.g., “Strawman,” “There Is No Time,” and “Last Great American Whale”) recall New York City’s crime infestation, but from an angle of broken families and social injustice, and both with a nod to a broad undercurrent of racism. It’s a decent album, full of the honesty and integrity one expects out of Lou Reed, but it’s also something I don’t believe he, along with a lot of artists, isn’t particularly good at: political. Between the guitar work and song structure, it also sounds closer to…I’ll call it generic rock, something vaguely exhausted.

It wasn’t the Lou Reed I knew, either.