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Tuesday, Nov 18, 2008

The Beatles is called ‘the White Album’, of course, because of its cover, which is completely devoid of imagery save for the group’s name blind-embossed on its face slightly off-center and askew, and a few discreet bits of type printed in barely visible light gray on the spine and front and back panels. In the shimmering muteness of its glossy blank surface, The Beatles announces the end of the psychedelic era, the obsolescence of floridity and pretension typified ironically enough by the band’s previous opus, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Like a Trojan horse virus, the seeming ineffability of The Beatles’ exterior masks the flowers of evil contained in songs that would dissolve the saccharine melodies of the Summer of Love and provide the helter-skelter soundtrack for the Manson murders and Watergate paranoia to come.


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Monday, Nov 17, 2008

Not for nothing was the band called The Jimi Hendrix Experience. Certainly, Hendrix did—and does—go by his own name; he effectively created his own brand the second lighter fluid soaked that Stratocaster at Monterey.


So, while it wouldn’t have made that much difference who he chose to keep time behind him, he was fortunate that his manager, Chas Chandler, found Mitch Mitchell. Hendrix went in so many amazing directions, in order for his vision to be consistently realized, he needed a drummer with the chops and versatility to keep up with (and, at times, complement) him. Enter Mitchell. No rock drummers sounded like this, then. Keith Moon certainly hit the ground running and, throughout the mid-‘60s, showed the signs of a controlled frenzy that would reach its full flowering on Tommy. Ginger Baker kept time with Cream, the first super group, holding his own with Jack Bruce and Eric Clapton. But Mitchell never needed to evolve—he came into the equation fully formed and ready to contribute.


Mitchell named jazz drummer icons Elvin Jones and Max Roach as two of his primary influences. Normally, name dropping like this (certainly from a rock musician) sounds too clever by half, and more than a little presumptuous. Mitchell, however, provided ample evidence that he had absorbed not only the complexity, but the unique approaches that Jones and Roach brought to bear. Roach’s supple dexterity and Jones’s jackhammer pyrotechnics are in abundant display on all of the Jimi Hendrix Experience recordings.


A few obvious examples: songs like “Hey Joe” and “Manic Depression” would be pretty complete regardless of Hendrix’s accompaniment, but there is no question that Mitchell’s passive-aggressive assault renders what is already whole and fully formed something a bit above and beyond. On the indelible “Third Stone from the Sun”, Mitchell is not just keeping time, he’s making time: inventive fills, and propulsive but never busy embellishment. On the other hand, “The Wind Cries Mary” is a clinic in doing more with less.


While Ginger Baker, for instance, could occasionally run the risk of tripping over himself, Mitchell was able to bring the blitzkrieg without exploding, or (worse), encroaching on the considerable space Hendrix needed to clear for himself in order to lift off. Not to pick on Baker (who is usually considered amongst the better and more influential drummers from the ‘60s), but Ginger sometimes sounded like a bricklayer. Occasionally, he seemed too preoccupied with how many balls he had in the air; on Cream’s mellower songs, it almost seems like he had to slip on a coat and tie just to calm himself down. Mitchell, on the other hand, maneuvered effortlessly between the wasp’s nest flurry (“Fire”, “She’s So Fine”) and in-the-pocket precision (“One Rainy Wish”, “Castles Made of Sand”).


Mitchell was fast, he was clever, he was edgy and he was original. He was the perfect engine for Hendrix’s inimitable machine.


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Friday, Nov 14, 2008

In my review of Max Richter’s 24 Postcards in Full Colour, I choked a bit trying to connect the dots between Richter and the texturalists, that sorted group who together make up a kind of non-laptop-based “glitch” scene by exploiting the naturalized deterioration of sound and using entropy and antiquity as instruments in their recordings.  I’d count among this lot Bibio, Belong, Optiganally Yours, Ariel Pink, Burning Star Core, William Basinski, The Caretaker, Boards of Canada, Black Mother Super Rainbow, and almost all noise musicians, amongst a host of others.  There’s something important I wasn’t quite putting my finger on when examining the vitality of the recursive losses within the effects these musicians employ. 


And then I came upon this old article by Woebot, which describes the advent of digital technology as the end of time, at least as far as sound media is concerned (even going so far as to speculate that such problem have facilitated the crisis of conscience and consciousness in the music industry).  The article supposes that digital technology has perfected our desire to mummify every artifact in its exact original depiction, creating in essence a whole new generation who will be raised under MP3 and M4A and whatever’s to follow without ever understanding the temporal nature of music.


If digital music threatens to prevent music from colliding into a frictional relationship with time, then all new recorded sound will develop within the framework of a quarantined plasticity usually reserved for only the glossiest of pop stars.  It is left constantly shiny, constantly new, pre-wrapped for consumption.  In this sense, digital rendering is the genetic modification of music.  It threatens to take away what those of us who came of age in the era of tapes and records recall as music’s fallibility- its expiration date.  Remember when the magnetic tape of your cassette would gag itself in the gears of your walkman?  That can never happen with virtual music.  It is immortal, zombified. 


Like a painter who might burn his canvas to simulate aging, the aforementioned texturalists see decay in sound as something more than just window dressing.  Theirs is a kind of simulated attic music (attictronica? attica?), which carries the emotional resonance of years of dust and debris, the history of an old record collection like the rings of tree bark, despite the fact that it’s newly created music coming out of the speakers.  Their work examines the mysterious aesthetic of time’s toll on the intangible, a sound once uttered, once carried through the air and captured by a microphone, forever to be trapped in polyvinyl casing.  The tape decay and natural wear these artists dress their productions with carries an intrinsic gravity, but not just superficially from their association with a kind of universalist nostalgia.  This kind of imperative programming reproduces a world in which in which the studio is not a vacuum and music serves as an organic member of the phenomenological community, regardless of its relationship to methods of production. 


In the age of Pro Tools, one need not leave their desktop to have access to a home studio, so the decision of, say, Ariel Pink or Axolotl to use a four track or tape recorder should be seen as both an aesthetic and ideological choice.  It’s futile to argue which aesthetic sounds “better”, as all presumptive hierarchies are entirely subjective, but it’s not beyond reason to wonder if this kind of reactionary choice does not serve as a kind of elegy.


Whenever coming upon a just-barely rescued anthology or a blog cataloguing rare and out-of-print records, its halts me when I think of those that never made it out of the crates, works of art reduced to dust before any one could ever hear their beauty again.  Therein lies the sad secret of our great musical culture and its many institutions, all predicated on the seemingly populist notion that our shared artifacts are the distillation of mass tastemaking consensus, that we arrive by our heroes through their indisputable superiority.  The fact of the matter is that most great music lives and dies in a basement.  It gets thrown out or tossed aside, never making its way to the right sets of ears (namely, yours).  In fact the greatest song ever written is probably being written right now.  In a few days, it’ll uploaded to a random Myspace page in a corner of the internet no one visits, and promoted by a bunch of kids who are better musicians than salesmen.  The Myspace page may remain up for years, but only a select few will care about the greatest song ever written.


As disappointing as this notion may seem, there’s something self-satisfactory about the intransigence of sonic mortality.  Degenerative C90s and scratchable records were made to be discarded in an attic, forgotten by their owners, and left for dead.  That we even discover them at all is like dancing with a ghost.  And it’s not just the physical music object that is its hauntological essence, but the sound itself too.


The death of sound is something we experience perpetually as each wave vibration detonates against our eardrum and dithers its way into memory.  Recorded sound, like photography, is a time machine, a cheat against nature.  Our record collections are mausoleums of dead sound and now, with digital restoration, all these songs are absent the signs of rot usually observed in a corpse.  The modern age has also seen an exponential expansion of the aural Golgotha.  Technology now allows us the ability to establish a metalibrary of all recorded sound, left in the exact state it was recorded in.  Conspiracy theories tell of a vast NSA database of every phone call in America, recorded for posterity.  But when one thinks of the massive undertaking one would have to undergo to simply establish a categorical framework for analyzing these data mines, the idea seems more like a feckless battle against time than a system of control.


Recorded sound information is only doomed to be forgotten, left in eternal hospice without permission to fade off.  As vast as our music collections grow, as knowledgeable as we become by dissecting the past, we’re still left with the burdensome task of actually listening to all that music.  Eventually, the speed of information catches up with us all, just like death.


Hunters and collectors will continue to search through the bottomless record crate in attempts to communicate with the past.  Others will seek out only the obscure and potentially miss out on music’s essential function as a social unifier.  The rest of us will either look for a happy medium or settle for what the critical establishment, our friends and family, or the rest of the music community contends to be the best music has to offer, even though it probably isn’t. 


Will future generations be able to establish their own unique identities through music if what they listen to sounds exactly like what their parents listened to though?  What digital music threatens to erode is the knowledge that all music has a history, a genealogy, and plenty of contemporaries who have now passed on into the great record crate in the sky.  At the cellular level, we’re always changing into new people, shedding our skins, replacing dead cells with new ones, old music with new.  Musical evolution, like human evolution, requires us to allow for the death of music, loved or not, sanctified or vilified, to fertilize the grounds for tomorrow’s sounds.  Whispering crumbled, fragmentary, and wounded sounds of wisdom, the texturalists tell us to let it be.


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Thursday, Nov 13, 2008
“Born in the U.S.A.” might be the first instance where Springsteen takes a topical dilemma and wrestles with an entire demographic: the veterans with “nowhere to run (and) nowhere to go”.

I. Personal


Remember when Born in the U.S.A. was ubiquitous? The album and the song. Bruce was already big, but he wasn’t over the top. Born in the U.S.A. put him over the top and, to a certain extent, he’s stayed there ever since. Of course, people in the know understood he was already a legend before the ‘70s ended; in the early ‘80s The River and Nebraska cemented that status, but Born in the U.S.A. ensured that no one could ever ignore The Boss.


I already owned scratchy LP copies of Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town, as well as original (and shitty sounding) cassette copies of the oft-overlooked but brilliant first two albums (Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. and The Wild, The Innocent, and the E. Street Shuffle), so by the time Born in the U.S.A. hit the market, I was admittedly wary of the frenzied and new-fangled faithful joining the party. But other, more disconcerting forces were at play: the album, as good as it was, wasn’t that good. “Dancing in the Dark”, “I’m on Fire”, “No Surrender”, “My Hometown”? Eh. “Glory Days” was pretty much an instant classic, but (as is always the case with FM-friendly tunes, and never the fault of the artist) overplay hasn’t helped its staying power. But the big hit, the title track, the song that seemed to shoot through the dial 24/7, that one was a love or hate affair. I hated it. If ever there was an arena-ready anthem, this was it. And the muscle-bound Bruce from the video? Give me the spindly Serpico clone from ’78 any day.


(Interesting coincidence: Springsteen had a difficult time getting the track to sound the way he wanted it. Indeed, it was an outtake from his stark solo effort Nebraska. This is not unlike the origins of another overplayed song from the ‘80s, the Rolling Stones’ insufferable “Start Me Up”. That one was originally cut as a reggae-ish romp, before it devolved into the over-produced, if innocuous hit it was destined to be. “Start Me Up”, to be certain, is a lark, and it was—for better or worse—fated to be recycled for eternity at sporting events. “Born in the U.S.A.”, on the other hand, is actually a serious song and, as it happens, is much better than it sounds.)


Perhaps it’s my own fault, but it took several years before I even figured out the words Bruce was singing; perhaps it’s due to his overwrought delivery—equal parts marble-mouthed and shouting. Regardless, this is quite possibly Springsteen’s most somber song—and considering the era (Nebraska) it was written, that is saying a great deal. (And for the curious, it’s well worth checking out the (far superior) demo version that didn’t make the cut for the Nebraska album.) It made all the sense in the world, then, when Springsteen hit the road for his subdued Tom Joad tour in the mid-‘90s, he made the searing, stripped-down version of this song a centerpiece of the show. His hand pounding the acoustic guitar to simulate a heart beat at the song’s coda remains one of the most quietly powerful and emotional moments I’ve ever witnessed at a concert.


II. Polemical


Check it out:


Born down in a dead man’s town
The first kick I took was when I hit the ground
You end up like a dog that’s been beat too much
Till you spend half your life just covering up


Born in the U.S.A.
I was born in the U.S.A.
I was born in the U.S.A.
Born in the U.S.A.


Got in a little hometown jam
So they put a rifle in my hand
Sent me off to a foreign land
To go and kill the yellow man


(chorus)


Come back home to the refinery
Hiring man says “Son if it was up to me”
Went down to see my V.A. man
He said “Son, don’t you understand”


I had a brother at Khe Sahn fighting off the Viet Cong
They’re still there, he’s all gone


He had a woman he loved in Saigon
I got a picture of him in her arms


Down in the shadow of the penitentiary
Out by the gas fires of the refinery
I’m ten years burning down the road
Nowhere to run ain’t got nowhere to go


This song is, upon closer inspection, a staggering achievement. With few words and admirable restraint, Springsteen captures the cause and effects of the Vietnam war from the perspective of an ordinary American, the afflicted civilian. More, he moves the narrator into the here-and-now, making the uncomfortable point that the war never died for the people who managed to live. Movies like The Deer Hunter and Coming Home dealt with Vietnam’s immediate aftermath—the dead or wounded—but not many artists (certainly not enough artists) articulated the dilemma of the working poor who returned from the front line to become the unemployed, or unemployable poor. The vets who ended up in jail, or hospitals, or sleeping under bridges. Or the ones always on the edge (this was, remarkably, a time when shell shock was still a more commonly used term than Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and, as George Carlin astutely pointed out, perhaps if we still called it “shell shock” it might be less easy to ignore), the ones who, by all outside appearances, could—and should—be finding work, and contributing to society, and staying out of trouble. As politicians of a certain party confirm time and again, you cease to be especially useful once you’re no longer in the womb, or no longer wearing the uniform.


On albums like Nebraska and Darkness on the Edge of Town, Springsteen presented stories of the dirty and the desperate, the men and women straddling the line between paychecks and prison, the ones wrestling with the hope and glory inherent in the mostly mythical American Dream. All of them had a story, and many of them were archetypes from small towns and big cities all across the country. But “Born in the U.S.A.” might be the first instance where Springsteen takes a topical dilemma and wrestles with an entire demographic: the veterans with “nowhere to run (and) nowhere to go”.


Of course, in an irony that could only occur in America, none other than our PPP (proudly patriotic president), Ronald Reagan, (or, more likely, his handlers) utterly misread the song and tried to appropriate it as a feel-good anthem for his 1984 reelection campaign. Predictably, Springsteen protested. But what Reagan and his opportunistic underlings heard was, in fairness, the same interpretation so many other Americans shared. And who cares, anyway? It’s just a song after all. And yet, it is a shame that such an effective, and affecting, observation was celebrated as representing the very facile values (unthinking nationalism, unblinking pride) it calls into question. Again, Springsteen and his band deserve no small amount of artistic culpability for marrying such stark lyrics to such a buoyant, fist-pumping, car commercial sounding song. People hear those martial drums and think of John Wayne instead of Travis Bickle.


Travis Bickle, from Taxi Driver


III. Political


Why bring politics into it at all, one might ask? Music can be, and certainly is, enjoyed regardless of what it was intended to inspire. If a song moves you, or manages to make sense in ways that directly contradict the artist’s design, beauty is forever in the eye of the beholder. On the other hand, as George Orwell noted, “the opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude”. Put another way, “Born in the U.S.A.” is still relevant because the issues it confronts are still relevant. We not only have (entirely too many) struggling veterans from last century’s wars, we will have no shortage of men and women who have fought (or are currently fighting) in this generation’s imbroglio. History only makes one promise, and it’s that it will ceaselessly repeat itself.


And so, even as our ill-advised adventure in Iraq reaches its inevitable endgame, we will only be in the initial stages of dealing with the veterans who need care and attention. We won’t count the ultimate cost of “mission accomplished” until we consider the lives lost and the walking wounded, tallied up alongside the untold billions of dollars. This is reason enough to be grateful for an Obama administration (the irony that a genuine war hero, had he managed to win, would have necessarily been obliged to overlook those in need of help to pacify the string-pullers in his party, was, thankfully, too outrageous even for America to make possible). The Democrats can’t create miracles, but they can continue to ensure that the people owed the most won’t get the least.


Remember this, when the ankle-biters and small-government-soundbite hyenas crawl out of their tax-payer fortified foxholes to decry liberal “big spending” programs. Remember it’s these programs that, in addition to paving roads, building schools and providing health care, attempt to secure some support and solace for our broken soldiers. And remember, in two, or four, or forty years, these same craven war pigs will once again wrap themselves in the American flag;  these same armchair generals prepared to fight to the last drop of other folks’ blood will be the ones seeking to slash the programs designed to save the ones burning down the road.


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Wednesday, Nov 12, 2008

Hearing “P.S. I Love You” brings to mind the faulty stereotypes that I once associated with the Beatles’ early songs. Namely that they were mostly negligible from a technical standpoint and didn’t merit much consideration outside the fact that they belonged to a sacred oeuvre and were sometimes impossible to dislike. You know the glib suggestion that the Beatles were basically the Backstreet Boys of the early 1960s, i.e. a group defined by its hysterical popularity, especially among the female youth? In the past, I subscribed to this narrow nonsense and compounded my error by also not crediting the Beatles, circa 1962-1964, with much more than a lowly boy-band level of musical expertise. I failed to appreciate that, from the start, they were gifted individuals equipped with both a studious knowledge of rock ‘n roll and large-scale ambition.


In listening to “P.S. I Love You”, I once again come across the tempting and convincing appearance of fluff that used to distort my understanding of many Beatles songs. That is, the appearance (but not full existence) of an overly simple tune which matches a lightweight lyric with less-than-inspired sonics. Truth be told, “P.S. I Love You” is far from classic and isn’t even terribly memorable. But it’s a song that exudes a likeable, let’s-try-this spirit and shows how the wheels inside the Beatles’ collective head were constantly in motion.


The B-side to “Love Me Do”, “P.S. I Love You” is a lightly melancholic and evenly paced jangler that finds Paul, the song’s writer, pining for a girl from whom he is separated. Contrary to rumors, Paul has insisted that he did not have his then girlfriend, Dorothy “Dot” Rhone, or another love interest in mind when he composed the lyric. What’s more significant, though, is its specific styling – as a letter – which John claims that Paul modeled after the Shirelles’ 1962 hit “Soldier Boy”. Paul opens with “As I write this letter / Send my love to you / Remember that I’ll always / Be in love with you.” From these lines, one can gather a sense that his expressions of love won’t likely come without a tinge of heartache. The distance implied by the letter, then, is taking its toll. While not boldly innovative by any means, the use of this format at least demonstrates that the Beatles were thinking about different ways in which they could depart from the standard lyric. Writing a letter song may have demanded from Paul a certain kind of calculation that he wouldn’t have applied to, say, “Love Me Do”. It’s a minor but not inconsequential point.


“P.S. I Love You” also witnesses more of John and Paul’s developing methods of vocal interaction. Paul is the song’s lead vocalist and, at various times, John joins him in sustained unison, performs spot harmonies, and also fades in and out of several lines, singing every couple words but not harmonizing (or, at least, I don’t think so. On these parts, their voices don’t link up in a way that would highlight any harmony). This last technique creates a melodic texture that softly layers Paul’s vocal. Again, it’s a means to play around with pop convention and produce a sound that emphasizes its makers’ devotion to craft.


Other details to note… As with the album version of “Love Me Do”, Ringo doesn’t perform the drumwork on “P.S. I Love You”. He plays maracas while session musician Andy White is on percussion, anchoring a thin, mechanical rhythm that doesn’t seem to ever shift course. Also, near the end of the song, Paul lets out an amusingly hammed-up “Ooowwww” and “You know I want you to” which don’t yet sound natural coming from him. It’s easy to imagine the young Macca hoping that he might successfully channel one of his soulful heroes of the era, like Little Richard.


The Beatles, after all, did know their rock ‘n roll. They were creators as well as staunch admirers and students of the art. And even songs like “P.S. I Love You”, which are themselves only middling, can still reveal that fact.


Tagged as: the beatles
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