Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Tuesday, Nov 25, 2008
Trying to cut "The White Album" down to size is ultimately like chasing that whale around all the continents and hunting him down: it can’t be done.

 


Therefore, in his other moods, symbolize whatever grand or gracious thing he will by whiteness, no man can deny that in its profoundest idealized significance it calls up a peculiar apparition to the soul.
—Herman Melville, Moby Dick (Chapter 42 - The Whiteness of the Whale)


Well, the album’s not not white. It is so appropriate for it to be a blank slate—figuratively speaking—because perhaps more than any other Beatles album, it has served as an ideal canvas upon which fans can project their opinions, insights and arguments. It is, to belabor the Melville metaphor, kind of the white whale of the greatest rock band’s canon, with fans like so many Ahabs, trying to capture it, or understand it, or truncate it, or elevate it, or diminish it. Or all of those things, and more.


It was, after all, the album that signalled the end of The Beatles—every moment after its release a slo-mo implosion, those fractured pieces of ego and ambition the Flotsam and Jetsam that became Let It Be and Abbey Road, and later, the solo albums. Or was it? Was it, perhaps, merely a collection of uneven, ultimately amazing songs from a band at the apex of their superhuman powers? Probably, it’s something right around the middle of those extremes. It was what it was: the album the Beatles released, 40 years ago this fall. And while many folks would concede it’s not their best album, most people acknowledge that it might just be better than Sgt. Pepper’s (let me stand up and be counted here).


In terms of an engaged critical appraisal, arguably the only true way to grapple with this behemoth is to submit to a detailed, song-by-song analysis (something PopMatters writers did quite brilliantly all last week). What holds up? What doesn’t? Which songs, often easy to dismiss, still manage to surprise? (”Piggies”, “Rocky Raccoon”). Which ones have never ceased to astonish, even after a thousand listens? (”Happiness is a Warm Gun”, “I Will”, “Long Long Long”). The tunes themselves: 30 songs that constitute a sum far greater than their parts? (Does that even make sense, though? It’s the songs themselves that add up to the whole, and each song contributes to the overall effect, that ultimate achievement.) Perhaps it is actually the messy superfluity (an embarrassment of riches that is both, at times, embarrassing as well as rich) that somehow squares the circle. While fans have obsessed from day one about how much better it would have been as a single album (of which, more shortly), a compelling case can still be made that the ostensibly expendable songs, taken along with the master strokes, make a dovetail joint out of the assembled bits.


That last, debatable assertion, is worth expanding upon. In the contemporary climate of iPods and songs on sale for a buck apiece (or else snatched online, for free), it is difficult to imagine the suddenly old fashioned world of compact discs. It is harder still to imagine a seemingly black-and-white movie world where people purchased—and listened to—actual LPs for the simple reason that this was their only choice. Without waxing rhapsodic about wax, it’s probably safe to recall with some conviction those pretty-good days when a new album was an experience and it was experienced. Start to finish. (This is not to imply that people don’t eagerly immerse themselves in new releases today but, again, back then there was no other option.) In those days, unless you were going to jump up, run over, and move the stylus yourself (imagine actually getting up to change the channel on the TV…), you were in for the duration once the needle dropped.


All of a sudden seemingly stolid things like flow and symmetry enter the equation. Suddenly the exhaust of the airplane ending “Back in the U.S.S.R.” segueing limpidly into the earthbound chords of “Dear Prudence” gives a subtle extra significance to both moments. The flamenco guitar flourish (actually a canned recording from the then-cutting edge Mellotron) functions as both a perfectly surreal coda to the cacophonous “Wild Honey Pie” but also as a perfect (and perfectly bizarre) introduction to Lennon’s wonderfully acerbic “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill”. Ditto for the saloon piano at the end of “Rocky Raccoon”—or is that supposed to be the beginning of “Don’t Pass Me By”?


Is it just habit (or worse, sentimentality) informing the observation that Side 2 would suffer if it began with, say, “Blackbird” instead of “Martha My Dear”? Or that Side 1 has to end with “Happiness is a Warm Gun”? Or, that, of course, Side 3 has to end with “Long Long Long” knowing that the slow, smothered coda will be resucitated with the studio chatter and false start of “Revolution 1″ opening Side 4, the effect like a light switch being flipped on? Could the one-two punch of McCartney’s “I Will” and Lennon’s “Julia” possibly do anything other than close Side 2, a calming comedown after the narcotic maelstrom that preceded it?


I could put together a perfect two-sided version of this white whale. So could you. But I’d be willing to bet that like snowflakes, no two fans would have the same songs in the same running order. More, even though it would arguably sound better to cut some of the fat and flab, would “Cry Baby Cry” sound quite the same not knowing (dreading?) “Revolution 9″ was about to follow? Would “Cry Baby Cry” even make the cut? Speaking for myself, if I had to pare down this beast, I am pretty sure I could safely lose “Back in the U.S.S.R.”, but I can’t imagine a single song that could reliably kick off the proceedings as suitably. Likewise, “Julia” could be an ideal closer on any other album, but not the white album. It is perfectly placed right in the middle, the marrow of this very gnarled and fibrous bone.


Trying to cut this album down to size (something George Martin fought for, and something each member probably advocated at some point, in ‘68 or after) is ultimately like chasing that whale around all the continents and hunting him down; it can’t be done. Impossible, like trying to make sense out of “Revolution 9″ (forwards or backwards, and back in the day, we tried it many times). And that is the point of this album: it really is just an album a band that happened to be growing apart made in between ‘67 and ‘69. Not working together as closely, or productively, as they once had, does the end product suffer? Perhaps. But even with the odds and sods (even with “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” for God’s sake), the bottom line is that The Beatles couldn’t help but be brilliant. They were as close to the sun as they’d ever get at this point in their careers, and this work endures as a sort of field recording that touches on almost all the music made in the modern era, while anticipating (and to a large degree commencing) the post ’60s era (one might even say that by recognizing the ’60s were effectively over, The Beatles effectively ended the ’60s). Could it have been edited to make a more concise, aesthetically satisfactory result? Maybe. But would it be as satisfying? Fortunately, that is the question that cannot, and need not, ever be answered.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Thursday, Nov 20, 2008
by PopMatters Staff
New dance pop singer Lady GaGa loves the Pietà.

1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
Red, the movie based on the book by Jack Ketchum.


2. The fictional character most like you?
Carrie Bradshaw (from Sex and the City).


3. The greatest album, ever?
Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon.


4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
Star Wars


5. Your ideal brain food?
Chicken and hummus.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
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.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
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.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
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.


Now on PopMatters
PM Picks
Announcements
PopMatters' LUCY Giveaway! in PopMatters's Hangs on LockerDome

© 1999-2014 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters.com™ and PopMatters™ are trademarks
of PopMatters Media, Inc.

PopMatters is wholly independently owned and operated.