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Friday, Nov 6, 2009
Some artists are more than merely great. There are some artists that for a period of years, a period that is finite, consistently produced music that, it can be argued, far exceeded the work of their peers. For that brief period of time they were definitely Masters of the Form.

“Anger is a gift.”
—Rage Against the Machine, “Freedom”


Anger was a pretty standard component of popular music by 1992.  Grunge and gangsta rap had a stranglehold on both radio and MTV (where the “M” still stood for “music”), and words like “nihilism” and “violent” were musical buzzwords.  It seemed that anybody who could write a riff or sample a George Clinton song was pissed off.  And then, in the midst of all the enraged sentiments crashing through the airwaves came a group that gift wrapped anger with a barbed wire bow.  Anger was more than just an emotion for them.  It was more than a gift.  For Rage Against the Machine, anger was an art form, and with the release of their self-titled debut they proved that they were Masters of the Form.


Rage Against the Machine wasn’t a band, they were predators.  As they credited themselves in the liner notes of Rage Against the Machine, they were “Guilty Parties” rather than musicians; pure audio aggression, a walking encyclopedia of violent electricity the likes of which rock and roll had never seen.  There had been plenty of anger in rock and roll before, but rarely had it been so pure.  Being the guilty parties made Rage Against the Machine more than just an album.  It was a weapon, a sledgehammer; a blunt instrument of political protest that assaulted listeners, making any working speaker an accomplice, with an experience that was so sudden, so immediate that the reaction to it was physical, as though it had been added directly to the world’s drip feed.


“...like fluid in your veins”
—Rage Against the Machine, “Fistful of Steel”


It’s an album that chases its listeners.  Rage Against the Machine sneaks up on you, like a prowler weaving through the well shot shadows of a ‘70s movie.  “Bombtrack” rolls in on a spiral of guitar and bass that refuse to make their intentions plain as they gradually crescendo until, 25 seconds in, the whole track finally explodes in an act of musical battery.  It’s a blow to the back of the head, an unsuspected and relentless attack that doesn’t let up for the entire album, “Hardline, hardline, after hardline”.  Rage Against the Machine is an album devoid of any truly quiet moments.  “Settle for Nothing” begins in a muted fashion as Zack de la Rocha relays the story of a boy without a father, but the entire song is drowned in de la Rocha’s blood curdling screams as the boy is initiated into a local gang.  “Fistful of Steel” intrigues the ear with the inventiveness of Tom Morello’s guitar as it wails through the verses—part banshee, part siren, drawing you closer, until the inevitable punishing thump of the chorus.  Every track was an assault.  Every track was a…


“Fist in the air in the land of hypocrisy”
—Rage Against the Machine, “Wake Up”


Rage Against The Machine was a line in the sand that separated a deceived “us” from a perceived “them”, and it was defiantly loud because, as de la Rocha points out in “Township Rebellion”, there’s no point in standing on a silent platform when you can fight the war, whatever war needs to be fought.  The enemies on Rage Against the Machine are so numerous—the Klu Klux Klan, Eurocentric school systems, lying teachers, media propagandists, the class system—and words like “rage” and “bullet” riddle the lyrics with such frequency, that it’s difficult to keep track of where the anger is being aimed.  This frequent shifting of targets made it difficult to “Know Your Enemy”, which itself is a blistering track about teachers who try to get students to conform to society and do what they’re told.


“Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me!”
—Rage Against the Machine, “Killing in the Name”


 


In the end, however, none of this confusion matters.  The incendiary performance of the material, as incendiary as the monk burning himself in protest on the album’s cover, makes such confusion immaterial.  The barrage is all that matters, the fierceness of it; the speed with which it hits listeners and leaves them gasping for air that won’t return to them until the album’s conclusion.  Rage Against the Machine is a masterpiece of attitude.  Young attitude.  Righteously belligerent attitude that feels the need to growl “Bam! Here’s the plan, motherfuck Uncle Sam, step back I know who I am”.


Rage Against the Machine was an excessive debut, and then?  Well, then the band focused its considerable energies on the task of conquering an Evil Empire.


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Wednesday, Nov 4, 2009

In 1989, I was lucky enough to discover Soundgarden two years before the grunge revolution. I read a rave about Louder Than Love in what was at that time my musical bible: Circus magazine. After a steady stream of Anthrax, Metallica, and Megadeth, I was floored at how heavy a band could be by playing so slow.


Two years later, I was somewhat disappointed by Badmotorfinger, partly because the sound wasn’t as raw as Louder Than Love, and partly because a lot of the kids at my high school were discovering a secret that I was in on two years before. By 1994, I was so steeped in playing “spot the sellout” that I couldn’t listen to their blockbuster Superunknown due to the incessant rotation of “Black Hole Sun”.


Years pass. People mature. And occasionally, you find yourself ready to pop in a CD that you may not have given much of a chance when it first came out. Sure, “Spoonman” still justifies the skip, but what floored me was the quality of the “deep tracks”, specifically the seven-minute closer “Like Suicide”.


If any song in Soundgarden’s arsenal showed how indispensible each member was, it was on this slow-burner of a closer. In the span of seven minutes, bassist Ben Sheppard starts the song with a bubbling bass line, leading into Kim Thayil’s warning siren-like guitar riff. Thayil and Sheppard keep the tension building while Chris Cornell goes from gentle croon, to rawk wail, to unleashed scream. Finally, as the entire thing explodes, drummer Matt Cameron closes the song with such ferocity, you’re half expecting to hear his snare crack. The entire effect is the musical equivalent of a dormant volcano slowly building before its Mt. St. Helens-like eruption.


On Superunkown, Soundgarden proudly wore their Led Zeppelin influence, and “Like Suicide” was the band’s “In My Time of Dying”. Comparing love to suicide is hardly original, and a year later Billy Corgan shouted Cornell’s lament almost verbatim on “Bodies”. But Cornell’s sentiments on “Like Suicide” were more sinister and thus more believable. When Cornell yells “I feel for you”, you’re not sure if that’s actually a good thing.


The lyrics also contained its share of cryptic foreshadowing. The most obvious one being the death of Kurt Cobain, who expressed his love of Louder Than Love in interviews. However, there are other most subtle instances. Nearly a half-decade before school shootings overtook the media spotlight, Cornell’s pained delivery of a line like “with an ounce of pain, I wield a ton of rage” can put a chill down a listener’s spine. And all this from a song that Cornell apparently wrote about a bird that fatally flew into a window in his house.


“Like Suicide” would have been a great capper for Soundgarden: It combined the pure aggressiveness of their earlier work with the refined skill the band demonstrated in the more Beatlesque songs on Superunknown. The song could also be on the shortlist for best song the band ever recorded. But the band opted for one more album, 1996’s Down the Upside, with mixed results. Still, many circles regard Superunkown as grunge’s last masterpiece. And like most masterpieces, the closing track pretty much determines whether it’s fit for that distinction or just merely a “great album”. Judged on “Like Suicide”, it was easy to figure out what category Superunknown would fall.


Tagged as: soundgarden
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Tuesday, Nov 3, 2009
Parklife is like a dream date -- it's smart, it's funny, it rocks, it's tender, it gets your blood pumping, and when it's over, you can't wait to do it all over again.

In honor of the 15th anniversary of its release, Blur’s Parklife has gotten a lot of extra play on my iPod lately. 1990s Britpop comprises an alarming percentage of my life’s all-time hit parade, with the bulk of it emerging from smack in the middle of that decade—Oasis’s What’s the Story (Morning Glory)?; Supergrass’s I Should Coco; Bluetones’s Expecting to Fly; Seahorses’ Do It Yourself. And Parklife is noteworthy for the fact that it is the only Blur CD I love. In fact, it is the only Blur CD I like. If we’re really getting honest here, it is the only Blur CD that doesn’t put me to sleep.


I’m not alone in my enthusiasm, as Parklife remains the band’s best-selling release. It was my first introduction to the band, their two previous discs having somehow eluded me. Lots of people feel partial to their first taste of a favorite band—usually not to the complete exclusion of the rest of their catalogue, however. I really tried!  After Parklife grabbed me and took up permanent residence in my collection, I marched right out and got Leisure and Modern Life Is Rubbish. Later, I faithfully lined up when The Great Escape and all subsequent releases came out. They all ended up in the resale pile.

Modern Life Is Rubbish is the one that comes closest to Parklife‘s greatness. “Advert” is in the same vein as the exuberantly manic “Bank Holiday”, but just doesn’t take it far enough. Vocalist/lyricist Damon Albarn’s party trick, Songs About Guys with Funny Names, started with Rubbish‘s “Colin Zeal”, and continued on through later releases with “Ernold Same” and “Dan Abnormal”. But it is on Parklife, with “Jubilee” and “Tracy Jacks” (and even Bill Barrett from “Magic America”) that Albarn’s characters are the most fleshed out, the funniest, and the most tragic.


The bottom line is this: what Parklife has that none of Blur’s other records have is balls. I don’t know if the band let up on the weed-smoking or had a brief fling with amphetamines during its recording, but everything else these dudes ever made is a crashing bore to me. Sure, “Song 2” is a crowd-pleaser that will never fail to get me pumped up for the hockey game, but that’s about it. Parklife is like a dream date—it’s smart, it’s funny, it rocks, it’s tender, it gets your blood pumping, and when it’s over, you can’t wait to do it all over again.


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Monday, Nov 2, 2009
Artist/producer PC Muñoz mines for gems and grills the greats.

“Dedicated Thespian Has Teeth Pulled to Play Newborn Baby in High School Play”


“Embarrassed Teen Accidentally Uses Valuable Rare Postage Stamp”


“Retired Grocer Constructs Tiny Mount Rushmore Entirely of Cheese”


“High School Shop Class Constructs Bicycle Built for 26”


These waggish tabloid-headline song titles, and the whimsical lyrics that go along with them, can all be found on Strange But True, the 1998 collaboration between renegade songwriter/vocalist Jad Fair and alt-funsters Yo La Tengo. Each song consists of Fair singing and speaking mini-stories which expand on the title, backed by Yo La Tengo’s avant-indie-pop grooves and soundscapes.


Jad Fair has been a prolific artist and mischief-maker for over three decades now, starting in the ‘70s with Half-Japanese, a band he founded in Maryland with his brother, David Fair. Over the course of the last 30 years, the Fair brothers have been hailed as archetypal, out-there popsters/rock ultra-deconstructionists by critics and in-the-know fellow musicians (including Kurt Cobain, who was reportedly a big fan), while remaining relatively unknown by many mainstream music fans. Their sound is an intense, chordless (detractors would say tuneless) amalgamation of earnest singer-songwriterism and primal skronk, decorated with often-tortured lyrics about girls or monsters/imaginary creatures. The result is the kind of raw-nerve honesty (in both a sonic and lyrical sense) which compels some folks to listen more closely, other folks to run for the hills, and still others to wax hyperbolic over the genius inherent in such a nakedly unfeigned artistic emission.


Since in the past I’ve occasionally been faked-out by hipster-chic critic endorsements of various “underground geniuses”,  I should make myself clear: I believe Jad Fair deserves a respectful ear not because of some kind of cool-kid/quirkier-than-thou fetishization of his “unschooled” music. Rather, it’s his obvious love for creating and exploring, his prolific output, and his utter fearlessness in expression that is most striking, and quite undeniable.


The 1993 documentary, Half Japanese: The Band That Would Be King is a good place to begin for those who are intrigued. I also recommend the reasonably accessible, above-mentioned Strange But True as an introduction to Fair’s lyric and vocal style, though diving right into one of his solo albums, or any of the 25-plus Half Japanese releases, is a more completely immersive experience for those with a burning desire to go full-on Jad right away.


What was the first song you fell in love with, and what is your current relationship to the piece?
I was a big fan of the Beatles when I was a kid, and really liked “I Saw Her Standing There”. Beatlemania was so huge. It all seemed so modern, and so cool.


Who is your favorite “unsung” artist or songwriter, someone who you feel never gets their due? Talk a little bit about him/her.
Hedy West is one of my favorite singers. She was a banjo player and released some great albums. It’s difficult to find much by her.


Is there an artist, genre, author, filmmaker, etc. who/which has had a significant impact/influence on you, but that influence can’t be directly heard in your music?
Vic and Sade was a radio show in the ‘30s and ‘40s, and is by far my favorite comedy show. It was a 15-minute show which had five shows a week. The show’s writer was Paul Rhymer. He was a comic genius. I have all of the shows I could find on my iPod and listen to the show almost every day. I’m not sure how it influences my music, but I’m sure it does, because it has such a strong hold on me.


Do you view songwriting as a vocation/calling, a gig, a hobby, other…?
I used to make my living off of music, and song writing is a good part of that. For the past seven years I’ve focused on my art. My main vocation now is paper cutting. I’ve had six books published and several exhibitions.


Name one contemporary song that encourages you about the future of songwriting/pop music.
Amy Allison‘s song “What’s the Deal?” is great. She’s one of the best songwriters around. There are many musicians that I like, but it’s hard to find a good songwriter. Amy gets my vote.


As Fair notes in his answers above, as of late he has been concentrating on his visual artwork. Visit jadfair.org for lots of information on Jad Fair’s art, music, and other activities.


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Saturday, Oct 31, 2009

August marked the 30th anniversary of the release of “Bela Lugosi’s Dead”, the first single by goth pioneers Bauhaus.  I knew in the back of my head that the song would hit the three-decade mark this year, but the exact date of release slipped my mind, otherwise I would’ve written a glowing tribute to the song two months ago.  My forgetfulness works out all right, given that there’s no better time to ruminate on “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” than in the light of Halloween.


Listening to “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” provides the rare opportunity to hear a style of music emerge fully-formed.  Sure, there were clear influences (David Bowie) and important predecessors (Joy Division).  But on that 1979 release, Bauhaus pulled all that had come before it together to present something unique: goth.  In this nine-and-a-half-minute requiem for the actor who played the title character in the classic 1931 film version of Dracula, Peter Murphy, Daniel Ash, David J, and Kevin Haskins lay out all the tricks of the form for later practitioners to follow: the ominous bassline, the spectral guitar, the foreboding low-range vocals, and (of course) the horror-movie imagery.  Most importantly, Bauhaus constructs the perfect mood: sepulchral, gloomy, and with a hint of fear.  Will Hollywood’s most famous bloodsucker stay in his tomb?  When Peter Murphy switches his mannered intonations from commenting “Bela Lugosi’s dead” to repeating the word “undead”, it seems frighteningly unlikely.


Even if one is not a fan of gothic rock (and there are a lot of people who aren’t, finding it too pretentious, too introverted, too silly), Bauhaus’s importance as the author of the first goth single cannot be denied.  But there’s another honor owed to “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” that is largely unrecognized: it can be very well be called the first true alternative rock record.


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