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by Jason Mendelsohn and Eric Klinger

27 Feb 2015

Klinger: In 1984 I was this close. I had discovered R.E.M. and Elvis Costello, and I was aware enough to know that there was a whole world out there beyond my heartland classic rock. Theoretically, with one quick turn to the left, I could have immersed myself in this whole underground scene, typified in my mind by albums like the Replacements’ Let It Be and the album I’ve chosen for this week’s Counterbalance, Hüsker Dü s double-LP conceptual magnum opus Zen Arcade. That’s not without regret.

I can only imagine how differently I might have turned out if I had spent more time cracking the code of Zen Arcade instead of trying to figure out the Who’s Quadrophenia. There’s certainly enough going on with this album to have kept my adolescent brain occupied, and I’m pretty sure that if this had been the expression of my teen angst I might have gone into my adulthood with a much different outlook. As it stands, I’m left to ponder this massive monolith of an album from a decidedly more analytical point of view. There’s of course so much to take in, and much of it is buried under that low-fi wall of noise. Lyrics are buried, guitars are muddled, and yet the whole thing still feels to me like a portal into some place that I very much want to be. Is this making sense, Mendelsohn?

by Jason Mendelsohn and Eric Klinger

20 Feb 2015

Mendelsohn: Sometimes when I’m bored, I’ll just scroll through the Great List, looking for names I don’t recognize. That’s why this week we will be talking about Scott Walker’s Scott 4. Sitting at numbr 499 on the Great List, Scott 4 is not exactly canonical but it was high enough on the list to make me wonder about the record. Top 500? Might as well check it out. Turns out I stumbled into one of the weirder music careers on record.

Scott Walker (real name Noel Scott Engel) got his start in the ‘60s with the band the Walker Brothers (composed of a couple of guys whose real last names weren’t Walker either). The Walker Brothers were huge in England, where their middle of the road sound went down like warm milk—a sort of antithesis to the Beatles’ effervescent reimagining of rock music. Scott then went solo, found even more success recording standards, before fizzling out toward the end of the decade. Interestingly, Scott 4—released in 1969—was a commercial flop. The album is comprised of material written entirely by Walker but was released under his real name. All subsequent re-releases have been rebranded with the Walker moniker. After a short and mildly successful reunion with the Walker Brothers in the ‘70s, Scott departed on a solo path that would see him become one of the world’s foremost avant-garde composers. These days he makes some weird, weird music, often accompanied by weird, weird videos. His signature baritone is still there, though, which is nice.

by Jason Mendelsohn and Eric Klinger

13 Feb 2015

Klinger: How in the hell has it taken us this long to talk about the Kinks? Ray Davies is (and this can’t just be me) one of the finest songwriters in rock history. Sure, he might not have the incisive fogginess of Dylan or the cantankerous anthemry of Lennon, but he can usually be counted on to bring a certain dignity — something very close to wisdom — to the proceedings that you just don’t often hear. I suppose the rap on the Kinks is that they never made their masterpiece. For whatever reason, they never delivered a career-defining statement of purpose that would match a Sgt. Pepper or a Blonde on Blonde or an Exile on Main St. Over the years, though, critics have come around to this week’s record, The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, which currently sits at No. 183 on the Great List. Which, if you buy into the rap on the Kinks, pretty much makes sense.

by Jason Mendelsohn and Eric Klinger

6 Feb 2015

Mendelsohn: If there was one album that could concisely sum up my musical taste as a teenager, it would be Nine Inch Nail’s The Downward Spiral. In 1994, I was wandering around the rock and roll wilderness, trying to find my way with nothing more than a couple of Rush records and a mixtape of Pink Floyd’s greatest hits. Then the video for “Closer” hit MTV and my world changed. A path opened up in the woods and I was shown the way into my rock and roll. I spent the next couple of years listening to The Downward Spiral record, along with the rest of the NIN archive, plus a myriad of less talented bands who were proffering the industrial rock that was fighting for ears in the mid ‘90s. None of it was as well thought out as Trent Reznor’s vision. Some of it was downright terrible (obligatory finger pointing at Marilyn Manson—not the worst, but a frequent and repeat offender). By the end of high school I had cut my long hair, boxed up the black t-shirts and acquired a marginally better taste in music. I would check in with Nine Inch Nails from time to time over the last decade but it seemed that aside from the ardent following Reznor had built for himself, there was little cultural currency left in the newer albums, as he drifted into an atmospheric approach that lent itself better to movie scores than rock albums.

by Jason Mendelsohn and Eric Klinger

30 Jan 2015

Klinger: Every so often, I feel the need to force you to listen to jazz. Actually not just you, Mendelsohn; I have a need to occasionally force people to listen to jazz — coworkers, party guests, spouses. Because I am by nature a polite man, of course, I try to find the kind of jazz that I think the other person will actually enjoy (spoiler alert: that often involves Brubeck). This time around, though, I’ve taken the gloves off. It’s Dolphy time, buddy. Out to Lunch!. It’s time to get weird. And from the first chilling notes of Dolphy’s “Hat and Beard”, you know you’re headed into some unusual territory. That mix of bass clarinet, double bass, and vibraphone seem to be settling you in for something altogether unsettling. The song comes off as a a haunted film noir fever dream, making it a good example of why people find jazz so “difficult”.

Or is it? Personally, I’ve always thought that Out to Lunch! was a good example of a straight-ahead avant-garde record (unless you decide to think of it as an unusually avant-garde straight-ahead jazz record, which is OK too). It’s true that the album has its share of dissonance, and seems to be reveling in it, whether it’s Dolphy squawking away on his bass clarinet or Bobby Hutcherson puts the hammer down on the vibes. At the same time, though, bassist Richard Davis and drummer Tony Williams seem to maintain an even keel throughout the proceedings, giving the songs a steady, solid feel that’s a far cry from the nuttiness that was to emerge from the avant-garde. Either way, Out to Lunch! has made enough of an impression within the critical industrial complex to earn it a ranking of No. 405 (the third highest-placing album of 1964, as it happens, the first being A Hard Day’s Night). Anyway, I admit, I was trying to freak you out. Mission accomplished?

Mendelsohn: Would you be disappointed if I said no? Jazz, even the most avant-garde, does not freak me out. Mostly, it makes me want to take a nap or listen to something else — something that isn’t jazz. It has been awhile since we’ve talked about jazz and I had the sneaking suspicion you would be dropping a jazz album in my lap. I was hoping for something a little more conventional. Maybe something on the fusion spectrum with nods to prog rock or latent pop influences? But if we have to talk about Dolphy’s ramblings, so be it. After a couple of spins through Out to Lunch!, my limited jazz knowledge kicks in and I notice this record is indeed free form stemming from the hard bop tradition. Further research tells me that the first track, “Hat and Beard,” is inspired by bop contributor Thelonious Monk. Elements of hard bop appear throughout the record and if I have to listen to jazz, the bop family is at the top of the list for its close relations to soul, R&B and the blues.

But then, somewhere in the middle of “Something Sweet, Something Tender”, a song that starts off so promisingly, I sort of space out while Dolphy is squawking away. That seems to be the story for me. I get pulled in by a snippet, a repeating stanza, a flash of harmony and then I lose it in the ether. Why is listening to jazz so much work?

Klinger: I’m not going to say anything sarcastic about how I see you lose it in the ether on a regular basis (usually after your sixth beer) because that wouldn’t be very nice of me. And besides I get where you’re coming from. I always say that I listened to jazz for years before I heard it. Even now, I drift off from time to time, but then I realize that I do that when I listen to a lot of rock music as well — especially if long guitar solos are involved. But then again, I’ve long since stopped worrying about what aspects of musical history I’m supposed to be gleaning from listening to jazz. Once jazz became a scholarly exercise, it stopped being fun. Listen in your own way, and it can be fun again.

Maybe it feels like work because our brains are more engaged when we encounter patterns, and the improvisational nature of jazz tends to obscure those patterns. Snare drum beats don’t land on the three. A run on a horn that could have been a hook is never repeated. And the main thing that’s holding your interest is the excitement that comes from the virtuosity of the musicians (on Out to Lunch!, listen for Freddie Hubbard’s lightning fast trumpet in particular). On the other hand, when I hear the squawking that pulls you out of it, that’s the very stuff that pulls me back in. Dolphy’s unpredictability is a constant source of amazement to me. Listen to the main riff on “Straight Up and Down”—Dolphy never quite fulfills your expectations during his solo.

Mendelsohn: It is a little disappointing that Dolphy never brings the solo full circle. But at the same time, that unfulfilled expectation is part of the allure of this record. The band does its best to hint at harmony, nod toward a melody, tiptoe around the beat. As the listeners, we are forced to fill in the spaces, or more to the point, take notice of the space within the music. It can be liberating — or frustrating. I have a sneaking suspicion that most people would find it frustrating. I did. I don’t know how many times I had to force myself through the record before it started to stick. Now I find the wobbly bit in the beginning of “Straight Up and Down”, to be delightful (it reminds me of you after your sixth beer) and I eagerly wait for it to return at the end. Between those two points, however, I’m still a little lost — unfulfilled expectations and all.

It makes me wonder if the obtuse nature of jazz has sealed the genre’s fate. The Great List holds these classic jazz albums up as standard bearers for the genre but after a certain point, jazz seems to be a complete non factor within the critical industrial complex. Is the end of jazz, as anything other than musical oddity, close at hand? Has it already passed the point of no return?

Klinger: It’s been a long time since jazz has had any particular currency in our culture. I hate that. I hate the idea that it’s become the sort of music that you either listen to reverently or treat as ambient dinner-party background noise. I hate the notion that jazz is like classical music now, to be treated like a museum piece that mustn’t ever get itself dirty. Because when you listen to Dolphy and his band make their way through Out to Lunch, you realize that it is dirty and funky and messy and beautiful. And that we should treat it like any other music — music that makes us move. Music that trips all the little triggers in our brain. Music that makes us lean forward sometimes and makes us lean back at others, sometimes within the same song.

A lot of times, making your decision for an artist or an album or a genre is about letting go. Turning off the part of your brain that makes you self-conscious about whether you’re doing the right thing or whether you’re doing it right. How often have we listened to something and not picked it up right at first, only to have it sink into our heads when we least expect it? The problem with jazz — and to answer your question, the reason why it will continue to decline in our public estimation — is that somewhere along the line someone convinced people that they were doing it wrong. That they weren’t appreciating it the right way. That these artists were first and foremost compositional geniuses (which they are, no question) and somehow not entertainers (which just doesn’t make sense). And the people who did the most damage, the people who made jazz so very not fun, were the people who loved it the most.

But yes, damage is done. As long as young people (and in this case, I guess I mean people under 75) view jazz as a schoolmarmish lesson to be heeded, then yes, it’s going to wither away. I’m not expecting droves of millennials to start digging out 50-year-old Blue Note albums or starting up some Mumfordesque avant-garde hard-bop revival. Let this be a lesson, I suppose, to the people who try to make rock and roll an academic pursuit. In the meantime, I hold out hope that maybe a few people here and there will make the decision to let go and hear Out to Lunch! for the deeply groovy fun that it actually is. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to have this soapbox back to the rental place by six.

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