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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.

by Jason Mendelsohn and Eric Klinger

23 Jan 2015

Mendelsohn: For the next round of Counterbalance, I picked two albums from 1994. One I listened to non-stop and the other I never bothered with. We will get to the record I loved dearly in my formative years, but this week we are going to talk about the record (and the band) I have managed to ignore for 20 years — Weezer and their self-titled debut (also known as The Blue Album).

Twenty years, Klinger. I’ve gotten this far without ever giving a second thought to Weezer. Sure, they have been a pop mainstay, somehow eking out record sales as the tastes have shifted from grunge, to boys bands, to pop divas, to garage rock, back to pop divas, etc., ad infinitum. Before this week, if you had asked me about Weezer I may answer would have been, “Yeah sure, Weezer, they are that band with those songs about Buddy Holly, Sweaters, Hash Pipes and Beans. Good for them.” And now I’m listening to The Blue Album and kind of cursing myself for not ignoring them for thirty years. But then, this record is on the Great List, sitting at a respectable no. 352.

by Jason Mendelsohn and Eric Klinger

16 Jan 2015

Klinger: In the beginning was the chord. And the chord was of the Beatles and the chord was the Beatles. And the chord was probably a G7sus4 (or maybe more like an Fadd9) played on a Rickenbacker 12-string, but there are also some extra notes sneaking in from the Hofner bass and the piano and so forth. But regardless, I maintain that it’s there, in that chord, that the Beatles became the Beatles and the 1960s became the Sixties. A Hard Day’s Night represents the moment where the Beatles take their first major leap into the innovations that would make them the embodiment of the pop music that was yet to come.

Maybe it was due to the fact that the album was released in conjunction with their first feature film, but the decision to release an entire album of Lennon/McCartney compositions (instead of a hodgepodge of originals, show tunes, girl group numbers and rock & roll standards) is quite telling. In many ways, it sets A Hard Day’s Night up as the first modern rock album. It sets a standard for up-and-coming groups, creating a expectation that they deliver their own material. It’s an enormously important album, and I maintain that it’s only due to moneygrubbery at Capitol that we haven’t talked about it yet. Your thoughts, Mendelsohn?

Mendelsohn: We haven’t talked about A Hard Day’s Night yet because while it is — without a doubt — culturally important it is not as critically important as what would follow from the Fab Four. And since we’ve spent the last four years talking about critically important albums, it would stand to reason that it might take us a while to work around to this record. Besides, by the time we talk about Revolver, Sgt. Pepper, the White Album, Abbey Road and Rubber Soul, what do we have left to say? More nice things about the Beatles, I would wager.

Apparently being culturally important does not always equal critical importance. But I think you were about to explain that with a little story about Capitol and the always above-board business practices of the music industry.

Klinger: Well, it’s nothing as slimy as all that. Because the film was distributed through United Artists, that label got to release the soundtrack album (they apparently figured they’d make up whatever the film lost through LP sales). Capitol had been dragging their feet on releasing Beatles LPs in the States, and UA saw an opportunity. They cut a deal where they were able to use the songs featured in the film that hadn’t already been released on Capitol, and Capitol got to carve up those remainders and stick them on Something New and The Beatles’ Second Album. So the US version featured eight regular Beatles songs and four easy listening instrumentals. Which makes the US version of the album a little annoying (although the arrangement of “A Hard Day’s Night” that sounds like Dave Brubeck is kind of a hoot).

This also helps explain why the record isn’t more critically esteemed — the US critics hadn’t had much opportunity to hear it. The UK (or I guess “proper”) version wasn’t made commercially available in the States until the CDs came out in 1987, so our view of pre-Pepper Beatles was always just a little distorted. And ultimately, it’s the songs that made the difference, and no matter what order you heard them in they served as a rallying cry for a bunch of young musicians. Once you realized that they were actually writing all this stuff themselves — and that it seemed to be unlike much else that was going on at the time — you couldn’t just write them off as a novelty for the girls. And you were going to want to see if you could do it yourself.

Mendelsohn: I don’t buy it, Klinger. Not the record — I bought the record. I just don’t think the lack of critical appeal has anything to do with US critics not getting to hear the proper A Hard Day’s Night. There are numerous cases of UK-only albums (or more precisely, albums loved only by the UK) to make a splash on the Great List. The best examples are the Smiths’ The Queen is Dead at no. 25 and Massive Attack’s Blue Lines at no. 37. But then, our definition of “lack of critical appeal” is completely skewed when it comes to the Beatles. We covered the bulk of their material within the first year of doing Counterbalance. The Beatles own a tenth of the Top 50 records. So by that standard, A Hard Day’s Night is an abject failure at no. 223 on the Great List.

Klinger: Do you have any other apples you would like to compare to this orange, Mendelsohn? The Smiths and Massive Attack didn’t have their records chopped up into three LPs and mixed up with a bunch of older singles in order to squeeze a few extra bucks out of some teenyboppers. And even more to the point, 1964 was a couple years before the advent of serious rock criticism. By the time Crawdaddy and Rolling Stone got themselves up and running, their writers were swamped with releases by the groups that sprung up in the aftermath of A Hard Day’s Night, so they were too busy worrying about the Strawberry Alarm Clock to do a major rethink of these pre-rock era efforts.

Mendelsohn: I’m not saying that to downplay the importance of this record. I completely agree with your assertion that the Beatles started the ball rolling when it came to elevating the art form. I just don’t think they really stepped on the gas until Rubber Soul. The Beatles grew up into rock. Rubber Soul was the teen album, they were finding their footing and experimenting. Revolver was the young adult album as the group become comfortable in their rock bodies. Sgt. Pepper was the adult album, the band hitting on all cylinders. The White Album marks the point where the cynicism of adulthood sets in and the band struggles as each member seeks his own unique voice. The Beatles of A Hard Day’s Night were mere children. A kiddie group realizing they could write their own music. It is inspiring but its still flat. It’s the Beatles in black and white before they learned to speak in Technicolor.

Klinger: Eh, that may be overstating things (and it almost makes me wish United Artists had sprung for color film so we could put that trope to bed). And I don’t know how one could listen to this collection of tracks and think of it as “flat.” Yes, they’d go on to reinvent pop music in even more grandiose ways, and yes they’d go on to release better albums. And no, I don’t think this album needs to be in the loftiest heights of the Great List. But it’s pretty near impossible to listen to something like “Things We Said Today” or “If I Fell” or “Any Time at All”, and not hear something completely different than what all else was going on in pop music at the time.

Mendelsohn: I’m just making you work for it. In the Beatles’ pantheon, the album is a bit flat, but that probably has more to do with the technology available than anything else. You are completely on point about the song-writing. The Beatles flipped the switch on this record. They had little problem pushing their synthesized version of pop to the next level. The thing that I find really amazing about this record is just how varied and self-assured they were while cranking out all these differently styled songs. “You Can’t Do That”, is well-executed MOR rock with swaggering guitar and it stands in marked contrast to a song like “Can’t Buy Me Love”, a sunny strummer that helped the rise of Beatlemania. “Tell Me Why” could have been a girl-group cover and “If I Fell”, is spot on balladry. As different as these genres can be, the Beatles effortlessly synthesized it all into a cohesive package.

Klinger: And that ability to take in everything that was going on around them — and still make it their own — is a key component to the Beatles’ genius. Of course, A Hard Day’s Night only offers a teasing glimpse of what was to come (there are no George Harrison songs on here, and this is curiously the only Beatles LP not to feature a vocal performance from Ringo). But it’s at this point where we understand the Beatles as a fully formed entity. It’s why I recommend A Hard Day’s Night as a point of entry for young people who may just be trying to understand the Beatles as something more than just the band you’re supposed to like. It’s not where I first started (my first Beatles album was Sgt. Pepper, which I got for my 12th birthday, November 1980. Just a few weeks later…), but between the album and the film, I think you get the best sense for the musical brilliance and the personalities that make everything else make the most sense. Plus you get to start with a record of unabashed joy, starting from that chord and going onward.

by Jason Mendelsohn and Eric Klinger

9 Jan 2015

Mendelsohn: I’m not going to lie, Klinger. Of all the Velvet Underground records, I like Loaded the most. I know its not the hip choice. It isn’t the groundbreaking, Warholian debut with Nico, it isn’t the well-regarded self-titled change of pace, it isn’t even the dirty fuzz box of White Light/White Heat. But Loaded excels where all those other albums failed — it brings the hits. They could have called it The Velvet Underground Sells Out. I would still buy a copy. Why? Because Lou Reed was one of the finest rock songwriters of his generation. He had the ability to marry the warm sensibility of pop music — the hooks, the undeniable beat — with an undercurrent of seediness, the vague, foul odor of rock and roll. Loaded is at once happy and subversive. It’s the album I would expect Reed to write when pressed by the record label to bring the hits, which is what they did. Whenever I drop the needle on this record, I’m greeted by “Who Loves the Sun”, and the mental image of the Velvet Underground banging out this pretty little ditty while Lou Reed just stands on stage, scowling at the audience and flipping the bird.

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