It was Mark Twain who said it best: “I would have written you a shorter letter if I’d had the time.” Or was it Pearl Buck? Or Benjamin Franklin? Aw fuck, does it matter? The point—regardless of it was said by Ralph Waldo Emerson or my great aunt Bertha—is the same. Going long is easy. Short, sweet and to the point is a hell of a lot tougher.
Whoever-it-was was talking about writing, but the same thing can and should be said about music. While there are certainly important exceptions—Zen Arcade, OutKast’s recent Speakerboxxx/The Love Below and Tom Verlaine guitar solos come to mind—in general, long-assedness is the antithetical to good music. It killed prog rock, it killed Wu Tang, and it will kill me if I have to listen to the damn thing in one sitting. There’s a reason pop songs on the radio are generally under five minutes, and most albums under an hour. Shit starts to get annoying if it goes much longer.
Yes, this is a treatise against the double album, and as an example I’ll use My Favorite, a band that’s already irritating due to the fact that you are automatically endorsing them by even saying their name in a sentence. (“Honey, could you walk over to the stereo and put on My Favorite?” “Look, My Favorite is on MTV!” Even “I hate My Favorite” sounds positively darling. Negative props.) Curmudgeonly-ness aside, I had nothing against the band going into this; I even liked a song of theirs which appeared on a compilation I acquired a few years back. But most of my affection was killed after this double album. Sorry guys—not my favorite. (See! Ouch! Previous point proven.)
Double albums, generally speaking, are flagrant displays of overweening egos—even the best of them display this characteristic as a well-worn fact. They’d have to be, since at their heart they are about overloading their listeners with material, usually in attempt to traverse multiple styles, let numerous band members shine, or otherwise satisfy internal creative differences or external artistic drives. It is these selfish motives, inner tensions, and outer pulls which make double albums interesting, though often to negative effect. Too much in-fighting, and the thing sounds way too disjointed. Too little and it just sounds boring.
My Favorite’s The Happiest Days of Our Lives is a slightly different take on the double album formula; one being a straightforward record (a compilation of their series of EPs) and the other “controversial remixes” (or so says the sleeve) of the same songs. It is also (perhaps by accident?) a double concept album, centering most of the songs on malaise, ennui, dissatisfaction. Which means, overall it has an incredibly consistent musical motif—Cure-ish/Smithsy/melancholy as joy and vice versa, with tons of synthesizers and crybaby lyrics and vocals. Just one problem, however—it’s sleeping-pill dull. Just one version of this disc—cast in the sad pallor of My Favorite’s as-retro-as-you-wanna-be songwriting and tired male/female vocal ballet—would be way too much underwhelming angst for one person to bear. But twice? No, no, no—an everlasting no! The Happiest Days of Our Lives = too many songs that pass by without even registering so much as a blip.
And far, far too much woe. A few lyrics as evidence: 1) “the ghost of dead teenagers sing to me while I am dancing; 2) “Loneliness is pornography to them, but to us it is art.” It’s as if My Favorite chose song ideas by assembling a checklist on life’s most tragic cliches. Runaways? Check (“White Roses for Blue Girls”: (“on her bed she left a letter. Asked her friend to never forget her.”). James Dean, mourned in French? Check (“James Dean” (Awaiting Ambulance)”: “My boy, my boy, I’m sorry/ Je suis vraiment désolée”). Horrible historical event evoked against the backdrop of contemplative lovers? Check (“Burning Hearts”: “my sweetheart and I are saying goodbye to Hiroshima”). The collection begins to seem like a comment on angst-ridden prose put to music, except that postmodernism is a tired trick and doesn’t translate well if you don’t know the artist’s intention. And, regardless, the album is still practically oozing with melancholy, but misses the irony, wit, and bite that make their influences (the aforementioned Cure and the Smiths, among others) enchanting.
Andrea Vaughn does have quite a pretty voice—distant, innocent, bittersweet—and a few of the songs (“The Black Cassette”, “Badge”) are catchy enough to grow on you after several listens. Said “controversial” remixes make a number of the songs more interesting (mash-ups vs. Soviet, to whom singer Michael Grace Jr. sounds remarkably like; “Homeless Club Kids” spiced up by producer Alexander Perls, for example) but mostly because these changes offer more of a distraction from the bad coffeehouse lyricism. (An aside: I don’t know why hippies with out of tune guitars get a bum rap for being overly sensitive, but somehow if you’re a hipster sporting a laptop, it’s ok.)
This is not an awful album if you listen to it quietly, letting the sad drone wash over you while you write a love letter you’ll never send, sort through old pictures, or stare in the mirror and contemplate the meaning of your existence. If these tasks take you a long time, the double album format should be right up your alley. But for those of us who like to pay attention to our music, there’s just not enough here to sustain interest. And worse than that, there’s too much.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong online. Please consider a donation to support our work as an independent publisher devoted to the arts and humanities. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where advertising no longer covers our costs. We need your help to keep PopMatters publishing. Thank you.
// Sound Affects
"Natalie Hemby's Puxico is a standout debut from a songwriter who has been behind the scenes for over a decade.READ the article