[14 October 2009]
There’s this little lingering strand of incredulity that happens the first time you hear that Andrew W.K. was, as it’s put in so many of the articles about him, “classically trained”. He looks like the frat-guy musclehead who went to college for the babes and who’s majoring in kegstands 101, and the music he released way back in ‘02 did nothing to dispel that notion. Sure, there’s a time and a place for things like “Party Hard” and “She Is Beautiful”—straightforward, poppy metal that has about as much subtext as a brick to the skull—but nobody would ever mistake it for instrumental brilliance. Listen to the piano in “Party Hard”, and you hear one octave pounded over and over again in straight quarter notes, a mere coat of paint on the wall of guitars the song is so proud of throwing at its listeners.
This, from a “classically trained” pianist?
55 Cadillac (sic) is probably an album that Andrew W.K. had to make, and good for him. It’s a statement of not being trapped by your past, of having the sheer will to create a piece of art that falls completely and utterly out of step with all that you’ve previously created. On the album, Andrew W.K. proves once and for all that he is, indeed, a “classically trained” pianist, in that he can make his fingers do things on a piano that many hack performers can only dream about. In a way, I’m happy to have had the opportunity to hear 55 Cadillac, because it puts an awful lot of his other work in a new light—that despite its one-dimensionality, the human being who created it is fully three-dimensional, and quite gifted to boot.
Still, all the classical training and finger skill in the world cannot make you a great composer, and this is where 55 Cadillac fails miserably. The vast majority of the album is simply solo piano, with the occasional sound of a passing car breaking up the tracks, giving the album the sound of somebody sitting next to a dark road in the middle of the night with his grand piano, playing to his heart’s content. If this was Andrew W.K.‘s intention, he achieved it. That said, the songs—which, according to his MySpace blog “showcase [his] spontaneous piano improvisations, as well as his visualized manifestations, whatever that means—don’t fall into any sort of genre. There’s no consistent mood, and there’s no direction or arc to any of it. Sometimes it sounds like underdone classical tinkering, sometimes it borders on jazz, occasionally you get ‘50s rock ‘n roll underpinnings to a floaty little melody. Sometimes, it’s just a guy banging the living shit out of a poor, helpless piano.
Really, you don’t have songs, you have an admittedly talented guy screwing around with a piano for 40 minutes. It’d be like bringing the local piano prodigy to a bar, downing a few drinks with him, and watching him flop around on the keys for a while: sure, he’ll attract a few onlookers, curious sorts impressed at his technical skill, particularly while inebriated, but eventually it’ll get old and his audience will go back to their dart games and lousy pick-up lines (at least until he gives up the improv and plays “Piano Man”). 55 Cadillac is fine background noise, but by the time five minutes have passed, you’ve heard all you need to hear, and you can move on to someone who actually thought about what he was writing for more than ten seconds before he played it.
On only one track do we hear anything other than the passing cars and the solo piano: the concluding four-minute track titled “Cadillac”. At two minutes, a second piano appears for more layers, and a third, and then there’s a drum machine, and then there’s an absolutely ridiculous electric guitar that shows up and insists on comparing its endowment with the rest of the instruments around it. Finally, the whole thing ends, and Andrew W.K. finally grants us a vocal appearance, in the form of the word (what else?) “Cadillac”—except that it sounds something like “CADILLAAAAAAAOOOOOOOOHHH”, and instead of remarking that Andrew W.K. did it, he actually made an album of solo piano music that didn’t sound absolutely awful, you’re left wondering what the hell just happened.
55 Cadillac is a vanity project from a man who might never have seemed deep enough to warrant such a thing. The two hours or so it took him to come up with this release only goes so far as to prove that he’s not.