Trying To Get To You

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The Most Overrated Album Ever

Ever since I was a little boy, I’ve loved the Beach Boys. They were sort of ever present on the radio in New York in the late 70’s, especially on AM radio. I remember on the van ride to school I was in the third and fourth grade, WNBC 660 AM used to play them probably once every morning. And being a little boy who dreaded arriving at school each morning, the chorus of “Sloop John B” (“I wanna go home/why won’t they let me go home) got me; I'd sing it to myself under my breath, thinking that there was someone else out there in the world who knew how I felt.

I didn’t have any Beach Boys albums until I was about 12 and taped my brother’s copy of “Endless Summer.” To me, then and now, it’s pretty much a perfect album and perhaps the best of all greatest hits albums. When the Beach Boys started, singles were the medium of rock n’ roll, and albums were designed to be the singles plus filler to get you to spend more money (actually, that kind of sounds like today). “Endless Summer” is one perfect single after another – “Surfin’ U.S.A.,” “Help Me Rhonda,” “I Get Around,” the sublime “California Girls,” “Good Vibrations,” and in my opinion, the greatest of all Beach Boys’ songs, “Don’t Worry Baby.” If Brian Wilson is a genius (and I believe that he is), it’s not because of his production skills; it’s because he created a beautiful myth about Southern California life that resonated around the globe while being a total outsider from that culture. Chubby, insular, painfully shy, unathletic, physically and emotionally abused by his father and scarred beyond belief, the world that he wrote about must have been one he must have known he would never belong to, except in his fantasies. And he couldn't surf, either. (None of the Beach Boys could surf, with the exception of drummer Dennis Wilson.)

In the 80’s, when I was in my teens, I didn’t really know from Pet Sounds. I think I first got the record when I was 19. Whenever I saw a “Greatest Rock Albums Of All Time List,” Pet Sounds was never too high on the list. Sometime in the early 90’s, that all changed. Nowadays, if you look album lists, Pet Sounds will be either near or at the top. It’s absurd. Pet Sounds is perhaps the most overrated album ever. It’s a good album, with three incredible songs that are among their best; “God Only Knows,” “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “Sloop John B.” “I Know There’s An Answer” almost reaches that level, as does “You Still Believe In Me.” But that’s it. It’s not that the remainder of the songs are poor, it’s just that they’re not all that incredible. Combining that with the somewhat baroque production, you’ve got a very good but very flawed album.

What accounts for the lionization of Pet Sounds? For starters, there’s the story of Brian Wilson, the tortured artiste who battled his own demons and his own band (Mike Love fought him all the way on it) in making the record. Then, after producing Pet Sounds, he finally cracked up, a victim of too many drugs and trying to top Sgt. Pepper. It’s the kind of stuff that myths are made of, and it’s an irresistible story line. Secondly, there are Wilson’s production skills – which have been blown all out of proportion. (Wilson’s true production moment of genius was “Good Vibrations.”) Brian Wilson was a great producer, but listening to Pet Sounds you hear the heavy influence of the true master producer of the era – Phil Spector. Wilson literally worshipped Spector and learned everything from him. Reading lots of the over the top rubbish about the production on Pet Sounds, where Spector’s name is barely ever mentioned, you come to realize that there are a lot of people in the world who no clue as to Spector’s influence on Wilson. (The Wrecking Crew, Spector’s house band, played on many Beach Boys’ songs). And finally, the record was a (relative) commercial failure at upon release. So then the narrative becomes the misunderstood genius that is underappreciated after he becomes a “serious artist.” If you were going to write a indie rock biblical fable, it doesn’t get any better than that.

I can rattle off about 30 albums from the 60’s alone that are superior to Pet Sounds – every Beatles album with the exception of Yellow Submarine and Please Please Me, most 60’s Dylan releases, about four Rolling Stones albums, classics by Creedence, the Band, the entire Otis Redding catalog, Aretha’s first four Atlantic full lengths, etc. (The absence of most soul records from the top echelon of the lists is endemic of the near-sightedness of most rock critics.)

I know lots of smart people that disagree with me on this one – vehemently. So you take your cred and Pet Sounds; I'm much happier with "California Girls" and "I Get Around."

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Is This A F*cking Joke?

There's a Bob Dylan musical, "The Time's They Are A Changing" coming to Broadway. That's enough surrealism for me to wrap my head around, but oh my - here's a link to see their version of "Like A Rolling Stone."

I think Hunter Thompson had an acid nightmare like this in "Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas."

Monday, October 23, 2006

The "Perfection" Of The iPod

There's an absolutely essential piece in Salon today. It's a review of a new book by Steven Levy called, "The Perfect Thing." It's a book about the history of the iPod and it's effect that it's had on, well, everything. Manjoo addresses many of the issues of music consumption and attention deficit disorder that the iPod has raised in his review. From the Salon piece:

"I suspect a more widespread issue, though, has to do with the way the iPod seems to work against listening to new music, which has become my chief complaint about the machine. Like many others in the so-called iPod generation, years of surfing the Web have reduced my attention span to not much more time than the length of a typical YouTube clip; consequently, my iPod, stocked with 4,124 songs, routinely turns me into a hyperactive freak show. If you have an iPod, I'm sure you know what I mean. You put on something that you've been wanting to listen to all day. Lucinda Williams' "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road" album, say. But you're three-quarters of the way through the first track, and even though you're really digging it, something about the scratchiness of Williams' voice reminds of something else entirely -- the Carter Family. And, hey, don't you have a copy of "Wildwood Flower" on here? Why, yes, you do. So you switch. But of course, putting on the Carter Family is going to remind you of Johnny Cash. And you have the feeling that you must, just this minute, play Cash's version of "In My Life" now. So you switch again. But you're a minute into Johnny and you start to wonder about the Beatles' original version of the track...

This is my every day music predicament. Ah, the modern world...

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Avant Garde Is French For Bullshit

Reviews of TV On The Radio's new record, Return From Cookie Mountain have been absolutely glowing. I had moderately enjoyed their last record, and I'm often skeptical of indie-blogger raves, but with reviews this strong, I rushed out and got the new one.

Uh, is it just me? Cause I don't get it.

I've listened to the record several times, and I think it's pretty good piece of work, but it's "good" in that way that you admire more than you listen to, and it's "interesting" in that way that one describes avant-garde work. The last straw for me was reading Salon (my favorite online magazine) this morning and reading "Audiofile" by Thomas Bartlett, and reading words like "magnificent" and "U2-like grandeur" attached to this record (and band). It is definitely neither of those things (and I'm not even a particularly big U2 fan anymore).

It reminds me of a great John Lennon quote from an interview in 1970.

Q: What do you think Rock and Roll will become?

A: Whatever we make it. If we want to go bullshiting off into intellectualism with rock n' roll, then we are going to get bullshitting rock n' roll intellectualism.

This record is bullshit rock n' roll intellectualism personified.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

"Was Rod Stewart Ever Cool?"

I was in California last weekend for a wedding. Afterwards, I was driving a couple of close friends to the airport and inevitably, the iPod shuffle was on. A great Faces song, “I’d Rather Go Blind” (an old R&B cover) came on, and as my friends and I got into the song one of them turned to me and asked, “Was Rod Stewart ever cool?” I kind of felt like someone’s Dad for a second, and explained, yes, at one time, many, many years ago, Rod Stewart was indeed VERY cool. Back in the early 70’s, in the wake of a couple of great Faces records, and one of the greatest records of all time, Every Picture Tells A Story, Rod Stewart epitomized some of the best that rock had to offer. Influenced by soul greats like Sam Cooke, he created wonderful music filled with spirit, feeling, lust, good humor and total compassion.

I mention this because I got a copy of Rod’s new collection of covers, “Still The Same…Rock Classics Of Our Time.” Coming on the heels of his wildly and surprisingly successful collection of standards, this, I guess, was the obvious follow up. As business strategy goes, I guess it’s the obvious move – in the post “American Idol” culture we’re in, it’s been made obvious that there are millions of people that would rather hear recreations of songs they know and love than hearing anything new. That being said, when you make a record that’s more about market strategy than artistic expression, the trick is to hide that as much as possible, and on “Still The Same…” all one hears is market strategy. Stewart can barely hide his absolute disinterest in the material – the arrangements are nearly identical to the originals, and there is a complete detachment in the singing – and when Rod was at his best, detachment was nowhere to be found. This isn’t a record – it’s karaoke, and the cynicism floods every single note.

The selections themselves are horrific. Since when is Bonnie Tyler’s “It’s A Heartache” a rock classic? “Everything I Own” by Bread? “Still The Same” by Bob Seger? This from the man whose taste in material used to be impeccable?

Greil Marcus once wrote about Rod: “Rarely has a singer has as full and unique a talent as Rod Stewart; rarely has anyone betrayed his talent so completely.” I’d add that when the great big dictionary of rock is written, next to the word “sellout” will be a picture of Rod Stewart. This inspires not scorn and derision in me, rather, I feel real sympathy for Rod – for I have a strong suspicion that he would agree with everything I’ve written.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

On The Killers, Limits and Bruce

The new Killers record, Sam’s Town, has gotten mostly harsh reviews from U.S. critics. Personally, I like the single, and don’t think much of the rest of the record. Lead singer Brandon Flowers had promised that “Sam’s Town” would be the greatest album of the past 20 years, which it isn’t. But Flowers made some comments on last week that I found interesting. He said, "The sky used to be the limit, and it's not anymore. It's about 200 feet, and beyond that people think you're being comical. Rock and roll used to be about not having limits, not having your box, and that's disappeared somewhere along the way. We're trying to bring it back."

I don’t think the Killers are a band with enough depth or skill to “bring it back,” but I think his larger point is all too true. In the post-punk universe that all “credible” rock exists under, ambition is a dirty word that must be kept to oneself. Post-punk and indie-rock attitude require a sort of false modesty, a mask that hides any sort of overt desire to reach a large audience. Of course, in their secret heart, most (indie) rock artists would love for their music to reach a broad audience (and yes, they’d love the money and adulation that go with having a big audience) – but admitting it is verboten. That’s the lie that been at the heart of the rock game since the post-punk philosophy took over rock’s vanguard. And that inauthenticity that has resulted in rock has getting smaller and smaller – the music has gotten smaller and the audience for it has gotten smaller.

Now, regarding the Springsteen influence of Sam’s Town. What the Killers do wrong is that instead of internalizing Springsteen’s music and then bringing a new depth and passion to their own, they’re taking the trappings of Born To Run era Bruce (the melodrama, the mythology, the glockenspiel) on without adding enough depth. My advice to artists regarding Bruce is this: If you’re inspired by Bruce, internalize that passion and live the commitment that’s present in the best of Springsteen’s music. Taking the surface of Bruce’s music on will result in music that’s not a whole lot better than Bon Jovi. Springsteen is an artist whose influence is usually best when it’s felt, and not heard. That’s probably why the most influential Springsteen record is (and will forever be) Nebraska.