Monday, March 27, 2006

the Beatles' White Album

Y'know, I've always been more of a Stones fan than I was a Beatles fan, and, in hindsight, I've really only ever listened to the Beatles out of feeling obligated to the 'canon,' much like one might feel obligated in reading Pound before one reads Eliot or watching Happy Days before Joni Loves Cha Chi.

It certainly doesn't help that I had heard the Clash drum on and on about "phony Beatlemania" well before I had heard Abbey Road. Conversely, it also doesn't help to have the Beatles propped up on a throne by generations before and by classmates that thought Don MacLean's "American Pie" was some sort of fraternal opus. It took me years before I could get around all that sentiment, good and bad, and just listen to the Beatles as the Beatles, as some band out of the UK that have a lot less records (but a lot more compilations) than one would assume.

My first impression upon really listening to the Beatles was that they were an incredibly dorky band. There's really only so many "serious" hits, certainly a lot less than the Beatles' mythical status might imply, and it can be surprising at first as to how much pure bubble-gum the Beatles churned out.

For whatever reason, that's one of the main reasons why the Beatles' early catalog turns me off completely. The sheer fluff of "She Loves You, Yeah Yeah Yeah" and "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" seemed so sterile (especially considering Mick and Keith were regularly sodomizing each other - even if only in a musical sense - by the same point) that I still can't really bother with it (which could also explain why I hate the Ringo songs with such passion).

But with the latter half of the catalog, it somehow, all of a sudden, seemed a little more forgiveable, especially considering that the fluff got cryptic and complex at the same time. I mean, "Happy Birthday" might really just be, um, about somebody's birthday (maybe it isn't), but it really doesn't matter. There's enough meat behind the fluff to make it worthwhile, enough perfect power-pop to make it palatable.(That's not to say some of it isn't self-serving wank. "Piggies" is pretty tortuous to listen to, and let's face it, "Revolution 9" ain't exactly revolutionary either forty years after the fact (was it even at the time, outside of a pop cultural context?))

It's enjoyable stuff, to be sure, but does the White Album actually belong in a canon? Would it be sacrilegious to assume otherwise? Take the time context out of it (in terms of resulting influence, effect, etc), and it's unclear. There's not enough going on to reward the listener with each and every listen (in the same way that Pet Sounds might, for instance); there's not enough being said to alert or shock the listener with each and every listen (in the same way that It Takes a Nation of Millions) might, for instance); there's not enough emotional or spiritual departure to overwhelm the listener with each and every instance (in the same that A Love Supreme might, for instance). What one's left with, then, is a very infectious power-pop album, with few misses (if any), and while that it itself is difficult feat, I'm not entirely sure if, Beatlemania aside (phony or not), this should still cut it. It might have formed a mould, but what broke the mould afterwards might be better in the long run.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Beats International's Excursion on the Version

I like the guy, and thus I hate to say it, but Norman Cook hasn't been able to churn out much without it sounding incredibly dated. Be it the Housemartins, Fat Boy Slim, or this early 90's project, the Beats International, all of it comes with an early best before date, with only the odd occasional single here and there being able to stay current for longer than five years.

One of those odd exceptions was Beats International's "Dub Be Good to Me" from the debut album Let Them Eat Bingo, which was Cook's cover of the SOS Band's "Just Be Good To Me" mashed with the Paul Simenon's bassline from the Clash's "Guns of Brixton." That was effectively a no-brainer, seeing as how both of those singles in themselves proved timeless.

Unfortunately, then, Cook couldn't produce anything remotely as catchy on Excursion on the Version (I bought the album because I couldn't remember the name of "Dub Be Good to Me" when I was shopping at the used record store). The album follows largely the same formula as all of Cook's post-Housemartin output (i.e. sample obscure songs to death), but focuses heavily on reggae/ska vibes, all in that sort of late-80's/early-90's filter that makes everything sound overly produced, overly polished, and overly plastic (it's as though that time period forgot about bass altogether and pushed everything through tweeters). It's all very bicycling shorts/Dwayne Wayne sunglasses/faux dreadlocks, if you catch my drift. This might have sounded good at the time (though I somehow doubt it, when compared even to Cook's better project at the time, Freakpower), but its done nothing but bloat in excess fifteen years after the fact.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

the Bar-Kays' Best Of...

There's no shortage of praise I can heap onto Issac Haye's Hot Buttered Soul - it's clearly one of my favorite albums of all time. Backing Issac Hayes on that album was the Bar-Kays, who had miraculously survived despite having most of its founding members pass away in the same plane crash that claimed Otis Redding (the Bar-Kays had since replace Booker T and the MG's as Redding's backing band, becoming the second rung house band for Stax Recrds). For whatever reason, though, I didn't pick up on the Bar-Kays until much later, and, to be honest, I haven't listened to this compilation in any substantial way until this past week.

This is mostly because I had a severe avoidance for late 70's, early 80's funk/rnb when I had bought this compilation, decidedly concentrating solely on late 60's, early 70's funk ala the JB's and the like. This compilation, comprised of the Bar-Kays output on Mercury Records, is '76 onward (thus ensuring the absence of "Soulfinger," the Bar-Kays only unabashed hit).

It wasn't until a little while back that I'd really come to appreciate funk/rnb from that time (eg Zapp & Roger, Lowrell, Heatwave, etc) as anything other from novelty, and thus I've only just begun to give this Bar-Kays comp a fair shake. For the most part, they're not as way-out as Funkadelic/Parliament or as West Coast synth as Zapp & Roger were, and mostly reflect the post-disco funk that the Isley Brothers and Rick James were putting out around the same time. It's solid stuff, but still somewhat unremarkable, and thus most of the tracks side with the glut of the output from that period of time. There's a few gems ("Hit and Run," "Shake Your Rump to the Funk," etc), but nothing so earth-shattering so as to make any of the material essential...much like the Isley Brothers etc output from the same period. It's perhaps telling, then, that funk really didn't progress beyond this or past Prince.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Basement Jaxx's Kish Kash

It's easy to dismiss club music as weightless, but it's really some of the most utilitarian music around. Many get lost in trying to find hidden depth or meaning to the genre, overlooking it's primary purpose: it's music to dance to!

Granted, there's a horrible amount of shite out there that's so undigestable that it deserves rampant criticism, but it's still rooted to that primary purpose. That glut of horrible club music is horrible for the fact that it's so cheesy that no person with any shame would feel comfortable dancing to said music. When club music is good, then, it's good solely because, man, you really, really want to shake ass to the shit. When club music becomes excellent, then, it's excellent because, well, you really, really want to _____ to this shit.

Basement Jaxx have always been forerunners of the genre because, for the most part, they understand this objective completely. It's rare to find a single that doesn't have its adrenaline ramped up to steroid-dependent level, while somehow avoiding the druggy and relatively aggro sound of the more revered Chemical Brothers. This might because the duo rely so heavily, particularly on Kish Kash, on 80s Prince, updating it with post-Outkast beat programming, wherein each beat sounds overly anxious to get to the next. The programming is where Basement Jaxx deserves much credit, as the two are forward thinking enough so as to achieve a rarity in club music: their albums don't sound overly dated.

The Prince homage gets particularly heavy with the only slow songs on Kish Kash - indeed one of the few slow songs in the Basement Jaxx catalog - "Feels Like Home," featuring MeShell Ndegeocello, who's been having a habit of turning everything she appears on to gold. The song's been often panned for being too blatant of a Prince rip-off, but let's face it, we're not talking about D'Angelo or Andre 3000 here, and relative to both Basement Jaxx and the genre, it's a huge achievement.

Kish Kash, like all of Basement Jaxx's output, is solid fun, and that's a huge achievement as well. It's hard to do fun without achieving the juvenile as well, and Basement Jaxx does so. It might not be earth-shattering stuff, but when one can finally put everything else aside and just friggin' dance, it's excellent.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Big Star's #1 Record and Radio City, Chris Bell's I Am the School

Starting the 'B's with trepidation, tackling an elephantine presence from the get-go.

When I first started writing at ___ magazine, the Big Star/Posies thing had just released the Columbia live album, and a huge flowchart of the Big Star history, tracing through their latter disciples (often 25 years after the fact), graced the walls. This chart weaved around every important band of the past thirty years, broad enough to capture underwhelming 70s bands and overblown 80s juggernauts, each hinging on the theory that a few arpeggio chords could cross the gamut.

And it really did: Big Star's cult status (what with a lack of real commercial success, even to this day) is of massive proportions. Those jangling arpeggios generated some of the most perfect power pop in history. Aside from Emitt Rhodes, it's difficult for me to really think of any other American entity that really perfected the post-McCartney/Lennon power-pop in the 70s (I await someone to challenge me with Cheap Trick).

I received #1 and Radio City as a Christmas gift (thanks James!), both contained on the same CD. For whatever reason, I've always listened to #1 a bit more, and remember it quite a bit more clearly than Radio City. Once one reaches "The Ballad of El Goodo," hears Alex Chilton sing "I've been trying hard against unbelievable odds," the harmonies coming in shortly after, one gets hooked. The opening half of #1 is immediate and drawing, addictive. Bell and Chilton alternate between classic rock riffs, and sweet, almost naive ballads (Chilton has the cockiness of an adolescent when he sings "tell your dad what we said about the Rolling Stones" on "Thirteen"), with "India Song" being the only real dud (it's perhaps telling that it's one of the songs on the album that the Chilton/Bell team didn't pen). #1's got all the hallmarks of an amazing debut: broad, almost a little too ambitious.

Radio City, then is the excellent follow-up. With Bell having departed from the band due to depression or what not, Radio City is all Chilton, and it certainly helps that Chilton's one of the more intriguing personalties in rock and roll history. Radio City's more biting, the songs more ascerbic. Even when Chilton's heavily in love, it can still sound like he's sheerly bewildered at such an accomplishment. Radio City lacks the innocence of #1, making it perhaps a more mature album in theme, and probably a bit more cohesive, though Chilton's just conflicted enough to still capture the schizophrenic beauty of #1.

It's not overly surprising, then, to find that Chris Bell's I Am the Cosmos is a sweeter, nicer affair. Though Bell might be the Lennon of the duo in regards to sound (maybe Harrison is more accurate), he's more the McCartney in terms of theme and lyric. If Chilton's the realist, Bell's the dreamer; if Chilton is conflicted with you, Bell is conflicted with himself. Though released post-humously (Bell died in a car crash in '78), I Am the Cosmos still sounds fully realized. It's a bit less 'American' (I suppose living in Memphis will do that) than Chilton tends to be, a bit more clearly evolved from latter Beatles, and thus perhaps a little less immediate in terms of huge guitar riffs and what not. It's still just as beautiful, though, and it's a shame that this will be Bell's only testament.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Oopsy: Archive's Londinium

Was looking through the 'B' CDs this morning and found, yep, one last 'A' CD.

Since Massive Attack's Mezzanine came out, I've written extensively about how trip hop, as a genre, had run its course. Save for aforementioned Massive Attack, a glut of trip hop had been released following the success of the various Bristol acts, and we were thus introduced to a whole new wave of coffee table music suitable for retail stores, bistros and nicer dental clinics.

Lost in that fat was Archive. Londinium, their debut, was lost to the excess. This was undeserved, because, as an album, Londinium is much more cohesive and flowing than the majority of trip hop albums, with uniformity perhaps its only fault.

Londinium works mostly because the production's just sharp enough to capture interest, but not to the point of being jarring. The group behind this are as equally skilled on their string arrangements ("Organ Song" is a great string piece)as they are on their computer programming, and thus Londonium sounds more mature than the tier two Bristol trip hop acts like Purple Penguin or the Sneaker Pimps. Unlike other trip hop outfits, Archive aren't overly dependent on their vocalists, who, despite doing a good job, don't have the signature of a Beth Gibbons or a Martine Topley Bird to make them quintessential to the product.

It's a shame, then, that Archive never mustered more attention than they did. The album stands up to much of the 'classics' of that period, and it's too bad they never got a better push from Island Records than they did.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Two-fer: Abba's Greatest Hits and Art of Noise's Drum and Bass Collection

The last and probably the least: here's the two remaining 'A' CDs I have in my collection, and I've been avoiding both like the plague. In an effort to get onto the more interesting 'B' CDs, I figured I'd just get both of these out of the way at once. I'll probably need to start it off with this caveat: I haven't re-listened to either in any significant way, apart from scanning "Gimme Gimme Gimme" after being so infatuated with Madonna's "Hung Up," and giving the Art of Noise remix comp the once over to see what little I could remember of the band.

I originally pilfered this Abba greatest hits collection from my parents, who had in turn seized onto it from my sister. My folks were modest Abba fans when we were growing up, and thus it was hard not to be at least familiar with these songs (although I'm still much more familiar with Nat King Cole, Tony Bennett and Teresa Tang). I'd have a somewhat nostaligic vibe for Abba, but I don't ever recall ever seeing my parents dance in the kitchen, sway their hips, or doing anything remotely close to what Abba's context usually is.

And that usual context is exactly why I, instead of my parents, have this compilation - I used to DJ weddings. DJing around clubs and lounges in town is generally an irritating affair (although an extremely easy and well-paid one at that), but DJing weddings is where the demands and the money really rolls in. Whereas I used to make about $175 plus amenities max a night in a lounge, I'd make double that for half the time DJing a wedding. For that, concessions were made for our typical "No Requests" policy, and thus: Abba.

There's something about Abba that's just so amazingly catchy and infectious that it's somewhat of a universal phenomenon (Muriel's Wedding is ample proof). When they named this compilation Gold, they weren't kidding: this stuff is shiny and bright, and, used in the wrong context, can end up being just as cheesy. Abba can range anywhere from a gold earring to a gold chain around some balding fat guy in a sweat suit. Taken just as music, Abba's the purest, catchy pop as it comes; taken as phenomenon, Abba's as potent as disease.

I had the same recollection of Art of Noise. The only real memory I have of Art of Noise are their covers of "Peter Gunn" and Prince's "Kiss" with Tom Jones, both of which I've readily dismissed as the cheesiest of cheese.

That said, it's a bit obvious that I don't own The Drum and Bass Collection because I'm a big Art of Noise fan. Rather, I have this CD because (i) it was free and (ii) I was fascinated with drum and bass at the time (1996). Drum and bass seemed like the last completely unique genre of electronic music to me, with little in the way of forerunners save for some polyrhythmic jazz drumming. Thus, this collection, a remix of the Art of Noise by some of the more famed drum and bass producers of the time (largely of Goldie's Metalheadz crew and some LTJ Bukem affiliations (PFM, Lightfoot), though neither Goldie nor LTJ appear), was intriguing, and it certainly didn't hurt that there's little to no traces of Art of Noise in the least on any of their remixes.

Scanning through it ten years after the fact, though, is a funny chore. As much as Art of Noise will forever be relegated to the 80's, the drum and bass of this compilation smacks of the 90's, and as nostalgically cheesy as the Art of Noise may be, the remixes on this comp are equally as guilty.