Song Oddity

Earlier I took a look at some albums which represented a curveball for the artists involved. But what about individual songs which vary from a customary repertoire? These are maybe more often found on b-sides or when a band does the “let it all hang out double album” (copyright: The Beatles). It must be odd being a musician when you get known for being a particular style and sound: if your fanbase does not want you to develop beyond that, it must be insanely frustrating. Rock and metal are particularly bad for this, having the most aggressively self-righteous of fans, but I’m sure it happens in other genres too.

1. Fatboy Slim, “Santa Cruz”

Though primarily known for his chirpy beaty tunes under the Fatboy Slim brand, Norman Cook’s music taste is enormously eclectic – he did after all go from The Housemartins to Beats International. This song was before the Fatboy Slim style set hard with his (enormously successful) second album, You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby – the first, Better Living Through Chemistry is a more of a hodgepodge of different styles and sounds, from the funky “Everybody Needs A 303” through to the breakbeat workout “Punk To Funk“. My favourite, though, is “Santa Cruz”, which manages to be spacey and dreamy, and yet somehow mechanical and insistently rhythmical. It doesn’t so much conjure images of a physical location as make me think of loving machines, imaginative robots… nice!

2. Sonic Youth, “Nic Fit”

Sonic Youth were one of the John the Baptists to Nirvana’s Jesus H Christ. It must be odd, and kinda embarrassing, to have one of your juniors in a scene make it big with such cataclysmic success. Particularly if you are aching hipsters like Sonic Youth. The trouble with Sonic Youth (and bands like Mudhoney etc) was that to them (and to Nirvana to a large extent) punk was an elite thing, not the enraged voice of the kids, but a sneering at the populisms and massed exaltations of the music scene. Thus, things like melody and song structure were seen as being beneath them, as insufferable bones tossed to ravenous lowest-common-denominator audiences; thus, the contempt towards popular Seattle bands like Pearl Jam. This attitude is preposterous of course. What of a song like the Pistols’ “Pretty Vacant“? Isn’t that pop?

Sonic Youth never could put together an album with catchy tunes: their astonishing sound and hipper-than-thou attitudes got them so far, but even their bold efforts like Daydream Nation and Goo lack hooks and, ultimately, memorability. Their post-Nevermind effort, Dirty, is a far more full-bodied effort (producer: Butch Vig) but while it has greater dynamics it still lacks decent riffs and hooks, the sort of thing Kurt Cobain could so easily turn out (if not without embarrassment). Dirty has one real oddity though, a cover of The Untouchables tune “Nic Fit”. It is the ultimate low-fi song I’ve ever heard, guitars sounding like the stings are so loose they are splayed all over the fretboard, and no discernible lyrics whatsoever. It makes such a great contrast to the guitary pyrotechnics of “Wish Fulfilment” and “100%” (not to mention the preachy “Youth Against Fascism” and “Swimsuit Issue“) that I absolutely love it.

3. Iron Maiden, “Strange World”

I prefer Maiden’s albums with Paul Di’Anno to the Bruce Dickinson glory years for a couple of reasons: they were punkier, more street-savage, and capture the excitement of a band discovering its potential, rather than the full muscle of a band in a successful groove. The epics, tedious Satanism and occasional proggy excesses of the Dickinson years were yet to come: this was Maiden, lean and fierce: a “prowler”, “running free”, a “drifter”, in “purgatory”.

“Strange World” is one their eponymous first album, and is one of two ballads (the other, “Remember Tomorrow” is also excellent). It sounds like a jam session going utterly right, and shows how exciting Maiden were in their early days, before they set like concrete.

4. Lou Reed, “Street Hassle”

Lou Reed practically invented alt-rock and punk rock , particularly on the guitar. His work throughout The Velvet Underground & Nico, White Light/White Heat and The Velvet Underground bristles with invention and intelligence: from the static urban riffing of “I’m Waiting For The Man” to the chugga-chugga “Run Run Run” to the demonic “I Heard Her Call My Name” to the tender nobility of “I’m Set Free“. So it’s kinda funny that Reed’s greatest solo achievement, “Street Hassle”, features very little guitar. A dramatic poem in three parts, set over 1. an repeating string octet figure 2. gentle guitar interplay, then a fine bass solo  3. more strings, bass, guitars, and keyboard. Unusually, the guitars aren’t the focus of the song; it’s the lyrics and the voice (Bruce Springsteen gives a great spoken word piece – “tramps like us were born to pay” – in a nice meeting of the artistic patrons of New York and New Jersey). With its tender humanity, grief and sense of loss, “Street Hassle” is a million miles from the cartoonish image Reed presented in Transformer and Rock And Roll Animal. It is also a devastatingly effective piece of music.

5. Oasis, “Whatever”

God, I had such hope for Oasis in their early days. Definitely Maybe was a fine, punky, raw-edged album, with a terrific sense of melody. Songs like “Columbia” were a great reminder of the merits of the electric guitar. When “Whatever” came out, I thought, Wow! Here’s a band discovering colour and timbre and texture! The comparison with prime psychedelic-era Beatles was so obvious. I really thought Oasis were going to go on and produce something new and innovative. Then they came out with the “Roll With It” single, which was crushingly awful, and (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?, which had none of the excitement or adventure of its predecessor. And then they got even worse after that, atrophying into the most lumpen council estate plodding rock. This is a coruscating reminder of a time when they seemed like they were going to be one of the best bands ever. Shame they were just content to be the biggest band in the world, for a moment.

6. Beastie Boys, “Song For Junior”

As the Beastie’s songs are a dense stew of styles, sounds and influences, (“a thick pop-culture gumbo where old school rap sat comfortably with soul-jazz, hardcore punk, white-trash metal, arena rock, Bob Dylan, bossa nova, spacy pop, and hard, dirty funk”, as the Allmusic review of Check Your Head memorably puts it), it is a little surprising to hear a whole song done straight up in bossa nova. The rhythm and style of this song is just great, a loving tribute. (They released another straight-up bossa nova tune on the Sounds Of Science compilation, “Twenty Questions” which is touching but less rhythmically pleasing).

Advertisements

Overrated Albums

Knobheads

I can’t be bothered reading the music press any more. Partly this is an age thing: the new music magazines tend to cleave either to the kids, who are looking for something to call their own, or hipsters who seek out the obscure, while the “classicists”, like Q and Mojo etc, endlessly venerate the middle of the rock, the tried and true. This is all very well when it comes to the Classic Rock Canon. The trouble is when they prattle on about tepid shite like David Grey or Springsteen or Coldplay or the endless would-be Joni Mitchells: derivative nothingness that ekes out a living in the slipstream of really creative musicians. How I utterly loathe and detest lack of imagination in music! And how common it is. So easy to follow whatever trend, whatever genre, whatever production formulas and fads.

Both types of writing, more specifically, endlessly irritate with their attempts to hitch whatever releases to the zeitgeist. It must be every music journalists’ dream to the next Geoff Barton, he of Sounds who popularised the “New Wave of British Heavy Metal” (aka the NWOBHM, which so inspired Metallica). This leads to absurd drivel trying to read more into music than is there. I remember some ridiculous twat saying how Bloc Party were “scarily prescient” with an album or single called Tsunami, just before the 2004 disaster. I mean, that is low. Or how The Strokes apparently inaugurated a CBGBs/lower-East Side revival, when they really were nothing like punk forebears like Television or The Ramones or Blondie etc, and were actually embarrassed by such comparisons.

This is the trouble: at times, media and fashion trends will dictate the “need” for a certain type of band, and if there isn’t one to hand, well, they’ll try to shoehorn one in. Thus, Suede “inaugurated” Britpop, despite Brett Anderson’s contempt for its parochiality and jingoism. The Almighty, older metalheads may remember, were to be the Great British Metal Hope of the early 1990s, were it not for the fact that they sucked ass, and were really a punk band in it for the money. Iron Maiden, going even further back, originally had a distinctly punky edge and had to turn down record label request to cut their hair to fit in with the by-then goonish punk style. (Their first album, with its street-level aggression, budding ambition (see “Phantom of The Opera” – check this video of Paul Dianno-era Maiden live at the Rainbow – thought its telling that the best part is the instrumental section) raw charm, and lack of filler (always a Maiden problem) remains my favourite). This kind of fashion-led music journalism is a joke, never conveying the merits of an album nor contextualising what the artist(s) are doing musically. It leads to albums which might be flavour of the month but which is actually vastly overpraised. Here’s some I think never lived up to the hype.

Blur – Parklife

It is a clever album, sure. At a time when British music was looking westwards to grunge, dance or hip-hop, this was a bold proclamation of British cultural tropes and memes. The trouble was, it was so fucking arch, so sneeringly ironic, that a good half of the album comes over as callow posturing. Case in point: “Parklife”, a song I have always detested. Song for song, it starts very well – “Girls And Boys”, “Tracy Jacks” and “End Of Century” are a fine 1-2-3 (though not as good as “Tender”, “Bugman” and “Coffee and TV” from 13), but gor blimely guvnor, if the second half ain’t filled with oh-so-satirical portraits of working class life and Londonisms and all that guff.

Kraftwerk – Trans Europe Express

OK, this will be controversial. Trans Europe Express is a mighty fucking fine album, and songs like “Europe Endless”, “Metal On Metal” and the title track are indisputable classics. Trouble is… “Hall Of Mirrors” and “Show Room Dummies” both leave me cold. When you compare that to their other great albums, that’s an unusually high dud ratio (The Man Machine: no duds; Computer World: no duds; Radio Activity: no duds). I just find it a bit weird that TEE is always cited as the Kraftwerk album to listen to, the one that makes all the Best Of polls. I’d put The Man Machine first as their best, most consistent, most Kraftwerkian – and then Computer World.

Beastie Boys – Paul’s Boutique

I don’t quite get why this one is so critically lauded. It seems to me like a bunch of samples of good songs thrown together. Might have been a relatively new idea at the time, but hey, if you sample a lot of good songs, you can’t really go wrong. The range is nice, but… unless you’re really doing something new and imaginative with them, not just rapping over them, it’s not much of a stretch. I FAR prefer the subsequent Check Your Head, which is an even denser stew of samples and excellent rootsy live instrumentation. I love that warm fuzzy bass sound they have, and the richness and range of the styles of music. In comparison Paul’s Boutique is a series of clever backdrops to the Beasties’ rhyming – alright, but not, I’d say, what they do best. (The Check Your Head follow-up and partner-piece Ill Communication is perhaps even better, if less original).

Daft Punk – Discovery

As much as I loved Homework, I loathed Discovery. “One More Time” – what an appalling song! When I briefly worked in Edinburgh, it was on high-rotation on Radio 1 – must have been something like once an hour. No wonder songs no longer rise on the charts when they get flogged to death like that. This is not to say I dislike house-style electronica – I like the stuff the DP duo did in between Homework and Discovery, especially “Music Sounds Better With You” (lovely video) but also (even!) “Gym Tonic“. It’s just that the housey/R&B stylee of Discovery discards everything I’d liked about Daft Punk – the abrasive rhythms, the abandon, the intensity – in exchange for pretty mediocre pop/disco tunes. Meh.

Others:

Definitely Maybe is infinitely superior to What’s The Story Morning Glory?, even considering Wonderwall.

Music For the Jilted Generation is faaaar better than The Fat Of The Land.

Animals is better than both Wish You Were Here and Dark Side of The Moon.

Ride The Lightning, Master Of Puppets and …And Justice For All are ALL greatly superior to the Black Album.

Miles Smiles, In A Silent Way and Jack Johnson are all better than Bitches Brew.

Legends I Just Don’t Get

antimusic

I remember when in my final year of studying English and working on my dissertation (“Philosophical Subtexts in the Works of James Kelman and Irvine Welsh”). Talking with others, I was always a bit mystified by their choices. Why would they choose Yeats, or Sir Walter Scott, or Derrida (whom I consider an absolute fucking charlatan)? But of course taste is always personal, and, as I once read somewhere, somebody who quite likes everything doesn’t really like anything. Studying English brought immense pleasure from those I liked (Larkin, Eliot, Pinter, Ginsberg, Joyce, Keats, Woolf, Forster, Lawrence, Baurdillard, etc) but immense yawns from those I didn’t (Austen, Scott, Plath, McIllvanney, Shelley).

It’s the same with music. There are some greats that I simply can’t get my head around. People whose opinion I respect rave about them, but somehow it just passes me by. I’m not talking about stuff I actively despise, like Coldplay, Kean and all that mortgage rock/landfill indie banality; the Stereophonics and their gormless stupidity, or Snoop Dogg and all that ghetto mentality hip hop. (I can just about appreciate Ice T, because he talks about it with dramatic irony). There are some greats that I just don’t get…

1. Bob Dylan

According to the excellent allmusic.com, Dylan’s “influence on popular music is incalculable“. I don’t dispute the excellence of songs like “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and “Like A Rolling Stone”, but when I listen to Bringing It All Back Home or Highway 61 Revisited or Blonde on Blonde, I come away thinking, “…Meh”. I just don’t come away with any sense of delight or wonder or rapt pleasure that I would expect for someone so rabidly esteemed. It’s not that I don’t like folky music: when I listen to Nick Drake (for example his magnificent songs “Hazey Jane I” or “Cello Song“), I am prostrate before such eloquence and vision. I just don’t understand what Dylan is trying to do or say, and this annoys me! (The exception is Nashville Skyline, his first all-out country rock album, where he clearly has a vision and executes it beautifully).

2.  Bruce Springsteen

To be honest, I haven’t listened a great deal to Springsteen, only Born To Run and Born In The USA. Maybe his darker albums Nebraska and Tunnel Of Love are better. But it seems to me that Springsteen suffers from a fairly common trait (one also suffered by New Order, XTC, Moby, The Verve, U2 and later REM) – utter blandness. It doesn’t matter how emotionally you posture (check his “passing a kidney stone” level of emoting in the “We Are The World” video), if the music is bland it’s all meaningless. Though I guess you can’t deny the power of “Born In The USA”, most of Springsteen’s other songs are just so much “meh”. Even with a sax player as good as Clarence Clemons!

3. Tool

Although a metaller when young, I had pretty much grown out of it by 1994ish. My taste in metal is thus utterly stagnant – good old Metallica, Slayer, Guns N’ Roses, Faith No More, Megadeth, etc. After that, my interest fades severely. Numerous friends however have extolled the virtues of Tool, citing their dark intelligence and sharp musicianship. Trouble is, the singer’s whiny nasal voice bugs the shit out of me.

4. The Police

Same as with Bruce Springsteen – “Every Move You Make”, great song. The rest, meh. There’s roughly a zillion bands from the same period who are far more interesting.

5. David Bowie

I guess this is the same as my feelings about Dylan – I have listened to his great albums on numerous occasions and come away feeling mildly pleased but also puzzled. Where’s the immensity, the awesomeness, the majesty? Now, I think Hunky Dory is a very good album (probably because of its overt similarity to Transformer), Low leaves me staggered at his vision and future-awareness, and who can resist the swagger of “Jean Genie”? (Can someone tell me if The Sweet pinched the riff for “Blockbuster”, or was it the other way round?) But…! Station To Station, Diamond Dogs, Aladdin Sane, The Rise and Fall…, Heroes – all of these are critically esteemed as exceptionally good albums, and which leave me cold.

6. Deep Purple/Rainbow

My prog rocker dad and uncles were natural fans of the Purp, and would extol them as great musicians, intelligent music, etc etc. Trouble is, if you’re a musician trying to convince people of your technical skills or intelligence, you’re going to forget to do basic things like entertain or convey emotion. Deep Purple and Rainbow seem to me to be long-winded pompous smug selfindulgent wanky “intelligent” crap. I don’t care how long you can do a solo, I don’t care about how technical your music is, I don’t care how many literary allusions are in your lyrics: it matters not one rat’s ass. The only thing that matters is what emotion is conveyed. In Deep Purple and Rainbow’s case, the emotion I perceive is overcompensation.

How about you?

On Being Cheesy

When I was a student in the late 1990s, there was a terrible enthusiasm for all things cheesy – cheesy music in particular, but also cheesy TV and cheesy fashion. A night at the student union nightclub called “Up The Glitter”, featuring songs like “99 Red Balloons”, “Making Your Mind Up”, “Come On Eileen” and “Funky Town”, went from a midweek once monthly (the preserve of the out and proud gay types) to the prized Saturday spot every week and even spawning imitators, such was its popularity. Teletubbies was openly watched and talked about. The Eurovision Song Contest drew appreciative parties. We mock-referred to anyone insistent on their way as “fascist”, and hid our own appreciations behind a wall of cynicism and irony. It was the done thing to read The Sun or Loaded (“for the tits”), rather than The Guardian or The Economist, which were much closer to our real interests.

Looking back, the cheesy trend fits well into our pre-millennial pop-culture overload take on modern life. Cheesy is to a large extent a result of being too well versed in pop culture. Aspects of culture which become overly familiar become first clichés, then cheesy, then cause revulsion, then lose their power entirely, to become historical documents rather than art. (This process is not however linear; there can be jumps from one to the other stage). Cheesiness is hence largely an overfamiliarity with certain stylistic moves and techniques in popular culture, engendering an ironic awareness of the text as artistic construct. (The text here can be considered not just the music or film etc, but also the performer or actor, if they have a recognizable repertoire – a known body of signs, in other words. Jack Nicholson’s post-Witches of Eastwick eyebrow raising is one such example of a familiar move becoming contemptible). Consider Elvis Presley – at one time vital and dangerous, by the time I encountered him, he was seen as a grotesque parody, subject of bad pictures in dole-scum livingrooms and tacky presentation plates sold in illiterate magazines. He was progressing from cheesy to revulsion. He came back in popularity thanks to the strength of his musical catalogue, but his films are already historical documents rather than living entries in the cinematic canon. James Dean can be considered likewise; similarly, cultural symbols as disparate Abba, Ice-T, Jaws, South Park clothes, John Travolta, the entire disco genre, The Evil Dead and John Grisham have all progressed from edgy to cheesy. They become assimilated into the culture; their tricks and angles become too well known, and “that thing you do” doesn’t work anymore. If all political careers end in failure, then all pop culture careers follow the process outlined above, except sometimes in cases of early death. (No-one ever called Jimi Hendrix cheesy, even after Wayne’s World’s rendition of ‘Foxy Lady’.) Nowadays it’s 1980s culture which is considered cheesy. That’s simply because tastemakers were children in that decade. It’s not long ago that 1970s culture was considered the epitome of cheesiness – now, in some respects, it seems like a golden age.

But cheesy also applies on the micro level, to small cultural methods and styles. The cinematic habit of dragging on the death of a supporting character as they gasp their dying, vitally important words, for example – Star Wars tore the arse out of it, and by the time Boromir declared his fealty to Aragorn in The Fellowship of the Ring, you just wanted the prick to fuck off and die quietly. Adverts involving The Simpsons – you know Homer is going to say “Doh!”, whatever happens. Kitchen sink dramas were forever scuppered the moment Monty Python had a sketch featuring a young man returning from mining coal to visit his working-class parents, with his mother fretting over his father who had injured his hand writing a sonnet sequence. Top Gun was so chock-full of extremely simplistic and effective moves that a whole movie was made of the parodies they enabled. “Hair metal”, with its masculine posturing and sub-Van Halen guitar, never survived the sniggers of Nirvana and the broader grunge generation, for whom its simple moves were all too obvious. Horror movie protagonists who dumbly make their way to the basement, or investigate some nameless horror, nowadays have cinema audiences berating them rather than cowering in their seats. Swelling orchestral strings at totally, like, emotional parts of power ballads these days create a sense of ennui rather than punching the air or proudly holding aloft that cigarette lighter. In all these moves, they’ve become overfamiliar clichés, and go on to be despised. “God, how cheesy!”

There’s a deeper angle to cheesy, however. Saussure showed the arbitrary connection the sign (the textual word) and the signified (the meaning or concept), and that signs were only explicable relative to each other. Cat is cat because it is not mat, bat, fat or hat. Structuralism then showed that this could be applied on a broader perspective, where items other than words could be considered signs, and thus form their own language, their own semiotic code. Claude Levi-Strauss applied it to anthropology, showing that human rituals had no essential connection to their meaning, and could only be understood within a social context. Baudrillard applied it to houseware, considering each item relative to others, while Roland Barthe’s Mythologies looked at everyday phenomena, from wrestling to wine, teasing out the underlying meanings and archetypes in everyday objects and events. In pop culture, stylistic moves and trends over time become assimilated, familiar and clichéd. The connection between signifier and signifier, the stylistic move and the desired effect, becomes apparent, self-evident, where it should remain unremarked, unobtrusive. Once it is apparent, it appears inauthentic, because for art to work the methodology cannot be seen. Bruce Springsteen’s performances are as “staged” as those of hair metal rockers, but because his music remains fresher than that of Ratt or Poison or Motley Crue (thanks to the greater skill of the E Street Band, in all likelihood), he gets away with it. (His “passing a kidney stone” performance in “We Are The World” has to be seen to be believed). Heavy metal is notorious for demanding authenticity, which is really a cry of frustration when something new is attempted unsuccessfully. The connection between move and effect becomes all too apparent, and anger cannot appear staged; it must appear immediate and self-present. Dr. Who, of course, descended deep into a pit of cheesiness in the 1980s, viewer suspension of disbelief ruined by shoddy effects and over-familiarity. Stock movie characters like the “tart with the heart” and the Machiavellian businessman have similarly lost all power and gained a distinct aroma of le fromage.

Some art is never cheesy. It remains fresh. It has a depth and complexity which enables those who enjoy it to constantly discover new things. One might cite Pink Floyd, John Coltrane, The Godfather films (despite the parodies and homages), Bjork, Kraftwerk, Bob Marley. But the days of artistic mystique, predicated upon unavailability, are gone. Cultural overexposure, thanks to the internet, is now the norm. Familiarity breeds contempt; it also breeds cheese.