Lesson Number Two: What The Music Taught Me (Part I)
I know what you must be thinking. I thought he said no Top Ten lists! Well, this is not a Top Ten. Not in the traditional sense anyway. I’m not attempting to outline the best (or worst) albums of 2008 here. Instead, I’m bringing you my Top Ten Musical Insights of 2008, which could include records as new as the Killers’s Day & Age or as old as Leonard Coen’s Songs of Love and Hate. Due to its length, this post will be broken up into two installment. So, let us begin with the first five…
Musical Insight #10: Rivers Cuomo is the Most Frustrating Man in Rock History
If I didn’t suspect he was doing it on purpose, I just might hate the guy. Or perhaps I do hate him precisely because I suspect he’s doing it purpose. Either way, Weezer’s eccentric and pricklyfinick front man set me up big time with the release of this summer’s self-titled, so-called “Red Album”, only to subsequently let me down in a brutal, cataclysmic way. And I’m not sure what to do about that.
The first time I heard “Pork and Beans,” the album’s standout track and one of this summer’s most enjoyable radio singles, I was driving home from a speaking engagement at Rowan University. When it finished, I almost pounded the steering wheel right off of its column with the force of my elation. With every failed attempt at a cohesive record since the last sublime strum of Pinkerton’s “Butterfly” resounded in 1996, it had been said so many times that Weezer was “coming back” that the sentiment had morphed into cliche. But this time, in the dark solitude of that rainy night, I truly believed it—because “Pork and Beans” kicked ass. All of the haters can just go to hell, I thought. This is going to be the album we’ve all been waiting for!
Oh how wrong I was.
Not only did the rest of The Red Album fail to live up to the potential of its wonderful single, it insulted the composition’s mother, kicked it in the teeth, and left it to die on the side of the road with flies buzzing around its head. This most recent effort from Weezer (despite the righteousness of the mustache and ten gallon hat) is as disappointing as an album can be; not so much because it is plagued by some dreadful songwriting (which it is), but more so because the record begins with such unbelievable promise and then takes a nosedive into a wretched sea of crap.
The first three tracks of The Red Album (“Troublemaker,” “The Greatest Man That Ever Lived (Variations On A Shaker Hymn)”, and “Pork and Beans”) are some of the best in Weezer’s extensive catalogue. They are raucous. They are full of bizarre, contagious life and pregnant with lofty power chords. And each of these three songs could easily stand as time-capsule-worthy examples of the sort of rock that Weezer, essentially, invented during its heyday. But what follows them are seven exceedingly lame tracks that had no business ever being released (with the possible exception of “Dreamin’”, if not for its saccharine bridge about meadows and bees and goslings at the river…yuck!).
Rivers, why must you torture us so? We know you’re a brilliant songwriter, so please stop littering your albums with mere fleeting teases of your greatness and get back to giving us the rock we all need now more than ever.
Musical Insight #9: Sadly, It Seems Beck is Not Aging Well
Just after the release of Beck’s The Information in 2006, my life entered what one might call a “difficult” period. Suffering from the bitterness of broken love and a subsequently broken engagement, an album that should have otherwise been a relatively carefree ride was inevitably tinged with the murky residue of my confused and darkened situation. It’s mashed up, post-modern rollick was a cruelly juxtaposed soundtrack to the reality I was living at the time, and as all great music is want to do, The Information remained a time capsule for me, a perpetual reminder of that particular chapter in my life.
This is not to imply that I begin weeping bitterly every time one of The Information’s tracks comes on during my iPod’s shuffle. I’ve distanced myself enough from those events now to enjoy the album despite its inevitable reminders. Regardless, one could say I had been looking forward to Modern Guilt before it was even an itch in Mr. Hansen’s musical pants, if for no other reason than to ally myself with another Beck effort minus the pains of my personal life. Little did I know Beck was going to bring so much of his own despair to the table this time around.
The criticism I most often hear leveled against Beck in my day-to-day conversations is that the majority of his catalogue is emotionally empty; that his beats are, at times, fun, but that his lyrics are nothing more than strange, Dadaist mashups of words that happen to rhyme and situations as random and meaningless as dreams (Seachange notwithstanding). On no other album is Beck more seemingly aware of this pop-caricature than he is on Modern Guilt. Consider a line from “Orphans”, one of the record’s standout tracks: “And how can I make new again what rusts every time it rains?/ And the rain it comes and floods our lungs/ We’re just orphans in a tidal wave.” In other words, Here’s a hint listener: I’m tired of blowing your mind.
Whether or not Modern Guilt succeeds in answering the most immediate question—namely, why is Beck so tired of this effort?—probably isn’t as important as one might think, because the album doesn’t concern itself with the journey. It concerns itself with the discovery. And what Beck discovers isn’t very encouraging. It’s a landscape of bones, ghosts, and chemical residues in the sky.
I’ve always maintained that Beck’s oeuvre has never been about ignoring the despairing elements of existence, regardless of how hapless his beats and lyrics may come across. Instead, it’s always seemed to me that Mr. Hansen has been all too aware of the existential confusion inherent in being alive, but that instead of composing murky lamentations to this effect he has taken the cultural and emotional residue of our time and thrown it against a sonic wall, where it can drip and coalesce like the paintings of Pollack. But where most of his songs have been a triumph over the chaos, Modern Guilt seems to be his first full surrender to it, and its a shame that Beck is somewhat unsuccessfully drowns in the weight of this surrender. His lungs are, indeed, flooded. The tidal wave, it seems, has taken him under.
None of this is to imply that Beck is no good at sadness and despair. Some of the best tracks on 2005’s outstanding Guero are concerned with just that. The thing is, on Modern Times Beck seems a little bored with himself and the world around him, resulting in an equally tedious record.
Musical Insight #8: Queen is So Much More Than its Greatest Hits
Several years ago I made a vow that I would never again purchase a “Greatest Hits” (or “Essential Hits” or “Very Best Hits” or “Very Best Greatest Essential Hits”) record for as long as I lived, so help me God. Sometime after college I was struck by the absurdity of the conceit (Steve Miller Band and Rod Stewart notwithstanding) and it occurred to me that these corporately packaged collections of sellable songs were an anathema to the artists they were supposedly praising. All things being equal, an album is a complete work of artistic entirety meant to be enjoyed as a whole. You wouldn’t buy a copy of “William Faulkner’s Greatest Chapters,” or “Van Gogh’s Greatest Brush Strokes.” Why then has it become an acceptable practice to parse the work of musical artists into easily digestible bits?
Consider perhaps one of the greatest victims of this custom: Queen. I’ve got a homework assignment for you. Tomorrow, ask as many people as you can to name a Queen song that doesn’t appear on the band’s myriad greatest hits collections. Go on. Give it a try. Unless you’re friends with Chuck Klosterman, I will be very surprised if you come across even one person who can do this without the help of Wikipedia. And that’s a shame, because I have recently discovered that Queen wrote some pretty phenomenal songs no one has ever heard.
Two months ago I received an old, dusty vinyl copy of 1977’s “News of the World” as a gift (thank you Courtney). With the exception of “We Will Rock You” and “We Are The Champions,” the entire track list was foreign to me. Admittedly, I was dubious. I expected little more than a mediocre offering that would make me yearn for yet another spin of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” But after just one listen I immediately fell in love with “News of the World.” It’s a fantastic record. “Sheer Heart Attack” is punk rock I had no idea Queen was capable of. The bouncy, sometimes-trippy piano balladry of “All Dead All Dead” is as heartwarming as it is haunting. Freddie Mercury’s voice (which I often maintain is one of the most under-appreciated gifts to rock music) is in top form. And Brian May’s guitar is incendiary and as slashing as sunlight.
So drop off your copy of Queen’s Greatest Hits at Goodwill and start exploring this band’s entire catalogue. “News Of The World” is the perfect place to start.
Musical Insight #7: My Morning Jacket Is Way Weirder (and Way Better) Than Anyone Expected
Rather than compose an original blurb for this one I have chosen to reprint an e-mail I sent my friend Joe back in June when he asked me what I thought about MMJ’s recently released Evil Urges (which both of us loved). Please forgive its lack of refinement. I did not edit before pressing “send.”
Subject Line: Evil Urges, Brilliant Surges
Frequently, my friends and I play the “cover game.” You know, what artist would you like to hear cover what song? It’s especially fun when the artist is dead and the song is very contemporary, like Elvis doing “Hit Me Baby One More Time” or Johnny Cash doing almost ANYTHING by Lucinda Williams or Neko Case. But in this case I’m excited by the reverse, as I think no one vocalist today could lend a more interesting and righteous take on Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” than Jim James. And it’s because of Evil Urges that I am having this sudden conviction.
I know a lot of MMJ fans may decry this album. Strike that. I know a lot of people who think they are fans of My Morning Jacket are going to decry this album, because anyone whose been following the band with any serious verve is probably aware that Evil Urges is the most logical (and most enjoyable) step this band could have taken. Yes, I fell in love with them the way most did, with It Still Moves’s “we’re playing from the bottom a well in a deep and mysterious forrest” sonic and lyrical vibe. Yes, I fell in love with the alt-country-meets-psychedelia spirit behind the music. But I believe the mark of any great and lasting artist is the pursuit of new territory, and when that new territory is arrived at and explored with as much solidity and self-evidence as MMJ does on Evil Urges, the pursuit (and the art) becomes sublime.
I think this album is fantastic. Sure, I was slightly thrown by the first three tracks, which sound like Prince on acid playing to the gods of some forgotten rock universe, but the surprise was perfection. I think “Highly Suspicious” is one of the best songs they’ve written. I think My Morning Jacket has always been a little more eccentric and weird than a lot of people give them credit for, and what makes it work is that they are such an incredibly tight band musically. The guitars are so sharp, so crisp, and yet still organic and meandering. And then there’s the vocals of James.
I think Jim James is perhaps the best rock vocalist performing today. What may have been dismissed as slight novelty in It Still Moves et. al. (lots of reverb and the like) were clearly the beginnings of a master vocalist just starting to get his footing. I thought he was almost there with Z—which was a departure in its own right—but what he began exploring in that album (his heart breaking falsetto, his capacity for neo-crooner spectral emotiveness) he takes to the next level on Evil Urges. And I love it. I’ve always held MMJ up as one of the true testaments to the next “phase” of rock music’s potential, and Evil Urges has confirmed my faith in this conviction.
So, what did you think of it? Please, feel free to disagree. I’m anxious to know your thoughts.
Musical Insight #6: The Kids Are Not Alright
It was Thanksgiving morning 2007. A gentle fire crackled in the corner as my brother, sister, and I relaxed on the couch in our pajamas and watched the Macy’s Parade. It was all very cozy and Rockwellian. Ah, there’s Tony Bennett singing “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.” How sweet. Oh, and there’s Harry Connick Jr. crooning his version of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.” Delightful. And there’s three pre-pubescent teens dressed like new-new-wave emo brats pretending to play guitar while whining an auto-tuned version of some exceedingly lame ditty about the stresses of high school and taking the dog for a walk.
“Oh god. Who is that?” I asked.
“I have no idea,” Erica said. “But ya know what would be really great? If the float they’re riding suddenly burst into flames and we got to see them running down the streets of Manhattan in a high-pitched panic with fire shooting out of their hair-sprayed heads.” Leave it to my sister to paint a delightful picture.
Sadly, there were no flames, and the float continued on its course unimpeded. No worries though. We figured life would go on as it always had and that this would be the last time we ever had to experience the torture of their wailing. Done and done. Little did we know how wrong we were, for those three little men turned out to be none other than the Jonas Brothers, and 2008 turned out to be nothing short of their ascension into the realm of pre-teen, boy band deification. If I had known back then how insane the Jo-Bro craze was to become, I probably would have driven up to New York that morning and lit the float on fire myself.
I won’t belabor the point, but the Jonas Brothers are evil. They are a virus that perpetually feeds on the hearts and minds of children everywhere, convincing them that the purpose of pop music is nothing more than to bring smiles to faces, flutters to hearts, and joyful tears to eyes. Their rebellion is false and their virtue a mere corporately sponsored caricature of banality. I fear for the future of our youth because of their ubiquity.
Look, I know you probably think I sound a little harsh here, but I’m actually being kinder than I would prefer, for the Jonas Brothers are the worst kind of assault against the sensibilities of young listeners, and a disastrous byproduct of the mass-media age in which we live. Like N*Sync before them (and The New Kids on the Block before them) the Jonas Brothers are pre-packaged, government sponsored rock, devoid of soul and meaning, designed to do nothing more than sell merchandise and push the bland indoctrinations of conformity masked as defiance. Our teenagers deserve better than this. They deserve rock music that begs them to question the assumptions of society and the platitudes of the authority around them. They deserve music that offends and upsets the order of things and causes parents to worry, if only just a little. They deserve rock that makes them feel genuinely alive, not heavily manicured pop garbage that fastens them permanently to a sinking ship of dutiful compliance.
But what the hell do I know. When I was 12 I was listening to Weird Al and Michael Jackson. Either way, my nieces and cousins are all getting a mix CD from their Uncle Nick this Christmas loaded with the likes of Led Zeppelin, Sublime, and Dr. Dre.
How about we let Mr. Bill Hicks take us out on this one (and for those of you easily offended, you might want to think twice before pushing play)…