Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Slash: The Autobiography

I bought the e-reader version of this book and it was so cheap that I wasn't expecting much beyond endless tales of mindless debauchery in order to get my money's worth.  This book delivered the excess in spades, but wasn't the superficial read I was expecting.  It's a moderately heavy book (160K words -- hardly a quickie, grade school level read that you'll plow through in a day, like certain other cash grab memoirs are) and contains quite a bit of depth.  For instance, the years in LA leading up to Slash joining GNR are recalled in fascinatingly vivid detail.  The writing (and/or ghostwriting) is superb, Slash's writing persona comes off as affable and highly believable. 

In fact, Slash's life up to the recording of "Appetite for Destruction" takes up well over half the book.  The idea that the journey to become famous is more interesting that actually being famous (and more enjoyable for the protagonist, both at the time it happened and in the present day) is a notion that rings loud and clear.  Once GNR take off, most of the characters practically disappear from the story.  There's a good deal of philosophizing about the Axl Rose that he knew pre-1987 (they even lived together for a short while) but after that, almost nothing.  Like many wildly successful groups do, GNR split into separate camps and Axl become a side plot, a person who turns up on stage (most of the time) but is otherwise a shadow character who only exists via his managers and lawyers who act as his conduit.  This is really a book and Slash and Slash only.  Anyone looking for insight on what the other main players in the GNR story were "really" like at the height of their fame will find almost nothing to chew on.  Thus, the second half of the book is far less interesting than the first half.  Being the biggest band in the world was a succession of gigs and bottomless alcohol and drug binges, but by that point those stories have mostly lost their sordid power. 

After reading this, I'm even more baffled at how GNR became the biggest rock band in the world for a few years.  There was no grand plan to flip the music industry on its head and expel the multitude of wimpy 80's "rockers".  They weren't following existing trends, there was nothing like "Welcome to the Jungle" on the pop charts in 1988, but the public somehow managed to buy into what they were doing.  It may be a cliche, but at its heart, beyond all the drugs and parties, it's a story about never compromising and believing in the artistic merit of what you're doing.  Slash emphasizes it repeatedly as GNR are getting rolling, but the message may be drowned out by all the tabloid-ready stories throughout the book. 

One final note -- this was published in 2008, i.e. years before the GNR reunion tour.  Toward the end of the book, there's no inkling of any reconciliation taking place in just a few short years. Could there be an updated and expanded edition at some point?   

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

The Caretaker, "Everywhere at the End of Time Stage 4"

The first three installments in the series chronicle a slow descent into the clutches of dementia, with an emphasis on slow and barely discernible.  Melodies, used as a stand-in for memories, were blanketed by the persistent crackle of a scratched record, with gentle shifts in their intonation and overall clarity.  But the fourth installment takes an abrupt turn toward noise and chaos.  "Post Awareness Confusions" is the title shared by three of the four tracks (each running over twenty minutes) and essentially sums up the current diagnosis.  The patient took a sudden turn for the worse since the end of Stage 3 and their personality became unidentifiable seemingly overnight.  Snippets of the old melodies can be picked out here and there, but anything approaching a recognizable tune has vanished completely.  You can't even characterize it as sad, there's simply no trace of the human being who was once there. 

The first half of the album is a trying listen, which is certainly the intention.   The sudden transition between Stage 3 and 4 feels like cheating the concept of the series a bit -- without knowing exactly how to proceed, The Caretaker launched into noise for noise's sake.    The beauty in The Caretaker's music was always in the subtle details, which are now obscured by the change to a more generic noise-based sound.  But the second half of the album is far more alluring.  "Temporary Bliss State" offers nothing in the way of coherent thoughts -- it's not a reprieve where a few memories come back into focus -- but does settle the torment of the previous forty odd minutes. 

As a state of mind, Stage 4 it undoubtedly succeeds, but as an album you'll want to hear regularly, less so.  But like so much experimental and noise music, to enter that state of mind, you'll need to subject yourself to nearly the entire thing.  

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Kristin Hersh, "Paradoxical Undressing"

Kristin Hersh's memoir focuses on a single year of her life but doesn't have a beginning, middle, or end.  The writing is based on a diary she kept at the time and the story (or lack of it) picks up with her band and home life in a state of barely controlled chaos, uncertainty and turmoil and ends with her band and home life in a different state of barely controlled chaos, uncertainty, and turmoil.  Along the way, the action (or lack of it) takes in an eclectic cast of friends and bandmates, which is where the real action is.  Scenes, moments, concerts, and conversations are recalled in exquisite and sometimes absurd detail.  The minutiae of daily life gives us a charming, and touchingly personal look at the people involved.  Her writing is beautifully strange and lyrical much like her songs.  Sometimes I found myself humming tunes from her solo albums while reading the words and slotting them in as newfound lyrics, especially in the earlier chapters. 

There's a precocious air to the entire book, and a "smartest kids in the room" vibe at times that could be offputting to some.  But it's a brutally honest memoir, and the well meaning innocence of all involved makes this a great underdog story.  I don't often find myself rooting for the author of music memoirs, but with this one I definitely did.       

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Beach House, "7"

Five years ago, when I would listen to Beach House's third album "Teen Dream", it sounded like a dress rehearsal for the fully fledged maximalist dream pop of "Bloom".  When I listen to "Teen Dream" now, I understand why people who were not enthused by "Bloom" considered it to be the quintessential Beach House album.  "Teen Dream" is dewy eyed pop that could have believably been recorded in someone's basement, filled with gorgeous ballads that would burn up the charts in a mirror universe despite being self-recorded on a minuscule budget.  That's the fantasy that "Teen Dream" promoted so well.  "Bloom" was bigger, louder, and more ambitious, but the intimacy and instrumental simplicity of their earlier albums had begun to slip away.
"7" completes a reiteration of sorts of the previous album cycle.  "Depression Cherry" is a final goodbye to the intimate, home studio aesthetic of their early albums, and "Thank Your Lucky Stars" is the quickie demo version of the more expansive sound they'd aim for on "7".  In interviews, Beach House have talked about how "7" was largely conceived in the studio, and it certainly sounds like it.  "Dive" is splattered with producer Sonic Boom's fingerprints, From the droning organ intro to the churning drum machine that crashes in partway through, this is "Recurring"-era Spacemen 3 filtered through a new vessel.  "Dark Spring" is straight up fire, a storming statement of purpose to open the album, Beach House's closest facsimile to MBV, a "Glider"-esque wonder of multitracked wailing guitars.  But immediately afterward, "Pay No Mind" heads in a different direction completely, bludgeoning its way through a murky bass and drums-led dirge that's disguised as a love song.  
Unlike every previous Beach House record, "7" never settles into a signature mood that envelops the album.  It couldn't happen because they were too busy exploring the studio with new producers who forced them to leave their comfort zone.  The result is a creative tour de force, but is it at the expense of the "real" Beach House of the past who still kicking around in there somewhere?  This new version may not know exactly who they are yet.      

Friday, August 24, 2018

Prodigy, "The Fat of the Land"

This is one of those unfortunate cases where I end up defending music that I was never a big fan of to begin with.  But Jesse Dorris' retrospective review is a sad example of reflexive political correctness in contemporary music criticism.  He might as well have written GOTCHA at the end of every paragraph, as he tries desperately to point fingers at 90's fans and critics who bought into the supposed scam. 

The intended centerpiece is the "Smack My Bitch Up" controversy.  The misogyny in the song was most certainly NOT accepted at the time, so sorry, there are no MeToo revelations to be found here.  That's not to say that there weren't arguments made on both sides of the issue (e.g. "it's just a sample" so Prodigy technically didn't say these things), but point being that the review doesn't touch on anything new about 90's masculinity.

Elsewhere, the Prodigy should apparently be scorned by thinking people in 2018 because they were too male and too white and catered to white male audiences.  The fact that half of the group members were black and their US label boss was a woman and a feminist icon somehow doesn't fit into the argument.  Dorris goes on about macho-ness and male-ness and somehow missed the entire post-1994 "smash the system" ethos of Prodigy. This was intersectionality long before its time, and could have never been born out of a 90's "rock" genre. 

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Aretha Franklin RIP

More than any other "genre pioneer" that I can recall, her death truly feels like the end of an era.  Many rock pioneers have passed away in recent years, but rock has evolved so much since the 50's and 60's and its current incarnations would have been inconceivable to the giants of the past.  But everything Aretha touched still feels fresh, current, and vital.  The famous Kennedy Center performance of "(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman" proved that she still had no equals even a few short years ago.  Not to mention that the R&B superstars who have dominated the pop charts in this generation (Mariah Carey, Alicia Keys, Brandy, Beyonce, and dozens of others) clearly owe a lot to Aretha Franklin, and that influence shows little signs of fading.  

I thought about George Michael, who duetted with Franklin in a pairing that seemed far from obvious at the time.  The British teen pop star with the American soul legend twenty years her senior?  Their voices compliment each other perfectly on "I Knew You Were Waiting", which was a transatlantic number one hit.  And yet I can't help but feel that it would have been Boyz II Men/Mariah Carey levels of huge had it been released ten years later.  I also realized for the first time that Michael's "One More Try" is an Aretha Franklin song in style and spirit.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Peter Hook, "Unknown Pleasures"

I did finally read Hook's JD bio, and it's a more than worthy addition to the wealth of first-person JD literature out there.  He wrote it knowing that most readers would be long-time fans who had already read Deborah Curtis' "Touching From a Distance", seen the "Closer" and "24 Hour Party People" films, knew the Factory Records story inside and out, and so on.  Hook in fact references those works a number of times.  As such, there are few surprises to be found in "Unknown Pleasures", but it's not meant to be an expose or refutation to what others have written.  Hook's book about New Order, "Substance", is an entirely different style of memoir about a band that we knew surprisingly little about considering their volume of output and the length of their career.  It's much more about setting the record straight.   "Unknown Pleasures" is a mostly lighthearted, often funny read about a band that started from nothing and tried to make it big, and very nearly did. 

There are several pauses in the narrative where Hook weighs on heavier issues and provides commentary with the benefit of more than thirty years of perspective.  This book may finally put an end to the Tony Wilson romanticized version of events, where JD might have become bigger than U2 if not for their doomed prophet Ian Curtis.  In Hook's account, they were all having too good a time and too focused on their music to stop and think about what Curtis was going through.  They were young and hungry and driven and finally tasting success when he died.  If anyone comes out of it looking like the bad guy, it was the doctor(s) (unnamed) who prescribed Curtis' epilepsy medications, which were clearly messing with his body and mind to little medical benefit.  Hook states over and over than what Curtis really needed was to take a long break and rest, but nobody -- including Curtis -- could see that (or admit it to themselves).  According to Hook, nobody wanted to see the band succeed more than Curtis, who habitually insisted he was fine no matter much his health worsened.  

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

"Music Sounds Better With You" at 20

Ryan Alexander Diduck examines Stardust's one-off hit for FACT.

It's funny to see which songs from a fairly lackluster year (1998) stand out twenty years later. 

As Diduck notes, it was completely out of step with the electronic music trends of the time.  Chemical Brothers and Prodigy were bridging the gap between rock and techno, making club music palatable for alternative nation fans who wouldn't have gone near the stuff otherwise.  Against that backdrop, Stardust released their unapologetically retro disco track. 

At the time, I didn't really understand if there were artistic undertones I was missing.  Why release something so simple and repetitive?  Why recycle old ideas when the talent involved clearly had the ability to push the boundaries of the music further?  IDM sort of poisoned us into thinking that techno and house had to be complex, thought provoking, worthy of dissection and careful analysis.  But sometimes a fun disco song is meant to be a fun disco song, best heard in a club.  In that sense, "Music Sounds Better With You" had more cultural impact than entire scenes did later on (e.g. electroclash).     

Diduck loses me toward the end of his piece.  Ronald Reagan was a simpleton and was therefore amorphous -- he was whatever voters wanted him to be, which is why he was so popular.  Similarly, the masks and "screens" worn by Stardust in the video allowed you to project your feelings on to them.  Who made the music and appeared in the video?  There were whoever you wanted them to be.  And yet he seems to claim that Reagan's popularity was nothing but cheap hucksterism, whereas Stardust boldly cultivated a sense of community.   Stardust united dance music fans from several otherwise separate spheres (because their song was so damned catchy), whereas Reagan tricked the masses and blurred the lines between parody and reality? 

Saturday, June 30, 2018

The McCartney jukebox

The Toronto Star gave a scathing review to Paul McCartney's December 7, 1989 concert at Skydome, part of his 1989-1990 world tour.  The closing line was something along the lines of "McCartney has turned himself into a jukebox, and nobody wants to see that".  It specifically referred to McCartney relying so heavily on Beatles songs to fill out the setlist, something he'd been hesitant to do while leading Wings and in his solo career to that point.

Peter Howell was the Star's rock critic, and he was only expressing what would have been common critical sentiment at the time.  McCartney had been a chart fixture through the mid-80's, but his 1989 album "Flowers in the Dirt" didn't yield any top ten hits.  In terms of pop success, it was the biggest failure of his career, and in fact he'd go thirty years between appearances in the top ten (from "Spies Like Us" in 1985 to "FourFiveSeconds" in 2015, an incredible achievement really and an even better bit of music trivia).  To bounce back from that failure, he turned to a different kind of populism and started trading on past glories more than he ever had before.  To the general critical establishment of the day, it meant he was clearly washed up.  Suddenly the co-lead of the greatest and most influential band of all time was no different that any other oldies act, "reuniting" without most of the original members to make a few bucks off of the wealthy boomers who would pay a premium to hear the same hits from twenty years played over and over.

In McCartney's appearance on the Late Late Show with James Corden, he figuratively becomes the jukebox in a Liverpool pub.  Patrons make requests in the jukebox, and he plays them as part of a cleverly staged "surprise" gig.  The twenty minute "Carpool Karaoke" clip has gone viral with good reason.  In 2018, only the most sour and cynical souls could fail to be moved by Corden talking about his father and grandfather playing "Let It Be" when he was a boy, or Paul playing "When I'm Sixty Four" on the piano in the home he lived in as a teenager, or three generations of fans losing their minds seeing him play down at the local Liverpool pub.

How did this happen?  When did the "authenticity" requirement die off?  As music gradually loses its cultural impact and becomes just another form of streamable entertainment, more of a premium is placed on the undownloadable live experience.  Concert ticket prices have skyrocketed in the last fifteen years, at least in part to make up for lost income from record sales.  More and more people don't want to feel challenged by live music anymore, they simply want to have a good time singing along to the songs they know.  The hugely successful Pixies reunion may have been the official nail in the coffin (even with new post-reunion albums) that made profiteering palatable even to indie fans who grew up on bands who prided themselves on prioritizing their vision over their courting of a mass audience. 

This is much more fun that the older way of doing things.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Joy Division: Old and new

I was watching a live performance of "Unknown Pleasures" played by Deerhoof with Jamie Stewart of Xiu Xiu on vocals and it struck me -- when exactly did interpretations of Joy Division's by newer artists become more interesting than listening to Joy Division themselves?  Don't get me wrong, the original recordings are still unassailable and essential.  But somewhere along the way, the fallout from Joy Division's immense influence on at least two generations of musicians became more exciting than listening to "Closer" for the 10000th time.

Having a small back catalogue has a lot to do with it.  JD only recorded two official albums and about 50 songs in total, and that's including the early Warsaw era songs and demos from the scrapped 1978 debut.  There are only so many times you can comb over the same small pool of recordings before allowing them to breathe and live on via other artists.  Listening to JD lacks new surprises, which happens with plenty of artists whose music I can imagine without needing to play the recordings.  This doesn't always happen with legendary bands who had short careers, for instance, I don't feel the need to hear anyone attempt a Velvet Underground cover ever again.  The Velvets explored more ground creatively, featured a few vocalists with very different styles, and they were further ahead of their time than just about any band ever was.   There's a lot more to chew on.  JD evolved quickly during the short time they had and the future directions were obviously there (e.g. "Heart and Soul", not to mention everything New Order did).  It's past time to hear more bands' take on their material -- aren't JD a bit "under-covered" for a band of their stature anyway?   
Something changed post-Factory when New Order moved to London Records and received the full re-release/re-packaging treatment, finally getting their careers and discographies on a solid financial (and archival) footing.  Fans who grew up idolizing them became music writers, and they went from being indie cult darlings on the level of the Jam to appearing on the shortlists of the best all-time British groups.  Is "Love Will Tear Us Apart" the greatest single ever, as this list from NME from 2002 attests?  Regardless, it would have been inconceivable to see this in a major music publication even ten years earlier.  

That idolization eventually played itself out.  JD worship in 2018 is like Beatles worship in 2008.  It's amazing to think that the Beatles and JD played their last notes together only ten years apart because their music seems like separated by one or two generations.  Even in 2000, when the Beatles' "1" was the top selling album, it felt like everything that needed to be said about them had been said.  We're nearly a decade on from that in the JD timeline, and it's been 23 years since the release of the retrospective compilation, "Permanent".  Is it any wonder that we're all so burned out?

It's possible that I reverse my opinion when I get around to Peter Hook's JD autobiography, which I bought some time ago but haven't yet begun reading ...