Monday, August 27, 2007

Newish Albums: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Will Continue

The Ugly: Robbie Williams, "Rudebox".

In late 2003, there were some weird stories swirling around concerning Robbie Williams. I read that he wasn't handling his Knebworth comedown very well. In one interview, he claimed he was retiring. Elsewhere, he began speaking about altering his persona to that of a freakier, more zonked out character named Pure Francis, whose music would dabble in strange forms of electronic squiggliness.

After devouring Chris Heath's "Feel" earlier this year, I discovered the real truth. He did retire, but his retirement ended as soon as the interview ended, i.e. he meant it only during the literal moment that he said it. Hey, we all get pissy sometimes. The Pure Francis character wasn't a reaction to the comedown from Knebworth, but rather, a way to avoid the pressures of it. Messing about in Stephen Duffy's cramped studio proved to be a welcome distraction from rehearsal and the general realization that he was about to play the biggest gigs in UK history. It's too bad that Pure Francis never came to be, and the fruits of the Duffy collaborations (the "Intensive Care" album) were fairly indistinguishable from the music Robbie had been making for his entire career up to that point.

Along came 2006, and the re-invention finally came to pass on "Rudebox". Williams shook up his normal work routine and decided to work with a bevy of producers instead of just one. Somewhere along the way, he ditched stadium pop and decided to become a dancefloor diva.

At this point, even if you'd been closely following his career, you'd be forgiven for rolling your eyes at the prospect of Robbie going disco, chasing the electronica boom roughly ten years after Eric Clapton did. And why? For a laugh? Just because he can? Because he no longer gives a fuck? Fortunately, none of those three fears would turn out to be true, but before moving on, let's pause to examine how NOW magazine churned out, as they often do, the worst review in the universe. I hear that 1995 called and it wants its Britpop Review Spreadsheet back, because as you can clearly see from Evan Davies' writing, apparently any and all English artists are cheeky pop pranksters that are in it only for the laughs and for making delightfully naff videos. The notion that anybody might take them seriously as genuine artists who mean something to real music fans is nowhere in the vicinity of the radar.

Is it a great album? Far from it, but it's easily Williams' most inspired album to date, chiefly because he cared enough to try to craft a bonkers epic masterpiece without caring about whether he'd succeed or not. "Rudebox"'s closest recent contemporary is Smashing Pumpkins' "Adore" -- another case where the artists in question sold a zillion albums previously but still chose to release something weird and challenging in lieu of something they were certain would sell, made the album too long by about 25-30 minutes but still forced you to sit through it all because as everyone knows, becoming bored at times is essential for truly "getting" any epic piece of music; "went electronic" and succeeded far beyond expectations in four or five styles that they'd never attempted before but failed miserably with another two or three, and finally: produced some sensational piece of music but dragged down the overall product with the bad songs. Unfortunately, the latter group will likely define the album in the long run in the minds of casual (or is it cynical?) listeners.

Songs like "Dickhead" are fairly inoffensive, in that they were *clearly* done for a dumb laugh and can be easily ignored. But early in the album, the cover versions start piling up and nearly kill the record straight out of the gate. "Bongo Bong and Je Ne T'Aime Plus" is brutal (and a terrible song to boot), "Kiss Me" is fun but is a karaoke experiment that never needed to see the light of day, and "We're the Pet Shop Boys" (featuring the Pet Shop Boys) seems to last forever and is far too concerned with preserving it's own sense of self-irony than in being an entertaining song. It's strange though, that these bad covers rub shoulders with a home run version of Human League's "Louise", coupled with the tender "Burslem Normals" which isn't a Human League cover but could easily pass for one. Adding to the contradictions is the Pet Shop Boys -- after failing miserably with their other aforementioned "Rudebox" production -- who, with their spectacular "She's Madonna", brilliantly mimick the classic funny/sad moments of their peak period singles. "Never Touch That Switch" is a highly addictive piece of warped electro-funk that has to rank #1 on the list of things you never thought could be written about a Robbie Williams song.

Best of all is the pairing of "The 80's" and "The 90's", a couple of autobiographical sketches that are delivered in a passable Mike Skinner-style rap. The lyrics are simple but touching, and the little musical touches on "The 90's" (coming off as a cross between Matchbox 20's jangly guitar pop and "Great Escape"-era Blur complete with trombone solo) are really what make the song so great.

Monday, August 13, 2007

RIP Tony Wilson

Just a few things that made Wilson so great:

1. That batshit moment in neworderstory when he talks about Ian Curtis' death, and he states, completely plainfaced, that Joy Division would have been "as big as Pink Floyd if he'd lived."
2. That other batshit moment in neworderstory when Barney Sumner yells "you ruined my career!" at Wilson in a semi-ironic manner on a mock game-show but you can just tell that he was sort of serious about it and all Wilson can do is look sheepish.
3. Allowing himself to be immortalized by Steve Coogan in "24 Hour Party People" ... the movie is so-so but as a series of snapshots of Wilson's remarkable life, it couldn't be a better tribute.
4. Opening the Hacienda against all good sense and sanity, having it blossom into a cultural touchstone for 80's dance music (albeit never a profitable one), then romanticizing it at every opportunity. See also: Happy Mondays, signing and promoting.

And that was what made Wilson so entertaining -- he was the eternal optimist that you couldn't bring yourself to hate. He might have been irrelevant to the industry once Factory imploded (and the complete invisibility of the follow-up label, Factory Too, really hammered the nail in deep) but you could always could on Wilson to pop up in the middle of an NME news item, giving his two cents on some new band or controversy. There is a generation of Mancunians -- among them Mark E Smith and Peter Hook -- who were slightly bonkers (at least in quotes) but whose reputations had reached a certain level of immunity. That combination made them a bottomless source for good press, which is a tough combination to pull off consider how easily pop stars can become boring / the public can become bored of them. These guys could always say anything they wanted at any time and people would always tune in, not necessarily out of reverence, but for simple curiosity. I always got a kick out of reading Tony Wilson's two cents on something. And why not? He used to run the coolest music label on the planet.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Newish albums: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly III

The Bad III: Do Make Say Think, "You're a History In Rust". DMST picked a great point in their career to careen into a sideways shift in their sound. Another album like the last two could have sent them down a path of jam band predictability, but "You're A History In Rust" sees them exploring not one, but two new avenues. The far more interesting one is the high-density, speed-fueled barrage featured in "Executioner Blues", and most spectacularly, "The Universe!". With eighty or so musicians, it's about time they cranked the volume a bit higher, and the furious anger of "The Universe" could almost be mistaken for speed metal at times.

The other half is what drags down the album as a whole, namely the folksy parts with vocals. I'm struggling to understand their internal logic when it comes to approaching vocals, and I'm really not getting it. The down-home feel of the title track almost demands vocals but doesn't deliver, whereas "A With Living" (for example) sounds more or less what they usually do on their other albums and yet the vocals simply show up without warning. It's as if they pre-decided that there would be vocals in certain places and were determined to shoehorn them into their songs no matter what.

In addition -- and this isn't the sort of thing that normally gets on my nerves -- the record would benefit tremendously from better sequencing. They missed an opportunity to start slow and mellow and build up to something loud and explosive at the end, but instead all of the sonic palette I discussed here is schizophrenically strewn all over the album.