Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Decade In Pop

Tom Ewing's essay for Pitchfork is one of the best pieces of criticism that site has ever published. Unlike most "review"-style articles on P4K (including year-end lists), he doesn't attempt to fool the reader into thinking that a year or decade can be neatly summed up into simple "year X was the year of Y" proclamations, as if pop (or any other type of music) could be conveniently summarized into such catchy little policy statements. Ewing isn't afraid to leave a bunch of open questions on the table. His role as a critic, like that of any good teacher, is to cull what he feels to be the most relevant information, set the context as best he can, and suggest his opinion on the matter. Then it is up to us, the students, to run with his arguments and build on his ideas. And this essay is as full of ideas as any of its kind. It's fantastic work -- I wouldn't even know where to begin with such a wide-ranging assignment like "The Decade In Pop".

I do find some serious faults with the piece, the most glaring being the complete omission of race from any part of the discussion. The way in which white artists have been trying to cross over to black markets (and vice versa) is intricately woven into the very fabric of American pop music -- more than just the elephant in the room, Ewing has overstepped a giant blue whale in avoiding any and all discussion of this topic, which is fairly unforgivable considering that 90% of his essay deals with American artists. This is unfortunate, but not so unexpected, because British misunderstandings of American multiculturalism is the single biggest difference in the perspectives of American and British music critics. In other words, I expect a British critic to ignore this stuff, because he doesn't understand it, whereas it would be impossible for an American critic to ignore the stuff.

Ewing writes about the convergence of the pop, R&B, and hip-hop scenes but somehow manages to dodge the issue of which ethno-cultural groups were affiliated with those genres for most of their histories. Surely this had to warrant a mention in regards to one of Justin Timberlake's many guest collaborations? The "Class of '99" was really no different than any other loosely associated bunch of superstar artists from any other period in pop history -- they were white kids who took traditionally "black" forms of music and mass-sold it to a predominantly "white" audience. If New Kids on the Block were a concerted attempt to create a "White New Edition", then 'N Sync were ... a "White Blackstreet"?

For my money, the real "anything's possible" pop moment was the release of 'N Sync's "Pop", produced by trance megastar Brian Transeau aka BT. At the time, I thought that if trance artists were producing boy bands and scoring big hits, then there couldn't be any other kind of cross-genre collaboration that could surprise me. The funny thing was, hardly anybody batted an eye at the time, pretty much because nobody in the pop sphere had any idea who BT was. His style wasn't so different from what the Neptunes were doing at the time, and they were certainly both influenced by the same sorts of electronic-leaning artists, but the Neptunes were crossing over from the hip-hop world, whereas BT was crossing over from what might as well have been Mars. Even so, the Neptunes didn't become megastars in their own right until 2002 or so, but they did have a all-star base of production credits to keep them working with the biggest acts in the business for a long time to come. Whereas "Pop" was a bit of a dud in 'N Sync's career and they essentially split up not long after, so it was hardly the kind of breakthrough success that BT could have built his career upon. Maybe, if BT had worked with them just a few months later, when producers themselves were becoming household names, then he would have had a more memorable career as a pop producer.

And for my money, the genre convergence became complete following Justin Timberlake's (yeah, him again!) guest spot on Snoop Dogg's "Signs", from 2004. That sort of collab is commonplace these days, but in 2004, it was a bit mindblowing. The pretty boy lead singer from an all-white boy band teaming up with a gangsta rap icon? Even eighteen months earlier, that partnership would have been completely unthinkable (for a laugh, can you imagine, say, Jordan Knight guesting on "Doggystyle"?).

Techno actually had a good decade in the charts. From Timbaland throwing the electronica kitchen sink onto Missy Elliott's albums (and don't forget about "My Love"), to the Neptune's minimalist glitch-funk productions, to Kanye West's "808's and Hearbreak", techno was sort of the secret weapon for the pop producer. Y'know, they've already heard it all from rock and hip-hop, so let's throw something at them that they haven't heard, e.g. a rave siren! Timba's "The Way I Are" was a smash hit, and L'il Jon's screaming and cheapo 90's raver effects relegated Usher to a near afterthought on his own record. How could there ever have been any doubt that Eurobeat and rave would be the electronic genres of the 90's that would produce the most chart successes? Remember when people honestly thought that the Chemical Brothers and Prodigy were going to be rock stars??

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Pet Shop Boys Live at BBC, and RIP Ellie Greenwich

This one-hour special, containing near-complete clips of PSB TV performances interspersed with contemporary comments by the duo, is easily the best music-related airplane viewing I've ever seen (the second best would be ... well, no comparative examples come to mind, actually, but the PSB collection was quite good on its own and is well worth seeing even if you're not stuck on an airplane for 7.5 hours). I didn't know that their current look (knee-length black coats) was recycled from the start of their career. The interviews added some curious, minute details to the clips (what, you were expecting less arcane ruminations from Neil Tennant?) and I certainly wouldn't have noticed Tennant's trembling hands without being prompted, so cheers for his trainspotter's sense of detail. Their live gear setup for 1994's "Liberation" was nothing more than an ancient laptop. Whether Chris Lowe was doing anything "live" with that computer is irrelevant to me, but can you think of an earlier laptop "performance" than this one? Was this the first laptop gig of consequence in the history of music?

I am baffled at the relative lack of attention that has been given to the death of one of the greatest songwriters of the 1960's, Ellie Greenwich. Her Spector-resume was the most impressive of any songwriter he regularly worked with ("Be My Baby", "Da Doo Ron Ron", "River Deep Mountain High", "Then He Kissed Me", to name just four). And she co-wrote "Leader of the Pack"! And discovered Neil Diamond! What a career ... and I assume this story doesn't get much play because she was predominantly a songwriter, with far less name-recognition and visibility than that of the acts she worked with.

Here is one of my favourite Youtube clips.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Blur, live at Hyde Park, July 3, 2009

I always struggled to define my relationship with Blur. I searched for definitions, and they were the band I liked the most without ever really loving. They effortlessly churned out one amazing song after another, they were versatile, they had longevity, and they were great live (for a long time, their 1996 Toronto gig at the then-Warehouse was one of my top five favourite concerts ever). They were a great great band, but there was one problem -- they didn't truly matter to me. Ever loved somebody without being IN love? Yeah.

I wasn't clamouring for a Blur reunion. I didn't miss them when they were gone, and besides, "Think Tank" was unforgivable tripe which at that time served to profoundly justify all of my nagging suspicions about not committing myself to this band. They'd screwed up, they simply weren't worth it after all. So I couldn't get excited about the reunion, even though I privately knew that the concerts would surely turn out to be great.

Almost everything in this set feels fresh because I haven't heard most of these songs in years. This is what helps make "She's So High" such a welcome opener. Even though it's far from the best moment on "Leisure" (that would be "Sing"), it's naivete and simplicity make for a memorable comeback singalong tune, and of course the best is yet to come.

This set is heavy on "Parklife" tunes (eight of them), which is understandable for a held in a huge outdoor venue in July (and nearly 15 years to the day after their famous "Parklife"-era Glastonbury performance that launched their career to another level). If it was up to me, I would have stacked up those songs in the middle of the set, because the mid-set "Tender"/"Country House" section feels a lot more like the triumphant end to the gig than the somewhat obvious and perfunctory "Parklife"/"End of a Century"/"To the End"/"This Is a Low" four-song run that they actually chose, although I can understand "This Is A Low" as the main set-closer. "Tender" is arguably the highlight of the gig, and not just because is it one of the few truly sexy moments of the concert (and in Blur's oeuvre in general). This extended, nine-minute version gets a spectacular reaction from an emotional crowd that sings along with every word, which surely sends a bit of an f-you to the people who dismissed this song in 1999, claiming that it was unnecessarily long, or indulgent, or nothing more than sludgy, rewarmed Spiritualized. It simply has to be Blur's most underrated single, what else could it possibly be (maybe "End of a Century"? I think a lot of people would say "Coffee and TV" but they couldn't be more wrong (it's one of their plainest songs, any one of a million indie-rock bands could have written it). And who would have thought that "Country House" could sound so glorious in 2009? Wasn't it the throwaway Blur-by-numbers track that didn't really need to exist after the band succeeded in their goal to beat out Oasis' "Roll With It" for the #1 spot on the British singles charts?

In the long run, it was probably inevitable that Blur's critical reputation would be rehabilitated. Americans just needed time to forget about all of the quirky things they hate about British music scenes and scenesters (e.g. the moptop hairdos circa "Leisure", goofy stuff like the "Country House" video). Once those memories faded, people were left with nothing but the music to judge them by, at which point it becomes clearer that Blur rocked harder (and weirder) than most critics gave them credit for. Weird stuff doesn't always work in a festival-like setting, so this set leans toward rockier renditions, no doubt thanks to Graham Coxon's well-known distaste for some of Blur's poppier side. "Chemical World" and "Beetlebum" deserve special mention for being particularly fierce. And of course, "Advert".

After all the bounce-along hits, Blur close the second encore (and the show) with "The Universal". It's their most epic, dramatic, and emotionally wrenching single, and the fact that they return to it for their final bow is one of those things that make me almost love them all over again.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

RIP Les Paul

I don't even know where to begin with this one, and judging from the writing I've seen over the past two days, it doesn't look as if anyone else knows where to begin either. Les Paul basically invented the electric guitar and multitrack recording, so virtually all music that was recorded over the past fifty years bears his fingerprints. Now go, write 500 words summarizing exactly that. Jeez. It's like eulogizing Gutenberg or something.

Les Paul also had the temerity to live so darned long. He outlived so many other rock and roll pioneers -- so many of whom were given the full-on legend treatment after their deaths -- that it's become more difficult to properly contextualize the passing of other music greats without resorting to greater and greater (and more colourful) hyperbole. Then Les Paul goes ahead and dies and the load has long since been shot. There simply aren't enough never-before-heard praises that are left to be sung.

Friday, August 07, 2009

John Hughes RIP, Bimble RIP

With the last two days, plus Michael Jackson's death last month, the 80's as a whole are all but dead as well.

John Hughes was the Tycoon of Teen for the 80's, his movies defined the decade for anyone who lived through the time and was born after 1968. He made Molly Ringwald. John Candy was at his best when working with Hughes. "Planes Trains and Automobiles" is one of the funniest movies ever made, and "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" might be the most rewatchable movie of all time. He even made the careers of musicians -- the biggest hits in the careers of OMD and Simple Minds were songs recorded for Hughes' movies ("If You Leave" and "Don't You Forget About Me", respectively). His film soundtracks were practically period pieces, hell, throw those things in a time capsule and let Hughes guide future generations through the 80's if they dare. Where else, other than a John Hughes film, could you have heard the Star Wars Theme, "Oh Yeah" (a starmaking turn for the otherwise esoteric Yello), and the Dream Academy covering the Smiths (that's the "Ferris Bueller" soundtrack, which was never even officially released! Can you believe that??) One might argue that Cameron Crowe's soundtracks defined the 90's better than Hughes did for the 80's, although I wouldn't be the one to argue that.

I don't spend much time on ILM anymore, and rarely interact with people off the board these days, but I was shocked and horribly saddened by the sudden death of longtime poster Bimble (I won't print his real name here). He was a connaisseur of all things 80's, and was arguably the most excitable and enthusiastic poster ever to have graced the boards. His style could be overbearing sometimes, and I know that got on a lot of people's nerves. I never minded any of that though, I just laughed when I'd check ILM and discover that a drunken Bimble had revived seven different Chameleons threads at 3 AM. Even though I only knew him from the boards, but this is hitting me hard for some reason, probably because he was a guy straight out of my generation -- he was about the same age as me, he grew up listening to Joy Division, Cocteaus, etc. (and never grew out of those listening habits), and never got tired of posting about how his favourite music was SO BEAUTIFUL. He was the kind of guy with whom I would have been swapping cassette tapes in high school. I'll miss him very much, and send my condolences to his close friends and family.