Monday, September 30, 2013

GY!BE meets Weird Al Yankovic

Nothing will ever break my brain like the Dave Ogilvie/NIN/Carly Rae Jepsen mutual admiration society did, but this story comes close.

What's more surprising, the fact that Godspeed like Weird Al's music and hand picked him for ATP, or that Weird Al sometimes listens to Godspeed's music?  It's truly the chicken vs egg debate of our time.  And it's hard to believe that he'd never played a single show in Europe over a career spanning more than thirty years, and after all this time, who finally stepped forward to make it happen?  Did anyone guess Godspeed You! Black Emperor?

You have to respect GY!BE for staying true to their principles after all these years.  Alternative icons like Trent Reznor, Metallica, and Red Hot Chili Peppers got nice haircuts and became mainstream (even Oscar winning!) superstars a long time ago, but GY!BE won't compromise or tone themselves down even just a little bit, even after more than fifteen years, even long after indie bands "selling out" became as routine as breathing.  Most indie rock fans couldn't care less about these sorts of outdated "principles", and yet here they are more or less telling the Polaris Prize organizers to go fuck themselves.  Railing against billion dollar companies on one hand, curating major music festivals featuring Weird Al Yankovic on the other, you can't say that GY!BE don't control their own destinies and do precisely what they want to do, when they want to do it, this time and for all time.  And that's something I'll always respect about them.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

25th anniversary of the Billboard Modern Rock Chart

Chris Molanphy's article commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Billboard Modern Rock/Alternative chart is tremendous and an essential read for anyone who grew up on the version of "alternative" music as defined by that Siouxsie and the Banshees-topping first chart back in 1988.  We're basically talking about people born between 1968 and 1976 who remember "alternative" music when it was a catch-all phrase for a genre-spanning (but mostly rock-based) collection of countercultural music that rarely found a way to sniff the "real" charts, rather than a genre unto itself (i.e. a euphemism for grunge and everyone who rode grunge's coattails to stardom).

Molanphy's breakdown of the chart into six "eras" is spot on.  Anyone who was listening in the "British Empire" era (1988-1993 according to Molanphy) but still paid attention after that to the general happenings in the pop charts probably had a moment around era number four or five (2000-2008 or so) where they were surprised to see that the chart was still around.  Like me, they probably glanced at Billboard, saw RCHP or Foo Fighters topping the chart in the middle of one of their many 10+ week runs at the top, and wondered what the hell happened and what was even the point of this chart anymore.

Three comments related tangentially to Molanphy's article:

1) Although the article gamely attempts to accord some kind of overall historical meaning to the chart, the fact is that nobody, probably including musical artists, has ever given a crap about the Modern Rock chart.  Molanphy is certainly not blind to this -- he more or less defines it as "a chart to track music loved by an audience that didn't want to be charted -- but I'm hard pressed to think of a major national music chart that has had less impact or sense of worth to the artists and fans involved.

2) The "coming full circle" narrative of the article, where the awful rap-metal and rock of the 00's is symbolically phased out and a woman reaches #1 again on the chart, is a bit forced and artificial.  It's been a male-dominated chart for the past fifteen years, no doubt, but Evanescence, Hole, Chumbawamba, and The White Stripes have all been to #1 for multiple weeks since then, and all feature female members in prominent roles (including lead singing roles, with the exception of The White Stripes).  True, none of them were solo female artists, but it wasn't a total dead zone for female artists as the article implies (not even mentioning Gotye f. Kimbra from just last year).  And in the two years prior to Tracy Bonham having the last #1 by a solo female artist until Lorde earlier this month, Tori Amos, The Cranberries, and Alanis Morissette had #1 hits and sold zillions of records at the height of alternative music's commercial peak.

"Somebody That I Used To Know" being recognized as the Billboard Hot 100 song of the year and Alternative song of the year is impressive, but not as impressive at it would seem considering that the music industry virtually killed off the single in the early 90's.  Albums were what counted in the 90's unless you were Mariah Carey or a friend/collaborator of Mariah Carey.  In 2013, the balance is tipped in favour of songs again, there are no more Cakes and Smashmouths having minor hits and selling millions of albums.  Now, if your album went platinum then you almost certainly had a huge hit on the Hot 100.  Alanis Morissette's songs were everywhere in '95-'96, and as it stands she had arguably the biggest album of the 90's.  In the current climate she almost certainly would have had a few #1's on the Hot 100 as well.

To me, the most amazing thing about Gotye's success is that for more than a decade, there wasn't a single #1 on the Hot 100 that could even be remotely considered as an alternative crossover hit.  Nobody fluked into a #1 until Owl City managed it in 2009, and since then the #1 spot on the Hot 100 has been more or less a steady stream of proven singles heavyweights.  Nobody paved the way for "Somebody That I Used To Know" to break through, it was a truly unprecedented smash hit.  The previous Hot 100/Alternative crossover smash hit was probably Barenaked Ladies' "One Week", which hit #1 on the Modern Rock and Hot 100 in 1998 (but not simultaneously, strangely enough).

3) Perhaps the most glaring omission in the article is any mention of the Hot 100 changing from a "singles" chart to a "songs" chart in 1998.  For instance, Goo Goo Dolls' "Iris" was inescapable in 1998, but wasn't eligible to chart on the Hot 100 because it wasn't originally released as a single.  But the time it finally received a single release, the song had peaked in real, popularity terms with five weeks at the top of the Modern Rock chart and eighteen weeks (still a record) at the top of the Hot 100 Airplay charts. So for all intents and purposes, Goo Goo Dolls should have had a smash crossover #1 hit, and you could say the same for No Doubt's "Don't Speak" and many other songs during the mid-90's. Molanphy's 1997-1999 "faux-ternative" era comes off as a tepid placeholder between the decline of the grunge giants and the resurgence of the 2000's brand of cock rock.  Like them or not, the faux-ternative bands were a hugely successful brand of pop music, more so than any "alternative" bands that came before or since.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Electronic music in the 80's in East Germany

Most unique and outright fascinating oral history of the year?

I'm not even sure what I can add to this, since the subject matter is so far removed from my personal experience, but this is essential reading.  Cold War era Eastern European music history is sitting on a gold mine of great stories and important music criticism just waiting to happen (at least in English).  For the longest time, these stories literally couldn't be spread outside of their extremely well guarded borders.  The press and other forms of written communication were subject to crackdowns, and so the best way to perpetuate a music scene (and preserve its memory) had to be through word of mouth and personal experiences of those involved.  Thus, for retelling the story today, the oral history is completely appropriate and not simply the fashionable thing to do.

This really turns the American version of DIY on its head.  In New York there were countless stories of art school dropouts forming bands because they were bored.  They didn't know how to play instruments but it hardly mattered -- in fact, it was almost a badge of honour -- and they would stumble into regular gigs without even trying  But in East Berlin in the 80's, you had talented musicians who were heavily devoted to their craft who had to jump through a labyrinth of hoops just to get their instruments smuggled into the country, let alone find gigs.  Building a fan base without getting the secret police on your case was a challenge, and you practically had to know somebody in the ruling communist party to sniff the inside of a recording studio.  There's no doubt it was DIY, but it couldn't be more different from the oft-told American version.

Hopefully this and anthologies like Depeche Mode's Monument are just the tip of the iceberg.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Kanye West, "Yeezus"; Nine Inch Nails, "Hesitation Marks"

"On Sight", the first track on "Yeezus", explodes out of the blocks with abrasive industrial noise that I never would have expected from on a Kanye West album.  And that's taking into account his past and current collaborations with Daft Punk.  This isn't like Darren Price producing a Madonna record in his own image, this is something funkier and meaner than anything Daft Punk would have conceived on their own.  "On Sight" shocks you to attention and forces you to notice it from its first moments onward, which is something I haven't been able to say about a Nine Inch Nails record since "Broken".

And yet, despite the obvious nods and outright theft from industrial music (NIN included), "Yeezus" isn't the kind of album that makes you want to play a game of spot the influences.  He's captured the mood of the genre, twisted it in new shapes, and forced it to conform to something resembling a Kanye West album. Sure, "I'm In It" makes me think of "Down In It" (especially the intro), but as a whole, I don't find myself wondering which Skinny Puppy album inspired a certain bassline or what have you.  Techno producers have plenty to be jealous about here too. "I'm a God", with it's layers of echo, oddly processed guitar sounds, and stomach churning, cavernous bass, could be credited as a Dubfire track featuring Kanye West and nobody would doubt it for a moment.  "Send It Up" brings back 80's industrial thudding and OTT rave sirens to contemporary music, and not a moment too soon. West's attempts at connecting industrial, EDM, and hip hop don't always fit together so smoothly, for instance, the bruising robofunk bridge on "Bound 2" seems unnecessary, a complete non sequiteur in the midst of a mellow 70's soul number.  But for the most part, this is another startlingly creative home run for Kanye West.


"With Teeth" is clearly the album that kicked open the door for the second act of Trent Reznor's career.  "Hesitation Marks" probably could have been made at any time in the past ten years, there's nothing particularly contemporary about it and that's the entire point of it  (i.e. it's the album where he returns to his late 80's/early 90's heyday, except older, wiser, and mellower).  But if this album is released in 2003 then he's likely labeled as a 90's burnout trying to hang on and stay relevant.  Instead, Reznor disappeared for a long time following "The Fragile", returned with an armful of stories about how he'd been to the brink and lived to tell about it (who can resist that narrative in music?), and an album that sounded nothing like his earlier work.  It was different enough not to draw too many comparisons to anything on "The Downward Spiral", but still recognizable as a NIN album.  Gone was the pressure of having to make each record more shocking and more extreme than the one before it, and so much of "With Teeth" and its more rock-influenced tracks fit in well with alternative radio of the time, without rocking the boat too much.  He was now a Reliable Artist -- no longer representing the vanguard of new music, but someone who could be counted on for a decent slate of songs and an energetic tour every few years.  And for artists who sold millions in the sales inflated 90's, that's a recipe for doing healthy arena tours from now until retirement age.

The success of "With Teeth" also left room for Reznor to escape his 90's image, an image that easily could have been turned into a caricature like with so many 80's hair metal bands.  It left him free to do what he wanted without feeling pressed to make a Nine Inch Nails (TM) album each time out.  Not five years later, this former junkie and 90's relic, best known in mainstream circles for singing "I want to fuck you like an animal" in heavy rotation on MTV (bleeped during the daytime of course) and performing at Woodstock '94, was a respected Oscar winning soundtrack composer.  It boggles the mind just thinking about it.  

I do play a lot of spot the influences when I listen to "Hesitation Marks".  "Copy of A" sounds like the new "Sin", although a better comparison might be the style of electronic blues that Depeche Mode have been doing (and doing better that Reznor) on their last two albums.  "Find My Way" contains elements of "Something I Can Never Have", ditto "Running" and "Ringfinger".  In many ways it's a very safe album for Reznor to make, although I can't fault his timing in wanting to get back to writing the kinds of songs he does best and recalling his glory years a bit.  Parts of "Hesistation Marks" are great, but mostly it's just reliably good NIN music, and honestly, that's enough.