Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Snobbery or harmless nostalgia?

I was taken aback by the level of hostility toward Dan Brooks' recent article in the NYT Magazine, entitled "Streaming Music Has Left Me Adrift".  Your take depends completely on whether you read the article as sincere, or tongue-in-cheek.  For me, Brooks is engaging in bittersweet nostalgia about the past, but for many others, he's hopelessly stuck in the past and highly critical of the present.

How this article is perceived is particularly important to me because there are many similarities between Brooks' style of writing and my own.  I write stories about the way things were (according to me and all my inherent biases) all the time.  But fondly reminiscing about the past isn't the same as wishing we were still living in the past, or even approval of how things were in the past.  A lot of what Brooks is saying comes off as quaint snickering about the way things were.  Remembrances of the days before cell phones and TV remote controls would be similarly quaint and hilariously dated.

Brooks' article reads like what his 20 years ago self would have written about musical culture today.  His insulting take on "objectively hideous" major label music of the 80's and 90's is something that a 90's alternative music critic would have written about the rock music of the 80's.  There are too many nods and winks in the article (linking Journey and Smashmouth as the prime examples of this kind of dreck cracked me up) to suggest that Brooks doesn't know it's a dated method of criticism.

Music listening and purchasing used to be done mostly at home and in record shops.  Now we listen almost everywhere but at home, and track down music online before making even the most rudimentary purchased.  Surely we have lost something along the way.  I miss hanging around record stores, and yes, which record stores you frequented did say something about your personality in the same way that the bars you frequented did (and still do).  It was fun, but the experience has been de-romanticized by countless writers and even movies like "High Fidelity".  Record store clerks really would snicker at their customer's purchases and insult them after they'd left the store.  At the time it was fun (I never worked in a record store, but I enjoyed the atmosphere, even the hostility and yes even some of the snobbery), but I don't want to relive it again.

Nobody's debating the inherent sexism of fetishizing the female record store clerks or the dewy-eyed naivete of trying to date girls with "acceptably" cool CD collections.  This stuff really happened!  The debate is about how sincere Brooks is being when he writes that "the major labels have collapsed and ruined dating too".  Many people are assuming he's being sincere.  I think he's laughing at himself.  .

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

RIP Mark Bell

In 1990, Gez Varley and Mark Bell aka LFO released their eponymous debut single.  If they'd both retired from music after that, they'd still be spoken about in reverent tones by techno fans everywhere.  The single was an instant classic, and the creators became folk heroes renowned for their abilities make subwoofers waltz around the room or destroy them altogether.   "LFO", the single, recalls a specific time and place (the height of early 90`s British rave music) more vividly that any other record of its time.  It's like the Haight-Ashbury of 90's techno -- we get dewy-eyed and nostalgic about it much the former flower kids of the 60's do about their beloved golden age.  It's the kind of nostalgia that you always feel good about wallowing in.

LFO accomplished a lot more though.   The follow-up single, "We Are Back" was also an instant classic (and even better than "LFO", depending on the day that you ask me the question), and their debut album, "Frequencies" was yet another outstanding effort that still ranks high on many "best techno albums" lists.  After a long layoff, the second LFO album "Advance" finally appeared and easily exceeded expectations.  Whereas many of their early 90's peers (Prodigy, Utah Saints) continued releasing music as if the rave had never really stopped, LFO shifted gears entirely into a maximalist wall of sound style of techno that they virtually invented and that still sounds fresh and vital nearly 20 years later.  Quaking bass, ringing chimes, tracks that built into furious climaxes and slowly dissolved away, much of it wasn't easy to dance to but seemed like the future of club music anyhow.  "Advance", FWIW, was my third favourite album of 1996 and is easily the best thing LFO ever did as far as I'm concerned.

They weren't done though.  Varley and Bell went their separate ways shortly afterward.  Varley released a number of essential records under his own name and as G-Man and became a minimal techno godfather of sorts.  Bell released just one more album as LFO but more importantly, make the completely unprecedented leap into music production.  He worked on several of Bjork's albums beginning with "Homogenic" and was the sole producer on Depeche Mode's "Exciter".  Bell joined a very exclusive club of producers who gained legitimacy and importance outside the dance music scene.  Indeed, outside of those who have worked with Madonna at some point, it's hard to think of any others who started out as DIY club kids making techno in their bedrooms and ended up producing some of the world's most respected acts.

 Bell was like that one kid who escaped the small town for the big city and managed to make it on its own.  Except he didn't let the city transform him, he didn't survive in the jungle by learning how to play by the rules of the natives.  He didn't get swallowed up, rather, it was the opposite -- the big boys came knocking on his door because they wanted to conform to him, to sound more like him, to use his ideas to keep them on the cutting edge.  No matter how big he got, Bell always seemed like "one of us", the local boy who made good.  And now, sadly, he's gone. 

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Nominees 2014

These ballots have gotten more and more interesting for me over the years, as the music I grew up with (as opposed to the music my parents' generation grew up with) gets added to the ballot.  Let's go through the nominees, in the approximate order of their likelihood to get elected (i.e. approximated by my completely unscientific methodology aka MODO):

Joan Jett and the Blackhearts.  They seem like the token first wave punk/new wave act on the ballot, their look and sound may be timeless but they don't have the string of inescapable hits to match.

NWA.  Influential and incredibly important to the history of hip hop, but so were 2 Live Crew.  I'm not sure they should get in when there are hugely successful hip-hop acts with far more longevity (including solo careers of NWA members) who are waiting to get in and will be waiting to get in once the big 90's stars (Jay-Z, Snoop, 2Pac) become eligible.

War.  More of an idea than a great band, no?

The Smiths.  For a subset of my generation, this is a no brainer -- they're the most iconic British indie band ever, influenced generations of bands, and inspired the kind of fan devotion that few in the RnR HOF can claim.  They even burned brightly for five years and split up and how rock and roll is that?

They're not getting in any time soon.  The average HOF voter sees the Smiths as a bunch of fey Brits and a microphenomenon that would have broken through in the US if it was worth anything.  They're not getting in while The Cure and Depeche Mode, two bands with immeasurably higher profiles in North America (and 20 + years more success), are still longshots to get in.  The acceptance speeches would be must see TV, but dream on, Morrissey fans.

The Paul Butterfield Blues Band.  I don't think anyone has a clue why they're being considered for induction, but it's not their first nomination so somebody up there likes them a lot.

Chic.  On the other hand, it's inconceivable that Chic haven't been inducted yet, but at the same time, it makes perfect sense.  Releasing two of the biggest selling singles of all time and spearheading an entire genre should be enough, no?  Of course the problem is that disco is for gay people or isn't real virtuoso music like Eric Clapton or isn't rock and roll or take your pick of flimsy excuses.  As I said, they haven't been inducted yet, but in the same way that hip-hop has never received a Grammy for Song of the Year, it makes perfect sense because we already know the reasons why.

Nine Inch Nails.  It won't happen this year, but Trent Reznor's eventual induction feels kind of inevitable, doesn't it?  He helped fuse industrial and rock, brought it into the mainstream when there was absolutely no precedent for anything like it in the charts, has one Oscar in the bag and might win another this year -- it's an impressive resume.

Kraftwerk.  Another band that absolutely belongs in any Hall of Fame in any genre and would be on my shortlist for the greatest band of all time.  I doubt that the average Joe Cleveland rock fan "gets" Kraftwerk in even the slightest way.  Voters probably know that they're important via reputation and association, in the same way that they know that Stephen Hawking is a famous physicist without understanding anything about his work or having read anything that he wrote.

The Spinners.  They have the longevity, and if they're going to be inducted then it's probably good to do it while there's still one living original member.

Stevie Ray Vaughn.  You mean he's not already in?  He's a legend who could shred and died far too young, it's a HOF blueprint.  However, 95% of rock and roll fans with a casual association with SRV couldn't name a single one of his songs.  He's great by reputation, but he absolutely deserves that reputation.  Why isn't he in?

Lou Reed.  He died last year, which explains the timing of the nomination.  But he's been eligible since 1997 and the Velvet Underground were inducted in 1995, so if his solo career was considered Hall-worthy then he would have been in a long time ago.  Still, his name value is high so you never know.  Speaking of name value ...

The Marvelettes.  Frankly, this is a ludicrous nomination.  They had one big hit.  I can't imagine Lou Bega getting nominated in 2024 when he's eligible.  Oh, but their one hit was on Motown, and every Motown band from the 60's gets enshrined eventually.  What's more, it was Motown's first number one, which seems like it should count for something but really doesn't.  If it wasn't the Marvelettes, another Motown band would have been the first, the bands were practically interchangeable.  You can't claim that they "influenced" anybody, because all Motown records were written and recorded by the same people in exactly the same style.  They were a hit factory, and the Marvelettes were one of the names that happened to appear on the sleeve of the record.

Still, it's Motown, so you never know.

Bill Withers.   Great voice, great songwriter, great performer, a decade's worth of pop and R&B hits including a few that have been in heavy rotation since the day they were recorded.

Bill Withers got me thinking about the rising standards of the Hall of Fame.  He seems to pass the smell test of a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, but he had just four top ten hits, one number one hit, and two Gold albums in his career.  Red Hot Chili Peppers sold 80 million albums and were one of the world's biggest bands for twenty years and counting.  It seems like you need to be on the U2/RHCP level to be a sure thing if you started in the 80's or later.

Bill Withers was perfect for his time without necessarily being a leader in his time.  He crystallized the sound of the 70's but wasn't original enough or popular enough to survive once the industry moved on.  The vast majority of bands don't adapt or fit into any era except the one they broke through in.  A select few, like Bill Withers, can rise above and be remembered decades later.  A select few from the select few can still sound contemporary (RCHP) or find ways to adapt (Madonna) long past the time they could have faded away without a trace.  The 90's equivalent of Bill Withers in R&B might be All-4-One and they won't be getting into the RnR HOF.

Green Day.  They'll get in.  If you'd asked me in 1994 if their songs about wanking would be one day HOF-worthy, I'd have laughed but yet here we are.    

Sting.  He's been a kind of punchline for 25 years as the pompous MOR cure for amnesia who won't hesitate to gross you out with his tantric exploits, but he's a legend to the people who run the HOF.  He's already in as a member of the Police and he'll get in again as a solo performer.