Thursday, April 21, 2016

Prince RIP

In the 1980's you couldn't help but be a fan of Prince unless you hated contemporary music altogether.  He was a sensation on record, on stage, and on screen.  He had countless proteges who swarmed the charts under his guidance.  He even appeared in the least obvious places -- it was only today that I learned he played keyboards on Stevie Nicks' "Stand Back".

A run of the mill, good-to-great artist's influence can be measured by the number of imitators they help spawn.  Those rules don't apply to the legends though.  They don't have imitators because they're too good to imitate.  Nobody can even come close to duplicating what they do, and most don't even bother trying.  Prince had plenty of clones in the 80's but that was because he was writing their music for them.

The first album I ever bought was "Purple Rain".  I can't say I was ever a huge fan of Prince -- others will write about him from a more personal perspective much better than I can.  But I loved "Let's Go Crazy".  I saw it as fun, chaotic, immediate party music.  I didn't care much for "When Doves Cry" in those days, and wouldn't really appreciate it for another ten or fifteen years.

Many artists feed off their own myths, leaving even their most devoted fans to helplessly sort through the blurred lines separating fact from fiction.  Aphex Twin is one of those artists, with an origin story similar to Prince's.  Self taught boy genius spends years honing his craft in relative solitude, apparently oblivious to what his contemporaries are doing, emerges with a fully formed sound that's light years ahead of what others can manage, continues living as a semi-recluse even at the height of their fame, hidden behind masks and head scratching aliases.  All the while they record prolifically and amass a catalogue of music (including god knows how many unreleased albums) that takes decades to fully sift through.

At some point the artist has no choice but to perpetuate the myth because so much of their identity is wrapped up in it.  Aphex Twin had collaborators in the early days.  He was influenced by plenty of artists that he wouldn't admit to in interviews during the 90's.  After enough time has passed they sometimes let their guard down.  If you're lucky, the stuff that was too good to be true remains true (Aphex did buy that tank in the 90's and IIRC, he still has it).

Will the real story of the famously private Prince ever be known?  Will anybody dominate a decade the way he did in the 80's, as arguably the top multi-instrumentalist, producer, writer, and performer? Today, the likes of Max Martin or Pharrell can claim maybe two or those four.   Even Prince's tossed off junk -- such as "Nothing Compares 2 U", written for The Family but never released as a single -- became mega-hits in the hands of other artists.

It's a shocking, far too sudden loss for the music world.  "He will be missed" can't even begin to cover it.  Like him or not, Prince is irreplaceable, and we'll never see the likes of him again.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Animal Collective, "Painting With"

Mike Powell's review of "Painting With" for Pitchfork was a gut punch read for me.  It's the rare review that hit home not only as a vivid description of the music contained within, but as a personal memoir told through dissipated fandom.  For about three years, from 2005-2008, I may have listened to Animal Collective more than any other band.  Was that really a decade ago?  It already seems like it was a thousand years ago.

This story doesn't have a sad ending.  There's nothing wrong with "Painting With" -- it's fun, bright, giddy, and bursting with unconventionally creative hooks.  But something is missing.  It doesn't move me in the least.  The same was true of their last album, "Centipede Hz".  Listen, it's no big deal, like Powell says, "fifteen years is longer than most bands last, let alone great ones".  Animal Collective will be fine with their side projects and third from the top festival appearances for the foreseeable future.  But they'll never be the era-defining band they threatened to be several years ago.

Then again, as I showed four years ago, the unexpected success of "Merriweather Post Pavillion" was an outlier that comes along maybe once every couple of decades.  The likely fallout from that type of flukey success wasn't clear to me then, but in hindsight it couldn't be more obvious.  Great bands often need a few albums to work out their M.O., and fans need time to grow into their favourite bands.  After approximately 4-6 years and 3-5 albums, it all peaks.  In the Animal Collective timeline, the hardcore fans had already become disillusioned with what the band had become.  The newer fans saw them as just another media driven fad, a view that was reinforced when the hardcore fan base became bored and started imploding.  By the end of 2009, MPP might have been the default top album of the year in many polls, but the writing was already on the wall.  Listeners were way oversaturated with all things Animal Collective, and no group of fans had much motivation for carrying the torch through to the next album for the reasons I described.  

Monday, April 11, 2016

The NYT can't be bothered with Coachella this year



-- Happenings at the most successful music festivals in the country apparently don't count as "news" anymore.
-- Bonaroo and Coachella and their like are social events, not musical events, and therefore aren't worth a music critic's time.  
-- "Instead of covering the biggest festivals reflexively, we'll cover a number of smaller festivals with purpose" is the snobbiest sentence of music "criticism" you'll read this year.

Imagine if journalists in other fields were this aloof?  The Superbowl has become so successful that it is no longer special.  It's not even about football, it's a social event that revolves around prop bets, TV ad campaigns, and a glitzy, jingoistic halftime show.  Instead of covering the Superbowl, we'll cover a number of high school football games with a purpose.  In the best interests of football, of course.  We love the game more than anyone!

I guess this is what happens when almost all the other daily papers have died off.  Once the competition has gone out of business and there's nobody else around to cover the real news, you get to decide for yourself what counts as newsworthy.  Narrative has replaced news, you say?  Whatchu gonna do about it?  Compete with us?  

It's not about gaining a better understanding of an artist or contextualizing a subculture, obviously a live report from a festival isn't the best way to do that.  But writing about music isn't, and shouldn't be a continual search for a greater meaning to the art form.  In 1995, Jarvis Cocker sang "is this the way they say the future's meant to feel?  Or just twenty thousand people standing in a field?"  Pulp knew that most of the time, it's the latter, no more and no less.  And that's OK.

Musicians are more dependent than ever before on building a loyal fanbase that will support their art through regular touring.  The steady income provided by the festival circuit is a key cog in the economic engine that lets successful acts continue to be successful and to keep making great music.  It's a shame that the NYT no longer finds that compelling.