Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Game 7 - Blonde on Blonde vs. Pet Sounds

Ed Note:
It's truly a shame that one of these colossally great albums has to knock the other one out here in the first round as I think holding one of them up against something more modern like Pavement would be a truly fun exercise in musical analysis. But alas, the bracketologists* supervising this process chose not to fulfill the promise of these potential cross-genre dream matchups. At the same time however, my strong sentimental connections to both of these albums means that it's probably a very good thing to get at least one of them out early so as to avoid any more obnoxious waxing of pseudo-philosophical "what this album means to me" bullshit. That having been said, I DO have very strong sentimental connections to these albums that you'll have to read about now so how bout everyone just deal with it for a moment!? OKAY? OKAY? okay.

I remember specifically the moment that I first began to appreciate the unconventional indie-pop sound that currently dominates my musical listening preferences. Sitting at my grandma's in Martinsville, VA on a Sunday afternoon**, my uncle started to sing what was clearly the most ridiculous set of lyrics I had heard in my entire life: "Now your dancing child with his Chinese suit, he spoke to me, I took his flute, no I wasn't very cute to him, was I?" Despite or maybe because of the bizarre sense of humor the 7th grade version of me*** found in such a ridiculous set of lyrics, I instantly fell in love with this song in a pop context before I'd even heard Dylan's even funnier and more ironic take. My ability to appreciate this is even more remarkable when you consider that Marilyn Manson's cover of Sweet Dreams and Silverchair's Frogstomp were in HEAVY rotation in my sweet Sanyo boom box with a Nine Inch Nails and Perot 1992 sticker on it.**** When I finally DID get a chance to listen to Dylan's version, I was even more hooked on not only the song but on everything the album brought to the table. From the rollicking fare-thee-well country stomp of "Most Likely You Go Your Way and I'll Go Mine" to the mournful "ohhhh mamas" of "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again" Blonde on Blonde takes its listeners on a Willy Wonka-esque boat ride through the canal of Dylan's warped sense of humor, insecurities, and past slights (either real or perceived). I've heard suggestions that Highway 61 or Blood on the Tracks represent the truly definitive Dylan album but for shear variety and power, Blonde on Blonde DEFINES Dylan as an artist.

While Blonde on Blonde came to signify this musical turning point for me, Pet Sounds was much less life altering as a whole. Instead its personal significance for me lies simply in its shear auditory beauty. To compare it lyrically to Dylan is to compare Mercer Mayer to Dickens. For poetic significance, just about the best Pet Sounds can muster are the acid fueled musings of an increasingly insane Brian Wilson. So clearly Dylan wins right? Not so fast. Pet Sounds unequivocally contains the BEST vocal harmonies ever captured in studio. To hear the Wilson, Jardin, Love harmonies in "Sloop John B" as the guys riff on the simple words, "home, let me go home" is to hear the pinnacle of pop vocals. "God Only Knows" is so simple and sweet and perfect a love song that to NOT have it prominently played at a wedding is simply tragic. "Wouldn't it Be Nice" is among that very rare breed of teen love songs that actually gets it right... and by it I mean everything.

To be honest, at the beginning of this (as is evidenced by the seeding) I assumed that Blonde on Blonde simply meant too much to me to lose this one. But after dedicating hours to each album over the past couple days I found myself moved all over again by just how great Pet Sounds sounds. The simple beauty of Pet Sounds is just barely more evocative than the lyrical significance of Blonde on Blonde. Discovering this was quite refreshing to me in that it was a pure reminder of the power of simple beauty.

The final match up of round one will pit The Replacements' Let it Be vs. Nirvana's In Utero.

**face packed to the gills with chicken tenders no doubt
*** just a HORRIBLE human being this 7th grade me.
**** like I said... a HORRIBLE human being.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Game 6 - Exile on Main St. vs. Revolver

I really really hate having the Beatles vs. Stones argument. First of all, as a whole there really is no argument to be had. In terms of aggregate greatness, one need only point to Voodoo Lounge and its putridly bizarre single "Love is Strong" to end the discussion.* The Beatles win simply because they never whiffed... even at their worst (Yellow Submarine) they were better than everyone else.

The argument gets a little more complicated however when you look at specific individual efforts from the Stones. Exile on Main Street is one of those efforts. Eighteen tracks of pure unadulterated killer with absolutely no filler. While hanging out in the French Riviera, snorting Tony Montana-esque piles of coke and banging European supermodels the Stones essentially invented alt-country while simultaneously setting the bar for rock music so high that no one even sniffed it** until the Ramones came around years later. The Keith Richards riffs on tracks like "Tumbling Dice" and "All Down the Line"*** exceed all but George Harrison's absolute best work with the Beatles (see below description of Harrison's best riffs), not to mention the fact that Richards plays with much larger cajones than Harrison. You can hear rock's future in his work... in each Richards lick you hear from artists running the gamut from Slash to Jack White.

The only problem with crowning the Stones' asses here is that Revolver is SUCH a monolithic force in the pop music canon. Ignoring the music entirely, the album is an incredible TECHNOLOGICAL achievement due to the production work alone. I think the music can best be explained by the fact that I had considered writing the following sentence but quickly thought better of it: "People just didn't do songs like Eleanor Rigby in 1966." I decided against this however when I realized that I could put literally any of the album's 14 songs into that sentence and it would still be unassailable. Revolver is just so much MORE than anything else of its time. You could argue that between Taxman, Tomorrow Never Knows, and And Your Bird Can Sing the boys from Liverpool invent punk, indie rock****, and power pop.

So how does one decide? Conveniently enough, I'm teaching the Renaissance right now in my history classes and as I plotted out this post I was reminded of a particular chunk of the curriculum. One thing that they learn is the idea of a "Renaissance Man" as someone who has talents in many areas. This image of course comes to embody the Renaissance spirit and sets the stage for centuries of creative genius. That having been said, Exile on Main Street is perhaps the best album ever at the one thing that the Stones were trying to do but Revolver is everything all the time. The sound and lyrics are profound in a way that no matter who your favorite band is you can hear them somewhere on this album... the sound is almost democratic. Not being one to buck democratic principles, I'll give the nod in this contest to Revolver by the thinnest of margins.

Revolver will take on Rubber Soul in Round 2. Next up, Blonde on Blonde vs. Pet Sounds

*Oddly, I remember MTV having a MASSIVE, overhyped rollout for the equally strange video for this song which, for those of you who have blocked it from your memory, constituted the band as giants walking around New York performing the song^.
^Strange 90s phenomenon: The absurdly expensive music video featuring outlandish special effects that cost millions of dollars back in the day but now would only cost like 8 bucks and a four pack of Red Bull in the hands of an adolescent computer geek. Other videos of this nature: 1. Black or White, Michael Jackson 2. Notorious B.I.G - Hypnotize 3. Hammer - 2 Legit 2 Quit 4. Missy Eliot - The Rain. Really anything with either Sean Combs or Hype Williams name attached to it works here.

** Not a reference to the aforementioned piles of Coke

*** My personal favorite... somehow he makes his guitar sound like a purring lioness.... this just blows off the top of my head

**** Tomorrow Never Knows sounds more like an Animal Collective songs than lots of Animal Collective songs

Friday, April 10, 2009

Game 5 - Rubber Soul vs. Part One Lola v. Powerman and the Moneyground

Despite the fact that I am far from a "critic" of music I'm going to throw out a quick opinion on music criticism... it is incredibly difficult to assail the Beatles for anything. They're so adored by so many people* that the only critical debates that really work with the boys from Liverpool are those covering intraband questions. What's their greatest album**? What's their greatest song***? Who was the superior talent John or Paul****? All of these have been debated ad nauseum and anyone that's any kind of music fan has some kind of opinion. Debates you don't hear very often though are those comparing the work of the Beatles to other bands... be they contemporaries or current acts. Sure every once in awhile you get the random skinny jean wearing hipster who'll pull that, "The Stones were so much better" bullshit ( or even better the skinny jean wearing hipster who'll argue for the Beach Boys) but aside from these brief flare ups of dissent it seems as though the Beatles status as THE band is as safe as Jordan's status as THE greatest basketball player of all time or Gretzky's status as THE greatest hockey player of all time. So at least for me, looking at them in a critical light is very difficult. Is my regard for the Beatles such that to scour the nooks and crannies of Rubber Soul in a truly impartial light impossible? Has the nearly universal acceptance of the Beatles colored my impressions of them to the point that I'm blind to any possible imperfection that they might demonstrate? Well, maybe; but that doesn't mean that Rubber Soul isn't a perfect album.

One thing that is reassuring about by abilities to access the Beatles is that no matter how many other bands I devour I have never encountered a band that brought together all the pieces that one needs to make great music in the way that the Beatles did. At their best^ the properly canonized lyrical work of Lennon/McCartney and the underrated lyrical work of Harrison morphed into an entirely different state of music being under the production of George Martin. I think sometimes it's easy for modern Beatles listeners to forget that they were doing these incredible SOUNDING tracks on equipment that we would probably laugh at today. To get "Norwegian Wood" to sound as amazing as it does nowadays would be worthy of praise but to have done so on a 4 track analog recorder is mind boggling. So in this British invasion contest they are the clear winners and it really isn't that close.

That is not to say however that the Kinks are in any way not deserving of plaudits. Part One Lola v. Powerman and the Moneyground created an entirely different musical aesthetic for its time and still sounds fresh today. In fact, even including them as a "British Invasion" band is quite unfair because they did not have that canned, "let's sound as cockney as is humanly possible" vibe about them. On this 1970 classic, their mix of rootsy Byrds-esque rock (Check out "Got to Be Free") with the rock the back of the arena stylings of The Who (with drummer Mick Avory channeling Keith Moon on "Rats") comes across more like Dylan on meth than more stock British Invasion fare like the Zombies. Even the ballads like "Strangers" have an underlying aggression that is unmistakable and really cool. The only beef I have with the album is with its biggest hit "Lola," which while great has a tempering effect on the power that the rest of the album packs with its humor. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for a song about an encounter with a transvestite, but maybe put it out as a 7" and let the cohesion that exists between the 12 other tracks speak for itself.

So as I mentioned already this match up isn't that close. Rubber Soul is simply too important in the history of music and just TOO perfect to have any real trouble dispatching what is STILL without a doubt a groundbreaking and significant effort by The Kinks.

Rubber Soul will face the winner of Exile on Main Street and Revolver in Round 2

* I'm not taking issue with this at all
** Rubber Soul
*** In My Life or maybe A Day in the Life
**** John
^ Which was ALMOST always#
# Let it Be and Yellow Submarine, I'm looking at you

Friday, April 3, 2009

Game 4 - The Clash vs. New Day Rising

So clearly I'm an unabashed Clash homer but I really couldn't help it. This was the album that introduced me to the slightly more than meets the eye punk sound of the Clash and without my love for it I would never have made the leap to the mind altering greatness that is London Calling. Much like Nirvana's Nevermind I will always hold a special place in my musical heart for the self-titled debut from England's second greatest rock band because it was my introduction to an entire world of possibility... sort of like getting that first glimpse of the cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition before your parents magically make it disappear. Even though you aren't sure exactly what's behind it, you've seen enough to know that you are definitely going to like whatever's there. Here's the thing about that though... eventually the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition loses its luster. Sure you flip through it when it comes in the mail but the only strong feelings it provokes are those of nostalgia for the days when it WAS a big deal. Essentially, it's a throwback... a relic... like seeing a really great cover band that is fun because hey, they're playing Hey Jealousy but it's still far from life altering. That's the feeling I get now when listening to albums like Nevermind. They've become more about what they WERE than what they ARE and while The Clash isn't quite in that place for me, this exercise in bracketology has made me at least wonder if it's closer than I had originally thought.

Husker Du's New Day Rising completely defies explanation. I will readily admit that upon first listen, I was bothered by the lo-fi fuzz of the guitar and Bob Mould's oddly grating voice. Over time though, I began to notice the nuance of the way the lo-fi fuzziness of the guitars allowed the melody to come through in a way that punk/hardcore/whatever you want to call it hadn't quite achieved before. Mould's voice began to sound less grating and more an upgrade on Minor Threat/Fugazi singer Ian McKaye's tortured howl. The choruses of songs like, "Girl Who Lives on Heaven Hill" became more anthemic and before I knew it, I couldn't stop listening. Husker Du was combining everything that I secretly enjoyed about pop punk with all the things I openly enjoyed about hardcore. The music here isn't static though. Like a punk rock singularity, within a track like, "I Apologize" you can hear punk past, present, and future. You can hear the Stooges, the Sex Pistols, Green Day, and some 14 year old kids fucking around with a Squire Stratocaster in a basement.

So while it feels like I'm turning my back on something that was KEY to my development as a music fan* I have to give the nod in this matchup to Husker Du. The Clash is a snapshot of where I was as an impressionable music listener and was the doorway to something much bigger. But New Day Rising is amorphous... each time I hear is like the first time I'm hearing it and it's tough to improve on that.

New Day Rising will face London Calling in Round 2.

*I even remember buying this album in the $9.99 bin at Plan 9 in Carytown on one of Movie's "I knoooooow Cary St." road trips, while Goodwin sniped something to the effect of, "Oh you're buying another CD...okay"

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Game 3 - London Calling vs. The Chronic

Those of you who have heard me talk about London Calling in the past know that the odds are stacked against The Chronic here as giving Dr. Dre this matchup in Round 1 is like Radford pulling the Tarheels in Greensboro in this year's tournament. Joe, Mick and Co. really trot out a murderer's row of standouts on London Calling... all of which would make brilliant BEST songs on any decent album. So let's go ahead and give love to the the favorites in both the Mens' NCAA Tourney by comparing them to the favorite in America's second favorite tournament*, the Top 30 or So bracket

"London Calling" --> Tyler Hansbrough - The gritty, gutty, face of the team here. Because it seems like he has been at UNC for a Ron Pawlus-esque 15 years or so it's recently become easy for me to forget about what this guy does for his team just like I find myself oddly forgetting how much I love this song in spite of its title track status.

"Rudie Can't Fail" --> Ty Lawson - Just as Lawson is incredibly fun to watch and the cog in the machine that seems to make everything work at its best for the Heels, Rudie Can't Fail is the song you would tell someone who hasn't heard this album to listen to first. It's fun, relentlessly catchy, and brings together the punk energy of their earlier efforts with the ska and reggae influences that are all over London Calling

"Spanish Bombs" --> Ed Davis - Every time I see this guy in the game, I'm blown away at just how different he is than other college basketball players I've seen. The Richmond product might already be the best inside defender in the ACC after only one year and while the Heels aren't necessarily going to ride this guy to a title, when he's in the game you can count on him doing something that no one else on the court can do. Spanish Bombs pulls off this trick with great aplomb by being that one track on the album that fits into the arc of the album only in the fact that it doesn't fit at all and with its bilingual vocals and its pummeling staccato arrangement it is a truly unique bit of musicianship.

"Train in Vain" --> Tyler Zeller - This song is perhaps the single most recognizable by the masses on the album but I don't know that anyone instantly thinks of this song when they think of London Calling which always leads to a "wait a second... THAT song is on the album too? SWEET!" This is exactly the feeling I get when I realize that as good as Carolina has been this year they've done it all without a great deal of contribution from Zeller, one of the top recruits in the nation.

"Hateful" --> Bobby Frasor - Being lined up near Rudie Can't Fail on the track list of the 17 song epic is almost unfair; add to this the fact that the two are similar stylistically and it's easy to hate on Hateful. Just as comparing all-world athlete and playmaker Ty Lawson to second unit floor general Frasor really diminishes the fact that Frasor (as was evidenced in the first two rounds of the tourney) is more than capable of doing some fine work on the court.

So how is The Chronic supposed to step to this? Simply put... it's not. The Chronic has its own murderer's row** of tracks including perhaps three of the 10 greatest raps of the 90s in the form of Nuthin but a G Thang, Let Me Ride, and Fuck Wit Dre Day but that line up as well as spotty depth (seriously there are a few tracks that are completely skippable) and too many skits*** make this contest a rout... Just as Radford put together a great season in the Big South, Dre put together a great gangsta rap album and that's certainly achievement but gangsta rap doesn't even touch the pinnacle of 70s punk success just like the Big South ain't the ACC.

*NOT the All Valley Karate Tournament

** seriously I think they actually ARE murderers

***is there ANYTHING more repugnant than the rap album skit?