Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Let it Be vs. Pet Sounds

In the lead up to this hotly contested match up I found myself listening over and over to two slightly less than completely relevant songs. The first is the Justin Townes Earle's (Steve Earle's son) rendition of the Replacements' "Can't Hardly Wait"*; a song that doesn't even appear on Let it Be. The second is a radically rearranged Oldham Brothers version of the Beach Boys' "Wouldn't it Be Nice" that replaces the perfect harmonies of the original with the Oldham's distinctly imperfect rasp.

As I was listening, I found myself pondering the art of the cover song**. Now, I must admit that I REALLY love covers and at times have been guilty of enjoying even the most atrocious of their ilk. This list includes but is by no means limited to most New Found Glory covers***, Sun Kil Moon's Tiny Cities which is composed entirely of Modest Mouse covers.

At their best, cover songs give you a glimpse into the true inner workings of the ORIGINAL version of a song by allowing you to gaze upon it from a different angle. A good cover is sort of like Monet's series of sunrise impressions in that they give you a completely different and enlightening snapshot of the way in which someone else hears a song in the moment. The Hold Steady's "Atlantic City" which has become as close to a staple on my iPod recently as anything else is a classic example of this. Craig Finn and the rest of the band reimagine Springsteen's bleak Nebraska masterpiece in a way that allows the listener to experience elements of the original that they would never have experienced otherwise. This not only makes the cover great but it injects the original with new life.

In listening to the two covers that I mentioned to kick off this lengthy digression from the original topic of this post, I feel like I learned more about the original artists. I learned that the reach of the Replacements is perhaps the most underratedly tremendous of any seminal American rock band. You can hear those guys in everything from Soundgarden to the Gin Blossoms and they are worthy of mad respect for that because they continue to influence bands that aren't even aware they're being influenced by Westerberg, Stinson, and Co. I also learned that at his best, Brian Wilson wrote songs that were just better than everything else and for all his insanity and multi-tracked orchestration, he also appreciated the beauty of simplicity... his pen brought a newfound sweetness and originality to topics as banal as teen romance and the beach. Having said that, the nod in this matchup goes to Pet Sounds... it might not have influenced rock music in the way that the Replacements did on Let it Be but everything it DOES do is just too powerful to ignore.

*I found this and TONS others at the Live Music Archive which has literally thousands of free and legal sets from acts ranging from Animal Collective to Yonder Mt. String Band... obviously it's a bit jam bandy but there's still a lot to like here
**This entire post will be a digression... be warned.
*** Particularly their admittedly terrible version of Peter Cetera's "Glory of Love" from the Goonies Soundtrack

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

In the Aeroplane Over the Sea vs. Daydream Nation

Seeing as how I've already described what it is I love about the albums that have made it into round 2, the posts here are going to generally be a bit shorter and are going to have as their focus the relative merits of each album. It's of course very difficult to criticize any of the contenders here because they not only made my first list but have already been deemed BETTER than other really amazing pieces of musical art so there won't be much of that going on either. All that having been said (typed?) the victor in this particular contest is actually quite clear. Regardless, I'm going to try to riff for awhile so bear with me.

For those of you that read this and don't know me well, let me go ahead and put this out there... I'm a man of inaction. Crippling inaction. I'm a wuss, a woman, a fuck up. All of the above. These things have either made me the neurotic, hand wringing, wallflower that those who know me can count on to do nothing OR are because of the fact that I'm a neurotic, hand wringing, wallflower. However you want to look at it, that's , in the immortal words of DMX, "Who I be."

Now for just a moment, allow me to defend this reprehensible and foolish behavior. Sure you're costing yourself big time in the whole "potential for future happiness" department BUT you're also preserving some pretty great moments in time. By NOT acting, the person or goal that is the object of your affection essentially firms up its status as the perfect dream. Forevermore that person upon which you did not hit* will be that perfect specimen that you drunkenly spotted while perched on a bar stool or that awesome girl that you talked to at that one party who really liked the new TV on the Radio album... she won't become that person who rejected you, or that girl who actually turned away from you and stopped listening to your game midsentence. That crazy dream job STAYS a dream job because you never get a chance to realize that it's a bigger pain in the ass than you ever knew. The dream STAYS, in essence, pure and perfect because it is so fleeting that you don't have time to fuck it up. Keep in mind of course that in practice this stuff is OBVIOUSLY ridiculous and I wouldn't actually suggest this type of behavior to anyone... ever.

Now here's the connection...

Conceptually, this is WHY In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is better than Daydream Nation. Sonic Youth have been so prolific compared with the hermit-like Jeff Mangum and his two album tenured vehicle Neutral Milk Hotel. When I listen to Daydream Nation, as amazing as it is, I still hear the missteps of their later efforts. I hear the fact that a lot of the things they do sound the same. Standing on its own, in a vacuum, Daydream Nation might feel even more brilliant than it already does but the fact of the matter is it doesn't stand on its own. Aside from the slightly uneven debut Avery Island, all we have from Jeff Mangum and Neutral Milk Hotel is In the Aeroplane Over the Sea so in essence it DOES stand on its own... we can assume that the progression from debut to sophomore effort is such that it would continue in perpetuity. This is a virtue that only those that go out on top possess and it's one that's hard to deny. The only thing that mitigates the greatness is that it is so fleeting and who knows? Maybe the world REALLY IS missing out on some life altering music because of Mangum's self imposed hiatus? But can't it be enough as it is? Isn't that brief perfection better than even long term greatness? I think so.

Neutral Milk Hotel will face off against the winner of Let it Be and Pet Sounds in the Final Four

*My 11th grade English teacher would be so proud of my refusal to bend the rules of grammar.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Second Round Hype

In the spirit of overhyped contests like the Kentucky Derby* and the Superbowl** I'm going to make my adoring readers wait a little while for Round 2 of the Greatest Bracket the World has Ever Known or The Top 30 or So Favorite Album Bracket whatever you're calling it these days by giving you a preliminary, "Albums I've Really Enjoyed in 2009 so Far" List (in no particular order).

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart by The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
an eminently enjoyable example of how you can make fuzzed out, shoegazey guitars poppy. They sound like The Jesus and Mary Chain on Prozac.

Middle Cyclone by Neko Case
You hear that pinging sound? It's this album chipping away at my musical misogyny. Also I would marry Neko Case... seriously, like right now. The snarky and at times bleak lyrics contrast wonderfully with the radio friendly instrumentation and harmonies generated by Case and her helpers.

Dark Was the Knight by Various Artists
I need more compilations like this in my life. This collection is absolutely littered with awesome B Sides and some never before released material from some of the best acts in music. Not even one weak link on a massive collection. Standouts include the Dave Sitek (TV on the Radio) dirge With a Girl Like You that melds Motown horns with the drone of Joy Division and wait is that the melody to Up on the Roof by the Drifters that I'm hearing?

The Foundation by Zac Brown Band
Country as it was intended. While I don't listen to a lot of new country because I don't really like much of it, it's not all that tough to make a country album that I'm willing to listen to. Write accessible songs about normal stuff like drinking, smoking weed, and girls and lay off the OTHER stale country platitudes like bull roping and suppressing your deep seated homosexuality*** And for real, if you don't like "Chicken Fried," someone should check you for a pulse

Hazards of Love by the Decemberists
By no means perfect, but it's hard to not to respect how Colin Melloy and the nerdiest band in music go for prog-rock glory in their 17 track rock opera. At best, ("The Rake's Song," "A Bower Scene") it stacks up well with anything off of their previous efforts. At worst, the tracks are endearing in their presentation of the completely over the top narrative.

Why There are Mountains by Cymbals Eat Guitars
Remember when all the Power Rangers would come together and form the one big robot? That's kind of what happens hear, only imagine if every Saddle Creek band formed one big robot torso on top of Pavement and Spoon. Derivative? Yes. Do I care? No.

Grand by Matt and Kim
Just so good. I'm still at a level where I can't talk about how much I enjoy this duo rationally. Imagine the White Stripes if they didn't take themselves seriously and traded Jack White's guitar shredding for A-Ha's synthesizer. Props to GMart for introducing me to them

Welcome to Mali by Amadou and Mariam
Blind couple from Mali make the only world music I've cared about since the Buena Vista Social Club. They're not just playing old school tribal shit though. They're crossing genres with producers like Damon Albarn to make something totally new and incredible. Check out the track "Sabali" then sample it on your DJ Green Lantern mixtape because it's absolutely begging for it.

* 1 minute of pseudo-excitement preceded by 5 hours of stories that basically amount to, "Aren't horsies cute?" and "Horsies cure cancer."

**to the point where I saw a lot of Superbowl coverage this season that was based around the the theme of, "There's too much Superbowl coverage"

*** oh wait, that's just Kenny Chesney

Monday, May 4, 2009

Game 8 - Let it Be (The Replacements) vs. In Utero

In his book Killing Yourself to Live, Chuck Klosterman writes about the fact that all males at some point or another in their adolescence will go through a Led Zeppelin phase where no matter what they were into before or what they will be into later in life for a few months or so, NOTHING will be cooler to them than Zeppelin. I think it's safe to say that almost all of the male readers of this blog had a Zeppelin phase. For me, it centered around the aforementioned uncle from the Blonde on Blonde vs. Pet Sounds post loaning me a cassette copy of II at around the same time that I included Zoso in a Columbia House 8 CDs for a penny order. After listening to the guitar solo of "Whole Lotta Love" approximately 490098097 times, wearing out the bass line for Misty Mountain Hop, and renting a beat up copy of The Song Remains the Same from Franks' Video,* I dove HEADFIRST into my phase. Why all this Zeppelin talk in a post that is not actually supposed to be about Zeppelin? Because the era of all teenage males going through a Zeppelin phase is over. What's replaced it? Be prepared to feel old... wait for it... The Nirvana phase.

As someone who spends a good portion of the work week attempting to convince 8th graders that they need to give a damn about history, I think I have a unique perspective on the modern adolescent. Currently, I get WAY more kids rocking out to Nirvana in a lame attempt to get girls by forming an equally lame band than those channeling Page, Plant, Jones, and Bonham. Over time, I've looked back and found that my Zeppelin phase probably gave them much more credit than they actually deserved. Not that they weren't great, but lyrically, most of their work was on the border between barely tolerable and terrible and for all their musical power and talent, most** of their work was basically an exercise in "how loud can we play these recycled blues riffs?" So if Nirvana has become this band 15 years after the death of Cobain, what if anything, does this say about what Nirvana meant to us? I certainly remember a time in my life where I just wasn't interested in hanging out with ANYONE that found Cobain to be anything less than a genius. But does their status as the NEW adolescent dude band suggest, much as it does with Zeppelin, that they're not quite as perfect as we originally thought? I've got bad news for ya... I think so.

In preparation for this post, I found myself having to listen to In Utero a couple times through just to remind myself of the tracklist. This was red flag number one. It's not that the album is bad or that Nirvana wasn't great. On In Utero particularly, you can really hear a more mature band than on Nevermind that was obviously headed in a pretty interesting direction. There's a lot more there than the loud, quiet, loud formula that came to embody the "grunge" sound. This is particularly noticeable on tracks like "Dumb," "All Apologies," and "Pennyroyal Tea" that are strong departures from the formula that worked on Nevermind. Perhaps best of all, the influence of Steve Albini's production gives a raw, garage quality*** to the whole enterprise that is drowned out in the Butch Vig multi-tracking of Nevermind. The only problem though is that for the most part, the songs just don't have that sense of pop timelessness that other albums I've discussed here do. It's almost like Nirvana has become the equivalent of the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. You can drink from it while you're there and bask in its glory but you just can't take it beyond the seal which in this case is high school. But even though they might not be all that useful to more mature music listeners anymore, it doesn't mean that they'll stop being fun and you can certainly take solace in the fact that they will help guide a whole new generation of pimply, girl-less, losers through some fairly difficult years of development.

Needless to say, The Replacements' Let it Be does not fall victim to the same fate. Whether they realize it or not, every rock band since The Replacements that doesn't suck**** owes these guys big time. Throughout the extent of their work, they bridge the gap between punk's raw aggression, pop's polish, and indie rock's willingness to stray from the conventional. Just going from the jangle pop of "I Will Dare" to "Favorite Thing" and its hints of Joy Division style post-punk to the weirdly sweet piano ballad "Androgynous" in Let it Be is far more impressive in terms of depth and profundity than the entire discography of Nirvana, much less one album. Add to this additional standout tracks like "Unsatisfied" and you get what basically amounts to a tour of the direction in which rock music was headed for the foreseeable future.

Let it Be will face off against Pet Sounds in the second round. Our next matchup will see In the Aeroplane over the Sea take on Daydream Nation in the first action of round two.

* If any P-Town Concrete people are reading this, PLEASE give it up for Franks'
** Everything except III and Physical Graffiti
Something that Cobain wanted for his band all along. Seriously, just listen to Grohl's drums in "Frances Farmer Will Have her Revenge on Seattle"
**** and some that do