Saturday, August 30, 2008

Roll it. Roll the list

Live - Big Star

On record, Big Star sounds superhuman. By that I don't mean that their albums are godlike, beyond reproach or the best I've ever heard. As a matter of fact, all three of those studio albums, #1 Record, Radio City and Third/Sister Lovers remain difficult nuts to crack for me on a musical and intellectual level, by merit of the fact that the songwriting is so chunky, the sound so super-compressed - like a cartoonish magnification of the aural aesthetic of the band's heroes, the Beatles and the Byrds - and the lyrics so hyper-self-aware (we can say meta-something here) of their pop mission (meta-pop). And then there's the name of the band and their first two albums: did they think that by putting the idea in the public's head that they were superstars selling millions of records (which was, in fact, their true aspiration) they could make it real? This technique of manipulative projection is, of course, more often used (and more successful) in fascism, but what is pop if not fascist in the first place?

Big Star flopped. Were they simply not meant to be the ubermensch?

Big Star failed because they wanted it too bad. Every move they made was the recorded equivalent of the high school scholar who dresses overtly sharp in a manner that recalls the last decade but won't be popular again for another 5 years, says all the right things in the most affected manner, and devotes his life to an act to win over the prom queen - who he's calling a couple times a day. Good looking and intelligent, yes, but also very creepy and awkward.

Ah, but this is all conjecture, bullshit and clunky metaphor. My point is that Big Star were the perfect pop band who were too perfect. And I really like their records - but something has always made me keep my distance from them, be it the questionable emotionalism, the heart-on-the-sleeve thirst for success, or the almost alien sound all three of the albums generate.

But Live is the first album from this band I feel like I can actually love. For the injection of what Zappa would have called the "human element." The band, removed from the cozy surroundings of Ardent Studios (where they recorded all their albums - even the reunion record In Space) and thrust into an OK-sounding radio studio on Long Island, have to sell their music with actual charisma and passion, rather than perfectly crafted studio performances. Hence, I was won over within the first 30 seconds of track 1, "September Gurls," a performance in which guitarist Alex Chilton sounds close to some kind of breaking point, his voice often straddling the line between belting and screaming the song's ultra-poignant, yet intentionally enigmatic, lyrics. But the two to the one-two punch of the set is drummer Jody Stephens' vocals on Andy Hummel's "Way Out West," taking the song's elegant baroque pop to a new level of emotional depth with the naivete of his delivery from behind the kit.

OK, but did I like this album because Chilton and Stephens don't sing as well as they do in the studio? Don't be silly. The band's performances throughout are absolutely stellar - it makes you wish there were more albums like this floating around. Stephens shows himself to be one of the best drummers of his day, a cross between the Detroit snap of Scott Asheton and the caveman funk of John Bonham. And Chilton's bizarre is-it-rhythm-is-it-lead guitar work is more properly recognized when not covered in layers of studio glaze. Here, Big Star sounds more like a precursor to the multi-faceted guitar rock of Dinosaur Jr and Richard Hell (who listed this album in his top-10 on Perfect Sound Forever (which is why I bought this album)) than to the META-POP of the Posies or Teenage Fanclub. Put into this context, I found myself finally understanding why people (the critics/other bands) love "Mod Lang," "Back of a Car" or especially, "O My Soul," which receives an absolutely manic reading here. Furthermore, the "acoustic set" that divides the full-band sets in two is shockingly enjoyable - a rarity, at least for me.

Is it that I like to hear vulnerability in performers? Perhaps. I do love lo-fi, which is essentially about the vulnerability of the medium and the potential destruction of the art behind it. But it's a different story here: a band that has always relied on the studio to carry them through, just like their 60s Anglopop heroes, suddenly forced at gunpoint to play like a motherfucking band, and they sound great, but they also sound scared and adrenaline-fueled and vulnerable. Thus, perfect pop meets humanity and a great record is born. Or whatever.

In short, I would recommend this album to anyone on the fence about Big Star. Rather than the album being a supplement to the supposedly greater studio albums (like it says in the condescending liner notes), I think this would be a great introduction to the band before getting into the more intimidating - to say the least - polished work from this frustrating band.

And if you want to feel more frustrated about Big Star and you already know the scoop, check out this overwhelmingly indifferent interview with Alex Chilton, the band's primary singer/songwriter.

I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass - Yo La Tengo

Another critic's band. Literally. Ira Kaplan was a rock critic. But couldn't you tell? Were the encyclopedic WFMU cover shows not a big enough indicator?

I think this album's OK. I could live in the hooks of "Beanbag Chair," a song so good it puts a plus at the end of the B grade the record more or less deserves. Friends I know that went to the Fillmore shows the band put on around the time of the release of this album generally gave it the thumbs-down, by merit of the fact they basically just played this album.

OK, I literally slept on this review. I don't feel I can accurately judge this album yet. I gave it one full listen at work and I thought that some of it was really good, but the two songs that have grabbed me so far, the aforementioned "Beanbag Chair" and another Ira-sung piano number, "Mr. Tough," only did so after a second, more attentive listen. If you know Yo La Tengo, you know they can straddle all these genres and Ira plays crazy guitar and they're all talented songwriters and blah blah blah. It's not worth restating, so I'll come back to this album when I feel I have a strong opinion about it. Whenever that is.

Music Tapes for Clouds and Tornadoes - The Music Tapes

The Music Tapes are the one Elephant 6 band you've probably never heard of, despite the fact that every member of Neutral Milk Hotel appears on their debut album and they are lead by onesuch Milker, space-cadet multi-instrumentalist Julian Koster. Koster used to lead Chocolate USA, an early 90s Bar/None band that I've never heard but supposedly were quite good, before becoming the go-to guy for freaky noises in Elephant 6; his specialty is the singing saw. He's the guy in all those fuzzy videos of Bottom of the Hill footage playing keyboards with his nose or bowing, plucking or strumming some archaic stringed instrument.

As far as I can tell, the Tapes' first album, 1999's 1st Symphony for Nomad was a total flop, not that anyone around the project could have expected it to be a smashing success. That album was ridiculously overblown stitched together lo-fi noise that sounded like it had been dubbed BACK onto a Fostex 4-track after the mastering was done....which is not to say Koster didn't have some great songs anyway - notably the horn-laced indie-funk groove "What The Single Made The Needle Sing...,"the nauseous, looping suite "Song for the Death of Parents," and the They Might Be Giants-like "An Orchestration's Overture." But the album is so impossible to take on in one serving, with the overwhelming murk of competing sound effects, samples, bizarre sounds like an acid trip where the world becomes tinted gray.

But I'm not sure songs are the point in the Music Tapes. In the case of Koster's work with the group, the focus IS the media, the fact that he records on wire recorders, record lathes, broken down reel-to-reels and hand-held cassette recorders, and the fact that he owns a 7-foot metronome (which appears on the new record, but don't ask me where).

Even at that, I feel like I'm missing the point. The songs on Clouds and Tornadoes range from pretty good to slightly monotonous or just kind of uninventive, but Koster always seems to be ranting on about some childlike theme that I'm simply not attuned to. Why does this guy care so much? It really sounds like he cares about something I can't tap into and I'm constantly missing his message. You can't blame me for that half the time, the intentionally primitive nature of the recording often obscuring important pre-reqs for understanding lyrics like intelligibility, sibilance, etc.

I think the problem is that Music Tapes albums (all two of them, although I do own a bootleg copy of the unreleased middle album, an hour-long narrated suite) are trying to accomplish that I either I can't understand because I'm not on Koster's wavelength, or I don't care about because I don't feel like delving further. I think that this new album IS good, even though I think I prefer (!) Nomad for its overblown scope and hookier songwriting. Clouds can be commended for a wonderful, warm feel that envelops the song fragments and lends cohesiveness to the project, but it's still not quite the greatness that I sense Koster is truly capable of. I'll keep watching him anyway. Maybe in the next ten years...

Live at Max's Kansas City - the Velvet Underground

Do I listen to any non-critically acclaimed-lo-fi-diamond-in-the-rough music?

I don't really want to review this that much, especially since I said a lot of things about Lou Reed a month ago that I felt covered those bases pretty well. I listen to a lot of Lou and share special bonds with people over talking about him. And he is definitely the star of the show on this album, being really cute with the audience, giving vocal performances that blow the "he can't sing" argument out the window (barring him talking the last three verses of "Pale Blue Eyes"... oh well) and the he quits the band after the CD ends. Fin - until 1993, but that's another story...

Billy Yule was on OK drummer but he was 17 years old and he drums like it.

I listen to these songs a lot lately:
"Meanwhile Rick James..." - Cake
"Slug Song" - the Clean
"She's My Girl" - Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffitti
"California Gold," "Sweet Baby" - Retarded Muppit Farm
"Animals" - Gangi

and they're all great.

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