Saturday, June 27, 2009

I Haven't Abandoned Anybody, Or Cough Up The Bucks

You heard me.

I have been busy at work at a very long, important piece that hopefully will find publication.

In the meantime, enjoy these reviews, mostly written by me while sick. With an introduction I began about two months ago at the job I just quit:

At this point, the idea of me keeping up with my purchases has truly gone out the window. While I've slowed down, there are so many months I basically lost track of at the beginning of this year that every review for a while will be remember as remember can, essentially.

Additionally, look for an "I Was Wrong" post about all kinds of bullshit calls (some made only aloud, some on this blog) I made only to contradict myself thereafter. Soon.

Pleased to Meet Me - The Replacements

The decision to try The Replacements again did not come lightly. I bought Tim my freshman year of college and I liked one song: "Bastards of Young." I still think it's pretty great. I since listened to the album and decided that "Left of the Dial" and "Little Mascara" are OK, too, but I can still do without the rest of the album. The production sucks (thanks for nothin' Tommy Ramone) and the songs just aren't that good. Clich├ęd would be the word. Whether they became so after they were recorded makes no difference to me, I listen to music today, not the fuckin' 80s!

But due to my other listening tastes and the crowd I hang around, I frequently get the question put to me a few times a year: "You really don't like the Replacements?"

Well, fuckin' A. I don't know if they really warrant the comparison with the bands they were featured alongside in Azerrad's still essential, still endlessly readable Our Band Could Be Your Life. I feel like albums such as Sorry Ma and Hootenany ape the styles du jour (bar rock, hardcore, pop ballads) with Midwestern Heart but a lack of Transcendence over these genres. The blame of which has to be lain time and again at Paul "Problem Child" Westerberg's doorstep for not writing songs that were, well, that great. The albums were usually produced really fucking poorly (Sorry Ma just sounds like a bad garage band's demo to me, which it is, and not in a good way) But this year, I had to concede that yes, The Replacements made one Good Album: this one.

The Attraction came with its producer: Mr. Jim Dickinson of Big Star's Third, the-piano-on-the-Stones' "Wild Horses" fame. A gregarious fellow and great interview, he holds this record up in high regard in his, er, corpus. There are indeed a couple fantastic articles about the making of this album that might likewise intrigue you as it did me. Essentially, Dickinson 'n Co pulled the album out of the shambolic band, one engine down following the firing of wildman guitarist Bob Stinson. And even after recording on state-of-the-art equipment, editing vocal tracks into coherent statements and using unorthodox techniques to get the best out the group, you can still hear all kinds of fuckups in the final product. This time I mean this in the most affectionate way possible.

Yes, the production is as slick and sleek as 80s can get, but real soul beats beneath. As do, for once, great songs: "I.O.U." barely repeats a section but is among the most thrilling 3 minutes of real rock the band ever brought forth; "Alex Chilton" should have been a massive hit for the 80s record buying public, an angular, danceable tribute to the Big Star frontman; "Never Mind" and "Valentine" tug the Midwestern Give-It-All-You-Got feel into songs that really standup as anthems. Oh, I could go on. The only weak tune is really "Shooting Dirty Pool" which isn't quite as stupid as the coke innuendo "Dose of Thunder" but comes close. The corny barroom atmosphere sounds almost rescue it, however.

Bottomline: The Replacements were always a great, stupid bar band. Not "indie" or "college" or "edgy" or "punk." They sucked at pretending to be those things. In fact, by all reports, they just kind of sucked in general - perhaps what earned them underground recognition in the first place. The full realization of their true destiny, for me, is found on the so-major-label-sounding-it-hurts Pleased To Meet Me.

Of course, after the sessions, the band started sucking even more and broke up a couple years later. The End.

The Madcap Laughs/Barrett - Syd Barrett
Oh, dear readers. How much I haven't told you.

I think someone shot someone outside my home in the San Francisco Mission. How scary!

Oh, by the way: I moved to San Francisco. But this is all unneccessary.

When I was 20 I used to put on parts of this album that uploaded at the wrong bitrate on my computer. I was in a bad personal situation. Nothing about this album made it better.

In fact, it only amplified the vague, semi-hallucinogenic despair I was often operating under. I would tell people I felt it was "music to drool into a bucket to," a line I lifted from the Butthole Surfers' Paul Leary (he was, regrettably, referring to his own work, not Barrett's).

Let's go back. Go WayBack. Go WayOnWayBackWhen. Mythology is a bitch. It enhances musical experiences just as easily as it denigrates them, making the folklore often equally important to the music. Ian Curtis. Kurt Cobain. Syd Barrett. Tragedies all of great work cut all too short. Is there a soul out there who has listened to Closer without knowing about the lead singer suicide that immediately preceded its release? Raise your hand!

And as a Young Romantic Person it is easy to get swept up in this Bullshit. Ok, they're great stories, but check Tuli Kupferberg, who became a rockstar with the Fugs at age 42: "Better to be a live ogre than a dead saint." Wiser words are seldom spoken.

Consequently, I don't drown myself in pathos thinking about the artists I respect anymore. It's simply not worth it. Or relevant to the music, really. (see my scathing review of Chris Bell's I Am The Cosmos for more on this development)

So it was with a far clearer mind I approached these, the two Syd Barrett solo albums, which I snapped up at Amoeba as a two-fer for a mere $12. Yes, I can't un-learn of Barrett's craziness and the horseshit mythology propogated by his former band (who in my view never really made great records after he left, except for maybe Animals). But I can, as Jr. Critic, continue to approach music on its own merits, always. It didn't hurt that my personal life at the time was more or less tip-top.

Madcap Laughs:
It is my feeling that Pink Floyd bassist Roger Waters (possibly in cahoots with guitarist David Gilmour) sabotaged this album. It is nowhere near coherent, nevermind finished-sounding, and the problem stems from the tracks this dynamic duo, er, "produced."

If you read other producer Malcolm Jones' occasionally enlightening but more often tedious memoir of the sessions, you'll find Waters and Gilmour more or less seized control of the album's production after it seemed to be going well with Jones at the helm. Years later Gilmour would complain about the lack of time EMI gave them to finish the work.

However, this guy - I'm talking about Syd here - was fired from his former band after he demonstrated a song called "Have You Got It Yet?" at practice which intentionally changed melody, key and feel enough times that his long-suffering mates would never be able to "get it." So why in Krishna's name would he feel like delivering good performances for the benefit of musical associates he couldn't get away fast enough from?

So counter-intuitive.

All this aside, this album kicks More's ass all over the street.

And Ummagumma.

And Atom Heart Mother.

Simply put, the Floyd - for years - couldn't write a truly great tune for years after Barrett's departure. There's plenty of amusing shit here and there, but it's so often marred by aimless experimentation and ingenious "innovation" that never really went anywhere.

Which brings me to my thesis: it was out of jealousy and exploitative voyeurism (more on this later) with which Waters left such raw, unpolished performances on the record. Simple.

Oh dear, here I am, creating my own mythology.

The record.

Nothing here is perfect. Barrett was well off in Sydland by the time the earliest track, the beautifully haunting love song "Late Night" was recorded. Backing bands don't know how to follow his guiding rhythm guitar and vocal tracks, especially since he refused to give them the key and often accepted first takes. In truth, Barrett was, intentionally or not, one of the most innovative songwriters of his time, and this is just speaking of his solo work. Impressionistic, he is unafraid to exploit cliches to a demented end, to add extra beats to verses (thus bringing the math rock), to engage readily and often in atonal, jarring chord sequences.

In fact, "rock music" has yet to come to its senses and not just treat this as a freak show but a valid, groundbreaking record. O, only Robyn Hitchcock knows the real story!

Psychedelic messes "No Good Trying" and silly fuck-off "Love You" capture Barrett against the Soft Machine struggling to keep up behind him. "Octopus" is a deteriorated, stream-of-consciousness single that never quite makes it - but validates multiple listens. Then there's the positively chilling "Golden Hair," a Joyce poem set to crystalline, ice-cold backing.

And then there's the Waters-Gilmour tracks. Well, what to say. "Dark Globe," a ballad of extreme alienation, is more or less their most successful effort, and has been heralded as a classic, a "devastating portrait of schizophrenia (which the artist was never successfully diagnosed with)", &c. But then "Feel" finds Barrett taking all too much time to begin a somewhat disjointed performance of a song he seems to be making up on the spot. Perhaps there were shades of "Have You Got It Yet"? Then there's the absolute embarassment of the introduction of "If It's In You," (the following performance of which is just kind of irritating) where, following a definite false start, Barrett blubbers his way incoherently through talking to the control room. And most of these fuckers have the same fucking flange effect on Barrett's voice you heard on Piper. We get it, it's the same guy!

Granted, the remaining tracks continue to paint the picture of a fragile mind, but why emphasize it so throughly with documentation of studio breakdowns? Why make this a cult record more than it already had to be? In my estimation Waters never dropped his fascination, affected or not, with his more talented partner's mental illness. Hence why he couldn't stop exploiting the story to his own narrative ends of tracks such as "Brain Damage," "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" and much of The Wall. Hell, Syd's breakdown earned the guy a career and the spotlight. And more importantly, ol' Roger couldn't have his former lead singer vegetable man showing him up on record.

So fuck him.

The Madcap Laughs is a great album regardless. It is also an anthropological document of a twisted soul. But you probably knew that, so it'd be best that you listen to the album and tune out the Crazy Diamond legacy. And the unsubstantiated conspiracy theory I just brought up.

They're not as important.

This one often gets the short end of the proverbial stick. But it has songs that are arguably stronger than those on Madcap.

By this time, Syd couldn't even come up with songs out of thin air anymore. So production of this album was far more forced.

With only Gilmour at the helm, the entire record is far more polished and real-record-sounding. It can't hide the occasional lack of inspiration Barrett falls behind, but who cares? Some absolute classics round this one out: the herky-jerky "Baby Lemonade" (a song so good it inspired a band name, yes yes! They later became Love! Arthur Lee's Love! Another story for a different time) which has an undeniable groove beneath its angular exterior; the dark yet carefree (how does he do that) "Waving My Arms In The Air," a song so fucking great I wish I had written it ten times over; the rainy-day "Dominoes," and the pastoral, almost medieval "Wined And Dined."

This album is one you'd be more inclined to listen to for pleasure, despite its overall menacing vibe. Its truly an accomplished work - albeit not a perfect one - of a brilliant songwriter who'd already given his two-week's notice to the guild well before his crack production team could record one note. The sound of whimsical detachment, then.

I'm still sick. These reviews haven't cured me. Listen to this:
"Sorry" - The Splinters
"Fairest of All" - Red Krayola with Art & Language
"In The Street" - any version involving Alex Chilton. Preferably live and unhinged. See Live In London
"Sun Gonna Shine In My Backdoor Someday Blues," "Sligo River Blues," "Fare Forward Voyagers" - John Fahey
"Nothing Man" - the Deviants
"Barnyard Blues" - 13th Floor Elevators (I will review every disc of the boxset shortly)
"Like Janis" - Rodriguez