A Greater Responsibility

23 03 2011

For the last few years, music writers (myself included) have spun yarns about the availability and affordability of music recording equipment. Anyone with a computer and a bedroom can crank out something that someone will listen to. Look at the Black Keys’ first albums.

While making a record is easier in theory for bands more than ever, making a great record it just as difficult as it has always been, if not even more difficult. The tools and technology add to the temptation for laziness. And new skills must be developed to manipulate the digital medium, to avoid the tell-tale signs of DAWs and plug-ins.

Add to this a proliferation of appreciation for the “raw” aesthetic, which is supposed to reward honest expression and composition rather than production sheen. Some of my favorite albums of the last decade fall into this category. But for every good record (let alone GREAT record), there are a whole crop of lazy musicians out there who take advantage of this, and instead of perfecting anything whatsoever about their music, they just let it come out sloppy. Maybe this is cool, but it’s not lasting.

I don’t like to look at things as being better or worse than they used to be. The situation is different; I’m different, you’re different. Music evolves, as it should, as any art form is supposed to do by nature. New technology has always given the previously disenfranchised an opportunity to outshine the former leaders by jumping headfirst into the learning process, embracing the change rather than ignoring it. A new generation of master will rise out of the change, and in turn change the growth of the art forever.

But the cream will always rise to the top. Those who continue to be the best performers and write the best songs will stand out because their skills transcend any of the technologies that may come, go, or stay. And engineers who equally embrace the old, current, and burgeoning technologies will always find work because of their mastery and flexibility.

As paradoxical as it may seem, it is nonetheless true: the more technology attempts to make things easier, the harder you must work to maintain, no, exec the standards previously set. And there will a whole lot more people trying to get there first.


10,000 Days

8 03 2011

Danny Carey is my favorite drummer of all time. I used to know every one of his moves from the EP and the first two records by heart. I may not have been able to PLAY it, but I could tell you exactly what he was going to do and when.

As obsessions tend to do, mine grew unhealthy. My own playing showed no signs of Danny’s mastery of both the aggressive and the subtle, so I essentially gave up. I wanted to be the best, or nothing at all.

In retrospect, it was a pretty extreme attitude, one that plagues me to this day, because I want nothing more than to be an accomplished musician. But this was not supposed to be about my attempts and (perceived?) failures at music. It’s about Tool’s fourth full-length record, 10,000 days, and how I seemingly denied its existence for what feels like that long.

When it first came out in 2006, I could listen to maybe three songs and still feel a glimpse of the symphonic rage and synchronicity of Tool’s previous work. But it felt to me as though an essential spirit was missing; either I had changed, or they had, or both. Indeed, as one of the most successful heavy bands, perhaps the hunger was no longer there, and in the case of Maynard James Keenan, much the anger of his youth had been vented through Tool and various other projects, and what was left to express was not as raw, as dark, as churning and retched.

On Lateralus the band began to show signs of becoming a parody of itself. And with 10,000 Days, I felt that lack of genuineness further manifested; the record was a thick, polyrhythmic cloud that I could not find my way through. Brilliant composition took a backseat to conglomerations of riffs and droning, melodic musings, telltale of the lack of inspiration and legitimate material to bring to the studio.

In the twelve years since I first hear Undertow, I had changed a lot as well. Back then, having a broad taste in music meant listening to James Taylor! Today I have records by Rodelius and Xenakis, have studied the structure of gamelan, and prefer the heat of a bebop jam to the oozy humanity of a general admission rock show. The point being that the weighty Tool riffage does not mean the same thing that it used to: I have a smoother soul. Like Maynard, much of my angst has been put behind me, but that doesn’t mean it’s all gone. Not yet.

It has matured, if that is even possible. And you get to a point where it’s boring going back to the same records. But the problem is that nobody did what Tool did as good as they did. Listening to every other derivative metal group just felt like slumming, like spending the best hours of the night in a dreary bar with dead end burn outs, drinking Lone Star and smoking menthol cigarettes, when you know you should be home writing music and drinking tea.

I am no stranger to the long way, so five years later and countless disappointing bands later, I find the first strains of Vicarious resonating within me. Resonating. That’s why I had to listen to Undertow five times a day when I was 17. It was as though the music was coming out of me, as if my anger and unhappiness were entirely responsible for the music, as though the band looked inside me and know what to play to soothe the abrasions. It was painful NOT to listen to it.

And now all this time later I find myself warming to them again. They do something no other band can, though I searched forever to find one, but that searching existed only for itself, because I thought I was supposed to find new stuff to listen to. And even if I failed to find something to take Tool’s place, the searching was not in vain, it only served to reenforce their dominance of the genre, whatever that genre may really come down to.

Gay For Sade

18 02 2011

It’s true. I can’t help myself. Her music may be one degree (or less) away from Kenny G on the smoothness factor, but I don’t care. It’s just got this vibe, takes me back to the rainforest, feeling moody storm shadows pass through me, sipping sweet rum in plastic chairs, making early afternoon love while tourists beach and shop, the locals talk about boats and politics two floors below. Below the thick green, leafy and moist, crawling and reaching for a taste of tropical sun, which peeks out intermittently when the billowing clouds pass by, searing the sense of place into your skin, browning by the instant.

Sade’s music may have a home on every soft rock radio station, every “Quiet Storm”, feathering its way around plasticine corridors and the fuzzy foam labyrinths of corporate America, but that’s precisely because it echoes from a place (and a bosom) more exotic, suggestive of days of sand pounded by air-temperature waves and rays of sun in single digit latitudes offset by steamy nights in side street cafes or clubs oozing with hustle and soul.

Many fans are attracted to the escapism that goes with such exotic origins. Sade sings from a heart that seeks soothing reassurance and mercy as much as it demands to be recognized as its own. The mainline, the IV drip, to our souls is established through the Brazilian and Afro-infused arrangements. It’s not an escapism in the vein of Jimmy Buffet, who is all country and calypso and who preaches to the overgrown college boy crowd. Sade has won the hearts of the third world and first world alike, a fierce soldier of love, and she plays to her army, unafraid to care and unashamed to feel their feelings, rather than a frat party.

That’s why she is so beloved, she builds her fans a fortress within which they are free to be and feel exactly how they are, and through her love she shows that we are all brave enough to love without those walls at all. In fact, those walls aren’t even there; they only exist as a guide, training wheels, if you will. The ultimate power of Sade’s music, her lesson, is that we are free…we should and can be brave enough to love and be and feel exactly how we do without any need for explanation or justification. Because what we are is beautiful.

A Day of Ghosts, A Day of Kings

8 02 2011

My first time in Memphis. Southaven, Mississippi, really. But close enough, just over the state line; you fly into Memphis. Usually on these work trips I never get to see or experience anything that brings the place renown, anything touristy. Hence my over-elation (perhaps) at the smell of barbecue right off the jetway. Who knows? This may be the most culturally significant experience of the entire trip.

At baggage claim, where I rendezvous with the rest of the crew, the director informs me that our services will not be required until late afternoon the following day, and that in the morning we will be taking a field trip into downtown Memphis (my heart leaped) to the world famous Sun Studios (out of my throat and across the lobby). And if there is time, we’ll go to Graceland or the Civil Rights Museum. All gravy, as far as I am concerned, some real Southern-fried sightseeing.

Walking into the one room studio at Sun, you think you’re going to be prepared. How mind blowing could it be, such a simple room? Well, I think that’s exactly how they must want you to feel…because all the history begins to flow through your mind (Karl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, U2, oh, and that Elvis guy. What’s his name?) There’s even a picture of the Million Dollar Quartet on the wall. The wall itself looks identical today.

But that’s nothing compared to when they play you the music. You look around, hear the music soar through the room, and you know there are ghosts in there with you. The feeling is undeniable. There’s the microphone that captured all the voices for decades, right next to an ‘X’ on the floor where Elvis stood when he first auditioned for Sam Phillips. He wasn’t quite The King yet; that would take another, oh, couple weeks! You feel it in your gut, all the history and mystique wringing out all your adrenaline.

I take a picture with the microphone…and buy a t-shirt.

After that, and a few miles down the road, we go to the National Civil Rights Museum. Quite a timely visit, February being Black History Month. The whole turn of events is becoming more serendipitous by the second, given my meeting Myrlie Evers last week. We pull into the parking lot, and begin walking towards the complex, something seems very familiar, and I begin to experience a feeling similar to that I felt at Sun; my adrenaline was charging and the place had a certain spirit. But the spirit here takes on a somber tone, a funeral hymn. I find myself standing in front of the Lorraine Motel: the site of the assassination of Martin Luther King.

To call these hallowed grounds would be inadequate, like calling the Himalayas “hills”. Nothing prepared me to see the place where King fell, the newer square of concrete poured to replace the blood-stained piece that he left, the beautiful gospel music playing in the shrine. This wasn’t simply a feeling of ghosts, but of a much greater tide of spirit, much more emotional. The combined sorrow of an entire people, past and present.

It’s an emotion that’s hard to describe. This place, so wrought with sorrow at the loss of leader, a huge blow atop a mountain of centuries of pain and injustice. You feel something greater than yourself, you feel that weight. The gospel music comes through the speakers, the water wells up in your eyes, you can’t help it.

It’s quite a way to experience Memphis, or any other city, with one site so celebratory and one more contemplative. It’s a collective experience not shared by many other cities I have been to, at least not on that level. Though every town must have its legends and fallen heroes, accomplishments that deserve to be remembered and respected, gifts and deeds that changed lives, maybe not on a global scale like those of Kings, but at least on a local one, where you can interact directly and frequently with those leaders, any one who sacrifices time and even their lives to share with others, to lift them up, to make the world a better place for everyone.

Ghost, part 2

3 02 2011

The White Stripes officially hung it up today. You could say music lost another legend; I would say we lost them a long time ago.

Jack White will never quit. He is the undisputed king of modern rock and roll. Just about everything he touches turns to gold, even if record sales don’t show it; and his fans eat up each and every project. But he doesn’t need the White Stripes anymore; it’s always better for an artist to follow his muse than to fake it, unless they’re just in it for the money. Sometimes even rock stars grow up.

No other band since Nirvana has so successfully embodied youth and rebellion. Rocketing out of obscurity in an unprecedented DIY fashion, playing by their own rules, playing everywhere, with their garage aesthetic and candy cane colored wet dream, they¬†tore the establishment a new one. Then, at the peek of their popularity, Jack pulled a Sting maneuver, and went off and formed The Raconteurs, another great, heavy band, but one that lacked the originality of the Stripes, and in doing so made the first puncture in an ever growing hole in the time-space continuum of rock and roll. Sure, Jack’s destiny was locked in, his fame would spread around the multitude of inevitable projects, but the White Stripes were doomed.

Everyone knew it. Get Behind Me Satan failed to connect with the fans. While it showcased Jack’s growing palette for new sounds, it also became clear that Meg would never be able to keep up the pace. As always, the increased radio play alienated those fans who, no matter how long they had actually been listening, felt personally responsible for the band’s success. All the signs were there.

The press release may be dated today, but their absence has been felt for much longer. Instead, a misty, cavernous hollow still exists, fringed by hundreds of minor bands that come and go like reviewers for Pitchfork, touted for their brilliance and originality, and several thousand more that aren’t, none them able to occupy the sonic and visceral space the Stripes could, not yet. But were waiting…and listening.

Ghost Consciousness

1 02 2011

It lurks without you knowing it is there, until you feel it; in the aisles at the record store, while flipping through channels on the radio, when staying up way past bedtime sampling music online for that sound that you know in your marrow must be out there but haven’t found yet. I call it the ghost consciousness, because you can’t quite put your finger on it. It’s probably different for everyone; we all have different tastes. (Although, there are times I believe when we share the feeling. Like 9/11, where, separate from the tragedy and the horror, a sense of foundation was ripped out from underneath us and a feeling beyond loss took its place, an enigmatic shadow gathering here, dissipating there, only to rush in again, shaking constitutions; an wretched, aching cavity.)

The ghost consciousness is rampant in music (and the arts in general) because of all the artists who seem to take their bow before they reach their fullest potential. Rock and roll has been notorious for this since its inception (Buddy Holly, Richie Valens) and reached a critical mass in the late 60s and early 70s with drugs and alcohol playing a key role. But we shall never forget the classical genius of Mozart, succumbing at an early age, and the spontaneous wizardry of Charlie Parker, who gave his life away to heroin.

In light of more recent times, Kurt Cobain cannot be left out of the discussion. Whether you liked Nirvana or despised them, Kurt’s exit left an undeniable and ever-present hole, and I am not talking about the band that released a record that same week. That Nirvana changed the world is irrefutable; they didn’t just happen to be in the right place at the right time, they WERE the right place at the right time. And as fans scrambled to ease the pain with something as visceral and indicting and bone jarring and beautiful (they never would), a dark misty gloom settled over all of rock and roll. The entire notion of alternative music would forever be haunted by Kurt’s absence and by the decay of the wonder of what delights he would have served our ears.

All the tragedy aside, I do believe we are fortunate to have been left with what gifts these artists did give us. And there are many who will say that there is nothing else: this is what they made, and that’s it. But for fans, it’s not that easy. We love to watch our favorite acts evolve, and thus evolve with them. They enrich our lives, and when they are gone, not only are we robbed of hearing their next masterpiece, there is a part of us that never gets to be realized, a voice that will forever be silent. And that is the ghost that hangs over our heads when we desperately search but never find.

The True King

27 01 2011

The fact that I am about to write these words makes me want to vomit: A new kingdom will arise out of the mire of the many.

So ancient and itchy, I know, but as the core idea pertains to the status music today, I’m all for it. Don’t get me wrong, I think the proliferation of creativity and independent music is wonderful, for all the creative people taking part, for the gestalt, and for our culture as a whole. Affordable technology has placed production in the hands of the creative, myself included, and the results have been massive. There is some real evolution going on (creatively speaking), and the excitement level is so high, no body seems to care about where it’s going. Perhaps it doesn’t matter, because we’ll get there one way or another, right?

That’s fine. But, at risk of sounding old fashioned and impatient, I want to worship one new bad-ass band that redefines what a rock song is supposed to sound like! The beauty and problem with the state of things in 2011 is that we have too many bands doing this, each one a soma to its minor masses, each one contributing to the cosmic spiral of creative chaos, but none uniting millions of human animals and inviting them to leave their belief (and Blackberries) at the door and join them for two hours of face-melting magic.

I listened to the newest (not-so-independent) Kings of Leon record this morning, and I liked it. It really SOUNDS good. The production team behind it has a proven track record, and has helped make the band lots of money. But as good and as popular as the Kings are, what they are not is revolutionary: innovative enough so that you can hear a whole gaggle of bands after them and say, “Well, I know who they’re trying to sound like.” Please don’t confuse my discourse as sympathy for wannabes, because those bands are merely one of the side effects when a single band conquers all others and captures the hearts, minds and genitals of a generation, whose influence ultimately spans generations and lasts decade after decade! Who else out there is challenging the throne once held by bands as mighty as Led Zeppelin or Tool? Jack White clearly has the gravitas to command such worship, but his efforts are so spread out, there is no singular movement to get behind other than the man himself. And while there may be White Stripes reunions here and there, they already are a band of the past, though in terms of relevance and influence they certainly fit the pedigree.

I am not here to lambast the Kings, or any other band for that matter. They worked so hard, and they deserve the success that they have earned. I am just ready for the next band that just blows the doors of the establishment, strips the paint from the siding, blasts the glass into infinite particles that reflect the light from millions of smartphone screens and sculpt it into a mean and lustrous crown. Yet, given how personal music is and how many choices there are today, this discovery may very well rest with me, not our culture, and that’s what being independent is all about.