Should It Stay or Should It Go?

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Enough is Enough

Artists: Beekeeper; Ida; K.
Albums: Beekeeper; Ten Small Paces, Insound Tour Support No. 11, Will You Find Me (Ida); K./Low split
Source: Promos (Beekeeper, Ten Small Paces, K./Low); Bought new (Insound, Will You Find Me)

It's not enough to just like a band or a record. If you're serious about this stuff - and lordy knows I'm not the only one who is (far too?) serious here - then liking something is just the first step on a long, usually (over)complicated journey.

Take Ida. In 1997, they put out an album called Ten Small Paces. I didn't know much about the band, but boy oh boy did I like this record. I loved it, played it daily for a while and tried to turn everyone on to it who came within earshot. It hit me in all the right places: beauty tempered by ragged edges, lilting songwriting balanced with smart covers (from a wide pool, in which swam Eno, Neil Young, Bill Monroe and the Secret Stars), a sound that was sexy and safe and private and extroverted and smooth and rough.

That should be enough. You take that CD, you've got 15 songs in a little under an hour, solid and wonderful and unlikely to wear out its welcome. Fantastic, right?

But it's not enough. I need to know more. So I research. I write reviews. I edge my way into being assigned interviews. I go to the shows. I track down limited singles pressed into handmade packaging. And the side projects...did I almost forget the side projects? Some of my favorite songs on Ten Small Paces, specifically "Fallen Arrow" and "Poor Dumb Bird," are written not by Ida's central Dan Littleton/Liz Mitchell axis, but by bassist Karla Schickele. Turns out she's got her own project, K. (she tells me in an interview that it is essential to include the period, every time), as well as a band with her brother, Beekeeper. So that becomes part of it, too.

So now that record I liked, one near-perfect little disc, is a small cottage industry of acquisition and trivia and listening and collecting. Of course, the totally not-funny funny part is that all of this stuff is pretty good, but there's nothing in the pile I like quite as much as TSP. Even the other Ida things I've picked up, while perfectly good, don't hit me quite like the one that started it all in the first place.

But somehow it's all that other stuff that gives the original item context. "This is the one I bought after." "This is the one by the bass player who wrote 'Fallen Arrow.'" "This is the one you can't find anymore." TSP serves as the unmoving center, but in the end it's kind of the only piece; with the exception of an occasional spin through Will You Find Me, it's the only one I really feel any motivation to listen to. But I'd argue that I hear it even better because of the small constellation of satellite objects orbiting the mothership, that somehow going so far beyond just liking the record made my love for it all the more complete.

SISOSIG? As much as I enjoyed digging around in the larger universe suggested by that first Ida disc, the cold hard truth is that neither Beekeeper nor K. really do all that much for me. There's something about Ida, and not just the band's component parts, that is pretty wonderful. I'd never consider ditching Ten Small Paces, and the other Ida discs are pretty nice, too (plus at least an album's worth of 7" vinyl floating around the apartment). But I don't think Beekeeper and K. are really keepers...or even necessary anymore - I can enjoy Ida all on its own. [That said: I did once buy a CD of children's songs recorded by married Ida couple Dan & Liz...I can definitely imagine wanting to venture out into that end of the Ida universe someday!]

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Totally Not Thurston

Artist: Beck
Albums: Mellow Gold; One Foot In the Grave; Stereopathetic Soul Manure; Odelay; Midnite Vultures; Guero
Source: Promo (MG); from JP (1Ft); Bought new (SSM, MV, Guero); Bought used (Odelay)

Right off the bat I thought Beck was great. The thing I wasn't so sure about was whether he existed or not. When "Loser" hit MTV and radio in 1994, all the sounds and images led me (and a few other people I know) to the conclusion that this "Beck" was a jokey Thurston Moore solo side-project. In fact, the only thing that finally convinced me that this was not the case was...well, one night they were on MTV together, side by side. Turned out Beck was way too short to be Thurston.

But forgive a guy for having conspiracy theories about Beck. He's been around--and accepted--long enough that it's easy to forget that when he hit the scene, a guy mashing up rock and folk and rap and blues and four-track noise was downright weird. "Loser" was catchy and mysterious all at once, so far removed from anything that was happening at the moment that it made more sense that an established boundary-smasher like Thurston was behind it, rather than an actual new talent.

I even kind of find myself wanting to use a word like "visionary" here, but in the end Beck undercuts himself too much to allow such a thing. For every bit of groundbreaking he's done (Odelay might, in fact, be the Dust Brothers production that trumps Paul's Boutique), there's a one-note joke like "Satan Gave Me a Taco" (from Stereopathetic Soul Manure) or the too-much-like-Prince-to-not-be-Prince vibe of Midnite Vultures. All of which, in their own very different ways, are deeply excellent and a lot of fun to listen to.

No, the thing about Beck is that he just might be a little too talented. The twisted folkie is just as convincing as the white-bread hip-hopper, and the bent party anthems are just as affecting as the soulful tunesmithing. Depending on where in the catalogue you drop in, you might think Beck is a false front for any number of artists: Thurston, Prince, the Beasties, Lou Barlow, Hank Williams' ghost...anyone whose sound is a little too established to always stay in their pigeonholes, but who's also a little too talented to just stay in one zone all the time.

All of which makes Beck a real keeper in the evolving narrative of popular music, and also makes him a little difficult to keep in your head--it's hard to exactly be "in the mood to listen to Beck" when that can mean pretty much any mood you're likely to have. But that also means Beck's kind of always right there for you, with all the flavors on tap and a loose-limbed tendency to mix up the colors.

SISOSIG? I kind of have the feeling that The Beck Story isn't even halfway through. Listening to these albums in chronological order is more disorienting than suggestive of any kind of arc. But that's also kind of what makes them so compelling--it's all in there, marching forward with wild abandon and a refusal to acknowledge the hegemony of genre--and it's all Beck at the same time. I keep hearing new stuff in a lot of these discs (not so much the very early recordings, when he had more limitations to yoke him) and expect to hear more still. I do, finally, believe in Beck and think these discs are all keepers.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Here, There, Everywhere

Artists: The Beatles; John Lennon
Albums: Help!, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Beatles); Plastic Ono Band (Lennon)
Source: Bought new

Well, this is a little embarrassing. After all these years insisting that I am Mr. Music Man, here I find myself with a paltry sprinkling of Beatles (and/or Beatles-related) recordings. I mean, this is the band that is more or less universally recognized as Patient Zero in the ongoing infection of the modern rock & roll virus, and I've got a smattering of their achievements. Isn't this some of the basic stuff that anyone, everyone - not just the music geeks - should be expected to own?

Which probably (partially) explains the dearth of The Beatles in The Beast. Really, how hard is it to hear songs by The Beatles, Wings/McCartney, Lennon, or any of the other tangents springing from the Fab Four core? Heck, even The Traveling Wilburys has a Beatle, and Ringo's got his All-Starr Band on the road in perpetuity.

These songs are here, there and everywhere. They are embedded in the culture, staples on radio and/or public music broadcasts, lyrics that are ready-to-quote, and are often go-to cover songs for bands who want the instant audience connection that comes with familiarity. You know them. I know them. My parents know them. Some young kid just discovering the transporting effects of the music knows them. And in the rush towards the next big technological change in music delivery and consumption, the central question is, over and over, "When will The Beatles be on iTunes?" Tomorrow may never know, yesterday may seem so far away, but there's a fairly good bet that there's a Beatles song playing somewhere right now. Just listen.

All of which means it can seem entirely reasonable to skip buying the music. If I want to hear songs from The Kinks' Village Green Preservation Society, I'm best off owning a copy (which I do), since the album is nearly perfect and entirely hit-less. But if I want to hear something from The White Album? I can either drop $23.99 (the list price on Amazon), or I can hear "Ob-la-Di Ob-la-Da" on the radio, "Blackbird" at some local open-mic, "Revolution" on a Nike commercial, "Helter Skelter" during a documentary about Manson, or "While My Guitar Gently Weeps"...well, I feel like I can just hear that one out there, in the common ether that seeps into the collective musical consciousness.

Which is a shame. Revolver is a great, great album, worth listening to often and all the way through. It's got fan faves ("Yellow Submarine," "Here, There and Everywhere"), great pop nuggets ("And Your Bird Can Sing," "Got to Get You Into My Life"), experimental wonders ("She Said, She Said," "Tomorrow Never Knows") and even "Eleanor Rigby," which is arguably all of the above. And that's only about half of the too-brief disc.

Much of the rest of the catalogue is just as rich, sometimes a little more so (or maybe a little less, like Let It Be) and always, every time, richly crafted and entirely captivating. There's a damn good reason that each new repackaging of the old songs moves off the shelves with startling speed and force, and it's not just Baby-Boomer nostalgia: discs like the 1 collection and the Love mash-up recirculate wonderful songs in new(ish) ways that can't help but hit the ear and tickle the pleasure centers.

Don't tell Eileen: This is another case of an artist for which I'm not only keeping it all, but I'm really gonna have to buy a whole heck of a lot more down the road. Do I really not own Rubber Soul, The White Album or Abbey Road? And wouldn't at least a best/greatest collection of Lennon's solo work be in order? There's talk that The Beatles, Inc. is readying sonically punched-up remasters of the whole catalogue, and while it pains me to spend too much of my modern-day music budget on oft-heard historical records, it may be time to beef up my wafer-thin slice of The Beatles' canon.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Every Everything

Artists: Beat Happening; Galaxie 500
Albums: Crashing Through (BH); Galaxie 500 (G500); Peel Sessions (G500)
Source: Bought used (BH); bought new (G500 box); gift (Peel)

I want it all. Not just some of it, but all of it.

It's a refrain any serious music lover can hum a few bars of, and the age of the CD made it into a hit: CDs took up less shelf space and held more stuff than LPs, so box sets got bigger, badder and more complete. Suddenly, there was room for more than the Best Of in a multi-disc set; it could now be All Of, Every Everything. Comprehensive CD box sets have a built-in target audience, and that audience is guys like me.

Both of these boxes are from important but short-lived Amerindie bands that have compact catalogues but expansive influence: Beat Happening, the wide-eyed naifs of the Olympia, Washington scene; and Galaxie 500, the slow-rock Bostonians who rode a deceptively simple aping of the third Velvet Underground record into top-shelf name-check status to the many, many bands that followed in their wake.

But that's stuff you can read in the well-heeled booklets that come with boxes like these. This is about the boxes themselves, or rather the idea of them.

Why do you need a four-disc box of everything Galaxie 500 recorded? I'm not entirely sure: in their short lifespan they showed minimal growth, cutting three albums with a lot of sonic overlap and enough extra material to fill a fourth disc, semi-ironically titled Uncollected, that sounds a lot like the other three CDs. Don't get me wrong - I love this band, as well as the groups that the members formed later (Luna and Damon & Naomi), but logicially you should be able to get by with one, maybe two albums. Or maybe just the trio of studio efforts without any of the detritus.

Thing is, it don't work that way. You need all of this stuff; or should I say, I need all of this stuff. It's complete, see, and that counts for something. I'm not sure what, but it's there. Like the "Collect and Win!" games at McDonalds or on the backs of cereal boxes, these weighty multi-disc items are about more than the tracks contained within. It's the tidiness of having the whole story, sort of a novel that plays in stereo.

Same goes for Beat Happening. Sure, they evolved a bit (is that an actual bass guitar on their final effort, You Turn Me On?), and even the extras disc, Music to Climb the Apple Tree By (hey, they beat Galaxie in the titling department there), has some don't-miss gems on it. Truth be told, I don't really like listening to disc 1 all that much (it's a collection of early stuff that, to my ears, still has them finding their artfully wobbly feet) and I sometimes drift midway through Dreamy...but again, it's all here. The whole tale, soup to nuts, and it looks nifty with the tight spines lined up in the little box. Will I ever need to get any more Beat Happening? Nope - I've got the box, brother!

And that, right there, is where the "complete" box gets a little problematic. Like, see that Peel Sessions disc listed up there? Well, that came out after the complete set. And there's a live album, Copenhagen, that I only resist due to some good-sounding Galaxie bootlegs I already have. The same thing inevitably happens with nearly anyone's box set: someone, somewhere, digs up a little more than the previous "all," and then you need that, too. Even though you had everything you least until a lost tape turns up, or a clean recording of a legendary show, or a pristine and historically interesting set of demos, or if the artist recorded for more than one label...basically, they've got the Music Nerds by the short & curlies on this one. Buy the box, collect and win, but beware the simple fact that Every Everything will probably turn out to be Mostly Everything before long.

SISOSIG? But enough of my whining. The upside of the complete (or at least semi-comprehensive) box set is that it's got instant A-List status. I mean, who buys a box set by someone they don't dig, usually a whole hell of a lot? These things are for the fans, and despite the aforementioned procedural/historical difficulties, the average box set pays off in spades: both of these boxes are lovingly compiled, compellingly designed, deeply researched (more info for the Useless Trivia Files!) and filled end-to-end with music I want to go back to, again and again. Even the Peel disc - which kind of ruffled my feathers in a way, just for falling outside the box's purview - is a smile-heavy listen, with all that deliciously reverbed guitar splashing all over a set of icy originals and cool covers. I love my box sets, both for the sounds they house and the stories they tell...I want it all, and I'll keep wanting more.