Should It Stay or Should It Go?

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Big Time

Artists: Big Audio Dynamite; Big Brother and the Holding Company; Big Star
Albums: Tighten Up Vol. '88, Megatop Phoenix (BAD); Cheap Thrills (BB&THC); #1 Record/Radio City, A Little Big Star (BS)
Source: Bought new (both BAD; #1R/RC); bought used (BB&THC); promo (ALBS)

It's easy to like contemporary pop music. I don't mean that pop music from today, in mid-2007, is so delightfully easy on the ear that it goes down like hot buttered Elvis. No, I'm suggesting that in any given moment, the pop music of that moment just sounds right. For a better understanding of what I'm getting at, go listen to "I Ran (So Far Away)" by Flock of Seagulls right now, notice how silly the production and instrumentation sound, and then consider what a perfectly pleasant slice of pop-craft this was in 1982.

In taking a look at the small section of The Beast made up of bands that begin with "Big," it struck me that these three groups - Big Audio Dynamite, Big Brother and the Holding Company, and Big Star - sort of perfectly triangulate the three destinies that pop music faces as it marches forward into the history of the future.

First, Big Audio Dynamite. When BAD hit the scene in 1985, it sounded like a pop revelation to my early-teen ears. Mick Jones, having been booted from The Clash (and consequently allowed to avoid the turgid embarrassment of Cut the Crap), had turned around and rethought what music could sound like. Here were poppy rock songs with hip-hop-ish rhythms, found-sound samples, and a worldly mash-up sensibility that was pretty much unlike anything kicking around the mainstream at the time. When I got the first two BAD records (which I own on vinyl and cassette, so they don't appear here), I was sure I was hearing the most futuristic rock music ever. BAD was review-proof for me: I would just buy the next one when it came out, and listen it into the ground.

Listen now. WTF? The pop sounds thin and, in places, a little trite. The beats sound like...well, they sound like they came from a British white guy with an old drum machine, which I guess they did. And the sounds effects are just kind of silly, and not always all that creative (tap-dance loops in "2000 Shoes"? Yeah, I get it). It's still enjoyable to listen to (though Megatop has a lot of filler in its faux-house soundscape), but hardly the revelation that it seemed like in the 80s. In other words, it was pop music of its time, and piling more time on top of it has not been kind.

On the other end is Big Star. I remember on a long trip in the early 90s playing #1 Record/Radio City for my friend Matt and asking him to guess what year it had been recorded. He was off by nearly 20 years: the sounds and songs on this disc felt both fresh and classic, and they still do more than a decade after that car ride. "September Gurls" was perfect pop in 1973, and it's perfect pop now. Very little in the production dates the sound too heavily, and the guitars/bass/drums instrumentation just places the music somewhere in the rock & roll era.

It also doesn't hurt that Big Star is an enduring influence on bands going forward into today. Nobody picked up the Big Audio torch in any noticeable way, which means there's no line of continuity leaning the sound forward. Big Star, on the other hand, can be heard in ways both big and small in the work of anyone from Paul Westerburg to Yo La Tengo to Cheap Trick to GBV to half the Elephant 6 stable. Big Star wasn't particularly of their time during their time, which makes their pop sound timely pretty much anytime.

I'd argue that Big Brother and the Holding Company essentially splits the difference between those two ends of pop-versus-time spectrum. Cheap Thrills was recorded in California in 1968, which is information that a blind, illiterate listener could provide about 10 seconds into the record. From the exten(sive/d)ed, lysergic guitar solos to Janis Joplin's psych-blues wailing to the R. Crumb cartoon cover art, this disc is a date-specific artifact of a moment in pop time, when this was simply one of the things that was going on. That it contains some stone-cold classics ("Piece of My Heart" and "Ball and Chain") helps keep it listenable, if not always relevant (though many of today's backwards-glancing jam bands bear clear marks of BB&THC in their sound-worlds). Cheap Thrills doesn't exist out of time like Big Star, but neither is it crippled by its sonic benchmarking the way BAD so clearly is.

SISOSIG? While I would certainly point to the pair of BAD discs as (ahem) the most bad things here, really Cheap Thrills is the one I hardly ever listen to. It's part of Columbia Records' criminally awful first wave of CD masters (they more or less transferred vinyl to the new, sonically detailed format) and as such is a poor-sounding copy of a kind of music I'm not particularly drawn to. I can appreciate it, sure, and I dig Janis' place in the pantheon, but it's a little bit like something I think I'm supposed to have rather than actually like. I'd say it can go, and maybe one day a better-sounding copy of it will make its way to me. I'd never think of parting with my guilty-pleasure BAD discs, though, not even the weak-link Megatop Phoenix. It's mostly a nostalgia trip, but who am I to fight off some perfectly good nostalgia? And Big Star goes nowhere, never - every note sounds better each time I hear them, and I like to hear them pretty often.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Dammit, Bevis

Artist: The Bevis Frond
Albums: Miasma; Inner Marshland; Triptych; New River Head; Live at the Great American Music Hall, San Francisco; Valedictory Songs
Source: Promos (Miasma, Inner Marshland, Valedictory Songs); bought used (Triptych, New River Head, Live)

Most writing about music focuses squarely on quality, generally either "Is this any good?" or "Here are the reasons why this is good" (and yes, those are two different things). Less often addressed is quantity; i.e., "this may or may not be good, but either way do we need this much of it?" Some of the highest-quality artists are, not coincidentally, very reasonable when it comes to quantity--like the Beatles or Television--making it easy to be amazed by how good it is without being lost in how very, very much of it there is to swallow. Many people who like the Beatles will dig into most/all of the catalogue, whereas someone who likes the Rolling Stones may skip entire eras of the band's voluminous recorded history.

The Bevis Frond is definitely a band with a quantity problem. Between 1987 and 2004, British psych-rocker Nick Saloman has put out no fewer than 20 albums under the Bevis Frond moniker (and a few more collaborations with different names). Some are essentially solo albums, with Nick laying down his guitar-heavy statements piece by piece, and some are the product of a more-or-less steady band line-up. Nearly all feature Saloman's wonderfully melodic (usually) songwriting, head-shattering guitar prowess and knack for placing a modern edge on decidedly 60s/70s-era rock sentiments. Some of Bevis' 20 LPs are better than others, very few could fairly be called "bad," but an equal few are readily identifiable as "essential."

Artists from Jandek to Richard Thompson have presented their fans with the same problem: just how much of this can I reasonably be expected to own and listen to? An added layer of complication with Bevis is this fact that nearly every one of the band's discs contains at least one tune so good it begs for multiple plays and multiple cover versions (see the oft-covered "Lights are Changing" from the over-long Triptych album).

On the other hand, no rock collection should be without New River Head, Nick's long-playing opus from 1991. NRH manages to be all over the place and stylistically coherent, with nearly every track lodging deep into the brain. I heard the spacey "God Speed You to Earth" at a Frond concert a full 2 years before I tracked down a copy of NRH (it's since been reissued), but the tune and lyrics never left my head in the ensuing period.

There may be other Bevis pieces that are as good as NRH...but I'm not going in search of them. The Live in S.F. disc works as a good-enough career overview (the band also happens to be a killer live act), populated with many of the aforementioned great tracks from so-so albums. Get those two and you're pretty much set, but beware: there are 18 more you might be tempted to pick up in their wake.

SISOSIG? At six discs, I can't really be accused of having gone overboard on the Frond, yet I can't help but feel I've got too much. Truth be told, I almost never listen to the trio of early efforts, Miasma, Inner Marshland and Triptych; New River Head, Valedictory Songs and the live disc, on the other hand, still get frequent (and enthusiastic) plays. While the earlier three aren't really bad in any particular way, I don't think I'd be doing myself much of a disservice by ripping a few choice tunes from each and sending them out along their way.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Beware the Interview

Artist: Bent Leg Fatima
Album: Bent Leg Fatima
Source: Promo

Before I started writing about music, I always assumed that interviewing musicians was the best part. You got to meet the artists that you dug, they'd spend time deep in conversation with you about their awesome music, and invariably they'd hand you a guitar and invite you to rock out with them.

But the reality is, more often than not, quite different. Nine times out of 10, you don't actually meet the artist at all--your article is going to be timed to promote an upcoming album and/or local tour date, so you talk to them on the phone, either from home or on the road ahead of their local appearance (with the advent of the internet and mobile hotspots, some bands started asking for e-mail questions). Because of this, they usually don't have that much time for you; if it's a pre-album press junket, it's even worse, as you get a strictly set number of minutes just after/just before other interviewers who just asked/will ask the same questions you've prepared. And only once did anyone ever ask me to play with retrospect, I think the band was kind of messing with me.

Don't get me wrong--an interview can be kind of fun, and often you get some cool quotes and maybe even some interesting conversation (Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips was, unsurprisingly, a good talker and quite the conversationalist). There are also surprises: to date, the single best interview subject I've ever encountered was...Carrot Top. Yup, the annoying prop comic. Say what you will about The Top, but he gives good interview: he took the serious questions seriously, and goofed off like a pro when the funny Qs came around. Writing up the piece on him was far easier than, say, the Q&A I did with Yo La Tengo's Ira Kaplan, who is one of my all-time favorite artists, but kind of a difficult interview to be sure.

Bent Leg Fatima might stand as one of the single most disturbing interviews I've ever done. They were a small, local Philly group, so this one was in person, at the drummer's loft apartment in Northern Liberties. They were fairly new on the scene, and this self-titled long-player was their debut effort. They were largely unknown, which meant there was a lot to ask them about. Piece of cake.

I'm not sure how it happened, or if it was somehow my fault, but the members of BLF slowly and steadily broke down under my interrogation. They seemed both shocked and worried that I, a music writer sent from a local paper, would be asking them all these questions about themselves and their musical process. Little things set them off--I still remember asking one of them something to the effect of, "Did the record turn out the way you'd hoped?" and he went wide-eyed in panic. "I don't know," he spit out, and then started stammering and rambling about not having thought about goals and the final record being something other than what he'd thought would come from the process of entering a studio.

One after the other, they got flustered, a little antagonistic, then apologetic, until finally they were just kind of stepping all over the questions in an attempt to say something, anything, in response to my questions.

The fact that BLF didn't last too long did not come as an outright shock to me (though some of the band did evolve into Need New Body, which to the best of my knowledge is an ongoing concern). Maybe they were high, maybe it was an act, or maybe they genuinely got thrown off by even the dim glare of the light I was shining on them.

SISOSIG? Despite the picture I paint of Bent Leg Fatima as people/interview subjects, the record is actually pretty damn good. I remember the press release suggesting that it was "Beefheart-ian," but I don't hear too much of the good captain in these loose psych-rock grooves. It strikes me as the sound of a more aggressive, somewhat less sprawling Piper at the Gates of Dawn, with nice little fragments of melody bubbling in and out of a lysergic stew. I've not kept up with their latest incarnation, but this one is a mid-level keeper that will never re-wire my mind or any such thing, but is a perfectly enjoyable listen.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Realer Than Real

Artist: Han Bennink
Albums: The Laughing Owl; Nerve Beats
Source: Promos

After many weeks (months?) of wandering in the wilderness of packing, moving, unpacking and all the attendant stresses and difficulties, I'm unfurling The Beast in its new lair. Our suburban home has a finished attic, which has been dubbed The Man Room. The Beast will live there, complete with some sort of customized storage. All music things are being moved to a place that will be a) out of Eileen's regular lines of sight, and b) under my total supervision.

One of the curious side effects of this whole process is that I've been without complete and absolute access to my record collection for as long as I can remember. I recently unpacked some of it (early sections of the alphabet, which went into a small cabinet--enough room to get up to the early Gs), but as the mood has struck me to listen to, say, Varnaline or Sonny Rollins, it was no dice. They were too deep into the alphabet, which meant they were too far gone.

Well, not entirely. I have listened to Sonny recently, because I've got a bunch of his stuff ripped onto my iPod. In fact, the last few months have shown me just how thoroughly I've adapted my listening habits to the digital age. Previous moves have forced me to cull a small selection of CDs that I'd make do with until the top-priority unpacking The Beast always received. This time, I had a broad and deep cross-section of stuff on my home and work hard drives, and even kept grabbing new stuff off of my delightful eMusic subscription.

I'd kept away from the downloading for a long, long time, feeling that somehow I wasn't "really" getting the music. But now I see that it's a totally different music buying/listening experience. No liner notes, minimal cover art, no real visual or physical aesthetic to go with the aural package. It's all sound, no vision. Not better or worse, necessarily, but patently different.

At this point, it's fair to say that I've gotten a few dozen albums and EPs this way. But the weird part is I don't feel like they're a "real" part of The Beast. Heck, I've already written about some artists (Arcade Fire; Nels Cline) where I've got more of their catalogue in MP3 format (all legal, mind you!), but I didn't write up those albums because I don't really have them. Nope, all I did was pay for them and listen to them at will, just like...well, like my real CDs, tapes and LPs.

In fact, if pressed I'd probably say that these Han Bennink discs are real, and the download of Neko Case's The Tigers Have Spoken isn't. Nevermind that I pretty much hate the Bennink albums; he's a European very-free-jazz percussionist who blurts out formless noise that's too much even for me to take. The reissue of his 1973 Nerve Beats is long tracks of solo nonsense (punctuated by an occasional scream), and The Laughing Owl is a more recent set of improvised guitar/drum duets with an axe-abuser from The Ex. I abhor these albums, much to the same degree that I adore Neko's live disc, but I still can't help but feel that Han is mine and Neko is not (oh Neko, you will be mine one day...).

Part of me expects to eventually evolve further on this issue, but more of me suspects (and, to be honest, hopes) that I'll remain somewhat luddite-ish on this. There's still something great about the object--something real--that simply gets lost when everything gets broken down into an invisible flow of zeros and ones.

SISOSIG? Two clunkers, for sure. When enough time goes by, I will usually put one of these in to try again, and it never gets any better; it just gets worse. I don't want to listen to this noise, some fairly artful calamity though it may be. Time's too short to waste on music that gives me no rewards; I'd rather listen to some of my "unreal" downloads.