Should It Stay or Should It Go?

Saturday, October 27, 2007

My First Time

Artists: David Bowie; Brian Eno
Albums: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (DB); Thursday Afternoon (BE)
Source: Bought new

For my 14th birthday, my parents bought me a CD player. That's a common enough occurrence these days, but this was a moment in the 1980s when the Compact Disc was brand new, something only audiophiles & early adopters had even heard of. Up until that moment, I'd had my little boom box and a Walkman for my already-sizable collection of cassettes, and I would play my few LPs on my folks' turntable. Everything seemed fine.

Suddenly, there was this new, unknown thing to deal with. Along with the player, I got a copy of an audiophile magazine like Stereo Review or something, and the cover story was about CD players...and the attendant CDs that went along with them.

Thus, the process began.

I did some reading, and prepared for a trip to the Cherry Hill Mall, where Sound Odyssey had a section of CDs - way in the back of the store, behind the vinyl and tapes. I'd brought along some allowance money to make the buy, and some ideas of what to get: probably a Beatles album (Sgt. Pepper's, maybe?), maybe London Calling or one of the Pink Floyd albums I'd yet to get on cassette.

But these were early days, and the pickings were slim. The Beatles were 5 years or so from making their debut in the new format; ditto for iconic acts like the Stones. The Floyd section was nearly bare, and since I'd never heard a CD, it didn't occur to me to upgrade one of the Talking Heads or Elvis Costello albums I already had.

There was a lot of weird stuff on offer, and much of it was beyond my ken. This was my entry into a new musical world, so the selection could not be made lightly - the discs I got had to matter in some way.

When I realize that it was my 14-year-old self that made the purchase, I'm kind of blown away that the two things I bought were Bowie's Ziggy Stardust album, and Eno's Thursday Afternoon. At an age when I really should have been picking up some of the hits of the day (maybe Synchronicity and Brothers in Arms, or something else from MTV's heavy rotation?), I ended up with a pair of discs that are kind of a microcosm of all of the many, many, many additions yet to come to The Baby Beast.

First Bowie. Put simply, Ziggy is iconic. The opening shot of a new kind of glam pop, the album was already a historical milestone. It had two hits everybody knew - "Ziggy Stardust" and "Suffragette City" - and a backstory that people who cared about such things (read: me) knew inside and out. It would have made more sense to pick up a best-of package like Changes, but I felt like I needed something more important, and this fit the bill.

Eno's disc went in the other direction, being an iconoclastic record that fit into the history yet to be made. Thursday Afternoon is a single, hour-long minimalist piece that Eno made specifically in response to the advent of CDs. Its length took advantage of the elongated playing time of the new medium (no need to fade out for a flip to Side Two), and the quiet, slow evolution of the music banked on the disc's non-existant surface noise. It was something with no discernable melody, no real "fun factor," but lots & lots to think about and discuss.

The third point is one I didn't even know at the time: more or less at random, I'd reunited a classic art-rock team. Bowie and Eno had made "important" music together in the past (really around the time I was born), but that was something I'd learn later.

Since this trip to the mall, I've essentially made the same trip over & over again...going to the record store looking to 1) build up my store of classic/important recordings; 2) dig into secret, eclectic musical worlds that ran parallel (but miles beneath) to the ones aboveground, in search of something new and momentous, or at least just good for a geeky bull session; 3) make connections, real or imagined, between seemingly disparate musical artifacts, looking for the deeper truths that would be revealed. I'm still hard at work on all 3 points.

SISOSIG? If only for personal historical reasons, I'd be loathe to part with either of these discs (though oddly enough, I've yet to buy any more Bowie or Eno in the CD format). I don't listen to Ziggy too often anymore...but that's pretty much due to how much I listened to it back in the day. When it was one of half a dozen discs I owned (i.e., Wish You Were Here and Fear of Music followed these 1st purchases by a few weeks), I listened to every nook and cranny of it. Eventually, it became part of my own musical/historical firmament; I still love it when I hear it, even if it isn't that often.

Thursday Afternoon, on the other hand, has become something I listen to more as time passes. Truth be told, it's subtle pleasures were kind of wasted on my teenage self - there isn't anything that could be considered "active" about the piece until 58 minutes in, when the low end drops out. When I was hearing more of myself in albums by The Clash and Husker Du, an elongated piece of minimal piano, composed visually on a grid, didn't really hit the right buttons too often. But as I've sought more moments of soli- and quietude in adult life, my ears have continually opened up to Eno's disc. It's not only a keeper for historical reasons, but for actively musical ones.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

One and Only One

Artist: Bowery Electric
Album: Lush Life
Source: Bought used

In these iTunes-centric times, much ink (real and virtual) has been spilled bemoaning the death of the album. The kids these days, say those in the know, these kids just don't want the full album experience. Download a track or two from Mr. Jobs and all is well.

I am, to no one's great surprise, an Album Guy. I like the entire experience, the hour or so of getting from track 1 to the run-out groove, the way the sequence of the whole shebang can take you on a little journey. When Radiohead blew the industry's collective mind with their sudden online release of In Rainbows, I think part of the deal was their attempt to preserve this experience. And I was right there with them.

But the thing is, Radiohead and the other Album Guys are only right part of the time. The rest of the time, The Kids know what the score is.

See, the trick with the album experience is that it's only worth going on about and preserving and such when groups can, you know, make a whole album. R.E.M. used to be able to do it, Pink Floyd were masters of it, and even newbies like The National have it down. Give guys like this an hour, and they'll give you a whole world.

But this is not a given, and iTunes has the 99-cent downloads to prove it. I first heard Bowery Electric when the track "Freedom Fighter" was on a compilation disc that came with some magazine. Good god was it ever good. A beat that jumped up and never stopped blasting off the launch pad, guitars that did all sorts of weird and wonderful things, and a sharply sweet vocal from Martha Schwnedener. I could not wait to hear the album.

I found Lush Life in the used bin at Other Music. Ten tracks, and a promise of 50 minutes that expanded on the promise of "Freedom Fighter" and filled in the spaces it suggested. Track 1, press play, sit back and take the trip.

But the plane got stuck on the tarmac. "Freedom Fighter" was still awesome...but what the hell was this boring crap gunking up the other 9 slots? Languid trip-hop that had come to the party after Tricky had taken everyone else home. Bleh. Score 1 for The Kids.

SISOSIG? I may have been too late to the download-one-song party to save me from Lush Life, but in the meantime I've become quite adept at selective ripping, thank you very much. "Freedom Fighter" stays on the hard drive, Lush Life goes on the junk pile.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Why? Because I Like It

Artists: Bonnie "Prince" Billy; Will Oldham; Palace Music
Albums: I See A Darkness, Master and Everyone (BPB); Joya, Guarapero: Lost Blues 2 (WO); Viva Last Blues, Lost Blues and Other Songs (PM)
Source: Bought new (Master, Joya, Lost Blues 1 & 2); bought used (Darkness)

The act of writing about music is, when boiled down, a way of saying, "I can explain why I like or don't like something I listen to." It inserts an extra level of introspection into the process of listening, forcing you to both hear the music first-hand and have a sort of third-person remove in which you observe how you're listening.

This process is one I can do. I'm a little proud of it, too - it makes me feel a little like a doctor, who can see a bit deeper into the regular processes of the human body that are casually on display - though it also means it can take an extra effort to just listen to music casually, and take it in without pontificating on it.

The music of Will Oldham presents an unusual problem for me as an active listener. I've listened to his music in all it's various guises--Palace Brothers, Palace Music, Palace Songs, Palace, Will Oldham and Bonnie "Prince" Billy--and it somehow bypasses the explanatory muscles. The various names provide no clues (they are not each dedicated to a different mode, like Stephin Merritt's assorted identities that each match up with a specific way of making music) and there is not quite a direct chronological path (recording fidelity improves somewhat over time, but Oldham veers from acoustic to electric to solo to band and back again at will). There are antecedents to the kind of folk-based songs he writes, but they are only half-way helpful in grappling with the music at hand.

In short: I really like Oldham's music and keep buying more, but I can't say why.

This is frustrating. I'd like to say there's a strong emotional connection to the songs, but they are often written in an obscurantist style that seems to mean things that it doesn't. Sample lyric: " Now the sun's fading faster, we're ready to go/There's a skirt in the bedroom that's pleasantly low/And the loons on the moor, the fish in the flow/And my friends, my friends still will whisper hello" (from Viva Last Blues' "New Partner," one of my faves). Deep, huh? Well, sorta...but it doesn't exactly mean anything.

The music is often intimate (especially Master & Everyone, recorded so quiet & close you can hear Oldham breathing between verses), but it can also veer into loud, sub-Crazy Horse territory. The mood is typically dour, but don't tell that to Joya, which is fairly upbeat. Oldham's voice isn't particularly fantastic, though it is often pretty (especially on the Bonnie "Prince" Billy albums)...when it's not creaky and croaky and strained. And the sound is usually rustic, except when there are drum machines or processed noise brought into the mix.

Go figure.

So here I've spilled a few hundred words and said relatively little about why this works. And I could tap out a few hundred more without getting much closer.

The oddly simple conclusion is just: I like it. I'm confident Oldham's music is good, better than most, but my ability to explain why is strangely absent when any of these half-dozen discs are in the player. I have to remind myself to turn off the analytic filter in my ears, and just listen. You should, too.

SISOSIG? While I can't say precisely why I like Oldham's small army of himself, I'm quite sure that I do indeed like it. He's got music for nearly every mood, and it all stands up to repeated plays. There are new little details to ferret out of even the simplest arrangements, and the songs are often beguiling. It all stays, even if I don't really understand why.