Should It Stay or Should It Go?

Monday, November 19, 2007

Gone Too Far, Too Far Gone

Artist: Bright
Albums: Bright, Blue Christian/Bliss Out v.12
Source: Bought used (s/t); bought new (Blue C.)

One of the ways The Man tries to scare kiddies away from even low-level drug use is the idea of the Gateway Drug. The idea being that even if it seems like smoking some pot every now and then is fairly harmless (and the science says it is pretty harmless, kids!), it's actually entirely sinister because that one joint is not an end unto itself. No, it's going to make you want to try something a little stronger, which will lead to something a little badder, and before long you'll be knocking over Quik-E-Marts to feed your hard-dope habit.

So stay away from the soft stuff, because you don't know where it will lead.

My general opinion is that this is alarmist horseshit...a position that my own experiences with record buying thoroughly refutes. See, once I hear something I like, well...I want more. But not just the same stuff, man - I want something that hits a little harder, is a little further out there. And I'll keep dancing from one Gateway CD to the next until, finally, I'm not even sure what I'm doing anymore.

Bright holds two slots in The Beast for no other reason than it's a further-out hit of some wicked stuff that had gotten my brain all abuzz. In the mid-90s, Philadelphia earned the nickname Psychedelphia, and with good reason: there was some intense modern psychedelic music wafting out the the City of Brotha-ly Love. From Asteroid #4 and Bardo Pond to Lenola and Transient Waves, there was head-spinning noise leaking out of every dark corner of the city.

It was great. I was hooked. Gimme more!

Soon, my visits to the Church of Latter-Day Psychedelia became more wanton, less discriminate. If something was supposed to pack a strong hit of droning guitars and drifting percussion, I was in. All I needed was little prodding.

So I read a review of a Bright album that described the group as "Ash Ra Temple meets Sun Ra." Now, normally, I would have noticed that this description hinged on the writer's ability to find two improv-heavy groups with "Ra" in their names. Red flag! But instead, all my Music Junkie ears heard was that this was some heavy shit.

And I guess it is, but there's nothing really to distinguish it from any other moderately heavy guitar-based psych of the era. Bright sounds like two guys with a bag of weed and a bunch of pedals who rolled tape. Which is not to dismiss it entirely - there is some reliably tasty crunch that Bright cranks out from time to time - but it doesn't rise to the level of Windy and Carl or the Photon Band, groups who took the psychedelic mantle and made something new(ish) and often remarkable out of it. Instead, Bright just kind of gives you a low-intensity buzz...better than having none at all, sure, but less nifty than the truly primo doses available from all the other six-stringed dealers.

SISOSIG? Bright's self-titled debut bears the hallmarks of musicians who are full of enthusiasm and talent, but aren't entirely sure what to do with it. I play this record from time to time, but immediately afterwards I'm at a loss to recall what any specific part of it sounded like. Blue Christian, cut just a year later, fares a bit better creatively, and spices the long instrumental jams with some occasional sax (and other instruments that are neither guitars nor drums). Seeing as Blue C. is also part of my Darla Bliss Out subscription series, I think it'll do as my occasional hit of Bright's mid-level pleasures...and the other one can be chalked up to a purchase made by a strung-out noise junkie.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Mac Attack!

Artists: Bricks; Portastatic; Superchunk
Albums: A Microphone and a Box of Dirt (Bricks); I Hope Your Heart is not Brittle, Slow Note for a Sinking Ship, Hello Songs EP, The Nature of Sap, Looking for Leonard, The Perfect Little Door, The Summer of the Shark, Autumn Was a Lark, Bright Ideas, Ideas for Bright Ideas, Who Loves the Sun, Be Still Please, Some Small Things You Can't Defend (Portastatic); Superchunk, No Pocky for Kitty, On the Mouth, Foolish, Incidental Music, Here's Where the Strings Come In, The Laughter Guns, Indoor Living, Come Pick Me Up, Hello Hawk EP, Here's to Shutting Up, Cup of Sand, Clambakes Vols. 1-3 (Superchunk)
Source: Bought new, except for Microphone/Box of Dirt, Superchunk and On the Mouth (bought used); and Leonard, Little Door, Summer/Shark, Autumn/Lark, Indoor, Come Pick and Shutting Up (promos)

Conventional wisdom says there is no way to define "art," but I think the wisdom-people are wrong. Art: The result of any creative act that allows a member of the audience to know that s/he is not alone in their experience of the world. See? That wasn't so hard.

Music is one of the most spot-on exemplars of that definition, and one of the reasons is that it is easy to discern an individual person (or people) in the musical act, so that non-alone feeling has a weird sort of social aspect. In other words, we hear a song or piece of music and know, just know, that it was written especially for us, that the musician knows us so well.

Mac McCaughan, who fronts all of Bricks, Portastatic and Superchunk, is one of those musicians that you can feel like you know, or are somehow magically known by. Referred to as just "Mac" by anyone who digs what he does, there is something about his music and/or persona and/or presence that engenders the connection. Blessed with talent and seemingly free of pretension, Mac makes pop/rock music that connects like art.

Being a Mac Fan is not a flash-in-the-pan experience; glance up at the list of my Mac-based holdings, and you'll see what I mean (there's an equally thick list of vinyl). Don't imagine that there aren't plenty more people out there with a similar pile o' Mac. Why? Because Mac does the one thing that entertainers aren't really supposed to do: he grows up at roughly the pace of a human being.

I always joke that when you go to a Superchunk show, it's easy to tell how old any given song is: see how much the band's hands have to move on their instruments. A couple of chords in an easy sequence? Early 'Chunk, no doubt (albums #1 and 2, plus the first several singles). Maybe a handful, plus some short runs on the fretboard in-between? That would be mid-period (roughly On the Mouth through Here's Where the Strings Come In). Complex arrangements, time-signature shifts, plus maybe some keyboard flourishes? Anything from Indoor Living onward. The Portastatic discs follow the same arc, with the work becoming more sophisticated and mature as the release dates roll forward. (He kicks ass live throughout.)

But it's not just the music. The overall mood, the lyrics, the stage show...all of it grows up. The comp of Bricks tracks is young and uncertain (1988-90); No Pocky for Kitty (1991) is full of over-excited challenges to the world; Summer of the Shark (2003) is an affecting meditation on two people searching for each other in the wake of 9/11 (a far better reckoning of the event than The Rising, from Mac's hero The Boss). Now that Mac is married and has kids, that specific brand of contentment and the new attendant avenues of doubt and wonder are all over the most recent Portastatic discs. It's not just that I feel like I know Mac; the music makes it seems like I can better understand my own forward momentum by listening to how he processes his.

If you'd asked me a decade ago if I'd continue to get excited by Mac's music for the rest of my life, I would have cocked an ear to the noisy rush of early Superchunk and had my doubts. But from the domesticated pop and refined rock to the instrumental movie scores and jazzy experiments, it seems that as long as I keep getting older, Mac will be making music that grows up alongside me.

SISOSIG? Mac's music (along with a lot of the stuff he puts out through the label he co-runs with Superchunk bassist Laura Ballance, Merge) is some of my all-out favorite tunage. Some of these discs are more essential than others, and some have aged better or worse, but they're a body of work I can hear myself through. All of this stays, and there'll always be room in The Beast for whatever else Mac's got coming.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

I Take it Back

Artists: The Breeders; Pixies
Albums: Safari, Last Splash, title TK (Breeders); Surfer Rosa/Come on Pilgrim, Doolittle, Monkey Gone to Heaven EP, Debaser EP, Bossanova, Trompe le Monde, Alec Eiffel EP (Pixies)
Source: All bought new, except for title TK (bought used) and Safari & Debaser (from JP's collection)

It's a little difficult to write about the Pixies, because they're not entirely mine. As I wrote in a previous entry, "In most cases (including this one, probably) it would be an oversimplification to say that my friendship with JP was based on music." But, I should add that it would not be entirely inaccurate to say that our friendship was based on the Pixies.

Talking about and listening to the Pixies was our first point of contact, and an enduring part of how we related to each other. Y'know how men sometimes talk about a football team with each other? The way those guys feel like the QB is playing for them, that's how we felt about Back Francis, Kim Deal, Joey Santiago and Dave Lovering. We would discuss their recorded and real lives in detail. We would recite the little bits of between-song banter peppered throughout Surfer Rosa and the spiel that opens up "I've Been Tired." When Trompe le Monde came out, we went to the store that day, and dedicated that night's installment of our radio show to just that disc alone - playing each track and then discussing it at length. Inspired by the sports quiz in Diner, JP even subjected one of his girlfriends to a make-or-break round of Pixies Trivia.

I could tell a hundred more stories like those, plus more about Kim Deal's Breeders side project. Our devotion knew no bounds, and I think it reflected a lot of how we felt towards each other.

While Yo La Tengo eventually took over this role, it was largely because the Pixies had broken up. If they'd still been around, still recording, still playing live, I have no doubt that we'd have focused our devotion just as much (or more) on our Alpha Band.

So how do I hear Pixies and Breeders records now? Well, for starters: it ain't easy. But beyond that, I had to make a decision: would this music just be tied to someone/thing lost, or should I take it back? And if I wanted to, was that even possible?

I've lost a lot of music to memories. Songs that were tied to old girlfriends sometimes stop making into the CD player, more or less lost forever (or at least for awhile).

But I also have learned that it's possible to get them back. When things with Girl R imploded in the late 90s, it looked like she'd be taking one of my all-time favorite records with her. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea by Neutral Milk Hotel is one of the very best pieces of music, in any genre, that it's ever been my pleasure to hear. But the disc had gotten all tangled up with with Girl R, to the extent that it wouldn't have been out of place to give it up for lost.

I refused. I listened to it four, five times a day. I wrote about its merits for an audience of no one. I talked to people about it (no one quite as much as JP), and before long...I got it back. Sure, I'll occasionally think about Girl R when I take the Aeroplane out for a spin, but not too much.

So it's doable, at the very least. I tabled the issue vis-a-vis the Pixies until a couple of years ago, when the band got back together for a round of cash-in touring. I hadn't really gamed out how to deal with this - it had seemed like the group was pretty acrimoniously broken up for good. But hey, even rockers have kids and mortgages and such-like, so they tuned up the guitars and took the old songs out on the road.

(Quick non sequitur: By marrying Eileen, I was at this point tangentially related to the Pixies' lead guitarist. Joey is married to the sister of the wife of a cousin of Eileen's, which to me instantly made him Cousin Joey. I'm still working on seeing him at a "family event" in RI.)

What to do? Well, not going didn't seem like an option. Once I knew I'd do it, should I try to go with someone connected to JP? I decided against the kind of "tribute" approach (though it had served me well when The Magnetic Fields played all of 69 Love Songs at Lincoln Center a few months after he'd gone), turned down a backstage-pass offer from Cousin Joey's bro-in-law (too much, too much) and in the end just picked up some tickets with Concert Buddy Debbie. I made an effort to go in more with in-the-moment expectations than memories, and I think it worked out.

Actually, I know it did: the show blew me away, and I couldn't stop smiling for a week. It was briefly sad that JP wasn't at the concert with me, but I guess enough time has passed now. I was able to spend the majority of the show just rocking out, getting excited when they'd play the old songs we were all there to hear. Go figure: a band from the past puts on a show that is nakedly about reliving old, lost memories...and they end up doing something that brings me more into the present.

SISOSIG? This is sort of like asking, "Should the Book of Genesis stay in the Bible?" Every note of every one of these discs has deep meaning for me, past and present (and presumably future). I will keep these, replace them as needed, and add to them as required. I know at least one absent friend who would be very, very disappointed in me if I did otherwise.