Should It Stay or Should It Go?

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Like Falling In Love

Artist: Bugskull
: Snakland; Distracted Snowflake, Volume One; Distracted Snowflake, Volume Two
: Bought new (DSv1), bought used (Snak, DSv2)

Ask most people if they love music, and they'll probably answer in the affirmative. But I don't think most people really know what it means to love music; I think they're in like with music, but not in love.

Having a true love affair with a band is a lot like...well, it's a lot like really being in love. There's that head-spinning shock of the new when you bump into a new band, the sparks of recognition when the songs speak to you in that indescribable (yet totally recognizable) way. A song can cloud your thoughts for days, an intense show color the way you look at the rest of the world for awhile.

When you fall in love with a band, really fall in love, it changes you forever. And you never want it to end.

Therein lies one of the chronic heartbreakers of Music Love. Keeping a band together is tricky business; having just read Dean Wareham's autobiography, I can say it sounds like it can be harder than keeping a marriage afloat. And the alchemical drive that makes a person synthesize themselves as music is not a forever thing; sometimes they lose the spark or need to pay the bills or, for a host of reasons, just give up.

But more often than not, bands end (the Stones notwithstanding) and it can break your heart.

Bugskull was a band I kind of fell in love with, and now things are weird between us. I first heard Distracted Snowflake, Volume One in 1997, a year when I would listen to just about anything Darla Records put out. They essentially said, "Hey, meet my new friend. I think you guys will really hit it off."

And we did! We totally hooked up! DSv1 sounds like...kind of like nothing I'd heard before. It was instrumental, but had some vocals; had some electronics, but was audibly instrument-based; was rock music, but also a little dubby and oddly otherworldly; must've been home-recorded (and was still the style in '97), but had a clean, punchy sound. The opening track, "Icecream Daydream," has a bass line that still wanders into my head unbidden from time to time, and something about "Grand Canyon" mainlines directly to the heartstrings.

So I waited for Volume Two (which was good, but not quite as great as the first time), and dug into the back catalogue a bit. Bugskull popped up in magazines and on websites from time to time, dropped tracks onto compilations every now and then, and...

And then it stopped. I guess the band broke up. Or maybe it wasn't really a band (on both Snowflake volumes, it's pretty much all played by mainman Sean Byrne) and they guy just wasn't into it anymore. Either way, I not only never heard from Bugskull again, I never heard of them again. They'd never made much of a mark on the music scene, so their passing went unremarked upon. No articles charting the demise. No deluxe reissues. No reunion tours.


And that's how it goes sometimes when you're in love with music. A band or an album or a song can be so important to you, infiltrate you down to your toes, but it's often a fickle, one-way connection. And the breakup can change how the music sounds--maybe only a little, but enough to make a difference. I listen to Bugskull and...well, I miss the time we had together. I know they're never coming back, but at least we'll always have the music.

SISOSIG? It's hard to do a rational analysis in the midst of a relationship, but now I've got a little distance on the whole thing. Basically, DSv1 is still thoroughly awesome, and I listen to it a lot (even though it reminds me that Bugskull is gone, baby, gone); DSv2 isn't quite as good, but it's pretty OK and anyway it's part of a set.

, on the other hand, really isn't very good. Eileen stopped by while I was writing this, and Snakland was playing--"What the hell is this music?" she asked, and the missus had a point. That album finds Bugskull not yet fully formed (it's a good thing we didn't meet then!), and I really never listen to it. Snakland goes, but my beloved Snowflake is mine forever.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Narrative Arc

Artists: Buffalo Tom; Cold Water Flat
: s/t, Birdbrain, Let Me Come Over, Big Red Letter Day, Three Easy Pieces (BT); Listen (CWF)
: Bought new (BT, BB, BRLD, Listen); bought used (LMCO, 3EP)

One of the more infuriating/confounding aspects of any big political season is the degree to which we are all in thrall to the narrative arc. Political reporters are, like most writers of any stripe, storytellers; so they look for a story in the constant churn of information, misinformation and disinformation that surrounds the candidates and their surrogates. Once there's a good story (Gore fibs, Dubbya's not that bright, Kerry's too effete, etc.), they ride the narrative arc all the way...until the next one pops up.

It's often not that helpful (Gore lies more than GWB?), but the impulse in in all of us. After all, who doesn't like a good story? And if it can have both a constant through-line and some twists & turns, all the better.

That's one of the nice things about Buffalo Tom, a band that has been riding a nice narrative arc since the late 1980s. Listen to their records all in a row, and the sound changes/progresses quite a bit: the "Dinosaur Jr, Jr" guitar squalls of the first two records give way to cleaner, more crafted rock songs (electric and acoustic), which bend and pop within a variety of production styles. They can sound like the Stones or the Lemonheads or Dinosaur or Husker Du or Neil Young or...

Which is not to say that Buffalo Tom is inconsistent. In good narrative fashion, they have a tremendous through-line. Regardless of the sonic context, I'd recognize Bill Janovitz's singing and songwriting voice anywhere; the band, overall, locks together in a remarkably consistent way, too. Taken at a trot, the Buff Tom discography is a story with a progressive rising and falling action: the noisy debut storms out of the gate; Birdbrain consolidates their emerging strengths; Let Me Come Over is a stunning leap forward, sharpening all of the band's existing characteristics while adding a few more; Big Red Letter Day works to figure out how to harness the power of these progressions; and so on. By the time of last year's comeback LP, Three Easy Pieces, the long-dormant group is able to slide right back into the sound they've had all along, once again putting a few new tricks into play (howabout those dual Janovitz/Colbourn vox?)

Of course, the problem with the narrative arc is it seems to tell you something that might not, in the end, be true and/or helpful. I mean, is the sound of everything from Come Over the result of natural progressions of craft, or the pressures of their new (and bigger) label? Is the drawing down of the guitar noise a conscious reaction to the post-Nevermind scene, or just maturing rockers showing their age a bit?

I have no idea on any of these points, and who knows if the band members themselves know? But it's all a good story, and I hope they continue to add more chapters--I'll certainly keep following along.

I've loved this band from the moment I heard Birdbrain at my college radio station in freshman year. Buffalo Tom manage the perfect mix of the audible emotional investment (which I'm always a sucker for) and the tight, energetic rocking that gets me going even when sitting still. Bill Janovitz is one hell of a songwriter, and I'd kill to know how he does what he does--the many nights my friend Matt and I worked on learning the Come Over songs on our guitars did little to distill Janovitz's considerable talents into anything I could work with. Once I hear any one of these songs I want to hear them all, and as such would be loathe to part with any.

Oh, and Cold Water Flat: a band put together by Bill's brother Paul. Whatever Bill's got, it must be at least partially genetic: if Buffalo Tom got ribbed for sounding like Dinosaur Jr, Jr, then Cold Water Flat is Buff Tom, Jr. I picked up Listen during one of my (many) deep Buffalo Tom periods (Bill plays on 1 or 2 tracks), and it's a somewhat nifty little disc. That said, only "Roll Me Over" really moves me anymore, so I think I'd be safe ripping that one and sending Listen along on its way.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Pure Joy

Artists: Buena Vista Social Club; Rubén González
: s/t (BVSC); Introducing... (RG)
: Promo (BVSC); bought new (RG)

I am not surprised by the fact that I am about to refer to High Fidelity to make a point about this music; rather, I'm kind of surprised it doesn't happen more often. (Really, if there's a more solid portrayal of the experience of loving music a little too much, please direct me to it!)

Anyway, the movie version of Hi-Fi opens with Rob musing on the possibility that exposure to your pop music might be more damaging to the young psyche than many of the more commonly ID'd culprits. The general levels of emotional devastation conveyed by most rock music are enough to put chinks in even the most solid personal armor, or at the very least create some weird ideas about how people relate to each other.

The long tail of broken hearts and warped personae becomes especially apparent when putting music like the Buena Vista Social Club on the stereo. Sure, some of this music is born out of hardship (the real kind, too; not that air-conditioned gypsy crap peddled by a lot of cushioned rockers), but the sound that comes out of the speakers is joy.

Pure joy.

These guys aren't just happy to be making music; they're thrilled down to the bottoms of their shoes (the shoes at least one member of the BVSC was shining for a living before Ry Cooder set up these sessions) and the joy is palpable, drenching every note. Nevermind that you don't understand the lyrics--the message behind every lyric is crystal-clear.

The sensation of hearing music like this typically makes me questions my general listening habits. Hearing Rubén González grin through the 88 teeth of his piano puts me right there with him, and that joy is restorative. Why not listen to stuff like this more often? Why go dark and/or noisy so often?

I'm not sure I have a good answer. I mean, this is not lightweight, disposable Happy Pop. These Cuban guys are masters of their indigenous music, and they're channeling history in some profound (but still blithely accessible) ways. I've got more bits o' The Beast that fit the bill for this kind of emotional deposit; the fact that I don't crave it more often probably says more about me than about the nature of music, though there is something in the latter that communicates the downsides more forcefully.

The little blasts of sunshine poking through The Beast are not legion, so it makes sense to hold onto what I've got. Really, the BVSC disc is the primal document, with Rubén's solo turn sort of an addendum...but it's a solidly enjoyable side dish (the fact that Cooder described Gonzalez as, "a mix of Thelonious Monk and Felix the Cat" should be enough to sell anyone on the project). I also thoroughly recommend the PBS documentary about the making of the BVSC album; this Cuban story might just contain the single best example of the Jewish concept of a mitzvah, a good deed with a holy bent to it, as I've ever seen. It is, to be sure, joyous.