Should It Stay or Should It Go?

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Are You Ready for the Country?

Artists: Paul Burch & the WPA Ballclub; Lambchop
Albums: Blue Notes (PB); I Hope You're Sitting Down, What Another Man Spills, Nixon, Is a Woman, Tools in the Dryer
Source: Bought new (IHYSD); promo (all others)

It will come to no surprise to anyone who has spent 15 minutes with me that I love record stores. Actual record stores. It's kind of a lost art these days, but there's nothing quite like getting lost in the racks of a good ol' fashioned retail music outlet. I've spent hours in places and walked out with an armload of shiny new (or used) treasures...or sometimes with nothing more than just the light buzz of having taken in the sights, sounds and smells of all that delicious musical possibility.

The big downside of most record stores, though, is the genre system. Not every shop breaks down genres the same way (Other Music in NYC uses divisions like Out, Then and Psych/Prog to slice up its holdings), but they all do it. I guess it just wouldn't work to lay it all out in alphabetical order and let the public go spelunking through the mixed media...we need to have it divvied up into digestible portions for us, even if that means making a judgment call about whether all Bill Frisell releases qualify as jazz, or if Aretha Franklin should be in Rock or R&B.

While the genre map can be kind of helpful (otherwise you might not learn that The Bad Plus was jazz until you'd gotten home and unwrapped the package), it can also draw harsh borderlines that many music shoppers are loath to cross. I know I certainly kept my distance from the Country section in any shop, from Tower to Third Street Jazz and Rock, that would cordon off its Nashville-driven holdings. I mean, what did I want with those cowboy-hatted hillbillies, right? I was a righteous rocker (suspicious of Neil Young's country moves) and/or eclectic music snob...surely such snobbery exists to sweep aside baser forms like country music.

But just like it took certain noisy rock bands to bring Ornette and Trane records into my life, it was an odd bit of indie rock that made me ready for the country. Lambchop, a large collective of musicians who billed themselves as "Nashville's Most Fucked-Up Country & Western Band," popped out a strange platter in 1994 called I Hope You're Sitting Down (or Jack's Tulips, depending on which side of the CD's jewel case you looked at). Slide guitars, weepy acoustic balladry, Southern-fried had all the trappings of country, but...well, like they said, it was kind of fucked-up. The liner notes credit one of the dozen or so players with "open-end wrenches," song titles include "Soaky in the Pooper" and "Let's Go Bowling," and one of the most beguiling songs has an emotion-laden lyric that goes, "She asked for some gum/He gave it to her."

What the hell?

It was easy to get sucked in to Lambchop's C&W world, because it was both totally familiar and utterly alien. They put on hypnotic shows where a stage full of people would make barely any noise [Side Note: one Lambchop appearance at a CMJ Merge Showcase had Yo La Tengo as the rhythm section; Superchunk's Mac on keys; and Neutral Milk Hotel's Julian on singing saw. Holy crap!]. And each record they released was more wonderful than the last, eventually adding R&B moves to the C&W base, more horns, more strings, more swing, more rock, more esoteric cover tunes, and more willful oddity.

If this was country music (and it kind of was, even if in a larger sense it clearly wasn't), then I wanted more. It quickly became OK to let other country seep into my ears. I began to hear it as a sort of regional, hillbillified blues music. And by the time Merge sent me a promo of Lambchop confederate Paul Burch's straight-up country record, Blue Notes, I was open to enjoying it.

Of course, now that I've learned to enjoy actual country music, most of my Lambchop records don't sound all that country to me. But they were the perfect gateway drug to the harder Nashville stuff, and it's thanks to Lambchop that I'm not afraid to wander into the Country section of the record store.

SISOSIG? Like children or pets, I love each of these Lambchop records equally but differently. If pressed, I'd have to say that What Another Man Spills is the first among equals here, with Nixon close behind. But I wouldn't want to part with any of these, nor the country tunes that have followed in their wake.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

You Hadda Be There

Artists: Built to Spill
Albums: There's Nothing Wrong With Love, The Normal Years, Keep It Like A Secret, Ancient Melodies From The Future
Source: Bought new (all)

There are few things as annoying as the Hadda Be There People. These are the folks with whom you share an affinity for a particular band or artist, yet they refuse to share a peer-level kinship with you because they heard said band/artist in a different era. Which, of course, is the only/correct era that could lead to proper appreciation.

On the surface this is just bullshit (and usually a particular brand: Sixties Bullshit). The idea is that if you listen to Blonde on Blonde or Beggar's Banquet in the here and now, you somehow can't hear it correctly. Nevermind that the fidelity of the CD remaster might be better, or that you (ie, me) might actually know more about Dylan than the interlocutor... Nope. No dice.

You hadda be there.

As someone who listens to lots of music way outside of my technical demographic (a large portion of The Beast could lead one to the conclusion that I'm an octogenarian African-American, rather than a GenX white guy), having my love of Miles or Neil or whomever dismissed because I wasn't in the audience at the Vanguard that one time in 1959 or de-seeding my bag in the gatefold of After The Goldrush really pisses me off. A lot.

On the other hand, I totally get it. I mean, is there a point in discovering Black Flag now, in the early Oughts? They weren't a "soundtrack to an era" or whatever reconstructed hippies like to think their youth's music meant, but Rollins and Ginn and Kira made music that reflected their time and place in a very specific way. You might dig TV Party just fine now, but I'd have to side with the Hadda Be Theres and say that there will be something taken away with Regan dead and buried instead of on the air from the Oval Office.

And even that is just a little ahead of my Prime Rocking Era (hence the total absence of Black Flag CDs in The Beast--though no shortage of other SST nuggets, I s'pose). But I was totally there for Built to Spill, man, and...well, I find myself wondering how a fresh pair of ears would take this stuff in.

Doug Martsch's music just kind of sounds like the soundtrack to a basic-cable original series called The Clinton Years. Way post-punk and a little bit post-Nirvana, teetering on the cusp of the Lo-Fi Revolutions and the ProTools Uprising, BTS records capture the freedom of the moment when you showed up to work in jeans and went home late with blurry vision and a pile of stock options. We were between wars (or so it seemed, at least), between recessions, and between the rise of the Alternative Nation and the collapse of the record industry.

BTS always tried hard to sound great, but never tried too hard to be cool. They aped prog-rock's extended guitar solos before that had become OK again, and managed to rock like mad without ever rising too much above mid-tempo. The songs often went nowhere in particular, but lyrics like, "I wanna see movies of my dreams" cut deep and swung wide. They referenced and covered codified Classic Rock unironically, smack dab in the middle of the High Ironic Age. The band even had beards before that was an indie-cool calling card.

And now...well, I can't help thinking I'm still hearing BTS in context. They sound like they don't care much what you think of them...which just happens to line up with a moment in time when it didn't matter much what I did or didn't do. They irresponsibly delivered to their major-label champions indie-rock tunes that clocked in the double digits (at a time when compact brevity was a general alt-rock rule), and it just so happened that I had no real responsibilities at the time, either. When Girl R asked me to kiss her during the long jams on Perfect Sound Forever (which is in my rack of vinyl, along with a few other bits of BTS missing from my CD holdings), it seemed to hardly matter that it was a terrible idea to say yes. And on Doug's guitar went, with no particular destination on the agenda.

To reduce all of that to something era-like, I guess BTS sounds like the mid-90s. Or, put another way: they were there at the time I was there for. And if you don't quite hear any of that in these records...well, you hadda be there.

SISOSIG? Will the Geezer Version of me think of Built to Spill as "the music of my youth"? That might be overstating it just a bit (or just a lot), but I do continue to have a timeline-based affection for these records. To be honest, Ancient Melodies is the one I reach for least (it pretty much sounds like Keep it Like a Secret, but with more short songs), but really I like all of these and still spin them all from time to time. And when it sometimes seems like the Bush Years will never, ever end, it is a breath of freshly backdated air to get to hear from a time before so many things slid so far downhill.