Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Tappan; In the car; With the Revolver

It was bound to happen.  I started a blog, primarily about music, I'm a few posts in and haven't yet even mentioned The Beatles, and so now, it would seem, is the time.  Many of you who know me know that I'm trying to limit how much I say about music being objectively good, or better than other music, but rather stress my tastes in the matter.  For instance, I'll try not to just straight up tell people that OK Computer is easily the best album of the '90s; but rather that it is certainly my favorite, and if you prefer, for example, Loveless by My Bloody Valentine, that's your prerogative I suppose.

That said, I will cling to one thing that I consider to be objective musical fact, and that is that The Beatles are better than everyone else.  They are the greatest band that has ever existed.  No one has had the sheer amount of success they had.  No one completely redefined popular music with each successive album they put out.  No one had more number one singles.  At one point in April of 1964, they had the top five singles on the billboard charts and the top two albums all at once.  They were unreasonably innovative, doing countless things for the first time on recordings which later became staples in the industry.  I could go on with stats like this that no other band can boast, and then list the things that are just my own personal opinion--for instance how pop music had never had harmonies like that before them, how their songs are just simply more creative than anyone else's, how each member of the band wrote songs and sang lead, and how, to me, they just sound better than anything else anybody's come up with.  I'm not saying that you can't like a band better than The Beatles, because people like what they like and that's great; but I am saying that The Beatles are better.

I did a lot of driving this past weekend.  I didn't have a lot of cd's in my car and was sick of the radio, so as a result, I listened to Revolver by The Beatles at least 4 times start-to-finish.  You may say that this is excessive, but I wasn't bored for an instant.  As it wrapped up the first time, I thought about trying out the radio, but then I just let it cycle back to "Taxman", and tried to imagine that I was in 1966 when it came out, hearing for the first time that voice come in "One...Two...Three...Four...One...Two..." with noises and coughs in the background, and then "BAM" exploding guitar chords, and that bass hook that drives and carries the song (something that pretty much never happened pre-McCartney, btw).  I guess people older than myself were actually around, and got to experience this sensation, and could probably say some more authoritative things about it, but I can't even imagine hearing this album not knowing about what came after; not knowing what to expect from it.  I mean think about it, you've only had 9 months to recover from the shock of Rubber Soul coming on the scene, and now you have to cope with the fact that they've progressed way past that!?  No album before Revolver is even on the same plane of existence as Revolver (this could also then be said of Rubber Soul, Magical Mystery Tour, Sgt. Pepper, The White Album, Abbey Road...).  I mean you've got bands like The Beach Boys and The Rolling Stones catching on by this time, but they were always a few steps behind and a few great songs shy of The Beatles.  Nothing sounded close to this album at its release, and you just know this is gonna be an album that changes everything when your mind is first blown with the opening of "Taxman", one of the first hard rock songs ever, which by the way was written by probably the third-best song-writer in the group.  Then "Eleanor Rigby" comes in, and I get chills.  Every time.  And what's that? The only instruments are a string octet?  I don't know anybody who's given Eleanor Rigby a solid listen and concluded that it's anything shy of an incredible song, and frankly, I don't care to.  Then comes "I'm Only Sleeping", a sort of psychedelic-era precursor by John, with that great jangly guitar, and some of the first backwards guitar ever. Not to get in a rut, "Love You To" comes next, starting out with that favorite of pop-instruments: the sitar.  So by this time we've had four incredible songs that could really each be given its own genre.  By the sixth track, each member of the band has sung lead on a song.  I find it somewhat unfortunate that now it's almost universal to have "the singer" of a band.  If one posed the question "Which one of you is the singer?" to The Beatles, they wouldn't know how to respond. (Well, they would probably say something terribly witty and off-the-cuff, but I don't know how to respond)  That question doesn't make any sense for them.  They all sing.  They all sing lead.  They all sing harmony.  They each have a great voice, perfect for the respective songs on which they sing lead.

Let's see, what else might this album have?  Does it have a song with a tight horn section? Yup, "Got to Get You Into My Life".  How about a beautiful French Horn solo in the middle of a heart-wrenching ballad? Oh yea, "For No One" has that.  What about an incredibly underrated song with wonderful bass parts and harmony guitar that, to me, sounds better than anything any Allman's ever did? Oh right, nobody even talks about "And Your Bird Can Sing", even though it's a better song than the best songs most bands even dream of writing.  How about the drums on the album though...wasn't Ringo really a pretty weak drummer?  No.  And stop listening to that slander.  Just listen to "She Said She Said" and tell me that that's not great drumming.  You're not going to get the outrageously extravagant wild-man drumming like that of Keith Moon or John Bonham out of Ringo, but you'll also never get boring, second-rate drums that are anything less than exactly what a song needs.

All in all, I just didn't care to stop listening to Revolver while I was driving.  I haven't heard anything terribly interesting come out since Helplessness Blues, which you all know I doted, rather thoroughly, on a bit ago (though I hear I should check out the new Bon Iver) and so I didn't have anything new and exciting to be getting acquainted with.  I didn't have much else interesting to put in the old cd player, and so I just let Revolver revolve; and this 45 year old album, even four times in a row, still sounded fresher and more pleasant to me than pretty much anything else I could have been listening to.  It's one of the greatest albums of all time, certainly better than anything that's come out in my lifetime, and a fine selection from the greatest band of all time.

By the way, I think I'd probably say that it's my third favorite Beatles album...

Monday, May 23, 2011

If Presentation Was Everything...

...then "The King of Limbs" by Radiohead would, quite simply, be the greatest album of all time.  What the band deemed "The world's first newspaper album" finally arrived at my doorstep a few days back - pretty newspaper-like so far.  It was all wrapped up in a rain-repellent sleeve to keep the paper portion of its contents safe from the elements.  Still a good bit like a newspaper.  I open it the thing up, and inside...is a newspaper.  Well that just may be the most newspaper-like quality thus far!  In big, bold, newspaper-y font across the top the title of the publication reads "The King of Limbs" and then it just continues to be very much like a newspaper.  Little articles, musings by the band, lyrics interspersed, many many fantastic looking works of art filling whole pages of the thing, strange little writings that seem deep but I can't really make any sense of them - all fill the hefty paper.  It was great fun to flip through it while I was...hmm...what was I doing?

Oh ya, listening to the album on my turntable.  That's right, this was, after all, an album.  In addition to the newspaper is the actual album sleeve covered in beautiful artwork, holding two clear vinyls that are about the sleekest things I've ever seen.

Which brings me to my next point.  Unfortunately for "The King of Limbs", presentation isn't everything.  The music actually counts a lot; and it's a good thing that "Limbs" is apparently governed by a monarchy, because I don't see this album getting voted into power in a free country.  Certainly not if that country was the land of "Radiohead Discography".

I bought this album before it was even possible to hear the songs.  All of a sudden, one day in February, it becomes apparent that new Radiohead will be available something like 5 days later!  But wait! If you preorder what will be "The world's first newspaper album", then in May, you'll receive a crazy package full of art, literature, vinyls, a cd, this weird card-stock thing with lots of tiny weird images (which, by the way, I can't make heads or tails of, figure out what it would be good for, or what most of the pictures are, but by golly I love it), and more.  Well I had to buy it.  This is, after all, the band that brought me "OK Computer", which I will continue to claim is unequivocally the greatest album of the nineties, not to mention "Kid A" which defined its own genre of music, and all their other great albums.  In a musical landscape that I find leaves something to be desired 90% of the time, I'm gonna go ahead and get whatever one of the few consistent, incredible bands of my generation is going to come out with.

My first impression was that it was pretty poor.  It seemed like a lot of self-indulgent Thom Yorke vocal droning with a lot of electronic loops and ambient noise.  To some extent, I still feel that way, but much less so, and it's growing on me continuously.  Despite not having the "triple guitar attack" of Radiohead of Yore, or some of the incredibly catchy riffs or progressions that really make some of their older stuff stand out above this work, it still has many oh so Radiohead elements that make their work great.

Layering, for one, is something on which Radiohead has a uniquely incredible grasp.  Every part in every song is incredibly appropriate in its tone, duration, volume, intricacy; and they blend together to form beautifully full sections of songs, and fall out almost unnoticeably to leave you with hauntingly beautiful stripped down parts.

Radiohead is also still king of (limbs?) the gorgeous but melancholy, drone of a song.  Codex, in particular, comes to mind.  The haunting blend of vocals and flugelhorn gives me chills.   Give Up The Ghost is another beautifully haunting track that just layers over one little progression the whole time but keeping it interesting with new sounds coming in and fading out, continuous backing vocals, and of course the ever-emotional Yorke vocals.

Additionally, drummer Selway and bassist Colin Greenwood work together on much of this album to make beats that would make demoralize an inexperienced member of what you could call the rhythm section of a band.  The great thing is, it's not that their parts are even that difficult, they're just more creative, and really isn't that what counts?  Listen to the beats on Feral, Little By Little, and Separator.  Listen to how the bass complements them, as well as creative bass parts sprinkling the rest of the album (quite a little gem of a bassline in the breakdown of Morning Mr. Magpie eh?).

And of course we can't forget Jonny Greenwood.  You have to listen for where he shines on this album, because there's not gonna be any in-your-face shredding, if that's what you're looking for.  But when you listen for it, he shines brightly.  Clever, intricate guitar parts fill this album to the brim.  Not to mention him obviously being responsible for a lot of brilliant arranging and creative guiding of songs.

Lyrically, the album is ever-poetic, with a lot of natural imagery, mysterious tales of difficulty, aging, lasting, and more, with a lot of fairy-tale sort of imagery interspersed.  The wealth of artwork corroborates this feel well, conjuring up images of the strange creatures in the artwork in the newspaper while the album is playing.

I could be pretty negative about this album, and focus on how it doesn't live up to their great work of the past, or even "In Rainbows", which I consider to be a pretty far superior work overall.  It certainly doesn't help that every time I listen to TKOL on my computer, itunes moves onto Airbag when it's finished, since "OK Computer" is the next alphabetical Radiohead album on my computer, reminding me of the mind-blowing brilliance contained therein.  And it's important, I think, to distinguish that this album quite simply is not as brilliant as other things they have done.  However, it is, on the whole, quite a good 40 minutes of music, and a huge relief from 98% of the awfulness that gets onto the radio these days.  I'm excited to see what they do next.  They changed their sound completely and produced a great album with "In Rainbows", and released it on a name-your-price basis.  This album's packaging is one-of-a-kind, another drastic change in sound, and overall pretty enjoyable.  I think they've proven that they have the creative ability to experiment a little bit and get back on track and continue to make great music, as well as be completely groundbreaking in their methods of releasing of great music.

So ask your Radiohead-fanatic friends to get a good look at this packaging, as my description can't do a justice, and give "The King of Limbs" a couple of chances.  Listen closely for the truly great parts.  Realize that Lotus Flower may very well be the worst track on the album and should have, in no way, been the single.  I think if you do these things it'll grow on you.

And maybe hit pause before Airbag starts playing.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Why do these blues bring me so much Joy!? (A review of "Helplessness Blues" by Fleet Foxes)

There's a ride at Cedar Point called snake river falls that takes you and 12 of your closest friends up a big hill in a sort of boat-raft thing, with the express purpose of turning you right back around and dumping you down an equally large hill with water flowing down it. At the bottom, your raft then slams head first into a small pondish body of water spraying mass quantities of water in many directions, drenching you and anything in about a 50-foot radius. After you ride, you can then go stand on a bridge under which these rafts pass after their giant splash. You can hold onto a railing and face the rafts as they come down the hill, and much of the mass quantity of water previously alluded to comes charging directly at you. You can stand and watch as the water forms into directed projectiles coming at you. Your body tenses in anticipation of the force that's about to overtake you. You clench your teeth and squint your eyes and contort your face into a grimace as this wall of water prepares to do its worst. Then, for just a second, you're completely at the mercy of the water – its immense power rushing over you, leaving no part of you uninfluenced by your interaction with it (that is to say, dry). And then as quickly as it started, the water's all back in the pond. You're left smiling, dripping wet, and slightly dazed at what just took place.

This is pretty much the exact experience I have around the 0:43 and 1:49 marks of “The Shrine/An Argument” – My body tenses and I actually make that teeth-clenched-eyes-hard-shut face as Robin Pecknold's vocals ramp up “Sunlight over me”, and then suddenly as he sings “No matter what I do” I am completely overtaken by the power and passion with which he sings for just an instant; then I am left somewhat disoriented, tingling slightly, and in a bit of a haze after having been completely overtaken by the pure force of the song for a moment, before it lets me back to normal and moves on.

Helplessness Blues is an album full of well put-together songs, incredible harmonies and arrangements, evocative lyrics, and moments—like the aforementioned—that simply blow me away. Without a single weak track, the album ranges from the beautiful and simple “Blue Spotted Tail” to songs like the complex and grandiose title track, complete with incredible layering and a drastic time and tempo change. The songs are all obviously crafted, and not simply thrown together for the sake of a song—diverse instrumentation arranged just right for all of the different moods of the album; dynamic changes to really convey emotion (that's right modern music, all of your songs don't have to be uniformly the same volume!); a range of tempos and time signatures throughout. An incredible amount of thought and care was clearly put into making a beautiful product.

One thing that really makes this album stand out is something that it has which I feel that most music today lacks: the element of surprise. Most of the songs that I hear do exactly what I expect them to. There's a verse with a predictable chord progression followed by a chorus with a similarly predictable progression; maybe another verse and a chorus, and then maybe they repeat the first verse with a key change because they didn't write enough lyrics to get the song to exactly that “generic radio single length”. The whole thing is one volume and one tempo. With this album, I was kept guessing the whole time, as they surprised me again and again with their songs twisting and turning and taking me on an incredible ride. They would go for chords that I simply wasn't expecting (4:08 of “The Shrine/An Argument”). They would lure me into thinking that a song was in 3/4 (beginning of “Bedouin Dress”) and then suddenly when the drums came in it was in 4/4. They would make harmonies more intricate each time they repeated a verse (“Someone You'd Admire”). They would just change the time and tempo of songs (“Helplessness Blues”, “The Shrine..”). Unexpected triplets and peculiar rhythms (“Battery Kinzie”...what can I say, I'm a huge sucker for triplets!), bold instrumental solos (violin on “Bedouin Dress”, and how 'bout that dissonant sax at the end of “The Shrine...”), the list goes on.

In short, the album is a masterpiece. At this point I'm probably into double digits as to how many times I've listened through it, and it's not letting up. The intricacies of the music make it just as (if not more) interesting each time I listen, and the powerful feel of the arrangements and soul of the vocals just keep me coming back for more. If, when January 2012 rolls around, I'm not unhesitatingly proclaiming this as the best album of the year, I will be eating my words while listening non-stop to whatever album comes out that I find better. But frankly, I don't see that happening.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Another Brick In (Blog On) The Wall (Internet)

So my name is William and I love music.  Well, that statement should be made with certain conditions.  I love some music. But when I love it, I do so pretty enthusiastically.  I also have some pretty strong feelings time-to-time about music I less than love.  If you know me well (or even kinda) you've probably talked to me about music at one time or another, whether that be playing it, listening to it, watching it happen, etc.  If that's the case, it's also likely that (unless we agree pretty splendidly on things aural) I may have bored you considerably by rambling on about whatever it is I may have been fascinated by at the time; or conversely, may have deeply offended you, as I admittedly need to work on my tact when my opinion of what may be others' favorites is unfavorable.

 I've considered a "music blog" before, and always decided against.  But I was considering such an endeavor probably under delusions of grandeur.  "I'll make society see where it's gone so wrong in the realm of pop music."  "I'll enlighten the world as to what they should be listening to, and why they should be listening to it!"  "I know a thing or two about music, people should want to see how I can so cleverly and elegantly enlighten them."

The fact is, this is certainly not the point of this blog.  Nothing in my experience makes me any more credible to write anything about music than anyone else.  For instance, a good friend of mine writes a blog about the Washington Nationals (Here ya go Yodes: The Nats Blog).  He studied journalism in college, and knows what he's talking about when it comes to sports.  I'm pretty sure he does things like "research" on stats and brush up on the players about whom he will write.

The same cannot be said concerning myself and this blog.  I simply love some music (and dislike some music) to the point where I sometimes get worked up and just feel that I need to share some thoughts about it!  For example, today, the album Helplessness Blues by Fleet Foxes officially came out.  I realized on Sunday that it had become available to stream on NPR, and have done so approximately 6 times as of now, and today after school I immediately went to a record store to purchase the vinyl (yes, I'm one of those people).  The point is, I love this album.  I immediately loved this album when I first heard it.  I was sitting on my couch with headphones on unconsciously exclaiming things like "wow!" throughout.  Over the past couple days I've talked to all  my friends who share my love for this particular band, but felt let down that all of society just doesn't get it and is just simply not going nuts over this album like I am.  I began accosting people whom I know didn't care.

This sort of behavior got me thinking how I probably bore people on a regular basis when I just won't shut up (I would like to say that to some extent I don't think it's controllable, sorry).  Additionally, how I sometimes can't reign it in before I go and insult that "beautiful song that was your first dance at your wedding".  So really, this blog is a method by which I am tricking myself.  The idea is as follows: when I get into "overexcited puppy left alone for 10 hours and my master just got home exuberant" mode about something I like, I can talk to the friends who care, elaborate on here, and leave the innocent bystanders alone.  When a song or album is so bad (to me) that I'm offended and upset by its very being, I can vent on here.  Then, if you read it and are bored, or offended, you've come here by choice and it's your own fault.  So that's the goal friends: to leave well enough alone in the real world when that's merited by putting the thoughts on here.  Even if no one reads my ramblings, I can feel that I've done my duty in proclaiming the brilliance (or utter awfulness) of something, and no one else will be affected.  If you do want to read though, great! I'd love to have you.  But be warned, I won't be worried about offending your music here (remember, you can just navigate away to grooveshark, and listen to it to spite me).  I welcome comments, and even criticisms of what I say, and would love to hear your thoughts as well.  Lastly, I reserve the right to write about other things sometimes as well, because after all, it's my blog, and the "ic" in musicings is in parentheses for a reason.  So good night internet, and go give Helplessness Blues a listen before my next post. (you'll never guess what it's going to be about)