Music For the Ages, Or Of An Age, Anyway

Over at Crooked Timber, Henry has asked for testimonials from us folk of a middling age about the music that survived — those bands and styles we grew up listening to in the 80s and 90s that continue (or failed) to be as lasting today. My comment turned into a dissertation on 90s music, so i thought I’d post it here as well, for posterity.

Siouxsie Sioux continues to be simply amazing, whether it’s her early stuff with the Banshees, The Creatures or her recent solo albums. For this aging Goth, she will always and forever be our Queen, whether she cops to the title or not.

My feelings about the Smiths/Morrisey are similar to Henry’s. I used to like them OK back in the day, mocking Morrisey for being a mope but still enjoying the music But lately I’ve come to recognize the wit, sarcasm, innuendo and genuine heart of their songs. The mopey pose is just surface detail covering for a depth and complexity that I’m only now, in my mid 30s, really starting to appreciate.

Nirvana on the other hand, not so much. And this is heresy for my particular cohort, as I was a high school senior when Kurt Cobain killed himself, and so for most people my age he is the Jim Morrison/John Lennon figure we were supposed to want. But really, Cobain was a self absorbed twat, and his music is interesting, but not quite as  important as a lot of people make it out to be. Grunge was, for all its bluster, a musical cul de sac. And there simply isn’t enough of Nirvana to be as influential as people claim it is. It would have been interesting to see what Cobain would have done, had he straightened his shit out and kept growing as a musician, but that’s one of these unknowable things. It’s just as likely that he would have turned into Eddie Vedder, doing the same old shtick for 20 years.

And how weird is it that Pearl Jam is on the way to being our generation’s Rolling Stones?

Now, Smashing Punpkins on the other hand are still awesome (and apparently have a new album!). I still bust out Melancholy and the infinite Sadness now and again. They managed to grow and change, escaped the grunge tag and became their own thing. And I have no idea if they’ve had any influence on contemporary music at all, but they should have.

The most unanticipated musical reassessment of my middle ages has to be Def Leopard. Never liked hair metal back in the day, but along side a lot of seventies rock that I dismissed as self indulgent twaddle, playing their songs on Rock Band has given me a begrudging appreciation for their music. It’s not the Beatles, mind you but for straight ahead rock and roll with no pretensions of being anything but a party band, it’s not horrible.

Monkee Gone To Heaven

Davy Jones of the Monkees died of a heart attack Wednesday. He was 66 years old.

I’m too young to have been involved in the first wave of Monkee mania back in the 60s. And to be sure, the Monkee’s are a weird, vestigial bit of pop culture from that time period — a Beatlesesque pop band created specifically for a TV Show about the adventures of a Betlesesque pop band — that’s PoMo on so many levels. And to watch the show in reruns, as I did in the 80s, probably did more to introduce me to meta-conceptual narrative than either Robert Anton Wilson or Thomas Pynchon.*

And the thing is, it’s clear that they knew what they were doing. They were messing with square, TV land tropes and purposefully trying to blow young minds. And I can respect that.

And in these days of prefab Disney pop stars, boy bands and reality TV, the fact that they didn’t write or at first even perform their own music is a gripe lost in some aging hipster’s argument about selling out. How do you sell out when you were recruited by a TV exec looking to cash in on Beatlemania? I’ll tell you how you don’t sell out: by subverting the audiences expectations by having as a guest star Liberace, who instead of playing a piano, smashes it with a sledge hammer.

That’s the legacy of the Monkees and of Davy Jones. He thwarted our expectations and had fun doing it. What more can you ask out of life?

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* I would go so far as to argue that I was able to grok RAW and Pynchon because the Monkeys had already primed that pump.

All You Need is Hate

Over at the Onion Av club, they have an interesting discussion of movies, TV shows and music that people have fallen out of love with. As much as I’m loathe to admit it, Sam Adams has a point about Tim Burton. I still think Beatlejuice is a great movie and enjoy Sweeny Todd but I have to admit, Burton is a hit or miss director. Even if we exclude Mars Attacks!, He’s hitting about a 50/50 average, with most of the good stuff falling into his early career. I’m still looking forward to Alice in Wonderland though.

But, alas, I have fallen out of love with a few filmmakers and musicians. Once upon a time, I used to love Bjork, swan dress and all. But only recently, I’ve found that I can’t stand to listen to any of her music, even Vespertine. I’m not sure if her Mathew Barney-inspired last album has retroactively tainted her music or what but Bjork has lost me.

I’ve already documented (possibly in a bit too much detail) my falling out with George Lucus. Let’s just let that one go. The Star Wars trilogy was completed in 1983 and as far as I’m concerned, he’s done nothing since but fiddle with speakers.

I’ve also come to realize that David Lynch is just not a good director. None of his movies even attempt to be satisfying films, or psychological pictures of the inner workings of a character or even just a decent story. I couldn’t even make it more than half way through Inland Empire before I was just bored. He just makes weird art filmic things that invovle actors and ocasionally there’s even something that apes the basic outline of a plot but in the rare event that shows up, it’s quickly ushered out back and beaten to death with a tire iron.

There is hope though: for years I was pretty much bored with Star Trek but the new movie reminded me what I saw in the first place and managed to reinvigorate my love for the older movies as well, even ones I had previously written off as sentimental and week stories.* It’s possible Bjork’s next album will remind me of what I saw in her music or that the rumored live-Action Star Wars TV show said to be starting up filming in Australia will remind me of the Star Wars of my youth. I wouldn’t count on it though.

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*Except Nemesis. That one still sucks.

Goodbye, Mike

If you’re my age, plus or minus a couple years, then Michael Jackson’s music was part of your life. And yeah, later, he became a troll in his own life, poisoned by celebrity and the weird depredations that lifestyle brings, awash in money and adulation but desperate for love and acceptance in a genuine, human manner — but the man could write a catchy tune. For me, it’ll always be Thriller. That was the one that stuck in my head. It was catchy, fun and smart. There’s a lot going on in that video, self referential and PoMo long before that became popular in pop music. And the zombies and the symbolism, but the music. Man! When you’re eight years old and you hear that opening synth bit, you just want to go howl at the moon. That was childhood distilled.

And probably that will be his legacy. Looking past the stunted man who never had a childhood, obsessed with a fairy tale purity of innocence he could never reclaim,making music that for an entire generation, will remind them of summer afternoons, riding bikes and watching horror movies way past their bed time.

I don’t believe in an afterlife, but there’s some consolation in oblivion. No more pain and longing, no more aching emptyness at a life mangled by fame and celebrity. In death, we can all forget the tragedy and remember the beauty.

The Universe Has Gone All Wobbly

So, Joaquin Phoenix has apparently quit the film industry to become a rapper.

I… hold on. Wait, let that sink in a moment…You know that scene in Being John Malkovich where Malkovich tells his agent he wants to be a puppeteer? Yeah, that was weird. So anyway, this is apparently not a belated April fool’s joke but reality just fucking with our heads. Typical.

In other news, I am quitting the library world to become an astronaut.

Well sure, what else is new?

Glad you asked:

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.”

So brazen a perversion of the opening lines of Pride and Prejudice, one of Britain’s best-loved novels, will doubtless give Jane Austen fans more than a touch of the vapours. One of the masterpieces of English literature has been retitled Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, rewritten with “all-new scenes of bone-crunching zombie action”, stripped of its considerable dignity and bloodied up for the delectation of the horror-loving masses.

Yes, the LA-based television writer Seth Grahame-Smith has reworked the famous romance as a brain-munching zombie yarn. In his mash-up, a plague of the undead haunts the placid villages of 19th-century England. Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy are now as ardent and effective as brutal zombie killers as they are as sparring lovers. The publishers hope this reimagining of the novel will broaden its appeal to “legions of blood-hungry new fans”.

[…] The new version, which is illustrated with line drawings of zombie-killing mayhem in the style of CE Brock (who illustrated the original), is on the verge of becoming a pop-cult phenomenon. Even before the book was published, it had shot up the bestseller lists, landing at No 12 on the Amazon charts last week. Natalie Portman has signed to star as Elizabeth Bennet in a film version to be directed by Richard Kelly (Donnie Darko).

My Emphasis, because, well, that’s just cool.

This is why I like the Future: dropping zombies into classical literature, and actors doing just whatever the hell they want, all driven purely by a desire to find a new way to express the inexpressible. What a world.

Long Live Triphop

After ten years, Portishead has a new album. This is undoubtedly a good thing, though you wouldn’t know it from this Salon article by James Hannaham, who seems to think that because the band’s new album doesn’t sound like their las tone (from a decade ago) that Trip Hop Is Dead! And Portishead killed it! Wah!

April 17, 2008 | Trip hop died on April 29, 2008, in Portishead, North Somerset, England, after a long illness. The coroner listed the musical genre’s cause of death as acute gloom as well as a severe deficiency of sexiness and Afro-Caribbean influence. Its funeral was conducted by Geoff Barrow, a beat maestro with a penchant for spy soundtracks, and Beth Gibbons, a chanteuse with a quivery vibrato, two members of the group Portishead, named after the town where Barrow grew up. The funeral service has been released in the form of a CD by the band, titled “Third.”

Trip hop’s parents always hated it — especially the deep, bumping rhythm section that made it popular background music in restaurants, lounges and hipster bedrooms. Its main practitioners felt that audiences would take trip hop more seriously if they removed these elements. Gradually they deprived the genre of black grooves and strangled it with white goth. Not until “Third,” however, did the genre make a decisive move into middle Europe, taking on German and Eastern European elements.

First, Triphop wasn’t exactly a movement with any sort of claim to immortality or cohesive manifesto, or even being a real movement. It was basically a few musicians who lived in Bristol and were friends and had similar influences.

But more importantly, claiming that Portishead has tragically gone Goth and expecting this to come off as a bad thing? Run that by me again, James:

Portishead’s “Third” finally severs all ties from anything remotely black or cosmopolitan, aside from a couple of breakbeats. Its extravagance, repetitiveness and gloom make the album Euro and Romantic enough to sound, at times, like high camp. When they prepare to take this set of dirges on tour, Gibbons and Barrow will need a truckload of lace and black lipstick.

A monotonous breakbeat throbs. Barrow adds synths that bring to mind theremins and Farfisa organs — the stuff of 1950s horror movies — even the theme from “The Munsters.” Gibbons begins to groan, her voice ghostly and nearly operatic. “Tormented inside,” she sings. “Wounded and afraid inside my head.” This describes only the first song, “Silence.” Similar tracks recall a variety of mopey and/or industrial groups from the ’80s — Joy Division, Dead Can Dance, sometimes even Eastern European provocateurs Laibach.

Tapping the shallows of their despair, the group weaves in bummed-out folk tunes like “Hunter,” “The Rip” and “Deep Water,” which set Gibbons’ dreary delivery against Spanish guitars or mandolins with the reverb cranked to give the impression that she is singing inside an empty church or a lonely culvert. Gibbons urges herself to conquer her fear of drowning. Listeners who have not decided to drown themselves by the end of that track should grit their teeth for “Machine Gun,” whose beat sounds a lot like — guess what? More accurately, the weapon in question seems to have been re-created on an 808 drum machine by the noise-punk band Einst¨rtzende Neubauten — those guys who used to play shopping carts onstage.

Oh stop! You mean they’ve adapted new sounds and grown over the last decade and are now influenced by Bauhaus, Laibach, Einst¨rtzende Neubauten… and this is bad, how?

This damning evidence of the band’s growth away from a brief trend that was kinda sorta popular among Insuferable Music Snobs during the mid 90’s is truly tragic. Something tells me this guy was upset when Bowie gave up being a folkie in favor of glam, too. I guess the rest of us will just have to make do with a band’s sonic growth into something beyond the narrow confines of their previous pigeonhole. How sad for us.

Old Time Family Values

Today, Elvira and I celebrated our Seventh Wedding anniversary in that tried and true way couples have for years: we bought Guitar Hero III for the Wii and spent most of the afternoon making really loud (and bad) music. It was great! I have a whole new respect for CC Deville and Dave Peverett. Poison and Foghat songs are far more complex than music snobs like myself give them credit.

Last night we saw Across the Universe (another tradition; did you know that the Seventh Anniversary is Psychadelic Musicals featuring Beatles songs? Me either. I thought it was flatware or cotton sheets).  It was excelent. But then I’m always impressed by Julie Tamor, she has a really solid ans unique visual language and brings a lot of innovative staging technique from the theater. The scene with Max being drafted is amazing stuff. Highly recommended.

I think tonight I’m making dinner. That should be fun. Spaghetti and meatballs, all around!

Sounds From Up North

Picked up the new They Might Be Giants album, The Else* this week and my faith in the Johns is restored. where The Spine was a little disappointing (felt like Left over B-sides from John Henry) the Else has a fun mid 90’s alternative rock edge to it, which is surprising for They Might Be Giants. Also, not at all unappreciated. With the limp pop music of the last few years fluttering all around, sometimes you want to reach back to those high school days when there was some good music still played in public spaces.* And boy is it a sad day for Justin Timberlake when he gets his ass rocked off by They Might be Giants.

I also just got the New Pornographer’s latest, Challengers. Still absorbing it but it’s good. Mellow. Much more so than their previous stuff but more textured as well and still with the ponderous lyrics as always.
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*I say public spaces rather than radio because seriously, who still listens to the radio?

Where Does All The Music Go?


It’s recently come to the attention of my wife and I that our music collection is not organized correctly. We have more than 13,000 songs in our iTunes Library, classified into 28 genres, which is a pretty representative collection, providing us with just enough categories to be able to arrange things meaningfully without it getting too complicated. Except, somehow it has, and this has a lot to do with the vagaries of cataloging in general. Our main problem is in deciding what performer or group goes in what genre. You’d think this would be straight forward but you’d be wrong.

Take for example our selection of the Cure. We have pretty much everything they’ve ever recorded. But where does it go? Rock? Alternative? Pop? 80’s? They aren’t traditional rock (a category I think should be reserved for your basic, straight ahead guitar based music, like Led Zeppelin or the Doors or the Beatles– but only mid to late Beatles as early Beatles is clearly pop. See where this gets confusing?)

As for the Cure, we do have an 80’s genre, which isn’t a real genre but a catch all for anything that came out during the New Wave, Post Punk era. But as the Cure were formed in the late seventies and are still recording and touring today, they span four decades so calling them 80’s just doesn’t fly. We could just say screw it and put them in Alternative, but what does Alternative even mean? These days, bands are just as likely to release albums on the Internet, which is as alternative as you can get from the Big Labels, but that doesn’t mean a Big Label, medium label or even small label won’t release the album as well. And with the mainstreaming of the Alt sound, the category just doesn’t mean anything, except as a non-genre label for everything that doesn’t fit neatly into Rock or Pop.

And the problem with Pop is really what got us into this mess in the first place. A friend of ours is getting ready for a cross country drive, moving back to Oregon and wanted some music for the road. So, naturally we said sure, come on over and we’ll burn you a disc of whatever you want. She wanted something upbeat and poppy to keep her and her boyfriend awake on the road. But My wife’s idea of pop music differs wildly form that of, well, everyone else in the world. Our Pop category covers Belle and Sebastian and Leonard Cohen. The Beach Boys and Amiee Mann. We don’t listen to Poppy Pop Pop music, like Boy Bands or Britney Spears, so our Pop selection veers wildly toward the upbeat alt scene. Except for Mr. Cohen who, as anyone even half familiar with his music will attest, is not even remotely what you’d call upbeat. But there he is, rubbing elbows with the Shins, Modest Mouse and The Postal Service.

We could move Leonard to Jazz, but our Jazz leans heavily towards the Swing/Crooner style. If we’re in the mood to listen to the swinging sound of the Squirrel Nut Zippers and Billie Holiday, we don’t want to put it on shuffle and end up with an ear full of So Long, Marianne. We do have a Chanson genre, which is basically French ballads in a cabaret style which might work bu then who says, “You know what I’m in the mood for? Melancholy French Cabaret Music. And Leonard Cohen.”

Oh, it’s all so confusing.