Saturday, November 28, 2009

"Hot Burrito #1" by the Flying Burrito Brothers (1969)

I think I’m starting to understand country music. The ‘keening’ vocals are not meant to be conventionally attractive, so all those years I spent wondering what was attractive about the forlorn dog-whine, I was missing the point. In fact, the vocals on the best of country songs sound that way because it’s a more direct combination of form and content. The successful country singer’s voice breaks as his heart breaks, and somewhere in the process, we the audience are drawn into the drama. And, potentially, hooked.

If there’s any truth to this theory, it seems ideally best presented in the context of weepy country songs. Hoedown stuff, the ‘western’ half I suppose, I still can’t explain. Garth Brooks I can’t explain either.

And, as a further caveat, if there’s any truth to this theory, then I reckon the vocal melody is essential. A weepy country song without much of a melody behind it is just, well, annoying. The kind of thing that people who detest country imagine when discussing how much they detest country.

Which explains the miracle of this poorly-titled song performed by a poorly-titled band who were hailed as ‘country rock’ at the time for reasons I can’t fathom (this is all country, no rock, though granted its fraternal twin “…#2” does have a fuzz guitar on it): the melody. Gram Parsons sounds as if he’s at risk of crumbling to little bits like a dried clay sculpture at any minute, particularly when his melody tests his thin vocal talents. And yet it is precisely the marriage of his vocal performance to his vocal melody that gives you the feeling that you’ve entered this poor man’s head. Suddenly ‘weepy and self-obsessed’ becomes ‘profoundly universal’, and the words appear to be conveying a meaning much deeper than they truly are. (And why isn’t this song called “I’m Your Toy”?)

Some day they’ll make the movies they’ve been making about Ian Curtis now about Gram Parsons. And presumably they’ll be just as interesting. Just like 2Pac (there’s a comparison you don’t meet every day), Gram Parsons is perhaps accorded too much glory merely for dying young, but this particular rich kid did float ethereally through the music industry for a few years, inventing Emmylou Harris and giving the Rolling Stones the keys to the magical Credible Country Vault. Along the way, he wrote a handful of beautiful songs with indelible melodies, and sang them all with that voice that could be a torture instrument, but somehow manages to convince you that everything will be all right precisely because it so self-evidently won’t.
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Saturday, November 21, 2009

"Set Adrift on Memory Bliss" by P.M. Dawn (1991)

Does not compute.

We all know what hip-hop is. We all know what rap is. It’s testosterone, it’s aggression, it’s ‘hard’, it’s ‘raw’. It’s all about ‘keepin’ it real’. Verbal dexterity, the dozens, etc. etc. etc.

What it’s not is soft, sensual and dreamy. And it doesn’t sample Spandau Ballet.

Okay, nobody’s ever going to use the word “revolutionary” in reference to P.M. Dawn. By now, the word most people will use is “who?” The fact is, though, that P.M. Dawn showed us a new direction for music just as conclusively as N.W.A. did. The fact that N.W.A. launched a 10-year industry and P.M. Dawn bore the insults through gritted teeth for a few years before giving up the fight has nothing to do with the relative quality of those artists’ outputs and everything to do with public expectations. I like N.W.A., but they became famous by pandering to peoples’ expectations / fears of what rap, and young black males, should sound like.

I don’t imagine anybody saw this coming. Prince Be was a large man decked out in loose-fitting gypsy robes and dreadlocks. Apparently Christians, at this early stage they evoked no specific religion but just a kind of all-encompassing spirituality that gave Prince Be a sort of Buddhaesque demeanour. You got the impression that he would release mosquitoes back into the wild rather than kill them.

Additionally, he was something that, in 1991, a rapper could be, and perhaps even aspired to be: a ‘poet’. I don’t like that word much in describing lyricists, but this song and others of its vintage weave a pattern of images and turns of phrase in a way that nobody in hip hop is doing today and even back then few people attempted. He was also something that a few people were at this stage but nobody had been until that time: a rapper capable of singing, or a singer capable of rapping, and thus actually wrote songs as opposed to verses.

And then there’s the Spandau Ballet part of the equation. I mean, what, was this team of siblings sitting in their Jersey living room saying, ‘Who should we sample?’ ‘I know! Spandau Ballet! That’ll improve our street cred!’

But that early-eighties synthetic groove, over top of ‘Paid in Full’, somehow worked amazingly, as the result is soulful, seductive and spiritual: one of those hip-hop songs that would still be compellingly listenable as an instrumental.

That is, if this is hip-hop. Among avenues left unexplored, if P.M. Dawn had found more success and spawned more imitators (okay, in a sense it did, but the ‘positivity’ acts that followed wouldn’t necessarily credit P.M. Dawn as an influence so much as a coincidence), would it have wound up coalescing into a genre not called hip-hop but called something else? Listening to second-biggest hit “I’d Die Without You” (in no sense a ‘rap’ song) makes you wonder…
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Saturday, November 14, 2009

"In the Air Tonight" by Phil Collins (1981)

We’ve got a bit of a double-feature this week, looking at the same artist at his very best and at his very worst.

Let’s be honest with ourselves: Phil Collins isn’t one of the greats. In many ways he’s exactly what’s wrong with the music industry, in fact. Genesis in the 70’s, meh. And it wasn’t his band, anyway. I have a sneaking suspicion that it’s been Phil Collins’s dream to muck up R&B into chicken-dance music for retired old ladies ever since trying our for the Monkees, but spending the 70s in a band that had certain powers to ‘evoke’ led him in the 80s to intermittently feel obliged to continue putting out mood music, amongst the cheese. Both under the name “Genesis” and under the name “Phil Collins”. Let’s be frank: in the 80s it didn’t make a bit of difference which name was on the label, did it? The contents were interchangeable.

Apparently, Phil was getting a divorce. He was depressed. He was experimenting with his new studio. He was making demos. He improvised the lyrics and most definitely did not see a man drowning another man and most definitely did not train a spotlight upon said killer during a concert. Actually I can report to you a lot about what Phil Collins has said concerning this song. The reason, of course, why Phil’s spoken at such great length about this song is that it’s the only song reporters have ever wanted to discuss with him.

What, they were going to ask about that great horn line in “Sussudio”?

Have you ever heard of the phrase “suspension of disbelief”? This is, I believe, the correct way to listen to this song. Convince yourself that this is not the guy who slaughtered “You Can’t Hurry Love” or did that “I Can’t Dance” song. This is not a dodgy balding Conservative with one freak moment of glory. This is an absolute frickin’ genius. Lie to yourself. It’ll make it all better.

Concentrate on that amazing mood he constructs. The sparseness – the chainsaw guitars somewhere in the background, the drum machine casually trotting along like a person aimlessly tapping his pencil on a desk, the array of weird sounds over top. Concentrate on, get this, the majesty of Phil the vocalist: the thespian way he moves from quiet rage to white-hot rage. The way subtle effects like echo and vocoder come in and out of Phil’s vocal line to spice things up.

It continues that way for several minutes: tension, followed by more tension, followed by more tension still. Then, of course, like a famous story often told or movie often watched, we know what’s going to happen yet it still knocks us off our feet.

Phil, bathed in vocoder, grunts out the line, “it’s no stranger to you and me”, and then suddenly it happens. At exactly 3:39, the world temporarily comes to a stop for the single most glorious drum break in the history of recorded sond. It starts at 3:39 and is over by 3:42. Phil Collins earned his place in music history with precisely three seconds of music. But there’s no way to overstate it. No human can resist air-drumming at this point, as Phil Collins invents the best advertisement ever for drumming as a professional career.

But like I give a damn about technically impressive instrumentation. You won’t find any Yngwie Malmsteen on this list, and for good reason. The thing is that the drum break, and the eternal drum fill that follows, makes perfect sense in terms of the emotional weight of the song: it’s the explosive summit of a three-minute crescendo, a gradual increase of tension until it shatters stupendously into relief. Shakespeare could not have scripted it better.

Forgetting boring discussion involving Ahmet Ertegun and overdubs, Phil was dead brave to release this as a single. Radio was brave to play it. The public was brave to love it. It was an amazing moment when Phil suddenly looked like the Genesis member to beat, artistically.

And in history’s most lunk-headed move, he proceeded to follow it up with the faux-cheery “I Missed Again”, the first in a long string of grandma-rock ‘classics’.

But if you close your eyes and just wait for that drum break, you can picture Phil Collins as the coolest man in history.
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Saturday, November 7, 2009

"Lodi" by Creedence Clearwater Revival (1969)

Creedence Clearwater Revival holds a strange place in history. Burning bright and quick, they left their legacy in a period of tremendous creativity measurable in months. Yet most similar ‘flashes in the pan’ blaze a revolutionary trail across history. CCR were hardly revolutionary; if anything, they’re reactionary. So why should we care about them all these years later?

It’s strange. They single-handedly created the genre of beer-commercial music. Those who follow in their footsteps tend to be agonizingly dull. On occasion they stumble into hokeyness, and frankly they never stray very far from it. John Fogerty sings all his songs in a hokey fake Southern accent and half of the time his lyrics seem like a Mark Twain book, or that painting with the old farmer couple and the pitchfork, set to music.

Yet they have a pure simplicity, devoid of any nonsense or pretense, that makes them actually quite nice to listen to. More importantly than that, they exhibit an instinctive sense of what pop music is and contain melodies that can stick in your head for ages.

“Lodi”, precisely nobody’s favourite CCR song, is such an example. Its melody is actually generated entirely by its chord pattern, and its chord pattern is practically twelve-bar it’s so generic. The melody ought to suck. Yet somehow, it doesn’t. The melody fits the chord pattern like a glove, the words fit the melody like a gloved-glove, and the whole thing chugs along with a curious combination of melancholy and breeziness. “Chug” is an important point. It doesn’t exactly “choogle”, which is a good thing since that’s such a terrible word, but its forward dynamics (which, incidentally, give the impression of constantly getting slightly faster – perhaps they do) push you headlong into the song and keep you there until it finishes.

Complaining about the life of a traveling band always seems a little bit too precious in rock music. What’s nice about “Lodi” is, while Fogerty’s clearly complaining, he’s doing it without pettiness but with a forlorn acceptance. It’s a curious emotional weight, especially for a b-side.

Which it is. “Lodi” was the b-side of “Bad Moon Rising”, also a great (and history will tell us ‘more significant’) song. The amazing rate at which Creedence was putting out great music during their two-and-a-half-year blaze of glory meant that songs as wonderful as this were getting chucked out on b-sides.

Amazing. Though nobody else on the planet will make this comparison, that rate of productivity recalls the Smiths. As does the commitment to ‘pop’ music at its purest.

And pretense, too.
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