A look back: Phil Spector

October 30, 2008

Phil Spector may currently be facing a  retrial for second degree murder, but I’m going to focus on his glory years.

Spector was a genious musician, producer, writer and whatever else he did in the studio. His work in the ’60s was a huge influence on John Lennon and Brian Wilson, whose work has in turn influenced nearly every band playing today.

His trademark was the wall of sound.

He’d add instrument upon instrument and pack as much punch as possible into a three-minute pop song. This moved music in a new direction. It shifted away from the standard Buddy Holly and the Crickets set up of two guitars, a bass and drums. 

It opened doors and allowed for endless possiblilites. Without Spector, there may have never been Pet Sounds or Sgt. Peppers Lonely Heart Club Band.

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No Age censored

October 27, 2008

Los Angeles band No Age performed a couple of weeks ago on the Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson.

According to a Pitchfork article, No Age guitarist Randy Randall was told he couldn’t wear an Obama t-shirt on the air.

Randall found an easy route around the censorship by writing “Free Health Care” on his shirt.

As much as my previous post says that I hate the mixture of politicians and musicians, I hate censorship even more. It’s pointless to prevent someone from showing their support for a candidate because of some draconian law about equal time.

Now that I’ve cleared my throat of the politics, I can talk about the band itself.

I only recently stumbled upon No Age and a bunch of other bands with a similar sound like Times New Viking and Abe Vigoda. The music is heavily distorted and sounds like it’s coming out of a cheap speaker no matter where you play it.

At first I found out it a little rough on the ears, but I quickly warmed to their sound. It’s the kind of music that you hear and think, “Why would anyone want to sound like this.” After a while you say, “Why doesn’t all music sound like this.”

Here’s a video of the Craig Ferguson performance:

Indie Rockers and Obama

October 21, 2008

Music and politics go together like toothpaste and orange juice.

As seemingly every indie rock act stumps for Obama, I’m left feeling uneasy. I’m not bothered that they’re supporting Obama.

I’m bothered because I believe music, and all art for that matter, is about ideas not politics. Politics is where ideas go to be tarnished, corrupted, abused and destroyed. It’s the land of compromise, and art should never be compromised.

Art is about the pure expression of an idea. It shouldn’t be political; it should makes us think about our own politics.

The National have a song called, “Mr. November” off of their 2005 album Alligator. It was my favorite song of theirs until it recently became the slogan of their campaign to support Obama. Shirts were printed and sold with a picture of Obama’s face and the words, “Mr. November” below him.

The shirts turned the abstract into the concrete. It stunted the idea that was “Mr. November.” It tarnished the song and made me look at the band in a different light.

I’d prefer a world where artists worried more about the ideas they expressed than who they think should be running our lives.

A couple of years ago, I was watching The Royal Tenenbaums when I heard a song in the background that captivated me.

 

It was “Needle in the hay,” which plays during Richie Tenenbaum’s suicide attempt (shaving scene).

 

After the movie, I raced to the computer to look up who was singing the song. The singer was Elliott Smith. I started listening to his other songs and tried to learn as much about him as possible.

 

About 10 minutes into my search, I made a startling discovery. He committed suicide in 2003.

 

It was a weird way to experience the tragedy of his death. I learned that he was dead only a couple of minutes after I learned he had ever existed.

 

Elliott Smith became the soundtrack to my sophomore year in college. He’s on a short list of heroes of mine alonside Lou Reed, Neil Young and Bob Dylan.

 

Sadly, Smith is the only one of these musicians no longer alive despite the fact that the other three were all born before him.

 

It’s a tragedy that his life and career were cut so short. He had so many great years ahead of him.

   

Here’s a video of him performing one of my favorite songs, “King’s Crossing”:

 

 

Marnie Stern

October 16, 2008

There’s a great Pitchfork interview with Marnie Stern. I hadn’t heard of her before reading the interview.

She has an amazing story. After years of struggling to find her voice, she finally released her first record at the age of 30.

She is one of the few people who merit the term unique. She’s a self-taught guitarist and plays with a shredding yet melodic style.

Her most recent record was released on October 7. It has a great title, This Is It and I Am It and You Are It and So Is That and He Is It and She Is It and It Is It and That Is That.

Is this even music?

October 13, 2008

In 1975, Lou Reed released Metal Machine Music. Unlike previous albums of carefully constructed songs, this record is simply an hour of guitar feedback. That’s all. No lyrics. It’s just one hour of ear-splitting, twisted guitar feedback, and I love it. 

Part of my love for this album is the Lou Reed mystique. I probably would have dismissed it had it been released by some no-nome band.

This may seem shallow or superficial, but it really isn’t. The record sounds different in the context of knowing who created it.

I appreciate it so much more because it is coming from someone who has the talent to make something pretty and pleasent and has the courage to try something completely different. What he produced took a whole different type of talent.

He created something ugly and at the same time beautiful. It’s grotesque and unlistenable at first, but if you allow to just flow over you, it becomes a beautiful sea of noise.

The record has been trashed as useless noise by many. Others reduce its beauty by saying it was just Lou Reed trying to piss off the record executives at RCA  by purposely releasing an unlistenable record. In interviews, Reed has defended the work as a sincere artistic statement.

I can’t be sure which is true, but it raises an interesting question.

What is music?

I think this record changed a lot of people’s minds about what qualifies as music. It’s been credited as an early influence on shoe gaze, noise music and ambient. 

I think it works as both a pure punk statement of defiance and a beautiful work of jagged noise.

Lou Reed’s greatest ability as a songwriter is to get at the heart of a complex emotion in as few simple words as possible. Here, he didn’t need any.

The guy in this video had a different take on Metal Machine Music:

Lou Reed: Berlin

October 10, 2008

I’m new to the world of Lou Reed. Somehow he didn’t cross my radar until a couple of months ago.

 I’ve been obsessed ever since.

I started with The Velvet Underground and slowly found my way to Berlin, which was just released on dvd as a stage performance.

I’ve yet to see the stage performance, but I’ve listened to the record about a dozen times.

Berlin tells the story of a German prostitue, Caroline, who falls for a man, Jim. Drugs and physical abuse cripple the relationship, and Caroline eventually kills herself.

The first song, Berlin, sets the scene. It starts off in German, slowly fades into a crowd singing “Happy Birthday Caroline,” and then resolves with Reed describing the infatuation phase of the relationship.

Reed sings, “We were in a small cafe/ you could hear the guitars play/ it was very nice/ oh honey, it was paradise.” Paradise quickly fades, and the relationship crumbles over the final nine songs.

Other highlights include “Oh Jim,” “The Bed,” “The Kids” and the finale “Sad Song. ”

“The Kids” is about Caroline’s neglected children. As the song progresses, you can hear the children in the background screaming for their mother.

It’s the most difficult part of the record to listen to. It is disturbing and powerful. By the end of the song, you’ll be wishing you could just reach through the speakers and rescue her crying children.

Berlin may not qualify as lo-fi music with its overwrought orchestra arrangements, but the emotion, intensity and writing are what really count and no amount of sappy strings can cover up the power of Reed’s words.

Here’s a clip of Lou Reed singing “The Kids” live: