Saturday, November 21, 2009
Liz wanted an idea, a concept, and that part was pretty easy. It took us about an hour talking in my living room to figure it out. Frankly, I still think it was brilliant. Criticism is my strong suit. I'm good at critique because I scrutinize the music I'm listening to. I would call it a passionate attention to detail. Mostly everyone else who knows me well would probably call it an obsession, but whatever label you want to slap on it, I hear things other people don't. I'm not saying that makes me special in any way, just different. Some people don't need to listen to things as intently and focused as I do, and more power to you if that's you're style. I'm not entirely convinced that I might actually find a greater and simpler joy in what I listen to if I could be that person. But, in the words of that spinach loving sailor, I y'am what I y'am and that's all that I y'am, so I have no choice; this is my plight, it is my lot in life to hear things the way I do, and even if I could enjoy things more, I honestly would have it no other way. So, when Liz offered me this chance, I knew I wanted to do something with criticism.
Answer: simple album reviews, right? Well, there were a few glaring problems. 1.) Reviews are not a column, they are simply a series of blurbs that make up a section, 2.) Album reviews border on news, so in order to stay relevant, you have to have them written and printed at least by the release date. But the magazine was only going to print an issue once every two months, so either you exclude a lot of music that should be reviewed, or you review a lot of stuff that is no longer current. Most print outlets review albums before they com out, worst case scenario, web outlets like allmusic.com and Pitchfork have the reviews up the day of the release. Why review something that's already old hat? 3.) (and possibly most important) A magazine that no one has heard of and has no physical copies in circulation doesn't really exist, so record labels were absolutely unresponsive, so advanced copies of records was simply out of the question. Where does this leave me? Fucked, that's where it left me. Traditional album reviews were not an option. So, if I wanted to incorporate criticism into a column, I was going to have to come up with something different. And, with the help of Liz, that's exactly what I did. If my only option was to write stale album reviews, why not write really stale reviews? Thus, the idea of "If you haven't already been listening to this, you should be" was born.
This idea seemed, well, is, golden. It works on so many different levels. I get to write about the music I really want to write about, but the sweet bus doesn't stop there. Let's face it, we miss shit. My best friend Tyler is music passionate/obsessive much the same way I am, and until about 6 months ago, he had never heard Van Morrison's "Astral Weeks". That album is arguably one of the top 10 greatest pop/rock records ever recorded (Again, thanks to Liz, she got me the beautiful 180g reissue of that one for my 30th), so if a music aficionado can miss one of the most rewarding records of all time for 28 years, it's easy to miss some fantastic records that are slightly less noticeable on the radar.
But what if you have heard it? Well, if you liked it, it's always great to hear other people's take on something you appreciate, and if you hated it, either you read it and decide to give it another listen (best case scenario), or the piece would give you more fuel for the fire. We always want our hate to be more focused, more searing, more evidential. Passionate hate is scorching, but you can usually drive holes through pure passion. This kind of column would give the opponent the chance to get their ducks in a row before the attack. Who doesn't want a stronger argument? I would wager no one.
Once the idea was in place, I knew what I needed to write about. Neutral Milk's "Aeroplane..." is the best record ever recorded. It's not my favorite album ever, but it is the best. Just to clarify the statement, "Schindler's List" is easily a better, more important film than "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy", but I've watched "Anchorman..." a hell of a lot more. "Anchorman..." is certainly more enjoyable to watch, a shit-ton easier to watch as well, but is it a better film than "Schindler's List"? My answer would be "Fuck no." "Schindler's List" is beautifully shot, compelling, life-altering. "Anchorman..." is pretty fucking hilarious. But as I've said before, art is not about entertainment, art is about pushing boundaries, re-writing history, forcing a re-evaluation of what is and isn't. "Schindler's List" does that, "Anchorman..." just makes me laugh my ass off. Certainly, comedy is in itself art, but if we're weighing the importance of one film being made over the other, in the grand scheme of things, the world is probably a better place because "Schindler's List" was made, but I'm not sure I can say that about "Anchorman...". I'm glad it was made, but there's nothing there that made me a better person, just a content one.
But that's really simply a side note. "Aeroplane..." is an indie phenom, and has sold impressive numbers for a truly "independent label" release, but certainly is nowhere near what could be regarded as a commercial success. It should be, though. So I wanted to do my part, no matter how minuscule it might be. I wrote my article in a fervor. I actually called in sick to my real job to stay up well past an acceptable bed time because it was pouring out of me. I finished in a little less than 8 hours and although I didn't say everything I thought should be said, I was proud of what I wrote. I submitted it, after an edit or two, it was accepted, and a few weeks later, the magazine tanked, and my article as well as my idea for the column tanked with it, and my dreams of writing about the albums I love seemed dead as well. (By the way, just another quick side note; although "Aeroplane..." is not my favorite album of all time, it is one of them, so...)
But then I started this blog, and the idea of "If You're not Already Listening to This, You Should Be" came flooding back. I had way too many records I wanted everyone in the world to love, and all of the sudden, I found myself with a forum again, albeit, one that I can only imagine is realistically a much smaller one, but hey, who the fuck knows, right? So, I decided a week or so ago that I needed to write this column in blog form.
It's funny, because the albums I intend to write about are albums that, in my head, I call "time and place" albums, but that title can't be more incorrect. These albums actually rise above a specific time or a specific place. These albums are, to me, timeless. They ring just as true now as they did when I first heard them. I call them "time and place" because they found me at "the right time and the right place" in my life. They mean to me what they do because when I first heard them, they spoke so intrinsically to who I was then, that I eventually fell madly in love with them. But as I grew as a person, they grew with me. Songs meant one thing when I first heard them, but when I listened a week, a month, a year later, they meant different things. The amazing thing is, because of what they essentially were (are) to me, I could remember what they meant upon first, second, tenth, seventieth listen, and they gave me the opportunity ignore the rules of the space-time continuum, and see through several different sets of the same pair of eyes. 14 year old Brandon could simultaneously exist with 17 year old Brandon, as well as 20 year old Brandon, 25 year old Brandon, and 30 year old Brandon. They don't transport me to a different time or place, they transport me to every time and every place I've been since I first heard them. Granted, none of this means they'll be as special to you, but I'm not sure I could feel okay with myself if I didn't at least try to convince you.
So, as sorry as I am that I haven't said anything of truly profound significance in this post, I felt it necessary prepare or forewarn you of what's to come. Oh, I'm not saying this is going to be the sum and total of what I publish here. If a particular thought burrows its way into my brain, I will without a doubt write about it, but by and large, I will tell you flat out that the albums I speak of, this idea, will dominate what I write on this here blog. So get ready because over the next few weeks, months, years, whatever, I'll be letting you know what I think you should be listening to if you aren't already. And if things go well, maybe we can all fall in love together.
Saturday, November 7, 2009
I admit, this fella (or fellain’t) is quite possibly one of the most annoying individuals on Earth (even though I do enjoy a good game of Scrabble, drank a sugar-free, caramel-infused, non-fat latte courtesy of “The Bucks” this afternoon, and think the Djarum company makes a wide range of quality products), but to disregard the tunes simply to spite the kretek firmly planted between their index and middle is absolute lunacy. People, this way of thinking is a cancer, a disease of epidemic proportions that is eating us alive and it has to stop. We’re slowly dying inside, and we’ve decided it’s not only acceptable but desirable.
It is at this point the naysayer will choose to start babbling on about fun and “people’s right to listen to whatever they want” and, of course, I have to imagine the world “elitist” will be tossed around, even though my rant is still in its’ most infantile stage. So, in hopes of quelling any unnecessary comments (look at me, thinking anyone will not only read this but feel compelled to weigh in…aren’t I cute?), I don’t think the vapid entertainer/musician has no place in existence. I love a wide range of musical acts and artists alike. Find me a “Wham!” song that doesn’t kick at least this much ass (if you could see me right now, I’d be holding my thumb and index about one inch apart). Kelly Clarkson…shit, that chick can blow and she has this, I don’t know, this intangible that makes me need what she’s dishing out on a seriously intense level. And frankly, I’ve never heard a K-Ci and JoJo jam (trust me…I know) I didn’t want play at least once more. Without a doubt, this is the most appropriate time for the “exception to the rule” crowd to begin screaming their platitudes from the mountaintops. It is absolutely true, the Radiohead’s, Pearl Jam’s and Modest Mouse’s of the world exists, but as the statement in the previous sentence implies, they are not the rule, they are the exception to it.
The fact that this non-detrimental music exists is so fucking far from the point. In fact, I’m pretty sure if you were literally standing on top of “the point”, you wouldn’t even be able to see the vacuous jams that pollute our airwaves and haunt the dark recesses where songs get unintentionally wedged into our minds. If anything, it’s a great thing they’re there. Sometimes we need to cut loose. Sometimes we do in fact just want to dance. The problem is, we stopped wanting anything more. We’ve fallen so madly in love with easy that we no longer see any value in the complex.
So, come at me now. If you weren’t ready before, you are now. I hear all of the derogatory gems flying my way: music snob, over-intellectualizer, douche, maybe? Fine, maybe all of those terms apply (although they actually don’t. No one can think Meatloaf’s “Bat Out of Hell” is one of the greatest rock records ever recorded and be an elitist), but that doesn’t change any facts. The fact is all of the mass-production, over-produced, carbon-copy, cookie-cutter pop, rock, rap, and country music that has been shoved down our throats for who knows how long has become not only a viable commercial product, but the only viable commercial product in the U.S.
Think about it this way. Twinkie’s are delicious. If you don’t like Twinkies (I’m not sure how that’s possible, but whatever) then think of your own personal favorite sweet, high-fructose corn syrup laden snack that is inevitably filled with some sort of equally unhealthy, lard-choked filling; it’s probably at least related to the “cream” family, but it’s your goody, not mine, you envision it, and then insert that name every time you see “Twinkie”. The Twinkie is not evil. Twinkie’s are and always will be good. They’re sweet, always delicious; they always satisfy that nagging sweet tooth that just refuses to quit. You always know exactly what you’re getting when you grab a Twinkie; the one you are about to buy will taste exactly like the one you bought last week, or last month, or two years ago because every Twinkie is made in the exact same way with the same ingredients. One Twinkie doesn’t differentiate from another. Always the same, always good. The Twinkie is in fact a beautiful thing, but the Twinkie will never be a meal. As long as you choose to enjoy Twinkie’s in moderation, you will live a happy, fruitful, Twinkie-filled life, but once your diet begins to consist solely of Twinkies, the problems begin. You begin to gain weight, you begin to lose color, your arteries start to clog and harden, before you know it, you can barely lift your flabby arm to knock on Death’s door without breaking a sweat and getting winded. Live with Twinkies, live a happy life, live only on Twinkies, die out of breath and miserable. Guess what, when it comes to music, we stopped eating Tuna steaks and Couscous with Pine Nuts a long time ago and we’re about to keel over with a sweaty brow and a seizing heart. We’re trying our damnedest to live on Twinkies alone, and I think we may have already died.
I’m glad Twinkies exist, I’m glad Lady Ga Ga exists (well, maybe not glad, but I’ve made my peace). The problem is, just as mass-produced snack cakes should and do co-exist with brown rice, asparagus and acorn squash in our diets, mass-consumption pop music like Britney, J.T., and whoever else “the kids” are diggin’ on these days should co-exist with The Mars Volta, Wilco, and The Flaming Lips on the Billboard charts and the ever-decreasing space for music videos on the Music TeleVision cable network, but they don’t. Oh, these and other bands like them sell some records, fill a decent amount of seats at their shows and have a reasonably strong fan base, they will never sell records on the same scale that our contemporary pop stars do. Are they niche market bands? I guess I would say yes, because clearly the exist in a niche market, but that’s the problem, they shouldn’t. It shouldn’t take a special kind of person to hear Bon Iver’s “Skinny Love” or “Creature Fear” and find value in those tunes, any normal kind of idiot should be able to hear those songs, hear that voice and that guitar and think “Holy Shit! This is something.” But my guess is, Wilco could have released “Radio Cure” as a single, and no one other than the people who already had tiny hardons for Tweedy would have cared in the least. Radio stations wouldn’t have been playing it, no one other than Wilco fans would have heard the stark beauty and subtle complexities of that brilliant, touching, heartbreaking song. That sucks. Not only for Jeff Tweedy and the rest of the guys in Wilco, but for all of the music lovers out there who don’t get a chance to appreciate such a moving song.
So ultimately, this is my point, and I guess it’s a call to arms for all in agreement and a challenge to all those out there who disagree with me. Let’s attempt to push the artists that matter into the forefront with the entertainers that don’t. Let’s not wait for artists like Conor Oberst to make concessions with his music to start listening to him. Let’s not fear the challenge. Art (and music is in fact art, whether you want to agree or not) is supposed to challenge us. Art, or I guess in this case I’ll just say music, is supposed to challenge our views of life and society and culture and beauty. Music shouldn’t be easy. It should force us to re-evaluate what is compelling and wonderful about it, and in turn, force us to re-evaluate what we think of life and reality itself. Good music should remove us from our comfort zones and make us rethink what we know to be real and true. Let’s not fear the visceral experience or look at it with contempt. Let’s not allow albums like Neutral Milk Hotel’s “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” and The Flaming Lips “The Soft Bulletin” be niche albums, niche music. Instead, let’s challenge ourselves with everything we listen to, find the good, the beauty, the brilliance in music that isn’t necessarily easily accessible to us, but is truly worthwhile and thought provoking art. And above everything else, let’s stop just eating Twinkies.
Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is a blinding white light of brilliance and ingenuity, of death, destruction, and ultimately, rebirth. I have a history with this album, a kind of long one that in the first draft of this blog (which was in fact originally an article for a magazine that never saw the light of day) filled five pages and detailed a month and a half of my life starting at the beginning of June, 2005 with a camping trip I took with a few friends, and ending in the middle of that July on a drunken night alone with an epiphany. But none of that is important. What is important is that this album, these eleven songs, can change your life if you let them.
The first time I heard this record I didn’t like it. It confused me.
Now, I love music. I love music for so many reasons that to even begin to list them would take up more time than either you or I have. It’s life, it’s love, it’s skinned knees and bruised egos and gallons of tears, it’s sunny days and great memories, and the best friends you’ll ever have. In a great song, you can take the human experience and encapsulate it in three minutes without making it sound trivial or trite. That is amazing. That is why I love music so much.
And I’m vain when it comes to music. I know my shit and I’m proud of it, maybe overly so. I can hear something once, and know exactly why it’s good. The inverse is true as well, which is why In the Aeroplane Over the Sea frustrated me.
When I first heard In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, I knew I didn’t like it, which I was okay with. My problem was that I didn’t know why. So of course, I bought the album the next day. I could tell you that looking back on it now, some ethereal force, some invisible “Hand of God” was guiding me towards something bigger than myself. It would sound cool, but it would be a lie. No, I bought the album because, as I said before, when it comes to music, I’m a proud man and there was no way I was going to let this album beat me. To confuse me would be to best me, and I had no intention of allowing that to happen.
But listening to the album changed nothing. Two weeks of obsessive listening left me just as bewildered. I understood it no more than I did the first time I heard it. The bottom line though was I simply wasn't ready for it yet. The fact of the matter is that In the Aeroplane Over the Sea can seem difficult to listen to initially because if you haven’t heard this album, you simply have never heard anything like it.
Let’s attempt for a moment, to imagine you were born and have lived underground your entire life, with no knowledge of anything that exists above the surface. You can’t be expected to know the sky is blue. Hell, maybe you can’t even be expected to know the color Blue. To you, the sky is brown; it’s the dirt above your head. Now imagine that one day, that dirt ceiling collapses and there you are, looking at this huge expanse of blue sky. How would you feel? You might be lucky if you didn’t go crazy from fear or awe. You might think the world was ending. Hearing this record for the first time is a lot like that.
I spent my whole life listening to many different styles and genres of music, but I listened to them all in the same way, with maybe a sensitive, yet all too human ear. A lot of the songs we love are based solely in reality. Love, life, death, happiness, fear…these are the subjects that move us and allow us to relate to the music we love. These subjects might be tackled in unique and exquisite ways; they may be rife with metaphor, but they’re still simply saying things we all say, talking about ways we all feel. Don’t misunderstand, I find these types of songs brilliant. To be able to say something that everyone says, everyone feels, but say it in a way nobody has thought to is a pretty remarkable gift, still, all of these subjects are so immediate and real to us that even if someone says something in words we would have never thought ourselves to use, we instantly know exactly what they mean, almost as though they’re saying those words for us. But In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is different in that those subjects are there, but they’re there all at once and in every single song. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
At the core, the music on In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is reasonably simplistic; rarely more than a four-chord progression played on an acoustic guitar, but it’s erratic. From furious to delicate to frantic to meandering and back to furious again, it cycles around constantly, and it’s completely drowned in a haze of fuzz. On the first couple of listens, it’s easy to get lost. It’s like trying to see what’s in the distance through thick fog. The style and tone from song to song changes so much that by the time you’ve adapted your ears and mind to what you’re hearing, the track ends leaving you in the dust, trying to catch up to whatever new turn that has been taken. Three minutes later, the process repeats itself. It’s relentless and can be, at least at first, frustrating.
Then there are the lyrics. Cryptic and precarious, from song one, the first installment of “The King of Carrot Flowers”, you’re pelted with images of an alcoholic, fork-wielding, mother and a trash collecting, suicide obsessed father, while in the background, two people surrounded by this madness seem to be falling in love. The seemingly disjointed and random phrases don’t stop there. If anything, the images grow more odd and vivid, from declarations of absolute devotion to Jesus Christ, to cremation ashes falling from the sky to rest in the sea for eternity, to a two-headed boy who lives in a jar lost somewhere in a darkened room, tapping on the glass to lead us to him and bring him parts to construct a magic radio for the girl he loves. They seem crazy, and maybe, to at least some degree, they are. However, no matter how much you want them to simply be nonsense, you can’t help but believe there’s some story here. You’re just not exactly sure what it is. And if there is some unifying theme here (and trust me, there is), it’s the face and voice of a young girl named Anne Frank. Singer/songwriter Jeff Mangum reportedly read Anne’s “Diary of a Young Girl”, and was so deeply affected by it that he was driven to write an album for her.
I have my own theories about the lyrics and their meanings, but I won’t go into that here because I think that would be irresponsible of me. This was a personal record for Jeff, and as a result, must become a personal record to everyone deciding to listen to it. If you haven’t already heard it, to pollute your mind with my own ideas would poison your own experience, and thus, would poison the album itself. The lyrics have to be internalized and deciphered by each person, individually.
I’ve been talking so much about words though, and haven’t said a thing about the vehicle through which we hear those words, the voice. It is by no means a traditionally good voice; he’s not going to win American Idol. Still, Jeff Mangum’s perplexing and beautiful delivery softens the blows of all the strange and disturbing images. He sings with passion and reverence, purity and honesty, beauty and love, yet in every song, every line, every word, you can hear confliction and torment. Hope and fear, faith and disbelief, torture and contentment all radiate from that voice. In a song like “Holland, 1945”, which has maybe the most direct references to Anne Frank… “The only girl I’ve ever loved was born with roses in her eyes, But then they buried her alive one day in 1945 with just her sister at her side…” we are instantly bombarded with the horrific images of mass graves at concentration camps but then with almost no warning what so ever, the mood changes and Jeff sings that she’s been reincarnated as a little piano-playing Spanish boy, and although the turn of events is no less strange, we feel better knowing she’s alright. By the end of the song, we’re back to where we began… “…and here is the room where your brothers were born, Indentions in the sheets where they’re bodies once moved but don’t move anymore.”
In three minutes, we’re horrified, given hope, and reminded of how Anne’s story, and many others’ like hers actually ended. With remarkable candor, Jeff Mangum’s voice captures all of this, the twists and turns, the rise and fall, the black and white of the story, and when the song ends, you may feel almost grief stricken but you still can’t help but feel some shred of hope. If not for the ultimate peace that with luck all of those innocent people who died 60 years ago found, then at least for mankind; the fact that maybe, as a whole, through all of our misdeeds and mistakes, we’ve grown enough to never allow anything like that happen again. Of course, you only need to turn on a TV or open the international section of any newspaper to see that things like that are going on all over the world on a daily basis, maybe they’re not as expansive and globally threatening as Hitler’s Nazi Army, but as polarized and geographically contained as they are, they’re there. As strange and maybe contradictory it is though, the compassion of Jeff’s voice lets us know that somehow, it’s all right. He’s telling us to prevent this from ever happening again, but he’s also saying that to internalize the world’s struggles and take them on as our own can only destroy us, and although it’s ok to cry and to bleed for the terrorized and mistreated innocents of the world, it’s also ok to accept things the way they are as long as we continue to hope and to pray that tomorrow will in fact get better. Maybe we can’t always physically save people ourselves, but we can raise our kids to recognize the evils of the world, and, with fingers crossed, every generation will make the world a little kinder, a little gentler, a little more compassionate and aware, all this from a 3 minute and 12 second song. It forces you to rethink our notions of what love, devotion, and faith are, and what they are capable of being. That’s powerful, that’s magic, that’s religious, and it can, if we’re open to it, save us from ourselves.
But really, these are only my thoughts. I left out that detailed story about the camping trip and about my preoccupation with figuring this record out here. I left out the evening, the moment it hit me, and I finally did understand it; I left this out not because I didn’t want to tell my story, but because, really, that part of it isn’t my story. The events that lead up to my relationship with this album are not my In the Aeroplane Over the Sea story. My story is what you’ve just read. My story is how much I’ve fallen in love with this album since it was played for me and then I rediscovered it a month and a half later. My story is the fact that I listen to music differently now than I did before. My story is that this album becomes more special, more important to me every time I listen to it. My story is that now, I need to convince everyone I can to get this album if they don’t already have it and begin to write their own story.
But my story should be no more important to you than my first listen ultimately was to me. What is important is that now, you have an opportunity. You can take my advice and take a risk. You can get this album and allow it the chance to open up new worlds to you. And honestly, that’s why, if you’re not already listening to this, you should be; for the chance at something you’ve never known before, the chance at something bigger than you or I or us, for the chance at something brilliant, bright, eternal. Certainly, I can’t promise you you’ll feel the way I do about this record. It’s not for everyone, regardless of how much I would like to believe so. But for the right person, you can hear everything I do and more, because it’s your story to write, and it can go any way you want it to.
Through all of the creepy carnival funhouse images of death and fear that circulate in the lyrics, through all of the Lo-Fi fuzz that saturates and warms the music on In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, the themes of clarity, love, and hope that are tied up in the lyrics and melodies are the things that really seep through and make the most long-lasting, sincere, and in my opinion, important impressions. Jeff Mangum says in “Oh, Comely”, “I wished I could save her in some sort of time machine”, and with this record, whether he realizes it or not, he has. He saves her every time it’s listened to, every time someone makes the discovery. He saves her every time someone sings along and actually cares about what they’re singing along with, and every time someone falls in love with the record, and as a result, is forced to remember Anne. He saves her every time someone becomes so enamored with the words, the melodies and the madness that they have to tell someone else about it. He built the time machine, it’s called In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, and every time we add another chapter to our stories with it, we save her a little too.