Thursday, July 29, 2010

Napster, and the Softest Bullet Ever Shot

Napster fucked us, plain and simple. It was like we all became crackheads. It was cheap and as long as you knew where to go, it was easy get and you could take as much as you could carry. It felt good at first, but before we knew it, we couldn't stop using it. Eventually, it left us hollow, a shell of our former selves. When we looked in the mirror, we didn't recognize who we saw. We became mp3-addicts, freebasing electronic rocks through our Ethernet cables, forgetting how to live and how to listen to music.

Trust me, I know because I was a huge user. Oh, it started out innocent enough...born out of curiosity and a desperate desire for out-of-print Cure b-sides; I turned to Napster as a way to satisfy my completest urges, but before I knew it, I had stopped buying music all together and started downloading songs and albums I didn't even really want simply because I could.

A large part of it was novelty. Before Napster, the only thing I used the Internet for was printing out a Misfits lyrics book, looking up inaccurate information for high school research papers and seeking out naked pictures of Jenny McCarthy, but then Napster came along and suddenly the Internet seemed to have a higher purpose. I could get music for free. It was a revelation. It was exhilarating. It was like handing a rockhead a packed pipe and a bottomless supply...only bad shit could come of it. A wise man named Justin Hawkins once said "It seemed like such a good idea at the time", and how right you were Mr. Hawkins. It seemed like a fucking great idea at the time. But we tend to only see our mistakes clearly when we look at them in a rear-view mirror, and Napster was a mistake. P-2-P networks changed everything, stole it all; robbed us of our fanship, our humanity, our souls, and the kicker is, we unlocked the God-damned door for them.

Napster got us hooked, and once that happened, the way the world collectively looked at music changed. There was no more investment. Obviously, if you were using Napster you weren't investing financially, but more importantly, Napster allowed music fans to check out emotionally. That's not to say that economics wasn't in itself a significant factor. It changed record sales which changed the industry which ultimately changed the way we saw musicians. All of the sudden, artists who wanted to sell records became evil and greedy. We suddenly thought artists who were upset about their music being ripped off were sycophants to the almighty dollar, like they didn't care about their art or their fans, like all they wanted was a big pile of cash to put on top of their already big pile of cash.

The fact that Metallica had spent 14 months on the road playing shows for fans ceased to matter. Metallica, as the obvious example, wasn't touring relentlessly for themselves. Can you imagine how hard it must be to tour for over a year? I'm away from my house for 5 hours and I start to get the shakes. They, like pretty much every other band in history, were doing it for the fans, they were doing it so as many people who wanted to see them had the opportunity to do so. And because they played so many fucking shows, ticket prices stayed down. This isn't meant to be a defense of Metallica, or a validation of Lars Ulrich. I like Metallica, and I think Lars Ulrich is a dick, but not because he wanted people to buy his records. That just makes him a working musician.

I remember all the Lars bashing; I was in on it anytime the topic crossed my path, but not because I agreed with the arguments, because I was scared not to be. I was scared that understanding the point of Ulrich threatened my coolness factor, so I agreed and mimicked people's rage, but I understood where he was coming from. First off, L.U. claims that his only anger at Napster was the fact that it gave bootleggers opportunity to release unfinished material. Maybe that's true, maybe that isn't...I don't know. But I do know I don't like anyone reading what I'm writing before I'm finished, not even my wife. So if rough cuts of a song find their way onto the Internet, I can understand why he'd be pissed. It'd be like eating a chef's food before their done cooking it. Even if it tastes good, it's not going to be as good an experience had you let them finish.

But even if it had more to do with the cold, hard dollar more than our buddy Lars let on, people seem to have forgotten that although music is art, it's also a musician's job. I don't know about you, but if I showed up to work tomorrow and they told me my services would be on a strictly volunteer basis hence forth, they would blink their eyes and see nothing but my dust trail. I'm not going to work for free, and I suspect neither would you, so why would we expect musicians to do it?

I've heard the counter arguments. "I go to the shows", and "I spend money at the merch tables". I know the arguments because I've used them myself. But truthfully, I will never have enough money to buy tickets to even just one show by every band or artist that I've downloaded music from, I certainly won't have enough expendable cash to throw at merchandise. It's an excuse, a rationalization. It's illegitimate and it's delusional. It's something to say in order to make ourselves feel better about doing something we know is wrong but wish wasn't.

It fucked the record industry too. Now don't get me wrong, I'm not a huge supporter of the record industry or big business in general, but I also don't have time to care about trying to stick it to "The Man". I'm tired a lot, and I am a big fan of instant gratification, so with the exception of my wife, I don't really want to stick it to anyone. Hey, I'm all for the theoretical overthrow of "The Man", and it someone wants to stick it to the man in my honor, go for it, but in this case, we didn't stick anything to anyone making above a 5 figure salary by using P-2-P programs, we stuck it to ourselves. The result of the use of of Napster and other P-2-P networks resulted in a change in the way the record industry operated.

At one time, record companies conducted business much in the same way that publishing houses do. Publishing houses sign mass-market paperback-ready authors because they sell a shit-ton of books. They then can funnel the profits they make from that less-than-creative but more-than-lucrative author into other less-than-lucrative but more-than-creative writers. The rewarding ends justify the filthy means. Danielle Steel gives us John Irving. Granted, Irving carries weight on his own now, but he didn't when he started, and all good things have to start somewhere, and 9 times out of 10, good things are misunderstood and under appreciated in the beginning.

In 1994, Columbia Records was the home to both Aerosmith and Jeff Buckley. By 1994, Aerosmith sucked but sold a lot of albums and Jeff Buckley did neither of those things. I can't say that Aerosmith's record sales had a direct impact on Columbia singing Jeff Buckley, but I can't imagine it hurt. In a perfect world, Jeff Buckley would have sold 6 million copies of Grace worldwide, but we live in a very imperfect world, and in reality, Jeff Buckley was never going to sell millions upon millions of records. It sucks, but it's the truth. With a crappy cash-cow like Aerosmith on it's roster, Columbia could sign Jeff Buckley without fear. If it's a commercial success, awesome, but if it's not, if signing Jeff Buckley turned into a financial black-hole, Columbia could find solace in the fact that they unleashed a brilliant artist on the world, even if the world was too myopic to care and still have Aerosmith to churn out another shitty record that would sell 3 million copies to fill the economic void.

But the Napster shows up. Faster than anyone could ever imagine, Napster begins draining record sales, not only from the paltry numbers of the artistically brilliant but commercially unmarketable, but also from the horribly marketable but artistically barren. What's a company supposed to do? A business that deals in art is still a business, and they need to at least break even if not turn a profit. So the record industry shifts from the old mold. They no longer use commercially feasible entertainers to foot the bill for honest artists, they take a dollars-and-cents, practical approach to business. They start to sign, promote, push only commercially proven, probable money-making artists. Suddenly, we're overrun with bullshit. Suddenly, unless you're 'NSYNC, you're album doesn't get made on a major label because if it can't make a ton of money, then it's costing the label too much money to make. The result is record companies discharging a tumult of entertainers with no artistic merit but an excess of commercial viability on us, saturating the airwaves with junk-food sounds instead of solid, enriching, nutritious sustenance.

And can you blame them? They're just trying to stay afloat. They're just trying to make records that make money so they can continue to make records, period. I wish I could find the fault with and point the finger at the record execs for ruining recorded music, but they've never been in charge of making a good band popular, they've only been in charge of giving a good band a chance to be popular, and Napster destroyed the record labels' financial ability to take chances on a good but unproven band. After Napster, good bands still made records, and a ton of people listened to them, but without the numbers reflected in dollar-signs, major labels had to resort to releasing nothing but Enrique Iglesias records, because Enrique still sold, and even he and the others of his ilk weren't selling as much as they would have in a Napsterless world. Still, the pop stars were making some bank, so the record companies released and promoted the shit out of that stuff, forcing everything else in to a dark corner.

Meanwhile, the pool of creative and worthwhile artists being released and promoted on major labels was slowly drying up, evaporating from an ocean to a lake. Good musicians were still getting signed, but they had a lot less time to prove themselves as a viable economic force. Where artists once had three, four, five records to make a name for themselves, they now had an album or two before the major labels chalked them up to a bust and cut them loose. I wish we could blame the record companies, but they were like any other evolutionary organism, adapt or die. The adaptation wasn't beneficial to the music buying public, but the companies managed to survive. It sucks, but you kind of have to give them a pass. Napster on the hand doesn't get that pass. Napster was the music world's CFC's, destroying the ozone and perpetuating the global warming that evaporated that ocean.

But then there's this other effect, less tangible but far more dangerous. See, when you buy music, you feel a greater need to give an album a fighting chance. When you pay hard-earned greenbacks for a record, you listen to it a lot. Maybe you don't like it the first time you hear it, but you still listen to it five, eight, ten times. Maybe you will eventually throw your hands up in disgust and admit to yourself and the world that you wasted your money on a bad album, but maybe after that tenth time listening to it, you'll hear something you didn't hear those first nine times, some subtle nuance, some small detail that managed to escape you the initial handful of times you tried to justify your purchase. And sometimes, some of those albums you don't like at first turn into some of the best records you ever heard.

Some of my favorite albums ever are ones that I didn't like at first: Radiohead's O.K. Computer, Jeff Buckley's Grace, Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, The Hold Steady's Boys and Girls in America were all records that, after one listen, made me wonder what in the fuck my friends or the critics I respected were listening to. But because I refused to give up on them, eventually they didn't simply grow on me after but fucking floored me.

I think about that a lot, about where I'd be if I'd given up after a listen or two; would I be a different person? Probably not, but I still would have missed out on some of the most enriching material I've had the pleasure to fall in love with. I paid money for them, so I wanted to give them as many opportunities as it took for me to be absolutely conclusive. I wanted to repeatedly pour over the evidence before I handed in my verdict. I invested financially so I wanted to invest emotionally. And I think that's how it was for all of the music buying public, that's how it was when you had to buy music, but Napster changed that. "No cash" equated to "no real involvement".

Napster made music disposable, like food at an all-you-can-eat-buffet; don't like something you grabbed? Set the plate aside, toss it out. Go back and get something else. It's no thing to you, you're not paying any more for it than you already have. And if the next thing you take isn't so great either, throw that out too and find something new. If something wasn't instantly pleasing, you could get rid of it with a few simple mouse clicks, sending it away into the garbage disposal without ever having to think twice about it. For some people, it was liberating, but for me, it just made me feel sad, wasteful, traitorous, and helpless to stop myself.

Napster provided us the opportunity to lose a part of ourselves, and we lunged at it, we drank it up with fervor and begged for more. True, we only have ourselves to blame for what it did to us as fans; you can't blame a drug dealer because you're an addict. The dealer may be a piece of shit, but unless we're willing to buy what he's selling, he doesn't exist. But what Napster helped us become as music consumers doesn't come close to comparing what it did to what we're consuming.

Napster showed the world that coupling music and technology was a lucrative prospect. MP3 players may have existed years before Napster, but I certainly didn't know anyone who had one. Before Napster, the MP3 player required a lot of personal dedication. You had to create your own MP3's from CD's you bought, or spend massive amounts of time searching for websites that hosted downloadable files. They were bulky and expensive but had small amounts of memory, and required a lot of work. They were annoying and wouldn't have lasted, but then Napster came along and made everything easy, thus destroying the viability of the physical medium of music. But it doesn't end at MP3 players.

Napster accelerated music-based technology. Suddenly, software companies began pumping out products that made home recording easier and the results sound more professional. Simultaneously, websites like Myspace and Youtube begun popping up that gave these new home-recorders an outlet to display their material. The virtual world became saturated with two-bit hacks who found themselves with means and opportunity. Sadly enough, the music world responded, and everything became a hastened reaction to the guerrilla bullshit that we found ourselves swimming in.

It ushered us into the age contrived novelty; writing a solid song and executing it with precise and exceptional aptitude took a backseat to gimmick. Separating yourself from the heard became the most important and essential thing. Even though that ocean I mentioned earlier was definitely shrinking, the water had to go somewhere, and suddenly we found the plains flooded with uninspired musicians, or at least incapable ones. Now anyone who had ever had the slightest aspiration to be a rock star found the opportunity to do so, as long as they sounded original. Being different became more important than being good. We have stopped caring about artists who wrote good songs and focused on people who write different sounding songs. Good or bad, it doesn't matter as long as it doesn't sound like something that came before it. But a piece of shit that smells like perfume is still just a good smelling piece of shit. Just because something is different doesn't make it good, it simply make it different.

What all of this ultimately amounts to is that Napster showed the world that there was money to be made by pairing music with burgeoning, non-musical technology, and once that happened, the music world began to spin way too fast for music fans. We couldn't keep up, so we, like the major labels, had to adapt. And like the major labels, those adaptations may have allowed us to survive but made us fundamentally less than what we used to be.

Artist loyalty went out the window. We used to buy records by artists we liked simply because we liked the artist. Good or bad, we bought the album and listened to it. Some albums were better than the last one, some were good but not as good as the last one, and some weren't good at all, but we bought them all and listened to the shit out of them. For better or worse, you stuck out with your artists because they were your artists.

That may seem horribly moronic if not maybe at least a little admirable, but if you love music, the outcome is really just purely beneficial. Ryan Adams is one of my artists. I'm going to buy anything that R.A. puts out simply because he put it out. Some of it's been good, some of it's been not so good, some of it's been mind-blowingly, fucking-A brilliant, and for me, the average and sub-par have proved to be as equally valuable as the amazing, life-altering shit. Oh, I'm not saying the aesthetics are equatable; Cold Roses and Heartbreaker will always sound better than Demolition or Cardinology, but in the end, their substantive worth is the same because the great and not so great both give me a clearer, deeper insight into the music. I've always believed that to truly appreciate the present, we have to internalize the past. Pouring over what's already happened gives us the ability to comprehend and appreciate what's currently happening and helps us prepare for the future. I can feel the newer Ryan Adams records more because, good or bad, I've thoroughly studied the albums that have already been released.

By giving the missteps just as much attention as I've given the triumphs, I've gained a greater understanding of Ryan Adams as an artist. This understanding creates a more immediate and intimate relationship with the good records, but it also provides me with the ability to comprehend the moves that seem incomprehensible. I can listen to a record he makes that isn't nearly as good as some of the things he's done in the past, and even if the end result isn't what I want it to be, I can find reason in his process; I can find method in his madness. This helps me to see the less obvious records in a different light than I otherwise would be able to, to see the more veiled efforts for what they really are and not just what they simply seem to be.

What this boils down to is I get him as an artist. As a human being, who in the hell knows. He's easily one of the most baffling fucks I've ever known of, but as a creator, I understand him, I get it. The good, the bad, and the ugly as it applies to his music all makes sense to me. I may not agree with all of his decisions, but I understand why he makes them. As a result, his music means a lot more to me than it ever would otherwise.

Maybe this seems like self-coercion or maybe concession. Maybe it seems like because I've allowed myself to fall in love with an artist I'm willing to accept whatever swill they throw at me as something worthwhile, excellent, significant or possibly even essential. I don't know, maybe that's exactly what it is, but I don't think so. I don't think I'm deaf to what I listen to, even if it may seem like I'm blinded by the person who creates what I hear. What I think it means is that I'm searching for clarity, looking for more depth not only in the music I listen to, but the way I listen to music. This used to be the way. This used to be the way we all did it, everyone. This was the approach everyone took when listening to music. But once Napster happened, that ideology went out the window for a lot of people, too many people, frankly. We once were all loyal fans to somebody, but P-2-P networks stole that principle from us. We were no longer devout fans to anyone, we were simply slaves to the technology.

Suddenly, the excitement about new albums released by the bands you loved was gone. Enthusiasm was replaced by skepticism. If a band released a record you loved, and you heard a new one was coming out, you greeted it with crossed arms rather than open ones. What a band or artist did in the past became meaningless. We stopped expecting new albums by great bands to be as great as the previous effort; precedent ceased to be a factor. We are no longer happy about a band who has made us happy in the past. If someone's impressed us, we're no longer expectant, we're incredulous. We might listen to it...hell, we probably will, but rather than being thrilled about something new by someone we love surfacing, we approach it with cynicism. We expect the artist to fail; we expect the artist to fall short of the expectations their previous effort established. We want the artist to prove it, prove they're worth our time.

In the past, music fans were like sports fans, but Napster came along and gave us everything we wanted pretty much all at once, and that kind of unlimited access coupled with heightened disposability made us jaded. We no longer listen to transitional albums and try to find the transition. We don't attempt to decipher the code, we don't try to see where the music might be headed, simply because it hasn't already gotten there. We want instant gratification.

Now, when a band doesn't constantly perform, we write the band off instantly. The idea of a "rebuilding year" in music no longer exists. Sports fans, like music fans once were, are willing to accept a lackluster season or two if it means that their team will eventually be better. They don't stop watching the games or throw the jerseys away if their team is in a transitional period. They watch the games while wearing the logos with staunch pride and loyalty. Failure doesn't stop being disappointing, but they persevere and wait for a brighter day.

But once Napster happened, loyalty and patience became insignificant. When financial investment was a factor, we had to be selective, we had to make decisions, form bonds, and let those bonds play themselves out. Before Napster, we had to try, had to care; we kept the concert t-shirts on and listened to the new records even if they weren't as good as they had been in the past because we were waiting for our bands to shine again, and although this was often grueling and painful, and sometimes, there never was that return to form we were so desperately waiting for. But but then there were other times, other times when, after hanging in there through an album or two of shit, our artists recaptured what they had once been and shined brighter than ever before. Your loyalty was rewarded, and it was amazing. That was what made being a music fan truly worth while.

But in order to have loyalty, you had to have emotional investment, and more often than not, to be emotionally invested you had to be financially invested, and financial investment is made only when something is deemed valuable, and nothing disposable is ever truly valuable. So when Napster made music a disposable commodity, it also made the users incapable of ever really loving anything they heard. Oh, it was easy to like a lot of it, maybe even all of it, but love never reentered the equation. Everything suddenly had a sell-by date. New albums no longer had the potential to achieve timelessness because now they had a shelf-life. All the bonds we once developed with the music and artists we loved became tentative and insubstantial. There was no more devotion, no more loyalty, no more historical connection with artists. There was no more marriage to the music, no more relationship with the songs. Instead, we metamorphosed into a culture that saw their music as nothing more than just a seemingly random string of events tied loosely together by time and place, a culture that valued style over substance and quantity over quality. We settled for what was "pretty good for now" over what would be "great for ever".

And in the end, that's what truly sucks about Napster and P-2-P's. They turned us in to automatons. We stopped being fans. We stopped caring about our library because we could amass as big a library as we wanted without repercussion. Because we stopped having to make a decision about what music was important to us, all music became equally and simultaneously less important. We stopped caring because we could. The music we listened to became less a statement of who we were and more a statement of who we wanted or thought we should be, and that mentality makes us stupid and indistinguishable.

In the P-2-P world, loving Ludacris is no different than loving Against Me! because we no longer have to pick between the two. You no longer have to decide what to spend your money on. Through the P-2-P mentality, one thing is the same as the other. Weighing options isn't a concern in the P-2-P world because everything is at your disposal. The music you listen to is no longer a statement of who you are because choice is no longer a factor. Everything can be yours, so in the end, nothing is's anyone's who wants it. You are now no different than someone who is actually completely different from you. Napster and P-2-P's drained our individuality.

What all of this adds up to is Napster made music less important and to save some cash, music fans fell in line. We accepted Peer-2-Peer networks' degradation of an art-form we loved in order to keep some green in our pockets and our greed (or frugality depending on how you look at it) not only prevented us from being outraged but made us cheer and celebrate Shawn Fanning. Certainly, it would be impossible not to applaud Fanning and Napster as a technological crowning achievement, but as for a musical one, it was nothing more than a slowly penetrating bullet to the head.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

If You're Not Already Listening to "Orion", You Should Be (If You Can Find It)

In the past, I've been accused of being a Ryan Adams slut. Okay, so maybe no one's ever used those exact words, but I've always been pretty good at reading between the lines even when I pretend not to be, and ultimately, that's what the criticism boils down to. Adams has never released a (legitimate) album I haven't liked (the DJ Reggie and Werewolph e-albums were good for a laugh but nothing more, and The Finger is virtually unlistenable).

I adored Heartbreaker, couldn't get enough of Gold, found Demolition to be a suitable snack to satiate my R.A. cravings, loved Rock N' Roll (yes, I said "loved", and I meant it), considered the Love is Hell ep's to be a strong and valiant effort (although I don't think nearly as highly of them as most Ryan Adams fans do), was floored by the brilliance of the 2005 trilogy, Cold Roses, Jacksonville City Nights, and 29 (contrary to every other account I've heard about the latter, that one might be favorite of the three). Easy Tiger and the Follow the Lights ep would have benefited from a slightly dirtier sounding production, but despite that fact, they both were remarkably well-written outputs. Even the somewhat lackluster Cardinology, with its flirtations into the realm of "adult contemporary", still had some relatively lofty high-points (even if the lows were possibly the lowest of his career). Over the last several years, I've done my best to shed the "Adams' whore" tag as best I could, but with the release of Orion, sew a scarlet R and A to my v-neck T, because I gave myself to this record within seconds of hearing "Signal Fade".

The instant I heard this record existed, I bought it; partly because I knew of its limited availability and feared it might be good, mainly because I assumed it would be so horrible that I had to hear it...but it wasn't horrible. No, this record is good, damn good in fact. This record renews any lost faith I had in Ryan Adams as a viable and important, maybe essential, artist in our time.

With Orion, Adams manages to incorporate every crucial Metal movement: the breakneck pace of the speed/thrash sect, the aggressive simplicity of hardcore, the intensity and weight of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal scene, and (on occasion) the infectious hooks of the 80's/early 90's mainstream Pop-Metal acts. Of course, individually, none of these pieces should appeal to the typical R.A. fan, but when Adams fits them all together, the result is nothing short of a pure and brilliant Ryan Adams record.

The album opens with "Signal Fade", a number with churning speed that Slayer would approve of, and a guitar chug that would sound at home on a bill with Sick of It All, and the relentless speed and thud doesn't stop with track #1. For the next 25 minutes and 28 seconds, Adams rips through 12 more tracks ("Signal Fade" clocks in at 2:49 as the second longest song on the record, making the total running time of Orion 28 minutes and 17 seconds). Adams guitar work on Orion leans more towards his punk rock roots with its simplicity, but for what it lacks in complexity and classic Metal showmanship, it makes up for in ardor and ferocious velocity that could give Adrian Smith a run for his money. Still, as "Heavy Metal" as the licks may be, they somehow manage to maintain an undercurrent of the passion and rootsy-substance we've all come to know as Ryan Adams, making this sound less like a "Heavy Metal" album, and more like "Ryan Adams playing at Heavy Metal", which is good, because, well, that's exactly what it is.

And the vocals are impeccably and unmistakably Ryan Adams. It sounds simultaneously familiar and foreign. The tone and control are instantly recognizable to anyone who has bought and loved a Ryan Adams record in the past, but the fervor and force with which he sings sounds more potent and fresh than he has in years, maybe ever. Vocally, the apogee comes on the bridge on "Fire and Ice" (the standout track on the album and easily the most traditionally Adams-esque song on record). R.A. belts and wails stark and desperate words about imminent doom, "How much longer will they let us survive? All the weapons pointed as us as we die. Either way only the Sun will survive. Either way only the Sun will survive". Adams sounds more vibrant and uninhibited than he has since the Whiskeytown days.

But what's most refreshing about Orion is that, in true Ryan Adams fashion, he clearly doesn't give a fuck what we think about it. Okay, it's no secret that Adams has badgered critics who have unfavorably reviewed his records, but Adams has never recorded an album for critics. He doesn't write albums for critics to like, he writes albums he wants to and then expects critics to like them. Unrealistic...definitely, positively delusional...probably, but nonetheless, he's not kowtowing to the people who declare his merit to the world, he's expecting the those people to kowtow to him, and Orion is no exception.

Most people would probably find this behavior pretentious, bratty, erratic, annoying, but not me; I find it invigorating. Music is art, musicians are artists. Good art is an extension of the artist and it should be completely selfish. Certainly, once fans get a hold of it, it becomes a selfless gift; it begins to apply to lives other than the artist's. But if the primary objective of any art is to please anyone other than the artist, than it's not art, it's entertainment. Ryan Adams is not and has never tried to be an entertainer, he is an artist. Orion exemplifies that fact. When you listen to this album, you know there were no preconceived notions or delusions of grandeur about what he was doing; he was just making an album he wanted to make. And in an increasingly electro-reliant world where record sales mean far less than public opinion, that's about as refreshing as it gets.

That's not to say it doesn't have its weaknesses. Lyrically, if you're looking for the slightly nutty, homespun wisdom of past Adams efforts, you best look elsewhere. The lyrics on Orion are, for lack of a better word, ridiculous. With lyrics like "Evil overtakes him, The dragon speaks in tongues, The master has arisen, To swallow up the systems"...on "Ghorgon, Master of War", or "We wait in the caves, Machines do not detect the heat from our bodies, We are disguised by rocks, One leaves and investigates"...on the album's closer, "End of Days", it sounds less like a Ryan Adams album and more like the most depressing conclusion to The Terminator franchise. It's clear you're not going to find any poignant life-lessons here, but with Orion, the ends certainly justify the means.

Orion may not be exactly what we pictured for the return of Ryan Adams. It may be an insane and ludicrous concept, but the songs on Orion are lean, unencumbered, and unpretentious. They aren't molded or derivative, they are simply the product of a man trying to write and record an album that he wanted to make. Orion may be the craziest legitimate release of Adams career, but it also might be the most pure and steadfast record he's ever had the balls to dream up.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Prayers are Sometimes Answered

Tonight I'm listening to The Cure's 8th Studio album Disintegration. When I put Side A of the first record on, the sky was blue achromatizing to gunmetal gray. It seemed no more an omen than it was attractive; innocuous on both counts. As "Fascination Street" ended, concluding Side B on record 1, I rose from my seat on the couch to change the record and I noticed out of my living room window that the sky had changed. It had darkened and become premonitory. A storm was on its way.

As the needle dropped on Side C, I stepped out onto the porch for a clove cigarette and a Miller High-Life and I searched the air for the smell that accompanies the moments before a hard rain; soil and electricity, but the scent wasn't there. The storm must still be a ways away, I thought, but as the beginning of "Prayers for Rain" poured from the speakers, the deep gray of the sky gave way to a deeper black, and as Simon Gallup's bass began to boom and writhe on the 8th track on what I can only refer to as one of the most beautiful and brilliant albums I have ever heard, the onyx sky burst open and released a torrential downpour. This was a full-on, no-joke, motherfucker of a rain, one that came on so hard within little more than 30 seconds, and began to flood the earth.

I watch the sky swell and explode in a tumult of water in real time as I listen to "Prayers for Rain". How apropos.

As track 1 on Side C ends and the 2nd track, "Same Deep Water as You", envelops me, so begins the thunder that fills the air outside my door. With the windows open, the natural roar and the authentic reproduction on "Same Deep Water as You" sound like syncopated eruptions; they almost explode in unison. Suddenly I can't help feeling that listening to an album that came out in 1989 somehow conjured the weather that would happen over 2 decades later.

This is ridiculous, of course. As magical a moment as this is, I know in my mind it's nothing more than a perfectly timed and poetic act of nature, but in my heart...well, in my heart I can't help but believe there's some sort of of ethereal, cosmic hand at work here, some divine being with kick-ass taste in music orchestrating this. It's hard to believe there's not some omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent puppet master pulling strings out there in the ether because this moment is too perfect to be accidental.

Since I began listening to The Cure nearly 2 decades ago, I have experienced a series of seemingly random yet oddly similar Cure-related events that, when closely examined, seem fantastic but and coincidental. But when looked at with a wide lens, seem too recurring to be simply random or mere happenstance; a random pattern can only truly be random until it becomes a pattern, then it becomes fact. Time and time again, my real life and the chimerical dream that The Cure have created with their songs have bumped up against each other, overlapped, became one and the same, even if only for a few ticks of the seconds hand...and now this, one of the most empyrean experiences I've had in a very long time. I am in utter awe.

I can't be 100% positive, but I'm pretty sure God wants me to love The Cure.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Don't Eat Yourself, It's Not Good for You

When did autosarcophagy become an acceptable practice? Now let's make no mistake, I'm not saying that self-cannibalism isn't a little more selfless than your everyday, garden variety cannibalism, but there's something about consuming your own flesh that still seems more demented, at least more masochistic. But regardless of how degenerative this mentality seems to me, this has clearly been deemed okay by a certain subculture of society (one that I am regrettably a part of) because Indie Rock is eating itself alive and we are not only standing by, watching it happen, but are actually applauding every time another chunk of meat disappears down its proverbial gullet.

As I see it, there are three interrelated causes for this: 1.) The fans, 2.) Technology, and 3.) Pitchfork. (But not necessarily in that order.)

First off, there has been a change in attitude of the fan. Indie Rock was always a call to arms for the disenfranchised. If Heavy Metal of the 80's and 90's was the music for the disregarded, burn-out youth, Indie Rock was the music for the bookishly intellectual and misunderstood sect (I'm thinking Ducky from Pretty in Pink, but then again, most people probably were.) If you were a little too artistic in the 70's to play High school football and couldn't get into the sounds of Average White Band, you had Bowie or The Stooges or The Velvet Underground to make you feel like you had allies in the world. If you weren't comfortable in an Izod polo and couldn't afford (or didn't want) tickets to the big Duran Duran show in the 80's, then The Replacements or Robyn Hitchcock or Nick Lowe might have had something to offer you. If you were outside of the norm but couldn't fit in with the W.A.S.P./Krokus/Dokken bunch, you still had R.E.M. or The Cure or The Smiths to listen to and find a home. Just like the Heavy Metal of 30 years ago, this music welcomed anyone; Underground rock has always given the outcast a place to belong as long as it felt good to be a part of it.

Fast-forward 30 years, and things have most certainly changed. Indie Rock has become an exclusive club for over-intellectualizing prats. Indie Rock fans tend to be fashionable hipsters who like to laugh at those who aren't like them. Where the Indie fan was once part of a faction of society that had banned together to create something beautiful and extraordinary because they had been spurned by "normal" culture and had no where else to turn, they have now morphed into the very kind of culture that the music was initially created as a reaction to. Simply put, Indie kids think they are smarter, cooler, better.

And if you've ever read the album reviews and opinion pieces on Pitchfork, you already know that the content on the site plays directly into this elitist mentality. Did Pitchfork create this superior attitude or is Pitchfork simply reacting to the already-in-place superiority complexes of it's readership? I don't know the answer to that, but it's clear the more you talk to Indie kids and read the Pitchfork editorials and reviews they regurgitate like scripture, the two are definitely working together to make Indie Rock an increasingly exclusive and uninviting club that most of us are not cool enough to join.

Now let's combine this first idea with the hyper-fast, technologically advanced, digital age of music. Music has become such a "point-and-click" medium with iPods, iTunes, home computers and P2P networks that it has changed the way we listen to music. We have access to a greater number of albums, songs, artists, but still have the same 24 hours in a day to digest it. We obviously can't listen to it all. At one time, we had to make hard choices. If you buy a record, you're going to give that record more than a simple cursory listen. But now, with everything quickly at the touch of a button, we can try to hear as much as possible, even though we may not really be listening to anything.

That of course, doesn't change the fact that there's so much out there. How do we hone? How do we focus? How does the hipster-about-town figure out what they should be hearing? Easy, let the "über-hip" Pitchfork guide your way. The "ultra-sheik" Indie elitist looks to Pitchfork to see what's hot, and has their self-serving insincerity validated by the identical tone of the pieces they read. Again, whether the "better than you" modern Indie Rock persona originates from Pitchfork or Pitchfork is simply a reflection of the contemporary mindset, I can't say for sure, but one way or the other, this co-dependent relationship that has developed between the reader and the read is cultivating the destruction of the very music both groups claim to celebrate.

Still, there's a bigger problem...a much, much bigger problem. I've noticed for years that a strange difference in the way people are listening to Indie Rock has slowly been occurring. I could see things changing, but up until recently, I couldn't quite put my finger on what that change was (and when I say a recently, I mean recently, as in a little less than two weeks ago). But then Heaven is Whenever came out.

Every week when the new releases come out, I try to read as many record reviews from as many different media outlets as I can. I find real value in the work of the Rock Critic. In fact, if I had my choice of "dream jobs" and that choice couldn't include being independently wealthy/unemployed, Rock Critic would be the job I would choose. The Rock Critic provides a biased yet essential service to the music consumer, and I appreciate what they do for me. I don't have a ton of money to drop on records. Because of this, I do my best to read and take into account what they have to say in order to focus my purchasing decisions. The critic helps me a lot. But occasionally, there's an album that comes out where the "to buy/not to buy" question is already answered, regardless of what the Rock Critic has to say about it. Good or bad news, thumbs up or thumbs way down, I'm going to buy "this" record. In these cases, I tend to avoid the reviews until I've formed my own opinion, then after I've decided how I feel about said record, I backtrack to see what the Critics have to say.

Last week, this very scenario presented itself. The new Hold Steady album, Heaven is Whenever, came out, and this was something I was going to own regardless of what any other person in the world had to say about it. Come hell or high water, Heaven is Whenever would be mine, even if every critic on Earth panned it. So I waited until I thoroughly digested the record before I looked to see what the professional appreciators had to say. After a little more than a week, I had made up my own mind about the album (fucking brilliant), so I began to scour the globe (maybe a slight over-exaggeration) to see what others had to say about The Hold Steady's fifth joint. I hit all of the obvious outlets: Rolling Stone, Spin, allmusic, Paste, but I went much further than that. I read everything from legitimate but tiny e-music site reviews to what the average blogger thought (I even read Entertainment Weekly's review...still kind of shocked that there not only was one, but that I took the time to care what EW thought). I wanted to read it all. And everything I read was, if not glowing, at least reasonably positive. They all had written the things that mimicked my feelings about the record...but then I got to Pitchfork's review.

When I read Stephen M. Deusner's review of Heaven is Whenever, I was angry. I wasn't angry that he gave the record an unfavorable rating. He did in fact give it what would amount to a D if it was a test, but he and everyone else is entitled to their opinion, even if that opinion happens to be wrong. But reading Deusner's review, it quickly became aware to me that his problems with the record had very little to do with the record.

"Coming from a band so rooted in notions of community and classic rock, "The Sweet Part of the City" seems to acknowledge that the Hold Steady realize their function as a liaison between the underground and the mainstream. They're trying hard to achieve widespread appeal while remaining embedded in the scenes they've been chronicling for half a decade. Heaven Is Whenever loiters in the same dives, clubs, and party houses as their previous albums and chronicles the sagas of similar hoodrats, townies, gamblers, waitresses, and girlfriends. Meanwhile, the band has graduated to larger venues, festival appearances, and an avid fanbase that shouts along with every word. The distance between subject and band has never been greater than it is on this album, and these new songs just don't hit as hard."

Maybe I'm overreaching and overreacting. Maybe I'm being petty because a guy I don't know, whom I'll never meet or even speak to wrote a less than positive review about an album I love by a band who is easily the best Rock n' Roll group recording today. But I'm not. Mr. Deusner doesn't have to like the new Hold Steady album, but if he is writing a review of this album, he should write a review of the album.

Now I don't want this to disseminate into a Hold Steady blog because 1.) I wrote a Hold Steady blog not more than 3 weeks ago, and 2.) I have every intention of writing another Hold Steady blog about the new album and the band in general because the new album's kick-ass and I left a whole bunch out of that initial blog that I wanted to say (a topic I intend on writing about in and of itself, so I will abruptly cease this line of discussion). But with the Pitchfork review, it seems obvious to me that the writer's problem isn't necessarily with the music, but the fact that The Hold Steady have achieved a certain level of fame.

Essentially (and I now paraphrase and interpret), Deusner feels that Craig Finn has no right to sing about dark alleys, drug deals, and raved-up, boozed-out nights because The Hold Steady have become too "mainstream" to have a valid perspective on these subjects. But as angering as it is that this sentiment seems to drive the entire feel of the review, that's not even the most maddening part. What's so revolting to me is that Deusner calls the Hold Steady "widespread" and "mainstream".

I'm not upset by any means that The Hold Steady are "big". The Hold Steady are an amazing band that deserve to sell millions of records and get super fucking rich playing the music they do because they're better than the bands who already do that. The Hold Steady are better than U2 or Green Day (not to take away anything from U2 or Green Day, I like them both). They are infinitely better than Coldplay or Train (2 bands I absolutely don't like). The only problem is The Hold Steady are not "big". They are not selling anywhere near the number of records the afore mentioned bands are selling. If you ask the average person on the street in nearly any city or town in the U.S. if they like or even know who The Hold Steady is, I can almost guarantee they will say "no". Okay, in college towns and NYC or other big cities, that ratio might be skewed, but then again, are college towns or the East Village average?

The assertion that The Hold Steady are a "mainstream" band made me realize that somehow Indie Rock now exists in a vacuum. Okay, so the last 2 Hold Steady records have manage to garner a pretty decent position on the Billboard charts (Stay Positive topped out at #30, and Heaven is Whenever has thus far reached #26, but still, if you aren't breaking the top 20, I'm not sure you can be categorized as big. Furthermore, the first 3 albums haven't managed to climb into the top 100. In fact, the first 2 haven't even charted.) Shit, Godsmack's latest album came out on the same day as Heaven is Whenever, and it debuted at #1 on Billboard's top 200. If a great band like The Hold Steady can't outsell fucking shit-ass Godsmack, can they be that huge?

To answer my own, they can't be. They may be a big Indie band, they may even be the "biggest" Indie band, but that still means they are no more that a large fish in a comparatively small pond. What this says to me is that from the perspective of Pitchfork, which ultimately has become the perspective of Indie fans, Indie Rock operates outside of the actual mainstream. If you're a "big" Indie band, that means you're a "huge" Indie band even if you've only sold 400,000 records worldwide simply because other Indie bands haven't sold as many records as you have. And this is dangerous ground to tread, because in the Indie paradigm, "mainstream" has become the dirtiest word, and as a result, we are inorganically backing Indie Rock into a cacophonic corner.

Because we've forced Indie Rock into this separatist bubble that operates outside of the rest of modern pop music, our reality has become skewed and our perspective has become disoriented. And The Hold Steady aren't the only applicable example of this. Take Neutral Milk Hotel. The amount of times I've had conversations with people who make the assertion that "everyone" has heard In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is overwhelming. Virtually no one in the grand scheme of things has heard In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. It's sold over 200,000 copies, and I'm sure twice as many people have downloaded it from P2P networks. Still, 600,000 people is not a whole lot. The world population is currently estimated at 6,822,200,000 people. 600,000 is less than 1% of the population. That's hardly "everyone". And if we compare my NMH estimates to the sales of a truly mainstream record, like say Guns N' Roses Appetite for Destruction, Guns N' Roses debut album has sold 46 times more records than NMH's sophomore release has had in total listeners. I apologize for the math lesson, but the numbers make it clear. Nearly every Indie kid knows Aeroplane..., but no one else does.

And this brings me back to my first issue. A stigma has been attached to the word "mainstream" because if the indie kids desperately want to be smarter and cooler, and certainly different than the mainstream, than they can't possibly allow themselves to relate to something that is considered mainstream. And because they are also influenced so severely by the Pitchfork pedagogy, when Pitchfork says "mainstream", Indie fans flee. And because Indie Rock is now in a Pitchfork-induced Indie bubble, the number of acceptable Indie Rock bands is shrinking and becoming more and more unlistenable.

Imagine for a second drawing a line in the dirt. On one side of the line is "Indie", and on the other is "Mainstream". As a "respectable" Indie fan, you are to believe you need to stay a minimum of 5 feet from that line at all times. Once again using The Hold Steady as an example, when Boys and Girls in America came out, The Hold Steady were 10 feet from that mainstream line. Then comes Stay Positive. It was a little more mature and a little more accessible. So now, even though The Hold Steady's sound hasn't changed much, because more people have bought the record (probably pretty much all Indie Rock fans, I might add), the line has to move. The Hold Steady doesn't move; they're in the same place. The music, attitude, soul, focus hasn't changed. The only change has been the perception of what mainstream is, based on the fact that more people like this band.

So the line moves to the left 3 or 4 feet, leaving The Hold Steady only 1 or 2 feet from the safe 5 foot distance. Now comes Heaven is Whenever, apparently not simply more accessible, but in the eyes of Deusner and the folks at Pitchfork, actually mainstream. The old mainstream has stayed in the same place. Nickleback hasn't moved, nor has 30 Seconds to Mars or Coldplay or Daughtry or HIM or any other crappy bands that a lot of people listen to. But still, somehow, The Hold Steady is now on the other side of that line, grouped with these other (f)artists (I fucking kill me). The line has moved 10 feet in 4 years, but the music has retained the same heart it had in 2006. But the Hipsters still need to stay 5 feet from that line. They've moved 10 feet from where they used to be. Every time that line moves, they have to take another step to maintain a 5 foot distance. With each move, the line is forcing good bands onto the other side, making them "unlistenable". And with each movement of the line, the bands who are now deemed hip enough to rock out to become more subversive, abrasive, gimmicky, and ultimately less musical.

It's a slippery slope. before you know it, Pitchfork going to be calling The Animal Collective Neil fucking Diamond. With each band that falls prey to the "mainstream" tag, the bands and Indie kids in response have to up the ante and move further away from what this new perception of mainstream is. Now LCD Soundsystem and Broken Social Scene are considered the wunderkinds of Indie Rock, and then the line will sweep them up because too many Indie kids will buy their records and the next band will be swept up, and the next band and the next band, and the next. Before you know it, it'll only be cool to listen to bands whose albums of nothing more than a series of blips and clicks and buzzes. Because of Indie Rock's desperation to be so anti-mainstream and Pitchfork's desperation to seem ahead of the popularity curve, and the fact that so many people are unwilling to see Indie Rock in the context of music at large, the "good" stuff is becoming nothing more than an abradant in cool clothes.

And what does this mean for those bands who are actually good? Well, they won't be mainstream enough to garner a significant mainstream following, but because the hip Indie Clergy have deemed them sinful, quoting their website like the Bible to save the elite souls of the eagerly converted, they'll lose a large percentage of the hipster Indie kids. They'll be a band condemned to hell. They'll be a band without a country, and that's not only a shame but a downright Shakespearean-sized tragedy.

The Indie world is shrinking into a black hole of chaos. Slowly but surely, the less capable you are of playing an instrument, the greater possibility Indie fans will love you. The more noise and less song you write is all the more chance you'll sell records to the Indie crowd. No melody, you gain allies, more melody, your simply maligned. Indie Rock, with the help of Pitchfork and the misguided, misdirected ethics of the fanbase, is slowly killing itself, lopping off the good bands like pieces of flesh and devouring them, tossing the ripped tissue down its throat and smiling as it bleeds out. Eventually, if attitudes across the board don't change, there's going to be nothing left but a large intestine full of bullshit, and this makes me sick to my stomach. But I guess I should look on the bright side; if I record the sounds of my purge and combine it with a sweet back beat, Pitchfork will probably make me an Indie God, that is until the sound of electro-vomit becomes mainstream.

Friday, April 30, 2010

(Me-Morrissey)=And And And(A Big Smile and Two Thumbs Way Up)

The other day, I was listening to Your Arsenal, and I realized that Morrissey and I have very little in common. He likes to write and record music, I like to listen to the music he writes and records, we both look smashing in a billowy, blue-sequence shirt unbuttoned down to our navels, but after that, I see very little similarities between the two of us.

Now granted, I don't know Morrissey. I've never met him, I've never spoken to him (I have seen him live and that was rather amazing), and in all honesty, I haven't even read a whole lot of interviews with the man. Still, I know we aren't similar, mainly because I've decided that there are a handful of songs that truly represent Morissey's character ("The First of the Gang" is not one of those songs. I have a very hard time believing Morrissey was some kind of street tough wreaking havoc on the streets of Manchester. Sorry Moz, the image just doesn't ring true). I hear an absolute sincerity in "I've Changed my Plea to Guilty", there seems to be genuine malaise and melancholy on "My Love Life", and he seems to be genuinely happy on "Now My Heart is Full", but above and beyond everything else he's done, "We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful" sound like Morrissey to me.

I'm not saying Moz is a dick, or even that he's not that good of a guy. He quite possibly is a fantastic gentleman, and at the absolute least, he is a remarkable singer/songwriter/performer, but there's something about him that makes me think he is just little bit petty. Certainly, this song was written and recorded 18 years ago, and a great deal of personal growth can occur over the course of nearly 2 decades, but that doesn't matter. To me, Morrissey then is the same as Morrissey now because my only gauge of him personally is his music, and although it's stayed consistently good over the past 18 years, it's also stayed consistently spiteful.

So for this reason, I'm sure that Morrissey and I have little in common, because I can honestly say I do not hate it when my friends become successful. When my friends enjoy an exuberance of success, I can say with the utmost sincerity that I am not simply "happy for them", it actually makes me happy. I enjoy it when my friends achieve something that gives them something they didn't have before. Both personally and professionally, it impresses me when my friends set their minds to reaching a goal and do their best to go out and make that goal their bitch. Don't get me wrong, when my friends out-stride me in the race towards success, it puts an internal spotlight on my meager treading of water in the ocean of life (how's that for a mixed metaphor...), but I don't begrudge them a single bit. It simply highlights my own failures at attempting to be the man I once thought I would become. (I apologize for the sympathy-pandering self-deprecation.) But when my friend Tyler Keene e-mailed me a song he recorded with a fella named Nathan Baumgartner that he met after moving to Portland, OR, I was met with a wholly new, unexpected, and I have to say, rather creepy feeling...pride.

Pride is supposed to be a feeling a parent feels for a child, or a grandparent feels for a grandchild. Uncles and aunts can feel it for nieces and nephews because I know I am proud as hell of the people my little guys (and not so little guys, kids grow up fucking fast...) are becoming. I guess even a kid can be proud of their parent once they get to a certain age and phrase it right. As long as a child is old enough to be taken seriously (I'm thinking 27 or older), and says "I'm proud to call you my...(insert gender specific parental title here), or your parent has learned to live with or overcome some sort of extreme adversity (i.e. being paralyzed, beating addiction, etc., etc.), then it's okay, but outside of those examples, pride is weird. In my slightly oddball mind, pride should be an emotion reserved for a blood relative (a spouse or significant other works as well, but it's still a tiny bit weird if you're not married). Felling pride for a friend is, well, not a normal feeling. But nonetheless, there I was, positively beaming.

(I realize I'm kind of exposing the alter-ego here T-Boz, but I just can't write this and refer to you as Run4YoLife, not to mention, only 12 people are going to read this anyway, and I'll probably 4 of that 12...nonetheless, sorry.) Tyler and I met when I was a senior in High School, and after hanging out twice, I knew that this guy was meant to be my best friend. Tyler and I have a weird relationship. As best friends (I guess I'm speaking for him by making that plural, but I think that might be okay), we rarely discuss our personal lives. Sometimes the facts of our day-to-day lives bleed into our conversations, but it's always by accident, and it's kind of ultra-rare. I can say with a reasonable degree of authority that neither of us are uncomfortable when it happens, and, at least for me, an increase in frequency of discussion about our everyday lives wouldn't be frowned upon. In fact, (again, at least for me) it would be welcome, because it would be simply one more facet of our lives that we could share and most likely connect with. But ultimately, the day-to-day doldrums of everyday life aren't important when it comes to our friendship.

The birth of our friendship hinges on 3 inter-related factoids. 1.) I wore a Led Zeppelin T-Shirt to school, 2.) He asked me a question about a Led Zeppelin song ("Dazed and Confused"), and 3.) I could accurately answer his query. That was it. He hummed me the bass-line, I knew what it was and told him what album it was on, he bought the C.D., and then decided he should start sitting next to me in 4th hour. And we began to constantly talk about music.

Music has always been the thing that connects me to other people. I think I have a stunted personality. I think I'm a perfectly pleasant person to be around sometimes. I can be funny, witty, insightful, I try to be a good listener (though I think I always end up dominating the conversation, regardless of how hard I attempt not to), but in the end, I have a difficult time relating to people outside of the context of what music they listen to. This is a sad fact about me, it's also the plight I'm stuck with. Whether I like it or not, this is who I am. Because of this, I've always seen the music people listen to as not only an extension of who they are, but a extroverted, physical definition of who they are. Understand the music, understand the person. Is this a twisted, perverse, psychologically fucked? Probably, but oh well, it is what it is.

For this reason, I spent the first 18 years of my life feeling remarkably lonely. I had friends who liked music arguably as much as I did. I had friends who liked the same bands and the same songs, but to everyone I knew, it seemed that they simply saw a band like The Cure as being my favorite band, not an extension of me or some sort of sonic road map to my soul, but this is how I saw it. I felt that, because no one could see me in the music I loved, no one really knew me. Regardless of how many friends I had, if I were to die, I would die with no one knowing who the real me was and that's a very lonely place to be.

But then I met Tyler and we started hanging out a lot. We began to know each other through the music we listened to and I felt like I had finally found a friend who truly understood who I was. Our friendship developed and I think is now at least partially defined by the music we love. The funny thing is, we don't even really like the same music. There's certainly some overlap, but by and large, we're excited by different sounds, but we both listen to music the same way. We both look for the same things, it's just that those things happen to sometimes be a little different. But the key is, I can hear a song I know he likes, and I can see why he likes it, even if I don't agree with him, and I think he would probably say the same thing about me. Even if he doesn't like something I happen to, he seems to understand why I like it. For me, this is one of the main reasons our friendship is important and special.

So when Tyler moved to Manhattan a few years ago, he was inspired by the city and began to write and record his own stuff. He had done this before, but his songs had always been more for the purpose of making his friends laugh. They were musically-infused, well orchestrated jokes. But the stuff he was doing after he moved to NYC was different. It was serious. It was attempt to really communicate something about himself through music. This was exciting to me, because not only was he speaking the language that I understood best, but the music wasn't simply an interpretation of him through the efforts of someone else but his own words and his own music expressing his thoughts and feelings. What was even more exciting was that the stuff was good, really good.

Over the course of 3 years, he wrote and recorded a ridiculous number of songs. Some were funny, most were not, all were good, and a lot fantastic. But I have to say, something was missing. Tyler is a musician, not a computer programmer, and without a band, he couldn't tap his full potential as a performer. The recordings fell short of capturing the brilliance that was there. Songs that should have sounded mind-blowing and explosive simply sounded really excellent. But then he moved to Portland, and after about 6 months, things changed.

In the fall of 2009, Tyler e-mailed me a handful of songs that one of his neighbors had recorded and given him. He was impressed, but wanted to know what I thought. He wanted to know if I thought he should try to start doing something with this guy. Now, don't think I'm trying to take any credit here, because I could tell by the way Tyler talked to me about this guy that he was going to play with him come hell or high water. I could have said I was thoroughly unimpressed and my opinion wouldn't have changed a thing, but I didn't have to do that because the songs were amazing, and his performance of them was even more compelling. Nathan Baumgartner's voice is other-worldly. He sounds like Ian Curtis without the manic-depression, he sounds like Brandon Flowers without the self-important pretension, he has the intensity and inflection of Serj Tankian without any of the restraint. He is Morrissey, Bowie, Robert Smith, yet he's none of these; he sounds like every singer I had ever loved and like no one I have heard before. He is dynamic, emotive, exploratory, and fearless. His talent has given Tyler a reason to rise to the occasion, and since working with Nathan, Tyler's voice sounds more powerful, clear, and brilliant than it ever has before. He is Tyler's musical soul mate.

Nathan has grand musical presence without ever sounding grandiose. He feels lofty but with no traces of bravado. Tyler has this innate ability to hear melody in every possible crevasse, but never overdoes it. Tyler has a penchant for noise and an innate ability to find complexity in the beautifully simple. Together, these abilities (along with 4 other gentlemen who, I sadly have to admit to know literally nothing about, sorry fellas...I look forward to forming strong, complimentary opinions about you as well, given that I don't think you suck. I assume you don't, but anything is possible) create a fantastic sound, and that sound has been given the moniker And And And.

And And And is not so much a band as they are a mind-fuck experienced through a dream sequence in the most accessible Fellini film that was never made. No pretension, no gimmick, no rules. They do exactly what they want to do, exactly when they want to do it. There's no formula, there's no rubric, everything is on the table, nothing is off limits.

And And And's music has the straight-forward, melodic simplicity of The Beatles or The Beach Boys, with the depth and complexity of The Flaming Lips or The Mars Volta, saturated in the chaos of the drunkest Replacements or Pavement show that ever happened. It's easily accessible without ever sounding obvious or overdone. The songs are layered and multidimensional but never busy or self-indulgent. It's raw, sincere, down-to-business, down-to-earth Rock n' Roll music that is fun as hell and loud as shit.

They're a little punk, a little indie, a little lo-fi, thrown into a bucket full of mud and poured over top of sweet, well-written pop music. On their first album, We'll Be Better Off with the Plants, they plow into you with sweeping, Indie-Rock grandeur ("The Great Tide"), dirge into noise-drenched dirt-Folk ("Seize the Day", "I Will Still Break Your Heart"), toy with British Invasion era Pop-Rock tripping on acid and saturated in fuzz (She's Got A Gun, There is No Meaning Here), and thud and grind with Punk-soiled, American Rock N' Roll ("Seeding"), somehow managing to sound consistent and honest regardless of the aural twists and turns.

I have to be honest, I've only heard a few rough snippets from the forth-coming A Fresh Summer With And And And, but from what I have heard, this record will not disappoint me. If anything, it will only tether this band to my heart tighter than they already were. From what I've heard, it's more focused but it loses none of the rawness and honesty of the first record. It sounds bigger but not pompous or over-inflated. It's ambitious but still true to what they do. This band seems to be able to do what ever they want to and somehow remain in their element.

And And And has blown me away. I guess I might be biased because having your best friend be the co-lead singer/songwriter/guitarist/multi-instrumentalist of a band seems like the perfect cocktail to get you drunk off bullshit, but I love music (and cocktails, both the liquids and the Hot Leg song) too much to sully its name with lip-service. When it comes to "my tunes", I cannot lie, and And And And is most definitely My Shit. Personal relationships be damned, And And And is the real deal. They are a band that you should be listening to, a band you should be watching. Two, three, five years from now, you'll be thanking me if you do because you'll be able to say I was listening to And And And when...and that's going to be an amazing feeling, maybe you'll even feel proud.

To listen to And And And music, visit AndAndAndspace

To buy And And And's music, visit Super Dream Music.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

If You're Not Already Listening to The Hold Steady, You Should Be

I wish I could say I was a Hold Steady fan from day one, but the truth is I didn't start listening to them until 2006's brilliant Boys and Girls in America, and even then, I wasn't sold at first. I could tell there was something there for me, I just couldn't figure out what that was. It took a little while; a couple of months listening to the record at least once on an almost daily basis, trying to decipher some code that would provide me the key to unlocking the mysteries of this band that so many indie-media hounds and "clustered-up, clever kids" who were obsessed with "the scene" adored. Then one day it plowed into me like a mac-truck. I still didn't know what hit me exactly, I just knew that I was lying on the ground with pulverized bones and blood pouring from my open and confused mouth. 11 days from now, The Hold Steady will release their fifth album, Heaven is Whenever, and although I haven't heard it yet, I can guarantee it will be the best album released in 2010. (Just as a side note, I now have heard the album. I attempted as best I could to avoid listening to it until the record came out, but NPR's free stream of the album proved to be too great a temptation. Oh, and by the way, I was right.)

I know this to be true. I know this because 1.) The Hold Steady are the best American Rock n' Roll band recording today, but mainly because 2.) I have realized something about The Hold Steady. I have realized that The Hold Steady know something about Rock n' Roll music that most bands have either forgot or never knew in the first place; Rock n' Roll is music for the young.

The greatest records in the pantheon of Rock music have been written and recorded by aged musicians (When it comes to Rock n' Roll, I consider anyone over the age of 24 "aged") recapturing the spirit of youth: Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run, Meatloaf's Bat Out of Hell, Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (that one's got a whole lot of other shit going on too, but still...), literally everything The Ramones did pre-Too Tough to Die, virtually every Kiss record made before Unmasked, pretty much every Thin Lizzy album recorded between the years of 1973 through 1977 (the "great, youthful Rock n' Roll exception" here is Thin Lizzy's exquisite Black Rose: A Rock Legend, which is quite possibly the absolute antithesis of youthful, and also quite possibly the band's greatest achievement, but Thin Lizzy was one of the greatest Rock bands in history, those dudes made everything sound kick-ass...Well, not everything. 1981's Renegade and 1983's Thunder and Lightening are not so good; the keyboard had no place in the music of Thin Lizzy.)

Even great Rock that has no overt lyrical or thematic ties to youth still embody the spirit of the young in its sound: Zeppelin, The Flaming Lips, The Replacements, everything Justin Hawkins has touched, C.C.R., Nirvana, T. Rex, Ryan Adams (sometimes, maybe often), Bowie, Lucero, basically every metal band from the 80's and early 90's, etc., etc., etc. But recently, something has changed. New rock music, I guess what hipster's refer to as "Indie", has shifted the focus from experienced guys recalling what it meant to be young and stupid and free and, well, just pretty fucking awesome to younger guys trying to sound older, wiser, more mature. (I know I'm generalizing, but frankly, I like to make broad, sweeping declarations about the way I perceive the world, especially when those perceptions are music related, and even more so when those perceptions are fact.) As a result, the world of Rock music has started to kind of suck. (Again, this a generalization. I know there are a lot of "grown-up" bands making (or made) remarkably brilliant music: Wilco, Joy Division, Bon Iver, Sigur Rós, Built to Spill, Pearl Jam, Cursive, the ethereal genius of The Cure; again, etc., etc., etc. There are always exceptions to the rule, it's just that in this case, the exceptions comprise around 40% of the good Rock music out there, and The Cure comprise about ½ of that 40%.)

The fact is, Rock n' Roll has always been liberating because it allows the "older folks" to relive and get lost in the memory of what it felt like to be 17, while simultaneously giving the lifestyle of the Seventeener meaning, but now, the Seventeener is trying to be a Twenty-Sevener. (This is a problem for multiple and more obvious reasons, but mainly, what self-respecting 27 year-old is going to take advice from a 22 year-old kids on how you're supposed to feel when you are 27?) What are we left with? We are left with a bunch of kids pretending to understand what it means to be us (maybe I should say "me", someone under the age of 24 might read this, though I doubt it.)

What happened to the escapism of Rock music? What happened to falling in love with a song and falling into a song, forgetting the things that ail you, feeling young and strong because the music feels young and strong? It appears that The Hold Steady must have sucked up all of that energy and are using it solely for themselves, because they are the only ones writing tunes that feel classic, inspired, young, and rockin' (Exceptions...Lucero and Hot Leg, look them up, learn something). But as sad as it is that only one American band out there is truly capturing the spirit of youth and playing real fucking Rock n' Roll, that one band has decided to dole that energy out in spades.

Craig Finn's songs are about firsts: the first hand-hold, the first kiss, the first fuck, the first epic party, the first beer, the first time you decide you are, in fact, invincible, the first time you spend all night next to the toilet vomiting up fire and blue from too much Five O'Clock Vodka and "Mountain Blast" Powerade, cursing yourself from ever suffering from the delusion that you were, in fact, invincible, the first time you fuck over someone you like for no good reason, the first time someone who likes you fucks you over for no good reason. They're all about love and lust and drugs and booze and music and drugs and friends and booze and enemies and hopes and dreams and drugs and failure and despair and booze. Craig Finn's songs aren't about memories though. The mind tends to filter out the bad and leaves only the good when we're dealing with memories. Everyone has a great memory about the biggest party they went to in high school or college, but no one ever seems to have memories about how awful they felt the next morning. Those latter kind of recollections are for people who don't deal in memories, they simply remember things. And Craig Finn definitely remembers.

His songs are not nostalgic; there is no sentimentality clouding up his images of youth. They are lyrics that are about what it felt like to be 17, but clearly from a 38 year-old's perspective. He remembers that being young was amazing and painful and sometimes detrimental to the remainder of your life. Some people do all the wrong things until they graduate High School, and then they go to College and still do all the wrong things but at more appropriate times, and then they graduate after figuring out ways to occasionally do the right things and they get a job and come out relatively unscathed. They may still choose to exhibit occasional bad behavior, but they recognize that there are right times to do the wrong things and work within the confines of this socially-constructed yet still liberating structure.

Some kids aren't so lucky. Some kids lose their innocence earlier than others. Some kids do all the wrong things and never figure out that there are better times than others to be wrong. Some kids become adults who just keep doing all the wrong things. Some kids become adults who end up never doing anything right. Craig Finn knows that, and he knows that when we were 17, all of us were friends regardless of what are inevitable (or not-so-inevitable) destinations might be. Some were on the road to success, others were on a crash-course with disaster, but for at least a little while, we all partied together at that fork in the road, taking shots of Black Velvet from a plastic half-gallon jug and chasing it with warm cans of Hamm's and choking down Marlboro Reds while listening to The Police on somebodies crappy car stereo. Some times were great, others were shitty, but they were all times we had when we were younger and these times were magical because of that. High School wasn't great, but being 17 was. College was better, but still not always great, but being 21 was. This is the crux of The Hold Steady's music, the reality of being young; black and white, good and bad, success and failure, we'll always experience both, but all of the bad shit was sufferable as long as we were young when we were suffering.

Craig Finn writes lyrics about being a kid but for people who no longer are. The "old-timers" get it because his words are honest and sincere, and they remind us of how it felt to be young and indestructible. The kids get it because his words are honest and sincere, and they validate their existence, validate exactly who they are at the exact moment in time that they are listening to them. He somehow manages to write lyrics that mean completely different yet equally important things to two very different groups of people.

And that's only the lyrics. The music, well, I could describe the music, but I don't need to. The Hold Steady are writing songs that are as unique, original, and good as the best bands out there (if not better), but I'm guessing you've heard them before. If you've ever been listening to a song with friends at 1 a.m. and felt compelled to sing every word at top volume in each others faces just because you were there, the beer was cold, there was still a half pack of smokes in your pocket, and the song was just that fucking good, then you've heard it before because that's who The Hold Steady are and what The Hold Steady do. The Hold Steady write music that's meant to be listened to at top volume while driving in the summer with the windows rolled down and no particular place to go. They write the kind of music you listen to while getting ready to go out for a "massive night", only to cut your evening short so you can go home and listen to The Hold Steady again.

If you can hear the opening riff to "Slapped Actress" and think that these guys aren't as Rock as fuck, then I'm not sure what to say to you. If you can put on "Your Little Hoodrat Friend", and not smile at the lead-in to the chorus, I'm not sure I understand you. If you can listen to even just the first 20 seconds of "Hot Soft Light" and not be convinced that this is some of the most kick-ass, serious, and essential Rock n' Roll that you've ever heard, than I don't think there's a thing I can say here that's going to make you think differently. And to be honest, I wouldn't want to, because if you can listen to these songs and not feel those things, then you don't deserve to listen to The Hold Steady.

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Thursday, April 1, 2010

If You Love the USA, Listen to Vinyl

Do you remember the magic of summers as a kid? Every single day was filled with unlimited possibility. You would wake up and see the bright light from early morning sun sneaking its way through the slots in the blinds of your bedroom and it was impossible not to smile because that day held so much boundless opportunity. Each day was another compressed spring just waiting to be released of its potential energy. Looking back now, it's funny just how liberating imagined freedom can be, because, let's face it, none of us were actually free (at least not the well-cared for ones, sorry if that hits a sore spot for anyone). At the time though, nothing seemed imagined about that freedom, because if it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and looks like a duck, isn't it a duck?

During those times in between the early waking hours and dinner time (possibly a brief lunch interlude), we were our own person; no one to answer to, no one to regulate our movements, no one to question our behavior or motives. We did what we wanted to do, said what we wanted to say, were what we wanted to be. Summer does something to the hearts and souls of children that no other time of the year can ever hope to compete with. The freedom may have been "imagined" in reality, because there were still always rules to adhere to even if it seemed like total lawlessness, but it was nonetheless a form of freedom. We had stretches of time that were ours. No expectations to fulfill, no social or parental mores to live up to, we were anything and everything we had ever wanted to be and it was absolute, mother-fucking brilliance.

So on the second day of summer in 1994, I found myself with nearly an hour and a half left before dinner, and no one to hang out with or a place to go. I couldn't go home, that was a non-option. Early arrival was tantamount to blasphemy; it would be like spitting in the face of liberty. I wouldn't have that on my conscience, but I didn't want to wander around aimlessly because that was just as fruitless as going home. I needed something to do. The walk home took a half an hour, so I had an hour to play with and needed to find a way to fill it, and then it hit me...Records and Tapes Galore. It was a mere 5 minute walk from my friend's house and it didn't fuck up my walk home all that much. It might have taken me slightly longer (by like a minute), but it was more direct and I had only been inside Records and Tapes twice in my whole life, and, both trips were nearly non-existent. The first time, I walked in through the door to order and pay for an Anthrax import e.p., and the second time, I walked in to pick up Penikufesin (Nise Fukin ep) and then bolted as quickly as I came in. Both experiences lasted less than 10 minutes combined.

I had passed by this store who knows how many times, probably two or three times a week for nearly my entire life but never browsed, never spent a significant amount of time in there. For a normal, well-adjusted person, this isn't all that strange. All of us pass by businesses everyday and never step through the door once, but for me, this was equivalent to a crackhead walking by a dealer a few times a week and never stopping to pick up a rock. That shit just doesn't happen. (As a side note, how fucked up is it that the word "crackhead" doesn't trigger a spelling error?) I didn't really have a choice, I had to go, it was an act of Patriotism. Going was a display of love for freedom, and what's more American than freedom? The way I saw it, I not only had an obligation to my own "personal" freedom, but to the notion of freedom itself. I had an obligation to my country. I had to go to Records and Tapes Galore.

It took about 2 seconds to notice that this was not like any other record store I'd been in. They had C.D.'s, tapes, and a decent selection of music-oriented VHS lining the walls just like all other record stores, but on an island in the middle, they had stacks and stacks of records. I was blown away, records in a record store? How fucking novel. I'd thought I had seen it all, but here I was, browsing through racks of this dinosauric medium, this "ancient" nod to the music of the past, but as I dug, I discovered something remarkable...there were new albums shoved into those bins, albums I owned, albums I wanted to own, on fucking vinyl. And one of those new records, amongst the multiple used copies of Journey's Greatest Hits and the sun-faded covers of Linda Ronstadt LP's was the album, my favorite album in the history of music at that point in time, Nine Inch Nails' The Downward Spiral on glorious 12" black vinyl with larger-than-life album art.

It's hard to explain my exact feelings after finding this, but I can tell you they were revelatory. I have to imagine it was akin to the first time a baby discovers it has a nose. It's literally in their face the whole time, they just never knew it existed, but once they do, their life is unalterably different, there's no turning off that switch, there's no going back. Records had been there my entire life, I just never knew I wanted to listen to them, but once I did, music was inherently different.

It didn't matter that I already owned this album on C.D., or that I didn't own a record player; the only thing that mattered was that I needed this record. I had to get it. So I did. How I had the money I can't exactly remember, because generally speaking, the second I put a dollar bill into my jeans, it tends to fall out of the hole it burned in my pocket, but how I had the cash doesn't really matter now I guess. I had money and had to get this record, so I did. After that one, I got more...and more...and more. Within less than 2 months, if they pressed it on vinyl, I bought it on vinyl. (I still didn't have a record player at this point, and wouldn't have one for nearly 8 more months, when I used the money I received for my 16th birthday to pony up and buy a Sony turntable of very underwhelming quality.) I saved every penny I earned or found. I did extra chores, collected bottles to return for the deposit, dug through couch cushions and never hesitated to pick up a loose dime or nickle on the ground. I needed more records. I didn't care that I couldn't listen to them, I just wanted to own them. And for me, that was OK, I would just make a copy of the tape or C.D. from a friend who bought it. Then I could look at my record while I listened to my dubbed copy. It worked for me, worked for two years. It worked just fine...until I got a car with a C.D. player.

I now found myself in a serious dilemma. By that point I had my player and a sizable vinyl collection. I loved laying around my bedroom spinning my records. I loved talking on the phone to my girlfriend and spinning my records. I loved cleaning my room and even doing my homework while spinning my records. I just plain loved spinning my records...but I absoluetly hated FM radio. For a kid whose favorites were The Cure, The Ramones, Jeff Buckley, Sebadoh, and The Misfits, there wasn't really much of an option for me on the radio dial. I couldn't deal with shitty rock bands, and could handle vapid pop bullshit even less. I needed my tunes, but I didn't have money for a new tape deck for the car, couldn't afford to by a C.D. and vinyl copy of something, and I obviously couldn't play my records in the new ride. I was royally fucked.

Of course, it never occurred to me that there was a happy medium; continue buying the stuff I could on vinyl and listen to the stuff I had to buy on C.D. for lack of a vinyl pressing in the car, but my mind doesn't work logically. It's probably a result of the addictive personality, but I've always thought in "all or nothing" terms. I realize now that I was wrong, but the way I saw it then, I either had to suffer with fucked rock radio and continue buying records, or I had to give up the ghost and submit to the C.D. It was choice between sanity and love. In the end, I chose to remain (semi-)sane and go with those tiny, sterile discs, and it did crush me a bit, but luckily, the beast didn't die, it simply lay dormant, waiting for the day that it could awake from its long, forced slumber and return to its rightful place at the throne of my heart and musical existence.

For more than a decade I bought C.D.'s but I never forgot about records. I never forgot about those "large and in charge" 12" masterworks of human invention and engineering. And then, after far too long of dreaming about records and being broke because of irresponsibility and spending the little money I did have in nickle and dime fashion, an opportunity presented itself.

I was turning 30. My wife and I had spent our youth showering each other with lavish and irresponsible gifts for special occasions: birthdays, anniversaries, Christmas, etc., and then we got married and discovered we were broke and wallowing a decent-sized pool of debt due, at least in part, to the lavish and irresponsible gift-giving. So we made the decision that gifts were suspended. No more $200 birthday presents, no more $300 anniversary nights, no Christmas gifts, done, over, fin. Oh, we cheated a little here and there, but comparatively speaking, we were pretty well-behaved. But in 2009, we were both turning 30 and the 30th birthday is a milestone. She thought we should get each other something bigger that year. Nothing insane, no Lexus with a big red bow or anything, but something that was ultimately otherwise unobtainable. And I knew what I wanted, I wanted a record player and some records. She thought it was a good and reasonably-priced idea...and thus the beast awoke.

When people asked me how my birthday was and what I got, my reply was met with looks of confusion and thinly veiled ridicule. No one go it. The question everyone asked was "Why?", but I could tell from the way the one-word inquiry fell from their slack jaws or snickering lips that the real question was "Why are you an idiot?" I wanted to explain myself, but how do you put into logical words something that was never really thought about, just instinctively and viscerally felt?

So I fell back on science. It was easy to point to the science of vinyl recordings. Wider and fuller dynamic range of analog recording and playback, the sterility of hearing actual sound transcribed into 1's and 0's in digital, the warmer, more complex tones records reproduce, the bastardizing compression music is forced to go through in order to be heard in a digital medium, but as compelling as those arguments can be, none of them really mattered.

See, when it comes to advancements in technology, I'm actually kind of terrified. Maybe there's some sort of new-age social politico or neo-hippie living inside me that I am unaware of, but it seems like with each technological advance we embrace, we are forced to choose between our humanity and the ever-alluring pull of convenience. We no longer have to actually speak to people in person, shit, we no longer have to hear the person's voice we're speaking to at all, shoot an email, send a text. When I get an incoming call on my cell phone, there's an option to text back a response without ever having to hear the person who is actually calling me at that moment. How disgusting is that? My phone gives me the option to communicate without ever hearing a human voice.

Then there's audiobooks. Apparently we don't have the time to set aside a half an hour or 45 minutes a night to read 1984. No, we'd prefer, I don't know, Patrick Stuart or Ian McKellen to interpret Orwell for us. Fuck internalizing the words as we read them, making every paragraph, every sentence, every syllable our own, hearing it in our own voice, in our own head, with our own ideas about its meaning. We have more important things to do. We can't be bothered to read some of the most thought provoking and important works in modern history, that is beneath us. And e-books aren't any better. Throw a novel on your iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad, or Kindle. The smell of the paper, the feel of the page as you turn it, that's meaningless. We don't need it.

We can skip human interaction and possibility of the character-building humiliation that just might come with that. Why bother when we can imitate sex with only a few keystrokes and a credit card number? We can skip commercials with our DVR's, ultimately forcing product placement and gratuitous advertising down our throats and into into our favorite TV shows and movies. We can even take out the responsibility that comes with learning to drive a car; just buy a nice enough ride that turns on the lights itself when it gets dark and parallel parks for you with the push of a button. That way, you don't have to remember the skills we learned that once seemed so important. And of course, there's the iTunes/iPod/mp3 player.

We no longer need to go to the record store, it's in our computer. We no longer need to take a chance on discovering a new band, just listen to the 30 second clips, they'll tell you whether you'll like it or not. Don't like a song or two, don't feel like listening to an entire album regardless if skipping songs fucks up the context and continuity of an album, a single work, a single piece of art...delete that shit, save space on the "Pod". Fuck it, if I don't care, why should you? And if you don't care, why the fuck should I?

The only problem is, I do care. There used to be pride in making a discovery, stumbling upon some album no one else you know has heard and buying it just because it looked like it might be something you'd like. No doubt, you would buy a stinker or two, but you'd also find things that two months later you couldn't imagine your life without. There was a thrill in that, a rush from taking a chance and having that chance pay off. But the days of that thrill, that rush are gone.

And hey, I won't pretend or lie, I use "new" technology. I even like "new" technology. I'm not trying to say "new" technology is evil. I haven't watched a live TV show in about 2 years, I send at least a handful of texts a day (generally only when my friends won't answer their fucking phone, but still...), when my wife is too tired, busy, or pissed to get a little naked with me, I have been known to employ the (free) services of an occasional busty, virtual lady to appease my most base of needs, and I use the shit out of my iPod. It's possibly the life-blood of my working existence. But to forget the past, to forget what it means to be a human for the sake of convenience is nothing short of taking part in actively destroying the human race.

Think about it. At a time in the not-too-distant past, if you wanted to have a conversation with your friend on the phone, you were tethered to the kitchen by a curly-Q chord and had to say what you wanted to in front of God and everybody. If you wanted to watch your favorite TV show, you had to suffer through commercials hawking products you had no intention of buying. If you wanted to get laid, you had to put yourself out there and try to actually talk to a human being. Even if you were just planning on whacking it, you had to go through the embarrassment of bringing a Playboy (or Playgirl for the ladies) up to the counter and not only shell out the hard-earned bucks but endure the awkward stares of the clerk. You had to suffer for the things you loved. And there was strength and character in that suffering. Nowadays, suffering is a thing of the past because new technology has given us a way out. With new technology, life isn't easier, it's just easy.

And the people who have embraced this new technological age have either 1., Forgotten history altogether, or, even worse, 2., Decided to disregard the importance of the past. One way or the other, this is very dangerous ground, because to automatically equate technology with advancement means that what has happened before, which is the foundation of today's existence, is meaningless. And when you remove the foundation, the building collapses.

As much as I enjoy the use of today's technology, it is always used as a last resort (with the exception of DVR. Commercials today aren't anywhere near as entertaining as the "Coco Wheats" talking bowl of breakfast "poo" or the "Dunkaroos" sweet-ass jingle, so the less of them I have to see, the more happy I am). I would never choose to read a conversation with a friend over having a conversation with a friend, I would never pick to hear a book or read it on a sterile, pixelized screen if I can hold the book in my hand, turn the pages, feel the paper. I would never choose to sit in front of a computer screen to achieve carnal satisfaction if my wife was willing and available, and I would never choose, not in a million years, to listen to an album in a digital format when an analog one is available.

Let's leave behind the fact that we don't hear in 1's and 0's. Let's not talk about the fact that computers are at best a bastardization of the human condition. Don't get me wrong, I absolutely love my iMac and when I'm watching Short Circuit, I'm going to do my best to believe Johnny 5 is in fact alive. I mean, shit, I love that little fucking robot, he's super kick-ass, but when all is said and done, a motherboard is not a brain, a CPU will never be a body, a fan isn't sweat glands, and machines can't feel. To expect a human to hear the same way a computer (robot) translates sound is absolute bullshit. We're not the same and, God willing, never will be.

But honestly, fuck the science of it. The science is meaningless. Because whether or not there is a wider dynamic range of sound in analog playback or not, throwing in a C.D. or pressing a button on an mp3 player can never replace the feeling I get from putting a record onto the turntable. Records are the exact opposite of new technology. Obviously, that's a ridiculous statement, because Thomas Edison invented the phonograph nearly 150 years ago. Clearly, this is not "new" technology. But when I say it's the opposite, what I mean is the point of new technology is to make everything simpler, easier, removing the human responsibility and even interaction to at least some extent. Vinyl records force you to be involved in nearly every action. From the way you remove the sleeve from jacket and record from sleeve, to incessantly cleaning the records before and after you listen to them, dropping the needle onto the surface of the record, flipping the LP, putting the record back into its sleeve and sleeve back into its jacket just as carefully as you removed it, these are all important parts of the experience.

Then there's that initial pop when the needle hits the surface of the record. It last only a split second, but that little click let's you know the tunes are coming, so you better get ready. There's the painstaking task of adjusting the stylus and the tonearm's counterweight to coax out the best possible sound from your table. And then there's the simple fact of not only hearing the music but getting to see the it pour out of the speakers.

Last summer, I was babysitting for my brother and sister-in-law, and the second the kids saw the record player, they were entranced. They wanted to listen to records, so I played them Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman's Bat Out of Hell. I figured it was innocent enough and it gave me the chance to tell them the story of how their dad had played this for me when I was their age and I laughed at him, only to discover a decade later that it was one of the greatest rock records I had ever heard (Any opportunity to bolster an already mythic image of my brother to his kids is a good thing). I'm not sure what they thought about Bat..., but the youngest, who was 5 at the time, my nephew Jack, stood in front of that player and watched both sides play. He was amazed; he loved watching the tonearm slowly creep from the outside of the record towards the center. He was so interested in how it worked that he made me draw him a picture to explain the process. And since then, nearly every time I've spoken to him, he's asked me about the record player. That, as much as anything else, is part of the magic. Getting the opportunity to actually watch your music play is a wondrous and beautiful thing.

It's all of this and more that makes vinyl the king medium for music. It forces you to try, to work, to suffer and care about what you're listening to. They're not just good songs, good albums, they are things that require your attention and pampering. Listening to vinyl pressures you into a deeper connection with your music. Vinyl forces you into a greater intimate relationship with your tunes, and that's what truly matters. That's why vinyl's better, that's why it's brilliant.

I recognize that vinyl isn't for everyone. Some people simply "like" music, some "really like" it, some people "love" it, and vinyl is for the people who "really love" their music, the people who are unyielding in their passion for the music they listen to. I'm not saying you can't love music if you don't listen to it on vinyl, I'm just saying you can't love music as much as I do. Maybe that's a "My Dad can beat up your Dad" kind of statement, but it doesn't make it any less true because in this case, my shit does in fact trump yours. You can say that hearing is the only really important of the 5 senses when it comes to music, and you'd be right, but if it's possible to integrate other senses into the mix, why wouldn't you? Why wouldn't you want to touch, feel, smell the music if you could. Why wouldn't you want more out of the listening experience? Why wouldn't you want it to hit you at every possible angle? You wouldn't, period? You can have the most important part with C.D.'s or mp3's, or you can have everything with vinyl, end of story.

When you scrape away all of the muck and bullshit, vinyl forces you to love your music not only mentally and emotionally but physically. It forces you to care about your tunes in a way you never have or never could otherwise, and it furthers the idea and art-form of "the album" and degrades the importance of "the song". It's tangible, it's emotional, it's cosmic. And Goddammit, in the end, vinyl is just fucking cooler. 'Nuff said.