Sunday, December 18, 2011

Ashes & Fire

I've been listening to Ashes & Fire relentlessly for a few of weeks now, and I've been trying my damnedest to figure out just how to write about this thing, but it's been difficult because the record is a bit of a dichotomy. Musically and vocally, this record is candid and earnest which is pretty standard fare when it comes to Ryan Adams records, but there's a halcyon solemness that, while archetypal for Ashes & Fire, is atypical for Ryan Adams.

This record's the same, but it's different. It's the same, because when I listen to it I hear bits of Heartbreaker, Love is Hell and 29, pieces of Gold and Jacksonville City Nights, and the overall tone is congenial with Easy Tiger, the Follow the Lights ep, and Cardinology, but still, it's different, because even though it kind of sounds like of all of these records, when I just listen to Ashes & Fire instead of analyzing it's subtle intricacies, it doesn't really sound like any of the aforementioned records.

It's the same, because like nearly every other Ryan Adams song, the songs on Ashes & Fire are all about love and loss and failure, but it's different, because wherein the past Adams accepted the inevitable cruelties of life as cold, hard, unavoidable and insurmountable truths; brilliant songs ensconced in darkness and acquiescence, the songs on Ashes & Fire are almost acts of contrition. And above all else, Adams seems to be heavily investing in the idea that lights are always categorically at the end of tunnels.

It's the same, because like everything else Ryan Adams has done, this album ventures artistically into uncharted territory, but it's different, because in the past, Adams has always pushed himself stylistically, but on Ashes & Fire, Adams doesn't attempt to break any musical molds, it's pretty much just country-tinged folky kind-of Rock music. No, this time around Adams is pushing himself ideologically.

I recognized all of this, but I still couldn't help asking myself how Ashes & Fire can sound like the Ryan Adams we've known since he released the Angels ep with Whiskeytown a decade and a half ago, but feel like an album by a new man, until it occurred to me that, well, that's kind of exactly what Ashes & Fire is; the songwriter's the same, but everything else has changed.

Ryan Adams released one album as a solo artist without preconception or pretense; Heartbreaker was nothing more than what it was, a record by some guy most regular people had never heard of. It wasn't constrained by any outside quixotic notion of what it should or could be, it wasn't expected to break new barriers or to live up to anything because as a solo artist, there wasn't anything for it to live up to. But Heartbreaker, while maybe not an initially huge commercial success, was a critical coup for Adams that opened a lot of people's eyes to his abilities as a songwriter and musician. With a single record, Adams became this sort of critical paradigm of what was possible.

Adams spent the next 5 years of his career trying to live up to the artistic visage that Heatbreaker created, and spent the 3 after those first 5 placating his record label Lost Highway, releasing 2 records and an ep that, while are very good (Cardinology is deceptively exceptional), are also tacitly commercial. His entire output with Lost Highway was a mixed bag of sorts: one part self-actualization, self-acknowledgement, and adherence to his creative integrity, one part artistic bondage and (coerced) demiurgic concession.

It's our fault. The bottom line is we backed him into a corner. Fans, critics, his label all wanted him to live up to their expectations, and because he was slightly neurotic and his personal life was such a mess, he cared so much about what we thought of him because he had nothing else in his life to really care about. For his entire career with Lost Highway, he repeatedly tried to prove himself to us, and with each record, Adams got a little bit more jaded because no matter how good a record was, it always seemed to fall a little short of what we expected. He tried harder than any man ever should have to, and even though I think all of his records have been at least a tiny slice of genius, trying to be everything to everyone frustrated him to no end and pissed off a lot of people who were listening to the albums. We fucked him over for caring too much about what we thought, but on Ashes & Fire, he doesn't care anymore.

He's happily married and a published poet with his own recording studio and his own label. He's comfortable with himself now, and that's what makes Ashes & Fire so different from the rest of his catalog. He's not trying to prove himself to us, he frankly could give a fuck about us. He's just a guy who happens to be really good at writing and recording songs who decided to write and record some more songs. He's no longer a boy clamoring for attention and acceptance, he's a man who's accepted himself. Ashes & Fire is still Ryan Adams, he's just all grown up, and honestly, adulthood agrees with him.

Sure, I imagine that people who've listened to Ryan Adams and admired him for the musical risks he's taken might find Ashes & Fire a bit safe upon the first few listens, and in honor of full disclosure, I need to admit that I did. Certainly, Glyn Johns' production is sleek and polished, but it's also minimally intrusive, remarkably spacious, and frankly, quite breathtaking. And even if I was desperate to, it'd be hard for me to deny the fact that this record isn't anywhere near as musically adventurous as one might expect from an artist releasing his first crop of newly recorded material on his own label after spending so many years complaining as loudly as he did about label constraints, but lyrically, and again, ideologically, this is maybe as brazen and brutally honest as he's ever been. He's not using his scars as a crutch, shield, or sword, he's simply accepting them as fact and moving on, looking forward.

I can't say confidence that Ashes & Fire is Ryan Adams' best album, but it is the most honest he's been with himself in over a decade, and it's easily the most exposed, genuine, and unaffected record he's released since Heartbreaker, and there's absolutely nothing safe about that. Like I said, it's the same, but different. Superficially, Ashes & Fire may sound at first too close to what Adams has done in the past to feel comfortable with, but if you're willing and able to listen to this album with an attentive and objective ear, it's impossible not to hear that Ryan Adams is doing something really special here.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Lost Highway is a Bitch, or, Things That Suck Kind of Really Piss Me Off

I'll admit that Rock N Roll was not a work of staggering genius, but then again it was never meant to be. For Ryan Adams, Rock N Roll was a means to an end, meant to do little more than get record store shelves stocked with Love is Hell, two ep's that kind of are works of staggering genius. If you're a Ryan Adams fan, I assume you're as grateful for the release of Love is Hell, pts. 1 and 2 as I am, and because the release of the latter was entirely due to the recording of the former, I would also think that you would be at least a little grateful for Rock N Roll as well, but I would be wrong. In fact, I think the response to Rock N Roll may be solely responsible for derailing Ryan Adams' career, and if I'm being honest, that kind of pisses me off. Actually, it kind of pisses me off a lot, because there's absolutely no reason it should have.

Like I said, I don't suffer from any delusions about Rock N Roll, I'm more than aware of what it is: it's not the best thing Ryan Adams has ever released, it's not one of the best things Ryan Adams has ever released, it's not even the best thing that Ryan Adams released in 2003, but it's good. Outside of its intrinsic ties to Love is Hell, outside of the incredible pressure from the label and whirlwind creation of the record, Rock N' Roll is a good record.

It's 14 songs, not a single one bad, with at least a handful of quite good ones, and maybe even a few (or at least one) of the best he's ever written. "So Alive" is easily the closest thing to a perfect single that Adams has ever recorded. It's amazingly catchy, amazingly rocking, and if you ask me, sort of beautiful in a weird, not-quite-able-to-put-my-finger-on-it way. It isn't just one of the best singles of 2003, but probably one of the best of the last decade, maybe even of the last few.

"So Alive" aside, there are still a lot of great songs on Rock N' Roll."This Is It", "Luminol", "Do Miss America", "She's Lost Total Control", "Wish You Were Here", and the first appearance of "Anybody Wanna Take Me Home?", these songs are all reasons to appreciate this album, or at least tolerate it, but mention Rock N Roll to the average Ryan Adams fan you'd think you'd dropped a particularly potent fart in a small, hot, crowded room. The reaction's almost visceral. People really don't like this album at all, and again, that kind of really pisses me off.

But I'm not angry that people don't like this album. I don't expect you to think it's as good as I do. If you're okay with being wrong, I'm okay with it too. Like it, don't like, I don't care one way or the other. What bothers me is that after the release of Rock N Roll, fans and critics expected, and I think almost wanted, Ryan Adams to fail. Before Rock N Roll, Adams was seen as the next great American songwriter. After Rock N Roll, Ryan Adams became just some guy who recorded a few pretty good records.

Before Rock N Roll, fans rushed out to buy the "new" Ryan Adams album because they couldn't wait to hear it. After Rock N Roll, fans waited to hear the "new" Ryan Adams album before they even entertained the idea of buying it. Fans bought Rock N Roll and they still bought all of the records that followed, but since 2003, they've approached every record with skepticism. Even though fans didn't feel right about bailing on him entirely, they didn't feel right about believing in him anymore either. Every album from Cold Roses on has been greeted with this sort of crossed-arm, prove-it-to-me cynicism. Fans are always willing to concede that the "latest" Ryan Adams album is good, whatever that album may be, but they never can imagine the follow-up will be worth its weight in shit.

Before Rock N Roll, critics wouldn't completely ignore the occasional inconsistency or slight misstep he made, but they'd write it off, gloss over it, explain it away, even embrace it because he was a critical darling and it proved he was in fact a man and not some musical demigod. The periodic odd choice made him human and all the more endearing. They saw Adams' records as flawed but brilliant, but after Rock N Roll came out, his albums suddenly became brilliant but flawed. The record could be genius, but rather than talking about the countless things that made it so good, reviews seem to focus on the one or two things that weren't. The overall reviews are still good. They're always 4 out of 5 stars or 7.5 out of 10, but when you read what the critic has to say about the record, the tone always feels like, "Okay, he managed to pull this one off and bought himself a little more time in the public eye, but the next one's bound to be awful." After Rock N Roll, reviews started to sound like a stay of execution..."We're letting him live a little longer." It's almost like they're amazed it's good.

And that sucks. It sucks because Ryan Adams is in fact probably the next great American songwriter. It sucks because in a world of music rife with fly-by-nights-but-gone-by-mornings, of pans and the flashes that occur in them, of gimmicks and gross inadequacy, Ryan Adams has consistently put out quality records. Sometimes they're unbelievable, sometimes they're just good, but they're always worthwhile. They're always better than 99% of anything else that's come out over the last decade and a half, but they're always under-appreciated. And that just sucks, and things that suck kind of piss me off a lot. But I can't begrudge the fans or blame the critics because this is all Lost Highway's fault.

Lost Highway fucked Ryan Adams. Really, from the get-go they fucked this guy: agreed to Adams' plans for Gold as a double album at a single disc price, and then at the last minute cut the last five songs and trimmed it down to a single disc and releasing it in its entirety as a "special, limited edition", with an inflated price-tag, indulged him with the recording of 3 albums over the course of 2002, and then destroyed the integrity of the work by dismantling the records and cut-and-pasting them together for Demolition. They repeatedly fucked him over and he wasn't too happy about it.

He had said that "to make Gold as a compromise only to have to watch those records get broken up for Demolition was heartbreaking." So when, after meticulously crafting it for a year, he presented Lost Highway with Love is Hell, a work that he said was the album he'd been trying to make his entire life, and they rejected it as not commercial enough, he was demoralized. Ryan Adams became bound and determined to get this music out there.Some thing he made a deal with the Devil, others think he's the Devil himself, but really, he just did what he had to do to avoid once again being marginalized by his label.

Rock N Roll was not some record he painstakingly worked on. It's an album that he wrote, recorded, and finished in only two weeks. Rock N Roll was essentially ransom for Love is Hell. He couldn't let them shelve it like they did 48 Hours, The Suicide Handbook and Ryan Adams and The Pinkhearts. He couldn't simply give in to the label, so instead he compromised. He gave them their marketable album in the form of Rock N Roll with the ultimatum that they only got it if they released Love is Hell too. And God bless him for that because I'm still livid that the possibility of my needle ever touching a record with "Walls" or "Angelina" on it is slim to none, a world without Love is Hell is a world that's just too weird to really want to be a part of. Sadly enough though, it was this double-barreled release that caused things to get ugly for Ryan Adams, and like I've already stated, it was all Lost Highway's fault.

Lost Highway may have agreed to release Love is Hell, but like so many times before, they fucked Ryan Adams, but this time it was the royal screw. By breaking up Love is Hell into two parts, they sent a message to fans, sure, but more importantly to Adams. They wanted to show Ryan Adams that he didn't concede by making Rock N Roll, but that they did by throwing him a bone and releasing Love is Hell. They wanted to make sure that everyone knew that Love is Hell was unimportant. Rock N' Roll was the main course, Love is Hell was a side dish. Rock N Roll was first class and Love is Hell was coach. Rock N Roll was the story, Love is Hell was a footnote.

They wanted to ensure that the highly promoted Rock N Roll would out sell the promotionless Love is Hell. They wanted Rock N Roll to have greater impact on the critics than Love is Hell. They wanted to show Ryan Adams that Rock N Roll was right and Love is Hell was wrong. They wanted to turn Ryan Adams into a multi-platinum selling superstar, but all they did was kind of fuck everything up for everyone, including themselves.

First off, Rock N Roll is easily Ryan Adams most niche album, and for a kind of stylistic chameleon, that's saying a lot. Lost Highway should have realized that Adams wasn't going to ever be an artist beholden to a specific style. Even if Rock N Roll had gone on to sell 3 million copies, Ryan Adams was never going to say, "Oh, hey, this album sold a lot so I should just do that over and over again". Because of how stylistically isolated it was from the rest of his catalog, anyone who jumped on the Ryan Adams train because of Rock N Roll would have immediately hopped off the second they heard Cold Roses. They were never going to create new Ryan Adams fans with Rock N Roll, they were at best going to make fans of one album who would be gone the second he released something new.

Meanwhile, all fans had wanted for years was for Ryan Adams to up the ante on Heartbreaker, the very thing that Love is Hell did. It was a return to the confessional singer/songwriter approach of Heartbreaker, but was much darker and moodier. Love is Hell should have satiated the hunger for his established, loyal fans, but it didn't.

Critics on the hand were looking for validation. For years, critics had praised Adams and wanted him to finally deliver the album that would without a doubt make them feel like their accolades weren't all in vain. Love is Hell should have provided the piece of mind, but once again, it didn't.

Love is Hell couldn't accomplish either of these feats because first, broken up into two parts, Love is Hell's impact was diluted. Regardless of how good the two ep's were, without the material presented in its envisioned and proper long-play format, the context was wrong, the pacing was off. The cohesion of the songs is one of it's greatest strengths, but with Love is Hell rendered asunder, there was no unity. In two ep's, you're only getting a part of the whole, and the whole is always going to be more affecting than a fraction of it. Second, having part 1 simultaneously released with Rock N Roll which was presented as a whole, it gave the listener the impression that Adams saw Love is Hell as a "less-than" piece, infuriating everyone and poisoning their minds against Ryan Adams, seeing him as a man who was just out to make a buck, leaving them unable to do anything but question every move Adams would make for what has so far been the remainder of his career.

But had Lost Highway let Adams win just this one, I think everything would have been different. Had Love is Hell been released as the follow-up to Gold (Demolition is a compilation album, and since compilations are not proper records, I don't consider Demolition to be Gold's follow-up.), and waited 10 months or a year to release Rock N Roll, I think Love is Hell would have reinforced and solidified fans and critics established opinions of Ryan Adams, so when Rock N Roll finally did surface, the record would have been seen as nothing more than the strange whim of an erratic genius and thus, would have been accepted by critics and fans, while still bringing those new customers into the fold.

It wouldn't have gained any more longterm fans for Adams or sold more records than it did, but Adams stature in the collective consciousness wouldn't have been effected; it may have even seemed more stalwart. Instead, Rock N Roll gave people the impression that Ryan Adams was just clamoring for the brass ring, a sycophant whose ultimate goal was to do nothing more than to fatten his coin purse. Lost Highway's ridiculous desires were projected onto Ryan Adams, giving him a false reputation he still hasn't been able to shake, and that's unfair, and disparity sucks, and things that suck kind of piss me off a lot.

Lost Highway ruined things and they know it. I don't think it's coincidence that neither of these albums have been in print on vinyl for almost a decade even though everything else Ryan Adams ever released on Lost highway is and these 2 records fetch serious coin on eBay. I don't think it's coincidence that, for the celebration of Lost Highway's 10th anniversary as a label, they announced they would finally reissue these albums only to mysteriously pull them from the roster of special edition vinyl releases days after Ryan Adams announced the release date of his first record of new material, Ashes & Fire, on his own label, Pax-Am, which fell smack-dab in the middle of the two.

Lost Highway knows they fucked things up, they just don't want us to know they know it. They limited Ryan Adams as an artist before Rock N Roll, and unfairly condemned him as a philistine because of Rock N Roll, and wrote him off after Rock n Roll. Lost Highway bungled his career, fundamentally tarnishing his reputation as an artist and leaving fans with a bad taste in their mouth that still lingers, all for the sake of making a buck. And the worst of it all is that Rock N Roll is still a pretty good record, it was ill-conceived, sure, and it was released at the worst possible time in the worst possible way under the worst possible circumstances, but it's still a pretty good album. But because of all of the bullshit, no one will ever be able to objectively listen to it, so no one will ever really know that. And you know, that sucks, and things that suck kind of really piss me off.

Sunday, October 16, 2011


It starts with a sigh; I'm talking about "Call Me on Your Way Back Home", the sixth song on Ryan Adams' first solo album. The sigh only lasts a second, and if the volumes too low your speakers are shitty it's not even audible, but it might just be my favorite moment in music.

It's funny I really, that my favorite moment in music should have nothing to do with music at all, yet still, it is my favorite moment, because in that single second, without singing a word a playing a note, Ryan Adams manages to expose the soul, the very essence of Heartbreaker. There's longing in that sigh, and loneliness and desperation and exhaustion and hope. And it's all amazing.

Maybe this shouldn't seem like that big of a deal, but if you know me you know that I believe there are very few artists, maybe none, who can truly compare to Ryan Adams. True, there are other bands and artists I love as much as Ryan Adams, but not for the same reasons, and the reasons why I love Ryan Adams are the reasons why I love music so much, so for me it is a big deal. It's a real big deal.

I hear that sigh, and I get this vision in my head: Ryan Adams, sitting the booth alone, guitar in hand, harmonica strapped around his neck, rocks glass filled with whiskey or bourbon or something like that, with a finger of the booze left in the glass and the ice cubes nearly melted down to nothing, but that's alright because he finished off his beer chaser with the last drink. His cigarette's burning in the ashtray on the table next to him, probably something full-flavored, maybe a Marlboro because for whatever reason the seem more "Southern" to me than Camels and he hadn't been out of the South long enough yet to shake off its' dirt to become urbane and smoke Nat Sherman's or even American Spirits. He's trying the steel up his nerve, not to do the song well but just to get through it without falling apart. The tape's rolling, it has been for 30 seconds, he knows because Ethan Johns told him when he hit record. He grabs his glass of whiskey, but puts it back down almost instantly; it's not going to help him now, maybe after the song's done he'll drink it...definitely after the song's done he'll drink it, but not now, not now. He closes his eyes, takes a deep breathe, and then let's out that sigh, the very one that's so important to me, and he starts playing.

At least some of these things are fiction, probably most of the things didn't happen, most likely all them are pure fantasy, but what I want to have happened and what actually happened are of little consequence, because in the end, that sigh is real, and that sigh says everything that Ryan Adams really needed to say on Heartbreaker.

That sigh, like the record's title, tells you all you need to know without ever listening to the music. It's sort of funny really, for a long time I assumed Heartbreaker was in reference to Adams (and there are reports that the album's title was actually just arbitrarily chosen), but the more I've listened to this record, the more I've come to realize that, arbitrary or not, the title couldn't be more apropos. With the exception of two or three songs (and even those are maybe debatable), these songs are heartbreaking. "Oh My Sweet Carolina", "To Be the One", "Come Pick Me Up", "Sweet Lil' Gal (23rd and 3rd)", "Why Do They Leave?", "Don't Ask for the Water", the aforementioned "Call Me on Your Way Back Home"; they're all songs about emptiness at its most admirable. For lack of a more articulate way of putting it, these songs are all so sad, and they make me sad when I listen to them, but that's always been a good thing because they're also so good that it makes feeling sad feel good. But in 2011, there's a new sadness, a deeper, more real sadness that goes along with listening to this record too.

Having been a little RA obsessed for the last decade, I've devoured and internalized all of the records and I've loved every minute of it. Ryan Adams has constantly shape-shifted and reinvented himself. He's grown as an artist, but over the course of a near decade of dealing with Lost Highway, expectant critics and fickle fans, he also grew jaded. It was hard to hear it as it was happening, the same way it's hard to notice the ways people change over time when you see them everyday. You don't really notice greying hair or slimming bellies or fattening bellies or wrinkling faces when you see someone every day. But when there's even a reasonably brief moment of separation, the reunion that follows can be a rude awakening.

And I've spent a decade without going all that long without listening to Ryan Adams. For the first 3 years after I heard Heartbreaker, I don't think I went more than a day without listening to a Ryan Adams album. There was a 4 year period where, even if I went a few days or even a week without listening to one of his records, I still listened to "So Alive" every day, because it is still one of the most perfect Rock songs of all time. From the second I listened to Heartbreaker, I've loved Ryan Adams' music and haven't really been able to separate myself from it. Even when I'm on a particularly strong jag with someone else, a Ryan Adams album still finds its way into the rotation. I haven't spent a whole lot of time without him. The result of that was being able to see the continuity throughout his catalog but not differences.

The fact that Ryan Adams was getting tired and growing cynical with music never occurred to me. I didn't notice what was happening. I was too involved, I couldn't see the forest for the trees. All I knew was Ryan Adams was making records and I loved each and every one of them...nothing else mattered. And still, I guess nothing else actually matters, but a week ago I put on Heartbreaker and it crushed me, partly because of just how brilliant it is, but mainly because it finally dawned on me that this record can never happen again.

Heartbreaker was written and recorded before Lost Highway tried to turn Ryan Adams into their cash-cow, before the critics decided this guy was the second fucking coming, and then decided he was just trying to be the second coming. It was before the Whiskeytown diehards hated him for making Gold, and before the Gold diehards hated him for making Rock N' Roll. It was before anyone even knew who he was, and before he was saddled with expectations so lofty that, in the eyes of fans, critics, and his label, he had no choice but to fall short. It was before cared so much about what they wanted him to do that they failed to see what he was doing. It was before all of the above poisoned the minds and hearts of non-believers against him, and prevented his records to be truly appreciated on the grand scale that they by all rights deserved to be.

Heartbreaker happened when he was still barely more than a kid, when he still had South Carolina soil clinging to the soles of his shoes, when he had nothing to prove to anyone, and as a result, proved everything to anyone who listened. It was a captured moment in time, it was a beginning, the start to a shockingly under-appreciated yet brilliant career, and if you listen close enough, you can hear all of that in a second-long sigh at the beginning of the sixth track on the record, and that sigh, that record, is magic. I really hope you have good speakers.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

III/IV and Some Other Stuff

When III/IV came out nearly a year ago, I started to write about it, but the the more I wrote, the more I began to rethink whether or not I should. The first time I heard Heartbreaker over a decade ago, I was enamored with the music of Ryan Adams, so much so that I told virtually everyone I knew to listen to him and I was pretty emphatic about it, maybe even relentless in my pursuit to convince people that they needed to pay attention to this guy. And at the time, my overzealousness was accepted by most because we all still thought Ryan Adams was human, but eventually, when we realized he was some kind of roboticon cyborg song machine turning out records at the same rate that assembly lines used to turn out Detroit Steel, most of those people who initially decided to take my advice grew indifferent, because, even though this makes no sense to me, his profligacy was a turn-off to people. How more music from an artist you like can be a bad thing I'm not quite sure, but I guess Ryan Adams' output was simply too much for people to keep up with. Apparently, people found it a bit overwhelming. Once this happened, my constant prattling on about the brilliance of Ryan Adams began to wear on my friends.

Don't mistake me, I don't think I'm so much a force in people's lives that my incessant ramblings actually negatively influenced people and polluted their minds against Ryan Adams, but it certainly wasn't helping him, and in my own little grass-roots type of way, that's what I was trying to do. So I stopped. Or more accurately, I started trying to convince myself that I was a non-partisan fan of Ryan Adams. I eventually took this stance with Easy Tiger, I did it with Cardinology, and for the most part, I did it with Orion, and for the last 298 days I've been doing that with III/IV, just doing my best to not really talk about them all that much.

I wanted people I knew to listen to it, but I didn't want it to seem like I was demanding that people listen to it, so I chose not to write about it. But now, I'm only 23 days away from owning Ashes & Fire, the first set of newly written and recorded songs from Ryan Adams in nearly 3 years (the album's release date is technically in 2 days, on October 11, but won't see a vinyl release until November 1, so I still have 3 weeks and 3 days), and I listened to a stream of the album earlier today via, and it's so good and so earnest, I'm sick of pretending to attempt to be non-biased when it comes to Ryan Adams because I'm not. Ryan Adams is quite possibly the best songwriter of my generation, and III/IV is about as good a record as he's ever recorded.

The title III/IV is in reference to the 2 lp set being the 3rd and 4th volumes of material recorded by The Cardinals. It was the first album Ryan Adams had ever recorded sober and it was recorded during the same sessions that yielded Easy Tiger, but unlike the first 2 volumes from the Cardinals, Cold Roses and Jacksonville City Nights and the session's sister album, III/IV is a Rock record in the truest, purest sense of the term.

Sure, there are a couple of folkish moments ("Typecast", "Death and Rats"), and a couple of goofball ones ("Star Wars", "Kill the Lights"). There are some Rock N' Roll cliché breakup songs (two of the strongest songs on the record, "Dear Candy", which sounds shockingly like a Rock version of Easy Tiger's first single "Two", and "Lucky and Blue", originally released as a stream on Adams' website in 2006 under the title "France"), and a few lighthearted moments too ("The Crystal Skull", "Gracie", "My Favorite Song", and one of Adams' most striking vocal performances ever, "Kisses Start Wars"), but what really makes III/IV so special is the "everything else" on the record. The majority of this double album is comprised of darkness, desperation, and self-deprecation; elements that have never truly been a part of Adams' repertoire. The album is essentially the work of a confused and terrified man, recently sober, reflecting on his days of indulgence and doing his best to atone for past indiscretions while trying to sort out who he his without his most treasured vices. The result is visceral, confessional, honest, and starkly beautiful.

"Breakdown Into the Resolve", "Ultraviolet Light", "Users", "Numbers", "Ice-Breaker", "Sewer at the Bottom of a Wishing Well", "P.S."; all songs about Adams' realization he's in danger, all songs about alcoholism, all songs about not liking yourself that much, and in some cases, not even really knowing yourself at all. But "No" is by far the most blatant and revealing of the record.

Something is wrong, something is wrong.
Something that was making me feel good is not,
Is not, is not, is not, is not.
And nobody understands, and it's all I've got.

These songs are rife with shame and self-loathing and fear, and that probably sounds uncomfortable because it is, but these songs are also so sincere that being uncomfortable is essential. In fact, it doesn't matter how you feel because ultimately you just blessed to be allowed to be able to peek behind the curtain and see the real man behind the music. That's pretty damn brave and it's jarringly refreshing.

But really, for me, III/VI is such a great record because it is one more glaring example of why Ryan Adams is probably the uncrowned king of contemporary pop music: he simply doesn't give a fuck. He does what he wants. He indulges every whim. Even though he has occasionally released a record that feels safe, he never tries to play it safe. He was a man only limited by his record company's confidence, and now that he's thrown of those shackles, the possibilities are limitless. If he wants to, he may release a series of Folk or Alt.-Country records that sound exactly like stuff he's put out before, but he also might record something that, not in a million years, we would ever imagine he or anyone else would record.

Ryan Adams isn't beholden to a stylistic precedence. He makes the album he wants to make, not the album might make him. He doesn't make albums he thinks he should record, he makes albums he wants to record. He's about personal intuition, not popular expectation. And in a day and age where artistic exploration has taken a backseat to commercial assumption, III/IV as an album and Ryan Adams as an artist is breath of about the freshest air we're going to breathe.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Sam Beam and High School Football are a Formidable Pair: The 1st in a Series of Blogs Inspired by "Friday Night Lights"

For the last 5 years, Friday Night Lights has been easily one of the best programs on television. Well-written, beautifully shot, with compelling story-lines, commanding performances, an exquisite score coupled with a rocking soundtrack; it was heads above nearly every other TV drama on broadcast television. With the series coming to a close earlier this summer and with the aid of a Netflix account, I decided it prudent for me to revisit the show in its entirety before the final episode aired, just for the sake of remembering just how we got to where we were and to give myself a greater sense of closure as one of my favorite shows took its final bow. As I ran through the first 4 seasons for a second time, I was nagged to by two ideas that seemed to escape me the first time around: 1., Life is fleeting, and 2., I don't listen to nearly enough Iron and Wine.

I'm not sure if Friday Night Lights is, at its core, a show about High School Football, or if High School Football is simply a superficial vehicle for the story-lines beneath the surface, but one way or the other, it was hard for me to watch this show the second time around without rosettes of memories from my own High School Football days opening up. It wasn't nostalgia, I wasn't reminiscing; the memories were tactile, visceral. It was smells, pains, feelings of exhaustion and frustration and glory, and they all came to me in a very abstract, almost surreal and overwhelming clump.

I started to think about the past. I started thinking about how much time had actually passed since I played a down of Football wearing pads and a helmet, where the outcome of the game actually meant something to me, and how little time seemed to have passed, and it just really drove home just how fast life moves. Time is the only thing we lose that can never be found again. Once it's gone, it's lost forever, and although that's the inherent nature of existence, it's also the great tragedy of it. If you're standing in the bed of a truck, and that truck starts moving, you're most likely going to grab onto something for security. In the physical world, whenever we feel a loss of balance, the natural response is to grab onto the largest, most fixed object we can for stability, and the same thing applies to the figurative world. Life moves at such a high speed that we grab onto the most readily available and easily graspable memories in hopes of maintaining our equilibrium, keeping up, not being left behind by time, and those memories more often than not tend to be the big ones, the milestones. Granted, the milestones are essential parts of our lives, but they're also the most easily digestible and superficial ones. But the small moments, the ephemeral, infinitesimal flashes of experience are the things that end up having the greatest impact on us as people. The big moments define time, but the small moments define us.

My wife Amanda and I started dating a little over 17 years ago. We had talked on the phone a few times before we ever met in person, and even before I had ever laid eyes on her, I was smitten. But 2 months into our relationship, she gave me this sort of confused look with a crooked half-smile, and in that moment, I knew I loved her. That look destroyed me and remade me all at once, and from that moment on, I've never wanted to be with anyone else, even at the darkest times in our union. 5 seconds, a single look, literally changed my life. Our wedding by comparison pales in significance to that 5 seconds, but I never talk about that moment although I do talk about our wedding.

And I have to say, even when we find ourselves locked into a particularly difficult time in our relationship, the memory of that look reminds me why she means more to me than any other woman ever could. The worst times with her are still better than the best times I could have with anyone else. And I get this all from a look that lasted 5 seconds that I saw 17 years ago.

The real tragedy of life is not that we are born to die, or the fact that (I imagine) even the longest of lives seem too short when they're coming to a close, but that life, moving at even its most standard velocity, moves so fast that we are almost forced to disregard those momentary but integral twigs of existence. They get shoved aside because they're too hard to hold on to when your hands are only so big and you have to do your best to latch on to the next branch that can support your weight.

This is where I was at by the time I was halfway through the 2nd episode of the 1st season of my re-watching of Friday Night Lights. As much as I was enjoying the show, I became sad. My fear that the best parts of life get shoved aside for the easy ones kept growing and growing. But in the close of what I believe was the 7th or 8th episode of that initial season, there's this moment. After a brutal and physical fight with his brother that seems to threaten the very integrity of their relationship, one of the main characters gets cold-cocked by his best friend, and so he returns home, not for solace but because he has nowhere else to go. As he navigates around the detritus that was a product of his earlier confrontation randomly strewn about the floor, he comes upon his brother in the kitchen, making a grilled cheese sandwich and reaching into the fridge for the last beer in the house. His brother hands him a bag of frozen peas for his blackened eye, slices the sandwich in two and cracks open the beer. He sits down next to him and sets one half of the sandwich in front of him, cracking the beer and setting it in between the two of them.

The duration of this scene can't be much more than two minutes, but in that short time their relationship is defined to the viewer. And though I realize it's a TV show, and the moment shared between these two characters is fictitious, it was the very kind of moment I was lamenting in real life. It was one of those little moments that mean so much even though they may seem so small. And as the shot began to slowly fade to black on the the two backs turned towards the camera as they shared a grilled cheese and a beer, the last song on the Iron and Wine/Calexico collaboration In the Reins started playing.

"Give this stone to my brother, because we found it playing in the barnyard many years ago. Give this bone to my father. He'll remember hunting in the hills when I was ten years old. Give this string to my mother. It pulled the baby teeth she keeps inside the drawer. Give this ring to my lover. I was scared and stupid not to ask for her hand long before."

"Dead Man's Will" is really about trying to make amends, but the lyrics tell a second story too. In this song, Sam Beam, the man who plays under the sobriquet of Iron and Wine, writes about bequeathing nothing of serious monetary value, but trinkets collected over the years not from those obvious milestones, but from those tiny moments that have ultimately defined the narrator's relationships with the people he loves the most, and though this is an exceptionally beautiful song, the sentiment is not an exception to the music of Iron and Wine.

Sam Beam seems to trade almost exclusively in the small moments. In countless songs like "Someday the Waves", "Promising Light", "Each Coming Night", "Upward Over the Mountain", "Radio War", "Passing Afternoon", and even in "Walking Far from Home" from his latest and most eclectic (and least "Iron and Winey") record Kiss Each Other Clean, Sam Beam as Iron and Wine is concerned with moments, not milestones.

"16, Maybe Less", another song from In the Reins, is written from the perspective of a man now in his 50's, with a wife and a son and grandchildren, all of whom he loves, yet still, he can't help but turn back to a single hour he spent with a girl when he was in his teens ("We were 16, maybe less, maybe a little more."). He's not lamenting the life that could have been or regretting the life that is, he's just fondly remembering a fleeting experience that turned out to mean more than he could have ever imagined. In "The Trapeze Swinger", he sings about a string of seemingly innocuous moments that in actuality taught him what love meant. In "Flightless Bird, American Mouth", he talks about the epiphany of love, and how a single moment, a single look, can change the very fiber of your being forever, even if you're too dense to realize it.

In the pantheon of lyricists alone, Sam Beam is a man of notable distinction, and frankly, that should be enough, but the fact that his delivery of those words is so brilliant, his very southern, very down to earth voice that's capable of reaching ethereal heights is nothing short of excruciating in the best and most beautiful sense, lends his words an honesty and validity that most could only dream of. And the melodies and music he writes to accompany those words, whether deceptively simplistic or overtly complex, is shockingly poignant and striking in it's purity and sincerity. All three of these things work in conjunction with each other, producing not simply a song but an experience.

His melodies are soaring and haunting. They're soaked in sadness and hope, and always reflect the tone of the story he's telling, and the music does the same. The bass-line that opens up the aforementioned "16, Maybe Less" just oozes the tenderness and longing of that lost love. The melody in the chorus of "Flightless Bird..." is the sound of a heart breaking because it's just too full with love. The slide-guitar on "Promising Light" sounds almost lazy at first, but upon further listens, you hear it's not apathy but the malaise of a heart torn to shreds by stupidity and bravado and the realization that through equal parts of fear and ego, you just may have destroyed the thing you should have held most sacred.

Sam Beam takes those small but almost certainly universal moments and has turned them into a soundtrack for our lives. He somehow manages to consistently and accurately depict experiences from all of our lives that we may not talk about but will never forget, and he does this all so unassumingly and with such ease that makes him seem less like a musician and more like a historian of real life. Iron and Wine may not be my favorite, but I'm definitely glad Sam Beam's out there and continues to do what he does so beautifully.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Mid-Westerners and Jeff Tweedy (Who is, Coincedentally a Mid-Westerner) aren't Dumb

It only lasts 30 seconds, that's it. Just 30 seconds, a mere half a minute, but as insignificant a passage of time 30 seconds is, one half of one minute is all it takes to make a pretty damn good song into one of the most essential and definitive moments in Rock N' Roll from over the last 20 or 30 years. It happens at about the 2 and a half minute mark on the seventh song on Wilco's second record. For a little more than 2 minutes, "I Got You (At the End of the Century)" on 1996's Being There starts out as a good song, maybe even a great song, but once that guitar solo starts, it's propelled into amazing, epic, classic.

That solo's absolutely blistering: a bit bluesy, a bit dirty, a lot catchy, best heard when you're volume knob's been turned far enough into the black to push your speakers to their maximum wattage capacity, and quintessential Wilco. It's only 30 seconds long, but it's not fleeting or ephemeral. It stays with you long after the solo and the song ends. But that's Wilco.

They're a creative band who approaches every record with a fresh perspective. No two Wilco albums sound alike, but all of them sound like Wilco. They are consistently creative and artistically provocative. But what makes Wilco special are Jeff Tweedy's songs. Jeff Tweedy writes songs that are interesting and that musically, lyrically, melodically push the boundaries of perception of what popular Rock music should and could be, but are still always rooted in familiar, middle-American ideologies. They're thoughtful and thought-provoking but there's something about them that's unmistakably Mid-Western. They're cerebral and salt-of-the-earth. They're intellectual and Blue-Collar. And as simple as that sounds, it's never really been done before, or at least not before 1995, when Wilco released their first record.

Certainly, there have been "man-of-the-people", "working-class" artists before. Springsteen alone fills that void in both quality and quantity of work. But for as intelligent as Springsteen is, he's always been a man after the hearts of the everyman with little regard for the minds, not that there's anything wrong with that. But even though Jeff Tweedy doesn't avoid moving us emotionally, Wilco's music is about feeding the common man mentally. And this shouldn't be all that exceptional, but it is, because Mid-Western ideals and the prevailing image of the middle-American man has typically been humble, hard-working, God-fearing, a little weather-worn, with callused hands and good intentions, responsible, and respectable, but not intellectual. Maybe I'm wrong, but the impression I get of the world's impression of Mid-Westerners is that, unless you migrate to one of the coasts once you're old enough to make your own decisions, you're just a kind, polite, fat, white-bread rube. But Mid-Westerners are smart. We care about more than just red meat, football, and John Grisham novels (although red meat and football...come on, right?).

But it's possible to work on an assembly-line and appreciate Akira Kurosawa films. Farmers can read Kafka and Coal-Miners can admire Rothko. And even if most people don't understand this, Jeff Tweedy does. Jeff Tweedy realizes that middle-America and mid to low level intelligence are not mutually exclusive, because Wilco isn't just a band who started out in the Mid-West, they're a band that is Mid-Western. Tweedy hasn't left, he's still lounging in the Prairie State, being smart and Mid-Western, and that's awesome, because he's given me and anyone like me a voice. He's proved you don't have to be from Boston to be a janitor who can do calculus, and I'm thankful for that. Don't get me wrong, Wilco would still be one of the most interesting and best bands in contemporary music if Tweedy moved to L.A. or Brooklyn, but the fact that he's firmly rooted in Illinois and has no intention of leaving Chicago makes Wilco a band that's a little more relatable and accessible to me, an amazing band that's a little bit better, even if they are already one of the best.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Thanks for Sebadoh Kurt, I Would've Owed You One.

The most important thing Nirvana gave me was an appreciation for noise. I was given a dubbed copy of Bleach as an 11 year old boy and I liked it. It wasn't the fastest or loudest thing I had ever heard. There weren't Valkyrie-wail falsettos or face-melting guitar licks, but it was the noisiest record I had ever heard and I liked it, I liked it a lot. I wanted more of it. I wanted to find other bands that were noisy as shit, bands that didn't care about state-of-the-art studios and clean production. I was never going to find a band that sounded like Nirvana, I know that now, but I found bands that felt the same, and of the bunch, Sebadoh was the best.

Sonic Youth was probably the most auteur, Dinosaur Jr. was certainly the loudest, Guided By Voices was by far the most prolific, Pavement was the most accessible, and The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion was without a doubt the most humorous, but Sebadoh was the best.

I bought my first Sebadoh album in 1994 when I still had a subscription to Rolling Stone and still had faith in the music media. I can't remember who reviewed the record, what rating it was given, or what was said about the album, but something in the review must've hit home because I went out and bought Bakesale right away. By the time I got through "Magnet's Coil", I was convinced this was one of the best albums I would ever own. After hearing "Soul and Fire" from 1993's Bubble and Scrape, I knew that Sebadoh was one of the best bands that I would ever listen to.

I still think all of bands that Bleach led me to are great. I listen to Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain and Bee Thousand on a pretty normal basis. Dinosaur Jr. can still make me smile when I'm in the right mood. JSBE's salacious post-rock, non-blues can still easily be the life of the party, and Sonic Youth is, well, for me, Sonic Youth hasn't aged as well as the others, but it's still hard to argue with Daydream Nation. But when I listen to these bands now, something's different. When I first heard each one of these bands, their sonic commonalities sounded like a state of being. And with the exception of GBV, when I listen to them now, it sounds more like, I don't want to say contrived, but maybe a little less-than-natural. Now, it sounds less like a state of being and more like a statement of cool. Not necessarily schtick or gimmick, more like a way to seem legit; like a way to seem more creative without having to be more creative, and that cheapens the records a bit. It's a super teeny tiny bit, certainly not enough for me to dislike or discredit the bands or the records. They're all good and some are great, but for the most part, the sound, or at least the impact it has on me has degraded. But not with Sebadoh. If anything, every time I listen to Sebadoh these days, I'm a little more convinced of Lou Barlow's brilliance.

For Lou Barlow and and the rest of Sebadoh (with the exception of Eric Gaffney, but the Lou Vs. Eric story is almost an entire blog on its own), the "sound" of the records was never important. The albums were recorded in low fidelity, but the songs were never lo-fi. Lou Barlow didn't revel in it. Lou Barlow never even acknowledged it. It wasn't an ideology, it wasn't an artistic statement, it was just reality, it was just the way the records sounded.

Lou Barlow's songs were never a response to being in a noisy band. If anything, Sebadoh was a noisy band in spite of how utterly brilliant Lou Barlow's songs were. His songs ache. They drip honesty. They're romantic, bitter, irreverent, hopeful. They're 3 minute examinations of the vulnerability of man, exposing, chronicling, celebrating, lamenting the human condition.

Lou Barlow can do fun ("Rebound", "Good Things"). He can do scathing ("The Freed Pig"). He can do bitter ("Cliche"), and he's amazing at reflective ("Spoiled"), but his best songs are love songs. Listen to either version of "Brand New Love", "Vampire", "Soul and Fire", "Magnet's Coil", "Think (Let Tomorrow Bee)", "Willing to Wait", "Together or Alone", or "On Fire" and you'll understand everything. I may be a inept romantic, but above everything else, I think everyone truly wants to love and to be loved. Love songs are the ones with the real power to change the world, and Lou Barlow has written some of the most enduring, honest, and heartbreaking love songs of the last 30 years. At their core, his songs are these stark, unadorned, sometimes bleak, always beautiful love songs that should move even the heaviest heart.

And that should be enough, but when you take into account the way these songs are presented, amazing becomes genius. Lou Barlow used the "lo-fi" aesthetic to propel Sebadoh's sound into an entirely different stratosphere than all of the other bands I earlier mentioned. The thick-as-mud distortion in the chorus of the Smash Your Head on the Punk Rock version of "Brand New Love", or the way "Soul and Fire" alternates between quiet-and-clean and loud-and-chaotic, or how the sparse treble of "Together or Alone" can give way to warm, heavy hum without warning or seam are the reasons why Sebadoh was better than everyone else.

Lou Barlow never used noise to justify his songs, he used as a way to increase dynamic tension in them. He used noise to exemplify feeling. He used is to punctuate ideas. He used it create juxtaposition, he used it to notate opposition. He used it to drive home his point.

Lou Barlow's songs weren't defined by noise, they were clarified through it. He never used it as a crutch or as a disclaimer, he used it as a sonic windrose. He wrote songs for Sebadoh that were inherently universal and used noise not to characterize them but to explain them. Noise didn't make Sebadoh, it just made them more awesome. 15 year old Brandon may be as big an idiot as 32 year old Brandon is, but he most certainly got two things right: Amanda's a solid lady-friend, and Sebadoh is one of the best bands anyone will ever listen to.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Saddle Creek was Alright, Bright Eyes was Amazing

In my early 20's, Saddle Creek seemed like this unstoppable, almost myth-like juggernaut of a label. I don't know, it seemed like they had managed to sign the right bands. It seemed like they were doing all of the right things. Now with hindsight on my side, this seems like an almost hilarious thought, because in all honesty, I didn't really like many bands on Saddle Creek.

Azure Ray was kind of nice. Their songs were pretty, but ultimately they weren't much more than Sarah McLachlan with street cred. And Saddle Creek put out a single, pretty good Rilo Kiley record, The Execution of All Things, but it certainly wasn't anything to lose your shit over. By the time I was 25, they released two very brilliant Cursive records, Domestica and The Ugly Organ, one fine Cursive ep, Burst and Bloom, and the near-flawless album by one-trick pony, Omaha Indie-Scene supergroup Desaparecidos, Read Music/Speak Spanish, but once you throw in bands like Son Ambulance, The Faint, Sorry About Dresden, and a wide cast of other non-starter Creeksters, it should be hard to justify my feelings about Saddle Creek at that time, but it isn't, because Saddle Creek was the only label releasing Bright Eyes records, and in my early 20's, Bright Eyes was nearly the only band releasing records that mattered.

Since about 2005, I've had this on-going debate with my friends about the merit of the Bright Eyes catalog as a whole. Since the duel release of I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning, and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, each time Conor Oberst puts out a new Bright Eyes effort, I find myself defending a post-Lifted world, trying to convince my friends that these records are good and that Conor Oberst is still a valid artist who's writing solid songs. And, in my defense, I'm right. The four records released since Lifted, or The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground all have they're flashes of brilliance and are otherwise full of completely respectable, good songs. And the latest (and apparently final) Bright Eyes record, The People's Key just may be the most lyrically accomplished thing Oberst has ever written.

But since the release of The People's Key back in February of this year, I find myself listening to "early" Bright Eyes in the small hours a lot and I have to say, for as right as I am about Bright Eyes: 2005-2011, my friends are just as right about everything that came before, because when I hear "February 15", "Center of the World", "Oh, You are the Roots that Sleep Beneath My Feet and Hold the Earth in Place", "From a Balance Beam", "Motion Sickness", or "Amy in a White Coat" (or I guess nearly any other Bright Eyes song from Lifted... or before), I'm instantly reminded why I love this music so much.

At this point I could start prattling on about why I loved (and love) Bright Eyes (and when I say "why I do..." I guess at least a little part of me means "why you should, if you already don't): integrity, honesty, ingenuity, purity, eccentricity, creativity, blah, blah, fucking blah. Yes, Conor Oberst as Bright Eyes is high artistry wrapped up in a catchy-via-funhouse mirror package. And if you listen to those earlier Bright Eyes records, it's hard to argue with the fact that this guy just might be an absolute fucking genius, but I'm not sure any of that really matters here, because honestly, you didn't start listening to Letting Off the Happiness/Fevers and Mirrors/Oh, Holy Fools era Bright Eyes in your early 20's, I'm not sure you're going to hear what I hear.

What my friends have failed to explain and I've failed to realize is that time and place played just as important of a role in loving Bright Eyes as the music itself. Hell, it might even be more important. I mean, I'd like to think that if I heard Fevers and Mirrors for the first time today, I'd love it as much as I do having heard it a decade ago, but I actually think I would probably respect it but find it slightly annoying. I'll never know though, because at 21, I heard Bright Eyes for the first time, which might have been the perfect time.

I was old enough to recognize the brilliance of the songs and young enough to find the seemingly constant self-deprecation brave. I was old enough to be able to wade through the sonic chaos to hear the songs for what they were, and young enough to find the din and distortion charming and creative. I was old enough to respond to the intensity without fear and young enough to still be chilled by it.

Being in your early 20's now isn't the same as it was 30 or even 20 years ago. 20, 30 years ago, it would be pretty normal to be married, have a house and a kid or two by 22 or 23, but today, most people aren't even done with school yet. Being 21 or 22 in 2011 or 2001 just isn't the same as it was in 1971, even though expectations seem to be the same. It's confusing as shit. Sure, we struggle with who we are in our teens, but it's even tougher in your early 20's because at least no one expects a 15 year old to have a clue who they are, but everyone assumes a 23 year old already knows.

And really, that's all Oberst was writing about early on; the struggle of trying to figure out who you are and what your place is in the world even though you're expected to already know. And for someone my age to hear that at that time in their life was amazing, maybe even crucial. And so sure, the latter Bright Eyes records are good, possibly even great, but that early stuff, that was pure magic.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Justin Vernon Must Be Patty Duke, Because I'm Pretty Sure "Bon Iver" is the Work of His Indentical Cousin

The new Bon Iver album is good. Maybe I'd even venture to say it's really good, but only while I'm listening to it. While the record's playing, I enjoy it. Hell, there are even moments that leave me astounded by its near brilliance, but then the album ends, and I'm left feeling empty, almost demoralized.

I remember the first few times I listened to For Emma, Forever Ago and being left in awe. Justin Vernon's hauntingly beautiful, ethereal voice set against a backdrop of bare music that even at its most relaxed moments (and there are a lot more relaxed moments than clamorous ones), managed to maintain a sense of urgency. For Emma... wasn't merely impressive, it was downright percussive. The record was stark without ever sounding austere. Instead, it was grand and striking even though it was subdued and arid. For Emma... sounded warmer and more endearing not in spite of but because of its sparseness. I've listened to that album several hundred times in the last four years, and never have I felt anything but dumbstruck by its unbridled honesty and unassuming sincerity.

But when I finish listening to Bon Iver, I don't feel anything like that. Don't mistake my words, had Vernon made For Emma, Forever Ago...Again, I would have felt cheated, or at least unenthused. I already own that record. I already know it inside and out. I don't need or want it again. And if the Blood Bank ep did anything, it showed us that Justin Vernon had no intention of being a derivative songwriter. Regardless of your overall impressions of the 4-song collection, Blood Bank was the work of a man who needed a directional shift. And maybe Blood Bank should have served as a glimpse into the future, but while the direction was new, the tone was familiar (although far less overt than on For Emma...). But direction and tone are obviously two wholly separate beasts, because as I listen to Bon Iver, I realize I'm no Nostradamus, because never could have predicted that, the caliber of the record notwithstanding, Justin Vernon would offer up an album utterly devoid of the heart-on-his-sleeve songwriting and earnest delivery that made For Emma, Forever Ago so flooring.

There was nothing casual about For Emma.... Justin Vernon sounds like he's bleeding for those songs. He sounds like every note he sings, every chord he plays is a necessity, absolutely vital. But on Bon Iver, regardless of how well-written the songs are, how impeccably executed the performances on the album are, how artistically admirable his attempt was, it's just not right. Regardless of how much this regrettably makes me sound like a High School Football Coach, the album lacks heart. The songs are good, but there's no conviction. There's no desperation, it's like he already feels like he's got nothing left to prove. And frankly, that sucks.

Even though an artist never has to prove a single thing to me, I want them to behave like they have to prove everything to my all of the time. The second an artist decides they have nothing left to prove (even if they don't), aren't they just going through the motions? If you're not trying to convince the world of something, haven't you rendered yourself invalid? And if you are invalid, can you still be an artist, or are you relegated to the status of entertainer, simple performer?

Has Justin Vernon gotten too big for his britches? Has working with Kanye West, Nicki Minaj, John Legend (that one kind of makes sense to me), and Rick Ross gone to his head? I would think that the Volcano Choir and Gayngs projects would have been enough of an artistic distraction to satisfy his obvious desire to escape the "confessional singer/songwriter" label, but apparently not. Has big-name, big-money artists given him a thirst for something unattainable by a simple indie fella?

Ultimately, I would say no, but I do think it's given him a level of confidence, or maybe conceit is the right word (although I sincerely hope not), that is not becoming of him, or of what the Bon Iver moniker should, or at least did, represent. Maybe Justin Vernon's trying to be some enigmatic character that he's not worthy of being, or maybe I'm just some judgmental asshole wanting to force him into parameters that make sense to me because his music is too advanced and intelligent to, but I think it's more the former and less the latter.

Really, I think that based on the Bon Iver record, Justin Vernon wanted to put as much distance between himself and For Emma... as possible without going as far as to disown the debut. I think he's been influenced by these superstar collaborations too much. I think his desire to show growth pushed him away not from what he did, but how he did it, and as a result, the album will never have that same gut-wrenching impact that For Emma... had because no amount of artistic exploration can make up for the absence of sincerity.

I don't know. Maybe all or none of that is true. maybe it's somewhere in between, or maybe it's nowhere near either. I think you'll have to pick it up and decide for yourself, because, despite all of my grousing, the album is in fact good and worth listening to. It's just a matter of whether it's an artistic progression or an egotistical regression. I didn't want it to sound like For Emma..., but I needed it to feel like it to really care, it just doesn't. No doubt, the second Bon Iver record is good, but it will never matter the way the first one did.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Obliviousness and Obsession Makes For Two Very Frustrating Months: I Really Love Okkervil River, or the 1st Post-Finn Blog

I get stuck; I get stuck all the fucking mind I mean. I guess "fixated" is the more apropos term, but to me, even though it may be entirely inside my head, it just feels like I can't move forward even though I'm trying my damnedest. When I find something to get excited about, my brain becomes that proverbial broken record, playing it over and over again, the same thing repeatedly, leaving virtually no room for anything else until I do something to move the figurative needle. That's the real reason why I started doing 19 Sank, While 6 Would Swim. Don't get me wrong, I feel a drive to write regardless of how amateurish my prose may be, and I'd like to think the things I have to say at least border on "slightly interesting" or "moderately valid", but really, it was a way to push the needle off the scratched groove, a way to purge. Ultimately, 19 Sank, While 6 Would Swim is a mental suppository, and thank God, because, in spite of the fact that I derive pleasure from these fixations, whether of the butt or the brain, constipation always starts to get uncomfortable. Eventually, you just need to get that shit out to start feeling normal again.

So I started the blog. It's sporadic as shit, I know. But when I find the time to put in the work, it tends to work for me, cleaning out the pipes (or the Parietal lobes or whatever) and helping me to focus on whatever new obsession might be waiting in the wings. The funny thing is, the very thing the blog helps me work through is the method I use to write these blogs. I guess it's not really a method as much as a compulsion, a fixation (there's that word again). Once I decide what I need to write about, I write probably too many blogs about it. And I'm not talking revisions, I'm talking full-on rewrites, a complete and totally different approach. Don't think you've missed anything though, you haven't. You don't get to read them, I just have to write them. It's ridiculous and pretty annoying really, having to write obsessively in order to break myself of obsession, but I've never really had a talent for being functional, so I guess I shouldn't be surprised that I have to obsess in order to be less makes very little sense, I know, but I usually make very little sense as a person, so I guess it is what it as, just as I am what I am (but I am no sailor, and I merely tolerate spinach, so make of it what you will). The point is, for 19 Sank I decide what I need to write about and write about it, then I decide what I wrote was not the right thing. I'm pretty sure I've used this phrase before, but what I write isn't wrong, it's just not right; it's not what I want to say.

Okay, so maybe it's a little right. If I write it, I give you my word I think it's important, it's just not the most important. So I write the blog, I read the blog, I realize the blog doesn't actually say what I want to, so I scrap it and move on to take 2, which usually turns into take 3, which probably morphs into take 4, and so on. This happens pretty much every time I write one of these things. For every 1 you read, I've probably written at least 3. It's almost humorous really, such a sloppy dude being so absolutely meticulous for something that only 8 people might read, but what can I say, I'm a fucking enigma, a puzzle within a conundrum. I do what I want, and what I do rarely makes sense.

This rewriting is actually enough of a problem that I had to put in place a "blog-law" for old B., "The Rule of 5". If I write 5 blogs, and am yet still unhappy with the results, I give up. I just try my best to move on. I figure if I can't say what I want to in 5 attempts, I'm either writing about the wrong thing or writing about the right thing at the wrong time, thus I retreat, reassess, and regroup. It's not an easy thing for me to do, but so far I've managed to do it with reasonable effect...but then I decided to write about Okkervil River.

So far, I've written 13 blogs about Okkervil River, not a single one right. So far I've tried to abandon the Okkervil River blog 7 times, but once I consciously decide to write about something else, I find myself completely disinterested after at best a paragraph. My thoughts instantly turning back to Don't Fall in Love with Everyone You See, or Black Sheep Boy, or The Stand Ins. Every time I even entertain the idea of writing about something other than Okkervil River, my mind shuts down and writing starts to become a chore rather than a joy and a release, and rather than writing, I drink a bunch of beer and listen to Okkervil River records and revel in how amazing they are. The fact is, I can't seem to write about anything other than Okkervil River because I think I need to write about Okkervil River.

But for as much as writing about this band feels like necessity to me, every single time I wrote anything, I knew even before I finished it, sometimes only a paragraph or two into it, I knew it was wrong. Even though the point I wanted to make was eluding me, every time I wrote about them, I knew I was even further away from the point I wanted to make than I was before. I knew I wasn't saying the things I wanted to say, I was just saying things that could be said.

So 2 nights ago, I sat down and read every O.R. blog I've written in succession (I save all of them until I post the "correct" one). And during this self-evaluation, the problem I was having finally occurred to me: I was approaching this blog the same way I approach every blog. Let's face it, my blogs are in a very general sense, kind of the same. Oh, I'm writing about different things, and with every subject, the content is going to be different as well, but really, my blogs are mostly me telling you why I love a band, or why I hate a band, or why something excites me or scares me or whatever, and when I do this, I tend to find the one thing that from an artistic standpoint separates (or for those negative ones, integrates) the subject in question from the herd. I give my opinion about something, and it's always based on a perspective that my friend Matt would almost no doubt call "arthouse junkie", because well, that's kind of what I am. I've said before I'm not a music snob, and I stand by that assertion, but I am pretentious when it comes to music because frankly, the pretentious side of things is usually the most artistic side of things, and that side is what gets me off the most.

And so with the Okkervil River blog, my approach was identical to that of nearly every other blog I've written. I wrote one that focused on the whole "No Depression" movement that started in the early 90's and talked about how all of those bands essentially were Country music with a Punk Rock mindset rather than a fusion between the two sounds, which from what I've gathered, was the initial intention. Don't get me wrong, I love a lot of those bands. Uncle Tupelo's catalog alone is reason enough to think the entire movement was absolutely amazing, but as far as making Country-Punk, they just didn't do it, but Okkervil River did...on their first two ep's and record, The Bedroom ep, the Stars Too Small to Use ep, and the debut album, Don't Fall in Love with Everyone You See.

I wrote another one juxtaposing the 2nd (Down the River of Golden Dreams) and 3rd (Black Sheep Boy) full length albums, plus the companion ep for the 3rd (Black Sheep Boy Appendix), talking about how the music on ...Golden Dreams
seems to be loosely thematically based on the opening track, "Down the River of Golden Dreams", a song written in 1930, and how the lyrics on Black Sheep Boy + ...Appendix use the Tim Hardin song "Black Sheep Boy" (the O.R. cover of the song opens the album the album by the way) and Hardin's life as thematic inspiration.

Then there was another one about 2007's The Stage Names (as a side note, it was with the release of this one that I began listening to Okkervil River on the recommendation of my friend Nick) and 2008's The Stand Ins, essentially a double album released piecemeal, about various aspects of Pop-Culture. And there were others, 10 to be exact, and regardless of how correct every one I wrote was, not a single one was right. But like I said, I was coming at Okkervil River the same way I attack all subjects; I was intellectualizing.

And in my defense, when it comes to Okkervil River it's really easy to do. It's easy to talk about Will Sheff's ability as a song writer to seamlessly integrate multiple styles into a single, unified Rock sound without loosing any of the integrity or uniqueness of those individual sounds, or how Sheff writes beautiful, thoughtful lyrics with intelligence and sophistication that literally no one else in music can currently compete with, or how, if you compartmentalize the individual Okkervil River records, each album has a sound that is all it's own, but when you listen to their catalog at a breadth, there's a singularity and cohesion to it that feels completely natural.

All of the things I've mentioned are valid reasons to listen to this band. They're all what normally would get me really pumped about a band, but none of them are why I listen to Okkervil River because they're all intellectual reasons for liking (or loving) this band, and for the first time in 17 years, I love a band on an almost purely instinctive level, and maybe it goes without saying, but that's a pretty big deal to me.

I love Okkervil River for how the make me feel. I love Okkervil River for the way Will Sheff's voice sounds when he sings the lines "And for a second, Something in me..." on "A Girl in Port", or "See how that light you once loved just won't shine?" on "Lost Coastlines". I love Okkervil River for the way the hair on my arms slowly rises with the tension on "The War Criminal Rises and Speaks", and as the song reaches the peak of its' crescendo and breaks out in a sort of controlled chaos, I break out in goosebumps, or the way"For Real" unexpectedly explodes for only seconds after a minute or so of quiet reluctance. I love Okkervil River for the way Will Sheff can take a gruesome subject like The Yogurt Shop Murders, and write a song that has so much heart without loosing a single bit of the abysmal darkness that a song like that should be shrouded in. I love Okkervil River for the way that "We Need a Myth" reminds me of how it felt to be innocent without ever attempting to pretend we are anything but. I love Okkervil River because I can't listen to "Unless It's Kicks" in the car without rolling the windows down, turning the stereo up, driving a little bit faster, and singing every word at the top of my lungs with a smile on my face the entire time.

And above all, I think I love Okkervil River for the sincerity and conviction of Will Sheff as a songwriter, singer, guitarist, multi-instrumentalist. When I listen to Okkervil River, I hear candor bleeding out from the speakers. Not only is what Sheff sings smart and compelling, I can't help but buy in to every notion, every idea, every phrase, every word that he breathes. You can hear that he both believes and believes in every thing he says, and his tenet doesn't simply make me believe, it makes me desperate to do so. Every song Okkervil River records is soaked in honesty and passion, and the combination is refreshing and absolutely breathtaking.

For a guy who so often gets caught up in the fact that music is art, I tend to sometimes forget that the forest is the trees. Because of my ennoblement of "music is art", I can become ultra-focused on what music and art "is", which makes it easy to forget what music and art "is supposed to be". Certainly, art should push us intellectually, but it should move us emotionally too. Sheff and Okkervil River make me think, but thankfully, they move me to no end.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Don't Paint with Poop, You're Art Will Stink

I think it's probably time I admit to myself that I don't get music anymore. For about the last 2 years, I've maintained this persona of a guy who still has his finger on the pulse of contemporary tunes, but the truth is that I don't understand why any of the new "it" bands are bands at all. I hear the things I'm supposed to dig as a person who loves left-of-center music and I just don't understand it. Without realizing it, I might have become the aging-music-fan/curmudgeon; the guy who thinks that anything released after he was 26 is bad on principle, because frankly, everything new sounds like shit to me.

Okay, so I have heard some new(er) bands that I think are amazing. The Rural Alberta Advantage recorded a breathtaking debut and followed it up with a record that, although nowhere near as brilliant as the first album, manages to be not just listenable or even solid but actively very good. Florence + The Machine's Lungs, though occasionally a little too "Neo-Lilith Fair" for me to be entirely comfortable, is shockingly soulful, full of heart, and kind of remarkable. Dawes released their debut, North Hills, a simple but incredibly well-written set of songs that channels the spirit of their Laurel Canyon predecessors, like CSNY, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, and the Momas & The Popas, with honesty and sincerity that's a breath of fresh air in the current musical climate. And even as vapid as it ultimately may be, that first Sleigh Bells album released last summer rocks pretty fucking hard.

And then there's new albums by old bands. In the last 2 years or so, The Hold Steady, Bright Eyes, The National, Band of Horses, Tim Kasher, The Decemberists, The Flaming Lips, and Ryan Adams (although his 2 records, Orion and III/IV were recorded 2005-2007) are just a few of the bands who have put out records that I would file under "awesome". Hell, even that last Interpol album wasn't nearly as bad as I expected it to be. And I imagine that new Okkervil River coming out in a few months will be as geniuso as ever, but still, for the most part, everything new I hear sounds derivative or worse, either painfully boring or just painful.

Honestly, I don't think I'm too old to appreciate new music. I'm a person destined to maintain a high level of mediocrity my entire life, so I was going to ever have a prime, thus I certainly haven't passed it. I'm only a stone's throw away from 32 years old, and my wife tells me I often think and behave like a child, so both physically and mentally, I'm still pretty young. But being too old to get the new bands is the only thing I can really come up with because every time I hear a new band that's supposed to be the shit, I can't help but believe that labels have started hiring retired sanitation workers for A&R jobs, because all they're doing is collecting trash and filling the record stores with garbage.

And hey, maybe I am too old and am just equally too stubborn to admit it. If I was, it would definitely make life way easier. I could just kind of give up. I could stop paying attention to what's going on. There's enough new music being released by bands I already like, so I wouldn't be in short supply of unheard tunage, and if I occasionally by accident heard a new band I did like, it'd just be icing on the cake. Plus, not only is there a boatload of old(er) stuff I have yet to explore (for instance, my record store-owner buddy Matt* played me The Black Angels the other day and those guys kick serious ass), but making the switch from the sterile and beleaguered digital existence to the purity of a life in analog ensures that my joy (problem) of record collecting won't take a hit.

Between already in-print albums I love but don't own, the mountain of re-issues that seem to be coming out on a weekly basis, and quality of selection and physical integrity of used records at Encore in Ann Arbor (I hope that place manages to stay open. If it closes, I'm not sure my soul can take it.), there's more than enough of the flat, black, and circular to keep my wallet hemorrhaging and collection growing for years.

If I was too old, I'd be alright, but I can't let it go, I have to keep listening, I have to keep trying, I have to keep ultimately punishing myself and getting annoyed and angry, so I don't think I'm too old. If I was too old, it'd be easy to throw in the towel. I'm a classic underachiever; I will never be a person unwilling to call it quits even if I have no business continuing to try. If I was too old, I'd have no problem retiring, but I can't, so I'm inclined to believe that my age isn't a factor in what I hear. Regardless of what angle I look at things or how in-depth I scrutinize this predicament, reexamine why I feel this way, I keep coming up with a single, 1 word answer: gimmick. All paths lead to gimmick.

The Record Industry seems desperate for invention. Desperate, shit, they seem downright ravenous. The bands want to solidify a sense of unique identity, small labels want to release records that sound like something no one's ever heard before, the critics want to adore the stuff that seems too "out-there" for general mass consumption; you add those things together, you end up in the situation we're in.

With the exception of Fucked Up, there's not a band on the planet who doesn't want to be heard, who doesn't want to sell records. That's an obvious truth, and you won't convince me otherwise. (In the case of Fucked Up, clearly these guys have no real desire to make it big because you can't choose a name like that without being completely ambivalent to record sales. No TV or radio station in the country is going to play a single or video by a band whose name they can't say without accruing a hefty FCC fine.) No one becomes a doctor in hopes of having no patients, no one becomes a teacher with crossed fingers and a wish for no students, no one decides to create art in any of its various forms and hopes no one ever sees it. Art is supposed to effect people. It's supposed to make us think, make us feel. It's supposed to push boundaries and buttons. It's supposed to force the consumer to reevaluate their ideologies. At the very least, it's supposed to make us feel good. If no one's there to be effected by it, then the art an artist creates doesn't fulfill its primary directive.

Kurt Cobain was the archetype of the disenchanted artist and even he didn't hate selling records, he hated the people he was selling records to. He didn't like the fact that the kind of people who beat him up in high school were also the same kind of people who were beating up new defenseless kids while humming the tune to "Smells Like Teen Spirit". If you could've convinced Kurt Cobain that his records were only being bought by 10,000 misanthropic teens who came out of the woodwork because they finally had a public voice, he would've been ecstatic. Instead, a lot of cookie-cutter, white-bread assholes who hated anything that didn't fit into their limited rubric of "normal" loved "Come as You Are", and the result of said equation is Kurt Cobain's misery-fame.

Bands want to be heard. They want to sell records. Maybe they're not looking to be Micheal Jackson or N'SYNC, but they want to have fans. This has been the case since time immemorial, but recently, I'd say the last 2, maybe 3 years, what always was changed. Bands still want to sell albums, but they don't want to be beholden to any other band. Suddenly, the idea of influence has become pornographic. There's been a ton of music released since the invention of the phonautograph in 1857. Out of that ton, at least a few hundred lbs. have been brilliant. Usually, these brilliant artists are the ones who pass on their genius to other budding geniuses and the cycle thankfully continues. But lately, it seems that bands don't want to derive comparison. They want to be heard as a solely unique, entirely individual entity, almost as if their music appeared out of thin air and leapt onto the tape or a hard-drive. Bands want to be seen as brilliant and want that perceived brilliance to be entirely a making of their own design. This wouldn't be a problem if they could write good songs.

I'm not arguing against eccentricity or individuality in music. If a band (artist) can write a good song and approach the application of that song in a new and fresh way, well, that's what makes music so exciting. That's what makes music worth listening to. But if a song isn't well-written, it doesn't matter how unique or eccentric the execution is, it's still just a bad song played in a different way. I mean, as far as I know, there's never been a painter who's decided to work in a fecal medium. I could paint a picture with my or other people's dook, and it would be a unique approach, but that painting would still smell like shit. And I don't know about you, but I think poop smells bad.

This is, I guess, in a crass nutshell, the approach I see the new "it"bands taking. It's not simply style over substance, it's style without substance. It's like these bands have tried so hard to sound different that by the time they get to actually writing a song, they're spent, so they hope that people will be so amazed by the fact that they sound so very different that the fact that they have no ability to write a solid or enduring song will be missed, and sadly enough, that approach is kind of working.

Bands like Deerhunter, The XX, Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti, or the latest piece of indie-tale, James Blake, are great at sounding different, but bad at sounding good. The songs have taken a backseat. Where are the hooks, where's the melody? Where's the skeleton, the backbone, the nerve center of popular music? Where's the feeling, the life? They, and many others like them, have hawked it for a stab at flavor of the month status. Get your name out there, and hopefully, enough sheep will be within earshot to herd. Sound used to be a vehicle for the songs, but it seems that song has become the means for delivering a sound, and that's a shame.

I don't know, maybe I'm too old or too pedantic. Maybe I'm too stubborn or too pedestrian. Maybe I'm provincial or parochial or some other applicable "P" word. It's possible. I might be any or all of those things. Who knows? At least I don't. But I do know I will take the 20 second guitar solo in Wilco's "I Got You (At the End of the Century) over the longest Toro Y Moi song in history.

*Underground Sounds, 255 E. Liberty Suite# 249, Ann Arbor, MI 48104. If you live here or find yourself in the area, do yourself a favor and visit this store. Not only is the proprietor Matt knowledgeable, friendly and accommodating, his store is just probably the best I've ever been to. The selection is remarkable, and if he doesn't have what you're looking for, he'll get it for you.

Monday, February 28, 2011

The Rentals are Fredo Corleone?

I've been thinking a lot about The Killers lately, but only because I've been listening to Pinkerton a ton. You wouldn't think the Killers and Weezer have anything in common, and sonically, I guess they don't, but after the release of both of their first albums (which incidentally came almost exactly a decade apart: Weezer ("The Blue Album") in May of 1994, Hot Fuss in June of 2004... not sure if that's poignant or not, but whatevs), both bands found themselves in near identical situations, and both bands chose dramatically different paths for their second records. The early careers of both Weezer and The Killers may have only coincidental similarities, but when looked at in tandem, the first 2 years of their recording careers serve as the perfect examples for both the good and the evil that goes along with super-stardom.

Both bands released their debuts to little immediate fanfare. Both band's first singles petered out before cracking Billboard's Top 50 ("Somebody Told Me" reached #51, and "Undone (The Sweater Song)" reached #57), both albums took off commercially with the release of the second singles ("Buddy Holly" and "Mr. Brightside"), and both albums eventually went Triple Platinum in the US.

But as I look back now, what really seems to be the tie that binds these guys is that, when listening to these records when they first came out, I got the distinct impression from both bands that the guys who made these albums probably got beat up by the cool kids in High School: Weezer for being dorks who spent their weekends playing D&D while cranking Fair Warning or Dressed to Kill, The Killers for being effeminate boys who cared more about fashion than football. Either way, both bands wrote and recorded fantastic debuts that would clearly become hits in the sequestered world of Indie-Rock, but be unlikely (but not undeserving) conquerors of the mainstream Rock universe. Both bands seemed to operate too far outside of the boundaries of normal (nerd-central and hipster-metro-sexual) for mainstream audiences to be comfortable enough to make them successful. Clearly, I couldn't have been more wrong. Both bands achieved that second scenario...crossover success.

There isn't a negative connotation in the general sense of the term "crossover success". It really just means that an artist who should have a niche audience makes a record that satisfies the needs of those outside of that niche. I'm sure there are apartment-dwellers in Brooklyn cranking Taylor Swift, just as there are 13 year old, upper-crust, private school suburbanites in my neck of the woods blasting Jay-Z. And the Jigga fans that bought the "In My Lifetime" single out of Damon Dash's trunk in 1993 aren't pissed at Jay because a bunch of entitled snots bought The Blueprint 3. My guess is that most of them see his ability to sell records to kids who have no clue about where he's coming from or what he has to say to be a testament to his talent. His shit's just that good. But "crossover" doesn't mean the same thing in the street-cred-obsessed-but-not-from-the-streets world of Indie-Rock.

Generally speaking, in Indie-Rock, "crossover" is really just another term for "sell-out". When a band on the rock fringe finds itself in the warm and unlikely embrace of the common folk, Indie-Rock fans usually jumped ship about 3 months earlier. But after their debuts, both The Killers and Weezer found themselves in the dubious position of achieving mainstream success while retaining their niche appeal. Even with the chart-topping albums and FM pop radio-friendly singles, Indie fans didn't abandon them. I don't think commercial ascendancy was necessarily embraced by the cool kids, but they didn't lose interest either. And as the clamor for a second record exponentially grew, both bands found themselves in the same position, only a decade's worth of time apart. (Weezer released their second album in September of 1996, The Killers in October of 2006, exactly 28 months after each their debuts.)

Very few bands have have the luxury of finding themselves in such a precarious circumstance. But when a band is confronted with this unlikely situation, it's time to make hard and important decisions; what direction does record #2 take?

You could go the Red Hot Chili Peppers' route and stay the course. (Granted, the Chili Peppers didn't find themselves in such a place until after their 4th record, but still...) It's certainly the safest road to travel. You could record a couple of great records still. (After RHCP broke through with Mother's Milk, they recorded the absolutely brilliant Blood, Sugar, Sex, Majik, the solid One Hot Minute, and the remarkable Californication.) You'll probably lose 10 to 25% of your overall fan-base to boredom, and you run the inevitable risk of eventually becoming invalid (i.e., Stadium Arcadium) but you'll retain the bulk of your fans, probably gain some new ones, and ultimately enjoy a relatively solid commercial harvest.

Road #2 is the Coldplay route. Taking this path is playing it more than safe; it's playing it commercial. You can adapt your music to market trends, make songs that are well-written but so absolutely white-bread, dry-toast, horribly uncreative and obviously formulaic that they clearly cater to the lowest artistic common denominator and result in records that sell like hotcakes but sound and ultimately are soulless and nearly indistinguishable from anything else you (or anyone else on top 40 radio, for that matter) have recorded and are an absolute tedious listen to anyone who isn't a sheep or over 40 with a desperate desire to be hip without hurting their ears. Oh, Coldplay sells a shitton of records, but at what cost? You'll make more effing money than you can ever hope to spend, and you'll get to marry Gwyneth Paltrow, but you'll no longer be any good...and you'll name your daughter Apple (not so hot either).

Then there's road #3. The third path, the one least traveled. This is the route with the greatest level of risk/reward...the Nirvana route. You could look at your breakthrough record and acknowledge that it was a success, drawing in and hooking the hardest core of fans as well as the most casual of listeners and make the decision to up the ante, expand the boundaries of modern commercial musical mores, break new ground, not simply try to push the envelope but attempt to fucking set it on fire and burn it to cinders. You can try to alter the face of modern music. The impact might not be directly noticeable, but it will ultimately manipulate the shape and parameters of contemporary tuneage. Even if your contribution doesn't engender an automatic change in popular music, it can at least pave the way for future endeavors, whether from you or artists influenced by you. Even if your attempt at progressive adaptation falls on deaf ears initially, it may and probably will result in some up-and-coming youngster fucking up people's world and making modern music a more compelling force because of being influenced by that record you made.

So if the parallels I see between the first two years of both Weezer's and The Killers' careers  aren't completely imagined, this is where their paths diverge. Weezer chooses one road, The Killers choose another. This is where these two bands truly become different.  Weezer goes one way. and essentially,  The Killers became the Indie-Rock Saruman the White.

The Killers had the world by the balls, and that grip was well deserved. In 2004, Hot Fuss was about as good as Indie-Rock gets. Even people who didn't like that album bought that album because it was totally irresistible. It was the perfect mix of Indie street cred and sugary-sweet, radio-friendly pop. Every song on that record could have been a hit. They were that good. The Killers were poised to unite, or at least bridge the gap a little between the arthouse* sect and the mainstream herd. They could have taken the unlikely situation that Hot Fuss generated and pleased the hipster contingent while potentially expanding the world of the imaginatively inept by pushing the boundaries of their creative indulgences, even if only slightly, and helped to usher in a new era of commercially viable music that was just as artistic as it was marketable. They had the opportunity and the means. In 2004, if Indie-Rock bands were Istari, The Killers were certainly the leader. But like that Son of a Bitch Saruman, they got scared and greedy.

Let's face it, Saruman was no idiot. You don't get to be the leader of all Wizards on Middle-Earth if you're a dummy. He saw the writing on the wall. He saw that the potential for success was at best slim. Shit, everybody saw that the potential for destroying Sauron hung around the neck of a naive little guy with big hairy feet. Can Hobbits even run with those feet? And Hobbits were always full of greasy meat and beer, that's hardly the diet for an active hero. How is some full-bellied, kind of drunk dude who's never left home going to elude the Nazgûl flying around on the mounted backs of the Fell Beasts, let alone The Dark Lord Sauron, if he can't even run because he's got a bunch of junk sloshing around in his breadbasket and his feet are too big to be graceful?

Things looked bleak in Middle-Earth when the fate of the world rested on dear Frodo's shoulders. It didn't take a genius to see the potential benefits in becoming a turncoat, but Gandalf didn't bail, neither did Aragorn or, Éowyn, or Pippin, and sweet Sam, well, frankly, Samwise Gamgee risked just as much as Frodo did with a lot less glory. They didn't bail because they had principles. They all thought it was better to die fighting for good than throwing on the manacles of evil, no matter how comfortable and stylish they might be.

But not Saruman. No, Saruman got scared. Saruman saw the potential for failure in supporting Frodo and the rest of his Fellowship of misfits, and the possibility for great wealth and comfort in backing that very darkest of horses, The Dark Lord of Mordor, Sauron. So he took the easy way out. He took the road that seemed most lucrative and least risky. He took the path of Coldplay.

Okay, so Saruman had Wormtongue doing his bidding as a result, and he did get that kind of kick-ass army of blood-thirsty Orcs at his disposal, but what was he left with? Wormtongue killed him. He took the wrong path to avoid death and gain wealth only to be cast out of society and die at the hands Gríma Wormtongue, a filthy sycophant, a grimy, slimy liar; a lowlife if there ever was one.

Reenter The Killers, welcoming us to Sam's Town. They had the chance to change everything, but just like Saruman, they chose the easy way out. They feared obscurity, they craved a wider commercial appeal. What they ended up with was a record that has easily one of the most exciting lead singles of the last decade, and 11 other tracks that make dust-covered dog shit look like a motherfucking thrill-ride.

When I first heard "When You Were Young", I expected Sam's Town to be one of the greatest records in the history of the world. (Had they not so blatantly ripped-off Springsteen, "When You Were Young", probably would have been one of the best songs The Killers ever recorded; with the obvious theft, it was without a doubt the best song The killers ever recorded.) Instead I got one of the best songs I had heard in a long time, and a bunch of other boring songs designed to adequately coexist with their previous material and generate record sales. They aren't necessarily awful, they just aren't good. They're boring, insincere, middle of the road, insubstantial tracks. In the end, 11 of the 12 songs on Sam's Town seem utterly lifeless. They're not Rock songs, they're jingles for toilet paper or cotton-balls or any other innocuous substance you can think of. Those songs aren't alive, they just exist. And for me, they would have been better off recording nothing at all.

What should have been a game changer turned into nothing more than a slightly better rendition of everything else. It wasn't unlistenable, there was just no reason to listen to it. It was sterile and manufactured. It was a record designed to sell rather than a record that sold a ton because of a brilliant design. The Killers had an opportunity to reinvent the wheel, but instead they chose to manufacture a new brand-name tire. They put out the same product virtually everyone else was, they just slapped a different name on it. The Killers didn't simply drop the ball, they cremated the fucker.

Weezer on the other hand did the exact opposite. (Okay, I guess I have to acknowledge that Weezer actually did the exact same thing The Killers did, they just did it one album later. I guess if I'm sticking with the literary analogies, this would make Weezer the Micheal Corleone of Indie-Rock. [Does that make The Retals Fredo?] Micheal tried to do the right thing, tried to avenge his father and legitimize the Corleone fortune even though, at least at first, he felt like he had no place wallowing in the mire of "The Family Business". Ultimately though, the desperation he felt as a result of the deaths of first his brother and then his father thrust him into a life that was too cavernous and alluring for him to reject. He started out sweet and ended up evil, but at least for my purposes, the most important thing to remember is that between his two poles, he was a hero.)

"The Blue Album" was recorded, "The Blue Album" was released, "The Blue Album" was huge. The success of Weezer gave Rivers Cuomo opportunity. As Weezer's primary songwriter, Rivers Cuomo certainly could've opted  for road #1 or #2. Both would have most certainly made him a buck and an even bigger household name. That's obvious, because their second self-titled album (their third record, "The Green Album"), sold over a million copies in the US and peeked at #4 on the Billboards even though it's only 28 minutes of I guess respectable but remarkably derivative songs ("Photograph" is a pretty solid song, and "Smile" is ultra rocking, but other than that, it was really more of the same from record #1 without any of the excitement of novelty.) But with Pinkerton, Rivers Cuomo decided to walk the path least traveled, that 3rd road, the "Nirvana Road".

Pinkerton's almost 15 years old. That amazes me, because as I played it tonight, it sounded fresh, exciting, relevant. Pinkerton sounds just as new and valid today as it did 14½ years ago. When Rivers Cuomo wrote the songs that collectively became Pinkerton, there were no aspirations of grandeur, no attempts at super-stardom in mind, he was just a man hemorrhaging, a man in need of catharsis, a man who deserved exorcism. The fact that everyone and their mothers knew he was the guy who sang with The Fonz didn't mend a lifetime of rejection, disappointment, and marginalization. That's why he wrote Pinkerton.

For Pinkerton, Rivers Cuomo skinned himself. He stripped away all airs and exposed himself; all of the dirty, painful, uncomfortable bits were laid out for mass consumption. For as much hook as "The Blue Album" had, as much as it rocked and crunched, it was never as honest, as sincere, as emotionally bare, or as brave as Pinkerton. RC hung it all out on the line with Pinkerton; he acknowledged the existence of the restless skeletons and then he threw open the closet door, exposing himself to the entire world.
And that's just conceptually, lyrically.

Musically, this record is about as adventurous and uninhibited as the band has ever been. The music courses with pain, disillusion, and cynicism. Rivers Cuomo's voice has never sounded anywhere near as passionate and brazen. The gritty distortion swallows almost every expertly written and delivered guitar riff. The performance given by Pat Wilson isn't simply adequate but downright savvy, and Matt Sharp's bass is not simply brilliant but quite possibly the backbone of the entire operation. It's how Pavement would have sounded if they wanted to be successful.

No meticulous overdubs, virtually no attention to aural detail; the band entered the studio with the songs, their instruments, and a handful of mics, recording the songs live from a single room to tape with virtually no production whatsoever. It was a minimalist approach to a massive undertaking with masterful results. It was important for the moment as well as the song to be captured. It was more important to chronicle the spirit of the endeavor than to manufacture a product for the consumer. The result is an unbridled and sincere record devoid of manicuring. There's no pretension or preconceived notion, only an organic essence to a crop of remarkably honest and unabashed songs. It's amazing. It's inspiring. If it's not genius, it's just a shade short of it. And 15 years later, it's just as essential to me as it was when I first heard it.   

Okay, so after Pinkerton, Weezer went all Micheal C. on us. After Pinkerton, Rivers Cuomo turned to the dark side (could Weezer also be Darth Vader? Would that make their tour bu the Death Star?) because he couldn't handle the commercial dejection of his soul-offering. So what? None of that matters. What does matter is that for one single, brief, but nonetheless shining moment, Rivers Cuomo was a hero. For that one moment, RC had enough heart to record Pinkerton. It's not a typical Weezer record, it's the quintessential one. Maybe Rivers Cuomo gave up greatness for solace. We still have Pinkerton, an single offering more chock full of valor than most artists can hope to achieve with their entire career. Do doubt, now Weezer is who Weezer "is now", but they once were so much more, and Pinkerton proves that.  And hey, they may no longer be "my" Weezer, but at least their not The Killers.

(*The word arthouse™ means pretentious and was coined by Matt McKenna)