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.