Sunday, December 14, 2014

Alvvays, by Alvvays (Album of the Week)

You can’t dislike Alvvays.  You can ignore them if you like, but the fun, catchy pop found on this debut album is simply appealing.  If you don’t like Alvvays, there’s something wrong with you.

This album sounds like something from the past.  Other reviewers point to C86 and early REM.  I had to spend a little time on Wikipedia to find out what C86 was, and it turns out to be a cassette tape released by the British music magazine New Musical Express (NME) in 1986.  The cassette is credited with promoting “a guitar-based musical genre characterized by jangling guitars and melodic power pop song structures.”  If you already knew that, you’re hipper than I am.  If not, then I’ve made you marginally more hip, which, when you consider the source, must be mighty depressing.

Fortunately, this album is an upbeat antidote to that kind of brooding.  To me, it has a mid-70s sound with tambourines, electric guitars and a girlish voice.  On first listen, it reminds me of the Cowsills, the Partridge Family and, perhaps inspired by the second song on the album, the Archies.  This is pre-grunge, sparkling pure pop.

That second song, “Archie, Marry Me” is the centerpiece of the album.  Clever, catchy, self-confident and just a tiny bit edgy, it defines the approach taken by Alvvays throughout the album.  It includes sonic references to the early-70s pop world beyond the name “Archie” – including a few “Hey, hey’s” that you will likely follow with “Paula”, if you recall the old song.

But this is not just a sweet homage to pop songs of the past.  It’s hard to describe, but there is a bit of an edge to lead-singer’s Molly Rankin’s voice – a maturity that makes you take these sugar-dipped songs just a bit more seriously.  “The Agency Group” moves a bit past adoring toward stalking.  “Next of Kin” makes an accidental drowning sound like a fun surf song.

As I said at the beginning, you can’t dislike Alvvays, but it’s hard to imagine truly loving this album.  It’s a glossy surface with a few hints that there could be some really great stuff coming.  In this, their first album, Alvvays has set up a great, pretty sound, but they haven’t put much grit or soul into it.  I’m hopeful that the next album will be a bit less pretty and a lot more interesting.

Robin came up with a good description of how it feels to listen to this album: "The whole album is like peeking in a girl's diary.  Lot's of wistfully trying to figure out what is going on in the boy's head, wanting it to last, wanting it to start."

Next Up:  Things are going to be busy in the Ryan household for the rest of the year, so our next entry will be a ranking of what we've loved listening to this year.  

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Ryan Adams, by Ryan Adams (Album of the Week)

If you filled a room with great songwriters, you might not notice Ryan Adams, but he’d be in there, crowded by Elton John and his grand piano, the 6 or 7 Bob Dylan personalities, and Kanye’s entourage.  He’d be over in the corner, trading lyrics and passing an acoustic guitar around with Joan Baez and Leonard Cohen. 

I have no idea why Ryan Adams waited for his 14th album to go eponymous, but he starts it with a song entitled “Give Me Something Good”, with the opening lyrics “I can't talk/My mind is so blank/So I'm going for a walk/I got nothing left to say.”

The lack of something to say haunts the album, until it winds up being its strength.  In the third song, a moody number named “Trouble”, he admits, “Sometimes I just got nothing else to say/I’ve been on repeat since yesterday.”  Toward the end of the album, in “I Just Might”, he contemplates fleeing a dissolving relationship:  “You make a wish, You want it to come true/But somewhere underneath all that hope/Is the truth Your prayers go unanswered./You’re waiting for the proof/Don’t know what to say/Don’t know what to do.”

Ryan Adams is not a troubadour offering answers to your questions, or your prayers.  The younger Ryan Adams offered more solace – whether it was one day being carried home to Kentucky and family in “Oh My Sweet Carolina” on Heartbreaker or even just replacing “Tears of Gold” with music and laughter on Easy Tiger. 

This album is the product of a man too wise and wizened to offer pat answers – that’s gone for him.  In Trouble, he acknowledges the toll that aging is taking – “There’s a year and a day for every line/On my face/Like a map of my sins.” 

Is it going too far to interpret “Feels Like Fire” as a portrayal of the loss of faith in bigger answers?  Is he singing of the fire of faith, as in the burning bush and the Pentecostal fire instead of some lost lover, when he sings, “You can take me anywhere/Roll us into heaven/I don’t care/Just so you know,/You’ll always be the hardest thing/I ever will let go/Driving past your church/And all the houses in a row/The feeling in my chest is fire”?

I’ll shut up about all that heavy shit now, and focus on selling this album to you, because this is not some graduate seminar on “Being and Nothingness”.  I know, it’s only rock and roll, and I like it. 

The first 20 seconds of this album ought to blow you away.  You’ve got a keyboard stringing out a high note over a crunchy guitar, and then a drum thumps onto the scene, and the bass sneaks in to add some depth.  Suddenly, you’re bobbing your head to a rhythm that is part blues, part funk, and 100% classic rock like Tom Petty or the Eagles might have used to launch “Breakdown” or “Witchy Woman”.

There’s so much more to follow.  “Kim” could come from Fleetwood Mac or Bruce Cockburn.  “Trouble” starts off with a guitar lick that Neil Young would love.  “Am I Safe” will call to mind “Horse With No Name” by America, but it’s 100 times better.  And, yes, “Be My Wrecking Ball” gives you what you wanted when you bought this album – that classic Ryan Adams sound that could have come off any of his earlier solo albums. 

Over at Deliberate Obfuscation, Robin's love of guitars shows through in her appreciation of the mastery shown on the album, but she can't get past her disturbing hatred of the Eagles, so she muddles her way to a middling review of this great album.  

For Ryan Adams to finally put his name on an album, it had to be something personal and special.  You can hear lots of other influences on this disc, but it reflects Ryan Adams standing there, with a guitar, doing his best.  And Ryan Adams, at his best, belongs in a room with the greats of all time.

Next up:  Alvvays, by Alvvays

Sunday, November 30, 2014

City Noir, composed by John Adams and performed by the St. Louis Symphony

Last week it was sex and violence, but this week it’s sax and violins.  Yes, it was Robin’s turn to pick a music selection, and she went with City Noir, an album delivering a symphony called “City Noir”, and a Saxophone Concerto called “Saxophone Concerto.”  Classical music.

Robin enjoyed her choice, and latched onto the jazz elements as a guide into a work without words.  Like me, she finds it a bit beyond her conversational skills, but also like me, she finds value in the work.

If you’re looking for an informed and informative review of an important piece of music, look elsewhere.  I don’t know enough about classical music to talk about andantes or sempre or sonic references to prior artists.  At a couple points, I had to ask my more-musically-educated wife “What instrument is that?”  I’m honestly not qualified to review this CD.

But, that’s part of the challenge we took on at the beginning of the year – listen to music we don’t know and react to it.  My reactions are honest, though personal to my own level of knowledge.  If you don’t know classical music, you’re probably in my same boat, and I’ll try to describe what you’ll like and dislike if you listen to this CD.  If you do know classical music, you will bear witness to a swine contemplating pearls, for whatever that’s worth. 

Either way, you probably ought to go read the digitalbooklet that comes with the album.  John Adams, the composer, isn’t bashful about talking about his work.  He claims stuff like, “A moody trumpet solo lingers over delicate shards of harmony.“  Personally, when I read a composer waxing eloquent over his own work, it kind of cracks me up.  Go and read the entire piece, and you’ll find plenty of gems like that.  Here’s another – “In ‘The Song Is for You,’ long, languid, sometimes bluesy melodies arise out of a haze of luminous sonorities, with rippling figurations in the harps, keyboards, and vibraphone floating to the surface like smoke rings in a dark room.”

Well, alrighty then.

The composer claims that he was aiming for a movie score effect, and I really do think he achieves it.  Unfortunately, at times, I had vivid mental images of Jerry tip-toing with a mallet to clobber Tom – I’m not sure Hanna-Barbera was what he was aiming to evoke with his delicate shards of harmony, but that’s what he delivers at around 2:30 in his final track.  Other places, though, are more in tune with his effort to conjure a “film noir” feeling.

Without words to guide us, we are forced to rely on our internal references and cues to assimilate this music into our own experience.  The truth is, for me, my knowledge of classical music is limited to a few of the very basics, which I listen to mostly as background music when I’m working.  I am, I fear, a bit of an ignoramus.

That said this is enjoyable music for the most part.  John Adams writes music designed to bring pleasure, not to baffle you with discord and battling melodies.  I sincerely enjoyed listening to this album, and will listen to it from time to time in the future. 

Next up:  Ryan Adams, by Ryan Adams

Friday, November 28, 2014

Run the Jewels 2, by Run the Jewels (Album of the Week)

Robin and I had opposite problems with my selection this week, Run the Jewels 2.  Robin overcameher initial discomfort with the sex, violence, misogyny and rude language, and wound up appreciating the humor and the music.  My problem is that I too-easily enjoy the more negative aspects of the album, and, as a 54 year-old middle class white man who spends his time trying to end violence against women, I feel like I ought to be more repulsed than I truly am. 

Robin needs to engage her critical open-mindedness to enjoy the music.  I need to engage my better self to dislike it.

The first song is pure swagger, boasting about how other rappers are “vaginas”, and toting two guns, and claiming that they are the “closest representation to God that you might see”.  By the way, I didn’t know that “llamas” is a term for guns – my grasp of slang is highly dependent on services like Rap Genius.

The second song starts with “Fuck the law, they can eat my dick” and proceeds to glorify violence, to the point of saying “fuck that bitch” while referring to a mother crying over the casket of a child that the rapper killed.  It’s not nice stuff.

The third song sums it all up – “This Run the Jewels is murder, mayhem, melodic music.”  There’s no getting around it – this music is intentionally provocative and violent.  It objectifies women, though, in a puerile form of equality, Gangsta Boo returns the favor in “Love Again (Akinyele Back)”. 

I won’t cop out and claim some high-minded intellectual interest in the anthropology of “urban youth”, as if “they” are some tribe to be studied.  I won’t claim to see some sophisticated satire going on here, in which the strutting and posting is really a poignant social commentary secretly calling for peace, love and understanding. 

I won’t even claim that I like the music despite the lyrics – that the complicated rhythms and inventive sounds somehow overcome my high-minded distaste for the vulgar words.  “If they would just remix it so they used the 23rd Psalm as their lyrics, that would be divine.” 

No.  The reason I like this music is that, absurd as it obviously is, it searches out and liberates the tiny little youthful ghetto thug that exists in this generally kind, well-adjusted, upper-middle-aged, privileged, peace-loving, corpulent white man who would never in a million years participate in the things these guys talk about doing. 

There’s an atavistic impulse that understands the fantasy of being the toughest muthafucka walking down the middle of the street intimidating everyone and flipping off the cops.  Not just understands it, but shares it.  Wrap those thoughts in a thumping bass line and percussion that rattles like gunfire, and you wind up with a meek and mild guy like me feeling like there’s a badass still alive somewhere. 

I shouldn’t like it.  It’s embarrassing to even admit that it’s true.  That’s not a side of anybody’s character that needs or deserves nourishment.  Worse, I believe that this music could, in fact, sharpen the edge of someone less dull than I have become.  If a younger, tougher me listened to a steady stream of it, and someone bumped into me in a bar, I think I’d be more inclined to react aggressively than I was back in those days, when I was listening to the Cars and Elvis Costello.

Yes, I think this music fosters aggression and misogyny.  But I like it.  How awful is that?  

Next up: City Noir, composed by John Adams and performed by the St. Louis Symphony 

Saturday, November 22, 2014

What I Mean When I Say I’m Not Really a Beatles Fan

Yet another Beatle’s fan has exploded in indignation because someone, somewhere, has dared to doubt the absolute preeminence of the mop tops.  A certain tender nerve can be found near the surface of dedicated Beatles fans, making them overly sensitive and even a bit dramatic when the memory of their band catches anything less than breathless adulation. 

Because they’re so touchy, let me be crystal clear in addressing my Beatles-loving friends.  I do not particularly like the Beatles.  I believe that they are over-rated when they are called “the best”, “the most important”, or “the most influential” band in rock history.

As you drop to your fainting couches out there, and before you respond in the full froth of righteous indignation, please reread the last two sentences of the prior paragraph.  I am not saying that they suck, that they are awful, or even that any particular band is demonstrably better than they are.  I’m not even really claiming that they are always over-rated, since the “over-rated” label depends on what rating we’re talking about. 

A lot of this is a matter of taste.  The fact that you love the Beatles is fine with me, and it’s okay if you don’t particularly like my favorite bands.  I won’t insist that you kowtow to the supremacy of the Rolling Stones, Kanye, or even the Supremes.  Fans of other bands generally don’t share your insistence on fealty. 

Maybe my lack of enthusiasm is rooted in my particular experience - I grew up surrounded by the Beatles.  When I was a kid, anyone with a guitar strummed the life out of their catalog, and songs like “Hey Jude” and “Yesterday” bored the hell out of me by the thousandth listen over speakers in doctors’ waiting rooms, fabric stores, and, yes, elevators.  Perhaps you have more positive associations with your introduction to the Beatles, but, truly, honestly, literally, many of those songs are elevator music to me.  That doesn’t mean that I’m somehow correct when my stomach lurches a bit when I hear the first clunky strains of “Yellow Submarine”, but the thrill you apparently manage to feel is not contagious.  At all. 

I prefer other music.  I can happily tap my foot along to several Beatles songs, but I prefer other music.  I don’t say that to hurt your feelings, nor do I think that I have thus proven that your love of the Beatles is therefore a sham

“But, but, but,” I can hear you start to stammer.  And then you follow it with some superlative, delivered with all the authority of John Houseman playing Professor Kingsfield.  Let’s take some of the more popular superlatives and address them singly.  If you have others that you would like to discuss, please email them to me.

“They are the most influential rock band ever.”  How, exactly, would one define “influential” in this context?  It seems to me that Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly were influential, too.  I’m not going to name names, but it wasn’t me who claimed “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it 'Chuck Berry'.”  Influence is a pretty slippery concept to make into a superlative.  I might step back to Muddy Waters if I were forced at gunpoint to assign “most influential” to anyone, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the trigger got pulled, because Bob Dylan was pretty influential, too, and hundreds of others.   If you want to grant that title to the Beatles, I suppose you’re free to do so, but don’t expect anyone to be convinced, okay?

“They are the most important rock band ever.”  Umm, not to me.  How do you even mean that?  If you mean that they are the most influential, see above.  If you mean that they took music in directions it never would have ventured, I think you’re just wrong about that.  Some poor schmuck was going to bring a sitar back from India, unfortunately enough.  If you mean that, back in their prime, they could fill stadiums, you’re correct, but that’s pretty weak tea, I think. 

I guess that does lead me to an area where I can agree with a superlative about the Beatles.  It is true that they sold more records than anyone else.  That’s truly impressive, but let’s not go too far with extrapolating that atatistic into broader claims of supremacy.   Celine Dion has sold a lot more records than Neil Young, and Abba’s top album has sold more than the Beatles’ top album – in the UK!  I’m with you in rolling my eyes at that fact, but there you go. 

By all means, the Beatles were a popular band, and I’ll even agree that they were a very good band in terms of merit.  I’d certainly put them somewhere in my top 25 band of all time, but I won’t be bullied by those who get strident and hysterical in their insistence that they are the preeminent band of all time.