Thursday, July 24, 2008

Pretty Hate Machine – Nine Inch Nails

The forces that collided in 1989 around the release of Trent Reznor’s “Pretty Hate Machine” caused major shifts in several genres of modern music, and in the overall critical trajectory of alternative music. This record succeeded in tapping the rich underground traditions of industrial electronic music, and by combining it with strong melodic songwriting both catapulted the sub-genre to a larger audience, as well as brought a new sonic palette of inspiration to multiple artists from other genres. But this single debut album became a monument in the musical landscape not only because of its transformation of genres, but also as work of the auter – the masterwork of a single artist as opposed to a group or band effort. This single source creativity would go on to inspire further music as digital music and recording technology became more widely available to non-professional and, importantly, musicians not sponsored by the recording industry.

In context, “Pretty Hate Machine” wears its influences proudly on its sleeve. Its release in 1989 shows its clear sonic link to the industrial and electronic dance music of the time. The whirring mechanical rhythms, dark ambient synth fills and grinding white noise distorted guitars were lifted directly from the playbooks of underground dance groups like Ministry, Nitzer Ebb, and Front 242. But within 40 seconds of the first track, Head Like a Hole differentiates itself from its peers. The song builds predictably enough through whirring mechanical percussion loops and visceral vocal grunt/scream sounds reminiscent of the implied bodily violence of the electro-dance movement to a throbbing bass melody. But at the 40 second mark, the inhuman composition fades back in the mix for the entrance of the vocal. Unlike the vocals of typical industrial music where the human voice is either a percussive chant, or a distorted/over processed textural fill (Ministry’s Stigmata being the ultimate object lesson for this aesthetic), this vocal is something completely different: a lyric. And not only is it a lyric, but it’s composed in melodic rhyming couplets conceptually rooted in a single theme, all gathered together in a verse chorus framework. All this of course is a very convoluted way to say: popular songwriting structure.

Song by song “Pretty Hate Machine” proves again and again how the sonic palette of industrial music can be translated into popular songwriting. From the rock-anthem styling of Head like a Hole, to dark pop songs like Sin, to the rap driven Down In It to even haunting ballads like Something I Can Never Have, Reznor unflinchingly indulges the driving beats, harsh mechanical textures and distorted guitar noise of his influences. But instead of using these elements to dominate the song and bury the listener in the abstract isolationism and dehumanization that is the core of the industrial aesthetic, he uses them as independent instruments in arrangement to support the vocal. The lyric content itself then takes the next step of the transformation and anchors the dysfunctional / dystopian aesthetic of industrial music around the personal confusion, anxiety and tortured self-pity of the singer. In this, he succeeded to embody and personify the emotional and psychological alienation and dehumanization of modern life that the industrial movement sought to express in abstraction, by paradoxically giving that alienation a very human and emotionally identifiable persona.
The slow building popularity that built up around “Pretty Hate Machine” in 1989 became a fevered pitch which kept the album on the charts for two years, and became not only a commercial success for Reznor and his indie label TVT, but it sparked a new interest and new audience for industrial music. Though they were his initial inspiration, bands like Ministry, Nitzer Ebb, Einsturzende Neubauten and KMFDM rode the coat tails of “Pretty Hate Machine” to a new broader audience by taking lessons from Reznor’s new use of traditional songwriting. In turn, the sonic elements of the genre found their way into the songs of new generations of bands to follow who further explored the crossovers between techno, metal, and alternative genres – Filter, Marilyn Manson and Garbage to name only a few.

But the innovation of this album doesn’t stop at this crossroads of genres. The importance of the recording is best captured in an anecdote that embodies the emergence of Nine Inch Nails at the time of its release. When I was first introduced to Pretty Hate Machine by a friend in 1989 it was the classic word of mouth marketing that indie music was built upon in the late 80s. A friend asked me if I had heard this “new band called Nine Inch Nails”. When I said I hadn’t, my friend told me “Well it’s really not a band, it’s just this one guy, but he recorded this album playing all the instruments himself and recorded it at home on his Mac…” From here a myth was born. From my first listen and my own limited knowledge of new computer recording techniques, I could easily imagine Trent Reznor building samples and drum machine loops in a basement studio somewhere in Ohio, creating this dark brooding soundscape as a backdrop for his own tortured personal psyche. And the music holds up to this myth. Compared to the “wall of sound” noise-scapes of the industrial music of the time, this music seems pared down, almost simplistic. Yet it’s simple enough for the listener to hear isolated textures, sounds and rhythms that would otherwise be lost in the sonic onslaught of Reznor’s peers. Listening to “Pretty Hate Machine” for the first time in 1989 was in many ways akin to listening to a Velvet Underground album in the late sixties – it seemed suddenly attainable to grab a guitar, form a band and write some songs. But in this case it was the realization that you could hook some instruments up to your computer and start creating music. In effect, “Pretty Hate Machine” shattered the idea that industrial and electronic music was an experimental, rarified genre of music, and brought it to the level of immediacy that was characteristic of Rock and Roll.

Of course the myth of the auter in this case was not completely true. While Reznor wrote and recorded the demos for “Pretty Hate Machine” on his own, for the final recordings he paired up with renowned engineer/producer Flood for the studio recording. Flood undoubtedly deserves the credit for being able to boil down and isolate the samples and drum loops in the mix to allow this recording to walk a fine line between the overwhelming wall of sound passages, and the subtly textured flares and sequences that fill in the gaps between Reznor’s vocal and the more aggressive musical bursts. (If there’s any signature sound to Flood’s approach behind the mixing board this may be it!). But as remarkable as the production is this record, it’s most remarkable in the way it disappears behind the myth of the auter. Even today, part of this album’s appeal is it’s artifice as a “one man show”, a soundtrack to a highly personal journey of introspection and, importantly, a singular burst of creativity. With all heady notions of musical theory and historical genre stirring aside, it’s the hallmark of a great work of art that despite the circumstances of its creation, it inspires the listener to creativity of his or her own. As “Pretty Hate Machine” seemed to lay bare the process of connecting a computer to a guitar; of joining mechanical music to the human vocal; of a connection between the digital and the analogue in the pursuit of music – this album succeeded in sparking creativity in its listeners to not only understand the means of its creation (Greenbergian modernism at its core) but also to pick up an instrument and create for themselves.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

The Unforgettable Fire - U2

The Unforgettable Fire – U2

"You hunger for a time, a time to heal, desire time,
And your earth moves beneath your own dream landscape,
Oh, on borderlands we run." (A Sort of Homecoming)

In 1984, U2 made a significant shift in their music away from the externally engaged and highly social music of their first three albums, to a musical vision that combined a more sweeping panoramic view of the natural world with an introspective emotional focus. The thematic arc of the Boy/October/War set of albums served not only to establish the band’s style and critical mass, but also defined a stage in their artistic development and the early stages of “alternative music” at large. The excesses of 80s popular music were abandoned for a new union of punk rebellion and youthful idealism, all combined under a musical style that embraced potently distilled, almost hermetically sealed, individualized sound. In its first fledgling steps, U2 succeeded in harnessing the unique guitar approach of The Edge, and Bono’s passionate vocal idealism to create songs that embodied the youthful struggle between a childlike innocence and harsh external world. But with the release of The Unforgettable Fire, there was a departure from this first chapter of their work to a new thematic approach, as well as new direction musically and technically in their approach to songwriting, instrumentation and recording.

The change in their music is evident from the opening of the first track The preceding albums opened with a manifesto, both sonically and thematically: Boy – “I Will Follow”; October – “Gloria”; War “Sunday Bloody Sunday”. Where those tracks summon the listener to attention with their distinctive ringing guitar riffs, “A Sort of Homecoming” slowly swells into its sound with a subtle tom-tom rhythm and a guitar that sighs into the mix like a slow swelling wind. Similarly the vocal opening of the album differs from the impassioned overtures of the previous songs that directly tackle the individual’s struggle in an overtly social world, “A Sort of Homecoming” begins the song speaking of a withdrawal to introspection and the natural world:

"And you know it’s time to go, through the sleet and driving snow
Across the fields of mourning to a light that’s in the distance… "

This is a very different U2 than the album that opens with “I can’t believe the news today…”. And it is a very different music, which we hear evolving over the course of the next nine tracks.

The only song that has a direct relationship to the socially engaged, up tempo, martial beat compositions of their past is the second track “Pride (In the Name of Love)”. But this song also represents an important departure in terms of the social anthem. Where previously U2, and other socially engaged alternative music, used the anthem as an expression of outrage focused on specific events (Sunday Bloody Sunday, etc.), “Pride” uses specific historical figures and the events of their lives (Ghandi, Jesus, and most prominently Martin Luther King Jr.) not as a rally point for protest, but as a symbol for personal inspiration. However as impactful and relevant as these individuals are to current social issues, the song never uses them to champion specific social issues, but instead turns the listener inward and uses these exemplars as a meditation on the personal value of love as the motivator behind these great men. As an anthem, “Pride” went on to become a flag waving “arena moment” for social activism, but at its core the song is something very different.

Thematically, the album continues in this vein. Where the songs confront the external world, they turn to introspection. Where they engage the city, they retreat to the natural world. Combined with the opening track, “Wire”, “Indian Summer Sky” and “The Unforgettable Fire” form the centerpiece of the albums conceptual arc. When the lyric confronts the real world of relationships and hardship, it turns immediately to introspective evaluation of the personal spiritual values; and any reference of the physical world is quick to juxtapose the man made world of cities to the natural world of rivers, mountains, wind and sky. It is as if, through the preceding three albums the songs exhausted themselves in the endless wrestling of trying to find a place for the individual in the world, and now stretched to more universal themes trying to make sense of personal feelings in the sprawling sweep of life; not just for the individual, but for everyone. As the songs make this leap from the personal to the universal, Bono again and again returns to natural metaphors. Throughout the album he sings of the wind, the sky and the sea as metaphors for the soul and the heart hovering above and surrounding the heavy landscape of social interaction. In his voice and in his words we can hear his longing to abandon himself to these sweeping natural forces, and find resonance for the passion that drives him (and all of us) in the un-ending driving forces of nature.

The new lyrical direction of the album would fall flat however, were it not for the introduction of new producer and engineer in the recording of the album. Sharing credit for both tasks, Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois came aboard for the recording to support and promote the growth of the sweeping sonic aspirations that always lurked beneath the surface of U2’s sound. The sound that developed proved to be essential to realize the goal of the album. Renowned for their talents in ambient and atmospheric music Eno and Lanois, cultivated and encouraged The Edge’s already prominent use of echo, delay and reverb effects to new heights. Where U2’s major songs previously relied on distinct guitar driven riffs, the major tracks on The Unforgettable Fire begin with the guitar creating vast sweeping swells of sound more as atmosphere, than as riff. And in songs where the guitar is featured as the dominant element (“Pride”, “Wire”, “Bad,” “Indian Summer Sky”) it provides as much texture and atmosphere through its rhythmic delay effects and simple arpeggiated chords, as it does melody or “hook”. With the guitar lifted into the upper most portions of the mix, this allowed the bass and drum space to combine even more tightly than previously heard in U2’s music, both driving the songs forward with intensity and providing the brooding melodic foundations for the Bono’s vocal that soars with a passion in these songs that was never reached in their previous recordings. Ultimately the sonic approach captured in this album creates the perfect correlate to the imagery of the lyrics, The Edge’s guitar becomes the wind, the rain and the shimmering sky, while the bass and drums become the rolling hills, mountains and rivers of the landscape the songs move through.

But no discussion of this landmark album could be complete without tackling the epic centerpiece of the album - “Bad”. On the surface, the song is an elegy to drug addiction and the havoc it brings to relationships; but this song is much more. The slow restrained opening with its simple rhythm guitar creates a gentle, almost quiet, space in which the lyric reaches out to bridge the implied sorrow of alienation. As the song progresses it slowly layers in more instrumentation, from the subtle but tightly wound drums, to the lilting melodic base line, and to even further layers of echoing guitar. Throughout the building storm of sound the vocal moves from its gesture of reconciliation, through recognition of its helplessness in facing the alienation and dislocation between people. The lyric here functions both literally as a description of the helplessness of a friend to reach through the power of drug addiction, but also can be interpreted more abstractly as the confrontation of unbridgeable gap between souls in any relationship (again the theme of the album returns here in the transformation of the specific to the universal). But what’s remarkable in this composition is that while the confusion, complexity and alienation builds and swirls around this meditation on relationships, and as Bono’s voice is driven to higher and higher soaring notes that seem to push the limit of his range, there remains the positive underpinning of hope; the belief that escaping the cycles of alienation and separation between people is actually possible. The lyric pushes on through the swelling tide of sound “to let it go, and so to find away” through the confusion. Even at the song’s apex of confusion where Bono only sings a litany of relationship demons, “this desperation, dislocation, separation, condemnation, revelation, in temptation, isolation, desolation”, the chorus of the song makes its triumphant return “let it go”.

It’s this spirit of release that pervades not only the song, but the album overall – the drive to move past the demons that haunt our day to day lives, and “let it go”. Towards this end, the final lyrics of "Bad" seem to suggest the enlightenment philosophy behind the song – “I’m wide awake, I’m not sleeping”. In many ways The Unforgettable Fire is an album of transition and transformation – it is music of awakening, or enlightenment. As it releases the music from wrestling with the reality tackled by their previous albums, it turns to universal themes in a more spiritual journey. it proposes a new enlightened state, a new landscape across which the music will travel. Leading the listener along new paths of self-discovery, and new bridges to cross what divides us from each other.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Switched On - Stereolab

Stereolab released two records almost simultaneously in 1992 - their “proper debut” Peng!, and a compilation of early singles they titled Switched On. While Peng! serves as a sprawling and almost languid introduction to the strange animal that is Stereolab, it’s Switched On that serves as a landmark record with it’s anthemic guitar driven songs that forged a manifesto for the group’s early ambitions and for post-rock in general.

It was the early nineties. Grunge ruled the airways, and the alternative underground rode waves of the ‘Shoegazers’ and the birth of ambient techno. Into this world stepped the ill fitting Stereolab. While their sound had the trappings of sonic indulgence like their contemporaries, Stereolab was clearly on a different journey. Armed with fuzzed out distorted guitars and droning analogue synthesizers, Stereolab drew inspiration from “krautrock” bands such as Faust, Neu!, and Can. But instead of adventuring deeper into the obscure and awkward depths of artrock and jazz odessies championed by these bands, Stereolab coupled their sonic experimentalism with more traditional songwriting, and created a hybrid.

There are two hallmarks of Stereolab’s early sound: the abstract flourishes of burbling outmoded analogue synthesizer technology; and the tight, deceptively simplistic lock groove created by the rhythm guitar chord structure that built the framework of the song. These two main compositional elements have to be seen in contrast to the musical genres both in the popular arena as well as the main currents of “alternative” music. The reductive “lock groove” of the guitar seemingly stood in contrast to the return to melodic pop songwriting that in the “grunge” movement took metal music to the masses. Similarly the stiff almost mechanical rhythm Stereolab exploited in their arrangements fought against the ethereal gauze-like guitar work of the “sheogazers”, where guitars transformed themselves into abstract washes of texture and sound. And even as Dr. Alex Patterson was starting our love affair with digital music, sampling, and the myriad possibilities of sequencers, the songs on Switched On seem to revel in their use of synthesizers picked from the trash heaps and pawn shops of the music industry.

But the Stereolab aesthetic was more than just a rebellious rejection of contemporary trends. From a formalist perspective, the lock-groove rhythm of each song creates a structured framework for the lilting vocal melodies and intertwined harmonies and counter melodies. Similarly this framework grounds the rich polyphonic synthesizer elements that layer themselves between the harmonic overtones of the ringing guitar chords, and provide a natural organic springboard for the vocals. The lock-groove approach serves a compositional purpose as well, where the guitar and droning synth washes create a backdrop that is both rich in texture but almost minimalist in its single chord, or same key, stretches of sound. The group uses these passages to slowly build intensity and subtle additions of texture while the vocals carry the simple melody of the song. But most remarkable in these songs are the points where Stereolab actually changes the chord, or the key. As the listener becomes accustomed to the locked repetitive sound and becomes more and more sensitized to the layers of sound and texture within that single key, the most simple chord or key change becomes a much more dramatic sensation for the listener, and compositionally propels the song.

To view these early Stereolab compositions as “minimalist,” is tempting; but too reductive. If anything, the borrowing of droning minimalist techniques and simplistic song structures is a strategic contrast to their championing of analogue sound and recordings. While the pro-analogue fervor of the late nineties was a bit of a retro-reactionary fad, it still held an important ontological or philosophical lesson for modern music. Even the champions of new digital music returned to this lesson as they learned to incorporate analogue samples and “real” instruments into music based on digital sequencers. The richness of analogue sound is singular and unique in texture as it is locked purely in the moment, in the NOW of the irreproducible chaos of human interaction with a sound making device. The just as the crackle and hiss of a needle riding a vinyl groove is dependant on the unique physical history of that specific record and that specific player, so too is the sound of a hollow body Gibson specific to the ambience of the room, the million variables of how it is strummed, and the proximity of the player to the amplifier and other feedback sources. Of course this is all a bit heady for describing some simple three chord pop songs, but the songs are built to showcase this concept. By foregrounding their choice of outmoded instruments, and employing fuzzy analogue distortion over modern slick recording techniques, they introduce to the listener an aesthetic of savoring every bump, scratch and hiss of the sound, drawing the listener deeper into a sonic textural experience than could ever be described as minimalist.

On this sonic backdrop, Stereolab creates a lyrical approach to modern music that is revolutionary as well. Like any “alternative” or “indie” band, their lyrics embody a rejection of sorts of the dominant strains of culture and a championing of an alternate way of life. In Stereolab’s case many critics have noted previously, that this rejection takes the form of an almost pseudo-marxist critique of modern capitalism. For example the classic line “Everything remains to be done to devastate the ideals of family, state and religion” (Au Grand Jour). However in the same song, their lyrical content also contains a post-structural critique of western logic and philosophy with proclamations such as “We need a shake and therefore demand more than the cold conclusions of reason / The only impossible thing is to limit the possible”. Throughout Switched On, the lyrics return again and again to the idea that the foundations of the real, whether social, economic, or psychological are insufficient. The refrain of Super Electric repeats over and over: “Some never see the bones at all / Some never see the flesh at all…” almost as if the answer to the human condition is neither the forest, nor the trees; but something else entirely. But while the lyrics offer us catchy mantras to chant our dissatisfaction with the real, Stereolab never offers us a solution, or maps a way into some great beyond. Instead they suggest that the answer lies only in revolution as a beginning: “Confrontations clearing the way / Will be opening / Not as end in itself / But as a beginning” (The Way Will Be Opening).

It’s tempting to leave my analysis here, and I wonder if Stereolab would do it that way themselves. Instead of spelling out conclusions, shake foundations as the first step in a larger undefined, and unscripted adventure. And truly the concept of shaking foundations is a fitting metaphor for this, their early sound. I think clearly of the locked groove distorted rhythm guitar grinding out a rhythm to the vocal that lilts over the storm chanting a simple rejection of the real, and can picture Tim Gane’s head rocking back and forth to his own internal time clock as if the rhythm of his guitar were a correlate to beating his head against the walls of reality, methodically pushing to break through to some other side.

In a poetically suggestive way, the lyrical content and the formalism of the music come together here to provide a real foundation for Stereolab’s ouerve, and for post-rock in general. This is a pretty big leap for me to make, and I’m certain that the artists would object to my reducing their lofty idealism to a pigeon holed musical genre. But like post-modernism, post-rock is still ill defined and raising itself from the ashes, so it bears talking through. If we continue the parallel between post-modernism and post-rock we accept the stylistic description that it is an art form that borrows elements from previous genres, but combines them in pursuit of a completely new aesthetic. I think this description applies to Switched On. With a foot in many different musical camps, Stereolab set out on this record towards uncharted waters. They wore their influences on their sleeves, they wallowed in the sonic indulgences of the past; but somehow the combination of elements pushed their music, and the listener on to something different. “Not as an end in itself / But as a beginning.”

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Volume One: Sound Magic - Afro Celt Sound System

The 1996 release of “Volume One: Sound Magic” was a departure of sorts for Peter Gabriel’s Real World Records. A label built upon the very idea of departures in the most global sense, Real World is credited with the popularization of World Music to Western Markets and spreading the influence of artists and musical traditions seldom heard in the English Speaking world. Like the influence of the Silk Routes for Medieval Europe, Imported Japanese prints on 19th Century French Painting, or The Beatles trips to India, this exposure to “world music” has a huge impact on the history of music. But in Afro Celt Sound System, Real World published music that was not an ethnographic travelogue, but instead explored the new territory that the international exposure created in modern music.

The foundation of Afro Celt Sound Systems’ music is embedded in their name. The band started as a loose affiliation of musicians from both Irish/Celtic backgrounds and African musicians, brought together to experiment with modern electronic music and recording systems. Typical “world music” recordings sought to capture a “native” or “exotic” musical tradition of a non-western culture, with an almost ‘escapist’ or ‘colonial’ approach so that the enlightened listener could appreciate a culture beyond their normal reach. Afro Celt Sound System took the opposite approach, and brought the musical traditions out of their original context and explored their possibilities in the modern recording studio and in the context of modern music.

The result is musically remarkable in the similarities and complimentary relationship between two very diverse cultures. The juxtaposition of intricate Celtic melodies and the visceral rhythmic and percussive traditions of African music is not as contrasting as it seems on paper. When brought together, the two styles highlight what they have in common both at the formal musical level as well as the conceptual level. Where traditional Celtic music is known for harps, dulcimers and other intricate stringed instruments, the technique used to play these instruments relies on highly rhythmic, arpeggiated plucking, and hammering of strings over the more fluid strumming and bowing techniques of other stringed instruments in western music. On the African side of the equation, traditional African drums are not simple percussive chambers, but are augmented with various means to modulate the sound of the drum; the “talking drum” being the most obvious stereotype, but musically, it allows the African musical tradition to express melody through percussion, compared to a western tradition where percussion provides mainly rhythm. Brought together by on this record, these two traditions interweave in the context of a single song, exchanging musical “duties” throughout the song, and making the listener aware of the ability of both traditions to explore the same goals. The result is an intricate and tightly wound Celtic knot of melody unraveling to the dynamic visceral energy of African rhythm.

On top of this juxtaposition of styles, Afro Celt Sound System further elaborates their song writing with vocals in both Celtic and African languages, moving easily between soaring atmospheric melody and primal chant driven choruses. Yet somehow through the maze of mixing cultures on this record, the listener isn’t left with a muddy mess or pastiche of styles. The songs each embody a distinct melodic structure and are built upon their own universe of catchy hooks that prompt the listener to sing along despite the foreign style or language. Finally, to propel this experiment into the arena of modern music, they layer in elements of current electronica and techno music with additional sequenced digital effects and synthetic atmospheric treatments. Remarkably the fusion of these two “world music” styles is a perfect match thematically with the “trance” and ambient genres in modern techno, where intricately interwoven melodies and rhythms fuse to create “mood” explorations and heady “trance” states of musical experienced as opposed to the more narrative A-B-A-C-A-B song structure of traditional western music.

Hailed by many critics as a celebratory cross road of musical cultures, Afro Celt Sound System continues their career folding more and more cultural styles into their fundamental mix of African and Celtic traditions with great success. Their live shows now include Persian, Middle Eastern, Indian and European elements and musicians all coming together within a single framework that both celebrates their origin and propels them forward as a new genre: world fusion. While their style continues to evolve, it’s here in their first album where the door opened onto a new musical landscape. But what sets this achievement apart from the other moments in musical history where new genre’s have leapt forth, the diverse ethnic origins of musical tradition are not eclipsed by the performance, or sterilized in some utopian digital soundscape scrubbed of local, analogue, texture. Both in listening to this record, and completely reinforced with their live performance where the listener is confronted with the spectacle of the talent required to play all the different instruments which comprise this music, the music celebrates the uniqueness of each elements origins, and the beauty inherent in the instrument and sound itself. But most importantly, the music shatters the colonial patronizing label of “world music” and provides a map forward into a multi-national, multi-lingual, poly-phonic musical tradition. This is the sound of the whole world singing together, each in its own tongue, strummed on its own strings, and drummed on its own skins, but rising together for an exploration of the musical spirit that we all share.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Beatles ' 65 - The Beatles

By rights, this should be the first entry I wrote. Spoiler here, but this is the oldest record I plan on writing about. But it is also the most daunting entry to write. What more could possibly be said about The Beatles? And what could I, not even born for the entire first half of their career and an amateur fan/historian at best, intelligently say about The Beatles? I’ll skim over the majority of the historical stuff that’s mostly already been written, and focus on a few key elements that make this a landmark album when you look at it from the perspective of late century alternative music.

Some would argue that “Beatles ‘65” isn’t really a proper Beatles album at all, in that it is really a compilation of songs found on “Beatles for Sale” and “A Hard Day’s Night”. But it’s the inclusion of a single that otherwise falls through the cracks of The Beatles discography that makes this album truly remarkable. “I Feel Fine” was released after “Beatles for Sale” and shows up nowhere else. While the rest of the songs here are remarkable due to the part they play in the constantly evolving creative trajectory of the band, “I Feel Fine” is something altogether different, and the legacy of this one song is the foundation much of the history of modern music.

But first, let’s retread some of the critical opinions on this period for The Beatles. After the crush of Beatlemania and the non-stop performing/recording circuit they tread in ‘63-’64, “Beatles for Sale” was a departure in it’s introduction of melancholic themes to pop music. Where before it was all boy-girl romantic pop songs of their signature Merseybeat style (“I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” “She Love You” etc.), the opening three tracks of both “Beatles For Sale” and “Beatles ‘65” (“No Reply”, “I’m a Loser” and “Baby’s In Black”) show not only Lennon’s new found appreciation for Dylan and American Folk music, but also a thematic turn to depression, loss and self loathing. In hindsight, even the cover of “Everybody’s Trying to be My Baby” seems a cynical look back at Beatlemania where the sheer force of their popularity outweighed the music. But beyond self-pity, these new themes found a foothold in the Beatles creativity, as Lennon and McCartney realized that rock & roll had the ability to explore and express more than just the boy-meets-girl celebrations of their past repertoire or feel good sentiment of the Chuck Berry cover included here in “Rock & Roll Music.”

We take it for granted now, but looking back this is remarkable. The first Beatles records to enter my collection and personal musical history came from my sisters. They were teenagers during the whole Beatlemania period, and were completely bought in. I remember when my sister saw that I had taken over their old record collection and was listening to them on my own she said “That was the last record I really liked from them. After that, they just got so dark and strange…” A small anecdote, but it tells volumes about not only her musical tastes, but the change in popular music that The Beatles were responsible for. Subject matter changed from the Ed Sullivan Show and Sock Hop friendly fare, to something more personal and introspective.

But the real reason I champion this record is for one song. In the first four seconds of a song that clocks in at only 2:17, “I Feel Fine” does something no other song had done before it. Those first four seconds are arguably the first instance of recorded guitar feedback in popular music. The opening sound is the pop of electricity surging through an electric guitar before the first note is played, and the sound builds to the rattling surge of an untouched string catching and increasing its own amplified vibration from a speaker through the air. A phenomenon well known by anyone who’s ever picked up an amplified instrument, and largely recognized by most listeners of rock and roll. But whether they understand the physics behind it or not is not the issue, it’s the association that Feedback as a SOUND, as an element of rock and roll, signifies for listeners of modern music. The Beatles weren’t the first to make feedback, and I’m sure the true trainspotters out there can dig up other examples of recorded feedback prior to 1965. But what’s remarkable is how this particular four second squeal entered the popular discourse about music and the meaning it developed through that discourse. And in a broader sense, this feedback is significant as moment where Rock and Roll aligned itself with Modernism at large in Artistic Theory.

The recording and release of the song actually involves two levels of deception. Although the sound is unmistakably electric, it was actually played on an acoustic Gibson and purposely distorted through the amplifiers in the Studio. Then, after the song was released to critical questioning about leaving such a sloppy “mistake” on the recording (Parlaphone’s recording policies forbid leaving such elements on the finished recording) The Beatles insisted that the sound was recorded “accidentally” and “missed” in the editing process prior to release.

What an enormous amount of myth was created by this simple little lie! Think for a minute about the state of pop music at this time: shiny happy pop songs about meeting your girl at the dance, sung by polished groups that focused mainly on vocal melodies… Although Beatlemania had already started to corrupt this ideal with their brash use of guitars, and infamously messy “mop tops,” releasing this “messy” song pushed the corruption a step further. The Beatles were already renowned for their brash immediacy, and their effortlessly clever and energetic songwriting that seemed to rejoice in its own youthful naïveté over polished and refined pop songwriting of their peers (play the comparatively brash “She Loves You (Yeah Yeah Yeah)” alongside the contemporary hits from The Supremes, The Righteous Brothers or Petula Clark!). “I Feel Fine” took it this brashness to a new level by literally showcasing their indifference to polish and formality by allowing a “mistake” to be released.

As the song rose to #1, it brought that myth along for the ride. As everyone reveled in the pure joy of the song, they embraced the idea that what mattered was not the perfection of the music as a product, but the energy of the music and the creativity of the song. The subtext of the song, both from its mythological recording as well as the formalism of the song itself, is that its creativity that springs out raw sound. Just as the ringing circular guitar riff and catchy hook of a melodic chorus, is born out of the abstract distortion, the song celebrates the spontaneous energy and creative energy of four lads with guitars.

All this, from four seconds of feedback. But think now about what feedback means in modern music. When guitarists use feedback as a stylistic embellishment or as the majority of their sonic palette in modern music, they engage the very myth started by the Beatles in 1965: rebellious energy, indifference to technical polish, and the union of creativity and raw abstract sound. All of these meanings embodied and signified by the distorted guitar have direct correlates in the mythology of “I Feel Fine”.

Obviously, I could go on and on. But let me wrap this up by dialing this back to the bigger picture of Modernism. Since Baudelaire and Manet, and more notoriously in Clement Greenberg and Jackson Pollack, one of the undisputed definitions of Modern Art has been this: A work which captures on its surface, reference or representation of the process by which it was created. (the Art Historian in me is clamoring for footnotes here, but this is the information age – Google it yourself). In the first four seconds of “I Feel Fine” we have the audio equivalent of Jackson Pollack’s brush stroke splatter. Purposely embedded in the introduction of the song is the raw sound that is the basis of its production. The squeal of feedback is equal to a drip of raw paint. And the listener is forced to confront the comparison between this pure abstract sound and the highly structured melody embodied (represented) in the major chord riff that the entire song is built upon. For all the ink spilled about modern painting, the essence of the issue is embodied right there, in that fleeting four seconds. Just as Jackson Pollack and his Abstract Expressionist would be nowhere without the daubs and drips of the Impressionists, so too Neil Young and legions of guitar heroes would be nowhere without this record.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Treasure - The Cocteau Twins

No history of “Alternative” music would be complete without The Cocteau Twins. Once their style became fully realized, their body of work became such a cohesive sound that it’s hard to pick a defining or landmark release. The adjectives typically assigned to their music - “ethereal,” “atmospheric,” “lush,” - have become so synonymous with their style, and that of their followers, that the words fail their descriptions and have become more opaque hallmarks of a stereotype than translucent explanation of a dense and highly unique musical style. Even more so, with the emergence of the “Shoegazer” aesthetic that followed them, the style flourished into more “accessible” expressions making the real foundations of the style even more opaque. So given the challenge, I’m picking 1984’s “Treasure” as The Cocteau Twins’ landmark album.

Take a moment to think about 1984. No matter which side of the pond you were on, there wasn’t much music around that sounded like this. Punk had transformed to “New Wave,” MTV had exploded into our lives, and with it brought us the “marketable concept” artist like Duran Duran, Madonna, Def Leppard. Music and image were wed like never before. The complaint of older music afficianados was that music videos were too obvious and too specific. Instead of music inspiring individualized interior movies of the listeners’ imagination, the role was reversed. The music was now subverted to the soundtrack of elaborately produced and styled mini-movies force fed to a generation. The impact of MTV and music videos on the history of modern music is certainly a separate and lengthy topic, but it sets the stage for understanding the Cocteau Twins.

Meanwhile, back in London, a guy named Ivo Watts-Russell had a little independent record label called 4AD. In the early eighties he had assembled a roster of artists that could only be described as ‘artsy’ or ‘ecclectic’. Bauhaus, The Wedding Present, The The - These were the misfits of the eighties, artists that had one foot in the rich tradition of british pop songwriting, but the other foot wandering far afield into experimental fields of dark atmosphere, strange emotional landscapes, experimental sound sculptures, and dark, now called “goth”, romantic narrative. The Cocteau Twins started their career in this pool of motley peers. It took a few albums to find their feet and truly establish their style, but it was clear from the start that part of their uniqueness was the vocals. Even in their debut album, with its grinding punk-ish songs, Elizabeth Fraser’s voice was pushed to the forefront of the mix where it dominated the guitar and weak drum machine with almost operatic, gymnastic bravado. It was clear in their earliest recordings that Fraser’s voice was capable of something more than the confines of the 3-4 minute pop-song. Within a single phrase or sometimes even word, her voice seemed to push the limit of the literal words and inflect them with an emotional energy that would push their meaning in new directions. But still mired in the seemingly purposely dark and obscure songwriting of that early eclectic style (encouraged at 4AD?), the Cocteaus failed to truly reach their potential.

Finally in 1984, they recorded “Treasure”. It’s hard to pinpoint what changed. Undoubtedly the change of bassists was part of the shift that moved them away from the more aggressively rhythm driven arrangements to the more relaxed space that gave Robin Guthrie the space to expand his approach to guitar and effects. Perhaps too, their concurrent collaboration with label mates Dif Juz taught them to let go of the more traditional expectations of the pop song for their more ‘ethereal’ sound. Whatever the reason, the result was a landmark album that would inspire a legion of followers, not to mention establish a style that would resonate in the halls of 4AD for years to come. (* I have to take a moment to note that Watts-Russell’s guidance has born similar fruit at 4AD where he’s simultaneously encouraged their stylistic development, as well as gave them the artistic freedom to deviate from the norm. Perhaps one of these entries needs to be about Landmark record labels and Producers, for surely they are as important to the history of modern music!)

Musically, the change was not so much a change of elements as it was a change in approach. The trio continued its framework of sequenced percussion, bass, and echo/effect-laden guitar work as the back ground for Fraser’s unique voice. But instead of trying to wrap that framework around pre-conceived and externally defined songwriting standards (i.e. the pop-radio and MTV marketing machine), it’s as if they closed the studio door, and let the framework itself determine the shape of the songs. The bass no longer sought to drive the composition, the guitars no longer were driven to find a hook, and most notably of all, Fraser’s voice freed itself from language. Stripped of the constraints of literal meanings or connotations the vocal now simply conveyed emotion, and in doing so released Fraser’s full range. What previously sounded forced and operatic, now leaped from angelic tones to earthy and primal growls, to dynamic swells and overdubbed layers of self-harmonies. Its almost as if her vocal styling took a page from Guthrie’s guitar style book where he was no longer concerned with using the guitar as a guitar per se, but instead let the instrument’s inherent physical attributes (open string harmonics), and the manipulations of electronic effects (distortion, echos and sustains) create music based more on pure sound than on the rigid expectations of genre.

And song by song, the tracks on “Treasure” exhibit a wide drift through genres that is easily overlooked as the listener is swamped in the wash of sound that unifies the entire album. Where songs like “Ivo” or “Lorelei” showcase dramatic surges in dynamic tension alternating between the heavenly ether and a more earthly sonic blast, “Beatrix” takes inspiration from almost medieval arpeggio plucking, and “Pandora” builds its atmosphere on a jazz influenced, syncopated rhythm. But listener isn’t left feeling like you just listened to a pastiche of styles. The wash of pure sound from both the guitar and the vocal almost bleaches out the connotations of the genres the songs engage. And while the songs are full of melodic hooks and textural fills that fix the attention, the abstractness of the song leaves the listener with only an emotional impression instead of a literal definition. The songs establish themselves at a balance point where they exhibit strong formal presence with a definite dramatic arch in songwriting, yet the abstract application of their instrumentation and voice, allow the song to disappear into the very ether they seemed to suggest. It’s as if each song is a dream from which you awake with a profound feeling, but only a fleeting memory of why you felt it.

With “Treasure”, and the albums that followed, anyone would be hard pressed to say what a Cocteau Twins song is about. I remember a joke in college: “Have you heard that new Cocteau Twins song?” to which you would answer, “I’m not sure, how does it go?” You were left with yodeling and singing to each other in baby talk that couldn’t even approximate the melody or words. Contrast that with what you would say to describe the music of their contemporaries in “The Dawn of MTV”. How do you say what a Duran Duran song is about? Its easy - you have a video to imprint your consciousness with a narrative. The importance of “Treasure” was how it broke with the mainstream of music that was become so dominated by overt messages, and ultimately marketing, and set out in a direction that championed pure sound, and the autonomy of songwriting freed from everything but the drive to express emotion and mood.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Exit Planet Dust - The Chemical Brothers

“Exit Planet Dust” in 1995 heralded the birth of “Big Beat Techno.” A subgenre of electronica/dance music characterized by it broad, almost bombastic and “in your face” hook laden high energy music. All pigeon hole labeling aside, this album successfully bridged the gap between dance/techno/house/electronica and the rock/pop/indie audience effectively bringing techno and dance music to the masses in a way that never happened before.

First coming together in the “Madchester” era of the British Rave scene, Tom & Ed began their career as The Dust Brothers (in homage to the producers of another landmark album, “Paul’s Boutique”) performing in the rabid club scene and progressing on to remixes for more established indie and alternative artists like Primal Scream, The Charlatans and The Prodigy. In these early days, they inadvertently tapped into what would become their signature sound; a meeting between house influenced psychedelic techno and hook heavy indie pop/rock. At the time, their DJ and remixing style hit a perfect niche in the market. The salad days of the infamous Hacienda nightclub were transitioning away from the indie dance band days epitomized by New Order, through the short lived style of “baggy”, and now into the psychedelic-techno laden music of characterized by Paul Oakenfeld and his crew. But instead of hard-grinding of the gears away from the formalities of songwriting and diving headfirst into the abstractions of pure house, The Chemical Brothers proved you could do both. They brought trippy electronic effects and high energy, polyrhythmic techno flair to high profile bands with already established signature sounds, hooks and cult’s of personality. The result was artists you knew from the radio now in a style with new infectious and irresistible dance energy.

Giving up The Dust Brothers moniker for legal reasons, and taking on The Chemical Brothers name, they took the next leap of creativity with a gesture that moved them the famous DJ category, to Artists in the Own Right. Quite a jump. Music critics and fans alike were long divided and firmly entrenched in their camps. You either liked techno, or you liked rock. There was no middle ground. A few DJs had made the leap to “Artists in Their Own Right”, but none had done so and successfully bridged the two genres. Even their previously name-checked idols The Beastie Boys, despite their creativity, seemed to be only able to live in one world at a time as they moved from style to style in their successive albums. But the manifesto was clear in the opening sample of Exit Planet Dust: “the Brothers’ gonna work it out.”

But enough music history, what about the music? What is it about the music on this record that’s so special? Technically, there’s little new to be found here. Indeed from the opening sample, to the following sounds and beats that get folded into “Leave Home” The Chemicals seem to be purposefully retro, foregoing the synthetic sounds and textures of modern techno for old school funk guitar and sonically fat “real drum” percussion loops. Like the metaphoric cover photo of the album with its late 70s imagery, within the first 2 minutes of the first song, you are aware that this is not a typical techno album, but instead music that is built upon the relics of a different age, a different style. Now you could belabor the point that this return/recycling and reinventing of a fetishized past is an artistic move based in whatever post-modernist theory you embrace, but music here kind of insists that you shut your brain off in lieu of a more visceral response. Throughout the rest of the album, the Ed and Tom continue to resurrect old samples from funk, rock, and indie sources in a sort of Proustian pastiche that simultaneously resonates with the listener as both a historian of music, as well as a love of pure raw sound in two ways: in the selection of the sample itself as well as the more digital effect treatment they apply to the sample as they update it. This is really the root of The Chemical Brother’s treatment of samples that falls into two basic categories on this record: Selection and Treatment.

First and foremost is the selection of the sample. Instead of following the methods of the dominant DJ scene of hoarding an esoteric record collection of obscure beats and hermetically sealed creativity loops of records made by DJs for DJs, they followed the “Paul’s Boutique” method of selecting samples that were both recognizable to a large audience, and focusing on the singular, bombastic and sometimes dominant HOOK of a song. Where the House DJ selected samples based on their intricacy and cleverness when juxtaposed against other samples and rhythms, the Samples here are based on their ability to stand alone; and ultimately how remarkable they are as pure sound isolated from the context of their source. The listener can almost imagine Tom and Ed in their bedrooms sifting through each other’s record collection and picking out “the coolest parts” of their favorite songs. Not only a stylistic innovation, this approach of building a techno song around building blocks gleaned from recognizable and explicitly rock/indie sources actually brought a new audience together, as listeners who favored British Indie bands over techno, no had a touch stone in the abstract audio soup of house music – the recognizable sample.

Of second but equal importance to a Chemical Brothers’ sample is the treatment, or the effect processing they apply to the source material. Often grabbing a snippet of a hook that was in the middle of its musical phrase, they isolated the elements of the hook into a more abstract sonic flourish, forcing the listener to hear the thick analogue and poly-tonal qualities of guitar based samples. Then sequencing the sample itself into a tightly rhythmic loop they push that sonic flourish to the limit between hook and texture. Taking a cue from the sonic indulgence of the so called “shoegazer” movement (and even sampling them directly) the samples themselves form a wall of sound which on one level embody a driving energetic and visceral rhythm, while simultaneously carrying a sonic richness that rewards close listening. It’s not until this framework is established in the song that The Chemical Brothers add in the more traditional techniques of the DJ genre utilizing digital effects and sequencers to layer in atmospheric effects and more traditional techno/dance motifs. The innovation here allows the songs on Exit Planet Dust to sound very analogue and rich in texture, while still using the crisp exacting digital techniques of modern electronica. For example the slow pan of the bucket flange over the tightly wound funk guitar sample of “Chemical Beats” takes away the harsh repetitive edge of the sample itself and allows the listener to wallow in the pure sound. Furthermore, the slow filter pan application to their sample repertoire helped to blend the old school analogue sample sound with the slick new 303, and modern sequencer driven elements of the compositions.

Finally, The Chemical Brothers bring to Exit Planet Dust the element that had for so long been truly lacking in electronic/techno music: Songwriting. Raised on the indie band standards of the 80s and 90s, Tom and Ed didn’t forget their roots – these songs have structure. Unlike the long sonic arc’s of a Paul Oakenfeld album or a typical house groove where one song is often indistinguishable from the next in a DJs set, the songs of Exit Planet Dust seem to have a verse/chorus/bridge structure similar to pop and rock. Indeed tracks such as “Life Is Sweet” or “Alive Alone” go so far as to even employ vocals and true songwriting (anathema to the faceless manifesto of modern techno). Yet, these songs don’t need vocals to feel like cohesively structured songs. The dynamics of compositional choices made as they weave samples and rhythms together follow the familiar “8-bar blues” format of traditional rock songwriting where the dynamic grouping of samples, melodies, rhythms follow predictable groupings within the meter of the songs. Take as an example again “Leave Home”: the samples that comprise the main groove of the song are introduced in successive groupings of 4, after each repetition of 4; the next sample is introduced, and so on, until the main groove is established. They let this main groove ride in the center of the composition on another multiple of 4, before breaking it entirely in a dynamic counterpoint introducing the next section of the song. This is a major departure from the slow sonic progressions of traditional house where sounds and textures gradually transform themselves over an interminably long stretch of rhythm, where the only major dynamic change is the infamous “drop the base” move: removing either the high end or low end of a groove for a period to highlight an intricacy of the remaining textures, only to then experience the rush of the return of the main beat to the groove a few bars later.

This is not to say The Chemical Brothers don’t indulge in stereotypical DJ moves. The album is full of them. But the dynamic shifts, filter pans and space age sound effects are less the foundation of the song, as they are the flourish and ornament over a song framework based on a very different approach

Ultimately, Exit Planet Dust is a landmark album because it exists as that juncture between genres. It is that point where the house/techno genre embraces pop and rock. It does so without sacrificing the energy and aesthetic of electronic music, but still satisfies the ear of an audience that demands more structured musical genre. And like all great landmarks, it inspired a legion of followers, popular radio play, and even commercial appropriation where the sound itself became symbolic of an energetic atmosphere and became and The Chemical Brothers themselves became sampled as the signature sound of Budweiser commercials in 2007.