Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Songs that Changed the Landscape of Human Thought and Understanding: James Blunt's "You're Beautiful"

Within the matrices of heterosexual romance, good words are hard to come by. The burden placed upon three simple words--"I love you"--to communicate verbally the unarticulable feelings one has for their betrothed has rendered the phrase dull and meaningless. For those in the process of courtship, a well-chosen love sonnet can be a confusing symbol as well. If one were, for instance, to recite William Shakespeare's most famous example of the form, Sonnet 18 ("Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?"), the intended audient might complain of its archaic language and accuse the speaker of plagiarism and unoriginality. Similarly, if the choice was Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways," the recepient might claim that Barrett Browning was plagiarizing from Shakespeare. When old fashioned forms of courtship fail to impress, one can always resort, during the process of initiating a relationship, to the even less-impressive "pick-up line." For men who are not "cunning linguists" like James Bond, the pick-up line can be distastrous, as the deliverer often confuses "wit" with "sexist belligerence." It's just down-right embarrassing for a man to say stuff like "You're like a bass drum / I can see myself banging you hard," "Are you from Nashville? / 'Cause you're the only 'Ten-I-See,'" "Do you wanna see something swell?" or, my personal favorite, "What time is it?" Thankfully, James Blunt solved all of our problems when he released his mind-blowingly genius love song, "You're Beautiful," in 2005. Scientific research suggests that the two-word compliment "You're Beautiful" works every time.

The song begins with an inviting four-note figure played on acoustic guitar, later to be joined by a steady rhythm section and swelling sounds of strings and piano. Blunt has one of those high, thin, sexy British voices that sounds like he had just run for ten miles and smoked a cigarette at the same time before he entered the studio to cut the vocals. While the lyric is essentially a shaggy dog story of unrequited love about a man who sees a beautiful woman "on the subway" with "another man" ultimately to never see her again, nobody ever really notices it. What they do hear, however, is James Blunt's soaring, triumphant repetition of the phrase "You're beautiful!" And that's the most brilliant thing about the song. It is a tragic tale of heartbreak, a classic example of a missed opportunity, masquerading as a self-help book for the verbally-challenged lover. According to the greatest creative thinkers and philosophers in the history of mankind, all women (and many men) want to be told "You're beautiful" AS OFTEN AS POSSIBLE ... in a high, thin sexy British voice coming from a speaker who has just been running for ten miles while smoking a cigarette at the same time. Even though some in the Thespian community, like Christina Hendricks, think it's passe, suggesting we tell our betrothed "You are radiant," James Blunt was clearly a pioneer of Amorous Studies for singing one of the greatest songs of this young millenia, refreshing our language with a simple, effective, sexy, and classy compliment that will NEVER become stale, no matter how many times it is repeated in a span of 200 seconds.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Late to the Party: Debris' [1976]

The pre-history of punk rock is usually based around hip, cosmopolitan urban areas. The Velvet Underground, the New York Dolls, and The Dictators were based out of New York City; the MC5 and The Stooges in Ann Arbor, Michigan (just outside of Detroit); Pere Ubu, Devo, and Rocket from the Tombs out of Cleveland; and The Modern Lovers in Boston. These groups, who were far from popular during their own time (with the exception of Devo), have subsequently been elevated into the realm of the legendary thanks to a perceptive group of rock historians and cultural critics who were heavily influenced by these vibrant, perceptive, and prophetic artists. Thanks in part to texts like Lester Bangs' posthumously published anthology Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung (1988) and Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain's Please Kill Me (1997), these otherwise obscure groups have been unwittingly canonized and are now casually mentioned by some rock n' roll aficionados in the same company as The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and Black Sabbath. One group, however, that you will not read about in these histories is Chickasha, Oklahoma's Debris' (yes, there is an intentional apostrophe after the "s" in their name). Their self-titled debut, released in a private pressing of 1,000 copies in 1976, makes the argument that they should.

For those that don't know, Chickasha, Oklahoma is a small city located about forty miles southwest of Oklahoma City. Prior to the success of The Flaming Lips, the pride of Oklahoma City, in the early 1990s, the city was not exactly known for its punk rock bona fides. With this in mind, the mere existence of a group like Debris' should seem like some sort of proto-punk rock miracle. Helping advance this thesis is the relatively high quality of the music and just how many similarities it shares with the more legendary acts of that time period. Consisting of Charles ("Chuck Poison") Ivey, O. (Oliver) Powers (both assuming various duties on guitar, bass, and synthesizer), and drummer Johnny Gregg, the trio--with help from a session saxophonist, drummer, and female background vocalist--reportedly, as per the boast on the album's back cover, pumped out this well-rehearsed material in "Six hours and 59 minutes." In this relatively short period of time, spread across two different sessions in December 1975 and January 1976, they incorporate their influences (which the group notes on their myspace page include "The Velvet Underground, The Stooges, Captain Beefheart, and English glam rock") and produce sounds vocal yelps comparable to Richard Hell and the Voidoids, Alan Vega of Suicide (both of whom had yet to release anything), and David Thomas of Pere Ubu. The stuttering rhythms of their guitar playing, the free jazz textures of session musician Richard Davis's saxophone, and the sharp bursts of noise that emanate from their synthesizers draw immediate comparisons to the aforementioned Pere Ubu, Robert Quine of the Voidoids, early "hardcore" Devo, and The Silver Apples. Thanks to record collector Karl Ikola, the founder of Anopheles Records, Debris' was re-issued (and re-christened Static Disposal, the name of the group's short-lived record label) for the first time in 1999 on CD (with numerous bonus tracks) and again on vinyl in 2008.

As exciting as this all sounds, let us not confuse the historical importance of this album's anomalous existence with the quality of the material on it. As an album, it is more often than not good, sometimes great. It often meanders, especially on the longer tracks. Similarly, some of the material is just not that strong ("Witness" and "Boy Friend," for instance). That being said, there is plenty to like here. The opener, "One Way Spit," begins with Charles Ivey retching into the microphone as he counts off the track. This is a fitting introduction to the album, foreshadowing the spastic sounds that would follow, insuring their obscurity, especially as an Oklahoman rock act, in 1976. Another highlight is the sludgy "Tricia," as desperate a love song one is likely to hear, complete with a power tool to create added texture (and long before Eddie Van Halen, it's worth noting!). Side One ends with another favorite, "Leisurely Waiting," which features a pulsating two chord sequence that is rendered all the more unsettling by Ivey's vocals. Side Two begins with the most accessible track on the album in "New Smooth Lunch/Manhattan," a fun romp that foreshadows something like "Gut Feeling" from Devo's debut LP, and manages to stay surprisingly catchy despite spazz-skronk guitar runs worthy of inclusion on Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica. After two decent cuts in "Tell Me" and "Flight Taken," the album unfortunately ends with its weakest number in "Blue Girls," which is also, not surprisingly, the slowest number on the album. Ultimately, Debris' may come across as a novelty to those listeners with an inflexible conception of proto-punk. However, it is more than just a curio. It is an interesting piece of outside-outsider music that is refreshingly relevant, far more so than it was for the Oklahomans who were (un-)lucky enough to hear it back in '76.


Listen to Debris' on their myspace page.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Songs that Changed the Landscape of Human Thought and Understanding: Air Supply's "Making Love out of Nothing at All"

During the height of the Cold War, the Summer of 1983, when the threat of actual nothingness for animal- and man-kind was only one hydrogen bomb-blast away from possibly happening, Air Supply sang about the transformative powers of nothingness on their brilliant hit single "Making Love out of Nothing at All." Written by Jim Steinman, the mastermind behind Meat Loaf's monumental loaf of meatiness, Bat out of Hell, the song not only made Americans aware of Australians for the first time since the year before, when Men at Work popularized Vegemite, but delivered a profound message. In the song, Air Supply resuscitates existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre's concept of nothingness from the daaaaaaaarkly comic pit of despair he had characterized it as into a practical, empowering strategy for embracing life and possibly getting some ass in the process.

At the time, intellectuals criticized Air Supply's hit for "sounding exactly like Steinman's previous hit single, Bonnie Tyler's 'Total Eclipse of the Heart.'" Of course, these coffee-drinking philistines, smoking their clove cigarettes and listening to their Steely Dan, missed the message aimed directly at their demographic. Air Supply's tough-as-nails acoustic guitar and piano approach set the standard for the vanguard of "soft rock" a few years earlier with "Lost in Love." Russell Hitchcock and Graham Russell, the geniuses behind Air Supply, in fact deliver "Making Love out of Nothing at All" as a sermon. Their smooth harmonies blend exquisitely with a twelve-note piano motif to convince the listener that they can make something out of nothing, literally.

In Sartre's Being and Nothingness [L'Être et le néant] (1943), the philosopher correctly notes the predominant view that, historically, nothingness had been viewed on a continuum with being, that nothingness can only occur once being reaches its end. Sartre concludes that nothingness is that "which is not." Therefore, when Hitchcock and Russell run through a litany of various knowledges in their song ("And I know just where to touch you / and I know just what to prove," for example), concluding it with the admission of "making love out of nothing as all," the duo contradict the tendency to perceive "that which is not" (i.e. death) as a negative and, instead, embrace "nothing" as, at the very least, an opportunity to have sex. Since the purpose of sex, ultimately, is to create life, Air Supply greet nothingness as a form of productivity. So, not only do Air Supply know "all the rules" and "how to break them," they also know how to embrace the nothingness of our miserable existences like a valuable opportunity ... to affirm the glory of existence ... and to possibly have some coitus while they're at it. Let's face it: there hasn't been a piece of Existentialist propaganda this effective since the black turtleneck sweater.

Here's the glorious video:

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Book Review: 33 1/3 #67 Brian Eno - Another Green World

Brian Eno's Another Green World is probably not the easiest album to write about, especially for 100 pages. There's a certain quality to the record--a dense mystique, an obtuse indirectness--that keeps the album from easily succumbing to words. At least words as music critics and scholars like to use them. One of the more interesting bits of trivia Geeta Dayal unearths in her 33 1/3 book on the classic Eno album concerns Eno's use of song titles and often times lyrics not as coded transfers of ideas, but as evocative tonal cues--in other words, Eno didn't have much to say, but he had plenty that he wanted his audience to intuit, perceive or feel. This bit of insight into Eno's creative process is particularly emblematic of both Dayal's successes and missed opportunities in her Another Green World volume--on the one hand, Dayal provides buckets full of insight into Eno's creative process while situating the album within the context of Eno's career; on the other hand, despite Dayal's explorations of Eno's unconventional and surprising-for-anyone-but-Eno methods, there's a certain air of boredom pervading the book's second half, as if the author was ecstatic to write the book but ran out of ideas too quickly.

To be fair, approximately the first half of Dayal's book ranks among the finest writing in the 33 1/3 series. Dayal deftly navigates readers through Eno's early career while introducing us to Eno's creativity flash cards, and relating a number of awe-inspiring anecdotes from the musician's art school days. This first half of Dayal's book is vital and engaging because of the way it approaches Another Green World through the lens of Eno's creative process. Up until somewhere around chapter seven, Dayal has a clear thesis and purpose in her exploration of Eno's work. Then, as happens with many 33 1/3 books, the analysis veers into an unnecessary and somewhat tedious track-by-track walk-through of the featured album. The problem with such sections in otherwise wonderful and interesting books, is that they stop reading like explorations of great albums, and begin looking like slightly glorified liner notes--I don't care that "'Sky Saw' incorporates Jones' fretless bass and Phil Collins' drumming, a searing viola solo by John Cale, additional bass guitar by Paul Rudolph, and various effects by Eno" (Dayal 60). If I wanted to know these things, I could look them up. This kind of information dumping comes across as, at best, filler and, at worst, a stall tactic trying to fill up the white space until the end of the book. This section is also laced with, for the most part, overly vague, uninteresting quotes about the recording process from people who were there. Here's one of Dayal's quotes from Jones:

He's taken that rhythm track and put all this stuff on top of it, and made it into a really strong piece of music. It was really interesting how he initiated the tune; he could have gone a million different ways with an introduction like that. (Dayal 60)

In other words, Eno produced the track...the way that producers generally produce tracks, by putting "stuff" on top of a rhythm track and, as long as the producer is pretty good, making a "strong piece of music." Somehow, the song-by-song analysis section, while brief, kills the momentum of the book's second half by making the album's creation, that had previously been described by the author as fun and daring, sound like an utter bore. The book closes with some more interesting context, tracing a line out through Discreet Music, but it never matches the intrigue of the books first fifty pages.

Now, to be clear, I really hate to rag on Dayal's book more than I've critiqued other 33 1/3 books in other reviews, because the flaws in her approach are quite common to the series, and the first half of her book ranks among the best writing I've encountered in the entire series. Perhaps the series wasn't designed to be read how I'm reading it (one after another, out of a mix of intellectual curiosity and fandom rather than one or the other), or maybe I've just read too many and I'm getting better at picking up on patterns that others don't notice. Whichever it is, the convention of walking through an album track-by-track rarely works unless its being done with a very specific goal in mind. Too often, interesting titles in the series devolve from focused explorations of an album's historical or social context into a hodge-podge of trivia and minutiae that is barely interesting. I love this series of books--shit, I've read 32 of them, and keep a pile of 2-3 new ones stocked and ready at all times--but let's hope that, as they continue to grow into this new decade, the conventions shift a little and we get more books as wonderfully engaging, unique and interesting as "Bee Thousand," "69 Love Songs," and "Live at the Apollo," and a bit less of the books that just sort of go through the motions.