Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Immortals #84 - James Taylor

With the his success of ultra-popular, triple-platinum-selling second album, James Taylor became first bonafide superstar that heralded the "singer/songwriter" era, a genre that was differentiated from other music made by people who both wrote and sung their own songs in the early 1970s by its transparent willingness to veer into gratingly self-absorbed and sonically derivative territories. And considering that this was a generation of musicians who were essentially just trying to do bad impressions of Bob Dylan, that's really saying something.

Sweet Baby James is packed with the hallmarks that defined the singer/songwriter tag, as Taylor paints his tracks in broad, bucolic strokes of Americana gleaned from the country and folk of in the previous decade, and polishes them to a high gloss of mellifluousness that consistently overwhelms those barely-there moments that hint of intelligence and even a faintly dark sense of humor contained within them. In places, it's exceptionally easy to hear the title track, or "Blossom", or the iconic "Fire and Rain" and find them perfectly pleasant for what they are, which is "perfectly pleasant", I guess. But much of this album is devoted to the perfunctory task of keeping appearances of depth, be they in the shamefully thin "character study" of "Sunny Skies" or a similarly de rigueur attempt at "interpreting" the American songbook, such as with Stephen Forster's staple/chestnut "Oh! Susanna" (you know, because James was down with the whole folkie-thing.)

Which I guess begs the question of just how "good" these songs even needed to be in the first place. The "singer/songwriter" was a pop designation, and folks like Taylor were simply trying to make a name for themselves in the industry with nice songs that people liked to listen to. There's an honesty there, sure. If there wasn't, how could it so often veer into the irritating level of insistent sincerity that we so often associate with the "guy with a guitar?" And much of the music produced by Taylor and his contemporaries (or, as I'd argue, his betters) such as Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, Cat Stevens, and Carole King was truly beautiful, and even sometimes deeply affecting. And hey, if selling records with a nice ditty was really the only goal he had, then Taylor was as successful a performer as anybody could possibly become by that measure.

But still, there's a lot that's missing from Dylan's influence in Taylor and the seemingly endless parade of singer/songwriters who followed his example. Dylan's was a wicked wit and he was a truly inveterate bastard, and when he turned his ire toward a subject of personal scorn (especially himself) he'd waste not one syllable in the course of intellectually and emotionally eviscerating both it and the listener. And when he stole your song, it was to show us something about where we came from and why we're here now- and at least he had the integrity to admit so outright.

A few singer/songwriters who embodied Dylan's ethos and made tremendous records (I'm thinking of Randy Newman here, who's a goddamned national treasure as far as I'm concerned), but the majority of those who followed him never even tried. James Taylor never had any illusions that he could ever be so vital, ever matter that much. At least he was as forthright as Dylan was when addressing that particular fact. In an interview with Charlie Rose in 2000, he admitted:

I've taken no more risk than I absolutely had to. I'm not changing the world, and I don't have anything to prove.
Well, I guess that's your prerogative, James. But if that's really the case, then what makes you think we could give a fuck about anything you have to say?

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Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Immortals #85 - Black Sabbath

Just as The Ramones moved a step beyond the archetypes created by The Velvet Underground, The Stooges, and another number of other proto-acts that predicted their genre to become the first definitive punk rock band, so too did Sabbath solidify their place as history's first great true heavy metal band with 1970's Paranoid.

It's pretty cool, man.

Unlike a lot of other kids, who seem to have grown up on classic rock radio staples by Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Hendrix, I went about this whole thing ass-backward. I only acquainted myself with traditional "hard-rock" after reverse-engineering its history beginning at my punk-loving roots. After spending my teens with only a casual relationship to Suicidal Tendencies and Motorhead, I started to move toward more metal-friendly hardcore like the Dillinger Escape Plan and Converge in my early 20s, gradually discovering the more popular grindcore and melodic death metal of the 90s (big ups to Entombed and At the Gates) before meeting the "Big Four" of 80s speed and thrash (Anthrax, Megadeth, SLAAYEERR and *sigh* Metallica) and New Wave British bands like Maiden and Priest. As it was, I didn't arrive at the blues-indebted, "classic rock" era of 70s metal until the last couple of years, despite the fact that at any moment in the past ten years I could likely have randomly tuned my radio dial across the FM band for pretty good odds of hearing any track from Paranoid or Zoso.

Did I mention that before I'd ever heard those records, I was already co-hosted my college radio station's metal show for a year in grad school? Sitting in the booth with two teenagers with a fixation on cheesy power metal and Dio-era Sabbath? Man... fuck all of us...

Paranoid is an undeniably solid record with several moments of transcendence, which isn't to say it lacks flaws. In fact, arguably the weakest part of Sabbath was its most famous association. Ozzy sounded plain silly even back then, not only in the modulated vocal intro to "Iron Man" or his awkward phrasing ("Caaan he walk-at-all/Or if he moo-oo-ooves will he fall?"), but also in the fact that he was still pretty much a hippy-dippy child of the 60s and at times it feels like he's in danger of being outpaced by the band making such heavy music around him.

Ozzy's best lyrics were the ones grounded in the anxious realities of death, war, and his own depression, and his weakest indulged a tastes for fantasy and science fiction in a way that was totally permissible back then when read for vague, anti-Christian overtones, but today would probably get you filed somewhere between My Chemical Romance and Coheed and Cambria on the Hot Topic t-shirt wall. (One track on here is titled "Faeries Wear Boots", and the original name for "War Pigs" and the album as a whole? Walpurgis, after the witches' holiday of the Spring. Robert Plant, I'm comin' for you later on down this list...)

I don't mean to just shit-talk Ozzy, because each composition credits all four band members and by all accounts Ozzy had a big part in their writing (not to mention that Tony Iommi was, I'm pretty sure, just as much into the unicorns crap as he was.) Also, he could wear a fringed-jacket like a fucking champ. But if these tracks had been originally released by an instrumental power trio version of Sabbath, you'd be hard pressed to tell me they wouldn't have rocked just as hard. Iommi, Geezer Butler and Bill Ward are impeccably tight, and the stretches between Ozzy's verses are every bit as engaging for their seamless integration of riffs and solos into straightforward (but never simple) as their frontman's admittedly somewhat charismatic presence. Ozzy even gets a couple of solid vocal moments, especially on the title track and "Hand of Doom", so, you know, good on him, I guess.

Today, listening to Paranoid is very much what I imagined it was in 1970, and from what little I've seen of the still ridiculously popular Ozzfest tours, the band is pretty much just that live as well. Perhaps they don't sound as delightfully scuzzy as they would on vinyl when you're high as balls, but what's so nice about music of this type- their authenticity isn't anything that's lost with age, which is more than can be said of a lot of the other reunions that have happened in the name of a little filthy luchre.

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Monday, May 10, 2010

The Immortals #86 - 2Pac Shakur

Okay, confession time: I'd never heard a 2Pac song before sitting down to write this post.

Despite being, ostensibly, his core audience (a white, suburban high school freshman in southern California) when his post-incarceration magnum opus, All Eyez On Me was released, rocketing him to pop superstardom, I somehow managed to completely miss the phenomena. I was just old enough to be turning off MTV, and the once-venerable Los Angeles rock radio institution KROQ-FM had not yet completed its hellish devolution into a Clearchannel atrocity. And I never got invited to parties or had any fun ever. I had a vague familiarity with "California Love" through cultural osmosis, and I knew to attribute the phrase "picture me rollin'" to his track of the same name, but otherwise I managed to live to the ripe old age of 27 years old before becoming acquainted with the works of Mr. Tupac Amaru Shakur.

And I'm sorry, you guys, but I just do not get it.

Now, it's true that I'm the biggest hip-hop guy, but I'm far from a neophyte. I've got love for most of the genre's other entrants on Rolling Stone's "Immortals" list, and a bunch of other fairly "mainstream" acts like Eric B, and Rakim, Public Enemy, The Pharcyde, Boogie Down Productions/KRS-ONE, and A Tribe Called Quest- all have all seen some play in my collection (to name but a few...) But more important than my credentials (or relative lack thereof) is that 2Pac provides us with our first opportunity to address rap and hip-hop's inclusion by RS' parade of experts and legends as ostensibly belonging naturally within some broad interpretation of the rock and roll milieu.

Put flatly, it is incredibly dismissive of perhaps the most culturally significant musical movement of the latter half of the 20th century, despite the fact that RS' decision could charitably be taken as an intended compliment to hip-hop, that it's greatest artists are every bit as important as those from "plain old" rock and roll. But this gesture is wholly misguided, and ultimately as equally great an implied insult to the titans of jazz (and, arguably, giants of country and soul musics as well) who were not seen as deserving recognition in the world of rock music in its "first 50 years."

The six hip-hop artists who made the top 100 (four of whom are clustered between spots #75 and #86) represent a plot on behalf of Rolling Stone that could be taken as token reference at best and grotesquely commercial at worst- an slight that stings all the greater when considering that such a middling a talent as 2Pac managed to end up occupying a space that could have otherwise gone to John Coltrane or Willie Nelson (or hell, even Garth Brooks! I mean, the dude sold a bazillion fucking records, right?) But no, the "masterminds" behind the Immortals project saw fit to incorporate an overwhelmingly popular (and profitable) part of their magazine's coverage since the late 1980s with a transparent attempt to play it off as a tribute from rock and roll to hip-hop that really does neither any service, ultimately.

So why 2Pac? Well, for a lot of the reasons that Gram Parsons (our #87) is here, quite frankly. If any rapper's personal mythology ever overwhelmed the quality of his art, it was Shakur's. The oft-sung ballad of the thug-poet with who embodied such fake dynamic tensions as being "hard edged" with a "gentle soul" has somehow not been undone in the almost 15 years following his death in a senseless act of life-imitating-music-industry-created-hype, as if nobody checked the wiki and took note that the dude was a dancer with the Digital Underground (a far more honest and entertaining venture than anything from 'Pac's own recording career- "Samoans!"), or that nobody ever played the childish media games of glamorizing gang violence more egregiously.

Instead, we somehow remember him as the profligate free spirit who was lost before his time, leaving us with nothing but his interminable hours of uninspired teenage bullshit spewn across tracks so utterly unremarkable as to border on... nothing. They're fucking boring. I just listened to an hour of this two-disc Greatest Hits thing, and I can't even think of a comparison that wouldn't make his music sound like some other thing that's far more interesting and worthy of anybody's time.

Were I so inclined play this as an insult to hip-hop, I would point to 2Pac as the ultimate triumph of persona over substance, but that really isn't any more uniquely warranted a criticism as could be equally applied to 60 years of pop music, so fuck it. Instead I'll pay a specific (and ultimately far more damning) insult to Shakur for his inexplicable legions of fans to suffer: You already know that if you hadn't been shot, you'd have gotten as old and pathetic as Elvis did at the end, but you know what else?

Biggie wouldn't have.

Yeah, that's right. You thought I'd write something about 'Pac that did the favor of not mentioning him? Well I didn't. Because as long as we're humoring this little exercise and including rappers on the list, Biggie was just one of a great many artists who deserved to be here more than you.

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Sunday, May 9, 2010

Modern Library Top 100: #94 - Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

Around the same time a few white kids in your typical suburban high school--my typical suburban high school, weirdly enough--rallied around the American flag to say they weren't too fond of a multiracial America, thank you very much, I was turning the final page on Jean Rhys's celebrated meditation on racial identity. I doubt any of those boys has read Wide Sargasso Sea, but I'm sure they would find it instructive. It's as racist as they are.

Jean Rhys first read Jane Eyre as a teenager, and was appalled at the revolting portrayal of Bertha Mason, the Jamaican creole madwoman banished to the attic of Thornfield Hall. A creole herself, Rhys decided to give Bertha her due, writing a prequel of sorts describing Bertha's youth as white girl growing up in Jamaica in the wake of emancipation. Rhys does her best to rehabilitate Mason's image, along the way tackling BIG ISSUES like the existential anguish of being in a economically dominant minority, or the pain of growing up in a nice big house that's falling apart because your mother couldn't afford to pay her former slaves enough to keep it up. And why are all the black people so mean to Bertha (here called Antoinette) anyway? The horror!

So no, I did not like this novel. To be charitable, Rhys is definitely on point vis-a-vis Victorian gender relations. She does a very good job of painting Antoinette's husband as the domineering weasel who effectively forces her into madness, his appropriation of her so complete that he even succeeds in renaming her. (Not that complete, of course, because she does eventually burn his house down in Jane Eyre. But still). But woo boy, nobody would accuse Rhys of being racially sensitive (except, of course, sensitive to the plight of white people).

Christophine, the principal black person in the novel, is a wise old woman who practices voodoo, and shepherds Antoinette throughout the narrative. She's the very definition of the magical negro, and she's just as offensive as Uncle Remus. Sandi Cosway is another black person who pops up, and he happens to be the love of Antoinette's life. He arrives for a single page to save her from a schoolyard beating, then disappears entirely from the story for his trouble. But hey, we're at least told that Sandi and Antoinette were engaged, so that's....something, I guess. The rest of the black characters either burn down Antoinette's childhood home, steal her clothes, kill her brother, call her names, or seduce her husband. Some critics have defended Rhys's portrayal of black Jamaicans, since the story is told from the point of view of a 19th century genteel Creole woman, reflecting what would have been her feelings on race. Bullfeathers, I say.

Anyway, I guess the point of this all is that it really shouldn't be so hard to step outside yourself and write a sympathetic fully-realized character outside your own experience. But for whatever reason people keep fucking it up. I've long railed against Hollywood's (a collection of white men if there ever was one) treatment of women as either baby-crazy psychopaths (I'm looking at you, Judy Greer) or bland objects of adolescent desire (oh hi, Zooey Deschanel!). And obviously it's not just about gender. Going back a wee bit further, Robinson Crusoe's boy Friday wasn't exactly a positive step forward in race relations.

So maybe I shouldn't be so harsh on Wide Sargasso Sea. It's just another pearl in a necklace of failure. And besides, it's not a total drag. But if it's one of the best novels of the 20th Century, we deserve better.

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The Immortals #87 - Gram Parsons

The "Whatever That Is" Immortals post.

(Props if you got that reference.)

I'll admit to being moderately annoyed that this entry is not simply for The Flying Burrito Brothers. It's true that Chris Hillman will get his props in another entry much further down on this list, and that there is no single figure more closely associated with his referred musical style on this side of the nearest Urban Outfitters, but still- doesn't this just sort of smack of aggrandizement?
Almost nowhere in the annals of his discography does he achieve anything of note without significant collaborative effort.

Sweetheart of the Rodeo
, the final Byrds LP and often cited as the first "country-rock" album, was dominated by Roger McGuinn while his first two albums with the Flying Burrito Bros (a band name he outright stole from his old International Submarine Band-mates), The Guilded Palace of Sin and Burrito Deluxe, were all-star efforts featuring the talents of former Byrds Hillman and Michael Clarke along with incomparable efforts from bassist Chris Ethridge and pedal steel guitarist "Sneaky" Pete Kleinow. And as the Burritos continued to make underrated records following Parsons' departure, Gram made a couple of records with no less a talented co-star than the young Miss Emmylou Harris; records that went nowhere until, decades after his overdose, they were dusted off as a hipster cause célèbre and credited for kick-starting the alt country craze that began in earnest in the 1990s.

Parsons' mythology has almost certainly outpaced any legitimate claim he might have had to being the "godfather" of alt country. Apart from the incalculable influence of the outsider country sounds made in Bakersfield and Lubbock in the mid-20th century, there were simply too many credible
revivalists of folk, rock, blues and Appalachian musics to essentialize as any sort of cohesive "movement" under the patronage of a rich-born, Harvard-educated Southern boy who played with some good bands once he moved to LA.

Yet we know more about Gram than practically any of the other supposed originators of alt country, and a large part of me suspects that it's because he's just so damned easy to glamorize. He was credited years after his early passing as an unheralded genius. He had fascinating, idiosyncratic interests UFOs, Joshua Tree, rodeo tailoring and casual narcotics usage. And it certainly never hurt that he was always the cutest boy in any room he walked into. He was the genuine, original
indie idol. Hell, he was even predisposed to calling his particular take on country, folk, gospel and rock as "cosmic American music", making him the original "whatever that is" alt-pedagogue. I mean, not to diminish all the excellent music that he played in his too-short 26 years, but did any other musician benefit as much from the live fast, die young school of rock legacy-making as Gram?

Still. There's something to idol-worship... isn't there?

Glorious Noise recently pointed to a section of The Observer's press for a new Rolling Stones documentary that made note of the closeness of Mick and Gram:

"Keith and Gram were intimate like brothers, especially musically. The idea was floating around that Gram would produce a Gram Parsons album for the newly formed Rolling Stones Records. Mick, I think, was a little afraid because that would mean that Gram and Keith might even tour together to promote it. And if there is no room for Mick, there is no room also for the Rolling Stones."
My favorite piece of Burrito Bros. trivia is that it was they, and not the Stones, who first recorded and released a version of the Richards/Jagger composition "Wild Horses." The story goes that, during their prolonged European bro-down, Keith played a demo of the song for Gram, and Parsons flipped for it and insisted that he be allowed to record it with for the Burritos' second album, which wound up being released a year before Sticky Fingers. The result is, blasphemy be damned, my favorite version of my favorite Stones song.

Three years later, he'd be dead, and he wasn't even really famous yet.

What if indeed...

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Saturday, May 8, 2010

The Immortals #88 - Miles Davis

In Murray Lerner's Miles Electric: A Different Kind of Blue, there's a moment in which percussionist James Mtume argues that Miles Davis' move to fusion and "jazz-rock" (a term that everybody seems as loathe to accept as I was to type it) was a natural progression by one of the 20th century's greatest musical innovators:

Look man, when the temperance scale was created- the 440- that was the synthesizer of its time. I'm sure there was some harpsichord players walking around talking about "they're not keeping it real..."
In the same film, jazz critic and noted cantankerous old crank Stanley Crouch had a different take:
That's bullshit. That's all part of the "Miles Davis" myth. Miles Davis was trying to make some money.
Is it too much of a cop-out to say that they were both right?

Rolling Stone's list of "The Immortals" includes more than one artist whose work was quite conspicuously not, or not really, of rock and roll or its tributary genres. We'll get to the assembled rappers and crossover stars as we try to reconcile those musics' place in "rock" history in just a little while, but sneaking a peak at what's to come, we note a peculiar absence of homage to any artists from that most uniquely American of all art forms: jazz. In fact, only one artist appears on this list that is more widely associated with jazz, and he's on here for the work that most conspicuously got him labeled as a sellout and rejected by true jazz fans. Not that he cared.

See, the truth is that Miles Davis was kind of a little fucker.

There's little to dispute that Miles did more for jazz in his six decades-long career (and particularly the thirty years spanning 1945 to 1975) than perhaps any single performer, bandleader, composer, or producer. He ushered his form into more new styles in more new eras than anybody, and had the virtuoso chops to back up every accolade he ever earned or should have earned. But for all his meaningful innovation and pure, unadulterated musical brilliance, Davis wasn't getting rich as a middle-aged jazzer. Nobody pays their rent in respect.

Add in to the equation that Miles had recently married the new Mrs. Betty Davis
, a firebrand funk/soul singer who introduced him to a few spiritual soulmates in the music of Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone. The psychedelic sounds of acid-soul and zeroed-out funk inspired Miles, always restless and ready to push the boundaries of whatever came next, to plug in and riff, an event that might have ranked with Dylan at Newport in 1965, if not for the fact that, yeah, Miles was kinda-sorta hoping to cross over to the new generation of kids and hopefully make some real dough.

The results owed more than a little to his influences. Davis would later credit entire riffs from A Tribute to Jack Johnson and Big Fun (compiled mostly from his On the Corner outtakes) to Hendrix and Sly, lifted wholesale and warped beyond recognition by collaborators like Herbie Hancock, Joe Zawinul, Chick Corea, John McLaughlin, Pete Cosey, Tony Williams, and Airto Moreira, to name just a few. And while his live shows in the 1970s were uncompromisingly hard-edged and disputatious of the core audience who had followed him from jazz to... whatever this was, his records in that era were meticulously constructed from take after labyrinthine take, jam after endless jam in post-production to create his finished products. Be it "jazz" or not, the mercurial mixture was composed with an ear for something Miles specifically wanted his audience to hear, even if they didn't get it.

I'm not sure I get it, either. Listening to Bitches Brew for the first time revealed little more than dissonance for broad, almost interminable stretches, even having been primed in 2010 by my first adult excursions into jazz appreciation. I've trained on Coleman and Dolphy and Zorn, at least a little, but I'd be hard-pressed to explain what exactly was going on here beyond the fact that the pianos were electric. And while Bitches Brew is, for whatever reasons, heralded as the masterwork of "Miles Electric", I'd argue that there are far more examples of greater significance on his other big albums of this era for both impressions on jazz and rock musics.

On the Corner and Big Fun are terrific, freaky cousins to Curtis Mayfield, late-period Temptations, and Sly's There's A Riot Goin' On. Live-Evil bounces like a more propulsive Funkadelic, and would fit neatly on the shelf next to Maggot Brain (another 1971 classic.) And In a Silent Way contains more accessibly beautiful moments than arguably much of his "traditional" jazz works since he and Gil Evans interpreted Gershwin on Porgy and Bess.

And while Lerner's documentary would have you believe that Davis' electric work was most meaningful to lame jam bands, the sonic scope of what he achieved in these diversions had profound and far-reaching impacts on everything that came after it (Eno's Another Green World alone ties Miles to most of modern alternative music in six degrees or less.)

And that's pretty damned cool. Even if Stanley Crouch (and I) would rather listen to 'Round Midnight or Live at Newport 1958 again instead.

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Monday, May 3, 2010

The Immortals #89 - The Yardbirds

It's telling that I couldn't find any "definitive" Yardbirds record to listen to when preparing this entry. The band is best known for being a significant presence in the early "British Invasion" of 60s rock and for having a membership that included Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page- all of whom would go on to become much more famous for making much better music of much greater importance in the immediate future.

A run through this Yardbirds compilation's track list displays that the band failed to be a legitimate showcase for those celebrated musicians as either guitarists or songwriters. Like so many great bands of their time, they made their name on covers that interpreted American rock, soul and blues through the filter of white English kids with good taste in fashion, some fairly exotic instrumentation, and the desperate need to lay pipe for better careers to come.

(It's an old writer's term. Look it up.)

There are some kickin' tracks on here, especially the barbed wire whip of "Heart Full of Soul" and the justly-renowned "For Your Love", but both of those were written by the dude from 10cc. If Clapton, the Jeff Beck Group, and Led Zeppelin were going to eventually reinvent rock and roll into their own versions of drug-fuled power riffage (Clapton), heavy fusion (Beck), and... ummm... just a really kick-ass, turned-to-eleven version of the Yardbirds (Page), they were going to have to start at an earlier link in its evolutionary chain.

But unlike peers like the Beatles, Stones, and Kinks, the Yardbirds didn't go forward to do their best, most universe-altering work as a unified whole. And so now "The Yardbirds" are frozen in time, the greatest of the British Invasion acts not to mutate into something else, the embodiment of a sort of adolescent stage in rock's development.

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