Monday, January 25, 2010

Five Albums

As I’ve posted before, I strongly believe that we should try to make good use of all we get. That’s part of why I write this blog. I have so much to say about music because I listen to it so much and I think perhaps, there might be a few people who might possibly be informed by my opinions. Just one would make it worth it.

Anyway, I don’t have a lot to write about right now. I’ve been spending a lot of time working on a paper for my philosophy class so I thought this might be a nice change of pace. I thought I’d just give a list of the last five albums I’ve listened to and how I feel about them at this very moment. Ranked from most to least recently listened to.

Daydream Nation by Sonic Youth

This is one of those classic, divine albums for many of those underground folks out there. Number one album of the 1980s for Pitchfork, hip cats think it’s cool. I’m not a die-hard fan but I certainly like Daydream Nation more than I did when I first borrowed it from my friend Chris in high school. Sonic Youth has a totally original language of guitar dissonance and noise. It’s not exactly pretty but it’s fascinating. The album is long but it’s totally unique and hugely influential which definitely counts for something in my book. 3.5 stars.

Superfly by Curtis Mayfield

I’ve heard so much about Curtis Mayfield but I just listened to this soundtrack album for the first time. And whoah. Funky, addictive, powerful, just…yes! As far as my limited knowledge of soul goes, this reminds me more of the incredible What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye than anything else but I think I daresay I might like it better. Why Curtis Mayfield isn’t a household name is beyond me. Yes, I’ve listened to this album once but I already know that I’m gonna fall in love with it. No rating yet. It’s will be high though.

Keep It Like A Secret by Built To Spill

I wrote a newspaper article about this band a few months ago. Most of what I could say about them has been said there and it's no longer available online (what happened to archives, Mast people?). But more in reference to this specific album, I just got really excited about Keep It Like A Secret over the last year or so. It’s got so much edge to it. I love “You Were Right” which blatantly quotes about a dozen famous rock songs (“You were right when you said a hard rain’s gonna fall”) or “Broken Chairs,” the epic closer every indie rock album dreams of. The only problem is that the thick density of wailing guitars can get a wee bit tiresome. 4 stars.

A Love Supreme by John Coltrane

I want to fall in love with this album. I really do. But I can’t. I’m sorry John. I just don’t get it. Yes, I understand it’s your spiritual enlightenment put into musical form and all the glory is to given to God. That’s awesome. Unfortunately, I’m never completely hooked. A whole lot of jazz saxophone. But I’ll never stop trying. Truly. Coltrane is a brilliant mind I’m sure. Maybe I just need to do some hallucinogenic drugs before listening next time. 3 stars.

And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out
by Yo La Tengo

Yo La Tengo is one of those bands (like Soundgarden or Pixies) that despite not liking their genre all that much, I really dig their music. The genre that’s typically attached to this album is “dream pop” which basically means surreal, ambient music with loose structural content. I’ve only listened to this album once as well but it’s incredibly relaxing albeit a bit longer than it needs to be at 77 minutes. The vocal delivery of Georgia Hubley and Ira Kaplan is so easy; I just want them to sing me lullabies. No rating yet. 3.5 maybe?

That was kind of fun. Maybe I’ll do this again sometime.

*Last subheading was from "All I Wanna Do" by The Beach Boys

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Good Vibrations

A couple of weeks ago I finished a book called Heroes and Villains: The True Story of the Beach Boys. It wasn’t the best-written book I’ve ever read but I got it for 50 cents so it was definitely worth it. And this isn’t a book review anyway. I’m hoping that now I will be able to give a more informed blog post about one of my favorite musical artists: The Beach Boys.

My first exposure to the Beach Boys probably came from listening to the now defunct “oldies” radio station, 97.3 KBSG, when I was in grade school. Of course this was before I took music seriously and like most people when they think of this band, I thought of the music as “fun.” They sang about cars and surfing and had a sort of addictive vocal harmony that I still bask in today. When I started getting more into researching and discovering music, it came to my attention that the Beach Boys weren’t just a hit-machine from the early to mid-sixties. This album Pet Sounds was quite well respected by critics universally. In fact, Rolling Stone named it the 2nd best album of all time behind the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper. High praise. I acquired it. I haven’t looked back.

If I could summarize the book I just read in a phrase it would be, “Good music, selfish people.” It’s quite sad how much pain the institution that is the Beach Boys has caused over the last fifty years with all the lawsuits, drugs, mental illness, debauchery etc. It’s incredibly ironic how peaceful and upbeat the majority of their music is.

All the terrible things that happened within the Beach Boys does not change my opinion of their music at all. If anything, it’s quite admirable that they were able to record such harmonious music. Before I go on, I’d like to clarify that while some of their later albums were a collaborative process, much of the group’s catalogue is more like the Brian Wilson Experience, as Brian wrote and arranged the entirety of Pet Sounds by himself (excluding the lyrics), with the other four providing vocals only, exactly as he dictated.

But why do I like the Beach Boys so much? I think it has to do with the spiritual, transcendent quality of some their best music. That youthful sound of the blend of their voices is just gorgeous. Not to mention, the remarkably complex arrangements that sound as clear as day, both vocally and instrumentally. If you haven’t heard “God Only Knows,” you haven’t lived. I don’t think I’d be able to name my absolute favorite song but I have no doubt that it would be in the conversation. I know that it’s Sir Paul McCartney’s favorite, if that means anything (which it should!).

Forty-four years after it’s release, Pet Sounds has sort of become an essential to any well-versed music fan’s collection. Yet, in my experience, the Beach Boys have never been synonymous with the respect given to many of their contemporaries in the immensely creative 1960s. Well, I will make it my personal mission to change that. Get Pet Sounds, and after that Sunflower and Surf’s Up and after that, everything else from 1965 through 1971. A whole lot of wow.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Hagstom EP

So I've spent the last few days slaving away on this eighteen minute mini-album. For future reference, here's a handy equation: (perfectionism) + (crappy recording equipment) = (massive frustration). But thankfully I'm done now. That was sooooo last decade.

Anyway, the music is now up on Myspace. The EP consists of the first five songs listed on my page, in order, from "Everything Ersatz" through "The Harbor." The title of the EP comes from the brand of the guitar I just purchased (it's a Swedish company by the way). This electric guitar made up the vast majority of sounds you'll hear on the album. Basically, I wanted to record the best music I could without using anything more fancy than GarageBand on my own computer. I wrote the songs over the past few months, and did almost all of the recording over the past couple of weeks. I recorded bass, electric guitar, keyboard, trumpet and vocals and used pre-recorded loops for the drums. Unlike the heavily acoustic Wiegand EP in May, this one is very much electric.

I hope you like it.

Everyone's Sayin' Music is Love

The title is inspired by the slightly crazy, totally amazing David Crosby.

In March, I wrote about a sort of democracy of music tastes. I said that anyone who’s been moved by music at some point, no matter who made that music, is on the same level of understanding. I found myself stinking of hypocrisy a couple months ago when I criticized a music professor who listened to something I deemed “insincere.” I’m very grateful to my roommate, Taylor, who challenged my criticism, not because he liked the music, but because of the high horse I was clearly riding on.

My anger was because this professor, a man who’d dedicated his entire life to music education, had the audacity to listen to something that I thought sucked. He had been studying the menu from the finest musical cuisine yet still found nothing wrong with dumpster diving. Or at least this is how I saw it. Here’s why I was so misguided:

Music is all about love and inclusivity—not elitism and division. Think of the most basic function of music in ancient cultures: celebration, bringing people together, enjoyment. Newsflash: NOTHING’S CHANGED. In the modern (postmodern?) world where we have easy access to just about any music that’s ever been made, we have the same reasons to like what we do; it excites us, ignites us, inspires us. Of course, anyone and everyone is entitled to negative opinions, but to say that someone’s instinctual enjoyment of a certain music is flawed? That’s nothing short of an abomination.

Let me again make the ever-important distinction: criticizing music is good, criticizing musical taste is bad. Say John Doe listens to my three least favorite artists. Not only that, they are his three favorite artists. As much as this may irritate me, if this is getting J.D. to feel good about himself or start to think about music as more than just sound waves, he’s an ally.

This is a bit of a slippery slope nonetheless. If John asks me how I feel about these artists, I shouldn’t lie just to keep his enjoyment intact. Let’s not jump on the moral relativism bandwagon here. What would be the point of a critic who didn’t have any negative opinions? Yes yes yes, it’s essential to have critics influence the state of the art and the intelligent listener. But this sort of stuff is all secondary to spreading the greater love for music. People who read criticism are typically deep music lovers as it is and want to learn and discover as much as they can, which can’t be done if everything they find is complimentary and positive.

But to wrap it up, going back to this professor of mine, I still respect him despite the fact that I’m not exactly thrilled with some of the music he listens to. But losing respect for him is sort of like refusing to talk to someone with different political or religious views. This professor has been wildly successful in stirring up people’s passion about music. Isn’t that exactly what I’m trying to do here?

The Best of 2009

I acquired ten albums released this year, eight of which I’ve spent serious time listening to. Either music is getting better or my music choosing skills are improving for I really like all of the albums featured in this list. As this is an end of the year list, I’ll make my general disclaimer and say that these albums are likely to be in a different order one year from now. Nevertheless, here are my top records from 2009.

1. Veckatimest by Grizzly Bear

-I saw Grizzly Bear this October. It was easily one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen. One of those bands that makes you excited for the future of music. This album is so incredibly beautiful and original at the same time. It won’t be for a while until their next record comes out but I’ll be quivering with anticipation as soon as anything is announced.

2. Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle by Bill Callahan

-The biggest surprise on the year. I had high hopes for Grizzly Bear but this album just came out of the blue. Speaking in cryptic yet fascinating metaphors, Bill Callahan presents nine remarkable, impeccably produced songs in a smooth bass voice that’s as soothing as it is scary. My first dose of Callahan’s prolific career (he was formerly known as Smog), I’m thrilled to hear what else he’s put to tape.

3. Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix by Phoenix

-This gets the guilty pleasure of the year award. WAP is filled with pure danceable pop but it’s put together so well that one can’t help but be in awe of the craftsmanship of this French outfit. Much like In Ghost Colours by Cut Copy last year, this is addictive enough to warrant a 4.5 star rating and a place on the podium for the final best of the year list.

4. The Hazards of Love by the Decemberists

-Colin Meloy continues to prove himself as one of cleverest songwriters of his generation. This, the fifth album from the Decemberists, is a rock opera of sorts that continues to push the band’s ability to more ambitious places. Telling the story of ill-fated lovers Margaret and Daniel with a handful of guest vocalists along the way, the album holds up as a testament to a storyteller unparalled in today’s indie rock world.

5. Merriweather Post Pavilion by Animal Collective

-Animal Collective is always in the discussion for “most advanced bands around” and this album might be there best-loved yet. Nobody has ever doubted their originality; the question for me as always had to do with their clarity. Well this album will probably go down as one of the definitive “avant-pop” albums ever made. It’s totally weird but totally together. If Radiohead is the Beatles of our generation, these guys are the Beach Boys, taking their reverb-drenched layers of voices where no band has ever approached before.

6. Hospice by The Antlers

-Man this has been a good year. At number six, we find an album that could easily be the best of another year in the past. Hospice is the result of bandleader Peter Silberman’s self-imposed isolation, telling a grim story of the death of a loved one after weeks in a hospital, recalling events from the past. The album is intimate yet grandiose, easily changing between shoegazer and singer/songwriter depending on what mood I am in.

7. Bitte Orca by Dirty Projectors

-Yet another album whose artist or title has something to do with animals, Dirty Projectors are a remarkably inventive band whose rhythmic creativity attaches them to the long lost genre, progressive rock. They aren’t progressive in the gigantic songs sense, but they are in their weaving complexity and eschew of conventions sense. I’m not as in love with the album as some, partially thanks to the slightly whiny voice of lead singer, but certainly this album deserves the attention its getting thanks to its fresh, sophisticated sound.

8. Embryonic by Flaming Lips

-Good lord! When is there going to be an album that I can’t attach the words “remarkably original” to? This might be the most individual of the group, which makes sense, considering it’s recorded by the freakiest group of the last twenty plus years. Embryonic is 70 minutes of craziness, and while it’s amazing in its sheer magnitude, it isn’t always the easiest meal to swallow. Nonetheless, the Lips better get recognized as one of the genre’s most original forces by the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame sometime in the not so distant future.

*Congrats to Nate Rogers who got last month's subheading courtesy Elvis Costello.