New Order Release One of the Best Records of the Year


Although, I don’t agree with their take on Restless, The Quietus has posted a great review of New Order’s new album, Music Complete.  (The record has overall recieved positive reviews in the press.)  This is hands down one of the best records of the year, an ecstatic pop record of the highest quality.  It’s a mysterious and beautiful thing, equal parts joy and melencholy.  I already know I will be coming back to it for years.

Lou Reed’s ‘Brandenburg Gate’ and the Joy of Discovery

I would cut my legs and tits off
When I think of Boris Karloff and Kinski
In the dark of the moon

It made me dream of Nosferatu
Trapped on the isle of Doctor Moreau
Oh wouldn’t it be lovely

One of my favorite albums from the last five years is Lou Reed and Metallica’s Lulu.  Just the opening lyrics to the first song alone, Brandenburg Gate, make my heart sing.  I’ve written about this record several times, but I never tire of singing its praises.  Look, I understand the reasons that some people don’t like this album; The lyrics are disturbing, the music will go off at times into discordant soundscapes or heavy metal brutality, and at times Lou Reed sings without care for melody or pitch.

But in general I feel bad for people that don’t get this record.  It is a beautiful, dark, fever dreamscape of a record.  It’s a Viking raid, a horror freak show, a psychotic hallucination, an Edgar Allen Poe poem, Victorian London, and nighttime in the Tiergarten all at once.  If it were a movie it would be Herzog’s Aguirre: The Wrath of God or Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto.  If it were a painting it might be by Goya or Bosch.  The record is batshit insane in the best way possible.

But the record isn’t all dark.  There is a sense of fun, of the thrill of reaching new ground, as well.  Lou Reed was near the end of his life when he made this.  He was physically in decline.  He used Metallica as a way to go once more into uncharted territory.  They were his musical armor.  Like George Carlin, Reed kept growing as an artist.  There was never any self-congratulatory victory lap or a watering down of his talents to finally cash in.  He remained true to his vision right until the end.

But I don’t love this record, truly love it, because others don’t get it, or because I think the best art should always be bleak.  I enjoy it.  In it’s own strange way it is full of joy.  It feels free.      Reed is not bound by the normal conventions of society.  He is out there on a limb, living in the new.  After all, he’s just a, “small town girl.”

The Greatest Singer You’ve Never Heard

Occasionally this blog becomes my very own Stalinist propaganda machine, as I promote various projects I am involved in, but this time I have truly noble intentions when I tell you about the Ted Hawkins tribute record that is coming out October 23rd:  Cold and Bitter Tears: The Songs of Ted Hawkins.  Ted Hawkins is one of the greatest singers ever, his Watch Your Step album alone providing a lifetime of enjoyment.  Hawkins never received the recognition that he should have while he was alive, and this record is just a small attempt to bring recognition to his great talent now.  There are a whole brunch of great artists on this project; Even Felker, James McMurtry, Ramsay Midwood, as well as the wife and daughter of Hawkins himself, all make an appearance.  And that is just a few of them.  I was lucky enough to be asked to contribute bass to four of the tracks.  I finally got a copy and it sounds great.  Keep your eyes out for this project.  But really, do yourself a favor in the meantime and get yourself a Ted Hawkins record, especially Watch Your Step.

New Order’s ‘Music Complete’ Review

New Order Music Complete Cover

The new New Order album, Music Complete, is a true return to form and certainly going to be one of the best releases of the year.  While not being overtly political in the traditional sense, it is a record that truly captures the joy, sadness, anxiety, wonder, and confusion of modern times.  New Order’s blend of rock instruments with dance music synthesizers finds a perfect balance here.  Although I am extremely leery of when critics say that so-and-so is the best since whatever, this truly is their best album since Technique.

Even the cover art is perfect.  While being abstract, I can’t help but feel that the cover looks like a piece of a stain glass window.  As parts of the old world fall away, what is it that we now worship?

The gods of consumerism is met head on in the first song and single, Restless.  “What can you buy / That lifts a heavy heart up to the sky?”  Lead singer Bernard Sumner has always been a strange lyricist.  His lyrics often border on cliche when read, but never become that when communicated through song.  At times I have called what he does Communist Bloc aesthetic, in the sense that there is a certain purposeful blankness to them.  Instead of creating extremely vivid imagery through abstraction, or by telling cinematic stories, the way that most of the best songwriters do, his lyrics leave a space for the listener’s own imagination to fill out the information he has left out.  It’s like he is allowing the listener’s imagination to flower up through the concrete.  It’s a neat trick when it works, one I have never really seen anyone else pull off in quite the same way.  While retaining an element of that on this album, Sumner is clearly reflecting on the modern world here in a more explicit way than on past albums.  But as typical of Sumner, he is able to say a lot, while at the same time not saying any more than he has to.

Sumner is also one of music’s most consistent melody writers, which no doubt has always helped his lyrics.  This album is full of glorious pop moments.  As typical of New Order, the album is one half ecstatic joy and one half steely coldness.  The possibility and anxiety of the moment are both represented here.

Anyone that is a New Order fan will wonder how they fair without longtime bassist Peter Hook.  Hook was an essential element of the New Order sound, with his melodic chorused bass playing often creating many of the most exciting musical moments, by playing hooks or melodic leads.  Strangely enough, as a bass player and huge fan of his, he is not missed.  On one hand this is because replacement Tom Chapman apes him when needed.  But Chapman also branches out from what Hook does, adding new and interesting elements, that all seem to work here as far as I’m concerned, to the band’s sound.

This album definitely leans towards the dance side of New Order’s catalog.  When so many synths are used, especially at this moment in time, there is the risk that they would be either chasing trends or retreading old ground.  I feel like again they have found the perfect balance.  The album sounds current enough that it never comes across as a retread, but there are definitely retro moments as well.  I feel this is a perfect blend for our sequel obsessed, nostalgia oriented culture.  Even when they use a sound that sounds retro, in the context of this album, it seems more of a comment of the now than simply a way of capitalizing on their past.

New Order have created a modern pop music masterpiece.  It has enough hooks to be thoroughly enjoyable, but enough ideas and left turns to be artistically captivating.  The excitement and the dread of these modern times is captured in sound.  Although there might be more modern sounding records, or ones with a larger poetic scope, I can’t help but feel like if someone asked me what our constantly changing culture felt like right now, that this is one record I would point them towards.


The Bravest Man in the Universe

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An album that should have gotten more credit is Bobby Womack’s The Bravest Man in the Universe.  It was recorded near the end of his life and is the result of a collaboration with Damon Albarn of Blur and Gorillaz.  The title comes from a line where the bravest man in the universe is, ” the one who has forgiven first.”  The album is a beautiful, contemplative,  haunted thing.  It’s one of the very few albums that can make slightly uncomfortable due to its distant soundscapes and unflinching topic matters.  (I think that is a sign of the album’s power.  In reflecting on his own life with honesty, Womack makes you reflect on your own with that same level of clarity.)

As a fan of both Albarn and Womack, I was a little surprised at the record.  Sonically it is a true departure from Womack’s earlier work.  It’s a cold futuristic sounding record, more akin to the work of Albarn’s futuristic  dubscapes  in Gorillaz, than Womack’s warm soul music.  Womack’s voice is also more worn than on his classic 70’s records.  (Which is to be understood, given his age at the time of recording.)

However, what is jarring at first, actually really works in the records favor.  This is not a lesser version of previous accomplishments,  but something new entirely.  Womack is Major Tom on this record, lost in the vastness of space, reflecting upon his past.  If 2001 was a soul record, you would get some idea of the proceedings.  There are even sound clips of Sam Cooke and Gil Scott Heron speaking, both passed away, at key moments on the record.  Lana Del Ray has a cameo, giving a vocal performance both beautiful and full of dread.

However Bobby Womack is no doubt the star, pouring a great deal of pathos, love, and humanity into the proceedings, even despite the often electronic sound around him.  Sometimes he is almost Hamlet giving his Horatio soliloquy.   However, the record is not a true tragedy.  If the past still haunts Womack, forgiveness and love still run strong.

One of the real tricks of the album is how it sounds like the future and the past at the same time.   When I comment there is almost a science fiction element to the aound, it evokes not the modern day, but again almost the science fiction of the 60’s.   One day all will be past.  How will the future reflect upon who we are?  This record almost gives you that sense, that you are getting a glimpse of the now through foreign eyes.  It’s a strange and wonderful record indeed.

James Brown, Iron Maiden, and Total Commitment

Iron Maiden Book of Souls 2

I don’t like to write anything here unless I feel I have something original to add to the conversation.  If I can’t write something that I feel is worth reading, I’ll try to link to someone that has something interesting to say.  The few times I have broken this rule I usually end up disgusted with what I have written.

I’ve wanted to review the new Iron Maiden record, The Book of Souls, for several reasons.  I really love the band and the album.  I also have seen that the few posts I have put up about Iron Maiden have found an audience, and I am happy to discuss things that other people like if they mesh with my interests.  But I haven’t felt that I have a definitive take on the record.  I also haven’t seen any piece of writing about it that has really struck me.

The only thing that I find at all interesting to add to the conversation is that whenever I listen to the record I can’t help but think of the James Brown double albums of the early 70’s, especially The Payback.  Stylistically these records are worlds apart from Iron Maiden.  However, both James Brown and now Iron Maiden have crafted double albums with very few songs.  The Book of Souls features 11 songs clocking in at 92 minutes, while James Brown’s The Payback is 8 songs at close to 73 minutes.

I know that there are many double albums that have long song structures.  But it is not just the surface level of things that I have made me connect the two.  Both artists have taken an established sound and, while adding new elements on the margins, have expanded their artistic universes by creating epics.  And the thing that really strikes me is that these records are great in part because of the physical stamina that is inherent in the recordings.

These kinds of records actually require a great deal of physical endurance to perform.  Almost a superhuman level.  While that is impressive in one kind of way, that alone doesn’t create a piece of great art.  But in each of their respective worlds, James Brown and Iron Maiden are at the top of the artistic heap. (I want it to be clear I am not equating the two artists.  Brown had a personality and a message that reached far outside the realm of the standard pop artist. I am simply trying to draw a comparison and a conclusion out of a certain musical aspect.)

Albums, like films, have a recommended length.  Although there are many exceptions to the rule, most albums work best between 40 and 50 minutes.  It’s the ideal amount of time to listen to an album in one complete sitting, multiple times, so that you can grasp the full intention of what an artist is trying to do.  Many double albums have worked, but in different ways.  Sometimes it is because they are separated into two distinct halves, like acts of a play.  Other times it is the sheer volume of output, an eclectic array of styles, where the ambition and variety take add up to more than the sum of the parts.

But the new Maiden, nor the James Brown album I mentioned, are like this.  These are records where a groove or sound is stretched until the breaking point. Where the length that something goes on creates its own kind of sonic universe. It takes not only a certain amount of stamina to do this, but also for an artist to have their own definitive thing.  It’s like you take a piece of music that would be good at three or four minutes.  At five you may begin to question how much longer it can go on.  But at some point they punch through some kind of mask and they go from the great to the exceptional.

Everyone knows that music can communicate sadness, happiness, anger.  But this is the sound of passion and commitment.  Not commitment like in a relationship, but a commitment to an idea.  Not only do you have to be physically committed to play a twelve (James Brown’s Mind Power) to eighteen minute song (Iron Maiden’s Empire of the Clouds), but you have to be truly committed to the idea behind that song.  (And songs that just feature endless instrumental noodling don’t count.  There is a difference between what I am talking about and self-indulgence, where the artist’s ego is stroked and the crowd is bored stiff, especially without the proper medicine!)  That’s why only artists that are great, that are full of passion, can pull these things off.  Music at this point takes on an almost shamanistic energy.  They are working the crowd into a frenzy.  Even if a crowd doesn’t realize it on any kind of intellectual level, I really believe that is what they are responding to.  They are responding to someone that has a great deal of passion, as that is always a quality that attracts others.

I think this is an interesting kind of feat to try and achieve, but beware; There are very few that can consistently achieve the desired results!  James Brown was a freak of nature and Iron Maiden didn’t get to such a point, other than a few songs, until they were far into their careers.

Dinosaur Jr. ‘Over It’ – Make Your Monday Morning Slightly Better

Traveling to Portland today.  I was listening to Dinosaur Jr. today as I walked around Sisters after breakfast.  My schedule is so strange at this point that Monday mornings don’t have the same kind of crushing dread that they do for a lot of people.  However, while I love Portland and am excited to play there, we have been living the dream in Sisters.  We were in the same town for three days, which is a rarity in touring.  The festival we played and the town we were in is walkable, so I actually haven’t seen the inside of a van since Friday afternoon.

Anyway, I was walking around this morning listening to Dinosaur Jr.  They are one of the great American bands that helped bridge the gap between the 80’s indie scene and the 90’s alternative one.  Singer and guitarist J Mascis is one of those rare players that was able to create his own distinct style.  It’s based in traditionalism, he still is primarily strumming or arpeggiating chords when he is not unleashing mind-melting solos, but you always know when it is him.  He early on became one of indie rocks few guitar heroes.

Dinosaur Jr. is one of the few bands that managed to reform the original line-up later in their career and make albums that were as relevant and as well-received as their early work.  While many note that Mascis defined the early 90’s slacker aesthetic, I think their music has proved to be timeless.  Whatever was going on at the time musically, then or now, he simply made music that sounded like himself, without any of the trappings of current musical and technological trends.

I think this this is an informative way, if not the only, to make something that is original.  Simply stay true to yourself, while stealing just enough different things from others so that you can’t be compared exactly to something that came before.  Mascis took the traditional guitar playing of someone like Neil Young and blended it with the sonic insanity of some of the 80’s underground music that existed at the time of Dinosaur’s formation.

I’m not sure how Mascis is not deaf by now.  I saw them after Beyond came out, the first album with the reformed original line-up.  He was playing his ear splitting solos surrounded by amps that seemed turned up to ridiculous levels, all pointing directly at his head.  (With his now flowing white Gandolf hair blowing around him.) Another friend saw them on the same tour and remarked similarly.  But all of that volume is not just for the sake of it.  He uses the volume of an electric guitar, the overtones and conflicting frequencies, to create texture and sonic colors.  He plays guitar almost like a painter creating texture on a canvass.

Although there has always been an air of melancholy, sometimes more explicit than others, floating through the Dinosaur songbook, the above video shows that they also have a sense of humor.  The song Over It, from their second reunion album Farm, shows them older and shittier, still riding skateboards and bikes like they did in their youth.  Life may go on, but Dinosaur Jr. are still the same.  Hopefully this is a slight reprieve from your dreary Monday morning work routine.

Public Image Limited’s Fantastic New Song

This is simply a fantastic piece of music.  It is called Big Blue Sky and it is off of the new Public Image Ltd. record, What the World Needs Now…

It’s a piece of art that feels alive.  It is full of mystery.  It is both modern and primordial.  It is complex tonally and emotionally, as it shifts from a sort of haunted dub verse to a majestic chorus in a liquid like manner, where one melts into the other.  Often in life we will go from one emotion to another, as sadness turns to transcendence or vice versa.  John Lydon’s performance here is shamanistic.  The band carries him and is carried in return.  There is a lot of room here, to reflect and interpret, to enter the realm of dreams and reflect upon this strange thing called life.



The Impact of The Ramones and Creativity In the Face of Limitations

I learned to play guitar and write songs because of The Ramones.  Before they became trendy again, and long after the original punk explosion, I discovered the Ramones.  They were between Brain Drain and Mondo Bizarro.  I was only 12 or 13 at the time.  Hair metal was in the hight of its popularity.  I read all of the music magazines at the time.  Somehow I must have read an article on The Ramones.  I got my parents to get me All the Stuff and More Vol 1.  It was a compilation that contained their self-titled debut and their second album, Leave Home.

Now you need to understand popular music at the time.  Many of the rock magazines and guitar magazines featured music that was technically challenging to play, especially if you were just starting out.  Although I was a kid and hadn’t yet given up my dreams of being a pro-wrestler(!), I was starting to fall in love with music.  I could play power chords, but not much else.

My parents were really great about letting me listen to anything I wanted, though my Mom did scratch out bad lyrics and nude pictures in the sleeves of albums like Appetite For Destruction!  But they were very supportive of me learning a music instrument in general.  And to learn a music instrument it helped if you could listen to things that made it seem cool, that would keep a young kid interested.

Getting those first two Ramones albums was a revelation.  Not only for the first time could I figure out songs and play along, although I was still cheating playing power chords instead of Johnny Ramone’s infamous bar-chord attack, but I actually started to understand song structure because of this.  With just a couple of chords you could write and play timeless pop songs.  After hearing those records I started writing my own songs.  (Though it would be an extremely long time before I would write anything good!)  Plus The Ramones expanded what songs could be about.  All of a sudden a kid that had only heard songs about girls and parties for the most part, was hearing songs about New York street life, songs influenced by horror movies and comic books, and songs about everything from sniffing glue to beating on brats with baseball bats.  (The Ramones had their girl songs too.)  Their songs were simple, but their subject matter was varied and strange.

As a quick sidestep, even though Ramones songs were simple to emulate, they are actually really hard to play exactly like they did.  Try playing nothing but downstroke bar-chords for an hour.  Try playing Tommy Ramone’s high-hat parts for a whole set.  Their stuff is simple, but it takes real stamina.  Plus their songs, while simple, are full of endless hooks and clever lyrics.

Anyway, I try not to write about my life a lot on here, unless it can somehow help shed light on something or unless I am promoting a show or record I will be a part of.  I wonder how interesting it will be to read about someone being influenced by The Ramones.  There are a million like-minded stories.

But I think the thing is that is the point.  Even if their music is somewhat conservative stylistically, they basically played simple rock n roll stripped of all flourishes and at very fast speeds, they allowed countless people to become creative, who might have otherwise not felt like they could be.  If I were to write a list of everyone who had a little bit of The Ramones in their musical DNA, the list would be almost endless.  One of my favorite periods of music is the post-punk scene.  The music of that time is exploding in creativity.  That scene might not have happened in the same way if not for The Ramones.

When you write you think about who your audience is.  I know a lot of people that come here will read this post and say, “No shit!”  However, if you don’t know the music of The Ramones, you should.  If you are just starting to play an instrument, or you have a kid that is just starting, gift yourself or them a Ramones album.   They were a band that were extremely creative and unique within the confines of stylistic limitations.  That is an important thing to learn, that limitations do not stand in the way of creativity, but actually can aid it at times.

I think anyone in any art should always try to push themselves as hard as they can to be better than before.  But you only have the present.  There is nothing that should stop you from being creative even if you are not where you want to be.  I love people that can do things that I can’t.  From Joni Mitchell’s guitar playing to David Mitchell’s novels, I love hearing, reading, and seeing things that bear the mark of someone pushing the boundaries of an art form.  But communicating an idea is the most important thing.  There is no time to start like now…