Vesuvius at Myself

Trying to clip the creek to the bank with a clothes pin
Waterlogged system, rusty spring, faulty planning
Logic squeezed out like mustard at a corndog
Hypertension is not wisdom, chewing the leather straps
Trying to hold the sun still with a bobby pin
Burned fingers. excellent conductor of heat
Private fantasies are not public policy
Christian charity is a doily over my death boner
Busy work is not the Great Wall of China
Vanity bamboo hut out back behind the big house
Pretend is salve for whitey-boy guilt
Furiously slapping at the moon with a cane pole
Trying to prop up the heavens with a fresh flat pencil
Some folks are allergic to rubber
I am trying to stitch this one to all the rest of them
But the seams will split, collide and cleave
Neopolitan ice cream is never truly integrated until it’s too late
Trying to stop the bleeding with scotch tape
Platelets spoil adhesion, fire up the cauterizing iron
It’s a branding of necessity not scarification
Bliss was a pimple that I tried to pop
It erupted up and out on my countenance
Ugly eruption, Vesuvius, ugly eruption, Vesuvius
Ugly eruption, Vesuvius
Vesuvius at myself, Vesuvius at myself

I thought I would start out the Fourth of July by posting the lyrics to the great American songwriter Vic Chesnutt.   He is criminally overlooked.  One look at this or many of his lyrics and you can see why.  He was not one to wince from hard truths.  This is one of my favorite songs by him or anyone.  There are so many great lines in this song: Busy work is not the Great Wall of China.  Almost every line is a vivid image and thought in and of itself.  If not for the fact that his voice was an acquired taste, and possibly also the fact he was in a wheelchair,  he would be on the songwriters Mount Olympus with Dylan, Cohen, Mitchell, or any of the greats.  As far as I am concerned he is. 

Video

The Ecstatic Joy of Bizarre Love Triangle

I try to keep this blog balanced, and not in the way that Fox News means. If I post too many music blogs, I try to find something politically to talk about. If my posts seem to be filled with too much despair at the state of things I try to find something fun for a change. I know that in this day and age one is supposed to niche market, but I get bored talking about the same subject over and over. If you are passionate about something and you do it well, have at it. The world does need people that are focused and knowledgeable about certain issues. It doesn’t necessarily need scatterbrained people like myself that dip their toes in a hundred different pools. But I can’t help but feel that this world is endlessly fascinating, even if it is occasionally like George Carlin said, “when you are born in this country you get two tickets to the freak show.” The last two posts were about the Koch brothers and the sad state of music reviews. I was going jet black for a moment and it is time to temporarily take another course.

I tried to think of something that made me happy. I must admit that a song that has always picked my spirits up is New Order’s Bizarre Love Triangle. Although the lyrics slightly betray the music, the music and melody sound to me like pure ecstatic joy. I’ve always felt this is one of the great pop songs. Temptation might edge this out as my favorite New Order song, but this is up there.

Lana Del Rey Ultraviolence Review

I felt that the following review did not do the album justice so I posted a follow up here:

http://www.windupwire.com/2014/06/20/lana-del-rey-ultraviolence-revisited/

I really like the new Lana Del Rey album, Ultraviolence, in spite of Dan Auerbach’s lazy production.  I know there is a lot of internet noise claiming Lana Del Ray is a fraud, but I actually think she is one of the few originals in pop music right now.  She has a dreamily haunted voice, is great at crafting darkly beautiful melodies, and is great at taking different kinds of American iconography in her lyrics and forging something new with them.  I must admit that I am a sucker for David Lynch and Del Ray’s blending of American pop culture and dark dreams sound like they would be the perfect soundtrack to a Lynch movie. I am predisposed to like the kind of music she makes.

Del Rey had a pretty consistent vision across her albums and singles.  You are not going to mistake her for a different artist.  If you liked what she did before you are going to like what she is doing now, while the opposite is also true.  One of the reasons I believe her first album was a success was that she took several retro elements, infused them with some modern production and lyrical references, and ended up with her own small patch of uncharted territory.

I first want to state that I like her new album.  Any criticism thrown at it is minor and not actually aimed at her.  She still sings fantastically, although I do miss her lower register a bit, which is my favorite part of her range.  If you don’t think she can sing listen to the final track on her new album The Other Woman.  The melodies are still great.  She also still uses the language of pop culture, mixes it with a dark sexuality, and creates something her own.  Some people will claim that she is inauthentic, because she records under a false name, but the pop world is littered with people who built self created myths.  Bob Dylan is not his real name and he never road to New York City in a box car.  Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious are, surprise, not their real names either.  That is not to say that she is as talented as Bob Dylan or as ground breaking as the Sex Pistols, not by a long shot, but in the world of pop music she has created something uniquely hers.  That alone should be applauded.

However, I do have some minor quibbles with her new album.  These I mostly attribute to Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys fame.  For someone that has a strong retro vibe in her work, I can’t imagine that there was very much thought put into the idea of recording her mostly live to old analog tape, dousing her in a shitload of reverb, and having her track with a live band.  I love the sound of analog tape and I also love when people track live to it.  Hell, my band did that on our new album.  But with someone that takes so many influences from the past this seems to make her work even more backward looking than it really is.  It just seems like such an obvious choice that to me it shows the mind of a producer with little imagination.

First he puts so much reverb on her voice that it pushes her voice to the background at times when it is her biggest asset.  Sometimes this ridiculous amount of reverb actually makes it hard to understand what she is singing about.  Also, I think with someone that draws so much influence form the past you have to be careful with how “retro” you make her record sound.  It becomes more of a genre exercise that it ought to be.  I also find the backing band to be lacking in any real personality.  They do serve the songs, but to the point that if she wasn’t singing on them there wouldn’t be much going on musically that was interesting.  Look, I love effects, I like hearing real musicians play, I like these songs and this singer, but I can’t help but feel the arrangements could be more memorable in and of themselves.

Listening to her two albums, and the song that she did with Bobby Womack, I believe Lana Del Rey is a great talent that will probably have a long career of making interesting records.  Hopefully next time she won’t choose a hack like Dan Auerbach to produce it.

Video

The Bullfighter Dies Spoken Word

This is a spoken word promo for the new Morrissey single. He has done a spoken word promo for each of the four digital singles that he has released. All of them have dry sense of humor and an old Hollywood feel. I especially like in this one when he is reciting the last chorus with a smile upon his face. He knows what he is doing. Morrissey has long been a champion of animal rights and this song supports that stance through humor.

I’ve been listening to a great deal of 60’s pop lately, of which Morrissey is also a fan. I can’t help but feel that the actual song is in the vein of the 60’s novelty pop song. It’s even just over two minutes in length which was often the single length at that time.

My only criticism of this song is I wish Jesse Tobias’s guitar was slightly louder in the mix as he is playing a beautifully chimey guitar part that is not his typical fair. But another greatly enjoyable pop song by the old Mozzer.

Here is the link to the actual song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oV_U9qBSj_I#action=share

Some Thoughts On Writing and Recording

Blogging has been a little slow the last 48 hours.  As well as other things I’ve been focusing on songwriting.  There are songwriters that can write something almost every time they sit down and then there are guys like Leonard Cohen whose process is really slow.  I’m somewhere in the middle.  Once I find inspiration I will complete a series of things rather quickly.  However in between those bursts of inspiration I may lie dormant for a month or two, sometimes even longer. 

I’m always attempting to write, but if I’m not inspired much of what I write is garbage.  I would say that 80% of the things that I write I toss out.  Another 10% roughly falls through the cracks.  Only maybe 10% of the things I have written ever see the stage or the recording studio.  Even after that, except for our last record where I believe in every song, I feel like only a percentage of those things have reached some kind of definitive form.  Basically it is tons and tons of song writing to achieve those moments that I feel are perfect. 

Even if you write something great there are so many ways it can go wrong.  The arrangement can be subpar.  You could have a great arrangement and the performance is lacking.  You could even have a great song with a great performance and the mix just somehow sucks the life out of it.  As in life, so much is out of your control.  You not only need to write great material, but you need to have the right musicians, the right producer, and the right energy at the time of recording.   

The thing that was so beautiful about our new record, A Manual for Defeat, was that the process itself cut out a lot of the bullshit that can go wrong from point A to point B.  I love creating in the studio.  It drives some people nuts, but it’s actually total fun for me.  It’s also a way for things to go horribly wrong.  You might stumble upon something completely new, but when you don’t have a lot of money especially, you can just as easily over-think things and lose the initial passion of a piece.  So many musicians will tell you that they love their demos more than their actual records.  Until we did this new record my favorite No Show Ponies recordings that we ever did were Ben and I fucking about on Garage Band on my brother’s Mac.  The demos the two of us made sounded thin and cheap sounding, but there was a certain magic captured on those things that we never replicated anywhere else. 

With A Manual for Defeat we made the simplest record possible, which with a low budget worked out better than I could have imagined.  We just rehearsed a lot and then cut things basically live to tape with as little overdubbing as we could get away with.  The beauty of analog tape is that you instantly can tell on playback if you got something or not.  I’m not really a tape or digital guy as it really depends on the project and who is helming the technical side of things.   But for me the problem with digital is that you often don’t know what you have got until much later in the process.  If you don’t have a lot of money there is no time to start over if you realize something wasn’t quite where it needs to be.  Also just as a side note, dear God in heaven stay away from digital reverb. 

I’m always afraid of making something middle of the road, although there have definitely been times when my best intentions have gone astray.  I feel like you should either be trying to make Sgt. Pepper or The Misfit’s Static Age.  By that I mean you should either be as ambitious as possible or you should just try to capture something raw and real.  The universe will give you hints as to what route to take if you can get your ego out of the way.  Often limitations, if shepherded down the right alley, will force you to be creative.  It’s when you force things that aren’t meant to be that you get into trouble. 

I’m working on my 7th record right now, as well as having worked on a whole host of other things such as soundtracks, demos, singles, EP’s, etc.  I feel like only in the last two years have I got to a place where I sort of know what I’m doing, where I trust my instincts to be right more often than not.  Although as I’m fond of saying: Time makes monkeys of us all.    

Another Day in America

And so finally here we are, at the beginning of a whole new era.
The start of a brand new world.
And now what?
How do we start?
How do we begin again?

There are some things you can simply look up, such as:
The size of Greenland, the dates of the famous 19th century rubber wars, Persian adjectives, the composition of snow.
And other things you just have to guess at.

And then again today’s the day and those were the days and now these are the days and now the clock points histrionically to noon.
Some new kind of north.
And so which way do we go?
What are days for?
To wake us up, to put between the endless nights.

And by the way, here’s my theory of punctuation:
Instead of a period at the end of each sentence, there should be a tiny clock that shows you how long it took you to write that sentence.

And another way to look at time is this:
There was an old married couple and they had always hated each other, never been able to stand the sight of each other, really.
And when they were in their nineties, they finally got divorced.
And people said: Why did you wait so long? Why didn’t you do this a whole lot earlier?
And they said: Well, we wanted to wait until the children died.

Ah, America. And yes that will be America.
A whole new place just waiting to happen.
Broken up parking lots, rotten dumps, speed balls, accidents and hesitations.
Things left behind. Styrofoam, computer chips.

And Jim and John, oh, they were there.
And Carol, too. Her hair pinned up in that weird beehive way she loved so much.
And Greg and Phil moving at the pace of summer.
And Uncle Al, who screamed all night in the attic.
Yes, something happened to him in the war they said, over in France.
And France had become something they never mentioned. Something dangerous.

Yeah, some were sad to see those days disappear.
The flea markets and their smells, the war.
All the old belongings strewn out on the sidewalks.
Mildewed clothes and old resentments and ragged record jackets.

And ah, these days. Oh, these days.
What are days for?
To wake us up, to put between the endless nights.

And meanwhile all over town, checks are bouncing and accounts are being automatically closed.
Passwords are expiring.
And everyone’s counting and comparing and predicting.
Will it be the best of times, will it be the worst of times, or will it just be another one of those times?

Show of hands, please.

And ah, this world, which like Kierkegaard said, can only be understood when lived backwards.
Which would entail an incredible amount of planning and confusion.
And then there are those big questions always in the back of your mind.
Things like: Are those two people over there actually my real parents?
Should I get a second Prius?

And you, you who can be silent in four languages: Your silence will be considered your consent.

Oh but those were the days before the audience, and what the audience wanted, and what the audience said it wanted.

And you know the reason I really love the stars is that we cannot hurt them.
We can’t burn them or melt them or make them overflow. We can’t flood them or blow them up or turn them out.
But we are reaching for them.
We are reaching for them.

Some say our empire is passing, as all empires do.
And others haven’t a clue what time it is or where it goes or even where the clock is.

And oh, the majesty of dreams.
An unstoppable train. Different colored wonderlands.
Freedom of speech and sex with strangers.

Dear old God: May I call you old?
And may I ask: Who are these people?

Ah, America. We saw it. We tipped it over, and then, we sold it.
These are the things I whisper softly to my dolls. Those heartless little thugs dressed in calico kilts and jaunty hats and their perpetual white toothy smiles.

And oh, my brothers. And oh, my sisters.
What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They flow and then they flow. They come, they fade, they go and they go.
No way to know exactly when they start or when their time is up.

Oh, another day, another dime.
Another day in America.
Another day, another dollar.
Another day in America.

And all my brothers. And all my long lost sisters.
How do we begin again?
How do we begin?

Another Day in America by Laurie Anderson.  I was just walking my dog and listening to this.  Many of you may find this depressing.  If I told you it was making me laugh would you think me strange?  Is it because I heard a piece of art by another soul that said something out loud that I think from time to time?  Is it because of the piece’s truth telling mixed with its wonderfully surreal absurdity?  I honestly don’t know myself.  I love Laurie Anderson.  I am thankful she has always followed her own strange muse.  

Link to the recording:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_xBUXTVVDDw

Sabbath Bloody Sabbath

The have finally put out the original Black Sabbath albums on iTunes.  Early Black Sabbath has lately become one of my favorite musical pleasures.  Their first six albums are legendary for their musical influence, especially as being credited as the first true heavy metal band, although their music, while often heavy, is much stranger and diverse than their reputation would have you think.  Although as a kid I had Paranoid, as do most rock n roll fans, I only just recently discovered the rest of that early incredible catalogue.  I now have Black Sabbath, Masters of Reality, and Sabbath Bloody Sabbath as well.  I still need Vol. 4 and Sabotage, but I can’t get everything at once, I still need to eat!

For those of you that already love their music, you already know everything.  I want to try to explain why I believe they deserve a second or even a first look by those of you that have never heard them or those of you that have a very limited understanding of what they do.  Also, if you want their history, or want to read stories about them, there are plenty of places on the internet to check that stuff out at.  I want to talk about why I, as a musician, find them so interesting.

First of all, take all of the perceptions that you have of heavy metal and throw them out the window.  When one thinks of heavy metal, one often thinks of music that is very rigid, unrelenting, and often mechanical in its rhythmic approach. (And I realize that as a fan of heavy metal it has many genres and styles, and I am only talking about the kind of traditional metal that creeps into most peoples’ minds when you mention the term.)  The early Sabbath albums have a ton of sonic space in them and feature rhythms that often have a very lazy back beat.  If there is something in Sabbath that connects it to much of the metal that came after it, it is the sound of the often heavy sludgy guitar and the fact that the songs are often based on a series of riffs and not chord changes like most rock n roll in the traditional sense.

Their records are strange and only got increasingly stranger as drug use escalated.  The song Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, which shares its title with the album, starts with a typical Sabbath midtempo guitar riff only to quickly change midstream into a verse featuring jazzy acoustic guitar strumming.  Later on this record Rick Wakeman, sitting in as a session musician adds touches of boogie woogie piano and creepy 70’s synth parts.  Track three on this record, an instrumental called Fluff, is quietly beautiful and pastoral.

Not the kind of music you would picture on an album that has some kind of weird demonic orgy on the front.  Clearly someone knew the band had expectations around them and knew how to market an image.  Clearly the band then went ahead and did whatever they wanted once they were in the studio.  Maybe that should be a lesson:  Get a strong image together, market it like hell, and then completely disregard it once you get around to the creative side of things.  Is their reputation as a “heavy metal” band, when they are clearly something stranger and more inscrutable, partly a result of their packaging?  Only partially, as they have plenty of heavy riffs, but one can see how it tilted the deck in terms of a strong image in the public mind.

Even earlier on in their career, before they started using stranger instrumentation, their music, while clearly breaking new ground, also had a foot in blues rock and prog rock.  For those of you who might think of heavy metal as a barrage of unrelenting rhythms that are firmly on top of the beat, Black Sabbath’s rhythm section really swing.  They often play incredibly behind the beat and often give the songs a druggy lazy feel.  Their drummer Bill Ward has amazing feel.  Even if some of the riffs are technically simple, the musicality that they are played with and the rhythms that they are supported by are really inspiring.

Lyrically they are all over the map.  They do have songs based in fantasy and sci-fi, and they do have songs like Snowblind, a tribute to cocaine, that deal in rock n roll excess.  They also have serious antiwar songs like Masters of Reality and War Pigs.  But where someone like Dylan would sing a song like Masters of War and let the lyrics do the heavy lifting, Sabbath actually created bleak soundscapes that mirrored the haunting imagery.

One of the things that interests me most as a musician is the primitive nature of their recordings.  Even when their arrangements got more complex, their records are still often quite primitive sounding by today’s standards.  These records are the sound of musicians interacting with each other on tape.  Having just recorded an album almost live to tape myself, I can listen back to the early Sabbath albums and hear the room and more importantly the band.  What do I mean when I say that I can hear the band?  I mean that you can hear people that have played with each other, that have distinct personalities, interacting with each other.  They are creating an exciting new musical language together.  Especially on the first two records even overdubs are kept to a minimum.  You can hear when Tony Iommi lets in an electric guitar overdub.  There are moments though when it is just the three of them playing.  I’ve got nothing against records that are made piece by piece, but there is something refreshing sometimes when some of the illusions are stripped back and again you hear that language between musicians being captured live to tape.  Even on some of the later albums, when overdubs are abundant, when strings, and pianos, and synthesizers enter the picture, you still get that feeling of performances, more often than not, being captured at the heart of each recording.

If you are a rock n roll fan with an open mind, I can’t recommend these recordings enough.  They will take you down unexpected avenues and you will hear musicians creating dark and strange new dreams.  You will hear the sound of the Vietnam War and of industrial working class England in the 70’s.  You will occasionally be led off on psychedelic excursions and even into pastoral fields.  This is imaginative cinematic stuff.

The best music should take you someplace.  If you are open to it, it should create images in your mind.  Music is more than just notes and words.  It is people painting with sound.  If you are a fan of the movies the there are probably times when you will want to see a love story and times you might want to go see a horror film.  Different experiences are what make life interesting.  Black Sabbath created their own unique trip.  If you are looking for something interesting and new it is a trip worth taking.  And hey, everyone needs a record in their collection that has a demonic orgy on the cover.

Billy Idol and Pop Art

Often, out of the blue, I will get interested in a subject and then need to follow it through until I tire of it.  I almost always follow my gut and rarely second guess myself.  I remember sitting in a friend’s back yard and all of a sudden deciding that I needed to learn about Walt Disney.  Later that week I got a copy of and read Neal Gabler’s book Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination.  It ended up being one of the most fascinating books I have ever read.  It dealt with art, commerce, the rise of the modern corporation, history, and culture.  If you are in a bookstore sometime read Gabler’s introduction.  That alone is fascinating and thought provoking.  Anyway, I would have never read that had I not followed some strange idea that just happened to pop up in my head.  It was almost as if someone was whispering in my ear. (And no I wasn’t on drugs at the time.)

Lately I’ve been driven to read everything I can get my hands on about American Indians.  However, the topics are often not as lofty.  For reasons unknown to myself, I have found myself diving into the world of Billy Idol.  I find him fascinating and I am going to attempt to tell you why.

I think his career mirrors the music industry perfectly.  It represents the highs and lows of record making.  It also follows a perfect myth template.  In his case Icarus.  He had tremendous promise, flew too high, and burned out.

For those of you that don’t know, Billy Idol was once in a really great promising band.  He was in a band called Generation X that was one of the best of the earlier British punk bands.  They lacked the political righteousness of the Clash and the menace of the Sex Pistols.  They were also slightly behind, time wise, both of those bands.  Because of that they often were written off as lightweights.  However, if you don’t know any of punk history, and you just listen to their music, it’s fantastic.  Their guitar player, Derwood Andrews, was simply one of the best of that era.  He could hop from beautifully written hook riffs to squalling noise solos at the drop of a hat.  The bands records are also played with extreme enthusiasm.  You can hear people taking flight together on tape, especially on the first two albums.  Everything seemed to suggest, if drugs and commerce hadn’t gotten in their way, that they could have made some more incredible records together.

If you need further proof at what they could have achieved check out Andrews and Mark Laff’s, Generation X’s drummer, shortly lived band Empire and their album Expensive Sound Vol. 1.  Empire may have lasted a moment, but they went on to influence the D.C. punk and post punk scene and therefore American indie music for years to come.  Bands like Rights of Spring and Fugazi wouldn’t have sounded the same without them.

What you hear on those early Generation X records is the sound of people reacting to each other live on tape.  There might be limitations in the production at times, but there is the alchemy that only other people communicating to each other in the moment can produce.  The lyrics on those albums may be highly limited from a poetic standpoint, but they speak about a love of rock n roll in an enthusiastic and unpretentious way.  They believed in the form and you can hear it in ever note that is played.  There is piss and vinegar, blood and sweat, in those recordings.

Shortly after Generation X folded, Billy Idol went on to make his early solo records, the most well known part of his career.  They are the sound of someone hungry for success, someone that is shameless enough to do whatever it takes to achieve it.  That’s not to say that they are completely without merit.  I’ve never been completely turned off by the sound of 80’s records.  What they lack in authenticity they often make up for in atmosphere.  The reverb drenched records of the 80’s are perfect for drifting off into imaginative worlds, especially on a rain soaked afternoon.  Billy Idol, despite whatever artistic flaws he might have, has and always will have a unique rock voice.  It’s too bad that the words so often put in his mouth are nothing but sexual innuendo and rock n roll cliché.  He at least has a personality.  You would never mistake his singing for someone else.

Despite the fact that I actually tend to like records that were made in the 80’s, his records are a perfect example of the worst of that decade’s impulses.  If there was a cheesy and synthetic keyboard sound that was popular in whatever year one of his records was made, be sure that it is on that record and it is even more reverb drenched, synthetic, and 80’s sounding than it needs to be.  That’s not to say in his career that there aren’t some great pop songs in the lot.  White Wedding and Eyes Without a Face, if you hadn’t been numbed to them by a million radio spins, are really great pieces of pop art.  I can’t help but think of the best of his solo lot as the musical equivalent to a Warhol painting.  They often reflect back the hollowness of the culture, but are also strangely enjoyable and full of trashy beauty in their own way.  They are at a minimum fun, and not just an imitation of fun.  He was clearly enjoying himself on something when they were made.

It is in the splintering of Generation X that you find a really interesting tale about music in Western culture.  You have part of the band going on to form Empire and you have Billy Idol’s solo career.  Empire made a truly unique and artistic record, one that is not without its own pop hooks as well, and although they eventually went on to influence a good deal of musicians, faded largely from the world without a trace as far as the greater culture was concerned.  Meanwhile, Billy Idol followed the trends, made records that were largely of their time, and went on to sell millions of records which to this day have not left our airwaves.

I can enjoy, for different reasons, both kinds of music. I like art and I like spectacle.  Sometimes I enjoy a nice escapist movie, why should music be any different?  However, why does the general public favor one form?  Why do the money interests line up behind one form?  Is it the fact that people are only exposed to one thing?  Is something easier to sell to people because it is simpler to sell something that has fewer layers that need explained?  Even if people were given equal exposure to different kinds of music would they always choose the broader less artistic choice?

Blockbuster movies make more sense.  A 200 million dollar spectacle requires less out of the viewer than a slow paced interpretive indie film.  But often pop music is weirder than one thinks upon closer inspection.  Michael Jackson was a strange fellow by anyone’s measurements, but he managed to sell millions of records and connect with millions of people.

More involved movies, much like reading, require you to learn a language, the language of the cinema.  However, music, unless we are talking about music that is primarily based around literate lyrics, is a more emotional form.  That is not to say that learning more about music can’t open you up to new forms and bring added interest to things that already appeal to you.  Sometimes people like certain things because they throw out certain cultural touchstones.  A lot of the horrible pop country that is out there is probably successful because it is selling a lifestyle and conforming to an identity.  I can’t help but think that what succeeds in music is what gets money invested in it and what gets exposure, at least up to a point.

Let’s go back to Billy Idol.  Did he have a large amount of hits simply because he sold a lifestyle?  Although you could argue that his image was largely based around a cartoon image of what a rock star should be, it’s hard to say that his success was based on some kind of identification with his personal life or lyrics.  He really did do a mountain of cocaine and sleep with a thousand women.  The average person might occasionally dream of such a life, but they can hardly identify with it.

I think his extreme popularity was partially due to circumstances surrounding his unique moment in time.  He looked great on MTV, which was new at the time.  He had an image that was unique to him and this made his music easy to visually translate.  There is always luck in any success story.  He was at the right place and right time and met the right people.  However, I’m not denying that he does have certain talents.  He could write pop hooks and sing with a unique voice.  His music also always had a certain rock n roll enthusiasm about it, even when it was covering the fact that behind his voice was often slick candy gloss pop music.

As sort of a postscript I should also mention that he put out an album in 2005 called The Devil’s Playground.  Much like his 80’s music, it displayed the worst sonic production values of our time.  Often records that are made now seek to emulate earlier periods, but are often too slick, too compressed, and too cold sounding to mimic the passion of an earlier era.  Listen to Steve Stevens’s guitar on this record.  He often plays like a punk rock guitar player on this record,  but with the edges sanded off.  No kid picking up a guitar to fight the world would ever have such an expensive and polished sound.  As is often the case in this day and age, we are often in danger of letting technology overwhelm us.  That is not to say the record is without its merits.  Billy Idol can still sing and there are a couple of pop songs that are trashy and fun enough to overcome the lyrical and musical clichés inherent in them.  There are probably four or five songs on the record that I really enjoy listening for no other reason than they click that certain pleasure switch in the brain.  Everyone needs cheap thrills sometimes.

Anyway, it is easy to laugh at me for spending a great amount of time thinking about such things.  But I believe most things in life are interesting if viewed from a certain vantage point.  Even seemingly dead end alleyways of thought can occasionally lead to strange new worlds.  If not for Billy Idol’s solo career, I would never have discovered Generation X or Empire and for that I am thankful.  Even cartoons need artists to draw them.

Christmas Time Warp

www.noshowponies.bandcamp.com

If you haven’t checked it out yet please click on the link above and listen to No Show Ponies new album, A Manual for Defeat.  I’m extremely proud of this record.  It is three-piece independent rock n roll.  We recorded to analog tape with the great Ramsay Midwood at in the production chair.  Spread the joy.  Make businessmen cry. 

I should resume a fuller posting schedule tomorrow once my brain recovers from the Christmas party I attended last night.  I ate and drank enough last night so that the finer points of the English language are evading me today.  Or as my great friend Roman says, “I don’t black out, I time warp.”  

Technology and Magic

It seems like when older artists try to recapture the glory of their youth through a comeback record, they often leave out one of the most important things that made their old records sound the way they did:  Technology.  These records are too numerous to mention, although Rick Rubin has probably produced half of them.  I’m going to focus on one, which I actually quite like, that is a good place to start. 

The new Black Sabbath album 13 was an attempt by the group to recapture the gloomy stoner metal of their first few releases.  It’s actually quite good.  As far as songs, singing, and playing go I have no complaints.  It’s clear that Rubin was trying to steer them towards making a classic Sabbath album in the vein of Paranoid or Masters of Reality.  Some fans and critics complained about Bill Ward being replaced by Brad Wilk of Rage Against the Machine.  I understand why Bill Ward is great drummer and I can see how people would miss his drumming.  However, Brad Wilk actually does a great job and after listening to the album on headphones I realized all of the little subtleties that he brings to the record.  I don’t believe that his contributions are what keep the record from not sounding exactly like the original Sabbath recordings. 

It’s really the mix and the mastering that made this new album sound drastically different.  Again, this does not make it a bad album, but it is different sounding than those classic recordings.  The early Sabbath records, especially their debut, were recorded quickly and cheaply and were done to analog tape.  Although to be honest I have no idea if tape was used in the early stages of 13, it’s clear that at some point a computer became involved.  Because of the analog sound of the early Sabbath records, they have a dark mysterious murky quality to them.  This is not to take away anything from what the band did at that time, only to note that the technology on which those records were made had an impact on the overall sound. 

The new album is highly compressed using modern mastering and this greatly differentiates the sound.  It has a much heavier, louder, and modern sound then the old Sabbath recordings.  If you listen to Sabbath’s debut next to a modern heavy metal recording you will be surprised, given their reputation, at how “heaviness” of the record comes from the playing, and not from the production.  Their early records are quite thin by modern comparison.  Again what this analog sound does for them is help create a sense of mystery to the proceedings. 

Now I understand why any band would not want to look backwards.  Most artists want to move forward and do something that they have never done before.  So on one hand I can’t blame any band for not attempting to make a record exactly like they did in the past. 

But with this release, and many others that have been released in modern times, it seems bands are trying to recapture what made them great in the first place.  Rick Rubin clearly wanted to produce a “classic” Sabbath record.  If you have gone far enough to write songs that sound somewhat like your old material, use effects that were used on old records, why would you ignore the technological side of recording that plays such a large role in how the records actually sound? 

Again, I actually really like 13.  It does give you a large does of what you are looking for in a Black Sabbath record.  This is just the record I am thinking of now and the modern production techniques actually don’t get in the way of me enjoying this particular record.  However, there are some records, which escape me at the moment, where I can’t help but think that if they had really gotten back to basics, they would have been better off.

No matter what form an artist is working in, technology shapes the end product of what they are doing.  This should let out a collective “duh”.  If you are looking to make a retro record, remember that the sound is every bit as important as the performances.