Sunday, September 30, 2012

Any Color You Like

Taking a break from listening to Merzbow and Ty Segall Band's Slaughterhouse, I've been recently jamming to dad rock recently. OK, maybe not the Springsteens and Wilcos of the world, but close enough: Pink Floyd. I've been on a massive Floyd bender covering everything from "Arnold Layne" all the way up to The Final Cut. What impresses is how creative these dudes were. Syd, Roger, all of them.

So this brought me square-and-straight with a question about music that has been bugging me recently. What if you like something, REALLY like something that everybody else really likes too. I think all of us people who love music, at some level, create an identity around music. And that identify is often based around the notion that music is intensely individualistic. When most people don't know or haven't heard of the music you like, it's not necessarily a negative thing. In fact, it can be a positive thing because it makes you feel a bit like you have good taste, not like the "masses." But what if your favorite album is something that everybody knows and loves? What if your favorite album of all time is Thriller? Or Celion Dion's Let's Talk About Love? Well, I suppose that means one of two things: that you have tapped into some wavelength of mass communal harmony that makes you closer to the rest of humanity; or that that album was actually so good, that even with your discerning tastes, you just can't resist it. It's just deliciously good! What can you say. Let's Talk About Love.

So here I am to confess my love for Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon. It has sold 50 million albums. Bonehead jocks, dads who wear cutoff jeans, women who wear lots of hairspray, writers for Rolling Stone magazine, babyboomers by the millions, i.e., all the people I despise, love this album too.

But I do too. I don't know how to get out of this one.

What do I like about it? Well, there are concrete memories attached to it. It was one of the first albums I remember looking forward to listening to. When I was 12, we had a nice little stereo system and I always had to get permission from my father to listen to it, because it was so expensive and all. So for my 13th birthday, I asked my father if I could listen to Dark Side of the Moon all the way through on our new stereo really loud. And I did. That was the first time I really heard music loud, surrounded by sound. I've been hearing that album a lot since then, and I'm pretty old, so that's a lot of years. For some reason, I never outgrew it, never forgot about it, never got sick of it. I mean I didn't listen to it all the time, but every so often I would put it on, and it would really enjoy it, just like when I was 12.

I don't want to deconstruct the actual album but I will say that the lyrics themselves are rather simple, but also universal. You don't have to have a Ph.D. in English literature to understand it all. It's perfect for a teenager. But it's also perfect for a middle aged man. There's a kind of existential ennui in the album, a weariness about life and death and all that goes on inbetween the two. Not one word is actually out of place in the album, and surprisingly, there's nothing on the album that makes me cringe (the way, I'll cringe when I hear some lyric from a U2 song that I used to like, or worse yet, something by Tool). Roger Waters' words are very clear, without artifice and they understand the value of economy. Consider this brief couplet from "Time":

Every year is getting shorter / Never seem to find the time
Plans that either come to naught / Or half a page of scribbled lines

It's like something straight out of Watership Down or high school poetry but it doesn't sound so bad actually, especially when you yourself are caught in the inexorable march of having to give up your dreams because you get older.

The music is very, um, classic rock but it has a kind of imaginativeness that is leaps and bounds above the generic garden variety 1970s stuff, first because there are no long wanky guitar solos or just general musical wankery. It's all streamlined into a brief little chunks, never outstaying its welcome. In fact, one of the things I still can't believe is how much they packed into 43 minutes or whatever it is. There are several albums worth of ideas packed into that single piece of music. And although on one level, it's a bit conventional, if you really want, you can also go find some "edgy" stuff, particular the electronic loops on "On the Run" which clearly prefigured anything Kraftwerk were able to do at the time. A bit of John Cage or Stockhausen thrown in. Plus, in the conventional songs, the melodies are great. Just great. From singalong melodies to transcendental beauty ("The Great Gig in the Sky").

Anyway, so I've been on this Floyd kick recently, partly energized by the discovery of several unofficial recordings, including a superb 1971 concert at the BBC just before the release of Meddle, a 1977 concert in San Francisco in support of the Animals tour, and several rare singles/songs from the Barrett era which I recently discovered. All great stuff. But the jewel of all these discoveries was a complete November 1974 concert that the band played at Wembley Stadium in London. It's just the four guys in the band. They play three new songs (which would eventually all make their way into future albums Wish You Were Here and Animals.) Then they take a break. They play all of The Dark Side of the Moon. Then they come back for an encore of "Echoes" (originally from Meddle). It's just a fantastically recorded show and the band are in their prime as musicians and performers. You can find most of the show on iTunes (broken into two parts as part of the extra discs on the deluxe versions of Dark Side and Wish You Were Here) so I urge anyone who likes long psychedelic music to go and get it. It is one of the best live shows I have ever heard, and that is saying a lot.

Below, I have clips of some of this show. First, an 8-minute version of "Any Colour You Like" from the Wembley show. Roger Waters' bass playing is superb.

Here is "Embryo" from the BBC show in 1971:

And finally, here's "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" played at Wembley in 1974 long before it was actually recorded for release. So all of the audience were hearing it for the first time ever.

Friday, September 28, 2012

The Cinematic Orchestra

Quick post here. The following was recommended by a reader (Meep). People may recognize the song from various movies or TV shows (Friday Night Lights, Grey's Anatomy, etc.). The singer is Patrick Watson guesting on this song. The original song is from the album Ma Fleur, released in 2007.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The xx

The self-titled debut album from The xx was my favorite album of 2009. Granted, this was a bit of a guilty pleasure. At least one friend was aghast, having gotten sick of overplay. But what can I say? It's just a bloody superb album. There was much talk about how the band knew how to use space, how they underplayed everything. The rhythms, so understated, programmed and played by Jamie xx are the heart of the music, good enough for dance music but pulled back to a bare minimum. Romy Madley-Croft's chilling voice and guitar are the second weapon. And listen to "Islands" below and tell me that she doesn't have a genius-level feel for how two or three well-placed guitar notes can transport you to the stratosphere. And finally, there's Oliver Sim, the bass player whose vocals play off Romy's, much like Martha Graham and Rudolf Nureyev on stage. A bit hyperbolic, you say, but there you are. (I should mention that second guitarist and keyboard player Baria Qureshi who played an integral role on the album is not with them anymore). The album is top to bottom, brilliant, not a single misplaced song or note, and washed in so much reverb that once you finish hearing it, real life noises will sound uncannily plain and mundane. You'll want to return to The xx again and again and again, I guarantee it. These are perfectly crafted anthems, ideal for that hushed after-party feeling, best listened at 3 AM, as you wind down the night, empty bottles around and no one but you lying on your bed.

The xx have a new album out called Coexist which is supposedly even more minimalist and less beat-y than the debut. I confess I have not heard it but am looking forward to it. They are playing New York (actually the Paradise Theater in the Bronx!) on October 26 and 28, and I can't for the life of me imagine how these songs will translate on stage. We shall see. Stay tuned for a review. In the meantime, here's two old tracks: