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Discussions: The Black Keys

By Andrew Bailey & Kerri O'Malley; August 13, 2012 at 8:31 AM 

The Black Keys

Andrew Bailey and Kerri O’Malley converse about The Black Keys… and a lot more.

ANDREW BAILEY: Have you ever had a conversation with someone that just keeps popping back into your head, specifically all the points you wish you’d made or examples you wish you’d given? Because that’s one of the big reasons I wanted to talk about The Black Keys: to get some of those thoughts out. I should preface my end of this discussion by saying that I love The Black Keys, but it’s a love that has really changed a lot in the last year or two. I’m guessing you’re a huge fan as well — maybe even a diehard — or else you wouldn’t be doing this with me, right?

KERRI O’MALLEY: To answer your first question… YES, and usually I try to find a way to end up back in the same argument with a different person just to make my finer points. A tip of the hat to you for venting in a less confrontational arena!

Of course, I’m already curious about what shoulda-coulda thoughts you have about the Keys, and who was arguing against them. What’s not to like? And what burning talking points stuck with you? Let’s get into them!

I’m definitely a fan — the only album missing from my arsenal is the first, The Big Come Up. But the strangest part about this band for me is that, while I have a lot of love for the Black Keys and their whole throwback to blues-infused rock music, stripped down from Zeppelin or Stones heights, this band never seemed too cool. They never seemed like they were doing this for anything more than to make music they liked, and they still don’t. They found a sound and stuck by it, steadfast.

Because of that, their recent success (which I assume is part of your changing feelings) never felt like a betrayal or, worse, pandering… at least to me. I like how upfront Patrick Carney and Dan Auerbach have been in recent interviews about El Camino, saying all they wanted to do was make some faster songs that would be more fun to play in an arena, now that they’re selling out arenas. The Keys have a weird, almost lazy quality about them that transcends trend, allowing them to roll with the punches better than projects that elevate their music to holy heights. They’re the girl next door of rock bands; the nice boyfriend that doesn’t take much work — whom you might cast aside only to later remember as perfect. The band definitely isn’t forgettable, but when I think about them in comparison with other two-piece blues-rock acts that came out around the same time, like The White Stripes or The Kills, I feel like their jeans-wearing lack of drama really starts to stand out.

What does your relationship to the Black Keys look like? Do they call your momma “ma’am”?

ANDREW: Interesting. You kind of brushed up against all the things I wanted to talk about in one fell swoop.

First things first: I’ve always liked them for the exact reasons you mention. I like that they’ve sort of revitalized an older style of music without trashing it up, I think they’ve done so without being pretentious about it, and I do feel like they’ve avoided a lot of the drama that tends to come with “rock bands.”

Now, you mention El Camino and how they’ve been very honest in interviews about wanting to make fast, fun songs, but that’s not all they’ve been honest about. They’ve also been fairly honest about turning a profit from their music, a process of commercialization that really started with Attack & Release and then magnified with Brothers. And I love that honesty. It’s so refreshing to hear a band say that part of their drive — maybe not the biggest part — is making a living. I hate the term “sell-out.” I hate when fans get mad because their favorite band sells a song for a commercial or starts using functional studio recording equipment. Isn’t there a line in The Dark Knight about not utilizing your talents for free? I’m glad they make money off their music because they deserve it, and I’m glad they’re pretty honest about it because it’s usually transparent to fans anyway. Power to the Keys.

But over these last two records, Brothers and El Camino, I’ve really felt my interest wane. They actually came through my neck of the woods last summer for Virgin Mobile’s FreeFest — they were headlining — and I didn’t even bother to get tickets. Free tickets. I’d seen them at Bonnaroo the year earlier and, while they put on a good show, I just felt like I didn’t need any more Black Keys in my life. Like, those two albums, they just didn’t feel necessary, if that makes sense. Those two albums amounted to 26 songs in a year and a half and even though every one of those songs is catchy and perfectly fine from every objective and subjective metric I can think of, it just felt to me like they released 26 of the exact same track.

And that’s kind of how I feel about them now. I can’t really even listen to their older stuff because it all sounds so similar to me now. Or maybe not even similar, but certainly over-saturated. And it’s great music; it’s not like they are the only band that has found a groove and stuck in it. I wish I could throw on The Rubber Factory or Attack & Release once a week like I used to. But I keep thinking how I wish they’d take some of their cash and go on a nice vacation for five years. No Black Keys, no solo albums, no Blackroc, no touring. I also realize that’s totally selfish and unrealistic, but that’s my gut reaction at this point. It’s a love/hate thing, you know?

KERRI: I agree with your take on the “sell out” thing, and am similarly glad that the Keys have just come out and said it — again, it’s part of what makes them… them. And I also absolutely understand and echo your sentiments about the last two albums. Some of those songs are killer. When I twirl my radio dial and “Gold on the Ceiling” clicks through the static, I stop and I rock. But that’s kind of the point — they’re not memorable or great albums. Instead, they’re great songs — “Tighten Up” deserved all the recognition it got; “Everlasting Light”; “Howlin For You”; “Little Black Submarines”; “Lonely Boy” — that sit inside otherwise forgettable albums. All those radio hits — the Keys’ first radio hits, really, aside from the college radio love — make a big impression, but the albums sort of peter out after them.

For any other band, this would be normal. But for the Black Keys, it’s a totally new concept.

So I think you’re getting right to the heart of the Keys dilemma when you say it felt to you like they’ve released the exact same track over and over again throughout their career. Whenever I think of the Keys, I think of a wall of sound that is absolutely the same, Their albums are definitely all about riding a single mood, not breaking new ground or create a varied experience. It does all sound the same, feel the same and yeah, it pretty much is the same. Looking back before Brothers, no song on any album is radically different from the next. Probably one of the most what-was-that moments of the Keys’ earlier career could be “I Cry Alone.” But it’s the combination of songs, the construction of this unified great sound, that made their old albums great — they almost seemed to have purposely avoided making “hit” songs in favor of muddy-ing the waters, swirling everything together into one long jam session.

So I guess what I’m saying is that all the similarity is what they do best, and definitely on purpose. Could their latest albums have been better? I think so. But would we have ended up with these great singles that way? Not sure. It’s almost like those are spikes in a heartbeat, registering at a lower level than their normal albums, which usually hit a higher quality but lack stand-out tracks. … Did that metaphor make any sense? Haha. It’s science, I swear!

Side note: Now that I’ve already mentioned it, “I Cry Alone” is probably one of my all time favorites. Auerbach’s voice stands out so clearly in that number, breaking away from the normal fuzzed-out “aw” that rips so closely along with his guitar, it often becomes lost and entwined. I feel like he’s a pretty under appreciated singer, probably because he’s usually so buried and kind of working in a limited southern-nasal-mumble twang that’s so familiar from the rock of yore, but he adds so much soul to each track.

ANDREW: It’s funny you mention “I Cry Alone,” because while I wouldn’t say it’s one of my favorite songs (though Thickfreakness is probably my second or third favorite album of theirs), it is certainly one of those songs that reminds me again that as many of their songs may sound the same, they still have a bunch that break from the norm. And I’d certainly agree that it’s one of Auerbach’s better vocal performances. This is probably an obvious comparison because of the way it starts with the lyrics “my girl, my girl,” but it’s a very Lead Belly-esque song. It’s a lot more straightforward blues than blues rock.

Here’s what I’m curious about: where would you like to see them go next? When they put out Attack & Release, it was a huge deal because they were working with Danger Mouse, which meant they were leaving the dirty production of their earlier stuff behind. Brothers and El Camino are the albums where they really ascended to the mainstream and started writing “hits.” So what’s the next progression for them? Do you want them to go out and add more full-time members, write an acoustic album, or throw all their equipment into an incinerator and start making dubstep on Macbooks?

KERRI: Lead Belly, Son House… it’s very bare and bluesy, but still has a lot of tension, something that those washed-out recordings sometimes lack.

Progression? The Keys spit in the face of progress! I jest, but honestly, the Danger Mouse thing was a leap, but it wasn’t a huge leap, and I’m sure any change for them at this point would be absolutely incremental. Though I don’t know….it’s verry possible that they could keep going down the path those singles I listed above began. Clearer vocals, upbeat tempos, leaving sad feelings behind for less angst-ridden lyrics. They seem to be having a lot of fun in the mainstream — their “Howlin for You” video was awesome, and they have embraced the commercial aspect wholeheartedly without selling out or patronizing fans, like we said before. I doubt that they’re worried about staying popular, but I could see them putting out more hook-driven singles than they used to back in the good ol’ days and sticking where “Tighten Up” brought ’em. Whatever that means, since their new singles still make sense within their old stuff in a lot of ways. Can you put your finger on the difference?

Also, I think you might actually get your wish — I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a few years before we heard another Keys album. The band’s built to tour, but it is just the two of them, and they are going pretty hard now despite the fact that they lead “grown up” lives. I could see them sort of lining their pockets and then taking a bit of time off, possibly going back to something crunchier afterwards.

But ultimatley, yeah, I doubt they’ll really change their sound while it’s still working for them. In a way, that’s a sad thought because, like you said, it’s getting monotonous at this point, though I really think the singles I mentioned before are all very different from the usual Keys material. Maybe they’ll travel a bit further down the path of variety? But then again, how much have similar-ish band the Kills really changed? And didn’t everyone hate Icky Thump? Is it possible the Black Keys have literally found the only formula that works for a two-piece rock band?

Also, now I’m curious: what’s your first favorite album?

ANDREW: One thing I’d really like to hear them try, and I’m not sure if it would be good or bad, is gospel-type choirs as back-up singers. I mentioned that to someone recently with my tongue in my cheek, but the more I thought about it, the more interesting it sounded. They’ve already started using back-up singers anyway, but I’d like to hear them do some Spiritualized-type stuff with it, where the vocals are huge and integral to the song. Like, “Gold on the Ceiling” uses backing vocals and they’re a big part of the song, but I don’t feel like they’re necessary.

I think what’s more likely is another Blackroc project or something along those lines, where they’re just sort of supplementing their normal output with little side projects here and there. That way The Black Keys as a brand remain in tact without any risk of alienating anyone.

Anyway, my favorite is Attack & Release. I love the crunchy, garage-y aesthetic of the stuff before that, but there’s something about Attack & Release that makes it stand out to me (even beyond the obviously improved production). I feel like it’s a subtle album, whereas Rubber Factory and Thickfreakness, my other two favorites, are more in your face. What’s your favorite?

KERRI: Hmm that is an interesting proposition… the kind-of gospel of “Gold on the Ceiling” is pretty sick, and I could definitely see them experimenting more with that. It would be in line with the blues they’re into, but oddly more pop at the same time, which seems to be where they’re aiming anyway. Pretty natural choice there, Andrew.

Did they do any other side projects aside from Blackroc? I remember last year there was a fake leak about Blackroc 2, but I thought they came out and pretty definitively said that wasn’t happening. I don’t recall anything else on the side, but I could be wrong. I’m more inclined to think they’d take a break than go too far into side project territory. Their side projects would taint their brand no matter what, and I just can’t imagine them wanting to do anything so far-fetched they couldn’t call it Black Keys… damn, I guess this Discussion is evidence that I think they’re pretty boring…wait, let’s go with predictable. Comforting. Simple. A return to good-ol rock music. All of these are kind of the same thing, right?

Attack & Release is a really great album — listening through, it is definitely a departure from their early stuff and there’s this kind of weird, haunting quality running through all of the songs. Eerie — a more lasting effect than their other albums — and yes, subtle. I’m hard pressed to pick a fave, but I think you’ve named my top three already, I just might reverse the order! Choosing between Rubber Factory and Thickfreakness is like choosing between vanilla and vanilla bean to me… they’re both so freakin’ delicious. Remember when “Set You Free” was in School of Rock? And hardly anyone knew who the Black Keys were?

ANDREW: Other than Dan’s solo album, which sounds like a softer Keys record (but is fantastic still), I think that’s all they’ve done. I feel like they’ve done some producing as well, but I can’t remember if that’s accurate. That seems like a logical next step for them too. You have to imagine that they’ve been a big part of the production process as their sound has “grown up.” But honestly, aside from a select few guys and hip-hop, I don’t get too excited about producers. Like, Jack White will apparently produce anything for anyone at this point, but he’s not turning the Insane Clown Posse into good musicians, you know?

You know what might be kind of cool? This just popped into my head. The Black Keys teaming up with The Roots. It’d probably end up sounding a lot like Blackroc anyway, but the potential is pretty significant. You’d have dueling drummers, a full band, you could do hip-hop songs with bluesy, soulful verses (or vice versa). It’d be like that rumored Modest Mouse/Big Boi team-up, except a little bit more predictable (there’s that word again).

Have you ever had the chance to see the Keys live?

KERRI: Haha oh god — the Jack White/ICP thing is still a sore spot for me. Let’s hope the Keys never go down that path. Yeah, producing is where great acts go to become near-dead dads of the next gen, and usually the projects they pick are not that exciting (over generalization alert).

I’ve never seen them live, no. What’re they like? And have you ever seen them in a festival setting? I’m just wondering what that kind of crowd is like.

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Discussions: Dave Grohl

By Daniel Griffiths & Jason Hirschhorn; May 30, 2012 at 11:00 AM 

Dave Grohl

Dan Griffiths and Jason Hirshhcorn discuss the career of mega-star Dave Grohl, from Nirvana through Foo Fighters and more.

JASON HIRSCHHORN: Greetings old chum. Today we’re going to discuss one of the most important musicians of the past 25 years who almost never gets the spotlight: David Grohl.

DAN GRIFFITHS: Here we go again!

I’m looking forward to this. It’s criminal that Grohl isn’t a monlithic figure in music industry by now; he is in the rock world, but even then he seems understated. A man with so, so many strings to his bow is going to be fun to discuss. Where do we start?!

JASON: I think we should tackle this at his start, or at least, the beginning of his prominence: drumming for Nirvana. Now you have an interesting take on Nirvana, no?

DAN: Aha, the monster that is Nirvana. I’d say it is interesting: From the age of 13 I had Nirvana shoved down my throat by classmates who thought they were gods. I was bought up on classic rock, so for me there were bands with far better vocalists, far better guitarists and more interesting sounds that I could divert my attentions to. Most of the things they raved about really didn’t interest me, and besides, when one gets an onslaught of “You should like this” most days and you don’t see what’s special about the band in the first place, it quickly turns you against the band. It’s only in the past 4 or so years I’ve given them a chance. People always think it’s me being different for the sake of it, but it was overkill, and that gets tiring real quick!

I’m guessing you didn’t have the same experience with them?

JASON: My experience with most music was different. I was raised without either parent really playing music in the house, and by chance I didn’t end up having friends who played music very often. Between that and having been born a little too late to really know what was going on during the first half of the nineties, I didn’t get my first taste of Nirvana until about 2000. By then the hype had settled, and I was able to take it in at my own speed. Probably not coincidentally, I think they’re fantastic. Nevermind was the first non-classic rock album I really took to, so it’s personally significant as well as culturally.

DAN: I always think that my generation was just a hair too late for Nirvana; it wasn’t just that the hype had died down by 02/03, it was music of a completely different generation. I can see why my peers get so heavily into it, but I was more excited by the likes of Muse, QotSA, The White Stripes et al because they were starting out being big bands while people my age were just starting to get into music. I’m always funny around bands of a different generation because I don’t normally feel the emotional connection. I guess that’s why I’m not fanatical about them.

JASON: I can see that. For me, Nirvana was the last “big band” that I would consider before my time. While I wouldn’t get into them until later, what I consider “my generation’s music” started in the late 90s with Radiohead and the manufactured super-pop.

But let’s bring this back to Grohl. He’s sort of had two careers that weigh about equally in my impression of him. He was only in Nirvana for a short time, but those years changed the direction of popular music. On the other side, he controlled the artistic direction of the Foo Fighters, and that group has not only become huge, but they’ve been around for almost 20 years. I guess the question at the heart of this is: Who’s the real Dave Grohl?

DAN: That’s a tricky one. He’s been in his role as Foo Fighters’ captain for so long now, I’m tempted to say that the scruffy, bearded, energetic man front and centre is the real Grohl. I mean, under his stewardship Foo Fighters have become the biggest rock band on the planet right now, and they’ll be considered amongst the greats of the genre when all is said, done and written purely because of how massive they are, and Grohl’s achieved that while displaying genuine enthusiasm, passion and enjoyment for what he does.

Then, you look at all his side projects, and he’s the drummer. Always. Arguably, he’s already the head of a supergroup (super as in big, not who’s in it) so why would he want to do it again? If he wanted to he could, but his first choice is always the stool. Example: The Foo’s show at Wembley. Where did Grohl go straight to when Page and JPJ came out on stage – the drumkit.

JASON: I think your idea of the Foo Fighters’ size/prominence is overblown. I’ve never considered them to be the “biggest” or “one of the all-time greats.” They have made some very good music, though, even if he’s been mining the same vein for the duration of the Foo Fighters’ career.

As for his perception as a musician, I agree that he’s always viewed first and foremost as a drummer. Part of that is because he’s so goddamn great at it. One of the cliches about Grohl is that he is his generation’s John Bonham, and I’ll actually stand by that. Both Bonham and Grohl employ a lot of finesse to their style, but both are known for the sheer power of their drumming. I know Jason Bonham had to be the choice for Led Zeppelin’s reunion show a few years ago, but Dave Grohl would have been more interesting.

DAN: This is what I love about these discussions with people in different locations. Over here, Foo Fighters are, hands down, the biggest rock band of the 00’s. They’re a surefire ticket seller for festivals, they can pack out Wembley twice, albums and singles chart high and are constantly being played, and they have that rare ability to be liked by everyone regardless of their usual musical denomination. A guy you wouldn’t look at twice in the street will be the guy with his arm around you singing along to “Best Of You” at the top of his lungs. That’s how transcendent they are in the UK. Personally, I’d lump them in with other greats because they’ve almost owned the 00’s. I wouldn’t for a moment say they’re on the level of, say, Led Zeppelin or AC/DC, but if the history of rock were written down, someone would have to have the 00’s. I can think of maybe Muse and Green Day that have a big enough audience reach to be considered, but even then they aren’t really close. Well maybe Muse are over here.

Anyway, almost every American I’ve discussed the Foo’s with has been of the same opinion as yourself, whereas for us, they’re part of the fabric. They’re the starting point for a lot of kids.

I love how powerful his drumming is; it’s just so ‘Grrrrrrr’. It would’ve been fun to see him with Led Zeppelin, I wonder if he’d have added his own little things in while doing it. That would’ve been cool. This might clear up how he’s perceived as a musician: Have you ever read how he describes his guitar playing? He says he plays his guitar as if it were a drum kit. Each string represents a different part of the drum kit; the lower strings the kick and the snare while the higher strings are like the cymbals, so he composes accordingly. Dude’s a drummer!

JASON: That’s interesting. Here in the US people know when a Foo Fighters album comes out, but usually it isn’t a huge deal. Sadly, Nickelback seem to have a bigger following here. Being an American is difficult.

That quote of Grohl’s guitar playing sounds pretty cool, but it also sounds more like it was designed as a soundbite rather than an actual description of his guitar playing. Do you think he sounds like he’s playing the drums on guitar?

DAN: Not all the time, but there are moments when he does follow that rhythm. He always uses the higher strings like cymbals anyway, but that might be down to the Rush influence. And I promise that’s my only Rush reference.

Oh, and I’m glad my fellow countrymen picked the right path.

JASON: So here’s a question: What’s your favorite album Grohl has contributed on? I think this will be interesting, because you claim to be a bigger fan of the Foo Fighters than Nirvana (though we don’t have to limit the albums to just those two bands).

DAN: Ah man, I want to limit myself to one but I’m going to be selfish. There Is Nothing Left To Lose is up there and I would say In Your Honor but I’m not keen on the second disc. Wasting Light was a favourite from last year so I’m going to say that aswell. But the big one has to be Songs For The Deaf. It’s a classic. How about you?

JASON: Mine is the far less interested answer of Nevermind. As I said before that album was my introduction into contemporary music, and frankly it’s one I still listen to frequently. Even as I’ve moved onto things less “rock” than Nirvana, Nevermind remains a great listen the whole way through.

So can you explain your selections in more detail? I’m curious as to why those albums are your favorite.

DAN: I’m a big Foo’s fan, as we’ve said earlier in the discussion, so I feel I have to put at least one of theirs in; I feel like they’re ‘My’ rock band. There Is Nothing Left To Lose is as strong and diverse as it gets with their catalogue while being a cohesive album – it can be a relaxing listen or it can be energetic, especially at the start. Depends what mood you want to be in when you listen to it. I also happen to believe “Stacked Actors” is the greatest Foo Fighters song. Wasting Light was such a pleasant surprise for me I found myself constantly listening to it last Summer, because I love its ballsy and energetic nature. It’s a genuinely good and engaging rock record so it gets a third of my vote. Songs For The Deaf is more of a nostalgia trip; my introduction to a world other than Classic Rock; it’s edgy and fresh sounding.

I think those are my reasons!

JASON: There Is Nothing Left To Lose is a very good album so I’m not surprised you picked it. I am surprised you didn’t mention The Colour And The Shape which I think is the best Foo Fighters’ album. Fairly or not, I like to assume Grohl builds his albums the way Jimmy Page used to: a balance of light and shade. On Nothing Left you have some very strong moments that balance each other out. “Monkey Wrench” is as good as any pop-punk from the mid-90s, and then you have a softer moment like “Everlong.” There’s nothing groundbreaking on the album (though that could probably be said about any Foos album), but it’s a solidly built piece of music.

DAN: I would put The Colour and the Shape in but the softer moments on nothing left are absolutely sublime. I was just listening to it today, and I was astounded by how relaxing it is. I think Colour suffers from having three mega, mega songs that overshadow everything else. It’s like the Miami Heat of the Foo’s catalogue whereas Nothing Left is a “Chicago Bulls” kind of album; a big important song, but a more even, balanced approach from start to finish.

You’re right, Grohl does go for that light/shade approach, and that’s kind of been missing over the last few albums.

JASON: Since we’re talking about LeBron now anyway, let’s talk legacy. How will we remember David Eric Grohl?

DAN: Grohl’s legacy is going to be huge. He’s got the Nirvana years firstly, then there are the years when he was, and still is, the only real rock god around. He’s such a big personality how does he have anything other than a big legacy?

JASON: I believe Grohl’s legacy will be that of music’s Scottie Pippen. Work with me on this one. He’s always there to help out with whatever project you have (when you need a powerhouse drummer sub, he’s always the guy), and he’s been the main creative force behind some very memorable music. However, he’s never achieved true greatness on his own. Nevermind benefited greatly from his drums and backing vocals, but that’s still Kurt Cobain’s album. No Foo Fighters album is generally regarded as well as that album, an opinion I agree with. He’s the perfect sidekick, but he can’t quite do it as a lead dog.

DAN: I think you’re spot on with the Pippen comparison. His collaborations, be that him playing with other bands or him bringing classic bands on stage with him (Rush, Queen, Led Zep) will be one of his defining characteristics. What’s neat about all those collaborations is Grohl seems to be a guy who just wants to celebrate rock and all the history that goes with it. That’s another part of his legacy; dude loved doing what he did and had a blast while doing it.

Something Kobe Bryant recently said got me thinking about Grohl and his legacy. Kobe was on about not having a real rival, at his position, throughout his whole career and that’s true. He’s THE guy from ’98 to around the time LeBron really made it around ’07 (Duncan doesn’t really enter this – Fundamental PF’s don’t really have a big crossover and marketable appeal). You wonder if a T-Mac or a Carter had had the same drive and determination as Kobe and won a couple of rings in the early 00’s, they’d be muscling in on Kobe’s overall legacy; we wouldn’t see him as the only real superstar to come out of that era. Same with Grohl; he’ll be seen as THE rock guy in this era purely because there’s no-one else. Had Nickelback actually been good or QotSA more prolific, they’d have eaten some pieces of the pie that Grohl and the Foo’s have pretty much had to themselves for quite a while. As much as I love them, I don’t think any Foo Fighters album would really stand out alongside some substantial competition. We’re seeing that now with some newer bands.

I guess what I’m trying to say is he could be seen as a superstar by default.

JASON: I follow you. In terms of mainstream exposure there really aren’t a lot of “rock stars” anymore. I don’t know if that’s the new reality or just a temporary change. Grohl is certainly one of rock’s more interesting characters. He’s one of the few contemporary artists who I could actually see fitting in with, say, the Traveling Wilburys and at the same time sitting in with Metallica (assuming they’re over that whole “stop releasing crap” letter fiasco


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Tom Waits
The Velvet Underground
Led Zeppelin
Sigur Rós
Bob Dylan
Andrew Bird
David Bowie
Pearl Jam
Pink Floyd
The White Stripes
Nine Inch Nails


Discussions: Nine Inch Nails

By Ryan Nichols & Cole Zercoe; May 23, 2012 at 10:00 AM 

Trent Reznor

In our latest installment of Discussions, Ryan Nichols and Cole Zercoe tackle Trent Reznor’s Nine Inch Nails.

COLE ZERCOE: Since a big part of these discussions revolves around opinion, it feels fitting to start with a question tied to that subject. It seems like the critical opinion of Trent Reznor and the Nine Inch Nails catalogue has risen pretty substantially in recent years, despite the fact that Reznor’s masterworks, The Downward Spiral and The Fragile, are each over a decade old at this point. Why do you think that is?

RYAN NICHOLS: Since Trent returned in 2005, the fan base has dramatically shifted. Some fans of Nine Inch Nails may still be into the rock bands of the 90’s era, but many, (including the band itself) have shifted their musical tastes. Because of this, what Nine Inch Nails’ music is associated with has changed. Nine Inch Nails were always a great deal deeper than most of their hard rock contemporaries in the 90’s, but only recently has that depth been acknowledged. Now that Trent’s contemporaries are artists considered to be working at a higher level, I think Nine Inch Nails and Trent Reznor’s musical output is finally being held within that same higher regard. A perfect example of this is the reaction to the reissue of Pretty Hate Machine. The majority of critics held the reissue in high regard, despite the fact that a few years ago, the album had nowhere near the same amount of critical praise it received in 2010. This isn’t a coincidence.

COLE: I’ve never thought of it that way, but I’d definitely agree. Despite the Nine Inch Nails/Reznor aesthetic remaining relatively steadfast throughout the years – the perception of what Nine Inch Nails is and what is associated with it has, without a doubt, changed. It’s a bit unfair, really, given that the depth to Reznor’s musical output has always been there. Since you touched on different Nine Inch Nails eras, maybe we should move toward exploring that area. What do you think of Nine Inch Nails circa 2005 and onward versus the “classic” Nine Inch Nails of 1989 to 2000?

RYAN: Clearly the depth has been there. Even before The Fragile, Reznor had a tendency to go deeper with his music as opposed to his contemporaries at the time. Musically, I prefer the 1989-2000 “classic” times for Nine Inch Nails. I feel Trent’s best two albums came from this period with The Downward Spiral and The Fragile. There was a stronger focus on emotion and intensity as opposed to the modern day Nine Inch Nails’ focus on instrumental prowess and political themes. Not that this is bad. I think Year Zero is Reznor’s third best record, and on some days, it’s my favorite. I’m a huge fan of the more “mature” Reznor – with his newfound approach to electronic work and songwriting. Even weaker albums like With Teeth and The Slip still have their strengths. There’s actually a lot of similarities to the work of Reznor and his frequent collaborator, director David Fincher. Fincher’s Seven and Fight Club are my two favorite works, but the more focused and mature Zodiac can be a favorite too, and is often overlooked, much like Year Zero.

COLE: It’s funny because I feel like Reznor has all the same tools and talent at his disposal, but for some reason has chosen to take the Nine Inch Nails sound into a more – I don’t want to say straightforward – but perhaps a less risky territory than what was presented with The Downward Spiral and The Fragile. I’ve always thought Ghosts I-IV has been the closest Reznor has gotten in recent years to that creative space he was in with both The Downward Spiral and The Fragile. There’s some tracks on there that really beg to be fully formed songs, like “4 Ghosts I.” I listen to a track like that and it feels like the natural, true progression from where Reznor left off in 1999.

RYAN: I completely agree with that, With Teeth and The Slip seem a lot more basic. While With Teeth has a few of his strongest songs, (“Beside You in Time” and “Right Where it Belongs,” for example) the harder tracks such as “The Collector” come off as Reznor on auto-pilot. Not that those songs are necessarily bad, but something about them is lacking. It’s the same case with The Slip. The first six tracks are aggressive, sure, but still seem somewhat basic compared to the risks Reznor took in the 1990’s. I don’t expect him to write lyrics with that sort of intensity anymore, that makes sense. He’s matured. Plenty of great lyricists go through a dramatic shift. But still, musically, something is missing. Ghosts was more promising. With that level of instrumental and emotional depth, plus his recent soundtrack work, I could see the new Nine Inch Nails material coming in 2012 being much deeper, and more in the vein of the classic works.

COLE: And it’s not even the lyrics that are really the issue, to me. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot to be liked in the recent Nine Inch Nails output. “Me, I’m Not” and “The Great Destroyer” are some of the best tracks Reznor’s ever done. But I feel like Nine Inch Nails is at the height of its powers when it’s operating, instrumentally, in a mode that is a little more off-kilter, when the songs work more as movements than as closed-ended pop songs. The Fragile and Still are probably the best examples of what I’m talking about. Both of those works were created with an atmosphere in mind that often took precedence over the individual tracks. They work best when taken as a whole. It’s a skill Reznor’s always had, which makes his choice to get into film scoring come as no surprise. It’ll be interesting to see what form the next Nine Inch Nails album takes. A part of me loves the idea of Reznor returning to it with his film experience in tow, but another part of me is nervous. Hopefully his time working in that particular form hasn’t worn him out on the idea of letting the music breathe. The one thing that has me really excited with what Nine Inch Nails could be in its next iteration is the track Reznor did for Tetsuo: The Bullet Man. What did you think of that track?

RYAN: Yeah, I think Reznor’s music works really well when it doesn’t necessarily hinge on a melody. Take “La Mer” or “The Way is Out Through,” for instance, or something like “The Great Below.” While these all have some sort of melody within them, their greater aspect is this almost cinematic atmosphere that songs such as “Letting You” or “Capital G” lack. I’d be interested to see Reznor do more things like the Tetsuo theme. That track seemed to incorporate the sounds of a lot more of his modern influences, which is great. It was noisy, cruel, and in some parts almost evil. I’d be interested in seeing Nine Inch Nails taken in this direction, now that Reznor has How to Destroy Angels to serve as his lighter musical outlet.

COLE: I think the reason I like the Tetsuo theme so much isn’t necessarily because of its heaviness, but because it works in such a chaotic space. That track is all over the place instrumentally, yet in a very controlled way. It’s probably the best modern example of Reznor’s precision when it comes to crafting something that sounds so unhinged yet so carefully constructed at the same time. There’s also a grandness to it that many of his recent output somewhat lacks, a sort of density in sound to the point that it almost feels suffocating. And yet, there’s as much beauty to the track as there is abrasiveness. On that note, I’m curious as to what space you think Reznor works best in. I’m getting the feeling you gravitate more toward the aggressive side, so let me ask – musically, what’s your favorite Nine Inch Nails song?

RYAN: It is controlled chaos. I’d actually say that’s a great way to describe a ton of Nine Inch Nails’ music. Most of The Fragile is controlled chaos, in lyrics, music, and composition. But musically, I actually go more for the lusher, more beautifully composed bits than I do the aggression. I’d have to say “La Mer” is probably my favorite, because it blends both elements of what makes Reznor’s music work. There’s beautiful, pensive moments alongside a really intense, aggressive middle section that, in a way, hits you harder than some of Reznor’s heavier tracks. Granted, a song like “Letting You” or “Big Man With a Gun” is very blunt in its heaviness, but there’s something about the dynamics of a song like “La Mer” that makes it much stronger. There’s a lot going on in that track, and it’s a tremendous piece of music. The best part of songs like “La Mer,” The Fragile, and works in that vein is that they have this deeply cinematic feel, but in a way that’s much more powerful. I can’t separate “La Mer” from the lily pads and water droplets of And All That Could Have Been, nor can I separate the images played during “The Great Below” from that same live work, yet I couldn’t picture those songs in a movie. So it makes sense in a way that Reznor’s scaled back a bit with his film scores. They’re powerful, but in a different way than the tracks I just mentioned.

COLE: In a lot of ways, the various musical spaces Reznor works within have never been more segregated than they have been in recent years. When you think of How To Destroy Angels, or the soundtrack work, or even individual Nine Inch Nails records, everything has been compartmentalized. For instance, we got a collection of purely instrumental tracks in Ghosts, followed by a collection of mostly rock songs in The Slip. This wasn’t really the case in the first Nine Inch Nails era. In those days, you’d have a track like “Big Man with a Gun” followed immediately by something like “A Warm Place.” This allowed for a lot of strong musical contrast and movement in those records – which in turn created a greater sense of the almost cinematic feel you’re referring to. I think lumping things together has somewhat lessened their respective impacts, but at the same time, it’s a bit early to really know how these various different outlets will eventually influence one another. With How to Destroy Angels’ first full-length due this year and the inevitability of a new Nine Inch Nails record, hopefully we’ll see things start to blend together again.

As for my favorite track, it has to be “And All That Could Have Been” off of Still. There’s something about that song’s ability to sound as immense as it does intimate that summarizes the entirety of The Fragile era within one track. In fact, all of Still acts as a bleak, but fitting epilogue to that era. It’s definitely Reznor at his most broken, and in turn it can be difficult to listen to, but there’s such a beauty to how vividly portrayed Reznor’s headspace was in that record. It’s something very few albums ever manage to successfully capture – and a major reason why I’m continually drawn to both that song and Still as a whole. It’s a moment in time – a portrait of a man at rock bottom without any indication whatsoever that he’ll make it out alive. A large amount of Nine Inch Nails’ output revolves around that sort of thematic space, but I don’t think it ever got as precise or as unrelenting as it did during that period.

RYAN: The segregation of his material is an interesting point, and makes me wonder if Reznor is trying to ditch the limitations and expectations that come with the Nine Inch Nails name. Generally, the fans have been very receptive to these various different projects, but I wonder how fans would react to material without Trent’s name or established musical history attached to it. It feels as if he’s continually tried to break away from it in recent years. Your choice of “And All That Could Have Been” is linked to that, in a way. That Trent doesn’t really exist in his current material – it’s a version of him that feels almost alien at this point, given his current musical identity.

COLE: It’s precisely that sense of breaking away that has made Reznor’s music of 2005 and beyond feel like a period that is predominately defined by transition. I don’t think Reznor has completely figured out where he wants to go from here, but there’s something commendable about an artist that is willing to hit the reset button so deep into a career. It’s a choice that comes with a lot of risk, but also a great deal of possibility, and if there’s anyone that has the ability to use that possibility to their advantage, it’s Reznor. We’ll just have to wait and see.


Other Discussions:

Tom Waits
The Velvet Underground
Led Zeppelin
Sigur Rós
Bob Dylan
Andrew Bird
David Bowie
Pearl Jam
Pink Floyd
The White Stripes


Discussions: The White Stripes

By Liam Demamiel & Ray Finlayson; March 22, 2012 at 1:00 PM 

The White Stripes

Liam Demamiel and Ray Finlayson riff on Jack and Meg, The White Stripes.

RAY FINLAYSON: I’m going to go straight for the jugular: do you think Meg White is a good drummer?

LIAM DEMAMIEL: I think Meg is an exceptional drummer! I can understand on some level the criticism directed at her, but if you don’t understand her role in the band you seem to be misunderstanding The White Stripes. I have always thought that what made the band was its simplicity and control. Jack doesn’t need a Buddy Rich drum-alike, he needs someone to keep a simple and direct beat. Having seen them live a few times, what stood out was Meg’s drumming. She really leans in and hits hard and most importantly, keeps Jack anchored. When Jack steps on that Whammy I think not even he knows what is going to happen! That dependability and un-flashiness somehow confines the music to supporting the storytelling, which I believe is a very good thing.

RAY: It pleases me to hear you say that. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to just submit to people’s misunderstanding as they preach (in numbers, from my experience) that she’s a pointless and terrible drummer. In all fairness, yes, her beats are simple, but as you pretty much put it, that’s the point. If anything her style helps accentuate Jack’s skill and general (excuse the technical term) awesomeness. Considering they’ve produced so much great music, it was a match made in a sort of musical heaven. That said, I have often pondered what The White Stripes might have sounded like had they had some John Bonham-esque drummer instead of Meg, but the thought never goes far. At times it can sound like Jack is struggling with himself (or battling against himself), that the idea of having a drummer to compete with is a heavy and congested thought. Maybe I’m wrong though, but’s it’s not worth thinking and/or talking about, or is it?

LIAM: I think ‘struggling’ or ‘battling’ are good descriptors of the band. For all intents and purposes, they are an exercise in minimalism. Jack often spoke of the freedom one gains through restriction: two people limited by the drums/guitar/vocals equation and a red/white/black colour scheme. The White Stripes produced their best work when they surrendered themselves to these limitations and railed against them. Icky Thump was average at best, not because Jack and Meg exhausted their talent, but because they let themselves drift too far – synths, bagpipes even?! There is something special that happens when Meg is behind the kit and Jack only has his guitar to save him. I couldn’t think of two people more suited to play music together. Can you think of any other duo that has rivalled them in terms of creative ability or success?

RAY: For me, the best sound they created was one where they sounded eternally frustrated, like they were playing something in an attempt to scratch a decade long itch (which is kind of strange since it’s a sound that’s there from their first album). But I suppose if I were to try put it more accurately, the sound was more about the abrasiveness than the frustration on their self-titled album – but the effect feels similar. There’s a hell of a passion on tracks like “Stop Breaking Down,” “The Big Three Killed My Baby,” and “Astro,” which is all the more impressive considering they are brilliant songs in themselves performed by (as we now agree) two fine musicians. If I have to be honest though, what I really love is the feel of frustration on Get Behind Me Satan, which most people seemed to dismiss it for. That moment on “Instinct Blues” when Jack fidgets during one of the brief pauses and then yelps “Wooo!” when he brings it all back gets me every single time. Even though the track is somewhat half-baked (the riff sounds totally improvised) it just captures what I imagine a live show of their’s to sound like: a sound or idea, thought up in an instance by Jack but being overrun by another idea as it’s performed. It’s strange, one of the main reasons I love the band feels so very hard to describe but hopefully you see what I mean or where I’m coming from.

There are a few duos that come to mind but none of them match Jack and Meg. Male/female duos like Mates of State or The Like Young are enjoyable at the best of times but can, at other times, fall back on being a little too cutesy and charming. It’s no bad thing though, and perhaps not intentional half the time, but when you compare their work with The White Stripes, they barely seem to stand up next to them. There’s She & Him too, I suppose, but they seem to occupy a different kind of musical field and haven’t had the sufficient time to create a catalogue to match Jack and Meg’s. I have gone somewhat blank though, and I’m likely forgetting another musical duos that could be more accurately compared. But they are a band that I don’t think there’s anyone I’d actively say they sound like. Rather I’d revert to putting them into genres – blues, rock, garage, etc – in an attempt to describe them. Is that just me, or do you have a better point of reference for describing them?

LIAM: I don’t think I do have a better way of describing them! I think the ‘garage,’ ‘punk,’ and ‘blues’ genre tags are as close as one can get to describing, possibly with the addition of a ‘neo-traditional country’ descriptor too. But even then, I feel as if I am clutching at rather generic terms to pin to something that is anything but homogenous. One could possibly classify them by reference to their influences, however they are a band who seem to have taken these influences and who have run with them in an entirely different direction. When they cover songs such as “Jolene” and “Death Letter,” there is somehow both fidelity to the original effort and a new slant that is so simple that it is unexpected. I think you nailed it when you said that male/female duos can fall back on being a little too cutesy and charming. There are sometimes elements of this when it comes to The White Stripes, but it vanishes in an instant when Jack hits a power chord that has the decibel level of a jet engine.

We have touched briefly on their recorded output, but what is your favourite album or period of the band?

RAY: I remember when I first heard their take on “Stop Breaking Down.” A friend of mine made me a mixtape of blues music (this was about six years ago, so it was an actual tape – and it was blue!) and stuck in the middle on one side was “Stop Breaking Down” and it just completely blew me away. I was amazed with how much force it had while still managing to fit in perfectly with the Leadbelly and Robert Johnson tracks that surrounded it. To this day the track remains one of my favourites of the band and is definitely a highlight of the album.

Which leads me perfectly into answering you question about my favourite album. While I can understand why most people usually put White Blood Cells on top, it’s not an album I’d put even my top three. The top position is often a battle between their self-titled and Get Behind Me Satan. It’s a strange combination so I should probably explain it. When I first played their self-titled on my CD player, it was just so raw and loud and powerful. It was so much more naturally fierce than everything that followed and captured a pair of musicians just wanting to rock the fuck out in their garage or some small mid-town venue instead of just going into the studio and doing their thing. Years back, when I was first playing it, it was so impressionable that it felt almost daring and “bad” for me to play it in my parents’ house even though there wasn’t a single swear word in it. I’d never heard music quite like this before (sure, I’d heard plenty of Led Zeppelin but never did they sound so untamed as Jack and Meg), it was a sort of awakening for me and I think that’s why it’ll always be placed on a pedestal.

The love I have for Get Behind Me Satan on the other hand, I feel, will be harder to defend. I know many speak lowly of it, or just downright dismiss it when considering the band’s catalogue. It’s sloppy, it’s unfinished, it’s a mixed bag of ideas, style and genres, it’s hurried; it’s amazing – to me at least. It may well be all those things described but they are hardly insults in The White Stripes world. As Jack’s progressed as a guitarist, he’s relied more and more on improvisation and spontaneity, and while some could argue it has led to important qualities being undermined, it’s also a return to form. The White Stripes were never about perfection; they’re a band based on fuzzy logic, playing the song with the sound they want to make. It just helps that Jack’s an underrated musical genius and never lets the best slip away from him (too often). But what sells it for me is the feel and the mood of the album. Sure, there are light moments like “My Doorbell” and “The Denial Twist,” but pretty much everywhere else, Jack sounds like he’s either going to explode with frustrated tension or just give up on all music entirely. On “Red Rain” he sounds the most pissed off you’re ever going to hear him on record while juxtaposing this you have at his most vulnerable sounding when he’s plinking away on his glockenspiel, while on “White Moon” he sounds ready to walk away from his life as a musician over the hammered piano chords (I particularly love the tambourine which is dropped near the end, like it’s an audible sign of what I just described).

I could go on – oh man, how I could go on – but I won’t as there’s a whole discussion to be had and plenty more to be said about everything else. Plus it would be very rude to not let you get your say of your favourite album/era. So do tell.

LIAM: A friend at school slipped me a copy of White Blood Cells a few months before Elephant hit. Whilst White Blood Cells is probably a better album, and I can certainly appreciate its genius, Elephant somehow has the mystery element that blows me away every time I listen to it. I remember getting a copy of it as a gift, and then needing a replacement copy a few months later as I had abused the poor thing into scratch-dom. At first I didn’t really ‘understand’ it that much – it seemed a little confused and manic for the music listener I was in my early teens. But one night I was watching television and the European Music Awards came on and Michael Stipe introduced Jack and Meg and they belted out a pretty ferocious rendition of “Seven Nation Army” (Meg had a pretty crazy fur hat on too, if I remember correctly). That was the first time I had sighted the band – the crafted image and just two people making a hell of a racket. From then on I listened to Elephant religiously. Years down the track I somehow acquired it on cassette too, and listened to it on most of my trips to and from work. It is one of the few albums I can keep in constant heavy rotation and never get bored of.

What I have always liked about the record are its contrasts. There is some really heavy stuff going on (“Little Acorns” is perhaps the heaviest I have heard them and they can sure pull it off) but then there are those lovely kind of wacky moments like “It’s True That We Love One Another” and “In the Cold, Cold Night.” It is also one of the few albums where I love both sides equally, even though they sometimes seem like different records. Side A starts upbeat but then lulls down fairly quickly, with more ballad type tracks. But when Jack hits that first chord on “Ball and Biscuit” and side B starts, things go back to full pace again and hardly let up. I think there is something for everyone on Elephant, maybe that’s why some don’t like it that much (apart from the oft cited – ‘it’s too commercial’ excuse). But I think there is something for every mood on it, at least for me anyway.

We mentioned ‘periods’ of the band too, and the Elephant ‘period’ is my favourite time of the band. I think the record was a transition work between the old more ‘traditional’ White Stripes and the more experimental stuff that was to follow. As someone who has always appreciated Mr. White as a guitarist, I think the album is important in that it best evidences the early development of his current sound – crunched out chords and overdriven soloing. I see the merit of Get Behind Me Satan and to some extent Icky Thump. But after these two records (this may be a little controversial) I think it was either time to head back to basics or move on entirely. Do you think they made the right choice in calling it quits when they did?

RAY: I can almost exactly relate to why you like Elephant. Much like yourself, I found myself quite entranced by the album – it was first experience with the band (yes, I jumped on that “Seven Nation Army” bandwagon) and played the album to death. And like you, I even listened to it on tape. I was perhaps the only person in the world that used a cassette walkman in the post-millennium age but personally I found the devices brilliant (I still do – if my iPod ever breaks down, I know what its replacement will be). Two albums could fit on each side of a tape (provided they were no longer than about 43 minutes), which meant I really got to know the music I listened to. And Elephant was on one side of one of my tapes and thus, by listening to it to and from school for months on end, I came to know it like the back of my hand (fun personal fact: the tape cut off half-way through “Girl, You Have No Faith In Medicine” and for a long, long time I thought that was the end of the track, and it still feels weird when listening to the whole song today).

But as I said, I played it to death and I think I killed the album for myself and now, instead of thinking Elephant was a pinnacle of music awesomeness, I consider it the worst White Stripes album. I understand what you say when you talk about its broad appeal and its contrasts, but there’s just too many lacklustre tracks on the album. Yes, all seven minutes and nineteen seconds of “Ball and Biscuit” are utterly fantastic, “Hypnotize” is a brief and brash kick of the band’s old style, and “You’ve Got Her In Your Pocket” is the most gentle and perhaps most beautiful thing Jack’s ever done, but in between these tracks are ones that do nothing for me. “I Want to Be the Boy to Warm Your Mother’s Heart” sounds too a little saccharine for me while the only intriguing thing about “The Air Between My Fingers” is the song’s almost Descartes-ian title. I can appreciated what’s being tried on “In The Cold, Cold Night” but it doesn’t work for me and, let’s be honest, Meg’s singing can’t hold a song together (not even for thirty seconds on “Passive Manipulation” from Get Behind Me Satan). Even the traditional jocular final track on the album falls flat.

That is just my opinion though, and I can understand why you praise the album, much like why anyone can praise any of their albums. What really (and I mean really) riles me up though is when I see Elephant appearing on The Greatest Albums Ever lists. It may well be because I think every other album by The White Stripes is better than Elephant, but the fact that inane and narrow-minded music critics stick it so high makes me wince and near enough vomit onto my computer screen. It is a good album in certain respects and “Seven Nation Army” is a forever memorable rock song, but Jesus Christ, it is not a life changing album. I can’t help but think that critics listened to the first track of the album, thought, “what a tune!” and then stumped it onto their already terrible list and moved on to the next piece of trite (some modern Primal Scream album, probably). I’d put White Blood Cells on such a list way before Elephant, as that album really changed the game and ripped open the revival of Zeppelin-inspired rock music into the chart domain as opposed to just giving the band commercial success (an excuse, as you said, but inevitably true).

But, again, that’s just my opinion. As it is also when I say the band were probably correct to bring their life to an end. While I would have loved another record and likely would have kept welcoming music by them for the rest of my listening life, they had exhausted their options. Jack is still a brilliant musician and continues to create brilliant music in various other guises but as a duo, there wasn’t much more territory for them to explore. If they did another album, I think you’re right in saying it would have been a back to basics album – something akin to their self-titled debut, but with more studio sheen – or a vastly odd experimentation record (a concept rock opera where Meg plays a damsel in distress, or something). It’s sad, but the end of The White Stripes was probably a better decision overall. Would you agree?

LIAM: It was very sad, but I believe they had to end it when they did. On a practical front, there had been many references to Meg’s health problems and that is as valid an excuse as anyone needs to end a project. But there are a host of other reasons that made 2011 the best time to stop – Jack had been for some time venturing into different things that required his attention (more of The Raconteurs, The Dead Weather, Third Man Records, and producing), the band had resorted to somewhat trivial novelties to keep things fresh (like the ‘one note’ show), and they had really reached the point where the formula had been worked to death. Without rejuvenating in some way or another, there was a real risk that their legacy as a band would have been severely tarnished. Instead, they walked away still relatively at the top of their game with six amazing records to their name and a reputation as one of recent music’s best live bands. I know many people were severely disappointed with the decision to call it quits, but who knows… maybe in a few years we will get a reunion tour [ed. Jack recently suggested otherwise].

RAY: I definitely wouldn’t put some sort of reunion out of the question, but knowing Jack and Meg and their odd style, it’ll likely be done in some cleverly weird way (I, for one, can’t wait). That said, The White Stripes may, on paper, be dead but the body of the band still has blood pumping about in it. By that strange metaphor I mean that their music still lives on – and not just in the typical “their songs are timeless” sense. Jack has been re-releasing the band’s early singles on 7″ singles for some time now and I don’t see this stopping. There have been White Stripes jukeboxes and White Stripes cameras (both of which I do very much pine after) and Lord knows what else is around the merchandising corner. But their fans have always been materialistic ones, and will buy this stuff. I’m not trying to imply it’s bad quality or anything, but rather point out how clever and sensible a business man Jack is to notice this and play the market to his profit (I hope). I mean I love the albums of theirs I have on vinyl (Icky Thump especially) and if I had the money to spare I would buy one of those cameras. How about you? Do you match this somewhat stereotypical materialistic image I’m painting of The White Stripes fans?

LIAM: I do! It has always intrigued me as to why White Stripes fans are so materialistic, and I think it is a rare thing amongst ‘newer’ bands. Having said that, Jack is hardly in the Gene Simmons league and what they have released is generally pretty cool (I lust for those cameras too). I was collecting their 7″ singles and simply hit the point where it was either one piece of wax or a few weeks rent. I am glad the singles got reissued and I really appreciate the ‘music should always be available’ mentality that Jack seems to operate by – it reminds of punk labels like SST and Dischord. On some level it worries me how obsessive the fans can be and I wonder where they get their money from. A lot of what is offered is not that cheap – cameras, Rob Jones posters, vinyl subscriptions. I don’t think it is a bad thing, and there definitely seems to be a market for it. I just can’t really name other bands where there is such a demand for merchandise (outside the usual craziness of vinyl, but that’s a whole other kettle of fish).

RAY: It’s hard to say exactly where this kind of mentality came from but I have two theories, the latter of which likely stems from the first. The White Stripes were born from the garage rock scene and during the time they were starting out and quietly making a name for themselves, preceding the release of their self-titled debut, there was certainly a market for stand-alone 7″ records. I’m no expert in this area but it definitely seemed to be the in between time from the demise of the cassette tape and, I suppose, the peak of CDs. But there was still a market for the single at this time, one that remained alive in the wax world, making those first few 7″ singles from The White Stripes appealing little things if you found yourself fond of the band’s music. Anyway, this has definitely carried throughout their lifetime, as they consistently released their work on vinyl. Why, I recall the 7″ “Rag & Bone” single they released with NME, making me buy the dratted magazine (I couldn’t find anyone else to go buy one for me but I do remember joking with the cashier that the only reason anyone will be buying it is the 7″ attached to the cover). Even final single “Conquest” had three separate 7″ records.

The second theory I have is that Jack White must simply believe that his work sounds better when being played via a needle. I don’t have any evidence for this but the fact the promos of Elephant (and Get Behind Me Satan too, I think) were full gatefold vinyl, says to me that Jack believed his work was best judged and heard on wax. But this just could be his fondness of vinyl lasting from those early days or indeed, from perhaps listening to records when growing up. Who knows? I know I’ll always defend vinyl and will say immediately that the vinyl version of Icky Thump trumps the CD version, but you’re right in saying that becoming a true collector of all things White Stripes is an expensive business. I was lucky enough to have money at my disposal back when I was buying all three of those “Conquest” singles but I still felt like it was a bit too much. Part of me just wished they released a CD version of all the songs (which they did, but in the U.S., whose import charges weren’t at all appealing to my strained back account). Is it all a bit too excessive though? Are three version of one song really warranted along with sending out promos on vinyl? Or do you think Jack was just showing off?

LIAM: At the risk of sounding cynical, I think Jack is a rather astute businessman who has found his way to make money out of what he loves doing. I agree that Jack must believe that his output sounds better on wax. But, more importantly, he has a loyal swathe of fans who are convinced of this point… and are happy to part with their hard earned for the pleasure. It can get a little excessive – the three “Conquest” singles for a rather dull song are perfect case in point – but what is the harm of it? Perhaps Jack is getting cocky, but even then the fans still lap it up. The triple inchophone, the triple decker record – both of these are rather excessive and were released in ridiculously low quantities – but everyone still wants one. What confuses me sometimes is the mixed messages that Jack gives. On one hand he complains of profiteers, yet, he created that market and still continues to fuel it with quirky limited editions. I think issuing the promos on vinyl somewhat indirectly contributed to this. As soon as the collectors heard about them, they needed them and the market began to boom. I don’t know. Maybe I am just being cynical.

In an attempt to change topic, the other day I found a rather long list of covers the band played whilst performing live. Have you got a favourite cover that the band either cut or played live?

RAY: I should say, I don’t think you’re being cynical. In fact, I think you’re pretty much entirely correct. Jack’s a business man, but much like when he set up his own upholstery shop, he’s having fun with all this. I don’t think he makes these odd limited contraptions with the drive that other people will love these things and buy them, but rather that it’d be cool to see what the end result would be. Who knows though; Jack’s a curious and odd character, and trying to find a reason behind anything he does – from releasing music on wacky limited edition vinyl, to the music he creates – is something of a futile thought process.

On the subject of my favourite covers, I have to be like an embarrassed mother in front of her kids when asked which of them she loves most, and say I couldn’t possibly pick a favourite. I’ve already spoke of how much I adore their snarling gut-punching version of “Stop Breaking Down,” and I think their take on “Death Letter Blues” (on De Stijl) is highly commendable. “Shelter Of Your Arms” – by The Greenhornes originally – is also extremely good, and almost matches the original in its overall quality, while their ferocious live takes of “Lovesick” are very deserving of a mention. And then of course, everyone’s favourite, “Jolene”. Of all the cover versions I’ve heard though, this track is the one that transfers consistently well into their live show. It’s just amazing how they took a relatively tame sounding song and turned it into a beast waiting to be tamed. Indeed, much like the mother answering the question about her kids, I will say I like them all, but really my favourite changes, often depending on what mood I’m in.

What about you? And also, to sort of twist the question, have you ever heard any decent covers of songs originally penned by The White Stripes?

LIAM: The cover of “Shelter Of Your Arms” is undoubtedly my favourite of the rather extensive list of covers they have done. “Walking With A Ghost” – originally by Tegan and Sara – is another cover I particularly enjoy, surpassing the original for me. I know many love “Jolene,” but for me it generally waxes and wanes between average to poor. Whilst I applaud Jack’s attempts at attempting to inject that raw masculinity of his into the song, for some reason I just don’t think it needed it. I think of “Jolene” as a very feminine song, for me Jack just can’t get the emotion into it that Dolly could. Instead – at least to my ears – it comes off a tad confused and a little bit too heavy.

As for other band’s covering The White Stripes, I haven’t really delved into such covers. Although, I liked Of Montreal’s cover of “Fell In Love With a Girl”. How about you?

RAY: I think part of the appeal – for me, at least – of their cover of “Jolene” was the fact that they took a rather feminine song to begin with. It’s always interesting to hear a male singer try and find his way into a woman’s words and Jack’s the perfect kind of odd individual to revel in this weird role reversal. I completely forgot about “Walking With A Ghost” though, which is rather ignorant of me considering they have an EP named after it. I do agree with you, in that it does probably surpass the original, but the song wasn’t anything brilliantly special to begin with, and considering the relative simplicity of the song, I can’t imagine Jack had too much trouble arranging it for himself and Meg (not to pay any insult to Tegan and Sara, whom I do have a fondness for).
I too haven’t really delved into any covers of The White Stripes, and I can’t help but feel this is mainly because there are so few that have ever come to my attention. That version of “Fell In Love With A Girl” I came across last year, and it’s pretty commendable (and arguably the best thing of Montreal recorded in 2011, due to its simplicity – but that’s a whole different discussion). The only other cover version that I can actually recall is Nikka Costa’s take on “The Denial Twist,” which again is perfectly fine. One could argue that her version beefs up a track that lack that strand of life to make it something truly special, but I still think I’ll always go for the original first. But I feel it’s worth pausing and considering why it seems to be the case that The White Stripes aren’t a more widely covered band. Sure, go to any Battle of the Bands concert and you might see some half-assed rendition of “Seven Nation Army” or “Fell In Love With A Girl,” and there was definitely a time when the way to a girl’s heart was by playing her “We’re Going To Be Friends” on your acoustic guitar, but outside this, there’s never really been anything. Is it a case, perhaps, that other bands put Jack and Meg’s music in a certain “untouchable” category? There’s definitely certain songs of theirs I wouldn’t want to hear other bands try (unless there were some seriously special circumstances), but is it right for The White Stripes’ music to considered so sacred?

LIAM: I don’t think anyone’s music is sacred, or should be considered “untouchable.” Original Delta Blues has been covered to death, as have the works of true modern masters like Bob Dylan. Maybe sometime down the track musicians will be better placed to approach and cover The White Stripes songs. Perhaps they are still too fresh, or artists are still too fond of them to approach them in an objective way. Any last thoughts, Ray?

RAY: You make a good point. If an artist were to try cover The White Stripes then, in a nutshell, they have two routes to take. Firstly they could keep it relatively simple; much like Jack and Meg did for the majority of their time together. But this in turn can come across as lazy imitation, and unless you’re bringing something fresh to the table with your simplicity, then you’re setting yourself up for an assault on your cover. The other option is to complicate it – add other instruments, completely re-imagine and perform the song in a totally different light. And while this sounds intriguing (again, to me, at least), one could easily accuse an artist who did this of completely disregarding what the band are known for – simplicity. It’s a guitar, a singer and a drummer. Anything else is superfluous, and unrequired, and, it could be argued, if you have to add anything else, then you just can’t pull it off.

But I don’t want to deter people from trying! There’s definitely potential, and since there are relatively few covers of their songs out there, there’s definitely a market to glut. It might not be needed – the music of The White Stripes will last many decades, as far as I’m concerned – but there’s no harm in playing tribute to a band who defined and refined their type of music (and more – as we have discussed), all while confining themselves to a simple structure. If there’s any lesson to be learnt from them, it’s that you can do a lot with a little.


Other Discussions:

Tom Waits
The Velvet Underground
Led Zeppelin
Sigur Rós
Bob Dylan
Andrew Bird
David Bowie
Pearl Jam
Pink Floyd


Discussions: Jay-Z

By Andrew Bailey & John Ulmer; March 7, 2012 at 2:00 PM 


Andrew Bailey and John Ulmer share a discussion about the career and legacy of Jay-Z.

JOHN ULMER: Discussing Jay-Z’s career is pretty daunting, because he’s at once a godfather of rap — one of the genre’s most successful, influential and popular figures — and a figure of so much derision. People have been hating on Jay for a while — even before his retirement — and after the failure of the much-hyped Kingdom Come it’s been nothing but cynicism and snark from many reviewers. Yet people continue to buy his albums; while his last solo record was met with disdain from journalists, it had a handful of huge hit singles, and his collaboration last year with Kanye West on Watch the Throne has gained much notoriety. It seems like a lot of people still love Jay even if his music has changed drastically from his early days.

Back when I reviewed Blueprint 3 for this site, I wrote: “[T]he best rap albums usually channel the hunger, strive and purpose of an underdog. Jay doesn’t have that drive anymore because he is on top — and it might take him hitting rock bottom again before we ever hear something as bold and beautiful as the first Blueprint.” I still think that’s true, and it’s why Watch the Throne had some of his best verses in years — Jay is only challenged these days when he’s trying to prove himself. He wouldn’t dare let Kanye upstage him, so he brought his A-game. But too often, simply because he is Jay-Z, he’s afforded the opportunity to coast by; I thought American Gangster was his best record since The Blueprint, and indeed one of the top three best records of his career, because he approached it as a concept album about a rise to power and was channeling that underdog’s strive to be on top again. I think I’m in a minority on that one, but I still rank it alongside Reasonable Doubt and The Blueprint.

I guess I’ve probably gotten ahead of myself and we should backtrack a little bit. Do you remember your first exposure to Jay’s music? Favourite album?

ANDREW BAILEY: Well right off the bat I have to say that I liked Blueprint 3. I liked it a lot. I can certainly see why other people might not have, but I just thought it was an extremely entertaining album. But I’d certainly agree that there was an aura of “coasting” about it. It was clearly geared towards creating singles, but I’m okay with that. Of course, I’m a huge Jay-Z fan — he’s easily among my three or four favorite rappers and he’s never put out an album that I actively disliked (Kingdom Come only inspired indifference). But yeah, we can get to how we rank his albums in a bit.

My first experience with Jay-Z was “Can I Get A…” and “Hard Knock Life,” when he first started gaining mainstream notoriety. I was too young to be into anything that wasn’t popular. I’m pretty sure Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life was the first rap album I ever purchased (it might have actually been All Eyez on Me). I was 13 when that album came out and it wasn’t wholly acceptable just yet for little white kids to listen to hardcore hip-hop, so I remember buying the clean version of the album and kind of hiding that I had it and loved it. A song like “Can I Get A…” is silly to a 13-year-old, so if any of my friends questioned it I’d just blame it on that song and chalk it up to a big joke. It’s kind of funny to see how far we’ve come so quickly. I mean, Puffy’s No Way Out and anything Mase did was enormous, but that seemed different. That was more pop-rap that you’d hear on the radio and could dance to. That was okay for 13-year-olds. Jay-Z was putting the phrase “fuck you” in his hooks. They were two different ballgames. But I think somewhere in Vol. 2‘s cycle it became okay — like, maybe it was taboo for my demographic on it’s release date, but before the last single off of it came out it was alright to embrace hip-hop. It moved quickly.

And I guess the other early memory I have would be listening to The Dynasty and The Blueprint damn near every day on the way to high school. I have an early birthday so I think I was driving by the end of my sophomore year. I don’t remember how the release of those two albums coordinated directly with when I was driving — I know The Blueprint dropped on 9/11, but I can’t recall if I was driving yet when The Dynasty first came out — but that’s what we listened to every day; those two albums and Stillmatic. We were really into the Jay-Z and Nas beef. But it was totally different by this point, socially. Hip-hop was hitting an apex and everyone loved it and accepted it.

JOHN: I enjoyed Blueprint 3, too, but it certainly had its share of misfires. I think the back end of the album is loaded with forgettable filler like “Hate,” but the first half or so is pretty solid. It was on heavy rotation on my car stereo for a while after it came out, because I have some old stereo that’s incapable of playing burned CDs, and it was one of the few in the last couple years that I actually purchased. 

I would probably posit that Jay-Z is my favourite rapper and Nas is my favourite MC, which might sound strange but… Jay generally employs a better roster of producers and manages to get the beats. Nas is a better lyricist and his beats are usually less accessible. When he did try to go mainstream with his Untitled album, he seemed to get a lot of hate for it, but that track “Black Republicans” (featuring Jay-Z, incidentally) was great.

I don’t really recall my first exposure to Hova’s music. I generally wasn’t into rap until I reached my later teens, honestly (I only really even started getting into music in general during my mid-teens, and I remember dismissing rap because of how popular it was — I based this decision more on the image, which, at the time, was all about the controversy rap had inspired; I think my first rap album was Illmatic and then someone, probably online, recommended Reasonable Doubt and The Blueprint).

I love most of Jay’s work, particularly and obviously the older stuff, and I think Reasonable Doubt is brilliant. But I think on a personal level I kind of enjoy The Blueprint more. It’s his masterpiece. From the production (which at this point had yet to fully embrace the mainstream, in terms of seeking hits and guest appearances for hooks) to the lyrics (arguably his best/most consistent) to the guest spots that do happen (whether it’s Kanye or Eminem), it’s just a great fucking album; whenever I meet people who aren’t into rap, I usually tell them they should give that record a chance, because I think it has enough appeal to pull some converts. Of course now, in 2012, writing this is safe and acceptable: it’s kind of the standard go-to Jay-Z album — but I think it took a few years for everyone to come around to it, because by this point he was already huge and I think a lot of people didn’t want to admit he had accomplished anything substantial. Or something like that.

ANDREW: I think a lot of people credit The Blueprint as Jay’s classic album, but Reasonable Doubt has to be right alongside it. Depending how generous you felt like being, I could even see putting The Black Album up into that category (and his Unplugged, if that counts). But that’s the thing about Jay-Z that seems really different when looking back on his career arc: he’s never really had a run of classic albums, yet he’s a safe fit in any conversation about the best of all-time.

If you look back through the solo careers of some of the best rappers, they’ve all either had massive runs of success — Eminem’s first three are classics and the run Kanye is on jumps to mind — or sample sizes cut short, like Tupac and Biggie, where all they’ve got is classics because that’s all they had time for (I’m not taking Tupac’s posthumous stuff into account here, though most of it is solid at worst). Nas had that kind of run in the 90s too. Jay-Z, meanwhile, sort of just churned stuff out constantly and sprinkled in his classics. His arc just feels unique.

Ultimately though, that’s the thing that draws me to Jay-Z as a whole: he’s never lost relevance and he’s evolved extremely well. He’s in his mid-40s and still seems like a rapper. Meanwhile, there are guys around the same age who just don’t fit at all anymore. Maybe they can still rhyme or still get the best producers, but they just don’t have the aura. Eminem is one of those guys. His shtick just doesn’t make sense anymore. His whole career was built around this angry lyricism and now it just seems like, “dude, what are you angry about?” He’s filthy rich and he’s got the drug problems and all that, but it just seems tired. It seems like he’s grown out of his frame, so to speak. Jay-Z isn’t like that at all to me. His shoes still fit.

JOHN: When discussing Jay’s output with friends, I often hear Black Album mentioned. I think that record had a lot of his bigger hits – “99 Problems” being the biggest I suppose (I wonder how many times it’s been used in movie trailers?) – and it’s definitely good, but for whatever reason, I never quite thought it was as good as The Blueprint or Reasonable Doubt. It felt a bit more indebted to its time — which is to say, it fit in nicely with the sound prevalent in mainstream hip-hop in the early ’00s, but has shown its age over the past few years. Seemed like a more conscious effort on Jay’s part to deliver mainstream hits, and it’s not as ambitious or sprawling as The Blueprint, which embraced a pop aesthetic while still kinda giving a middle-finger to samples of its time (and it owes much of that to Kanye). Black Album is still a solid record; just not a personal favourite, nor something I’d rank as one of his masterpieces.

Reasonable Doubt is definitely one of his classics. You could tell that was a debut album — given that he hadn’t risen to the top yet, it was a bit more of what you might refer to as a gangsta rap album, versus something like Blueprint that sampled soul and r&b. The guest spots by titans like Biggie probably helped it gain even more immediate recognition, but the hunger and strive in Jay’s verses ensure that he dominates his own record.

I agree when you say that Jay has had a unique career, too. I think you have icons of the genre like Snoop, Dre, Ice Cube, et al — they all fell off pretty hard. They either lost relevance, or misplaced their talent and found it to be detrimental to their music. (Ice Cube can try to come out with a gangsta rap album every few years, but after those Are We There Yet misadventures, it’s hard to take him seriously when he’s talking about pulling a shotgun on you. Meanwhile, Snoop is relegated to lame quips about, and reality TV shows about his family.)

Jay never lost focus, even when he made missteps. Announcing his retirement around the release of the Black Album was, in retrospect, pretty dumb — I think he was earnest about it back then, but he came back faster in a faster amount of time than a lot of working artists take to even put out new music anyway. But I think the rap world moves faster than a genre like rock — which is why it’s all the more impressive that he’s still hanging in there. He took Kingdom Come in stride, and frankly, it wasn’t as bad as people made it out to be — just kinda underwhelming after a fairly strong run of albums. And he more than made up for it on American Gangster the following year.

He’ll do a shitty, obligatory guest verse on some albums (like the last Rihanna record) but he’s still, well, Jay-Z. He’s manged to solidify himself as the king of the genre in a way that pretty much no other rapper has managed to do, and held his place there even over long gaps of inactivity. And while his personal life has certainly helped booster his popularity to non-rap-fans, he’s never embraced the paparazzi or sought attention as so many comparable celebrites. This has, ironically, only generated more interest for the tabloids — when there were rumours circulating that Beyonce was pregnant, pretty much every gossip rag out there was reporting on it. But there was nothing but silence on his end, and you have to respect that in an age where fame seems to fuck with so many people’s mindsets and personal values.

You’re right about Eminem, too. I wouldn’t say his lyrics were always angry, but there was a lot of shock-value there. It was horrorcore rap with the occasional serious track like “Lose Yourself.” And back then I would have encouraged him to follow that direction, transitioning from reckless youth to a more mature standpoint — 8 Mile was good and the soundtrack was too, and that provided him a nice opportunity for growth as an artist — but he kinda degressed into lame jokes on Encore, and then… disappeared. His comeback was transparent and his second comeback was commercially successful but didn’t really feel like Eminem. Jay never really had to face any of that — he transitioned from gangsta rap to mainstream hip-hop and was consistent enough in his activity that even when he had a few bad tracks, there were usually a few good ones, too. He probably had some personal demons of his own, but never let that become the main theme of his early work — and as much as that may have helped Eminem become famous in the first place, it’s also sorta what made it hard for him to move on.

ANDREW: I don’t think his retirement was dumb or even abrupt or earnest, really. I think it was a calculated move. Or at least semi-calculated. Maybe that’s why I have such a great appreciation for Jay-Z: even when he does something that I can’t get behind artistically, I can appreciate the reason he’s doing it. If you ask me, that retirement was a business decision. I suspect on some level he actually believed he was hanging it up, but ultimately I think he realized there’s money to be made in a comeback. And he was “leaving” while he was still making hits, so it had that much more of an impact when he “came back.” I mean, Kingdom Come wasn’t good, but I don’t know that it was meant to be a classic. I’m not discounting his efforts, but I think it was a part of his plan to make money. And I’m mostly cool with that. Companies put superfluous products on the shelves all the time because they know they’ll sell. It can be frustrating when that same tactic is applied to music, but hey, it works.

Along those same lines, what do you make of some of his more well-known collaborations? He’s got the two with R. Kelly, Collision Course with Linkin Park, and Watch the Throne, obviously. Teaming up with R. Kelly and Kanye West hardly seems like a stretch, but Linkin Park? That’s a savvy business move and a really interesting artistic choice. I know they’re a popular band, but how many rappers could you imagine releasing an album with them and living to tell the story? 

JOHN: I suppose you’re right about his “retirement” being more of a conscious business decision, but I’m not sure I can get behind that as willingly as you do. At the same time, Jay-Z is kind of the epitome of a business man (or a business, man!) so the fact that he approaches his music career with the same mindset doesn’t seem quite as cynical as if, say, an older rock star did the same thing.

But there’s a dissonance there, too. Rap as a genre is very much focused on power and wealth, name brands and designer clothes. So for the biggest rapper in the world to announce his retirement and then have it revealed as a business model… well, it’s not exactly a big surprise, or something you could consider hugely detrimental to his career. Can’t be too mad at it.

As far as his collaborative albums go, I was never hugely into Linkin Park, but that album came out when I was a teenager and I remember hearing tracks in movie trailers, commercials, etc. Still not exactly a fan of the band (couldn’t tell you the name of a single track they’ve done in the past half-decade), but it’s a clever crossover attempt and clearly one that worked, as I think it did manage to get fans on each side listening. That was yet another piece of the puzzle in establishing Jay’s longevity and multi-genre appeal.

The Danger Mouse Grey Album wasn’t expressly endorsed by Jay-Z (I think he approved of it after its release, but was never really that vocal about it), but that was another interesting blurring of genres. To marry music from what many consider to be the greatest musical act of all time with a rap star could have been disastrous, but for the most part, it works pretty well.

Watch the Throne had some cool tracks, but overall I found it to be disappointing. At the same time, I think Jay sounded stronger there than he has in years. I think knowing he’d be directly opposite Kanye for the whole record really made him step his game up. There was a hunger there that I haven’t heard in a while. He’s the kind of rapper who will coast on the fact that, well, he’s Jay-Z — why not get paid to spit some lazy verses and get paid regardless? Nice work if you can get it — but I think he and Kanye, despite their friendship, are very insecure around each other. The rap game is inherently competitive, and there were those reports of tension behind-the-scenes of their tour. I don’t doubt it. Kanye had just come off the best-reviewed album of his career so he didn’t really have much to prove — he sounds comfortable on Throne — but Jay dominates a lot of those tracks. Even the mediocre ones.

Since we touched on Jay’s business savvy, what do you make of all the Illuminati nonsense that has surfaced within the past few years? I think it started out innocently, but once the rumours started I think he, and some of his frequent collaborators, decided to take full advantage of it. All this “symbolism” in recent videos seems overt — controversy sells, and I think he’s capitalizing on it. I don’t follow it too closely but I do think it’s amusing how many people take it seriously.

ANDREW: I’m so unfamiliar with the Illuminati stuff that I actually had to Google it. I’m glad I did though, because some of it is really entertaining. The accusations that he’s put all this symbolism in his lyrics and music videos (complete with screenshots!) remind me of the hours and hours I killed in high school researching Tupac conspiracies. Except, you know, the Tupac theories actually seem way more credible than this crap. Basically, it just reads like a bunch of jealous people gathered together to start a rumor to make themselves feel better about not having the same success as someone else. It’s silly.

So I guess my next thought is: is there an album that you think gets overlooked? I mentioned before how it seems like he has this pattern of dropping a classic amid a hand full of other releases, but that doesn’t mean those other releases are afterthoughts. For me, I always liked The Dynasty (another one of his collaborative records). That’s one of those albums where subjectivity and objectivity clash. Objectively, I realize it’s a flawed album in a lot of ways. But there are some standout songs and verses on there (“This Can’t Be Life” is incredible). I don’t really even get into Beanie Sigel or Memphis Bleek, who are basically the album’s co-stars, but I still think it’s a solid, enjoyable disk.

JOHN: Yeah, the Illuminati stuff is silly, but amusing. Just the other day a girl in one of my telecom classes brought it up during a discussion of hidden messages in media, and she genuinely seemed to believe there was some sort of evil brainwashing going on (she also was of the opinion that the name of Jay and Beyonce’s daughter is some kind of occult reference). Ultimately it’s no different from when rock bands like Judas Priest courted satanic symbolism to help shift records. It’s another business move and it seems to be working because I feel like half the comments on Jay-and-co.’s music videos on YouTube are related to that stuff and deconstructing it.

Anyway… back to the music itself. Yeah, Dynasty is flawed, but enjoyable. “This Can’t Be Life” is indeed a solid track, though I wouldn’t rank it as one of his best. “Change the Game” has a great beat. Personally, I’d say In My Lifetime, Vol. 1 tends to get overlooked a bit. I mean, it’s probably considered the best of that trilogy of records, which I’d also agree with, but it came right after Reasonable Doubt and just didn’t live up to it. But at that point, what could have? “Imaginary Player” is still awesome years later. And those other two volumes aren’t as bad as some fans make them out to be, either. There are great tracks on those albums; they’re just scattered. I still think even though his records have been wildly inconsistent, Jay has yet to release a truly awful, let alone bad, album. Yes, Kingdom Come is his worst, but is it nearly as bad as some other rap records from comparable artists? I’d take some of those tracks over stuff from the latest Carter or what-have-you. 

Any particular guest-spots from Jay’s career that you find memorable or noteworthy? One of my favourites is on that old Freeway track “What We Do.” I think pretty much everyone has written off Freeway since that Cassidy battle, but that was a solid track, and Jay delivered some of his best verses. And of course I love some of Hov’s stuff with Kanye from back in the day, like “Never Let Me Down,” but I feel that almost goes without saying. He recently showed up on a remix of Raphael Saadiq’s “Oh Girl,” and I really enjoyed that, too — it’s a retro r&b/soul beat and he tackles it gracefully.

ANDREW: This is probably cherry picking a little, but his cameo on “Crazy in Love” is great. It’s just a cheesy pop song and his verse isn’t spectacular or anything, but I always thought that song was produced really well and hit the marks it was setting out to hit. He just comes in so strong on that track.

“Never Let Me Down” is another good one. I’ve recently been listening to The College Dropout again — that album is pure genius, by the way — and really had my appreciation for that song revitalized. His cameo on “Diamonds From Sierra Leone” is another personal favorite, though again that’s probably just picking low hanging fruit. I also really liked his spots on Memphis Bleek’s “Is That Your Chick” and Cam’ron’s “Welcome to New York City.” I’m probably missing some too. I think, generally speaking, Jay-Z makes for a great feature because he rarely comes on someone else’s track and outshines them, but still manages to contribute something. I guess that could be taken equally as an insult or a compliment.

JOHN: I would consider it a compliment in most cases. Jay-Z has gotten to the point where he just is who he is, and thus has the level of confidence to come in on any track and do his thing and not necessarily have to outshine anyone else, as you said, but simply deliver what you would expect. Apart from my comments about his verses on Throne, the majority of the time he doesn’t seem to be trying to stand out too much or trying to prove himself, and I think in an odd way that’s made a lot of his guest spots sound better in retrospect. When “Monster” came out, everyone was raving about Nicki Minaj. She has pretty much failed, since then, to live up to that initial hype — her album was kinda meh and none of her guest features since then have been half as good. It’s still early in her career, but it’s just an example of a rapper trying their hardest to outdo the titans and then they’re perpetually struggling to live up to that one spot. Now when I listen to her verses on “Monster” I pretty much just think about how disappointing everything she’s done since then has been, whereas Jay is just sorta doing his thing on that track and isn’t as distracting. I’m sure a lot of people will disagree, but that’s my theory and I’m sticking to it.

I do have a confession, though. I love Blueprint, I love Jay, and I like a lot of Eminem’s older work (more-so than his recent material, as we’ve touched upon earlier in this discussion). But something about “Renegade” always rubbed me the wrong way. Never really warmed up to it. Nas has that famous diss in “Ether” about how Jay got murdered on his own track, but I don’t think Jay and Eminem play very well off of each other for some reason — it just never quite clicked for me. I didn’t see them when they did those shows a couple years back but I saw a performance of “Renegade” on Letterman and thought it was pretty underwhelming.

Are there any particularly popular tracks of his that you’ve never quite warmed up to?

ANDREW: I actually do agree with that theory, at least framed that way. The main reason I didn’t like Nicki Minaj’s solo album — like, at all — is because it wasn’t “Monster.” It’s just another half hip-hop, half pop album with no personality.

I do think you’re all wrong about “Renegade” though. That’s easily one of the best rap tracks ever recorded, though I think what happened there was that Eminem laid his verse down so well that no one could have stood next to him and measured up. That’s why I thought that particular Nas diss was so weak. It’s not like Nas or anybody else could have dropped a verse better than Em’s. So in my mind at least, that just showed that Jay-Z was secure in his spot. Yeah, he got “murdered” on his own track. But it didn’t hurt him. What was he supposed to do, scrap the whole song because someone out-rapped him? Nicki Minaj murdered everybody on “Monster” and it hasn’t really done anything to anyone’s reputation (beside maybe Nicki’s herself), right?

I’ve never liked “Big Pimpin'” or “Girls, Girls, Girls.” In fact, other than live, I haven’t heard either of those songs in years because I gloss right over them. And “Change Clothes” is pretty bad too. I’d take pretty much any song off The Blueprint 3 over any one of those. In fact, have you heard the BP3 bonus tracks? Because there’s a few of those I’d prefer too (“Ain’t I,” “Jockin’ Jay-Z,” “Brooklyn (Go Hard),” and “Blow the Whistle”). 

JOHN: “Big Pimpin'” is a bit overplayed, but I do still love “Girls Girls Girls.” I love how laidback it is. There’s something almost sort of melancholy about it; at face value it’s a guy bragging about how easily he can get hot bitches, but the detached manner in which he recalls his experiences with them is sort of sad. Perhaps I’m reading into it too much, but it’s almost like he’s lamenting the endless line of vacuous girls he’s hooked up with.

I agree about the BP3 bonus tracks. I think “Brooklyn (Go Hard)” was originally slated for the record — and so was “Swagga Like Us” at one point — but the former of those ended up on the Notorious soundtrack instead. When Barack Obama won the election, Jay put out a pretty awesome track called “History” that I still play from time to time. The sample he used, in retrospect, ended up fitting in nicely with the production of the album itself — and I still think it’s better than a lot of material that did end up on there. I think he works well with relatively downbeat samples, especially as he get older.

ANDREW: Well, if he wasn’t lamenting the girls before (and I feel like he probably wasn’t), he might be now. I know he’s recently stricken the word “bitch” from his songs — or maybe just future songs — and seems intent on taking some new directions artistically now that he has a daughter. I thought “New Day” was the most well-rounded track off Watch the Throne and the sentiment he expressed in that song was a really fantastic new avenue for him. He’s rhymed about parenthood and his own home life plenty of times before, but only now does it feel as powerful. He’s almost certainly going to continue making fun, easily digestible pop rap songs, but he has the material now for a fantastic late career revival of sorts. I’m really looking forward to the next step in his evolution.


Other Discussions:

Tom Waits
The Velvet Underground
Led Zeppelin
Sigur Rós
Bob Dylan
Andrew Bird
David Bowie
Pearl Jam
Pink Floyd


Discussions: Pink Floyd

By Will Ryan & Richard Jones; February 28, 2012 at 2:30 PM 

RICHARD S JONES: So I feel we’ve signed on for quite the discussion here. Before we begin at the very beginning, I’m keen to find out what album for you best represents the significance of Pink Floyd?

WILL RYAN: There are so many ways to approach that question, which is one of the reasons I love Pink Floyd so much. They were a continually evolving band that at different points in their career offered something completely unique and separate from any other point. The group dynamic is a perfect analog to what the sound resulted in. I think in terms of significance it’s hard to deny that Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall are their two most culturally and perhaps musically significant albums, and I can understand arguments for either when trying to narrow that question to only one. I’ve gone at different points in my life liking both those albums more than the other and feeling one was more significant. Even now it’s hard to come down on either side. I think I’m more emotionally attached to Dark Side because it was my introduction to the group and came at such an early impressionable age for me – that being early adolescence due to my dad’s love of the record. 

A lot of people hold Floyd up as a wholly prog band, but I feel like that’s not what makes them significant whatsoever. The genre is beside the point. Their relevance is in their approach to albums, which is why post-Meddle seems to be the only era of the band the world is willing to recognize. In that sense, I’d say The Wall is more of a triumph because it is so complex and focused and, yes, accessible. The songwriting is so sharp and the arrangement of the album as a whole is really unprecedented with how sound effects and samples are used. Yet I’d argue the music is better and richer on Dark Side.
 All that said, the era of the group that I’ve come to love the most, and I didn’t really discover it until college, is the post-Barrett, pre-Dark Side. I think Live at Pompeii might be my favorite document the band has put out even though it’s not an album. 

Alright, so where do you weigh in on The Wall and Dark Side and what’s your favorite stuff?

RICHARD: I think you’ve highlighted quite a salient point there when you describe post-Meddle Pink Floyd as the only era the world is quick to recognize. I think that’s largely because that’s the overriding theme on Dark Side Of The Moon isn’t it? It’s not a concept album but this broad beast of an aural statement, which seems to encompass everyone’s paranoia and ill feeling about things that will one day inevitably happen. Lyrically it’s universal enough to speak to everyone… “Is this album telling us we’re all kinda fucked? It is? Shit. Well. Okay then. We better strap ourselves in…”

For me the most significant record, not necessarily for ‘the World’ but for Pink Floyd ‘the band’ will always be The Piper At The Gates of Dawn because it was an album that would go on to shape what would in so many ways prove to be the band’s saving grace further down the line for members of the band. It would provide this well of inspiration and a returnable source of sincerity. The specter of Syd Barrett didn’t really leave the band until Animals and The Wall, where Waters began taking sole ownership of Pink Floyd’s sound. But of the albums recorded post-Syd, up until Animals, I don’t find it any kind of cosmic coincidence that the strongest tracks come with more than a passing hint of ‘Syd the Beat’. So on Ummagumma, for instance, you’ve got Waters’s ‘Granchester Meadows’, which harks back to that pastoral carefree time in Cambridge where Barrett’s magical sway proved essential. On Meddle you’ve got a whole side in “Echoes” that I’ve always taken to be a recreation of that interlude-less light-driven freak-out which won people over back in the early days of the UFO Club. Rick Wright’s “Summer ’68” on Atom Heart Mother, Dark Side‘s “Brain Damage,” “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” most obviously of all on Wish You Were Here. As great as The Wall is, I always find it a cold and emotionally detached record. Which many will say make it an unquestionable success, but it was less a collective coming together of a band at its peak and more a platform for Roger Waters to make the album he’d been formulating in his own mind for years. Mostly amid a building acrimony between him and the others, hence that sense of detachment. It seems unfair to call it a vanity album given it features some outstanding turns by all four members of the Floyd, but for me it’s not the truest Floyd album.

Live At Pompeii, though, is a wonderful document of Pink Floyd. And it can only have happened around that time where the band were hitting a stride and making waves on both sides of the Atlantic. Four snooty middle class lads with cash on the hip and ideas too big contain. A great document of the time as much as it is the band.
You touched upon the idea there of genre, and also of their early days. To me both these facets are critical when assessing Pink Floyd’s legacy and I’ve often wondered what fans on your side of the water tend to make of that psychedelic era? What are your opinions of this time and what would later become Progressive Rock in relation to Pink Floyd?

WILL: I know when I talk about the early days of Pink Floyd to people in my area of the world it comes with a lot of explanation. Even self-professed fans of Pink Floyd seem to be weary if not ignorant of anything previous to Dark Side of the Moon, but I also know a good many people that love that early stuff – coincidentally those tend to be musicians or just general music nerds. The 67 – 72 era, over here at least, has managed to remain wholly underground. It makes sense though. The band seemed always caught up in whatever era they were currently residing in, and when they became commercially successful there wasn’t really much need to harken back to the more psychedelic and improvisational material. I think there a lot of inroads to Floyd fandom and many people I know found their way in on the side of prog or “classic rock” or simply pop music, which is valid, but it tends to focus on the side of Floyd that dropped improvisation. I sort of approached the group early on from the side of psychedelia, which I think might be that Barrett-centric aspect you’re talking about, if I can generalize a bit, which most definitely lasted well after his departure, albeit – especially in the 70s – in a much more orchestrated sense.

 I think you bring up an interesting point with The Wall. There definitely is an element of detachment, but I don’t know if that makes it any less emotionally impactful. The Wall and The Final Cut have always struck me as Floyd’s most emotionally immediate records, and in The Wall‘s case, I think that detachment translates as longing and a number of other emotions that seem to strive away from emptiness. It’s an astonishingly complex record, and a human record in such a specific way that the thematic material of Dark Side of the Moon was never aiming for. I think The Wall gets propped up for its thematic surface level, but there’s a whole lot of contradictory and complexly uncertain stuff going on beneath that. Obviously that would all mean nothing if the music wasn’t on point, but I think it is, especially Waters’ vocal delivery, which on The Wall and The Final Cut became very raw and emotional and honest. That’s just my personal experience with it. I know a lot of people who feel a little rubbed the wrong way by how the band dynamic started to become a little one-sided, but when assessing the material, I usually try to forget about it. Waters seems like he was probably a supreme dick at that later point in Floyd’s run, but it resulted in some incredible music, so I can’t complain.

RICHARD: There’s no question of The Wall’s significance. It simply works, and always will work, whenever, wherever. Whether you feel apathy or empathy for it. So for that it’s got my vote.

Interestingly Joe Boyd once attributed some of Pink Floyd’s appeal in America to their “unAmericaness,” which, when you think about it, is a great observation. Especially when compared to Led Zeppelin or The Stones who had been flaunting (flouting possibly?) American roots for a few years in the run up to ’73. I think the closest Pink Floyd ever really came on record to approximating a similar sort of rock ‘n’ roll legacy in their career was on “Money,” with that very English and very snobbish take on Booker T, and “Another Brick In The Wall (Part 2)” where Gilmour knocks out a convincingly chic Nile Rodgers guitar line. So when rock eventually needed something foreign and unfamiliar, it arrived. Out of space almost.

The reason I think I keep coming back to that early Piper-era, and the reason why I hold it so dearly is because it’s a wonderful counter to that major criticism most people have of Pink Floyd; this suggestion that they are too contrived, too capable and calculating so therefore not captivating. That baffles me. People tend to forget that amid that initial wave of progressive rock many of its artists and the albums they turned out – most of which are now considered ‘classic rock’ albums – didn’t transpire overnight. Instead they were eventually arrived at over years, either through that late ’60s psychedelic era or via that early ’70s period of dissatisfaction with what that ’60s set out and ultimately failed to achieve. It was during those formative years that Pink Floyd learnt their craft, got experienced and began forming all of these grand ideas in the fresh ways. And it’s in this period where you can find the color, humor and early seeds of experimentation that that would later permeate so much of their work. Pink Floyd were selfishly attending to (or collectively self-serving) their creations long before Jonny Rotten was wearing that ‘I Hate Pink Floyd’ t-shirt and it’s this self-centered interest in their music that makes Piper as intriguing as Dark Side Of The Moon or The Wall. This idea that they were always making records for themselves as musicians, not for us as listeners, runs through all of their records I think. Although perhaps less so in that more affable Gilmour fronted Floyd.

My interest piques on Wish You Were Here. Which I enjoy listening to as much, if not more than Dark Side Of The Moon because on that album I still find myself examining how the music fits into their history rather than questioning how a fictitious concept might make me ask what Pink or Roger did next? “Comfortably Numb,” “Run Like Hell” and “Is There Anybody Out There?” are terrific though. And “Fletcher Memorial Home” on The Final Cut is probably one of Roger Waters’s finest songs. One thing I do appreciate, and always respect from Roger Waters, however, are his lyrics. He was just the master of pathos and clever to pair his own personal subject matters with larger social concerns of the time. And The Wall still works now. Which is probably why it is so adaptive and can be knocked down and rebuilt a hundred times over. There’s also no question that the stage show must have been something to behold. I still fear Gerald Scarfe’s marching hammers and Draconian teachers having been made to watch a shitty VHS copy of the film when I was young. Terrifying. Now though, in hindsight, I can never decide whether those theatrics were an impressive forerunner of what would later become ‘Spinal Tap excess’, or a very expensive live beard to hide away what was, admittedly, four very drab and uncharismatic musicians playing live on stage? What do you think about Pink Floyd ‘the show’?

WILL: I think you’re spot on in denoting the Piper-era and most of their late 60s output as musically self-serving. That’s a really good way to sum the direction those few years took. That sounds a bit negative as “self-serving” certainly has a stigma, but I think in this case it’s more to do with how introverted the group seemed at the time. It’s interesting to note how local and club-trotting Floyd were their first few years, especially when contrasted to the arena-packing status they ultimately achieved. There’s an aura of intimacy that comes along with some of the best and most esoteric 60s groups that often belonged to a scene no matter what part of the world. Yet that’s been all but written off as a quaint beginning. I think you’re right though. It’s perhaps the most interesting and unpredictable time for them as an evolving band, albeit the least accessible. I personally gravitate to albums as whole statements, which is another reason why later Floyd appeals to me so much. I’ve really come to see those divergent directions the band took as almost different groups altogether. Everything really changed in no time at all to become more orchestrated as you said. 

I think because Floyd started to play their music live so close to what was on record, they sort of needed that visual component. I do think they were able to take it to a place that sidestepped the excess of later 70s rock groups or at least they put that excess toward a more artistic vision instead of excess for excess’ sake. But I think there’s also something to the “hide away” element you mentioned. Pink Floyd became sort of a faceless group compared to their early years. I can’t think of another band that is made up of so much iconography as Floyd. I think the live element was just another part of that. And I think, for better or worse, it defines Floyd as an inseparable element to who they were or what they’ve become in terms of rock mythology. I mean, The Wall became a pretty distinguished feature-length film. Any thoughts on that iconographic element? Maybe you disagree.

 It’s interesting you mention the “un-American-ness” of Floyd. I think one of the styles of music I most associate with being solely European is the Krautrock stuff of late 60s/early 70s, which Floyd’s brand of space rock preceded by a couple years, yet sounds very much in touch with. Do you have any thoughts on that connection? I feel like there’s something there, but it goes unsaid most of the time.

RICHARD: Well, I think there’s a fair measure in Piper that would suggest that particular period as their most accessible. Those early singles and album tracks like “Bike” and “The Gnome” are unabashed pop songs nestled amid imposing prototypes of what would eventually become big Floyd ostentation (“Interstellar Overdrive” for instance). But the key thing to remember is this was 1967; Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band came along and changed the face of music overnight, shifting mass appreciation from singles to albums. Yet, here you had a band who emerged with a record, recorded at the same time, in the exact same studio as Sgt. Pepper’s and also takes in both pre and post impressions of that vital shift. Progressive pop music. Three-minute songs alongside nine-minute jams. Perceptive, contemporary, with an ear cocked to the future. Wonderful. I feel what came later on grew even more self-serving but I think you’re absolutely right about that European influence. Distinctly French in method if like most you subscribe – as I’m certain the Floyd themselves did – to the notion that they approached recording music the same way an artist would apply his brush to a canvas. Or something similarly bombastic. Plus their involvement with Barbet Schroeder on More and Obscured By Clouds, along with Roger Waters’ ‘Pink Floyd ballet’ recital for Roland Petit found them steering their sound away from popular product toward more academic/artistic arrangement. There’s no doubt that Pink Floyd were gearing up for a more creative existence, and that’s a point found in your Krautrock comparison. I think musically there are many links between Pink Floyd and Krautrock; an appreciation of outsider styles like jazz and the avant-garde, an audacious approach to production, and, as we agreed, a self-interest in their creations. But one of the broader associations I’ve always liked is that of history. More significantly the timing and cultural impact of a World War on two unconnected generations. Across European fronts, baby boomers born in the wake of World War II would infamously go on to generationally distance themselves from their parents and consider their customs outmoded. Most palpably through the ’60s when ‘teen-aged’, sharing peace, love and hair, one for all and all for fun etc. But into their twenties/thirties and with that ’70s hangover, for those who didn’t emerge as acid causalities or on the flip, high-powered sales executives, most of the professional musicians surfaced technically capable but cynical that they had become their parents. Disillusioned (definitely so in the case of Roger Waters) with things like war, which their decade fought to stamp out. And perhaps disillusioned with what they failed to achieve. So what else was there to do but reset the clock and start over? And of course this self-reproach must have felt even heavier in Germany when you consider how that generation had to shoulder the burden of their country’s role in the war, on land quite literally divided. Krautrock and the some of the music Pink Floyd would go on to create in the ’70s to me often feels like music of the future, but music with a load of caveats, conditions and footnotes. Chin up, push on, but be wary…. At it’s core though most of Krautrock and some of Pink Floyd’s output is not music instantly comparable or indebted to styles established commercially, or held in common esteem.

I totally agree with you on the iconography of Pink Floyd. And you’re right; few bands – with the possible exception of The Beatles – seem to come with so many visual motifs. After losing Syd Barrett Pink Floyd were left four very capable, very middleclass ex-students who had turned into very professional musicians. Which the general British public must have viewed as something of a lackluster breed by celebrity standards. I’m sure the band even crushed hype by openly loathing that ‘space rock’ tag in the press and disapproving of drug use. But, as we said, they were doing it for themselves and those grand theatrics brought Pink Floyd to life as much as the music did on occasion. Giant inflatable pigs and functioning airplanes at live shows. I don’t think I’d want to know anyone who couldn’t appreciate that level of eccentricity.

What’s your favorite Pink Floyd record cover by the way? Not to tip the sacred cow here but I’ve never liked the cover of The Wall. But Atom Heart Mother and Animals always makes me grin. Love those covers.

WILL: From my perspective the pioneering experimentalism that was born out of a post-war mentality, as well as a more archetypical example of post-modernism, in both England and, probably especially, Germany, reminds me of the experimentation that went into the creation of jazz in early twentieth century America. I think the parallel comes from a conscious need to distinguish a new generation via music and build upon some traditional and folk music with very out there and purposeful experimentation using nontraditional instrumentation and revolutionary musical ideas. Though, with Krautrock, there is some American influence, The Velvet Underground being the big one. This is kind of getting away from Pink Floyd, but I think you bring up a very meaty point in the case of where the sound of Krautrock came from and I think that changing landscape at the end of 60s is really infused in that German psychedelia and proto-electronica as well as Pink Floyd’s improvisation. You could even cast that lens on American bands like MC5 and The Stooges who were partial to forebearers like Sun Ra more than Sunny Boy Williamson (though they did have that too) and whose lengthy improvisations took on an atonal and anti-rock edge. Though I think if you put those bands under a more specific microscope that comparison might fall apart. The Stooges often get labeled as nihilists, though I think it was more of just a prototypical punk attitude and MC5 were obviously more politically charged and very American in that sense. But I digress…

 Tying it all together, it’s interesting that themes of war ambivalence have cropped up across Floyd’s discography starting with “A Saucerful of Secrets” and ending with The Final Cut. I honestly don’t feel wholly equipped to dissect that cultural dynamic and Floyd’s place as a part of it, but it’s interesting nonetheless. Maybe we can come back to war as a Floyd theme when we talk about The Final Cut because I definitely want to touch on that record at some point. Do you know of any other English bands that were improvising similiarly to Floyd in that early era?

As far as album covers, I’m partial to Meddle and Animals. Animals is especially striking and provocative. I guess that brings up the question, how do you feel about the political edge the group started to develop on Animals (and Wish You Were Here to a certain extent)?

RICHARD: That jazz element is important but maybe less so in terms of actual practice when considering most stuff post-Syd I think. Dark Side Of The Moon especially if you consider jazz music to be this freeform trade off between musicians. As far as I can tell, Dark Side was recorded as anything but. But then again that’s what I’ve always liked about it: its design. It’s a predetermined suite that cleverly has jazz associations like wind instruments, longer compositions (movements?) and odd time signatures. Irregular signatures that are so well-worked they force a penny to subconsciously drop in your mind and make you forget about structure and appreciate the fact that you don’t always need it 4/4 to enjoy rock music. It’s alien at times but you can still immerse yourself in it. While we’re talking about outsider styles I also think the gospel and classical elements are fantastic too. Rick Wright’s piano intro and Clare Torry’s backing vocals on “The Great Gig In The Sky” are outstanding. If you ever get the chance read about how she contributed her vocal to that track. (The best example you’ll ever find to support how puzzle-fashioned Pink Floyd assembled that album.) I especially love how the end of that particular track segues into the till and coin samples of “Money.” Archaic and transcendent one minute, prog-funk thereafter. Saxophone too – very jazz. But by cloaking all of the above in enough electricity and grandeur, Pink Floyd banked the success of Dark Side for years to come. When all of those sounds collude you end up listening to a record that could pass for whatever you’re happy to call your bag. Rock, jazz, prog, classical… Planet aligning stuff.

Your point about the American influence in Krautrock is true too. I think if you were getting into bands like Tangerine Dream, Can and Amon Duul early on (i.e. back in the day) you’d have probably come through that psychedelic era aware of groups like The Velvet Underground and Mothers Of Invention. This is best reflected on the opening track of Amon Düül’s second album Yeti I think, which encompasses that crossover you’ve highlighted. “Soap Shop Rock” kicks off with a relatively familiar US garage rock dirge but a few minutes in you quickly realize that it’s anything but typical. After those first few moments come fourteen strong minutes of avant-garde noise, heavy space rock, violas, and eerie wails. Blues, classical and jazz are all in there too but as with so much of Krautrock I think it was less about approximating those traditional styles and instead seeing just how far you could take them beyond the point of recognition. Pink Floyd didn’t do this as much as package a wonderful and marketable version of this approach with Dark Side Of The Moon. Where Pink Floyd took total control of the music, players of Krautrock probably just took the music wherever it wanted to go.

If you’re looking for bands in the ilk of Pink though, I highly recommend most things affiliated to the Canterbury Scene. Soft Machine’s Volume 2 (‘69, Probe) is essential. Gong, made up of original Softs guitarist Daevid Allen and wife Gilli Smyth has come to define space rock for many and their first two albums on the French label BYG are killer. Caravan’s In The Land Of Grey And Pink, Khan, Egg, pre-Rain Dances era Camel. Comus! Comus are exceptional. Many of these acts either shared the stage or scene with Pink Floyd at one time or another but remained truer in my opinion to that improv-driven, collective-led ethos of being gigging musicians. And Magma! Away from England, but only a stones throw across the water. So many great bands, most of whom were signed to the major labels’ underground subsidiaries like Vertigo, Dawn, Deram and of course, Harvest.

But let’s talk about The Final Cut as I can tell you’re a great admirer. It’s always been one of those Pink Floyd albums I’ve paid little mind to because it sits so far away from that early line-up. And possibly because, as you pointed out, it has ‘political edge’. I think punk confirmed in many of us Brits a need to either hear about politics in less than three minutes, or not at all. You had Springsteen and Dylan. We had Elton John and The Beatles. Says it all I think.

What does The Final Cut say to you as a listener?

WILL: I was actually going to mention Soft Machine, which is interesting because they started out with shorter tracks and then went on to release a double album with 20 minute long noisy jazz improvisations even perhaps beyond what Floyd was doing sonically around the same time. I’ve scrapped the Canterbury scene a little and I wasn’t sure what connection it had with Floyd. Interesting. Gong is awesome too. Definitely taking things to a more straight forward “space rock” jazz rock realm. Great bands. 

I could write pages on “Great Gig in the Sky.” Perhaps my favorite Floyd track after “Careful With that Axe” (the connection between the two is definitely palpable). Just the pure visceral outburst of emotion in the vocal performance is astonishing. I think you hit the nail on the head with Dark Side in that it’s an orchestration built without as much linearity. It feels like the ultimate crossroads for the group in that pieces of their experimentation is still in play, but, again, it’s much more constructed and purposeful and pre-meditated than anything that came before it. Though I often wonder if it’s simply down to production and budget in regard to how much more sophisticated the record is in terms of arrangement when compared to anything that came before (or after, for that matter, though that’s not the point). That said, Dark Side is so embedded in my early childhood memories that it’s hard to separate my critical judgement from that aspect of my perspective.

But okay, so, The Final Cut. I actually do have a lot to say about Roger Waters’ “political” themes of that latter era where I think he came into his own as a lyricist. I should also say that I actually watched The Wall film last night for the first time in many years, so that got me thinking a lot about this. And I’m actually like you, I avoided The Final Cut for most of my life because it fell so far outside of Floyd’s spotlight period and it often has the sort of passive reputation as a dark horse because it has none of what came to define Floyd. It’s raw and minimal and organic. Lot of piano and strings. My love for it is a relatively recent event considering how long I’ve been glued to the group. I’d heard it when I was younger and I remember hating it, but I can’t really say why. In any case, yes, The Final Cut is incredibly political, but I think where it differs from Animals, and it has this in common with The Wall, is that it’s borne out of such a personal place for Waters rather than a place of unprecedented political commentary, which Animals certainly was. I think Animals can be quite cutting and astute with its commentary, but in comparison to The Wall and The Final Cut it is much broader and allegorical and has little outside of finger-pointing politics and Orwellian social commentary. Some might disagree with me on that, but Animals, to me, has never really been about the lyricism in any case. 

The Wall and The Final Cut really come across as Waters trying to reconcile his father’s war-time death, which obviously played an enormous part in both records. I group these two albums together because a lot the material was written consecutively and the lyricism is very similarly approached. The Wall is much more ambitious and there’s no doubt in my mind that it’s the better overall record and listening experience. I mean, it’s a character study revolving around isolation and abandonment and Waters succeeds in the writing, successfully and intricately tying together a father’s death, a mother’s repressive influence, an abusive school life, and a wife’s betrayal all to formulate a single person’s literal and metaphorical isolation from the people around him. He then goes on to connect those very individual themes to a broader definition of power and oppression. That’s just the writing, and the music more than captures the feelings those lyrics are reaching for. It’s simply incredible to me how surgical a deconstruction of a character the album is (I do think the album works better than the film in this respect, by the way).

 The Final Cut, is a more direct approach to Waters’ father’s death and the futility of war when viewed through the eyes of an individual as a part of world that has little concern for that individual. The Final Cut can be a bit more abstract than The Wall, making it vary in the specificity of its lyricism, but I think where it succeeds, and perhaps in some cases exceeds the previous record, is in how emotionally raw Waters’ delivery of those lyrics is and how they occupy the minimal arrangements. And, unlike Animals, the political commentary comes from an extremely personal and specific perspective that’s often more effective in its implicitness, highlighting the effect of war on an individual, his life after, the alienation he felt, the effect on those around him, and how incredibly distant and irrelevant it all is from the workings of Margret Thatcher and company. I think what really strikes me is there’s no element of self-importance to the political aspect of the record. I don’t think Waters ever had the notion that this record would be a grand flag-waving statement. If anything, it reeks of cynicism and the futility of an individual’s effect on that grander working. I think at some point it’s hard to even call it a political record anymore. It’s an intricate and layered character study connecting a single person to a grander theme that permeates the world around him, perhaps broader and more explicit (and much more flawed) than The Wall, but perhaps even more personal to the writer and performer, which comes across in the music and especially the vocals. I think the first verse of “The Gunner’s Dream” is really the record’s most singular and defining moment. It’s honestly hard for me not to get choked up every time I hear it. It’s also just jaw-dropping writing.

RICHARD: Well the Falklands was that first real instance of war those baby boomers I mentioned previously had to face as conscientious adults (in Britain at least) and I think you’re absolutely right about many things here. In fact I felt compelled to go out and buy the recent reissue of The Final Cut yesterday after reading your assessment and I’m really glad I did. The sound on the remastered version is impressive. Like I said, I’ve never given it much time before but revisiting it earlier made me feel kind of foolish for putting it to one side for so long. There’s no denying that it’s a very Roger Waters-sounding album and the history of its creation would corroborate this since, like The Wall, it’s another of his cherished children. But you’re bang on the money about it not being overly self-serving in a lyrical sense. It’s very rich and picaresque isn’t it? Politics are there throughout but not always central to what is really being sung about. Namely loss, isolation etc. Listening to it back it comes over a bit like a heroic journey with war as a backdrop and final curtain. I’ve always liked “When The Tigers Broke Free” because it sounds very noble. I especially like the way it ends abruptly on the line, “And that’s how the high command / Took my daddy from me.” I’m Welsh so was never really raised with this national sense of British pride some Americans think all us Brits have (although it’s something I definitely recognize the older I get), but the sort of conflicts Waters sings about here would have affected my father, his grandfather, and his father, and so on. It’s the emotional consequences of war that linger for generations, as Waters sums up neatly in the lines, “Still the dark stain spreads between their shoulder blades / a mute reminder of the poppy fields and graves.” Maybe as the years go by I will grow to value this record even more. I’ve certainly developed a new-found respect for it while thinking about it today.

There are some moments where I think it falls victim to the dated trappings of early ’80s production techniques. Like the phased guitar intro to “The Hero’s Return” and saxophone solo on “The Gunner’s Dream,” but these are neither here nor there. That latter track is just magnificent. “The Gunner’s Dream” and, as I mentioned earlier on, “The Fletcher Memorial Home” is Waters at his very best in my opinion. When he reaches those sorts of levels of self-exploration he really is able to pull something special out of nothing and make it accessible, for everyone. Weirdly too, having heard this album again, I now see a very touching side to someone who at the time was at the height of his personal tyranny. I was reading up about this record and didn’t realize that it was very nearly his first solo album. Where do you stand on his solo stuff? I think it’s interesting enough but too melodramatic for my liking.

WILL: I’m so glad you gave The Final Cut another shot. I had the exact same experience with it before getting super caught up in the record. I think all your points are spot fucking on. The tenderness and specificity of the lyrics are definitely something you wouldn’t expect from an album that gets the political rap. Picaresque is a great way to describe them. I totally agree that some of the 80s production stuff does come through a little strong, but I think a lot of the string arrangements counteract any of the cheese the 80s-ness might have held for me. I’ve actually kind of embraced that aspect to be honest. I sort of love the sax solo on “The Gunner’s Dream” as melodramatic as it is. “The Fletcher Memorial Home” is the track that really makes me feel Waters’ frustration. There’s some brilliant stuff in there. The moment where he’s listing off leaders’ names and the strings rise is pretty devastating.

As far as Waters’ solo career goes, I honestly haven’t listened to enough recently enough to have an opinion. I know I’ve listened to The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking a couple times, but I can’t remember it all that well. I know it was conceived around the same time as The Wall. Is it worth going back to?

Before we wind down with some bigger questions I think we would be crucified by some people if we didn’t touch on Wish You Were Here as I know some hold that in as high regard as Dark Side and The Wall. I’ll say a couple of maybe controversial things for the sake of argument: I think WYWH and Animals are the only Pink Floyd records that are tried-and-true prog rock. And I think WYWH is sort of overrated and Animals is better. Tell me I’m wrong.

RICHARD: Nah, that ’80s production works. You’re right to embrace every note. Maybe I should have said ‘of its time’ instead of ‘dated’ given those little touches only really stand out because they fall at quite pivotal moments. It’s important to remember too that they are essentially just natural developments of the sort of things Pink Floyd had relied on previously (saxophones, phased guitar, etc) so there’s little complaint from me on that front. It’s not as if it’s ’80s coke-driven disco, or epoch-teasing nonsense like Welcome To The Pleasuredome or No Jacket Required, or something truly ‘dated’ viewed in cynical hindsight. Although this is the sort of thing Waters found himself moving more and more toward later on, the further into that decade he wandered alone. If not wholly in terms of sound then definitely in terms of that frustrating ’80s approach to production, which found musicians valuing presets over common sense. Not that you can blame him. Unlike previous decades where he had to work hard for the right kind of sound he wanted, technology had created, programmed and saved them all. Sadly at a fraction of the quality.

Waters’s solo career though is interesting for a number of reasons and worth looking into, if only to dismiss outright after a few listens. I get the sense that he liked to hide a lot behind these grand progressive ideas, especially when left to his own devices. By the time of Radio K.A.O.S. he had reached bizarre levels of self-indulgence with lucid political plots that were borderline Anthony Burgess audio books… wheelchair bound Welsh boys and tales of nuclear holocausts on quiet English suburbs. Crazy and very easy to lose yourself in, but often with little reward at the end. The Pros And Cons Of Hitch Hiking is quite interesting though. It’s the strongest of his solo albums but still very much below par when compared to The Final Cut or The Wall. Personally much darker and more angst ridden; less concerned with loss and sadness, and more focused on how to vent such hang-ups… “Hey Girl, take out the dagger / Let’s have a stab at sexual revolution / Tonight lie still / While I plunder your sweet grave.” Who said prog couldn’t be punk?

But yes. Very glad I gave The Final Cut another shot. Thank you for that little nudge. But Wish You Were Here? Love it. Like I said before, some days I think more of that record than Dark Side Of The Moon, mostly because of the history around its recording. It’s an impressive eulogy not only for Syd Barrett but also for ‘The Pink Floyd Of Old’. To my ears it’s the last record where all four members seem to pull equal creative weight, and by doing so they actually sound as if they are enjoying themselves. Especially if you read some of the interviews with less vocal members like Rick Wright. It also has this massive crash back to reality feel too after a few years in that heady wilderness of touring a world-swallowing album. It’s turned and toned down, like Houses Of The Holy it comes over as a record made in respite, and because of that features some of the more natural and appealing aspects of Gilmour’s guitar playing and Waters’s less fussy lyrics. Emotional lyrics too from a man who, as I pointed out, was on a train bound for total autonomy. The title track is special. “Wish You Were Here” to me is the sound of four pillars holding up a monolith of roots and memories. Nothing overly heavy or complicated, just four friends knocking out a tune in memory of a forgotten comrade. And then you have those two movements of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” that bookend the album perfectly. It’s that specter of ‘Syd The Beat’ I mentioned, who each member of the band carried guilt for at the time, you can almost hear it’s cathartic for all involved. Plus being British I’m extremely partial to a bit of sarcasm and irony and the mid-’70s boasted this everywhere. As a tongue in cheek critique on the music industry at the time Wish You Were Here pre-figured many of the complaints punk would later go on to beef about. The character for instance in “Have A Cigar” (sung by Roy Harper) could so easily be the same guy Johnny Rotten is railing against so angrily on “E.M.I.” And the line “Which one’s Pink?” Brilliant.

Animals I like. Always have. I especially like that loose Orwellian angle they play around, and given the year it was released it’s often held as a neat counterpoint to punk. But as I mentioned before, it’s a return for Pink Floyd to that conceptual Dark Side Of The Moon approach but with a shortage of real standout songs. It’s just always missed something for me. Not coherent enough perhaps? I don’t know. Not sure I’ll ever feel that strongly about it as a record.

WILL: I think all your points regarding Wish You Were Here are pretty spot on. I know in interviews Gilmour always seems to lament that as the last record he actually enjoyed making. I definitely enjoy it for Floyd’s most overtly synth-driven record, but I’ve really never latched onto the three center tracks. And even with both parts of “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” I can’t really get into Gilmour’s guitar playing, but that’s more personal taste than a fault of the record’s. But I think unlike a lot of people, I like when Pink Floyd seems less like four dudes playing and more like a singular unit creating a singular vision – despite some of the early stuff pertaining to the former – and Dark Side of the Moon, to me, seems like the pinnacle of the latter. The difference between songwriters and musicians, if you will. 

As far as Animals, I’d disagree that it’s not very cohesive. I’ve always enjoyed it more than Wish You Were Here because it sounds like a tighter document to me. And I’d say it’s less about song standouts and more about instrumental moments and production detail. There’s nothing better than Waters’ voice melding with the synth on “Sheep.” I sort of think it’s the most interesting long form stuff they’d done since “Echoes.” But I’ve spent a lot of time with it, so maybe I’m too close. I’ve always had a soft spot for its elusive darkness and how overlooked it is. It has an earnestness, impulsiveness, and momentum (especially with Gilmour’s guitar playing) to it that I don’t think Pink Floyd managed to capture since before Meddle.

With the exception of that Live 8 appearance a few years ago and the fleeting ‘one night reunion’ back in May of last year, what do you think the chances are of there being another Pink Floyd project? As I sort of just touched upon when talking about age, the passing of time can have a massive effect on music. It can also be quite the healer of old war wounds as it were. What do you think new generations of music lovers will get from the legacy of Pink Floyd?
I have a feeling that we’ll never see Pink Floyd really in any significant form again. Even with this reissue push, the actual band seemed so uninvolved. But I don’t know. Anything could happen. I think Pink Floyd has a pretty unmovable place as a part of the rock pantheon. I think Floyd kind of exists as a band that rarely steps out beyond the headphones experience, if that makes sense. I think they’re one of the (if not the) quintessential just sit and space out bands. That’s almost become a stereotype and has a kind of drug-related stigma, but for me it’s more about how personal Floyd’s records are for how widespread their reach and acclaim is (DSotM is the third best selling record of all time). The personality never exceeds the music unlike a lot of other rock stars and bands of the same caliber. Perhaps the iconography and drug stereotypes exceed the music at times. But everyone I talk to (even casual fans) has their own experience with the band and relationship with the records that isn’t really governed by popular culture, despite the numbers grounding the band as one of the most ubiquitous. I think that’s an amazing and lasting and completely unique space for a band to occupy.

RICHARD: I think you’re right. It all comes back to this ‘selfishness it’s okay to like’ doesn’t it? The sort of acceptance we give Radiohead ’cause whether we like where they have taken their next album you just know there’ll be something to chew on when discussing it with people who in turn love Radiohead. Pink Floyd made music for themselves first and foremost and for us to listen to second, and should a chord or two strike you along the way then you’re onboard for life. Almost everyone in the history of twentieth century pop music has relied on universal themes we can all relate to (love, loss, fear etc.) but what I’ve always liked about Pink Floyd, especially through that ’70s period is that they make no bones about turning out whatever they’ve made for us to either establish a connection or disconnection with. Like I said earlier about The Wall, whether or not it works for you personally is a moot point since at the end of the day it will always work.

I’ve always had this almighty bugbear with The Beatles song “All You Need Is Love.” As great a composition and wonderful sentiment it truly is… all you need is love? I don’t think a weaker platitude has, or ever will be written like that again. And anyone who says that the key message there hasn’t grown weaker each passing year, either since The Beatles wrote it or you as a listener first heard it, is either lying or a stick-of-rock hippy with the words peace and love sugared down their spines. Age will make you love, hate, love and probably hate that song over and over again. To me Pink Floyd never seemed to go in for that. The use of themes so gossamer thin they’d wear out easily over time. Ask most to sing a song or two from Dark Side of The Moon and some might struggle. Whereas almost everyone can recite the lyrics to “Yellow Submarine” backwards.

Now, I’m not saying that Pink Floyd weren’t about making money but it’s always made me smile a little on the inside that the ridiculous amounts of money they did make came off the back off an album that most would be hard pressed to call straight up rock and/or pop. That ‘headphones experience’ you speak of is certainly true of most of Pink Floyd’s output I think and because of this many are quick to dismiss them outright because the best way to really get into them as a band also proves to be the most anti-social. Either alone in your own head or through the heads of a few close friends.

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Pearl Jam

Discussions: Pearl Jam

By Daniel Griffiths & Jason Hirschhorn; February 2, 2012 at 2:00 PM 

Pearl Jam

In this chapter of our running Discussions feature, Daniel Griffiths and Jason Hirschhorn team up to discuss the career of Pearl Jam.

JASON HIRSCHHORN: As with any Pearl Jam discussion, the only logical starting place is Yield. I know you have some very strong opinions on it, so why don’t you have at it?

DANIEL GRIFFITHS: I’m split on Yield. The very best of it is the very best of Pearl Jam; I’m a very big fan of the punky side of the band. Sometimes though, it’s a little lifeless. A long album too.

JASON: All their albums are on the long side, and sometimes I think that’s to their detriment. As for Yield, I can’t say I share quite the same opinion about it containing many “best of Pearl Jam” moments, and it has some pretty cringe-worthy moments. The way Eddie Vedder contorts his voice on “Do The Evolution” bothers me every time. I will say that “Brain Of J.” is one of their best punk songs, and “All Those Yesterdays” has a slow burning, “Tea For One”-type quality to it. It’s an enjoyable record but I prefer not only their first three albums, but multiple of their 2000 releases.

DANIEL: Oh, I don’t think it contains many of their best moments, just the really good bits that do crop up are stunning.

JASON: I feel like it’s a good time to discuss Pearl Jam’s place in the music hierarchy, or if that’s too daunting, their standing in the 90s alternative movement. Unlike Nirvana, Radiohead, and many other acts that broke in the early 90s, I feel as though Pearl Jam only gets credit for having one great album (Ten) and a handful of huge songs. This seems odd to me considering they’re the biggest-selling grunge act, and they continue to have one of the most devoted fan bases in music. However, the fact still remains that for the average listener, they’re still only really going to hear “Evenflow,” “Alive,” “Jeremy,” and the like. How do your observations differ?

DANIEL: Ironically, I think Pearl Jam’s career is matching The Who’s, which is funny given Eddie’s fandom of them.

In an overall hierarchy they should be somewhere near the top, and for me they are, however, for whatever reason, they’ll never be recognised as such. It’s like The Who; Who’s Next is one of the top 5 classic rock albums of all time but will never, ever be regarded as such. Another comparison would be Rush; do you reckon Pearl Jam are becoming more of a massive cult band?

I think their place in the alt-rock movement of the 90s is far more clear. While they’re remembered for one album, that one album is big and awesome enough to catapult them to the top. It’s criminal, but this is why I think they’re becoming a Rush-like cult band; the casual fans remember Ten and the first three tracks, but there’s such a large fanbase that know them for so much more.

I sometimes wonder if Kurt Cobain’s death had something to do with how revered Pearl Jam are now. Had Nirvana kept going and released some sub-par albums, the 90s legacy would be there for the taking for Pearl Jam.

JASON: As a quick aside, who actually doesn’t think Who’s Next is a top 5 classic rock album? It’s glorious.

But we’re in complete agreement about Pearl Jam being a Rush-esque cult band. The two groups mirror each other in a lot of ways, especially in their respective fan bases. I think that is sort of fitting for Pearl Jam, since they were never really quite comfortable as super stars during the early 90s and they seem to love their close connection to their fans. I was at their 20th anniversary weekend shows, and Eddie hit the nail on the head, “We feel like we could play anything and you fuckers would know.” He’s absolutely right about it too. I’ve been to many shows over the years including some very big artists, but a Pearl Jam show is different. The fans not only know every song, but there’s no “bathroom break set” for the vast majority. I don’t see that commitment in most other fan bases.

DANIEL: I’ve seen glossy mag specials that don’t even list The Who as a classic rock band. It’s borderline insanity!

The cult thing does suit. I would say they’re probably a little bigger than Rush, but then again, Rush are pretty massive. Anyway, I think it’s a testament to Pearl Jam that their fans have that kind of devotion and commitment towards the band, considering that the band themselves seem to appreciate it and reciprocate it. I’ve never been to a show, but hopefully it’ll happen one day. I think the recent re-issue series shows that reciprocation; the band are taking their time with them and giving the option of splashing out and getting awesome extras or just going for the bog-standard option. The one constant is that there’s a focus on quality; everything from adding a live show into the package to making the cases the same shape and size is awesome, and as a fan I really appreciate that.

JASON: That transitions very well into PJ20. As I touched on earlier, they’re celebrating their 20th anniversary this year. I haven’t seen the PJ20 movie yet, but I find the way they’re treating the occasion a bit strange. It’s not uncommon for artists to look back at their past, but this is different. At the festival and in the interviews I’ve read, their attitude is that of a band that’s “wrapping up” rather than celebrating how far they’ve come. I don’t think they want it to come across that way – I don’t expect them to stop playing anytime soon – but it’s almost as though they’re tying a bow around their first 20 years with the subtext of “we don’t want to be judged by what we do going forward.” There’s some precedent for this. For example, The Who are often judged not by everything they’ve done up to and including 2006’s Endless Wire, but rather by what they did with Keith Moon as their drummer. The Rolling Stones’ legacy is built on their work up to the mid-eighties Jagger/Richards breakup and not what they’ve done since returning. It’s as though Pearl Jam are trying to define their own “classic period” from which they will be remembered. I doubt you’d ever get Pearl Jam to admit they were thinking in this manner, but how do you go from PJ20 to making relevant new material?

DANIEL: Thing is, it’s one hell of a period to be wrapping up, and I guess it deserves to be wrapped up. It could mean they’re looking forward now, and I sincerely hope they are, and this is their way of letting go of the past. Maybe there’s a realisation that their best commercial days are behind them (a la Rush) and there’s a feeling of wanting to celebrate that. I also think the band may be starting to realise that Ten wasn’t just the album that defined a short movement, but the album that (eventually) showed itself to be one of the best rock albums of the last 25 years period.

JASON: I don’t disagree that Pearl Jam’s first 20 years should be “wrapped up” as we’re calling it. I just find it strange that they’re the ones who seem to be taking that initiative. As for the best rock album of the last 25 years, some on this very site have weighed in on that (personally I’d take OK Computer over the rest of the field, but that’s beside the point). I feel you skimmed over my question about how they could possibly create meaningful new material after PJ20. I’d really like to hear your answer to that.

DANIEL: I think waiting a while after PJ20 would be the best way for the album itself to be meaningful to the wider public, I don’t think they’re ever going to anything drastic musically that warrants being ‘meaningful’, if you get me. Of course, I’m assuming that the next album will be par for the course.

The thing with PJ20 is it hasn’t been massive. I can’t speak for what it’s been like in the U.S. (whether it’s been making waves or not), but it’s almost as if this isn’t the end of a chapter/beginning of a new one. It’s almost as if someone told them they were nearing their 20th and they said “Shit. Yeah. Better do something for it”. It’s not as if they’ve made it known they’re taking break, so the next album won’t be a triumphant return.

JASON: Pearl Jam made a few talk show appearances around the time of the PJ20 Destination Weekend, but I wouldn’t say there have been huge waves. I don’t know if there’s any general consensus, but to me they’re finished as a contemporary band and this is their transition into being a nostalgia act. I don’t think that’s terrible either, as I’ve seen many such acts perform live much farther past their prime than Pearl Jam is and enjoyed the hell out of it.

DANIEL: I think you’re absolutely right. They were moving towards being a nostalgia act after Riot Act in my opinion, and I think it’s pretty settled they’re not going to move in a radical direction now. I hope people don’t think we’re painting this as a bad thing though. Most Classic Rock bands wrote some of their best albums once they stopped trying to be ‘current’ and did what they wanted to. We keep using them as a case study in this discussion, but just look at the Rush path; they’ve always been a little current but their 00s output is far more Rush than their early 90s stuff. Maybe this will be a good thing for Pearl Jam.

Speaking of legacies, how about we look at the legacy of the man in the middle? After all, he’s pretty much the (living) face of the 90s movement now. How do you think he’s seen now and how he’ll be viewed a few years down the line?

JASON: I think Eddie’s stature has been significantly impacted by the way Pearl Jam consciously moved away from the spotlight during the late nineties. While he’s decidedly liberal and politically candid, he hasn’t received the same kind of flack that has befallen similarly outspoken rock stars like Bono. At the same time, he’s sort of become an icon of the un-hip. Certainly, he didn’t do himself any favors in that regard when he released his ukulele album earlier this year. Yet I’m not sure any of that really matters to me when I think about Eddie Vedder. I know we keep going back to the well on this, but he and Pearl Jam have definitely found a Rush-like niche. Their fans absolutely adore them and the rest are pretty apathetic. I wonder if Eddie is the last rock star of his kind. I suspect we’ll always have huge stars like we do today with Rihanna and Lady Gaga, but sub-super star cult status seems to be going away. Sort of fitting for a guy who deep down always wanted to be Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend rolled into one.

DANIEL: Nailed, mate. I think he suits that anti-establishment yet elder statesman role, and he definitely seems to be the last great rock star (although Matthew Bellamy has it in him to carry the torch).

I still think of him as the most important figure of 90s music. Essentially, he is the face of a movement now because he’s still living; the last great touchstone to a bygone musical era, if you will.

JASON: Let’s wrap up on a prediction: How much longer do you think Pearl Jam will stay together?

DANIEL: I hope they’ll stay together well into their fifties; the market is there for them. I don’t know what I think though, Eddie Vedder’s too unpredictable. How about you?

JASON: Eddie was fairly sulky in the nineties, but since then it appears he’s become much more stable. The band doesn’t seem to have much in the way of battling egos, so as long as Eddie stays afloat I don’t see why the band wouldn’t. Regardless what you can say about the quality of their more recent material, they clearly still love playing together. I’d expect them to stay together through their sixties, at which point “Alive” could rival “My Generation” in the unplanned comedy department.


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Discussions: David Bowie

By John Ulmer & Josh Becker; January 23, 2012 at 3:30 PM 

In this latest edition of Discussions, Josh Becker and John Ulmer try to pin down the musical chameleon that is David Bowie.

JOSH BECKER: So how did you first get into David Bowie?

JOHN ULMER: I’m trying to remember the exact point in time where I fully delved into his music… I suppose my earliest exposure to Bowie in general, as embarrassing as this may be, was through the movie Labyrinth. It was my older sister’s favourite film growing up, so I used to watch it a lot. And as a kid, I don’t think I really understood who he was or recognized him as more than an actor from a film, but I did always like his songs in the film (and as cheesy as they are, I still rock out to some “Magic Dance” once in a while). I remember my grandmother watching it with us and making comments about how, when he was younger, “People didn’t know whether he was a guy or a girl” – the sort of comment that struck me as amusing years later when watching videos from his androgynous era. But rambling aside, I think my deeper interest in music began in my late teens, and just from browsing internet forums and looking for recommendations I probably stumbled across more of his work. I think as soon as I began playing his albums – and I think I might have started with Ziggy Stardust, as seems to be the norm – I recognized a lot of the material. When I heard songs like “Changes,” “Five Years,” “Golden Years” and “Heroes,” the pieces started to come together. He’s one of those artists that you’re just constantly exposed to through pop culture at a younger age, and then as you grow a bit more conscious of who he is, it just hits you: “Wow, so he wrote that song! And that one too!” I feel like that was a really long-winded response to your question, but I’ve always felt Bowie was the perfect example of that phenomenon for me: where you grow up on an artist’s music without even realizing it until a later point. I think the same thing happened with The Beatles — I was like, “Oh, shit. They did that song in Ferris Bueller!” And that’s pretty embarrassing too, but my parents were never into classic rock or anything, so I had to kind of educate myself on all that. How did you first get into his music?

JOSH: Well it depends which Bowie we’re talking about. See, my dad was (and still is) really into classic rock, so I grew up listening to his favorite bands, running the gamut from British invasion superstars (e.g. The Beatles, The Who) to Southern rock (e.g. The Marshall Tucker Band and The Allman Brothers Band). “Space Oddity”-era Bowie was part of the former group; my dad was never hugely into glam rock but he loved Bowie’s whole Ziggy Stardust persona. I distinctly remember driving in the car with my dad, singing “Ground control to Major Tom” along with the CD stereo. So that was probably my first introduction to his music.

If we’re talking about Berlin Trilogy-era Bowie, however, that was a more independent (and recent) discovery. I was actually already into Eno’s ambient stuff by the time I began to read about his work with Bowie, and once I heard Low I knew that whole collaboration was just something special. I think that string of releases from, say, Hunky Dory up through Scary Monsters — the 1970s, pretty much — was the apex of Bowie’s career, especially the latter half of the decade. It’s the kind of thing in which the constant references to Bowie’s music in critical reviews of contemporary music suddenly made sense to me — how could you not compare, like, any band that used a synth and a guitar after 1980 to at least some of Bowie’s material?

JOHN: Yeah, delving into the whole Eno/Berlin Trilogy era was something else altogether for me as well. I can’t remember if I was already heavily into Bowie’s music when I first began listening to Eno’s solo work, but I’m assuming I was. I feel like the connection between them is probably what led me to checking out some of Eno’s albums. But it’s interesting, because I went through a big ambient music phase a few years ago (around the same time I was getting into a lot of older jazz music for whatever reason), and I recall listening to both Eno’s Ambient series and Apollo quite often during study sessions. It wasn’t until after that point that I got into Eno’s poppier works like Taking Tiger Mountain…, which were closer in spirit to what he was doing with Bowie, and I suppose it was during this time that I might have come to appreciate the Berlin Trilogy a little more. And as far as those albums go, it seems like (dare I say it!) the “hipster mentality” (a phrase I’m sure many readers detest as much as I do) is to champion Low as Bowie and Eno’s masterpiece. Sometimes people even posit that it’s Bowie’s best record overall. And for a while I kind of bought into that, but nowadays I’m not so sure. While it’s certainly a brilliant album, “Heroes” is quite hard to ignore, and I think sometimes it gets a little bit more backlash in music circles because it was the most commercially successful of the Berlin Trilogy. But they’re both nothing short of amazing, and Lodger — often overlooked in comparison to its predecessors — is nothing to scoff at either. I remember reading an interview with Scott Weiland a few years ago… people always said Stone Temple Pilots ripped off Nirvana, and I guess that’s true to an extent, but the influence Bowie had on Weiland’s stage persona was underplayed. He claimed Lodger to be his favourite Bowie record in this interview, and cited “Fantastic Voyage” as one of his most underrated tracks. And that’s what I love about an artist like Bowie — his music is so eclectic, and crosses so many different styles and genres, that there’s no clear, definitive standout amongst the fans or fellow musicians. I mean, I’ve spoken to a few people who cite Scary Monsters as their favourite of his albums, and you can’t even really fault them for thinking so. Hard-pressed to choose an overall favourite Bowie album, I suppose Ziggy Stardust is still my first choice, as it may be for most of us; but I’m always coming back to those Eno records. Do you have a clear-cut favourite from his extensive career? And to keep the discussion going, since we were talking about his collaborations with Eno, it’s probably worth mentioning his work with Iggy Pop as well. Any thoughts on those records?

JOSH: Well I’ve heard it said that Bowie practically made Iggy Pop’s career, which certainly speaks to what you’re saying about the breadth of Bowie’s influence; the fact that he could create these textured, electronic masterpieces with Eno and then turn on his heels and create such different works with the dude from The Stooges is pretty remarkable. I mean, you listen to a track like “Nightclubbing” and there’s this very prevalent psychedelic element that’s related to, but also outside of, what Bowie was doing with Eno at the time. And then you hear about how Bowie probably smuggled cocaine into the mental institution Iggy had checked himself into, and you realize that it’s pretty amazing that either artist was able to make music at all, given how deep both of them were into drug addiction at the time. I guess there’s this feral undertone to that era of both artists’ work that speaks to the troubles in their personal lives but also contributes to their lasting relevance.

Anyway, if I had to pick a favorite Bowie album… I’m not sure. Part of me does say it’s Low. It’s a quintessential headphone album, from the cosmic detailing on “Art Gallery” to the primordial, subdued catharsis of “Warszawa” and the good-ol’-boy posturing of “Sound and Vision” (my favorite Bowie song, bar none). But on the other hand, there’s something about Hunky Dory, the sophistication behind its piano pop, the way it’s got one foot in a very classic rock sound and the other stepping inside a cabaret, that sums up everything I love about him. So I guess it’d be those two albums, but I can’t say that I necessarily prefer one over the other.

I’m glad you mentioned Lodger, because I agree that it’s his most underrated work. It almost feels like a musical safari; it’d definitely prescient. Right now I’m listening to Super Ae by the Boredoms, and maybe this is just a kind of listening confirmation bias but I hear something of the kraut-ish guitar wanderings of a track like “Look Back in Anger” in this Japanese noise-rock, especially “Super Going.” Come to think of it, a collaboration between Bowie and Yamantaka Eye would almost certainly be absolutely incredible. I feel like the rock n roll equivalent of “6 Degrees of Kevin Bacon” would be “6 Degrees of Bowie,” because you can draw parallels between him and pretty much any modern rock star.

JOHN: “Sound and Vision” was, for quite a while, one of my top contenders as well. But, as mentioned above, because Bowie’s material stretches across so many genres and is so eclectic, it’s hard for me to choose any sort of overall favourite. Sometimes I listen to ““Heroes”” and it really just breaks my heart, and I think it has to be his greatest track, the culmination of everything I love about his music; and then I play something a bit more straightforward like “Five Years” or experimental like “Speed of Life” and it’s just fascinating and somewhat remarkable that a single man is responsible for so many various kinds of output, so diverse and so often wonderful.

And I agree with your point about his influence on modern rock stars. Hell, not just rock stars, but pop singers in general. I think both Madonna and, more recently, Lady Gaga wouldn’t have been able to exist – or even know how to exist – without Ziggy Stardust. He laid the blueprint for the eccentric, boundary-pushing pop persona.

Going back to his work with Iggy Pop, I’ve always enjoyed the contrast between their interpretations of “China Girl.” Iggy’s was first, and had a sort of sleaze and desperation to it; when Bowie sang his version, he infused it with romanticism. I think I actually prefer Iggy’s because of the desperation – when he says that he feels tragic like Marlon Brando it just makes more sense – but it’s interesting that Bowie’s was the more successful of the two, and years later is mistakenly considered by many to be the “original,” although to be fair he did help Iggy write it.

JOSH At the risk of sounding overly cynical, I wonder whether Bowie’s intention was to make his version of “China Girl” more romantic, or simply more commercially appealing. He had to have known that putting a more blatantly “pop” spin on the song would make it more palatable to a greater number of people.

Of course, that’s not to say that commercial pop music is necessarily worse or less legitimate than “rawer” music, which raises another, broader question: Is David Bowie a pop star? If you think he is, do you think you’d still consider him as such if he hadn’t been so successful? What is our classification for pop music in the first place, and is it really its own separate musical genre?

I ask because I too would consider Bowie to be a pop artist, but I think many people would first place him in the “rock” (or, shudder, “classic rock”) category. And then this raises broader questions about the line — if it even exists — between rock, pop, and experimental music. For example: is Low a pop album? Is it half a pop album? Does the presence of melodic development and a verse-chorus structure determine the “poppiness” of a given piece of music? And do you think it makes a difference that Bowie attached so much of his music to other cultural identifying markers (e.g., Ziggy Stardust, The Thine White Duke)?

JOHN: I think some of Bowie’s more well-known songs — the “mainstream” ones, so to speak — can definitely be considered pop music. Tracks such as “Changes” or “Let’s Dance” effectively tick-mark every category of pop: they’re catchy, have relatively straightforward production and have become staples of commercial radio over the years. And though he adapted what you refer to as cultural identifying marks — personas such as Ziggy and the Thin White Duke — I would hesitate to simply label him a pop star. You asked whether Low is a pop album, and I’m not sure it fits so cleanly into a single category; even saying it’s “half a pop album” seems a discredit to its merits. But, then, what exactly is pop music? That’s a whole other discussion; it seems to me genres are constantly changing and evolving, and I suppose you could say anything with a mass appeal is considered pop.

As for Bowie himself: I think his toying with conventions and the artistic leanings of much of his more esoteric works is what has defended him from criticism over the years — the sort of latter-day criticisms that many of his peers have been met with. A lot of iconic musicians from his era are now considered outdated or past their prime; you often see the older works of a guy like Springsteen greeted with adulation amongst this generation of music geeks, yet the figure himself met with mockery for his modern output (how much hate did he get for “Queen of the Supermarket” a couple years ago?). But I believe the fact that Bowie did experiment with musical boundaries has endeared him to this generation’s music fans and defended him from accusations of losing his touch or silly labels such as “dad rock” (whatever that even means). In essence, he has indie cred. The rise of the internet has produced a generation of music fans who can be quite cold and cynical, but you never see Bowie talked down upon, and even his last few albums prior to his apparent retirement — Heathen in particular — were hardly met with cringes or knee-jerk dismissal from fans. They were quite good records. His worst-reviewed album since the 80s was probably Earth, and even that record has its fans; I’ve always enjoyed the “We’re Afraid of Americans” single, which was put out with a variety of remixes by guys like Ice Cube and Trent Reznor. Even though the album wasn’t a complete success, I think Bowie’s always been extraordinary at anticipating trends, and he jumped on the electronic/remix bandwagon at an age when many musicians would have probably refused to even consider it a viable form of music. So, in a way, I suppose this would be an argument for referring to Bowie as a pop star — being able to foresee popular trends and being able to effectively capitalize upon them — but he never seemed quite comfortable working strictly in the popular eye, and enjoyed challenging his listeners without the bitterness or purposeful alienation of, say, Lou Reed. In my opinion, Bowie is at once the defining pop star and the complete antithesis of one. It’s an interesting dichotomy.


Other Discussions:

Tom Waits
The Velvet Underground
Led Zeppelin
Sigur Rós
Bob Dylan
Andrew Bird


Discussions: Andrew Bird

By Ray Finlayson & Jesus Lopez; December 7, 2011 at 2:00 PM 

Andrew Bird

In our next installment of Discussions, Ray Finlayson and Jesus Lopez tackle the work of Andrew Bird.

RAY FINLAYSON: The main focus of these discussions is to talk about the band’s or artist’s best album or something similar. With Andrew Bird I don’t really like thinking of albums or songs of his as “the best” because quite simply, to me, he’s an exceptionally consistent artist who has never put out a bad album, nor one that doesn’t deserve attention and doesn’t reward. So rather I think I’d prefer the term “favourite” since I find it hard to fathom the idea of an Andrew Bird fan specifically not liking any of his work. And considering Bird has grown brilliantly and beautifully at times over his music career, that is somewhat of a grand statement. I could see someone calling his debut album Music of Hair far from astounding, but many of the instrumental tracks showcase his skill on violin which he’s been mastering since childhood, and also how he can dabble in styles from all over the world without sounding derivative or cheesy. In fact, thinking about it, I’d say it’s an incredibly apt and fitting debut if you look at the sounds explored during his Bowl of Fire era and even on his most recent album Noble Beast.

JESUS LOPEZ: I agree that it would be hard to discern a clear-cut winner from the ever-changing Andrew Bird. He’s a difficult artist to pin down, performing something so deeply classic archetypal in his first forays and then, in the same record even (Music of Hair‘s “Pathetique” comes to mind), switching to that sweet string seduction cut with a bass and guitar that we’ve all come to love.

Still, there is something deeply mysterious and even haunting at some points in Armchair Apocrypha that are sometimes missing the just-being-cool jamming with Bowl of Fire. Bird has his fun tracks, which are more concentrated in his earlier recordings. I did enjoy Oh! The Grandeur, but they’re not the albums that I seek first in a Bird-itch. It’s not that they’re bad; it’s more that they are a smaller piece of a very tasty pie.

I’m dancing around saying “better” or “worse” definitely consciously: at different points in his career, Bird is nearly two different performers. It’s apples and oranges. I think that point is really driven home in how he’s always reworking songs performing them or refining a past musical phrase in later albums.

It seems like the best way to understand Bird’s recordings is in relation to one another. Appreciating his jazz revival because you know he can take you into a tropical descent with “Hot Math” with those same fingers seems about right to me. Each difference being complementary gives us some sort of cohesion from this tree that produces both apples and oranges.

That said, my favourite Bird album is probably Useless Creatures. Sure, an instrumental is a weird pick for an artist whose primary selling point is syrupy prose and tasty words. But there barely seems to be room for them in a space so deeply crowded with his musical creations, no lyrics long enough to lay over the sheer expanse that some of these songs carve out. I think the violin speaks plenty anyway.

RAY: I think if you wanted to simplify the explanation as to why Bird’s music differs with substance and style then it could be done by saying that’s he’s simply matured. But, I suppose, even that feels like a misstep of phrasing as he’s never really be juvenile in the literal sense of the word. Sure, on those early Bowl of Fire records, he can often sound like he’s just jamming with some friends (and brilliantly talented musicians), singing about Dora going to town or jumping into an another reel when it’s his turn. But on The Swimming Hour there was a definite shift in the way both Bird and his band went about things — the song writing was stronger than ever and had about ten times as much force, all while retaining the likes of the jazz roots and keeping an almost jocular tone throughout. It’s a hell of an album and I’d be hard pressed to find someone who could deny it’s the Bowl of Fire’s most substantial and rewarding record.

But, once Bird dropped Weather Systems there was another shift and it made listeners start taking the elegant nature of his work more seriously. And that’s certainly continued, but what’s good to see is that he’s never lost his sense of humour (The Mysterious Production of Eggs sounds like it has a million and one in-jokes that no one but Bird will ever get) or gotten too carried away with what he does.

I must say though that I’m greatly intrigued by you saying that Useless Creatures is your favourite as I would never immediately imagine that would be top of anyone’s list. I hate to repeat myself but I’m not implying it’s a bad record but to steal your phrase, it’s never one I would go to first when I get a Bird-itch. Certainly I can immediately see the appeal and I’ll admit in the past few months I’ve probably spun it more than any other of his works as I find it greatly relaxing and soothing. Maybe it’s just the way I’ve familiarized myself with Bird’s technique and style over the years but there’s just something about his long-winded drawn out streaks and plucks that can fit into my mindset nearly every time which probably explains why I absolutely adore and love his version of “Sectionate City” from his Live From The Basement release.

JESUS: It’s a pretty lovely piece of work. That take of “Sectionate City” demonstrates the willingness to explore sounds that I love too much in Useless Creatures. I was at a concert a few years ago where he played “Happy Birthday” and those last measures were repeated for what seemed like weeks — touched briefly by minor notes, keys corrected, it was an epic last word for the whole set.

That’s a great description of Mysterious Production of Eggs. A musician with a sense of humour that also isn’t terrible is a gem. I’ve always loved that frankness about him that’s definitely not afraid to laugh at himself when he performs a poor note.

Speaking of jokes and language tricks, I think words and lyrics themselves are something to pay attention to in Bird’s work — mainly because he seems not to himself sometimes. Shortly before Noble Beast was released, he gave an interview where he was discussing certain unusual words that came up in the album. Asked what he meant, he just sort of laughed and said, “to be honest, I don’t really care.”

I really think it’s this sort of indifference to meaning that makes Bird such a wonderful lyricist. “She’s got a ham in her handbag, a pig in her purse”? There’s almost something that seems to resist and giggle at you for thinking things were going to make sense in the first place. Other times, there’s a patience in the prose that seems to wait for the right equally-patient listener.

That’s why I was so struck by another review (again, lacking primary source — apologies!) of Noble Beast where the critic was talking about how the album’s most interesting features is that it is sprawling and freed from purpose seeming to go whichever way the wind blows. I wonder if you couldn’t say the same about the rest of his work. If it’s not organic and growing and blowing and sometimes orchestrated nonsensically in a certain way, neat the way a pineapple skin naturally is neat, accidental order like the water cycle or something. I know there’s a rational, creative agent at work orchestrating and ordering, but I can’t help feeling sometimes like things just happened to work just so, just perfectly sometimes when listening to his music. Like it was found rather than made.

RAY: You described his music in a rather beautiful manner there. I totally agree that there’s something wonderfully spontaneous about Bird’s work at times and it’s probably most obvious when he’s on stage lounging about in the looping ambiance with his stripy socks. But a definite talent he has is putting this onto record without ever getting too carried away: from the intro to “Case In Point” to the small instrumentals on Eggs to the jarring beginning of “Effigy.” Even Useless Creatures never seemed like it was dragging. But even though he might not take time out on record to show the origin on his loops and backdrops he always offers something to listeners who enjoy and are interested in this side of his music such (EPs and his many live shows).

I think as he’s always had a light hearted manner of going about how his lyrics were formed. Certainly on his earlier solo records his words seemed deliberate but never forced and I think that’s one of the many reasons why I have a huge fondness for Armchair Apocrypha as I felt it captured a sort of perfect middle ground. But Noble Beast certainly marks a step forward, if you will, in the way he writes (or has written). I recall reading similar things about the album and remember him saying such things about his lyrics. And I kind of love that he uses words and phrases for the way they sound instead of their actual meaning but yet still manages to make them sound important and insightful (the opening lines to “Anonanimal” blow me away every time I listen out for them: “I see a sea anemone / The enemy / See a sea anemone / And that’ll be the end of me”). He’s definitely a man who loves language for all its intricacies, which is just one more reason why he’s such a special musician and artist.

JESUS: By now, anyone reading this would write us off as nothing but romantics. In the spirit of fairness and not-blandness, I’d like those raise those weaker spots in Bird’s work. Least favourite Andrew Bird song?

RAY: I actually have a few contenders, which, I imagine, could sound a little surprising considering how many superlatives I’ve been throwing about here. The first is somewhat recent: “Sic of Elephants.” Bird’s always had a brilliant ability to make near enough anything work and he can turn the simplest melody or idea into something captivating and worthy of your attention but on this track he just seems to dither. The guitar chords seem cumbersome, the surrounding melodies lack memorable touches and even though it’s the most overtly political you’ll likely ever hear Bird be on record, he doesn’t sound really bothered. But at the same time, this song came from the Soldier On EP and thus I don’t hold too much of grudge against it as it’s a b-side. Nonetheless, it still feels kind of sad to see Bird not hit the mark but it’s to be expected of an artist who releases and experiments as much as Bird does. The second track is a much older one: “Ides of Swing.” I can forgive Bird much more easily here as it’s a light-hearted track from when he was just starting on with his Bowl of Fire but still, it just a bit of a layabout track that feels like it brings the pace down after “Minor Stab.”

I’ll honestly admit that here are a few other tracks he’s released that are perhaps to be considered more important and notable that don’t quite hit the mark, but these tracks I don’t look at in an unfavourable light as often they’re part of a bigger whole and have become and almost essential part of the whole album experience. What about you?

JESUS: The recollection of “Ides of Swing” has me fighting a laugh. I have this image of Bird doing a Jekyll/Hyde thing where he’s pulling those guitar strings so hard and then he’s Django Reinhardt again doing his minstrel folk. There is always a weak critic inside me that wants to infantilize certain songs, cute-ify them and just adore them even if they’re — musically — emptying their bowels all over the floor. Some songs from favourite artists are like irresponsible kittens in this way: their recklessness, their lack of training to be only enjoyed by the most committed.

Anyway, I agree with you on “Ides,” and I think he does the sweet & sour thing way better on “Pathetique.” I always see that last laughable lyrical plea in stacks like poetry and it’s like a plea from someone too grossly self-aware of their own foolishness, yet completely lovable:

“I bear no grudge
I bear no grudge
I’m over you
C’mon, c’mon, c’mon back to me, O.K.?”

I do love “Sic of Elephants,” which only renders its true powers when played alone in the bedroom at the unsuspecting hour of 2 p.m.

Without a doubt, “The Privateers,” is probably my least favourite Andrew Bird song. I thought Noble Beast was a master stroke up until I heard this rearranged incarnation of “The Confession,” which was one of my favourite songs from the Bowl of Fire times. “The Confession” was comically pleading and desperate in the funny way, where “Privateers” is all chipper and driving-rock with all the wrong words. It’s the same conflicted car crash of feelings I get when I hear most cries of betrayal or suffering embedded in pop music: insincere, lame. It was a surprising flop in midst an otherwise great album. Maybe it’s that contrast too that serves to secure it as such an awful song.

Also, I’ve always enjoyed the words, but never the music of “Fake Palindromes.” I don’t always notice traditional arrangements as obviously as I do in this song. It just seems to be employed with little imagination and vigour. I wouldn’t mind a rewrite of this one.

RAY: I’d be up for a rewrite or re-interpretation of any Andrew Bird song, but surely not “Fake Palindromes”!? I must join the bandwagon with many others and say that it’s simply an untouchable song. Okay, I concede, maybe “untouchable” is a little hyperbolic, but still, I couldn’t really imagine it any other way. If I had to strain the critical side of myself then yes, okay, the music isn’t as wonderfully melodic as other parts of Eggs but I think the power and impressionable nature of the song lies on the sheer simple energy it has in that big riff and those quick builds. It’s a song that’s almost too fast for itself as perhaps demonstrated when Bird cuts himself off at the last sentence.

However, I do agree with you regarding “The Privateers.” I recall the initial surprise when I realised he’d spruced up and brought back a Bowl of Fire song but it’s definitely a weak point on the album, and on its own it’s not a greatly memorable. Whereas the original had that languid air about it while being light-hearted (sort of like a sad clown) – much like your description – the new version is just about a light fluffy build that, I think, feels lacklustre.

But, again, surely not “Fake Palindromes”?! After hearing this thought from you I’d be most interested to hear what you think about the rest of Eggs.

JESUS: It’s true. “Fake Palindromes” has always made me yawn. I know it’s a favourite among pretty much everyone but I’ve never found myself waiting to hear it in concerts or getting much past the boredom I feel listening to it. There is a sharp guitar attack method that is employed in “Fiery Crash” and “Dear Dirty,” but it works better in the latter examples. Something fitting about the tempo is too fast there, something edgy, too dissonant. There certainly is some work put into the song, and I could be nice about it and do an “A for effort.”

That said, I love the rest of Eggs. It’s a wonderful album that caught my ear when I heard that whistle solo on “Masterfade.” The celebratory declaration, “there will be snacks,” on “Tables and Chairs” scans like a birthday party in midst a song anticipating apocalypse. What’s not to love? It’s sharp and fun and absurd.

RAY: Eggs is a really easy album to love and thus I’d say it’s probably his most accessible album. But I suppose I’m going to be kind of shocking here and say that “Table and Chairs” never really hit me like it seems to have hit other people (I personally would demand a whole host of other songs from Mr. Bird during a live show). Don’t get me wrong, I think the song’s divine in its own right and the idea of there being snacks, pony rides and dancing bears (and even a band!) during the collapse of the world is just a sublime combination of juxtaposing terms: simplicity/intelligence, real/dream-like. But it was never the highlight of the album for me. Instead I too found myself attracted more to a track like “Masterfade” or “MX Missiles” with their chirpy whistle solos and wordplay. I remember even having a phase where I would just write down some of the lyrics on blank till receipts at work and leave them lying about. The lyrics were just as great to listen to as they were to write down and Andrew Bird is one of a few artists who has that effect on me.

But you touched upon a good point about his sound and he certainly does have the ability to just nail a specific sound and/or texture at times. On Eggs it would have to be “Skin Is, My” and his pizzicato, but he seems to have been adding a rougher, almost prickly feel to his violin which makes distinguishing between his guitar and violin all the more unclear. It’s the kind of sounds that’s just that little bit different every time (much like all aspects of his live shows) but I suppose it’s caught best on a track like “Not a Robot, But a Ghost” on Noble Beast where it both impresses on its own but melds almost seamlessly with the woodwind around it.

JESUS: I’d wager that “Tables and Chairs” is a just-for-fun song for many others. It’s a product of that Bird humour we discussed earlier. Not that I’m saying it shouldn’t “count” in a critical or artistic way, but there is something to be said for a creative pursuit that, for a moment, ceases to engage the eternal and the mystic and detours into the maybe useless, perhaps pointless.

There is an interesting aesthetic in Bird’s work you can see begin to define itself in this song: apocalypse. Starting maybe from “Tables and Chairs” you can see this really vast and slightly terrifying interest in the end of the world that has always intrigued me. Armchair is book-ended with portraits of destruction. Noble Beast is a primarily animalistic narrative taking place away from or maybe after people. And there isn’t a single human voice to be heard on Useless Creatures.

The caveat: destruction is the defining moment, which heralds the awakening of the real. The warnings of “Tables and Chairs” are against warnings: don’t worry about your worries. Houses and humans will fail, but so will banks and money. It’s a well-worn Dadaist trope, but no less welcome here.

And I don’t think this sort of aloofness from society is unique to the later stuff. Even Music of Hair has a sound about it that’s very solitary like someone alone in a room. Or those two from Weather Systems, “–>” and “<--," which sound like they had their start as head sounds and blossomed from there. RAY: There’s nothing wrong with having a running theme through your body of work as it can add a sort of subtle consistency that helps tie songs and albums together, helping the listener get a better idea of the inner-workings of an artist’s mind. It helps that Bird has never been too direct about the themes that run through his work as obsessions (if it is to be called that) can easily become tiresome in other hands (Matt Bellamy of Muse and his fixation with space, for instance). I think, if anything then, that it’s just fortunate that he manages to combine his morose preoccupation with destruction, the apocalypse and the downfall of society with music that rarely fails to captivate and/or intrigue. Songs like “Yawny At The Apocalypse”, “Sigh Master” or “<--" have a (literal) wordless beauty about them which could easily be as interpreted as uplifting, warming and reassuring as easily as they could be heard as sad, lonesome requiems for the world's final hours. JESUS: Yeah, I don’t think anyone would want to be beat over the head with the end of the world or anything like that. But I do think that fascination is interesting when you consider these romantic and comic views set out in his music. The pep-talk “Take Courage” and the funny, doomed conversation of “Spare-Ohs” make me wonder where people sit in Bird’s apocalyptic vision. The gestures of affection toward people are complicated when you follow them with destruction.

I think the first time I noticed this curiosity was at the end of (sorry for the repeat reference) Useless Creatures (very sorry). “Sigh Master” takes you back into the territory of the same song: humming like a light breeze, chirpy whistles and the equestrian clop-clop of the percussion. The listener is back on the same field trip with Bird seeing the natural the way he sees it: intoxicatingly beautiful. Suddenly, he pulls the rug out from under you and everything goes minor and just sounds so utterly rotten and moribund. There is an ugliness there like death that is described in the same sort of careless, just-happened-upon-it informality that defines the other portions of the album.

I just wonder how you square that triangle, the beauty of biology and the affinity for its destruction. Thoughts?

RAY: Perhaps the triangle is not to be squared. Perhaps it’s just a case that he works from those different ends that you named, going in between whenever he so pleases. But I do think that there’s always a clear path between the two which is likely decorated with humour, wordplay and an endless spectrum of melody.

But as much as he has these core points, I can’t help but accuse Bird of being a very unspecific lyricist, at least in the personal sense. He talks about the end of the world and how sudden feelings might dash through him (“Oh No,” “Fiery Crash”) but rarely do we actually get to see into his heart. I don’t mind having his head in focus as it has provided years of wonder and amazement but there is a part of me that would like to hear Bird sing about love and all that mushy stuff. Maybe he has and I’ve not picked up on it. I certainly was a little surprised when a line like “still my lover won’t return to me” came up on “Souverian,” as for once he seemed to referring to his own lost love (his performance seems to have a sincere heavy-heartedness to it to me). But still, all his talk of parsnips and thrushes brought it back to nature, which is fine considering that’s the theme of the album, but I find it a little frustrating that it’s so hard to be sure. Maybe it’s just that love is such a tricky subject to get right that I want to see an intelligent artist like Bird approach it more directly. Or maybe its complexity is exactly why he’s avoided it.

JESUS: I’m assuming you heard this, but just in case: here’s a link.

RAY: I had come across this before but in another form – a live version sung in French, no less. But I had meant to check out this version (so much for doing real research for this discussion) and I’m glad you pushed it in my face as it’s a lovely rendition of lovely song. Forgive me if I sound incredibly stupid here but I can see a few similarities between Andrew Bird and Kermit the Frog: they both have that wistful, almost patriarchal knowledge despite not really looking that old (or being that old I suppose in Bird’s case); they have that streak of humour which can go between self-deprecation to clever observation and no matter what either of them might be talking about (rainbows, formaldehyde, being green) you can’t help but find yourself captivated.

JESUS: At the mention of Andrew Bird’s age, I had to find out his age myself: a rocking 38 years old.

I think you hint on something here in his delivery which I’ve also always found equally attractive. His words and how much he seems to mean each thing that he says has always been a draw for me. I’m not talking about the truth of the songs or anything, the “Fiery Crash” he really wants or a real Dora in town. I mean more that he’s very committed to the truth of his lyrics and imagination and ideas. The poetic truth. Isaac Slade of The Fray has always seemed a little estranged to the narratives he sings. Bob Dylan has always seemed to be a witness to his musical concepts, perplexed or fascinated, like the music is happening independent of him. But Bird is always on an even keel with his music right there with it completely committed to the idea of, in this case, being green.

RAY: I wholeheartedly agree and I think this quality definitely manifests itself in his live shows. Take “Why?” for instance: he will strain himself to get that riff just right, sometimes to the point it looks like it’s causing him pain. But with every note, every strum of the violin, every word he sings and every blank stare he shoots at the audience, he is completely invested. The music and lyrics don’t so much feel like a part of him – I’d go one step further and say they are him. When you see him perform on stage you don’t just get the man in flesh on a stage; you also get the man expelling his thoughts, his conscience, the very strands of life that make him function from day to day. The music is a constantly fluctuating living creature and even the harshest of skeptics have to admire Bird’s attempt to try and capture this animal (or nonanimal if you will) on record.

JESUS: I think your description is spot on until you discuss his performance as a matter of personal expression. I think we covered this earlier, and we both concluded that Bird’s music — wonderful as it is — lacks that introspective angle which seems to define nearly every creative effort of our day.

No: those songs aren’t the man. I’ve always seen them more as a giant store of silly sounding, completely palatable parables, stories and myths. They are grounded in anecdotal looks at life and people which given them an emotional colour, but I’m not sure it’s his emotion we’re exploring anymore than we’re exploring Shakespeare’s views of war in Richard V. Both seem more interested in representation than they are expression, which is part of what lends them a sort of eternal, stand-alone, I-found-this-didn’t-make-it feel. Sufjan Stevens has this mode down to an art.

I would love to hear more about Bird’s ambitions and his dreams and vices, but I don’t see that as something we can expect to derive from his music. Sure, his name is on the credits, but I would say the man remains cryptic well after you’ve grown to love his work.


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Discussions: U2

By Sean Highkin & Liam Demamiel; November 11, 2011 at 1:30 PM 


Sean Highkin and Liam Demamiel delve into the sprawling catalog and career of U2 in our next Discussions feature.

LIAM DEMAMIEL: Most U2 conversations invariably end up on the subject of Bono, and I can’t really think of any other frontman who polarizes listeners as much as the man in the sunglasses. I know we are both big U2 fans, what are your thoughts on him?

SEAN HIGHKIN: I can sort of see why he’s such a divisive figure. There is a strong contingent of rock fans that can’t stand rock stars who have aspirations beyond being entertainers. I don’t get it myself. The amount of money and awareness Bono has used his celebrity to raise for poverty, hunger, and AIDS is unparalleled in the pop music. People see him acting all buddy-buddy with world leaders and roll their eyes, because our first reaction when we see someone worth hundreds of millions of dollars talking about hunger in Africa is to question their intentions. But I don’t think anyone can argue that Bono hasn’t done a whole heck of a lot of good for society as a rock star.

LIAM: I think a lot of it has to do with ‘tall poppy syndrome’ and an inherent distrust in some people of the good intentions of those more successful than them… a desire for some schadenfreude maybe? But I agree with you: like it or not he has had brought a lot of attention to issues that would otherwise have gone ignored. After seeing them live once I asked the guy next to me what he thought. “It was good,” he said, “”but I wish Bono didn’t waste all that time preaching at me.” I understand that when you pay to see a show you are paying to be entertained, but you can always choose to switch off — you know what you are in for. I think that people get too caught up in the debate and ‘Bono bashing’ and often forget that there are three other very talented and creative people in U2.

SEAN: By this point, I’d hope that anyone who pays money for a U2 show knows that Bono’s “preaching” comes with the territory. If you go to one of their concerts and actually come away thinking “Man, they could have played another obscure Zooropa track if Bono hadn’t spent 10 minutes talking about Africa,” then how much do you really know about the band’s history? I’ve never seen them myself (I had tickets for the Seattle show on the 360 tour but couldn’t make the rescheduled date), but I’ve seen enough of their shows on YouTube and DVDs to be able to safely assume that there are very few bands that do a better job of giving you your money’s worth, musically and visually.

And yes, as you said, the other three guys in the band are pretty damn talented too. The Edge is recognized as one of the more innovative guitarists of the last few decades, as he should be, but when was the last time you’ve seen anyone but the most hardcore U2 fans give more than a passing thought to Adam Clayton or Larry Mullen? They don’t have a sound as unmistakable and singular as Edge’s, nor do they have personalities as magnetic as Bono’s, but is there a more solid rhythm section you could ask for if you’re making the kind of music U2 make? With the exception of my beloved Rush, I can’t think of a band that’s stayed together with the same lineup for as long or at as high a profile as U2 without any serious conflicts. To me, that’s admirable.

LIAM: Yeah, it definitely is a rarity these days. It would be interesting to have more insight into the band dynamics, however U2 Co. seems to keep pretty guarded on how the band functions. But for me they really are one of those ‘the whole is greater than the sum of its parts’ bands. I was listening to Boy recently and had forgotten how tight that record sounds. Like you said, Adam and Larry are incredibly solid. On “Electric Co.” they really keep it down and let Edge do his thing and drive the song. But I like how they can also own a tune too. The bass line in “An Cat Dubh” is so simple but really makes the song. All these years later I think things really haven’t changed that much – they still are a very adept band.

SEAN: Boy is about as good as you can expect any band’s debut album to be. It’s pretty remarkable how fully realized their sound was even then, considering it was a record made by a bunch of 20-year-olds. When you think about it, not all that much has changed in U2’s sound from 1980 to 2011. I don’t mean that in the sense that they’ve been repeating themselves that whole time, because that’s obviously not true at all. But if I heard Boy in 1980 and then you played me No Line on the Horizon and told me that was what U2 would sound like in 2009, it would make sense.

LIAM: Definitely, I think “Magnificent” off No Line On The Horizon best encapsulates that. All those Boy elements are there – the Edge’s effected guitar, the solid rhythm and that soaring voice; but it still sounds new and interesting. I don’t know how they do it, but I still get excited by every new U2 release. Would your opinion change if someone played you, say, Pop?

SEAN: It would make me raise my eyebrows a bit, yes. But honestly, listen to the breakdown in “Discotheque,” or the leadup to the chorus of “Please,” or even “Staring at the Sun” — the U2 sound is there.

For the record, I’m squarely in the “Pop is a misunderstood gem” camp. At least half the songs are top-shelf U2, and even the ones I’m not crazy about (“Miami,” “Playboy Mansion”) are the kind of failures that are worth hearing once. I also thought the material from that album translated quite well live on the PopMart tour.

LIAM: I think Pop is a solid record, and often feels like the logical extension of those other great 90s albums, Achtung Baby and Zooropa. Having said that, it made me happy when they released All That You Can’t Leave Behind. That return to the more tried and tested sound and “conventional” approach has really come to cement U2 as an essential band for me. How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb and No Line on the Horizon are thoroughly enjoyable and deceptive records. I still listen to these albums and find things that I hadn’t noticed before. While the 80s will always be my favourite U2 era, it is hard for me to find much wrong with their recent work. Yes, it is often a bit poppier, but I think it still possesses those elements that made records like The Joshua Tree perfect. I think this gets back to what we touched on earlier – evolving but with familiarity.

SEAN: On some level, I get the dislike a lot of people have for post-millennial U2. In all likelihood, they’re never going to release another Achtung Baby-type record that completely redefines who they are as a band. No band that’s been around as long as U2 continues to innovate this late in their career. Paul McCartney’s best-received solo records these days are the ones that sound the most like Beatles or early Wings albums. Dylan, Bowie, Springsteen, whoever — they’re all much more successful at this stage in their careers when they stick with what they know works. U2’s been together for 30-plus years. Whatever they do is going to sound like U2. They could (God forbid) release a dubstep album and it would probably end up sounding like U2. So you have to put any expectations of change aside when evaluating their recent work, and when you look at their last three albums in and of themselves, there are a lot of terrific songs. “Beautiful Day,” “Walk On,” “City of Blinding Lights,” “Love and Peace or Else,” “Unknown Caller,” “Original of the Species,” “Magnificent,” Stuck in a Moment,” “In a Little While,” “Moment of Surrender,” I could go on. There’s a bunch of great non-album material from this period too, like “Electrical Storm” and “Mercy.” The question with modern U2 isn’t “what boundaries are they pushing,” it’s simply “are the songs there?” And for the most part, the answer is still a resounding yes.

LIAM: I don’t always look for the boundaries to be pushed and I think U2 have proved themselves in their ability to change their sound. Maybe that’s why I like the recent direction. For me its nice having that familiarity there and seeing how a band can push their own established sound… I don’t expect Achtung Baby Redux. The mild experimentation of their latest effort is enough for me, and who knows what they will come out with next.

One argument about the post-millennial U2 I have always found interesting is that they are too “important” or “big” commercially to shape shift again. There is no denying that Pop alienated some fans and they had to work hard to get to where they now. Now some are calling them the “Biggest Band in the World.” What do you think will be their legacy?

SEAN: I hate the legacy question, especially for bands that still have worthwhile music left to make. Are they the biggest band in the world right now, purely in terms of name recognition? Probably. One thing I can say about U2 with confidence is that they’re the last band that will be huge the way bands used to be huge before the internet caused musical subcultures and fan bases to become as splintered as they are today.

LIAM: Noel Gallagher said that about Oasis recently, but I think they hardly compare to U2 in terms of longevity. I think U2 will be one of the last big bands to have fused religious and political ideologies with “mainstream” pop music. I can’t really think of any current big bands who do it — it seems like there is not much space for that kind of thing these days.

SEAN: I guess the closest thing would be Coldplay, but they bypassed any stage of U2’s career arc where they were cutting-edge and went straight to the part where they’re the most uncool band in the world.

Switching gears for a second: What’s your favorite album?

LIAM: Am I being too predictable if I say The Joshua Tree? For me that album has always represented a band at the top of their game, and is without a doubt one of the best albums of the 1980’s. “Where the Streets Have No Name,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” “With or Without You,” and “Bullet the Blue Sky” just on the A-side! It is as close to perfect as an album can get. “In God’s Country” is one my favorite U2 songs — I love that bassline and Bono’s vocals. That whole album has that clear American influence and spiritual tinge… I still walk away from listening to it and am amazed.

SEAN: The thing about The Joshua Tree is that you look at the names of the songs on side A and the first thought is that it’s one of the most front-loaded albums of all time, but the best songs on the album are some of the ones on side B. “Red Hill Mining Town” might be Bono’s crowning achievement as a vocalist. You mentioned “In God’s Country” — that’s one of my favorites as well. “One Tree Hill” and “Exit” are outstanding. And then you get to the hits: “Where the Streets Have No Name” and “Bullet the Blue Sky” are somehow still not played out.

And yet, it’s not my favorite U2 album. To me, Achtung Baby is the best rock album of the last 25 years. Better than Nevermind, better than Loveless, better than OK Computer, better than Appetite for Destruction.

LIAM: I like it too, but the best of the last 25 years?

SEAN: Why not? Not only is it as strong song-for-song as any album you could name, but it’s also maybe the most successful reinvention in rock history. It takes serious balls to follow up an album as huge as The Joshua Tree by overhauling nearly everything about who you are as a band, musically and visually. U2 got a sense of humor for the first time, and pulled off the toughest thing for a veteran band to do: stay current while staying true to themselves. You could hear “U2” and “hip-hop and electronic influences” in the same sentence and think the potential is there for a forced, contrived mess, but the opposite is true. It’s the most unified album they’ve ever made, and they’ve never written a stronger end-to-end set of songs.

LIAM: I think that was Bono’s best period for sunglasses-wise, too.

SEAN: Agreed, Bono was absolutely at the top of his sunglasses game circa Achtung. There’s a reason the new box set for that album features a replica pair. Although for how much that thing is costing, I’d think the sunglasses would have to be a pair that he actually wore on the ZooTV tour.

Speaking of ZooTV, that’s one of my favorite concert films of all time. In fact, you could even go so far as to say that if I could go back in time to see any tour in rock history, that would be right up there with The Who in ’70 or Zeppelin in ’72 for me.

LIAM: A U2 concert is definitely an experience. It is all encapsulating and transports you to another place — the staging and design is amazing. Kiss always talk their show up, but pyrotechnics and gimmicky fake blood hardly match up to what U2 delivers. I think PopMart would have been great to see. I like the idea of four men trapped inside a mirrorball lemon. Spinal Tap!

SEAN: Two things about PopMart: first, I don’t understand why they didn’t play any Zooropa material on that tour. Songs like “Numb,” “Lemon,” and “Daddy’s Gonna Pay for Your Crashed Car” would have been arguably better fits for that show even than they were for ZooTV. Second, I really wish they’d bring some of the Pop stuff back. I get why they don’t play anything from it anymore — that album is the black sheep of their catalog, critically and commercially — but now that they’ve reclaimed their status as the biggest band in the world, and a lot of the stigma from PopMart’s excesses has worn off, wouldn’t you love to hear “Last Night on Earth” or “If You Wear That Velvet Dress” again?

LIAM: I guess, but they have built up an enviable catalogue of material over the years — there is always going to be something I wish they would revisit. I am happy that they are moving on, and excited for what comes next!


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