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Discussions: M83

By Colin Joyce & Will Ryan; October 28, 2011 at 1:00 PM 


Colin Joyce and Will Ryan tackle a modern favorite, M83, in our newest Discussions feature.

WILL RYAN: Alright dude, let’s talk some M83. I think one of special things about him (meaning Anthony Gonzalez) is, when discussing his catalog, you have three records that are pretty evenly matched (Dead Cities Red Seas & Lost Ghosts, Before The Dawn Heals Us, and Saturdays=Youth). I’m personally partial to Before the Dawn, it’s probably one of my favorite records of all time, but I’m hesitant to call it his best. It’s hard to put even one of those on top for me as I think M83 is a great example of an artist that is able to build on a strong aesthetic foundation to create uniquely realized individual records; which sort of explains why I love Before the Dawn so much. He was going for a specific nocturnal metropolis atmosphere, which I completely get off on (some of that is owed to my worship of Blade Runner, and Before the Dawn totally reeks of Vangelis). He seems to be an artist that works with a specific conceptual framework in mind, so it’s sort of comes down to what most appeals to you I guess. All that said, I might argue Dead Cities is his (in this case you have to mention Nicolas Fromageau) objective best — whatever that means. Where do you fall?

COLIN JOYCE: I’d say you hit it pretty spot on. I’ve always had an affinity to Before The Dawn, if only because I feel like it’s most representative of the things that I like most about M83. Stuff like “Teen Angst” is just so massive, and I think it’s that huge sound that initially drew me to the band. It’s punishing in a way that you don’t generally get outside the realms of punk and metal. Gonzalez makes pretty heavy music, less in the sense that it’s particularly loud or abrasive, but more in the sense that it’s just dense. Even on Dead Cities you see him taking up just about all the sonic space that he can — whether he’s filling it with voices, guitars or synthesizers — and whenever you make music without much empty space, it begins to become oppressive in the same way that a lot of heavier music is. Dead Cities and Before The Dawn Heals Us just have this enveloping quality to them, and I guess that’s why I personally prefer both of those albums to Saturdays=Youth. It just doesn’t sound as big, really. Your thoughts on that?

WILL: Agreed. It’s odd to even relegate him to the realm of “electronic” music as the energy and arrangement he usually tackles is so in line with the biggest of rock music. I’ve seem some label him as post-rock and in terms of how dramatic the sound is, I’d say it’s fair. He’s definitely a maximalist. It’s interesting that people labeled him shoegaze when Dead Cities first came out though, as he’s so defined by synthesizers and drum machines. He was doing the 80s synth thing long before it was cool, but even as that’s become a huge part of what defines modern indie music, still no one cranks it to the level he did and does. “Shoegaze” is apt in that he does create a wall out of those synths, especially on songs like “Teen Angst” (though he often does throw guitar in to the mix), though I think, like you pointed out, that density is more about filling the space with stuff than simply an aesthetic choice.

I’d agree that Dawn is by far his biggest record in terms of sonics. Three of those songs have full-ass fucking choirs on them and he pushes his vocals into a more atmospheric realm. In a lot of ways it even transcends the levels of bigness of even punk and metal just by how monolithic and orchestral it all feels. There’s a weight to Dawn that isn’t found on any of the other records – oppressive is a good way to put it. It really feels like he captured the spirit of a screaming neon megalopolis. He started digging into a lot of distorted bass, guitar feedback, sawtooth synthesizers, and really booming sequencers. Dead Cities is a little airier and a lot dreamier in comparison, though it does get to that hugeness at times as well (“Beauties Can Die”). Both remain emotionally singular records no matter how you look at it – enveloping, for sure.

I have a feeling Saturdays=Youth might be the album we center on most in this discussion, despite it both being our least favorite of the three. I agree that it’s not the densest of these albums, though I think it still gets pretty goddamn huge. It’s his most accessible and pop-leaning effort, and the first where he seemed to be approaching things from a standpoint of hooks and chorus/verse/verse structure with vocals out front. In some ways it’s the point as he was interested in mining an almost John Hughes sensibility. Where do you stand on how things changed from Dawn to Saturdays? Do you like the album?

COLIN: I mean, I certainly like it. It has its own worthwhile dynamic — it’s just a bit different, you know? I appreciate that he attempted to integrate feelings he hadn’t really incorporated yet. Dawn, as you said, was sort of focused on the sprawling metropolis sound and though Saturdays was a bit of a departure it’s still obvious on songs like “Couleurs” that we’re dealing with the same artist. Though the changes are there, it’s not like he altered his career trajectory. That being said, if Before The Dawn Heals Us was the sound of this bustling metropolis at night (as the cover depicts) Saturdays is the sound of the dawn itself: still soaring, but in a manner much more tranquil than its predecessor. It’s still a great feeling that I feel is captured really well by the use of female vocals. Morgan Kibby’s voice is really just heavenly, and it certainly contributes to that floating feeling I was talking about earlier. Especially on tracks like “Skin of The Night,” it’s her voice that really seems to let the tracks open up and breathe. On previous efforts, as you mentioned in regard to Before The Dawn specifically, the backing vocals seem to mostly serve to fill up any empty space in the arrangement and generally contribute to the epic nature of the songs. I think that’s really what it is with Saturdays. Gonzalez is working with mostly the same tools, but is manipulating them in ways that give off a different aesthetic. That’s just it in terms of where I rank it in relation to the other albums. I don’t really think it’s worse, I just prefer the intensity of “Teen Angst” to something like “Graveyard Girl.” Even so, “Kim & Jessie” is amongst my favorite M83 songs. How do you feel about Saturdays as a whole?

WILL: I like Saturdays a lot a lot. I’m glad you mentioned Morgan Kibby. Her addition definitely adds to the record’s distinct atmosphere. I think her vocal quality itself is important as it’s very angelic and airy as you said, which plays a role in the record’s youth-centric metanarrative, if you will. Again, it really shows how visionary Gonzalez is that the album came out the way it did. There are pianos and flanged guitars all over everything and the reference points embedded in 80s pop music are immediately clear. It’s definitely M83 making a pop record, but that’s almost the point. The pop music angle could be seen less as an evolution in M83’s trajectory and more just another aspect of the record’s concept, as pop music is a lot of times, regardless of its subject matter, a nostalgia piece and the soundtrack of youth. But as you said it’s obvious with songs like “Colours” and the outro (which works perfectly as a comedown) that we’re listening to M83. I can see why a lot of critical voices prop it up as his best. Other than being his most accessible, it really shows a hand for conceptual and purposeful song craft that wears its influences right out in the open. For me, it really just comes down to a preference for the aesthetic and atmosphere of earlier works.

COLIN: I’d certainly agree with you in terms of that preference, but I’d like to talk, if we could, about one of the often less discussed moments of his career. I’d argue that the stuff on Digital Shades Vol. 1, while not as instantly grabbing as the other albums, is an intriguing achievement in its own right. Though it’s a bit shorter, and the majority of the tracks are much more ambient (“Waves, Waves, Waves” seems to mimic or sample actual wave sounds) it’s as enveloping in its own way as many of the more intense works. Sure it’s quite a bit droney, but it’s one of those albums that you can just let wash over you instead of pummel you the way that Before the Dawn seems to. It doesn’t really have the Gonzalez’s distinct fingerprint in the way that the other albums do, but it’s very cool to have him explore some of the different tones that you hear him experimenting with across the catalog. What do you think of Digital Shades, or even the self-titled?

WILL: I really don’t like the self-titled record. I’ve only listened to it a couple times, to be fair, but it really doesn’t have much of an identity, and the difference between it and Dead Cities is pretty astonishing. It often doesn’t even sound like the same group. I forget about it most of the time, to be honest. Dead Cities always sits in my mind as their debut. Digital Shades I do like quite a bit, but I think you’re spot on about some of its drawbacks – mainly that it loses some of the M83-ness, which might have set it apart from other ambient drone groups. But it’s totally listenable and it has some amazing moments (“Coloring the Void,” “Dancing Mountains”). I think he packaged it in such an inoffensive kind of “extras” way that it totally works. It has the trouble of sounding like an album of good interludes, but interludes nonetheless. I think it does bring up Gonzalez as an ambient-informed artist though, which is another reason I love Before the Dawn so much. Tracks like “In The Cold I’m Standing” and especially “Safe” and “Let Men Burn Stars” are some incredible works of ambient music and they work more like film score ambiance than straight synth-drone stuff. Those last two I’d put in my top 10 M83 tracks easily. The crescendo in “Safe” is so overwhelming and tear-jerking. The ambient-bent stuff is another thing I missed about Saturdays, though I think “Midnight Souls Still Remain” is a pretty perfect and understated outro. How do you feel about some of those more ambient tracks?

COLIN: I think the ambient moments are what make the intense moments what they are, really. Even a track like “Birds,” the “Fitter Happier” of Dead Cities, Red Seas and Lost Ghosts, has a lot of merit to it. If you stripped that vocal sample it’d be something akin to a Tim Hecker track, and it serves as a perfect intro “Unrecorded” which while not the most intense of Gonzalez’s songs, seems quite heavy in comparison. And on that Tim Hecker note, though they’re certainly operating in entirely different realms, I see their work as being similar in scheme. Both of their works seem more cinematic in vision than many of their peers. They’re working to open up new spaces so to speak, to create new worlds, rather than to assault you with the songs themselves. That’s true of ambient music in general I’d say, the ability to create an entire mindset for a listener, and M83 is one of the few artists that can do that outside of an entirely ambient context.

WILL: I think that’s one of the things that M83 gets pegged for — his sound is so defined by how cinematic his synth tones are that he does sit alongside many of the more visceral ambient electronic artists while not really existing in the same space. So much so that thus far he’s become much more of an aesthetic artist rather than a songwriting-centric artist. He’s become a shorthand for a specific sonic hugeness in a lot of electronic music.

With that in mind it makes Saturdays an intriguing record as we’ve established it does step outside of what might be considered a signature M83 sound while maintaining his very established fingerprints. But what do you think some of his songwriting attributes might be? How has he evolved in that sense? If you compare songs like “Unrecorded” and “Teen Angst” and “Kim and Jesse” each from their respective albums, there’s some obvious evolution that starts to shy away from atmosphere and more toward song construction and pop melody. There’s obvious soft/loud dynamics and an often post-rock-ian approach to build and release, but – and not to sound too critical — that aesthetic sort of proceeded him up until Saturdays where he started to really arrange and write songs. That might undermine a lot of what went into Dead Cities and Before the Dawn, but I mean it in a general sense. Would you agree? Do you think he could have continued without recording Saturdays? It’s perhaps too speculative and serious of a question, but the more I think about M83 as an artist I love, the more I think I may be too invested as a fan to be okay with him evolving in some ways, you know? It’s a common theme in music fanaticism, I think. Where do you think he could foreseeably go with that very recognizable sound he’s established?

COLIN: That closer focus on actual songwriting and arrangement was I think what led to the uniqueness of Saturdays. If not for that, the songs — despite sounding more open — would have been largely the same. And you’re right, the thing you have to deal with when an artist evolves is whether or not he could have progressed further with his previous sound. In the case of M83, I think he picked exactly the right time to make more of a move toward that more song-focused sound. With Before The Dawn and Dead Cities, I think he explored much of what he could with that earlier aesthetic, so it’s certainly a good sign to see him moving in new directions, but when it comes down to it the songs just haven’t been entirely as compelling as earlier material. As great as a song like “Kim & Jessie” is — and, as I said earlier, I think it’s one of his best songs — it’s just hard for me to adjust to such a change. It’ll certainly be interesting to see what will happen with the new album. Each of the two tracks we’ve seen from it seem to obviously fit one of these aesthetics. “Intro” fits that earlier style, remaining more open and soaring in the way things like Before The Dawn did, while “Midnight City” is almost definitely the best pop song that he’s put out to date, and of the two I don’t think you’ll find too many people that will disagree with me when I say that, at least on a face value, “Midnight City” seems more compelling. What do you think of the new tracks and what they signify for where he’s headed?

WILL: I’d definitely agree with you about “Midnight City.” To me it’s at once quintessential M83 — combining the pop structure of Saturdays with the monolithic expansiveness and weight of earlier work while still adding something identifiably new. If “Midnight City” is anything to go by, I think we can expect Gonzalez’s voice to open up a whole lot. It’s not an aspect of M83 I thought needed a change as Morgan Kibby and Gonzalez’s whisper-sing approach totally sufficed, but with this new more throaty and confident style I think the vocal aspect might become a bit more affecting. The best vocalists are able to push the emotional beats of a song and “Midnight City” definitely has that dynamic working for it, whereas before Gonzalez would let his instrumental power do the work. That could be an interesting development to keep track of. We also get to see some saxophone work, which is a new addition to the arrangement pallet. “Intro” is an interesting case because it’s structured more around the post-rock build and release dynamic of Before the Dawn, and while it is pegged as an intro, I wonder if it points toward more of a reliance on older and more refined strengths and ideas. I think Gonzalez has definitely earned the right to do that by his fifth record. Do you think he’s making a play for a larger audience with something as pop driven as “Midnight City”? What do you think of the new vocal style?

COLIN: Well, I’m not sure if it was necessarily “a play” toward a bigger audience, but it’s certainly massive in a way that earlier stuff wasn’t. The focus here isn’t on creating atmosphere as much as it is on making huge hooks, and it comes out brilliantly. He’s made one of the best pop songs in recent memory, and though I don’t think it was intentional, this should have a much larger reach than previous material. I think that has a lot to do with the way that he’s finally willing to open up his voice. It’s not that it sounded like he didn’t care before, but with this new material, the passion behind it is very obvious. I don’t think that this is the material that’ll make him blow up necessarily, but it’s an incredible achievement if only because it is such a marked shift in the way that he approaches the construction of songs. It’ll certainly be interesting to see where he takes it from here.

For more on “where he takes it from here,” check out our review of Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming.


Other Discussions:

Tom Waits
The Velvet Underground
Led Zeppelin
Sigur Rós
Bob Dylan


Discussions: Prince

By Jason Hirschhorn & Jack Spearing; October 25, 2011 at 5:20 PM 


In this latest installment of our ongoing Discussions series, our writers chat about one of the most talented, grandiose performers of our time: Prince.

JASON HIRSCHHORN: And here we have Prince, one of the most documented, confusing, and prolific artists in 20th century popular music. Of all the rich volumes in the Prince library, which is your favorite?

JACK SPEARING: If I’m honest, it has to be Purple Rain. No matter how deep I stray into Prince’s discography, I always end up coming back to it, simply because it’s flawless from start to finish. Almost every track sounds like a single, and in amongst them you’ve got the full gamut of Prince’s abilities and personality – quasi-religious overtones, deranged, foot-stomping funk-pop, overblown power ballads, oozing sexuality – it’s all there. What’s most amazing about it for me though is that it has this almost casual, throwaway quality, like it was incredibly easy for him to make. He wants to crossover to mainstream audiences and be a rock star. So he does. He wants to write a nine-minute epic. So he does. He realises something’s missing, so he writes the best song on the album (“When Doves Cry”) in a single night, throws in a few virtuoso guitar parts, takes out the bass, and bang: it’s done. The whole thing feels like he took a doodle scrawled on a napkin, and turned it into the Sistine Chapel. Not only that, but it’s one of the few albums where, despite the melodrama, you actually believe what he’s singing – he has gone crazy, he would die for you, he is a star. Sign O’ the Times has a lot to offer, but for me it just can’t compete with the exuberance of Purple Rain. Where do you stand on the matter of favourites?

JASON: I stand very firmly in a different camp. I contend that not only is Prince’s best album 1999, but that it’s the best album of the entire 1980s. I voted for it as such in One Thirty BPM’s list of the best 80s albums, and was shocked that it featured so low on that list. At any rate, 1999 is the album where Prince became Prince. He’d made great album’s before (certainly Dirty Mind for which a best Prince album case can be made), but until 1999 Prince’s persona on record was that of a weird, R&B-obsessed, horny misfit. What he would become – the sexually tortured, genre-crushing eclectic – emerged on 1999. All of the great Prince hallmarks are apparent in just the first three tracks: the “live for today and only today” party aesthetics of the opening title track, the savior of women on “Little Red Corvette,” and the disoriented sexual overdrive of “Delirious.” The whole album is full of Prince exploring not only these aspects of his persona, but some of the catchiest funk and pop of his career.

JACK: This is why picking favourites is always a bit of a blind alley. It pits fellow fans against each other when, if we all just stood back and took a more considered, pluralist approach, we’d see that we’re all in the same camp. While I’d hesitate to call it the best album of the 80s (for me that honour must fall to Remain in Light), I’d agree that 1999 certainly has its merits, and that it’s definitely the point where Prince began roaming outside of his usual territory, unafraid of alienating the fanbase he’d gathered up to that point. I feel like most of the substance, the real texture of that album was overlooked because of too much focus on the title track – it became like some ill-considered sci-fi film that hadn’t set itself far enough in the future, to the point where people were just waiting for the real 1999 so they could play the song at the dawn of a new era. The apocalyptic lyrics lurking under the surface got a little lost amongst the Millennialism. What I really liked about 1999 though is the experimental thread that runs through so much of what Prince does, which comes as a surprise after the patchiness of Controversy and the stark focus of Dirty Mind. It’s almost self-indulgent, but he gets away with it because there’s such a wealth of ideas underlying it all – like the dark, scratchy little beat in “All the Critics Love U in New York,” and because he’s more than willing to throw in a couple of luxuriously long pure funk numbers, as well as a certain amount of irony. It feels closer to the squelchy, George Clinton/Bernie Worrell side of funk to me. I think the fact that he really found his niche here is down to his move, like Brian Wilson or Stevie Wonder before him, from musician to producer, his increasing mastery of the studio, not to mention his emergence as a bit of a musical control freak. Dirty Mind makes for an interesting comparison because it’s a lot more unified, and cleaner, in a musical sense, if not a sexual one. It sounds crystalline, almost minimal.

I’m intrigued though. Do you still like Purple Rain or do you think it’s been overrated, loath as I am to use that word?

JASON: I couldn’t agree more with your point about Prince’s mastery of the studio playing a large role in his musical evolution. Granted he had produced his albums his whole career, but on 1999 Prince really came into his own in that capacity.

As for my opinion of Purple Rain, I don’t see it as overrated. All the tracks are great, and it certainly has a more “relaxed” feel by Prince standards. I couldn’t denigrate anyone for rating it his best album. It’s among the several albums by Prince that all have strong cases for being his greatest LP. That Prince was as prolific as he was and as consistent as he was during the 80s is something I often struggle to wrap my head around.

JACK: Before we talk about Prince’s most prolific moment, namely Sign O’ The Times, I know you’re a fan of some of his later output – so what would you say his best non-80s album is for you? I can’t say I’m a fan of much past Diamonds and Pearls, myself – to me it all gets a little bit too relaxed, too loose. I’m sure it’s an acquired taste, but once the New Power Generation show up and then makes his strange foray into the world of TAFKAP, switching between acoustic and electric all the time, I think he really goes off the boil.

JASON: The New Power Generation was an entirely different creature from the Revolution. Technically speaking they allowed Prince to do even more, though they lacked the charm and personality of the Revolution. Certainly, the collection of albums Prince made with the NPG weren’t as strong as those he had done previously, but part of that was Prince’s growing inability to edit his own work. The downside of having near complete control over the creative process as we discussed earlier is that there’s nobody to tell you what works and what doesn’t. Such was the case at times with the NPG.

That said, the Love Symbol Album (or whatever you prefer to call it), should be considered alongside with Prince’s best work. What’s noticeable from the get-go on that album is how much heavier and textured the rhythm section is as compared to Prince’s 80s releases. It seemed like Prince was making a deliberate effort to reclaim the R&B audience that had left him as he became a pop superstar in his post-Purple Rain period. Prince never got closer to sounding like James Brown than he did on “Sexy M.F.,” and he certainly never created a more honest personal anthem than “My Name Is Prince.” It’s just a joyful album, and for my money the last great Prince album.

Where do you stand on his best non-80s work, and why don’t you care for so much of it?

JACK: If you forced me to pick a non-80s album, I’d have to cheat and go for something like his self-titled 1979 release. I tend to go along with Simon Pegg’s approach in Shaun Of The Dead: if it’s after 1990, you throw it at the head of a zombie, because that’s all its good for. Well, maybe that’s a little harsh, but I feel that if you carry on listening to every single Prince release you end up with the same problem as him, which as you rightly point out, is a lack of self-awareness. Where do you draw the line between what’s truly classic and just mediocre autopilot-Prince? There has to be a cut-off point somewhere, and I tend towards the purist side of things – unless a Prince album is good all the way through, to me its non-essential. The control freak aspect of things is interesting as well, and I can’t really listen to Prince’s more recent material without thinking of Kevin Smith’s revelations about the man’s eccentricities. I saw in another discussion feature about Sigur Rós that the band were compared to Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, because of the glacial pace of their music, which really struck me as apt, because I’ve often thought of Prince as a kind of musical Kubrick – thoroughly entertaining, yet reclusive, perfectionist, a little odd, sticking to a particular style but becoming more bloated and long-winded with the passage of time. He certainly returned to his R&B roots but at the cost of sacrificing the innovation and eclecticism that characterised something like Sign O’ The Times. How do you feel about that album? To me it feels like the most “complete” Prince release, if not necessarily the best.

In terms of backing groups, with The Revolution it felt like there was a bit more give and take between Prince and the band, (although maybe that’s just the Purple Rain movie clouding my memory!) whereas later material feels very much as though everyone is there purely at Prince’s behest and to serve his needs alone. In spite of my reservations, there’s also a great deal to be said for listening to the post-80s material out of pure curiosity, or for a kind of novelty value, if that’s not too derogatory a term to use. Even if I don’t particularly care for the songs, there’s always some bizarre little sound or amazingly convoluted groove in amongst it all. From what I have listened to though, I’d definitely agree that the sound becomes richer, there’s a lot less space in it. He showed that he could create a meaningful dialogue with inspirational figures from the past without sacrificing too much of his own style. On that note, how do you think Prince compares to some of his forerunners, and his contemporaries for that matter?

JASON: I love your Prince/Kubrick comparison. Making cross-media comparisons can often be difficult and futile, but that one does make sense.

As for my feelings on Sign O’ The Times, I find it to be a scatter-shot, colossus of an album. Prince has done that kind of thing before, but the aspect of SotT that makes it unique in Prince’s catalog is how different Prince presents himself on it. With just about every Prince album from 1999 on, Prince’s material sounds as though it was written for an alternative universe. On Sign O’ The Times, Prince does the opposite; he takes on contemporary issues. In the title track alone, Prince discusses gang violence, the proliferation of crack cocaine, and the AIDS epidemic. Perhaps part of the change in focus has to do with the fact that Prince made this album without the Revolution (save for “It’s Gonna Be A Beautiful Night,” which serves as an intentional break from the overarching themes of the album). Prince has never since been as topical.

Now to your other topic. Prince has certainly been compared to many prominent musicians: Smokie Robinson, James Brown, Michael Jackson, even a little bit of Zeppelin-era Robert Plant. However, I think his closest relative is Sly Stone. Stone’s music genre-alchemy, his focus on the groove, and his disregard for gender and racial restrictions are all über-overt in Prince’s music and presentation. What say you?

JACK: There’s a lot of material on Sign O’ The Times that has much more of that anguished, personal slant you mentioned before, particularly the uncomfortable intimacy of “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” which feels like an identity crisis packed into five minutes, nostalgic moments like the sweetly melodic “Starfish and Coffee” and sincere religious conviction in “The Cross,” which incidentally always sounds to me like it could do with remastering to give it more emphasis. You’re right, Prince certainly took a break from living entirely in his own world here to deal with more practical concerns. I think the slightly disjointed flow of the whole thing has to do with it being more akin to a compilation than a true album, gathered together as it was from the abortive Camille side-project and a variety of other recordings. Again, it’s one of those remarkable moments where Prince produced genius from spontaneity, as though he just found some songs down the back of a sofa.

As I said before, Stevie Wonder often seems like a natural comparison to me, possibly just because of the sheer work ethic and ability to do a little bit of everything. Smokey Robinson’s lyrical dexterity and songwriting craft definitely shine through, sometimes to the point of lifting whole phrases like “gone to stay,” and James Brown’s pure showmanship and improvisational genius are difficult for anyone to ignore. The Michael Jackson comparison is often made, usually as a way of asserting the superiority of one versus the other, and while I do err on the side of Prince I still think it’s vaguely ridiculous to compare two giants just because they happened to be around at the same time. I grew up listening to a lot of Sly & The Family Stone, and although I knew of Prince’s admiration for some of the many musicians who passed through Sly’s sphere of influence, the comparison had never occurred to me. Thinking about it now though from more of a thematic viewpoint, it certainly rings true. People often point out the clear sources of Prince’s aesthetic (Hendrix, Little Richard), but I think focusing too much on them is superficial and misses the point. Besides all that, there’s the issue of Prince’s vocal style – his admiration of Joni Mitchell is well-known. And you only have to look at the shape of his guitars over the years to see how underrated and unusual his efforts in that department have been.

JASON: Prince certainly has had some wild looking guitars over the years. I’d ask you what your favorite was but given your unabashed love for all things Purple Rain, I’d have to imagine it’s the white cloud guitar Apollonia gives him in the movie.

JACK: Oddly enough I really like the love symbol guitar, mainly because it looks fiendishly difficult to play, but also because it’s a bit more imaginative than a Flying-V or a double neck. I think the guitars are a great example of how even if he doesn’t rush to embrace new technologies and trends in the way he once did, he always puts his own idiosyncratic twist on things.

JASON: So you’re saying these days he’s style over substance these days? I suppose there’s a precedent for that. He absolutely despises the internet, which he declared dead last year. He also had all over his music videos removed from YouTube as some kind of protest. Then, while in the process of suing his own fansites, he dropped a diss track to insult several users by name. I find it all very strange, as I do think there are some ways in which he’s managed to stay current. His performance at Super Bowl XLI was the best the NFL has had in recent memory, and included then recent song “Best Of You” by the Foo Fighters. He’s also covered Radiohead in recent years. He doesn’t seem completely averse to new things, just the ones he doesn’t understand.

JACK: True, but the unfortunate thing is that also seems to apply to conspiracy theories and religion.

I don’t know if I’d say it was all style over substance exactly, and even if that was the case, it’s an incredible style nonetheless. I think you’re right to highlight the live performances of the last few years. From my position across the pond, the more-or-less unprecedented string of twenty one consecutive gigs at the O2 arena, which isn’t exactly an intimate venue, was incredibly impressive. Or at least it would be if Prince didn’t keep taking the bootlegs (do we still call them that in this day and age?) off YouTube. The whole furor over that “Creep” cover shows how contradictory it is to start a dialogue with a band who have made technology a cornerstone of their work, while at the same time repressing aspects of technology he doesn’t approve of. That said, his showmanship hasn’t deserted him, and you really can’t fault someone who puts on the kind of gigs that he does, especially whilst wearing pretty substantial heels. In fact, I think I first really became aware of Prince because of his live work, albeit indirectly – I couldn’t sleep one night, so I put on BBC 6music and there was a documentary about the “Minneapolis” sound. I can’t remember who it was now (probably someone from the act he was supporting early in his career) but someone in the documentary said they would go and watch him every night purely for the guitar solos. I think that speaks for itself really.

JASON: Interesting. I’ve never considered Prince to be part of the “Minnesota sound.” For me, that’s more the territory of The Replacements and Hüsker Dü.

Your story makes me think of the first time I heard Prince. I hadn’t heard anything by Prince until I was in high school. A friend of mine had just discovered our first reliable post-Napster download service. Consequently, we started downloading anything that was labelled “best of [insert decade here].” Surely enough, “Raspberry Beret” was one of those songs. As you can imagine, hearing that for the first time leveled me. I didn’t try to seek out more of his music until a few years with the first big wave of music store closures. One store in particular had several recommended eighties releases still on the shelves, so I grabbed a bagful. Amongst them was a purple vinyl 45 of Purple Rain. I dove in straight from there, subsequently picking up all of his 1980s albums.

JACK: Maybe there were several Minneapolis sounds – it’s always seemed like a more diffuse concept than say, Philly Soul.

Its funny you mention vinyl, because I used to go out of my way to visit the fantastic Sister Ray Records (as seen on the front of Oasis’ What’s the Story Morning Glory?) in London just to look at some of the hilarious cover artwork. I think that’s another thing Prince learned to value from Parliament/Funkadelic. But maybe that’s just because I’m an obsessive fan, the kind Prince continues to rely upon.

JASON: I’d like to think Prince’s cover artwork is inspired by those funk albums you brought up. If not, then he’s even more narcissistic than I thought (or is there another way to interpret the cover to Lovesexy?).

JACK: I think it’s probably best we don’t criticise him any further, or he’ll have this entire website razed to the ground.


Other Discussions:

Tom Waits
The Velvet Underground
Led Zeppelin
Sigur Rós
Bob Dylan


Discussions: Bob Dylan

By Andrew Bailey & Jack Spearing; September 28, 2011 at 1:30 PM 

Bob Dylan

Our Discussions series makes an inevitable stop at one of the all-time seminal songwriters, Bob Dylan.

ANDREW BAILEY: Before we inevitably talk about our favorite albums, I’m curious what your first experiences with Bob Dylan’s music were like. Was it love at first listen or more of an acquired taste?

JACK SPEARING: My whole family hates Bob Dylan. Seriously, all of them, every single one. My brother, although I have a lot to thank him for musically, grouped him together with Lou Reed and Patti Smith in a long and illustrious line of nasal “Eeeuuuhhh” singers. So I was in the rare position of encountering Dylan without any significant experience or prejudice, as I think I can honestly say that I had scarcely heard a single song by the man until I was about seventeen. I seem to remember buying the one album that seemed to be recommended above all others (although I won’t name it yet), during what would become one of my regular spending sprees at the fantastic Fopp store in Cambridge, because I was going through a strange CD-purist phase at the time. And at first, I have to say, I didn’t get it at all. It was annoyingly loud, messy, monotonous, and whiny. The structure of the songs seemed almost brutally simple, and they all went on far too long. Frankly, I felt ripped off. All that hyperbole, everything I’d heard about this guy, and this was all there was? Just a load of long-winded bluesy nonsense? Of course, it had its moments, but I simply could not see what all the fuss was about. But I didn’t give up – I persisted because I was sure there had to be something more to it. It turned out that I’d simply started in the wrong place, and what I was listening to didn’t really make sense out of context. I listened to a few of the other major albums and let them marinate in my mind for a while, and eventually it all fell into place. So yeah, it was definitely an acquired taste for me at first, but ultimately Dylan became one of my favourite musical flavours. How does your experience fit in to this delicious extended metaphor?

ANDREW: Well, the reason I asked is because almost everyone’s first experience with Bob Dylan sounds the same, at least as far as being left underwhelmed. I’ve never talked to anyone who was taken completely aback at first pass.

That said, my experience isn’t any different from yours, really. My parents were always pretty straightforward music listeners growing up. My dad listened to Elvis, Buddy Holly, and Roy Orbison. My mom was into Reba McEntyre and Michael Bolton (seriously). I pretty much hated all this stuff growing up, only because as a kid it’s cool to hate what your parents like. I’ve since grown to love Elvis and Buddy Holly. But that’s sort of besides the point. The point is, Bob Dylan was one of the first “weird” artists I ever stumbled upon. He doesn’t seem so weird now, but when you first hear that godawful voice, it certainly feels that way. I mean, Elvis’ voice is great, but it isn’t challenging. And so the first time I heard him – same as you, I was in my late teens and had been egged on by hyperbole – I didn’t “get it.” It sounded terrible to me, like the most basic folk songs mashed up with a hack of a singer. Obviously my opinions have changed, but those first impressions are among my favorite things about being a Dylan fan.

So then, I have to ask – and I should probably say that I don’t exactly remember what mine was – but what was that first album you listened to?

JACK: Naturally, it was everyone’s favourite Dylan album, Saved. No, of course I’m referring to Highway 61 Revisited. Its heartening to know that most people have the same initial reaction, but at the same time makes me feel like my entire musical experience is one enormous string of clichés. What you say about “weird artists” definitely chimes with me – the fact that he’s so canonical now sometimes makes you forget how distinctive he was and is, even when singing what at first glance seem like “basic folk songs.” I think I really ought to have been better prepared for the voice when I first listened, given that I grew up on an almost exclusive diet of idiosyncratic singers (namely David Byrne and Elvis Costello), and the fact that I progressed straight on to Blood on the Tracks didn’t help, as by that time he’d been through any number of curious vocal personas. The transformations of Dylan’s voice were for me just the first indication of his infamous, and over-analysed, inscrutability, which seems to grow as you learn and listen more, rather than dissipating. Although a considerable amount of mythology has grown up over the years, I think the very lack of information, that the music is left to speak for itself, is part of his abiding appeal. Speaking of which, what is your favourite album? And perhaps more importantly, do you equate “favourite” with “best,” or are they two different things for you?

ANDREW: I define “favorite” and “best” very literally, so to me, they’re different things. One’s subjective, one’s objective, and only one is truly debatable. My favorite – which is ultimately more important than which one is objectively superior – is Highway 61 Revisited as well, though to show just how feeble-minded I was when I first started listening through his stuff, I thought there was a Highway 61 out there and I was listening to some kind of follow-up or re-master. I don’t think it’s controversial to say “Like a Rolling Stone” is one of the greatest songs ever written, and “Tombstone Blues” and “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” are two of my personal favorite songs ever, by anyone. The latter might just be my hands-down favorite Dylan song. Hell, that might be the best three song run to open an album ever, or at least among the very best.

It’s funny though that you mentioned Highway 61 and then jumped right to Blood on the Tracks – at least in your own listening order – because Blood on the Tracks is right there at the top for me too. My personal rankings for his catalog aren’t particularly thrilling; Blonde on Blonde and The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, which gets me every time with “Girl From the North Country,” are all on that upper tier. But Dylan’s had a very discernible career arc, at least in my eyes, so it isn’t surprising to see some albums always pointed out and others kind of brushed over (or flat out insulted, like Knocked Out Loaded, for instance). Does that seem like an accurate assessment?

JACK: I like to mantain a facade of mock-arrogance when it comes to music, so for me “favourite” and “best” are one and the same thing. The upshot being that Bringing It All Back Home will always be firmly positioned at the top of my Dylan league-table. I’m not going to try and denigrate Highway 61, because that would be ridiculous, and oddly I probably listen to that album more often, but even now the abrasive anger which permeates it sometimes puts me off. Having said that, the brilliantly articulate bitterness in “Like a Rolling Stone,” and even more so in “Ballad of a Thin Man” are, aside from anything else, some of the most emotionally useful songs he ever produced. I can’t really think of many other songs (especially from that era) which express feelings of alienation and rage with such potency. I can never work out if he’s just decided that he hates everyone, or that everyone hates him. It’s also quite a tuneful album when you think about it, which I think has a lot to do with the unfailingly fantastic support provided by The Band, particularly on “Queen Jane Approximately.” And lyrically, of course, it’s one of the very best, not just of Dylan’s albums, but of all albums, especially on the vast monolith of sound that is “Desolation Row” and the unrelenting agitation of “Tombstone Blues.” In fact, even while I’m writing this, I’m painfully aware of both the inadequacy of my own words to describe his work, and Dylan’s own self-deprecation and constant resistance to praise, particularly by journalists.

But enough of defending the album which isn’t even my favourite – its time for some serious bias. Bringing It All Back Home is the best Dylan album. Firstly, because of the self-conscious stylistic split between the two halves – six concise exercises in the new “electric” mode (I hate to use the word, but there isn’t really another way to describe it), followed by four-and-a-half superlative, breathtaking, rambling journeys back into unaccompanied folk, as though just at the point where he’d perfected one form, he got bored, and tried something different. Every time I hear “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” I can still scarcely belive it exists. No one can be that good a songwriter. Its just not possible. And yet there it is. I can’t remember exactly which track it is, but if you listen to the bootlegs from around that time, Dylan quips at the end of a particularly long number that he’s just about to begin the second verse. I also love the album because there’s a lot more whimsy, ambiguity and well, love in it. It comes from the moment where he’s breaking away from the earnest, politically sanctioned Guthrie imitations of previous years and actually becoming Bob Dylan, but at the same time he’s not so invested in being a curmudgeon that he can’t laugh at himself. It’s not so much the specific songs as the general feeling of the whole set. I think it also shows up how arbitrary talking about “albums” of that period can be – he was writing so many songs that some albums feel like they just assemble the best of his latest output, rather than being specifically conceived with particular governing themes in mind.

I absolutely agree about “Girl From the North Country,” which is the first Dylan song I really loved, and I think it may still be my favourite. It’s difficult and perhaps unecessary to create some sort of musical hierarchy though, because there’s such a huge gulf between the early “plinky-planky-setting-the-bar-for-every-singer-songwriter-since-then” stage and the “LOUD NOISES” stage. And yeah, I think your view is pretty accurate, but I think pretty much every fan has a favourite mediocre Dylan record, or at least one that they like a lot but which falls outside the generally accepted “classic” periods. For me that’s probably Desire, but I think that The Times they are A-Changin’ and Another Side get unfairly dismissed at times. There’s a lot of great writing on them.

ANDREW: I’ve got Bringing It All Back Home pretty high on my list too, although kind of how you say you probably listen to Highway 61 the most even though it isn’t your favorite, I probably listen to Bringing It All Back Home the least of what I would consider my group of favorites. The interesting thing about those two albums, at least in the context of era, is that they’re from the exact same time period. They were released not even six months apart. That’s pretty remarkable to me. I mean, you’re right about the stylistic changes between the two albums, but how many artists could have flip-flopped that quickly and that brilliantly between them? Some songwriters squander entire albums feeling out a new style.

As for his curmudgeon mentality or whatever you want to call it – I actually like that term just because “curmudgeon” is such a great, funny little word – I think that’s one of the things that have always drawn me to Bob Dylan, because I think my personality is probably a lot like his. He’s a guy who has obviously been blessed with intelligence and a caring heart, but he’s also been stuck in this really thick, crusty shell that prevents that from coming out at times. It’s one of those personality circumstances that people can’t fully comprehend unless they’re in those shoes. And I can really relate to that. Along those same lines, I’ve always had this impression that Dylan’s perception of himself has been in some state of perpetual inner turmoil. He’s got to be aware that his talent is sensational, but I think he also has this perfectionist’s spirit; he writes a great song, reads it back, and thinks it’s shit, but we listen to it and marvel. Or at least that’s sort of how I’ve always imagined the mechanics of his brain working.

And I find it funny you reference Desire and The Times They are A-Changin’ as mediocre records. I mean, obviously you framed it within the context of his own catalog, but how ridiculous is that? Songs like “Hurricane” and “Isis” would be apex moments for so many other songwriters, but for Dylan we just sort of breeze right over them. I mean, even an album like Modern Times, which I think most critics were a little biased in hailing, is full of some really fantastic writing. Yet we just sort of catalog that away in this “modern era Dylan” file.

JACK: Absolutely. I think Dylan’s main problem is the fact that he has to compete with himself, with his own body of work, his reputation and people’s appraisals of it.

At the risk of making too many cross-cultural analogies in these discussions, those two albums coming one after another in such a short space of time reminds me of how someone like Ingmar Bergman could knock out two cinematic masterpieces (The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries) in the course of a single year. It takes a special kind of genius (yes, I’m using that word) to churn out work like that and make it look not only easy, but graceful. I like that we get to see the gradual transition, as opposed to someone like Bowie who makes very abrupt changes in style and persona. The same goes for the way the Rolling Thunder Revue-era Dylan sprawls across both Blood on the Tracks and Desire.

I imagine you’re probably right about his personality, and I think quite a lot of people, particularly “angry young men” can relate to it. Its a pretty incredible trick to pull off when you think about it, managing to be so intensely specific and yet having this incredible universality. Who hasn’t had a moment of disillusionment that fits with “Positively 4th Street” or an infatuation which would be adequately soundtracked by “I Want You”? You feel it especially in the live recordings, the transition from New York in 1964 – fresh faced, almost naive, joking with the audience – to London in 1966 – the oft-quoted “Judas” incident, general hostility – and then another transformation in the 70s – older, wiser Dylan, dealing with pain and experience. There’s another arc going on, and its a deeply personal one, even if it is veiled or evaded outright by Dylan himself. I used to be intrigued by his contradictory claims about the meaning or content of the music, but now I think a lot of it was just disingenuousness, largely to irritate to the press, so I think its best to just fill in the blanks yourself. As ever, the man himself expresses it best.

And yes, I agree, there is something silly in talking about mediocrity – it’s like when Mozart or someone writes a half-baked piece, it’s still infinitely superior to what most people are doing at the time. That’s the trouble with people who are so obscenely talented. Blood on the Tracks in particular shows up the problem with that kind of thinking – it lets truly great songwriting go neglected because of the assumption that the “classic” period is over. We’ve touched on it a little already, but what do you think about that album?

ANDREW: I adore Blood on the Tracks. I remember when I was first struggling to get into Dylan’s music, I regularly posted on this sort of all-topics forum a lot – it was a great way to make time go by faster at work. Anyway, I started seeking out suggestions for what to listen to because I wasn’t “getting it.” The suggestion I got over and over again was “Tangled Up in Blue,” which I listened to and was okay with, but didn’t fully grasp until I sat down and read the lyrics. Being introduced to that song early on sort of led me into exploring the whole album very naturally.

“Idiot Wind” remains one of my favorite songs and I’ve always had a fondness for “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts.” He doesn’t really write “hooks” the way we normally think of them in popular music, but I think that song has one of the catchiest hooks of his own kind. “If You See Her, Say Hello” is obviously another brilliant one (and Jeff Buckley’s Live at Sin-é cover is phenomenal, too). That song has always felt very comforting to me, the way he acknowledges this very natural, common thing people do after relationships where they completely cut ties and go off in opposite directions and then, at the end of the song, very tastefully approaches the other thing people sometimes do, which is come together years later as smarter, completely different people. Actually, I don’t think I can pick a stone-cold favorite song from this album, can you?

The other thing that’s kind of funny to think of – especially for you and I, since we weren’t even alive at the time – is that Blood on the Tracks is historically what put Bob Dylan back on the map, at least in popular and critical opinion. He’d been on something of a dry spell, or at least a dry spell by his own standards, for a while there, and so Blood on the Tracks was really a return to form.

JACK: I can never quite get over the sheer songwriting craft that went into something like “Tangled Up in Blue” – if you aren’t listening properly you miss everything. To carry on for six minutes without a word out of place, without an awkward rhyme, despite talking again about incredibly specific events with all these evocative images – poetry books, shoelaces and so on… It’s just astounding. It’s even more impressive when you hear different drafts and versions of the songs on Blood on the Tracks and realise how they were in a near-constant state of lyrical flux. Some people have Blood pegged as a depressing album, but as with any music where people make that comment, I always just think that it’s only as depressing as you make it – if you don’t linger too much on the heartbreak and emotional wreckage and just stand back and admire it from a distance, it’s still devastating, but cathartic and beautiful at the same time. There’s a really strong narrative thread that seems to run through that album too – you feel the passage of time rather than being held in stasis in a particular mood or situation. I have a lot of time for the songs you mentioned too, particularly “Lily” because it’s one of those classic “I’ll just add another verse…” songs along with “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” and “Desolation Row,” and again it’s so evocative – you see everything from the silver cane to the gallows. I also really love “Shelter From the Storm” as well though – it’s like a well-written country song, not stylistically, but because it has this lyrical inevitability – you feel every verse building inexorably towards that same title line. Maybe more than any other Dylan album, that one has been subject to far too much interpretation – do you like to read in your own meanings to his songs or try to decipher them to get to the “truth”?

ANDREW: As a general rule, I like to try and find my own meaning in songs before trying to figure out what they were intended to mean. The same goes for Dylan, which is usually pretty easy to do because, as you said, his words are so evocative. When he’s writing about personal experiences, even though he’s very specific, he isn’t so specific as to alienate his audience. I mean, even those songs where he references extremely pinpointed events – “Sara” comes to mind – he still is able to make an emotional connection. I think that’s a key. But I do like going back after I’ve applied the song in my own context and then figure out what he meant. Maybe not for every single song, mind you, but certainly the ones that hit me the hardest.

So, at this point we’ve pretty much established that he’s a songwriting god. Of course, he didn’t really need our co-sign for that. Anyway, I’ve long since had this bucket list of artists I need to see live. I’ve still got Waits, McCartney, Neil Young, Kanye West (one of these things is not like the other) on that list. Last year, I believe it was, I had the opportunity to cross Dylan’s name off – emphatically. I saw him play with his band in this little college arena down in Washington, DC and was floored by just how painful it was to sit through. Now, I’d had tempered expectations to begin with. He’s a notorious hit or miss live act, though most fans would say that’s totally contingent on his mood and effort. In this particular show, he seemed fine. He seemed like he was really trying to put on a good show. But man, it was terrible.

His band seem like talented enough guys, but the arrangements were brutally generic. He’s also rewritten many of the arrangements for his songs, which on some level makes sense – how would you like to perform “Like a Rolling Stone” practically non-stop for 40+ years? But, at the same time, it’s “Like a Rolling Stone.” Why on Earth is it being messed with? Because of this, many of the songs were totally unrecognizable, his voice has clearly been tattered through the years, and the good parts of the show were, like I said, so easily interchangeable that they just didn’t offer much. I was disappointed, but at least I’d crossed his name off my list, you know? Anyway, coming out of the arena, I couldn’t help but overhear people go on and on about how fantastic the show was. People were gushing. It was completely baffling to me. I mean, yeah, it was “The Legend,” but where’s the objectivity? Have you ever noticed this type of thing with Dylan, where people just sort of give him the benefit of the doubt even when, all things being equal, he doesn’t really deserve it?

JACK: Even heroes have feet of clay. If I have noticed it, it hasn’t bothered me too much. I’ve never been particularly keen on the idea of going to see an ageing rocker live, and I think when it’s someone as notoriously indifferent towards his audience and band-members as Dylan, you have to expect a certain amount of deviation from the “originals.” I think what you point out is symptomatic of a lot of artists, not just Dylan, but a whole generation who are now somehow above critique because their oldest fans have so much invested in them.

A couple of years ago I really enjoyed hearing Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour, where he would dig up utterly obscure numbers and place them alongside established classics – the whole thing is pleasantly whimsical and leads you into all kinds of neglected musical areas you’d never otherwise encounter. I mention it because I like that Dylan is (although it’s been pointed out a million times before) constantly restless, never satisfied, always looking to diversify his legacy. The radio show makes you aware of how his voice has, shall we say, gained character, but I think he makes the best of it, as Leonard Cohen has been doing recently too. So maybe he can’t reach all the notes he used to be able to sing, and maybe as Joan Baez has said, he changes things just to fuck you up – but after all, folk music (even if the man himself would object to the term) is all about things being passed on, reinterpreted, rearranged. The content of the song is almost irrelevant, what counts is the oral tradition behind them, stretching off into the distance.

ANDREW: I loved his foray into radio! I’m really drawn to what musicians I love are listening to. There’s this big family tree of influences that I’ve always found very useful in discovering new music, and those broadcasts were extensions of that.

JACK: And as a final controversial statement to aid further discussion, I’d like to say that Blonde on Blonde is a bloated mess that could happily lose half of its songs.

ANDREW: Um… okay. That’s not controversial. That’s blasphemous. I mean… half? Half?! That’s insanity.

JACK: Yeah I don’t really think that… but some are definitely a lot stronger than others…

ANDREW: Whew. I was worried there for a second.


Other Discussions:

Tom Waits
The Velvet Underground
Led Zeppelin
Sigur Rós


Discussions: Radiohead

By Daniel Griffiths & Jason Hirschhorn; September 20, 2011 at 5:00 PM 


The latest chapter of our Discussions series explores the sprawling, ever-evolving catalog of Radiohead.

DANIEL GRIFFITHS: How about I start with something controversial? I want to put forward the case of The Bends as Radiohead’s best album.

JASON HIRSCHHORN: Well I can’t say I think that’s crazy, though I don’t share that opinion. It is a great album after all, and has some of their most enduring pieces of music. For me it has always been OK Computer, which itself may no longer be the jewel in the crown of Radiohead’s catalog given the decade-long, near-universal praise that Kid A has garnered. Before I get into why I think OKC is their best work, I’d like to know why you think it’s The Bends? Is it that you just prefer more organic rock sounds as opposed to the electronica dabbling of their later work or is it a matter of The Bends songwriting/performance/etc.?

DANIEL: It’s definitely because of the songwriting and performances. I’m a fan of their electronic forays, but there’s just something about The Bends. If you look at the tracklisting there’s at least eight tunes in Radiohead’s top tracks, which I’d say no other album can claim. Couple that with the raw energy and electricity on songs like “My Iron Lung,” “Just” and the title track and you have a near-perfect album. And then there’s “Street Spirit”!

JASON: If you’re going to judge by how many top Radiohead songs an album has, I’d still put OK Computer at the top. Besides stone cold classics like “Paranoid Android,” “No Surprises,” “Lucky,” and “The Tourist,” the side 2 (the “Meany” side) might be the best side of an album, ever. “Exit Music (For A Film),” “Let Down” and “Karma Police” are an unfuckwithable 1-2-3. I also think OK Computer works better than The Bends as an album because the songs are coming from the same place: anxiety and rebuke caused by the insipidity and struggles of modern life.

DANIEL: Some of the great songs on OK Computer are only great, in my eyes, because they’re part of that overall “concept,” if we can call it that. Take them out of that and they’re not as strong. Now, with most of the stuff on The Bends you have songs that stand on their own as well as being strong amongst a group of songs. “Planet Telex” through to “My Iron Lung” is a remarkable run of strong songs that everybody knows.

That’s the one thing about OK Computer I prefer over The Bends though; that there is a strong thematic aspect to the album. Even though that kind of writing doesn’t always work for Radiohead, when it does it’s spectacular.

JASON: See, I think you can indeed abstract the songs from OK Computer and they remain great, but that’s subjective and I know other people who feel the way you do. You’re absolutely right about the songs on The Bends working both in and out of the context of the album. While there isn’t so much of an overarching lyrical theme on that album, it’s by far their hardest, “rockiest” album, and they did that sound very well.

It’s probably also worth discussing our opinions on Kid A. From an anecdotal perspective, that album appears to be their most well-regarded by fans as well as critics. Since neither of us picked it as our favorite, it’s probably worth discussing why.

DANIEL: I’m going to let you start off on this one considering you gave me the honours last time.

JASON: Fair enough. There’s little negative I can say about Kid A. There seems to be some semblance of a concept to the album, but that concept never fully creeps out of the ether. It’s not all atmosphere as some have pejoratively claimed. There are several really great songs on there: “Everything In Its Right Place,” “How To Disappear Completely,” “Optimistic” and “Idioteque.” I don’t, however, feel that every track’s a winner, or that the best versions of the songs are on Kid A. The early demos of “Motion Picture Soundtrack” suggest that it could have been a much better song. Overall, Kid A is still masterful, and probably my second favorite of their albums. I’m very curious to see where you stand on Kid A. Given that you felt that OK Computer‘s songs weren’t as strong outside the album as in it, I’d think you’d take an even harsher stance here.

DANIEL: Funnily enough, I’m a very big fan of Kid A. I think I prefer it to OK Computer, actually. What’s great is that all conventional Radiohead wisdom flies out the window when you analyse it. There’s no way of looking at something like “Idioteque” the same way you would “Exit Music” because the songs are from a completely different place, and I don’t mean that contextually.

Kid A is where Radiohead moved towards having their music tell the story rather than the words, a complete role-reversal from The Bends and OK Computer where the music propped up the lyrical message. The song titles are starting points, but the music takes it a step further; the way “The National Anthem” starts structured (like an anthem) then slowly spirals out of control (a take on countries/nationhood, maybe?), the complete uniformity and rigidity of “Everything In Its Right Place” where the tempo never, ever changes, and the haunting synths on “Idioteque” lending a chilling sense of panic, coupled with that manic breakdown.

Because the focus is on the music rather than the lyrics, I can take any of the songs out of context here and they’re still fantastic for me, because music is usually what takes up the most space when people listen. With OK Computer, if you can’t be bothered to listen to the lyrics of a song out of context it’s just a guitar album, but Kid A‘s songs put you firmly in the world Radiohead want you to be in when you listen to them whether you like it or not.

JASON: I am a bit surprised you feel that way but I do follow your reasoning. The music does tell the story here and I don’t think I could have articulated that any better than you just did. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Radiohead are operating on that kind of musical and intellectual plane. I do think though that in some regards, Kid A extends some of the thoughts and emotions of OK Computer. Songs like “How To Disappear Completely” came directly out of the tour for that album, and share OK Computer‘s fear of the modern world. As such, I’ve always interpreted that album as the breakdown from the pressure and panic Yorke felt when he wrote the songs for OK Computer.

DANIEL: Definitely. Although what’s strange is Yorke’s comments on how Kid A is looking on at a certain event, whereas Amnesiac is that actual event being played out on record, which is something I’ve never really seen, personally. Kid A has always been more schizophrenic for me, and definitely more linked to OK Computer and its themes than Amnesiac.

JASON: I don’t entirely follow Yorke there either, but the albums are certainly linked sonically and thematically. Those two albums sound similar to each other and different from the other album in their catalog.

Hypothetical: if Kid A and Amnesiac were indeed one double album, how would it be regarded in the Radiohead cannon?

DANIEL: I don’t think it would be as critically favoured as both individual albums, or indeed just Kid A, are now. There’s too much similarity and if all the tracks were included it would plod. Of course, we’re speaking now having heard the albums for a few years, but there’s such a flow to Kid A that I wouldn’t want to see it interrupted.

That being said, if you could mash those two albums together, how would you do it?

JASON: A chance to play god! In the process of performing this exercise, it occured to me just how many songs from these albums concern themselves with war, economics, patriotism, or some combination of the three. I tried to tie that into my Kid Amnesiac album, which meant leaving out a lot of great songs. I don’t consider these to be the ten best songs on the two albums, just the ten that I felt worked best together. To me, this tracklist has a politics of war theme to it, but maybe that’s just me:

01. The National Anthem
02. You And Whose Army?
03. Knives Out
04. Everything In Its Right Place
05. Like Spinning Plates
06. Dollars & Cents
07. Idioteque
08. I Might Be Wrong
09. How To Disappear Completely
10. Life In A Glasshouse

I’m curious to see what your combination album looks like.

DANIEL: I have to say, though, I had never thought of those two albums as having a strong war/politics message in them. I’ve always been looking for something more emotional in them. It’ll certainly be interesting to listen to them with that new slant on them in my mind! While I was doing it, I realised how well those songs fit together on each album. It was so hard to separate them.

01. Everything In Its Right Place
02. The National Anthem
03. You And Whose Army?
04. Knives Out
05. How To Disappear Completely
06. Packt Like Sardines In A Crushd Tin Box
07. Optimistic
08. I Might Be Wrong
09. Idioteque
10. Pyramid Song

The only interchangables are “Optimistic” and “I Might Be Wrong.”

JASON: It was difficult for me to sever the tracks as well. You get an appreciation for the tracklisting process. I noticed that half of your tracklist is pulled from each album. Was that intentional or did that come about by chance? I went back and looked at mine and discovered that I had selected four tracks from Kid A and six from Amnesiac. I found that quite surprising since I favor Kid A as an album.

DANIEL: The equal split was unintentional. I wanted a strong first three to open up, then some deep cuts in the middle with some excellent songs to end. I’m surprised I put “Pyramid Song” at the end though. How did you make yours?

JASON: I picked the tracks based on the aforementioned political bend, and then I ordered them with consideration for music flow and what I felt told a narrative (starting with “The National Anthem” and eventually working to the “I Might Be Wrong”/”How To Disappear Completely”/”Life In A Glasshouse” ending). A fascinating exercise this has been.

DANIEL: Absolutely. Interesting how we found it hard to split the tracks, yet managed to do it anyway. Kind of shows how linked the two albums are.

JASON: Certainly more so than we originally gave them credit.

DANIEL: So, In Rainbows. I’m not sure if the pricing policy or the way it was announced helped feed the legend more than the actual music. Don’t get me wrong, the music’s awesome, but do we put this alongside OK Computer and Kid A?

JASON: I do. In Rainbows is totally on an island as far as the Radiohead catalog is concerned. It’s their most accessible post-OKC album, but I don’t think it’s particularly straightforward. In terms of songwriting (as opposed to the sonic architecture of Kid A), In Rainbows contained their best batch of songs in a decade. That’s not to be critical of the other albums during that time frame which were different approaches but still rewarding. However, when they want to, the band can write brilliant songs and it was nice to have another album like that before they returned to their more experimental side.

DANIEL: Couldn’t have put that better myself! Never thought of it as being on an island, but that does make sense.

JASON: So what’s your take on In Rainbows? You’ve already mentioned that you don’t put it up with OK Computer or Kid A, but I’m interested to hear more.

DANIEL: I do hold it up there against those two. I was only posing the question because something about it just doesn’t fit with those two albums. It is a classic, but it bears no hallmarks that made OK Computer and Kid A classic albums. It’s very downbeat, there isn’t really a signature song that you can skip to every time or release to radio with success and the lyrics aren’t filled with big political agendas. And that’s the beauty of it.

In Rainbows is a very insular record, especially for Radiohead. You can relax to it. It’s certainly very evocative, and that human touch gives it a different vibe, almost a complete 180. It’s probably my favourite because of how personal the album is (I still think it’s an album you have to listen to alone). Plus, every emotion is amplified and every instrumental intricacy is brought to the fore as the lyrics and music go hand in hand, just like we were saying about Kid A. There isn’t a lot to hate on In Rainbows.

JASON: I consider In Rainbows to be Radiohead’s “R&B” record. The album contains their most danceable beats and rhythms, and many of the songs focus on Yorke’s more carnal desires and frustrations. The imagery is pretty vivid. “I’m an animal trapped in your hot car” (“All I Need”) very uniquely describes unrequited love. The line, “I don’t want to be your friend, I just want to be your lover” (“House Of Cards”) sounds like it was ripped from a D’Angelo track. I think that’s what makes In Rainbows stand out. It feels so out of character for Radiohead, but it absolutely still sounds like a Radiohead record.

DANIEL: Definitely, and kind of the reason why it defies any wisdom to put it alongside the typical Radiohead albums. That said, OK Computer and Kid A are worlds apart themselves.

It deserves to be mentioned just for that “All I Need” line though.

JASON: So any final thoughts before we wrap up our Radiohead discussion?

DANIEL: I don’t think so. Only that in the time it took we still didn’t figure out their ‘best’ album!

JASON: Not only that, but we didn’t breakdown any of Thom’s hairsyles. The bleach blonde mullet was his best, hands down.


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Discussions: The Beatles

By Aidan Galea & Henry Hauser; August 24, 2011 at 4:30 PM 

You just had to know this one was coming. In the latest installment to our running Discussions series, our writers discuss the band to end all bands: The Beatles.

HENRY HAUSER: Pontificating about the objective “best” Beatles album is pretentious and boring, so let’s banter about our favorites.

Set against a backdrop of vivid green foliage, 1965’s Rubber Soul reveals the fish-eyed distorted heads of those mop-topped invaders from Liverpool. Most – Paul, George, and Ringo – stare longingly into the void; only John Lennon greets us with swelling irises and a scantily concealed murderous glare. Driven by unabashed love ditties (teen bopper “I’ve Just Seen A Face,” Francophilic “Michelle,” and pre-psych “Girl”), the LP ends with Lennon’s promise to kill his woman if she ever cheated on him. He actually sounds like he’s looking forward to it. Maybe there’s more to Rubber Soul than daisy meadow strolls with “mee-shell, maw bell”?

AIDAN GALEA: Out of all the bands to discuss, we have the difficult task of examining The Beatles. Unlike some people, I have no concessions with naming them “The Best Rock Band of All Time.” So much so, I happily consider them to be the greatest creative geniuses of the 20th century, analogous to the likes of DaVinci. Us discussing them doesn’t necessarily have any merit, as the number of books regarding the Fab Four outnumbers the total years of our lives combined. However, I think their influence is such that they can inspire endless conversation.

When it comes to Beatles albums, I feel naive for often dismissing their younger works (read: Please Please Me to Rubber Soul). Many critics argue that their turning point was indeed Rubber Soul, but I don’t feel that they truly broke through some other worldly musical barrier until Revolver. Where do you think the band came into their own?

HENRY: On the U.K. release of Rubber Soul, there’s just a few smooth nanometers of vinyl separating McCartney’s bubbly, effervescent “Drive My Car” from “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” – John Lennon’s sitar saturated, psych-folk waltz. But that’s it right there. Light years of creative growth and evolution in that three-second gap. And at the end of “Norwegian Wood,” Lennon starts a fire in the middle of that Scandinavian woman’s house. Trashing the living quarters? Sounds like rock ‘n roll to me. “The Word,” a funky jolt of optimism, transitions into the the deliberate, lewd vocal delivery of “Michelle” to anchor side one.

What’s kind of heat’s Revolver packing?

AIDAN: To me, Revolver was always the album that stepped out onto the ledge and made some very bold statements. Maybe it simply stands out to me because it shows the band beginning to diversify their instrumentation with the help of George Martin. While “Got To Get You Into My Life” nonchalantly boasts some upbeat brass, the obvious example is McCartney’s “Eleanor Rigby.” It’s one of those Beatles songs that people can get unreasonably upset at; it’s simply too great for its own good. The grandiose evolution cannot be attributed to Paul himself, with album closer “Tomorrow Never Knows” also displaying those great strides. I will forever be a McCartney man, and with songs like “For No One,” can you really blame me? It would be naive to dismiss Revolver as Paul showing off before the rest of the Beatles peaked, but “I’m Only Sleeping” portrays the dichotomy of the song writing duo perfectly. Paul plays the innocent fool, with his songs toying with some kind of childish storytelling fancy, while John sheds layer after layer of insight on life’s more thoughtful quandaries.

If you were to subscribe to the idea that Revolver was simply McCartney showing his forward-thinking talents before the rest of the Beatles, then it can be safely assumed that Sgt. Pepper embodies the best of Lennon.

So what be it, Henry: Paul or John?

HENRY: Lennon or McCartney — that’s like choosing which parent you love most when mom’s named Theresa and people call your dad The Mahatma! As a born and bred New Yorker, I’m instinctually drawn to Lennon’s scathing, sarcastic cynicism. He’s an audacious lyricist, and never one to let musical conventions stand in the way of his songwriting.

But how could we overlook Sir Paul’s climatic suite to close out Abbey Road? “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window,” with striking flourishes of falsetto, segues seamlessly into the nostalgic yearning of “Golden Slumbers,” as McCartney belts a vocal that is at once raspy and delicate. On “Carry that Weight,” triumphant horns give way to a cathartic, communal burst that hint ominously at the hefty burden of celebrity that John, Paul, George and Ringo would be forced to bear for their entire lives: “Boy, you’re gonna carry that weight / Carry that weight a long time.”

“Hello, Goodbye,” featuring McCartney’s comically sparse vocabulary, is right up there among the greatest pop ditties of all time. Everyone knows lyrics count for squat in pop music, and the best pop songs are those that snap and crackle without getting bogged down in the words. On the other end of the spectrum, “Helter Skelter,” a violently coarse punk number, really showcases Paul’s range.

But why can’t George Harrison get some respect? “Tax Man,” off your beloved Revolver, is a socially conscious number that rivals The Kinks’ “Sunny Afternoon,” and “Here Comes the Sun” will always and forever be the track I turn to when “the ice is slowly melting.” Harrison was a major trailblazer in integrating eastern instrumentation into popular music, even if he was little brainwashed in India by that wry Maharishi. He even recruited Eric Clapton on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” – major props for talent scouting. Any love for George?

AIDAN: Although the McCartney-Lennon argument will linger on long after we are dead, I often am intrigued with the “what could have beens.” Lennon himself once stated that he himself would’ve been more suited to the likes of “Oh Darling” from a vocal stand point, and I can’t help but wonder what Lennon’s rendition may have sounded like. Even though Paul often does his own portrayal of “Give Peace A Chance” live, it surely would be interesting to hear what a large majority of Lennon songs would’ve sounded like had Paul had sung them, and vice-versa. Lennon’s vocals would’ve lent a large amount of credibility to the likes of McCartney’s “Helter Skelter,” but attempting to imagine Lennon trying “Martha My Dear” is even more bizarre.

A common argument that I hear from Lennon fanatics is that Paul is far too kooky and immature, lacking the introspect that Lennon possesses. However, when you listen to something such as the masterpiece that is “A Day In The Life,” I will admit that it is easy to dismiss Paul’s seemingly simple lyrical contribution. It’s impossible to deny him of those more philosophical moments when his final line is, “somebody spoke and I went into a dream.” Personally, I feel that sole line could be easily compared to “Strawberry Fields”‘ “no one I think is in my tree” but it’s all up to interpretation, and I may just be riding the Paul fanboy wagon.

It’s impossible to forget Mr. Harrison! While it’s not within the realms of The Beatles, he definitely produced perhaps the greatest solo album of them all with All Things Must Pass, which to me, is only second to Band On The Run. Within the Beatles’ discography, I find it hard to forgive Paul and John from limiting George’s input at times, because as Abbey Road shows, he – and his immaculate guitar work – is a force to be reckoned with. While “Taxman” is undoubtedly a highlight of Revolver, I am one of the few fools who finds it almost insufferable, only to be saved by what I believe to be the best guitar solo within any given Beatles song. As far as George is concerned, however, he certainly has some hidden gems. Most notably for me is that of “It’s All Too Much” from the forgettable Yellow Submarine, an album that really serves no purpose in my mind but to play as a George Martin solo album. However, it does hold one of the most memorable riff-driven Beatles songs in the form of “Hey Bulldog,” featuring an infamous schizophrenic vocal trade off between John and Paul.

But I digress. Perhaps the greatest debate amongst Beatles aficionados is that of the band’s magnum opus. It’s very easy to recognise Sgt. Pepper and Abbey Road as the obvious stand outs, but due to a fragmented worldwide release, Magical Mystery Tour is frequently overlooked. Do you think the album is overlooked in terms of their discography despite containing a series of phenomenal songs, or does it truly receive its dues?

HENRY: Folks rag on Magical Mystery Tour purely out of relativism and vindictiveness. Not only is it their LP with the least original material, but Magical Mystery Tour also set the soundtrack for the Beatles’ highly forgettable waltz onto the silver screen. Magical Mystery Tour, as a film, lacked the unguarded, innocent, unpretentious charm of A Hard Day’s Night. It also failed to channel that whimsical revelry that made Help! a cult classic. The film Magical Mystery Tour was bloated, pompous, and sloppy. The album, on the other hand, was anything but.

The LP’s opening cut and title track has Paul playing the carnival barker, as he invites us to a comical, kinky wonderland. But McCartney’s “Penny Lane” seals it for me. Deftly capturing the buzz that lingers around after a wholesome, idyllic afternoon, wafting reverb and a sunny piccolo trumpet solo give way to Paul’s crisp purr: “Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes / There beneath the blue suburban skies.”

Alas, no Beatles banter would be complete without a line on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. If forced to give up this epic of epics for the rest of your days, preserving only a single track, which would it be?

AIDAN: Preserving one single track is an impossibility. That’s the most brilliant aspect of the Beatles; you can have a new favourite song every day. If I were forced to pick a single track, at this moment in time it would be a draw between two Sgt. Pepper tracks: “A Day In The Life” or “She’s Leaving Home.” The former is an obvious answer, as Lennon’s forlorn perspective – both lyrically and vocally – are placed in perfect juxtaposition with the classic juvenile approach of McCartney. Essentially, it’s a sum of their best qualities. Some may question “She’s Leaving Home” being a contender for one of their greatest songs, but it’s through this stunning track that I came to realise the true significance of Martin’s input. We have strayed away from the question of “Who is the fifth Beatle,” but to me, the answer will always be George Martin.

HENRY: I’ll take “She’s Leaving Home” – I’ve always been a sucker for tragic violin arrangements.


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Discussions: Pavement

By Philip Cosores & F.M. Stringer; August 19, 2011 at 2:10 PM 


The connection between fan and band is examined in our latest Discussions feature about indie rock figureheads Pavement.

PHILIP COSORES: Not to get too old-guy, but I bought my first Pavement album in the year 1997. I only remember this because I was visiting a friend in Houston, Texas at the time, immediately following my first year of high school. I think the Tibetan Freedom Concert was on TV and I saw both Radiohead and Pavement perform, thus inspiring me to buy both the recent Radiohead album (OK Computer) and the recent Pavement album (Brighten The Corners) from the Blockbuster Music or some shit like that. Now, with Radiohead, I had heard The Bends and “Creep,” so it wasn’t such a huge leap. But, with Pavement, I had heard the name, but was not nearly cool enough to be into Pavement at age 14. Regardless, Brighten The Corners clicked with me almost instantly. It contained tracks that evoked wonder with their strange melodic hooks and bizarro lyrics (“Stereo,” “Shady Lane”), but also had jams that were instantly accessible, like the Spiral Stairs song “Date With IKEA” and the ballad “Transport Is Arranged.” And I hold by this opinion, as a gateway drug, Pavement’s fourth record, Brighten The Corners, is the best introduction to the band.

F.M. STRINGER: My first introduction to Pavement was in the latter half of high school, probably a good seven years after your Brighten The Corners purchase, and the only music I ever bought from Blockbuster was the soundtrack to The Rugrats movie (not even shitting you, but come on, I was barely ten). I had written an article for the school newspaper attempting to identify the “Top Five Alternative Rock Records OF ALL TIME.” My use of “Alternative Rock” (while telling) aside, my Radiohead-y, Smiths-y list inspired my biology teacher to burn me a mix cd, which looking back feels backwards and also sexy, on which she included Slanted and Enchanted slow jam “Here” in addition to tracks by The Annuals, The Feelies, Posies, etc. A bite of the apple swallowed, I asked her for more, and she gave me and this other dude who was into music each a burned copy of Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, which I maintain as the greatest, most flawless 42 and a half minutes of God-rendered sonic consummation… etc. etc… ever. The other dude said he liked “Cut Your Hair” and the rest was, like, whatever man, okay I guess. What a dweeb. Intrigued by the lurching banter of the guitars that open “Silence Kit,” and, like you, drawn in by a sort of lyrical balancing act between immediate accessibility (“Let’s talk about leaving!”) and a sort of phantasmagorical strangeness, images by suggestion (“Silent kid don’t listen to your grandmother’s advice about Ezra”). “Elevate Me Later” sealed it, that crunch, that melody. I wish I could relive those first six minutes with Crooked Rain, to feel it all new again.

I think that as an album, Brighten the Corners is probably the tightest, most concise of Pavement’s canon, and it is incredible for sure, but whenever I’m trying to turn someone on to the band, I reach for Crooked Rain, maybe because of my personal experience, maybe because I feel it is the most complete aesthetic snapshot of a band accidentally accomplishing something wild. Would you first suggest Brighten The Corners?

COSORES: I would, and primarily because of the recording quality. Lo-fi, which Pavement stepped away from gradually with each release, is a scary thing for some people. Many equate scratchy recording and low-level mastering as the result of bad music, so Brighten The Corners, for me, provides a more comfortable gateway with being very un-Pavement like, which their final release, the Nigel Goodrich-helmed Terror Twilight, is. Terror Twilight, though containing a few keepers in “Speak, See, Remember” and “Folk Jam,” is just not in the same class as the first four records or the EPs.

Now, as far as Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain goes, it is a pretty perfect record. When I first got into the album, and I admit it was much easier to absorb than Slanted & Enchanted, I gravitated towards the obvious rockers “Unfair,” “Cut Your Hair,” “Range Life.” Years later, it is the more subtle and traditional Malkmus-y cuts that get my blood boiling – the feather-light whimsy of “Stop Breathin’,” the Buddy Holly-via-drunken-memory hook of “Silence Kit,” and the pop perfection of “Gold Soundz.” I mean, the line “you’re the kind of girl I like because you’re empty, and I’m empty,” will always ring true in a fucked-up romantic way. So, yeah, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain is amazing, a top-ten-of-the-nineties, top-50-of-all-time kind of effort.

But, I mean, Slanted & Enchanted is the best, right?

STRINGER: Yes, but also no.

I will never be convinced that there is an album better than Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, but Slanted and Enchanted sees Pavement at their most unbridled, and as a result the hooks that emerge from the dirt feel more collectively more natural and effortless than perhaps anything else from the band. Everything done right on Slay Tracks and Perfect Sound Forever, the singalong fuck you of “Box Elder” and the sarcastic resignation over squall of “Home,” is amplified and refined just enough to tap toes, but not so much as to betray that which is so characteristically Pavement: Loud guitars, ambling bass, beer bottles shaking on cheap-o amplifiers and heaps of disdain. Even beyond the passive lover, dog days voyeurism of “Summer Babe” and the call-and-response horniness of “Trigger Cut,” Slanted and Enchanted just doesn’t stop. The sludge of the 30-second mark of “In the mouth a desert” and the mysteriously forlorn “Zurich is Stained” establish this sort of twisted humanity. Like you said, it rings true in a fucked-up way. Then there’s the clashing guitars on “Perfume-v,” a gesture the band would develop, though it never felt so claustrophobic as this, and the buzzsaw “Jackals…” Pavement feels also at their most together on this album, which is weird considering its history. Slanted and Enchanted is also just so fucking important, in ways that have been explored at greater length elsewhere. It’s noisy and pissed off but never without that intangible so-oft-imitated charm.

Talk to me of “Grounded.” Oh and I guess the other songs on “the weird Pavement album.”


STRINGER: Oh shit I forgot to talk about “Here.”

COSORES: Go ahead.

STRINGER: “Here” is gorgeous and painfully brief and so fucking tragic it kills me.

COSORES: Agreed.

I’ll never forget the year I discovered “Grounded” and really grew to appreciate Wowee Zowee. It was 2010 and I went to see Pavement twice in concert. Yeah, I never really opened up to their third record, though I was an easy convert to the straight-ahead rock freak-out of “Rattled By The Rush” and the acoustic lyrical game of madlibs that is “We Dance.” Those songs were easy to like. And, I mean, many more should have been easy to like. But the “weirdness” of Wowee Zowee made the entire 18(!) song affair seem really closed off. And, I think that is the problem that a lot of people have with Pavement: Fans of the band seem like an exclusive club and people that have a difficulty with the band feel judged or something for not getting it. In turn, they hold the band in contempt when the reality is that Pavement just needs a little more time to penetrate many peoples musical walls. I know I had a wall against Wowee Zowee.

But, yeah. “Grounded,” “Fight This Generation,” and “Kennel District” all found a new life for me with their live show, and eventually, turned me on to trying Wowee Zowee again, and discovering what might be my favorite Pavement song: the deep-cut “Pueblo.” But, after going through my recent Wowee Zowee phase, I am almost left with an emptiness because there is no more Pavement to discover. Lord knows that Makmus’ solo records don’t cut it. Did you have a chance to catch their reunion tour? I saw the first and last American performances and they were certainly interesting.

STRINGER: I did actually, twice also. Once at Sasquatch and once in Central Park. The former performance was by a considerable margin more “memorable”: They threw ice cream at us (I think it was Stephen Malkmus’ birthday?), interrupted their own songs with in-fighting (staged?) and the kind of side-of-your-mouth commentary you’d expect for the band, and spent way too long making weird keyboard noises and pounding a tambourine while making animal noises in what I took as a bizarre parody of “modern indie.” At least that’s how I remember it. In other words, it was Pavement exactly how I’d want to see them.

In terms of the exclusivity of Club Pavement, I don’t know. I think Pavement is a band you have to make your way through on your own terms. If we’re first sitting down, my putting on “AT&T” (a great song by the way) and air guitaring in your face probably isn’t going to turn you on to it too much. One of the best things about them, especially for younger listeners, is the time it takes from an entrance point to, I guess, full-on Pavement fandom. They’re not the kind of band you burn out in a month, I feel. And yeah, maybe this creates a strange sort of divide between audience groups, but this is music and no one should really give a fuck about being judged on some imaginary degree of initiation. That said, I know it happens, and I’m guilty of balking when people cover their ears (true story, but it was Butthole Surfers, the point stands).

I really like Wowee Zowee, perhaps because of its meandering pacing and, by comparison, indulgence. I dig your love for “Pueblo.” It’s probably my favorite song on that album, alongside the self-reflective radness of “Kennel District” and “Grounded,” of course. It’s strange to talk about which Pavement albums are more inaccessible than others, but I can see Zowee being a speed bump. It’s long and the distance between instant gems is a little greater. For me it was a grower, though, and maybe it will be for you also.

COSORES: In terms of “seeing Pavement how I’ve always wanted to see them,” the second time I saw them – their last American performance at Matador at 21 – was a feistier, somewhat over-it band that was probably more in tune with what it would have been like to see them in their prime. Still, I liked the happier Pavement from the beginning of their reunion tour, when it was all fresh and they hadn’t pissed each-other off yet. Still, regardless of what you thought about the performances and whether or not they scheduled too many dates, last year’s tour was the fruition of a decade of wanting. Hell, The National even included a lyric about waiting for Pavement to get back together on “So Far Around The Bend.” It is rare that fans actually get what they want, how they want it and I feel like Pavement fans really got what they wanted with that reunion tour. Which is weird considering what punks Pavement always appeared to be. How weird is it that their lasting memory could be that of crowd-pleasers?

For me, and this might be my last thought about Pavement, I wholly think that Pavement is a bonding experience. I can type in a lyric on Facebook, like, “Lies and betrayal, fruit-covered nails, eeeeeelectricity and lust” and I know someone will respond accordingly, whether it is with the next line or something like “tricks are everything to me.” This is something that me and my friends do and I’m sure most people have no idea what is going on. It’s not to be exclusive or to distinguish ourselves, but more as gag, because Malkmus created these nonsense lyrics that in time have come to mean quite a bit to the fans. I mean, people always have connected through music, but with Pavement, the connection seems so direct. Like, it’s not to a sound, or an album, or even the band, but to the whole ethos. And that is huge. And weird. And beautiful.

STRINGER: Oh, I have no opinion on whether the tour was too long or too short, but I will agree that it was a long time coming, and an appreciated gesture – allowing younger or newer fans to gather round the proverbial fire and experience a band that means a ton to so many. I think Pavement have that kind of sense of humor, though, especially by now. It isn’t really about being punks or being try-less-hard than thou, but about playing the songs the way they play them, which for the vast majority of us is pleasing. Appropriate that the band that doesn’t care what you think manages that visceral pleasure so effortlessly.

I don’t think I can sum up my thoughts and feelings on Pavement in any cathartic or precious way. I can apologize for ignoring Terror Twilight, but it comes accompanied by a shrug and a well-whadda-ya-want-from-me expression. Pavement is a band that has earned most of the accolades and insults they’ve garnered. A connection to the music, like the one you were describing, is at once deeply personal and delightfully together-feeling shared. Pavement is that band I want to play for my kids’ herb friends and say “Yeah, while your daddy was listening to Dipset, this is what I was playing while pissing off of fire escapes onto frat brothers.” Dads always exaggerate.


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Discussions: Sigur Ros

By Ray Finlayson & Will Ryan; August 12, 2011 at 1:41 PM 

Sigur Ros

In the newest entry to our Discussions series, we chat about the amazing Sigur Rós.

Discussions: Led Zeppelin

By Jon Blistein & Jason Hirschhorn; August 3, 2011 at 3:30 PM 

Led Zeppelin

In the third installment of our Discussions series, we explore one of the most impactful bands in music history, Led Zeppelin.

Discussions: The Velvet Underground

By Will Ryan & Dave Toropov; July 12, 2011 at 1:00 PM 

The Velvet Underground

Our second installment of Discussions, where writers are paired up to discuss some of their favorite artists, explores the library of the the highly influential Velvet Underground.

Discussions: Tom Waits

By Andrew Bailey & Michael Tkach; June 29, 2011 at 4:30 PM 

Tom Waits

Discussions is a brand new series in which writers are paired up to engage in a dialogue about some of their favorite artists. Our first installment explores the legendary catalog of Tom Waits — and more.

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