Monday, December 20, 2010

Jonny Blackout's Best Albums of 2010

2010 was the best year for new music since 2000. I don't know if it's just the optimism of a decade-switcheroo or what, but there was a veritable explosion of fantastic LPs, singles, live shows and direct-to-brain plug-ins this year (wait -- scratch that last one, that's 2020. I get so confused. Timey wimey.). Bands I normally hate put out decent records. The overhyped music was actually pretty good, and almost deserved the overhype. Even the shitty stuff was pretty fun (I mean, who the hell *didn't* catch themselves bopping their head like a ten-year-old to "Whip My Hair"?). The only downside to the year was the continued rise of the "Beards/Banjos" genre (Mumford and Sons et al) -- but I was able, through judicious and prodigious enjoyment of synth-pop, to pretend it didn't exist. I had a hard time trying to whittle down to a top ten, so I'm just going to list a bunch of stuff I really liked in a kind of rough order and let you guys figure out which stuff was better.

Apples In Stereo, "Travelers In Time" -- the best late-70s ELO record that ELO never made. It's as if someone took the best songs from "Discovery" and "Time" that never existed -- hypothetical singles from an alternate universe -- and compiled them together on a batshit crazy future-thinking concept LP.

Tom Jones, "Praise and Blame" -- why was there not more hoopla for this amazing, incendiary record? Tom Jones becoming the angry preacher he always wanted to be, backed by a band with grit and soul -- what more could you want? Astonishing, plain and simple.

The National, "High Violet" -- a record I so didn't WANT to like because I usually diverge widely from hipster musical taste, or at least "mainstream hipster musical taste" whatever that is. But I fell in love nonetheless. What can you do when confronted with a lyric like "I was afraid I'd eat your brains?"

Robyn, "Body Talk" -- of course, pop is a dirty word amongst the bearded and banjo-holding, but there was no finer collection of the pure stuff this year -- a distillation of the early-80s electropop sound into perfect 3-minute gems. If you aren't stirred by "Hang With Me" you need to check your head -- it's sharp, perfectly tooled songwriting, the perfect 1983-channeling radio single that never was. The way that chorus soars should remove all doubt.

R. Kelly, "Love Letter" -- there is NO BETTER SINGER in R&B than R. Kelly, fucked-up past aside, and he's finally applying it to mature, gorgeous soul music that's at once retro and completely modern. If I didn't think he was about to release an album of banging, immature gangsta music (he probably is) I'd say this was a career-remaker for the guy -- it's top-to-bottom beautiful, soulful and perfectly written, including the sumptuous "When A Woman Loves" which I think surprised a lot of people who thought they knew R. Not so much.

Mystery Jets, "Serotonin" -- British alt-pop music the way they don't make it anymore (hell, it's "college rock," full on!), unabashedly romantic and crooned the way Ian McCulloch used to. The title track was my replay of the year -- literally didn't leave my player for a week straight. The rest isn't too shabby either -- it produced four killer singles in the UK, where such stuff is appreciated and not pooh-poohed.

Mark Ronson and the Business International, "Record Collection" -- it's unhip to like Ronson because a) he's prettier than you (probably), b) he's an "international DJ," c) he's rich, and d) he's fucking great. You're just jealous. This album provided the year's best single ("Bang Bang Bang"), brought Boy George out of hiding, produced the best video of the year ("Bike Song," featuring the ever-lovely Rosay Pipette), and generally ruled my turntable.

Black Keys, "Brothers" -- heavy motherfucking rock, but unlike their last couple, completely laden with astonishing, memorable hooks. The album I wish Jack White would make, only he never would because he's far too in love with defying expectations -- a good thing, but keeps his feet hovering five feet off the ground. This thing's planted three feet in the mud with wellies on, and sounds the better for it.

Janelle Monae, "The ArchAndroid" -- a soul record the way they used to make them -- I *think*. Stuff this intergalactic may not have ever existed. Not to say it sounds old-fashioned or retro in the least -- but it's coming from a UFO like classic P-funk, but with the emotional center of classic Motown. Ambitious, occasionally stumbling, always fascinating.

Field Music, "Measure" -- Two boys in love with melody, harmony, and spasmodic rhythms, and how those things can be applied to monumentally great tunes without sacrificing a hint of listenability. Oh, and it's a double album. Take THAT.

New Young Pony Club, "The Optimist" -- skittish and dark, angular new wave played by genuinely weird people with a pop sensibility so far left of center it can't find its way back. Cool the way the first few Talking Heads records were, like AM radio from another planet.

Duran Duran, "All You Need Is Now" -- I love how 80s bands are starting to realize that the young pups are stealing their thunder by sounding like *they* did forty years ago. Duran Duran aren't afraid of any electro-newcomers -- they've been making great records all along, it's just that fewer and fewer people were paying attention. That should change with this Mark Ronson-produced gem, which is a top-to-bottom smash laden with fantastic dancefloor fillers ("Blame The Machines," "Safe," "Girl Panic") and eerie ballads ("Leave A Light On" and "Before The Rain"). A great band rediscovers their strength and sounds like a contender.

The Drums, "The Drums" -- a rare gem, a first album by a totally unproven band that crackles with life. Doesn't sound like anybody in particular, but with echoes of stuff you love. Post-punk, sure, but *happy*. Joyous even. Artsy, sure, but also undeniably accessible, the way, say, the Femmes were in the day (but minus the layer of intense suck). A fist-pumper.

Big Boi, "Son Of Lucious Left Foot" -- of course, Big Boi is the best emcee in the world, and he's a freak besides, meaning his records flow like mad and sound like nothing and nobody else. Too weird for mainstream rap, too scary for indie audiences, he hovers like a pimp ghost over pop music, casting a wide shadow over all comers. Including Kanye. You heard me.

Hurts, "Happiness" -- channeling the unabashed schmaltz songwriters from the late 80s -- Erasure, Pet Shop Boys, Stock/Aitken/Waterman -- and honing it into a sharp, slightly evil point, "It's A Wonderful Life" was the inescapable guilty pleasure of the year.

Robert Plant, Band of Joy -- You wanna tell me how a 60-something dude with poodle hair can still sound like a cocksure bluesman from another planet without sounding a little ridiculous in the bargain? This thing oozed with credibility but was a hell of a lot of fun anyway, and quite pretty besides.

Ne-Yo, Libra Scale -- The best Michael Jackson record this year, including the one by Michael Jackson. "Champagne Life" was my 2nd fave single of the year -- channeled lush, decadent 70s soul and spotlighted Ne's amazing, perfect, crystal-clear voice.

Satellite Voices, "Scarlet Rays of Future Echoes" -- lead singer Knol Tate DEFINES the word "angular," takes it and twists it into a hard little ball of electric energy and spits it right the fuck back out at the audience on this one, possibly the best local record of the last SEVERAL years. Heavy in the way they USED to mean it -- i.e. full of meaning, brains, soul-churning rock and roll music.

BNLX, "1," "2," "3," "4" -- Okay, I'm a little biased because I'm on their label and I've been an unabashed Ed Ackerson / Ashley Ackerson fan for years, but he's reinvented himself as an I-don't-know-what-exactly, equal parts Big Black, Ministry, Buzzcocks and the Archies, a stirred-in-a-fucking-fast-and-heavy-pot smoking with skittering rhythms, amazing melodies and buzzsaw guitars that'll chop your head off and serve it to you if you're not careful.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

RIP Chris Dedrick of the Free Design

(I just wanted to post this old interview I did with Chris Dedrick of the Free Design. It used to be on my old Beach Boys-and-Sunshine-Pop website the Smile Shop. Chris was a genius and one of my all time favorite songwriters and it is absolutely terrible that he's died at such a young age.)

When Matt Sullivan at Light in the Attic records contacted me about doing an interview with Chris Dedrick of the Free Design, I immediately leapt at the opportunity. "Great," I said to myself, "now's my chance to do the definitive Free Design interview, and ask him everything I've been meaning to ask." Of course, when my questions were all written out and sent, it amounted to about two pages of questions -- a daunting amount for anybody! So Mr. Dedrick will be answering them in installments -- hopefully when all is said and done, it will be the definitive Free Design interview!

Let's get the history stuff out of the way first: obviously with a musical father, you must've all sung together a lot growing up, but where'd you get the idea of starting a group with your family members? Had you played in other groups before starting your own, or was the Free Design your first experience with the group dynamic?

The Free Design was the first real group experience, other than playing in a jazz trio for a summer, or my dad's dance band in my high school days. I had only sung with Bruce and Sandy in church choir. When I attended the Manhattan School of Music, I was for the first time since childhood, in proximity to them; it was mostly Bruce's enthusiasm for folk music that pulled us together for some fun on weekends. We went home for Christmas; I wrote out a song in a three-voice arrangement — we sang it and began to see that we had an interesting sound "identity". That seemed to be the seed.

What kind of an impact did the 60s music scene have on you? What groups do you remember influencing the sound of the early albums?

Just about anything on the radio was going to have some influence. I particularly liked Motown music because it often showcased some very good arranging, had a great rhythmic feel, and the songs had real melodies. In general, melody writing was much more valued than it seems to be in large areas of pop music today. Think of Burt Bacharach, Laura Nyro, Simon and Garfunkel; everytime I see a movie or hear a radio show with some oldies, memories kick in and I realize that there is another song that kind of lives in my bank of references and influences.

You've covered a few Beatles songs along the way -- what did the Beatles mean to you as a group?

At first I couldn't see what all the fuss was about. Their first hit singles didn't excite or move me -- in fact they were like a minor irritation on the thick skin of my youthful artistic snobbery. Then I turned around and when I looked back they were coming out with Yesterday, Penny Lane, Eleanor Rigby...I started to love their music. At one point the Abbey Road album was my number one. They conceived (with help from people around them) of some great musical and lyrical statements, mixed in with cracked humor, appropriate goofing around, and constant change. I was hooked.

How did people perceive you in the 60s -- what other bands did you find yourselves lumped in with, and who in particular did you feel you fit in with? Did you have any contact with some of the "baroque pop" groups like the Left Banke or the Association?

We were simply perceived by too few people. What goes around comes around: we loved the Hi-Lo's, a great jazz vocal group, and it's been said that we were "dug" by the Association and the Singers Unlimited, both having Hi-Lo's roots. It's also been said that the Carpenters liked our stuff. Oh -- that's the next question.

Do you think groups like the Carpenters kind of took the Free Design sound to the bank, as it were? Is that frustrating or flattering?

Neither, really. Music-making is a constant cross-pollination and conversation, translation and fascination, appealing and stealing, re- using and abusing that is endlessly going on amongst everybody. Or on some rare occasion, it's a single act of almost divine inspiration -- still having to be expressed in sounds and languages made available via the above processes.

Did you consider yourselves avant garde or experimental, or were those tags that were applied more later as people went back and listened to your music?

Anyone who thinks they are avant garde is probably too stuck in intellect; music that lasts is usually not an experiment, but an experience. And tags should be endings, not descriptions. I'm grateful the Free Design music is still around and bringing some enjoyment to some people. The labels are just for fun.

"Kites are Fun" and a handful of other songs (and, well, the entire "Sing For Very Important People" album!) espouse a brilliantly naive and child-like worldview. What attracts you to themes like that?

"Beginner mind" as the Zen Bhuddists call it. "Only as a little child..." as Christians like to quote. I was always interested in the connection between what we called heaven and what we saw as earth. I didn't edit myself very much in those days (as I tend to do now) and for better or worse, no one else was editing me either. I wasn't far from being a kid when I wrote much of that material. We're all many- sided creatures -- dark side, light -- morose and funny. Sometimes we have observations or ideas that are worth expressing. The songs always say something about the songwriter, but not usually what you think they say. That pretty well takes care of what I can say to the next question (which regarded the "sardonic side" of the band -- ed.).

That's it for the moment. I'll dig in again soon. Hope these remarks are of some interest!


Thursday, July 8, 2010

Rush. Yeah, Rush. You wanna make something of it?

(one more chapter of the "Camaro Rock" book -- and then you gotta buy the rest, dammit! Er, assuming it will ever be a) finished and b) published. Both of which are extreme wishful thinking.)

I like Rush a whole lot.

I realize that's an incredibly nerdy thing to admit, akin to saying you're a "really big fan" of, say, a theoretical physicist or an architectural draftsman, but there it is. My intro to Rush came via "Tom Sawyer" cranked top volume on a school bus in the mid-80s -- I wasn't what you'd call a huge fan (honestly, my musical taste ran more to Duran Duran) but there was definitely something to the group's odd, crystalline, mathematic brand of rock and roll power.

To begin with, Rush are Canadian. Now, say what you will about Canada and Canadian rock (and you will), there have been some awesome Canadian rockers over the years (Neil motherfucking Young, for one). Sure, the cliche is that Canadian rockers are polite and neatly-scrubbed and lack the danger of their American counterparts, which is at least partially borne out by reality (Glass Tiger, anybody?). But Rush -- despite their rep as mathrock nerds -- are, if nothing, completely impolite. They patently refuse to be pigeonholed into a genre (are they prog? Hard rock? Metal?), they write dense and incomprehensible songs, they don't give a flying how-do-you-do about the latest trends, they made pretentious concept albums when such things were outta favor, and they do what they want when they want. They're basically a gigantic middle finger to everything polite in rock. And yet, legions of teenagers -- from bemulleted dirtballs to nerdy bandgeeks to Joe American -- continue to adore them despite their affront to apparent good taste. To them, I say: good on ya.

Meanwhile, among music fans "with taste," the band is among rock's most despised. No other group in the history of the form (except maybe Lady Gaga) has inspired so much love-'em-or-hate-'em polarization. Few people just kind of like the group. You either love 'em or you despise them with a force unmatched. The focus of the group's ire (and affection!) is twofold -- most people's emotions center around drummer Neil Peart. He's the posterboy for overplaying -- his comically large drumset is adorned with a million drums ranging in size from gong to thimble, and he seldom lets a moment pass in music without throwing in an adornment or filligree of some kind. He's good, but his problem is (or seems to be) that he's too good.

The other issue people have with Rush is Geddy Lee's voice, and the issue they seem to have with him is that he sounds like a girl. Now, people have the same issue with Jon Anderson and Tiny Tim (for example) but while those guys sound pretty, Geddy's strange, adenoidal voice makes him sound like -- well, an alien girl, honestly. It's absolutely an acquired taste, like foie gras or beets -- you either learn to love it or it makes you wanna puke for the rest of your life.

Rush's lucky break came early on in their recording career, when original drummer John Rutsey left (due to diabetic complications, sadly) and was replaced by Peart. Rutsey was a serviceable hard rock drummer, and the group under his sticksmanship was a perfectly serviceable Zeppelin clone with very little to recommend it except bassist Geddy Lee's voice and Alex Lifeson's heavy guitar attack. Their first LP is heavy and generally okay but certainly no kind of masterpiece, and resembles nothing more than a Foghat LP -- second tier metal, with a decent crunch. Peart, on the other hand, is certainly distinctive. Playing twenty notes when one would probably do, accurate to the point of being a living drum machine, and writing a particularly high-falutin' brand of lyrical poetry, Peart gave the band an identity -- he pushed them into the realm of progressive rock while retaining the heavy-hitting smackdown of the first album. Suddenly, Rush were brainy rather than boneheaded. Suddenly, a new audience opened up for 'em -- camaro guys AND the math league loved 'em.

It's on "Fly By Night," the group's second LP, that they become RUSH, all caps, full signifier. The record contains their first radio-ready hit, the catchy and rather wonderful "Fly By Night" which positively soars under a terrific Alex Lifeson guitar hook. Elsewhere, the group veers between the busy, mathematic/architectural heavy rock that would eventually become its stock in trade ("Anthem," "Beneath, Between and Behind") and gentle hobbit-rock ("Rivendell.") "Caress of Steel," its followup, is another step in the right direction, and fans of the band will certainly enjoy the 20-minute epic "The Fountain of Lamneth" while acknowledging that it's still an unformed, nascent vision of what would eventually make the band a beloved entity.

"2112" was the group's first cult classic. Legions of Rush fans who favor their 70s work swear this is the group's apex, but I almost never listen to it. Side one is a futuristic multipart epic, and a far more insightful try at such than anything they'd yet attempted. It's heavy, goes a million places, and generally is a blast to listen to. I find the album's remainders, including nominal hit "Passage to Bangkok," to be only okay -- a bit unfocused, not as radio-ready as they should be, fussier than they are catchy. But millions swear by it, so, as they say, your mileage may vary.

"A Farewell To Kings" and "Hemispheres" find the group expanding their sound gradually, letting in different textures (keyboards! Every guitar under the sun!) and sharper songwriting -- everybody knows "Closer To The Heart" from "Farewell" and the grating-but-amusing "The Trees" from Hemispheres, and the "Cygnus X-1 Book 2" suite on the latter album is probably their best and sharpest sidelong epic. But suddenly on "Permanent Waves," in 1980, the group makes a sharp left turn that would define the group's sound for the next fifteen-odd years: the eventual dominance of Geddy Lee's synthesizer. Suddenly, the group isn't just a pseudo-cryptic mathrock/metal group -- suddenly you can add "New Wave" to that bloated descriptor. Suddenly, Rush sound like "the future." "Waves" is great -- Opener "Spirit of Radio" sounded like nothing else to that point with its burbling synth intro and the group's slam-bang riffery, Elsewhere "Freewill" is tense and taut, "Entre Nous" is optimistic and catchy and sparkles with synth brilliance, and "Natural Science" is a thrilling epic.

My favorite Rush record -- since I tend to favor their 80s pop work, despite its inconsistencies -- is the awesome, epic "Moving Pictures." Even people who hate Rush (most of my friends, in other words) will admit that "Tom Sawyer," the record's amazing, heavy, stone-cold-classic opener is one of the best album kickoffs in history. Geddy's keyboards begin to dominate the group's sound on the rest of the record, but its no less heavy or insightful because of them -- "Limelight" still powers forward on some of the group's best riffery, "YYZ" remains a classic mathrock instrumental, "Red Barchetta" showcases the group's ever-developing pop side perfectly. Not a dud song on the entire album.

Moving forward into the 80s, the group would never manage an album as consistent again. As Lee's keyboards began to dominate the albums (even over Lifeson's guitar attack), the group's songwriting continued to become more pop-influenced and slightly generic, and this would occasionally hobble their 80s output. They were writing sharp and focused -- they just occasionally forgot "memorable." "Signals" is almost entirely great -- "Subdivisions" is one of the group's best songs, awash with New Wavey keyboards, and "Analog Kid" finds the group propelling forward at an almost punk speed. From there, though, it's pick-and-choose (rule: the albums' openers are almost always their best track). "Grace Under Pressure" has "Distant Early Warning" and the remarkable, futuristic, pulsating "Red Sector A." "Power Windows" has "Big Money" and the catchy "Grand Designs." "Hold Your Fire" (the best of the 80s batch) has "Force Ten," the almost Police-like "Time Stand Still," and the gorgeous "Second Nature." And "Presto" has "Show Don't Tell" and the powerful "War Paint."

By the early 90s and "Roll Your Bones," you can tell Rush has become frustrated with being third-tier wuss-pop (and getting stick from their 70s fans for it). The keyboards slowly start to vanish, replaced with a tougher guitar attack, and the pop sensibility fades slowly over time. While "Bones" still has some catchy pop tunes -- "Dreamline" and the title track are my favorites, and the latter has a particularly funny "rap part" to make it relevant -- the follow-up, the shamefully underrated "Counterparts," features a toughened attack borne of the alt-rock explosion of the time. It wasn't so much Rush following trends as it was a gradual return to an earlier sound that better fit the tenor of the times. Or maybe the group just really liked Nirvana. Either way, tracks like "Stick It Out" and "Leave That Thing Alone" (no, this wasn't a sex-themed concept record) hit with a force the group hadn't mustered in years.

Since then, however, the group hasn't managed a consistently great record. 2007's "Snakes and Arrows" came close -- and thanks to a new audience from online games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero, it was their most popular record in a dog's age, too -- but it, like most of "Test For Echo" and "Vapor Trails," is marred by unmemorable songwriting and muddy sonics.

Basically, I like them despite the "taste issues." I think their best songs are terrific examples of smart, catchy hard-rock songwriting. I obviously don't mind a little bit of progginess or mathrock, I have no issue with Geddy's voice (I've learned to love it), and I've learned to overlook Peart's overplaying (by ignoring all but the heavy bits). Whatever you might say about 'em, you have to acknowledge the awesomeness of "Tom Sawyer." And if that's the group's legacy to the world, that is, frankly, enough.

Camaro Rock: I Listen So You Don't Have To

(editor's note: This is the beginning of a book I'm thinking about writing. Originally threw it up over on the Record Room, my favorite music board, in bits and chunks, and thought I'd throw it up over here for comment as it progresses)


Grey day, 1983. You and Randy and Todd, standing in your garage in your prom finery. Randy was rebellious and wore a pink bowtie, remember how Todd called him a fag and he punched Todd in the arm so hard he bruised? Remember how Randy got kicked in the shin later that night by his date 'cause he called her a skank? Good times.


You and Sherri, 1982. Hell yeah. Sherri was hot, wasn't she? I heard she's a dental hygenist now, but doesn't matter. Back then she was smokin' -- the curly hair, the off-the-shoulder sweatshirt, the leather jacket with the Halen patch on the back. You're both smoking Marbs. Now you can't quit, and those things'll kill ya, but man, you looked cool.


Smoking lounge, high school, 1983. You and Randy and Sherri, leaning up against the wall, looking like cool MFers, puffing on red box, feathered hair all 'round, Randy in a 'stache, leather jackets resplendent. Later that night you and Sherri would go all the way and you'd come super fast and she'd dump you the next day for Todd, and you wouldn't speak to that cocksucker for three years.


Ahhh, there she is. Red 1977 Camaro. You polished that sucker until it glowed. You spent every Saturday underneath that thing with the little transistor radio blasting until Mrs. Nelson next door yelled out the front door and you flipped her the bird. That's the back seat where you and Sherri did it. That's the front seat where you and Todd and Randy smoked weed for the first time. Man, you wish you still had that car, don't you? Instead of the god-damn minivan your wife made you get for the kids? THEN Jeffrey at work would stop giving you shit for coming in half an hour late. You might even be able to slip the tongue to Julie in marketing. Shit. The Camaro.

This is you. Or someone you knew. The guy down the street. The chick with the locker two down from yours who used to front you cigs. The dude who used to buy you liquor. Whatever. You knew someone like this.

And if you lived during this time, you listened to the music he listened to.

Maybe you didn't like it. Maybe you were too busy listening to Elvis Costello or the Germs to give a shit, but you couldn't avoid it anyway. You heard "Point Of Know Return" when you were pumping gas down at the Esso. You heard "Don't Stop Believing" at prom when everybody you hated was out in the middle pumping their fists and you were sitting sullen in the corner wishing you were anywhere else and contemplating ways to get revenge by sending them porcelin dolls in the mail COD.

Or maybe you did. Maybe you spent your Friday nights down in your buddy Darren's basement drinking Jack and Coke and listening to Journey or Halen or Styx and talking about that awesome slutty chick who lived in the apartment building across the street who put out and staring at the poster of Farrah on his wall and thinking god dammit what I wouldn't do for a chick like that.

Either way, it was there. It was part of your life.

And right now, you are having a visceral reaction to it. You are either warmly nostalgic or halfway to the bathroom.

This thread, then, is for you, either way.

I've got a mission, see. I'm taking one for the team. I'm going to listen to all the touchstones of this genre of music -- call it "Camaro Rock" or "Arena Rock" or "Corporate Rock." Whatever you wanna call it, you know what I mean. And I'm going to write about it. This means I'm about to become intimately familiar with the ouvres of Journey. Boston. Foreigner. Styx. Kansas. Little River Band. And about twenty others you forgot about. Rest assured, I'm not going to forget about them. In fact, I'm going to listen to every album they ever put out, or at least a reasonable sampling. And I'm going to figure out why they're popular, why the guys with the mullets and the leather jackets liked 'em, and whether you should ever bother to let 'em grace your stereo.

You're welcome.

Think of it this way: If I do it, you don't have to. It's a mission from God. Or the other guy.


Kansas: Where's a tornado when you need one?

In the late-60s and early-70s, too-smart-for-their-own-damn-good British teens figured out something magical: they could parlay their love of classical music, jazz, and impressive instrumental chops into a style of music that not only wouldn't get them shunned by their peers, it actually stood a chance of getting them laid. This was Progressive Rock, shortened (though the name was the only thing that was ever shortened in that style of music) to "Prog."

Of course, too-smart-for-their-own-damn-good American teens wanted in. They, too, spent far too much time practicing their respective instruments in their childhood and they, too, wanted to turn that annoying practice time into actual genital contact. And so American Prog was born.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your point of view and tolerance for such things) American Prog was devoid of some of the things that made British Prog so interesting -- namely whimsy, a uniquely British sense of mysticism (songs populated with Hobbits and faeries and the like), a medieval-obsessed reliance on archaic instruments like flutes and harpsichords and lutes and a genuine sense of forward-thinking experimentation. American prog bands didn't don foam-rubber costumes and prance around, in other words.

Instead, they added uniquely American qualities to the music -- influences from country and left-bank psych rock; a certain by-the-numbers, rural pop sensibility; bigger and bushier beards and a whole lot of "we take this seriously and so should you" attitude.

The prime practitioner of American prog was a band from Topeka named, pragmatically, Kansas. Formed out of several earlier proto-prog combos including Saratoga and White Clover, Kansas rose out of the pack for several reasons -- a decent songwriter in guitarist Kerry Livgren; an arena-ready belter in singer Steve Walsh; the ability to play very, very fast; a zippy violin player named Robby Steinhardt; and a series of very bushy beards indeed.

Their first two albums, the self-titled first and "Masque," have little to distinguish them apart from an obvious love of alternate time signatures and fast up-and-down scale-playing. Sound and fury, signifying nothing but a desire to signify something. It is only on "Song For America" that Livgren's songwriting begins to emerge as a contender. The ten-minute title track, while nowhere near as epic as one of Yes' sidelongs, features passages of notable power, and the melodies show signs of leaning towards memorability. Meanwhile, the band continues their lightning-fast up-and-down scales and the violinist saws away gamely. It's not a pretty sound by any means -- Dave Matthews would later hone it into a fine and hideous art -- but when married with Livgren's evermore potent melodies, it became a force to be reckoned with.

"Leftoverture" is the moment Livgren's songs become so epic and powerful that radio and American FM listeners couldn't ignore them anymore. "Carry On My Wayward Son" is certainly memorable, stuffed to bursting with great hooks and hard rockin' guitar and soaring harmonies. It sounded important. The lyrics portend some kind of yearning or searching, and American teens fell in line in droves. I'm searching too, they said. I want that peace when I'm done with my shift at the Wiener Barn! Unfortunately, the song also features the elements that make Kansas listening as agonizing as it is fascinating -- twinkly, superfast piano, semi-obvious boogie-rock guitar riffs and overearnest vocal wailing.

The rest of the album falls nicely in line behind "Carry On"'s mold. The band was slowly but surely abandoning their prog roots in favor of FM-ready rock songwriting and tunes like "What's On Your Mind" are far closer to Foghat and other bar-band classics than they are to Yes, despite the presence of hammond organ and round-the-bend time signature changes. Fortunately for prog fans, there's still epic, portentious stuff like the eight-minute "Magnum Opus" to accompany their dope-smoking-and-ripple-drinking reveries.

"Point Of Know Return," the follow-up, is actually the superior record, and if you want to own one Kansas record, this is the one. It contains two radio-ready smash hits, the keyboard-and-violin-driven title track (just try to get that keyboard lick out of your head. Go on, try. I dare you) and the morose but pretty funeral anthem "Dust In The Wind." The rest of the album is far less memorable but far less boogie-rock driven than "Leftoverture." Songs like "The Spider" and "Lightning's Hand" wind and weave with considerable prog chops. And "Portrait (He Knew)" actually sounds a little forward-thinking -- it's at least five years ahead of its time, sounding more like a mid-80s FM anthem than something from a late-70s prog record.

Unfortunately, that's where Kansas began to self-destruct. "Monolith," while beefing up the guitar sound and pulling back on the violin hackwork, contains not a single memorable song apart from the awful Queen pastiche "Stay Out Of Trouble," which is memorable only for being an embarassing attempt at marrying guitar beef with urban storytelling theatricality -- unfortunately, the band doesn't have the elan to pull it off. "Audio Visions," the last album by the original lineup, tries to add an even bigger layer of guitar crunch, sounding almost like a metal band in places. It has a few semi-memorable songs, including the Billy Joel-ish "Anything For You" and the hooky "Relentless." It has an equal number of embarassing missteps, like the baffling "Loner" which fails to rock, fails to groove and fails to not sound utterly laughable.

Guitarist Livgren, meanwhile, had long been balancing his born again Christianity with his life as a mid-america Prog rocker. He managed to convert bandmate Dave Hope, and it was this point that Steve Walsh, finally tired of the thin Christian metaphors stretched out across the last couple of records and, most likely, the crimp it put on his lifestyle, jumped ship. The band replaced him with Christian rocker John Elefante, and interestingly, it is at this point that the group actually becomes listenable for a couple of records -- though prog afficianados will find little to like in the group's beefy corp-rock sound.

"Vinyl Confessions" is Elefante's bow with the group, and right away, you can tell this ain't the Kansas you dug in the 70s. For one thing, Livgren's formerly oblique religious metaphors are pushed straight into the open. For another, the violin is virtually invisible. For yet another, the twirling keyboard arabesques take a back seat to a muscle-bound Journey-like corp rock guitar sound. The album is jam packed with radio-ready hooks. Tunes like "Right Away" and "Borderline" sound far more like Journey or even (at times) the Knack than they do 70s Kansas. Not to say Livgren's abandoned the Prog sound entirely -- "Windows" features his scale-heavy pop tune and sounds not unlike a "Know Return" outtake married to an overtly Christian lyric, and "Chasing Shadows" is an attempt to write a "Dust"-esque ballad. But mostly, you can see the Kansas of the 70s shattering apart amongst its grooves.

"Drastic Measures" is almost not a Kansas record at all -- the songwriting is dominated by Elefante, who sounds like he thinks he's either in Foreigner or the Tubes in equal measures, and Livgren's whirly-twirliness is pushed to the far background. The Christian lyrics are in full force, and the guitar sound is at the palm-mutiest it would ever get. It sounds like any mid-American corp-rock band -- and any hint of "Carry On" has been relegated to the dusty past. That said: it's really not a terrible record. "Everybody's My Friend" is a legitimately great pop song, with a magnificent hook and a deeply cynical lyric. "Fight Fire With Fire" is a great corp-rock anthem, and Livgren's equally sardonic "Mainstream" is funny and quite good. There's an odd New Wave sheen over the whole thing that's not common in records of this ilk, and it works both as a good CCM album and a great corp-rock one -- alas, fans of classic Kansas would find very little to like here.

Kansas broke up at this point, and when the band reconvened for "Power" and its follow up "The Spirit Of Things," they were literally an entirely different band. Led now by departed singer Steve Walsh, the group sounded exactly like every other corporate rock band of the mid 80s -- all their uniqueness had departed, and their reliance on power ballads ("All I Wanted" was a mid-decade hit) and generic chunka-chunka rock made them sound like a third-string Journey, four years after Journey themselves had become irrelevant. Kansas soon found themselves equally irrelevant, and the label dropped them soon after. There have been partial and complete reunions since, but nothing that managed to capture even a fragment of the meaty prog-rock sound that had propelled them to the top in the 70s.

If you want to dive into these waters -- and if you like British prog and don't have a total aversion to mid-america corporate rock-and-riff, you might want to at least get a toe wet -- you should head straight for "Point Of Know Return." That one album will give you a decent-sized taste of both the good and the ill of Kansas -- the epic, memorable songwriting and their occasionally tasteless overplaying, both in healthy-sized dollops. If your tolerance for superfast playing, violin virtuosity and strident singing is small then lay low and pray for a tornado.

Styx: The Great White Hope

(dediction: For Styx fan extraordinaire, Ray Puzey)

While Kansas were plying their trade in Topeka, a group of kids in Chicago were marrying what they learned from British prog and American boogie rock to a uniquely workin'-class aesthetic as native to the Second City as Kansas' heartland prog was to its region. Formed from the ashes of a group called the Tradewinds (headlining TONIGHT! down at the Best Western Pump-Room Lounge, get there early for the shrimp platter!), Styx had two weapons in its arsenal that put it ahead of the pack. First, multiple songwriters in Dennis De Young and James Young, both of whom knew their way around a hook. Second, De Young's dramatic, Broadway-ready singing voice, which, no matter what kind of song he was singing, sounded like he was auditioning for the touring company of "Jesus Christ Superstar" (which, unironically and expectedly, he'd later join). This, married with their image -- a bunch of guys from shop class, a guy from the Drama League and two of the Village People -- and their love of the concept album, that uniquely sixties-and-seventies conceit that made ordinary albums seem far more important/portentious/intelligent than they actually were, pushed Styx to the head of the prog-rock class fairly quickly.

Of course, it took two years for radio to notice -- after years of flogging their tunes in shitty clubs and high school dances, a song off their second album (the still-mostly-nascent "Styx II") called "Lady" began to get first regional then national airplay. "Lady" has everything that would eventually come to define the group: De Young's plaintive wail and over-enunciated delivery, loads and loads of stacked harmonies, a "gentle strummed part" contrasted with a "wicked rockin' part," a sense of drama and excitement, virtuoso playing, and an extreme sense of its own self-importance as a tune. It was the birth of "pomp-rock," an offshoot of prog that favored pompous heaviness and dramatic chest-beating over involved instrumental passages.

Styx were already 4 albums into their career by the time they signed to A&M and released "Equinox" (and honestly, apart from "Lady," there ain't much on those first four apart from some interesting garage boogie, some sub-par writing from De Young and the hint that better things were a-comin'). "Equinox" is the beginning of Styx as we know them -- it's got one dramatic, killer hit single ("Lorelei"), a couple almost-prog FM staples ("Suite Madame Blue" and "Light Up") and some filler that veers between dramatic, choir-practice wailing and gentle balladry ("Born For Adventure" for the former, "Lonely Child" for the latter). It's not a bad album -- but the band was missing one element that would propel them into the stratosphere.

When their guitarist, who had an unpronounceable last name (Curulewski -- try saying that ten times fast!), bailed after "Equinox," a hasty search to find a replacement turned up blonde wunderkind Tommy Shaw, who possessed genuine hard-rock chops and cred as well as an even more sharply-honed pop sensibility than De Young. His debut on "Crystal Ball" was the bouncy, Queen-like "Mademoiselle," an excellent little tune featuring some terrific harmonizing by DeYoung and a killer hook. Shaw's hard-rockin' sensibilities perfectly balanced De Young's dramatic wailing and Young's boogie-rockin' to create the perfect 3-headed Cerebrus of Camaro rock.

But it wasn't until "The Grand Illusion" that all the elements came together perfectly. If Styx can be said to have an "album for the ages," it is undoubtedly this one. Though not their best, it contains their most memorable hits, their most enduring FM chestnuts, and their most direct and focused playing. It's got just the right amount of De Young theatricality, Shaw guitar crunch and Young simplicity -- the perfect balance, which would tip too far one way or the other on all future releases. The first four tracks were all hits of one type or another. The title track is a brilliantly dramatic and powerful call-to-arms. "Fooling Yourself" is one of Shaw's best melodies and lyrics, and doesn't descend into rock cliche as some of his later tunes would. "Superstars" has a massive and powerful hook, beautifully sung by De Young. And "Come Sail Away" is the group's "Stairway To Heaven," a study in pompous light-and-dark with a brilliantly silly lyric (it's a boat metaphor -- wait, no, it's a spaceship!!). The album starts to fall apart with Young's "Miss America," and the second half has a tendency to flag ("Castle Walls" is dull, and "Grand Finale" is cheating, just a combo of all the songs up 'till that point), but the first half is memorable, classic, and, frankly, extremely good. It approaches the excellence of mid-period Queen without, alas, that group's winking and sly wit, but with a good deal of jovial, workin' class humor besides.

I actually prefer "Pieces Of Eight," the group's follow-up to "Illusion" -- I think it's a stronger, more consistent album, with higher highs and much less dull lows. It rocks harder and with more cred and conviction, whilst still maintaining the grandiosity that "Illusion" trafficks in so successfully. Everybody's writing sharply and cleverly, and while faulting Styx for overindulgence seems foolish (hell, the group's ABOUT overindulgence) this album contains far less of it than the others. The highlights are plenty -- Young's powerful, anthemic "Great White Hope," De Young's inspirational "I'm Okay" and his amazing Hobbit-rock mini-opera "Lords of the Ring," and Shaw's triumvirate of amazing rockers -- "Blue Collar Man," "Renegade" and the gorgeous, moving "Sing For The Day." The album only flags slightly at the very tail end, with the slightly limp balladry of "Pieces of Eight" and the pointless "Aku-Aku."

Unfortunately, it was all a slow, measurable slide downhill from there. "Cornerstone" shows the influence of limp soft-rock creeping into the group's sound, in the form of De Young's insistance on using ballad-ready electric piano wherever possible. That's not to say the album doesn't have some great moments -- "Borrowed Time" still rocks with conviction, and the bouncy "Why Me" has a kind of Supertrampy catchiness. But the album hinges entirely on "Babe," the massive runaway soft-rock hit -- and your love of the album will hinge on whether you like it or find it cloying and obnoxious. I lean towards the former, despite its obvious limpness and hit-grabbiness.

"Paradise Theater," of course, was a massive, runaway hit with a billion hit singles -- it comes off a bit desperate in retrospect, but of course the high points hit extremely high. It is literally impossible to argue with the awesomeness that is "The Best Of Times" -- that's De Young's best chorus ever, and his gorgeous, powerful balladry is in full effect. And Shaw's magnificently rockin' "Too Much Time On My Hands" is almost as perfect -- you know you do the "clap-clap" when it plays on the juke every single time. Don't pretend you don't. "AD 1928 / Rockin" The Paradise," too, is no more or less silly than any of their other "concept call-to-arms" tunes. Alas, there's much generic stuff here too -- "Nothing Ever Goes As Planned" is faint 'tramp ripoff, "Lonely People" is drab, and there's never been a more earnest, accurate but ultimately dry cocaine anthem as "Snowblind." Still, though, "Best of Times." You can't argue.

Alas, "Paradise Theater" was the group's last hurrah. "Mr. Roboto," the first single off the group's into-the-80s try, portended a changed group, and was a strange, intriguing blend of New Wave synth-plying and hard-rock pomposity. It sounded like nothing before and since and should/could have been the harbinger of a newly revitalized Styx. Alas, the entire rest of the album is nothing like this song. "Cold War" is one of Shaw's least realized and least catchy tunes, "Heavy Metal Poisoning" was silly and not the least bit metal. "Haven't We Been Here Before" was limp balladry, and only "Don't Let It End" was the least bit good.

After that, the group disbanded. A brief early-90s resurfacing gave us the "Edge Of The Century" album on which Shaw was absent -- and for some odd reason De Young's generic "Show Me The Way" became a first-Gulf-War anthem. A 00s resurfacing, this time with Shaw and Young in charge and minus De Young, gave us the bland "Cyclorama" album which had none of the elan of the earlier group, and in fact sounded like nothing so much as Nickelback.

(Mention should briefly be made of De Young's 2009 solo album "One Hundred Years From Now," which, if nothing else, sounds like Old Styx in most places, and contains a few great songs including the bouncy "This Time Next Year" which approaches the power of his mid-70s stuff. It's not all great -- it too frequently veers close to extreme cheese -- but it has definite moments.)

My recommendation: I'm a bit more forgiving of Styx than I should be, perhaps, but I think everybody should, if nothing else, own "Grand Illusion," "Pieces of Eight" and, if you're still not repulsed or freaked out by the pomposity and drama-kinging, "Paradise Theater." The first two are solid albums that border on magnificence, and the latter has "The Best Of Times," which you need and then need to hear in context.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Stone Temple Pilots and my strange relationship with grunge music

Stone Temple Pilots, Self Titled
Atlantic Records

I've always been weirdly fascinated with grunge music, in the same way one gets fascinated with a plane crash or an open wound on one's arm: a strange mix of pleasure and brain-churning pain. As the first musical movement that I "didn't get" (I was all of 21 when it hit, and painfully out of step with my own demographic), I was absolutely hide-bound and determined to know everything there was to know about it -- even moreso than if I'd "gotten it," since I figured there was something I was missing.

The end result being I've probably heard more grunge music than most people who generally hate the stuff. And of course there wasn't anything I was missing -- grunge music was nothing more than heavy metal with somewhat more masculine trappings than hair metal, but, ultimately with worse songs. Hair metal was a combo of hard rock and bubblegum (meaning it had hooks); grunge thought it was Zeppelin but it was really Foghat (meaning it really didn't).

But as always happens when I explore a musical genre, I always come away from it liking more of it than I probably should. Weirdly, the stuff I like isn't the stuff most critics do. I hate Pearl Jam, for example. Po-faced, over-serious bullshit, the Grape Nuts of rock and roll (good for you, tastes like gravel). I can't stand Mudhoney, either, and Soundgarden actually sends me into spasms of anger. Especially "Black Hole Sun." God, I hate Black Hole Sun. And I still have mixed feelings about Nirvana -- I love "In Utero" but I still think "Nevermind" sounds like a hair metal album, and I notice all the cut-and-paste work Butch Vig did to clean it up to a radio-friendly sparkle.

No, the stuff I like from that genre is the stuff that doesn't pretend it's more important than it actually is. Alice In Chains, for example, seems well aware that it's a Camaro-metal band and makes really good but completely shallow Camaro-metal records for today's heschers. I have no problem with them because, oddly, they're good at what they do, even if what they do is kinda awful. But my favorite grunge group is the band I used to call the Strawberry Alarm Clock of the grunge scene (because they seemed like bandwagon-jumpers that accidentally did a better job of encapsulating the scene than the main practitioners) -- Stone Temple Pilots.

STP always seemed like they took themselves way less seriously than their compatriots. They wrote songs with massive, catchy hooks and seemed unabashed in their love of pop music. They switched gears mid-stream and made a record that sounded like it wanted to be T.Rex's "Electric Warrior" (1996's "Tiny Music", which still sounds completely left-field even today). Unlike 99.9% of the other grunge bands, they were a little bit sexy, which was something most of those bands were too busy bitching about how famous they were to comprehend the necessity of. Sure, they haven't ever been able to write a lyric to save their lives -- but does it even matter? I'd rather have total nonsense than Vedder's po-faced tripe.

Still, there was no reason a new STP album should be any good. Their last (2001's "Shangri-La Dee Da") was only okay, and Scott Weiland's last gig as lead singer of Slash's Velvet Revolver was a total bust -- not a single memorable song across two albums. Nevertheless, their brand-new self-titled album is kind of awesome anyway -- more hook-laden than anything they've yet done, still just as silly, but, oddly, still just as sexy and righteous. It sounds like grunge + bubblegum, which, if you see my previous paragraph about hair metal, kind of rights a couple wrongs.

Most interesting is Weiland's continuing fixation with glam rock; namely, early-to-mid-70s David Bowie, whom he channels quite effectively on the album's two best songs, "Hickory Dichotomy" which roils along on a spung Bowie cockney, and the positively astonishing "First Kiss On Mars" which is easily the best song the group's ever done, with a lovely melody and a mammoth hook.

Elsewhere, the band channels great hard-rock hooks into tightly-written songs that almost always resolve to righteously fist-pumping chorii. My favorite is "Take a Load Off" -- the shift from minor to major in the chorus is one of those delicious "sigh" moments that just automatically brings to mind summer-day drives under bright blue skies. "Hazy Daze" sports a wicked boogie-rock groove, while "Cinnamon" sounds like New Order filtered through the the Osmonds.

The band only stumbles a couple of times -- lead single "Between The Lines" sounds like an attempt to write an archetypal Stone Temple Pilots Hard Rock Single, which unfortunately means its a bit drab, and "Dare If You Dare" tries a little too hard at Beatle balladry, arriving somewhere at Klaatu territory.

In terms of ongoing grunge concerns (there ain't many left -- Alice In Chains, Pearl Jam, the newly-reunited Soundgarden), STP rests comfortably way at the top in terms of actually remaining both relevant and highly entertaining. "Stone Temple Pilots" is a terrific album -- fantastically heavy and surprisingly optimistic. Grunge, even though I hate you, you continue to amuse.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Rock and Roll: A Young Person's Game?

My least favorite lyric in the history of rock music is "Hope I die before I get old" from the Who's "My Generation." Not because it's particularly bad -- in fact, it's great. I admire Pete Townshend's hell-with-it nihilism and despite the fact that he obviously didn't die, I don't doubt that he meant it at the time, at least inasmuch as he intended his old-self-euthanasia as a gigantic, idealistic "fuck you" to the 50s pre-boomer generation and their closed-minded attitudes. It's punk, sure.

No -- I hate it because of its contribution to armchair criticism, especially as regards the notion of rock and roll musicians aging.

It goes like this:

• An older rock musician does something. I don't care what it is -- he played the SuperBowl, say, or released a new album. Doesn't matter what, he just did something.

• Somewhere on the internet, there's a message board or comment thread started about this older rock star event.

• People comment that they thought it was pretty good / great / life-changing.

• Some yahoo -- usually followed by a chorus of imitators -- arrives and starts shouting about how much it sucked, demands that the old rock star "hang it up," and inevitably -- inevitably -- quotes that lyric. Especially if the old rock star is, in fact, Pete Townshend.

Basically, "Hope I Die..." is the Godwin's Law of the "old rock star discussion" -- it prevents coherent discussion of something I find both interesting and utterly false; namely, the notion that rock and roll music is a "young man's game," by allowing the user to just jump to a false conclusion -- that Townshend, as a vital arbiter of cool, has declared for all time what is true regarding the allowable age / continued functionality of rock stars.

I'm here to posit that nothing is a young man's game, really, and that age and avarice are at least equal to youth and enthusiasm, as they say, or at least should be.

There are myriad reasons why rock music is viewed as a young man's game. Let's examine them, shall we?

1. We still canonize the 60s, and in the 60s, when rock was still relatively young, there were no old rock musicians yet. Rock, in the 60s, was 100% viewed as "young people's music" because that was the demographic that was buying the stuff and making the stuff. Because the 60s was rock's formative decade in terms of attitudes, a lot of the attitudes that were born during it carry over to today.

2. Punk rock cemented it: old people suck. This was the first time there was a real serious culture-clash in rock music -- the "youth" rebelled against the "dinosaurs" (who, ironically, were far younger on average than I am now) and the youth won -- Yes disappeared from teh charts (they didn't really) and punk ruled the earf (it didn't really, but for the sake of argument).

3. The 80s were rough for the 60s musicians. I think the way some of the 60s musicians attempted to adapt to the changing climate of the 80s -- by gracelessly trying to update their sound to "fit in," by writing songs about being old as if they were already 80 years old when they were only, like, forty, by churning out awful, formulaic tripe -- effected how we view old people in rock in general. Even though it was only one batch of musicians from one particular era, IN one particular era, which, frankly, was rough for everybody for technological reasons -- even some younger rock bands didn't know what to do or where to turn once MTV and synth-pop hit.

4. Our society doesn't exactly value older people to begin with. It's not just in terms of rock music, is it? I mean, we live in a "pretty young people" culture where youth and beauty are valued far above wisdom and intellect. It makes absolute sense that rock music, as with all arts, would follow along. We just think old people suck in general.

Let's take it out of an artistic context altogether for a moment. A surgeon. Who would you trust more: a guy fresh out of medical school, wet behind the ears, hasn't really done a lot of surgery? Or the older guy who's been a resident for 30 years? You would so clearly trust the guy with a ton of experience under his belt because he's had a chance to hone his skills over the years. You wouldn't think the recent graduate was somehow "closer to the source" because he just got out of school, would you?

Why do we have the opposite notion for artists? Why would the years not hone and season their craft songwriting-wise? Why do we assume that their wet-behind-the-ears work is somehow closer to the source than the later stuff, when the later stuff is done with the benefit of years of experience in songwriting/production/whatever? Do we assume that passion will eventually give way to a sort of genial workmanship? Habits will form that will remove spontaneity? Is that a bad thing, always? We associate a sort of energy/vitality with young people -- does that always vanish with older people? What does that say about our general attitude about age -- are we saying that at a certain age people stop mattering?

Do you think maybe preconceived notions regarding these ideas colors how you view the work of older artists rather than the other way around?

I'd argue that it does. I'd argue that people are more likely to negatively view the work of old people based on their own set of preconceived notions that the work will necessarily be inferior simply because it is done by an older person. I think this frequently leads to the underrating of lots of art, not only music but film and visual art as well.

Let's examine, but let's take it out of the context of pop music for a second. Let's look at the art world. One of my favorite artists is pop artist Roy Lichtenstein. You know his stuff -- he's the guy with the newspaper dots who paints comic strips. Here's a painting done when he was young.

It's full of his typical bright, bold colors, and there's no question it has an energy and a vitality born of youthful hubris -- he was one of the first guys to take comic strips and drag them over into the fine arts arena. It's about as exciting as a painting can get -- it's an explosion, fergodsake, in bright primary colors. It's iconic, it's pop, it's the same kind of destruct-o-art that the Who trafficked in musically.

Now let's look at Lichtenstein when he's older.

It's a far less iconic or explosive work, but what it loses in vitality, it absolutely gains in subtlety. Instead of using comic art as a means in itself, he's taken techniques from comic art -- the newspaper dots, primary colors, bold "ligne clair" -- and applied them instead to a work far more influenced by the cubists (Braque, Picasso) in terms of form and composition. In other words: this ain't pop art, but isn't it damn interesting?

Does somebody want to argue that Beethoven's Ninth ("Ode To Joy") is somehow less good than his First because he was younger and more vital when he write his First?

Let's bring it back to pop music -- specifically Pete Townshend.

Here's Pete when he's younger.

Great song, no? It has a lot of really desirable qualities. It has energy, grit, honesty. Youthful vitality. Power. Potency. It is, however, quite simple -- the chord progression is repetitive, the melody unsubtle, the lyric quite simplistic and blunt, and the structure by no means complex.

Now let's look at Old Pete, from what I think is an exceptional record, the Who's "Endless Wire" from a couple years back:

It is amazing, but for wholly different reasons. That youthful energy and vitality that almost wholly informs "Can't Explain" is no longer present. It is replaced instead by a melodic and chordal complexity and subtlety -- listen to the way the melody/harmony/counter-melody winds itself around one chord on the chorus, especially on the lovely "snowflakes falling" part. The lyrics are tremendously subtle and poetic. And most interestingly, the song uses a synthesizer theme from an older song, "Baba O'Reilly," in an attempt to bridge this album thematically with "Lifehouse," the album "Baba" was intended for. It's a work, I think, of tremendous power, and while it isn't as immediate or in-your-face -- visceral -- much like the work of Older Lichtenstein, it's good for other reasons, no less interesting or vital reasons.

That's all very interesting.

Of course that's not true of every piece of music by an older person, any more than it's true that all young people have youthful energy and vitality -- I could point you to a couple of Dave Matthews albums from when the guy was young where he sounds about as youthful and energetic as the most feeble geriatric. But in terms of development, I think it can safely be said that:

- People's songwriting develops as they get older, and as it evolves, particular qualities are replaced by other qualities, no less desirable.

- Society has been basically trained to prize the earlier qualities because they value youth, almost cultishly

- Therefore, as people's music evolves and youthful qualities are replaced by other qualities, people falsely undervalue this music as they falsely believe that these other qualities are less desirable aesthetically.

What you will find if you visit a Who message board, say, or really any place where music is discussed, is a lot of people quoting "My Generation" rather than examining these qualities. And a lot of discussion about how Pete should "hang it up."

And that's really my least favorite thing about the general prejudice against older people -- the notion that not only are they undervalued, that they should "go away," stop making art and stop contributing to the general cultural landscape when they reach a certain age (probably 40) where their "youthful vitality" starts to fade.

Think about that: This is essentially saying that what these people are saying no longer matters at all, simply by dint of their calendar age. This is ignoring the fact that artists, in general, are compelled to make art -- that they're doing it because they must; not, as in the case of many 9-to-fivers, because they have to. You're basically saying "I don't care if you make art because you love to, I have ceased to find it interesting, so please retire and do not do the thing you love because it makes me uncomfortable/irritated."

That's bloody awful, isn't it? And yet, otherwise intelligent people say this all the time.

Frankly, and I know I'm in the vast minority, I find songwriters more interesting when they get older. I like seeing how they evolve their songwriting skills, and how experience and a new and more intelligent set of feelings, plus a sense of mortality, of course, inform their songwriting. I am especially finding this true of some the boomer artists, who have gone through the 80s growing pains and come out the other side still alive, still making music, and, interestingly, still growing and developing as artists and pushing boundaries, at least within the confines of their own stylistic limitations. I'm also finding that the artists who began in the 80s are having an easier time staying true to themselves, and as they age and develop they're still making albums absolutely as vital as their prime-era work (see: The Cure, et al).

You all know I hate preconceived notions about rock and roll music, right? I hate hang-ups and bullshit and prejudices that keep people from enjoying stuff, because all of those hang-ups and prejudices have to do 100% with the observer and not one jot with the art itself. And as an artist, that bothers me -- that people are approaching my art with a whole mess of preconceived notions that will prevent people from enjoying or even understanding or even listening to what I'm trying to say.

After all, I failed to die before I got old. And I'm getting older, and so are we all. So, as oldie George Michael said, listen without prejudice, and give the old people a chance, will ya?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

It's like the last 20 years of my life didn't happen

So first, watch this trailer for Rick Fuller's forthcoming documentary on First Avenue.

First off, a disclaimer: not to REMOTELY discredit what is obviously an excellent documentary that I have not seen yet. I know Rick Fuller is a great filmmaker, he's telling this from his point of view, and I'm sure it's going to be interesting, well-shot, well-edited and full of lots of great footage if you're a fan of that era or the various styles of music covered therein. And obviously there are lots of people IN the documentary and in the scene in general who are passionate about this music, and not to remotely discredit their passion.

It's just -- well, this.

Fauna, whom I wrote about yesterday, used to do a song called "Who Killed Flannel Rock?" The answer to the question is that nobody killed flannel rock. It keeps rising, zombie-like, from the grave every time anybody sits down in an editing suite or puts pen to paper to talk about First Avenue and what it "means" to "people." I have no problem with this on the surface: it's obvious to anybody who listens to music that punk rock and its offspring are an important thread in the development of rock music (duh) and that Minneapolis and First Avenue played an interesting and important part of that development (double-duh).

My problem is the notion that punk (and it's close buddy, alt-country) were the only things happening in that time.

Listen to Steve's voice over: He talks about how Jayhawks fans would sometimes listen to the Gear Daddies, and sometimes Gear Daddies fans would listen to the Jayhawks, and then there were Rifle Sport fans and whatever and whatever -- other punk rock bands I don't even know, really -- and then that's it, closed circle. Certainly everybody around at the time listened to some form of punk rock music because that's what the press wrote about lots and that's who the First Ave management loved and coddled and nurtured from the git-go, right?

Well, no.

I've never been a punk rock guy. I remember in college when I worked at WMMR (before there was a radio K) and the punk rock guys would sit in the room next to the control room and mouth the word "F-A-G" at me whenever I played Echo and the Bunnymen or whatever instead of the Descendants or Minor Threat. They hated me. They hated me so much, in fact, they actually formed a legit University group called the "I Hate Jon Hunt Fan Group" at the University of Minnesota because when I wrote for the Minnesota Daily, I ragged on punk music in my articles and columns just to piss them off.

You know why I did that? Because, to me at the time, punk rock was no kind of underground. They always set themselves up as this vital counterculture but to me, they seemed like a bunch of loudmouthed bullies who hated fags or people who looked like fags, and that sure wasn't discounted by the people I worked with. In other words: they were the popular kids within the counterculture. I'm sure, now that I'm older and wiser, that's absolutely untrue, or at least partially untrue, and I'm pretty sure I was unfair to punk at the time, just like they were unfair to me.

But I will say this: punk, in Minneapolis, is still no kind of underground, and this documentary proves it, because while trumpeting how Important! That! Stuff! Was! it completely ignores the existence of another scene that was happening parallel to punk that, I think, is ultimately just as important as an evolutionary thread and contains a lot of people you know if you're following local music. Did it have the sheer numbers? Packed Mainroom once a month? Maybe it didn't. But in terms of influence, it's a thread that started sometime in the mid-80s and continues unabated to this day, meaning that it self-perpetuated, meaning that as an influence it was probably just as important as punk rock.

I don't even know where it started, really, so I can't even quite exactly trace the history of it. I know that when I came into it, in about '89 or '90, it was already in an early full flower. I know that as a college kid madly in love with post-punk / psych groups like the Bunnymen or the Church and 60s psychedelic and garage records, it spoke directly to me in a way that punk never did. I know that groups like the 27 Various and the Blue Up! and the Funseekers and Something Fierce and the Sedgwicks and Fauna and the Hang-Ups weren't hung up on LOUDFASTRULES like the local punks were and actually gave a shit about things like melody and songwriting. I know that they looked cool and a little freaky and like maybe they bathed once in a while. I know that in retrospect, despite the retro trappings they wrapped themselves in, they were actually way more forward-looking than Soul Asylum were.

And I also know that, as an influence, that thread continues completely unabated to this day. A lot of the people who jumped into that scene during that time are still around, still doing stuff, still vital, not just reforming once every five years for a big mainroom show so everybody can pat themselves on the back about how cool they were back in the day but are actually still making new, forward-thinking records. It's not a closed circle, a "back when" thing, but a still-evolving, still alive thing, which is far more than I can say about flannel rock, which is the proverbial dead horse that's been flogged and flayed until its carcass is rotting and bleeding.

I'd love to try to trace things chronologically and thoroughly at some point to show how these bands sprung up, influenced the next generation, died out, reformed, evolved, joined up with the next generation, moved ahead, moved on. From the perspective of someone vaguely within the scene, it seemed to come in multiple waves. I'll try to draw up a loose outline, here, just so you can see what I mean. And please note: I will forget bands. Okay? Do not take offense if I momentarily forgot your band because, as you'll see, there are a lot of them.

PROTO-WAVE: This is the wave I know the least about, because it was a little before my time. I was still listening to Howard Jones and trying to make my hair go into a Flock of Seagulls poof. The only band I really know much about is The Dig, and I'm pretty sure there was an early version of the Blue Up! back then too, right? Someone needs to help me fill in the blanks for this stuff, 'cause I wasn't there.

FIRST WAVE: '86-ish through about '91 or '92, maybe '93 at the outset. This was bands like the 27 Various, the Funseekers, the Blue Up?, the Sedgwicks, and I know there were a bunch of others. This was where I started going to local shows, so again, there were tons more and I'd love to have someone fill in the gap.

SECOND WAVE: '92-ish through maybe '95-ish. This was where I jumped on. Bands included the later 27 Various, the Blue Up?, Colfax Abbey, Shapeshifter, Deep Shag, Polara, Fauna, Hovercraft/Shapeshifter, Green Machine, Overblue, the Romulans, and what my friend calls the "Elfin Magic Set" such as the Hang-Ups, Autumn Leaves, Dearly, Jim Ruiz etc. Lots of bands on the Prospective/Clean labels and then lots of bands associated with Minty Fresh.

THIRD WAVE: '96-ish through maybe '02-ish. Polara (still), Lunar 9, February, Myriad, the Makeshift, Landing Gear, Passage, Faux Jean, Ousia, Idle Hands, the Meg, 12 Rods, Bec Smith, Basement Apartment, I guess you could count Semisonic though they're kind of in a space of their own -- lots of others I'm forgetting. Astronaut wife probably represents the last burst of popularity of this particular scene, including as it did lots of people from these other bands -- the first scene "supergroup."

FOURTH WAVE: '03-ish through now. The Susstones bands like Two Harbors, Polara, Blue Sky Blackout (yes, that's us), Mercurial Rage, the Mood Swings, plus the still-very-vital Idle Hands, the Melismatics, the newly-regenerated Fauna, BNLX, StrangeLights, First Communion Afterparty, Sun In The Satellite, etc.

I know I'm forgetting a lot of bands, but that's still a pretty impressive list of groups, and that's more than 20 years worth of amazing music, and a long chain of influence that has continued unabated. So why do people keep forgetting about them? Why, whenever people write about First Avenue and the local scene, does this pop / psych / dream / whatever chain of groups constantly get forgotten about? I think there's several reasons.

1. The winners write the history. There were a few bands out of this group who flirted with national success -- Polara, certainly, Semisonic, definitely, plus groups like Shatterproof, Jim Ruiz, the Hang-Ups and others who came damn close -- but of course none of them got to where the Replacements and Husker Du and Soul Asylum and the Jayhawks and the Gear Daddies did, and so those groups and their friends and the people who worked with them and hung out with them and wrote about them -- i.e. the flannel rock set -- got to write the history, and I think a lotta those bands were so insular and close-circled they didn't even know that the pop scene kids existed. And if they did, they didn't much like 'em. I remember the look Tommy Stinson gave me when Shatterproof played Edge-Fest. Let's just say he didn't look happy we were there.

Of course, this is talking about sheer numbers popularity which isn't often a measure of a band's or scene's importance, see also: THE VELVET UNDERGROUND.

2. The music press likes to suckle at the teat of punk. It's so true, and has always been thus. If you read the content of this here blog, you know I'm agin' it for a lot of reasons. It's not always true -- I'd say one of the heights of this scene's popularity was when Simon-Peter Groebner or Danny Sigelman were writing about it and trumpeting the bands on Radio K. But it's mostly true.

3. For some reason, punk was far more documented than this scene. Which is odd, as there are so many media-geeks in our scene, but I don't think anybody ever filmed any of my old bands in action -- there's zero Deep Shag footage, zero Lunar 9 footage, zero Medication footage, almost no Shatterproof footage. I'm guessing I'm not alone, either, and I really have no idea why. I mean, I'd love it if there was a video out there of some packed-house Various/Shapeshifter/Deep Shag show from the early 90s or a Makeshift/Myriad/Lunar 9 show at Sursumcorda or something from the late 90s -- but that shit doesn't exist.

And a lot of our records are out of print, too -- the labels folded, or we got dumped from our major labels, and you just can't GET, say, a Hang-Ups retrospective, or "The Best Of Fauna." The 2nd Polara record, which I played two billion times, isn't on iTunes probably because Interscope doesn't see any reason for it to be. And it's not like reissue programs are imminent to allow people to rediscover this stuff or properly rank and rate it. And that's a god-damn shame.

4. The music press, and the scene in general, perpetually regenerates young and caters to the progressively younger folks. And if you combine numbers 1 through 3 with that fact, you get a music press and a music fandom who weren't aware of this stuff at all, and probably, thanks to #2, think it sucks anyway.

I have to disclaim right here: I am by no means saying that the punk/flannel scene wasnt important, okay? So before you blow up at me for not liking the Replacements enough, please understand: I love those bands. I really do. I was always a Husker Du guy over the 'Mats, mind, but no question I loved those bands lots. I would never denigrate the importance of that scene locally and nationally. Okay?

My point is just that there was other shit going on, and every few years the entire city has a bout of amnesia and it was like none of it happened at all and we (the people still in that scene) have to come along and remind them that yes, there is a pop scene in Minneapolis and yes, it's important and pretty popular and quite damn cool and you should probably, if you're a member of the local press, notice it and occasionally nod to it. And then two years later, you'll all forget about it again and the cycle will repeat itself. And I'll be here to remind you, promise.

NOTE: My friend Brian correctly points out that these documentaries/articles/whatever never, ever mention the electronic and dance music scenes either, which is even more ridiculous in a way, considering a) how many people WENT to dance music nights at First Ave, and b) I'm guessing that's how they made their money for a long time, moreso than flannel rock shows if you know what I mean. That's a topic for someone else's blog but let me just say: I totally hear ya, dance music scene, we're there too.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Why Fauna Should Matter To You

For some reason, the reunion of early-90s Minneapolis noise/dream/psych-pop band Fauna last week at a special Sussed! night at Sauce did not cause the local press to go apeshit, and this bothers me. There should have been a City Pages cover story, a profile piece in VitaMN, and a twittersplosion the size of a small thermonuclear device. But there wasn't, and I need to fix this. Dear local press: Fauna should be super-important to you, and here's why.

The early 90s in Minneapolis saw the rise of a group of noisy, gloriously psychedelic bands, inspired by the shoegaze movement in the UK and the slow explosion of noisy indie-rock in America. Equally in love with their copies of My Bloody Valentine's "Loveless" LP and obscure garage-pop of the 60s, groups like Shapeshifter, Colfax Abbey, Hovercraft (and your author's own Deep Shag) and more began plying their trade in Minneapolis, charming the local press and attracting crowds of Brit-noise-obsessed fans.

To me, two of the very best bands of the scene, its Beatles and Stones if you will, were Polara and Fauna* -- which makes sense since Ed Ackerson and Tommy Roberts were production partners and shared common influences and enthusiasms. When I went to write a song for my band, Deep Shag (we were like the Gerry and the Pacemakers of the scene, or something, to continue the analogy), I always spent a half an hour with either the first Polara record or Fauna's awesome "Feral" first, just to get in the mood -- Polara had the melodies, the earth-shattering hooks, the sense of structure and exploration, while Fauna had a darkness, a kind of on-the-verge thing that made 'em a little scary. And both had slatherings of awesome, beautiful noise that turned my head in a different direction every time I heard 'em.

Apparently you can still order "Feral" direct from Twin Tone here:

...and better, you can listen to sound samples there, so you, too, can see how amazing the record was in 30-second chunks. How powerful and driving "Songone" was, or what a monster hook lived at the center of "Psychic Repeater," or how noisy and freaky and scary "Who Killed Flannel Rock" was. It's both a gorgeous, sonically amazing record and one that should give you a vague sense of unease or queasiness in the best possible way, the same way a record like "Their Satanic Majesties Request" does.

And they were a hell of a live band, too. I remember playing a gig with them at the Red Eye Theater (I wanna say Shapeshifter were the other band? I just don't remember) and being so bowled over by the layers of ever-shifting guitar noise that I wondered whether I'd gotten extremely high and just forgotten about it. 'Cause it was that brain-shifting and cool, really, and it seemed effortless, almost tossed-off, which was what infuriated me -- I was trying so fucking hard to be cool, and Tommy just reeled that shit off like it was easy.

The last Fauna song I remember hearing was a track called "Ultraviolet." You know how people describe having that moment of epiphany while they're driving and listening to a song where they have to pull the car over because they're so astonished? That's what happened to me with "Ultraviolet." I heard the song on Radio K -- I think it appeared on a benefit CD that you can't get anymore, so I only ever heard it that one time. And I had to pull the car over and just listen. I kept saying "That's the best song Tommy's written, I can't wait until the next album."

But the next album never came. Instead, Tommy Roberts became Zachary Vex (power letters -- it makes sense, yo) and morphed into one of the foremost producers of guitar pedals in the world that I can't afford:

He'd taken his love of gorgeous noise and went practical with it. Which was awesome, and just about everybody I know swears by 'em, and it's so great to see him succeed to such a large degree with a self-run business that's that cool and legendary. But I missed Z-Vex the songwriter and Z-Vex the producer. And when I moved back to Minneapolis from Los Angeles and noticed that he was out and about and hanging out, I thought "I bet ten bucks he returns to the live arena at some point, and I wonder if I can get a smegging copy of "Ultraviolet" from him finally??**"

And I was right -- he's back, and Fauna's back, and really, fifteen years has been far too long. They've got a proper gig coming up in June, and this time I had better see some local press falling over themselves, because they were one of the most important bands in town at one point, and were certainly one of the two or three seminal members of a scene that largely defined Minneapolis in the 90s.

Got it?

*...and the Hang Ups were the Hollies, and there's naught wrong with that.

** I couldn't. He doesn't have it, and nobody else does either. Does anybody here have it? Can you send it to me? Please?

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Apples In Stereo, "Travellers In Space and Time"

A few thoughts about the new Apples in Stereo LP, "Travellers In Space and Time."

- I have been singing the praises of disco-era Electric Light Orchestra for a long time. Conventional wisdom has the band starting to suck on "Discovery" (which snarky ex-band members refer to as "Disco Very" -- ha ha ha, assholes, you were the ones in the wide-collar suits, not us) but that's just leftover anti-disco sentiment bleeding through into a modern era that really should be beyond those prejudices, considering all the crap that's happened in the interim. Pre-"Discovery," ELO were a "headphone band," i.e. the kind of group you enjoyed whilst sitting on your beanbag chair with a bag of maui wowie and a pair of bulky 'phones, staring at the UFOs on their album covers and wishing our alien overlords would finally take over. On "Discovery" and "Time," you could either headphone 'em or dance to 'em, because they retained all the qualities (fiddly arrangements, nifty mixes, spacey ring-modulated vocals) that made 'em hi-fi geek fodder AND they inherited a highly passable four-on-the-floor. It sounds like music from the future, but a late-70s future -- imagine Gil Gerard as Buck Rogers boogie-ing in a flashy outer-space disco and you're halfway there. It's nifty stuff.

- Let's talk about pastiche music for a moment. Brief pause to define terms, from Wikipedia: A pastiche is a literary or other artistic genre that is a "hodge-podge" or an imitation. Rock and roll has always been about progress -- or at least, there's an element who would have you believe that rock music must always retain forward momentum. The music of NOW must sound like NOW and anything that sounds like THEN is pastiche and therefore less desirable or less interesting. Never mind that certain great rock songs -- "Come Together," say, or "Bohemian Rhapsody," to grab a couple randomly -- are basically pastiche. Never mind that ELO as a band basically trafficked in pastiche which at the time was called a pale Beatles imitation and now is recognized as forward thinking and entirely of its era. It's still seen as less desirable than music that sounds like TODAY (even though of course music of today is really just a series of influences filtered through modern technology or production techniques...but anyway).

I've always been quite forgiving of pastiche, obviously. To me, exploring a past or particular musical genre is just a vehicle for song delivery, and if you have the songs to back it up, how they're arranged -- if they feature instruments from a past style, like sitars or vintage synths -- is less important than whether the song is worth a great god-damn. In other words: if you have some killer hooks and great melodies, I don't care if you wrap your song in a chamber orchestra or tibetan throat singing. The key is the song.

- That all said, I have possibly underrated Apples In Stereo in the past because I didn't think they had the songs. To me, their albums sounded like exercises in genre exploration more than a collection of great songs. Sure, they occasionally produced excellent tunes -- I particularly loved "Signal In The Sky" off the Powerpuff Girls soundtrack, I played that over and over at the time -- and god knows Robert Schneider is revered as both a producer (Neutral Milk Hotel! Apples In Stereo!) and an outspoken proponent of cool music (The Smile-era Beach Boys! The Zombies!) but I've often found their stylistic imitation somewhat less good than the music they were imitating, which to me is a sign of unsuccessful pastiche.

- However, this new record? DOES NOT HAVE THAT PROBLEM. Basically, it sounds like the great lost ELO record from the "Discovery" / "Time" era, and drags in elements of other groups (Styx, Journey, the Cars, "Off The Wall"-era Michael Jackson) that I love, but manages to back that up with easily the best songs they've ever written. I mean, that's a tough one, trying to sound like unhip late-70s future-disco; you really have to have some magnificent songs to back that up, and if you're trying to create a dance groove, you also have to be totally comfortable with the elements of dragging people to the dance floor otherwise (I'm looking at you, BECK HANSON) you come off looking like a dilettante white boy, and that's bad.

But oh, the songs! There are six songs on here that should have been out-of-the-box #1 hits in some kind of alternate future where ELO's sound totally stuck and punk never happened. The best is "Hey, Elevator," which is every bit as good if not better than, say, an ELO dance classic like "Last Train To London" or "Shine A Little Love." But there's also "Dance Floor," "No One In The World," "Told You Once," "Nobody But You," and the left-field ballad hit "Wings Away," each one completely amazing, with unimpeachable melodies, fantastic hooks, totally plausible dance beats, and every detail in place from the vocoder backing vocals to the synth blips and bleeps. They're perfect. That's the only word for 'em. Successful pastiche? Yeah, when you actually manage to surpass the albums you're aping, I'd say that's successful.

Furthermore: even the filler tracks are great. "Dignified Dignitary" takes the riff from "Do Ya" and mutates it into a mod barnstormer. The bouncy "It's Alright" takes bits from sunshine pop and combines them with dancefloor breakdowns. And the brief, a capella "Strange Solar System" features Dalek harmonies singing one of the most sublime melodies I've yet heard this year. It's seriously fantastic.

- That all said, this album is so fucking fantastic it's making me think I might have underrated the Apples In Stereo's past work. I think I may have unfairly dismissed them as the Neutral Milk Hotel / Olivia Tremor Control's twee little brothers -- in fact, I know I did. And while I realize there isn't a precedence for this kind of disco/pop hybrid in their back catalog (it's far more 60s psych-pop based, if you don't know 'em), I wonder if I missed out on some melodies and hooks while pooh-poohing them. Once I'm done with this album, I'm gonna go back and re-listen and re-evaluate.

- Meantime, if you have any fondness for this type of music, or if you need some shit to get a party started, you need to check out this album pronto. It's the first album this year I can 100% wholeheartedly recommend.

Friday, April 16, 2010

A little bit about the new songs I've been writing

Tonight at Voltage 2010 -- you're all going, aren't you? Of course you are. That is, the ones that live in Minneapolis, everybody else I will forgive this time -- you will hear three newish songs. They stand out a little bit from the heavy psych guitar crunge on our single, and people have definitely noticed and mentioned 'em to us. There's a reason for that.

See, I've always been entranced by John Hughes films from the 80s. It's not just the films themselves, which of course can be assailed from all kinds of critical perspectives but are, as they say in the Rutles, elevated from beta-potential films to the primary proponents of aeolian cadenzic musical form (ha) by the fact that they were essentially our lives in miniature. That is: they're how we wished our lives were, or a kind of capsule version of 'em with hollywood gloss and wittier dialog and less puking into toilets and hoping your parents wouldn't hear.

But for years and years and years, it has been so damn uncool to admit that you liked the music from that era, and most particularly the music from those films' soundtracks. It has slowly become okay to admit you like, say, Echo and the Bunnymen, but to actually admit their influence into your songwriting is still uncool. Take a look at reviews from some of the bands that do like, say, the Editors or White Lies or Sweden's awesome Mary Onettes: to a one, they're all about "derivative" and "aping the sounds of the 80s" or whatever. Do a record that sounds like it was cut in 1968 and you're FUCKING AWESOME (hello, MGMT!). Do a record that sounds like the self-titled Echo and the Bunnymen record, though, and you're "derivative."

I guess it's 'cause we're not far enough away from that era to think that stuff is "forward-thinking" instead of "backward-thinking," or something, because that's what everybody does -- channel their influences into their songwriting in one way or another. Nobody exists in a vaccuum. It's just down to which influences are cool at the moment.

So what I'm doing is very specific: I'm writing the soundtrack to an imaginary John Hughes film. THE BEST JOHN HUGHES FILM EVER. It exists only in my imagination (and yours, if you want it to!), but it stars everybody from those films that you love doing awesome stuff that you wanted them to do. And it has a prom in it. There is definitely a prom in it. And the soundtrack is all Blue Sky Blackout, but of course it has to have the characteristics of the music of that era which are, in my opinion:

- Overarching romanticism
- Heaping dollops of sexy melancholy
- Either brilliantly post-punk major chords or achingly post-punk minor chords
- Swank, low-sung vocals
- Dance beats, so Molly Ringwald can do the "white-girl sidestep"
- Chiming, soaring guitars and thunking, driving bass.

So far I've written three songs: "Don't It Drag You Down," which traffics in the kind of optimistic psychedelic that Echo and the Bunnymen did in their heyday, "Figurehead" which is a kind of post-punk angular disco song like an aggressive New Order or something, and "Breaking Windows," which sounds like the prom song that the Psychedelic Furs never wrote.

I have more either demoed or coming down the creative tube into my head. But just so you know what you're hearing tonight -- I thought I'd throw my manifesto out there.