28 November 2006

dad-rock, rvstd.

not sure why i've been posting diligently on the parent blog and mostly ignoring this site since i've been home; it's not like i don't still think about music constantly. don't feel like i'm supposed to be writing as casually here, even though i could (should?)

mused the other day about why i'm so much less interested in making music these days than i used to be; not just that my overwhelming focus on other people's music, in a general sense, both distracts me or controls so much of my attention and also leaves me uninspired to create my own (being so cognizant of the greatness and sheer volume of music that's already been/being made) - but also more specifically that i'm not as interested in the kinds of music i spent my first 20+ years learning how to make (mostly classical, jazz, and rock.) not that i don't still like those, but i'm much more interested at this point in soul, electronica, and pop - a shift that i was of course aware of, but whose full extent it's difficult to determine precisely. by pop i really do mean as broad a category as imaginable, which envelops a lot of soul (pop) and also co-opts a fair amount rock. mom protests such breadth makes the word meaningless, but actually that expansiveness is a lot of the point.

doesn't completely answer the charge, since there's plenty pop i could feasibly create myself, and of course could learn new tricks and branch out further, and anyway one doesn't necessarily have to or even want to be making the kind of music they want to listen to. (maybe the contrapositive.) (and i really need to cut my fingernails if i'm gonna keep at these bach inventions.) creativity-wise, i probably want to aim myself somewhere between night ripper and the fabulous new dj-kicks by henrik schwarz. let me meditate on that and get back to you.

next question: does my focal shift popwards - which is a shift in addition to a mere broadening of scope - mean that my musical taste is getting worse? obviously that's not a question i would phrase (taste ain't a question of good and bad), but objectively as-it-were, i do feel like i've drifted away from caring about certain things in a way that renders me out of line with any given critical consensus. like, used to be i was more or less down with the pitchfork agenda, and it's not so much that i'd rail against it now as i'm not so sure i care. things have gotten too complex to be neatly contained. the more interesting way to ask that, i think, is am i less useful for other people as a barometer/reference for musical opinions than i used to be? i think maybe so. to be blunt about it, dance-pop and electronica are not very popular.

and now, as promised: dad rock, revisited. since the term does such a bad job of meaning what it means, which i also want to talk about (q.v. the second half of this post which should have really been two posts)...i think i want "dad rock" to mean the rock that my dad listens to. which just so happens to includes spoon and the new pornographers and liz phair. on dad's desk when i got home were unopened copies of the new albums by bob dylan, paul simon, and los lobos. which is a good reminder that this kind of dad-rock also means the music that at least used to be my favorite favorite, that was back when i was living with my dad.

well these guys are way past old enough to be dads, obv, and worth now taking a look not just trying to account for a "mature" audience demo, but also how check they're navigating the contradictory currents of maturity and rock-and-roll for themselves; forging territory as fresh in its way as rock itself was thirty or forty years ago.

it's probably not supposed to be a surprise that modern times is really good. but i was, kind of giddily, take me by surprise how enjoyable, and manifestly of-quality, on first listen. thing is i didn't really like love and theft, though maybe i just didn't want to give it the necessary attention - something hard-to-articulate annoying about the songs themselves, somehow. did love time out of mind but that was ages ago (and isn't it really quite different?)

anyway, kind of cagey of b.d.(world gone wrong and good as i been to you - faves of my pops' - notwithstanding) to pull this "oh yeah, that's right, he's a folk musician" schtick, as if all those years as a capital-r rock god were just dabbling or moonlighting. (i remember being naively confused when dylan unplugged came out - "doesn't he usually play acoustic anyway?" - well, i was twelve.) but i ain't complaining - this is certainly the best blues album i've heard in a long time (not that that's saying anything), and he sounds like he's earned it. (whereas last album, maybe, it didn't feel quite so convincing.)

the credits say "ALL SONGS WRITTEN BY BOB DYLAN," which is rather amusing. (still not complaining.) and there are a lot of funny jokes in the lyrics too. ("i can't go back to paradise/i killed a man back there" is just the first to stick in my mind.) i'm not sure whether the title is a mediocre joke or just a lazy title. likewise the alicia keys ref. anyway it's clear that bob dylan can age as smoothly as he wants just by doing what he's always done, especially now that we're enough decades into rock history that one really can do anything one wants. (which is also not a complaint about street legal.) okay, i feel about as unqualified to talk about dylanology as about art history. fun album anyway.

surprise (whose title is clearly a lame joke and a lame title) is also a fairly pleasant one, if not so unambiguously. it's sounding better on repeated listenings - and markedly better on even this busted hi-fi than on computer speakers upstairs, so i bet it's fun in 'phones. i'm not quite convinced about the union of paul's steez with eno's bleepiness, at least it doesn't have the preternatural naturalness of the brazilian and african collabos (which are all the more impressive when you stop to think about them.) which doesn't mean it's not fun - i especially like the part (in "once upon a time there was an ocean") where it sounds like it's going to break into "a higher state of consciousness" - though predictably it's too tasteful to really be fun.

basically, paul doesn't make many if any concessions in his writing for this potentially sorta unique circumstance, which is to say electronica-nuanced, er, "textured" singer/songwriter music. certainly he doesn't embrace it in the unabashed manner of davids bowie and byrne (see earthlings and feelings though maybe heathen is a better template for how this might have worked), though it's obv. better integrated than yr standard sticking a drum-loop under any given late-90s AC artist. on the plus side as far as that goes, these are "complexly" structured songs, linear and fluid and fairly far from VCV, which allows for nicely delineated 'sections', texturally. on the minus side, paul doesn't give brian a lot of melodic or rhythmic content to play off of; there's a lot of him pontificating poetically on top of the music without completely engaging with it.

all of which is to say that the songwriting style hasn't changed that much since you're the one, which itself was an extension of his approach on rhythm of the saints. simon used to be quite a respectable pop writer (way more than dylan ever was, for sure), as well as a poet - even hearts and bones had "cars are cars" - but it's been twenty years since graceland, and i assume he doesn't want me talking about the capeman (which might be pastiche pop anyway. oh wait that's all he ever does. oknvrmind.) the contender here would be "outrageous," which is genuinely funky/funny, but when you get down to it never quite manages to deliver a hook.

anyway i guess i could stop being disappointed that, experiments with form aside, simon isn't very interested in melody anymore. otherwise there's not too much to be disappointed by on this album. the lyrics are classic simon, thoughtful and sweet and clever, if at times too much so for their own good. hard to say whether i'd forgive it more after repeated listens; you're the one just sort of made me resent it, but this one seems more personable. it's not like paul simon hasn't been pretty lame for thirty-plus years anyway (graceland an obvious fluke.) from dylan, too, one can't exactly hope for rawk.

los lobos on the other hand. well, they probably haven't rawked as hard as their debut since (and even that just barely felt like it belonged on a label called "slash.") but still i (foolishly?) cling to the 'america's best rock'n'roll band' tag, in hopes that they'll forget "rock'n'roll" itself is nothing if not respectable these days. anyhoo, the town and the city turns out to be as tame and tepid and MOR in affect as their last three-four albs. wouldn't have expected anything different, except the reviews suggested that maybe i could. so no great shakes. (still...9th best reviewed album of the year?)

for the record lobos did rock, indeed rawk, with a vicious grit, on for example parts of kiko and colossal head, their mid-90s career-pinnacle duumvirate. but not since, that i've heard (live doesn't count), and not here either. neither is this anything like the captivating experimental sonic playground of those froom records, even if it is "textured" (that word again) in more interesting ways than the last few. that'd all be fine enough, but it just feels like they've been remaking the same album over and over lately. there's so little inspiration in the songwriting here. i guess there's one or two half-decent melodies (the clock-watching "if you were only here tonight"?), but really nothing stands out. except for the latin cuts, which stick out like sore thumbs - they're tokenistic rather than integrated into the record as a whole (as fr'instance on kiko) - does the obligatory cumbia really have to be labelled as such? (the one on the strokes album isn't!)

i'll buy that this is a little step up from the ride and aztlan and this time (for which i do have a soft spot even though i recognize it's fairly weak.) the loose concept - these songs are more or less about lives of ordinary people living in the titular communities - works out nicely, but i can't help feeling like they're using the premise of glorifying the common man as an excuse to make some pretty pedestrian music. (i haven't heard chavez ravine, for instance, but i'll bet it finds way more interesting ways to explore its similar themes.) would i have liked this if it came out in 1999? probably so - then again it would have had less to make up for.

while i'm on the subject, this is probably a good place to bring up a river in reverse, another, more successful, return to form/my good graces effort from a fallen-off fogey. (the information could probably count here too, 'cept i'm not sure it's actually that good, plus my dad isn't into beck.) if i'd thought it through, i needn't have been too fearful, even though i was mightily underwhelmed by elvis' first album this year my flame burns blue: it's crucial to realize that flame was a jazz album while river is a soul/blues album, and though one might be inclined to blur the distinctions between those genres when the same bloke trades in both in a single year, especially since they both have horns and such, it's clear that "jazz" (and especially "jazz orchestra") is shorthand for "high-falutin' faux-sophisticated dilletantish nonsense" whereas "soul" (a.k.a. r'n'b) signifies "low-down rootsy funky rock'n'roll goodness." besides, after all, allen toussaint is co-credited, and you know he's not gonna lead our man astray.

i know i'm biased, because it came out just before the height of my elvis-fandom-mania, but all this useless beauty marks a clear endpoint after which el's career proceeded in a markedly different fashion. not only did he no longer release only unambiguously great albums (gcw, shhhh), he no longer released "normal" just plain elvis costello albums. starting with 1998's fine but overrated and samey, my god, bacharach collabo, everything had a gimmick, everything felt, on some level like an exercise; everything was the kind of album it was first and foremost, and a collection of songs only after that. even when i was cruel, the "return to rock" album, was "the return to rock album." and see, the so-called "follow-up," the delivery man (easily el's best since atub, btw) wasn't just that but also "the rootsy album."

building on the strengths of that strong release, this is yet again the closest he's ever come to an album of straight-up funky soul, a genre he's been making his love for amply evident ever since get happy!! and it's pretty damn close, thanks to the crack band of actual soul musicians and a half-album's worth of actual classic soul songs (as well as oodles of heart-searing piano playing) by mr. allen toussaint. so i really should stop talking about this like it's an elvis costello album. (and i should also take the reminder that his soulfullest previous cut could only have been the toussaint-assisted "deep dark truthful mirror.") actually, part of what makes this album work so well is that elvis only wrote one and five-halves of the songs, enough that his familiarly arch, trenchant wordplay is plainly evident ("an uncivil war divides the nation" grabs my ear every time) but not so much that it becomes distracting or overbearing, a huge potential pitfall in purely costello soul. (it's hard to be too soulful if you're focused on conveying every half-witty pun and snarky turn of phrase.) which isn't to suggest that toussaint's writerly contributions aren't equally smart - to the contrary, they more than hold their own, and his voice is unmistakable throughout even if he only actually sings an occasional harmony vocal.

i would describe this as a beautifully balanced record, not just in terms of the two principal collaborators' contributions, but also for how well the lusciously soulful musical performances and arrangements complement costello's strong vocal work, and vice versa - all sides attracting deserved attention without detracting or distracting from the effect of the whole. elvis has stumbled into his fair share of stiff mannerism lately in the name of good taste - but there's nothing clinical or stuffy about this record, proof that sometimes pedigrees count for something and good taste can taste just as good. i'd say this is easily the best of the bunch i've been discussing here, but i know you'd just accuse me of favoritism.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'll trade ya a copy of marit for bob!