Thursday, May 28, 2009

Why Led Zeppelin Doesn't Fly

Sometimes rediscovering an old favorite can be a rewarding experience. All of the hidden corners that you explored in the past show themselves in a different light, and ideas that were confusing or unclear are plain as day. Unfortunately as I put a copy of Led Zeppelin I on my turntable and watched the track names dance in circles, I was horrified to discover that I felt nothing. 
So I went through the other albums that I hold up as classics. Appetite for Destruction is just as monstrously frightening, Belle is as tender and jubilant as the first time I heard it and The Battle Of Los Angeles still scares the piss out of me. But something was wrong with that Zeppelin record. 
It starts out alright. Two big snare hits that show how tight this band can be, even on the first track of their first record. A two beat overture to describe what's coming. This is a band out to prove something and they're all great players, obviously in touch with their instruments. John Paul Jones bobs and weaves like Sugar Ray Robinson, and the Gatling gun that Bonham has hooked up to his bass drum seems to be firing smoothly. Paige squeals and moans, moving from one idea to the next, and Plant is hitting notes that only dogs can hear. These kinds of sounds coming out of a quiet suburban Hi-Fi in 1969 must have scared a lot of people.
But 45 minutes, nine tracks, and nine million notes later, I don't feel any different than I did before those two big snare hits. Everyone is listening to themselves, making sure their runs are cool enough, that their fills show just how much time they've spent practicing. The problem with this kind of introspective attitude is that it leaves no room to listen to the other musicians, let alone the song itself. 
If this was the only problem with Led Zeppelin I it would still be a great record. It's understandable to want to prove yourself on your first time, and even though it detracts from the depth of the album it's hard to hold it against them. The real problem with this LP is the swagger. It's not that Jackie Wilson type of swagger that is more endearing than arrogant. It's that hair band swagger, that Tom Wolfe swagger, that 2004 Oval Office swagger. It's the kind of arrogance that lets you know they're trying to cover up something they're missing. Something that you can't hide with guitar solo's or drum fills. And 45 minutes, nine tracks and nine million notes later I figured out what it was. Underneath all of the talent, all of the chops, there's nothing human about this record.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Cee-Lo Green, Selling Soul

Keeping musician's hours unfortunately means a lot of late-night TV. One of the most troubling aspects of this lifestyle is the infomercial. Those endless sales pitches voiced by mannequins with greased hair and polyester suits, triumphing the virtues of a product so poorly made that it will almost certainly break in the mail. They must work for some people, but for me the more they extol the virtues of their gadget the more obvious its flaws become. If it's so good, why do you have to prove it?
    Cee Lo Green is the P-funk of this generation. He has those grooves that sound like they're transmitting from a planet much funkier than ours, that verbose insight in his lyrics that George Clinton was so good at, and he follows the dictum of "Free your mind and your ass will follow" to the letter. While he's most often recognized as the vocal half of Gnarls Barkley, he got his start as a member of the Atlanta quartet Goodie MOB, a hugely influential (if somewhat unrecognized) southern rap group. After leaving them he struck out on a solo career with Arista Records, releasing two stellar solo albums: Cee-Lo Green & His Perfect Imperfections, and Cee-Lo Green is the Soul Machine.
    Released in 2004, The Soul Machine is almost unbearably funky. A bouncy rhythm section is augmented by huge, tight horn lines and deliciously discordant piano sounds. There is hardly time to listen to these niceties however, because Cee-Lo's voice sits on top of these arrangements like a king on his throne. He's incredibly flexible, one song he's Al Green, the next he's Ghostface Killa, then falling back to the tone of a modern Arthur Alexander. But he certainly doesn't need me to tell him this, he knows it, as he says himself:

How could possibly I possibly be inconspicuous,
When my flow is so fucking ridiculous?

His album is full of lyrical gems like this. His braggadocio is all-consuming on some songs, like "Childz Play" with Ludacris, where he says:
Yes I can sing, and I can rap
And I can act, and I can dance
And I can dress, sign of the best
So is my guest, man I'm impressed
Hurry hurry hurry hurry, come and see
This is just like child's play to me.

From anyone who couldn't back this up it would be come off as patronizing and arrogant, but Cee-Lo is so obviously all of these things that you find yourself agreeing with him.
    In the spoken word rap "Selling Soul", he talks about how no matter how noble your aspirations are, every artist is eventually doing just that, selling soul. Even someone as proud and strong as Cee-Lo says that "rapping sometimes feels like tapping to make a cracker happy". He's very much a salesman, he's offering himself on a little plastic disc. It's this kind of honesty that is the difference between a sales pitch and a boast. While my late night infomercials are bragging in order to sell something, what Cee-Lo is selling are the boasts themselves, because this braggadocio is who he really is.

36 Chambers and The River

It sounds like the beginning of a joke. "What do Bruce Springsteen and The Wu-Tang Clan have in common?" At first glance, ripped blue jeans don't look much like Du-Rags and it's certainly hard to confuse black and white, but when I hear The River next to 36 Chambers I can't help but think that they have more similarities than differences. 
Lets get real historical for a second. Springsteen has always been very straightforward about who influenced his music. 50's Rock and Roll, 60's Soul and Phil Spector Girl Groups all helped inform his sound, and The River is a great tribute to these styles. Listen to Sherry Darling and you'll hear a very deliberate nod to Gary U.S. Bonds and the style of music he created. 36 Chambers doesn't hide it's influences either. Listen to the samples that RZA used and you can hear what they were listening to, Syl Johnson on "Shame on a Nigga", Gladys Night on "Can It All Be So Simple", and the Charmels on "C.R.E.A.M.". Girl Groups and 60's Soul. These aren't just coincidences, Springsteen and RZA admire many of the same artists, and model their respective sounds after them. 
They also share the same audience. They both wrote music for the poor and disenfranchised in their neighborhood. Springsteen's songs were originally for the working class kids in southern New Jersey, a historically downtrodden part of America, and Wu Tang's songs were a shout-out to the poor ghetto kids in Staten Island, a historically downtrodden part of New York City. The uniforms are different and the era is different, but if you look closely the only thing that separates the two audiences is the color of their skin.
 Most importantly Springsteen and Wu-Tang are talking about the same thing. Both The River and 36 Chambers are records about the culture that surrounds the lower classes. Songs like the title track of The River or Wu Tang's "Can It Be All So Simple" capture the sadness in the world that these artists come from.  They're both frightening records, because they truthfully convey the desperation that comes with these lifestyles, but they're also joyous. Braggadocio is present in both albums, listen to Springsteen's "Out In The Street" next to "Ain't Nothin' Ta Fuck Wit". They're songs about being strong and proud from the perspective of a person from the streets. 
So if it's a joke it's got to have a punchline right? You have to know why the chicken crossed the road, or why the Rabbi and the Priest are in a bar together. I guess the payoff for this one, is: "Everything".  

Parliament's Punchline

Back in high school my English teacher told me about a guy named Aristotle, who divided literature into two categories, comedy and tragedy.  Maybe I misunderstood what he was talking about, because I have a very hard time finding the tipping point. Look at Comic Slop by Funkadelic, if you can classify that album you're not thinking hard enough. 
Funkadelic, the sister group of Parliament, was born from the backing band for George Clinton's Doo-Wop group, The Parliaments. Clinton had a knack for finding the most interesting and bizarre musicians, and a reputation for losing them as quickly as he found them. But in 1973, when Cosmic Slop was released, the line-up was impeccable. The chemistry between "Tiki" Fulwood's drums and "Boogie" Mosson's bass is undeniable, at their worst they're tighter than most other rhythm sections, and when they gel, they're a force to be reckoned with. The straight man of the group was Bernie Worrel, whose arrangements kept Funkadelic's otherworldly sounds grounded in reality. The combination makes it hard to decide whether to dance or genuflect.  
Cosmic Slop is ahead of it's time in the subject matter it covers. Since the advent of hip hop, visceral descriptions of ghetto living are commonplace, but in 1973 most songs used a much lighter touch when describing poverty. Funkadelic goes against this grain in the title track, where a mother asks god for forgiveness for having to prostitute herself to feed her children. It comes from the perspective of her son, who hears her "calling out to god" when she brings her johns home. It's the kind of song that really cuts deep, it doesn't offer any advice, it just makes it clear that there is a problem. What's confusing about the song is the funky, uptempo pace. It's talking about a tragic situation, but still compelling you to tap your foot and shake your ass. 
The same goes for "Trash A-Go-Go", another song about prostitution, this one from the perspective of a pimp, who is standing before his conscience anthropomorphized in the form of a judge and jury. Their verdict?

They say exploiting your lady,
Just for a payday is a sin, 
And you will pay,

But when getting over is high above your head,
And getting high can get you dead,
What are you supposed to do?

It's another song that doesn't have a solution. The situation is so fucked up, that it's hard to blame anyone for their trespasses. The beat this time is more militant, almost a death march, heavy eighth notes on the bass drum and an unrelenting snare make dancing feel less like a choice and more like the only option. 
It's desperation at its most desperate, but it's also a good time, an unavoidable groove. This is why I have a hard time finding the line that Aristotle drew. The sadness and despair is the problem and the way out is provided, in the grooves of the record. People can't suffer exclusively, the tragedy forces the comedy.  

The Lovin' Spoonful Growing Up

A reputation is a hard thing to break, ask anyone who went through middle school. Nicknames last forever and facts are't as important as impressions. In a lot of ways the world of Rock and Roll is a lot like middle school. Just ask the Lovin' Spoonful, still mislabeled as a pop sensation forty years after they proved they were more than just a pretty melody.

   Between 1965 and 1968 the Lovin' Spoonful released a barrage of unforgettable albums, the best of which being Everything Playing. It was the last album with John Sebastian as frontman and their first album with Jerry Yester, their new lead guitar player. Rock critics didn't like it. The trend at the time was big psychedelic constructions, music for acid trips, not three minute pop songs. It was pegged as obsolete and the reputation stuck.

   Unfortunately for the critics, here I sit 40 years later listening to a near perfect record. It's painfully honest, it's more precognitive than Nostradamus and it takes on fresh subject matter. Look at the challenge posed by "Try a Little Bit", a slow, dirty 6/8 gospel ballad, asking not for relentless struggle or total commitment, but instead just to even make an attempt. Or listen to "Money", an almost childishly simple interpretation of how finance works, that belittles the entire capitalist system, while using as typewriter as a percussion instrument.

    But there are two songs on Everything Playing that make the album really special, one about growing up and the other about growing old. "Younger Generation" is about maturing and trying to understand your kids. Sebastian writes from the perspective of a new dad about the lessons that elders try to teach their children, and while the song sympathizes with the father, it actually sides with the son, who is obviously more adjusted to a world that his father will never truly accept. The other song that stands out is "Old Folks" a bittersweet, understated description of an old man who lives entirely in the past, and the country that he used to love moving on without him.

When I started writing this article I didn't understand why Everything Playing was so harshly judged by the critics. A record this good should have competed with Sgt. Peppers, if not eclipsed it, but now it's obvious what the problem with this record was. Rock and Roll was still stuck in middle school, and the Lovin' Spoonful had grown up.     

The Open Door EP

I've got this room mate who spends about eight hours a day watching movies. Nothing counterculture or avant garde, just big budget mainstream comedies. The story arc is always the same: Character development, love interest, conflict, happy ending. But this is standard for hollywood, it would be unrealistic to expect anything else. What's really unsettling is that the jokes within this structure follow a few basic patterns, never deviating. It's like a formula where the same numbers are plugged in everytime.  
Death Cab for Cutie recently released a pop EP. The Open Door has everything that you need to be widely accepted, big hooks, big vocals, loud drums and catchy melodies. Ben Gibbard's voice sounds strong and confident, even at it's most vulnerable. The push and pull between a laid back drummer and insistent bass player makes for an intriguing band dynamic without distacting from the more poppy aspects of the songs. Chris Walla's guitar is the most avant garde contribution. It sounds dangerous, loose and frightening in a very powerful way. 
Death Cab for Cutie's newest EP has loads of mainstream appeal. They discuss familiar themes, songs about how hard it is to find and keep love, about the pitfalls and misunderstandings of commitment; certainly not new subject matter. Any of the topics that Gibbard writes and sings about can be heard on a plethora of previous recordings. In fact, turn on the radio and chances are you'll hear somebody talking about something pretty similar.
But like I said, it's only halfway mainstream. In my roomate's case the jokes all follow a formula and the punchlines are fairly predictable, so that you know just when to add your own laughtrack. Death Cab does not conform to this particular aspect of the mainstream. The punchlines are surprises and the jokes are unfamiliar. Like in "Little Bribes" where Gibbard describes a slot machine as "a robot amputee waving hello", or in "I Was Once a Loyal Lover", a self-effacing assault, where he describes himself as someone "Who thinks that that life with a nice girl/Is like waiting for a bus to work." Lines as descriptive and unanticipated as these are what seperates Death Cab's music from the people on the radio, and what distances it from the mainstream.
It might seem repetitive to write songs about topics that have been covered before. There are so many new ideas to discuss and so much new ground to cover. But as much as Death Cab's songs are about familiar topics, the way they communicate them is entirely unexpected. The funny thing about old ideas is that an unfamilar description can change them. A new perspective is just as good as a new thought.  

Jerry Lee's Eulogy

I guess I'm just a contrary motherfucker. This would explain why a two star review of a Jerry Lee Lewis record is an incentive to me to buy it. 
A decade after his big hits for Sam Phillips, Jerry Lee Lewis released an album called There Must Be More to Love Than This. He was freshly divorced from his cousin and had fallen out of favor with the mainstream, due to his aggressive self destructive nature. He was a punk musician before America knew what to do with one. 
in 1971 Lewis's new label Mercury had a fresh sound for him, with big background vocals, loud upright bass and tight arrangements. High production value and better recording techniques make this records feel more like Nashville than Memphis, but the Killer's voice reminds you that nothing's changed.
Maybe it is a two-star album, there are certainly a few clunkers on it. I think it's more likely however, that that the critic didn't listen through to the end. Hidden at the tail end of the record is a tune written by Jerry Chestnut called "Home Away From Home". It's a kind of monologue from the point of view of a unfaithful man talking to his mistress. He tells her he knows what he's doing is supposed to be wrong, but every instinct tells him that this affair is much more real than his wife at home. 
It's a painful song and Lewis doesn't let his natural showmanship interfere with its fragile nature. It's a lot like Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come", where Cooke avoids his old tricks and instead relies on the song and his voice. Jerry Lee doesn't do his signature vocal trills, his right hand hardly touches the piano, and there is no boast in his voice. He's being so honest that theres no room for swagger.
With "A Change Is Gonna Come" you can tell why the song is so important to the singer, the civil rights movement and hundreds of years of oppression are readily apparent in every note, but at first it seems strange that the Killer cares so much about "Home Away From Home". He's sung plenty of songs about infidelity before, why does should this one feel so special?
The easy answer is his recent divorce. After 13 years his third marriage had finally fallen apart, and you can hear some of that in his voice. But that doesn't feel likw the whole story, it doesn't feel like a song about loss. 
It feels like his eulogy.
By right I guess I've been doing everything wrong
And it may not be the proper thing to do
But I can't find this kind of peace of mind when I'm around her
I'm more at home away from home with you

It sounds a lot like the life Jerry Lee chose for himself; One that isn't supported by society, that's bound to make people angry. It's a description of how it feels to go against the grain, to live the life of a contrary motherfucker.