Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Smiths - Strangeways, Here We Come

The Smiths - Strangeways, Here We Come
by Ian Mathers

So what is the reputation of the Smiths like these days? I once read a theory (of whom I can’t recall) that the Cure had mysteriously turned into one of those bands that all budding music fans make their way through eventually, via old reviews and older kids, but do the Smiths receive same? Has Louder Than Bombs been pressed on anyone you know?

I'm genuinely curious, because they certainly didn't make up part of the milieu I began to get introduced to in high school, and because if the store I work at is any indication, there's not a lot of turnover in Smiths albums. The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Neil Young, AC/DC, Depeche Mode, and yes, the Cure, all have high turnover here in Guelph: people selling the albums once they're older and have less use for music, replacing them with new remastered copies. Young people snatch them up out of duty rather than devotion.

Part of it is that Smiths fans don't part with Smiths albums. Maybe if I worked in HMV I'd think the band was more a part of the current ad hoc canon, but as far as I’ve personally witnessed, the Smiths aren't much of a touchstone for generations past mine. This could be due to the fact that most of their albums nearly suck.

I'm not knocking the Smiths as a band; their Singles collection is one of the more perfect discs on my shelf, the true and lasting corpus of one of the great British bands of the 20th century. Anyone wondering what I'm on about would do well to check out Mark Simpson's faintly outrageous Saint Morrissey, which in addition to being entertaining correctly and lucidly posits the Smiths as the last in a particular lineage of British band. Among other things (and I know What Was It Anyway? uber-editor Todd Hutlock is with me on this), this entails that the Smiths were among the last bands whose the singles were the really important bit – at least as consumed objects. The albums weren't bad, but they're definitely cases of frustrated potential.

The Queen Is Dead seems to be the canonical choice, but to my mind it's the hardest to sit through because it indulges the Smiths' worst tendencies. Morrissey is so interested in being clever that he forgets to be either funny or touching: “The Boy With the Thorn in His Side” and “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” tower strikingly above the rest of the album (both singles, naturally), and if the Smiths had never released “Frankly, Mr. Shankly,” “Vicar in a Tutu” or “Some Girls are Bigger Than Others,” I would like the band much more. This is the tic that would go on to swallow Morrissey's solo career whole, and the reason his solo albums tend towards the insufferable (True Fans bleating about the lack of Marr notwithstanding). The Smiths is promising, both a great debut and very uneven, despite boasting “Still Ill,” one of the few truly great Smiths deep cuts, and the less said about Meat Is Murder, the better.

Strangeways, Here We Come, the one that even Wikipedia disses (“had this not been the band's final album, it would have been considered a transitional effort”), actually holds fine. Fittingly enough for such a perverse band, their finest record is also their most atypical.

The glaring thing that rarely gets mentioned, is that this is the least “Smiths-sounding” Smiths album. Again, Marr does all the synthesized heavy lifting under a dumb pseudonym, but those keyboards, synth strings and faux saxes make up a much larger chunk of the sound, to the point where the main sonic interest of “The Death of a Disco Dancer” is the vertiginous one-finger keyboard riff that grates through the back of the track.

Not that the sound is the only appeal; Strangeways, Here We Come is the album where Morrissey is at his funniest mainly because he takes all the songs straight instead of trying so hard to be witty. “Paint a Vulgar Picture” is more than glib record company shenanigans; coming directly after a song where the protagonist commits suicide, the beginning of the track appears to indicate a from-the-grave Morrissey imagining his reception after he's gone, before the rather bravura perspective shift halfway through. The Wiki-ilk must have missed the genuine anguish (some of Moz’s finest!) in “I touched you at the soundcheck / you had no real way of knowing” and the knowing venom in “This was your life, and when it fails to recoup / well, maybe you just haven't earned it yet, baby.”

It's an album chock full of death, a subject Smiths records hardly shrink from (“I Know It's Over,” “Suffer Little Children”), but it's never pervaded like this before. The survivor's/cad's guilt of “Girlfriend in a Coma,” the queasy, broken “Death of a Disco Dancer,” with it's devout hope for peace and love “in the next life,” the romantic homicides of “Unhappy Birthday” and “Death at One's Elbow” – it winds up infecting the rest of these songs as well, so that Morrissey's panicked assertion that he never lied to her in “Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before” feels like the same backpedaling exhibited on “Girlfriend in a Coma.” The immortal “Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me” (covered to great effect by Low) would have sounded deathly in any circumstance (and still does on Singles) but here it's positively funereal. Even the two more active tracks that begin the album that feature some of Moz’s campiest growling are more dour than the band’s usual.

And that's the key to my affection for Strangeways, how successfully it sustains mood. The singles here, “I Started Something I Couldn't Finish,” “Girlfriend in a Coma,” “Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before” (unreleased in England, due to a reference to mass murder and unfortunate timing) and “Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me,” don't stick out in the egregious way they do on other Smiths albums; I didn't hear Strangeways until long after Singles was assimilated and yet the whole thing flowed from first listen. There's a little sonic variety, some short up-tempo numbers, some lugubrious ballads, dissonances, consonances, and whatever the hell “A Rush and a Push and the Land Is Ours” is. But the deaths and leavings strewn throughout resonate in odd ways, rendering Strangeways, Here We Come bigger than the sum of its parts, a difficult mastery that the Smiths sadly learned only as they themselves broke apart.

Ian Mathers has written for Stylus Magazine, Village Voice and the world's biggest Philip K. Dick fan site. He is currently finishing his Master's degree in Philosophy at the University of Guelph and wishes he had more time to write about music.


Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Clash - London Calling

The Clash - London Calling
by Travis Morrison

I really do like the Clash a lot, but I cannot sit through London Calling and I have never witnessed anyone do it with my own eyes.

The Clash were a great pop singles band—the kind of band that is good for the two-CD box set. I think The Story of the Clash, a two-CD box set, is hot: I can listen to that the whole way through. Buddy Holly and the Police are two acts that also shined in the two-CD box. Smart pop overachievers are great on these, and yes, the Clash are smart pop overachievers like Buddy Holly and the Police. The rebel-chic thing is only a sign of how smart they were.

But like most smart pop overachievers—the Police!—the quality gulf between their hits and their other songs is big. This is why they don't deserve three CDs like Prince, or like nine or whatever is in that Ray Charles box. When Prince and Ray Charles exhale a bit and do some fucking around, they are such virtuosos that it'll be cool. That's why Prince's catalog is stuffed with hidden gems. That's why Prince's Sign ‘O’ the Times is the double album. Not all of it was built to dominate the culture, yet it all scores big. "Starfish and Coffee?" "Ballad of Dorothy Parker?" "Hot Thang?" Private and light music, no doubt. Not out to make headlines. But each one distinctive of its own merit, and worthy of anyone's time.

But bands like the Clash...when they don't have that dominate-the-culture wind in their sails that leads you to write big hits, they fall off. They don't have a lot of cold classics you don't hear in the street. What they do have is a sea of album tracks that sound the same. Would anyone really get excited to hear a mix CD that has this lineup:

"Brand New Cadillac"
"Jimmy Jazz"
"The Right Profile"
"Wrong 'Em Boyo"
"Koka Kola"
"The Card Cheat"
"Lover's Rock"
"Four Horsemen"
"Revolution Rock"

That's not a great set of songs. And that's half of London Calling.

The other half is amazing, no doubt. But if you're going to give me nine throwaways, I need to think, "you're throwing that away? Can I eat it?" like I do with Sign ‘O’ the Times, instead of, well, “that sounds like thirty of your other songs,” which is what I think as London Calling drags on.

I know it was a big thing for its time. I know, more-than-the-music, la la la. But that was then and this is now. I can't plow through that whole record and I've tried. I just pick and choose tracks, or wait for that new modern-classic-rock radio format to play the singles where they sound the best—in my car.

Travis Morrison fronted the revered D.C. quartet The Dismemberment Plan and currently leads the Travis Morrison Hellfighters.


Thursday, March 13, 2008

Radiohead - Kid A

Radiohead - Kid A (or How Radiohead Stole the Future of Music)
by Todd Hutlock

I’m fully aware that my strong dislike for Radiohead is almost entirely irrational. I don’t find them offensive or really annoying or anything like that. In fact, I don’t really think of them at all; I find them to be pretty boring, all told. With each successive OMG LIGHT YEARS AHEAD OF ROCK, BETTERTHANTHEBEATLESJAMMINGWITHCANJAMMINGWITHMILESDAVIS moment heaped upon their heads, my dislike grows exponentially. They’re okay. They aren’t bad. They have a few crafty-kinda tunes and they write a legit single every fifteen years, but beyond that, what exactly are they doing that hasn’t been done before? Often?

No, I think I dislike Radiohead so much because all of my peers, along with millions of record buyers and downloaders, are just absolutely sucked into their schtick and I just don’t get it. I never have. I was working college radio when “Creep” hit, and I liked the tune well enough, but by the time The Bends came out, they had lost me. Again, I didn’t dislike them; they just didn’t grab me, or even turn my head. I can’t even count the number of times I saw the “Fake Plastic Trees” video on MTV, wondering why in the name of fuck it got so much airplay. Where was the tune? It sounded, remarkably enough, both “fake” and “plastic” to me. Weepy Brit with goofy eye emoting for a few minutes with some marginal, blah stuff going on in the background that impressed some engineers. This is the future of music? I didn’t believe it, but as it turns out, I was wrong. It was exactly that. I fell victim to the backlash that never was.

The thing that really pushed me over the edge was the coronation of Kid A. Let me get this straight then: this is the future of music. Not the last one. Oh, okay. Straight in at the top of the charts without so much as a sniff of a hit single. It was like the world just decided they were sick of everything else. Melody, tunes, incentive to make records that make you feel good. Out. What the public wanted now? Well, let’s look at the public that wanted it:

a) disenfranchised indie kids looking for hope against the corporate machine
b) lonely, collegiate virgins looking to bond outside their lonely dorms, and oh,
c) aging critics looking to hang their hats on a Band of Their Very Own Generation before teh internetz showed them the door.

All the curious teens who check things out because their friend who’s “into” music said it was good, they bought it, hook, line, and sinker. But who listened first? Who decided this was good? Online leaks weren’t yet a given, and I can tell you from experience that advance copies were difficult to obtain, to put it mildly (fuck you very much, Nasty Little Man). But the thing flew out of stores without advance singles or anything other than a massive, stifling wave of hype from all the “right” channels.

Someone decided for us that this was great and revolutionary and sold you all a bill of goods. It angered me. This is not a great album. It’s not even Radiohead’s best album. Is it good? Well. It’s got interesting noises, the guitar player does some neat stuff, Thom Yorke doesn’t sing so much as mew, and they’ve been basically treading water since. Yeah, it’s good. But not nearly as good as its timing was. The time was the key. At the head of the decade, the music world decided they badly needed a Radiohead.

The only alternatives were nu metal, and teenpop, which hadn’t yet gained the stature in irony for Indie Love. What else was there for young white listeners looking to forge their own identity alongside all the other young white listeners? What could they unite over that still made them look independent-minded? As much as nu metal’s or teenpop’s, Radiohead’s audience was ripe for the picking and pick it they did. I can hardly blame them. I mean, Christ, if someone said I could wank around in a recording studio and release whatever I wanted for the rest of my life and making millions besides, I’d certainly take them up on it. Someday, more people will wake up and see what I see, that the last thing that made Kid A a hit was Kid A itself. The emperor has no clothes.

Todd Hutlock is an editor at some bullshit website.


Thursday, March 6, 2008

Smashing Pumpkins - MACHINA II/The Friends & Enemies of Modern Music

Smashing Pumpkins - MACHINA II/The Friends & Enemies of Modern Music
by Dave Toropov

I look out into cyberspace and can see the eyes rolling already. Billy Corgan & Co. have certainly taken a nosedive in street credibility in the past year or so, what with a ham-fisted Corgan gravedigging his old band from the burial grounds of rock’s retired and respected veterans. When finally unearthed, the body of his legacy turned out to be crippled and sans a limb or two (James Iha and D’arcy Wretzky), but Corgan decided to Frankenstein the group back together anyway with another token girl bassist and a quiet, compliant guitarist, tour the world, and release Zeitgeist in fan-manipulative fashion, with more exclusive and special editions than Terminator 2. It’s odd then to think back to the year 2000 and the single-finger salute to the record company establishment that is Machina II/The Friends & Enemies of Modern Music.

For however heinously Zeitgeist’s release was executed by Corgan, Machina II’s deployment into the alternative community’s consciousness was honorable and a significant precursor to Radiohead’s In Rainbows digital release commotion. Without the record company’s confidence that they could sell Machina/The Machines of God as a double album a la Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness in the twilight of the Pumpkins’ popularity, Corgan, in frustration, benevolence, or some concoction of the two, independently released Machina II on his own Constantinople Records, limiting the pressing to a strict count of 25 vinyl copies of the double LP release, with a collection of three 10-inch EPs to accompany it. Corgan then mailed the records to significant members of the Smashing Pumpkins fan community and told them to distribute digital copies of the album on the Internet for free.

What a fantastic story – nevermind that the album itself is one of the best things the band ever released. It’s a shame that 99.9% of the world will never know this album exists, because you would be hard pressed to find a more transcendent song in the Pumpkins’ catalogue than “Home,” a better Iha contribution than “Go,” or a moment that the group sounded more excited to rock out than the first ten seconds of “Dross.”

In the interest of not getting ahead of ourselves, this is not the Pumpkins best album. They never shattered skulls with the ease of Siamese Dream again, but Machina II is definitely their most intimate and charming hour. The Pumpkins have always been like a lion at your local zoo – an impressive, toned, beautiful animal that you could never be close to. Whether its because of the subtle clicks and pops of the endearing lo-fi distortion of the vinyl source or the audible studio banter between tracks, Machina II removes that veil, and as such the music within seems just a little bit more honest than that which came before it.

There is no doubt in my mind that even fans will skip a couple of the release’s combined 25 tracks – “White Spyder” sounds like a half-finished and formulaic chug-rocker and “Heavy Metal Machine” is pretty much a droning, self-indulgent mess. As a result, I defy anyone to get through the entire hour and a half of this effort in one sitting without at least considering putting something else on, but I also am positive that Billy Corgan wouldn’t be offended. Machina II is, more than anything, a love letter to fans, and the few duds present on the Pumpkins’ swan song are there in the interest of getting as much music out as possible before calling it a day. If anything, the group sounds liberated and confident without the pressure to produce a commercial record.

“Let Me Give the World to You” was apparently the album's intended single, and it shows all the hallmarks of a standard Pumpkins hit, with dreamy post-shoegaze chord progressions, whiny, yet oddly charming sighs and a chorus that sticks in your head despite sounding like every “1979”-esque Pumpkins chorus that came before it. However, the underground classic here is “Home.” For whatever “Let Me Give the World to You” achieves formulaically, “Home,” by contrast, sounds honest and touching, drawing from an aching, inevitable line like “Love is everything I want” repeated throughout. In its simplicity, “Try, Try, Try,” a track also released on the original Machina sounds exceptional in this context. While the alternate version of “Cash Car Star” that is provided sounds incomplete and bare in comparison to the final take, this version of “Try” benefits from less studio sheen, more acoustic guitars, and allows fantastic lyrics which Corgan unfortunately changed in the final version to shine.

For all it’s worth, it’s a shame that Billy Corgan couldn’t leave his band’s legacy well enough alone, because there’s no better way to walk out into the sunset than this album. It might not be their most important or influential record, but given the proper chance, it’s easily their most lovable, and at its heart Machina II/The Friends & Enemies of Modern Music showcases the Smashing Pumpkins at the very top of their game with some of the best songs they ever recorded. And it’s fucking free, for God’s sake.

Dave Toropov is currently a student at Bard College and a staff writer for Lost at Sea.