10 March 2009

Pretty Packages

(Well, with it sounding as if Rudy is going to be ok, I can concentrate on other things. Thank goodness. Portland fans are particularly fragile at this point in the season.)

Two separate events have led to this post. First, OMD dropping the "Enola Gay" lyrics last week on the Make-Ready. This made me start to think about OMD the band. Second, hearing a 3-play from the Beastie Boys during a "menage a trois" weekend on KUFO this past weekend. As it turns out, Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark and the Beastie Boys are both bands that have produced albums that I think are almost perfect. And by that, I do not mean that they are amongst the greatest albums of all time, necessarily. What I mean is that there is something truly wonderful about listening to them from beginning to end. What I mean is that they have a sort of integrity as a whole that I appreciate and enjoy. Here are five examples of what I mean:

The Best of OMD: Ok, it might be super-lame to include a best of album. But hear me out. The album is organized chronologically. And if you sit and listen to it over one sitting, you get to really hear the progression of the band (and I daresay it is representative of a lot of the electronica bands that formed in the late 70s/early 80s and stayed together through the mid-90s) from synth-heavy to synth/rock balanced. Think Depeche Mode. The difference between an album like Speak and Spell (which is probably unfair to talk about, since it so clearly is influenced by the contributions of Vince Clarke, but, well, you know) and an album like Violator is really the proportion of synth elements to instrumental elements, and, particularly, the obvious guitar presence. Anyhoo, it is pretty satisfying to hear that progression taking place over the course of one album. The other thing I like about this as whole is the fact that OMD is actually a strangely versatile band. You wouldn't think so, right? But there is a lot of variety. There are tracks that are clearly dance-y, some that are croon-y, some that are sort of epic sounding. (Well, epic in that alternative-dance-music kind of way). And they are a band that has been often experimental, either with their sound or in their lyrics. For example, I am always sort of surprised when I listen to songs like "Electricity" and "Telsa Girls." What kind of songs are these, anyway? I have a hard time figuring out what these songs are FOR.

For example. The song "If You Leave" is one of the most inexplicable pieces of music I can imagine. The comments that follow, of course, are influenced by the approximate 83 times that I have seen Andrew McCarthy get bleary-eyed over Molly Ringwald's fugly homemade dress in Pretty in Pink (arguably the movie I know the best in the entire world, although my knowledge of Heathers is also impressive). "If You Leave" is a completely inappropriate song to play at a prom, or any dance of any sort. Unless it is a dance where no one is supposed to dance. It is not fast enough to dance alone (you know, alone in a group) to. The lyrics suggest that it is a love song, but it is not slow enough to slow dance to. It's just a bit too dance-y. It's impossible. Whatever you do, you end up looking like an idiot. It makes sense that Blane and Andie go out into the parking lot to make out in front of some headlights (although it does not make sense why Andie cannot hold onto her purse and smooch Blane at the same time). They look stupid, but they look a lot less stupid than their classmates who are inside, trying to decide whether "If you Leave" is a couples or all skate.

The best song on this album, by the way, is "So in Love", which is almost in the middle of the CD version of the album. If you don't listen to the words, you might think that this is a super romantic song. It is not. It is cold and bitter. Sung sweetly. Good music for watching yourself cry in the mirror to. (I mean, I assume so. If you were into that sort of thing.)

License to Ill: This may be the only album that I own on vinyl, cassette AND CD. Really. I think it is one of the best ROCK albums of all time. Disagree. Go ahead. I've given you lots of ammunition in that statement. I get it. But it rocks. Hard.

But this is not why I like to listen to it beginning to end. I like to listen to it beginning to end because I also think that it is a great piece of storytelling. For years, I talked about writing an article called "Narrative Structure in License to Ill." I'm not ever going to actually do it, but I do think that it's fascinating. First of all, the narration is shared. This, of course, isn't weird given the rap/hip hop influences of the Beastie Boys. What IS weird though is that the narration itself is phenomenally linear and traditional. (And by traditional, I mean downright DWG traditional.) It is even folky. Seriously. Their stories often have clear beginnings, middles, ends. There is fairly little meta-discourse--fairly little editorializing. The "morals" come directly from the stories themselves. THERE IS NO DOUBLE CONSCIOUSNESS IN BEASTIE BOYS SONGS. This may be obvious. They are middle-class Jewish boys (were boys). It is a completely different narratological strategy from the tradition that they are, presumably, borrowing from. It's also part of the reason that the record has been sort of personally embarrassing to them. (More on this in a moment.)

But the narratives are shared. There are clearly three voices, but, arguably, only one perspective. Stories are dropped by one speaker and picked up by another. But the sense is that all three voices are in agreement about the events in the songs and the interpretation of those events. While there is some differentiation between the personalities, it is slight and rather one-dimensional. (Um, like Ad-rock is the sort of the kooky one.) What makes this especially interesting is what that perspective IS. It is the perspective of really, really dirt-baggy young men. It is about bravado, a lack of understanding of mortality or other consequences of action. It is about a lack of sensitivity. It is about a lack of responsibility generally. And what is awesome about that is that it is a kind of reflection of reality of a particular kind of guy. A guy who TOTALLY exists in this world, but rarely has an outlet (or the creativity or the native intelligence) to honestly express himself. I'm not saying that this was really who any of these guys were at the time. What they created was a self-consciously constructed narrative voice (in three parts). It is also not to say that it wasn't really who these guys were at the time. The reason that it works, and that it is convincing, is because there was some truth to it. But that is also why they felt a need to apologize to women (including their mothers and significant others) years after the album. It was offensive. It does suggest, and even say outright, some pretty awful things about women. I don't care. It's not like some boys (here I am being very intentional with my language) don't really say those things--further, it isn't like some don't really think those things. The expression of the ideas puts them on the table in a productive way. The fact that they are self-consciously constructed versions of those ideas (constructs that, in and of themselves contain some irony and self-mocking), make them somewhat more safe versions of the real-world attitudes that they represent.

Like a book of short stories, License to Ill presents its audience with a series of themes, and variations upon them. The album is littered with references to White Castle, slutty and criminal women, unnecessary violence. The repetition and variation of these themes over the course of the album creates a portrait of a dystopic white teenage wasteland. It isn't an accurate portrait of late 1980s Jewish Brooklyn or the Jersey suburbs, but it IS, it seems to me, an accurate portrait of how those environments might be perceived by dirtbag teenage boys, characterized by their extreme self-centeredness and myopia.

Plus, did I mention that it rocks? That it is completely listen-able? That it is often very funny and witty--on both the lyrical level and in terms of the sampling?

Abbey Road: To be fair, I suppose that I should remind my readers that Abbey Road might, in fact, be my favorite album of all time. Certainly it is my stuck-on-a-desert-island-with-only-one album. I'm starting to get really long winded here, so I will limit myself. The very best thing about this album is that it represents all of what the Beatles offered in their (relatively) short career. There is a good, and ultimately radio-friendly love song ("Something"), psychedelia ("Because"), a straight ahead rock and roll song ("Come Together") a MEDLEY!, and a goofy Ringo song ("Octopus's Garden", which, if you have been paying attention, you know was my introduction to the Beatles.) If I ever have a boy child, I will name him Maxwell. After "Maxwell's Silver Hammer." Is it a cliche to name a child after a Beatles song? Maybe. Do I care? No. Suck it.

Listening to Abbey Road, like reading the novel Frankenstein, is enriched by knowing the story behind it. Not only does it encompass all the facets of the Beatles' sound, it also has a narrative trajectory ("Come Together"--an invitation to gather, to "The End") and is made more moving by the fact that it represents the end of band altogether. This is part of the brilliance too of the John and Paul sides of the album. It is split in two. Two sides of one coin. Two different voices that must be contained, yet cannot be contained together. The metaphoric potential--

And, of course, don't get me started on the cover art . . .

Louder Than Bombs: Oh damn. Another compilation. I'm not very good at this, am I? But really, it's a lovely package. You might notice some themes by now. There is variety on this disc, right? You have the black songs like "Asleep" and "Unlovable", the dance-y "William, It Was Really Nothing" and "Sheila Take a Bow", and the super, super, super sexy "Hand in Glove" and "Rubber Ring." ("Rubber Ring" is one of the MOST sexy songs I can think of, actually. It's up there with "So Alive" and "Low" and "Hey Pretty"--but I digress.) Sure, often Moz's lyrics are completely self-indulgent and insipid, but they are accompanied by Johnny Marr's guitar, and what could be LESS self-indulgent and insipid than that? (Oh, Johnny Marr.)

And that's another thing about the album--that same yin/yang quality provided by the Lennon/McCartney partnership. There is something amazingly satisfying about what comes out of partnerships with tension. (Not interpersonal tension--creative tension. I don't believe that interpersonal tension is necessary for creative tension. So there.)

"Ask" is maybe my favorite song on the album. I'm shy! I'm coy! I need to be coaxed! If I were a sensitive dude, I would also spend my summer inside, writing poems to some girl in a European city-state!

You will notice that I am beginning to get rummy. I've been writing for a long time now. And I am also drinking afternoon beer. As a result, this is turning into a noticeably inconsistent post.

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
: In general, I am somewhat conflicted about Wilco and about Jeff Tweedy (who, mostly, I think is sort of annoying). And I know that this is an enormously popular album. But, really, it is lovely, from start to finish. I think that what makes this such a well-packaged album is the transitions. There is nothing jarring about them. One song feeds sort of seamlessly into the next. And it isn't that the whole album sounds the same (oh, does it? I don't think it does.), it is more that there is a strong internal logic to the tracks and the way that they are arranged.

The first time I ever listened to this album was the day after one of the most fun parties I've ever been to. It was at Jane's parents' house, which is, well, an unusual place. The party was HUGELY eventful. The next day, I went to Jane's, ostensibly to help her clean the place (we drank out of "real" glasses, so there was a lot of cleaning to do). But really, we spent most of the day sitting in the living room, with all the windows open, and the gauzy curtains blowing, listening to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot on continuous play, while we debriefed about the party for hours. The only thing that really marked the time was the way that the light changed in the room. We must have sat there for six hours.

Now, good memories related to an album is not enough to land it on this list. What does land it on the list is this: listening to YHF is actually just like sitting in a living room while light changes and a slight breeze rolls through. It is time passing without notice.

And it contains the cutest KISS-related song of all time, which always makes me think of Chuck Klosterman now.

Are you (the plural you) still reading? There are others too, but this is fairly representative of what I mean. When Chinese Democracy came out in the fall, Klosterman wrote that it was the last album that would be considered as a whole, thanks to our current music-delivery technology. I hope that isn't true. There is something about the whole of something--songs strung together with some sort of intention--that is, well, more than the sum of the parts. This is why I love (and fear for) the art of the mix--there is much that can be expressed in the art of the compilation.


qwanty said...

You are the best. This was great. So great that it took me several tries to spell this series of words correctly. Or that might have been the wine. And your article? On the Beastie Boys? Write it! The BS and I have a research agenda along these lines, and know of some like-minded individuals who might be interested in pursuing similar lines of scholarly interests.

Now, I'd like to comment further on the content of what you've said, but, you know, wine and all. So for now: well done!

KRD said...

Thanks, drunken Qwanty. I can't believe anyone made it through that whole post. I am almost afraid to ask what the second half of the first paragraph means? Perhaps we will have to have a meeting about this "research agenda" when you and the BS are in town. . .

Hey! You are coming to town!