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June 27, 2008

A Cry for Sanity

Filed under: Pop Life — Tags: , — Alex Rawls @ 7:59 am

Boy, Metacritic’s scorecard suggests there is some seriously overheated love in the critical world for the reissue of Dennis Wilson’s Pacific Ocean Blue. I don’t remember the album being anywhere near this well received when it was first released in 1977, though Ben Edmonds’ liner notes suggest I’m wrong. Since I don’t have any record guides in front of me to confirm my recollection, I’ll have to leave that there, but the effusive praise for the album (”It’s hard to talk about the opener, the Carl Wilson-assisted “River Song” in anything other than the very terminology it deploys: rising torrents of gospel harmonies, the freshwater piano trickle that starts the thing off; and the unstoppable current of Wilson’s voice, blurring nature and love into an irresistible all-consuming force. – Peter Paphides in Uncut) feels a lot like critics playing catch-up to the Beach Boys/Wilson catalogue. Supporters and naysayers alike embrace the album’s opener, “River Song,” but there’s no song on Pacific Ocean Blue that stays with me like Dennis’ “It’s About Time” and “Forever” from Sunflower.  On the other hand, Glorious Noise’s track-by-track insta-review misses the big picture, where is where my affection for the album lies.

As much as I love the Beach Boys’ music that defined the band, the music I return to most are the post-Smile albums, when the drama of the band’s existence is coded into the recordings. Your genius can’t be depended on, your relationship to your signature subject matter is strained, and you can’t agree on how to fit into the changing times. The albums all wobble – even Sunflower and Surf’s Up – but they all have moments that are sublimely beautiful and/or real in a way that differentiates them from the Beach Boys’ more magical recordings.   

Pacific Ocean Blue works the same way for me, though what I hear is a guy struggling through hard times. It’s not as bleak as other bad times touchstones like Sister Lovers or anything by Elliot Smith, but the rasp in his voice and the worldweary air define the album far more than any individual song. The more cheerful moments – “What’s Wrong” particularly – feel forced, and the melancholy “Friday Night” and “Time” sound like they come naturally to him at this point. And how bad have things got when “Friday Night” is this much of a bummer?

There are touches everywhere to buzz Beach Boy obsessives – the beautiful, Brianeque orchestrated transition two minutes into “Time,” and the sweet harmonies that end the choruses of “You and I” that hang like haze as guitar stings flit around - but, bluntly, it ain’t all that.

The two-disc set is accompanied by the unfinished Bambu, which is only of interest for Wilson completists. It has developed a cult, but I suspect it’s a cult borne of hipper-than-thouness rather than the album’s merits. While Pacific Ocean Blue sounds like someone going through a tough fight with the bottle, drugs and life, Bambu sounds more like someone who has stopped fighting and settled for the average ideas that came to him. It still has its moments – the desperate vocal in “Love Surround Me” – but it’s not the selling point.

In a way, Pacific Ocean Blue is better than much of the Beach Boys canon. Like the Kinks, the Beach Boys left behind some great singles but less than a handful of albums that argue convincingly end-to-end for their greatness. Everything else requires selective listening, overlooking the sentimental and reactionary tracks to focus on the ones that encapsulate everything good about them. Fortunately, there are a lot of those tracks in both bands’ catalogues. Pacific Ocean Blue is more sonically consistent and has a more unified mood than anything after Sunflower - but that still not that big of a deal.

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June 26, 2008

Credit Where Credit’s Due

Filed under: Pop Life — Tags: , , — Alex Rawls @ 6:15 am

In one of my posts about Kidd Jordan, I wrote that none of the city’s cultural organizations besides Anxious Sound had paid proper attention to Jordan. Cree McCree reminded me recently of a note she contributed to our Jazz Fest wrap-up that called for an Anxious Sound showcase at Jazz Fest, much like the Ponderosa Stomp showcase this year. I second that emotion. Jazz Fest has booked Jordan many times, but it rarely puts him in a sympathetic setting, instead sandwiching him between acts that emphasize his out-ness. It would be nice to have Rob Cambre curate at least part of a day and present cutting edge jazz and improvised music in contexts that help listeners understand it and Jordan. 

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June 25, 2008

Space is the Place

Filed under: Pop Life — Tags: , , , , — Alex Rawls @ 6:30 am

Lil Wayne has often referred to himself as an alien (as in Martian), and doing so on Tha Carter III has prompted writers to revisit the theme of the Afronaut, one Kandia Crazy Horse uses as her launching pad for an essay she wrote for us for the upcoming issue. At Slate, Jonah Weiner wrote “Lil Wayne and the Afronaut Invasion,” where he says:

Many white rockers—Pink Floyd and David Bowie, most prominently—have taken to the cosmos for inspiration, but space has played a particularly vital role in the articulation of African-American musical identity. As a worldview, Afronautics began to take form in the late 1930s with a Birmingham-born college student named Herman Poole Blount. While meditating one afternoon, Blount said, he was beamed to Saturn by friendly aliens, who explained that his purpose in life was to speak truths of the universe through music. By the late 1950s—around the same time that Sputnik went into orbit—Blount had renamed himself Sun Ra, claimed Saturn as his true birthplace, and formed an elaborately costumed jazz collective called the Arkestra, specializing in noisy jams full of chants about space ways, satellites, and, in one of Ra’s most-quoted formulations, “other planes of there.” In songs, poems, and interviews, Sun Ra mapped out the fuzzy contours of his philosophy, which combined mystical futurism with an interest in ancient Egyptian civilization, and found sympathetic ears among avant-gardists, psychedelia heads, and hippies.

For a dizzying analysis of Afronautic spirituality, read John Szwed’s Space is the Place, a biography of Sun Ra that reveals the roots of Blount’s philosophy, some of which spilled over into Rastafarianism (Check Culture’s “Black Starliner Must Come”).

At Zoilus, Carl Wilson analyzes Lil Wayne’s use of the device:

This self-exoticization is a sort of reclaiming and reversal of the treatment of talented black people as freaks, and I wish I’d discussed it in my review because my discussion of him as a wildly atypical pop star could be critiqued as falling into the exoticization trap too. But I think that Wayne is very deliberately raising and promoting this image, just as Clinton and Sun Ra did, because it can be a liberating place to operate. By freeing himself of his context he frees himself of rules and expectations. (Unlike Ra or Clinton, though, he does try to have it both ways by keeping up his New Orleans bonafides, especially since the hurricanes, another rich vein of contradiction to explore with Wayne.)

Interestingly, the discussion of Afronauts so far have omitted Labelle – Kandia’s subject – and Hendrix, who weren’t as overt in their lyrical explorations of African American-as-Alien, but who sonically and visually presented themselves as artists from the planet Out There. There are few ideas in the ParliamentFunkadelicThang that you don’t find in Hendrix, and Michael Hampton’s post-Hendrix guitar playing gave Clinton’s music a freaky dimension previously unheard in funk.   

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June 24, 2008

New Old Pop

Filed under: Pop Life — Tags: , , — Alex Rawls @ 8:46 am

Some good ol’ guitar-oriented pop:

De Novo Dahl: Move Every Muscle, Make Every Sound (Roadrunner): I love the Polyphonic Spree-ness of “Shout” and lose interest pretty quickly afterwards. It’ll be on my iPod and tapes I make for my wife for her car, but it’s hard to imagine returning to anything else on it.

 Sloan: Parallel Play (Yep Roc): I can’t argue with anyone who find this a little pale next to Never Hear the End of It, or even those who find Sloan a little pale. They’re Canadian formalists; what do you expect? Still, Parallel Play crystalized something for me; I now hear them as being like the Raspberries, influenced by Beatles-era pop, then fascinated by the ways that music can be taken apart and reassembled. Ultimately, pop music itself is the subject of the Sloan’s albums; the fact that it also delivers pop pleasure is the byproduct of a fairly brainy exercise. I can listen to the sugary “Cheap Champagne” and “Witch’s Wand” over and over, and I like the belated embrace of the Modern Lovers on “Emergency 911″. The album’s a little short on great (or even really good) moments, but I’m amused by the way they take a line from Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and make ”Down in the Basement” a literal track about growing into domesticity playing rock ‘n’ roll.

The Ting Tings: We Started Nothing (Columbia): England seems to have an endless supply of just-figured-out-what-to-do-with-the-instruments dancy pop bands, and the Ting Tings are another one. Katie White has a winning brat on the street vibe that carries almost anything with half a hook. Still, listened to as an album, you get over it. I’ll return to “Great DJ,” “Shut Up and Let Me Go” and “Keep Your Head” and skip “Traffic Light.”

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June 23, 2008

On the Road Because …?

Filed under: Pop Life — Tags: , , — Alex Rawls @ 8:01 am

This passage by David Freedman from WWOZ’s “OZone” newsletter was brought to my attention this morning:

Why does WWOZ go on the road for these remote live broadcasts [at Bonnaroo and Telluride Jazz Festival]? It’s our relentless support of live music, in our desire to showcase the likes of Dr. John, the Nevilles, George Porter, Henry Butler, Trombone Shorty, the Dirty Dozen, Wolfman, Big Sam — at their most spontaneous, creative New Orleans best, direct from festivals and clubs around the world. It’s our desire to help publicize these remote outposts that give our musicians work and additional audiences. It’s our commitment to deliver to our listeners a multitude of magical memories and to spend time with all those who have New Orleans in their heart. We find them everywhere — Detroit, California, the Virgin Islands —everywhere.

First, doesn’t it seem like shows that present the musicians at their most creative and spontaneous would be here, where there’s no schedule, no closing time, familiar audiences, and the music is integrated into their daily lives?

… and publicize Bonnaroo? Is a visit from the WWOZ mobile broadcast unit really the thing necessary to help this junior league, word-of-mouth festival hit the big time? Does ‘OZ really think the festival with musical and professional roots in New Orleans will suddenly forget about us if not for the intrepid mobile unit to the rescue? Considering what a good market Colorado has been for New Orleans music, It’s similarly hard to believe that bookers at Telluride were on the fence about whether or not to book Dr. John and the Neville Brothers, and needed a shout-out from WWOZ’s mobile wagon to tip the scales and remind them to keep booking area talent in the future.

There’s a lot to chew on in this – the wisdom of sending a mobile unit to Bonnaroo and Telluride in the summer when a gallon of gas is four dollars-plus, whether or not this is the best way to spend Jazz and Heritage Foundation money, and whether or not these broadcasts are spreading the gospel of New Orleans music or a limited vision of it – one that is working hard to recreate the cultural product of a culture that no longer exists. 

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I’m Not There continued

Filed under: Pop Life — Tags: , — Alex Rawls @ 7:09 am

More Dylan incarnations: “Down in the Basement” by Sloan on Parallel Play, which turns one musical line from “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and literalizes the phrase to make it about domesticity and rock ‘n’ roll.

Here’s another set of Dylans in another Riddle, Missouri, courtesy of The New York Times.

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George Carlin

Filed under: Pop Life — Tags: — Alex Rawls @ 6:53 am

I can’t remember a comedian who more obsessively dissected commonplace speech than George Carlin. I’m surprised YouTube has so little Carlin from the 1970s – I doubt I’m going out on a limb by calling it his defining period – but here’s a good sequence from the Tony Orlando and Dawn show from 1976.

He was also one of the leading figures in counterculture humor. There was no one else doing material like this in 1966.

He contended that he became a better comedian in his later years, and that may be true – you can watch performances from the 1990s and 2000s on YouTube and decide – but they didn’t have the impact of those earlier performances. Here’s a good interview with Carlin from Salon from February of this year.

An addition at 3:35 p.m.: John Nichols’ eulogy for Carlin at The Nation. Here’s an excerpt:

Carlin’s take on the Ronald Reagan administration is the best antidote to the counterfactual romanticization of the former president – in which even Barack Obama has engaged – remains the single finest assessment of Reagan and his inner circle. While Carlin did not complain much about politicians, he made an exception with regard to the great communicator. Recorded in 1988 at the Park Theater in Union City, New Jersey, and later released as an album — What Am I Doing in New Jersey? – his savage recollection of the then-concluding Reagan-Bush years opened with the line: “I really haven’t seen this many people in one place since they took the group photograph of all the criminals and lawbreakers in the Ronald Reagan administration.”

But there was no nostalgia for past fights, no resting on laurels, for this topical comedian. He read the papers, he followed the news, he asked questions – the interviews I did with Carlin over the years were more conversations than traditional Q & A’s – and he turned it all into a running commentary that focused not so much on politics as on the ugly intersection of power and economics.

No one, not Obama, not Hillary Clinton and certainly not John McCain, caught the zeitgeist of the vanishing American dream so well as Carlin. “The owners of this country know the truth: It’s called the American dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.”

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June 20, 2008

Lil Wayne and the Music Industry

Filed under: Pop Life — Tags: — Alex Rawls @ 7:21 am

Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter III is a hit in a hitless industry, prompting some meditation on how that is. Here’s The New Yorker’s Sasha Frere-Jones:

I appeared on WNYC’s “Soundcheck Smackdown” yesterday to discuss Lil Wayne’s claims to greatness and his long-delayed, finally available album, “Tha Carter III.” Billboard reports:

Unweighted first-day sales of “Tha Carter III” at nine leading accounts through the close of business yesterday (June 10) stood at 423,000. Sources close to the album project “Carter” could shift between 850,000-950,000 in its first full week. That would easily give Wayne the biggest sales week of the year, and the best since Kanye West’s “Graduation” started with 957,000 last year.

This sales spike suggests that giving away music, far from destroying the music business, could be the gesture that saves it. More than a hundred free Lil Wayne tracks surfaced last year, many with Wayne’s blessing. Anyone at the Recording Industry Association of America who felt somehow safer and righteous when DJ Drama (Wayne’s closest mixtape collaborator) was arrested in Atlanta last year might want to revisit those feelings. Outlawing mixtapes is, in essence, firing people who are already working for free to promote your paid employee. But the music business didn’t understand Napster, either. Perhaps they will understand unemployment. Or maybe they will blame that on hip-hop, too.

At The Los Angeles Times, Todd Martens traces the history of the decline in the record industry in other directions besides Napster as well: 

2000: The effect of Napster and the rise of file-sharing on the music business is probably a bit overblown. If one wants to trace the recent woes of the music business to a starting point, 2000 is arguably as good as place as any. It was in 2000 that the Federal Trade Commission declared that consumers had paid about $480 million more than they should have for CDs over the previous three years.

The cause, according to the FTC, was minimum-advertised-pricing, or MAP, policies, which the major labels had adopted to put an end to heavy discounts at music retailers. With MAP in place, retailers that sold CDs below a certain cost, say $12.99, would not receive cooperative advertising funds from record labels (the practice of reimbursing a retailer for advertising costs, such as featuring an album in a Sunday advertisement distributed in newspapers).

With the FTC breathing down its neck, and consumers rightfully fed up at continually seeing $16.98 CDs, the major record labels acquiesced to the FTC, and abolished MAP. A large retailer could now receive funds for advertising a new Madonna album, and then use said Madonna album as a loss-leader, altering what a new album should cost in the minds of the consumer.

2002: Before iTunes even exists, Best Buy warrants a news mention in Billboard for selling the Dixie Chicks‘ “Home” for $9.99 … for one full week.

I wish I could remember which bad Rolling Stones album was the first to cost $16.99, but I do remember that it was a Rolling Stones album, and the logic was that they were a marquee act so their albums should cost more. What the album did, though, was show that the market would pay $16.99 for an album, at least in the short term.

What the history and the Lil Wayne story tell us is what happens when the audience is treated simply as consumers and given no emotional stake in the artist. In the ’90s business model, the industry had an effectively adversarial relationship with the consumer, trying to extract the most money possible from the buyer. In that relationship, the buyer tries to get the music for the best price possible, and you can’t get better than free.

On the other hand, the free Lil Wayne tracks helped create his market and mystique. Those who found him between Carter II and III also had some emotional investment in his success – underdog identification, the joy of the discovery, the taste confirmation, etc.

Home taping didn’t kill the industry, Napster didn’t kill the industry, and downloads aren’t killing the industry. The industry is killing itself, and artists lived before there was an industry and they’ll find their way in the rubble of it. 

 

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June 19, 2008

Lil Wayne’s a Hit

Filed under: Pop Life — Tags: — Alex Rawls @ 1:41 pm

According to the New York Times, Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter III’s first week sales are the best this year, selling over 400,000 on the first day and estimated to go over a million in the first week.

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Irma Thomas at the Mojos

Filed under: Pop Life — Tags: — Alex Rawls @ 9:31 am

Monday, Irma Thomas was awarded Mojo Magazine’s Legend Award along with Genesis. Here’s her acceptance speech and here’s a backstage interview.

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