Album Review: Lonerism

 

"...it's a hypnotist's arm, and it works like a charm..."
“…it’s a hypnotist’s arm, and it works like a charm…”

 

Influences can be a hard thing to pin down for some artists. Tame Impala, it’s safe to say, are not one of those artists. Since their 2010 debut, Innerspeaker, Kevin Parker’s project has been consistently compared to various artists from the late ‘60s, some positively and some not. Upon hearing them, it’s hard not to draw the same connection—after all, Parker’s voice sounds uncannily like that of John Lennon, and they clearly owe a lot to that era’s psych-rock giants—but at the same time, more than a little unfair. Make no mistake, Tame Impala isn’t just some throwback act recycling the sounds of the past; rather, they’re taking these sounds and reshaping them into something, if not entirely new, then certainly unique enough to justify its existence today.

Granted, it’s been something of a work in progress. Innerspeaker wore its inspiration on its sleeve—hardly to its detriment, but it seems likely that if Parker had stayed on that path, he’d now be heading a cover band in all but name. Fortunately, 2012’s Lonerism proves there’s more to Tame Impala than the sum of its influences. Not only that, but it proves the band isn’t afraid to progress down their own path, untethered to the trajectories of their predecessors. The album is poppier, less guitar-driven, and more varied sonically—basically, improving on their debut in just about every way.

From the very first track, it should be obvious that Tame Impala are moving in a more experimental direction; with its whispering woven into the rhythm track, heady pulses of guitar, and Parker’s echoing, far-off vocal melody, “Be Above It” is the sound of a band coming into its own. In three and a half minutes, it conveys all the breathless awe “Runway, Houses, City, Clouds” took seven to achieve, and promptly continues its ascent. After two more, similarly massive-sounding tracks, “Mind Mischief” brings things back to earth with its bouncy lead riff, and signals a turn towards the catchier side of psychedelic pop. From here through “Elephant”, Tame Impala crank out one great melody after another. “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards” is a particular standout in this category—joking plagiarism accusations aside, it’s probably the best pop song Kevin Parker’s ever written.

To be sure, Lonerism takes an established style of music and does it well. But where this album really shines is in how Parker blends together more traditional psychedelic instrumentation with electronics. Look at the way “Nothing That Has Happened So Far Has Been Anything We Could Control” sputters colorfully back and forth between guitar and synth, or the swirling textures that underpin the majesty of “Endors Toi”. It’s psychedelia for the 21st Century, effortlessly applying the tricks of the past and bolstering them with some modern innovations. Moments like the bubbling chatter beneath “Keep On Lying” seem very much like updates on the classic formula (“Tomorrow Never Knows” in particular casts a long shadow over Tame Impala’s work).

Parker’s lyrics largely remain on the same page as previous projects—song titles like “Why Won’t They Talk To Me?” make that abundantly clear—but he’s returning to these themes with greater dexterity and skill than ever. “Mind Mischief” and “Elephant” reveal the kind of playfulness only hinted at before, and on the flip side, “Sun’s Coming Up” showcases a level of pathos largely absent from Innerspeaker. There’s basically nothing in the way of psychedelic imagery here; Tame Impala’s lyrics always stay grounded, even if the music doesn’t. And that’s really the crux of Lonerism’s appeal (emotionally, anyway): it feels like genuine headspace music, blending together the mundane and the majestic.

Tame Impala are not an innovative band in the same way as, say, Animal Collective: they’re not breaking entirely new ground, nor are they overtly experimental. What they are doing is pushing pre-existing boundaries—taking the psychedelic soundscapes of yore and reimagining them as performed today. Beyond that, they’re an incredibly catchy band; songs like “Elephant” get lodged in your head instantly, without feeling constrained by the typical verse-chorus-verse-chorus structure—quite an achievement for any band. Kevin Parker’s songs feel genuinely organic in their progression—a bit of a cliché, to be sure, but their incredibly rich production and colorful instrumentation makes the description feel (for once) justified. All of this was true on Innerspeaker, of course, but praising it often felt like simply praising its influences. Lonerism has no such problem; it can stand comfortably alongside any of the late-‘60s albums Tame Impala draws so much inspiration from. Indeed, it adds the personal component many of those albums eschewed in favor of sheer oddity. The album has all the detail and emotional intimacy of headphone music, but at the same time, its sprawl and beauty demand to be played out loud. As far as music to walk home by goes, you’d be hard-pressed to find better.


 

Essential Listening: Apocalypse Dreams, Feels Like We Only Go Backwards, Keep On Lying

 

 

Collected Thoughts Of The Vinyl Collector

YXjDuGz

Interview conducted by Ralph Sullivan.


 

Q— Mr. Boldren, you are currently in possession of one of the largest collections of vinyl records in the world.

A— That is correct.

Q— It says here that your collection numbers over 2.7 million individual vinyl records. How does one amass so many records? Were you making a conscious effort of it?

A— Not really, no. As far back as I can remember, music’s just been the air I breathe, literally. It was just a natural progression, I suppose.

Q— How long did it take you to accumulate this many records?

A— A couple decades, easily. Buying a couple dozen or so records a week, it adds up pretty quickly. I like to think of myself as being a regular music lover, just like anyone else; I’ve just taken it a bit farther.

Q— You’ve spoken on several occasions of your collection being—and here I quote—“a national treasure,” and “a wonder on par with any pyramid you’d care to name.” Do you stand by these statements?

A— I do. Music is sacred, and what I have in my possession is a repository of cultural knowledge, the likes of which we may never see again.

Q— But your collection—including, it would appear, many albums of which you own the only remaining copies—is not open to the public.

A— Why would it be? Vinyl is sacred, too. If you let every brat with an mp3 come through grabbing everything and smudging it all up, you decrease the market value.

Q— So you intend to sell some of these albums in the future?

A— No. What gave you that idea?

Q— Well, you were talking about market value, and I assumed…

A— You don’t have to have it on the market to be invested in its value. It’s not just about having it, it’s about other people wanting it.

Q— All right, then… so, what first got you into vinyl?

A— I guess, when I was a kid, I really liked being able to own my music, you know? Back then, everyone would listen to songs on the radio, just sort of cluster around, and I hated that—being forced to let other people in on the listening experience. But when I got a vinyl record, it was mine. I didn’t have to share the album with anyone else, and that really appealed to me.

Q— Why not just get your own radio?

A— The radio stations always had terrible taste. Even back then, I figured I could do better; I mean, why let these people dictate what I’m listening to when I’ve got better taste than any of them?

Q— Which leads nicely into my next question… do you ever feel that the record-collecting community is growing overly elitist?

A— Never. Music should be elitist, I think. It’s just a fact that a guy with a record collection is, objectively, a better music listener than someone with a—god forbid—CD collection. I mean, what would that even look like? (laughs)

Q— Do you own any CDs, Mr. Boldren?

A— I bought one once on a bet. Threw it away the next day; the sound quality was just atrocious.

Q— Atrocious in what way?

A— Too bright, too clean. Digital sound in general, it just makes everything sound so sharp, you know? Music needs to be rough, it needs to be messy. On vinyl, everything just sounds so much warmer.

Q— What do you mean by “warmer”?

A— It just sounds warmer. Either you hear it or don’t. That’s the problem with music listeners these days: they don’t care about warmth, or humanity. CDs and synthesizers—easily two of the most damaging inventions of the 20th Century.

Q— Not a fan of electronic music, I take it?

A— Can you even call it “music”? I mean, music is real people on real instruments, playing real songs. All that stuff is just noise, as far as I’m concerned.

Q— So, returning to the subject of your record collection…

A— I often do.

Q— How many of them have you actually listened to? Just a rough estimate would be fine.

A— All of them. Every single one.

Q— 2.7 million? Mr. Boldren, I generally like to defer to my subjects, but I’m not sure what you’re saying would be physically possible.

A— Well, I’ve listened to most of them. Does it really matter that much?

Q— Just curious. Let’s see… what is the album you’ve bought most recently?

A— Edgard Varèse’s Poème Électronique—original recording.

Q— Isn’t that an electronic piece?

A— Sure, but it’s not synthesized.

Q— What do you mean?

A— There’s real feeling behind it. Varèse is following in an older tradition, a more classical tradition. He was all about atmosphere and ambience—he didn’t care about all the percussion that dominates today’s stuff. The stuff nowadays, it’s just four-note grooves repeated into oblivion. Varèse, what he’s doing is… it’s just different.

Q— I’ll take your word for it.

A— You should.

Q— Would you encourage others to take up record collecting, as you yourself have done?

A— Not everyone. You really need to have a proper appreciation of vinyl to be able to listen properly; just why it’s better than other formats. Some people, it just goes in one ear and out the other. No understanding of sound quality, or music theory, just nothing at all.

Q— Like the circle of fifths?

A— Right—a great album like that would just be lost on those people. But if you stand for the sanctity of music, understand that it’s not just some commodity to be passed around like a ten-dollar whore, then by all means, I would encourage it.

Q— And on that note, it looks like we need to be wrapping up now. Any final thoughts for our listeners?

A— Yeah, I’ve got one… Fuck digital audio as a technology, as a format, and as an industry, and if you want to continue to support digital music, then fuck you too.

Q— Very eloquently put. Thank you for your many insights, Mr. Boldren.

A— You’re welcome. I’m sure it’s been a pleasure. Now, if you’ll excuse me, there’s a mint-condition Neu! 1 in the next room just waiting to go on the turntable. Are you going to be listening to anything later, Mr. Sullivan?

Q— A few cassettes I ordered. I really think they’re making a comeback.


 

 

Album Review: Maggot Brain / Mothership Connection

George Clinton will undoubtedly go down as one of the foremost innovators in the history of pop music, if he hasn’t already. From the year 1970 almost through the end of the decade, Clinton and his two bands—Parliament and Funkadelic—embarked on an album run any self-respecting artist would be jealous of. Not only that, but he established himself in multiple genres at once, conquering rock & psychedelia with Funkadelic while simultaneously dominating the funk scene with Parliament.

Not to give Clinton all the credit, of course—the reason these bands were so great was because they were bands, unmistakably. In terms of group chemistry, Funkadelic could rock out with the best of them, and Parliament’s playful but eminently tight grooves stem from the sort of interplay it normally takes years to perfect.

To reduce either band’s lengthy career to its most cherished album would be to do them a huge disservice. That said, because we on this site are monsters, that’s what we’ll be doing here. For Funkadelic, that album is Maggot Brain (some might argue One Nation Under A Groove, but they’re in the minority). For Parliament, it’s Mothership Connection. We’ll take a look at the two pinnacles of George Clinton’s decades-spanning, genre-defining musical project, and see just what about each of them makes it so great.


 

"Come on, Maggot Brain..."
“…I have tasted the maggots in the mind of the universe…”

 

To the many accolades Funkadelic has (rightfully) received, you can add the fact that they hit the ground running. 1970’s self-titled debut was weird, dirty, and messy in the way that signifies a true classic—and what’s more, spelled out the collective’s mission statement from the get-go. Free Your Mind And Your Ass Will Follow, released the same year, was more of the same, but built on the formula enough to distinguish itself as a great album of its own. Still, it wasn’t until 1971 that the group left our dimension entirely, and Maggot Brain was the result.

This is one of those albums whose reputation is defined almost entirely by a single song. The title track, which opens the album, has become so legendary in certain circles that it tends to overshadow everything else. It’s not hard to see why: from that first burst of feedback, to the moment that Eddie Hazel’s guitar first rises from the abyss, “Maggot Brain” is the sort of song that can’t help but inspire awe. To this day, it remains genuinely transcendental, and I can only describe it as a kaleidoscopic odyssey unto itself.

And there are still six tracks left to go.

Those remaining songs never reach the level of “Maggot Brain,” but they don’t need to—Funkadelic’s already kicked open the doors of your mind, now they’re doing whatever they damn well please. The closet the album ever comes to straight funk is the soaring, keyboard-driven “Hit It And Quit It”, and even then, they can’t resist throwing in some chirpy backing vocals for good measure.

The rest of Maggot Brain is spent proving that Funkadelic weren’t just a great rock band; they were a versatile one. George Clinton et al. sound equally at home on acoustic jingle-pop (“Can You Get To That”), pop soul (“You And Your Folks, Me And My Folks”), proto-metal (“Super Stupid”) and bouncy psychedelia (“Back In Our Minds”). The album closes with the sort of studio freak out that would do Frank Zappa proud—it’s easily the funkiest apocalypse ever laid to tape, and an appropriate bookend to the unearthliness of the title track.

This album is probably Funkadelic’s most diverse, showcasing their poppiest instincts back-to-back with some of their weirdest (sometimes literally, as with the first two tracks). It’s the work of a band bursting at the seams with ideas, and as a result can come across as a little scattershot. This is an album that follows up its most unapologetically hedonistic song with its most class-conscious, and if you’re prone to experiencing mood whiplash, this is probably not for you. If there’s one thing beyond criticism, though, it’s the songs, which are across-the-board great (I will defend “Back In Our Minds” to my dying breath). Maggot Brain can be catchy when it wants to be, heavy, funky, or freaky, and it says something about how unique Funkadelic were—and remain—that few bands before or since have been able to claim the same.

Essential Listening: Maggot Brain, Can You Get To That, Super Stupid


 

"Kick back, dig, while we do it to you in your eardrums..."
“…kick back, dig, while we do it to you in your eardrums…”

 

Parliament’s Mothership Connection is a horse of a very different color. But then, that’s not much of a surprise: Clinton’s bands followed different trajectories from the start. Parliament was always intended as the more commercial project—even on early albums, where it bore more than a passing similarity to its sister act, Clinton generally kept the songs shorter and the hooks funkier. Where Funkadelic’s music was often dark, chaotic, or overtly experimental, Parliament largely contented itself with laying out a good groove and letting the vibes flow freely.

Parliament technically debuted in 1970, with the psychedelia-flavored Osmium, but it wasn’t until 1974, and their second studio album, that the band hit its stride. In that time, the collective acquired two major players that would help to define Parliament’s revamped sound: bassist Bootsy Collins and horn section The Horny Horns (you can’t make this stuff up). With their help, the band released 1974’s Up For The Down Stroke, an upbeat, sing-songy slice of cosmic funk that set Parliament on its new course—first to Washington, D.C., on 1975’s Chocolate City, then straight to the stars.

Mothership Connection was Parliament’s breakout album, by just about any measurable standard; a bona fide smash hit, it propelled P-Funk into the mainstream, and established George Clinton as one of the leading innovators in black music. From the unapologetically goofy cover art, to the wall-to-wall funk of its seven tracks, to the massive success of single “Give Up The Funk (Tear The Roof Off The Sucker)”, this was the sound of everything coming together. Parliament became honest-to-God rock stars, achieving the kind of commercial success Funkadelic had often skirted the edge of but never quite achieved.

From the very first song, Mothership Connection establishes funk not just as a style of music, but a way of life. Nearly every chorus on the album involves The Funk in some way or another; of all Clinton’s albums, this is the one that commits to his mythology most completely. The only time it breaks character is on “Handcuffs”, and that’s forgivable, if only to give the listener some room to breathe.

On “P-Funk (Wants To Get Funked Up)”, Parliament promises you uncut funk, and that’s exactly what they deliver: the tracks on the album are more a single, evolving groove than they are songs in their own right. “Give Up the Funk” was Mothership Connection’s pop hit, but really, it’s hard to imagine any song here doing much worse—they’re all incredibly catchy, and even the lengthier tracks don’t feel a second longer than they need to be.

Of course, much of that is due to the band’s sheer charisma; vocal duties are distributed across eight different people, and it’s hard to decide who’s best: Glen Goins, with his gleefully over-the-top singing on “Unfunky UFO”, Clinton, with his seemingly improvised ramblings over “Mothership Connection (Star Child)”, or Bootsy Collins and his various interjections across the record. Parliament were always more vocal-driven than Funkadelic, and this is one of the best showcases of this that the band ever released.

Mothership Connection proved to be Parliament’s peak, both critically and commercially; they never saw the same degree of success on either front again. Still, that shouldn’t preclude any enjoyment of this album: for a little over half an hour, you can witness a band at the height of its powers, delivering immortal grooves one after the other, and proving that outlandish concepts weren’t just for rock artists anymore. Even today, it’s tantalizing to look back at a point when anyone could put a glide in their stride, a dip in their hip, and come on board the Mothership.

Essential Listening: Mothership Connection (Star Child), Unfunky UFO, Give Up The Funk (Tear The Roof Off The Sucker)


 

Maggot Brain and Mothership Connection, as great as they are, still don’t represent the full scope of Parliament-Funkadelic’s achievement. After all, part of what made both bands so great was their consistency—even when releasing multiple albums the same year, Clinton maintained a high enough level of quality control to give us one of the most fertile periods in funk history. That said, these two albums do give a sense of the project’s two extremes: Funkadelic never got weirder, and Parliament never had a bigger smash. Both albums are classics in their own right, and if you like either, rest assured that there are plenty more in that vein. That cosmic, freaked-out, eternally groovy vein.

Album Review: Trout Mask Replica

Trout Mask Replica is the third studio album by Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band, released in 1969 on Straight Records.
“…you couldn’t have done this if you knew what you were doing…”

 

To say that Captain Beefheart is one of the most polarizing figures in popular music is just about the least controversial thing you can say about him. You’ll find less negative current-day criticism of him than you will contemporary (sample reaction from 1970: “when I first heard Trout Mask Replica, I about puked”), but that’s mainly because the only people listening to Beefheart nowadays are the people who want to listen to him. Reactions to his music today remain just as extreme as they were back in the day, and he deserves credit for that alone.

Still, that’s making him sound like a deliberately “difficult” musician, to be listened to in rapt, silent contemplation. Say what you want about him, but he can hardly be accused of lacking soul. In fact, if there’s any common thread to Beefheart’s long, knotty career, it’s the ferocity with which he threw himself into his songs. He could howl like Chester Burnett while singing nonsense about a Babette baboon, and you never questioned his sincerity for a second. That’s the biggest difference between him and frequent collaborator Frank Zappa—while Zappa spent his career well removed from his subjects, tongue firmly in-cheek, Beefheart wasn’t afraid to get down and dirty with his songs. If anything, this dedication is what many people find off-putting about his music. You might not doubt Beefheart’s sincerity during the abrupt whooping that ends “Sugar ‘n Spikes,” but at the same time, he comes across as more than a little deranged.

Keeping all that in mind, Captain Beefheart can be a bit of a tough sell. Unlike a lot of musicians considered “difficult” at the time, the intervening decades have done little to soften his image, and it’s not as if popular tastes have shifted to the point of finally embracing him. The people who like his music now are probably the same sorts of people who liked it back then; if anything, stripped of historical context, it probably sounds even weirder today than it did back in the ‘60s. You’re unlikely to find another musical artist who can claim such a wide-ranging influence, and yet whose music still sounds so alien.

Compounding that difficulty is the fact that no one can seem to agree on what the best entry point into Beefheart’s discography is; ask three people and you’ll probably get three different responses. Some favor the warped blues-rock of his debut, Safe As Milk, in a “follow the artist’s progression” sort of way; others suggest the rhythmically dense Lick My Decals Off, Baby as more representative of his overall style; still others, the jangly, slower-paced The Spotlight Kid, as his most conventionally melodic release. You might get someone who recommends Bluejeans & Moonbeams as well, but you can just ignore this person. All of these suggestions have merit (excepting the last one) and all might serve as perfectly valid entry points. That said, the definitive Captain Beefheart album—the one that best conveys the sheer scope of what he was trying to do—remains 1969’s Trout Mask Replica.

Trout Mask Replica occupies an odd position in the Captain’s discography—his most well known release (I hesitate to use the word “popular”) while simultaneously being his most “out there” by a pretty wide margin. As a result, many people looking to get into his work choose this album as their entry point, get 80 minutes of wall-to-wall insanity thrown at them, and promptly swear off Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band for good. Indeed, fans of Beefheart who consider Trout Mask Replica overrated tend to accuse it of excess more than anything else. Of course, that same excess is what its most devoted admirers (and I count myself among them) love so much about it. Simply put, Trout Mask Replica is by far the strangest, most challenging album Beefheart ever put out, and if you really want to get to the core of his artistic vision, then look no further.

The opening track, “Frownland”, more or less sets the tone for the rest of the album—all of the ingredients for a typical rock tune are there, but so at odds with each other it barely sounds like they’re playing the same song. The two guitars are each playing completely different melodies, it’s hard to tell whether the drumming is unorthodox or simply incompetent, and Beefheart appears to be singing along to something else entirely. As if to throw you off balance once more, the album promptly follows this up with an a cappella poem, recited by Beefheart and recorded on a cassette recorder. Two other such poems appear on Trout Mask, and are the closest the album comes to giving the listener room to breathe.

These tracks also showcase the album’s fairly DIY aesthetic, in the flubbed line-readings (and subsequent corrections) Beefheart nevertheless chose to leave in. Horror stories about his controlling attitude towards fellow band members during the recording process abound, but the final product sounds like the farthest thing possible from any sort of control freak’s vision. At one point, during the skit leading into “Pena”, Victor Hayden (referred to on the album as “The Mascara Snake”) audibly cracks up—it’s one of several moments where the mask of obtuseness is allowed to fall away.

There’s a tendency, when discussing Beefheart, to disregard his lyrics as nonsensical, or relevant only in how they sound—to view them as scatting with words, basically. It’s hard to argue that his songs live or die on their lyrical content, but at the same time, they remain so surreal and darkly humorous that it would really be a shame to dismiss what’s being said outright. Take the track “Pena”, which would come across as a twisted cousin to dirty blues if the instrumental backing wasn’t so bizarre. Or “My Human Gets Me Blues” and its array of oddly poignant imagery (“the way you were dancing, I knew you’d never come back”), all gathered together under an affecting, if not strictly grammatical, chorus. The Captain’s vocals range from skronking to hooting to screeching across the board, like an old bluesman on bath salts; if anything, his voice is what people object to above all else. It’s definitely an acquired taste, but for the most part, it fits the lyrics and the instrumentation—as strange as the former and as jagged as the latter—and for my part, I can’t imagine these songs sung any other way.

Trout Mask Replica closes with its most outwardly straightforward song, “Veteran’s Day Poppy”, but even then, Beefheart makes sure to leave the door open for a more druggy interpretation of the titular flower. There’s not much in the way of a common thread here, beyond “strange people doing strange things,” but there doesn’t really need to be one—the album revels in its own absurdity, and that’s enough to bring it all together. The liner notes for the album transcribe everything phonetically (“Uh man’s gotta eat” appears exactly as it does here) which helps contribute to the very warts-and-all aesthetic—as if Trout Mask Replica wasn’t rough enough around the edges already.

In fact, Frank Zappa, who produced the album (although the degree to which he was involved remains disputed) initially proposed to give it a “field recording” quality by doing all of in the house where the band was staying. This idea was largely scrapped, but a few holdovers from these sessions still made it onto the final product; of Trout Mask’s 28 tracks, 4 (“The Dust Blows Forward ‘n the Dust Blows Back”, “Hair Pie: Bake 1”, “China Pig”, and “Orange Claw Hammer”) were recorded on cassette back at the house. Many of the album’s most intriguing qualities stem from this “thrown together” feeling—throughout it, you get a sense of different styles, different aesthetics, different visions clashing, and Beefheart’s stroke of genius was in leaving it as it was, warts and all. Everything from Delta blues to free jazz to garage rock enters the mix at some point, and they all work together seemingly by virtue of not working together at all.

Not to call Trout Mask Replica in any way unprofessional. Captain Beefheart clearly had a very specific vision for this album, and anyone who thinks this kind of organized (yes, organized) chaos “just happens”, or is easy to pull off, has never tried. Look at the way the lead guitars play off each other in “Sugar ’n Spikes”, or how the percussion in “Hair Pie: Bake 2” chops up the main riff until it seems like the track is shaking itself apart. The album may not be conventionally pleasing to the ears, but neither is it just 80 minutes of non-musicians fucking around.

Ultimately, Trout Mask Replica’s greatest strength may be its scope. It touches on just about every facet of Captain Beefheart’s music, from the thrashing electric blues of “Moonlight on Vermont” to the stalking free jazz of “Hair Pie: Bake 1” to the abstract experimentation of “Neon Meate Dream of a Octafish.” It’s not his most accessible, and it’s certainly not his most inviting, but it is his most complete. If Beefheart established his own musical universe with his previous albums, then Trout Mask Replica expanded the borders beyond what anyone had thought possible. Zappa might not have thought much of Beefheart-land, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t still a place worth visiting—however you first happen upon it.


Essential Listening: Dachau Blues, Moonlight On Vermont, Pena

Album Review: We’re Only In It For The Money

We're Only In it For The Money is the third studio album by California band The Mothers of Invention (known mainly for Frank Zappa's leadership of the group), released in 1968 on Verve Records.
“…your whole attitude stinks, I say, and the life you lead is completely empty…”

 

Frank Zappa occupies an uneasy place in the pop canon. On the one hand, he’s proven to be an influence on everyone from John Zorn to Kool Keith; on the other, his work—especially in its later years—has a tendency to devolve into crude, unfunny in-jokes or self-important experimentation for the sake of it. Beyond that, you often got the sense that he thought himself too good for pop music. Between the abrasive musique concrete of his early years and the spun-out classical that dominated his later ones, Zappa often seemed like he was writing music solely for his own enjoyment—something that can be a little hard to get past, even for people who claim to love every minute of “Revolution 9.” Even at its poppiest, Zappa’s music is still incredibly short on emotional resonance; you’d probably hate to hear the fates of most of the characters in his songs, if he put any effort into getting you to care about them. It’s probably not a coincidence that his most celebrated song, “Watermelon in Easter Hay,” is almost entirely instrumental. And as if all that wasn’t enough, there’s often an underlying sense in Zappa’s music of being talked down to—that the message comes first and foremost, and that it’s really more important to educate you than entertain you.

Keeping all of the above in mind, why would you want to listen to Frank Zappa?

For starters, his arrogance was (at least during his Mothers of Invention years) largely justified; there were simply no other pop artists at the time doing what he was doing. At their tightest, Zappa’s songs had all the immediacy and catchiness of the very best ad jingles, with lyrics that straddled the line between thought-provoking and just plain ugly. And nowhere is this dynamic better demonstrated than on the Mothers’ third studio album, We’re Only In It For The Money.

Nowadays, the aspect of this album most widely remembered is what it’s mocking: hippies, drug culture, manufactured rebellion, and various bands Zappa perceived to be sellouts. It does indeed go after these targets, fairly mercilessly (“Flower Punk,” in particular, takes shots at just about the entire hippie movement) but to reduce it to a half-hour piss-taking is to do the album a massive disservice. There are moments of genuine social consciousness here, and while they’re all too tongue-in-cheek to connect in the way truly great protest songs do, they can, at the very least, give the listener pause. Just look at some of the lyrics from “Mom & Dad”:

 

Mama, Mama

Your child was killed in the park today

Shot by the cops as she quietly lay

By the side of the creeps she knew…

They killed her too.

 

All this two years before the Kent State shootings. Overall, the album’s first half is where the majority of the hippie-bashing occurs—sometimes literally, as on the mass-internment dystopia of “Concentration Moon”:

 

American way

Prisoner: lock

Smash every creep in the face with a rock.

 

In contrast, the second half is largely a celebration of what Zappa viewed as the true counterculturals. Perhaps “celebration” is the wrong word, but he certainly treats his assorted freaks with more affection than the pseudo-bohemians of Side A. Even “The Idiot Bastard Son” seems to feel at least a little pity for its titular character, “abandoned to perish in back of a car.”

We’re Only In It For The Money ends on an unsettling note: the one-two punch of “Mother People,” in which the “other” people’s aggressions and anger finally boil to the surface, and “The Chrome-Plated Megaphone of Destiny,” a wordless six-minute sonic collage that sounds like Rubber Johnny’s death spasms. Zappa recommends accompanying it with the Franz Kafka story “In The Penal Colony”—perhaps just to drive the album’s consistently underlying sense of despair home.

Now, all this is not to say that the album avoids some of Zappa’s later-career pitfalls entirely—“Harry, You’re A Beast,” exhibits the kind of juvenile shock tactics Zappa would too often devolve into with his ‘70s output, and this lapse in taste is by no means an isolated occurrence. Overall, though, the lyrics here are probably the most focused and conceptual (not to mention grounded) of any of his albums, with or without the Mothers.

At times, Money can come across as mean-spirited. After all, it’s one thing to call the establishment phony; it’s quite another to accuse the stoned dropout rock n’ roller by the side of the road of the same. After all, if he’s not authentic, who is? And that’s the crux of why the album works: through the music here, Zappa’s providing a genuinely experimental alternative. Accusations of phoniness only work when you can prove you’re not the pot calling the kettle black, and Zappa does so time and time again here.

For starters, you’re unlikely to find any other rock albums of the time (excepting, perhaps, Joseph Byrd’s various endeavors) that make such prominent use of electronics. This is most prominent on the more experimental tracks, such as “Are You Hung Up?” or “Nasal Retentive Calliope Music,” but electronics are present throughout, either as segues from song to song, or acting a instruments in their own right. This isn’t Lumpy Gravy or Uncle Meat, mind you; Zappa’s classical instincts still largely play second fiddle to simply crafting catchy pop melodies. And does he ever—the songs are a wonderful kaleidoscope of pastiches, with the Mothers trying on styles like wigs—the wackier the better. From the jazzy, urban flavor of “Who Needs The Peace Corps,” to the doo-wop stylings of the two-part “What’s the Ugliest Part of Your Body,” to the comically-euphoric patter of “Let’s Make The Water Turn Black,” We’re Only In It For The Money’s music is consistently colorful and energetic.

Still, this is the one area in which those Zappa is satirizing have a leg up on him: his engineering and editing is genuinely disorienting, even today, but the actual songs can’t hope to hold up to what the Beatles, or even the United States of America, were doing at the same time. They’re all enjoyable enough, in their own way, but this is one of Zappa’s albums in which the experimentalism side outshines the pop.

Musically, We’re Only In It For The Money holds up quite well; lyrically, less so, but more because of the topics chosen than the attitudes expressed. Still, if you can look past some of its more dated aspects, you’ll find one of the most forward-thinking albums of a time period not short on innovators. Zappa would go on, after leaving the Mothers of Invention, to produce music that was more extreme, and songs that stood better on their own legs, but Money is perhaps the best reconciliation of those two sides—the composer and the pop artist—that he ever produced.


 

Essential Listening: Absolutely Free, Flower Punk, Mother People

Album Review: The Seer

The Seer is the twelfth studio album by experimental rock band Swans, released in 2012 on Young God Records. It was the second album put out by the group following a 14-year hiatus from recording; the first, My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky, was released in 2010.
“…I am bruised, but I am raised…”

 

Swans have always been a band that reveled in obliteration. They built their reputation back in New York’s no wave scene as perhaps the darkest, most crushing act in a musical scene not short on brutality, and the band hasn’t aged into sentimentality so much as a more fully realized bleakness. Back in their early years, they were adopting new styles just as quickly as they threw old ones to the wayside—the common thread in their music largely being basic human cruelty—and this mentality carries over into Swans’ post-reformation albums. Even nowadays, you’d be hard-pressed to find another legacy act that cares less about its own legacy. The band remains unequivocally forward-thinking, and The Seer is the best evidence of this since 1996’s Soundtracks For The Blind.

The first thing most people will probably notice about this release is the length—at nearly two hours, The Seer is one of Swans’ longest albums. The title track alone is over half an hour, and in the hands of a lesser band, The Seer might well have turned out what is politely termed a “brilliant failure.” Swans are not one of those lesser bands, and they spend every minute of the album justifying its length. The songs here are built on repetition, as is the norm with Swans, but the innovation here is in how the broader instrumental palette lets that repetition build. “Mother of the World” builds off of a harsh two-note guitar riff, at first accompanied in lockstep by frontman Michael Gira’s panting, and then subsumed into the rhythm section. At the halfway mark, the song cuts out, and when it reappears, it’s as a roiling, apocalyptic surge—a pretty good metaphor, all things considered, for Swans’ newest incarnation.

This is, by and large, fairly abrasive music to listen to if you’re not already a Swans fan. When repetition isn’t the word of the day, it’s walls of noise, or ambient soundscapes that sound like they belong on a David Lynch soundtrack. But at the core of it all is what Swans has always done best: convey power. Whether it’s on the blackened, industrial groove of “The Seer Returns” or the towering slow-burn of “The Apostate,” Swans sound more like a force of nature than a band. The Seer feels monumental, and not just because of its runtime: in its variety, and the range of emotions expressed across it, the album feels like its own, self-contained world.

Gira has referred to The Seer as “the culmination of every previous Swans album as well as any other music I’ve ever made, been involved in or imagined.” When most bands Swans’ age hype up their latest project as their best, it comes across as a fairly desperate grab for attention; after listening to The Seer, Gira’s assessment doesn’t seem too far-off. If 2010’s My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky was the band getting back on its feet, with a sound more heavily indebted to Angels of Light than past Swans albums, then The Seer is Swans taking flight, with an ambition that far outstrips all but a few items in their back catalog. The main distinction of their post-resurrection output is in taking the raw, utterly crushing sound of albums like Filth and blending it with the more delicate, avant-tinged style Gira has favored in his side projects since, and this is where those two approaches finally come together on equal ground. Look at the back-to-back ballads “The Daughter Brings The Water” and “Song For A Warrior”—the album’s most beautiful, approachable moments coming after one of its most abrasive and experimental, in “93 Ave. Blues.”

Lyrically, The Seer feels almost mythological in its scope. Songs carry abstract titles, and when lyrics consist of more than a single, repeated phrase, the final picture is often disturbingly detailed. “The Seer Returns,” in particular, has some of the band’s most chilling lyrics, deadpanned by Gira as the song creeps along. Swans have moved on from the petty cruelties of their early work to something just as frightening, but on a cosmic scale—and musical backing to match.

And yet, The Seer ultimately doesn’t come across as a nihilistic undertaking. Whatever else, the album builds up a sense of awe by the end of “Lunacy” that doesn’t dissipate for the remaining 10 tracks and 113 minutes. There are moments—the point when “Avatar” appears to end before soaring back to life has to count among them—when The Seer feels genuinely transcendental. Gira has said this of the album, and it seems as fitting a summation of Swans’ accomplishment here as any: “My friends in Swans are all stellar men. Without them I’m a kitten, an infant. Our goal is the same: ecstasy!”


Essential Listening: Mother of the World, The Seer Returns, Avatar

Album Review: There’s A Riot Goin’ On

"...look at you, fooling you..."
“…look at you, fooling you…”

 

At this point, the myth of There’s A Riot Goin’ On has assumed a stature on par with the album itself. It’s a near-perfect narrative—the formerly optimistic musician, burnt out on the state of the world, holes up in the studio with nothing but his own creativity, and in a drug-fueled haze produces a masterpiece. Sly Stone would certainly fit the tortured artist archetype, and nothing makes the poppy, psychedelic soul of albums like Life stand out like seeing the Family Stone’s inner darkness poured out so thoroughly here. But reducing Riot to the role it played in Sly & The Family Stone’s artistic progression would be doing it a huge disservice. Stripped entirely of context, it’s still a great album, and one that could serve as a landmark in any band’s career.

For starters, it combines darkness and funkiness in ways few acts—then or now—could ever hope to. The sound is notoriously low-fi and murky (the tape hiss seems to be as much a player as any instrument) and it marks such a change from the clear-eyed sound of previous Family Stone albums, they barely feel like the work of the same band.

Overall, There’s A Riot Goin’ On functions less as a collection of songs and more as an extended mood piece: most songs follow traditional verse-chorus structures (with a few notable exceptions), but overall, musical elements fade in and out seemingly at random. It trades the pop and soul of previous albums for more prominent jazz and funk influences, with an improvisational feeling dominating for several of the longer tracks (“Africa Talks To You” in particular). Everything has a rough, visceral texture, from the slithering guitar lines to the bubbling drum machines, that helps to negate some of the album’s more chaotic qualities—when there are no obvious grooves to latch onto, one can simply lie back and appreciate the sound of the record.

If any aspect of Riot suffers from the poor sound quality, it’s undoubtedly the vocals. Sly sounds like he’s drowning in the instrumentation more often than not, and the album’s lead single, “Family Affair,” is one of the few in which any words can be clearly discerned. Not that the lyrics are any more cheerful than their backing music. “Time they say is the answer,” Sly croons mournfully at one point, “but I don’t believe it.”

Now, that’s not to say the album’s a slog, or not any fun. It’s perhaps the most jubilant descent into despair ever laid to tape: from the ode to drug-induced escape that kicks off the album, to the twisted “survival of the fittest” sentiments expressed in “Brave & Strong,” all the way to the cheerfully nihilistic verses of “Thank You For Talkin’ To Me, Africa,” the album remains incredibly funky, if not particularly uplifting. As far as albums made by people on drugs about being on drugs go, it’s by no means the most inaccessible out there.

In the end, Sly isn’t consigning you to the murk, merely inviting you in for a while to look around. The Family Stone’s follow-up album, Fresh, returned the group to some of their earlier, happier dynamics, but even then, it couldn’t help descending into some of the same despair as Riot. “Thank you for the party, but I could never stay,” Sly sings on the final track: back in his mind, once again.


 

Essential Listening: Luv N’ Haight, Africa Talks To You (The Asphalt Jungle), Spaced Cowboy

 

Album Review: Fantastic Damage

Fantastic Damage is the debut solo album of New York rapper/producer El-P, released in 2002 on his Def Jux record label.
“…you wanna buy the farm, but the land’s not yours to own…”

 

Fantastic Damage is, exactly as its title implies, simultaneously awe-inspiring and crushing. As yet another feather in Def Jux’s, it succeeds admirably; as the long-awaited solo debut of a much-hyped artist, it exceeds expectations; as an underground hip-hop album—scratch that, hip-hop album, period—it can stand alongside any of the greats. It feels like a natural extension of El-P’s previous work with Company Flow, while at the same time establishing him as a vital solo artist in his own right. How? For starters, this is not an album interested in compromising itself. El-P largely eschews the battle rhyming and self-referential lyrics prevalent in the underground community—even when he does, it’s often aimed not at the mainstream, but at fellow underground artists (it’s hard to take lines like “you motherfuckers don’t have grit/you’re all teenage poetry, martyrs without causes” any other way).

El-P’s lyrics are often abstract, but rarely philosophical; more often, they come across as free-associative rants, spitballing so quickly it’s nearly impossible to pull out a coherent train of thought. Adding to this overwhelming feeling is the fact that on many songs (the title track in particular) the vocals are overdubbed and crowded to the point of illegibility. The final effect is akin to being interrogated at gunpoint by a half-dozen people at once, all of them shouting.

Needless to say, this is not an album for everyone. If, by the end of the title track, you feel as if you’ve just been severely bludgeoned, you probably fall into that category. Still, if you can look past the seeming atonality of much of the music, you’ll find a truly varied, intricate, and colorful set of instrumentals.

And that’s where Fantastic Damage really shines—in the instrumentals. They’re (by and large) more melodic and complex than El-P’s previous work with Company Flow, but don’t think for a second that any aggressiveness was sacrificed to achieve this. Songs like “Tuned Mass Damper” pack just as much a punch as anything off of Funcrusher Plus; the difference is that, in refining and fleshing out his craft (as he undeniably does here) El-P ensures that more of those punches hit home.

The opening track, for example, is an unapologetically brutal rush to the head; it starts off with an dissonant tone that sounds like an air-raid siren driving straight into one’s brain, and once the beat kicks in, it sounds as if it’s trying to violently shake itself apart. Needless to say, the going doesn’t get any easier for the remaining 15 songs.

Where to start? “Delorean”’s verse/chorus/breakdown dynamic is gleefully disjointed, “Dr. Hellno and the Praying Mantus” is a lumbering, lecherous beast, with its three-note bassline and aquatic bursts of feedback, and the unhinged, abrasively cluttered funk of “Lazerfaces’ Warning” can only be described as completely insane—to name just a few examples.

Still, fans of El-P’s more recent work may be surprised at the overall clunkiness of Fantastic Damage. Samples cut in and out of the songs like shards of glass, drum loops sound like they’re falling over each other, and half the time, the vocals don’t even bother to line up with the beat. At the very least, though, it doesn’t fall into the trap (depressingly common in the underground) of confusing unpolished for better. Make no mistake, Fantastic Damage is just as meticulously assembled as any Bomb Squad production you’d care to name.

Now, there are downsides to the album—some fairly homogenous choruses, forgettable guest features, the like—but overall, Fantastic Damage still stands out as one of the most ambitious, uncompromising hip-hop albums of the 2000s. El-P’s style is most definitely an acquired taste, but if you’re into the sort of Def Jux aesthetic (harsh beats, dense wordplay, abstract lyrics) he helped to popularize, definitely check this out.


Essential Listening: Tuned Mass DamperAccidents Don’t Happen, Stepfather Factory