Wednesday, June 27, 2012

June Roundup: Cultivating the Special

In an interview conducted during the Snakes and Arrows tour, Rush drummer Neil Peart quite casually made the observation that the idea of personal change is a misnomer. Instead, he said, people grow, and either accept or deny the events and perceptions of their past. Whether I like it or not, the seed of who I am today was already present in the person I was yesterday. I can gratefully say with all confidence that I have grown positively in the years that have passed since the move from Denton to Austin. Life is better than it has ever been.

One of the things I have worked on since I relocated is that for me, building a world with myself at the center is not healthy. I feel most centered when I am strong, but not the strongest; brave, but not the bravest; calm, but not the calmest, and I can lead by example rather than force of will. After all, it’s not a competition. Absolutely everyone wants to feel like they are special, but to do so at the cost of the people around you is, I think, an illusion.

When I left Denton, I left behind a world that I constructed around myself, for better and for worse, over the course of nearly twenty years. That world has also grown in its own way without me (as it should!) and the place that I held within it is receding into the horizon. I can see that and I accept it. Truthfully, I am overjoyed to notice the seeds that I helped to plant take root in fertile soil, but the maturation of this fruit is bittersweet because I don’t see to its daily cultivation.

Furthermore, I don’t always feel special in Austin, at least not in the same way. I often I feel like I’m just another face in the crowd. I grapple with the temptation to disingenuously stand out to massage my ego rather than work patiently for the growth that I am now undergoing to take root in this somewhat rockier soil.

Gangster of Boats Trilogy by Jeff Hodges on GroovesharkSpeaking of rock, for the Year in Rush project, I blew through almost two decades worth of material early in the month: Counterparts, Test for Echo, Vapor Trails, and Snakes & Arrows. I was anxious to finish before the release of Clockwork Angels, but I’d like to let this last one one simmer awhile longer before I respond to it with the gushing positivity of novelty. Don’t worry; I’ll post on it soon.

In the meantime, something special - beginning in 1991 on Roll the Bones, Rush began to compose freestanding instrumentals again after over a decade's break. This point was edited from the blog for the sake of brevity. Therefore, for this month's roundup, I am compensating by posting a collection of instrumentals from this late period that might be considered, for the studious Rush fan, the Gangster of Boats Trilogy (all four parts).

-and furthermore:

June 2012 Listening by Jeff Hodges on Grooveshark Soundgarden - Badmotorfinger: Before grunge became the new thing, Badmotorfinger was the underground metalhead's delight. Its difficult to divest it, however, from the typhoon of airplay that Soundgarden subsequently received later in the 90s.

M83 - Before the Dawn Heals Us: My first step backward into M83's catalog has been incredibly gratifying. As emotionally affective as the album is as a whole, the most moving tracks, both poignant and terrifying, are spoken-word experiments.

Miike Snow - Happy to You: I'm not sure if the band is trying to be psychedelic or humorous with their imagery, and keeps me off balance. There are lots of things that I aesthetically like about the album, but sometimes it seems a little goofy. 

Beach House - Bloom: Beach House has been getting a lot of attention in the indie press, which I think is largely deserved. Its accessible enough for a casual listen, but smart enough for deep examination.

The Wondermints - Mind If We Make Love To You: Another relatively obscure power pop album that, despite being intentionally retrospective, should be more visible. Track for track, it compares favorably to classic psychedelic pop.

Fishbone - Truth and Soul: So many people came to know Fishbone through The Reality of My Surroundings, and as good as that album is, it seems very overworked by comparison. Truth and Soul is the clearest and most direct statement of the band's career.

My Bloody Valentine - Loveless: Now that I've acquired the taste for this album, I find it to be incredibly beautiful. More importantly, I am starting to gain an awareness of just how influential it really is.

Now, Now - Threads: Now, Now's melodic songwriting and overall energy have me excited. This one may need to simmer awhile, though, just to make sure that what I think is going on is what it seems.

R.E.M. - Document: In the long run, I lost faith in R.E.M. From a songwriting and performance perspective, however, Document was a relatively important album to me (in 1988).

Baby Lemonade - The High Life Suite: This Father's Day present was unexpected, but is a brilliant example of the kind of songwriting I really enjoy. It is also incredibly short, unless you count the 25 minute bonus that sounds like a suspended animation effect from a video game.

The Beach Boys - That's Why God Made the Radio: The Beach Boys have long seemed to be functioning as their own tribute band, with very little to offer artistically beyond a fossilized nostalgia for yesteryear. Wilson, however, has skirted the margins of relevance for several years now, and the possibility of a real follow-up so SMiLE, no matter how slim, is too compelling to pass up.

John Coltrane - A Love Supreme: Coltrane was always searching, and A Love Supreme was the first clearly stated hypothesis in a newer experiment. It could be studied at length, not just from a musical or theoretical point of view, but also as a historical and cultural statement.

One last thing, if you made it this far.  Since "The Year in Rush" is drawing to a close, I'm considering a new background project: "The Jellyfish Family Tree" (unless anyone else has any other suggestions......).

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Brian Wilson's Return to the Beach Boys: The Big "What If?"

I like and respect The Beach Boys, but without Brian Wilson as the primary creative force behind the group, I am a lukewarm fan at best.  Without his vision, variously fractured lineups have danced precariously on the edge of becoming cruise ship lounge versions of the band, offering up very little more than paint-by-number versions of the songs that once defined them. Under normal circumstances I would not have given a 2012 release by the group much notice.

The new Beach Boys album, however, grabbed my interest. That’s Why God Made the Radio features Wilson returning to an “authentic” Beach Boys lineup with all surviving members. Many fans of Pet Sounds, like me, often love to play “what if..?” games with the Beach Boys’ creative arc if the band had supported Wilson’s vision for SMiLE. The potential of a true follow-up to these artistically adventurous albums, no matter how slim, earned it a spot on my Wish List which, like Etudes earlier this year, got it into my hand on my first Father’s Day.

That’s Why God Made the Radio is the first album of all-original Beach Boys compositions in nearly forty years, and it does capture the band’s classic aesthetic, particularly in the lush vocal arrangements.  However, the band froze their artistic progress decades ago in order to commercialize and cash in on their distinctive sound, so reproducing it is not that great a feat. In reality, the rusty melodic clichés associated with well-worn doo-wop progressions are sometimes too pronounced to ignore.

If the less daring tracks on That’s Why God Made the Radio were released by a younger band (like the Wondermints, who show up as studio contributors) they might leave a different impression. There is, however, a perhaps unfair distinction between purposely manipulating nostalgia and just being old-fashioned.

On the other hand, there are several moments on That’s Why God Made the Radio that acknowledge the potential of this seemingly impossible reunion.  Wilson’s relatively prolific solo output for the past decade often serves the album well.  At 70 years old, his expressive voice and compositional sensitivity preserve an almost childlike idealism, and when he takes center stage it is often sublimely beautiful. When the band focuses their still-intact vocal harmony on Wilson’s bittersweet arrangements, the rust flakes away to reveal the old deuce coupe, still running and cruising after all this time. Tracks like Pacific Coast Highway are easily worth the price of admission.

Pacific Coast Highway by The Beach Boys - on Grooveshark

As it stands, That’s Why God Made the Radio doesn’t exactly pick up where Pet Sounds left off, but it certainly feels more uniformly genuine than anything else they have done since the late 60s. There are not many bands that can boast a credible creative spark in their fiftieth year of existence, but despite being somewhat uneven, the album suggests that The Beach Boys just might.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Wondermints Shine on Brian Wilson's SMiLE

I used to fumble around Amazon quite irresponsibly, and sometimes, for better or for worse, a CD would just appear in my mailbox.  I would immediately rip these offerings into the MP3 player I began to use around this time, too, and I was pretty disciplined about keeping it updated with my latest acquisitions.  I soon felt naked walking to UNT campus without 300 albums floating around in my backpack.  In 2005, when The WondermintsMind if We Make Love to You unexpectedly showed up, I had hardly listened to it when, on one particularly pleasant fall afternoon, this incredible ditty cut through the fog. I don't think I have stopped singing it since.

If you’ve followed the blog at all, it is no secret that I am an advocate of progressive rock, but I hope that I don’t come across as insular. Prog is attached to an obvious (perhaps adolescent) technical virtuosity that I connected with at a particularly impressionable moment in my life, but I deeply admire the similar and perhaps more subtle virtuosic potentials of melodic rock and power pop. In the hands of lesser musicians, pop songwriting can come off as bland and formulaic, but The Wondermints have "that special something." Although there are great individual performances on Mind if We Make Love to You, they always stand in service to the enthralling melodies and harmonies that saturate each song.

Another Way by Wondermints on Grooveshark

The now-ubiquitous influence of The Beatles, particularly during their studio period, makes it easy to take for granted the kind of genius that is involved in album like Mind if We Make Love to You. In the 60s, bands were scrambling to keep up with Lennon and McCartney's innovations, and very few could compete. The Beach Boys stepped up to the plate, however, when they released the masterpiece Pet Sounds in response to the Beatles sprawling artistic vision.  The album was so ambitious that it cracked the foundations of the band.  Smile, the eccentric 1966 follow-up to Pet Sounds and Brian Wilson's legendary "teenage symphony to God," was so orchestral (maybe even progressive) that the Beach Boys refused to complete it, sending Wilson into a decades-long depression.

Although the Wondermints have not released any new material in quite awhile, they have remained active, particularly as collaborators with a recovered Brian Wilson. Wilson resurrected the Smile (now rendered as SMiLE) project in 2004, and keyboardist/singer Darian Sahanaja played a role in piecing together and arranging the incomplete segments. The final result, in which the Wondermints acted as Wilson’s backing band, revealed Wilson’s distinctive creativity and vision, as well as Sahanaja's talent.  The band was subsequently absorbed into the immense, but necessary, 20-piece SMiLE touring group. I was fortunate enough to see Wilson on this tour, and I distinctively remember him referring to Sahanaja as his “musical director.” Not a shabby designation, considering Wilson essentially played the same role in the band that produced some of the finest pop music of the 60s.

The live performances of SMiLE garnered some attention, and brought the brilliance and imagination of Brian Wilson into the awareness of the 21st century audience. As amazing as SMiLE is, however, I find that I revisit Mind if We Make Love to You more often. It’s a go-to album that reminds me what it is that I like about consistent, well-crafted songwriting.

Listen by Wondermints on Grooveshark

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Frozen Music: Beach House's "Bloom"

I was considering Beach House’s Myth as I wandered though a disconcerting, labyrinthine mosaic of kitchens and bathrooms. Most of the designs were quite extravagant, and they changed in the blink of an eye. Hardwood floors under white marble would transform into deeply textured granite over patterned tile. Glass backsplashes gave way to smooth river rocks, and although the cabinets retained the same physical shape, they varied wildly in hues that exploited the potentials of the wood spectrum.

This may sound like a scene from a David Lynch movie, but it adequately describes the grueling design meeting I was in with our house builders.  Obviously, I needed a break.  I felt quite sure that I had spotted a coffee machine when my wife and I entered the design center, but alas, that was four hours previous. When I found the pot its contents were painfully cold. I remained undeterred, though, and I fumbled through the unfamiliar controls of a high-end, but functional, microwave to warm it up.  Two minutes to think......

Like Lynch’s work and, consequently, Angelo Badalamenti’s, Bloom has a lovely veneer that seems to harbor a melancholic and perhaps ominous undertone. Although its misty textures are its most prominent feature, the individual songs are brought into sharp focus by the band’s keen melodic sense. Eloquent guitar work weaves the vocals to a radiating aura of keyboards, underpinned by loping, fluid grooves that don't propel as much as undulate. As a band, Beach House never quite erupts into a driving backbeat like Mew is known to do, but they capture a similar oneiric quality.

The accepted idea of what a "band" is, however, has changed pretty dramatically in the past decade. Beach House, for example, has no dedicated bass player, and for a band that emphasizes atmosphere so strongly, that's kind of an issue.  It is not unusual for current groups to sequence parts that, in the past, would have been played by a live musician.  Beach House's solution compliments their aesthetic beautifully.  The low end is handled by a set of Taurus-style foot pedals that guitarist Alex Scally plays while sitting (watch that first video again closely). The buzzing analog synth provides a satisfying and distinctive foundation for Beach House's bleak texture.

Goethe once famously said that architecture is like frozen music, the kind of deep metaphor that only a true polymath could make.  Like a house, music can be constructed out of  a multitude of materials.  As long as the dream home stands strong enough to be lived in, the details of its construction are an expression of personal aesthetic and circumstance.  Beach House's instrumentation has a positive and global consequence on their sound.  It is a subtle but absolutely necessary aspect of their identity.  At the heart of Bloom, however, lies consistently superior songs and poignant performances, and that makes the album a compelling experience worth dwelling within.

Monday, June 11, 2012

The Year in Rush Part 9: New Uses of Space and Time

As Rush’s timeline lengthened, the distance between their releases got wider and wider, but it wasn’t filled with empty space. In the six years leading up to Vapor Trails, Peart worked through an emotional burden that could have ended his career, an ordeal that is best recounted in his own words. My world radically changed in this gap, as well. The band I was playing in broke up, I graduated, began teaching in public schools, got married, and was subsequently divorced. I was a much different person by the time Vapor Trails was released in 2002. When it was announced, I was, of course, elated, but also skeptical. I had six years to get used to the idea that Rush was done, and after leaving on what I saw as a particularly low note in their catalog, I was uneasy about their return.

Vapor Trails, however, ended up being a compelling entry into Rush's canon. It is, admittedly, a casualty in the “loudness war” that producers were waging in the 00s, but that doesn’t hide the strengths of its distinctive compositional approach. Rush was focusing on creating a singular, synergistic sound to support Peart’s lyricsm, which now carried a noticeable emotionalism borne of experience. There were few guitar solos and noticeably dense chordal bass work from Lee. Traditional structures like choruses and verses were downplayed in favor of a more egalitarian flow from one musical idea to the next.

Most often, this approach worked. The overwhelming majority of the songs on Vapor Trails are gripping, and in some cases, the album’s cacophonous production enhances the vital drive that is a key element to Rush’s finest work. I find the explosive stabs of noise in Peaceable Kingdom to be particularly electrifying.

Peaceable Kingdom by Rush on Grooveshark

When they began their support tour, however, the issues of production melted away, and the band’s characteristic energy emerged. When I saw them on this tour, and the ones that followed throughout the decade, I felt that not only were they playing better than ever, but the quality of their sound continued to improve exponentially, as if stage sound had finally caught up to what they had been doing in the studio since the late 70s.

Although many of my memory episodes connected to previous Rush albums were of the people that I shared the actual listening experience with, their post – 2000 material brings contemporaneous experiences as a music teacher to the surface. Vapor Trails, for example, will always remind me of moving percussion equipment around the campus of Texas State University during All-State Solo and Ensemble contest in 2002. Additionally, the cultural impact of Guitar Hero had a positive influence on Rush’s relevance, and I sometimes engaged in critical discussions with students about Rush’s newer releases. In 2006 I went so far as to assign one of my jazz band drummers, who was musically studious but academically ineligible, to write a written review of Peart’s playing on Snakes and Arrows.

He pointed out, quite correctly, that overall, Snakes and Arrows has a noticeably relaxed feel. More subtly, however, the prominent appearance of the "Hemispheres chord" in the introduction of Far Cry indicates an intentional move to evoke nostalgia for the devoted fan, a strategy that extends into the song’s attendant video, as well as the album as a whole.

Although in some ways, Rush was self-sampling on Snakes and Arrows, their relaxed and confident playing is also reified in the album’s formatting. It is a unique mélange of songs and freestanding instrumentals that is unprecedented in the band’s catalog. Some of these tracks are quite short. In the distant past, these tidbits would have found their way into Rush’s extended work as connective tissue between larger ideas, but on Snakes and Arrows they find a life of their own as standalone compositions. 

As Rush and I grew up together, I often wondered how they would be able to maintain their intensity in a believable way as the years passed. Snakes and Arrows is a perfect example of what a mature version of the band I loved since I was a teen would sound like. More than any other album it is a culmination of everything Rush had done up to the point of its release. Its intensity is tempered by an unperturbed self-assurance that kept my passion for the band alive as a devout, if cautious, fan.

The Way the Wind Blows by Rush on Grooveshark

This fervor makes tomorrow a particularly exciting day, then, because Rush’s newest album, Clockwork Angels, is going to be released. There is the opportunity to hear nearly this entire album online, but I have tried to keep myself in the dark as much as possible to preserve the experience. Of course, my willpower has cracked a couple of times, and what I have heard has only whetted my appetite. The final entry for this project will be a review of Clockwork Angels, and I hope that I can be patient enough with myself to reserve judgment until the excitement of new Rush material dies down – just a little.

The previous post in the series is right here.
The next, and last (?) post is here.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Fishbone's "Truth and Soul" and Excluded Middles

Back when I was in high school, desegregation of public schools through busing was still a unilateral practice. Based on my street address, I was bussed across town for three years as a representative of the middle-class, white population from the south side. At the end of my junior year, however, busing was deregulated, and I had the opportunity to attend a local high school for my senior year. The campus was about ten minutes from my house and had a quality band program at the time, so I was more than happy to make this change.

One of the last musical gifts I got from my crew before bussing ended was Fishbone. Fishbone is a band unlike any other, and Truth and Soul, my entry point in 1988, is the finest in their catalog. It’s where the band balanced out their disparate influences into a playful, but serious, mix of thrash, funk, and contemplative songwriting. The single from this album was a cover of the Curtis Mayfield song Freddie’s Dead, and if you were lucky you might have caught it on 120 Minutes at about 2:30 in the morning.  The charisma and oddness that the band naturally exuded in this video froze my idea of what Fishbone was.

They are still around (although in a slightly different form) and have done a lot of great work since, but in retrospect, I was fortunate to have been introduced to the band through Truth and Soul in 1988. The album had a devout cult following at both schools, so when I felt like an outsider walking into cliques that had already been in place for years, it served as a salve. In the long term, however, I can say I got on board with Fishbone before the music industry ground them down to a knub of what they could have been.

The story of their struggles with public visibility is well documented in the recent documentary Everyday Sunshine, which is quite extraordinary in its own right.  The movie's recounting of Fishbone's early days reveals that the band was a cultural product of the same desegregation and busing policies that had moved me across town. Their actual experience, however, was much different and more difficult than mine. Fishbone’s members were bussed across town as representatives of Los Angeles’ lower-income population. The band emerged in their local neighborhood garage, musically navigating their own exclusion and integration into a middle-class, primarily white population.

This situation is subtly documented all over Truth and Soul.  In addition to its brilliant pacing, quirky charisma, and astounding musicianship, it is also obvious that Fishbone actually stood for a certain mode of social existence under a particular historical condition. Their lyrics were often overtly political, but carried with it subtle overtones of hope for reconciliation.

Despite their genius, and the undeniable artistic success of Truth and Soul, Fishbone remained decidedly outside of the mainstream and they fell between the cracks in 1988. When No Doubt came on the scene in the late 90s, I was appalled at how readily the music press labeled them as innovators when they were so obviously copping Fishbone’s best work. However, the visibility that No Doubt brought to the post-punk ska sound has helped to preserve the freshness of Truth and Soul. After all this time, I consider it to be Fishbone’s classic, defining record.

Monday, June 4, 2012

The Year in Rush Part 8: Reflecting on the Alternative

In the 90s, the password was "alternative" - a music category that represented a shift in ideology rather than in style. In the years during and after Nirvana’s popularity this term was repurposed and widened by the music press to promote the heavier sounds of bands like Pearl Jam and Soundgarden. When these grunge bands started to hit the airwaves it was apparent, at least to me, that a generation of musicians raised on the fiery riffs of 2112 were finally assuming control.

Still, there was an inexplicable stigma that went along with being a Rush fan during the 90s.  I remained loyal, but I harbored a secret hope that the band might find inspiration in this wave of overdriven guitars and thunderous drums and go for a more vintage sound. I was nothing short of elated when the Carlos Casteneda book I was reading on the job as a bowling alley pin boy was interrupted by the dissonant riffing of Stick it Out.

In the media, however, the generation gap between Rush and their younger grunge contemporaries was impassable.  Ever on the ready to bash the band, the music press criticized Counterparts for jumping on the "alternative" bandwagon when it was released in 1993, a position that I find laughable. Even at the height of their popularity, Rush had never been a mainstream act. In my book, they were always and already the alternative.

In any case, Counterparts was, and is, easily their best album since Power Windows, perhaps even since Moving Pictures, depending on the degree of synth bias you, the listener, harbor.  It carries the succinct songwriting fingerprint of their early 90s work, but also has the vitality and adventurousness that attracted me to the band in the first place. It was also their most consistent release in a very long time. There were no tracks to merely tolerate, because even the weakest tracks on the album were actually tear-jerkingly good.

I saw Counterparts as an artistic comeback for Rush and a return to form that I hoped would gain momentum as their career progressed.  Even today, I count is as one of Rush's finest albums, and probably their most underrated.

Three years after its release, however, I was disappointed with its successor Test for Echo. Although the album retained the heavier sound of its predecessor, and incorporated some use of non-standard song forms, overall it just seemed forced. For the first time, I began to consider the possibility that perhaps Rush’s best work was actually behind them.

The most surprising flaw of the album was, uncharacteristically, Peart’s lyrics. After his revealing take on interpersonal relationships on Counterparts, Test for Echo seemed aloof and removed. This did very little, however, to tame his playing, which he was famously reworking under the tutelage of jazz drummer Freddie Gruber.

Now I admit that by 1996, I had pretty much given up on progressive rock and was delving into the artistic potentials of power pop. Listening back to Test for Echo today, I think that perhaps my initial judgment was a bit harsh and shaped by my tastes (and peers) at the time.  Although it lacks the consistency and confidence of Counterparts, it does have some standout moments in terms of musicianship and studio craft.

Even though Test for Echo was uneven, it ended up playing an important role in Rush's longevity.  For nearly thirty years, Rush kept regenerating based on the music that Lee, Lifeson, and Peart were listening to at the time, but these late 90s albums were different.  Counterparts brought the band's broad influence on music in general to light, but Test for Echo was self-referential.  Its most obvious inspiration was culled from the vast catalog of music that Rush had generated since their inception, and less from external sources.  This was a new perspective that would successfully reinvigorate the band after a series of personal events would put them on an unfortunate hiatus for over five years.  

To go back to the previous post in the series, click here
The next entry is here.