Monday, May 30, 2011
Before I really got into music and before Ben Gibbard became my arch nemesis by marrying Zooey Deschanel, Death Cab for Cutie defined indie rock for me. Right around the time Plans came out, the inoffensive jangle of hit singles “Soul Meets Body” and “I Will Follow You Into the Dark” were so omnipotent, I assumed that was what all independent music got off on. A song like “Crooked Teeth”, a bona fide classic in my mind, was vaguely quirky but nevertheless incredibly safe, the musical equivalent of a soft pat on the back. The group’s music never spoke out of turn and addressed love and faith in terms so grand they wouldn’t so much as ruffle the perfectly coifed hair of a JC Penny model. When I later found out that the group’s name was based on a song that Digital Dream Door named one of the strangest of all time, it made perfect sense. Death Cab for Cutie were a group with just enough snark to keep their creativity levels barely above cruise control.
And then “I Will Possess Your Heart” came out. At over eight minutes, the track was the last thing I was expecting to hear from the homely guys who wrote “The Sound of Settling”. It told a story through the perspective a persistent stalker, but Gibbard worded his lines so as to make the narrator sound almost amiable. “How I wish you could see the potential,” the protagonist quietly laments after nearly five minutes of an ominous bassline and light piano. “The potential for you and me.” It was a brilliant expression of a complicated character narrative and the song’s video was just as fascinating, a camera wordlessly following a girl across the world; haunting and yet so ambiguous. The song convinced me Death Cab were capable of making music that could confound as well as comfort. At the very least it signaled a maturation in style.
That newfound darkness, to a certain extent, is injected into all the songs of Death Cab for Cutie’s eighth album, Code and Keys. While no track reaches the creative heights of “I Will Possess”, the album is more consistent in the group’s attempts to stray away from major chords and verses-chorus-verse structures. The chorus of “House Is A Fire” pivots on a strange key, sounding unsure but intriguing amidst electronic percussion I hesitate to relate to Ben Gibbard’s 2003 one-off, The Postal Service. Songs like “Some Boys”, “Doors Unlocked and Open” and first single “You Are A Tourist” are conventional pop songs built around foreboding piano lines and heavy bass. This sonic gloom, along with the album’s improved production, is a welcomed addition to the Death Cab aesthetic that gives the group a much-needed depth.
However, there are other songs on the album that have a Plans-like obsequiousness. “Underneath the Sycamore”, “Monday Morning” and the title track are laden with timid acoustics and Jason McGrerr’s painfully metronomic drumming (which is a shame because he has proven himself to be quite good on songs like “Meet Me on the Equinox” and “I Will Possess”). These are great songs, but I prefer Death Cab when they go for something greater than the sum of their parts, like on penultimate track, “St. Peter’s Cathedral.” Beginning with Gibbard singing over light organ, the song builds with a faint choir and synthetic percussion until the group strikes a minor chord and the track swells wonderfully in a flurry of Boy Scout chants and Gibbard’s insistence that there is no afterlife.
For all this talk of a discovered negativity, Codes and Keys will probably be known as one of the few Death Cab albums to end on a happy note. “Stay Young Go Dancing” is just about as joyous of a waltz as you can surmise from its title. It’s a great song like the rest of Codes and Keys, but it also shares their marginal confliction. You see, at this point, Death Cab for Cutie have a lot of styles to contend with. I haven’t even mentioned albums of that innocuous back pat pop like Transatlanticism and Something About Airplanes that longtime Death Cab fans were hoping the group would return to after Narrow Stairs. There isn’t really anything like that on Codes and Keys, and, personally, I’m happy about that. It’s no revelation, but the album is an indication that the group continues to move onto something different, a quality of which I am pleasantly surprised to find.
I’ve never been very much into My Morning Jacket, mostly because I find that they are a band founded upon contradiction. The first song I heard from the group was “Off the Record” off their 2005 album, Z. It was a breezy indie rock number that went into an electronic-indebted jam session in its second half. The song clocked in at five and a half minutes and that felt just right for a song so poppy and modest. Come to find out, though, that the group is supposed to be a southern rock outfit with Flying V guitars and raucous live shows, and I couldn’t believe it. This was mostly due to MMJ singer Jim James’s voice. It was so soft, so nasally; it couldn’t possible fit over any music that was remotely aggressive.
So now, we find ourselves at My Morning Jacket’s sixth album and I’m still having trouble with that contradiction in their style. The Louisville group seems to have a lot of ideas on Circuital, and the product’s a bit of a sprawl. “Victory Dance” sounds like a Deep Purple raised in Memphis and “Wonderful (The Way I Feel)” sounds like acoustic Neil Young. More than any other song I’ve heard in a long time, “Outta My System” sounds like The Who circa The Who Sell Out. With double-tracked vocals, James speaks of the need to get debauchery done early in life so that it doesn’t manifest itself in a “midlife crisis”. “They told me not to smoke drugs, but I wouldn’t listen / Never thought I’d get caught and wind up in prison / Chalk it up to youth but young age I ain’t dissin’ / I just had to get it outta my system,” James sings at the track’s beginning and I’m immediately reminded of a Roger Daltry-like character lecturing youngin’s only slightly younger than he. I half expect James to say he can see his drug problem going on for miles and miles.
It’s difficult to say whether Circuital lives up to the southern rock thrill that I have often heard is these guys’ trademark. Instead, we have some really good indie rock songs, nothing more nothing less. “You Wanna Freak Out” is light guitar pop in the vein of “Off the Record” that is a highlight late in the album. “First Light” is a classic rocker shaken up by a blaring low-end synth. The winner of best track on the album is a three-way tie between the title track, “The Day Is Coming” and “Holdin’ On to Black Metal”. The title track erupts from an acoustic jaunt into reliable rips of power chords and guitar solos. “The Day Is Coming” features an off-kilter drum pattern with a bass boom that refreshes the verses. And “Black Metal” features a children’s choir and a horn section, two of the least likely components to ever be featured on a black metal song. Nevertheless, it rocks like a raunchy spy film theme sung with dainty falsettos.
Despite the many places that My Morning Jacket explore on Circuital, the group never stretches themselves too thin. It’s a very consistent release and fans of the group’s last two albums will find nothing to object to here. I don’t know if Circuital or My Morning Jacket in general deserve all this critical praise, but I dislike nothing on the group’s newest and enjoy quite a bit of it. One could make the argument that MMJ is having some significant trouble finding a cohesive sound, but I’d be more likely to chalk that up to experimentation rather than indecisiveness. While not exemplary, Circuital will satisfy one’s taste for indie rock that wishes it were a couple decades older.
While listening to Demolished Thoughts, I cannot help but think, “He would.” A guy like Thurston Moore, an integral part of one of the pioneering indie rock groups of the late 80’s, would write an album that sounds like a collection of acoustic pseudo-grunge songs. Listening to Demolished Thoughts, I am reminded of an excellently produced mid-90’s “MTV Unplugged” performance. I know such a description carries along with it many negative connotations, but it’s true. Demolished Thoughts is a beautiful album that always makes it clear from what era its maker comes from.
Moore’s voice on Demolished Thoughts sounds like J. Mascis at times, others like Marcy Playground’s Jon Wozniak. His notes trail off like Michael Stipe at a low register. He’s adequate and distinct, but quaint and unassuming. The album’s arrangements, however, more than make up for that. Demolished Thoughts is almost exclusively acoustic with a drummer, bassist, harpist and violinist providing the only accompaniment. Its songs are solemn but breathtakingly. First track “Benediction” is languid with swelling violin that comes in at just the right time. When his acoustic moves heavenward to accommodate Moore’s higher register as he sings, “You better hold your lover down,” it’s glorious. The whole album is filled with moments like these; songs so beautifully arranged that, by the end, Moore’s voice only gets a few lines in before the listener is transported back into this agreeable wonderland.
Demolished Thoughts ain’t all butterflies and The Sound of Music, though. Moore strums his acoustic aggressively on “Circulation”, a track that disseminates into booming darkness during its chorus. “Mina Loy” is also dark and an excellent exhibit of Moore’s versatile guitar playing. His work here may not burst into raucous solos, but there isn’t a moment when what and how he plays his six-string doesn’t contribute to the tone of the music.
I almost wish there were more moments like “Mina Loy” on Demolished Thoughts. As I mentioned before, by the end of the album, Moore defects most of his songs to instrumentals and this sometimes makes the tracks blend unintentionally. Still, it’s an impressive album that I don’t think anyone expected from this noise rock luminary, let alone expected to sound this good. What ultimately may be most important about Demolished Thoughts, is that it shows that, at 53, Thurston Moore still has something to prove. How cool is that?
About a year ago, Joanna Newsom talked to The Guardian about her dislike of Lady Gaga. “I'm mystified by the laziness of people looking at how she presents herself, and somehow assuming that implies there's a high level of intelligence in the songwriting,” she said, later clarifying that Gaga was basically “Arty Spice” and that her music and the way people treat it made her long for the days of Cyndi Lauper. I was surprised by those words from a singer/songwriter that has seldom been so outspoken, but I remember being more surprised by what Ryan Dombal had to say about it after reporting on the story in a Pitchfork article:
“Strong words. You could argue that Gaga's success in making people like M.I.A. and Joanna Newsom hopped up enough to consider the idea of art and talk out of turn in interviews basically fulfills her purpose. She's a provocateur, and it seems to be working.”
Proving Newsom’s point to an extent. Others may have dismissed Joanna Newsom’s criticisms for being jealous of Lady Gaga’s success and I would actually agree with that assessment. If you were writing twelve minute long multi-part suites in the form of intricately sequenced triple albums, how would you feel if it turned out all you had to do to be wildly commercially and critically successful was to strap on a meat dress and sing about disco sticks over tinny techno?
Lady Gaga’s at an envious point in her career where she could do whatever she liked and people would call it an artistic revelation. Now, I’m not saying reception to Gaga’s newest album, Born This Way, is like that, but I have a hunch that if she were to release an album of Auto-tuned belches, her fan base would find some way to dance to it and many a music critic would find reason to hail it as the next logical step in her crusade as America’s “provocateur”. Gaga’s at a place right now where it’s just convenient to join her bandwagon and dissent is stifled or debased to that cursed accusation of “jealousy”. Put simply, Lady Gaga is too big to fail.
Before I get into this review, I have one question to ask those reading this, whether they be Gaga fans or not: Do you honestly believe that people will remember Born This Way ten years from now? NOT Lady Gaga, Born This Way. Lady Gaga’s third album released on Interscope. Do you think that people will remember the music on this record in a decade: a tenth of a century? If your answer is in the affirmative or the negative, I urge you to read on. You can probably tell what my answer to that question is.
Let me begin by saying I don’t care about the themes of Born This Way. I don’t care about the obtuse sexual references, the gay pandering or the frequent references to a Black Jesus. You know why? Because Madonna did it almost thirty years ago. I know that it’s taboo to say Lady Gaga owes her entire career to Madonna, cliché even, but it’s absolutely true and needs to be acknowledged. There’s a reason why religious groups were barely frothing at the mouth when Gaga appeared in a latex nun outfit in her video for “Alejandro”, and that was because they thought they had pretty much stated their case about it. Thirty. Years. Ago. Listening to Lady Gaga and watching her videos, I can’t help but think that the Tipper Gores of the world have won, when we find what is controversial to be a slight upgrade from what was divisive decades ago. And Madonna didn’t need to write a whole album to be controversial. She just needed to make one video and that was it. She moved on.
And if you think that I’m somehow glorifying Madonna out of all this, I ask you to name Madonna’s third album. See, even I can’t name that shit.
The lyrics of Born This Way are an easy target for criticism, but I would rather not discuss them in this review. It should be a no brainer that lines like “Put your hands on me / John F. Kennedy” are nonsensical and, when taken seriously, sound even more ridiculous. Ed Comantale’s review of Born This Way for Tiny Mix Tapes does just that and is hilarious as a result, so I definitely recommend reading that if you want to get a full hazing of Gaga’s lyrical talent (although I’m still not completely sure if he’s joking in the piece, which makes it that much more entertaining). However, one could argue that the lyrical content of Born This Way should be taken with a grain of salt. After all, Lady Gaga never pretends that her lyrics mean anything substantive.
Oh wait except she does. All over Born This Way, there are STATEMENT songs that try to either empower or inflame, but they all come off as inert. Equating one’s freedom to one’s hair in “Hair”, while characteristically Gaga in its relation of the superficial to the profound, is a pretty lame way of instilling pride in one’s listeners. And in the unfortunate country experiment “Yoü and I”, Gaga sings in a faux twang, “There’s only three men that imma serve my whole life / It’s my daddy and Nebraska and Jesus Christ.” While that line would make for an entertaining Christmas card, the mission statement is meaningless and yet sung with all the heartfelt relevance of a letter from Saint Paul to the Corinthians. I wouldn’t care so much about this if Gaga made a point of acknowledging how stupid her lyrics were. But throughout Born This Way, she positively refuses, forcing me to apologize for this unequivocal rubbish for her.
It also doesn’t help that the production of Born This Way is surprisingly cheap. I will concede that songs like “Bad Romance” and “Alejandro” were dumb fun because their hooks were so catchy, but it seems like Gaga made a conscious decision to put the production quality of Born This Way on the backburner so she could concentrate on her lyrics… but then forgot to write those as well. However fabulously Gaga fashions herself on Born This Way, the album’s beats are no better than that of Ke$ha, sloppy seconds from a Dr. Luke coke and hookers party. Famous Def Leppard producer Mutt Lange guests on “Yoü and I” but channels more Songs From the Sparkle Lounge than Pyromania. “Americano” and “Scheiße” try to distract from their lazy stereotypes of ethnic music by having Gaga speak in different languages, of which I don’t think anyone was asking more of after “Bad Romance”. Also, did I mention there are seventeen tracks on this thing? To say that Born This Way could have used some editing is a vast understatement.
However, there is a reason why I didn’t just slap an “F” on Born This Way and move on. There are some moments on the album that are fun for what they are. The first couple singles like the title track are tolerable and “Government Hooker” is enjoyable for its superfluous self-censorship and the funny voice of the guy who sings “Back up and turn around” in the song’s pre-chorus. Even though it’s a part-by-part rewrite of “Bad Romance”, “Judas” is a barnburner for the sheer lack of fucks it’s willing to give. The verses pummel your eardrums relentlessly while a skuzzy synth dirties up the mix into an amalgamation of what the Lady Gaga aesthetic utopia could be. Much later in the album, “The Queen” has the faint keyboard chord changes to make it a contender for a decent Olivia Newton John song. However, that track is the fifteenth on Born This Way. There are eleven other songs in between that and “Judas”. The interim is a long fucking slog.
It seems now that the music has become only a small fraction of the multimedia monster that is Lady Gaga. I asked whether you believe Born This Way will be remembered in ten years as opposed to Lady Gaga the artist, because I find it impossible to extricate the album from the person who made it, and that’s a huge problem. Even with the most unapologetically personal album of this decade to date, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye West could tell stories that you wouldn’t need to be knee deep in his bullshit to relate to. This is not the case with Lady Gaga. If you think she is great for her advocacy of gay rights and her adventurous fashion sense, that’s fantastic and I will support your support of her, but to say that her music reflects these ambitions is disingenuous. Gaga has made a career out of rewriting the same five songs into full albums so she can concentrate on her image as an activist and a populist, and Born This Way is no different. However, I got news for you folks. That’s not a revolution, that’s the music industry at its ugliest.