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The Chemical Brothers: Further (pt. 1)

liftingmehigher

Dear Matthew:

It’s time for some more bleeps and bloops.

Earlier this summer, one of my favourite bands, the Chemical Brothers, put out a new record. It’s OK, I guess. It’s not bad. It’s got some great moments. But it didn’t floor me like the last time they put out a new album. That album came out in 2010, and it was called Further.

The Manchurian duo of Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons first turned heads in the early 90s as the Dust Brothers. But, since there was already an American production duo called the Dust Brothers, they swapped the Dust for Chemicals, and went on to basically invent a style of electronic music production that dominated the genre for the rest of the decade. They combined the more acidic, psychedelic aspects of electronic music with the sampling aesthetic of hip hop — hypnotic, spacey synths married with soul and funk samples and big, bombastic drums in a way that really hadn’t been done before. The style came to be called ‘big beat’, and it was everywhere. Think Fatboy Slim, think the Prodigy… basically, think the soundtrack to every video game and sci-fi movie from your childhood. You have the Chemical Brothers to thank (blame?).

They were also at the fore of the trend of electronic groups working with big-name guest vocalists from often completely disparate genres — perhaps most notably on the 1996 single that put them on the map, the absolutely bonkers ‘Setting Sun‘, which featured Noel Gallagher of Oasis fame*. This, combined with their genre-bending and often quite heavy sound, gave them (and others like them) a crossover appeal that electronic music didn’t really have before — it was now ‘OK’ for rock fans to listen to techno. (Or at least, techno that sounded like ‘Setting Sun’. Oof. That song still kicks my ass.) It also gave them a huge sonic palette to work with — they could be raw and abrasive, they could be lush and euphoric, and they could be anything in between.

All of these things combine to make their sophomore album, 1997’s Dig Your Own Hole, their ‘classic’ album, and indeed a landmark album of the genre and even the decade. But you’re not listening to to that album, or the one after that, or even the one after that. No, the album you’re listening to, Further, is their seventh studio LP.

Why? Because while Dig Your Own Hole is interesting because of what it meant for the genre as a whole, Further is interesting because of what it meant for the band. See, after the success of Dig Your Own Hole, the Brothers went on to make — and I say this as an absolutely massive fan of the band — four more albums cut from pretty much the same cloth. Big hooky first track. Guest vocals from someone famous. Brief return to breakbeat roots. Ravey dancefloor tune. Guest vocals from someone not famous at all. Psychedelicdrawn-out album closer (usually). Again, I love them, but I’ll be the first to admit that they were getting predictable. (Mostly.)

Right away, it’s clear that Further is a conscious effort to break away from the formula. Unlike literally every other Chem Bros album, it features no guest vocals at all (barring a few scattered lines from Massive Attack’s Stephanie Dosen). It’s only got eight tracks; none of them clock less than five mintues, and one of them (the second one, even!) is a whopping twelve. This is decidedly not an album of radio pop hits.

But what’s really cool about this album? The CD version comes with a DVD that features visuals for each song, created by Flatnose George, the production duo of Adam Smith and Marcus Lyall who have been doing the Brothers’ live visuals since the very beginning. They’re not music videos in the conventional sense; they’re abstract, experimental video art, forming a very loose visual narrative to accompany the album. Make no mistake, they are definitely intended to be displayed on twenty-foot-high screens at music festivals where everyone is on psychoactive drugs — but it turns out that Smith and Lyall’s style works when you scale it down to the album level, too. Part of this is that their style is so different from what you usually associate with techno music visuals — it’s not computer-generated fractals and laser beams, it’s mostly footage of real-world objects (including people) lit, shot and edited in extremely interesting and creative ways.**

TL;DR: as with ISAM Live, you won’t be listening to this album so much as watching it.

Until this album, the Brothers were kind of like a techno Quentin Tarantino. Their early work was revolutionary, and you still looked forward to their new releases, because you knew they would be good. But at the same time, you know it’s never going to blow anyone out of the water the way the older stuff did at the time — by its very nature, that kind of lightning can really only strike once. I don’t know that Tarantino has necessarily had a Further, but the Chemical Brothers have, and I love it. Five years later, it might still be my favourite album of theirs. How often do you get to say that about a band’s seventh album?

I don’t know. Maybe this album won’t floor you quite the way it floored me at the time. It’s certainly not embedded in your psyche as the soundtrack of your tumultuous summer of 2010. But it’s still a great record, and with your roots in old-school British psychedelia, I don’t think the Brothers will have to work too hard to win you over. So, pour a glass of your favourite beverage, dim the lights — or, if it’s daytime, rebuild your closet music cave — and get ready for a pretty wild ride.

— Matt

* You’re a Beatles fan. Does ‘Setting Sun‘ remind you of anything in particular? How about ‘I’ll See You There‘ (apologies for the stream quality), a song they released almost 20 years later? Don’t worry, these guys have some pretty deep roots in old-school British psychedelia, too.

** The Brothers have always had an interesting visual component to their work. The rise of big beat in the 90s also lead to the rise of abstract, high-production-value music videos for techno music, often by ‘auter’ directors like Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry. In 2011, they scored the fantastic spy-thriller-meets-coming-of-age film, Hanna. And, of course, those Further-style visuals have been part of their live show since the start. (Adam Smith directed a fantastic concert film, Don’t Think, documenting their show at Fuji Rock Fest in 2012.)

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David Bowie: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (pt. 2)

Ziggy

Dear Matthew:

I don’t think I get David Bowie.

Like, this is an OK album, I guess. I’m glad I listened to it. Art this legendary is always at least worth checking out, and this album is nothing if not legendary. I always try to remember that, if a lot of people really like something, they can’t all be wrong. But I’ve got to be honest: I didn’t love Ziggy Stardust.

Maybe this is just my own prexisting feelings about Bowie. I know his singles, because it’s kind of impossible not to, and I find them very hit or miss. ‘Fame’ is a jam, and I guess I can tolerate ‘Changes’. But I absolutely loathe ‘Space Oddity’. Everything about early Bowie is just so overwrought — whiny, almost. And sorry, but Ziggy Stardust is, for me at least, definitely still early Bowie. (Give me 80s Bowie any day.)

I realize that this is hugely hypocritical of me. I have no problem with musical ridiculousness. Perhaps more pressingly, one of my favourite records of all time is also a concept album about space bullshit. So, as I was listening and it was becoming clear that I wasn’t going to love Ziggy Stardust, I tried to figure out why that was. Why do I love the gritty weirdo space rap but not the gay space alien glam rock?

Maybe it’s that the gay space alien glam rock is too legendary.

I hate to keep coming back to this, but you know how I called Wu-Tang Clan the Seinfeld of underground rap? (By which I meant that they were so profoundly original that everything they did has been so thoroughly emulated that their profound originality isn’t obvious unless you know what came before?) I don’t think that’s what’s going on here. In the case of Wu-Tang and Seinfeld, their imitators aped what they did with completely straight faces. Subsequent generations of rappers and TV producers saw something that worked, so they adapted it for their own purposes. It was doable, because they weren’t aping specifics of the work so much as general principles. TV sitcoms are now populated exclusively by sociopaths, but specific Seinfeld parodies are pretty thin on the ground. Rap songs with campy movie samples and bitcrushed drums are now a dime a dozen, but no one ever tries to literally be another Wu-Tang Clan.

But with Bowie, there aren’t really any general principles to ape, other than ‘overwrought androgynous rockstar’. Everything about what he’s doing is so wildly, inventively specific that the only way to cash in on its success is to parody it, or directly reference it. It hit me like a thunderbolt about halfway through ‘Starman’: I am more familiar with homages to / parodies of David Bowie than I am with actual David Bowie.

Flight of the Conchords. Daft Punk. The Venture Bros. My own cultural experience is littered with caricatures of all things Bowie, to the point of cliché. I feel like I’ve heard ‘Starman’ a million times, when really what I’ve heard is a million things referencing ‘Starman’. So is it that I actually find ‘Starman’ overwrought and annoying, or has that sentiment just been clouded by endless secondhand exposure?

I am, of course, doing that thing where I’m making it seem like I liked the album less than I did. I am still glad that I listened to it, and there are some great moments on the album. (‘Suffragette City’ kicks ass.) And for what it’s worth, I listened to Aladdin Sane immediately after I finished Ziggy Stardust. (Don’t hold your breath — my feelings about the two albums are pretty much the same.) But as with a lot of things from the 70s, David Bowie just isn’t really my bag.

— Matt

PS: Do you watch The Venture Bros.? I think you’d like The Venture Bros.

Wu-Tang Clan: Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (pt. 1)

36chambers

Dear Matthew:

In the spirit of your most recent assignment for me, I’ve also got a ‘back to the basics’ assignment for you this week. My first assignment for you was Deltron 3030, an underground rap classic. And I know you’re a fan of a lot of other modern underground/alternative rap, like MF DOOM and Run the Jewels. I’ve also often noted that I’ve heard the DNA of some of my favourite modern music in older records you’ve assigned to me. This is going to be a long post, so please bear with me.

Your assignment this week, then, is nothing less than one of the most influential albums in rap history: Wu-Tang Clan‘s 1993 debut album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers).

•          •          •

To understand why 36 Chambers was so influential, you have to know a bit about what hip hop was like before Wu-Tang. Rap music started in the late ’70s at street parties in New York City — specifically, in poor black neighbourhoods in the Bronx — thrown by guys like DJ Kool Herc. You’ve probably heard the song most often cited as the first recorded rap song, the Sugarhill Gang’s ‘Rapper’s Delight‘. This is pretty representative of most early hip hop music: an MC performing rhyming spoken raps over a looped disco beat. (Kurtis Blow’s ‘The Breaks‘ is another good example of this.) The rhyming schemes don’t usually get much more complicated than having the last syllable of a line rhyme with the previous one. The words are generally about dancing, partying, and the talents and general desirability of the MC and his friends, and the delivery is almost singsong. At this point, musically, rap is kind of just this weird offshoot of disco.

By the mid to late ’80s, however, rap has taken off in a major way. In what is now generally known as the New School era, artists like Run-D.M.C., the Beastie Boys, Public Enemy and the like are all becoming household names. Def Jam, a NYC-based label specializing in hip hop, is now a record industry titan. Beatmakers start using technology like samplers, drum machines and synthesizers in their production. Turntablism is born. Soul and funk music, particularly that of James Brown, is sampled extensively. You also start to see rhyme schemes get more complex — rappers like Rakim start using things like internal and multisyllabic rhyming, and move away from that distinctive ’80s singsong-style rap toward a more monotone, yet aggressive, delivery. (A lot of critics say that, in terms of lyricism, you can draw a pretty distinctive line in the sand in terms of pre-Rakim and post-Rakim.)

After this decade of explosive creativity, rap is now A Thing. It has coalesced from a scene into a genre, and now it’s expanding. On the West Coast, Dr. Dre and N.W.A (Niggaz Wit Attitudes) pioneer a style that comes to be called gangsta rap that focuses on the violent criminal lifestyles said rappers (claim to) lead. (Dre also pioneers a style called G-funk that features lots of smooth synth leads and highly synthetic drums.) Now there’s a sort of tension in the industry, because labels want to sell rap music to white people, but white people are kind of scared by black people who make songs with titles like ‘Fuck tha Police‘. So in the early ’90s, the major labels are still putting out rap, but it’s mostly a sort of ‘rap lite’ — marketable and completely inoffensive acts like DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince or Young MC.

In 1992, this is the musical landscape in which Robert Fitzgerald Diggs finds himself. His cousin, Gary Grice, has released a solo album as the Genius, but it was not particularly well promoted by the label. Diggs is pissed off at the industry for what he sees as an unwillingness to invest in music made by black street kids, from whence hip hop was originally begot. So, he formulates a plan: in five years, he and his high-school-dropout friends are going to take over the industry.

It’s an insane plan. But what’s even more insane is that it worked.

•          •          •

Drawing from the Supreme Alphabet, Diggs — formerly Prince Rakeem — rechristens himself the RZA. He rounds up his cousins and rap comrades Grice (now the GZA) and Russell Jones (Ol’ Dirty Bastard), and six others: Clifford Smith (Method Man), Corey Woods (Raekwon), Dennis Coles (Ghostface Killah), Jason Hunter (Inspectah Deck), Elgin Turner (Masta Killa), and Lamont Hawkins (U-God). Sharing a mutual love of kung-fu movies and Five-Percenter philosophy, they dub themselves the Wu-Tang Clan, after the practitioners of the most deadly sword style. In RZA’s Staten Island basement, he presents the Clan with his proposal: he has a plan to do nothing less than take over the entire industry — but the only way it will work is if he calls all of the shots. If you sign on, you’re essentially signing your career decisions over to him for the next five years, no questions asked.

The pact is made. RZA collects $100 from each member who wants a verse to produce the group’s first single, ‘Protect Ya Neck‘. It’s a gritty, lo-fi number literally made in a basement that doesn’t have anything you could really call a chorus, or even a hook. Instead, it’s got eight whiplash-inducingly different MCs trading verses for almost five minutes. RZA spikes his crunchy drum samples and eerie piano loops with kung-fu movie dialogue and a take-no-prisoners verse of his own. Verbally, the Clan is mixing post-Rakim lyricism with the violence and realness of gangsta rap, with a heaping dose of pop-culture references on top*. They bully a few local DJs into playing it, but they don’t have to try hard — it’s a dynamite record that sounds nothing like anything anyone else is doing.

Soon, hype for their first album is building. RZA is able to negotiate a unique deal with the nascent Loud Records. For a paltry $60,000, Loud gets the Wu-Tang Clan, but with a catch: the individual members of the Clan can pursue solo careers in any way they see fit, with any label they see fit, with the full backing of the Wu-Tang name. In 1993, 36 Chambers hits the streets, and it’s a smash hit. Already, RZA’s plan is working.

See, RZA’s plan isn’t really about getting the Wu-Tang Clan a record deal; remember, he wants to infiltrate the entire industry. So, almost immediately after 36 Chambers drops, RZA is back to work in his basement studio making beats for the first round of Wu-Tang solo projects. And RZA doesn’t just want his Clan members to get any old record deal — he uses specific members to target specific labels and markets. He knows Raekwon and Ghostface will appeal to the street/gangsta crowd. He knows the aptly named Genius will appeal to the college crowd. He figures Method Man has the most mainstream crossover appeal, which is why Meth gets one of only two solo tracks on 36 Chambers, and why RZA signs him to Def Jam. ODB is, as always, the wildcard. (There’s a great NPR On Record piece on this from which I am cribbing heavily.)

Over the next three years, RZA produces a whopping five Wu-Tang solo projects, all on different labels. All are well received. (He also somehow finds the time to join Prince Paul’s Gravediggaz.) And now, not only is the Wu-Tang name everywhere, but so is the sound. Cut-up soul samples are everywhere. Harsh, street-life rhymes are everywhere. The Ol’ Dirty Bastard is everywhere. Wu-Tang is nothing short of a movement. In 1997, the group reunites for a double LP, Wu-Tang Forever. It debuts at number one.

RZA has done it. In five years, he has taken over the industry, exactly as promised — and he’s kickstarted a major East Coast rap renaissance in the process.

•          •          •

So, how does 36 Chambers hold up in 2015? Well, I think the first thing you’ll notice is how modern it sounds. It’s certainly a product of its time, but it’s not that big a leap from this record to something like Deltron 3030 or Madvillainy, or even RTJ2. To use a comparison I’ve used before on this blog, 36 Chambers is the Seinfeld of underground rap: to a modern ear, its explosive originality is essentially invisible, because so much of what set it apart from its contemporaries has been so widely adopted in its wake. Lots of rappers and producers owe their entire careers to the sound pioneered by RZA and the Clan, musically and lyrically. (Kanye names RZA as one of his biggest production influences.)

Of course, the Clan ended up being a bit of a victim of its own success. At the conclusion of the five-year plan, RZA took on more of a managerial role in the Clan, and its solo and group efforts thereafter have been met with very mixed responses. Ol’ Dirty Bastard, arguably the biggest mainstream success story of the clan, was in and out of prison and became increasingly unstable, as so many big musical personalities do, and eventually died of a drug overdose in 2004. And of course, the Wu-Tang sound and name being everywhere became a problem in itself; listening back on them today, the first round solo projects all sound kind of samey**. They oversaturated the market. He who fights monsters and all that.

Having now written 1,400 words about a 60-minute rap album from 20 years ago, I realize this is a lot of baggage to have to unpack. But luckily, even without this tome, 36 Chambers stands up on its own merits. Even though there are nine full Clan members, the chemistry between them is electric. (Don’t worry too much if you can’t pick everyone out by name by the end of the first listen, although a few are bound to stick in your mind. I’m curious to know who, though, and why.) The corny kung-fu dialogue, the sludgy soul loops and bloated low-end, the ghostly bit-crush of the RZA’s shitty sampler — it all just works. Even without the backstory, 36 Chambers is just a damn good rap album.

I hope you enjoy it.

— Matt

* This is yet another rabbit hole in a post already full of rabbit holes, but there’s a very interesting discussion to be had about the idea of masculinity in the lyrics of 36 Chambers. Maybe not on your first listen, but when you’re more familiar with the record, pay close attention to the things they rap about — and just as interestingly, don’t rap about — and how they rap about them. I’d love see an academic article that really digs into this aspect of the album.

** GZA’s Liquid Swords is still great, though.

Berlin Philharmonic & Herbert von Karajan: Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 (pt. 2)

Karajan_Beethoven_Symphonies_1963

Dear Matthew:

I’m not sure I’m sold on recordings of classical music.

Don’t get me wrong — this is a heck of a piece of music. The last movement is particularly striking. Everyone knows ‘Ode to Joy’, but we’re really only familiar with the main hook of it, and the final fifth of this piece is spent doing all kinds of interesting things to that hook — and, as you’ll recall, I love musical recontextualizations.

But the problem I was having while listening to this was this: I kept losing focus. Maybe the problem was, as previously discussed, that I’m doing it wrong — I was doing more mindless data entry as I listened. Even so, my mind kept wandering in the quiet parts.

Maybe it’s a function of the way music is recorded. I’m sure you’ll agree that dynamics make music interesting — a song that does the same thing at the same volume all the way through is probably going to get boring after a while. In my experience, classical recordings feature pretty huge dynamic range. I don’t want to get into a whole debate about sampling rates and bit depth, but the salient point is this: I listened to this recording on a set of studio monitors in a soundproof radio studio, and I found myself constantly adjusting the monitor volume. I had to turn it up to hear the quiet bits, but I’d have to turn it back down for the loud bits to keep things at a comfortable volume. It’s like that thing when you’re trying to watch an action movie and you have to crank it to hear the dialogue, but then something explodes and your neighbours call in a noise complaint.

So maybe the problem is that I should be using headphones? You’re a headphone guy — do you find you have this problem? Don’t get me wrong, I love a good pair of headphones, but it seems pretty limiting to have an entire genre of music that you can’t listen to on speakers without deafening yourself. Say what you will about the loudness war, but at least I can listen to (most) modern albums without riding the volume knob the entire time.

It’s a bit of a copout to write off an entire segment of the Western musical canon for something like that, but the fact remains that most of the rest of the symphony still didn’t really grab me. Has pop music ruined my attention span? Am I still having that kneejerk ‘ew, classical’ reaction that young people have to most things their parents like?

I would really like to think it’s not either of those, so the only thing I’m left with is that maybe recordings just aren’t the best way to experience a symphony. I can’t help but think how much more impressive this sort of music would be in a giant concert hall directly in front of the 50+ people performing it. It’s the same problem I have with live albums in general: it’s a losing battle to try and capture the live experience in a recording, especially if sonically superior studio versions already exist. With a few exceptions, I really don’t like live albums.

You pointed out in a real-life discussion that a major problem with live classical music is that quality can be hugely inconsistent, and having a good experience hinges entirely on living near a good orchestra. That may be true, but isn’t that true of any live music experience? You’ll only see big international rock shows if you live near/visit a city big enough to warrant a tour stop. The sound guy might have an off night and ruin the entire show with awful mixing.

I don’t know. Again, this symphony is full of some seriously impressive music. But the entire idea of a symphony — of getting 50+ people to play an hour-long song in a giant concert hall on, let’s face it, some totally ludicrous instruments — it’s insane. It’s a spectacle. It seems like some of that spectacle is lost when all you have is an audio recording.

But hey, this piece did stir something in me that I had completely forgotten until this week: when I was a kid, I’m almost positive I had Beethoven Lives Upstairs on VHS. Only 90s Kids Will Remember Beethoven Lives Upstairs.

— Matt

LCD Soundsystem: 45:33 (pt. 1)

4533

Dear Matthew:

In my last post, I mentioned listening to music while exercising. You also pointed out that your last three assignments to me have been long compositions. With all that in mind, there’s no way your next assignment isn’t going to be LCD Soundsystem‘s 45:33.

As a person who generally follows music, there’s no way you haven’t heard of LCD Soundsystem. They were indie rock royalty in the mid to late 2000s, unquestioningly loved by all of the hip music publications and blogs that were rising to prominence at the time; they’re probably the first ever ‘buzz band’, in the sense that we might use that horrible term today (though its use does, thankfully, seem to be fading). The band was a project of James Murphy, cofounder of the New York indie dance label DFA Records, who was already in his early thirties when he started the band. This lead to a lot of hacky music writers calling him things like ‘indie rock’s elder statesman’ and ‘dance music’s resident old guy’. He made a jammy, dance-influenced style of indie rock with often contemplative and ironic lyrics that put him squarely in the camp of music universally loved by sad college kids of the early 21st century.

All of this, and the band only ever released three proper albums, over only seven years. After a series of singles, LCD Soundsystem released a self-titled debut LP in 2005, a widely lauded followup called Sound of Silver in 2007, and a final album called This Is Happening in 2010 before Murphy announced the end of the band in 2011.

I’m not sure what to call 45:33. It’s not usually lumped in with the band’s three studio albums, but it’s too long for me to be comfortable calling an EP. The title is ostensibly a reference to the two most common speeds of vinyl record playback*. It’s a one-off composition written and recorded by Murphy in 2006, commissioned by Nike for release under their Nike+ program as a piece of music made specifically for running. (This would have been at the same time he was working on Sound of Silver, and indeed a large instrumental chunk of 45:33 ended up on Sound of Silver with lyrics as the song ‘Someone Great’.) Marketing copy for the piece’s release talked about how it was designed to ‘reward and push’ at ideal points during a run, and how it had been refined by Murphy after numerous runs on a treadmill.

…except that this was all bullshit. A few years later — presumably after Nike’s exclusivity license was up and he was able to release the piece himself — Murphy admitted he had been lying through his teeth when he said the piece had been designed for running, and that he doesn’t even jog. He just wanted to make a longform disco record in the style of Manuel Göttsching’s E2-E4, and given his own label’s hesitancy due to the format’s unmarketability, he figured this was the only way he’d be able to do it. The music press — who, you’ll recall, unfalteringly loved everything Murphy ever touched — had of course eaten the whole thing up, leading to some pretty hilarious reviews where music blog hacks lauded the mix’s peaks and valleys that coincided so perfectly with their workout. While his label’s trepidation was no doubt a factor, I like to think that, at least on some level, Murphy just wanted to fuck with people.

All of LCD Soundsystem’s stuff tends to the long and jammy side, but on 45:33, Murphy takes that aspect of his music to its logical conclusion. As often seems to be the case around here, this is not the band’s conventionally accepted magnum opus, but I see no reason why it won’t be a great introduction to the band for you — and you’ve told me you’ve been meaning to give the band a listen for ages. So, now’s your chance. Go for a run while you listen to this piece. Or don’t! By Murphy’s own admission, it won’t matter. Either way, I think you’ll like this album a lot.

— Matt

*If Murphy had made the piece about 30 seconds shorter, it would have been exactly 45 minutes and 33 seconds long. This frustrates me to no end.

John Luther Adams: Become Ocean (pt. 2)

Become Ocean

Dear Matthew:

I don’t think you’re going to like this post.

Become Ocean is fine. It’s pretty. It’s interesting enough to listen to it ebb and flow, to build from silence to full blast and back again. But in the end, I have the same reaction to this piece that I did with the only other classic drone record I’ve listened to — Sleep’s Dopesmoker* — and it’s a question we’ve both posed on this blog before: What is this music for?

One thing this blog has caused me to examine about myself is the ways I like to experience music — and how that might affect my tastes more broadly, in a way I hadn’t really considered before. I think there might be a medium-is-the-message sort of component here, and if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to try to unpack it.

Generally, I listen to new music in only a few specific settings: while commuting and/or exercising (these have been one and the same for a while now, since I bike to work and almost everywhere else); while doing primarily rote and/or visual tasks, like cleaning or organizing or photo editing; or while playing the popular computer game StarCraft II. I also like to listen to music while I drive, cook, and do certain computer-based tasks, but I don’t like these situations for brand new music because I can’t devote enough attention to it and/or there’s too much background sound.

What I like about commuting/exercising, sorting/editing and StarCraft is that they don’t take a lot of processing power, or at least not all at once. (Not at my StarCraft skill level, anyway.) I find I can almost never listen to music while I ‘work’, because my work generally either involves writing and thus consumes essentially all of my available brainpower, or involves working with audio and thus precludes music listening altogether. I usually don’t even listen to music when I’m just surfing the internet, because I either won’t absorb what I’m reading or I won’t absorb the music, so I’ve realized at this point in my life that it’s a lost cause to try and do both. And even StarCraft isn’t perfect; if a skirmish gets particularly heated, I’ll completely lose the thread of whatever I’m listening to for a few minutes.

Now, what these situations all have in common is this: while listening to the brand new music, there is something else that is actively demanding at least partial attention from me. With the rote/visual tasks or the real-time strategy, I’m diverting at least some attention away from the music, and sometimes all of it for brief periods. Commuting/exercising is probably closer to ideal, particularly when public transit is involved, but while this avoids the problem of concentration lapses, you’re also competing with other sounds. Cars, people, wind noise if you’re on a bike — all of it makes it harder to pick up on details in the music.

The more I think about this, the less of a coincidence I think it is that my favourite music tends to be energetic, driving, loud, bizarre, cerebral, and other similar adjectives — my favourite music tends to be stuff that really commands attention. I think this may be due at least in part to the types of situations in which I generally consume music, combined with my obsessive personality. (I’m one of those people who keeps entire albums despite only really liking one song, and I almost always prefer to listen to entire albums versus songs on shuffle or in a playlist or whatever.) In other words, I think my taste is at least somewhat affected by the use I see the music as having for me. Simply put, I seem to generally want music I can bob my head to while doing other things.

So, with that in mind, let’s consider my original question about Become Ocean a bit differently: What can I use this music for? It’s not rhythmic enough for bike riding. It doesn’t work for StarCraft at all. It’s far too droney and atmospheric for the bus. What I ended up doing was listening to it at work where, as you know, I’m currently doing some glorified data entry, so it worked well enough for that. But really, I find that music like this is of only limited utility to me. There’s only so much data I have to enter, only so many photos to edit. And besides, rote tasks like that are great opportunities for music that is too cerebral — some lyrically dense rap, say — for more attention-demanding situations. For me, this music falls into the same category as bands like Mogwai or múm: bands I really like, but whose music I really only ever listen to in specific situations, like at three in the morning on a deadline and I need something besides the silence to keep me clinging to consciousness.

I don’t know, maybe it’s my fault. Maybe I’m not approaching the music on its own terms. I mean, this piece clearly isn’t meant to be a workout mix, or a video game soundtrack. I’m sure it’s spectacular live. And I realize that it’s incredibly selective and hypocritical of me, given that one of my favourite musicians recently released an EP of moody space music, and I love it. But even though it’s selfish, the reality is that this kind of music is of limited use to me just because of how, why, and where I tend to listen to music, and I think that might be why I find it hard to get especially excited about.

All of this is to say: it’s fine music. But I think I understand your response to the Micronauts a lot better now.

But hey, speaking of workout mixes and long compositions, I think you’ll really like your next assignment.

— Matt

*OK, I guess it’s kind of obvious what a record called Dopesmoker is for.

The Offspring: Americana (pt. 1)

americana

Dear Matthew:

It’s summertime, and for me, few albums encapsulate the feeling of summertime than The Offspring’s Americana.

Americana is not the Offspring’s fan-agreed magnum opus; that would be 1994’s Smash, an album that is still the top-selling independent record of all time.* Coming hot on the heels of the complete and utter musical paradigm shift that was Nirvana’s Nevermind, the Offspring’s third full-length album — their second on the legendary Epitaph Records — catapulted them to stardom on the backs of two very angsty, 90sy singles, ‘Come Out and Play‘ and ‘Self Esteem‘. You can almost smell the righteous youthful rage coming out of the speakers, cutting through the tinny drums and poorly-recorded guitars. It’s a dynamite record.

But you’re not listening to Smash. Instead, you’re joining the band four years later. The Offspring are now huge, and Americana is their second major-label album (Columbia signed them almost immediately after Smash blew up). 1997’s Ixnay on the Hombre was almost a sort of second ‘difficult sophomore album’ for them as they learned the ropes of an entire new way of making music, but by 1998, they’ve got it down. Frontman Dexter Holland has changed his signature hairstyle, and the band is riding high on the rise of a comparatively new trend: pop-punk. Bands like blink-182, Sum 41 and other combinations of single syllables and several numerals take the fast, frenetic aesthetic of California hardcore and skate punk, and then sing pop songs — generally about things other pop songs are about, like girls and how uncool your parents are. (In hindsight, it’s actually a totally weird moment in music history. But I guess it’s not the first time the mainstream has made a mint co-opting and sanitizing music it finds scary.)

Americana is a fascinating album. It’s got what are arguably the Offspring’s two biggest, poppiest hits, ‘Pretty Fly (for a White Guy)‘ and ‘Why Don’t You Get a Job?‘, but it also starts with a fantastic one-two punch of very old-school SoCal angst punk jams. Like most Offspring material, the album is dripping with irony and disaffection, the title track an angry tirade against everything twisted and wrong with modern America. Even the aforementioned poppy singles are sarcasm-laced takedowns of hateable characters and the trends they embody. The album closer is a jammy psychedelic number that was actually recorded for Ixnay, but shelved because the label thought it was too jammy and psychedelic. Like all of the Offspring’s best albums, it’s an album — it’s a cohesive package, not just a collection of songs. (Solidifying this notion are the various interstitial soundbites of automation and technology — only 90s kids will remember having a landline answering machine!) It’s even got that staple of CDs in the 90s, the hidden-track-after-several-minutes-of-silence. Sure, Smash may be their best record, but Americana is their most interesting.

I brought up Nevermind earlier for a good reason: in addition to its fundamental reshaping of the entire landscape of popular music, it’s generally heralded as a sort of cultural signpost of the 90s, a musical encapsulation of the malaise, alienation and nihilism of an entire generation. (Has anyone from Grantland written a really good essay about this to link to? Or Chuck Klosterman, maybe?) I put it to you that what Nevermind is to the early 90s (or perhaps more to the point, the post-80s), Americana is to the late 90s. It’s a musical time capsule in the same way, but instead of chronicling the start of a movement, it chronicles its effects. If Nevermind created Generation X, then Americana is the result of the theory put into practice for the better part of a decade.

I dunno, maybe I’m being a little grandiose. I mean, it’s just a pop-punk album. But either way, for my money, Americana is as close as you can get to reliving the 1990s until they invent an actual time machine.

— Matt

* This record will probably never be broken, because people don’t buy music anymore.