LCD Soundsystem: 45:33 (pt. 2)

4533

Dear Matt:

BING-DUNG! Activity started. Warm up: five minutes.

In criticism — I’m using the word here in the sense that academics use it — the notion of authorial intent has been nearly irrelevant since 1967, when Roland Barthes wrote this thing, and probably for some time before. I know this is a thing you think about because you wrote this on your other, Parsons-less blog. (Can I call it “One Matt?”)

As I understand it, in the limited way of somebody who’s never formally studied any of this, author-based criticism reached a tipping-point around the time of Barthes’ piece. Barthes railed against critics who attempted to use the life experiences, politics and social milieu of a text’s author as evidence for a single, authoritative (I use the world pointedly) reading of the text. He called for the author’s voice to be drowned out by the voice of the text itself, which is the thing that truly speaks.

In criticism, on the other hand — now I’m using the word in the sense that most people do, as regards movie reviews and blog posts by armchair scholars like us — we seem to still be holding on to the author, such that questions like “To what extent is Mr. Oizo taking the piss?” “Does Ian Anderson secretly love prog?” and “Is James Murphy fucking with us?” still seem to be worth posing.

BING-DUNG! First interval: zero. point. five. kilometers. Fast.

I listened to 45:33 while running, with regular interjections from the female robot voice of Runkeeper, my workout app of choice (and also the source of this post’s silly structural gimmick). I took this approach because I wanted to assess, with the benefit of knowing the background you outlined in your assignment, whether 45:33 is actually good running music or not.

It is. It’s quite excellent running music. Slotted right in with my intervals. So, if we accept that 45:33 is good running music, what does that say about James Murphy and the critics who took him at his word when he lied to them about his jogging habits?

BING-DUNG! Next interval: two minutes. Slow.

Let’s work backwards. The story as you told it ends with a legion of overzealous writers having egg all over their faces. They had failed the Emperor’s New Clothes test. Shorn of all credibility, they stood exposed as charlatans; mountebanks; hacks.

Except, of course, that they weren’t. Murphy’s truth may have been that 45:33 has nothing to do with running. But the text’s truth contradicts that. And the text is the thing that truly speaks. I daresay that if Murphy believes that this album isn’t running music, he’s misunderstanding his own work. As such, I hereby find those critics innocent of these particular charges. There are other charges they will have more trouble dodging. But more on that shortly.

BING-DUNG! Next interval: zero. point. five. kilometers. Fast.

Before we move on, I want to address how angry I sometimes get about the derision levelled at critics by artists. Frank Zappa comes to mind, immediately. So does Birdman. The theatre critic in that movie (which I love in every way except for this) has a shitty attitude towards art, but the movie has an even shittier attitude towards that critic. It makes her openly, gleefully malevolent, which I sincerely don’t believe is a truthful characterization of how respectable critics think.

BING-DUNG! Next interval: two minutes. Slow.

No doubt many individual critics deserved Frank Zappa’s derision. But, I personally believe — in utterly self-aggrandizing fashion — that criticism, journalism, and related disciplines are arts no lesser than the arts they critique. I had an epiphany to that effect near the end of my music degree program, at which point I immediately applied for journalism school.

Evidently, you disagree with me on this, or at least you did in February of 2012. But Barthes appears to be on my side. If the author is metaphorically dead, that leaves only the reader. Good critics are very skilled readers and thus, invaluable — so long as they focus on the texts themselves. If, you know, you agree with Barthes on this. Which I only sometimes do.

BING-DUNG! Next interval: zero. point. five. kilometers. Fast.

The narrative you outlined with respect to 45:33 suggests Zappa-like malevolence on Murphy’s part. If we accept for argument’s sake that there was something for Murphy’s critics to be ashamed of when the ‘truth’ came out, that means that it was Murphy himself who pulled the rug out from under them. And that would make him a more mean-spirited, slightly lesser human (though not a lesser artist, because the art speaks for itself).

But, like you, I’m not exactly convinced that Murphy was actually pulling an Emperor’s New Clothes swindle. If there was a swindle afoot (pun?), one suspects that Nike (pun.) may have been the target.

BING-DUNG! Next interval: two minutes. Slow.

But, naturally, we now come to the point where I say that none of this matters. I’ve already absolved Murphy’s fawning critics for praising his possibly bullshit workout mix, on the basis that it is a good workout mix. But there’s another sin that I can’t absolve them of, and that’s the fact that they so resolutely based their critiques of 45:33 on any professed authorial intention at all.

In other words, we’re charging these critics with the wrong crime. It isn’t that they have faulty bullshit meters. They are not charlatans; mountebanks; hacks.

They are fetishists.

They fetishize the personalities behind the things they are ostensibly critiquing, such that the novelty of Murphy making a workout mix supersedes the music itself. Indeed, the fact that LCD Soundsystem could become a ‘buzz band’ at all comes entirely down to this critical approach.

BING-DUNG! Next interval: zero. point. five. kilometers. Fast.

Perhaps that’s why criticism — in the common sense, not the academic sense — is derided in so many quarters (not least of which is academia — someday, I’ll introduce you to the work of Joseph Kerman). It is at least partially about applying value judgements to people’s personalities. And that is ever-so-slightly skeevy.

BING-DUNG! Next interval: two minutes. Slow.

Here’s the part where I capitulate.

Naturally, music criticism and journalism that focuses on the musician often makes for deeply interesting reading. I am endlessly fascinated with the process of making art, and I don’t have any desire to see music writers stop interviewing artists, or taking note of the autobiographical elements in music. But, I would like to see close listening take more of a role in what music writers do.

(I admit that I’m saying this partially so that I don’t have to hold myself to the standards I’m setting up in this post. Take heed of my current Twitter bio: “Opinions mutable, fatuous and best ignored.”)

BING-DUNG! Next interval: zero. point. five. kilometers. Fast.

Thanks for this one, Matt. 45:33 is fantastic, and thinking about all of this really put me through my paces.

BING-DUNG! Workout complete.

— Matthew

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.

Belle and Sebastian: The Life Pursuit (pt. 2)

belleandsebastian

Dear Matt,

I’m a fan of feelings. I have a whole bunch of them — possibly something close to a complete set. Certainly, more than anybody would suspect from actually talking to me.

But, before I talk about feelings, I want to talk about facts.

One sure way for any band to pull me in is to make references that I understand. Lyrical references, stylistic references, whatever. And as you’ve implied a couple of times already, Belle and Sebastian live comfortably within my cultural sphere — namely, an imagined version of the ’60s that neither I nor Stuart Murdoch can claim to remember.

Actually, the references here span a larger swathe of my knowledge even than that. Did you know, for instance, that Mornington Crescent is a recurring feature on a popular BBC comedy programme, in which panelists take turns naming London tube stations until somebody says ‘Mornington Crescent?’ It’s the British equivalent of Calvinball. No idea what, if anything, that has to do with the song.

But I promise that I didn’t only like The Life Pursuit because it flatters me for my understanding of references that I might actually just be imagining. Ultimately, I am just a sucker for a great melody, and there are plenty of them here. I mean, the shapes of the phrases in ‘The Blues Are Still Blue’ are just irresistible. And that trumpet in ‘Dress Up In You.’ Ahh.

And you’re right that they can sound a lot like the Zombies sometimes. Although, I think that what they have in common is more of a spirit than a sound. Both bands produce a kind of music that I’ve never quite been able to adequately describe: it is natural music. It seems obvious, self-evident, like it could have written itself. There’s no artifice to it. Other artists that come to mind are Paul McCartney and Felix Mendelssohn.

But here’s the thing: I can think of exactly nothing else interesting to say about this. My usual approaches are failing me, here. I don’t feel alienated by The Life Pursuit, nor did it leave me feeling inclined to compose a fawning encomium. It doesn’t suggest a particular part of my musical autobiography that I could riff on. I do not detect any actual magic in it.

Don’t interpret any of this as a vote of no enthusiasm. I can tell I’ll be spinning The Life Pursuit with some frequency in the near future. It’s just… here we are right now with you saying you liked the Zombies, but you’ll never like them as much as Belle and Sebastian. Here I am saying I liked Belle and Sebastian, but I’ll never like them as much as the Zombies. To be fair, a certain amount of intransigence is to be expected with music nerds like us.

But, you’ll recall that when we started this project, I expressed a concern that my musical tastes were calcifying. It’s still a concern. There’s a part of me that despairs to think that at the age of 24, I’ve already reached the point where I’ll never find new music that I like better than my old music.

And, The Life Pursuit somehow really brought that anxiety to the surface. Because I liked it. I really did. I’ve liked nearly everything you’ve assigned so far. Loved some of it. But none of it has knocked me flat like the prog I discovered in high school, or the classical rep that my first degree introduced me to.

Two months into this project, we’ve both got more music that we kind of like. Surely, this is an entirely acceptable outcome. So, why does it feel like an impasse?

— Matthew

Belle and Sebastian: The Life Pursuit (pt. 1)

belleandsebastian

Dear Matthew:

How do you feel about Feelings? Because it has come to my attention since my last post that you’ve never listened to any Belle and Sebastian.

You may recall that I have previously described the Glaswegian indie pop legends as one of the staple bands mopey college kids were listening to in the mid 2000s. Along with Rilo Kiley, LCD Soundsystem, Bright Eyes, Tegan and Sara, etc., these guys were the bread and butter of a particular variety of melancholy music nerd when I was finishing high school/starting university — I know you know the type. Belle and Sebastian are more than a little twee, and the word ‘wistful’ seems to have been invented specifically to describe both the lyrics and delivery of frontman and main songwriter Stuart Murdoch — who, as previously discussed, may in fact be some sort of ageless time traveller who has been making pop music in Great Britain since the ’60s. Belle and Sebastian is a band that runs entirely on nostalgia and hooks. I love them, obviously.

The hardest part of this assignment has been deciding which album to start you out with. Most B&S diehards will tell you that their second album, 1996’s If You’re Feeling Sinister, is their undisputed masterpiece, and that you should start there. That’s what I did initially, though, and I wasn’t exactly blown away. I filed them away as one of those bands that other people love fanatically that I just don’t ‘get,’ like the Smiths or Bob Marley. It wasn’t until I gave 2006’s The Life Pursuit a spin that I really got hooked. It’s a much peppier, catchier, less despondent, more energetic, more radio-friendly affair than — well, than any of their previous records, really, while still being undeniably a Belle and Sebastian record. Sure, it doesn’t have any ‘classics’ like ‘The Boy With the Arab Strap‘ or ‘I’m a Cuckoo,’ and the first track is a bit of a slow burner compared to the tremendous numbers that start their two most recent albums. But if I was going to list what it has got, I would just end up writing out most of the track list. This is a very easy album to like, and I want you to like this band.

This brings up an interesting question about ‘getting into’ bands with big catalogues and huge fanbases that I’ve struggled with for a while. Most such bands do have a particular album commonly agreed upon as their magnum opus that most fans will point you toward: Daft Punk has Discovery, the Beach Boys have Pet Sounds, Pink Floyd has The Dark Side of the Moon, etc. But as often as not, a band’s so-called ‘classic’ album doesn’t end up being the one that hooks me. I didn’t get into Tegan and Sara until I listened to Sainthood and I didn’t get into Rilo Kiley until I listened to Under the Blacklight, which to ardent fans of those bands is kind of like saying I didn’t get into Talking Heads until I listened to … I don’t know, any album that isn’t Remain in Light. It’s ass-backwards from the conventional wisdom, is what I’m saying — and also what I’m assigning you here. So we’ll see how it goes.

So, like many a white kid before you, let these pop hooks and pleasing chord progressions grab you and pull you into a world of utterly enjoyable despair. Really get some catharsis happening. And try to make it last, because two weeks from now, you are going to be listening to some of the most insane bleep-bloop electronic bullshit I know.

—Matt