The Offspring: Americana (pt. 2)

Previously, on Two Matts:

Matthew has complicated feelings about punk. He doesn’t like it in principle, but when confronted with the actual music, he has to admit that there’s more to it than he usually tends to think. Matthew’s complicated feelings got even more complicated when he found that he absolutely adores NoMeansNo’s Wrong, the second album Matt assigned him. Matthew was forced to admit that there’s a tremendous chasm between the Platonic ideal of punk rock he has in his head and the reality of a genre that has evolved and fragmented over the course of decades. Now, Matt has assigned Matthew a successful late-90s pop-punk album, and Matthew’s complicated feelings are being dredged up again…

americana

Dear Matt,

Well, shit. I like this one too.

I’ve got to admit, I wanted to despise this album. In general, on this blog, I’ve tried to keep an open mind. I’ve written before about how I generally think that when I don’t like something it’s my own fault, so I always approach new music hoping to like it. But when you assigned the Offspring, my first thought was ‘Ah, here’s my opportunity to really tear into something.’

I’m not quite sure why I had it in for Americana. I certainly didn’t feel the same when approaching Wrong. Maybe it’s because, now that we’ve established that I can’t attack punk at its ideological roots and have it be anything other than a totally facile critique, I feel more comfortable lashing out at a band that’s signed to a major label and scoring massive radio play. But that doesn’t make any sense, because the whole notion of ‘selling out’ doesn’t actually upset me. Plus, I don’t even have any sympathy for the SoCal skatepunk DIY values that the Offspring were probably betraying, here.

All the same, for whatever reason, I came to this album expecting some blend of annoyance and outrage that could only be mitigated by writing something angry and indignant about it. But around three songs in, I was unable to deny that I was enjoying myself. No matter how hard I tried not to.

You pitched Americana to me as a disc of summer jamz, and it is that. I listened to it on a bus, on a sunny day, after work. When the album was over and I found that I was early getting to my destination, I immediately listened to ‘Why Don’t You Get a Job?’ three more times. Then ‘She’s Got Issues’ twice. Then ‘Pay the Man’ again.

So basically, I’ve once again been confronted with the difference between the way I think about punk and the way that punk actually works, and I come out looking like an ass.

I want to try out an idea, here. You’ll know by now that I spend an awful lot of time thinking about prog rock. To me, one of the watershed moments in the history of that music was a point somewhere in the 80s when a wave of ‘neo-prog’ bands emerged, playing music that was explicitly modelled after the prog of the prior decade. This, as opposed to working in the original spirit of progressive rock, which dealt with genre fusion and independent experimentation. There was never a prog ‘sound’ in the 70s. In the 80s, with bands like Marillion and IQ cribbing the aesthetic trappings of a few key bands, there suddenly was.

We could define this as the point where prog calcified into a ‘genre’ in the strictest sense — a category of music with a defined set of traits — rather than a ‘movement,’ or perhaps a ‘scene.’ The result, initially, was a lot of pretty formulaic music: quite the opposite of what King Crimson and Magma were trying to do. But more recently, bands like Opeth and the Mars Volta have found a way to use what they’ve learned from classic prog bands to create music that sounds distinctly different.

All of which is a self-indulgent aside leading up to this relevant insight: clearly, something similar has happened to punk. Punk was a scene or movement prior to becoming a proper genre, and the aesthetics of that genre (as opposed to the ethics of the movement that produced it) have been stripped for parts and used for various purposes with varying degrees of relation to the original source.

One of those purposes turns out to be writing pop songs. And I do love me some pop songs.

So, you’re batting two for two in terms of punk assignments that worked out. However, I suspect that I remain one of the least punk rock people that either of us know. And that is unlikely to change…?

To be continued.

— Matthew

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.

Major Lazer: Guns Don’t Kill People… Lazers Do (pt. 2)

majorlazer

Dear Matt,

If this seems like a poorly thought out response, fair enough. It’s been a week.

This album is exactly the sort of thing I was hoping for from this project, like A Walking Fire was for you. It strikes me as something that’s as central to your sensibility as a music fan as Brooklyn Rider is to mine — which means that Guns Don’t Kill People was always going to be a tough sell for me. I have some problems with this album, but I’m intrigued.

I’m definitely not the right person to attempt to parse the probably somewhat problematic cultural appropriation on this album. (I fully acknowledge my cowardice.) But I can certainly understand your preference for this over an album full of ‘bass drops and white people.’ That sounds terrible. Whereas Guns Don’t Kill People is the complete opposite of that sort of lazy blandness. Its entire appeal comes from how totally bonkers it is (those videos!), and the fact that it takes inspiration from sounds that come from outside of Diplo and Switch’s narrow cultural sphere.

Now comes the part where I say denigrating things for several paragraphs, in spite of my general admiration for the album. I know it’s becoming a habit, but I can’t help being perverse.

To me, Kala absolutely towers over this. The reason for that is, for all of its eclecticism, Kala still has one foot in pop songwriting. And the fact that my favourite track on that album is still ‘Paper Planes’ probably indicates that I value that characteristic. Hell, even Thick as a Brick is structured around (deeply unconventional) pop songwriting. I tend to like my pop songs clothed in somewhat flamboyant garb — be it prog rock bombast or a Diplo beat — but that doesn’t change the underlying value.

(The fact that your next assignment will have absolutely nothing to do with the craft of songwriting ought to indicate just how inconsistent my musical value system is. I am not at all sorry for this.)

Basically, my issue with Guns Don’t Kill People is that there’s no figure equivalent to M.I.A. on it — nobody to provide the raw goods for Diplo and Switch to dress up in mad, eclectic sonic outfits. (Though I did love that B-side with her on it.) Instead, we get a cavalcade of guests who each seem somewhat incidental to Diplo and Switch’s central concept. Aside from the Paul Simon-esque colonialist implications of that, which we’ve agreed to blithely ignore, this presents an aesthetic problem for me: for all of its internal cohesion and its high-concept grandstanding, Guns still feels like it lacks a core. It feels like a very attractive coat that nobody’s wearing.

And as for the guest artists — who occasionally wander by the coat, but never really consider putting it on — they’re a bit hit-and-miss, aren’t they? M.I.A.’s politics may piss a bunch of people off, but they make for more interesting listening than ‘Mary Jane.’ Granted, that’s an easy target and I’m a humourless d-bag. ‘What U Like,’ then.

So clearly, I didn’t love this. I liked it, basically. But I’d stick it at the lower end of my positive responses on this blog — above the Micronauts, certainly. But significantly lower than, say, Belle and Sebastian.

Okay, then. On to your next assignment, which I hope will be as challenging for you as this was for me.

— Matthew

Major Lazer: Guns Don’t Kill People… Lazers Do (pt. 1)

majorlazer

Dear Matthew:

As alluded to previously, I’ve been wanting to give you this album for a while now, and your last assignment was chosen at least in part as a setup for it. This week, you’ll be listening to Major Lazer‘s debut album, Guns Don’t Kill People… Lazers Do.

Major Lazer is a laser-armed Jamaican commando from the future who rides around on a rocket skateboard fighting the undead. Behind the scenes, though, it’s a musical project originally started by Diplo and Switch — two producers who you may recall having produced most of your last assignment, M.I.A.’s Kala. Major Lazer is their take on the music of Jamaica — mostly dancehall and reggae, with a bit of good old-fashioned pop and electronic bullshit thrown in for good measure. They work extensively with Jamaican artists and Guns Don’t Kill People was recorded at Tuff Gong, a legendary recording studio in Kingston that’s been used by Bob Marley, among many others. Major Lazer is sparse and futuristic and wonky and disorienting in all the best ways.

…or at least, that’s what Major Lazer used to be. A short time after the release of Guns Don’t Kill People, Switch left the band due to ‘creative differences’, and while he did work on a few songs on the band’s second album, Major Lazer is now essentially just a Diplo solo project. It’s been kind of heartbreaking to watch such a unique and interesting band go from the astonishing nugget of weirdness and awesomeness that is Guns Don’t Kill People to what it is now — especially since it’s made them a huge international success. Their third album came out a few weeks ago, and while it’s got some decent tunes, it mostly just makes me sad. It’s full of trap and bass drops and white people, and the production is very noisy and in-your-face, but not in a good way. It’s not an album, it’s just a bunch of tracks meant for DJs to play in clubs. Sigh.

They used to be so much better, man. You know, before they sold out. *takes drag on clove cigarette*

But I digress. Seeing what happens to a band when you take half of it away is interesting from an academic standpoint, if nothing else. Diplo (who produced your standout Kala track ‘Paper Planes’) is very much a DJ at heart. He’s a straightforward guy who makes straightforward music. His reputation as an oddball producer is really only because he’s ahead of the curve in knowing who to work with and what sounds are on the bleeding edge of what’s ‘in’. (There’s a discussion about white appropriation of black culture to be had somewhere in regard to this album, and Diplo is probably at the centre of it.)

Switch, on the other hand, is much more of a producer. (He produced — well, he produced most of the rest of Kala, actually. And a lot of Matangi, which is why I love it so much.) In comparing old Major Lazer to new Major Lazer, he is very obviously the source of the weirdness and sparseness of the first album. He brings a level of restraint to to the studio that Diplo just can’t muster. I think that’s why the first album works so well — Switch is able to rein in Diplo’s madness and bring a level of focus to the project that it now seems to utterly lack. Switch is the reason Guns is a cohesive album rather than just a bunch of songs like the newer albums. (This is probably also why he works so well with M.I.A.)

Anyway, this is turning into more of rant about why I don’t like a band’s new music than actually saying anything useful about the record at hand, so I should probably wrap it up and hand it over to you. I’m not sure how familiar you are with Jamaican music, but if not, it’s time for a crash course in patois. This album is all over the place, but if you liked Kala, there’s definitely something here for you somewhere. It’s controlled chaos. It’s lightning in a jar. It’s Major Lazer. Booyaka.

— Matt

PS: There’s also a Major Lazer cartoon. It’s essentially a sendup of bad 80s action cartoons like G.I. Joe, and it’s about as insane as you’d expect. Also, J.K. Simmons plays the president of future Jamaica. Yeah.

PPS: Bonus M.I.A.-featuring B-side.

M.I.A.: Kala (pt. 2)

Kala

Dear Matt:

This tweet notwithstanding, I can detect no connection between M.I.A. and Kate Bush. But hey, one’s ears are one’s own. Moving on.

I have never been much for subtlety. You will have gathered that by now. That tendency extends from my taste in rock to my preference of Beethoven string quartets. (Opus 132, please. Keep your 127.) So, M.I.A’s aesthetic is well within the ballpark of ‘stuff I tend to like.’ (Subtle as a landmine, indeed.) Kala’s great.

But, let me be totally honest: after a couple of listens, ‘Paper Planes’ still eclipses everything else on the album. You may find that disappointing, the same way I do when someone informs me that their favourite Jethro Tull song is ‘Aqualung,’ or their favourite Peter Gabriel song is ‘Sledgehammer.’

Why should that be disappointing, though? Once in a while, the slightly-left-of-centre (though not necessarily obscure) artists that thinky music people* listen to make a song that allows the rest of the world to get in on the joy. Isn’t that worth celebrating? Of course it is. That, for me, was a key takeaway of the most tiring ideological debate in pop culture over the last decade.

But, to write that just now, I had to subdue a tremendous amount of pathological geekiness and symphony-goer snobbery. Because, the fact is, the music that speaks most deeply to me speaks to a relatively small number of people. I’m under no illusions that there’s any superiority in that. But, some part of me can’t help thinking that when an artist does manage to conjure the secret sauce for a ‘Paper Planes’ or a ‘Sledgehammer,’ they sacrifice something that makes the bulk of their music so meaningful to the true believers.

And it’s entirely possible that I’m not equipped to be a true believer in this case. You entreated me in your assignment to engage with M.I.A.’s mashup aesthetic, and consider her as one of the first breakout artists of the digital age. And while I love mashups in concept, I suspect that some of the effect was lost on me in this case, since Kala appears to mostly reference stuff I’ve never heard of. The only references I caught were the Clash and the Pixies — the first only because you told me, and the second only because of Fight Club.

But, I’ve just realized that I’m doing that thing again where I make it seem like I enjoyed an album less than I did. I really enjoyed Kala, and I’ll definitely be checking out more M.I.A. One of the structural weaknesses in this project is that it can only ever be about first impressions. Ten listens from now, ‘Paper Planes’ might be my least favourite track on the album.

— Matthew

*These people are the worst. (Mea culpa.)

M.I.A.: Kala (pt. 1)

Kala

Dear Matthew:

If you’ll recall, I once posited on this blog that Kate Bush was the Seinfeld of female art-pop stars. (New readers: in context, this is more flattering than it sounds. I promise.) When I talked about the modern female art-pop stars she influenced, I mentioned Björk and Fever Ray, but mostly I was thinking of M.I.A. This week, you’ll be listening to her album Kala.

Mathangi ‘Maya’ Arulpragasam — get it? M.I.A.? — is a British-born Tamil who grew up in Sri Lanka during the outbreak of civil war, something that has underscored much of her artistic career. She makes a chaotic sort of electro rap pop type of music that is often highly political in nature. She also draws on many other genres from around the world, from dancehall to baile funk to Bollywood film scores. A trained visual artist, she’s also known for the striking visual elements of her music, including videos, fashion and art. Combine all of these traits, and you have someone almost destined to get huge if she happened to be around at the advent of the digital music revolution. And hey, guess what?

Her first album, Arular (named for her father, a prominent member of a militant group called EROS), caught the ears of all the hip music bloggers when it came out in 2005, right around when music bloggers were starting to become a thing. But it wasn’t until Kala (named for her mother) that she really blew up, and blow up she did — you are hopefully at least passingly familiar with the Clash-sampling mega-hit ‘Paper Planes‘. Kala is also when she first teamed up with producer Switch, and also features further collaborations with Diplo, who was still relatively unknown at the time (and also her boyfriend). In contrast to the comparatively stark beats of her bedroom-produced debut, it’s a lush, worldly collage of sounds — owing to the fact that it was literally recorded around the world. It’s a bombastic, idiosyncratic, in-your-face record, and it solidified her place in the pantheon of internet pop stars. It was probably about as successful as you could ever ask a ‘difficult sophomore album’ to be.

I’ll be honest: Kala is not my favourite M.I.A. album*. But this assignment isn’t about listening to her ‘best’ album — this is about the context. I want to hear your thoughts on one of the first big albums of the digital era, an album that arguably couldn’t have been made in any other era. I want you to really dig into Kala‘s mashup aesthetic. I want you to see how many musical allusions, references and samples you can identify in its sonic collage, and to know how you feel about them. And, of course, I want to know if my Kate Bush analogy is grounded in any sort of reality.

M.I.A. isn’t for everyone. She’s about as subtle as a landmine, and her politics certainly rub a lot of people the wrong way. But her music is like nothing else out there, and that’s more than most can say. Even if you don’t love it, I hope you at least find it interesting.

— Matt

* For the longest time that was Arular, but it’s been recently supplanted by the extremely good Matangi. I’ve warmed up a lot to /\/\ /\ Y /\ over the years, too. In fact, now that I think about it, Kala might actually be my least favourite M.I.A. album. But again! Not the point.

Brian Eno: Another Green World (pt. 2)

Eno

Dear Matthew:

This is a really cool album.

I mean, I know who Brian Eno is — he’s that guy who did all those albums that Music People like. But, apart from a cursory listen to Here Come the Warm Jets a few years ago, I don’t really have any experience with his music firsthand, unless you count my ongoing love affair with ‘Once in a Lifetime‘. That reputation always kind of preceded him, and I always figured he’d just be too arty for me, or something.

But, digging into this album, what I immediately noticed was what you meant by the album’s agelessness. I listened to the 2004 remaster, which probably helps, but you’re right — you could’ve told me that this came out last year and I would’ve believed you. Eno was unbelievably ahead of the curve, especially given what you’ve told me about his working methods. In his attempts to be more a sort of curator of sound than a musician himself, he set the mold for the careers of any number of modern producers who, in your phraseology, play people rather than instruments. Your new friend Dan the Automator springs to mind as a particularly apt example of this approach to music production.

I’m also reminded of the Kate Bush album you had me listen to, in that I’m seeing all kinds of groundwork for modern music I’m already really into. Acts like Amon Tobin, Four Tet, Sigur Rós, and even arguably guys like Flying Lotus or J Dilla — they’ve built entire careers on the foundation provided by tracks like ‘Sky Saw’ and ‘In Dark Trees’. Most of these guys work primarily with samples rather than live musicians, but I think that means the Eno paradigm actually applies even more.

(‘In Dark Trees’ actually gave me the most incredible feeling of déjà vu when it came on, although I soon realized that’s because it appears in Electroma, Daft Punk’s 2006 arthouse film about two robots who want to become human.)

My only complaint about this album is that a lot of the songs seem … unfinished. A lot of tracks — usually the shorter ones, but not exclusively — feel more like demos than like polished final versions. Maybe it’s because I’m used to modern guys like the Chemical Brothers who will take a good musical idea and run it into the ground for twelve minutes at a time, but a good two thirds of the songs on this album feel like they end too soon. I feel like I’m just starting to sink my teeth into them, and then they stop. That’s actually probably the giveaway for dating this album: had it come out last year, it would probably be at least an hour long.

Anyway, congratulations. I think you’ve found your first album to hook me the same way Deltron 3030 and Wrong hooked you. Now! To sit back and wait for it to spring to mind unbidden.

— Matt