Brian Eno: Another Green World (pt. 1)

Eno

Dear Matt,

This week, you’ll be diving into the definitive album by a figure with whom you have a passing familiarity already: Brian Eno’s Another Green World.

To our generation, Eno’s best-known creation is probably this sound, here. Insofar as his name means anything, it’s probably ‘massively prestigious record producer.’ Eno helped to craft some of the most acclaimed albums by David Bowie, Talking Heads and U2, amongst others.

But, at the time of Another Green World, he was not yet the Eno of legend. This was five years before Remain in Light, and 12 years before The Joshua Tree. In 1975, Eno’s career basically consisted of two albums as a synth player with Roxy Music and a couple of pretty straightforwardly glam rock solo albums — which, by the way, have two of the most fantastic titles ever: Here Come the Warm Jets and Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy).

Another Green World was a turning point for Eno in that it was the album where he stopped focussing on writing songs, and started focussing on making rules, instead. Reading about the way this album was made is just maddening: Eno basically hired a bunch of top-flight musicians (John Cale on viola, Robert Fripp on guitar, Phil Collins on drums…) and invited them into the studio without having written any music.

Then, they’d just try stuff. Eno would impose arbitrary rules, like ‘the microphones will hang from the ceiling, today,’ and he’d hope like hell that it wasn’t all a tremendous waste of money.

I have no idea how those methods could have resulted in this album. Another Green World is an astonishing feat of musical craftsmanship. It is unbelievably detailed; even in comparatively minimalistic tracks like ‘Zawinul/Lava,’ there’s so much going on in the background to produce musical tension.

Also, the fact that Eno abandoned all traditional methods of making an album might account for why Another Green World is so weirdly ageless. I’m not sure I’d be able to tell what decade it was made in if I didn’t already know.

This will also conveniently serve as your introduction to a figure you’ll be hearing more from in the near future: King Crimson’s guitarist and leader Robert Fripp. I love King Crimson, but when I just want to hear Fripp playing the stuffing out of his instrument, I’m most likely to put on a Brian Eno album. Because, Robert Fripp’s ability to play the guitar is second only to Brian Eno’s ability to play Robert Fripp.

That’s what makes Eno kind of unique in all of music. He describes himself as a ‘non-musician’ (he even tried to get that listed as his occupation on his passport), but he’s been able to spearhead some of the most staggering albums of the past fifty years, just through the sheer power of lateral thinking and clever leadership.

By the way, the small crisis I seem to have experienced after Belle and Sebastian failed to knock me flat has basically passed. You mentioned to me shortly after I posted my response that Belle and Sebastian isn’t the kind of band that does knock you flat on the first listen; it takes a while to sink in. After a couple more listens, I can feel it happening already, and I have renewed faith in my ability to appreciate new music.

I bring that up mostly because Another Green World is very much the same in that way. It took me years to think of this as anything more than ‘fairly good.’ I don’t know another album that benefits more from living with it for a while. So, listen to it once and tell me what you think. Then maybe ignore it for a bit and whenever it comes to mind unbidden, try again.

Since the beginning of this project, I’ve been looking for an album that will grab you by the throat and start you up on new and unexpected musical journeys. This is not going to be that album. But, I’m pretty confident that, given your other tastes, you’ll eventually love this.

— Matthew

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

The Zombies: Odessey and Oracle (pt. 2)

zombiesodyssey

Dear Matthew:

A few short hours after the Magma show, I left Vancouver for a few days. (Not related. Honest.) I returned yesterday evening, and made my way almost immediately to the Vogue Theatre downtown to see my favourite sad-guy band, Belle and Sebastian. It was an excellent show. I woke up this morning, loaded up Odessey and Oracle onto my phone and went out for a walk down toward the beach — and when I pressed play, I was hit with one of the most intense feelings of déjà vu I have experienced in recent memory.

Seriously, the resemblance is uncanny. I mean, I knew Belle and Sebastian had a certain wistful nostalgia, but I didn’t realize just how deep it ran. I expect you could probably take someone who hadn’t heard anything by either band and play them a selection of either band’s work and they wouldn’t be much better than random chance at guessing which band it is. In fact, I’m still grappling with the possibility that Stuart Murdoch is actually some sort of Dorian Grey-esque being who just hasn’t stopped making pop music since the ’60s. (Seriously, tell me ‘I’m a Cuckoo‘ doesn’t sound like a b-side from Odessey.)

I am exaggerating for comedic effect, of course. The Zombies are much more blissed out than Murdoch and company, which is the main reason I don’t think I’ll ever like them as much. The sense of wisftulness that permeates even the peppiest B&S tunes is the secret sauce, as is the case with most of their sad-guy contemporaries — Rilo Kiley, Bloc Party, LCD Soundsystem, and all of those other bands mopey college kids were listening to in the mid 2000s. To make a lazy comparison, this is Belle and Sebastian on Prozac. You’re right, though — this is music scientifically designed to release endorphins. It was perfect for a sunny walk along the bay. (Of course, mere hours beforehand, a tanker had spilled a bunch of oil into it. I’m reaching for The Boy With the Arab Strap already…)

What is it about the British that made them so good at this particular brand of pop music? Was it the climate? Was it the lingering cultural and socioeconomic shadow of the Second World War? Was it just that they were the first to do it? Either way, they’re codifiers of the genre, and they continue to excel at it. (Calling a band as Scottish as Belle and Sebastian British is probably borderline offensive, but humour me, it’s the same landmass, and it’s not like I’m calling them English.)

When all is said and done, though, it’s like any sort of immediate endorphin release — too much can’t be good for you. Maybe it’s because I’m so used to their modern-day sad-guy doppelgangers, but Odessey feels like musical candy: sweet and very satisfying if you’re in the mood for it, but I wouldn’t want it for every meal.

Still, sometimes it’s just the thing you’re after.

— Matt

The Zombies: Odessey and Oracle (pt. 1)

zombiesodyssey

Dear Matt:

Yeah, I wasn’t expecting overwhelming enthusiasm towards Magma, frankly. But, be content that you have now experienced the proggiest of the prog, and that it’s all smooth sailing from here.

I’m thinking that you’ll need a palate cleanser after a two-hour concert of ‘the least accessible music you’ve ever heard.’ So, this week you’ll be listening to a jaunty little trifle from 1966: The Zombies’ Odessey [sic] and Oracle. (The guy who painted the album cover couldn’t spell, and by the time he turned in his work, it was too late to fix it. The album has been known by its misspelled name ever since. Oh, the 60s.)

The Zombies were a late vestige of the British Invasion. They had two fantastic songwriters in keyboardist Rod Argent (who went on to have a successful career with his solo project, Argent), and bassist Chris White (who went on to have almost no subsequent career, save for co-writing a few hits for Rod Argent’s successful solo project, Argent).

In their day, they were probably best known for their 1964 hit “She’s Not There.” Nowadays, they’re almost entirely remembered for this album, which is just wall-to-wall joy, even by psychedelic standards. I don’t know that I’ve ever encountered another album so straightforwardly focussed on coaxing endorphins out of the pituitary. Even the sad, disturbing songs like “A Rose for Emily” or “Butcher’s Tale” are cathartically sad and disturbing.

60s psychedelia was a complex and unruly beast. But, I find that most psychedelic albums fit into one of two broad categories that I refer to as Peppers and Pipers. (This is clever. Stay with me on this.)

See, in early 1967, the Beatles were at Abbey Road studios, recording their album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which I think is tied with Hamlet for the title of Most Acclaimed Thing Ever. Sgt. Pepper is meticulous, crafted, layered, and ornate. The songs have a sort of British restraint to them, in spite of their lush orchestrations and the colourful album art.

Meanwhile, literally just down the hall from the Beatles, in the same studio, Pink Floyd was recording their debut album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, which foregrounds all of the chaotic, improvisatory, stream-of-consciousness tendencies in late 60s pop music.

These two albums are both undeniably psychedelic, but they represent two entirely different strands of psychedelia. Other Peppers include Forever ChangesPet Sounds, and Days of Future Passed. Other Pipers include Electric Ladyland, Their Satanic Majesties Request, and The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators.

The Zombies recorded Odessey and Oracle a few months later, in that same studio. It’s much more of a Pepper than a Piper. And, I suspect that’s why it’s aged so well, in spite of being so thoroughly of its time. Really good songwriting never stops being awesome. Loose, garage band jamming kind of does.

Side note: I am absurdly certain that “Care of Cell 44” will at some point be featured on Orange is the New Black. Just wait.

I really hope you like this. I hope that, because I feel like you’re winning this blog in terms of assigning music that I’ll like. I’ve revisited Deltron 3030 and Wrong frequently since those initial assignments, and they’ve improved with multiple listens. One of these weeks, I’m hoping to find something that’ll work that well for you.

Maybe this is it? In any case, it’s about as far from Magma as you can get. I expect there’s virtue in that.

— Matthew

Kate Bush: Hounds of Love (pt. 2)

katebush

Dear Matthew:

I thought you told me this album was going to be weird.

OK, I mean, it’s a little out of the ordinary. The second side did get a little out there. (The brief highland dance interlude definitely blindsided me.) And Bush’s voice is certainly not a typical pop star voice. But mostly I was just like, yeah, I could get into this.

As I thought about it, I realized that’s because I already am.

Seinfeld (stay with me on this one) is widely considered to be one of the best, most successful, most groudbreaking television programs of all time. The so-called ‘show about nothing,’ following the often bizarre adventures of four borderline-sociopathic residents of New York City, completely revolutionized the world of primetime TV. But if you were to take the average middle school-aged kid today in 2015 and show them a random episode of Seinfeld, you’d probably get a response along the lines of: “This isn’t funny.” (Or at the very least, that it’s not particularly original.)

Of course, it’s not that Seinfeld isn’t funny. Rather, it’s that Seinfeld was so funny that everything about it has been imitated by its successors to the point that aspects of the show that were once groundbreaking (the unlikable cast, idiosyncratic language, the dissection of the quirks of polite society, etc.) are now a standard part of the genre. Seinfeld changed TV so fundamentally that, to someone with a cultural tabula rasa, its explosive originality is essentially invisible.

This phenomenon crops up in other media all the time. I’m sure this hypothetical middle-schooler would be completely nonplussed by Die Hard, and would tell you that Final Fantasy VII is a category-five cliché storm dressed up to passingly resemble a video game.

I put it to you that Kate Bush is the Seinfeld of female art-pop stars.

Bush has this apparent reputation for weirdness, but taken alongside contemporary acts like Björk, Fever Ray, or even someone like M.I.A., she’s really not as out there as I’ve been lead to believe. But I expect that this is in large part because she was the prototype for this particular type of act. Hell, even Lady Gaga owes some portion of her success to Kate Bush.

This was a fun listen. Plus, I now have some interesting new ideas for future assignments. But that’s all yet to come — I still need to rub your face in some punk rock first.

— Matt

Kate Bush: Hounds of Love (pt. 1)

katebush

Dear Matt:

In honour of this blog having gotten weird already, allow me to introduce you to Kate Bush.

Bush is one of a long line of British artists who constantly gets called “eccentric,” but also periodically enjoys massive mainstream success. (See also, Lewis Carroll, Monty Python, Bush’s occasional duet partner Peter Gabriel.)

I’m at a loss to explain why Kate Bush is popular. But, I do feel like I can pin down part of what makes her connect with her most devoted fans: she possesses a seemingly supernatural amount of empathy.

Bush writes deeply personal songs, but they feel like other people’s personal songs. She’s written lyrics from the POV of Houdini’s wife, a man contemplating fatherhood, and a curiously articulate fetus, among others. These ultra-specific psychological portraits can be alienating, before you find your footing.

Maybe you’ll agree with me that pop music is generally contingent on the listener’s sympathy: you’re meant to identify personally with what’s being sung. That’s why there are so goddamn many love songs. But, Kate Bush’s best songs work differently. They can make you feel empathy for a person to whom you are entirely dissimilar — even if, like me, you don’t normally possess much of that.

I think this is probably why Hounds of Love is Bush’s most beloved album. It’s a mix of genuinely personal songs with some semblance of universality (“Running Up That Hill” became Bush’s second-biggest hit) and tracks that entreat you to work past their alienating strangeness and come to an understanding with their protagonist.

This latter approach comes to the fore on the album’s second side. Much like our perpetual favourite reference point, 2112, one side of Hounds of Love is just a bunch of unrelated songs, and the other side is a sprawling conceptual epic. That epic, subtitled “The Ninth Wave,” is as narratively ambiguous as Deltron 3030, but there’s a nominal throughline involving a woman who (nearly?) drowns following a shipwreck.

I adore this side’s first track, “And Dream of Sheep.” It’s based on the ingenious premise (Kate Bush songs often have “premises”) of relating the inner monologue of a personified lighthouse as it falls asleep and inadvertently causes a tragedy. Of all of Kate Bush’s massive, Wes Andersonian cast of eccentrics and quietly tragic figures, this lighthouse may be my favourite.

But, Bush’s all-time greatest feat of empathy lives on side one: “Cloudbusting” is told from the perspective of a child — the son of dissident scientist Wilhelm Reich. The narrator’s inner monologue seems as alienating to an adult listener as it probably should. And yet we feel for him. “I hid my yo-yo in the garden,” he sings to his imprisoned father, “I can’t hide you from the government.”

Sometimes, manipulating symbols doesn’t affect reality at all.

The album’s sound is of its time. It’s got some badly dated synths, and it’s full of that awful 80s drum sound. But, I don’t care. The songs are strong enough to push through that.

I could go on for thousands of words about all of the reasons why I adore this album. But, ultimately, it comes down to this: Hounds of Love is an album full of feelings. In stark opposition to Bush’s image as an alienating, eccentric figure, Hounds reaches out and makes the effort to connect.

I have no idea whether or not it’ll connect with you. I hope so. I hope it knocks that impassive facade of yours clean off. I want to see waterworks, Meuse.

But, either way, this is what all the fuss is about. Now you know.

— Matthew