Saturday, March 8, 2008

Why I Don't Trust Anyone

When reissue label Light in the Attic re-released the first two Betty Davis albums last year, they did something very stupid. They only did CDs. Some genius, noticing this, immediately bootlegged the things on vinyl (which I bought). Now, in early 2008, about 10 months after the CDs came out, the label has gotten wise and has pressed the albums on wax (with nicer packaging and bonus 7"s).

For a split second, I thought: "wouldn't it be nice to have these beautifully packaged, legit LPs?" But, you know what? These records actually are not that great. Now, let me tell you my one insight into human nature: everyone thinks the thing that only they know about, or only they have, is much better than it really is. Extremely rare is the "long-lost masterpiece" that lives up to the hype. We were all much more excited about "Free as a Bird" and "Real Love" before they, you know, really existed.

Luckily, there is a built-in psychological counter-action to the deflationary effect of finding out something does not live up to its hype. This is the joy of tastemaking: "You've got to hear it!" When something is in the vaults, this enthusiasm belongs to the few; when something finally comes out, we all get to join in. "Is it as good as everyone says?" "Yeah! It's great!"

How am I to tell whether a new discovery is truly great or only marginal? One would think we could rely upon reviews, but this turns out to be the least-reliable sphere of all. What we need is historical perspective and a kind of long-term judgment. It is not accidental that these things are lacking in American culture.

Here's a good write up about the disappointment of hearing Betty Davis' albums re-issued:

"Her music is a lot more fun to read about than listen to."

"She was, point blank, an awful singer."

"The vocals might matter less if the music were consistently inspired. But few of Davis' grooves really stick. Partly you can blame the singer: Davis often ignored the beat entirely."

"Claims that her albums belong in the first rank of the funk pantheon are deluded. Such claims aren't unprecedented, of course. Think of the mid-'90s vogue for exotica, fueled by CD reissues of forgotten kitsch by Esquivel and Les Baxter, or of R&B/rock guitarist Shuggie Otis, who in 1974 made a wan little album called Inspiration Information that was hailed as a lost masterwork by dint of a 2001 reissue on David Byrne's label, Luaka Bop. That Esquivel, Otis, and Davis became their seasons' misguided icons of lost virtue isn't something we should hold against them. Their tepid music, though, is something else."

What I like about this write-up is the historical perspective, which is two-fold: 1) What we might call a canon of funk music, against which Betty Davis can be judged as a quality, and 2) a remembrance of other hyped "lost gems," the fate of which can now be viewed serenely.

The #1 thing that happens in a record store in NYC in 2008 is that someone recommends to me a reissue of a record I was not previously aware of. Some of these records will be fantastic (the Roky Erickson "Evil One" 2xLP), some of them will be just fine (the Betty Davis albums), and some of them I will listen to once and file away (oh how many!).

The point being, we all would rather "discover" a mediocre $18.99 reissue than buy the $3 Stevie Wonder album which towers above it. Myself included. This might be taken as the central question of this blog in its entirety.

1 comment:

colintappe said...

Yo man, I've been putting some thought into this post, but first off, I linked your blog on my horror movie review blog, so if you like to keep track of who's linking you, there you go. Not sure if you're into trash cinema (I really would be interested to hear your opinion on horror movies), or reading amateur criticism on trash cinema for that matter, but whatever, here's the link:

As for the topic at hand ("TOTALLY UNDERRATED" as code for sub par, and the seductive nature of the obscure), I submit three pieces of anecdotal evidence for you to do with what you will:

1) Tonight I was at a "Socialcide" and "Nightstick Justice" show, two bands who play a competant but somewhat sub par brand of that "straight up no frills early 80's USHC" (one of 'em even covered White Cross, so there you go) that's kind of the flavor of last month. Obviously that style's not really my cup of tea, but like I said, both bands displayed an adequate level of musicianship and did a good enough job at what they were going for. After all the scheduled bands this local band I've never heard of called Excommunication (or something) jumped on and played what could very well have been their 1st show. No one in the band was older than 16 (I wasn't the one who asked, I swear!), they didn't have a bass player, and they were doing basically the same thing as Socialcide and Nightstick justice, but with such ineptitude and juvenile abandon that all 10 minutes of their set (including a Negative FX cover) was pure bliss, while the other more accomplished groups were forgettable at best. Point being, sometimes inept can be sublime whereas adequate is just dull, and I think that's the impetus behind the championing of Betty Davis (never heard her) or whoever. At the same time, if that same group of 14-16 year olds was taking time away from a Totalitar or Gauze set, my opinion would obviously be different, which I think is the point you're really trying to make.

2)For your consideration, youtube comments for Collective Soul's "Shine" video:

If the link doesn't work, or you don't have the time for the full experience highlights include:

Rebelyell01 (11 months ago)
Man I miss the good ol days when music still had a meaning to it. Looks like we should've enjoyed the 90's alot more than we did

KamiSays (2 months ago)
Whoa, Heaven let your light shine down. Great song, one of the all time best simple love lyrics. The beginning for an awesome band that's still great!

mr69bitches (2 months ago)
man u gotta luv this song its not like that emo crap we have nowadays

TreeLickingGothXX (1 month ago)
best damn thing ever is 90s rock/grunge! woo go babies of '92! we were born in the best decade

missvicious666 (1 month ago)
yay. i was born in '92. :)

superactionmoto (1 month ago)
me too! =]

missvicious666 (1 month ago)
'90s kids rock!

SirLumpy1 (1 month ago)
lol i was born in '94

KevinCali24 (1 month ago)
That's cool that you young people can appreciate a great song like this. :)

Alright, obviously picking on youtube comments left by 14-16 year olds is fish-in-a-barrel, totally pointless, etc., but still, why in god's name would any modern day 16 year old praise fucking COLLECTIVE SOUL? Like, with stuff like Gnarls Barkley, Amy Winehouse, Soulja Boy or whoever on the radio, artists who are obviously not worth talking about but who you'd think would still make any bullshit 90's soft rock obsolete, it's kind of interesting that teenagers look to this stuff as "the classics" the same way my generation was told to worship at the altar of Beatles/Doors/Hendrix, et al. This shouldn't be disturbing so much as utterly perplexing. I guess there's a point in there about how fucked up and difficult it can be to pinpoint canon and thus not fall prey to "Esquivel reissues" or whatever, but I think "WTF?" factor trumps all here.

3) Van Halen 1984. It's all I've been listening to the past week or so. It finally "clicked" and my mind is blown. I guess by favoring "Fair Warning" over the record with all the obvious hits for the past few years I was trying to be a "cool" Van Halen fan or whatever, but fuck it, I was wrong, this shit kills start to finish. I definitely gotta give this round to All Music Guide. I'll leave you with some stage banter off the 1984 "Panama" 2xLP live bootleg I can now fully appreciate: "What's that you say? You bet your fuckin' ass this is real, this ain't Quiet Riot, baby!"

I'm done. Peace.