Sunday, May 25, 2008


One of the more illuminating conceptions of taste I have heard is a description my friend (with a mixture of condescension, appreciation, and vanity) applies to people's unique constellations of interests, the conceit of a town. For me, "Parkerville"--for someone else, let's imagine "Megan City" and "Larry Town."

The idea is, there are certain interests we have that are irreducibly particular to us: when we mention them, we are alienating people. What we find important or think to be famous, is actually peculiar and local. These interests weird people out and our very much strictly for us.

I like a few things about this. 1) It doesn't rule out shared, overlapping, universally agreed-upon tastes. Not everything someone likes is "within their jurisdiction." 2) It allows us to describe the interests of boring people or people with bad tastes in a more interesting way. Is there not an *interesting* (or bizarre) ur-phenomena at the root of even the most pedestrian tastes? 3) It allows us to think of people's appreciations as being never-neutral. What someone likes about the Godfather, let's say, might be completely determined by their weird local feelings.

I don't want to talk about real people who aren't me. So I'll give examples from myself:

For myself: VH1 "pop-up video"; Lord of the Rings RISK; Sergeant York; Everybody Loves Raymond; The Song of Roland; D'Aulaire's book of Norse myths; mediocre Swedish hardcore; biographies of Napoleon; the fourth Danzig solo album; etc.

Is it not true in some way that in our adult lives we are merely playing dress-up with our 10th-grade self?

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Some more thoughts on Guns 'N Roses

Sometimes, of course, I feel like I am the only person who knows what "filler" is. There are probably about 5 good double-albums in the history of music, but with every 74-minute CD being reviewed with a very blind eye turned towards about 30 of those minutes, "filler" seems like a dirty word for reviewers and fans to throw around. Filler is really the elephant in the room, though, which is really evident if you buy vinyl and not just cds or mp3s. 

Now, the most filler-stuffed albums of all time are the double-double Use Your Illusion LPs. Over 140 minutes! What's bizarre, though, is that the filer works in precisely the opposite way that one would expect. "Sure," you are thinking, "Appetite for Destruction was a great album, but once they turned to all those piano-ballads and 8-minute songs, they just couldn't hack it."

The opposite is true. There is only one really long song on Use Your Illusion I. It is the best song. What really goes wrong wrong wrong is the number of Aerosmith-y, hard-rockin' tunes that precisely try to conjure up the first Guns 'n Roses album. In other words, their "experimentation" works, and their "sticking-to-what-they-know" does not work. The problem is not that the band "lost their touch" but that they did not go far enough. 

This is not an important point, but as more and more people just don't listen to albums or don't know what they are talking about, the real character of "artistic objects" becomes veiled by circulating idle-talk with no clue. 

(These albums are bad, still, though. Everyone is right about that.)

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Long Songs

This is a post about giving people what they want in musical form.

Most hardcore bands can't write any song over four minutes without feeling that they have achieved "epic" status, with all the trappings of a sword and sandals film: long boring stretches, needless ornamentation, pretentiousness, cellos, overtures, spoken-word sections, etc. It is moronic. Compare with the metal band Darkthrone, who probably have never written a song under four minutes, but who don't bother to fill up that time with any trappings or even more than a couple of riffs. Which is to say, the punk motivation for writing a long song has never been clear to me, as punk is so devoid of emotional content and dynamics (the elements which power Meat Loaf through all of his long songs). 

Tragedy understand this perfectly. None of the songs on their last album are over 3:30. 

On their last album, Fucked Up had nine songs over five minutes (compared with, say, four on the Wu-Tang album 36 Chambers). In retrospect, the problem with Hidden World is not the length of the songs, but that it is hard to remember *either* differences between the songs, or different parts within any given song. That sounds like a crippling problem, but that the record succeeds at all given this sameness is quite an accomplishment. Over an hour of mid-tempo, strumming hardcore should be way worse than this. I credit the proliferation of "neat parts" and the band's refusal of boring intros (rather, they tend to stretch out the conclusion of a song, once your interest is already held). 

In contrast, I give you the monumentally boring diptych Guns and Roses released in 1991, Use Your Illusion I & II. These records are a real mess. But there are some real gems, almost all of them incredibly long, Zeppelin-esque monsters that truly pay their way: "November Rain" and "Estranged" being the best examples. Unlike Fucked Up's songs, you can tell right away "oh, this is not going to end for a while"---orchestration, pianos, no verse-chorus structure, guitar solos early and often. 

I want to really draw your attention to these songs, though. They are long and boring, but they earn it with HUGE parts. On the album as a whole, Guns and Roses are excessive and  over-indulgent, but one's patience is very much repaid when they succeed. The show-stopper moments in "November Rain" and "Estranged" are not mild pleasures--these are hooks big enough to hang a buffalo on. 

It sounds like this will end up with me saying that bands should "stick to what they are good at" (punk bands to short songs, bands with big pretensions to long songs), but really that is such a false distinction. That is why I introduced Fucked Up earlier. THEY ARE NOT GOOD AT WRITING LONG SONGS. Their album is just a bunch of short songs stretched out. And it's not a problem at all, because those songs are good. 

Many are familiar with Nietzsche's idea of the eternal return. Let me phrase it this way: would you rather spend your life listening (over and over) to a mediocre set of four two-minute hardcore songs, or one 9-minute monster with a lot of cool parts? 

It is harder and more worthwhile to try to write one good 8 minute song than it is to write a 2 minute song. If you can't do it (like Fucked Up), fake it. You'll impress people. If you genuinely can't do it, your 2-minute songs probably aren't so hot anyways. Or, I dunno---string a bunch of short songs together, like The Who and The Beatles, and pretend they are a "suite." But I don't go for this low-stakes business. (The real enemy of this post is Jay Reatard.) 

I also love short songs. But the pleasures should not be of the blink-and-you'll-miss-it variety. Give me something "to be intense upon" (Keats). Once you've done that, I'll forgive any  amount of cello.

Or let me be *very* blunt: why don't we measure our enjoyment of music by how much pleasure it gives us? This post would be proposing a pleasure-per-minute ratio that would judge very harshly a great deal of music that, by other standards, has a lot of capital or allegedly succeeds (though without giving pleasure).

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Opera: Some Boring Thoughts

For those of you who felt that a blog post comparing hardcore/punk/indie shows to the opera was 1) inevitable, 2) sure to be boring, and 3) already sufficiently "previewed" in real-life conversation, feel free to tune out. You are probably dating me or hear enough of my opinions as it is. 

For the rest of you, this comparison is sure to be invigorating and off-the-wall. 

When one goes to the opera, one expects a great deal:
*a return on the outlay of money for tickets, in the form of world-class singing and staging
*good acoustics
*a bunch of old New Yorkers who will cough and rustle paper for the entire performance
*many guaranteed "highlights" interspersed among boring plot-advancement
*everything going off "without a hitch"
*established and world-renowned classics of the genre, confirmed by generations of fans 
*showmanship, performance, excellence
*socializing optional
*class anxiety

When one goes to a "show" in Brooklyn, one ought to be prepared for:

*milling about and preening by people not really there to see the band(s)
*many people only there to see one band: their friends' band
*sound difficulties, bad sound
*unprofessional performance, drunkenness
*sets that go on for too long
*unpleasant social interactions with people you didn't know still lived here
*bands whose raison d'etre seems to be free drinks/getting laid/being talked-about
*no one even pretends that the goal is to give a memorable evening of entertainment

Now, I have seen some great shows in my life: but many of those were bands from Japan (with a completely different idea of performance than ours), and many of the others irregular "DIY" shows in basements, laundry rooms, etc.--no one was there for the ambience. On the other end of the spectrum, nearly every stadium-rock concert I've seen has been great: Judas Priest, John Fogerty, etc. 

The problem, then, seems to be somewhere in the middle. A show so desperate to exist that it needs to take place in a laundry room, stands a fair chance of being good. A major concert with hundreds of staffers and million-dollar sounds, will probably be OK. It is almost a certainty that "some band" playing the Cakeshop, however, will suck hard. 

Here I hope the opera comparison is useful. No one goes to hear a Mozart opera and walks away without having heard some astonishing and catchy tunes. And yet it is common in the extreme that your friends' band will play a show where, granted, the instrumentation may be fine, you may "like" the music for what that is worth, but the "take away" is nothing. A week later, you have forgotten who played completely. Only the ubiquitousness and incessant hyping of bar and club shows could produce their current dominance. No opera could be staged without a good chance of success, without elaborate composition that would ensure periodic engagement. No such "screening process" is necessary for a band to play their shitty set-list, however. 

I could go on, but you take my point. "Shows" are a waste of money. The music scene in (your town) is a cluster fuck. If only bands worth seeing played shows, there would be 1/30th the number of shows there are now. The question no artist seems to ask is, "Will anyone care that we wrote these songs, five months from now?" 

And to the reply that this is all an obvious point, I rejoin: is it? Then why is it that I am perpetually told that I "should come out" to X show; that it "will be fun," that Y band "is pretty good"? If I don't hear these phrases a single time this summer, then I will admit this point was obvious and unnecessary. Meanwhile, you will find me at home with my records or in line for rush orchestra seats.