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Educational Music Shopping: Why Did These Artists Win Grammys?

Okay, I know exactly why the Laurie Anderson/Kronos Quartet record won a Grammy: because it is awesome. But I wondered about the other winners, the ones that, of course, I had heard of (you’d have to be living under a rock not to have heard of them), but had never listened to. So, at Music Millennium a couple of weekends ago, the oldest independent record store in Portland, Oregon, and one of my favorite places on the planet, I did some record shopping, and in an unusual state of looking for nothing in particular, I decided in the end to buy albums from artists that, while having minimal interest in heretofore, won a Grammy, and thus earned the distinction of the I-should-probably-know-something-about-this-record award from yours truly. I bought two albums that weekend from such artists: “Anthem of the Peaceful Army” by Greta Van Fleet, and “By the Way, I Forgive You” by Brandi Carlile. It was actually a different album from Greta Van Fleet that had the honor of winning a Grammy, but this was their most recent thing and, I thought, should be most representative of what they’re doing presently. They won for Best Rock album, and Carlile won for Best Americana album.

Let’s talk about the rock. Greta Van Fleet are clearly superbly talented young musicians. There can be no doubt about that. They’re a tight band, each member obviously not just proficient but accomplished on his instrument. They’re all very handsome young dudes as well, and the fact that three of them are brothers ads a kind of irresistible adorability factor. They have all those things going for them. Again, I’m not listening to the record that earned them a Grammy, but the one immediately and closely after. Are the songs good? Yes, on the whole, the songs are good. Is this band Grammy worthy? I have a few concerns.

The buzz around Greta Van Fleet is that they are a 21st century Led Zeppelin. And at first listen, and second listen, and third, this comparison seems absolutely appropriate. The lead singer out Robert Plants Robert Plant. He’s probably more virtuosic than the original, but if at times while listening to this record you close your eyes (which is a very silly thing to say, as the music will sound the same whether your eyes are open or closed), you will think you are hearing a long lost but sonically superior Led Zeppelin song. It’s possible that this singer is just doing his own thing, and his own thing happens to sound like Robert Plant’s thing, but it’s also just as easy to conclude that this guy is deliberately aping the mighty 70’s hard rock singer. It’s that close. And because, stylistically speaking, everything about this record seems to be paying tribute to 70’s hard rock bands, it’s difficult to believe that these boys were not studying the Led Zeppelin catalogue while they were in their diapers. And when he doesn’t sound like Robert Plant, the singer sounds like Geddy Lee. And sometimes he sounds like Geddy Lee sounds like Robert Plant, you know, a là Rush’s debut record. And not only is his singing eerily similar to these two giants, but his lyrics seem also straight out of the “Misty Mountain Hop”/”Kashmir”/”Anthem”/”By-Tor and the Snow Dog” songbook. And I find them silly. Rush’s lyrics are also silly, but when I fell in love with them first I was in the seventh grade. I think this record would have been infinitely more interesting to me in the 7th grade. But while I’m listening and driving, I’m banging my head. I’m a 7th grader again.

I read that Alice Cooper also dubbed these guys the new Led Zeppelin, and said they were doing a tremendous service for guitar rock in the 21st century, and if you love the Zep and wish they were still making records, I suppose Greta Van Fleet will satisfy those desires. My feeling is, yes, that could be a very good thing, but their stuff is super derivative, not original or groundbreaking in the slightest, and, I guess, not very interesting to me outside of its rocky goodness (no small potatoes), and perhaps, if it were my decision, Greta Van Fleet would not be worthy of a Grammy.  Nevertheless, I like this record and will listen to it a bunch more times likely before I tire of it.

Let’s move on to the Americana. First of all, what the hell’s Americana music? I’ve only been hearing this term for the last six or seven years, have played with musicians who consider themselves playing in this genre, but I’m still not completely sure I know what it is. But apparently though, it’s so much a thing now so as to have its own category of awards at the Grammys. So let’s look it up, shall we? From wikipedia:

Americana is an amalgam of American music formed by the confluence of the shared and varied traditions that make up the musical ethos of the United States, specifically those sounds that are merged from folk, country, blues, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, gospel, and other external influences.

The definition on AmericanaMusic.org is super similar, but they’ve added this little nugget, which I find instructive, that while Americana draws from all these other genres, it results “in a distinctive roots-oriented sound that lives in a world apart from the pure forms of the genres upon which it may draw. While acoustic instruments are often present and vital, Americana also often uses a full electric band.” What I find kind of funny about these definitions is that they seem to fit almost any musical outfit that is cross-pollinating genres. How “distinctively roots-oriented” could you get while playing around between six or seven different traditions–how could that be “a world apart”? I don’t have anything against artists and musicians who are not squarely in a particular camp, if fact, I admire that kind of thing, I’m just having difficulty deciding if Americana is an actual genre or whether it’s just a label we use when we can’t describe the genre but nevertheless decide that it feels genuinely American. Sidenote: listen to Elton John’s
“Madman Across the Water” and tell me that that record sounds British. I dare you.

So Brandi Carlile won the best album award in the category of Americana for “By the Way, I Forgive You”. What intrigues me about my response to this record is that, while it is a type of thing stylistically that I would be usually much less interested in than I would be in a record from, say, Greta Van Fleet, I like Carlile’s album a lot more than I like “Anthem of the Peaceful Army.”

At first, its decidedly country influence out of the gate puts me off some. Typically and with few exceptions, I do not favor country music. I especially do not like contemporary popular country music. Brandi Carlile’s voice is unabashedly a country sounding voice and the first tune on the album, “Every Time I Hear That Song,” seems to me an unabashedly country song. But she is none of the things I hate about country, and while I’m not a huge fan of that opening track, “The Joke” is something different altogether. This thing is an anthem. It’s got tremendous power, lyrically and musically. The first time I heard the song, I almost wept. In fact, in every subsequent listen, I can feel that tug. One of these times I think I’m going to have to let loose. It’s like the “We are the Champions,” the “Shout,” or the “We Are Young” of Americana. This is one thing that makes this album significantly different and better. Brandi Carlile is an ADULT and she’s writing very seriously about serious adult things; there’s no ice and snow in fairyland here (not that there’s anything wrong with that). And the music, if it’s intended to be roots oriented, seems to me at times much more sophisticated, more progressive. Check out that third tune, “Hold Out Your Hand,” a tune with a jaunty little bluegrass verse that busts into a kind of slamming, again anthemic, four on the floor stomp swing in the chorus and culminates in this shouty, chant-like spoken word thing, coupled with one of those nonsensical background vocal hooks worthy of The Beatles. And, country twang or no country twang, Carlile is a powerful and interesting singer.

Americana? I guess so. There’s country here, blue grass, folk, rock, etc. Rootsy? Okay, but there’s orchestration on this album as well, beautiful and lush string orchestration, and that don’t strike me as rootsy. She sounds like Elton John trying to sound like an American. Maybe “By the Way, I Forgive You” is an Americana record simply because it defies easy categorization. That’s okay. I’m easy. Is it Grammy worthy? I think if it can make a 54 year old man want to cry, sure. Give this record a Grammy.

Postscript Ramblings: I’m kind of jonesing to get back to my alphabet project, the game of listening to a single album by every artist represented in my compact disc collection in alphabetical order and then writing about it. I started this project years ago, only got half way through the letter H, and then stopped. Mostly it’s because I cannot stop buying new music and new music listening seems to always take precedent. And I’ve spent lots of time listening to “new” music by artists that I’ve already written about in the alphabet, namely, rediscovering the entire early catalog of Bowie and the entire entire catalog by Kate Bush. And I’ve been listening to a lot of vinyl. And I’ve been discovering, like I have above, other new things that have ere now been completely out of my wheelhouse: Solange, Childish Gambino, Anderson .Paak, Richard Hawley. I have to forgive myself for being distracted by so much good music pulling me away from the alphabet. I’ll get back to it some day, maybe someday soon. If this appeals to you, let me know.

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Love Letter to The Flaming Lips on the Eve of “Oczy Mlody”

Dear Flaming Lips,

I love you guys. Your music changed my life. Or, maybe this is more accurate: I discovered your music when my life was changing and it became a kind of soundtrack for those wild years. It was both heady and silly and cathartic, and private too, because no one else I knew was listening to it, and while I seldom knew what the lyrics were really about, somehow they nevertheless seemed to reach down deep inside of me to pull something out, usually something heavy. Your music made me unaccountably happy during a time in my mid thirties when everything seemed really fucked up. I count “Clouds Taste Metallic,” “The Soft Bulletin,” and “Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots” among my favorite records of a decade, maybe of all time. So I thank you for that. And I have been loyal to the band ever since. On record store day I went out and bought the Heady Nuggs Volume 2 box set which contains all five of the records you recorded between 2006 and 2012, two of which I already possessed on compact disc. But I have had a dilemma, a difficulty, a trouble with everything you’ve released post “At War With The Mystics.” And I’m writing to you because I don’t quite understand why I don’t like the records post 2006 nearly as much as the earlier records; in fact, I’m not even sure I like them at all, and it’s been kind of freaking me out. Honestly, I don’t know if it’s me or if it’s you. Maybe you can help me figure it out.

Let’s pretend for a second that it’s you. You guys went from an engaging, fun, and intellectually challenging pop band into a band that does noisy mood music. The newest stuff (and I’m mostly talking about “Embryonic” and “The Terror”), is droning, often lacking distinguishable verses, bridges, choruses, the vocals are whispery or distorted, indecipherable without the lyric sheet, the music often punctuated by gratingly loud noises or repetitive loops that jar or bore the listener, and on “The Terror” in particular, the tunes are rhythmically minimal, often without drums. The lyrics and vocal performances that used to be spirited, buoyant, exuberant, sometimes dark but hopeful, are now just mostly dark, quiet, subdued. It’s almost as if you’ve had a songectomy. This is not the pop band I fell in love with in 2001. It’s as if you have deliberately jettisoned all the things that made great those three records I’ve listed above. It’s a pisser. It’s disappointing. Have you run out of ideas? Have you betrayed your fans? You’ve never been a great singer, Wayne, but at least you were out there loud and proud, which I loved. Have you given up on your lovely, limited, but always charming voice? Why all the whispering falsetto stuff? Why so sad?

Okay, devil’s advocate: maybe it’s me. I simply don’t understand what you’re doing. Or, you are demonstrating the highest artistic integrity by giving absolutely zero fucks about what anybody thinks and you are earnestly experimenting to discover something new. It’s about the art, after all, not about appeasing your fans. Your recent minimalist approach to songwriting is about preserving a core of what’s really important and jettisoning all the flotsam and jetsam of pop music. And, like me, you’re getting older. Your artistic ambitions are changing, morphing, sobering, reaching for something higher and nobler than the three and a half minute pop song. So part of why I don’t like what you’ve been doing is because I am nostalgic for that state I was in and that state you were in 17 years ago. That’s no longer a reality.

Fast-forward to January, 2017, a year after David Bowie’s death, and the month of a dark, dark moment in American history, the inauguration of the gigantic orange man-baby to the presidency. You do two things almost simultaneously. You release your cover of Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” and you release your first album of new songs since “The Terror.”
I have the new album, “Oczy Mlody,” right now in my hot little hands and I am about to spin it for the first time. In this dark hour, I am crossing my fingers for some kind of miracle. I know, that’s a lot of pressure and responsibility that you don’t really deserve, but I’m giving it to you anyway. You helped me through a difficult time in 2001 and I trust that you can do it again.

Notwithstanding the crazy 1997 experimentation of “Zaireeka,”the four records designed to be played simultaneously on separate players (which I have not had the pleasure of hearing BTW), if the last two albums could be categorized as your most difficult listening, then this record here, the super-strangely titled “Oczy Mlody,”comparatively, is the easiest. Easy listening Flaming Lips. On first spin it was immediately likable, relaxing, contemplative, dark, yes, but melodic; and this album, unlike the last two, contains much of that lovely, synthesizer orchestration that made the “Soft Bulletin” all the way through “At War with the Mystics” records so entrancing. And while there are no tunes on this new record that include the kind of ballistic drumming  of “Race for the Prize” or “The Spiderbite Song,” there are drums here, or at least some drum programming, that help percolate the tunes in a way that most of the songs on “The Terror” do not percolate.

The lyrics are nuts, as usual, and that’s a bonus, but because I haven’t taken the time to read all the way through them, word for word, I can’t really say anything about the continuity that I sense is present and the story (I’ve read) these lyrics are supposed to tell. But on the second tune, Wayne, when you sing, “I tried to tell you, but I don’t know how,” I’m right back there feeling once again that  what you’re singing is resonating in my life in a super specific and meaningful way. And “The Castle” is maybe one of the most beautiful and saddest love songs I’ve heard in many a moon. And “We a Family” makes me love Miley Cyrus in a way I never thought I could, and to be thankful for the effects of a brilliant pre-chorus. This tune is anthemic and gorgeous in almost the same way that “Do You Realize” was.

So fast-forward once again into February and I have listened to this new Lips record maybe a dozen times by now. The first thing I can say is that it holds up to repeated listening. I kind of forced myself to listen several times to both “Embryonic” and “The Terror,” but it kind of felt like a chore or an obligation, a duty, but this is a record that compels me, after a break of only a few days, to listen again. It’s not necessarily a return to old form, which it probably shouldn’t be, but it is a return to something recognizably and loveably The Flaming Lips. And I couldn’t be happier. And that’s it. My favorite Flaming Lips records have made me stupidly joyful in super dark times, and here I am again. So thank you, Lips. Keep doing what you’re doing.

 

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