Entertainment Weekly’s Bullshit List, #90-86.

Toxicity
90. System Of A Down, Toxicity

MA: (Sang, quietly) Well, ya gotta give these cats credit for ambition. Anti-authoritarian “fuck! the! man!” screeds bump into meditations on science and spirituality,or the interplay between control and enthropy, and just when you think the whole thing’s turning too damn introspective you notice Toxicity’s wry, self-aware edge. Or if they don’t showya that, they might go downright silly, like the Mothers of Invention-esque “Bounce.” (Chorus: Jump! Pogopogopogopogo! Up! Pogopogopogopogo! Down!) There ain’t a heck of a lotta metal albums that can be described as thoughtful, and many fewer still that y’can label thoughtful AND funny, but….

(Shouted) BUT, MAN, SOME OF THESE LYRICS BLOW DONKEYS! The System cats spend most of the album lyrically beating you over the head all persuasive-paper-for-freshman-comp style

all research and successful drug policy shows/
That treatment should be increased/
And law enforcement decreased/
While abolishing mandatory-minimum sentences

Or they pull a complete 180, and move towards borderline incomprehensible!

“Trust in my Self Righteous Suicide?” Um… yeah. Whatevs, dude.

(Quietly, sang) I’m not sure of my definitions… Does Toxicity count as Nu-Metal? Or is it to not hip-hop or too not stoopid? Anyway, if we do dump Serge and the boys in with Korn and Korn’s ilk, they’re certainly the very best of their contemperaries, AND I mean that as a compliment. Besides the Middle Eastern tinged harmonies and weird-ass time signatures (The song Toxicity is in, what, 12 freakin/8?) they’ve also got a vast aptitude for meat and potatoes riffing, and..!

WHILE! THEY’RE! stuck in the play really soft/play really loud song construction phase favored by Hole and a gajillion other “alternative” bands!

The harmonic overlays, which are sometimes downright beautiful and singer Serj Tankien’s facility at using his screamy voice as a rhythmic instrument give them a distinctive and, quite frankly, superior variant on the traditional loudsoftloudsoft method ‘o songwriting.

DYNAMICS! There’s a problem, though! The current vouge for autistic flat-line recording, where nothing is ever much louder or much softer than anything else, really hurts this album!! The song structure really isn’t THAT varied, and the bombastic loud parts tend to get pillow-smothered by the bulldozer production!

It isn’t enough to kill the album, but I did end up liking this one less than I thought I was gonna, and I dump 90% of the blame for this square on the production and the fact that on those few times when System ditched their experimentalism and merry pranksterim for tradtional heavy metal (Forest, especially) I just got bored.

Still, this album shows a helluvalotta potential for brillaince which, sadly, WAS! NEVER !REALLY! achieved. If only the SOAD cats would’ve turned their anarchic edge to improving their basic song construction, they coulda been contenders.

JB: Man, System Of A Down are awesome. This is strange for me to say, because I’m decidedly not a metal fan. But where other metal bands are all “life sucks because I’m a whiny suburban brat,” SOAD are all “life sucks because specific people in government and business are making it suck, and it can totally be better.” Other metal bands are all “I’m going to impress you with how many notes I can play,” and SOAD are all “we’re going to impress you with how tight we are rhythmically.” Other metal bans are all “anything but wall-to-wall pounding riffage is for pussies,” and SOAD are all “pounding riffage is only one tool in our arsenal. Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, motherfucker.”

I love the pretty floaty bits, the heavy riffing bits, and the radical politics throughout. I’m not convinced this is their best album, but on the venerable principle of being the record that made them famous, I won’t quibble with it.

 

Bachelor No. 2
89. Aimee Mann, Bachelor No. 2

JB: I would have loved this album when it came out. Its introspective, literate tone, the lovingly crafted sonic details (thx Jon Brion), the abbreviated-history-of-Americana in its classicist gestures (connect the dots between the Band and R.E.M. and Wilco), still so tastefully deployed that it never upsets the delicate indie-pop balance that a Brion quasi-soundtrack is composed of. I’m listening to it and writing this in a Borders coffeeshop, and it is perhaps the perfect evocation of that sort of upscale, NPR-liberal, comfortably graying, intelligent-without-scraping-profundity milieu. Like I said, I would have loved it seven years ago. I was so much older then, etc., etc.

It’s not that I dislike it now. I could probably love it if I spent more time with it — in fact, the brief cool-jazz guitar break in “Calling In Quits” just took my breath away, and I bet there are thousands more tiny details like that for me to music-geek all over if I gave it the chance — but — but — okay, look.

My problems with this record have almost nothing to do with this record, and admitting that up front, let’s dig into what the fuck is wrong with me.

First, that kind of bruiseless NPR-respectability is an issue. Not because I hate NPR (quite the contrary), but because part of my music-geek identity is being self-satisfied that I know better than the tasteful, tasteful folks on the lower end of the dial. I like Archie Shepp and Ikara Colt and Les Rallizes Denudes, man! I’m dangerous! (N.B. I only like Ikara and Rallizes in limited doses; I’m actually a pussy.) So Aimee Mann being adored by a lot of people I (for some reason) find it necessary to feel superior to is a strike against her, not that that makes any sense.

Second, I’m (God knows why) a little bit afraid of falling in love with a music act in general, rather than with particular songs. Part of this may be due to an active sense of mortality — I’ve only got so much listening time left, I’ve got to cram in as wide an amount as possible — but a lot of it is due to a sense of unjustified pride. I’ve already dismissed Aimee Mann as live-withoutable (based on half-hearted listens to a handful of songs), and finding otherwise would mean I was (the horror) wrong about something. Again, spelled out like that it’s the stupidest thing on earth.

Finally — and here I feel there is legitimate room for complaint, even if it’s not applicable to this particular album — I resist with all my heart and soul the spirit of the age which says that music tied to a movie, TV show, etc., is inherently worth more than music which isn’t. (This is a straw man, yes, nobody has ever actually said anything of the sort, but it’s implied everywhere, from Wikipedia’s assumption that people are more interested in which episode of The O.C. a song appeared in than in its meaning or sound to the fact that if I didn’t mention Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia in this piece someone would accuse me of ignorance rather than lack of interest.) (This is also why I don’t seek out music on YouTube.) Bachelor No. 2 is largely composed of songs written for and about Magnolia, and the fact that everyone who has ever said anything about the album feels compelled to point this out is reason enough for me to approach it with a jaundiced ear. Music that can’t stand on its own two feet is, as far as I’m concerned, failed music. (This doesn’t actually apply to this record; Bachelor No. 2 stands on its own two feet just fine.) I recognize that this puts me in a minority of one (and even I can get behind an excellent gestalt), and that the multiplicity of uses to which people can legitimately put pop (ahem, there is no illegitimate use) can of course include favoring the primacy of image. Just don’t expect me to be happy about it.

Anyway. It’s a fine album, and if I end up becoming a lovesick Aimee Mann fan, don’t be surprised. If I never listen to it again, don’t be surprised, either: life is short, and good stuff is everywhere.

MA: Hmm.

I didn’t have any psycho/socio issues with this ‘un. And I don’t know who Ikara Colt and Les Rallizes Denudes even are. I just don’t dig Bachelor # 2 much. It feels like it belongs on Jonathan’s Adult Pop box set, aughts edition, except that I DO like most of that stuff. (MMm. Dinah and Ella and Sarah and Tony.) It DOES have a cool-ass dodo on the cover, and it’s suburban and urbane and literary and adult and wry and depressed and sarcastic and annoyed and probably some more adjectives besides. It should be a diverse album, but it’s not, really. The first track is about all those things. So is the last, and the fourth, and the seventh, and even the tenth which is like a minute and a half long. The proverbial pony knows all sorts of tricks, but by the end we’ve seen ’em all a dozen times. There was some nice STUFF – Some beautiful background harmonics here , a jaw-droppingly clever lyric there, the occasional chorus so catchy it moves into your head and sings a two year lease – But all of this seemed spread out, and I’m not sure there was enough awesomeness in any one song to make it great. (Although Red Vines got pretty close.) A little mix and match and it would have been a hell of an ep.

(And, OK, I gotta give up the Comic Nerd props for “Ghost World.” I like Dan Clowes’ stuff more than enough to make up for not liking that song, so overall it’s a plus.)

 

So
88. Peter Gabriel, So

MA: Ah, memories. It was, what?, ’95? ’96? We were making-squiggles-in-the-backseat of her ’89 Ford Probe, and In Your Eyes came on the radio, and I looked deeply into her eyes and thinking “Man. This song is just NOT very good.” So, (A) it didn’t last, and (B) I’m not a fan of this album.

There’s a pattern here. Every time the EW boys an’ gals list work by an artist who’s work I genuinely follow they, without fail, pick my least favorite album from whichever particular artist. Which is to say: I really like Peter Gabriel 90% of the time, but So doesn’t elicit much emotional reaction from me.

Boredom maybe? Possibly thirst, but I was just out riding my bike around, too.

But. Before I tear into it, let us pause for a second and admire Peter’s spectacular facility for album titles. The names of his non-soundtrack studio releases: Peter Gabriel, Peter Gabriel, Peter Gabriel, Peter Gabriel, So, Us, and Up. I love that.

But, yeah. My interest in P.G’s work is tied very closely to lyrical content. He’s looking at world politics as a buncha kid games? (Games Without Frontiers) I’m Interested. Probing the psychosis inherent in human relationships? (Digging in the Dirt) Interested. Singing about Monkey Torture? (Shock the Monkey) Very, very interested.

So, sadly, is all songs that fall squarely in the category of “stuff MarkAndrew finds uninteresting.” Peter drones through some fairly traditional love songs, tells us his dreams (Which is the most boringest thing anyone can do, unless they’re (A)sex dreams, or (B) dreams about monkey torture,) and at his nadir seems to be drawing his cues from inspirational posters. So’s got more funk and soul elements tossed in the mix than the last couple of Peter Gabriels but this doesn’t particularly work in it’s favor. I DID like Sledgehammer until I heard it was an attempt to recapture the old Stax/volt R & B sound of Otis Redding and Rufus Thomas… And judged against this intent, we have, in the parlance of the intenet, “Epic Fail.” “LOL.” “Picture of a walrus without a bucket.” “L33tspeak Essay about how Star Wars characters need to have more gay sex.”

Poor Peter just ain’t naturally funky. You ever get on the Youtube and watch him try and dance? My grandmother’s got more rhythm, and she’s got parkinsons and death. Like Sting from last time, I blame his Britishness. His PROPER Britishness. The Dusty Springfield types are rejecting hundreds of years of stoicism evolution, and are not to be trusted.

(Side Note: I’m not sure I’m seein’ the sexual innuendo in Sledgehammer, either. I didn’t fine-tooth-comb the lyrics, mind, but I’m not sure how “I kicked the habit/shed my skin” or “you could have a bumper car” are dirty without application of a VERY active imagination.)

In fact, I’m wondering if the placement of this particular album on the EW list isn’t more a reaction to Gabriel’s concurrent development as a media manipulator. It’s certainly arguable that, at the time of it’s release, Sledgehammer was the best video ever, and his subsequent tour for So was, by most accounts, a revolutionary fusion of music, theatre, and mixed media. For the first time that I can think of (and feel free to correct me) The art surrounding a and contextualizing a pop album was more important than the album itself. I wouldn’t mind the complete totality of Peter G.’s early nineties career making SOME list, but on a list of albums-and-only-albums, there are much better options.

P.S. And how sick am I of guys like Youssou N’dour being stuck singing back-up to singers to guys who are, for example, Peter Gabriel good. There’s a good chance this bothers Peter Gabriel as well, of course.

P.P.S. The Laurie Anderson version of Excellent Birds (featuring Peter Gabriel) was genunielly excellent. This Is the Picture (Excellent Birds) (featuring Laurie Anderson) the semi-related version of the same song on this album was not. It should have been called Marginal Birds. At best.

JB: Yeah, very little music has aged quite so poorly as mid-80s adult-pop. While I can sort of force my way into appreciating the charms of this record, it’s almost entirely a function of misplaced nostalgia for a pastel-colored, frictionless vision of the 1980s that grows fainter with each listen that places it in the broader context of musical history.

I can theoretically admire Gabriel’s commitment to expanding his musical palette by adding elements of Afropop, electro-funk, and Persian classical music to his solemn art-rock, but when it comes down to it I’d just rather listen to the Bhundu Boys and Rick James and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan themselves. But even with that caveat, I don’t think he does it very well; David Byrne and Brian Eno were doing the same thing much better at the same time. He’s better than Paul Simon, but that’s not saying so much.

The one thing I will say is that Peter Gabriel’s voice here is great, and perhaps has never been better, only suffering in comparison with all the great black singers he insists on evoking. (And with those who would later evoke him; Tricky repurposed “Big Time” to great effect on “Mission Accomplished.”)

 

All Eyez On Me
87. 2Pac, All Eyez On Me

JB: In a lot of ways I’m not qualified to assess the success of this record. My two primary hip-hop bases of knowledge are the New York Golden Age between Grandmaster Flash and A Tribe Called Quest, and the rise of the South around the turn of the millennium. That leaves out most of the 90s and just about the entirety of West Coast rap, the odd G-funk single aside. I never bought into, or even understood, the cult of Tupac and Biggie. Not having heard much from either of them didn’t prevent me from being turned off by their godlike status among people my age and younger, and together with the kneejerk anti-Californianism that any self-respecting Arizonan enjoys, it kept me from even wanting to fill the gap.

First impressions, then:

It’s way too fucking long. That’s the case for even one of the discs; a double album in the CD age is more than anyone but an obsessive could ever want. This is true both on a macro level (all 90s double-albums are unnecessary) and on a micro level — each track goes on too long, too many choruses without any take-it-to-the-next-level reason for wearing out its welcome. Sure, some of this criticism is due to pure exhaustion; I’m just plain not used to listening to two-hour-long albums full of five to six-minute songs. But I can’t imagine, in this age of iPod, choosing to sit through the whole thing and loving every second of it.

It’s still really, really good. Tupac’s a terrific rapper within the narrow limits of his chosen genre (West Coast thug-life g-funk); the beats are undoubtedly dated but still tight as hell, the rhymes are funny, angry, witty, sad, and celebratory all at once. In the East Coast vs. West Coast wars, I’ll still side with the scene that produced Rakim, Guru, Nas, and Jay-Z, but I can at least appreciate the skill, humor, and passion of their rivals. (And I’m really, really grateful that 00’s hip-hop has allowed the Midwest, the South, and even a handful of overseas scenes to break up the stupid-ass dichotomy of the 90s.)

I’m not a big fan of what out-of-touch white Republicans still call “gangsta rap” and what a bunch of people still stuck in the 90s call “real rap, not this club shit” — granted that the West Coast ballers are to rap what the Rolling Stones of “Gimme Shelter” and the Who of “Won’t Get Fooled Again” are to rock (not musically, but narratively), I’m not real into the self-importance and frankly embarrassing cultural adulation of either. That said, I like Tupac better than, say, N.W.A., partly because he’s not playing it for sick laughs and partly because he goes soft on a handful of songs which I (being a bourgeois white dude) like better than the standard guns ’n’ bitches trip. I’d be interested in hearing this album’s predecessor, 2Pacalypse Now, which is apparently a more conscious record. I do like consciousness.

So that’s a qualified thumbs up, I guess. I still think that the single “California Love” is better than anything on the album, but I’m (as I’ve said before) a pop guy, and singles are my preferred method of explicating music to myself.

MA: Yeah. That was long, long, long. I get it, mind. I understand All Eyez on Me is intended to be statement of artistic vitality after TuPac de-jailed himself, but that doesn’t change the fact that the second disc is, like, 80% filler. (The Geroge Clinton backed Can’t C Me is a welcome exception.) And while the sum of Tupac’s parts might add up to a complex portrait of the (then) contemperary sensitive gangsta-poet, the individual songs here are very limited in scope. This song (Scandalouz) is about unpleasant women! This song (When We Ride) is about our prowess in battle! One song. One topic. No waiting.

The saving grace of the weak material is 2Pac himself. He’s not incredibly strong in aspect ONE aspect of his craft, (He doesn’t have the verbal dexterity of Twista or the authority of Chuck-D, ferinstance) but he’s an all-round meat and potatoes rapper with no real flaws in his game, and ’cause of this all-round solidity his style works for pretty much any context. And when ‘Pac does turn more ambitious with his song-writing, the results can be breathtaking. Only God Can Judge Me is damn near transcendant. When he’s on, he’s on, but albums like this are the reason greatest hits collections were invented.

 

Loveless
86. My Bloody Valentine, Loveless

MA: I’ve been checking out other reviews and nobody else is saying anything remotely similar about Loveless, but what the heck: I appreciate how HAPPY it is, even, y’know, despite the title. That little Wow-wow-wow-wow at 3:12 the main Whoo-ee-oo-Whoo-ooo riff in When You Sleep the loping drums and HOO-hoos at the beginning of Blown a Wish. It felt really joyful, I really enjoyed it, and it made me happy in my soul. That’s all.

JB: This is the first record on this list which I actually own in physical form. I love it, it’s great, it’s in my Top 10 Albums Of The Past 25 Years, and possibly in my Top 1 Albums Of The 1990s. (For the record: I haven’t actually compiled those lists, and probably never will.)

The fact that I passionately love Loveless is probably the best indication of where I’m coming from in regards to the rest of this list: it’s “difficult,” faintly obscure music, loved by a huge swath of snobs, and white beyond belief. It’s also very, very beautiful and repays close listening and deep immersion. And it has a lot of female vocals. (Female vocals = more pop than male vocals = better than male vocals. I didn’t make the rules, I just live by them.) The album’s entire appeal is textural: while the melodies are unearthly beautiful, they wouldn’t be anything special picked out on a piano or acoustic guitar, and Kevin Shields’ great strength is not compositional. And the lyrics, to the extent there are any, don’t matter at all.

Which is strange, because I’m a highly literate, even literary person: my major was English Literature, and I’ll throw a book across the room if it’s not up to my prosodic standards. But lyrics aren’t what gets me jazzed about music. If I’ve fallen in love with the music through other means, then great lyrics can get under my skin and speak volumes to me (duh), but I’m not too concerned with them otherwise. (Exception: complete crap lyrics. Sting, Diane Warren, and so forth.) Another reason I couldn’t get too excited about Aimee Mann above, and have never really cared about the Mountain Goats (though I adore John Darnielle’s blog). Not that this has anything to do with MBV.

Great fucking album, way too low, way too much of a singularity on the list. That’s all.

4 Thoughts on “Entertainment Weekly’s Bullshit List, #90-86.

  1. And here we go, yet again, onward into the abyss of musical and cultural ignorance.

    “I DID like Sledgehammer until I heard it was an attempt to recapture the old Stax/volt R&B sound of Otis Redding and Rufus Thomas.”

    You heard this did, you?

    Whom praytell did you hear this from? What musical authority bestowed that little bit of bullshit and lies upon you?

    I mean, we all know the answer already, “Umm, like it was this dude that was like hanging around when we were all like TOTALLY stoned and having a combination dick measuring/circle jerk contest where the loser had to drink all of the jizz in the glass and like this dude kept talking about like music and stuff and was like making us like, lose our boners and stuff.”

    It’s an even bigger lie seeing as virtually all of the “instrumentation” on SO, and therefore Sledgehammer was synthesizers and drum machines, neither of which had even been invented, let alone were used by the Stax/volt people during it’s heyday.

    And contrary to your bleats and farts, So holds up very well as being on the tail end of the whole synthesizer laden era of rock, along with Steve Winwood’s Back In the High Life.

  2. Pariah on August 5, 2008 at 3:09 pm said:

    Ben take a chill pill for christ sakes.

  3. Adam Crocker on August 5, 2008 at 5:47 pm said:

    Hm, now there’s some stuff I can actually respond to.

    TOXICITY;

    I’ve always found SoaD somewhat more interesting than a lot of metal bands since there’s an sense of playful absurdity in their work largely absent from a lot of metal (I genre I don’t actively dislike, but have taken little interest in either), which largely seemed evident in the vocals. Plus weird rhythmic dynamics grab my interest more than pummelling riffage any day. That said like even the better metal acts, I’ve never felt particularly compelled to check it out. However JB’s reccomendation might make me do it. (Hey he made me interested enough to give disco a second look.)

    SO;

    I’ve tried getting into Peter Gabriel at the recommendations of various friends of mine, but outside of “Solisbury Hill” nothing much of his work maintains my interest. Based on the comments here I can see why: much of his solo work is middling adult pop with weak evocations of much more interesting world music. Granted SO was released in the 80s when being white-pop-inspired-by-soul had reached its super-decadent phase. In many ways Gabriel’s biggest sin is reflecting the zeitgeist of his corner of the pop-pond.

    Also you maybe right Mark. Based on Gabriel’s website, at the very least, “Sledgehammer” was inspired by Stax Soul. I think I like the song even less now realising what it was trying (and utterly failed to) achieve.

    Also, Aimee Mann is one of those names I’ve heard numerous times, but only have the vaguest idea of what she is like as a musician. In fact I think I first heard of her in connection with 80s pop.

    I’ll have comments on LOVELESS later.

  4. Chris on August 7, 2008 at 7:02 am said:

    Pedants’ corner: Only two of the songs on the Magnolia soundtrack were actually written for the film – and only one of those appears on the US edition of Bachelor No 2 (although both are on the EU edition). The rest of the songs were already written before the film was made – Paul Thomas Anderson incorporated lines from the songs into the script. Therefore it’s not really fair to criticise the album for not standing on its own two feet (to be fair, I appreciate that you acknowledge that it does stand up on its own).

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