Blitzen Trapper — Destroyer of the Void, Part 2 (2010)

You ever cross-dress in the evenings? My wife is wearing my dress shirt and jeans and I’m wearing her run-up hose and an old rock t-shirt. God knows which one of us came up with this game. We’re on the couch and watching some show neither of us is that into, while I write and she texts her brother, worlds away in Athens, Greece. She looks up at the little CRT TV and mutters about how Patrick Stewart makes the overwrought “deep” ramblings of the scriptwriter into real literature, not knowing that he’s quoting Erik Satie, the composer. I ask her if Shakespeare is literature when it’s on the page.61btkcijgfl._sy355_

None of that is strictly relevant, and perhaps you didn’t need that intimate (and exhibitionist) a look at my married life, but bear with me, I’m going to make it connect.

In the 80’s adaptation of Dune (I think I’ve referenced it before), there’s this scene (with vaguely incestuous undertones, because neither of the actors can act) where the improbably young father tells his son, the main character, that “without new experiences, something inside us sleeps. The sleeper must awaken.”

This is a theme that I’ve seen several times: change or stagnate. He not busy being born is busy dying. Now, if you’re a man who’s never put on tights, you probably haven’t learned this specific object lesson in the female experience: tights are kind of stupid. They’re fragile, sweaty and uncomfortable to wear for long periods. It’s pretty clear why they didn’t stay menswear for very long in the West. Now, tights are largely out of style even for women, but women’s clothes are often like tights in the following ways: they always seem a little flimsier and a little less practical, clothing not to wear but to be seen wearing. Compare the fabric of men’s and women’s suits! I’m not up on feminist theory, not enough to read anything really deep into that, and I’ve certainly never been female, so I probably don’t know anything about the female experience, but it makes you think, doesn’t it? Why does one half of our species feel the need to dress that way? What combination of pressures, preferences and trends led to this situation? Is it easier being a man? Or can anyone know without living two whole lifetimes? Without new experiences, you don’t ask yourself these questions. Intellectually, you stagnate.

Yeah, I don’t get stoned very often, but when I do the results are always pretty interesting. I’m sorry if this one is all over the place.

Without new experiences, a band can stagnate too. Blitzen Trapper did not move on from their success. You can only go so far on so much experience. Reinvention is the answer, and if you don’t do it, you’ll end up retreading the same material over and over again. It happens to the best bands: it’s one of the factors that ruined Pink Floyd. And Blitzen Trapper, well, it’s the only thing that explains the post-Furr albums.

“Yes, dear,” I say to my wife, who has just looked over at my screen, “I am still on about that band.”

“The one we saw in Atlanta?”

“Was that Atlanta?”

“Yes, we ate at the Bluebird.”

Disc 2 of Destroyer, which I started reviewing last time, has the worst parts and some of the best parts of the album. It opens with what is likely to be a very polarizing track: “Dragon’s Song.” Hell, that title is liable to be polarizing. You know I like sci-fi and fantasy, but I know that not everyone does. So I’m pretty critical of fantasy-type songs that have only niche appeal, even if I like to listen to them.

It’s an exemplary Blitzen Trapper song, on the musical level, alternating light and heavy, acoustic and electric in a way that is one of the band’s strengths. It reminds me of a deep cut from a late Led Zeppelin album, I think.

Lyrically, it’s up to the standard of the album, which is to say A) it’s very weird, B) it’s unlikely to appeal to a mass audience and C) has some pretty solid lines. “You are half my heart set apart/to the end of the age” is one of my favorite BT lines. Sci-fi, fantasy and Biblical imagery are freely interchanged, and it’ll alienate some people. However, on a personal note, it does remind me of a dream I once had, so I like it. Objectively, I have to give it a 6.5/10.

“The Tree” may be the best song on the album. Not my favorite, since that’s probably the title track, but the best when considered on an aesthetic level. It’s an acoustic number, reminiscent of “Lady on the Water” and maybe Furr on an instrumental level. It’s one of the only songs on the album where the band really simplify their sound, and it’s a very strong track for it. Alela Diane sings backup, which is nice, because Eric’s voice is again a little harsh and dry and needs something to set it off, sweet vermouth for his whiskey and cocktail bitters.*

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Ygdrasil, at whose roots I gnaw even now… The days are like a river and the hour is soon.

It has another one of Eric’s lilting melodies, lyrics about climbing a world tree that probably represents spiritual growth. I’ve compared it to “Mr. Tambourine Man,” but actually, I think it’s rather more influenced by Ripple by the Grateful Dead. In fact, there are a couple of things that seem inspired by the “American Beauty” album on Destroyer. Remember “The Man who Would Speak True?” Anyways, the line “you must walk behind if you’re to lead,” can’t help but remind me of “you who choose to lee-ead must follow” in Ripple, and the final, wordless verse with its “la la la’s” seems a lot like the final verse of Ripple with its “da da da’s.”

But good ingredients make for a good cake, and looking for influences in the best artists is, to borrow my old mentor’s turn of phrase, like looking for water in a sponge. It’s the most solid song on the album, speaking critically. 8.5/10.

“Evening Star” is a look at the opposite pole of Blitzen Trapper, the side that’s grounded in reality. It’s a country song about a drugged-out party girl who’s reaching the end of her rope and wishes she could just be transported back in time to when she had love.

Now, “The Tree” and “Evening Star” are two of the last moments of real, shining originality in the BT catalogue. There are good songs after this, but no great ones, I think. What I think happened here is that, somewhere in the monotony of touring and recording, they ran out of life experiences to write new material about. They couldn’t write their great lyrics with mystical undertones because they just didn’t feel that mystical about life anymore. So they took the thing that felt most authentic to write in their repertoire and started writing it over and over. In a way, “Evening Star” is the prototype for all of the next album, for better or for worse.

Is it any good? Eh. 7/10. It’s better than most of the songs on the first side, to be honest.

And so the album starts going downhill. I can’t think of anything to say about “Lover Leave Me Drowning.” I don’t know what’s going on here and musically it does little for me. It’s like an AI tried to write a Blitzen Trapper song. 5/10

“The Tailor…” oddly, I imagine Andy Robinson narrating this song. My gen-X Trekkies know where it’s at. It’s an odd little narrative about a tailor who sews life into existence wherever he goes, a godlike little man, apparently immortal and certainly uncanny. The music… ah, well, I find the lilting melody to be a little repetitive after “The Tree” and some of the other songs on the album. Eric’s voice sounds tired, and I’m not sure if he knows what the point of this exercise is either. Hard pass. 5/10.

Sadie is an exercise in writing the most mundane music possible. As a country song it does vaguely presage the next album, American Goldwing,” but it has none of the substance or musical texturing of that album. It just seems like a man whining about a domestic quarrel, with no pathos. Considering that there’s already a song on this album based on the famous folk tune “Sadie” in the form of “The Man who Would Speak True,” it’s also a waste of a good name. 5/10.

Overall, I don’t like this half of the album. I feel like this is another “Soundtrack to the Movie More” situation.

So here we are: 

High Point: “The Tree”
Low Point:
Sadie
Average score for this half: 7.4/10

Points added for being the last hurrah of a great era: +1
Overall score for this half: 8.4/10
Overall score for the whole album: 7.9/10

 


* This is how you get a Manhattan. Stir thoroughly over cracked ice, strain into a Martini glass over a maraschino cherry with the stem on.  Pairs well with light fish, brie, rare steak.
All images claimed under fair use, all media property of its respective owners, all opinions mine. Disney oppresses artists by extending U.S. copyright beyond the lifetime of the artist.

Peter Gabriel — So (1986)

So here we are with another album I rather like, from an era I really like. Peter Gabriel was about on top of his game here, but he padded out this album a little too much. When I want to listen to a Peter Gabriel album, it ends up being “Melt” (properly known as “Peter Gabriel III”), but when I want to hear a good Peter Gabriel song it ends up being one of the ones off the first half of So.

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Probably his worst album cover

God, what an era, though. Peter Gabriel, U2, Paul Simon and many other great acts were at their absolute zenith in a stretch of two or three years in the late 80’s, with meaningful lyrics and innovative music, which is all one can really ask.

(I think it’s telling that Lorde, the only pop singer I can think of that has had any success in the last five years without completely selling out and making bog-standard EDM, really seems to dig the late 80’s. When she grows up a little more she might usher in a new period of this kind of innovation. She certainly has made it clear that that’s her ambition, though not in so many words. I’ll probably never review a Lorde album, so here’s me saying I like her work for what it is, and I like her a lot as a person.)

So is arty. I’ll give Peter Gabriel’s detractors that. It certainly represents an thorough-going attempt to make an artistic statement, and it can really come off as too arty. I’d almost say “pretentious,” but I’m tired of anti-intellectual people using that word to dismiss anything that resists casual analysis or makes a far-reaching statement, so it has rather a bad aftertaste for me. To show you what I mean by “arty,” though, here’s a prime example: the title is Gabriel’s act of spite against his label, who wanted him to give his next album an actual title. (The prior four were all self-titled; even the numbers were added later to differentiate them.) Unwilling to give them a commercially viable title, he titled it with one of the shortest words in the English language. Yeah, maybe pretentious isn’t too strong a word for that. At least he didn’t title it with the (typographically) shortest word in English, “I.”

But how’s the music?

The album starts with a refinement of his prior sound, with an energetic and intriguing rhythm on the drums and a rich, indefinable instrumental texture a few seconds after that. A few seconds later he comes in himself with the vocals. He tells us openly that the song is about a dream. It’s a bold choice and one that rarely works (though it works for Neil Young sometimes). The details of his dream are cryptic and have the ring of an actual dream, but I can almost imagine it’s about some moment of violence happening on the news at the time he wrote the song. Hell if I know what, though. Take your pick, honestly. The actual songwriting is solid, suits the musical style, and Gabriel has a simple, strong melodic voice that conveys a lot of emotion. The music, overall, has a lot of the earmarks of the 1980’s synthesis of world influences. I like it, but it’s not just a mind-blowing song. 7/10.

Yeah, Sledgehammer is a dick joke.* It has some funny moments, but the Japanese flute in the intro is out of place and the whole thing seems like an attempt by a white Brit to sing what we call the dirty blues. He can’t pull it off, whatever the charts said. 5/10. I will admit that, since it’s the only Peter Gabriel song they play on my local rock station, I’m tired of it and probably biased. If you like it, we can still be friends.

*So much so that it bears mentioning that my friend Steven, a prude, absolutely the last person to make a crass joke, once heard this song and said in a terribly silly and bad Cockney accent “Is he… is he talking ’bout his genitals?”

“Don’t Give Up” is weird as hell. It’s a duet between Gabriel and highly individual pop singer Kate Bush, in which his character is an unemployed man seemingly at the point of suicide. Her character might be his wife or a relative, and she tells him “don’t give up/I know you can make it good.” It’s an oddly life-affirming ballad, even if it doesn’t have any moments of truly stellar songwriting, and Kate Bush has a great voice for this type of song. 8/10.

Ah, “That Voice Again.” This is in my top five Peter Gabriel songs. It’s percussion driven, has some nice, airy piano (probably courtesy of Gabriel himself), and some dark synth. Honestly, most of the song would work if it was just drums and vocals, which is saying something. The high-hat work here is virtuosic; without exaggeration, it’s top-tier playing. And to think that Peter Gabriel has a reputation for hating cymbals! If I remember right, he was on record even before this as saying that he wouldn’t have them on his records at all if left to his own devices.

The drums are played, as far as I could find out, by a French session drummer of African descent called Manu Katché, who also played with Sting and Satriani, and who probably deserves to be very famous. Maybe his solo career is well-known in France. I dunno.

(Did Manu Katché also play with Manu Chao or did I make that up? If not he totally should. How the actual hell do I know more than one French musician active in the world music scene named Manu, anyways?)

And the song is about being neurotic and overthinking everything in a relationship. Or is it about literally hearing voices? Gabriel cultivates the ambiguity, I think. At any rate, I always took it as a song about being a neurotic guy who can’t say what he means to the girl because he’s too insecure. And what frustrated passion Gabriel puts into the vocals! Honestly, he sounds like it’s about five minutes after dawn out on the savanna somewhere, and two minutes after the invention of music. There’s this fire and rawness to it that I’ve never heard in other Western music. His voice doesn’t sound like he’d be as good of a vocalist as he is. 9/10. 

Next comes perhaps Gabriel’s best-known song, “In Your Eyes.” Yeah, it’s a creature of two worlds. It’s an 80’s love ballad, with literally everything that implies. The same blood runs through the veins of “Sister Christian,” by Night Ranger, as blasphemous as that sounds. But then it’s also a product of the 80’s world music craze, with everything that implies. So what does Gabriel make of the raw materials?

Well, it’s better than “Sister Christian;” that should be an uncontroversial statement. I’ve always liked it, mainly on the strength of the anthemic chorus. And now that I give it a close listening, I hear African drumming or at least some poly-rhythms, as well as some other complexities beyond the pop instrumentation I had always heard. While I may never be able to shake its association with John Cusack in “Say Anything,” it’s a fantastic song on its own. The chorus may be cryptic and somewhat… I don’t know, overwritten, maybe, but like Bono around the same time, Gabriel sells it, he really does.

(Now I really want to hear “Sister Christian” with world rhythms and a vocalist of Gabriel’s caliber. I need to call my band.)

I don’t know, though, there’s some part of this song’s appeal that’s bound up in my own emotional history. When I first heard this song, when I first put it in a mixtape, coming hissy and trebly off some cheap boom-box, when I listened to it while driving a slammed-out pickup truck on Highway 49 (and hell yes, the tape is in my desk drawer next to the pens with the track-list written on it in Sharpie)… at that time, I was 17, I thought Bob Dylan was profound, I could still stand Journey, and I had my mind stuck on a girl, one of those crushes that didn’t bear examining even at the time. Still, for three months in 1987 I was obsessed. I thought of her when I listened to “In Your Eyes,” I thought of her when I listened to “Tomorrow is a Long Time,” and probably when I listened to “Any Way You Want It.” So I don’t know what’s real and what is the memory of hormone-driven teen lust. I think critically it’s a pretty great song, but I can barely hear it anymore. 8.5/10?

And there’s “Mercy Street.”  This song was informed by a book of Anne Sexton’s poetry.* I don’t know what it’s specifically referencing, but it’s very nice and atmospheric, and has some touching lines. I consider it a sort of sequel to “Lead a Normal Life” off of “Peter Gabriel III,” in that it deals with mental illness in a very sensitive way. They’re similarly sparse instrumentally too. 7/10

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Anne Sexton

*If you don’t know, Sexton’s story goes about like Sylvia Plath’s, and I, for one, couldn’t hope to tell their poetry apart in a blind test. I don’t mean to demean or belittle either of them or make light of mental illness, but I just don’t know what the criteria for good modernist poetry is, and I know I feel sad if I try to read either one.

But after “In Your Eyes,” the album was already winding up prematurely and to me, “Mercy Street” feels like the outro to the album.

And then comes “Big Time.” It’s an instrumentally bland rock song from the point of view of a rock-star who’s consumed by “bigness,” which is to say that everything around him must be as monumental as his ego. I do like his jab at religious hypocrisy, when the character says “I pray in a big church… my heaven will be a big heaven… and I will walk through the front door.” Really, though, Sledgehammer was all the pointless bombast this album needed. 4/10.

And then Gabriel gets too arty for his own good, as happens towards the end of every Peter Gabriel album. “We Do What We’re Told” is supposedly about the Milgram Shock Experiments, a fascinating psychological study done in the mid-20th century on people’s obedience to authority. People were told that it was a study of memory and learning under threat of punishment: the participants, so they were told, would administer increasingly powerful electrical shocks to a subject in another room whenever the subject got an answer wrong in a memory test, as an incentive to help the subject memorize the answers. In reality, the subject was just a tape recording being stopped and started, on which a man informed the participants that he had a bad heart, screamed whenever the participant had just “shocked” him and demanded to be let out of the study after suffering a certain number of shocks. The researcher would then inform the participant that he or she must continue to administer the shocks, in increasingly authoritarian tones of voice.

If you’ve ever taken a psychology class, you probably know what the data showed: most people will administer potentially fatal shocks to what they believe is a man at risk for heart attacks, if a man in a white coat and a tie tells them to in the right tone of voice. There’s controversy, naturally, as to whether this was an ethical study, given that people thought they were killing somebody, and as to whether the data is contaminated by people who suspected the experiment was fake. All of this is fascinating and perhaps troubling, if the results are valid, but does it translate to a good song? Nope. You wouldn’t have known any of this from the song, which plays as a slower and duller repeat of “Mercy Street” with fewer lyrics. Actually, I think it’s just the title being repeated over and over again. It’s pretentious rubbish that barely registers as music with me. 4/10.

And the last song is… weird. Decent, but weird. Laurie Anderson does guest vocals and I think guest writing on this song. If you don’t know who that is, imagine Peter Gabriel as a woman, but with the self-awareness knob not only turned to zero, but actually pulled off and thrown in the studio trashcan. A lot of people know her only as Lou Reed’s eccentric wife, but she actually had a career, shockingly, much weirder than his. Back in the day, she had a thing shaped like a violin, but instead of strings it had a magnetic head from a tape player where the bridge would have been. She strung a violin bow with tape and recorded all kinds of weird samples on it. Apparently, she could actually play music on it by moving these samples past the head at various speeds (and thus pitches). I don’t know if she still uses it, though, because if I remember right, she later made some kind of motion sensitive wizard staff that plays samples. I swear.

So this song is… nice, actually. It’s a lot of double-tracked vocals from the two of them and not a lot of instrumentation. I have no clue what it’s about and probably, neither do they. 7/10.

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It’s high time, Cymbaline.

I’m forced to conclude that this is another “glorified EP” album, where the album, minus filler and garbage music, equals a perfectly good EP. “Soundtrack to the Movie More” by Pink Floyd is the archetypical example for me, with the difference that it doesn’t claim otherwise. It’s a soundtrack album, so I didn’t expect 42 minutes of song-like content; I expected atmospheric noises and half-assed jams, and got them, but there was also almost a full side of fully-formed songs. Honestly, I view every song on More as a gift, unasked and undeserved–the fact that there was more early Floyd I had never heard was in itself a gift when I first heard that album.

So, however, claims to be an album and delivers practically an EP’s worth of content. Some of it is stellar content, but it’s still not enough to make the album stand on its own.

Full album average: 6.81/10
Penalty for even including “Big Time:” -0.5
Bonus points for two guest vocalists that deserved to be on more songs, and some fantastic studio musicians: +1
Best Song: “That Voice Again,” with “In Your Eyes” as the immediate runner-up.
Worst Song: “Big Time”
Final rating: 7.3/10

All content reviewed here is the property of its respective owners, all images  claimed under fair use, all views and opinions mine.

The Flaming Lips — Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots

It’s odd to me that, for a band I like as much as the Lips, I can’t seem to review any of their albums. I adore “The Soft Bulletin;” it’s just that I don’t understand it. When I try to review “Transmissions from the Satellite Heart” or “Clouds Taste Metallic,” I keep thinking “duh, of course I like this album, it’s 90’s noise-rock with existential themes. It’s like it was written for me to give it a good review.” So I end up reviewing Yoshimi. It’s not my favorite, but it’s up there and it’s structured in a way that’s conducive to the way I write reviews.r-196557-1296067961-jpeg

It’s a fairly popular opinion that the Flaming Lips are the modern-day successors to Pink Floyd. Whether or not there’s any substance to this claim, I recognize a fairly similar arc to their respective careers. First, they built up a cult following in the underground scene, then they burst onto the mainstream and survived there for a number of massively acclaimed albums, slowly petering out artistically as they replaced originality with artifice and tried to please the crowds.

Yes, I hate most of the songs on “The Wall” and literally everything after it, and no, I will not apologize for this shocking opinion. It represents the exact moment at which classic Floyd became a non-entity, as Roger Waters gained full creative control while destroying his friendship with Dave Gilmour–in fact, the latter happened while they were working on “Comfortably Numb,” by some accounts. While nothing this dramatic appears in the annals of the Lips, it would seem to me, at least, that they also entered a slow decline after going mainstream, putting their punk roots further and further behind them and trying to capitalize on the sound that made them big.

If the Lips are Floyd, then it can be tempting to see Yoshimi as “The Wall.” They’re both concept albums (“The Wall” more so) and to me, at least, they marked the beginning of their respective bands’ declining periods. Nothing but a few individual tracks after Yoshimi ever satisfied me, and nothing after “The Wall” was even listenable to me.

But perhaps a more apt analogy is that Yoshimi is like “Wish You Were Here.” Yoshimi is a simpler and less ambitious concept album than “The Wall,” far more on the level of “Wish You Were Here.” There is the added parallel, in my mind, that both are the last good album by their respective band. (Yeah, you Animals lovers out there, I’m gonna piss you off too. Sorry!)

So it’s fitting that both the albums we’re comparing would harp on the central themes of the band as a whole. In the case of Pink Floyd, we have a lament for early Floyd frontman Sid Barret, whose descent into madness preoccupied Waters for several years and several albums. In the case of the Lips, we have this theme of heroic struggle against the challenges of life, a theme which began early in the Lip’s discography and became even more predominant in albums after Yoshimi.

Yoshimi opens strong with “Fight Test,” a song which got them sued by Cat Stevens (now Yusuf Islam) for plagiarizing the melody and chords to “Father and Son.” Some have seen the song as an ironic response to the original, but when questioned, frontman Wayne Coyne seemed to say it was more a matter of simply liking the melody and using it. I don’t know, it’s been a while since I read that interview. I have a hard time with the ironic response idea.

Musically, it’s a good song. Say what you will about the ethics of plagiarism, good ingredients make a good cake. Lyrically, it seems to be written from the point of view of a young man trying to prove his superiority over his ex’s new boyfriend by refusing to confront him, convinced that she will vindicate him by returning. It’s essentially a look at pacifism, which should tell you right now how the rest of the album is going to be. Supposedly, this song and the next three form a loose story, which is why I call this a loose concept album. I’ll admit, though, that I don’t know how to square the disparate parts of this story into a cohesive whole. 8/10 minus two points for plagiarizing the classics, giving a serviceable 6/10.

Next is “One More Robot/Sympathy 3000-21,” a ballad about a robot learning human emotions, falling in love and trying to comfort the object of its affections, who is “sad.” You know, I’ve previously gone on record as saying I identify hard with the song “Sci-Fi Kid” by Blitzen Trapper, so it might not be surprising that I find this sentimental little ballad touching. The music is nice, a kind of dreampop or modernized prog-rock with analog instruments blended freely with synthesizers. 6/10, after I deduct points for trying to tug my heartstrings.

Then comes the two-part title track, “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Part 1/Part 2” Part 1 is an uptempo ballad about a girl named Yoshimi, a martial artist who works “for the city.” The singer begs her to defend him from pink robots. Now, some see this as a metaphor for a girl dying of cancer (though reports that it’s about an actual cancer patient that the band knew are apocryphal), and in fact this is partially the angle that the musical based on the album runs with. However, the musical was written ten years later by writers outside the band, so I don’t know if that’s indicative of anything or not. Notable is that the band knew an actual Yoshimi, the drummer for a Japanese band of their acquaintance, the Boredoms.

Since I don’t really interpret it as the cancer thing, I’m left to either take it at face value or try to analyze it further. One could say that Yoshimi herself personifies striving in the face of the absurdity of life, which is definitely a major topic on the album,  but that might be belaboring the point a little. At any rate, part one is pretty great. 7.5/10

In fact, on the second part, a wordless semi-instrumental, Yoshimi P-We does provide screaming and howling vocal sounds against the back drop of a musical chaos presumably representing Yoshimi’s showdown with the Pink Robots. The urban legend goes that these are the screams of a dying cancer patient, which is, again, totally apocryphal as far as I can tell. It’s harsh and not terribly easy to listen to, but it does remind me of Earthbound battle music, so 5/10?

Now, in these four tracks, treating them all as narrative material like many listeners do, we have multiple romantic entanglements, a good robot, bad robots, and anywhere from three to seven characters, depending on what individuals are the same people between songs. If this were a rock opera, it’d be a fairly convoluted one, but as a concept album I can cut it a little slack. A concept album doesn’t even necessarily have to have a coherent plot, just enough suggestion of one for the listener to fill in. Still, even for a concept album, the narrative is vague, if it exists at all.

Next comes “In the Morning of the Magicians,” named after a once-famous French book of speculation on the occult. I find the title oddly compelling, if ultimately non-indicative. As far as I can tell, this song is about waking up in the morning and realizing that your moral code is arbitrary and unexamined. To some people, an alienating premise, but then again, this is what this band is about. The music is reminiscent of One More Robot, only even dreamier and with less of an edge. I like it on that level, and I appreciate that it begins to ask some hard questions, though it fields not even a tentative answer. 6/10.

“Ego-Tripping at the Gates of Hell” is a brief ballad about being so wrapped up in yourself that a meaningful moment slips away without you noticing it. I can rave to that. More of us have been there than we like to admit. Musically, though, it blends into the previous track and doesn’t really break an inch of new ground. 5/10.

“Are You a Hypnotist?” is a harder-rocking song, which is probably timely given the two tracks before it. In a hard-building, musically intense chorus, the singer, feeling betrayed, demands of his lover “are you some kind of hypnotist?” It has the same kind of feeling of manipulation and betrayal as one of my old favorite songs, Alan Parsons Project’s “Eye in the Sky,” but I grow wary of giving songs good ratings just because I relate to them. Objectively, though, it has a great chorus. 6/10.

For some reason, I forget that “It’s Summertime” exists. It’s sweet and encouraging, but obviously filler and apparently unmemorable. 4/10.

“Do You Realize” is probably the best song on the album lyrically. Some might accuse it of being the “deep” ramblings of a stoner, but that’s doing the song (and probably some stoners) a bit of a disservice. This is a song about breaking down the illusions of everyday life, from the idea of the geocentric solar system to the idea that we’ll always have enough time to say goodbye to everyone before they inevitably die. “Instead of saying all of your goodbyes,” the singer advises, “let them know you realize that life goes fast/it’s hard to make the good things last.” By phrasing the verses as questions, Coyne invites the listener to examine our own misconceptions.

Musically, it’s every bit as good, with a steady rhythm but a dreamy melody that might have influenced “Space Song” by Beach House. 8.5/10, because any higher would just be gushing.

I dunno, something about “All We Have Is Now” is a little too Radiohead for me. It’s the way the vocals are processed. On the surface, it’s a sci-fi piece about meeting your future self and learning of your own impending death. On another level, I guess it’s just about seizing the moment. But the album didn’t really need another philosophical song. 5/10.

The finale is a cool space-rock instrumental with a jazzy edge, “Approaching Mons Pavonis by Balloon (Utopia Planitia).” It’s filler but it’s also spacey. I’m torn. 6/10, I guess.

Conclusion:

So while I wish this album had a little less filler and a little more variety, and while I wish that it had gone somewhere with the narrative elements, I like enough of the individual songs for it to be alright. I like this album all the more because it’s the last one where the band had an ounce of musical subtlety, and the last one where they even tried to be subtle about their weird philosophy of absurdist optimism or whatever. I mean, hell, the next album has a song called “The Will Always Negates Defeat (The W.A.N.D.),” and it goes on like that. Ultimately, it’s a solid late offering from a good band fallen on hard times. It never really soars, but it doesn’t have any real let-downs either.

Whole album average: 5.96 rounded to 6.0/10
Best song: “Do You Realize?”
Most mediocre song: “It’s Summertime”
Bonus points for being the last hurrah of a good band: 2.0
Penalty for being a little repetitive: -1.0
Overall album score: 7.0/10


All views and opinions mine, all content reviewed the property of its respective owners. Mayans were astronauts.

U2 — War (1982)

U2 were a mighty force in the 80’s and 90’s, a hugely acclaimed band that earned both their hordes of fans and their hordes of detractors. At their height, they were great musicians who made a totally different type of rock music, but their initial lack of self-awareness, inability to cope gracefully with fame, and Bono’s massive ego all got them a huge amount of ridicule in the 90’s. Did they deserve it? Probably not, but they didn’t do much to avoid it.

Image result for war album cover

So it was very impressive that they managed to thoroughly turn their situation around in the late 90’s and stay a bankable (if often-despised) act into the present era. But to understand them beyond the surface detail, to understand who they are beyond “awkwardly Christian pop stars,” you have to start early.

U2 are Irish, and grew up in Dublin during “The Troubles.” We think of the British Isles as being a major center of civilization, but Northern Ireland (part of the UK) was a country torn by guerilla warfare, and Dublin, while located in the calmer, safer Republic of Ireland (not part of the UK), isn’t all that far from the northern border. We can see some of the same earmarks in U2’s music as we see in art and literature from any turmoil-filled region: a kind of intense earnestness that comes from growing up un-sheltered from the problems of the real world, and a keen-eyed concern for the human condition that doesn’t come easily to people living in quiet parts, far from the border. I compare it to music that came out of Africa at about the same time.

Now, (and this is a theme I touch on more in my next review) the 80’s were a time when we began to feel the Global Village was very small indeed, and in which artists like U2 felt like the voices of the age. The best music from this time usually has world influences, and often harps on themes of travel and global communications in ways that are foreign to us: after all, we’ve had the internet for decades now, and safe intercontinental air travel for longer still. It’s easy to forget that long-distance calls used to cost real money, and it’s almost as easy to forget how big and forbidding the world used to feel.

And U2 came of age in this awe-inspiring environment. U2’s first two albums have a great sound, but they’re frankly immature, as a band’s first two albums routinely will be. Their third is in no uncertain terms one of the great albums of the early 80’s, and it marks the point at which they began making money. It’s titled “War,” since, in the words of Bono, “War seemed to be the motif for 1982 [when the album was recorded].”

He’s no doubt thinking of the First Lebanon War, a conflict between Lebanon and Israel still felt to this day in the Middle-East, and probably of the conflict in the Falklands as well, a short war Britain fought with Argentina over islands in the South Atlantic, a handful of tiny and substantially useless pieces of land in the utter South end of the world. And the album shows that, when Bono thinks about war, he also thinks about what war does to the populace and about the human condition in general.

The first song is about the Troubles. “It is not a rebel song,” Bono says whenever he sings it live, “this song is ‘Sunday, Bloody Sunday.'” Bloody Sunday was an incident on 30th January, 1972 when unarmed Northern Irish protesters were fired upon with live rounds by the British Army. Two were run over with Army vehicles, as well, for a total of 14 dead and at least 14 more wounded, some of them permanently. The effect of this on the Irish and Northern Irish psyche must be massive. To even have an idea of what this is like, I can only compare it to the various killings in my native American South during the Civil Rights Movement, including another day called “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, Alabama, 1965, when peaceful, mostly-Black civil rights protesters were brutalized and in some famous cases murdered by riot police, some of them on horseback with bullwhips. Even then, it’s too removed from my own life for me to really get how open the wounds must have been at one time, how open they are now for those whom it affects the most… Bono’s writing only ten years after his country’s Bloody Sunday, so when he’s passionate on this song, I believe him.

Image result for bloody sunday selma
The trench is dug within our hearts…
(Selma AL, Sunday March 7, 1965)

And it’s a great song. Bono isn’t just singing about one massacre, but about every massacre and bloodbath ever and one in particular. This feat is something few could pull off without sounding trite. The band sound huge, with Larry Mullen especially hitting hard on his drums, which are unfortunately poorly recorded. I actually brought this up in my review of Dire Straits’ “Brothers in Arms,” as an example of everything that was wrong with 80’s production styles. The drums on this album couldn’t have been recorded in any time but the early 80’s.

In fact, practically no one seemed to be able to record and mix drums right in that decade, which is especially idiotic since they really got the drums right with great frequency in the 60’s and 70’s. Listen to the drums on 1969’s “Street Fighting Man” by the Rolling Stones. They sound huge, and you’d think they’d be a giant, custom kit, right? No, it’s a tiny portable kit set up in a hotel room, but mic’d up and mixed properly. Now listen to the drum intro on “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” Mullen is a great drummer, and he’s playing a nice kit, but due to the godawful micing and processing, it sounds like he’s the one banging on toy traps.

The second song, Seconds, is Bono voicing anxieties about terrorism, nukes, and war in general. “In an apartment on Times Square/You can assemble them anywhere,” he says, speaking, probably of a small atom bomb that could be built anywhere and set off in an instant. Terrorism became a real thing in the U.S. consciousness in 2001, but Bono has seen terrorism on his home soil within his lifetime, so it might sound more prescient to me than it really was at the time. But the sense of dread in this song is universally understandable, and I have to commend him for that.

Ironically enough, there’s an actual plastic toy drum banging away on this song, and it doesn’t sound much worse than the other drums. As dumb as the drums sound, the band is ahead of its time here in other ways: they interject a lo-fi sample of children singing an Airborne Rangers cadence as the song’s bridge, in what sounds like a very 90’s or 00’s alt-rock move. Overall, the album has started strong and continued strong, despite trashy polythene-sounding production.

Next comes the piano-driven “New Year’s Day,” U2’s first hit in the U.K. It’s about love and separation in a time of unrest, I think. It’s nicely arranged, and the simple chorus, which goes “I will be with you again,” captures a very believable yearning.

Larry Mullen sure shows off a lot on this album, doesn’t he? The next song, “Like a Song,” begins with the elemental sound of him beating out quarter notes on his snare drum, the percussion equivalent of the “Purple Haze” intro. It’s not even that badly mic’d; It’s definitely the only song I can really enjoy the drumming on. The song is musically on par with “New Year’s Day” as one of the best songs on the album, but the lyrics are likely to be divisive.

Yes, “Like a Song” is representative of a stage many Christian songwriters (and songwriters who happen to be Christians) have in their development, in which they rail at the failings of the Christian Church at large. Perhaps it’s division among believers or the realization that the organized religion fails to help the poor and needy as much as it could (and in Bono’s case here, it’s both), but whatever the subject, it’s a little like the religious equivalent of Bob Dylan’s protest-song phase.

And listen: I love “Chimes of Freedom” and “Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.” Protest songs can work, but it’s hard to do. For that matter, how well does Bono pull it off? I would say decently well–the song has some great lines–but it’s at moments like “Like a Song” that I realize exactly why U2 and Bono personally are as deeply divisive as they are.

It comes down to this: if you’re not religious, the singer railing against his own religion looks stupid. Why wouldn’t you just get a new religion or become an atheist? Furthermore, in our society, we’re all too conscious that division within a religion is how many bloody holy wars have started.

On the other hand, if you’re religious, you might understand Bono’s desire for his religion to be all it could be, and you might even relate. From such a perspective the song stands well as an indictment of religious partizanism and hypocrisy. If you disagree, well, I must say I can see your side of it clearly as well.

And that’s the paradox of Paul “Bono” Hewson. At his prime, he was a man with something of an ego, and he was wrestling with ideas of Christian humility; he was a man obsessed with righteousness and wracked with a sense of moral guilt, and moreover, he tried to write rock and roll about religion.

The name “rock and roll” refers to sex, by the way. It’s an old sailing term for a ship riding choppy sea, and it’s also meant “having sex” from probably about the time it was coined. That’s sailors for you. And the name stuck to the genre because, for one thing, the name’s catchy as hell, with strong alliteration and assonance, and for another, because rock music has always looked at life from the angle of sex and romance. It turns out that most human activities can be used as metaphors for sex, and that as a passionate act of (potential) creation, sex makes a great metaphor for art, work, and human striving in general. This, I would argue, is latent in all the great rock music, from the first bluesmen to add a back-beat to their music, right up to artists working in the present day.

To sum up a very complex genre in a few words, rock speaks about life in the language of sexual passion. So if you’re a member of a religion where the common doctrine is that sex is supposed to be a sacred thing that’s not talked about and should (theoretically) only happen between married people, it’s possible that rock is not your genre of choice. But Bono makes it work, aware that sexual passion often looks and sounds like religious passion, and vice versa. Honestly, I liked him better when he was wracked with guilt and anxiety about his morals. When he changed and became superficially more palatable to general audiences, the music suffered. We’ll get to that in another review.

Where was I? Do let me know in the comments if I rant just entirely too much.

“Drowning Man,” that’s next. It has a very different sound from the rest of the album, with a guest musician playing the electric violin, and Bono and “the Edge” Evans playing interlocking acoustic rhythm. Later, Bono only played guitar when he was lost in his “rock-star” persona, which was more like a Christian-high-school student’s idea of what a rock-star would look like. I feel embarrassed for Bono when I remember him strutting around and trying to scratch out the chords for “Watchtower” only a few years later.

Here in the studio, however, he has no one to impress and he’s had time to learn the chords. Meanwhile, the Edge does what he does best, which is create a musical soundscape. And what a soundscape it is! When I say soundscape, some of you think of a late-80’s/early-90’s noise-rock band of your choosing, and outside this context, that’s what I think of when I say or hear it too. If you’ve followed my blog, you even know what band I’m thinking of right now. But I mean something different when I say “soundscape” here, and wish I had a different word for what the Edge does. To be honest, this song sounds nothing like what I define as “rock and roll,” with vaguely Flamenco strumming patterns interlocking to form a ringing, shimmering texture that is somehow less choppy and more flowing than the sum of its parts. If I think of a cityscape rising through the smog when I hear the sludged-out guitars in “Teenage Riot,” then I hear high, crashing surf when I listen to the guitars and violin in this song. That seems appropriate, given the title.

I have no idea what the song’s angle is. Some people have thought it was a religious song about God speaking to his people or something like that: it wouldn’t be the first or the last time with Bono, and he does quote scripture in this song. Honestly, though, it could just as easily be a passionate love song to someone you’re traveling a great distance to see. Which, if you get into Christian theology, still doesn’t preclude the first theory. You see what I mean, though, when I said that religious passion can sound like sexual or romantic passion?

Anyways, the lyrics are a little generic despite allusions to Isaiah and a cryptic title, this is a beautifully arranged little number. I forgot to mention that there’s female guest singers from an American Latin-music group called the Coconuts singing on several of these tracks, and their voices match the violin and guitar so well that it almost sounds like a rising orchestra when they start to sing the bridge.

Side two (we’re only just now to side two; I must have been ranting) begins with a totally different type of number from anything on the album up to this point. It’s “The Refugee,” and it was produced by a different producer from the rest of the album, explaining how it actually manages to do the drums kind-of alright. Now look, I’ve nothing against Steve Lillywhite, but he stands accused by the facts, not by me. The drums on most of this album are trash, and it’s not Larry Mullen Jr.’s fault. I’d like to believe it’s not the eminent Mr. Lillywhite’s fault either, but rather, the industry’s. I don’t know. The 80’s, man. Heck of a time.

As you can imagine with a song named “the Refugee,” it’s punk as hell. U2 actually formed as a punk band, like so many bands that didn’t stay punk very long, and here, you can tell their origins very clearly. Now, if rock speaks about life in the language of sex, punk speaks about life in the language of dissent and protest. This doesn’t mean tiring political rhetoric, it means stating the facts with brutal plainness and letting them indict whom they will, much like the best novelists of the realist generation. It’s a song about refugees yearning to immigrate to America, and husbands and wives getting separated by war. It has, I think, an undertone of anxiety, a creeping anxiety that perhaps America will not be everything the refugees hope. The language here is plain and does not editorialize, the vocals are raw and punkish, the guitars play a riff that is at once melodic and brutally simple, and the percussion grows on me every time I listen to it. It’s a great song, and in a way, I think it’s the title track. The backup singers sound like they’re singing (or shouting) “what war?” and at any rate, I think it’s the song on this album that uses the word the most.

There’s nothing wrong with “Two Hearts Beat as One,” but it’s not especially notable to me. It’s another “love in times of change” song, (like half the album, it seems.)

“Red Light” is nice, with more hard, punkish guitar, more vocals from the Coconuts, and lyrics that might be about suicide or about a breakup or about a prostitute. I can’t tell. The jazz trumpet solo is a nice touch, and it fits surprisingly well with the straightforward beat and guitar riff.

Surrender is a song about the big city and feeling lost and alone in it. There’s a bit of a narrative about a woman named Sadie, who considers suicide and apparently walks away from a good life because she feels something’s missing or feels guilty about being privileged. It’s an emotion that most of us can’t understand, but it exists and Bono handles it with sensitivity. The Coconuts sing here as well, and the Edge is on top of his game with massive riffs that remind me, oddly enough, of “Teenage Riot.” I like it very much, but I can’t think of a ton to say about it that’s notable enough to take up more space in this already oversized review.

So then, for the last song, Bono et al. set a Psalm to music. It’s good if you like that. It’s called 40, and it’s based on the 40th Psalm. It became a concert highlight, the “everybody sing along” number in U2’s repertoire, and once again, you can see why this band is so divisive. Religion, man. If you’re Christian, it’s great, if you’re not, you’re likely already alienated. Musically, it’s a well-done song, and it’s loads better than most attempts to pset the Psalms to mupsic, I can tell you that.

Conclusion:

Had it not found mainstream success, I think War would be counted as one of the great post-punk/early alt-rock albums of the 80’s. While the religious elements might alienate a large portion of the audience who might otherwise like the album musically, my real dislike with this album is, as you probably know by now, the plastic-sounding drums. I give it a solid 7/10.


All music reviewed here is the property of its respective owners. Images claimed under fair use. All views and opinions mine.

King Crimson — Discipline (1981)

Before I begin this review properly, I’m going to have to apologize to hardcore King Crimson fans. I only know one album and a couple of earlier songs by the band. While I know that they existed in earlier and very different incarnations that are perhaps better-acclaimed or at least more popular, I don’t know a thing about them.

See, despite liking the genre, I’ve never really been a hardcore prog fan. Pink Floyd and Discipline - Original Vinyl Cover.jpgYes are the only prog bands I’d consider myself generally knowledgeable about, with ELP a distant third. But I have albums or at least songs from Alan Parsons Project, Genesis, Prog-era solo Peter Gabriel and others I’m probably forgetting either on vinyl or on my computer. But overall, it’d seem that I’m generally a casual fan. So when a friend gave me a CD of Discipline about five years ago, it was with the warning that I might not like the band or the album.

And I didn’t, not at first. I listened to the first few tracks, decided almost automatically that it wasn’t my kind of prog, and forgot about it for several days. Then, that week, I caught myself humming “Frame by Frame,” thought “hey, that’s actually a pretty good song,” and I gave the album another chance. As a matter of fact, that’s the exact same way I came to love “Court and Spark,” by Joni Mitchell, which I’ve already mentioned among my favorite albums. In fact, it was the same friend who gave me both albums, come to think of it.

Worlds apart in tone, genre and feel from “Court and Spark,” but perhaps reflective of some of the same 70’s-&-early 80’s trends, Discipline is also a textured, likable album that rewards close listening, even if it features too much spoken word for my taste. Like many of my favorite albums, it’s from that era in the late 20th century when, in music at least, the world was all before us, an era when world music flourished on the international scene and wide-eyed optimism could have a place in popular music. God, what happy years they seem like, looking back solely through the lens of music. I don’t have to tell you that that’s not what they were really like.

The album opens strong with a Hendrix-esque hammer-on/pull-off trill from the celebrated avant-garde guitarist Robert Fripp, late of collaborations with Peter Gabriel and David Bowie. If you know any of their music from the era, this alone should tell you what kind of guitarist he is, but it’s probably also telling that he’s the guy who tried to popularize a “new standard tuning,” and entirely new types of harmony into rock guitar. Then we hear the fascinating “Chapman stick,” a kind of tapping guitar-and-bass combo, played by another recent Peter Gabriel collaborator, Tony Levin. The texture soars almost immediately into totally uncharted space, at least for Western audiences. My understanding is that Robert Fripp, who was in the original, disbanded King Crimson, wanted to reform the band as a “rock gamelan.” A gamelan is a sort of Indonesian orchestra that creates a thick, multi-layered musical texture, and that’s exactly what Fripp and Levin do in the first few seconds.

So how is the song (“Elephant Talk”) after the first few seconds? Interesting. But also stupid.

Stupid may be an overstatement. The new front-man, Adrian Belew, who had been in the Talking Heads and who went on to play the famous synth riff in Paul Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al,” lists words related to “talking” in alphabetical order, while making elephant noises with his guitar. So that’s the kind of band we’re dealing with. Not avant-garde, they’d probably tell us, capital-A Avant-Garde. And you know, I don’t hate it, despite this. It’s catchier than it sounds in this description, and it could almost be a Talking Heads song. Adrian Belew clearly patterned his vocal delivery after David Byrne’s.

So is the next one better? Hell yes. “Frame by Frame” holds up to my initial liking for it.It begins with another “stick”-heavy, “gamelan” intro, before breaking down into a more minimalistic texture for the verse. The melody of the verse is catchy as hell, but the lyrics are slight, almost just wordplay. “Death by drowning/in your arms, in your arms” is a great pop hook, lyrically and melodically, though. I also like the melody when he sings “Analysis!” right after the hook.

(I just looked it up, and apparently, it’s “death by drowning/in your own, in your own/analysis.” I almost like the mondegreen better, as bad as that is to say.)

The song starts strong and finishes strong with an “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”-style sudden ending in the outro, but is probably too busy for some people’s tastes. One can definitely hear 90125 era Yes here, and in fact, Tony Levin eventually played in a shortlived Yes lineup. But that’s another long story.

Next is the first, originally-published version of the only ballad on the album, “Matte Kudasai” (the title is apparently Japanese for “please, wait”). It has a more conventional, jazzy texture, with soaring slide-guitar lines and watery, processed arpeggios. The lyrics are a bit sentimental and are delivered a bit sentimentally, but the texture is so nice and the vocals fit so well into it that I can’t really take issue with it.

There’s an alternate version with an additional lead part at the end of most versions of the album, but not the original pressing. I can’t decide which I like better, the alternate, or the original. The latter is too busy, the first not busy enough, maybe.

Next is another song with rather dopey spoken word from Belew, “Indiscipline.” The narrative here is that the speaker is a mentally unbalanced man who is obsessing over something that he stole: we never find out what. The music in the intro is a similar layered texture to the first two songs, but with a harder edge that I quite like, but it’s not quite enough to salvage the song. The looped “I repeat myself when under stress” is an annoying gimmick, and the whole thing grates on me.

(Apparently, the monologue is adapted from a letter Belew sent to his wife of the time, concerning a sculpture she had made. I don’t really know how to fit that in with the actual song, but whatever.)

A similar situation to “Indiscipline” exists with “Theela Hun Ginjeet.” That’s not Sanskrit for anything, much as they might want us to think so. It’s an anagram for “heat in the jungle.” So yeah, we have here a song about gang violence. The annoying part comes after the (quite good) intro, which has one of the nastiest, funkiest bass-lines I’ve ever heard, courtesy of Levin. The annoying part is Adrian Belew talking into a pocket tape recorder about… walking around talking into a pocket tape recorder in the big city, which seemingly gets him harassed by both gang members and the police. I think his crazy-person persona had something to do with it, too.  That trashy mono recording eats up more of the song than it has any right to. I like the song somewhat, entirely on the strength of that bass-line and the whole intro.

The next song is nice. It’s a more gamelan-styled, eight-minute instrumental titled “The Sheltering Sky” after an old novel. It’s one of my favorites from the album, but I don’t have much to say about it or about “Discipline,” another, harder instrumental. Their sonic experimentation is uniformly good and listenable. The album closes, in my copy, with the alternate version of “Matte Kudasai.”

So, while I think that the spoken word is too much and too pretentious, the album is a very nice piece of later prog, and a relic of an era that is very near to my heart. 5.5/10


All content reviewed here is the property of its respective owners. Image for this review claimed under fair use for non-commercial purposes.