Sunday, May 21, 2017

Voice of a Generation

Usually the phrase "voice of a generation" is used metaphorically for the words someone delivers in text or song rather than for their literal vocal skills. Kurt Cobain earned the tag, but so did F. Scott Fitzgerald, a guy never known as a singer. But if you take the expression literally, it's hard to find a Gen-Xer more deserving of the title than Chris Cornell.

Even if you aren't a huge fan of Soundgarden (and I'm not, always preferring Mudhoney's grunge Stooges to Soundgarden's grunge Led Zeppelin) or Chris's other work, there is no denying the power of his voice. Many have noted his four-octave range, but he also had impressive intonation and emotionally delivery. Yes, he could scream and wail, but he could also offset it with quiet contrast. Mariah Carey could be a another claimant of the title, and you don't have to be into her musical choices to appreciate her talent.

Chris Cornell wasn't just the frontman of a one of the biggest bands that exemplified Generation X. He was one of our best voices.

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Albums, Art, Youth and Beyonce

What does Beyonce have in common with the Beach Boys and A Tribe Called Quest but not Elvis Presley or Grandmaster Flash? And what does this have to do with the Grammys?

The Grammys are imminent, and as people stake their claims on who will win album of the year, it’s worth looking at the place of the album as artistic statement in pop music.

Rock music gained cultural accreditation in the 1960s as it evolved from a singles-oriented genre to an album-oriented genre. Bernard Gendron posits this argument in Between Montmartre and the Mudd Club, but examples are rampant. Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, the girl groups of the early ‘60s were all singles artists. The Beach Boys’ crowning achievement was Pet Sounds. Sgt. Pepper, rather than any individual song on that album, culminated in rock’s achieving cultural legitimacy. Two factors contributed to this shift. One was that rock artists were conceiving of the album as a unified work, but the other was that they were meeting the maturing tastes of their audience. Singles are for kids. Albums are for adults with their extended attention spans and thicker wallets. The first wave of Baby Boomers were entering adulthood, and albums that were conceived as more than a collection of singles with filler fit their evolving taste.

A few decades later, hip-hop went through that same maturation process. Early hip-hop stars were singles artists. Think Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash. But hip-hop achieved its golden age as artists such as Public Enemy and A Tribe Called Quest put the emphasis on albums as a whole rather than singles. For all of popular music, the focus remained on albums throughout the CD era, as record companies largely phased out the single to force consumers to buy more expensive albums, which were increasingly bloated with filler to support their 70-minute playing time.

Two components allowed the pendulum to swing back to singles as a dominant force in the cultural landscape: iTunes and Millennials. The launch of the iTunes Store in 2003 unbundled the single from the bloated album. Consumers once again had a choice in spending less but getting only what they wanted. And there was a huge consumer bulge of potential buyers: the kids of Baby Boomers. Singles are the music of youth, and there was a huge generation of youth following Generation X, who had been referred to as the Baby Bust for the sharp drop in birth rates until that generation earned their own distinctive moniker.

But now the Millennials are moving into adulthood, and their tastes are maturing with them. They have the attention spans and income to consume albums. And in the realm of the Grammys, if you want to award an album as something conceived as a whole, not just a collection of hit songs, nothing comes close to Beyonce’s Lemonade in dominating the cultural conversation in the last year. This isn't a prediction of who will win since the Grammys have often gotten it wrong, just a warning that this could end up in the many lists of when the Grammys got it wrong.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Book Review: Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys. by Viv Albertine

There are rock star memoirs you read because you're such a huge fan that you want to learn the inside scoop, such as Peter Hook’s book on Joy Division. There are rock star memoirs you read because they are so famous and have had a monumental cultural impact, such as Keith Richards'. Guitarist Viv Albertine's book is neither of those. You don't have to worship her band the Slits to appreciate her bio, which is good since they played a marginal role in the London punk scene. But Albertine has so much insight to offer to make this book a valuable read.

Albertine was in the thick of it during the London punk explosion. She formed her first band with Sid Vicious before he joined the Sex Pistols, and Johnny Thunders tipped her off that Vicious was kicking her out of the band before they even played a gig. She hung out at Sex, Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren's clothes shop. She dated Mick Jones for several years.

That insider's view is a strong start, but there's much more. She describes how the lack of female role models among musicians limited her early imagination of what she could possibly achieve before she decided to pick up a guitar. When she did finally buy an axe, she struggled to both master basic skills and to find her own style, not just bash out the same three chords that had already become a shorthand definition of punk. Her burning desire for creative expression came to fruition when she was asked to join the Slits, and the band's biggest challenge was manifesting their artistic ideas.

And that's just Side One. Albertine breaks the book into two sections modeled on an album sides. Side Two follows her life after leaving the Slits. It's not the stuff of standard rock memoirs, but her story and way of telling it are intriguing and inspiring. First she has to figure out what to do with her life, and she demonstrates the value of identifying concrete steps to achieve her goals. After several fizzled attempts at higher education in her youth, she makes it through film school and finds steady work as a commercial director. She overcomes her loneliness by agreeing with a friend to go on more dates, ask men out and include men in outings with her girlfriends, resulting in her meeting her husband.

Then things go south. She suffers a miscarriage with major complications, endures repeated rounds of IVF in a desperate attempt to eventually have a baby, then gets diagnosed with cervical cancer. As she slowly emerges from the fog of those lost years, she recognizes the void in her life, reduced to a stay-at-home suburban mom. So she takes it upon herself to get her groove back by returning to music. She had long since sold her guitars and lost her chops, but she obsessively rebuilds her skills, adding new ones as a singer, songwriter and solo performer. This is both the cause of and balm for the dissolution of her marriage, but she takes justifiable pride in her daughter's getting to see her as much more than a mom.

She readily admits to her ups and downs, giving the book real emotional heft. She describes when she felt invincible and when she was overcome with self doubt, when she wisely followed her instincts and one terrifying expample of when she ignored them with an abusive man. She was struck with sudden insight on a date with Vincent Gallo, making her realize why she'd never have an affair with him, and the same evening her confidence was bolstered by a Patti Smith sighting.

There is a refreshing lack of score-settling and dirt-dishing. Mick Jones remains mostly opaque, a supportive if imperfect boyfriend, but she freely admits that she wasn't interested in a serious relationship at the time. She never uses the cliched excuse of "artistic differences" to explain her departure from the New Slits, but she gives a good picture of what that truly looks like. While the expression is frequently a euphemism for personality clashes or bruised egos, she describes how it felt inauthentic to her to perform songs from her youth as she wrestled with the issues of middle age, and she holds no ill will towards her bandmates for continuing without her, especially since she enjoyed being back in their fold. She respects the privacy of her husband and daughter by never revealing their names. She finds kind words for Nancy Spungeon despite not particularly liking her. The juiciest tidbit she drops is that she and Johnny Thunders never consummated their romance between his heroin habit had rendered him impotent.

There’s always room for another “rock and roll with save your life” story, fiction or non-fiction. But those stories are is usually coming-of-age tales of young adults. Albertine crafts a unique perspective by recounting how rock and roll can save a middle-aged suburban mom’s life.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Movie Review: Gimme Danger

How thorough is Gimme Danger, the Stooges documentary directed by Jim Jarmusch? I wrote a thesis on the Stooges, immersing myself for months in any anything Stooges-related I could lay my eyeballs on, and I still learned new things about the band. How good is Gimme Danger? I still got chills from the recordings that formed the central arguments of my thesis.

The story of the band is fairly well-known by now. A bunch of degenerates from the outskirts of Detroit, led by the flamboyant, antagonizing Iggy Pop, recorded a few albums and played a bunch of stages, earning few fans and pissing off many more. They crumbled under the weight of poor sales and their own drug habits. Rather than falling into obscurity, they were eventually heralded as important, ground-breaking revolutionaries. Their 2003 reunion served as a victory lap before the deaths of founding brothers Ron and Scott Ashton.

In lesser hands the documentary could have been straightforward but artless. But Jarmusch brings two strengths to piece. He has worked with Iggy since the '90s, and the centerpiece of the film is several extensive interviews with Iggy. And while the movie includes plenty of archival footage of the band, Jarmusch shows real flair in the selection of materials to fill in the gaps and illustrate the voiceover interviews. This includes a combination of stock footage, movie clips from other sources and newly-created animation that convey a sense of humor about the subject. For example, when they discuss using the Three Stooges as inspiration for the band name, the film includes a clip of the comedy trio playing instruments to a Stooges soundtrack.

Although Iggy is the star of the film, Jarmusch interviews many others, including guitarist James Williamson, Scott Ashton, his sister Kathy, Danny Fields, who signed them to Elektra, and Mike Watt, who replaced the late Dave Alexander on bass when they reunited. An existing interview with Ron Ashton, conducted shortly before his death, supplements the interviews done for this project.

A slight shortcoming is that the film glosses over some of the internal conflicts within the band. Paul Trynka's Iggy bio Open Up and Bleed shows great admiration for its subject without letting Iggy off the hook for his sometimes dismissive treatment of his bandmates. On the other hand, this movie was the first recognition I've seen of Alexander's specific musical contributions to their debut album, and it came straight from Iggy's lips. The film also fills in some of the dotted lines on the path to their reunion that started with Ron being asked to join with younger, admiring musicians for a faux-Stooges band for Velvet Goldmine, a fictional film loosely based on Iggy and David Bowie's relationship in the '70s.

Gimme Danger is currently in limited release and is recommended for Stooges fans and newcomers alike.

Sunday, October 02, 2016

Concert Recommendations: Ash, Kishi Bashi, October 3

Do you prefer your exuberant music with noisy guitars or violin loops?

If that question is easy for you to answer, then your choice of concerts on Monday is easy. Me, I'm still torn.

On violin front is Kishi Bashi, the band name under which Kaoru Ishibashi performs, who just released a terrific third album Sonderlust. It is buoyant, a fun bounceback to his fetching debut 151a after the sophomore slump of Lighght, that failed to make much of an impression. I haven't seen them live, but there are obvious musical connections to Animal Collective's textural use of loops and Passion Pit's synth pop, plus an unexpected homage to Pink Floyd's "Money" with "Who'd You Kill." As a former Berklee employee, I wish Ishibashi's name came up among famous alumni more often than the problematic John Mayer.

If you prefer your lyrics more at the forefront, if you're feeling nostalgic for '90s UK music that never made as a much of an impression on this side of the Atlantic, or you like your punk with power pop sensibilities and a lingering adolescent love of metal riffs, go see Ash touring in support of the 20th anniversary of 1977, the album with such not-quite-hits "Girl from Mars" and "Kung Fu." The Irish band led by Tim Wheeler hit their commercial peak as a 4-piece, but guitarist Charlotte Hatherley left the fold a while back, so they are back to a trio.

Use the comments section to chime in if I've helped you make up your mind, because I'm still conflicted by the wealth of riches in the Boston area on one night.

Ash plays The Middle East Upstair, 472-480 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02139, doors at 8:00 pm. Kishi Bashi plays Royale, 279 Tremont St., Boston, MA, 02116, doors at 7:00 pm. Both shows Monday, October 3.

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Road Trip Report: Ramones Exhibit at the Queens Museum

When the Ramones released their first album 40 years ago, they were either ignored or dismissed as reprobates by vast swaths of the population. Several decades later, they have now been embraced as hometown heroes in their birthplace. The Queens Museum is honoring their contributions to (the downfall of) society is an exhibition "Hey! Ho! Let's Go: Ramones and the Birth of Punk" that opened in April and runs through July 31.

The exhibit consists of four galleries of photos, music, artwork, artifacts, videos, instruments, handwritten lyrics, press clippings and other memorabilia. The materials and supporting text detail the story and influence of the band. Among the highlights are their first press release, penned by Tommy, that demonstrates his vision for the band from the get-go as well as their sense of humor. Visa applications provide a rare photo of Joey without shades. Video screens display early rehearsals and performances, and a block of six old CRT TVs offers a rotation of their music videos. One display includes Johnny's Mosrite guitar and clothes they wore in concert, which were definitely not costumes because part of their ethos was to dress the same on stage and off. As befitting a band with an art director, visuals compromise a significant component, primarily from Arturo Vega but also from other contributors, such as Mark Kostabi's original painting for the cover of ¡AdiĆ³s Amigos!

It winds down by describing the post-Ramones careers of the members but ends on a bittersweet note, that the band had limited success while it was active but has grown in stature after the death the original members.

The gift shop has a limited assortment of Ramones gear for most ages (babies and adults, but no t-shirts in kid sizes), and you can feel a lot better about buying stuff there than at Hot Topic.

The museum has other exhibitions, too. I skipped them. They weren't about the Ramones.

My visit lasted about an hour, accompanied by semi-squirmy/semi-interested kids who like but don't love the Ramones.

If you are planning a visit and you are not familiar with the area, keep in mind that the museum is near Citi Field, USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, the New York State Pavillion and the New York Hall of Science. These can either be added attractions for your trip to the area or causes of traffic tie-ups that you want to avoid.

Finally, if you want to reenact "Happy Family," specifically "Sittin' here is Queens, eatin' refried beans," Taqueria Nixtamal is a short drive or long walk from the museum and is a cheerful little hole-in-the-wall with seats and refried beans. Service isn't quick, but the Mexican food is very fresh and carefully prepared. (Disclaimer: this restaurant recommendation is not an endorsement for gulping down Thorazines. And you'll need to bring your own magazines.)

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Meditations on Prince and Bowie or; Why I'll Never Say, "I May Be Old, But at Least I Got to See All the Good Bands"

The public outpouring over the deaths of Bowie and Prince says a lot about the similarities between the artists and explains why the death of, say, Glenn Frey just wasn't as big a deal. Yes, both had distinctive costuming, unprecedented business dealings, and interracial audiences, and they expanded our ideas of appropriate sexual behavior. But much more importantly, both were relentless in pursuing new musical boundaries, of exploring and exploding genre definitions. They didn't rest on the laurels of their back catalogs but spent their whole careers trying to create something new. That kind of vision resonates far more than just selling a shitlload of records.

Which leads me to my challenge to the reader. If our most revered artists constantly looked forward and not just backward, shouldn't you be doing the same as a listener? It pisses me when people, especially those around my age, post the meme on Facebook, "I May Be Old, But at Least I Got to See All the good Bands" because it is closed-minded and backwards looking. And it pisses me off because it was the same bullshit that Gen Xers endured in our youth at the hands of Baby Boomers and that we are now aiming at Millennials. At that attitude's worst extremes, it's powerful Baby Boomers like Tipper Gore parading before the Senate because they fear the music of Prince (and I'll probably have more to say about this after I finish reading Folk Devils and Moral Panics by Stanley Cohen (no relation)). But it also plays in less virulent ways, such as the Steve Miller Band, who sold a shitload of records to Baby Boomers but offered no grand vision or musical innovation, getting into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame before the Cure or Depeche Mode, who defined their musical genres and had the songwriting chops to sustain careers long after the novelty of goth and synth pop subsided, but they are icons to those who came after the Baby Boomers. As Jim DeRogatis said in Color Me Obsessed, "You had the motherfucking Baby Boomers consistently getting in your face and saying, 'Nothing you ever see in your life is going to be nearly as good as the Beatles. Nothing you ever experience is going to be nearly as good as Woodstock.' To which you and I were responding, 'Fuck you. We just saw the Replacements.'" But now the motherfucking Gen Xers are saying the same thing to Millennials, but replacing the Beatles with the Replacements or Nirvana.

So get over yourself. Acknowledge that there is good music being made and still to be made, and go try to find some it. If you need a suggestion, start with OK Go the next time they hit your town. Kurt Cobain never got to see them, and he missed out.