What’d you do over Thanksgiving? Me, I stayed up until 4 in the morning at my parents’ writing up blurbs on most of McCartney’s post-Beatles albums because of a message board challenge. It’s funny what flattery can make a man do. Reprinted here, by request:
Fucking brilliant. Some say underproduced, I say an absolute masterpiece of minimalist pop songcraft. In addition to perhaps the only solo track worthy of The Beatles (”Maybe I’m Amazed”, of course), it has several minor gems–”Every Night”, “Singalong Junk” (better as this instrumental version, I think)–but also tracks like “Hot As Sun/Glasses”, which reveal a keen grasp of impressionist abstraction. A remarkable deconstruction of The Beatles’ lavish pop structures.
In which McCartney very consciously puts it back together again. Not a bad thing, though, because the songwriting is sharp and the maximalist lo-fi production enticing. In addition to the pop prog of “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” and “Back Seat of My Car”, the record has almost too many highlights: the stomping “Too Many People”, the additive layers of “Ram On” and “Dear Boy”, the slapback nonsense of “Eat At Home” and rustic whimsy of “Heart of the Country” and “Long Haired Lady” — track for track, his melodic acuity would rarely be this consistent again. The worst that can be said about it is that its pleasures are a touch superficial. Still, one of his best.
Charming in places, but tossed-off and inessential. Opening improv, “Mumbo”, is a smoking rocker, but the best tracks are, surprisingly, simple duets with Linda: “Some People Never Know”, “Tomorrow”, as well as “Dear Friend” (which goes on a bit long). Best song is the UK bonus track, “Mama’s Little Girl”, a ghostly, staggeringly beautiful ballad not unlike “Blackbird”, but with lush Wings vocals, if you like that sort of thing. I kinda do.
“Red Rose Speedway”
A favorite of Macca fanatics. None of the songs mean a goddamn thing, and Paul was almost audibly stoned to the gills on this one, but almost all the tracks are melodically sharp. “Big Barn Bed” has a great ensemble vocal chorus, “My Love” is shimmering, “Get On The Right Thing” is Little Richard at run through the Gold Star reverb chamber. Elsewhere, there’s a serviceable C&W riff (”One More Kiss”), an appealing light ballad (”Single Pigeon”), a lazy lite one (”When the Night”), and two medleys — one (”Little Lamb/Dragonfly”) utterly gorgeous, with the other sounding like he orchestrated a worktape. Not a bad thing, really. Oh and a quasi-Indian chant set to a disco-funk backbeat — you need this.
“Band On The Run”
Honestly? The least exciting of his “classic” solo records, largely because it lacks almost any trace of the carelessness that makes his solo work frustrating but exciting, given that we’re talking about someone with the skills of McCartney. Still, “Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five” is a blast, as is the “If we ever get out of here” section of the title track, and “Let Me Roll It” positively aches. Other moments are enjoyable, but oddly hollow.
“Venus And Mars”
A prototypical McCartney record — brilliant and fun in places, it’s also larded with utter garbage. The brilliant stuff starts with the title track, its reprise in particular, which ends with a lysergic vocal tag that fucking shimmers with Wilsonian grace. In addition, the eastern-tinged “Love In Song” is gorgeous, “Magneto and Titaneum Man” a shuffling blast, and “Listen To What the Man Said” fun. But where “Letting Go” shows Macca embracing 70s rock with gusto, “Rock Show” is fairly plodding arena rock fare expressly designed for the then-upcoming Wings Over America tour. Oh, and there’s the first of his “Old people make me sad” songs. Still, significantly more good than bad.
“Wings At The Speed Of Sound”
“Let ‘Em In” might be the quintessential McCartney single — in addition to a sharp lyric and sticky tune, the unrelenting piano ostinato and revolutionary war piccolo riff are weird to the point of obsessive. What’s the best fuck you to critics in history? An easy listening smash — “Silly Love Songs”. Both tracks are just fucking subversive. Other than these and the startling ballad “Warm And Beautiful”, things are thin — “The Note You Never Wrote” would be great if it were McCartney not Denny singing, “Beware My Love” seems like it should be better than it is, and the otherwise snappy “She’s My Baby” errs in repeating “Moppin’ it up!” a bit too much — ick. The idea of letting the band chime in was perhaps ill-advised.
All over the map, but largely in a good way. McCartney’s definitely settling into a groove here, with a lush, orchestrated sound that aims less for transcendence than straightforward pop appeal with dabs of experimentation here and there. Highlights include the stately title track and “With A Little Luck”, a classic MOR ballad, but also the oddball “Backwards Traveller” and “I’m Carrying”, one of his most moving acoustic guitar ballads.
“Back To the Egg”
Though its quasi-conceptual ambitions are far from fully realized, this is probably the best Wings record. He just does everything here–Armed Forces-era Elvis C. (”Getting Closer”), Aja-era Steely Dan (”Arrow Through Me”), Ray Charles (”After the Ball”)–and his voice never sounded better. Even the failures are interesting (in theory, anyway), particularly his rock orchestra experiment (”Rockestra” which includes the likes of Pete Townshend and John Paul Jones), as well as the two impressionistic medleys on side two. Another favorite amongst McCartney fanatics and for good reason.
Where the first McCartney record embraced a rustic back-to-basics approach, the second volume reflected the advancement of the DIY aesthetic he had unknowingly midwifed. A decade before, Emmitt Rhodes had mimicked McCartney’s go-it-alone approach and sound; by 1980, synthesizers were beginning to make possible albums that were truly “solo,” from Eno to post-punk to Steve Winwood, whose Arc of a Diver would take its cue from this record in proving that an artist could make a complete pop statement (however minor) all by his lonesome.
Continuing the experimental tack of Egg, McCartney II reflects an awareness of these developments and includes at least four McCartney classics — the snappy “Coming Up”, the melancholy (and bizarre) “Waterfalls”, the Eno-flavored “Summer’s Day Song” and haunting ballad “One Of These Days”. For all the excitement surround the experiments that work, the record also has a collection of interesting-to-mediocre synth instrumentals and aimless drum box jams that don’t, making it clear he had an affinity for some DIY developments and merely an interest in others.
“Tug Of War”
Possibly his most overrated record, but that’s understandable given its origins (produced by George Martin) and proximity to Lennon’s death. In reality, the record’s only differentiating characteristic with its predecessors is its questionable quality. There are undeniable moments of beauty and grace (”Wanderlust”, the opening of the title track), as well as inspired eclecticism (”The Pound Is Sinking”, the wistful rockabilly of “Get It” with Carl Perkins segue into vocoder link track “Be What You See”). But there is also uncomfortably hamfisted balladry (”Ebony”, the plodding middle section of the title track, the disappointing Lennon tribute “Here Today” among others). Part of the blame goes to Martin, who even on the super-catchy hit single, “Take It Away”, imposes a supersession lite MOR production that does the material no favors. Frustrating in a lot of ways, because it feels like it should be better than it is.
“Pipes of Peace”
I don’t really know it, and what I’ve heard hasn’t really inspired me to pick it up.
“Press To Play”
Ah, the sleeper in his catalogue. The concept was simple: Paul McCartney does mid-80s synth rock a la Genesis and Phil Collins — a terrible idea that ultimately sold like crap. But clearly McCartney heard something symphonic in the production of those records, so he the man responsible for them, Hugh Padgham. Assembling a veritable who’s who of the scene (including Collins, SNL saxman Lenny Pickett, Pete Townshend, as well as arrangers Tony Visconti and Art of Noise orchestrator Anne Dudley), writing a patch of tracks with 10cc’s Eric Stewart, he set about making his Invisible Touch.
And in truth, unlike Tug of War, most of it works, though in a dated kind of way. “Good Times Comin’/Feel the Sun” bristles with energy and “Only Love Remains” is a solid McCartney piano ballad, while “Press” (about pleasuring his wife) and “Talk More Talk” show Paul excelling at pre-sequenced synth textures. Still, it’s the tracks with Stewart that shine brightest; “Stranglehold” and “Footprints” are an ebbulient rocker and haunting atmospheric ballad respectively, but “However Absurd”, with its helium bridge and pounding metallic piano, is stunning. There are misfires—the quasi-aboriginal “Pretty Little Head”, the pointless “Angry”—but as genre exercises go, the record is fairly brilliant.
“Flowers In The Dirt”
Where Press To Play felt inspired, this feels a bit aimless, as if he didn’t know what he wanted to do exactly. Apart from the brilliant Irish gospel of “That Day Is Done”, the much-heralded Costello collaborations are overhyped, while those with Trevor Horn are outright disappointing. Plus, several tracks employ plodding arena rock productions that ruin the material. Still, there are moments where McCartney’s songwriting shines through: the ebbulient “This One” has a sharp tune, “Put It There” is a charming ode to fatherhood, and “My Brave Face” almost transcends its overproduction. But it’s all over the place, and not in a good way.
Beyond that, I don’t really know any of his 90s records more than to say Off the Ground sounded fairly dreadful, Flaming Pie flat and Driving Rain…okay. I still haven’t quite given up on him, though.
Alexander Payne’s Sideways is instantly reminiscent of his About Schmidt and to a lesser extent Election. The film’s protagonist, Miles feels largely like a cross between Jack Nicholson’s character in the former and Matthew Broderick’s in the latter. This isn’t necessarily all that great of a thing, though, since Sideways ultimately isn’t as good as either earlier Payne film. It’s not as sharply funny as Election (or, for that matter, Citizen Ruth) nor is it as poignant and heartfelt as About Schmidt.
Paul Giamatti has probably never been more all-around affective than he is here, but, c’mon, he still doesn’t hold a candle to Nicholson working at the top of his game (as he definitely was in About Schmidt). Thomas Haden Church is very good, too, and the clear contrast between Miles and Jack illustrates (if a bit too obviously, at times) the two archetypcal extremes of forty-something men that they represent. Both are immature but in entirely opposite ways. Miles is clinically depressed. He sees his life as a big failure that’s probably only going to get worse as the years of disappointment and regret set in. He steals cash from his mom. Jack, on the other hand, is the more typical Peter Pan-type. He refers to sex as “partying.” He doesn’t consider the consequences of his actions. He’s dead-set on getting pussy the week before his wedding–and will almost certainly continue to fool around on his wife once they’re married.
Virginia Madsen’s character, on the other hand, felt rather token and underdeveloped, though I guess that stands to reason seeing as how the movie’s focus centers on the relationship between Miles and Jack. Madsen surely does the best she can with Maya, but I don’t understand the hyperbole her performance has drawn; she’s no more remarkable here than Sandra Oh is. I suppose the difference lies in Madsen’s Big Dramatic Solliloquy, whiich struck me as rather sanctimonious and awkward in relation to the seriocomic tone Payne otherwise sustains quite nicely throughout the film. Until the end, that is.
Put quite simply, I don’t think Sideways earns its happy ending. That this is a movie is basically the only explanation as to why Maya, a smart, beautiful woman, would actually want to be with Miles, a miserable, depressive schlub. Sure, they’re both divorcees, and then there’s his book, but to have her forgive him and want to meet with him again because she was moved or whatever by the book feels too little too late to me. It’s a cop-out, and, really, not too far a cry from the series finale of Friends–except that after nine or however-many seasons, their was obviously no other way to end the show. It was just handled rather lacklusterly, feeling less like romantic fate than contractual obligation.
Jack is the sort of guy that no matter how much of a shit he is he’ll find some way to side-step it. I think Payne is perceptive, and admirably non-judgemental (thought I wouldn’t necessarily say uncritical), in his treatment of Jack. Miles, on the other hand, seems the kind of guy who’s destined to wallow in self-pity and disgust until the day he dies. Good things (much less down-right miraculous things, like hooking up with a woman as seemingly saintly as Maya) rarely happen for Miles-type guys, partly because they’re too hung up on bullshit to spot the silver lining in anything. The scene in Sideways that touched me most was Miles talking to ex and her new husband after Jack’s wedding. The expression on Giamatti’s face is absolutely dead-on. He’s clearly still too hung up on her to healthily move on.
My hope is that this doesn’t turn out to be the year’s top critical darling–as, at this point, it’s looking likely to be. It’s a good movie, even, arguably, a very good movie, but it’s not a great one. I can think of at least a dozen better films I’ve seen this year.
I should be more careful when browsing the new release shelf. I think I’ve seen every fucking movie on that wall by now. Last night I was left to decide between Cinderella Story with the lovable Hilary Duff, or the Chronicles of Riddick with the equally lovable Vin Diesel.
Excercising my apparent masculinity, I went with Riddick, hoping at least for a semi-decent action movie. What I got was the most incoherent mess I’ve seen all year. I realize now why I passed this movie up when it came to theaters this summer.
For the first half hour I was actually paying attention, but soon the film became so muddled and dismal that I no longer could focus on anything but the ridiculous camera work (haven’t we learned anything about improper use of canted frames from Battlefield Earth?). I ask very little of a science fiction film; I ask even less of an action film. Define a clear villian, establish a main goal for the hero, arrive at said destination with little deviation and make the damn action scenes intelligible. Granted that formula doesn’t make an exceptional film, but at least it would make a coherent one.
Watching Riddick I was left with only questions that I didn’t particularly care to answer. What the fuck is the Underverse and why must the Necromangers destroy anyone who won’t join them in their pilgramage there? On a planet in which its sun revolves so closely that it scorches the planet’s surface would a person really be capable of sheltering themself behind a large rock? And would a person have the physical urge to scratch one’s own crotch while in deep space hibernation if all brain activity has shut down?
If anyone has seen this that can shed some light on this debacle please assist me (especially with the inexplicable end scene which I won’t reveal here for the sake of those adventurous enough to see this). But I think it’s safe to say I will be renting Cinderella Story next time around- it couldn’t be any worse.
In case you missed this week’s installment of Soul Sides and Utopia Burns, Podcasting looks like it could be the next big thing in MP3 blogs.
What’s a podcast? To quote from Engadget’s great article on Podcasting:
“A Podcast is an audio file, a MP3, most likely, in talk show format, along with a way to subscribe to the show and have it automatically delivered to your iPod when you plug in to iTunes. The show isn’t live, so you can listen to it whenever you want.”
It does bring a more lively and personal touch to MP3s, and once you’ve found some people who’s taste matches up to yours, you can pretty much throw out your subscription to satellite radio. As webspace becomes cheaper, I hope more and more people jump on this bandwagon.
I was unable to contribute this week, owing to the fact that the two more obscure songs were near-impossible to find as downloads, and I don’t remember them well from the time.
Tragedy – Steps
I get the strange sensation my girlfriend is standing over me, checking I don’t knock this one. She’s in luck of course, because it really is fun, and breathes that youthful exuberance into the slightly tired sounding Bee Gees original. School discos were never going to be the same again, that’s for sure. At last! A song I could dance to! (8)
The Dope Show – Marilyn Manson
Now that Manson appears to have lost the grip on shock value and controversy he once held to the lyrically/aesthetically/musically superior Eminem, I think it may be useful to examine the context here. People got really worked up about this song, and the man who fronted the band who made it. Some people bought into his ideas like they were going out of fashion (which, by 1998, they were), whilst others held protest rallies and God-knows-what to make known their disgust. Listening to “The Dope Show” (which is far more a crime against actual tunes than it is against society), this all seems a little silly now, doesn’t it? (3)
The Bartender and the Thief – Stereophonics
Trying to buy the “Thousand Trees” single as a plucky young indie kid (so they were signed to V2, but whatever), a friend accused me of listening to “weird no-name bands”. By the time this came out, it seemed the nation’s youth were sold: the all the girls fancied Kelly, all the boys wanted to rawk. Not a bad slice of overdriven guitar action, apparently about lesbians, good hooks, and so on. What was to follow (i.e. the rest of the album) was not the childish disowning of a band because they became too popular to be cool, but the sensible disdain of a band who were no longer any cop. Still, good while it lasted. (7)
After avoiding Philadelphia for eight years due to circumstances unknown, Deerhoof brought their definition-defying rock forms to of all places a church! If irreverence toward convention were blasphemy, then Deerhoof would find themselves suspended in rock purgatory, each song containing multitudinous changes in gross violation of the catechism: one moment, post-punk; the next, avant blueswailing; after that, mathy prog. Although their antecedents become clearer in the live performance, they never quite give them away.
But it’s the musicianship that really knocks you out anyway. The guitarists chase each other up and down the fretboards, their tunings eliding harmonies one moment and eliciting them the next. The rhythm section moving in their variegated strides, leaping up peaks and diving into troughs. There are no chaotic, amateurish freakouts - everything seems well-rehearsed - while remaining absolutely absurd. Fitting, really.
After what critics considered a weak album, this show simultaneously made me curious about Deerhoof again but cautious for fear of a letdown - theirs is a deeply intricate, but unexceptionally varied sound. After growing so much from Reveille to Apple O’ maybe Milk Man was just an aberration, and the internet-only release was just let off steam. Here’s to hoping…
Last Friday proved a raucous evening spent at The Khyber for a special Halloween show featuring a fantastic triple bill: Philadelphia’s own This Radiant Boy, followed by The Hidden Cameras, with Fiery Furnaces headlining. Although our sobriety waned over the course of the night, it was evident that three pop groups could still capture imaginations with unsurpassed variety in style, structure, and form.
This Radiant Boy put on a show that belonged in a rock ‘n’ roll museum, the exhibit showcasing anything between 1970 to present. Their costumes notwithstanding, Philadelphia’s sneakiest rock freakshow (scroll down) demonstrated once again that the melange of entertaining pop artistry and humorous stage banter were what we always appreciated in our favorite bands.
The Hidden Cameras could’ve headlined and it would’ve been satisfying, but they exceeded expectations (not that they were low) on a night when so many in the audience eagerly awaited the act that followed. Dense melodies and lush harmonies proved enchanting - reminding us of the Decemberists - minus the utter preciousness and affect.
However, Fiery Furnaces boldly took the keys and crashed Mom’s car directly into the garage. Rubbing our eyes, we could hardly believe what we were seeing. Rubbing our ears proved painful, so we stopped. In what may be the best hybrid of indie and prog rock, since say, ever, it was astounding to witness one band make so many changes, loops, heads and turnabouts, and for the singer to perform a concise set without interruption. When asked if they listened to John Zorn’s Masada to get the changes just right, one band member replied that they looked more to Beefheart than anything else. And as our insistence that theirs was the most innovative American album of the year, we couldn’t help but ask if there was any rivalry with The Arcade Fire. Eleanor Friedberger demurred, responding with a shrug and a polite, “No.”
So, I saw Green Day tonight. Was a little disappointed by their choice of openers (Sugarcult and fuckin’ New Found Glory?), but the headlining act was amazing. From the cover of “Shout” with full Billie Joe kneeling down with James Brown-esque cape thrown over him to the two suites (both got played, as did most of American Idiot), it was the best stadium show I’ve ever seen.
I’d heard the band was playing two sets recently, first the new album in full, and then a second set of favourites. That would have been awesome, but format here worked pretty well; most of the opening third of American Idiot, a bunch of classics (including their pre-Dookie cover of Operation Ivy’s “Knowledge”, wherein they get three people up on stage to play the instruments), and then most of the end of AI. They ended the regular show with “Homecoming”, which worked perfectly, and then came out for what seemed like a half-hour encore (emphatically not a complaint), ending with “Minority” (sounded silly a few years ago, getting in tonight and checking the preliminary results it sounded prophetic) and a solo electric version of “Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life)” (ubiquity or no, I still love that song).
There were tons of highlights, but the crowd singalong to “Are We The Waiting” stands out, as does Billie Joe’s comment that if Bush won the band would no longer be from California, instead they’d be from Toronto. There was a pretty decent lights, fire and explosion show, a few props (a crown for the drag anthem “King For A Day”, supersoakers later on to cool down the crowd at the front; sadly, we could only get tickets for seats), all the stuff a good huge concert should have. I definitely prefer shows at smaller venues (partially since that’s what I’m used to), but the experience was good, even if the crowd made me feel old (”I’ve been listening to them since Dookie, dammit!”).
Oh, and I almost forgot: They do a pretty damn good cover of “We Are The Champions”. With glitter. Freddie would be proud.
The past few years have seen plenty of talk about the folk revival (be it “nu-,” “avant-,” or “freak-,” but few people seem to be mentioning Jim White. True, he doesn’t have some of the true folky characteristics that people like Sam Beam and Devendra Banhart have (such as a reliance on acoustic instruments), but he does have a down-home delivery, a storyteller approach, , a populist sensibility, a strong use of American mythology, and a fascination with the Southern gothic. More important, he’s one of the best songwriters working right now.
Saturday, White performed one of the best live shows I’ve seen in years. He played by himself, using a loop machine and pre-recorded drum tracks. In his looping, he included melodica, toy stereos, and wind noises. It would be easy to be distracted by the technology in most cases, but White’s lyrics are so moving that my attention didn’t wander.
Between songs, he told stories, which I normally find tedious, but he had such good tales and a great delivery. I don’t think a concert’s ever gone by faster for me. He was frequently funny, a little shy, and always down-to-earth, whether talking about his initial attempts to have the guitarist from PM Dawn join his band or the recent hurricanes to hit his home town or the time God heard the prayers of a heathen over those of a believer. He was most emotional talking about his daughter, whom he missed, and he even thanked an audience member for bringing a child in a Halloween costume.
White strikes me as someone you’d love to sit on your porch playing music with at a barbecue. The humility’s not false, and he comes across as open and honest as anyone I’ve seen on stage.