Preparing for a Trip to Stockholm in 2014
Based on the data from Google Analytics, readers of The Alt Rock Chick visit for one of two reasons:
- To locate a particular music review
- To find pictures of my beautiful ass
I am certainly happy to provide a repository for “music reviews with a touch of erotica,” and am always flattered when “beautiful ass” comes up as a top search term, but regular readers of The Alt Rock Chick also know that there’s a lot more to this blog than witty music reviews, sexual banter and leather-trimmed porn. They know that the author is a deep thinker who explores the place of music in the cosmos and has offered the world two of the most influential theories in modern music today:
- The Count Basie Effect: The affirmative corollary to the jazz theory of negative space: sometimes a single note can be the greatest fucking thing you’ve ever heard when played at the right time, in the right context. A variation of this theory is that simplicity is often more powerful than complexity.
- The Beach Day Theory: The size of the production must correlate to the essence of the music. Go lo-fi if you’re emulating 60’s girl groups, go Dolby digital 5.1 surround sound if you have material like The Vicar’s Songbook #1.
In considering the historical and cultural underpinnings of the Foo Fighters, I discovered not one, but two new theories that should elevate my status from Niche Audience Music Critic to Serious Contender for a Nobel Prize:
- The Norah Jones Theory: Once Norah Jones makes a guest appearance on your favorite artist’s album, it’s all over.
- The Reagan-Thatcher Theory: It is impossible for any artist who appeared on the scene after 1980 to produce more than 2.5 good albums.
You can find nomination forms and criteria at http://www.nobelprize.org/nomination/. I believe Physics is the most appropriate category, as my sexual references often describe bodies in a state of collision, but Chemistry is also appropriate given the fact that I have created a great deal of it in my erotic experiences with both genders and with all races.
Please do not submit my name for the Literature prize, for if Faulkner can get it, anyone can.
In the Foo Fighters’ case, The Reagan-Thatcher theory must be applied first. They met their requisite 2.5 good album limit and then went down the proverbial shithole prior to Ms. Jones’s appearance. What happened is that they had the severe misfortune to win a Grammy for the second good album (the one we’re reviewing here), a development that nearly always triggers the insatiable ego of the honored artist, resulting in efforts tailored to earn more and more Grammies (which they did). While sometimes the Grammies get it right (even a stopped clock is right twice a day), the Grammies are primarily about the tastes and preferences of the music industry and the fans who have allowed themselves to be programmed by said industry. There is no consistent correlation between Grammies and musical excellence; in fact, the reverse is often true. Somewhere in the middle of One by One, The Foo Fighters chose to pursue commercially satisfying music and stick to the recipes that lead to enormous profits in a world populated by musical morons.
Therefore, the Foo Fighters were already cold on the slab when Norah Jones did a duet with Dave Grohl on In Your Honor, one of the most insipid pieces of music I’ve ever heard. Of course, that performance was nominated for a Grammy. I was therefore extremely concerned when I saw Norah in the credits of the last Belle and Sebastian album, and sure enough, the album is a clunker. We did get 2.5 good albums out of them, though, which is all you can hope for in these troubling times, even from Scotland.
The Reagan-Thatcher theory is quite reliable. Bjork had Debut and Post, then went downhill fast while trying to disguise her musical blemishes with bizarre cover art. Death Cab for Cutie fits the theory to the last decimal: two great albums (Transatlanticism and Plans) and a half-decent effort (Narrow Stairs) before going down the toilet with Codes and Keys. Oasis is an unusual case because if you do the math you come up with 3.5, but I would argue that the band with Gem Archer and Andy Bell is a different band than the original, so Oasis must be split into two distinct periods and analyzed as such.
What makes my theories so powerful is that I can alter them to fit whatever the fuck argument I want to make! That alone is worth a Nobel!
After a quirky début album, the Foo Fighters exploded onto the scene with The Colour and the Shape, an album of creative liberation for ex-Nirvana drummer and Foo front man Dave Grohl. There Is Nothing Left to Lose came next, just before the end of the millenium, and confirmed that the previous album was no fluke. The difference between the two is that The Colour and the Shape is a dazzling array of musical styles while There Is Nothing Left to Lose has less diversity but stronger melodies.
You certainly don’t hear that distinction in the first song, “Stacked Actors,” which sounds like Dave is trying to violently expel the last traces of Nirvana from his system. It’s a grungy, tuneless effort where Dave screams and growls about his disgust with the L. A. scene (a disgust that led him and the rest of his now three-member band to record this album in far-off Virginia). Given his later sellout to the industry, Dave’s position on the virtues of Hollywood culture would obviously evolve, making him the Mitt Romney of rock ‘n’ roll. He’s now buddy-buddy with all those “dead actors, stacked to the rafters,” making this song even more ridiculous in retrospect. Skip it.
“Breakout” probably would have been a better opener, and though it doesn’t qualify as particularly melodic either, it’s a much better rocker. By this time, Dave Grohl had finally found a drummer almost as good as . . . Dave Grohl. He’d rescued Taylor Hawkins from the clutches of Alanis Morissette, and while he doesn’t have the thunder of Grohl at his best, he combines sufficient force with excellent chops. He gives us a solid preview of his skills on “Breakout,” pounding out a strong bash with well-placed punctuation.
The other thing that characterized the pre-sellout Foo Fighters and was sadly lost when Dave Grohl started to take himself too seriously was their approach to music videos. The Foo Fighters made the funniest videos in the music business, satirizing the genre and the notion of rock stars being worship-worthy idols. The “Breakout” video is a hoot, and it’s not even the best from the album:
The honor for best video from There Is Nothing Left to Lose goes to “Learn to Fly,” a solid rocker with a strong melody, encouraging both pelvic movement and enthusiastic sing-alongs. The core verse arrangement with its combination of bright chords played over Taylor’s syncopated drum attack is irresistible, and Dave Grohl delivers a clean and spirited lead vocal throughout. Definitely one of the best-structured songs in the Foo Fighters’ catalog, “Learn to Fly” kicks ass and lifts the spirit. And the video, featuring stellar multi-character performances by all the band members, is an absolute hoot!
I love how they chose to open the film with a cheesy version of one of their best-known songs (“Everlong”) playing in the background, reminding us not to take them or any other rock stars too seriously. If only they’d meant it!
I haven’t mentioned the third leg of the Foo stool (that sounds gross—sorry), so I will now. Nate Mendel is a great bass player with several impressive performance on this album, including “Gimme Stitches.” This bouncy little number dominated by blood-and-guts metaphors for acrimonious relationships proves two things: one, that Dave Grohl is a hobbled lyricist at best; and two, that Nate Mendel knows how to drive a song all by himself. His disciplined but full-sounding approach to bass works wonders here, especially his subtle runs to that throb to a satisfying climax (that sounds sexual—not sorry).
The Foos continue the intensity with “Generator,” famous for Dave Grohl’s use of an electronic talk box that echoes Peter Frampton. The lyrics remain weak, but the pounding energy from Taylor Hawkins and solid bass from Nate Mandel make this a keeper. Here’s a live performance with talk box in full view:
I have a deep attraction to heavy bass that fills the room without quite knocking the vases off the tables, so it’s no wonder that my favorite song on the album is “Aurora.” The main riff comes from the bass and fills me as satisfyingly as an engorged cock when it fills my vagina (no, boys, it’s not size, it’s the Four P’s: position, pressure, presence and panache). The song glides along as if you’re taking a quiet drive through the country, with a beautiful melody dancing lightly over the floor provided by Nate Mendel’s bass. Sadly, the erection collapses with a pffft in the next song, “Live in Skin,” a throwaway I often skip.
Dave Grohl’s fascination with space travel led to the creation of “Next Year,” a tale best told in the promotional video and not in the once-again lightweight lyrics. Please note that the music on the video is different from the version on the album. There is no “false ending” where the song appears to stop and comes back for one more round, which was unnecessary anyway. More importantly, Chris Shiflett, who would join the band after the release, sings harmony on a few lines. This is big because There Is Nothing Left to Lose is virtually harmony-free, one of the record’s greatest deficiencies. I felt that absence even more strongly after listening to “Lonely As You” from their next album, One by One, a song that features stand-up-and-applaud harmonies.
The lyrics become even more oblique in “Headwires,” but the song is rescued by the strong groove, pleasant melody and Taylor Hawkins’ nimble performance on the cymbals. The man is in the groove, ladies and gentlemen! It leads to Taylor’s favorite song on the album, the lush “Ain’t It the Life,” a slower number with a slight country feel and another memorable melody. “M. I. A.” closes the proceedings, a song that feels like an album-ending opus but falls short of achieving it due once again to fairly scattered lyrics. From a musical perspective, though, the song is solid, well-structured and appropriately melodic.
With two good albums in the can, the Foos would adhere to the Reagan-Thatcher Theory with the half-decent One by One, where it’s obvious that Dave Grohl has begun thinking of himself more as a rock star than a musical artist. The circumstantial evidence is that the Grammy for There’s Nothing Left to Lose went to his head, deadening the frontal lobe enough for him to become very rich and very famous.
Fame, more than wealth, seems to drive artists into the Venus fly trap of Reagan-Thatcher. Ben Gibbard of Death Cab went Hollywood, married Zooey Deschanel and lost all of his creative edge (their divorce has been celebrated by ghoulish fans in the hope that the split means a return to form). Belle and Sebastian were featured in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, amplifying the Norah Jones effect by a hundredfold. A good album puts you on the industry radar, a second good one earns you the Grammy nomination and the third album can be half-crap, but when you’re rolling in dough and mommy’s proud of you, who gives a fuck about the quality of the music?
Oh, that reminds me . . . no, I won’t be reviewing Sir Paul’s latest.
Oops! I forgot Benefit!
Okay, I didn’t forget. It’s just that, well, it’s such a strange album that I don’t quite know what to make of it. There are parts I love, parts I loathe and parts that . . . I just don’t know.
At least the proceedings begin with a song I love, the backward-flute-enhanced “With You There to Help Me.” A perfectly mad little number with strong drama and nearly constant underlying tension, it takes advantage of the door opened by “For a Thousand Mothers” on Stand Up to establish Jethro Tull as a band who can rip it with the best of them. The gentle, quiet opening of flute, piano and acoustic guitar deepens with the appearance of Glenn Cornick’s smooth bass, leading the listener to believe that Benefit is going to open with a slow, moody number, an assumption supported by Ian’s soft and sensuously-harmonized vocal. That myth is dispelled five lines into the song with an unexpected but glorious attack from Martin Barre, who was obviously standing in the wings, loaded for bear. Martin then drives the bridge between verse and chorus, and though the song returns to the gentler sound of the opening verse, now you begin to anticipate a crescendo. After oscillating between soft and hard, teasing us with a tempo shift (where Clive Bunker absolutely shines), and ending the lyrical structure with a brief stop-time delivery of the final line, the dénouement finally arrives like a fucking freight train at 150 miles an hour. That final instrumental passage where Ian’s flute takes the build and Martin answers with pyrotechnics is joyful madness, a madness accentuated by the echoing laughter. “With You There to Help Me” is one of the most unusual songs to ever begin an album, but damn, it works.
The curious nature of Benefit is exemplified by the follow-up number, “Nothing to Say.” I love the arrangement, especially the integration of bass, drums, acoustic guitar and subdued electric guitar; I find the background music endlessly fascinating and could listen to Glenn Cornick’s melodic and nimble bass part all day long. As for the lyrics and the melody . . . nope. It’s a “fuck you” song without having established the reason for the “fuck you,” and I’ve always thought that generational angst (best exploited by Nirvana) is a dull topic. If there were an instrumental-only version of “Nothing to Say,” I’d buy it in a heartbeat.
No such surgery is required for “Inside,” another number where Cornick and Bunker create magical rhythms on and off the beat, but are supported in their efforts by a stronger melody, better lyrics and a sweet flute part by the guy standing on one leg. The movement of this song is simply marvelous, especially when they change rhythm for the bridge, which also happens to contain my favorite lyrical passage on the entire album, highlighted by the unexpected appearance of harmony:
I’m sitting in the corner feeling glad,
Got no money coming in but I can’t be sad,
That was the best cup of coffee I ever had.
And I won’t worry about a thing because we’ve got it made—
Here on the inside, outside’s so far away.
Just when I think everything’s going to be okay now, they give me a song like “Son.” Another generational battle hymn with an odd combination of clichés and disconnected inner dialogue, not even Martin’s bluesy counterpoint can save this turkey. Ian’s vocal is sneering and annoying, and the last line, “And when you grow up, if you’re good we will buy you a bike” is embarrassingly awful.
Now that I think Ian Anderson has totally lost it, he comes up with the gem “For Michael Collins, Jeffrey and Me.” The poetry here covers two themes: the uneven pace of human evolution and the sad position of “odd man out” or “third wheel.” Michael Collins, stuck up in the command module while Armstrong and Aldrin took a stroll on the lunar surface, symbolizes both the loneliness and the base envy of the human species. The ironic twist is that the millions of “limp-faced hungry viewers” have more in common with the mission’s forgotten man than they do with the conquering heroes; the spectator is always the third wheel and experiences the same loneliness, envy and hope that Ian Anderson imagines Michael Collins experienced:
I’m with you L.E.M.
Though it’s a shame that it had to be you
The mother ship is just a blip
From our trip made for two
I’m with you boys
So please employ just a little extra care
It’s on my mind
I’m left behind when I should have been there
Walking with you.
While my research confirmed that Collins never voiced anything close to sour grapes in real life, it’s a convenient metaphor for the human condition in our time: we find ourselves more spectators than participants in the flow of human history. The role of spectator often brings out the worst in us (“Like the man hung from the trapeze whose fall will satisfy”), in stark contrast to the evolutionary advance symbolized by the moon landing. The music combines two disparate passages: a dreamy acoustic landscape for the verses building to the rhythmic jump that introduces the syncopated rock thrust of the choruses. This is one of Tull’s early period masterpieces that is often ignored.
Unfortunately, it probably created the guilt that led Ian Anderson to bring his left-out friend Jeffrey into the band for Aqualung. After listening to Benefit again, I so miss Glenn Cornick.
But back to our story. If the pattern continues, the next song should be a turkey, but “To Cry You a Song” is neither a disaster nor a high point. Again, the rhythmic support is exceptional. The lyrics are quite good in describing the joys of air travel, such as reaching for the bag and feeling absolutely trapped in a confined space without any ability to affect the speed of the airplane. The opening lines make me yearn for the good old days before the whiny moaners ruined it for all of us who could really use a smoke when bored or stressed (“Flying so high, trying to remember/How many cigarettes did I bring along?”) What doesn’t work is the overly clunky main guitar riff and the lack of smoothness in the execution of the tempo changes. The song has a feeling of awkwardness about it that relegates it to the lower half of the preference list. In a stunning turn of events, the next song, “A Time for Everything” breaks the on-off pattern by making it two clunkers in a row.
The album is saved by the arrival of “Teacher,” one of Tull’s best early period numbers despite the fact that the band didn’t care for it in the least, according to the discography on the Jethro Tull official website:
“Teacher” became a fan favorite in the U.S. though the band felt it was a throwaway song and Ian wrote it as a B-side. Ian, to date, professes distaste for this tune reflecting disillusionment with formal education, a theme arising in future songwriting as well. The U.K. version on the remastered copy is a very different arrangement with far less flute. The flute was added to the U.S. release as the record company felt Tull needed a pop single featuring the flute.
While it’s clearly the “poppiest” number on Benefit, it’s still a damned good song with great movement and catchy hooks. The video that follows shows a fluteless version, and it still rocks:
Postscript: I didn’t believe my father when he told me he saw Tull do “Teacher” on American Bandstand. I still have a hard time getting my head around it. Jethro Tull on American Bandstand? Ian Anderson with Dick Clark? Can you imagine an odder couple? Ian Anderson doing his thing in front of all those putty-faced, clean living teenagers carefully selected for the mainstream American audience? It took years for me to be convinced, but lo and behold, I found a video compilation of the performance on YouTube. Warning: It’s out of sync half the time (not Ian’s fault but the fault of the transcription process), but the evidence clearly reveals that this regrettable event did in fact occur. My God!
Also regrettable is the following song on Benefit, “Play in Time.” While it starts out with a promising feel, it gets too repetitive and irritating after a while and Ian seems to be over-singing to compensate for the shallowness of the lyrics. The album ends with “Sossity, You’re a Woman,” a song about which I have abrasively mixed feelings. I think the arrangement is superb, with the nice touches from John Evan’s organ and Ian’s flute breaking up the acoustic guitar pattern so that it remains fresh throughout. What I find offensive are the lyrics, which seem to be echoing the old theme more commonly associated with American writers like Twain and Hemingway that women are the civilizing, emasculating force that keep men from experiencing true freedom. It was a crock of shit then and it’s a crock of shit now. The metaphor of society as an aging woman is even more offensive, reminding us of the predominant myth that women are pretty much done once they hit middle age. And the feminists called Mick Jagger a sexist?
The original U. K. version replaced “Teacher” with “Alive and Well and Living In,” a very dull number that made it onto the U. S. version of that throwaway semi-compilation album, Living in the Past. I’m glad it didn’t appear on the stateside version, or I’d have to give Benefit a relatively low number of stars (if I gave out stars at all). As it is, I consider it a transition album, the close of the early period, and most of the lessons learned would be put to exceptionally good use in Aqualung.