Hey--want to volunteer to work at the NYC Republican National Convention? Go here. It could be fun, if you know what I mean. posted by Mike B. at 5:58 PM
Thursday, April 22, 2004
Neil Strauss on Courtney. Or, rather, on three days with Courtney. It's a great article, sad and true. I think his assessment of her issues is a lot more fair than what we usually get:
Her flaws, then, are as follows: She is extremely reactive, responding in an excessive way to every new situation or thought that arises; she is a megalomaniac, making claims that no one with a healthy sense of modesty would make in front of a journalist (as when she dismisses comparisons to alternative rockers of the moment and insists, "I'm a catalog artist: I compete with Bob Dylan"); she is obsessed with detail, micromanaging her affairs and sometimes failing to see the bigger picture; and she has become consumed by her supposed enemies and believes that all of the bad things that are happening to her are the result of a coordinated financial, legal and personal smear campaign.
Quo Vadimus points us to the great Klosterman piece envisioning what it would have been like if Cobain have lived and how it wouldn't have been all that great, wshew. There are also some other things mentioned that I will not mention lest this become a mere rewrite of the QV post, but seriously, go read that Klosterman piece. It's good because it's so goddamn smart--there's jokes in there about how Kurt talked to the press, about how he talked about upcoming albums, about the NME, etc., that ring very true. It's believable. posted by Mike B. at 11:15 AM
Tuesday, April 20, 2004
Paging through the Tori section of this (via Largehearted Boy, via Kinja), I was gratified, I think, to be able to look at file names and have a pretty good idea of which bootleg they were from, provided they're pre-2001. And I found a few good new ones: a "Purple Rain" cover! Which is awesome! Listening to it, I was reminded, first, of that particular mood she's able to conjure with just the piano: a particular kind of quiet, soothing stillness, sort of isolating, but sort of enveloping, too, although maybe this is just me picturing what it's like to be at a concert. And then the first verse, and I got a few chills, and then she botched the pre-chorus (ease into it, sweetie!), and then the second verse had a few nice bits. And the whole thing is good because it's Tori doing a friggin' song instead of just wanking on the piano, which is one of the reasons why her covers are so good--they really harness her skills and tie them to something like a coherent structure, plus she makes great picks of stuff that works with her style.
Which brings us to the other thing the page reminded me of: that during the '96 Dew Drop Inn tour (done with just her and a guitarist), she would preface a song sometimes with a little a capella improv that would incorporate the chorus of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt." The obvious parallel here, of course, is to Johnny Cash's cover of it, from his final album. Cash's version feels resigned and settled, very mid-volume vocally, taking the song and making it into a combination of a country-blues lament and a Biblical tale of negative destiny. The hurt in question isn't particularly deliberate, but is almost accidental. Cash turns Reznor's iconography into specific reality: "the needle" isn't some half-assed heroin metaphor, but a very specific, medical needle, used to keep him alive. "I remember everything" because there is, in fact, a lot to remember; it's not some overstatement about a bad relationship, it's a true thing, the piled-up regret and sorrow and loss of a whole life. "Everyone I know goes away in the end" not because your friends are fickle or because you chase them away with your gothic moodiness, but because they're friggin' dead. Reznor's original take on it (which I still love, incidentally) is perfect for teenagers, full of melodrama and romantic darkness; Cash's is the perfect representation of someone who has aged into respect, who does not need to speak loudly to be heard.
Tori's version, on the other hand, is characterized first and foremost by its almost extreme quietness, not just intimate like Cash's, but seeming totally unaware of any listener at all. Lying there in the air of a theater without anything to go along with it, it has the feeling of someone singing to themselves who suddenly makes a connection between what they're saying and what has come before, and the fact that Tori and Trent are friends just adds another layer to it. The '96 version that precedes "Caught a Lite Sneeze" is the best from that page, but the one before another cover, of the Cure's "Love Song" is the best representation of what she can do with an audience--it's a rare musician who can do a capella without inviting cheers and whoops, and so here we have, first, an unaccompanied voice doing something like improv, swooping into a tidbit of a song the audience knows very well, and then actually whispering the last half of it, so quiet as to be inaudible on the recording, and then into this whole other cover, all without any disturbance. And she did this all the time, but it's still sort of breathtaking.
But what the hell is going on here? Of the four versions here, they each have entirely different vocal improvs preceding the snippet of "Hurt," and like all Tori vocal improvs, they don't seem to make a whole lot of sense. They're notable mainly for uniting a lot of Tori keywords ("girl", "stop," "boys," "everywhere," "sweet," etc.) with a bunch of other words that sort of cohere but mostly don't. As far as I know, she didn't do this again, but clearly she felt compelled to do so on certain nights on this tour, and what came out was just whatever was running through her mind at the time, which I like, although I do wish it was a bit more coherent. And so we have something that's almost like automatic speaking, speaking in tongues, connected--bing!--to something that already exists, and the way it feels, especially in the CALS version, where she transitions from the improv to the cover with a series of rhythmic gasps, is that it's all being torn out of her, like there was nothing else to do at that point except sing the chorus of "Hurt," which makes no sense, but it's certainly the impression I'm getting and have always gotten from hearing this. What in Trent's hands felt constructed and in Johnny's hands felt old now feels entirely present and maybe a little crazy, in some versions less like it's a cover and more like it's something she's making up on the spot that just happens to be exactly like another existing song (just like Cash's version feels like something's he's discovered from seventy years ago instead of ten). It does feel kind of psychotic to me, like the rantings of a crazy person that suddenly happens to coincide with aspects of your own life, but which you know can't be referring to that.
And that's how a great song--and I do think these two covers prove that "Hurt" is a great song--can function. It feels like it knows you, like it's a secret fact about your own life that's being sung out loud but which remains secret. Different covers are just external reflections of the different internal interpretations we have of a song as open and accessible as "Hurt." Tori turns it into something that honestly feels like it's being wrenched directly from her subconscious, and Johnny turns it into something that honestly feels like he wrote it about himself and his own body. More importantly, Tori's cover shows the endless mutability of pop, not just musically but semantically--you can drop a quotation from "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" into a jazz improv, and you can sample "Tom Sawyer," but you can also thread together different things by closing your eyes and just making noise with your mouth and unconsciously making those connections, because they are already there, because they are just as much a part of you as your memories, and this is one of the reasons why art matters. It is written inside each of us--different works, and in different ways, but it is there nonetheless.
 With, sigh, the notable exception of almost everything on her covers album except maybe "Enjoy the Silence," "Time," and "Heart of Gold"--"'97 Bonnie & Clyde" is particularly odious, an Eminem cover for people who don't get Eminem, whereas I think all her other covers, from Nirvana to Steely Dan to Springsteen, could all be just as easily embraced by her fans and fans of the original.
 In "Purple Rain," for instance, around about 4:25 when she starts hitting the "oohs" it sounds exactly like another Tori song, although I can't for the life of me remember which one. Maybe "Hey Jupiter."
 She ends "Love Song" by basically yelling the last word of the chorus, and it works so friggin' well it's incredible one one's done it already. posted by Mike B. at 6:40 PM
In actual significant news, Hillary has a blog. She currently is writing about Kill Bill, Liars, and Billy Ray Cyrus. So you should read it, because of that, and because she is like butter, writing-wise. Expect various cross-dialogues and media empires shortly. posted by Mike B. at 5:44 PM
This afternoon, Modest Mouse on K-Rock. (Why am I listening to K-Rock? Er...I'm not really sure.)
This morning, Pearl Jam's manager, Kelly, in the office. I really wanted to yell, "Dude, play 'Jeremy'!" (That or "sellout!") But I didn't. I hope they sign with us so I can touch Eddie's hair. I will go home and wrap it around my guitar and use it to summon cred. I will act like my dad is dead and write a song about it and the first line of the song will be "MY EXHIBITIONISTIC TENDENCIES AS A LEAD SINGER ARE COMPENSATION FOR THE LACK OF A FATHER FIGURE IN MY LIFE AND OOOOOOHHHAAAAAGGGGHHH..." posted by Mike B. at 5:35 PM
ROCK 'N' ROLL BON MOTS #008
What the hell is up with the bridge of Live's "Lightning Crashes" and why didn't I notice it before? The guitarist dude just cannot hit that little turn/trill in the 6th and 7th bars of the riff. Did he just not practice it enough? Is he trying to hold the chord formation and getting a weak sound with his pinkie? Well, I suppose I shouldn't judge, there's a moment like that in our canon as well. posted by Mike B. at 5:32 PM
Monday, April 19, 2004
So I've given myself a few shots at liking the Killers, but for better or worse, I just can't get past the impression I had upon returning to my desk and hearing a bit halfway through "Somebody Told Me"--"Oh no, somebody's Franz Ferdinanded it again!" I would roughly define this verb as "missing the point of disco." Listen to that chorus--it's a disco progression, and even a disco beat, but rocked up in such a way that it loses about half the groove and a third of the energy of even a second-rate disco track, to say nothing of a good house song. And so then what's the point? It's an example of when you can legitimately complain about rock's co-option: when you just grab the tropes so it sounds like a rock cover of a disco song without learning (or intuiting) the actual compositional and technical lessons the other genre has to impart. I don't think you have to regard other genres on their terms, but I think it's much more productive to at least be able to do so, and then move back into your standard mode. (Thus the difference between rap pastiches of the 80s and when white kids actually figured out hip-hop in the 90s.)
But it's weird to me how many people genuinely miss the value in dance music when moving back into rock, and I think it's no accident that the best rock-dance songs have been electronic appropriations of rock rather than the other way around. When I hear a great house or rave song, I don't want to sort of shake my hips a bit, which is what Franz Ferdinand and the Killers make me want to do; I want to bop my head and pump my fists and twirl around. What rock and dance share is the emphasis on ecstatic expression, and it's at that intersection point that you can really cross genres. Honestly, Guns 'n' Roses are a better expression of dance-rock than the Killers, because there's a hell of a groove to, say, "Paradise City," which I just don't hear that much of in "Somebody Told Me." Rock expresses ecstasy via loudness and fastness, but a mid-tempo, mid-volume dance song can have just as much of an effect. (See innumerable Prince songs.) This is what rock can take from it. There's a lot of good, fast/loud dance music--gabba, jungle, acid-house, dnb, etc.--but if anything, they show rock how you can take that core trick of being energetic without expressing a lot of energy and ramp it up.
But maybe I need to give them more of a shot. I can see them being real good live. But that chorus groove just doesn't go along long enough! Lock into it, guys! The verse stuff just isn't good enough to ignore that chorus for that long. In the first 2 minutes of the song, there's like 10 seconds of chorus. Then 15 seconds of chorus, then 30 seconds of negligible bridge, then the last 35 seconds of the song are chorus, but by that point the impact's been so diluted that it doesn't really nail it right. And there's not enough groove, still.
I was groggy today and no music sounded very good, which was sort of OK, since I was out of hard drive space and this allowed me to be far less generous in weeding stuff out, but this does not mean that grogginess is always inconducive to Music Appreciation; indeed, one of the best feelings in the world is waking up alone on a Sunday morning around noon in the fall and putting on something like the Eban and Charlie soundtrack, or maybe If You're Feeling Sinister, and puttering around the apartment, maybe nursing a cup of tea, maybe reading a bit on the couch, as angled light filters in through half-empty tree branches and big windows, feeling pretty darn groggy and not like doing anything for the next eight hours or so besides eventually picking up a musical instrument and puttering around on that. But this is, I suppose, an entirely different kind of grogginess, one that is contained, both within four walls and within a head. There is nothing to disturb it or drive it out, as there is when you wake on a Monday and have to get out of the apartment, into the bright sunshine and the bright fluorescent lights and the general bustle of the city. Then, the grogginess never goes away, but it does get kind of shaken up and diffused, so that it lasts over just as long a period of time, but without the soothing effects that it can engage in within a more sheltered environment. And so the music doesn't sound good--because nothing sounds good. posted by Mike B. at 1:09 PM
There are other official prohibitions as well: no mosh pits, no slow songs...
And suddenly I realized why Christian pop music sucks. It's not the religious lyrics--lyrics don't really matter to a lot of music, and Christian acts have succeeded in the mainstream for just this reason. Nor is it the way it imitates secular music--secular music imitates secular music all the time, often to fantastic results. It's because all the songs have to be mid-tempo. Can't have fast songs, because that inspires moshing. Can't have slow songs, because that inspires, er, sex. So what do you have? A bunch of mid-tempo songs. And those can be good--but a diet of nothing but them is pretty bland. posted by Mike B. at 3:25 PM
From a VR thread about Fiona Apple's new album possible getting shelved:
"So, they're not sure they have a "Single" and think that may mean lackluster sales, so they've decided to hide it away in a vault.
This is exactly why the music industry is the laughing stock of any business where smart people dwell. You never hear a baseball coach say "Either hit a home run, or strike out. Those are your only two options."
This is, of course, not really true. It doesn't make logical or moral sense, but it does make business sense. (Indeed, the fact that it doesn't make logical or moral sense is sort of a good sign that it makes good business sense.) The first album did tremendously well; the second one less so. But it's reasonable to assume that Fiona renegotiated her new-artist deal after the first album, and it's further reasonable to assume that there was a guaranteed marketing commitment included in that renegotiation, and that this guarantee was somewhat high. And so if they do release the album, that's committing to an expenditure of a further $1 million at least in marketing, promo, and manufacturing. They'd have to sell at least 200k to make that up, and clearly some at the label don't think it will. Why release something when you're going to lose more money on it?
So why not sell it to someone else? Well, since the label has probably already spent let's say $300k in A&R costs, it needs to get these back, plus it needs a compelling reason not to have it in its catalog in case it does sell well. So it wants an override (presumably in addition to a partial repayment of recoding costs) of 2 or 3 points on the album, which would come out of the artist's royalties, except that unlike artist royalties, you have to pay from record 1, not just once costs are recouped. And so there's a big disincentive to pick the album up, since the new label will essentially have to start laying out money before the artist is recouped, and a similar disincentive for the label to give it up until they've exhausted all other avenues.
And so this is why shit happens like Wilco getting dropped by a major and resigned by one of its subsidiaries, or Dead Prez getting dropped by and re-signed by Columbia: it allows you to re-renegotiate the contract based upon the album at hand. So you drop the band, drop the contract, and resign with a whole new contract that's probably more beneficial to the label in a lot of ways but which also gives the artists certain rights of independence. (It also gives you time to let the album circulate in the free market to get a better idea of its value.) I assume right now there's an internal battle at the label between A&R, finance, and marketing (and the various execs thereof) as to whether or not to release it, and it's this internal battle, i.e. the hope that it will actually be released, that further delays its being shopped elsewhere.
Is this all pretty stupid? Sure. But it all stems from release and marketing commitments, and those are in there to protect the artist from being short-changed by the label. These end up hurting the label sometimes, and so they also end up hurting subsequent artists, but it wouldn't be necessary if the music industry wasn't one giant cesspool of untrustworthiness where, OK, it's a bad thing for the system, but fuck you, I don't want you releasing an album I spent years on without laying out a reasonable amount of money to promote it, because if you're not promoting it then why the hell am I with a record company? The solution at this point would probably involve a greater use of labels as marketing companies, rather than whole entities, wherein the artist would have a freer hand in setting the level of marketing and manufacturing, with proper consultation. You could also decouple the labels from ownership of the products, and so they wouldn't have a vested interest creating a disincentive to having it released. Furthermore, you could have bonuses based on benchmarks rather than individual unit sales, i.e. you don't get five dollars for selling one more CD, you get a chunk of money when you hit 500k sales, so there would be a greater incentive to increase sales.
Of course, this probably won't happen without everything sort of collapsing, and I'm not really ready for that yet.
The music industry is a "laughing stock of any business where smart people dwell" not because of its weirdo business practices (if anything, they're better for the salesmen than the practices of a lot of other industries), but because you can't really make any money in the music industry; from a business perspective, there really isn't a lot of money to be made, whichever way you slice it, unless you go gold and so actually, again, the smart business decision doesn't work out well for anyone. The industry survives by maintaining an aura of cool that draws people who are looking for some cool to it, and if they have a little money, well, they give us their money, they look cool, everyone benefits. Sort of. Without this steady supply of star-struck rich idiots, where would we be?
The lesson from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot wasn't that you can make money off "difficult" bands. It's that if you shelve an album and then drop the band and work it in a way that you get a ton of press for it, the album will do really well. This is not good for artists. posted by Mike B. at 1:20 AM
But I didn't say that I wouldn't talk about what happened immediately before or after recording.
Before, we saw a dead bird on the sidewalk in front of the studio, a starling, I think. No one stepped on it. When we got back from breakfast, someone had taken it away. We chose not to take this as a bad omen.
Afterwards, I was walking to Crip Dogs to get something to eat (Grilled Cheese was closed) and right after I passed Jesse Malin two blocks south of Niagra, a convertable tore by me up Avenue A, blaring "Hey Ya." It made sense, somehow.
The recording went very well. We laid down all the instrumental tracks for three songs and they sound very good. We are excited. posted by Mike B. at 12:36 AM