Posts from March 1999
Various Artists – That’s What I Call Sweet Music
For thirty-odd years now, underground comics legend R.Crumb has been preaching musical theory to a decidedly sceptical audience. Crumb was always faintly anachronistic in the hippie comix scene (and indeed his best work has all been done since, as his acid-inspired sense of belonging eroded in the cynical 70s and worse 80s, to be replaced with an oddly humane misanthropy) and his taste in music bolsters this impression.
Jim O’Rourke – Eureka
A record I’ve been looking forward to impatiently is Jim O’Rourke’s Eureka. Much-tagged as O’Rourke’s grand pop move, this one – after 17’s magically pretty/peaceful Bad Timing, I was slavering at the idea of his moving even further into that record’s soundworld of wry, melodic, touching pop with just the slightest tincture of an experimental sensibility. A track given away by the absurdly generous Uncut just got me sweating further.
I should have remembered Gastr Del Sol, and last year’s Camofleur, which also came heralded as the avant-garde somehow discovering pop (oh yeah – ‘pop’ here means Brian Wilson, Jack Nitsche, and all the other long-rehabilitated studio explorers and arrangers, rather than, say, Billie or Master P. So bear that in mind.). That sounded fine on first listen, and then David Grubbs’ crappy lyrics and mumbly vocals and the general self-consciousness of the whole project took a heavy toll on me. Eureka is strides beyond Camofleur, but there’s still a cloying indie-ness which hangs heavy on the record’s slower moments, when O’Rourke’s perky voice goes all thoughtful, and the sounds get more ambient. The title track is nothing if not well-produced and interesting, but it’s not the full-scale turn towards beauty that the opening Women Of The Worldseemed to herald.
Women… gives a fine indication of where Eureka succeeds powerfully. Over eight minutes, as O’Rourke sweetly sings the simple lyric, the arrangement builds and builds from its fingerpicked beginnings into a jewelbox of baroque elegance. Its impact isn’t profound or directly emotional, more lying in an indirect feeling of goodness elicited by simple contemplation of the bright, subtle music. The rest of Eureka doesn’t quite hit that peak, though, preferring to hopscotch through mournfully aqueous instrumental bits reminiscent of Talk Talk, a (good) Bacharach cover, a stomping slice of prog-pop with Floydian dynamics, sundry melodic slowies a la Plush….it’s all very appealing and I half suspect that after living with it for a few months more I’ll be loving every minute, but right now it feels oddly pointless, feckless even, neither a wholehearted embracing of pop music nor any kind of redefinition of it, and full of unkept promise.
Confessions Of A Pop Fan
This isn’t a manifesto, it’s just a vague statement of intent, or maybe belief. Heaven knows it’s difficult, even absurd, to try and crystallise what I feel about music and music criticism, and even more difficult to condense that into a few paragraphs. But I ought at least to try. As ever, comments are more than welcome. So what do I believe? We’ll start off with something nobody should disagree with.
1) That there’s a stunning amount of worthwhile music out there.
Fair enough, I think. Some years turn up a higher yield of magnificent records than others, but Freaky Trigger doesn’t subscribe to any ‘death of pop’ theories. That’s not to say that some musical traditions and practises aren’t in very bad shape, but the music keeps on evolving and it’s the critic’s job to try and keep pace.
2) That this music isn’t confined by time or genre.
It’s also the critic’s job to keep the faith, though. Pop music didn’t start in ’66 or ’77 or ’88 any more than it started yesterday, and I’m not going to pretend otherwise. Similarly you won’t find easy dismissals of entire genres in Freaky Trigger: you might find crassness, generalisation and pig ignorance, but then it’s up to you to set it right. So far, so blah. Try finding a rock-crit site which doesn’t gaze starrily at the future while paying homage to the past. Where Freaky Trigger steps out of line, maybe, is that it doesn’t believe in a pop ‘canon’: critics that spend their time compiling exclusionary lists and arguing over who are or aren’t the ‘greats’ are betraying the vibrancy of the music and its listeners – thankfully pop is smarter than they are. We’re living in an era where constant reissue programs (if Father Yod and Beyond The Black Crack can re-emerge, then everything truly is up for grabs), and even more democratically MP3 trading, are dissolving pop’s ideas of time, history, the contemporary and the ‘objective’. If even one person with the right equipment wants to preserve a piece of music, then it will survive: what price your Top 100 lists in the face of that? All the humbled critic can do is act at best as a guide, and the more dilettantish s/he is the better.
3) That the ways ‘rock critics’ look at music tend to be simplistic or patronising.
Freaky Trigger is greedy and largely amoral. I’m interested in pop music from a listener’s point of view, not an economist’s or even a performer’s. Whether a piece of music endured a bloody, constipated genesis or took half an hour’s doodling in the lunch break matters not a whit to me. And if someone else wrote the songs or even played the instuments? I don’t give a damn. Freaky Trigger also doesn’t give a monkeys about what label something’s on, what it’s selling or what it’s advertising. This is down to pragmatism as much as principle: even if I did believe that corporate, plastic, etc. etc. pop was in principle devilish through and through I’d still (I hope) find myself loving stuff like Baby One More Time and Spice Up Your Life. And more generally, I’m sick and tired of being told by critics and fans alike that ordinary music buyers (which we all are anyhow) are mindless automatons whose tastes and opinions are worthless. Of course if a million people buy a record it doesn’t make that record good (certainly not) – what it does mean is that there must be something in that record to make so many people buy it and it’s interesting to speculate on what that something is. And presumably those people play the music and use it in their own lives just like you or I use Sonic Youth (or whatever!). 90% of attacks on chart-pop boil down to “But girls like it!” anyway. I’m not saying a 2 Unlimited fan’s life wouldn’t be enhanced by listening to the Smiths, I’m just saying a Morrissey fan’s life needs No Limits in it too.
So that’s ‘patronising’. As for ‘simplistic’: apart from the whole canon business, Freaky Trigger doesn’t have too much time for rock history as it’s currently understood, either the cyclical model (55-66-77-88-….) or the album-centric privileging of such undefinable shibboleths as ‘meaning’ or ‘substance’ or ‘art’ or for that matter ‘originality’ and ‘weirdness’. I’ve got nothing against meaning – it just strikes me that a rock history where Radiohead is meaningful but Dionne Warwicke or 2 Bad Mice somehow less so has got things too skewed to be useful.
At the very least we need an understanding that pop history (like the ‘proper’ kind) is in fact multiple histories, cycling and peaking independent of one another and also interlocking from time to time, too. The wild proliferation of genres is some unconscious recognition of this, I think.
4) That thinking about music is fun.
One of the problems with being a critic, especially one who likes pop music, is that the moment you try and start being clever someone will come along and call you an intellectual. Or that the moment you start talking about teen pop someone will come along and say you aren’t one. Pop criticism is still hobbled by a pernicious anti-intellectualism, best expressed in the old saw, “But pop/dance/rock is about having a good time!”. As if thinking isn’t about having a good time, and as if you can’t dance to clever music: there’s no difference in my book between an intellectual and a hedonist. That said, for now at least the kind of pop fan who needs a few Deleuze references to validate their taste will be disappointed by Freaky Trigger.
5) That there’s a point to music criticism.
Well, obviously. The point isn’t really to educate or write well (those are useful side effects if you can pull them off) – for me the point is first off to get people thinking about and listening to music in interesting ways, and secondly to fight some kind of rearguard action against the emergent middlebrow cosy consensus about what ‘good music’ is. And if you’d like to join me in my lonely war, you can always contribute.
6) What turns me on.
Finally, Freaky Trigger comes down to personal taste. The music I like came first and the theory later. The attentive reader might notice a fairly liberal use of the word ‘pop’ throughout the ‘zine, describing anything from The Backstreet Boys to Arnold Dreyblatt. This is partly because I like the word a lot more than ‘rock’, and partly because almost everything I listen does indeed have something in it that sounds ‘pop’ to me.
So what do I like? Listing individual records, even genres, would be a bit of a waste of time (that’s what the rest of Freaky Trigger is for!). So I’ll stick with qualities: melodrama, hooks, texture, bloody-mindedness, repetition, wit, good lyrics, good vocals, good titles, hysteria, groove, perversity, image. Most music I love will have at least some of those. That’s your lot. Enjoy!