Saturday, April 24, 2010

"The Black Angel's Death Song" by the Velvet Underground (1967)

Spin Magazine called it the most influential album ever. It was #13 on Rolling Stone's list of greatest albums. Alan Cross put it on top of his lst of classic alternative albums. Allmusic gives it five stars in five. Your aging hipster uncle, that sneering know-it-all who works at the local record store, and that pimply 'indie kid' at your high school all call it a perfect album.

There's no denying it, really: The Velvet Underground & Nico is one of the greatest albums ever. Don't even pretend to disagree; it's not up for debate. Fall in line! Praise this album. Don't bother to listen to it, though. Or if you do, just listen to the first half or so. In fact, listen to the first nine tracks. That'll do.

You see, the simple fact is that this classic album ends with two ear-bleedingly horrible tracks. Actually, 'European Son' is only very bad. But this one, which precedes it, is truly, truly annoying: Lou Reed babbling in his most hectoring of voices while John Cale tunelessly squeaks on that damned viola.

And that, to me, raises an important question: how can an album rank so high on so many lists if it contains a song as bad as this? Surely, one bad song doesn't detract from a 'good album'. But in the rarified air of critical adoration this album receives, surely a bad song matters. Let me put it this way: there is not a single song on Céline Dion's 30-million-selling, critially reviled Let's Talk About Love album as bad as 'The Black Angel's Death Song'. I would dare anyone who disagrees with me to find one.

It's not that I have something against experimentation. While I do feel that, largely, this album is at its best when it experiments with long-established song convention (my favourite songs on it all have verses and choruses, and perhaps even middle eights, and relatively classic chord sequences too), I can dig some of the moderately out-thre stuff too - say, 'All Tomorrow's Parties' or the adrenaline-rush 'Heroin'. There is definitely some great material on this album.

But I can't ride this train all the way to the end. I can't pretend it's a perfect album when it gets as deliberately annoying as this track, whose lyrics are, as far as I can tell, vaguely menacing semi-meaningful stream-of-consciousness talk about 'choosing'.

And it has, in place of a chorus or an instrumental solo, serving to break up the monopoly, someone going 'tchhhhh' really loudly into a microphone a few times. Wow. No wonder critics love this album so.

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Saturday, April 17, 2010

"Girls" by the Beastie Boys (1986)

There are bands who don't move forward or change their style or content in any way at all. There are career trajectories that follow logical steps forward. And then there are the Beastie Boys. Punk to frat-rap to radical groundbreaking hip-hop in just a few scant years is so impressive that the fact that they've gone nowhere ever since doesn't really even matter. Paul's Boutique remains one of the most truly jaw-dropping albums out there, an amazing thing where every five seconds provides a new sonic surprise. So it's even more of a surprise - one might say a shock - that that album immediately follows up something as lame and embarrassing as Licensed to Ill.

Time has not been kind to Licensed to Ill, for the very fact that it's a bad album not wirthy of kindness. To say something good in its favour, the rolling rock-and-roll beats are frequently quite good. The whiny, nasal rapping and childish lyrics of the three 'boys', however, I can say very little about.

At the moment, I don't have to. This song contains neither: neither big beats nor rapping. In their place, we get the dinkiest of Casio drumbeats and, be still my stomach, sung vocals. I'd like to discuss the crap lyrics, but I'd barely even need to. The lyrics could be the most profound of poetry, and this song, anchored by a deliberately cheesy video-game keyboard and a vocal bassline, would still suck.

So the fact that the 'where's my rhyming dictionary?' lyrics tell a boring story about sexual rejection before getting into a deliberately button-pushing sexist 'chorus' doesn't even matter much, because criticising them just inspires the frat-boy man-child 'defiance' that allows young white males of privilege to act as boorish as they want and pretend that it's in some way a challenge to authority, or the powers-that-be, or 'the system', or their parents who wouldn't let them stay out late or buy them a car, or whatever the hell it is that perpetuates this kind of behaviour.

That the Beastie Boys themselves are just as repelled by this kind of boorishness as I am in some way redeems them in my eyes (as does the fact that they made a great album after this). But they saw the light after raking in the big bucks parading on stage with giant dildos cranking out garbage like this and daring people to call them out as the whiny brats they were.

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Saturday, April 10, 2010

"Got My Mind Set on You" by George Harrison (1988)

The Beatles were a strange phenomenon: as a quartet, they spent a scant few years together but churned out enough great music to fill a conservatory. As four individuals? Well, the truth be told, the solo Fabs catalogues are by and large underwhelming. Most disappointing is the catalogue of John Lennon, which consists of a few amazing tracks, almost nothing truly horrible, and lots that are mediocre. The same could be said for George Harrison too, but it's less disappointing in his case, because expectations were lower. It might be true that George Harrison was the first one to break the Beatles mould, and the first one to have a solo hit (the truly impressive 'My Sweet Lord'), but he was also the first one to descend into a quagmire of humourless, samey-sounding tracks (this is a particular riddle of the solo Beatles: why four people who, as individuals, had diverged to such an extraordinary degree would each find their principal early- to mid-70s sonic template in the same source: 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps'. The Apple solo years are simply swimming in that basic glossy guitar sound, the same one the Threetles returned to for 'Free as a Bird' all those years later.)

By the late seventies, it was difficult to imagine yourself caring at all about George Harrison, except as a producer of movies featuring midgets and/or Pythons. By what I'll cruelly describe as a stroke of luck, the murder of his ex-bandmate gave him a jolt of relevance with the admittedly wonderful 'All Those Years Ago', but it was then back to business as usual. Until 1988, and his last major album released during his lifetime. This song illustrates two great truths - one: that there is no relationship whatsoever between a song's quality and its popularity, and two: that the year 1988 exhibited a particularly inverse relationship between quality and popularity. What else can explain this particulary horrid song making it all the way to number one on Billboard? A washed-up has-been singing a resurrected, and previously ignored, 'oldie' that appears to consist of nothing more than its title and the phrase 'to do it' repeated over and over... and over.. and over again. Plus that damned torture instrument of the nineteen eighties, the saxophone solo. Truly annoying, this song should have been an embarrassment that the record company rejected and refused to release (something that repeatedly happened to Harrison in the 1980s). Instead? Hello #1 and 'comeback'.

How? Why? Was no one in radio in the late eighties actually listening to songs before putting them on their playlists? How could a song this god-awful chart so high?

Oh, and two other questions inspired by watching the video: how could the man who, during 'Let it Be', pretty much defined 'good hair' rock such a plastic mop? And two, how could Alexis Denisof, Wesley from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, actually outgeek his Whedon roles in his youth?

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Saturday, April 3, 2010

"Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (the Angry American)" by Toby Keith (2002)

Everything that is wrong with conservatism, in a single package. I recognise that a lot of Americans felt a need to respond in some meaningful way to what happened on September 11. Some people expressed hurt, horror, fear... and, yes, defiance. A lot of people turned to the American flag as, I guess, a kind of comfort. September 11 shocked and devastated me too, as a non-American, just as it did most of the world. It was horrible. It should have been the dawning of a post-nationalist era.

Alas, 'twas not to be. What the world got was George W. Bush putting the sentiments expressed in this song into practice. This is macho belligerence of the ugliest sort, and it mocks the sympathy the world had for the United States by glorifying its insular word-view and proudly displaying its ignorant disregard for the rest of the world.

The key phrase of the song, the one that got the most press, is 'We'll put a boot in your ass – it's the American way'. While some people might claim this is a slightly tongue-in-cheek play-on-words threat against al-Qaeda, I doubt Toby Ketih saw it that way. I think Toby Keith really believes that global dominance and military displays of might are the American Way – the lifestyle he claims his father fought and was wounded for.

A perfectly generic country-rock acoustic/electric lighters-in-the-air stadium anthem, the music is completely irrelevant (excepting the curious bells that show up toward the end). It's all about the lyrics – grunted out over top in the ugliest manner possible. The video is live, as it ought to be, since the song is a jingoistic populist rabble-rouser. Keith sings surrounded by a million flags as the overwhelmingly-white audience pumps their fists in the air and cheers at the ugly taunts, such as “you'll be sorry that you messed with the U.S. of A.”, whipped into just enough of a frenzy to leave the auditorium, verbally attack a few foreigners and vote for their Republican candidate.

And the global image of the USA, the image that was decimated by eight years of George W. Bush, the one that shows America as a bully, as a sabre-rattling, unilateral stain on the face of global solidarity... the image of America not as a 'land of the free' but as a hindrance to world freedom... well, that's the image Keith should be showing alongside all those fluttering flags on the monitors behind him. Because that's what he's a part of. That's what he feeds into and perpetuates.

And I'm absolutely sure he doesn't care in the least.

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