“Skeleton Tree” by Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – Review

Skeleton Tree

Goddammit, I think I’ve fallen for the hype. I used to think it was lame and overrated, but after almost a year spent on-and-off listening to Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’s Skeleton Tree album, I think I may well like it by now. It doesn’t sound anything like my other Nick Cave albums, which may be why I took so long with it, but I pretty much guarantee that if this were not Nick Cave I’d have probably written it off a long time ago. I kept coming back to it intermittently and reaching the same conclusion: sad, slow, artsy, unbearable. So, so sad. Anyway, I had better albums to listen to (the Swans’ To Be Kind arrived in the same Amazon order).

Now that I listen back to it, I realize how foolish I was to write it off. The floating electronic textures that I dismissed at the outset are the best thing about the album — they give some harmonic intrigue to “Rings of Saturn” and imbue “Magneto” and “Distant Sky” with a subtle sadness. I still think that “Girl In Amber” is too sluggish for its own good, but it’s not especially offensive in the album’s context. It’s the only slight misstep I can find after ten months.

And boy, the great songs are really great. “Jesus Alone” was the reason why I decided to buy the CD in the first place — those textures I mentioned are present in full force, buzzing and zooming with science-fiction elegance. Most of the bass frequencies throughout the album are massively compressed, resulting in the huge staticky rumble one hears on tracks 1 and 4, and something that sounds like a guitar leaning against its amplifier combines with that bass, an acoustic piano, cymbal taps and a gentle string section to get the gorgeous drone that Nick Cave recites over. I enjoy the little siren noise that pervades the track too. (I will refrain from describing Cave’s new poetry, except to say that it completely ditches the “Biblical” affect he’s pursued for pretty much his entire career in favor of a compelling, associative free verse which suits the disorienting music terrifically.) The track was released on YouTube with an accompanying video, a clip from the film that came out with the album; in it Nick sits at a piano and speak-sings into a microphone while Warren Ellis conducts the string section and watches his collaborator from inside the mixing booth. It doesn’t add too much to the song, though it gives some indication of how much Ellis contributed to the album. I never thought people gave enough credit to the other Bad Seeds — Mick Harvey was always my favorite member of the group, maybe even more so than Nick Cave himself. God, he was a great arranger.

“Magneto” is wonderful — I adore the chorus, where he mutters “In love, in love” over and over with no regard for time at all. Oliver Powers wrote in the liner notes to that Static Disposal reissue that the most compelling kind of improvisation happens when the performer messes with the groove, yet “Magneto” has none; it doesn’t even have a beat. There are traces of strummed acoustic guitar, which fade in and out constantly, but these offer no time. Somehow they prod the shifting cadence of Cave’s voice to greater rhythmic insistence ; it’s as close to a rock epiphany as the album gets.

The music video of “I Need You”: Watching Cave, Ellis, Thomas Wydler and George Vjestica jam is a thing of beauty.

“Distant Sky” is not bad. Its impact is more narrative than musical — the story of the parents realizing that their responsibilities have increased, that they are no longer free or young, hits me where it hurts. And in the context of Arthur Cave’s death “They told us our gods would outlive us/But they lied”, sung in a cracked voice, is punishing.

“Skeleton Tree” is the best song on the album. Its lyrics are mostly imagistic but the music is viscerally emotional, with occasional mu Eb chords and a gentle consolation of a melody. Listen to how the structure shifts, as Nick and Warren sing the verse over the verse motif, then over the chorus; listen to how the mood of the line changes ever so slightly with each harmonic context. It took me thirty listens to discern it but the song is so beautiful I can’t blame myself. “Skeleton Tree”, with or without words, would be the ultimate funeral song — it automatically provokes the image of a group of people huddled, post-disaster, wrapped in ragged blankets as the ash falls through the air around them. This is the music of people left behind by tragedy, the ones who really suffer in the wake of death. And Nick and the Bad Seeds deserve the accolades of many for writing a song for them, in a world that makes cold idols of the dead.

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Life>Music: What Matters

The prevailing instinct among writers who sample and contemplate works of “art” is to describe what the work makes them feel. This is true of everyone from my English teacher, an enthusiastic pusher of the works of Flannery O’Conner, to Edgar Wright, director of the tremendously indulgent Baby Driver, which, despite its excellent craft and hilarious portrayal of how record collectors deal with their dads’ friends telling them about how much they loved Queen back in the day, contains a soundtrack that probably means much more to Wright himself than anybody watching the movie. The cultural commentator doesn’t consider the listener’s pleasure, what they might gather for themselves from a list of favorite albums or a description of a good book, because the point is not to make recommendations — it’s to vicariously relive the commentator’s love of an object. It’s impolite to jerk off in public; why would I consider it appropriate to wallow in affinity for civilization’s flotsam in full view of people who just want to know if Miles Davis’s electric period is worth examining? Even commiserations between me and my guitar teacher, a fellow fan of Discipline and Birds of Fire, felt like circle jerks, an illegitimate and dangerous indulgence — there was no telling when our tastes would diverge and suddenly we might turn violently on one another depending on whether we held the first or the fourth Van Halen album in higher regard.

This makes a handy supplement to my essay on “How to Be a Good DJ” from a couple weeks ago. Thus I advise you critics out there, budding or fledged, to write things up carefully. Avoid self-absorption. Christgau, regardless of his bullying proclivities and professorial distance, is good at this — even on “A” and “A+” reviews he doesn’t list anything as “the greatest”. Instead he describes traits in a record that people might conceivably find attractive, and what a record’s uses are. This is an effective approach because while I as a fan of Exile on Main Street and Tribute to Jack Johnson find such reviews a little dry, somebody new to these albums would be well-equipped to form their own impressions. The grades, ironically, are the only subjective thing about his reviews. (Compare this with Lester Bangs’ frequent and rather tiresome awe, with which he gives away any appeal the Stooges, the Velvet Underground, Iannis Xenakis and the Fugs might have, and thus destroys them with hype. Or maybe, like I suspect, there isn’t much to them anyway.) He has learned, or always understood vaguely, that criticism and evaluation are not about what he thinks, but what other people might think, and he is careful not to color their perceptions too strongly before they even get to listen to the damn thing.

Of course this involves subscribing to the idea that other people’s own record reviews are important, maybe even as valid as mine. This is a hard step for many music people, including me; we have to let go of the notion that the music itself is all-important because of how closely we hold it to our hearts. This is somewhat understandable because of music’s emotional resonance — how can these heartless bastards, you may wonder, not even like Elizabeth Cotten’s songs? Why does her album only have 26,000 views? Why do these people hate me? What is eminently clear, though, is that this kind of clinging is immensely off-putting to people who don’t share exactly one’s own reaction. I am alienated everywhere by these comments section people, who post paragraphs (not that there’s anything inherently wrong with posting paragraphs; I rarely write less online 🙂 about the artistry of King Crimson under the “Frame by Frame” video, or who muse solipsistically that Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” helped them thru a rough pacth in theyre lifes; I don’t want your fucking stories, any more than you want mine. I know I tell stories a lot because I didn’t know any better before eleven p.m. on a Sunday night when my English assignment is close to due; bludgeon me with my mistakes all you want. I resolve not to care. I encourage you music people out there to do the same; I have always shrunk from admitting my mistakes because I feared that people would use the implied flip-floppery to censure me. This was nonsense because personally I had always been willing to forgive people who came around to the right attitude, provided they had not killed anyone with their previous hard-headedness, yet I still stick to unpopular positions because I don’t want to be seen as weak or intimidatable. I still feel this fear. But maybe by starting with something as relatively harmless as record collecting I can let go of rabid contrarianism I adopt for the sake of my “dignity” (if I let people back me into a corner, predetermine my behavior and stances, over something I did wrong then I have no dignity to begin with) and win some real friends, and maybe even converts to Tribute to Jack Johnson, the greatest album ever ma — fuck, I’m sorry, I almost did it again. See, that was a joke. Means I’m on the road to recovery, guys. I advise mindfulness, which you may think is a bourgeois new-age joke but which I assure you is highly useful, if you find yourself under the stress that comes from putting the music ahead of the people in your lives. Don’t be “respectful” of all “opinions”, as many a finger-wagging wuss has tremulously advised someone with something to say; just have perspective. Maybe Romantic Warrior isn’t actually the worst album in the history of mankind; maybe there is no such thing as the worst album.  Maybe I just don’t like the music.

Nah, it fucking sucks. And I would ask immediately that the person in the passenger seat turn off the radio if “The Sorceror” came on. But it isn’t a matter of life and death. I have to learn this too — that reordering your priorities doesn’t make anything non-survival-related that you value less important. I can love my sister and still think the Imagine Dragons are untouchable demon spawn. Radioactive indeed. I may not care much for her stories and the deep emotional resonance that songs like “Believer”, “Radioactive”, “Polaroid”, “Smoke + Mirrors” and that fucking irritating song that goes “Don’t tell me that I’m wrong/I’ve walked that road before/Left you on your own” seem to hold for her, but I am there for her regardless in tough moments. Music may dominate my waking thoughts, but I am determined to value my people, and part of that is sparing them from stories about how my brother was always blasting Sheer Heart Attack.

Music lovers — keep searching. But be kind to your audience. They may come to be your friends.

“Adopted Highway” by the Dave King Trucking Company – Review

Dave King Adopted Highway

I’m not gonna lie — I made fun of these guys at the show. Initially I got the impression that they played the kind of horrifying wankistry endorsed by those genuinely evil jazz people who take pleasure in (urp) Blue Train and the like. So they had a guitarist. So fucking what. I heard one tune I enjoyed, which they told me after the show was titled “I Will Live Next to the Wrecking Yard” (laughably bad song titles are a unifying theme in the Dave King Trucking Company’s discography); it was on their Adopted Highway LP, an actual record, which they sold to me below the quoted price (twenty instead of twenty-five, for which I must give them credit) and I took it home. I put the favored song on briefly as I entered my room for the evening and it sounded even more neutered and tuneless than it had during the show. I sighed and went to bed. Maybe the record would turn into a good investment, as in asset to be liquefied at an opportune time.

I listened to it again on Wednesday and I realized that the guitarist overtly appropriates the hilarious, anti-melodic histrionics of Greg Ginn, one of the least talented and most consequently overhyped slingers of a six-stringer I’ve ever come across. Listen to My War and you will understand. I was surprised, though, that a player in a “jazz” band like the Trucking Company would tolerate goofery like the feedback solo in “This Is a Non-Lecture”, and I listened some more.

As I did I noticed some other attractive elements. The album has excellent sound and was recorded to analog tape, a fact of which I was surprised they made so little hay. Normally tape devotees promote the shit out of their militant anti-digitalism. I also took especial notice of the drumming on “Ice Princess” (bitchin’) and the compositional quality of most of the other songs by Dave King himself. For jazz this is melodic stuff, bearing little resemblance to the oft-racket of the concert (which may have had something to do with the cold acoustics of the chapel where it took place). According to the record label Dave King’s goal is to meld “American roots music and the avant-garde”; if by this he means introducing tunes into jazz, I’m all for it. I encourage you all to listen to this Trucking Company album — and if they come to your town, vote with your buck and support them a little. These guys deserve it, even if they do play jazz.

How To Be Better DJ’s (Part 1?)

“…there must be some semblance of order to stay alive. That’s why FM underground freeform radio died. Because you can’t turn seven crazy freaky guys loose on the air to do whatever they want to do whenever they want to do it, play the same cut seventeen times or play some obtuse album, ’cause who cares?”

– Lester Bangs, “Screwing the System with Dick Clark”

I am going to begin an apprentice disc-jockeyship with KMUZ in a few weeks. It’s a small volunteer-driven community radio station based in Salem, OR and it services the Greater Willamette Valley with all manner of programming — as I look at their weekly schedule I see “Antiquity Radio”, music from the first half of the twentieth century, on Sunday afternoons; “Russian Rock Radio” at 6am Saturdays and 6pm Sundays, probably circling the scheduled Masses at some local Greek Orthodox church; and Arlene’s “Mundo Mojo”, worldbeat to wait for work to end to. It hosts a range of shows, that’s for sure, and I bit when they showed up at the Willamette University club fair a few weeks ago. I filled out the application online and a few days later director Melanie Zermer emailed me back. “Since 15 [students] expressed interest, and we do not have many open slots to offer, I would like you to consider how you can work together to have a show,” she generously offered. I felt glad about that — I mean, I’m not Elvis. I can share a bill. It would make things interesting, really, to work with other people on this radio stuff. I would have a presence (or two or three) to bounce off of on the hot mic, instead of just mumbling the title of the song and the station name and what was going to play next.

The more I’ve thought about it, though, the less jazzed I am about the whole radio thing and the more apprehensions arise. I feel as though I’m about to cut into the napalmed turkey from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. I really would like to bring my favorite music to a wider audience, and maybe I could work with these other DJ’s and learn more about the stuff they listen to. But ultimately I worry that I’m going to hit the same brick wall I hit in all the record shops and in all the discussions I ever end up having about the music I love to listen to. I speak, of course, of the sheer insularity of the music-appreciation community.

It’s hazardous anyways to try and build relationships based on something as subjective as music. Like they say, there’s no accounting for taste (though occasionally I can tell things about people from the kinds of music they concentrate on), and when you get as deep into the stuff as I have you will find, like Richard Rodriguez did when he reached the top academic levels of the study of British literature, that you have reached an ivory tower indeed. Past a certain point the collection and appreciation of certain musics reach a sort of cultism, where otherwise reasonable people exhibit the kind of devotion Gollum reserves for the One Ring. Words like “loner” and “dark (insert vague genre header)” and “chillout” and “private press” and “proto-punk”, wherever they arise, become incantations, words of power that endow certain records with obscene money value. The pursuit of records has never been a rational quest — if these songs could be had for decent prices and at high fidelity as digital files, and if all music listeners were rational, then easily scratched, unstoreable, usually warped, weak-bassed long-playing records would have been abandoned years ago as the impractical relics that they ought to be. Yet I carry these same records on my shelf and I constantly lust after more. (I have a CD collection too, which fills a seven-inch-thick disc sleeve. I think it must top two hundred and fifty albums at this point.) I do this in the age of digital music and Spotify because what physical music media have is talismanic value, which counts for more than the supposedly superior vinyl sound quality or the “aesthetic” experience of listening to it could ever could hope to in the competition between records and modern technology. George Orwell once said that to “Deliberately to revert to primitive methods, to use archaic tools, to put silly difficulties in your own way, [is] a piece of dilettantism, of pretty-pretty arty and craftiness”; that, it seems, is exactly what record collectors are after. I confess that I often go through my own discography, smiling beatifically and feeling utterly at peace as I flick through records and think of the times I’ve listened to them and (more often than not) of their monetary worth and the veritable steals I’ve gotten on the things. I really hate the Hampton Grease Band, but I keep Music to Eat in my stacks because it has a certain cachet — an I-found-it value. The only conceivable reason for this behavior, which I confess I have identified as hoarding in people with other obsessions, is because these albums are spiritual objects — there is something more to them, in my mind, than just the music in the grooves. They feel special.

And I fear that the peculiar homogeneity of music collectors’ tastes will afflict all these other prospective DJ’s, as they seem to afflict me. My nightmares currently consist of me walking up to the orientation in October, pulling open the door and entering the room to discover as my eyes adjust from the bright light out of doors that the other prospective DJ’s are all just me. Most have shorter hair, and a few are bespectacled or have freckles or wear the Soundgarden T-shirt I wear to concerts; but they are totally generic in appearance, in attitude, in music preference, in timbre of speaking voice for chrissakes. And then I come to a horrible, probably flawed conclusion that my record collecting is nothing but a symptom, a distractive hobby that grew out of the pubescent horror show I lived in for between the ages of eight and thirteen, and the worst thing of all is that nobody will get it. It will forever remain a niche thingy like every other feature of my refined taste in comedy and movies and art and religion and music, something only poor little rich kids have ever been able to indulge in — and somebody, sooner or later, will use it against me, and call me out as a poseur and force me to swallow my pride and listen to nothing but Aerosmith and Pink Floyd and Taylor Swift and if I ever poke my sorry presumptuous head above that bourgeois tedium again I will be called out as a snob and wilt like a pressed adolescent flower. I want to believe that I am wrong, that there is more to the music I love than my background and what has been done to me, but either way the college-age DJ’s whose work I have sampled exhibit a crippling ingrowth. That is what I hate about the insularity of the music community: because of its relentless push for the Velvet Underground and Slint and Mudhoney, etc. I can’t bear to listen to most independent radio anymore. (KPIG, which broadcasts from San Luis Obispo, CA, is an astounding exception.) Most of the programmers I have heard are as self-absorbed as the worst sort of record hobbits, crafting playlists based on whatever they feel like listening to that day and sometimes they toss in a little death metal cuz they think it might throw the chillbient techno into sharper relief (only it doesn’t, it just makes them look like fucking assholes). Independent radio is diseased, and that sickness is solipsism — most of the time we seem unable to make people understand why they should broaden their tastes.

Of course, regular radio is even worse (fight the Clear Channel monopoly!), but every time I try to connect with my people, these supposed purveyors of weird and wonderful music beyond the mainstream, I feel like I’m reading my fellow atheists’ polemics against “the Christians” again. They seem to have lost the whole meaning of music exploration, which is that there is always a superior alternative to the garbage that some horrific music conglomerate is pushing on the population. One size doesn’t fit all. You have to seek out the good stuff yourself, which takes time and cultivation and a lot of luck; but you will, somehow, find music that speaks to you. There are dangerous rabbit holes, as I noted above; the farther you retreat into some corners (French/British progressive rock, ginuwine Brazilian bossa nova, old blues 78’s, 1960’s California folk, etc.) the fewer sensible people you end up meeting. But if you do it right your music journey will lead you to a state of astonishing grace, in which you finally realize that, objectively, there is no right or wrong music to listen to. Everyone will have their own favorite songs and listen to what they find viscerally pleasing, whether they were introduced to it by a friend or by the Internet or by the radio; there is not a damn thing you can do to change it, and they can’t do anything to make you enjoy their stuff. Hopefully you will overlap at some point, but this music thing is irresoluble and should just be left alone if you guys are diametrically opposed. Maybe play some Super Smash Bros. or something.

Of course, my special brand of beatific existentialist libertarianism lasts only as long as I can avoid the evangelical mob screaming at me outside that one Nine Inch Nails show (true story). When a dude in my class today played Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again” for a “road song” assignment I listened with studied patience and my fists balled up a little underneath the desk when he said he thought it was very deep and had “a lot of meaning for [him] personally.” This is what I mean when I say that there can sometimes be accounting for taste. I am no fool. I may be only eighteen, but I have thought a great deal about things that matter to me like my music and literature, and if there’s one thing in this world that deserves no sympathy whatsoever it’s the clichĂ© — the trite repetition of whatever’s convenient, what I called the “blunt chisel of aphorism” in a poem a few weeks ago for Creative Writing. I am frustrated by the lack of imagination, the quality of feeling one’s way through life that is implied by the appropriation of somebody else’s words into which you slot a mangled bastardization of your beautiful and unique and new experience. You brutalize your life by describing it only with clichĂ©s. (“Why do you intellectualize everything?” somebody once asked Henry Flynt. He replied, “Because hedonism will get you nowhere.”) I know that words have profound and impassable limits, that they can be cheap in the face of the most dramatic events in our lives. But you people don’t have to prove me right.* I can respect the tastes of a person who’s gone out and sampled the world’s music, at least a little. I once knew an impressive guy at my high school, who had an iPod full of songs I had never heard of, all by reggae or hip-hop artists from around the globe — Iran, Jamaica, Indonesia. I’m not big on either one but I gave him kudos. He had done some digging and discovered real connections with some interesting music in spite of itself; I let him be. He was not bound by commercial radio, even if I didn’t like his music. He seemed to think outside the box, and I could learn something from his library if I ever wanted to. I think that’s what I enjoy most of all: trading music suggestions with people and growing through others’ collections. Rarely do I get those chances in record stores or with friends.

And even in my righteous fury I can concede that clichĂ©s have vitality in the right hands — Dock Boggs sings murder ballads and drinking songs, and John Lee Hooker and Lightnin’ Hopkins and hell, maybe even the Rolling Stones cover the old blues tropes like they’re going out of style (which they kind of are). But they work in grand and noble traditions, and all these guys are great formalists. And these words have the weight of lived lifetimes behind them (though I must point out that the Stones really don’t, and sometimes the clichĂ©s overtake them — the “car don’t start” line from “Loving Cup” is particularly irritating.) But the profusion of garbage music that has emanated from hit factories and literally evil record companies since about the mid-Seventies is just too much. Somewhere in the backs of their minds the people who listen to this stuff must feel dimly that a crucial element is missing. And I retreat from its corruptions because of this lack of profundity, which is the big hallmark of popular music and really always has been. By “profound” I don’t mean a group has a grand social statement to make; plenty of foolish musicians did that in the late Sixties and their records were bought by millions of people, but they still weren’t really profound. What I mean is that I like music to “speak” to me, if I’ll permit myself one clichĂ©; I want it to click somehow, with an identifiable lyric or a kickass groove or a killer improvisation or any combination of those things. Flipper was good at combining those, now that I think about it. The problem is that what makes that vital electric connection with one person means jack shit to another a lot of the time; of course, that’s much of what makes music interesting. So often we end up with an unlistenable popular Muzak in the restaurants and clubs of the world and overcompensate by creating homogeneous acolytic communities of the One True Church of the Sonic Youth. If Whitesnake is a perfect symbol of the concentrated deactivation of the cortex necessary to enjoy most popular music, the affected cool and “postmodern” smegma of the Sonic Youth stand in my mind for the deliberate adoption of the opposite stance, which we all know is the most insidious way that any enemy can control you. It goes without saying that I am not a Whitesnake guy. What I constantly have to explain to myself and to everyone who raises an eyebrow at my apparent snobbery is that I also do not like the Sonic Youth. (Not anymore, at least. When I was a junior cloistered “music for music’s sake” has its moments. 🙂

And with context established we circle back to the original question: how do we avoid total self-absorption in that very personal quest to break the good and great music out of its isolation chamber? Are we even meant to? I believe that yes, it is possible; after all, the reggae dude did it. He didn’t apply himself to seeking out super weird stuff like I did in high school; he just followed his nose. It’s a way of finding music that could leave a lot of people open to the influence of helpful radio, and perhaps I will reach this audience from my lair at KMUZ. And so, with this in mind, I write us DJ’s a credo to follow in all programming decisions.

  • Repeat after me.
  • We, the independent disc jockeys, do solemnly pledge:
  • To guide our listeners gently, so as not to scare them;
  • To avoid solipsism at any cost;
  • And to remember, above all, to build a community,
  • In both the listening sense, and the concrete sense.
  • May my fellow DJ’s catch me should I stumble in this righteous path.
  • Indeed.**

Hopefully I can bring this philosophy to bear when I go to work at KMUZ. I want to bring more people into the community of music lovers, and I suspect that we at the station are not going to do that with the traditional free-form shows; we have to change things up a little, make our music choices a little less oblique and non-sequitur than typical independent radio stations, and introduce some conceptual continuity and a little familiarity into our programs to make our listeners feel somewhat at home in listening to new musics. We must also have on-air personality, instead of simply describing the songs in between; we have to be interesting DJ’s. I hope that the “community” nature of the radio station will help to provide some color from other areas of town, so that the admitted monotony of “college” rock taste doesn’t oppress the ear of the listener.

Of course it’s possible that we’ve reached the saturation point, and so such ideas may not work. Perhaps enough people have been turned off by the navel-gazing of non-corporate radio and the exhausting compressed uniformity of the “mainstream” that they have retreated entirely into their digital music libraries. I find it difficult to blame them (after all, I’ve done basically the same thing). All we can do is try our best to raise their awareness of the good stuff, and hope they listen in; another old existentialist idea, but it’s the best shot we’ve got. This is a lot of shit to think about before I’ve even started the job, but I think this will help me to do my best at KMUZ. Maybe I will write more on the topic once I have started. “Humanists…serve as best they can the highest abstraction of which they have some understanding, which is their community”, said Kurt Vonnegut. DJ’s and music lovers, I call upon you: let’s serve our people.

Epilogue: As some of you might have guessed, I was reading Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung today and I finally got through the relentless nihilism phase to Lester Bangs’ essays on the death of Peter Laughner and “The White Noise Supremacists”, and I am elated and impressed. The exuberance of my article would not have been conceivable without Lester’s help today, and today I thank his memory for that little bit of inspiration.

*I’m probably gonna laugh when I read this in my old age, but all philosophy has to start somewhere. Why not be combative?

**We have to end it somehow, and better a nondenominational “indeed” than “amen.”

“…And Justice for All” by Metallica – Review

Justice for all

I like my metal sharp and brutally precise, its edges gleaming with malice. The aesthetics of the album art are often a good indication — Heartwork, for one, has a cover that emphasizes a symmetrical chrome-plated sculpture, and it contains some of the best metal composition I ever have heard. So it is with the bleached grays and whites of …And Justice for All, which more or less describe the timbre of the music within. Bands of the Celtic Frost and Black Sabbath school of metal, with their unbearable sloppiness and clichĂ©d transitions from slow to fast to 3/4 to slow bit again to brief decent motif to shit, all the while relying on stale elementary riffs, bore and exhaust me no matter how many times I listen to them. Give me surgery-metal instead.

This is my favorite of the “Big Three” Metallica albums. For a long time it was Ride the Lightning, and with good reason; I mean, you listen to “Ride the Lightning” and “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and “Creeping [Fucking] Death” and try to avoid throwing yourself around the room like a damn maniac. But ultimately it didn’t quite have the super-rehearsed quality of the next two albums, and the mix was still too much in thrall to the emerging tropes of thrash-metal production (imagine that a given album was recorded in a grimy wind-tunnel with little to no bass and you have a decent approximation) to really kick all the ass it was capable of. And Master of Puppets had several good songs but never was really more than the sum of its parts, though the title track fuckin’ kills most of Metallica’s other songs.

For one thing, Justice stands apart from these other two by virtue of its weirdness. If you ever have heard a metal album with a similar sound, please let me know. I don’t think I have, which isn’t saying much, but I still don’t believe that anything quite sounds like it. It famously lacks almost any audible bass guitar, the drums were apparently recorded with several key microphones turned off (without the producer’s knowledge) and the guitars have abandoned the ear-ripping treble of the last few albums for a mid-range assault that makes for fascinatingly difficult headphone listening. It is the exact inverse of listening to the Birthday Party’s Junkyard, in that Justice‘s middle and some lower ranges are emphasized at the expense of the bottom and top ends. From the band’s interview history it seems impossible to determine whether they arrived at the final mix intentionally or accidentally, which is probably the way they want it (though I suspect that it was the result of a series of accidents and they decided to keep it because it sounded cool). Much like Junkyard, too, the result is almost unlistenable except to fascinated fans like me — no wonder a lot of people hate it.

The quality of the playing is the other thing I notice has improved between Ride the Lightning and this album. Where the band was just a little bit sloppy in their early work, despite the speed and rigor their compositions begged for, they have tightened up to an almost mechanical degree for Justice, with Lars Ulrich pulling off a series of previously unimaginably complex fills and the guitars (particularly Kirk Hammett’s lead) hitting and muting notes with newfound precision. Combined with the uncomfortable mix this new attack seems to cut, scalpelesque, into the listener’s ears. I would probably find it irritating if it weren’t so damn cool.

If we want to calculate the percentage of awesome by time, we arrive at the conclusion that if the album is ~65.23 minutes long, then we can divide the runtime of the only truly lame track, “Blackened” (6.66min), by the total length of the album to get 10.2% certified lameness. The high quality of certain tracks would also definitely set the kickass quotient well above ninety percent, given that the album contains compositions on the order of “Dyers Eve”, “Shortest Straw”, “Eye of the Beholder”, “And Justice for All”, “One” and “To Live Is To Die”. It’s only a rough estimate, but taking the numerical, scientifically verified badassitude (we are careful to use only scientific terms in our laboratory here) of every above-average track into account and also removing one percent of the greatness for some of the less brilliant passages in “The Frayed Ends of Sanity”, such as starting it with the Winkies chant and moving the riff up by half-steps like untutored Black Flag-types novice morons, we still get a godhead value of about Ninety-Four Percent Awesomeness, which stretched over sixty-five minutes is a hell of an accomplishment.*

I know it’s a clichĂ© approaching the critical mass of Satanic messages, but I have given up nearly an hour of time that I could have spent writing my brief essay on the First Person Point of View and Unreliable Narrator that is due for my Creative Writing class tomorrow morning at nine a.m. I am mystified by people who grin briefly and throw a hand in the air in mock despair, as if throwing the assignment over their shoulders into the garbage, when they announce that they’re procrastinating, amirite. I feel very strongly about it because I suspect deep down that it’s not funny. When my fellow students are unable to finish their fucking homework like me and they end up typing until two in the morning (where do these people get their study habits?) about the decline of the British Empire, I don’t think it’s funny. It’s a sad and viciously self-consuming behavioral cycle and needs an affirmative solution, not a fucking giggle with friends. I don’t know why I feel so fundamentally irritated when people casually neglect their sleep and laugh it off; maybe I should ask the counselor about it. Oh well. I don’t want to be angry when other people are wrong about their basic shit, but perhaps there is a good reason I’m not able to perceive right now. In the meantime, …And Justice for All will soothe me to sleep.

*Since we have no other objective way of determining the greatness of a given record, we must always recourse to the most scientific methods possible. Remember, now — there are no opinions here.

“Speak No Evil” by Wayne Shorter – Review

Speak No Evil

I don’t normally enjoy jazz very much. I have a soft spot for its orphaned fusion children — the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Miles’ rock and funk albums, the Tony Williams Lifetime — but at best I find the familiar jazz “classics” lukewarm. Which is why I’m surprised by Speak No Evil, the first one that really sticks with me.

Wayne Shorter has a gift for composing memorable themes based on the floaty extended chords of modern jazz. Most of these songs stick in my head as ferociously as the simpler rock and pop songs that I usually enjoy; “Witch Hunt”, my initial favorite, sounds almost simplistic now next to the wow-inducing langorous beauty of tracks like “Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum”, “Speak No Evil” and “Dance Cadaverous”. I pay little attention to jazz solos, and most of the time I can forget Speak No Evil‘s improvisations; but I have taken notice of several spontaneous moments from this album, particularly when Shorter or Herbie Hancock are playing. Like most jazzers they stumble around for a few minutes before uncovering an interesting lick; their licks are different, though, because unlike most on-the-spot ideas they have a rare memorable quality. Only a few other jazz dudes can craft improvisations for the pleasure center, in my experience: Eric Dolphy, McCoy Tyner, Ornette Coleman all come to mind. (The fact that these people all play horns or other unamplified jazz instruments probably doesn’t help.) The fact that two of these interesting players were present at the same session makes this a more rewarding jazz album than the average, which is a win in my rock-plebeian book.

So I congratulate you, Wayne Shorter: you can write a jazz album that holds my attention like few others. Perhaps someday I will give your other Blue Note records a try.

“Double Nickels on the Dime” by the Minutemen – Review

 

Double Nickels.jpg

I would like to call it a heady triumph of fusion and experimentation, a great blow struck for all creative musicians. I would like to say it enchants me all the way through and simultaneously challenges the brain while blasting forward with rockin’ propulsion and blistering leftist rants. And truly, it does all of these things. But only at various points in its eighty-odd minutes.

I wonder who thought it was a good idea for the Minutemen, whose name describes their work more or less exactly (only eleven of the forty-five original tracks exceed 1:59), to fill a pair of forty-minute discs with songs. Apparently it had something to dĂĽ with the Huskers (ha ha. i am funny) but I don’t care. It was a just plain bad idea to make a double album of tightly structured punk songs. The result is wildly uneven and makes for a hair-tearing denunciation, as I am forced to rip on an album that contains songs on the order of “Vietnam”, “Corona”, “No Exchange”, “One Reporter’s Opinion”, “Storm In My House” and “Maybe Partying Will Help”. May God deal with me, be it ever so severely, if I fail to make clear how incredible parts of it are.

The first side, for instance, is the best by far. Thirteen pieces encompass uninterrupted rock brilliance: slamming, funky, speedy, complex in that tasty jazzy way, and above all fun. Driving music for the ages. Legend has it that guitarist D. Boon got to pick all the songs for this side, and it is abundantly clear that he had the best ear in the band (and he produced the only good “solo” track). Starts great, ends fantastically and rides high in the middle. If I were in charge of editing the album the entire side would stay.

Side Mike (after the bassist, of course) is more obstinately goofy, alternating between sort of interesting dissonant puzzles (“Toadies”, “God Bows to Math”), Creedence choogle (“The Big Foist”, “Michael Jackson”) and wordy quiet songs (“Retreat”, “Maybe Partying Will Help”). Mike gets a lot of credit for being the band’s lyricist and one of the best bassists in punk and probably in rock as well; I submit that he should have probably stayed there more often — he composed the majority of the second side by himself, pausing only to throw us Boon’s “Corona” as a tuneful bone. These are mostly good songs, but they are only sometimes as good as the first quarter of the record.

The third side begins with a free-improvisation piece that verily necessitates the invention of the term “avant-garbage”. I will not speak its name.

Its other songs are of generally high quality, and only the first unmentionable track is less than awesome. In conclusion, George Hurley is the only Minuteman who should never be allowed to say “guys, I have an idea” during rehearsal. (just kidding, he’s probably a very nice man in person)

Side four is where they just threw a bunch of unwanted songs that had to fill out the album. Apparently they didn’t know that you can have three-sided double-record sets. Some of these are very good, like “Storm In My House” and “Little Man With a Gun In His Hand” and the covers; most of the others are pretty negligible. Still kind of fun, I guess.

If I were to edit the album I would trim it down to one disc, with the following track listing. These numbers refer to the original running order.

1-14, 16, 17, 19, 20, 22, 23, 25, 27, 31-35, 37, 39, 41-43

Time: 57:25

Longer records have been put onto one disc before. These tracks would comprise perhaps the single best punk album ever pressed, and the lesser cost of manufacturing one disc per album might induce the group to make more of them. Call it “Single Nickels” or something clever and people will eat it up. We should only be so lucky that the Minutemen are around in the first place to give us such a fine album to work with.

I submit a challenge thus to you, the readership: create your own tracklisting, with or without all the songs, that would turn Double Nickels on the Dime into the greatest single record of all time. Leave it in the comments and I’ll select a winner.