With respect to Socrates, my unexamined life is not worth living. The front room is the face we show everyone but we hide our true self in the back room.
Have you looked at your music collection lately? Holding onto music that you haven’t listened to in more than 5 years? Time to chuck it. We change. Our ears change. Our music taste shrinks. It doesn’t necessarily mean our music taste gets better.
I do not know what to expect from my music collection. I couldn’t wait to hear Fumbling Towards Ecstasy again. A few decent songs but not enough to sustain the whole album. I loved Sarah M. What happened? My ears changed. Age made me impatient. Life deemed too short to suffer the fifteen minutes of clunkers rattling around on the album.
I was surprised I still liked Caroline Lavelle’s Spirit all the way through. Though in retrospect, I can see why it held sway over Sarah MacLachlan’s dated album. Though Pierre Marchand, the mainstay producer of MacLachlan’s albums, knew what to do with her raw trill and how to surround it, some songs just felt flat. This may also been the case of several hit songs from the album leaving less than wonderful songs wanting in its wake.
Not so with Lavelle’s album, just one hit song “Moorlough Shore” best known as the theme song for TV’s short-lived and underrated EZ Streets. Without the burden of signature songs, producer William Orbit’s dark mood cast over the musical landscape, part of the new wave called electronic, melding seamless with the sweeping ethereal voice of Lavelle. (He had some success briefly transforming Madonna into a better singer, producing her Ray of Light album as well as creating the chilly, somber theme music for TV’s short-lived and underrated Wonderland.) Every song feels fresh and inviting even almost 15 years later.
And that’s the difference. I have a lot of music and can afford to be choosy, selecting albums that are strong all the way through. Ron Sexsmith’s Blue Boy immediately comes to mind. Produced by Steve Earle, while making his own album, this rushed, thrown together quickly masterpiece finally had the right sound for Sexsmith’s quiet, reedy voice. Earlier Sexsmith efforts by producer Mitchell “I like hitting you over the head with constant noise” Froom did not mix well so it was amazing when Earle-Sexsmith got the balance right. And this side-project- let’s-see- what-happens-venture also worked in film when Dustin Hoffman and Barry Levinson were delayed while making the big-budget mess called Sphere and were able to knock out a little classic called Wag the Dog during its hiatus.
A typical album stands on the strength of one song’s ending and the following song’s beginning. We are ready to skip if it doesn’t feel right, and if enough feel wrong, change the album. Ones that have consistently made it through my keen-eared gauntlet include: Lush’s Lovelife, Melody Gardot’s My One and Only Thrill, Old 97’s Fight Songs, the first two Portishead albums, Los Straitjackets’ Supersonic Guitars in 3-D, Macy Gray’s On How Life Is, Tool’s Undertow, A Fine Frenzy’s One Cell in the Sea, The Delevantes’ Postcards Along the Way, Meshell Ndegeocello’s Plantation Lullabies, Air’s Talkie Walkie, Ben Folds Five’s The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, Living Color’s Vivid, Morcheeba’s Big Calm, Norah Jones’ Little Broken Hearts…
Other all the way gems: Older music, say from the 60’s and 70’s, effortlessly became classics, sounding like they were recorded in one day, as one completed thought. Cream’s Disraeli Gears, Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush and Harvest, Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow, The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street, Dusty Springfield’s Dusty in Memphis, Richie Havens’ Mixed Bag, Steely Dan’s Aja, The Band’s eponymous album, Grateful Dead’s American Beauty…
Concept albums are not listed above given the contrived packaging therein. They were popular in the 70’s, possibly the idea of drugs allowing you see not one song but the whole universe. Listening was an experience. Pink Floyd became popular off that notion. Some concept albums had a message (Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On) liked to tell a story (Millie Jackson’s Caught Up/Still Caught Up) or explored alter egos (David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust). I thought Floyd and these three albums showed real imagination and bravery.
Rap and hip-hop bands in the 90’s led the resurgent charge of the concept album with the harsh and undeniably raw NWA’s efil4zaggin’ and Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) and Nas’ Illmatic, still staying on my radar twenty years later alongside modern classics Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Jay Electronica’s Acts I and II, Michael Franti and Spearhead’s Stay Human, Janelle Monae’s The ArchAndroid, and Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D City. Word pictures illuminate these furiously creative efforts rewarding you for taking that journey. Special nod goes to Gorillaz as a successful concept band of mostly cartoon characters.
Just as there can be no other Pink Floyd awash hopeless imitations, Radiohead remains peerless (Coldplay attempted with Parachutes and wisely found their own way and their own voice eventually.) Since The Bends Thom and Jonny have been turning out anti-commercial songs, forcing us to listen to the whole story. OK Computer (possibly the best album of the 1990’s), Kid A, and Amnesiac especially challenge casual listening and memory music. Simple narrative never their speed, the deafening solitude of their compositions capture our ears though mostly defy comprehension. The cinematic counterpart would be David Lynch’s Mulholland Falls so tested in one long fluid motion cannot be rewound or fast-forwarded. Completeness takes time and deserves attention even if Lynch’s effort eventually succumbs to a feeling it is only a pretentious puzzle without a solution. Maybe a better comparison would be Christopher Nolan’s Memento which also conspires to be that infuriating puzzle without the bloated running time or too-clever pretense. Like Radiohead, Nolan’s film and subsequent ones require your attention.
I deliberately left jazz and foreign music off this list as they often set the mood for other activities or cannot be slowed by my attempts to sing to them. There is a presentness or lack of memory driving my enjoyment of jazz, the blues and non-English speaking music. Unlike popular songs, which in their saturation are entrenched memories, other music can almost feel fresh and new every time you listen to it. I like The Eagles. To me, Don Henley’s voice feels like sinking on a second-hand sofa with an ice-cold PBR, or like a long car ride with your family several hours into the trip and several more to go. English band the musical kaleidoscopic Stereolab cannot be listened to on a sofa, unless you are closing your eyes to see them with your mind, and they would not be played on a family car ride as the driver would probably become disoriented or just plain annoyed. Emperor Tomato Ketchup is one of my favorites and like Radiohead, invites you to listen and experience.
Present music is the activity. Imagine how hard it is to see Stereolab in a concert. An experience no longer hallowed nor respected. People talking, doing other activities, in short, distracted, wear the experience down. Without the intellectual self-containment the sounds lose their richness. We should be distracted towards present music. Shutting everything off and focusing on sounds gifted.
So where does this leave my collection? Selecting another album and picking it apart for mix CD scavenging? After all, buying new music is an even dicier proposition. Like authors I have come to know and respect; Elmore Leonard, David Sedaris, Will Self, James Thurber, Sarah Schulman, Michael Chabon… so it goes for music, with new Ryan Adams, Lucinda Williams, Neko Case, Wilco, Erykah Badu, Massive Attack, Belle and Sebastian, Goldfrapp, My Morning Jacket, Rufus Wainwright, Saint Etienne, Cowboy Junkies, The Raveonettes, Spoon… (Spoon’s They Want My Soul is particularly sharp) you can’t go wrong.
All the way albums from new artists have a tough row to hoe. As I said in the beginning, we can afford to be impatient and demand worthiness of our busy lifestyle. And with the unfortunate advent of auto-tune, we appear to have slid backwards in time, building albums from a few popular songs, making it even harder for newcomers to express the fullness of their art.