Sunday, April 12, 2009

Short Takes

  • Been Netflixing the recently released Andy Richter Controls the Universe, and there's even less doubt in my mind that, between this and the barely-ran Andy Barker, P.I., Richter has pound-for-pound been hosed out of more quality projects than anyone else in recent memory. You look at the shit that clogs up the airwaves night after awful night, year after miserable year, and you wonder how things that are actually somewhat innovative and creative just get dumped after a handful of half-hearted jumps around the schedule. We all know that shows with actual actors and writers cost more to produce than some asinine "reality" dick-skinner, but I don't think Harve Presnell or Paget Brewster would have broken anyone's bank with insane salary demands.

    Anyway, ARCU holds up pretty well. The only people that are ever going to Netflix a reality show probably also wish for Home Shopping Network reruns. They can suck on it. They've fucking ruined television as a genuinely creative outlet, for the most part. The only chance a new project sneaks through is if it can get tagged as "gritty" or "uncompromising" or some such, and even then only on basic cable. We're probably just a couple seasons away from a decade of Oww! My Balls!, once the brain trust at NBC decide they're not covering their desired nut on 30 Rock and The Office.

  • The first time I heard Blood Mountain, I got the same feeling I got when I first heard Back in Black, or Moving Pictures, or Ænima, that something new and substantial had arrived, something that would quickly prove to be canonical to its genre of music. Sure enough, Blood Mountain ended up on many fans' all-time lists, and vaulted Mastodon into the top ranks of metal bands. As with any other group attempting to follow up a critical success without simply cloning itself, Mastodon faced a challenge, and they succeed for the most part with Crack the Skye. Lyrically it's as all over the place as it can be -- astral travel, ethereal possession, Rasputin, tsarist political intrigue, cult divination -- all sorts of weird. But good weird.

    Crack the Skye doesn't quite have the furious vitality of its predecessor. For the most part it's slower, even sludgier in areas, reminiscent of Sabotage-era Sabbath classics such as Megalomania or The Writ. But the breadth and ambition are evident in the album's scope, the musicianship is top-notch throughout, and while the bizarre thematic underpinnings are most present in the epic-length tracks The Czar and The Last Baron, there are bona-fide potential radio hits in Ghost of Karelia and Divinations. Mastodon fits well in that prog-metal niche that bands such as Tool occupy, and there's no reason they can't go as far, creatively and commercially.

  • Remember the old Chris Rock riff about how in the '80s, there was the "Prince or Michael Jackson" debate and "Prince won"? Of course, Rock was talking in terms of personalities and relative weirdness, that as odd as Prince's gyrating ambisexuality and ball-tightening falsettos might be, they were at least life-affirming, encouraging one and all to get their sweaty freak on, just as James Brown and Al Green preached in the salad days of r&b/funk. That stood in stark contrast to Jackson's soul-deadening passions for tween boys and zoo animals, eschewing truly childlike energy and imagination for overproduced, committee-written hackery that was musically as much a Madame Tussaud's piece as its singer's ruined visage was.

    But what Rock neglected to say was that Prince really wins on the merits of music, that he writes and plays his own stuff where Jackson neither plays nor writes, that Prince's best work far outshines Jackson's best work, that even Prince's middling efforts over the years have at least been the product of a fertile creative pursuit, of indefatigable ambition and a serious work ethic.

    While Jackson spent decades inflicting his emotional retardation on his equally stunted celeb pals and an increasingly indifferent planet, Prince churned out records almost annually, and was banging Sheena Easton and Sheila E., among others, grooming a pulchritudinous stable of practically interchangeable (yet, you know, freaking hot) dance-hall queens. What did Jackson have, a show marriage with Elvis' goofball daughter, followed by an expensive, homely beard/surrogate for "his" offspring? On top of all that, Prince is a seriously underrated guitarist, a tone demon with a passion and melodic sensibility usually found in giants such as Jeff Beck or Jimi Hendrix.

    And the main disc of Prince's 3-disc effort (available at Target), Lotusflow3r, is certainly evocative of late-period Hendrix, practically dripping with references to Electric Ladyland and First Rays of the New Rising Sun, without being derivative. Prince's guitarwork is all over this disc, weaving seamlessly throughout laid-back efforts such as Love Like Jazz, and uncorking fat riffs in Boom and Dreamer. The only real clunker here is $, a decent dance number with an unfortunate choice of vocal style.

    The other Prince disc, Mplsound, and the third disc (Elixer [sic]), by yet another young female protégé (Bria Valente), are more dance-oriented, and thus not really my thing, but are well-produced as far as that goes. Mostly it's the kind of "Quiet Storm" shit dickless yuppies use to seduce each other after a long night of Red-Bull-and-vodkas and aimless groping, though there's a nice throwback solo in the crunky chug of Ol' Skool Company. But at $11.99 for all three, the main disc is worth the price of admission alone.

  • I keep reading good things about The Decemberists, so I figured I'd finally give The Crane Wife a shot. And I wanted to like it, I really did. There are glimmers of promise in tracks such as When the War Came and The Perfect Crime 2, competent prog riffs anchoring the first half of The Island, only to be undone by reedy, nasal vocals and twee, overly bookish betcha-can't-tell-I'm-still-working-on-my-MFA-at-Oberlin lyrics. Coffee-house shit is okay at the coffee-house or farmer's market or whatever, but otherwise, not so much. It's not completely terrible, and maybe some of their other stuff is worthwhile, but in the end, it's the musical equivalent of Kegel exercises, and I had to throw on some Blood Mountain afterwards to get the vital fluids flowing again to the necessary appendages.


The Vile Scribbler said...

I coulda warned you about the Decemberists if I had known. I first heard them years ago when Atrios posted a few vid-clips of them. What a shock, the most boring blog I know favors boring music. It's sorta lik-zzzzzzzzzzz.

Huh..? Wha...? Oh, right, music. I am curious to know - genuinely curious, not an up-in-your-grill-"Explain Yourself!" kind of way - what the big deal is about Tool. I've heard the same reaction from lots of other people whose opinions I respect, but I just never got the ineffable something that informs their cult status. Usually I can at least grasp why earthshaking bands occupy the spot they do, why they're important, even if I don't listen to them much, but I just never got it with them.

I admit that partially, it's because they always turned me off as ultra-pretentious douchebags with a sense of self-regard a mile wide in every interview I read, but the music just kinda fell between the benches for me -- not heavy enough to really bite, not moody and atmospheric enough to make them fit alongside bands like Skinny Puppy or other dark electronic bands. What did I miss?

Heywood J. said...

Yeah, The Decembrists sound like a perfectly adequate band to serve as the soundtrack for grabbing a cup at Peet's and walking over to the farmer's market for some organic tomatoes and strawberries. But that's not music, as far as I'm concerned, that's wallpaper. It lacks passion. Less artsy, more fartsy.

Re: Tool. Taste being subjective of course, short answer would be that they are one of those bands like Rush. People either love 'em or couldn't give a shit, there's not much middle ground. But I know what you're saying -- it's hard not to be instinctively leery of overenthusiastic accolades.

There is a lot of proggy/arty pretense to Tool's approach (especially in their sacred geometry fixations). Most of the time, I think the aggression (and there is some real bite in tracks like Ænema, or even Sober at the time it came out) and musicianship offsets much of that.

There are some fairly unusual elements intrinsic to their sound -- the King Crimson influences; the Bill Hicks references; the drummer leads the band musically; the guitarist is more of a texturist than a soloist; the lyrics almost never rhyme, are practically conversational.

And their sense of humor is dark and weird. Rosetta Stoned and Die Eier von Satan -- or better yet, Hooker with a Penis -- still crack me up, and I'm not entirely sure why. Who else tells sanctimonious fanboys to literally go fuck themselves, or does hash-cookie recipes in Hitlerian speech over Einsturzende Neubauten guitars?

The Vile Scribbler said...

Haha, Type O Negative does that! Or something pretty close, anyway. The beginning of "Everything Dies" starts off with heavy guitar and what sounds like a dictator doing a call-and-response with a massive crowd, thought it's intentionally hard to make out what he's saying. Someone asked Peter Steele about it in an online forum and he revealed what it was: "I like vitamins!" "We like vitamins!" He said he just thought it would be hilarious to be like a fascist leader and get people to chant all sorts of absurd stuff without thinking about it.

There's usually something like that on every record -- they fade out the end of "Can't Lose You" with a group chant that goes "Everybody smokes pot, Monte Conner sucks cock", Monte Conner being their A&R agent, and a good friend, they added. Or the trio of bizarre soundscapes on World Coming Down, Sinus, Liver and Lung, which were supposedly named in honor of the means by which three of the bandmembers expect to die - cocaine abuse, alcoholism and smoking.

Unfortunately, Steele reacted to a lot of personal hardship by becoming a born-again Catholic a few years ago, so their most recent record was heavier on the Revelations-style preaching and lighter on the twisted, dark humor, but here's to hoping it comes back by next time.