Monday, October 8, 2012

Decline from the Debut

There was a time when I pretty much thought the first album by any given artist to be the best of their catalog. There were of course exceptions, but for the most part I considered this to be a hard and fast rule with everything from U2’s Boy to the Church’s Of Skins and Heart to Duran Duran’s s/t debut. And maybe on some levels this claim can be argued for any of those releases, but at the same time, the diversity of all three of these artists throughout their careers (with all of them now hitting around the 30 year mark) makes it impossible to compare their debut to anything put out 10 or 25 years after the fact. It really just boils down to preference, and if you like electro-pop better than post punk, then Achtung Baby or Pop Trash may be more your speed.

At any rate, JT and I were discussing this awhile back and he put forth the challenge to come up with a list of artists whose post-debut output did not live up to the potential built up by that first full length album.

And there are some that are more or less universally acknowledged, for example Stone Roses’ Second Coming was pretty much panned by everyone and all of the Weezer catalog after the quirky pop bliss of the blue debut. Of course I’ve made arguments against the former and loads of folks will cite Pinkerton and even more recent albums as worthwhile in the case of Weezer. But let’s face, Maladroit (or whatever) may be a fine album, but there’s not one song half as good as the weakest tune on the Weezer debut – and I can’t even tell you which song that is, because they’re all top notch or better.

And of course the obvious ones are out, from Violent Femmes to Bat Out of Hell to The Truth About Ocelots. And it’s not really fair to bring up Depeche Mode’s Speak & Spell or Pink Floyd’s Piper at the Gates of Dawn because they were in many ways different bands due to a change in leadership.

And this isn’t to say that these artists put out universally bad material post-debut, only that in general everything else rather pales in comparison to expectations based on that fantastic debut…which says more for the debut than it does less for everything after. And of course the reasons why are endless, from label mischief to attempting to cash in on mainstream momentum by altering course and ruining their own product. It all happens, and each is as likely as the next. I mean heck, some folks only have a handful of good songs up their sleeve, but that’s better than Ween, I mean nothing, I mean… And again, in most all cases this is 100% up to the listener and so whatever you see below is strictly opinion…but darn good ones I have to say.

Also, I really need to point out that compiling this list wasn’t nearly as easy as we had initially anticipated (JT in fact had to back out of his own idea…weakling), which means that while many debut albums are spectacular, any artist worth their salt is only going to build on that brilliance, and while the fuel may eventually run out, they can still put out a string of solid and ever improving albums that reach a high point and then fizzle, leaving us pining for just one more hit.

We had decided on three each, and I could honestly barely scrape this together with one or two alternates, though I have to say that I stand firmly behind my decisions, and I am prepared to fight you and your mama if you disagree. Another rule we tried to stick by was artists with three or more albums, so that the sophomore slump we’ve discussed here a few times couldn’t come into play.

And if JT decides to man up one of these days and provide a list of his own, you’ll be the first to see it…

Ok, are you ready? BEGIN!!!

Archers of Loaf – Icky Mettle – Give or take a No Pockey for Kitty or a Today’s Active Lifestyles, this is THE indie rock album of the 90s – angular, aggressive, crazily melodic, the lo-fi elegance bristles and growls like a wild dog scampering for its bit of the kill. Seeing them in support of this album remains a highlight of my live music experience. And then the magic was lost…at least to me. Why? Hard to say, because AoL never really seemed to lose sight of their vision or their aesthetic, but the way they chose to steer their train speeding alongside a cliff never had the same urgency or immediate need to make the listener jump around, take a breath and do it all over again. There are folks who love Vee Vee, even All the Nations Airports (probably not so much White Trash Heroes), and for sure there are some decent songs scattered throughout, and it’s not bad in the sense of what else was happening to music listeners in the 90s, but their rage seems harnessed, their tongue in cheek too tongue in cheek, their melodies played out…essentially all their charms lost, or at least faltered. Again, it could just be me, probably it is, but I was/am a HUGE fan of this first album (and the Vs… EP), but everything else has left me underwhelmed.

Guns n Roses – Appetite for Destruction – Right here was the poster child for censorship in the 80s, from album cover to lyrical content. Being into this album back then was dangerous; you were labeled not just a rebel, but a troublemaker, a hoodlum and in some corners, even a Satanist. Such was the small minded, ultra right wing mentality of the South in those days. And for sure, Appetite for Destruction was and is a barnburner, full of vicious riffs and slashing (get it?) solos, which were the perfect propulsion for Axl Rose’s angst-filled lyrics of hedonism, drug abuse, misogyny, hatred and extreme paranoia – glorifying it, even if he lived in fear of it. And despite some tender sentiments (Sweet Child O’ Mine) and some “feel good” bordering hopeful moments (Paradise City), the brooding menace lingers just behind the next note and these songs all drip with unbridled venom. If you don’t take any of this to heart Appetite is harmless fun, despite the genuine anger that supplied its inspiration. And musically, the flawless fusion of hard rock, glam and punk is an ageless blueprint that remains as relevant in the field of heavy music today as it did 25 years ago. Honestly, I’ll hear other arguments for the best of the “hair metal” era, but you’d best bring some kryptonite... But then it was all over. The moment they released Patience, GnR ceased to be a threat. And I’m not saying it’s a bad song, I’m saying it’s not what GnR promised with Appetite. Despite Axl & Co’s antics over the following years and subsequent Use Your Illusion albums, the reflected music was a watered down, almost parody of what was delivered with Appetite for Destruction. Again, some good songs here and there (Civil War, Izzy Stradlin’s offerings), but those albums just reflect Axl’s persona as a “tortured artist” exploring the dark recesses of his psyche and releasing his anguish in overblown epic ballads. Boring, because the urgency, the belief and overall the fear is gone. At this point he’s just telling a story, he’s not living it, he’s not giving you the play by play details, it’s just some facts he has access to and he’s driveling them out to you over the ivories. And while the music is still competent, the melodies still relevant and the surface details still somewhat intact, that’s as far as it goes, as the end result is a mess of hubris and self-indulgence. And I never took Chinese Democracy seriously, so there.

Sting – The Dream of Blue Turtles – Since the Police were innovators of the New Wave mainstream that flawlessly fused punk, ska, jazz, pop and you name it into a blend of something magical and inspiring, it would be safe to assume that the leader of that band, who was responsible for penning most of the songs (all of the hits anyway) and, to a degree, sculpting their sound, would be an amazing solo artist once unleashed on his own. And initially that assumption would be right, because The Dream of the Blue Turtles (coupled with the “making of” documentary/live album Bring on the Night) is amazing. For his solo debut he stripped himself of his persona almost entirely, the punk edge the Police had latched onto early on, the New Wave they found themselves caught up in and even much of the pop textures that flavored the distinct personalities of all five of their albums. And for Sting, stripping down meant getting back to all that jazz, complete with a superb band of soon-to-be-iconic jazz musicians. This is not a rock n roll or a New Wave or a post punk record. When it does rock, it’s almost more like hard bop (Shadows in the Rain), and when it does stray off the jazzier feel, it’s really more world or avant-garde than anything else (Russians). It’s a truly artistic statement and the only reason it sold millions was because Sting was still riding on the momentum of the Police and their tumultuous breakup. Well, that and the fact that in 1985 the musical ear of the public was pretty open to just about anything, and there is enough pop-finesse in singles like If You Love Somebody Set them Free and Love is the Seventh Wave to make his just-beginning-to-age audience sing along, while more brooding numbers like Fortress Around Your Heart hit moody youngsters like me in a way that few others have. And honestly, with the exception of the latter, the singles are the weaker moments on the album, as the heartbreak of Children’s Crusade, the industrial thrum of We Work the Black Seam, the sing-your-heart-out of Consider Me Gone and the creepy, night world vibe of Moon over Bourbon Street are the core of everything great that Sting was capable of for one brief, shining moment post-Police. And then he started playing bass again. And there’s nothing wrong with that per se, but while Englishman in New York is a great reggae tinged tune, and They Dance Alone attempts to bring the ache of Children’s Crusade to a wider audience, We’ll Be Together is flat out ridiculous bellows-pop filler and Be Still My Beating Heart is the kind of nonsense Rod Stewart should have been singing (and maybe he did, the whore). Basically, Sting sold out. The last remotely punk thing he ever did was play Feyd-Rautha in David Lynch’s (I mean Alan Smithee’s) Dune, and then put out The Dream of the Blue Turtles. Everything after that is an attempt to capitalize on the lesser moments of that album’s success, exploiting the parts that were truly great and then diving headlong into adult contemporary mediocrity that became criminal when he participated in the shoot-me-in-the-face-now train wreck of All for Love with Bryan Adams and the aforementioned Rod, making admittedly enjoyable numbers like All This Time and If I Ever Lose My Faith in You ignorable out of spite. But The Dream of the Blue Turtles shines regardless, the last pinnacle from a once gifted artist. And Gordon, it’s all your own fault.   

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

New Music: Bob Dylan - Tempest

A few weeks back I mentioned Uncle Bob had a new album coming soon, and that soon has become now and ultimately then, as Tempest has been out a couple of weeks or so and I’ve had that much time to acquaint myself.

As mentioned previously, I’ve been grossly underwhelmed by his last two efforts, Modern Times (2006) and Together through Life (2009), feeling like one was a flat line of one shuffle after another, and the other was a flat line with accordion. And neither of them are bad albums, it’s just that they’re not memorable, with only Thunder on the Mountain from Modern Times even attempting to make any sort of dent in my already muddled mind.

But the sneak preview of Duquesne Whistle with its dreamtime intro and 30s era vamp gave me a sparkle of hope for Tempest, and while I didn’t run out and buy it on release day, I did pick it up (admittedly because my wife reminded me) opening week.

Before I get into initial impressions, I have to step back with a bit of a realization that hit me last night and the notion that I’m not really sure why I’m a Dylan fan. Why do I ask? Well, because with Dylan it’s as much about the lyrics as anything else, maybe even more, and as I’ve said here before, I don’t give a rat’s buttocks about lyrics. For me, lyrics are another instrument to carry the vocal melody and the only way they’ll usually rise to the surface and stick with me is when the melody and/or music surrounding them are so great that the lyrics are the residue left by that impression.

So maybe that’s why Dylan is still getting 4 and 5 star reviews from Rolling Stone and other reputable music media sources for his last couple of albums, because his lyrics are as strong as ever, and since the music, when playing, is enjoyable, the true Dylan-phile can have their cake and eat it too. But seriously (and I ran this by Bill, the biggest Dylan-phile I know – who agreed) the question stands: If these albums were put out by anyone other than Bob Dylan, would anyone care? Would they get a glowing review in Rolling Stone? Would they get reviewed at all?

Perhaps that’s a bit harsh, but the truth remains – while Dylan may be “back” from his 80s slump, he’s really not going anywhere, just continues to chug along the same tracks, not so much keeping it “safe” as just pulling off what he enjoys doing. And ultimately that’s okay. As I’ve said before of Dylan and other innovators (like Eno), how many times is the same artist expected to reinvent the wheel? Just look at the man’s legacy of the past 50 years. And while most would argue that his real influence on popular music ended around the mid 70s (and I’m not saying that’s true), he did enough in those 15 odd years to keep people paying attention all through the mire of the 80s and salivating over most everything he’s done for the past 15 years.

And still, having said that, I have to say that the rarities and outtakes catch all Tell Tale Signs (Vol 8 from his Bootleg Series), pulling from various sessions, soundtracks, etc from Oh Mercy to Modern Times (another 15ish year period), is a fantastic and highly cohesive collection of material. In some respects this may be surprising considering the wide expanse of time, yet shows (me at least) that some of the tunes on Modern Times that make me snore are quite good when approached in a different manner, and he just chose the version that perhaps better fit the album than was, you know, worth hearing. And I think it’s this mix mash up of years and styles and producers (as long as Dylan keeps producing himself under the Jack Frost moniker, he’ll never really break anymore genre barriers) that makes this double (or triple if you’ve got it) album not only the most exciting thing he’s put out in ten years, but soundly proves that his comeback really is legit (it’s worth the price of purchase for the live version of High Water alone) – he just needs someone to tell him which songs (or versions) should make it to the official albums. 

But honestly, I’m not really enough of a Dylan-phile to even be attempting this review, much less delving into such matters, but the truth is I own most of the man’s catalog, I get on fire over portions of it, and since I’m shelling money on him still today, I guess I’m entitled to some sort of voice.



Well, first off I have to say that I HATE the album cover. I mean what is that? Easily his worst ever, and this is from the man who allowed Shot of Love to be put on the shelves (and I mean that from an album cover perspective, not musically – I quite enjoy that album).

But musically speaking, in short, I dig Tempest. To me it’s a good step back to the variety of Love and Theft while still pulling the train forward in the manner he’s done on the last two albums, which is essentially further into the past. And again, I’m still not listening to the lyrics per se, but I’ve begun singing along to certain songs in the car. Why? Well, because of the music. The big difference here for me is the presence of memorable riffs and guitar licks in most of these tunes. They scat and chug and shake a groove and glide wistfully along – and sometimes even raise the hair on the back of my neck…which is more than I can say for even mid 60s “heyday” Dylan (that’s right, suck it, Robertson). Dylan’s dark humor is in top form, he still tells a compelling story and the couple or so Beatles lifts make me chuckle every time I hear them. Easily, it’s the best set of melodies he’s had in some time, and it’s a flat pleasure to croon along to Soon after Midnight, bemoan those Long and Wasted Years or half growl about the Early Roman Kings. Aside from the somewhat meandering tedium of the title track (hey Bob, we all know the story to this one…), there really isn’t a dull moment on Tempest.

Plus, from a genre perspective, instead of fusing everything together, the various styles are more pronounced, be it jazz or blues or Dixieland swing, it’s a nice jumble of flavors, exactly as Love and Theft was, and this is exactly what Dylan needs to keep things interesting. So instead of having what feels like one continuous song that pauses long enough to change keys every 8 or 9 verses/5 or 6 minutes, we have individual pieces, statements, cohesive melodies and counterparts that finally live up to the Tin Pan pop and Americana that he’s been pulling so heavily from the past 10 years. Because really, Tempest is homage music, Dylan going back to and rehashing the 20s and 30s sounds he loved as a boy and has carried with him and expanded upon throughout his entire career.

And again, he’s not breaking new ground. Tempest picks up logically where Together through Life leaves off, the difference is within the songs themselves, as well as his approach. I recently read an article that was essentially a bunch of interviews of the engineers, producers and musicians he worked with from Oh Mercy to Modern Times, and one thing I picked up on was that he’d attack the same song in every key and every style, but never the same way twice. It’s a fascinating concept, and with Tempest he seems to have picked from the best of each song, allowing the album to meander as it pleases, rather than finding a distinct sound to ride on from start to finish. The end result is a strong set of toe tapping, sing worthy tunes that not only familiarize themselves with successive listens, but linger with you longer (and more favorably) than even Thunder on the Mountain.