A growing and widespread trend amongst music of the early 21st Century is a tendency to look back at earlier eras, and to the innocence of youth. At its most grating and shallow, this is represented by many forms of indie “twee” pop. At its most incisive and nuanced, representatives of the freak folk movement stand out, like early Devendra Banhart and, more significantly, Joanna Newsom. New strains of “hypnagogic pop” also fit the bill. Ariel Pink fits in that continuum too. His music, lo-fi pop he credits to the R. Stevie Moore school, is like a filtered and re-cast version of pop music of the 1960s, 70s and 80s. For Pink, the “innocence of youth” is about remaining a sort of juvenile delinquent of the highest order, and playing and subverting music that resembles what was popular when he was a child. Slavoj Žižek, discussing the film The Village, mentions how the story portrays a “desire to recreate a closed universe of authenticity in which innocence is protected from the coercive force of modernity . . . .” That also could describe the most devolved and conservative visions in music emphasized incessantly by indie twee, while Pink’s motivation is more of an attempt to pour acid on innocent history and corrode it sufficiently to create his own mutant version. The boldest and most impressive aspect of what Pink does is that his musical sources tend to be the most passé kinds of AM radio fare that would normally provoke a sneer from most listeners, or at least any that consider themselves “hip”. The earliest Haunted Graffiti albums were solo affairs, recorded on primitive equipment in Pink’s home, complete with human beatbox “percussion”. Now Pink has a band behind him. They are the right band. Without backing away from the warm and fuzzy sound of a 4th generation tape dub, his group adds precision to the melodies that is a major asset. What this music represents though is a reboot of pop of the preceding decades. It is as if to say, “it failed before, but this time it might work!” Music like this says a lot about society, and how on some level there is recognition that we have to go back and undo the mistakes of history while salvaging its successes.
Beck returns to mellow indie-rock with Morning Phase. It is territory he’s strode before. But it also represents Beck the conformist, and the guy who seems to be a little long in the tooth for the rock and roll game. Still, he’s also somewhat self-consciously taking on that role.
Once upon a time, fifteen years or so earlier, Beck worked in post-modern pastiche. His music back then didn’t settle into one genre. It drew from many. It juxtaposed elements of each. At a most elemental level, it presented a unique perspective on how to subjectivize the American experience of the 1990s. It valued the diversity of expression available, and the permissiveness of access to those different forms. It was the beginning of the Internet era, when communications were seeing a unprecedented (if, in hindsight, possibly brief) period of democratization, at least down through the middle class. In music this meant that obscurantist knowledge was becoming less constrained into cliques organized around particular music shops, (maga)zines, concert venues, and so forth. Cultural acuity began to require a faculty of recombining the large-scale raw elements of form. This is what mattered at a time when information about music, and music itself (via on-line file-sharing services like Napster, etc.), was becoming more widely available. There was more stuff out there, more readily available, than most people had historically been able to grasp. And the music industry had just offered one of its more open-minded policies to mildly subversive material that would appeal to upper middle-class audiences (not just to lower middle and working class audiences). There was a lot of music out there to choose from. It mattered to audiences how a person would make sense of it all. Enter Beck. He took all these things floating around and pulled them together in a way that was fun, ironically mocking, and inclusive. He pulled in elements of genres, like hip-hop, in which he possessed no inherent credibility. He didn’t have the sort of “street cred” that seemed like a entry requirement for the “gangsta rap” that had dominated the hip-hop genre in the early part of the decade. But he, and his producers, demonstrated that enough wit and some catchy hooks could totally obviate the need for entry credentials.
There was an audience out there who also liked a wide variety of types of music, and perhaps were demonstrating a possession of knowledge of such musics (“cultural capital”) by gravitating toward music that embodied diverse tastes. Wrapped up in all this, still, was a certain irreverence. There was no loyalty to any particular type or types music. But this irreverence crafted another kind of loyalty within the specific audience that could understand a wide variety forms. Listeners toiling away at three jobs to make ends meet maybe did not have the time to absorb and contextualize multiple contemporary musical genres, not to mention have meaningful access to them. Anyway, this positioned Beck’s relation to “genre” as a means of classifying music as something that principally depended on the audience’s sociological makeup, not the purely technical aspects of the sound in his music.
In the next decade, Beck turned to more discrete efforts in particular genres. He gravitated toward themes like relationships, and his earlier focus on form sort of evaporated. His music remained popular. He was sort of a reliable figure, leaning on slightly different approaches, from moody, low key and nearly acoustic music, to brash guitar-rock with tinges of hip-hop and electronics. Of course all of the kinds of music he was pursuing had precedents. In fact it could almost be said that he was simply amplifying the dominant trends in the sort of rock that appealed to college-educated, white audiences — ones that always seems to have disposable income for music. A clear pattern can be found in which he kind of followed more or less the same audience as it grew older and settled into more of a routine, which did not admit so much time for exploration of new and different musical genres. This was reflected in Beck’s music more frequently being called “mature” than “juvenile”.
If Beck’s career can be compared to that of a figure from the world of cinema, François Truffaut would be as good a reference point as any. Truffaut began as a film critic, but when he transitioned to the role a of director his earliest films exploded with personal idiosyncrasies made the thematic focal point. But over time Truffaut chose commercial and financial well-being over artistic innovation. Personal idiosyncrasies evaporated, and he made “films of quality” of the sort he once questioned as a film critic. There was a shift from modernism to classicism. Is this what has become of Beck? The albums Beck now makes fit squarely into established genres. He doesn’t really offer any particularly new ways of perceiving and subjectivizing worldly experience. He instead has focused on craft and technique within well-defined genre boundaries. He can do melancholy ballads. He can handle three-chord guitar rock with distortion pedals. If listeners choose to compare Beck’s music to that of other artists, there is nothing in the substantive content that can’t be readily found elsewhere. But in terms of the packaging, so to speak, fairly little other recorded rock music has a more polished a delivery. This stuff is well-built. Not a note seems out of place. He has access to absolutely the finest recording studios and supporting staff, and he makes ample use of those resources. And also, there isn’t any filler material padding out the run-time of the albums. Every song is finely honed, and effort went into each of them.
Beck can still write a decent song. He also is not a bad singer. But his attentions here are are on using established methods in a richer, more intricate web that relies less on discrete riffs and hooks than on slowly building modulations that evoke “evolution” of the music. “Blue Moon” is an example of how effectively he can wield these sorts of techniques. There are layered vocals set against a tapestry of acoustic guitar and distant sounding drums, with punctuation provided by piano. The rhythm becomes more insistent. Backing vocals grow more urgent while the drums sound more hurried. The lyrics speak of a fear of abandonment and loneliness. Really, they speak of concern for being left behind and forgotten. These are relevant fears for an artist who has already achieved as much as can be expected as an entertainer, and is always at risk of becoming a forgotten anachronism. Yet the music is so effusively smooth that it sort of drifts by rather than imposing itself. It is almost a dare precisely to forget it. That sort of seems to be the point. Beck is playing the part of the fading middle-aged rocker, coming to terms with middle age.
On songs like “Wave” there is orchestral treatment, with rising and falling dramatic pulses (reminiscent of the only internationally known Icelandic pop singer). A moody darkness dominates. “Don’t Let It Go” opens with deliberate acoustic guitar picking, emphasizing a rhythm that Beck’s vocals later emphasize. A piano is added, followed by drums. These are all well-established approaches for building moods in pop music. So, maybe Beck is still combining different types of music? There are bits and pieces of this music that resembles everything from 1970s FM radio pop rock to more contemporary “indie” rock. This is more like a scavenger hunt. It is like a challenge to find the points of reference, at once meant to be reassuring by making the referents very familiar to Beck’s core audience but also stretching to cover a wide assortment of middle-class mainstream pop. This is something of a trend in indie rock of late, with a set of “musical anthropologists” of sorts trying to reclaim the passe pop music of prior generations. Unfortunately, there is a self-congratulatory aspect to such devices in Beck’s hands, particularly when he draws from material that his audience probably already likes rather than challenging them to accept music they are socially expected to despise.
Beck is always ready to try to put a finger on what audiences want. It almost seems like he’s reading up on market research, and delivering just what commercial rock needs in any given year — much like a certain Irish rock band that won’t be named. But Morning Phase is ultimately a mediocre album because it doesn’t offer the realization of any new desires. It is an attempt to capitalize on existing desire. The calculated nature makes it inhibited. No, there is nothing wrong with this music, exactly. But it is no more than an attempt to fulfill the pre-existing expectations of an established audience. No amount of coloration with gongs, mandolin, guitar flange pedals, pedal steel guitar, or airy vocals on the usual assortment of interpersonal relationship quandaries and weighty personal feelings can make it anything other than a palliative, an assurance to the audience that everything is as it should be. The audience is left right where it began, mildly distracted by an unbroken chain of emotional distractions that just loop onto themselves across a host of musical genres. If you are in the right demographic, the loop sounds vaguely like Beck, inasmuch as it sounds like anything distinct at all.
Pavement might well be THE rock band of the 1990s. They skew a bit toward the white middle class demographic, though Gold Sounds might suggest there is more to that story. As a reviewer on RateYourMusic astutely noted (with respect to Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain), Pavement studied up on everything that was good about 80s (underground/college) rock and updated it. Brighten the Corners, while unfairly maligned by some, belongs near the top of the heap of the group’s recordings. Wowee Zowee was trying too hard to have an “eclectic” sound. Here, it all comes more naturally, and the band seems to be doing more of what they like. Comparisons to Television‘s debut are apt, as Pavement really looks further back than just the 80s. The ponderous but astute lyrics from Malkmus just top this one off with whipped cream and a cherry.
You can’t find an American better than Paul Robeson. There are a lot of things life can throw at a person. You would have to say that Robeson encountered a good many of them and, in the face of those challenges, made the right choices no matter the burden of doing so (at least in his public life). Best known for his definitive performance of “Ol’ Man River” from the musical Show Boat, Robeson’s staggering list of lifetime achievements included being an all-American athlete, attorney, star of stage, screen and recordings, and internationally recognized civil rights activist. He took a principled stand in favor of the USSR, and as a result was harassed and persecuted over a period of decades by the U.S. government (the same government that tacitly permitted lynchings into the 1960s [with President Truman refusing Robeson’s challenge to formally ban lynchings by law] and to this day has a national holiday honoring the genocidal plunderer Christopher Columbus, the last man to discover the “new world”).
Robeson (Verve) was recorded August 22, 1960 in London. It was during a time when Roberson’s health was starting to deteriorate. His passport was revoked and he was denied international travel from 1950-58. But after the U.S. State Department reinstated his passport — and then only when forced to by the U.S. Supreme Court after the case Kent v. Dulles, 357 U.S. 116 (1958), a decision written by Robeson’s law school classmate William O. Douglas — Robeson resumed travel and revived his international performing career. That allowed him to make these recordings abroad. For his age, and given his health problems, his bass-baritone voice was still commanding. Though it had lowered somewhat, the vibrato a little shakier at times. While he sometimes performed “spirituals” (an early term for afro-american gospel music), this album features non-religious “pop” repertoire with orchestral backing. It was a return to pop for Robeson, who focused more on folk and activist material in the 1950s. Here, his voice is out front and the theatrically-leaning orchestral backing tastefully restrained. If ever a musical discussion turns to the question of the merits of lighter fare, turn to Robeson for proof that a great singer can turn any material into something meaningful and lasting. Not only that, if in the final analysis the history of the 20th Century mostly bore out Hannah Arendt‘s dictum about “the banality of evil,” then Paul Robeson’s provides us with a crucial look at what it will take in the 21st Century to find the antidote.
When searching for an allegory for Elvis’ later career, it’s tempting to think of Icarus, who flew too close to the sun with his wings of feathers and wax and then plummeted into the sea. Although that Greek myth is often seen as a tale of hubris, there was no hubris whatsoever in Elvis’ iconic early 1970s live revue. That was the Elvis who invented the big Vegas rock show, and who put on show after show to audiences of 2,000 or more, often twice a night. Some claim that when he was performing a full 50% of visitors to Las Vegas went to an Elvis show on their trip! It takes only a cursory perusal through Elvis’ early 1970s live albums to find that this was a man who could deliver huge songs with an amazing level of emotional commitment. This wasn’t someone who thought himself the king of rock, this man was the king of rock. So instead of Icarus, the better analogy is that of John Henry the legendary steel-driving man (a real person!) who outdid a railroad spike-driving machine, but at the cost of his life. It’s the story of the human toll of modern existence. The only way Elvis could do what he did as long as he did was with a steady supply of drugs. He couldn’t stay ahead of the drugs forever though. Inevitably, and invariably, those who surpass ordinary human limits fall. So it’s more a question of sacrifice. Elvis did too much. But Elvis was an American icon precisely because rash excess seems like a national vice, and also because he did these things for us–the audience.
It is on Elvis’ descent, actually just before his death, that Moody Blue arrived. It is a patchwork of live recordings from as far back as 1974 (the previously-released “Let Me Be There” from Recorded Live on Stage in Memphis) plus some “studio” recordings from the Jungle Room of his Graceland mansion (from some of the same sessions as From Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis, Tennessee). This album is flawed, surely. Seeing the inclusion of a track from a previous album reveals how little new material was available. And “Little Darlin'” is every bit the moldy oldie it appears. Elvis’ voice seems to lumber, moving in one direction and sticking with it. But by and large there is a weepy country vibe here that suits Elvis’ dark and tragic approach to what are mostly sad heartache tunes. This is a soundtrack to a lonely night crying into your beer. It’s far from Elvis’ best. Yet it might be the best he had to offer this late in his life.
Elvis Is Back!, named in reference to the man’s return from service in the U.S. Army in Germany, marked a clear transition in his music. The days of wild, energetic, iconoclastic rock and roll were behind. The new approach is more clean-cut. If the early Elvis could not be shown on television from the waist down, for what his gyrating hips implied, then the new Elvis was calculated to be a little safer and more palatable to parents, implying nothing much at all. And to be clear, Elvis is Back! is calculated. It’s a highly eclectic batch of songs, performed in a variety of styles, determined to find something to appeal to everyone. There is peppy Drifters-style R&B/doo-wop, Hollywood country & western like Marty Robbins or Roy Rogers, sultry R&B/proto-soul like Little Willie John, secularized gospel, and a lot of teen idol heartthrob fodder. There are no up-tempo rockers (though “Dirty, Dirty Feeling” comes closest). Any echo of rural origins from Elvis’ earlier music is also gone. The man’s voice lets go of its previous bite and sharp delivery in favor of increasing amounts of vibrato in the style of Roy Hamilton, something like a traditional pop or even operatic form of singing that doesn’t come from blues or rock. Elvis, surprisingly, proves up to the task. He sings strongly in this new way even without using falsetto or breathy vocals. His stylistic range and versatility emerged here as some of his most unique and lasting talents. While the songs aren’t all great–this was an era when the best stuff was reserved for non-album singles (like the ballad “Fame and Fortune“)–there are no missteps. Elvis sings well, though really he would only improve in his vocal abilities in the coming years. It’s easy to see how the styles developed here would later produce the best of what The King accomplished from 1968 to around 1972. What shouldn’t be ignored on this record is the production. Elvis’ handlers made this the absolute pinnacle of sound recording technology in its day, just as producers at Columbia had made strides recording Paul Robeson in the 1940s with new ribbon microphones. New three-track technology allowed a crispness and balance between Elvis’ leads, backing vocals, and instrumental accompaniment. This one is ultimately a bit of a period piece, evincing a time in pop music when innocence and conservative values briefly won out over the revolutionary energy of 50s rock–before being crushed by the wave of modernity in the “underground” rock movement of the late 1960s and the growing power of black soul music during the freedom/civil rights movement. Yet, it’s probably one of the best examples of what strictly commercial pop had to offer in 1960.
From Elvis in Memphis was recorded after Elvis made his comeback on a 1968 TV special. It is widely regarded as one of his best albums–maybe the very best–from his later career or even his entire career. That’s something. On closer inspection this is a little different from that, but still amusing and intriguing. This was the beginning of, or at least the immediate precursor to, the Vegas act, sequined jumpsuit period. He was singing differently than he used to, with a smoother, rounder tone heavier on vibrato, taking away all the sharpness of his earliest recordings. In a broader cultural context, this album came at the absolute pinnacle of the good times for the American working man. Ordinary folks had their chance to obtain a small, bastardized piece of the leisure class lifestyle, and Elvis was there ready to grow fat and lazy with them. What From Elvis in Memphis offers is an attempt to portray a kind of “ordinary” life, street-wise and gritty, dressed up enough to keep the peons interested. It’s a life of huge cars, electric home appliances, and a growing sense of deserved (yet limited) decadence. The thing is, Elvis is always hesitant to go too far. This is an album that doesn’t really want to get its hands dirty, or at least not too dirty. So it can only look on its subjects from a distance, never quite getting there. “In the Ghetto” is a perfect example. It’s a good Elvis performance, but there are better versions that shed some light on the one here. Candi Staton did a version (that Elvis liked) that goes that extra distance; it feels like it’s sung from the ghetto rather than looking in on it. Then there is a version that Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds did. The Bad Seeds’ version is reflective of Elvis’ performance, more so than of the song’s lyrical content, with Nick Cave singing it ironically on the basis of its kitsch value but always threatening to make it serious at any moment. The songs on From Elvis in Memphis are mostly quite mediocre and the band forgettably professional. But there is still something here in spite of that. There is a charming pomposity in this music. The vision it conjures up is the sort of humble guy growing up, making it big and looking back to those folks that got him there, as if kneeling down to deign some poor kid to admire his jeweled ring (hey, maybe you can make it too kid). It’s like giving that kid, that kind of listener, this music out of a sense of charity. It’s the subtle complacency behind that sort of a perspective that led to the downfall of the good times it enjoyed. Rather than going the extra distance and being the sort of honest, humble music that might show a solidarity and adherence to the values of the common man, this album really takes the sort of view that sees itself as standing apart, looking back, acknowledging a divide from its origins and its audience. Yet the lasting value of this work is that it represents the dreams and hopes of its times, even though those dreams and hopes are flawed and their achievement somewhat hollow. There’s no denying that songs like “Long Black Limousine,” “Power of My Love,” “Gentle on My Mind,” “After Loving You,” and “In the Ghetto” are all solid expressions of these things–with much of the best material congregated on a very solid side two of the LP. If this commentary means anything, consider it in the context of Orson Welles‘ film Vérités et mensonges [F for Fake], the notion that the act of forgery says something in and of itself about motives that lead humans to create art and artifice.
Although widely acknowledged as a cultural phenomenon that transformed America with his charisma and music in the 1950s, Elvis’ career got off-track in the 1960s as he focused on making terrible (but profitable) movies rather than making music. In 1968 he made a comeback with a TV music special, followed by a Vegas engagement with a new band. As it turns out, the Vegas act came to define Elvis’ later career. It was a glitzy show, with a horn section, backing singers. Elvis had taken to wearing gaudy jumpsuits too. This music had now become a sort of high-energy, rock- and soul-inflected, southern style of crooning. No one had really done anything like that before. It was a period when rural-influenced musical acts could find wide acceptance, with former Sun Records label-mate Johnny Cash having a major network TV show at the same time. Elvis sings remarkably well here. The results are probably more consistent than his much-lauded From Elvis in Memphis album, even if this never reaches the greatest heights of that earlier studio effort. One notable characteristic is the lack of the customary mid-set batch of Elvis’ past hits, which many aficionados deem the least interesting part of most Elvis shows and live recordings of the era. Although Vegas acts have become something of a cliché, Elvis was a pioneer in the form. Countless musicians, down to even Bob Dylan, have tried to emulate this kind of grandiose entertainment, but few if any came close to Elvis. That the man became a cultural icon not once but twice in one lifetime, all before the age of 40, is nothing short of amazing. Consider this Elvis’ best live album, and possibly one of his best albums period.
The Birthday Party reached a peak with Junk Yard. It soars on a pulsing energy that never fades. It is goth rock. It is punk. Frightening rockabilly. Angular funk. Gospel and blues. Demonized cabaret lounge jazz. These and other styles collide in a gruesome, purposeless, and—above all—glorious spectacle. But the darkness in which this music dwells is entirely stable. It is confident, at least. The album is mixed to emphasize the low end and the high end, with little mid-range. There are no compromises.
The Thatcher-Reagan era has, in many ways, turned out to be the beginning of the end (or at least another milestone in the world’s continued march towards an easily avoidable doom). Junk Yard plays like The Birthday Party intuitively knew this. The slow groove of “She’s Hit” reveals from the beginning that this group was more aware than most. They absorbed the maddening energy of the times, without becoming bound to them. Unlike the living dead of the world, who are modeled on an image of the past, The Birthday Party were in a state of regenerative flux, continually rebuilding something morbidly happy from the decay.
“Hamlet (Pow, Pow, Pow)” is a sleazy literary come-on, and Nick Cave sings, “Where for art thou baby-face.” Still, the words come out more like a warning to a future victim issued too late. And yet, The Birthday Party can be trusted. Despite rubbing out simple hopes and pleasant dreams, the band’s resolve is never spent. If something on this album doesn’t arouse something in you, then you might already be spiritually bankrupt. But either way, at least you will wonder what you are made of.
Barry Adamson guests on “Kiss Me Black” (filling in for the jailed Tracy Pew). His bass blasts to the forefront immediately with mangled tones that bend enough to engross listeners as much as whole songs or albums often do. Matched with Cave belting out, “Hey hey hey hey,” the song reveals no intention of relenting. The song is a small representation of all the band was.
Easily the most important rock band to emerge from Australia, aside from The Bee Gees, The Birthday Party later disbanded after recording a few EPs but no further full-length albums. While there is a saying about wicks that burn brightest burning the shortest, that quip doesn’t quite capture what The Birthday Party were about. They were a black hole that sucked life and the universe into a seeming nothingness. What that leaves us with is anyone’s guess. In a black hole, no known laws of nature apply.
Recorded during the height of Elvis’ “Vegas” show era, An Afternoon in the Garden presents an afternoon show recorded June 10, 1972 at the 20,000-seat Madison Square Garden in New York City. It was part of a sold-out four show stand. The evening show of June 10th was previously released as Elvis as Recorded at Madison Square Garden. There are plenty of live Elvis albums from this era (Elvis in Person at the International Hotel, Las Vegas, Nevada, On Stage: February 1970, Aloha From Hawaii Via Satellite, Recorded Live on Stage in Memphis, not to mention plenty of live cuts on That’s the Way It Is et al.), and most are quite good (uh, not Having Fun With Elvis on Stage though). Guitarist James Burton really gets a chance to shine here, even getting space for a psychedelic wah-wah solo on the Presley favorite “Polk Salad Annie.” The set list is almost the same as on Elvis as Recorded at Madison Square Garden, minus “The Impossible Dream” but with a few additional tunes here. For that matter the set list is similar to many other Presley live albums. But these are all great tunes. What makes this set so amazing is that you get some of the soulful bombast of On Stage: February 1970, some of the grandiose theatrics of Aloha From Hawaii Via Satellite, plus some of the kicking rock drive of Elvis in Person at the International Hotel, Las Vegas, Nevada, all rolled into one perfectly balanced package. Elvis just commands this show, with every little flubbed lyric chuckled off and re-purposed as an opportunity to charm the audience. As with most other Elvis live albums of the era, this is a complete show that plays (almost) like being there in person. Pop music rarely if ever had a figure like Elvis who could deliver with spectacular feeling and aplomb the biggest, brightest and best hopes and emotions of salt of the Earth folks who quite rightly dubbed him their king. This is a damn fine album, recommended for anyone.