Thursday, November 10, 2005

Side Two

The Picks

Wouldn’t it be great if the above subtitle made you think that this was going to be all unabashed praise and celebration? Doesn’t it make you think that for some reason I like the music listed below? Hahaha. This is, too often, just the best of what the library has to offer. Wouldn’t it be nice if they were all hits? Yeah, and a pony for Christmas would be a treat too. And some impeachments — but I digress.

The Cowboy Junkies is a band I’ve not listened to with any kind of regularity — at least until now. In my youth, there was something they lacked in their melancholy tunes and that was a kind of, not quite obviousness, but an overtness. It’s hard precisely to criticize them for anything as they’re talented and accomplished musicians with a sweet sound, but a slightly neutered feel. That’s about the worst I can say. They have a sound like molasses drifting off to sleep at times that might not appeal to the younger set (who might prefer, say, some crap like Less Than Jake, see above), but likewise isn’t every day listening music. There’s an appealing autumnal quality to them, so they got lucky. This collection, the aptly titled, Rarities, B-Sides and Slow, Sad Waltzes, starts off with the rockingest number entitled “I Saw Your Shoes” in which the abandoned footgear bring to mind an absent lover.

The only gripe I can bring to the song is the sheer number of shoes that are apparently lying all over this apartment next to the kitchen door, the front door, the landing, by the record player, the TV set, the couch, the shower stall, the bedroom door, and finally, happily, at the foot of the bed. It’s a cool song, but I’d just have been a bit happier if that damn slob had picked up his/her shoes. “Five Room Love Story” has the kind of accenting high tinkly sad piano that breaks me in two every time — and when the accordion and violin kicked in I thought my heart would hustle out of my chest down to the record store for more. “Sad to See the Season Go” is the very definition of haunting musically, even if the lyrics strain a little toward the overly serious quality of a college sophomore.

Speaking of molasses, most often the now-defunct Morphine has a sound more like where molasses goes to die. The opening three tracks (a quarter of the disc) from Morphine’s B-Sides and Otherwise are a total rip off as they were live radio broadcasts from a single. I’m truly a fan of live music, but apparently, live, Morphine sounded nearly note for note perfectly like the studio version. What’s the point other than padding out what would have otherwise been a pretty darn slim set of cuts? The first original track on this is “Bo’s Veranda” from the Get Shorty soundtrack, and I must have missed this song in the movie every single time because it’s not even remotely familiar despite some rather lovely flamenco style guitar. Yes, you heard me, guitar on a Morphine song. Stop the presses. It’s a nice song, probably the best thing on the disc.

But the whole thing is totally underbaked, not one thing save their sound even tying the pieces into anything more meaningful than a bunch of songs. “Down Love’s Tributaries” is the perfect example of B-side oddity, a curious experimental track, meandering, murmurry spoken word vocals, the kind of thing that either has to make up the whole album or gets relegated to the B-side lot. Then there are songs like “Pulled Over the Car” which is just this repetitive narrative about being tired every time he gets behind the wheel so he pulls over, gets out of the car, gets some fresh air, gets back in the car, then the one time, wouldn’t you know it, he ignores that tired feeling, he wrecks his car and totals it. So what? In this instance, B-sides and Otherwise demonstrates perfectly the concept of B-side collection as random junk assortment, little tidbits for collectors but of no grand interest to the casual listener. Hell, even for the Morphine casual fan there’s no great earth shattering music here. Borrow it and burn it if you must, but why bother spending cold hard cash on this disc of filler? Even better, rip “Bo’s Veranda” to your CD or iPod or whatever and be done with it. Again, I say this as someone who actually likes Morphine.

Unless you are a total fan, I would imagine it is probably impossible to sit through more than one or two listens to the disc Great Hits 1972-1977, The B-Sides by T. Rex. If this B-side collection is any indication, there would be simply far too much music that sounds like the same song you just heard, a fifties kind of reference point of “rock and/or roll” with names like “Born to Boogie” and “Groove a Little” and “Ride My Wheels.” As prolific as founder Marc Bolan seems to have been it’s kind of what happens. Upon hearing the pioneer of 70s style glam-rock, a musical period with limited appeal for me, I couldn’t tell by listening that glam-rock differed distinctly in sound from much of a lot of other electric guitar rock save being kind of slightly fey. Apparently, as the name indicates, glam rock is a bit more about appearance than style. At least where T. Rex was concerned. I rather understand that David Bowie might differ in opinion here.

In the early parts of this collection, rhythmically, there is a huge overreliance on songs that go “bum ba-ba-dum, bum ba-da-bum, bum ba-ba-dum, bum ba-da-bum.” Bolan comes off like a balless second rate John Lennon rip off from the ex-Beatle’s Rock 'n' Roll days on these more Golden Agey cuts. Even so, the music has the kind of fun innocence that used to be the hallmark of that devil’s music, rock and roll, before it jettisoned the “roll” part in favor of straight up “rock” and hard-edged cynicism and/or insistence on its own purity and integrity. As this is a 70s collection, there is a point in the musical evolution where you can quite clearly hear the influence of drugs deepening and making themselves felt in the grooves. And in those pre-lapsarian pre-cynicism days, drugs really did tend (in lots of cases) to make the music actually much more interesting, whereas nowadays it merely makes the music even more primitive and redundant. As in, who’d you rather get high with, Paul McCartney or Vince Neill? The glam-rock scene is more apparent in the later half of the disc, but despite my immediately preceding comments, I’m still going to stick with the first half, the golden oldies.

Maybe there’s a reason people become Moby fans. Maybe there is. Maybe there’s a reason someone might want to write a book about dust too. Who can say? It’s not that there’s anything wrong with Moby per se. He even gets a slight coolness point factored into his existence before I heard song one by him, merely because he is related to American genius Herman Melville. At least on Play: The B-Sides, Moby writes what can only be described as good background noise, inoffensively bland dance music that wouldn’t be out of place on many a Hollywood soundtrack, but kind of like the smooth jazz equivalent. That kind of music is known by the soulless name of Ambient, which means precisely what I just said above. Inoffensive, monotonous, vaguely happy background melodies that wouldn’t sound out of place lowly bleating in a coffee shop, bookstore, elevator, time-share condo, colonic irrigation facility. It is simply music as gentle ear candy pablum. It is difficult to critique this B-side collection because all the songs have an edgeless sameness, a muzak bubblegum sensibility, new agey inspirational and soft at every turn. Good music to fall asleep to, I guess. Or to have rote mechanical sex. One or the other. But a kind of music, nevertheless, that is hard to get your feelings worked up about one way or the other. What the fuck is Eminem always agitating about? Getting mad at Moby is about like getting mad at a quiet school janitor. Why bother?

Sarah McLachlan, beloved of an enormous quantity of simply gooey women (my wife included), howls and moans and groans over a number of tracks here on Rarities, B-Sides & Other Stuff, including the best song XTC ever put out “Dear God” (which isn’t saying much). The lyrics are far too obvious for this long-time atheist, though I suppose they might be the kind of salve some people need in crises of faith, a bitter letter addressed to God taking him to task for all the contradictions humans ascribe to their divinity of choice.

McLachlan, herself, writes and sings a kind of warm fuzzy radio-friendly self-pity that must be of great comfort to some people, though not your far-from-humble Critic. I can’t really fault her for that musical territory, as I have made actual mix CDs of good self-pitying songs for frequent listening when I feel like the world is out to get me in particular. And there’s nothing wrong, per se with songs of self-pity. Good god, whole (and better) careers have been made on just such music. Being a woman, I suspect, with the world we have right now, there is ample material for when you just want a good wallow, and McLachlan provides that lyrically and musically, and the result is neither arresting nor repellant, just kind of obvious and sad and a little bit pretty too.

I used to listen to Bob Mould’s third incarnation, Sugar, rather often in college. Had at least three albums on cassette, though I’ve no idea what became of them. As I know at least one of my regular readers out there is a Bob Mould fan, I won’t slag the guy too hard. He’s a better songwriter than his song recording sensibilities would let you understand, unless you had the overwhelming desire to feel your eardrums burst. Nowhere will you probably more nakedly read me confess that I’m too old, and it’s too loud. Jesus Christ, Sugar is fucking loud. Not loud in the sense that I somehow couldn’t turn things down, but loud in that overly aggressive, all the dials turned up while recording quality that puts the drums on equal footing with the guitar and the bass and the vocals. The resultant quality is just this wall of sound aural buzz of an assault, from which I can gather little differentiation outside the obvious changes in rhythm and such. I’d criticize the album with more specificity if I could actually find specificity to describe.

But a note to Bob. If you want your B-sides collection, Besides, to contain a solo version of song, like the hit “If I Can’t Change Your Mind,” then a real acoustic guitar would have sounded one hell of a lot better. Merely turning down all the distortion etc. on your electric guitar doesn’t cut the mustard. What you’re left with in doing this is a tinny metallic sound with no warmth, no humanity, just rattle. That big open, hollow box of wood behind the strings on an acoustic guitar serves a purpose: it softens the sound, warms it up, gives it a humanity somehow. A solid, hard slab of wood with six metal strings on it is just a hard slab of solid wood with six metal strings strapped to it. In and of itself, musically hideous.

As for the B-side collection that started all of this, Damien Rice’s B-Sides? Ennhh. Kind of a disappointment, especially after an album that knocked me so solidly for a loop with absolutely no preparation or advance warning about how good it was. There’s at least two good songs on this seven disc gathering, a little early in one’s career (one album total) to be putting out b-side collections, I’d have to say, since there’s nothing really to pick from. Four totally new songs, tracks that didn’t make it onto Rice’s disturbingly good O, and only one of which is great, and three variations of album tracks including an instrumental that sounds nothing like the original and a demo that sounds so crappy it begs the question of who would have signed a person with a recording so lo-fi it makes Lou Barlow’s home recordings shine like polished studio cuts. Nevertheless, Rice’s work is great at its best and very very good at its worst.

So, in conclusion, yada yada, etc. etc. ad infinitum ad nauseum. I’m really going to have to remind myself to not follow through on some of my worse ideas. Nevertheless, the change of pace was good for me and next week we’ll be back with good ol’ George Guidall, narrator extraordinaire delivering up the goods on someone or other, I’m certain.

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