Hag has your number. He better. I ain’t posting my mom’s information on fuckin’ Facebook.
This ILM poll of the best PJ Harvey songs was fun because it forced me to think for a half a second about an artist whose work I’ve intermittently loved since 1995. I fudged my ballot with revisions, the most important of which was the addition of songs from Dry, which, unbelievably, I hadn’t heard beyond the singles until last Friday.
Although consensus acknowledges her first two albums as masterworks, 1995′s To Bring You My Love is either the end of something or a new beginning. Replacing her own guitar with layered keyboards, she presented herself as a singer-songwriter who eschews singer-songwriter tropes like specificity; she got over on impact, alternating between burying her voice beneath the churning arrangements or wailing over quietude (I can’t think of any organs in rock so full of portent without coming off like a Bela Lugosi movie score). This vertigo makes Is This Desire? her most fraught record; I don’t who she’s going to pretend to be from song to song, each one of which offers an aural filigree that crunches or settles, like silt at the bottom of a pond.
The critical and perhaps commercial triumph of Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea inspired a few embarrassing hosannas from, of course, male critics who were dying to hear Harvey pick up her guitar and pound a few nervous systems with the most conventional of singer-songwriter tropes: I’m In Love in the Big City. About half the album is great anyway, while the rest (“You Said Something,” “We Float”) simmers like second-tier Garbage. She bid farewell to pleasing a phantom audience with Uh Huh Her and White Chalk, the first a boatload of Polly Jean Harvey motifs that she reenacted for the last time, like an actress in a stock company, the second a post-ITD collection of ghostly narratives anchored by her amateurish piano and falsetto. I’m still feeling it out — an evolution since my original Village Voice review. Let England Shake, on the other hand, is sui generis: an album steeped in Geoffrey Hill and Wilfred Owen that rumbles and spooks like PJ Harvey music should. Credit to Mick Harvey and John Parish, collaborators for a decade-plus whose inexhaustibility is as mythical as Harvey’s Eng-ga-land. I still don’t know what the hell this woman’s doing next. The greatest living recoding artist?
1. This Is Love
2. Rid of Me
3. 50 Ft Queenie
4. To Bring You My Love
5. Is This Desire
9. Highway 61 Revisited
10. Down by the Water
11. Long Snake Moan
13. The River
14. The Darker Days of Me & Him
16. Big Exit
17. Meet Ze Monsta
18. Beautiful Feeling
19. As Close as This
21. This Glorious Land
22. The Knife
25. Happy and Bleeding
Marcello surpasses himself in this post: cultural history of England in 1981, chart overview, autobiography, Thatcher obituary.
I do remember that as a university student Dare was one of the first three albums I bought with my grant money. The others, which I bought at the same time, were U2’s October and Joy Division’s Still, the expensively embossed (but still grey) double album of live tracks and selected rarities – the live stuff is mostly out-of-tune and unlistenable while the Heart And Soul box set has long superseded the latter. Most people at the time, me included, bought it for “Dead Souls”; “They keep CALLING me!” October in retrospect, and perhaps even at the time, was only a fraction of the record that Boy was (and Boy got much more play on my stereo at the time), but Joyce’s Dubliners was on my English Language and Literature reading list and it’s easy to get a little sentimental when you’re newly far from home. And there were singles, singles, always new singles, new revelations about music practically on a weekly basis, things that I hadn’t heard anybody trying before, if even they’d thought about trying them.
And there were the charts. The thing which Martin Fry and Paul Morley had co-conspired to call “New Pop” had now made itself known. Records were charting in October which wouldn’t have had a chance in hell of being a hit even six months earlier. The action had, as intended, moved towards the mainstream, and the standards were almost embarrassingly high; look up the Top 40 for, say, the week ending 17 October and marvel at a chart where an eight-and-a-half minute minimalist conceptual performance art piece about America, communication and alienation – Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman (For Massenet),” my second favourite single of all time – could not only get into the chart but also only be the second best single in that chart.
The best, at #38, was “Everything’s Gone Green” by New Order. Strictly speaking it was a double A-sided 7-inch with the excellent “Procession,” but a 12-inch came out not long afterwards, perhaps to offset the downbeat concept of their excoriating debut album Movement, and if there are five-and-a-half better minutes in pop music I haven’t heard them. Why is it such a great single? Because it tells the story – indeed, acts it out, in real time, before the listener – of a group on the verge of death rediscovering life and inventing something new in the process.
After which we get thorough reviews of “Everything’s Gone Green,” but also Heaven 17′s Penthouse and Pavement, and Human League’s Dare, released within weeks of each other and the former consisting of discarded Leaguers.
Susan Rogers turns out to be a shrewd judge of his material. Thanks to Daddy Rock Star, we have an interview which illuminates how and why Prince made crucial decisions about tracks on his greatest album. I love this bit about “Adore”:
Daddy Rock Star: A friend of mine told me that she didn’t become a Prince fan until she recently heard the song “Adore” on the old school station. I always hear that song played on old school stations. It’s an incredible ballad and still stands the test of time. Was that one of those “core songs” you mentioned before?
Susan Rogers: “Adore” represented Prince’s conscious effort to write for black radio in an attempt to counter criticism that he was primarily a pop writer and that his status was diminishing as an influential R&B artist. I know this because he said so while we were tracking it. The organ and vocal arrangements on “Adore” are purely gospel. I am not sure I’d say he considered it one of the most critical songs on the record because it stands alone on Sign O’ The Times. It’s interesting how easily he could adopt the gospel style in his arrangements but so rarely did. I think his critics were accurate; Prince was a pop artist, and personally I think that’s high praise. Pop in and of itself is not a style; the pop chart only reflects the condensed versions of more pure styles (e.g., hip-hop, dance, country, punk). Prince wrote funk and R&B and arranged these songs in a popular style.
I cut material out of my consideration of Chaka Khan’s 1978-1984 solo period, the most notable of which is a glance at Destiny, the much-anticipated followup to I Feel For You. I was surprised: while garish it honors Chaka’s commitment to trying anything once. But: the video for “Love of a Lifetime” plays exactly like you might expect.
Tina Turner would win the Battle of the Followup in 1986, releasing Break Every Rule not long after Khan’s Destiny, another multi-producer amalgam overseen by Arif Mardin. “I’m the ruler of my destiny,” Khan avers in the self-written title track, set to an electronically syncopated rhythm pioneered the previous year by Scritti Politti. When Scritti mastermind Green Gartside shows up himself for a duet on first single “Love of a Lifetime,” it’s all his epicene voice can do to treat her like a hippo doing a two-step. The verses and bridge are terrific, the chorus a nothing, like its Billboard Hot 100 position. With this-is-the-world-we-live-in sermonizing co-penned by Genesis’ Mike Rutherford, a bewildering Sam Rivers tunelet called “Coltrane Dreams,” and a couple of galumphing rock numbers (one of which boasts Phil Collins joining her for the chorus: “I’m watching the world/I’m watching the balance of power”), Destiny isn’t any more uneven than I Feel For You, but American radio could handle only big-voiced black woman at a time: it stiffed while Turner’s Break Every Rule (it didn’t) almost matched its predecessor’s sales.
From Brett Anderson’s interview of rock critic Robert Christgau:
Brett: Do you gain something as a critic by doing a profile? I mean, I know you said that you, I’m thinking over the years you have written profiles, I recall a P.J. Harvey piece that I admired a great deal. Are you growing as a critic by hanging out with artists? Can you gain any insights?
Robert: Of course you can. But usually you’re also corrupted by them.
Brett: In what way? Because it’s harder to say what you think?
Robert: Because they’re your friends and you don’t want to make them feel bad, or they’re your sources and you don’t want to wreck them. It can be either, and both are corrupting. And I mean, I used to find when I went out on the road with somebody, I had to wait a week before I could even calm down and write the piece, because I knew for that first week, I’d be too nice to them. And so no, I think, I mean, no. I don’t think it’s a good thing for a critic to hobnob with artists. Now, when I need a piece of information or want to get insight at a certain thing, I do my interview. And there’s a piece in my Harvard collection [“Grown Up All Wrong: 75 Great Rock and Pop Artists from Vaudeville to Techno,” published by Harvard University Press] about Sam Phillips and Ira DeMint, both of whom were ex-Christians as am I, I grew up in a fundamentalist family.
There’s much to ponder in the interview: the utility of reading comments, whether the young should pursue rockcrit, whether business schools have a clue how to handle what “we” in the post-journalism biz call “content management.”
I’ve found myself growing less, not more, conservative with time, less patient and less willing to tolerate certain things while eager to take in more outside of the preset path you’re supposed to follow, however implicitly. Perhaps that’s just age and experience — you get tired of the dumb-blowtorch-of-youth moves that you yourself happily tolerated or participated in when you were that age. (With me, I’m not too sure I ever tolerated them, but how much of that is rose-colored-glasses activity at work I’m not sure.) But if I’ve moved beyond ‘wow this is new to me completely and I’m just amazed!’ towards ‘this is the same goddamn thing AGAIN’ then it’s not because I’m irritated at those who use the old tools and approaches to plunge headlong into their own space, but at the cowards who can never fully check themselves and their own assumptions and who react to anything non-normative in their narrow scope of privilege with fear. Just FUCK THAT.
Well, “the space” Ned mentions has to interest me, otherwise we must pat intentions on the back (which I don’t think Ned means). As I age movies like Silver Linings Playbook and albums like The Suburbs aggravate me more than the usual rubbish precisely because their good intentions and workaday craftsmanship are a matter of course. Arcade Fire’s depiction of kids who find subdivisions repressive and anathema to febrile imaginations is to me a representation of a still point that means shit as we get older. The constriction of the music and the literalism of the words leave no room for a dialectic. If suburbia is so damn awful, then how did these guys once produce as fantastic(al) a song as “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)”? Why are The Suburbs a boredom that needs transcending? Need you be so damn obvious? Funeral boasted a handful of songs as complex as “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels),” their fascination in part resting in the confusion in which Rush’s Signals and Power Windows trafficked: these lawns and pre-fab houses are a grim, soul-crushing, beautiful place. Rush’s confusion, borne out in the material, was honest. Meanwhile Silver Linings Playbook is just risible: how many more times will male directors gratify the men — straight and gay — who get off on crazy-beautiful cliches about women? It is, as Ned said, the same goddamn thing AGAIN.
A DJ Sprinkles interview set us both off. One remark slayed me:
Personally, I found myself distanced from direct action groups because the terms of identification they cultivated out of strategic necessity so often folded back into essentialisms that excluded me on a personal level. So I was always advocating for the recognition and acceptance of something other than myself (like the way “born this way” ideologies take over discussions of LGBT rights… I consider myself more “beat this way,” my queer identity being primarily informed by material ostracism and harassment than by some mythological self-actualization and pride).
I’m a welter of contradictory impulses. My queerdom rests as much in my love of books as it does on sexuality. I live openly without fear of reprisal (or my ability to respond to reprisal) and would wince at the thought of living next to every guy being gay like me. Few things induce shuddering like “gay icon” (my adoration of Madonna doesn’t code as gay). Dialectics come easy to me because of these and other quasi-paradoxes I won’t mention. When Sprinkles said, “Explicitness can also be about closets,” she addressed my adoration, to borrow film critic Manny Farber’s phrase, of termite art: works that are quietly queer. Tennant-Lowe, John Ford, Wallace Stevens. If you suspect things are going too easy, stop for a moment.
I do believe that kids are exposed to some pretty toxic messages about adult masculinity. Their lack of a decent roadmap is reinforced by crummy pop culture from Chief Keef to video games to BET. Much more important, though, many of these kids don’t have adult men in their everyday lives available to show them how it’s done. One could write 500 Ph.D. dissertations about how hip-hop or pornography mis-socializes young men in their relationships with women. I’m not thrilled about some of what the kids are listening to or viewing. Yet the Tipper-Gore-style anxieties seem misdirected. Media dreck is much less important than the ways youth observe adult men in their lives actually treat women. Much of the hip-hop that adults dislike reflects kids’ real experiences. It isn’t pretty to hear, but what’s coming through people’s ear-buds isn’t the real problem.
I haven’t read the problem addressed this tersely in months: it is easier for kids to accept the “messages sent” by A$AP Rocky and Chief Keef when they’ve got the experience of family and parenthood mediating – mitigating – them.
(h/t Ta-Nehisi Coates)
Last night’s Frank Ocean performance at the Grammys didn’t surprise: a clumsy song performed by an off-pitch singer. I’m with Ned:
It took, say, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs until their third album for me to think they were more than a series of misassembled ideas and earnest tributes. (And I still think that about the earlier stuff and YES that includes “Maps” and don’t question me.) By the time of his third official album or whatever happens Ocean may well be knocking me into the nth plane of existence. Fuck it, I WANT him to. You don’t want artists who don’t work for you to keep failing, you want them to get BETTER.
A reminder: channelORANGE is Ocean’s first album. And Yeah Yeah Yeahs are a salient example. R. Kelly, Peter Gabriel, the Go-Betweens, Tori Amos, Al Green, and Pearl Jam too. These acts needed an album — sometimes more than one — to figure themselves out. Which makes the Grammys’ creation of an absurd category so that authors of alterna-R&B “think pieces” can congratulate themselves is both precipitate and an example of the most rebarbative wishy-washy liberalism. Jon Caramanica’s criticism (voters’ “reliably boneheaded” choices) is too kind.
But this is all part of a nastier trend in writing about music, one that resembles a dying yawp of a certain type of white dude who still believes in Real Rock And Roll and who is genuinely unnerved by the idea of women fashioning pop culture in their own image. It was also glaringly apparent in Bob Lefsetz’s horrifying post-Super Bowl horndog screed about Beyoncé, which even while complimenting Adele mocked what he saw as her lack of a workout regime, and it’s in countless dumb pieces that lump together all women in music—including fans of non-”serious” acts like Justin Bieber and One Direction—as a monolithic unit, instead of as individual people who might find wonder or comfort or just something to sing along with in pieces of music they don’t understand. Which isn’t to say “don’t criticize pop music, it’s off limits”—ask me sometime about my feelings on the Lumineers, or much of Rihanna’s recent output (musical and extramusical), or the numbing lack of wit in EDM’s particular brand of hedonism. But at least have reason for doing so that goes beyond “ew, girls are stupid and have cooties and wait they can’t run the world, can they.”
Like the GOP base, though, these men are dying, but before the death rattle they’ll award a Grammy to Mumford & Sons.
Thanks to Jason Gubbels for the link to James Wolcott’s 2002 depreciation (“Entranced by the anachronistic manner he has adopted, Moody never makes a plain statement when he can metaphysically milk it”).
My earliest memory: bewitched by the bass and odd guitar-gremlin sounds on Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams.”
First single bought with own money: Eurythmics’ “Here Comes the Rain Again”
First album: Wham!’s Make It Big
Serious musicphilia: taping songs from Top 40 in ’87 and ’88.
First serious musical crush: Peter Gabriel
First this-band-is-your-life moment: New Order
Loving “Young Turks” isn’t revisionist in 2013. For the generation which knew Rod Stewart as the spandex-clad raspy wonder with the grasshopper legs prancing through video after video, it’s considered as indelible as “Maggie May.” I’d rescue quite a few of eighties Rod singles: “Tonight I’m Yours”; the Jeff Beck collaboration “People Get Ready” in which he gamely fails to outsing the gale force guitar noise; the oh-god-I-wish-I-was-still-a-folkie-tonight “Oh God I Wish I Was Home Tonight”; the Out of Order‘s “Crazy About You” and “Lost In You” (A-minus sleaze but the latter cowritten, of course, with Duran Duran’s Andy Taylor). I even treasure “This Old Heart of Mine” — better Christmas music than the competition.
“Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” still needs modest defenses. Eerily mimicking the feel of the Stones’ “Miss You,” Stewart’s band plays every extant disco signifier: four on the floor drums, locked-down bass, guitar fills too groove-conscious to do anything besides stay out of the way, sax solo. The key, though, is the amazing synth line, lumbering across the track, suggesting a scenario much colder and sleek than the one written by Stewart (noting the synth is one of my earliest memories). This is the second curious thing about “Sexy”: it’s a singer-songwriter narrative bedecked in polyester, which, thanks to the synth and rhythm section, intensifies the comedy. It boasts a handful of sharp lines too, with “She sits alone waiting for suggestions” and “Give me a dime so I can phone my mother” funnier than whatever singles bar denizen Bryan Ferry was yodeling that year. No wonder so many critics thought Stewart a joke: he’s so committed to the situation that they couldn’t help but see him as the loser in the high rise apartment. I wish the rest of the track measured up to the synth, or Rod wasn’t faffing around in a boa as if killing time for the limo to take him to Studio 54.