Adventures of a University Finalist

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Oh! Philly Cheddah Is Rich

Philly Cheese Steak

Hall & Oates - Alone Too Long
Hall & Oates - Had I Known You Better Then
Hall & Oates - Johnny Gore and the C Eaters

The Todd Rundgren Competition is now closed with two clear winners who are Maxwell Murdoc with his answer of Todd Rundgren -> Prana (collaborated together) -> Philip Glass (Prana opened for Glass recently) & Kevin Holm Hudson who said TR -> David Bowie (TR produced Shawn Cassidy's cover of 'Rebel Rebel') -> Philip Glass (made two symphonies based on Bowie's Berlin period; 'Heroes' and 'Low'). Two holes in one! Lots of you went for the Bowie connection but didn't manage quite as succinctly. Guys if you could just send me your addresses to the same e-mail address as before stating which of the two prizes on offer you'd prefer and I'll see about getting them sent out to you.
Personally, thought Philip Glass was too leftfield for this to be an easy task but was proved really rather wrong. It just goes to show how easy it is to link Todd is music’s answer to Kevin Bacon. Yet another string to the bow of the Zen Archer.
For what’s it’s worth, my personal attempt was Todd Rundgren -> Joe Jackson (co-headlined on a recent UK tour) -> Suzanne Vega (collaborated on Jackson’s ‘Heaven & Hell’) -> Philip Glass (Glass arranged the strings on Vega's '50/50 Chance').
Recently, Adventures… has been filled with moratoriums for various sacred cows: the mix tape theorist, the list maker, and the independent musician. Today, I will be continuing this little series by examining a classic case of public favoritism for certain musicians over others: 70s legends Hall & Oates. The question to be asked is why Daryl Hall was seen as the driving force behind the band whilst John Oates existed merely as an embarrassment.
This was recently dealt with Jefito in his definitive study of the duo’s work in his regular Idiot’s Guide series when he admitted to harbouring the above prejudice until ‘Marigold Sky’, their 199… album proved to be a bit of a stinker without him. That’s not to say that Oates hadn’t been creatively marginalised before that point. As early as 1973s ‘Abandoned Luncheonette’, Hall was performing solo piano ballads in ‘Laughing Boy’ and Oates did none of the lead guitar work on the album preferring to leave it to producer Chris Bond. ‘War Babies’ is so dominated by the guitar work of Todd Rundgren (if you hear the solos then it’s unmistakably the producer’s work – compare it Something/Anything’s ‘Black Maria’) that you have to wonder what Oates actually did on the album other than sing the bland opener.
Yet, Oates wrote some fantastic songs during their early pre-Voices period. ‘Camellia’ and ‘Alone Too Long’ are definite highlights on the Silver Album with the former a firm contender for my personal favourite by them. ‘If I Had Known You Better Then’ also holds its own on the incredibly strong first side of ‘Abandoned Luncheonette’ alongside the classics ‘When the Morning Comes’ and ‘She’s Gone’. Also, having seen their live concert for the Old Grey Whistle Test I can safely say that he was a consummate live performer acting with his blue collar energy working as the perfect foil to Hall’s effete Pan.
So why the hatred? Firstly, there is the omnipresent handlebar moustache which makes him look like your stereotypical 70s porn star accompanied by his studied ability to (a) not wear a shirt at all (b) wear a shirt that wasn’t patently ludicrous and showing his rogue animal chest hair or (c) match electric pink in most of his colour schemes. There’s also the basic assumption that Hall was the main creative force in the group who wrote the songs whilst Oates made saucy movies with drugged out groupies and injected cocaine into his nethers. Now, I have no idea whether either were drug users but the rock n’ roll culture of the Seventies, their acquaintance with known addicts such as Eddie Kendrick and David Ruffin, and some of their output (the psychedelic rock of ‘Johnny Gore & the C Eaters’ to the bloated excesses of their late 80s records) points toward some form of abuse. Nevertheless, that speculation deserves neither to be taken as evidence of John Oates being some form of talentless deviant compared to Hall’s Aryan Soft Rock Messiah.
There is no doubt that Hall has one of the best white voices in pop. Anyone, who has sessioned for Smokey Robinson and the Miracles deserves some credit. It’s well known that he was a classically trained musician too and there’s no real doubt in my mind that he had a far greater individual talent than Oates. What my objection to is that this gap is often over exaggerated in order to attack them both individually and as a group. This had led to slow erosion of their status in the music world where trend setters have now become guilty pleasures. As a result, loving the music of Hall & Oates has become a phyrric victory with the love of the music being overpowered by this newly cultivated stigma against "soft rock". They have become synonymous with mainstream pop confections completely lacking in guile or ingenuity. Maybe it’s a tag that they deserve post ‘Big Bam Boom’ but one can’t help feeling that it’s more due to the critical of them as possessing such a one sided dynamic that they don’t deserve the acclaim.
Bands all have a tendency to suffer from this phenomenon in one way or the other. The most famous example is a certain Richard Starkey better known as Ringo Starr who is often better known for his simplistic technique and penchant for the comic rather than his solid early solo career and that apocalyptic break on ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’. Lennon’s solo career was largely risible but that doesn’t stop saccharine atrocities such as ‘Imagine’ and half baked albums such as ‘Somewhere in New York City’ flourishing in the public psyche. When Brian Eno, the oddball, cross dresser went off to perform his art pop riot, the critics followed with some staying behind to bang on Roxy Music's door and call Brian Ferry silly names such as Brain Fart (although from what I hear the miner’s son rather deserved it). T-Rex was seen as just a vehicle for Marc Bolan’s space imp boogie until it reached the stage where it became a self-fulfilling parody in which Steve Took could no longer play Bottom. Little Feat – everyone remembers Lowell George but what about Bill Payne, Paul Barrette and the walkin’ talkin’ impregnatin' metronome that was Richie Hayward. George has become a martyr for artistic integrity whilst the others are now perceived as journeymen; shadows without his presence. Personal prejudices beget by popular misconceptions.
By the way, Adventures… celebrated its status as a music blog on March 7. Thanks to everyone who’s visited for all your support especially DVD, Jefito, SVC, Jack, Hype, FastHosts, Caz, Sully, and all my Latin American compadres.

Buy - Hall & Oates - Hall & Oates
Buy - Hall & Oates - Abandoned Luncheonette
Buy - Hall & Oates - War Babies

Friday, March 17, 2006

Schadenfreude

Freud

The Yearning - Afterthought EP (Download, 2006)

The Yearning - Afterthought
The Yearning - The Fall

Old school review today. A small disclaimer first: this band features two of my best friends at University. They are not signed nor is the production as polished as you would expect from one that was. Nor is the music what you would necessarily expect to find here however that's not to say that I don't enjoy it.
The name is pretty horrible, I know. They rejected my brilliant suggestion of 'Bandcastle', a pun that slides over the tongue like a loose mint imperial, in favour of something that is a little too angsty and adolescent. More carving your favourite band's name in your arm with a compass than anything else. Of course, the band's name has nothing to do with the quality of their music but I just thought that particular personal grievance should be aired in case it poisoned the rest of this review.
If one were asked to attempt to pigeonhole the band's sound in general terms then mainstream indie rock would have to be the buzz word of that particularly boring conversation. The Afterthought EP veers between rather frantic anthemic rock ('Afterthought') through to inoffensive uptempo quanitly jingoistic pop ('The Fall') and ending up at Christian Rock ('Invisible Solace'). Yes, you read that last particular genre categorization correctly. So I feel that particular nugger may be the best place to start.
'Invisible Solace' is the last track on the six track strong EP. Sadly, it is also a sad victim of what I term the 'Some Girls Are Bigger than Others' syndrome. This particular syndrome involves a rather gorgeous, pastoral musical arrangement being disrupted by the lyrical constructs placed its surface. Now, this is not due to a reactionary anti-religious sentiment. I have always seen myself as a person who is pro-faith unless it reached a point where it impinges on basic moral rights and personal values. I find the conservative religious right in the US so repugnant due to its corruption of what is essentially a humanistic and altruistic doctrine into a self serving monolith bordering on fundamentalist dogma. People who can retain their strong beliefs in a benevolent higher being despite their doubts, a sentiment recently voiced by the hirsute Archbishop of Canterbury, is something to be highly praised. That is unless they're a sacred underpants wearing, wife swapping Mormon, of course. I am not Richard Dawkins; evolution, to me, is not the final answer. It is pointless to create an aggressive false dichotomy between "intelligent evolutionists" and "ignorant creationists". The lyrics are simply too downright basic and pious. The allusion to the soldier giving the old push of the spear into Jesus's side whilst he was on the Calvary cross appears to be a crude signpost that exists only to slap the listener rudely across the face as to its subject matter. It's slightly unfair to single the track out but I feel that having heard some of his solo material that he can write material so strong that it borders on the life affirming.
'The Fall', on the other hand, is probably the strongest of the six constituting of a chunky slice of a blues riff (think Freddie King with mono) collapsed in with a mix that allows the rhythm section to take a decent breath much needed after the opener, 'Afterthought', which is bogged down by trying to be a little too clever with its changes in tempo. The lyric is breezy detailing the realization that a relationship isn't working with someone whilst having the time of your life with them. It's an arch contradiction in terms which plays well with the buoyant vibe given off by the music. The song doesn't have any rough edges except when the singer attempts to go down the register during one of the pre choruses masquerading as a bridge. It shows maturity through its slickness at the same time as a youthful naivete and joie de vivre. There's also the fact that its as infectious as syphilis causing strange looks whilst you air guitar down a busy high street.
I'd put this down to the fact that the band actually seem relaxed for the only time on the record. 'Afterthought' is marred by the fact that the drums are static. There is no propulsive back beat to drive the song to the heights that it could so easily achieve. This is down either to the fact that there is no communication or basic kinship shown by the rhythm section and that the song is a little too daring, a little too early. Anthemic rock feeds on arrogance. The basic components of the song carry this off but not the performance. It's just such a shame as Ed, the male vocalist, ex-friend (or at least I think he is now since I likened what is obviously a highly personal song to sixth form poetry) and overall fantastic chap, has a great rock voice. This leads to invariable chemistry in the harmonies which are further boosted by the fact that they have such a sympathetic guitarist who is also not afraid to be an auteur. Power chords lead into Spanish flourishes that remind one of the versatility of a Beck, a Page or a Cooder. The fingerpicking on 'Invite Me Again' is just so exhilarating that it takes the song to a completely new level; a trait that I always felt applied to the Sundays. Without Gavurin's mastery of the jangle pop zeitgeist, Wheeler's pop confections would never have had the tangy bite that endeared them to so many of the floppy fringe and soft heart. Dan Hoyes, that guitarist, is the band's ace in the pack. This not due to any self-indulgent ambition but rather a sharp musical intellect married to such a self-effacing nature that he is not only able to embrace the band's basic musical ideas but to push them so far that they are completely transformed. One can imagine that not a question is asked of what he must do other than how to improve upon it. He is a perfectionist of Spector/Rundgren proportions and has the ability to see such a position through with ease. That is something really rather powerful.
This is an imperfect first release with some very welcome omens buried in the chicken bones. There is a clear sense that they know a melody when they hear one and that they are willing to push personal boundaries. However, I don't think that they push them anywhere near far enough. The constant thought that ran through my head whilst listening to the record was that this was an musical oligarchy disguised as a democracy. The bassist is clearly not valued enough either as a contributor or as a good enough musician than to be handed bum assignments. His patterns are far too basic when the guitars are allowed the wind together into textures that are fascinatingly rich in their density. Despite this, it still sounds too constrained. You expect a rasping guitar solo and then it's suddenly pulled back so that we can have an extended coda which merely constitutes of the chorus being repeated again. Maybe this is just because I've been listening to 'War Babies' by Hall & Oates which throws in so many wonderfully incongruous elements at will that it almost becomes a collage approaching the avant garde and self-destructive. Too much favour is given to the vocalists and their words when their lyrical style is still in a relatively minor stage of "I woke up this morning...." There has to some form of ambiguity; a sacrifice to archetypal symbols. If something stands in your way, you can't simply accept it. You have to change it; gouge its eyes out with your pen. 'Suzanne', 'If Ships Could Sail', 'Tangled Up in Blue': all behemoths, all aggressive and obtuse.
Of course this is a case of my forcing what are essentially highly personal values upon these poor people who just want to make their own music. I'm a hypocrite, a heathen and a liar. I think the band's songs need to be more daring and complex but also feel that they should strive toward cutting away the chaff to create tightly packed three minute pop songs. I revel in the blissful naivete whilst yearning for some narrative grit. I show admiration for their incorporation of faith values into their music but also feel that the religious aspect needs to be pegged back. I think that The Yearning are a good band that could be so much greater. It's up to them.

Post-script: It has been pointed out to me that the strong point about worship songs is often their simplicity. This is based on the logic that a worship songs entire purpose rests upon its message being communicated to the audience. This is fully understandable.

Visit - The Yearning (and download the whole EP when you join the mailing list)

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Todd Is God

Bacon

XTC – The Meeting Place
Richard Hell - Time
Nazz – Open My Eyes
Little Willie John - Need Your Love So Bad

Yes, it’s competition time once again. This time we’re going to play a game that I like to call Degrees of Todd Rundgren… which is basically The Kevin Bacon Game but with Todd instead of the Velvet Oink.
For those who have been living in the gaseous swamps of Venus for the past few years testing the latest range of Curtis Armstrong ear protectors, here’s the rules. You must link the pop genius who gives the game its name to another artist of my choosing through such instances as production, live appearances, cover songs, fights and good hard shags.
For example, if I were to say Bill Withers, then you could reply Todd Rundgren -> Isley Brothers (the brothers Isley covered his torch song ‘Hello It’s Me’) -> Bill Withers (Bill appeared on their album ‘Givin’ It Back’). It’s simple when you know how.
The prize for this particular competition will be a copy of Dead! The Grim Reaper's Greatest Hits from those wonderful people at Ace Records and I also have a copy of Frank Miller’s That Yellow Bastard if anyone would prefer that instead. Pretty ace, no? The winner is the person who links Todd to the minimalist composer Phillip Glass in the least number of steps. If there’s a tie then I may just have to think of someone else to act as a tiebreaker.
It should be noted that attempts with links that I deem too tenuous (e.g. same genre, both like a frothy latte, have strange googly eyes) will be disqualified. Leave your attempts on the comments page or send them to me at t_d_williamson@yahoo.co.uk if you want to keep them secret.

Visit - Todd Rundgren
Buy - Richard Hell - Time
Buy - The Nazz - Open Our Eyes
Buy - XTC - Skylarking
Buy - Wonder Boys OST

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Anatomy of a Mix Pt. 2

Mixer

The Byrds - Dolphin's Smile
Belle & Sebastien - Sukie in the Graveyard
Ron Sexsmith - Tell Me Again
Daniel Wylie - Snow Pony

Tomorrow, next Thursday… there’s not that much difference between the two is there really?
This particular post is going to be another attempt to if not kill a sacred cow then to give it a least a little bruising or maybe even a poorly hoof. This is where the fabled art of the mix tape is to be ripped out of its renaissance and forced screaming into a stuckist nightmare. Well, perhaps it doesn’t quite embrace the naivety of stuckism but rather revels in an optimistic form of nihilism (if such a construct can exist).
For a mix tape to truly succeed it must pay heed to two central principles: 1) each song must appear only on a scale of personal merit, and 2) the ideas of flow, pace, and stylistic rigour must be abandoned in favour of a chaotic model. This is a highly unpopular concept in the post-Hornby generation where the onus is largely placed on controlled dynamics, deliberate pacing, and the ultimate goal to encompass moods, themes or circumstance i.e. "Songs for a Wet Saturday Afternoon in June driving counter clockwise around the M25". Not only is it unpopular but it is also surprisingly difficult to adhere to as last week’s attempt by myself shows.
‘Sexual Funk’ was included merely due to its title adding an aesthetic danger not normally attributed to the Black Country. ‘The Wizard and the Lizard’ is not my favourite title by Gorky’s – however, it is fey and hallucinogenic in approach. There was a tendency on my part to separate genres and both the opening and closing tracks were chosen in the name of dynamics. One and a half minutes of feedback would be an incredibly brave move if placed at track 4 or 15 but not as the first track. Songs were removed, or simply forgotten, (apologies to Notorious Byrd Brothers who would have liked a bit of ‘Dolphin’s Smile’ – I’ve uploaded it in penance) due to the fatal flaw of mix makers, attempting to fit the mix to the recipient’s established tastes. So pretty much every trap that I knew about, I fell in to regardless. The mix was random only in a suitably contrived fashion.
The paragon of a mix tape based on this model would be your twenty favourite songs in the world being placed in a random generator. This leaves the burning question: where’s the romance in such a cold clinical process? Such a paragon would undesirable in the long term but if one establishes a more progressive outlook then it is clearly the most effective. Why? Preferences fluctuate. Loves are lost in order for others to take their place as circumstances change. The tape that you made two months ago has become irrelevant as ‘Sukie in the Graveyard’s Nintendo organ riff loses its lustre and Tom Waits is suddenly too "cabaret night-club" for your tastes. So you sit down and make another. Some songs will stay and others will discarded. Which sounds better: a tape that encapsulates your current state perfectly or a variety of detritus that set to looks to extensive pluralism – a tape for every conceivable eventuality.
The mistake that most people make is that when they are facing a break-up, for example, they undergo a forced and rather clunky paradigm shift whereby everything must be focused on the central event. Every song that they listen to must become about broken bodies and empty bottles. There is no desire to retain any form of optimism as songs that still hold true and dear are replaced by inferior efforts that are shaped to fit a rigid template. Rational values are diminished as emotive reaction takes hold. This is not contradictory to the tenet that preferences fluctuate. This is a case of a single event enforcing radical change rather than a steady flux. An objective approach should be pursued instead of an unfulfilling form of reactionary negativism.
To move away from atavism toward style, I’ll be brief. Just because an external set of factors has occurred, e.g. going on holiday, does not mean that every song on a mix should have the word "sun", "holiday" or "conga" in it. It’s just silly.
An interesting side note to the randomly generated mix, or at least the forms that it has taken whilst I’ve made them, is that a form that is essentially chaotic will invariably establish an ordered dynamic. Songs that on paper seems distinct will blend against expectations as they share the same key, instrumentation or style. The splash of organ found throughout one song may continue in another as a more rhythmic pulse. Arpeggios and glissandos will ebb and fade. The feather-light brushwork of an artisan builds toward a labourer’s pounding. To find order in chaos when the music you are confronted with refuses to conform or to be pinned down is one of its greatest joys. Unpredictable and aggressive shifts in approach are a supremely important commodity in an assault upon the senses and surely that’s what is the achievable goal of a mix; to affect others and to inform.
Long live the iPod shuffle you may be thinking. It is the best vessel for a random generation of songs that you enjoy. However, to come to that conclusion is to denounce form. I hate mix CDs although I must now rely upon them for comfort as I have no reliable tape decks since the arrival of my vinyl player. A mix tape is a constant sign of thoughtfulness and hard work. To make a CD one has to merely set it up for ten minutes and then go have your tea. To make a mix tape, you must sit in a highly uncomfortable position waiting for the point for an hour and half waiting for each song to reach its inevitable conclusion with fingers constantly raised like the Sword of Damacles over the pause button’s nub of a head. It is time consuming and satisfying for both parties when all is said and done.
There’s also the fact that the bugger you give it to will have to listen to the whole thing enabling the holistic vision that you have created to grab hold rather than reaching for his remote if a certain song doesn’t immediately snag their heartstrings. A mix tape is pure atavism in its desire for the complete picture whereas a mix CD is just a glorified sampler that disregards the entire basis behind the form.

Buy - Belle & Sebastien - The Life Pursuit
Buy - Ron Sexsmith - Blue Boy
Buy - The Byrds - The Notorious Byrd Brothers
Buy - Daniel Wylie - Ramshackle Beauty