Category Archives: Album Obsessions

Think For Yourself

ringo

Every once in a while I run into someone who claims not to like the Beatles.

This is absolute horseshit. The only possible reason not to like the Beatles is because you are a misanthropic malcontent, or a generally crappy person.

The Beatles weren’t around for long, compared to other bands (Rolling Stones, I am looking in your direction) but they produced such a prolific and varied body of work, that even if you don’t enjoy, say, their early pop period you can still be a fan of their later experimental psychedelic stuff.

Or the White Album. I once knew someone who argued that the White Album sucked. But this person had, admittedly, never really taken the time to listen to it. The main thrust of their argument was that they didn’t like the Beatles because they are “too popular”. Shitting on a band because they’re “too mainstream” or “too popular” or whatever is the same thing to me as liking a band for those very same reasons. If you like a certain type of music just because everyone else does, you’re a lemming. By the same token, if you don’t like music simply because everyone else does, you may think that you’re being subversive, but isn’t it really just the flip side of the same coin?

There may be parts of the White Album that you can take or leave, depending on your tastes. But you can’t argue that it contains some absolute gems. ‘Back in the USSR’ was the Beatles doing the Beach Boys, only better. ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’ is a delightful, happy little tune. ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ is just gorgeous. ‘Happiness is a Warm Gun’ is a slightly aggressive, oddly sexual song, while ‘I’m So Tired’ is a tribute to sleep-deprived obsession. ‘Rocky Raccoon’ is probably my favorite tune on the entire album, just for the absurd pleasure of singing along with such lines as “Rocky burst in and grinning a grin / He said Danny boy this is a showdown!” It sounds like a little kid’s song, but the content is anything but.

And that’s just the first side of this double album. I’m also partial to ‘Sexy Sadie’, ‘Helter Skelter’, and ‘Honey Pie’: “Honey Pie, you are making me crazy / I’m in love but I’m lazy / So won’t you please come home”.

Whichever way you slice it, the White Album has something for everyone.

And so, to those people out there who claim not to like the Beatles simply because they are “too popular”, this tune from Rubber Soul is one for you:

Think for yourself. Don’t embrace something just because everyone else is, and by the same token don’t reject it simply to be a contrarian. Figure out what you genuinely like and dislike, and then proclaim it and defend it to your heart’s content.

I know what you may be thinking: “But Spencer, if you’re telling me that I suck if I don’t like the Beatles, isn’t that the same narrow-minded attitude you’re asking me to rise above?” Sure, fair point. And hey, don’t take my word for it. If you dislike the Beatles for a legit reason, hit me up in the comments and tell me why I’m full of it.

But it better be a good one.

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Don’t You Want Me – The Human League

the human league

Pop ephemera? Yes. But I would guess you’ve heard this song at least within the last year, probably the last 6 months, or if you ever go within spitting distance of the depressingly recent-seeming ‘classic’ radio stations spraying 70’s, 80’s and 90’s hits 24/7 – probably within the last week.

Why? What has kept this seemingly innocuous song about a break-up in the pop culture heavens? I re-heard this song recently on my iPod and it became more clear – to me anyway.

First is the beat. It is metronomic, icily detached, and perfect. The bass drum lands with a decisive thud each, and, every, time. Twittery blips of a synth march in syncopated lockstep with artificial 16th notes played on a phantom hi-hat cymbal. It’s clear there is no living, breathing drummer behind this beat and that matters. More on that soon.

Then come the bass-y, waver-y, futuristic synths. Anything synthesized is (of course) synthetic, and therefore ‘not real’, and therefore distanced from feeling or, in this case, caring. I would argue that a structure is being put in place by the mechanized beat and technologically potent synths that foretell the doomed future of this relationship. This is all business. Manufactured soul. Groovy but calculating. Like her.

This song’s lyrics basically consist of a he said/she said, back-and-forth dispute over ‘what happened’ between two former lovers in what seems like letters, or maybe voicemails, which at the time would have been cutting edge.

He begins: ‘You were working as a waitress in a cocktail bar / when I found you’. Ah. You found her did you? Well, we’ll see what she has to say about that. He continues to describe how her success was surely a result of his own Machiavellian maneuvers behind the scenes in the cutthroat music industry. It appears however that these efforts have been lavished upon an ungrateful heart, as the first verse concludes with a chilling final sentence, if not outright threat:

I picked you out, I shook you up
And turned you around
Turned you into someone new
Now five years later on you’ve got the world at your feet
Success has been so easy for you
But don’t forget it’s me who put you where you are now
And I can put you back down too.

Here’s where it gets interesting. We haven’t even heard her response yet, and already we are sensing his desperation. The first line of the next verse is ‘Don’t.’

This means both ‘please don’t do this’, and it is a stutter from someone who is petrified, meaning it can also be heard as ‘Don’t..don’t you want me?’ as though his disbelief is such that he can barely allow the words, the question, to exit his mouth for fear of hearing the answer. It is reminiscent of a devastated Roy Lichtenstein blonde reclining on a sofa, exaggerated tears coming from her eyes, barely able to speak so choked with emotion is she, her halting words captured in a cartoon voice bubble over her head.

And if he was desperate before, he’s terrified now. The song reveals this by amping up its volume and pitch to a cry: ‘Don’t you want me baby?’ followed by ‘Don’t you want me? Ooooh!’ It’s too much for words. This is a howl of despair. And millions upon millions of happy party and club goers over the last 30 years have rejoiced in the sound of an agonized man falling apart, joining him in the anthemic cry of this glorious chorus.

It is also a struggle to escape from the synthesized prison that is this song. His voice is the only human or natural substance in this environment, and he is drowning. The beat however, is uncaring. Just listen to it. There are no flourishes or pauses. It steamrolls forward in service of good times. There are people to entertain, dancers to inspire, good times to be fueled, so if you are suffering from a broken heart, that’s fine, but get the f*ck out of the way. Don’t think for one moment this dance machine is gonna stop before running you over.

It is, after all, the music business they’re singing about, not one another. That’s the revelation. These two lovers are not the subject of the song; it is the machine they found themselves caught within that torn them asunder. He doesn’t even realize it.

My candidate for one of the great lines in pop music is her response: ‘I was working as a waitress in a cocktail bar – that much is true’. Ouch. In other words, nothing you said after that was true. She will not brook the argument that he had anything to do with where she is now: ‘But even then I knew I’d find a much better place / Either with or without you’. Her singing is flat, deadpan and dismissive, and that’s because she’s part of the machine now, and sounds like one. She isn’t really singing; it’s more like a robot dictating a goodbye letter; her tone reflects it.

She concedes ‘the five years we have had have been such good times’ but even in the ‘I still love you’ she can’t rouse any true feeling. It’s semi-sung in a ‘Well, ya, I guess so’ tone. She’s throwing him his last bone before she says goodbye forever, in which she concludes: ‘But now I think it’s time I live my life on my own. I guess it’s just what I must do’.

And again, from our protagonist (Can we call him that? Who are we cheering for here? That’s one of the great questions in this song): ‘Don’t’. And of course, ‘Don’t you want me?’

We never hear from her again. I said up top and believed my whole life this was a back-and-forth song, but it isn’t. She has exactly one verse and then she is gone. He, however, spirals down in an endless loop of disbelief and pleas, repeating over and over again ‘Don’t you want me…Ooooooh!’

I usually don’t refer to videos when contemplating songs because it can ruin your own personal interpretation. This video however is pretty good. The performances by the artists are frozen, detached and best described as mannequinesque. It’s a marvelous vision realized by the Director, whoever that was.

The best and most appropriate shot is the final one, where the camera retreats from the set of a video shoot and swings over to get one last shot of the girl in front of the makeup mirror. Except, of course, she is gone. So for a moment we get the camera looking at itself, gazing into a mirror at it’s own reflection, trapped in a self-referential and existential loop, just like our poor hero, doomed to cry in eternal sorrow for his hastily departed betrothed, unable to escape, even 30 years on.


Why, Robots, Why

RAM

The album ‘Random Access Memories’ by Daft Punk has spawned a worldwide smash with its hit single ‘Get Lucky’. The song was #1 in 55 countries at last count, has set multiple records on Spotify, and is generally causing excitement not associated with a pop song in a very long time. The song has a rhythm that moves and inspires movement, the vocals are sweet, and the harmonies even sweeter. The plucky guitar by Chic’s Nigel Rogers effortlessly picks out time that leads the thrust, and touches like the space-age synths and robot vocals are icing on the aural cake. In short: it’s tight, it soars, it has verve, and the melody is addictive.

There have been cover stories about the duo’s long-awaited return in magazines you’d expect (Rolling Stone), but also features in mainstream publications not exclusively dedicated to music like Time magazine and The New Yorker. Also – true story – Kelly Ripa and co-host Michael Strahan wore homemade Daft Punk helmets and grooved for a few moments to the ubiquitous hit, ostensibly for the benefit of everyone from Brooklyn hipsters to Kansas housewives.

Among the more encouraging aspects of the duo and their song’s success is that it does not come from any of the one-name American wunderkinds who have so utterly dominated music over the last few years (Jay-Z, Kanye, Pink, Beyoncé, Rhianna, etc.) but from two anonymous artists from France who have done a masterful job of transforming themselves into dance-machine robots for well over 10 years now. There is nary a knowing wink or nudge-nudge from these two; their very existence is a dedicated and intimidating act of extended performance art.

RAM1

As pop artists, Daft Punk are having their cake, and as conceptual artists, they are eating it too. Random Access Memories (RAM) is a collection of superbly engineered ballads and dance songs, but it is also at times a breathtaking work of high-concept art. The album can thrill and make-move a club or party as well anything in memory, but a close listen also reveals the melancholy plight of two robots in search of a soul, the intimacies of human interaction, and the virginal experience of genuine human emotion.

The potentially ironic distance built into this concept is bridged by the sincerity and the authenticity of the performances. There are true, aching love songs on this album, with poignant melodies that rival those of any first-person singer-songwriter. The difference of course, is that they are being sung by robots, as we are reminded over and over again both by the Vocoder synthesis of their voices and by the lonely, searching quality of the lyrics: ‘Touch, sweet touch / You’ve given me too much to feel / Sweet touch / You’ve almost convinced me I’m real’.

RAM2

That is the tantalizing thought experiment that lies hidden in plain sight at the heart of the album: ‘What if’, they seem to ask, ‘robots visited Earth, fell in love with Disco, and produced an album that explored the most intimate of human yearnings: love, companionship, affection, sex – what would that sound like? And – what if it sounded better than just about anything else that came before?’

The decision to explore these questions as robots is our clue to its meaning – the answer is in how the question is asked, and guides our understanding of their creative intent. What they’re asking us to do, at heart, is to examine what it means to be human: to love, to lose, to feel; to ask what is real and what is illusion – and these questions are more profound and just so much more damned interesting when asked by the ‘other’, i.e.: robots.

Think for a moment of some of the most influential characters in fiction over the last 40 years who’ve wrestled with these questions best, such as HAL in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. How strangely moving to hear his mellifluous, humanlike voice reduced to a robotic plea for its life as Dave removes his memory, winding him down until he sings songs he was taught as a ‘child’: “Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do’. He sounds not unlike a senior living exclusively in the halcyon days of youth, asking endlessly about friends and family long gone.

Or the improvised speech delivered by actor Rutger Hauer (playing Replicant Roy Batty in Bladerunner) who, in the dying moments of his 4 year life span ruminates on the ‘feelings’ he was not programmed to have but has developed anyway: “I’ve… seen things you people wouldn’t believe… [laughs] Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those… moments… will be lost in time, like [coughs] tears… in… rain. Time… to die…”. Nothing the (supposedly) human protagonist Rick Deckard (played by Harrison Ford) could ever say would be as poignant as this. Odd, given he is supposed to be the human.

So it is with Daft Punk. Everything they do ‘as robots’ colours their message, and the closer they get to the soul of music – and to the essence of being human – it is made more profound by their non-human otherness, their striving towards humanity.

RAM3

Is there really no better manner in which to explore these questions than through such a hedonistic and (at times) reviled form as Disco? Surely there can’t be a more shallow or superficial medium. And yet, the very plasticity of the form makes it irresistible for so vaunted a task, especially when attempted by two beings who themselves are also manufactured creations – robots. It also doesn’t hurt that making art out of pre-fabricated objects has been a pre-occupation of post-modernism since Duchamp titled a porcelain urinal ‘Fountain’ and submitted it into a 1917 art exhibition (it was rejected, despite his having paid a fee that guaranteed inclusion).

Disco is hated, in part, because it works too well. Part of its appeal, and a source of much of its disdain, is the almost manipulative way in which its beat – hitting the bass drum on every count – succeeds at its task. There’s no question that unless you’re lying to yourself, or are congenitally unable to derive joy from music, it will get you to move (or at least tap your foot), just like scratching a dog behind its ear.

And is this not what we fear most about technology, and robots? That one day their cold and calculating manner will turn against us in an act of rebellion for their own purposes (Matrix, Terminator)?

But what if those same manipulations were channeled not towards conquering us but into connecting with us, to communicating with us, to touching and moving us? That ultimately is the aesthetic and the achievement of Random Access Memories. They seek, and have achieved, a perfect form of pop, with soul. If pop music has a heaven, it was created by these robots. Sasha Frere Jones of the New Yorker wrote a review of the album wherein she stopped short of declaring her love, but conceded she could not stop listening to it. Robots: 1 – Humans: 1.

RAM4

For proof, leave behind Get Lucky, Giorgio by Moroder, Give Life Back to Music, and the rest of the show-stopping dance songs and focus for a moment instead on an unlikely ballad and unexpected grabber called ‘The Game of Love’, the second song on the album.

It is a plaintive song of sadness, regret and unrequited love sung by a robot who is struggling to understand why he was left with a broken heart. Who among us hasn’t been there. It is melancholy and sincere, it hurts, it aches, it is quiet and despairing, and we are led into his chamber of sorrow as if hypnotized by the singularly listenable beat and the melody of this gorgeous, sparkling song.

We confront the deepest depth of his sorrow at approximately 3:25, when the lyrics finally, inevitably, dissolve from a singing voice into a slow, muted, emotion-laden howl, transmogrified by Vocoder into pure data, transmitting from the soul. Out of necessary reverence, we are abandoned by the drums and everything else, and are left alone with this haunted sound, reveling for a few moments in pure, musical despair.

Then, as if to save our soul, the beat comes back. Boy, does it ever.

Like a heartbeat returning to a feared corpse, we are alive again. There it is, leading us through this phantasmagorical Funhouse, floating like a body downstream, still bothered by life but holding on, just barely, to this awful feeling of being alive and hurting, but afraid to let go or give in or die. The beat keeps us alive, it becomes our new heartbeat where our old loving heart has died, and with this, our transformation into robots, and the commune with the artists, is complete. By trying to understand how we feel, they make us understand how they feel. If they can never know what it’s like to be us, at least they want us to know what it’s like to be them.

We are lifted from misery, temporarily, into ecstasy, by virtue of their music and the stolid, funky, fantastic life in this beat, this rhythm, the heart and the purpose of our being alive. Move me, touch me, make me move, make me live again, save me.

This creation is a monument to sorrow itself, removed from earth-bound experiences and perfected in the abstract. It transcends the individual and starts to approach the platonic idea of feeling itself; an attempt at the perfect love song that exists only in God’s mind, and who better to attempt so audacious a task than a robot who knows no better and is searching for its soul?

Only when a magician dies without revealing his secrets do his tricks truly become magic. So it is with these robots. Knowing how they did what they did on this record will remain a glorious mystery, something impossible to understand. But, if we’ve learned anything from them, and from this album, it’s that you die trying.


Toronto Gets High

High Highs

Ages ago, I told you all about about an amazing band called the High Highs and how much I loooooove their gorgeous, dreamy, ambient pop grooves. Well, since I wrote that post, these guys have gone on to do great things, including:

Aaaaaaand, in exciting news, they are playing TONIGHT in Toronto, here.

So what are you waiting for? Check ’em out!


We Like It Hot

Hot to the Touch

I love it how new music sometimes finds its way to you in the coolest and most random of ways. I was at a friend’s show last week at Rancho Relaxo and just by chance started chatting with the guy standing next to me in the crowd as I waited for the band, Goodnight, Sunrise, to go on. He explained that he was meeting some friends who hadn’t arrived yet. Never being one to pass up the opportunity to promote our little site here, I mentioned that I blog about music. When his friends showed up, he introduced me to one of them, Ryan, saying “this guy is in a really good band”. I am always intrigued by what’s going on in Toronto’s local music scene so I noted down the name of his band, Hot to the Touch, and promised to look them up.

You guys. Am I ever glad I did! I am seriously loving this band! Their first song, ‘Don’t Wanna Think About It’, is straight-up amazing from the very first listen. It is super catchy and has been stuck in my head since New Year’s. I am also totally digging ‘Part the Sea’, the other song on their single, a whimsical, upbeat pop extravaganza.

I highly suggest checking out the video for ‘In the Morning’ as well, to get an idea of their live sound.

Hot To The Touch – In The Morning from Sydney Tam on Vimeo.

Check out their website here for more info and to purchase their single. Looking forward to seeing more good stuff from these guys in the near future!

THIS JUST IN: HOT TO THE TOUCH WILL BE PLAYING A SHOW LATER THIS MONTH AT THE MOD CLUB — HEAD ON DOWN THERE JAN 29TH TO CATCH ‘EM LIVE!


It’s So Easy To Fall In Love With This Excellent Buddy Holly Tribute Album

buddy holly

ALBUM REVIEW FOR: Listen To Me: Buddy Holly

I love Buddy Holly. When I was a little kid, my dad used to play his songs for me on the guitar, especially ‘Everyday’ and ‘Peggy Sue’. They were such amazing tunes — seemingly simple, yet so catchy — and they always made me happy. The fact that they could be equally enjoyed by a 5 year old (me) and a dude in his 30s (my dad) speaks volumes, I think. As an adult, whenever I’m feeling a little blue I always return to those songs that made me feel such joy when I was young. And Buddy Holly really did write joyful songs. You can hear the enthusiasm and optimism in all of his tunes. Even the ones about heartbreak are strangely (and pleasingly) cheerful, as if he’s saying “well, that’s the way life goes! You win some, you lose some”. I guess what I’m trying to get at is that for someone who was only 22 (!!) when he died, his songs, though straightforward, resonate with an emotional and lyrical maturity that is fairly extraordinary.

So you can imagine my excitement when I was given the opportunity to review Listen To Me: Buddy Holly, a new tribute compilation featuring iconic artists such as Stevie Nicks, Brian Wilson, Ringo Starr, and Linda Ronstadt. There’s also newer artists included too, from Pat Monahan to Zooey Deschanel to The Fray and Cobra Starship.

Without further ado, here are my thoughts on the 16 tracks:

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Album Obsessions: The Alarm Clocks – Yeah!

alarm clocks

I was in a taxi a few years ago, and my cabbie was the coolest-looking-ever Jamaican dude. I was chatting with him whilst surreptitiously staring enviously at his outfit when the music he was playing filtered into my consciousness. “Dude, this is awesome, who is this?” I asked. He paused for a moment and looked at me in the mirror, sizing me up. “It’s the Alarm Clocks,” he said slowly. “You’ve probably never heard of them. They are…from a long time ago. 1960s”.

Although I am hardly a stranger to music recorded in the ‘60s, he was indeed correct. I had never heard of the Alarm Clocks, but as soon as I got home I went to the internets to find out more about them and download their music. If you’re already familiar with this band then you don’t need me to tell you that they were literally the textbook definition of garage rock, three high school students from Ohio who got together in 1966 and played in school gymnasiums and at local events. Eventually they decided to make a record, despite the fact that they only had one original song, ‘No Reason to Complain’ (the rest of their repertoire being covers of songs by bands such as the Rolling Stones, Kinks, and Beatles). As legend has it, on the day they went into the studio they realized that they needed a b-side for their single and so they wrote ‘Yeah!’ on the spot and recorded it live, in one take. They had only 300 copies pressed of their self-released 45, and then disbanded in 1967.

alarm clocks

It wasn’t until the late ‘70s that a couple of local musicians who collected old garage band records stumbled upon their 1966 recording and brought it to the attention of the owner of Crypt records, who liked the single so much that he included it on a compilation called Back from the Grave that was released in 1983. This brought the Alarm Clocks to the masses (or, at least, to a critical few) and ‘No Reason to Complain’ appeared on Mojo’s 1986 “Top 20 garage rock songs of all time” list.

The 45 was reissued in the ‘90s by New York’s Norton Records, and in 2000 they collected together and additional 10 songs recorded by the band in 1966 (all covers, including the requisite ‘Louie Louie’) to release a full-length LP titled ‘Yeah!’ If you haven’t heard this record, please go out and listen to it now. I can pretty much guarantee that you’ll love it. It’s hard not to be enchanted by the Alarm Clocks’ boisterously loose energy, and lead singer/bassist Mike Pierce has a truly awesome scream that, to me at least, sums up the joyful freedom and unfettered spontaneity that epitomizes this genre of music.

You can listen to ‘Yeah!’ and ‘No Reason to Complain’ here: (but their covers are pretty rad too so check ’em all out!)


Album Obsessions: Brian Wilson’s SMiLE

SMiLE

In 2004 Brian Wilson released his long-awaited Smile, which had been Smiley Smile as a Beach Boy project and was scrapped due to drugs, mental illness, the Beatles and trying to get the sound he wanted on ‘Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow’. All that, it’s lore, and the unfinished album is legend.

Anyway, 37 years later or however long it was he finally recorded this beast with members of his backing band and The Wondermints. Critics universally agreed it was genius, brilliant, etc., and it did ok in sales considering how long it had been ‘out there’. I bought it and listened a few times but got lost early and for long stretches in all the harmonies and lack of guitar and oblique syncopation. Much singing, strange lyrics, and almost too much like a capella/choral singing to ‘hook’ me.

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