Sunday, October 28, 2012

I heard you took it to another level.

What's all this talk about records not being as good as their predecessors? This nonsense about, "well, it's good but it's not as good as their last record?" Or, "it's not good enough?"

I constantly talk about the pros and cons of the internet when it comes to music. Pro: well, bands who would never, ever be heard can be heard because of the internet. Con: some bands who shouldn't be heard can be heard too. But I think the internet is also responsible for this recent phenomenon of perfect (or really fucking good) debut albums. I'm talking about Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver, Arcade Fire, etc. Bands are being hyped right out of the gate, which is fine, but over all detrimental. They have to follow up those perfect records eventually. And they're only setting themselves up for ridiculously high expectations and disappointed fans. As I sit here, I am trying to think of a second album that was as good as a hyped debut (or better) and I think I can only come up with Bon Iver, Bon Iver.

But what about following up the record that propelled you into public consciousness? (By "public," I mean indie music blogs and website, but you knew that, right?) I'm pretty sure that's not a particularly easy task, and sometimes artists can improve on those records (i.e St. Vincent, Sufjan Stevens) but more often that not, I hear fans says, "Well, it's good but it's not as good as their last record." Which leads me to wonder if it is possible to ever judge a record objectively. Is musical discourse always about comparisons? I mean, we constantly compare artists to one another but have we gotten to this point where we are actually comparing bands to themselves?

So many of the reviews of Titus Andronicus' Local Business have begun with something along the lines of, "Well, it's good but it's not as good as The Monitor." The Monitor was a once-in-a-career record and a true masterpiece. It's mind-blowing that a band that young could put out such a perfect record that clicked on all cylinders. It was one of, if not my favorite record of 2010.  (I go back and forth between it and LCD Soundsystem's This Is Happening. Talk about two killer opening tracks.) It was momentous, but also a concept record. Would I have been really, really happy if Titus Andronicus put out a record just like The Monitor? Of course. But did I expect it? Of course not. And if anyone did, they're just silly. (Boy, this is like my Centipede Hz argument all over again.)  But that didn't mean I was going to accept a shitty record. Putting out a perfect record doesn't excuse a terrible one. Well, the first time I heard "In a Big City," I wasn't impressed (save the Hamlet reference). I didn't really care for "Still Life With Hot Deuce on a Silver Platter" either (but I've since learned to really like those tracks) so it didn't bode well for the rest of the record. I was prepared to be let down by one of my favorite new bands. I couldn't even get past the first two tracks when I streamed the whole record on NPR. But eventually I came around to Local Business. It is a good, solid record. No, it isn't The Monitor. But you know, if it was a similar record, people would say they are one-note. If they attempted another record like The Monitor, and failed, they would get called out for that too. The Monitor is ambitious and instead of trying to top it, they were ambitious yet again for putting out a different type of record. Patrick Stickles is still a very strong songwriter, and an even stronger lyricist, and that makes it clear that this record's sound deliberate and not, as many people think, a step down from The Monitor.  Different doesn't mean bad, especially since Local Business is a solid record. Titus Andronicus does something very few bands do: they make straight-up rock and roll that doesn't need any excuses. I love Japandroids' Celebration Rock (one of my favorite releases of the year so far) but I've heard too many people say, "it doesn't need to have strong lyrics because that's not the point of the record." If you like solid rock, check out Local Business.

I think Local Business teaches us that it's probably better to have no expectations, which is why the best records, for me at least, tend to be the ones by bands I never gave a second thought to (I didn't like Post-Nothing when it was released and still don't love it but I love Celebration Rock, for example). If we just expect solid records from our favorite bands, maybe there won't be anymore records that aren't "good enough."

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Know you think you could do this without me but I know I could do without you.

Am I the only Yeasayer fan in denial about Fragrant World?

I got pretty high on Yeasayer pretty quickly. I think All Hour Cymbals is magnificent and beautiful. It worked on so many levels and is practically a perfect record. I'll admit, I was kind of disappointed by Odd Blood, only because it was such a departure from All Hour Cymbals. If it wasn't a Yeasayer record, I would have absolutely no problem with it and love it but the truth was, there wasn't really anything on Odd Blood, save "I Remember" (which was the song that made me go from "eh, this record" to "hey, this record deserves a chance after all!" and it remains my favorite song by the group) that excites me the way "Forgiveness" or "2080" or "Wait For the Summer" does. I admit that if I was never able to listen to Odd Blood again, I'd shrug and be okay with that. But I wasn't ready to let go of a band I thought was great and talented because I knew they had the ability to be great and talented. (Not to mention, I eventually bought Odd Blood on vinyl. And saw the band live on the last leg of that tour.) Please don't get me wrong. I don't hate Odd Blood, it just wasn't the Yeasayer I fell in love with, and it was devoid of everything that made me fall in love with the band.

And then Fragrant World came out and suddenly, I was forced to make peace with Odd Blood. Truth be told, compared to Fragrant World, Odd Blood is a great record. Sure, if you ask anyone I've talked to about the band's latest release, they'd tell you I did sing Fragrant World's praises early on. And yes, I do really like about four or five cuts from it. They are legitimately good tracks, up there with "O.N.E." or "Madder Red," for sure. I find myself listening to "Reagan's Skeleton" over and over again, and I don't agree with reviews that say there's nothing catchy on this record because "Devil and the Deed" and "Fingers Never Bleed" stay in my head for hours after I hear them. But there's something...angry about this record. I don't necessarily believe in "fuck you" records (hear that, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah? although that is a topic for another post) but this feels like a "fuck you" record. It's as though Yeasayer was tired of the Animal Collective and MGMT and Passion Pit comparisons (as I type this I can't believe I just mentioned AnCo in the same sentence as MGMT but it is what it is) and thought, "fuck it, we are going to make a record you're all going to hate." It reeks of defensiveness, if a record could be considered such. Even reading the interviews with the band before the release and shortly after it made me feel like they knew they were putting out a record nobody was going to like but they were going to piss on anyone who didn't anyway. There is something ugly about the record (like The Age of Adz, for example) and Yeasayer didn't and couldn't do ugly with as much subtly as Animal Collective. It feels very deliberate.

Now, I tend to hate when indie acts come out and shit on all of our towels (metaphorically speaking), no matter how much I adore their music (looking at you, Justin Vernon) but for some reason, no matter how big of an asshat Chris Keating made himself out to be in the media, I turned a blind eye. "BUT I LOVE THEM AND THEY ARE TALENTED!" I thought to myself.  And I was still defending a record I didn't even particularly like (I haven't listened to it since it streamed on NPR.) If I had a problem with the Centipede Hz reviews, imagine how I felt about the Fragrant World ones (actually, there comes a point where you are no longer annoyed with bad reviews, simply amused). And the kicker? Last weekend, I bought the damn thing on vinyl. Is it the completest in me? Or the fact that it was a double record with colored vinyl for only $15? Or because I still feel this desire to claim Yeasayer as one of my favorite bands, regardless of this bad record? Or because I  am not ready to admit that yes, I liked that one record of theirs but hey, surprise, I actually don't care for them overall? Regardless, I bought it and think of it as though it is some ugly drawing done by my own kid (I have no kids, I'm just imagining this would be case). Yes, it's ugly, no, I have no fucking clue what it's supposed to be but my kid is proud of it, and he or she worked hard on it,  and so I am going to put it on the fridge for all to see. So, I guess what I'm trying to say is that I accept Fragrant World and I'm going to just deny the bad stuff.

But...when do you give up on an artist/band? I feel like if there are two records in a row that make you say, "no, no, thank you, take this away," it's probably time to give up. If Sufjan Stevens puts out another disgrace like The Age of Adz the next time around, I'll still sit in my room cradling my copies of Illinois and Greetings From Michigan and Seven Swans and remember the good times. But no matter how much I realize I dislike records by artists I listened to about five years ago, I still come back to them, as though Ray LaMontagne is suddenly going to put out a record as good as Trouble. I force myself to find something likeable about something like Lupercalia or Bloodless Coup even though I know the joy I felt over The Magic Position and Flock is gone and over and they will just live in my memory as good records and good times. Sometimes you grow and your favorite artists don't. Or it's the opposite, and you're not ready to say good-bye. We may take bad reviews personally, but why do we take simply bad records even more personally? (Again, it's about that super personal connection people make to music.) My point is that I need to learn to accept that my bands and my artists aren't always going to put out good records, and eventually, they won't be mine anymore. Who knows what Yeasayer has in store for the future, but I suppose I'll still support them for the time being. (They are still a great live band after all, and Anand Wilder looks like an angel from Heaven, lest you forget.) And if the future includes a record I don't like, well, then so be it.

(Funny, as I typed this, I decided to listen to Fragrant World, and let's admit that we cannot deny how fucking good "Fingers Never Bleed" is, and how awesome Christ Keatings' vocals are.)