Sunday, December 26, 2010

Better as a Single: "Here, My Dear" by Marvin Gaye

Here My Dear is on of those albums that inspires more discussion about the circumstances of its making than the content itself. That makes sense, seeing as its circumstances are fascinating and its content is often not, but that hardly bodes well for the album as a listening experience.

Famously, Marvin Gaye was getting a divorce from his wife, Anna (complicatedly, sister of Gaye's Motown-impresario boss Berry Gordy). The terms of the settlement included a proviso that, as alimony, Gaye turn over the proceeds from his next album to Anna. While I've spent years wondering what kind of boneheaded wannabe-Solomon would come up with such a ruling, it turns out that the idea came from Gaye and Gordy themselves, and the judge merely confirmed it after both sides privately agreed to it. The story goes that Gaye set out to make a terrible album in spite but eventually his artistry caught up with him and he came up with a genuine statement instead of just merely product.

That might be true, and if so, being a double, perhaps the album gives us both stages in equal parts. Critics have warmed to this album down the years after giving it initially a cool reception, but if ever there was a double album crying out to be a single, this is it. Large stretches of this album follow a similar pattern: a smooth and very attractive R&B backdrop is established, over which Gaye waxes philosophical for minutes at a time, singing stream-of-consciousness musings over amorphous melodies that never gel into anything hummable. The musings, beautifully sung with great overdubs, often have the cadence of a great Baptist preacher in full flight and are in turn petty, profound, boring, angry, knocked-off, thought-through, bittersweet, bitter and sweet. Yet they very rarely connect with the listener, being ultimately self-involved mumbling as opposed to enjoyable music. Choruses are few and far between on this album as tunes arrive, repeat unchanged for an average of about six minutes, and then go away. Any variation whatsoever to this template inevitably sticks out and seizes the imagination of the listener. And by and large it is those deviations that remain on my eight-track single disc. Perhaps that means I've removed the heart of this musical-exorcism. But perhaps it's that so-called 'heart' that makes this album difficult to enjoy, and with it gone, suddenly it's a much better, leaner project.

One last 'pity' here: the only real time you ever hear mention of Here, My Dear is on lists of albums about divorce, some similar discussion. Considering that it touches probably more people than it doesn't (children of broken homes included), divorce is a huge topic that is barely mentioned in popular music (outside of country & western, of course). A double-album concept album about divorce is actually a great idea, but this is not that album: it's a concept album about Marvin Gaye and Anna Gordy's divorce, and that's not the same thing at all. This album is too specific, too self-involved, to have any of the universality that great art needs. Someone going through a divorce and looking for art to reflect, give shape to or reassure the emotions he or she feels will find little or use here. This is 'reality TV' on vinyl, the Gaye family disintegrating for our entertainment value. In consideration of what this album might have been, that's a profound disappointment.

Here, My Dear

Side one
  1. I Met a Little Girl (5:03)
  2. Anna's Song (5:56)
  3. You Can Leave, but It's Going to Cost You (5:32)
  4. When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You (6:17)
Side two
  1. Sparrow (6:12)
  2. A Funky Space Reincarnation (8:18)
  3. Falling in Love Again (4:39)
  4. When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You (Reprise) (0:47)

The box below contains the entire contents of my single-disc version of this album, hosted by YouTube. Click on the box itself to reveal the scrollbars, and click on any of the scrollbars to hear the music.

» Here, My Dear, Single-Disc Version «

Here, My Dear: lose

Less a song than a Greek-chorus-style introduction to the album that follows, this is great if you enjoy living theatre, honest as it gets and very much about the real-life circumstances surrounding this album. But shorn of context, it's just three minutes of aimless noodling, ultimately ugly in its self-pitying cry of victimisation.

I Met a Little Girl: keep (side one, track one)

A masterful take on classic doo-wop R&B, smooth as silk. There isn't a note in this whole song that you can't hear coming a mile away, but that nostalgic comfort in classic form is exactly the point. A regret-filled look backward at the early days of his and Anna's relationship (with the early-sixties chord progression thus setting the era), it's gorgeous and entirely successful album material. It couldn't have been a single (I mean a seven-inch), but what here could have?

The title track being a mere intro, Motown actually put this as the album's first song. I have to concur: the retro feel and languid tempo are red herrings, but it's an arresting opening.

When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You?: keep (side one, track four)

This wasn't the single, but it's very obviously the album's main attraction, not just obvious because the song appears three times over these four sides. If someone wanted you to introduce them to this album, this is where you'd start. It really is an amazing groove, one that just leaps off the turntable. It's bright, imaginative, crisp and well-recorded. It holds the attention - which is great, because for six minutes you keep expecting a chorus to break out somewhere along the line. It constantly seems to be building toward one. And yet one never comes, well not until the very end of the song. It's frustrating, but that's what this album is like. Gaye is in fine voice, filled with emotion and mostly quite compelling. All in all, this approaches 'classic Gaye', yet it's not quite there, even if he liked the song enough to include it three times, lasting over 13 minutes. I like it too, bit maybe not quite that much.

I'll be honest here: I thought of bookending the album with versions of this lapel-grabber. But then I put "I Met a Little Girl" first. Then I thought "Anna's Song" should follow it. Then I thought track three buried this song, so I decided instead to conclude side one, as opposed to opening it. A quick spin on the iPod confirmed it still flowed this way, so there it is. It still complements its reprise, with the same song closing both sides.

Anger: lose

Why do songs fade in? Usually because they're salvaged from jam sessions. Tough to tell in this case what this song's genesis might have been. It's a bit tougher (funkier) than normal musically, and a bit tougher (strident) lyrically. No chorus, obviously. Not better or worse than the vast majority of this album. It's actually tough to find anything at all to say about this song.

Is That Enough?: lose

A confident midtempo R&B groove, enjoyable enough even though too little goes on musically to maintain interest. Risking sub judice, the lyrics are a rant by Gaye about the goings-on of the court case, about how he doesn't like the idea of alimony. Even more self-pitying, then, than the rest of the record, it's ultimately unlikeable, and a superfluous solo at the end does little more than increase the running time towards eight minutes.

Everybody Needs Love: lose

A good example of the main problem with this album. The groove is decent enough: smooth and sweet. But it's not a song. It's merely Marvin spending minutes enumerating who and what needs love. Then it fades away. Satisfying? Not even remotely, however pleasant the musical backdrop might be,

Time to Get it Together: lose

A bit of a flashback to the sound of Gaye's 60s glory-days productions, and pretty much exactly the length a song should be, this song still fails. It's an attractive groove, but one in service of very little: Gaye spends the first half merely saying 'time' over and over again, and the second half randomly 'testifying' about his failings in life. it brings the sadly weak side two to a close, seventeen and a half minutes of chorus-free ranting.

Sparrow: keep (side two, track one)

A smooth jazz number, lyrically only tangentially related to the album's otherwise unrelenting theme. It serves as a great breather, a welcome change of tone, both musically and lyrically. It was probably stuck on as filler, perhaps taken down from the outtakes shelf or intended for a different project, but its delicate jazz beauty makes it an album highlight. Marvin Gaye apparently always wanted to be a jazz singer, his early attempts at Motown to record in that genre constantly thwarted by their commercial failure. While his R&B work is obviously what he'll eternally be remembered for, this foray makes one wish he'd attempted a parallel career too.

My side one has a definite purpose, whereas my side two meanders a bit. So why not start with that most meandering of genres? This is side two, track one as an intentional 'reboot', or an intermission if you will.

Anna's Song: keep (side one, track two)

The album attempts to show the Gayes' marriage and its disintegration stage by stage, and the saddest part of the album is not actually the break-up, its the obvious love in Gaye's voice when documenting the happier days. This beautiful and uncomfortably personal song is practically the very definition of the word 'bittersweet'. Moving, gorgeous and sexy as hell - it must have made millions of women question Anna Gordy's sanity.

The double flits about throughout the marriage: one song addresses the dissolution, the next one the initial courtship. I felt weird about opening this album with two slow tunes, but putting 'Anna's Song' later on in the album both breaks narrative flow and also kind of buries this song a bit. It deserves better, so track two it is for me.

When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You? (Instrumental): lose

Starting out this time with that elusive chorus, this six-more-minutes has way more of Gaye's voice than the parentheses in the title would suggest. More than strictly an 'instrumental version', this is closer to a 'part two', the extended vamps that James Brown liked to include on the b-sides of his singles. But the 'part one' is already six minutes, and while this is an enjoyable enough groove, you'd have a hard time making a case for this as anything but cynical filler. And let's be honest here: court settlement or no, if you have to resort to instrumental versions of songs to bring your double-disc to full running time, release a single-length disc.

A Funky Space Reincarnation: keep (side two, track two)

Martin really did have funk chops, content though he might have been to stick to R&B. This is eight minutes of spectacularly silly sci-fi nonsense, like George Clinton's P-Funk as viewed through the filter of Berry Gordy's Motown. Truth be told, this is much the same as the rest of the album: meandering groove, stream-of-consciousness words, no chorus whatsoever. But it fits the genre better, and the increase in tempo is appreciated on what is after all a rather sleepy album.

My side one gave me a lot of consternation, but my side two fell together much more quickly, primarily being 'just follow the original's side four'. They start the side with this epic. I get the logic of that, but 'Sparrow' doesn't make much sense except as a side starter, so in deference to that, this follows it as track two on the flipside.

You Can Leave, But It's Going to Cost You: keep (side one, track three)

An album is 'top-heavy' if it frontloads all the most accessible material at its beginning. Here, My Dear, then, is 'bottom-heavy', really picking up the pace on the almost-faultless side four, by which time many casual listeners must surely have given up. This is the muddy of the divorce case, back to lyrics that are maddeningly particular and embarrassingly specific. But the music is much more engaging this time - rare on this album, you can walk away singing (or at least humming) this one. It passes that infamous 'whistle test', which doesn't by itself make it a good song any more than naked emotional honesty does. What does make it a good song is perhaps more intangible, but like its neighbours on side four, a good song it is.

I don't get why this is on side four. It makes more sense as a musical decision than a thematic one, but I like it better on side one. It's track three because on my album it moves the story from 'the good old days' to 'the divorce'. It introduces the downfall of the marriage (which I'm just realising now I really don't dwell on much), and also hikes the tempo up after two midtempo tracks.

Falling in Love Again: keep (side two, track three)

The soap-opera on this is that this particular track is about Janis Hunter, the woman Gaye had already married by the time of the release of this album had been released. As it happens, they already had two kids together before Anna even filed for divorce - lest you think Marvin is the victim here. In any case, whatever the unpleasant real-world associations (should I mention she was 17 and seventeen years his junior when they began their relationship?), this song is still brilliant as a finale to this album (which it is, barring forty-seven seconds), ending it on a cautious note of optimism. Not only is the lyrical content lighter but so is the music and Gaye's delivery. This just floats in the air in front of you, after a full hour-plus of weight pushing you down. Refreshing.

Motown gets this one right: it has to be the climax of this album if the album is to have any thematic unity, and if this song is to be anything more than a sore thumb on the album. There's a tiny coda to come, but otherwise this should really be the final track here: side two, track three.

When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You? (Reprise): keep (side two, track four)

Thematic unity? Or fourteen songs on a double looking better than thirteen? Well, either way it works. A tiny little bite of the album's main 'theme', just as the credits roll. Cute.

Obviously this can't be anything but the last track now, can it?

Friday, November 26, 2010

Better as a Single: "All Eyez on Me" by 2Pac

All Eyez on Me, 2Pac's final release during his lifetime, marks a lamentable shift in topic and theme. While 2Pac's early, and superior, albums find him decrying a variety of societal ills as a 'message' rapper, All Eyez on Me is filled with remorseless 'thug life' tales. Truth be told, little more than a small series of incremental steps exists between decrying gang violence, illustrating its horrors, objectively recounting gangland tales, and glorifying street crime. Since to many a listener the intent of 'message rap' was often lost in the vicarious thrill of hard-life tales, perhaps it's to be expected that the artists would blur that line as well until it was barely even perceptible. Circumstances conspired to feed Shakur's voluminous martyr-complex, with the result that he got out of jail determined to show how hard he was, a thug fighting against a system designed to keep him down. In any case, he was walking free due to Suge Knight's posting of a bond, in exchange for Shakur recording for Knight's Death Row label, an imprint with a reputation for bloodiness and bloody-mindedness.

Never mind that Shakur was in prison for sexual assault, less a hard-man-being-beaten-down crime than a defenseless-woman-being-beaten-and-gang-raped crime. Tales of being a sex criminal sell rather less than ghetto thug odysseys (and on this particular album any track discussing women tends to be misogynist swill), so former-ballet-dancer 2Pac threw himself into the role with all the concentration of a method actor. Within months he was dead, a victim of the very gang violence he had tried to hard to be a part of. Be careful what you wish for, they say.

2Pac apparently had a backlog of material written from his days behind prison bars. He also apparently wanted to get his contract with Suge Knight over with as soon as possible. Whether or not it's strictly true, All Eyez on Me is hailed as rap's first double album, and more importantly, reflecting its 1996 release era, it's a double-CD, a 132-minute monster.

When, in the wake of this album's phenomenal 9x-platinum success, it became de rigeur for hip-hop artists to release double-CDs, they became a new and very particular form of torture. Already the expanded running time offered by the CD had caused hip-hop artists to give into bloat, with CDs padded to 70-minute running times with skits, intros, outros, remixes and 'special guests'. Within the context of what I do here at "Better as a Single", almost any mainstream CD released in the 1990s was a 'double album', and most of them were guilty of the same quality-control-lapses that plagues 'doubles' in the 60s, 70s and 80s. But 140 minutes is far more than anybody properly needs (double CDs are effectively quadruple albums), and All Eyez on Me is no exception, especially since it's front-loaded to the point that 80% of what you want to hear is contained on the first CD. It plays almost like a 'deluxe edition' package, with the album on one disc accompanied by outtakes on a second disc. My reduction, then, doesn't go so far as to minimise a 132-minute project into a 40-minute format. Instead, I've cut it down to twelve overlong songs, to come up with one CD that's about sixty minutes in length. Still more than common sense would dictate, but much more tolerable than 27 overlong songs that all start to sound pretty much exactly the same.

All Eyez on Me

Side one
  1. Ambitionz az a Rider (4:38)
  2. California Love (Remix) (6:25)
  3. How Do U Want It (4:47)
  4. 2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted (4:06)
  5. Picture Me Rollin' (5:14)
  6. Run tha Streetz (5:16)
Side two
  1. Only God Can Judge Me (4:56)
  2. Heartz of Men (4:43)
  3. Shorty Wanna Be a Thug (3:51)
  4. No More Pain (6:14)
  5. I Ain't Mad at Cha (4:53)
  6. Life Goes On (5:01)

Ambitionz az a Ridah: keep (side one, track one)

This is a really great opening track. Musically, it's pretty simple, with little more than a creepy/funky piano line and a beat behind it. On an album crammed with guest performances, this is quite understated, to the point that 2Pac himself actually sings the chorus (and sung it is). Over top, 2Pac raps as he intends to for the next two hours: ghetto fantasy, 'thug life' both as a metaphor for street life and for the rather more pampered life of a rap star. But his flow is a force to be reckoned with: self-assured and commanding. He's every bit the 'great rapper' he's frequently lauded as on this song.

Not only was this the first song recorded for the album (a historical note at best) but it's also a kind of 'statement of purpose'. I frontload this album perhaps too heavily with hits and with special-guests, so at least this, track one on the original and track one on my single-disc, serves as an 'intro' before getting down to the top 40.

All Bout U: lose

A smooth R&B sound and a well-sung chorus does nothing to hide the fact that this is misogynistic garbage. Most of 2Pac's verses are just women-hating sex talk. The chorus, and Snoop Dogg's speech, berate a woman for, as far as I can tell, having a successful career in music videos (and attending the Million Man March). For this sin, the woman is called a 'ho' literally dozens of times, without even the slightest remorse.

Skandalouz: lose

This is a tough one. I think this properly belongs on a different album. I know 2Pac envisioned this as largely a 'party album', but rarely is is as explicitly 'party-oriented' as it is here. As usual on this album, 2Pac has nothing intelligent to say on the topic of women, and some of his lines are quite bad, really. But his flow is great, Nate Dogg's vocals warm and memorable, and the bed of music beneath it rich and welcoming. This is just too great sounding a song to be entirely dismissed, but it's ultimately an empty experience.

Got My Mind Made Up: lose

After the previous two tracks, this is a welcome return to the business at hand. The simplest of beats, accented with tiny little scratches and a simple keyboard line, lies underneath a series of guest-stars. This album is overloaded with guest-stars, but the ones on Disc 1, like the Siamese Twins Method Man and Redman here, are big names you want to hear, not anonymous space-fillers. And frankly what's worthwhile - all that's worthwhile - about this song is Method Man and Redman. Otherwise, there's nothing of note going on here.

How Do U Want It: keep (side one, track three)

'Commercial' rap at its most blatant, this Jodeci-sung track even features an unusually radio-oriented 'bouncy' flow from 2Pac himself. The whole thing sounds great, though, and even if Jodeci are required to drop way more n-bombs than they probably otherwise would have, surely this pop confection was responsible for more than a few of the multi million units this collection shifted.

I had originally buried this song a bit deeper, but on playback it kept bubbling forward. Tracks two and three are a one-two of legitimate party jams before the album cools down a bit. The two number one hits come back-to-back, and this is the second one, track three.

2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted: keep (side one, track four)

Obviously this song does nothing more than what it says on the label: takes two of Death Row's biggest stars, 2Pac and Snoop Doggy Dogg, and sticks them on the same song, sparring back-and-forth on a friendly, superficial tune that makes no real attempt at 'depth' in any way, shape or form. Luckily, that's quite enough: this track works merely because the pair seem to be having a good time, they're two greats at the peak of their game, effortlessly knocking off what feels like a simple, fresh freestyle. Most of the 'special guests' on this album feel like marketing ploys: no-names riding 2Pac's coattails in the hopes of greater success to come (while 2Pac tends to phone in his own contribution). Here, though, it's a meeting of equals, and 2Pac rises to the occasion. It does get a bit repetitive, though.

To a certain extent the track placement of the original was a kind of template for my version. On the original, this song brings us back to the mission at hand after "How Do U Want It", and it serves the same purpose here, as track four keeping the special-guest parade alive on my single-length.

No More Pain: keep (side two, track four)

This six-minute-plus epic revolves around a highly creepy, dissonant beat reminiscent of the Wu-Tang Clan's RZA (though in fact created by DeVanté Swing, someone I've otherwise never even heard of). The whole mood, in fact, recalls that Staten Island crew - interesting for a disc that forms a major part of the 'coastal feud' of the era. 2Pac is perhaps a bit unrelenting here, but the whole thing is a welcome change of pace and an intense masterpiece, even if ultimately it outwears its welcome by the time it's faded out.

I wanted to have side two slow down a little. This being slow but also long and experimental, it screams out 'put me on side two', and so I do, in the middle of a long segment of songs without guest rappers. With two weepers following this, this is in a way the album's climax. It's track four of side two.

Heartz of Men: keep (side two, track two)

A thank-you to benefactor Suge Knight, this is a great-sounding song, funky and with a rich mosaic of samples (including great use of Prince and Richard Pryor), this song is hugely enjoyable as an example of pure escapist ghetto fantasy. It's only when you consider the hollowness of 2Pac's materialist hard-man braggadocio that the song loses a little bit of its lustre.

It wasn't immediately apparent to me where to put this. Since side two starts off uptempo before cooling off halfway through, I included it here. It comes after the funky side opener and keeps the tempo high.

Life Goes On: keep (side two, track six)

This song sticks out on the album for being far more sentimental than the rest of the collection and, frankly, not being entirely devoid of cheese. It flirts with the boundaries of good taste, but a bit of suspension of disbelief (and of cynicism) later, and you're listing to a good an memorable song. This is one of many of 2Pac's meditations on death that gained a certain level of infamy as 'prophetic' in the wake of his own premature passing.

It's a eulogy. Putting it in the middle of a CD strikes me as strange and ultimately detrimental to the CD's flow and to this song's impact. It's, again, an oddly sentimental way to end the album, but it works for me, and it's a hell of a lot better closing track than "Heaven Ain't Hard 2 Find".

Only God Can Judge Me: keep (side two, track one)

The only reason one ever says the phrase that forms this song's title is in response to having been judged, and found wanting, by humans. Since that judgement was by and large fair, this song is mostly martyr-complex stuff. Yet 2Pac is entirely compelling here, dramatic and messianic and exhibiting a flow here as masterful as on any other tracks recorded during his lifetime. The G-Funk backing track, an outside production by people I've never heard of, is funky and memorable enough to make the song a success.

It is a bit of a statement of purpose, isn't it? Not enough to displace "Ambitionz az a Ridah" as the opener, but starting off side two is like a 'second opener', isn't it? Well, at least I like to pretend it is.

Tradin' War Stories: lose

That tightrope between reviling and revelling in 'the life': perhaps it's the very tension between these two divergent goals that creates the excitement that exists in so much 'gangsta rap'; I don't know. I do know that the temptation to draw some kind of moral or message from experience, however remorseless you might like to seem for the vicarious benefit of suburban teenagers who buy your stuff, seems almost irresistible, and here we get a sense of that: another mass of rappers sitting around, 'trading war stories' as the apt title would have it. But it cuts a bit deeper here, as in each case there's an attempt to dig a bit deeper than mere thug-boasts. Most of the time on these two discs, I find myself tuning out the words and listening to the music below. But here I find it hard to do that. It's decent, but it's overlong, and in the end it's just filler.

California Love (Remix): keep (side one, track one)

I'm having a hard time with this. In particular, I'm having a hard time putting my finger on exactly what is so undeniably fabulous about the single version of this song and what precisely gets lost in this sadly toothless remix. It's still great, mind you: effortless, exciting, fun and funky as hell. It's a true party song on a disc that has fewer of them than one might think. What it is, in fact, is a shadow of a masterpiece. Obviously, as the whole planet agrees by now, the disc should have had the single mix. Roger Troutman's fabulous talkboxed coda is a worthwhile addition, but otherwise even he (singing one of hip-hop's best-ever original choruses) loses a little with this remix. Still, can't complain: this still blows 95% of the rest of these two CDs clean out of the water. 2Pac would eventually have plenty of unflattering things to say about Dr. Dre, but did he ever attempt to calculate exactly how much Dre contributed to his career with this masterpiece? This is a very rare thing: a song that nobody seems to dislike. It's just brilliant from start to finish.

Remix or no, this is the jewel in the crown. There's really no reason it should be placed deep in the middle of the first CD. I really think the sooner the better for this, so it's track two here, first up after the 'intro'. It might be true that I front-load this album too much, but I like the idea of putting the 'party tunes' first. Contemplation comes later, in fits and spurts.

I Ain't Mad at Cha: keep (side two, track five)

My personal pick for 'best tune on the album' and maybe even 'best tune in 2Pac's career', this is a rare return to the themes and emotional weight of 2Pac's previous albums. An absolutely gorgeous rumination on past friends escaping 'the life' (and, again, of his time in prison), this is sensitively and congenially written and performed by 2Pac (within hours of his release from prison, allegedly), with a beautiful chorus sung by Danny Boy and a piano line, taken from a DeBarge song, that BlackStreet also used. 2Pac did it better.

The focus of this is different to "Life Goes On", I know. But the two are contemplative and considerate, and they bring the album to a calm, reflective conclusion. So it's the second-to-last track.

What'z Ya Phone #: lose

The first CD ends in a really dreadful fashion. Building a song around Prince's erratic funk masterpiece "777-9311" is no bad idea, and marrying it to a rushed sex rap not a crime by itself. But the second half of this track is entirely an unpleasant re-enactment of a telephone conversation between 2Pac and some woman he was 'intimate' with. Horrible stuff that no one in their right mind would want to listen to more than once. As obscene phone calls go, I'd even take the Jerky Boys.

Can't C Me: lose

Dr. Dre was working at the peak of his talent in this era, and actually getting George Clinton himself on board instead of merely sampling P-Funk is a genius move. The track has all kinds of Parliament-style curlicues throughout, but somehow it falls flat. I think it might be 2Pac himself, who seems like he's boxed in by the activity around him and is screaming to be heard in this track. As the opening track of disc two, a 'party tune' is a good choice, but this particular track seems to be trying too hard, and it gets no party started. So I guess that makes it perfect as an introduction to the unfortunately flat disc two.

Shorty Wanna Be a Thug: keep (side two, track three)

Shorty Wanna be a Thug: A scratchy vinyl sample and an occasional sax break conspire to create a backdrop that is a bit unusual over which 2Pac (sans guests, strangely for disc two) tells the take of a youth being inaugurated into the 'life'. Ultimately, it's quite a gripping track, perhaps not overly memorable but not merely filler either. Even though this is faint praise, this track is a highlight of the second disc.

Side two, track three is the single most anonymous place on a twelve-track album, and I wanted to give this song a bit more prominence, but the only prominence I could give it (not inconsequential) was as 'bridge between uptempo and slower segments'.

Holla at Me: lose

This is taken at a quicker tempo than most of the midtempo G-Funk on display here, yet the increased tempo does little to ramp up the energy and excitement level. Guest vocalist Jewell, whoever she is, dominates this track, but it's mostly just messy and forgettable.

Wonda Why They Call U Bitch: lose

More misogynistic garbage. At one time 2Pac might have defended a woman against slurs, now he revels in them. In this particular case, the woman - who 2Pac says he loved 'like a sister - is apparently guilty of the crime of promiscuity. In any case, the musical backing, with female voices amusically singing the title track, is weak, leaving nothing worthwhile about this song.

When We Ride: lose

An anonymous 'group track': in an obvious cross-marketing move, the Outlawz dominate; 2Pac is barely even present. Electro squeaks and beeps in the background, a decent backing track, but absolutely nothing you'd need to hear a second time.

Thug Passion: lose

This track has on it all the elements of the very best of Death Row G-Funk. It really is a decent sounding song, but again it's largely a special-guest showcase, and when 2Pac does show up, he clearly has nothing to say, rapping about drinks and knocking off another filler that is all style, no substance.

Picture Me Rollin': keep (side one, track five)

'Rolling' is exactly what this smooth, musical backing track is doing. It's mostly run-of-the-mill gangsta taunts and boasts on top, another litanly of guest rappers lining up to add a verse or two, another sung chorus, another four minutes done and dusted. But it sounds great, and ultimately when it comes to disc two of this collection, that has to be enough.

I'll be frank here: one of the main reasons I included this song was because CD2 was woefully under-represented on my single-disc. But I wound up putting it on side one, the last of a long series of head-bobbing songs with prominent beats, second to last on the side.

Check-Out Time: lose

Probably the most cynical filler track on disc two, and maybe the worst track on the whole disc. A parade of guest performers talk boring nonsense about being drunk and picking up women, with the phrase "we gotta go" repeated incessantly. Horrid.

Rather Be Ya Nigga: lose

This is a pretty generic 'slow jam', another embarrassing take on relationships. The music is a bit too saccharine, and nothing either 2Pac or Richie Rich has much compelling to say. It's actually all rather poorly done. As the topic of sex goes, it's one of the better performances on this disc, actually, yet it still falls flat. This is what passes for 'romance' at Death Row, I guess.

All Eyez on Me: lose

What does it mean if you take your magnum opus's title track and bury it as track ten of the second disc? It could mean that Death Row started with the title for the CD, and then decided that one of the anonymous tracks on disc two could be spruced up by adding a half-sung 'chorus' featuring the album title. I don't know, but ultimately this song is really representative of the second disc, being perfectly mediocre. Not embarrassing, but something that might have stayed on the shelf had this album been better edited. Big Syke pulls off his verse with aplomb, though. How odd that a title track doesn't make the cut.

Run tha Streetz: keep (side one, track six)

In the middle of the doldrums of the second half of CD two, we get this track. This track is not that highly rated, and it's back to gender relations, which on this album means 2Pac talking a load of bollocks. The main reason I rate this, though, is because it's written mostly from a woman's perspective, Michel'le gets in a great verse, and after countless tracks where women are either cussed and treated as sex objects or else (on the 'thug' stuff) ignored entirely, it's nice to have a slightly more varied approach to the other half of the planet. The song features the R&B-staple high-pitched keyboard line and is hardly revolutionary musically, but at least it's no embarrassment.

Of the twelve songs I chose, I'm well aware that this is the one most likely to raise eyebrows. Its sound is most similar to "Life Goes On", so I give them complementary positions: the final track on each side. That might frustrate this song's detractors that I give it so prominent a placement, but I like the idea of cooling down side one by dropping the tempo as it concludes.

Ain't Hard 2 Find: lose

A series of anonymous guest rappers, so anonymous they're actually identified by letters of the alphabet (honestly: except for Richie Rich and 2Pac himself, the performers here are named "B-Legit", "C-Bo", "D-Shot" and "E-40"), over a totally typical G-Funk beat. Death Row could have whipped off a 60 minute CD of material exactly like this ever week or so. There's nothing wrong with this; in the context of the second half of disc two, it's almost a highlight. But it's just bog-standard, run-of-the-mill stuff.

Heaven Ain't Hard 2 Find: lose

A sex rap, but shockingly limp. A truly dreadful ending to the album, this could be the Fresh Prince.

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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Better as a Single: "Self Portrait" by Bob Dylan

I've said before that there's something polarising about the double album: most of them inspire either awe or ire in the minds of critics. There is rarely a space in between. How extreme can this get? Well, Bob Dylan has only released two 'double albums' in his career (with the caveat that he has released double lives, double compilations and CD-era albums that were released on vinyl as doubles): one is regularly touted not only as Bob Dylan's best album but one of the very best albums in popular music history. And the other one, released a scant few years after that one, is not only panned with few exceptions as Bob Dylan's worst album but also regularly features highly on lists of worst albums after.

How extreme is that difference then? From the very top to the very bottom. Double albums can do that to you. Except it's my opinion that Blonde on Blonde is vastly overrated and Self Portrait vastly underrated. I'm not going to pretend the latter is a better album than the former: it's not. But both of them mix moments of rare beauty with indulgent knock-offs, albeit in a different ratio. The main difference, apart from genre, is reach. On Blonde on Blonde Dylan is grasping heights he frequently can't quite touch, but the effort is fascinating to hear. On Self Portrait, Dylan is determined to 'signify' as little as possible and has made a conscious effort to strip his music of ambition. And in this case, he frequently can't stop his natural greatness from shining through, but the effort is frustrating to hear. What makes Self Portrait a failure is not the large amount of terrible music it features so much as the moments of greatness whose shine is dulled by the company they keep. Perfect, then, for some pruning.

Dylan recorded Self Portrait at a time of extreme dissatisfaction with his public persona. I think he was bothered by the unquestioning adoration he appeared to receive whatever he did. The period between the two doubles is characterised by a constant simplification and a constant re-evaluation of his art: it's a huge fall from "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" to "Country Pie", but I would bet that Dylan found he didn't really like his word-fest electric songs that much (though he's constantly returned to them in live performance) and found himself envying the songwriters who were appreciated for simpler values like hummable melodies and catchy turns of phrase. I have no doubt that the songs he chose to cover here were not only the kinds of songs he was playing on his own record player in Woodstock but also the songs he wished he could be celebrated for composing. Dylan being Dylan, I think he came to appreciate, and return to, his strengths, but it was a long time coming, and I think to the extent that this album really is a 'self-portrait', it speaks volumes about how he saw his career at the time.

Is it an act of self-sabotage, as he himself has claimed? It can't be: there is laziness, bad singing, thoughtless castoffs and robotic lack of feeling here. But that's all mixed in with genuinely strong, considered material. At best, this is an attempt at a good album that was sabotaged in the end when he couldn't pull it off. That, or a famously weak self-critical ability, might explain some of the frustratingly poor moments on the album. The critical drubbing this album has received is deserved inasmuch as releasing unlistenable material alongside better stuff is insulting to the audience and allows critics to review the worst while overlooking the best. But worst album ever? Not even close.

The extent to which I think the critical views of Dylan's two doubles are exaggerated can be summed up like this: I don't claim that Self Portrait is a better album or even an especially good album. But if you put together a single disc of the worst of Blonde on Blonde and put together a single disc of the best of Self Portrait, I contend that the Self Portrait album would be better. This is that album.

Self Portrait

Side one
  1. All the Tired Horses (Dylan) (3:12)
  2. Days of '49 (Alan Lomax, John Lomax, Frank Warner) (5:27)
  3. Let It Be Me (Gilbert Bécaud, Mann Curtis, Pierre Delanoë) (3:00)
  4. Take Me as I Am (Or Let Me Go) (Boudleaux Bryant) (3:03)
  5. Take a Message to Mary (Felice Bryant, Boudleaux Bryant) (2:46)
  6. I Forgot More Than You'll Ever Know (Cecil A. Null) (2:23)
Side two
  1. Copper Kettle (The Pale Moonlight) (Alfred Frank Beddoe) (3:34)
  2. Living the Blues (Dylan) (2:42)
  3. It Hurts Me Too (Traditional, arranged by Dylan) (3:15)
  4. Blue Moon (Lorenz Hart, Richard Rodgers) (2:29)
  5. Gotta Travel On (Paul Clayton, Larry Ehrlich, David Lazar, Tom Six) (3:08)
  6. Wigwam (Dylan) (3:09) 

All the Tired Horses: keep (side one, track one)

'Moxie' is just one word to describe what it took for Bob Dylan to start his album off with this song. Reviled down the years, this is admittedly a genuinely shocking start to the album. What I hear when I listen to this song is an 'anti-Bob Dylan' track: to date, Bob Dylan songs have lived and died by his words and his voice: this one has the voices of other people singing a single sentence, as artless as possible, over and over. Yet what Bob Dylan songs have been criticised as lacking - a commitment to detail, to arrangement and instrumentation, this has in droves. This is a composition built around the very things Bob Dylan compositions tend to overlook, and whatever Dylan's motives for attempting such a project, I can call it an unqualified success: after all, the song is gorgeous, in a non-ironic way. There is much beauty in this song, a beauty of a different but equally legitimate nature to the beauty of, say, "Mr. Tambourine Man".

Whatever Dylan's motives in the creation of this song, its placement at the beginning of the album is no accident: it is designed to be provocative and challenging. And ergo, brilliant. No punches are pulled, and you can't realistically make it past this track unaware that this is not your father's Dylan album. So opening position for me too.

Alberta #1: lose

A slow tempo can make a song mysterious, fragile, passionate, sensual, haunting, peaceful, brooding or calming. Or alternately it can just make it boring. I don't think this album contains as much 'breathing softly' as Greil Marcus once famously claimed it did, but it does here and on the carbon-copy "#2" as well.

I Forgot More Than You'll Ever Know: keep (side one, track six)

A fully competent, flawless take on the Countrypolitan genre. It may have nothing at all to do with what makes Dylan Dylan, but if you can set aside thoughts of who it is doing the singing, is it any good? Emphatically, yes it is. It's well-sing and well-performed, tapping into the currents of a musical tradition Dylan fans may not connect with but Dylan himself clearly does. If this is the kind of music that moved Dylan at the time, and if in recording it he was hoping to give his listeners a taste of what he felt listening to this song, then not only is it a success but it's also a brave and generous public service.

For some reason, you walk away from this album saying, 'boy, there's a lot of Nashville here' - on further inspection, there's not, but that's the impression it leaves. So much so that even though there's not that much slick-country on my single, it still threatens to drown out the rest of the album. It was a calculated decision to devote most of the second half of side one to steel guitars, and a risky one, but it was the only way I could give the album a respectable flow. Never in a million years, though, would I have anticipated closing my act one with this particular ditty.

Days of '49: keep (side one, track two)

At five and a half minutes, this is "Like a Rolling Stone" length and a good deal more ambitious than the rest of this album. As a contribution to the social-history subgenre of the folk tradition, it's more palatable to Dylan fans than syrupy love songs - ultimately, this is exactly the performer many (most?) of his fans want him to be. Yet this is not merely a public service: Dylan clearly loves this song and inhabits it totally, giving a performance so commanding that even he is knocked out by the authority of his delivery. "Whoa," he proclaims as the end, and so do we. A finger in the light-switch on an album otherwise powered by double A batteries.

Since there's so much country on side one and so much more 'trad' on side two, this song might be misplaced. But it deserves a prominent placement, and the one-two of this after "All the Tired Horses" sets listeners up to expect a much better album than they actually get. How cruel am I?

Early Morning Rain: lose

I'm not really sure what Gordon Lightfoot has to do with Bob Dylan, really: one is known for convention-demolishing thought-dreams that sweated ambition, the other for small-scale ditties, sturdy and hummable but largely empty. To that end, then, Dylan covering Lightfoot on the present album makes more sense than Dylan covering Lightfoot at any other phase of his career, and he covers him appropriately here: pleasant but signifying nothing.

In Search of Little Sadie: lose

Tough as the competition surely is, the most baffling aspect of this entire project might just be the two contrasting versions of this song separated on CD by merely one track. Both of them are horrid but for entirely different reasons: the present version is filled to the brim with creativity, dynamics and mood but is technically so horrible as to be unlistenable; the later version is faster and technically precise but so robotic and lacking in feeling that it is ultimately equally unlistenable for different reasons. Form versus feeling, the pairing serves as a great jumping-off point for a discussion about what makes music enjoyable - you could tell much about a person by asking which one he or she preferred. But ultimately all of that is academic, as neither stand up to repeated listening.

Let It Be Me: keep (side one, track three)

When it comes to this particular track, I think I get a vague sense of why the split exists between this album's vehement haters and its timid supporters. Inasmuch as talent and craft are different gifts (and I think it's undeniable that they are), in the expression-is-all world of contemporary music, a world where the importance given to unrestrained creative expression is something largely of Dylan's own creation, craft is given scant consideration: seen as a lesser art, something perhaps belonging to the world of pop music. Certainly not the kinds of music Dylan fans cleave to. In other words, Self Portrait is barely even comparable to his other works, being a different form of expression built from a different skill set - and by no means entirely of Dylan's own creation. This particular song is a perfect example: a French chanson with a gorgeous melody, expertly navigated by Team Dylan with especially lovely guitar throughout. It's very skillfully crafted music, and there's the rub. Dylan fans want talent, not craft, and there's scant evidence of talent here. If you can deal with that, though, the results are beautiful. This is an expert landscape hung in a gallery that normally displays abstract expressionist works.

I didn't intentionally put so much from disc one on my side one and disc two on my side two. I didn't even realise I'd done it at all until now. But this is very carefully places to bridge between the down-to-earth "Days of '49" and the Nashville stuff. Couldn't have found a better song to do it.

Little Sadie: lose

Most of my discussion for this track is above, but I have to wonder if the hopped-up speed and bouncy vocals on this album are intentionally a tongue-in-cheek parody of the murder ballad's words.

Woogie Boogie: lose

A god-awful throwaway instrumental 12-bar jam, the kind of go-nowhere stuff musicians pass the time with while waiting for the singer to take the stage. Could go on for twenty minutes, two long even at two. And it's horribly recorded, with tinny guitars and an ugly squawking saxophone. And no melody whatsoever.

Belle Isle: lose

Pretty orchestration on this Irish ditty, which may or may not have a beautiful melody - I can't tell because Dylan seems to barely know the song and spends his time wandering around aimlessly. What might have been a nice inclusion and a curious change of pace instead trots by without distinction.

Living the Blues: keep (side two, track two)

As the album's only vocal studio original, this song carries a lot of weight: people will it to carry the torch of 'what Dylan represents', and of course it's horribly unsuited to the task, being a throwaway rock-and-roll pastiche of no more consequence than anything else here. But to dislike this song is to misunderstand its intent: as empty fun, it works. And why shouldn't Dylan be allowed some empty fun every now and then?

There's a strange math that I used here: my 12-track single is a cycle, repeated four times, of slow-fast-slow. So there are only four fast songs here, and they're kept far from each other. I showcase this by putting it directly after what most would consider the album highlight. I'm such a nice guy.

Like a Rolling Stone (live): lose

Just a few weeks after Woodstock , the epochal festival that Dylan chose not to participate in despite it being held in practically his backyard, he played a brief set at the Isle of Wight in south England, his first on-stage appearance since his legendary 1966 accident. Using his country-and-western crooning voice and putting the Band through some rather easy-listening motions led to a showering of criticism at the time, and the decision to include four songs from that concert, and by no means four of the best performances, is the main evidence for the 'official bootleg' and 'intentional sabotage' theories regarding this album. I'm inclined to the latter, or perhaps the 'filler' theory. In this particular case, though, if this mumbling, flat, lifeless and scandalously flubbed performance of Dylan's most iconic moment of greatness is not an act of sabotage or demystification (and I really can't see how it can't be), then Dylan must have the worst sense in artistic history of his own relevance. It's fine that this album doesn't aim to replicate his glory days, but recasting his moments of glory in the mould of this frustrating project is every bit the slap in the face of Dylan lovers that many claim this entire project to be. Even if this track had any quality to it, mind you, I wouldn't include it - haphazardly mixing in live tracks is one of the greatest symptoms of double-album-syndrome, and one that needs to be cut at the root. My single-length "Self Portrait" is strictly a studio creation, I assure you.

Copper Kettle (The Pale Moonlight): keep (side two, track one)

Absolutely none of the critical hammering usually applied to this album is applied to the current, unanimously praised, track. So it's worth considering what makes this recording, superficially similar in (syrupy) instrumentation, so much more praiseworthy than the others. And personally I think it has to do with two overlapping things: one, the genre, which as a historically-considered 'plight of the common man' modern folk tune is very much the genre that brought Dylan to fame and 'greatness'; and two, the emotion in the performance, wonderfully sung with all of the grace and passion Dylan's blunt instrument of a voice can muster. And despite Dylan's obvious love of, and attraction to, the critically-maligned genres on display elsewhere on this album, it's tough to avoid the conclusion that number two here is a direct result of number one. Whatever it is, though, that moves him so about this song is ultimately what moves us too. And the fact that the strings and female voices do so much here to enhance the end-product proves how ridiculous it is to criticise this album merely for having them in the arrangements.

Like every other aspect of this maddening double, the original album's sequencing shows brilliance and lunkheadedness in equal parts. Surrounding "Let it Be Me" with different versions of the same song? Lunkheaded. Starting act two with this gem? Brilliant. Who am I to dissent?

Gotta Travel On: keep (side two, track five)

That spark. You know what it is, that indescribable 'something' that makes good music good. We buy Dylan music to witness the spark of the creator, whereas on display here is the spark of the interpreter - but that's no reason to dismiss this album. The better reason to dismiss this album is that all too frequently it's something like starting a fire with wet straw: most of the sparks just fizzle out ineffectually. Presenting the wet squibs alongside the brushfires is brave, but ultimately diminishes what is worthwhile about this album. The present song is obviously designed as a vacuous show-stopper, a foot-stomping singalong, but Dylan starts it through half-opened eyes - seemingly adrift, another example of 'breathing softly'. Somehow, though, mid-song, that spark manages to catch fire and burn up the remainder of the song. Too little too late? Perhaps, but at least by the song's end we're reminded that Dylan still knows how to have a good time. When he feels like it.

I put this as the, ahem, 'climax' because it seems like a hokey old-timey curtain-call. The album finishes with a much better song, but before that, you get this. Good night, ladies and gentlemen, and drive home safely.

Blue Moon: keep (side two, track four)

People hate this track mostly, I think, because it strays outside the stylistic bounds of what people perceive a Bob Dylan song ought to be. Yet Rodgers and Hart's evergreen is so timeless precisely because it can be adapted to pretty much any genre you want. Dylan's take on it is, in my opinion, well-considered, well-sung and effective. The fiddle throughout the track brings it from pops territory partially into hoedown territory, and the genre-mixing is artful.

Perhaps my most controversial inclusion, and I found it hard to place. Side two is more 'organic' than side one, and even though this is a standard, the fiddle makes it hoedown stuff. So in between the blues and the Gene Autry-style tip-of-the-hat? Home at last.

The Boxer: lose

One of the funniest tracks on the disc for sure, this is Bob taking on Paul Simon, the 1960s most successful Dylan-wannabe, by recording a song widely believed to be 'about' Dylan. Almost sardonic in intent, really, and his double-tracked Bob-on-Bob vocals are hilarious yet oddly effective. Amongst the country and folk ditties, Simon's ambition sticks out like a sore thumb, but the rudimentary accompaniment brings it sadly down to earth. It would have been a funnier joke if he'd just done it completely a capella, perhaps with an entire chorus of overdubbed Bobs.

Quinn the Eskimo (the Mighty Quinn) (live): lose

This is by far the most well-known Self Portrait track, and my fatwa on live recordings ensures its exclusion. For the sake of a unified listening experience, I stand by that decision, but I have to concede that ultimately it deprives the album of one of its few great moments. For great this is, not because the song is up to much but because the performance is delivered with such chaotic, devil-may-care abandon that it's impossible not to be caught up in the obvious delight Dylan is taking in being on stage with friends engaged in an act of epic silliness. Dylan's singing is absolutely horrible, but it's tough to see that as anything but a strength on this song.

Take Me as I Am (or Let Me Go): keep (side one, track four)

This is about as straight a Nashville track as it gets. I think we expect Dylan to gravitate towards that kind of country and western music that is closest to folk: that Appalachian ballad tradition. In truth, then, the tinkling piano and cooing vocalists represent 'selling out' every bit as much as Richard Manuel's organ and the streams of feedback did at Newport. In each case, merely rejecting the results out of hand based on how they sound is reactionary - the exact adjective many of this album's detractors use to describe it. I would describe this, instead, as well-performed and effective. Obviously it's not as impressive a great-leap-forward or as aesthetically rewarding an accomplishment as 'going electric' was, but this is bad only if you judge it by what it is not. Judged by what it is, it's quite good.

How I outpace the original for bizarreness? By having an actual set of three songs associated with the Everly Brothers and their writer Boudleaux Bryant. An Everlys song, a Bryant song, an Everly/Bryant song. Ha! It's awkward, but there you go. This is the big muddy of Countrypolitan, so it's side one, track four for you, mister.

Take a Message to Mary: keep (side one, track five)

More than any other track here, this represents why I feel the critics get this album all wrong. They're offended by the fact that it is an Everly Brothers song, and by the admittedly cheesy 'opening' eleven seconds, sung by the backup singers. Yet as the song progresses, Dylan nails it completely, capturing the song's mood and intent perfectly. The song drives along with determined purpose and a great sense of momentum, and sends its heartfelt and moving message home with no small sense of purpose.

Columbia put the two Bryant songs together, and so do I. In any case, as an uptempo number it could only take position two or five. So number five it is, side one. Not too country, but surrounded by country.

It Hurts Me Too: keep (side two, track three)

The 12-bar acoustic blues tradition that this song represents exists in a place where standards of 'authorship' and 'copyright' are defined differently, where performances are cobbled together from the collective unconscious. Of course this isn't a Dylan composition but a spontaneous reinterpretation. It's good - solid, musical, enjoyable - but not great. Higher than the standards of many a performer, sure, but not high enough to compel me to listen to it, or rather to actually think about it as I'm listening. Adequate aural wallpaper. Is that a compliment?

This was one of my final choices for inclusion. I think it belongs, but I was quite on the fence about it. "Living the Blues" is lightweight boogie, but the trio that starts off side two feels 'organic' to me, so it's another 'set', so to speak. First you live the blues, then you hear the blues. I guess.

Minstrel Boy (live): lose

Some people rate this song highly. It stands out as one of only two Dylan original lyrics on this album. But all I hear is the Band struggling through a half-written song they appear to barely know. It wouldn't make the cut even if it was a studio recording. or then again, maybe it would. Slim pickin's, right?

She Belongs to Me (live): lose

I must confess that I don't like the studio original of this song very much. It's a pat little 12-bar with knock-off lyrics of the sort that fans pore over but I imagine Dylan knocked off with little thought regarding meaning. Joan Baez, blah blah, who cares. The result is a charmless creation that inexplicably overshadows the gorgeous "Love Minus Zero / No Limit" it shares a side of vinyl with. Here, it's done a bit countryish. But it's still just a banal 12-bar. Plus it's live, so bye bye love.

Wigwam: keep (side two, track six)

One of the most snickered-at songs here, "Wigwam" is an excellent track in my opinion: an evocative, cinematic piece with a gorgeous atmosphere and an expressive melody. The 'la-la-la' vocals Dylan provides here as an accompaniment to the brass on this otherwise instrumental recording is what gets eyes a-rolling as a presumed lapse in taste, but it's my guess that the vocals served as a guide for brass to be dubbed over at a later date - making the end-result as much Bob Johnston's song as Bob Dylan's. But if the melody really is an improvised doddle sketched out in the studio, that says an awful lot about Dylan's natural gift as a melodist.

It's only Dylan's perversity that keeps this from being his closer. And it really should have been, since "Alberta #2" has no need to exist. It's kin to "All the Tired Horses", and in the movie that this album could soundtrack, that's the opening credits, and this is the closing credits - and the slow stroll into the sunset. I wonder if anyone would pay to watch that particular movie?

Alberta #2: lose

Starting and ending your album with contrasting different versions of the same song is a gambit that has served many a musician well. Making the two versions all but indistinguishable from each other is, however, not, and doing so ends the album on a note just as bizarre as any of a dozen or so other notes here.

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Sunday, September 26, 2010

Better as a Single: "The Orb's Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld" by The Orb

"Intelligent Dance Music", the rather pathetic term coined to describe 90s dance genres that weren't especially danceable and that were created by undersexed English men, is a bit of a misnomer. Little of it was as properly intelligent as, say, Donna Summer at her peak. What it was, frequently, was evocative. Capable of generating more mental synaptic energy in the listener than it did in the creator. A little bit of chemicals helped, too. As did mood.

Which is still the case all these years later. Put "The Orb's Adventures Beyond the Underworld", the two-hour début by English DJ Alex Paterson and cronies on your turntable when you're in the wrong mood and it's god-awful boring, repetitive, indulgent synth-noodling with sci-fi samples on top. But catch yourself in the right mood and it's still an evocative and occasionally moving journey, even if it plays like nostalgia by now. I saw The Orb live a year or two after the release of this album, and found it a near-mystical experience. What I was on at the time is only, well, half of that, let's say.

They called this music 'ambient house', back when it might have seemed that house was something other than a kind of silly flash-in-the-pan. By now, all that really means to us is 'ambient with a beat'. Most of the songs on this album have a beat, at times quite a heavy one. Still, though, even when this music is designed for the dance floor, it's more properly meant for 'calming down' than getting pulses racing. What was revolutionary about this music back in the day was its purpose. The Orb, and concurrent album Chill Out, were a kind of unholy union between former roadie Paterson and professional pranksters the KLF. The thing is, though, that it's not really a prank. This frequently amusical dithering-cum-sound collage was intened for 'chillout' rooms at raves, places where ecstacy-addled revellers could let their heart rate approach normal again.

It seems like nothing special now, and this music evolved more directly into new-age quackery than into any 'ambient' followers. Yet even though it seems more dancey than other 'ambient' stuff looking back at it now, it does in fact take a good deal of inspiration from thoroughly 'uncool' predecessors, not just the obvious Brian Eno but even Pink Floyd and prog rock. Having said that, then, the point of 'trimming' this album is suspect, since the songs' excessive length is kind of the point. Two hours long but only ten tracks, this is an album that revels in a kind of mannered excess. Cutting it down kind of destroys it. To that end, then, my resulting album, length-wise even less than half the vinyl-stretching original, plays a little bit differently. My side one is beatwise and my side two rather beatless. Or perhaps it's not an 'ambient house' album at all, but one side of 'ambient' (side b) and one side of 'house' (side a) - though no house that Steve 'Silk' Hurley would recognise.

Note: there actually is a single-disc version of this, an American release that shaves some 35 minutes off the running time to make a single full-length CD. However, it does so not only by dropping two tracks but by condensing several others, often to the extent that they remain mere 'sampler' versions of the proper album tracks. The American version is quite different to mine, but it's not really comparable. To start with it's still a 'double' (and comically you can buy in on vinyl too, a double just like the UK version, just 35 minutes shorter than it), and the shortened tracks make it much more of a 'pop' album - kind of like subsequent Orb releases. Mine is better.

The Orb's Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld
Side one
  1. Little Fluffy Clouds (4:27)
  2. Perpetual Dawn (9:31)
  3. Outlands (8:23)
Side two
  1. Earth (Gaia) (9:48)
  2. Spanish Castles in Space (15:05)
Little Fluffy Clouds: keep (side one, track one)

This Steve Reich-meets-Ennio Morricone 'jam' is a great deal more pop-wise than the rest of the album, a verse-chorus-verse dancefloor-filler that, as the Orb's second single after the entirely unprecedented "Huge Ever-Growing Pulsating Brain", should have signalled Paterson's selling-out in pursuit of Top 40 dreams. In retrospect going so poppy so soon might well have been a risk indeed if it weren't for the undeniably awesome nature of this track. All these years and reissues later, this still holds up remarkably well as a bliss- and wonder-filled 'feel-good' dance track. To the extent that naïveté was an important characteristic of early 90s dance music, Rickie Lee Jones was crazy to object to the inclusion of her bizarre rambling observations, because they fit this track like a glove.

The opening track actually gave me lots of pause, with the countdown that starts "Perpetual Dawn" initially feeling much better-suited. The thing is, though, that the immediacy of this song is such that it forces itself into pole position, really. It sticks out anywhere else on this album. So first it is.

Earth (Gaia): keep (side two, track one)

The space-travel theme of this album, and of its conjoined twin Space (by the KLF), is never fully explored. But in this amazing mid-tempo track, the 'transportative' qualities of good IDM are emphasised, and the whole thing does indeed feel like a strangely-spiritual journey into deep space. This is truly beautiful music for dancing or for listening in equal parts. It ends with a few minutes of poinless sci-fi bloops and bleeps, but oh well. You can't win 'em all.

"Earth" does do a good job on the original as track two, but my single-disc version wound up startng beatwise and then slowly slowing down. So for me "Earth" is the first half of the second section, the last time we hear a drumbeat. Since it's mid-tempo, its the 'let's take things down a notch' track. Side two, track one.

Supernova at the End of the Universe: lose

While this song has a truly enjoyable early-90s dance beat, for much if not most of its twelve-minute running time, it has little more going for it than that beat. And that's obviously going to get tiring pretty quick. Obviously in the chillout room epics, striking the balance between thinking and feeling is the goal. But this goal, sadly, isn't always reached. And in any case we're more likely to be listening to this in our bedrooms or on the subway. In that case, this song has little to offer.

Back Side of the Moon: lose

More of a sound collage than a composition, this beatless epic is atmospheric, moody stuff. "Ambient" rather than "ambient house", it fulfills Brian Eno's original conception of aural wallpaper: music, if that's even what this is, that you can tune into or out of at will. It establishes a mood, but with needle time being precious for our purposes here, fourteen minutes is a pretty extravagant length of time to do precious little more than establishing a mood.

Spanish Castles in Space: keep (side two, track two)

On a thoroughly 'futuristic' record, this is defiantly retro: all ambient, no house, so organic it even has what actually sounds like guitars and humans playing instruments live. This is glacially slow music, an ever-mutating line played over and over again until it's become something entirely other. Sands shifting on the desert floor, or the gradual tectonic shift of a continent across the face of the planet. It doesn't pack more of a punch into its fifteen minutes than any other track on the album, but the mood it establishes is a valuable one, one of a sterile twilight calm, and ultimately it's a fulfilling journey. To where? Well, I have no idea. I guess that's what you find when the song reaches its inevitable conclusion and you return, squinting, once again into the sunlight.

I like this track enough to include it, but only on a 120-minute epic could this not be the final track. In fact, it is the final track, inasmuch as the double really plays like two distinct albums. So this finishes the first one. In this case, it's how my entire album ends: not with a bang but with a whisper.

Perpetual Dawn: keep (side one, track two)

This track might wear its Jamaican influence more proudly on its sleeve than any other track, but it's not quite the sore-thumb it appears to be. The harder and deeper beats seem like an interruption in the flow on the album, but in fact as the first track of the second disc, its opening countdown represents a kind of 'fresh start'. Silly and profound in equal measure, this assured, confident track might perhaps be lacking some of the mystery and the emotional connection of the other two singles, and you might say that it's a bit overlong (even as it's one of the album's shorter pieces), but it's an insight into how versatile Paterson really is. The Orb's musical genre is almost always said to be influenced by Jamaican dub, but in reality there's very little except a sense of atmospherics and the value of repetition that carries over from dub to IDM. This, on the other hand, is a respectful and spot-on tribute to dub music, and inasmuch as 'ambient dub' exists as a genre, this is a highlight of it.

The countdown at the beginning of this track just screams 'album opener' to me, and I would have loved for it to be the album opener. But it's problematic: really, conceptually, this just fits better after the more traditional dance track "Little Fluffy Clouds". So track two it is, and if "Little Fluffy Clouds" is a bit of an 'intro', then the countdown still represents the beginning of the 'journey' part of the album. Plus, where else was I going to put it?

Into the Fourth Dimension: lose

This is a hyperkinetic beat on top of (not under) a series of disparate musical elements. Many of these 'elements' are quite beautiful or evocative, but they never quite cohere into a united whole. As a result, the track never really becomes a 'piece' and is most definitely less than the sum of its parts. And it represents wasted potential, too: with a little more thought, this could have been an album highlight. As it is, though, it's nine forgettable minutes.

Outlands: keep (side one, track three)

This overlooked track is, if anything, even 'deeper' than "Perpetual Dawn". It's a real floor-shaker, and even if precious little goes on, it's still compositionally a song, exciting to listen to and never outwearing its welcome.

On an album that, to a large extent, works a rather narrow sonic range as far as possible, once you've looked at the obvious standouts, deciding which songs to include and which not to becomes difficult. In addition to length, one reason why "Outlands", which quality-wise doesn't let the side down, makes the cut is its very danceability. Having twenty-odd minutes of beatwise music and twenty calmer minutes at least gives my single-album a thematic unity. So this track finishes off the beatwise side, as track three of side one.

Star 6 & 7 8 9: lose

'Brief' at only eight minutes, this keyboard-improv session is pleasantly pastoral, but ultimately little more than filler to flesh out side four. And filler that sounds much more like the past than the future, and more like the countryside than deep space.

A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules from the Centre of the Ultraworld (Live Mix Mk 10): lose

I know, I know. This is a career-defining, genre-defining epic début, one that regularly shows up on 'best ever' lists, and not including it on my trimmed single seems almost willfully perverse. The simple fact, though, is that there really isn't nineteen minutes of musical incident here. Some bits are intriguing, and as a time- and space-altering 'headtrip', it's a live performance that must have been enchanting to witness. But after Minnie Riperton goes away, you find yourself wondering, 'what now?' The Orb's iconic chess-playing 'perfomance' of this on Top of the Pops was appropriate in more ways than one. And here on the album, after an amazing but indulgent and occasionally tedious 110 minutes, you find yourself craving some Ramones well before the song even comes to an end.

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Saturday, June 26, 2010

Better as a Single: "Daydream Nation" by Sonic Youth

Yes, I am actually old enough to remember when Daydream Nation came out, when it just seemed to float in on this massive wave of goodwill from the entire 'alternative' music industry: there was this real vested interest from everyone not signed to a major label in this album just doing really well and beating the mainstream at its own game. It was a pipe dream, of course: it was never gonna happen. But it's interesting how Sonic Youth, arch purveyors of amusical noise and fully musical attitude, became 1988's 'most likely to', since musically it doesn't seem like they had much in common with the rest of the underground at the time. In fact, with five seven-minute improvisational epics and with songs built more around mood than melody, the double-album pretense, mixed with the runes for each band member and the pseudo-gothic font used throughout the packaging made the album largely indistinguishable, save for the intent and varying levels of skronking atonality, from the most mainstream of 'hard rock' bands - I get that that was the intent, to make a hipster 'parody' of hard-rock and MOR grandiosity. But the problem with exacting parody is that it's lost on anyone not in on the joke: fine for Sonic Youth and their commitment to staying resolutely 'underground', but less fine for the alternative masses busy 'wishing' this album up the charts and for the kids in the suburbs trying to figure out who or what Sonic Youth is, the kids that you absolutely need to get on your side if you're looking for that breakthrough. I get that Sonic Youth didn't care that much - not yet anyway. But plenty of people did on their behalf. And after all it was just after this album that they signed to corporate-monster DGC. And no surprise that their first DGC album suddenly found itself sans seven-minute guitarwank sessions.

Ultimately, that's why I'll never fall in love with Sonic Youth: they distrust the pop instinct far too much, sadly as they have a half-decent one. I have no problems with noise, or with experiment: just today I made it a full twelve minutes into "The Diamond Sea". But I think that the tribulations Sonic Youth are keen to subject their listeners to aren't always met with reward enough to justify the effort. And that's a pity, too, because when they're great, they're great. They just have no idea what makes them great, and as such are all too infrequently great. Here is Daydream Nation, then, where their ambition gets the better of them. They're making real songs, something they've shied away from doing so far, but are embarrassed to find themselves doing so, so they reflexively sabotage almost every pop moment they write by showering it in unfriendly sheets of noise or unfriendly singing. Still, it's the most consistent double-length they've ever put out and, shorn of its less pleasant moments, becomes a downright enjoyable experience. Who'd have thought?

Daydream Nation

Side one
  1. Teen Age Riot (6:57)
  2. Kissability (3:08)
  3. Hey Joni (4:23)
  4. Candle (4:58)
Side two
  1. The Sprawl (7:42)
  2. Eric's Trip (3:48)
  3. Providence (2:41)
  4. Hyperstation (7:13)
The box below contains the entire contents of my single-disc version of this album, hosted by YouTube. Click on the box itself to reveal the scrollbars, and click on any of the scrollbars to hear the music.

» Daydream Nation, Single-Disc Version «

Teen Age Riot: keep (side one, track one)

Now here's the thing: the dedication that Sonic Youth has to noise for noise's sake is all well and good, but knowing that they're capable of something as flat-out fabulous as this but just generally choose not to do it is much of what's frustrating about the band. Because look at this: this is just amazingly good, with a great melody and a self-assured sense of momentum. It's a seven-minute punk song, both a fanboy's love song to J Mascis and a fanboy-inspiring example of rock and roll at its finest. It's noisy and abrasive as Sonic Youth feel they need to be, but it uses the noise to cushion the pop song riding on it, not just noise for its own sake. If they'd kept making songs like this, sooner or later they would have beaten the mainstream into submission. But they got too bored too quickly.

This is an obvious album opener. For all that Sonic Youth implies they could knock off a pop gem as easily as an avant-garde workout, they know the difference when they see it. It's no coincidence that this is track one, and I'm happy to keep it in that position.

Silver Rocket: lose

Oh, those imps, releasing this as a single... it might be only 3:47, but it's actually a typical Sonic Youth freak-out in miniature: the song part lasts only one and a half minutes, the wake-me-up-when-it's-over noise bit about a minute an a half, back to the song bit for 45 seconds or so. Oddly enough, this didn't get all that much airplay alongside Whitney Houston on Top 40. Could it be the tuneless noise bit in the centre? Because frankly, I want to dance with somebody who loves me enough not to sabotage my pure pop experiences with boring noise.

The Sprawl: keep (side two, track one)

Allegedly, the title "The Sprawl" refers to science fiction or urban life or something, but obviously it also refers to this track's almost eight-minute duration. Kim gives a good performance, talk-singing her way through the first three minutes in a medium-tempo, medium-volume song performance. It's then almost five minutes of carrying on and on, as if Sonic Youth set an egg timer and said, 'we'll keep playing this till this timer runs out'. It completely breaks down, then builds up again, and the whole thing reminds me more of the Grateful Dead than anything in alternative. Which is no insult: it's evocative and kinda-dreamy.

On the double, this is a side-closer, and it really does seem to be one. Putting it as track one on side two, as I have, is a bit counter-intuitive: its lengthy conclusion seems better designed to seque into a needle lifting off a record than into some other song. But what the hell: who listens to vinly anymore, right? I think what I've come up with is, more or less, a song-based side one and an experimental-based side two. So to that end, this is the bridge between the two: first a song, then the experiment. Welcome to side two.

Cross the Breeze: lose

This starts off pretty enough. But it's all downhill from there, as we get the single most migraine-inducing vocals on the album. Ugly is as ugly does, and it's all well and good to be ugly, especially if its in service of a mood or emotion. But Kim's vocals here just make me want to lunge for the record player in an attempt to get my sanity back. The guitars chug along pleasantly enough, and I could listen to an instrumental version of this, I suppose. Is there one available?

Eric's Trip: keep (side two, track two)

It took me a while to come around to this song, the first and most famous of three pretty similar Lee Ranaldo tracks. It's a story-song, putting the rather inscrutable lyrics front-and-centre. But somewhere in the squall of moaning guitars and brilliantly spastic drums, I actually found myself excited: something that I don't find happens all that much with Sonic Youth.

I'll be frank: I'm putting two Lee songs on the album, so I ought to put one on each side. It could have gone either way. I could have put this on side one. But ultimately it didn't make much difference to 'flow' either way, and I just went with song length. This is the shorter of the two, and side two has two extended tracks, so side two it is.

Total Trash: lose

I'm not sure that front-loading the album with this many seven-minute guitar epics was the best idea, because by the time the first record ends with this decent enough Thurston ditty, the tedium of the noise but completely drowns out the genuine enjoyment value of the pop-song bit. Even (the) Pink Floyd, on "Piper at the Gates of Dawn", had the good sense to limit space-rock guitar freakouts to one per side.

Hey Joni: keep (side one, track three)

It's a good thing the guitars chime musically, because Lee clearly has no interest at all in writing vocal melodies. More than "Eric's Trip", this song calls out for something hummable. But that wouldn't have been underground enough, I guess. I have no idea what he's on about, but it's compelling enough, once again driven by the lyrics and, I guess, the urgency of his voice. I don't think the song has anything to do with Joni Mitchell.

Sonic Youth's got three lead singers. Well, that's a lie: Sonic Youth's got no singers whatsoever. But they've got three people who perform lead vocals. I thought it would be nice to start off the album by showcasing them: a Thurston song, a Kim song, a Lee song. By complete coincidence I did it twice, so that the whole album's order goes: Thurston, Kim, Lee, Thurston, Kim, Lee, instrumental, Thurston. So the first Lee track had to be side one, track three. And, well, I've already talked about why that's not "Eric's Trip".

Providence: keep (side two, track three)

This moody little instrumental for piano, malfunctioning amp and answering machine proves that Sonic Youth can indeed go experimental and come up with things other than endless variations on the basic guitar-armageddon template. I find this quite beautiful. It was actually a single, with a video and all, and since it's by no means a 'song', that's actually kind of funny. But typically Sonic Youth, I guess.

This feels like a 'penultimate' track to me - and more importantly on a four-song side, it seems like it just has to be track three. The compilers of the double disagree, putting it as track two on a four-song side. But the compilers are wrong.

Candle: keep (side one, track four)

You get the sense sometimes that Sonic Youth spent the whole of the eighties burrowing underground toward the pop playground just so that they could arrive at the eventuality of actually playing tunes without anyone accusing them of hopping the fence. I have to wonder why they bothered: it took their protégés Nirvana all of one album in the wilderness before accepting studio gloss on their music. Having songs like "Candle" up their sleeves all those years must have been tough. Because this is very much a pop song, and a very good one, too. Like "Silver Rocket", it's pop song plus noise break plus pop song again, but the pop song is better and the noise break is better too.

"Candle" and "Teen Age Riot" aren't all that similar as songs. But they're both Thurston songs, and they're both strongly commercial. It felt right to end a side with this song, in particular to keep it removed from "Teen Age Riot". So there it is: track four.

Rain King: lose

Not being part of the marital union that 67% of Sonic Youth's lead singers are in sometimes pushes Lee Ranaldo to the sidelines, but he's some kind of hero on this album, with three songs that all sound pretty much the same but are somehow compelling. This one appeals to me least of the three, in that by now it's a bit been-there-done-that, but still to its credit it's got those ridiculous drums. Evocative of a rainstorm? Er... sure. Lee's atonal hollering doesn't seem to hide any real poetry. Just nonsense, really, but it finishes off side three, the side that I think is best suited to my tastes, quite well.

Kissability: keep (side one, track two)

This tightly-wound little deconstructed sixties pop song somehow manages the trick of turning Kim Gordon's singing voice into an advantage. Jangly guitars, hyper drums, a nervously sexual energy that feels like it's about to explode, but just never does. And what might be bells at points, but could alternately just be another weird guitar noise from these masters of weird guitar noise. And - my God! - it's the exact length of a pop song.

Taking this track all the way from side four to side one is my most radical reorganisation. But it's 'poppy' in a similar way to "Teen Age Riot", so back-to-back 'pop' hits made sense to me. And also makes my single-length disorientingly deceptive, since the pop sense dries up soon enough.

The Wonder: lose

In apparently an attempt to 'parody' some of the more overblown aspects of double-album pretense, Sonic Youth decided to bundle together three different tunes with little in common except their tunings (remember that liking Sonic Youth means talking more than is healthy about 'guitar tunings'), and call the result 'Trilogy'. When they reissued Daydream Nation a few years back as a two-disc set with obligatory 'bonuses', they also went ahead and split these three songs back into distinct entities. Which makes sense, and is what I'm doing too. So if you're programming your 'BAAS' Daydream Nation using an older CD, you'll be in trouble here. In any case, this is not bad as such; fairly 'rocking', with more than anyone in Sonic Youth might be willing to admit in common with heavy metal, suitably enough then for part of the so-called 'trilogy'.

Hyperstation: keep (side two, track four)

Slow but not exactly sluggish, this has a feel to it that somehow suggests lengthy guitar improvisation, so when it (perhaps inevitably) arrives, it doesn't annoy. It's actually all quite pretty: Thurston's title-track lyrics and vocal melody, that tambourine and - yes - the guitarwanking too. Quite a trick they've managed to pull off, wouldn't you say?

It feels like a closing song. It just feels like one. It should have been the final track on the double, so I'm making it the final track on the single.

Eliminator, Jr.: lose

I had such high hopes for this track, as it's got pretty much the best title ever. But alas it's not up to much: just another atonal Kim shout-fest. At last it's mercifully brief, particularly by the standards of this album. Coming after natural album-closer "Hyperstation", it's kind of Daydream Nation's "Her Majesty".