March 31, 2008

Air

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It first happened with Pink Floyd. I attended the Roger Waters concert last year—Dark Side of the Moon played front to back, pot-smoking fathers, and an inflatable pig—and the first song in was “In the Flesh” which I happen to think is brilliant. I was feeling good. But as the night wore on, an awful and powerful conclusion was being crystallised: I don’t really like Pink Floyd.

The truth is, I found most of the gig pompous and boring. There were magical exceptions (aforementioned song; “Wish You Were Here”), but by the end of the night I had developed quite the fury towards the lead guitarist, who looked like Tarzan but with a larger ego, and who stood, I thought, as a powerful cautionary tale to misspent masculine energies.

Anyway, something similar happened last night at Air. By the end of the gig I realised this: I didn’t like them anywhere near as much as I thought I did. Not even close. With Floyd and Air conventional wisdom and my own breezy self-denial had forged an opinion of these two groups that was nowhere near how I really felt. So here it is. The unvarnished truth:

a) The Waters gig was as tacky and inflated as the giant pig that was sent—dangerously—off into the night sky. Apparently its airless carcass landed in a backyard pool in Stirling. I might add that the pig’s skin served as a canvas for fluffy, ineffectual and misspelt pronouncements on the state of habeas corpus in the Western world. With half the stadium stoned out of their fucking minds, I was doubtful of the appropriateness of lectures on constitutional complacency, &

b) Air left me flat. It has something to do with the fact that they don’t have a heart. And shame on me for not realising that earlier. Also, their new stuff is embarrassing. There’s no other word. You know how Phoenix have put out two great songs, and the rest is execrable garbage? This new Air business sounds like the absolute worst of Phoenix. Shame.

That’s about it, folks. And I also didn’t purchase any new music. So shame on me.

Posted by Martin McKenzie-Murray at 11:20 AM

March 7, 2008

In Defence of Pop

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“…music, like colour, or a cloud, is neither intelligent nor unintelligent—it just is. The chord, the simplest building-block for even the tritest, silliest chart song, is a beautiful, perfect, mysterious thing…

I don’t want to read inane books, but books are built from words, our only instruments of thought; all I ask of music is that it sounds good. Despite its crudity and simplicity, “Twist and Shout” sounds good—in fact, any attempt to sophisticate it would make it sound much worse—and I fundamentally, profoundly disagree with anyone who equates musical complication and intelligence with superiority.”

—Nick Hornby, 31 Songs.

“Echos Myron” is playing now, and I have no idea what it’s about. It’s by Guided by Voices, and, when it’s finished, I’ll hit “play” again, and be as happily ignorant of the lyrics as before. I’m sure that’ll change, but for now the song’s more than enough to provide that happy/wistful vacuum of harmless self-absorption.

Obviously, there are grim forms of self-absorption, but this is a period of down-time and shameless ponderousness. And why not? If you’re half doing your job on this planet then you have things to worry about; some cruel and unusual, but most simple, banal, and necessary, and it’s refreshing to listen to Robert Pollard’s 2.5 minute pop-miracles and be reminded of the giddier elements of experience.

We can of course find plenty of those elements elsewhere in life—my cup brimmeth at the moment—but the sheer concentration of mirth in Pollard’s best songs (and there’s a lot of junk) is gold.

It may be that pop—or the fine consequences of listening to it—is neglected by contemporary criticism or popular wisdom. Edginess and politics and danger often wins out in the perceived importance stakes.* Put the preference down to middle-class guilt, or, as Hornby has it, the result of “peacetime and prosperity and over-education” which may be the same thing. Or disregard the idea completely as just so many words, words, words. Music criticism—or at least my counterfeits of it—must surely rank as one of the more superfluous pursuits of our culture.

But all that said, I still ask myself, what does pop—The Byrds, Big Star, The Posies, REM, Teenage Fanclub—mean?

If we consider our existence important—not important like Churchill’s, but important because it is valuable, because it simply is, and is predicated on potential—then pop, for this guy, anyway, is a sweet tonic to that existence. A spur, a hug, a smile, an injection of badly needed vitamins.

Pop can be a small holiday; a feeling differently when whatever recipe of modern responsibilities is temporarily relieved. And it can be a drinking partner; a wildly sympathetic source of confirmation of freshly discovered love, or anything else wonderful.

Christ knows that when you deal with madness in this life, both abstract and the appallingly concrete, pop is a partner you should happily walk down the aisle to. That hackneyed metaphor deserves a song to replace Mendelssohn’s “The Wedding March”: insert your own.

*Sure, Bragg was political, but his self-deprecation never made him dangerous. What he did for me was to light up certain experiences from a fresh angle. And The Pistols? They were no more a threat to the British Government than the Argentinean forces would be a few years later, and far more a danger to themselves, their lovers, and music journos who dared to be snotty-nosed enough to exist. Fuck them.

Records/songs bought:

Guided by Voices Human Amusements at Hourly Rates (Best of GBV)
The Wannadies Bagsy Me and Be a Girl
Yo la Tengo Painful
The Jesus and Mary Chain “You Trip Me Up”

Posted by Martin McKenzie-Murray at 10:36 AM

February 15, 2008

The Score

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“And even after all my logic and my theory,
I add a motherfucker so you ignorant niggers hear me.”

—The Fugees “Zealots” (1996)

Back in 2000, when George W. Bush was just a presidential candidate, Oprah invited him for a sit-down, and began grilling him on the issues. “What’s your favourite sandwich?”
“Peanut butter and jelly.”
“On white bread, or whole wheat?”
“White.”

There were harder questions, sort of, and one came with a response that may now be hard to reconcile with Bush’s long and infamous history of verbal stuff-ups. Oprah began by asking Bush what he had done in his life which required forgiveness.
“When my heart turns dark; when I’m jealous or when I am spiteful.”
“But I’m looking for specifics.”
“I know you are, but I’m running for president.”
Boo-ya.

The two moved to music, and Bush told Oprah that he didn’t mind some of the Beatles’ earlier records, but he switched off on their later stuff “when they started to get weird”. This was 2000, before the weirdness of September 11, and the national exhaustion his administration would inspire. In 2000, things were simpler, and a man who nominated the Everly Brothers’ “Wake Up Little Susie” as his favourite song—but stated a general preference for country music—took the White House.

And now, and now. Bush is all but gone, and Oprah’s thrown her weight behind Obama, who, on his Myspace, nominates John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Stevie Wonder, Bob Dylan, Bach (the cello suites) and, gasp!, The Fugees as being his favourite artists. There’s some politicking here, no doubt, but I’m thrilled—nearly delirious—at the thought of trying to reconcile The Fugees with a potential US President.

Not only did the Fugees rock—clever, creative, devastatingly articulate—but 1996’s The Score is one of my favourite records, and contains what may be my favourite lyric of all time, delivered by Lauryn Hill, and included at the top of this article. The lyric is admittedly rivalled by Paul Simon’s “‘Kathy, I’m lost,’ I said, though I knew she was sleeping” and Naughty by Nature’s “Naughty’s back, like vertebrae”. Still, when Lauryn fronts, you listen.

What the hell is there to take from these men’s musical preferences? A whole vague swag-bag of romantic attachment and hopes. That’s fine. That’s sometimes the stuff of change. And that’s certainly the stuff of Obama’s momentum. And if nothing else, it’s fun to play in the palace of speculation, drawing fun but probably erroneous lines between musical preferences and personal, or presidential failings. But I like to think there’s something real there, as there is when one reads that John McCain’s favourite book is Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls and Mitt Romney’s is Battleship Earth. For the record, Obama nominates Moby Dick, amongst others, and you can be sure that he won’t be adding any “motherfuckers” on the campaign trail. He’s got enough people listening.

Records/songs bought:

Mojave 3 Puzzles Like You
Slowdive Souvlaki
Bruce Springsteen We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions
Dinosaur Jr. Where You Been

Posted by Martin McKenzie-Murray at 2:40 PM