Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Music! Old New, New Old Music

I actually look forward to some of my intercontinental flights. Trapped for 10 hours in a seat with no internet and few outlets, one has ample time to listen to music.

Recently I had a chance to check out 4 new albums: "Sunken Condos" by Donald Fagen, "Beautiful Friction" by The Fixx, "Battle Born" by The Killers, and "Clockwork Angels" by Rush. All of these bands have been around for a while. (The Killers are the "baby" of the bunch, having formed "only" 11 years ago, in 2001.)

Donald Fagen "Sunken Condos"
Like many records I've listened to lately (Alabama Shakes, Jack White, the Rick Rubin-produced ZZ Top album), Donald Fagen's album sounded exactly like I expected it would, and is entertaining, but hardly essential.

Fagen is considered to be the "important half" of Steely Dan, and like many other "important halves", he seems to be missing something in his solo work, even though it sounds about as close to his band as anyone could.

Fagen releases records rarely. This is only his 4th solo album over 20 years. 9 songs. It's...good. It sounds like Steely Dan. It's polished, sort of jazzy, and grooves in its old white guy way.

Lyrically, he's also covering the ground you'd expect him to - there's a song about being replaced by that new IT guy that upgrades all your stuff, for example. But unlike the best of Steely Dan's stuff, there's nothing particularly subversive or creepy. Fagen sounds like a successful and moderately cranky old man, which I suppose he is.

Fagen's record was completely unsurprising, right down to the "well that was nice, but I don't need to hear that again, ever" feeling.

The Fixx "Beautiful Friction"
The Fixx's album is their first new record in quite a while as well, and comes after a recent reunion stint, playing all their old hits. The Fixx made some of my favorite records when I was a kid ("Shuttered Room", "Reach The Beach", and "Phantoms", in particular) before more or less running out of gas and ideas and disappearing 3 or 4 albums after that.

Unlike "new" records by The Cars, Al Green, and other reformed bands aiming for their old sound, The Fixx refuses to shamelessly ape their old hits and sounds, aiming instead for something that is aware of their "classic" sounds, synthesizing and incorporating the best of their past ideas while trying to update it in a few ways. It's similar to U2's approach circa "All That You Can't Leave Behind".

I expected not to like it very much, as the first track and lead-off single struck me as unremarkable. However, as an album it was quite listenable. Still nowhere near the level of their first 3 albums, but it sounds like, and more importantly feels like The Fixx without being self-conscious.

There's texture and mystery, songs that don't outstay their welcome, and a nice vibe throughout. It's not embarrassing, it's not a "HEY WE CAN STILL RAAAAWK", it's solid. I'm listening to it for a second time as I write this.

The Killers "Battle Born"
Perhaps most surprising was "Battle Born" by The Killers. Lead singer and primary songwriter Brandon Flowers is an avowed fan of Bruce Springsteen. The band's second album was criticized for too-closely aping The Boss.

To my ears, this new album is clearly the work of a Springsteen admirer. If the cover doesn't tip you off, the first few songs put any doubts to rest. Flowers sings in a higher register and the band prefers modern synth gloss, but the melodies could easily have come from Bruce, and it's easy to hear his voice and the E Street band stomping through these songs and their imagery.

Specifically, these songs reference Springsteen's earlier, more hopeful and joyous albums, before both the grim situations of his stories and his own success and self-importance made Springsteen so difficult to enjoy.

It's also just...good. Flowers can "do" Springsteen really well, but his homages never really take flight or hook you in quite the way that Springsteen's best work does. His vocals are polished while retaining a little of his own quavering tone, but the performances lack the sweaty soul-informed intensity of Springsteen's most inspired singing, and the overall musical effect is far tamer than any of Springsteen's early records, which at their best shine and swell and nearly explode.

Then again, Springsteen hasn't exactly been nailing it lately either. My friend Sid Luscious would say when your best record in the last 20 years consists of the stuff you didn't think was good enough to release 30 years ago, it's probably time to hang it up.

Still, it's surprising and refreshing to hear someone who is still obviously such a FAN of music (and of a specific, slightly unfashionable artist) so unafraid to emulate his heroes with so few concessions to modern tastes. "Battle Born" is unlikely to win The Killers any new fans, but much like Donald Fagen and The Fixx, they've either decided they have nothing left to prove to anyone, or they already know they're unlikely to bring in any new fans in today's music business anyhow.

Rush "Clockwork Angels"
It's challenging being an old artist in a new world. Rush continues to plow ahead, and their "Clockwork Angels" has them sounding as vibrant and mighty as they ever have.

They hinted at this vigor a few years ago on a surprising all-covers album that featured a scorching, ripping take on "Summertime Blues", of all things.

Rush is still unlikely to appeal to anyone other than the same teenagers they always have (though many of the original teens are well into middle age now), but there's something wonderful and admirable about their continuing to do exactly what they've always done, with a passion, open-heartedness, and lack of calculation sadly missing from most of the "old new/new old" albums one might hear these days.

That said, like a lot of old rock bands lately (Mission of Burma, Fleetwood Mac, Wire...), they seem to revel a bit too much in just playing loud and simple. While Rush has frequently had loud albums, they've also always been intricate and detailed. I know I'm in the minority, but I actually liked it when they got all proggy and threw some keyboards in the mix.

There are hints of that stuff here, but a lot of this record blurs into slabs of distorted guitar, some tricky drumming, and Geddy Lee not quite soaring above the way he used to.

All of these records also suffer from a few modern curses. For one thing, they're all at least a few songs too long. I'd have thought much more highly of The Fixx and The Killers' efforts if they'd been 2-4 songs shorter. The Rush album is nearly twice as long as it should be.

They also suffer from a lack of range. That is both dynamic range - they're all thick and loud records, more or less unrelentingly (even Fagen's, in his own way) as is the current fashion - and in range of tempo and emotion.

These records didn't really have bits where the singer is more naked and ballading, or where there are instrumental highlights. Once you hear the first track on these albums, you pretty much know what the rest of the album is going to sound like. They'd all benefit from a few peaks and valleys. You might get a bare intro or a tiny breakdown, but that's it.

A closing thought for all the bands mentioned here and any other artists: I don't think anyone can write a clever song about global warming. Yet all of these albums try, with pretty much exactly the same results: songs "about global warming". Boring, hectoring, vague, and inessential. Clunky and collegiate at best, and nothing that's going to change anyone's mind.

I had at least hoped Fagen would have pulled something out about how great global warming was, because the young girls were wearing skimpy clothing all the time, and his real estate values had gone up, and so forth, but no dice.

Instead, we're left with a poor metaphor name-checking "Mr. Gore". The Killers turn in the "nobody can escape the rising tide" side of things, and The Fixx continues the handwringing they started back on "Driven Out" to lesser effect on some of their tracks.

The end result so far is only The Fixx's record is meriting a second intentional listen. I'd check out Fagen's record again, but I doubt it would make much of an impression. I'd listen to the first 3-5 songs of the Killers' album again for sure. The Rush album is not one I'd look forward to again.

1 comment:

Ray said...

Enjoyed this Anu! I think Dylan could write a good song about Global Warming. It would probably need to address the nature of man as much as it would man vs. nature. Oh wait! Maybe he did that already? Check out the lyrics for "Hard Rain's Gonna Fall" (and I'd really love to hear a Sid cover of that one).