Monday, May 28, 2018

Albums of Influence: The Pearl by Harold Budd and Brian Eno

This is my all-time favorite record.

I have loved it since I first heard it. I have it on vinyl and compact disc. I carry a copy of it with me on my phone and on nearly every device I own that plays music.. It is in my car. I want it played at my funeral. I have listened to it more frequently than anything else, and have periodically barred myself from playing it so I don't burn out. My wife is sick of hearing it.

"The Pearl" is an album of piano music, some electric piano, some acoustic piano. There are field and nature recordings, sound effects, and processing. Perhaps a synthesizer here and there. Some of the pieces are structured, albeit obliquely, without the clear delineations that mark so many compositions. Some of the pieces are through-composed or improvised. The 11 tracks are all in the 3-5 minute range, never outstaying their welcome or growing boring. I do not think I have ever skipped one partway through.

 There are no vocals, no pop songs, no hooks, no soaring choruses. "The Pearl" is not catchy, ugly, or dissonant. It is not "challenging", and is rather easy to listen to. In those respects, it is quite different from many other records that I respect and/or love.

It is beautiful, mysterious, dark, melancholy, subtle, and perfect.

"The Pearl" was recorded in 1984 by Harold Budd and Brian Eno, with Eno and Daniel Lanois co-producing. Budd and Eno had made a similar record in 1980, the nearly-as-good "Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror", and "The Pearl" is a refinement of those ideas.

Eno, of course, is thought of as the father of ambient music. He is well-known for his work with many great artists and bands, including Roxy Music, David Bowie, and U2, and his life, works, and thinking are well-documented.

Harold Budd is less famous, but I find him fascinating. This interview from 2017 offers some perspective on the unique and fascinating mix of experiences that brought him to The Thing He Does.

Harold Budd, 2014
Budd is a man of interesting contradictions. He freely admits that he is not a good piano player, capable of only playing in the distinctive style of his pieces. He has also said that he hates pianos, and thinks they're ugly and aesthetically offensive. When he got rid of one one in his house, he said every morning he would have his tea, look over at where it had been and think "thank god that goddamn piano isn't there". And yet, he has created more than a dozen albums of what can best be described as beautiful piano music.

For a pianist who makes ambient music, Budd originally wanted to be the world's greatest jazz drummer, and spent some of his youth playing drums with the legendary Albert Ayler while in the Army.

Unlike Eno, Budd comes from a serious compositional background, but says he doesn't listen to music, and doesn't like composing. He has no instruments in his house, because he never gets the urge to play music. He draws his inspiration from visual art. He comes up with the titles of pieces first, and writes the music later.

In 2004, Budd said he was retiring (to my great disappointment). But a year later, he started a streak of writing, recording, and releasing albums that saw him put out more work in his "retirement" than he had before he retired! Not only that, but I find his recent releases superior to most of the records he put out in his early days.

In addition to his work with Brian Eno, Harold Budd has collaborated with Robin Guthrie (of Cocteau Twins), Cocteau Twins themselves, Andy Partridge (of XTC), Clive Wright (of The Avengers), and John Foxx, among other musicians.

Budd is now 82. His last released album was 2014's lovely "Jane 12-21", following "Jane 1-11" in 2013. Supposedly there's a third in the series coming. I am looking forward to it.

"The Pearl" is my favorite record of all time, and Harold Budd is my favorite musician. I have made my own ambient music, frequently (too) derivative of my influences. While I still write pop songs with blocky and clear structure, big choruses, and vocals, I hope to eventually be skilled enough to create the kind of suggestive beauty that "The Pearl" seems to effortlessly provide.

As I approach 50, it seems easier to see myself making beautiful, quiet, instrumental works like this than continuing to craft club-ready rock anthems or dark alternative concept albums.

"The Pearl" was another record that showed me how music can be beautiful. It can be timeless and free from any genre (or simply defining its own genre). It continues to suggest new ways of composition, free from grids, rules, "-isms", and tradition. Budd himself shows a compositional path that seems vital into old age, and without mastery of any instrument.

If you have never heard "The Pearl", it is highly recommended, and available for purchase as a CD or downloads from Amazon or iTunes, and is available on all major streaming services.

If you want more Harold Budd, comparable or similar works include:

  • "Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror" by Harold Budd and Brian Eno.
  • "Translucence/Drift Music" by John Foxx and Harold Budd, which continues in the Eno direction.
  • "Bordeaux" by Harold Budd and Robin Guthrie, which adds Guthrie's guitar playing to Budd's keys.
  • "Jane 12-21" by Harold Budd, which is a kind of survey of Budd's style.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Albums of Influence: United States Live by Laurie Anderson

I have written about a number of musicians throughout this series, many of whom I would say transcend the idea of being a mere "musician" and rise to the level of "artist". However, of all the influential albums I can think of, of all the influential people, there are very few "artists" in the classic sense. And of all of those, at the top of the list is Laurie Anderson.

I had become aware of Laurie Anderson due to the freak success of her early 80s work, particularly "O Superman" and "Big Science", which ended up on some mixtapes Tim Reynolds made for me (and which were arguably the most "influential" records ever for me). I was intrigued, and when a girl I was after expressed some interest in her, I investigated further.

Laurie Anderson is relatively well-known, and is the rare "avant-garde" artist who has achieved some measure of commercial success. She is a classically-trained and talented violinist, and has several art degrees.

Anderson has always been interested in creating new instruments, or new ways of working with her existing instruments. In pre-MIDI and pre-digital sampler days, she created a "tape bow" violin, where the bow consisted of a piece of magnetic tape and, in place of strings, the violin body had a tape recorder's playback head mounted. In this way, Anderson could "perform" a sample, moving the tape back and forth across the tape head to play it at whatever speed she wanted, forward or backward.

Another innovation involved contact microphones. Anderson would play violin in a door frame, and as the bow knocked against the sides of the door frame, the sounds of the knocking would be amplified and incorporated. She also did a piece where she put a contact microphone on her skull, and knocked on her head, amplifying the resonant sounds that result.

Anderson is less a musician than an artist, and her performances have always incorporated thoughtful and important visual elements (words and/or imagery) which are as essential as the music. One of her early art pieces involved her playing violin while strapped into ice skates frozen into a large block of ice. The ice would melt, and she would walk away.

Or this piece, where she built drum machine triggers into a suit, so she could perform thusly:

Anderson was not afraid of technology, and was the sort of artist who seemed to refuse to use it the way it was intended, always looking for the dangerous territory on the edge of acceptable use.

Famously, Anderson adopted the Eventide Harmonizer, using it to transform her voice in real time. Frequently she used this to take her soft, delicate voice and change it into a parody of masculinity and authority.

I found her records were fascinating. There were a few "songs", with had refrains (if not choruses), and hooks of a sort, but which seemed to meander and take their time, acting as vehicles and backgrounds for her elliptical, thought-provoking lyrics. Reading them on a page, it is easy to dismiss them as a kind of pseudo-profundity or stoner-ish observations. But in context, I found them gripping.

Aside from the songs, her records had other pieces that seemed less like songs and more like something between spoken word, comedy, and (slam) poetry. I came for the synthesizers, I stayed for the sheer inventiveness. Who had thought you could make music and records like this?

In 1984, Anderson released "United States Live", a 5-album(!) boxed set documenting two nights of 8-hour performances (minus some purely visual material) she'd given in New York in 1983. By then, she had released two full studio albums, her debut "Big Science" and the lush follow-up "Mister Heartbreak".

Beyond concept albums, "United States Live" suggested that each of her records was part of a larger whole. The album itself was filled with artwork strewn among the credits. Like her other work, it was by turns strange, beautiful, funny, and disturbing.

I bought the vinyl version of the album, and spent many a night in my room, playing side after side. My friends would come over, we'd turn out the lights, and just listen. I thought a lot about what she was doing. How she was thinking about a total artistic work: sound, imagery, performance. How she could take you from laughing to uncertain about how to respond to thinking and feeling. It was like being hypnotized, or listening to a spell being cast.

As I played this record over and over, I thought about what I could do to achieve similar effects. In hindsight, she is one of the most influential artists I have heard, particularly from my formative years. The notion of an intersection between commercial pop and the avant-garde can be traced 100% back to Laurie Anderson. The integration of technology and looking for new possibilities. The careful consideration of visual presentation as part of the audio experience. It is no surprise I wanted to study all of that when I went to college.

Given her visual bent, astoundingly, there is no accompanying video at all for "United States Live". Apparently the audio is the only document of her incredible shows. This doesn't seem to be unusual, unfortunately. Despite her relative importance, the only real "concert film" she's made is 1986's "Home of The Brave". Perhaps she feels the "magic" cannot be adequately captured, and that the viewer must be at the live show, in much the same way photos of artworks are not nearly as powerful as a visit to the gallery.

I saw Anderson perform as often as I could up until the late 90s. She has continued to release the occasional album. She took singing lessons and became a "better" singer. She became more musically elaborate (and, perhaps sadly, conventional), and has worked with Peter Gabriel, Brian Eno, and her late husband Lou Reed, among others. While I always listen to her records, I found them less compelling as she evolved.

In some ways, she was too far ahead of her time. She seems made for the current moment, with her unusual approach to gender. She's female, and has made several records and works focused on the female experience, but has never been conventionally "sexy". Her videos are as important (or more so) as the stand-alone music: Made for YouTube. Her content is not just meme-able, but practically memes in and of itself, complete with strange imagery and clever and thought-provoking wordplay. Her elaborate stage shows are somewhere between performance art, rock concert, and Vegas spectacle. She's more than a little wary of our rapidly changing society and the role technology plays.

I am listening to "United States Live" as I write this, and it still sounds like she's talking about not just the present, but the imminent future.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Albums of Influence: The Guitar and Other Machines by The Durutti Column

What does it mean for an album to be "influential"? I have explored various aspects of this in previous entries in this series, but I am still not sure I have a good definition. Is it enough to really like an album? Does it have to be something you listened to many times, or just one time, but it made some kind of impression? Should it be an album that is canonical or otherwise notable? How about an album that is one of many that embody quality for you, quality of lyrics, melodies, songs, attitude, or some kind of "total artistic statement"? Maybe it merely changed the parameters of "music you like". Or maybe it changed how you create music, how you write, record, and perform.

I have been trying to write about albums that I can point to as a variety of the above, without too much repetition. Today's album may not be the most of any individual one of those points, but rather embodies many of them simultaneously.

In the Fall of 1987, I was a freshman at college. I joined the radio station (an NBC affiliate!), partially just to get access to their enormous music library, and partially to meet fellow music-lovers. I earned my FCC license to broadcast and started DJing my own show, where I could share all the new music I had discovered with the zero people listening.

Radio stations get sent a lot of free records. Not all of them get played. When I was there, our FM station was more or less a classic rock broadcaster. The AM station is where alternative and classical lived. Even "alternative" had more than they could play, and the program director for the station (Brian Davis) would let us take stuff that was not going to get into regular rotation. Maybe we would like it and play it on our own. If nobody took them, periodically they would just get thrown out. There was a lot of bad music.

Flipping through the pile one day, this new album jumped out at me. The title and design were striking. I took it back to my dorm, and dropped the needle.

The record starts somewhat misleadingly, with "Arpeggiator". A drum machine thunders, cycling through tom-toms. The handclap explodes. A viola dives in as synthesizers burble, and Vini Reilly busts out an overdriven guitar lead. It is dramatic and big, and without words.

But the subsequent tracks are different. The rest of side 1 gets much quieter, and is filled with soft, breathy vocals, some by women. The tracks have electronic pulses, some with a drum machine (which might skip or shuffle or boom), and some just with a synthesizer. Electric bass (which may be a sample) ping-pongs around.

This doesn't sound like the sort of record I would like. It's not big pop songs, it's not mopey or gothy or heavy. It is...pretty. Beautiful. I start to think I might like it as "Jongleur Grey", the 4th track, plays. Side 1 closes with an acoustic guitar piece cryptically named "U.S.P."

I am intrigued. I flip the record over and start side two. First track "Bordeaux Sequence" lives up to its name, with a delicate synthesizer part backing up a woman lamenting:

In France you are sleeping
I wish I could see you
It's always this way
Love sent from Bordeaux
I try to say something
The words, they grow fainter
And you're slipping away
Love sent from Bordeaux

I find it touching, and I think about a woman I care about, thousands of miles away.

The rest of side two is instrumental and just as beautiful and heartbreaking. Clean guitars played in a distinctive plucked style, layered with synthesizers which pulse and drift. By the end of the record, I know I like it. This is confirmed over the next few years.

Not long after this, as I think about the title and the record, I realize that I want to learn to play the guitar. Maybe to make a record like this, but also because I love the sound of the guitar on this and other records I own. Before the end of the year, I'll have my first Fender Stratocaster, with a whammy bar similar to the one on this album cover.

A year later, I'll do my own bad imitation of the drumbeat that starts the record for the first track on the first EP by my cowboy band The Coyotes.

I find myself listening to it more as the years pass, and marveling at how the guitars and electronics fit together so well, to make something so lovely. A stark contrast to how everyone else seems to want to make everything louder and heavier and darker. "The Guitar and Other Machines" teaches me that it is OK to make "pretty" music.

I will occasionally try to play my guitar like Vini Reilly. I will fail repeatedly. I remind myself to practice more. I wish I could make music this pretty, even if I cannot play guitar this well.

Vini Reilly is the driving force and the only real "member" of the Durutti Column, in much the same way that Trent Reznor is Nine Inch Nails. Durutti Column was the first band signed to the notable label Factory Records. Brian Eno called Durutti Column's album "LC" his favorite record of all time. Noted guitar player John Frusciante said Vini Reilly is the best guitarist in the world.

Durutti Column has made many records. I have heard most of them. There are some that approach what I consider to be the perfection of this record, but there's something perfect about this one. In 2010, Vini Reilly had a minor stroke and lost some of his ability to play.

"The Guitar and Other Machines" is not as weird as some of the albums I love, but it is unusual. It is not quite rock, new wave, jazz, ambient, or new age, but also all of those things. It's sort of 4AD-ish (for those who know what that means), but full of light rather than the usual dark gray of those albums. It's not all songs or all instrumentals. It's electronic, but living and breathing, not a cyborg.

I still listen to this record, and it is still one of my favorites. In writing this piece, I found out it was just reissued in a deluxe, expanded edition in January of this year. Ordered!

"The Guitar and Other Machines" by Durutti Column can be purchased at iTunes and is available to stream on all major music services, including Spotify.


Thursday, May 24, 2018

Albums of Influence: Simon and Garfunkel's Greatest Hits

Writing about personal influences, it is easy to become preoccupied with selecting works for their signalling value, demonstrating diverse, unusual, or good taste. I have tried to avoid picking things that are too obvious -- there are a pile of canonical records that every rock musician would or could pick (anything by The Beatles or The Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin, etc.), and a huge assortment of albums that any musician with similar taste or born in similar times would pick.

When I think about how music became embedded in my life, I think about how often I heard it, and where I heard it. Some records were so present you almost forget about them or take them for granted, like breathing air.

So it is with Simon and Garfunkel's Greatest Hits.

My father was a fan. To this day, "The Boxer" remains one of his favorite songs. It is easy to see why -- its distinctive crashing percussion, oboe solo, lyrics, melody, and hook are strong by any standards.

That is why, when I was writing the first Sid Luscious album, I thought it would be fun and clever to swap Duran Duran's "doo-doo-doos" from "Hungry Like The Wolf" for "lie-lie-lies" from "The Boxer".

But I am getting ahead of myself.

Dad had a cassette of this album, and it was one of a small selection he frequently played in his car. Others included Giorgio Moroder's soundtracks for "Cat People" (with David Bowie!) and "American Gigolo" (with Blondie!). But this was a consistent favorite.

Throughout my pre-driving years, going to soccer games or Saturday tae kwon do or running errands on weekends, I heard this record over and over. I memorized every song.

At first, I just listened as the songs breezed past. Eventually I sang along with the melodies. I began to notice the production details and how they worked with the songs. Then I heard the words, and was struck by how melancholy nearly every song was.

Paul Simon is a tremendously gifted songwriter. He writes great melodies and memorable hooks, without leaning on too many stylistic crutches. I also think he can be an incredible lyricist. Those early songs have a kind of "collegiate blues" that resonate so strongly with young adults and university students, at least from the kind of East Coast suburban background that I knew so well.

Then there are the harmonies. I would (and have) suggest this record to anyone who wants to learn how to write interesting harmonies. These guys do some unusual and interesting things with their harmony choices, and it is one of the most distinctive and memorable parts of their sound, especially when paired with their voices, which are expressive without resorting to yelling or "edge" of any sort.

I don't even have to post clips. You already know what Simon and Garfunkel sound like. Unlike some of the other bands or records I love, they're not weird. They didn't go in unusual directions. They stayed consistent during their run.

This record is not a particularly bold or cool choice. Greatest Hits aren't the right way to listen to music, but I've still heard this one so much when I hear their actual albums, the songs feel like they're in the wrong order.

I still listen to Simon and Garfunkel, and it still gives me chills. "Scarborough Fair" is beautiful and timeless. "The Boxer" is still epic.

When I consider influence, I think of those melancholy lyrics, those beautiful and catchy melodies. I have tried (and largely failed) to get close. I have definitely tried to copy those harmonies from time to time. That sort of thing is a little bit easier to emulate. I dream of writing songs so good, so moving, so timeless. Maybe on my next album (but probably not).

Countless bands owe these guys a debt. REM shamelessly ripped off "Bridge Over Troubled Water" and called it "Everybody Hurts". I hear echoes in other indie groups, and almost everyone with an acoustic guitar.

These days Simon and Garfunkel are used as comedy shorthand -- the "Sounds of Silence" riff used in shows like "Arrested Development" as a kind of parody of feelings first married to music in "The Graduate", then and now, one of the best pairings of music and movie.

British TV show "The Detectorists" even used the album cover as a way to define two characters:

Doesn't matter. I still love 'em.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Albums of Influence: 1999 by Prince

It is not surprising that many of the albums I find influential date back to my teenage years. I've written before about how those fresh ears and feelings make everything feel more powerful. I consider myself fortunate that some of the albums that landed in that fertile environment were so good. And few albums are as perfect for a teenager to get lost in as Prince's masterpiece "1999".

Released in 1982 (I was in 8th grade), I first knew it through the heavily-played radio singles -- the anthemic title track and the sly, sexy "Little Red Corvette".

"Little Red Corvette" is an unusual and beautiful song. Rather than kicking off quickly and strong, as most pop songs do, it slides in, gliding on those slinky OB-8 synthesizer chords and that understated Linn beat. The song builds slowly, releasing into the chorus. As far as I was concerned, it had everything: synthesizers, electronic drums, guitar, and suggestive and naughty lyrics. And it was catchy.

"1999" was a slightly more traditional single, but still weird. You don't normally hear vocals trading off the way Prince does it. Full of quotable lyrics, and again, instantly memorable.

Both of the videos got into rotation on MTV and other outlets. They aren't exactly high-budget, and are straightforward performance videos. But that only serves to emphasize how amazing Prince and The Revolution look. They remind me of Buckaroo Banzai's Hong Kong Cavaliers. One guy is wearing scrubs. The guitar player is about as new wave as it gets, with Japanese headband and angular shirt. They have synchronized dancing. Full-on show-biz. The band is multi-racial and includes women. The band exudes sex, and in a somewhat dirty way, too.

Based on the strength of those 2 tracks, and a few others I had heard on mix tapes, I bought "1999". I got a lot more than I bargained for.

"1999" is a big record in every way. It's a double album, for starters. The songs are long, with most clocking in around 6 minutes. The shortest is 4 minutes and the longest at 9:28. It almost feels like Prince decided to release the 12-inch mixes of all the songs, rather than tight edits. He gives them room to stretch and digress.

Reflecting the collage on the cover, it feels like Prince laying out his manifesto and agenda. Prince has literally cut up his previous albums and used those elements to build his new record. Look closely and you'll see the eyes and button from the "Controversy" cover, and some black-and-white stuff snipped from "Dirty Mind". There are cryptic symbols and vaguely religious drawings. It's also remarkable the cover wasn't censored, as the "1" in "1999" is clearly a penis.

Thematically, the album covers a lot of ground, too. There are very few ideas in Prince's catalog that don't show up here, and some show up here first. "1999" is an anti-nuke/anti-war song. The beautiful "Free" seems to be a song of gratitude decades before "gratitude culture". There's a whole spectrum of relationship songs, covering infatuation, seduction, heartbreak, and loneliness.

And, because it is a Prince record, it is also strange and weird. And sexy in a dark, slightly dangerous (or at least non-normative) way. Prince's devotion on the Numan-ish "Automatic" is so intense that he has lost his own will. He'll "rub your back FOREVER" and he'll "go down on U all night long", and when he sings it, you feel his desire.

But you also feel his heartbreak. I played "Something In The Water (Does Not Compute)" over and over, nodding my head as Prince laments:

U think you're special well so do I
Why do special women make me cry
Does not compute
Don't not compute
Must be somethin in the water they drink
It's been the same with every girl I've had
Must be somethin in the water they drink
Why else would a woman wanna treat a man so bad

The song is driven by a restless, echoing drum machine and punctuated by self-consciously sci-fi synths, which burble and flow. Prince's vocal builds intensity throughout, starting out conversational, growing pleading, accusing, until finally he is wailing with all the pent-up frustration so familiar to teenagers everywhere. And because it's Prince, it also does some musically interesting things as well.

The ending suite of "Lady Cab Driver" and "All The Critics Love U in New York" are also strange and fantastic. Both songs have unusual vibes. The former has a delicate vocal over a groovy human drumbeat, and seems like a straightforward confessional come-on song...until the shocking bridge where creaking bedsprings provide the background for simulated sex while Prince enumerates a number of injustices ranging from why he wasn't born like his brother (handsome and tall) to "the rich" (not all of them, just the greedy, the ones that don't know how to give, to (bizarrely) Yosemite Sam, and the tourists at Disneyland. You've never heard anything like it, and he sells it.

"All The Critics Love U" is an effortless doodle that is still more compelling than most tracks on other hit records. Prince sounds like he's having fun, and it's hard not to have fun with him, as he flips around through attitudes and couplets that describe how "you don't have to keep the beat, they'll still think it's New York."

But for me the centerpiece and highlight of the record (if not Prince's entire career) is "D.M.S.R.", a menacing dance track. The groove is powerful, and the lyrics are full of a strutting confidence every teenager covets. Prince sings with some edge to his voice, which darkens the already verge-of-danger lyrics. The song feels like a party about to spiral out of control and turn into a street riot, a vibe reinforced by the strange ending where a woman is pleading for someone to call the police and to help her. It's like a teen movie directed by David Lynch.

Throughout, "1999" does not disappoint. It surprises and entertains, and if the worst thing you can say about it is that "Delirious" might be a bit long (at over 9 minutes), well, fine. It's still memorable.

I spent many a night with headphones on, listening to this album, and still know it better than most of the albums I own. Aside from the great music, there was what the album represented to me: another element of that just-around-the-corner new wave utopia. Here comes a black guy playing rock music that redefines genres. He's got this killer diverse band. He's against all the right things and for all the right things. But instead of the 60s-hippie "let's all love each other", he stares right at you and says "let's all fuck."

How could that dream not resonate with a teenager?

Perhaps those "adult" themes didn't consciously influence me, but I have to believe they had at least a subconscious effect on my own worldview. A different kind of influence, and a record that "changed my life".

Prince did the record almost completely himself -- his band is credited only with backing vocals and a guitar solo. And yet, for such a controlled solo record, it feels remarkably loose and improvised. But the fact this was a one-person project was not lost on me, and yet, he also had this great live band -- a template that (somewhat unwittingly) I would replicate in my own life.

The modernism of the record -- its matter-of-fact adoption and integration of current technologies -- also seemed ahead of its time. Prince wasn't using new sounds as a gimmick, he made it his palette and his clay. That also registered. You could make music with synthesizers and drum machines that wasn't Kraftwerky or self-consciously "space music". It could be sexy and dangerous.

Prince's inclusionary attitude must again be mentioned. Despite this really being a solo album, one of the inner sleeves featured a photo of him in front of his band. You see more than one race, more than one gender. Not presented in a schoolhouse-special-corny-moralizing way. Again, very matter-of-fact. This is The Revolution (in every sense). They look bad-ass. Too few bands and artists neglected to copy or pick up on this aspect of Prince's work.

Prince was a once-in-a-lifetime genius. He would go on to record more successful albums. While "1999" was the 5th best-selling album of the year, his next record would be the chart-dominating "Purple Rain". Prince would make better-sounding records."1999" is kinda murky and demo-ey, which isn't necessarily fits with the kind of grimy proto-indie thing he was doing, but doesn't quite do his talent justice. Prince would make weirder records and more sprawling records, most notably "Sign O' The Times". He had made rawer records ("Dirty Mind"). And, sadly, he would make some very bad albums (let's not name names).

But he would never, ever make a better record than "1999".

And now he's gone. I still miss him.  

Monday, May 21, 2018

Albums of Influence: Nebraska by Bruce Springsteen

In 1991, I was working as a secretary in a small office in Beverly Hills by day, and at night, rehearsing and writing songs with my band.

The job was easy, and I had a lot of time on my hands. I spent a lot of it trying to fill in what I felt were gaps in my musical education. I read a lot of books, and spent my money on what seemed to be important records that I hadn't heard.

I didn't have a lot of money, and records were expensive. I kept a list of what I thought I needed to hear and worked my way through it. At some point in the year, I received an unexpected bonus of something like $50. I headed for Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard.

I was going to buy "Nebraska" by Bruce Springsteen.

I knew The Boss from the big radio hits. I had heard "Hungry Heart", "Thunder Road", "Born To Run", "4th of July, Asbury Park", "The River". My father had a cassette of "Born In The USA" when it came out, and between listening to it in his car and the endless radio airplay the album received, I knew that record all too well.

Springsteen seemed like a good songwriter, but maybe a little too bombastic, with his giant bar band sounding and seeming kind of dated to my raised-on-new-wave ears.

But everyone talked about how great "Nebraska" was.

They were right.

After some acoustic guitar, Springsteen opens the album with these words:

Saw her standin' on her front lawn
Just a-twirlin' her baton
Me and her went for a ride, sir
And ten innocent people died

Listening to the album for the first time, I was floored. Instead of loud, overblown rock, this was almost folk or country. The album is famously little more than a 4-track demo, featuring a vocal track or two, an acoustic guitar, and maybe some harmonica or other minor embellishment.

Where Springsteen's other albums were heavily produced, "Nebraska" was lo-fi. Springsteen had hollered from the stage to the cheap seats. Here, he was whispering to you, or sitting right in front of you.

The desperation in his other works was cranked up to gothic maximum here, with no release, no escape, and no future. The songs all told stories or sketched out vignettes. It was like a collection of short stories, all told in the same grainy, blurry black-and-white with bold splashes of blood red that the album's cover displayed.

I put it on a cassette, with Nirvana's "Nevermind" on the other side. It barely left my car's player for a year.

"Nebraska" helped me understand how hard you could hit by barely doing anything. It is a remarkable magic trick.

I had been trying to write songs that were sweeping statements about feelings and the world, and had been increasingly abstracting my lyrics. It wasn't working.

Springsteen, on the other hand, seemed to connect to something universal by being incredibly specific. Where I was trying to draw almost mathematical equations, he wrote stories. He hit hard with just his voice, sometimes barely rising above a whisper, and a guitar. I took note.

Here also were dark, bitter songs that still were hooky, catchy, memorable. Something you could sing along to. Some of the melodies sound like folk songs or hymns. This was an important lesson (and one which it seems Springsteen himself would forget on the similar-but-lesser "Ghost of Tom Joad").

"Nebraska" made me a Springsteen evangelist, and caused me to go back through his catalog with a different and more critical ear. To this day, I tell everyone it is by far his best record.

This album also made me really re-think how I wrote lyrics. Fortunately, I haven't really tried to directly copy this style. I'm not as good a storyteller. I can't pull off Bruce's "I'm just an ordinary guy" pose. And I can't play folk/country acoustic guitar the way he can.

"Nebraska" remains a critical favorite in the rock canon. I hear its influence in countless ways. The entire "lo-fi" movement. All 90s "indie rock". There are many acts who have tried to find a spot somewhere on the spectrum between Leonard Cohen's elegant acoustic despair and Springsteen's 3am Americana. Most don't come anywhere close.

I don't listen to "Nebraska" frequently. It's a bit much for me these days. But it is always in my car and on my phone, and when the mood hits, there's nothing else like it.


Friday, May 18, 2018

Albums of Influence: Run-D.M.C.

When you are a teenager, everything is new. Every experience you have is the first time you have ever really felt it, and so it is quite potent. The same is true for music -- you are hearing everything for the first time, and so everything is revolutionary. You have literally never heard anything like it before.

Every once in a while, you happen to have that experience while hearing something actually new.

1984. I am 15 years old, and a freshman in high school. Cable TV has not yet arrived in Northern Virginia, so I do not have access to MTV. My exposure to music videos and the exciting world of new music they offer is limited to late-night shows like "Friday Night Videos" and my beloved "RockN'America".

I cannot recall where I first saw the video for Run-D.M.C.'s "Rock Box", but I vividly remember the visceral thrill of hearing it the first time. This was some hard, futuristic stuff.

An explosive drum machine beat hammers as heavy guitars start riffing. And then, instead of post-Plant castrati singing, two black guys start yelling. At first pass, the words are nearly impenetrable. So you listen closer:

"For all you sucker mc's perpetratin' a fraud
Your rhymes are cold wack and keep the crowd cold lost
You're the kind of guy that girl ignored
I'm drivin' Caddy, you fixin 'a Ford..."

They jam 3 or 4 songs' worth of lyrics into the few minutes that "Rock Box" lasts. The lyrics connect to hip-hop's past, define its present, and even point to its future -- there's references of designer brands (though with a populist angle) and plenty of MC braggadocio.

The heavy riffs cycle over and over. There's even a guitar solo.

My brother and I were both captivated and wanted to hear more. We got hold of a cassette (all the store had!) of their debut album, titled simply "Run-D,M.C.". The low-budget album art fit perfectly -- a black-and-white photo of Run and D.M.C. against an urban brick wall, with some primitive computer graphics spelling out their name above.

The album is a masterpiece. To this day I can still recite large chunks of many of the songs, including favorites "Hard Times" and "Jam-Master Jay". Those 3 songs are a powerful start to a record that does not let up start to finish.

Hard times can take you on a natural trip
So keep your balance, and don't you slip
Hard times is nothing new on me
I'm gonna use my strong mentality
Like the cream of the crop, like the crop of the cream
Beating hard times, that is my theme
Hard times in life, hard times in death
I'm gonna keep on fighting to my very last breath

To my teenage self, the songs, sound, and record represented an idealized and imminent future. One where the new technology of drum machines and synthesizers stood next to the legacy of guitars. One where black and white were equal. One where we acknowledged things were tough but we would all move forward together to work through it.

This shining utopia was reflected everywhere I looked. In the futurism of Herbie Hancock's "Rockit". In Simple Minds' having Herbie Hancock play a keyboard solo on "Hunter and The Hunted". In new wave groups whose line-ups, lyrics, and ideologies were the radical inclusivity of their day, with LGBT members and every possible ethnic background not merely "represented", but just THERE, because, duh, it's the future, and it just doesn't even merit remarking on.

Ah, the idealism of youth.

Bills fly higher every day
We receive much lower pay
I'd rather stay young, go out and play
It's like that, and that's the way it is

Listening today, of course "Run-D.M.C." sounds a little dated, juvenile, and silly. But only a little. The stark, minimal production still hits hard. The dual MCs and vocal delays still sound fresh, in every sense.

"Rock Box" was a seminal track, and one whose influence and echoes were felt for at least the next 20 years. Everything from The Beastie Boys' "Licensed to Ill", Ice-T's "Body Count", all of the unfortunate 90s rap-rock, Lil Wayne's "rock" album, Third Eye Blind's debut record, to (arguably) Living Colour owe something to it.

Run-D.M.C. would go on to make more songs like this ("King of Rock", "Walk This Way"), and more commercially successful and popular records. But to my ears, they never exceeded the absolute perfection and power of this first record.

Run-D.M.C. remain somewhat under-appreciated as the avatars (if not progenitors) of many of hip-hop's tropes, awkwardly stuck between hip-hop's corny-but-beloved early years and the "Silver Age" acts of the early sampling era like Public Enemy.

The lack of samples (and use of turntable scratching) still strikes me as a much more exciting place for hip-hop to be than the endless strip-mining of someone else's beats that hip-hop seems to prefer.

I had heard and appreciated rap music before, from the life-changing early singles of Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five, Kurtis Blow, and Afrika Bambaataa to new wave experiments like Blondie's "Rapture". I thought it was cool and interesting.

But Run-D.M.C. made me understand this was real art, and from that record on, I paid closer attention to what was happening, listening to DC's "urban" stations (WHUR 96.3) just as much as its rock (DC101! Q107!) and alternative stations (WHFS).

Around this same time, I saw a demonstration of breakdancing at my first high school. I made friends with some of the black students there and they taught me how to do some of the moves. Somewhere, there may be public access video of me breaking.

Perhaps most directly, my 2007 album "Decayed, Decayed" was attempt to pay homage to that early hip-hop and its proximity to early industrial and electronic groups. The call-and-response vocals on "Fishwrap" as well as the message of not letting hard times get you down are copied straight out of the Run-D.M.C. playbook.

I still listen to hip-hop, but with flagging enthusiasm as the years roll by. Perhaps it is the creeping cynicism of old age or just old age (pop music is for young people), but while I have heard fringe hip-hop go in some weird (if not particularly interesting or entertaining) directions, mainstream hip-hop seems stuck in either nihilism and/or mopiness masquerading as "deep", brainless, dopey consumerist fantasies, or the occasional inch-deep "message" songs where the videos do all the heavy lifting.

And as recent events have shown, we are far from the utopia my teenage self envisioned.

Still, I and many others will always have a place in our hearts and ears for this brilliant album.

In some ways, Scritti Politti's Green Gartside said it best, in his 2006 song "The Boom Boom Bap". He closes out his lyrical parallels of loving hip-hop and booze to excess by simply running through the song titles of "Run-D.M.C.", his beautiful, soft voice making them sound like treasured possessions or jewels.

He ends by gently singing "I love you still...I always will."

It gets me every time, because that's how I feel about Run-D.M.C. It's a great album, but for me it also represents a missed future, and innocence lost.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Albums of Influence: Amber by Chill Productions


In 1998, my life was in a strange and uncertain place.

The original cover image for Amber by Chill Productions, 1998
The music industry was rapidly changing due to the sudden rise in home studios (enabled by high-quality, low-cost mixers from Mackie and affordable digital tape recorders from Alesis and Tascam). Tastes were veering from early-90s grunge and pop towards the next big thing: electronica. Napster would release a year later and set the whole thing on fire.

The internet was also starting to enter wider public consciousness. I had ISDN at home, delivering a whopping 128 kbps connection, which was lightning-fast compared to the 28.8 kbps dial-up I could get at work.

I didn't have a band or regularly active music project, and was trying to figure out what exactly I was going to do, both in the music business and for a job. My work by this point was fairly uninteresting and trivial. I had a lot of free time, and spent much of my day exploring FTP sites dedicated to trading MOD files.

MOD files dated back to the late 80s and Amiga computers. The files consisted of a blob of samples with instructions for how those samples were to be played, similar to a MIDI file. It's analogous to a text document with the fonts embedded at the end. As a music file format that were highly efficient and well-suited for electronic music. A 5 minute song might only be 64k, and thus easy to upload or download over a dial-up modem.

Even better, MOD files could be opened and edited. The same software used for playing them back was also used for creating them, which meant that you could easily remix or modify other people's work, rip out the samples and sounds for your own use, and learn how people had created their pieces. It also made collaboration easy.

The software you used to create these MOD files was called a "tracker", and many of them were free. Here was a truly revolutionary new music business: All you needed was a computer (not even a very powerful one!), and you could be making electronic music and sharing it with the world.

Trackers were also a very different way to make music. Trackers look like giant spreadsheets, and instead of thinking about notes on a staff, you indicate when in time you want a sample to play, and at what pitch and volume. All these and other parameters are input by literally typing numbers into the spreadsheet grid. If a digital audio workstation program like Cubase or Pro Tools was music software with a GUI, trackers were like making music with a command line or assembly language.

As noted, you had to use a tracker (or, later, a Winamp plug-in, though these were frowned upon as poor emulations) to play back MOD files. That also meant you had to be at your computer to listen. In 1998, that was unacceptable for me, so I hooked up my cassette deck to my computer's line out and made several compilation cassettes of my favorite MODs, with titles like "I aM 31337, gIv3 mE wArEz, d00d!".

Cyberspace's Local Music Scene

A small but rich, complex, and devoted community had formed around this file format. The artists all hid behind handles and the complete anonymity of the early internet, with names like "B00mer" and "Maelcum". It was like a local music scene from William Gibson's cyberspace.

As is often the case, young people were the driving force behind this music scene. Many of the MOD artists were teenagers, who wanted "real gear" -- a synthesizer, drum machine, or guitar -- but who wouldn't let that hold them back and would use a computer and free (or pirated) software instead.

Granted, like a lot of local music scenes driven by young people, much of the music was neither good nor interesting. There was a lot of fast techno and generic house, undistinguished and derivative. But there was so much, coming from kids/musicians/artists all over the world.

The scene included sites, groups, artists, and "labels", and of course, critics and fans. Some blurred the lines -- a popular site might be run by a group of artists clustered around a particular style, vibe or sound. Tokyo Dawn, for example, seemed to focus on a kind of jazzy downtempo. Legendary site Kosmic Free Music Foundation was more electronica-based.

My favorite group was Chill (later known as Chill Productions). They had an unknown number of members. They covered far more varied musical territory than most. And in 1998, shortly after it was released, I discovered their second "disk" or compilation of pieces from their group, "Amber".

Sprawling across 24 tracks and featuring contributions from a number of "guests" (including founder Maelcum), the album took only a few minutes to download and played for more than 90 minutes. I didn't (and still don't) love everything on it, but there were a few pieces that I immediately found outstanding, moving, and surprising.

Vildauget and TEG's "Deus Ex" is a beautiful ambient electronic melody (written as an homage to John Taite, the founder of Chill, and their friend) that gently floats and bounces along, and is one of those pieces I love so much I have to restrain myself from playing it to death. kjwise's "Black Desert of Freedom" is a downtempo ride across Iceland's volcanic plains. In_Tense surprises everyone with "Piano", which is, somehow, a beautiful rubato piano improvisation that drifts through classical forms, and demonstrates how MOD files, when programmed creatively, could handle more than electronica.

The rest of the album shifts between uptempo electronica, acid-ish beats, downtempo grooves, and ambient beauty and strangeness. I think it is a good representation of Chill (and to some extent, the MOD/tracker scene) at its peak.

My favorites all still live on my phone, in my car, and on my computer as MP3s.

A Different Kind of Influence

"Amber" was not a big musical influence. It delivered something in line with what I thought contemporary electronic music sounded like in the late 90s. As noted, I loved (and still love) many of the tracks on it. You may not. But "Amber" turned out to be profoundly influential in other and surprising ways.

For one thing, it made me realize this "underground" internet scene was far more interesting, cool, exciting, and of the moment than anything happening in the "real" Los Angeles music scene. More than that, "Amber" and the scene it represented felt like the future, where music could, should, or must go: the internet.

I ended up joining Chill. I emailed the group and sent some samples of my work. I unfortunately never released as many tracks as I wanted under my "Captain Kirk" ambient alias, but being so quickly accepted by a group of such remarkable musicians was validating at a time when I needed it. I (literally) repaid the favor by helping keep the metaphorical lights on a few years later.

"Amber" was a turning point for me realizing something about both DIY and the music business. Just a year before, I had spent nearly $2K to create a thousand copies of a compact disc of "Songs For The Last Man On Earth". I couldn't get any stores to take it, couldn't promote it, couldn't distribute it. That is why 20 years later, I still have copies of gathering dust in my garage (well, it also wasn't very good).

"Amber" pointed out how purely digital music, divorced from any physical media, was the future of distribution and consumption. CDs were obviously inefficient, outdated, and useless for kids whose lives were going to revolve around computers (especially when those computers shrunk to the size of a phone a few years later!). This helped plant the seeds for my big second act, including Rhapsody and the digital music revolution. In fact, when we were prototyping Rhapsody, I emailed the Chill group about it to get their read. Most of them thought it was a terrible idea that would never work. We still haven't decided if they were right nor not. But I see a direct line from the FTP sites that hosted MODs for people to download and what became the initial concept for a "music subscription service".

Several of the Chillies have become close personal friends. In_Tense, of "Piano" fame, in particular. We have collaborated on a number of projects, both musical and extra-musical. He played in Sid Luscious and The Pants. I attended his wedding.

kjwise acted as tour guide me and my wife when we chose Iceland for our honeymoon, and we have managed to see each other every so often since then (including just a few months ago), and collaborated on a few musical projects together. 

U-235 and I (as Sid Luscious) are in the final stages of finishing up what most people say is the best thing I've ever done. I've known him for 20 years and still haven't met him in person!

I have had the pleasure of meeting many of the core members of Chill over the years. Quasimojo (the funniest Chill member). MN-L/MattV (who made some of the weirdest music). b0b. I may be forgetting a few. We keep talking about a Chill meet-up but it keeps not happening. Maybe next year?

Artwork for the 2013 remastered re-release of Amber
"Amber" also confirmed for me the computer was going to become the centerpiece of everyone's studio. Not just as a replacement for a tape recorder, but as the whole studio. As computers have continued to improve their speed and capability, new instruments and platforms have developed to enable this. And as we transition to phones, so has the industry started to move real music creation tools to our phones and tablets.

Not all influential albums in your life have to make a critic's top whatever list. The best and most satisfying art discoveries are the ones where you feel like you've stumbled across something that almost no one else knows about.

Thank you for the music and so much more, Chill.

Epilogue: The End of an Era

Not long after "Amber" was released, the MP3 file format began to break out in a big way, and many of the MOD scene artists shifted to releasing studio recordings in MP3, either because they were frustrated with the limitations of the MOD format, excited about the benefits of releasing final audio rather than a file, or because they wanted to use studio gear and not just samples on a computer.

The scene had many discussions about what to do, but they all knew it was just a matter of time before MP3 won. Sure enough, within a few years all of the biggest labels had started to release MP3s, not MODs. Kids who didn't have big studio setups were left out, and the explosion of Napster just a year later made MP3 a household word. MODs -- and their accompanying scene -- were effectively dead.

Some of the net labels -- including Chill and Tokyo Dawn -- made the transition to being "internet labels", releasing MP3s rather than MODs. Most just stopped releasing.

Chill slowed down. The members (many of whom were teenagers when I joined) got jobs, got married, got divorced, got mortgages, and so on. Some disappeared. Most have continued to make music with some regularity, and all of them have improved as musicians. None of us make MOD files anymore.

The rise of new music platforms like Spotify and Soundcloud also means that destination websites like Chill, Tokyo Dawn, and Kosmic don't make sense for the general public. Chill still has a website, but some of the links don't work, and besides, you don't have a MOD player. You can, however, hear our music on Spotify or on Soundcloud, and buy it at iTunes if you like.

You can hear thousands of MODs from the scene's heyday at The MOD Archive. Some of my favorites are up there, including:

"Un (extended)" by B00MER
"Leeloo" by Falcon
"Life After Midnight" by A-Move

Just click the links and choose "Play with Online Player" under the heading "The Good Stuff"

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Albums of Influence: Low by David Bowie

I was always aware that David Bowie existed, but I started paying attention to his music when "Let's Dance" was released and began its chart domination. Combined with his guest spot on Giorgio Moroder's "Cat People" soundtrack, I wanted to hear more and learn more, and began moving back through Bowie's discography, starting with a low-budget RCA compilation of songs from his various albums called "Fame and Fashion" (get it?).

One of the Bowie albums not covered by that release was "Low", and as I began to learn more about Brian Eno and explore his discography, and read more from musicians and critics, "Low" kept reappearing as an album of significance. So I picked it up on vinyl during my junior or senior year of high school, and began listening to it constantly.

The album was immediately intriguing and surprising. Starting with a synthesizer effect fading into a sax-driven instrumental which feels like it fades out early, and then dropping into the bizarre pop of "Breaking Glass", you hardly have time to catch your breath as the album takes off.

The album features a palette that sounds different from most rock records of its time (1977), including electronic string ensembles and synthesizers (often used for unusual sounds) complimenting Bowie's usual drums, bass, saxophone, and crazy guitar players.

The album (and this is very much a vinyl album) has 2 sides with different personalities. The first side is (mostly) pop songs. But these aren't quite normal, usual pop songs. They are all slightly wrong or different. They all feel fragmentary and short, fading in or fading out, and all clocking in under 3:30. The lyrics are also mysterious and suggestive, feeling incomplete and fragmentary as well.

Side one is bookended by instrumentals, albeit pieces which are still grounded in conventional rock rhythm and structure, though the synthesizer work adds unique character.

Side two is practically ambient music, or Bowie (and Eno's) take on the same thing. There has been speculation about how much Bowie actually contributed to these compositions (indeed, all of the "Berlin Trilogy" is subject to a lot of "well, who really did that?" kind of debate), but to my ears, these are not pieces Eno would have created on his own.

The four instrumentals that comprise side two all have different moods and some different timbral elements, but to me they have always felt like four pieces of a greater whole. There's something shocking about Bowie -- first and foremost, a singer -- refusing to sing on half of a record (well, there are some vocals, but they're buried in the mix and not exactly sing-along material). This second side largely abandons normal rock structures. The pieces all have a clock driving them, sometimes slow drums or a pulse, but they feel ambient, floating. They do not really have the block-like sections that mark verses and choruses or "A" theme and "B" theme that make up most songs.

And unlike the fragments of side 1, these pieces take their time to unfold, and feel complete.

The overall effect is remarkable -- in the space of less than 40 minutes, Bowie's work shows what feels like a complete universe of musical possibilities that he has only begun to explore (further validated by the fact that his next album "Heroes" closely follows the "Low" template). It sounds worlds away from anything Bowie had done before, and as is often the case, not much like anything anyone else was doing at the time.

Because there are so many ideas thrown out so quickly, it is not surprising that many musicians find something to love on this record.

"Low" is another album I still listen to frequently. The pop songs are so short you barely have time to register whether you like them or not before they're fading out. The ambient pieces are a little more ponderous and too intense to fit as good background music, but I occasionally get the urge to hear them and give them the attention they deserve.

This album helped me understand that the less explicit and formulaic you were, the more interesting you could be. Bowie says so much by not saying much that we can understand on this record. It feels like being lost in Tokyo, where you know there is a meaning to all the language around you, but you just cannot quite decode it. And yet, for all of the obliqueness and strangeness of these songs, they are still ridiculously catchy.

It also reinforced that my favorite records were musical experiences, not just "a bunch of songs". Bowie's lack of singing throughout makes the times that he does open his mouth more significant, and help underscore that he is an artist and a musician, not just a "rock singer".

Finally, both the songs and album overall suggested that not every artistic idea should be "fully developed" or "balanced", and that asymmetry, suggestion, and unusual proportion were powerful tools.

Many retrospectives have argued that the album's imbalanced and fragmentary nature was less intentional and more the result of running out of time, money, ideas, and/or confidence. It doesn't matter to me, and doesn't change how the album hits you. Sometimes the artistry comes from looking at what you have (in whatever unfinished, broken, or imperfect state it might be in) and saying "Wait, this is pretty close to amazing. It doesn't need much else."

Bowie would go on to make several more very interesting records ("Heroes", which is basically Low II, and the underrated "Lodger") before his astounding and brilliant "Scary Monsters" leading into his commercial period and later artiness. I love all of Bowie's records for various reasons (including most that people hate), but not uncritically. "Low" was the album that made me begin to understand how great he really was.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Albums of Influence: DJ Shadow

If Rio is one of the quintessential 80s albums that both defines and transcends its era, Endtroducing..... does the same thing with the 90s.

For me, this record touches on all of the big developments from the 90s: there's electronica (remember how big that was going to be?), there's hip-hop, there's "downtempo" (albeit without the requisite breathy female vocals). And there's not a trace of "rock" on it in the conventional sense (though there are a ton of classic rock records sampled on it). There are plenty of records I could cite for this list that fit into all of those slots, but few that seem to rise above the conventions of the time.

The entire record was made D.I.Y. style by one young man using an MPC, a turntable, and an ADAT digital multitrack. Minimal equipment, no studio. A record made up of shards of other records, ranging from incredibly obscure to Bjork to Tangerine Dream. 20 years later, I am still recognizing new sources for samples.

This record has great compositions and a perfect late-night vibe. It crackles with a youthful energy. Nothing else really sounded like it at the time. DJ Shadow had been working towards this sound, but his early singles only suggest the mastery and vinyl alchemy on display here.

I was hooked the minute I first heard it, from MP3s downloaded over the internet (again, the 90s!) before eventually purchasing it on CD.

I wasn't the only one, and this record's importance has been cemented both by critics and by other musicians, who have made entire careers emulating aspects of this record's sound and vibe, or spinning variations on its themes.

This is another record I still listen to regularly. It still sounds timeless. Unfortunately, DJ Shadow never did anything remotely this great again.

[Updated] I neglected to mention exactly how this record influenced me. For one thing, it reminded me that one could make engaging and emotional music with beats and without vocals. It reinforced that you don't need gear or a great drum sound or big studio. You just needed a vision, work ethic, and some talent. Nothing was stopping you. It showed that truly clever and creative use of samples was possible and commercially viable. It also confirmed that "rock", if not dead, was at least no longer king of the hill, and that post-rock genres like electronic and hip-hop increasingly felt like they spoke to the current moment, and probably the future.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Albums of Influence: Rio by Duran Duran

This record inevitably turns up on any list of "best" or "most important" albums for me. A surprisingly rich, lush, and deep pop record. The feelings and moods the songs themselves conjure are long since fused to the feelings and moods I had while experiencing this album for the first time. It felt like many teenage experiences, that of discovering new frontiers and mysterious new territory.

Duran Duran crystallized my idea of what a modern rock band should be: synthesizers, guitars, bass (fretless sometimes!), drums, and vocals, all on equal footing. Writing catchy but still somewhat strange songs that don't reference "the blues" or rock and roll cliché.

Of course, Duran Duran (like all bands) had their own influences. Rio saw them moving away from the strict "Chic meets the Sex Pistols" vibe they had gone for on their brilliant debut and moving into more colorful territory (reflected even in the differences between their stark and minimal first album and the rich pastels of Rio's cover). I hear Roxy Music and Japan, among other things.

At the time, the band was frequently accused of being all image, a band for teenage girls. But the impeccably-designed cover doesn't even have a picture of the band on it (one of the only Duran Duran albums without their photo on the front, in fact).

A solid record with 100% great songs. They're all tight, hooky, and focused. Almost every track is danceable. There are some fancy intros and experimental bits ("New Religion"). A mellow ballad (the lovely "Save A Prayer"). The songs have dynamics, with rising and falling, and interesting bridges,to boot. I never skip any of these songs when they come up on shuffle.

Listening back to this record today, what strikes me is how unlike "the 80s" the album sounds, how not-cartoonish it is. 

There's no gated reverb on the drums. Yes, there are Simmons electronic toms on the record, but they're played by a real, live drummer (just like Van Halen!). While the songs have been played to a click or drum machine, very few parts sound sequenced. The record sounds like a band playing in the studio, with acoustic drums, electric bass, and electric guitar at the forefront. It sounds like pop rock, and I think it still sounds fresh.

There are very few synthesizers on the record, limited to Nick's Crumar string ensemble (frequently in the background, with Oxygene-ish phasing applied) and typically just one other synthesizer or piano per track (Roland Jupiter-8 or Jupiter-4). Those parts may be prominent throughout ("Save a Prayer"), but are usually driving in the background or only occasionally brought to the foreground. The synthesizers are brought up for emphasis or seasoning in tracks, and do not overpower the guitars or bass (see also: INXS).

The exception is album-closer "The Chauffeur", which is driven by sequencers and an 808 drum machine, until real drums and bass kick in towards the end. It still feels like a part of the same record, and not a radical shift.

Fretless bass pops up on a few tracks, but rather than the kind of busy bass virtuosity John Taylor displayed on most early tracks (listen to the bass part on the title track!), it's used for emotional effect, smoothly gliding around.

One cannot talk about Rio without mentioning the spectacular and ground-breaking videos the band did for almost every song. Like many artifacts from the 80s, they can seem a little campy today, but it is also impossible to imagine modern music video without the influence the videos provided. 

Made on surprisingly low budgets, the videos pay homage to films, play with colors and primitive video effects, and stay as far away from "lip synching on a stage" as possible. They are moody and fun, and the band look like they are having a great time. And for a teenager, the Helmut Newton-ian lesbian-ish S&M of "The Chauffeur" was shocking and powerful.

I was captivated by this record the moment I first heard it. I think it is Duran Duran's best album. I still try to make things this good, this timeless.

[these album write-ups are presented as they are written, the sequence should not indicate any sense of relative importance.]