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Thursday, October 29, 2009

29 in 2009 - Joy Division: "Unknown Pleasures"

Joy Division:  Unknown Pleasures
Originally Released:  June 15, 1979
Genres:  Indie Rock, Post-Punk
Rating:  5 out of 10

I gave up on trying to like Joy Division shortly into my first listen to Unknown Pleasures.  Whether it was the spacious, cold production or Ian Curtis' tragically awful vocal performance that turned me off is debatable.  In truth, it was probably a bit of both.

I could have ended my "journey" there, but I chose to press on.  Once I had determined that this was music that I simply could not get into, I tried to figure out why this album is such a big freaking deal.  As it goes with most overrated BFDs, there's a death involved.  This was not news to me.  I have long been familiar with the story of Ian Curtis, his depression, his epilepsy, his marriage, and his suicide.  It's a tragic tale.  Not so tragic (or unsurprising, really) is knowing that the band didn't become the legendary, worldwide-known, indie-rock patriarchs that they are until after Curtis' unfortunate demise.  Listening to a "classic" artist after they've passed away tends to change one's perception of the artist's music.

For Joy Division's two albums (both of which received a perfect score from Pitchfork...really?), Curtis' death is really a blessing in disguise because it presents the music of Joy Divsion in an entirely different context than it would have otherwise been presented.  One knows the ending before they even think about listening to the music.  Unknown Pleasures plays out like a jigsaw puzzle, each song a different piece to complete the image seen on the front of the box.  By the time the album is over, Curtis' death isn't so much an unexpected tragedy as it is the logical conclusion. 

Listening to the album from this perspective, I can't say that I enjoyed it more, but I definitely understood and appreciated it to a greater extent.  The music, when slow and methodical, is strenuous and boring; when upbeat, almost amateur in sound.  "She's Lost Control" proudly displays the band's punk roots, but it sounds downright awful to these ears.  That's nowhere near as bad as Curtis' missed (and sustained?!?) note on "I Remember Nothing," which just flat out has no purpose on an album full of music. 

The production of Unknown Pleasures, which others have referred to as "legendary" and "perfect," predictably gets more melancholic scores from me.  Even by 1979 standards, the quality of the recordings are far below what I would consider acceptable.  Admittedly, the style of production does provide a certain atmosphere to the music, but it in no way makes Unknown Pleasures easier to listen to, or enjoy.

In my opinion, the album's best moment comes on the second track "Day of the Lords," in which Curtis, with as much emotion as he ever musters, repeats the question, "How will it end?"  Modern audiences have the luxury of hearing that line and seeing a bit of irony in it.  I, however, imagine Curtis locked away in a room, penning the line with an acute sense of fear and anxiety over his future.  That, to me, makes the song a dozen times better.  And this is why I think Unknown Pleasures is an overrated album.  Because without the knowledge of Curtis' passing, the album is simply mediocre, losing all of its power and importance. 

The end.

Verdict:  Classically Overrated

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Friday, October 23, 2009

Top 5 Artist I Have to See Live Before I Die (Revisited)

Over two years ago, I wrote a list on this blog titled, The Top 5 Artists I Absolutely Have to See Live Before I Die.  It's quite a mouthful of a title, and the bands on the list were no less epic.  Since I wrote that article, I've seen 4 of the 5 bands mentioned (The Decemberists, The Flaming Lips, Radiohead, and Muse), leaving only Cursive on the "yet to be seen" list.  With that in mind, I've done some brainstorming today to come up with a new top 5 list for your reading pleasure.  Do you agree or disagree?  Have you seen any of these bands?  Who's on your list?  That's what the comments section is for, folks.  Hit me up and let me know.

#5.  Wallpaper. - So by this point I best everybody who's reading this is tired of me hyping up Wallpaper. to no end.  Sorry.  I'm a fan.  So much of a fan that when they came to Austin (a 3-hour trip) a few weeks ago I beat myself up about it because I had to work at 6am the following morning.  I know part of being a music fan is suffering for your love of the art, but I'm an adult and I can't get away with that stuff anymore (I sound like my dad). Word on the street is that these guys put on one hell of a show, and that's one show I defintiely don't want to miss out on the next time they come to Texas!

#4.  Loney, Dear - Same story, just a different time.  The last time Emil and Loney, Dear came to Houston (I believe) it was also their first.  Let's hope its not their last too because I once again had to work the next morning at some ungodly hour.  I wasn't too upset about it at the time, but I just read a review of their show in California a few weeks ago and it sounds like I missed out on an experience that I'll ne'er forget.  Too bad.  Next time though, things are gonna be different, I swear.  If that last line didn't read like a bad 80s ballad I don't know what does.

#3.  Animal Collective - I'm letting the cat out of the bag here.  You weren't supposed to find this out unitl December, but I think that Merriweather Post Pavilion is a terrible album, Animal Collective's worst.  This is the kind of surprise you get when I take a year-off from full-time blogging.  Exciting huh?  Yeah, well despite my thoughts on the band's most recent record, I would still love to hear it (or any of their albums, for that matter) performed in a live setting.  I imagine it being completely mind-blowing!  Unfortunately, I live in if I'm going to see them live, I'm probably going to have to drive elsewhere to accomplish that.  Should be worth it though...

#2.  Bjork - Bjork is someone who is so good that I can't believe I left her off of my list the first time I wrote it, especially considering that I was way more into her then than I am now.  All wrongs have been righted, however, because here she is in her rightful position of #2 on this list.  So why Bjork?  Why not?!  Besides being one of the most talented female vocalists alive today, she is absolutely batshit crazy.  Seriously, have you seen pictures of a Bjork concert?  It's like a classier version of a Flaming Lips show.  And the Flaming Lips live were amaaaaaaaazing!

#1.  Muse....again - Talk about an anti-climactic list, right? I apologize for that, but when I'm really honest with myself, Muse seriously needs to be at the top of this list.  I just saw them open up for U2 a week ago, but it feels like I never saw them at all.  Being that far away from the band in the nosebleeds made me feel more like I was listening to a really loud version of a live CD, not like I was at a show.  Hell, I was seated the whole time!  That's no way to see Muse!  If you're going to see Muse, they're going to have to be the headliners playing an hour and a half set, and you're going to have to be in a sea of people jockeying for position at the front of the stage.  No arguments!  So for as great as Muse played the other night, I need to see them again to really take them off this list.

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Thursday, October 15, 2009

10/14/2009: Muse (w/ Special Guests U2) - Houston, TX

Okay, okay...maybe I got the billing wrong, but in my world that's the way things were last night.  Now I know that the reason 50,000 human beings decided to pay outrageous ticket and parking prices ($20 to park, seriously?) was to see U2 do their thing.  That's great and all.  I was there for the opening act.  That opening act was Muse.

Think back.  Way back.  Back before, well, back before you started reading this blog.  I wrote a list titled the "Top 5 Artists I Absolutely Have to See Live Before I Die!" Muse was on that list, and until last night I had never seen them.  So yeah, it was a big deal for me.  Of course, my seats were in the top section, nosebleed style, so me rocking out on the floor to Muse (the dream, baby) were thwarted early on.  Seriously, check out this view.

No worries though, because when it comes to seeing a show, it's always the music that takes priority.  Muse didn't disappoint.  In my opinion, they completely overshadowed the headlining act on a musical level, which isn't surprising, but still. The band didn't put on quite the spectacle that they're capable of, but that's to be expected seeing as how it's not really their set.  Also expected was the quality of the sound in Reliant Stadium.  It was poor for the most part.  This is why you don't play stadium shows.  Matthew Bellamy's vocals only really stood out from the muddled mix when he sang in his upper registry.  Bono's vocals sounded understandably worse in the mix.  Muse played for about 45 minutes.  Here's the setlist:


Map of the Problematique

Supermassive Black Hole


Undisclosed Desires


Time is Running Out

Plug-In Baby

It was essentially a brief overview of all their commercially successful songs in the United States...+ "Plug-In Baby."  The band did a good job of keeping things interesting, with cool instrumental breakdowns (the one after "Hysteria" was particularly legendary) and awesome new guitar solos.  Overall, a very solid set.  If you were at the show and you're new to Muse, here's a list of their Top 5 Songs I wrote over a year ago.  It still holds up for the most part.  That's a good place to start if you're interested (Absolution if you're looking to buy an album).

Now as far as U2 goes.  They were okay.  They put on quite an amazing show, but I just can't get into their music for the life of me.  Here are a few of my thoughts as the evening progressed:

  • Bono dances like a total Walter.
  • The Edge...seriously?  It's not 1990 anymore.  You can quit wearing the same flannel outfit.
  • Music + politics = church!
  • With the exception of "Vertigo" and "Stuck in a Moment," their best songs are still from over 20 years ago.
  • The crowd, from what I could tell, was really cool.  Not aggressive or pushy, especially on the floor where those things tend to be common.  Way to represent, Houston!
  • I think more people were applauding for the cool set tricks rather than the music.
  • The house music was sweet (MGMT & M83, amongst others)
But as I said, a good show.  A good night.  Thanks to both of the bands for swinging by.

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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

29 in 2009 - Frank Zappa: "Over-Nite Sensation"

Frank Zappa:  Over-Nite Sensation
Originally Released:  September 7, 1973
Genres:  Rock, Comedy
Rating: 4 out of 10

I had just gotten onto a bus in high school when I noticed my friend Justin motioning for me to come to his seat.  I walked back a few rows and sat down next to him.  He was wearing headphones and listening to a portable CD player (kids, that's like an olde-timey MP3 player).  He took his headphones off and handed them to me, saying, "Dude, listen to this," with a wide smile on his face.  I eagerly put the headphones on to hear what was being offered to me.  It turned out to be a random Frank Zappa song off of a random Frank Zappa album.  I don't remember the name of it, or any specifics about the song.  I do remember that the lyrics were quite dirty, but humorous.  This is the primary reason why Justin showed it to me.  I laughed, took off my headphones, and let him continue to listen to his latest musical discovery.

That was my first and only run-in with Zappa before last week.  I kinda wish it would've stayed that way.

Truthfully, Frank Zappa has some amazing skills as both a lyricist and a musician (that guitar...whoah).  I have the lyrics to "Camarillo Brillo" in front of me right now, and it reads like a short story, not song lyrics.  That's quite an achievement for any artist, much less one like Zappa who I have to assume didn't take himself too seriously.  I mean, if he did, maybe his lyrics wouldn't enter the gross-out department so often; or perhaps he would release an album maybe once every few years as opposed to several a year as he did for much of his career.

But my biggest problem with Zappa isn't the shoddy nature of the work, but more just how everything comes together.  I'm all one for having fun in music, even if that fun is quite juvenile.  But too often the lighthearted comedy of Zappa's lyrics don't flow well with the mastery of his guitar, or the brilliant rock work of the rest of his band.  To me, it feels like they're clashing, constantly battling for supremacy until I ultimately just lose complete interest.

This is clearly an album that is not meant for all audiences.  Some will get it, others will not.  Zappa's so renowned in the rock world that it leads me to believe that I simply don't understand exactly what he's trying to accomplish with Over-Nite Sensation.  When you have such an extensive catalogue, as Frank does, I would think it'd be difficult for me, let alone anyone, to fully grasp the concept without at least listening to 2 or 3 albums.  That theory alone makes me question whether or not this can be considered a classic album.  Assuming I'm entirely wrong, what makes this one classic?  Is it the fact that it was his commercial breakthrough, or is it really just that good?  Let's discuss this in the comments, because as disappointed as I am by Over-Nite Sensation, I'm not entirely ready to give up on Zappa yet. 

Verdict:  Overrated

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Wednesday, October 07, 2009

29 in 2009 - Pink Floyd: "Dark Side of the Moon"

Pink Floyd:  Dark Side of the Moon
Originally Released:  March 10, 1973
Genre:  Progressive Rock
Rating:  8 out of 10 Stars

So after all the voting wrapped up, there could only be one Pink Floyd album.  To tell the truth, I'm kind of glad it was Dark Side of the Moon.  Now to say I'm completely unaware of Pink Floyd's music would be false.  In fact, of all the artists in the 29 in 2009 series, I would say that I'm most familiar with Floyd's music than any other artist or band.  Back in high school I owned a copy of The Wall (until that d-bag Matt threw it against a tree and completely ruined disc 2) and I've even heard Dark Side of the Moon before too.  Which brings me to the Wizard of Oz thing. 

There, I acknowledged it.  Let's move on.

Why I decided to allow DSOTM to even be included in this series is because I really wanted an excuse to hear more Floyd, and being a fan of the song "Money" (the only song I was remotely familiar with on the record), it seemed like a good place to start.  I was right to do so, as it turned out, because Dark Side of the Moon is just a flat-out great album!  As far as progressive rock goes, it easily deserves a spot at the top of any genre-specific "Best of" lists.

It starts out with the beautiful and haunting "Speak to Me/Breathe."  The slow build-up into the song-proper ("Breathe") is a bit too slow, but the climax into the first chords of the song is one music's greatest moments.  I remember thinking that 12 years ago when I last listened to the album, and listening to it now only confirms it.  The song itself, as I said, is a thing of absolute simplistic beauty.  "On the Run" on the other hand, is worthless.  But I haven't tripped balls I may be mistaken.

"Time" is a fairly decent piece of music, though its length can be a distraction.  The only thing that really keeps me listening throughout its 7 minutes is the solid guitar-playing courtesy of David Gilmour.  "The Great Gig in the Sky" is mostly-instrumental, though there are a bit of spoken word lines and a pretty sweet vocal performance from Clare Torry.  Does she say anything of sustinence?  Nope.  But it sounds pretty killer.  And this of course brings us to "Money," the most accessible song on the album, which is probably why I've always liked it so much.  It's got a bouncy blues progression, pop vocals, and only the coolest use of a cash register sample ever!  How could anyone not like this song?

"Us and Them." Dang.  The first time I heard this track, whenever that was, I remember thinking about how boring it was.  Now it's easily one of the best tracks on the record, giving "Money" a serious run at the top spot.  It is gorgeous from start to finish, with some of the best performances I've heard by any artist yet in this series.  Love it! "Any Colour You Like?" No thanks.  You know for some reason, I find myself not liking these instrumentals all that much.  Granted, I do see the value in them, but I find myself skipping over them after repeated listens.  The album closes with the fantastic duo of "Brain Damage" and "Eclipse."  Both are great songs, but "Eclipse" is particularly epic despite its short length, and serves as the perfect close to the album. 

So I like this album a lot.  Yeah.  Would I say I'm a Pink Floyd fan?  Not yet, but I'm a definite fan of Dark Side of the Moon, which is a good start.  A friend is telling me that I have to listen to Wish You Were Here, and I'm definitely more inclined to do so after taking this one out for a spin.  One thing's for sure, I'm definitely more of a fan than I was a few weeks ago, and I can't help but feel more complete as a person (and certainly, a music-blogger) as a result.

Verdict:  Classic

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