July 28, 2010

Elton John: 11/17/70

[NB: About a month ago, I inherited my parent's collection of records. This is the first in an occasional series of the highlights and, potentially, the low points, therein. The Best of Bread, a record that hasn't hit my turntable just yet, comes to mind in regards to the latter.]

Elton John first played in the United States in 1970, and on November 17, in the middle of his inaugural US tour, he recorded what would become one of the most famous bootlegs of all time, 11-17-70, at A&R Studios, for radio broadcast in New York City.

The performance itself is legendary. John has stated in more than one interview that he's never given as strong a live performance, and Dave Herman, a New York City radio DJ who hosted the event, noted that at some point during the performance, John cut his hand, and by the end of the set, the piano was covered in blood.

The record is an excellent introduction to the qualities you'll get with a record that you won't get with a CD or mp3. Everyone says that vinyl sounds "warmer" than pretty much everything that followed it in terms of hi-fi systems, and there's a reason for that. Without getting too detailed (because I can't, really, I don't know all that much about it), essentially each advancement in recording technology has been an improvement of condensing. In recording terminology, this can mean a couple of things, but the general idea is that you're condensing a track (vocal, instrument, whatever) by eliminating recorded frequencies that the human ear can't hear. With advanced digital recording technology, studio techs have been able to maintain and sometimes even mimic these frequencies (FLAC files do this, I believe, but they're massive), but nothing comes close to vinyl (except of course reel-to-reel, but you've got to be a pretty sadistic audiofile to get into that kind of thing.).

So that "warmness" that everyone's always talking about is actually the over and undertones that were recorded on the original reels and are maintained on vinyl records. On tapes, 8-tracks, CDs and digital files, these tones are slaughtered, and you're left with a much "chillier" sounding record.

Because of this, live recordings are a great place to start when you're listening to vinyl, because you can actually hear dynamics. I've shown three separate groups of people now, all with pretty distinct musical tastes, this particular record, and each time the same thing happens: After Dave Herman's introduction, some applause, and maybe the first sixteen bars of "Take Me To The Pilot," somebody says:

"Holy shit."

Elton John is just that talented. Dee Murray and Nigel Olsson (bass and drums, respectively) round out the band, and they're showcased nicely. The most glaring difference I've noted with regard to vinyl recordings has been the quality of the low end. With CDs &c., low end recording (bass tones) is always somewhat indistinct. On vinyl, you can distinguish everything, and this quality really complements Murray and Olsson's work here.

My only complaint about the record is that it's too short. The original bootleg was comprised of something like 12 songs, but only six remain on the US version of the record. This, however, is a product of a different music market.

In summation, if you're looking to start a record collection, this is a decent place to get started. It's a record that says, "This is why you should be listening to records."

Elton John: 11-17-70: 9.0/10

Tyra Banks

"May I propose a Herzog dictum? Those who read own the world, and those who watch television lose it." -Werner Herzog

I don't believe that. I like television. I'm admittedly a fan of reality television, though in a way that really irritates most reality television fans. As somebody who reads what's actually been called an "unhealthy amount" of David Foster Wallace (his essay "Television and US Fiction" is important, in this case) I watch reality television because I like the way it fractures my own reality. I have a theory that reality TV shows are entirely staged, and not in that, "well, yeah, the producers put the people in certain situations and the people react" staged kind of way, I mean one hundred percent staged with a script and everything. I think everyone on The Hills is an actor. They're not friends, they don't have internships at chic magazines, and Bolthouse Productions (a "promotions" company (whatever the hell that means) for which a character on the show works) does not fucking exist. Seriously, go poke around their alleged website for a few minutes and tell me that's not a semi-elaborate hoax. This approach at least allows me to go through these shows imagining that the people I'm watching are living in a Thomas Pynchon novel, and frankly, it makes an intensely dull television show about wealthy but altogether unsubstantial people and their inconsequential choices a little more interesting. Maybe Lauren Conrad is actually living a fairly rich cultural life somewhere, burning her money with Johnny Depp on the French Riviera. (Talk about Pynchon...)

It's an interesting thing to think about in the abstract: When did the unreality of television lose its appeal? Why do so many people tune in to shows that sort-of-mimic reality? Try wrapping your head around the posthuman stakes of Curb Your Enthusiasm. There's a show that's funny, creative, and zany, but what's it saying? Is it a critique? Or think about how metaphysical a spin-off is. Archie Bunker was on TV, sure, but then the Jefferson's moved somewhere. Where does that leave you, as a watcher? Doesn't it kind of feel like they're getting closer to reality. Sherman Helmsley and Pat Morita (The Karate Kid) recently starred in a (very funny) stage production of The Odd Couple at a small theater in Stoneham, MA. How's your sense of reality now?

Another reason I like to think that reality TV is scripted is the fact that by and large, I do not want to imagine a world in which most of these people I am watching actually exist. On the one hand, they do and say things that make me, if only momentarily, understand the motivations backing radical Islamic groups (although I always wondered what they thought of The Bachelor. I bet the Taliban is kind of on the fence there.). On the other hand, I shudder when I consider the deep, psychological damage that is most likely done to a person playing herself for six weeks of taping. "For whom is the funhouse fun?," as they say.

Or, more accurately:

"You look into the eyes of a chicken and you lose yourself in a completely flat, frightening stupidity. They are like a great metaphor for me. I kind of love chicken, but they frighten me more than any other animal."

Now there's a Herzog quote I can get behind.

Because if these people are who we see, even at that basest of levels, it's frightening. On a recent episode of The Bachelorette, the lead female character responds with furious tears to a contestant who informs her that he's in love with someone else. The show's premise, of course, is that something like eighty men vie for the attention of this one woman in the hopes of being the last man "eliminated," and in the end, two people get married. So for dramatic effect one of these final men in the grim tournament of prom dates or whatever turns out to have feelings for this other woman back in the "real world" (sic). So naturally, our female hero is incensed. But think about this for a moment. If we imagine that this show is, to whatever small extent, real, what message is this woman sending? She's been dumping people left and right for weeks. And she keeps talking about how "hard" it is. And now, of all things, she's been dumped. My heart really goes out to you, lady.

This, of course, is playing directly into the script. We're supposed to have these kinds of emotional responses to the situations, and it's why our relationship to reality television is so complicated. We know these people are paid well, there's this whole song and dance, there's this pseudo-career that comes out of the whole thing, &c. &c. Again, it's nicer to believe that it's all scripted. That these people are just method actors. Because if they're not, it's troubling.

Which brings me to Tyra Banks. Tyra Banks trumps my theory, and it bugs me, largely because she is the most uniquely vapid of any of these reality television characters. She made the majority of her fortune in the most superficial industry a person can imagine. She is self centered and entitled and perhaps most troubling, she believes that she isn't. We're all self centered, after all, but most of us temper that self-centeredness with a deep sense of isolation and in-consequence. This sounds worse than it is. You're supposed to feel small sometimes because you are. And if you don't, you'll end up like Tyra Banks.

The majority of my exposure to Banks has been through clips of her talk show and her reality contest show, America's Next Top Model, which, astoundingly, has been going on for like a decade. There are certain fashion design shows that make a case for fashion as having some sort of consequence in terms of design. ANTM is not one of them. Essentially, something like four hundred beautiful people get their pictures taken in weird costumes for an hour, then Tyra Banks does a terrible impersonation of an art critic and breaks down the photographs and arbitrarily picks a winner. One problem is that fashion is primarily commerce. It is not art. And while this is an assumption that can be challenged, Tyra Banks is reinforcing it, taking fashion further and further away from art by posing as someone who knows what art is.

Photographs are, after all, art. We had this discussion back before we had the AC/DC (the forms of electricity, not the band) discussion. Even if we're talking about commercial art, it's still art. It's Andy Warhol times a thousand. But where Banks' show creates this art, it also negates it by way of her own tepid, arbitrary analysis. Sometimes, one contestant is rewarded for being commercial, another rewarded similarly for being avant-garde, and yet another severely penalized for not "smiling with her eyes." The criticism is like a Fellini film in and of itself, and it hurts the artistic endeavors of the models, which were feeble to begin with.

It's a feebleness that's celebrated as strength, and this is by far the most unnerving of Banks' crimes. With ANTM, Tyra Banks has set feminism back twenty years.

To begin with, I've always found it alarming that Banks' treatment of homosexuality on her show is largely stereotypical. She tends to celebrate the male homosexual community as it pertains to female fashion, but ignores lesbianism in favor of this very vague conception of the "strong, independent woman," the ideal, in this case, being herself.

This is a sentiment that permeates the psyche of the contestants (NB: Again, a reminder that while I usually operate under the belief that all of this is scripted, Banks kind of throws a wrench in the works. No one would intentionally script this kind of harmful material. It borders on subversive, and Tyra Banks is not subversive.) and tends to come up in their own analysis of their chosen profession. Every contestant brings up the fact that she wants to become a role model. To little girls. They want to set a good example, be looked up to, respected. I find this infuriating.

It's important to understand what a role model is. First, a role model doesn't ever aspire to be a role model. At least not publicly. You're already a bad role model because you're self-important. A role model is typically defined by their circumstances, and when your circumstances typically involve you, grovelling, in front of a supermodel, a very Aryan looking photographer, and some kind of gay clown, for their approval of your appearance, I'd say the chips are not, as they say, stacked in your favor. Also, a role model tends to know what his constituents need in a role model, not necessarily just what they want. Some self-awareness might do these model-role-models some good. If, for example, you are rail thin, six-four, and lauded for your beauty, you're not really in a position to do much for girls with body image issues, and you're certainly not an effective spokesperson when you spend all your face time on TV bitching about your own body image issues because, again, you've been cast on a TV show on a major network solely because you're pretty. If you've still got body image issues, you're the one who needs a role model.

If you're a model, you can only be a role model by fitting into a perfect niche of circumstances. Tyra Banks is evil because her show doesn't reward the only kind of role model professional modeling can produce. Tyra Banks rewards slavery to the superficial. She's eternally calling contestants out for "not wanting it enough." Is that what a role model is? Someone who ascribes deep, personal meaning to something so lacking in significance?

That, in the end, is the kicker. We are defined, as individuals, by what we choose to think about, what we choose to give weight to, what we choose to call "important." And I think television is important. I think it's important that you can flip between two channels on a box in your living room, like I'm doing right now, and see, first, Tyra Banks making some girl cry and then consoling her (with the totally unconsoling phrase, "You're going to learn to try harder."), and then see Madeline Albright. It's important because it reminds us that, at the end of the day, we determine meaning, we define art, and we compartmentalize worth. Reality TV is both a compartment of and a reflection of our society that's worth noting, and Tyra Banks is worth something-- but not much.

Tyra Banks: 1.5/10

July 20, 2010

Wolf Parade: Expo 86

Wolf Parade's 2005 debut, Apologies to the Queen Mary, is a masterpiece. This statement has to preface any review of their current music because it (the debut record) is undoubtedly going to be the barometer by which all of their current releases will be measured. I first saw Wolf Parade perform in 2006 with my then college dorm-mate in Providence, RI. I remember thinking that they performed with a listless urgency, maybe like happily-buzzed welders, aware of the danger, the weight and emotional resonance of their art, but understanding that it would only bear that weight if they flaunted it and threatened to let it all break apart. That, I suppose, is what rock n' roll is all about.

After the success of Apologies to the Queen Mary, Wolf Parade fractured somewhat. The band's two driving forces, Dan Boeckner (guitar/vocals) and Spencer Krug (piano/vocals) spent periods of time on side projects: Boeckner embraced his neo-Springsteen pop sensibilities and formed the band Handsome Furs, while Krug descended into more literary, avant-garde projects like Sunset Rubdown, Moonface, and Swan Lake.

I will do my best to spare you the lexical "who knows who" meanderings of the Western Canadian Indie Rock Circuit from this point on. You know what wikipedia is, if you're interested, look it all up there. There's probably a flow chart or something.

Following ATTQM, Wolf Parade released the somewhat meager, "has-its-moments" sophomore effort (NB: The phrase "sophomore effort" is obligatory in any decent music review. Also "pop sensibility." Write that down.) At Mount Zoomer. Loosely (very loosely) based on Jonathan Carroll's novel Kissing The Beehive, the album saw Krug and Boeckner depart from their true collaborative songwriting style in favor of their own unique voices, undoubtedly strengthened by their individual successes in side projects. This was a disappointment for some after the lightning in a bottle collaborative nature of ATTQM, but what really doomed the album was the painstaking self-production, which left the final cut of the album simply too compressed and chilly. ATTQM's charming, somewhat lackluster production (done by Isaac Brock of Modest Mouse) made the album a bit of an easter egg hunt. The lyrical content was often mysterious, crafting its own progressive mythology, and the quality of the recording reflected the overall themes; it was hurried, urgent, and sometimes just obfuscating enough to render the message clear. At Mount Zoomer, by comparison, is simply too clear.

That being said, it does have its moments: Krug's "California Dreamer" explores the sinister, Stephen King-esque themes surrounding small towns, aging, and isolation ("I'll be around, I'll be around, I'll be around./ Like a teenager in town."), and Boeckner's "The Grey Estates" is a solid tune about modernity and, more specifically, and entirely in my own opinion, probably about Grey Gardens: "Let the needle on the compass swing./ Let the iron in your heart's blood ring./ Strike up the band as the ship goes down,/ and if it's loud enough, it will erase the sound/ of one hundred thousand sad inventions./ Let them rot inside the grey estates." The final track, a cathartic, eleven minute anthem "Kissing The Beehive" comes closest to the collaborative magic of ATTQM, but when the sophomore record plays through again, you find yourself skipping too many tracks.

Which brings us to 2010's EXPO 86, named for a World's Fair held in Vancouver in 1986 that both Krug and Boeckner attended as children. Opening with a frenetic Krug's staggering vibrato ("...I was a dreamcatcher hanging in the window of a minivan,/ parked along the water's edge;/ I'd say that I was all alone."), we're immediately back in more familiar territory, though not entirely sure where that territory might be located. In all, the record surprises. Boeckner's "Yulia" is pretty much "Space Oddity" from the perspective of a cosmonaut, but it's surprisingly moving. Krug's closing, celebratory "Cave-O-Sapien" modulates to a hopeful major scale, but is largely about the trials of living with a drug addicted friend ("And while you're leaning deep into the smoke of those two sticks you keep rubbing together/ I keep thinking about how bad it's gonna burn./ And all the people I loved back home,/ who I loved, and love,/ that you turned on./ People just offering shelter from the wind..."). In terms of production, Boeckner's guitars sound thankfully messier, and the mix just feels right, overall. The days of Boeckner/Krug true collaborations may be over, but we get the sense that the band simply doesn't want to try to outdo what they did with ATTQM. At the same time, we'd like to see them try.

I've accepted that we're never going to regain the magic of Apologies to the Queen Mary. It was a record made in a special time, in a special place, and those singular elements present of course just put the whole package beyond compare, but EXPO 86 is a good record from a good band that continues to grow, and I hope they continue to surprise me.

Wolf Parade: EXPO 86: 8.0/10

Wolf Parade is signed to Sub Pop Records, and this is their website.