Category Archives: Rock
This week’s long-awaited wedding between iTunes and the Beatles may have been overhyped, but amid all the deflated and angry responses are some impressive figures: Within 24 hours of the announcement that the Beatles were finally available on iTunes, all 17 albums were in the top 50 most downloaded, and 3 were in the top 10. 5 songs were in the top 50 most downloaded as well. But what is most interesting, I think, about the top selling Beatles songs in particular is that of the top 3, one was written by George, one by Paul, and one by John.
People love to argue about who was the ‘greatest’ or ‘most important’ Beatle, but I think this helps show that what was so special about them is that they complemented each other so well. Harrison famously felt under appreciated in the band, something that helped lead to their polarization towards the end, and the posthumous vindication of “Here Comes the Sun” being the best selling Beatles song on iTunes helps put to rest the question of the magnitude of his contribution.
But because the vast majority of the Beatles catalog is under the Lennon/McCartney name, the battle between who was the more influential member continues to this day. What I think these iTunes stats help show is that without one or the other, the Beatles wouldn’t have been what they are today. Yes, Lennon and McCartney are called the greatest songwriting duo of all time and such, but most people know that by the time Revolver came around, Lennon and McCartney were for the most part writing separately. This doesn’t mean that they didn’t influence each other, however. John and Paul were each other’s perfect counterweights, they helped tweak each others writing to push it to the next level, and they prevented each other from straying too far from a common sound (yes yes I know there are exceptions, like “Revolution 9”, but lets just say Yoko tipped a balanced scale).
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how rare it is for a single artist with a single vision to reach huge success. It seems that in the vast majority of cases, widespread popular and critical acclaim of a band or artist can only come with a significant collaborator or counterweight. Jagger and Richards, John and Taupin, Ellington and Strayhorn, Becker and Fagen, Rogers and Hammerstein/Hart, Tyler and Perry, Page and Plant, Hall and Oates, Henley and Frey, Hayes and Porter, Goffin and King, Gilmour and Waters…the list goes on. And not all of these were ‘songwriting duos’, some were producers and writers, some were guitarists and singers, some were lyricists and songwriters. Some were even just stubborn and strong personalities (The Police? Talking Heads?) that forced compromise.
There are very few examples of artists who have risen to huge success without ANY counterweight whatsoever. Prince comes to mind, as does Joni Mitchell (Blue, in particular), and Bob Dylan, but even these are very idiosyncratic acquired tastes. To reach the level of the Beatles or the Rolling Stones or Elton John, the legendary status where even the biggest haters can’t deny your place (example: I’m not a huge Rolling Stones fan) there needs to be someone pushing or pulling you in a different direction. Only then, it seems, can a catalog worthy of such inflated hype as Tuesday’s Beatles announcement be developed.
Now, the question is whether all their genius is worth 256 kbps…
The Grays were the most unexpected “supergroup” of the 90’s. Unexpected because, well, none of them were at all famous at the time of the recording. And, to be completely truthful, none of them are that famous even today. Jon Brion is the most well-known of The Grays’, having established himself as not only a successful pop producer (contributing to the likes of Aimee Mann, Fiona Apple, the Crystal Method, and even Kanye West), but also as a film score composer (for films like Magnolia, Punch Drunk Love, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and I [Heart] Huckabees), and (to a lesser extent) as a pop artist himself. But the Grays aren’t about one person, and by no means is their sound the result of one musician. The second most currently established former member of the band is Jason Falkner. Falkner, while taking a path similar to that of Mr. Brion, is now more renowned as an ace studio musician in addition to his output as a leader. While not as recognized in his home country for his solo work, he is quite established abroad as a pop singer, having released over 6 records in the last 15 years. The third “leg” of the grays was Buddy Judge, a singer/songwriter whose own wave of success has largely been boosted by help from both formerly mentioned artists. The forming of the Grays was essentially about three singer/songwriters in LA, frustrated with their previous exploits and failed bands, hoping to form a “more perfect union.” They hoped to form a group where everyone’s submissions and contributions were treated equally, a sort of democratic enclave within what was a highly feudal musical society. A noble idea, no doubt, and one that did actually work, for a brief period.
In the recruitment of their friend Dan McCarroll on drums, the Grays set out to evenly split their album into 4 original songs each. In the end, Falkner got a fifth, and 13 tracks were presented as 1994’s Ro Sham Bo. The opening track, Falkner’s “Very Best Years,” is as illustrative of the guitarist’s style as you will find. In hindsight, it really epitomizes 90’s pop/alternative rock (so if you have any friends who are obsessed with 90’s era radio, this will most likely strike their fancy), but despite its retrospectively typical sound, at the time it was quite a new style. I mean, essentially we are dealing with studio legends on this album, so it is no surprise to hear that they were one step ahead of everyone else.
“Very Best Years”
This studio-friendly sound really rings true on Buddy Judge’s debut track, “Everybody’s World.” The first minute and thirty seconds act as an exposé of the band’s talent in the studio. It is actually kind of creepy listening to today, to think that such a well-written, expertly produced and radio-friendly album could be so under the radar and then go out of print, and still, to this day, be relatively unknown.
But as well-intentioned as the Grays were, they were also essentially doomed from the start. Having three massively talented musicians trying to form a band that is completely democratic in nature is extremely oxymoronic. And for listeners, the seams show. Falkner, Judge, and Brion may all be coming from similar places and striving for similar sounds, but stacked side by side they couldn’t sound more different. Judge clearly is the weakest writer: his songs stand out the least on the album and ultimately act as fillers. Contrastingly, Falkner has an incredible knack for writing verse hooks and melodies, and his voice is certainly the strongest of the three, but his ability to string together entire well-rounded songs is lacking, and thus his input suffers. Jon Brion is not only the most talented member of the Grays, but he also is the most devoted to their concept. His first track on the album, “The Same Thing,” features verses and choruses sung by himself, but a bridge sung by Falkner, a guitar solo by Falkner, and even a curious little drum interlude by McCarroll. Not only are Brion’s songs the best on the album, but they’re also the most unconventional, which on an album like this is far more of a blessing than a curse. Even when taking a step away from conventionality doesn’t workout as planned, it ends up leaving a stronger mark when the album is all said and done.
“The Same Thing”
Like its finest parts, I like to treat this album as a deviation from what it was supposed to be. Think of it as a compilation: “Where were they then? Works by three of the last decade’s best pop producers/songwriters.” The album sounds a lot better this way, and it will make a lot more sense.
If Emitt Rhodes was the best album that Paul McCartney never recorded, then The Fire Theft is the best album that Sunny Day Real Estate never recorded. Except…that’s not an entirely accurate statement because, well, The Fire Theft pretty much are Sunny Day Real Estate, minus one member. Sunny Day Real Estate was one of the best bands to come out of Seattle in the 90’s that nobody has heard of. Often horribly mislabeled as the founders of “emo,” SDRE carved a truly unique niche in the 90’s Sub-Pop catalog and evolved to become significantly more artistically minded than any of their contemporaries.
The band was never too concerned with recognition, they were notorious for shunning interviews and very little if any live footage of them exists, despite this medium being their primary pathway to whatever fame they did achieve. It is because of this and their similarly unmarketable decision to rename themselves that has led to the softening of their historical impact. Really, there is not much difference between SDRE’s “final” album, The Rising Tide, and The Fire Theft’s first album, other than slight personnel changes; both albums maintain three fourths of the original band. The real difference is the sound: play SDRE’s 1994 release Diary up against The Fire Theft’s 2003 eponymous debut and you’ll realize why people forget they are the same group.
But perhaps the name change was necessary, because despite mainting the majority of members from SDRE, The Fire Theft is a significantly more mature band. Instead of simply crafting concise pop songs, vocalist/guitarist Jeremy Enigk, bassist Nate Mendel and drummer William Goldsmith constructed a real album. Complete with instrumentals, stacked vocal harmonies, string sections, samples, loops, and electronics all squeezed between intros, interludes, reprises and outros, The Fire Theft makes Diary seem like a demo tape.
Because of this newfound adventurousness, when all is said in done, these are also the best songs the band has ever written. When, after the haunting instrospection of the album’s opener “Uncle Mountain” and the curious “segue” (or [p]reprise) which is the second track, the crashing beat of Goldsmith’s drums fall 1 minute and 10 seconds into “Oceans Apart,” and we begin to realize this is not traditional fare. The song continues to build for 3 more minutes until it stops, almost suddenly, and only later do we realize that these entire first three songs and 11 minutes have been serving as the album’s introduction.
The sixth song on the album, “Summertime”, highlights the experimentation on this album. Enigk’s voice soars over the strings and keyboards when he takes his voice, powerful as ever, up an octave in the second verse. The familiar power of Enigk’s guitar is mixed with the previously unfamiliar strings and electronic loops that fade out the track.
“Heaven” is probably the best track on the album, a track which effortlessly summarizes everything I have been trying to convey about the album. Enigk again uses his voice remarkably effectively on this track, and the ever-growing harmonies that begin at 2:22 bring it to an incredible climax before the band returns to the idée fixe of the album at 2:55 and then fades to a simple, lingering piano line.
Yet, like I said before, despite everything else that makes The Fire Theft distinctly significant within the SDRE/TFT catalog, it is the magnificent songwriting that holds the record together. “It’s Over” is probably the best concise “pop” song on the record. The mix of Enigk’s insatiably catchy guitar loop, Mendel’s creative and every-developing bass support, Goldsmith’s unique drumming on the chorus, the band’s harmonies, their build to the chorus, and of course the totally unexpected ending of it all contribute to the song’s beauty in simplicity and lucidly illustrate a band that was not only meant to be, write and play together, but were destined to grow and mature together as well. This album is the result.
This live video of “the Clock” is interesting for a couple reasons. First of all, it’s just a damn good performance. Originally I didn’t like this track on the album, but after seeing this video I went back. I think it speaks volumes about Yorke as an artist that he didn’t record the song like he performs it. He strove to express the song in a different way than how he wrote it. It is usually by such means that we make a good thing great. Perhaps this time it didn’t work out (see: my original opinion of the album-version of the song), but its the effort that counts. Here are the two versions: