Friday, May 09, 2014

The Streets - A Grand Don't Come For Free - 2004

If The Streets had ever made an album as consistently great as their highlights, they probably could've ruled the world. But the problem is that each of the albums that Mike Skinner put out as The Streets was half full of amazing tracks and half full of things that might've been good but get caught on some thing instead.

"A Grand Don't Come For Free" was Skinner's second album as The Streets, following "Original Pirate Material," which had made him something of a star in his native England. The Streets were a sort of slice-of-life urban British rap and skittish electronic hip-hop beats, and they were very much focused on the perspective of an everyday fellow, usually Skinner himself (or some stylized version thereof), which makes it a welcome change from rap focusing on big money, big cars and bigger-than-life egos. Which isn't to say that Skinner doesn't have an ego every now and then. But The Streets were grounded, never forgetting just how close he was to his whole life falling apart, or how close he still could be.

Part of the reason I recommend starting with "A Grand Don't Come For Free" is that even though it has a few uneven tracks, the whole thing is one concept story, a month in the life of Skinner as he's trying to figure out how to get his life in order. From the opening of "It Was Supposed To Be So Easy" (which is probably my least favorite track on the album, but sets the stage of the overarching story) to the closing mini-epic of "Empty Cans," the album charts Skinner's life as he tries to figure out where his one thousand quid disappeared from his flat, blaming his roommates, his girlfriend, himself... He getting frustrated as bills start piling up, as he goes to a club and can't find the people he's supposed to meet up with (hint: she's cheating on him with his friend/roommate), as he and his girlfriend get into a row that might be the end, as he tries to pick up a girl in a bar but decides she's too full of herself to bother, and his fucking television is on the fritz...

There's something unique and fantastic about Skinner's delivery, almost like a white, British suburban version of Busta Rhymes, nimble and intricate. Skinner delights in spinning a yard, letting the story unfold a bit at a time, building and building, layer by layer, which makes for elaborate tales. And Skinner pays attention to the little details, like how cell phones would always cut out back then, or how he had to stand in a specific spot in his kitchen to not lose signal, or the taste of hairspray when he enters a club.

"Blinded By The Lights" was the first song from The Streets that hooked me hard. I've been in a few clubs in my day, and that sense of disorientation and frustration is something most people have felt in a club at some point. You know things are going wrong, and you feel like you should just get out of there, but you told people you'd meet them there, and you're going to stick it out, even if it comes back and bites you in the ass. (Hint: It does.)

But one night isn't the end of the world, and as Skinner's trying to figure out what to do with himself, he's considering pretty girls at a local chip shop, but decides he can't be interested in any girl who's too full of herself, and many, many of them are. The song's called "Fit But You Know It," and it's probably the most playful on the album, cheeky and smug in all the ways of over confident youth.

"A Grand" starts to go downhill right after that, as Skinner gets into a fight with his friends, and it comes out that one of his friends has been sleeping with his girlfriend, and now she's going to go off with him, leaving Skinner heartbroken, desperately pleading, trying to say whatever magic words will keep her around in "Dry Your Eyes," but it's all for naught, as she leaves anyway. And the album feels like it's crumbling into sadness.

"Empty Cans" is the last track, and it starts angry and ends hopeful, and you can hear the background music slowly changing with Skinner's mood, as he starts to get his life back into some semblance of sanity. And all the lessons that have been thrown in his face over the album have started to sink in. And he's not mad anymore, because he realizes he's got to take care of himself first and foremost, and can't depend on other people to be what props him up.

The album paints such an elaborate picture of a guy's life falling into despair and slowly peeling his way out from it, whether he's earned it or not. Maybe that doesn't even matter. Skinner's aware of his own problems, and he knows his self-loathing and confrontational attitude are part of why he gets into these messes. (Also, by the end, he's learned the most important lesson is that he needs to be a bit smarter about the company he keeps.)

The closing words: "The end of the something I did not want to end / Beginning of hard times to come / But something that was not meant to be is done / And this is the start of what was..."You'll find something to like about The Streets. I know I always do...

Thursday, May 08, 2014

Mogwai - Come On Die Young - 1999

From time to time, people ask me - what do you listen to while you're writing? My immediate response is "post-rock." Their immediate response is "what's that?"

Post-rock is generally described as instrumental rock, usually with intricate melodies. It's sort of math rock without a vocalist, a lot of the time, although the tempo and approach each band takes varies greatly, and each band tends to vary their approach from album to album some as well. Take Mogwai, for example.

Mogwai were sort of my introduction into the post-rock rabbit hole, via Kevin Shields, the guitarist from My Bloody Valentine. In 1998, it had been 7 years since My Bloody Valentine's "Loveless" had come out, and we were hearing rumblings that they were working on another album (which wouldn't come out until 2013, but hey, you know...) so I was trying to find anything else of theirs they were putting out. And I came across a remix that Kevin Shields had done for this band called Mogwai, so I picked up Mogwai's remix collection and found it interesting.

When "Come On Die Young," Mogwai's second album, was coming out, I was working for the college newspaper, The Daily Nebraskan, as an A&E reporter/critic, as well as a columnist. When music came into the office, the editor got first pick of stuff he wanted to review, but after that it was fair game. And when CODY (as it's called for short) came in a week or two before release date, I was all over it.

Later in their career, Mogwai would get a lot more active and busy with their instrumentation, but CODY is them at their dirge-est. Most of the songs are slow and methodical, often building up to large waves of heavy noise, but some of them are quiet and delicate, like the soft-spoken "Waltz for Aiden."

I don't know that I'd say CODY is a jumping on place, but it's certainly music to help me focus on my writing, so in that regard, it's definitely worth picking up...

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

The Glitch Mob - Drink The Sea - 2010

I have Avri to thank for this one. See, Avri's into EDM/electronic music a lot more than I am. At one point, the two of us were driving into the city to see a concert - I think it was Juno Reactor, and man was that show a story unto itself - when we got into a discussion about styles of electronic music. Avri found it fascinating that I liked some stuff (I had a particular love of The Chemical Brothers and Future Sound of London) but that whole genres of electronic music (such as happy hardcore) I found pretty boring. So I told him what I'm looking for in electronic music - interesting sounds, a good beat, but most importantly, a melody line that evolved and moved forward.

See, here's my beef with a lot of electronic music. I hear a ton of stuff that is basically "set beat, add in one or two recurring higher pitched effects, let play for eight minutes." So much EDM is just a drum pattern with a few pieces of warbly nonsense over it. I want melody, I want a sense that I'm not just listening to a beat that'll go on for an arbitrary period of time and then stop for no apparent reason. I want a song to be just that, a song.

That was when he recommended I check out The Glitch Mob. They'd been mostly a touring act, playing festivals and west coast shows, and didn't even have an album out, but they had a few songs floating around online and I liked what I heard, and their first album, "Drink The Sea," was just about to drop.

"Drink The Sea" was everything I wanted it to be. It was full of catchy hooks and big beats and, most importantly, songs. The sounds were fantastic and varied, but there was a sense of unified style to it. All in all, it's a great debut. If you're like me and expect more from your electronic music, you could do a lot worse.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Aerosmith - Pump - 1989

When I was back in Nebraska over Christmas, I spent a bit of time hanging out with my oldest friend Topher, and we found ourselves talking about music we'd been listening to a lot when we were younger. Right around the time he and I became friends, back in 1989 (back in 7th grade, for those of you who are curious), he was heavily into one album in particular - Aerosmith's "Pump."

I was just starting to branch out into music past the stuff that my folks listened to - mostly older stuff like The Kingston Trio - and was struggling to find music that I liked that was mine. A lot of kids in school were listening to stuff like New Kids On The Block or Milli Vanilli, and I found that kind of stuff didn't appeal to me at all. There were also a bunch of people listening to Skid Row and Motley Crue, neither of which struck a chord in me at the time. (I've actually come to dig some of that weird sleazy hair metal as I've gotten older, but only in small doses.) My dad liked listening to a lot of musicals, and my mother was a die-hard Michael Bolton fan. Clearly, I needed to find something that was outside of the sphere of influence I had.

My first year of junior high, my homeroom had a number of people in it who kept mostly to themselves, but there was one kid who was always doodling on pieces of paper before class started. I remember I walked over to him and said I thought his drawings looked cool. He told me the one he was working on was crap, and he was embarrassed I saw it. So I asked him to show me some of his cooler stuff. And that was how I met Topher.

Topher's family was about as different from mine as I could imagine. He was the oldest of three kids; my baby brother had literally come along a year ago, when I was 11, with no siblings in between. His folks listened to Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin; I'm not sure my dad knew who Led Zeppelin were. His family lived in North Omaha; my family lived in Central Omaha. (I know, many people are thinking - it's Omaha... how different can the regions be? Well, how different are Queens and Manhattan - they're both New York City, right? Yeah, Omaha regions have that kind of disparity too...) Hell, when Topher's mom came to pick him up from our house after his first sleepover, I thought she was his sister. But we were damn near the same age (he's eight days older than I am) and we got along like a gang of thieves.

He ended up being my roommate for much of college, although things soured when I moved out to California, for the more predictable of reasons. (Answer: A girl.) Despite the fact that Topher and I went through some rough patches, we made amends three or four years back, and I've made it a point to hang out with him every time I've been back in Omaha since. The last time I saw him, I hated to leave. The rat bastard really is probably one of my best friends in the world.

So, anyway, when we were just starting to become friends, I remember we were walking to his house after school one day, and I was bitching about all the horrible music that people were listening to, and he started telling me about Aerosmith's "Pump." I had vague recollections of hearing Aerosmith on a classic rock station, and asked him if it was the same band. It was, and when we got to his house, he put on his tape of "Pump" and we listened to the whole thing, start to finish.

"Pump" was one of Aerosmith's biggest hits, carried to mainstream success on the backs of two singles - "Love In An Elevator" and "Janie's Got A Gun." For those of you who are only familiar with Aerosmith from "I Don't Wanna Miss A Thing," man, are you in for a surprise when you listen to their earlier stuff. Aerosmith was a dirty, sleazy rock band in the 1970s that had sort of fallen victim to its own excess, but the original lineup reunited in 1985 for the album "Done With Mirrors." That album didn't have much success, but then Run-D.M.C. covered "Walk This Way" and suddenly people were interested again, so the next album, "Permanent Vacation," brought them back into vogue. By the time "Pump" hit, the band was riding the high wave again.

"Love In An Elevator" was a smash hit. It had the perfect blend of gritty blues rock that the band was known for blended with just the right amount of pop-metal to get kids hooked. And just when it seemed like that song's time was passing, "Janie's Got A Gun" was released as the second single.

The song caught on, in no small part due to the gritty video that matched the dark and foreboding tone of the song. (Fun fact! The video was directed by a guy who's gone on to some renown since he turned his attention to feature films. David Fincher, who brought you Seven, The Social Network and the US version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, among others.)

By 1990, Aerosmith were everywhere. They were on Saturday Night Live (and on Wayne's World!) and MTV's Unplugged. Then in late 1991, they played MTV's 10th Anniversary, with perhaps one of the most epic of epics, their 1972 song "Dream On" done with an orchestra backing them, and Michael Kamen was leading that orchestra. (Kamen died WAY too early...) There's nothing more I can say to top this performance, but you should track down "Pump," and probably at least a Greatest Hits or two...

Monday, May 05, 2014

Global Frequency - 2002-2004 - Warren Ellis

"You're on the Global Frequency."

I imagine I'm going to cover most of the series Warren Ellis has finished on the blog at some point - that's a notable distinction, as he's also just abandoned a number of them - but I wanted to start with Global Frequency for a number of reasons.

First and foremost, Global Frequency is twelve issues, meaning it's not a big investment (you can pick up the whole series in one trade paperback for $15 from Amazon) and it's not a major time commitment.

Next, Global Frequency is independent of everything. It, ostensibly, exists inside our world. No superheroes, no folks in tights, no endless backstory for you to have to go digging into. Twelve issues. You're in; you're out.

Also, each issue is illustrated by a different artist, so if you find you aren't connecting with a particular style, for whatever reason (I've known people like this over the years - they can't read a comic, no matter how good it is, because they don't like the artist's style - I've never understood it), you just need to make it to the next issue. Or even just skip to the next issue. The stories are, mostly, self-contained. Each issue will give you a part of a bigger picture, but isn't necessary to enjoy any of the other stories. Although, you probably want to read the first one to get a good sense of what the concept of the book is. But I'll clue you in on that too.

There exists an independent intelligence agency known as the Global Frequency. There are 1,001 members. It was founded by Miranda Zero, who was clearly an intelligence agent... somewhere, before this. Everyone on the frequency is activated by a cell phone when they are needed by the operator known as Aleph, who is the communications hub for Global Frequency. Agents don't know anything about each other until they are activated. Each person on the frequency was chosen for a skillset and/or a region of influence.

When a crisis arises, Zero selects a team, Aleph activates it and away they go.

If it sounds a little bit like Mission: Impossible for the modern era, you aren't wrong. Ellis specifically designed the series to function like television, with each episode being self-contained so that people could drop in or drop out at a moment's notice. Also, it granted Ellis a lot more leeway in story-telling. Only Aleph and Miranda Zero were considered "safe" characters - anyone else could be killed off without warning, because it wasn't like you'd see them next issue any way. It was also planned to be exactly twelve issues, so that Ellis could work with all the available artists he had that he wanted to at the time, and then be done. He's threatened to do a sequel for a long time now. He really ought to get his ass on that.

Another part of what makes Global Frequency so damn good is that it taps into Ellis' almost fetishistic interest in beyond-the-pale technology and philosophy. Because of the concept, he could dabble in things like advanced prosthetics, Cold War psychotropic drug studies conducted by the military, mass hallucinations, etc. Each issue is framed around a "big idea" that the rest of the story hangs on, but keep in mind, "big idea" can sometimes be something as simple as parkour, which has become pretty widespread in mainstream media since then. (Although in my opinion, no one's really ever topped District B13 in that regard, but that's a post for another day.) Ellis uses the spy framework to build stories that deal with bigger questions, the sorts of questions you don't see people often asking in comics these days. And all of this on an action thread that really sings, whizzing along at top speed.

After reading Global Frequency, you may find yourself thinking that it's screaming for adaption to television, and you're not wrong. But it's been tried. John Rogers (one of the two people behind "Leverage," the best damn TV show not enough people watched) wrote and executive produced a pilot that you can find floating around the internet that was great. It was an adaptation of the first issue, but changed things around so there would be a couple more stable characters, as television often seems to need. It didn't get picked up for series. Then in 2009, supposedly the CW was looking at trying to have a go at it again, but that's half a decade ago and nothing came of it, so maybe television's overlords don't understand how badly we want it.

Then again, Ellis has supposedly been working on a number of stealth projects as of late, some of which are television related, so I can hope...

Until then, you should pick up Global Frequency and see what mad scientists will be up to in the next couple of years. Because some of the concepts he puts forth are frighteningly plausible...