Archive

Articles

Dan Bejar of Destroyer is hyper-aware of being in the music tradition: that as much as he carves his own monument as the 21st century esoteric, we are always made of aware of his struggle to make his way in it- as he most tellingly croons in ‘The Bad Arts’ ‘Why did you spend the 90’s cowering?’.

And so in ostentatiously borrowing from the musical canon we see both the man and the myth.  The man in that he shows his debt to these musicians, but the myth that he can so wantonly scrape some of rock’s most sacred lines and graft them into his songs takes an assuredness that Destroyer’s monument will be just as large as his idols’.

A great conceptual example is the admitted influence Roxy Music’s Avalon had over Bejar while he was making Kaputt.  On one level it shows that Bejar would not have been able to make Kaputt without Roxy Music building the groundwork.  But on another level, Bejar uses Avalon’s as a springboard to create his own masterpiece, and I believe, to overshadow Roxy Music as the go-to for that genre.

Anyway, I thought it would be a fun exercise to pinpoint some of Destroyer’s most obvious lyrical tributes, how he takes such well-known and concrete lines and reimagines them through his Destroyer’s lens.

My personal favourite is the ‘Music Lovers’ Fleetwood Mac rip

‘Oh life, is bigger…’ 

from: ‘Watercolours into the Ocean’ (go to 0:58)

original: R.E.M ‘Losing My Religion

‘Until this Phoney Beatle-Mania has bitten the dust…’

from: ‘The Sublimation Hour’ (Go to 3:06)

original: The Clash ‘London Calling’

‘You can go your own way…’

from: ‘The Music Lovers’ (Go to 2:10)

original: Fleetwood Mac

‘You gotta have faith…’

from: ‘English Music’ (Go to 1:27)

original: George Michael

A musician’s peak can be very dangerous. It signifies the rare achievement of a musician’s genius accumulated into its finest and most evolved form. However, it also signifies a conclusion, where the hero is expected to walk off into the sunset and have his name engraved in history. The only two ways this is possible is death or retirement, of which J Dilla and LCD Soundsystem are respective examples (though the word “premature” will forever haunt their legacy.) However if the artist wishes to continueafter his peak then his integrity is truly tested. For, geographically speaking, it should all be downhill from there.

One option is to prove that one hasn’t reached their peak, but is still in the process of refinement. The most obvious example would be the idiosyncratic electronic duo Boards of Canada, who, four years after their masterwork Music Has the Rights to Children released the almost identical Geogaddi to equal acclaim. The problem with this route is that it is much like sharpening a pencil: that though it may make the effect more acute, it minimises the range of appeal, until it’s put in a drawer full of other sharpened pencil curiosities.

Another option is that, once you have exhausted one train of thought, hop on another and start afresh. In bluntest terms one can go quieter or louder. The obvious example is Bob Dylan going electric. In doing so he proved that he had achieved two peaks, as a folk musician as well as a rock musician. Perhaps the harder option is the other way around, where the musician no longer has the easy tools of noise and aggression to grip the listener. A good example of this would be Flying Lotus’ excellent 2012 album Until the Quiet Comes, which, after his dense breakthrough album Cosmogramma, adopted a softer more austere tone. He replaced hip-hop beats for a more jazzy and elusive style making it even harder to follow a rhythm, and ultimately making the listener work harder, which in turn added a new depth of intrigue to his work.

However, the paradox of this method of transition is that, when successfully executed, it reveals a radical change from the musician’s former work, while also retaining his own unique sound.

An obvious failure of the “genre-hop” would be Neil Young’s string of bad albums in the 80’s where he dabbled in so many different genres from rockabilly to electronic with as much delicacy as a fat man stuffing his face at a finger food buffet. The result was a double failure: as it made it seem that Young preferred reinvention over originality, which then tainted the integrity of the rest of his music. Secondly, the fact that none of these albums developed the genres much highlighted the limitations of Young’s talent as a musician.

However, both Young and Dylan shared a common motto that made them so unique: that you, and not your audience, define your own standards. Indeed their greatest works were formed at the greatest conflict with their listeners. Young became incredibly disillusioned after the commercial success of Harvest, and so eschewing his newly-paved path to success, created what Rolling Stone called “one of the most despairing albums of the decade,” that is the darkly beautiful On the Beach. Dylan’s rejection of his audience is even more poignant as it has been documented. During his tour for his electric triumph Highway 61 Revisited, Dylan responds to a listener calling him “Judas!” by turning round to his band and shouting, “Play it fucking loud!” before going into a beautiful tirade of “Like a Rolling Stone”.

Yet in the 21st century this rejection of the audience has become diluted since the passing of punk, where audiences would pay to be spit upon by their safety pin pierced idols. Thus the peak has become even more threatening in our time. Let us not mention the power of the internet to raise up a musician to fame then spit him out a week later into petrol station bargain bins. However, one band has managed to ride this wave very well, and that is of course Animal Collective.

Animal Collective are a musical anomaly in that they have created some of the most abrasive sounds in the new millennium, (see anything from Danse Manatee.) Yet within a decade of their career they managed to tighten their sound into a commercial success, while retaining the wildness of their original sound. This was their neo-psychedelic 2009 album Merriweather Post Pavilion, which surprised even the band in its reception. Such reception also created the notion that this combined commercial and critical acclaim meant that Merriweather was somehow the band’s peak. Yet each of the band’s previous albums are so unique from each other that it would be near impossible to find a clear lineage towards Merriweather. Perhaps the success was rooted on the fluke that the band had just chosen a more audibly pleasing instrumentation that time round. Speculation aside, it seemed impossible to many for AC to beat their supposed peak. Thus when their new 2012 album Centipede Hz was not as well received, many were perhaps quietly satisfied that this “peak” theory was fulfilled. The album is convoluted with radio feedback and wet sounds, and seems like a return to their older sound, yet without its former vitality.

However, despite personally not enjoying the album, what gradually became evident to me was that Animal Collective cared very little about how the album was received. For the band was built upon the foundation of making unusual and abrasive music to a small audience in a sweaty room. The only factor that has changed for them is the size of the audience. And so in refining the Young/Dylan motto, the musician does owe one thing to his audience, and that is an honesty towards his own musical genius. Or as Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth wrote: “people pay to see others believe in themselves”. And so the only true fear of the artistic peak for the musician is if he makes himself believe that there is nothing on the other side.

 

1978 was a transitional year for Lou Reed. It had been almost a decade since he had left rock’s greatest cult band The Velvet Underground. Reed had also established himself as a solo artist with the hit album Transformer as well as one of the most panned albums in rock history: the ear-splitting feedback that is Metal Machine Music. Also by 1978, the punk movement, of which Reed was a precursor, had attained a widespread audience. Lou Reed was almost 40, and had released his “Greatest Hits” the year before, and so seemed to be perfectly poised to be swept into the pile of 60’s rock-and-roll has-beens, joining the likes of The Beach Boys and The Band. Instead when the going got tough, the tough got poetical.

Lou Reed’s answer was “Street Hassle”, his most ambitious song yet. It spans 10 minutes 53 seconds and tells the story of a girl called Waltzing Matilda who picks up a male prostitute, dies of an overdose and has her body abandoned in the streets. The instrumentation is predominantly without a drum beat, but instead is supported by strings, (previously utilised in Reed’s classic “Perfect Day”) playing a simple C scale, which then submit to a guitar and bass playing the same scale.

The narrative is split into three scenes containing four monologues. Reed said in his live album Animal Serenade “I wanted to write a song that had a great monologue set to rock”, and it is these monologues that make the song stand above his other works. For the urban theme is certainly not uncommon in Reed’s music, for example “Waiting for the Man” describes a junky’s anxiety in waiting for the dealer. Also the abused heroine had already been portrayed such as in his song “Caroline Says II”: “Why is it that you beat me? /It isn’t much fun”. But in “Street Hassle”, for the first time, Reed creates a community of monologues.

“Waltzing Matilda”, the first chapter, is narrated by an omniscient observer who starts singing a beat late, which introduces urgency in his voice to catch up with the driving perks of the cellos. The lyrics are rhythmic and playful, and seem to find new energy and new emotion after each string undulations. The playfulness is in Reed’s “sha-la-la-las”, which undercuts the whole seedy atmosphere, as well as the explicitly detailed coitus: “he entered her slowly, and showed her where he was coming from”. However, the scene ends with the line “Neither one regretted a thing”, which causes a total reinterpretation of the scene that it was not a symbol of modern lust, but perhaps a celebration of modern love. Indeed the scene may be a stand of defiance, that in mingling “sha-la-la-las” with a sexual scene, it proves that innocence can exist next to lust, and that even love could exist; or as the narrator insists “Despite people’s derision/ proved to be more than diversion”. Furthermore, Reed’s voice maintains a strained sadness, which may highlight his struggle in exalting this kind of love. Or it may signify his awareness of Matilda’s fate…

At 3 minutes 17 seconds, the song ends and there are three seconds of silence, and then the distant moan of a female voice, mourning Matilda’s death. The same strings return, as if to start the song again, but are quelled by a heavenly cloud of female vocals perhaps harking the ascension of Matilda. But, Reed marks the reality with startling contrast. Matilda’s herald is a drug dealer who begins the scene saying “Hey that cunt’s not breathing, I think she’s had too much, or something or other, or hey man you know what I mean”. The speaker has the drawl of Bob Dylan, except without any of the poetics. He speaks throughout his scene, and sounds like the kind of person who would keep speaking until you left. Yet Reed manages to beautifully weave the dealer’s superfluous language into the rhythm, thus fusing with the scenery that the strings maintain. Most of all, the romanticism is sucked dry. Matilda’s memory is classed into sexual submission; her epitaph is “that bitch will never fuck again”. And when the dealer repeats the childish “Sha-la-la man”, the innocence is gone, and seems to have just been some cheap trick all along. Most of all, the scene highlights the vital contrast between lust and love: responsibility. The male prostitute is told to abandon the dead girl who he had just “made love” to, and emphasises that though something was shared, nothing was surrendered and thus clarifying the streets were always selfish.

While the drug-dealer scene is the revelation, what entail afterwards is the delayed reaction and its ensuing hysteria. The first sign of instability is the faint jangling out of a bar piano, then a flat guitar solo, slowly introducing the streets’ true primal state. Then Bruce Springsteen (who was on a break from recording Darkness on the Edge of Town) speaks a few lines as the weathered urbane man. He talks about Matilda’s delusion that she didn’t know the “real song”. He also concludes with the line “tramps like us we were born to pay”, which would become better known as the chorus to “Born to Run”.

Then Lou Reed’s first persona returns in the final chapter, “Slipaway”, except now he is even more strained and it becomes more apparent that the speaker was intrinsically attached to the event, for the narrative turns to 1st person. Also the line “took the rings off my fingers” and Reed’s higher pitched voice, may imply that the speaker is female: perhaps a similar person to Matilda, or even the fated Matilda herself looking back at her error. This scene marks the revelation that “love has gone away”. Yet the speaker cannot reflect on it with the detachment of the dealer or Springsteen. Because she was the one who had to go to the streets in order to find communion, someone to lean on, and the song ends with this pleading for this heart’s ultimate need. Yet on Reed’s streets this pleading is only a hassle. And so by penetrating a feeling deeper than any contemporary punk rocker would dare, Reed proves that he is still a main contender on the scene and that it is not what you reject that matters in music, but what you embrace. In “Street Hassle”, Reed embraced a delusion.

pavement18ca

Pavement was one of the most influential bands of the 90’s. But they were also one of the hardest to define. Indeed the term most critics gave them were ‘slackers’. This wasn’t used derogatorily but more in reference to their seeming indifference to musical customs and commercial ambition.

The band formed on the cusp of a prosperous decade but also when the American cult legends of the 80’s were folding. They originated from the wealthy suburbs of Stockton, California and had mingled with the West Coast surfer punk talent such as Black Flag. However, the band did not possess the same intimidation or politics of their punk predecessors. They incorporated the same energy and abrasive lo-fi jangles but replaced the mosh-pit mindset with a more laid-back and layered approach, influenced by the Velvet Underground and R.E.M.

I was blessed to have a very hip English teacher at secondary school who introduced me to these  figures. I enjoyed one of their most popular songs “Summer Babe” and, with my teacher’s advice, decided to give the band some long-term attention. However, as many would agree, on the first listen they are not instantly likeable. The lyrics are often nonsensical; Stephen Malkmus’ (the lead singer) adolescent voice is not always mellifluous; and often the songs seemed to lack control, with little verse structure and few choruses. Yet upon further listening it was how these aspects came together that made me love them. For Malkmus did not have the huskiness of Kurt Cobain or uninterested coolness of Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore. Instead he disregarded his vocal capability and stretched out his sounds to their ultimate capacity, which made them achieve an enduring sincerity which make them surprisingly listenable. With this sincerity Malkmus gives such weight and feeling to the words that they gain deep meaning. Often it encompasses a song’s poignant naivety such as in the love-song ‘Here”: “And I’m the only one who laughs, at your jokes when they are so bad, and your jokes are always bad” and the nostalgic ‘Gold Soundz’ “So drunk in the August sun. And you’re the kind of girl I like”. However my consistent reaction is that I have no idea what the lyrics mean, but I wish I had thought of them myself. Take for instance the jewel in Zurich is Stained “You think it’s easy but you’re wrong, I am not one half of the problem, Zurich is stained and it’s not my fault.” However, the songs were never concrete and throughout live acts Malkmus would incorporate new lines into his music. Indeed it was this fluidity that Pavement possessed, which made them so enjoyable as well as elusive. They were able to move effortlessly between genres such as country in “Father to a Sister of Thought”, punk in “Best Friend’s Arm, folk in “Folk Jam” and even rap in “Sutcliffe Catering Song”, while still preserving that indelible Pavement sound. This was partly the reason why they never were commercially successful. For despite MTV screen time for their single “Cut Your Hair”, few other songs stood out as the 90’s anthems, as opposed to those of Weezer or Nirvana. Instead, each song has its own individual sound while still remaining representative of the album or EP. In fact it was when Pavement were forced to approach maturity and take responsibility for their musical direction, that they went into decline. Their music no longer contained the infinite possibilities or the former energy, and instead became sedate though still enjoyable songs. Indeed when they had to exercise control the band members no longer felt their freedom, which climaxed with Stephen Malkmus conducting his last gigs with handcuffs chained to his microphone.

Pavement made five albums between 1989 and 1999. Their debut Slanted and Enchanted is perhaps their most celebrated album, which is their loudest and bursting with the urge to say something. And though it reflects the boredom and anger of their generation, Robert Christgau perhaps puts it best in saying that it “Yielded a message complex enough to offer hope”. The second album Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, is their most accessible, perhaps because of the replacement of the legendary but erratic drummer Gary Young with the more classic style of Steve West. It reflects Pavement at the peak of their abilities with no sign of crumbling. Their third album Wowee Zowee is perhaps a reaction to their growing popularity by pushing their music’s boundaries even further. This of course resulted in a few flops but also some works of genius such as “Grounded” and “AT&T”, which many fans would consider their ideal of Pavement. Brighten the Corners was Pavement’s effort in adapting to their aging. The songs still possess the fun of being Pavement, but the pace is slower and their instruments are a little too in tune for their style. Come Terror Twilight, the music, though still entertaining, had more or less become a solo effort by Malkmus and was a forerunner for his musical direction as a solo artist. The band also produced many EPs throughout their time, including Perfect Sound Forever, that helped bridge together the albums as well as provide some Pavement classics such as “Frontwards” and my personal favourite “All My Friends”. What should also be acknowledged is that their music was certainly a group effort. Scott Kannberg the guitarist, and Malkmus’ childhood friend,  contributed  several songs, which provided a simpler and often catchy relief to Malkmus’ complexities. Bob Nastanovich, the percussionist, background howler and sometime-manager of the band also gave much insight into the band’s direction. He was also the inspiration for Damon Albarn’s ‘Woohoo!’ in Blur’s “Song 2”.

Pavement may perhaps remain a largely unrecognised band, as Malkmus was certainly aware of when he sang “But no one will dance with us, in this zany town”. They may be too toneless to receive popular acclaim and not ironic enough to be embraced by the hipsters. Even their clothing shows no sign of any personal identity. However, as much as their cult followers would like to keep it this way, this is not true. Their influence permeates through many band’s use of nonsensical lyrics and detuned sound, most notably Animal Collective. And many groups pay overt homage to their legacy, such as Broken Social Scene’s “Ibi dreams of Pavement”, and the National’s lyric “praying for Pavement to get back together”. The band also conducted a successful reunion tour in 2010, which I unfortunately could not attend. And though there probably won’t be another album, Pavement inspires a modern sense of freedom in music and identity, and shows us how such an imperfect set of people could create such a Perfect Sound Forever.