Tuesday, March 31, 2009

"...And we're puttin' it on wax! It's the NEW STYLE!"

In the past few months, I've purchased three new albums - Guns N' Roses' Chinese Democracy, U2's No Line On The Horizon and Pearl Jam's re-issue and redux of their 1991 debut album Ten, known as "The Legacy Edition" - in a way I have rarely ever purchased any of the 450-plus albums in my collection; I bought these three on vinyl.

It's an evolution that few could have predicted, and yet it's a notion that large number of audiophiles have always agreed upon: vinyl records - or "LPs", as the old folks call 'em - are the way to go.

And now, seemingly out of the digital blue, the modern-day record stores, which come in the form of big-box retailers like Wal-Mart and Best Buy, are hocking the latest releases and some of the all-time great albums in the form of a big, shiny, black disc made of vinyl with one groove imprinted in a tightly-wound spiral from edge to center and charging roughly 20 bucks a pop. Along the valleys of this aforementioned microscopic groove are variations so slight and frequent that a special "needle" is required to run along the crevasse, reading each bump and wiggle and translating them all into electric pulses which are transformed into amplified sound waves pumped through a speaker system.

This system, my dear young ones, is what is known as an "analog signal". Vinyl records are a form of music recorded and played back through an analog sound signal. The word "analog" literally means "proportionate" - a "one-to-one" ratio of sound recorded to sound re-played. CDs and MP3s are digital recordings - crisp and clear, and safe from the dangers of dust scratches and warping to which vinyl have long been known to be susceptible. No binary code of ones and zeros can ever replace the exact replication of sound waves - digitization will always be an extra step in the recording process. And this is why the sound quality of a vinyl record is forever superior to any digital recording that can ever be made.

But the question that instantly arises in the year 2009, after more than 20 years of the Compact Disc as Format King in the realm of music duplication, is: "Why the hell would vinyl be making a comeback now?" And I have a theory or two about this. In fact, the acquiescence to this retro trend may have been triggered in me personally when two notions crossed my conscience's path at once.

The first of these was when I noticed how easy it has become to acquire music these days. I remember a fonder time when Tower Records was still a thing. In fact, somewhere around 1995, at the tender age of 14 years, I was so hungry for my own copy of a Dire Straights greatest hits album - if only to have "Sultans of Swing" on CD to play on my own stereo system any time I'd wish - that I, still a few years away from having my own car or a license, made a 10.4-mile roundtrip trek from my home to Tower Records in Dublin and back home again. I got the album I wanted, but I'd earned it! And the sound from that CD was all the more appreciated. That's what I and the entire post-Napster world have lost: music appreciation. The fact is, and may always remain, that I can log onto my computer and, within a matter of minutes and with the transaction of little to no of funds, I can have a digital MP3 file of generally any song in the realm of the popular music of the past 50 years. And that's the difference: a couple minutes in front of a computer versus an afternoon of hiking across city limits to obtain ownership of the music I want; it's just way too easy these days. I can no longer respect or appreciate naturally the music I acquire, and that is truly a shame.

And then I "acquired" a digital copy of a live, stand-up comedy album by screaming comedian Lewis Black (of The Daily Show fame) called
Anticipation. On this album, Black sticks to a theme that recalls how many things are quite disappointing compared to the actual anticipation of them. The anticipation of an event or a feeling you know is coming, he proposes, is always better than the actual occurrence. And when he touched on how this theory applies to recorded music, I understood completely:

"Boy-oh-boy, it’s a totally different experience – record albums – than from what we have now – CDs and digital downloads - because now it’s like, unbelievable! If you don’t like that piece of shit that you bought for 99 cents, you press a button – that fucker’s gone! Another song comes right the fuck on! No waiting! No fucking waiting! You can switch from an album to a fucking other album! Are you fucking kidding me? That’s a miracle! Everytime I push the button on the iPod and that happens, literally, the expression on my face, I believe, is exactly the same as primitive man when he first saw fire!

"Now, see, with a record album, if you wanted to change the song ‘cause you didn’t like the song, you had to
work! You had to get up - out of your chair - and walk across the entire living room to get to the 'record player'. And the 'record player' has a 'tone arm' with a needle in it. And then you’ve gotta take that and find the right 'groove' – and there are like, a billion of ‘em! Now, where the record would actually change and the next track would come up was a little bigger... but it’s still like performing surgery!"

And Black was right. There was something magical about the experience of listening to an album on 10-inch vinyl. The anticipation of getting to track three or four was completely abolished with the advent of digital music. "Click!" Next song! "Click!" Next album! We have totally destroyed our patience, and thus, our appreciation for the album as a unit of music. Get up? Get up and cross the room? I crossed city boarders and a highway to get an album! That's dedication! That's devotion! That's patience! And that is what makes an album worth it's price. So, when I saw that the new Guns N' Roses would be released on vinyl, I knew something was up in the music world at large. The winds were changing. "New music on old technology? Hmmm...," thought I, "What's going on here?" I gave it a shot and, low and behold, I'm diggin' it.

And upon further review, here are a few nerdy, technical, little facts about digital music that bury it even deeper: Sure, you can buy a song for 99 cents on iTunes nowadays, or a full album for around 10 bucks. But what you're getting is of a much lower quality. Yeah, it may sound pretty good coming through your computer speakers or iPod earbuds, but the fact is that the CD pressing that those songs came from would have given you the highest digital quality possible - and in the world of digital music, quality is measured in units of the volume of data transfered per second - kilobytes per second - or "kbps". A CD has each song recorded at a very high volume of data per second: 1411 kbps, which sounds amazing on a hi-fidelity sound system, even if it lacks the depth and breadth of sound - the "warmth" - that vinyl delivers. But when you log onto iTunes or otherwise download a song from the Internet, you're lookin' at getting an MP3 that's been "ripped" at 192 kbps or even 128 kbps. That's less than 10% of the raw data being transferred when compared to the actual CD quality. And the thing that bugs me about this is that iTunes will still charge you the regular price - be it $9.99 or $13.99, depending on the album - while only delivering 10% of the music product, not to mention a lack of packaging! We've been sold a bill of goods here people! Snake oil! And that is exactly why people steal music off the Internet - they're tired of being ripped off!

Well, we've come full circle. Vinyl to the rescue! Vinyl is worth the price. The new pressings of new and old albums (I recently picked up GN'R's "Appetite For Destruction" for $19.99 at Best Buy, but found it even cheaper among the much more vast selection available at Hot Topic, of all places!) are even superior when compared to the hay day of the LP record, from the 1940s thru the 1970s. New Premium 180+ Pure Virgin and Heavyweight 180 Gram vinyl sounds better than anything we've ever been sold in the past. It's sturdy, strong and less susceptible to damage, so your dollar goes further than ever. All you need is a turntable, a needle and a couple of good speakers. And beyond all that, when you buy a record album on vinyl, you've really got something! Not this little 4-inch CD in a plastic tray. You've got a big square fold out book, complete with either one disc, or now often two discs, and big art work! Something you can display in a frame if you want to - because people will be able to see it from across the room! No more little booklets. Sit down and unfold on your lap real gift from your favorite band - buy an LP!

Now, I'm certainly not going to toss out all my old CDs and I'm definitely not going to stop downloading music online. But I have decided that the real gems, the music that is priceless in and of itself, deserves to be heard on vinyl as often as possible. I owe it to myself to experience these songs this way. So shake your head at me and call me a nerdy "audiophile" if you must - I enjoy it. In fact, I kinda like being a little like those guys in the movie, "High Fidelity". I just gotta get me one of those cool little lint brushes for the records. Do they even sell those anymore?

******* UPDATE - April 27, 2009 ********

(Seeeee?  L.A. TIMES story)

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Death To All Butt-Metal

I recently came across a little novelty "metal" tune called "Death To All But Metal" by an extremely novelty (and, therefore, not to be taken seriously - ever!) rock band calling themselves Steel Panther (much in the tradition of band names like Def Leppard, Bon Jovi or Judas Priest - all two-word names where each word has nothing to do with the next).

Now, I get it - they're a joke band. But the musicianship and the vocal capabilities were astounding! Here - have a listen...

And in case you're interested, the lyrics are here: (highlight text to reveal)

Fuck the Goo Goo Dolls, they can suck my balls
They look like the dorks that hang out at the mall
Eminem can suck it, so can Dr. Dre
They can suck each other just because they're gay

They can suck a dick, they can lick a sack
Everybody shout, "Heavy Metal's back!"
Death to all but metal!!

Death to Papa Roach, Blink 182
All those fucking pussies sounds like doggy doo
Wearing baggy pants, spiking up their hair
They're not worth the crust in my underwear

Where is Def Leppard? Where is Mötley Crüe?
Why does all my lyrics sound like Dr. Seuss?
Death to all but metal

Kills those fucking fuckheads who program MTV
They can suck my ass with all the record companies

Death to Britney Spears, kill the little slut
Kill Madonna too, and then fuck her in the butt
Fuck Maria Carey, death to Sheryl Crow
They can kiss each other on the camel toe
50 Cent's a fag, so is Kanye West
Shootin' hot sperm on each others chest
Death to all but metal!!

Okay, so... that may have been the most crude, disgusting song ever written. But I'm conflicted. Is this a parody? Or is it actual Rock N' Roll? I mean, the fact is, it's loud, it's brash, it's accusatory. It's straight and to the point - and it does have a point! It's angst from the hearts of some rock-purists who are sick and tired of "Jack FM" and VH1 - top 20 radio, iTunes, and what MTV has become. They're "takin' it back", so to speak. It's brash and offensive and vulgar and it rhymes! This is everything a really great hard rock song is supposed to be about.

And yet, I'm totally appalled and completely against this new style of "glib rock". It's a testament to the "dumbing down" of America's youth culture. I hate to sound like an old geezer here, but... back in my day, we had Public Enemy ("Bring Tha Noise", "Can't Truss It", "911 Is A Joke", "Don't Believe The Hype" and "Fight The Power"!) We had Aerosmith singing about teen molestation from the point of view of the victim, and Pearl Jam singing about adolescent violence to the point of murder in the classroom. Axl Rose gave us "November Rain" and "Estranged" - swirling,
orchestral epics which explored - not the concepts - but the very essences of isolation, disillusion and abandonment. These songs were powerful, dramatic and shocking, and yet they were poetic and beautiful at the same time.

Going back even further, we had Led Zeppelin singing about the mysticies of black magic and AC/DC ranting that "Rock n' Roll Ain't Noise Pollution". We had Twisted Sister screaming "We're Not Gonna Take It" and Queen chanting "We Will Rock You". Rock has always been aggressive and in-your-face (- that's why we like it!) And it just doesn't pull any punches - Rock always tells you how it feels and never apologizes for its cruel, impolite approach.

And yet, this....

This is "rock"? These are lyrics that would spew from the underdeveloped minds of the most dimwitted dolts in any 6th grade class in America. The band has no style of its own - they're entire shtick is to imitate the outrageous glam-metal look of the early 80s and bands like Poison and Motley Crue. They may have a point in their song, and they may be right on the money... but how about a little artistry, people? Is that too much to ask?

And my biggest fear is this: It's not just this band. It's all of today's "big" rock acts. I used to like Nickelback - they used to be a revival of those aforementioned old rock bands. But since The Viacom leviathan (MTV, VH1, Nickelodeon) got a hold of them, well... just listen to their new album, "Dark Horse"; it should have been called "No Risks". And that goes for all the bands making it out there today, with perhaps a few minor exceptions. The Jonas Brothers? Really? Kids are calling this rock? Or even "pop"!?! They give "pop" a bad name! Have you seen this Lady Gaga chick? The Plain White Tees? Shinedown? (Who, by the way, had completely sold out by time their 2nd album was released!) Seether? THE FRAY!?!?
For my purposes today, and with no irony lost on this writer, I shall refer to Steel Panther - and all of these "rock" bands - as "butt-metal".

I know, I'm complaining in much the same fashion that the singer of Steel Panther would. But my point is that even the best "rock" of today has absolutely NOTHING to offer - not the way "MY" music did. The 80s and 90s rock meant something. So much of it had depth and volume on a scope so magnificent, it wouldn't even be recognized in the industry if it were released today, amidst this garbage.

And so, I find myself boo-hooing like an aging rocker, wearing my Rage Against The Machine t-shirt, my flannel coat and worn-out Chuck Taylors, sitting in an old rocking chair, strumming a slow, amp-less rendition of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" on a beat-up, old, second-rate electric guitar and yelling at the kids on my lawn that they're music is crap, much like the man who - when I was a kid - used to sit on his porch in a vintage Buffalo Springfield shirt from 1968, with a long red beard and a bandanna on his head, and a beat-up old acoustic guitar on his lap, strumming the chords to "The Times They Are A-Changing" and yelling at me that my music was crap. The circle of life, it seems, will continue.

But there is one beacon of light on the horizon. It seems that, with the advent of video game technology and the innate sense within the human spirit to seek out and ingest quality rock music, the gaming kids of today have been blessed with the likes of the "Guitar Hero" and "Rock Band" games, not only exposing them to the sounds, but to the experience of some of rock n' roll's greatest accomplishments. Perhaps "Rock n' roll", as Brian Johnson proclaimed gleefully into a microphone and onto an 24-track recording suite back in 1979, "it will survive."

Monday, March 9, 2009

U2 - "Horizons" (and arguments about the existance of "Lines" upon them)

U2 has been a band for a very long time. Slowly but surely, they've become the new Rolling Stones - a sonic empire, filled with sights, sounds and flavors for all tastes, whose speeding bullet-train image builds upon itself again and again on a seemingly endless track into the future.

With their latest outing, the little band of mates from the Emerald Isle have released an effort that both confuses and delights. No Line On The Horizon, U2's 12th studio album in 28 years (yet only the 3rd this decade), finds them once again at a new peak of competence and confidence. Not since their phenomenal 1991 pop-rock bombshell, Achtung, Baby!, have U2 boasted with such angst, enthusiasm and optimism.

The opening title track hits a reset button on your ears by displaying a sonic experience not unfamiliar but still alien to U2 fans. The slate, having been wiped clean, is set for a track that sounds like the musical equivalent of a brilliant statue that has lain dormant in a block of marble for years until it was finally carved out by the only artist who could ever bring it to life. "Magnificent" is the kind of song we have always expected and wanted from this band. "Only love can leave such a mark," croons Bono in a romantic howl of a higher caliber than we've heard from him since the '90s, "...but only love can heal such a scar." It's an instant classic.

Without being as timeless and perfect, "Moment of Surrender" (whose lyrics seem to express the majesty within the act of surrender to a higher power) is this album's "One"; a down-tempo track both beautiful and melodic, yet brooding, bluesy, and passionate. It stands out undeniably amongst its peers and deserves it's spot in the first three tracks of the album. "I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight" is a poppy, bright and upbeat mid-tempo tune with a driving beat that leads to a predictable "U2-ish" chorus, but is definitely catchy and never without its charm. The first single from the album, "Get On Your Boots" is a fuzz-boxed rocker with an electrified flamenco chorus, and has met with less-than-favorable reviews from almost everyone I've talked with about it... but I still enjoy it! It stands alone as the only piece of overt-but-meaningless sugar-rock supplanted firmly in the middle of the album purely as a fun song.

But it's the quirky, competent and inspired composition, "Stand Up Comedy", which strikes at the heart of what every U2 fan has been waiting for with this new album. With some of Bono's better lyrics to date, ("I gotta stand up to ego but my ego’s not really the enemy / It’s like a small child crossing an eight lane highway on a voyage of discovery" and "God is love and love is evolution's very best day"), "Stand Up Comedy" does not disappoint.

As the album begins to wrap things up, the listener is slammed with one of the cooler songs in the band's entire library. "Breathe" is almost entirely unlike anything we've ever heard from U2, and it's a pleasure! Bono raps his lyrics as two characters - a door-to-door evangelical and his cynical prey. "Coming from a long line of traveling salespeople on my mother's side, I wasn't gonna buy just anyone's cockatoo..." the narrator tells us before informing the man at his door that: "there's nothing you have that I need" and further declaring, "I can breathe." For my money, there has never been a more beauteous and enjoyable song about finding grace where it isn't being sold. "We are people borne of sound/The songs are in our eyes/Gonna wear them like a crown".

Then again, the album does have some valleys in between all these peaks. "Unknown Caller", although not a complete disappointment, simply bores me with a monotone, irregular chorus and lyrics that sound as if a computer program had written them. Even if I'm missing the message of this song, the performance sure didn't save it for me. "FEZ-Being Born" (although a great song) is a more sonic experience, both lyrically-minimal (or lazy) and easily skipped, and "White As Snow" is just a sleepy, little ballad - nothing much happening there. But the closing track, "Cedars of Lebanon" is very reminiscent of the experimental sounds the band had tinkered with in the '80s and early '90s (with N.L.O.T.H. producers, Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois and Steve Lillywhite), and is a dark and serious ode to war and poverty through the eyes of a foreign news corespondent - a very cool ending to a great album.

No Line On The Horizon is one of U2's best albums simply because it feels as if they've gotten a certain groove back that had been missing for over a decade. If you're a fan, you'll love this album. If you're not, you'll still enjoy about half the songs.

Although the future is curious for U2, one thing does seem certain - they have absolutely no intention of ever stopping; they will continue to progress and evolve as a band as as a musical statement on the face of Rock & Roll. They may have been slowing down in their aged-rocker years (all members fast-approaching 50), but it's easy to tell they want to ride this train until the very end. And if the Stones are still doing it, who knows how long U2 can go?

(P.S. - In case you missed it, U2 was on The Late Show with David Letterman all last week - 5 days of performances and a few goofy skits.
Check it out here.)

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Didja catch Fallon last night?

So, Conan's gone, and Jimmy Fallon is the new host of "Late Night," also following in the footsteps of the great David Letterman.  Here are my thoughts:

The show opened with a funny little sketch in the dressing room as Jimmy is psyching himself up in the mirror and is told he's about to go on.  The camera then adjusts to reveal Conan O'Brien in plain clothes packing up boxes for his move to L.A.  The two have a very cold banter before Jimmy asks Conan, "So, that's how it's gonna be, huh?"

"Yeah," Conan says with a complacent tone.  "That's exactly how it's gonna be!"

Cut to the opening titles for "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon" - Jimmy's running through the streets of New York as the camera flashes around wildly, cutting angles like mad, all to the driving beat of house band, The Roots, who have adjusted their raucous "Here I Come" to fit the theme of "Late Night".

After that, Jimmy Fallon comes out for a pretty much atrociously painful monologue.  There were some good jokes in there, but Jimmy is WAY too uptight and nervous to look like he's having any fun out there.  And when we're squirming right along with him, it's just no fun for us, either.  But at the end of the monologue, Jimmy busts out with a bit called "Slow Jamming The News", where he discusses the passage of the US Economy Stimulus Bill through Congress all to the swanky, sexy rhythms of The Roots and the sultry, bluesy crooning of emcee Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter.  Now, that was funny.

After a commercial break, Jimmy played a really stupid and pointless game with three members of the audience called "Lick It For Ten", in which each audience member was given ten dollars to lick a lawn mower, a copy machine or a fish bowl.  That's it.  They each licked an object and Jimmy gave them each a ten-spot out of his wallet.  Pretty lame.

And after another break, Jimmy welcomed his first guest, acclaimed film actor Robert DeNiro.  A pretty impressive first guest, you'd think.  But the way Bobby just sat there, looking bored or maybe even embarrassed, made for some pretty tense - and not so funny - television.  He wasn't there to promote any new film or anything, so Jimmy was left to just do his impression of the aging actor while he cracked himself up... and few else.  But DeNiro did show some life when they ran the clip of a fictitious movie he and Jimmy had "done together" called "Space Train".  That part was kinda funny.

Then Justin Timberlake came out, gave Jimmy the welcoming gift of a signed photo of Barry Gibb, and proceeded to save the show.  This was probably the best part  since Jimmy and Justin play so well off each other.  They sang an impromptu, appropriately-altered "Barry Gibb Talk Show" theme song together (The Roots jumped in perfectly for this), and Justin went on to do impersonations of John Mayer and Michael McDonald singing about Bud Light Lime; all very funny.

But that's the thing; Jimmy mentioned that their green room was "sponsored" by Bud Light Lime. ("How metro of you," commented Timberlake.)  But why?  Is this really going to be one of those fully-product-placement-laced live shows that gets so annoying with the constant references to some commercial product (like the lawn mower and copy machine, the brands and prices of which were also mentioned) that it just makes me wanna turn the TV off and go to bed?  I hope they don't have to keep this up for long.

Then Van Morrison sang some boring old song and everything ended.  Overall, a pretty rocky start to want may end up being a good show.  I'm one of the few people left who still likes Jimmy Fallon, but I certainly have my doubts about him filling such big shoes as his predecessors and am instantly reminded of one miserable case of "The Chevy Chase Show".  

One of the best things the show has going for it, however, is the amazingly tight and ridiculously hip (by Late Night standards) house band, The Roots.  They are gonna bring the house down every single night and make Carson Daly's house band look like a bunch of pre-teens on recorders and piano-horns.

Let's hope it's just one or two shaky seasons here, like Conan had back in the mid-90s when he started out, and I hope to see him develop his skills and show the world that he's really not just some annoying, worn-out-before-his-time, one-trick-SNL-pony.  Tina Fey is on tonight - I'll definitely be watching that one.