Monday, January 12, 2015

The Old Magic

I was listening to Nick Lowe's 2011 release "The Old Magic," a favorite of that year and a record that sounds even better now.  I was reminded of a few conversations had that year, regarding this record. Most were about how wonderful it was, but a handful were very critical of Lowe and how he has become this sad man, writing nothing but melancholy tunes about aging, lost love and acceptance. Where were the rockers?

One of my favorite records of last year was Robert Plant's "lullaby...And The Ceaseless Roar," and criticisms were somewhat similar, how he has toned down his act and basically whispers his songs, abandoning forever his trademark howl. "What an idiot, turning down a gazillion dollars for a Led Zep reunion!"

Both of these records, as well as many of the previous records released by both Nick Lowe and Robert Plant, have songs. Beautiful songs. Meaningful songs. Upbeat songs. Perfectly structured songs. We can relate to some and some we cannot. But they are there. Songs.

I know this is a tired, old rant. I've been there and done this before. Several times, too. But, I'm moved to rant this time by the current hype of D'Angelo's new release "Black Messiah," a record that is so desperate to be radical, it ends up being anything but.

Here is a brief e-mail volley with my pal BuzzBabyJesus:

BBJ: After the mention the other day I noticed I'd downloaded it. I guess I didn't want to miss out on the hype. Anyway I think the opener is pretty cool and it has fooled everyone into thinking what follows is more of the same, but I don't hear it. It's more of the same sounds, but I don't hear any more songs.​

SN: Exactly. I actually dug the opener, like Electric Ladyland meets good, weird 80's Prince. Then it just unfolded into a mess of unfinished ideas. This seems to be the way to go these days. No one cares about songs anymore.

BBJ: It's like a really extended single with a bunch of superfluous dub remixes. D'Angelo is like Radiohead. The potential for stadium greatness avoided for obscure reasons.

Songs don't seem to matter much anymore. That is a broad statement, I know, and if I had the time and patience, I would compile a list of critically acclaimed records and chart hits of the last 10 years to illustrate my point. But I don't, and really, it's all subjective. I know this. I can listen to Pink Floyd's "Astronomy Domine" everyday and that's not a song. Is it? But even a band with such a wide divide like Kiss, a band I happen to love by the way, knows how to structure a tune. It can be any rock and roll band from Deep Purple to Nirvana. But let's go with Kiss.

A song as basic as "Rock & Roll All Nite" which is about rocking and rolling all night, while also boasting about partying everyday, may not be Woody Guthrie-caliber. But man, what a chorus and what a hook. And we all know, not every song has to be "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll." But I'll remember that Kiss tune for the rest of my life and yet I can't recall a single note of "Black Messiah," and I played it twice just yesterday.

This may seem like a good time to bring up horrible songs with nothing but earworms that pass for songs, in an attempt to prove my Kiss argument weak, so I'll save you the trouble and do it myself. I get it. But "Black Messiah" doesn't even have an annoying earworm. It's a slogfest, dozens of ideas all done better by the artists D'Angelo is trying to be. His first single, "Brown Sugar" was pretty great, though.


William Repsher said...

I tended to lump D'Angelo in with all those other 90's R&B "revivalists" (of sorts) - Maxwell, Jill Scott, even The Roots. They sounded OK, knew what they were doing, could surely play their instruments ... but they were just functioning on nowhere near the level of their influences. Enough so that I had no urge to buy their product.

I can live with that, and so can they. Much like you, what I don't get is the hype, the people who know what I do, who have those dozens of albums of these artists' influences, and know they're not functioning anywhere near that level ... yet write or talk about them in those terms. It cheapens the legacy of those great artists. Then again, I can see, with the explosion of hiphop, writers and critics are desperate to latch onto something in a soul vein that's played by real people with real talent (of varying levels).

Pointing this out will make some folks label you a racist and a fogey. Fine. I'd rather have strong misnomers like this hurled at me than be known as a bullshit artist, which describes a vast majority of the music industry at any given moment. And is surely just isn't race -- we've noticed the same thing with indie/rock music. We're supposed to conveniently forget the past and dozens of years of listening experience with all kinds of music to pretend this half-assed indie band is the second coming of Nirvana (who was already the second coming of The Pixies) ... I stopped playing this game a long time ago!

Ken D said...

Anyone who has seen Nick Lowe perform in the past five years knows he's anything but a sad old man. His show is a joy and a pleasure. His career is a model of how to age gracefully and still rock — just at a lower decibel level.

Re the current state of "songwriting," an article in The New Yorker a couple of years ago—Kelefa Sanneh, I think—was eye-opening. He described a studio process where the "artist" brings a lyric fragment—your basic "dance, dance with me until the sun comes up" or maybe that should be 3 "dances till the mornin' comes." (Much debate ensues.) The producers (usually two) bring various prerecorded hooks and beats and "sounds" and "feels" and then they mix-and-match the multitude of pieces and don't so much "write a song" as "build a recording." Then there's lots of tweaking and re-re-recording and Auto-tuning and effects-adding and on and on. Hit accomplished. I tried to find the article but no luck.

Like you, I much prefer the results of a Nick Lowe aided by a guitar, a pen and a notebook. Call it old fogey pride...

buzzbabyjesus said...

Nicely put, as usual, William.

buzzbabyjesus said...

Ken, too.

dogbreath said...

Has Nick Lowe ever written a duff song, says he, perhaps not counting the Bay City Rollers pastiche from way back? (Is the US familiar with the BCR?). Anyway, a clever way with words in meaningful songs will always win hands down for me. Leaving for work this morning, I caught the end of a Richard Thompson gig on TV (which made me late)(natch) & I feel he's no slouch either when it comes to words, tunes & songs, upbeat or downbeat. But, yay, I can still shimmy like my sister Kate to Kiss's "RnR All Nite"!

Shriner said...

"Rollers Show" is an awesome tune -- as is "Bay City Rollers We Love You" by "The Tartan Horde". One of Nick Lowe's many career highlights, IMO.

buzzbabyjesus said...

If all the tracks were songs as good as "Ain't That Easy", then I'd drink the koolaid, too.
I'm checking it out here and will have to give it another go.
"Sugah Daddy" has what must be considered song-like attributes, a kinda-sorta change, and some nice arranging.

A walk in the woods said...

First, let me say I like William's riposte as always - always enjoy your replies. But I'm just curious, how did we start talking about race? It's no more racist of you to say you don't dig the new D'Angelo than it is for a fellow of color to say he doesn't like the new Jackson Browne as much as the old. Race is unrelated.... or at least, I can't fathom how racism could be related. Especially when you're saying you like "the influences," who would of course be folks of color. Is it because we perceive D'Angelo as being "more black" or "more for a black audience" than the more cross-pollinated heroes of yore (Curtis, Stevie, Aretha, etc)?

Just an aside there. But I think Sal's onto something about the lack of great songs by some current artists. Billy Corgan of Smashin' Pumpkins made that point recently, and although I don't pay much attention to him (which means I'm racist against white guys, right - but wait, I'm white!) in general, I like how he pointed out that the problem with Foo Fighters is a lack of SONGS. The Foos have a lot of hooks, a lot of hair flyin', and a lot of love for what they do - but where are the songs? When he said that, it crystallized something for me I hadn't articulated yet in my mind.

And so, I can see your point, even before I've heard the whole D'Angelo just yet. But.... that being said - I like Brian Eno's ambient period and nobody accuses him of not having songs, right? Can't D'Angelo (or the Foos) just have interesting soundscapes and have that be enough? Maybe, maybe not.

Shriner said...

WITW: To me, the Foo Fighters have enough hooks to make up for the lack of some ABACAB song-craft. They have enough hooks to empty a river full of Asian Carp!

But, I tend to give rock bands some leeway when it comes to crafting songs, but less on pop (or even power-pop).

R&B, though, is not rap/hip-hop. There should be some song craft there -- even if it's formulaic.

buzzbabyjesus said...

If Eno's compositions didn't go anywhere, he'd be boring too.

William Repsher said...

AWIW, check out the Slate article "If you don't like rap, are you a racist" -- what that article gets into, I've experienced more than a few time with folks in NYC. When hiphop first started dominating culture in the 90's, most music critics were either indifferent or dismissive to the genre. Five years later, they were whistling a new tune on that account and deathly afraid of losing their jobs unless they grasped this kind of music. To the point now where if you're white, over 25 and have any sort of negative opinion on hiphop, a lot of people are quietly assuming you're "out of touch with this newer generation who really gets race."

I know how flaky and stupid it sounds, but I've surely felt it numerous times. To think that a music critic (in the New Yorker at the time, later at the NY TImes) gets away with calling a clearly non-racist recording artist a "cracker" in print ... and no one blinks twice ... is indicative of that sort of mindset.

I've actually written about this dichotomy -- nobody sweats black folks en masse not liking country music, but I know I feel like I'm going out on a limb any time I have anything critical to say about hiphop or more current R&B in general. And this is just among fans - you better believe if I was being paid to write for a publication, I'd be real careful about this topic! As far as I'm concerned, we're all allowed to like or dislike any kind of music without race being a factor ... but I know there are editorial agendas out there that don't seem to agree with this.

A walk in the woods said...

William – interesting. I live in Atlanta, in a black part of town (our (white) kids go to a 90% black school), so I’m a bit immersed in this from a different angle. For instance, when rap music gets played at our school functions, I’m careful to be precise with what I might not like about some of it – as much just to be open to things as to not appear racist. (Obviously we’re not racist, or we wouldn’t live and school where we do.)

So the rap I’d object to would be that which is demeaning or violent – much as I have no time for that type of music in other genres. It’s also good to find something in the genre to recognize as good – again, to show open-mindedness as much as anything. So, I can reference the little rap I do like, such as Digable Planets, Outkast or A Tribe Called Quest.

I have to do the same with country… I have little interest overall, but can point to a few things I like – old-school country and modern guys like Sturgill Simpson. So it’s not a race thing.

But that is interesting that you encounter that in NYC. Maybe we’re more enlightened about such things, in a way, here in the south than I thought!

One more point – a lot of folks of color would agree with you that much of modern rap is useless. In my Facebook feed I’m often seeing black friends in our ‘hood pine for older days of songs and arrangements – much like any of us do. There’s plenty of commonality on some of those points.

William Repsher said...

I'd wager that southern cities are more advanced than northern in terms of race relations, simply because people there have those harsh realities directly threaded through generations of family history. In the north, you get a lot of posturing, making sure everyone understands how wonderful, well-intentioned and enlightened you are. I get the impression things aren't as stilted and self absorbed down there.

I just sampled the D'Angelo album ... I kind of like it. Four tracks in particular (Aint That Easy, 1000 Deaths, The Charade and The Door), I think are top-shelf tracks that I'll go back to for repeat listens. The rest sounds interesting -- I like how he's changing up the rhythms and slurring the production in a strange way -- but as noted, the songs aren't quite there. I'm surprised -- a lot of his past stuff feels too by-the-book slow jam to me, but I can hear why people are talking about this album. I don't mind a little hype when there is something genuine going on.