Tag Archives: Popular

Jules and Jim – Nada Surf

Eight albums into their career, Nada Surf are more quietly impressive than ever. Not quiet in a musical sense, as their music is often driven by saturated, beefy distorted guitars, but in a low-key, no-bullshit kind of way that’s best demonstrated by their live shows, in which they smash through one song after another with no extended jams and no self-indulgent between-song waffle.

The band formed in New York in 1992 as a collaboration between singer-guitarist Matthew Caws and bassist Daniel Lorca, who had gone to the same French-language school together (the families of both spent time in France and Belgium when they were kids). After a couple of false starts, they found drummer Ira Elliott and began recording low-budget EPs and playing shows. At one such show at the Knitting Factory, they ran into former Cars singer Ric Ocasek, who was by then an in-demand producer (his production discography includes the Bad Brains’ Rock for Light and Weezer’s Blue Album), and gave him one of their self-released cassettes. Ocasek later called the band to say he wanted to produce their first album, which no doubt helped to get them hooked up with Elektra.

Problem was, while their debut scored a hit, it did so in the form of Popular, a sub-Weezer novelty in which Caws recites advice from the 1964 guide for teenage girls on how to achieve popularity in an increasingly hysterical voice. Having not heard it at the time (it wasn’t really a thing in the UK), I’ve got to say, it’s as bad as it sounds. Worse, it pegged them for many as a derivative or even a novelty band; better not to have a mainstream hit at all than to have one that will follow you around like a bad smell for the next ten years. By the early noughties, the band members were back to working day jobs.

With admirable persistence, they set about rebuilding. After getting themselves a deal with solid indie Barsuk (John Vanderslice, Death Cab, Rilo Kiley), they released three super-solid power-pop albums in a row: Let Go, The Weight is a Gift and Lucky. Power pop is not a cool style of music, especially at the moment, but it’s one I’ve always had a huge soft spot for, and Nada Surf are great at it. Matthew Caws has a sweet and supple voice, his songs always have strong melodies and big choruses, and the rhythm section supply the “power” side of things admirably. As does the fact that Caws knows how to get a sweet guitar sound with his Les Paul Custom.

Jules and Jim is from 2012’s The Stars are Indifferent to Astronomy, which took the band’s winning streak to four. The song is an Alex Chilton-ish minor classic, with one of their most glorious choruses. Although, really, it’s just one hook after another. The band are now a four-piece (when playing live, at least) with the addition of guitarist Doug Gillard, also of Guided by Voices, and when I saw at the Electric Ballroom a few years ago and Gillard and Caws struck up the song’s chiming harmonised intro, it was total Big Star-in-1972 jangle heaven.

Then Play Long is No More

Over the last eight years the most consistently acute and compelling music writing has come from Marcello Carlin at his blog Then Play Long*.

In 2008 Carlin set himself the task of writing about every UK number-one album in chronological order, starting from the very first, Elvis is Back! – the sort of foolhardy task only someone utterly besotted with music would ever set themselves. There have been times when Carlin’s labours were obviously bringing him little pleasure, as he slogged though the Black & White Minstrels records, or 101 Strings, or the Top of the Pops series. And yet he carried on, buoyed by the prospect of writing about the good records, or finding something unexpectedly commendable about a record that seemed unpromising at first.

It takes little away from Carlin to say that, while he’s strong on the records’ context (both social and in the context of the artists’ body of work), his great strength as a music writer is that he can combine formal analysis with a more subjective, associative response. Put more simply, he can tell you how a record makes him feel, and then have a good stab at explaining what it is in the music that makes him feel that way.

I wrote a piece a couple of years ago after Ted Gioia’s jeremiad about modern music writing on The Daily Beast, and pointed out that the sort of criticism Gioia was calling out for was in fact alive and well and living on the internet. Taken together, Then Play Long, Chris O’Leary’s David Bowie blog (Pushing Ahead of the Dame, now published in book form as Rebel Rebel) and Tom Ewing’s Popular were my exhibit A. (Cards on the table, those guys’ work was my model when I started this blog.)

Problem is, O’Leary’s work always had a built-in end date, and after this week’s sad news, we know what that will be. Blackstar, a mopping up of whatever live and/or previously unreleased stuff the Bowie estate sanctions for public consumption, then that will be it. Reliable, dependable Popular rumbles on, often with long hiatuses while Ewing gets on with the business of everyday life, but over the course of the next few years, I’ll find myself reading more and more pieces about songs I never knowlingly heard. I lost contact with pop in the early noughties, and never really found my way back to it.

Today, Carlin announced that he’d written the last Then Play Long entry (he fast-fowarded to Blackstar, currently topping the UK album chart, and many others worldwide, I suspect), and would now be putting the blog to rest. This saddens me a lot, as there’s no one else out there who can do what he does, but the job of work he undertook when he started that thing was immense, and no one should feel beholden to finish something just because they started it. As he says, there’s 600 records between today’s entry and the Carpenters compilation he covered in the previous piece. I wouldn’t take that on, and can well understand why he doesn’t want to either.

So this is a thank you to Marcello, whom I’ve never met, for all that wonderful writing, all that insight and analysis. I hope he still continues to write about music in some form. In the meantime, if you’ve ever read one of my pieces and enjoyed it, head over to Then Play Long to see how it’s really done.

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*Many entries were written by Carlin’s wife Lena Friesen, but Carlin started the blog and wrote probably half a dozen or so entries for every one of Friesen’s, so I’ve always thought of it as primarily his blog. And really, it was Carlin’s writing that spoke to me. Nevertheless, he always acknowledged when an idea or association in one of his pieces came from her, and it’s clear that fans of the blog owe a large debt to both Marcello and Lena.

 

Matthew Caws @ The Islington/Randy Newman @ the Royal Festival Hall

Two gigs in 48 hours, in venues as vastly different as is possible.

On Saturday night I went with Mel and Sara to see Matthew Caws from Nada Surf play a free show at the Islington, announced via his Instagram the day before. The Islington is a tiny venue, with a capacity of maybe 100. I’ve played drums there with Sumner, and it was the place I saw Jon Auer play a wonderful set in August 2014.

It was a really great night. I’m not yet that familiar with his work, although I’ve heard most of Nada Surf’s records, and Get There, the record he made with Juliana Hatfield as Minor Alps. It’s a testament to the quality of his writing, then, that I recognised tracks like See These Bones, Maxon, Your Legs Grow, Ice on the Wing and Always Love in a stripped down, voice-and-guitar setting having heard the recorded originals no more than a few times each.

Nada Surf passed me by in their early years – I know they had a big MTV hit with Popular, but I’ve not knowingly heard it; if he had played it on Saturday, I wouldn’t have recognised it. At this stage of his career, Caws is a world away from MTV Beach House, son-of-Weezerisms. Without getting ponderous or self-serious, his songs have become deeper and richer, his voice remains supple and boyish, and his impressive guitar playing (several songs switched between neat fingerpicking and flatpick strumming) is all he really needs to put the songs over; See These Bones, the last song he played on Saturday, was no less impressive than its recorded counterpart, with nothing lost in translation from full band to solo arrangement.

If it wasn’t quite the experience for me that seeing Jon Auer was, that’s only because I don’t have the long relationship with Matthew Caws’s music that I have with Auer’s work with the Posies. Sara, who is a long-time fan, had a similar experience that I had with the Auer gig, I think, and Mel, who wasn’t familiar with him at all, left intrigued and wanting to hear more.

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On Monday night, I headed to the rather more august Royal Festival Hall with James and Dan McKean to see Randy Newman.

I’ve not seen too many shows by real veterans. The old guys I see tend to be 40- or 50-something, not 70-something like Newman. His voice, never smooth in his youth, is now a somewhat limited instrument. The effect of this was the opposite of what you might expect. It gave his ballads a fragility that was at times heartbreaking – She Chose Me (a song from Steve Bochco’s Cop Rock, of all things) was a genuine goosebump moment – but hampered the delivery of the ragtimey, satirical songs, which were more declaimed than sung, with the phrasing lacking just a little of the subtlety of the originals.

However, this was a set lasting over two hours (with a 20-minute interval), with time for Newman to play some 30-odd songs (and give us a lot of, uniformly hilarious, anecdotes), and the duds were few and far between. There weren’t many top-tier Newman songs that didn’t get an airing: I Miss You, God’s Song, I Think It’s Going to Rain Today, I Love LA, Birmingham, Marie, Short People, You’ve Got a Friend in Me, Political Science, You Can Leave Your Hat On, Losing You, the stupendous Louisiana 1927, Sail Away, and even the seldom-performed Rednecks (because of its use of the N-word; Newman took pains to explain the character and perspective he adopts within the song, which is something he doesn’t otherwise do).

Shorn of their band arrangements, some of the songs did fall a little flat. I adore I Love LA and have defended its parent album here, but without that triumphant synth riff and triumphalist backing vocals, the song is not what it could otherwise be. Similarly, My Life is Good without the blowhard’s increasingly agitated protests at the end (“My life is good, you old bag!”) as the music gets subtly more dissonant is only half the song. Why not forgo it and play something more suited to a voice-and-piano presentation, like Dayton, Ohio-1903 or He Gives Us All His Love?

Minor quibbles, really.

James once said to me, about the experience of watching Paul McCartney, that after a while, you just stand there in amazement that one man wrote all these songs, and that one man is standing up there singing them. That’s how Monday was for me. I’d give pretty much anything to write a song as good as Louisiana 1927. Hell, to write Short People, even. Newman is one of the greatest, a guy that pretty much every songwriter looks up to in the knowledge that they can’t play on the turf he’s playing on. I got to see him, playing all those songs. It was quite something.

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This guy

One Day in Your Life – Michael Jackson

Few figures in pop music are as polarising, with good reason, than Michael Jackson. I’m old enough to remember when Jackson was a much more unambiguous figure, a hero to millions of young pop fans, when the only controversy surrounding him was the ‘bad’, more streetwise, image he attempted to cultivate in 1987. Apparently he succeeded in convincing my primary-school teachers of his toughness, because a few of them came to believe around this time that he was not a good role model. But even for someone who can remember the place he held in Western pop culture before the Jordan Chandler story broke, it can be hard to listen to the music without everything else flooding in. Whether we even should, well, that’s a different matter.

While later Jackson hits seem positively haunted (“I am the damned. I am the dead. I am the agony inside a dying head” – a Cannibal Corpse lyric? No, it’s from Who Is It?, recorded and released before the Chandler story), you can still get a sense of what made Jackson the unassailable biggest star in the world by listening to his pre-Thriller music: the joy that’s perceptible in every bar of Rock With You and Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough; the warm humanism of Let Me Show You the Way to Go; the good-humoured triumphalism of Can You Feel It; the tenderness of One Day in Your Life.

One Day in Your Life hasn’t had the best critical reputation, with Robert Christgau the only major critic I’ve ever read who gave it much credit. Tom Ewing’s review on Popular was mixed, while Marcello Carlin savaged it (“unforgivably opts for sentimentality rather than genuine emotion”). Christgau, meanwhile, heard in it “a first-rate tearjerker that achieves just the right mix of autonomy and helpless innocence”, even as he expressed reservations about the general idea of a child singer being given a ballad to sing: “Because it’s possible to believe that their sincerity is neither feigned nor foolish, it’s good in theory for children to sing romantic ballads. The reason it doesn’t work is that the sincerity is so transparently manipulated from above.”

While sharing at least some of Carlin’s reservations about the arrangement (who thought the Ray Conniff backing vocals were a good idea?), I hear the same song Christgau does. OK, I’m a sucker for a ballad, and I love a good extended melody, and this is a record that knows the buttons it’s pressing when it presses them. What makes it a minor classic is Jackson. Even at his worst, Michael Jackson’s commitment to his material and his projects was total. It made him easy to mock, even before he became a big enough star for the world to notice and care about his alarming eccentricities, and it marked his recordings – for better or worse – all the way through his career. Whatever he was singing, self-composed or not, he went at it full tilt.

A more mature or detached singer might have found the sentiment of One Day in Your Life excessively sentimental or uncool, with more in common with Broadway than with Norman Whitfield, but the 16-year-old Jackson’s performance is engaged and therefore engaging. He soars his way through a difficult melody – a range of an octave and a half, to be negotiated both piano and forte as the dynamics of the song demand, a couple of unexpected changes (the shift to C#major7 under the word “face” in the first verse is sure to catch the unwary karaoke singer), a key change, ritardandos… Credit to the producers for getting him through it, for sure, but few are the 16-year-old aspiring pop singers with the technical facility to do it in the first place. Sure, you’ll have to make some allowances for One Day in Your Life, but the song stands as an early indication of how incandescently gifted its singer was.

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Jackson at 16

‘Music Criticism Has Degenerated Into Lifestyle Reporting’, allegedly

Ted Gioia’s Daily Beast jeremiad has generated a lot of eye rolling from a significant section of music fans and writers. That’s not unexpected. It’s pretty much deserved, too. If you’re going to call out the entire critical community for not doing the job of criticism, which is a serious accusation to level, define your terms and name some names. Rule number one of engaging with a piece of work is to do so on its own terms. So who are these publications and critics who should be talking about form and technique but aren’t? Why should they? Just because Gioia wants them to? Did they used to? Why did they stop? When?

It is true that lots of critics don’t talk about form, technique, structure, harmony, production. But many of the biggest names in popular music criticism never did (when did Christgau or Marcus ever talk chord progressions?). Others have engaged in more, shall we say, musicological criticism, and managed to do so for a non-specialist audience. Critics, like all music listeners, hear music in many different ways.

The internet shapes much of what goes on in the world of paid criticism, and the issue, if issue there be, here is what Chris Ott as identified as the churn: the demand placed on writers to fill a website structure every day, or every week (as Ott points out, the need to do this is ad sales-driven). Five movie reviews, 10 record reviews a 1000-word thinkpiece on something vaguely relevant to whatever story has been capturing attention in the last day or so, over and over. It takes a very special talent to say anything worthwhile about a record in 500 words when you’ve heard it just a few times, a half-dozen at most. Few critics do it well. Few ever did, truth be told. As publications are desperate to beat their rivals and get their review of a big new release up on their site before their rivals do, this problem is liable to get worse before it gets better.

But the internet gives tremendous space to writers that do have something to say, and there are loads of good writers out there with distinctive voices and opinions and ways of hearing music. Some of them are professionals, some former professionals, some strictly amateur. Not all of them are writing about contemporary music (many of my favourites – which include Chris O’Leary, Tom Ewing, Marcello Carlin, Maura Johnston, Nitsuh Abebe, Bob Stanley – write about older music mainly, allowing them time and perspective on what they’re talking about) and not all of them discuss form. But there are, as we have said, myriad ways to engage with music: you can link it to its context in chart history, as Ewing does; to broader trends in music in both pop and semi-pop contexts, as Stanley does so well; you can place it in the context of an artist’s body of work as O’Leary is doing with his retrospective of the entire David Bowie oeuvre (and it’s a truly magnificent achievement). Some can even, like Marcello Carlin and O’Leary, do all three while also being able to discuss harmony, melody, modulation, syncopation, production and any number of words that – whisper it – don’t mean much to non-trained, non-practicing musicians.

I’m well aware that most of the time I’m not writing for the broadest audience. I’m a musician myself so much of what interests me in music is at the level of form and technique. I tend to assume others might feel similarly. I try to explain specialist terms where I think it necessary, and I assume a knowledgeable, curious and intelligent audience. There are writers all over the internet doing the same, writing, analysing and criticising as well and as poorly as they always have done. I don’t know exactly who or what Mr Gioia was reading before he wrote his Daily Beast article, but if he doubts the vitality and usefulness of contemporary music criticism, perhaps he should read more widely. And more deeply.

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Article about music criticism – contractually obligated photo of Lester Bangs

Beetlebum – Blur

Popular is a blog on Freaky Trigger by Tom Ewing that reviews every British number-one hit single in chronological order. Ewing started writing it in 2003 – with Al Martino’s Here in my Heart from 1952 – and is now up to 1997. It’s a hell of a project, allowing you to see the context in which a hit becomes a hit, and how it is defined by the hits around it. Over time Popular has become less about Ewing’s reviews and scores, insightful though he is, and more about the debates in the comments section, which is one of the healthiest and most positive on the net (by which I don’t mean that everyone is positive about every record, but that it is remarkably civil, with little time wasted on slanging matches and cheap point-scoring).

I’ve posted there occasionally, but less since I started writing over here. I’ll contribute even less in future, I imagine – while I was at university in the early noughties I listened to the radio very seldom and had little idea what was number one in any given week, and as time went on my estrangement from chart music became almost total.

Right now we’re still in an era I remember first-hand and took an active interest in, even if not all the records are to my taste. The song currently under discussion, Blur’s Beetlebum, is oneI’m very fond of. I’d say it’s Damon Albarn’s masterpiece, even – one of the few times this most dry and cerebral of songwriters succeeded in engaging the brain and heart at the same time.

The two Blur singles that immediately precede Beetlebum, Stereotypes and Charmless Man (released less than a year before Beetlebum), are the dregs of Blur’s Britpop period. The Great Escape isn’t a record I know well, but I do know it well enough to know that there were better songs on it that weren’t as singles. Hearing those ugly – indeed charmless – songs at the time, it felt that that the band, and more particularly Albarn, was at the end of the line with that sound. The jeering, garish aggressive sneeriness of them, while bracing, is cheap and cynical beside, say, Jarvis Cocker’s more thoughtful deconstruction of English class and aspirationism. And as for its success as pop music, well, it’s easy to see why Oasis’s (What’s the Story) Morning Glory was vastly more popular in the long term. Blur had to change.

They did.

Beetlebum was the start of Blur’s second act, in which laddish-geezer Albarn became serious-and-eclectic-songwriter Albarn. It wasn’t necessarily what all his fans wanted from him, or for him, but it did open him up to a different audience than he’d had previously (me, instance – Blur remains the only Albarn record I’ve ever parted with money for, and will likely remain so). But it wasn’t Albarn’s new perceived honesty and soulfulness that sold me on Beetlebum – I don’t know how much honesty or so is really in it. Pulling off the appearance of straightforward intimacy may have been just another of his aesthetic coups. Nor was it the many nods to White Album-era Beatles, few songs from which I knew at the time.

It’s the sound of the record, the textures, the comforting ennui, the sleepiness of the verses, and the way, as Ewing notes, the “surly, choppy verses that ought to flare into rage on the chorus, but instead bloom into sleepy, burnt-out neo-psychedelic harmonies”. It may be easy to forget now, but the quiet-loud, quiet-loud shift in a song’s dynamics was so standard a part of US alternative rock and indie that, since this was obviously a more US-influenced record than anything heard from Blur before, while listening to Beetlebum for the first time, a majority of listeners probably did expect Graham Coxon to step on his Pro-Co Rat and Albarn to start shouting. The chorus’s shift into falsetto, the scrappy semi-clean guitars and the ‘ooh’ block harmonies, then, was unexpected, audacious even.

Not all of Blur was so successful. The only other songs I have much interest in hearing again now are Country Sad Ballad Man and, very occasionally, Song 2 and Essex Dogs. Many of the album’s other songs fall flat: M.O.R., a straightforward Bowie-in-Berlin rip, is embarrassing. Chinese Bombs proved that, whatever else they could do, Blur’s rhythm section couldn’t rock. Theme from Retro had a dub echo and an organ and not much idea what to do with either of them. But Beetlebum is a glorious success, Blur’s finest record bar none, and still the most compelling thing Albarn has done with any of his projects.

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