Living With the Collector Gene
On Buying Music I Expect to Hate
I’m a perpetual optimist when it comes to music. I have hope that everything I choose to buy and listen to will be good, will enrich my life in some way. But that doesn’t mean I’m unrealistic.
I routinely buy albums that I expect will not be very good, all the while hoping I’m wrong. Sometimes it’s just completism – I have a fairly dominant collector gene, and I often feel compelled to buy a band’s new work if I have all their older stuff. You could call this ridiculous and I wouldn’t argue. Anyone who has listened to my frequent rants about post-1996 Tori Amos probably curses that particular gene, although without it, I wouldn’t have heard Unrepentant Geraldines this year, and there are at least five songs on that record that I love beyond reason. So I keep buying.
Much of the time, though, I buy new records from lousy bands and artists because I once heard something that sparked my interest, some glimmer of excellence that, if fanned, could catch fire. And I’m waiting to see if the band heard it too. For example, the first Lifehouse album (2000’s No Name Face) contained a tremendous song called “Simon.” It towered over the rest of what was, honestly, a pretty forgettable record. But that song, man. That song is the reason I keep buying Lifehouse albums, and will likely buy their new one next spring. I have not yet liked a Lifehouse song as much as I like “Simon,” and in fact I find most of their output boring, but I live in hope.
I feel similarly about the Foo Fighters, although I usually end up liking Dave Grohl and his merry men quite a bit more. I was never a Nirvana fan, but I love The Colour and the Shape, the second Foo Fighters record, for marrying Nirvana’s aggression and power to some truly epic pop songs. It remains the finest thing Grohl has done, and subsequent Foos albums have mostly been pale imitations. I don’t remember anything about One By One, for example, or Echoes, Silence, Patience and Grace. And while I very much enjoyed the compact explosion that was 2011’s Wasting Light, it’s really just another rock record. The Foos aren’t bad, but they’re a far cry from inspiring.
And yet, I had higher hopes for Sonic Highways, their eighth album. You’ve no doubt heard about it by now – each of these eight tracks was recorded in a different city, while the band shot an HBO documentary series about the album’s creation. The idea was to undertake an exploration of each city’s musical history and incorporate those influences into the record. I haven’t seen the series, but based on the album itself, it sounds like something went terribly wrong with that concept.
Here are the eight cities the Foos visited: New York, Chicago, Nashville, New Orleans, Washington D.C., Hollywood, Austin and Seattle. Now, my first problem with that list is the last entry – they’re from Seattle, so that wasn’t much of a sonic highway for them. But the big issue here is that you can’t tell just by listening that this album was recorded in so many different places. If the goal was to capture some of the flavor of these cities in the songs themselves, then this is a total failure. Sonic Highways just sounds like another Foo Fighters album.
I’m listening to “Congregation” right now – this tune was recorded at Southern Ground Studio in Nashville, and features Zac Brown (who is from Georgia, but never mind) on backing vocals. But it sounds like it could fit nicely on Wasting Light. There’s no Nashville in this tune at all. It’s not bad – it has a nice progression, a good arrangement, some kickass drumming from Taylor Hawkins, and a sweet outro jam. But it sounds like the Foo Fighters. “In the Clear” was recorded at Preservation Hall in New Orleans and incorporates the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, which is awesome. But they’re rendered faceless – they’re not allowed to add any N’awlins to this typical chugging rocker at all.
So the entire idea is a bust, and what we’re left with is a Foo Fighters album – it's loud and melodic and punchy, and it’s not as good as The Colour and the Shape. The record gains strength in its home stretch, with two longer tunes. The six-minute “Subterranean” is the Seattle song, so naturally the band feels more comfortable. They invite Ben Gibbard to sing along as well, and the result is worthy. Final track “I Am a River” may be the best – it’s the Los Angeles number, with strings by the L.A. Youth Orchestra, and its seven minutes allows it to blossom. They’re tiny sparks, but they’re enough to keep me listening.
I don’t hate the Foo Fighters, and I don’t hate Sonic Highways. But for a band this celebrated, they’re awfully typical, and even a cross-country musical history tour couldn’t get them to expand those boundaries. Grohl is often described as humble, but honestly, I think he’s just self-aware. He knows his band and his songs are nothing special, even if HBO wants to air a series about them, and despite the promise of Sonic Highways, he keeps walking down the same old roads.
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I don’t hate the Foo Fighters, but I genuinely hate Damien Rice.
I bought O in 2002 because… well, because everybody bought O in 2002. I have a soft spot for “The Blower’s Daughter,” but I found the rest of the album pretty boring. It was clear that Rice had tried to be Jeff Buckley, and failed. Still, I hung on and picked up 9 in 2006. I count that as one of the five worst mistakes of my life. A pained, endless torture session, 9 is one of the most unendurable albums I’ve ever heard, stopping just shy of the depths of that Lou Reed/Metallica thing from a few years ago. Songs like “Me, My Yoke and I” made me want to punch Rice in the face repeatedly, or perhaps hire someone stronger to punch him while I watched. It’s a truly wretched record.
So why, then, did I pay money for Rice’s long-awaited third effort, My Favorite Faded Fantasy? It was partially that collector gene – I have the others, so I need the new one. But I admit that I was intrigued by the record itself. It was produced by Rick Rubin, and if anyone could whip Rice into shape and capture him the way he was meant to sound, it’s Rubin. Before plunking down cash, I heard the first single, “I Don’t Want to Change You,” and I liked it. (Where Rice is concerned, if his songs don’t make me want to throw furniture across the room, that means I liked them.) Still, I was prepared for the worst.
But I ended up enjoying Faded Fantasy much more than anything else I’ve heard from Rice. This album took eight years to make, and it sounds like it – songs stretch to eight and nine minutes, strings augment just about everything, and an army of musicians assembled to bring these ideas to life. The album begins with subtle acoustic guitar and Rice’s falsetto, but it isn’t long before the waves of sound start to build. Rice sequences the nine-minute “It Takes a Lot to Know a Man” second, so you’re in the deep end early – this song is stunning. The first half is a tender four-chord folk lilt with violins, but the second is a full-on orchestral fantasia, with huge horns and a choir adding to the epic. It’s the best thing I’ve ever heard from Rice, easy.
The album never really gets there again, but that’s OK. “The Greatest Bastard” is old-school Rice, with its delicate finger-picking and vocal whispers over a subtle organ. “I never meant to let you down,” Rice sings with that high, yearning voice, and while the urge to punch him returns now and then, I find that I’m rolling with this. I still like “I Don’t Want to Change You” for its thick strings and its descending melody, and I like “Colour Me In” even more – it’s an oasis of minimalism on this huge, ambitious record. I’m a bit bored by the eight-minute “Trusty and True,” but things end well with the haunting, ever-unfolding “Long Long Way.”
It took eight years, but Damien Rice finally figured out how to balance out his simplistic, folksy side and his let’s-add-some-more-strings side, creating an album that, for the first time, rarely bores me or makes me angry. My Favorite Faded Fantasy isn’t a masterpiece, by any means, but it is the best record of Rice’s career, and the first one I enjoyed all the way through. I suppose this means I don’t hate him anymore, and that I’ll be genuinely interested in buying his fourth album, whenever he finishes it. I’m always happy to have my mind changed, and to see significant growth and improvement from someone I’d written off.
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Speaking of writing artists off, I’ve never quite understood the hype surrounding TV on the Radio.
I’m not even sure what I heard that convinced me to buy their second album, Return to Cookie Mountain. I like to try hyped-up bands for myself, just to make sure I’m not missing anything important, and in the case of TV on the Radio, I think I succeeded in convincing myself that I wasn’t. And yet, I went back and picked up their debut, and have bought every subsequent album. I even bought Kyp Malone’s side project, Rain Machine. So I guess I must have been intrigued by something.
So here is the band’s fifth album, Seeds, and while I enjoyed it, I’m still not sure why I keep on delving into their work. Seeds is the most upbeat and minimal record they’ve made, focusing on simple rhythms and on Tunde Adebimpe’s supple voice. All these songs are straightforward and easy on the ears. The record is full of little pop songs like “Careful You” and “Happy Idiot,” songs that don’t really go anywhere, but have a good time not doing it. “Test Pilot” is surprisingly pretty, and the album is low-key enough that when the guitars come crashing in on “Winter” (and stay for the propulsive “Lazerray”), it’s kind of jarring. But everything is in its right place on the closing tracks, particularly the lovely title song, with its message of optimism: “Rain comes down like it always does, but this time I’ve got seeds on the ground.”
So there’s nothing to hate here, but I still find little to outright love. Seeds is an album that just sort of happens for 53 minutes without mattering a whole lot. I’ve felt the same way about pretty much every TV on the Radio album I’ve heard, so I’m not sure why I keep coming to the table. All I can say is that I’ve bought much worse music from much worse bands, but if I’m looking for something that will change my life, I have serious doubts it will come from this group’s direction. And yet, next time they hold out their hand, I’ll probably pony up.
It’s just the way I’m wired, I guess.
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See you in line Tuesday morning.