In reading some of my previous columns, I’ve come to one unfortunate yet inescapable conclusion: I bitch a lot.
Oh, sure, it’s still not enough bitching for some of you – I get emails all the time that take me to task for being so “positive” – but this column, by and large, has painted a pretty bleak picture of the state of the music industry. It’s not the music that bothers me so much, naturally, as it is the diseased system of marketing and distribution. Even if one wishes to sift through the crap to find the good stuff, the modern music machine makes it extremely difficult to a) hear about good artists and b) find their work.
One thing I don’t seem to do, however, is point the finger at the artists themselves. Well, that ends now. No target should be safe from my scattershot wrath, and in that spirit, I feel compelled to point out that sometimes, the good stuff is hard to find because the artists in question seem to want it that way. Most times I understand willful obscurity, especially when dealing with artists who genuinely do not want the spotlight to shine on them. That’s not what we’re talking about here.
We’re also not talking about artists for whom obscurity is a lifestyle. It’s no secret that much of the so-called good stuff would not appeal to the masses. Aphex Twin, for example, will never have a top 10 single, unless James radically alters his sound. And that’s his choice – he’s seemingly accepted his role as a fringe player, one whose beauty is only for a few beholders. His choices keep him there, but every one of them (including releasing a slew of singles and EPs under other names) is understandable within his worldview.
No, I’m talking about artists that already appeal to a wide base, and could appeal to a wider one, if they’d only stop making bizarre choices, ones which, whether they know it or not, make it nearly impossible for a casual fan to hear some of their best work. The template for this sort of thing is Prince, who outsold pretty much everyone whose name wasn’t Jackson in the ’80s, but who made some decisions afterwards that splintered and obliterated his fanbase. Maybe it’s just me, but changing your name to an unpronounceable symbol, releasing nothing but three- and four-disc sets, and then packaging your best work in years (The Truth) as disc four of one of those sets? Not good choices, especially if you’re then going to complain about sales.
Or, take Matthew Sweet. Here’s a guy who should be much more famous than he is, and the odd thing is, he wants the same thing. His music is so delightful, so appealing, that the only reason I can come up with for his continued semi-obscurity is that people haven’t heard his work. But then, that’s not true either – there was a time in the mid-’90s when Sweet was the it-guy. Girlfriend, his most successful album, landed him three hit singles, and the follow-ups Altered Beast and 100% Fun didn’t do so badly either.
And sure, he had a couple of duds after that, including his absolute masterpiece In Reverse, but that was the record company, surely. Sweet even complained about them at the time, which led to his exodus from Volcano as soon as his contract was up. Here, let me put together a quick marketing package for Sweet’s next project – reunite the Girlfriend lineup, make a simple guitar-pop record full of hooks and potential hits, and then find a label that will promote the hell out of it. True, such a move would be seen as angling for market share, but a new record from the lineup that scored his greatest success? If you build it (and it’s good, and it’s marketed well), they will come.
This isn’t just me talking here. Sweet has, believe it or not, done just that. His new album brings together drummer Ric Menck and guitarists Richard Lloyd and Greg Leisz for 12 terrific, rollicking pop songs, most of which would fit comfortably on any good radio station, and would open ears and move units nationwide. In short, people have been clamoring for just this thing from Sweet, and it’s really good, and they’d like it.
So what does he do with this album? He titles it Kimi Ga Suki * Raifu – really – and releases it only in Japan. The intentions are good. Japan has long been a fertile market for Sweet, and he really does love the place and its culture. He conceived Kimi Ga Suki * Raifu as a love letter to his Japanese fans, and they undoubtedly deserve it. But to make something this good, something which caters to the tastes and, yes, gripes of his fans in places other than Japan, and then give it no fanfare over here seems strange. The album has seen a U.S. release, on Sweet’s own Superdeformed label, and can be ordered from his website (www.matthewsweet.com) and found in, well, some record stores.
But not many, and that’s the point. Trust me, if you like Matthew Sweet, you will like this album. A lot. It’s exactly the sort of uncomplicated yet finely crafted record Girlfriend was, chock full of ripping guitars, catchy hooks and great vocal harmonies. The opening trilogy is like hearing three of the best songs from his greatest hits collection in a row, and while there are dead spots (the minute-long “Spiral,” for example), the album is overall as solid a group of songs as you’d expect from Sweet in his prime. It’s also full of joy, perhaps the most flat-out fun record he’s made in a while.
The secret may be the slapdash way it was created. Sweet wrote all the songs in one week (!), and recorded the album at his house. The self-imposed limitations seem to have freed him, in a way, to create the kind of raw energy that’s been lacking from his last couple of major productions. In Reverse is an amazing album, don’t get me wrong, but he labored over nearly every second of it, and you can tell. This one flows out in a thrilling burst, and it’s great to hear him do this sort of thing again.
So yeah, it’s called Kimi Ga Suki * Raifu, and you’ll only find it at smaller record stores or online. Just as icing on the cake, the title only appears in Japanese on the cover, as well, so don’t worry about spelling it right. It’s got a funny cartoon picture of a girl and a cat, and no track listing. Happy hunting.
Slightly less egregious, but no less inexplicable, is Moby. I know I’m going back a bit here, but there was a time when the name Moby could signify anything at all, any style of music. He started as a straight techno guy, layering beats over the theme to Twin Peaks to score a club hit. But when he began making albums, they were diverse affairs, and not just internally. I can hardly think of any two albums as different from one another as Everything is Wrong and Animal Rights, but they came one right after another, jamming techno and ambient next to guitar-heavy electro-punk. Moby has always been willing to go in different directions, and drag his fans along with him.
Until he hit it big, of course. 1999’s Play was a mega-success, mixing his usual ambient work with a new style – dropping beats over old gospel and soul records. And it was such a successful combination that he’s just kept doing it ever since. Counting Play, 18, and the b-sides collections for each, he’s now put out four CDs worth of the same stuff. (In fact, five, if you count the album’s worth of unreleased tracks on the audio portion of the 18 B-Sides DVD.) Those who wish to hear Moby do styles other than those found on Play have been out of luck for going on six years, and the sales reflect a growing ennui.
Those people could, of course, move from the M section to the V section of their record store and buy the new Voodoo Child album Baby Monkey. That is, if they hear about it. Voodoo Child is Moby, naturally, and Baby Monkey is exactly the kind of chilly techno album he used to make, back when he used to specialize in electronic music for the masses. There is nothing forbidding about this album, nothing insular. It’s just a series of great grooves, and if you remember “First Cool Hive” fondly (it appeared in the movie Heat, as well as on Everything is Wrong), you will like this.
Moby has said that recording this under the name Voodoo Child helped in its creation – he could concentrate on the music and not worry about the singles and video promotion that, these days, surround a new Moby release. Which means, unfortunately, that Moby is in a place where his fame prevents him from doing what he wants artistically, but it also seems to indicate that he’s lost faith in his audience. Millions of people supported Play, and by not releasing anything under his own name in six years that isn’t a direct descendent (if not a direct copy) of Play, Moby seems to be saying that those people won’t make the leap to a different sound. Even one he’s previously given them.
And yes, people bought Play, but they also lapped up Mobysongs, his best-of disc, and it was full of music just like this. If you buy Everything is Wrong, or the Move EP, you’re going to hear exactly the kind of thing that’s on Baby Monkey. You’ve got superb beats, ambient arrangements, sweeping synthesizers, and more than an hour of gorgeous electronica. There’s nothing un-Moby about it, so releasing it under another name seems a bit silly.
So while you’re digging through the record store looking for the Matthew Sweet album with the Japanese title and the funny cartoon drawings, don’t forget to go to the V section for the new Moby album. You see my point? I have nothing against artists choosing to express themselves in any way (or under any name) they choose, of course, but I think it’s a shame when good music goes unheard, for any reason. And when it seems like the artist in question doesn’t want you to find or hear his album, well, that sort of thing can put off people who would otherwise enjoy it.
I admit that this is a wobbly thesis, and I’m not sure I buy all of it, but I just wanted to see if I could make it work. How’d I do?
Next week, British pop and the sophomore slump.
See you in line Tuesday morning.