You may not have noticed this, but MTV finally dropped the words “Music Television” from its logo last week.
Some are calling this a seismic shift, but to me, it’s the first honest thing this network has done in more than a decade. When MTV kicked off its first broadcast, in 1981, it was devoted to music – so much so that industry analysts predicted it would only last a few months. No one wants to see music videos all the time, they said.
They were wrong. We loved music videos, we children of the ‘80s. We lapped them up like candy. It was our first opportunity to see just what our favorite artists looked like, and get a visual peek into their brains. And artists like Peter Gabriel and Michael Jackson and Madonna picked up the music video ball and ran with it, crafting iconic representations of their songs. It was the dawning of an age of calculated image manipulation, no doubt, but it was also an outlet for bands and musicians, another way to get their music heard.
With shows like 120 Minutes and Headbanger’s Ball, MTV even opened the door to lesser-known acts. It was like the greatest radio station in the world, and it played 24 hours a day. I discovered so many new artists through MTV, and my awakening as a music fan is firmly tied to the network’s burgeoning first years. And you know, MTV kept its focus for a long time. I remember watching it through the ‘90s, seeing Beck’s “Loser” and Radiohead’s “Karma Police” and countless others.
The last artist I remember discovering through MTV was Ours, in 2001. Even then, the rot was setting in. These days, you’ll be lucky to find a music video on MTV. It’s all reality shows like Jersey Shore and True Life and Pregnant at 16. It’s a lifestyle channel, a cultural barometer. It holds little interest for music fans, and I think it’s about time they stopped advertising it as music television. It simply isn’t that anymore.
I may sound like I’m eulogizing MTV, even though it’s still on the air. I think rather I’m mourning what it used to be. The Internet has really taken over as the source for new music, so I don’t necessarily miss what MTV used to provide. But I do miss the idea of a channel devoted solely to music, and staffed with music fans. When it started out, MTV was daring, almost illicit. It was a fly-by-night rebel base of a channel, run by people who couldn’t wait to bring you the music they loved.
Now it’s a corporate mouthpiece selling a teenage lifestyle, complete with the right jeans and the right makeup and the right shoes. The transformation has been a sad one to watch, and now with even the word “music” removed from its logo, I can’t think of a single reason I’ll ever tune in again. I’ve been sad and angry about this for a while, but it took the reformatting of the logo to make me realize what a good thing MTV used to be, and what a sad thing the corporate execs have replaced it with.
But hey, at least they’re not lying about it anymore.
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Spoon’s Transference broke my computer.
Okay, not my entire computer, but certainly my speakers. I first listened to the seventh album by Austin’s finest over the Internet, and found it baffling. It sounded to me like someone had spilled coffee on the mixing desk – sounds dropped out, then came back in without warning, and the whole thing came off as a ragged mess. This led to me walking around for a couple of days panning the record, and claiming not to understand what they were aiming for.
Of course, now I know just what happened. One of my speakers is now blown, the other in bad shape, and the complex (for Spoon anyway) production of Transference was lost blasting through them in their weakened state. It’s still an interesting patchwork of a record, but not nearly as baffling as I first thought. In fact, it only took a few listens through to realize this is my favorite Spoon album. So apologies to everyone I warned away from this record. If you dig Spoon, you will really dig this.
Transference is Spoon’s attempt at going big, without losing their minimalist indie roots. This band has always been about only doing what’s needed to get the song across, and no more. They have a thumping swagger about them, an appealing confidence that sells even their simplest tunes. And some of them are very simple, based on one or two notes repeated. The songs on Transference are no exception, but there’s more going on in the corners of this album than ever before. It just rarely happens all at once.
Take the opener, “Before Destruction.” It begins with a bass drum, a hi-hat, an organ and an acoustic guitar, strumming one chord. But as Britt Daniel’s vocals come in, everything else drops away, leaving just that guitar. Spoon songs don’t build up in the traditional way. They blossom and decay, most often in ways you’d never expect. A surprising amount of “Before Destruction” is Daniel and the acoustic – it’s just the bare bones of the song.
Much of Transference is fuller, or at least gives off the illusion of fullness. There’s a “Tomorrow Never Knows” vibe to “The Mystery Zone,” with its throbbing one-note bassline and swirling vocals. The Spoon of old would have been content with the flickering guitars and tone-setting pianos, but there’s a subtle string section here, and it works beautifully. “Who Makes Your Money” struts along on a slinky bass figure and little else, and “Written in Reverse” is built almost entirely around a sloppy-cool two-chord piano line, but it builds into a full-band stomp that feels like a climax.
Here and there, Daniel has let a bit of ambition creep into the songwriting too. At 5:31, “I Saw the Light” is the longest album track Spoon has ever released, and while it starts unassumingly enough, it flips itself on its ear halfway through for a long, repetitive, and very cool coda. Of course, one song later, Daniel includes a straight-ahead home demo of the Stones-y “Trouble Comes Running,” complete with lots and lots of tape hiss. For every moment of professionalism here, there’s an equal and opposite moment of scrappy inventiveness.
For all its moving parts, the most affecting moment on Transference is “Goodnight Laura,” another demo-sounding track capturing Daniel and a piano, and nothing else. The record ends with the very odd disco number “Nobody Gets Me But You,” and if they’d only shifted “Goodnight Laura” to the closing spot, this would have been the perfect Spoon album. Still, it is, for my money, the best thing they’ve done, a fully-formed exploration of minimal maximalism that stays true to their core sound. Oh, and it rocks, too.
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In some circles, Aaron Sprinkle is a legend.
A singer-songwriter from Seattle, Sprinkle got his start as the guitarist of Poor Old Lu, a grungy outfit that made four increasingly terrific records in the ‘90s and early 2000s. He went on to record a number of swell solo albums, and produce more than 40 records for bands like Starflyer 59, Eisley, Pedro the Lion, Emery and Mae. Along the way, he’s found the time to form a new band, called Fair, and they’ve just released their second album.
And yet, he remains essentially unknown. I’ve had more than a dozen people ask me what I think of Spoon’s new record, and yet no one I know has been anticipating Fair’s sophomore effort, Disappearing World, like I have. It’s probably no surprise which one I like better, but what might be surprising is just how audience-friendly and universally appealing Disappearing World is. It’s one of those records nearly everyone would like, if they only gave it a chance.
Fair’s first album, The Best Worst-Case Scenario, was a scrappy little indie-pop record, fueled by loud guitars and a live-band feel. But Disappearing World is a different beast – a little glossier, a little more ambitious. It’s a bigger and clearer vision, surrounding and augmenting 10 of the best songs Sprinkle has written. There are songs here that should be burning up the radio, songs you’ll be singing in your head for days afterwards.
Case in point: about three weeks before buying Disappearing World, I heard the title track online. I only played it once, but when I cued up the CD for the first time more than 20 days later, I remembered almost every note, like recalling an old friend. It’s not even close to the catchiest or most memorable tune here, but it burrowed its way into my brain after one spin. That’s impressive.
The second track is even more so. “Wayside” starts off with a nice piano figure, but soon explodes into a propulsive, melodic freight train of a tune. Sprinkle’s high and clear voice has rarely sounded better than it does here, slipping into falsetto one moment and belting it out the next. The full-band crescendo that concludes this track is singularly thrilling, Joey Sanchez just pummeling those drums until they cry uncle. It’s an awesome song, performed awesomely.
Disappearing World doesn’t hit those heights again, but every song is solid and memorable. “Walking in My Sleep” is a piano-pounding march with a straight-ahead chorus and some dirty organ playing in the background. The ballad “Take Some Risks” brings out the string section, but makes room for a “November Rain”-style soaring guitar solo. “Escape Artist” has a Coldplay-meets-John Lennon vibe to it, and “It’s Doubtful” is a roaring guitar-pop song that can hold its head high with some of the greats.
Oddly, the record’s one disappointment is “The Worst of Your Wear,” a collaboration with Aaron Marsh of Copeland that never seems to find a direction. But the record rights itself with “Great Divide,” a wonderful, loping tune bursting with melody. Closer “Anymore” starts off slow, but by the end, the band is on overdrive, crashing headlong into an abrupt skid-stop. And then you press play again.
Disappearing World offers no clues as to why Aaron Sprinkle has flown below the radar his whole career. This record sounds like his attempt to rectify that slight, and he’s jumped in with both feet, turning in an accessible and thoroughly enjoyable collection. In a just world, you’d be hearing these songs on the radio every day. Alas, we live in this one, and Disappearing World will likely be ignored. But that doesn’t mean you have to ignore it too. Lovers of guitar-pop and finely crafted melodies won’t want to be without this record. As the man says in “Great Divide,” you might hesitate, but I don’t recommend it.
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Andrew Bird may get all the press, but when it comes to violin-playing geniuses, for my money, you can’t beat Owen Pallett.
He’s best known as the guy who plays and arranges strings for Arcade Fire, but over three increasingly complex albums as Final Fantasy, Pallett has created some of the most fascinating and delightfully odd mini-orchestral music you’re likely to find. He’s a studio wizard, looping his own violins and violas over and over to create massive washes of sound, but he’s also a terrific songwriter and arranger – Final Fantasy tunes are dramatic and memorable things, despite Pallett’s limited vocal range.
For his third, Heartland, he’s gone even bigger. It’s a concept album about a guy named Lewis who undertakes a spiritual journey, and instead of Pallett’s usual one-man-string-section sound, he’s enlisted the Czech Symphony Strings on nearly every track. The result is grandiose, even more so than anything he’s done with Arcade Fire, and yet it retains the oddball charm of the two previous Final Fantasy records. Heartland is a monumental work, but it contains those ambitions to 46 minutes. It’s something of a pocket symphony.
If you’re concerned about Andrew Lloyd Webber-ness creeping in, don’t be. No matter how huge the sound, Pallett keeps his eye on the ball – in this case, a glorious Brian Wilson-esque sense of melody and movement. Opener “Midnight Directives” sounds like the start of a long journey, its chorus buoyed by muted horns. Follow-up “Keep the Dog Quiet” is creepy and atmospheric, strings slowly building up as Pallett’s voice hits the high notes. (He even pinches one of Win Butler’s lines for the opening: “My body is a cage…”) From here on out, you’re on a trip, and Heartland carries you along like a wave.
Other highlights? “Red Sun No. 5” sounds straight out of Pet Sounds, right down to the tympanis. “Lewis Takes Action” uses the “Be My Baby” drum pattern to support more Beach Boys-esque beauty, complete with gorgeous string and horn parts. It is here that the lyrics turn truly surreal: “I took a no-face by his beak and broke his jaw, he’ll never speak again…” Things get even weirder from there – see the flurry of drum programming on “The Great Elsewhere” – but they’re always balanced off by lovely melodies. You may even get something like “Oh Heartland, Up Yours” stuck in your head.
Still, this is not an album for the faint of heart, or the musically unadventurous. It is, in many ways, a single sweeping song, and it takes several listens to grasp just what Owen Pallett’s up to here. It’s not easy, but it is worth it. By the time the album concludes, with the massive six-minute “Tryst With Mephistopheles” and the surprisingly abrupt coda “What Do You Think Will Happen Now,” you feel like you’ve truly been taken on a ride through bizarre worlds of cotton candy and blood and thunder, guided by a brilliant madman. Heartland is wild and wondrous and thoroughly awesome.
As a side note, Pallett announced prior to Heartland’s release that he would be dropping the Final Fantasy moniker and sticking with his own name. However, my CD still says Final Fantasy, on the spine and the liner notes. So that’s where I’m filing this, just to avoid confusion. Besides, with half a dozen other musicians and the Czech Symphony Strings on board, this is less of a solo album than anything Pallett’s made. That’s how I’m rationalizing it, anyway.
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And now, the next installment in my Top 20 Albums of the 2000s.
#15. Silverchair, Young Modern (2007).
My excitement over Young Modern has cooled somewhat in the two-plus years since it came out. I’m not sure I would call it the best album of 2007 anymore, but hell, I still like it enough to include it among the 20 best records of the decade, so it must be doing something right.
Part of that initial thrill was in hearing just how far Daniel Johns had come. You may remember Silverchair as the Australian trio who aped Pearl Jam down to the last detail on their 1995 debut Frogstomp. That remains their most successful album in the U.S. – it went platinum and hit number nine on the Billboard charts. It is how they’re remembered here, as a bunch of kids playing godawful grunge and moaning about how bad their lives are. Frogstomp is an awful, awful record, which makes Johns’ amazing growth as a songwriter even more remarkable.
The change has been coming for a while. Silverchair’s third and fourth albums, Neon Ballroom and Diorama, incorporated more pure pop influences and more sonic colors, and Johns’ side project with keyboardist Paul Mac, The Dissociatives, took that even further. But nothing could have prepared me for Young Modern, a collection of songs so brilliant, so well-made, that Johns immediately catapulted into my list of favorite songwriters.
People laugh at me for talking up Silverchair, but Young Modern itself is the best way to shut them up. The first two songs are the most accessible, “Young Modern Station” grooving along through a killer chorus and then sliding into “Straight Lines,” a smooth and melodic pop gem. From there, the album goes nuts, from the crazy carnival ride of “If You Keep Losing Sleep,” to the ELO tributes “Low” and “Insomnia,” to the choir-of-angels bliss-out of “Waiting All Day.” Every song is a winner, none of them going the places you’d expect.
Johns shines throughout – Young Modern is really his coming-out party as a phenomenal pop songwriter. But as good as everything else is, the seven-minute “Those Thieving Birds” trilogy is his crowning achievement. The centerpiece of Young Modern, the piece starts with acoustic guitars and vocals, but ends up darting down one melodic path after another, helped along by robust string arrangements from Van Dyke Parks. Daniel Johns was in his mid-20s when he wrote and recorded this tune, and it’s one that would make older and wiser songsmiths weep with envy.
Young Modern has its faults. It’s a little too stuffed with keyboard sounds, and occasionally tries to do too much. But I’ll gladly take wild ambition over the safe and the formulaic. There’s nothing safe about Young Modern. It is one of the most daring, exciting and well-crafted pop albums of the 2000s, and it signals the emergence of a master songwriter. Where Daniel Johns goes from here should be fascinating to watch.
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Another long one! We’ll see what we can do about taking it down a notch next week. I’ll be reviewing some albums I’m supposed to have an opinion on, if you believe the press and the hype. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow my infrequent twitterings at www.twitter.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.