I’m a big fan of crazy.
I mean that strictly in an artistic sense. I’m not enamored of skipping-down-the-halls-setting-fire-to-the-walls insanity, and there are definitely people I know who could use some professional help. I don’t mean that kind of crazy. What I do mean is the willingness to follow one’s muse, no matter how batshit that muse seems to be. Like when California goth outfit Saviour Machine decided they would re-tell the book of Revelation in song, in four volumes. That’s the good kind of crazy, especially since they’re still working on it 15 years later.
Or when Texas enigma Jandek committed decades of his life – 70 albums over 34 years and counting – to capturing a nigh-unlistenable form of improvised dissonance with as many collaborators as he could wrangle. The very fact of Jandek’s existence gets more and more insane as the years go by and the records keep coming out. After a while, it starts to look like a life’s work, and it demands you accept it on its own terms.
The best crazy stuff accomplishes that. It gets under your skin, and after a while, it forces you to view the world from its skewed angle. I have all 70 Jandek albums, and I’ve heard them all multiple times, and while I definitely wouldn’t say I understand how he sees the world, I now hear patters and see sense where many hear random clatter and see dementia. It’s this kind of viewpoint-altering magic that keeps me coming back to the crazy, and continuing to seek it out.
That’s the thinking behind my semi-regular WTF Awards, given out to records that make me wonder if I’ve wandered into an alternate dimension, where crazy-sounding ideas are pursued to their fullest. I don’t just hand these out to the most bizarre things I hear. To receive a WTF Award, you have to make me wonder just what was going through your head when you conceived of a particular record. I have to ask the question, “Why did you think this would work?”
Here’s a great example: Joe Jackson’s tribute to Duke Ellington.
Now, on its face, that doesn’t seem too wacky. Jackson is an avowed fan of all forms of jazz, and Ellington is certainly an influence on some of his better works. If you’ve heard Jackson’s 1981 big band classic Jumpin’ Jive, you can probably envision how his tribute to the Duke would work, and work well. And Jackson’s been on a roll recently – his last two albums, Volume 4 and Rain, displayed tremendous energy and vitality, and it’s not hard to picture him bringing all that vigor to bear on an homage to one of his heroes.
Jackson, however, didn’t do any of that on The Duke. What he did is indulge his worst tendencies as an arranger and record-maker, turning out some extremely odd, synth-driven squiggles full of mad ideas that don’t quite work. And then he invited the strangest collective of guests he could think of to make things even weirder. Here is Steve Vai, playing the melody of “Isfahan” over programmed drums and keys. Here is ?uestlove, playing hip-hop rhythms on about half of these tracks. Here is Iggy Pop – yes, Iggy Pop – lending his voice to “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing).” On that last one especially, I have no idea what Jackson was thinking.
Granted, some of the guests make a lot of sense. Christian McBride is one of the best acoustic bassists around, and he graces a whole bunch of these tunes. And Sharon Jones was an inspired choice to sing “I Ain’t Got Nothin’ But the Blues.” But even those turns sound very strange on this record. McBride and ?uestlove turn “I’m Beginning to See the Light” into a jazz-hop gallop – I can almost hear Q-Tip rapping over this. Regina Carter adds her violin genius to that track and to a bizarre “Mood Indigo” played on reverbed guitars and accordion.
The electronic drums add a level of cheese to the carnival romp Jackson has made out of “Rockin’ in Rhythm,” played on synthesizers, sousaphone and piccolo. It’s kind of a mess. But at the other end of the spectrum, Jackson and Sharon Jones blues up “Blues,” with some help from ?uestlove and McBride, and find a way to work in the immortal “Do Nothin’ Till You Hear From Me” for a few seconds. There’s a fine line on this album between inventive and ridiculous, and it’s one Jackson’s programmed-samba take on “I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good),” for instance, walks with unsure feet.
To the man’s credit, The Duke doesn’t completely fly off the rails until the end. I can’t even explain how awful the reggae version of “The Mooche” is, Steve Vai wailing away on a melody that deserves better. That track also slips into “Black and Tan Fantasy,” one of Duke’s earliest triumphs, and Jackson whips out his accordion again to really give it that unlistenable edge. And then comes Iggy Pop, and to call this version of “It Don’t Mean a Thing” disastrous is an insult to disasters. Four people are credited with “programming” on this thing, which should tell you a lot of what you need to know.
I would never come down hard on Jackson for trying new and radical interpretations of these songs, if they worked. The Duke shows remarkable imagination, and an equally remarkable inability to tell a good idea from a bad one. It’s only successful about half the time, and while I admire Jackson’s ambition – he hasn’t made an album this complex in some time – I can’t get behind some of his choices.
Though it’s beside the point, I do wonder what Ellington might have thought of this. On the one hand, it celebrates his try-anything attitude to jazz music, and it clearly comes from a place of deep affection for his tunes. On the other hand, though, it mostly sucks. It’s an ill-formed mess of a thing, and it breaks Jackson’s recent hot streak. But it’s certainly worthy of a WTF Award, so I guess he can feel good about that.
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The Flaming Lips deserve a WTF Award just for existing lately. When the most reasonable thing they’ve done in the last four years is a full-album cover of The Dark Side of the Moon (with Henry Rollins and Peaches in tow), it’s safe to say the band has been going through a strange period. Freed from their major-label contract, the Lips quickly began releasing whatever they wanted, as often as they wanted. They gave us songs on thumb drives lodged inside full-size gummy human skulls, for instance. Last year, they released a six-hour-long song, and then followed it up with one that spans a full 24 hours. That one was sold on a drive lodged in a real human skull, and retailed for $5,000.
So in comparison to all that, their new album The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends probably isn’t that strange. But it is the weirdest thing they’ve released to the general market in some time, so it’s deserving of its place here. Basically, Heady Fwends is a 68-minute compilation of some of the Lips’ spur-of-the-moment collaborations with the unlikeliest of people. The list is enough to make your head spin all on its own: Ke$ha, Biz Markie, Bon Iver, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, Jim James, Nick Cave, Yoko Ono and Erykah Badu, to name a few.
Basically, over the past couple of years, the Lips would take a lot of drugs and play with whoever walked by their studio. Some of these tracks come from full EPs the band released, collabs with Ono, Neon Indian, Prefuse 73 and Lightning Bolt. But many of them are just one-offs, nutty songs created for no other reason than to create them. You can hear the band figuring out if each one of these pairings works as they play through them. And that’s oddly exhilarating. This record is even more of a mess than you’d expect, and yet it teeters on the edge of the precipice with such verve that it’s hard to dislike it.
In fact, I quite like a lot of it. I’m a fan of the Lips’ more bizarre releases, like Zaireeka and the soundtrack to Christmas on Mars – when they’re on these trips, they sound like no one else on Earth. In the best moments on Heady Fwends, the Lips invite these unlikely cohorts into their own universe, and let them root around in it for a while.
I was probably most nervous about Ke$ha’s appearance, but “2012 (You Must Be Upgraded)” is something of a minor classic. Ke$ha sings out of tune over a computer beat, interrupted every few seconds by a robot voice spewing the subtitle, and it works surprisingly well. This is abrasive and noisy and nuts, until you get to the rather lovely swirly-synth bridge. Not only is it better and more listenable than I had feared, but it’s much more of a song than I was expecting, as opposed to a drugged-out jam.
The same can be said for most of these tunes. The Bon Iver collaboration, “Ashes in the Air,” is actually quite lovely, exploring the soaring, ambient side of the Lips. (It’s got a great chorus melody, too.) “Helping the Retarded to Know God,” the team-up with Edward Sharpe, is gentle space-folk, and “Children of the Moon,” with Tame Impala, is a floaty, strummy festival over a loping beat. Things get weird when Nick Cave wanders in for “You, Man? Human???,” a slow, grating, distorted slog that sets Cave’s snarling voice over a screaming volley of backing vocals.
“I’m Working at NASA on Acid,” with Lightning Bolt, is a true multi-part noise epic, stretching to eight minutes, and at this point in the record, I’ll admit some fatigue. Yoko Ono doesn’t help things – her contribution to the computer-funk “Do It!” consists of yelping the title phrase over and over. But the real gem of this album is a cover of the Roberta Flack hit “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” The vocals are handled by Erykah Badu, but the Lips cast her soulful pipes in a completely new, altogether noisier and spacier setting. Yeah, this is the song that led to the video that led to Badu scream-Tweeting at head Lip Wayne Coyne, and it’s hard not to hear it in that context. But it’s really remarkable, and beautiful.
Heady Fwends, in its original vinyl incarnation, concluded with “I Don’t Want You to Die,” a lovely duet with Chris Martin of Coldplay. That song is mysteriously missing from the CD issue, and has been replaced by the infinitely inferior “Tasered and Maced,” a tasteless spoken-word ramble by Aaron Behrens of Ghostland Observatory. Put that one in the loss column, but much to my surprise, you can consider most of this album a win. On paper, this album doesn’t make sense. (And let’s be real – much of it doesn’t make sense when you’re listening to it either.) But it works far better than I could have hoped. Here’s to one of the strangest bands ever. Long may they reign.
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And finally, we have something that shouldn’t exist.
I have an innate distrust of sequels, mainly because most of them suck. I’m not sure what the draw of musical sequels is for the artists. I get why the record company bean-counters like them – they can trade on the affection people have for the original. But artistically, sequels rarely live up to their first installments, and will automatically be ranked against them. The more highly revered your original album is, the more harshly judged your sequel will be, generally speaking.
So there’s no reason I can see for Jethro Tull mastermind Ian Anderson to have gone ahead with Thick as a Brick 2, a sequel that arrives 40 years after its predecessor. Thick as a Brick was Tull’s first real foray into progressive rock – a single 45-minute song ostensibly based around an epic poem by one Gerald Bostock, an eight-year-old cynical (and fictional) prodigy. If you like Tull, you like this – it’s pretty much the apex of their vision of insanely complex flute-adorned folk-rock. It’s the one that drew the line in the sand – after Brick, you were either a Tull fan, or you found them ass-achingly pretentious.
I’m a fan, and always have been. But one thing I never wondered was how Gerald Bostock turned out. It never felt like an unfinished story to me. This is the element that Anderson has returned to, four decades on, the hook on which he hangs this follow-up. The first two-thirds of Thick as a Brick 2 imagines the different paths Bostock might have taken after his brush with fame, envisioning his life as a banker, a homeless man, a member of the military, a chorister, and a “most ordinary man.” It’s sort of a Choose Your Own Adventure suite, and it only comes together in the final four tracks.
Tracks? Why, yes. There are 17 of them, breaking with the original Brick’s premise, but in keeping with the pebbles-in-a-pond theme of this new album. I suppose I would consider much of this progressive rock, but the production and the unimaginative songwriting keep this a pale imitation of old-school Tull. It’s definitely the best thing I’ve heard from Anderson in years, and he’s in fine form on that flute, but I can’t say most of these songs did anything for me. The album leaps moods as often as it leaps Bostock’s parallel universes, and ditties like the pseudo-sermon “Give Till It Hurts” and the synth-Beatles “Cosy Corner” feel like stumbling blocks.
Still, there are some fine little rockers here, like “Swing It Far” and “Shunt and Shuffle,” the song that concludes Act I. Anderson’s flute slides nicely against Florian Opahle’s crunchy guitar, and the old bugger comes up with some genuine musical surprises here and there. But then he slips into a theme from the original Thick as a Brick, reminding you just how much better that record is. It’s a trap Anderson never quite finds a way out of.
Which is a shame, because some of these songs – particularly the album’s centerpiece, the eight-minute “A Change of Horses” – can stand on their own. At the album’s end, Bostock the old man looks back on the one life he chose and wonders what might have been, and I can imagine Anderson, all of 65, doing the same. It’s hard to begrudge him for taking this record on, even if the results are nowhere near as good as they’d have to be to bear the Thick as a Brick name. He gets a WTF Award for even attempting a sequel 40 years later, but he gets my respect for making the best sequel he could. That I don’t hate this – that it makes me view its world from its point of view – is a minor miracle.
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Next week, the money comes rolling in, and the new reviews fire up in earnest. What would you like to see discussed here? 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.