Just Who Do You Think You Are?
Ambition Marks Three Recent Releases

I am so mad at Peter Gabriel right now.

Next week, he unleashes Up, his first new album in 10 years. He’s been working on this thing for at least seven of those 10, so you can understand my frustration upon seeing the track listing, which he unveiled last month. Up contains a mere 10 songs, and two of them have been previously released – “Sky Blue (Ngankarrparni)” on the Long Walk Home soundtrack last month, and “I Grieve” on the City of Angels soundtrack from 1997.

Plus, the single, “The Barry Williams Show,” is a pile of shit. You can trace the decline of his pseudo-soul sound from “Sledgehammer” to “Steam” to this half-baked effort. It might not bother me so much if the entire theme of the song were not something so obvious as the inanity of TV talk shows. So that’s two halfway decent songs we’ve already got and one lousy one he never should have released, and they make up one-third of this album he’s been laboring over for the better part of a decade.

Is it so wrong to think that we, as fans, deserve a bit better? I know I haven’t heard the rest of Up, and it might be a masterpiece when all is said and done, but whatever happened to ambition? Ten songs in 10 years is not a great average, and cobbling bits and pieces from soundtracks is not the best way to create a cohesive statement. Not to single out Gabriel sound unheard, but why are so many artists content to make the minimum effort, and why are so many listeners content to let them slide?

The recent critical circle jerk over bands like the Vines is a good case in point. The Vines, the Hives, the Strokes and almost every other “neo-garage” act I’ve run across reminds me of my junior high school band – a bunch of kids who have just learned how to play their instruments, and haven’t quite figured out how to write songs. Play loud, scream atonally, get it on tape without any flair or finesse at all, and call it art.

For some people, that’s good enough. That’s fair, but I just don’t understand those people. If I’m going to fork out 15 bucks for a CD, I have some very basic expectations. First, I would hope that the folks playing the instruments at least possess some proficiency in that area. I expect, at the very least, that if there is a guitar player, he or she should be better at the guitar than I am.

Second, I expect an album to reflect a certain amount of effort. That means, above almost everything else, writing some fucking songs. If you can’t be bothered to do that, then I don’t see why I should bother listening to you. Songwriting is not something everyone can just do. It takes practice and work and more practice. Songwriting is not just a vomiting of the soul, or a collection of studio techniques. Believe it or not, it’s a skill.

Beyond that, I’m looking for some sense that an artist believes in his or her own journey. Speaking as a music fan, I want to follow along. I want an artist to lead me through twists and turns, up peaks and down valleys, but in order for that to happen, I need to know that said artist is committed to growing and adapting creatively. And that’s called ambition.

Most critics treat ambition like a dirty word. It’s as if they don’t like being surprised. I’ve found that the majority of critics deem any display of unbridled ambition pretentious and overbearing, and it’s usually a reflection of their own unwillingness to follow along. For a music fan, though, there’s almost nothing more exciting than watching a genius craft a body of work, one ambitious album at a time.

And nobody does that quite like the Brits. Ever since the Beatles introduced artistic ambition to the pop world with Revolver in 1966, many British acts have followed suit and taken their musical output seriously. The new wave of British guitar-pop acts, led by the once-mighty Radiohead, are a self-important bunch, to be sure, but often they have the songs and the sonic sense to back it up.

Take Coldplay, for example. Dismissed by many when they first appeared as timid Travis knockoffs, the boys in Coldplay have delivered a second album that solidifies their promise with a dose of real artistry. In fact, the only thing wrong with it is the title, A Rush of Blood to the Head. Besides being unwieldy, it also bears an unfortunate resemblance in theme to the name of Radiohead’s second, The Bends.

But like Radiohead, if Coldplay experienced any pressure to craft their sophomore release, it doesn’t show. First single “In My Place” is a good indicator of what awaits on most of this disc: majestic, atmospheric pop that soars on simple, yet sublime melodies. Guitars chime, pianos ring, and lead throat Chris Martin’s voice swoops and dives, mixing elements of Dave Matthews and Thom Yorke.

Though it is similar in tone, Rush takes several bold leaps ahead of Parachutes, their debut. “God Put a Smile Upon Your Face,” for example, is about as heavy as Coldplay gets, and they milk it for all it’s worth, cascading guitars atop one another in service of a killer chorus. “Green Eyes” incorporates country influences, but not in that twangy, just-married-my-sister kind of way. And “Clocks,” the most effective track, builds upon a repeating piano tumble a la Moby, but with more presence and atmosphere.

A Rush of Blood to the Head holds together better than Parachutes, as well. It’s one of those albums that one finds difficult to break up or listen to out of order. Some will find that pretentious, certainly – in the age of the downloadable single, who wants to wade through an hour’s worth of music to get the full effect? Rush is slow, enveloping and patient, and it takes time to absorb.

Even with all the giant steps forward, you can’t help but note that Rush is only Coldplay’s second effort. The Brits have a nasty habit of killing their own careers by burrowing up their own asses – see Radiohead’s Kid A, Blur’s 13 and Mansun’s Six. If Coldplay can keep advancing their artistry without letting the sounds overtake the songs, they’ll be one of the best bands around before too long. But even if they don’t manage that trick, the ride should at least be a fascinating one.

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If we’re going to talk ambition and pretension, we can’t do so properly without bringing up the oddly flowering genre of progressive rock. No other style sends critics into hysterics, tossing off adjectives like “pretentious” and “arrogant” and “overblown,” like prog. And no outgrowth of prog trips the critic’s switch more than the concept album.

I could never figure that out. Even bad concept records, like Roger Waters’ Radio K.A.O.S., are exciting to me. The idea of an artist weaving a story through song, opening the thematic floodgates and creating a single, unbreakable work seems like the apex of creativity to me. The concept album just doesn’t get its due, but once every few years, some band somewhere tries its hand at this maligned art form, and most of them are, artistically speaking, wildly successful.

Recent examples include Ben Folds Five’s wonderful The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner and Dream Theater’s complex Scenes From a Memory. Most recently, neo-prog outfit Spock’s Beard has emerged from a year-long writing and recording session with a two-disc concept album simply called Snow. It’s the brainchild of singer-guitarist Neal Morse, who over SB’s previous five albums acquitted himself well as a songwriter to watch. Like many of the concept albums it draws from, Snow is about a gifted prodigy and the different ways he is used and broken by the world. Snow is an albino who can touch people and heal their pain, or something like that. He moves to the big city and a religion forms up around him, a revolution of sorts whose primary goal is a golden future for all. Naturally, it all goes wrong when he falls for a girl who won’t love him back, and then dies and is reborn, or something like that.

The first disc, in which Snow discovers his gift, moves to New York and begins sharing it, establishes itself well. The “Overture” announces key themes, which surface throughout the disc. The songs are accessible yet complex, fueled by acoustic guitars and pianos more often than not. There are two bona fide epics – “Open Wide the Flood Gates” and “Solitary Soul” – that compensate well for missteps like “Devil’s Got My Throat,” which sounds too much like Damn Yankees to be taken seriously.

Alas, as events unravel for Snow, so too does the album. In fact, I can pinpoint the exact moment Snow starts going off the rails: the end of “Reflection,” when Snow meets his dream girl. “He might have been fine, he might have got through it okay,” Morse sings in his raspy tenor. “If not for the girl, when he saw her I guess everything changed.”

Did it ever. The remaining 42 minutes of Snow is full of sappy love songs, cheesy metal and rehashes of songs from the first disc. “Carie” is only slightly less cloying than the Europe song that shares its name, “Looking For Answers” is forgettable and bland, and the five minutes of solos posing as songs don’t help matters. Disc two even concludes with the exact same song as disc one, played exactly the same way.

Until it crashes, however, there’s a lot in this album’s favor. For one thing, it’s one of the most unabashedly spiritual works from the mainstream in some time, dealing with reincarnation and God in plain-spoken language. Many of the songs, like “Love Beyond Words” and “Wind At My Back,” are gorgeous, colored by three-part harmony that would make Crosby, Stills and Nash green with envy.

At worst, Snow is just a bit too ambitious for the band’s grasp. It’s hard for me to fault it for that, however, because it’s not very often that a band even tries something this far-reaching. Snow is derivative, lengthy, and inconsistent, but it’s also bold and uncompromising, and bodes well for whatever second shot Spock’s Beard comes up with.

One final word about Snow – this album comes in one of the most beautiful packages I’ve bought this year. It’s a digibook, which means it looks like a small square hardbound book, with sleeves for the two CDs. The lyrics are copiously illustrated, and the effect is like reading a short novel. It’s beautiful.

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Ambition is not reserved for the established. In fact, often it’s a band’s willingness to craft its own sound and destiny when first starting out that sets it apart. In a musical climate saturated with big beats and sonic flash, it’s a strange thing to note that writing good songs is extraordinary in itself.

Torben Floor writes good songs. They’re a four-piece from Chicago that I discovered by accident – they opened for Phantom Planet at a recent show, and simply owned the stage from the moment they plugged in. Their first studio album is called Matinee, and it leaves no doubt that if you still haven’t heard of this band in five years’ time, it won’t be their fault.

Perhaps the band’s greatest asset is singer-guitarist Carey Ott, who also writes the lion’s share of the songs. His voice is reminiscent of Jeff Buckley’s, and his songs are superb. From the first line he sings on “Ahead of Your Time,” the 6/8 opener, he has you in the palm of his hand, and 38 minutes later, he gently lets you go, and you’re aware that he and the band have taken you on a journey. When Matinee is done, you feel as though you’ve been somewhere, and you can’t wait to go back.

Torben Floor maintains a strong sense of melody and atmosphere here, from the classic pop of “Midwest Distress” to the foreboding menace of “Claustro Crowded,” stopping off in acoustic troubadour land for “What Do I Know.” The final four songs are glorious and melancholy, beginning with their most popular tune, the dreamy “Sunbathing.” That song sounds like an early number, written on the cusp of greatness, and the follow-up, “Sleep Too Much,” fulfills its promise grandly.

Yes, it’s short, but Matinee may be 38 of the best minutes you’ll spend lost in your headphones this year. It’s proof that where artistic ambition is concerned, size doesn’t matter. In a musical landscape littered with also-rans, just writing 11 great songs is almost a revolution in itself. No spectacle, just the thrill of four talented musicians launching what promises to be an amazing career.

Get in on the ground floor and check out Matinee at www.beautyrockrecords.com.

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Next time, Gabriel, as well as Beck, Ryan Adams and a whole passel of others, if you’re lucky.

See you in line Tuesday morning.