Thursday, December 16, 2010

Serious Thoughts, Guilty Pleasures, Moments Of Grace, Raising Hell - Changing Thoughts On Music

Since I commented on the recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees, as well as having a link provided to a 1997 interview with Greil Marcus, I've been thinking a lot about how my musical tastes have changed, expanded, and what-not over the past few years. About ten or so years ago, I returned to listening to music in a big way, aided by starting a part-time job as a disc jockey. Along with more exposure to music, the extra cash gave me a chance to indulge as I hadn't in quite a while. Along with listening more and buying more, I was thinking more about what I was listening to, and had listened to. Over the past decade, it has become something of an obsession for me, one my wife indulges because I suppose it's better than a drug addiction or a passion for foreign cars.

It really started with Dream Theater, a band that I told my wife, back in 2002, I would be a part of had I been a musician. I know longer think that. They reached a peak of sorts with Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence and Train of Thought, but by the time Systematic Chaos was released, then last year's Black Clouds and Silver Linings, I realized they had been making the same record again and again for the past seven years.

Musical virtuosity is a trait I admire. Whether it's guitarists like Joe Satriani or keyboardists like Jordan Rudess or bass players like Geddy Lee, I appreciate the skill, honed by hours of practice and years of playing to get to the point where a musician can make the most difficult passage seem effortless. All the same, if that ability is pursued for its own sake, rather than subsumed toward the end of creating something that hangs together - a melody, a harmony, a rhythm - then it is little more than musical masturbation. I can listen to Scale the Summit for a little while, but I would prefer to be awakened when they can actually record a song.

That moment in musical history that so many found life-changing - punk - I really did not connect with, either at the time (I was only 12), or later. I think because it was far more a British phenomenon, overloaded with ideology and, in particular, that Situationist ethic inherited from Malcolm MacLaren (one of the biggest frauds since Col. Tom Parker), to make it palatable to a young kid from small town USA. Oh, I thought "Anarchy in the UK" was a fun song, but it really wasn't much different, to my young ears, from "Johnny B. Goode", which was the point.

In my middle age, I have come to a new appreciation for all sorts of music from my childhood and youth. Soul and funk, that I drank in on Saturday airings of Soul Train, with that Philly sound always present. Groups like P-Funk, The Ohio Players, Curtis Mayfield, Levert - some truly amazing music was happening, and a little white kid like me drank it in. Along with that, some of the better music from the mid-1970's still works for me - the Allman Brothers Band, Frank Marino and Mahogany Rush, Peter Frampton, Rush, the Grateful Dead, Stevie Wonder, the Pretenders, Jeff Beck's solo work are all really quite good, even timely, a reminder that one can be a good, even great musician yet submit that to the greater good of creating good songs.

British progressive rock will always be something I listen to, although I find ELP far too overbearing. It was really King Crimson's Robert Fripp who provided a key for me. His endless pursuit of a new sound, a new collection of songs, in a group format is really part of my own understanding of what drives me to keep listening. It is also why such non-prog bands like Husker Du, Faith No More, Bad Brains, the Sugarcubes, and even Metallica in their prog-phase are among my favorite 80's bands. These were bands who were doing really interesting stuff, new stuff mixing and matching styles and providing listeners with something exciting.

I heard NWA's Straight Outta Compton and realized I was hearing the future. Relegated to the status of a novelty, despite its obvious appeal to the urban African-American youth, and the record industry's insistence that the great hip-hop artists were white, that rage-filled protest against racism and poverty, police abuse and being forgotten by society was a wake-up call for me. While I ignored the whole east coast-west coast contretemps, it was the deaths of Tupak Shakur, and later Biggie Smalls that made me realize some people took this stuff seriously, indeed. All the same, when hip-hop came of age, when Dr. Dre and Ice Cube and Ice T and Snoop Dog landed with both feet, it was all to the good.

Along with taking a renewed appreciation for quite a bit of the music from my dimly remembered childhood, there are moments from other, shall we say less than superb musical moments that I feel it necessary to defend. As I was getting ready to write this post, I was going through YouTube and discovered two things. One, which made me happy, was that I had very little good to say about Journey, other than I am not surprised at their popular or monetary success. The other, which was a pleasant surprise in the midst of much schlock, was that the late hair band Steelheart had in their lead singer an individual with a set of pipes, similar in many ways to Rob Halford of Judas Priest. Their song, "Angel Eyes", while chock full of cliches both musical and lyrical, nevertheless still works for me for one reason alone, lead singer Michael Matijevic manages a stunning range with ease. It is easy enough to make fun of the song - I did for the longest time as the epitome of everything that was wrong with that kind of music - but if you just sit and listen to the voice, I guarantee you will be floored by it.

All the same, I find my tastes running back and forth. The Cure, Joni Mitchell, Ray LaMontagne, Bob Dylan, a new single by singer-songwriter Amos Lee, CSNY - these are staples of my current "repeat" button hits. And two prog bands. Porcupine Tree just constructs awesome songs. It's as simple as that. The Polish band Riverside (and a side project of theirs, called Lunatic Soul), which perhaps began as a PT clone, has developed its own sound, a mix that includes some hard core, as well as that most important factor, strong song-writing.

I realize this is as self-indulgent as a twenty-minute piano solo by Keith Emerson, but it has been a marvelous mind-clearing exercise for me. It also allows me to post this song, without fear or guilt, because I know you're too chicken to check it out for yourself.

Virtual Tin Cup

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