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Prince – Controversy (the first side)

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It wasn’t simply that Prince was a singular talent.  He was different.  It was the way he melded his God-talk, his lust, and his fondness for funk, pop, rock and r&b into a spare and (then) shocking whole.  Never mind the envelope-pushing, though.  That was just one way of getting your attention.  The dude made catchy music that felt both old and familiar, modern and classic.  It really was a new sound.

Always searching, always dissatisfied, always bold, he did in the 80s what Bowie had done in the 70s.  So fully had he absorbed his craft—the cream of what other musicians had done and were doing— he became expert at competing with himself, since no one else could.  Part of the fun of following Prince during his heyday (i.e., the decade he emerged as a full-blown star) was watching him do a new take, a different spin, on what he had proven he could do just by breathing.

In the 90s, right up until his death this year, Prince seemed to grow bored with the game.  He had gained a rather cantankerous image as a control freak who pushed band mates and fans away with his constant need to change (or weird) things up and limit access to his life and music.  But none of it ever pissed me off.  To me, it just raised his mystique, even if I was mostly unimpressed with the music he released.  To me, nothing could detract from that sweet spot he had claimed in the early 80s, when he was liable to wear a trench coat and bikini briefs, and sport a paper-thin mustache, while cranking out tight, minimalist sex beats.

That’s the Prince I return to the most. Prince_sexuality

The first two cuts from Controversy (1981), “Sexuality” and the title track, pick up where the Dirty Mind (1980) album left off—with Prince disavowing labels and norms others might want to pin on him, insisting on his right to party up, get down, and find succor in a world that knows no bounds where race, sex and gender are concerned.  Lyrically, the songs feel jumbled, like he’s courting big concepts that don’t really signify for him outside of the buzz words he’s turned into their titles.  That’s OK, though.  The real star is the music, which drops, bumps and bounces with a rhythmically phat sense of propulsion.  All of which leads to his best slow jam, the insanely lubricious, melodious “Do Me, Baby,” a vocal performance that, in the space of a song, takes his previously thin, nervy delivery and transforms it into a wild display of screams, moans and falsetto yelps that hold no peer in Prince’s catalog.  It’s the climax of the album, and it’s only the third cut in.  Three tracks of assured body music—one a steady stomp, one a coiled whomp, and one a slow build of vocal pyrotechnics—and the first side of this oft-overlooked album is complete.

The second side consists of oddities far less danceable, demented, or urgent.  It’s a fitting B side; Prince shoots his load on the A.640

But “Controversy,” “Sexuality,” and “Do Me, Baby” form a perfect trio, an apt demonstration of the man’s skill and range—instrumentally, vocally, and lyrically—at a time when he was fighting to make his mark, doing shit almost no one else was doing, sticking his neck out when he still ran the risk of being pelted with beer cans*.  Together, they capture the bare essence of the Prince sound (itself a fantastically bare aesthetic—a one-man show behind, and in front of, the boards, with only a few instruments on hand), as well as any album he released prior to Purple Rain.**  No Revolution backing him up, no strings or horns thrown into the mix.  Just a rude boy wonder who wishes we all were nude—programming his Linn drum machine, playing his guitar, reciting the Lord’s Prayer, slapping his bass, and teasing with his androgyny.  Daring us to funk with him.

*Famously, Prince opened for the Rolling Stones on their 1981 tour of America, and was booed off the stage for the sheer outrageousness, the “novelty,” of his look and approach.  (When in fact it was just another version of the same titillation folks like Jagger and Presley had gone for, back when they were pups on the scene.)

**He did, of course, return to this oddly spacious but airless sound again, most noticeably on parts of Purple Rain, Parade, and Sign O’ the Times (not to mention all of The Black Album / The Funk Bible).  But, for my money, it gelled on the string of albums he made in the early 80s.

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Space Drones

220px-AtemBefore they composed the soundtracks to such varied films as Sorcerer, Thief, Risky Business, and Legend, Tangerine Dream were a bunch of long-haired machine heads from Germany, fiddling obsessively with towers of analog synths in old Gothic churches. There may have been human sacrifices involved, I can’t say for sure. (OK, I kid.) Certainly, as Atem (1973) suggests, the band smoked a lot of dope, envisioned a ton of black hole suns, and re-engineered a basket of bad vibes into cosmic vistas of electronic, medieval menace.

Rating: A

150130_344020_Klaus_Schulze_-_CyborgCyborg (1973), by Klaus Schulze, a former drummer for the band, mines a similar vein, but is ironically far less percussive than most of the stuff Tangerine Dream did in those early “Pink Years”. The album is a series of variations on the same pulsing theta wave of minor-chord devilry, with squeals and zaps that sound like the firing of laser guns in an echo chamber. Like much of Schulze’s work in those days, Cyborg occupies three zones: the future (as signified by the synths), the past (as signified by the alternately treated and bare, classical organ), and the space in between, which bears no name, except it is timeless. All of it sounds clean and unsettling. And oh so beautiful.

Rating: A+

R-7813394-1449324242-7158.jpegOver in California, Iasos, a Greek hippie, transmogrified the space drone into whack-spiritual ambient, a sound that the Germans informed as much as Eno’s bedpan loop jobs did. Is Angelic Music (1978) New Age foolishness? Yes. But it is wondrous, too. It acts as the perfect aural backdrop to a candlelit, deep tissue massage—or a wet dream that involves unicorns, dope, angels, and rainbows, as dreamt by a love-happy goon who believes in the calming, healing power of a synthesizer-borne deity named Vista.  (I’m half-serious.)  On other albums, Iasos forgoes the drone-like quality of Angelic Music, which has two sidelong tracks. I don’t think he quite re-captured that same moony, dreamy feel, though. Later Iasos sounds like an imperfect imitation of his 70s work, a cashing-in on the New Age market that owes much of its musical character to his celestial bullshit.

Rating: A-

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Aerosmith – Toys in the Attic / Rocks

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They don’t make ‘em like this anymore.

Made when Boston’s best had something to prove, and long before Pro Tools and song doctors turned the band into laughingstocks (to me, that is), Toys in the Attic (1975) and Rocks (1976) are—pound for pound, riff for riff—the crowning jewels in Aerosmith’s catalog.  The albums also represent the apex of American hard rock.

Beneath the surface similarities to other hard bands of the time—the New York Dolls, the Rolling Stones, even Led Zeppelin—prime-era Aerosmith played more creatively with funk than its peers. The band could be self-consciously silly, with salacious lyrics that affably went nowhere. The band also wore its influences on its sleeve—proudly, as though it reveled in being a poor man’s Zep. The sinuous fretwork of Joe Perry and Brad Whitford was about crunch, was about odd chord changes. It was heaviness and grit with speed, structure, and compression.  All these elements, during this brief heyday, helped Aerosmith outstrip the competition:

During this same period, Zep by comparison came off like an overly arty but really good dance band that disdained heaviness for heaviness’s sake.  Mid-period Stones by comparison lacked Aerosmith’s aerodynamic thrust, even though the lyrics were sometimes equally hard to parse (which was part of the fun).  Comparatively speaking, the Dolls had the street ‘tude in spades, but one that reflected a more private, obscurantist world view—one that, next to Aerosmith’s accomplished bar-band hustle, sounded less like a recipe for world domination and more a statement of character, of principle.  aerocksThese contrasts matter, in so far as Aerosmith defined (even mastered) an aesthetic that had almost nothing to do with originality or irony. Instead, the approach centered almost entirely on the idea of being long-haired gods of rock who appropriated at will—but gods only because they were musically tougher, nimbler, sexier, and funnier than their American counterparts—most of whom remain in steady rotation on classic rock radio.

So, the tiny differences count:  The dexterous guitar interplay that never seems sludgy or noodled with notes; that hews to a tight kind of song-craft.  The occasional daubs and splashes of funk and rap, well before rap-rock was even a thing.  The vocals that range from dude to dudette, sometimes within the same track.  Jack Douglas’s production, which manages to sound both clean and dirty at once.  The raunchy wordplay.  The rock star lyrics that glamorize road life, and the ones that don’t—an intriguing mix the band employs on both records.

On Toys in the Attic and Rocks, Aerosmith made being a cocksure, hard rock band sound like fun, like something a hard rock fan would want to copy and emulate.  Something that fan could never top.

Rating: A+

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David Bowie

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David Bowie’s death hit me hard.

I did not cry. I didn’t put my life on hold, to better cope with the shock. And it was shocking, make no mistake. I’m not the first person, nor will I be the last, to say that Bowie’s passing seemed like an impossibility. How could such a life force die? How could one so brilliant, so creatively alive, be gone all of a sudden?

For the better part of the last two months, I listened to his music and almost no one else’s. To what end?

There was more to it than just the death of a great rock star. Yes, Bowie was an amazing songwriter. He had mastered his medium. But what else? I had discovered him in my sophomore year of high school, when I was an emotional blob looking for a way to express myself and afraid to do it. You could say I connect Bowie with those lean years when I was starting to play with my appearance, to carve a niche for myself in a world full of cliques and parents that weren’t cool.

Shortly after Bowie passed, I remarked to Kent that I was inspired to wade through the records, the tracks, Bowie made after his golden decade, because I wanted to feel I was discovering greatness again. I wanted to fall in love with yet another Bowie album. More significantly, I said, I wanted to see if I could unravel the stage Bowie and see the man beneath. As though hearing and seeing a cracked, frail, all too mortal Bowie would unlock my grief.

I soon realized that that was the Bowie he gave us on Blackstar, his last album. Yet again, just when I may have thought he was giving us his real self, he gave us that, but a carefully curated version of it, too. In that regard, Bowie was true to form. His work, his art, was inseparable from his authentic self. All the characters he played–the floppy-haired folkie, Ziggy, the Thin White Duke, the Man Who Fell From Earth, the bleached-blonde arena pop star–were simply facets of the same face.

More than reinvention, or the fascination emitted by a man taken with ‘oddballs’ and ‘freaks’–by the moves and language of the street and high-energy environments in general–Bowie’s story is about the beauty and ugliness of a total immersion into curiosity, of spontaneously using the world around you to your advantage, so you can be your true self, your best self. The self that is always on, casting about for the next part or piece you want to help define you.

And it is a process that never ends.

Until you die, of course.

But even still, as evidenced by Bowie’s life, if you give yourself to that process, you will likely have lived fully. It’s an approach that has inspired me since I bought Aladdin Sane 19 years ago, at a record store in Montrose, California. 

Bowie’s life was about the fearless search for identity. He made beautiful noise of it.

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13 Writing Tips

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Some time ago, I made a list of writing tips that work for me.  They may work for you, too.  I don’t always follow these guidelines; but I try to at all times.  Enjoy.

  • Be clear
  • Be obsessed
  • Be ruthless
  • Be yourself
  • Cut the fat
  • Don’t bore
  • Don’t get cute
  • Have fun
  • Recruit good beta-readers to read your work.  Give them clear and precise instructions on how you’d like them to approach it
  • See how other writers write
  • Serve the story
  • Stand with the pack of writers that form the community to which you belong, but stand apart. Monastic devotion to one’s craft is key
  • Write one word at a time