Saturday, November 3, 2012

Taylor Swift and the Duty of Pop Music

Taylor Swift and the Duty of Pop Music

"And you, will hide away and find your piece of mind with some indie record that's much cooler than mine" Taylor Swift - We Are Never Getting Back Together

There’s been quite a bit of discussion about the slight change in direction Taylor Swift has taken on her new album, Red. It’s easy to agree with the detractors.  The album’s opening song “State of Grace” has a rock beat, and a clamoring guitar section. There is no sign of her usual pop-country in sight. It’s understandable how this could be a shock to longtime fans.

The next track starts with a banjo. This is pop music, and it’s edging closer to mainstream than ever. Swift has always been mainstream, but never before has she made music you could imagine hearing in clubs. “I Knew You Were Trouble” is the closest to urban a pretty white girl can get without being disowned by her father. It’s great pop song.  It sounds like a pretty typical Swift song until the chorus kicks in, followed by a floor shattering beat.  The hook is nonsense, but catchy as a pokemon. Swift yelps about how she knew some guy was trouble, and then accusing him of never loving anything, or anyone.

This is pretty typical subject matter. Most of these songs are about falling in or out of love, and being a young girl. Most of it is pretty and non-offensive. It appeals to a wide audience.  Swift is only trying to appeal to a wider audience. Sales wise it worked. With this album she’s posted her biggest numbers (a million plus copies sold in the first week).

Thing is, it probably isn’t just a career move. People get bored. People want to different things. Hell, even fans get bored. You can’t make the same album more than two or three times. If you look at female pop stars like Norah Jones or Kelly Clarkson, there’s always a bit of a shift around the third or fourth album. It’s “Mature Album” syndrome.  It isn't a bad thing. It’s kind of necessary if an artist wants to stay in the public consciousness for more than a decade.

The other complaint I’ve seen thrown at the record is that people can’t connect with it as well as the older songs. This probably isn’t Swift’s fault. People grow older, they lose touch when how they felt when they were younger. It’s the duty of pop music to connect with an audience and mean something to someone. That’s what it’s there for:  to be happy with you when you’re happy, to be sad with you when you’re sad, and a million emotions in-between.  To my ears Swift accomplishes that goal, even if it means nothing to me on a personal level.  People change. Enjoy the old records. It’s unlikely you’ll love the same pop princess for the rest of your life. That’s fine, there’s always going to be another one right around the corner.

Still, Swift could be one of the ones who remain interesting twenty years in. Her lyrics are occasionally astonishing: “you should've been there, should've burst through the door, with that 'baby I'm right here' smile, and it would've felt like, a million little shining stars had just aligned, and I would've been so happy”. That verse from “The Moment I Knew”, one of Red’s bonus tracks, could cripple a person. Swift does this a lot. Even if she screws around with her sound a bit, she remains one of the best mainstream pop has to offer at the moment.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Show I Saw Last Night #1: Jeff Mangum @ The Moore Theatre, Seattle, Wa. April 17th 2012

Last night the improbable was witnessed in Seattle, for the second night in a row: the return of Jeff Mangum. After disappearing in the late-90’s his fans were left wanting more and the cult surrounding his Neutral Milk Hotel album, In the Aeroplane over the Sea only grew bigger. Suffice it to say, when he returned to touring last year it was a pretty big deal, but we don’t really need to rehash all that, do we?
So, the show. The most obvious thing as Mangum took the stage was the awe in the room. This wasn’t a rock n roll show, this was a goddamn revival. That wasn’t a bad thing, however. We had been waiting for this, and as he broke into “Holland 1945” all was right with the world. The voice filled the room. That eternal yelp that is Mangum’s voice, filled the room, braying and shrieking, and chased all the bullshit mythology away.
It took Mangum a few songs to settle himself and become comfortable with being onstage, but he pulled himself together and gave the crowd what they came for. Make no mistake, this was full on nostalgia. Rabid Neutral Milk Hotel had been waiting for this for years, some more than a decade, and here the songs were, in the flesh.
It’s very difficult to decide how to feel about  Mangum touring.  Why now? Is it just the money? You could tell that the man occasionally felt bored, but there were other times when he seemed filled with the joy of whatever song he was playing. Still, to be honest, as good as the show was it seems that he was little more than a monkey being trotted out to perform tricks. There were no new or unreleased songs, no weird covers, only the classics.
The really interesting question is: where does Mangum go from here? Will we finally see the long awaited follow up to In the Aeroplane over the Sea? You know, he can’t win. That album has been so canonized there is no possible way he can come close to its success. That’s unfortunate, because the man probably has a lot to say if he can get out from under the shadow of the Aeroplane, but we should have faith anyways.  We will hear  new Mangum material eventually.


Holland 1945
Two Headed Boy Part 2
A Baby for Pree
King of Carrot Flowers 1
King of Carrot Flowers 2-3
Oh, Comely
April 8th
2 Headed Boy

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Alcoholic Faith Mission - Ask Me This

Alcoholic Faith Mission hails from Denmark. Ask Me This is their fourth record. The band plays a strange sort of pop music with occasional hints of shoegaze and folk. This record, the follow-up to 2010’s Let This be the Last Night We Leave. Ask Me This is in general a better, more solid record than its predecessor, though nothing here quite measures to that album’s best song, the soul crushing “Sobriety Up and Left”.
Ask Me This begins with the album’s weakest moment, “Down From Here.” It’s forgettable, and easily skipped. The next song, ‘Alaska” shocks us awake with and an odd guitar, and a catchy melody. A pretty piano leads us into the chorus, and the lines; “it’s the thought of letting go and the hell it will provide that enables me to stay right here choking and these lies.” The chorus is repeated, and the jagged guitar lines return. This is masochistic listening, but it’s engaging and framed by a combination of gorgeous/odd melodies that makes it hard to turn away.
A lilting piano followed by a muffled drum beat starts off “into pieces”. The instrumentation is again strange, oddly sung vocals, weird mouth parts, and distorted melodies. AFF’s music is vaguely reminiscent of Xiu Xiu, but never as hard to listen to as that band sometimes is.
Ask Me This continues through 7 more pop songs before ending with ‘Throw Me to the Wolves.” The song is soft, melancholic and a perfect send off.  The album is full of damaged emotions and fucked up relationships. It’s actually the best place to start with if you’re interested in the band. Previous albums were “growers”, but this one is immediately accessible. It’s April, so it’s early, but come December, if there is any justice, this album will hitting best-of lists everywhere.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

10,000 Blades

It's amazing what you can find bumbling around the internet. 10,000 Blades are a young band from Wisconsin,  I want to Hit You in the Head with a Rock is their second release. Over seven tracks the bands displays impressive skills that make it hard to believe they are in their early twenties.
The first song is "I Disagree With Randy Newman", and it bursts out of the gate as if the band is daring you to argue with them. "And I leave behind this coast tonight" Jon Stones drawls against a ramshackle fit of guitars and drums. The song is about L.A. "and your clouds are brown and it makes me frown, it makes me want to die." You can sense a little bit of youth in a few lines, but the song is packed with the kind of sheer humanity that usually only comes from years of  hard living. Stone continues his refrain about getting away from Los Angeles, and the song turns into whisper, before disappearing completely.
It's rare that a song literally causes my jaw to drop, but the second song "(The Cult of the) Red Berries" did just that. "Why can't you just be a person? Sunglasses don't make you a god." Stone sings frankly, in a slightly nasal voice against a mid tempo beat. Stone's words come out casually, but in a manner that makes them striking. "How could enough ever be enough?" sings Stone and the song ends.
Against a reckless wry  guitar Stone boasts "I think I might do som thing with my life before I die" as if he barely believes it himself. He sings as if he has just enough self worth to have aspirations, but not enough ambition to make his dreams true. Still, his eyes are full of wonder. He may think too much, but every couple days he forgets that he's afraid to be alive. Near the end of the song, "Fork Shirt", Stone decides he's going to fuck shit up, and a guitar solo is unleashed.
"I Sleep with a Gun" starts in a minor key, and the lyrics are stark real life: "I drink Cherry Coke for breakfast, I don't remember falling asleep. Stone drop his lines like has Tourettes, like he's saying the first thing that comes to mind. It shouldn't work, but it does, extraordinarily well. His neurosis builds until it's all encompassing, and he decides that "we'll get wasted and watch cartoons like all day."
Don't get me wrong not everything here works. The music is sometimes cliched, and occasionally the band's youth slips through. The thing is, Jon Stone is an unusually gifted songwriter. So gifted that it makes you afraid that he'll be found dead at 27 in a Chicago motel room. Let's hope that isn't the case. The music of 10,000 Blades is too good. You can listen to the record here.