Sounds Like!(7/13/2016)

Homonym: “Jerusalem Ridge”, performed by Chris Thile and Tim O’Brian & “Jerusalem”, by Black Sabbath

I struggled to choose to start talking about Chris Thile with either “I can’t understand why more people don’t know who Chris Thile is” and “I can understand why more people don’t know who Chris Thile is”. His lack of notoriety will solve itself in October, when he takes over as the host of A Prairie Home Companion, following Garrison Keillor’s retirement, but I think the former is the correct statement, double negative non withstanding. His musical path is at least close enough to Ricky Skaggs’ to have that level of public awareness, but somehow he still doesn’t. Although Thile does the majority of work in groups without his name in the title(Nickel Creek, The Punch Brothers) he is always the standout in whatever ensemble he is a part of. He’s the tall, goofily emotive one here. Take a listen:

The song, “Jerusalem Ridge”, and the superb musician, Tim O’Brian, are the perfect pairing to help explain why Chris Thile isn’t a household name. Tim O’Brian made his fame as a founding member of Hot Rize, a bluegrass band by name but more of a traditional folk/old-timey band by nature. Concerts by Hot Rize were always great but safe; as talented as a group they were(especially O’Brian and banjo player Peter Wernick), their music stayed on the course of tradition, with an occasional odd break as a make-believe cowboy western band. And “safe” is an appropriate way to describe many folk-based musicians, including the ones that consider themselves bluegrass musicians by trade(for the ultimate source knowledge for the division between folk purists and bluegrass musicians, please please read How The Hippies Ruin’t Hillbilly Music by St. “Wish” Wishnevshy. Borrow mine if you can’t find it). Tim O’Brian is universally loved in the bluegrass community, and his musicianship is top notch but noticeably conservative.

“Jerusalem Ridge”, though, was a strictly bluegrass composition, written by Bill Monroe and fleshed out by his fiddle player at the time, Kenny Baker, to be a flashy showpiece and quite the opposite of conservative musicianship. Monroe certainly had tight control over his “brand”, but part of that image was having the best stable of musicians in the industry, and there were always songs in the repertoire that showed off the talents of the current musicians. “Jerusalem Ridge” was showoff music.

Watching Chris Thile play fills me with joy. He obviously loves all music that is well written, from rock to classical to bluegrass. He is the most talented mandolin player alive, and one of America’s true genius musicians, but the bluegrass community wants him to be Ricky Skaggs and he isn’t. Nickel Creek’s modern take on bluegrass started the divisive term “newgrass”, which Thile started when he was eight years old. He won a MacArthur grant, officially given him at least the giant paycheck with the word “genius” scrawled in the memo ledger, and he, joyously, kept doing goofy shit like this, which is awesome(yes, he also made quality recordings of Bach concertos, but look at him having fun):

Chris Thile didn’t do himself any favors by aligning himself with Mark O’Connor and Edgar Meyer, who are elitist snobs when it comes to “modernizing” bluegrass music; they even added Yo Yo Ma to form a quartet of the most gentrified and bland bluegrass music ever done by talented musicians. It’s bad stuff. Chris Thile is the odd man out in that group, though; he’s never been out to “elevate” bluegrass music. That he’s never been out to strictly follow tradition is what gets him in trouble, not with the musical cognoscenti but with the bluegrass community. They think he’s too flashy and somewhat disrespectful. Which is horseshit. Watch him play “Jerusalem Ridge” one more time. His breaks are nearly perfect. Bill Monroe would hire him in a second and rub everyone’s noses in it.

 

“Jerusalem”, by Black Sabbath, is so shitty. Listen first, then three contextual elements:

  1. 1990 was a magical time to be a teenager who loved heavy metal: Seasons In The Abyss. Persistence Of Time. Rust In Peace. Hell, even Passion And Warfare counts. I’m not sure Painkiller counts, but it wasn’t that bad, and Judy was in court that year defending their albums against claims of Satanic backmasking, which is super metal. It was a lot to keep up with, and all the publications a young metalhead would read to try and stay informed were all ate up with ads for Tyr. We all bought it. Goddamn, it was super bad.
  2. Black Sabbath had a well-defined relationship with what the singer was supposed to do in the wobbly post-Dio part of their history: sing, and write the lyrics. When Ray Gillen, of yesterday’s birthday band fame, proved to be too shitty a creative partner for even late-80’s Sabbath, Tony Martin came in to pitch hit as singer. He stayed on for the next album, Headless Cross, and, being the first time he had the now-traditional role of writing the words to the songs, proceeded to write the most cartoon-y, melodramatically Satanic lyrics since the backs of my peer group’s Trapper Keepers in 1989. Tony Iomi asked Martin to tone the devil imagery down for the next album, so you get the loose concept of Norse mythology in Tyr. I mean… super loose. If you listen to the whole album(don’t though), the concept never coalesces. Jerusalem was never known for being a hotbed of Norse deities. I don’t even think David Iche thinks that.
  3. Are you wondering if I learned my lesson from this terrible album from a band with an outstanding legacy? The next year I bought Jethro Tull’s Catfish Rising. The day it came out. I am dumb.

 

Homograph: Smile, by The Beach Boys & Smiley Smile, by The Beach Boys

When I first really understood the brilliance of The Beach Boys I was also at my most polarizing in regards to my music opinions, and I though that Smiley Smile was trash and could fuck off. That’s no longer true.

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Back sometime in either 1997 or 1998, listening to tape-traded bootlegs of the Smile sessions with a friend for the first time was kind of like listening to the world’s most secret and beautiful prayer. And, to feed the power of the mystique and my new-found championing of Brian Wilson’s place on the American Musician Mount Rushmore, I wouldn’t accept any substitutes or slights to his genius. I still feel like Smiley Smile is that, but only in a historical sense. Much like how it’s difficult for me, still, to listen to Second’s Out and feel the unnecessary weight of Peter Gabriel’s absence, when I hear the songs that the two records have in common I still reference the Smile versions and track orders first.

But now I enjoy hearing Smiley Smile because of how it fits into my and their history, not in spite of it. The songs have a drugged flippancy to them compared to the careful arranging of the Smile sessions. I can’t listen to “Little Pad” without thinking of my friends, of how many “Little Pad”s there might be with us all goofing along on some lost recorded mini disc we used to record our band rehearsals. Discussing discovering Smile is almost too personal to me, too specific of a time and a place in my life that was terrible and wonderful, maybe the most terrible and most wonderful so far. Smiley Smile I learned to love separate from my friends but still connected to them.

The mystery of Smile is gone now, too, even though the brilliance remains, and that’s a part of my maturing attitude about both albums now, too. Thinking about getting mixtapes now is quaint, almost romantic. Smile resonates with that romanticism still, but there is an excitement, if no real intimacy, about pretty much all music being available to everyone everywhere. Smile will stand up for those who didn’t have to work hard for it.

For me the ghost of nostalgia still haunts Smile, where Smiley Smile makes me think of who I am now. When’s the last time you listened to both?

 

Near Cognate: The Beach Boys’ “The Warmth Of The Sun”, by Chris Thile with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings

Earnest, beautiful, not necessary perfect. I’m excited for what A Prairie Home Companion will become. Especially after reading the comments on this video where people claim that The Beach Boys needed “studio magic” to sound good. I’m asuming by “studio magic” they meant “near suicidal, drug-overdosing levels of parental abuse”, which was what they were getting.

Anyhoo, Gillian Welch is the perfect company for Thile to keep: a talented outsider that won the respect of her peers just being true to herself. That’s all Thile has ever done. Hopefully the respect rolls in.

 

 

Sounds Like!(5/18/2016)

Homonym: “Red”, by King Crimson & “Red”, by Okkervil River

First, a caveat: this isn’t the video you really need to see for this song, but the original material is pretty well scrubbed off the internet. So here you go:

Why not this video? Because it is the 90’s band, still looking and sounding pretty 80’s, doing the title track from the album that was really the last one they made in the 70’s before things got all… 80’s and 90’s. Everybody was affected by the ascetic of the era, but I don’t have to like it. You can listen to Dicipline all by yourself. Onward.

I couldn’t tell you why Fripp named this song or the album “Red”. There’s no lyrics to support that decision, and who’s to say that Fripp even chose; he gave up some creative control over this album to try and make the band dynamic better(spoiler alert: it didn’t take. It would take them another 20 years to make a good album, THRAK. Don’t @ me.)

This is a great tune, above video non-withstanding, from a  great album that kept the vibe of Starless and Bible Black going, down to having a track originally vetoed from the Starless and Bible Black sessions, titled “Starless”, included. “Red” would be a pretty good introduction to someone interested in King Crimson that would get turned off by the acoustic sounds of previous albums. Just recommend the actual album, not the YouTube crawl.

 

“Red”, by Okkervil River, is a good place to start, too. It’s their first song off their first major-ish label release, and it has all the parts that are good and just get better about their music, and all the shitty trappings that you can hear them correct if you start from the top:

You know why it’s called “Red” from the very beginning, and from the very beginning of their first album you get to hear Will Sheff excel at writing lyrics with perfect and compelling rhyme schemes and phrasings, literary strength in storytelling, and thematic arcs that make each of Okkervil River’s songs seem like short stories. The lyrical power of their music just gets better after each album.

That forced buildup in the vocals that happens just after the three minute mark, though? That keeps happening in songs. One of my favorite “looks like it’s time for me to run away” songs was “Kansas City”, off of the same album, and even in the dull and depressive state I would get in, that forced crescendo would hit in the lyrics and I would think, “dude just let it happen”…

 

Homograph: “Feel”, by Chicago & “Fancy Colors”, by Chicago

I know this is shooting fish in a barrel, but this fish needs to be executed:

This is the reason I picked this song: I saw today on Twitter that Pringles, the potato crisp snack that comes with its own homemade Fleshlight starter kit, was sponsoring a Rascal Flatts tour, and I immediately felt bad for the brand that it had to associate with those fucking terrible musicians.

Jay DeMarcus, the lead singer of Rascal Flatts, produced the album, Chicago XXX, if it’s not painfully obvious by listening. I would rather fuck that can with the duck bill crisps still in it than listen to this song again.

I’m nor gonna post a shitty bootleg video of a Chicago song that you will want to watch over and over, and not just because of the exotic, Japanese-ness of it:

Again: if time machines were real, I wouldn’t be wasting my time killing Hitler. I’d be going to the Nashville recording sessions for Hot Streets and politely, graciously, murdering Peter Cetera.

 

Near Cognate: Iron Maiden’s “The Trooper”, by Steve’n’Seagulls

Everything about my general disdain for cottage-industry “file under X” style switch cover bands/tributes wanted me to mark this “False Cognate”, but there’s a couple of reasons why they get a pass:

One: I fancy the mandolin player.

Two: There’s a decent following of country music in Scandanavia, but it’s mainly of the pop variety(re: Rascal Fucking Flatts). I encourage some people with a bit of technical talent doing something “country”, rather than just pretty(to me) boy Kurt Nilsen getting some semi-stoned photo op with Willie Nelson to help his “brand”.