Jerry Garcia in the Produce Section

So yesterday I’m going grocery shopping, and they’ve got the Dead playing “Casey Jones” on the radio.

And I found myself wondering, as I have many times before, “Do you think when Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter wrote the song, they had any idea that it would become background music for people comparing the virtues of Shredded Wheat against the granulated joy of Frosted Flakes?”

I can only imagine the answer is no.  If you walk into a major grocery store like A&P, Stop ‘n Shop, Giant, what-have-you, odds are you will hear classic rock being pumped through the aisles.  Don Henley and  Joe Walsh will back your trip down the dairy aisle with “Hotel California.” Led Zeppelin‘s “The Lemon Song” loses its sexy double meaning while wandering through racks of citrus fruits.

You might even say, “Hell, David Byrne sang about perishable goods in ‘Life During Wartime.’ ”  Fair enough, but I don’t think that he’d want the bread aisle to be your primary venue for Fear of Music.

Classic rock is probably the genre most susceptible to this sort of passive acceptance.  A major local grocery store has a wide range of employees and customers, from all backgrounds.  Classic rock is known well enough to the older clientele and employees that it keeps them calm and the dementia at bay.  It has enough edge to keep the 15 year-old grocery baggers and Red Bull tweakers thinking that they’re pretty dark.

But does it, though? (Full disclosure: I’m a really big fan of classic rock, but as I write this, I feel like I’m going to end up questioning it’s validity as the opiate of the masses.)

Lets break down that demographic of A&P that I mentioned before (Red Bull tweakers v. octogenarians).

Some young grocery-getters, those wearing skinny jeans and their hair all akimbo, will dismiss the classic rock on the store’s radio right away.  “It’s old and bad.” Okay, so let’s dismiss them.  Drag a horse to water, can’t make it drink.

Those young kids wearing Swan Song t-shirts, those are the ones we’re talking about.  Young fans of classic rock tend to hold the musicians to a legendary status.

Fair enough.

In an effort to seem wise beyond their years, these young classic rock fans may go as far as saying that classic rock is the “only” music worth listening to. (Reminds me of the YouTube comments you see reading: I’m 13 years old and I only listen to Nirvana!)

These kids, myself included, have reputed the rock musicians of the ’60s and ’70s to the extent of them morphing into tall tales. Partially thanks to “first-hand” accounts such as Hammer of the Gods and the like,  Hendrix, Page, Townshend, Allman, Clapton, Richards, and their peers all have a legendary status, for both the music they wrote, filled with speed and emotion, and the lives they led, filled with drugs and partying.  (Those are just the biggest guitarists! Once you get to Bonzo and Moonie, the stories get downright insane.)

It’s funny though.  When you talk to folks who grew up during the release of albums now considered “Classic Rock,” they obviously have deferring opinions than those born after those releases. They grew up with those albums and developed their own opinions, born in that era and brought to the present.  They don’t necessarily view their thoughts on Exile on Main St. through the same  rose-colored lenses a modern preteen guitarist would.

The people who grew up with this music have emotion attached to the songs.  They may have listened to an album during a rough time in their life.  They might have left Joni Mitchell‘s Blue on their turntable for months after a bad breakup.  They may have entered the realm of promiscuity with Rumours fueling the fire.  Hell, maybe they livedParadise by the Dashboard Light.” Either way, these songs became a snapshot of a specific time in their lives. Therefore, these songs come with baggage.

The Swan Song listeners I described before treat these songs as gospel, whereas the generation that lived through those songs did just that; they lived through it.  They heard it happen sequentially.  They went through the British Invasion and Beatlemania , then heard Led Zeppelin for the first time, then heard David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust, then heard Genesis, then heard Talking Heads.  They matured as each release came to be.  They had opinions about the Beatles before Sgt. Pepper’s, listened to the album, and adjusted that opinion accordingly.  The Swan Song listener was born into a world with a huge back catalog of classic rock, and he can cherry pick only the choicest nuggets, which leads to a sort of best-of knowledge (and opinion) of the classic bands.

My parents hate Don McLean‘s “American Pie.”  I shouted down from my high horse, “You’re crazy! It’s a song about love and life! It’s a gift Don shared with us! We should be so lucky!”

My parents remember it as the eight-and-a-half minute long cheezfest that hogged the airwaves ad nauseum through the early 70’s (and again early 90’s).  I guess if, 40 years from now, my kids told me the 1800-Kars-4-Kids jingle is a masterpiece, I’d have a chip on my shoulder too.

The rest of the clientele at the A&P could be too old to find classic rock palatable.  I once told an older relative of mine that I was going to see Springsteen in concert, and he thrust his hands out and muttered, “eh that’s too loud for me.”  They have common ground with those skinny jeans kids.

So is it the best music for satisfying a large swath of the grocery-buying public? Yeah I guess, but not in the way you might think.  Some of the older folks may honestly enjoy it, but some might hate it. “Casey Jones” may conjure up memories of driving around the lake with the top down, or the favorite song of your asshole ex-boyfriend from 1972.

The younger kids, like the older folks, are a split demographic.  Some dismiss it because of its age, and some like it for that little rush of smugness when they know a song three times older than they are.

Playing classic rock in a grocery store is like a one-size-fits-all hat; you can go to sleep at night knowing that you made lots of people a little happy rather than totally satisfying a niche market.

But did Paul and John write Paperback Writer so that you could feel cozy while deciding between Triple Decker Oreos and Double-Stuf Oreos?  Probably not.

I’m having a love affair with this ice cream sandwich.

Wow, October has had many musical surprises for me.

I’m learning that I am a real big fan of Modest Mouse.  Spotify clued me in to their last album, We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank (2007),with the track “Parting of the Sensory.”

I want to do a review of the whole album, so I won’t go into great depth about the track here.

Today, Bad Books released their sophomore effort (Tangent: why is it that music critics insist on using the term “sophomore effort” to describe a group’s second album? It sounds elitist and as though the band owes its audience something.) second album, II.

I’m a huge fan of Manchester Orchestra, and Bad Books is mostly Manchester Orchestra plus singer/songwriter Kevin Devine.  Their first album, Bad Books, is very mellow and folksy.  From a snippet of II today, I think that II could have a little more spice.  I’ll see if I have the wherewithal to follow up with another post.  Let’s hope for the best.

Thirdly, the Black Keys released a new EP today!  O happy day!

I’m a real lover of live albums.  They capture the energy of a band and let you know what’s real and what’s studio magic.  Studio live albums are some sort of amazing mix of reality and fantasy, rarer in my experience than concert recording live albums.

The Black Keys have released a studio live album before, their iTunes Session.  I could go on for days about how these two chaps from Akron are the heralding light of roots rock into the 21st century, but I’ll save that for another time.  I’ll give today’s EP, Tour Rehearsal Tapes, a listen and be sure get back to you.

Death Magnetic

This time of year, I always end up listening to Metallica‘s Death Magnetic many times over.  I’m not usually huge into metal (in this case, thrash) though I’ve been known to dabble.

 

My favorite track on the album is “All Nightmare Long.”  It opens with an ominous little middle-pickup riff reminiscent of “Enter Sandman” from Metallica. As Kirk noodles along, the rest of the band punctuates notes of the riff with power chords and crash cymbals.  The song then hurls itself into a thrash riff, similar to “Blackened,” the leadoff track of my personal favorite, …And Justice For All.  Backbeats of snare hits and china cymbals ground the riff while giving an upstroke feel.  Makes me think of a feral cat being picked up by the scruff of its neck.

Hetfield‘s vocals sound just as good in 2009 as they did in the 80s.  You can hear his emotion in the timbre of his voice.  He packs emotion in his words as the lyrics writhe around the structure of the song, like ivy crawling up the side of a dilapidated house.

Best part of the song, for sure, is the break before the last chorus.  A nice little pause in the song, it perks up the listener and gives their bloodied eardrums a sort of control for the song.  You forget how hard Metallica rock until they stop rocking.  The best part of this pause, though, (and transitively, the best part of the song) is the fact that they left Hetfield’s breath in right before the last chorus.  That makes it real.  Listen closely.  You can hear him sucking in air like some dopey-faced baboon drowning man, desperate for life.  Then the band hurls into the final chorus, and Hetfield’s vocal soars above the track.  It’s different than all the other choruses.  You can hear the strain in his throat as he goes through the last chorus.  You hear the strain come through the music.

Damn good track.

October 2nd, 2012 – The Day Spacefunk was Born.

Today, Muse‘s sixth album, The 2nd Law, collided somewhere in a US desert.  “Lol,” you might be saying.  But no, this album offers as much curiosity as a hunk of meteoric rock found nestled in some lost corner of New Mexico.

First off, Muse’s last album, The Resistance, never sat too well with me.  My first listen to The Resistance, little more than three years ago in September 2009, was one of slight disappointment.  They lost the astronaut-gone-mad, shit-kicking vibe of Black Holes and Revelationsand had a much mellower, though still catchy, vibe to their tracks.  There was a noticeable influence of U2.  I’m not a fan of U2.

The big hit songs from Resistance (“Resistance,” and “Undisclosed Desires”) had verses comprised of lightly textured drum sequences, with synths queuing the choruses. Even “Uprising,” the album’s leadoff track, though heavier than the rest of the album, had a formulaic structure that made me feel as though I couldn’t see merit in it.

In the three years since the album came out, I have given it more listens, and I am comfortable in saying it sits well with me now.  It is not a bad album, but it sticks out in my mind because I usually eat up Muse with a spoon.  The initial shock of The Resistance was my problem with the album.

It was just that though, it was my problem with the album, not the album’s problem.

Why did I write that nugget of history? Because it has some influence on my interpretation of The 2nd Law.  I’m loving this album right now.  I have listened to it through only once, and I feel as though I’ve known it for a long time.  Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Is Muse rehashing their stuff? Save that argument for later.  What I know now is I like this.

Key Tracks:

“Supremacy” is a tremendous leadoff for the new album.  Muse skip the foreplay for this album.  No intro of strings or glitchy computer blips, Bellamy wakes you up with palm-muted rakes of his distorted guitar, and dives right into the goodness.  The song hinges on a single-note riff that fits just awkwardly enough in drummer Dominic Howard‘s thumping kick drum to make you listen intently.  It makes you wonder how they made that happen.  Those single-note riffs are the bread and butter of classic Muse.  I didn’t realize how much I was smiling.

A chorus of strings backs Bellamy’s vocal through the verse, and he heralds the chorus: “your suuuupremacaaaayyyyy…” he cries in a sickly high falsetto.  His notes rise just enough to make you feel strained and uncomfortable.  Your skin crawls.  You hear an unhumanness in his vocal cords.  The single-note riff crash-lands.  This is Muse.

“Madness” – I’ve been listening to this track for weeks now.  The first single released off The 2nd Law, like the entirety of Resistance, didn’t sit well with me at first.  I didn’t hear anything in it.  But I’ve since listened to the song a few dozen times, and have become a real proponent.

The kick-and-snare verses are a skeleton upon which the wobble synth adds muscle.  Bellamy’s vocal is the delicate skin.  I didn’t realize this at first, but have since come to appreciate it.  You might think it’s a pretty sparse song at first, but it turns out to be quite beautiful.

I read this somewhere else (currently blanking on the source at the moment) and shall regurgitate it here: the super-compressed guitar solo is reminiscent of Brian May‘s work.  I can’t agree more with this sentiment.  Heavily staccato, but with beauty, it is like a concise haiku.  Repeat readings reveal more beauty to the audience.  It is the all-too short gem of the song that shines immediately before the eruptive final chorus.

“Panic Station” is the birth of Spacefunk.  I’m convinced.  Maybe Ol’ Gregg could tell you some story about Bootsy Collins and The Funk in outer space, but this track sounds absolutely unearthly.

Take the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ work from the early 1980s and put it on the surface of the moon.  Strap “Suck My Kiss” to the Saturn V rocket.  The end result is “Panic Station.”

How does Muse evoke the aural concept of space so well?  Copious amounts of wah, flangers, and other processing.  It’s inherently noticeable in their tracks, but they do it so tastefully.  You know a computer has had his hands all up in their tracks, but you don’t mind the sloppy seconds if they sound like this.

The bass pulses and skips beats like an arrhythmic disco grizzly bear.  What does that even mean? I don’t know, but Muse made me feel that way when they dropped this track.  During the chorus, Chris Wolstenholme‘s bassline crawls around the room, bringing movement to the track while Bellamy’s guitar hook hangs in the air, glistening like far away stars.

“Follow Me” reminds me a lot of “Invincible” from Black Holes, and it’s a good track of substance for the album.  It isn’t going to blow you away with heavy-rocking guitars or triplet drum blasts a la “Assassin” but it gives you something to chew on instead.  It opens quietly and goes on to build a verse similar to many tracks  in Resistance, a 16th note tom-tom being rolled in the back while ambiguous strings and synths establish the chord changes of the song.

The chorus ups the heat with the throbbing of an enveloped bass synth.   All of a sudden, your head is bobbing.  Bellamy’s vocal, as always, soars over the track and makes you ponder the merits of founding a martian utopia.  This track would be the battle cry of a fledgling moon colony.

Dammit, I have no idea how they put these thoughts in my head.

“The 2nd Law: Unsustainable” is Muse’s foray into rock/dubstep.  It’s not exactly a surprise, because they used a snippet of the track to announce the album a few months ago.  That doesn’t make it any less great, though.  It was inevitable.  Muse, arguably the most electronic of rock bands, was bound to experiment with the most hard-rocking electronic music.

An army of strings open the track, and give an epic importance.  Like a movie soundtrack, you feel invested.  A female newscaster rattles off details about depleting energy sources, and finally tells us that the economy built around the current rate of growth on Earth is unsustainable.  I imagine the band’s only solution to this problem would be the colonization of nearby planets.  …There I go again.

It sounds like Bellamy is using his guitar with a built-in Kaossilator to give the track the wub-wub it needs to be classified as dubstep.  I really love it when guys go and mod their guitars with other instruments.  Maybe one day I’ll write a post about Jack White’s Anniversary Jr., and why it’s existence is integral to the music industry.

The track, though good, is not really one of substance.  It’s a novelty.  It feels like Muse did it because they could, not really because it had to be done.  “Why did you put it in your Key Tracks?” Because it needs to be heard.  It’s the kind of song you crank on your car stereo for your friends because they haven’t heard it yet.  It’s the kind of track that makes people say “Wow, this band is different,” and piques their interest to dig deeper into the discography.  Like an Andes mint after a huge meal, it’s not necessary that you consume it, but it’s quite enjoyable.

Sunny – Ann Street Soul

Ann Street Soul, formerly Ann Street Soul Stirrers, released this video a little while back.  An amazing rendition of Sunny, with a very impressive selection of solos.

This is the kind of video that I really adore.  I love live studio versions of songs.  It captures all the energy and groove the band can put out in a live setting, while sounding amazing.

This band has a Kickstarter cooking to finance their first EP.  (Edit: Funded as of 10/10/12) Can’t recommend them highly enough.