This week’s artist of the week was a member of one of my most favoritest bands ever, then went on to produce three of my favoritest albums ever, and if that weren’t enough, he made a bunch of solid solo albums. The artist of the week is…
Yes, John Cale, most notably of the original Velvet Underground. While he was with them, The Velvets made their most challenging and memorable music as displayed on The Velvet Underground and Nico and my favorite, White Light/White Heat. What Cale brought to group while he was with it was his viola (most memorable for its part in the arrangement of “Venus In Furs”) and his classical avant-garde sensibilities. When he left, he took them with him.
Next up Cale starts making solo albums that are solid if not overly enthusiastically received, nor have them been given much attention in retrospective. However, Cale also produced three albums which would all become iconic punk rock classics: The Stooges, Patti Smith‘s Horses, and The Modern Lovers. Cale‘s touch as a producer always seemed to result in albums that felt raw, lively, but at the same time, very organized and – even in The Stooges‘ case, for better or worse – not at all sloppy or amateurish. He also played on and/or produced several of ex-bandmate Nico‘s incredible early albums like Chelsea Girls, The Marble Index, Desertshore and The End.
In his solo career, Cale‘s always written kind of friendly yet noticeably intellectual and intriguingly arranged pop music, easily distinguishable by Cale‘s clear voice, heavy with its Welsh accent. His albums Paris 1919, Vintage Violence and Fear are my favorite so far from what I’ve heard.
Lastly, during sex week at SoundproofMagazine.com, another website I write for, there was an article by some old groupie and most of it detailed her affair with John Cale. I had no idea, but it looks like Cale was a serious punk rock icon even back in the day, before The Velvet Underground acquired the legend they have today, and he didn’t mind having some fun with the ladies. I thought that was pretty awesome considering that even in The Velvet Underground, a group known to be a bunch hustlers and junkies, Cale always seemed so…clean.
Last year I fell in love with the music of Robert Pollard.
I’ve known about Guided By Voices for a long time. At least since I was 15 or something and asked my guitar teacher to bring me some of their albums after seeing the name online. I liked Aliens Lanes and Mag Earwhig! (not Bee Thousand though, which for some reason I always thought was overrated), but it wasn’t until the Boston Spaceships album The Planets Are Blasted that I started to really go nuts for this guy.
The Planets Are Blasted was the clincher because, unlike those cherished mid-90s GBV albums, it was (by Pollard’s standards) a lean 14 tracks long. Even if each song was like 1-minute long, the classic GBV albums are like 30 songs long and I just would always lose patience with them. I also liked how with The Boston Spaceships (and even later GBV work that at the time I hadn’t heard) the songs were actually fleshed out rather than just tossed off bits of genius.
The more I listened to Planets, the more I started to get why people worship Robert Pollard.
It’s because he is the Superman of songwriting.
Though Pollard’s songs don’t (appear to) have any kind of deeper meaning and he’s not Bob Dylan writing stunning metaphoric imagery, or Lou Reed capturing the existential angst of city life, his grasp on hook craft and the abandon with which he rocks out may be unparalleled in all of rock music. When Pollard sits down to write a song, he never gets bogged down in any pretensions: he knows what he wants and what he wants are smashing rock hooks.
Song after song, Pollard’s verses are strong and melodic, but cut quickly to the chorus where he always seems effortlessly able to create incredible momentum and climax, often by repeating the same phrase over killer changes that manage to ‘lift’ it higher and higher. Sure, whatever, a lot of songwriters can write a solid chorus, but the sheer consistency with which Pollard can pump them out is astounding. It’s like he simply has the formula down for busting out pop songs. Or maybe he’s like that guy in Sandman who is driven mad by inspiration, except Pollard actually will turn all that inspiration into killer songs.
Like many 90s indie rockers, his lyrics seem chosen for their sound rather than their meaning, but Pollard just has this kind of earth shattering conviction noone else has. Even when he’s singing the most ridiculous thing, it always just sounds like, “yeah, totally.”
“He’s a terrible burden/On the quest for perfection/He’s such an infection/But it never gets him down,” he sings in “Johnny Optimist”.
Or another great line: “She may love her eggs,” from “Fair Touching” off Isolation Drills.
What do those lines even mean? They probably meant nothing when he wrote it, but you always know that even if he doesn’t mean it, he believes it. Maybe the first one means that he (the person being described) is a very far-from-perfect person, but he’s cool with that. Maybe the second means that she’s in love with youth and fearful of getting older and becoming infertile. Maybe. I don’t know. There’s always potential for meaning in Pollard songs, just like in everything apparently written nonsensically, but it’s that conviction of Pollard’s that truly makes him special. Even songwriters like Stephen Malkmus (who gets by on apathetic coolness) or Frank Black (who gets by on charisma and off-kilter-ness) who wrote some of the greatest indie rock of the 90s, simply don’t have the kind of conviction for material that is truly ridiculous like Pollard does. He seems like Jack Black’s character in School of Rock, a guy with a crazy record collection who’s very soul is possessed by rock; a kid who never grows up. Coincidentally, Pollard was also a schoolteacher before he started making enough money with his music to stop.
Of course, Pollard is also renown for being incredibly prolific, releasing at least a couple albums either solo or with one of his bands each year. He released more albums in 2009 than most bands release in a decade, or ever. Not all of these albums are great, and not all the songs on them are great, but they’re never that bad, and sometimes they are very awesome. One of the best things about being a Pollard fan is that you’re rarely kept waiting too long between one release and the next, and rarely are they disappointing. Even if he does release a shitty album, he’ll release another in a month that may very well kick ass. And he never changes but he’s never gotten boring either. If you keep doing something really, really well, who cares if you never change?
Actually that’s not true, Pollard has changed. His music has gone from short and scrappy to longer and finer tuned, from more rock to more pop, from 90’s production to 00’s production, and his songs cover a range of style like folk and grunge and different kinds of rock. But he’s never strayed from making the kind of balls-out, everybody-have-fun rock he’s always made and made better than anyone else at a pace that is beyond comprehension.
Superman is a Rocker. And His Name is Robert Pollard.
Here’s a mix of some of his best songs:
1. Guided By Voices – Bulldog Skin
2. Robert Pollard – Things Have Changed (Down In Mexico City)
This week’s band of the week is renown for scoring a major label record deal without even trying. Then several of their debut album’s singles became massive hits, establishing themselves as pretty much standard rock club play in a way unlike any band has managed in years. They’ll be releasing a new album soon and it kicks ass but most of their fans just won’t be able to handle the weirdness. The band of the week is…
Honestly, I thought the first album had killer singles but was mostly pretty boring, filled with way too much filler. Then again, they were on a major, and it was the singles which were important. First “Time To Pretend” got big and then “Kids” was just suddenly everywhere in 2008/2009. It got to the point where it was almost like you had to start hating “Kids” because it was just so crazy popular, even bros and hos were into that little “doo doo doo doo dooo do do doo dooo…do do doo” hook. “Electric Feel” and “The Youth” were also incredibly kick ass songs. And it wasn’t just like, “yeah, all of these are good songs.” They felt like hit singles, and they were.
Their second album, Congratulations, however, is not so much a huge step forward for the band as it is a step into outer space. It’s kind of hard to reconcile the fact that this album was released on a major because it is in no way commercial. I guess after the success of “Kids” their record company was just like, “fine, do whatever you want,” because they’ve just gone nuts. Congratulations is bursting with energy and inspiration, mashing together influences as far ranging as experimental, motown, psychedelia, Bacharach-esque pop, glam rock and synth pop into this crazy as fuck album. The sometimes-stilted lyrics of Oracular Spectacular are now mad out of this world exclamations of I have no idea what. Definitely nothing as simple as getting models for wives and becoming a rock star.
This is DEFINITELY NOT a singles album. There are no singles here at all. “Flash Delirium” is probably the second or third weirdest track but not by much. Everything sounds like speed+candy+LCD+cartoons if you could liquify it into music. “Brian Eno” is a standout simply because you can actually figure out what’s going on amidst the delirium of utopian pop: they’re singing about Brian Eno and how awesome he is. Closer “Congratulations” is also a big standout with its stripped down Bolan-style arrangement and kind of beautiful, somber sentiment. Everything else is just like some trip through crazy luminescent awesomeness, I don’t even know how they were able to capture this kind of manic energy so pristinely. Crazy.
Congratulations has made me a true fan of MGMT, as hard as it is for me since you’re still going to hear “Kids” playing at frat parties. Well, on the other hand…you definitely won’t hear anything off this album. This is for the rest of us. I just wish it didn’t have such a stupid cover.
Alex Chilton, who died yesterday at the age of 59, was not an old man. My dad is 60. My two grandpas are 90. Alex Chilton had a ways to go. This is a real shame.
I first heard about Big Star – the band with which Chilton made three masterpiece albums: #1 Record, Radio City and Third/Sister Lovers – from a Rolling Stone review of a Weezer album. I checked to see what songs this band Big Star had on the Rolling Stone Top 500 Best Songs Of All Time list and I think “September Gurls” and “13” were both on there. I downloaded them and I thought “September Gurls” was great, but it was “13” that really moved me. I think I was 14 or 15 when I first stumbled onto it and it was just so poignant and beautiful and innocent. It got under my skin. I learned how to play it and kind of hoped that I could impress girls with it. Never really worked, but maybe that’s because most girls I knew at the time would’ve more impressed with John Mayer or some bullshit.
I bought all of Big Star‘s albums. I couldn’t find them online back then to download them. The first and second I found on a single CD at an HMV in Ottawa when I went there with my camp one year. I paid something like $25 for it and then had no money for food the rest of the trip. I didn’t starve but like…I was hungry…still probably made the better choice. I remember listening to that CD so much that summer. I remember listening to “Feel” while hiking through forests and shit and it was so fucking epic with the sun coming down over the trees and all. “My Life Is Right” blew me away, especially with that harmonica going on in the left channel throughout most of the song. I don’t think anyone else has ever recorded harmonica in a song that way and it’s just freakin’ sick. And hey, the theme song to That 70’s Show is on here! Except it’s relatively fragile and beautiful instead of glammed up.
Third/Sister Lovers is probably my favorite. A friend of mine once told me he just didn’t get the appeal of it in comparison with #1 Record and Radio City but I loved it right from the get go. It sounds like Alex Chilton‘s last chance or something at…rock stardom? Success? Something like that. But instead of making some kind of commercial album or something, he made this mad, fractured masterpiece that’s held together by a strange vacuum of brilliance.
When he sings, “Thank you, friends,” is he actually thanking people, or is he being sarcastic and sardonic? – “All the ladies and gentlemen/who made this all so probable.” Isn’t the word at the end there supposed to be “possible”? And “O Dana” is just ridiculous. If you didn’t listen to the words it’d be this beautiful song for a chick named Dana, but wait a sec, did he just start the song with the line, “I’d rather shoot a woman than a man?” And then there’s “play with yourself before all the world.” Oh man… Songs like “Holocast” and “Kangaroo” seem like they’ve got a strange void at their center, a black hole that Chilton‘s trying to avoid falling into: “get me out of here, get me out of here/I hate it here, get me out of here.” And closer “Take Care” is one of the most beautiful, heartbreaking songs ever. Period.
Most of Chilton‘s solo work is covers so I never really bothered with it since it was his songwriting that always interested me most. He was phenomenal, easily one of my favorite songwriters ever. Alex Chilton, you will be missed. Take care, please, take care.