Sunday, May 31, 2009
I have always had an affinity for once-popular rock musicians that are, for whatever reason, forced out of the public's eye and yet continue to release music on a regular basis despite the fact that nobody is really listening. This often leads said musicians to either boldly experiment with their music, freed from the constraints of public expectations, or to blatantly attempt to recapture said public by writing fresh new "hit" singles that ape the sound that once made them so popular. Either way, it often makes for unusually exciting music, allowing us to see a side of a popular rock band that we would never see otherwise. And in my estimation, no other rock group had a more interesting down-and-out phase than the Beach Boys; after Brian Wilson's mental collapse during the aborted SMiLE sessions in 1967, the rest of the band were left without the input of their chief (read: only) songwriter and resident genius, and as such were forced to take hold of the reigns themselves in order to keep the band alive. And it was in this state that they somehow lasted for six years - from '67 to '73 - managing to put out an album every year, no matter the quality. This led to some confusing, warped, and sometimes frightening records (Friends and Surf's Up, anyone?), but it also led to some brilliant lost gems. Most Beach Boys aficionados cherish these albums for the SMiLE remnants that occasionally pop up for a track or two ("Cabinessence" and "Surf's Up", most notably), but the fact remains that the other members of the band, while not Brian Wilson-level wunderkinds, were pretty solid songwriters by any other standard. During this six year period, they led the Beach Boys through their last "progressive" era before they became a cornball nostalgia act in the mid-70s fronted by Mike Love.
I've reviewed a couple of these so-called "lost" Beach Boys albums before - 1967's Wild Honey and 1970's Sunflower. The thing about those two records is, despite their nigh-anonymous status, they are critically revered. The same can't be said for the two records I will review here: 1972's Carl and the Passions - "So Tough" and 1973's Holland. These two records represent possibly the most unusual chapter in the Beach Boys' career, after longtime collaborator Bruce Johnston left the band and young newcomers Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar were brought in as an attempt to "modernize" their sound. These changes allowed the band to abandon the quirky pop-rock showtuney stuff Johnston had been pushing and develop into a serious-minded hard-working rock band often compared to Steely Dan. This, obviously, is a far cry from the heavenly Pet Sounds-era vocal group so many people associate the Beach Boys with; and as such, these records were not only commercially ignored but critically maligned, a trend that continues today. Sure, parts of Holland get some recognition, but that's about it; most just couldn't accept that the Beach Boys were attempting something genuinely different.
I can see the problems with these records. They're obvious. Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar, despite their obvious talents, don't quite gel with what the Beach Boys are going for and contribute a few songs that aren't particularly exciting (and, for whatever reason, are the longest tracks on both albums). And there are some moments of embarrassment, mostly coming from Mike Love and Al Jardine - including a bizarre stab at Maharishi-inspired gospel on Carl and the Passions ("He Came Down") and a silly spoken-word environmental message on Holland ("The Beaks Of Eagles"). But honestly, it isn't hard to look beyond these flaws; I mean, they're no worse than "Student Demonstration Time" on Surf's Up or "Got To Know The Woman" on Sunflower, two more celebrated post-SMiLE releases. When you're dealing with the Beach Boys in the early 70's, you've gotta prepare to dig through a little crap. Thankfully, you won't have to dig too deeply here to find to the good stuff.
And hey, there's a lot of good stuff on these two records! Let's talk about it. Passions's opening track, "You Need A Mess Of Help To Stand Alone," is one of the Beach Boys' most unusual, fractured pop songs, featuring an unsettling piano lick, quavery Carl vocal, and cutesy country-rock bridge. Then there's "Marcella," a reworking of a 60s-era Brian Wilson demo that has to be one of the Beach Boys' smoothest, grooviest pop-rock hits of the 70s. Then there's "All This Is That," an ethereal sort of hymn that features the Beach Boys' classic harmonies in full-swing, easily more spiritually successful than the awkward gospel "He Come Down." Continuing on Holland, we open with the Brian Wilson/Van Dyke Parks track "Sail On, Sailor," possibly the best track on each of these records and one of the Beach Boys' finest songs, period. While it does have an atypical sound in context - Blondie Chaplin sings lead, with harmonies relegated to background status - the song is just so good, and Chaplin's vocals so soulful, that you won't care. Then you've got three of the most unusual tracks on any Beach Boys record: Mike Love and Al Jardine's "California Saga," a three-part song cycle that is easily the most ambitious project these two would ever attempt. While the aforementioned "Beaks of Eagles" is a pretty awkward spoken-word thing, "Big Sur" is a pleasant country-tinged ode to the beach and "California" is a gorgeous piece of nostalgia. I can't imagine Mike Love writing a better song. Carl's "The Trader" and Brian's "Funky Pretty" also deserve mention - they're nothing shocking, but they're solid pop-rock songs.
But then, of course, there's one other outstanding reason to dig into these two records - Dennis Wilson. Always the Beach Boys' ace-in-the-hole they never knew they had, Dennis only has two songs apiece on each record, and for whatever reason he only sings his own songs on Carl And The Passions, but man - what songs. What a talent. Besides Brian, Dennis clearly has the most distinct, individual personality out of any of his bandmates; the two songs he sings on Passions - "Make It Good" and "Cuddle Up" - are tucked away near the second side, and they are two of the prettiest on the album, both lushly-produced piano-ballads sung with Dennis's rough, broken, yet utterly beautiful voice. None of the other Beach Boys, not even Brian, could sing these songs with the same heartbroken effect; they're completely Dennis's. While their placement on the album is a little jarring - hearing these full-blown productions after the laid-back "Hold On Dear Brother" doesn't quite feel right - they stand on their own as true gems. And while Dennis doesn't sing either of his two songs on Holland - the bizarre "Steamboat" and the lovely "Only With You," both sung by Carl - they both remain standout tracks. Just hearing Dennis's development as a songwriter is worth the price of admission here, and it's no wonder that the guy would go on to produce a wonderful solo album (not to mention that he recorded his own version of "Only With You" later on - which you should listen to right now).
So yes. These are two very unique, utterly listenable Beach Boys records that by all means you should own if you're a fan. Deciding which one is superior really depends on personal taste - Holland if you love classic Beach Boys, Passions if you love Dennis Wilson. Either way, I never thought I would ever bother to listen to either of these records, ever. Lousy reviews drove me away. Then I picked them up on vinyl as a curiosity, and I've been playing them more than any other record I own. It's not just that the bad tracks are so interesting, it's that the good tracks are so, so good. And the good easily outweighs the bad here. These records are much more consistent than people make them out to be. Many will tell you that after Surf's Up, they lost it. That's not what I'm hearing. If either of these were released today by anonymous indie-rock groups, they would be hailed as classics.
Seriously, The Beach Boys would never sound this unusual or progressive ever again. I've heard that the addition of Chaplin and Fataar actually made them a great live band, culminating in the well-received Beach Boys In Concert LP which I sadly haven't heard. But that would be it. Immediately after Holland, the Endless Summer compilation would shoot them back into nostalgia-driven stardom, and their next album 15 Big Ones would destroy their critical reputation. So enjoy these smooth grooves while you can! You will hear nothing else like them. I assure you.
P.S.: Here's a fun promo video of "You Need A Mess Of Help To Stand Alone," which reminds me of something I forgot to mention in the review - that is, the fact that the Beach Boys had become horrifying bearded mountain men in the early 70s. Just so, so, so much beard. You've been warned.
P.S.S.: But seriously, why do people hate Carl And The Passions so much? Amazon.com's review says something along the lines of "THANK GOD IT'S ONLY EIGHT TRACKS." I mean, maybe I shouldn't look to Amazon.com for prime music criticism, but really. How could anybody hate a record that ends with "Make It Good," "All This Is That," and "Cuddle Up"? Come on. Those songs are so pretty. Come ONNN.
Saturday, May 23, 2009
Well that didn't work out so well did it??
This one took me a while to format. I wasn't happy with it for a while! But I think it turned out presentable.
But man I know I say this every update but I gotta do some things to this blog. Things change-related. Maybe a new banner? More updates?? WE'LL SEE
Friday, May 15, 2009
Punk Pop Double-Review: "Take Off Your Pants And Jacket" by blink-182 and "All Killer No Filler" by Sum 41
I'm not sure how it came to this, folks. 90% of this blog has turned into poorly articulated attempts to defend decades-old music most everybody has defined as "reprehensibly shitty." I'm sure many of you will feel I have crossed the line with this one. But that's OK! I should have seen this coming a long time ago. I don't update for weeks and once I finally DO update, it's all just praise for generic early 2000s punk-pop. If you feel the need to stop reading out of disgust right now, that's fine. I understand. Just know that I have always valued your friendship.
For those of you who are still reading, hello! Let's talk about blink-182 and Sum 41 why not. Both bands were quite popular at the beginning of the decade, arguably peaking in 2001 when they each released very popular records within a month of each other - blink-182's "Take Off Your Pants And Jacket" (har har) and Sum 41's "All Killer No Filler." Both records were released around the same time I was leaving middle school, a time I mostly associate with Mountain Dew Code Red, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2 and Total Request Live. As a newly minted 14-year-old wannabe skater, songs like "The Rock Show" and "Fat Lip" were apart of my world. Of course, high school came and went and in the wake of Avril Lavigne and Good Charlotte I forgot why I had ever cared about pop-punk in the first place. By my senior year of high school, punk-pop groups somehow all collectively decided that they needed to be considered "mature"; as such, we got blink-182's "I Miss You" and Sum 41's "Pieces." Neither were particularly salvageable.
Now, to be fair, blink-182's indecipherable sink into cloying seriousness made a bit more sense than Sum 41's. This is only obvious to me, though. I am sure that, to the many many readers of this blog, the differences between blink-182 and Sum 41 are negligible at best - but whoop whoop, I would be inclined to disagree with you! Having listened closely to both Take Off and All Killer, I can tell you that blink-182 are a band full of earnest-to-a-fault romantics pining for their teenage years, while Sum 41 is a band of braindead chucklefucks who are just too fucking punk to handle (at least, this is how they viewed themselves). I mean, if you're talking musically, then sure - you're gonna find very few differences between the two, save for vocals. But attitude? Totally different. Totally.
Did blink-182 even consider themselves a punk band? God, I hope they didn't. They don't even sound like they were trying to be a punk band on Take Off Your Pants - this is pop music, through and through, sometimes even inching towards power pop to these ears. Neither Mark Hoppus nor Tom DeLonge have anything resembling mean, "punk" vocal deliveries - Hoppus sounds like an overly-nice 17-year-old, and DeLonge sounds like a good-natured prankster. Nothing dangerous. They'd curse enough to get a Parental Advisory sticker on their albums, but that was the extent of their rebellion. The two most popular singles off this album, "The Rock Show" and "First Date," demonstrate their pop side perfectly - both are happy fun songs about high school love, both apparently written at the same time by Hoppus and DeLonge respectively. "The Rock Show" will forever be my favorite blink-182 song - it is the most perfect song directed at 14-year-old males ever written (that "I couldn't wait for the summer at the Warped Tour" line gets me every time). "First Date" is practically as good, following the whole "let's make this night last forever" vibe that made "Rock Show" so charming. Beyond those two singles, Take Off Your Pants And Jacket is pretty straightforward and earnest - "Story Of A Lonely Guy," "Online Songs," "Shut Up," "Reckless Abandon," et cetera et cetera. Songs about sad teenagers running away from home. Not very "punk."
Sum 41, though. Oh man. Watch out for these guys! How'd you like a "Fat Lip," motherfucker? Huh? You heard that one? You heard that unstoppable blaze of macho anti-conformity?? "I don't wanna waste my tame / becoming another casualty of society!" Yeah! YEAHHH!! Unlike those puss-wusses Hoppus and DeLonge, Deryck Whibley had the wannabe-punk voice nailed in 2001 - obnoxious, stupid, and completely blunt, it is a voice that is one part silly and two parts hilarious. It is this voice that makes songs like "Fat Lip," "Motivation" and "Nothing On My Back" perfect encapsulations of pop-punk pseudo-rebellion. Sum 41 ratched up their edge-factor a little more by wearing their metal influences on their sleeves, referring to Judas Priest and Iron Maiden as "gods" in "Fat Lip" and including a noodly little solo in the bridge of "In Too Deep." Hell, they even go all out an include a straight-up metal homage, "Pain For Pleasure" (which is goofy enough to be a parody) and a mock-evil intro track.
But all the metal stuff, all the punk stuff, it's all a gimmick. Of course they weren't a punk band. Maybe they were afraid to admit it, but Sum 41 were a pop band too, just as much as blink. I mean, "In Too Deep"? Barely even a punk-wannabe song - hell, the lyrics aren't even that mean! It's a straight-up pop song, and a decent one at that. Then there's the biggest single, the aforementioned "Fat Lip," which is simply a masterpiece. It is the most perfect dose of pop-punk bravado ever devised. The opening riff is monstrous and silly, and the half-rapped lyrics are so completely over-the-top it is hard not to take them as a joke. Lines like "Because you don't know us at all, we laugh when old people fall / but what would you expect with a conscience so small?" and "We like songs with distortion, to drink in proportion / the doctor said my mom should've had an abortion" are so beautiful I almost want to cry. These - and I mean this - are lines I could never come up with. I just don't have the mindset, the pure brass balls. God, I wish I did.
So blink-182 were a romantic pop band for teenagers, labeled as a punk band. Sum 41 were a pop band, labeled as a punk band, and trying - with every fiber of their being - to live up to that label. So you can see how awkward it would be for a band like Sum 41 to record a tender ballad. Sung by Deryck Whibley. Deryck, let me just quote your song "Summer" for you: "Caught up in your life / excuses are so lame / YOU may be different / but I'm still the same!"
Maybe I haven't talked about the records enough in this review. I like both of them, I really do. Plenty of songs are crushed beneath generic pop-punk power chords and cloying vocals, a both albums kinda peter out after the singles have run their course. Once in a while, though, something will hit me in a way I don't expect. It's usually when these guys branch out a little; blink's "Story Of A Lonely Guy" is a lovely little song with a kind of 80's pop feel, and Sum's "Motivation" is a pretty kickin' hard rock song (not to mention "Never Waking Up," a surprisingly convincing hardcore punk parody). These are bands that remind me of happier days. So I can't dislike them as much as I probably should.
I will end this review with some recommended music videos from each band - because, let's be honest, early 2000s pop-punk videos are THE greatest music videos on the planet. They also do pretty decent job of visually distinguishing both bands - blink-182's videos are all goofy fun, and Sum 41's are all crazy punk house parties. They are just riveting.
Blink 182: First Date, The Rock Show
Sum 41: Fat Lip (you HAVE to watch this one, I don't care who you are - it is 3 of the finest minutes you will ever experience), In Too Deep, Makes No Difference, and I GUESS Motivation (despite the fact that it takes place during no party of any kind)