Thursday, March 18, 2010
I've been having a hard time expressing my disappointment with Emerson Lake and Palmer's 1971 prog-rock-opera Tarkus. Because, honestly, what did I expect? I've never been a fan of the band, never listened to them voluntarily (with the exception of "Lucky Man" and maybe "Karn Evil 9," but then again those are played on FM radio every five minutes so I guess they don't count). I've just always heard that they were the pinnacle of 70's rock excess - musical virtuosos who performed an adaptation of "Pictures At An Exhibition", released triple-live albums, and appeared on TV with a real tiger onstage because one of their songs had the word "tiger" in the title. Their goofy bombast is so notorious that it is impossible to watch ANY punk rock documentary nowadays without seeing a clip of Keith Emerson noodlin' on his keyboard - to show what punk was "up against."
So, naturally, I have a tendency to poke fun at them from time to time. Because it's easy.
Of course, blogfriend Adam Spektor - a longtime ELP fan - was having none of this. So he challenged me to put my money where my mouth is and actually sit through a full-length ELP record, which I had never done. Tarkus was the album he chose, and even now I haven't the slightest clue as to why. Did he think I would be "charmed" by the twenty minute opening title track about an armadillo with tank treads? Or did he just think it would be funny? (I'm guessing the latter.)
My first, honest reaction to the aforementioned title track: anger. Pure, all-encompassing rage. I had no idea what I was listening to! Twenty minutes of directionless, non-rocking, un-catchy prog rock masturbation, featuring Keith Emerson bangin' on his keyboard a whole goddamn lot. I don't even - I'm not even sure if he's enjoying himself. It's more like some kid on the playground told him he "couldn't play piano good", and this is his way of saying "nuh-uh!" "Tarkus" is filled with so many long and winding passages of Emerson playing his keyboard really really fast and in such crazy complicated time signatures that it entirely loses focus. Often it is hard to tell where one part begins and another ends, because Keith just keeps on playing. It is a song you can get lost in, and I don't mean that in the good way. I mean that in the literal sense. It is the musical equivalent of those woods in The Blair Witch Project, only without the luxury of dying at the end. (Weak burn, but you get the idea.)
Now, I will be fair. That was my first listen. I've heard "Tarkus" a few more times since then, and I will admit it becomes easier to wade through once you've gotten used to it. The obvious highlight of whole ordeal would be Greg Lake's parts, mostly because they sound like actual honest-to-goodness songs. With, you know, melodies and structure and all that. And, I will admit, Greg Lake's songs can be pretty cool, especially "Tarkus"-parts "Stones Of Years" and "Mass." They are goofy and embarrassing lyrically, yes, but they have a lot more personality than Emerson's endless, boring solos. I don't think I'll ever like "Tarkus," but I can at least bear it now.
Oh, and like I said, it's apparently about an armadillo with tank treads. The one on the cover. I don't know anything about that and I don't care.
Tarkus's second side is markedly better than the first, and it's not hard to see why - it's six separate songs, each one a collaborative group effort. That is, not primarily written by Keith "I Can Just Noodle On My Hammond Organ Really Fast For Ten Minutes And Slap A Cool Song Title On It!" Emerson. And they aren't even all stereotypical prog! Side opener "Jeremy Bender" is a silly piano goodtime song that stands in stark contrast to the overly serious "epic" that preceded it, and "Are You Ready Eddy" is an intentionally jokey 50's rock spit-take. And the songs that are stereotypical prog rock aren't bad! "Bitches Crystal" is essentially a more likable take on the musical themes "Tarkus" wore thin; the organ heavy dirge "The Only Way" is oddly appealing, despite its ridiculous welcome-to-1971 lyrics ("Can you believe / God makes you breathe? / Why did He lose / Six million Jews??"); "Infinite Space" is an appealing instrumental, and "A Time And A Place" features a dramatic and engrossing Greg Lake vocal. So I mean - these guys clearly could have made the first half of this record a lot better than it is. But Emerson just had to have his way, I guess.
Listen. Don't get the impression that I have a bias against 20-minute songs and that is why I am getting all upset about this. Not true! I mean, I don't love them, but it really depends on the band. Look at Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here or Animals for example - both contain multiple songs reaching past the ten-minute mark, and in Animals' case they even cover the same "War Is Bad" themes as Tarkus. The difference is, of course, that Pink Floyd understood how to gradually build mood, atmosphere, and dramatic tension - not to mention they were much better songwriters than anybody in ELP. Say what you will about the Floyd, but man, they knew what they were doing in their prime. I don't think you can truly appreciate a band like Pink Floyd until you've given Tarkus a listen.
So here is my final word on Tarkus - not as awful as I thought it was, but not an album I will ever find myself listening to again. And like I said, it's hard to say I was actually disappointed with this result, but honestly? I was hoping for a surprise. After all these years making fun of ELP without actually listening to them, I was hoping that all my preconceptions of the band would be entirely falsified and that I would be - beyond all logic - blown away. I did not expect this album to be, well, exactly what I expected it to be. If that makes any sense.
What I will say is this - nobody outside of the year 1971 could record an album like Tarkus. Absolutely nobody.
...except maybe the Mars Volta.
P.S.: If the previous review was a lil' too long for you, a more succinct overview of my feelings toward this record can be found here.
P.P.S.: Did you hear? Alex Chilton died. Man, that's fucking horrible. A retrospective post will come soon, I am sure.
Monday, March 01, 2010
So tonight I will be reviewing Daft Punk's 2001 record Discovery, as requested by blog/twitter/comicfriend Stephanie O'Donnell. It is a funny thing that has happened, with this record here; I first listened to it over a month ago, right after I finally managed to purge Chocolate Starfish from my system. And not only did I enjoy it, I listened to it a good four or five times within the span of a few days, feeling pretty prepared to write a nice review while my Daft Punk buzz was still lingering.
But THEN I spent a month and a half doing absolutely nothing! Life. So it is.
Either way, I am happy to be reviewing Discovery. Despite the fact that this is the first time I have actually sat down and listened to a Daft Punk album all the way through, my love of the classic "One More Time" runs so deep that I almost feel like I have been a fan of the band for years. Forgive me for turning into a hyperbolic critic for a second, but it is such a perfect end-of-the-millennium pre-9/11 party jam that it is impossible for me not to consider it a classic. Like Andrew W.K.'s similar classic "Party Hard" from the same year, it revels in the sheer power of insistent, sloganeering repetition: "ONE MORE TIME!" "WE'RE GONNA CELEBRATE!" "CELEBRATE AND DANCE SO FREE!" "...ONE MORE TIME!!" And of course, filtered through Romanthony's heavily-filtered vocals, you just have to listen. It is one of those songs that just sounds like such a good time, it is impossible not to have a good time yourself the moment you hear it.
It doesn't hurt that "One More Time" came out back when I was in 8th grade, one of my more enjoyable years attending public school. I will not bother you with my memories of the song, because they aren't particularly exciting. But I will say that, thanks to "One More Time," my memories of that time seem a lot more colorful and intoxicating than I imagine they actually were.
I will say that Discovery is, like "One More Time," an album that evokes constant party-times and does not let up throughout its hour-or-so running time. Even when "One More Time" and "Aerodynamic" end with ominous church bells, or the synth keyboards of "Nightvision" briefly bring the album into a chilled-out groove, Discovery has an unstoppable energy. In fact, the album's first four tracks are so powerful that it is almost impossible for the rest of the record to follow them up: besides the aforementioned opener "One More Time," we have the twisted instrumental "Aerodynamic" (with a processed guitar solo in the middle that I am pretty much in love with), followed by what might be my favorite track on the record next to "One More Time" - "Digital Love." Unlike most of Discovery's other tracks, "Digital Love" relies more on a poppy (and, obviously, vocodered) vocal melody than a repetitious techno-dance groove, and is all the better for it. I mean, it's just so catchy! And adorable! And there are synth-horns that come out of nowhere. I have no idea who sings it, but man. It is an intoxicating and lovely track.
This four-track opening blitz ends with "Harder Better Faster Stronger" which I don't need to say a word about. You know it, you idiot. Let's not play these games!! It was in that Kanye song and that Youtube clip of that guy with the fingers. Of course you know it. Now, I am not going to sit here and tell you that Discovery gets worse all of the sudden after "Stronger" is over - that would not be right of me, to say such things. Because who can knock the insane blip-bloopy rush of "Crescendolls"? Or the funky, laid-back groove of "Something About Us"? Or the insistent dance-floor dramatics of "Superheroes? or "High Life"? Nobody can, that is who. Especially not somebody like me!
At the same time, I feel that Discovery's techno-dance-grooves become less and less distinctive as the record wears on. That is just how it is for me. I don't always make it to the ten-minute closer "Too Long," that is all I am saying. Some of the last few tracks on here seem to repeat a pleasant little keyboard hook, throw some phatt-ass beats under it, and repeat them over and over adding a little bit more to the mix each time. It is entertaining background dance-floor music to be sure, but it does not hold my attention for too long. I am only saying this because, well, the first half or so of Discovery is just so good and distinctive - "One More Time" and "Digital Love" being the chief examples here - that the record's second half feels a little more disposable. (And I feel like Daft Punk knew they were front-loading the album - the first four tracks I mentioned above were all released as singles.)
But perhaps I am being finicky. I have listened through Discovery in its entirety several times and have enjoyed it. I admit that I know little to nothing about Daft Punk - I have never heard '97's Homework or '05's Human After All - so it is impossible for me to judge this record in the context of their career. The albums that bookend this one could sound completely different, or could be more of the same. I don't know, man!! What I do know about Discovery is that it is a perfectly pleasant and often exhilirating techno-pop album, one of those unique records that is easily accessible to a mainstream pop audience but also contains a sense of depth and ingenious studio finesse that you many not always find in a pop record.
I guess the bottom line is, it is a fun album and I like it a whole bunch.
There! That wasn't so hard.
How many Daft Punk fans have I upset with this review? Several, I bet. I feel like there is a lot more I could say about Discovery, especially after all this time and all these playthroughs, but oh well. This is how I always feel, after these reviews. It never gets any easier.
Either way, I feel that I am once again energized to get some reviews done. The next one - the next one's gonna be a good one, folks. I can feel it. It's one I've been waiting to do for a good long time. Be prepared!!