Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Music and Politics (Issue 1)

Music and politics seem to go hand in hand. Often mucisians will use their songs as vessels to put forth a given agenda or idealogy. From hardcore punk bands like BLACK FLAG to more mainstream acts such as REM, U2 or BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN, political issues often find their way into song. Additionally, some artists use their fame to expose an issue or bring people to a cause. Avenues such as "Rock The Vote" have given artists the opportunity to connect to the youth and bring about change. These days, musicians are sought on for council by political leaders in areas of race and economic disparity as a way of showing that they are more in touch with the pulse of the nation than their predecessors. President Obama has listened to Jay-Z, Bono and other musical heavyweights on a wide range of topics.

Now we can argue the merits of this sort of blurring of the lines between entertainment and power till the end of time. We can question whether it is better that LADY GAGA is the most viable voice for the gay rights movement than someone with a more nuanced approach to politics. Sometimes to get movement on an issue a little shock value goes a long way. The goal of this post (and the subsequent ones I think will follow) is to highlight lesser known politically tinged songs and try to make some sense of the connection between these two powerful forces.

THE RADIO DEPT. are a Swedish band that makes pop music that is similar to the GO BETWEENS and THE PERISHERS. They deal in the swirling guitars, sunny melodies and longing for lost love lyrical arenas. However, they do have an opinion about the current state of Swedish politics which in some ways mirrored what was going on in the US in the early part of the century. They have made their latest song a free download in what I presume was an attempt to galvanize support behind the leftist part of the Swedish political spectrum. It's a really good song and has a very interesting take on the politics of fear and how mainstream politics can often warp a message to meet it's own needs.

Reallocating property
We engender transformation
We’re not concerned with poverty
Just the rebirth of a nation
No time for hesitation
Not even on occasion
This will be our legacy:

A vengeful population
It’s part of our conspiracy
And our motivation
And who needs integration
When we’ve got isolation?
It’s the rebirth of a nation
The rebirth of a nation

We don’t mind democracy
We have our ways around it
This new improved hypocrisy
Will help us to impound it
An old school education
Will show this generation

Download the mp3 here. While you are there you can get lots of other goodies from the band. They are well worth your time.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Sufjan Stevens channels Radiohead

It is always interesting to see how artists respond to fame. Some embrace the fame and seek to replicate the sound that got them to whatever plateau they find themselves at. Others run and hide behind a creative veil as they try to deal with the repercussions of people singing their songs in commercials. Whatever the response it is a fascinating study to see creative people respond to connecting with people and essentially getting what they want out of art.

Make no mistake, all musicians want to be famous. The ones that say they don't are lying. If they didn't want people to hear they music they wouldn't record and package it and then tour all over hell's half acre getting people to hear them. What does this have to do with Sufjan Stevens? Well, he is the latest of these "true musicians" to grapple with this conundrum. His last record, "Illinois", was a commercial and critical hit (rivaling the ascent of ARCADE FIRE as the lead for a voice of a generation tag). So it was always going to be a hard follow. Here we are now some 5 years later with "The Age of Adz" and their are going to be more than a few comparisons to the path taken by RADIOHEAD in their response to fame.

Let me elaborate. Following the success of "OK Computer" many thought Radiohead would simply reproduce that sound over and climb to the heap of Alternative rock and be the biggest rock band on the planet. However, their follow up, "Kid A", was a challenge to their fan base as they explored new elements of their sound and tried to expand it artistically. What followed was a lot of hand wringing by mainstream media about whether to call it a masterpiece or a piece of unitelligble garbage. In hindsight, my sense was that the band simply wasn't prepared for the widespread fame and tried to make a record that would appeal to only the hardcore fans. Which is partially what I feel Stevens is doing here.

There is nothing on the new album as catchy as "Chicago". Putting that thought aside the record is certainly a departure from his more accessible work. Based on the work of schizophrenic artist Royal Robertson, the record is a smattering of baroque pop songs filtered through bass thumps, electronic fits and starts and orchestral flourishes. It does resemble Radiohead's Kid A in that sense. The songs seem almost like collective ideas rather than pop songs. It challenges the listener to weed through the songs to find the nuggets of melody and snippets of poetry.

Which makes me wonder, what is the point of this exercise? Should I have to work so hard to find enjoyment? Do I have a right to expect something from an artist or am I just to accept what they have given me and make the best of it? Is the satisfaction I get from "I Walked" worth the near unlistenable "Now That I'm Older"? And what the hell do I do with the 25 minutes that make up "Impossible Soul"? (And who has the time to listen to it in it's entirety?) Stevens seeks to confound our beliefs about him with this record and strip his fan base to the core. The question I cannot seem to answer is was I one that he wanted to keep or not?

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Return of the Manics

I have never been super interested in the MANIC STREET PREACHERS. For some reason I was never really drawn to their music. This is a bit odd since I enjoy the brit rock sound and and usually taken in by bands with a political agenda that mirrors mine. But since they were never really a big sensation over on this side of the pond, they never held my attention. So I was surprised how much I like their new record, "Postcards From A Young Man". Now by their own admission this record is a stab at commercial sounding rock and seems to have abandoned some of the more punk rock stylings of earlier records. Is it a sign of maturity or a bit time sellout move to get records sold? Not really sure. I would usually argue the later but for some reason the genuine sound of the songs and the conviction of the singing makes it seem like the right move.

--I think this is the best example of the sound the band cultivates here. It's big and has the kind of chorus that sounds great when 50,000 people sing along...

Monday, September 06, 2010

Bring That Beat Back...New Underworld

Talk about a band that brings back fond memories! UNDERWORLD were supposed to take dance/trance/techno into the mainstream along with THE CHEMICAL BROTHERS, PRODIGY and all the rest. If the Chems were techno hip hop, and Prodigy were techno punk, then Underworld were the purest form of dance music to hit the mainstream. Aided by their ubiquitous presence in "Trainspotting" and the subsequent American love affair with house and techno culture, the band seemed poised to hit the pop mainstream with "Born Slippy NUXX". However, the releases that followed were not well received commercially, mostly due to the fact that pop radio couldn't justify seven minutes of air time each time a song was played. Like the others, Underworld slunk back into the clubs and started churning out interesting and creatively challenging music for the next decade.

So I was a bit surprised at how much I like their latest record, "Barking". Maybe because it appears that they have finally merged their techno leanings with pop song structure. "Always Loved A Film" could have been recorded during NEW ORDER's "Technique" era. "Scribble" is a vintage drum and bass song that has that upbeat feel that when played in a club would send the place absolutely bananas. "Grace" is a classic Underworld song that seems like a left over from their debut record. The only drawback is the ending two tracks, "Louisiana" which has a slower tempo and sounds dangerously close to a ballad and the instrumental coda "Simple Peal" which is a bit of a downer. But I can certainly see the intent of bringing the audience done from a very high octane ride.

There is so much to like about this album that it begs several listens. Each song unfolds at just the right length and none overstay their welcome (which can often be an undoing of some dance bands). This is certainly find a way on to my end of the year bests.

(mp3) Underworld -- Scribble (link Removed by request)