Music Features

Obsessions and Lamentations #2

1)  Madonna’s Candy Goes Down Hard

I have ambivalent feelings towards Madonna and her achievement, and those feelings are only reinforced by her latest release. I’m not a hater. I admire her best pop singles, which I think reached a zenith with Vogue and Express Yourself, and her talent for selling herself and presenting her music to the public is second to none. But taking a step back, the whole enterprise is so obviously contrived and market tested that it has all the passion of the biography of a corporate tycoon; sure it’s an inspiring story, but what about the art? The irony is that her best work is great art, or great pop art anyway, but it’s so hard to look the other way when you can see the strings moving the puppets. Like a manipulator and her marionettes, hers is the art that calls attention to the artist, not the work. And if there is one thing Madonna can do, it’s call attention to herself. But has anyone ever revealed so little by revealing so much? Did we ever really learn anything from Truth or Dare , for all its inward naval gazing? The latest excursion with Timb(erlake)(aland) is the strategy of a giant corporation in its “mature” stage, in which it stops innovating and sticks with a proven formula to milk profits out of a sure thing. Instead of doing her market research on the streets, like she used to, to get ahead of the coming wave, she has called upon the biggest hitmakers of the moment to sing her name in praise on the single, 4 Minutes. The textbooks say the “decline” stage is next. I guess that’s up to her, but if anyone could reinvent themselves into a serious artist, one that doesn’t need the boobs for self-promotion, and has the talent and chutzpa to pull it off, it’s the girl from Bay City, Michigan with a British accent. 

. . .
2)  Vinyl
What is it we fetishists and aspiring audiophiles see in the supposedly dead but recently revived vinyl album? Vinyl sales were up 15% in an otherwise declining music market – what’s going on? I can only speak for myself, but for some odd reason, my obsession with my old albums as well as with new and reissued vinyl has gained significant traction in the past year. Maybe it’s something in the Aether, but suddenly I’m buying a Rega turntable and dusting off my 25 year old copy of the White Album, not minding the pops and crackles and reveling in the feel of the needle in the grooves. Just holding my new 180 gram vinyl reissue of John Coltrane’s Giant Steps, with the lengthy Nat Hentoff essay on the back, gives me a rush of exhilaration that the cd format never inspired. For one thing, artwork on a cd has always been an afterthought. If the record companies were smart they would have packaged them in lp jackets, where artists like Roger Dean and Storm Thorgerson could weave their magic. But maybe it’s the sheer physicality that we love, not only in the use of needles instead of lasers, but in the process of laying the arm on the record, queuing up the right song and getting off your ass to flip the disc over to Side 2. Either way, I’m just glad I kept the several hundred albums leftover from my teen years and have a great lp dealer in my home town to round out my collection. Convenience is great and I still love my Ipod, but nothing beats the involvement only analog can provide.
. . .
3)  Dennis Wilson – Pacific Ocean Blue
I recently discovered this “lost treasure” and listening to it, it’s not hard to figure out why it was lost in the first place. The year was 1977, when disco exploded and AM radio hits were sandblasted to a fine sheen, while the biggest song of the year was You Light Up My Life, the prototypical saccharine ballad. Beach Boy Dennis Wilson’s first solo album, on the other hand, features his painfully gruff voice, subdued though elaborate production values, and a collection of songs one would be hardpressed to call ‘upbeat’ – he’s probably the only guy who could sound like he was crying while singing about rainbows. Not only that, but it came at the nadir of the Beach Boys waning reputation. Despite all this, it sold respectably and even charted for a while, which is a lot more than you can say for some other classics that were never found enough to be lost in the first place. Taken out of its context, however, the album is instantly appealing. It’s well-written, soulful, professionally made and heartbreakingly sad without trying to be. The transformation of Dennis from ne’er-do-well, sometime drummer to a major singing and songwriting force after brother Brian’s decline (where the hell did Forever come from?), is something without much precedent or comparison in rock history. How he came up with a whole album like this just a few years after Brian showed him a few chords on the piano is simply astonishing. Next month, Sony is putting out a “Legacy Edition” cd, which will include tracks from his unfinished follow-up, to be called Bambu. Wilson had high hopes for that album, and I’m looking forward to hearing more from an unexpected and neglected talent who died before he get the proper retrospective appreciation Brian has reveled in recently.
. . .
4)  Speed Racer, et al
I don’t know if Speed Racer really sucks as bad as all the bad press suggests, but I must say I get a tinge of hopefulness when I think of this whole genre of co-opting  the childhood artifacts of the 70s generation, to be force fed to the next one, exploding in a ball of flames like an overheated engine. The new Star Wars never really lived up to the hype, but at least it was justified by the need to finish the story. What was missing from the Speed Racer saga? Maybe comic book movies are a logical outgrowth of characters and stories with proven longevity, but what about crappy kids shows churned off a Japanese production line that only seemed fabulous because we were eight years old? At the end of the day, as Iron Man proves, it’s how you tell the story that matters. What’s next, Ultra Man and the Goblet of Skulls?

. . .