this must be the place....goin strong , yeah baby!!!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Someone Help Me with This One... Or Don't?

I think that No Age is an occasionally overrated, shitty band. Coming right out atcha and saying it like it is, I am. My feelings for them have gone from being confused about what's to like (I am pretty sure I am not alone on that at least) to trying to find at least something to appreciate to I don't like 'em. And as I'm sure you'll agree, I gave them their fair chance to impress me.

Like many of you probably did, I read into the glowing reviews for "Nouns." Apparently this was No Age's first great LP, and I was excited to hear it for a while. Eventually, I ended up purchasing it at Waterloo right before I packed up and left for Chicago. "Nouns" was part of my "I'm going to be driving for 20+ hours so I am going to listen to a ton of new music" plan. I am pretty sure I ended up giving the album its first spin somewhere just past Tennessee.

I wasn't too familiar with the band before hearing them. I had heard the scene reports behind The Smell, that the band was a two-piece that rawked, and the drummer sang... But no real ideas of their sound. I also had no idea that they were about to release "Nouns" in the first place, so when the reviews hit I was pleasantly surprised to see it get a universally warm reception. Neato, they are on Sub Pop, I thought. Just like my first favorite band, Nirvana!

An aside: Why the hell did Sup Pop put out that Wolf Eyes record? Anyone else with me on that one?

Aaaaanyway, I had downloaded "Weirdo Rippers" with some interest prior to 2008. It seemed to me that with a little love on the production front these guys could do something pretty cool sounding. For a rock band, they didn't seem all that bad. I wanted to give them a good look when they came through town or wait for their full-fledged album statement.

I point out my phrase "for a rock band" because it shows how I feel about rock these days. When I was on the phone with Dan G. recently we talked a little about why rock and roll didn't interest us anymore -- for me, I am really aware that it's been a beast reconstructed in different ways for about 40 years now, and it really pisses me off that people are still getting by / onto the radio waves by making stuff that's, well, shit. I'm on the outside / I'm lookin' in / I can see through you / see your true colors -- dude's a poet for dummies. Wow, take the classic psychological dichotomy that everyone feels, divisions of physical and mental, dumb it down, but by diluting it you become the genius that can see through everyone's bullshit? Any other way you slice it, it sucks. I was also thinking about Godsmack and how many songs about "going away" or "not being here" / "don't want to be here" they have. Like, every single they had mentions that.

But, but, but!! Sometimes there'll be that record that comes out in our era which is just great at being rock but it shoots for more... I liked it when Trip talked about The Walkmen ( a band I like a little bit ) and Spoon ( a band in the category "can put out music that is great at being rock but it shoots for more," at least I think so ) saying [of The Walkmen] "I love them. If I want to hear a band play music with guitars I listen to them. I think them & Spoon have gelled nicely in their own comfort zones. They're a band of texture." Unfortunately it seems like these bands are usually exceptions to the rule, and the rule is shit. Rock is dead? Plain and simple, bands aping the whole history of music, taking the real soul out of it and repacking it as shit is unfortunately the way the majority of rock today has gone. I can point to records that were made in the 70s that make 95% of today's rock seem terrible. My go-to record for this argument: "Marquee Moon."

Back to No Age, a band that, for a while at least, had a shot at breaking down my aversion to "general" rock. I thought they were going to do it for a while. "Nouns" definitely does not have a typical sound. Weird thing is, as I just wrote that sentence, I realized that it's probably the best thing I can say about this album/band. They have a unique take on rock. At least it isn't the same-like slice of rock you can get anywhere else. It's a pretty much in-the-red, brimming with distortion kind of record. For that, I can also say it has a high level of energy.

But, from the moment I hear the first vocals come in, I start to have problems. They buried the hell out of the vocals on this record. That's their gimmick apparently. I think it's impossible to understand what he's saying, but I'll get to that later. On top of that, their melodies just sound OUT OF TUNE to me! I don't know if that is really the point they were trying to get across, but to me they just sound wrong. Caroline said the same thing about it when she heard it. No offense to her but she is way less interested in music than I am so I guess it's fairly obvious to note that No Age has some weird vocals going on here. I think it really detracts from the songs. It's like he's suggesting he is going to sing but he purposely fucks it up and I don't seem to get why. When there are some slightly more tuneful moments like in "Eraser" (not sure if that's the real title, I'm writing off of the top of my head at this point) the vocals will waver from out-of-tuneness to melodic simplicity that defies what I'd be able to qualify as really excellent music.

Apparently some people who enjoyed this album are really attracted to the attributes of the vocals I'm talking about, but I just can't be. It doesn't matter to me if this band is trying to be sly and try to slip their anthems into the track under waves of distortion. That tactic just isn't very interesting to me, I guess. I'd much rather have clearer, robust mixes that can stand out for me to understand and latch onto the melody they take. Like, I love "Chutes too Narrow" by The Shins, which is basically a worthwhile case-study in crisp production in pop/rock and meter for songwriting (dude writes amazing lines for himself, and he has that voice to boot, he makes me want to quit having rock star dreams the bastard). Plus, the Shins pull all of that off live. They defy my aversions to live music.

This is the same gripe I had about "Person Pitch" versus the rest of Animal Collective's output or even "Young Prayer." Yep, gotta bring up Animal Collective again don't I? The reverb on "Person Pitch," while that record as a whole has grown on me over time, kinda makes me mad. I told Ethan about this once before... I would rather that he didn't produce the overwhelming reverb all over the place on that album. In fact, when I first downloaded the leaked version of "Person Pitch" I thought that it was a fault of the MP3 quality and hoped that the CD version would have a clarity that would make up for the way the MP3s sounded... Again, I guess that was the point that Panda Bear was trying to get across, but it's not totally what I enjoy at the end of the day.

I guess if the vocals are problem number one for me, then the rhythm and harmony from the guitar is problem number two. Call me old fashioned, but there are reasons that some chords are built to flow into one another and why some tones stand well together, and these concepts are all backed up by years of musical practice and theory. I don't think it's a good idea to try to force tones together to create an unsettling, heaving blur of tones. This is something I had to learn for myself when I played in a band -- some of the changes I tried to use just weren't weighted enough to translate to other people. Not that they weren't paying enough attention, just the chords themselves weren't sound selections for the arrangements I did. Where I would hear "Oh, obviously I am walking through a suspension there" or "I tried to make an atypical choice by not playing back to chord such and such after playing the chord that obviously suggests I should play it afterward" other people heard one long, distorted chord that barely changed at all or they would just hear flat, uninteresting music. Granted, No Age are doing things far and beyond what I recorded in high school, but I don't dig the mess they make. If you bury weird tones under a bunch of crunchy distortion and reverb it just comes out like a thick sludge. That's something a great songwriting group like, say, Nirvana had going for them... they just slammed out power chords under all that heavy. People may say of Nirvana "it's simple music" or "that's an easy way to play" but it really is just economical, well-considered execution of that sound.

I feel odd writing that above paragraph because I consider myself a postmodernist in a lot of senses, so appealing to fundamentals-as-truths seems sort of contrary to how I think. But there is a thin line between good music and meh music, and I think it has a lot to do with basic compositional decisions. So the postmodernist in me remains silent except for the one exception I can think of right now: the song "Cherry Chapstick" by Yo La Tengo. I've always loved how suspensions in that song work even though they are slamming full-power distortion through those chords. As solid as concepts of addition and subtraction, music theory really does describe how music works and how people "want" to hear things. Just recently I sat down to workshop a song a friend of mine was working on... It's a basic folk tune, key of B flat, and he thought it was too "obvious" to change from the fifth back to the root. Now, theory heads will know, this is basically one of the most recognized cadences ever. The fifth of a key is the dominant chord and it strongly calls you back home to the root. To resist that change is to resist something instinctual in the ear. You hear a fifth banging out for a long time (imagine the end of say Arcade Fire's Neighborhood #1, where it feels like they are building steam after "Hear you sing a golden hymn" then they slam it back home to the root chord) and something inside you just begs that root note. When I showed him how to make this change from five to one he instantly approved of that change and I just had to say "this is what makes the most sense to anyone. You want to hear that root there."

So if I was workshopping No Age on "Nouns" I'd either take out some of the effects from the guitars to strip the possibility of it all sounding like a blur or I'd tell them to pick different chord voices/tones to make it hold their arrangements better.

My final gripe goes back to the vox. I cannot understand a word on "Nouns" much less "Weirdo Rippers," and I listen to records in general for lyrical content that stands out, so these records fails me there. Maybe you don't do that kind of listening but I do and I kind of always have. I think records are the time that bands should be making their clearest statements of music so their vocals should be strong. This band fucks with my head by presenting a context where the vocals just barely escape me but it's like they still want me to hear them. He wants to sing well but just doesn't or something. I don't like that maneuver, duder. You can save the slurred-ness for the live show if you want (like I've said, I don't enjoy the live side of things quite as much).

Aside number two: I've often dreamed of being in a band that does some Gang of Four / Les Savy Fav angular punk groove while I scream "I Can't Hear The Words!" as a hook to the song. Kind of like a Mark E. Smith style take on meta-music that would translate as a presentation of my aversion to live bands who you can't understand and bands like No Age who eschew the opportunity to be clear on record.

There are occasions when I don't give too much of a damn about the vocal content -- say the music already sounds badass (old REM, old Animal Collective, Sigur Ros et al), or lyrics would get in the way of the grandeur of the music that's there (Tortoise, GYBE et al). But most of the time vox are a deal-breaker for me. I didn't love the Fall until I sat down with the lyric sheet for "This Nation's Saving Grace" while listening to it. That record is funny, smart, and catchy and I had no idea for a while. Now they're one of my fave groups. Same story applies for the new Titus Andronicus record.

On top of this attention I've paid to No Age's albums, I saw them in concert. I was not very impressed. Apply the same above gripes, but just pump up the volume I guess.

I don't see the greatness in this group. Does anyone in here see it? Is there some situation you'd recommend this album for -- say, loud during a drunken night or something? Or should I just stop trying. I've listened, rather, forced myself to try and enjoy Nouns about six or seven times. I just get irritated by it.

There are those albums or bands that really grow on you. I personally hated some stuff like "OK Computer," "Loveless," Aphex Twin's "Selected Ambient Works Vol. 2," the music of Fennesz, etc etc. that I grew to love over sitting with them for a few weeks or so. Maybe this is what'll happen to me with No Age but it honestly seems like a remote possibility. We shall see I suppose.

One friend of mine suggested that, conceptually, they are presenting a sound that crosses punk with minimalism. Fair enough, you are appealing to a side of me that I like to indulge, but I don't think that sounds very interesting to me. As an ex-punk lover myself, I dig the spazness of the sound. I don't think minimalism and punk would hang out and get along and perhaps No Age is the proof of that.

I asked some people on about this problem and a girl responded quite shrewdly: "maybe people think they are being rebels of some kind by saying that they dig a noisy rock record. It's got a cool cache to it in that sense." My response, too bad we can't serve up Daydream Nation side-by-side, a record I think is pretty universally amazing.

I've been working on this message for a few days, picking up where I left off when I have some free time here and there... and for a while I had resist the temptation to say, hey, maybe after finally dishing out what my problems are with this album, I'll find the point that will get me to like it.. and I think that point almost came when I said "they are giving us a really unique take on rock." But, unique or not, I just don't find this band enjoyable at the end of the day. You can be fresh as anything in history but be on the bad side of quality.

I love you all

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