Fagen’s Critical Catalogue (July 2014, Part 1)

earpods-HOME11The recent passing of Tommy Ramone doesn’t just mean that one of the best drummers ever is no longer with us. It means that every original member of the Ramones is gone. I would never claim that my relationship with the Ramones was any more or less special than anyone else’s. But when I was a little kid just getting into music, they were my first favorite band, instilling in me a taste for gleeful exuberance, gleeful irony, straightahead rock rhythms, catchy pop songs, and especially tight formal command that I’m still proud of. As a child in second grade with my Road to Ruin lunchbox, I was completely ignorant of what they meant in a cultural context or why they were important; I just loved the hammering beat and the hummable riffs and how every song sounded exactly the same and how every song was this tiny little gem and how Joey Ramone would giggle lines like “Now I wanna sniff some glue/now I wanna have something to do” and “Beat on the brat with a baseball bat” and “All the girls are in love with me/I’m a teenage lobotomy” and that absurd chorus in “Commando”. I’ve since analyzed my love for this band to death. Even today the sheer immediate rush of their music remains. In Tommy’s honor, I would like to propose Fagen’s First Law of Live Rock Performance. Go to an indie rock show this weekend. Before you plunge into the crowdsurfing masses and immerse yourself in dirty electric noise and glistening puddles of sweat, stand back and do some people-watching. Notice the clothing everyone has on. If you can’t find at least one person wearing that classic black Ramones T-shirt with the eagle in the middle saying “Hey ho let’s go,” you’re absolutely in the wrong place.

Celtic Woman: Emerald: Musical Gems

Celtic Woman(Manhattan, 2014) [BUY]

Brought together by enterprising record executives with ties to Riverdance and Eurovision, the angelic quartet known as Celtic Woman typifies an international music community where people consider it a dandy idea to combine Irish folk, New Age medievalism, and vaudeville performance. Rather than opting for the kind of camp thrill that might just barely vindicate such a concept, they treat their calling with the utmost solemnity.

The reason these four women have sold so many records is because they can sing. They’ve allegedly mastered the art of harmony, of mellifluous counterpoint, the swelling feeling of beautiful voices coming together in majestic, uplifting unison. Crucially, not one of them has anything resembling a folk-sounding voice; though much of the music remains identifiable as Irish, and though they do burst into Gaelic sometimes, they’ve been trained in the grand old tradition of Broadway showtune, taught to fetishize enunciation and declaim every syllable in that bland, speechlike manner adored especially by vocal coaches. Fiddles, xylophones, flutes, and glittering keyboard effects intended to evoke stardust feature prominently in this cross-cultural synthesis, but the focus is always on our four songbirds and how magically they can project, and they perform many of these sacred hymns entirely a capella. Lest you suspect them of showing off, however, they include a number of unaccompanied bagpipe interludes. They also cover “Amazing Grace” and, of course, “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”

This group perfectly sums up the commercialized state of spirituality on the mass market. If their particular spiritual substance happens to be much vaguer than, say, the vast majority of Christian rock, well, that just means they’ll make more money, right?

The Fault in Our Stars: Music From the Motion Picture

The Fault in Our Stars(Atlantic, 2014) [BUY]

As high-budget promotional devices for a parent film, most soundtracks fail to cohere even as bad albums. Every now and then one will make sense conceptually, like The Great Gatsby, or epitomize existing social tendencies within the music business, as with The Fault in Our Stars. While occasionally one of the many self-styled troubadours compiled on the latter stumbles upon a hummable melody, usually they content themselves with textbook singer-songwriter schlock.

The movie is a cute flick about two kids with cancer who date for a while before one of them dies. I saw it in a theater where half the audience was in tears by the end, and despite some awkward acting and incredibly mannered dialogue, anyone who likes that kind of kitsch should find it perfectly enjoyable. This album is the movie’s closest musical equivalent, culminating a particular flavor of romantic introspection that has been making its way through the hipper circles of commercialized folk music all while tastefully masquerading as wholesome, family-friendly pop. Beyond the bouncy Charli XCX and a Swedish rap group that plays a minor role in the plot, these swooning balladers were explicitly chosen for the way they flaunt their sentimentality, for the way they ache and moan over their bleeding hearts. Nearly everything is calm, midtempo, melancholy. Beyond a few drummers poking their heads up here and there, the music mainly consists of keyboard arpeggios and especially the natural rhythms of mournfully strummed acoustic guitars. The vocals tend to be clear if a little mild, all the better to hear songs about poets, angels, and scars that rhyme with stars.

Despite what the young adult entertainment industry would have you believe, not all teenagers are soulful, sensitive beings who long for comfort, intimacy, and the freedom to express their feelings. In fact, neither are many adults. And for this we should be grateful.

The Rough Guide to Indian Classical Music

Rough Guide to Indian Classical(World Music Network, 2014) [BUY]

Although Indian classical must have a wider range than this album exhibits, World Music Network’s Rough Guides always do better when they cultivate specificity. Where 2010’s dilettantish, unfocused The Rough Guide to the Music of India zips all over the place from percussion jams to glitzy Bollywood hits to the subtler classical style collected here, The Rough Guide to Indian Classical Music strings together nine pieces so similar the record sounds seamless, and utterly mesmerizing.

This music’s basic trick is the tension between an extraordinarily peaceful surface and vast reserves of nervous energy underneath. It first comes across as a soundscape, a self-contained sonic environment that puts you in a better, nicer, more relaxed mood — but that very mood is what enables it to build up frightening levels of mystical intensity. Sparsely arranged, it often consists of as little as a single violin or sitar or lute plus a percussive element, both of which can take on equal importance. While “Raga Chhaya Nat” mainly functions as a long and beautiful lute solo backed by the droning, soothing tanpura, in “Ek Taal” some wind instrument repeatedly churns out the same gargantuan hook for seven minutes as the tabla players go into overdrive, clicking and whirring and pattering at lightning speed. Pitting virtuosos against each other in the spur of the moment, the improvisatory structure suggests a greater affinity with jazz than any kind of classical. But it really sounds like nothing else entirely — it’s so static yet so exciting, so loose yet so gripping, so rigid yet so warm, so cerebral yet so visceral. It’s a single unified slice of glowing tranquility.

Rushing and rocking, throbbing and shaking, this album’s tricky scales and paradoxical momentum achieve a drive Western trance music only aspires to. Let its supreme calm wash over you and it’ll feel like the ebbing and flowing of the ocean.

Deadmau5: while(1<2)

Deadmau5(Mau5trap/Astralwerks, 2014) [BUY]

The standard take on Joel Thomas Zimmerman is that he’s famous mostly for the mouse costume he wears on stage, except he also has a number of original ideas about how to construct electronic music that pop ideologues often overlook. Whatever these ideas happen to be, and I have no doubt that they exist, they fail to come across on record except in cryptic, garbled form.

At his best, which isn’t often — “Some Chords”, say, or “There Might Be Coffee” — Zimmerman is capable of truly disarming lyricism. Alternating plaintive, tender, ringing keyboard riffs with harsh percussive abrasion, he produces whole immersive musical landscapes without sacrificing the strong, dynamic beat. Bland and antiseptic though his basic sound may be, it really can lock into a groove, and often feels more conducive to life than most electronica, exploring its own secluded technological utopia. However, he also has the suspicious habit of surrounding these symphonic surges with long, spacey electrobleeps, extended mood pieces kept on infinite loop without even the tiniest change in the pattern. Thus his catchier moments function as grand, nearly religious climaxes, their level of rhythmic release having slowly been worked up to over the course of, say, this epic two-hour double album. Unfortunately, over the past few years his ambient side has completely taken over, and it dominates said double album so conclusively that even when he does deploy an exciting synth hook, it either gets lost in the backwash or gets repeated endlessly. This is the opposite of technological utopia; its impersonal, robotic interface and irritating computer noises turn oppressive, alienating, claustrophobic, like getting trapped inside a vacuum cleaner.

Yet more quiet, empty, atmospheric electronica, I was grumbling to myself, but I was being willful. Perhaps this goopy elevator music has no avant-garde ambitions whatsoever. Perhaps it’s just goopy elevator music.

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