Monday, February 9, 2009

Kanye, The Gaslight Anthem, and the Everlasting Importance of the Album

I was watching Saturday Night Live completely by default before the New Year and caught Kanye West performing the song “Love Lockdown” from his latest album 808’s & Heartbreaks. I was curious because I hadn’t heard the album (never been that big of a fan), but the buzz had been telling me that 808’s was staunchly different from anything West had previously done. As always, listen to the buzz. I completely stopped what I was doing (in this case, I wasn’t doing anything, which is why I was watching Saturday Night Live in the first place, but if I was, I would have stopped doing it) and just focused on the television. I was blown away. I couldn’t even figure out what genre of music I was supposed to be watching. Was this hip-hop? Electronic? Rock? I hadn’t the first damn clue, which is probably one of the reasons Kanye’s performance was so captivating.

At least, to me.

Ironically, someone who had never been that big of a fan was one of the few persons that actually liked what Kanye was trying to do. The mass public thought it was the worst musical performance on Saturday Night Live since Ashlee Simpson tried to pull a “Cyrano de Bergerac” on live television. (That reference actually works on two levels if you think of Simpson before her rhinoplasty escapades.) Maybe Kanye’s voice was a little flat (in an exchange of emails, Scott went as far as to call the performance “really bad and awkward”), I don’t know, I was too busy watching a performance that, by most standards, would be completely illogical for an artist in his prime. It was as if I finally understood and appreciated Kanye West’s career in one four-minute “really bad and awkward ” span. He takes risks and remains devoid of predictability. This is why his career is prone to mistakes, but never boredom. And I could just tell that “Love Lockdown” was a great song, and that 808’s was an album that I would soon own.

Take note of the word “album.” Even though “Love Lockdown” was still the only song I had heard (how up to this point I had missed out on “Robocop” is beyond me), I wanted the entire album. Handing over $0.99 to Steve Jobs for one song wasn’t going to get the job done. Sometime after 2009, the album was purchased and quickly solidified as a favorite. (Purchased might be a stretch. “Burned” is probably technically accurate. Hey, read the paper, times are tough.)

To that end, another album comes to mind. A few weeks ago Brian urged me to check out The ’59 Sound by The Gaslight Anthem. I procrastinated. For whatever reason, I’m awfully hesitant to listen to something when it comes in the form of a recommendation. Well, here’s a lesson: When you have friends with whom you share a somewhat analogous musical taste, and they recommend music based on what they think will be compatible with your musical profile, you should listen. Nine times out of 11 you’ll be happy that you did.

And as for The Gaslight Anthem, well I certainly couldn’t be happier. I started listening to The ’59 Sound about three days ago and have only stopped to sleep, go to work, and have a meal or two. It’s that fucking good. It’s Springsteen music for a generation of music listeners who would look at a picture of Steven Van Zandt and think “Silvio Dante” well before they would ever think "guitar player for the E-Street Band." About half-way through the first spin, I called my brother and told him I think I had discovered something he might want to check out. By the time the album was over, I was calling him back and leaving an impassioned voicemail demanding he get this record. I was sending out text messages, banging on neighbors' doors--anything to spread the wealth.

It’s a bit weird listening to The Gaslight Anthem. For all intents and purposes they’re about my age, and they play this sort of essentially-American rock music and sing about classic cars, roller-skates, and pinball machines. But it works. Oh, man, does it work. Somewhere Brandon Flowers is listening to The ’59 Sound and thinking to himself, “Oh, yeah, that’s what Sam’s Town was supposed to sound like.” Now, I’m one of the few that actually has a soft spot for Sam’s Town, but I don’t how see how even the biggest Killers apologist can’t concede that it slightly missed the mark. The ’59 Sound doesn’t. And I have now reached that point where I am actually trying to conjure up any semblance of will power I have to not listen to the record. I don’t want to ruin the buzz too soon. I don’t want to be listening to The ’59 Sound a month from now and just feel like I’m chasing the musical dragon. But so far, so good, and I have plenty of music lying around that will keep any side-effects of withdrawal from being too painful.

Both 808's & Heartbreaks and The '59 Sound came out in late 2008. And I’m focusing on a couple of late-2008 albums for two reasons. First, I want a mulligan, make that two, on my best-of 2008 album list. (Sorry MGMT,Hold Steady…you’re out.) Music is one of the few things where it’s generally not considered cool to be fashionably late. But I’m here to tell you it’s okay. I had never listened to Loveless by My Bloody Valentine until this past year and we all seemed to survive just fine, didn’t we? (Perhaps this will be the year I’ll get around to listening to that Slanted and Enchanted nonsense.) And did I just reveal that year-end lists are completely meaningless and selective at best? Yes. Yes, I did. But they’re fun, and their lack of relevance is news to no one.

Second, and most important, even in 2009, albums still mean something. Anyone can pay attention to a three minute single, but it takes discipline to spend time with an album. I have no idea what song owned the 2005 Grammy Awards, but I rue the day I ever forget what won Album of the Year. (Okay, bad example.) But my favorite albums would all be incomplete with even the worst track missing. The setup is as important as the climax. You wouldn't read just a couple of random chapters out of a great book, and you wouldn't buy OK Computer and only listen to "Karma Police." (Alright, maybe you would, but you shouldn't.)

Word is people aren’t really buying albums these days. Labels and musicians know it, and the whole idea seems to be slowly dying. Bands are now finding new ways to get their songs heard. Fine with me. But if ten years from now the only way I can listen to my favorite band is through singular form, or by watching a commercial from the Super Bowl, or having to buy the latest edition of Guitar Hero, then that’s going to really suck.

When recently being interviewed by Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune, Billy Corgan was asked if the Smashing Pumpkins were done making albums. He responded, “We’re done with that. There is no point. People don’t even listen to it all. They put it on their iPod, they drag over the two singles, and skip over the rest. The listening patterns have changed, so why are we killing ourselves to do albums, to create balance, and do the arty track to set up the single? It’s done.” Well, bravo to that kind of thinking, I guess, but I don’t think people were forced to listen to Cut the Crap by the Clash all the way through just because it happened to predate the iPod. No, they pointed the needle in the direction of “This Is England” and then went on about their day. So tell me how listening patterns have changed?

And if they have changed, maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe iTunes has actually raised the standard for what people will now accept as an album. The consumer is now enabled to only pay for three songs if there are only three songs worthy of one's attention. With all due respect to Corgan (and I’m usually the only person this side of Hipsters United that argues he deserves any), if he wants a collection of songs to be treated as one big happy family, the solution is rather simple. Record 10-12 songs and prove they all belong. Kanye did it. So did The Gaslight Anthem. And somehow I doubt they will be the last to successfully conquer this "outdated" phenomenon. Put out a good album, and we will listen to it. Above example notwithstanding, we will even buy it. And although we might occasionally be late to the party, we'll get there eventually.



Audrey said...

Itunes and digitalized music has put the control more in the hands of the listener. So if we don't want to wade through an album to get to the best tracks, then we don't have to. It feeds our ADHD brains, our need for instant gratification. It may ruin the casual listener's appreciation for an album in it's entirety, but I doubt it'll detract crazies like ourselves who still get wildly impatient over ripping the cellophane wrapping off the cd (and that retarded label that is on top) and taking it from the top.

jjb said...

I too love 808s and Heartbreak, and I feel similarly re: his awesomely daring recent TV performances. To my minor credit I had managed to get into Kanye slightly earlier: when I saw on TV his performance at Live Earth. That wasn't quite as daring but I sure thought "woah, this guy is some performer."

Re: Corgan, he will put out an albumlike group of songs sooner or later, and I bet sooner. You simply can't read too much into any one interview with the guy. He shoots from the hip, but fortunately he also doesn't let himself get pinned down by his past pronouncements.

jjb said...

Also, well played on the veiled Albini reference :)

Alex said...

Thanks, I had a feeling only a select few (Corgan fans) would get that reference. I almost cited but that that interview has apparently been vanquished from the Internets.

Jim P. said...

I completely agree about Kanye's SNL performance. I thought it was amazing - I think that his voice sounded like crap made it better, more intimate and personal or something. I haven't heard the album yet but 'll give it a listen. after reading this.

Also, I've kind of started to listen to the Gaslight Anthem album. It's perilously close to too poppy, but I think it's really good. It's hard to make a traditional rock album that isn't horrible.

Brian said...

If I'm understanding Audrey and Alex correctly, we all agree that purchasing patterns, not listening patterns, have changed. Now that we can buy only one track, many of us do buy only one track, but I think Corgan is dead fucking wrong to change what he does to fit a market paradigm that might not last. License a song to (or write a new one for) a video game, but don't only do that. Everyone predicted the death of vinyl with the advent of digital technology, but it's still going strong. My points: Don't undersell your public by catering to trends. Don't forget the niches, because they'll always be there, waiting to rip the cellophane wrapping off the CD or LP.

Gaslight Anthem are totally rad. I love that record because it's honest. You really (really, really) have to believe in a line like, "I learned about the blues from this kitten I knew. / Her hair was raven and her heart was like a tomb." Gaslight Anthem and singer/lyricist Brian Fallon remind me most of a less literary Okkervil River and Will Sheff.

Nate said...

I'm on the Gaslight Anthem bandwagon too. I got hooked a little while back when amazon mp3's offered one of their songs for free.

Jim P. said...

I think the album/song argument should break down along the lines of what the artist thinks is the best format to get their stuff out there. Brian is right that they shouldn't do what the market demands. If a band considers themselves to be a singles band, then by all means release single tracks. If you're an album band, do that. Radiohead has been talking about putting out a series of EPs instead of a proper album for years now.

While I think the music industry as a whole is basically completely fucked, I think things are good now in that bands don't have to always put their music out on an album. They can go the single route, or even the guitar hero route. And as long as it's the band choosing what to do, and even though I'm an album guy to the core, I'm fine with that.

Brian said...

Jay Reatard has the "singles band" thing on lock. And since we're (kind of) on the subject, who remembers cassingles? Man, those things were stupid. Cassettes in general were stupid. They just felt insubstantial and impermanent, and there was simply no way you could make them last. No matter how much care you took with them, by their nature they would decay.

Jim P. said...

Cassettes weren't stupid from the time the Walkman was invented to the time the Discman was invented. Unless you had a Recordman or something.

Alex said...

Cassettes were not stupid, and I disagree with the notion that they weren't durable. You could throw one of those across the room and it would still work. Try that with a CD or a record.

Brian, I'm hearing the Will Sheff / Brian Fallon connection all that much. Maybe if Sheff would smoke about 6 packs a day.

Scott said...

I borrowed my wife's cousin's I-Pod while vacationing in Canada a few years ago. He is in college and I was curious to see what was going on in his music world. I was agast. The whole thing was full of singles. The poor kid had no idea what album Karma Police was from. he didn't know that Lucy in the Sky was from an album Called Sgt. Peepers Lonely Hearts Club Band. He had no idea that there was any point or relevenace to when a song was created during the evolution of a band. I felt really sorry for him and really scared for his geeneration.

Brian said...

Scott, I'm not familiar with this Sgt. Peepers Lonely Hearts Club Band album...

Alex, I wasn't relating the sound of Gaslight Anthem/Fallon to the sound of Okkervil River/Sheff, because the two bands' approaches couldn't really be more different. I was talking about content. They write about the same type of shit. The sentiment behind a lot of GA songs reminds me of the sentiment behind a lot of OR songs.

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