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Lyric Man

My review of tUnE-yArDs has gotten quite a few responses (well, in BDWPS terms, 3 responses is a reader outpouring) and most comments have said something like “I’m not a lyric person.” This infers that I am a “lyric person”, whatever that is.  At first I accepted this label; I do, in fact, love great lyrics, whether they enlighten me, affect my emotions, or connect to my life and my experiences.

But the more I’ve thought about it, the more I feel that I shouldn’t be branded as simply a “lyric man.”  My enjoyment of many of the albums that have come out this year has nothing to do with lyrics. Many have no lyrics at all (Geotic, Colin Stetson, Earth) while others are in languages I don’t even understand: Davila 666 (Puerto Rico), Aurelio (Honduras), Ponytail (Rivendell).  And even the albums with English lyrics that I’ve been listening to are not filled with poetic language. Snowman’s best song “Hyena” on their album “Absence” (which I recently rated a 9 out of 10) consists primarily of the word “Hyena” being repeated over and over and over again.   Why would I expect a musician to also be a great writer? No one ever expected Robert Frost to be able to write great music to coincide with his poetry (although I heard he was into black metal).

So, no. I’m not a lyric man. In reality, I side more with the masses who responded to my tUnE-yArDs review (yes, all three of them). Brain research would suggest that a lyric “man” doesn’t even exist. I believe that females are more likely to fit in the legion of “lyric people.” The female brain is generally more empathetic and superior to men when it comes to language-based thoughts due to their larger frontal lobe.  The male brain, on the other hand, is more commonly associated with strength in breaking things down and analyzing them.  In a nutshell, women listen to the lyrics while the man is breaking down the music (obviously this a generalized, semi-sexist, uneducated hypothesis, but it is my view nonetheless). This supposed “lyric man” I keep hearing about is about as realistic as Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster.

This brings me back to tUnE-yArDs “W H O K I L L”.  For a guy who can joyfully listen to an hour of Ponytail’s Molly Siegal shout “Wha? Dobeeeda? Jabajojo!” for 40 minutes, it takes a lot for lyrics to annoy me.  But Merrill Garbus accomplished it.  The fact that the music on her album is refreshing, energetic, and fun only magnifies how bad the lyrics have to be to make the album so irritating. Her lyrics are like Keanu Reeves in “The Matrix”, totally taking the viewer out of what is an otherwise great movie. I’m not saying my lyrics have to be like Christian Bale in “The Fighter”. Marky Mark Wahlberg will suffice: sure, he’s getting out-acted by everyone else in the cast, but he’s able to tread generally unnoticed and not totally distract the viewer from the film.

Then again, when lyrics are truly great, they can take an album to a higher level.  Looking at my top 10 albums list of 2011, I can pinpoint five albums that are profoundly impacted by their lyrics.  Titus Adronicus’s “Monitor” is a lesson in allusion, constantly jumping from references to the Civil War, Bruce Springsteen, and Patrick Stickle’s own personal struggles, all woven together into a brilliant patchwork.  Arcade Fire’s “Suburbs” is packed with lyrics that all fit within an overall theme of alienation and lost innocence. And No Age’s “Everything in Between” lyrics aesthetically match the world within the music, with the noise being a character in the narrative, representing that one thing that makes us all ache.

I take it all back. I am a lyric man.  Please welcome me into the fold Mr. Loch Ness.

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The Grammys.

As Christina Aguilera stood at mid-field last weekend preparing for her Super Bowl flub of the national anthem, the announcer echoed in the background “Grammy award winning artist Christina Aguilera!” I giggled to myself finding this supposed “honor” to be a joke.  The Grammys are about as respectable as Brett Favre’s dick pics. But this did make me wonder if the Grammys have always been so misguided.  With another year of lackluster Super Bowl commercials, I soon after found myself researching the award’s history in the Album of the Year category (the only category that really matters), and what I found is that the Grammys were NEVER good. There is a pattern of ineptitude that reaches back all the way to the Grammy’s beginnings.

In the 1960s Frank Sinatra won album of the year three times, Barbara Streisand won in 1964 with the cleverly titled “Barbara Streisand Record”, and Bob Newhart won in 1961 (yes, a comedy album won album of the year).  I have no problem with old blue eyes, but think of all the classic albums of the 60s not represented here.  No “Pet Sounds”; no “Are You Experienced?”; no “Highway 61 Revisited”.  Dylan wouldn’t win the award until 1998 – inexcusable.  The Beatles were possibly the only deserving winner of the 60s with “Sergent Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” in 1969, but even our cherished Beatles struggled to gain love from the Grammys with this being the only album of the year award they ever won.

This out-of-touch voting continued through the 70s with the awards beginning to insult the art form that is the album by awarding a live album (“The Concert for Bangla Desh”) and a soundtrack (“Saturday Night Fever”).  I’m sorry, but neither of these should even be considered albums of the year. I’m sure the Bangla Desh deal was a good cause, and yes, “Saturday Night Fever” had some toe-tappers for the times, but album of the year? How much thought goes into basically making a disco mix-tape? Stevie Wonder won the award three times in the decade, which is all fine and dandy, but you won’t find any Neil Young (he’s never won any AOTY Grammys for his solo work),  no David Bowie (ditto), no Black Sabbath (do I even need to say it?), and no Velvet Underground (…you guessed it).

(Also no Springsteen, Zep, Floyd, Stones, Kinks, Who, Mitchell, etc, etc, etc…)

In the 80s, they got their heads on straight for a couple of years, giving the award to John Lennon in ‘82 for “Double Fantasy”, to Michael Jackson in ’84 for “Thriller”, and in ’87 when they gave it to Paul Simon for “Graceland”.  But these classics are over-shadowed by probably the worst decade of Grammy winning mishaps that included George Michael, Toto, Lionel Richie, and Christopher Cross (although Mr. Cross did have stiff competition in 1981 with Barbara Streisand and Frank Sinatra – Grammy zombies!).

In the 90s they figured things out, right? Wrong. This was the decade of awarding “Unplugged” albums, two of them in fact (and no, it wasn’t Nirvana or Alice in Chains).  How can the album of the year be a recording of old dudes (Tony Bennett and Eric Clapton) performing their greatest hits acoustically?!  You will not find one “grunge” album in the award’s history during the 90s, which makes sense, right? Who needs Nirvana when you’ve got “The Bodyguard” soundtrack? Plus, weren’t the 90s truly defined by Natalie Cole, Bonnie Rait, and Celine Dion?

The 90s also brought in another horrible pattern: the guest appearance album.  In the past 20 years, artists like Quincy Jones, Santana, Ray Charles, and Herbie Hancock have each won for “albums” comprised from buffet-style track lists,  a series of songs featuring a wide array of guest singers.  Once again, I’m not saying these albums are necessarily horrible, and I understand this is a starting line-up for the rock-and-roll hall-of-fame (another confused music entity), but do they really fit the definition of what makes a great album?  Does the voting committee even know what a good album is?

I’ll say it again: they are out-of-touch. And last year showed the award reach an all-time low with a ballot that consisted of Dave Matthews Band, Lady Gaga, The Black Eyed Peas, Beyonce, and Taylor Swift (where’s Barbara Streisand when you need her?). Swift won the award because, really, what’s more thought-provoking than an album based on the trials and tribulations of a teenage girl.   This year is not much better with Lady Gaga making a second appearance alongside Katie Perry, Lady Antebellum, and Eminem.

But there is one beacon of hope on this year’s ballot: Arcade Fire’s “Suburbs”.  Some may disagree with me that it’s the best album of 2010, but I doubt anyone in their right mind would argue that it’s not the best in this line-up of hacks. Many writers believe Eminem will win which is hard to imagine considering “Recovery” isn’t even the best rap album of the year (Kanye West, The Roots, Big Boi).  But then again, it wouldn’t be surprising if he won based off the voters past penchant for awarding artists who are over ten years past their prime.

You may ask why I even care. The Grammys have always be pointless; why would I even want Arcade Fire to win? Part of me doesn’t (it’s become almost an insult; a scarlet letter).  Then again, the thought of an album off of Merge Records getting a Grammy? That would represent something big, an indie label winning the top award, a sign to  the major labels that there end is near. Artists no longer need radio or MTV to succeed; thanks to YouTube, iTunes, Pandora, internet radio, and a plethora of other technological advances, people finally have the ability to decide what’s good on their own.

But I’m not filled with pure hate here for the Grammys. In fact,  I’d like to see the Grammys become respected like the Academy Awards. When the Oscar’s list of the best films comes out, many rush out to see all the films before the awards. Can you imagine the same happening in response to the Grammys? The Academy Awards ability to build this excitement for their nominees is due to the fact that they don’t nominate films based on popularity; they nominate them simply on content. What a concept.

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Future of the Music Video

I thought the age of the music video had passed us by.  I understand that you can still view videos on the web, but the days of music television are obviously long gone.  The ancient classics like “Headbanger’s Ball”, “120 Minutes”, and “Yo! MTV Raps” have since been replaced by “Jersey Shore”, “Teen Mom”, and “The Hills”; each being equally devoid of both music and intelligence.  But this isn’t a blog about the cesspool that is MTV and VH1.  This is about a new day in the genre of the music video.

Simply putting video footage to music is no longer going to cut it.  Just like any other web gem, it now requires that the video have a buzz about it; something that is going to keep viewers coming back for more, until the song has been engrained into your brain.

OK Go wouldn’t be around anymore if it wasn’t for their ingenious video “Here It Goes Again” which utilizes the art of the treadmills. It’s basically a poor man’s Jamiroquoi:

In the past couple weeks two bands have emerged with a new approach to the music video format that may revive the dying art form.  Last week Arcade Fire released their interactive video for “We Used to Wait”.  In the personalized video powered by Google Chrome, you are prompted to enter the address to your childhood home and then go on to watch as clips of a hooded stranger running to the beat are spliced with swooping Google Earth images of your old stomping grounds (unfortunately, my childhood home is located in an area of the United States that Google Earth seems to ignore, so I was forced to enter other addresses I’ve lived at over the years).

Soon after, a blank canvas appears, and you are asked to use your mouse to write a message to your younger self. As you write, the letters magically transform into a tree like font with branches sprouting for crows to perch upon (I would like to believe these are time traveling messenger pigeons).  By the time I first watched/interacted with the video, I’d already heard the song “We Used to Wait” and the album “Suburbs”, but I had never really felt the same bond I had with Arcade Fire’s “Funeral”.  But when I entered this video/journey/reflection, I found myself connecting with the lyrics on an entirely new level. By the end of the experience, I gained a better understanding of myself and my past; something I never got from old Radiohead videos, as visually stunning as they may have been.  The experience forced me to return to “Suburbs” and give it a much more reflective ear, eventually finding that the album is just as intense and thought-provoking as anything the band had done prior. I don’t know if that connection with the album would have ever happened without the interactive experience.

Try the video out here (if it doesn’t work, you’re probably from Northwest Iowa):

http://www.thewildernessdowntown.com/

I understand that all bands don’t have the funding or connections to create a Google Chrome Experiment, but Das Racist’s latest interactive video proves it doesn’t take the assistance of Google or the help of Pixar to move into this new form of media.   For their song “Who’s That Brooown”, das Racist created a playable Nintendo style video game that references classic NES games ranging from “Frogger”, “Elevator Action”, “Tetris”, “Double Dragon”, and “Skate Or Die”. I’ve never been a fan of Das Racist, but just like the “Super Mario” theme is forever running through my mind,  by the level two fight scene in the subway, Das Racist’s fun lil’ diddy was already running on a loop in my head. Not only is the song catchy, but it works as the perfect background to the tongue-in-cheek nostalgic gameplay. In fact, their lyrics of “Larry Bird”, and “Mel Gibson” even add more depth to the retro-experience. Through the game, I found a new appreciation for the band’s 80s nostalgic lyrics and old school beats.

You can try the unbeatable game here:

http://dasracist.net/whosthatbrown.html

Or just watch the video that shows all the various Nintendo-inspired scenes:

A simple music video is no longer going to cut it. All the Christopher Walken cameos and bootie shaking will not be enough to draw the attention of our easily distracted masses. What Arcade Fire and Das Racist have done goes beyond creative marketing; this is about connecting with your audience on an entirely new level.   I used to love the music videos of Beck, Radiohead, and Bjork because they were either funny, thought-provoking, or mind-boggling, but never did they take the piece of music to a higher level, to take it beyond the television set.

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