Glasvegas

19Apr09

(David writing)

Months after a beloved flopped major-label release, the question about why it flopped is rarely as interesting as why you liked it in the first place. And of course Glasvegas is neither an unequivocal flop nor necessarily a flop at all. Maybe it will be one of those slow-burners, if Columbia decides they’re worth another round of promo. Which they likely will, because of course their flop status only exists outside the British Isles (OK, and Sweden).  Trying to explain why bands hit (and register artistically) in the UK and flop in the US is beyond my grasp and a bigger topic than I’d take on here anyway, but I’m interested in why I love Glasvegas and why they seem to confound a good number of critics as well as the pop/alt public, and it seems to be the same answer, because in some ways it confounds me that I love it.

      If you haven’t heard them, say their sound is triangulated by U2, Jesus & Mary Chain, and, um, Journey?  Ringing-echoey guitars swathed in feedback murk, grounded by utterly funkless drums and riffs, and wide-open-mouthed vocals with hearts hanging off of both sleeves. And if the description is both a turnoff yet somehow intriguing, they don’t sound like anything that distinctive on first hearing, which figures — like it or hate it, they’re fairly complex (or muddled), not the kind of band that makes a great first impression.

       Unless you know what to listen for, which I didn’t. I heard arena-ready U2 derivative, and expected to leave at that, until I read a review that made me realize I had to hear the one about the social worker (especially given the bad rep guidance counselors have been getting in song in recent years, specifically former daycare worker Kimya Dawson’s “Hold My Hand,” and Buffalo’s mom-led Wide Right’s “Royanne”).  And indeed, the one where former footballer James Allan triumphiantly  sings  “My name is Geraldine I’m your social worker,” without a hint of irony — really,  he’s crediting the social worker with saving lives, maybe his — is almost irresistible if “impassioned” is an adjective you value.  But of course it’s generally more complicated than that — Glasvegas’s songs and sound, and people’s tastes. The alt-czars at pitchfork.com complain that Glasvegas have no “restraint.” Which is precisely what I love about them, and the only thing that could make their music work.

    If there’s one thing I could complain about U2 is that they’ve always been too damn restrained — too rarely willing to let loose even when they make a show of it, too committed to their idea of positivity to allow much ugliness in their music, and usually too tasteful to find all the beauty at their disposal either. 

   If there’s one thing I could complain about Jesus & Mary Chain is that they’re too restrained too. Even their celebrated feedback always seemed more calculated than anarchic, their muted vocals and dark outlook generally suggest not a genuine animus against the world as it exists, but a level of discomfort within their own bodies.

    Holding it in was never Journey’s problem, except that in fact they hold everything in. There must be real people in there somewhere, but beneath the grandeur, the apparent heartfelt generosity, there’s almost nothing there — “Don’t Stop Believin'” aside, what very few specifics their lyrics reveal sound deliberately false, and the music does its damndest to avoid leaving traces of where it’s been either. Which of course is how millions of fans of pop and what was once called AOR like it, and you don’t need Journey to prove that either.

       But unlike all of the above, Glasvegas are utterly shameless. It helps that they choose meaty topics — the social worker savior, death of peers and parents, street fights avoided and street fights sought. But they don’t need them:   “It’s My Own Cheating Heart That Makes Me Cry” is hardly a novel pop song concept, not the subject matter, not the sentiment, not the admission. But who the hell dares to put it that way? They’re begging for a slap in the face, but they’re so daunting that instead you just gawk so long you forget to blink. Which connects you to Glasvegas, because they’re unblinking — another forlorn number is called “Lonesome Swan,” and before I was even sold on them, the completely desperate “Stabbed,” entirely spoken, over Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” registered not as appalling mawk but as a garishly risky Work of Art.  I mean, what the hell do you do with a terror-stricken “I’m gonna get stabbed” shifting into a last-ditch steel-yourself-up “You don’t wanna stab me. You don’t wanna stab me.” 

   Along with “Stabbed” and “Geraldine,” the other song that hit me the first time was “Daddy’s Gone.” Several plays in, I hear how Allan’s thought about what the loss of his father means to him now, what it might mean later, and how he lost before he lost him. But what struck me the first time was the way these born-in-the-’80s Scots take the bridge into doo-wop/”Little Darlin'” territory without intending or achieving parody or even distance — at times they do actually project that combination of angst and naivete that’s fueled much of the best teen-oriented rock & roll. And also the angst and naivete of a band whose naivete was often overlooked, if only because unlike all the other groups mentioned here, their music was so knowing: Nirvana. Because both band and vocalist were utterly fluid and enraged, a perfect fusion of punk and classic rock, with words that were hip and eloquent, it was easy to miss that part of the pain in Kurt Cobain’s yowls and murmurs were about an innocence he wished he hadn’t lost. It helps if you read the partly earned self-righteousness of the liner notes of Incesticide, or listen to that odds & sods album’s best song, “Sliver,” about how he was bored and ignored and loved by his family. “Gramma take me home, gramma take me home, gramma take me home, gramma take me home”…”I woke up in my mother’s arms.” How sappy, right?

   U2-Jesus & Mary Chain-Journey-Nirvana. That’s a little bit more intriguing, no? Glasgow, meet Aberdeen.



6 Responses to “Glasvegas”

  1. I get the Jesus and Mary Chain reference but Journey? Nirvana? JAMC + Oasis+Ronnie Spector and Ronnettes. “Daddy’s Gone” sounds like it is ripped off from the Ronnette’s “Be my Baby”.

    I think it sounds great but I think its a tad bit overrated. At times some of the songs sound very alike and in spaces doesn’t seem very well produced. For instance, on the opening track, why did they leave that “you are my sunshine” crap in there? Hire a producer for god’s sakes! Its like he is in love with his own voice. Granted he has a good voice but he is all over the place with it.

    Plenty of British rock records are overhyped. I think they pay attention to it more than Americans do and there music press is more aggressive than ours is in the states. I think we would be here all day if we sat here and counted the number of bands the NME promised to be world famous but didn’t.

    The reason it failed in America or will not become huge is that their is no alt rock/new rock radio in this country. WHO is going to premote this record? No help from MTV in America either(no surprise). NO air play on either medium-radio or TV- = NO SUCCESS.

    • 2 schweitzito

      I don’t pay enough attention to the workings of MTV or commercial radio, and I guess part of my point is that Glasvegas don’t sound hip enough for nonprofit radio, at least in the US (though the first time I heard them was on an NPR podcast.) And that turns out to be one thing I love about the album — see, I enjoy that “You are my sunshine” bit because it sounds so wrong at first. They risk flaunting bad taste like little pop and less indie rock does. But tasteful stuff doesn’t make an impact the way stuff that dares to be ugly or rude or even embarrassing can. And what gives risks support is the kind of confidence that brings on accusations like “He’s in love with his own voice.” I’d mind that in James Allan more if I didn’t agree with him.

  2. 3 Kenny

    The main thing you’ve done for me, David, is help me to explain why I was resistent to Nirvana at first and still don’t like them as much as I’m supposed to (and still like In Utero more then Nevermind). Melodrama is not confined to genres one doesn’t like. And if even I don’t think it adds anything to Springsteen, who earns it, I’m not going to change my mind for Glasvegas.

  3. Not that this has ever stopped someone before but Glasvegas sounds a bit too tied to their influences. When I listen to the album, I hear the Jesus and Mary Chain, the Brit pop/rock influence, and the 60’s Phil Spector thing the singer seems to be facinated with. Where on this album does it say this is Glasvegas. Something that when I hear it, I instantly identify with this band and not the influence.

    All things being said, I couldn’t understand why anyone would not like this band or album. I think they sound great. However, when you are talking about failing in the US or success in the US, what exactly is your definition of success for a band like Glasvegas?

    Are we talking about the Shins(indie stardom and some pop stardom) or the Killers(mega pop stardom) success or are we talking about something like what My Morning Jacket has achevied basically through grassroots efforts? Its not like GlasVegas is this “little itty bitty indie band that could”. They do have commericial appeal.

    All things considered, GlasVegas is good music. Shouldn’t good music be heard? I think the problem with indie rock or whatever you want to call it is that people like us sit here on a blog a dissect it like its a frog in science class. We search for every flaw it has and ignore what is great about it. We should just be asking “Is It good or bad,” or “Do you like this band or do you not.” It should be that simple.

    • 5 schweitzito

      Bill from Sandy Springs wrote: “…what exactly is your definition of success for a band like Glasvegas?”

      It’s an excellent question that I intentionally left unanswered in my original post. Bill, you came close to an indirect answer in your first reply when you wondered who would promote Glasvegas in the US. They wouldn’t be the first band of the Internet era who got screwed by signing with a major rather than an indie. Since the Internet transformed retail in the mid ’90s, indie rock labels, which had already been getting more attention thanks to Nirvana et al., the distribution barriers that once faced indies largely disappeared. If you heard about it, you could buy it far more easily (back in the ’80s, reviews of indie music were often accompanied by a mailing address) , and of course the internet made it much easier to hear about all sorts of music. So the advantage of signing with a major boiled down to far better radio access, hopefully an advance, and some promo money (which of course is part of radio access). But as you noted, broadcast radio is now more monolithic and closed-minded than ever, and satellite radio is a) only for those who care to pay and b) so segmented that from what I’ve read about it, it’s hard to be surprised by something new there either. The satellite audience just isn’t big or concentrated enough to break anybody. Also, major labels don’t spend much of anything anymore on promo on bands that aren’t already bigtime — a short-sighted business plan for damn sure.
      Glasvegas may have lost a lot of potential (Shins-like) alt-rock cred by washing up stateside on a major, and in return will get little promo oomph. They still stand a chance at a slow-burning momentum — the album could gradually snowball for 18 months, say — if they get more notice. But flop major-label albums, even of albums already successful in other countries, are dime-a-dozen. And a band that sells like the Shins on a major is a band that gets dropped fast. Obviously someone heard the possibility that they could be a whole lot bigger than the Shins, which is why they’re on Columbia. But on an indie they might have built a modest but loyal U.S. following. And of course there’s still a good chance they will. Of course, it all depends on whether they can follow it up.

      As for your other point, thumbs up/thumbs down takes me only so far. It’s just a lot more interesting to dissect the frog, because when criticism is any good, it’s also dissecting the whole community (of frogs?) and the critic him/herself. The unexamined life and all that. Also, from a practical matter, if people are reading to find out whether to try something, there’s only so much time in a day, even for trying 30-second samples (which is hardly an ideal way — if I’d never read a word about Glasvegas that 30 seconds would have been a turnoff. Sometimes risky stuff takes someone else’s more sympathetic reading to get me into something.) So it helps to know something about who’s giving the thumbs up, and that only happens through dissecting, as risky as it may be that the frog may not quite hop the same way afterwards.

  4. I have no intention of stopping “dissecting the frog” so to speak. Its what we do.

    I do think its easier now to buy music now than it was in the 80’s but I think its much easier to forget a band today than say 20 years ago. Music as a whole whether it be good music or bad, is much more disposable or forgettable as result of easy internet access/MP3 revolution.

    One of the only reasons I bring up radio with rock music is that we live in a much busier time. Some of us work two jobs or have a very busy one in addition to having a life outside of work. Their is very little time to stop to sit down and listen to a record. Sometimes the only time to hear new music is threw the radio on the way to work in the morning or during rush hour on the way back. It helps to have a good radio station to bring in good shows because I believe other good shows will be brought in by other people. If a town does not have a market for rock music, nobody comes to play their regardless of how big or small the artists are. Also not everybody has satellite radio yet. I would like to but I am too cheap to cough up the cash. That being said, without premotion of some kind, you are not selling anything.

    I like indie rock or whatever you want to call it but like pop music, it is very disposable too. There are a lot of great bands or artist but indie rock has kind of a flavor of the week quality. One week this band and this genre is the new great thing that people say is awesome and great. The next week it is something else. It’s very easy to forget about them and just move on.

    As far as Glasvegas is concerned- big label or small label- that band has a big sound. Some people intentionally think any band with a big sound like that is automatically on a big label and as result they steer clear of them. If you want to be successful at anything, you have to have some sort of launching pad to do so and GlasVegas does not(at least in the US).

    The hippy jamband Phish was an underground/college sensation in New England and maybe a few college towns in the south in the early 90’s but until they went on that H.O.R.D.E. Festival in like the summer of 1994 or 95 not many people other than college kids in New England knew who they were. Before signing with Elketra and doing the HORDE Festival NOBODY knew who they were. You have to have some sort of launching pad. Whether you love or hate them, Phish is a prime example of becoming successful without MTV and very little or no radio promotion.

    Personally, I couldn’t give a shit how big or small a band or artist is. I only care if it sounds good. I really do think pop music is disposable crap because that is just what it currently sounds like. Alot of times discussions like this come off as a bunch of hipster snobs complaining about pop music because it’s popular, I am NOT nor am I claiming to be a hipster. I just wanted to clear that up. However, I think its impossible not to judge something by how well or what level of merit it has achieved in some sort of way.


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