What I listened to in 2007: Notes

11Feb08

[Note:  My favorite album of 2007, Wussy’s Left For Dead, is reviewed at Wussy’s Left For Dead] 

Arcade Fire and Bruce Springsteen

David makes an interesting and not uncompelling argument in an essay on this blog (Bruce Springsteen’s Neon Bible) that Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible, which I like well-enough, and my number 2 record of the year, Bruce Springsteen’s Magic – the first top notch Springsteen album in 20 years (The Ghost of Tom Joad is decent, The Rising vague and overrated) – are more similar then they are different.  What he leaves out is this:  old fart Springsteen’s “Radio Nowhere” is about Neon Bible and it’s ilk, and I’m apparently enough of an old fart not so much as to agree with Springsteen as to know where he’s coming from. 

There are two old fart complaints in “Radio Nowhere”:  “I just want to hear some rhythm,” and “isn’t anybody in love out there?”  These two questions are precisely the distance from Springsteen to Neon Bible.  Jeremy Gara plays the rhythm so constricted that one wants to give him a kick in the ass, while Win Butler’s sharp, critical eye is so deeply constrained by vocal disaffection and disbelief it’s impossible to hear the love that must, judging by the biographies and some of the lyrics, drive the band. 

It is clear that the end of the Bush years are what inspired Springsteen’s sharpest political writing ever, just as they are central to the lyrics of Neon Bible.  But they are not what produced “I’ll Work for Your Love,” Magic’s drop dead masterpiece and the first song Springsteen, or anyone else, has written directly to Rosalita or Wendy since the mid-‘70s.  (She’s named Teresa this time.)  Beginning with Roy Bittan’s perfect ‘70s piano, it lays out the meaning of passion for old farts, with full emphasis on wrinkles, scars, bones and not “blood” but rather hands that bleed when they work.  Sure it was easy to want Rosalita, to metaphorize the motocycle as sex toy with Wendy, but what do Rosalita and Wendy look like now, and who will desire them?  Bruce Springsteen is finally answering that question, and with any luck if regime change happens in the U.S., which I for one do not count on (since I don’t count any random Democrat as regime change), maybe he’ll get around to an album of songs as lusty as “I’ll Work For Your Love” next time around.

The broader point is that smart young people, for the first time since the early Yes and Emerson, Lake and Palmer, are seeking artsong these days, and this has completely transformed indie rock from the stuff I used to love.  Whether you’re talking about the kinds of orchestrations in Arcade Fire or Voxtrot, the equally dispassionate boho poetry of the Hold Steady, or PJ Harvey, who’s almost my age anyway, getting all depressed and turning to continental Europe to find romantic models adequate to her depression (I don’t know, we didn’t read Goethe in the 1980s), what you’re talking about is artsong. 

I don’t claim “objectivity” when I say I still prefer Springsteen.  After all, every generation has to find it’s own form of passion, and if I don’t understand the marriage of Win Butler and Regine Chassagne, there’s no reason they should care.  What I do claim is that the plaints of old farts can expose meaningful social issues just as readily as those of young turks, and that the success of Magic is one more definitive sign that quality rock and roll need not be driven by the next big thing.

M.I.A. and Youssou N’Dour

After Left for Dead and Magic, the albums I fell for most this year were M.I.A.’s Kala and Youssou N’Dour’s Rokku mi Rokka, and not because I understand them much.  Kala  feels at least as aesthetically distant to me as the Hold Steady (though perhaps more significantly, it doesn’t feel more distant) – and N’Dour of course doesn’t sing in English and translations of his lyrics make him seem like nothing other than the appropriately liberal rock star he no doubt is, so it takes particular acts of the imagination for me to enter the imagined community of the most internationally successful non-American black musician since Bob Marley. 

I found Arular too spare and forbidding.  I began to grasp Kala in its sound effects and samples, and by the time my favorite track, “Paper Planes,” rolls around with its late Clash sample, handclaps, gunshots, cash register, and too-slow-to-dance beat, my lame ass is finally convinced.  Everybody’s been quoting “I’ve got more records then the KGB,” while forgetting that these records really are as much a reference to “third world democracy” in the line before as anything having to do with music.

Grasping N’Dour was different for me, both because his career is easier to intellectualize at this point (it is longer, after all) and because I saw him at SFJazz (at the Masonic Auditorium, thoroughly inappropriate for someone putting on an arena rock concert).  What the Masonic performance did was allow me to watch him get a bunch of English speakers off their seats with energy and charisma simple steamrollering over our inability to know what he is singing about with smiles and gestures and patter and four percussionists and the world’s greatest voice. 

Going backward, I considered what I really knew about N’Dour.  Leader of a big, horn-hooked band that made 15 minute dance tracks sold on the streets of Paris and Dakar in the 1970s.  Became the model minority for Peter Gabriel, Sting, and the English art rock crowd when Africa rather than America seemed like an appropriately classy place to go looking for British beats, with N’Dour making generally mediocre albums through the 1980s ( only heard two of them) while building a large international audience.  And then the recent run that includes three strikingly different albums:  Nothing’s In Vain (folk), Egypt (religious), and Rokku Mi Rokka, his first rock album in 30 years as a recording artist, all guitars, vocal hooks, and 3-4 minute rhythm workouts.  If you’re a rocker and have never heard him before, the new record is really the place to get acquainted.

Other 2007 records I endorse, in order of preference:

5. Against Me, New Wave

6. Miranda Lambert, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend 

7. Lucinda Williams, West

8. Lily Allen, Alright, Still

9. Look Directly Into the Sun:  China Pop 

10. Art Brut, It’s a Bit Complicated

[11. Neon Bible]

12. Bright Eyes, Cassadega

13. Imperial Teen, The Hair, the TV the Baby and the Band

14. Manu Chao, La Radiolina

15. Rilo Kiley, Under the Blacklight

16. Pharaoh Monch, Desire

17. Voxtrot, Voxtrot

18. Tigers and Monkeys, Loose Mouth

19. Patti Smith, Twelve

20. Modest Mouse, We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank
 

Five Star songs, 2007, in no particular order

I’ll Work For Your Love, Bruce Springsteen

Magic, Bruce Springsteen

God’s Camaro, Wussy

Sun Giant Says Hey, Wussy

Thrash Unreal, Against Me

Paper Planes, M.I.A.

I Must Belong Somewhere, Bright Eyes

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One Response to “What I listened to in 2007: Notes”

  1. 1 David

    I think Arcade Fire have art-arrangements, but not art-song. They have a few tempo shifts here and there, but the songs-as-songs reveal themselves as approximately as straight-ahead as Magic’s — and more straight-ahead than, say, “Jungleland” or “New York City Serenade.”

    Isn’t it “Is anybody alive out there?” And regardless, I hear a ton of love in Win Butler’s voice. I mean, Springsteen isn’t anyone I’d ordinarily want on my team in Battle of the Vocalists — I think Butler’s whine is no more forced than Springsteen’s bellow. Butler only really sings about love at the end of the album, when bemoaning that his physicality somehow gets in the way of his presumably sexual passion, and I think it’s the iffiest song there. But when he digs into paradoxes like “Eating in the ghetto on a hundred-dollar plate” or “Working for the church while your family dies” or even “My body is a cage/ That keeps me from dancing with the one I love” , and prophecies (not generally my kind of thing) like “The tide is high/ and it’s rising still/And I don’t want to see it at my windowsill” or “Not much chance for survival/If the Neon Bible is right,” he’s connecting me to a kind of passion I’m not accustomed to in rock, or anywhere. Bowieesque, Bonoesque, it feels false on the surface and stagey after that, but it cuts deep like I never expected it to. It gave me an inkling of what it might have been like to hear Patti Smith and/or Bruce Springsteen for the first time more than 30 years ago, and then get over the initial sense of overkill.
    At least temporarily, he’s cured me of my instinctive prejudice against the arty surface and the whine. I’m not even sure that’s a good thing — I spent more time with Of Montreal than I might have otherwise. But for damn sure it’s another “world with some soul,” and evidence that someone’s alive out there.


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