All posts by Jake Brown

Obsession, Insanity and Fanaticism

There’s a new article about Syd Barrett on Last Plane to Jakarta. As with the vast majority of John Darnielle’s writing, this piece is at times hilarious and insightful and celebratory and sad. He hits pretty close to home for me in one of his famous “footnotes” discussing the track, “Opel” which remained unreleased until 1988:

It was a great moment for music, but a terrible moment for obsessive people around the world. For years we’d wondered what might lay gathering dust on some London studio shelf or in a Cambridge bedroom — what hidden treasures, what lost masterpieces? When sub-par material is unearthed, there’s hope for us: perhaps someday we’ll learn to enjoy what we have and stop losing sleep wondering whether there are unreleased full-band recordings from the Birthday Party’s final, turbulent, incredible year together. Perhaps we will stop digging through the endless morass of the internet trying to find Joy Division bootlegs we haven’t heard yet. (There are none.) Then something like “Opel” turns up — a lost recording that confirms the possibility that the very best stuff is still unheard. There is no hope for us, my friends. We are doomed to our sad record-collector existences.

I’ve done my share of obsessing. And I can tell you that it’s not healthy. I’ve driven myself pretty close to the edge of some fairly Syd-like insanity over some bands in my day. And it’s bad. You end up burning yourself out after while. That’s why you’ve got to learn to take it slow. Take it easy. You gotta just get it under control. Can stop any time. I’m still a record collecting addict, but I’ve learned to manage my addiction.

I went through a phase in high school when I bought every Smiths twelve-inch. That was a difficult thing to do on a part-time dishwasher’s wages in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Thank God for Vinyl Solution and Zak’s Diner, I guess. Herm at Vinyl kept that Smiths bin well-stocked and my Zak’s let me work just enough to buy my records. After I owned everything ever released (the elusive “This Charming Man” single was the final Holy Grail), I stopped listening to them. Almost completely. Only recently have I let them back into my life again. Slowly. And with an objectively critical ear. Johnny Marr’s production doesn’t sound nearly as perfect to me as it used to. It sounds muddy and overproduced a lot of times. You don’t really need twenty-five layers of guitar parts on one song, do you? And Morrissey’s lyrics which I once swallowed hook, line and stinker now mostly sound overdramatic and silly. But there are moments that cut through the nostalgia and still stand up on their own. “I Know It’s Over” is still a beautiful song. My man Phil is working on an extended feature about people’s continuing obsession with the Smiths. I look forward to seeing what he uncovers in the souls of all those people who are still feeling what I once felt.

Hunter Thompson for president in 2004

Hunter Thompson for president in 2004

He never claimed to be anything but a nice guy and an athlete… And now Dr. Hunter S. Thompson is finally back on ESPN Page 2 after his summer vacation:

This is going to be a very expensive war, and Victory is not guaranteed — for anyone, and certainly not for anyone as baffled as George W. Bush. All he knows is that his father started the war a long time ago, and that he, the goofy child-President, has been chosen by Fate and the global Oil industry to finish it Now. He will declare a National Security Emergency and clamp down Hard on Everybody, no matter where they live or why. If the guilty won’t hold up their hands and confess, he and the Generals will ferret them out by force.

Good luck. He is in for a profoundly difficult job — armed as he is with no credible Military Intelligence, no witnesses and only the ghost of Bin Laden to blame for the tragedy.

Yes, indeed. I think it’s time I pack up my wife and dogs and move to Woody Creek and start my own compound. Weekly updates from this political guru are not nearly enough to keep me fixed up. I need a fat shot of HST!

Please stop flying into buildings

Please stop flying into buildings

God help us. I get into work today to find a group of people staring at the television. Just as I realize that the smoking building is the World Trade Center, I see a plane fly right into the second tower and explode. Live on tv.

All the major news websites are totally down right now. Either overwhelmed or just plain off. This is fucked up.

The latest problem with music

It’s really a shame that Steve Albini’s famous article from 1994, The Problem with Music, is now more applicable than ever. I’d love to read an updated version of this article with sections dealing with how studio engineers, producers and label executives convince bands to “fix” all their mistakes with computer programs such as ProTools, thereby removing any trace of “soul” from the recordings. Check out this handy feature of the latest version of ProTools:

Automatic Tempo Detection and Conforming
The new Beat Detective™ feature saves hours of editing time by analyzing a performance, intelligently correcting timing, then automatically smoothing the edits.

Isn’t that nifty? No longer does your drummer need to keep a beat! He can be all over the place and the computer program will “intelligently correct” it. Never mind the fact that the occasional, subtle change of tempo can add to the emotional atmosphere of a recording. Just ask Ringo Starr. To quote Beatles producer, George Martin: “…[A]lthough Ringo does not keep time with a metronome accuracy, he has unrivaled feel for a song. If his timing fluctuates, it invariably does so in the right place at the right time, keep the right atmosphere going on the track and give it a rock solid foundation.”

And how about the Pitch Doctor plug-in, also known as the Pitch Bitch? “When an out-of-tune performance is a problem, PitchDoctor is nothing less than a session-saving miracle. Simply enter the desired key and scale, and Pitch Doctor automatically adjusts the intonation of any out-of-tune notes.” This of course is how the WB channel can take four obviously talentless girls and turn them into Popstars. If you watched any of that show, you could tell from the finalists’ auditions that it was going to take a great deal of studio trickery to make these gals sound slick.

Slick. Polished. Professional. That’s what these new tools can make your band sound like. I would be willing to bet that the Beat Detective and the Pitch Bitch were used on the new Weezer album, stripping it of the soul and charm that the Blue Album — whose formula the new album copied to the letter — had by the boatload. And they’re used by every major label band out there. And by a lot of indies too. Slick. Polished. Professional. Isn’t that great! Isn’t that what rock and roll is all about?

Digging up Kurt Cobain

Kurt CobainIn an article in the recent Music Issue of the New Yorker, Robert Christgau reviews Heavier Than Heaven by Charles R. Cross, a new biography of Kurt Cobain. It sounds like it’s a pretty well-researched book and apparently the author had access to Cobain’s “drawings, journals, and numerous unsent letters.”

Christgau mainly praises the book, but he voices two complaints. First, Cross “inadvertently shortchanges” the music of Nirvana by concentrating too much on the life and history parts of the story. And second, it sounds like Cross might have worked a little too hard “augmenting the already plentiful evidence of Cobain’s attraction to stardom,” and didn’t spend enough time trying to figure out the alienated punk philosophy that states that mainstream = shit:

Unlike the indie-rock ideologues Cobain so admired, Cross doesn’t believe that rock’s aesthetic value stands in inverse proportion to its mass appeal. Neither do I, but his argument might have been sharpened if he’d spent more time with the opposition: people like Calvin Johnson, the doyen of indie rock in Olympia, Washington, where Cobain moved to live with his first serious girlfriend; Tobi Vail, the riot-grrrl theorist who became Cobain’s second girlfriend; Steve Albini, who produced “Nevermind” ‘s followup, the raw, cold, edgy “In Utero”; and Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman, the owners of Nirvana’s first label, the Seattle-based Sub Pop.

Of course, everybody knows it’s not cool to want to be a rock star. You’ve got to create art because it’s just bursting out of you, and you can’t hold it inside anymore, right? Well, apparently that’s not how it was for Kurt Cobain. He actually practiced his guitar. A lot.

So I’m not sure what that really means to anybody. But it’s fairly obvious that he ended up hating being famous. He blew his own head off. It’s better to burn out than to fade away, right? Well, maybe the heroin had something to do with it too. “The official version of Cobain’s heroin addiction described it as off and on, spurred by chronic stomach pain,” writes Christgau. “Cross establishes that this story was a coverup. Cobain was a big-time junkie for all but a few stray weeks of his season in the public eye…”

I remember when I found out that Kurt Cobain was dead that I knew that everybody was going to end up blaming it on the drugs. But I was convinced it was the pressures of fame that did him in. That seemed a lot cooler to me when I was 22. More punk rock for sure. Taking a stand against the Man right up to the end. But now I’m not so sure. Both explanations (fame and/or drugs) seem pretty lame to me now. As the character Nate said in the season finale of “Six Feet Under,” people have to die to make life seem more important. Well, so what do we do with that?

A very funny article about Mariah Carey…

A very funny article about Mariah Carey…

The fine folks over at Whatever-Dude have posted an insightful critique of Mariah Carey’s career, boobs and personality titled, Mariah’s Theme: An Unholy Shriek of Death. Check it out.

[Via MetaFilter]

Jay Bennett Quits Wilco

Jay BennettYet more breaking news…

According to the Chicago Sun-Times, Jay Bennett has left Wilco. What is going on with this band? Is Tweedy going to be able to keep it together, or is this the beginning of the end? Can you even call it Wilco anymore without Jay Bennett? Wow. I’m baffled. What’s going to happen to my favorite band?

I guess Jeff Tweedy is no stranger to the ever-changing band line-up scenario. The original drummer for Uncle Tupelo, Mike Heidorn, left before they recorded their fourth album, and was replaced by Ken Coomer, who played drums for Wilco until he was recently replaced by Glenn Kotche. Max Johnston played on the first two Wilco albums and then left to do his own thing. So now the only remaining member of the original Wilco line-up besides Tweedy is faithful, old John Stirratt. I’m sure Leroy Bach is an able enough musician to fill in the gaps on tour, but it was my understanding that Tweedy and Bennett had a real creative collaboration going on between them.

I guess we’ll have to just wait to see what happens…

In the meantime, check out this article and inteview with Jay Bennett from back in June…

Freedom for Wilco?

Breaking News from Glorious Noise…

The Chicago Tribune reports that Wilco has signed a deal to leave Reprise Records after the label rejected their recently finished new album, Yankee Foxtrot Hotel. Part of the deal is that Wilco gets to buy back the album and release it somewhere else. Hopefully this won’t take too long.

I have to admit that I downloaded most of the new album via Audiogalaxy, and from my initial listenings, it sounds pretty great. From what I heard, it’s not nearly as weird and “experimental” as I had been led to believe. It sounds good, like it’s continuing along the lines that Summerteeth hinted at. There are strange sounds and strange lyrics, but it doesn’t seem like a crazy enough departure to make Reprise reject it. I mean, it’s not like it’s Neil Young’s Trans. Oh well, one more major label shooting itself in the foot… Fuck ’em.