In which I’m figured for a relativist for the first time in my life

From: Cory @FB_1607766452
To: @h
RE: Read your reviews on MFR…

… and I am curious now to hear the new FF record. I have been pretty bored with them since “There is Nothing Left to Lose”; I bought both “One by One” and then the Double Album thing they came out with and was not that jazzed, but people seem to be pretty excited about this new one.

Cool! As far as the “Best since…” thing goes… I’d commit to saying it’s their best since “One By One.” Maybe even best since “There Is Nothing Left To Lose.” One By One’s singles are unstoppable, but Wasting Light’s deep tracks are probably better than One By One’s. -h

For some reason, I just couldn’t get into One By One. I wanted to like it a lot, and it’s not like it was terrible or anything… I just wasn’t like, surprised by anything on the record if that makes sense? Listening to “wasting light” right now though!

What do you think?! I’ve revisited “One By One” – I definitely think Wasting Light is as good – not sure if it’s better. -h

Maybe it can be boiled down to the fact that the longer a band is around, the easier it is for the band to sort of fall into the “safe” zone, meaning that they put out quality stuff, but they’re not trying to do anything majorly NEW anymore. There are hardly any exceptions to this rule… and really, when you get to a certain age, your priority is to have fun and support your family, so it’s not like you owe it to anyone to make records for THEM or anything. But I think most bands eventually become more safe rather than less safe.

I think the Red Hot Chili Peppers have gotten better, not worse. I think that’s probably true for Radiohead, or at least, they haven’t dropped off at all!

I wonder how much of it is me expecting certain things from bands, and how much of it is actually the band not delivering?

I think I need to listen again! Honestly, it sort of struck me the same way as their last couple of four-on-the-floor type rock and roll records. There are sweet riffs and killer drum/bass rhythms happening, and really interesting timings and stuff… and there are one or two songs that sort of stray from the straight up rock n’ roll sound… and it’s relatively catchy. I dunno, I just think about the first Foo Fighters record with all of that soft fuzzy pretty creepiness, and then Colour and the Shape that just had all of these amazing songs on it, and it doesn’t compare, you know? How can you compare anything they’ve done recently with “Big Me” or “Everlong” or “My Hero” or “Hey, Johnny Park”? It’s really tough. I know that once a band does something so amazing, it’s hard to top it, and so the band focuses on music that’s fun to play rather than trying to achieve some abstract sense of “more inventive” or whatever… but I always like it when bands get weirder and less glossy and less precise and stuff I guess? I don’t know, what do you think? I feel like even “Aurora” and “Generator” from “There Is Nothing…” were so amazingly hard to top!

Hell yeah, “Aurora” and “Generator!” (and “Headwires” and “Stacked Actors” …)

In writing MR|Review, one of the big challenges – and I’m trying to address it in the reviews – is dealing with the role expectations play in my listening. I’m sure they affect it. I’m sure that trying to have *no* expectations is not a constructive final answer (or, “reversed stupidity is not intelligence,” a la lesswrong.com). So I’m trying to uncover my expectations, see what they’re doing in my listening, and also try to see what’s going on in the music apart from my expectations as much as possible.

I’m a committed Foos lifer, so obviously, I *want* new Foos records to be good. So, that’s a bias. But I also think that, for massive stadium sing-along rock & roll, at this point it’s Foo Fighters and then everybody else, and they keep it pretty fresh and throw in some cool shit. So I’d sort of give it 2-3 starts for aesthetic quality, four for how much I like it, and 5/5 for the band accomplishing what seems to be their goal of being a huge, accessible arena band that isn’t stupid or sucks. “Wasting Light” is not the Mona Lisa of rock. As you point out, it’s not even “Foo Fighters” or “The Colour and the Shape.” But they were different guys trying to do a somewhat different thing then (we were different when we first heard those records, too), and I think context legitimately affects our interpretation of the various records.  Whether a band delivers on a listener’s expectations, and whether they deliver on (what seem to us to be) their own expectations, are different questions! -h

Yeah, I mean, as I said: far be it from me to assume that FF should be making records for people like me… they should obviously be writing/playing songs that THEY like. And yes, as far as big stadium rock and roll goes, they’re the band I’d vote for to fill that spot, so if they were going for accessible but not terrible rock and roll, I think they nailed it!

I am a big Foo Fighters fan too, and I would LOVE to love everything they put out… but the good thing is, not every record is for everyone, and even though I cling to the older stuff, there are new fans who connect more to this new stuff than the old stuff, because it just makes more sense to them, I guess. So that’s OK: their newer stuff maybe isn’t FOR me, which is fine.

I do think, given the context, their older stuff was so refreshing and new and innovative. Maybe if “The Colour and the Shape” came out in 2011, I wouldn’t be that ripped on it (what a weird question!), or maybe I would? I do know that when that record came out, I had never heard any grunge rock much like it (because there was none, really), and it was when I was hungry for that kind of music… and of course, I formed a lot of memories with that record. So that’s part of it too. But I know my evaluation of stuff isn’t solely or even mostly based on that: it’s just that I prefer songs like “Everlong” HARD over songs like “One By One,” no matter who’s playing it!

maybe what it comes down to is, i prefer songs like “everlong” just by an *inch* over songs like “one by one!”  the colour and the shape defined radio-ready rock, pretty much up to the present. it may be impossible to overstate its influence, except maybe – maybe! – to point to nevermind. i don’t think the band meant to do that at the time – how can you? – but they captured lightning.

so, thinking about MR|Review again, i’m identifying three agents, so to speak, in the listening experience: me (listener & critic), you (fellow listener), and the artist. the star-rating is really for you, as a shorthand for how soon i think you should check the music out. the text is what i’m putting out there to start our conversation, so it’s a mix of self-disclosure and talking about my experience, and pointing things out that i think might inform your listening experience, which may include whatever i can imagine / deduct / interpret about the artist and the artist’s intent. -h

I like it! I mean, I like MR|Review for that reason. I have read literally no other music reviews that includes the disclaimer, “This is MY unique listening context, these are MY expectations, this is what I THINK the artist was after, here’s how they met MY expectations, and here’s how I think they met THEIR expectations.” I mean, obviously, every critic has a personal viewpoint on what they want to hear, or what they value in music, or whatever, but I never hear any of them own up to it. Maybe they’re afraid that it will expose music-writing for what it actually is, e.g., a subjective yet meaningful comment that is coming from a very, very specific and unique consumer. And obviously, people who write about music for a living have listened to SO MUCH GD MUSIC that they have such an uncommon relationship with music. Going back to the question of motivation with regards to a hobby vs a job, many music critics probably sort of dread talking about music at this point, which is too bad. Especially if they’re getting paid a lot to have important things to say about whatever record, no matter how like… unexciting it is for them.

I am a big believer in letting the reader know that kind of stuff… maybe it’s uncommon because it sort of usurps the critic’s overall power/authority/expertise when they admit that they could be biased? Seriously, it’s weird you NEVER see someone mention that stuff! But here’s an example of a review I wrote for Hear Nebraska about the newest Rural Alberta Advantage record, in which I talk a LOT about my own personal view on music: http://hearnebraska.org/content/departing-rural-alberta-advantage-cd-review

i never thought i’d be figured for a relativist! :-) i think the p4k writers sometimes get personal in that way a little bit. i usually use it to explain / semi-undercut my ratings, though, which i think they’re less likely to do.

philosophically, i think that disclosing some of those subjective influences, commitments, and context pieces can actually make the whole work less subjective. example; i could just make my claims about and evaluation of “wasting light,” and leave it at that. but by revealing some of what went into my thought process, you can adjust your evaluation accordingly.

it’s all information. and i think you sort of did that, e.g. “i (cory) am a little less on-board for straight-up arena rock – i like my more underground foos – so i may not enjoy this record as much as howie does.” so, the review, by being self-consciously subjective, has helped you develop a more accurate expectation for yourself than if i’d left that stuff out. mission accomplished.

i like yr review’s mini-essay on weird vocalists! i wish HN had author-categories, so i could just see everything you write (the site publishes too much for me to really keep up with!), but the tags do the same job. i’m just afraid i’ll miss something, if you don’t tag yourself in a post. (drrrty!) -h

“philosophically, i think that disclosing some of those subjective influences, commitments, and context pieces can actually make the whole work less subjective.”

Yes, totally! By revealing your dispositions, you make your assessment of something more reliable, not less. If someone just asserts something is bad without giving any background, you might not know that they have a chip on their shoulder about slightly out-of-tune oboes, or something else weird that YOU like.

My point being, you’re not a relativist! DOOBIEEES!

That’s why I add so much background in my reviews, or try to… I mean, I get worried about overshadowing what’s actually important, i.e. the record, but I feel like the experience of listening to a record is half-music and half-listener-worldview, so if I have a chip on my shoulder about a dude’s voice, well, I want to let people know that it might just be me, and they might like it.

In the future, I’ll try and remember to forward you reviews once I write them! :) Also, Andy and Angie are currently skating across Nebraska (yikes!).

i know you, cory, wouldn’t assume i’d ever be a super-relativist, but still, i usually find myself being in a position where others find me uncomfortably sort of positivist. (i think because they’re only familiar with old-school positivism and relativism, and haven’t encountered a persuasive presentation of my sort of re-constructed positivism.)

“Helplessness Blues” continues to grow on me. It sounds more natural now, less like so much work, but it’s still a very personal kind of pleasure, I think. -h

MR|Review – Foo Fighters “Wasting Light,” TV On The Radio “Nine Types of Light,” Fleet Foxes “Helplessness Blues,” Wye Oak “Civilian,” and The Twilight Singers “Dynamite Steps”

New Foo records carry a heavy load of expectations from fans and critics alike, so it’s taken some time for me to resolve how I feel about Wasting Light; damned good.

Must-hear!
Recommended
Good
Fans only
Skip this
Owww! My ears!

It’s raw, it’s loud, it sounds pretty good for a modern rock record (a big deal’s been made of the use of analog gear and tape, and Dave must now have the most famous garage in the world, so much ink and so many pixels have been spilled), and the band seems hungry again.  After the initial rush of the clear standout tunes like “Rope,” “White Limo,” and “Bridge Burning,” other songs took their turn sticking in my head.  “Back & Forth” has slowly revealed itself as a top-shelf jam; “These Days” really works emotionally, almost in spite of some potentially clunky lyrical moves, and “Arlandria” is proving surprisingly durable on repeat.

Some writers have mentioned that the choruses aren’t as rousing as they’d hoped, but I have another take on that; I think the verses are so strong, good choruses pale a bit in comparison.  “Rope” is the textbook case.  It has a riffy, rhythmic verse with a great melody, cool vocal harmony, and weirdo turnaround.  The wide-open chorus is almost a notch down in energy until it gets to “You… go… I… come… loose!”

(Sidenote – Just like last time, note the P4k is still talking about what the record isn’t, instead of what it is!)

One change on Wasting Light is the shift in the spirit of Dave’s lyrics.  Scattered across their records to this point are defiant, life-affirming, and subtly philosophical little glimmers like “What if I say I will never surrender?” (“Pretender), “Memory mend me / Know I’ve seen my share, things I can’t repair / I’m breakin’ to you / Pleased to meet you take my hand, there is no way back from here…” (“No Way Back”), or simply the “On and on and on…” that closes “Aurora.”  On the new album, this space is filled with lines like “Whatever keeps you warm at night / Whatever keeps you warm inside” and “Tell me, now, what’s in it for me?” (“Bridge Burning”) that sound almost selfish and defeatist.  “One of These Days” may give a clue for interpreting them, though; there, the line “But it’s alright, yeah it’s alright,” sounding pat and trite, is followed by a rebellious “Easy for you to say!” suggesting that Dave is playing with some irony.

All of the “Best record since The Colour And The Shape” claims do a serious disservice to the outstanding There Is Nothing Left To Lose, but I understand the feeling.  I’ve already gotten more mileage out of Wasting Light than I felt I had reason to expect, and it will keep cruising for me for a long time.

Must-hear!
Recommended
Good
Fans only
Skip this
Owww! My ears!

All that said, the record I need to tell you about, the record that’s been saving my life this spring, is Nine Types of Light.  And it was a huge disappointment at first.

I love TV On The Radio, and was excited for …Light, but my first spin of it left me thinking “Huh?  Banjo?  And the second half of every song sounding like it doesn’t belong to the first half?  Why does it seem like this band is just playing to my head, not my heart… and not even doing a great job of that?”  I couldn’t be happier that I gave it a second and a third chance.

Now, “Second Song” and “Killer Crane” can make me misty just by their opening bars.  “No Future Shock” and “Caffeinated Consciousness” bounce me up and give me a jolt of verve any time I hear them, on the stereo or just in my head.  The whole record’s subtext, to me, is that it’s OK to be alive, to be human, to be in the time and place I am, and to keep being.  I can’t promise it will sing you those same things in between its notes, but in true evangelistic fashion I can’t avoid sharing with you that that’s what it’s doing for me.

Technically, Nine Types of Light is a small evolutionary step for the band; some fresh textures (like the banjo mentioned earlier, which I can dig at this point, or the pentatonic clean guitar line in “Keep Your Heart”) and new types of songs, but in line with their trajectory to this point.

I would love to give TV On The Radio five stars for their work, but I think too much of my attraction to …Light is personal to justify it.  I don’t know if music culture as a whole will be looking back on this record in 10 or 20 years as a high point, but I’m sure I will be.

Must-hear!
Recommended
Good
Fans only
Skip this
Owww! My ears!

I write this as a Fleet Foxes fan, and someone for whom Helplessness Blues holds many treasures and continues to reveal more; this record will not convert anyone to the band, and while it’s excellent on its own terms, I can’t give it a general recommendation within the purpose of MR|Review (see the end of this post).

Fleet Foxes’ unique musical vocabulary of American folk, indie rock, backwoods harmonies, and art-rock arrangements arrived fully formed on their debut, self-titled LP.  Helplessness Blues takes some risks in expanding that language, and some of them work.  The overall effect has an undertone of self-consciousness and headiness, though, rendering the new album a more distant experience.  The exceptions, such as the first half of the title track, only put the general vibe in relief.

Helplessness Blues is growing on me, but if you are wondering whether to check out Fleet Foxes, get Fleet Foxes.

Must-hear!
Recommended
Good
Fans only
Skip this
Owww! My ears!

Wye Oak’s Civilian was an impulse buy from the Amazon mp3 store’s daily deal, and holds up.  I’m impressed with the guitar work, which adds noise and atmosphere to the already-solid songs, and Civilian combines a broad appeal with a strong aesthetic voice.  The deeper I get into it, the cooler it is.

Must-hear!
Recommended
Good
Fans only
Skip this
Owww! My ears!

Here’s another record that demonstrates that a two-star rating in MR|Review is actually an honorable evaluation.  I have an irrational love for Greg Dulli’s work, whether in The Afghan Whigs or The Twilight Singers, and the Singers’ new Dynamite Steps is a great record for fans, but maybe not newbies.  (That would be Blackberry Belle.)

It hits its marks a little better than Helplessness Blues, though in fairness, it’s less ambitious.  There are rockers, slow burns, and an epic closer.  Its biggest effect on me may be that, for the first time, I’m checking the Singers’ tour dates regularly, hoping to catch them soon.

Dulli’s always played a sort of gorgeously self-destructive romantic, and one thing I think about when I listen to his bands is whether the music speaks to the romantic in me, or whether I take vicarious pleasure at its debauchery precisely because I lack that drive.  Dynamite Steps hasn’t moved me any closer to an answer, but I’m grateful for the provocation, commiseration, and celebration. -h

MR|Review directs readers’ limited attention among works via ratings, and within works via prose, focusing on works where our opinion diverges from critical or popular consensus, or we have significant insight that compliments or challenges readers’ aesthetic experience.

Mars Lights, Sleepover, and solo shows

So much music happens when class is off…

  • Mars Lights plays Monday, 6 June, at the Riot Room in KC.  I continue to work on mixes – re-amping bass, panning, EQing and compressing drums – and hope to have 2-4 done for the show to give you.
  • I play solo Wednesday, 8 June, at St. Peter’s UCC, $10 for dinner and music (PDF flyer here).  It’s a fundraiser for Jill, who is traveling to Florida for the UCC’s national synod meeting.  If you have song requests, put them in the comments.
  • The Sleepover demo’d 4 new songs last weekend in Lincoln.  We’re recording the EP August 6-7 at ARC in Omaha.  I practiced drums a hundred times to Cory’s acoustic demos, and yet when it all comes together and gets mixed, it’s like hearing them for the first time.  Pretty weird and exciting.
  • The Sleepover is playing:
    • Sunday, 3 July, at Duffy’s in Lincoln, NE
    • Saturday, 13 August, in Lincoln, NE
    • Thursday, 25 August, at The Slowdown in Omaha, NE (cancelled)
    • The May 20/21 shows are canceled
  • I was going to write a massive new MR|Review, but my feelings about “Helplessness Blues” are still changing.

Sunday notes

  • If you like White Air, Panda Face, or just awesome, slightly unscrewed power pop in the vein of the Apples in Stereo, check out Lincoln’s Strawberry Burns.  Greg, Brandon, & Co. have their entire discography up at Bandcamp for free download, and are working on a new record right now.  Highly recommended!
  • Three Mars Lights songs are streaming at http://mrfuriousrecords.com/marslights
  • Been working some on drum demos for the Sleepover’s EP we’re planning for fall, and re-mixing Mars Lights.  Both groups are scheduling shows for the next few months.