10
Feb
2011
My Year in Lists
Week Six
Jordan
My Year in Lists chronicles one blogger's quest to understand why music matters to us and what makes it a lasting aspect of our existence. To facilitate this examination, three music fans have contributed a list of 52 essential albums. Each week this year, one album off of each list will be analyzed in an attempt to understand why some music sticks with us and what it means for our lives.

"If there has been anything in the history of popular music which could be described as a work of art in a way that people who are involved in other areas of art would understand, then Trout Mask Replica is probably that work."-John Peel, BBC DJ and rock journalist.

"When I first listened to it, I thought that it was the worst thing that I'd ever heard. I said to myself, "˜they're not even trying!' It was just a sloppy cacophony. Then I listened to it a couple more times, because I couldn't believe Frank Zappa could do this to me"”and because a double album cost a lot of money. About the third time, I realized they were doing it on purpose; they meant to sound exactly this way. About the sixth or seventh time, it clicked in, and I thought it was the greatest album I'd ever heard."-Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons, on Trout Mask Replica

"Good feeling, won't you stay with me just a little longer"¦"-Violent Femmes, "Good Feeling"

Before we dive into the three excellent artists we'll examine this week, I want to digress, briefly (ok, not really briefly), on why I have come so late to music as a pop culture obsession (I have always listened, and had what I would call taste for a solid decade now, but it always rates below movies and television on my list). I wasn't really brought up as a music fan, and I think this is in part due to the way my parents approach music. My dad is a huge Phil Collins fan. In the 70's, he was on the wrong side of the rock-disco war. He was a Donna Summers boy with a powdered blue suit and an afro. In the '90s he was buying Whitney Huston albums (and not just the soundtrack to The Bodyguard, which is at least somewhat defensible). My mom, on the other hand, has always been pretty much a pop-culture populist, and this is especially true of her musical taste. In the 70's, she was on the rock side of the fight, but only because more rock bands toured through the Nebraska town my Grandfather was stationed in during that period. By the '90s, she was fully on the pop train, and so, that is most of what I heard as a kid.

My parents didn't necessarily have bad taste, but neither of them was passionately into music to the level at which I was indoctrinated by the good stuff. My formative years were full of The Spice Girls, Brittany Spears, NSync, and The Backstreet Boys (with some Weird Al thrown in because young Jordan found that guy hilarious). With that musical diet, it's no wonder I latched onto movies and television as my foremost pop culture obsessions. But there's another reason I'm coming to music with the same obsessiveness with which I greet everything else so much later than most other areas of pop culture. And that's because I feel that during my lifetime (and especially the last decade, when I was old enough to be forming more valid opinions) in the ongoing war for our cultural minds, good music lost.

This isn't to say that there hasn't been great music (and I mean truly great) in pretty much every year of my life. But while low-rated television shows that introduced me to the intelligence the medium was capable of (Firefly and Arrested Development leap into my mind as shows that helped me learn television didn't have to be like Friends and Two and a Half Men) were pretty easy to find and Independent Films that challenged or dismissed mainstream schlock were almost always playing somewhere within reasonable driving distance, the good music was much harder to find. Think about it this way: in the last decade, there was at least one truly, transcendently great television show that was a gigantic hit on network television (I'm thinking of The West Wing here). There have been several movies that played in every theater in the country that have been great (No Country For Old Men, my favorite film of the last decade, played in wide release). At the Emmy's every year, there's a pretty good chance that an actually great show will win the big awards (Arrested Development had no audience, but won Best Comedy Series and Mad Men is virtually unwatched but has won Best Drama four years running) and even at the Oscars, the best movie of the year wins sometimes, and it's rare that a movie that isn't at least very good wins (I'm looking at you as the exception, Titanic).

For a kid trying to develop taste, it was easy to see the great stuff being praised and to track down what was worth looking into. As for music? Music has The Grammys, an award that is worth more melted down than on your mantelpiece. And the music that is played on the radio (the medium that was, at least a decade ago in my mind, the equivalent of television for TV shows and theaters for movies) as popular music over the last decade was great only in fits and starts. While I found albums that I thought were really great art (from being introduced to The Beatles at the age of 9 to finding Neutral Milk Hotel and The Decemberists, among others, in high school), it seemed for much of my youth that those were the exception and not the rule. In the "˜60's, the popular music was the great music and The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan were all making masterpieces that were also hit records. In the past decade, it has been rare for an album to be both legitimately great and hugely successful. So it's taken me a while to accept music as a true art form rather than something that can reach the level of real art only at its pinnacle.

All of this is the much longer than intended prelude to my saying that Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band has proven to me, once and for all, that music is art, real art, potentially great art, and should be dealt with on the same plane as television and pop culture. Don Glen Viet (later changed to Don Van Viet), popularly known as Captain Beefheart, created and recorded his music with a rotating group of collaborators known as His Magic Band, recording 12 albums between 1965 and 1982. Known for his shockingly wide vocal range, Beefheart blended rock, blues, psychedelia, and free jazz with his own unique style of avante guarde and experimental compositions.

I have used the term "avante guarde" to describe music in this column before, but when it comes to Captain Beefheart, I really mean it. He was also known for his dictatorial control over his band and for creating elaborate myths about his life. He formed an early, and often volatile, relationship with Frank Zappa, who would fund and produce Beefheart's magnum opus, and Tab's selection this week, Trout Mask Replica. Ranked 58 on Rolling Stone's "500 Greatest Albums of All Time" list, Trout Mask Replica is what emerged when, under Zappa's guidance and for the first time in his career, Captain Beefheart was given complete artistic freedom.

Instead of going through the album as I usually do, I want to spend more time examining its development, discussing the tracks as they come up, and including some essential tracks throughout, even if I don't have time to directly comment on them all. During the preparation of the album, Beefheart and His Magic Band lived communally in a small rented house in Woodland Hills, Los Angeles. Beefheart got what he wanted from the band by completely artistically and emotionally dominating them. He put each member "in the barrel," his term for a period in which he would berate and torture them, constantly singling them out individually for harsh criticism for days at a time until they broke down crying in total submission to his vision. Visitors to the house at the time called the environment "cult-like" and made comparisons to the relationship between the Manson family.

Since the band was not technically signed to a label while prepping the album (which would be produced and released on Zappa's label) they survived only on welfare checks and donations from their relatives. Often throughout the process, the band was subsisting on only one small cup of soy beans each a day, giving added meaning to the declaration, "I run on beans!" during "Fallin' Ditch." Once during this period, the band was arrested for shoplifting food and Zappa had to bail them out. During this period, Beefheart also restricted the band members from leaving the house and required they practice for 14 hours a day. Under these conditions, it's little wonder that His Magic Band had constantly rotating members throughout Beefheart's career.





Beefheart's compositions drew most directly from blues and free jazz, with lyrics rife with references to everything from musical history to American politics, the Holocaust, gospel music, thoughtless conformity, and man's impact on the world around him. Beefheart claimed that all of the songs on the album were written in one eight hour session, yet this has been rejected by members of the band as one of his myths. The band claims that "Moonlight on Vermont," "Sugar "˜n Spikes," and "Veteran's Day Poppy" had been composed and written prior to the Trout Mask Replica development era, and that the rest of the album was written over a period of several months in the summer and fall of 1968.





Beefheart worked in an unprecedented way, influenced by a tape played by his friend Gary Marker, an aspiring recording engineer who had been splicing variant recordings together as practice. Inspired by the splicing, Beefheart used a piano (which he did not know how to play) because he had no experience with the instrument and no conventional musical knowledge, which allowed him to experiment absent any preconceived notions of composition. He would play around with the piano until he found a melody that worked and then have John French, His Magic Band's drummer at the time, transcribe the pattern into musical notation (which Beefheart did not know how to write). When Beefheart had finished a full song, French decided what parts would be played on which instruments and taught each person their part, though Beefheaet exercised final say on who would play what and how. After the song was completed, no improvisation was allowed at all"”each son was to be played exactly as written, eschewing popular experimentation for classical regimentation. Only one track on the final album, "China Pig" was completely improvised, just for a sense of dissonance with every other track.





Frank Zappa wanted to record the album in the house where the band was living to capture the feeling present during the album's creation, but Beefheart, suspicious that Zappa was attempting to cut costs, insisted on a professional studio. On the final album, "Hair Pie: Bake One" was the only track recorded in full at the house, though the spoken word pieces "The Dust Blows Forward and the Dust Blows Back" and "Orange Claw Hammer," as well as "China Pig" were largely done at the house. "The Blimp," one of my favorites on the album, was recorded by Zappa in the studio while he was on the phone with Beefheart.







When the band entered the recording studio, they were so practiced that they recorded 20 instrumental tracks in one six hour session. Beefheart dubbed the vocals over the tracks in the following few days. Rather than listen to the tracks as he recorded audio for them,Beefheart heard only slight leakages as the album played in the studio and Beefheart recorded in the next room. As a result, the vocals only vaguely sync with the instrumentals.



On first listen, Trout Mask Replica is, at best, cacophonous, a sloppy reverie of sounds and ideas thrown together seemingly at random. Yet with subsequent listens, it becomes abundantly clear how surgically the album is put together, and how brilliantly Beefheart created his own style and his own vision, completely out of step with anything ever done before. Trout Mask Replica would feel more at home played in a Museum of Modern Art than on the radio, but then, that's what Beefheart intended. Beefheart formed the basis of most experimental music that was to follow, and his influence can be seen in The Minutemen, The Residents, and Throbbing Gristle (all of which will pop up later this year on Tab's list). He has also been cited as a major influence behind the work of The Velvet Underground, The Clash (who will show up on Collin's list), Sex Pistols, Sonic Youth (who will show up on Ashley's list), as well as paving the way for much of Tom Wait's career. In short, Trout Mask Replica is a masterpiece of experimental music that has a more far reaching effect than almost any other album we've discussed so far.



A few years before Beefheart rocked the musical consciousness, another revolution in sound was getting its first masterpiece in John Coltrane's A Love Supreme, Collin's pick this week. Coltrane was a jazz saxophonist and composer, beginning his career by pioneering the use of modes (as opposed to traditional chord progressions) in jazz, and ending his career (he died in 1967, just two years after the release of A Love Supreme) at the forefront of the free jazz movement. A prolific musician who recorded at least fifty sessions as a leader, he also appeared as a willing sideman to his contemporaries, including Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk.

A Love Supreme, recorded by Coltrane's quartet in December of 1964, is considered to be perhaps his greatest work, fusing the hard bop of his early career with the free jazz style he had adopted at this point. The album was recorded in just one session. Divided into four tracks ("Acknowledgment," "Resolution," "Pursuance," and "Psalm"), the album was intended as a spiritual journey representative of the personal struggle for purity. Considered one of the greatest jazz albums ever recorded, it is included in the Smithsonian Museum of American History's "Treasures of American History" exhibit.









John Coltrane radically changed the face of jazz, and helped invent the free jazz form, which would become vastly influential in years to come (even being utilized by Captain Beefheart on Trout Mask Replica, an album I may have mentioned previously). Joshua Redman, Bono, John McLaughlin and (bear with me here) Carlos Santana have all called A Love Supreme, and Coltrane in general one of their greatest influences. Additionally, just four years after his death, the African Orthodox Church declared Coltrane a saint. A visionary on earth with an eye cast toward heaven, Coltrane changed the form of jazz, and the face of music itself, for all time.

When I first saw Violent Femmes at a music festival in 2006, it was a little strange. Before me were middle aged men who looked like they had earned every year of their lives singing about really needing to get laid and hoping their dad would give them the car. The band played all of their big hits during their set, and I was happy with that, but the dissonance of watching people my parents' age singing songs they wrote when they were my age has stuck with me more than the actual show itself.

Founded by bassist Brian Ritchie and percussionist Victor DeLorenzo after what they perceived as the demise of punk rock in America, Violent Femmes finally took off as a full-fledged band with the addition of lead singer/songwriter Gordon Gano. Discovered on August 23, 1981 by The Pretenders (who were playing that night) as they played outside The Oriental in Milwaukee, they were asked to play a brief set that night after the opening act. Soon after, they signed to Slash Records and released their self-titled debut in 1982. Violent Femmes, Ashley's pick this week, is an innovative mix of folk music and punk rock that later caught on so heavily it spawned its own genre, the aptly named folk-punk.

The album's songs were written by Gano when he was still in high school in Milwaukee, which explains the angsty themes of the album, which focuses primarily on lust, heartbreak, and attempts to get the car from your dad. The opening track, "Blister in the Sun," is a confidant, rollicking song about the joy of strutting around while "high as a kite." The following song, "Kiss Off" is, none too surprisingly a kiss off song about overcoming the pain inflicted by a rejection. "Please Do Not Go" finds Gano begging his girlfriend not to leave him. If there's a pattern to the album, it's that it wears its heart (or, more accurately, its dick) on its sleeve. Each track has a pretty simple and completely accessible message, but that never gets in the way of them being pretty fantastic post-punk songs.








"Add It Up," another of the band's best and most famous songs, is a pretty standard expression of lust and sexual frustration set to a mounting rock tune that builds until exploding into a singing-in-the-round ending that completes the catharsis Gano is searching for. "Good Feeling," my favorite Violent Femmes song (and, for die-hard Review To Be Named readers playing along at home, Marshall and Lily's wedding song on How I Met Your Mother) is the albums only straight up love song, a tender ballad that pleads for a fleeting moment to last longer and hopes for the eternity of love. Yeah, yeah, I admit it, I'm a huge softie.





Violent Femmes is such a strong debut album that for a solid year after I first got it, I was convinced it was a Greatest Hits compilation (I'm also pretty stupid. In my defense, this was years ago). There's pretty much no dead weight in sight (though "Confessions" comes close), and it pretty much single-handedly invented the folk-punk genre and kept the band (who never made another album as good but still managed to stay together until 2009) going for almost 30 years. Sure, that meant that Gano was singing about convincing his dad to let him borrow the car well into his forties, but when you capture the angst and uncertainty of teenaged years as well as Violent Femmes does, you're bound to be stuck in arrested development for a few decades afterwards.

I spent my first decade on earth lost in the musical wilderness of shitty "˜90s pop, yet slowly but surely I have emerged from that bubble-gum filled forest and found some sweet musical sunshine to cling to (and there goes my hope to not come off as pretentious in this column). It may have taken me a while to accept music as a valid art form on par with my other pop culture loves, but that time has arrived, and I don't plan on looking back.

Read more My Year in Lists here

Next week on My Year in Lists:
An obscure band called The Beatles need some Help!, we look at The Stooges self-titled and hang out with them in a Fun House, and poor REM just can't help but Murmur.
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