Friday, September 1, 2017

Past Greatness: August '17

Welcome to the ninth installment of Past Greatness, a monthly series I'll be doing showcasing great, older works. The one pre-requisite I have for this series is that I must have first listened to the album relatively recently. All albums listed below are of 8+ quality. This month's albums find no uniform pattern. Like whatsoever. An 80's ascension to heaven, one of 2000's most popular Rock albums, and a malformed caricature of Indie's oddest individual

Ariel Pink | Pom Pom
2014 | Hypnagogic Pop | Listen

Ever since I stumbled upon it, whenever that was, Hypnagogic Pop has always fascinated me. Not the music contained within mind you, but the ideas it fostered. Much like Vaporwave, Hypnagogic Pop felt more concerned with echoing fabricated visions of a past not endured, fine-tuning the artistic aura, forgoing realism in the process. When albums like this click, the result is captivating. Trance Farmers' Dixie Crystals, Chuck Person's Eccojams, or Ariel Pink's Worn Copy just some that come to mind. The latter is where we begin, as my journey into Ariel Pink, like most, left me dumbfounded, questioning the bare essence of artificial concepts of music. Much like The Caretaker's catalogue, primarily his opus An Empty Bliss Beyond This World, Worn Copy begged to be misremembered, sated with the lust of existing on a crackling radio station phasing in and out of focus down the palm treed avenues of 1980's Los Angeles. Since his inception, the curious character known as Ariel Pink yearned for the glam-filled past of his non-binary upbringing, one that may or may not have even existed. So then, if that's the crux of Hypnagogic Pop, a genre largely created by Ariel Pink's inert desire to relive, then what is Pom Pom?

Two options present themselves. It's either the gleaming beacon of Hypnagogic Pop, something no album before or since, by Ariel Pink or otherwise, has scratched, or it lives in a genre of its own establishment. I've dissected, analyzed, appreciated, and disparaged over a thousand albums, and the number of peculiarities on the scale of Pom Pom can be counted on one hand. As disordered as Third Side Of Tape, as confounding as Shaking The Habitual, and as inconsistent as Tago Mago, Pom Pom only finds unity in its personification of kitschy, adolescent inquisitiveness. The tweening juncture endured by many, certainly Ariel Pink, a time where awkward sexual awakening, random juvenile humor, belittled drug culture, and crude cartoonish energy commingled to form the ADD child driven by endless waves of consumerism. Basically, Pom Pom's the candy and cereal aisle at the grocery store; gaudily saturated, purposely ambiguous, cleverly diffused, and ripe with sugar so prominent your teeth can feel it through the air. And just like that aisle, the result is effective. From the moment the polka dot party of 'Plastic Raincoats In The Pig Parade' prances inwards and giddily settles, Pom Pom's audacity to be uncool flaunts itself as the rare commodity it is.

While every song abides by the soft, pastel wave Ariel Pink applies, few land in similarly-minded safe zones. Only a small selection of the 17 tracks whittle their creativity down from the extremes touted elsewhere. 'Goth Bomb,' 'Lipstick,' and 'White Freckles' can be lodged in this group, although, to be frank, hearing them out of Pom Pom's context would have you questioning my judgement. It's more so that the range Ariel Pink displays is so vast some are bound to stray towards the center. The album's second half is so hammered with outlandish genre-bending, shrill juxtapositions, and boorish, spoon-fed content that songs about lipstick-clad killers and forged, tanning salon freckles are placid by comparison. Many throw disdain towards this half, and while their belief is soundproof (these songs are hard to love), tackless art projects like 'Negativ Ed,' 'Sexual Athletics,' or 'Jell-O' are necessary in fulfilling Pom Pom's tinseled dreams. The walloping whack of 'Dinosaur Carebears' interlude, transfixed on transporting a cartoon character's dizzying overdose, 'Black Ballerina's' absurdist dialogue between innocence and impurity, 'Exile On Frog Street's' fairy tale ugliness, all imperative when appreciating the sonic beauty that comes before, after, and sometimes during.

And while I applaud, appreciate, and enjoy Ariel Pink's psychotic moments of relapse, Pom Pom truly shines when beauty is imparted and order, as a fleeting construct, is restored. Whether it's unabridged compositions, like the dazzling Synth Funk of 'Not Enough Violence,' the virtuous 'Put Your Number In My Phone,' and the LCD Soundsystem-inspired 'Picture Me Gone,' or the centerpieces of the aforementioned radical cuts, Pom Pom never falls short on sterling musical gaiety. Let's run through them, because there's plenty. The building hiss and hum of a toy train chugging along 'Sexual Athletics's' back half, the 60's sun-drenched surfs-up of 'Nude Beach A Go-Go,' the sissy Glam Rock crescendos of 'Jell-O' or 'Exile On Frog Street' that brazenly mirror David Bowie's 70's era, just to name a few. For that last one, the comparison goes even further, stretching into Pom Pom's fantastic finale 'Dayzed Inn Daydreams,' and the recurring chants that embark on unearthing Bowie classics like 'Memory Of A Free Festival,' 'Starman,' or 'Drive-In Saturday.'

It might be blasphemy, but there isn't a single second of Pom Pom I didn't, don't, or won't enjoy. The length doesn't bother me, the carelessness doesn't bother me, the absurdity doesn't bother me. In fact, all of it, like a kaleidoscopic nightmare where every inch of space impacts the grand picture, heightens the thrill and completes the portrait of a madmen who's more frank, outrageous, and quizzical than any artist in the modern era. I propose the preposterous, that Pom Pom reflects the reactions instigated in 1969 by Trout Mask Replica. If you're not willing to leap that far, simple retreat to a fairer comparison in 2009, with The Flaming Lips' Embryonic. Difference being? Pom Pom's great, not grating. Although, to be fair, many a few can rightfully feel the exact opposite. Ariel Pink's not a practical figurehead, nor should he be. He represents the outskirts of humanity, the life we'd live if society failed to contain us. A ridiculous theory of mine that can't be proven follows as such: No human is born normal, they merely adapt to formality. Weirdness is what creates the individual. The interests, hobbies, likes, dislikes, the further we reach to enjoy these personal pleasures, the stranger our world becomes. Pom Pom is Ariel Pink's. A masterpiece of identity.

The Strokes | Is This It
2001 | Garage Rock Revival | Listen

Despite listening to a plethora of albums for a plethora of reasons, diving in purely because of popularity has never been one. There are countless artists whose names live in infamy that haven't touched my library, and that's merely because the music they create, or the perception I have of said music, doesn't intrigue me. The Strokes fell into this category. Blasé Rock music meant for a generation that fell in love with the future, losing sight of the past. As the tide of Alternative music began to shift towards a more modular output, Rock music for the sake of being Rock music felt less and less pertinent. Yet, if Is This It, and the massive fan uproar in response to it, told us anything, it's that the hankering for simple, intrinsic release will always have a place amongst humanity. It's why Pop music will always be the most popular, regardless of the perpetual genre shift sustaining it. People want to experience life's easy pleasures, and for music, that's crafting delectable diddy's that instantly satisfy. The long term ramifications of being lodged in your cranium a side effect many, if drug, alcohol, gambling, or shopping addictions has taught us anything, are willing to take. Is This It is that in album form.

Sometimes all the pieces align, and for The Strokes, 2001 was the culmination of just that. As the new millennium began to settle in, classic albums were on the upswing. The year 2000 alone gave us Since I Left You, Deltron 3030, Spirit They're Gone, Spirit They've Vanished, Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven, Stankonia, The Moon And Antarctica, and perhaps most important to The Strokes' sphere; Kid A. All of those aforementioned albums the product of tumultuous hours of labor, either due to length, complexity, experimentation, or sheer ambition. These albums were exhausting for the mind, especially in conjunction with the compulsory need to compare them all. Sometimes words just speak for themselves; look at the album titles, they're all either verbose or mysterious. Now look at Is This It. Elementary, trivial, and comically unembellished. It would be difficult, especially for an artist who prides their work, to make a title simpler than that. Perhaps a result of pretentious conservatism, Is This It can be seen as a response to all those lofty albums trying to make universal statements. Or it can be a response to the lack of change following Y2K. Or it can be as it is; a 36-minute Rock album that's ostentatiously concerned with the fragmentation of modern day romance.

None of that hoity-toity, radical jargon is the reason for The Strokes' immediate success though. Much like the handful of early 80's Post-Punk artists who inspired the band, The Strokes' surge was due to their mutiny of music that was quickly becoming convoluted. Is This It is a collection of Rock-centric Pop songs, none longer than four minutes, absolutely none overstaying their welcome, and all devoted solely to grabbing your attention. The hits that everyone knows, 'Someday,' 'Last Nite,' and 'Hard To Explain,' do just that, finding a rhythm that's persistent and a hook that's catchy. There's no reason to fight the urge, no reason to criticize the inherently lovable. These are wonderfully crafted songs. I do not need to add Pop. Opinion may change as their leech-like ways infest me for months, but like many, I'll never forget the first few listens when the polished grittiness (a paradox, but you know what I mean) of the production and the vocal effects slathered over Julian Casablancas captivated me. Funny enough, that wasn't my initial thought, as I was more fascinated by the remarkable influence Is This It had on two favorites of mine; LCD Soundsystem and Car Seat Headrest. The former in regards to the production, weighty and restless, the latter in regards to the vocals, crackling and unruly.

Across the 11 tracks of Is This It a weak presence rarely gleams. Believe it or not, despite having three singles of impeccable stature, both for the critical and commercial world to enjoy, the album doesn't rest on their eminence. There's no denying my affection for them though, 'Someday' being my favorite. However, 'Is This It' and 'Take It Or Leave It' both contend with the singles, the former opening up the album with a sublimely-built timidness, while the latter ends the LP with far more courage and heftiness than when it began. Unlike the singles, these two capstones build rather than bounce, ratcheting up their pace as they progress, and in 'Take It Or Leave It's' case, concluding the album brilliantly because of it. Elsewhere, 'The Modern Age' and 'When It Started' flourish, despite both existing under the shadow of a bigger entity. While there's spots all over the LP, the former truly drives home that LCD Soundsystem influence. If James Murphy hadn't recontextualized the formula for epic set pieces, his career never would've evolved. The jury's still out on Car Seat Headrest. As far as the low points go, 'Alone, Together' and 'Trying Your Luck' would be my safe bets, if only for the fact that their beauty doesn't shine. They're darker and more reclusive, which isn't themes I associate with the record. Is This It is magical, and while the story of The Strokes isn't, their gift to the world can't be taken for granted.

Glenn Branca | Ascension
1981 | Experimental Rock | Listen

Abrasive. Unrelenting. Euphoric. Those are just some taglines that come to mind when thinking of the significance of Ascension. Occasionally there's select cases in my library where the less I know of an artist, or the work that came before or after, the better. There's no denying Glenn Branca will fall into that category, especially given the totality displayed on his opus. I needn't hear anything else the man has composed, as they'll likely only diminish the impact Ascension sets. It is an album that lives on its own plateau, a five-track collection of sensations cued up to the fall, or rise, of civilization. Like many works that attempt the same feat, Post-Rock being a prominent genre where you can find them, Ascension leaves the reaction to the listener. Like Godspeed You! Black Emperor's Lift Your Skinny Fists, I never know whether I'm supposed to cry from joy or defeat. Each extreme is taken and used simultaneously, and in Branca's case, swelling arrangements are created that fail to clue you in on the direction they're taking. One moment we're being lifted, the next we're being crushed. Ascension thrives because it exposes how entangled emotions really are. All this with some rather ordinary drums and guitars.

Ascension's release in 1980 serves as a marker for the future direction a handful of Rock genres would take, even though they themselves likely attributed the primal aggression to the Post-Punk scene imploding at the time. Nonetheless, artists like Swans, Sonic Youth, or GY!BE, owe a lot to the maddening creation Branca conjured up. Especially in the former's case, as Swans' entire discography, spanning four decades, separated by three clear generations, finds a common lineage in Ascension. The brutality of their early No Wave era, the beauty of their middle Gothic Rock era, the droning torment of their last Experimental Rock era. It's all here, all captured within 43 pulverizing minutes. It doesn't start like that though, as 'Lesson No. 2' introduces the LP as a sloppy mess of artsy fartsy freestyle jamming that fails to outline the oncoming exaltation. Of the five songs featured on Ascension, three exceed the eight-minute mark, and thankfully for our listening pleasure, that's where Branca's vision excels. 'Lesson No.2's' aimless dribble and 'Structure's' wedged positioning cause their moments to amount to little more than minimal mood setting and noise fodder.

However, just as the fear of 'Lesson No.2' as a 12-minute track sets in (an exact occurrence that happened multiple times on Swans' ear-curdling To Be Kind), 'The Spectacular Commodity' quells that anxiety with a momentous rise to the heavens. It's Ascension's best track, and one that's precisely defined by the title it holds. That's not instantly apparent though, as the drudge of death, the suffering of pain, the exposure of the grotesque, all necessary evils on the flight upwards. We must past the filth, endure the pain, to achieve rapture. Two-thirds of the way through and you know 'The Spectacular Commodity's' building to something, but Ascension hasn't shown us what yet. Then, a twist of fate occurs with some sublime guitar work that lingers under the intense drums. What was once dark and ominous has turned bright and hopeful, all without a single notable change in pacing. It is a sensational moment, and one that'll forever remain in my memory. All praise to Branca, he didn't just leave us with that tiny taste of glory. 'Structure,' in its fleeting state, returns us to clamor of denizens, but immediately after that 'Light Field (In Consonance)' emerges as a great ball of celestial fire. Eight unrelenting minutes of pound-for-pound joy through ravenous ecstasy. Here, we don't suffer. Here, we're given the full three-course meal at the Last Supper.

What Ascension does so well, and it's something not expressed outright, is its perception of various ways to ascend. In music circles, that's typically seen as the momentous build of power to inevitable release. Aka the Post-Rock formula. That's what 'The Spectacular Commodity' provides us with. It is the pinnacle of that approach, much like Lift Your Skinny Fist's first six minutes of reverie. However, in each instance elsewhere, ascension is achieved through various means. 'Structure' rips you from your confined body like bullets to the heart, 'Light Field' engulfs you with excessive triumphant force, 'Ascension' strips the shimmering promise leaving reality in its wake. The 13-minute title track rears the head of Totalism like no other, pressing down on the listener with increasingly vexed force. There is no light here, no hope, no assurance. That's not to say heaven's out of reach, just that following your last dying breath, the breakneck ascension to the stars will likely be filled with discordance, not harmony. Noise, scrapping by your earlobes, tearing them to shreds, sounds more likely than a string of angels coordinating a symphony for your welcome party. You are but one of billions sent to ascend. You are not special, but life is. That's what Glenn Branca shows us.

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