Friday, April 1, 2011

Joseph's Picks Of The Week 4/1/11 - Iron & Wine and The Beach Boys

I’ve travelled by rail and flown on planes big and small, but upon reflection I’ve never set foot on a yacht. Crossed on a barge, navigated a raft, rowed a boat, fished from a schooner, but alas never on a yacht have I been. Maybe one day I’ll make the right connections. I have heard my share of yacht rock though, and in fact am aged enough to recall when some of that stuff was new. For those that don’t know, yacht rock is a bogue genre/backhanded term of endearment for a stripe of über-smooth soft-rock that flourished in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s. It’s a retro phenomenon born from hipster poverty that’s similar to the ‘90s lounge music revival; when you’re too poor to buy the good stuff you’ll settle for 25 cent copies of Christopher Cross and learn to “love it”. Har.  The main point of distinction between yacht rock and lounge is that the latter actually had a core of serious fans that helped promote the reevaluation of important figures like Mexican bandleader Juan Garcia Esquivel and exotica kingpin Martin Denny while additionally inspiring a few worthy contemporary acts like Combustible Edison, The Coctails and even the highfalutin pop experiments of Stereolab. Yacht rock’s more of a post-modernist gag, at least until fairly recently. For in the last few months two records have appeared that unapologetically tap the sound of the soft, Destroyer’s KAPUTT and Iron & Wine’s KISS EACH OTHER CLEAN. Both are great listens. While Destroyer has always been a shape shifting project, Sam Beam’s Iron & Wine has remained fairly close to the fragile neo-folk that put him/them on the map, and the unexpected twist of events that is KISS EACH OTHER CLEAN has been drawing me back with regularity. Now I’ll admit that I’m not totally averse to soft-rock sounds. Seals & Croft’s “Summer Breeze” is in my estimation a perfectly calibrated  example of the style, and it also serves as a good pointer for what Iron & Wine were up to on 2007’s THE SHEPHARD’S DOG. But this new one feels often indebted to the blue-eyed soul of early Hall & Oates (think 1973’s excellent ABANDONED LUNCHEONETTE) and includes horns remindful of Roxy Music honker Andy Mackay. Indeed, whole big chunks of KISS sound a bit like post-Eno Roxy backing up a foulmouthed Robert Wyatt. That this likely unintentional flirtation with prog sensibilities brings to mind Daryl Hall’s very fine and sorta slept on Robert Fripp-produced solo record SACRED SONGS is just dandy. The music’s sunny disposition contrasts well with Beam’s wordy approach, which is as image laden as ever. So it’s by no means a clean break with the past. And that endearing blabbermouth quality helps keep that sunny sound from becoming oppressive. But all sorts of other elements creep in: hints of Van Morrison, flashes of Joanna Newsom and even passages reminiscent of John Cale’s magnificent PARIS 1919. Now I haven’t reached a point where I prefer KISS EACH OTHER CLEAN to the stripped down woozy and bluesy folkisms of THE CREEK DRANK THE CRADLE or the bolder, more lush OUR ENDLESS NUMBERED DAYS, but I do admire artistic growth, and KISS is more than just admirable, it’s downright listenable. I do worry that KISS (and KAPUTT, for that matter) is going to inspire a slew of bad records from jamooks that’ll cling like a rumpled dryer-sheet to the soft yacht rock surface while missing/ignoring the all important substance/depth/quirks underneath, but that’s not really Sam Beam’s (or Dan Behar’s) problem, is it? Like rampant Gang of Four clones ten years ago or hoards of Nirvana wannabes looking back twenty, the responsibility is on us to separate the wheat from the chaff. As dicey propositions go, Beam’s bearded mug looks quite fine, at least for the time being, in a Captain’s hat. How ‘bout that, Tennille?

Retro nostalgia essentially follows a twenty year timeline. It all started out in the ‘70s, a decade that held severe reverence for the ‘50s. Think HAPPY DAYS, AMERICAN GRAFFITI, Sha Na Na, “American Pie”, unlikely hits by Chuck Berry and Ricky Nelson and punk rock’s return to basic principles ala Sun Records/Gene Vincent/Link Wray.  For the most part, this made sense; with the possible exception of the ‘20s, the ‘50s were the only decade of the 20th century not dominated by corruption, war, or strife. The ‘50s supposed conformity and prosperity also contrasted well with the let-it-all-hang-out hedonism and malaise of the ‘70s. Since then it’s been an easy trend to chart: ‘80s/’60s, ‘90s/’70s, ‘00s/’80s. Which means that yes, ‘10s/’90s isn’t far behind. Adjust yr temperament accordingly. But that’s not my reason for bringing up the topic. As someone who grew up in the ‘80s, I was very much swept up in ‘60s nostalgia whether I like to admit it or not. For the ‘80s were in my opinion far more conformist than the ‘50s, and it made total sense that folks would (perhaps unconsciously) pine for an era of righteousness and tumult, i.e. the ‘60s in a nutshell. I certainly did. Before discovering punk and the ‘80s underground scene, I idolized Dylan as a heroic apostle of protest and championed Clapton and Hendrix as groundbreakers. I longed for a President I could look up to like JFK, perceived Reagan through the lens of Nixonian corruption and took Lenny Bruce, MLK and Malcolm X to my heart. In retrospect these are all positive steps in my personal growth, but it’s very interesting to see the things that get left out. Like on the musical side of things, The Beach Boys. At the time, I don’t think there was a major ‘60s group that was as saddled with the burden of unfair squareness as Brian Wilson and company. Even The Monkees were more retro chic, largely due to how they unwittingly presaged the music/visual developments of MTV. This isn’t to infer that The Beach Boys didn’t get swept up in ‘80s retro, for they certainly did, but in a thoroughly uncool way. Two examples: singing backup on The Fat Boys’ “Wipeout” (a good idea on paper that was unfortunately fumbled into novelty territory and compounded by the fact that “Wipeout” was actually a song by The Surfaris), and “Kokomo”, their 1988 hit single. The former case was basically a way for parents to relate while watching MTV with the kiddos and the latter a sop to those same parents as ear candy while driving to and from soccer practice in the minivan. Don’t let’s speak of FULL HOUSE. Instead, let’s talk about why nobody in the dark days of Iran-Contra was looking to PET SOUNDS as a source of retrospective inspiration. This seems largely due to The Beach Boys being correctly if subconsciously identified as a continuation of distinguished ‘50s aesthetics like the concise inventiveness of Doo-Wop, the game changing stylistic alchemy of Chuck Berry, the celebratory nature and deceptive simplicity of early rock ‘n’ roll in general and the rock-solid and still relevant template of Tin Pan Alley songwriting. As important as The Beach Boys were to ‘60s culture, it’s undeniable that they were somewhat out of step with the zeitgeist of the era. To this day many people obstinately dismiss pre-PET SOUNDS Beach Boys, ignoring the fact that “In My Room”, “Don’t Worry Baby” and “California Girls” are masterpieces of high-pop style. But the one thing even hardcore doubters admit is that PET SOUNDS was a major advancement for the band. In fact, it’s one of the finest records of any era, far better in my estimation than SGT. PEPPER. The biggest reason is organic flow. While PET SOUNDS had its share of hit singles, the qualitative magnitude of those songs only increased when heard within the well labored context of the whole LP. SOUNDS is also playfully, accessibly psychedelic, and while it avoids the heavy handedness that plagues many concept albums it also stands as one of the great pop song cycles. In addition, it’s basically unparalleled in how it combines lush, at times cheerful orchestration with themes of alienation, loss, longing and uncertainty, presenting a finished work that’s never forced or conceptually dissonant and refreshingly devoid of modern(ist) irony. Furthermore, most of The Beach Boys’ contemporaries were focused outward, their work commenting on the world around them instead of addressing concerns of the self, but Brian Wilson was just the opposite. His lyrics are still captivating in their nude frankness, a quality that’s rare because it can’t be faked. Without depth and honesty, it’s all pretense. While much bally has deservedly been hooed over the almost circular influence between The Beach Boys and The Beatles, I ultimately think the most comparable bookend for PET SOUNDS isn’t PEPPER (or RUBBER SOUL or REVOLVER) but the gorgeous, gentle and at times ominous psychedelic tour de force FOREVER CHANGES by the Los Angeles band Love. Both albums present a seductive loneliness and sincere darkness (as well as dark sincerity) coupled with flashes of tenuous optimism that stands apart from the crowd of joiners and lauded eccentrics that was the late ‘60s music scene. Plus both bands contained a brilliant and troubled creator/leader surrounded by other talented guys (Arthur Lee/Brian Wilson, natch). Anybody already hip to CHANGES that’s not also long-tight with SOUNDS needs to correct that grave error toot sweet, for the latter is simply an inexhaustible record that refuses to lose its luster. To the contrary, it’s an album I’ve played well over 100 times and just given five consecutive listens, and I’m still hearing fresh elements. Terms like masterpiece and genius don’t begin to cover it. Sometimes art truly is beyond words. And sometimes art possesses a greatness that can withstand the often unkind and random whims of nostalgia.

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