Friday, February 5, 2010

The Beatles - The Beatles (The White Album), Jay-Z - The Black Album, Dangermouse - The Grey Album

The Beatles - The Beatles
Produced in 1968

Jay-Z - The Black Album
Produced in 2003

Danger Mouse - The Grey Album
    Produced in 2004

So, before I get to first off, so zero off, you're right, I'm crazy.  If I were attempting to do this on Thursday night, I'd be a psychotic person, who wants to disappoint you.  However, I have discovered the secret to a blog updating on time is to create a great deal of backlog before you get to something that you actually want to go pretty deep into.  So every Friday or maybe every other Friday, I'm going to write a longer piece.  Sometimes it will be like this one, a breakdown of a couple of albums.  Sometimes it will be something weird like what I wrote about Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix.  Sometimes it'll just be a regular album project that's been extended because I decided to write a bunch of words about a particular album.  This is my own admission that I am a wildcard, and any regular production is as beyond me as making the music that I am writing all these words about.  Unless somebody needs someone to be in their band.  Then I'm going to be the next John Lennon and McCartney at the same time.  Also, if any of the artists listed here are googling themselves and come across my blog, I'm a huge fan, and hope that you enjoy everything I say.  And if you don't, I got you to read my blog, so please, please leave a comment or something, and call me an ass if you think I'm an ass.  I'll take it as the biggest compliment of my life.  Seriously.  

Okay, now that I've explained myself... (and apparently lost all 'journalistic integrity' that would have existed if I was a journalist and I hadn't written something like 400 variations on the word Fuck on this blog already).

First off, as usual, I have to thank someone for the suggestion.  Luckily, this time, I only have to give him one third of the credit, however, he gave me the seed of the idea back, some five months ago, and threatened to go on hunger strike if I didn't write it.  So he's a lot thinner now, is what I'm saying.  So, Brian, I must thank you for giving me this idea, and suggesting The Beatles - The Beatles to me.  You're right, it's awesome.

I'm not exactly sure how to structure this essay.  I want to look at each original album as it's own work, but I actually think that the order in which they influenced me might be a more interesting way to look at it.  Did you know, that for someone who loves music as much as I do, and may well be addicted to it, I had never heard the full The Beatles before I came to college?  Did you know that Jay-Z's Black Album was exactly the first Rap album that I ever bought and listened to?  I had it on CD in my car, and would listen to it a lot.  Did you know that The Grey Album was the first Danger Mouse production that I ever heard, like most people, but influenced me into buying Gnarls Barkley's first CD on the first day it came out?  Did you know that I expected the answer to all of these questions to be why are you asking these questions?

Okay, it's time to get a bit serious.  I need to switch away from Wolfgang Amadeus Pheonix on my itunes.  By the way, I need to mention that that album is not optional.  If you aren't listening to it or one of the three albums I am talking about today, you should be.

I mean, lets go down the list.  We have a classic band, at or near the top of their game, putting out a double record that has been highly influential and is still interesting to this day.  We have the self proclaimed king of rap, with what was going to be his retirement album, trying to go out on top, also at the top of his game.  And we have an upstart young producer, who, due solely to his skill as a producer, used the previous two to make a form of art that may actually define our modern culture. More on that soon.

The Beatles - The Beatles is a classic record, but one that presents very different sides of a band.  It's an incredibly wide array of strange and psychedelic songs intermixed with straight up rock songs with dashes of country, and Revolution 9, which is a punctuation mark on how weird it is.  I can't really think of another band that has done such a strange mix and spread in one album.  Over his whole career, maybe, and I sincerely doubt it, Elvis Costello might be coming close to maybe getting near the spread of this album.  That is how big and all encompassing the album is.  

It's a strange album to listen to, because it is one that shows exactly who is writing which songs, and the strange result of the mixing of the two leads ends up creating some great stuff.  However, it is obviously the record that shows the seams that were developing in the Beatles at the time, and it's actually pretty strange to hear.  If you can't find a song that you love on this album, you aren't a human being with ears.  If you want high quality pop, Back in the USSR is for you.  If you love psychedelic rock, I give you Glass Onion.  If you just love good songs, While My Guitar Gently Weeps is for you.  It covers such a range, it is difficult to even classify it in any certain genera or even if there is cohesion in the album.  It's a difficult record, interestingly, for me to listen to all the way through.  I keep wanting to go to certain tracks, and listen to the ones that I love as opposed to the ones that I just like.  This might be the Album that I like least as a whole album, and more as a collection of songs.

However, the songs are so good, that maybe having the ones that I just like in there helps me.  I just don't really know what to do with some of them.  Revolution 9 is a perpetual problem for me.  It's eight minutes, thirteen seconds long, according to my Ipod.  And it is an interesting experiment. But for some reason, I just have problems with it.  I want to get into it, and come to see it as an interesting and valuable addition to the record, but it's just impenetrable.  I can't seem to find the edge to get into it.  

I guess what I am trying to say is that the White Album is a great album, but somewhat inconsistent as a flowing record or as a whole.  It has peaks and valleys, which is normal on a record, but the experimentation sometimes goes to far for me.  I love the core of this album, and it is of course a genuine classic, but I still have problems with parts of it.  Actually a pretty apt description of my feelings for it, is the same as my feelings about Dream Theater.  This is one of those central puzzles to the Beatles, and as a person who likes to figure out puzzles, I need to be better versed in the base of the Beatles before I can get to wrapping my brain around it.

Moving on to the second album of the day, Jay-Z's Black Album is an incredibly introspective rap record.  Weirdly introspective for a genera that is exemplified by his earlier works, which are about money, guns and women.  Jay-Z is a rapper who is either the smartest guy in the business, or he is the one who is best at faking it.  The man knows how to talk about himself in a way that makes you feel for him, and he can actually do some incredible word smithing.  If you have never seen him lay down a track on video, it's a surprisingly simple progression.  He goes in, he lays down the track, then he's done.  I don't think I've ever seen him with a pen and a pad, he just speaks in these incredibly long, memorized passages, that just come out of his mouth.  It's a gift, as far as I can tell.  

This was a CD that I kept in my car for a very long time.  I don't know why I liked it so much, but looking back, I was in an introspective time in my life.  It was the middle years of high school, I was sort of feeling out the kind of person that I wanted to be, which if it isn't obvious, or you don't know me that well, I'm still in that phase.  It was a time when I really wanted to listen to new things, and try things that I hadn't done before, and I heard about this incredible rap album that came out.  I bought it soon after, and my complicated relationship with rap began.

And I really do mean began.  I had never really listened to a ton of rap, other than, to my eternal shame, on Limp Bizkit albums, but since I'm not 12 and pissed off anymore, most of the time, I moved on from those guys.  I knew that there was a big genera out there that I was missing, except for certian acts that got played on the rock stations, Beastie Boys, I'm looking at you.  And while I love me some Beasties, whenever I heard rap, it was this immature, weirdly lifeless music.  Not to say that it wasn't good in a certain light, I mean, you could dance to it, and you could get some really incredible music out of it, but to do that you had to ignore the inane crazy shit over top of it.  And I think that this feeling is one that is perpetrated by the radio/single way of releasing albums.  Even the singles off the Black Album are pretty club banger tracks, pre-made to fit into a rap block in a club.  They're well produced, broad tracks.

Speaking of which, let's talk about 99 Problems.  1. It was a crossover success.  I heard about the record because of this song.  Once again, it's actually a deep song, that is all about the choices that someone can make in certain situations.  It's surprising because the idea is that it was intelligence that got him out of the situations.  I also think that I am contractually obligated to mention that Rick Ruben is awesome, just for mentioning this song, so Rick Ruben is awesome.  Can I move on?

The Black Album seems to be an attempt to wrap up a career in one album.  It is a consistently good, interesting album, punctuated with some great songs.  It's an album that really allows a great talent to breathe and make something that is both deeply personal and commercially viable.

The last album is the one that I think I'm going to talk about the most, and the reason for grouping these three albums together.  I think that the Grey Album's impact is still being felt out, and that it is going to be seen as one of those albums that punctuated a changing shift in the production of a certain kind of music.

The Grey Album is a concept album.  Jay-Z, in an incredibly interesting move, that had been done before, but not with such a huge album, released a vocal version of his album, and said, do with it what you will.  This was at the same time that a strange new thing became popular, called the mash up.  The Mash up is a mixing of two independent songs to make a new song that reflects the best parts of each of the original songs.  So Jay-Z just gave his album and his implicit blessing to the world to make something new.

This is where Danger Mouse comes in.  I've already told about how I really respect him, and am always impressed by his style and work.  I actually have never heard a song of his that I didn't find intriguing, and there is only one that I've heard that I actually don't like that much.  I think that Lucifer on this album was just too much of the auteur and not enough of the conductor.  It just seemed too easy.  I'm going to keep my commentary short on this album because I want to talk more about the state of music and it's influence on culture with regard to this album.  I will say right now, that I think this is a great album, worth listening to, and other than my one track that I don't like that much, it's really an incredibly cool way of using both of the source materials.  You will listen to both of the original albums differently after this album, because some of the hooks get incorporated so well that you cannot seperate them out.  When a beat comes out of one of the songs on the white album, you hear it, you hear the phrase, and Jay's voice sometimes.  It's a pretty incredible feat.

There is a great deal of analysis about what songs were used to create the beats, and there has been a ton of press about how it is a new experiment.  What I really want to to talk about is the way that this album reflects the culture that we have at the moment.  Our generation, whatever the hell that means, is being referred to as the 'look at me' generation by the news media more and more, and while I don't agree that we are in any way more attention seeking than any other generation, I think that the ability to produce things that everyone can look at in many ways has changed the way that we think about property and ownership.

The system used to be something like this.  You are a musical artist.  You play small shows, get your name out there, then are approached by a manager, who books shows for you.  Then you get an album contract, and a big advance from the record label, for that record.  Then you become an indentured servant to the record company, working off the debt of the advance for the rest of your natural born life, unless you get lucky, in which case you can do whatever you like.  The pyramid is that there are a lot of bands just playing gigs, less who are label artists, and then less who are successful, non indentured servants.

But now, the system is shaking.  It's becoming easier and easier to get a quality recording in your own studio, make your album available digitally, build a fan base through that, release the album without a label, or do some other version.  There hasn't been a purely successful digital artist without any sort of label support, as far as I can tell, but there are hints of these projects that are privately funded without the intervention of a label.  The business model that was once so strong is starting to fail, because of the shift of power to a lower level.

I'm not sure how it is all going to shake out, but the Grey Album is the first album that came out digitally that was almost just a resume.  Danger Mouse is an artist more than he is a producer, and he has always stated that what he wants to do is create art more than creating a product.  He continues to be at the forefront of musical experimenting, whether he is playing the Odd Couple completely backwards, or replacing Paris Hilton's albums with a mix of her saying inane shit to a beat.  He is now in the business, and is much more of an insider than he was, but I still watch his moves because you never know what is going to come out of it.

Culturally, we're in an interesting place where everyone has publishing rights, as long as you have access to a computer and some money.  In the First World, that means that fame is one viral video away, and that you can become famous for doing nearly everything.  Whether this opens up new opportunity for talented people or makes the whole idea of being famous a larger and less interesting group, is sort of up to you.  I'm interested to see if the freedom of information is actually good for us or bad for us, because I have a feeling that is going to be the big question for the next decade or so.

Anyway, I want to thank Brian again.  I hope that I did the albums justice, even though I know that I didn't.  If you want to discuss it more with me, talk to me in the comments, and if you think I am totally wrong about all none or any of this, I really want to hear it.  I'm not sure if I've reached a conclusion on this, but I'm very interested in others opinions.

If you can read this, you don't need glasses,

1 comment:

  1. Not big on the grey album, but I agree completely on revolution no. 9... as much as I love that album, I find myself turning the Ipod off as soon as the stupid special effects kick in.


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