Musings on music, old, new, popular and obscure. Post punk, metal, hip-hop, funk, and rock in general. A music fan with a desire to lose boundaries on what should and should not be listened to writes about experience in music from a listener's perspective, hopefully unhindered by prior expectation.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Don't Waste My Time, This Is It: This Is Really Happening -- DRA, the "Abusive," "Petulant" Artist

There are artists with reptuations, and there are reputations that precede artists, and some who can be described as either--depending on who it is you happen to be speaking to. I mentioned when I spoke of Whiskeytown's Strangers Almanac that my first exposure to Ryan Adams (born David Ryan Adams, hence the common "DRA") was Elizabethtown, a movie that has been disappointing or despised in most circles for creating an alleged new stereotype or caricature of women, for being flaccid, self-important--anything to take down a director who has a following and a reputation. This isn't to say that I necessarily believe that jealousy inspired the responses, or passive-aggression, but that the nature of expectation and reputation can inflict grievous harm, as can the end results--the fact that many think that "Manic Pixie Dream Girls" originated in this movie and spread virally (in the disease sense from which "viral videos" get their name, rather than in the more cheerful sense of "viral video" itself) has not helped the movie in the times following.

I watched it at around 4am one morning, simply because it was there, I felt like watching it and it seemed possibly relevant to my lonely and melancholic mood at the time. I didn't know, when I heard "Come Pick Me Up," that it was a Ryan Adams song. I was familiar with him by name. I saw his name on Whiskeytown reissues. That was really about it. I didn't know anything else--I knew people liked him, but people like a lot of things, some things that I think are good, some I don't, some I just don't get. It was meaningless. But that song--that wasn't meaningless. I thought I ought to get the album it came from, support the artist, take a chance on the rest of it being that good. It was. "Call Me on Your Way Back Home" struck similar chords, while songs like "Amy" and "Damn, Sam (I Love a Woman That Rains)" were just...good songs. I mean, not "just good," so much as just plain good. Not especially relevant to me, but effective nonetheless.

I got Strangers Almanac after that, and it wormed its way into my head and, to be honest, heart, and then a few months later, I just started buying whatever albums I saw. The first one I found was Rock N Roll. I didn't stop and read reviews or think, I just thought, "Let's go into this with the knowledge of what I have, and go from there." I listened to it immediately, and liked it well enough. Then listened to it some more. I bought 29 and Cold Roses a day or two later. But now I was getting stuck on Rock N Roll. I found out, after I'd listened a few times, that I was not "supposed" to like the album. To try to establish this mentality from a few different perspectives:

First, remember that Ryan was known for Whiskeytown and Heartbreaker to this point (as well as Gold, but I haven't heard that yet, hoping to get the version with a bonus disc, which I found out was not Ryan's desire and annoyed him--the limited part). This meant "country rock." Here, though, is the video for one of the songs from the album, "So Alive":

That isn't country-rock. Not by a long shot. And I guess some people feel the lyrics on the album are crap, and plenty point to that song unhappily. I didn't care, and I don't care: the album is fun. there are interesting sounds and weird sounds and neat sounds and hooks and--isn't that enough? Does it all have to be X, Y, or Z? Isn't it okay for someone to do some great Y, then slip a little Z in later?

"Burning Photographs" seems to be one of the more respected songs on the album. It's got an incredibly interesting reverb echo effect on what is otherwise a not-so-unusual riff. It's got some clever, amusing lines in it. There are other hooks, other great songs on it, like "Do Miss America," "Luminol," and "Wish You Were Here." Pompous, self-important windbag Stephen Thomas Erlewine made some utterly useless and irrelevant comments on the album, which I've referenced before, basically amounting to, "I've seen some of these song titles before! Oh, how obvious, Mr. Adams!" Ironically, he says "Boys" obviously refers to The Beatles(/Shirelles), and "So Alive" refers to Love and Rockets. Of course, Love and Rockets was the band formed from the ashes (forgive the esoteric pun...) of Bauhaus, whose first single and possibly most well-known song is "Bela Lugosi's Dead," which was originally backed by a song entitled...oh, right. "Boys." Yeah, maybe those song titles aren't obvious lifts after all--perhaps "boys" is a common word in the English language with multiple usages, and more than one unrelated song might share a single-word title by coincidence.

This division and self-importance in criticism is, as I've written, perhaps ad nauseum, the real problem I see with music. Yes, that means that Nicki Minaj and Lil Jon and rap in general or whatever are not the problem. Neither is Justin Beiber or Britney Spears or Katy Perry or Rascal Flatts or Nickelback or whatever other pop group (in the sense of popular, not the derisive, dismissive sense). As I wrote to someone recently: "Who cares if a bunch of people like Rihanna?" To agonizingly break a paraphrase's origin: "It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg."

You can't force popularity of your perception of quality. Even if your perception is "right" (pretending, for a moment, there's a singular definition and an objective one), it's just not going to happen. Yes, "force-feeding" is often discussed in the realms of popular music, but not even all the pop stars survive. Yes, there's more clout behind them, and often before there's any reason for it, and that, I'll agree, is wrong. But if popularity is proven, sustainability is justified, regardless of "quality" or "relevancy" or "talent" or whatever else. What does it really matter that X artist out-sold Y artist?

We still talk about The Clash or The Beatles forty or fifty (!) years on, don't we? Isn't that the important part about quality artists? Now, you can point out that these artists are popular, but my favourite method of picking up artists I've never heard of from past decades is expansive, lush reissues. And a lot of quality artists the average listener--especially one that does not go backward, time-wise--has never heard of still receive those. The people who want to hear it, in many cases, will. I have a stack of Replacements reissues. I've got Bauhaus boxes, I've got a box set of Big Star alongside expanded versions of all three albums they actually released. Hell, that third one wasn't even technically released "properly."

I can still have people tell me to listen to Drive Like Jehu, that Yank Crime was brilliant like Alison at CD Alley, or, like today, have Stephen Judge over at Schoolkids tell me that their first album I've found in his used bins is even better. I write this blog, even if I can't get anyone to read it, so that I can do the same thing. Not to say, "Listen to my music, it's better than yours!"--not even if you decide that's the case after trying it. That isn't the point. Endless comparisons serve no good. "My taste is better than yours," does not help anyone. If it helps your ego, please, find a new outlet. My taste in music is awesome, mind you, but not because it's better (or worse) than yours, but because it's definitely mine. It might match up to someone else's taste somewhere, and that would be fine, it wouldn't dampen it any. 

I suppose the funny thing, in all of this, is that I was led to try to show my friend Brian that the song "This Is It" by Mr. Adams was re-recorded for an EP called Follow the Lights that I picked up today. When I found a link to it on YouTube, someone claimed that Rock N Roll was recorded as a joke. This sounded absurd to me, though I saw it perpetuated as I googled around and found reviews, like this one, which seems to "get it."

I tried to find interviews, though, so that I could get backup from Adams himself, either on my being right, or on my being wrong. Not that it matters in the end, except that the idea itself just seemed strange to me. Then, I found a weird pattern. I found this interview, about his recent album, Ashes and Fire, which had context links like this: "He started falling out with labels and mistrusting interviewers, and got a reputation for being a boozy, druggy brat."

 The interview that links to contains things like this:
“I wanted to rock,” Adams explains. “I was tired of being fucking sad all the time. I’ve been on anti-depressants for three fucking years to try to sleep and deal with all this pressure and bullshit because my life is spinning out of control because my business life is not what I want it to be. My artistic life shouldn’t be like this. And finally I got tired of it.”

So you just wanted to have some fun?

“Yeah, I’ve always been wanting to have some fun. Even when I was fucking dick sad, I wanted to have fun.”
And then, the interviewer, Ian Watson, goes on to proffer his interpretation of the album--the joking, ironic, barbed one, and receive his response from Adams:
These recordings would eventually surface, with no little irony, as Adams’ third official album on Lost Highway, titled “Rock’N’Roll”. In many ways, it sounds like a raised middle finger to the suits who wouldn’t put out “Love Is Hell” – Adams practically saying “OK, you want a hit, here’s a whole bunch. Here’s a Strokes song. Here’s an Oasis song. Here’s a Smiths song. You wanted fucking hits. You got ‘em.” You could almost see it as a barbed comment on the state of alternative rock’n’roll in the early twenty first century.

Adams, barely containing his anger, thinks this interpretation of his record is full of crap. “I think this album has tons of really heartfelt shit on it,” he argues. “I don’t think ‘Wish You Were Here’ is balls out or ‘Anybody Want To Take Me Home’. It’s really not that different. I’m only 29 years old. It’s not like I’m an old man and I’ve picked up an electric guitar. I’ve seen a lot of exaggerating about the album where people are like ‘he’s totally changed’. Dude, I’m not even who I’m going to be for the rest of my life. Don’t people solidify who they are in their mid to late thirties? I’m 29. I’ve just turned 29, like a week ago.”

Isn’t there an element of you paying tribute to your record collection? The Strokes with “This Is It”, Oasis with “Shallow”, Nirvana with “Note To Self: Don’t Die”, U2 with “So Alive”, etc, etc.

“Obviously as a musician, I’m paying tribute to…not really paying tribute, I’m influenced by my records. That’s why we make records, because you’re influenced by records. I certainly didn’t invent the craft myself. A couple of journalists have had that angle and I was basically so tired that I was like, ‘yeah sure. Whatever. Whatever you angle is. Let me help you make it so I can get off the phone’. I’m too old for this shit.”
It started to mystify me: critics wanted to have their interpretation of what he wrote, why, and how he played it, regardless of how he felt himself. He'd already talked about work he was proud of--Love Is Hell--and having his label reject it outright, and how crushing and disheartening that was. And it just goes on:
I start to ask about the heartfelt songs on “Rock’N’Roll”, but Adams cuts me off. He doesn’t really seem to be listening. “I’m just boxing you around the ring trying to find your angle. I want to find out what you want to write and help you write it. You don’t like my record, it’s cool. Because we can go there too. I’ll totally accommodate you.”

Of course he cut you off. He's completely correct. You already told him that's exactly what you think, you've told us that privately, even as you pretend to be "interested" in what he's saying. Despite this, he's trying to help you, and you turn around and pare him down to this: "And Adams is just another whining brat spoilt by too much privilege."

Truth be told, I thought that I was going to be in for a cringe-inducing realization about a songwriter I was coming to like, or at least that awkward moment of figuring out self-denial enough to pretend I could justify his behaviour. Except everything I read--he's a human being, trying to be nice and accomodating, dealing with some pretty obvious self-loathing (about which he's quite frank in the same interview). That original--more recent--article/interview went on to reference another instance, wherein Ryan left an "abusive" voicemail on the answering machine of critic Jim DeRogatis. I listened to the whole thing, expecting to be left in the awkward position of hearing someone flipping out like Christian Bale, and having to say, "Well, yes, that's an overreaction, but I can at least understand why that would be upsetting..." and instead I was left thinking, "Good lord, what a dick this guy must be." And so I looked for the review that inspired it, and I found it.

Some of the gems of sparkling wit and class from Mr. DeRogatis (prior to his decision to attempt to publicly shame Adams by releasing his voicemail to the public, which is classy by itself):
"Midway through the show, the spiky-haired alternative-country poseur cursed his label for failing to see that the two EPs are as worthy of hype as the album, though the record company is absolutely correct in trying to reign him in and force him to focus: The concert was proof once more that Adams is his own worst enemy, detracting from his modest talent by thinking that every idea he has is a good one, and thereby giving us as much garbage as greatness."

What in the world? The assumptions here are intense: "Everything I do is great!" is not the note Adams has made in anything I've read surrounding Love Is Hell. He frames it as the first work he was really proud of, or work that he was proud represented the time it was constructed from. There's nothing wrong with that--and if it's garbage, then no one will like it or buy it. What does it really hurt anyone for him to put out garbage he thinks is good? You already don't like him, so it isn't as if it will ruin him for you. He isn't releasing everything period. But nevermind that, it only gets more asinine, as he makes accusations like "to gather around two mikes for a hokey mock-hootenanny version of the sexist new ditty, 'Miss America.'" Ryan responded to this in an interview with Pitchfork (!):
Ryan: I think "Do Miss America" is retarded. I think it's really fucking funny and retarded. And I just don't understand anyone thinking it should be serious. The whole record, Rock N Roll, is funny as shit. I thought it could be a wild, fun knockoff to late-80s/early-90s alt-rock. I fucking love those records, and I love to play like that. And I was thinking, I need a record which isn't so fucking self-serious. Being a rock musician is already like ego-tripping hardcore. You're self-consumed, and you're always thinking. It's really easy to say, "I'm going to write a song about this situation, and when I'm done, everyone will care." To everybody else, that's ego-tripping. And I was tired of it.
In the same interview, he takes responsibility for the voicemail, while not releasing DeRogatis from fault for releasing it in this fashion. DeRogatis, however, was not finished in his review, and continued the bizarre theme of "accuse Adams of derivative actions by way of generalized, obvious, non-specific ones": "imitating Courtney Love by jumping into the crowd several times." As Brian said: "So jumping into the crowd is ripping someone off? I had no idea."

By the end of that Pitchfork interview, I had reinforced that not only were most of these critics absolute assholes and quite definitively idiotic and self-important, Ryan seemed to be a really decent guy, and the sort that is exactly what I'm attempting to achieve here. When interviewer Amanda Petrusich attempted to deflect perceived blame for her review of Rock N Roll, it backfired completely. To try and prove she was "not cool," she said she likes the Dead, and Ryan responds: " I fucking love the Dead! Jesse Malin got me for a coupon for a Steal Your Face tattoo for my birthday." He said he laughed at their negative review of the album and how harsh it was (a Pitchfork trademark, as I've noted previously), so there wasn't a sense that he just gets bitter over bad reviews.

In fact, he addressed why he left DeRogatis that voicemail message in detail:
I think I was trying to say that these are sold out shows. I'm not the cool thing, and I'm not going to be the cool thing for a really long time, and it isn't like I'm not the cool thing and I sell 3,000,000 records every time. I'm not the cool thing, and I barely sell 150,000 records, if that, ever. So I'm obviously working really hard to sustain myself. I'm actually a target to be dropped, because that's just not enough records for a big company. But as far as my live shows, I was like, you don't like it, you've been a couple of times, you don't like me, so why go the third or fourth time? Why not give that ticket to some kid that does like it?
In my first reading, I heard something I've longed for a long time: reviews have a certain responsibility to be useful. "I hate Ryan Adams, always have, and here's something about something new he did to prove that hasn't changed" is the most useless kind of review there is. It has no value to anyone. Someone new to Ryan Adams learns nothing, someone who loves him is annoyed, someone who kind of likes him gains nothing, and someone who hates him learns nothing, either. There was one "professional" review that set me to writing a letter. Well, let's not overstate it: typing. Still, it was this review of Darkest Hour's Hidden Hands of a Sadist Nation
To be indelicate, the vocal style that's taken grip throughout much punk/metal crossover music might be fairly characterized as the sound of a guy about to vomit into the microphone, amplified to 11 and aimed for maximum trajectory. Even within that narrow genre, the singing of John Henry on Darkest Hour's third album, Hidden Hands of a Sadist Nation, crosses well beyond the bounds of (presumably unconscious) self-parody. The lyrics are printed (in teeny teeny script) in the sleeve, true, but even those who enjoy such sandpaper vocals and don't mind the difficulty in comprehension without a printed guide will be tired of the sound of a man spewing his guts out by the time this disc spins to a close. (And at 56 minutes, it's not a wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am affair.) It should come as no surprise that the lyrics are as vitriolic as the vocal timbre, decrying and describing a society where guns, violence, and malevolent media rule. The band does roll through twisted grindcore progressions in the background with reasonable aplomb, but this is agitprop that doesn't stand a ghost of a chance of achieving its mission, if that mission is to move listeners to think about some of the provocative issues the songs address. The album unexpectedly concludes with an uncharacteristic instrumental, "Veritas, Aequitas," whose piano, acoustic guitar, and air-guitar-hero soloing come as nothing less than a total shock after the mayhem of the preceding eight tracks. If it's a joke, it's one the bandmembers should take seriously; they're really underselling themselves if they're capable of playing in a more versatile range of any sort, but elect not to by choice. 
 Now, you might agree with this reviewer's opinion of John Henry's vocal style. That's all well and good, but stop and think for a moment: wouldn't it be more useful to just be informed of this, then have a review from someone who has some interest in a genre that has regularly operated on this convention for some years, nevermind the fact that this was the third album--not including two EPs--from this band, implying they have an audience? Indeed, no one complains about the vocals in the reviews of their other albums on Allmusic. Some praise them. All of the other reviews, even the 2/5 for predecessor So Sedated, So Secure are higher than Hidden Hands' 1.5/5. Their follow-up albums, all four of them, were 3.5, 4, 4, 4, and 4 respectively. So, we have one review that tells no one anything of any value that couldn't have been described as a succinct advisory before a relevant review. It could have still been one-and-a-half stars, but it should've been with respect to the genre in question. It wasn't. It is a stupid, useless review that does no one any good. Someone who doesn't like hardcore or metalcore-styled vocals can read that in a review and move on. They don't need a paragraph of poorly-constructed ideas that rambles on about it. Tell them those are the vocals and they know all they need to know. But someone who does like them, doesn't mind them or is just open to it? They're not going to learn anything useful from this. And, of course, "uncharacteristic" isn't true (both preceding albums and one of the EPs used instrumentals, Mark of the Judas containing the rather hauntingly beautiful cello-oriented "Part 2"), and the "at 56 minutes, it's not a wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am affair" becomes questionable when you realize that "Veritas, Aequitas" is a thirteen minute instrumental. So, in truth, even pretending there are no instrumental portions, we are talking about 43 minutes of Henry's vocals.

I find all of this relentlessly annoying and useless to the world of music. I want to find out if this album by this band is any good with respect to that band and in general. Your opinion of an entire genre as inherently unpleasant does not help.

But then I just re-read Adams' words that drew that connection: he was even more annoyed that DeRogatis was wasting a ticket to a sold-out show for his self-righteous flagellation of Adams, and not even for the first time--so surely he'd said his piece, unless he really did have a grudge against Adams.

What's the conclusion of all of this?

I don't know, but I really like Ryan Adams as a human being, even if I do find out that he does release a solid portion of "garbage." Even if I didn't, that wouldn't offend me, because then I simply wouldn't listen to it. Let me close with another chunk of evidence for both things, that Ryan is an intense and delightfully enthusiastic lover of music OTHER than his own, and that songs on Rock N Roll are not only not as bad as people seem to think, but really quite good. Here's an in-store performance of "Wish You Were Here":

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