Tuesday, March 29, 2011

EBDS Special Post #5: Radiohead and The Greil Marcus Effect

Author's note: Well, I *was* planning on my next post being about Tour '74, but something I read caught my fancy, and you're getting this instead. Hopefully this is of some (any) interest.

Just like I'm well aware that all of you that read this blog do not solely listen to the music of Bob Dylan, I'm quite certain that you all know that I, as the proprietor of this humble little blog, also do not solely listen to the music of Bob Dylan. Dylan bows to no one in terms of being my all-time favorite solo artist, but there remains a slot to be filled in the "favorite band" category, and I must confess that it's a two-horse race in that regard, and two boring horses to boot. One of those horses is The Beatles, a favorite band choice so predictable and boring that I'm almost bored just TYPING it, but a choice that I firmly believe stands up to scrutiny simply due to the fact that those guys wrote a hell of a lot of amazing songs. The other would be Radiohead, who I consider the current best band in the world, whose In Rainbows and OK Computer are serious candidates for my favorite album of all time, and whose newest album, The King of Limbs, was released to record stores on this very day (although it was available for about a month prior via digital download, which means that I've listened to the album plenty of times and digested it to the point where I think I can write with some semblance of lucidity about it). And it is them, in part, who I will be writing about in this post.

Now, The King of Limbs is hardly what I would call a bad album. I would say that the first half is definitely not as good as the second half, that there are many quietly beautiful moments but nothing approaching the harmonies of "Paranoid Android" or the end of "Reckoner" when the strings really kick in something fierce, that the Burial/Flying Lotus homages lend the album a strange atmosphere, like we're listening to a totally different band with Thom Yorke at the helm (the cut-up and edited drum patterns, IMO very unlike the normal measured rhythmic genius of Phil Selway, hammer this home), and that "Lotus Flower" and "Codex" both hold rightful places in the Radiohead Pantheon. I would also say that the album represents, at best, something of a lateral move, in that we'd EXPECT them to really be into Four Tet and that the skittering house beats that show up at times don't have the same resonance as the electronic flourishes of Kid A a decade earlier. Again, hardly a bad album, possibly even a very good one, but that's about as far I'd go; more Desire than Blonde on Blonde.

An article I read, oh, about an hour or so ago on the very good music website Stereogum posits that this might be the album which finally puts a dent in the heretofore unshakable critical reputation of Radiohead (which I'd argue has been shaken a few times previous, but whatever). After all, In Rainbows had both the fantastic "pay what you want" story AND gorgeous, guitar-driven (very important, that) music, whereas this album has a weird newspaper being released concurrently with music that, well, is not quite as good as In Rainbows, or at least as immediate in an emotional sense. Judging by reviews on Metacritic, comments on message boards and music sites, and even plain old word of mouth, this might very well be the most divisive album the group's released. And the article above posits that an album like this, one that could be seen as a lateral move at best from a group that's always been considered as forward-thinking as any that's ever existed (which is funny, since their music is so often steeped in what's going on at that time in the music worlds they inhabit and listen to), might be the one where critics finally stop their "well, ain't this great" attitude towards Radiohead, where fans stop blindly accepting their every move as works of genius, and where, just maybe, the emperor might have no clothes.

Does any of this sound a little bit familiar?

If I have any particular issue with the article I've linked to, it would be this - "there's a problem?" And it was with that particular thought, the consideration of what it is that make people stress out so much about what a band chooses to put out (short of a pure gouging of the audience like, I dunno, the artist breathing heavily, any album of new music should generally be considered due diligence on the part of said artist - their fulfilling of both social and record company contracts, as it were) and how it relates to All of Us, that I remembered this. Yes, I am shameless enough to think about articles I've written in the past. But I feel that, in this particular instance, the callback to my own work is warranted. As you may yourself remember, or at least read if you click on the link, I gave Marcus et. al. some stick about what I considered their own selfishness in suggesting that, in any way/shape/form, Dylan belonged to them. That's not to suggest that Dylan's music, in some ways, don't belong to us - after all, he released them into the world, and our collective web of memories and experiences relating to his music gives us at least some license to claim his songs as part of ourselves (what, after all, is this blog if not my version of that?). But the idea that Dylan OWES us anything, or that he needs to keep recording music at all, or (most importantly) that Dylan must continue to define the zeitgeist the way he once had (totally by accident, of course) is painfully naive and absurd - even somebody as admittedly naive as myself knows that.

This, to me, is ultimately the most troubling notion behind the relationship a band has with its fans - the idea that the band, really, owes us anything. Sure, we pay them our hard-earned money, but we always receive something in return - a CD of their music, a ticket to see them perform, a t-shirt, whatever (and, of course, sometimes, we get the music without paying them - although I DID pay $3.00 for In Rainbows on its initial release, so ha!), so we can't really say that we as fans have been done dirt. And as for the music the band chooses to record and release - well, that, of course, is also totally their right and their own prerogative. If they want to record a prog rock opera, or a hyphy album, or their own version of The Basement Tapes, then what exactly is the reason that they should not? Because they recorded The Bends? Please. If you want to call out critics for any perceived complacency in reviewing a band that has delivered for over a decade, you are also within your right. But goodwill is a very powerful thing, and anybody that doubts that need only look at the diminishing returns of Robert De Niro's acting career. We are a forgiving people, so long as the people we're forgiving have already done good by us.

And, inevitably, I find myself thinking of Dylan again, and the position he has occupied for nearly his entire career. Much like Radiohead, who are not so much a band as many separate bands (the one that recorded "High and Dry", the one that recorded "Bloom", the one that recorded "No Surprises", etc., etc.), Bob Dylan is a man that has worn many faces, some of them the faces of incredible music, some of them the faces of horrid music. But we must remember, at the end of the day, that whatever face Radiohead or Bob Dylan chooses to wear is totally at the discretion of Radiohead or Bob Dylan. And if that's not the face you want them to wear...well, it's not a choice you get to make, nor should it be. I'll be there for Radiohead's next album, as expectant as I was for the last, and I will be there for Dylan's next album as well. And if Dylan chooses to release a hyphy album, I imagine we'll all love him just the same. I hope.
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Thursday, March 17, 2011

EBDS Special Post #6: Tour '74

The amusing thing about Bob Dylan's Tour '74 is that, because of the simply sprawling range of Dylan's entire career, a small offshoot of said career (if you can call something of Tour '74's magnitude "small" - after all, the tour grossed over $90 million, nearly twelve million people applied for the half million seats available, and it was widely considered the biggest tour in rock's nascent history up to that point) is pretty much forgotten by the public at large while still debated and argued over in the Dylan community to this day. And with good reason - the sound that Dylan and his gang of hoodlums cooked up over the two-month jaunt across America is the kind that makes you feel like you have to choose sides, both in its gutbucket rock electric form and the strum-and-snarl acoustic form Dylan adopted for the tour. And from that sound, and its evolution on stage, comes any number of arguments: "Is Before the Flood any good?" "Did Dylan do his fans a disservice with his shouty acoustic style?" "Did The Band do Dylan's fans a disservice with their shouty rock style?" "Why are the first shows on the tour so much better?" "Does the lack of variety kill the shows?" And so on, and so forth.

As any of you that have read my blog all the way through may or may not know, I have a very special place in my heart for Tour '74, as my interest in the tour dovetailed rather neatly with my exponentially increasing interest with Dylan himself, during my college years when I had enough disposable income and free time on my hands to dive as deep into Bob's extensive unofficial catalog as I cared to. And during that time, having familiarized myself with his more well-known albums and Live 1966 and all the truly essential stuff, I found myself falling more and more in love with Before the Flood and with the bootlegs I was amassing of that 1974 tour. What really grabbed me was what Dylan later complained about when asked about the tour - that raw power they were injecting into the music, any trace of nuance being washed away in a sea of synthesizers, ferocious guitars, and Bob & Co. blaring through every song at full throat (IMO, 74-76 Bob was in his best voice; too bad he overextended himself in 1978 and basically ruined it forever). I even put the more maligned acoustic tunes on repeat, not bothered by how they didn't sound like they did 8 years previous (let alone 10 years previous) and not concerned by the idea that Bob was rushing through them, because the speeding up of tracks usually taken at a measured (and in 1966, soporific) pace gave them a brand new style of their own.

And that, to me, is what Tour '74 was all about - the idea of the brand new applied to Bob's music, in this case a revved-up style that was all about pure energy and possibly not much else. It wasn't like Dylan and The Band didn't know what they were doing or didn't have a plan with where they were taking their music; the thirteen-plus hour rehearsals cranked out in November 1973 kind of speak against that, unless you assume they were like the Get Back rehearsals with all the faffing about that entailed. And while the performances definitely got tighter, more anodyne, and more reliant on the energy that came from being on stage (as well as from other things, of course), the show Dylan played in Chicago is recognizably performed by the same group as the one that recorded Before the Flood in LA, with perhaps a few more bum notes and some more obscure songs thrown in. Dylan and The Band wanted the songs to sound this way, and whether or not you want the songs to sound that way, you have to respect them for making something new out of something old.

And that, in a sense, is the biggest problem most people (including myself, to a certain degree) have with Tour '74 - in the end, Dylan and The Band only seemed interested in making something new out of something old. Only a cursory glance through the tour setlists shows a group increasingly falling back on Bob's mid-60s repertoire, and even more increasingly falling back on Bob's hits, to the point where the only songs Bob performed that he'd written after the crash were "All Along The Watchtower", "Lay Lady Lay", "Knockin' On Heaven's Door", and "Forever Young". All the Planet Waves songs ("Something There Is About You" was abruptly yanked for "Highway 61 Revisited", which isn't too bad because their version of "Highway 61 Revisited" absolutely smokes, but still), any of the rarer tracks ("Hero Blues", "Girl of the North Country", "I Don't Believe You"), and anything the audience might not be extremely familiar with (which wasn't much, if the appreciative reaction to the one-time-only performance of "As I Went Out One Morning" is any indication) was simply chucked over the wayside, in favor of a Greatest Hits performance that smacks of the cynicism that would preclude any number of tours after this that owed a debt to Tour '74 in so many different ways. And that, in a sense, is Dylan's biggest crime on this tour - unsure of himself and of his audience's capacity to embrace him if he didn't just come out and act as a jukebox wearing sunglasses every night, he forsook the adventurous side that had made him so famous to begin with (and which he'd more or less embrace in his older years, as his NET setlists tend to bear out, one too many performances of "Nettie Moore" nonwithstanding).

And that's what makes the legacy of Tour '74 so muddled - that increasing retreat into the protective cocoon of his first musical peak, even as the second peak was just around the corner. Basically everything good and bad about the whole tour - the massive applause line of "It's Alright Ma", proof positive of Dylan's continued relevance and cheap crowd pop all in one; the revelatory rarities like "Fourth Time Around" and "Mama, You Been On My Mind"; the trench-soldiers-going-over-the-top bravado of BTF's version of "Like A Rolling Stone"; and the weary realization that, nope, we never will get to hear this ensemble doing "Going, Going, Gone" or "Tonight I'm Staying Here With You" or even an unusual one like "Queen Jane Approximately" - springs from that fact, that even with all the money banked and the crowds uniformly adoring, Dylan and The Band voluntarily chained themselves to the past in order to not have to deal with their uncertain futures (The Band were past their commercial and creative peak, Dylan you all know about). But that doesn't mean that they didn't make some magic on stage, or that the '74 rendition of "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" doesn't have some fire and spark to help offset the original's weary emotion, or that their versions of "Most Likely You Go Your Way" and "Ballad of Hollis Brown" aren't essential (in the latter's case, I'd say more so than the original). Tour '74, for all its backward-looking issues, still has importance musically, and ultimately career-wise as well, as the Dylan that emerged from 1974 was vastly different from the one that entered it. As we shall soon find out.
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