Friday, March 27, 2009

Critic-At-Large, Part 2

Television--"See No Evil" (mp3)

As I continued to search for treasures among the racks of the Jacaranda Public Library, I shifted towards music. As I’ve noted before on these pages, the cds are a surprisingly odd mix of things an older clientele would like and an always-astonishing selection of more modern stuff. I came home with a mix of things, a few of which I’ll dispense with quickly.

When I went during Thanksgiving, the “feature section” included a large variety of holiday music. This time, it was country. It’s only been in the last 10 years that I discovered how much I like Merle Haggard. When I came across his classic hits here and there, “Big City” or “Sing Me Back Home,” for example, I was pleased by both the quality of songwriting and the quality of the production. So I picked up his greatest hits of the 80's and 90's with great expectation. I'll say nothing more.

Though I know some music, I am often amazed by the encyclopedic knowledge of people much younger than I am, even students. It’s been over 30 years since I realized that my natural snobbery makes me late to the party more times than I’d care to admit. This has been especially true of music. So, there are things that I never heard simply because I dismissed them too quickly or because I hadn’t discovered them myself.

Wilco—A Ghost Is Born. There are three words that come to mind when thinking of this cd: repetition, indulgence, and noise. Oh, yeah, and a feeling of “we’ve picked up a hot guitar player and we’re going to show him off at the expense of pretty much everything else.” What a surprise that the guitarist is Jeff Tweedy. The first 5 songs establish an idea, usually a quiet one, and then exploit that idea for far too long, often with extensive guitar noodling. The guitar playing is idiosyncratic and experimental and accomplished, but often it doesn’t fit.

I was not surprised to discover that “Handshake Drugs” was the best song on the cd. It was the one that had appeared on blogs and on mix cds sent my way. What I didn’t realize until I heard the cd as a whole is that it is probably the successful realization of what they were trying to do on the rest of the cd. On this song, the repitition works, the odd guitar fills work, the good parts of the song go on long enough that I tolerated the noise at the end. “Wishful Thinking” works, too, because it has a memorable melody that emerges out of the beginning noise, a technique used on Being There more than once. And then “Company in My Back,” “I’m a Wheel,” and “Theologians” continue in the vein of semi-catchy pop songs, before “Less Than You Think” returns as another unnecessarily long non-opus (though the basic song is good enough).

A Ghost Is Born is like an overblown novel from an experienced writer who has become a little too comfortable with and self-assured of his own genius and who needs a good editor to call “bullshit” every once in awhile (or maybe a lot). If Wilco dumped the first 5 songs, they’d have had a fairly coherent, if minor, cd. The first 5 songs do not add to genius, legacy, or listenability. What else is there?

Television—Marquee Moon. By contrast, Marquee Moon is a revelation. Marquee Moon is one of those records you are supposed to have heard and worshipped in the middle of the punk/new wave era of the late 70’s. Somehow, it got by me, and once it did, I got past it, nodding like Donald Trump (who famously said you only need to know enough about something to talk about it at a cocktail party) when Television or Verlaine or Lloyd’s name would come up in rock conversation.

What I realize now is that when I was living post-college on a farm in Landsdale, PA with a nascent rock band called Peking West, the lead guitarist was attempting to channel the very stuff he had heard on this record—the flat, nearly garage band production with almost effects, the art rock solos and interplay, the New York vibe mixed with folk. There’s a little bit of Talking Heads here, but only in the sense that they probably sprung from the same New York tree. The instruments are natural sounding and small, the use of each instrument essential to the song, the solos effective and original.

Contrast one of Television’s longer songs, like “Marquee Moon (10:47),” with one of Wilco’s, and you experience the difference between a song that has organically developed to its natural length and one that was okay as a shorter song but is, quite frankly, bloated with a bunch of pseudo-artistic crap noise.

There’s no point in going through the tracks on Marquee Moon. Safe to say that top to bottom, it is quality rock and roll with a clear vision. If you heard that this band was coming to town, you would go to see them and everyone would be there for the unencumbered sound and the invitation to get inside of every song. If you listened to this over and over, as I have today, you would quickly latch onto favorite parts of songs, but not favorite songs, because they are all of a type, a vibe, each one remarkably different, but with the same guitar interplay. If you are like me and haven’t heard it, hear it. I want to say that it sounds like a Velvet Underground that knows how to play its instruments, that has nothing to prove because the band has already proven it to themselves.

Who knows why the gods have juxtaposed these two cds for me, but, in summary, Television was a band that already knew its way on its first album, while Wilco, critics' darlings though they are, seems to have lost its way much later in the game. Note to Mr. Tweedy of Wilco: the guitar serves the song, not vice-versa!

Television and Wilco are available at Itunes.


Anonymous said...

I saw television on their reunion tour in 1993. A friend of mine's band opened for them. Television was very good. My friend's band wasn't too shabby either. If you haven't already checked it out, another record like that (fallen through the cracks) is the Modern Lovers. One of my top 10 favorite records of all time. Took me a while to get it though.

jed said...

Bob - great entry. "Handshake Drugs" has a great bass line. Did you know that Wilco's bass player is the twin brother of Blue Mountain's bass player?

Anonymous said...

this post is bizarely relevant to me only because both Marquee Moon, and A Ghost Is Born are both two of my favourite records of all time. they both mean a lot to me, and its spooky that you would happen to be comparing them (one being from the seventies, one from 2000's and pretty much having nothing in common)