Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Dead Sharks?

The Pixies--"Where Is My Mind?" (mp3)

I've seen two concerts this month, which means it was a pretty good month. I saw the Pixies in Knoxville and Los Lobos (or just the songwriters with bass and drums) in Chicago. I've become a pretty tough concert critic, so as you read the remarks that follow, remind yourself, first and foremost, how much I enjoyed the two shows.

Both concerts were, in a sense, career retrospectives. The Pixies played their classic album, Doolittle, as well as a before-and-after of obscure B-sides. Los Lobos (actually David Hidalgio and Louis Perez) talked about their songwriting and played a number of their well-known songs as well a number of "newly-discovered" songs that they had written about 20 years ago and that have recently been released as a CD.

I'm sure you see the pattern. In effect, the "fresh" material was that which had rarely, if ever, been heard before, and certainly not live, though it was in no way new material. It's a technique that older rockers are starting to use more and more in various contexts. Neil Young has done it with his Archives, Dylan with his Bootleg Series, Springsteen with his recent release of Darkness On The Edge Of Town plus unreleased songs from those recording sessions.

On the surface, there is nothing wrong with the practice. It helps older artists stay on the radar in an increasingly-competitive musical environment and fans like me continue to clamor for songs from those days, so much so that I spent the better part of an afternoon a week or so ago converting old Springsteen performances from YouTube to mp3. I cherish those performances.

The problem comes, I think, when that is all that a band or an artist is doing. Dylan, Springsteen, and Young continue to record and release new material, and, regardless what you may think of some of those particulars, all are managing the twilight or near-twilight of their careers with grace, creativity, and energy. While I can't claim that any of their most recent releases blew me away, all three contained at least several songs that are worth repeated listenings and, in some cases, are top-notch.

The Pixies, however, don't have any new material. Since they reformed and began re-touring to fan and critical acclaim, they have not recorded and released new songs that give us a sense of where they are today. We only know that they can still play with tightness and skill, can still recreate their signature sound with what appear to be the same chops they had decades ago. Los Lobos I can't speak of with the same definitiveness. One of my favorite bands for decades, I lost track of them several CDs ago. Kiko was such a masterpiece to me, such a peak of their career, that I haven't checked in with them much since. What I do know is that their new material is old.

Woody Allen's script in Annie Hall talked of relationships as compared to sharks. As Allen's character tells Diane Keaton's character (Annie Hall),“A relationship is like a shark–it has to move forward or it dies. What we've got here is a dead shark.”

Is a band that doesn't have new material and doesn't seem to intend to ever have any a dead shark? Yes, I think it is. It is not moving forward.

I'm taking the liberty of bringing in two friend perspectives against their will. One friend acknowledges that the Pixies' tours over the past several years are a blatant, overt money grab, and he defends the idea based on the notion that the band never made any money the first time around and that they deserve to. The other friend, who sees every concert through the lense of a Bruce Springsteen show, thought that the Pixies played their show without joy. Though he postulated several theories for this, including a kind of 90's anti-rock concert concert ethic that the Pixies were undoubtedly a part of, he could not get past what he perceived as the band's indifference to their show and audience except on a proficient, workmanlike level (a charge he was unwilling to level at Dylan, who did the same thing).

I don't know who's right, and I must also mention that Los Lobos was the exact opposite: they went out of their way to engage their audience and the debt that the band owes the city of Chicago for over 30 years of continued support. They worked the crowd, paced the show beautifully, left us satisfied and grateful to have seen such a good show. Not unlike the Pixies.

So I return instead to a different fact, that neither band gave us anything new or recent. They worked nostalgia, they worked the past. And when I got home, something annoying about that surfaced.

Much ado about nothing? I mean, both bands played excellent shows that confirmed both their personal prowess and the strength of their best songs?

All I know is this. In 1974, I saw the Beach Boys do a reunion concert. Yes, in 1974, they were already in retrospective mode. The odd thing about the Boys was that they were still recording at that point, had lost Brian Wilson and perhaps another Wilson or two at that point, but they had new albums that they were still releasing full of new songs that they had written. In fact, one of their comeback hits, "Kokomo," wouldn't come out for several more years. The problem was, even though they were still alive in one sense, on stage they were pretending to be the band that had once been, not the band that was. It was an odd dichotomy. It was disconcerting, at least to me. It was weird enough that I can't really name any reunion shows that I've seen since then. Except the Pixies. And they were a new experience for me, since they didn't come on my radar until Frank Black's solo career.

I guess I'm with Woody on this one; I want that shark moving forward. Otherwise, what's the point?

NOTE: as this post was going to press, this writer discovered two interesting facts: 1) that the Pixies may indeed record new material and 2) that the Pixies have sold the above song to a commercial, its own kind of money grab.


Billy said...

(* -- Your write-up is why I'll be writing about 90125 at some point in the next week...)

Maybe there are two kinds of rockers, the ones who are fueled first and foremost by the art of the songcraft, and the ones who are fueled first and foremost by the art of the performance.

Springsteen, while certainly a great songwriter, is fueled first by the performance. Dylan seems more fueled by the craft.

Ryan Adams? Craft.
Rolling Stones? Performance.
Rush? Craft.
U2? Performance.
Pixies? Drugs.

Obviously plenty of great bands and artists over the years are capable of both, but it seems ultimately one or the other is the primary driver of the work.

I never got the feeling, personally, that the Pixies or Sugar or many of the 90s bands I loved were on stage because that was their first love. They treated their concerts and the audience more like the cost of following their music-making passion.

But Pearl Jam? They love performing and always have. Which is why their followers meticulously track and hunt down each and every concert performance.

Anonymous said...

I agree with your shark comment. While I'm a fan, the show I saw at the TN Theatre was great, but it was a little different than the show I saw at Constitution Hall 4 years ago. Maybe it had something to do with touring an album, but the show I saw at Constitution Hall was truly a victory lap. I guess the question is how many laps can you take? From an interview I read online, even the Pixies acknowledged that they are going to need to come out with some new product or shut it down. Still, the primary songwriters (Frank and Kim) have been putting out solo product while driving the Pixies from time to time. It is time for them to concentrate on the Pixies if they want that baby to keep swimming. Hope it happens. They are unique.

Bob said...

Interesting theory, Billy, that makes sense though a friend of ours will no doubt take issue with the categorizations of both Dylan and Springsteen. I have some live Sugar and they race through the songs one after the other with what seems like little disregard for either the audience or the songs themselves. It's kind of a post-punk ethic.

Anonymous friend, your points remind me that, like the Pixies themselves, their fans have not been in a time capsule. To toss in a solo song or two ("Ramona" or "Headache" or "(I Want To Live On An) Abstract Plane" or even "I Burn Today") would give the band a bit of an update that would not detract from what once was. It's something the Dead did well, assimilate solo stuff into the band; the alternative is (I think) an artificial dichotomy that too many other bands make.

cinderkeys said...

That is an interesting theory. Reminds me what a friend said about Peter Frampton and some other aging rockers. He noticed that not writing songs anymore has given them more time to hone their performance skills, and become even more amazing than they were in their heyday.

I'm a songwriter. I can imagine someday running out of material or, more likely, losing interest in expressing myself in that medium. (Hope it doesn't happen for a long time, but I can see it.) I'd hate for that to mean I couldn't play anymore.

troutking said...

Friend here read to take issue with categorization of Dylan and Springsteen. I don't think Bruce falls into either category neatly. He clearly puts a lot of thought into the craft of his albums--Born to Run being the height of that, but given his perfectionism on Darkness and the layered songwriting on Magic, I'd say it's always there. But, he also puts out songs that he knows will play well live (see half of The River, Born in the USA, etc). There's no denying that Bruce MUST play live; it's why he toured in 1999,2000, 2002, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 and will be hitting the road in 2012 (Yahoo!!!!) And why he plays random small live dates with random performers when he is not touring. He is simply the BEST arena rock show around. At the same time, he is a known perfectionist in the studio with notebooks and notebooks full of drafts of lyrics to prove it (all night).

Billy, I have to partially disagree with you on Bob. He's never put much into the craft of recording, except when working with Daniel Lanois. He generally records quickly and often "live" especially in recent years. For many years he was content to put out albums with a couple goods songs and a lot of "filler" though not so much recently. I'm sure he spends a lot of time writing songs (maybe not Wiggle Wiggle) but I don't think he thinks of his records as being the highest form of his art. He is not a polished performer on stage either, nor is he much concerned with the audience experience. BUT, I believe he thinks the live moment where music is created as he and his band work out a new arrangement of a decades old song or breathe life into a song he recorded recently IS the highest form of artistry. Where once he captured that "wild mercury sound" on Blonde on Blonde, now he hopes to find it fleetingly in the music he makes on stage. So he doesn't talk to the audience and his voice is technically shot, every show is different and he's still capable of investing as much emotion in a song as he ever was. In fact, one could and I would argue that an uneven show that depends on the unpredictable spark of musical creativty is better than U2's overproduced monostrosity that relies so much on technology that improvisation is almost entirely absent.

In summary, PRAISE BRUCE AND BOB!!! Can't wait to see 'em live and hear their new records too!

Also, the Pixies seemed to undercut their own songs with ironic winking videos and stage patter. How can I believe in a song if the artist doesn't even believe in it? That's why Bruce shows are great, because no one is having a better time than he is or believe more passionately in music than he does.

OK, back to work.