Sunday, August 29, 2010

Stuck, or Obsession Cessastion

You may have noticed that things have slowed down around here. I had the summer off from teaching, and I spent it with my 7 month-old son. I gave myself permission to make this blog less of a priority. Well, "less of a priority" is putting it lightly. Initially, I considered an abrupt retirement. But then I reconsidered. Maybe the proximity to Brett Favre is causing this.

If you're a long time reader, this is probably not all that surprising to you. Since 2007, it has become an annual ritual for me to soul-search about my waning interest in music. First I blamed an inability to express myself and a lack of quality music. Then in 2008 I cited new technology and the death of the album. Last year I wrote about how my changing life priorities hindered my ability to seek out new music.

I've done a lot of thinking about it this summer and in truth I believe this was all just dancing around the issue, a slow realization of something I didn't want to admit to myself: My music obsession has gone away. 

Sure, I still have an interest in music - I imagine I always will - but that interest is clearly not at the very intense level it once was. The old stuff still thrills, but in the last four years, new CDs/songs have rarely moved me in the way I'm used to. I thought for awhile this was just a funk, a phase. But four years of something is a pattern, not an exception.

So what happened? Was it really all of those factors I laid blame upon? Well, yes. But they can be enveloped into a larger, more theoretical, explanation.

That explanation starts in Daniel Levitin's book This Is Your Brain on Music. Levitin is both a scientist and a musician, and his book looks at the latter through the lens of the former. It's a bit of a dry and dense read if, like me, you are neither a scientist or musician, but it does contain several enlightening bits of information. The part I'm concerned with is as follows:

Through research, Levitin and others have found that music has a profound affect on the amygdala, the part of the brain that that processes memory and emotional reactions. In adolescence, an emotionally-raw time, the brain is busy making crazy amounts of connections. So it follows that music first experienced during adolescence is especially fondly-remembered. In fact, a study of advanced Alzheimer's patients found that they could still remember songs from when they were fourteen.

Since our neural circuits slow down after our teenage years, so do our connections. And this leads Levitin to make the following statement: "There doesn't seem to be a cutoff point for acquiring new tastes in music, but most people have formed their tastes by the age of 18 or 20."

I've known this anecdotally for years. We all know people whose musical tastes seem irrevocably stuck in a certain era, our parents, our grandparents, guys at the fair wearing Ratt t-shirts. I used to think this was because these people had simply stopped trying, that they wrote off new music as the fancy of youth. Often this "state of stuck" is accompanied by a disdain of the new and popular. Rather than just admit they're out of touch, these old fogeys dismiss the new sounds as having less artistic merit than their most beloved songs. We've seen this play out consistently in every new generation and sub-generation: Jazz isn't real music, rock and roll isn't real music, disco isn't real music, punk isn't real music, new wave isn't real music, hip hop isn't real music, etc. And consistently we've seen that the latest tunes that are driving the kids wild mean/will mean just as much to them as the music of our youth meant/means to us. The songs on the top 40 will eventually be the songs on the classic rock and oldies stations.

I once thought that being aware of this would be enough to help me avoid becoming stuck in my tastes. I thought I could be an exception out of sheer willpower. I thought that because music meant so much to me, I wouldn't fall in the trap. And it did work, at least a little bit. I had a longer golden age than many, with it lasting well into my 20s. But now that my golden age has ended, I'm more inclined to believe in a biological explanation.

Obviously we're still able to make emotional connections beyond our teenage years. We fall in love, we have children, etc. Likewise, certain bands and songs do still find their way to my heart, and I'm sure they'll continue to do so. But I'm ready to accept that new songs are unlikely to give me that overwhelming rush of memory and emotion that I get from the best songs of my golden age. And lately I've that the new artists and songs I like best are ones that remind me of older artists I like. I'm now convinced this is how rock critics keep up their careers going. They write about how established artists just aren't as good as they used to be or about how this new band sounds a lot like this old band.

I'll pause to let that marinate a little bit.

There are other, smaller, possibly dismissable factors in my music quagmire. First is the Hornby Effect, which says, basically, that once I became romantically happy (I met my wife in 2006), my ability to truly identify with music (the best of which is about romantic discord) was lost. Or a more recent thought centers on how analysis of a work of art can intensify our appreciation of it, but at the same time distance us emotionally from it. It's destruction by deconstruction. Too often since I started this blog I've approached an album already starting to write a review of it in my head, rather than experiencing the music viscerally in the moment.

You'll notice the key in all three explanations is the emotion and personal connection. When I started 3 Minutes, 49 Seconds it was to share my personal relationship with music through writing. When I read back over old reviews, the ones I like the best are the ones where I opened myself up, where that personal relationship is clearly a part of the review.

I feel like I've moved away from that in recent years, at least when it comes to writing about new music. I don't tend to feel a strong connection to a lot of new music, so I don't tend to write about it. So I've dealt with this in sneaky ways. I focused on back catalogs of beloved artists (The Beatles, The Monkees, "Weird Al", XTC). And I moved toward analytical, research-based entries (the Rock Bottom and Rock Solid series) that required no personal connection at all.

And I've had fun with those, but I don't feel I can continue on that path indefinitely. Writing about music was always meant to be a reflection and manifestation of my obsession. Using writing to keep the obsession on life support, as I have in recent years, is not something I'm very interested in.

So does this mean the end of 3 Minutes, 49 Seconds? Maybe, but not quite yet. I've still got more work to do. I have 11 more Rock Solids to write, 2 more XTC album reviews, and a new feature called Versus, for which I have 5 ideas). At my current pace, that's enough to keep me going well into 2011. But from there? I don't know what that future holds.

But I know this: Obsessions are cyclical. I was an avid comic book collector from age 12 to 22 (though the last four years I basically did it out of habit; do you see a pattern?). I unceremoniously stopped collecting in 2000, only to start up again 5 years later. Now I'm back in the thick of it, visiting the comic shop every week to keep up with the adventures of the Flash and Fantastic Four.

So mark your calendars for 2015, I guess.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Rock Solid: Bruce Springsteen

"If you only own one album by Bruce Springsteen it's gotta be [insert masterpiece here]."

Welcome to Rock Solid, where we fill in the blank. Our goal is to pseudo-scientifically determine the best, the beloved, the most classic album in an artist's catalog.

Here's how it works: I've consulted two main sources. The All Music Guide provides the professional critical point-of-view and offers the fan perspective (because most people who choose to review albums on Amazon are adoring fans of the artist in question). The album with the highest combined rating from both sources is the one I'll consider the best.

An artist's entire body of work is eligible, with
one exception: No compilations (i.e. greatest hits). In each case, I'll also share my personal favorite album by the artist in question, as if you care.

* * *

Here are the top 8 Bruce Springsteen albums according to fan and critical acclaim:

8. Tunnel of Love (1987)
7. The River (1980)
6. Greetings from Asbury Park (1973)
5. Born in the U.S.A. (1984)
4. Nebraska (1982)
3. Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978)
2. The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle (1973)
1. Born to Run (1975)

Only the top two received perfect ratings from both the All Music Guide and reviewers, and Born to Run unsurprisingly took the top spot with the most 5 star ratings on Amazon. But that's not the real story to me. Nor is it the surprisingly high ranking for The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle. The real story is that these top 8 albums are also the Boss' first 8 albums. None of his work since 1987 cracked the list. Consider that for a moment.

Now here's where we could have a very interesting and lively discussion about career trajectory and the fact that nearly every established, successful pop artist's career follows a predictable path in terms of critical (and to a certain degree public) perception. It goes something like this: 1) Artist spends a couple of singles, EPs, or even albums working out their sound, 2) Artist puts it all together, beginning a golden period, 3) The first album to truly disappoint arrives, ending the golden period, and 4) Every subsequent album is a (mostly or partially) unsuccessful attempt to recapture the golden period.

Now there are a lot of subtle variations to this, but it basically holds true for any artist you want to slot in. The big question is: Why? Is it just another manifestation of our build-them-up break-them-down culture of celebrity? Probably. But is it also that rock is an inherently ageist medium? For all the honoring of rock's elders, it is the rare older musician who's beloved for more than nostalgic reasons, who is still regarded as artistically vital. Is this fair in any way? Probably not.

In the case of Springsteen, the 1992 double shot of Lucky Town and Human Touch signaled his first disappointing moments (Tunnel of Love was a commercial but not artistic disappointment, only because it followed the ridiculously successful Born in the U.S.A.; more on that later). He's never truly pleased the critics since. Even the praise for his "comeback", 2002's The Rising, was couched in the fact that he was writing new songs that sounded like his old ones.

But I digress. Let's move on and revel in the golden period, the height of which is the album that made the Boss the Boss. William Ruhlman of the All Music Guide writes in his 5 star review: "Born to Run was an intentional masterpiece. It declared its own greatness with songs and a sound that lived up to Springsteen's promise, and though some thought it took itself too seriously, many found that exalting." This latter statement brings up an important point. To whit, Chuck Klosterman took some of the air out of the the Boss' poetic aspirations in an essay in his book Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs:
"But what nobody seemed to notice is that this song [Born to Run] has some of the most ridiculous lyrics ever recorded. Half the time, Springsteen writes like someone typing a PG-13 letter for Penthouse Forum: The lines "Just wrap your legs 'round these velvet rims / And strap your hands 'cross my engines" are as funny as anything Tenacious D ever recorded, except Bruce is trying to be deep."
So the point here is that liking Bruce, and Born to Run specifically, requires a suspension of cynicism. You have to be willing to give yourself over to the dramatic grandiosity of it all. The reviewers on certainly are, indulging in purple prose that Bruce himself would be proud of.

M.J. Heilbron Jr. writes: "The cinematic sweep, from Thunder Road to Jungleland, makes you feel like you're watching a movie while listening. The epic nature and true storylines makes you feel like you're reading a classic novel. I ask you, what album have you ever listened to, that elicits a sensation of music, film and literature simultaneously? It's breathtaking." Thomas Emanual follows that train of thought when he says, "The Great American Novel is the book, better than any other, that perfectly embodies the essence of America and American life - its hardship, its joy, its defeat, its triumph. You can think of Born to Run then as the Great American Album." And J.H. Minde adds, "It's adequately measure the impact this album had. The changes it wrought in the young people who first heard it were very nearly on the cellular level (that's biology, not telephony, you 21st century yahoos!)." Finally, an anonymous contributor tells us that, "The album Born to Run is brimming with bombast and sorrow, celebrating the plight and fortune of man, with a defiance rarely heard."

Other reviewers keep things simpler but no less laudatory. Spanish Johnny declares Born to Run "the most exhilarating, most complex recording of Springsteen's distinguished career." "You can hear rock being reinvented and revisited all at the same time, all in one listen, " says Peter Guglietta. Craig Paul opines, "I can't imagine anyone not owning this recording." And, Bruce (hmmmm...) tells us: "Stated simply, this is the best rock and roll album ever recorded."

Well, is it? In short, no. Let me start by saying that I listened to Born to Run for the first time for this article, and that colors my perception. There are songs (namely the title track and Thunder Road) that I've heard hundreds of times, others that I've heard a handful, and still others that I'd never heard. Thus it's very different listening experience than it was intended to be. Even so, some songs naturally stand out over others.

Of course, there are the hits. Well, technically, the title track is the only one, and even that only made it to #23 on the U.S. chart. It's more of a hit-in-retrospect, to the point that it's been way overplayed. Even so, it's the one Bruce will be remembered for. And if you can resist the ending, where things come to a halt, Bruce counts off, the band rushes in, and "The highway's jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive" then you're a better person than me. The R & B workout Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out was a single, not a hit, but is nonetheless a concert favorite. So we'll throw that in. And opener Thunder Road was neither a single nor a hit, but still is a classic, and made it on to 1995's Greatest Hits.

Other tracks have varying levels of impact. Backstreets builds up a good head of steam, She's the One has a funky core, and album closer Jungleland is an intriguing, evocative epic. However, Night does little to distinguish itself, and Meeting Across the River has an interesting story-song lyrics that are nearly ruined by an overdramatic and dated arrangement (on later albums, like Darkness on the Edge of Town and Nebraska, Bruce would master the art of keeping it simple).

Quibbles aside, and disregarding the fact that Born to Run isn't Springsteen's most successful album (Born in the U.S.A. went 15 times platinum and produced 7! top ten singles), the album is a solid choice for his best. Not only because it made a bold, unified artistic statement, but because it had a magnificent cultural impact. Born to Run made the world sit up and take notice. It made the Boss the Boss. Other Springsteen albums might be as strong or even slightly stronger, but none had the same impact. 

My own personal fave is Tunnel of Love, an E Street-free (well, at least as a unified group; various members still contributed) concept album that tackles various aspects of romantic love. And though I could do without ever again hearing the title track in a department store, it's a haunting, beautifully-made record.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Rock Solid: Elvis Costello

"If you only own one album by Elvis Costello it's gotta be [insert masterpiece here]."

Welcome to Rock Solid, where we fill in the blank. Our goal is to pseudo-scientifically determine the best, the beloved, the most classic album in an artist's catalog.

Here's how it works: I've consulted two main sources. The All Music Guide provides the professional critical point-of-view and offers the fan perspective (because most people who choose to review albums on Amazon are adoring fans of the artist in question). The album with the highest combined rating from both sources is the one I'll consider the best.

The declared winner will be subjected to the Th
riller Test (do I need to explain the name?), a set of 4 criteria an album should meet to be considered a masterpiece. Those are 1) at least 3 hits, 2) great album tracks that sh/could have been hits, 3) no filler, and 4) memorable cover art.

An artist's entire body of work is eligible, with
one exception: No compilations (i.e. greatest hits). In each case, I'll also share my personal favorite album by the artist in question, as if you care.

* * *

According to the critics and fans, Elvis Costello has four perfect albums. And he made them all in a 5 year span, between 1977 and 1982. Were I Elvis himself I'd be flattered and depressed at the same time. Flattered, of course, to have my work so highly regarded. Depressed because none of the approximately 623 albums I've made since 1982 are anywhere near as loved.

At any rate, the four albums are as follows: Debut My Aim Is True (1977), the follow-up This Year's Model (1978), Armed Forces (1979), and the divorce epic Imperial Bedroom (1982). Each one received a perfect combined rating of 10 from the All Music Guide and fans on

So how do we determine which is best? Simple math. We look at the percentage of raters giving the albums the full 5 stars. The winner then emerges, with This Year's Model sporting a staggering 96% of reviewers bestowing it with 5 stars.

This Year's Model marked the debut of Elvis' beloved backing band the Attractions (Steve Nieve, Bruce Thomas, and Pete Thomas), who immediately made their value known, especially Nieve, whose organ provides the album's signature sound. The Thomas brothers' rhythm section is no slouch either. The album features the Elvis classics Pump It Up, (I Don't Want To Go To) Chelsea, and Radio, Radio (originally a single-only release, added as a bonus track).

The All Music Guide's Stephen Thomas Erlewine labels the album "reckless, careening, and nervous." But he's a big fan of the  chaos, declaring, "Costello and the Attractions never rocked this hard, or this vengefully, ever again."

The fan reviewers on were similarly adoring. M.Packham declares This Year's Model "The Best Costello Has to Offer." Jeremy Young opines: "Who needs Elvis impersonators? The real Elvis is alive on this album, and he has never sounded better." One anonymous reviewer asks, "Has there ever been a better pop album released?" If he meant that rhetorically then the answer is no, but if it's a direct question then the answer is yes. And another nameless, faceless fellow claims, "No less so than Beethoven's Fifth, it states its theme squarely at the start and only builds -- dizzyingly and ecstaticly -- from there."

I could go on and on, but I noticed an interesting trend in some of the reviews. Check out these comments and see if you pick up on the pattern. Amid a passionate love letter to This Year's Model, Itamar Katz says the album is, "Not as tight or melodic as the classic follow-up Armed Forces." G. Moses reveals, "My favourite Costello album still has to be Armed Forces, but this is almost as breathtaking." And Bradley Jacobson recommends that after hearing This Year's Model, you proceed to "what will probably be my favorite Elvis album Armed Forces."

So, um, if three separate reviewers mention the superiority of a different album in the course of praising This Year's Model, doesn't that hurt its Rock Solid case just a little bit? I'd say so. And while This Year's Model's well-crafted consistency is hard to deny (every song is damn good; the only thing I don't like on the whole album is the chorus of Livin' In Paradise which wanders a bit too far into American bar band territory), I'd rank it lower than Armed Forces, mainly because the latter was such an artistic leap. For all of its energy, This Year's Model has a sameness of sound throughout. Armed Forces has a much more open and sophisticated feel; listen to the expansive opener Accidents Will Happen next to The Beat for an example of what I mean. Nieve has traded in his organ for a piano, and Elvis shows some range and subtlety in his singing, instead of spitting out his lyrics like he's trying to get rid of them.

And while the ultimate moral of this Rock Solid is that you really can't go wrong with any Elvis disc released between the years 1977 and 1982 (okay, Almost Blue, a country covers album that's better in theory than actuality, can probably be skipped), none of those 6 great albums is my personal favorite. No, that'd be 1986's King of America. Click on the link for a justification of that pick, plus a prescient discussion of which Elvis albums are the best.