Friday, June 15, 2007

To Real Politik: The Real Politik of Good Music

Having a natural feel for rhythm is not what makes me an excellent judge of music. Nor is it the fact that my genitals, when given some air, swing at the natural frequency of your typical chart hit. No. What makes The Chipster the ultimate arbiter of good taste is the fact that his buttocks involuntary clench whenever they hear bad music. This has now happened to me twice within the space of a few days and I'm afraid it might happen a third. On both occasions, my buttocks went as hard as iron just after I’d just clicked on a link to Alien Nation, which some of you might know as Real Politik’s blog.

It just can't go on, and not now I’m officially the most articulate wordsmith in the blogosphere. I have certain responsibilities, such as saving Real Politik from himself.

And, quite frankly, I have to save all you from Real Politik.

But I’m not going to start telling you to go out and listen to Brahms or your Mahler, Beethoven or Bach. Well, actually I do recommend Bach but that’s a discussion for another day. I just want to put one person right on what is clearly becoming a pathological need to post bad music to his blog. Blogger must have some standards. I know the world is full of bad things: midget throwing, pushing donkeys off cathedrals, or planning for Armageddon. But we have to draw a line somewhere. I draw the line at anything with an electronic beat.

Perfect rhythm kills music. The human heartbeat is not made for it. Nor, to be perfectly honest, is the Chipster's heart made to withstand suggestions that he likes the music of James Blunt or X Factor. Records need to be set straight.

To my mind, music needs some element of failure in order to succeed. My own musical tastes begin at the odd and, oddly, ends there. But I want to make a case for Mr. Politik to go and discover musicians that continually fail to be perfect. I mean people like Patti Smith, Neil Young, Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Tom Waits, Sparks, Belle & Sebastian, Bob Dylan, Helium, Joni Mitchell, Kinky Friedman, Laura Veirs, Leonard Cohen, Lou Reed, Natalie Merchant, Nick Cave, Nick Drake, Talking Heads, The Stranglers, or even William Shatner.

I could make cases for these and many more but I’ve decided that the current contents of my MP3 player are enough to give poor Real Politik a start. Every one of these fails by the standards of X Factor and Pop Idol. Which is how it should be in a perfect less-than-perfect world.

I knew I had to act right at the beginning when our poor fellow blogospherical thought Patti Smith was a man. Well, I admit that there’s something a bit manly about her, make no mistake about that, but this is where we make out first discovery about good music. Good music is not always the best music. The best singers don’t always have the best voices.

It’s the X Factor test, in which the people who make it through to the end are always bound to be the least interesting. The same is true of Eurovision. A consensus of people will never choose the best music. They will choose the average, the median, the middle-of-the-road singer who offends the least number of people. Smith will always offend plenty. She’s got the voice of a banshee who has smoked forty a day for a lifetime spent working in a factory making paint stripper. She’s the part of my mind that also likes to gorge occasionally on Lou Reed, even back in his Velvet Underground days. This music is not about getting the right note. This is punk where making the mistakes and realising that they’re better because they’re closer to real life. Listen to ‘Horses’ or ‘New York’ and dare tell me that it doesn’t have an edge that makes you feel that music really matters.

Which is why I’ve recently found Belle & Sebastian. A weak voiced man sings about commonplace things. It’s like the musical version of Philip Larkin. Which is what you might also say about Nick Drake. The poor man killed himself before he was recognised as one of the most original artists of his day, but his albums are laid back meadows of textures, where butterflies play drums and the rivers gurgle down the mouthpieces to flutes and clarinets. His voice is weak, almost pathetically so, but it fits the music. It makes the music.

These singers would never get past the first round on X Factor. Which is why their music matters. They don’t follow conventions and the Chipster is a man who loves people who don’t follow conventions.

High pitched singing is always a good way of breaking a few conventions. It keeps away the dogs and annoys the neighbours. For high pitched singing, you can’t beat the holy trinity: Joni Mitchell, Laura Veirs, and Sparks. I’ve ranked them according to frequency. If you’re a beginner to the world of high octave singing, begin with Joni. Most of her songs start out in human range and peak somewhere near that of a dentist’s drill set on cavity. Veirs starts somewhere about there and takes things up to the sound of a hummingbird’s wings. If you’re really adventurous, try Sparks. They defy logic. They can sound camp, crazy, or downright terrible. But some of their songs are offbeat gems. And Ron Mael looks like Hitler. What more could you want from a rock band?

If high pitched singing defies you to like it, low pitched singers are just coolness personified. Few men sing lower than Leonard Cohen without surgical alterations below the beltline, but by ‘singing’ I really mean growling into a coal bucket. His later music tends to be well arranged, and his last two albums have been some of his best work. The same is true of Dylan who changes like the seasons. Just when you think he’s lost that zest for the unusual, he produces an album to put his contemporaries to shame.

Music is like that. It’s often best when it comes at you from an unexpected place. One of the most unexpected places is the country and western rack in my local HMV.

Doesn’t the idea of country and western make you feel ill? Just the thought of those bright pink silk cowboy shirts with tassels, those pointy toed boots worn high over tight denims… It’s enough to turn a man off Dolly Parton. Actually, if you’ve seen Dolly lately, you might wonder if that’s a bad thing. It’s beyond human knowledge to know how such a large breasted woman could have become a gay icon… However, that’s just a means of turning your mind from the fact that I’m trying to convince you that some C&W is any good.

I’ve tried on a number of occasions to write about Kris Kristofferson without sounding middle aged. Then I realise that I don’t want to convince anybody of the man’s greatness. I discovered Johnny Cash before the rest of the world remembered him and Kristofferson is probably in need of rediscovering.

Johnny Cash symbolised something missing from music and culture: manliness. That rich voice, worn down by too many years sucking the life from a whisky bottle, and a face equally beat. I thought he looked like some kind of mythic Cherokee and only recently discovered that his family originated in Scotland. It doesn’t much matter. He can wear the Cherokee tartan for all I care. The point is that even a frail failing Cash was bigger, more present, and more worldly than a cruise liner packed to the bows with Justin Timberlakes. And since Cash died, I’ve been looking for something else which I found in Kristofferson.

You have to look beyond the album covers to find the appeal of Kristofferson. He’s damned by too much of that 70s look and feel. He’s also become too recognisable as a character actor, often adding that touch of worldliness to films where other actors preferred to take the high road of the face lift. As an actor, he turns up in roles that call for his gnarly features: Blade, Dtox… But he’s better than that too. Check out his lead role in Sam Pekinpah’s Pat Garret and Billy the Kid, one of the best westerns of the 70s. His latest album, This Old Road, feels like late Cash, with the same dusty voices, croaking out their messages. But his whole career is full of poor singing raised to art. He has some of the less memorable album covers and album titles, though ‘Jesus Was A Capricorn’ is worth remembering. Through them, there are some songs which should have been better known. Cash made ‘Sunday Morning Coming Down’ but Kristofferson’s version is equally as good. Then there’s the two devil songs: ‘Beat The Devil’ and ‘Shake Hands With The Devil’..

Kristofferson demonstrates the one rule you must remember when it comes to country and western. If it comes with tassles, it’s not worth the listen. That’s where Kinky Friedman comes in. Nobody listens to poor Kinky these days but his albums are classics of Jewish country and western ‘In A Mensroom in LA’, . One of the most moving spiritual songs you’ll ever hear.

Old Testaments & New Revelations is the place to start. It has some of his best songs, including the sniper-classic, ‘Ballad of Chales Whitman’. Kinky’s probably most well known for songs like ‘They Ain’t Making Jews Like Jesus Anymoe’ but the highlight is the stomach turning beauty of a song like ‘Ride’em Jewboy’.

Tom Waits is what every rock star wants to be but can never match. He’s the most iconoclastic musicians around. With Neil Young, he’s one of the godfathers of grunge. You begin with the witty jazz of his early albums, which are like conceptual albums not trying to be anything so pretentious. ‘Nighthawks at the Diner’ is one of those rare albums that becomes a friend. Waits sits down in his club and entertains you for the evening, mixing wry anecdotes, hilarious stories, with some great songs. You then move through his difficult period, if you dare. ‘Raindogs’ is about as left of centre as left of centre goes. Tone poems, music where the axel has shifted and it moves in eclipses. Oddities of the fairground, freaks with trombones. Then you get to ‘Swordfishtrombones’. Another album that just challenges you to even bear it, until you realise you love it. ‘Franks Wild Years’ is an even bigger struggle, with some of Waits craziest songs. Yet you still find yourself singing along, hitting all the bum notes, and loving it. ‘I don’t know… it’s physics…’

Few songwriters have the gift of telling stories with the kind of detail achieved by the best novelists, but Waits does it continually. He’s the musical version of Raymond Carver; short stories full of small town ambitions squashed like roadkill. Move into his more recent albums, and Waits is the pioneer of the next musical trends, working in his shed. They are best described as huge canvases of noise: huge spreads of rhythms that just dwarf you with their scale. At once insane and magical, they are sound sculptures, which you circle until it’s the time to move onto the next song, where you will find Waits back at the keyboard, playing soft heart breaking ballads about some troubled love.

None of it is polished. All of it is technically a mess. But that’s the beauty of it.

Here endeth the lesson.


David B said...

Cheers Chip. You've introduced me to Patti Smith. Not heard her stuff before but now searching for it.

Kristofferson is an odd choice. Didn't expect you to say it, and I've never been a fan. I'm willing to go and give him a try. If he's like Cash, I'll probably like him. I thought I was the only person to have heard of Kinky Friedman.

I agree with what you say about Waits and Cohen. There weaknesses can be their strengths. Good choice of video, BTW.

mutterings and meanderings said...

The Velvet Underground's my favourite band.

I'm also very fond of Belle & Sebastian - gorgeous music with subversive lyrics.

mutterings and meanderings said...

Oh - and I have got you with a tag that asks specific question. Come to my blog for more details ...

Realpolitik said...

You know, I don't think you are really a stripper from Bangor.

Sounds more like Rhyll.

Jan Tregeagle said...

Good choice in Sparks. Might I also suggest Darcy James Ague's Secret Society, Kasabian (if not just for the track "Dovermann"), the Doors, Air, Pendulum, Towa Tei, David Holmes, Claude Challe, Adam Green and Ennio Morricone.

Big Chip Dale said...

David, go for Horses first but her album of covers is pretty good. Kristofferson is somebody I never thought I'd like until I gave him a good try. Listen to 'To Beat the Devil' and then try 'Shakes Hands With the Devil', then I think you'll get him.

M&M, I would never have thought you a VU fan! I live and learn. (I'm doing your meme but it's harder than it looks!)

Realpolitik, not another to doubt me. I know those guys from Rhyl claim to have good taste but we Bangor men are not without an ear for the good stuff.

Jan, I'm ahead of you with some of those ('LA Woman' is a favourite of mine), and it's eerie that you should mention Morricone. I always listen to him when I work. At the moment it's The Untouchables ST album, and when it's finished, iTunes will start again at his 'Very Best Of' and I'll work my way through to the ST of 'Once Upon A Time In The West'. His theme for Frenzy is one of my favourites. I'll check out your other suggestions now and see what takes my ear.

Ms Baroque said...

Chippy, you're on a roll! (If not a Rhyll.)

Okay so I'm totally with you on the Lou Reed/Patti Smith thing - Kristofferson is going to take some aversion therapy I think, and then there's the big mystery: what is with Wm Shatner?? Is it really him singing?

Sparks, good choice.

And don't forget the White Stripes, the Dresden Dolls, and even the new Amy Winehouse album. And on that note, Nina Simone, and on that note, the wonderful Chet Baker.

Doesn't Kinky Friedman write crime novels?

Big Chip Dale said...

Yes, big White Stripes fan, but not so keen on Amy Winehouse. Remember my stalker?

Why aversion therapy for Kristofferson? I hate (with a passion) C&W but not good lyrics when sung with a charismatic voice. Which is where Kinky comes in. Yes, he writes comedy novels but he began as a successful country and western singer. Lots of politically incorrect lyrics but so funny and fun.

Shatner made some of the world's worst albums but last year triumphed with a rear left of centre album, some great covers and collaborations. And some of his own lyrics about the death of his wife are really touching. It's a great album so long as you go with the parody of himself.

Delicolor said...

I saw the Cohen freeze frame and immediately thought of the Muppet Show.

Then I saw the freeze frame of Shatner and immediately thought "Muppet".

Big Chip Dale said...

Muppet show? Ah, yes. I see what you mean. But muppet? The man's a legend. I know he's supposed to be a pretty horrible individual, but he's the Shat. You can't knock the Shat... I just won't allow it.

I think you're only mocking him, Ian, because of his wonderful head of hair.

Ms Baroque said...

Chippy, I forgot about the stalker! Maybe I should stop wearing so much eyeliner...

Eustace Blister said...

Jesus, Chipster - Is this turning into some sort of music review blog - you'll be posting MP3's of the latest Brand New Pony Club single before the weeks out. Get a grip on yourself man...maybe I should rephrase that.
I had a dream once where Johnny Cash auditioned for the X-factor and Simon Cowell criticised him. Then Johnny just took his guitar and beat the shit out of him with it.
I'd also like to say your choice of music seems fine and dandy, if a little obviously classicist and white. No room for some Nina Simone, Al Green...
Also, as a fellow admirer of Bach surely we can expect some postings of Bach MP3s from yourself. He wrote a lot of music for organ.

Chin chin!

Montegue Blister

Big Chip Dale said...

Ah, Blister, my selection was a bit white, wasn't it? Yet I own James Brown albums, adored John Lee Hooker, and most Mississippi blues. I detest rap, but like some of the Fugees albums. Gnarls Barkley's album is pretty good. Not so much a fan of soul. Don't like reggae either. UB40 drive me bonkers. Indifferent to Michael Jackson, though I guess he counts as white. Have quite a bit of world music, but I couldn't pronounce some of it, let alone spell it.