Archive for Ira Kaplan

What Sasha Frere-Jones Gets Right, And Wrong, In His Rare Miss On Bowie

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 16, 2013 by johnbuckley100

It is unusual for Sasha Frere-Jones to use his bully pulpit in The New Yorker to resist committing to a strong point of view, but when he finished his review of Bowie’s The Next Day with a taunt that “the bar rats can fight it out” over the exact status of the album among Bowie’s canon — declaring it “a fine rock record that is a few hairs away from being among his best,” and that “even the obsessives should be able to accept that” — we were disappointed.

Disappointed because Frere-Jones is, like Jon Mendelsohn, Lester Bangs, R. Meltzer, and Byron Coley before him, among the only voices in the rock criticism of his era that really matter.  While he does not write with anywhere near the pyrotechnical verve of any of these likely mentors, his perch exists at a time where Americans are given the dreary choice between reading the idiots at Rolling Stone, the even bigger idiots who labor under Jon Pareles’ Fidel-like reign at the formerly authoritative New York Times, and the onanistic closed loop in the bell jar that is Pitchfork.  Though it must be acknowledged that Ken Tucker at NPR has a wonderful sensibility, Frere-Jones may be the only main-market rock critic who really has an impact.

So yes, we were disappointed because the passive distancing of “a few hairs away from being among” Bowie’s best violates every rule of resistance to gainsaying, to soft pronouncements,  that we were taught, lo those many years ago, by Andy Schwartz, the great editor of NY Rocker, where we were once a young pup (along with Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan, the aforementioned Coley, Glen Morrow, and others.)

If you want to say the album isn’t so good, say it, Sasha.  And if you want to say it’s great, say that.  If it’s somewhere in between?  Find a way of committing to exactly where it stands, without weasel calibrations like “a few hairs away from among his best.”

But that’s not the point of this post, a rare criticism of Frere-Jones.  In his review, Frere-Jones holds up Bowie’s under-appreciated 2002 album Heathen as a “magnificent” collection “with fewer good songs than The Next Day (though) a more cohesive marriage of electronic textures and traditional guitar work, and Bowie was in robust voice.  Bowie and (producer Tony) Visconti worked on that together, and it’s difficult to understand how they could have been so in synch with the moment then but not now.”  So, score a point for Sasha that the production on The Next Day does have that brittle 1980s sound that makes so many of the good albums from that epoch unlistenable today.  And he is right that Heathen, as well as the half-decent follow-up Reality, have a less bombastic, arch sound.  But come on: two of the three best songs on Heathen were written by Black Francis, as if Bowie was so out of it in the 1980s that he only picked up on the Pixies’ genius a decade later.

As between 1) having a production that sounds too much like the ’80s, but a series of great, fresh songs, and 2) a smooth sound set amidst a songwriting dry spell that necessitates having to dip into Black Francis’ bag for inspiration, we’ll take the former.  Frere-Jones is right that the production on The Next Day weakens it, but his inability to commit to what he thinks about it, leaving it to the “bar rats” to decide how good it is, is an abdication of his responsibility.  If an artist played it as safe as he does in his review, we hope he would excoriate them for it.

Wire’s “Red Barked Tree” Is The First Great Album of 2011

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on January 13, 2011 by johnbuckley100

During Wire’s 20-month Classical period (December ’77 – September ’79), they covered so much ground it’s hard to know even how to categorize them.  If a single band, in the blink of an eye, could be emblematic of both the punk and post-punk era, it was Wire.  In fact their evolution from Pink Flag — with its incredibly catchy three-chord rhumba served in one-minute slices — to 154 — which brought a level of art-rock sophistication to a party not even better musicians such as The Clash were invited to — brings to mind that Audi commercial where man evolves from slugs on the beach to a roaring R8 all within the confines of a 30-second spot.  Their evolution was supercharged.  And almost as suddenly they disappeared.

Ira Kaplan (Yo La Tengo) once assigned this writer to review Wire’s 1981 live album, Document and Eyewitness,  for NY Rocker and while memory is fleeting, we distinctly remember the lede being something to the effect that “never has a band been so interesting as at the precise moment when its reach exceeds its grasp.” Their ambition exceeded their facility in a manner that was riveting.  They may not at first have been brilliant musicians (though by “Lowdown,” the fifth song on Pink Flag, Bruce Gilbert proved to be a marvelously greasy guitarist), but they have always been a brilliant band.  Now, 35 years on from their formation, their grasp is considerable, but they are no less interesting than they were in the days when they all had full heads of hair and could fit in skinny tee shirts.

Wire’s history is one of ellipses and return.  They sat out much of the early to mid-’80s, and in the ’90s, the stage lights were essentially dark.  Gilbert and Lewis formed Dome.  Colin Newman had a series of solo albums.  But while Bruce Gilbert is no longer with the band, their essential core of Colin Newman, Graham Lewis, and Robert Gotobed (nee Robert Grey) have returned to the scene, not once but twice, and with a sound that is completely recognizable to fans of their second album, Chairs Missing, and their legendary third, 154.

While Wire’s return in the late ’80s was interesting, there was something about the tinny use of synths and drum machines that screwed up their sound, as much as it screwed every other band’s sound, until the Pixies delivered us from studio evil.  Their return in 2008’s Object 47, and now with the stunning Red Barked Tree, reveals a soundscape woven from natural fibers, whole-grained though electric, built on post-punk but still eclectic.  We miss Gilbert’s guitar, but Lewis, Newman and Grey recreate much of the band’s signature sound: simple drums that snap, elegant (Gilbert) and punk but oft-times pretty (Newman) vocals, with textured pop melody punctuated by the visceral.

There are bands that get cited as seminal, as influential; bands whose most ardent followers are other bands.  Few bands since the start of the punk era have kept the respect of their fellow musicians as Wire has.  Red Barked Tree is the single best album they have released in 30 years — the best thing since Wire’s Classical period ended with 154. Like an actor’s actor who continues to marvel with his craft and approach to character, eventually (in the Hollywood ending) to get the attention he deserves, it would be a good thing for our mass karma as a species if the world woke up and took notice of Wire.  Like, now.  They’ve disappeared before, twice. Their return has, admittedly, been more frequent than certain comets.  But we should not take Wire for granted.  This would be an excellent moment for the uninitiated to grab the sparking line, and for old fans to recharge.

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