Monday, November 29, 2010

Zrbo's Pick of the Week

This recipe calls for Placebo covering Kate Bush mixed with some Pet Shop Boys, with a dash of the original Kate Bush thrown in for good measure. Bake for 3:51 and serve. Enjoy!

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Madonna And Michael Jackson: Songwriters?

A little while ago, Yoggoth and I were talking about Madonna and Michael Jackson (as we are occasionally wont to do), and he asked me if they wrote any of their own songs, and if so, which ones. In a moment of crippling ignorance, I had to admit that ... I ... didn't quite know.

What do any of us know? Well, we all know that Madonna and Michael Jackson were singers. We all know that Madonna and Michael Jackson were dancers. We all presume that Madonna and Michael Jackson didn't play any musical instruments; they certainly didn't appear to do so in concert. But what about Madonna and Michael Jackson as songwriters? The public perception is quite muddy. When people talk about Madonna and Michael Jackson songs, the question of songwriting doesn't really come into it. They sang their songs; they're their songs.

And yet every now and then I have taken a look at the songwriting credits on the backs of Madonna and Michael Jackson albums. What I've seen has raised more questions than answers. I thought I would consult the Wikipedia gods once and for all to finally settle this burning issue.

So what did I find? Well, it turns out that Madonna and Michael Jackson, as I suspected, did not write many of their biggest hits, particularly early on in their careers, although they did indeed write the majority of them. Michael Jackson appears to have written, or at least co-written, most of his material from Bad onwards, and Madonna appears to have co-written almost all of her material from True Blue onwards.

Well, what does "co-write" mean? Ringo Starr supposedly "co-wrote" "Photograph" with George Harrison. Come on, we know who really did the writing there. Did Madonna and Michael Jackson write the lyrics, with someone else writing the melody? Or did Madonna and Michael Jackson write some of the music and some of the lyrics? Did they ever solely write the music? And how do you write the music for a song if you don't play a musical instrument? Do you just sing it, and someone else writes down the notes for you? How the hell did this work?

With someone like Elvis Presley, for example, it's easy. Elvis was not a songwriter. He did not write songs in any way, shape, or form. He relied on other people for songs his entire career (he could, however, play the guitar and the piano quite proficiently). Indeed, there once was a time when popular singers rarely, if ever, composed their own material. Look at Frank Sinatra. Not a songwriter. Then came The Beatles. Suddenly it became de rigeur for singers to also be songwriters. Otherwise you were Joe Cocker.

And yet, dance-pop is one genre of popular music where a premium is not exactly placed on songwriting ability. Whitney Houston and Paula Abdul, for example, did not write their own material. I know, you're crushed. But how many casual '80s pop fans have ever realized that George Michael wrote all of his own material? No one thinks of George Michael as a "songwriter," but there you go. At least no one thinks of him as any more of a songwriter than they do Madonna or Michael Jackson. He was a multi-instrumentalist as well. I've heard he was quite proficient on the penis.

Indeed, what about the "instrument" question? Under the "Background Information" section of Madonna's Wikipedia entry, there is a category called "Instruments" which are listed as "Vocals, guitar, percussion, drums." So Madonna can play guitar? Really? Or can she play guitar in the same sense that I can play guitar? In the section called "Musical Style," there is discussion of her as a "musician" and a "songwriter" with a "gift for hooks," but no mention of any instrumental ability whatsoever.

On his own Wikipedia page, Michael Jackson's "Instruments" are listed as "Vocals, piano, guitar, drums, keyboards." But in the "Musical themes and genres" section, we finally get a decent answer to the songwriting question:
Unlike many artists, Jackson did not write his songs on paper. Instead he would dictate into a sound recorder, and when recording he would sing the lyrics from memory. In most of his songs, such as "Billie Jean", "Who Is It", and "Tabloid Junkie", he would beatbox and imitate the instruments using his voice instead of playing the actual instruments, along with other sounds.
Hmm. So there you have it. I can imitate instruments using my voice as well. Maybe I should be a songwriter too?

Part of the process of becoming an obsessive Beatles fan is studying the ancient lore of "who really wrote what." Sure, any idiot can tell you that all the songs are officially credited to "Lennon/McCartney." But only the true nutjob can tell you that McCartney wrote "I've got to admit it's getting better" and Lennon wrote "It can't get much worse." Ever since my indoctrination into hardcore Beatle fandom, I've been fascinated by the creative process behind the seemingly self-generated hit songs of our time. At some point, somebody had to actually sit down and think, "Gee, can 'holiday' really rhyme with 'celebrate'?" Therefore, in this brief series I will attempt to take a look at Madonna and Michael Jackson as both songwriters and interpreters.

This may ultimately end up being the most informative blog series of all time.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Nine Inch Nails' "Pretty Hate Machine" (1989)

My first entry in Discography Rediscovered is the album that inspired me to write this series. To begin with, Pretty Hate Machine was pretty much my favorite album growing up as a teenager. It's electronic beats fueled my teenage "no-one-understands-me" years. This album had all a teenager could ask for, anti-establishment messages, angst-ridden rants, longing-for-love ballads, and plenty of pent-up sexual frustration.

Nine Inch Nails (NIN) is basically the stage name for Trent Reznor. The All Music Guide says that Nine Inch Nails (or the lower case 'nine inch nails' as most fans prefer) was the most successful industrial group of all time. Pretty Hate Machine was Reznor's first album. The story goes that Reznor was working as a janitor at a recording studio and would use the space to record the album in his free time. According to Wikipedia Reznor was inspired by Prince, deciding to play almost all the instruments himself (coincidentally Reznor has a brief cameo as one of the bands in the film Purple Rain). After shopping around his creation he signed with TVT Records and went on to release the album.

And boy oh boy, as a (former) long time fan of NIN I will argue with anyone that Pretty Hate Machine is their best album. For a first album it's an amazing bit of work. All of the songs work, their order is impeccable, and the whole thing is short enough that it's easily listened to all the way through and doesn't bore the listener.

Ok, so listening to it now I realize how much the content of the lyrics don't really resonate with me anymore. Trent Reznor has always played the moody, misunderstood, love-scorned teenager to perfection. It's weird to think he was in his early twenties when he wrote this thing because by the time I was that age I was definitely out of my teenage angst phase, but Reznor continued with this shtick at least through 1999's The Fragile, which is the last album of NIN that I gave a real listen to.

That the songs are little angst-ridden pieces for lonely teenagers does not at all however prevent my continued enjoyment of this album. Like I said, every song is crafted so well. Reznor has a remarkable ear for production, each note, each beat, each industrial blast of noise, even the delivery of the lyrics, are all so pitch perfect. This attention to detail would later catch up with Reznor, holding back the release of The Fragile for several years as Reznor was reportedly a utmost perfectionist who would spend hours working just to get one little sound right.

Let's get into the actual music, shall we? Pretty Hate Machine starts off with one of NIN's most enduringly popular songs, Head Like a Hole. This is the song that pretty much gave NIN a following. I'll just quote AMG's review of the song:
Although the song was a ranting diatribe against corporate and commercial greed, "Head Like a Hole" wasn't really a political critique; the song didn't revolve around carefully considered ideas as much as the force and drama with which Reznor expressed himself. His frothing invective against "god money" was delivered with a barely articulate rage -- growling, wailing, snarling, gnashing his teeth -- that made the song into grand theater. Plus, his backing music was immaculately crafted and produced, driven by a deliberate synthesizer bass riff and overlaid with various sound effects and treated guitars.
Yeah, that's basically it. It's an energetic piece that sets the tone for Reznor's style, showing how he takes the sound of industrial and fits it into the familiar verse-chorus song structure of popular music. Though this song is great, I find that I rarely listen to it, instead opting for some of the other, lesser known tracks on the album.

The second track is Terrible Lie, a mid-tempo accusation against a former lover for her 'terrible lie'. I want to stop here for a moment and mention that one thing I've always enjoyed in an album is when it creates a good flow. I especially love when songs flow from one into the other (one reason I love The Wall so much). Reznor is quite good at this - Head Like a Hole basically bleeds into Terrible Lie. This happens several times on this album, and is present even more in his later works. I'm not sure what about it that makes me enjoy it so much, maybe it's the feeling that the album was meant as a deliberate journey, not just a set of unassociated songs. Anyways, Reznor employs this effect well here and it's one of the reasons I enjoy the album as much as I do.

The third track is Down In It, perhaps the most ambitious song on the album. Looking for a late 80's industrial-pop song that utilizes elements of rap? Look no further! I'm not sure what Reznor was thinking, but it's a great little song that somehow uses a rap/rant structure that references nursery rhymes and children's sayings. And I think it's about drug use.

After this the album begins it's gloomy descent into Reznor's (supposedly) tortured psyche. Sanctified is a slow, moody piece with Reznor basically talking about how he feels that he will be, ahem, sanctified when he, uh, gets inside a woman. It works well in the album. After the energy of the first three songs it brings the energy down, setting up the mood for the album's gloomiest piece (which it deftly flows into without a pause).

Something I Can Never Have was the ballad for my teenage self. A slow piano plays as Reznor sings of some love he can never have. Oh man, it's dripping in full-on teenage "no-one-feels-like-me" depression. His delivery is spot on too. And to top it off it his use of the word "fucking" in the final verse made the song so that we couldn't play it in front of our parents or in public, giving the song a certain mystique that required us to be alone when listening to it, further adding to the drama and the depression (back to his delivery: I love how his voice is nearly cracking as he sings the final chorus, brilliant).

Kinda I Want To is one of the album's only weak points, but it works to bring the energy back, which is quite a feat after the previous song.

This is followed by Sin. It's an interesting enough song, but what I like about it is how it demonstrates Reznor's ear for production. I love the placement of all the sounds, especially with the opening and closing 'whooshes'. Plus the single for this song utilized one of the most interesting fonts I've ever seen (it reads 'sin').

I personally enjoy That's What I Get but it's again not the most necessary song and could be excised from the album without too much change.

After all this angsty depression and scorn can Reznor do something with some humor? Yes, yes he can. The Only Time is the album's only piece with a smidgen of humor. I love the opening lines:
I'm drunk and right now I'm so in love with you
And I don't want to think to much about what we should or shouldn't do
Lay my hands on heaven and the sun and the moon and the stars
while the devil wants to fuck me in the back of his car
Nothing quite like the feel of something new
I love the lyrics, the little bass guitar, and just the whole vibe of this song.

Finally, the album ends with Ringfinger. As a teenage this was my least favorite song, mainly because we all thought it sounded like disco. As an adult now I have a very different feeling, I really enjoy it and don't think at all that it sounds like disco. I also like how it devolves into a bunch of industrial noise which closes out the album.

I also want to stop and mention another album here. I recently got my hands on a digital copy of Purest Feeling. This is an unofficial NIN album that counts as a bootleg more than anything else. It's a demo version of Pretty Hate Machine and for any fan of NIN I highly recommend it. Not only is it a rough cut of PHM but it contains lyrics and even a pair of songs that never made it on to PHM. It's like discovering that there's an alternate version of your favorite album, complete with new songs, plus it's arguably a bit happier in tone. There's a different order to the songs, some of the staples don't make it (Head Like a Hole), and the audio quality of it sounds like Trent is performing live in front of you in the studio. It also relies heavily on sound samples, most notably from American Graffiti. The song Ringfinger here is called 'Twist' and instead of a song about commitment it's now about S&M bondage. Take a listen to Twist here, and the never released song Maybe Just Once here.

So what I have I rediscovered? Obviously I think the album is still fantastic. It doesn't sound dated and is still easily listenable. My only problem with it is that the lyrics don't speak to me anymore, they're just too dramatic and full of some sort of angst I just don't have anymore. It's a great album for a teenager, better than that Linkin Park those kids nowadays listen to (though if I were a teenager now I'd probably be listening to Linkin Park too). That's it for me this time, I'll (hopefully) be back later. After all, there's a whole closet of albums waiting to be rediscovered.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Discography Rediscovered

Now that my final semester of school is wrapping up and I've got some more time I thought I'd inaugurate my return of leave with a new series. In "Discography Rediscovered" I'll be dipping into my music catalog and highlighting select albums that I used to listen to much more. Some of these albums may have stood the test of time, others might be silly or just plain bad. And be forewarned: Most of my teenage years were spent listening to 90's industrial and alternative rock.

I was taking a listen lately to some albums I used to listen to in high school and was contemplating my teenage-self's musical tastes. One thing I've noticed is that I find most of these albums are still damn good. I'm not sure if that's due to me having liked them previously or if these albums are actually good. Regardless, I'll point out some of my old favorites and see how they fly. First post in the series coming soon!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Social Network (Fincher)

I am not on Facebook. I still have yet to be convinced I ought to join Facebook. But I really liked watching a movie about Facebook. And if anything, The Social Network reaffirmed my opinion of Facebook. Just because David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin decided to make a movie about Facebook doesn't mean that they think Facebook is some amazing internet invention either. In fact, I would wager that they share the same opinion of Facebook as I do. They've made a movie about Facebook that's more interesting than Facebook itself.

I mean what's the big deal? So some guy created a website, and everybody started using it, and he made a ton of money, but what did he do really? Did he really make a difference in this world? Did he make people happier? Did he make himself happier?

Good question. I think he was trying. A lot of people might watch this movie and think, "Wow, that Mark Zuckerberg guy's an asshole; I'm glad I'm not as much of an asshole as he is." Does it make me an asshole if I say I kind of related to him? I mean, I could understand why he thought it was OK to be such an asshole. He wasn't an asshole because he enjoyed it. He was an asshole because he was a talented guy trying to do big things, and he didn't really have the patience to deal with all these not-as-talented people getting in his way. Of course, you can do big things and deal with not-as-talented people and still not be an asshole. But that sort of takes all the fun out of it.

Indeed, I'm not sure who came off well and who came off poorly here. Sure, Zuckerberg was an asshole, but at least he wasn't an elitist, snobby asshole like the Winklevoss twins, or a fast-talking sleazeball asshole like Sean Parker. The character who came off least like an asshole was probably Eduardo Saverin, but aside from putting up some early cash, I'm not exactly sure what he did. In fact, I'm not exactly sure what Mark Zuckerberg did. How was Facebook any more impressive than MySpace, or Hot Or Not? Now Napster I can understand: that was impressive. But maybe a movie about Napster wouldn't have been as interesting. Maybe it would have only starred one guy.

Anyways. What a relief to watch a movie where the characters are all incredibly intelligent and ambitious and the filmmakers aren't expecting John Q. Public to understand every single word they say. As Dana Stevens wrote in her Slate review, "Please stop throwing flaming robot cars at me, then asking for an Oscar. Just give some money to some smart people with something to say and let them make a movie." The Social Network was a box office hit. See, Hollywood? It can be done.

Film critic rating: ****
Little Earl rating: ****

Wednesday, November 3, 2010