More Organized Noise

1. Pat Metheny, The Way Up. I read somewhere recently that this is Pat Metheny’s response to the “instant gratification” culture he sees as prevalent in these modern times, how if something doesn’t immediately and forcefully grab us within two minutes or so, we abandon it to search for the next thrill. He wanted to create a work which required close attention over a sustained (sixty-plus minutes) running time. Well, that’s what he set out to do–did he succeed?

Hard to say. I’m not all that familiar with Mr. Metheny’s previous work, I own the two “Works” CDs he did for ECM, but I don’t play them much at all. His music is always pleasant and well-played, but it has never excited or intrigued me. If I heard it on the radio I wouldn’t turn it off, but I also wouldn’t pay much attention to it. It’s very tasteful and melodic, and it always sounds like the musicians are having a good time playing. And I’m afraid The Way Up hasn’t really changed my view. I found myself drifting through a lot of it, thinking of other things and only occasionally being brought back in by some of the prettier moments.

Will I give it the sustained, repeated listenings that Mr. Metheny would like, that he believes is required to fully comprehend it? I don’t know. I’m not inclined toward playing it, but I’m not disinclined either; I suspect I will play it a few more times to give it its due, but I’m not filled with anticipation (or dread) at the prospect.

There is a state which some musicians reach were music is no longer something to be listened to, but something to be played. It’s not the sound that is important, it is the way you are using your instrument, the way your hands and fingers move across the surface. Producing sound is almost incidental.

A relative once told me she was watching Ken Burns’ documentary series on jazz, and thought John Coltrane’s later works were simply noise. I tried to explain the above, that Mr. Coltrane was seeking to express himself through his instrument and not through songs, that he was making music as a way to push his art and ability into further stages of development. If the audience wanted to come along with him, they were welcome, but he was not interested in simply pleasing their expectations. I can certainly admire such sonic pioneers (I love the work of Cecil Taylor), but they must expect that not everyone will want to accompany them into new territory.

I guess my problem with Mr. Metheny’s works is similar, though in his case it sounds less like exploration and more like he has found a place where he is comfortable playing. I’ve heard it, it’s nice and pleasant and well-played (I say that a lot, eh), but here it simply sounds like more of the same.

It’s like, I dunno, lemonade. It’s nice to have a glass of lemonade now and then, but if my doctor told me I could never have any ever again, I wouldn’t burst into tears.

I’ll try to give Mr. Metheny’s work its due consideration, and I may report back here if I suddenly find it life-altering. I wouldn’t advice holding your breath, though.

2. Stereolab, The Groop Played Space Age Bachelor Pad Music. The first two Velvet Underground albums were great, weren’t they? They were unlike anything before or since, and sad as it is to think, Lou Reed’s career since then has been kind of an extended footnote. Brian Eno is credited with saying that the Velvet Underground didn’t sell very many records, but everybody who bought one went out and formed a band.

Stereolab appears to be one such band. And they’re really boring. So boring that I got kind of angry with them, but that’s okay because anger is healthy and besides I’m all calm now (plus I’m not driving). If you took the intro from “Femme Fatale” before Nico started singing, and looped that for four minutes, and had some lady mutter flatly over the result, you’d get Stereolab. Except for the two dopey cheese organ instrumentals, which consist of two sustained chords changing places. At least those only last for about two minutes. But boy, has two minutes never seemed longer.

I suppose I sound like the audience that so distresses Pat Metheny. Am I the kind of guy who says John Coltrane should just play pretty tunes, that the artist should be entertaining first and foremost?

No. I think the artist, to be an artist, has a duty to follow his or her muse no matter where it may lead, and no matter who may be left behind or refuse to follow. But friends, there is a difference between John Coltrane and Stereolab. John Coltrane was reaching toward art, and art is always communication. He was trying to push the boundaries of what was, and what not, music; because of his efforts, the audience has new pathways to follow.

It’s probably just because I disliked this record, but I get the feeling if one asked Stereolab if they could maybe try to have some melodies or lyrics you can hear, they’d just sneer and say, “How bourgeois , you’re obviously not one of the cool kids. Look at our indie cred!” (Lou Reed isn’t much of a singer, but you can usually understand what he’s singing even when you’d rather not.)

But I don’t think Stereolab are pushing their art into new avenues, I think they’re just pushing their laziness, trying to make a lack of ambition into something that defines them, and by extension, become a sort of coolness. It’s the kind of artist who says “I don’t have to do anything other than this. Anything more would wreck the framework I’ve constructed, of how people would perceive me, and how I want to be perceived.” It’s good to have ambitions, but is being boring (with a slight hint of condescension) really a good way to apply one’s energies? All these songs seem to lack any personality–they’re like some Velvets’ fan’s fractured dream before slipping into sleep.

Yes, I know I’m probably projecting way too much, and I admit I’m being way too hard on Stereolab. In reality the band members are probably all wonderful people and even now they’re all crying because I didn’t like their record.

All I can say is sometimes the path you decide to take is a lonely one. It’s not too late to turn around and choose another.

Of course, look who’s talking: Stereolab are signed to a major label which continues to release their records, and they get many reviews. Who’s to say who is on the right path? I can only tell you what I like.

3. The Intrigues, Sustain Pedal. With a name and album title like that, you’d expect surf rock instrumentals, right? You’d probably not expect tired-sounding vaguely countryish rock, though, which is what you get, or at least what I got. After all, like the case of Stereolab, these guys thought enough of these songs to record them, and someone at a label thought enough of them to release them, and someone else thought the record should be sent to stores to sell to people. This can’t all be the result of someone losing a bet.

Anyway, it’s pleasant enough if you’re not paying too much attention; since I usually listen to music while driving, this wasn’t a problem. The one exception is “I Could Have Been Happy.” It’s a kind of folky song with vague yet harrowing lyrics about past regrets, though whether about lost love, or lost opportunity, or what, exactly, isn’t made clear. It’s the only song on here that was written by bass-player “Brad” (no one here uses last names–even the producer is just listed as “James W” to differentiate him from pianist “James E”), and since the voice is a bit different, I guess he sang it as well. The other songs were written by guitarist “Lloyd” and he needs to work on them a bit more. Or at least investigate a bit of variety. (Drummer “Tom” completes the quartet. I guess the lack of surnames is to “intrigue” people ha ha.)

“Brad” also took the cover photograph, which at first doesn’t seem to fit anything: it’s an old rustic barn, looking to be in the final stages before collapse. What that has to do with sustain pedals is unclear, but I found the juxtaposition of the cover and the title fascinating. Very creative and thought-provoking, if you can believe that. It’s the most interesting thing here, really.

So: if you find this in the dollar bin, it might be worth it just for “I Could Have Been Happy.” Rip that one to MP3 and put the rest of it in the “Nice Try” section of your memories.