Blog on the Tracks
Every couple of years we get a series of stories about Bruce Springsteen or Bob Dylan or Neil Young - or maybe even Elvis Costello or Tom Petty (maybe it's Tom Petty's turn this year I guess, with his okay-but-not-amazing new album).
These reappraisals tell us that these guys are doing great work still - when in most cases it's been 30 years (or 20 years) since their last really great album. Maybe longer. Dylan and Springsteen fans are probably the worst here - Neil Young fans know to just saddle up for a bumpy ride, that's part of the magic.
But these "classic rock"-related mags need to sell issues in a dying format, in a tough world, so that's what they do. Rewrite and re-sell stories about Dylan's great catalogue or Bruce appreciation. And I'm not, by the way, knocking the best of what these artists do, or have done.
I'm a fan of Springsteen's great work. I named this blog after a favourite Dylan album, or in reference to it. Or whatever. I'm somewhat hooked for life on all of those musicians I named at the top there. But I'm not going to tell you that anything Dylan has done post-Time Out of Mind stands up with his best sixties or seventies material. It does not.
I've reviewed three albums recently from three songwriters who a) never seem to get that kind of press, those glowing career overviews/reappraisals and b) have been knocking it out of the park consistently across 30 and 40 year careers, so much so that across the last decade they might even have actually done their very best work. Or at least work that matches up - still - with their very best. And that truly is no mean feat. These guys are the understudies. They never had that one mega-huge album or big radio hit (or mainstream audience appeal) to propel their career along a level to compare with The Boss or Dylan say. They probably suffered along under some "new Dylan" tag or being that half-generation younger were just lost in the crowd.
There aren't many people in the music world more reviled than Sting. The obvious contender is Bono - Phil Collins probably too...but Sting has a special kind of hatred reserved, seemingly just for him. Maybe that's because he was very good - and then became really quite awful.
Probably it's because of the pretentiousness of his "rainforest" years, the acting attempts and then a solo career that has seen renaissance-man claims and musicals, albums of lute music, songs translated into Spanish and Portuguese, that smug aping from the man, that annoyingly over-cool/overly-calm speaking voice, and so many lyrical clunkers.
It's hard to defend Sting - one of the earliest posts here at Blog On The Tracks was about Sting's truly awful lyrics; he had been voted as rock's worst lyricist right around the time his book of lyrics had been released and I had been granted a review copy.
It was painful to read through the hack-referencing of Nabokov and - worse still - the way it was laid on the line to rhyme with 'cough'.
A song-cycle about the death of his parents, songs filled with platitudinous precepts - it's very easy to dislike this guy.
Hey, welcome to spring. Look, here's my review of this album by Broods - which I mention and add here simply because I referenced listening to the album around this time last week when I talked about the Audio Purgatory of that frustrating water-colour sound.
My review doesn't say a lot - it can't - there's so little to comment on, this isn't even really an album, it's a sonic Tumblr, a feelings chart. But there's little to no actual feeling in this album.
That didn't stop the Herald's reviewer Lydia Jenkin from gushing about the timelessness of the 20-year-old frontperson's worldview. Is it bad form to call out another reviewer?
Probably. But hey, it happens. I get it in the neck all the time - and anyone doing this sort of job/role deserves that, needs to know that's going to happen.
So whether petty or not I needed to address Jenkin's review - actually I think her review is incredibly petty. It's reviews like her one of Broods' album that are hurting us, that have directly created this situation where New Zealand artists cannot handle criticism.
Tonight, Matthew, I'm going to be playing some records at the San Fran for their 5 O'Clock Shakedown. The aim there is to play a few tunes to wind into the weekend - 5pm-8-pm, the bar has 20 per cent off its tap beers - and a great selection of beers, the kitchen is open, they have the balcony there, it's all set up. My job is to provide the entertainment, the background, the nostalgia - playing music from across the decades, a selection of my favourites.
I always refer to it as "playing records" rather than DJing - purely because the term DJ feels loaded. I'd argue that in this capacity I'm not there to play what the crowd wants to hear quite as much as I'm there to play what I want them to hear.
There's always a risk there - arrogance obviously, getting it wrong, but last week I played the same slot, 5-8pm (here's the line-up of tunes I provided) and I received the single best compliment - in fact it's likely to be the very best compliment I will ever receive for my, erm, "DJing". Someone came up and told me, as a way of thank-you when leaving, that they had felt like they had some understanding of "what it might be like to sit in Simon Sweetman's lounge". Wait. I know it actually was a compliment - I made sure to get them to clarify. I told them thanks, and that actually it was better here in this context because if it were in my lounge at home they'd have some annoying spiel before each record that they might not be able to block out.
So you see the approach to playing records is a bit like writing this blog - yes, it's a service, a form of entertainment, I provide the work for you - if you want it. But it's my call, on my terms. It is for me as much as for you. And you get to vote with your feet. You stick around if you're into it. You don't if you're not. You can ever give me some grief if you like - favourite DJ requests are always "play something else" and "f*** off!" Favourite blog comments are grammatically 'creative'.
This week I saw the film Boyhood - while I was watching the movie it seemed like the only thing that mattered. Not just that it had my attention for its duration but it seemed like it might be the only movie that mattered, the only one that told the truth. You might see films you end up enjoying more but I really feel like you won't see a better film this year than Boyhood.
So I checked out that Nick Cave Movie - 20,000 Days on Earth. I really liked it, I had missed it at the Film Festival and, actually, I was a bit up in the air on it, a bit unsure at first about whether I should see it - but I loved it. I'm so glad I got along to it. It speaks to his aesthetic; the film is sharp-looking and smart. And it's worth it for the musical performances.
Long-time readers will remember I tend to come and go with Cave. I'm most certainly a fan - but a couple of years ago I was feeling very bored by his output. That all changed with the Push The Sky Away album. And even reading a book of interviews across the years helped.
It's always nice to step back from the artists you spend a lot of time listening to - and then revisit with fresh ears.
20,000 Days on Earth is an impressionistic tale - never quite a documentary but not a feature film. Detractors will tell you that it's pretentious, calling Nick Cave pretentious is a bit like complaining about all the food being on the table at a buffet - if this film is what makes you think that Cave is pretentious you're a fair-weather fan only. Those of us who have read the King Ink volumes of poetry and prose - florid, sometimes just silly - and hung in for the novels, hung on for the movies and the movie soundtracks as well as the Bad Seeds and Grinderman albums - and those waiting, excited, about his return to New Zealand later this year - should find plenty to like in 20,000 Days on Earth. It's also full of insight - it isn't just vague pondering and silly puffed up acting. A portrait of the artist (as aesthete) emerges.
The great strength I took from the film was Cave's willingness to do the work. Here's a guy at the top of his game - pretty much, anyway - and he's still compelled to get up and pound those keys, to clack at the typewriter, strike at the piano. I like that.
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