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When Bands You Love Disappoint You

2011.03.31

There is a very particular kind of melancholy you feel when a band lets you down.  You know it’s nothing personal, and they probably meant well, but you hear something that makes you close your eyes, hang your head slightly, and imperceptibly slump.

I don’t mean something simple on a song, like, “Uhh… why did the producer put that glockenspiel so up front in the mix?” or “Really?  Another children’s choir in the bridge?” or “Did Method Man really just rhyme cloud with style, wtf how is that even possible?”

Nor am I talking something huge, like hearing “Oh, Rog is gone, yeah, but don’t worry, we’ll still tour under the name Pink Floyd,” or Paul saying “Let It Be is cool, people, but now you can start talking about the Beatles in the past tense, thank you.”  Or a band thinking the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra was necessary for it to rock harder.

I’m talking about when a band drops an LP or a song that is just… wrong, when you hear it.  An album that just doesn’t fit, a direction just too out there, for you really to climb on board the way you may have with their other material.  This has happened a few times to me.

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I was a big fan of Röyksopp’s debut album.  I had really started to get into Boards of Canada’s chill IDM-ish electronica, and AllMusic, at the time, said that Röyksopp was similar:  Melody A. M. had the downtempo, trip-hoppy groove I was looking for, à la Air or Thievery Corporation.  Of course, in 2001, tons of downbeat electronic acts were flooding music shops after mainstream artists like Madonna, Blur, and Radiohead embraced some of its more obscure elements, but I still think Melody A. M. holds up pretty well.

So when Röyksopp dropped their sophomore LP, I was psyched.  Until I heard it.  The first single, “Only This Moment,” had some of the same spaced-out fuzzy beats of Melody, but this was a clubby dance track.  Most of the cuts off The Understanding were dance tracks.  Who knew Röyksopp had just wanted to DJ their own club this whole time?

Now Röyksopp’s new beats weren’t bad club/dance.  I still listen to the album sometimes (but obviously not very much; I had to look up the name because I couldn’t remember it).  By no means is it bad for its genre, just a bit too off the path promised by Röyksopp’s debut.

Something similar happened with The Dead 60s.  (I also found them through AllMusic…  It occurs to me now that I owe AllMusic a huge debt–my music collection grew exponentially when I started roaming around the site in 2004-ish.)  I still lack the proper adjectives to describe the Liverpool band’s self-titled debut album.  It is described by some (including Wikipedia) as an amalgamation of post-punk, ska, dub, and reggae.  If you’re like me, you’d think that sounds horrible, and you’d be right, which it why I wouldn’t really describe them like that, even though it’s sort of mildly accurate.  I dunno.  Here was their breakout single:

Maybe their album as a whole was a little too close to The Specials, but it was distinctive and hooky.  Which their next LP wasn’t.  Time to Take Sides was trying desperately to sound like The Clash, so much so that every unique aspect to their sound they’d cultivated on their debut was flushed right down the crapper.  And instead of The Clash, they ended up sounding like every other pseudo-anarchic post-punk band out there, but mildly worse somehow.  I’m not saying the album was horrible, but it’s never been released in their home country and the band split like right after it was released.  So there is that.

(Sidebar: I hate self-titled debut albums.  Really, just all self-titled albums in general.  It doesn’t inspire much confidence in me if you can’t even think of something to call your album.  Especially if you do it a lot.  So Weezer, Seal, Crystal Castles… what the hell?)

And in my younger new age days, I had a huge chubby for Enigma.  The monk chants, third-world samples, and sultry beats just did it for me.

Enigma: Return to Innocence (from The Cross of Changes, a good LP)

I even liked their fourth LP, wherein Michel Cretsu began the bizarre practice of sampling himself in his tracks.  At least Diddy rehashes other people’s art.  But after his initial cryptic new age tetralogy, Enigma dumped Voyageur on us; like Röyksopp, it seemed that Cretsu just wanted to spin for the Ecstasy-saturated bodies of Ibiza into the wee hours of the morning.  (Although, since his studio was actually on the island of Ibiza, I shouldn’t have been too surprised.)

Enigma: The Look of Today (from Voyageur; if you’re actually brave enough to listen to this song, I applaud you)

I don’t want it to seem like I have anything against dance music.  Quite the contrary.  Basement Jaxx is entirely club-oriented, and is one of the most-played artists in my iTunes library (18th as of this writing, if you care, which I can’t imagine you actually do).  I’ve already written (unironically) that Justin Timberlake’s Futuresex/Lovesounds is a dance pop masterpiece.  And though I’m not a club kid, I still dig Tiësto and Ferry Corsten.  I just don’t like it when electronic bands with a unique sound sell it out for Spanish techno clubs and Italian fashion shows.

Anyway…

Some bands never even try to change their sound.  Clinic has thus far made six albums that all sound like the psychedelic lovechildren of a Can and Radiohead union.  There’s nothing wrong with this, I’m a fan of their sound–it doesn’t matter if you can’t tell whether you’re listening to their tracks chronologically or at random.  At least not to me; though, after six albums, I’m wondering how much of it I really need.

And so what if all of Dispatch’s albums sound like this:

Dispatch: Silent Steeples (from Silent Steeples)

They’re awesome, and tower above their many inferior imitators.

Dispatch: Two Coins (from Bang Bang; my favorite cut from my favorite Dispatch album)

I’m not saying a band can never change its sound.  Often, it’s great when they do.  There is always a bit of resistance when things are shaken up.  After the hard blues-rock of Led Zeppelin I & II, some fans freaked when there was an acoustic guitar on Zeppelin III.  (Yeah, I know the differences among the numbered Led Zeppelin albums.  That’s because I’m awesome.  Suck it.)  Some people heard the Beatles’ Revolver and thought “too much sitar, too much acid.”  Considering the discographies of both of these bands, these evolutions were most welcome.

But if you’re going to murder your sound, find a new one and hold it up like nothing much has changed, that’s when I have a problem with your band, sir.

Some bands get around a change in sound by actually releasing the material under a different name.  Green Day wanted to release a stripped-down album after American Idiot, something less poppy and more garage-y, so they formed Foxboro Hot Tubs.  Weezer embarked on some kind of Nirvana/Oasis cover bender they presented as Goat Punishment, so no one would think they went entirely insane.  Hip-hop producer Madlib releases so many different tracks in so many different genres he has about two dozen aliases to prevent him from being pigeonholed.  This can be maddening if you’re trying to find and collect his entire output, but forgiven when considering how his hip-hop fans might react to his chill fusion jazz cuts.

My main impetus for this blog post was the sophomore LP from Belong.  Some people might recall (but probably not) that Belong’s first LP October Language made my Best Albums 2001-2010 list.  I called their debut a perfect drone album, and so it remains.  Since that record dropped in 2006, we’ve been treated to two official EPs and a limited-edition homemade CDr they passed out at their concerts.  The Same Places EP, which was a one-sided 12”, and the CDr, both continued the space-rock shoegaze of October Language, but experimented with more overtly ambient themes.  Their second EP, Colorloss Record, was officially a covers album, but with a big twist: the four songs were drenched in a sea of feedback and fuzz, making the songs sound small, like something you’re barely hearing from a pirate radio station you’ve been lucky enough to (almost) pick up.  It was different, but very effective, and still in the same milieu as the previous releases.  Some people thought that was enough to prepare us for…

Common Era.  As far as I am concerned, this is a complete left turn in Belong’s sound.  Belong went from the warm company of Stars of the Lid and Windy & Carl to the chilly fraternity shared by The Jesus & Mary Chain, Joy Division, and My Bloody Valentine.  It’s not just the drum machine, or post-punk Ian Curtis-esque vocal, it’s the entire feeling of their music.  Led Zeppelin with an acoustic guitar is still Led Zeppelin.  No one’s going to mistake “The Rain Song” for another band.  U2 is still U2, even on Pop, where the band obviously went completely batshit crazy.

Am I making too much of this?  Someone on a music website I frequent had this to say to me: “I love the butthurt when bands change their sound.  Grow up.”  Of course my ears were affected far more than either of my buttocks, but honestly, that was pretty much my reaction to haters when Radiohead dropped Kid A.  And damn, if ever there was a gamechanger for a band’s oeuvre, Kid A was one.


Thom Yorke sings “The National Anthem,” but not your mama’s National Anthem.

Some people hated it, despised it even; Nick Hornby, author of High Fidelity and sometimes music critic for The New Yorker, compared it to Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music:

It is only fair to say that Radiohead’s new album, “Kid A,” is nowhere as tedious as “Metal Machine Music.” It has its attractive and compelling moments – every so often something gorgeous floats past – and those Radiohead fans who are hell-bent on loving it will not be reduced to convincing themselves that they can hear future Riccky Martin [sic] hits buried somewhere in the passages of ambient drone. It does, however, start from the same premise as the Reed album: it relies heavily on our passionate interest in every twist and turn of the band’s career, no matter how trivial or pretentious. You have to work at albums like “Kid A.” You have to sit at home night after night and give yourself over to the paranoid millenial [sic] atmosphere as you try to decipher elliptical snatches of lyrics and puzzle out how the titles (“Treefinger,” “The National Anthem,” and so on) might refer to the songs. In other words, you have to be sixteen. Anyone old enough to vote may find that he has competing demands for his time – a relationship, say, or a job, or buying food, or listening to another CD he picked up on the same day. He may also find himself shouting at the CD player, “Shut up! You’re supposed to be a pop group!” … “Kid A” demands the patience of the devoted; both patience and devotion become scarcer commodities once you start picking up a paycheck.

Of course this splenetic criticism betrays a disappointing lack of sophistication.  Really?  You can’t juggle a job, relationship, trips to the grocery, or other music–or anything at all, it seems–if you like Kid A because obviously you spend every waking moment listening to it trying desperately to like it?  That’s the best he can do?  He’s a music critic for Christ’s sake.  That’s just puerile and uninformative.  I seem to recall being voting age and juggling a handful of AP classes, homework, half a dozen extra-curricular activities, a social life, recreational book reading, a dozen TV shows, a slew of other bands and still managing to like Kid A just fine.  (And by like I mean frakking love out of my mind.)  I can understand a bit his feeling of disappointment, though; I can understand a little what he’s getting at when I spin Common Era.

Belong: Perfect Life (from Common Era; link actually goes to their myspace page)

Belong. Don't they just look EVIL?

Maybe I just need to accept this, the way lovers of The Bends and OK Computer had to accept Kid ACommon Era is not a bad album, by any means.  And I doubt I would care this much about it if Turk Dietrich and Michael Jones had released it under a name other than Belong.  Honestly, if it had been released under another name, I probably wouldn’t have given it a second spin.  But also, I still don’t think it sounds like Belong–whereas Kid A and Amnesiac I think do still sound very much like Radiohead, for better or worse.  I hope I’m clear enough on this point; I don’t quite know how else to articulate it.  Maybe it’s not fair to judge the overall aesthetic of a band after only two LPs have dropped.  (Maybe Belong shouldn’t take five freaking years between LPs, though.)

As if to prove my point, if you look up Belong on iTunes, at least as of this writing, Common Era is not lumped in with Belong’s other output.  If you go to October Language, then click on “Belong” to see their remaining discography, Common Era won’t pop up, just two other EPs.  You have to type in Common Era manually.  But if you do that, then click on “Belong” to see a discography, nothing comes up.  It’s like Common Era was cut by a completely different band also called Belong.  (And in case you’re wondering, no, this is not the case.  Same dudes, same artist.)

See what I mean?

Of course, I’m making too much of this.  I know it.  Some people will understand why I am, and be okay with it, because they do it too.  This entire post, however, may seem utterly perplexing to many.  To those people, all I have to leave you with is my favorite line from Almost Famous, delivered with such disarming earnestness by Fairuza Balk:

They don’t even know what it is to be a fan. Y’know? To truly love some silly little piece of music, or some band, so much that it hurts.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. ricks permalink
    2011.03.31 15:48

    i highly recommend you to check out röyksopp’s current album, senior. it’s a bit off from what they did in the understanding and junior, includes elements similar to melody a.m
    and there’s a b-side in their second single from senior, you should give it a listen. probably the best thing i’ve heard in a while: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dF8ojPeSo3s&feature=feedu

  2. ricks permalink
    2011.03.31 15:50

    and forgot to add another new track they performed on morning becomes eclectic, a true gem: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m2Pe1I-ktAA&feature=player_embedded

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