Archive for June, 2009

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I’ll build a world for two.

June 26, 2009

Michael Jackson is dead.

I would have posted something sooner, but like CNN, I wanted to wait and make sure I had confirmation before just taking what TMZ had its word.

Actually, the reason I missed out was because when the news broke, I was sitting in the Wisconsin Capitol waiting for six state lawmakers to try to reach a near-last second agreement on the state’s 2009-11 budget. I did have my laptop with me so I followed the story as it broke.

“Oh,” I reported to a room containing only a few other reporters and scattered legislative pages. “Michael Jackson’s dead.”

I wasn’t really surprised or really impacted by the news. It was more of a “Huh, how do you like that?” remark. Apparently I was even smiling somewhat when I said it. Because one of the pages’ eyes grew to about half the size of her face and demanded to know if I was telling the truth and how it happened.

“Cardiac arrest, it seems,” I said, somewhat shocked by her shock.

She burst into tears. This made me uncomfortably smile.

“WHY ARE YOU SMILING?” she demanded.

“I’m — I don’t know! I’m not happy he died! I’m just wondering! How would YOU write his obituary?!”

She left the room and the rest of us emotionally-warped reporters began discussing trying to write a Michael Jackson obituary. We also joked about it.

So when people ask me where I was when I learned Michael Jackson died…

I know, it’s awful. Or at least it sounds awful. But the thing about Michael Jackson is that he did so much for the better part of the last 20 years to torpedo his public image  that it’s hard NOT to look at the guy with some amount of disappointment.

While the Internet when into full-scale up-to-second updates basically reporting every possible celebrity Twitter on the news (God, I f*cking hate Twitter), I started reading through the early obits that revered his genius from a musical and entertainment standpoint.

It’s hard to argue. He made the largest selling album of all time. Even at his weirdest, he was the magnet everybody could set their pop culture compass to. His biggest songs are as commonplace in people’s hearts and minds as are memories of the best summer vacation ever.

I was only eight days old when Thriller was released, so of course I could not give you insight on its cultural impact. But I remember being five years of age when everyone was crazy for Bad. And I was nine when the videos he did for the Dangerous singles blew everybody’s f*cking minds. If it wasn’t that morphing technique in “Black or White,” it was the use of Michael Jordan in “Jam” or Eddie Murphy in “Remember the Time.” You could make fun of the guy’s nose, overt morphing into a hybrid of his mother and Elizabeth Taylor and changing skin color all you wanted, but you knew his songs. And you probably liked a few of them.

Significant artist of our time? Undoubtedly. The most? Eh…

See there was THAT guy, but what you can’t forget is that there was also a guy who faced two high profile child-molestation charges in the span of 11 years.  This was a guy who wanted to build a giant robotic version of himself to wander the desert around Las Vegas shooting off lazer beams. This was a guy who was absolutely out of touch with reality.  “It was all about love,” “He just loved the innocence of children,” “He’s been under the spotlight since he was seven years old,” blah blah blah. There’s an area where you can say, “Well, imagine that kind of constant attention, you’d probably go a little crazy too.” That’s understadable. But there are also people — you’ve known them since your first grade class — who are deliberately weird just for the kick of being deliberately weird. And Michael Jackson was deliberately weird. He lied about obvious plastic surgery, he took unimaginable lengths to publicly inflate his own ego and even after a public onslaught of criticism for being possibly too friendly with children, he never thought, “Yeah, maybe that’s kind of stupid to let them in my bed.” I mean if you’re gonna dangle your baby off a hotel balcony, what reason at that point is there to drape a wash cloth over his face?

And yet, documentaries done simply for the shock value of highlight his weirdness, such as “Living With Michael Jackson” never prompted him to go out and reprove himself. Instead he would just reissue his back catalogue every other year, find new artists to lend “yeahs” and “oh yeahs” to old classics and make big f*cking announcements that he could never back up.

Who really thought he was gonna pull off 50 dates in London this summer? If a guy has something to prove, why do you announce 50 dates in one place? If you wanna do 50 dates, do a tour. But at this point, we didn’t even need that. We would’ve liked one really f*cking good show or a new album with at least three good songs. And don’t tell me that overblown 2001 Madison Square Garden “tribute to myself” show was that good. That was uncomfortable to watch. Uncomfortable.

I was talking with a friend this morning who remarked that she just kept holding out hope that Michael would be able to rebound. It would’ve been nice. But we’d been waiting for a rebound since 1993. At some point, you know…

But as with all passing artists, there’s a wealth of material to go back to. And like everyone, I’ve got great memories associated with a bunch of Michael Jackson songs. For this month’s Friday Five, here’s a tribute.

(Strangely enough, all of these tracks are the second cut on their respective albums — total coincidence that kind of made me scratch my head)

michael-jackson-smooth-criminal-lean

The Friday Five
Michael Jackson Memories

The Jackson Five – One More Chance
This is a cut off the ABC album that I heard for the first time at a friend’s place shortly after my first girlfriend dumped me. Of course, in that kind of situation, you take every song way too seriously, but something about this (and the fact that it seemed to identify with the young love thing — if only in voice rather than lyrical content) kind of hit me. “What is this?” I asked my friend. “The Jackson Five,” she said, making me reply, “Oh yeah, of course.” Even though I probably listened to the Beatles’ “I Need You” way more in the wake of that breakup, this got a lot of plays. Oh, eighth grade love… what hath thou done? Now I listen to it and I just love the 70s R&B of it all — listen to that bassline.

Michael Jackson – I Wanna Be Where You Are
A lot of people think Michael’s first solo album was 1979’s album, but technically it was 1972’s Got To Be There, and this cut was easily the record’s highlight. The first time I heard this was on that made-for-TV movie about the Jackson family that ABC aired in 1992 — I remember some review remarking that the network obviously subscribed to the notion that all black children look alike since none of the actors vaguely resembled their real life counterparts — and I always thought it was a good tune, but could never find the track on any Jackson Five records. How the hell was I supposed to know he was cutting solo records at that time? The miniseries never told me that. Regardless, this is one of the all time great love songs — I dated a girl awhile ago and put this on some mix I made for her (I know, I know), and even she was saying, “I’d never heard this before, but this is easily my favorite song on here.” Unbeatable.

Michael Jackson – Rock With You
I still argue that Off the Wall is Michael’s finest solo album — Thriller sales figures be damned. And that’s because of the drive, ambition and sound of it. A lot of it is due to Quincy Jones, who produced the affair, but this is really what great late 1970s soul sounded like. Sure, it teetered a bit into disco territory, but it also had a bit of funk to round it out, and Michael was coming into his adult voice and he sounded excited about it. This is Michael’s finest three minutes and forty seconds. The most contagious, sexy, perfect thing he ever did. There is not one wasted not or vocal yelp here.

Michael Jackson – The Way You Make Me Feel
It was 1991 that my dad got the first family car to have tape deck in it — a white Chrysler LeBaron convertible, and that was a big f*cking deal, because it just meant we could actually control the music on the car speakers. Bad was one of the tapes that my father had — and he really liked the album, which I know kind of realize is interesting. I’ll have to talk to him about that. He loved “Smooth Criminal.” I did too, but “The Way You Make Me Feel” was always my favorite. Just so hooky. And Alien Ant Farm never got around to ruining it. I caught the video last night as music video channel actually reverted to the practice of showing videos (gasp!) in tribute to Michael. Seriously, how many times does he do that “outline female body, then do unsubtle pelvic thrusts into outline” dance move? How many kids got away with doing that? Can you imagine their mothers? “JOHNNY! WHERE DID YOU LEARN THAT?!” “Michael Jackson.” “Oh. OK.” Listen to it now, you can’t ignore the godawful ’80s synth production, but from a songwriting standpoint, this has all the trademarks of a 1950s R&B classic.

Paul McCartney & Michael Jackson – Say Say Say
I liked Michael Jackson, before I like the Beatles, but when I got into the Beatles at the age of ten, there was NOTHING else I listened to for years. Strangely enough, it took me awhile to find the McCartney/Jackson duets, but when I found this one, I listened to it over and over and over again. Everyone rips on “The Girl is Mine,” and perhaps justifiably so — it is Thriller’s weakest link. Maybe it was a bit of cunning on Paul’s part to keep the best of his and Michael’s three collaborations on his otherwise underwhelming Pipes of Peace album. Of course, the third, “The Man,” is just ridiculous as well, but “Say Say Say” was enough to give Macca the kind of singles chart success he would never see again. Another silly video — why is Linda so willing to be in the bed with Paul and Michael clowing around in bathrobes around her? Why is Michael lustfully chasing his sister? I dunno. But from a tune standpoint, you can’t argue with this one. The pop sensibilities between the two men should have been able to produce two more songs of this caliber, but I guess it’s one of life’s eternally mysteries that we instead got “The Girl is Mine” and “The Man.”

So there’s that, the great music. But just so we don’t get too oversentimental here — I leave you with this. NME’s review of 2001’s Invincible album. The greatest album review I have ever read.

Michael Jackson: Invincible
6 out of 10
By Mark Beaumont

NME, Oct. 30, 2001

Ten years on from ‘Dangerous’ and the tabloid vultures are circling over the skeletal remains of ape-loving, oxygen-tank-residing, legally-not-a-paedophile, recovering black man and Lionel Blair of squeakpop Michael ‘Actually Quite Scary Now’ Jackson. His ace ‘You Rock My World’ comeback stiffed at a disastrous Number Two, and all his hot young credibility tickets have deserted his charity single like rats deserting a sinking bone structure.

Which is brilliant, obviously. We need our pop stars to be walking car crashes: delusional and insane ego tornados (Jackson must be the only man on earth who thinks he looks like the cover ‘photo’) making records like ‘Invincible’ (because you are, Michael, yes you are). It’s pompous, desperate, laughably self-reverential, two hours too long and dusted sparingly with genius.

Make no mistake, a good half of ‘Invincible’ rocks bells. ‘Speechless’ is a Grease finale gut-wallop of a ballad with a choir of heavenly Michael’s hovering on high. ‘2000 Watts’, ‘Heartbreaker’ and the title track adroitly meld hiphop, Britney and Eminem in the way that an aging pop icon still wanting to appeal to teenagers should. Plus the intro to disco classic ‘You Rock My World’ – in which Jacko pointedly informs Chris Tucker that he likes sex with girls and intends to have some right now, just you watch – is funnier than Chris Evans on fire.

But at 76 minutes and 16 tracks the studio clearly never rang with the dreaded words “no, Michael”. There’s about five too many bollocks R Kellyish soul ballads featuring ‘drumming’ that resembles someone slapping a wet ferret with a stick and the record predictably slides into blubbing-billionaire sentimentality halfway through. Mikey starts banging creepily on about “saving the children” on ‘Cry’ and ‘The Lost Children’, but most galling of all is ‘Privacy’ in which Jackson demands that we “unblock my privacy” and “stop maliciously attacking my integrity”. Alright then, Whacksie, here’s the deal. You stop floating twenty foot statues of yourself down rivers, having your tackle discussed in court, organising ludicrous tribute concerts to yourself, having race-changes and spending billions of dollars violently ramming your image as a superhuman pop masterbeing down our throats, right, and we’ll stop taking any notice of you. Fucking freak.

Not that we’d have him any other way. ‘Invincible’ is a relevant and rejuvenated comeback album make overlong and embarassing by the unavoidable fact that Michael Jackson is a) exceedingly rich and b) a bit of a wanker. Nonetheless, you hope he keeps making records because you want to see him trying to moonwalk when he’s just a spinal column in a fedora. After all, when the gold-plated limousine starts skidding, you want to see it crash don’t you?

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Is that the reason why you’re running so fast?

June 23, 2009

I’ve had this song on my mind for a couple weeks now, and have been trying to think of some really clever things to say about it. How is it that a mimed performance from Solid Gold says more than I ever could and in a much funnier way to boot?

 

 

I will ask this: What f*cking band needs THREE synthesizer players? Wait. I can do better. What f*cking band needs THREE synthesizer players for a MIMED performance?!

So there. I won’t say anything about SAILING in a ROWBOAT. Or what I perceive to be a play on the phrase “Chinese laundry job.” Or the fact that a dude (maybe unwittingly) wrote and performed one of the ultimate female empowerment songs of the 1980s. Maybe that’s it… I just don’t know where to start with this thing. 

Nevertheless, don’t even pretend like you don’t like the song. Three minutes on the nose. I mean, c’mon!

Matthew Wilder – Break My Stride
From I Don’t Speak the Language

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It’s where we both belong.

June 19, 2009

Oasis – Standing on the Shoulder of Giants
Part 5: The final single.

In a lot of ways, the release of the “Sunday Morning Call” seemed incredibly foreboding.

For one, it was released when the band was splintered — Liam, Andy, Gem, Alan and replacement guitarist Matt Deighton were out making summer festival rounds while Noel sat at home in England, still fuming from a fight that he’d had with Liam in Barcelona that prompted him to all but quit the group entirely. From a promotional standpoint, it must be somewhat handcuffing to not be able to perform the brand new single, but Noel did deliver a stripped down performance of the song for Top of the Pops back home.

For two, the single remains the only release in Oasis history not to feature Liam at all. The first thing I remember about the single itself is actually reading a posting on whatever Oasis message board I frequented at the time and someone calling it “Just the Noel and Alan single,” which by all accounts and measures, it is. So in effect, you had a Noel Gallagher solo EP here, and a well rounded one at that — an introspective song, a flag waver, and a full out rocker. It’s almost like he’s serving notice on record that he can manage just fine himself (a feat he’d proved live several times before).

For three, look at the cover. Does it not say, “Alright, this party’s over”?

In the end, the single proved only to close the book on Oasis’ somewhat difficult transitional period — a couple months later, the band was fully reunited and making music as a collective five-piece again, and Noel got back to writing consistently even material without extracurricular influence.  In looking back this week, I realized I kind of set out what I didn’t want to do by ramming home how uneven all this material was, but I still say there is some great work among the ruins.

The point is, it’s not worth binning everything Oasis put out in the year 2000.

SundayMorningCall
Oasis – Carry Us All
A lot of fans got a preview of this song when a the bootleg of the demos Noel had compiled for the album was released, and while at first I was fascinated with this song’s demo, I think it was because it was just an opportunity to hear a new Oasis song (see this series’ first post on the increasing waiting time between albums). The polished version here is nice and has a bit of heft to it, but at the end of the day, it still kind of sounds like a misfired attempt at doing a Neil Young-type protest song. I’ve always enjoyed Noel’s religious one-liners and this is no exception. I also enjoy the phrase “ten bob revolution.” But how, I ask, is faith in what you got going to carry us all? Still, this is a lot better than that cover of “Helter Skelter.”

Oasis – Full On
The downside of this era’s B-sides is that unless you were a fan, you just weren’t hearing them. That does a great disservice to this song and “One Way Road.” For whatever reason, The Masterplan compilation seemed to close the general public’s interest in Oasis, and all the B-sides from 2000 on seem almost to be like fan club exclusives. They don’t find their way into live sets like B-sides did in the 1990s, the singles aren’t selling at the volume they did in Oasis’ heyday, and maybe there is a justifiable argument in putting something like “Carry Us All” up against “The Masterplan” or “Helter Skelter” up against “Cum On Feel the Noize.” Maybe the songwriting wasn’t as stellar and maybe the covers weren’t as inspired. But see, I think this song would blow the roof off any Oasis set, and everyone who says Noel just can’t sing rock tunes like Liam can deserves to give this song a listen. Sure, I’d love to hear Liam’s take on this, but Noel’s really roaring on that chorus. This is a tune.

As far as the video goes, it seems to be kind of a sideways take on “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” but in the pantheon of the band’s videos, I’ve never rated this one that highly. Aside from the “Go Let It Out” video, all the ones they did in this era just visibly bore a “Do we really have to do this?” vibe about them. It looked stylish, sure, but it doesn’t really sell me.

Hope you’ve enjoyed this series and are a little more appreciative of the era than Noel seems to be nowadays. Have a fabulous weekend, all.

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I’m like a one-man band, clapping in the pouring rain.

June 18, 2009

Oasis – Standing on the Shoulder of Giants
Part 4: The second single.

“Who Feels Love?” in my humblest of opinions, is the finest thing on Standing on the Shoulder of Giants and a significant departure for a band that’s still constantly maligned for doing the same thing over and over and over again.

Granted, the track does go head first into completely different stratospheres in terms of being a techno-punk with rap and jazz overlay sound experiment, but considering the almost comedic levels to which Oasis revered the Beatles, it’s kind of funny to consider it took them six years to that eastern vibe. I mean, the Beatles did it in four years…

And if Noel was finding any peace in a cleaner lifestyle, “Who Feels Love?” proved to be the best reflection. Sure, the “Thank you for the sun, the one that shines on everyone who feels love” chorus seems pulled out of the guidebook to hippie cliche, but there’s something kind of genuine about it. Even the fact that Liam’s in sneer-rather-than-sing mode does little to compromise the track. It’s the sound of a band that’s found a little bit of peace in a time of chaos. I’d say it’s the sound of an Oasis, but I’m not that ridiculous. Oh…

And like “Go Let it Out,” the song is anchored on solid groove with a tabla loop and busy (by Oasis standards) bassline helping move the whole affair. The song never fails to put me in a decent mood, and that’s why I included it on this year’s summer mix.

Of course, it was an ill-timed single. Although reviews of the album and new Oasis lineup were for the most part positive, a lot of critics weren’t as eager to stay on the Oasis bandwagon and it was really around this point that all that “Should have packed it in after Knebworth” talk really started to bubble. In it’s review of the single, NME called the track emotionless and “pure mock Maharishi spirituality that not even Liam can salvage from the realm of self-parody.”

To make matters all the more ironic, the band singing about feeling love would face the biggest threat to its existence a month after the single’s release when Liam and Noel got into yet another argument, and Noel departed the world tour, vowing to never play with the band outside of England again. Thankfully he rescinded on that promise, but that news easily took the focus off any new music the band was releasing for the rest of the album’s promotional cycle.

Which is a shame, because the single actually featured the band’s best B-side of the era. And the worst.

Whofeelslove

Oasis – One Way Road
Everything that Noel was trying to encapsulate about his state of mind in the ignored songs of the time like “Solve My Mystery” and  the material that did make it on to singles and albums — even “Who Feels Love?” (“Now you understand that this is not the promised land they spoke of”) — is perfectly rendered here. It’s a simple verse, bridge and chorus that completely repeats itself once before fading away. And if Noel’s falsetto on the bridge and passion on the chorus don’t make you think the guy’s not half bad after all, I think any argument in Oasis’ favor is lost. This is a bit of early 21st century soul, and might be the most soulful thing the band’s ever done. Too bad no one was paying attention.

Oasis – Helter Skelter
I never understand band’s desire to do this song. Well, no. I understand it — who doesn’t want to turn the amps up to 11 and figure out that little riff on the chorus, but of all the Beatles songs to do, I just never understand the obsession with this particular one. It seems so obvious. And for a band of Beatle completists like Oasis, that just makes me wonder all the more. Noel has a special feeling in his heart for the song — he reckons this song is the reason punk rock ever came into existence — but, meh. If covering Beatles songs is a useless exercise to begin with, why not at least challenge yourself and try something like… “It’s All Too Much”? I don’t even know if the Beatles ultimately did the best version of “Helter Skelter” that they could have. Ah well.

The video for the song turned out pretty cool, although I like that it took this long for a director to think “Why don’t we put Oasis in a desert?” Hey!

Tomorrow: The “Sunday Morning Call” single.

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And trying to keep that bag of bones in trim.

June 18, 2009

Oasis – Standing on the Shoulder of Giants
Part 3: The first single.

Oasis’ “Some Might Say” single in 1995 kicked off a trend that was not broken until last year. The lead single off every album from (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? through Don’t Believe the Truth (to wit: “Some Might Say,” “D’You Know What I Mean?” “Go Let it Out” and “Lyla”) all went straight into the UK singles charts at number 1. “The Shock of the Lightning” from Dig Out Your Soul last year made it to number 3.

Such is (or was, I suppose) the anticipation for new Oasis material that massive public interest almost secured chart dominance, no matter what shortcomings the song might contain. In the case of “Some Might Say” and “Lyla” it’s hard to argue — both are arguably perfect rock songs (if just a hair too long). But in the case of “D’You Know What I Mean?” (despite my love for the song and Be Here Now) it had to be momentum. The song was just heavier version of “Wonderwall” and about 30 percent of the song was nothing more than computer blips and splices of backwards tape.

That leaves Standing on the Shoulder of Giants’ public trailer, “Go Let it Out.” Although it’s undoubtedly single material — good hook, a chorus you can learn after the first go-round and a “Strawberry Fields Forever” aping mellotron.

NME actually decided (or, I suppose derided) it as  the exact product you might come up with given a do-it-yourself Oasis song kit.

If there is a fault with it, though, it says absolutely nothing. Given the band’s history for famously clumsy rhyming (“Slowly walking down the hall, faster than a cannonball,” “And my dog was itchin’, itchin’ in the kitchen,” “Say what you’ll say, say that you’ll stay, forever and a day”), it seems almost pointless to pick on the lack of product here.

But “Sister psychosis don’t got a lot to say”? The difference here is that it halfway sounds like Noel’s trying to say something. It sounds cool, but what does it mean? And why compromise it with something as egregiously counterintuitive as “Go let it out, go let it in, go let it out?” Noel’s off the marching powder and this is his first lucid statement?

Indeed, inspiration was in such short order that the “Is it any wonder why princes and kings…” bit was pinched from an old poem called “Bag of Tools.”

I remember a column by Rob Sheffield in Rolling Stone at the time essentially making the same complaint, and it pains to me say that 9 years later I find myself agreeing with him. Side note — how much cooler did you think Rob Sheffield was before he started showing up on those “E! 50 Most_______” shows and giving his dumbass, unfunny commentary?

But what “Go Let it Out” does have is an effortless groove. The departure of Guigsy allowed Noel to finish bass duties and pull basslines all over the record away from the root note basics Oasis songs had been stuck on for six years prior into more adventurous, McCartney-esque territory. “Go Let it Out” doesn’t have the most innovative bassline ever, but maybe for the first time in Oasis history, it was distinguishable. And it grooves. The whole song does. Even if the demo had a better sense of humor.

You’ve heard some of the demos, and where Noel’s mind seemed to be at the time. But at the same time, he seemed to know they weren’t “Oasis” songs. They weren’t simple sentiments to raise a fist to or put your arm around a friend to in a packed stadium. So it’s reasonable that a business- and career-minded individual would see a need for something more formulaic. Problem is, once you’ve seen the downside of fame and excess, it’s hard to put your viewpoint back on the other side of the fence.

So what you have here is a perfect preview of Standing on the Shoulder of Giants — a song by a guy who has an unwavering ability to deliver a memorable tune, but a shortage of things to say.

Fortunately, the B-sides ran a bit deeper.

Oasis_Go_Let_It_Out

Oasis – Let’s All Make Believe
Rumored to be about the changing face of the band and the loss of two founding members, but whether or not that’s the case, this sounds a lot more inspired than the A-side and this would also prove to be the only B-side of the era that Noel handed over to Liam for vocal duties. It’s an effective move. Whereas Noel’s vocals likely would’ve made this song a bit more mournful, Liam’s sneer provides an effect that pulls the regret a little closer to bitterness.

Oasis – (As Long As They’ve Got) Cigarettes in Hell
So maybe Noel lost the whole “feelin’ supersonic” vibe, but at least he didn’t totally lose his sense of humor. But he nicely walks a fine line between being funny and wistful and finds the balance nicely. I also think this song is one of the finest summations of his state of mind at the turn of the century. I ask you, how much more memorable would Standing on the Shoulder of Giants have been if this closed the album? Food for thought.

The single’s video is actually one of my favorite videos, although I wish they’d kept Liam from miming guitar. Maybe it’s a small minority of us that notices he’s not even playing the right chord during the one-chord verse, but que sera sera. The video also showed the new-look Oasis featuring the debut of Gem Archer on guitar. I said it the first time I saw this and I hold it now — he upped the group’s coolness factor tenfold.

Tomorrow: The “Who Feels Love?” single.

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And if there’s a God, would he give another chancer an hour to sing for his soul?

June 16, 2009

Continuing on with Standing on the Shoulder of Giants week, we’ll pick up where we left off yesterday.

It’s quickly approaching three years since Oasis last released a new album. Noel is off cocaine and onto pills to help him kick the habit. Oasis is down to a three-piece after losing founding members Paul ‘Bonehead’ Arthurs and Paul ‘Guigsy’ McGuigan. The shakeup in personnel and recreational lifestyle has Noel foresaking the simple “Live Forever” themes that informed his previous (maybe best?) songs for soured, acoustic driven laments on the shortcomings of fame and other existential musings.

With an early 2000 release date for the lead single and album looming, Noel goes into recruitment mode and makes arguably the soundest Oasis-related decision of his career within weeks of each other when he brings Heavy Stereo frontman Gem Archer in to play lead and rhythm guitar and ex-Ride and Hurricane #1 man Andy Bell in to handle bass duties. Although recording is done by the time they join ranks, they will represent the new look of Oasis and the new album ready to be bestowed upon a sufficiently intrigued (if a tad indifferent) public.

Oasis – Standing on the Shoulder of Giants
Part 2: The album.

sotsog

Oasis
Standing on the Shoulder of Giants
Big Brother/Sony/Epic, 2000

01. F*ckin’ in the Bushes
02. Go Let it Out
03. Who Feels Love?
04. Put Yer Money Where Yer Mouth Is
05. Little James
06. Gas Panic!
07. Where Did it All Go Wrong?
08. Sunday Morning Call
09. I Can See a Liar
10. Roll it Over

Standing on the Shoulder of Giants, apparently, is Oasis’ lowest-selling album to date, which is probably a better indication of the interest in Oasis in 2000 as opposed to the quality of the music within, which is certainly questionable, but never completely horrible, either.

See here’s the thing about every Oasis-related career retrospective interview you read now. There’s this lingering “shoulda coulda woulda” sentiment about packing it in after the record-breaking Knebworth concerts in August 1996. “We should have called it quits,” “We should’ve taken a long break,” etc. etc. Although you can’t discount the amount of work and touring done between September 1996 and December 1999 as nothing — there was one album and several band-testing tours packed within — I’d also argue with anyone who wants to say they were going non-stop. There was little more than a year between the first and second albums. There was almost two years between the second and third. And there was almost three between the third and fourth.

And that’s what hurt interest in Standing on the Shoulder of Giants the most. As mentioned yesterday, the turn of the century was not the time to start dawdling if you wanted to maintain a rapt audience. All the world was slowly signing online and although there was more opportunity than ever to communicate with fellow fans and browse or build your own fansite, discourse material would run short if everyday you signed on to discuss the same years-old albums.

The other thing that absolutely killed Standing on the Shoulder of Giants was Noel’s decision to hide the personal-type tracks he’d been demoing on B-sides or subsequent albums and singles. When you look back and consider what he was writing at the time, Standing on the Shoulder of Giants could have actually proved a significant departure for the band. It could have been the pill-addled, soul-searching comedown record from Oasis’ ride on the Britpop wave. Noel could have silenced a lot of critics by choosing to bare a bit of his emotions and fostered cynicism in songs, but I think the thought proved too daunting.

After all, he must have thought, that’s solo record material. It’s not for an “Oasis” album.

The result? A compromise. A compromise so obvious and scattershot that it’s almost painful. A couple personal numbers, a couple catchy tunes with none-too-subtle Beatles allusions and a couple “I think this is how you write rock and roll, right?” numbers displaying more personal uncertainty than any of those demos he was recording. Oh and what the hell, let’s give Liam a song too.

There’s nothing to sustain Standing on the Shoulder of Giants as a complete album. Just as comfort sets in and a bit of swagger starts to show, a bad song comes along to blow it out of the water. The opening triology of “F*ckin’ in the Bushes,” “Go Let it Out” and “Who Feels Love?” are among the best opening trifectas of any Oasis album. Loops, grooves, somewhat silly lyrics, memorable hooks and choruses — this is the kind of stuff that made you love Oasis in the first place.

Unfortunately, “Put Yer Money Where Yer Mouth Is” is nothing more than a terrible Doors rip-off that goes nowhere. It sounds like it was written on demand for a “rock and roll type” song. Noel’s always been a successful plagiarist, but the spirit and joie de vivre that moved “Cigarettes & Alcohol” from minding too much about the T. Rex pinch. “Put Yer Money…” just had people reaching for Morrison Hotel instead.

“Little James” left cynics without a sword in the fight in that not only was it Liam’s first composition to show on an Oasis record, but it was about his little stepson to boot. Complaining about it’s decidedly un-rock and roll preciousness or that it’s bad obvious John Lennon aping (as opposed to the better obvious John Lennon aping of “I’m Outta Time”) just seemed in sour taste. Then again, I ask Oasis fans — how many times have you put this CD in your player and skipped right over to track 5? I thought so.

“Gas Panic!” relates Noel’s little horrors in coming off a cocaine addiction, but another chance to be upfront and confessional as Noel dispatches Liam to handle the vocals, suspiciously lowers those vocals in the mix and then lets the song descend in to the a 6-minute-plus guitar-on-guitar-on guitar soundscape. The exact kind he professed and still professes to hate so much on Be Here Now.

“Where Did it All Go Wrong?” and “Sunday Morning Call” find Noel taking lead and a bit of front in finally showing some heartache, but just as it seems there might be a chance for late inning redemption, “I Can See a Liar” takes about as lazy a take at the “Pictures of Lily” riff that “Put Yer Money…” did with “Roadhouse Blues.” And even if “Roll it Over” is purported to be an epic, wonderful song of a closer, I can safely say I’ve not listened to the song in its entirety since 2001. And I highly doubt you have either. Or if you have, it hasn’t been with much frequency.

So what, then, was there? Five songs worth repeated listens? Out of ten? How thoroughly disappointing – only a half decent Oasis album.

Of course, if the exact same album had been released just one year earlier, what are the chances we’d be looking back on it with less cynicism? Instead of the afterglow offered by The Masterplan, there’d have been an immediate “This is where we’re going now” statement. Would it have made the songs any better? Not in the slightest. But it would’ve had a lot more attention on it, and one must believe the quality control tick that Noel usually posesses just might have stopped “Put Yer Money…” and “I Can See a Liar” from bleeding through and maybe it would’ve kept “Gas Panic!” under a 4-minute cap.

But you wait another year, and a lot of interest wanes. Sure, you’ll still be able to sell out stadiums in Europe and you’ve got a devoted fan base in almost every country in the world that will blindly buy and try to adore everything you put out. And when this album is good, it is very, very good. But the saddest thing to think about is that note Robbie Williams sent Noel Gallagher after hearing the record with a funeral wreath and “Rest In Peace” card. Cold and callous? Yeah. The exact same move Oasis would’ve pulled on another artist a few years earlier? Yeah. Completely off base? Actually… no.

There was still good stuff to be found on the B-sides, but for the first time in Oasis career, a lot of fans started saying the B-sides really outdid the album. Before, they’d always kind of been on par with each other, right?

Whether through shrewd calculation or randomness that turned out to prove appropriate, Oasis chose to use “Where Did it All Go Wrong?” to promote the record in the states. Even more appropriately, the album was also promoted by a fantastic “Behind the Music” special that provided great insight but also gave the same commercial weight to the album that well… “Behind the Music” gave the new Leif Garrett or Hootie and the Blowfish album. Where did it all go wrong, indeed.

 

Tomorrow: The “Go Let it Out” single.

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They told me that I lost my mind.

June 15, 2009

In this blog’s previous incarnation, I started doing something every once in awhile that I’d hoped would show up a bit more frequently than it ever did. That something is analyzing all parts of an album — performing an “overdue reconsideration” post on the album itself and then thorough “ComBlete”-style posts on the album’s singles. The reason I didn’t do it as much as I thought I might is because it turned out there are actually few albums I’m that obsessive about or that I feel need that kind of revision.

However, the series I did on Paul McCartney’s Off the Ground, Oasis’ Be Here Now and The Verve’s A Northern Soul garnered me a few nice comments and e-mails and while there are still albums I think deserve the full on treatment, a recent post I did made my brain start spinning on another Oasis album.

So, thanks to my inclusion of “Who Feels Love?” on the summer mix, we’re going to take this week to reassess their 2000 LP, Standing on the Shoulder of Giants.

Oasis – Standing on the Shoulder of Giants
Part 1: The groundwork.

The reason I feel this album needs reassessment is because of a recent case of Noel Gallagher’s own revisionism. Noel has a way of liking an album very much when it’s brand new and out there for the world to see, but regauging his opinion years later after the dust settles and said album fails to make any old Q, NME or Mojo “50 Best Ever” list. If there are doubts about how Noel once felt about the album, check the interview on the “Familiar to Millions” DVD in which he professes his admiration for the album mere months after its release.

But in March of this year in an interview with the Times, Noel ended up calling it the low point of Oasis’ career.

“From the defining moment, which was the lights coming on at Knebworth in 1996, at the end of that second show, to (original members) Bonehead and Guigsy leaving halfway through the recording of Standing on the Shoulder of Giants, during that period, for my own part, I was kind of just doing it for the sake of it. I didn’t know what else to do. What we should have done, after Knebworth, was let that whole thing just land, settle, and taken two years off. But with the drugs and all that, you get so addicted to the attention, and you get institutionalised by the band. ”

The thing about it, however, is that Noel made it sound like 1996-2000 was nonstop. As an obsessive Oasis fan at the time, I can most definitely say it wasn’t.

Sure, there was Be Here Now. And that album’s gone down in history as a dangerous tale of excess and self-destruction, but people still seem to forget that album got to #2 in America, had them playing arenas on this side of the Atlantic, got them a spot on “Saturday Night Live” and, if nothing else, contained “The Girl in the Dirty Shirt.”

The tour lasted into 1998, but by the time the “All Around the World” single shifted in January of that year, that was pretty much going to be it for awhile. You can’t count the “Don’t Go Away” single, because those B-sides were just odds and ends from the whole of their career to that point.

Apparently the Be Here Now tour proved to be a cocaine-fuelled wrecking ball that pushed the band to the brink of extinction (as all Oasis tours seem to do, depending on who you ask), and Noel made it quite clear he wanted a break at the end of it all. And I’m not letting you count the Jam tribute that both Noel and Liam got involved with as an acceptable substitute.

Management must have been a bit perturbed. Up to that point, they’d always had the promise of at least a new single within a few months’ time to bestow upon the waiting masses, but now there was going to be nothing. So in the panic of not having a new product to sustain interest (which was becoming increasingly hard to sustain for bands as the new century loomed and more and more people got online), the label cobbled together the band’s best B-sides and issued a new album called The Masterplan.

Here’s why that one didn’t work — the fans that would’ve bought an Oasis B-sides album en masse were the kind of fans who’d already doled out the money for the singles. Or people like my sister, who loved the songs, but knew there was no way their big brother would let them borrow his imported stash of Oasis singles. And I think with every group, there are more hardcore fans out there than there are half-interested sisters.

But my sister buying The Masterplan at least allowed me the opportunity to look through the booklet and read the liner notes. And part of me still shakes when I think about it. There is nothing more self-aggrandizing than to get a journalist to write an extensive sleeve piece talking about how important your band is within the history of popular music when your career’s not even four years old. THAT is exactly the kind of things fans want to discuss and duke it out with other bands’ fans about. Having some dude punch up 1,000 words on how important this music your holding is — unless it’s some kind of anthology 20 or 30 years after the fact — is just arrogance beyond the cartoonish kind Noel and Liam had babbled on about for the four years prior. Of course the tunes backed it up. But that’s just it. You let the music do the talking. You don’t spell it out for a bunch of people. It kills whatever hope for discovery you might have had in putting it in some novice’s yearning hands.

Still, The Masterplan served as some kind of half-hearted afterglow for the madness of the years prior, because when 1998 turned to 1999, the wheels completely came off the bus.

First, Noel’s much publicized and self-celebrated cocaine habit started giving him chest pains that resulted in a midnight run to the hospital. Doctor told him to get off the cocaine, but also gave him a healthy helping of pills to help matters.

Ready with some unsurprisingly drony new songs, Oasis set off for France to start recording their new record, but then original members Guigsy and Bonehead bid adieu, effectively leaving Noel and Alan White to lay down most of the backing tracks and Liam to provide vocals. The brothers held a press conference to assure everyone interested that the band would continue, but Noel seemed visibly unsure.

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Now, the theories on how this all could have made for a fantastic album that Noel was probably too scared to make will be fleshed out as this series progresses. But what you can hear immediately is that in the transition from cocaine to the pills designed to help him kick cocaine, Noel was in a different state of mind than what informed songs like “Supersonic” or “Live Forever.” He was waking up and reassessing what he could remember of the madness of the five years prior, and actually writing some of his most personal songs yet.

The demos from the period became a popular bootleg item and actually provided a lot more insight into Noel’s frame of mind than the final album would.

Oasis – Where Did It All Go Wrong? (Demo)
True, this song made the album in this same lyrical form, although the backing track got a heavy revision. A lot of subsequent reviews of Standing on the Shoulder of Giants quoted the “Do you keep the receipts for the friends that you buy?” lyric as a clear indication that Noel had become a lot more self-aware and was maturing as a lyricist. What always kind of surprised me was that there wasn’t more alarm in the fact that the guy who five years earlier was singing never-ending praises of fame and unabashedly proud of spinning lyrics such as “And my dog’s been itchin’, itchin’ in the kitchen once again” was on this kind of existential, “celebrity is bullsh*t” kick. Now, calling celebrity bullsh*t is about as original as knocking off Beatles songs for your own hits, but think for a moment about the drone here. The gulf between this and “Whatever you do, whatever you say, yeah I know it’s alright,” is pretty damn big.

Oasis – Solve My Mystery (Demo)
To the chagrin of a lot of hardcore fans, this song never made it out into a properly finished form on an a single or album, and my personal theory as to why will be examined a bit more in detail tomorrow. But again, listen to the musings contained within.  “Because I failed, they constantly ignore me,” “You can pit your gold against my soul, but I bet you’ll get shattered,” “What do I believe in?” — I mean the self pity and confusion here is enough to make you think you might be listening to a Dashboard Confessional type track. Probably not the kind of thing to make a stadium full of punters pogo, but when you get down to it, when before did Noel ever dare to the say the kind of stuff he does here? Would Oasis have had a hit or been revered for this one? Maybe not. But what if Neil Young sang this? Food for thought. This is a sound of a guy handcuffed by the monster he created.

Oasis – It’s a Crime (Demo)
After some lyrical revisions, this made it onto the band’s 2005 Don’t Believe the Truth LP as “Let There Be Love.” I go back and forth on whether I think the changes made the song stronger. Most days I do think they did — I love the middle part of the Don’t Believe the Truth version and think that these lyrics sound unfinished. However, there’s an interesting contradiction here between pleading for love and also speaking a little bit about the ramifications of karma. “You can say what you want, but you won’t get a thing from me,” “All the things that you’ve done are coming right back to you,” “Does it make you feel ashamed?” Although not a million miles away, it doesn’t have the same bite in the putdowns he locked in “Bring it On Down,” “Headshrinker” or “My Big Mouth.” It just sounds like a guy who’s tired of the BS everyone’s giving him.

Perhaps tellingly, only one of these sets of lyrics ever made it out for the general public to dissect.

Tomorrow: The album.