Friday, November 12, 2004

It's been a while, so I've been saving a great outpouring of rage for this post. First of all, let's get the obvious subject out of the way first - the U.S. Presidential election. It may just be that I'm naturally pessimistic, but the result came as no surprise to me. It had been clear for some time that John Kerry had placed far too much emphasis on his personal war record, and far too little on developing a coherent vision, both in terms of foreign policy and domestic issues. Not only that, but the Bush team mobilised the evangelical vote with considerable relish and vigour, and Bush has now been re-elected on the deeply hypocritical platform of promising greater 'freedom and democracy' abroad, whilst offering the most intolerant and restrictive set of policies at home. I don't want to spend too much time here analysing what this might mean for the next four years - but it's enough to say that I don't expect Bush will modify his stance on the environment, the economy, or healthcare provision. I also don't expect too great a change in the U.S. approach to what Bush has liked to call 'rogue states'. This is, after all, a President whose perspective on the world lacks any kind of nuance or finesse, and he is only capable of viewing the world in contrasting extremes. It's doubly depressing that the death of John Peel and the re-election of a moron to the greatest seat of world power had to come within the same week.

Whilst the election result is not surprising, it remains dismaying, and I only hope that the most vital political voices in America continue to protest and speak out. Bruce Springsteen's first reaction to the result has been to place a newly recorded version of The Star Spangled Banner on his website - a statement characteristically designed to appeal to American pride as much as post-election despair. Springsteen at last took a risk with his commitment to the Vote for Change tour - although his politics can easily be gleaned from many of his songs, he has always been careful not to ally himself with either political party. R.E.M. have already spoken in interviews of their dismay and fear. Perhaps the most vital political voice in American music right now, Steve Earle, appeared in the UK this week. The concerts were sure to be energised and brimming with conviction - the songs remain as relevant as ever with Bush still in power.

I was particularly depressed by several comments on the REM and Springsteen messageboards bemoaning the 'arrogance of the liberals' and, using far more expletives than I'd like to use here, instructing their favourite musicians to keep out of political debate. Leaving aside the question of how these people can identify with Springsteen songs and yet still support Bush's tax cuts (a policy designed to benefit only the very rich, with little or no broader economic justification), it's depressing that so many seem to think that musicians have no right to a democratic voice. Nobody has to follow the advice of Springsteen and REM et al - the American population have proved more than capable of ignoring them altogether. Yet I value these performers precisely because they are prepared to go beyond simply entertaining a crowd, and are prepared to use their celebrity to status towards what they feel are good ends. I'm no fan of U2 - but at least Bono is prepared to rise above banality and put his celebrity to some positive use, even if he could substantially reduce third world debt quite easily by donating some of his vast personal fortune!

Frankly, we need voices as harsh and plain as Steve Earle more than ever now. The election campaign finally directed me towards his album 'The Revolution Starts Now', which I had been meaning to pick up for some time. I can't really place it in context, because the only other Steve Earle album I'm really familiar with is his excellent bluegrass set 'The Mountain', recorded with The Del McCoury Band. Unsurprisingly, 'The Revolution...' packs a much weightier punch. Written and recorded within a matter of weeks, it actually benefits from its slightly hurried process. The need to get the record out before the election has given it an energy and urgency that might otherwise have been compromised. I very much doubt that this is Earle's most subtle collection - but the thumping and insistent drum sound, and crisp, crunchy guitars seem appropriate for the cause. The album is bookended by two broadly similar versions of the title track, which makes for a rousing rallying cry, set to an infectious melody and driving straight-ahead rock n'roll groove.

Earle is particularly adept at using localised, personal stories to illustrate a broader political picture, most notably on the anti-war songs 'Home to Houston' and 'Rich Man's War'. The former is a rollcking country shuffle, while the latter is quite brilliant - a plaintive and quite moving exposition of both how the Iraq war has wasted American lives and merely perpetuate a cycle of violence and fear. Earle's voice is snarling and forceful against the acousticm guitar picking. These songs share Springsteen's ability to craft refined character studies, but are more politically charged and less compromising.

'The Revolution...' is importantly not without humour either. At the centre of the album are two hilarious and riotous tracks. 'Condi, Condi' is a, presumably ironic, love song to Condoleeza Rice, set to an angular, almost reggae-flavoured backbeat. 'Oh she loves me, oops she loves me not/People say you're cold but I think you're hot!' Earle sings with considerable relish. 'F The CC' requires little exposition, and certainly makes its defence of democratic freedoms abundantly clear. It's context is undoubtedly the criticism that has been dealt out to those who have spoken out against the Bush administration, along with the restrictions on civil liberties introduced with the Patriot Act. It makes for a highly entertaining rant.

Elsewhere, a duet with Emmylou Harris on 'Comin' Around' is plaintive and affecting, proving that Earle is just as capable of handling traditional country material as he is at producing ranting rock-outs. It's not all perfect - 'The Warrior' sees Earle attempt a more poetic lyric, with mixed results. Much of the imagery and the alliterative devices seem a little forced. The closing tracks are enchanting - but more personal, perhaps even sentimental. Whilst it is by no means the most subtle or nuanced album ever recorded, it does present an eloquent, forceful and determined opposition to the Bush administration, as well as some powerful songwriting. It's just a shame that protest statements such as this haven't managed to secure a result.

An arguably more surprising voice of protest is that of Eminem. It's deeply disappointing that his record company have not had the courage to release 'Mosh' as the first single from his new 'Encore' album, now brought forward to be released today following another internet leak (surely Interscope must realise it will still be on the net after its release?!?!). Instead, they've opted for the comfortingly familiar puerile cartoon rap of 'Just Lose It'. 'Mosh' really is a different beast altogether. So far, Eminem's capacity for righteous anger has only really been channeled on somewhat tiresome 'leave me alone I'm so famous it's terrible' rants. Here, for arguably the first time, he channels this anger towards something more productive and valuable.

Whatever you think of its sentiments, 'Mosh' is an incredible piece of work, a passionate and furious anti-Bush invective, underpinned by rhythmic insistence and considerable intelligence. It is a vitriolic outpouring of frustration and indignation, with a video that illustrates the lyric in even starker terms. Its images and statements are devastating alone 'no more blood for oil, we've got battles to fight out on home soil', strap an AK47 to the President and make him fight his own war, 'this weapon of mass destruction we call our President' - but their cumulative impact is strangely moving. It's partially Eminem attempting to mobilise his fanbase to vote, but it's also an impassioned broadside - with Eminem proclaiming his own leadership, guiding a whole audience to 'mosh' against the President. Intelligent and articulate are words that have often been used about Eminem by gushing critics. In this case, they may well apply.

The second issue to have angered me this week is considerably more trivial, but one that I still feel compelled to write about. I've read a great deal recently about 'changing listener habits' and 'changing attitudes towards music', and other such bland mediaspeak in the past few weeks. Apparently, only the over 40s are buying albums now (how then does that explain 300,000 sales and counting for McFly, and triple that for Busted?). The rest of us apparently prefer to listen to single tracks, most likely downloaded from the internet, than purchase expensive albums which consist of fifty per cent filler. I'm certainly not going to argue with the conjecture that albums are too expensive, especially when CDs now cost so little to mass produce. However, it does undoubtedly depend on what you buy and where you buy it. If you are a regular internet user, then Amazon, Play and other such sites sell CDs at increasingly reasonable prices. Some independent shops - such as Fopp, Selectadisc and Rough Trade are also mostly affordable, albeit only accessible if you live in London or another major city. I increasingly find that, if I shop around, I have little reason to spend more than £12 on a CD, unless it's jazz, which remains sadly marginalised and overpriced.

As for the quality issue - I can't help feeling that comment is more than slightly demeaning to the great wealth of excellent albums that have been released this year. In the first half of this year, I felt I might the year looked like being a little disappointing - I've now completely revised that opinion. Sure - if you waste your money on industry manufactured pap, you're best sticking with singles. The genres of hip hop and R&B are particularly guilty - there are numerous singles in these genres that are innovative and hugely exciting, but the albums are invariably overlong and tiresome - so it becomes harder to sort the wheat from the chaff. If you're open minded, and are prepared to look further to the margins, read more and listen to more, there is plenty out there that is worth the investment of hard cash. Believe me, I wouldn't be writing this blog if there wasn't.

Yet still there is a prevailing trend towards downsizing, compartmentalising and just plain old dumbing down. Nowhere has this been made starker than in the new NME yearbook (don't worry I haven't bought it - I just flicked through it at work). Here, the learned staff of the NME give us their 336 best tracks of the year. First of all, 336 is a strangely arbitrary number, and the exercise seems somewhat pointless to begin with (I find it hard enough to organise a top 50 into any kind of order). What makes it worse is that the tracks are grouped into sub-sets with vacuous and presumptious titles like 'ten for the pensioners' and 'ten floor-shakers'. The NME have at least retained John Mulvey, Dele Fadele and a handful of other writers I trust to make reasonably informed judgements on new music. Yet, these writers now seem entirely marginalised in their polls, instead making way for a youth wing keen to abandon all knowledge of musical history and start proclaiming even the most banal bands of the moment as life-changing revolutionaries. Judging by this list, they also seem to be entirely at the whim of prevailing fashions.

Just as vinyl remains sacred for DJs and collectors, so the recorded product will remain cherished by fans and obsessives for some time to come. Whilst I value the internet as a means of seeking out new sounds - I regularly read music sites and blogs and seek out streaming media from bands and artists who have caught my attention - I would never be entirely satisfied with owning music as a file on a hard drive. For one, it's even more likely to get damaged or go missing than if my CD collection is stolen (my worst nightmare aside from going deaf). I still value the time, art and craft put into a package - including lyrics, artwork and sleevenotes, and I get angry when record companies take my cash for poorly conceived products. I also, believe it or not, still value 'the album' and 'the single' as valuable entities. The only compilations I really trust are ones I've made myself, or mix tapes handed to me by friends. There are odd exceptions of course (Charlie Gillett's outstanding Sound of the City series, Dave Godin's deep soul collections, Rough Trade shops' peerless sets etc etc). Still, there's simply no better feeling than going to a record store, purchasing something that I've never heard just because I've had a tip about it, and finding that it's brilliant. Long may those days continue. That's why if you return to this site a little closer to Christmas, you'll find my selections of albums and singles of the year - I can't resist a good list making exercise.

No comments: