Wednesday, June 22, 2005

In Defense Of Coldplay

Until Coldplay sold 20 million records, they never particularly bothered anybody - critics who thought them a bland and pasty concoction couldn't think of any particularly compelling reasons why they were any worse than Travis or Ocean Colour Scene or a thousand other inoffensively tunerful, scrupulously non-innovative British imports, and were generally content to let them collect Perfect Single awards for "Yellow." But then A Rush Of Blood To The Head went way beyond platinum, and it became clear that what was acceptable in moderate obscurity would no longer be tolerated if it was famous.

Let's be perfectly clear about this: I like tuneful, middling, big-chorus balladry. I think Travis's The Man Who is a near-perfect mope-fest, enjoy the swing-for-the-rafters anthems of Embrace, and generally like Britpop and its unexceptional holdovers. If the entire American indie nation is suddenly going to embrace an ambitiously emotional but unexceptional-in-songwriting outfit like The Arcade Fire, the least I can do is be allowed to guiltlessly like mildly sugary hooks. The general British self-flagellation about the Britpop era (exemplified in the NME's sneering coverage of anyone aspiring to hearken back to that era, presumably to make up for all the time they spent fellating the Gallaghers) is, I think, undeserved.

And, within that tradition, I like Coldplay fine. They're lyrically mediocre, exceptionally tuneful, and they make music for love-lorn high-schoolers. I used to listen to "The Scientist" and "Clocks" over and over back-to-back throughout 11th grade, and there's nothing wrong with that. But apparently, Coldplay's status as angsty Brits with guitars means endless comparisons they can't live up to: Slate seems hell-bent on irrelevant comparisons to Radiohead. In a bizarre attack on Salon, Brendan O'Neill attacks the band for being "upper middle-class kids who mean well, don't drink or do drugs or even smoke" and perpetuates the myth that popular music can only come from self-destructive excess and hedonism (he even chides the Libertines' Pete Doherty for wanting to quit heroin, rather than crowing about its glories), which seems to miss the point, musical or otherwise. In his infamous hack job in The New York Times about "the most insufferable band of the decade," Jon Pareles was so incensed that he accused them of spawning a mawkish, mediocre-ballad "generation of one-word bands - Athlete, Embrace, Keane, Starsailor, Travis and Aqualung among them," forgetting that Travis way predated Coldplay, and that the latter were actually accused of ripping off the former when they first showed up.

Comparisons to Radiohead have always missed the point: they're both British and depressive and wield guitars, but Radiohead is tense and spiky, frequently hookless, obsessed with texture, and generally far more ambitious not only in their methods, but in their goals. Coldplay just wants to soothe you, and the fact that they both started from the same template is fairly irrelevant. Blaming Coldplay for being polite seems pointless and irrelevant.

The only two legitimate complaints against Coldplay are that their lyrics suck and they're predictable. Both are undeniable; X&Y is a virtual compendium of cliches and trite rhymes ("Are you lost or incomplete/Do you feel like a puzzle/you can't find your missing piece"), when it's not being bizarrely overwrought (as on lead single "Speed Of Sound," which bizarrely, and in defiance of physics, insists that birds travel at the titular velocity), and Coldplay never met a predictably soothing chord change they couldn't use. Which means a lot of people are sincerely bored by Coldplay, and that's OK; there's certainly room to find their success inexplicable. What it doesn't do is explain the virulence of the attacks.

Obviously, part of it is that Coldplay is massively successful, and anyone whose livelihood involves writing about music gets annoyed when their pet bands remain unpatronized while a seemingly bland, unworthy outfit achieves undeserved fame. But the main issue, I think, is that people are threatened by said success and what it means, because X&Y - while ridiculously overlong at 62 minutes, weighed down by songs that continuously hover around the 5-minute mark, and relentlessly monochromatic - really isn't that much worse than A Rush Of Blood To The Head. It's musical comfort food, and nothing more or less. It's just that there's more at stake now that the band is successful.

Maybe what critics find so offensive is that the band isn't stupid. All the songs are carefully crafted, and the super-expensive production centers on making the band sound futuristic and ethereal; it claims the innovations of Brian Eno (who shows up to provide some extra synths at one point) without his ambitions, and that means that something once outsider-ish and vaguely transgressive is now so mainstream as to be on soft-rock radio, and that must surely bother early Eno adopters. On "Talk," Coldplay cop a Kraftwerk riff and change that band's chilly innovation into, as Alexis Petridis acutely observes, change a "twinkly, synthetic hook" into "a portentous, echo-laden, pained-expression guitar riff." How dare Coldplay take an innovatively inhuman band's material for their banal, sentimental ends! etc.

And yet. When you're done sneering at the band's sentimental ambitions, lyrical ineptitude, et al., you can't fault them for not meaning it. Even in the face of overwhelming fortune, Chris Martin remains immaculately depressed and worried: worried about losing love, of seeming weak, etc. And he and the band have taken the time and trouble to cook up songs with enough hooks and atmosphere to back it up: mundane, yes, but pleasant. (Special props go to the organ arrangements on "Fix You.") While there are no welcome surprises like Rush Of Blood's twangy "Green Eyes," the band works very hard to be good at what they do. And they are.

And the truth is, I like Coldplay, and I'm not sure why I have to be so defensive about it. Are they more offensive than most charting bands? Hardly. Sure, I'd love it if The Wrens suddenly became platinum-selling superstars, but in the meantime I'll settle for this on the charts: pleasant, carefully-tuned mopery from someone who cares. Sometimes, you need that.

Friday, June 10, 2005

the bored-with-an-eye-infection update

Eels redux - it turns out that once you have the patience to distinguish the good tracks from the unnecessary filler and tonally redundant stuff (always a problem with such a morose dude), this is actually a pretty good album. Here's my edited-tracklist, for anyone who doesn't have the patience to do it themselves:
1. Son of a Bitch
2. Trouble With Dreams
3. Marie Floating Over The Backyard
4. In the Yard, Behind the Church
5. Railroad Man
6. Going Fetal
7. Dust Of Ages
8. Old Shit/New Shit
9. Bride of Theme From Blinking Lights
10. Hey Man (Now You're Really Living)
11. If You See Natalie
12. Sweet Li'l Thing
13. Dusk: A Peach In The Orchard
14. Whatever Happened To Soy Bomb?
15. Losing Streak
16. The Stars Shine In The Sky Tonight
17. Things The Grandchildren Should Know

I still resent Mr. E for making me dig through all that crap, but, at any rate, my version of his album is about half as long and quite good. I'm starting to see why someone could think he's a big deal, even though I still think he's just a minor guy with major moments.

The Go-Betweens, Oceans Apart - A slow-burning album whose charms are revealed only gradually. These are pop songs with very pared-down chord changes and careful, elaborate production; I can't speak as to their quality vs. the Go-Betweens' past work, which evidently has quite a cult, but metacritic assures me this is definitely a career peak for them. Highlights: "Here Comes A City," built around the almost impossibly archaic theme of trans-continental train travel while reading weighty books, and "Born To A Family," which is actually bouncy (the rest of the album aims mostly for intensity and gravitas). I like this album fine, though it's been wildly overpraised. which presumably has something to do with aging critics happy that some of their old college rock favorites are still agile and kicking ass.

M.I.A., Arular - On the other hand, some things are just overpraised. M.I.A. - as anyone reading this has probably heard 1369 times - is the super-innovative Sri Lankan rapper whose sound is a unique amalgamation of bhangra, dance-hall, grime, etc. SHE SOUNDS LIKE NO ONE ELSE EVER. Unfortunately for Mr. Arulpragasam, Gwen Stefani exists, and "Hollaback Girl" does everything she does in radio-single time, and better. Meanwhile, Arular is a taut but strident and noxious piece of goods, centered around the novel idea of melding rabble-rousing (if somewhat wooly) leftist protest politics with more arrogance than Jay-Z. The sound is a combination of low-end bass electronica, lots of M.I.A. yelping, and sampled "ethnic" drums, with lyrics like "I'll fight you just to get peace." Just because M.I.A. toys with Advanced Electronica For Amateurs and steals the Clash's proletarian jungle fever doesn't make her a good thing, and I find her incredibly obnoxious. Also, on "Hombre," she offers up this come-on: "I can get it squeaky so you can come up on me." Ew.

Stars, Set Yourself On Fire - Something near to a masterpiece, although it's ultimately 2 or 3 songs too long; that's what you get for being overly consistent. This is my favorite genre, namely, Pretty Songs with Bleak Lyrics: in a fashion reminiscent of the late Delgados, Stars trade-off dispassionate male-female vocals about death and romantic failure. They're also aware of sex, which is accepted as a part of mature adult life rather than treated as a source of unmixed angst and self-loathing (Cursive) or cause for hysteria (I'm looking at you, Pinkerton). Remarkably, they can do both giddy excitement ("The First Five Times," which captures the onrush of the opening stages of love perfectly) and elegiac perfectly; predictably, I'm a sucker for the elegiac ones, especially "Celebration Guns" and closer "The Calendar Girl," which is about nothing less than making peace with death: "I can't live forever/I can't always be/one day i'll be sand on a beach by the sea/the pages keep turning/I mark off each day with a cross/
and I'll laugh about all that we've lost." Lovely.

Venetian Snares, Rossz Csillag Allat Szuletett - This is my kind of abrasion: insanely fast, brutal electronic drums on top of extremely dissonant chamber music. This guy could score a David Lynch film in a second. Alternately confrontational and ambient, it's fascinating if somewhat chilly stuff.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005


In 2002, Spoon saved music. Kill The Moonlight is a masterpiece of concision, a record that removes every inessential element, paring itself down to pure songwriting perfection: every sound counts. While the level of achievement was perhaps a surprise, the general trend towards concision wasn't: Spoon may have been the only band requested by a label (Elektra, during their ill-fated 1998 stint with A Series Of Sneaks) to actually lengthen their lead single.

So. On Gimme Fiction, there are 3 songs that top 5 minutes. They're shockingly close to dance music a la LCD Soundsystem or Out Hud, and they're not terribly good: the instrumental breakdown of "Paper Tiger" has expanded in a big way, but without the taut focus. The worst offender is "Was It You," which, for 5 minutes and 2 seconds, examines the absorbing question of whether or not one of Britt Daniel's acquaintances was walking home through a park last night, or whether it was just someone similar-looking. Maybe paring down has left Daniel incapable of the dense interweaving required for dance music, but for the first time Spoon feels like there's excess involved.

But you can see why Daniel wanted to shake up the sound: when bands like Robbers On High Street and The Natural History have sofully copped the Spoon template, why bother? The first 2 songs are among Spoon's strongest: "The Beast And Dragon, Adored" runs through slow, typically metronomic drums and an incredibly messy (but rhythmic) distorted guitar solo as Daniel laments watching all his friends move away. Next comes "The Two Sides Of Monsieur Valentine," which has strings(!) and is totally awesome, even if it's basically just some actor whining about a part he wants really bad. After this is the perfectly serviceable (if inexplicable choice for lead single) "I Turn My Camera On," in which Daniel adopts a momentarily shocking but perfectly fine falsetto.

Up to this point, Spoon has created yet another album I can't live without, then proceeds to wear me down. Songs like "My Mathematical Mind" sound OK on their own, but all in sequence they steadily deplete my enthusiasm. There's an exception: "Sister Jack," which, as fellow NYU-er Paul Haney has pointed out, is primed for "The O.C." The key line (as invaluably pointed out by online music geek friend Doug Dillaman) is "We were in a drop-D metal band called Requiem." The bassist actually was, and this poignant line of failed ambitions is second only to a similar line from "Anything You Want": "since you were 19 and standing on a corner waiting on a light by Sound Exchange." I remember Sound Exchange - a largly punk-oriented used record store that always treated me snidely - and I miss it. At bottom - beneath all the brisk songs and frequently engimatic lyrics - Spoon are music for courage and confidence, sympathizing with the working drone who aspires for more and moody non-conformists everywhere, and giving them a little nostalgia to boot. And Gimme Fiction - a strange, frequently misshapen, and definitely non-unified album - is, at the very least, a noble attempt to forge on in a different direction. I just wish it was more likeable.