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Friday, September 22, 2006

Ganging Up on the Sun (Guster)

Switching time from 1994 to 2006, I'm here to review Guster's latest album. For you pleasure, I will review Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde from 1965-1966 next time.

[For the following few paragraphs I want to give a defense of Guster from wrongful criticism or lack of awareness, and tell a brief overview of their musical development. If you want to skip that and get right to the review, click here.]

It is a crime to say that Guster is a college band with acoustic guitars and a guy playing bongos that writes love songs. First, they are usually congas. Second, and more importantly, Guster has developed first-rate skills at music composition, and are capable of many moods and styles. Third, from the start they have written songs on many subjects. If I had to identify one band that most emulates the Beatles' way of doing things, it would be Guster. Not because they are a pop band in the style of the Beatles, which they aren't exactly (They didn't even have a real bassist originally!), but because 1)they like to write intelligent ballads, regardless of the fact that songs about love are unfashionable in this day and age of electronic weirdness and angry punk/grunge/alternative, and more significantly 2)Guster is a band that has never been content to make the same album over and over again. The success of Guster lies in those two traits. Of course, this latest album only went to #25 on the Billboard charts its opening week, and dropped off completely two weeks later. The sucess I'm talking about is musical success, the creation of albums that justify their existence.

As I mentioned earlier, Guster has written a lot of what are usually considered ballads, which has been a good thing and a bad thing. Good, because most of the ballads are quite good, and some of the best ones are actually songs about the end of relationships. Bad, because it has attracted a legion of teenage [girl] fans. However, (I think) this is a much more mature group of teenage girls than the one that followed the Backstreet Boys. Also, many high school to college-age guys are fans. And hey, the band broke out, in a sense, in 1999 with the release of Lost and Gone Forever, so 13 year-old fans from then would be 20 by now. And this band was never in any serious danger of becoming the next boy band. Seriously, have you ever looked at a photo of them?

They also have not only not made the same album over-and-over again; like the post-Rubber Soul Beatles, every album they have made sounds really different from the one before it. Parachute was made while they were in college, and is just two acoustic guitars and hand drums for most of the songs, with violin and cello parts done by guest musicians for atmosphere and the occasional background obstinato. There was a mix between happy songs and darker songs, with only half of the songs about love, all wordily written, with the downide being that some of it was meaninglessly metaphoric.

Superficially, their next album, Goldfly, follows the same pattern. However, while the darkness in Parachute was confined to a few songs, on Goldfly even the happy songs have notes of pessimism in them, or are happy songs about depressing topics, and darkness fills the album. And suddenly electric guitars are used to powerful effect, right along with acoustic guitars. And the songwriting underwent a major change, as now there are sparsely-written alternative-like songs, such as "Airport Song" and "Rocket Ship" that completely rock and are unlike anything they did before.

Lost and Gone Forever, while it was claimed to be an album to capture their live sound, couldn't have been such, because from the live album I've heard, only what little Parachute material they played live sounds much better than the album version, and most of that is due to the improved musical skill of the band. Okay, granted they made everything from Parachute and Goldfly bigger than it was in the studio. But I don't see what the big deal was about capturing their live sound. What Lost and Gone Forever represented was a major diversification of their sound, and production values and tricks that blew the production of past albums away. Their drummer at this point had innovated to the point that I think this album represents the bible of how to use hand percussion in rock music. So if you want musical innovation, from a '90s band, there it is. Just listen to the power in the drums in "Barrel of a Gun." Also, much of the pessimism of Goldfly has been eliminated or distilled into pure singing intensity. Accordingly, some of these songs are their loosest and happiest yet.

But by 2003, after almost a decade of hand drums, the drummer, and his hands, needed a change in style, and Guster, following the change is good philosophy, released Keep It Together. This album was completely different, but mostly the same, as Lost and Gone Forever. They became a quartet in the process of recording, adding Joe Pisapia, a multi-instrumental player who could actually play bass. Their drummer also learned to use a drum kit for the first time, so you get to here someone very good with hand drums play a drum kit sort of how it is usually played and sort of like hand drums. Even so there were still a fair amount of hand drums. Most importantly, this was where they really hit a stride with their musical composing on this album, with almost every song one of the best sounding they had made. All the melodies are first-rate, the songs are instrumented to the proper extent, and they have finally started addressing their only major flaw, there lack of skill at soloing, so this album actually contains some of the first noticeable soloing on a Guster album. And the lyrics were their best yet, with many of the best written by the drummer, Brian Rosenworcel, who was writing for the first time. Stylistically, they were more diverse. Despite the loudness and energy, Keep It Together was a very cozy, sociable, empathic album, and I think it was the first great Guster album. Ganging Up on the Sun is the second.

Right from the start, Ganging Up on the Sun shows differences from all previous Guster albums. In the past, Guster albums began with fast-tempo pop songs with a memorable intro. Parachute began with Adam Gardner singing out, "He smiled to the world," with the drums and acoustic guitars coming in a beat after he starts. Goldfly began with a repeated electric guitar note, followed by a shift to a lower note and acoustic guitar, before the drums burst in and the song began. Lost and Gone Forever began with light drumming of bongos accompanied by acoustic guitar and a triangle every two measures, before the congas and singing burst through. And Keep It Together began with just a slow resonant bass guitar melody before a unique (kit) drumbeat began. In Ganging Up on the Sun, at first there is silence, except for a quiet rustling and something being bumped. Then the horns start one-by-one, and play a slow minor-key chord progression. An amplified acoustic guitar or a clean electric guitar starts playing melody softly at a mid-tempo. An electric organ plays in the background. "Lightning Rod" is a song unlike any Guster has done before. The lyrics are half-metaphorical, some talking directly about war, other making reference to gods and the weather. There are just two verses, and the chorus is one sustained word melismatically sung. It is a very atmospheric and ominous song.

The next song, "Satellite," is also completely different - actually, no, it isn't. Satellite is along the same musical lines as a song from KIT, "Long Way Down," except this time they do it right. Where that song drowned in its murky atmosphere, "Satellite" revels in its acoustic-electric-electronic spaciness. It's a straight-forward love ballad, except for the spacey lyrics and instrumentation, with a circus-like keyboard instrumental bridge that is completely out of place and perfect at the same time.

Ganging Up on the Sun is the most ambitious Guster album yet, and even the title gives hints of that. Gus was the original name of the band, and it is a acronym that results from the album title. I bet they were inspired to do that from Dylan's Blonde on Blonde (BoB). Many of the songs were also self-produced, with the assistance of the fourth member of Guster, Joe Pisapia. The band had been diverse in its music before, but this album has a greater variety of styles than all of their previous albums combined. Keep It Together has more in common with Lost and Gone Forever than this album, and those two were at the boundary of a major shift in musical philosophy for the band!

Members of the band had said before the album's release that they wanted this album to be more of a "classic rock" album. I interpreted that as a declaration that they were imitating '60s and '70s rock music. Before it came out, I thought this album would be a disaster. I thought Guster had lost focus with all the different styles, and on some songs going back over the same lyrical ground, as well as imitating rather than innovating. The first listen of the album did not impress me very much, and I thought that this album could be an ambitious misfire, not living up to expectations due to a lack of continuity, originality, and pointless artiness.

However, in the final analysis I have reached a different conclusion. It would matter little that this is Guster's most diverse album if the songs were bad, but given that all of them are good to fantastic, with just one letdown, it is incredible. This album was not at all what I expected Guster's fifth album to be. I'll admit, I really wanted to listen to a KIT II. And as much as I like music from the '60s, I did not want Guster to mimic other bands. However, I think what Guster meant when they said this was more of a "classic rock" album is that this album doesn't shy away from the unconventional, looks to the '60s and'70s for inspiration, and like the White Album, tries to do a little bit of everything. In fact given the amount of stuff left on the recording studio floor, I'm guessing this was originally intended to be a double, but the band realized they couldn't have so much consistency if they were to put all the songs on here. This is still their longest album at 49 minutes, but KIT was 48 minutes so the difference isn't much.

Part of the reason it is the longest is the centerpiece of the album, "Ruby Falls." After contributing so much to the previous album, this is the only song with lyrics written solely by Brian Rosenworcel, but it is the best lyrics he has written, and fits the music of the song perfectly. The song is about the aftermath of a break-up due to what I'm guessing is the singer's alcoholism ("Don't look me in the eye/Just wash it all down"). It begins with the same guitar sound from "Lightning Rod" and soft singing and backing "ahs," but after one verse unexpectedly goes into a loud guitar-heavy section with big drum beat and the vocals cried out. Then after one verse, back to how it was at the start, except with drums to give it drive. And then comes a truly apocalyptic synthesizer solo over the loud section. You have to hear it to believe that Guster really could compose a solo like this. Then Ryan Miller returns with desperate vocals, and when he finishes the last verse ("Somewhere, down buried in the sand/two birds, give out, a song/and all of Ruby Falls, is singing along."), the loud guitars stop. We are left with an even softer version of the guitar from the start, a soft cymbal clap beat, and a synth obstinato in the background. Then a chorus quietly sings, "sing along." A guest female vocalist sings freestyle, Miller says two muffled lines, drum beats happen intermittently, and a muted trumpet solo begins. It continues to the end of the song, 7 minutes and 6 seconds after the song began, and 2:50 after the last verse.

I think the first half of the song is above reproach, so the real question here regarding the song's greatness is "Should the coda have been as long as it was?" Another song that the same question exists for is "Hey Jude." This case is different of course, but even the great musicians draw this question when they have long codas. I say the song justifies its length, because after the despair of the rest of the song, the listener is emotionally shut down. The ambient-like calm that starts the coda relaxes the listener, then the trumpet solo shows us that there is still hope. So in the name of optimism, I say the coda is right! Although, I can't figure out what possessed them to end the song with what I think is an outtake from a previous recording of the trumpet solo, building then cut off by what sounds like the onset sound of the low keys on a piano.

"Ruby Falls" is followed by "C'Mon," maybe the only song on here that would not be out of place on KIT, but it is nonetheless still different from what they have done before. For one thing, it sounds like they traveled back in time, kidnapped Dylan's backing band from Highway 61 Revisited and told them to play Guster-like music, and put the organ really low in the mix, because Al Kooper was outraged. Okay, the organ is really just atmospheric than melodic on the song, it's Joe Pisapia playing, not Al Kooper. But aside from the Dylan-esque wall of sound production, what really makes this song is that the song is Confidence in song form. So confident it would be arrogant, if it wasn't that everything sounded so happy and excited.

"Empire State" follows, which has been described by the band as their "quietest song." Yes, it is very quiet. Guster did release an album in 2003, but now in 2006, they feel the confidence to write a song about September 11th. And "Empire State" is nothing less than Guster's unique solemn memorial to those who died in the ruins of the World Trade Center. If you do not cry when you listen to this song, you either do not understand the song lyrics, you are a Wahhabi nutjob, or one of those android from Phillip K. Dick's novel.

Still, we must move on ("fallen walls all around/rebuid again/rebuild again"). Contrary to what some other reviewers have said about the album's second half, Guster is on a roll here and cannot be stopped. Adam Gardner has a much different voice than Ryan Miller, and often he sings in the sadder ballads or the more biting songs. Since the first album, he has had less lead vocal parts on each album than the one before, and on this one he has only one. "Dear Valentine" is it. Guster appears to have a theme going here in which each song sounds like something they did before, but when you really look at it, you see there is much that Guster has never done before. "Dear Valentine" is superficially just another ballad, like Diana on the previous album. Except for the loud, echo-ey production, the strange beginning, the cymbal-y drumming, the brass section composed through overdubs by Neil Rosengarden, the almost scary-conclusion to the instrumental bridge, and the reassuring/pleading/unassured/tired vocals. None of this makes any sense until you realize the song is a soldier in Iraq telling his significant other that he is coming home for Valentine's Day, and that everything will be okay when he gets home, but both of them know that he'll be going back to Iraq sometime after.

The next song, the "Beginning of the End," is a song that you'd think from their previous works that Guster couldn't do well, as it is almost thrash metal. But it is definitely hard rock and the lyrics are heavy, even if I can't understand them exactly. The vocal delivery is convincingly angry, and the song changes in ways that surprise you. Also, the solo fits the lyrics great. It's almost an instrumental verse. And Rosenworcel's drumming is kickass. Given how incredible this song is, I can't understand how they screwed up "The New Underground," which was made at about the same time. In that case the lyrics are easy to understand metaphors, the music is slightly less thrash and more punk. But it is a big letdown because the lyrics are somewhat stupid ("Welcome/you're under control/and buried like a mole/1000 feet below"), and they copied those stupid "O-o-o-oh"s from The Offspring's "Staring at the Sun." It doesn't help that half the time Ryan Miller is caterwauling on this song like a mountain lion. It is possible that they screwed this song up intentionally, but if they did, the achieved sound is not even interesting or funny.

About the other songs; "Manifest Destiny" is solid piano pop calling for declaring independence from the current political situation, "The Captain" is Country Joe and the Fish-inspired country/psychedelia with hard-to-interpret lyrics and a fun jam-coda, and "Hang On" is the band's third anthemic album closer.

Did I say just one let-down? I was wrong, there is a second. Guster has never made a pompous song, and their anthems are really quite humble. "Hang On" is quite humble, and is a plea for perseverance. Yes, it is obvious, and that is part of the problem. The whole song is pretty conventional, and doesn't stray that far from some of the stuff REM has done in the recent past, or some of the stuff Guster has done in the past. Its still a beautiful song, but in comparison to all the fantastic stuff preceding, it looks uninspired. I understand that Guster has in the past closed albums with uplifting anthemic songs ("Parachute," "I Hope Tomorrow is Like Today"), or slow dark songs that build to a shattering conclusion ("Rocket Ship," "Rainy Day"). And "The Beginning of the End" is not a good way to close an album. But I just feel that "Hang On" is a song to listen to after listening to the album, not whenever, as opposed to "I Hope Tomorrow Is Like Today," which is fun to listen to anytime you have a good day.

Still, one good but conventional song, and one song that falls flat on its face without being bad, does not break the album. Is the album innovative? I'll answer that with a question: Can you name any album that came out in 2006 that was innovative? Guster has at least set out to record an album with a lot of good songs in many different styles. And the fans that say they are selling out don't have to buy the album. Also the hardcore fans need to stop pretending that what makes this album great is that Guster doesn't care about commercial success. I'd say there are a lot of bands out there for whom commercial success is secondary to making music. What separates Guster from many of them is that Guster cares about creativity, about substance over image, about change, and about diversity of sound. Quoting Brian Rosenworcel, "All musicians should feel
like they're on the verge of break down all the time." This album is one of the best of 2006, and I recommend this as highly as Marvin's Marvelous Mechanical Museum.

One last thing: this album is great, but it does not need to be relentlessly pushed on people like the guy is at BlogCritics. There are many albums better than it. No recent albums, but if you want to hear something absolutely fantastic put on the Beatles Abbey Road. However, Ryan Miller has said that the band wants to make an all-time great album, and while he admits (and I agree with him) that this is not an all-time great, this is not very far, and is certainly great in the context of the last 5 years. If it was more innovative, I would say it belongs in the discussion of the greatest rock albums ever made. I think that if the band sets as its goal for the next album, "let's top Ganging Up on the Sun" they will succeed. I've thought Guster has been making progressively better albums for so long without making a bad one, that they were just due to fall flat on their face, which may have colored my initial impression of the album, but I now think it is possible that Guster is a band that is incapable of releasing a bad album. I think that as long as they still care about making music, they will not allow an album to be released that is on average below what they are capable of, and will work on it until they get it right. That is why I think that they will succeed.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

From "Making Flippy Floppy," Speaking in Tongues (Talking Heads)

Everything is divided
Nothing is complete
Everything looks impressive
Do not be deceived
You don't have to wait for more instructions
No one makes a monkey out of me
We lie on our backs, feet in the air
Rest and relaxation, rocket to my brain


I can't believe it
And people are strange
Our president's crazy
Did you hear what he said
Business and pleasure
Lie right to your face
Divide it in sections
And then give it away

The world is fucked. No one is going to save it.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Betrayal of Cause

Every Republican must go.