In Praise of the “Troubled” Artist and Bloated, Overreaching Album

Posted by Billy Gil, August 9, 2012 05:21pm | Post a Comment
smashing pumpkinsToday I woke up with the song “Raindrops + Sunshowers” by The Smashing Pumpkins in my head for no particular reason. I was grateful — despite the dubious quality of that syrupy, electro-shoegaze song, the tunes that usually populate my head first thing in the morning aren’t usually the kinds of things you actually want to hear upon waking. Nu Shooz's “I Can’t Wait” is great and all, but waking up humming it, as I often do, is like being slowly slapped awake. But I digress. Why the hell I was humming a not-great song from my favorite band’s worst album, who knows. But I relistened to Machina later in the day, trying to avoid fast-forwarding to the good bits and listening to the regrettable parts, just as I had with the recently released (and recently troubled) Oceania, and realized part of the fun of a band like The Smashing Pumpkins is the digging. Make no mistake, digging is not necessary on Siamese Dream (or Adore or the recently reissued Pisces Iscariot, in my book), but even on their other great albums, Mellon Collie, Gish and Machina II, yeah, there are parts you want to skip past. I’d say that’s true of most bands. But what sets the band apart is not only how frustratingly uneven they can be, as I’ve had to admit over the years, but how much you still care about that band anyway.

OK, enough with the Pumpkins rant. My point is that I’ve always been drawn to these sorts of “imperfect” artists, and am a little bothered by what I see as the sort of iPod-ization of the album, and bands themselves, that continues to proliferate. There seems to be a desire for our artists now to put out perfectly formed, no-frills albums, often at the expense of character that comes when bands and artists make bad choices, careless edits or experiment past their means. Take Nicki Minaj’s Pink nicki minajFriday…Roman Reloaded, for instance. The album currently holds a 60/100 rating on reviews aggregator Metacritic, meaning “mixed or average reviews.” The Observer’s Kitty Empire, in her 3/5 star review of the album, says “Roman Reloaded’s triumphs all come early, on the album’s hip-hop front end. In full flow, Minaj remains a delight.” I couldn’t agree more. Roman Reloaded’s quality is as split as Minaj’s on-record personality, between Nicki and her imagined male counterpart, Roman. On the first half, you get the bad child spazz-out of “Roman Holiday.” You get the fucking blistering “Come on a Cone,” one of the best things anyone has released this year, as Minaj surpasses her hero, Lil Wayne, in terms of producing hip-hop that is eminently brutal but ear-tuggingly catchy, as Minaj makes a winning refrain out of the reverse-sexist rant “put my dick in your face.” I made a Spotify playlist out of the good songs on Roman Reloaded, including the aforementioned plus “I Am Your Leader,” “Beez in the Trap,” “HOV Lane,” “Roman Reloaded,” “Champion” and “Stupid Hoe.” The rest of the album? Starting from the Chris Brown collab “Right By My Side” and only broken up by “Stupid Hoe,” the album continues on a streak of bland pop R&B tracks that reach their nadir on “Starships,” a huge single that takes a quality Nicki rap and tosses it into a generic hard-dance hitmaking machine. It sounds like five songs smashed together, maybe six if you include that “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” aside. Blech. Still, when looking at that Spotify playlist, I have eight songs at 29 minutes. Basically close to the length of most albums I hear these days. And if it were just those eight tracks, Roman Reloaded would be one of the best albums of the year.

About that last point — because it isn’t one of the best albums of the year, Minaj risks disrespect and disregard as an artist. Some of that is warranted; the choice to release Roman Reloaded as is was ultimately hers, and she has intimated that she did so out of a desire for it to sell well, as it has, on the strength of the pretty terrible “Starships.” But I say Minaj is still one of the most exciting artists around. Who cares that more than half of the album sucks! The half that is good completely rules! And she’s made it into my pantheon of great artists who don’t always make great albums. Whenever Minaj announces she’ll be releasing music, I’ll probably listen to it, regardless if every bit of it fulfills my wishes for her as an artist.

guided by voicesLet’s talk about Guided By Voices for a minute. I don’t have to tell most fans of the band how wildly uneven their albums can be, even their great ones, because they’re designed that way. On their most consistent album, Bee Thousand, they even mash their incomplete songs together into the awesome, two-minute “Her Psychology Today.” (And to link it back, Smashing Pumpkins did that, too, on the 23-minute “Pastichio Medley.”) I’d hate to think what modern critics and listeners would say about Guided By Voices today if they were a new band. Would people sit through 20-song albums by Guided By Voices and Sebadoh now, if they were new bands, given the capacity to skip past them on your phone or computer? Admittedly, it’s hard for me to sit through their last two albums, at 21 songs each and with most tracks pretty throwaway-ish, but that’s probably because they were both released this year. And there’s another one on the way this year. Neither Let’s Go Eat the Factory nor Class Clown Spots a UFO are among the band’s best, but they're true to the band's ethos and have enough classic GBV moments to keep me interested. You better believe I’ll be listening to their next album, The Bears for Lunch, when it comes out — also this year, slated for November.

Maybe the first artist who comes to my mind when I think of the unevenly tipped rewards-to-opposite-of-rewards ratio is Ryan Adams. In the 2000s, Adams made many a heart flutter with his first two ryan adamsalbums, the unbeatable Heartbreaker and its also excellent, though overly long (just like this blog entry!) follow-up, Gold. From there, to say it’s been hit-or-miss would be a bit of an understatement — anyone want to sit through all 16 tracks of Love is Hell again? No? Personally, I’d rather re-listen to 2003’s Rock N Roll, a kind of fascinatingly bad-good album where Adams tried to sound like The Strokes, Interpol and the like of early 2000s “garage rockers,” as they were dubbed even though those bands sounded more like Television and The Cure than any garage rock. It’s a little generic, but it’s also pretty fun. The compressed riffs and ’80s beats of “This Is It” and “So Alive” both begged to be blasted in the car, but like, in secret. I really hope a cult following develops around this album in 10 years. The point being that even though some of his albums suck and all of them are too long, every time he does something, we pay attention because of how great “Answering Bell” and “To Be Young” were.

Part of the reason I talk about any of this, besides to take you and myself on a fun-filled trip down memory lane, is to talk about new artists trying to break through in 2012. Specifically in indie rock, I’m always wary of the caginess that seemed to creep up at the turn of the millennium and continues to be light asylumboth a plague and a blessing. On one hand, every week there seems to be some cool new band releasing albums where you know that even if every track isn’t stellar, they’re at least going to be pretty consistently OK and sound pretty similar. On one hand, you might get a perfect indie rock capsule like Diiv’s Oshin, in which only one song breaks the four-minute mark. There aren’t too many audible lyrics to make fun of, no too-short or overly long tracks you end up skipping past, no ill-fated experiments. Another recent album like this is The ShinsPort of Morrow, in which singer James Mercer hired a new band and perked up a bit from the low-key Wincing the Night Away. But wow, is that album boring. Don’t get me wrong, there aren’t any actually bad tracks, and that’s part of the problem. It’s streamlined to the point of being a hairless, indie-rock fembot. Zzzzzz. I like the Diiv album quite a bit, but even then, I wish it broke its careful mold a bit. I’m still listening to Light Asylum’s self-titled debut, a fucking beast of an album built on Bruno Coviello’s pulverizing synthesizers and Shannon Funchess’ thundering voice. It’s not perfect, but it’s such a jolt to listen to among some of the sleepier albums released this year that it’ll probably go down as a favorite for me at least. I want more Light Asylums to love and defend past their 6.1 Pitchfork review, which Funchess has hilariously lambasted on Facebook. I want more Nicki Minajs to cringe over but ultimately love for refusing to fully hide her weirdness, even while trying to appeal to the masses.

I asked a few Amoeba associates who they thought of when I brought up this idea of artists we continue to follow despite their missteps and got a shortlist of artists including Iggy Pop, The Pretenders,The Strokes, Jack White, David Bowie, Marianne Faithfull, The Rolling Stones, Lou Reed, Bjork, Hole and Neil Young. Sure, all of those artists are amazing, but all of them have some bad albums. It seems harder to pick bands that are or were really consistent, I could really only think of The Beatles, New Order, Portishead, Radiohead (minus Pablo Honey), PJ Harvey (minus White Chalk) and bands that released one or two albums and then stopped — My Bloody Valentine, Television and Joy Division. Beach House and M83 are too new. Yes, I know there are way more examples in both of those categories, so tell me: Who’s an artist that you continue to support, even when you don’t love all of the music they make?

Relevant Tags

Guided By Voices (9), Ryan Adams (13), Nicki Minaj (12), Smashing Pumpkins (17)