This?

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Silent Night, etc.

I'm going to take the next week off from the Rambler - but don't worry. New Year's Day 2008 brings it back, along with the next Floyd reviews and (keeping fingers crossed) the official relaunch of the new and reproved Copper-Man.net, of which the Rambler will be the daily part. So, y'all have a good Christmas and New Year's, and I'll see you....

...not gonna fucking say 'next year,' you know? I'll see you when I see you. Enjoy the holidays.

D.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Feedback



Tonight's winner of the "Write Dave's Blog" contest is Mr. Karl Tsakos, fellow aging crank. At my urging, Karl posted his counter-review of Dark Side of the Moon in yesterday's comments section. His review is essentially a review of my review, and a defense of my objections, so you should read my review first, and then come back here.

I'll be inserting my rebuttal to his rebuttal within his comments, so Karl will be italicized, and I will be boldfaced.

Karl writes:

"You compelled me to comment on my blog, so I will:

It is clear from your life (I jest; we're friends) and your review of this album that you clearly are not a fan of anything successful. Otherwise your review of the album that most likely introduced you (I think you have made comment to that end) and most of the world to the band would be treated a little kinder."


Believe me, you're not the first person to accuse me of this particular prejudice on my part with Pink Floyd, so it may be something that I'm not aware of. Although the twins said it was because I like to champion the underdog - to an almost perverse degree - and that my preferring Dogs (for example) over every other track on Animals was because I just liked sticking it to Waters and chose that track just because it's the only one that Gilmour had any input on, rather than because of any aesthetic judgement on my part.

I think that my fairly negative review of A Momentary Lapse of Reason probably puts that idea to rest.

As to my 'not being a fan of anything successful,' uh, what? Have you taken a look at me DVD/CD collections lately? Just to look at my bookshelf shows that I'm, if anything, embarrassingly mainstream in my tastes. You won't find more Stephen King in the Library of Congress - and, boy, is he ever underground, let me tell you! As someone who defines himself as an artist, I confess to always feeling a little frustrated that my tastes don't run more to the avant garde, but there it is.

Also, Animals got a positive review, and Wish You Were Here is going to get a total fellating from me when I get around to reviewing it (I love that record), and those records were both hugely successful. So trust me when I say that the reasons I state for disliking Dark Side - the underwritten quality, the sameness of the tempos and compositions, and the guests getting in the way of the band - are as true as I can make them.


"I think it is fair to say that if Floyd didn't have this breakout album, the same album where they developed the Waters sound that maintained them through their most successful years, they would have been a musical footnote."

That's only partly true. They certainly wouldn't be at the level they're at now, but they were already a more than successful band even before Dark Side. In the UK, A Saucerful of Secretswent to number 9, Ummagumma went to 5, and Atom Heart Mother went to number 1! And, oddly, even American radio was starting to play them, with Free Four being something of a hit and getting Obscured By Clouds to number 46 on the U.S. charts - which is pretty impressive for a soundtrack to a film that wasn't even released in this country. So I pose that Floyd would have continued growing their success - but even if not, given my large soft spot for the British Psych/Acid/Prog era, I'd still be a huge Floyd fan - only I'd have to explain to people who they were, and not have to defend that passion to music snobs who sneer at the mention of the name because of the image that albums like The Wall ended up permanently associating with the band's name.

"Their early experimental stuff is great, but not sustainable for a mass audience of which you are a member. In other words, had you not heard songs from this album on the radio and become interested, we as an audience would not be reading your reviews of their collection. I'm just saying, I don't believe your feelings for this album have always been the same as you describe them."

I was indoctrinated in Floyd not through radio, but through the Big Brother's Basement Record Club, courtesy of the aforementioned twins and our mutual friend Rich Clarke, whose older brother had a seriously cool record collection. A bit heavy on Rush and Rainbow for my tastes, but that's where I heard all these records for the first time, mostly in my junior and senior years of high school - with Meddle cemented as my favorite very early in the running. By the time I was a freshman at RISD, I already had the complete collection on CD, and even by that point had grown tired of Dark Side.

"I do notice, 2 out of 3 times, when there is a lull in band practice you pull out a Floyd tune. And, 3 out of 5 times it will be something from Dark Side. Okay, probably one of the 4 songs you mentioned loving the most. Actually, there have even been times where we do 2 to 4 of the songs in order from the album because you keep going."

Oh, no denying I can play this album cold. I have the lyrics memorized, too. And the songs are fun to play - mostly because they're (as noted) incredibly simple.

But the main reason that I keep defaulting to the songs from Dark Side is the general air of crankiness and discomfit that comes from the band when I try to play material I prefer - such as Shine On You Crazy Diamond, or (my favorite song ever) Echoes. After all, when Copper Man was given the opportunity to play at Arlene's Grocery's "Classic Album Night," I went with Meddle* - which obviously shows that my own personal tastes will get the better of what little self-promotional moxie I have every time.

You'll note that the only two songs from Floyd that are part of the set are Fearless and Free Four (and don't forget Opel!). Make of that what you will.

And for the record, the songs I usually toss off are Breathe in the Air and Time.


"I'm just saying, I think you're not being honest with yourself."

Probably not, but what else is new?

"Personally, I didn't really 'discover' this album until a year or two ago as I was going through and identity crisis. Okay, a midlife crisis. (Technically, I am entering that arena.) Of course I knew and owned the album, I just hadn't given it much time or thought. I discovered two things from repeated listening of the album.

1) It works as a whole, continuous piece. Truly an album which is something we are loosing today. Many artists (unlike our humble host, Mr. Rambler) have forgotten the value of a related group of songs strung together. For me, who is neither stoned, nor (sadly) getting laid, nor both. Sigh. I find the pace and feel of the album just right. I do not have a feeling of sameness across the album but a feeling of continuity. Also, I am a fan of the reprise, so I don't have any issue of a theme, especially one that works, cropping up and tying the album together."


Oh, it certianly works as a continuous piece, and I can't deny that my own feelings about making an album that doesn't get too far out of a certain feel were hugely influenced by this record particularly.

"2) Back to the midlife crisis thing: Time damn near ruined me. If you are getting older, evaluating your life, and coming to the conclusion that you have just coasted along and never realized that time is passing and this is the only life you get and you are aging into the realm where you have passed the opportunity to do certain things, don't listen to this song. That damn line about 'No one told me when to run / I missed the starting gun' just kept going over and over again in my mind. It was on this album that Waters showed his brilliance at writing in simple language and conveying so much. Although he says he was just trying to do what Barrett did, he clearly found his own voice here."

I did say that I think the lyrics are excellent on a song by song level, but it tends to fail on the level of being able to make a really deep statement when they're all strung together. I think that Waters himself felt that, since you'll note that the lyrical focus of later albums got narrower and narrower, up to The Final Cut, which is just about the death of his father and Waters' personal feeling of betrayal at the UK military action in the Falklands.

"So my review, to completely counter your review, is this album is multi strontium (I think it's gold, platinum, rubidium and then strontium) for a reason. It's incredible production (more perfect then most of what I hear today), incredible musicianship, yes, the themes of the lyrics, and even the use of spoken clips over the very nice solos make this album deserving of the praise it has received over the years."

I think the crux of my review was that in order to achieve the monster, LCD success that Dark Side brought, they had to sort of tone down all the things that made them unique as a band and make themselves more radio friendly. That's why I referred to the album as the 'Disneyland' version of Floyd. Everyone loves Disneyland! Me, too! But I'd much, much rather go to see Fantasia, instead.

"But that's just my opinion."

Indeed, and welcomed! This finally gave me an opportunity to discuss some of my personal history with Floyd that I've been excising from the other reviews. And hopefully your equally valid take on the album will give this experiment - the stated goal of which is a proper reevaluation of the entire Floyd studio catalog - more weight than I alone can give. Keep arguing!

D.

*For anyone interested, the complete Meddle show is online, here, played by the then Copper Man line up of Ansley Lancourt on Rhythm Guitar, Bran Lancourt on Bass, Edz O'Leary on Drums, myself on Keys, and Eric Santaniello on Lead Guitar.

In advance, I warn you that the vocal mix is wretched - I wasn't in great voice that night, but I swear it sounded better than that in the room! - because the mix came right of the desk, pre F/X. There's a second track mixed in, from Eric's Mini-Disc recorder, but it's not enough to soften the vocals to my (or anyone's) satisfaction.

Of course, the fact that Ansley's vocals sound infinitely better than mine on Seamus and The Gold It's In The... is purely a coincidental trick of the ear. Really.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Pink Platinum


Pink Floyd • Dark Side of the Moon
1973

What can I possibly write about this album that hasn't already been written before? Let's face it - less has been written about the actual dark side of the Moon than the album that bears its name. When something is famous enough to be considered worthy of having its own midnight Lasarium show at the Hayden, chances are good that anything I have to read into the record on it is going to be, at best, completely non-essential.

And you know something? That's just one of the many reasons why - in the words of Road Manager Peter Watts (Naomi's dad, no less) - "I can't think of anything to say!"

And I tried. I even sat in the tub with Yesenia by candlelight and ran it by her for her first listening ever, hoping that a fresh pair of ears would help.

But may I be perfectly candid? This album bores me. Not enough to bore me silly and be a source of real annoyance - it's too polished, too well-written and well-performed for that (too well-produced, engineered, arranged, mixed, etc.) - but just enough to raise nothing in me save a vast, 45 minute long sense of "Meh."

And, curiously, it always did. One thing I'm discovering as I work my way through the catalog is that my feelings about the Floyd and their work have pretty much been as they were since the moment I started listening to them, exactly twenty years ago by this point. I was always very excited by the early experimental work and really not nearly as much into the big, commercial albums. There are a lot of reasons for this - and you can probably glean most of them from careful readings of my Momentary Lapse of Reason and (to a lesser degree) Animals reviews - but it's mostly summed up in the fact that I like the journey more than the destination.

Dark Side of the Moon suffers from this more than any other album in their catalog. In many ways, it's almost like a Disney ride of a Pink Floyd album, with the lyrics superbly honed to communicate to the largest audience possible, and the work of the band frequently made to play second fiddle to some very talented guest players. A Pink Floyd album with only three guitar solos? Sure - Time, Money, and Any Colour You Like. The album should be subtitled "Dave Gilmour's Day Off." Too, the band also is just made into sonic wallpaper for the sound bites of stoned roadies talking about giving people 'short, sharp shocks' and the like. All well and good, but when Rick Wright's only (quite lovely) piano solo on the entire album is kicked aside in favor of Roger the Hat talking about 'frashing' people, you've got your priorities on backwards.

Floyd set out to make an album to crack the charts, and they did so spectacularly. You're always hearing how it's sold umpteen dozens of millions of copies, sales surging every time it's released on a new format, how there was at one point a factory in West Germany that was given over entirely to manufacturing copies of the damn thing...

...and blah, blah, blah. That brings us to problem number two, which is that the thing is so ubiquitous a cultural item that you can't get your brain around it. When people talk more about the thing than the stuff (if you know what I mean), it's a problem. But I think I'm immune to most of that. Since 1988, I've listened to every album that preceded Dark Side more than it by a factor of ten - and I really can't recall the last time I did listen to it, or felt like listening to it. Again, even back as a teenager, I immediately went right for the early records and found that my initial interest in Dark Side and The Wall was, frankly, down to peer pressure. "Everyone says they're just brilliant! So I think they're brilliant, too!"

Well, sure, they are. And fucking boring to me. I think the lyrics are great in micro but strung out across the album as a whole, they wear - and in no way does the loose concept of 'here's all the stuff in modern life that'll drive you crazy' touch me. Sure, time, and money, and war, and death, and drugs, and, uh... airports... are fascinating subjects, but how could you do any one of them justice with even a double album? The album message is primed to fail when you realize that you're not getting an in-depth examination of these topics - you're only going to browse the index.

And musically? Beyond the playing - which is great, of course, polished to a bright sheen by the much-ballyhooed method of playing the album live for several months before recording it - the compositions are all very samey (as Yesenia noted). Very mid-tempo, very much the same instrumental sounds throughout. Which certainly makes sense when you consider the album as a piece - and a live piece, at that - rather than a collection of songs.

And added to the constant tempo is the same general harmonic structure. Breathe in the Air gets not one, not two, but three reprises,* giving almost a third of the album over to the same two chords, repeated endlessly. Compositionally, the only bits of interest are :

1) the B section of Breathe, which suddenly goes all jazzy: Cmaj7 Bm F G D7+9 D#º Em7
2) the whole of Great Gig in the Sky, but particularly the piano lead in to the jam: Bm F Bb F/A Gm7 C9 Gm7 C9 Fmaj7 Bbmaj7 Ebmaj7 Cm7 F7 Bbmaj7 Eb Bb
3) the 7/4 signature in Money, mostly because the use of the numismatical tape loop to count in, and
4) the verse change in Us and Them.**

And the rest? Not so much. The melodies all have a tendency to hang on one note - not a crime, but when nine songs in a row do that, it begins to get tiring - and the dynamics are almost as cliched in their use of soft verse/loud chorus (or vice-versa) as your average Nirvana rif-off band.

Vocally, Dave Gilmour carries the day here, to the effect of rounding the sound off even more. Sonically, it's just not a challenging record - it's meant to sit in the background and groove while you get stoned, or fuck, or do both, or skip it and just cut to staring off into space. It's practically ambient music before Eno came up with the concept. And what's odd about that is that the Floyd of just a couple of years earlier really did lay down aimless, wordless ambient noodles, that ironically are far more gripping to listen to than this album.

Still, I'm sure that as a live show - what with the dry ice and the animated clocks and the airplane crashing to the stage - it was something else. But then they had to go and cage it to show everyone. Best to leave these things out in the wild, where they belong.

D.

*All right: the change is the Em7 to A interval, which makes up 1) Breathe and 2) its official reprise, plus 3) the mid-section jam in Great Gig in the Sky, here transposed to Gm7, and Any Colour You Like, which transposes it to Dm7 - and really drives it into the ground.

**Yes, I'm aware that three of those four musical bits of interest are from Rick Wright. I swear that it's just a coincidence - inasmuch as it can be, when you consider that his sense of harmonics is a good part of why I liked - and like - Floyd in the first place.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Open Blog, Insert Prog

Perversely enough, in the middle of all this Floyd listening, I've been having a Genesis jones as well. This is partly a natural cycle with me - once every year or so, I just gotta listen to Selling England By The Pound obsessively - and partly because I just finished reading the rather swell new Genesis book, Chapter & Verse.

Rather than get heavily into a review of the book, I'll just direct all of you all who are Genesis fans to pick up a copy, and those of you who aren't to at least leaf through it in a store and tell me if you aren't a little interested in the anecdote style of the narrative. Done exactly like the Beatles Anthology (as a series of quotes from new interviews), this features every member of Genesis ever, and is a nice brisk read that gives a strong feel for the times, if not so much the music.

Anyway, here's some live vintage BritProg. Back to the Floyd... anon.

D.

Tilting @ Windmills


Pink Floyd • More
Film Soundtrack/1969

Note: I've decided to eliminate record company info because it gets confused as to who released what - and Floyd's journey through the music industry is only going to be touched on in my review of Wish You Were Here.

Also: I messed up the date for Animals - it's 1977, not 1978.


Here's a review that's more about avoidance than anything else: I'm avoiding writing the review for Atom Heart Mother that's been on deck for three days, AND I'm avoiding wrestling with ActionScript, although the Flash window is open behind this and if this review shows any signs of getting sticky, I'll jump ship and post it where it lands.

This evening's Floyd entry is one I have a lot of affection for - an odd, out-of-the-way album, one that's so much neither here nor there, it's amazing to consider that it's the first full LP for the Floyd line-up that would go on to become one of the biggest musical acts ever.

So: Barrett is gone for real, and Gilmour is fully on board. The pieces are in place. And where did they start?

By scoring a movie, of course!

More is more difficult to review as an album than their other full-length soundtrack, Obscured By Clouds, since with the latter, they essentially just recorded what they felt like, whereas with More there was more external control for them to turn in a genuine film score. To that end, fewer than half the 13 tracks that make up this LP have lyrics - and the instrumentals (a true Floyd staple) are also distinct from the normal Floyd variety in their brevity.

Typical period Floyd jams tended to stretch out to fill whatever space the band's dramatic arc demanded, whereas the loose instrumentals on (in?) More all clock in at scene length, around two-to-three minutes apiece. These are more structured than the extended jams of the period like Careful With That Axe, Eugene, which generally feature everyone in the band taking point and playing solo sections, like a traditional jazz number - or at the very least, feature extended soloing from Barrett/Gilmour and Wright together.

The More numbers are much more clearly more set up around a single instrumental sound, and generally strike a mood and hold it, without dynamic changes. Rick Wright plays the chief role in this, having more sounds at his disposal than anyone else. Although he hadn't yet moved on to synths or even the Hammond or any electric piano, between the acoustic piano and his way around the Farfisa, the gamut of tones is quite impressive.

They even find some way to cut all the attack from the Farfisa signal for the Main Theme, giving it a sound like a curious violin - and given the way Wright's Middle-Eastern flavored noodling (which the band called "Rick's Turkish Delight") play off against Mason's bongo-like tom patterns, Waters' looping bass and Gilmour's very sketchy slidework, the whole thing takes on a very effective meditative quality, although it does have an almost dervish-like tempo:


The piece is reprised at the end of the album, this time under the name Dramatic Theme, and, true to the name change, they play it with a much more deliberate pace, and without any real keyboard to speak of. Instead, Gilmour solos through the piece, giving the first real taste in the Floyd catalog to this point of the sonic template to come - minor key jamming with a trebley, reverbed blues based guitar carving out perfectly placed riffs on top. It also makes for a stark contrast in Gilmour's playing from the preceding track, a fairly credible piece of flamenco called A Spanish Piece.

What's more interesting is that the instrumentals run a very wide range of styles. In addition to the aforementioned flamenco, Up The Khyber is more free jazz than anything else the band ever recorded, essentially a piano/drum duet, with Mason setting up a furious snare, tom and ride tumble that Wright lays down atonal piano hits colored by Farfisa runs. Party Sequence (which I can only imagine accompanies an actual party in the film) is just hand drums with a wonky descant recorder - at least that what it sounds like.

The band even stays in the experimental mode with the track Quicksilver, accompanying various drug scenes in the film - of course, acid being one of them. Scraped piano strings, gongs, vibraphone and Farfisa shift ominously around each other, floating in and out of the roomy mix, occasionally borne away by odd and unidentifiable sound effects (none of which are audible in this short excerpt from the film):


Five of the six vocal compositions are credited solely to Waters, and they're the first signs of the craft he would bring later on. One can't be sure if it's the abbreviated time frame of the writing and recording a project like this has, or just general design, but the songs all have a very simple verse/chorus/verse structure, often followed by a playout, and the chord structures are simple, rarely more than two or three chords to a song.

I genuinely love all the 'song' songs on More - again, the structures and melodies are simple but beautiful, and the band strokes them with such a gentle hand that a fragile, shimmering haze forms over the pieces - but my favorite is Green is the Colour, a lilting acoustic ballad that Gilmour sings in the most heartbreaking falsetto known to man. Three simple verses that lyrically seem to chronicle one man's fight to refrain from falling in love (well, lust) with a beautiful woman, even as he knows he's lost to her already. The whole feeling of joyful melancholy (or melancholy joy) is punched through even more poignantly by the return of the recorder (played by Nick Mason's wife Lindy) throughout. The track also builds in a soft fashion, never getting too intense, but starting from a dual-acoustic feel to a piano solo/recorder duet over the playout that's the closest that the band has ever come to some kind of country folk music, almost, in a very roundabout way.

The contrast between the open, airy happy/sad feel of this album and the airtight electronic doom of the later Floyd is nearly impossible to believe, but to the Floyd's credit, it is at least an organic change. Still - more of this kind of thing wouldn't have been such a bad thing, you know?

D.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Interim Pt. 2

I'm yet again a victim of lousy time management, so rather than a return to the Floyd grind, I thought I'd instead run an excerpt from a letter to ace pupil Kalliope on my development as an inker - written to help assuage her anxieties about inking her own work. I'd say, "Enjoy!," but it's probably not that enjoyable to read, really. I suspect this would be more interesting if I posted examples of my work as it progressed through my early teen years. Perhaps later - I am assembling a gallery of select embarrassments from the early 80's.

"Comic book inking is like anything else worth doing: it takes practice. And I don't consider myself particularly accomplished NOW, but I assure you that the purely physical act of learning how to control the tools went a long way in refining my sense of aesthetics - a feedback loop of the best kind.

Now, bear in mind that I hadn't inked with dip pens until I was 18, so you're about six years up on me. I first inked with Pigmas (which I didn't like because the line was soft and fuzzy and oddly brownish), and then moved on to Rapidographs when my primary interest was doing highly detailed architectural drawings (ala David Macauley). In my late teens, I really got addicted to those thin, unchanging lines. But when I was a freshman at RISD, Walt Simonson stopped by and gave a brief private lecture in the Illustration offices. And I can't tell you how valuable that day was, because I learned more about actual tools and technique in that half-hour with Simonson than I did for the rest of my four (well, five) years there. And it was he who told me about not only the Hunt 102, but also the Ames lettering guide.

BUT: I was already pretty far along in my feel for ink by that time, so starting with the dip pen I already knew how to cross-hatch, and etc. I worked with the dip pen for a few years, but I moved on to brush before I graduated from RISD (followed by a few years of indecision of which tool I preferred), and now really just like to use that. I suspect I'll just move on to smearing the ink on with my fingers next, and then the nice doctors will come and bring me back to my cushioned room.

Pigma, Rapidograph, 102, Brush. It was a natural progression, and one I'm going to encourage you to try. When I originally laid out the agenda for the class, I'd sort of assumed that I'd have people who already had worked out some of the technique I was teaching, and my job was to help them refine it. When I realized that most of the class was going to be a lot younger than what I envisioned, I still chose to keep the tools as is, with the idea that showing kids what the tools (and ideas) were, even if they first found them a little daunting, they'd at least know what to aim for in the years ahead.

You're too hard on yourself and can't see how advanced your work really is. In terms of content and storytelling - and visual panache, you're well ahead of the curve - and, again, far, far ahead of where I was when I was 12 (or are you 13 now?). But, still, you haven't yet quite got the romance of ink, the feel for it, and I think that the thing to do now is to move yourself through the progression of tools to build your confidence in working with it. Keep in mind that the 102 and the brush are only one option - there are plenty of professionals who use entirely different tools altogether (witness the chapter on inking in McCloud's "Making Comics"). So maybe your goal isn't even to master those two tools in particular, but to find tools that you feel an affinity for.

My early attempts at inking were just pitiful. Much, much, much worse than anything I've seen you do. I don't know if you were there for the classes when I brought in my early comics. I almost hesitate to show you because the stuff from when I was 12 and 13 really makes me look like I might have been - well, developmentally challenged. But it might be worth seeing a few samples from when I was 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, etc., so that you can see what incredible leaps are possible. Without, I assure you, much in the way of anything that could be considered 'work.' It's just the natural, freaky growth and expansion of the mind and talent at that age. I suspect what will happen is that you'll look at my work and say, "Jeez, I'm WAY better than he was!" Which means in a very short time, you'll be way better than I am now. At which point I'll have to disown you.

More on this later, no doubt. I think you can bypass the Pigmas, but let's break out the Rapidographs and see what happens with that. And with you and I working directly together, we can really focus on some specific ideas for inking that you can easily master. It's all tricks, you know. Just being smart is 99% of the battle."

Monday, December 17, 2007

Reprieve

I'll get to the next Floyd review tomorrow. Given the growing length of these things, and the way I'm darting back and forth chronologically through the catalog, I'm a little sluggish on the next entry, 1970's Atom Heart Mother. Can't quite find a point of entry for this one, today, despite two listens (once on CD, once on very scratchy vinyl). Besides, I suspect anyone who's actually been reading them will welcome the rest.

Aside from that, how did I spend my day? Mostly puttering. In the late afternoon, I got into bed and watched Vacancy on DVD, which was effective, if full of holes and largely implausible.

As for content, tonight? Hmmm.

Why not go and check out some snaps of the lovely time we had at Karl's apartment for the Kris Kringle Party this past Saturday? And I'll see you all tomorrow. For some of you out there, that's meant literally.

D.

Ice Castles



Pink Floyd • Animals
CBS Records/1978

Apologies for breaking this review into two parts - mostly, it's because the first part covering the lyrical content and general album flow was so lengthy that I knew the music part was going to end up getting short-shrifted.

But implied in that is also the other reason - the Pink Floyd that recorded Animals was already two separate and distinct bands living under one name. One band was the actual entity created by the pooled talents of David Gilmour, Nick Mason, Roger Waters and Rick Wright. The other Pink Floyd was simply a vehicle for Roger Waters songwriting. And the lyric review in the first half essentially covers the Roger Waters angle. This part - the music part - will redress that, becuase the Gilmour/Mason/Waters/Wright version of Pink Floyd was firing on all cylinders on this album, and in my reevaluation, I didn't want to make the same mistake that most other reviewers seem to, in treating Animals as the Roger Waters show, or even those who take note of Gilmour's writing and playing contributions.

For starters, that would be chronologically inaccurate: two of the three band songs on Animals pre-date the bulk of Wish You Were Here, having been performed on tour in 1974. Those two would be Dogs (then called "You Gotta Be Crazy") and Sheep (called either "Raving and Drooling" or "I Fell On His Neck With A Scream"). And even though Waters had taken over the lyric writing by '74, the band was still very much a fully-participating and function unit. The two songs were paired in the opening set with Shine On You Crazy Diamond in the middle, which is generally regarded as being the last hurrah for the four-man-band version of the Floyd.

So why do people generally regard Animals as the Waters show? Four reasons:

1) It's easier to plot a direct line for a band's evolution than to try to include the idea that they (in the eyes of a critic) 'regressed' in some fashion,
2) Animals, like Obscured By Clouds, has been eclipsed by the monstrous success of the two albums it's sandwiched between - the aforementioned Wish You Were Here and The Wall - respectively, tough acts to follow or precede,
3) Waters sings leads on every song, with GIlmour just taking the first few verses of Dogs, and
4) The mix.

Animals does occupy a strange place in the Floyd canon, being the only album in their post Dark SIde... string of multi-platinum megaliths that doesn't have a single FM-radio staple on it. It's sort of the last 'fans only' album, the one that delineates the casual fan from the hardcore one. And as far as rock critics were concerned, Floyd was passé by that point, so it's never mentioned in any kind of 'essentials' list.

The Waters vocal abundance is something I talked a little about in previous entries - at this point, I think it had gone too far. It's not to say that he doesn't give good vocal performances, but it was the balance of voices on the previous albums that made them work. Rick Wright is nowhere to be heard vocally, and while I wouldn't suggest that his voice would have been appropriate for any of the tracks on Animals, I could easily see Sheep (the weakest track, let's face it) getting cut (ha!) or shortened to fit a softer band song that Wright could have at least provided backing vocals on. A very strange thing, to completely cut one singer from an album.

But the vocals on the album are strange all around - take the dual lead vocals on Dogs, for example. Gilmour sings (roughly) the first half, and then Waters takes over for the second half. And that even applies to the harmony vocals - in the Gilmour sections, Gilmour doubles his own voice on the harmonies. Ditto Waters for his own section. I'd never noticed before this listening, but it is sort of an odd thing, and it adds greatly to the overall sense of shimmering remoteness that falls over the entire album.

The other thing that adds to the cold and isolated sound of the album - and the last main reason why the album is thought more of as the first Waters album - is the structure of the mix. The vocals and rhythm section approach is the star here, with the drums and bass clear and precise without. Gilmour's leads are brought pretty far forward, but the rhythm guitars have less prominence in both the arrangements and mix, and the keys are definitely given fourth billing.

That's only fractionally due to an evolution in Wright's keyboard arsenal - the addition of the polysynth on Wish You Were Here marked the last big change in his sound, but the Hammond & Wurlitzer are still here. There's even a little true piano on Pigs (Three Different Ones), but it's the definition of 'marginal,' and is so lacking in Wright's style that it could have been played by anyone.

Another small fraction is his streamlined playing - compare the funky midsection of Dogs to the nearly identical section in Echoes, from 1971's Meddle. Given the same backbeat to build on, Wright plays a very subdued rhythm comp on the Wurlitzer for Dogs, whereas on Echoes, he mixes his playing between sympathetic riff in answer to Gilmour's arching solo and a more varied comping, all on an overdriven Hammond B-3, making for a very dynamic section. Note I'm not claiming superiority for one approach over the other, of course.

But not content with having the playing be more subdued, they're pushed further back in the mix than on any other Floyd album. Far from the earlier records where Gilmour's lines and Wright's lines would intermingle to such an extent that you sometimes had to give a song repeated listenings just to figure out who played what, on Animals, the keys and guitar are kept well apart, and Wright mostly plays fill chords on the Hammond or PolyMoog (more likely the Oberheim 8). Even the only true solo he takes on the album (not counting the Wurlitzer intro on Sheep, which is more compositional than solo) - the synth in the long ambient break at the middle of Dogs - is turned way, way, waaaaaay down in the mix, so far that it just becomes one more texture, like the Vocoder dog howls and whistling in the background. Really, the whole section is all background - but if you listen closely, the synth solo is really nice, building on the harsh musical and lyrical themes of the song.

No wonder this album is Rick Wright's last hurrah with the band. And since he was fired during the recording of The Wall, and doesn't contribute anything to Momentary Lapse, that's it for Wright on Floyd for almost sixteen years, with his full return on The Division Bell.

All of this being said, it's an excellent sounding album, intensely well played and recorded (and mixed!). The band is tighter than on any other recording, with Mason in particular playing at peak level. The new drum sound - tight and snappy and dry without being at all small - also is just right, with the cymbals falling perfectly in the mix. The songs flow very well, each one being lengthy and sharing the same structure of building intro, band kick-in for the verses (with nothing like a chorus to speak of, save for Gilmour's beautiful 4/4 guitar break, repeated twice in Dogs) , a drum-less break down then build up for the solo section, followed by a final verse and a big finale - either a higher energy jam, or a big vocal climax.

This was the only album that the Floyd recorded in its entirety at their own Britannia Row studios, and I think this leaner and heavier sound is both a reflection of the music industry of the time (the album is something of a response to the punk explosion of '77) and of a very proprietary approach to the recording. Even the chord changes, with the exception of the acoustic opening section for Dogs, are stripped down and simplified.

Note that I've talked a lot about the music on this album and haven't even gotten into many of the famous bits - the bass lead on the Pigs (Three Different Ones) intro, the pig-like VoiceBox guitar on the same song, etc. Having written two lengthy dissertations on this record, I've realized that I could probably go on for several thousand more words on it. Really, it's a multi-faceted thing, a great band at their peak, also being eclipsed by the power and sound imbalance with the increasing assertion of Roger Waters. Brilliant lyrics and playing, coupled with the Floyd hallmarks of pristine engineering and studio sound effects - long, pulsing and meditative minor key instrumentals with dark undercurrents feeding into bleak observations on human nature.

And if that isn't "Pink Floyd®," I don't know what is.

D.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Joyous Beatdown

Got in from a fun but tiring holiday party, and too zoned to write the analysis of the musical aspects of Animals tonight. And, you know, you're probably too tired to read them.

In the meantime, read yesterday's entry on the lyrical content, and I'll bring the modalities in time for Monday morning. Enjoy your Sunday. And listen to the album in the order I suggested!

D.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Inversion



Pink Floyd • Animals
CBS Records/1978

Here's a neat trick you can try at home. all you need is:

a) A CD copy of Animals, or a version of it in your iTunes or similar digital music library, and
b) The ability to count to five
c) Then, you put the tracks on this album in my revised order:

1) Pigs on the Wing Pt. 1 (or 2, your choice)
2) Pigs (Three Different Ones)
3) Sheep
4) Dogs

(Take the leftover version of Pigs on the Wing and set it aside - for this experiment, you won't need it)

Then,
d) Listen.

--------

Go on. I'll be here when you get back.

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There. Wasn't that an amazing record? Sure, the ending is now a little bleak, but, wow, what a powerful, moving and building experience. Sure wish they'd done that the first time around.

What's at issue here is that the lyrics and music are in disagreement about what the actual climax of the album is. For Waters, it's obviously the lyrical theme of the underclass (sheep) finally rising up and offing the seemingly dominant class (dogs), but - oh, the irony! - the new revolutionaries set the same patterns of control-through-fear in play. Then he wraps it all up in a bow with a little acoustic number that says that it's all worthwhile because at lease we can love each other on a one-to-one basis.

I don't mean to snark, but by insisting on having the pat ending for this album (which is here recycled from Dark Side and will be reused on The Wall, The Final Cut and Radio K.A.O.S.) he doesn't make the stuff that comes before gel - he just diffuses it with a complete 372º turn into "What?" land.

And the thing is, the two acoustic numbers here are nice - although it's clear that he's trying his damndest to evoke Dylan - so I can see why they ended up on the record. But even given the insistence on opening and closing with thematically and musically paired numbers (ala Shine On You Crazy Diamond), it's really the order of the songs that come before that end up diluting the message of the album. Musically and lyrically.

Lyrically, it's a strange progression. Pigs on the Wing brings us in with some sincere, if guarded, tenderness. Actually, it's a damn love song - a ballad, even. Then it's right into a 17 minute evisceration of a particular type of middleman mover and shaker - a friendless, untrustworthy and without any ethical guidelines, who performs the most godawful deeds to the nicest people - for his own benefit, he believes, but really in order to maintain the status quo of his bosses. This, in Waters' lyrical tangle, is a dog. It's us, our darkest, most self-interested and individualistic selves. In the early part of the song - voiced beautifully and with malevolent polish by David Gilmour - we learn that not only is our narrator good at his job, but he takes pride in his work:

And after a while/you can work on points for style
Like the club tie/and the firm handshake/a certain look in the eye and an easy smile
You have to be trusted/by the people that you lie to
So that when they turn their backs one you/you'll get the chance to put the knife in


But at the end it emerges that this perverse pride is really the result of a terrible upbringing - presumably a some British public school - where his humanity has been systematically stripped away so that he can be an effective tool for his 'masters':

Who was born in a house full of pain
Who was trained not to spit in the fan
Who was told what to do by the man
Who was broken by trained personnel
Who was fitted with collar and chain
Who was given a pat on the back
Who was breaking away from the pack


sung now by Waters, with as much bite and anguish as is humanly possible. And the price that our 'hero' has paid for his years of loyalty and service? Driven by guilt perverted into raging paranoia, he dives into total isolation. Eventually, used up and past his prime, he ends up friendless, heartless and alone in some tropical retirement, finally dying of cancer in the middle of a phone call.

Who was only a stranger at home
Who was ground down in the end
Who was found dead on the phone
Who was dragged down by the stone.


It's interesting to note that even though this closing litany is phrased as a series of questions, on the lyric sheet, they're pointedly treated as statements - each one ending with a simple, unalterable period. It's unclear whether the real tragedy of this character is that he's really unaware that he's been controlled all along - but in the end, he has his suspicions.

Too late to change, however.

In case you can't tell, I think this is an excellent lyric. It pulls off that Waters trick of working at a topic through carefully chosen visual imagery that reflects a secondary, parallel narrative that you have to dig for (appropriate, in a song called "Dogs," no?). I can't remember the exact quote or who said it - Karl Dallas, perhaps? - but Waters had a way of shining a spotlight on clearly-seen moments that still left a lot of ambiguity, largely (and this is my own observation) because he uses a 2nd person narrator often, letting the listener simultaneously identify with but be locked out of the character. Brilliant, really.

And the last lines (quoted above), coming as they do at the very end of a lengthy suite of a song, crash in with real force and sadness. And and overwhelming sense of finality. And then, they follow it with three more songs. And the three songs totally lose the thread of the lyrical theme established in Dogs, which takes up most of Side A of the original LP. Pigs (Three Different Ones) immediately goes in for very specific cultural satire, selecting as one target Mary Whitehouse, a self-appointed British crusader for Christian morals in the media, who wanted everything censored that offended her. Well, fine and good for Roger - public moralists are easy targets - but entirely lost on the Floyd fans of every other nation in their audience. Lord knows, for years, I thought it was a reference to the President (who would have been Carter at the time), despite the fact that the printed lyric made "Whitehouse" one word.

Hey you Whitehouse/ha ha, charade you are

You house proud town mouse/ha ha, charade you are

You're trying to keep our feelings off the street

You're nearly a real treat
/All tight lips and cold feet

And do you feel abused?

You gotta stem the evil tide
/And keep it all on the inside

Mary you're nearly a treat
/But you're really a cry.


So, we've gone from a devastating portrait of a completely destroyed human soul to - name calling? Again, the lyric is well written - and the song itself is really strong - but it's not only anticlimactic, but a bit odd after the dark humanism of Dogs to find yourself listening to... I dunno, the Rachel Maddow show set to music? And we've gone from the participatory second person voice to the first person. Despite the fact that the primary pronoun in both songs is 'you,' in Dogs it's clear that the 'you' is an internal voice, whereas in Pigs (Three Different Ones), the song is clearly a personal message from Roger Waters to his intended targets.

And then, with the specific cultural satire done with, we're on to Sheep, which is far and away the most savage satire Waters has ever written, which casts the remaining lot of humanity - us, really - as sheep. Not just metaphorically, mind you. As real fucking sheep. Unlike Dogs and Pigs (Three Different Ones), which really only glancingly assign animal traits to their 'protagonists,' the lyric of Sheep follows through with its conceit, and we see sheep in a meadow cringing in terror of sheepdogs (or perhaps wild dogs), led through a slaughterhouse and then being led by the Christ-like singer into a violent overthrow of the dogs. And the religious satire is strong here, with the bridge being a reworking of the 23rd Psalm:

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want
He makes me down to lie
Through pastures green He leadeth me the silent waters by.
With bright knives He releaseth my soul.
He maketh me to hang on hooks in high places.
He converteth me to lamb cutlets,
For lo, He hath great power, and great hunger.
When cometh the day we lowly ones,
Through quiet reflection, and great dedication
Master the art of karate,
Lo, we shall rise up,
And then we'll make the bugger's eyes water.


Again, a really great lyric, and the song is strong - but how does that serve as a climax for what's come before? And beyond that, the closing track - the second part of Pigs on the Wing - completely confuses the metaphors that have been set up over the course of the album:

You know that I care what happens to you
And I know that you care for me too
So I don't feel alone
Of the weight of the stone
Now that I've found somewhere safe
To bury my bone
And any fool knows a dog needs a home
A shelter from pigs on the wing


So... blueblood con-men live in fear of crusading moralists? What?

Anyway, the whole album would have been much, much stronger had Waters followed the thrust of the music - which (in order of intensity) starts with a light ballad, then moves through the dark funk of Pigs (Three Different Ones), then the arena rock of Sheep, then climaxes with the building, orchestral drama and simultaneously descending and gathering coda of Dogs. Because the lyrics also build in that order - first, a self-aware declaration of the fear and dangers of loneliness and isolation:

If you didn't care what happened to me,
And I didn't care for you
We would zig zag our way through the boredom and pain
Occasionally glancing up through the rain
Wondering which of the buggers to blame
And watching for pigs on the wing.


Then an externalized shout at the easiest targets - the self-proclaimed moralists and policemen of society. Then, a hazy dream of all of those with who we share our daily grind rising up and creating a new utopia... which of course, turns out not to be a utopia at all, because of human nature being what it is. Then, in the end, we're left with a stark reality of the scared and empty lives we've built around ourselves - and a warning to be aware most of all of how you comport yourself. Because, even given the external oppressions we face, our most subtle and dangerous adversaries are ourselves.

D.

P.S.: And what about the music? Tune in tomorrow! (This is plenty long for one entry, don't you think?)

Thursday, December 13, 2007

No Floyd, Radio.

Actually, substitute 'snow' for 'radio' and you've pretty much got it. But now's your chance to suggest what album goes next in line- or, next in the queue.

D.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Mass Without Substance



Pink Floyd • A Momentary Lapse of Reason
CBS Records/1987

A record like A Momentary Lapse of Reason is essentially review-proof, on several levels. Sure, it's review proof in the traditional sense, that anyone hungry for a fix of Pink Floyd after a five year absence (the last album had come out in 1982) would buy it without having heard a note - and these people have no interest in reading reviews. I should know; I was one of them, a geeky and socially awkward high school junior traveling deep into the mystery of Pink Floyd and hearing rumors that Dark Side of the Moon was not, in fact, their first album.

In my defense, I did read some reviews at the time, and they were mostly positive - although the caveat in all reviews was that they thought hearing it would cause brain death, and so just surviving a listening to the first album done without Roger Waters was a mark in the 'pro' column. All reviews mentioned this absence. Waters, the chief songwriter and increasingly lead vocalist, was not only vocal in his criticism of the idea that there could be a Pink Floyd without him, but also highly litigious. Eventually, all lawsuits were settled and guitarist David Gilmour and drummer Nick Mason gained the rights to the name. But the idea stuck - could there be such a thing as Pink Floyd without the man who had created the bulk of their catalog over the last ten years?

Well, sure. The band did it once before, with the participation of Waters himself, after the first chief singer and songwriter went into the cornfield. Syd Barrett had not only defined the band's sound, he'd also named it. But the Floyd that came to mega-ultra-worldwide success a few years after his departure bore little resemblance to the band that Syd had led, musically or lyrically.

Let’s compare Dark Side of the Moon to The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, Barrett’s sole full-length outing with the band. Saxophone solos? Gospel choirs? Tight, bluesy guitar solos? Where were Barrett’s laughing gnomes? The trippy LSD guitar? The I Ching lyrics? The thematic concerns of the band had moved so far from Barrett’s original design by 1973 that despite the continued presence of the other three founding members, there was nothing connecting the two bands save them being filed in the same bin at the local Strawberries.

And yet, no-one looks at Dark Side as if it were some kind of artistic sell-out. Certainly, the band was looking for commercial success, but the form it finally took was the result of six years of sincere experimentation and hard, hard work. In other words, the success of Dark Side was earned, and the annexing of the meaning of the name Pink Floyd by the Barrett-less line-up was condoned by all but a handful of old-line underground aficionados.

And that’s where the problem lies in the matter of the departure of Waters and the band trying to continue once again. Because where the Waters Floyd left off in 1982 with The Final Cut was as far from Dark Side of the Moon as Dark Side of the Moon was from The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Waters had sought out and achieved his own personal sound that became the modern Floyd sound – even if he had to sacrifice the band to do so.

Still, while Waters’ methods were fairly Teutonic, no-one can deny that the nine year journey from Dark Side to The Final Cut was also an artistic one. Even if you like the Floyd of The Wall far less than the one that had made Dark Side, you can’t argue that it was a complete sell-out.

A Momentary Lapse of Reason, on the other hand, is a totally calculated piece of product from start to finish. And that’s the other way in which it’s review proof. How can you seriously review an album that’s precision crafted to within an inch of its life to move units? It’s as though Gilmour and Mason took the satirical record company executive lyric from Have A Cigar at face value.

So both parties are right and wrong on this one. Waters was being nothing if not totally self-deluded (and not a little hypocritical) in his claim that Pink Floyd didn’t exist without him. For their part Gilmour and Mason – note how they sound more like law partners than bandmates – take the name Pink Floyd to be that of a corporate entity like McDonald’s; the end result is familiar, filling and wholly empty of lasting value.

Over half the lyrics are written by hired hands. The list of guest players is absurd, with close to twenty keyboard players, and bass players and drummers filling the studio. It’s one thing to replace the bass player, who’s now gone solo. But if the drummer is right there, is there really any need to bring on Jim Keltner and Carmine Appice? Never mind the fact that if you were going to select a drummer for Pink Floyd, these two names would be at the bottom of the list – if Nick Mason is in the band, what’s the point of having two other drummers? And Rick Wright, who had been fired during the recording of The Wall, is back and credited as a player, but it’s pretty clear that there isn’t a note of his on the final album.

None of which is to say that it’s a bad album – it’s just not a Pink Floyd album. Gilmour, Mason – and let’s not overlook producer Bob Ezrin - took the name Floyd and used it as camouflage to sell a Dave Gilmour solo album. It actually would have been a pretty decent Gilmour solo album, too. Much in the same way that The Final Cut is a Waters solo album under the Floyd banner.

But the problem with calling something “Pink Floyd” is that it raises certain expectations, and definitely calls to mind the idea that this is the work of a band, not and individual. Instead of every member contributing to group improvised arrangements, we’re given an overly thought out and controlled work of studio polish. It’s like someone programmed the parameters of Pink Floyd into a MIDI machine with limited A.I., and this was the final computation.

Really, it boils down to Gilmour and Ezrin thinking that Pink Floyd = Slow Tempos + Mopey Lyrics x David Gilmour Guitar Blows®, so strap yourself in for way too much guitar soloing over some really soulless rhythm playing and endless synth washes. And a final word on the drums: the Hugh Padgham sound of tightly gated drums with cavernous reverb does not fit this band at all. It sounds more like The Machine than Pink Floyd, if you know what I mean.

And lyrically? Think Floyd is all about introspective moping? Well, great! How about some lines like, “A man in balck on a snow white horse/a pointless life has run its course/the red rimmed eyes/the tears still run/as he fades into the setting sun?” How’s that grab you? Or maybe “Do you ever get tired of the waiting?/Do you ever get tired of being in there?/Don’t worry/Nobody lives forever/Nobody lives forever.”

Those are from the B-side (I did listen to this on vinyl, since I had that option). While the A-side is given over to relatively uptempo songs with more measured lyrical tones and varied keys and melodies, the B-side is a real slog through 4/4 minor key power ballads of a tempo so slow – well, I remember a comedian saying that you could keep to the 55 MPH speed limit by playing Duke of Earl on the car stereo - tapping your foot in time would synch up with the divider lines flashing by your window and keep you legal. With that equation, you can only picture the tempos on the B-side as being timed to a funeral procession. And the melodies go nowhere, varying maybe one or two notes but otherwise droning on like a suicidal didgeridoo. And the B-Side is where Gilmour has mostly chosen to write the lyrics himself, so it seems as though he wants to prove that he’s even more fucked up than Waters. As if to underline this thesis, the closing track is called Sorrow, and it’s such an extreme downer that it deserves to be quoted in its entirety:

“The sweet smell of a great sorrow lies over the land
Plumes of smoke rise and merge into the leaden sky:
A man lies and dreams of green fields and rivers,
But awakes to a morning with no reason for waking

He's haunted by the memory of a lost paradise
In his youth or a dream, he can't be precise
He's chained forever to a world that's departed
It's not enough, it's not enough

His blood has frozen & curdled with fright
His knees have trembled & given way in the night
His hand has weakened at the moment of truth
His step has faltered

One world, one soul
Time pass, the river rolls

And he talks to the river of lost love and dedication
And silent replies that swirl invitation
Flow dark and troubled to an oily sea
A grim intimation of what is to be

There's an unceasing wind that blows through this night
And there's dust in my eyes, that blinds my sight
And silence that speaks so much louder that words,
Of promises broken.”


Holy crap. Someone pass me the Smirnoff and a pack of Ace Razor Blades, please.

But note that it isn’t really a bad lyric. Sure, it’s bleaker than bleak, but it’s fairly well written. What really kills it – surprisingly – is that lack of variance in tempo, key or melody that swamps the entire B-Side in a pall.

But at least you can say that the B-side is sincere. Because while the the B-side basically tries to one-up Ozzy Osbourne’s Suicide Solution, the A-side is given over to mildly entertaining mid-80’s pop/rock, in that Mister Mister vein – all the singles, in other words. And I’ll be lying if I said I wasn’t at least a little entertained by some of it, most particularly The Dogs of War, but it’s also not an album I would own if it weren’t credited to Pink Floyd.

There. My review of a review-proof album. For my next trick….

D.

Obscured by Proximity

A note of explanation: Karl linked me to a Pitchfork review of the new Pink Floyd complete studio box set, Oh, By the Way. In typical Pitchfork fashion, they snarked on it. Having it both ways in this case - by trying to seem as though they like the music, but despairing of what they see as the set's failure to reevaluate the catalog. Well, allow me to fill that gap: over the next two weeks, this Rambler will be given over to my own album-by-album review of the Pink Floyd oeuvre.

My credentials? I have a website and some free time. That, and a lifelong obsession with the band's music and story. My Pink Floyd CD collection is the foundation stone of my entire CD collection, with (I think)
Sgt. Pepper's & Dark Side of the Moon being the first two CD's I bought. And while I still don't have every Beatles album on CD (I'm partial to the post Rubber Soul era), I completed my run of Floyd over two decades ago (minus The Division Bell, which came out in 1994). Which means that at this point, I've been listening to the complete output of this band for twenty years. I also have a sizable reference library for Floyd, and while I'm no journalist, I think I can put these albums in their historical context, both within and without the band - along the way, I'm sure I'll drop into some reveries about my personal history with the music.

Rather than do these reviews chronological by album, I'm just going to do them in the order I feel like listening. Which probably means I'll get around to reviewing
The Wall last. Although, really, this arbitrary system doesn't in any way denote preference on my part - Lord knows, today's entry is not my favorite album by the group. But it is interesting, and in many ways, is almost an ideal place to begin, since it's the prelude to Dark Side of the Moon, which was the album that simultaneously cemented their commercial success and finished them off as a working band.

I'm also going to avoid the common theme of the development of Roger Waters as a lyricist, and focus more on the band and the music.


-----------------------


Pink Floyd • Obscured By Clouds
EMI/1972
(Soundtrack to "The Valley")

For a band that (at that time) was best known for long experimental pieces often created in the studio with multiple tape loops and other cutting-edge techniques, Obscured By Clouds is a distinct oddity in their catalog. Not only because it's an album that's focused more on songs than aural experiments.

Obscured By Clouds was conceived beginning to end as a soundtrack to a film - which makes it the fifth time to date that they deliberately composed music for film - sixth, if you count Roger's solo soundtrack for The Body. This is even the second* soundtrack done for a single director, being Barbet Schroder (who later on went to direct big Hollywood fare like Single White Female, but at the time time was more of a French New Wave type).

The period between the two soundtracks, while only four years in real time, covers quite a broad period of change for the band. Bands simply don't do this much exploring for their sound, anymore. Could you imagine Nickelback's next album suddenly taking a turn towards acoustic folk? In Floyd's case, it was a necessity, since their initial fame rested entirely on the songs and voice of Syd Barrett, and with his departure in the middle of their second album, the band found itself without a singer and without a songwriter. Of course, bands now take four years between albums, whereas the Floyd put out something like six albums in that space of four years, and toured incessantly and did multiple side projects.

It's a little hard to reduce the Floyd's path over those six albums into a clear and exact line, but on a purely sonic level, you can easily trace the evolution in the players and their interaction. For starters, Gilmour went from doing a creditable acid/Syd impression on guitar to his own blues-based highly-compressed and double-tracked sound. Even more specifically, Gilmour took what was Syd's signature effect - the Binson EchoRec - and repurposed it from Syd's use as a soupy atmospheric to his own use as a rhythmic device. In response, Rick Wright's keys went from speedy Farfisa jazz arabesques to open chordal atmospherics on piano and Hammond, and from building up walls of freak-out sounds simultaneously with Syd to trading spare and introspective melody lines with Gilmour. The rhythm section also evolved from a busy and rumbling tribal sound - with Waters working the high end of the bass guitar independently of Mason setting up swirling patterns on the toms and big cymbal washes - to a far more 2/4 oriented feel, locking in with each other and leaving more room on top for the guitar and keyboard interplay.

The whole shift in sonic structure also helped to bring the songs into greater focus as songs. In the transitional period (minus the singles era, which I'll discuss later), the vocals and melodies were often an afterthought, place-holders in between instrumental freak-outs. On Obscured By Clouds, this has been turned around, with the newly focused arrangements supporting the melody and lyrics - which definitely became the hallmark of the mature Floyd sound. More on this when I come around to review Wish You Were Here and Animals.

But Floyd was still very much of a jam band at this point - four of the album's ten songs are straight-up instrumentals, and two others are very much built around the band sound, and not the vocals. Admittedly, you'd expect instrumentals for a film score, but this is a case of the band getting the job because of what they were known for, so even if this album were free of any film connection, I tend to think it would take on the same balance.

The four instrumentals are interesting, showing the first extended use of synthesizers in their music, being used either to set up rhythmic pulses (ala On the Run, from Dark Side...) on the VCS3, or to lay down a drone for the guitar to play off of. It's notable that their different use is dependent on who's behind the knobs - Wright favoring the open chord (Mudmen), and Waters liking the rhythmic feel (on the title track).

The lead vocals trade off between Gilmour (on The Gold It's In The..., Wots... Uh The Deal and Childhood's End), Wright (on Burning Bridges and Stay) and Waters (on Free Four), and it's pleasing to hear such a variety of voices, particularly when compared against later albums. Wright's voice disappears altogether from leads after a couple of measly choruses on Dark Side, and it's a sad loss, because his voice - while certainly nowhere near as polished as Gimour's or as distinctive as Waters' - has a human, weathered quality that the others lack, which suits Waters' lyrics very, very well.

The lead vocals on Obscured By Clouds are mostly unbacked by harmonies. And though I'm unsure if this was because of an aesthetic choice or the very short time-frame for writing and recording (something like two weeks), it does serve to denote the distinctions between the three singers more, and it becomes one of the prime pleasures of the album.

The abbreviated studio time also leaves its mark on the overall sound. While all the band does very good instrumental work, here, but Mason in particular seems a little under-rehearsed. And while Wright and Waters both perform very well, Gilmour, uncharacteristically, doesn't quite carry his end on guitar. Fret-outs abound (which I kind of like), and his leads for the most part seem just a hair flat, which gives all the solos a sense of anxiety that I doubt was intended. His rhythm guitar is also weaker than usual, but mostly on the vocal numbers, where it's marred mostly by overplaying. One other negative aspect to the guitar sound I'm not sure can be attributed to GIlmour, however: his sound, while always EQ'd very high and tightly compressed, here sounds too loud, thin and isolated in the mix. But since I can't be sure if that's because of a) a lousy CD transfer, or b) just rushed mixes, or c) a combination of both, I'll have to give him a pass. I do note that his guitar is dryer than usual, so that may be having some effect on the way it's perceived in the mix.

All that having been said about Gilmour's flaws on this record, The ideas behind his solos are all very good. If these are all improvs - and I suspect that many of them are - then they're really impressive. Although I have to single out Rick Wright for overall performance quality, his solos here are mostly unformed and noodling (an eternal issue for him), whereas Gilmour seems to be an unlimited fount of crisp and confident soloing.

Overall, Obscured By Clouds is a very interesting album. All the instrumentals are strong - and, in fact, there isn't really a bad song on the album. The weakest track is Burning Bridges, which suffers from a chord change that's too convoluted to support the melody. But even that track, if the band tightened up their playing on it, would be very good. As far as a standout, while most people favor the jaunty Free Four (which was an early FM hit for Floyd), I'm partial to the slow and stately piano ballad Stay, which sits perfectly as the penultimate track on the album, and the only track where all players - Gilmour and Mason included - rally to give strong and sensitive performances. It's a wistful song, and makes me wish that Wright and Waters had written more together. They only have two other shared credits in the entire catalog - the aforementioned Burning Bridges on this album, and Us and Them from Dark Side. And since Gilmour sings lead on that one, Stay becomes exhibit 'a' in list of possible futures presented by this unique album that Floyd ended up not following, because it was immediately buried under the success of Dark Side of the Moon, which set the band on a different - and vastly more streamlined and commercial - course. And that's a shame.

D.

*The first Floyd/Schroder collaboration was the soundtrack to More, in 1968 - the first album fully post-Syd.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Signal to Noise

Sorry - been having network problems. Will have nice, long post for tonight. This is just a place filler for last night's absence.

D.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Beowulf



Yesenia & I saw this today, in IMAX 3-D. Specifically went out of our way to see it thus, because of our experience with Robert Zemeckis' last motion-capture extravaganza, The Polar Express. We'd seen that one in IMAX 3-D as well, and throughly enjoyed it. We only realized just how lame it was as a film when we watched it on DV a couple of times - the huge frame and the seamless 3-D effects had successfully glossed over the empty product within. But I still wanted to see Beowulf, and I knew that even if the film itself were bad, at least the ride of viewing it at the IMAX would be a thrill in itself.

And the review?

I think I liked it a lot. I mean, I did like it a lot, but as noted with the anecdote above, I can't be sure how much of that good feeling is simply because of the overwhelming IMAX experience. Sure, the script was better than The Polar Express, but...

...anyhow, on a purely visual level, in 3-D, it's an achievement. Sure, there's a lot of uncanny valley stuff going on here - you're totally aware that these aren't real people you're watching, despite the incredible texture mapping going on here. But that may be how they get away with having Angelina Jolie walking around in the buff for minutes on end. But the rest of the environment and the non-human characters escape that and are pretty stunning as a result.

Grendel is deeply, deeply fucked-up on every possible level: crazy design work that's truly monstrous (a twenty foot tall living corpse with many, many - er- extra openings in his body), punishingly well-animated (hyper-fast movements and lingering takes) and matched with genuinely creepy voicing from Crispin Glover, squealing and bellowing in Old English, in marked contrast to the straight-up english everyone else is speaking. An amazing creation.

Many people would say the film is long enough, but I found I could have used a few extra minutes between the second act and the third, which is a thirty-year flash-forward to the end of Beowulf's reign. But the story is good, and the dialogue is particularly strong, and the film is so over the top that, as Ebert says, "You can't even see the top from here." A visceral entertainment with surprising brains and heart, all the more surprising because of how precision-tooled a technological wonder it really is.

So, go... but don't take any young kids. Grendel is pure nightmare fuel.

D.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Equipment Fatigue

Crisis #1: Earlier in the week, Jim's niece Paris - a studious college freshman - had lost a paper she'd written on her new Mac, and Karl and I were called in to see if it could be restored. Sadly, no, and it really fell to me to let Paris know that there was nothing to do except start over.

Crisis #2: Spent a few hours this week scanning in and masking images for Marina's portfolio for application to F.I.T. Time was of the essence, since she'd had her first portfolio eaten by wolves and only had six weeks or so to create a new one from scratch. Her interview is tomorrow - today, as you're reading this, so today was crunch day. So I was bound and determined that I would get my part finished on Marina's portfolio in time for her to at least be able to be relaxed about it. And I did make good time, getting everything set to go, when: printer shock.

See, I don't much like printers. Oh, I like it when they work, but I'm generally opposed to a having a lot of paper around, and the extreme cost of maintaining them and their unreliability and etc. In fact, if I can't have access to a really good $50,000 postscript color laser printer that can do double-sided tabloid, I'm perfectly happy to do without color and just have an unassuming black and white that I can stick in the closet and forget about until I need it. So my printers generally go unmaintained, save for the one color one I have for office work (a Canon i960), but which can really only print well on premium glossy photo stock. We also have a color printer that came free with the Femputer, and the sheer amount of neglect I've shown this printer is scandalous. If it were any kind of living thing, even a parakeet, it would have died from emotional trauma by now.

But Yesenia needed a printer for her class, and the two other printers we have - brought here from the office - were going dim. The black & white HP 5000 that I went to all the trouble of networking in is really on its very last leg - constantly drawing too many sheets through the drum and choking on them and needing to be operated on any time you need to print. And the really nice (frankly) HP Color Laser Jet 2500L, whose only flaw is that it can't print on anything larger than 8 1/2" x 14", never took to being networked very well, and the drum gave out six months back and I couldn't be bothered to deal with it. So I brought the Femputer freebie back to life, and it turns out to be a pretty reliable printer for all of Yesenia's printing needs. And it is decent, albeit slower than the 2500L and not as sharp as the 1960. But I thought it would be fine, fine, fine for Marina's portfolio.

Of course, a printer needs ink, and two pages into the portfolio print job, the printer sighed and informed me that if I wanted to keep printing, I had to insert $60 for new ink. This despite the fact that I'd replaced all the cartridges not three weeks ago and not done any major color printing in that time. I think it was fucking with me, but there you are.

Anyway, mercifully, the bulk of the work had been done in the scanning and assembling phases, and other printing options were easy to come by, so the story still has a happy ending: I burned the files to disc and Marina took them home to print (after a brief detour to get their own printer more ink). But still - talk about lack of closure. This has been my week for letting down teenage girls. And as I remarked the other day to Karl, you never feel quite as bad about letting anyone down as a young girl. Particularly for Marina, who's stress point regarding this portfolio must have been sky high, but who still managed to stay focused and not blow a fuse, which I'm not sure I could have done in her situation.

D.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Beware of the Leopard

So: tried to record a few keyboard overdubs for the album tonight. But Logic started acting real strange, like. Guitar parts moving from the verse to the chorus. Overdubs disappearing altogether. Finally, Karl & I (the only PCMA officials present) just gave up, and left it for Karl to bring an earlier version of the song back from last Thursday, via Time Machine. Time Machine is Leopard's sexy new automated backup system.

Sexy? It looks like this:



...and I can only imagine it functions as well. I did do quick scratch vocals on all of the recent songs just this past Tuesday, but I'm more than willing to sacrifice them to retain the guitar that we got down on Thursday. But it does mean we also didn't get anything salvageable out of tonight's keyboard session, which is mildly irksome, especially when you consider that our ambitions were fairly low.

Anyway, Mac reamed us, but it also saved the day, so I guess all is forgiven, if not forgotten. Because the day it saved was last Thursday, not this one.

D.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

That's Entertainment-y

Putnam played a solo show in Manhattan tonight - I was originally going to catch the bus down to see it, but I ended up really mishandling my schedule today and instead drove, walking in the door about two minutes before he started playing.

Anyway, it was a good show, with Putt trading back and forth between banjo, guitar and mandolin. He got a singalong going with his banjo arrangement of the Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want." I tried to take a few pictures, but my crappy camera really couldn't handle the (rather nice) lighting situation in the club. I ended up taking shots only between songs, because I had to use flash, and I didn't want to mess up his performance.

Here's one crappy shot that's not quite as crappy. You can tell from the angle that I was right at the foot of the stage. Considering the club is about the size of my living room, that's not saying much; everyone was right at the foot of the stage. I think the club is called Stagefoot, or something.



Afterwards, a few of us went out for beer and fish & chips, and then Putnam and Sarah came up here to spend the night - they're leaving for Portland this morning, where Putnam has yet another show in the evening. Crazy, man.

Take note: I've added a new blog to the links list. That's Sarah's.

D.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Tuesday Night Lights

ברוך אתה ה' א‑לוהינו מלך העולם, אשר קדשנו במצותיו וצונו להדליק נר (של) חנוכה.‏

D.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Doddlebug

A little over a week ago, my ace student Kalliope mailed me a hardcopy of a short story she'd written - a piece set firmly in the Lovecraft world. Then, a couple of days ago, another envelope came from her - with the exact same story in it. Well, I thought it was the same. Since she didn't include a note in either envelope, I had to dig, and upon closer reading, I found that there were some changes to the conclusion.

Anyway, I figured her sendng it to me twice meant it was time for me to respond. So while Yesenia completed her homework this morning, I sat me down and wrote a letter. I'd put it off for as long as I'd had because I wanted to include a thumbnail version of the entire story (it's only three pages, but) in comic form, since I'm trying to encourage Kalliope to continue with that. Fame and fortune and the calling of a true art form, that type of thing. But as I wrote this morning, that fell by the wayside, and I just talked about the wiritng and encouraged her to create a comic version herself. I did, at least, include a quick sketch for her, so I felt less guilty when I sealed up the envelope.

And here's the sketch:



The story details a late-night encounter between a literature professor and an otherworldly visitor at the Miskatonic University library. After Kalliope gets the letter back, I'll ask her if it's okay to post the story here in one entry. It's darn good, I should say - better than my sketch would indicate.

D.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

The Scrolling Killer

ActionScript!

Not nearly as thrilling as it sounds. In fact, if there could be a greater disconnect between name and content for something as unthrilling as the reality of ActionScript, I have yet to find it. Perhaps the closest analogue is calling New Jersey "The Garden State," or maybe it's someone who advertises as "The Painless Dentist" who actually turns out to work with large construction implements powered by an hydraulic engine.

And what is ActionScript? It's the proprietary language for Flash. Think of HTML crossed with Quantum Theory, in that writing in it is supposed to make things happen in your average web browser, but predictions are chaotic and observing your work often changes the final result.

Well, no, but there are many, many times that you do something exactly right, and when you switch to preview mode, an entirely different outcome displays.

I have promised myself that I will learn how to make my own text scrollbars in Flash. The problem is, this is hard. The reference guide that I have has this to say on the topic: "This is the most complex script in this book." Fine, except that the book is dedicated entirely to ActionScript, and consists of 350 pages of wall-to-wall ActionScripting, with minimal illustrations, a truly joyless slog for a truly soul-crushing activity. Reading this book makes me think that maybe magic was real once, only the tomes that held its secrets were written as densely and charmlessly as this one, and in as convoluted a style, so that nobody could ever get through a chapter to finish a fucking spell and the knowledge was lost to history.

Bear in mind, I can (kind of/sort of) see the point to ActionScripting. Flash is a complex and powerful application, with a lot of functionality, and things of that nature usually have some bits that you have to type, rather than click and drag. Even after 20 years or so, the best HTML authoring engines still require you to go in and futz around with the actual scripting to get things right, and HTML is less complicated than ActionScript by several factors. That's because it has a lot less to do.

But still: the fact that you have to script your own scrollbars is needlessly perverse. We're talking the most fundamental aspect of the computer interface, about the only thing that came over from the DOS environment into PARC graphic interfaces like Windows and Mac. Simple fucking concept: more text? Just scroll down. It's such a fundamental navigation concept that there are always several options of how you want to achieve it. Arrows on the keyboard. Click the mouse on the arrow on the side of the open window. Grab the slider and move it up or down. Click in the empty part of the slider bar and the page flips. Use the little scroll-wheel on the mouse, of you've got. Page up, page down keys.

Etc. My point is that this should be the easiest thing to do in any web-construction tool, the thing that you just click and go, with no thought except what color you want it to be. For Macromedia (now Adobe) to expect you to write your own scrollbar is like Apple selling you a computer with the expectation that you'll be building the mouse yourself. Ludicrous.

I don't know for certain why this is still as difficult as it is to do after nearly a decade of Flash's existence, though I suspect it's the sheer size and power of Flash that leads us to this sad outcome. Flash tries to combine a very sophisticated animation program with full interactive web-functionality, and ends up letting both sides down. Seriously, you don't expect to be able to write JavaScript in Photoshop, so why should your animation program be able to make input fields?

I'm sure Dilbert's pointy-haired boss is behind this one somehow. You can feel the trumping of the engineer's judgement by a dim manager somewhere in the development. When functionality starts to overwhelm the interface, the time has come to make two programs and just make sure there's portability between them. I'm not sure why Macromedia didn't work this out when they designed Flash. They clearly understood the theory, breaking their HTML machine (Dreamweaver) and their web graphics tool (FIreworks) into two separate but closely entwined programs, they made both easier to use. But a thoroughly non-intuitive interface was always Macromedia's downfall.

I haven't seen Flash since Adobe acquired it, but I'm willing to be there's been some movement towards trying to make Flash a more seamless application. Making a Flash Suite instead of the two! two! two! programs in one would be a good start, and trying to do away with some of the more asinine functions that ActionScript is expected to handle should be job one in the new FlashSite, or whatever they call the web building part.

In the meantime, I have to make my arrows in some graphic program, import them into Flash, convert them to buttons, create rollovers, export each one as a move clip, open the movie clip, type in several dozen lines of ActionScript, bring the movie clip into the page I want to have the scrolling text in, make a text field, toggle the text to 'dynamic' mode with a multiline layout,' name the text field, direct the scrollbar to the text field, embed all the fonts, and then preview the thing and watch it completely fail to work at all... and dig back through my work step-by-step to see where I exchanged a plus sign for a minus sign.

All this, just so that people who visit the site I'm building (for a client, not for fun) can do the one thing that they absolutely should be able to do. But it'll all be worth it - becuause those embedded fonts let you control the graphic identity completely. Damn it.

So wake me when the revolution comes. I'll still be down in the FlashDungeon, ActionScripting away.

D.

Quick! Look over there!

www.telepathicunicycle.com

My original draft of tonight's Rambler contained information that gave away the person behind this new blog (the above link), but then I read the 'about me' section on their site and saw that the intent is for the author to remain anonymous. So I've removed all identifying characteristic from my earlier introduction. Including vocation, location, gender, etc. And species.

Anyway, an interesting person with interesting stories.

Stop on by and I'll sure they'll tell you some of them.

D.