Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Lost Art of the Protest Song

There is nothing quite like a good protest song. Something that says, "I'm taking a stand," without having to actually force anything down your throat. You never actually had to say, "I think war is terrible," but it was there for someone to interpret through lyrics. Bob Dylan was the master at this. Songs like "Subterranean Homesick Blues" or "Blowin' in the Wind" are perfect examples of this. He had something to say, and he said it...but he said it with a sense of poetry.
It seems as though that art has been lost somewhere along the way. Artists still feel the need to voice their opinions on war and government (now more than ever, it seems like), but they're not quite sure how to do it.
So, instead of getting beautifully written songs, we get garbage like Bright Eyes' "When the President Talks to God", Over the Rhine's "If A Song Could Be President", or Neil Young's entire Living With War album. They know that they have something to say - namely, that they think the President is doing a terrible job - but there's nothing beautiful or poetic about it. They have basically written a "song", but have given no thought whatsoever to the accompaning music, or even the way the words flow together. Songs like these seem to be written more to get a reaction out of the crowd...not so much to actually write a good song.
You can stand on stage these days and say something like, "Yeah, the President is really stupid/I don't like the way he runs this country/I don't even like his hair/And he talks like a moron", and, as long as you're holding a guitar, people will clap and scream their approval from all corners of the room. There doesn't have to be any poetry in the lyrics, there doesn't have to be any cohesiveness in the music...just say exactly how much you hate the government and you have fans. I chalk this up to everyone at the moment feeling like they have strong political views. I also chalk it up to lazy songwriting. If you can get a reaction from people by writing the most basic of words, why should you even try to make it sound good? It's just lazy.
There are still some people who know how it's done. The last great protest song that I remember hearing was Tom Wait's "The Day After Tomorrow", off his 2004 album, Real Gone. It's a song like that that really makes you feel something. If you haven't heard it yet, do yourself a favor and listen to it as soon as possible.
Perhaps I'm wrong. Perhaps I've missed a massive amount of great protest songs. For all of our sakes, I hope that I have.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Wilco - Sky Blue Sky

You never really know what you’re going to get when you hear a new Wilco album for the first time. Their first couple of albums could fit nicely under the umbrella of alt-country, but they’ve since made a career out of trying to get as far away from that category as possible.
I guess you could call them a rock band, but they’re still not what you think of when you think of a stereotypical rock band. Experimental rock band doesn’t work, either, because that brings to mind bands like Sonic Youth, and that’s not who they are.
When most people talk about Wilco, they start off by talking about their creative musicianship…then launch straight into what a genius songwriter Jeff Tweedy is. Let me say right now that I have never been firmly entrenched in the “Tweedy as a genius” camp. Don’t get me wrong…I normally like his lyrics, and he’s always done interesting stuff with his music. I just can’t call anyone a genius who thinks that “She fell in love with a drummer/She fell in love with a drummer” over and over again is an acceptable lyric. That’d be like calling the guy from The Georgia Satellite’s a genius for writing “I got a little change in my pocket/Going jingle lingle ling.” Let’s just move on. (I’ll grant you that even someone like Dylan was known to make a lyrical mistake from time to time, most notably in the song “Wiggle Wiggle” off Under the Red Sky, but at least he knows it was a mistake, and doesn’t play it at concerts anymore.)
All the fanboys (and girls) have built Wilco (and Tweedy) up so much that it’s impossible for them to live up to the genius-level hype that they get.
But forget for a second about all the hype. Forget that people think this band is the second coming of The Beatles. Forget about all of it, and listen to this album with no preconceived notions of what it should sound like. Try to pretend you’re listening to an album by a brand new band.
And what do you get?
You get a great album. Plain and simple. Oh, it may take you a couple of listens to get to that point (it took me about 4 listens to really get into it), but, if you’re really listening, you’ll end up at that point eventually.
I’m not really sure how to describe it, but there is definitely a very strong 70s vibe going on in this album. There are some fantastic Hammond organ lines (most notably the strong groove of “Shake it Off”, which ventures into Al Green territory before making a sharp turn into faux-Pink Floyd land), as well as some erratic guitar solos that seem to fit right in with the mood of the song/album. They toyed with this a bit on their previous album (especially in the opener for that album, “At Least That’s What You Said”), but they take it to new heights with the songs on this album.
There are a couple of songs on here that venture into the adult contemporary realm of faux-folk music that would be terrible if they weren’t so good (just listen and you’ll hear it). Songs like “Either Way” and “Please Be Patient With Me” are perfect examples of those songs…songs that, if anyone else did them would probably sound like terrible America rip-offs, but Wilco somehow pull a great song out of it (instead of something you may hear while shopping at Sears).
I could go on and talk about every song on here, but I’ll stop and leave you with a little bit of surprise for yourselves. I will say that this is their most solid album since Summer Teeth, and is one of the best albums they’ve ever released.

Rating: 9.0

Essential Tracks: “Either Way”, “What Light”

Favorite Tracks: “Shake it Off”, “Hate it Here”
Visit the band's website here, or preorder your copy at The Rooftop