Monday, September 15, 2014

Four Decent Albums and The Best Non-Band In The History of Rock

By: Ben Johnson

The current best rock band in America does not exist at the moment, and it’s driving me up a wall.

You may have caught a whiff of press about the most recent Ty Segall album, Manipulator, a sprawling double LP of the most finely-tuned material Segall has ever released. It is okay. He recorded almost all of the instruments, and while the songs come out fine, there’s a “show you how I decorated my bedroom” quality to the album as a result of the lack of creative tension. “This is my favorite way that drums can sound, this is my idea of what a bass guitar should sound like, oh, and before I forget, this is how I’m overdubbing my vocals now.” You go “cool, cool,” and then you go sit somewhere. A couple of Halloweens ago he had a bubbling cauldron and weird jungle wallpaper going on in there and it was the awesomest bedroom you’d ever seen, and since then you’ve dropped everything every time he invites you to come hang out and see what he’s done. Only problem is now you’re pushing 30 and all of a sudden you gotta make actual decisions about whether or not to miss your niece’s birthday party just to go check out this guy’s bedroom for the ninth time in six years. Last time it was “hippy” themed. Now it’s “legitimate recording industry professional.” How excited are you supposed to be?

I’ve liked some of his other previous stuff more than this one, but I don’t hold that against Ty Segall. I respect him as an artist. I know he has to try things. I believe he will grow and evolve as a creative entity as a result of the experience that Manipulator represents. Blah blah blah. Googy goo.

This has nothing to do with Ty Segall himself, but to be perfectly honest, Ty Segall: Unfolding Potential Rock And Roll Genius is turning into one of my least favorite spectator sports. He was supposed to bring rock and roll back. We were supposed to be hearing Ty Segall songs on Goddamn Regular-Ass American Radio by now. Instead, regardless of the impossibility of that absurd expectation, he’s still doing some Ty Segall permutation of Ty Segall things, just sitting there, continuing to figure Ty Segall out, just with more time and space and knowledge behind him this time, and nope, Manipulator is not the one. It will not be on the radio. It will make one appearance on the Conan show, and people like me will talk about it for roughly as long as it takes to talk about something like this.

Manipulator is not a The Strokes Is This It? Album that every 24 year old in every bar in America is going to talk about incessantly while trying with every ounce of effort to aesthetically approximate in an ultimately successful attempt to then go home and fuck each other. Maybe that’s patently undoable now. Maybe I’m too old and monogamous and sober to know it if/when it happens. Maybe it’s just not the one. I don’t know and I’m getting close to not caring about any of this shit, because I’m getting tired of the idea that I better watch Ty Segall to find out about the “future of rock,” because he’s still our guy.

All of this is, and has been, tremendously unfair to Ty Segall. I am being unfair to Ty Segall. I know that. I don’t know why that makes me feel guilty, but it does. I think just because he seems nice, and because it is totally not his fault that no other rock and roll, other than whatever barely this side of Kid Rock near rap dabble Jack White pukes up or the heavyhanded Blues Hammer goofage of Black Keys or the AOR balladeer heel turn of Kings of Leon or etc. etc., is presently being manufactured for mass consumption. And none of this matters. Ty Segall is taking care of Ty Segall. He seems like he’s doing a good job of it. That’s good. I hope he keeps doing that, and keeps rocking, and keeps redecorating his bedroom. I’m down for all of it. Maybe just not the “bedrooms that are going to change the face of America” cover story hype anymore.

And so in the meantime here’s Manipulator. A decent album.

Of course it’s not just Ty Segall out there. Every single time Ty is put through the ringer of another round of album-supporting press, there’s also the “you’re friends with those dudes” question. Always it turns out that, yes, Ty Segall is friends with those dudes. What dudes? The dudes who put out the following also decent albums.

I still haven’t heard the new White Fence album, For The Recently Found Innocent. I loved, and continue to actively love 2011’s Is Growing Faith. So much so that I ate a little into the rent money to run go get it when Tim “White Fence” Presley’s collaboration with Ty Segall, Hair, came out at roughly the same time as the two Family Perfume albums. I was rewarded by another interesting spinoff miniseries in the Ty Segall: Unfolding Potential Rock And Roll Genius Show with a couple good tunes on it, and two albums of miasmatic drugginess that sounded like if the crazily layered conclusion section of The United States Of America just went on forever, for two whole albums worth, and never managed to find or reference any actual songs. I just now saw that he put out another one, Cyclops Reap, last year on Castleface. I didn’t get to that one either. Shit. Whatever. I’m glad Tim Presley is making music, I’m not always going to be, and in fact I will no longer be offered any assurances that I ever again might be, glad to actually listen to it.

So For The Recently Found Innocent is probably another decent album. I would imagine.

Jon Dwyer and his Thee Oh Sees came out with an album this year too. It’s calllllled…. (Googles) Drop. Guess what? The cover is brightly colored. I have not listened to it, nor do I care to. I already own TEN Thee Oh Sees albums, two singles collections, one EP, one split EP, and two split singles. The “O” section of my record collection is as big and as heavy as my “C” section thanks to Dwyer, our International Pied Piper of Limited Edition Goofball Novelty Vinyl. I love Thee Oh Sees, but I am not buying another Thee Oh Sees Album ever again, I don’t care what color the damn thing is or how much it sounds like the first song from The Outsiders CQ.

But if you’re not familiar with their work, absolutely, go pick up Drop. It’s sure to be a decent album full of albumy decentness.

And Mikal Cronin’s most recent album came out last year on Merge. I didn’t hear it. MCII. Missed it. I saw on Twitter that he and his band recently played some farewell shows. I’m not sure why. He’s farewelling something, probably. Probably San Francisco, as has tended to be the case with these people recently. Maybe Cronin is farewelling his own band, which seems strange. I don’t know or care what the fuck he’s doing, truth be told, and I’m a Cronin fan from the Charlie and the Moonhearts days. In fact, I refuse to find out what Cronin is farewelling, and will take the consequences of appearing insensitive if the first commenter here notifies me that he or a member of his inner circle has been diagnosed with some tragic disease. It’s not that I’m trying to be willfully insensitive to these people as human beings, I’m just getting really fucking tired with the narratives attached to them. It’s always just around the corner with all these people. Rock music is going to be “saved” soon, and it’s these guys who are going to do it. That’s been the story for at least six years now, and I fell for it back then, and I’m tired of it.

Mikal Cronin MCII is very likely a decent album. You may have noticed that I haven't been doing a lot of close listening to any of the most recent albums by these guys. This was a conscious decision. After breathlessly falling for the whole emergence myth for years and years with these people's creative output, I decided to try an experiment. Test a theory. Theory: deciding not to listen to any of these guys' albums will not ruin your life. Theory confirmed. It's a theorem now. The albums are all good and decent, but these dudes put out decent albums like you and I take shits. With alarming urgency and frequency, often in the back of a Taco Bell/KFC we didn’t even just eat at.

Of course what they’ve already done, all of these guys, and what they’re currently still doing, probably, is still pretty great, and they are of course different as people and as creative entities than the narratives ascribed to them by external sources. Such as me right now, even.

But here’s the thing: these guys are all friends. They’re all great. They’ve all “failed” to “save” rock music (which is probably fine and not in need of saving) as individual rock entities for the past six or seven or twenty or thousand years. These guys all know and like each other. They all live in the same town now. They’re all rock music friends.

They are not a band.

I was talking about this with my friend Griffen, and he noted correctly that all these dudes are probably sitting on a couch together right now as we speak, not being a band. They are as fucking infuriatingly close to being a band as four musicians can be without being a band. Their lack of existence as a band is killing me. Every interview and write up and review I read where they’re like “oh yeah, we’re friends” is like a burbling outbreak of acid reflux in my soul. I hate these fucking people for not just being in a band already.

Instead of these guys in a band we get four people doing more or less exactly whatever they feel like doing, and nobody has to defend their whims to a roomful of equal, warring creative entities, and nobody has to get in dumb ridiculous arguments over shit like whether or not to use reverb on the tamborine, and the resulting music is fine and good and decent but not worth fighting for. Say what you will about Jack White, and I'm in the "not a genius, in fact actually a dipshit" camp myself, but at least that dude figured out that he needed to keep himself in Meg White's orbit to have any chance at writing a good song. These California Dudes of recent vintage don't seem to have figured out the creative possibilities of compromise, or self-imposed limitations. This is probably what Carl Wilson was inferring when he said, and I agree with this SO MUCH, that these guys need an Eno.

As it stands now, these guys are NOT EVEN IN A BAND. It’s like if Paul McCartney came over to John Lenon’s house in 1962 and they collaborated on a song together, and Lenon was like “let’s be in a band” and McCartney was like “no thanks, I’m trying to get Wings off the ground. I have a new one called 'Jet' that I’m really happy with." And all of us in the whole rest of the world got to hear Band On The Run but there is no such thing as Revolver. It’s a fucking crime of selfishness, is what it is.

Of course Beatles analogies are a stretch. That's the stretch of all stretches, really. But a cursory backwards glance in my head of possible supergroups unformed by people who were friends anyway can't come up with one better than these guys. Who's better? CAN/Neu!/Cluster/Etc.? Supergroups in their own right already. StoogeC5? The Stooges, conceptually, do not permit improvement. The Replacements and Hüsker Dü hated each other. Early 90's Chicago already had a supergroup called the Jesus Lizard, plus extra auxiliary turds like Billy Corgan and Nash Kato and Steve Albini and Liz Phair and whoever else who could not possibly add up to anything better than Jesus Lizard. 60's Laurel Canyon Los Angeles? No thank you. No way any of those damn hippies knew how to play drums. Maybe if there was such a thing as Elephant One instead of six. That's closest. These unbanded California Kids are like if the also nonexistant Elephant One played more of a straightforward rock. They are not in a band, but the band they are not in is the best nonband in the history of rock nonbands. 

We're sitting here talking about the latest Ty Segall album like "hey, how about it? Is it the one?" and there's a GREAT band out there not being a band instead of being a band, and not making an album instead of making an album, and I think it's stupid.

Or else it’s just people living their lives, and what I really need to be doing is calming down and forgetting about it and listening to Tyvek, actual balls-having Midwesterners who pretty much mop the floor with all these Californians anyway. Yeah, actually, that’s better. That’s just exactly great.