Wednesday, November 7, 2007

A Coupla Pop Things

Long Road Out of Eden
The Eagles 98268-4500-2
(20 tracks)

Kill to Get Crimson
Mark Knopfler
Warner Brothers 281660-2
(12 Tracks)


I graduated from high school in the spring of 1980. So, musically speaking, I was in my key formative years in the late '70s and into the '80s. I have a sister who is a few years older than me, and she was quite a music lover in high school; so I got exposed at a tender age to the art rock of the day: Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Supertramp, Yes, 10cc, Pink Floyd, Elton John and the like. I moved on from those things over time, naturally, but in pop music my ear is still rooted here in the aesthetic of 1980.

So I was interested to hear that, after 28 years, The Eagles were putting out an album of new material. After their active years from 1976-1980, they fell off the musical map (though as a staple of oldies radio stations everywhere their records have continued to sell). In 1993 they came back into the public eye with the album "Hell Freezes Over." There were three new songs on that album, but the album was really a revisiting of the music which had made The Eagles famous two decades before. They sounded better than ever; it was an album of really inspired playing and singing, though it did have a "nostalgia tour" stamp on it. Fast Forward another decade and a half, and it seems they've finally tired of revisiting the same four year period of their young lives.

(An aside: after my recent computer crash, I decided that I would make a point to buy a physical disc when I could--instead of availing myself of the convenience of downloading--and I was immediately put off by the Eagles' decision to sell the disc for the first year exclusively at... Wal-Mart! Ugh. I will drive a very long way to avoid shopping at Wal-Mart or Sam's Club, but in this case I had to decide how badly I wanted the physical discs.

Thus were my principles compromised.

On the plus side, I only had to part with $11.88 for a double album, 20 new songs. So I may have funded the Satan of Capitalism, but not by much.)

The Eagles are renowned for a certain stylistic identity, for guitar-driven music which straddles the line between country and rock & roll. Their songs have always had a fairly strong melodic line with tight harmony vocal support, meat & potatoes instrumental playing, and the occasional soaring Joe Walsh guitar solo. But I don't think innovation has ever been their strong suit. Harmonically, the song structures of the new album are exactly what they've always done, which even at the time had not the slightest hint of daring. I didn't pay much attention to the lyrics in my earlier day, and now I've known those old songs too long to have any objectivity; so I can't tell if the lyric content of these new songs is a degradation over what they wrote before. But, in a couple songs especially, somebody had the Cliché-Mate 2000 turned up on full tilt. I love Glen Frey's voice, but he's most often singing songs which would sound a lot cooler in, say, Spanish--something that didn't remind me how bad the lyrics were. I Don't Want to Hear Anymore; No More Cloudy Days; You Are Not Alone: the titles say it all. But probably the most gag-inducing is What Do I Do With My Heart. (Yeah, it's as bad as it sounds. I don't think I've made it all the way thru yet.)

And when not hackneyed, the lyrics are often either awkwardly fitted to the music or, in the case of much of Don Henly's writing, snarlingly mean-spirited. I'm happy to hear a song from the Angry Left (I'd like to hear more of them), and I certainly have my pockets of bile for some segments of our populace (see Wal-Mart comment above, and anything I ever wrote about television and Republicans), but misanthropy doesn't make me want to jump up and sing. Mass stupidity seems an unlikely wellspring for compelling pop music. After watching some of the video content on the Hell Freezes Over DVD, I came to the conclusion that Henly was really not a pleasant person, petulant and self-important and very judgmental. His scathing lyrics here do not dissuade me from this impression.

Of course, that doesn't necessarily make for a bad song, and just under half of the set seems to hit the mark. The other half is either forgettable or cloying. The opening near-a cappella track No More Walks In the Wood screams "The Eagles are back," and there are several more tracks that invite repeated listening: J. D. Souther's How Long, the title track Long Road Out of Eden, the short instrumental I Dreamed There Was No War, Joe Walsh's The Last Good Time in Town. The South-of-the-border It's Your World Now, maybe. The rest I can take or leave. But that's still not too bad for 12 bucks.

So, for execution: A
For content: C

Mark Knopfler's latest is another matter. His history traces back to the English group Dire Straits and their eponymous first album in 1978. So he's another guy of about the same age, playing in a different corner of a similar mainstream pop music milieu. Dire Straits continued to play and record sporadically into the middle '90s before officially disbanding, but Knopfler has had a respectable career interspersed with this, both as a solo performer / band leader and as a composer for film.

The latest album is just released, and contains all original material. As a songwriter, Knopfler has no more innovative tools at his disposal than The Eagles, but he ends up somehow with a much fresher product. He has an engaging storyteller's gift, both in his lyric-writing and in his singing, and he is celebrated as one of popular music's greatest guitar players. But this release is all about his brand of mellow, tasty music, and his guitar playing is quiet and subtle throughout, yet deliciously appropriate and inspired. His singing is calm and subdued, but strangely compelling. In the fashion of Eric Clapton's best, this seems a CD with nary an iota of bullshit about it. He is a modern troubadour, doing what he seems meant in his bone marrow to do.

This one gets high marks. A.


Jeffy said...

Sounds like I'll have to check out the Knopfler disc. I am not surprised by your take on the Eagles disc - I too enjoyed "Hell Freezes Over", but mostly for the old stuff. The new songs on that one wore thin pretty quickly too.

As for your need for the security of factory-pressed CDs, you can get pretty much the same effect by burning your downloaded music to CDs after buying it. Including the cost of the blank CD it is still less expensive than the disc at Wal-Mart, and you don't have to make the trip to Wal-Mart to buy it. The way things are going I am not sure how much longer the CD format is going to be around, so it might be time to get started getting used to life with nothing but downloaded music. Just be thankful that you can buy a copy to keep - I am suspicious that in the future we'll be restricted to just renting the music we want, or maybe paying a fee each time we stream a tune from some central repository when we want to listen.

wunelle said...

I do try and back my music files up regularly now on my external hard drive, so even the hard copy is probably not necessary.

Actually, having a rent-to-listen service seems not a bad way to go. Then one could avoid the investment in all the music in the first place--and it would be easier to keep up with what's new.

Maybe we should wade into those waters...