Saturday, July 03, 2010

Behind the Face of the Music

Does the story behind an album's creation add to the listener's enjoyment, or detract from it? I like to know how a record was made, and what the songs signify. But sometimes I think that the stories bandied about in the news media can overshadow the music itself, and mislead potential listeners.

We all know the story of the guy who got dumped by his band and his girlfriend, and how he retreated to a cabin in snowy Wisconsin to chop firewood and write morose melodies. And the one about the band whose family members all died in a fire at an arcade or something. Have you heard the one about John Petkovic? The guy who sang with Cobra Verde and Death of Samantha? His mom died, and he went on a road trip, and then he formed a new band with J.Mascis and the guys from the band Witch.

They call themselves Sweet Apple, and their album Love and Desperation is a collection of simple but supremely catchy hard rock songs -- reminiscent of an era when BTO, Bad Company, and Grand Funk rocked the FM airwaves. You might not have guessed that Sweet Apple's songs were so upbeat if you ready the story of the band's origin., and you really don't need to know the story to enjoy the record. Sure, it adds a poignant aspect to otherwise pedestrian lines like "I drove and drove and drove and drove," but the songs aren't all about death and grief. Most of them are about chicks and dudes. And sex. And vampires.

Even a band like Venice Is Sinking gets more lines of type for the circumstances surrounding their album -- recording live to tape like the Cowboy Junkies, and the subsequent Georgia Theater fire -- than they do for the gorgeous music that they worked hard to create in that space and time. I guess it gives writers an angle, and it's easier than trying to describe the music itself. We can all relate to tales of hard luck, sobering up, losing a loved one, etc. These trials sometimes lead to catharsis and creation. And many of us like to look for meanings in the lyric sheets and liner notes (or the digital versions thereof), to add to our enjoyment or understanding. But great music doesn't require great personal loss, and these stories of suffering can distract us from the music itself, like judging a book by its cover.

One story I do enjoy is about the genesis of the Kevin Dunn compilation CD. Brad (who runs the Casa Nueva label) was an obsessive reader of the Trouser Press Record Guide. He was intrigued by
Ira Robbins' descriptions of Dunn's music, and he sought out the records and fell in love. Having spent a lot of time with the TPRG, I can relate to that tale of discovery It's not a story of great loss, but it is the true tale behind No Great Lost.

Love and Desperation. The LP comes on red vinyl with a download code, and it looks great sitting next to my copy of Country Life. Listen to Sweet Apple's "I've Got a Feeling (That Won't Change)":


At 8/14/2010 10:56 AM , Blogger Fickle Cattle said...

I like knowing the stories of artists. I think it gives an additional dimension to one's enjoyment.

At 8/17/2010 12:49 PM , Blogger ib said...

Damn. This is pretty good. The saga which led to it, as you rightly observe, might well have put me off were it not your condensing the whole routine into its FM groove.

"You might not have guessed that Sweet Apple's songs were so upbeat if you ready the story of the band's origin, and you really don't need to know the story to enjoy the record."

You're absolutely right. I was always fond of J or Jr.'s take on Frampton, and this is pretty much more of the same.

In fact. Your point also serves as a timely reminder that I have a bad habit sometimes of laying on the background detail with a trowel. Less is more is not always medicine easy to swallow.

Hell. I even kind of like the Roxy Music pastiche of the sleeve. Now that I'm drawn to investigate further. Nice.

At 8/18/2010 12:11 PM , Blogger jonderneathica said...

Ib, I enjoy the background details that you include in your music writing. Don't go changing to try to please me. My favorite Sweet Apple song is "Hold Me, I'm Dying". Despite the title, it actually sounds like glam rock meets Mancabilly (a/k/a the Fall's "Country & Northern").

I think I'm in Fickle Cattle's camp: I enjoy the stories, but not so much the labels. I went to see Mission of Burma last week and was pleasantly surprised by one of the opening bands, Bunnygrunt. Found out later that they are part of a musical subgenre that is cursed with the name "cuddlecore". If I'd known that last week, I probably would have avoided the band.

At 8/18/2010 3:47 PM , Blogger ib said...

"dooon' go changin! t'try an' ple-eze me..."

Jesus. That certainly brings back unpleasant memories. Well. I doubt if I could, assuming I even wanted to, but you raise a very valid point in your original post nonetheless.

I'm with Fickle Cattle to a great extent too, of course, but sometimes the 'spin' exerts a very negative reaction. As you perfectly illustrate the potential for the same with Bunnygrunt.

I was curious as to the angle they were spinning on John Petkovic - being one of the three who somehow managed to let it sail by before your prompt - and I was aghast to see it garnering huge coverage on even Limewire. I was not even aware that Gnutella still twitched with a pulse, never mind achieving some kinda legitimacy.

Not that I'm knocking the reality. It's just that politicians abound.

Well. I am a bit of fan of J's over the top "pyrotechnics" at the worst of times (this last from one of the better mainstream reviews I could find), so given that he seems to have dominated the proceddeings at the expense of more noble intentions, I'm fairly certan I won't be too nauseous after ingesting the entire fruit of the loom.


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