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Is It Your Songs Or My Ears?

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Two Cow Garage--"Brothers In Arms" (mp3)

Among the many things that one is likely to learn when one spends time in the men's room at Champy's Fried Chicken is the history of a band called Steppenwolf. You know them, no doubt. You've heard "Born To Be Wild" plenty of times in plenty of contexts, and, most likely, "Magic Carpet Ride" a good bit as well. But what else do you know of their catalog? Ever heard "The Pusher" or "Hey, Lawdy Mama?" A very slim maybe, unless you're as old as I am. And, the most ironic aspect of your album-cover-wall-staring-as-you-urinate experience is that the album you're staring at is Steppenwolf's Their Great Hits.

So, chances are, 7 of the 11 songs on the album are songs you've never heard and, if I may speculate negatively, never want to hear because they're just not that good.

That's what I've been wondering about lately. Is it the songs or is it my ears that has me wondering if most CDs I'm listening to just don't have that many good songs on them. Steppenwolf is an extreme example; theirs is a greatest hits CD.

But what about that new CD I've just bought? I texted a recommendation to a friend the other night--Kevin Gordon's new CD, Gloryland. I raved about it, pointing out particularly good songs even after just a couple of listenings. But I was listening to it as I was recommending it and though I had heard several of the songs several times, I hadn't heard it all the way through. By the time I got to the end, I realized that the last 3 or 4 songs did absolutely nothing for me, didn't hook me in any way.

Was that the songs or my ears? Had I just gotten tired of Kevin Gordon's approach and voice or had he run out of steam?

I'd like to be able to blame it the frenetic pace and short attention span of our current lifestyles. But I don't think that would be fair. While it's probably true that it is harder than ever to get a song heard, for a song to break through, I don't think the ability to identify and take notice of a good song has been undermined at all. In fact, as a fan of putting my Ipod with its rididculous number of songs on "shuffle" and allowing random technological choices to choose my "vibe" for me, I know that almost everytime I do that, there comes a moment where I dash towards the Ipod with one thought in my head: What song was that? It is the glorious moment that all of us music lovers live for.

The great song, the good song, the catchy song can still bust out of the pack in any situation, I think, and that's whether it's an unknown song that has made its way onto my Ipod, a song that's playing at a party at your house, the soundtrack in a restaurant, or even the last song on a long CD of songs by the same person.

And, by the way, I am offering not the slightest criticism of Mr. Gordon. I happen to know him, have followed his career for some time, seen him perform live several time. I privately celebrate any of his successes when I come across them. I have written him and told him that I thought the CD was superb. And it is stellar. "Don't Stop Me This Time" is one of the top two or three songs I've heard this year--catchy and evocative and, I am certain, autobiographical. "Colfax," the 10-minute centerpiece of the CD that tells the story of a high school marching band's encounter with the Klan. There are 7-8 really strong songs.

But that does not negate the fact that the songs near the end don't engage me. And it has me wondering, as does Springsteen's Wrecking Ball and Tom Petty's Mojo and Fleet Foxes' Helplessness Blues and Lana Del Ray and M. Ward and the Drive-By Truckers and so many others if the concept of an album, especially a CD album, in most cases simply calls for too many songs and makes it an almost unattainable goal that all of them be good.

Certainly, there are exceptions. Elvis Costello's 20-song explosion, Get Happy!, is one. As are Revolver and Rubber Soul (though I'm not sure any other Beatle albums qualify), some early Joni Mitchell albums, a couple of DB's albums, the Grateful Dead's American Beauty, Guided By Voices' Isolation Drills, and a host of others that you are wedded to. All I ask is that we agree that these are the exceptions rather than the rule.

And though I'm not sure I can support this, it does seem that the creation of the CD concept all those twenty-something years ago pushed artists and music labels farther in the direction of filling out their products with less-interesting offerings at the end, almost as if they knew that few people were going to go that far into the CD before changing it.

Here's that catch: put out an EP of your absolute best stuff and you will not be taken quite seriously, until you prove yourself with a full CD's worth (which is often the EP plus lesser material. Put out a short, 8-song CD of your best songs at the moment and listeners and critics will start adding up the minutes to determine whether or not your CD is "worth it" or unacceptably brief. Or, toss in everything--your best songs, outtakes, live versions, acoustic versions, leftovers of one sort or another, and just see what sticks.

I don't know the answer. But I do know one thing about my ears. They can tell a good song from a song that is mediocre or poor, admittedly to my standards. So I have to think that an artist is the same way--he or she can tell the good ones. Maybe not the ones that might be hits, but certainly the ones that he or she is satisfied with. And I'm not sure why anybody would want to put out anything else. Or pretend to have greatest hits that weren't. Because who is going to listen to them willingly?

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