Friday, November 25, 2005

Panic! (as pernicious virus crosses species barrier)

The “difficult third album” syndrome. Did it ever really exist? The idea was, a band would labour away for however long it took to put its first album out, gathering together a collection of songs drawn from a fairly well-developed list. Then the second album was kind of easy: the songs followed from the first bunch of songs, may even have been left over from the first album. It often happened, though, that the second album would be somehow more serious, or darker in tone. Or something. Think “Secondhand Daylight”, think “Heaven Up Here”, think “17 Seconds”. (Don’t think “Closer”: there being no third album, no pattern of development could be retrospectively discovered.)

But by then, or so the theory went, the well was dry. Perhaps the second album was not as well received as the first, or, if the band was English, maybe the inevitable critical backlash had taken hold. What to do? You could perhaps imagine Franz Ferdinand in this position right about now. Or the Strokes. Or even, if you imagined for one minute that they cared about such things as fans, Liars.

But was the third album actually “difficult”? The Ramones didn’t think so: they just kept doing what they had already honed to a sharp point. Magazine put out their best album (and thereafter kind of faded). The Clash threw out the rule book and produced “London Calling”, to this day a breath of fresh air from the first chord of the title track to the last note of the “special hidden mystery track”. Talking Heads chose a radical new direction, having saved all the darkness for their third album (which itself would, in retrospect, be seen as a period of transition, but which was at the time a stunning creative departure). (This last example may suggest that the success or otherwise of the third album can only be seen through the rear-view mirror; but isn’t that true of any band’s career arc, be it third or thirteenth album?)

The point, if there is one, is that the “difficulty” of the third album may have been that of the band concerned, wondering whether they should find a new corner to turn, or whether to give the punters more of what they fancy. None of the third albums mentioned above are necessarily “difficult” (and obviously the list could be extended exponentially if one’s brain was functioning better). But it seems to me that there is something to it, from the fan’s point of view. Third albums often do seem to be awaited with nervous trepidation. The fan has invested so much in the first two albums and fears that investment will be thrown away if the band tanks at the third hurdle. Or the second album hasn’t quite delivered on the promise of the first, and all bets are off until further progress is shown.

All of this was mulled over by me in the shower as I was thinking about David Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas”. This is Mitchell’s third novel. Close readers of this journal will recall that I very much enjoyed his first two novels, and I have a feeling I held him out as being the New Thing vis a vis British novelists. Anyway, I was excited about “Cloud Atlas”, but also anxious, much as I remember feeling before The Cure dropped “Faith”. And I have to say, my feeling, one-third into “Cloud Atlas”, is that Mitchell has succumbed to Difficult Third Novel syndrome. He is certainly no slouch with the language, and has no shortage of stories to tell. But my overall impression at this point is that what we have here is an exercise in creative writing that has grown into a novel that it has no right to be. It may well be that the labyrinthine, Russian-doll plot strands will tie themselves together, but I fear that I might be wondering by then what the purpose of it all was. This reader’s expectations have been confounded. Which may have been the author’s purpose. Difficult third albums can be used to that end. Shake off the shackles of a “following” and strike out afresh next time. (Liars come to mind again, although they did it with their second album.) But an album takes forty-five minutes to listen to (or used to, before bands succumbed to CD Bloat - although that trend seems to have been profitably reversed in more recent years) and a book, especially a long one, takes (at least for a slow reader like me) a damn sight longer than that. The punishment needs to be rewarded. (Whereas an extended-middle-finger musical statement can be more easily forgiven.) The rewards of “Cloud Atlas” are taking a little too long to reveal themselves.

(And finally: now that serious music nerds - like myself - are almost unbilically connected to favourite bands or to communities discussing/analysing/arguing over said bands, and music distribution, at least for said nerds, comes down more and more to individual songs (and to seemingly infinite remixes of individual songs, often raising the question of what exactly is “the song” and what the stand-alone status of a “remix” might be), albums themselves are starting to be revealed as the historical, artificial construct they have, in reality, always been, so that if there ever was a “difficult third album” syndrome, it may have vanished into the ether.

Monday, November 21, 2005

The Decline of Western Civilization

How is it that Link Wray can be in the cold cold ground before news of his death reaches the English-speaking world?

Man is only the guitar god's guitar god, after all.

Thanks to the combined good works of the ILM massive.


Sunday, November 20, 2005

Edward De Bono Stikes Back

Five-year-old: "Dad, where is the hammer?"

Dad: "What do you want the hammer for?"

Five-year-old: "The ball has gone a long way under the deck."

Dad (processes this; realising what the five-year-old has in mind): "You think you're going to smash a hole in the deck with the hammer so you can get the ball out."

Five-year-old (recognising that this idea perhaps isn't playing too well, adopts knowing smile): "Umm, yeah?"

Dad: "No."

Kids these days.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

My problem with authority

Episode One: the Sydney ferry disaster.

We were riding the Sydney ferry. Shortly before our arrival at Darling Harbour, Adrienne noticed that someone had left on a seat the case for a digital camera. Feeling like the out-of-town do-gooders we were, we decided to hand it in to anyone we could find who looked like they were at least to some degree in charge. A woman had told us we had invalid tickets when we boarded. We charmed her, and kept ourselves out of prison, by doing a closely observed impersonation of hickdom. But she had vanished. Then, Carl managed to cross the yellow line, notwithstanding our repeated requests for him not to do so, as the boat was coming in to the jetty. “Excuse me”, I said to the man who was tying up the rope, as we were being swept off the boat with the rest of the crowd. “We found this on the boat. What should we do with it?” No response. “Excuse me?” No response. “Sir? We found ...” Then came the response: “Look, just shut up, all right? Don’t talk to me.” Not quite what I expected. There had been nobody else around whom I could give the thing to, and I didn’t particularly want to take it off the boat. So, taken somewhat aback, I said “Oh, okay, I’ll throw it back on the boat, then.” Which I did, into the path of the oncoming passengers, whose eyes I felt burning up my back.

Episode Two: the JB Hi-Fi security guy run-in.

There I was, one afternoon after work, coming up the steps out of the late, lamented Impact Records store, now JB Hi Fi, in Civic. Carl used to like it when it was Impact, because it was a basement space and he had a thing about the underground (as does his mother, although that is not this story). Now it is just another JB Hi-Fi store, nobody likes it. At least, nobody that I know; and one goes there now out of the lack of any sizeable alternative. I had spent 15 unfruitful minutes in there trying to convince two uneducated staff members that “The World of Arthur Russell” was not “World of Echo” by Arthur Russell. I was looking for the latter. I had already bought the former from them, filed inexplicably under “jazz”, some months earlier, and yet they didn’t seem to know anything about either.

Anyway, as I made my way up the steps, the shop’s security apparatus went off. I hate these things at the best of times. I always feel guilty when I walk through one, as if they have been lying in wait for a likely victim and are going to go off just because they can sense that I feel uncomfortable. (I hasten to add that I have never given, and would never give, one of these things any legitimate cause to sound the alarm. I am always setting off the ones at the Canberra libraries, but the staff there wave you on as a matter of course, which makes you wonder why they bothered going to the expense of setting them up in the first place.) “Excuse me”, said the gruff voice of the man who was standing there, motionless, at the JB Hi-Fi exit. (Go to any store, at any time, and he will be there. They must have a nice cloning operation happening somewhere.) This, I could tell, was the moment he had been waiting for. “Empty your pockets.” I had, what, work keys, home keys, work lift pass, wallet. No watch: the battery died some time before and I had got used to operating watchless, quite enjoying the simulated freedom actually (pathetic isn’t it?). And a bit of change. I tried to hand my keys, wallet and change to him to hold, but he indicated, mutely, that he didn’t want to handle my soiled personal belongings and that I should sit them on the box of 3-for-$20 CDs just in front of the entrance. People were coming in and out, looking at me like I was guilty as charged. I was concerned someone would nick my wallet or keys. I didn’t think Mr Security Man would be too concerned to protect them. I was the quarry, as Morrissey almost said.

“Walk through.” I did as I was told. There didn’t seem much choice. The beeper went off again. I walked back into the store. It went off. “Why didn’t it go off when I came in?”, I meekly, and perhaps stupidly, given the assumed reason, asked. “That’s what we’re going to find out”, he said. (Which was the longest sentence he used in my presence. I believe he paused briefly afterwards, admiring his verbal handiwork or maybe just having a little rest after all that mental exertion.) He was by now practically rubbing his hands together with glee. It crossed my mind that he might be paid on commission, based on the value of goods recovered. Or that something had been planted on me, Schapelle Corby style.

“Again.” It went off when I walked out but this time it didn’t go off when I came back in. This gave me some small flicker of hope. A-ha!, I thought. An inconsistency in the evidence! Then came the fun part: the body search. In full public view, no less. “Lift up your trouser legs.” There were holes in my socks, but at least they were a matching pair. “Lift up your shirt.” “Turn around.” A line from a long-forgotten movie came into my head - “I didn’t ask for the anal probe” - but I wisely kept quiet. “Turn around again.” He could find nothing. (Obviously; there was nothing to find.) He got me to walk through again. The beeper went off on my way out and on my way back in. “Wait there”, he said. He called for “the manager”. “The manager” came out. Neanderthal Man explained the situation and wanted to know what to do next. Clearly he was hoping that he would get to take me out the back for a bit of rough stuff. But he was to be disappointed. “The manager” simply said, “They’ve been playing up lately. Let him go.” He didn’t look at me. Cro-Magnon, with an expression lodged somewhere between hatred and disappointment, pointed to my things, said something that might have been “okay”, or “get out”, or maybe even “you cunt”, and off I went. As fate would have it, as I headed out this time, the beeper went off again. In another life I might have taken the opportunity to turn around, smile and wave back at my new friend. I didn’t look around. I didn’t smile. At least, not on the outside. It crossed my mind that if I had been shoplifting I would at least have had something to show for my pain and suffering.

Joe Strummer said it first. Know your rights.