Thursday, March 23, 2006

Better Music Through Chemistry

Thanks to a veritable landslide victory, this week's aurally-administered mental enhancement will be (as promised) epic junkie orchestral rock. Japanese jazzbo weirdness will have to wait until next week. (Yeah, I know only one vote was cast, but 1-0 is a shutout last I checked.)

"I Think I'm In Love" - Spiritualized
"Cop Shoot Cop" - Spiritualized
(both from Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating In Space, 1997)

The Unholy Trinity of Sex, Drugs, and Rock 'n' Roll is as old as debauchery itself. Indeed, whole genres (e.g. jazz, rock) have nicked their names from slang for sex, while chemically-enhanced merriment walked hand-in-hand with music long before the Drug Death Sweepstakes of the early '70s.

Myself, I've never engaged in any extrachemical activity, if only because reality is hard enough to process as it is. As a music fan, this affords me the advantage of technical objectivity: the Grateful Dead were always so meanderingly dull that I suspect you have to be fucked up to enjoy their aimless wankery. Similarly, it's easy to spot cocaine-bloated arrogance (I'm looking at you, Liam and Noel) from a mile away. But while many of my musical heroes were decidedly anti-drug (Frank Zappa, Fugazi), a frighteningly large amount of my collection was produced by serious heroin addicts. From Miles Davis to O.G. junkie Iggy Pop to twenty-year-user Nick Cave, many of my favourite records were made by artists single-handedly supporting the Afghan economy.

I'm not naive or stupid enough to give the chemicals credit for an artist's creativity. The fact is, though, that drugs physically alter perception, therefore causing a different reaction to external stimuli. (You know those Van Gogh paintings we all love so much? That colourful mottle isn't "creative license," that's how he actually saw that shit.) And there is something about the music produced by heroin addicts that I find incredibly appealing. Let's compare and contrast, shall we?

::Marijuana (See Fu Manchu, Snoop Dogg, Bob Marley)
Music characterized by - An emphasis on repitition, heavy low-end, a narcissistic obsession with one's own pleasure, and ad nauseum references to the drug itself. Usually melodically unconvincing.

::Cocaine (See Fleetwood Mac, Oasis, Duran Duran)
Music characterized by - Luxe production value, tweeter-shredding treble, and preposterous self-importance. Makes frequent use of arena-sized sing-along choruses.

::Heroin (See the Velvet Underground, the Birthday Party, Nirvana)
Music characterized by - Constant contrast between succinct pop songcraft and listen-unfriendly feedback and seasick drones. Distortion drives the instruments, while hoarse-throated emotion fuels the vocals. Lyrical hallmarks include appeals for redemption and transendence while wallowing in dark spiritual (and literal) mire.

This is clearly a matter of personal taste, but if I was in a record store in 1977 and had a choice between the Eagles' "Hotel California" (emotionally cheap arena-rock pomp - COKE) and Iggy Pop's "Mass Production" (epic, equilibrium-destroying drone-rock nihilism - HEROIN), Ian Curtis and I would at least have our listening habits in common.

One musician with the dubious distinction of having a habit that's extended as long as his career is Jason Pierce, better known as J. Spaceman. Pierce spent the latter half of the '80s leading fuzzbox fanatics Spacemen 3, a rock band so reductivist that they made "Sister Ray" sound downright symphonic. Following that band's ugly dissolution, Pierce immediately launched the vessel he still captains to this day, Spiritualized. When their debut full-length, Lazer Guided Melodies, was released, Pierce had grown dissatisfied with the racket guitars alone were capable of. Over the subsequent decade, each new release would recruit an extra gospel choir, string quartet, horn section, or whatever session players were kicking around that day. By the time 2001's Let It Come Down was out, Pierce had almost completely sacrificed his band's fiery volatility for supersaccharine overorchestration.

But along the continuum between single-chord scuzzrock seances and self-indulgent symphonic prog, there is a sweet spot, and Pierce nailed it perfectly in 1997. Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating In Space was a disorienting space-rock symphony somewhere between Sonic Youth and OK Computer. From the tremolo-soaked titular fugue to the delicate eye of "Home of the Brave's" emotional storm, the album is as awesome a conceptual beast as anything Pink Floyd accomplished - even better, dare I say. Truth is that there's a single song from any Floyd album I'd consider classic, where as Ladies and Gentlemen... has two.

The trick is that, as with any love song penned by a junkie, it's hard to tell to what these two songs are more dedicated: the woman or the drug. "I Think I'm In Love" shines with all the promise and potential energy of a new morning, as Pierce basks in the sunlight, but it's actually a self-deluded escape. We can hear the drug hit when the song blasts off around the 2:35 mark, propelled by percussion and a loping organ loop. Pierce undercuts his overconfidence with a smirking acceptance that it's a junk-induced illusion: "I think I'm on fire, but probably just smoking."

Most harrowing, though, is the album's epic closer, "Cop Shoot Cop." Lent a hand by Dr. John's nocturnal blues piano, the 17-minute masterpiece is a guided tour through the spiritual convulsions of an addict. The song literally nods off after two minutes, before Pierce's vocals rouse the music back into consciousness. His dry ruminations on redemption and depression grasp at the divine but are chained to the profane, interrupted by intermittent violent fits of howling guitar and assaultive drums before finally collapsing into a a six minute psychotic episode of unmitigated noise. The chaos continues to crescendo far longer than possibly expected, until all hope of a coherent conclusion is forfeit. Only then, when hope is exhausted, does Pierce retreat into the song's keystone vamp. The battle is lost, and Pierce surrenders himself to his fate, both narcotic and romantic, with a whispered promise: "I will love you... I will love you... I will love you..."


randy said...

I wonder what the Flaming Lips were on when they recorded their new album. Shit sounds like Peekachoo and Smurfette doing Duster bong rips.

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