Friday, 14 December 2012

14/12/12 - Doubles & Triples

Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, the grand and swooping double album released by The Smashing Pumpkins in 1995, was a tricky thing to absorb. It was (and remains) a thoroughly listenable work, with moments of true brilliance throughout, and it’s one of the key musical touchpoints of my youth. Maybe it is for you too? But at twenty-eight tracks, it was just too complex and serpentine for me to take in at the age of thirteen.
Gish and Siamese Dream were slightly before my time, but Mellon Collie was a must-buy simply on the strength of lead single Bullet With Butterfly Wings. (If you don’t know it [why not?!], click here - I remember hearing it on Steve Lamacq’s Evening Session on Radio One – which, at the time, was the place for cool new music – and him talking about the single’s video which was due to debut on television that coming Friday night. My friend Chris and I (musical buddies from an early age) made sure we were home from swimming in time to see the opening of Top of the Pops when the new video was to be shown, and being blown away by the staggering intensity of it. I don’t mean that in a pretentious, artwanky way – I’d just never seen anything like it. And I still bloody love that song. (I also clearly remember Chris and I doing the same rush-home-from-swimming thing when we knew Oasis’ new D’You Know What I Mean? video was coming… we were supercool.)
But I had a short attention span. The album, split into two discs - Dawn to Dusk, Twilight to Starlight - was simply TOO MUCH AWESOME for my little brain to cope with in one hit; I’ve subsequently learned that the vinyl version was split into six sections, with the songs in a totally different order, which would have been a whole order of magnitude more confusing for me. My system wasn’t primed for such an onslaught, I was still young and green and simple. So I did what I did in response to pretty much any situation at that age: I made a mixtape. All of my favourite songs from Mellon Collie, smooshed together into a more easily digestible chunk. I forget the exact order I put the tracks in, but I can tell you for certain which tracks they were: Bullet With Butterfly Wings, Zero, Fuck You (An Ode to No-one), Jellybelly, X.Y.U., Tonight Tonight, Bodies, 1979, Where Boys Fear to Tread, Tales of a Scorched Earth.
So I know those ten tracks really, really well – I listened to them over and over and over. The other eighteen songs… not so much. I mean, I know them, but they’ll always be filed in my brain, somewhat unfairly, as ‘those songs from Mellon Collie that I didn’t think were good enough to go on my mixtape, for some reason’. What a peculiar child I was. What a peculiar child I still am, really.

There’s something in my brain that wants albums to be relatively short, which doesn’t make a lot of sense. This harks back to my teenage days when I was obsessed with making compilation tapes – the shorter the songs are, the more you can squeeze onto a C90. Obviously this could be circumvented if the songs were good enough; The Wildhearts’ album Fishing For Luckies is one of my all-time favourites, and that begins with a seven-minuter. (It also contains one of the greatest songs ever written, Sky Babies, which weighs in at a muscular 11m36s - And that other pivotal double-album of the era, Guns N’ Roses’ Use Your Illusion I & II, is a massive musical menagerie that I know every second of by heart. But on the whole, brevity was key. This is what my brain tells me is right, even though it’s totally illogical, so the prospect of a new double-album by a band I like is both exciting and daunting in equal measure. On the positive side, it’s loads more new music by a band I like. On the negative… how will I learn it all?!

Like I say, peculiar.

There have been two triple (yes, triple!) albums this year that neatly illustrate this idiotic mental hurdle I’ve set for myself: one is Ginger Wildheart’s 555% project, and the other is Green Day’s triumvirate of ¡Uno!, ¡Dos! and ¡Tré!.
We’ll start with Green Day.
I was hugely excited when I learned that they were to release new material at the end of 2012, and not just one album but THREE. This is shithotawesome news, particularly given that the early reviews suggested they’d withdrawn from the grandiose likes of American Idiot and 21st Century Breakdown to record some stuff that was more akin to the Dookie/Insomniac era. What’s more, they were staggering the release; ¡Uno! came out in late September, ¡Dos! arrived in early November, and ¡Tré! was released a month later.
Now, this does mean that the lifecycle of each album is truncated, denied its usual gestation and absorption period as any regular album might enjoy. Think of a great album you bought, say, a year ago: you’d have a frenzied listening period when it was the best thing you’d ever heard, you’d listen to it over and over. Then you’d rest it for a while, so as not to over-expose it. Then a snippet of a song would pop into your head a few weeks later and you’d remember how much you loved it, and you’d go back to the euphoric listening-to-it-all-the-time stage. And so on. After a time, much of the album is second nature to you, you’re filling in and pre-empting as you go.
With this machine-gun frequency of album releases, you have to compress the story of each album, the manner in which you learn it and integrate it into your psyche, into a very short timeframe. Does this necessarily work? Well, time will tell. They’re bloody good albums though, and I’m extremely pleased by that.

555% is an ambitious and exciting project that Ginger Wildheart crowdfunded and promoted via social media. Using PledgeMusic as a platform, the recording of the album was funded by fans (me included) who paid for the record in advance before a single note had been recorded; the creation of the album was then drip-fed via Twitter, YouTube and email groups, with snippets of songs, footage from the studio and what-have-you all teasing and tantalising throughout the process. The name 555% refers to the amount of capital that was raised; Ginger set out a funding target which was quickly smashed, and as the money kept rolling in it was decided to curtail it when it reached a nice round number – 555% of the original target - so that the album would remain a relatively limited edition thing, and all of the extra money was used to tour and promote it. (He’s currently working on two similar projects – Hey! Hello! and Mutation. He’s the hardest-working man in music.) Now, I’ve been a Wildhearts fan for as long as I can remember, and I was chuffed to learn that a vast chunk of new Ginger material was being recorded. But a triple album? Was this going to be Mellon Collie all over again?

As it’s turned out, yes, kind of, but also no. The release of the album in its digital form was similar to Green Day’s approach; 555% consists of thirty tracks, and they were released for download in batches of ten on three consecutive weeks. But I’m an old-fashioned bastard, set in my ways, and am deeply cynical about downloading. I just can’t be arsed. Why spend my money and/or time on something so intangible? Particularly when so much effort has gone into the creation of a beautiful album sleeve? I’m very much of the mindset that if I want to listen to an album, I want to physically dig it out of the collection and feed it into the stereo, rather than keeping it all as files in an anonymous box. So I didn’t bother downloading 555%, I just waited for my magnificently presented triple-album to arrive in the post.
This, I maintain, was the correct thing to do. But thirty tracks is a lot to absorb in one go. Where do you start? Is the most sensible thing to treat it as three separate albums, and listen to them as freestanding entities? Probably, as it’s a real investment in time to power through the whole lot in one sitting each time; you find that you know the first twelve or thirteen tracks really well but then your attentiveness starts to wane.

This is, as yet, an unresolved issue. I don’t make mixtapes any more. Because I’m still basically a teenage wally at heart, my brain tells me that 555% needs to exist as a holistic offering rather than in fragmented, bite-size form, meaning that I don’t listen to it as much as I should. Which is something I’m going to work on, as it’s very good indeed. The Green Day triple, however, is rapidly weaving itself into my mental jukebox, simply because I’ve had slightly longer to separate it out and work through it at a logical pace. Does that make sense? I guess what I’m getting at is that I want to have loads of new music, but I can’t be trusted to manage my time and expectations correctly in order to breathe it all in at once. I need to have it doled out in neat little parcels, then be given time to inhale it at leisure. In a way, this is a metaphor for life itself.

Actually, no it isn’t.

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