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Obscurity!

"I Wanna be obscure and oblique
Inscrutable and Vague
So hard to pin down"
- "Misunderstood" by Pete Townshend


In the summer of 2000 I decided to start a website covering bands that I felt were unfairly left out of the Wilson & Alroy hierarchy of everything.  Over the years I've branched out from this rather limited charter (and discovered the wide spectrum of music review sites out there) to cover a strange collection of obscure albums and completely mainstream ones, focusing mainly on classic rock.  For some reason I have always liked those things which are obscure. Those things that make you go - "What?  You bought what?  What the hell is that?"  I see my musical knowledge as a gradually expanding spiral (hopefully not an out of control one) which only gets better with the more music I hear.  Think of it as historical explorations in pop culture, although that does sound a bit pretentious.  Part of this is due to how I get this music in the first place:

How other people get music -

1. Hear about album/artist/song/hype from someone or something

2. Following their advice, go out and get the album.

3. Review it.

How I usually get music -

1. Go to a store that sells records.  Find something that looks interesting, or maybe I've heard of it.

2. Buy it.

3. Review it.

 - I don't really go out looking for a specific thing to buy - it's whatever catches my fancy.  No, I'm not some crazy spendthrift throwing money down the drain, or madly using my bandwidth on the file-sharing program of the month - I buy cheap-ass records.  Simple as that.  My philosophy on this is pretty simple - 

My Theory on Records: If you look long enough for something you can find it on vinyl for a dollar.

It also allows me to find things that look pretty interesting at low cost to me.  The problem that I have with other people's method is this - Generally they have a preconceived idea that an album is good or bad, and then make purchases accordingly.  Some time ago I had a discussion with Scott Floman about this and he brought up the example of not reviewing some of David Bowie's 80s album because he's heard from various sources that they're terrible.  I can understand this, really I can - I engage in this practice myself in regards to Kansas, Styx and Journey.  But there are a couple of flaws with that method of getting/reviewing music. 

1) - People will tend to agree more with the prevailing viewpoint.  Don't like Odyssey and Oracle, Sgt. Peppers, Thick as a Brick?  Prevailing wisdom would encourage you to listen to them until you did, because you do not understand them.  This brings us to another one of my previously unwritten theories -

My Theory on Repeated Listens:  If by the fourth or fifth listen you still don't like an album, persistence isn't going to help.

Honestly, I think it deals with how easy it is to for your brain to memorize portions of the music.  The more catchy it is, the easier it is to memorize and like.  But it also needs some degree of complexity, otherwise you'll be remember it, but be really annoyed by it.  The Beatles were the probably the most successful band at this - think of all the catchy songs that had more going on than meets the eye.  Some degree of proficiency on instruments is also important - and good solos also help music a great deal, but they can't do everything.  A racehorse pulling a plow is impressive, but a waste of resources, much like good solos in bad songs.  How many people remember specific solos when all is said and done anyhow? 

2) - What if there was a great artist, album or even song that few people knew about?  There would be nobody to spread the word, and no opinions to go by. Maybe it's not on CD, and there's no copies on file sharing programs.  There would be no real established rock criticism on it - and it would continue to go unknown because the cycle of the ordinary music buying wouldn't get to stage one.  This is why I like buying records without any real focus - I treat each album as a potential diamond.  Most of the time it doesn't work out - but there are a few surprises that I've encountered.  Perhaps I'm in a privileged position here; when I visited London in July of 2002 I discovered a couple of things - CDs were cheaper new over there than they are used here, and records were damned expensive.  I put this down to the great taste of the English, but it was pretty unusual for me. So, I'm trying to spread the word about various artists, but in a fair fashion.  I don't want to be someone who clogs up their reviews with overrated personal favorites - giving every dog its day.  Some dogs deserve to be put to sleep.

It does make completing artist catalogues a real pain, however, which is why this site is album-oriented, not artist-oriented. For many of the artists who only have one album reviewed I have plenty more (The Byrds come to mind), it's just that I haven't gotten around to reviewing them yet. Listening to entire artists' catalogues in order is something I've tried, but I get so overwhelming bored by being tied down to one artist for what often turns out to be well over a month that I've given up on the practice. How do I choose which albums to review?  At one point I was going through a fairly arbitrarily ordered box, but lately I've been trying to mix in new artists with those I've already worked on, which is why I've recently returned to King Crimson.   

I have a page listing artists I'd like to review, or plan not to, but this is a good a place as any to list some of my favorite albums, so you get a sense of where my tastes lie. If for some reason your favorite album isn't listed keep this in mind - 1) I'm an ignorant yokel, and 2) your favorite artist sucks.  In truth I probably have yet to hear the album.  Due to circumstances of fate, parental ignorance and a generally low disposable income as a child I was raised with neither MTV or a tape deck, resulting in almost a complete missing of the 1980s and early 90s.  I could tell some music-related horror stories here, but I'll spare you and instead simply say this - when I first really became aware of music it was from the the pre-psych era and I've been moving forward ever since.  As a result, this is heavily biased towards the 60s and 70s, as I'm still grappling with punk and new wave as I write, and have been for a year or so.  I've been phasing in current music for a numberr of years, and there are plenty of good bands out there right now. Any way, here are the big name highlights:

The Who - Tommy, Live at Leeds, Who's Next, Quadrophenia.  All remarkably different albums, and even after years of listening to them all I'm still hard pressed to pick a favorite.  

The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society.  Quintessential British whimsy and mockery.

The Beatles - Rubber Soul, Abbey Road.  

The Rolling Stones - Beggars' Banquet, Sticky Fingers

As for the listening itself - that's pretty easy.  The first listen is just for the feel of the album, obvious strengths and weaknesses, standout tracks, and that sort of thing.  The second time I take notes, and start thinking of ways to say what I want to say.  By the third time around I'm looking for things in the mix and other depth issues and filling in stuff on my notes.  At this point I should theoretically write the review (and I often have) and then I let it sit, because it's usually awful.  I am not one of those people whose attempts at doing automatic writing usually comes off with any success.  It may not be very apparent, but I'm pretty damn picky.  Often I'll upload a review, and then change it a day later - tightening or adding things which bother me about the review.

One thing that should be kept in mind during any teeth-gnashing associated with this site is that it is fundamentally album-oriented, not band-oriented.  Of course, having one album increases the chances that I'll have more by the same artist, but not always.  The main reason for this is that I don't go out looking for a particular thing - it's what strikes my fancy.  However, you should be (as I am) aware that extrapolating information from only album beggars cries of small sample size - my conclusions can be radically shifted as I hear more from an artist.  So, as I stumble about my record collection and post the results here, keep all this in mind.

One Approach to Thinking About Music in General

Pulling back from the specific task of reviewing records, there are of course an infinite number of ways that people approach music to begin with.  You can have a utilitarian approach, thinking of some music as good for studying, others for partying, etc.  You can use a Platonic ideal, with the perfect record (the generally elusive 5 star rating) existing in spirit, but very infrequently brought into physical existence.  Partially because I am somewhat of a curiosity-seeker by nature, and partially because I was trained this way, I tend to use a historical approach when I think about music.  No, that doesn't mean I go to the library and research the music, or attempt to track the various band members and ask them about their playing days in the greater Cornwall area - I'll leave that to the Richie Untbergers of the world - I simply try and see how music evolves.  One of my favorite analogies in doing so is that of a city.  In this city, each street is a different band.  There are different sections in this city.  For example, in the San Francisco district the longer and broader streets would be the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane, although the buildings on the latter are pretty ugly nowadays and further out it becomes lined with trashy strip malls and has poor concrete.  The further you get away from the city center, the more time has passed.  So for Moby Grape the first block (for let's say a block represents an album, and the songs can all be buildings) would be very interesting, a hip place, but before long things start to fall apart, and Skip Spence's street branches off for a very cool and unusual block.  Sometimes the various streets cross, or branch off (when group members split), or join together, or take swift turns (the Stones' retreat from psychedelia into the blues).  But unlike a real city this one can never change at the center, the streets and buildings are forever fixed in place.  The Beatles are more like an expressway, with a high amount of traffic, almost like the temporarily fashionable parts on the outskirts of town.  Everyone has places they like to visit in this city, places where they live.  We all know there are streets we haven't been down, stores we've never seen, and maybe someday we'll get there, maybe not.  What I try and do is explore some of the side streets; I'll leave the big avenues to the commercial tours or general knowledge.  Often these side streets turn out to be boring dead ends going sideways or turning backwards, but occasionally you can find something interesting - something that was pointing in a direction that would become popular but hadn't yet been wholly developed.

Returning to music, this is something I focus on periodically - how trends develop and are treated in music.  Certain movements in popular music have their own set of criteria.  The big example I like to use is progressive rock, which is generally a mixture of classical music and rock music.  In the beginning there were several ways that bands went about this, all taking different tracks.  Procol Harum, the Moody Blues, Renaissance, Pink Floyd, The Nice, among them.  By the early 1970s, prog-rock, a subset of this had risen in popularity.  The Nice were really the first prog-rock band, with a focus on technical skills and classical quotes, and as this approach became more and more popular this paradigm took hold of musicians.  The other styles of progressive rock were abandoned, and whereas the musicians who had embarked on them had been trying something new, emulation became the mainstay of progressive rock.  The Nice, and its outgrowth Emerson, Lake and Palmer, were blatantly copied in style by other bands like Trace and Triumverat.  There was little in terms of innovation - instead of trying to create something new these artists were simply adhering to the rules established by groups like ELP and Yes, and consciously thinking of themselves as prog-rock artists.  That's not to say they didn't have any good ideas, or that their music lacks value, it's just that they adhering to a popular paradigm.  Eventually this means stagnation or excess, and prog-rock collapsed against punk and new wave in the late 1970s.  What I'm interested in are those approaches or paradigms that were not adopted by the mainstream due to circumstance, luck, or whatever.  Like the lower branches on a tree that have been pruned off, we cannot know what would have grown from these attempts, but nonetheless it is possible to weigh their strengths and weaknesses.  This is part of the reason this is an album-oriented site - sometimes a group's approach to music, paradigm if you will, can change greatly over time.  I don't think it's helpful to categorize groups, but it is possible to see where a particular album lies in the contemporary spectrum, or where it lies on our city map.

I can only hope that this has been somewhat interesting, or at the very least not a complete waste of your time.  Of course if you think I need help than obviously you've never heard of Syd Barrett.

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