Friday, February 27, 2009

No Dice

U2 (Rock)
LP: No Line on the Horizon (Interscope, 2009)

Confirmed Fan

Firstly let me say I love U2 and I’ve been a confirmed fan for thirty years. Sure, they’ve had their embarrassing moments - Bono’s messianic fervor, Adam’s early hairdos - but they’ve also recorded some thrilling, inspirational music, and Edge’s spiritual fusion of Celtic soul with digital technology redefined modern guitar playing.

During my student days their debut album Boy was the perfect accompaniment to my post-adolescent voyage of discovery. And I still remember that thrilling pivotal moment in their career when the band stole Live Aid with their incredible performance of Bad.

Shortly thereafter I spent the mid-eighties living in Southern California and hanging out with a bunch of Irish maniacs whose patron saints were - who else? - U2.

While we were getting crazy in the California desert, the soundtrack to our madness was The Joshua Tree, the band’s stunning odyssey through America’s spiritual hinterland and one of the most emotionally compelling - and successful - mainstream rock albums ever recorded.

It’s been a long time since those heady days. U2 went on to world domination, tirelessly campaigned for social justice and humanitarian causes and continued to release reliably stirring, if not always artistically challenging, music.

In truth U2 haven't been half as experimental as they'd have you believe. Some say they should have called it a day by now, but whatever their strengths and weaknesses, their songs generally manage to worm their way into my brain after repeated listenings.

No Line on the Horizon

U2's new album is No Line on the Horizon. Let’s see how it measures up, track by track.

1. No Line on the Horizon
I'm afraid it’s not a promising start. The overall sensation is one of numbing boredom as Bono warbles with all seriousness: “She said ‘Time is linear’/Then she put her tongue in my ear.” What’s worse, The Edge’s wimpy guitar flourishes are uncharacteristically subdued.

2. Magnificent
For some reason I wanted to sing “Whooah Black Betty, Bam a lam” over the intro to this song, because it sure do sound like Ram Jam. It starts out with a sense of purpose and hearkens back to the U2 of yore with soaring guitars and Larry’s four to the floor beat.

But the track rapidly descends into bathos and you can sense the usual production team of Eno and Lanois creakily making “creative decisions” to squeeze some life into the whole mess. It pains me to say, as a great admirer of Eno, that his contributions throughout seem divorced from each track's inner context.

I don't know if he came up with the keyboard stabs which punctuate this song, but they sound lazy and underdeveloped.

Anyroad, magnificent it ain’t.

3. Moment of Surrender
Aah. This is more like it. Featuring an impassioned vocal, Moment of Surrender’s soulful, spiritual lament returns the band to their comfort zone as Bono emotes on “the rhythm of my soul”, “stations of the cross,” and suchlike.

Bono's edgy performance reminds me of In a Little While from All That You Can't Leave Behind, where his cracking vocal was recorded following an all night alcohol binge. Methinks our Paul should get shit-faced more often if this is the result. Even here, though, the song's a tad predictable and Edge's guitar lines sound hesitant and prosaic.

Almost, but not quite, a U2 classic.

4. Unknown Caller
Oh God, what’s this? U2 ape the Human League!? Not a pretty sight. The problem I’m starting to see here is that you can’t bloody sing most of these songs, they’re so lacking in melody. It really hurts to say this because boy do I love this band.

5. I’ll Go Crazy if I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight
Well, I can sympathize with the sentiments expressed in the title, because we all have to let our hair down sometime. Let’s see if the music and lyrics live up to it.

Oops, no dice. As expected, the song’s about pushing the boundaries and letting go, but the words are so meaningless they could have been written by Noel Gallagher.

6. Get on Yer Boots
The driving riff and electronic farts cannot disguise the fact that this is easily U2’s worst single ever, and a prime contender for the lousiest ever song title.

When you are next staggering in front of the karaoke machine, I defy you to sing-along to, “I’ve got a submarine/You’ve got gasoline/I don’t want to talk about war between nations.”

Hang on, lemme just spin it again to confirm how atrocious it is.

Yep, right first time. A toss-up between this one, Mofo, Miami or God Part II as U2’s worst ever track.

7. Stand Up Comedy
After a spirited Led Zeppish intro come some not unexpected references to humanitarianism, terror, African children and the absurdities of rock stardom.

Worthy topics they may be, but lyrically this is on a par with all of U2’s recent albums - a withering litany of sense impressions and clichéd observations from Bono’s global jaunts with no overarching theme or focus. So not funny.

8. FEZ-Being Born
The first rock song since Steely Dan’s Fez to, er, mention a fez (actually it's about the Moroccan city where the album was recorded, not that you can tell), this is one of those aimless disasters which bands excuse by calling them ‘experimental’.

Just to give some idea of how bad this is, it could be a reject from any of the last four Bowie albums. The instrumental breaks make no sense whatsoever and I haven’t got a clue what Bono’s on about. Something to do with The Bay of Cadiz.

You can usually rely on The Edge to provide a few minor miracles, but one of the most depressing aspects of this album is how even he falters on almost every song. Eight tracks in, and so far there hasn’t been one jaw-dropping guitar moment, no, not even a Vertigo or Beautiful Day.

9. White as Snow
Alarms started going off in my head after I read that Bono "got tired of [writing in] the first-person so [he] invented all these characters; a traffic cop, a junkie, a soldier serving in Afghanistan."

I can’t quite identify which folk song they’re ripping off here, but even if he’s adopting a character, Bono singing about going hunting with his brother doesn’t quite ring true, not for a guy from Glasnevin. White as Snow is pretty only in the most vapid sense of the word.

10. Breathe
Starting with thundering drums this is one of those familiar U2 arms outstretched embracing the universe anthems. It’s one of the better tracks on offer here and hard to dislike. Shoulda been the single.

11. Cedars of Lebanon
The keyboard intro strangely echoes Brian Eno and Harold Budd’s ambient classic The Pearl. Is this a coincidence? Considering Eno co-produced this album, I don’t think so.

Anyway the track - a blissed out meditation on marital(?) discontent (is all well chez Hewson?) - ambles along with a nice mellow groove, tasty ambient guitar from Edge and an atmospheric semi-spoken vocal.

There hasn’t been anything quite like this on any other U2 album, which to my mind is a good thing. It's a great track and a more than decent closer but unfortunately it’s too little too late.

For some, maybe it's enough that U2 still have the energy and the will to create records. Fans will purchase No Line on the Horizon in the millions, and it's already been praised to high heaven by Rolling Stone and their ilk. However, Moment of Surrender, Breathe, and Cedars of Lebanon aside, No Line on the Horizon plays it too safe. Much as I love Dublin's finest, this predictable collection isn't classic U2.

Play the U2 Video Game!
Get on Yer Boots. How long can you stand it?

(My record so far, 1 minute 15 secs!)

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Liquid Morphemes

Japanese Band Names

Bump of Chicken

Many jokes have been cracked at the expense of Japanese language learners. Namely their difficulty in distinguishing between the 'R' and 'L' sound in spoken English.

Such cheap shots are entirely unfair since these sounds simply don't exist in the Japanese language. Linguists refer to them as the retroflex ('R') and lateral ('L') phonemes of the liquid morpheme.

In any case, the problem works both ways. Japanese has a sound which is a combination of 'R' and 'L'. Thus, a Japanese name like 'Ryoko' should be pronounced with a sound which is somewhere between an 'R' and an 'L' and which is, as far as I know, uniquely Japanese. Most foreigners fail to enunciate this sound correctly, preferring to reduce it to a simple 'R'.

For music fans, one entertaining by-product of this language point is its effect on Japanese band names.

The most famous example is the case of Glay, the Japanese superstars who are known for their androgynous look and outrageous hairdos. They make records too, but I wouldn't bother with those if I were you.

Anyway, the official explanation of the band's strange name is that it was a deliberate mispelling of the word 'gray', intended to represent their style of music, a mixture of rock (black) and pop (white).

The more likely explanation is that, like many of their countryfolk, the band simply confused the spelling and fell victim to the familiar 'R' and 'L' problem.

In the case of Tokyo ska punks Shaka Labbits, the confusion is intentional, since the band wished to combine their favorite animal, the rabbit, with the phrase 'Love it'.

Fair enough, I guess.

An amusing language error was definitely the reason behind the strange name of Tokyo punks Thee Machine Gun Elephant. When they recorded a cover version of a song on The Damned's Machine Gun Etiquette album, a friend mispronounced the name.

Like many western bands, Japanese rockers often pay homage to their cultural heroes when choosing a name. I immediately recognized The Mad Capsule Markets' moniker from a William Gibson novel. T-Bolan were obviously inspired by my teen favourite - T. Rex vocalist Marc Bolan.

It's fun trying to guess the hidden meaning behind the more esoteric Japanese band names. In the case of Chiba rockers Bump of Chicken I like to imagine their name refers to the goosebumps fans feel when listening to their music.

Blankey Jet City's name suggests emptiness and urban ennui, which is quite appropriate considering most of their songs deal with issues like juvenile delinquency and broken homes.

Tokyo metal act Maximum the Hormone inexplicably used to write their name in Latin script, but their sobriquet certainly conjures the testosterone-fueled energy of much metal music. Unfortunately, the band suck.

In some cases, band names serve only to baffle the listener. Tokyo Yankees seem to be confusing music with sports, but other names simply defy understanding. What are The Autopsy Report of Drowning Shrimp about? Or Doping Panda? Coaltar of the Deepers? Guniw Tools? Your guess is as good as mine.

Some Japanese bands have great names. Lunkhead and Melt Banana are particular favorites and their noms de guerre make me want to hear their music. Likewise The Pees. I have a feeling they'd get on rather well with my old band The Pubes.

Everyone has his limits, though. I wonder if HIDE with Spead Beaver or Sound Masturbation really know how their names sound to westerners? And I can assure you I won't be getting together anytime soon with either Bathtub Shitters, Pussy Pudding, Flying Testicles or The Garlic Boys.