It kind of bums me out (DK here) that blogs are displayed in reverse chronological order since a post often refers to the preceding one. Nevertheless, let’s refer away. In the last post I tried to survey Madness and Morals as a whole and instead ended up surveying my (boring) biography. What I love about blogs is that they allow for what some people might consider a degeneracy: a public self-reflection. Like many (song)writers, I have done the journal thing for years, and it’s both therapeutic and artistically productive to reflect, complain, worry, rhapsodize, and expose guilty feelings in writing. New(ish) technology allows that sort of thing to made public, a fact that strikes some as both a threat to privacy and a massive new wave of narcissism—Google-Facebook and reality TV. The fact is, as Jacques Barzun noted in his conservative masterpiece From Dawn to Decadence, one of the characteristic mental attitudes of modernity is that of self-consciousness—not in the sense of social insecurity, but of an intense awareness of oneself. One might add that as interactive technologies supplant one-way broadcasting, the temptation for self-display is overwhelming for some people.
I myself am intensely aware, as a recovering Catholic schoolboy, of the necessity of the examination of conscience, and, of course, I’ve been in showbiz since, well, since I was a Catholic schoolboy. So it seems to me that reflection is an obligation for one who wishes to be a decent human being and that self-display is an inherent feature of the performing arts. So I would disagree with Barzun that self-consciousness is a symptom of cultural decadence, but I would agree with those who hold that self-display is often a pretty unappetizing exercise in exhibitionism. Now Fran Liebowitz, expert raconteur, holds that our historical moment enjoys not enough social democracy but too much cultural democracy; not everybody gets to participate in civil discourse, but everybody can upload cat videos to Youtube. Liebowitz decries the belief that everybody creates culture; she argues that we have a name for cultural producers: they’re called artists. Ah but here is where Liebowitz is wrong. Anybody can be an artist—‘twas ever thus! Anybody can make up a song, draw a picture, or create a cat video. The mistake is the refusal to acknowledge that bad art is art. In other words, when I encounter an amateurish or fatuous or ignorant song, picture, or video, I might be tempted to say, “That’s not art.” No. That’s just not good art. And it’s totally okay for people to create bad art. We’re not going to exhibit refrigerator drawings in an art museum. Their significance is personal, not cultural. Now, technology has allowed for bigger and more public refrigerators, but the principal is the same: people make stuff, they are proud of the stuff they make, and they want to display it. I don’t know how you distinguish between artworks that claim a merely personal significance from those that aspire to a greater consequence. But here’s the deal: Louder Than Dirt is an artistic collaboration. Our ambition is that of artists: the creation of culturally significant works of the highest quality.
See, one of the primary attributes of the artist’s persona and self-concept is the possibility of failure. Artists, especially neo-classicists like Louder Than Dirt, embrace the possibility of failure. Is Madness and Morals as good as Exile on Main Street? Nope. Is it as good as Dark Side of the Moon? Nope. Electric Ladyland? Nope. “Hellhound on My Trail”? The Seventh Symphony? “The Ode to a Nightingale”? “The Dance”? The Importance of Being Earnest? Nope, nope, nope, nope, nope. But how do those masterpieces stack up against their predecessors? Are the Rolling Stones better than Muddy Waters? Hell, no! But Exile is a fucking great album. So is Madness and Morals. But to the extent that M&M falls short of LTD’s ambitions for it, it is a failure. But if we hadn’t cherished those ambitions, we wouldn’t have made the record. Artists are a little crazy. They have to create these artificial obsessions in order to spur their achievements. So while artists certainly learn from and revere their predecessors, artists often construct an artificial competition with predecessors. (Crazy old Harold Bloom treated this phenomenon years ago in The Anxiety of Influence, the influence of which continues to fill me with anxiety.) As I said to Lord Erudite when we began recording, “I just want it to sound like a record.” What I didn’t say, but thought, was, “Like a record: you know, like Abbey Road, Fear of Music, Exile on Mother-Fucking Main Street.” Sorry about the cussing. I guess I have strong feelings on this topic. And here are those feelings as accurately as I can express them: every good (I don’t say great) work of art is a noble failure in part because it is the product of unreasonable ambition, and I feel that Madness and Morals is good.
Now, I believe in greatness. I listen to the Seventh Symphony every once in a while; I sometimes recite “The Ode to a Nightingale” out loud when I’m by myself—not too often, they’re both too intense for that. I screwed up earlier when I said that Madness and Morals is great. It is certainly not my place to say that. Indeed, since I’ve already said that it’s a failure, I can’t also claim that it is great. Beethoven and Keats created greatness. “The Ode” and the Symphony are perfect, so far as I can tell. As a Catholic schoolboy I was taught to believe that perfection was not granted unto mankind, but I can find no flaw in either of those works. So what I have to talk about is what makes M&M good, even though it’s not as good as we, The Dirt, would have liked. Important point: failure keeps the artist going. There’s always next time.
Alright! What makes M&M so good? Well, first and obviously, the performances: their power, subtlety, and inventiveness. Lord Erudite loves his overdubs, so sometimes it’s hard to focus on a single part, but then, it’s sometimes hard to focus on a single voice in Bach. Listen, for example, to Julian’s bass on “Criminal Character”: a combination of problem-solving (how to play a song with no chord changes) and expressiveness: this is what I mean when I speak of inventiveness. Or Adam’s groovy combo-organ sound on “Bacteria”: subtlety: the sound never jumps out at you, it totally serves the song, and it’s the opposite of a gimmicky “special effect.” Weirdly, Adam’s understated part adds energy to the song’s already energetic feeling. And power needs nothing more than the name Joseph Lawsky. The snare stroke in the opening of “Suspicions,” which opens the album, is monstrous. It’s not just the force of the blow, although that certainly matters. And it’s not just whatever Lord E did to get the snare hit up in the mix, although it helps that it’s in a space between guitar chords and nobody else is playing yet. It also has to do with timing—basically, the tempo hasn’t been established yet since the guitar isn’t really playing in tempo, or rather, the snare stroke itself establishes the tempo. By the way, the lag in the guitar was Joseph’s suggestion, though as the guitar player, I’ll gladly take the credit. Well, all through these pages I have praised the performances, so it’s safe to say that I consider the performances overall to be excellent and a big part of the high quality (I don’t say greatness) of Madness and Morals.
I am obligated to speak of my own performance, and so I shall endeavor to offer true self-evaluation without indulgence in false modesty. I think the guitar-playing on M&M is good although it breaks no new ground in guitaristic technique. I mean, I’m not a technical guitar player, but I play expressively and I have a good sense of melody. The solo on “Patience on Approval” is quite good, with a charmingly relaxed feel. The chords at the beginning of “Suspicions” sound quite good, but again, very classicist (i.e., not very innovative). The backwards guitar on “For Certain” is way cool, but that has more to do with Lord Erudite’s concept than with my execution. As for my vocals, I again approve but am able to restrain my ecstasy. On “Criminal Character” I try to sound like Howlin’ Wolf and end up closer to Bob Seeger.
I’m more enthusiastic about the songwriting on M&M, but I am delighted to announce that other members of the band will make songwriting contributions, in addition to my own, on our next CD, which is taking shape in embryonic form. I think the songwriting on Madness and Morals is a notch better than that on our last effort, Oily Little Rainbows. I have frequently noted in these pages that my approach to writing these songs was intuitive; I thought of it as “following the imagination.” So the songwriting was in a sense innocent, uncalculating, not goal oriented. This fact is the reason that I have had trouble commenting on M&M as a whole: the way I went about writing the songs makes the CD the opposite of a “concept album.” Now, here is a source of anxiety for me. One of LTD’s finest virtues, in my opinion, is its broad range of styles. But I do sort of wish that our style were one thing, a package that listeners could identify. But this is something about which I have strong feelings—so I’ll suppress the urge to cuss. I don’t give a shit—ah, crap. I don’t care about packaging Louder Than Dirt. Now, practical people, people whose opinions I trust, have often told me that if I (or somebody) don’t package, promote, and sell the band, we can’t play any shows. (Presumably we could continue to make records at Bottom Floor Studio for our own edification.) And I often feel guilty for Acquired Incompetence Syndrome—not doing something one doesn’t want to do because one does not know how to do it: “Clean your room!” “I don’t know how!” Come on, people. Throw me a fricken bone here. Give us a job. We’ll entertain you. And that’s what I want to say about the songwriting: I think it neatly balances the traditional and accessible with the inventive, nay experimental, and challenging.
Here’s an easter egg: one of our fans, whom collectively we in the band affectionately refer to as Dirtbags, has leaked the entire album to Youtube. By all means enjoy the songs over there. Remember, though that very soon we will release the album officially, both in CD form and online at bandcamp.com. Please know, dear Dirtbags, that we have never made a dime off of Louder Than Dirt. Every penny we make goes back into the band either to manufacture more CD’s or to pay gas to get to the show or to purchase gear: studio equipment is expensive–the sky’s the limit. The reason that you want to purchase our product even though it’s freely available if you know where to look is to support the band.
Here’s the last thing I want to say about Madness and Morals and about Louder Than Dirt generally: it’s not bullshit. It’s not a scam. We mean it when we play, and we play like we mean it. That’s called integrity. And we are, if not radically innovative, expressively inventive. That’s called creativity. And we have the rock and roll swagger (the real thing, not bullshit “swag,” a marketing concept), the élan of rebellion, the spice of social criticism, and the energy of open minds. That’s called loudness. You can call it heavy soul and rock and roll or you can call it neo-classical rock. You can call it Ray or Flaming Pie or Hoopsa Fungus Monkeys. You can call it anything, but know that it’s for real. Integrity, creativity, loudness. Better than silence. Louder Than Dirt.