Friday, July 31, 2009

Keeping the Album Alive

by Sean Highkin

You hear people say it all the time: the MP3 killed the album. And to an extent, it is true. The advent of iTunes has made it easier to pick and choose songs, and even if you do choose to buy the album, it’s really just files on a hard drive in a certain order. Obtaining new music has essentially lost any physical or personal value. I can’t even remember the last time I looked forward to an album’s release date so I could go to the store, buy it, and go home and put it on for the first time. Even on the rare occasions when I do buy music these days, I will have downloaded it two weeks before its release date, and at that point it becomes more like going through the motions of buying the physical product to put on the shelf. If it’s been a long time since I’ve bought an album without listening to it first, it’s been even longer since I’ve sat down with the artwork and lyric book for an album I own and truly immersed myself in it. Nowadays, you have to form a tweet-sized opinion so quickly that you don’t have time to first decide how you actually feel about the album, and then you move on to the next one.

So in that sense, yes, file-sharing has robbed us of the rituals associated with hearing a new album for the first time. However, I am not ready to believe that it has completely taken away the meaning of a certain collection of songs put out by an artist at one time in a specific order. You see the album’s continued relevance in the recent resurgence in vinyl sales. Granted, even a doubling market for LPs is still a tiny niche market at best, but it makes sense that those purists of the physical product would opt for the version with the bigger artwork and analog sound. After all, hasn’t the entire appeal of the CD, the increased portability, now been completely replaced by iPods?

But more than the renewed popularity of vinyl, there is another reason why I believe the “album” as a form of expression is not dead: with the supposed demise of the album in the digital age has come, oddly enough, the increased popularity among bands new and old of the live show built around a start-to-finish performance of one album. This concept is nothing new, of course—Pink Floyd and Yes used to do it all the time in the ‘70s, and the Who have repeatedly hauled Tommy and Quadrophenia out on tour. It’s something that seems logical if you’re pushing the “concept album” angle. The Decemberists are devoting the first hour of their latest shows to a full presentation of their newest literary epic, The Hazards of Love. Prog metallers Mastodon tore up Coachella in April with a front-to-back reading of Crack the Skye. If Green Day had any clue what they were doing, they would give the same treatment to 21st Century Breakdown on their latest arena tour.

What I find interesting is the amount of bands that are now doing this for albums that don’t necessarily need to be heard in order the way a concept piece would. Sonic Youth, for instance, garnered rave reviews when they performed Daydream Nation in its entirety at a handful of festivals last year. Similar shows by everyone from Slint (doing Spiderland) to Public Enemy (It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back) have found wide acclaim from both fans and critics. The Pixies just announced a Fall tour commemorating the 20th anniversary of Doolittle, and these shows will feature a complete performance of that album. Even classic-rock dinosaurs are getting in on the action: Aerosmith have been performing their 1975 classic Toys in the Attic in full on their summer amphitheater tour with ZZ Top, and Metallica has recently treated fans to 1986’s Master of Puppets.

However, sometimes when older bands with large bodies try to do this with newer or lesser-known albums, it doesn’t go over as well. Iron Maiden tried it in 2006 with A Matter of Life and Death, and was met with mixed reactions from fans who undoubtedly went to the show to hear the band’s classic ‘80s material. To Maiden’s credit, they didn’t backpedal, although they also have recently done tours covering only specific periods of their past. The Cure also faced backlash when they opted to perform their self-titled 2004 album on tour. It would seem that the live show isn’t the way to get acquainted with a new album from start to finish, which is why most bands that have tried it have stuck to replicating their most well-known works.

It’s a fascinating trend given the evidence of the endangerment of the album on almost every other medium, but in a way it makes sense. The instant access to music allowed by MP3s comes at the expense of much of the emotional connection tied to the full-album experience, and many fans want to be able to preserve that somehow. So why not through the live show? You’re there with the band, hearing the songs in the order they intended. I’m sure every fan can name a few albums they’d love their favorite band to present live in this fashion. Radiohead would be amazing at this, but I feel like Thom Yorke probably disdains the concept of being in a rock band too much to ever consider it. Bob Dylan’s live shows haven’t been relevant for years—how many fans wouldn’t love for him to revitalize himself as a touring act by devoting an evening to Highway 61 Revisited or Blood on the Tracks? Wouldn’t a Neil Young show featuring After the Gold Rush or Tonight’s the Night be infinitely preferable to a show based around his new concept album about electric cars? The possibilities are endless.

Here are a few albums that aren’t necessarily concept albums that I’d love to hear performed live:

My Bloody Valentine, Loveless – MBV already perform most of the songs on this 1991 masterpiece in concert anyway. Doing them in order and closing with their usual 20-minute feedback frenzy of “You Made Me Realize” would add up to roughly the length of one of their festival setlists, and adding “Performing Loveless in its Entirety!” to the poster would make the shows feel like a once-in-a-lifetime event.

U2, Achtung Baby – Debate all you want about the merits of the giant PopMart lemon, the Elevation heart, or this new claw thing U2 have been erecting in stadiums this summer. While all of these are landmarks in the field of spectacle, the fact remains that the best tour Bono and co. have ever done was 1992’s ZooTV tour, for one reason: these shows featured 9 or 10 songs a night from their finest album, Achtung Baby. Bringing this album back in full works on so many levels: as a perennial set-closer, “One” has become a groan-inducing chore to endure, building a reputation mainly as the song where Bono tells everybody to get out their cell phones and donate money to Africa despite the fact that they have just paid $150 to see the band’s show. Moving it back to its third spot on the album, where it would be surrounded either side with “Even Better Than the Real Thing” and “Until the End of the World,” could breathe new life into it. It would mean that every show would be guaranteed “The Fly” and “Mysterious Ways,” two songs no U2 concert should be without. And “Acrobat” and “So Cruel” have never been performed live, so it would be a great opportunity to please die-hards by pulling out two long-neglected gems. The rest of the material has rotated in and out of their sets over the past two decades, so it wouldn’t be impossible to pull off.

The Rolling Stones, Sticky Fingers – If there’s any touring juggernaut whose live shows could use the boost of energy that Toys in the Attic has given Aerosmith, it’s the Stones. Exile on Main Street is the critical favorite, but it’s probably too long to pull off and still leave room for all the other classics the Stones would need to play. Sticky Fingers is perfect: it’s universally recognized as one of their best albums, they already play “Brown Sugar,” “Wild Horses,” and “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” every night anyway, and album cuts like “Sway” and “Sister Morphine” would be a treat to hear again.

The Smashing Pumpkins, Adore – Yes, I know. It’s not really the Smashing Pumpkins. Billy Corgan has zero credibility in 2009, for a variety of reasons that I’ll save for another column. But this could work. Corgan has always been obsessed with being a very ‘70s kind of rock star, and the “full album performance” thing that the Who and Pink Floyd used to specialize in is not something he got around to doing while he was relevant. So why Adore over Siamese Dream or Mellon Collie? For one, Adore is the band’s most underappreciated album, so giving it time in the spotlight would almost—almost—justify Corgan in keeping the Pumpkins name when there are no other original members left. Plus, given that it’s the only original Pumpkins album that drummer Jimmy Chamberlain, the last member to leave earlier this year, didn’t play on, it would seem to be the clear choice of an album that Corgan could credibly present under the band’s moniker while functioning as a solo act.


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