Thursday, September 12, 2013

A Year Later, Still Researching The Blues

Many will remember a series of albums released in the 90's as an off-shoot of popular Much Music videos called Big Shiny Tunes. They were wildly popular until, like so many things, they became overdone and ran their course. Redd Kross have been writing big shiny tunes for 30 years and last year's Researching The Blues was no exception. The difference is their songs have not become overdone or run their course.

At the close of 2012, in an effort to be as honest with these things as a fickle music nerd can be, it seemed like a good idea to declare Researching The Blues album of the year. To a fault, and perhaps due to lack of time or ambition, I did not offer much justification or commentary for that choice or any of my other end of year choices. So in addition to spending as much time as possible with new and interesting music being released this year, it always feels right to revisit years past and see if your key favourite musical choices still hold up. As it turns out, Redd Kross still made my favourite record last year, and this is why.

"Stay Away From Downtown" was a perfect lead single. It signalled a big shiny return after fifteen years. Packed full of upbeat energy, nifty little guitar licks right out of the gate, minor chord transition drops in all the right places, background vox placed actively in verse bridge and chorus sections, driving drums with hints of of a slightly medicated Keith Moon, and distortion that warms up the room without slipping into tinny or gratuitous feedback traps.

There is a lot of pop music released every year, and since the beginning of time the core ingredients have tended to be things like melody, hooks, brevity, and shininess. To varying degrees, artists, producers and labels go about that in different ways with varying end results. In my 42 years, 37 of which have been spent buying, consuming and obsessing about music, I have always had a fixation with melody and hooks. I would suggest bands like Redd Kross have as well.

For many who would listen to a song like "Hazel Eyes", the reaction would be something like "that sounds like The Beatles". Of course it does. The beauty with guitar based pop music, when you listen way too closely, is it never deviates too far from the baseline template (not bass line) set in motion years ago. When you also listen closely, you can here things that make albums like RTB uniquely a Redd Kross album. Like most of us in a certain vintage, these lads grew up listening to Kiss. The songs have the fuzzy warmness of Kiss without ever straying into Dinosaur Jr. or Husker Du fuzziness. They flex on the things that made early Kiss songs really just Beatles songs with a bit more muscle. The way The Beatles bopped there heads while playing "Love Me Do" is something you can do with every song on this record. This is a key guitar pop performance metric. Love Me Do Head Boppability. Check.

A friend and I were talking about "power pop" and guitar type pop compared with post rock, prog and other more free form styles of music with more clear lines of focus on musicianship and perhaps originality. Comparing well composed and considered three chord pop songs to Tool, or Tortoise or even Sigur Ros feels like an apples to oranges deal. What my friend said is, no matter how much you like the more complicated music, there really are no rules. Pop songs have rules. Again, the ideas of brevity and making something that can sound fresh within a framework that has been done at exponential length. Different styles with different angles of trickiness, but I would suggest sitting down to write "Winter Blues" is potentially tricky. You're not working from a clean slate. You don't have free reign. You want to create something that sounds very now in the current scheme of things, but with a familiarness that is both appealing to yourself and hopefully others.

This album is comfortable with itself from start to finish, because it never falls for any traps. Lots of bands start out to write three minute pop songs, but they lack the testicular fortitude to stay the course. One moment of doubt and an album like this gets doused in over production, big drums, heavy handed dubs, and mosh pit grunge type stop start cliches. Being genuine and true to what the song requires is what this album (and this band) does so well. Songs shouldn't change because of how you think they should sound for a listener. Songs should stay how you want them to sound for yourself after you have finished writing them. Perfect guitar albums like this one, Grand Prix by Teenage Fanclub, One Chord to Another by Sloan, and Copper Blue by Sugar don't bugger up their own well crafted pop songs to meet some other optical standard or perceived view to originality and rule breaking.

Researching The Blues also kickstarted a thought for me about something that I've been ranting about pretty much ever since. Albums have gotten too long. Sure there is a lengthy history of double records and artists feeling like everything they write should land on an album. It should not. No artist, especially in this day and age, has that many stories to tell in one sitting. Eight tracks is a bit short. Twelve is a bit long. Ten is perfect. Enough to leave the listener feeling satisfied yet wanting to hear your stories again. When I finish listening to RTB, I feel like the Redd Kross lads got to the point quickly in each of the stories, and left me wanting to hear them all again. I love Sigur Ros and Radiohead, but sometimes when I finish one of their albums, I feel mostly exhausted. Different experience by design, but again, they do not have any rules to work within. There is no filler on Researching The Blues. Just a focused playfulness with accomplished tight playing and an ultimate comfort in knowing what type of band you are, and a sense of not having to prove anything or be anything you don't want to.

The other thing I love about this record is the perfect execution of being able to sound like 1990 Redd Kross and 2013 Redd Kross simultaneously. Bands that have been around for any amount of time seem to find themselves trying to forget the past or constantly trying to re-create it. For the latter, the trick seems to be how much do we capture the essence of our signature heyday period, while not sounding like a relic or a band pandering to hardcore fans incapable of evolving with the band. When you play Researching The Blues and then follow it with Third Eye from 1990, the era of release would not be readily obvious if you did not know. In fairness, there is a retro feel to everything Redd Kross have produced even as far back as '82, borrowing respectfully from 60's and 70's rock, pop and punk with their own spin. This creates a timelessness in RTB that matches their whole catalogue, but still has a spark and energy that sounds like a band that's super psyched to be making a new record in 2013.

So yeah. Researching The Blues was not the most original ground breaking album in 2013, but it was one of the most sincere, genuine, concisely crafted, unapologetic, and adoringly playful records of the year. I used to feel swayed by critic lists or friend favourites when making "best of..." lists. I have gotten better at stepping back and rationally deciding which albums was I truly most excited about in a given year, regardless of whether they broke molds or created huge buzz. So in the same way that Redd Kross will not compromise the merits of a perfect three minute pop song, it felt right to not compromise a list with a number one choice that was anything less than perfect, and perfect is Researching The Blues remains.