Thursday, July 7, 2011

ruminations- suede- 'dog man star'

like a lot of people i've been reminded of suede by the sudden appearance of all of their reissued/remastered albums that just came out last month. i remember getting into them when i saw the video for 'metal mickey' on 120 minutes way back in 1992. none of my friends knew who they were, even though i was making mixtapes for my friends constantly and often including one or sometimes two tracks from their self-titled debut. i believe i was partial to the aforementioned 'metal mickey' and also the slower tracks such as 'breakdown' or even 'pantomime horse.' given how huge of a suede fan i was in 1994, when 'dog man star' (aka their towering, ambitious masterpiece of a second album against which all of their output is judged and wilts under the pressure) came out it somehow managed to escape my notice. i never heard anything about it. there was that whole ridiculousness with that american band suing them for rights to the name (sorry, sir, but i still referred to them as 'suede' as i'd never heard of your band and still haven't to this day) and then, of course, the unavoidable elephant-in-the-room of genius guitarist bernard butler's colourful exit. given that i was only 15 and i'd never heard anything off of it and hadn't heard a peep about the album i just assumed it wasn't as good as the debut album and never bothered with it until five years later when i found a used copy at cd warehouse (where i used to buy a lot of music in those days- a bit of an untapped goldmine in kansas city- no one went there and they always had what you were looking for used. a sampling of treasures i acquired there- every pj harvey album up to 'stories from the city...,' 'this is hardcore' by pulp, 'ladies and gentlemen...' by spiritualized and countless cure bootlegs) and brought it up to the counter where the clerk (who i'd become friendly with due to the frequency of my visits) raved to me for several minutes about the astounding brilliance of 'the asphalt world.' somehow, despite all of this and liking several tracks a great deal ('the 2 of us' and 'daddy's speeding' transport me right back to those boy-band wasteland days of 1999) the album never grabbed me as a whole the way that the debut did and the cd sat on the shelves for years. i even thought that the first disc of 'sci-fi lullabies' was better (which, to be fair, is far too good to be any band's b-sides collection).
upon hearing about the reissues i dug 'dog man star' out of the stacks and stacks of untouched cds sitting in the living room and ripped it onto my ipod and have been listening to it steadily ever since. having heard so many people talk it up as an unparalleled masterpiece always seemed a bit overdramatic before, but something clicked with it just recently and now i'm going to transform into one of those obsessives right before your eyes. while it is true that 'dog man star' doesn't have the accessibility and overflowing wealth of singles that the debut has (the only other album that rivals 'suede' for a similar amount of single-worthy material would be 'purple rain' in my mind) it has a fully-realised clarity of vision that the debut barely even hints at. it somehow manages to present worlds and universes of musical possibilities that the band could've taken off to in such an expertly-realised way that such a burden would've caused (and has on multiple occasions- 'the second coming' by the stone roses, anyone?) lesser bands to crack under the pressure. doing what's expected of you on your eagerly anticipated follow-up is dangerous, but sticking to your guns can be even more dangerous in some cases. the orchestral scope of some of these tracks should NOT work (i.e. 'still life' should sound pompous and ridiculous, but doesn't, for example), the varied musical landscape should make the album feel slapped-together with a lack of cohesion, but here it somehow all hangs together perfectly. 'daddy's speeding' gracefully moves through an arrangement that is nothing short of perplexing and brilliant all at the same time. most would have to take a cocktail of drugs that would be lethal to get there and once they did they wouldn't be clear-headed enough to pull such a feat off in under six minutes. there is no rhythm section. at times the mix is left painfully naked with only yawning chasms of reverb left to comfort you. 'introducing the band' is the perfect statement of intent necessary to kick off an album such as this. the mix is thick and viscous as if the music is coming at you through a helmet made out of molasses. considering the sharp, pristine top-heavy sound that they normally favor, here the restraint not to resort to such a sound is nothing short of heroic as such a sound would render 'introducing the band' virtually unlistenable. the bizarre vocal loop alone would be enough to drive someone crazy under such circumstances. what's more the guitars are sharp and cutting enough that they are able to cut through the hazy thickness well-enough as it is. this is to say absolutely nothing of the lyrics, which are probably the most wonderfully strange of all of the wordplay that brett anderson ever attempted. what do the lines mean? they are meant to guide you through the disorientation that the track pulls you in with. they trick you into feeling something without you even knowing what it is. the bass sounds like it was played with a slide- it doesn't even sound real. this is what people mean when they describe a track as 'psychedelic.' or at least they should.
there are also tracks like 'the wild ones,' 'the 2 of us' and 'black or blue' which somehow see brett anderson moving from channeling scott walker to his ungodly-high (yet controlled) falsetto and then to a soothing subtlety sometimes in one fell swoop that you don't even see coming. you can practically hear the singer and the guitarist attempting to one-up each other at every turn- neither one fully succeeding, but only bringing out an evenly matched effort in their respective opponents.
then there is, of course, 'the asphalt world' which sits perfectly as the second-to-last track. one of the things i am looking forward to most once i've ordered these new reissues is hearing the fabled 12-minute version of this song. how can a nine-minute track be considered the 'lean' version? for as long as it is the song never fails to hit me like a tornado- i feel like it hits hard, doesn't let up and is gone before i even know what's happened. i've tried to put it on mixes of every kind before- it refuses to leave its place. the middle section is something worthy of spiritualized- the colorsound wah is on full display, even. i've read many a review calling 'foul' for not ending the album with this gut-wrenching track, claiming that it's unrelenting nature can't help but completely overshadow the gorgeous slow-burn of 'still life.' i am and always have been a huge booster of what i call the 'come down' track and 'still life' falls effortlessly into that tradition. plus, where else are you going to put a song that starts out with nothing but acoustic guitar and vocals and ends with a full-on bombastic orchestra? it's the perfect ending- it lulls you at the beginning and then at the end it compacts something which most would instinctually stretch into an extended centerpiece.
i have a difficult time putting music into some kind of a cultural context because while music can define culture and vice-versa time washes all of it away and renders such attempts meaningless. i had no idea suede were considered part of the 'brit-pop' thing. they came along first and didn't have much in common with any of the heavy-hitters in that scene whether it was musically (it's not difficult to notice how much better they were than pretty much any brit-pop band), stylistically or in the realm of obnoxious preening (ah, blur vs. oasis- how quaint and stupid it all seems now). i'm also pretty sure that this has to do with the fact that when brit-pop was in full swing i was 15 years old and living in kansas so all that really mattered to me in the greater scheme of things was the music. in a lot of ways i find 'dog man star' to be a signpost on the outskirts of the musical wealth of the early nineties. as the decade wore on music of this caliber was hard to come by- it was almost like they were telling us it was all slipping away right then...

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