Saturday, November 29, 2008

Chinese Democracy: One Week Later

Time for a follow-up post on the now week-old Chinese Democracy. Interesting to hear everyone's comments and I hope there will be more.

#1 song that has grown on me: Catcher in the Rye. It's definitely the most upbeat, fun song on the album (relative statement of course) and it's slowly infectious. There's no clear-cut chorus (which is the case on a number of tracks) and that makes the gratification come with time, which I like.

Other songs that have grown on me: Chinese Democracy (the song), Prostitute, and the two songs I was most dismissive of, If the World and This I Love.

Regarding If the World specifically. This melody is great. The lyrics aren't half bad either. I think the style is a little campy with the Spanish guitar and the cliché piano runs. That still holds it back somewhat for me. But this song has really grown on me. I love the way it builds over the course of the track.

Another song that I fundamentally like but have trouble with stylistically: Shackler's Revenge. I love the chorus to this song and I love that Axl uses a number of his old "voices" here-- particularly the "It's So Easy" voice. I don't love the industrial sheen and the solo is too heavy on shredder gimmicks. This one is all Bumblefoot, which concerns me because he's the only lead guitarist who's still in the band. (BTW, Alex, if you're still reading, I feel like so many of your criticisms are specifically about the production values of this one track. You should listen to the whole album several more times and get back to us.)

One element that's not holding up with repeated listens: Lyrics on Sorry and This I Love. I normally don't care about lyrics (I often don't even bother to discern them in the first place.) However, the lyrics to Sorry are almost impossible to like. Axl is always going to be self-righteous, but normally he's so much more clever about it. This one is just petty and spiteful. And This I Love has some lame rhyming couplets that remind me of Meat Loaf. Way too cliché for the guy who wrote Don't Damn Me, Bad Apples, Rocket Queen, and Paradise City.

Other criticisms that remain: Orchestral arrangements. First they're so heavily compressed that they sound like keyboard patches. This is a shame because most of the guitars and vocals aren't compressed and build really nicely. I love songs like Street of Dreams or Prostitute that don't even reach their dynamic peak until about 3 minutes in. But the "orchestra" sounds like it's coming from a different album. Also, the arrangements are boring. None of the songs truly benefit from all that extra weight. Riad N' the Bedouins comes close but that track is so damn awesome, it wouldn't matter either way.

Regarding the guitarists: I'm really impressed with Buckethead on this album. He's the most versatile of all the players. Overall, Robin Finck disappoints me. His solo on This I Love is pretty good, especially when the drums kick in, but on almost every track, the guy falls back on what I'd call "blues-isms." He shows no ability for legato phrasing, which was Slash's calling card. His (Slash's) solos weren't lightning fast like Buckethead or Bumblefoot or Butterballs or whatever, but they were so damn fluid. Robin Finck, by contrast, does the same thing every time: Bluesy bend on one note and then slide into a new one, with a little bit of palm muting for effect. He sounds more like B.B. King than Slash and I don't think it always fits.

Buckethead's stuff is better. His solos are the most "singable" of the three (though not approaching Slash) and he has the best sense of when to hold a note and when to shred. Alex, you know I hate 4-fingered tapping as much as anyone (certainly more than you do), but it totally works on Better. In fact, you couldn't have the chorus to that song without those tapping runs.

My jury is out on Bumblefoot. I like him when he slows down and plays within the guitar's normal range, but he does seem to love the squealing effects more than the other two combined. That said, he appears to be the guy going forward, so we'll just have to hope for the best.

I don't think I like Chris Pitman. He seems to be the one who's providing all the industrial elements and I'm not sure what he contributes beyond that. He's all over Madagascar, which might now be my least favorite track on the album. He's now been in the band longer than anyone except for Dizzy, so I'm guessing he's here to stay. I'm guessing that he's the guy Slash and Duff most object to when they listen to this.

I think this record is remarkably strong. I stand by my previous declaration that Riad, Street of Dreams, Better and There Was A Time are all stellar. And I'm getting ready to add Catcher in the Rye and the title track to that list. Really the only tracks that I'm not fully on board with are Sorry (for the lyrics) and Madagascar (for a variety of reasons.)

I've been listening to this record every day-- at a pace I haven't matched since Sky Blue Sky-- and I find it to be very rewarding. And no, I can't really think about the 17 years part when I listen to this, because even the worst tracks are better than anything Slash, Duff, Izzy, Steven Adler, whoever else... has done in that time.


texplush said...

Drischord -
it warms my heart to hear you get so fully behind this album. Agreed on Cather In The Rye. I also seriously got into There Was A Time over the holiday. I see your point about the acoustic and piano in If The World, but the reason why I love that song is the way it keeps shifting back to a mono, tiny band of music and then bursting back into stereo (2:01). love it. For that matter, it's one of my favorite parts of the whole album. Like when those drums kick in on Prostitute (:57).
Quick question, D - who is responsible for that stuttering sort of electronic sounding guitar trick? It's used in several times throughout the record, but for your reference you can find it in There Was A Time at 5:17....I love it! Is it just him flipping the toggle switch for his pickups back and forth?

Eric said...

A few comments: Unlike Alex, I don't even claim to be a G n R fan. I wasn't cool enough to like them when I was a kid so I have very little nostalgic attachment to them, though I was obsessed with the November Rain song/video/second guitar solo where Slash was standing on Axl's piano. (I was also really into their cover of Live and Let Die which had a similarly awesome video). But since then it's mostly been a general appreciation for their hits. (I actually feel somewhat similarly about Nirvana-- definitely not cool enough to be obsessed with them, though being in middle school at that time, they were in escapable, and like many kids of our generation, I did learn to play guitar to the Unplugged album.) The point being, I never had much interest in this album, but at this point, it's become such a topic of debate that I'm almost compelled to check it out at this point. A few questions for D:

1) How do you know which guitarists are doing what? Are there credits online somewhere (or in the liner notes) or are you just using close listening to discern three different styles?

2) It seems like a lot of the criticisms you've leveled at the album between your two reviews are pretty serious, and take you somewhat close to my brother's take on a lot of it, so I'm wondering what it is you ultimately like about it? I don't say that in a confrontational/challenging way-- I just mean, what is it? Is it the songwriting? Axl singing? Just that it generally rocks? That it sounds enough like a band you love/d that it makes you happy to listen to? As Tex pointed out in one of the comments to the previous post, it's not like he (and I assume you) were generally just excited to go out and buy the new pop-metal album, right?

3) Relatedly, I find it interesting how you guys are all so willing to get on board with calling it a Guns n Roses album when it's just Axl? It actually calls to mind interesting questions of what it is to be a band and what makes a band? It's especially interesting that Axl is able to pull this off when his band was comprised of so many distinct personalities who were an integral part of the band. Slash and Axl were as much a singer/guitarist team as Mick & Keith or Steven Tyler & Joe Perry. And the rest of the band had colorful nicknames (Izzy, Duff, etc) that insured that they weren't just anonymous sidemen. If Robert Plant toured with some new musicians and insisted it was Zeppelin, I'm confident that he would be laughed at. So why do we accept this as a Guns n Roses album? It's surely not just because Axl says so-- is it just because we want a new Guns n Roses album? Is it because this project was started as a Guns n Roses album and though the band members dropped out one-by-one, it continued to be created under the auspices of G n R (over 15 years)? At the very least, I would say that the unique circumstances stretch as much as possible people's open-mindedness of what makes a particular band? It certainly makes The Who touring and recording with Kenny Jones seem like barely a misdemeanor. Also, amusingly, Face Dances came out a mere ten years after Who's Next (and only six years after, say, The Who By Numbers). It's crazy how compressed the development of music was during the sixties and seventies. Chinese Democracy came out fifteen years after the Spaghetti Incident. That's the same amount of time as the total development of music between 1964 and 1979 (which is basically, Beatlemania through New Wave/Disco/Birth of Hip Hop). That's insane.

texplush said...

Eric -
I can't speak for D, but as for me there are a couple reasons that i think this record is good beyond the fact that I am fascinated by the GN'R story:

- the songwriting for the most part is very good. I don't think anyone expected as many good tracks on here as there are. I happen to love songs that start with an A section and never return to it, or for that matter the B section either. There are several of that type on this record. And there are hooks!
- Axl's voice and the vocal production is probably better than it's ever been on any GN'R record
- The arrangements are satisfyingly over the top. So much going on, yet never overwhelming. And as noted before, the range of dynamics are off the charts.
- It's fun to hear such intense guitar playing in a pop context that I can relate to. The only other places to hear shit like this is in Nu Metal as far as I know, or my old Pantera records.

As for the Axl one-man-band thing, I think most of us fans were sort of mystified by Axl's choices of bandmates for the first 10 years or so of him making this record (not to mention rumors of Shaq's participation), but for the last 5 years or so, I'm just super curious about what he would do with all the power. The Spaghetti Incident sort of proved that the original group had lost it's ability to collaborate in my opinion, and Slash and co. showed us what they were still capable with in Velvet Revolver.
So why not see how Axl carry on the mission of GN'R alone?
Unlike Robert Plant, Axl was always the dominant personality in GN'R, with a fine assist from Slash (style), Izzy(songwriting), Duff (arrangements) and Steven (drugs). This is getting into ViaChi and my long running discussion of A type, B type and C type bands, and that's a larger convo for a later time i suspect - but GN'R essentially shifted from a C type band (total collaboration btw members in which the loss of any member is fatal to the band) to an A type (one dominant personality without whom the band would have to change it's name) in between Lies and UYI.
Therefore, I think Chinese Democracy is less of a crime than, say, Pink Floyd touring without Roger Waters.

Eric said...

Out of curiosity, what's a B-type band? One just in between those two poles?
Either way, that's a fair point-- I think GnR were very much a C-type band before. Even to the extent that Axl was always the dominant personality, I would say that the collective efforts of the rest of the band were more than just an "assist." But on the other hand, I can certainly see them transitioning to an A-type. I love that you guys came up with a taxonomy for that because it's something I think about with bands a lot.
(Of course, one of the key bands that gives rise to these questions is Wilco, who I can only assume you categorize as type A, since everyone but Stirrat has come and gone through revolving doors. And yet, as you'd be the first to argue, in each incarnation of Wilco, the interplay between the guys in the band at that moment is absolutely essential to their identity. So even though Wilco is essentially Tweedy, it's never Tweedy and three to five anonymous backup players. Taking it back even further, it's interesting that Wilco and Son Volt were originally two different lineups of Uncle Tupelo (A.M. Wilco was basically the Anodyne lineup minus Farrar, and Son Volt brought back Mike what'shisname, the original drummer). If UT had been a different "type" of band, either Wilco or Son Volt could have credibly tried to just call themselves Uncle Tupelo.

texplush said...

B type bands are where two members of the band are dominant - the main criteria being: would the band change it's name or breakup if even one of the pair left?
In my opinion, B Types are the best bands. C types are overly idealistic and often have less quality control (ex. Phish). B types challenge each other.
Rolling Stones
Uncle Tupelo (tho it arguably began as an A type)
And of course, The Beatles (I love George too, but if he left, the band could have carried on commercially, if not cordially)

Actually, I think most people would label early GN'R as B type, but those people are ignorant of the dominance that Izzy had in the songwriting process on Appetite.

And of course, the fun is in parsing the bands that fall somewhere in btw. Like Wilco. I would argue that Tweedy is a serial B-typer. He craves the satisfaction of that original collaboration with Farrar and is constantly seeking to recreate it, including the 'breakup' that inevitably occurs. As he's aged, that latter part of the equation has softened somewhat and he has learned to grow his sound instead of always tearing down and starting from scratch. Hence the addition of Nels without the rejection of Kotche - even though SBS is clearly his love letter to Nels and no one else (just check out how poorly the drums are recorded).

drischord said...

Here are my answers to the questions:

1. Tex, the guitar sound you're talking about is done by Buckethead. He's using a vibrato effect and setting it for really rapid frequency. You can buy a pedal that does this or certain amps-- like the Fender Vibralux-- have it built in.

2. I can tell who is playing what solo by looking at the credits, hearing their amp tone, and knowing each player's general style. Robin Finck is the bluesy, BB King-style one, Bumblefoot has a little more of a metallic sheen and squeals a lot (but not always-- check out the Catcher in the Rye lead guitar which is almost entirely him and very un-shred). Buckethead, as I've said before, sounds like the most multi-faceted to me. Compare his all-out shredding on the title track to his blues bending on If the World.

3. The technical reason that this is Guns N' Roses and nothing else can be is because Axl got the exclusive rights in a dickhead move back in the '90s. He shoved papers in Slash and Duff's face before a concert and and announced that he wouldn't take the stage unless they signed. They regret it to this day.

4. No, I don't think this is the same band as the old GNR, but I firmly maintain this is BY FAR the best thing that anyone from that band has produced since they split. These songs are fantastic. They get better with each listen. I agree with Tex-- many have linear structures (as opposed to verse-chorus-verse) and that makes them so much more interesting. Axl compared some of the material to Queen, and the song structures legitimize that comparison. This isn't prog rock, but it is progressive in bucking traditional pop strictures.

5. Other reasons I like it. It's really well produced. Not the orchestral mush and not the mild techno elements, but the guitars sound awesome. Not just the solos; the rhythm guitars are fantastic. I don't love the bass/drums, but they have their moments. And the vocals are the best I've ever heard from GNR. I don't know if Axl is just a better singer now, or that he's benefiting from unlimited studio time, but the singing sounds great. I love the multi-tracking and the harmonies, and his range is almost scary.

6. My take on what type of band GNR is-- I think it's a Type A band, but Axl is not a one-man show like say Billy Corgan or Pete Townshend. He's always co-written with all his band-mates. Remember that Izzy, not Slash, was his primary collaborator early on. He wrote some great tunes with Duff. He wrote with friends outside the band, like West Arkeen. He even wrote with Elton John and Bernie Taupin (You Could Be Mine.) So while the constant is him, his collaborators always have a major voice.

On Chinese Democracy, he's giving enormous leeway to Chris Pitman, the man behind the more electronic elements in the music. Pitman is their sound guru and he's changed the band's sound as much as anyone has.

Also, Buckethead is a huge presence on this record. Even though he's not in the band anymore, Axl makes him his co-star. The opening track doesn't go 2 lines without Buckethead ripping off this roaring blues lick. And what's the last thing on the album, before the dopey string lead-out? Not Axl's voice but rather a screaming Buckethead solo. I really think it's a shame that he's not in the band anymore because he was to Axl what Nels was to Tweedy on Sky Blue Sky.

So yes, this is obviously Axl's band and all decisions are his own. But he gives his players a hell of a lot more leeway than most demagogues. (And he gives them credit. As Chuck Klosterman points out, he lists "Original arrangement suggestion: Youth" in the credits for Madagascar. Kind of the antithesis of Robbie Robertson.) So overall, this is a Type A band. But on individual tracks, it's anywhere from Type B to Type C. (Always. Even when Axl is listed as the only songwriter.)

Via Chicago said...

Lots of thoughts and things to discuss. First, a few specific responses:

Eric - to elaborate on what D said about the guitarists, look in the credits at the end of the booklet. For each song they list "Guitar Solos". The names of the guitarists listed there are in order that their solos appear in the songs.

As for why it's GnR - I think this goes back to the Jungle v. Estranged camps. Jungle fans say no, this isn't GnR because GnR was a B or C type band. And Tex is right - they were that band at first, but then switched to a clear A type by the time Illusion came out. I love Appetite, but I prefer the A-type Illusion version of GnR, and so, to me, THIS is GnR. If Izzy, Slash, Duff, Adler, and Sebastian Bach released an album as GnR I would declare shenanigans. Maybe that's wrong, but it's my own take. Interestingly I read the Pitchfork review, which is not positive (though not as snarkily negative as I expected). No suprise, they compare it to... Welcome to the Jungle, and lament that it's not the same band anymore. I get that, but really what did you expect - even by Lies they weren't that band anymore.

As a quick aside - even during Appetite it was somewhat of an A type band. I mean, the band was called Guns & ROSES, not Slash & Roses. That says an awful lot in retrospect.

Overall, most everything I initially disliked has grown on me, including If the World. My two biggest stumbling blocks are now Scraped (good chorus, but not as good as Shakler's, and an overall kind of irritating sound) and Sorry, which to me sounds too much like that one Everlast song.

As for what I like: In a nutshell, I like the mixing together of many elements, the way these strings and cheesy chorus's mash up against big loud guitar sound. I like the way it is unabashedly ROCK with no hint of irony and with an understanding that sometimes rock is a "na na na" chorus and a big bag of emotion.

drischord said...

FYI, the origin of the name Guns N' Roses came from Axl and the band's co-founder Traci Gunns. It was a combination of their two names. Gunns was later replaced by Slash and went on to form a band called LA Guns, which actually had a hit or two circa 1990. (Although for the life of me, I can't remember what they were, but I did own an LA Guns album around that time.)

But at one point the band featured Axl, Traci Gunns and Izzy, who was Axl's friend from Indiana and had played in a band with him back there.

Via Chicago said...

Ah yes, LA Guns. Man did they suck.

Of course, this is just further proof that it was always, at its core, an A type band. Even before Slash came on board they had already booted out one of the founders and namesakes.

texplush said...

Axl may have been the dominant personality, but there is no doubt that on Appetite they were C type. Izzy wrote the most and best songs. Slash brought as much visual identity to the band as axl and forged at least 50% of their sonic identity, AND wrote the single most memorable lick off the record - the riff to Sweet Child of Mine).
Afterall, there's a reason why they never took off when Traci Gunns was in the band...

drischord said...

Although, as you probably know, Slash hated Sweet Child o' Mine and had to be persuaded by the others to put it on the album. He played that riff as a warm-up exercise and it became a song when Duff wrote that cool bass line around it.

I'm pretty sure I read that Slash hates that song to this day-- although it probably bought him enough vodka to kill any man this side of Steven Adler.

Via Chicago said...

Totally agree that Appetite era was a C type band - but you could see The A type waiting to emerge.