Tuesday, December 23, 2008

"Going Minimal"

Before we fully launch into list season, I just want to opine on a topic raised during the discussion of 808s and Heartbreak. It's the concept of "going minimal", which most critics agree to be Kanye's trajectory on that particular album.

Well here's my argument in a nutshell. "Going minimal" isn't nearly as impressive as it used to be. Many people have done it to great success and it often-- although not always-- is a euphemism for doing less work.

I've liked a lot of "minimal" albums. Bon Iver is definitely making my list this year, and that CD is pretty minimal. I like people like Nina Nastasia (on my list last year) and the simplest of Bonnie "Prince" Billy. I like that Tallest Man on Earth guy that Quinapalus shared with us.

But it's so much more impressive when people try to go all-out and actually succeed. That's part of the reason I like Chinese Democracy. No, it doesn't always work. But when it does, it's awesome and highly unique. I find it unconvincing when critics rip Axl Rose for creating multi-tracked Queen-style vocal lines, throwing in keyboards, "orchestra", crazy shredding, etc. and then they jizz all over a Spoon recording that's basically a Casio keyboard and a trap kit.

And look, I like Spoon. But there's more acts like them floating around than there are acts like Guns N' Roses. Critics love solo people with a piano or acoustic guitar, but there are so damn many of them who do it well. How many people, since the days of Queen, Love, Steely Dan, etc. go for the big sound and get it right?

Rufus Wainwright often succeeds, and I like a lot of his work. Joni Mitchell's album Travelogue (with orchestra) was brilliant, and I intend to post on that in the new year, even though it came out back in 2002. Kanye's earlier stuff was in that vein, especially Late Registration. And then there's the aforementioned Chinese Democracy.

Radiohead is a category unto themselves, because while Kid A had that icy, minimal sheen to it, closer inspection reveals a very complex album. There are a million things going on within the title track. Morning Bell grooves in 5/4. Even something spare like How To Disappear Completely is meticulously layered and EQ'd. Radiohead is one of those great bands that deceive you into thinking their music is simple, when in fact there's a lot going on. (The inverse is bands like Mars Volta, who'd like you to believe there's a lot more to their music than actually is there. And sorry kids, I'd put Sigur Ros in that category too. At least up until the current album, which I haven't heard, but I hear marks a departure.)

Well that's my rant on minimal vs. whatever you want to call the opposite trajectory. Feel free to angrily disagree, but remember: I like many "minimalist" albums. But for every 20 of them, there's just a single "over the top" album that truly connects. Much more impressive in my opinion... and, to bring it full circle, it's what drew me to Kanye in the first place.


Quinapalus said...

Well, I'll say again that I also hope Kanye goes back to his old ways the next time around, but I'm not sure exactly what your objection is, at least in this particular post, to what he's done on his most recent album.

Look, if you just prefer his old stuff, that's fair enough, but I also think that Kanye made a very deliberate choice to try something totally different this time around, and it doesn't have much to do with just doing "less work". Kanye is almost synonymous with lush, melodic, uplifting beats, and for him to want to change course and get out of the rut that perhaps he felt he was in, "going minimal" was the logical thing for him to do.

I think that the most interesting aspect of 808s and Heartbreak is that in stripping down to the bone instrumentally, he also managed to do so emotionally. This is the most fragile, open and honest he's ever sounded emotionally, and I think that's the most important aspect of the artistic risk taking he's doing here. I don't think he was interested in just doing something gimmicky, and I think the worst you could say about this album is that he took a big risk for the right reasons and failed (which I don't agree with personally, but I think the argument could be made.)

I think in the case of Graduation, Kanye's self-celebration and lush beats were starting to sound worn out, and I'm excited to see him willing to take big risks to reinvent himself and find new creative wellsprings. I hope that on his next album he'll be able to take some of his newfound emotional vulnerability and wed it to the lavish arrangements he does so well. In the meanwhile, however, I think 808s and Heartbreak has a lot to offer in itself, and is a great example of a time when less can be more.

Quinapalus said...

And I'll just add, I agree that Kid A is incredibly complex, and I didn't so much mean that Kanye was doing a similar thing musically...I meant that the way 808s and Heartbreak made me feel emotionally while walking down the street with it playing on my headpones reminded me of the way Kid A used to make me feel.

Eric said...

A few comments:

Yes, KID A is deceptively complex-- that's one of the reasons why it has had such longevity (in a way that I think the somewhat less-worked-over AMNESIAC doesn't, for some reason). But it was still a huge step in the direction of "minimalism" compared to OK COMPUTER, which I would submit as an example of "going big" and succeeding.

Also: Re: Sigur Ros: They're an interesting band in that their first album introduced a new sound that people hadn't really heard (and that was quite beautiful and captivating) but they have not, in my opinion, really progressed in any meaningful way from that sound. So all their subsequent stuff has sounded like something of a retread. Their newest does include some tracks that are in a new vein, and they are the strongest of the bunch. But on the whole, it is not different enough to really stand out, so I'd only rate it as so-so in the end. But I still do love listening to their first one every so often.

3) Other examples of where they went big and succeeded: REMAIN IN LIGHT; SOFT BULLETIN. I would also argue, SUMMERTEETH even though the latter-day Jay Bennett haters in the house rag on it reflexively. (Our old favorite argument!).

But my ultimate comment is that I think you have it backwards: It's actually minimalism that is incredibly hard to do and "get right." That's why when it works it's so praiseworthy. To strip music down to its essence but still be interesting, catchy, powerful, etc, is an impressive feat. I'll probably be discussing this in my own round up (which won't be a Top Ten because there weren't ten albums released this year that I spent enough time with to justify making one) but the best example of this is Prince. The prototypical song is Kiss, which is SO spare but has been a partytime hit for twenty years now. But an even better example is When Doves Cry, which is the best dance song with no bassline ever. On one hand it's a really spare, cold and unforgiving groove-- a drum loop with a keyboard line. Until the guitar solo that's pretty much all there is (besides the layers of backing vocals). But it's amazing, and it totally works because of-- not in spite of-- its minimalism. The fact that it uses not a note more than necessary is what makes it so great.
The Neptunes and Timbaland basically took that exact sound and ran with it and became (in that order) the biggest producers of the late 90s and early 00s. I would say that Futuresex/Lovesounds is similarly impressive. Listening now to the then-annoyingly-ubiquitous "Sexyback", it's striking how much weird little stuff is going on in such a seemingly simple song.

And Spoon were going for something similar after the more straightforwardly punky Series of Sneaks and the relatively lush (but already fairly stripped down) Girls Can Tell. I do think they need to change up their sound a little bit more soon, but to their credit, even if there are lots of bands that sound like them, they kind of led the way in that direction.

I've lost my point, but I guess it's that good Small Music is hard to pull off as good Big Music, even if critics seem to give a bit of a pass to something that at first sounds daringly minimalist.

drischord said...

I just think that when everyone from the Beatles (post Sgt. Pepper/ Magical Mystery Tour) to Springsteen (Nebraska) to Metallica (black album) to rock music in general (grunge) has stripped themselves/itself back, the critics have always been waiting with awards.

Eric said...

Yeah, but if you're going by that type of critical consensus, look at the Rolling Stone top ten of all time-- actually, they've redone it so many times, who knows what the most recent one says. But it invariably contains: Sgt. Pepper at Number 1, and then closely following it: Pet Sounds, Born to Run, Blonde on Blonde (or Highway 61), Nevermind, sometimes Nevermind the Bullocks, What's Goin' On, Who's Next, etc-- all of which are "maximal" albums.

drischord said...

Well yeah. I think we're kind of making each other's point here. I fully agree with you and the critics that the best albums of all time have mostly been "maximal" albums. That's why I wish that people would go for that more.

Much bigger chance of crashing and burning, but that's what makes it so impressive when they succeed.