Saturday, 28 November 2009

Open Letter (To Living Colour)

OK. This post is about a band who were pivoltal to my musical life (an in turn, my life more generally) - Living Colour. It was after discovering Living Colour, during my teenage years that I grew my hair, got a guitar, and sought out other groups like Led Zeppelin, Faith No More et al. But it always came back to these guys. Since they weren't as widely known as groups my peers were listening to in the early 90s (i.e. Queen), my obsession with the band felt intimate and personal.

What they were best known for was the fact they were rock musicians, but they were black. This was their 'novelty', as far as the media seemed to be concerned. It's odd. Lenny Kravitz is a rock musician, Prince draws from rock, Hendrix (arguably the biggest icon of the genre) was a rock musician, Little Richard was right there on the cusp between rock 'n roll and the heavier style that followed, as was Chuck Berry. If you keep following that line backwards, you get to rhythm and blues, then the blues, and then delta blues. Black musicians.

However, for some reason it blew people's minds that this group of 4 black guys wanted to play rock instead of hip hop or R&B. Their first hit, Cult of Personality has since become something of a flagship piece for them. I guess that's fine because I like the song, but to my mind, there would be other equally fitting contenders. What's interesting about Cult of Personality is that it gave a political theme to a hard-rock tune four years before Rage Against the Machine became famous for doing that. To my mind, the message of Cult of Personality (that charisma can be channeled for both good and evil) is a whole lot more interesting than that of RATM's Killing in the Name (some police are racist). At any rate, I don't mean to belittle RATM just to make Living Colour look good. I'm just saying....

Living Colour's debut album, Vivid, which was released in '88 made a great impression on me. Although it was a Talking Heads cover, the song Memories Can't Wait resonated vividly (no pun intended). There seemed to be a strange, ambient energy to it that I hadn't heard elsewhere in music. And I loved the sound of the vocoder when the guitarist, Vernon Reid made his guitar say "these memories can't waiiiiit..." - exciting stuff for someone discovering music!

Then came Time's Up (from '90) - which I consider their masterpiece. It was as ambitious, eclectic and sprawling as the album cover. I noticed something new every time I looked at the inlay, and a world of mystery somehow seemed to be embedded within the music. Even the font they used to write the name of their band excited me. Well, 17 years later, as I listen to the album, I'm still pleased that this was the one I broke myself in with. The record starts with a montage of ticking clocks and alarms going off. A snare drum strikes three times, and it tears into a tight, Slayer-esque riff. Corey, (the singer) cries "Time's up, the rivers have no life. Time's up, the world is full of strife. Time's up, the sky is falling... time's up, the lord is calling!" What a punchy start to an album! The tune turns into a tight groove and everyone in the band showcases their virtuosity (yes - that's the correct word).

After that first track, instead of another hard-rock song, a strange sound-montage kicks in. Consistent rhythms disappear and instead you hear what sounds like slowed down samples of some kind of lesson on African musicology, amongst other samples like "are slaves going to be free in heaven?". The rest of the album is similarly eclectic and inventive. Love Rears Up it's Ugly Head has a funk-blues thing going on, in which the tone of the song and the subject matter of the lyrics seem to be perfectly matched. Plus Love Rears uses a distinctive game show-host voice sample that they created for the first couple of albums - in this song, he yells "wedding march!". In the song Type, it ends with a chorus of voices singing "everything that goes around, comes around" in a cycle, while Corey sings the same line over the top in a variety of melodies, at different speeds. In the track Information Overload, Vernon makes his guitar sound like a computer loading up software (very exciting for a young guitarist looking for new ideas). Elvis is Dead sounded like a deranged James Brown track, complete with a saxophone solo and a guest rap from Little Richard(!). Under Cover of Darkness shifts from a breezy opening riff to unashamed funk. Queen Latifah does a guest rap, and Vernon plays in a modal Jazz-scale for the guitar solo. Brilliant, seamless fusion. Solace of You, such a sweet melody, draws from South African Mbaqanga music. Ology is a brief, extraordinary instrumental which just doesn't sound like anything else I've heard. Tag Team Partners is a fun, goofy beat-box interlude. Finally, the grandiose This is the Life begins with a montage of sitars and strings with middle-eastern scales. I still can't hear exactly what they did.

For what it's worth, I think that if they left New Jack Theme, Someone Like You and Information Overload as b-sides, they would have had a pretty-near perfect album.

In '93, Stain followed. This album marked a departure for the band, and to my mind it set the template for all their subsequent albums. They didn't use the loopy band logo anymore and opted for a simple, direct capital-letter font, and a single image with muted colours. This album had the lovely and unique ballad Nothingness on it. Plus Wall is a great song, and Hemp is another etherial and atmospheric sound montage. Otherwise, the album seems much more musically and emotionally uniform to me. Some of the dissonant, heavier tracks such as Go Away, Auslander or This Little Pig took them to a place I couldn't go for some reason.

I heard one fan comment online that he thought Stain was their most 'focused' album. For me, 'focused' is another way of saying that he is only interested in hard rock and used to skip past the more adventurous tracks. Sorry - that's what I think.

Why did this change take place in the band? Whilst a new bassist joined them for this album, I doubt it had too much to do with that. Perhaps they felt the need to re-invent themselves, which is indeed a healthy thing for artists to do. But, record sales for Stain were apparently a disappointment for the band. They were still quite healthy, mind - but not what they were aiming for. Now, public taste can be a fickle thing and it's easy for me to sit and blog in judgement. But, speaking as a fan it seemed to me that in dropping their eclecticism, along with other trademarks like their logo and the game show host voice-sample guy, they were discarding some of the things that made them so interesting in the first place - the things that played a good part in bringing them their initial commercial and critical acclaim.

Two years later in '95, Living Colour disbanded. However, in 2003 they got back together and released the album CollideĆøscope. I'll not say anything about that record, because a) I don't know it well enough to comment, and b) this blog is already way longer than I planned it to be.

In 2009 - earlier this year, Living Colour released another album entitled Chair in the Doorway. I was looking forward to hearing this album very much, and I'm happy to report that their first single (Behind the Sun) is one of the best songs that they have done. But I'm less happy to report that the rest of the album carries everything over that I found dissatisfying about Stain, but to a greater extent. There's almost no guest musicians, a relatively constrained instrumental line-up, moderately constrained emotional territory (mostly angry). Cross-check this with Times Up, which shifts from rage (Time's Up), to ambience (History Lesson), to a sense of defeat and submission (Love Rears...), to sexual (Under Cover of Darkness), to wistful intensity (Fight the Fight). Also, there's no more sharp genre shifts mid-song (a la Funny Vibe or Under Cover of Darkness), no more joviality one finds in Glamour Boys, no chanting choruses of Funny Vibe, no mysterious soundscapes, no Jazz scales, no world-music influences, no samples.

I heard Vernon comment in an interview that the members of the band all have separate outlets for their own personal projects, and that this is a good thing for the group. Are you sure about that, Vernon? I know that Corey was involved in stage musicals, Will (the drummer) is involved in world music and Vernon is involved with the downtown New York avant-garde scene (amongst other things). While these various external projects may help reduce creative differences in the band, I wonder if that creative tension actually made the group more interesting.

I like to belive that artists don't burn out, or run out of ideas but rather they learn how to cut deeper over time. But I also wonder, is Living Colour's level of ambition as high as it was in 1990? I gather that most the guys in the band have become parents in the intervening years - which is wonderful. But when I think of artists becoming family men, I think of George Lucas. And I think we all know what good that did him. His work became imbued with a sense of "there's more to life than my art".

re: ambition. Lets take the case of Bless Those (Little Annie's Prayer) - which is actually one of my favorite tracks from Chair in the Doorway. It basically revolves around three power chords, going back and forth. The simplicity of the song is appealing, I guess and I like the slide guitar. But I've been in bands and I think I know how this song would have been written. One instrument (perhaps the bass since it was co-written by Doug - the bassist) came up with the initial riff. Then Vernon added the most natural sounding guitar riff that would have gone with it. Then the drummer did the same thing. Some lyrics were cooked up, and voila.

But it's too goddamn easy! I listen to Under Cover of Darkness (from Time's Up), and it's obvious that a good amount of re-structuring and layering went into that song, everyone thought about how their own individual instrument should be both separate, yet contribute to the whole piece. It sounds like it was painstakingly thought through.

I'll say it in simple terms: I don't think that Living Colour are trying as hard any more.

And I'm not sure if it's because they have been through the recording process so many times that making an album isn't as big a deal to them as it once was, or if they have other musical commitments and family commitments which have drained their creative energies for this group. It might be because they were given less time in the recording studio, or their new record label (Megaforce Records) encouraged them to focus on straightforward rock tunes.

I imagine that some fans, and perhaps the musicians themselves would say that Chair in the Doorway contains as many ideas as their earlier work. Well, on the surface that isn't the case. I realize that Hard Times is in 3/4, Young Man has a disco rhythm, the riff to Behind the Sun is tapped, and Out of my Mind contains some first-rate shrieking. But one has to look for the nuances to find variety in this record. In their earlier work, the variety was on the surface. And that's absolutely fine. As far as I'm concerned, the surface of a piece of music can actually be more important than subtle, easily-missed details.

Anyway, I wrote this blog (or at least the second half of it) with a heavy heart. I feel like I'm shitting on a group of artists who have given me so much, and while they are doing what they can, I'm sitting at home on my computer and passing judgment. But this was written entirely in the spirit that if you care about something, you're critical of it. As a fan, if any of you guys should ever read this, I just wanted to say that I really appreciate the impact you had on my life, and that I hope you keep working together, but also that I would love to see you be as audacious and eclectic as you used to be.

I've been following the reviews of Chair in the Doorway and they have been warm. But I don't want to see 'warm' reviews, these risk invoking a tepid reception from the public. I want you to be widely loved in the way that I love you! And I wanted to voice my opinion, which I haven't seen elsewhere.



Josh Redman said...

This post is years old, and i didnt read it all, but i had a thought.. living colour are a black band, and you named lots of black rock people who are sort of solo (no offence to the crazy-good hendrix band etc, but they were Jimi's Experience). Couldn't help butting in there :P

Paul Taberham said...

Josh! I was never notified that you made this comment. To I'm replying 11 months later.

... anyway. Oh yes, fair point.

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