Is This The Album We Really Want?

We are a Democracy and what we say goes.

As of the time I write this…Roger Waters is 73 years old.

As of the time I write this…Roger Waters is one of the most successful “rock stars” on the planet.

As of the time I write this…Roger Waters is still one very pissed-off man.

And if I were to write this same piece again in a year, two years, five years…Roger Waters will still be one very pissed-off man.

Success, accolades, fame, money, respect, none of these things are going to soften ole Roger. No, Roger still wildly stares at the world and doesn’t like all that he sees. And he is going to let you know about. And subtlety is not his strong suit.

It’s 2017 and it’s safe to say that no one was running around asking for a new Roger Waters album. His most recent solo effort (Amused to Death) was released over 25 years ago and was met with a collective ‘meh’ by fans and critics alike. Since then, he has toured the world as a solo artist (with amazing pick-of-the-litter backing bands), bringing his audiences along for the nostalgic classic rock trip of a lifetime. He’s played Dark Side of the Moon in it’s entirety, he’s re-created The Wall as a multi-media live experience (props, sound effects, and puppets included). Why wouldn’t he? Those are two of the biggest and most widely recognized rock albums in history. No one was going to those shows to hear songs from Radio K.A.O.S.

So what’s the point of a new Roger Waters album? What does he have left to prove? His place in the rock cannon is well secured. Pink Floyd (or what’s left of them) released their final “album” a couple of years ago (pretty much a bunch of outtakes) and no one was comparing that or any other post-Waters Floyd output to the great Floyd albums of the 70’s. So there was no need for Roger to compete with his old mates, no reason to add to the Pink Floyd lore.

Which leads us to Is This The Life We Really Want?, released in June 2017 to a surprisingly receptive and anticipatory audience. Perhaps its a combination of Roger playing Desert Trip in the summer of 2016 for 8 billion people (and probably a paycheck equal in size) and his relentless touring schedule of the past 10-15 years that has led some fans to actually look forward to hearing a new album. Roger has made sure he didn’t disappear into the sunset as many of his brethren have chosen (or were forced) to do. He has kept up his end of the bargain by maintaining a credibility and by putting on highly entertaining, well-produced, and well-performed shows. He wrote an opera! No one would ever accuse him of “mailing it in.” He has the desire to remain relevant and the current political climate is ripe for Roger to chime in and do just that.

Is This The Life We Really Want? is a political album and an angry one at that. The Final Cut was also a political album, the anger replaced by contemplation, suspicion, and loss. Animals was a political album, the anger hidden by deep conceptual correlations between men and pigs, dogs, and sheep. So it’s to no surprise that Is This The Life We Really Want? most closely resembles these two Floyd albums. Producer extraordinaire Nigel Godrich seems to have compelled Roger to combine the best elements of these works with an updated production technique while still holding on to the obligatory Floydian sound effects (heartbeats, ticking clocks, radio/tv stations…check). Godrich is most known for his work with Radiohead and it’s hard not to hear how he infused some of their recording aesthetics into Rogers orbit.

First, there are the strings. Floyd has been using them since The Wall and Roger, more notably, used plenty of them on The Final Cut and Pros and Cons. Their lushness throughout the album are spine-tingling at best, overwrought at their worst. Strings and rock music have a very capricious relationship but Roger has found a way to enable the orchestration to enhance his music without overwhelming it. Throughout Is This The Life We Really Want? it is the strings that add the moodiness, the depth, and the cinematic tension and release.

Secondly, there are the drums. Pink Floyd were never really known for their drumming. Nick Mason is a fine player, his biggest strength being his ability to always play to the song. It’s no secret that compared to his peers at the time, Nick was low on the totem pole of “great rock drummers.” As well, I was never a big fan of the drum sound on Floyd albums. Their early works compressed the drums to almost inorganic levels and their later works over-produced the hell out of them. Here is where Nigel Godrich really shines. By no means is this a “drum” album but the drum sounds here are amazing. I can’t help but think of the Radiohead song “Nude” when I hear Is This The Life We Really Want?. The sparse reverb, the tight kick/snare, the efficient offbeat fills. At no point do you really notice the drums unless you are actually listening for them but it’s nice to hear that Roger finally allowed them their place in his sonic palette.

So here we are, all the way into this write-up and what hasn’t been mentioned? Guitars. If there is one thing that most folks will say defines “The Pink Floyd Sound” it’s the roaring guitar solos. Guess how many guitar solos are on Is This The Life We Really Want?? None. The synthesizer has replaced the guitar in many modern bands and Roger seems just fine with that (sans the occasional acoustic strum/volume swelling sound effect). After all, this is a guy who has now recorded with three of the greatest guitar players of all time (David Gilmour, Eric Clapton, and Jeff Beck) so it’s understandable that he would want to move on from that sound. He doesn’t need it, or, he think’s he doesn’t need it. Part of me has to wonder if perhaps deep down, somewhere in his sub-conscious, Waters has never gotten over the fact that Gilmour is most associated with the classic Pink Floyd sound (or that he went on to put out Floyd albums without him). It’s Gilmour’s solos on “Comfortably Numb” and “Money” that people remember while Roger stews in the background about concepts, naming rights, and it being “my fucking pig!” Was the exclusion of the guitar solo calculated or something that was organic?

Lyrically, well, Roger is Pissed Off. Whereas Animals, The Wall, and The Final Cut all had elements of political rebellion and ire in their lyrics, no one has ever really considered Pink Floyd a “political band” like U2, Public Enemy, or Rage Against The Machine. Is This The Life We Really Want? does not hold it’s tongue on the state of American politics, the environment, famine, war, the refugee crisis, selfies, reality TV, technology, or any of the other obvious modern social ills. “Drug music” right? Let’s get high and talk about the current state of Syria or the never-ending crisis in the Middle East that Roger hopes to solve by releasing politically scathing albums. I consider Roger Waters one of the greatest lyricists in rock music. He has the capacity to paint a picture with words and his clever ability to turn a phrase or drop a one-liner has always been one of his strongest assets. He is also widely considered to be one of the least modest actors in music. When he sings, “If I had been God…I think I could’ve done a better job.” I can’t help but picture his previous band mates coyly smiling to themselves and thinking, “You see, world? See what we had to deal with?” Only Roger Waters would sing such a line without a hint of irony.

Here is a question to contemplate: can an artist bite off themselves? The best moments on Is This The Life We Really Want? are the familiar ones, the songs that sound like classic Pink Floyd. And if there is one song most represented/repeated/bit off of it’s “Sheep” from Animals. A few tracks borrow quite liberally from the Animals upbeat rocker (mainly “Picture That” and “Bird In a Gale”). “Smell The Roses” and “Pigs” share the same DNA and the chord structure from “Mother” is well adapted throughout. We also hear plenty of The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking style acoustic balladry and The Final Cut/The Wall emotive chord structures. You could probably replace the lyrics/melodies on a few of these songs with previous Floyd works and some in the audience wouldn’t have a clue. Roger has successfully bitten off himself and that is not necessarily a bad thing, especially when ‘yourself’ was responsible for some of the most uniquely original music ever created.

If there is one song that sheds some of its Floydian pounds and embarks into somewhat new sonic territory it’s the title track. Lyrically, it’s classic Waters: witty and sharp, damning in nature, and meant to make you crack a slight smile while thinking about just how fucked up what he’s saying really is. Musically, it’s scant use of guitars, sliding bass, and deep strings keep the song idling along at a menacing pace only equaled by it’s lyrical content. Roger loves his lyrical lists (“Brain Damage” comes to mind) and it’s segue into “Bird in a Gale” is perhaps the albums finest moment.

In an era where most of his peers have glided into “soft middle age” (or in their cases, “soft old age”) it’s invigorating to hear a new, relevant, and actually listenable Roger Waters album. He still does have something to say and I, for one, am still willing to listen.

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The Anniversary Re-Issue of My Top 10 List

Working in a record store back in 1987, we got the first Beatles CDs shipped to us and excitedly opened the boxes after hours as they would go on sale the next day to coincide with the 20 anniversary of the release of Sgt. Pepper. Obviously I understood the leap to the new format, but was a little surprised at the hype of this “new” release that was really just a reselling of old music everyone already had.

And in true Beatles fashion, of course they predicted all of this and put it on record. In fact the first line of that legendary Sgt. Pepper album is “It was 20 years ago today…” and a tagline was born. The Beatles making it to compact discs in the late 80s wasn’t the first or last “anniversary reissue” but it rang in a new era of nostalgia culture along with what the Box Set craze was doing for what was once known as “The Record Industry.”

As our media and culture and news cycles continued to speed up as technology advanced, so too did our nostalgia rates. The 1990s saw a resurgence (recycling) of the 1960s…. and soon enough we couldn’t wait to re-celebrate the 70s and shout I LOVE THE 80s and by the dawn of the 21st century it seemed we were already “looking back” on a 90s decade that just ended. This hyperwarp eventually ate itself and now we just spend each day, week, and year looking back at the great things that already happened 10, 20, and 25 years ago.

Usually we are nudged into this by some not-so-coincidental reissues… anniversary edition remasters of the classic albums we already know and love. And in the digital age where selling any music, especially hard copy CDs, is next to impossible, it’s a lot easier to (re)sell us stuff everyone knows is good (especially with added goodies and updated artwork or notes). It’s easy to have a hit with a hit.

In the “rock is dead” era, we didn’t need the Strokes or the White Stripes to be saviors of rock, we just exhumed the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin to do it again. It’s almost comical that the recent remastered reissues (expanded 2-disc versions!) of the Zeppelin catalogue rolled out exactly 20 years after the 1994 remasters. Can a shark jump the shark?

Anniversary culture gives us an excuse to tell the world which albums changed our lives and how. We gather in the town square (Facebook/Twitter) and remind our friends that A Tribe Called Quest’s Low End Theory came out 24 years ago. We make our high school buddies feel old by telling them Van Halen’s 1984 is 31 YEARS OLD while websites gather clicks by offering us info on the whereabouts of the woman from the “Hot For Teacher” video. Obviously seminal albums like the Stones Exile on Main St get lavish remastered reissues, and so do lesser-known but still critically acclaimed efforts like Bob Mould’s Workbook, but soon enough there’s a niche within the niche and we’re “celebrating” albums that weren’t so great the first time around. Or maybe the album might be worthy, but we don’t wanna wait for the 20th or 25th anniversaries, so now just “It was 10 years ago today” is good enough.

best_double_albums_3203775bInstead of listing every album that’s had an anniversary reissue, it would be easier to list the ones that haven’t. As for which ones are worthy of buying a second or third time… this brings us from the nostalgia phenomenon to our other favorite rock pastime: Top 10 Lists. From the dawn of the first day spent on that hypothetical desert island, we’ve been making our personal Top 10 lists. Once everyone and their former record-store coworkers had blogs, rock fans everywhere were raging against the tastemakers and righting all the wrongs unjustly handed down by the gatekeepers at Rolling Stone or SPIN or the Grammy voters and anyone else who gets it wrong when trying to tell us what’s good.

It’s a way to make sense of a senseless world in which Bob Marley never won a Grammy and Ziggy Marley’s career is already longer than Bob’s. Continue reading →

Pink Floyd Discography Review

The following are reviews of every Pink Floyd studio album from 1967-1983. There are no greatest hits, compilations, solo, live recordings, or post-Waters albums reviewed:

The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967)
Floyd’s unheralded, and underrated, debut album.  Recorded at the same time as The Beatles Sgt. Peppers (and in the same studio-Abbey Road), it’s hard not to notice a few similarities between the two. Rumor has it that Lennon and McCartney used to sneak into the Floyd mixing sessions to hear what they were up to.  This is Pink Floyd as a psychedelic-pop band, not the artsy, self-indulgent “acid rockers” that they later became known as.  Whereas The Beatles were well into their careers by this point and first starting to experiment with drugs and the wonders of the recording studio, Floyd was still a young, undeveloped pop act that was writing tripped out songs about gnomes, strange cats, and galaxies.  Lyrically and musically, this album belongs to Syd Barrett. The underground London hippie scene was in full effect at this point, and this album reflects those times. Listening to it now, parts are dated and somewhat corny. But if you put yourself in the mind frame of 1967 and compare this album to other “psychedelic” albums of the time, you could sense that Floyd wasn’t just some drop in the pan band that was going to disappear. They were just beginning.

Highlights: Astronomy Domine, Interstellar Overdrive, Bike, Lucifer Sam
Could Do Without: The Gnome, Take Up Thy Stethoscope and Walk

A Saucerful of Secrets (1968)
By this point, Floyd was still a struggling band on the circuit and Syd Barrett’s drug abuse and mental state were taking their toll. Syd was relieved of his duties during the recording and replaced by David Gilmour. This is the only Floyd album that technically contained a 5-member lineup, with Barrett and Gilmour splitting the guitar parts.  The tensions within the band at this time are apparent on the album. Waters was starting to take over the writing from Barrett, but was still far off from his future works. This album sounds like Floyd at a crossroads trying to define themselves. It was also the beginning of the change in sound for the band. With the absence of Barrett’s LSD laced lyrics and song structures, longer, more atmospheric numbers started appearing. This is NOT a pop album.

Highlights:  Set the Controls For the Heart of the Sun, A Saucerful of Secrets, Let There Be Light
Could Do Without:  Jugband Blues, Remember a Day, See Saw

Continue reading →