Friday, March 16, 2007

In The Dock: Overly productive / low quality control pop groups

(If you're wondering what this is all about, click here.)

This week's subject: Overly productive / low quality control pop groups

The case for the prosecution (Jonathan S)

There are lots of motivations for wanting to be a musician; fame, notoriety, influence, hedonism, money. Even - occasionally - love of pop music. Noel Gallagher wrote decent songs when he worked on a building site, probably because he wanted it so badly. It's odd that in the years that followed, songwriting seemed to stop being such a pleasure and became a chore, and his talent disappeared. But for most of us, people who don't spend our time writing songs, but who certainly do spend our time slogging away in demeaning and demanding jobs, vying for parental approval yet cursing every wasted minute, the dream of being a musician has more to do with freedom - no more day jobs, no more scrabbling for half an hour to do something creative. The parties and the indulgences would be fine, but it's the idea of space that bewitches.

Of course, it isn't really like that, as plenty of pop stars (Joss Stone being the most recent example) will tell us. For Graham Coxon, tired of Blur, the worst of it was the relentless daily routine, not recording so much as touring and promotional stuff; getting locked down into industry schedules; write, record, promote, tour, write, record, promote, tour. He wanted freedom too, so when Blur began recording Think Tank, he just stayed away. He was more interested in freedom, and began pursuing it by stepping out of the industry cycle and recording and releasing his own records. Where Blur managed six albums in twelve years, he quickly released his first four albums in five, and has added two more subsequently. He toured when he wanted to, he recorded when he wanted to, and he released records when he wanted to. Perfect.

Except of course that no-one bought the records until album number five, when he realised something I could have told him, if he'd have asked. Overly productive, low quality-control bands may make for great Best Of compilations, but they try your damn patience, too. His first four albums contain plenty of ace tunes, amongst a ton of throwaway stuff, but half of them even are under-recorded and half-assed. 2004's Happiness In Magazines was a revelation, because for the first time since Coxon worked with Blur, he was taking care to produce a set of smart, cohesive pop songs.

iPods and the advent of MP3 technology have arguably devalued the concept of the album, as opposed to the pop song, making it less important that the new Primal Scream album, say, has a few real stinkers on it. Just download 'Country Girl' and 'Little Death'. But this principle will really only work so long as Primal Scream buck the trend (as they assuredly will) and make a better effort next time. For bands without their sheer force of character, the problem is more pronounced. Everyone knows that Peter Doherty can write a decent pop song, but why did the Babyshambles album contain so many half-drawn duds? Because his quality control impulse wasn't high enough. Why have none of the Wu-Tang Clan, with the genius example of Ghostface Killah, made a decent record since GZA's Liquid Swords back in 1995? Because their quality control is poor. There are some stunning songs in there, but not one consistently brilliant record. It's certainly better than having nothing at all, but it makes you want to grab them and shake them 'til they raise the bar.

Some bands hover on the precipice, and the importance of quality control is more evident. XTC released some of the best records of the late 70s and 80s (Black Sea, Skylarking and English Settlement are gobsmacking) but never broke through. If you want to know why, listen to 'Mummer' or 'The Black Express'. There's not a better lyricist anywhere in the world than Andy Partridge, but why is he rarely acknowledged as such? Because he couldn't resist writing the odd song about his "pink thing" either. Since XTC's late 90s second wind, Partridge has been digging through the crates for songs he never used, and has released eight albums since 2002. Think how much more diluted the back catalogue of one of Britain's finest bands might have been!

There are, obviously, shambling, half-coherent records I love. But just as is there is nothing better than a beautifully packaged record, so there is nothing better than an artistic vision meticulously drawn. Slow down and take care, young Mr.Doherty, you can do better. And you should so some things, thinking about it, less.

The case for the defence (Damo)

OK – first up, when I said I’d defend this one, I said I’d defend overly productive groups, not ones with low quality control. Clearly there’s no defending the latter trait. But the title remains the same I see... how to progress? Simple, my job here is to show that "overly productive" doesn’t necessarily mean "low quality control"... and equally that underproductive bands don’t necessarily produce classics simply because they take their time.

First up, how often does this happen - and how frustrating is it - when your new favourite band becomes everyone’s favourite band? Not out of any kind of elitism, but because the constant demands of touring are put upon them by their record companies, as well as the album being "milked" for an endless stream of singles. The result? You got the first couple of albums in two years, but now you’ve got to wait three years (or more) each time because every time the band expresses the will to get back in the studio, the record company says "You’re neglecting Australia". It happens. And at that level, touring’s where the money is, so the bands might be happily compliant anyway. The obvious examples are the "big ones" - your U2s and Coldplays, but for those of you with more "indie" tastes it’s no different. How often do you get a new Flaming Lips album these days? When do you reckon the third Arcade Fire album will come out?

Basically, waiting three years for another 45 minutes of material from a band you like is patience-trying at best. That’s why we should appreciate the acts that manage to buck the album-tour-single-tour-single-tour-single-tour-tour-festival circuit-tour trend - and do it well. Good examples? I’d start by suggesting Sufjan Stevens, Guided By Voices (RIP) and Ryan Adams (OK – there’s some low quality control there, but you still get decent new material far more frequently than with your average artist if your selective powers are good). And of course the dear old Fall. As with the point in the previous paragraph, this isn’t about whether you like those particular artists; there are more and that doubtless includes ones that you like. It’s the principle we’re dealing with here.

And why shouldn’t artists work hard to earn their respect (and money)? Plenty of acts given lots of "creative space" manage to come back with something massively self-indulgent. Sometimes it’s good to feel more than to think. The graveyard of dodgy records is littered with artists who were allowed to lose their focus... or worse, were forced to chuck something out quickly so that they could get back out on tour again.

Reading that, I would imagine that some of you might be baulking at my suggestion that we should place constraints and (heaven forbid) time limits on artists. At the risk of being controversial, sometimes you need to be cruel to be kind. Not always, but definitely sometimes. Ask Kevin Shields.

Or Axl Rose.

* * * * *

Thanks to Jonathan and Damo for their contributions. Now it's over to you. Guilty or innocent - YOU decide. The comments box is open and awaiting your comments - you've got until Friday to make up your mind...


Blogger Damo said...

Did I defend low quality? I hope you, like, read it and stuff. :)

8:45 pm  
Blogger Kwok said...

I did read it, and stuff. Honest!

It's just if I say not guilty, then I feel like I'm defending low quality, if you know what I mean.

Also, the wording of the thing you are defending makes it very hard to defend I reckon. Words (modifiers?) like "overtly" and "low" are bound to prejudice your case. (Surely by definition they are bad things.)

Good luck anyway!

12:22 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Three words: Super Furry Animals. Pretty much one of the most productive bands I know...7 studio albums in 11 years and an eighth due this summer. While every album has an entirely different sound, there are perhaps only a few questionable tracks each album (if at all).

Of course overly productive bands are often cursed by poor quality control, but it's all proportional...there are plenty of bands out there who've waited years between albums, and have released a load of guff.

As for Axl Rose, he seems to think that anyone will actually care about his about striking the iron when it's at absolute zero.

12:15 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not guilty btw.

12:16 pm  
Blogger Damo said...

All those SFA albums, and the two Gruff Rhys solo albums! How did I forget that when I was writing my bit? D'oh.

3:20 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not guilty if I'm taking this as a discussion on 'overly productive' alone. I like to hear new things, and if there is more, great! But if it is 'overly productive low quality' then guilty. So I suppose I abstain as the topic is foggy.

One thing is though that almost makes me vote guilty to both is that I love seeing bands live, and if that means less studio time just so they can be on the road then I'm sold! But as hardly anyone plays where I live I can only appreaciate them through the radio or their records.

6:27 am  
Blogger Damo said...

>One thing is though that almost makes me vote guilty to both is that I love seeing bands live, and if that means less studio time just so they can be on the road then I'm sold!

Except that it'd be the same setlist every time if they couldn't write new material. :-)

10:24 am  
Blogger Ian said...

My sympathies are certainly with the defence, and Damo does a good job, but Jonathan has convinced me. Guilty!

4:08 pm  
Blogger LB said...

Guilty for me. There are some bands that churn out new stuff all the time that I love, and bands that return with an album every few years which are sh*t.

I am not sure you can equate the frequency of the output with the quality. I'd almost rather wait for a brilliant record.

10:21 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oooh I feel like a graph is needed! Maybe there's an equation for the optimum bell-curve-ordained perfect gap between records...

In response to Damo: I'd still rather good songs played again and again and again rather than a glut of new runty tracks. I like the word runty.

2:25 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A tough call, mainly down to the negative wording of the title.
I agree it's hard to defend something already defined as 'poor quality'.

Overly-productive bands have a place in my heart as their enthusiasm for making music is so apparent. I'm always willing to forgive a few duff filler tracks if a band I love is going to release new music frequently rather than make me wait another 3-4 years.

Anyway, the connection between productivity and quality control has yet to be proven to me. The Beatles made loads of great songs in a recording career that lasted less than a decade wheras the Stone Roses spent half that time to come up with the (highly disappointing) Second Coming.

I'll have to vote for the defence mainly because the wording of the case is so bad and should be thrown out of court.

And the Super Furry Animals are ace.

3:48 pm  
Blogger Jonathan said...

I'd read this title totally differently - I didn't understand it to refer to low quality music at all; rather low quality-control, which I think is quite different. This can mean anything from badly sequenced to badly recorded to inconsistant. I probably didn't make it clear enough in my piece, but meant to argue not against bands that make shit records, but rather bands that make good records badly, if you see what I mean.

5:08 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Guilty. I think it is implicit that quality control is being compromised if you are overly productive. And if bands want my half penneth, I appreciate a bit of quality control.

W.R.T. the Super Furry Animals, clearly they can be productive at their high rate without slipping on QC. If they had produced 14 albums in 11 years, then they'd have been over-productive. Clearly they are working at a rate they can sustain. However, other artists clearly panic / try to make hay whilst the sun is shining. And I don't think that does the music any favours, even if it does pay the mortgage ...

So as a consumer of the product, I say guilty.

2:15 pm  
Blogger JonnyB said...

With Jonathan on this one - guilty. Although for a different reason. I bloody hate albums that go on for more than 50 or so minutes. So there.

3:49 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

not guilty

4:03 pm  
Blogger James MacLaren said...

There is definitely a delicate balance at play here. We don't want low-quality control, but neither do we want to wait unreasonable amounts of time either. I am going to have to go to the dark side here, and vote guilty. I was thinking about how frustrated I can get with Sufjan Stevens and how much I am awestruck by Scott Walker.

6:29 pm  
Blogger swisslet said...

try as I might, I can't get past Bob Dylan with this one and so I desperately want to vote GUILTY!

Maybe I should leave Dylan out of this, eh?

I get very frustrated by prolific artists. It's not that they're prolific per se, it's that I find it difficult to wade through albums with lots of ideas and little structure. Sufjan Stevens is mentioned above and I think he's a good example. When he's good, he's untouchable (in my opinion). Casmir Pulaski day has me in pieces ever time I hear it. But at the same time I find "Illinoise" quite difficult to listen to in one go because there is so much going on there. Mind you, the same thing happens to albums that have been a long time in the making too, not just ones that are turned round in a couple of months.... and the Stone Roses are mentioned above too, as is Axl Rose. I got all annoyed by the last Red Hot Chili Peppers album because it has some great stuff on it, but it's awash with some not-so-great stuff on a needless double album.

So my verdict? I suppose I'm agreeing with the point Jonathan makes in his comment above, but in actuality I think I'm an abstention because I don't think what I'm objecting too is something that is exclusively the preserve of prolific artists.


7:04 pm  
Blogger swisslet said...

incidentally, in the age of the download, should we be too worried about quality control as long as bands keep pushing out some good stuff? Just put the good stuff on your iPod and ignore the rest, right?


7:22 pm  
Blogger Ben said...

The key question is whether low quality control is most often a consequence of high or low productivity. I can think of numerous examples to substatiate the cases of both the prosecution and the defence. Damo's right that for every masterpiece turned out when artists have allowed themselves the time and space to be creative, there's another album which is a glaring illustration of the perils of taking so long focus is lost and self-indulgence kicks in.

But rather than taking that as an excuse to sit on the fence I'll vote for the defence for the simple reason that I'd rather be disappointed by a prolific band, knowing that something better could be just around the corner. The disappointment is that much greater if you've been waiting years rather than months for the album in question to appear.

9:21 pm  

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