Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Small Victories for the Common Man (Grant Hart x 2)

Finally got some proper layout back on the blog. Paragraphs are now somewhat subtly placed apart, and block quotes have ordinary line spacing. Maybe I'm a perfectionist, but the absence of those features was really wrecking with my head and my ability to write a good blog post.

(It turns out there was a p missing in my .post-body {, and hence the margin settings weren't affecting my paragraphs. The blockquote line spacing had just been reset. All thanks to a universal Blogger update of the CSS template... darn mysterious interweb.)

I only know a little HTML - pidgin HTML if you will - so it took a couple of weeks before I finally sat down and realised what I had to do. Not much thanks to the various blogger support groups, but at least the various instructions for editing CSS pointed me in the right direction. That's not really the reason why I haven't posted in a little while, but it can do for now.

The above two albums are post-Husker Du releases from Grant Hart, the drummer and other creative powerhouse of the band along with Bob Mould. I posted his first post-Husker Du release, the 2541 EP, here already. These are full-length albums, one under his own name and the other with his relatively short-lived band, Nova Mob. Good News For Modern Man in particular is absolute pop gold; the 'concept album' of Last Days of Pompeii is less successful, but it's still a lot of fun to listen to. The prime Grant Hart solo release, as I understand it, is his first full-length, Intolerance; and while his post-Husker Du career isn't quite as productive as Mould's, even these two albums represent some brilliant moments.

Good News For Modern Man is an album I picked up from eMusic some years ago, after having heard Metal Circus and possibly Zen Arcade. On that basis, it comes as quite a shock - it's pure pop kitsch. Considering Husker Du's later albums, and the direction Hart took his share of the band's songs into, it's less surprising, but still it stands out as twee, jangly nostalgic pop - something I have a soft spot for when it's done with the right kind of style. And whatever about style, this is also one of the most likeable albums you could ever hear.

Probably my favourite song on the album is 'Run Run Run To The Centre Pompidou' for the infectious exuberance of the chorus, but in truth all the songs are just as catchy and hook-laden as each other. 'A Letter From Anne Marie' and 'In A Cold House' are wonderfully and simply evocative, alternately loud and meditative, but the sonic masterpiece of the album is the atmospheric 'Teeny's Hair'. Lyrically, it has something to do with Apollinaire and Duchamps, but musically it's like an apotheosis of Zen Arcade-type experimental pop.

Grant Hart - Good News For Modern Man (Pachyderm, 1999)

Less directly or accessibly pop, and far more experimental, is The Last Days of Pompeii. Preceding Good News for Modern Man by about 8 years (it came out on Rough Trade in 1991, a few years after Intolerance) this is a frankly bizarre debut for the band. The idea seemed attractive - after all, Zen Arcade was a concept album of sorts - and I spent some time hunting this down as the second addition to my Grant Hart collection. After the effort, it turned out to be a bit of a disappointment although when I go back to it, I still quite enjoy it.

The Last Days of Pompeii is unfortunately, much more disjointed and patchy than the sublime genius of the other album. It's, essentially, a bunch of atmospherics, weird songs, a few weirdly catchy songs, and a theme about the destruction of Pompeii amongst other historical events. On the last part, these sort of meanings tend to pass me by, but Wikipedia mentions an 1834 novel by the same title

"written by the baron Edward Bulwer-Lytton in 1834. Once a very widely read book and now relatively neglected, it culminates in the cataclysmic destruction of the city of Pompeii by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. The novel uses its characters to contrast the decadent culture of first-century Rome with both older cultures and coming trends."

which sounds quite close to the apparent 'concept' of this album. Musically, it has some pop moments as good as anything on Good News for Modern Man. It has that great Grant Hart sound, perhaps not crafted into the strongest of albums, but still there nevertheless. From the stirring introduction and bombast of 'Woton', the lighter exuberance of 'Getaway (Gateway) In Time', 'Wernher Von Braun' or 'Where You Gonna Land (Next Time You Fall Off Of Your Mountain', to the evocative atmospherics of 'Lavender and Grey' and the closing song with its 'Benediction' of an erupting mountain (sorry to give the ending away, I guess), it's a fun ride. It doesn't hang together perfectly - it wanders off into a track pretty upfront-ly entitled 'Space Jazz', for example - but the parts that it is intended to hang on, like the two versions, regular and 79 A.D., of 'Admiral of the Sea' are memorable enough.

Nova Mob - The Last Days of Pompeii (Rough Trade, 1991)


This doesn't have anything much to do with Grant Hart - although Nazi Germany might be a sub-theme of Last Days of Pompeii, in which case this video fits right in: it's a mash up of one of the scenes from Der Untergang (Downfall), the recent excellent film about Hitler's last days in his bunker, and the imagined reaction of Irish Taoiseach, Brian Cowen, to the Lisbon treaty result as it came in. It's just brilliant.

This issue (Lisbon) being another part of the reason why I haven't felt quite like posting recently, I'll post it up just for the laugh. It's so very wrong, perhaps, but the matching of the dialogue to the emotions is hilariously and subversively perfect. If you're not au fait with Irish politics, you'll probably miss some of the more specific references, but the gist of it is pretty clear*. Satire at its novel (though this has been done for other situations, apparently), focused best. Especially the first 1:00...

* And yes, Brian Cowen or Biffo, as we call him**, is a notorious swearer. (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brian_Cowen#Public_image)

** Biffo - 'Big Ignorant Fellow*** From Offaly'

*** Rephrase as to taste.

Taoiseach = prime minister, head of government, by the way.


luciferyellow said...

Thanks for posting this. I haven't heard "Good News..." yet, but I really liked "The last Days of Pompeii" when it came out. However, I must be in a very small minority about this one, because I have never read anything positive about this album, or heard people mention it. "Intolerance" took a long time to grow on me, but with "The last days..." I instantly liked the meandering and/or hymn-like songs (which is probably exactly what turns most people off about this album). Anyway, I'll definitely have to give "Good news..." a listen.

gabbagabbahey said...

If you go by 'instantly likeable' I think you'll like a lot of Good News. There are a lot of parts of Last Days which I really like, and parts I don't so much, and it never quite balances out enough for me to really like the album as a whole.

I just started listening to Intolerance today, and I can see its potential, but I reckon each of the three are just as different from each other!

luciferyellow said...

Intolerance was just really weird after the stuff he had done with Husker Du, that's certainly part of the reason why it took me so long to get into it. I guess by the time of "The last days..." I was already much more amenable to that kind of music. Having that said, there are clearly some real duds on it, too, and as you said it is quite disjointed and patchy. Have you ever heard Nova Mob's 2nd LP (I believe it is self-titled and has some sort of an obelisk on the cover)? It's much tighter and way rockier. But for some reason I always preferred the ballads and slow rockers on "Last days.." more.

gabbagabbahey said...

no, I haven't heard the s/t. Just the three albums of his including Intolerance, plus the 2541 10".

there's a good deal of stuff here: http://www.guypetersreviews.com/novamob.php

Let me know what you think of Good News when you listen to it.

gabbagabbahey said...

er, these three albums of Grant Hart, including Nova Mob - Last Days of Pompeii.

and that last line makes me sound like an evangelist!

luciferyellow said...

That's fine, you're preaching to the choir! ;-)

luciferyellow said...

Just read the reviews on the page that you provided the link for and I'd very much agree, those are some very fitting words (and apparently someone besides me DID like "The last days...").

luciferyellow said...

I just gave the "Good News" a quick listen, but I don't think it does much for me. There are a couple of good songs, but overall it's a bit too poppy and bland. I can't really put the finger on it, but it doesn't feel as heartfelt as his earlier solo stuff (and I guess the same progression [regression] is what occurs across those 2 Nova Mob albums).

gabbagabbahey said...

I'll give you poppy, but not bland! :)

luciferyellow said...

Well, "bland" is maybe not a good overall description, but I thought the first 3-4 songs all sounded the same.