Monday, December 22, 2008

FBO: 'Grading the Underachiever Triplets'

Guns'n'Roses new album Chinese Democracy came out a few weeks ago, and I was quick to download it. Anyone -- pretty much anyone -- who spends so long (14 years) with so much pomp and self-destruction to make a rock record is, as a rule, interesting, and occasionally pretty good. It's very easy to root against Indianan Axl Rose, but the thing is, the album is fairly remarkable. When do you have a lead single that requires Wikipedia to get all the references (Falung Gong anyone?).

Things are often overblown -- tripled lead vocals, guitar leads peppering any gap, sound bytes in the horrible 'Madagascar' range from Cool Hand Luke to Martin Luther King Jr. But the biggest surprise is that it's actually a real Guns'n'Roses album, a blip back to a different rock'n'roll era, despite the Nine Inch Nails sound effects and electro beats picked up over the 14-year sprawl-in-the-making (not to mention the Terrence Trent D'Arby dreads!?). It's better than the mess of a double album Use Your Illusion (1991).

-->Axl's Underachievement Score: A-. Guns'n'Roses have three studio releases of original material over a 20-year period.

Fourteen years in the making, Chinese Democracy only wins silver in an album's delay. The gold honors go to Brian Wilson/Beach Boys' Smile (2004), which took nearly 30. In 1967, Wilson tried to one-up the Beatles' Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band -- which had tried, and failed, to one-up the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds (aka 'best album of all time,' 1966). The Smile project was flooded with over-thought arrangements and lyrics, which led to Brian's madness (more or less), an eventually scrapped album, then a jarringly barebone follow up Smiley Smile that (other than 'Good Vibrations') barely hinted at what the vision had been. Brian Wilson assembled some studio musicians to 'finish' (re-record) the original Smile in 2004, so unlike Axl's, the finished work wasn't continuously worked on and re-tooled over a long period of time; it was merely scrapped, forgotten, then returned to. Notably, the final version of Smile didn't show any real changes from leaked demos from 1967 -- no funk guitars, wah wah pedals, rap breaks, slap bass or four-on-the-floor disco beats had been picked up along the way. It's interesting, but there may be a reason Brian got frustrated (and crazy) in 1967 -- he was reaching too far.

--> Brian's Underachievement Score: D-. Brian needed 27 years for Smile, but no apology needed for churning out breathtaking song after breathtaking song through most of the '60s. He also re-emerged from the Smile disaster to make a few worthy songs here an there, particularly on 'Honkin' Down the Highway' in 1978. Plus he can use illness as an excuse.

Brian and Axl's other separated triplet of underachievement is Tennesseean Quentin Tarantino, who burst with promise with a two-fer of 'isn't violence funny?' movies: Reservoir Dogs (1992), Pulp Fiction (1994). Then he ran out of ideas. Three years later, he did a version of an Elmore Leonard novel with the so-so Jackie Brown (1997), then waited six more years before bringing out an original story again with Kill Bill Vol I & II (2003 & 2004), which seemed to stem from a Pulp Fiction joke about a TV pilot of the 'Fox Force Five.' He's talking of adding Vol III & Vol IV in another ten years.

-->Quentin's Underachievement Score: B-. If not for Kill Bill, Quentin would lead Axl.

Failed Bands of Oklahoma sympathize with the creative trappings of these nonfailed artists, but do ask for an apology from each.

FBO Admin
Mobile/Semi-Permanent HQ -- Brooklyn, NY


pseudosu said...

I've been afraid to check out Chinese Democracy, fearing it would set off some kind of acid-washed jeans, gigantic hair, pop rocks apocalypse-- but on your say so, perhaps I will.

Also, I'd like to knock Quentin down anther half a grade for not being able to keep his weasely, beavis-ish mug off the screen in BOTH the grindhouse movies-- which could have been ironically sucky, end therefore kind of awesome, if not for his appearances.

Trott said...

One "Lake County" wrote in Issue 0 of The Montana Review:

'Smiley Smile,' a top-three most-important bad album of the 1960s & '70s period, should be heard twice. This scrapped together demo of what could have come from the year-in-the-making, ultimately abandoned and likely over-hyped 'Smile' disc. It's essentially what drove Brian Wilson to insanity. Perhaps egged on a bit by Paul McCartney's 'munching' on 'Vegetables.' (Highlights: 'Heroes & Villains,' 'Good Vibrations')

Trott said...

Also, we should examine this this six-degrees-like route between musical underachievers. Are Alice Cooper, Ricky Martin, and Elvis Costello also underachievers? Costello has been prolific, but I have no idea about the others.

pseudosu said...

Alice Cooper more into golf than music now, reportedly...

THE FBO said...

I'm not sure how to weigh it -- there's underachievement with potential (the Beach Boys -- sure; Orson Welles; GnR, like 'em or not) and underachievement as in bad (Kajagoogoo; Ricky Martin; Christian Slater; Deep Blue Something; Hootie). Doesn't Elvis Costello make a record or appear in a movie every nine months? Not sure if that counts. At least he's not afraid to press 'enter.'

Pseudosu, I was going to mention 'Grindhouse' -- which I enjoyed in the theater but hadn't seen since. Probably should see again. More of a gag than a full-on QT dealie.