01 May 2009

tinted windows (or, this is what passes for a supergroup these days?)

I'm going to make a quick point, and then come back to it later: that which is easiest is not necessarily the most rewarding.

Moving on... A little over a year ago, I devoted some digital space and some words to Fountains of Wayne's latest album, Traffic & Weather (read it here. You know you want to). In that time, my affection for that album has waned somewhat, but that's been more than compensated for by a rebirth of my appreciation for Welcome Interstate Managers (which I might well place on a list of favorite albums of the '00s, but we'll wait and see on that).

Despite the fact that I devoted much of my college (and post-) life to discovering the most obscure, abrasive, inaccessible music I could get my hands on, I've retained a soft spot for the well-constructed pop song. I've written before about why, so I won't compose something dissertation-length today, but let me just restate what I think is my most important point: it doesn't waste time. A weird thing to say from a guy who's listened to more than a few all-instrumental heavy metal albums that fall in the 50-70 minute range, but as I regain that part of my personality that doesn't really care what other people think of the things I like, I realize how important, and how special, a song like "Maureen" (from the B-sides collection Out-Of-State Plates) is. Smart, touching, honest, fun to listen to, and it starts and finishes in three minutes and thirteen seconds. There's a lot to admire about something like that.

It was a little over a month ago when I first found out about Tinted Windows. I was flipping through the channels on Vanessa's DirecTV when I uncovered a direct feed from SXSW. Performances from weird and obscure (only not that obscure, since they're deemed significant enough to air on a weird DirecTV channel) bands at the Austin festival (one I've always wanted to go to). The Airborne Toxic Event? Hell yes. Tinted Windows? The new power pop "supergroup" featuring James Iha from the Smashing Pumpkins, Adam Schlesinger from Fountains of Wayne, Bun E. Carlos from Cheap Trick, and Taylor Hanson from... Hanson? What the fuck?

I had to record it. When I watched it, I had to admit, I wasn't all that taken with it. A lot of reviews of the record, and reactions to this and other live performances, talked about how the band seemed to lack, well, it. Iha (like D'Arcy), back in his Pumpkins days, was a charisma black hole, and nothing's changed, as near as I can tell. Schlesinger (despite the fact that most of the music and lyrics were his) seemed just as uninterested. Bun E. sure looked to be enjoying himself, but the performer's enjoyment doesn't translate to the audience as well as that of the crowd to the band (I believe). Taylor was trying hard, and clearly having a good time too, but he just didn't ever have an opportunity to get the audience off (as Jeff Bebe might've said), so relentlessly plowing ahead was the band's set.

Before I get into my reaction to the album (much more positive than the one I had to the live broadcast), I want to take a moment to talk about the term "supergroup." Only in this age and day, when every marketplace for creativity (whatever your favorite sort is) is so splintered that it's virtually impossible for a random sampling of people to have experienced anything that could unite them (save, perhaps, the Obama election), only in this age and day could James Iha, Adam Schlesinger, Taylor Hanson and Bun E. Carlos constitute a "supergroup." Oysterhead (Les Claypool, Stuart Copeland, and Trey Anastasio) were more a "supergroup" than Tinted Windows, and even that's pushing it. Cream is a supergroup, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young are a supergroup, the Traveling Wilburys were a supergroup. People didn't refer to Tom Petty as "that guy from the Heartbreakers;" in talking about Tinted Windows with anybody, I've referred to Mr. Schlesinger as "the bass player from Fountains of Wayne. He writes their songs... Yeah, the 'Stacy's Mom' guys." That's not to knock these guys, who've achieved far more in their lives than I have in mine... I'm just saying that it's overly generous to refer to them as a "supergroup."

Now, to the music (I should really kick this "prefacing, story-telling" thing to the curb in my reaction/response posts - it just makes them overlong and probably doesn't provide any useful information, but you never know. We'll see if I can junk the habit). On the first listen, it seemed... overly generic (a fault I lay at the aforementioned Mr. Schlesinger's feet, seeing as how he's responsible for the lion's share of the song-writing). Only two songs really stood out to me, "Without Love" and "Take Me Back." It certainly wasn't a Welcome Interstate Managers-type listening experience, where it seemed like each and every song smacked me with its own kind of awesomeness. I was prepared to be as disappointed and bitter as the guy who reviewed the album on Pitchfork (the website gave it a review score of 3.5 out of 10).

The songs are overly generic (though that's apparently by design - Schlesinger did't want the band to sound like an off-brand Fountains of Wayne, so he had to alter his writing style... not that going from insightful and witty to generic is something to condone), but they're earnest (Taylor Hanson deserves all the credit in the world for pulling that off; clearly, the most talented Hanson brother has decided to make the most of his opportunity to grab the spotlight)

Something started to happen, though. Something I hadn't quite expected. The songs... well, they wormed their way into my brain. Even songs I didn't think I'd liked at all, like "Dead Serious," or "Nothing to Me." I'd feel them reverberating in my brain, digging their claws in and refusing to let go. Only snippets, though, not full songs. Phrases got stuck in my head, to the point that I had no choice but to cue the album up again and go through it, start to finish.

I think the advent of the iPod (and digital music in general) has lessened people's appreciation for the art of ordering songs on a record. With something like American Idiot, it's pretty essential (the importance of the story unfolding in the correct order can't really be overstated), but with something like the Tinted Windows album, it's a bit more subtle. It's not about narrative so much as it's about feeling. In this case, it's like following Rob Gordon's rules for mix-tape making (ones I'd inadvertently adopted myself long, long before I know about Nick Hornby, let alone John Cusack).

Turns out, my biggest issue with Tinted Windows is its lackluster track arrangement. "Kind of a Girl" to "Messing With My Head" to "Dead Serious" is not really a great opening 1-2-3 punch (something every good album needs... actually, a 1-2-3-4 is pretty key). "Kind of a Girl" isn't much of an album opener, frankly. The last track, "Take Me Back," is an album opener. "Messing With My Head" is a pretty good 2, but it suffers because the 1 track isn't grabby enough. It doesn't give you any reason to put a little more effort into the second song; you haven't been pulled in. "Dead Serious" is absolutely not a 3 track, either (doesn't let you absorb the first two songs or overwhelm you enough to blow them out of the water. It's just kind of there). "Can't Get a Read On You" is a good 4; it brings the energy back. But, from where? "Dead Serious" didn't do anything to require "Can't Get a Read On You" to exist where it does.

Track order is like a batting order; arrange your players, or your tracks, in a way that maximizes their potential individually and collectively. I've taken it upon myself to reorganize the tracks on Tinted Windows to allow them to maximize themselves. Here goes:

1) Take Me Back (way too catchy and, well, awesome to have to wait the whole album to hear it. This is a power pop record, for god's sake)
2) Messing With My Head (like I said, a good 2 if it had a good enough 1. Now it does)
3) Back With You (slows things down a little bit, lets Taylor's vocals really take center stage. Not really a power hitter of a song, but you can't always hit home runs. Sometimes you need to pack the bases)
4) Can't Get a Read On You ("Back With You" slows things down, so we pick it up here)
5) Dead Serious (keeps the energy going right into...)
6) Cha Cha (feels like more of a classic pop song; head bobbing-ly so)
7) Kind of a Girl (bring the heavy hitter in here; take things up yet another notch from where they were)
8) Without Love (probably my favorite riff in the whole album, which is a great way to follow up "Kind of a Girl," which just sort of STOPS)
9) We Got Something (rocking)
10) Nothing to Me (the second half of the record is kind of shaping into the "cool" half, which is good, I think. Good to have similar feelings on each side)
11) Doncha Wanna (instead of loading the record's best song at the end, we've now got the song that reminds me of one of the best album closing songs ever - "All Mixed Up," off The Cars' first album. I really don't know why it reminds me of that; there's not a good reason. But, there it is. It also builds/explodes/fades out better than any other song on the record, and that's how you end an album, I think)

I've given Tinted Windows a markedly better record, I believe. Someone want to get ahold of them and let them know?

It's weird, that I had to work to like a pop album. But, I do now. And I'm glad. Happy, even.


sadbix said...

FYI, I have always listed James Iha as being awesome because he had that bulldog and wrote a song about him. I wouldn't call that a charisma black hole!

Phil W said...

I imagine he's a perfectly nice guy and really awesome, but onstage he just looks bored...