Zen Zenith


Beck’s Guero is the record that made me realize there is indeed a Holy Grail of rock and roll records—a record that rock and roll has been reaching for but never fully achieving for at least my lifetime. Here are my criteria for the Holy Grail and then a case for Guero as a candidate:

  1. It’s a great rock and roll record: consistent, very strong songwriting, arrangements, performances, great sound, and adventurous or at least beautiful production that also stands the test of time. It has to work as a whole—larger than the sum of it’s songs. It has to be musically interesting enough to get you and keep you even if you couldn’t understand the lyrics.
  2. It is a great dance record. Based on the evidence, this may be the most difficult criterion for a great rock record to meet. Records that you can sway to or jump around to, but are not made to dance to, fail this criterion. (If you can’t or don’t dance, you don’t get a vote on this one.)
  3. It is a great pop record. It’s accessible, catchy, melodic, and makes good use of harmonies.
  4. The lyrics occupy that evocative space between the boring extremes of story telling and completely cryptic. They are also not limited to pretentiousness or goofiness, and are at least occasionally poignant and/or profound.

These criteria are a lot to ask from a record, of course, thus “Holy Grail.” When I presented them to my friend Zen, he said something like, “Wait a second, rock records don’t need to be dance records. Is it really better to try to do both?” Very sensible. In fact, that’s the point. It’s generally a bad idea to try to do too much with a rock record—you end up doing less. There are tradeoffs.

This is why I chose “great” in criteria 1-3 instead of “perfect.” It was partly so that I could nominate an existing record—every perfect rock record so far miserably fails at least one of the other criteria—but also because I’ve come to think there are structural constraints at play. The consistent punchiness of a perfect dance record, for example, probably works against the dynamics and introspective moments of a perfect rock record.

So anyway, Guero:

I call Guero a great rock and roll record. It’s not perfect, so it could be vulnerable to a new record coming along; it has its lazy moments, notably the intro to “Rental Car,” and to a lesser extent the verses of “Missing” and “Earthquake Weather.” Guero’s songwriting, performances, and sounds, however, are consistently great. The songs flow together. The production is top notch, adventurous, occasionally beautiful (notably in “Emergency Exit”), and has stood the test of nine years, which is pretty good.

Not every song makes you want to dance, but most do, and insistently, so I call Guero a great dance record. It is undeniably accessible and catchy, with strong melodies and some harmonies—great pop record. The lyrics are in the right space, somewhat cryptic but not boringly so, and not, as Beck’s lyrics so often are, over-the-top goofy. And the light-heartedness in the music and goofiness in the lyrics is balanced by real introspection and dark themes: deserts, dust, imagining death, and loneliness punctuated by peeking into others’ lives.

Guero

Holy Grail of Rock Records?

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I am a few weeks past halfway through my 38th year, conveniently marked by my brother Damian’s birthday, and the start of my spring term. Here’s an update on how my intentions for the year are coming along.

1. Add new knowledge to the field of social psychology: I have just finished (I hope) crunching numbers for my honors thesis, and I can say that I have helped produce some new evidence, at least. It is not as sexy as I had hoped, but I have learned a whole lot about the process of psychology research, and that is the main point, as my advisor keeps reminding me.

2. Break my habit of scratching and picking my skin, including biting my lip: I have made some progress here, using a technique Reanna told me about: snapping myself with a hair band around my wrist whenever I had the urge to touch myself. My success varies clearly with my stress level. It requires mindfulness. Another insight/confusion: picking and lip biting, I can tell, are pure stress responses, but the scratching I think is more than that. I seem to be an itchier than normal person. A dermatologist told me that it was the “notoriously harsh” hand-made soap I have been using. I accepted that explanation until I realized on my ride home that he had been wrong. I only use soap on a few key areas. By his reasoning my armpits should be itchier than most of me, and they are not. Any ideas?

3. Celibacy: This has been no problem. I have not been tested, however; no one that I am aware of has wanted to have sex with me. When I first told Grace about this one, she said, “You are going to learn a lot from doing that, but you know, now that you are committed, you will immediately meet someone who will make it very challenging.” Well, not yet.

4. Dance every day, working on 1) musicality 2) vocabulary 3) style: This is going pretty well, though some days my dancing is just a token, so I could say I did. I had a big breakthrough in musicality on my fast dancing at Seattle Balboa Festival in February. The choreography I have been working on with Karly has been helping my working vocabulary. And the main reason I decided to take ballet is to improve my poise and lines. It is easy for me to get into an I-could-be-doing-so-much-more/better state. There is a guy who started in the same beginning class that I did in Eugene who really dove in and is now a rock-star dancer in Portland, winning national competitions. But I still give myself a thumbs up on this one.

5. Finish bachelor’s degree: Yes. I am on track to graduate with honors on June 13, 2009.

6. Get accepted into a couples and family therapy graduate program: Yes. I start in the University of Oregon’s CFT masters program on September 29 (happy birthday to me!), 2009. I’m very excited.

7. Maintain this blog: I have a lot more ideas for posts than actual posts, but I am pretty happy with NME so far. It has been a consistent source of inspiration for me. I get about 20 clicks a day, on average, which seems pretty respectable. The lowest I go is three (two of which are my ever-hopeful-for-a-post Mom, I just discovered), and my peak was 62 on March 31, the day after I posted the guide to my sidebar. I wonder who you all are.

8. Meditate every day: Yes. Sometimes just a few minutes, but yes.

9. Produce a record with David Waingarten: This is not going to happen this year, which I’m sad about. I love this guy’s voice and songwriting. He also makes movies, though, and that’s what he did with his time and money this year. The movie looks good, though. Here’s a preview: This Is Now

10. Record an EP with my band, Abandon Ship: This project is not on schedule, partly because of #12, below, and partly because of how much work an honors thesis is, on top of an internship and classes. I am working on it , but it will almost certainly not be done by my birthday.

11. See healthcare provider each month until all my body concerns are resolved: Yes, I have been doing this. I’ve seen a dermatologist, an orthopedist, a urologist, and two chiropractors. I’m disappointed with the results, so far. I seem to be collecting concerns faster than I am resolving them. Hmm… That makes it seem like I am on my last legs. I am quite healthy, overall, actually.

12. Set up a slick system of musical collaboration over the internet and use it regularly: This has come together much slower than I anticipated, but I have every reason to believe I will be up and running by early May. I can hardly wait.

13. Shift my schedule three hours earlier for at least one term: In bed by 11 pm: I’m very happy with this one, so far. I have not pulled it off perfectly for a term straight—my dance schedule conflicts somewhat with it—but I’d say 90% of the time I’m in bed by 11:30, at least, and that means I’m waking up naturally before my alarm 90% of the time. I love it!

14. Sing out every day: I have not been doing this as I had hoped. I am still inspired to sing out like my friend Zen Zenith, but I have not been working on it with any regularity.

15. Take African dance classes: Yes, I have taken two classes from master dancer Alseny Yansane, and they were awesome. Unfortunately, I have been having this low back pain that has kept me from dancing with that extreme athleticism. When my back stops hurting, I will go back.

16. Write at least one song per month: Nope. I have not written even one complete song. Ouch.

17. Make at least one of each item in Maya’s cookbook: Yummm. I have made four of 19 recipes: Fluffy Whole Wheat Pancakes, Super Hero Granola, Corn Chowder, and Maya’s Tomato soup. They were all excellent except I burned the granola.

Just in case any of you have tried to click through ‘my band’s website’ on the right in the last couple months and were frustrated, that site is now back online. It’s worth checking out, too, I think, just to see the websmanship; it was created by our friend Zen Zenith, incorporating artwork by Tilke Elkins, so it’s very cool.