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Thursday, June 27, 2002

Is The End Of The Album Near?

Neumu's Kirthana Ramisetti writes: These days there is really no practical reason to buy an album. There was a time when the song that you just couldn't get out of your head necessitated a trip to the record store to buy the album it was on. But now albums seem antiquated, heading the way of cassette tapes and laserdiscs, made irrelevant by technological progress. That song you can't get out of your head? You've probably already downloaded it for free.

The other day I was listening to R.E.M.'s Automatic for the People, one of those albums I take for granted as being a classic. I was impressed all over again by its beauty — from beginning to end. There's something special about listening to an album like Automatic, where each song is equally haunting and gorgeous and carries with it the anticipation of hearing the next one; where songs work both on their own and as intros or setups for what is to come.

"Find the River" may be one of the best songs to ever close an album, because after an hour of music that's the melodic equivalent of an elegy, it is so uplifting and comforting — a gentle, perfect ending. And the bandmembers knew it would be. They not only put thought and care into writing and performing each song, but they also deliberately constructed the order in which the tracks were presented, creating a cohesive musical experience rather than a random collection of songs. Listening to Automatic for the People reminded me how an album can be an intimate piece of art, a carefully created work that's a gift from the artist to the listener.

Many artists today, especially those who don't have the benefit of songs in heavy rotation on the radio or MTV, are conscious of the merits of creating albums that thread together far-reaching concepts or musical ideas. Radiohead's last two albums, Kid A and Amnesiac, are uncompromising musical visions that eschew immediately accessible hooks and melodies to better express dark, complex themes. Those albums demonstrate Radiohead's willingness to experiment in their songwriting as well as reject what is expected of them as a top-selling "alternative" band. Their recent work is not only a reaffirmation of the band's tremendous talent, but also of their artistic integrity.

Like the last two Radiohead albums, Gomez's latest release, In Our Gun, does not have any track that stands out from the others as an obvious single. But it is the better album for it. It is a seamless, inventive work, flowing easily from bluesy jams to soulful pop ballads, producing a rollicking, joyous listening experience. In a recent interview with Neumu, singer/guitarist Ian Ball said of In Our Gun, "There are tunes on the album that are better than others. But they're all on there for a particular reason. In painting, nobody really likes the color brown, but you use it to offset other colors."

A painting is a wonderful analogy, for just as a painter would not want observers to concentrate solely on the sky or the trees, but rather appreciate the entire landscape, so it is with some albums. You might favor some songs over others, but the tracks work best when heard in the context of one another, as a complete musical statement.

An album's character can shift if the track order is carelessly rearranged. The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds would likely not be the enduring classic it is today if Brian Wilson had placed "Caroline, No" or "Wouldn't It Be Nice" in the middle of the album. The genius of Pet Sounds is that it chronicles the cycle of love and relationships, starting with the heady innocence of "Wouldn't It Be Nice" and ending with the crushing disillusionment of "Caroline, No." If it were just a collection of unrelated love songs put together in a haphazard fashion it would still be a pretty damn good album, but not the amazing work of art that we've grown to love.

The songs on an album should be strong individually and also complement each other as a collective whole. Take Jeff Buckley's Grace, a stylish feast of beautiful pop songs featuring Buckley's incredible and otherworldly voice. The standout track, "Hallelujah," is a masterful, passionate vocal performance accompanied by spare guitar work. But the power would be somewhat diluted if it were removed from the context of the tracks that bookend it.

The piercing "So Real" is ardent and loud, leaving you drained by its conclusion. After that song bleeds into silence, the opening chords of "Hallelujah" are tentatively introduced, giving little indication of the heart-wrenching moments to come, so that when they do, the song is all the more mind-blowing. After the dizzying intensity of "Hallelujah" comes "Lover, You Should've Come Over," a languid, sensuous tune that has a calming effect, relaxing the emotions stirred up by the last two songs, leaving you serene and contemplative and eager to experience the emotional roller-coaster all over again.

I admit there's a thrill in creating a mix tape or a CD of MP3s that includes favorite songs in one neat, singular package, in which Basement Jaxx and Cat Power or the White Stripes and ABBA can rub shoulders and coexist somewhat harmoniously. And of course there are some albums that only contain one or two decent tracks.

Still, for me there's nothing quite like listening to music in an album format, and I wonder if that kind of experience will one day be a thing of the past. Listening to an album means a commitment to give each song its due, rather than skipping the "filler" for the recognizable singles. It's an investment of time for which — when the album is a true conceptual statement — you are usually rewarded, as the music unfolds and reveals something new about itself with each successive listen.

It's the so-called "filler," the gems buried inside albums that often showcase the artists' creativity and adventurousness, that I fear are being forgotten in our eagerness to jump on the music file-sharing bandwagon. We download the stuff we know, and to hell with the rest, even though for every "Man on the Moon" there's a "Find the River," and for every "Wouldn't It Be Nice" there's an "I'm Waiting for the Day."

Napster-inspired file-sharing programs would appear to be making the album obsolete. While I welcome the revolution in music the Internet has brought about in terms of distribution and availability of music, I also feel like those guys who mourned the death of the vinyl record: one of a nostalgic minority, duly noted, then promptly forgotten.

The InsiderOne Daily Report appears on Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 9 AM PST, except when it doesn't.

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