In case you don’t know what Flavorwire is, it’s a website that posts various lists of things, mostly about pop culture. The lists are really annoying because you have to individually click through each of the 10 or so things so the site can maximize its page views, thus maximizing its advertising revenue. Imagine clicking through a list of the 100 Best Patrick Swayze Quotes, and now imagine the raging boner Toyota gets when they realize a bunch of people are gonna look at an advertisement for one of their cars 100 times in one sitting. No, seriously, close your eyes and imagine a car with a raging boner. Weird, right?
Anyway, last week Flavorwire posted a list called “10 Albums We Dare You to Finish.” The criteria they offered was that the albums were either “too difficult” or “too long.” The list opened with Miles Davis’ classic 1970 album, Bitches Brew. They acknowledge the album’s importance—“it pretty much invented jazz/rock fusion, and it’s a 20th-century masterpiece,” they write—but it made the list because “it sill gives us a headache.”
It’s a strange choice. When people think of experimental-jazz or free-jazz albums, particularly those that are harsh or “difficult,” Bitches Brew isn’t normally up there at the top. It’s actually a fairly smooth album. Very dreamy, soothing and contemplative. It’s not crazy and abrasive in the way that records like Dave Burrell’s Echo or Peter Brötzmann’s Machine Gun or John Coltrane’s Ascension are. Sure, Bitches Brew has a few slightly chaotic sections, but it’s really not a headache-inducing album. Want an avant-headache? Listen to any Merzbow record. Want one from reeds? Try Kaoru Abe.
Flavorwire’s line of thinking reminds me of an experience I once had. When I was an undergraduate at a public university in Richmond, Virginia, I went to a record shop called Plan 9 to pick up a copy of Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz, an album released in 1960 that remains one of the defining documents of the free-jazz movement. I’m not sure how I heard about it, but I went to the store specifically to buy it. I took the CD, with its Jackson Pollock artwork on the cover, up to the register.
“I couldn’t finish this the first few times I listened to it,” some 40-year-old looking cashier told me. “It took me several attempts before I could finally listen to the whole thing in one sitting.”
I purchased the CD and left. That was about 10 years ago, so I can’t remember my thoughts at the time. But I was probably thinking something like this about the cashier, “You fucking wanker.” I went back to my shitty, roachy apartment, drank a pot of coffee, and listened to both takes of “Free Jazz” several times in a row.
It was beautiful, the way the horns violently dove into each other and into chaos, and then emerged to sustain a united (albeit disjointed) note. It was bonkers, unlike anything I’d ever heard before, and I loved it. I’ve since been on a mission to discover similar listening experiences, namely ones that are surprising and challenging. Got something that’s too difficult or too long? I’ll take it. Thanks, and more please!
“We have nothing but admiration for anyone who can do it in one sitting,” Flavorwire writes about the person who can actually listen to all of Bitches Brew. I guess that means Flavorwire admires me. I’m flattered, Flavorwire. Thanks! I’m blushing!
So, what’s the point? Maybe you should go listen to Bitches Brew in one sitting if you haven’t already. It’s a lovely album. (I’ve always said that, if I ever get married, I’d like to have a band play the entire thing, front to back, at the reception.) Then, once you finish listening to it, seek out other albums that might be “too difficult” or “too long.” Consider it an exercise in character-building. It’ll make you a better person. People (and websites) will admire you for it.
The Pack A.D. are built for the road
PW's Music Issue 2014