April 27, 2004

O, Miserable CD, How We Scorn Thee

SO EMILY JONES has put this question to the readers of her excellent site:

... This time I want you to sack through the CD and record collection. What's the cheesiest piece of music you own? I'll admit to the greatest hits of both Neil Diamond AND Supertramp and will bet a solid tenner that not one of you can trump my vinyl copy of a Partridge Family Christmas album.

We hope Ms Jones will forgive us for taking the long way home with our response, but we think we have a pretty strong case to make that we own an album that puts even the Partridge Family Christmas to shame. Besides, the PFC probably has Bonnaduce on it, so the kitsch value alone perhaps knocks it above this particular crappy two-disc set we own.

Since it takes a special amount of viciousness to properly condemn the musician(s) whose album has garnered such disgust in our heart, we should caution readers that the following entry may contain a bit of inappropriate language. Still, we believe it may be necessary. For this album is so putrid, so miserable, so astonishingly cheesy that we have come not only to detest the artist, but also the record label, the producers, the other musicians performing, and even the poor hack who wrote the stupid booklet which came with the CD. Especially the poor hack who wrote the stupid booklet which came with the CD. True, there is no credit given for authorship of this little volume -- or there may be; it could be the artist himself tried writing; it is all very unclear to us. But that in no way pardons the sinner, whomever he may be.

We mean, as a fellow writer, we're embarrassed for whomever wrote this. You see, the booklet itself is not so bad that it gives the impression the writer got screwed out of his payment for it, or anything like that. That's the problem. It's clear the fellow -- whom, barring any other evidence, we assume is or was a professional writer -- tried to make something out of it, and he and his editors failed miserably. Here's one good example of what we mean:

Originally written for the PBS Special of the same name, the "Saving the Wildlife" album's intention was to bring a higher consciousness to the survival of many species of animals.

Now, our fellow writers will have grasped the problems in a millisecond: the strained tone of this sentence, the misuse of words and phrases, the passive voice, the wordiness, grammar errors, etc.

But "higher consciousness?" What the hell does that mean? God's truth, it's as if the writer is back in freshman English, for Pete's sake -- if I use enough buzzwords, I'll get an A! Don't worry, though. We shan't stop there. Look at this next excerpt:

While the first (album) opens new doors, (the next album) unlocks others. Conceived as looking into an arena of doors, behind which are feelings to be experienced, this album will leave you exploring the portals of life.

Yeah, well, when we listened to the song from it, the only portal we found ourself exploring was the toilet. Gad. Look, buddy. We do not care what your excuse was -- whether you had a bit too much wine the night before proofing, or your hamster died, or the garage-door opener quit and trapped you in the house for two days prior to deadline -- you have no justification for writing like this. You just don't. We hope you didn't cash the check they gave you; it would be a fraud upon our shared profession if you took these people's money.

There is just one saving grace for you, my friend, just one. It is that the two-disc 25 Year Celebration of Mannheim Steamroller set is even worse than your skill with the pen.

Oh, readers. We are just getting warmed up -- so much so, that you can forget everything we wrote in the entry underneath this one. We've got our fire back, by jingo!

We should start by saying that we generally like electronic music. We have a thing for techno and we have a weakness for New Age and we have been spoiled by the efforts of Walter (Wendy) Carlos, whose electronic music is simply fabulous. In fact, Carlos' work is so good that even mentioning it in the same entry as Mannheim Steamroller unfairly sullies it. There is more heart, more clarity, and more pure essence of sound in ten seconds of "Switched On Bach" than exists in this wretched Mannheim Steamroller set.

Now, readers may wonder how the devil we actually picked up a copy of this pseudo-music. Well, it was simple, really. For Mannheim Steamroller actually has one cheesy but admittedly catchy song -- some Christmas offering, we think -- and as it is based on a traditional arrangement it had some inherent time-tested goodness to it. Hence, our fatal mistake was that we thought the band in question's output was similar in quality and scope to that song we heard on the radio.

When we got home and put the first of the two CDs into the player, we instantly felt a sickening pang in our gut. It was as if our ulcers had kicked up; as if we had eaten a badly-cooked meal; as if the garbage bag in our kitchen had broken and spilled its contents upon us. For this was not just a bad CD; this was a lemon, in its soul no different than some old Ford Escort over which an unsuspecting car buyer got screwed.

Every song had all the style and grace of elevator music; every drumbeat came off as flat; every note failed to inspire. The second CD brought the same result; it just mortified us how bad it was. After that first listen, we threw the set in the rack and forgot about it; when we tried to sell it on-line recently, the service which we consulted would not buy it for any amount of money.

But what really got to us, perhaps, was what we can only describe as insult-to-injury. Namely, we refer again to that little booklet. Because if there is one thing in this world that rubs us the wrong way, it is when people have an over-inflated sense of self-importance. And -- what?

READER: I don't mean to interrupt, but ...

Mr KEPPLE: Yeah, we see what you're getting at. This is different, though. We here at The Rant have no illusions about our importance to the world, despite the tone of everything on site.

READER: You're even talking in the plural. That's ...

Mr KEPPLE: Oh, dear. Sorry. Well, what I meant to say was something like this. I run a Web site that has a moderate level of readership of people who like what I write. That in itself is very flattering, and doing this is fun, and I enjoy seeing people react to my work. But I'm far far far from being the best blogger out there, and I certainly don't think I'm anywhere near George Will's league, you know? I just write. It is a drop of water into the reservoir of human thought, and I'm content with that. The use of the plural here is merely a satirical device; those who know me personally can attest to that, I think. Besides, look at Mencken; he was an amazing curmudgeon, but I have never seen anything that suggested he had a huge ego in private life. (If he had one, he earned it).

Mr KEPPLE (continuing): No, my point here is only that there are some people on Earth who think they're really something, and unjustifiably so, and they act a bit snarky. In some cases, of course, this feeling is in fact justified and they have the right to play big shot. But it's just the self-promotion bit from the others that gets to me. There's a line between being justifiably proud of one's work, and expressing that pride ("Gee, I really hit a home run with that!"), and going on and on ad nauseum as if one is the best in their field and a true and unmistakable genius. You know what I'm talking about: Franzen's Disease.

READER: You mean Hansen's Disease?

Mr KEPPLE: No, although it's pretty close.

Mr KEPPLE (continuing): To elaborate: for my fellow creative types who work hard and do their best and most of all -- take risks when they're in the midst of struggling -- I think it is great for them to be justifiably proud of their endeavors. And I really envy them for doing what I don't have the guts to do, namely, that risk-taking. It's just those folks who don't have that same bearing, those people who got lucky but forgot where they came from and who forgot how to be grateful a long time ago, they're who get to me -- if they really have an over-inflated ego. Part of me just wants to say to them, "You made it, man! Stop worrying!" That's my only point here. And I don't mean this as a blanket condemnation of creative types either; God, don't get me wrong!

READER: Fair enough, but isn't having a visceral and knee-jerk reaction to such self-promotion and egotism from such folks a sign that you yourself have not achieved the humility you desire in the depths of your soul?

Mr KEPPLE: Oh, God, yes. But give me this. I'm on a roll!

READER: Yeah, but ...

Mr KEPPLE: Please!

READER: All right, but you watch it from now on.

Anyway! Where were we? Ah yes, self-conceit. Back to the booklet. Just look at this; and if we're really wrong here, blast us for it, but this just galls us:

1974 was the year it all changed. The music. The sound. The fidelity. The way we listened. The way we felt, hearing things we'd never heard before.

Now look, these are not words one can justifiably use for a Mannheim Steamroller album. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, yes. Fresh Aire? No. It just doesn't work. The arithmetic doesn't add up. Calling the guy behind Mannheim Steamroller a "musical genius" simply doesn't compute. We realize that millions of people have bought his albums -- hell, even we got suckered into it -- but the fellow ain't the best thing since canned beer. No, we can say with a lot of confidence that such fawning is unseemly, and we are sorry to see that Franzen's Disease is out in force even among some musicians.

But enough. There you have it; the cheesiest and most wretched and simply worst album we own: the 25 Year Celebration of Mannheim Steamroller two-disc set. We shudder that it sits on our desktop even now; we can hear the laughter coming from our friends in trendier locales; we feel their disdain and mockery bearing down upon us. Our very bones send forth the animalistic signals: get it away! it's midnight! no one will notice you run out to the garbage bin with it! just go, go, go!

Still, even as much as we'd like to hide the fact we own this CD, we must admit it. We have had this in our possession for several months now, and have never in our lives regretted a CD purchase more.

That is, perhaps, the true measure of its badness -- for even the cheesy Phil Collins solo stuff and the bad movie soundtracks and one-hit wonders we own -- at least there was one redeeming song on those albums which we appreciated for a time. But with this Mannheim Steamroller collection, we were culturally sucker-punched, and left bruised and battered. The worst part of it, though, is this -- we fear we may have contributed to future productions from the group, as there is no way for us to recover the $26 we expended on this set.

May God forgive us, and protect us.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at April 27, 2004 12:32 AM | TrackBack