Thursday, October 4, 2007

Unlisted: Animals


Band: Pink Floyd
Album: Animals
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: It's not Floyd's best known record. A lot of people -- rightfully -- can't enjoy 10-plus minute songs.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: Other than "The Wall," "Animals" is Floyd's most straightforward rock record. It's also a wonderfully smart record, a political statement about British society at the time.
Best song: This is a record that sounds best as an album. "Pigs (Three Different Ones)" is my favorite on the record. It's got cowbell, a talk box, heavy keyboards and a fantastic solo.
Worst song: Nope. It's all great.
Is it awesome?: Yes. One of my favorites.

I have used the term "literate" seven times so far on this project in expressing my love for that which is smart in rock and roll. Referencing books and literature, to me, shows off something you don't see a lot in musicians: A life outside of being creative. As someone who consumes just a ton of media, I appreciate it when a band shows that they, also, do something other than hole up in the studio, write and record.

(Also, it means the song probably isn't about love.)

Pink Floyd is one of my favorite bands for just that reason. While the wheels eventually came off in the "thematic album" thing later in their time together, the ability to write songs around interesting thing -- smart things -- and make them cool, different and push the boundaries of rock and roll... Well, that's why their music has endured.

Everyone knows "The Dark Side Of The Moon." I made a case for it to be considered in the conversation of "best album ever" and I stand by that. Whatever my criticisms of "The Wall," it's the record that introduced me to Floyd (It's one of my father's favorite albums. Thanks, Pop!) and it would be up there with "Dark Side" if not for the sheer breadth of it all. With a good editor -- as we say in the journalism business -- it would be in the conversation.

There are fans of the more psychedelic Floyd records. Albums like the Syd Barrett-fronted "Piper At The Gates Of Dawn," or the film soundtrack "More" or the double disc "Ummagumma" or even "Atomic Heart Mother." They're all wonderful records and a totally different track than the more popular Floyd. Built on fragments of thought and sound experiments, many of the more out-there Floyd is a great listen and among the best in psychedelia. Certainly, it's much better than the meandering jam rock that Americans were calling psych music in the late 60s. Damned hippies.

But there are two records that don't fit into those two categories: "Wish You Were Here" and "Animals." "Wish You Were Here" is on the list -- I'll get to it in about a month at 209 -- and I won't go into great detail as to why it's an amazing album. Still, it lies somewhere between "The Wall" and "Dark Side" in the prog/hard rock continuum while still resonating in an emotional way. Also, it features the gestation of a political attack, at the two anti-industry songs illustrate.

"Animals" is totally different. A full-blown attack on 1970s political and corporate culture, the album is the band at its darkest. The hope and optimism of "Dark Side" is gone. The sentimentality of "Wish You Were Here?" Nowhere to be found.

Instead, you have Waters going straight for the jugular of British society in three ways, all taken from George Orwell's novella "Animal Farm." The pigs are the politically powerful, those who believe their own self-importance. The dogs are the robber barons, corporate tycoons and industrialists who control the pigs and policy. And, of course, the sheep are everyone else. Blindly going along with the plan, not noticing that we're the ones off to be slaughtered.

It's an album that has more resonance today than ever (hello, George W. Bush!), with the American power structure manipulating the littles over and over. We all watch because we're not the ones being sent off to war. We're not the ones who can't get married. We're not the ones who lost a house in Katrina. We're not the ones who'll get bombed when Bush decides Iran is a terrorist nation. We're not the ones defaulting on our home loans. We have our two-car garage, 2.4 kids, huge TV, gas-guzzling SUV and our giant backyard. Baaaaaaaaaaaaaah. Baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah. Baaaaaaaaaaaaaah.

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It's a tough pill to swallow, I'm sure. The album is five tracks long and that's including the beginning and ending tracks; Basically identical love songs written for Waters' wife. Each is under a minute and a half.

The three 10-plus minute songs are guitar-driven epics that go into lyrical detail the stitches of each group. "Dogs" details the conniving and grossness that is industrialization and the power of the dogs.


A certain look in the eye, and an easy smile
You have to be trusted by the people that you lie to
So that when they turn their backs on you
You'll get the chance to put the knife in.


The song is powered by Gilmour. His acoustic rhythm playing drives the song while his precision solos and breaks soar over the record. If you're wondering what keeps the song going for 17 minutes, it's that.

"Pigs (Three Different Ones)" is only the highlight of the album and a triumph of arrangement, rhythm and bitingly snide lyrics. The parallel structure of the verse lyrics, is brilliant (The "ha ha, charade you are" pieces. The second verse, a subtle attack on Margaret Thatcher, seems prescient now, after a decade of her rule in the 80s. Similarly, the pointed attack on Mary Whitehouse -- a British politician of some import -- is explicit in the lyrics, as she's called a charade and "a real treat, But you're really a cry" as the song draws to a close.

Again, Gilmour takes over the song. His talk box work not only creates the pig-like sound effects to start and end the song, the talk box solos are representative of the pigs and their constant self-important chatter. Nick Mason's cowbell again keeps with the "Animal Farm" theme, as well as moving the song's staccato blues rhythm smooth-ish. And Rick Wright's keyboards sound perfect.

Finally, the deluge of a third act starts with two minutes of a soft organ piece and later cascades with Gilmour's guitar. The song's lyrics describe the sheep in detail and their eventual plot to overthrow the dogs. The Biblical middle part falls into the keyboard-centric middle. Indeed," "Sheep" is where Wright shines. The organ moves the song along to the end, as the final two verses scream in as the (in the song's plot) sheep take over.

Of course, the supremely negative Floyd rules here and the last verse is simply the Sheep acting in the same way as the power-hungry dogs:


Have you heard the news?
The dogs are dead!
You better stay home
And do as you're told
Get out of the road if you want to grow old.


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It's striking how guitar/organ heavy the record is. Despite the track lengths, it's probably Floyd's most conventional-sounding hard rock record (save for "The Wall," of course). It's familiarly Floyd, but something more. It's a political attack as well as a statement on the nature of humanity.

It's a misanthrope's dream, basically.

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It's funny. It's kind of hated by the band now, considering it was basically a Roger Waters solo project, save for Gilmour's input on "Dogs."

I guess I can understand that, though. It's not for everyone. It doesn't push any real boundaries, save for the time limits of eight-track cassettes. It's pretty self-indulgent and has become something of a joke, as the pig became synonymous with rock and roll spectacle.

Still, it's hard and it's negative and it's powerful. It hits home as well as any record, especially six years into a George Bush presidency that will go down as a complete disaster. "Animals" and "Animal Farm" never felt so real.

1 comment:

Justin said...

Ross-

I don't always agree with all of your opinions on albums and artists, but citing this as a favorite proves your opinions to be as valid as any music snob's, and definitely more valid than anything ever published by Rolling Stone.

Animals is perhaps my favorite album ever. Top 5 or 10 at the very, very least.

I've greatly enjoyed your input on these albums, even when I haven't agreed.

Thanks.

-Justin