Saturday, December 25, 2010
• Mark Grief, "The Hipster in the Mirror," The New York Times, November 12, 2010: This is a surprisingly interesting take on the 'hipster' phenomenon, which goes behind the obvious aphorism that no hipster would be caught dead admitting that they're a hipster.
• Zadie Smith, "Generation Why?," The New York Review of Books, November 25, 2010: Remember there was a time when everyone who was on Facebook was complaining about being on Facebook? This is not an article about that. This is a review of that movie about Zuckercorn, I mean Zuckerburg, by Zadie Smith, the very young British novelist who wrote White Teeth, who is now apparently a tenured professor at NYU.
• Eliot Weinberger, " 'Damn Right,' I said," London Review of Books, January 6, 2011: The author makes the obvious comparison between George W. Bush and Michel Foucault.
• David Bromwich, "The Fastidious President," London Review of Books, November 18, 2010: Completely nails it as to why Barack Obama is strangely uninspiring and like a ghost.
• Steven Hayden, "What Happened to Alternative Nation?," The A.V. Club: Somebody had to do it. Twenty years later, this guy is brave enough to revisit the frenzy over 'alternative' music in the early to mid-nineties, a period that seems slightly embarrassing in many ways now. This is a six-part article taking the story from the pregnant-with-expectation of something-big-about-to-happen circa 1990 on the cusp of Nevermind, all the way through Seattle, to the inevitable and inexorable slide to Bush in the mid-nineties. There's all sorts of unexpected detours in the essay, and even if the topic doesn't interest you, it's worth reading as a reasonably good example of rock'n'roll history as personal memoir done without nostalgia.
• The A.V. Club, Gateways to Geekery: There's so much good shit on the A.V. Club that it's kind of pointless to identify specific articles, but I've always liked this feature. You know how for years your friends would talk endlessly about a band or a director or a TV show or a genre and you'd kinda picked up on it but you never really committed to it and so you were never 'in the know'? And now ten years later it just seems too overwhelming to enter the canon anymore? (I feel like that with Buffy, Lost, Leonard Cohen, Frank Zappa, for example). Well, these folks give you an excellent introduction to that thing, complete with how to start, where to go deeper, and where not to go. These lengthy articles, my friend, are the finest examples of public service. They have good ones on Anime, French New Wave, Roxy Music, Paul Weller, The X-Files, Humphrey Bogart, John Waters, the Fall, and a gajillion other things. By the way, I really don't like Leonard Cohen even though I've only heard one song by him. Just the concept of Leonard Cohen completely rubs me the wrong way.
• "Retroactive Listening: Perspectives on Music & Technology," PopMatters.com
"The Secret History of Technology and Pop Music," NPR
Recently, I've become interested in the relationship between popular music and technology. Both PopMatters and NPR do a great job of distilling down the main issues in a series of articles/radio clips. If you are at all interested in the history of popular music, this is as insightful as it gets. Great stuff.
• Dana Steves, "The Heat Seaking Panther: A Few Thoughts on the Mannered Weirdness of Nicolas Cage," Slate.com: Just cause I think Nicolas Cage is a genius; and I don't say that with irony or with a wink. He seems to possess some ineffable force within him that compels him to do things that make no sense at all. One day, they will give him a lifetime achievement award or something and I pity the person responsible for putting together the set of clips that make up his oeuvre.
• Annalee Newitz, "A History of Zombies in America," io9.com: I was teaching zombies this past semester. This was a fairly interesting exposition on the phenomenon which appears to have reached a zenith in the past few years.
• Phil Freeman, "Captain Beefheart: A Beginner's Guide," The Village Voice: Yes, they all say the same thing: for the love of God, DO NOT BEGIN WITH TROUT MASK REPLICA.
• Mark Hogan, "This Is Not a Mixtape," Pitchfork.com: I've been suddenly thrust back into the world of cassettes because of two things: first, the other day, as a way of educating my progeny, I was searching for the sounds that whales make underwater and I remembered that I had a cassette tape from the early '90s of said sounds. I dug it out of a box, and lo and behold, it sounded strange and beautiful (if a little muzak-y). For those interested it's called Beneath The Waves: Vocals By Humpback Whales. The other reason I am into cassettes is because of Jet Set Siempre No. 1 by Clive Tanaka y su orquesta, available here. It was recommended by someone at work and it is only available on cassette. Beautiful music. This essay by Hogan kind of parses through the history of the cassette as an artform and its supposed resurrection these days. I'm not sure I buy the fact that it's "coming back" but I will always have an old fogey's fondness for the cassette, both in premade form and as a mix(ed) tape.
• Joe Tangari, "Africa 100: The Indestructible Beat," Pitchfork.com: This was a great introduction for me into the world of African pop, especially stuff from the 1970s.
• "All Things Reconsidered: The 35th Anniversary of Bob Dylan's Blood On The Tracks," PopMatters.com: Not that there needs to be more written about Blood On The Tracks, but the set of essays makes for interesting reading. In the last decade or so, there has a been a massive mainstream media fetish for all things Dylan related, and I'm not sure I understand why this has happened. It's actually kind of annoying in a way. Dylan (like the Beatles) has been overwritten into our collective pop consciousness in way that has almost completely denuded them of any kind of mystery. All this media attention has made them less interesting, not because of the volume of it but because of the tenor of it; you know that when Martin Scorsese produces a documentary about Bob Dylan that the PBS-Starbucks-NPR-ization of Dylan is not far behind. So much for "Play It Fucking Loud." When I listen to Blood On The Tracks (which I try to do sparingly), I feel removed from it. It no longer blows my mind or makes me weep. It's still one of my favorite albums of all time (probably in the top 5) but this is because the music and words are utterly beautiful, not because they make me feel weak at the knees. I know that made no sense.
• "Detours: The Strangest Albums From the Biggest Artists," PopMatters.com: I've always been fascinated by completely mainstream artists doing absurdly weird albums ever since I heard Fleetwood Mac's Tusk. The articles here break it down, and although I don't agree with many of their choices, I still feel like conceptually it's an awesome topic. What makes Tears for Fears produce a b-side like this or Paul McCartney do this? Who knows.
Tuesday, December 21, 2010
30 Rock (NBC): Continues to be very funny. Tracy Morgan may be a genius.
Being Human (BBC America): This is a British TV series originally shown on BBC Three. The premise sounds stupid: a werewolf, a vampire, and a ghost share an apartment in Bristol. Uh-huh. But you know, it kinda sucks you in.
Boardwalk Empire (HBO): Slow burner of a show about early 1920s east coast America. Meticulous attention to detail. You wouldn't think a show set in 1920 would be interesting. But it is. Even a young Al Capone is in it.
The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (Comedy Central): Well, you know the drill. It's still hit and miss and Stewart can be often be obsequious to his guests but, John Oliver continues to be a genius.
Louie (FX): This is a show starring the awesome standup comic Louis C.K. It is not the kind of sitcom that one would expect of a standup comedian. Very subversive. Synopsis of the first four episodes here.
Mad Men (AMC): Yeah, I know, everybody thinks it's great. I was introduced to it by a friend a couple of years ago. I thought the first episode was great. Fell asleep to the second one but then couldn't stop watching it. It's the only show I've downloaded onto my iPhone. I know, I'm very uncool.
Modern Family (ABC): The family sitcom mockumentary gets a new twist. Sharp writing. Ed Norton showed up in one episode as the fake bass guitarist for Spandau Ballet.
The Office (NBC): Still has not jumped the shark. Still very funny and makes you squirm to watch.
Party Down (Starz): Criminally canceled after two seasons, this was the perfect vehicle for Adam Scott, a dude who looks just like the junior swim instructor at my son's swimming class at the JCC. The show was about a catering team in LA who work a new event in each episode. It's more funny than you would ever expect.
The Walking Dead (AMC): Strangely shown at the exact time slot as Mad Men, this show is also about mad men (and women), just ones who are zombies. Based on the long-running graphic novel of the same name, this show started off with a bang and has been more or less outstanding through its short six episode run. It has a similar premise to 28 Days Later (or at least begins the exact same way) but veers into completely unexpected territory. Stark realism meets the post-zombie apocalypse.
Saturday, December 18, 2010
Monday, December 13, 2010
The song ("Room Mate") is from her 1981 album Mambo Nassau. Amazing stuff. Some kind of weird mutant no-wave disco post-punk Afro music hybrid.
I look at her picture and I'm not sure what to think. I love these old black-and-white pictures from the first punk generation in New York in the mid-1970s. They're so rich with expectation. Mercier Descloux first visited New York in 1975 and became close friends with Richard Hell and Patti Smith, both of whom contributed to her first book Desiderata. A biography reads:
Self-taught as a guitarist, Mercier Descloux revealed herself as a supreme minimalist within the no wave genre, concentrating on spindly, single-note lines combined with wrong-note harmonies and funky rhythms. Mercier Descloux's singing voice, while limited in terms of carrying a tune, was devoted to rhythmic chattering, humming, and chanting lyrics that serve to cheer the music on and to build a quirky sense of excitement.
I actually read about her long before I'd ever heard of her. A long long time ago, I read Richard Hell's novel Go Now (1997). It's a really brilliant book--beautifully written--which I'm sure lots of people read when it came out and then promptly forgot. William Gibson (he of Neuromancer and cyberpunk fame) called it "vile, scabrous, unforgivable, and deserving of the widest possible audience." The main character is a dude named Mud, clearly modeled on Hell himself. A review noted, "Capable of moments of profound personal insight and revelation as well as acts of profane indecency and sexual deviance, Hell's character both seduces and repels."
Hell himself, of course, had been ground through the New York punk scene in the 1970s, forming the incredible Television with Tom Verlaine, and single-handedly creating the punk aesthetic of ripped shirts and safety pins that would be appropriated by the Sex Pistols. After Verlaine fired him from Television, Hell formed Richard Hell & The Voidoids, recording one of the best songs of the class of 1977 ("Blank Generation"), before succumbing to an eon of heroin addiction. Believe it or not, he was was a brilliant prose writer, much better than he was a musician.
Anyway, what does this all have to do with Lizzy Mercier Decloux? When she died, Hell published a statement on his website:
Lizzy Mercier Descloux has died. She was diagnosed with cancer a year ago. I met her in 1975 when she came to New York from Paris at the age of eighteen to investigate what musicians were doing on the Bowery (she would eventually make some albums herself). She was the primary model for the "love interest" Chrissa in my novel Go Now. These lines from that book are based on those first weeks I knew her:
In the course of the three weeks she first spent here she'd moved me and removed me and then moved into me, leaving me gasping--I can still feel it in my stomach when I think about it--like I was the invaded victim in a space-parasite movie, as if my heart and lungs were furniture she might be throwing out but would certainly rearrange at whim. She seemed to come from another dimension.Having read what Hell had to say, I went back, listened to her album again. Looked at the picture above and tried to discern some secret of life. A life. A death. And all that came inbetween.
She was little, with matted hair. She had--she has--a strong jaw and these big marshy lips. Eyes like drains, like reality drains, like in Psycho where Janet Leigh's blood whirlpools away down the tub along with everything else in the movie. Her nose is flat, her whole face is flat. A slim body, nearly hipless [...]
She was a spectacle: carnivore and prey in one, like a walking wildlife film, with that riveting amoral charisma of nature. A complete mystery. At 17 she was more sophisticated than anyone I'd ever known, while also seeming utterly unaffected. Or at least her affectations came from such a stubborn confidence and will to defy convention that they were irresistible [...]
Richard & Lizzy, sometime in the mid-1970s
Thursday, December 09, 2010
There was nothing like him before.
Nothing like him since.
Lennon playing the best guitar of his life, in 1970:
Lennon playing the best rock'n'roll of his life, in 1969:
Lennon playing the best song of his life, in 1970:
Friday, December 03, 2010
Wednesday, December 01, 2010
Friday, November 19, 2010
New York is the stuff of the modern, the cutting edge, the frenetic artery of popular culture. Los Angeles is just ... the place where you always imagine life will be better and worse at the same time. I want to run away to LA so that one day I can complain about it. Wanting to move to LA makes me feel slightly young again. At least I want something. The thing is: LA exists as myth in my mind because it can still be the place I run away to and start a new life. It's a blank slate in a megacity on the ocean. Anything could happen. I could move here. Buy a car. Roll down the window. Drive by chain restaurants that serve Mexican food. Listen to KROQ. Drive up the mountains to Laurel Canyon. Maybe I can find where Joni Mitchell lived when she wrote The Hissing of Summer Lawns. Or where Neil Young (channeling Charles Manson) wrote:
"Well, I hear that Laurel Canyon / is full of famous stars
But I hate them worse than lepers / and I'll kill them in their cars."
Being here makes me want to watch Thom Anderson's legendary and disappeared-from-existence documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003).
LA was also the place of Jane's Addiction, Tool, Guns'n'Roses, the Germs, the Doors, and X.
And oh yeah, one more thing: Fuck San Francisco.
In honor of L.A., two songs, both excellent air guitar anthems:
"Los Angeles" by X
"L.A. Woman" by the Doors.
Wednesday, November 10, 2010
Tuesday, November 09, 2010
In the spring, new joy, new life. I told J that “The Sweetest Thing” was her song. She and I spent a lot of days and nights wandering parks in the city, parks whose names I have now forgotten. There was one with a big concrete cupola dome; you had to stand about a hundred foot away from the dome, run up to it to generate inertia, in order to climb to the top where we would often sit late into the night, looking at the deepest darkest blue of the night sky. We took a lot of pictures, her smile captured like an icecream in the sun. We thought it would be nice to rent a child for a day. A kid for a day would be fun but more than a day might interfere with our own growing up. She worked at a new Indian restaurant as a waitress (in the sky) but I think she never liked it and quit very soon. We had little adventures. Like rock climbers, we climbed up the dizzying side of my apartment--several floors up against a sheer wall--when we got locked out. She would call me, come over, do weird math problems on my bed, and fall asleep, her full lips as dry as leaves. When we parted the next morning, I would sit there and listen to Tim for the three hundredth time wondering if there was a way to “hold my life, ‘cause I just might lose it.” She had an impassive regal nature at times, her face, her posture, her sunglasses, and I would call her my Joan of Arc.
With J, I also discovered the multitudes of meanings within mix tapes, mostly in the making of them, but also in the giving of them, a topic given much critical attention by the dude who later wrote Hi Fidelity. I spent hours laboring over every beginning, every end of a side, just to make J listen to Firehose’s "In Memory of Elizabeth Cotton” or the Housemartins’ “Johannesburg,” two utterly beautiful songs that I earnestly believed would show, nay, shockingly prove that what was all around us on the radio, on TV, in books, in civic life all over the world, was shallow, cheap, and soulless since in this little secret world of music, there was so much beauty and depth that I desperately wanted to share.
Like much of what gives adolescence (or delayed adolescence) its charge or inspiration, that “beauty” had value only in opposition to what I considered “ugly.” We did not live in a bubble. Stuff from the outside was always present, at least as background radiation. At that time, the cultural ambiance included hair metal which seemed so awful then that so many years later, I still find little joy in the ironic celebration of Motley Crue, Poison, Bon Jovi, Twisted Sister, Dio, Whitesnake, and many many other bands on VH1. They were terrible then, and some things remain just as terrible even if you add the knowing wink of awareness. There’s nothing wrong with destroying the idiotic demarcations between high and low culture, but it’s another thing to worship the equation that says: Terrible Music + Ten Years Later = Cool Ironic T-shirt.
What is “good” music? What is “terrible” music? It is taste after all. What makes sense in someone’s world view is all that matters. To some people, music is stuff you were interested in as a young person but retain only a vague interest as an adult. For those people, the difference between good and bad music—or indeed the definitions of each—are based on a set of assumptions that would frustrate those who invest their emotions, their fucking lives and careers in the production or consumption of music.
What is good and what is bad music is an intensely personal thing on the one hand. Yet, it is also an intensely shared decision, since we are mostly driven to consume certain types of music not because they have some intrinsic value of goodness or badness but because others have let it be known that that music is worth consuming. Writers for entertainment magazines and newspapers and blogs, journalists on TV, posters at record stores—in other words, advertising—forces a consensus of consumption.
The goal is to create the largest consensus possible, so that millions of people will buy an album like Nevermind in 1991-92. But there are smaller consensuses too: for people of all different tastes, niches, and demographics. These consensuses typically have a brief window, through which acts or genres pass through, after which they are replaced by other acts or genres.
Does that mean that there is no absolute good or bad music? That we are led around like sheep by decisions other people make about what is good or bad? I hope not. I like to think that the music I like is the music I like because it is so good, because it moves me. But I can’t escape the feeling that much of the music I like(d), I discovered because it represented certain things, pre-packaged for a pre-packaged lifestyle, an ideology for disenfranchised youth seeking to avoid being part of the big (or biggest) consensus. This was especially true in college: my goal was to be part of a Small Consensus, but a consensus nevertheless. It’s no fun to like music if no one in the world has ever heard it (let alone heard of it). But there is a fine line and it is easy to get caught up in received knowledge. For us back then it was easy to owe our tastes to an already established canon. By the time I was in college, many people, including such joyless arbiters of good taste as Rolling Stone or Spin magazine, had created Rock History [tm], eras of self-conscious myth-building told in important looking history books on rock music that communicated gravitas. These magazines and books were supposed to tell us what was good and what was bad. I hated those books and magazines but read them all the time.
J was really the first American born desi I’d ever hung out with at any length (beyond my cousins back in Illinois). It was hard to be prejudiced once you’d met her—she was so amazingly disarming with her pictures of Rekha, tapes of Hindi film songs, and interest in the culture of the Indian subcontinent. She also had a big social network of Americans of desi origin, kids who I saw occasionally at parties and things but who I also generally avoided. But if I felt uncomfortable in these contiguous demographics, I also felt that the divisions between Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis were whitewashed here out in the wilderness away from “home.” Our brownness trumped any nationalistic impulses and rarely, if ever, was political or religious identity an issue. The many desi friends I had were Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Pakistanis, Indians, Bangladeshis, and Americans, and it seems so striking in the post-2001 world to think that none of us gave it the slightest thought. Race was more important than your passport. Being a mutt of sorts, neither a “true” desi, nor one of the American variety, I felt an acute sense of non-belonging to each subculture. I never liked Hindi films, I barely understood a word of the language, and as I drifted away from the idea of home, I became severely dislocated from a grounding in any culture except perhaps my adopted one of Western pop music, a language that seemed to me as universal as Esperanto. So…whither the subcontinent (or “South Asia” as it became more common in the ‘90s) in my imagination?
The subcontinent was alive in my imagination only through the eyes of desis I knew, principally J, who had grown up in a small town on the Texas border with Mexico and whose identity seemed so perfectly formed across the various intersections of her background even though she was so precociously young.
J was a big fan of Madonna ("I'm so excited 'cause you're my best friend...") and top 40 pop music in general but we found common ground—our private and brief musical consensus—in the odd and coincidental strands that intertwined for us in that spring, somewhere between Madonna and the Waterboys, music about possibilities. Rock’n’roll—at least the best rock’n’roll—is about being young, and the music that I associate with that time is very young: the voice of Michael Stipe on “Gardening at Night” or the cathartic noise of Husker Du's Warehouse: Songs and Stories. It was the first time I discovered that music that reminded you of something could be much more powerful than music that actually was, if that makes any sense.
Now, hundreds of years later, I no longer remember how or what I felt about J but I can redraw the skeleton of those times so clearly in the distant murmur of early R.E.M. or Morrissey’s first solo single which came out in the spring sometime. “Suedehead” was a wonderful and insidious spoonful of pop music bathed in pathos, bathos, and the ringing chimes of guitars and pianos transmitted directly from some heavenly recording studio. When J once tried to sneak a peak at my personal diaries, the song coincidentally mirrored reality: “You had to sneak into my room just to read my diary / It was just to see, just to see, all the things you knew I’d written about you . . .”
It was Morrissey’s first single, but also his best ever, rivaling everything that the Smiths ever put out. We had expected Johnny Marr to come out four cylinders firing from the Smiths, but he weirdly disappeared for what seemed like decades. Children by the millions who had waited for Johnny were instead treated to a spate of brilliant singles from Morrissey. So began my search for every Morrissey 12”, each one hidden with myriads of strange tracks never to be found on albums. My favorite b-side of the period: “Sister I’m a Poet,” another Stephen Street gem which was the soundtrack to many of my treks from the apartment to class on gray fall mornings.
The album itself, Viva Hate (how, at age 22, that title seemed to be so appropriate…), was fantastic, filled with peculiar songs about marginal characters, once on the cusp of greatness/love/sex/acceptance, now tossed to the detritus of adulthood.
If I wince now in embarrassment when I hear most of Morrissey’s self-absorbed ruminations (“Late Night on Maudlin Street” anyone?—a seemingly endless navel gazing endurance test), other songs, principally “Every Day is Like Sunday” (Morrissey’s second 45) was a superb meditation on 1970s England, the only one I remembered from having grown up there: the cheap trinkets at Blackpool, the Carry On movies,the comic actor Norman Wisdom, our hero of the downtrodden and ostracized.
In one rare moment of resignation, J voiced what we all denied:
we were all “ordinary boys” (and girls). And like all ordinary relationships, our very brief one did not last through the spring, interrupted by my attraction to the past when I should have been looking at the future. Later, in May, J snuck into my second floor apartment while I was sleeping and left a black earring on my dresser with a goodbye note that was so sad to read (true love, she said) but entirely unsurprising.
Very much enamored of her for a while, I wore the earring for many years but eventually, of course, lost it. (Picture of me above, wearing said earring, fall '88).
[Note: The above is an excerpt from Chapter 9 of my someday-to-be-published "rock'n'roll book."]
[Additional recent note: recently, I looked up Google Earth and located that awesome dome in the middle of that park in Texas. It looks eerie in a satellite photograph. And yeah, I rediscovered the name of the park too.]
Thursday, October 14, 2010
Sunday, October 10, 2010
• Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross -- The Social Network (2010): This a surprisingly top notch soundtrack to the movie of the same name, directed by David Fincher. I tend to think original movie scores are usually forgettable but this one is remarkably good, often even beautiful. It's a bit like Nine Inch Nail's album Ghosts I-IV (2008), and in fact, a couple of the tracks on the movie soundtrack are reworked tracks from Ghosts I-IV. Atticus Ross is some English dude who helped Reznor produce and/or program NIN albums With Teeth and Ghosts I-IV. As far as the music on the soundtrack, it veers between ambient soundscapes to techno pulsing beats. I highly recommend it. You can download the soundtrack here.
• Deerhunter -- Halcyon Digest (2010): I've been a big fan of Deerhunter since I first heard Microcastle (2008), one of my favorite albums of the past decade. The main guy behind the band is Bradford Cox, an unbelievably prolific and talented musician and songwriter who draws from a vast array of indie rock influences to produce pop music that's heavenly, nostalgic, and melodic. Each of Deerhunter's songs are packed, totally packed, with good ideas, from the sound of strange instruments to the shimmering production. Cox notes that, "The album's title is a reference to a collection of fond memories and even invented ones... The way that we write and rewrite and edit our memories to be a digest version of what we want to remember, and how that's kind of sad." The music is much better than that quote makes it sound. This is the best pop music around today, 11 magnificent songs guaranteed to put you in a dream state. The key song here is the first one, "Earthquake."
• How To Destroy Angels -- How To Destroy Angels EP (2010): Another Reznor creation, this one a six-track e.p. that was released as a free download and is much better than one might have expected. It's a collaboration with Reznor's wife Mariqueen Maandig and the aforementioned Atticus Ross. Since when have you ever heard a collaboration between a famous musician and their spouse be any good (Ram? Sometime in New York City?). Some of this stuff reminds of late period Nine Inch Nails but the female voice gives it a unique quality, a little bit like crossing Massive Attack with The Fragile, if that makes any sense at all.
• LCD Soundsystem -- This Is Happening (2010): On the one hand, this is more of the same, but on the other, it isn't. This album, supposedly the final one to be released by James Murphy under this name is, in terms of sound, actually a mix of the first two albums. Which means that there's nothing on this album that will surprise and if you liked the first two, you'll like this one. The standout track here is "All I Want," which rips off David Bowie's " 'Heroes'," but manages to somehow sound new at the same time. And as awesome.
• M.I.A. - Maya (2010): So word on the street has been that this is one mixed-up album that's unlistenable. Well, it's not a pretty album and it's very aggressive. For all of M.I.A.'s mixed up politics, terrible videos, and Madonna-esque obsession with fashion-as-substance, she did take a big chance with this album. I can see why no one on planet Earth liked it. So I'll take the unpopular stance that it's actually quite an interesting album. I'm not sure I like it, but it is a ballsy move on her part. It's like when VU followed up the first album with White Light/White Heat. It was kind of a big fuck you. I'm not sure if that's what M.I.A. intended but it's clear that since everybody hates M.I.A. these days, she has achieved something, in spite or perhaps because of herself.
• Mogwai -- Special Movies (2010): I didn't expect that much from a live Mogwai album, but wow, this really blew me away. It is recorded in pristine fashion so the sound is just supremely fantastic. But it's more than that: the song selection is perfect, the pacing is impeccable, and the music is awesome. Mogwai go from the prettiest most delicate music to blow-out-your-eardrums jet engine sounds in the space of seconds but they do it with grace. If you buy the CD (which has 11 tracks), you also get six extra tracks from the same shows, including a superb version of "New Paths to Helicon Part 1." And you can also get a DVD with a movie documentary entitled Burning that depicts the shows directed by some famous dude. And finally, one more thing: I was at one of the shows in Brooklyn (at the Music Hall of Williamsburg) where both the audio and video were recorded, so I have some extra attachment to this.
• Nest -- Retold (2010): I don't know much about the band Nest but I understand that they are apparently two pianists, Otto Totland and Huw Roberts, from Norway. This is a beautiful instrumental album of modern classical music. Besides piano, the musicians use the Welsh harp, violins, woodwind instruments, field recordings, and some percussion. They claim that their goal is "to produce beautiful music free of pretense" and in that, they are 100% successful. I've rarely heard music this beautiful made by pianos. It is an excellent contribution to the canon of ambient contemporary classical composition. A soundtrack for a movie never made.
• School of Seven Bells -- Disconnect From Desire (2010): This, the second, album from these people, betters the first one by expanding into more electronic music. It's still a mixture of shoegazer aspirations, Nico-esque chanteuse affectations, and pop music for beautiful people, but now they get the sequencers and drum machines out. I have to admit, I like it a lot. The two women in the band, the identical twins Alejandra and Claudia Deheza, who are oddly gorgeous, produce together a kind of drone-y sound best for zoning out. The main guitarist and instrumentalist in the band is Benjamin Garza, formerly of Secret Machines. (This band sounds NOTHING like Secret Machines.) At times, they can seem New Age-y, but overall, it's a good step away from being pigeonholed as worshipers at the shrine of My Bloody Valentine.
• Seefeel -- Faults EP (2010): After 14 years, Seefeel released their first recorded output last month. In my estimation, Seefeel were one of the greatest electronic bands of the 1990s and their breakup was tragic (although probably a good idea). Anyway, the main guy, Mark Clifford reunited with Sarah Peacock, and a couple of new members (from Japan!) and put out this four-track EP. The question is what kind of ground-breaking electronic music could one possibly release in 2010? Well, they sidestepped that whole question by making Faults, which is ... well, really, there's not much like this stuff out there. Seefeel's great achievement was always to make the totally eerie and weird sound totally natural. And they still do it. I hope an album is on the way.
• Swans -- My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky (2010): For some reason, Michael Gira (now 56!) decided to restart Swans. He not only recorded an album but is touring with the band, which includes a few old members and a few new ones, but no Jarboe. Now, you either like Swans or you don't. So trying to write a review of a Swans album is a lost cause if they are not your cup of tea. They are mine. I think they are one of the greatest bands of the post-punk era. So what did they come up with this time? Well, a pretty fucking great piece of music. Yes, let me just get it out of the way and say that it's relentlessly grim and bone-crushingly despondent. But then again, what did you expect? One reviewer of the album writes: "The real bravery is for an album whose title equates religion with suicide to end almost at the other end of the spectrum: 'Teach me please, to cease to resist,' Gira asks. 'May I find my way to the reason to come home / May I find my way to the foot of your throne'." Uh-huh, yeah. This is one of the best albums of the year. Oh, one more thing: one of the titles of the songs: "You Fucking People Make Me Sick."
• Wild Nothing -- Gemini (2010): This is about as far away from Swans as you can get. Wild Nothing are a bunch of very young kids from somewhere in Virginia or something. They make good 1980s music, the kind of music that I actually grew up with, but for these kids is just fake nostalgia. You remember how you listened to "Ask" by the Smiths when you were in high school? You remember how you listened to the Sundays singing "Here's Where the Story Ends"? You remember how you checked out The Ocean Blue do "Between Something and Nothing"? It's sort of like that but in 2010. It's an album about being young and having nothing to remember. So yeah, it's a good feeling. I just can't get over how derivative yet unbelievably awesome the song "Summer Holiday" is.
Saturday, September 25, 2010
Radiohead -- Everything In Its Right Place (live) [mp3]
Tuesday, September 21, 2010
Daniel Ash - e.g., "Stigmata Martyr" or the live "Bela Lugosi's Dead"
Ron Asheton - e.g., anything off the first two albums
Lindsey Buckingham - e.g., the entire Tusk album
Peter Green - e.g., "Albatross"
George Harrison - e.g., anything he ever did
Kristen Hersh - e.g., "Fish"
Adam Jones - e.g., anything off the first two Tool abums
John Lennon - e.g., solo stuff but also Yoko Ono's "Why"
Johnny Marr - e.g., anything he ever did
Nick McCabe - e.g., first two Verve albums
Joni Mitchell - e.g., her "jazz" phase in the late 1970s
Thurston Moore/Lee Ranaldo - e.g., pretty much anything
Jimmy Page - e.g., guitar God
Prince - e.g., are you kidding me?
Kevin Shields - e.g., anything he ever did
Mick Taylor - e.g., Sticky Fingers
Pete Townshend - e.g. Live at Leeds
Tom Verlaine - e.g., all three Television albums
Neil Young - e.g., "Cortez the Killer" or the Rust Never Sleeps album
I know, I know, it's a very conventional list and omits people I know should be on the list like Bert Jansch or Robert Fripp or Howlin' Wolf or Ry Cooder or Robert Johnson or Richard Thompson or Chuck Berry or Jeff Beck or Dick Dale or John Fahey or Link Ray or Eddie Fucking Van Halen or even Jimi Hendrix or Eric Clapton or Slash or Tony Iommi or yes, even Kim Fucking Thayil.
Which brings me to the most understated guitar solo of all time, from Daniel Ash, on the song "Lions" by Tones On Tail. This was the opening track of the only album Tones On Tail ever released, cleverly titled Pop (from 1984). The solo begins at 1.56 and ends at 2.17. It takes a genius to play something so utterly brilliant. You gotta know when to hold back.
Next up, my favorite drummers.
Saturday, September 18, 2010
I give you Slowdive's "Rutti." I was a late arrival to Slowdive, having completely missed them when they were an actual functioning entity. Something made me get the greatest hits double CD (Catch the Breeze) that came out a coupla years ago. I took it to Bangladesh with me, and in the monsoon-drenched humidity of a July in Dhaka, I would lay awake at night in my parents' house, listening to this song on the headphones. The jet lag and "Rutti" would take me up to 5, sometimes 6 am.
Tonight, there's no jet lag, just insomnia and insanity, the former enabled by the latter, and the latter enabled by some recent missteps of mine which have fucked up a lot of things. So here it is, Slowdive's "Rutti." It's about 10 minutes long. Don't let the first few minutes fool you, it does indeed take off, and at about the 4 minute mark, it achieves a kind of hypnotic mood that will float you right along until it's 5 am and you can't stay awake any longer. Sleep well, my millions of readers.
Friday, September 17, 2010
Thursday, September 16, 2010
The move to New York, in September, was a difficult one. I had packed up pretty much everything I owned in my Nissan hatchback and drove from Philadelphia to New York. I'd lined up an apartment on 112th st. between Broadway and Amsterdam, where I would share a place with a new faculty member at Columbia. I didn't really know her, had met her only once when I checked out the place. I didn't have any friends in New York although I had a few acquaintances. But the whole move was basically a solitary affair. Here's what I wrote:
Today was supposed to be the best day of my life. And it is, in some ways it is. After 16 years in this country, I’ve finally come home.
But it’s also the most bittersweet of days. The most bittersweet day of my life. This was today. As I drove on the NJ Turnpike, my emotions ran the gamut of sheer euphoria and excitement – to sadness and despondence. From hope for a new life to wishing my car would just veer off the freeway and I would die in some conflagration. Each feeling lasted seconds. Nothing too serious. But dusk on the NJ Turnpike (generally an extremely ugly stretch of America) was awesome. I arrived in this city alone. And that will prove to be the best part of all of this. I did it all by myself.
There's something odd about moving to a new place alone, without a goodbye (from the old place) or a welcome (to the new place). You really feel completely cut off from everything, completely free.
Anyway, what I listened to on my headphones that fall of 2001 was this song, over and over and over, as I walked in a dirty winter jacket, my Converse, crazy hair, chain-smoking cigarettes in the dirty New York winter winds, which later soundtracked one of my favorite movies of all time. Both the song and the movie on my mind today:
Wednesday, September 15, 2010
Tuesday, August 31, 2010
The Arcade Fire -- The Suburbs
Besnard Lakes -- Are The Roaring Night
The Books -- The Way Out
Deerhunter -- Halcyon Digest
LCD Soundsystem -- This Is Happening
Mogwai -- Special Moves
School of Seven Bells -- Disconnect From Desire
Phil Selway -- Familial
Wild Nothing -- Gemini
The xx -- The xx
For those that care, "Still Listening" is the b-side to Sinead O'Connor's single "Troy" (1987)
Thursday, August 26, 2010
Last night had its moments. I've lived in New York for nearly ten years now, and the city still manages to excite me every single day (and night). There are new experiences to be had, new ways to walk to old places, new conversations to be had. The long walk, often from Union Square to Grand Central can be a nice one, depending on the route. Late at night, the street lights illuminate quiet lives, solitary pedestrians, intense lovers, and the tender shadows cast on lovely faces from hats bought at H&M. I want to continue to live here in Manhattan. I'm glad I went out even if perhaps I shouldn't have. You see, I want these things. I want them very bad. I've had trouble putting them in my sight. But I know what I want because these are worthwhile goals. I hope it's not too late...?
Nevertheless I'm feeling sad this morning. It's my early morning melancholia, today exacerbated by some obvious circumstantial issues. I'm tired of feeling sad. Can I not just be fucking happy and cheery? And play with puppies? And make jokes about movies where periodization makes no sense? (9th century? 11th century? WTF get it together, dudes). Can I not have a drawer all for myself and not have to make things so complicated that the drawer disappears from my sight as if in a dream? A dream with a home, littered with the detritus of memories.
Tuesday, August 24, 2010
Tuesday, July 20, 2010
Sunday, June 20, 2010
My current iPod has a 160 Gb drive which is quite a lot I think. I've loaded up about 2/3 of my CD collection into it so far, which -- checking right now -- gives it 11, 117 songs. So, by rough calculations, I would guess that I can max out around 17,000 songs. Now, again, by rough calculations, if I assume that each song is roughly about 4 minutes long (conceding of course that I have songs as long as a few seconds and some as long as 45 minutes), I have about 50 days of music on the iPod. That's 50 days of straight listening without stopping for anything. That's actually not that long, considering.
If I listen to my iPod about 2 hours per day, then it would take me about 566 days to listen to my whole collection, which we can round off to about 2 years. Not bad. I think back in the 1990s I tried something like this, to listen to my entire music collection in alphabetical order. I got to G or H and gave up. I get caught up in the details. What should you do if you have to stop a song in the middle, do you start from the beginning the next time? What about albums? Do you break them up? What if you're in the middle of side of Yes' Tales from the Topographic Oceans (or whatever it was called) and need to stop? Do you start from the beginning again?
Anyway, once I get my headphones worked out, I'm going to start listening to everything in alphabetical order. This means that I will listen to entire albums. Sometimes if it's a good album, I may repeat it. And since my blog (let's face it) sucks, I'm going to try and inject some life into it by saying something (anything) about every artist that I listen to, even if the most I can muster up is an inane, this song is from that album by that artist.
Right now the first artist on my iPod is A. A. Bondy, he of Verbena fame who mysteriously remarkably has transformed himself from a second level grunge artifact of the 1990s to folk-ish troubadour of the 2000s. Despite what hipsters think or say, Verbena was a kickass band. Sure, they sounded eerily like Nirvana and had some tenuous connections with them (Dave Grohl produced one of Verbena's albums) but, look, they were a good competent band. They put on a good show. In any case, Bondy, the lead singer broke up the band, disappeared for a few years and then emerged with an entirely different persona, with some weird mix of the Band, Gram Parsons, and Bob Dylan. Here's a pretty good interview at Aquarium Drunkard along with a couple of mp3s. A couple of videos here. My favorite song, "When the Devil's Loose," is below. It's deceptively simple, but it winds your way into your soul. Give it a couple of listens:
Wednesday, May 19, 2010
I was living in Amherst, Massachusetts at the time on North Pleasant Street at a place we affectionately called "the white house." It still stands there today. I was living what I recognized even then as a deeply aimless existence, working part-time as a computer technician at an Apple computer store in Northampton. In retrospect, life wasn't so bad. I had a few friends, a fair amount of free time, drank a lot, discovered an enormous amount of new music, went out a lot, etc. In those barely-internet days, it seemed totally random that Michael Gira would release a solo album. And it made no sense that it sounded totally like late period Swans. But whatever. I taped Drainland on a cassette and listened to it a lot. Not sure if I liked the whole thing, but this particular song, "Blind," always stood out.
Someone somewhere mentioned how the song slowly fades in as if it had been playing forever and at the end it fades out as if it will play on forever. That's a perfect encapsulation of the whole thing. It has a mournful tone, unlike much of Gira's stuff which is more maudlin than mournful. He seems genuinely emotional in this one, not distanced away from feelings. It's shockingly intimate for him. But even if you know nothing about him, this is an adult song in the truest sense of the word. Beautifully done.
Oh, nowadays, I am an academic and teach in a small-ish private university here in New York. Yesterday the powers that be informed me that I am tenured. No longer a minion here, I suppose. Not sure if this song below, "Blind," is perfectly appropriate or completely irrelevant. Either way, it's on my mind today.
Wednesday, April 28, 2010
Adriano Celentano -- Prisencolinensinainciusol [mp3]
Saturday, April 24, 2010
Which all brings me to another "band" from the good old days, Dead Can Dance, now barely remembered, tossed into the dustheap of unhip history. But they were an important track in the soundtrack of my life in the late eighties and nineties. How to describe Dead Can Dance without using tired descriptors? Their early (and better) stuff encompassed everything from Gregorian chants ("De Profundis") to straight renditions of 13th century songs ("Saltarello") or 16th century Gatalan tunes ("The Song of the Sibyl"). Apparently their music was Neo-Medieval, whatever that means. They had a song called "Echolalia" and used glossolalia in their music.
Later in their career, they moved more into what folks today call "World Music" and away from their medieval roots. But it still holds up remarkably well. They were an important aesthetic influence on my musical education, especially in the late eighties but also into the nineties when they (first) broke up. I learned to be cautiously open to intellectual pretension. I understand that there's a thin line between intellectual aspiration and pathetic (and bathetic) parody but for some reason, I never placed Dead Can Dance in the latter category although many other bands were not spared by scorn. Dead Can Dance felt incredibly earnest even as they collapsed time (centuries) and space (continents) into tidy album-sized chunks with lyrics that would not be out of place in Chaucer.
Brendan Perry, one half of Dead Can Dance, was someone who played in punk bands as a kid but having been influenced by the post-punk of P.I.L. and Joy Division took a complete left turn into more expansive music. Lisa Gerrard, the other half, is someone who you imagine should have done her Ph.D. in Medieval Studies in a small liberal arts college in New England. She looks tiny, frail, wispy, and proper. She later scored the music for the film Gladiator.
Here then, are three random selections from the Dead Can Dance oeuvre.
Here is "Saltarello" from the album Aion (1990), first referred to in Napoli in the 13th century:
Here is "Echolalia" from the album The Serpent's Egg (1988):
Here is the band in the latter day / world music phase with a song called "Rakim," actually only released in a live version on the album Toward The Within.
Monday, April 05, 2010
Thursday, April 01, 2010
Friday, March 19, 2010
The same could be said about Alex Chilton, whose records for Big Star are without compare. Again, for me, listening to Big Star is indelibly linked to my time in Pittsburgh in the late '90s. I remember discovering both #1 Record and Radio City in a budget 2-for-1 disc at Paul's Records out in Bloomfield. I played them a lot in Pittsburgh driving around, feeling young, and momentarily lightened. I put those songs in every mix tape I made for anybody. One word comes to mind: gorgeous music. Chilton often gets slotted into "power pop" but he was much more than that, and could veer off into his own little dark world of proto-goth or avant garde or Memphis soul anytime he wanted.
Like many people, I first heard of Big Star because of "Alex Chilton," the Replacements song off of Pleased To Meet Me. Later, when I saw them, they covered "September Gurls" in concert and I tracked down a bootleg that communicated the thrilling joy of that song. Like church bells chiming into heaven or something.
From top to bottom, Big Star's brief catalog is fantastic. They wrote fantastic songs, played well, and were without peer. Alex Chilton was a central part of that equation, producing song after song of pop genius, little three minute gems that were constructed, played, and sang perfectly. The fact that they were completely ignored and unloved for decades only adds to their mystique but that's not really the central point of their career. Chilton himself seemed completely uninterested in fame and money, just going from thing to thing as it pleased him. At its core, Big Star created the kind of music tapped into some deeper level, where melody and words and singing don't need to be explained. Just felt.
Anyway, here today, I'm writing from very far away, out of the country, 10 time zones away from New York. I've had some wine and I am missing a little big star of my own, a polka dot in heaven. And therefore I've been listening to Big Star's "Thirteen." More than any song I can think of, "Thirteen" captures perfectly the rush, ennui, and yearning of falling for someone when you are young:
And here is "September Gurls" by Big Star:
And Congressman Cohen paying tribute to Alex Chilton in Congress:
And probably the greatest single power pop song ever written, the Replacements' "Alex Chilton":