Sunday, December 23, 2012

Best TV of 2012

Another topic I know not much about, but I'm gonna throw my hat into the ring. Here are my favorite TV shows of the past year. Much has been written in the past few years about how the locus of good writing has moved from cinema to television, and this I cannot disagree with. The quality of TV in the past ten years has been pretty incredible. Critics seem to date it to The Sopranos and then The Wire (for pay cable) and Lost (for network TV) but I have not seen any of those shows. For me, the first indication that TV might be amazing was Six Feet Under which ran from 2001 to 2005 on HBO. Of course, I didn't watch it when it originally aired but caught up on DVD sometime in its twilight years, but what a ride that was. And unlike 90% of TV, it ended on the highest possible note with a hugely emotional but not saccharine series finale.

My favorite shows of the past year were:

10. The Walking Dead (AMC, Season 3, Part 1): OK, stop right here. Let me be clear right up front: Season 2, which aired in 2011-2012 was execrable, just hideous, one of the worst imaginable runs of television created in recent memory. There was nothing redeeming about it. So the bar was set extremely low when Season 3 began in October of this year. And it wasn't half bad. In fact, it was actually pretty good and I looked forward to the show every week. In many important ways, the TV show has clearly diverged from its source novel, The Walking Dead graphic novel series (which began in 2003 and has gone 105+ issues so far). For starters, the TV version is not quite as dark or nihilistic. But without that darkness, the creators of the TV show resorted to blathering navel-gazing for much of Season 2. Thankfully, they finally chucked all the existential bullshit and went for taut action-filled episodes with lots of plot movement. And the results have been surprisingly good. Or maybe because the bar had been set so low that I'm willing to cut the show some slack. Hard to tell. But I will be watching when the final episodes of Season 3 air early next year.

9. Spartacus: Vengeance (Starz, Season 2): Let me be clear once again: We do not look to Spartacus as the erudite sequel to I, Claudius or some other upper crust British TV serial. No, we look to it for gratuitous nudity, sex, and violence. Who knew that violence could be so artfully displayed in slow motion CGI? The slo mo trajectory of splattered blood is a thing of beauty, or so it seems. That being said, the writers of the show know how to tell a compelling story of betrayal, betrayal, and much more betrayal. What is loyalty, after all, if it can never be betrayed? Liam McIntyre has replaced the late Andy Whitfield, but since I was never attached to Whitfield's portrayal, it didn't make much difference to me. We all know how this story ends, but it's hard to avert our eyes away from the glorious debauchery of this series.

8. 30 Rock (NBC, Season 6): How can this show still be funny? I don't know. I only have the following clip:



7. Parks and Recreation (NBC, Season 4): Parks and Recreation was always the mirror image of The Office. Both enjoy the conceit that they are basically documentaries about work. But where The Office was a show about intra-office dysfunction in the private sector, P and R focused on the public sector, and this makes the show a biting critique about the slow collapse of public funding and support in small town America. But really, that's beside the point. You don't have to give a shit about politics to see the funny here. The irony (or the genius, if you will) of the show is that the principal ideological conscience of the show is one Ron Swanson, who is basically to the right of Ayn Rand in the economic conservatism spectrum. Ron Swanson is also the funniest sitcom character since Col. Henry Blake on M.A.S.H.

6. Boardwalk Empire (HBO, Season 2): A slow burner of a show but definitely worth the investment. This is America in the post-Great War period--a show in the grand tradition of Irwin Shaw's Rich Man, Poor Man, one of the first and greatest TV min-series', broadcast in the 1970s. Every episode of Boardwalk Empire was pretty much a shocker and none no more than the Season 2 finale in which one of the central characters meets a bloody end. One wonders whether life on coastal New Jersey in the early 1920s was really this violent, but that's not really the point. Powerful people have always equated justice with violence, and often conflated the two. When you add greed into it--it was the Prohibition era after all--you get characters who were literally building Henry Luce's "American Century" with their bare hands (and sometimes with guns and crowbars).

5. Downton Abbey (PBS, Series 2): Julian Fellowes, of Gosford Park fame, continues to maintain the high level of Season 1 as the series moved on into the tail end of the Great War and into 1920. I had this momentary idea that the producers of Boardwalk Empire (see my no. 6) and Downton Abbey would do a crossover season, since they're both around 1920, but alas that was too much to hope for. Historical fiction can be done extremely poorly because presentiment always colors any kind of plot. (Teleology for all you historians.) In Downton Abbey, you know of course, that the Great War was awful and you know that it will end some day (1919, to be precise) but Fellowes manages to transcend these "historical moments" to illuminate the daily lives of the rich and the poor and those in between. Regardless of our station in life, we all love and hurt, apparently. No, but seriously, this is an extremely well-written show about the English upper class and their servants that is neither gratuitous nor boring. Sure, it skirts being a soap opera but that's not a bad thing here. Can't wait for Season 3.

4. The Colbert Report (Comedy Central): Stephen Colbert continues to be a comedic genius. I don't even know how to write anything meaningful about him. He has created a meta universe. I find it both funny and incredibly scary that Wikipedia has entries not only on Stephen Colbert (the real person) but also an entirely separate page for Stephen Colbert (the character).

3. Game of Thrones (HBO, Season 2): A bit like Lord of the Rings in its ambition to create an entire fictional universe, Game of Thrones (the TV show) continues to maintain its superlative standards. It's not just the high production values, but that the characters are all fleshed out, the acting is generally superb, and the pacing is never lacking. (Take note: Walking Dead, another TV show drawn from the written word). The second season upped the ante significantly with several parallel stories, some that explicitly intersect and some (the whole narrative with Jon Snow as part of the Night's Watch as they venture beyond the Wall) that don't. But for me, the joy of watching Game of Thrones is less about the political intrigues and shifting alliances (which in itself are fascinating) than really, to see..... just what happens next! And that, I think is really the best reason to watch anything on TV. For those who are still on the fence about Game of Thrones because it's "fantasy," yes, it is! Think of it as high political intrigue---a game of royal chess---invested with emotion at the very smallest, personal levels, with the occasional detour into "Where are my dragons???!!"

2. Mad Men (AMC, Season 5): I was one of those who thought Season 3 and 4 of Mad Men didn't measure up to the halcyon heights of the first two seasons. But Season 5, the one that they showed in 2012, was unbelievable. It may have been the best season of the show so far. Every episode of this show is written like a mini movie, something so artful that you forget you're watching a TV show. One of the defining aspects of the show has always been how the writers balance the 'real' history of the 1960s with what they show every episode. We know, after all, all the obvious cliched touchstones of the mid-1960s, but where hack writers would have invoked every single 1960s milestone in heavy-handed tones, Mad Men writers have expertly negotiated this minefield in subtle and unexpected ways. The 'real' 1960s was like any other decade, intensely personal struggles amid immense changes. And as the show reminds us, the dirty secret of the 1960s was that the 1950s survived for a very long time well into the 1960s. Don Draper is an (im)perfect epitomy of that. We know the 'future' is coming, and the premonition of that was shown artfully in the following clip from the episode "Lady Lazarus," one of the best of an incredible season. I have never ever heard a Beatles song in any TV show or movie so it was every bit as jarring as one might expect (and expensive):



1. Breaking Bad (AMC, Season 5, Part 1): This was over the top brilliant. One of my favorite TV shows of all time, for sure. The first 8 episodes of Season 5 set up the denouement of the entire series, as Walter White, our erstwhile protagonist, moved ever so slow further and further into the dark recesses of the human condition. Where he began the series as a befuddled middle-aged man incapable of asserting himself in even the most banal of circumstances, we see now a man who defines his own morality, one who is willing to kill to maintain what he sees as his tenuous sense of order. I think that's been one of my favorite aspects of the show, the evolution of a central character on a TV show from its moral center to one who is unmoored from any sense of conventional moral obligations. He will do anything to preserve his life. The question, it seems, for the remaining episodes of the series (to air in the summer of 2013) is how that will affect his family, his wife, his son, and his sometime associate Jesse Pinkman. Undoubtedly, one or some of them will not make it out of the show alive, but the question is not who, but how. This show is like Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment brought down to disposable pop culture levels; soon we will see how our New Mexico-based Raskolnikov will fare in this minefield of blurred moral choices.

Remembering Joe

Who died 10 years ago this week.


Thursday, December 20, 2012

Top 10 Movies of 2012

OK, year-end lists and all that. Since I tend to spend a lot of time listening to music and a lot less time watching TV and/or movies, my lists for TV/movies will be very limited and uninformed. Nevertheless, it's still fun to revisit what I liked this year.

So movies first. This is my weak spot as I haven't basically seen much of what people saw or liked this year. But the following movies (in reverse order) resonated:

10. Trishna (Michael Winterbottom): A grim adaptation of Pride and Prejudice Tess of the d'Urbervilles set in modern India, starring Freida Pinto and Riz Ahmed.
8. Killing Them Softly (Andrew Dominik): A violent meditation on how economics and $$ are the foundations of the American spirit.
8. The Amazing Spider-Man (Marc Webb): A surprising re-invention of Spiderman, one that's actually much closer to the comic book than the lackluster and strangely lifeless movies that came out a while back.
7. Jeff, Who Lives At Home (Jay & Mark Duplass): A funny but touching movie about... well, about a lot of things covered under the veneer of hapless comedy.
6. Cloud Atlas (Lana & Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer): An ambitious (if a bit flawed) movie about the value of freedom from tyranny, set in different times and different places.
5. The Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard): An incredibly smart meta commentary on the horror film genre even as it tells a completely entertaining tale.
4. The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan): Beautifully filmed movie that shows the dangers of quasi fascism even as it critiques the Occupy movement.
3. Argo (Ben Affleck): A perfectly paced thriller with the added bonus that much of it is based on actual events.
2. Marvel's The Avengers (Joss Whedon): One of the best superhero movies ever made. It's a perfect blend of action, overarching plot, witticisms, lean script, and emotional investment.
1. Prometheus (Ridley Scott): Pretty much a home run as far as a movie was concerned, and I have no reservations in putting it first on the list. Granted, I'm a bit of a sci-fi geek but the movie managed to pack together a tight-action packed movie that added to the "Aliens" canon and hinted towards some big "what is life"-type questions." It was also visually beautiful, a total cine classic, lush, rich, a whole universal experience, in both senses of the word. It obviously drew a lot of aesthetics and tone from Stanley Kubrick, particularly (but not just) 2001: A Space Odyssey, but upped the ante with the mood of Alien and a bit of the ass-kicking of Aliens.

Michael Fassbender's "David" is a perfect update of HAL:



Now, there are a bunch of movies I have not seen that came out this year which I want to see, which deserve some mention (in alphabetical order);

1. Anna Karenina (Joe Wright): I loved Atonement, and the conceit of this adaptation, that it's a theatrical production within the movie, sounds intriguing.
2. The Deep Blue Sea (Terence Davies): Postwar England, Rachel Weisz, ex-RAF pilots, stiff upper lips, and forbidden love--what's not to like?
3. Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino): Probably won't top the awesomeness of Inglorious Basterds but few movies could. But Christoph Waltz is in it!
4. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Peter Jackson): I'm cautious but excited. I loved the book as a kid. And as a friend pointed out recently, Martin Freeman is more hobbitish than... pretty much real hobbits.
5. The Loneliest Planet (Julia Loktev): Have to see this.
6. Looper (Rian Johnson): Sci-fi with JGL looking a bit like the badass from Inception.
7. Robot & Frank (Jake Schreier): Recommended to me as one of the better (the best?) portrayals of robots on screen.
8. The Sessions (Ben Lewin): This will be sad.
9. Skyfall (Sam Mendes): Bond apparently feels patriotic.
10. Wuthering Heights (Andrea Arnold): It has Kaya Scodelario from Skins. She potentially has a great career ahead of her.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Books

I am in DC this night at the (in?)famous Willard hotel founded in the mid-19th century on 1901 Pennsylvania Avenue. Apparently Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his famous "I Have a Dream" speech while staying in this hotel in 1963. Other past guests include P. T. Barnum, Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Samuel Morse, the Duke of Windsor, Harry Houdini, Emily Dickinson, and Charles Dickens. I am in a giant room.

I am here to (apparently) determine the future of the American space program.

I'm listening to "That Right Ain't Shit" by the late lamented Books on my iPod. I think I have posted this song before but it's such a brilliant song by such a brilliant band that I have to do it again.



And the live version. One of the best concerts I've ever seen.


Tuesday, December 18, 2012

What the Kids are Listening To

Listening to music these days is like living in your own little gated community. You are generally aware of what's going on in your own little niche (or age group) (or genre of music) but you have little or no idea what's going on in the other little gated communities. Methinks the main reason for this is that these days (2010s), there's very little music that's "consensus music," i.e., music that everybody agrees is good or popular. You know hipsters, teens, parents, lawyers, rednecks. Maybe PSY's "Gangnam Style" was a brief moment of "consensus music"? A very brief moment. But these are few and rare. And if you spend a lot of time within your gated community of taste, it's a rude awakening when you realize what's going on elsewhere. This is what happened to me a few weeks ago when I got a brief glimpse of what the modern American teenager is listening to these days. In Los Angeles recently, I found myself at a show (by an accident of timing) by a band called Falling in Reverse who I'd honestly never heard of. The show was at the Wiltern Theater, which, according to the internets remains one of the "finest examples of Art Deco style architecture" in the United States. Built in the early 1930s, the theater is on the western edge of Koreatown in LA, and has a maximum capacity of 2,000+ people. It's a stately and ornate theater, and one wonders what great stars (Fay Wray? Peter Lorre?) must have attended movie premieres here.

Who are Falling in Reverse? There are part of an entire universe of music that completely avoids conventional methods of publicity and exposure. These bands are never (or rarely) featured in places like Rolling Stone, Spin, Mojo, Q, or other mainstream pop/rock magazines. You will certainly never find them mentioned on Salon or Slate or paper magazines such as People or Entertainment Weekly. They are also never mentioned in indie-centric websites such as Pitchfork or Stereogum or All Songs Considered (which is, let's face it, more like Dull Songs Considered) and only sparingly mentioned in places like the industry standard Billboard (I could find not a single article about them in Billboard). They are never played on the radio. Even the AV Club, the freakin' AV Club!, that purveyor of the notion that everything ever made by humans -- every last detritus of low culture -- is worthy of serious discussion, has NEVER once mentioned them. They have zero hipster credibility. Yet, they are wildly popular, play kickass rock'n'roll and have a devoted fanbase of mostly early teens (evident the night of the show as a veritable sea of young acned teens screamed out every word to every song...)

Where do people hear them? My guess (only a hunch) is that much of their success has depended on a combination of newer social media conduits, particularly YouTube and Facebook. Their biggest "hit", "The Drug in Me is You" has over 12.6 million views on YouTube.

What do they sound like? Well, I had little idea until the show itself, part of Falling in Reverse's "The Thug in Me is You" tour, which unbeknownst to me included three (yes three!) opening bands. This was like a mini fucking Lollapalooza of teen punk! First there was a fairly workmanlike three-piece punk band led by Matt Toka, a minor figure in the Warped Tour circuit. The second act was letlive, a ferocious (and that is coming from someone who has seen the most ferocious punk bands of eighties hardcore) outfit fronted by a frenetic lead singer with an unholy scream combined with an oddly positive message of self-respect, self-growth, and (proto)feminism. The theme of their set was basically triumph over adversity. This wasn't explicitly spelled out, but there between the lines and wails was the story of a young boy from the bad side of LA who done good, who made something of himself, now 27 years old, who was able to invite his mom and sister to see him be a star at the Wiltern Theater. What can you say? You could draw a direct line from Minor Threat (!) to Let Live.

The ante was upped with the third opening band, Enter Shikari, named after the Sanskrit word for "hunter." The band are part of a relatively new sub-genre known as "electronicore" (cough) basically an amalgamation of hardcore punk and metal with bits and pieces of electronic music thrown in. (Think NIN's "March of the Pigs" but with more guitars). The UK-based Enter Shikari was hard and heavy but with a more melodic sense and yes, electronics (or what the kids these days call "dubstep breakdowns," 'cuz, you know, every successive generation must refer to the same thing by different names). Again, I thought of such nineties pop bands as Stabbing Westward or Gravity Kills who enjoyed brief moments of fame between the rise of NIN and the (inevitable) arrival of the ready-for-malls Marilyn Manson. All three of Enter Shikari's albums have apparently charted top 10 in the English charts but they have obviously not made much of an impression on American consumers, although their stage show would suggest a a potential and lucrative future here in the U.S. Judging from the (far too long) entry on Wikipedia, they seem to do nothing but tour constantly so I don't doubt that one day all this hard work will pay off. I see a certain demographic of American high school kids that would seriously like this shit.

After three bands, I was approaching band fatigue. But I had downed three beers by then so I was sufficiently lubricated to enjoy people-watching. Enter the main act: Falling in Reverse. Their music is basically a trifecta of punk, metal, and pop. So nothing new. Bands have been playing this stuff for years. But there are reasons why their performance made even jaded me stand up straight. First of all, they know that playing live is not just about the music, it's also about performance, and this was entirely performance. This was the theater of the (punk) absurd. Their frontman is a guy by the name of Ronnie Radke, a charismatic young man (now 29) who walked non-stop from one side of the stage to the other during their entire set, dressed in a suit and skinny tie. What came immediately to mind was the feral spawn of Mick Jagger and Freddie Mercury. It was hard not to be transfixed by his presence. 100% star material. The band, meanwhile, were here to entertain, not to wallow in their personal angst. Most of the songs were indeterminable from the others, and they either seemed to be about (a) being pissed off at somebody or (b) wanting to fuck somebody, or um, both. Much of the lyrics were vaguely misogynistic, not surprising given that our friend Ronnie has an unsavory record of despicable behavior to put it mildly. Radke, a not tall man with still very youthful almost baby-faced features, spent about two years in prison for his involvement in a murder. Recent continuing spats with the law include "domestic assault" on his girlfriend (which apparently caused "corporal injury" to "his spouse"). There are many other line items on his arrest record, far too many to mention, but I wonder if that's also part of his draw. Certainly, the thousands of young girls who no doubt would make themselves fully available to service Ronnie were only too eager to overlook his past indiscretions. A quick search of Ronnie Radko-devoted tumblrs will either make you very afraid for the future of humanity or just plain depress you.

Falling in Reverse played a tight set and I was not bored at all. A bit of everything here: punk, metal, the big pop chorus, a lot of inbetween song banter sprinkled liberally with various attacks on Ronnie's enemies, past and present. [In case you're interesting, here are reviews of shows on the same tour, from Chicago and Orlando.] The band were competent enough as musicians: there were metal solos, drum solos, synchronized hopping, and matching suits. But Ronnie was really the centerpiece, his vocals alternating with from screaming to Freddie Mercury-esque operatic flourishes.

This is not music I would ever listen to at home or on my headphones. Maybe if I was 13 and had never heard any punk in my life, sure it would be revelatory. But I give them props for putting on an a solid hour of entertainment. While their songs on album sound generally sterile and unimpressive, live they pummel and pound and keep your attention, a not inconsiderable achievement in an age when nobody has the attention span for anything. Is it good for 13 year olds? That I can't answer. But you know, one of my favorite songs as a 13-year old was "Midnight Rambler' by the Rolling Stones, probably one of the most misogynistic songs ever, and I somehow managed to turn into Mr. Feminist.

I noted above that no one really talks about these bands. This is not entirely true. Two magazines, one based in the U.S. (Alternative Press) and the other based in the U.K. (Kerrang!) frequently put these bands on their covers and do headline stories on their respective websites. So there are outlets for these bands. Interesting story about Alternative Press. Back in the eighties and nineties, AP was a super cutting-edge music magazine, catering to a kind of indie-white-college-student-hipster demographic. It was through them that I discovered Aphex Twin, Autechre, Oval, and a lot of fringe electronic music. I'm sorry to say that I actually subscribed to the magazine for many many years but I did learn an enormous amount of new music from AP. Then, at some point in the late '90s I noticed that it was basically bought out and began targeting the teen market. So my subscription lapsed. But I guess it still remains viable with that demographic. What's on the cover of the latest (January 2013) issue of Alternative Press, you ask? Falling in Reverse, who the magazine named their "Artist of the Year." Take that Frank Ocean!

P.S. Thank you to my fellow companions at the show, one a fan of Falling in Reverse, and the other a curious observer such as I. 'Twas a fun evening all around. A trip to Pink's afterwards would have been the perfect conclusion.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Beck - Looking For A Sign

I'm sure I've posted this before, but whatever. Apparently Beck is gonna put out an album soon, after what seems like four... five....six years? Still, the Sea Change album is the one I keep coming back to. A bit melancholy, for sure, but it was a shock to see him being earnest and produce a good batch of songs. I'm posting two songs from the album ("Guess I'm Doing Fine" and "Lost Cause") as well as a third ("Looking For A Sign"), which may have been recorded at the time, but released just this year on the soundtrack of the movie Jeff Who Lives At Home. (Good movie, by the way).


What is Beck up to these days? Producing other people's albums (Dwight Yoakam, Thurston Moore, etc.), putting out sheet music, and apparently trying to finish an album he started five years ago. Oh, he also played live a few times, including at Sasquatch (playing slide guitar there, above).

"Guess I'm Doing Fine"


Beck - Guess I'm Doing Fine by mellow1_nate2

"Lost Cause"



"Looking For A Sign"


Saturday, October 20, 2012

'Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!

Well as most probably know Godspeed You! Black Emperor has a new album out. And I don't yet have it. I was thinking of heading down to Other Music downtown to get it on vinyl, but then I remembered, oh wait a second, I don't have a record player. Which made me think that maybe I should get a record player, but then that reminded me that I don't have good speakers. So that pretty much defeated my mission to get the new Godspeed album.

But in any case, their new album is called 'Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend! and it includes four tracks, two of which, if I understand correctly, are older tracks they were playing live back in the early 2000s, in their first incarnation. The track "Mladic" was originally called "Albanian" and is apparently a reference to Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb accused of committing war crimes in the early 1990s.

OK, OK, since I wrote the last two paragraphs, I gave up on my quest for a record player, and instead downloaded the album and I've listened to the album a couple of times. In fact, I'm listening to it right now. It's really fantastic. I was a but lukewarm on their last album Yanqui U.X.O. ten (!) years ago (although it included one of my favorite Godspeed tracks "Motherfucker=Redeemer"). But this new album is much more compact, produced much better, and most important, the two tracks that make up the heart of it are just perfect. They don't outlast their welcome. "Mladic" (aka "Albanian") is the more heavy track, reminding me of an army of Black Sabbath guitars stuck in Morocco. The latter track, "We Drift Like Worried Fire" is the more melancholy of the two, but still heavy and discordant in places. It's also a bit more complex, moving through different movements and moods, some sinister, some sad, as it sails towards its inevitable conclusion. These two tracks are rounded out by two shorter drone-ish pieces which are actually quite interesting. I'm not a big fan of the drone, but these two drone-tracks are sequenced well, in the sense that they serve as short periods to recover from the long 20 minute epics. It gives you space to breathe and regroup before heading into back into the vortex world of Godspeed.

For those interested in my earlier musings on Godspeed, I had a long love letter to Godspeed from a couple of years ago. You can tell I really liked them (ahem). I also felt strongly enough to name Godspeed's 2000 album Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven my top album of the entire first decade of this century. I think I'll stick by that choice still.

All four tracks from the new album are streaming here, but I don't know for how long.

I will still buy the vinyl version, but that might have to wait until I buy a new record player. Readers of this blog are invited to suggest relatively inexpensive models to buy. I'm not an audiophile but I do appreciate warm/good sound. I'm thinking something in the range of $200. Any suggestions???

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Steely Dan - Home At Last

Bernard Purdie is/was one of the coolest drummers around, having played in the 1960s with Aretha Franklin and James Brown. Shamefully, the first time I heard his stuff was on the Steely Dan song "Home At Last" from their classic album Aja (1977). There's a pretty cool exposition below of exactly how he played his so-called "Purdie Shuffle" on the song:



The song itself is a brilliant (both in its composition and how it's so concise) extrapolation of Homer's Odyssey, about Ulysses and his journey home after the fall of Troy. There's a bit of wanderlust in the epic poem, and Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, the smartass geniuses behind Steely Dan, give it a perfect hipster summation:

Well, the danger on the rocks is surely past
Still I remain tied to the mast
Could it be that I have found my home at last?
Home at last.

I've always identified with that. Home is where your ship is. Like all good Steely Dan songs, it includes a word, "retsina," that you've probably never heard before ("She serves the smooth retsina"). Retsina is apparently a Greek white wine which has been made for at least 2000 years.

The song also boasts one of the most awesome guitar solos in classic rock. I am not a big fan of the Fender stratocaster sound (although I do own a stratocaster myself) but in "Home At Last," Becker turns in a beautiful, almost provocative performance that transcends the blues notes the Strat is known for, and heads off into an entirely different zone. It's like the guitar itself is on the rough shoddy seas with you. Hear the guitar solo below at 3:30.

Aja has some fantastic songs, but "Home At Last" is one of the best--it's the pinnacle of classic adult '70s pop music: there's a big meaning to the song (Homer, Odyssey, Ulysses, etc.) but you don't have to know anything about that stuff. Just tap your feet and shuffle along to the Purdie Shuffle. You'll find yourself rocking back and forth wherever you are.



Saturday, October 06, 2012

København

Oh I forgot to mention. I'm in Copenhagen right now. That's right, Copenhagen. The one established in the 11th century. Damn straight. And the hotel that I'm staying at? Grizzly Bear, Al Jarreau, Jethro Tull (!), and Procol Harum are playing here soon. And just because Procol Harum is playing here at this very hotel sometime soon, it's only appropriate to post this, one of the most sublime pieces of music every made.




Bloc Party - Like Eating Glass

A bit of unfashionable nostalgia here, but this is the first track off one of my favorite albums of the early 2000s. They're still around and apparently have a new album out called 4, but I haven't heard it. But the first album, Silent Alarm was a monster. Pretty much every song off the album kicked ass.

My review (from 2005!) of the album can be read here. But in case you're too lazy to go the link, here it is:

Like many of their contemporaries (and indeed, much of what passes for the popular end of non-mainstream music these days), Bloc Party are firmly derivative. And that's really another bigger story about why this is so. Why are the "hip" guitar-based bands of today, to the very last one, all copies of replicas of imitations of tributes? So, really, in order to properly evaluate Bloc Party, you have to already begin from the assumption that what they (and Franz Ferdinand, Art Brut, Radio 4, the Strokes, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, !!!, Arctic Monkeys and all these millions of shitty bands) are doing has been done, done, done before. Working within that context, Bloc Party are pretty good. Appealing to an '80s vision of high energy guitar-based pop, they write good melodies and kick some ass, combining the two in a euphoric rush in songs such as "Like Eating Glass," the opening and best track on this album. The rest of the album really doesn't catch up after that, but it doesn't get boring either; in song after song, they steer their muse from soft ballads to four-on-the-floor power pop wrapped in catchy melodies and the aspiration of saying something "deep" (which they don't). But I really like them. They recreate a fond memory of some sort of imagined nostalgia without being too regressive and they do it quite well. I saw them in concert on September 9, 2005 here in New York and they were loud, the drums of  "Like Eating Glass" reverberating loudly through the auditorium. The whole show was a manic pop thrill, guitars moving through speed and melody for an hour-and-a-half. If you like somewhat intelligent melodic power pop, pick this up. As a sidenote, they had this album remixed by a number of artists such as M83, Four Tet, and people like that. According to some, the remix album (Silent Alarm Revisited) is as good if not better than the original album.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Slowdive - Rutti

Well it's late at night. Thinking, missing, hoping, and (soon) sleeping.


Sunday, September 30, 2012

Any Color You Like

Taking a break from listening to Merzbow and Ty Segall Band's Slaughterhouse, I've been recently jamming to dad rock recently. OK, maybe not the Springsteens and Wilcos of the world, but close enough: Pink Floyd. I've been on a massive Floyd bender covering everything from "Arnold Layne" all the way up to The Final Cut. What impresses is how creative these dudes were. Syd, Roger, all of them.

So this brought me square-and-straight with a question about music that has been bugging me recently. What if you like something, REALLY like something that everybody else really likes too. I think all of us people who love music, at some level, create an identity around music. And that identify is often based around the notion that music is intensely individualistic. When most people don't know or haven't heard of the music you like, it's not necessarily a negative thing. In fact, it can be a positive thing because it makes you feel a bit like you have good taste, not like the "masses." But what if your favorite album is something that everybody knows and loves? What if your favorite album of all time is Thriller? Or Celion Dion's Let's Talk About Love? Well, I suppose that means one of two things: that you have tapped into some wavelength of mass communal harmony that makes you closer to the rest of humanity; or that that album was actually so good, that even with your discerning tastes, you just can't resist it. It's just deliciously good! What can you say. Let's Talk About Love.

So here I am to confess my love for Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon. It has sold 50 million albums. Bonehead jocks, dads who wear cutoff jeans, women who wear lots of hairspray, writers for Rolling Stone magazine, babyboomers by the millions, i.e., all the people I despise, love this album too.

But I do too. I don't know how to get out of this one.

What do I like about it? Well, there are concrete memories attached to it. It was one of the first albums I remember looking forward to listening to. When I was 12, we had a nice little stereo system and I always had to get permission from my father to listen to it, because it was so expensive and all. So for my 13th birthday, I asked my father if I could listen to Dark Side of the Moon all the way through on our new stereo really loud. And I did. That was the first time I really heard music loud, surrounded by sound. I've been hearing that album a lot since then, and I'm pretty old, so that's a lot of years. For some reason, I never outgrew it, never forgot about it, never got sick of it. I mean I didn't listen to it all the time, but every so often I would put it on, and it would really enjoy it, just like when I was 12.

I don't want to deconstruct the actual album but I will say that the lyrics themselves are rather simple, but also universal. You don't have to have a Ph.D. in English literature to understand it all. It's perfect for a teenager. But it's also perfect for a middle aged man. There's a kind of existential ennui in the album, a weariness about life and death and all that goes on inbetween the two. Not one word is actually out of place in the album, and surprisingly, there's nothing on the album that makes me cringe (the way, I'll cringe when I hear some lyric from a U2 song that I used to like, or worse yet, something by Tool). Roger Waters' words are very clear, without artifice and they understand the value of economy. Consider this brief couplet from "Time":

Every year is getting shorter / Never seem to find the time
Plans that either come to naught / Or half a page of scribbled lines

It's like something straight out of Watership Down or high school poetry but it doesn't sound so bad actually, especially when you yourself are caught in the inexorable march of having to give up your dreams because you get older.

The music is very, um, classic rock but it has a kind of imaginativeness that is leaps and bounds above the generic garden variety 1970s stuff, first because there are no long wanky guitar solos or just general musical wankery. It's all streamlined into a brief little chunks, never outstaying its welcome. In fact, one of the things I still can't believe is how much they packed into 43 minutes or whatever it is. There are several albums worth of ideas packed into that single piece of music. And although on one level, it's a bit conventional, if you really want, you can also go find some "edgy" stuff, particular the electronic loops on "On the Run" which clearly prefigured anything Kraftwerk were able to do at the time. A bit of John Cage or Stockhausen thrown in. Plus, in the conventional songs, the melodies are great. Just great. From singalong melodies to transcendental beauty ("The Great Gig in the Sky").

Anyway, so I've been on this Floyd kick recently, partly energized by the discovery of several unofficial recordings, including a superb 1971 concert at the BBC just before the release of Meddle, a 1977 concert in San Francisco in support of the Animals tour, and several rare singles/songs from the Barrett era which I recently discovered. All great stuff. But the jewel of all these discoveries was a complete November 1974 concert that the band played at Wembley Stadium in London. It's just the four guys in the band. They play three new songs (which would eventually all make their way into future albums Wish You Were Here and Animals.) Then they take a break. They play all of The Dark Side of the Moon. Then they come back for an encore of "Echoes" (originally from Meddle). It's just a fantastically recorded show and the band are in their prime as musicians and performers. You can find most of the show on iTunes (broken into two parts as part of the extra discs on the deluxe versions of Dark Side and Wish You Were Here) so I urge anyone who likes long psychedelic music to go and get it. It is one of the best live shows I have ever heard, and that is saying a lot.

Below, I have clips of some of this show. First, an 8-minute version of "Any Colour You Like" from the Wembley show. Roger Waters' bass playing is superb.



Here is "Embryo" from the BBC show in 1971:



And finally, here's "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" played at Wembley in 1974 long before it was actually recorded for release. So all of the audience were hearing it for the first time ever.


Friday, September 28, 2012

The Cinematic Orchestra

Quick post here. The following was recommended by a reader (Meep). People may recognize the song from various movies or TV shows (Friday Night Lights, Grey's Anatomy, etc.). The singer is Patrick Watson guesting on this song. The original song is from the album Ma Fleur, released in 2007.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The xx

The self-titled debut album from The xx was my favorite album of 2009. Granted, this was a bit of a guilty pleasure. At least one friend was aghast, having gotten sick of overplay. But what can I say? It's just a bloody superb album. There was much talk about how the band knew how to use space, how they underplayed everything. The rhythms, so understated, programmed and played by Jamie xx are the heart of the music, good enough for dance music but pulled back to a bare minimum. Romy Madley-Croft's chilling voice and guitar are the second weapon. And listen to "Islands" below and tell me that she doesn't have a genius-level feel for how two or three well-placed guitar notes can transport you to the stratosphere. And finally, there's Oliver Sim, the bass player whose vocals play off Romy's, much like Martha Graham and Rudolf Nureyev on stage. A bit hyperbolic, you say, but there you are. (I should mention that second guitarist and keyboard player Baria Qureshi who played an integral role on the album is not with them anymore). The album is top to bottom, brilliant, not a single misplaced song or note, and washed in so much reverb that once you finish hearing it, real life noises will sound uncannily plain and mundane. You'll want to return to The xx again and again and again, I guarantee it. These are perfectly crafted anthems, ideal for that hushed after-party feeling, best listened at 3 AM, as you wind down the night, empty bottles around and no one but you lying on your bed.

The xx have a new album out called Coexist which is supposedly even more minimalist and less beat-y than the debut. I confess I have not heard it but am looking forward to it. They are playing New York (actually the Paradise Theater in the Bronx!) on October 26 and 28, and I can't for the life of me imagine how these songs will translate on stage. We shall see. Stay tuned for a review. In the meantime, here's two old tracks:




Sunday, August 19, 2012

Why are two things connected?



A few years ago, I read The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold. Around the same time, I was first introduced to Galaxie 500. I listened to their live version of "Summertime" a million times. I have no idea what the song is about, still. There are some songs that capture the way I feel as, um, a human being, and it's not about the words or the chords or the voice, just the whole thing. This song is one of those. It was fairly unremarkable on first listen but you know, the 12th or 15th time you hear it, it starts to lift you up. Especially the final 2 or 3 minutes of the song, this volcanic guitar solo verging on drowning in the thin air of the stratosphere. What does this have to do with The Lovely Bones? The story is about a teenage girl who is murdered; I guess the novelty is that it is told from the perspective of the dead teenage girl. For some reason, the two ("Summertime" and The Lovely Bones) are inextricably connected in my mind, not just in a random way, but totally so. Naturally, one must wonder if the song evokes the way I feel as a human being, does the book also? Well, I don't know, but the book sure left me thinking for weeks about death, loss, and stuff like that.


Why are two random things connected? Timing, obviously. Place is important. ("I first heard this song when we were in Washington Square Park"). People.

I don't have any real answers. I also don't have any readers of this blog, but let me throw this out to the massive emptiness that is the internet: In your life, do you identify a piece of music always with something totally and seemingly unconnected

Some Possible (but fake) Examples:

Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir" and steak burritos
Mozart's "Piano Concerto No. 24" and the country Costa Rica
Radiohead's "House of Cards" and Breaking Bad
Urge Overkill's "Sister Havana" and Michael Caine

Oh, and don't forget to listen to the last 2 minutes of "Summertime," really really loud. It really is quite remarkable.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Wild Nothing - Summer Holiday

A summer-related post! Who doesn't feel nostalgic for the late eighties? Even if you didn't live through it, you must have some fake memories of the eighties.... right? And who better to recreate those memories than the band Wild Nothing, the brainchild of one Jack Tatum from Blacksburg, Virginia (home of VirginiaTech). I don't know much about him but he seems young, in his mid-twenties, and has a fondness for British indie-pop. Gemini, the first album by Wild Nothing came out in 2010, and it was one of my favorite (guilty) pleasures of that year. Awesomely great pop songs! Especially if you're missing an old girlfriend or something. I hear that his new album Nocturne is about to come out soon. Next month actually. Pitchfork (yucko) has a recent interview with the dude in which he confesses that he listens to Ministry. This sounds nothing like Ministry, but it's entirely likely that if you were around in the late eighties, you would listen to both Ministry and music that sounds like Wild Nothing. I know I did. That's what we senior citizens did! (More on Ministry in a later post). This here below is the "big single" from their Gemini, called "Summer Holiday." First the album version. And then in live-in-the-studio version. Both good.



Friday, July 27, 2012

Spiritualized - Run

There's a lot to say about Spiritualized, but not right now. But ... where better to start than with Lazer Guided Melodies, their 1992 debut? This is an album that still sounds like it was made in some blissed out dimension of outer space. One of the singles from the album was "Run" a quasi-cover of an old song originally by J. J. Cale. I say quasi because Spiritualized's mastermind Jason Pierce kinda makes the song his own. Bliss, indeed.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Laika - German Shepherds

This is the very first Laika song I ever heard, Laika being both a famous dog and a less famous band. The band, Margaret Fiedler and Guy Fixsen, put out a bunch of amazing albums in the late nineties, one of which, Sounds of the Satellites (1997) was top-to-bottom a great example of electronic pop done well. All about the 3 AM post-party vibe, they were. This particular song that I'm posting was included in a 21-song compilation album titled Whore: Various Artists Play Wire (1996) which featured various artists covering songs originally made by the British band Wire.

Today, suddenly, I got an itch to listen to this song, which is as perfect one can get in terms of deconstructing an original song. "German Shepherds" itself was first featured on Wire's IBTBA (1989) and then radically deconstructed during a John Peel session in the late '80s. The radio session version saw official release, many years later, on Coatings (1997). It is the latter version that Laika de/re/construct into electronic bliss.

What does it sound like? A bit of nineties trip hop, a bit of silky mood, a bit of electronic gloss, a few changes in lyrics, and here we are....

Oh by the way, that compilation called Whore? It is one of the best "tribute" albums ever made. You don't have to be familiar with any of the originals because the ethos of innovation on the album is so persistent and at a high level. Instead of cranking out note-for-note covers, all these bands try to emulate the spirit of Wire, instead of Wire itself. Good stuff. There are a couple of duds, but overall, it's a superb album, AND includes one of the few post-Loveless My Bloody Valentine tracks released, the fantastic "Map Ref 41°N 93°W."

Laika - German Shepherds [mp3] (via 39-40)

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Dead Can Dance

Here's another repost. Updated for 2011, this post was originally from April 2010.

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 moment in the soundtrack of my life in the late eighties and nineties. How to describe Dead Can Dance without using tired descriptors? They were/are a British/Australian duo who released seven albums between 1984 and 1996. Their early (1980s) work was primarily dedicated to excavating ancient and medieval European music from the grave of academic pretension and translate it for the arty underground/goth music scene of the 1980s. But Dead Can Dance were definitely not a goth a band. Their ambitions were much more limitless; their music encompassed everything from Gregorian chants ("De Profundis") to faithful renditions of 13th century music ("Saltarello") or 16th century Gatalan tunes ("The Song of the Sibyl"). They had a song called "Echolalia" and used glossolalia in their music. Some have called their music Neo-Medieval, whatever that means.

Later in their career (1990s), they moved more into what folks today call "World Music" and away from their medievalist roots. But the music still holds up remarkably well. They were an important aesthetic influence on my musical education, although they were in many ways antithetical to almost every other kind of music I listened to at the time. Through Dead Can Dance, 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 or artists were not spared my 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.

I like all of Dead Can Dance's albums but my two favorites are Within the Realm of a Dying Sun (1987) and The Serpent's Egg (1988), partly because these were the first two I heard. I still have both of them on vinyl and they sound beautiful, if a little strange. If I had to generalize, the former is based around melody and the latter around percussion, but both sound like nothing out of the twentieth century. For their latter, "world music" phase, I would recommend Into the Labyrinth (1993), probably their most successful album in terms of sales. Going more into territory that the Real World Records label was promoting, this album is impeccably produced but sounds a bit like two people who happened to accidentally put their (very) different songs on the same album. It was clear by this point that Perry and Gerrard were heading in different stylistic directions (and apparently didn't get along much either). Since then, Gerrard has had a fairly successful solo career contributing to movie soundtracks, having a beautiful voice worthy of sirens welcoming you into heaven.

Recently, Perry and Gerrard have decided to re-activate Dead Can Dance. Their new album Anastasis is due in August 2012 and the band is about to embark on a massive world tour (New York on August 29 and 30!). As preparation, they have released 21 live recordings from previous tours free on their website under the generic title Live Happenings. Many of these live songs remain "officially" unreleased on any album.

Here then, are three random selections from the Dead Can Dance oeuvre.

Here is "Saltarello" from the album Aion (1990), which refers to a dance first recorded in Napoli in the 14th century:



Here is "Echolalia" from the album The Serpent's Egg (1988). "Echolalia" literally means "the automatic repetition of vocalizations made by another person."



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.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Lotus Plaza

[Quick update on the back-and-forth between this blog and the band Asteroid #4: World Peace has been restored. We had a summit meeting at Camp David, representatives were sent, negotiations were had, hands were shaken, and water has now passed under the bridge. Also, the band has generously and free-of-charge shared their most recent albums with Joy of Speed, which is cool, so there will be a review sometime in the near future!]

Now back to regularly scheduled programming: I've mentioned Lotus Plaza on this blog before on one of my various long rambling posts on the whole Deerhunter family, but I couldn't resist one more mention. I fucking love Lotus Plaza's new album entitled Spooky Action At A Distance. Just to reiterate, Lotus Plaza is the side project of Deerhunter guitarist Lockett Pundt, who from what I can tell is the "quiet and shy one." Where Deerhunter operates like a fullscale rock band with a gamut of influences and tools, Lotus Plaza communicates a more private sensibility. The music is not necessarily innovative, but it's beautifully executed. It's mostly a variation of shoegaze pop, maybe harking back to bands such as Ultra Vivid Scene from the late 1980s, with bits and pieces of Stereolab thrown in, especially in the way in which the band finds bliss in repetition. Lockett has a crazy talent for mesmerizing minimalism: repeated riffs pummel your brain and unmoor you from the ground and put your head in a haze. The obvious touchstone here is My Bloody Valentine (Isn't Anything more than Loveless), but Lotus Plaza is much more poppy. And I gotta admit that this is album is very romantic, wraps you in a kind of swooning romance that is perfect if you're happy and in love, with just a hint that what you got is not gonna last too long, but you might as well enjoy it. This is one of my favorite records of this year so far. Definitely in the top five.

As a footnote, Spooky Action at a Distance is not Lotus Plaza's first album. Back in 2009, Lockett released The Floodlight Collective. I wouldn't recommend that first tentative debut, mostly because the production is so muddled that you can barely make out anything. I've read that he wanted the album to be vague, but it's a little too disjointed, and sounds like music made underwater with a cassette player.

Anyway, standout tracks on Spooky Action include:

"Strangers"



and

"Jet out of the Tundra"



Other reviews of the album here and here.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Disappointed!

Readers will note that I took down two mp3 files from band Asteroid #4 at the request of the band. (I posted them originally here). I have to admit that I'm disappointed that the band asked me to do this. Let me explain: (a) My blog post was intended to promote the band, not to exploit it. I did not post a whole album or anything, or link to some torrent site or some shit like that. I also pointed to links where readers could PURCHASE their albums for (real!) money. This is how people discover new music these days. They stream music or download an mp3 or two from a band, check it out and decide to investigate further. (b) I was under the (obviously misplaced) impression that The Asteroid #4 are a bunch of cool dudes, not part of some massive faceless corporate force ready to come down on people who like their music (or want to expose others to it). But apparently they are not. Either way, I still like their music but I'm severely disappointed in them. (Admittedly I am not that important to their big rock star world, but I had to get that off my chest).

EDIT: See Lotus Plaza post above for update.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Asteroid #4

[This is a Repost from 2006 + some new additions].

My old favorite band from Philly, Asteroid #4, used to be this weird whimsical band in the vein of late '60s psychedelia. They put on fantastic shows and put out a great album (Introducing....The Asteroid #4) in 1998. I discovered them when a friend and I showed up at the record release party for Spiritualized's Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space, which was held at the Trocadero, the best place to see live music in Philly. The band (Asteroid #4) were four typical college-looking guys who launched into spasmotic space rock, even introducing a flute player at one point. They had totally ridiculous lyrics and deadpan faces. It was loud, melodic, with lots of feedback. It was actually pretty funny.

I saw them a few more times but lost track once they veered into a cul-de-sac of imitation; they started getting obsessed with mid-period Byrds, especially the canon of Gram Parsons. It's not that I don't like Parsons' music, but more that it was a tired move for them, and they didn't do it very well. However, at some point, they made their way back to Spacemen 3-influenced music, and from what I can tell they have two albums about to come out this year (2012), which by my count would be albums number 8 and 9.

One thing that was lost in the shuffle through their albums was their one-off non-album single from 1995, "The CIA Took My Dog Away" b/w "Mellow Beach," two spectacular tracks that perfectly encapsulate a kind of false nostalgia for never-really-existed late '60s English psychedelia. Lots of killer melodies, fake British accents, Traffic-like folk, and Syd Barrett-era weirdness, and throw in some My Bloody Valentine-guitar, and you have these songs. They never did anything quite as good after these couple of songs, which unfortunately remain unreleased on CD, although they are featured on an mp3-only collection of singles, b-sides and rare tracks that is available from their website here. For just $8, you get a 21 songs (!) covering all this early period Asteroid #4. It's a total bargain. Although I should say that the real treat is, however, their debut album, Introducing..., which is a bona fide space rock classic. They make no pretensions to be original, but they take their alien mythology very seriously. Get the debut here.

I'm posting two mp3s here which, I hope, the band won't mind.


The Asteroid #4 - The CIA Took My Dog Away [mp3]
The Asteroid #4 - Mellow Beach [mp3]

Update: tracks removed upon request of the band (or someone representing the band)

Long Live Philadelphia.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Where Did You Sleep Last Night?



This trance-like song, sung by Nirvana, is an old old song. Originally known as "In the Pines," it's a traditional American folk song dating from the 1870s, probably from Southern Appalachia. Like many old standards, nobody knows who wrote it, but Lead Belly (or Leadbelly), the black folk/blues singer who almost inexplicably gained fame in the 1940s, basically made it his own with some new lyrics (he called the song "Black Girl") and a new arrangement. The song always had a dark tinge, given that it described the aftermath of a decapitation, but Lead Belly made it almost gothic.

Lead Belly (real name: Huddie William Ledbetter) was extraordinarily talented but his rise to fame had much to do with what white people thought was "authentic." In the early 1930s, folk collector John Lomax basically set out to find "authentic" black music, "untarnished" by European (=white) culture, and plucked Lead Belly out of prison in Louisiana. He basically forced Lead Belly to play what Lomax considered "savage" music ("genuine Negro folks songs") even though Lead Belly's repertoire actually included mostly white country music. This was a classic case of white people looking for a "noble savage"; and if Lead Belly didn't quite fit the bill, Lomax created an entire fantasy around the man who was known to be a very soft-spoken and gentle individual. Note Lomax's description:
Leadbelly is a nigger to the core of his being. In addition he is a killer. He tells the truth only accidentally... He is as sensual as a goat, and when he sings to me my spine tingles and sometimes tears come. Penitentiary wardens all tell me that I set no value on my life in using him as a traveling companion.
This is not to suggest that Lead Belly didn't sing some pretty dark stuff, just that he was actually much more versatile and complex a musician than Lomax was willing to portray. Lomax made Lead Belly popular in the 1930s, but ironically during his lifetime, Lead Belly was much more well-known among leftist radical white activists (what we would call "hipsters" today) than with African-Americans. (His concerts in Harlem were apparently total flops). Which is where Kurt Cobain comes in. Cobain had a fascination with Lead Belly and recorded a bunch of his songs (I think they're still unreleased). But I think his genius with this MTV Unplugged performance was to slightly alter Lead Belly's version. Authors Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor in Faking It explain exactly what Cobain did:
He changed the first chord of each verse from major to minor (occasionally adding a fourth [note]), thus imbuing the song with an even more melancholy tone; he slowed the tempo way down doubling the song's length and also increasing its sadness; he changed the repeated words "black girl" to "my girl," thus erasing Leadbelly's racial perspective;... after singing all the verses of Leadbelly's version, he repeated some of them, first sotto voce, then raising his voice an octave... lending the song an air of complete desperation because of his straining to hit the high notes; and [then, finally] he sang the song's last words ("I'll shiver the whole night through") in half-time, his voice completely hoarse and ragged, thus adding an undeniably dramatic flourish to what was, in the original, only plain repetition. The result is a terribly haunting and emotional performance.
I guess those little changes combined together = innate talent (or genius?). Apparently after the performance, Cobain argued with MTV producers who wanted an encore. He refused because he felt that he couldn't top the performance of that last song. On that, he was absolutely right.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Secret Machines

What's up with the lack of four-on-the-floor rock'n'roll in the world these days? To paraphrase James Murhpy, can we sell our turntables and buy back our guitars?

Since I wasn't around in the 1970s, I can't imagine what it was like for a real ROCK album to come out. You know, Led Zeppelin IV, or Quadrophenia, or Machine Head, or something like that. But I bet it was exciting to come home and put that needle on the first track, and an epic 9 minute mastodon-of-a-track would crank out of the speakers. Oh, to be 15 years old in 1972. But unfortunately I wasn't.

But ... if you want to hear a full-scale '70s rawk vibe updated for the 21st century, there is no better place to begin than The Secret Machines. Now, I haven't kept up with them that much in the last few years but their debut album from 2004 entitled Now Here is Nowhere is quite the prog ROCK album. Imagine if you will a Pink Zeppelin with some Can thrown in. The lyrics are suitably obtuse, the rhythms are motorik, and the drums are positively GIGANTIC. At the time of the debut, the band was basically two brothers (Brandon and Benjamin Curtis, who played bass/keyboards and guitar, respectively) and Josh Garza. Since then, Benjamin has left to find his muse in shoegazer band School of Seven Bells, but the band remains a three-piece with the addition of new guitarist Phil Karnats. In the proud tradition of the three-piece power trio (think Cream or the Police or [choke] Rush), they crank out some high stakes rock music. They are on this world to rock, not to roll, if you know what I mean. All their strengths are on display on this live version of the first track off of their debut, "First Wave Intact," a massive, MASSIVE song, in which all three gentlemen (the original 3) crank out some nasty monolithic riffs to pummel the crowd into submission. Enjoy

Friday, May 04, 2012

Motor City Drum Ensemble

I've been jamming to a recent DJ-Kicks mix,  one in a long series put out by the !K7 label. DJ-Kicks started sometime in the mid-'90s as a compilation of electronic dance music (mostly techno but house also). Remember Kruder and Dorfmeister? They did one. Remember Thievery Corporation? They did one. Certainly there was a bit of a vanilla/loungey kind of vibe that's gone out of style but more recently the music has become incredibly diverse, incorporating a lot of really good and sometimes obscure 1970s funk and Afrobeat. The one that I've been listening came out last year, and was done by Motor City Drum Ensemble, basically a young Cologne-based kid named Danilo Plessow, who has made quite a name for himself. Very talented dude.

This is a stellar mix of jazz, soul, Afrobeat, Chicago house, etc. There's a lot of good music here, beginning with Sun Ra, Curtis Mayfield, passing by Aphex Twin, and ending up with Timo Lassy and James Mason. He throws in one original track too. More information here.

Definitely worth the $10. Get it on iTunes here.

Breakdown Treat by Bad Jazz Troupe on Grooveshark

Monday, April 30, 2012

A Whisper In The Noise

A Whisper In the Noise, a band from Minneapolis-St. Paul, has a new album out called To Forget. Here is the track "Black Shroud."

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Greil Marcus

In the Spring of 2001, I was the TA for an undergraduate course called "The Roots of Rock'n'Roll" which was one of the best experiences of my life. (Long story). But either way, one of the things the professor (who profoundly influenced me in many ways that he probably doesn't know) assigned for the class was Greil Marcus' Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes (which was republished later as The Old, Weird America). Now, I had never heard Dylan's Basement Tapes, and to tell you the truth, I still haven't really heard it that well--I couldn't tell you much about it. But I do know that Marcus' writings about these recordings by Dylan and the Band in 1967 tapped into something that I was struggling to pinpoint for a long time, particularly what it is about "America" that has so drawn me over the years. As an immigrant to these shores, it's a question that often pops up. I think most Caucasian Americans reflexively assume that people come to America for "freedom" or "economic opportunity" or similar notions. But my journey was determined by neither. Sure, I came here for an education but at some deeper level, what is important is why I chose to stay here. And that has to do with the standard of living, yes, but at least 50% of it is something more ineffable and intangible, something to do with American culture. It's not as simple as "popular culture"--most of American popular culture is patently horrible, self-centered, and execrable, but some of it has been deeply meaningful to me. And the culture that has been meaningful spans high and low and middlebrow, it is everything from Television (the band) to television (the object), everything from Joseph Heller to Flipper, from Marvin Gaye's "What's Goin' On' " to the Books' Lemon of Pink, from John Kennedy Toole to the B-52's "My Own Private Idaho."

Anyway, Marcus was one of two American music writers that have meant a lot to this journey of mine (the other being, of course, the GREATEST rock'n'roll writer of all time, Lester Bangs), partly because of Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century, a history book with a provocative structure and claim. I had read Lipstick Traces for the first time in college in the late 1980s, and like Invisible Republic, it also forced me to think in entirely new ways about things, in this case, about the writing and recording of history. In the book, Marcus connected seemingly disparate moments in twentieth century culture (Dada, Letterist International, the Situationists at Paris '68, the Modern Lovers and the Sex Pistols, etc.) to construct an entirely different history of the twentieth century. His claim was that the orthodox notion of history--big events, cataclysms, wars, politicians, social upheavals, generational changes, Elvis, Beatles, feminism, etc.--only tell one layer of history. Look beneath all of this stuff and you'll find another entirely different story. And to reconstruct this other history (or in this case "secret history") you have to make connections that are not at all obvious. Marcus begins with punk, particularly the Sex Pistols, but then the proto-garage-punk of the Modern Lovers but then begins to construct an entirely surprising history of cultural "refusals" that veers into all sorts of unexpected places. The blurb at Harvard University Press notes:
This is no mere search for cultural antecedents. Instead, what Marcus so brilliantly shows is that various kinds of angry, absolute demands—demands on society, art, and all the governing structures of everyday life—seem to be coded in phrases, images, and actions passed on invisibly, but inevitably, by people quite unaware of each other. Marcus lets us hear strange yet familiar voices: of such heretics as the Brethren of the Free Spirit in medieval Europe and the Ranters in seventeenth-century England; the dadaists in Zurich in 1916 and Berlin in 1918, wearing death masks, chanting glossolalia; one Michel Mourre, who in 1950 took over Easter Mass at Notre-Dame to proclaim the death of God; the Lettrist International and the Situationist International, small groups of Paris—based artists and writers surrounding Guy Debord, who produced blank-screen films, prophetic graffiti, and perhaps the most provocative social criticism of the 1950s and ’60s; the rioting students and workers of May ’68, scrawling cryptic slogans on city walls and bringing France to a halt; the Sex Pistols in London, recording the savage "Anarchy in the U.K." and "God Save the Queen."
It's undoubtedly one of the most ambitious books on music ever written but it is also an unabashedly innovative work of cultural history. It's not an easy read but well worth if if you are interested in how culture can have as much power as politics or wars or technologies.

I mention Marcus today because Simon Reynolds (another great music writer, a British transplant who lives in LA now) recently interviewed Greil Marcus for the Los Angeles Review of Books. The first of four lengthy excerpts is now on-line. Well worth the read if you are interested in the history of popular music.