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.


This is (a slightly edited) review of a Pinback show in Boston, May 26, 2005, originally published in 2005 here:

I showed up late for the show because an old friend was in town visiting. Was torn between wanting to see her and wanting to see the band. I opted to do both and missed out equally on both ends. This was the first time I saw Pinback and they looked nothing like I'd expected of them. I'd expected some college rock types with glasses and self-conscious artfulness; I got a Black Francis-like lead singer wearing a Black Flag t-shirt with a chain to his wallet. They looked even less like people who are in a band called Goblin Cock, which believe it or not, they are. (They actually released an album titled Bagged and Boarded last year. Check out the album cover). By the time I got to the [Pinback] show, I missed some of the best songs (including my favorite "Soaked," a song that could have been a megahit in 1974 for some brutha from Philadelphia) but I did catch "Fortress," a track guaranteed to drill its melody deep into your brain for eternity the moment the air around your ears vibrates the tune into you. The recent album, Summer in Abbadon, is brilliant pop, one of the best albums of the past five years, but the show itself—perhaps because I was caught between half-seeing an old friend and half-seeing a great band—was underwhelming. They were clearly brilliant instrumentalists, effortlessly playing extraordinarily intricate arrangements and a dizzying array of instruments, and harmonizing as if channeling Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison on Rubber Soul. At the show, they were selling copies of a new e.p., Too Many Shadows, which contained new songs as good as those on Abbadon, brilliant songs which no one will ever hear or care about, their obscurity consigning them to a line in some unclicked link on an indie music website from the first decade of this century. What a wonderful band.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Halcyon + On + On

Back when I moved to New York in 2001, there used to be a DJ/bar/cafe called Halcyon on 227 Smith Street (in Cobble Hill) in Brooklyn. I used to go there a lot, check out new techno records, chill out and drink with friends. I was young, I think. Good times. It closed at some point, I don't know when, maybe in 2004? Everything ends. My trips to Brooklyn became infrequent.

I don't know what the bar Halcyon was named after, but perhaps it was named after "Halcyon + On + On," the beautiful track by Orbital, a band that has burrowed deep into my consciousness over the past 15 or so years. It's hard for me to remember exactly when and where I first heard the music of Orbital but it was probably in 1996 when I randomly picked up a cassette of their most recent album In Sides. It was one of those purchases without any foreknowledge or warning, having heard nothing of their music. My red pickup truck had no stereo so I would plug in my cassette walkman into my ears and after a few plays, the album began to seep into skin. It was a sprawling 72 minute opus that began with a ten-and-a-half minute spectacular wake-you-in-morning epic track called "The Girl with the Sun In Her Head," dedicated to one Sally Harding, a journalist/photographer who had recently passed away. The track began with percussive (heart)beats that exploded into synth runs like sunshine bursting through the clouds; it was recorded using only electricity from a Greenpeace solar power generator.

For the next few years, I would make innumerable (perhaps more than a hundred) road trips from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia and back, and In Sides would be the perfect soundtrack to begin the trip, as I slowly wound myself onto the Pennsylvania turnpike. Like almost all other Orbital albums, the first and last tracks were just magnificent, rolling instrumental techno masterpieces that seemed to uncoil and unfold into mysterious places. If electronic dance music had ever reached nirvana, this was it. It wasn't the four-on-the-floor techno that was beginning to dominate English electronic dance music of the period; it was slower than drum-and-bass (remember drum-and-bass?), much more pop, more transcendent, if possible.

Orbital were/are two English brothers (Phil and Paul Hartnoll) who emerged from the late '80s English rave scene, but were influenced by punk, hip hop, early electro, and '80s pop. Their nineties albums, in my mind, still remain the pinnacle of fantastic dance pop, not the slightest bit dated.

Having first devoured In Sides, I started to make my way back in the Orbital catalog, first to Snivilisation (1994) and then to Orbital II (1993), very very different records, but both with spectacular opening and closing tracks and delicious fillings.

I was lucky to see Orbital in concert (on October 12, 2001, Philadelphia) and although I showed up alone, it was one of the most happy concert experiences I've ever had. Without knowing anyone in the audience, I felt an (embarrassingly hippie-esque) communal bond with the crowd. The two brothers on stage had headsets with tiny twin headlights; they seemed like little alien robots on stage.

Orbital's latter output (The Middle of Nowhere in 1999, The Altogether in 2001, and The Blue Album in 2004) were all surprisingly underwhelming. They weren't bad, but they lacked killer melodies: a few good ideas stretched to the limit. (But perhaps I need to go back and revisit those albums.) Either way, Orbital took a looooong hiatus, almost a decade long, and is now back with a new album, Wonky, which just came out a few days ago. I'm so fucking excited. By all preliminary reports, the album is fantastic, comparing remarkably well to their nineties heyday without sounding dated. [See effusive reviews in The Quietus, Drowned In Sound, and Pitchfork.]

Here then are two tracks. The first is "New France" off the new album.

The second track below is "Halcyon + On + On," my vote for one of the best musical pieces of all time. "Halcyon" was originally released on the Radiccio EP in late 1992 but later completely revamped, remixed, and redone as "Halcyon + On + On" as the final musical track on Orbital II. What it became, in the process, was one of the most sublime pieces of music ever put to tape, the kind of music specially made for traveling into space, or falling in love, or watching a child smile, or hearing rain fall, or any number of corny/cheesy experiences from the world of Hallmark sentimentality. Sure, it's sentimental, but tell me, was sentiment ever expressed so beautifully?

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Deerhunter / Atlas Sound / Lotus Plaza

I know I often write about the band Deerhunter in this here blog but for some reason the past years I've been coming back to them over and over. They're a 4-piece band originally from Atlanta, Ga., more or less "led" by a guy named Bradford Cox who play a mix of 60s pop, shoegaze, punk, whatever. They write great pop songs, always well arranged and played. I came to them late (as I usually do with music), around the end of 2008 when I was living in Boston (actually Cambridge). I was there for a fellowship or something that I only dimly remember now.

Either way, the walk from my apartment to campus was nice, especially on the cold snowy mornings. And Deerhunter would frequently pop up on my headphones. At that time I still had a habit of making mixes to sample new music. I started this habit about 10 years ago when I still made mix CDs (CDs!) but at some point, they just became iPod playlists and on Mix 27, there were two songs by Deerhunter, one called "Nothing Ever Happened," originally from the album Microcastle. The studio version is a rocking rush of a song. As Bradford Cox sings, he evokes late 1960s psychedelia in the melody, but by the end of the song, it moves slowly into early 1990s shoegaze: a hypnotic metronomic beat with rushes of glide guitar envelops you. Those two styles pretty much sum up many of their songs: 60s perfect pop and 90s fuzzy guitar. On "Nothing Ever Happened," the two styles clash and race ahead with urgency leaving you almost breathless. I always got to campus faster when that song came on.

Since Microcastle (my top album of 2008), Deerhunter has released another album, Halcyon Digest (my top album of 2010), also filled with an amazing number of pop goodies, like songs made of candy. My favorite song from the recent album was "Desire Lines," written actually by the lead guitarist of the band (and all around shy dude) with the unlikely name Lockett Pundt. Like many good Deerhunter songs, it begins as a perfect pop song, and then moves into being a mood piece of guitar and chimes. Pundt's modus operandi seems to be bliss-through-repetition and that ethic is clearly on display in the last few minutes of "Desire Lines." Here is the song performed live in the studio. Pundt is the guy singing on the right.

Both Pundt and especially Cox have had pretty prolific "solo" careers outside of Deerhunter. Cox is a man driven by some ineffable need to constantly write and record music. At one point, be posted four volumes of demos of songs on his blog entitled "Bedroom Databank." I think a lot of other contemporary songwriters would kill to be possessed of that kind of prolific creativity. The fact that he has a genetic disorder known as Marfan syndrome (and also probably the fact that he's gay) would seem to suggest a certain outsider status that informs his songwriting. He seems to have a vast knowledge about the history and mythology of rock'n'roll and you can argue that that kind of thing can make your music too calculated and contrived, but his undeniable musical talent makes up for that. Cox calls his solo act Atlas Sound; as Atlas Sound he's released a bunch of albums, all of them worth hearing. They're a bit more experimental than Deerhunter, less unified, more bedroom-ish electropop. Here are two songs. The first is from Logos (2009) and is a song called "Quick Canal." On lead vocals is Laetitia Sadier, one of the main forces behind the French band Stereolab. The song recalls some of Sadier's best Stereolab work and is (nearly) 9 minutes of electrobliss:

And here is Bradford Cox playing the song "Te Amo" live during a radio broadcast. The song is from the most recent Atlas Sound called Parallax, released last year.

Which brings me back to the aforementioned Lockett Pundt, who has just released a new album under the his solo career moniker Lotus Plaza. The new album is called Spooky Action at a Distance is getting some good reviews. I just got it myself and have only heard it a couple of times, and what I hear I am loving. Here is the song "Strangers" from it, evocative of 1980s jangle pop and shoegaze. Takes me back to 1989 and... um that adolescent state of pining for pretty hipster girls:

And finally, finally, let us return to Deerhunter's "Nothing Ever Happened," the first song by the band I ever heard on those walks to campus in Cambridge in late 2008. Deerhunter is good on record but they kick some major ass on stage. Here is the live version of the song, transformed into a frenetic and mesmerizing epic. You can see the band playing like a well-oiled machine that seems to teeter on the edge of total collapse. As the song rises into hallucinogenic psychedelia in the latter part, Cox begins to sing/talk the lyrics to Patti Smith's classic "Land" from Horses.