Sunday, December 9, 2007

Notes from Music History III

This is why I will never be a great classical musician. I have no appreciation for technicality. A performance cannot move me past indifference without something to show for itself other than hours upon hours of time spent alone in a fucking practice room. Those rooms will never center my life, that's for goddamn sure. I refuse to applaud here, no matter how much I respect this man. I value his thinking more than the movements he has trained his fingers to perform. Energy: this is what I value. Destruction, too. I want to deconstruct this and put it back together in the most fucked up manner I can. This is what is so amazing about Bach. He was a fucking punk, despite the religious affiliations. He can make straight eighth notes sound like a desperate lover scratching at their face until blood is running down their cheeks to stain their clothes. Every note is another thick red drip from the chin to the lap. It challenges you to actually feel something from a pattern so simple and complex simultaneously, something this trained singer could never do. Iggy and Bach are blood brothers, I don't care what you say.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Fleetwood Mac is Better than Rilo Kiley Ever Will Be (An Excerpt From Mixtape Liner Notes)

I have a confession to make: I never listen to Elliott Smith unless I’m making a mix for a girl, in which case it is the sort of “Oh look, he’s a sensitive guy who has complex emotions” track and is probably a complete invention because loneliness is only what you make it and complex emotions don’t exist. Which is okay really because no one is ever really “themselves” or whatever people like to call it, because we are constantly reinventing ourselves to try to appease everyone else and anyone who denies that fact is lying to themselves as much as they are lying to everyone around them. I mean, has Lou Reed been genuine once in his life? At least Lou Barlow has come close. It is damn near impossible to express supposedly genuine feelings with art because all art is itself an affectation.

Every mix I make is circular.

Monday, August 27, 2007

So I Saw Keith Fullerton Whitman...

Lately I have become enamored with the sounds of drones, especially Kranky drones, and I was able to indulge myself when Keith Fullerton Whitman came to St. Louis last night. The venue was perfect, a modern setting right by the river with the artists set up in what looked like the garage area. The lights were dimmed, there were few windows and the floor was hard concrete. I had been trying to figure out which of the figures around we was actually Whitman before his performance, and was surprised when a stout, bald man with long stiff beard walked up to the equipment. Everyone was seated as the room went darkened and Whitman began to perform.
As he generated the music on laptop and analog synthesizer in a secluded corner of the room, a slide show that threw pictures at the audience at twelve frames per second was projected onto the wall. The pictures were mostly of commonplace activities or scenes, bridges, plants, people lounging in chairs, and a surprising amount of them of cats. Whitman began with sounds that resembled metal being stretched and broken, all put through immense amounts of reverb and delay. These sounds seamlessly morphed into an electronic approximation of rain falling and beautiful drones emerged from the silence that the percussive noises were painted on. All movement in the room stopped as the crowd was drawn into the projection and the drones.
This calm, ambient middle section, which comprised the majority of the set, was the most engaging electronic performance, ambient or otherwise, that I have ever experienced. Whitman’s music coupled with the projection reflected the best elements of the mundane, of life in general. Nothing ever happens. The performance seemed to insist otherwise, that there is so much that happens in the day-to-day life of human beings, who are seemingly unremarkable, and that happiness comes through peace with the notion of boredom. The music itself would appear as boring itself to many. The whole room was captured by these mundane sounds that were also incredibly exciting and entrancing. No other artist that these ears have heard has exemplified this contradiction so well.
To delve into autobiography a little bit, this was my last night in a town that is defined by boredom, tedium, and stagnation for some time. People perceive New York as characterized by excitement and the feeling of being in motion again: the most extraordinary thing in the world. Once the realization that there can be beauty in the commonplace is made, the desertion of that commonplace is all the harder, however extraordinary the destination is. I have found something of incredible beauty that I am leaving behind in a place even more mundane than St. Louis, and I’m sure that had influence on how I perceived this performance.
As the calming drones were penetrated by harsher synthesizer noises, the atmosphere became more tense until the synth squiggles overwhelmed the calmer drones and became a sheet of noise themselves. As this happened, I was disheartened that Whitman would take a sledgehammer to something as beautiful as anything off Playthroughs, but as I think about it more, the contrast made the middle section that more remarkable and the build at the end made the piece seem more climactic. As the reverb, both natural and electronic, faded, the entire audience sat still and silent for five seconds before clapping. I had forgotten where I was momentarily. It was an incredibly happy moment.

Friday, August 17, 2007

I Miss Tony Wilson and Other Ramblings

There is one issue I would like to address that I was confronted with while at the Pitchfork Festival. Although I was already prepared to come face to face with many pasty anorexics that religiously carry a messenger bag and SWEAR to God that the Arcade Fire is the be all and end all of indie rock, I was slightly taken aback when they began to (I assume seriously, but it was actually hard to tell) imitate hip-hop dancing. During certain sets it seemed like this was more legitimized (De La Soul literally commanded the masses to put their hands in the air), but it was during Cadence Weapon's set that these actions seemed not only ridiculous, but also offensive. It seemed put on, as if these indie rock fans (I'm not excluding myself here) took the most basic notions of what hip-hop is and was and clung onto those base ideas rather than looking further than "Lets wave our hands in the air and pretend to be gangsta!"
Cadence Weapon was trying his hardest to be offensive in his juvenile attempts to attack Pitchfork and WaterPlus, but it was in his posturing that this was real hip-hop that seemed to sting most. He opened up his set by reading a scathing review of The Blueprint 2 by Jay-Z that he wrote for Pitchfork several years back before launching into his nerdy, what some critics might call "hyper-literate," brand of the genre. Not only was this Cadence trying to separate himself from Pitchfork, which now has become oh-so-cool to hate, even when they put on an amazing festival and we all know that we still read the reviews, but also from the mainstream hip-hop community, which consequently gives the audience the notion that this is the alternative, this is the real. The reality, however, is that most of the fans of this "real" hip-hop are middle class, suburban college students who are more into indie rock than hip-hop anyway. Rap and hip-hop have always been a language for the oppressed, a way to get a voice heard through the noise of society by imitating that noise through loud beats. It is beautiful to see such a subversive genre become so integrated into our culture, but in doing so it has lost the spark that ignited the fire. In many ways it seems that there is a contradiction built into hip-hop, that there could be no such thing as mainstream or widely accepted rap because rap itself was created to overcome the mainstream. It is very much like punk in this way, that there is an inherent issue of what is "real" and what is an imitation.
I was at a hardcore show at some punk space in North St. Louis City recently and the singer of the band Civic Progress blurted out near the end of their fifteen minute set, "Fuck the music industry, we play for real." It was such a quintessentially counter-cultural moment, where one group of people are throwing all notions of previously established expression out and placing themselves at the forefront of what they see as the revolution. By playing faster and louder and with more angst and aggression than what their parent's generation listened to, they must be real, right? Unfortunately Civic Progress and most hardcore bands out there today have missed their chance to be "real," as they themselves are simply imitating what was started by Bad Brains, Black Flag, Minor Threat, and the countless other pioneers of the genre. Punk for punk's sake, though I'm sure they mean every word. Punk, and Hip-Hop, really, is built on the use of the idea of newness, that it is a revolution of sound as well as thought. Can it really be punk if it just sounds like punk? Can a band “play for real” that is part of a scene that worships idols to the point of blatant imitation? That is directed more at you than myself.
It is worth a mention that it is hip-hop and punk that are, from my observations, the genres that are most cited to be dead. CBGB is closed. Nas of all people named his album Hip Hop Is Dead. Could this be caused by this same contradiction? The counterculture's strive for authenticity does seem to lead to its own downfall, or at least a tainting of itself. This is probably the most punk think about punk rock, that it is such a self-destructive force that it has a suicide mechanism built into the ideology that characterizes it. In both ideology and in the pure sonic characteristics, both genres have been contradicting their founding principles. The smallest signs of stagnation many times equal death and destruction.
So what does this mean, and here’s the bigger question, does it even matter? Well, yes and no. I think as avid music listeners (Hello?! Anybody out there?!) we should be aware of these contradictory ideas, but to expect bands and listeners to react in a similar manner is ridiculous. Once a new idea is presented (“Punk”, “Hip Hop”, “Jazz”, “Rock and Roll”, etc) there is naturally going to be a decomposition and capitalization of the ideas, and fighting it as a whole is futile. At the same time there is always going to be a Cadence Weapon or some random garage punk band waving the banner of the authentic, and we need to use our bullshit detectors and be able to call it out. Popular music has thrived on that balance for decades, and the calling out has been enacted as legendary rebellious motions such as the “God Save The Queen” or Public Enemy or Factory Records or even Kurt Cobain’s suicide. To have these acts, however, the previous rebellion must be sacrificed. Punk could have never happened in the first place were it not for the marginalization of rock ‘n’ roll. It is in this beautiful and desperate struggle that we place ourselves now, and I am calling for a savior.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

A Corner

Yesterday I discovered a piece of my house I had never considered before. Where the wall meets the ceiling, yellow paint obscured by gray dust collecting near the vent. I cannot find the time to do the things that may make myself happy and I cannot find time to simply make myself be happy. I throw myself into that corner of the room, letting myself absorb its every detail until it too has just become something I take for granted, something old. I haven't listened to Slanted and Enchanted in years.
If midwest boredom wasn't so beautiful, Missouri would be a crater.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Pitchfork Music Festival: Friday

The four of us stumbled off the Megabus dazed and exhausted from a night of little sleep. Chicago was more crowded at six in the morning than St. Louis is in the middle of the afternoon and everything is exaggerated. The Sears Tower loomed directly above us and I felt small and unimportant in the best way that is only possible in large cities. This was freedom and excitement and no amount of exhaustion could diminish the wonderment that that feeling creates. We walked around and ate at an overpriced, understaffed restaurant before we were let into the loft we were staying at on Green and Randolph to pass out for a few hours. The loft was filled with several thousand CDs and LPs of artists like the Art Ensemble of Chicago, ESG, Lee “Scratch” Perry, Joy Division, and I was given a copy of y by the Pop Group.
At around 3 p.m. Drew and I headed down to Union Park to secure a spot in line for Slint’s performance of Spiderland. Spiderland is as much a religious relic as an album, an expression of all the depressive tendencies of humankind, and I was apprehensive. How could this performance live up to what the album represented in my head? I was actually nervous as I sprinted to the front of the Connector stage.
The performance of Spiderland was perfect. Every build up, every release was exactly how it was recorded seventeen years ago, but now it was immediate and on the stage in front of me. Although it was hard to finally put a face to the voice that whispers “I’m trying to find my way back home,” it was quite the way to open the festival. However, after they finished the last notes of “Good Morning Captain,” they slipped into what I am assuming is a new song that I wish had ended as soon as it began. It was too long and almost sounded like it was written by a jam band until the guitarist went into a wanky math-rock solo section that didn’t even fit the rest of the song. I’m not hoping for new Slint to sound exactly like Spiderland, if it sounded more like The For Carnation or Tortoise I would be more than happy, but this didn’t sound like the same band at all. Slint are masters of mood, but there was no mood whatsoever created by their last song.
I will come back to the GZA’s performance later, but Sonic Youth was one of the most amazing musical experiences of my life. What made their performance so much more spectacular than Slint’s (besides the obviously better non-Daydream songs pulled from Rather Ripped), was that the album seemed to be alive. Daydream Nation seemed so much more relevant than Spiderland, not only because Sonic Youth played the hell out of those songs but because they didn’t play the exact versions recorded twenty years ago. The noise breakdown in “Silver Rocket” sounded spectacular, and was extended with Lee Renaldo flailing his guitar around relentlessly. Even though the band has aged considerably since 1988, there was still sexuality oozing from the music and their performances; Thurston was even reminiscent of a more restrained Mick Jagger. Slint was going through the motions (no matter how spectacular those motions are), while Sonic Youth obliterated any semblance of the motions by putting the old songs in this new context.
After the final notes of “Jams Run Free,” we dragged ourselves back to the loft to prepare for the next day of the festival. Check back for my synopses of days two and three!

Thursday, July 12, 2007

On My Way To Chicago...

Well I am only a few hours away from starting my long trek to Chicago for the Bitchfork Music Festival to see all of my favorite bands. On Monday or Tuesday I will post lots of pictures and thoughts on the festival as a whole and what the whole trip was like. I really will this time too. I haven't even left yet and I'm already exhausted just thinking about it all. An adventure awaits, see you all early next week.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

I Give Up

Well, I'm gonna give up on the next five. Shellac was in there, so was Jesu. I think Feist too. Hopefully you'll get more thoughts on the Conformists soon. They're just that intriguing.


Friday, June 29, 2007

Top 15 Albums of 2007 So Far (Pt.2)

Well, its been awhile since I started this, mainly because I landed myself in the hospital and my grandmother died, so its been hard to get to write much. But here it is, the continuation. Hopefully everyone who is following this diligantly will wait a few more days for the conclusion, but let's be honest, who is really?

6) Blonde Redhead - 23

Blonde Redhead have never been the most groundbreaking, original band out there, and things haven’t really changed all that much. However, on 23 they have found a sound that sounds so much less forced and approximated than their earlier releases for Touch and Go. Their evolution into a 4AD group has been the best thing that has happened to the band, even if they are sticking fairly closely to the 4AD formula of swirling guitars and breathy vocals. There is still a level of angst present in their music, especially in Amedeo Pace’s songs. So much so that in a way this album seems like the darker cousin to last year’s Asobi Seksu album. This is just one more reminder that the shoegaze genre is not as dead as it has been pronounced to be.

7) The Conformists - Three Hundred
By now, the wait for Three Hundred has become just as infamous as the music that it contains. However, unlike other albums that have gone through label hell recently (Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, which has become the indie media’s go-to example for this kind of thing) this album sounds like it has just emerged from the hellish struggle it has gone through to even see the light of day. These tracks were recorded at Electrical Audio with Steve Albini in 2005 and the band has been playing them live for at least as long, but this music does not feel the least bit old or outdated. There is no one else doing what the Conformists are doing, such raw, fucked up, and ultimately hysterical ejaculations. Three Hundred makes you hate people.

8) LCD Soundsystem - Sound of Silver
Since moving to New York City last year, I have spent unbelievable amounts of energy trying to assimilate into a culture that I only vaguely feel a part of. I’ve worked on my expressionless stare, learned to cross streets before the lights tell me its safe...and tried as hard as I could to get the jokes in “New York I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down.” If I worked hard enough I could become jaded enough to be brought down by the city that has seemed like my savior ever since the move, and maybe then I would be qualified to be a true New Yorker. Luckily Sound of Silver is much more than some silly kid’s soundtrack to getting out of the midwest. Some of these songs even come close to touching his earlier singles, which is a feat that could not be said of LCD’s self titled album. “North American Scum” to “All My Friends” is one of the best song sequences this year. The bass synths on “All My Friends” are some of the deepest and moving sounds produced in the 00s. I am still one of those kids that thinks New York still exists, though, despite all of my hard work.

9) The Clientele - God Save The Clientele
God Save The Clientele is the antithesis of Sound of Silver in that instead of glorifying the City, The Clientele seem much more content in quaint suburban evenings where nothing much happens, but that’s the way everyone likes it. The struggle to balance these two lifestyles has been the most prominent _____ in my life during the past year. The haze that enveloped The Clientele’s earlier albums has been lifted almost completely with God Save The Clientele, but with that change have come more interesting, engaging melodies and orchestration that fits the band’s aesthetic quite well. With each new album The Clientele releases, I get scared that this might be the one where they lose their spark, but with each album I am reassured that even though they are evolving, it isn’t necessarily a negative change. This is one of the most consistently rewarding bands of the past 10 years and it is hard to understand why they haven’t gotten more recognition for their greatness outside of a few good Pitchfork reviews.

10) Stars of the Lid - And Their Refinement of the Decline
There has only been one time where I have stayed awake during one whole disc of Stars of the Lid’s And Their Refinement of the Decline. Not that it isn’t an exciting album that is complex and spectacular, but rather I feel so comfortable whenever it is on that I’m transported to a place that can only really be understood while asleep. One of my main criticisms of most ambient music is that there is very little sense of the artist in the music, that drones cannot be filled with as much sorrow or disgust, happiness or joy, as other types of music. Stars of the Lid have shattered that notion, and have evoked all of those emotions in ecstatic ways. And Their Refinement of the Decline is overwhelming, but that just gives us more to discover over time, more to reward us in the end.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Top 15 Albums of 2007 So Far (Pt. 1)

Well folks, we’re halfway through 2007, and its time to round up what this writer believes are the best releases of the year so far. These will be posted in installations of five, starting at the top. Please give feedback or tell me what you think of my picks, writing, or hairstyle.

1) El-P – I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead

The fact that this album opens with dialogue from Laura Palmer (well, after Donna Hayward’s opening query) is one of the best things about this album. The fall of that character is mirrored throughout I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead as El-P gazes at modern American society and sees that we are in the same plummet as Laura was in her last days. This isn’t a warning, but a mourning of what could have been and what is likely to come. And the sound, this record sounds like the death of society, with beats that pound on your skull and wriggle into your subconscious until you find yourself twitching to them days later. Even when El-P is rapping about more personal matters he is able to make them feel relevant (“The answer is yes, the city wants you gone/and that’s the only thing connecting us, but that connection is so strong”) and is able to connect it all back to the overall theme of self destruction (“How the fuck are you supposed to explain your own self destruction and still remain trusted?”). I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead is one of the only hip-hop albums in recent history that seems like it is less of a hip-hop album than a grand statement, and it is one of the grandest yet.

2) Panda Bear – Person Pitch

I’m going to say it: Person Pitch is miles above any Animal Collective record. What it lacks in the immediacy of “Who Could Win A Rabbit” or “Grass,” it makes up for in overall arc and development. Even though most of the songs had been released as singles beforehand, it seems almost an impossible task to take them out of the context of the album. “Comfy In Nautica” is a perfect opener, “Bros” is a perfect centerpiece, and “Ponytail” is a strangely perfect closer. There is always so much going on throughout the album that there is something to discover every single listen, and that is the sign of a truly great album that will be approachable for years to come.

3) The Field – From Here We Go Sublime

From Here We Go Sublime is a great record for all the reasons described below.

4) Of Montreal – Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?

Before Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer, Kevin Barnes could be called many things, but a self-pitying narcissist wasn’t one of them. This type of turn for any songwriter could be for the worse, but Barnes takes his self-pity and inverts it, turning it into highly entertaining damaged synth-pop. Barns is desperate, begging himself for a “mood shift, shift back to good again/come on, be a friend.” This was the feel good album of early spring that was actually a feel-so-terrible-I-want-to-hide-in-my-room-for-days album of early spring. Only on Hissing Fauna would Barnes sing such a standard line as “Lets tear this fucking house apart,” followed by the gruesome inversion “Lets tear our fucking bodies apart.”

5) Battles – Mirrored

Mirrored shows what good can come out of a band eschewing traditional songwriting for “mathier” techniques. Instead of simply relying on their chops and odd time signatures to reel us in, which is sadly what most math rock does nowadays, Battles creates whole suites and seamlessly strings together complex musical ideas, if that is prog-rock enough for you. They have strange house of mirror-like melodies over their bubbly masterpieces. Sure, they are competent technically, but what is present here that separates them from the math rock bands that will never get out of basements and arts centers is that they are skilled musicians as well as technical players. Battles can write a pop song like “Atlas” and still turn it into a mindfuck begging the question, “WHAT THE FUCK JUST HAPPENED?”

Friday, June 15, 2007

A Discussion of Two Kompakt Records (aka The Inagural Post)

There have been two releases this year on Kompakt that have caught the eyes of many critics. Gui Boratto is a Brazilian producer who has been working for ten years with various artists from Brazil (including Gal Costa) and around the world (Garth Brooks?) before he decided to concentrate on his own works in 2005, resulting in the album released this year, Chromophobia. The Field is the moniker of Axel Willner, who hails from Stockholm, Sweden and was signed to Kompakt after sending in a demo to the label. His first album, From Here We Go Sublime is the most critically acclaimed album of 2007 according to Metacritic. While they come from different backgrounds and are sonically quite disparate, they deserve to be compared purely because they are the most prominent releases of this year on one of the most prominent techno labels in the world.

From Here We Go Sublime works within many more genre constraints than Chromophobia. For most of Sublime the kick is consistently four on the floor and there is most often a "pah" to compliment it, while the beats are much more varied throughout the latter. This makes Chromophobia much easier to digest on first listen, rather than Sublime, which is so consistent with its throb that by the end it would be no surprise if the listener's heartbeat was altered for a week. It is in many ways like Seefeel’s Quique in it’s pairing of ambient shoegaze and techno textures. There is excitement in Chromophobia, and that excitement is palpable in the structure of the songs and in the sequencing. As the album builds and eventually climaxes we are bombarded with phrases like "what a beautiful life." Boratto is constantly teasing the listener, removing elements of the track and adding them back in, letting them build and take their own shape rather than trying to meticulously control them. By the time we get to the album's best track and aforementioned climax "Beautiful Life," we are ready to forget about anything that may be plaguing our minds and smile and nod our head as we are enveloped by synthesizers.

From Here We Go Sublime, on the other hand, is a more difficult listening experience and is easy to get lost in. The repetition can become numbing, especially as only one track ends before the five-minute mark. There is very little of the excitement found in Chromophobia throughout Sublime. In the place of that joy, there is instead relentless perseveration and blankets of haze, the music hardly ever letting go. It is not only mysterious, but also impenetrable and distant in a way that only records made on a machine can be. There is absolutely nothing human about the sound of From Here We Go Sublime. Even the sampled voices like the ones on the opener "Over The Ice" are inhuman and cold, manipulated so their original intent is lost.

All of these points, however, are not negative criticisms but exactly what this type of music should do to the listener, whether on the dance-floor or not. The creation of electronic dance music may be one of the biggest admissions of human loneliness and alienation of the past half century. Through technology we have been able to express the loneliness and inhuman feelings that were unable to be expressed previously because music actually had to be created by the humans themselves. When dancing in a club, which was the original intent of house and techno, one is as solitary as one can be when surrounded by people. Everyone is looking for a partner, a fuck, a temporary solution to a larger problem that plagues everyone from the moment they learn about sex. You are never as alone as when you are looking for a companion.

The repetition that is such an integral part of The Field's music, and much electronic music in general, is a form of comfort and a shield from the unpredictability of life outside that contained environment. No matter how hectic and unpredictable life can be outside of the dance-floor, there is always the assurance that the next bar will go to the same chord it did before, that the kick will still pound away, and there is finally a constant in life. This repetition invites us to let our guard down and throw ourselves into the music, forgetting all except the beat and following it through the night.

Of course if From Here We Go Sublime was simply a genre exercise, even a fairly good one, it wouldn't be half as brilliant as it is. The fact that Willner creates something unique out of such a strict formula is what makes it so remarkable. It is great simply because it is so rigidly formulaic, but the formula is used in ways that create a sense of an artist. A Field track is definitely a Field track, from the hazy shoegaze synths to the chopped up vocals. This approach is what makes it hard to sit through the first time the listener is presented with it, but with repeated listens the music opens up and we are able to dive in and let the throb overpower us.

From Here We Go Sublime presents the listener with many more complexities and contradictions than Boratto’s album, which is exactly what good electronic music should do. Chromophobia is an amazing album, but is not as complete a statement as Sublime is. Many times it feels as if it is simply a collection of songs rather than a cohesive album, which is what Willner achieves to such an amazing degree. Chromophobia will appeal to rock and pop listeners as well as the rabid Kompakt fans, while Sublime will most likely appeal more to the genre’s core audience. It is highly unlikely that any electronic album will touch these two this year