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.