Monday, January 25, 2010

Quick Aside

Who wants to bet that the US gov't paid off NBC to launch the late night wars so that no one would notice the SCOTUS putting American democracy up for sale? Of course, the 2012-style near-eradication of Haiti was a hell of a distraction, but given that most Americans have no idea who "Baby Doc" Duvalier is (or that he had a papa), Haiti was not a reliable long-term distraction. So roll out the big guns - er, big chin & big hair! "Go back to bed, America..."

Don't get me wrong, I stand among the many who are desperately waiting for Leno to choke to death on a Dorito, but - come on.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Souvenir Part 2: Then I Had Worry

Continuing a look at the albums that logged the most spins on my stereo over the Aughts.

The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Now I Got Worry
The Jesus Lizard, Liar

For the past thirty years, the personal evolution of the rock musician has traditionally functioned as follows: an angry young man or woman spends hours by the radio or MTV, bedazzled by guitar-slinging demi-gods, wishing it were them on the airwaves. Then they hear their older brother - or maybe a hipper friend - spinning either the first album by the Clash or some Void 7" and realise that anyone can pick up a guitar and start bashing out a glorious noise as long as the amp's cranked up enough. They start a band with their friends, and though it sounds bloody terrible, they don't care - they're making music! Then someone moves away, or takes umbrage that the guitarist won't turn down and quits. Instruments are swapped, a new member or two is introduced, and vocal duties are handed to the least-unwilling candidate. The band is still atrocious, but slowly a synchronicity develops. The playing gets tighter, the songs become less derivative, and total strangers start approaching the band after shows to inform them earnestly of how much it "rocked."

After a few years of this, either the band breaks up as everyone decides it's time to get that bachelor's degree in engineering or marine biology... or they sacrifice the comforts of middle-class existence to couch-surf, to drive thousands of miles in an Econoline van with a cracked windshield, to live off instant ramen & Subway sandwiches, and to bring their punk-rock gospel to the people. Onstage, the band is a rhythmic maelstrom, but their records never capture the crackle of their "incendiary live shows" (or so the critics say). But as their age inches closer to 30 than 18, their musical tissue begins to stretch & soften. Why are they still writing fuck-off anthems about their parents? Why do Abba and Burt Bacharach no longer disgust them as they once did? And have you heard Giant Steps by John Coltrane? Who knew there were so many chords available to play!

No more interminable bouncing between the I and IV chords. No more reliance on the relative minor as a harmonic trick. The time has come for musical sophistication, and hence there are any number of musical fates that await. They may shift from shaman to showmen, from music-as-exorcism to music-as-discipline (Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds). They'll perhaps ditch snarling wit to write tender confessionals, augmented by "serious" instruments like the piano & acoustic guitar (Joan of Arc). They could very well mistake gratuitous technical exercise for aesthetic substance (The Mars Volta). On very rare occasions, they may just become a better, more engaging band (Fugazi) but don't count on it.

This isn't what happened for me at all: I came to punk rock the wrong way round. I spent high school ripping off Mingus basslines for my own bad psych-funk songs (a la Primus) and studying Ligeti scores. My ex-bandmates covered Weezer to approving hoots; my own band covered Pizzicato Five to awkward golf-claps. What I didn't get was that music was supposed to be less an intellectual exercise than an existential one, an understanding that didn't sink in until a friend showed me the Fugazi documentary Instrument. That I was enjoying it should've been anathema: these clowns were missing chords, botching cues, speeding up/slowing down, and the dude with the Rickenbaker was dancing like a girl. It wasn't until the climactic single-chord seige of "Glue Man" that I got it - the total surrender to excessive sound, the pentecostal fervor, the physical transgression of performance.

"So that's what punk rock is really about," I muttered to myself.

Around the same time, my buddy Mike was schooling me on the finer points of rockabilly- and surf-tinged retro. Mike wasn't a crate-digger exhuming unheard-of garage 45s; his cup o' tea was decidedly more absurd & theatrical, like The Rev. Horton Heat and Southern Culture On the Skids. Grateful for the education, I wanted to return the favour and bought him The Jesus Lizard's Down for his birthday. I knew Duane Denison's gnarled twang would please Mike, but since my punk-rock Damascus moment, I was personally more taken with the jackhammer rhythm section and frontman David Yow's gleeful malevolence. Either way, the album scarcely left Mike's car stereo during our countless drives to & from the Towson Diner.

I spent most of 2000 and the first half of 2001 working as a tour manager, during which the Blues Explosion's Now I Got Worry had become my favourite on-the-road record. I'd picked it up before a particularly epic trek when I'd asked a record store clerk for "something like Southern Culture minus the gimmicks," and I've rarely since been so perfectly recommended a record. It had more than enough explosive riffs & wailing (ha!) energy to keep me awake during marathon nocturnal drives, and the locomotive rhythms meshed nicely with the steady thrum of the interstate beneath the van's wheels. It was also a civilised compromise between the band's current album du jour (Massive Attack's Mezzanine) and my own (the Dillinger Escape Plan's Calculating Infinity).

Fast-forward to the fall of 2001: I was living in Toronto and, in spite of the city's myriad wonders, was a miserable son-of-a-bitch for a combination of dull personal reasons and the spectacular trauma that scarred the world at large. Bandless for the first time in five years, I had to exorcise stress through my stereo and so began pursuing the most pathologically pessimistic, unrepentantly vengeful music that didn't collapse into the cartoonish cosplay of, say, black metal. This eventually led me to fire-and-brimstone post-punk of the Birthday Party, but for most of the autumn I listened endlessly to the Jesus Lizard's Liar - a flurry of bare knuckles & spit that doesn't relent until the elegaic penultimate tune, "Zachariah". The songs' industrial-strength rhythms lock like Swiss clockwork, and it's arguably Steve Albini's finest hour as a documentarian of live-in-the-room fury. I may have been stuck furious & fulminating in a room myself, but I relaxed at least a little knowing that a man like David Yow lived to rage on behalf of all us other sinners.

Next: Six-string strum & clang.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Souvenir Part 1: How Nerds Make Enemies

About a month ago, I sat in front of a blank form e-mail in which I was to list my top three tunes of 2009 to submit to the Dandelion Radio Festive Fifty. Three songs. This took over forty minutes and two cups of coffee, but not because it took that long to painstakingly weigh my options; because I couldn't think of three songs worthy of ornamenting a whole year. In the end, I opted for Mos Def's "Auditorium", Pissed Jeans' "False Jesii Part 2", and the Flaming Lips' "Convinced of the Hex" - marvelous songs all, but not especially surprising or brain-expanding.

At any rate, this exercise made it clear I was in no position to write the usual year-end poll. Writers more erudite & curious than myself were reduced to balancing their top 25 lists between hipster-bait and inexcusable trash like the Black Eyed Peas - how the hell could I salvage even a dozen decent tunes from such a desolate musical landscape? Yet what music writer can resist the allure of lists? Mercifully, we'd come to the end of a decade (a milestone which almost escaped me entirely), always a decent (if arbitrary) time to take stock. But I didn't want to fall prey to the backwards-looking pattern which Simon Reynolds has noticed, nor exaggerate my crankier tendencies by echoing Glenn Branca's recent Jeremiad. Instead, I thought I'd take a look at the albums I listened to, not liked, the most over the course of the Aughts.

Fantômas, Fantômas (a.k.a. Amenaza Al Mundo)
Mr. Bungle, Disco Volante

A decade earlier, I'd been inspired to pick up the guitar in emulation of a kid six years older and many degrees cooler than me; a kid who worshiped the ground on which James Hetfield, Slash, and (whoops) Nuno Bettencourt walked. Consequently, I was the first kid in my elementary school to own Appetite For Destruction and Master of Puppets. By my last year in high school, I still hadn't suffocated my inner metalhead, though having come of age in the "grunge era" had moved me away from sweep-picking & double-kick-drums towards the thunderous sludge of the Melvins.

But my musical world had been shifted seismically by the purchase, out of sheer curiosity, of Frank Zappa's Apostrophe (') on my thirteenth birthday. It defied every rule that Top 40 radio had imposed on my impressionable mind: it was virtuosic but hilarious, it was orchestral but whimsical, it was psychedelic but cynical. Most importantly, it took the piss out of everything terrifying to the young adolescent - religion, sex, love, and bodily dysfunction.

As Tom Waits once said, you can't un-ring a bell. I was forever changed, much to the chagrin of those around me as my mission became to musically mind-fuck everyone in earshot. I forced my first band to cover "Who Needs the Peace Corps?" and would blast the Boredoms' Pop Tatari in the student lounge at school. Then, sometime when I was fifteen, my friend Ben bequeathed most of his cassettes to me before he was shipped off to boarding school. Sorting through the bag, I pulled out a tape on which a puke-green clown grinned ominously at a single lit match. Ben immediately said he was happy to be rid of that particular album and warned me against listening to it. "Imagine dudes who could've gone to Julliard figuring out how to make the scariest music possible," Ben said. "That shit will give you nightmares."

Of course, I threw it on my boombox as I bedded down that night. I ended up listening to all 73 minutes three times and went to school sleepless the next day. This was what I had been searching for, this was the band that I knew had to exist yet had so far been unable to find. Everything I loved about music was contained therein: technical pyrotechnics, whiplash genre-jumping, the funhouse dementia of Danny Elfman's early movie scores, the obsidian evil of the meanest metal riffs, and even the juvenile scatology of those Ween records my friends kept lending me, all wrapped up in circus bunting and bondage masks. This was it.

I spent the next three years amassing every album with any Bungle band member's name on it - Trey Spruance's "solo" outings as Secret Chiefs 3, Trevor Dunn's avant-jazz releases on John Zorn's Tzadik label, and of course the small-but-swelling Ipecac Records catalogue. Ipecac was (and is) the label Mike Patton started to release the projects his Warner Bros. bosses wouldn't touch, the first of which was the inaugural effort by Fantômas, Patton's metal "supergroup" featuring members of Slayer & the Melvins.

By now, Disco Volante had secured its spot as my favourite Bungle record. Its compositional density appealed to my (ahem) maturing ears, and I found its messy experimentalism more intriguing than Mr. Bungle's fussy "pop" swan song, California. But with the exception of the terrifying "Carry Stress In the Jaw", nothing on Disco Volante really "rocked." Though I was still possessed by the urge to throw devil-horns and headbang, I'd become self-conscious enough to lack the conviction required to be a true metalhead. As much as I privately loved "Walk" or "Raining Blood", I found such teeth-gritting machismo, well, ridiculous. I was also sick of getting kicked in the head at live shows.

Enter Fantômas. For kid who liked Marc Ribot and Ministry in equal measure, that album pushed all the right buttons. Gut-rumbling low-end? Check. Pummeling palm-muted riffs? Yep. Gatling gun drum rolls? You bet. Sudden left-turns and defeated expectations? By the bushel. Cartoonish shrieks and sound effects? And how!

It was only later that I realized the extent to which I'd forever be at odds with The Hip because of my fandom for, specifically, Zappa and Patton. The former's modernist & satirical tendencies have somehow left him tarred as "nerdy shit" that is "not expressive", and the latter is one of the most universally reviled performers still alive for reasons I've yet to hear satisfactorily explained.

Who knows. Maybe it's because back in high school, some prick kept blasting "St. Alphonso's Pancake Breakfast" or "Desert Search For Techno Allah" in the student lounge.

Next: Punk & pigfuck enter the picture.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Hype & Polemic

Friends, nomads, no-country-for-old-men... do you suffer from ragged nerves? Sleepless nights? A gaseous suspicion of & contempt for your fellow man? In need of a psychic balm that just burns away the tattered fringes of your damaged psyche? Then may I present to you... The Vandelles.

Yeah, so they rock the same black rebel motorcycle schtick that was already second-hand by the time the Reid Bros. got ahold of it. But hey, it's an act we all enjoy and who these days couldn't use a little high-volume, tweeter-shredding treble to wipe their mental slate clean? As an unlikely bonus, the Vandelles actually have good tunes to back up their black-leather-'n'-Fenders mean-mugging. Double bonus: no stupid goddamn haircuts!

Hang on a minute: since when do I, Monsieur Nouveau Modernisme Deluxe, get off plugging retro rock 'n' roll acts? Since today's release of the Vandelles eponymous EP makes them my labelmates on SVC Records, and the more of you that buy the EP, the more SVC can lay out on my own upcoming LP. Ha! Seriously, though, anyone with the internet access to visit the SVC online store can absolutely afford the couple o' quid that the EP costs. If you just can't be bothered to support the dreams of creative twentysomethings, then for god's sake don't blow the cash on another pack of smokes or beer: send it to the Red Cross, you selfish bastards.

So whaddaya think? Did I miss my calling as an ad man? Could I sell sand to a camel or London Bridge to a Yank? Hell no. The fact is my job as a "commercial music composer" is the only one from which I been fired, and I slunk out of the (ahem) formal music press when I suspected I was just a poorly paid hack boosting redundant tripe. Which makes it all the more bemusing that I've started getting review requests from PR people pushing lo-fi folk Johnny-Come-Latelys or whatever. It's at least encouraging insofar that this means someone out there actually reads this damned blog and feels my voice is worth including in the conversation. But still, wow - I have a readership? Flabbergasting!

Similarly, I received an e-mail the other day that not only declared that the writer was a "big fan" (!) but I'd "inspired" him to start his own cult-crit blog, Spots Before the Eyes. Apparently, my quasi-qualified rants have helped his thinking regarding some of the perennial quandaries facing the post-millenial music fan, including (these are quoted directly from the e-mail):

Why don't I like today's Pitchfork music?

This query raises questions of its own: has the web's leading music journal crafted so well-sculpted a niche for itself that "Pitchfork music" is now a recognizable genre? Not quite. I can't think of a single band that encompasses everything the Forkers throw their critical heft behind. To its credit, Pitchfork still casts a reasonably wide stylistic net; on Friday, its reviews covered alt-country, orchestral pop, and black metal acts. That being said, there's a handful of aesthetic & performative tricks that Pitchfork falls for every time, recognizable enough that you could bet money on what rating an artist will receive and walk away with a heavier wallet. Was anyone surprised that the new Vampire Weekend album - a year after the backlash and boasting a newly-earned confidence - received an 8.6 and the "Best New Music" imprimatur? Or that Animal Collective shat out another hippy-dippy bleepfest and garnered a perfect 10? On the other hand, if Mike Patton's next project earns above a 6, or if the Dum Dum Girls' debut full-length earns anything below a 7.8, I'll eat my shoe.

Why aren't I familiar with any of the songs performed on American Idol?

The easy answer, of course, is that they're not worth knowing! But this touches on the diasporic effect digital culture has had. Christopher Weingarten hit the nail on the head, speaking at a Twitter conference last year:
If you read Spin or Rolling Stone in '96, you'd get an article on Nine Inch Nails, an article on the Chemical Brothers, an article on Snoop Dogg, and the internet doesn't work that way. ...It's harder to get exposed to things that aren't in your comfort zone. I have friends that are so deep into indie-rock they don't know what the fuck Katy Perry is, or Lady Gaga. ...I can always learn about stuff that's important to me, that's easy. I wanna learn about stuff that isn't important to me.
Because the internet allows users to custom-tailor the information they receive, it's frighteningly easy to block out anything that isn't a known & comfortable fit - and this goes for political opinions and even facts, not just music. So unless you actively enjoy & ingest the kind of formulaic power-ballads that appeal to foghorn-throated starlets, there's no good reason for you to have idly heard the shit on American Idol.

Why is so much music criticism so shitty?

Well, whenever you deal with a form that encourages the belligerent expression of personal taste as though it were divine writ, you're going read an ungodly amount of self-indulgent pap. The job pulls more than its fair share of unqualified punters attracted by the glamour & apparent ease of the work. ("I just talk shit about a band and get paid for it, plus backstage passes? All right!") It's an occupational hazard, really.

But the internet has only aggravated the issue. With neither copy editors or column space to rein in the writing, music bloggers & online scribes can ramble for thousands of useless, swampy words. At the other end of the spectrum, that people think a 140-character monologue could possibly count as meaningful journalism is surely the death knell of the form.

But let's not forget that music is overwhelmingly a young person's game, by & for teenagers and twentysomethings. Most music journalists simply haven't had the time to mature as writers. A friend who's been devouring the 33 1/3 book series said that the best-written volume by a nautical mile was the one about Hendrix' Electric Lady Land, by a man old enough to have actually seen Hendrix in concert. This means he has literally a lifetime's more writing experience than your average NME hack. Lord knows the reviews I wrote for the Baltimore City Paper were rather shit - because I was some fatheaded 20-year-old in love with his own wordsmith wankery. Give me another ten years and perhaps I'll have something worth saying.

Whether anyone will be listening, of course, is another question altogether.

Thursday, January 14, 2010