Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Three cheers for the mindless masses!

Like a great many others eager to avoid insulin shock, I was not pleased that Coldplay somehow managed to pinch off another album. As the cycle of album promotion begins rolling, it would only be a matter of time before the lead single, "Speed of Sound", would inundate the airwaves with its classic blend of Bruce Hornsby adult-contempo crap and sub-Hallmark schmaltz.

Now NME reports that a song originally designed as a cellphone ringtone is beating Coldplay to the top of the charts by a margin of four to one. I've never been so proud of the novelty-gobbling, fad-following, culturally uneducated public in all my life! To chavs across the UK, I tip my hat to thee.

And if that wasn't enough to make my day, this was. God bless the French.

Friday, May 20, 2005

More Dogs - March to the Scaffold

"Reality TV" is a misnomer, and thank god. Can you imagine how even more pathetic and soul-crushing TV would be if it bore any resemblance to your daily life?

"Next time on Jersey Turnpike Commuter, Carol can't believe how expensive gas is, and Peter is promoted to shift manager at the North Hoboken Starbucks!"

No thanks. Not that this should be news to anyone, but the term "Reality TV" is simply a marketing term to grind more grey matter because it's easier (and more pleasant) for people to imagine themselves on, say, Blind Date than on Homicide: Life On the Streets. (Which is ridiculous, given that Blind Date makes me pray for California and all its inhabitants to sink into the ocean, while Homicide was one of the most unflinchingly real, morally ambiguous shows on television. Guess which one is still on the air?) That's the paradox of entertaining the public: they crave something tangible, something they can relate to, something that "keeps it real", but that "something" must be so colourful and kinetic that they've only experienced it in their dreams.

It doesn't matter that Prince wrote "Raspberry Beret", a song about the spark of infatuation that we've all caught - he's still some weeeeeeird bastard who changed his name to some symbol and what the fuck was up with the face-painting? People can't relate to that. But apparently, people can relate to Snoop Dogg because he has a kid and coaches little league - and despite the fact Doggystyle was the first debut album ever to launch at number one, affording Mr. Broadus a lifestyle of such luxury that he spends more on a car than most people do on a house.

We prefer our authenticity spiced with ambiguity, with just a dash of exaggeration and white lies. It's much more fun to imagine Tom Waits asleep in your hat and stinking of gin than living on a farm with his script-editor wife and three children. In the realm of music, this leaves plenty of room for mythology and the cult of personality (provided our idols are defrocked by common humiliation and despair). While it's not necessary to commit murder to write about it, it's a better story when told by an ex-junkie Australian who dug his boots into the audience than by a bunch of white suburban boys from New jersey.

Which is why I can't be sold on a band like Man Man. They've got the whiskey-throated vocals and cabaret clatter to do a fine impression of Waits' Rain Dogs, but Waits was a genuinely gin-soaked boy who smoked like a locomotive to lacerate his larynx. I doubt Man Man's art-student singer is anything other than a good mimic. The crumbling Old World elegance of Man Man's music isn't the story of world-weary troubadours, but the product of well-read New Yorkers with Kurt Weill in their record collection.

But I am totally sold on More Dogs' continental quirk. Maybe it's just because I know their hometown of Baltimore is home to true thugs, brigands, bohemians, thinkers, and tinkerers; I've seen the junkies passed out on church steps and heard the songs of street-preachers. Maybe it's that More Dogs, rather than merely memorizing Bone Machine's clang-boom-and-steam, weave together cartoonish percussion, krautrock rumble, and Nino Rota's melodic whimsy for a more singular sound. Maybe it's distinction between study and lunacy that Plato made: "He who approaches the temple of the Muses without inspiration in the belief that craftsmanship alone suffices will remain a bungler and his presumptuous poetry will be obscured by the songs of maniacs."

Maybe it's none of these things. But I do like it.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Talking Heads - (Nothing But) Flowers

I hate needles. I can watch footage of the Bikini Atoll nuclear test with morbid fascination, or laugh my way through Sam Raimi's Evil Dead, but the second that slim cylindric villain appears onscreen, I convulse and squeal like a kicked puppy. I could never stand to watch myself get vaccinated; I always turned away so that the sting would come as a surprise.

Most people are frightened by the Unknown. Not me. If I was, then I'd probably beat up meteorologists if their prediction of mostly-sunny turned into a torrential downpour - which seems a bit foolish, wouldn't you agree? No, what terrifies me isn't the vague threat of an incalculable variable. It's the known quantity, the Inevitable. Taxes, the passage of time, the slow slide towards incontinence, "when the money runs out"... these are what keep me awake at night, not childish nightmares of al-Qaeda boogie-men or earthquakes. Enough of my life has transitory and improvised that I know negociating for stability is futile. What scares the shit out of me is that there exist certain things that are non-negociable, like the tear of the needle through skin.

Last night, I read an interview on Salon.com with author James Howard Kuntsler. In his latest book, The Long Emergency, Kuntsler describes the bottom rusting out of the American dream as oil vanishes from the soil. The West's infrastructure - both physical and societal - will not be able to support its own weight, creating a future where "we're better off learning how to operate a horse-drawn plow than becoming a P.R. executive." Needless to say, a lot of kicking and screaming will be involved in the weaning off oil. "Americans," says Kuntsler, "will vote for cornpone Nazis before they will give up their entitlements to a McHouse and a McCar."

The collapse of the American economic empire - even the whole of modern civlization - has been predicted since we first crawled out of the Dark Ages, by everyone from Nostradamus to David Koresh. But there's no sane reason to think it won't happen. Though Kuntsler cracks his knuckles in conversation, he's not some academic thug trying to beat some truth into his thesis. He's the latest in a long line of scholars, critics, journalists, activists, and philosophers who are watching a convergence of very bad luck for the United States.

And that scares the shit out of me, because I have no sane reason to think it won't happen.

From the eye-for-an-eye foreign policy to the drained oil fields, from the subordination of an import-based economy to China's ascent, all signs point to a future closer to the dust-bowl gothic of The American Astronaut than the glossy cities in the sky of Spielberg & Lucas, or even the technodystopias of Blade Runner & The Matrix. Tyler Durden wouldn't have to bomb credit card companies to see his atavist dreams come true; all he'd have to do is wait for the oil to run out.

As I imagined wandering barefoot and sunburnt down the crumbling remnants of I-70, some lyrics wafted through my mind:

I miss the honky tonks,
Dairy Queens, and 7-Elevens
And as things fell apart
Nobody paid much attention
I dream of cherry pies,
Candy bars, and chocolate chip cookies
We used to microwave
Now we just eat nuts and berries
This was a discount store,
Now it's turned into a cornfield
Don't leave me stranded here
I can't get used to this lifestyle

I've decided that David Byrne prophesied every stage of my life in song. I'm currently living somewhere between "Cities" and "Life During Wartime", as I seek out an urban niche while nervously anticipating stability's falling stock on the modern market. One day, perhaps my wife & I will stand like the "two fools in love" in the rural reality of "Nothing But Flowers", only wishing we had a lawnmower.

NOTE: Geocities is giving me shit about how my files are stored, so the link takes you to a dummy page a set up, from which you can download the song. Just look for the link on the left. Cheers.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

The word is what it means...

Though I like to consider myself a progressive, forward-thinking lad, I sometimes cry myself to sleep pondering the fate of the English language. Now, I'm not some spoilt Victorian child upset with the peasants; the great fun of words is how maleable they are. (Ah, Jacques Derrida, rest ye well.) But signifying is considerably different than sloppiness, and it makes my kidneys fizz with contempt when I hear language not just butchered, but in Dan's words, "mashed barefoot by child slaves from Guatemala in a vat for three months until it finally festered and turned, the bacterial culture within having eaten through all that was salvageable and left nothing less than a bubbling mess of my own steaming hyperbole."

For example, let's take a look at the word "factoid". This has fascinated me since high school. You know what the word means, right? Do ya? I've seen network news bumps that display topical trivia, in dynamic computer-animated prime-time graphical fabulosity, under the heading "FACTOIDS!" So it's, like, knowledge in fun-size, right?

Ahem... Pull out your dictionaries, dolts. It's "a piece of unverified or inaccurate information that is presented in the press as factual, often as part of a publicity effort, and that is then accepted as true because of frequent repetition." Take note of the suffix -oid: it means "similar to"; for example, how androids are kind of like people... but they're not because they're friggin' ROBOTS!

Similarly, (or, perhaps, -oidally) this godforsaken quagmire of id-juice known as the internet has ruined one of my favourite words: meme. The word now stands for little more than a survey of inconsequential minutae ("What was the last show you TiVO'd?") for people to post on their blogs because, goddammit, they're so amazingly special that their friends would loooooooove to look at the corns on their feet.

Fuck off.

But as I angrily wag my finger in shock, SHOCK, please ignore the poker chips I slide into my pocket as the karma police kick down the door. (I'll buy you a drink if you can name the film I'm referencing.) I found this survey - not meme, thank you very much - on the Vinyl Mine music blog. So I've got a spine like a string bean, so sue me; I'm a sucker for making lists about music. What good nerd worth his horn-rim glasses doesn't? Feel free to play along and post a reply. It's always more fun when there's fightin' words.

Five Lyrics that "Move My Heart"
Move my heart? Yeesh. I usually ignore lyrics, so here's a few songs I (a) remember, and (b) can relate to...
-"And you may tell yourself, well, how did I get here?" ("Once In a Lifetime" by the Talking Heads)
-"Face right down to the practice room, with intentions of fame and a career..." ("Cut Your Hair" by Pavement)
-"The answer is there, but 'there' is not a fixed position" ("Long Distance Runner" by Fugazi)
-"Got a truck full of amps, motherfucker" ("Truck Fulla Amps" by Self)
-"Type and file, I'm not paid to understand that this position was always in demand" ("Y Plus Girl" by Q And Not U)

Top Five Instrumentals
-"Dear Spirit, I'm In France" by Oxes
-Untitled interlude after "Honey Power" (from the Tremolo EP) by My Bloody Valentine
-"Blood Money" by Primal Scream
-"O Venezia Venaga Venusia" (from Il Casanova score) by Nino Rota
-"Super Going" by the Boredoms

Top Five Musical Experiences
-Sitting in the basement of the Roseland in NYC, singing old doo-wop songs with members of the Ramones, Black Flag, and the Misfits, late June, 2001
-Fugazi at Fort Reno Park, July 1, 2002
-Q And Not U at the Talking Head, February 13, 2003
-Two Oxes shows at the Velvet Lounge and the Ottobar in late April, 2004
-Making it through a show without breaking any strings, drinking Guiness out of an ashtray, and accidentally beaning the doorgirl with a can at Kecak's penultimate Baltimore performance, March 9, 2005

Five Artists You Think More People Should Listen To
-The Fall
-Fela Kuti
-Nino Rota
-Saul Williams
-Drive Like Jehu

Top Five Albums You Must Hear From Start to Finish
-Fantomas' self-titled debut
-Man Overboard by Buck 65
-Loveless by My Bloody Valentine
-VooDoo by D'Angelo
-Alice by Tom Waits

Top Five Musical Heroes
-Mike Patton
-Kevin Shields
-Guy Picciotto
-Frank Zappa
-Tom Waits

Top Five Rock Lit Books that Should Be Made Into Movies
Don't know that I've read five "rock lit" books, so here's all that come to mind...
-Please Kill Me: the Uncensored Oral History of Punk by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain
-Let It Blurt: the Life and Times of Lester Bangs, America's Greatest Rock Critic by Jim Derogatis
-Dance of Days: Two Decades of Punk in the Nation's Capital by Mark Andersen and Mark Jenkins

And, in keeping with tradition, I will finish by adding my own category...

Top Five Musical Quotations Made In Song
-"When I say I'm in love, you best believe I mean I'm in love, L-U-V!" (the Ronettes quoted by Ian Svenonious of the Nation Of Ulysses, in "Today I Met the Girl I'm Going to Marry")
-"Can't ask for more, so why unfilfilled?" (Fugazi quoted by Travis Morrison in "Born In '72")
-Bassline from "Powerhouse" (Raymond Scott sampled by Soul Coughing in "Bus To Beelzebub)
-"I got a letter from the DMV the other day..." (Public Enemy paraphrased by the Pharcyde in "Please Mr. Officer")
-"Young hearts be free tonight/Time is on your side" (Rod Stewart quoted by the Constantines in "Young Offenders")

UPDATE: Courtney of the MSftG added her own category to the survey; in the interest of avoiding obsolesence, I decided to tag it to the end of this post.

Top Five Artists Who Take Up The Most Room In Your Music Collection
-Mike Patton (in various collaborations & incarnations)
-Frank Zappa
-PJ Harvey
-TIE:The Fall & Nino Rota

Experts agree: new Boredoms album boring as hell

Okay, so it's not actually an "expert" - it's just me, agreeing with, uh, myself that the new Boredoms album is (repetition for emphasis in full effect) boring as hell.

The point is that the good folks at City Paper have let me voice my opinions in a public fashion, and have rewarded me monetarily for my effort. Which is good, because the whole "But I'm an artiste!" routine wears real thin when you're not even bringing in money to cover groceries. My wife is a saint.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Hip: the History by John Leland

At first, I felt like a real tool, carrying around a book bearing the bright neon title, Hip: the History. "How much does this scream 'poseur'?" I thought. But after reading the lengthy intro - which name drops everyone from Norman Mailer to Richard Pryor, Terry Southern to John Lurie, "honkypox" to Iggy Pop -, I decided a book that takes an empirically academic look at an essentially ephemeral abstract was right up my alley. I am, after all, someone who has spent far more time debating what it means to be punk than being a punk.

And for the next 356 pages, I enjoyed the rolling road through centuries of culture clash through which author John Leland led me. Though his credentials lean more towards Madison Avenue huckster (former editor of Details) than countercultural iconoclast, Leland was once on Chuck D's personal shit-list and was a founding contributor to SPIN magazine - back when, y'know, it didn't suck. Evidently, Leland is the type of guy who has enjoyed the nervous energy and dischordant questing of society's fringe his whole life, but has always managed to keep himself at arm's length from the chaos, viewing the proceedings from a desk, through an objectively academic lens. But Leland acknowledges from the get-go that "there is something inescapably nerdy about compiling a history of hip," allowing us to relax while reading, knowing that someone else sacrificed their cred in the name of our education.

Hip, as Leland explains it, is a purely American concept, the synergy of the nation's ongoing culture clash. It began when the twenty West African slaves landed in Jamestown in 1619, bringing with them the Wolof word from which "hip" is descended: hepi, "to open one's eyes" or "to see". The culutral hybrid continues evolving today, as the nation of immigrants sees its most "cultureless" people - white people - mock its history by donning mesh trucker hats and little league hirts, reducing the cultural stance of the fading majority to a punchline. From Whitman & Thoreau's civil disobedience (back when it was as easy as leaving the city), to bebop's agressive rejection of mainstream acceptance, to the modern mating dance between mass media's big money and underground iconoclasm's thirst for the New, Hip nips at its own tail as it spins into wider and wider circles. With each "Hip convergance" (as Leland calls them), the borders blur between Art & Commerce, outcast & citizen; one person's history & culture spill over into everyone else's cups, and the racial profile of America moves from yin-ynag to mosaic and, ultimately, a muddled wipe of colours.

It's an ambitious topic to tackle, and not just because Hip (or perhaps "hip") is the most mercurial quality known to modern man. As Leland traces the culture clash and resultant hybrid up through American history, it becomes clear that the history of Hip is the social history of America itself. For such an unwieldy topic that could easily lapse into a grocery list of names & dates, Leland keeps the story quick and conversational, as though relating stories about acquaintances.

But while Hip: the History provides an excellent survey of our cultural family tree, I closed its cover without a good idea of where Hip's thrust to the future is headed. I'm well aware, as they say, that to prophesy is incredibly hard, especially with regard to the future, but I'm in need of a few answers.

For starters, Leland's thesis relies on the tightening tangle of race & culture in the Unites States; he points to the world's highest rate of immigration, the continuing rise in minority populations, and the upward mobility of those minorities as proof of hip's ongoing evolution. Yet the same census information will show that the United States is at its most segregated (in terms of the racial character of schools and neighbourhoods) since the 1950s. What happens to Brown V. the Board of Education when the population declines to follow through? What happens when the recent election points to a population increasingly at odds with itself? What happens if the melting pot is full of water and oil?

And on an even broader scale, what happens when Hip is no longer a distinctly American phenomenon? The forefathers of Hip - from Walt Whitman to Jack Kerouac, Jelly Roll Morton to Thelonious Monk - may be purely the product of the United States, but now the cultural vanguard is global. We've got political crunk from Sri Lanka, British gangster films, Brazilian covers of Daivd Bowie classics, and the gutsiest rock music comes from Japan. Meanwhile, American hipsters' ability to shock has been thoroughly upstaged by the violence of 9/11 and bar-lowering reality TV; consequently, the American hipoisie has retreated behind a veil of irony so thick, it's impossible to distinguish between reality and parody anymore.

So why do we still care what happens in Brooklyn?

In the last two chapters of the book, Leland speaks at length about the democritizing effect of the internet, and the liberties afforded by metaspace. As technology cheapens itself to broaden its customer base, it pulls up the people to meet each other on a leveled field. This current hip convergence is the shift from a national cultural hybrid to a global one. We only care what happens in Brooklyn as a means of comparing it to what's happening in Berlin, Bangkok, and Bolgatanga.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Bloodthirsty Butchers - Jack Nicolson [sic]

As I delve deeper into the wild & weird world of J-Rock, more and more worthwhile discoveries are being made. I finally got my hands on an album by UFO Or Die, the legendary late-'80s noisecore outfit featuring Boredoms braintrust Eye and Yoshimi. A friend recommended I check out the Steve Reich-ian spin of computer compositions by Nobukazu Takemura, so I've been exploring his catalogue. Yesterday, I turned on the TV and saw the Zazen Boys, a relatively new act whose sound isn't unlike a very, very angry XTC.

The Zazen Boys rose from the ashes of a wildly popular punk band called Number Girl. I've not heard Number Girl yet, but I have heard of them via their guitarist's current act, the Bloodthirsty Butchers. Leading the Japanese post-hardcore pack since 1987, the Bloodthirsty Butchers just released their twelth (count it, twelth) album, Banging the Drum, and it rocks... oh so hard. Hell, it's got to be good to feature artwork by Yoshitomo Nara (whose work we last saw wrapping the new Fantomas record).

Like innumerable other bands, the Butchers draw heavily from Fugazi's sonic template, jackhammering out craggy guitar riffs with locomotive rhythm. What sets the Butcher's apart is a certain crowd-pleasing professionalism in their performance. While contemporaries like Shakuhachi Surprise sound like every other sloppy, stop-starting, Sonic Youthanising punk band, the Butchers understand that only a well-oiled machine can run at top speed and keep their playing whip-bound tight. They also have an affinity for arena-ready bombast. This occasionally leads to uninspired songwriting, but puts some spurs on the band's boots, so that when they kick, you feel it.

The song posted here is, in fact, off of last year's Birdy, an album less dynamic than Banging the Drum but a good chunk of rock nonetheless.