Friday, September 30, 2005

Eastern Bloc-Rockin' Beats

Now that the Baby Lester Bangses have gone gaga for Gogol Bordello, I found myself digging out the lone non-classical Russian album in my collection. A friend spent a semester studying in St. Petersburg and brought us back a few post-Perestroikan souvenirs: cigarettes that smelled like a combination of burning tires and old people, real Vodka, and the album Leningrad (2002) by Tochka.

The band was, and remains, a bit of an enigma. Our friend testified to their (at least) local popularity in St. Petersburg, and they'd had the werewithal to commission album art from Gorillaz guy Jamie Hewlett. But none of Tochka's albums are available via the usual commercial conduits (e.g. Amazon) and what little information I've found is (surprise!) in Russian, so fat lot of good that does us.

But Leningrad remains a curiously compelling piece of work without the usual media-made mythology. A bit naive of me perhaps, but I wouldn't have guessed that a band born into the post-Soviet landscape would steal from as many styles as Tochka does. True, about half the album occupies that crusty cabaret niche in which Firewater have nested. But the rest of the album bounds from Bosstones-style ska to Knitting Factory jazz freakouts, finally closing with an oddly sarcastic gyspy techno track. The stylistic schizophrenia is balanced by bright production and instrumental consistency, as every song roars with crsiply-recorded horns and the singer's gravel-road caterwaul - which bears an uncanny resemblance to Tom Waits'.

Don't take my word for it, though...

"Into the Night" (Track 6 from Leningrad) -

This is without a doubt my favourite song on the album. It sounds like Mr. Waits, circa Frank's Wild Years, backed up by the ghost of goth greats the Birthday Party. The guitars shudder and scream, the rhythm section stomps like zombies, their plodding pace heralded by the horn section. A fierce piece of zoo music.

Title Unavailable for Translation (Track 8 from Leningrad) -

Though American ska-core (a la Fishbone) is a ubiquitous influence on the album, this song downshifts into some heavy-duty dub. It's missing the melting ambience of tape-echo, and I can't recall many Lee "Scratch" Perry records that featured accordian, but molasses-speed sway of the song is undeniably more Augustus Pablo than Petrouchka.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Q And Not U - Y Plus White Girl

Tonight, on the other side of the planet, before a capacity crowd at the Black Cat in Washington, DC, Q And Not U will play their final show. After a solid six months of not missing the Midatlantic (and frequently finding new reasons never to return), I suddenly really, really wish I was there.

Q And Not U are a band by which I measure my post-millenial musical life: their artistic arc mirrors my own maturation. Moving back to Baltimore from Toronto, I was thoroughly underwhelmed by the critical blitzkrieg heralding the Return of Rock that had crowned puscilanimous pretenders like the Strokes and the White Stripes. It was then, as I searched for bands with sharper teeth and sharper minds, that I (like many) discovered the trio via the Dischord anniversary boxset. My sceptical, knee-jerk reaction was to be suspicious of these young lads who'd landed on the label of Rites of Spring, Fugazi, and Lungfish - alongside such illustrious company, what made these cats so special?

It took about twenty listens, but eventually I was completely sold. Under the superficial same-ness stamped upon every Dischord act - angular guitars, sing-scream vocals, quasi-political poetry - lay the Je Ne Sais Quoi, the fire, the mutant gene that seperates icons like Nation Of Ulysses from anemic also-rans like Hoover. The songs were fast, fun, a furious euphoria of guitar martial artistry, all wrapped in melodies that grew on you like earwax. None of this even begins to describe the intensity of the live show. I'm a faithless man, but the first time I saw QANU perform at the Talking Head was nigh on a religious experience. I still feel my nerves crackle at the thought of that night.

But to stay glued to guitar-driven post-hardcore is to think that Music ends at the release of Repeater. As QANU shed a bassist and I opted for a drum machine over a human being, both the band I loved and the band I played in were redefining our ideas of Rock, transforming our shortcomings in personnel into idiosyncratic strengths. While I spliced some Devo into my band's DNA, QANU released the harmonically spare, percussively explosive Different Damage (2002). The album was the arguably the greatest variation on the harDCore template in almost a decade, eschewing the same ol' Slash-'N'-Burn for more melody and delicacy.

The next two years saw the underground harden into a culture as demographically and economically controlled as the MSM. The internet became the Alpha and Omega of information, as everybody and their dropout roomie started a music blog and certain websites ruled like Rolling Stone in the '60s. Everybody was now a worldly, well-read music geek armed with more trivial minutae than an armchair quarterback. Unless a band wanted to engage in a reductionist race down the evolutionary ladder and play it bone-stick-stone stupid, their Sound had to be a chunky gumbo of every conceivable obscure sonic curio to oblige the One-Upsmanship in their listeners' interest.

Expanding their palette and blending influences with a grace unseen since the Dismemberment Plan, QANU dropped Power in October of 2004. Oh, there was many a danceable track, but this was no concession to the coy "Dance-Punk" craze that was already dying. This was the true sound of Punks Dancing. This was no-bullshit, funky, head-nod shit that owed as much to Prince as to PiL, but performed by awkwardly earnest white kids. Even better, none of the in-concert flailing and wailing had disappeared, though another, less desirable element had surfaced at shows: The Scene. Faux-hawks and white belts, snotty art students speaking loudly throughout the set, appearing to be seen... indeed, these are signs of new popularity and commercial promise for a band, but they also signal the moment when certain folks start pining for the purity of the Old Days back at the Talking Head.

Perhaps Q And Not U saw this and wanted to bolt before they bloated. They've described the dissolution as utterly amicable and appropriate given how much they've accomplished over their career. What better way to break up?

But I'm still going to miss them. They never failed to stun and elate at every date I saw them, and put out three of the finest rock records of my post-high school period. I realize choosing "Y Plus White Girl" (from their debut No Kill No Beep Beep) isn't terribly reflective of their current incarnation, but this song became a mental sedative when I was working a phenomenally shitty job back in 2003. My friend and I would e-mail each other anecdotes about the latest bullshit from our respective infernal employers, frequently quoting the rant from the song's bridge:

Type and file, I'm not paid to understand
That this position was always in demand

More inspiring, though, were the song's opening lines:

Since we breathe clock and telephone
Basement fires keep us so alive

Whenever I started to feel another piece of my soul slipping away in the employ of those assholes, I began playing that song over in my head, to remind myself that soon, very soon, I would be away from that office, playing and shouting and dancing and cheering in some dank, dark room, utterly elated by music that I truly loved. That'll always be what keeps me alive.

Monday, September 19, 2005

"Canada, Denmark to declare truce"

Uh... okay. I was unaware that Canada had enemies who required truces, let alone that Denmark was such an enemy. At least this is a considerably more civilized resolution to contested land than that other option.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Lake Trout - Peel

A word to the Trout lads themselves:: You know I'm only tryiing to evangelise for my boys, get the word out on the street, buzz buzz buzzzzzz, etc., but I'm also not trying to make anyone feel robbed. Say the word and the song goes down.

As for the rest of you, may I present to you five young gentlemen who have done more for my musical education than any self-copulating record collection ever could, the quickest-evolving quintet I've ever encountered, a Baltimore band bound to rock both lobes of your brain... Lake Trout.

With four albums and at least one bona fide classic already under their belts, the boys drop their brand new full-length, Not Them, You, today. Amazingly, LT have again succeeded in producing an album that sounds little like anything in their catalogue. Building on the nocturnal post-rock that propulsed 2002's Another One Lost, the new album marks the rebirth of Lake Trout as a full-blown rock monster, armed with serrated guitars, tidal riffery, and a rhythm section that could flatten a town. The music is as dark and driving as ever, but never has is sounded this BIG.

Though the album's standout track is undoubtedly "Now We Know", that song is available as the B-side to the lead 7" single, "Street Fighting Man". (Yes, the Rolling Stones song, and yes, they do much more than another somnambulist garage-rock run-through.) So instead, I give you "Peel", a live staple at Trout shows for the past two years. The verse is vintage Lake Trout: an ominously rippling guitar riff rides on Mike Lowry's DJ Shadowy drums. It's tense and forboding, until a riff that could've been written by Kurt Cobain enters the fray. From there, the chorus explodes in cavernous reverb filled by shoegazer squall, and the beat thunders like a salvo of heavy artillary. Woody Ranere's vocals quake with a kind of raw honesty that today's top singers are incapable of.

I will grant you that there's a certain conflict of interest in blogging about a band whom I know (and who used to be my employers). To that I say: fuck off. I want to celebrate my friends, without whom I wouldn't have traveled to all lower 48, toured alongside a childhood idol, chatted up a crackhead backstage at the Palace in L.A., gotten a firsthand look at the pitfalls of the music biz, almost gotten shot by the Seattle cops, discovered how hard-rockin' Kansas City is, learned to live large on a ten dollar per diem, or witnessed the David Lynchian nightmare that was (is?) the backstage of the Stone Monkey in Huntington, WV. For that and so much more, I consider myself very lucky to have such friends - who just happen to be one of the best bands in America.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Wankers For Charity: A New Hope

The other day I read about the world's fastest benefit record - recorded one day, released the next. Gadzooks, what wondrous times we live in! Huzzah, I say, huzzah for technology!

The problem is, of course, who buys benefit records? Sure, we care 'n' shit, but do we wanna fork over fifteen bucks for marginal material by one band we dig and a dozen we don't? It also takes the shine off "We Are the World" to know that it was written & recorded by a pederast. So how can everyday consumers be conned into buying something for the betterment of others?

Well, an idea struck me like a mop hitting the floor of a peepshow booth: why don't pornographers produce a film whose proceeds are donated to charity? That would sell like hotcakes, man! Especially in the US: for a Christian country, Americans buy a LOT of porn ($5- to $8-billion annually). So what better way to allay the weight of sin than to know your money is going to a good cause? Flog the bishop for Fair Trade! Have a wank for hurricane victims!

I think it's a bloody brilliant idea. Talk about a win-win-win situation: charities are funded, pornographers get good P.R., and the public can get happy, happy, happy guilt-free. That way, the next time you walk in on your room-mate teaching Yul Brenner some respect, you can at least appreciate their goodwill towards others instead of just getting grossed out and not speaking to them over breakfast.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Hey, Remember Four Years Ago?

Aerial view of Manhattan from September 11, 2001...

...and New Orleans as it now wallows, September 11, 2005

Back before blow-jobs became an impeachable offense, Bill Clinton's second term was about establishing his Legacy - how would history judge the 42nd President of the United States?

Well, attentions may have been turned from policy to personal indiscretions, but now Clinton can thank his successor for securing both their legacies: Clinton's, as the Last Guy In Charge Before It All Went To Shit, and Bush's own as, well... a spoiled sociopath who only heeds his Blue-Blood thug colleagues and his own delusional fantasies. Cheer up, George, you dumb ape: not many presidents get the privilege of overseeing massive catastrophe and the deaths of thousands visited upon two iconic cities during their tenure.

Last night, my wife remarked that I seem rather nonplussed about the anniversary of "the worst terrorist attack on American soil." I shrugged, because that honestly is as worked up about 9/11 as I can get these days. I'd rather forget an event than remember it for the wrong reasons.

There is obvious value in remembering the events of 9/11, but not simply because seeing thousands of people die is upsetting. The true lesson of September 11 lies not in What happened, but Why: it was inevitable retribution for disasterously offensive foreign policy that only continues - and is in many ways even worse - today.

The collective reaction to the devastation of both Hurricane Katrina and 9/11 was one of utter disbelief: is this America or Somalia? While that speaks to the suffering of those in NOLA or NYC, it diminishes the suffering of those in Somalia, or post-tsunami Indonesia, or Afghanistan, or any other stricken country that is name-checked. Because it takes for granted that there are people suffering UNSPEAKABLY elsewhere all the time.

Yet Americans wanted to feel special in their suffering, that they alone possessed this pain, regardless that they were weeping for the same type of tragedy that has befallen Rwandans, Sudanese, Afghans, Palestinians, Isrealis, Iraqis, Kurds, Tibetans, Bosnians, and Serbs for decades. Rather than being remembered as the gruesomely ultimate lesson in Cause & Effect, September 11 has been fetishized by the War Corporation running America, its gravitas has been squished into the niftily tetrametric talking-touchstone "9/11". A nation weened on bad self-help books and instant gratification has commodified the catastrophe, replacing reflection with "Support Our Troops" stickers and wrapping not the dead but themselves in the flag.

9/11 has become America's favourite rape fantasy.

Some people have wondered aloud if July 7 - the date of the London Bombing - will be remembered by Britons in the same manner that Americans remember September 11. For their sake (and for their subsequent foreign policy), I certainly hope not.

"We need an instrument... to find out if loss could weigh." ~ Fugazi

Postscript:: I realize that, for a self-purported "music blog", a great number of words here have been devoted to politics. Sorry for those of you aching for me to post something from the new Afrirampo album, but my conscience won't allow otherwise. As Miles Rayner wrote in a wonderfully thoughtful post, "writing about anything else feels cheap."

Sunday, September 04, 2005

From bad to worse...

Let's review, shall we?

It's been six days since Hurricane Katrina bulldozed through the Gulf Coast. It's estimated that there will be 54000 troops in (what used to be) New Orleans by mid-week, and yet there are over 20000 people still awaiting evacuation from "Hell on Earth", the Convention Center. There are currently some 60-some fires raging across the city, but of course, no running water with which to fight them. Anyone encouraged by Bush's tour of the tragedy-sticken states will be fucking thrilled to hear that air relief was halted as a "security precaution" during the visit, and relief resources were used as mere props for presidential photo ops. The natural disaster and subsequent man-made catastrophe are turning into a political mudslide for BushCo. Meanwhile, Republican senators are still trying to schedule Tuesday confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Nominee John Roberts, a misogynist and racist goose-stepper.

Toss all this into your giant gumbo pot, bring it to a rolling boil, and now to really kick things up a notch...

Chief Justice William Rehnquist is dead.

Well, stomp on frogs and shove a crowbar up my nose! As Rob from Americablog so perfectly put it, the perfect political storm has begun. At the risk of sounding smug, I am so glad I left. America: love it or leave it. Fuck yeah!

Finally, while the convergence of this week's events has the blogosphere popping like gunpowder on a skillet, Steve Gilliard has been firing off some of the most inspired rage I've read in memory. I second that emotion.

Stay informed:

DailyKOS::Americablog::The News Blog::Firedoglake::Manchester Guardian::Globe and Mail::CNN::New York Times::BBC

Friday, September 02, 2005

Here Come the Rome Plows...

I never thought I'd see the day that the Deep South was swallowed by the ocean before California - but then I'm seeing a lot of crazy shit I never thought I'd see this week. I thought (like most, I imagine) that after Hurricane Katrina inevitably plowed into the Gulf Coast, a massive and efficient relief effort would rocket into action. I thought countless thousands of medical workers, military police, engineers, contracters, and millions of dollars would descend on Lousiana and Mississippi faster than the storm had. I thought, after the lessons of 9/11 (to which Republicans are so fond of referring), the Department of Homeland Security would prove Rome could have been built in a day. Instead...

::There has been near universal criticism of a slow and inadequate reaction by the federal government.

::Instead of Rudy Giuliani heroically riding into battle, apopleptic New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin was reduced to calling WWL radio. When asked if he'd declare martial law, Nagin replied, "I have asked for martial law. I asked for it two days ago!" The fifteen-minute interview also allowed Nagin to vent his rage about the law that apparently prohibits federal disaster relief without a formal request by the state: "Did the tsunami victims ask us for help? Did the Iraqis ask us to come in? Did they have to make a request through formal channels? ...You pull off the doggone ventilator vent, and you look down there, and they're standing there in water up to their fricking neck!"

::Mayor Nagin also warned that many of the "hooligans", armed with looted firearms and taking potshots at both police and passersby, are drug addicts unable to find a fix and are in the maddening depths of withdrawal.

::Despite the fact that the military forces will reach New Orleans before food and water supplies, anyone looting (which of course includes those scavenging for sustenance) will be met by "troops [who] know how to shoot and kill, and they are more than willing to do so if necessary, and I expect they will."

::A nationwide gas crisis has sent prices saoring well past $3 and already the wells are running dry. A British analyst interviewed on CNN has said that the amount of crude oil lost in the wreckage eliminates the global surplus (which was only a scant 2 million barrels). Now the planet is barely breaking even between its production and consumption of crude oil. The impact of this is not localized: there has already been a ten-pence rise in gas prices in the UK. Bush's advice to his citizens: don't buy oil or gas unless you need it... as opposed to before, when I suppose people where filling and blowing up gas cans just for shits-'n'-giggles.

::It took the collective rage of millions of netizens to convince Condi she should get back to work instead of shopping for shoes.

::Two true signs of the End Times: paleocon Pat Buchanan critiqued the administration's lax initiative on an anti-war website and neocon perv Bill O'Reilly attacked Big Oil for profiting at the expense of America's working class.

::In spite of all of the above, Bush has yet to make plans to set foot in the disaster zone.

My mind is reeling as I watch the world's lone superpower implode into a third world war zone - and I'm sitting in the comfort of a Japanese suburb 9000 miles away. Last month, a friend was describing the recent spike in violent crimes against gas station attendants. "You can lie about the reasons someone's kid is shipped off to get shot in the desert," she said, "but you can't lie about the price of gas. You got out just in time."

This may seem like a horribly inopportune time to say "I told you so", but the utter failure of the American government to provide for and to protect its citizens makes plain what we snarky leftists have known for the past six years: that George W. Bush, his cabinet, and the Project For a New American Century are criminally negligent, self-serving, myopic war pigs who dine on the corpses of the poor. The epitaph that Hunter S. Thompson wrote for the revolutionary spirit of the '60s could just as easily have been written about these delusional fucks in the White House:

"Their loss and failure is ours too: ...the desperate assumption that somebody, or at least some force, is tending the light at the end of the tunnel."

But there is no one waiting at the other end of that tunnel - not in Iraq, and not in Louisiana. We are all blind, but now we all know better than to follow these assholes claiming to have one eye. Whether we make it through this tunnel remains to be seen.

"So sad to say it's over now: here come the Rome plows." ~ Drive Like Jehu

UPDATE:: It's 2:30 in the morning here, so by the time I've woken up, Fearless Leader will have taken his latest tour of the worst natural disaster in his nation's history, not to mention who knows what kind of insane bullshit to cap off the week. There are just a couple of developments upon which I want to comment before I hit the hay, because this shit is more bananas than a hot tub full of macaques...

::By now, mayor Nagin's enraged radio interview is blowing up the blogosphere and even finding some above-the-fold coverage in the mainstream media. Good. This will hopefully impress upon the public how atrocious the conditions in NOLA really are.

::There's been a lot of yelling on TV lately, and amazingly none of it has involved Jon Stewart. Mainstream media defending the public's interest? Challenging authority? Veteran reporters breaking down on camera out of empathy? What the fuck is going on?!?

::Okay, no, really, THIS shit is bananas: the United States is accepting disaster relief aid from Jamaica, Sri Lanka, and the UN. And Canada is deploying troops to the US.

::In spite of all of the above, there are those who remain pathetically preoccupied with bullshit or just fucking out to lunch. Am I surprised that the two examples I've linked here are New Yorkers? No. But that's another kettle of fish entirely.

Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the lord more shit not to hit the fan overnight. Take care of each other, folks.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Apres Moi, Le Deluge...

All it took was a scant twenty minutes in front of CNN to boil my blood hotter than a pipe in a crackhouse. But I needn't let this devolve into just another blog of some asshole blowing smoke out his ears; lord only knows there are plenty of folks who do a fine job fighting the good fight.

After all, ain't this a music blog? (At least, isn't it supposed to be?) Then let's stay on point and get thematic. Point, click, and prick your ears...

::New Orleans must be abadoned, governor says
As over eighty percent of New Orleans was swallowed by sea-swell and broken levees, the governor of Lousiana has declared the city of 480,000 people unlivable for at least three months. "It's becoming untenable," said Gov. Kathleen Blanco. "It's getting more difficult to get food and water supplies in, just basic essentials."

("New Orleans Is Sinking" by the Tragically Hip)

::"I can only imagine that this is what Hiroshima looked like 60 years ago," said Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour after touring the destruction by air Tuesday.
Yeah, with the one minor difference between the two disasters being that Hiroshima was by man-made design, you ignorant hick. May the same atrocity never befall your country.

("Political Science" by Randy Newman)

::Lousiana Gov. Blanco declared August 31, 2005 a state-wide "day of prayer".
Because I guess seperation of church and state doesn't count for jack shit anymore. Don't laugh because I'm quoting Mark Wahlberg here, but how come we only ask ourselves the really big questions when something bad happens? And why do people turn to god for strength and guidance when he/she/it/dude just destroyed your fucking house? Why all the Credit but none of the Blame?

("Dear God" by XTC)

If those last two items weren't enough to grind my teeth, CNN treated us to a glib forty-five second encapsulation of the following...

::Over 800 people died in a stampede yesterday in Baghdad.
A rumour of a suicide bomber amidst a million shia pilgrims sparked a panic that led to massive casualties, mostly women and children. The greatest misfortune occured when a bridge railing collapsed, sending hundreds plummeting into the Tigris river.

And Our Network Of Record did not even treat us to that much detail of the tragedy. Evidently, you can't spin such a senseless accident into proof that the Terrorists Hate Our Freedom and so it's unworthy of further coverage. People dying in Iraq? That's not news! Quick, cut back to President George a.W.o.l. Bush waving from Air Force One and (I shit you not) some crying rednecks who tried to ride out the storm in their mobile home and - surprise - lost everything, including two family members.

To think at the beginning of the year, I heard people arrogant and callous enough to toss around the term "tsunami fatigue". Before we gasp collectively at the sinister speculation that Hurricane Katrina's final death toll will reach "most likely, thousands", let's remember that the death toll from the December 2004 disaster was up to...

two-hundred-and-fifty-thousand people.

Keep that in mind. Amen.