Tuesday, March 28, 2006

The Boy With the Stick Up His Ass

The only thing more inflated than his hair is his ego

"Hair of the Dog" - Nazareth
(from Hair of the Dog, 1975)

I like indie rock, ergo I'm a fan of the Smiths. However, something tasted sour about Morrissey's recent reemergence into the velvet blue of the spotllight. Perhaps its that the '80s Thatcherite England antihero has recast himself in the mold of the crusty crooning Vegas whore. Yeah, that was definitely part of it. Also, the solipsistic melodrama of songs like "How Could Anybody Possibly Know How I Feel" may have been fetching when Moz was in his twenties, but in his post-cocaine bloated forties, it wields all the emotional heft of a high school poetry professor's diary.

So leave it to Stephen to prove himself the once and future King of Self-Righteous Prigs when he declared war on Canada the other day. Like Paul "My Employees Are Contractual Vegans" McCartney before him, Morrissey is taking Canada to task for its annual seal cull by refusing to tour and urging a boycott of Canadian goods.

I'm not here to debate beating baby seals - though let's face it, if a baby seal had a face like a baboon's ass, no one would give a fuck. (Not to mention that, evironmentally, there are bigger fish to fry.) But let's have a quick look at the light in which Morrissey cast the Canadian government for sanctioning the seal cull:

"The Canadian Prime Minister also states that the slaughter is necessary because it provides jobs for local communities, but this is an ignorant reason for allowing such barbaric and cruel slaughter of beings that are denied life simply because somebody somewhere might want to wear their skin. Construction of German gas chambers also provided work for someone - this is not a moral or sound reason for allowing suffering.

...As things stand, Canada has placed itself alongside China as the cruelest and most self-serving nation."

Let me run that by you again: Hunting baby seals is morally equivalent to THE HOLOCAUST. Yeah. And apparently, we Canucks exhibit as little compassion and willingness to compromise as the world's largest military oligarchy.

This coming from a man who, for the past seven years, has maintained a residence in the United States - a country run by war criminals which also happens to be Morrissey's largest market. It's good to see some of that country's demagoguery and baldfaced hypocrisy have rubbed off on him.


Thursday, March 23, 2006

Better Music Through Chemistry

Thanks to a veritable landslide victory, this week's aurally-administered mental enhancement will be (as promised) epic junkie orchestral rock. Japanese jazzbo weirdness will have to wait until next week. (Yeah, I know only one vote was cast, but 1-0 is a shutout last I checked.)

"I Think I'm In Love" - Spiritualized
"Cop Shoot Cop" - Spiritualized
(both from Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating In Space, 1997)

The Unholy Trinity of Sex, Drugs, and Rock 'n' Roll is as old as debauchery itself. Indeed, whole genres (e.g. jazz, rock) have nicked their names from slang for sex, while chemically-enhanced merriment walked hand-in-hand with music long before the Drug Death Sweepstakes of the early '70s.

Myself, I've never engaged in any extrachemical activity, if only because reality is hard enough to process as it is. As a music fan, this affords me the advantage of technical objectivity: the Grateful Dead were always so meanderingly dull that I suspect you have to be fucked up to enjoy their aimless wankery. Similarly, it's easy to spot cocaine-bloated arrogance (I'm looking at you, Liam and Noel) from a mile away. But while many of my musical heroes were decidedly anti-drug (Frank Zappa, Fugazi), a frighteningly large amount of my collection was produced by serious heroin addicts. From Miles Davis to O.G. junkie Iggy Pop to twenty-year-user Nick Cave, many of my favourite records were made by artists single-handedly supporting the Afghan economy.

I'm not naive or stupid enough to give the chemicals credit for an artist's creativity. The fact is, though, that drugs physically alter perception, therefore causing a different reaction to external stimuli. (You know those Van Gogh paintings we all love so much? That colourful mottle isn't "creative license," that's how he actually saw that shit.) And there is something about the music produced by heroin addicts that I find incredibly appealing. Let's compare and contrast, shall we?

::Marijuana (See Fu Manchu, Snoop Dogg, Bob Marley)
Music characterized by - An emphasis on repitition, heavy low-end, a narcissistic obsession with one's own pleasure, and ad nauseum references to the drug itself. Usually melodically unconvincing.

::Cocaine (See Fleetwood Mac, Oasis, Duran Duran)
Music characterized by - Luxe production value, tweeter-shredding treble, and preposterous self-importance. Makes frequent use of arena-sized sing-along choruses.

::Heroin (See the Velvet Underground, the Birthday Party, Nirvana)
Music characterized by - Constant contrast between succinct pop songcraft and listen-unfriendly feedback and seasick drones. Distortion drives the instruments, while hoarse-throated emotion fuels the vocals. Lyrical hallmarks include appeals for redemption and transendence while wallowing in dark spiritual (and literal) mire.

This is clearly a matter of personal taste, but if I was in a record store in 1977 and had a choice between the Eagles' "Hotel California" (emotionally cheap arena-rock pomp - COKE) and Iggy Pop's "Mass Production" (epic, equilibrium-destroying drone-rock nihilism - HEROIN), Ian Curtis and I would at least have our listening habits in common.

One musician with the dubious distinction of having a habit that's extended as long as his career is Jason Pierce, better known as J. Spaceman. Pierce spent the latter half of the '80s leading fuzzbox fanatics Spacemen 3, a rock band so reductivist that they made "Sister Ray" sound downright symphonic. Following that band's ugly dissolution, Pierce immediately launched the vessel he still captains to this day, Spiritualized. When their debut full-length, Lazer Guided Melodies, was released, Pierce had grown dissatisfied with the racket guitars alone were capable of. Over the subsequent decade, each new release would recruit an extra gospel choir, string quartet, horn section, or whatever session players were kicking around that day. By the time 2001's Let It Come Down was out, Pierce had almost completely sacrificed his band's fiery volatility for supersaccharine overorchestration.

But along the continuum between single-chord scuzzrock seances and self-indulgent symphonic prog, there is a sweet spot, and Pierce nailed it perfectly in 1997. Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating In Space was a disorienting space-rock symphony somewhere between Sonic Youth and OK Computer. From the tremolo-soaked titular fugue to the delicate eye of "Home of the Brave's" emotional storm, the album is as awesome a conceptual beast as anything Pink Floyd accomplished - even better, dare I say. Truth is that there's a single song from any Floyd album I'd consider classic, where as Ladies and Gentlemen... has two.

The trick is that, as with any love song penned by a junkie, it's hard to tell to what these two songs are more dedicated: the woman or the drug. "I Think I'm In Love" shines with all the promise and potential energy of a new morning, as Pierce basks in the sunlight, but it's actually a self-deluded escape. We can hear the drug hit when the song blasts off around the 2:35 mark, propelled by percussion and a loping organ loop. Pierce undercuts his overconfidence with a smirking acceptance that it's a junk-induced illusion: "I think I'm on fire, but probably just smoking."

Most harrowing, though, is the album's epic closer, "Cop Shoot Cop." Lent a hand by Dr. John's nocturnal blues piano, the 17-minute masterpiece is a guided tour through the spiritual convulsions of an addict. The song literally nods off after two minutes, before Pierce's vocals rouse the music back into consciousness. His dry ruminations on redemption and depression grasp at the divine but are chained to the profane, interrupted by intermittent violent fits of howling guitar and assaultive drums before finally collapsing into a a six minute psychotic episode of unmitigated noise. The chaos continues to crescendo far longer than possibly expected, until all hope of a coherent conclusion is forfeit. Only then, when hope is exhausted, does Pierce retreat into the song's keystone vamp. The battle is lost, and Pierce surrenders himself to his fate, both narcotic and romantic, with a whispered promise: "I will love you... I will love you... I will love you..."

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Even Liars Tell the Truth Sometimes

"Us, retro?" The Guardian calls them "a Norwegian band who are to Primal Scream and the Mary Chain what Primal Scream and the Mary Chain were to the Velvets and the Stones."

"Selena's Melodie Fountain" - Serena Maneesh
"Your Blood In Mine" - Serena Maneesh
(from their eponymous debut)

If there's a purpose to the internet beyond pornography, it's to berate and deride others' opinions mercilessly. Which is a game I'm more than willing to play: if you can take it, dishing it out is like shooting fish in a barrel. Bullets can't hurt you if you're metal-plated.

Of course, sometimes the melee gets a little muddled, and perhaps certain things are said that needn't be. I'd been wondering if perhaps I've been too harsh on ubiquitous hipster wunderkind Nick Sylvester. For those unfamiliar, Sylvester is a Grand Poobah of Hyperbole, a master of the masturbatory metacriticism which Pitchfork helped define. More in love with his own language than interested in offering coherent criteria for his criticism, Sylvester's various offenses include...

::self-congratulatory writing that comes off more clumsy than creative.
::perpetually playing it safe with average album ratings ("3 Stars means never having to say you're sorry!") while only dropping the bomb on obvious atrocities.
:: inevitable, slavish devotion to the overrated esoteric bands he finds before everyone else.

But even a blind man at a dart board will occassionaly hit the target. Once in a blue moon, Sylvester unearths a true gem of a band, the most recent of which is Serena Maneesh. When I read Sylvester's self-consciously epic/epochal review of their eponymous debut, I doubted how impressive the album would be. I knew this "only melody that matters this fall" would be in accordance with Sylvester's obession with female-voiced, breathily-cooed naivete, and I wasn't about to get burned again by some mediocre band compared to MBV for strumming overdriven open-string chords. "This is probably just another art-school dropout act who carry Psychocandy in one hand and Daydream Nation in the other," I thought, "Just to tide people over until that Arctic Monkeys LP drops."

Fast-forward a few months, and I'm reading Tom Breihan's blog on the Village Voice where, lo and behold, is a review of Serena Maneesh's live debut in the Big Apple. I scan the opening sentence...

"Here's something weird about Serena Maneesh: they play loud, like really loud, like louder than SunnO))), loud to the point where it's physically uncomfortable to be at their show..."

...and I'm already sold, because Serena Maneesh get it. They understand that the secret to Kevin Shields' sound wasn't simply distortion under echo, but sheer gut-shattering VOLUME - sound as a physically transformative medium. The reason Shoegaze failed as a movement is because all the bands leaned more towards the Cocteau Twins than the Jesus and Mary Chain, all sounding like a limp-wristed return to the womb. Even to this day, people prize Loveless more for its pillowy ambience than its serrated, bed-of-nails overdrive.

But such is not the case with Serena Maneesh. Who'd have thought that a bunch of Norwegian dandies who dress like psychedelic pirates would have struck the most perfect balance between pop and apocalyptic noise in fifteen years?

Given that Serena Maneesh has garnered more spins in my stereo than the rest of my collection combined so far this year, I'd felt indebted to Nick Sylvester. After all, for every ten times he's wrong, he is sometimes so, so right. Of course, as I'm about to write this online love letter to Mr. Sylvester, this story breaks. In the week ensuent, Sylvester's, uh, "creative liberties" have cost him his pedestal atop the Pitchfork roster and he's been suspended from the Voice after a public spanking.

Really, Nick... fabricating material? On a story about singles bars? Shit, I wrote a cover story too and didn't need to make anything up. Come on, son.

PS:: What would y'all like to hear next - some Japanese jazzbo weirdness or epic junkie orchestral rock? Let me know your vote via the comments, please.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

The Best Practical Joke You've Ever Heard

"Does anyone here remember laughter?!"

I suppose we're due for a new post here, but I'm feeling a bit lazy, so reproduced below is my review of the Ging Nang Boyz' major-label debut that the good folks at TMT printed last week. I realize what an e-faux-pas it may be to quote myself so extensively, but to heighten the experience, I've included the two songs discussed in the review. Enjoy, and say goodbye to your eardrums.

"Baby Baby" - Ging Nang Boyz
"Nipponjin" - Ging Nang Boyz

I’d resigned myself to an evening indoors watching TV when my channel-surfing crested on MTV Japan. Under the caffeinated chatter of the obese greaser VJ chugged some J-pop power ballad, shellacked in enough gloss to make My Chemical Romance sound “raw.” As I vegetated in front of the screen, my attention was seduced by the gliding melodies and rolling chord changes. There was something perennial about the chorus as it blossomed in my ears, full of doe-eyed romance and teenage histrionics. This was classic doo-wop dressed in distortion, a pop vocal standard channeled by kids in ripped jeans. This was a catchy song! A subtitle below the VJ’s belly revealed that it was “Baby Baby” from the recent release by the Ging Nang Boyz.

A short while later, I sat with the CD in my hands. Sure enough, staring back from the album cover was the caricature of a sapphire-eyed, ruby-lipped blonde, the Excalibur of every teenage boy. “Let’s hope these lads write as well as they play lovesick,” I thought as I turned on my stereo. No more than three words escaped the singer’s velvet throat before he screamed like he was deep-throating a chainsaw and the band came crashing in with the subtlety of a blitzkireg. Technical accuracy, rhythmic durability, harmony, and dignity all leapt out the window, screaming and hopeless. This ninety-second opening salvo, “Nipponjin,” put a shotgun to the head of everything the Berklee College of Music teaches, an unapologetic orgy of anti-music.

I’d been punked. And I couldn’t have laughed harder.

Any guilt my inner Avant-Snob felt for picking up a pop-punk band was quickly allayed. Butchered chords, unplanned tempo shifts, and hopelessly unhinged vocals riddled the record. Magnifying the mess was the deliberately rough production, bloating and scorching the songs like a marshmallow left in a microwave. The three “ballads” (“Baby Baby,” “Drifting Classroom,” and an acoustic number) stick out like bone china in a sink of dirty dishes, but they proved the band’s competence. When Ging Nang Boyz bothered to hit their marks, they were capable of crafting memorable melodies and superb pop songs. This hidden knack for hooks rendered the record wholly listenable, an album both Burt Bacharach and Bad Brains could enjoy. Granted, at 14 songs, some fat could have been trimmed from the tracklist, but hey, there are certain pop-punk acts who by rights shouldn’t exist at all.

And to think I owe this discovery to MTV. Laugh if you like, but that’s the last time I judge a band by its single.

(Courtesy of myself and Tiny Mix Tapes)