Tuesday, December 25, 2007

I Am the Gift!

Just 'cuz I'm such a nice guy (and I'm not making a living off it anyway), I'm offering everyone the yuletide treat of my brand-spankin'-new album, available in high-res MP3 format for absolootely free RIGHT FRIGGIN' HERE from now until New Year's.

You can also grab a couple o' sample MP3s from this other page, in case you're weary of committing to the whole kit-'n'-caboodle.

Happy ChrismaChanuKwanzakkah, people of earth!

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Happy Birthday, Uncle Frank

It's impossible for me to explain in full the impact Frank Zappa's had on my life. The simplest example I can give is that I date my musical taste "pre-" and "post-Frank." It was through his ideas & sounds that I first encountered Stravinsky, Varese, Boulez, musique concrete, bebop, Captain Beefheart, Tom Waits, Dadaism, the Velvet Underground, what "the clap" was, the Establishment Clause, "secular humanism," CNN's Crossfire, polyrhythmic improvisation, xenochrony, the PMRC, and (most fundamentally) the notion that humour did belong in music, but required a little more sophistication than Weird Al would have you believe.

All this from an impulse purchase using money for my 12th birthday. Who'd have thought a mild curiosity about a novelty record called "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow" could blast open such broad horizons.

Funnily enough, my parents were happy that Zappa was one of the ushers for my mental & cultural maturation (and not just 'cuz my Dad loves the guitar solo on "Willie the Pimp"). Sure, they've said, it means I make music too obtuse & experimental to ever be a rich rock star, but what a relief it was to have a son obsessed with a musician who didn't do drugs - and still made weirder music than anyone else.
"Information is not knowledge. Knowledge is not wisdom. Wisdom is not truth. Truth is not beauty. Beauty is not love. Love is not music. Music is THE BEST."~FZ

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Finally the Punk Rockers Are Reading Lacan

"The Real makes me sweaty, GEEAAAAAAAGH!!"

Might it seem like too much to ask complex themes of a band named Pissed Jeans? Maybe so, but then it also seemed like a tall order to expect of the Flaming Lips either longevity or symphonic singalongs back when they were dreadlocked ne’er-do-wells stealing onstage stunts from the Butthole Surfers. So let’s believe in the seemingly impossible, and maybe there’ll be a pleasant surprise or two.

As not-so-subtly alluded to in a recent post, Pissed Jeans are atop my current CD rotation. I came for the vintage pigfucker antagonism, but I’m staying for the ontologically-exploratory subject matter. I shit you not. Over the course of Hope For Men’s frenzied forty-some minutes, Pissed Jeans situate themselves in several different realities and find that none of them fit. They could be (very possibly by accident) the only active punk band searching for the Real in song.

Pissed Jeans start inside the imaginary and withdraw by steps towards objectivity. This is done with a meticulousness that belies their belligerence, in a trifecta of song that forms the centerpiece of Hope For Men. In the delightfully gonzo single “I’ve Still Got You (Ice Cream),” singer Matt Korvette grounds himself in the subjective bliss of, duh, eating ice cream. “Sometimes life is less than a dream,” he bellows, as though struggling for breath under the oppressive mundanity of daily routine. Employed as a claims adjuster (no shit, read the press release), Korvette has played by consensus reality’s rules and found it wanting. The only tonic for his existential angst can be found in the saccharine, numbing escape of his frozen treat: “The taste that all my troubles fall behind, a sweet bowl of sugar to ease my mind.” Though he acknowledges that he “shouldn’t need it,” that his ontological prison is of his own design, Korvette concedes with animal lust, “I gotta have it!” A considerably less sordid psychological crutch than, say, heroin, but a crutch nonetheless.

Discontented with the imaginary, Korvette sets about de-/reconstructing it to his liking. In “Scrapbooking,” he lays out his vision for a more perfect reality: “I’ll make every page different, but all pleasing to my eye.” The dubby piano dirge is laced with a refrain of self-hypnosis, “just looking at pictures,” pictures of Korvette’s past (“This one is old, from years ago…”) which form the architecture of his conscious. This, of course, echoes Roland Barthes' ruminations on photographs as lost time made tangible: forever frozen out of reach, somewhere between the Real and our personal reality. It's impossible to "recapture" anything from a photograph; rather, they remind us of what we missed (or is missing). But being memories on paper, photos can be cut, cropped, retouched, and arranged to suit our preferred vision of the past, and Korvette knows this. With total self-awareness that he “can rearrange [his] memories,” Korvette delights in uncannily restructuring his life: “Put the heads on different bodies,” he moans with depraved enjoyment.

Having become the designer of his own truth, Korvette returns his attention to the banality of normal life and sees it for what it is: a “Fantasy World.” Riding a monster truck riff for four minutes, Korvette’s gravel-gargling howl shreds through the shallow, illusory pleasures which most of the western world is content to call life. “I’m right here in my fantasy world… Sitting near piles of clothes, drinking a soda with a slice of pizza… Watching video tapes and cable television… I laugh at my own jokes in my fantasy world!” All of this could easily be read as a piss-take of some yokel’s pathetically stunted imagination (“LOL! This song’s about a total lamewad!”), but it’s precisely the mundanity of the fantasy that gives Korvette’s bark its bite. This isn’t just his fantasy world, this is our fantasy world – a blueprint bought from and sold back to us with Pepsodent smiles by advertisers, MTV, sitcoms, Hollywood, and FM radio. This is the debris and bullshit we’ve made the bedrock of our existence, tunnel vision and junk food, more stale than day-old Domino’s. This is our reality. It’s all we aspire to, and it’s all we get. The worst part: the longer the shadows cast by our picket-fence fantasy become (globalisation, extraordinary rendition, fundamentalism, Starbucks), the harder we close our eyes in the hope we won’t wake up from our American Dream.

No wonder Korvette sounds so pissed.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

God(less), What an Awful Racket

A frigid mid-November night in a Hamburg hostel with an empty wallet doesn’t offer many options in terms of entertainment. Either you try to chat up the Ukrainian cutie working the front desk, or, like me, you’re content channel-surfing on the tiny 8” TV chained to the wall above your bed. Luckily, a cultural news magazine had a segment about the somehow-still-nascent-yet-spreading Noise scene. There were a number of new faces (mostly Frenchmen with horrid haircuts) in addition to the usual cast of “marquee” Noise acts like Hair Police, Magic Is Kuntmaster, and Whitehouse. A larff though it was to see such sonic miscreants on prime-time TV, one thing Whitehouse mayor domo William Bennett said stuck out. I’m paraphrasing from memory:
“The way the audience reacts – they seem to be drawing things out of the music that we weren’t aware of. It says more about them than it does about us.”
So that’s where I was.

Meanwhile, I’d recently revisited Ian Svenonius’ brilliant book of screwball sociologly, The Psychic Soviet. Quite probably my favourite essay, “Rock and Rolligion,” deals literally with the parallels between major faiths and popular music. It’s not simply that each is an intricate (if often illogical) weave of rituals & values; the analogy is so immaculate that you can match Christian sects to respective rock subgenres. For starters, those greasy-pompadour’d rockabilly throwbacks are the Amish: history stopped at a certain point. Arena rock, with its emphasis on pomp & circumstance, is Roman Catholicism, while indie rock, with its semi-ascetic, guilt-driven work ethic, is 7th Day Adventism. The schismatic birth of Punk was equivalent to the Protestant reformation, and touring is doing missionary work. Similarly, hip-hop is Islam, with all of its competing constituent sects.

So that’s where my head was.

Now, the thing about Noise is that its tech-heavy cacophony is sufficiently abstract that, if you enjoy such sounds, you could feasibly be so entertained by traffic, wind, industrial plants, passing trains, the hiss of an untuned radio or TV. Some ham onstage with a table full of modded electronics is superfluous: raw sound becomes its own Art. There needn’t be a conscious creator pulling the strings. So a thought occurred to me…

Noise is the Atheism of Rock ‘n’ Rolligion.

Atheism is a rejection of many things – heirarchy, superstition – but foremost, it’s a rejection of a dogmatic interpretation of reality. Sense, perception, and experience can be judged subjectively, on their own merits without heeding an arbitrary set of criteria. Life can be glumly mechanical or viscerally poetic; a stoic procession according to scientific rationale, or an absurdly serendipitous success of a chemical cocktail. To squeeze the last sap from an overtapped cliché, beauty – or indeed its absence – is in the eye of the beholder.

All of which can also be said of Noise. Once the need for a conscious creator is rejected, then so too are tautological claims of truth or beauty. Dogmatic adherence to heirarchy & ceremony becomes delusional bufoonery. Sensory experience requires no mystical context to be enjoyed – so get to enjoyin’ it, ‘cuz what you see is all you’re gonna get.

Of course, some of the rituals and behaviours of the faithful are adopted by the faithless, but this is out of pragmatic deference to what is “socially acceptable.” A Noise concert, for example, would be like an Atheist celebrating Christmas: a decent excuse to get dressed up and congregate with those nearest & dearest to you (though this is sometimes more a chore than a pleasure).

This isn’t to say that there is no merit in the words or works of the faithful. There was a lot of wisdom in what both Jesus and Anton Newcombe have said, though I don’t necessarily agree with all of it, nor would I want to pattern my life precisely after theirs. Similarly, I appreciate the majestic contruction & meticulous design of both the National Cathedral and Pet Sounds, but neither betrays any more universal truth or higher aesthetic pleasure than, say, the spectrum-spanning eyefuck of Shibuya crossing or the whisper of falling snow.

But if nothing else, one parallel is unequivocal: Noise is as baffling to pop fans as Atheism is to the faithful. Always smacked with the same, stodgy old dismissal: What “art?” What “beliefs?” Isn’t the point that they don’t have any? Well, as the man said… if you have to ask, you’ll never know.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Bill Hicks

Happy Birthday.

Twin Peaks: Buy the Box Set With Me

She died for your sins... er, entertainment

During my interval of homelessness in Berlin, several acquaintances were kind enough to lend me their couches. Far be it from me to look a gift horse in the mouth (beggars can’t be etc.), but one of them had an ulterior motive: access to the second season of Twin Peaks I’d inexplicably decided to keep in my backpack. She’d only recently seen the first season, and had never seen Fire Walk With Me. Given the chance to watch the show without someone who had no idea who killed Laura Palmer, I was more than happy to proselytize. Good times.

Anyhoo, recently my wife was in touch with said acquaintance, who spent the better part of the conversation bragging about her recent purchase of the Twin Peaks “Gold Edition” dual-season boxset. O! the extras, she gushed. What a treat for true devotees…

For some reason, this bugged the shit out of me. But why? Shouldn’t I be pleased with any purchase that would put more money in the koffers of my favourite filmmaker? Or was I in fact the kind of commodity-fetishizing whore I spend most of my life lambasting?

Well… probably not. One of the benefits of moving between countries constantly is that it puts a premium on how material a person you can be. Moving’s expensive, stuff is heavy*, and if you’ve got internet access, there’s very little in terms of entertainment or media that can’t be had. After all, isn’t the defining feature of the so-called Information Age that the most valuable commodity is no longer material, but… information?

This is certainly why everyone seems to be an expert on everything these days. One-time cultural curios of specialized interest – Balkan brass, Zizek, Chan Wook-Park – make overnight entries into the lexicon thanks to the likes of Wikipedia, IMDB, YouTube, and viral blogging memes. As my wife once said, “There are no more questions, thanks to the Internet.” But as our cultural Darwinian drive has shifted from ovens & autos to MP3s and hit counts, so to has the superficiality. A great many rely on brand-name clout without caring about the particular criteria for quality. You know the type: they bought Ray-Bans in high school, insisted on attending an elite uni (be it MIT or RISD), and now name-check Takeshi Miike films or the new Justice album, without once wondering why (or even if) such things are impressive or important.

So perhaps my fit over the Twin Peaks box stems from a detail I’ve so far omitted: during one of those introductory, interest-exchanging conversations, the acquaintance launched the boomerang question of what movies I watched. Upon the mention of his name, she swooned, “Oh, I loooooooove David Lynch!” Yet at the time, she’d only seen Mulholland Drive. Dandy. I once spent 10 hours in the Auckland airport, but that doesn’t mean I know shit about New Zealand. She was a tourist, a squatter, and this rankled every proprietary bone in me.

How to guard against this kind of toe-dipping intrusion on my turf? Well, it would probably behoove me to acknowledge that ideas & information aren’t property and I can stop with the territorial pissings. But if something – an experience or work of art – becomes more common, what’s frustrating is not that it decreases in value (by what standards, anyway?) but that it increases in banality, mundanity, the Who-Gives-a-Fuck Factor. And that is a fate most ignaminious.

*For commodity fetishism at its worst, ask musicians about their gear. Yeesh.

Friday, December 14, 2007

The Great Deutscheland Swindle

Okay, so another month has whizzed by sans post, for which I apologize. I thought that maybe, just maybe, finally nailing down accomodations and signing up immediately for the internet would have meant I could get back to sharing my various incohate ramblings with y'all. Well, turns out it ain't that simple. But if the last four months have taught me anything, it's that nothing is as easy or simple as it should be in Germany.

The single greatest fallacy about this country is that Germans are efficient. Total, complete, and utter bullshit. I'm convinced that the myth took off sometime decades ago when one person misheard the word "officious." But don't take my word for it - just check out the Hamburg public transportation layout, or ask any foreigner about trying to get their tax ID so they could, y'know, get paid. Hell, try getting through any checkout line at the grocery store in under ten minutes.

The point is: I'm back online, and I've got a two-month backlog of material, so prepare for the floodgates to open. Red skies in the morning...