Friday, December 31, 2010

War of Attrition on the Listener's Attention

As irresistible as list-making may be, it presents a problem that I've purchased precisely zero albums released within the last calendar year. I've been given quite a few records by friends, but I can't convince myself (let alone anyone else) that the best albums of 2010 happen to be by all my buddies' bands, whom you've never heard.

But I've not been incurious as a listener; I think I've explored a wider array of new sounds than I have in at least several years. It just so happens that almost none of this exploration has been contemporary - not that contemporary music has encouraged me to explore it much. (Seriously, with Best-Of lists like these, who needs Worst-Of lists?) Thanks to the Internet's obliteration of the over-/underground divide, even the most subterranean acts are tempted by the possibility of a pop crossover, implicitly depressing experimental daring.

The other problem posed by the Internet is what Patton Oswalt dubs "etewaf": Everything That Ever Was - Available Forever. New musicians must compete not only with each other, but with the sum-total of musical history which is now but a right-click away. Rather than liberating listeners from the dull hegemony of current trends, this suffocates them with option paralysis. From this, the modern audience appears to bifurcate into obedient contemporaneity on one hand, conservative retrovision on the other.

This presents career-minded musicians with three wholly unpleasant options:
  • Craft face-punchingly moronic Aspartame pop that seizes listeners within the first 30 seconds and fails to disappoint by going precisely nowhere.
  • Pattern your tunes after a tried-and-true template (be it Springsteen, Toni Basil, or Klaus Schulze) with plagiaristic fidelity.
  • Give up and enjoy your obscurity.
And the first two options all but guarantee music that is dogmatically diatonic, rhythmically regular, and grindingly dull.

Many would argue that the very curse of the internet is its blessing: everything that ever was - available forever! But, as Oswalt explains, "that creates weak otakus. Etewaf doesn’t produce a new generation of artists — just an army of sated consumers. Why create anything new when there’s a mountain of freshly excavated pop culture to recut, repurpose, and manipulate on your iMovie?" Indeed, this is the fundamental problem of the digital environment in general, as Jodi Dean elaborates in her brilliant book, Blog Theory: authority tells the subject what to do, what to desire, how to structure its choices. Žižek argues, however, that in fact the result of the Master's decline is unbearable, suffocating closure. The online environment Second Life clearly demonstrates this closure: able to do or create anything (there aren't even laws of gravity), the majority of users end up with avatars that are sexier versions of themselves walking around shopping, gambling, fixing up their houses, and trying to meet people ("meet" can be read euphemistically here). It's not only boring - it's stifling as it confronts users with their lack of skills and imagination.
To be sure, there are those (myself included) to whom "etewaf" has been a boon. Anyone with a dram more discipline than the average subcultural tourist has access to whole goldmines that before were largely inaccessible by time, distance, and/or cost. Then again, we're the very people who, in Ye Olde Offline Times, had the curiosity & dedication to pursue our niche manias despite the prohibitions of time, distance, and/or cost.

As such, my chief means of musical exploration is the same now as fifteen years ago: talking with friends nerdier than myself. Ergo, to give credit where it's truly due, here are the top 5 influences upon my listening habits across 2010.

1. Watching Too Many Old Movies

As I mentioned a month ago, I was recently inducted into the gruesome world of giallo cinema. What's odd is the genre's initial appeal lies not in its cinematic strengths (which, depending on the film, are frequently few) but in its soundtracks. The friend who introduced me to gialli made no attempt to sell the genre on its Swiss-cheese screenwriting or Mexican soap-opera acting; instead, he pointed me towards the tonal warp of Bruno Nicolai's strings and the violent arrhythmia of Ennio Morricone's scores for Dario Argento.

If a score was particularly striking, I'd actually get around to watching the movie. Occasionally, the movie would exceed my (admittedly minimal) capacity for guts 'n' gore, which sent me in search of less graphic films of the same vintage. Spy thrillers fit this bill perfectly, from the cartoonish Danger: Diabolik to the more cultivated Harry Palmer trilogy. What these films held in common with the gialli is that the soundtracks often outstripped the films themselves in quality - especially John Barry's ominously exotic score for The IPCRESS File.

2. Co-Producing a Hip-Hop Album

The friend who introduced me to the giallo films had an ulterior interest in their obscure & outlandish scores: as a largely-untapped source of samples. For a couple of years, he's been quietly piecing together a hip-hop album that, even in its unfinished state, is more musically compelling than damn near any album since Fantastic Damage. I was flattered & a little intimidated when he asked me to help sculpt the record's sound, given that I'd yet to produce any hip-hop. This prompted me to research as much left-of-center hip-hop as I could handle, starting with prolific oddballs Madlib and his brother Michael "Oh No" Jackson. Though their total lack of self-editing makes for an uneven discography, I far prefer their analog grime to the slick digital minimalism that currently dominates mainstream hip-hop.

3. Talking To Other Bands On Tour

Obviously, what I've enjoyed the most about being back on the road is playing gigs. But it's also the perfect idiom to geek out as a listener - after all, what greater music nerds than musicians themselves? Our March tour with Lostage was especially enjoyable, whether it was comparing the spoils of some dedicated crate-digging (Karp for ¥300!) or turning each other on to unfamiliar acts. I'm especially grateful for the introduction to Z, whom I became immediately convinced are the best band in Japan.

4. Attending Salford University's Noise Conference

When in spring I blagged my way into an academic conference on "noise," it became suddenly incumbent that I know what I was talking about. I've never actually been a great fan of noise music: I usually find it either a pompous incursion into the "unintentional" soundworld, or just plain boring. But if I was going to participate in a 3-day conference on the subject, I'd better be on more intimate terms with it than merely having attended a My Bloody Valentine concert. Mercifully, I'd chose to focus primarily on the No Wave scene, whose "noise" was less noise outright and more about the expansive blurring of rock's outermost boundaries. This way, I got to listen to my Swans & Sonic Youth records on loop and legitimately call it "research."

The conference itself was every bit the brain-massage I'd hoped. Not only did everyone have something interesting to say, they were quite affable & easy-going. I was thrilled to have found a social milieu where the slurry pub talk would be about, say, the apparent dearth of right-wing prog rock. This niche of ne plus ultra nerdom also exposed me to musical cul-de-sacs of which I had no previous knowledge. Who knew that the Madchester sound owed its very existence to the early-'80s Sheffield scene, and why hadn't they told me before about long-forgotten visionary acts like Hula?

5. Not Being Sated By All the Above

Finally, the maniac's calling card is that there is never enough. Despite musical riches heaped upon my ears by the above experiences, I still craved more strange sounds, more uncharted territory, more unfamiliar artists - which is why I have to acknowledge a certain debt to the "etewaf" phenomenon. Between online retailers like the unequaled Aquarius Records and such appetent blogs as Son of Zamboni, Dayvan Zombear, and OngakuBaka, I became acquainted with countless enthralling artists I'd not yet had the pleasure of hearing: library funkmeister Janko Nilovic, space-rock svengali Walter Wegmüller, Ulaan Khol's rustic soundscapes, and (possibly my most oft-spun album of 2010) Getatchew Mekurya's barnburning collaboration with Dutch post-punks The Ex. I eagerly anticipate what exotic & intriguing sounds I'll be exposed to in the coming year.

And to you, I give a small cross-section of the fruits of the explorations detailed above. Click on the mix title to download, and all the best for 2011.

The War of Attrition On the Listener's Attention

1. John Barry - "Main Title" from The IPCRESS File OST
2. Tyler, the Creator - "French!"
3. Karp - "Forget the Minions"
4. Sonic Youth - "Major Label Chicken Feed"
5. Hula - "Red Mirror"
6. Ennio Morricone - "Trafelato" from Giornata Nera Per l'Ariete OST
7. Walter Wegmüller - "Der Wagen"
8. Getatchew Mekurya & the Ex - "Ethiopia Hagere"
9. Oh No - "Smoky Winds"
10. Z - "新今日"

Saturday, December 25, 2010

My Connection to the Second Resurrection

Two years ago, I sat in our emptied Hamburg apartment, wiling away a few idle hours before our red-eye flight to Baltimore. Feeling productive but a bit blighted for inspiration, I hammered out what could be charitably considered a seasonal cover version of the Brian Jonestown Massacre classic, "Jesus". I posted it on this blog, but that link has long since gone dead and I've now gotten hip to this "streaming" business, so I present my meager gift to you...

Jesus by Seb Roberts

Happy holidays, whatever your spiritual proclivities may be. I shall return with more shortly.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Defined As Disorientation Or a Change of Scenery

Well, I've made good on my promise to crank out that "sketchbook of improvised production exercises." Upon hearing it, my bandmates joked that I need to start grading my records - Rogues Gallery for beginners, Dépaysement for experts - lest some guileless listener looking for Shellac-like sturm und drang get stuck with an album of swampy, tuneless arrhythmia.

Not that the new album is impossibly uneasy listening; I haven't broken any rules left intact by either Brian Eno or the past generation of post-rockers. But Dépaysement would upset anyone looking for the relative concision & geometric construction of my last couple o' albums. On the other hand, the miasmic feedback & undulating drones provide the perfect soundtrack to that long dusky drive, jetlag-enabled insomnia, or snowbound solitude many of us face in the coming weeks.

And with that, I'll catch you all on the other side my own long-haul holiday transition. Pray the TSA doesn't take a dislike to my bearded countenance.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Invasion and Occupation of the Ears

As I explained in my last post, the late fall frequently finds me seeking a little distance from the outside world. While this is usually accomplished by adopting a new hobby or subcultural fascination, I just as often self-impose arbitrary & unrealistic deadlines for mammoth projects - as though Death's icy grip will close faster around my throat if I don't release two albums and a 7" by New Year's Eve. Perhaps I'm terrified of being without braggable exploits during the inevitable holiday reunions with old acquaintances. On the other hand, if I manage total consistency for another decade, what is underwhelming now will have become gloriously eccentric: an artsy polymath circa 30, without a stable income since his early twenties, is just some pseudo-bohemian loser - but when you're knocking on 40's door, dude, you're Daniel Higgs.

I digress. The point is that, several months ago, I sat down and assigned myself several large projects with little chance they'd all be completed by the late-December cutoff. What's amazing is that I might actually succeed.
  • After intermittent recording over the autumn, my band finally completed an album's worth of demos, from which we selected a well-matched pair of songs for a quick 'n' gritty 7" single; I placed the order with the pressing plant yesterday, in time to get the test pressings back before Christmas.
  • What started as a sonic sketchbook of improvised production exercises somehow coalesced into an album. I should have it pressed up in time for a run of shows coming next week, though I'm not sure if a bunch of post-hardcore kids & aging alts will be very interested in my bogus Frippery. Maybe Kranky will release it and I can start doing improv gigs with Fennesz.
  • Meanwhile, I overstepped my musical bounds by several strides and decided to *ahem* make beats. This was largely out of frustration with the likes of Doom, Madlib, and Oh No, whose releases are maddeningly half-brilliant, half-baked. Instead of groaning when a banger like "Gazillion Ear" is followed up by filler like "Ballskin", why not just stitch together a solid 30 minutes of samples that I already like?
Only that last project is unlikely to see light before year's end, but at least sample-splicing and beat-tweaking will keep me busy during the dull moments of the holiday season.

Consequently, my ears have been worked into callused stumps. Demo recording was especially exciting and excrutiating: what could've been a no-frills rehearsal recording ballooned into a kitchen-sink production exercise. I suspect this was because our bassist (the veteran of the band) was "auditioning" me to engineer our album when we record in earnest next year; more likely, though, no one had a clue what "our sound" is. ("This song is kinda PiL-ish, but that song should sound like a track from Goo.") To accomodate diverse stylistic demands, from song to song I aped different engineer's signature styles - some Alan Moulder here, a dash of Andy Johns there, and more than a little Steve Albini throughout. This was made difficult by a paltry selection of microphones and a limited number of inputs. Alone, either one of these doesn't hopelessly hamstring a recording. After all, The Beatles & George Martin were able to craft Sgt. Pepper's on four tracks - but they had several-thousand-dollar microphones and outboard gear almost worth killing for. Conversely, Slayer's epic Reign In Blood was recorded almost entirely with cheap, small-diaphragm dynamic mics - but with 24 tracks all blazing at once. I, on the other hand, was trying to siphon torrents of sound through a bunch of Beta-57s into 8 tracks - not quite as difficult as trying to part the Red Sea with a teaspoon & a paper fan, but almost.

Excuses aside, everyone was (mercifully) pleased with the results.

As maddening as handicapped recording sessions can be, they stage incredible games of mental chess. Technical limitations force ingenuity, while inspiring "what if?" scenarios for the next step. For example, now that I've managed to achieve a decent three-mic drum sound, will I record the drums differently when I have 16 simultaneous inputs available? Would an ORTF stereo pair or an M-S setup sound better in this room? Why not run the bass through a Marshall and the guitar through an Ampeg?

The process provoked me to revisit my old recording textbooks, not to mention it's given me renewed concentration as a music listener. Studying every whisper & crash that comes out of my speakers has reminded me of the oft-forgotten distinction between engineering and production: engineering is material, the nuts-'n'-bolts mechanical documentation of a sound, whereas production is metaphysical, the sculpture of music's intangible qualities. The two are commonly confused, if only because it's tempting to assign why music moves us emotionally to its material qualities.

Take Steely Dan, a band renowned for their meticulously-constructed records which sound as clear & smooth as a fine Scotch. I've always found them too clinical, distant, dull. Presumably, Becker & Fagen don't mean their music to have all the vitality of a dead sturgeon, so as productions, are they failures?

Meanwhile, there's plenty of deliberately ugly music out there - from black metal's treble-heavy buzz to the speaker-exploding grit of Brainbombs or the Psychic Paramount. While such records are ostensibly examples of "bad recording," it's obvious that these acts want to sound repellent, and their audial odiousness is the very reason why some listeners love them and others loathe them. Thus, as productions, does such music succeed even when repulsing a portion of its audience?

(Image from
Clearly, cleaving between engineering & production is so difficult because the two are entwined, each serving to support or spoil the other. Those krautrock classics by Neu, Kraftwerk, and Ashra inspire visions of a futurist technotopia so effortlessly because of their painstaking, state-of-the-art construction. Likewise, the Wu-Tang Clan's debut remains a touchstone of rough, streetwise hip-hop because it sounds rougher than a spiked bat.

Ah, but what's missing from the equation? The performance, the very thing being documented. A good performance is immediate & unmistakable; it almost requires concerted effort to record a strong performer so badly that no one would listen to it. The engineer's job is to prepare the physical environment & tools necessary to capture a good performance, whereas the producer's job is to enable a good performance. The producer is the architect of the soundworld in which the performer will be most at home. This may sounds nebulous & variegated, because it is, which is why no two producers work in precisely the same fashion. Many performers produce themselves, feeling (sometimes erroneously) that outside influence only interferes. Some producers are technical taskmasters, detail-oriented drill sergeants; others, like Rick Rubin, are closer to "life coaches," therapist-cum-sycophants who coax & cajole performers into their comfort zone. Arguably the most interesting are those producers who purposefully antagonize & nettle the performers, aware that certain artists thrive on adversity & discomfort.

So with everything that goes into a recording, it's galling that there are musicians who I don't feel have ever been produced perfectly. I don't necessarily mean "recorded badly" in that it sounds like a shit-caked dictaphone, but rather the artist was framed in a soundworld where they were not at home. As much as I adore Bowie's Berlin trilogy, those albums have always sounded a bit flat & musty, like old cardboard, as though the whole band was crammed into a single three-meter-wide, drywalled room. Station To Station is much more effectively layered in its arrangements, though musically it's nowhere near as coherent or compelling. I've also never been entirely satisfied with how The Fall or Sonic Youth have been recorded. They each came close to finding their pitch-perfect space for a single album in the '80s (The Wonderful and Frightening World and EVOL respectively), but sadly got lost again afterward. When they finally arrived (Fall Heads Roll and Washing Machine), their most striking innovations were long behind them.

At any rate, below is a mix of songs that, to me, strike the perfect balance between a strong performance and engineering that serves to create a distinctive, vivid soundworld.

Master Sculptors

1. Brian Eno - "Sky Saw"
2. Ashra - "77 Slightly Delayed"
3. D'Angelo - "Playa Playa"
4. Can - "Oh Yeah"
5. Wu-Tang Clan - "Bring Da Ruckus"
6. Nino Rota - "O Venezia, Venega, Venusia"
7. Bachi Da Pietra - "Altri Guasti"
8. The Jesus Lizard - "Seasick"
9. Scott Walker - "Clara"
10. My Bloody Valentine - "Come In Alone"

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Invasion and Occupation of the Eyes

Oh, hello, December! What's happening? A lot, it seems. Living away from America, I hope Thanksgiving, Black Friday, and Kanyemaggedon will forgive my failed attention. I doubt such foggy disinterest would be excused by the swarming ragazzi of the biggest student revolt since '68 - believe me, lads, I'm with you but allow yourself a fleeting, sunny moment of feeling not oppressed and check what your comrades across the pond are paying for their diplomas. Oh, and the latest WikiLeaks Deep Horizon impersonation a la classe diplomatique? I could outshrug James Dean. Let's not be so naïve or obtuse to pretend that politics is anything other than Heathers with heavier weaponry. Speaking of which, if anything should've roused my rancor and set my keyboard aflame, it was last week's bitchfight on the Korean peninsula. At the time, I plucked out a paltry paragraph 'n' a half (since pruned & posted) before returning to more immediately pressing matters. (Hey, if Kim Jong-Il hucks a scud at Roppongi Hills, ain't shit I can do about it. Then again, I wouldn't particularly mind if Roppongi was wiped off the map...)

Somewhere amidst the carnivaliance of Halloween, the apocalyptic blue-balls of American mid-term elections, and the first flurry of year-end retrospectives, my mood cools quicker than the weather. The hysteric tenor and short-frame nostalgia of late fall usually encourages me to close the blinds and batten the hatches until familial obligation bunker-busts my castle of quiet. To justify my withdrawal, I'll usually find some arcane cultural pocket I've yet to explore, and dive in with all the fervor of the newly converted. Two years ago, it was The Prisoner. This year, it's been '60s and '70s thrillers - particularly Italy's infamous proto-slasher mystical murder mysteries. I was nudged towards the giallo genre merely by how bad-ass so many of the soundtracks are. As a good friend & certified giallo junkie argued, Morricone, Piccioni, and Nicolai would likely have been happy composing spaghetti twang & crushed velvet lounge until they kicked their respective buckets. But musically ventriloquising blood-lusty Freudian train-wrecks thrust the composers into savage, alien territory from which almost all contemporary films scores have meekly retreated.

By the way, when I say "train-wrecks," I'm speaking of the general emotional state of gialli characters - but fuck it, I could just as easily be talking about the acting, writing, or editing in many instances. As much as they contributed to film's stylistic lexicon, Mario Bava and Dario Argento's work is more uneven than a Himalayan driveway. Argento appears especially half-talented: his stories piece together with all the finesse & balance of Ikea furniture minus the instructions, and he often cast actors that make the "Garbage day!" guy look like Al Pacino.

But I confess to being a timid tourist within giallo flicks. My tolerance for torture & gore doesn't extend much beyond the Resevoir Dogs "ear scene," so a great many movies by Bava, Fulci, et al. fall far outside my ken. Besides, I'd be slightly concerned if my wife felt Twitch of the Death Nerve was appropriate nightcap viewing. Capers & whodunnits are more our mutual speed. We recently revisited the spy-thriller trilogy that made Michael Caine's career: The IPCRESS File, Funeral In Berlin, and Billion Dollar Brain. I had some misty memory of that last movie from my distant youth, but again, I was shoved towards the movies by a fantastic soundtrack. John Barry's IPCRESS score isn't nearly as iconic as his 007 theme, but the musical contrasts perfectly articulate the discrepancies between James Bond and Harry Palmer: the former is obvious, brassy, crowd-pleasing bombast, while the latter is more clever, subtly variegated, and heavily shaded.

The real fun of old films, of course, is picking apart the archaic behavior & periodic fascinations contained therein. Sub- and paratextual deconstruction is obviously not restricted to artifacts: I'm as curious as anyone if the contemporary "Never Say No to Panda" ads purposefully describe an atmosphere of coercion & violent retribution under Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. But movies are marvelous time capsules for those of us born too late: whereas American slasher flicks of the '80s enacted vengeance upon sex-&-drugs dissolution, the giallo films of the '60s and '70s explored the terrifying conjunction of sex and violence. (Meanwhile, both subgenres frame female sexuality in a questionable, threatening way.) The Harry Palmer trilogy is likewise a fascinating glimpse into England's reluctant, conflicted position within the Cold War, particularly Billion Dollar Brain: the dry, skeptical Brit protagonist is sandwiched between duplicitous, smug Eastern Bloc authoritarians and the (ostensibly worse) Americans, who are either criminal opportunists or messianic madmen driven towards Wagnerian confrontation.

However, what I enjoyed the most was the nagging requisition of the British bureaucracy upon Palmer & his MI5 cohorts. As much as they grumble about the imposition posed by their paperwork, the steadfast observance of protocol appears the only safe route between the militarist East and the wild, wild West.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

If I should die before I wake, would I really notice?

The only thing worse than a dude with a Napoleon complex is a senile megalomaniac and his son the shaved Ewok with both a Napoleon complex and a rusting Soviet arsenal at their command.

I suppose it bears remarking that the neighbours are having a moment. What's the odd artillery shell between (bitter, estranged) brothers, right? Well, now that the global balance of power is - regionally, if not nationally - up for grabs, no government wants to look soft, especially when their assailant is the maniacal, mangy village idiot starved halfway to madness. So, in the international game of King of the Hill, soft power & compromise take a backseat to saloon diplomacy, which is unhelpful to those of us who wish neither to be shot or blown up, nor to shoot or blow up other people.

But I'll be damned surprised if this fracas leads to war. North Korea's only ally is China, while South Korea have been occupied by an American military presence for over fifty years. Both China and the U.S. stand to lose their asses if Sino-American relations turn actively antagonistic: how could American remain in China's financial pocket if Americans stop buying all the cheap shit the Chinese manufacture, which in turn fosters the economic growth that allows China to buy up U.S. debt? Who would want to disturb that glorious Moebius-strip of bitter commercial codependency?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

We Mean It, Man

I must be more obtuse (or idealistic?) than I expected, 'cuz I didn't realize that some people were genuinely perturbed by Odd Future's patently sociopathic content. The self-styled vanguardistes at the Village Voice - surely eager to spare their liberal patrons' delicate sensibilities - are now sweating the same stale vapors that a musical group heralds the collapse of decent society by advocating "abominable acts of murder, kidnapping, blasphemy, and rape." Granted, unlike most previous musical Horsemen of the Apocalypse (cf Elvis, Black Sabbath, Prince), Odd Future do actually rap about murder, kidnapping, and rape. But many of the same writers who are now concern-trolling Odd Future were, mere months ago, performing the most absurd moral Chinese algebra to justify M.I.A.'s nebulously pro-terrorist politics. What, has months of midterm-fueled Tea Party xenophobia impoverished everyone's sense of humour?

One of the base assumptions seems to be that Tyler the Creator & Co. misunderstand their own malevolence - which is just silly. Tyler closes the second track on Bastard with the deadpan punchline, "As you can tell by listening to this record, I was probably angry... I didn't mean to offend anyone. Alright, I'm lying!" Odd Future are keenly aware of structural violence in the same way that Nick Sylvester claimed M.I.A. is: anyone who emblazons "Fuck 'Em All" atop of photo of Mussolini understands that vindictive, solipsistic cultural works buttress a coercive, bulldozer politics.

What's missing from the conversation is context. The surreal pranksterism of their videos and the deliberately repulsive content of their lyrics suggest that Odd Future are the first all-Troll hip-hop group, and by Troll logic, any reaction is better than none. You find them a hilarious shot in the arm of hip-hop dulled by materialism and "keeping it street"? They win. You find them a horrific example of cultural necrosis? They win. It just happens that bad reactions are way easier to elicit than good ones.

One of the weaker defenses of Odd Future's content is that they haven't really raped, kidnapped, or killed anyone, but this confuses talking about something with encouraging it. Odd Future's members seem more keen on gross-out contests, skateboarding, and generally fuckin' around than committing felonies. As Sean Fennessey noted in his Pitchfork profile of the group, "How far will you go to make someone laugh is a standard in the ritual emptiness of teenage life." Boredom & isolation as a bottomless well of artistic inspiration has produced music as brilliant as it is variegated: Iggy Pop's The Idiot, most of Elliott Smith's catalogue, Fugazi's Steady Diet of Nothing. Much closer to Odd Future's idiom are Norwegian scum-rockers Brainbombs, whose singularly obscene work (sample song title: "Lipstick On My Dick") is a testament to the cabin-fever psychosis of Nordic winters.

Which brings us to another Norwegian band, Burzum. Varg Vikernes' one-man black metal act has become the litmus test for disassociating an artist from their art, as demonstrated in the Village Voice article mentioned at the top. But the analogy between Odd Future and Burzum is grossly insulting: the former is a bunch of teenagers flipping polite society the bird (i.e. doing what teenagers do), the latter is a convicted murderer and avowed white-supremacist Pagan theocrat. There is nothing to suggest that Odd Future are anything other than punk brats being punk brats, and rapping about terrible things is a far remove from being the kind of loathsome cur that Vikernes truly is.

Some may detect the whiff of hypocrisy in shrugging off Odd Future's repellent rhymes when I took M.I.A. to task for having "renovated 'not meaning it' from an emergency exit to a revolving door." There is, however, a difference. Maya Arulpragasam insists (at length & ad nauseum) that she is a political artist who stands for something, yet she resists explicitly political interpretations of her work because advocating suicide bombing is not a good look for a pop star. But what does Odd Future stand for? By all appearances, nothing. They're hedonist pranksters who offer a purely negative worldview that's breathtaking in its viciousness. And here, the precise mistake most people make is to cleave content from style, artist from art: the very fact that we, the audience, simultaneously enjoy and are disgusted is what we need to investigate. As Zach Baron points out in his Voice article, "What artists like Odd Future... do, maybe, is venture where other people won't and there start considering all sorts of human behavior we would prefer not to think of as possible. But it is possible."

Art as abreaction, discussing the unspeakable. As a friend of mine recently said of Dario Argento's Profondo Rosso, when the hatchet drops and the music kicks in Super Fly-style, it's more thrilling than chilling because the buzz comes from identifying with the killer instead of the victim. Despite this, Argento obviously does not advocate cutting up strangers, and so the question is returned to the audience: why do we enjoy watching it onscreen? Like Baron, I've got no stomach for torture-porn, which clearly casts us in the minority of Western movie-goers, yet the same question I ask myself watching Profondo Rosso can be asked of any Saw series fan: why do you enjoy watching it onscreen?

Musicians are in an odd place compared with other artists, in that so often what they speak of is assumed to be a direct expression of their true intentions or feelings. But there is no evidence that Odd Future sincerely countenance rape any more than, say, Gaspar Noé. If an artist is a genuinely terrible person or an exponent of profanation, the conversation is necessarily about them and why they do/say terrible things. But in the case of Odd Future or Argento or Noé, there is no disassociation between artist & art necessary because they are not meant to be taken at face-value. The error is to scrutinize why Odd Future rap about rape when, really, we should be examining why we like listening to them rap about it.

Monday, November 08, 2010

But that joke isn't funny anymore...

Possibly the strangest consequence of a twenty-four-hour infotainment cycle is that it's mobilized the infinite monkey theorem: all that round-the-clock, Quixotic, chaotic, vanity-pressed, niche-filling flotsam multiplied by the power of the internet means that sometimes, what was once an absurdist brain-fart will be made a reality. Our Everest-sized trashmound of pop-cultural ephemera is performing a cold reading on the future and it's bound to score the occasional hit.

For example, it's often claimed that Mark E. Smith is psychic, having predicted (among other things) the 1982 Guatemalan coup and the IRA bombing of Manchester City Centre in 1996. But after thirtysome years of packing thousand-word screeds into three-minute post-punk morsels, it'd be utterly baffling if none of Smith's words proved prescient. A kind of counter-clairvoyance, that would be.

So it's less appropriate to say Monty Python predicted the Tea Party than to say Cleese's anti-Communist freakout simply crystallizes the American conservative's most consistent style of paranoia of the past (yikes) sixty years. Granted, the resemblance between Glenn Beck and Dave Foley's "right-wing paranoid reactionary" is eerie, since it extends beyond content into cadence & rhetorical style. But surely between the combined archives of Kids In the Hall, SNL, SCTV, Fridays, and This Hour Has 22 Minutes there would be at least a single sketch starring a jeremiad-spouting jingoist?

But the MADtv sketch below is graying my hair - not the least because it's MADtv yet is actually damned funny. This is a particularly chilling example of something that was once patently screwball mutating into de facto plain-statement: 2000's most repellent, line-stepping satire (listen to those "boos!") is 2010's Republican populism. Again, I'm not saying Nicole Sullivan & her co-writers are psychic. It's just impressive when people continue to surprise you, albeit in the worst way possible.

(Hat-tip to FARK. There, Drew, are ya happy?)

Thursday, November 04, 2010


The bugbear of every audio engineer is a problematic sonic wobble called "phase cancellation": when two identical soundwaves are a half-cycle out of sync, one soundwave peaks exactly when the second craters, thus negating each other and producing silence.

This is a handy visual for thinking about the results of the U.S. midterm election. The outcome could've been worse for the Democrats and better for the Republicans; control of Congress is now split between the two parties; and voter sentiment towards each is more tepid than day-old banana pudding. All this signifying nothing, nada, niente, null will get done. Each party can spend the next two years accomplishing absolute bupkiss whilst blaming the other guys for blocking every bill that hits the floor. Victory and defeat nipping at each other's asses in the kind of Moebius-like cycle only quantum physicists can explain. Champagne for everyone on K Street!

I highly recommend Richard Seymour's class-oriented dissection of how rigidly inert the political status quo will remain in the wake of the mid-terms. His writing is crisp, his conclusions rational yet depressingly predictable: the GOP is the party of the obscenely wealthy; the Tea Party has mobilized a pathetically minute minority of xenophobes within the white working class; Democrats are supported by a middle-class too terrified of losing their luxury goods to attack the American power structure; and in the absence of a political party that truly reflects their own interests, the working class overwhelmingly opt not to vote (thus reinforcing the two ruling parties' misconception that they alone represent the electorate).

In other news about people who don't fucking get it, FARK founder Drew Curtis blasted Jon Stewart for failing to properly credit news aggregator for drumming up support for the Rally To Restore Banality. But it quickly became clear that no one cared about a pissing contest between a Viacom employee and Condé Nast's IT department, and all was forgiven post-haste. However, in both his initial rant & his grudging "s'all good," Curtis accused The Daily Show and The Colbert Report of failing to cite FARK as a source for much of the material they lampoon:
Am I'm butthurt about not getting mentioned on the Daily Show? After 10 years, yes I am. Do they owe me? No. Is it common courtesy to do it once in awhile? Yes. Is that what this is all about then? No.
At least he got it right that TDS owes him nothing and that proper citation is not what it's all about. But evidently, Curtis doesn't understand how the internet works: what matters is not who is communicating, or even what is being communicated, but the act of communicating itself. This is the greatest relay network in human history; individual nodes don't matter. Surely Curtis wouldn't argue that an individual gear-tooth is significant compared with the smooth & steady operation of the machine as a whole. Yes, a bad gear will gum up the works, but then it gets replaced, as surely as Facebook swallowed MySpace's clientele and as quickly as I can find a video that was taken off YouTube over on Megavideo or Daily Motion.

The machine speeds on well-oiled and without a care for its cogs. Because if our corporate overlords can't control the content that we cough up, they can at least make sure we're not making any money off it.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Lowest Common Denominator Is the Biggest Factor

As anyone with even a few cilia tuned to international affairs knows, the U.S. midterm elections are upon us with all the thunderous fusillade & megadecibel hysteria of a civil war. It's a minor miracle that, in the American electoral process, no one actually ends up dead.

The consensus narrative of 2010 has thus far been: Americans of every political persuasion are unimpressed with the first two years of Obama's administration. Progressives feel that the President has failed to deliver on the promises of his campaign. Conservatives are convinced that the country is on the bullet-train to Soviet hell. Moderates have, by all appearances, vanished from the political landscape. The consequence of the left's disillusionment and the right's white-hot ire (and it is very white) is that the Republicans will reclaim control of the House and, perhaps, the Senate.

Of course, as history suggests, this familiar tune may have a surprise coda. The past couple of weeks have produced more "October Surprises" than a pumpkin patch laden with landmines. NPR arguably served conservatives their own Shirley Sherrod when they fired Juan Williams. Alaska Tea Partier Joe Miller is quickly slipping off the ballot, either due to his security detail's brownshirt-style bullying or his apparent inability to grow a proper beard. Meanwhile, Gawker's muckraking exposé on Christine O'Donnell's hypocritical pecadillos has both infuriated the right and disgusted the left, with little time allowed to gauge which way the fallout will gust.

The true terror is that the American left is caught between Scylla - a Republican Congress that will attempt to roll back over a century of social progress - and Charybdis - armed revolt by reactionaries who confuse an electoral setback with tyranny. Beyond any American election in the modern era, right-wing violence has move beyond the rhetorical to the literal, including voter intimidation and physical assaults upon journalists and private citizens. Several Republican candidates have even advocated armed insurrection against the federal government if the election does not tilt in their favour. This more than anything should motivate moderates and progressives alike to pursue their primary legal protection against subjugation: to vote.

Democracy is nothing if not imperfect, as it swaps more stratified forms of tyranny with that of the majority. The fundamental mistake the Democratic Party has made is to believe that they can control a two-party system by compromising with their opponents instead of winning their active support. Obviously, not everyone will be satisfied with a single party's platform, but the Republican's success stems from their talent at convincing people whose lives Republicans are actively destroying that the Grand Ol' Party represents their interests. So what is their secret?

Allow me to introduce you to Malcolm Tucker, Director of Communications in the BBC sitcom The Thick of It. As the Prime Minister's enforcer, Tucker is a parliamentary Svengali of such partisan drive and profane thuggery that he makes Rahm Emanuel look like Mr. Rogers. If there's anyone - fictional or otherwise - with the sang froid and killer instinct to produce a desired political effect, it's Tucker. So heed what he said during the British electoral campaign earlier this year:
Frankly, I think you're getting the wrong advice on the debates... Most people are not going to see these Bestivals of bore. After all, with the 478 debate rules in place they're going to have all the drama of three middle-aged guys fencing with limp dicks. The only ones watching are going to be the pointless bastards who already know what they think.

We need to get to the people who only hear the rumours. Bottom feeders who get their views via the quotes from the models in the Daily Star. Van drivers who guard their vast ignorance with concealed Stanley knives. Businessmen who like to expose their self-aggrandising cynicism to schoolgirls on the Thameslink. These dumb motherfuckers are the battlefield. Shitheels. Dunderheads. People who when you talk to them it's like shouting through six pieces of double glazing. Potheads, cider drinkers, kids who don't know who Thatcher was and think the NHS grew on a big fucking NHS tree. Wankers. People who count to 11 using their 10 fingers and their head and still get it wrong. This is who we have to get to via the debates. So we are going to have to shout extremely fucking loud.
Now, substitute a few proper nouns in the above paragraph - swap "the Thameslink" for "Pennsylvania Turnpike", "Thatcher" for "Nixon", and "the NHS" for "Social Security" - and the same is absolutely, unequivocally true for America. Electoral success stands on the shoulders of envious, ill-informed, bored morons who've scarcely been outside their own zip-code, who can't find the next county on a map, who can't distinguish between opinion and fact, and who prefer scapegoats to solutions.

Stupid people aren't a political hazard to be mitigated. These dumb motherfuckers are the battlefield.

The brilliant sleight-of-hand that the Republicans have performed is that they've courted a fearful middle class & a devastated working class with snappy slogans, straw-man whipping boys, and provincial snobbery. It's not that the Democrats are short on examples of how Republicans fuck over every American making under a quarter-million per year, but that the Democrats refuse the political potential of angry voters. Ironically, it's the Democrats - not Republicans - who have ignored the real political effects of class resentment, and thus have ceded the power of America's underclass to the worst colporteurs of xenophobia, superstition, paranoia, and hysteria.

The Democratic Party failed to understand that it's better to have knee-jerking mobs shouting with you rather than against you, and they are shouting extremely fucking loud. If the Democrats lose this coming Tuesday, they'll only have themselves to blame for it.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

If I could be, for only an hour...

Well, it's Hallowe'en weekend. If you're a foreigner in Tokyo, this means partying hard on the Yamanote train with a bunch of other white people, though in recent years these impromptu costumed hullabaloos have drawn fire from not only embarrassed foreigners but an increasingly strident hard-right. Personally, I'm not particularly bothered. The Yamanote parties are hardly a utopian T.A.Z. and combating xenophobia doesn't begin by dressing up like Borat and acting like a douche; yet it hardly bears complaining that the train transforms into a mobile drunk tank on October 31 - as opposed to any other night.

Of course, people everywhere concoct all manner of fanciful excuse for the explicit purpose of playing the fool in public. Such saturnalia are exhaust valves for the populace's pent-up frustration & compounded stress, which otherwise might be channeled into some kind of radical political expression - and we certainly can't have that! So when Japanese wag their fingers at an American holiday that is little more than culturally-sanctioned juvenile terrorism, lest they forget they spend summertime getting drunk & playing with explosives.

Really, though, to be content with such intermittent tomfoolery is missing the big picture. Just become a musician. Then you can act like a complete asshole 'round the clock and get paid for it!

Then again, musicians are often as discontent to be themselves as anyone else. (Even moreso in some instances.) This is why the musical masquerade of cover songs is impossible to resist. Yes indeed, it makes good P.R. to associate yourself with an established act, not to mention trumpet your own impeccable taste. But no one's ever kicked out a Jimi Hendrix or Stooges cover who didn't want to be Jimi or Iggy (who also wanted little more than to be their respective heroes). Hell, some bands make entire careers out of hollow impersonations of their idols. As an audience, we owe thanks to those talented few who only unveil their influences occasionally & purposefully.

So instead of the usual ghosts 'n' ghoulies Hallowe'en mix (which you can grab here if you really want), here's an amusing selection of musicians playing at being other people. Click on the mix title to download.

In a Stupid-Ass Way

1. Scott Walker - "Jackie"
2. Tricky - "Lyrics of Fury"
3. Teddy and His Patches - "Suzy Creamcheese"
4. The Crazy World of Arthur Brown - "I Put a Spell On You"
5. The Fall - "Mr. Pharmacist"
6. The Toreno Brass - "Eleanor Rigby"
7. Sonic Youth - "My New House"
8. The Wooden Glass feat. Billy Wooten - "In the Rain"
9. Melvins - "Going Blind"
10. Dick Hyman - "Green Onions"
11. Shirley Bassey - "Light My Fire"
12. The Chico Magnetic Band - "Crosstown Traffic"
13. La Tia Leonor Y Sus Sobrinos - "Marcha a la Turca"
14. Alex Chilton - "Jumpin' Jack Flash"
15. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds - "Wanted Man"
16. Pavement - "The Classical"
17. Faith No More - "Easy"
18. Martin Denny - "Midnight Cowboy"

Friday, October 15, 2010

Seize the Meme!

For once in my damn life, I appear to have nailed the zeitgeist: the "sell-out" debates of yore are back in full swing. And about a decade too late, if the current cultural climate is as sapped & shit-stained as it appears. Oh, and for all those poptimists who endorse crowdsourcing and believe equally in the integrity of democracy and market forces: welcome to your logical extreme! Choke on it, you beige-minded wretches.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Bad Music, Worse Politics

They say "never judge a book by its cover," but what about judging a book by its pull-quotes and endorsements? A single-sentence excerpt from Meghan McCain's book is sufficient to see it's utter shite, and I certainly won't need to read anything that makes it onto either Oprah or Glenn Beck's book lists.

Musical taste can serve as a litmus test of someone's general character. This sounds like a dangerous and smug generalization, but think of it - have you ever met someone who preferred Yoko Ono to the Beatles who wasn't an insufferable prick? Similarly, is it ever a surprise when a hidebound fan of only hardcore punk or heavy metal turns out to be a socially-conservative reactionary? Music is not some autonomous miracle that happens by fluke. Music is dependent on context for meaning and is the direct product of human intervention - even if that intervention is the simple act of listening. (This is how John Cage could find musicality in the traditionally "non-musical.") To both the composer and the audience, music is never politically neutral.

This is why I'm such a staunch defender of indie dogmatists like Steve Albini, and why I'm very skeptical of populism, both musical and political: it discourages radicalism, sanctions tyranny of the majority, and buttresses the status quo. Unhesitant endorsement of pop music applauds the commodification of art and abets the homogenization of culture by consumerist capitalism. The gluttony of the indiscriminate listener enhances the neo-liberal fantasy of infinite abundance. Several years ago, Rob Horning outlined the fundamental danger of then-ascendant "poptimism":
It doesn’t really matter who likes what specifically; what matters are the means by which the big players seek to control the entertainment market... In capitalist society, culture is business, one that’s always trying to expand. Nice of the poptopian to do the marketers work for them and expand the reach and provide the ideological justification for the hegemony of the big commercial music manufacturers.
So much of the vitriol aimed at Albini over the past week has little to do with the substance of his argument and more to do with him "being a jerk." This would suggest that, instead of disagreeing with Albini, many people are merely upset that he's infringing on their guilt-free enjoyment of consumer culture. Tom Ewing (author of, appropriately, Pitchfork's Poptimist column) parodies Albini's contempt for the fashion industry by suggesting what Albini's rendering of soccer might look like:
“It’s just 22 men chasing a leather ball around!”
Reductive and contemptuous, perhaps, but also 100% accurate. Again, the implication is that the exploitation of an insecure public and the predation upon art by capital is not nearly as offensive as being a buzzkill asshole. What matters not is critiquing and defending against market forces; what matters is letting everyone be into what they're into and, y'know, having fun!

Let me be clear, there are larger real-world consequences to poptimism's timid egalitarianism. Mike Barthel was among the many who, without challenging Albini's position, dismissed the attacks upon fashion and Sonic Youth's Faustian bargain as "stupid shit." Less than a week later, Barthel posted an op-ed at The Awl about Glenn Beck's autodidact schtick:
In terms of motivation, liberals' demands that the unpleasant parts of American history be taught in schools is no different from conservatives' insistence that they be expunged: both want the story told as they see it so that children will grow up sympathetic to their view of the world. Of course, liberals have the advantage in this case of wanting things to be revealing, rather than concealing. But that doesn't make our intentions any nobler, particularly.
And voila, in one simple extension of political logic, it's no more noble to fight for truth & accountability than it is to whitewash history in the name of imperialist nationalism. Because apparently it's better to tolerate jingoism and ignorance than to be an asshole and call people out on those things.

Whatever happened to "keeping keen the blade of one's dissatisfaction"?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Shigeru Miyamoto's Sleeper Cells

Hey, remember "math rock"? That gallingly clinical tag, inescapable in the late-'90s, used to describe any band that studiously avoided regular time signatures? Bands like Don Caballero and Oxes who camouflaged their geeky adoration of finger-sports athletics (e.g. King Crimson, Rush) by wreathing it in spasmic fury?

I don't know if it's just the particular idiom that my band finds itself in, but there seems to be an irrational number of math rock bands in Japan. Now, we're not math rock: all of our songs are in 4/4 or 3/4 and there's not any instrumental breaks that could possibly be confused for a Magma homage. But most of the bands we play with are math rock bands - abrupt tempo shifts, asymmetrical time signatures, technically-demanding guitar runs, etc. This is only odd because math rock's heyday in the west came to a close almost a decade ago, as technical puissance was reclaimed by metal-derived genres and indie kids became more concerned with texture & danceability. Why has math rock refused to fade in Japan?

There are several things that make math rock particularly appealing to guitar-oriented acts in their early-to-mid twenties. The first is its emphasis on technique; unless the intention is keeping it simple-stoopid, there's a genuine satisfaction in mastery of an instrument. The second is that there was significant crossover between math rock and emo; the semi-hysteric emotional mode of many late-teenagers and college kids is attracted to garment-rending catharsis (especially in a country as emotionally muted as Japan). Finally, when bucking musical convention is as easy as dropping an extra beat into a measure, math rock affords the easy illusion of doing something different - even if the genre's decades-old touchstones have become canonical.

Still, something about Japanese math rock doesn't sit well with me. It's a little too crisp in its execution and too rigorously diatonic. The western push towards deconstruction is being countered by some exacting pull from another source - but what? I couldn't tell from whence came this Will To Order until this weekend, when I noticed something curious on another band's merch table: a toy bank in the shape of a Nintendo Famicon.

I've a friend who's the kind of geek that hunts down audio rips of old video game music. The past several times I've been over to his apartment, he's had the Mega Man soundtrack bumping in the background. Given the poxy sonic palette of 8-bit FM synthesis, old-school video game composers such as Koji Kondo used every compositional trick available to create dynamic scores: chromatic counterpoint, syncopation, abrupt tempo shifts, asymmetrical time signatures... hey, wait a minute.

So that's where all these bands picked up their proclivity for epic melodies, Dorian arpeggios, and unnecessary 3-over-2 rhythmic juxtaposition! For every hour spent listening to The Dismemberment Plan, these kids probably spent two sat in front of a video game console. This is the kind of organic synthesis that so many western bands strive for and fail at miserably, coming off instead as so much embarrassing po-mo pastiche. And to think I was dismissing the Japanese bands as stiff, studenty knock-offs of Sunny Day Real Estate - which isn't to say that I like this music any more than I did last week, but at least I'm not baffled by its very existence.

I'll leave you with a couple of concrete examples. Exhibit A is the band we played with in Nagoya on Friday night, the incomprehensibly-named Mudy On The 昨晩.

Exhibit B, the "energy zone" theme from the Nintendo Entertainment System game Contra.

Non-sequitorial postscript: Corporate apologist Eric Harvey takes his "pragmatism" to the big leagues.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

In the Logic of the Market, the Market Is Always Right

Providing context for the Albini/Sonic Youth controversy, Eric Harvey has a very interesting history of Sonic Youth's business dealings with labels minor and major. Most valuable is the reminder that, as businesses in the '80s, indie labels were hardly a utopian refuge from blood-sucking behemoth corporate culture. For sure, Dischord and Touch & Go were famously equitable with their artists while totally disavowing commercial ambition, but they were - and remain - the exception. Meanwhile, I've yet to find anyone that has a kind word to say about the likes of SST's Greg Ginn or Homestead's Barry Tenenbaum. (British indie labels seem to have been less regularly corrupt.) As Harvey says, "Who wouldn’t, in the early 90s, want to be able to make music for a living, with health care, while working right alongside one’s trustworthy indie pals?"

That said, I take serious issue with Harvey's argument once he moves beyond historical summary. First is his contention that "there’s an actual Main Stream into which bands are able to steer their ships" is an "ill-founded idea." In the age of the internet, that may be true: the only extant "underground" is just the shit people aren't listening to, as opposed to a separate, self-contained culture. But this is only true within the past decade. Does Harvey honestly believe that people going to Einstürzende Neubauten or Nation of Ulysses gigs and people buying Avalon or Achtung Baby were operating within the same social context?

The fundamental difference between Harvey and Albini is that the former believes the whole point of making music is to be heard by the widest audience possible. To wit:
Distribution and promotion is the key here. Indie labels used to suck at it, but in 2010, they’re really amazingly good at it, and they’re not shy about partnering with corporations like Warner to gain access to their monopoly on big box stores. And thankfully, it seems, the vast majority of indie fans... don’t care.
Anyone who praises "the usefulness of major corporations" sees music as little other than a commodity and is a foot soldier for cultural homogeneity. Albini, on the other hand, views music as a communicative mode, an expression of a localized cultural identity, a sonic individuation. What bothers Albini about corporate encroachment is not merely the crass desperation & hucksterism of marketing & promotion, but how it corrupts the very creative process. As he explained in a superb interview with Ian Svenonius:
Whenever [bands] start making decisions based on their anticipation of the future response from the outside world, then they're talking out their ass and they're making decisions based on a fear of a future reprisal or something...

A lot of the music industry sees the record as the object, like the record is the thing. And if you have to fuck with the band a little bit to make the record good, that's okay, 'cuz that's what we're selling... But if you compromise the band for the sake of the shows, or the sake of the records, then you're fucking with the business. That's the franchise right there.
This returns us to Albini's very purposeful separation between his work (engineering) and his art. As everyone knows, Albini is rather mercenary in who he'll record: anyone. But Shellac is infuriatingly uncompromising as a group of artists. They refuse the record-release-tour-repeat hamster wheel, turn down more shows than they play, and rigorously limit their public exposure. To someone like Harvey, whose musical philosophy is a synthesis of populism & capitalism, of course Albini comes off as provincial and exclusive. It simply means that he and Harvey have essentially different understandings of music's purpose.

But personally, I think Albini is right and Harvey is wrong. The very benefit Sonic Youth won with their major label deal - "We’re able to work 24 hours a day at making music" - is impossible in the internet-oriented music industry, because it forces bands to operate first & foremost as a business concern with the music itself reduced to mere product. The ultimate evil of disintegrating the divide between underground & mainstream culture is that D.I.Y. becomes unworkable and collusion with corporate interests is forced. When any band with a Bandcamp page can reasonably entertain dreams of making fat mad stacks of a Honda TV ad license, musicians are attempting to realize Bowie-sized commercial ambitions on a Black Flag-sized budget. In the old-school punk paradigm, being in complete control of production/distribution/promotion, while not easy, was more manageable because winning over the world was not the point. No one was hoping to headline Madison Square Gardens. But now, every band hanging onto the long tail is baited by the corrupt conflation of making music with making a living. Ultimately, both these musicians and the music itself will suffer.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

A Messenger Who Shoots Back

One of the most oft-quoted lines from The Big Lebowski is The Dude's last-ditch retort to Walter: "You're not wrong, Walter, you're just an asshole." Lord knows I've been slapped with that rejoinder many a time. Just this weekend, a friend and I were arguing, basically, over whether or not such a thing as "black music" exists, and he said, "Look, I know what you're saying, and I can't quite disagree with it, but goddamn I want to punch you in the fucking face!"

But I digress. What's really fascinating about The Dude's retort is how dramatically its sense is changed by reversing the sentence structure: "You're an asshole, but you're not wrong." It's no longer a statement of bare tolerance of some dunderhead's invective; it's grudging acquiescence to the fact that someone thoroughly unlikeable has made an incontestable argument. It's a less-condescending version of the old "broken clock" saw, and - to me - not a bad rhetorical position to be in at all.

Steve Albini is a man whose whole public persona hinges on being this asshole-who's-not-wrong. He's clearly unconcerned with whether or not people "like" him, though he's rarely been prone to the kind of cartoonish abuse Tesco Vee used to heap upon the world at large. So it should come as no surprise that I woke up today to find see the following headlines around the interwebs:
Etc. etc. etc. It's not that Albini thinks Sonic Youth are a shitty band or a bunch of poseurs. ("I still consider them friends and their music has its own integrity.") Rather, Albini thinks that, by signing with a major label, Sonic Youth "became a foot soldier for [mainstream] culture's encroachment into my neck of the woods by acting as scouts." Sonic Youth lowered the drawbridge for the commercial huns and led to "a corruption of a perfectly valid, well-oiled music scene."

There's already been some considerable discussion here about Sonic Youth's "curatorial" stance, and ultimately I think they played that role well. Other bands who crossed over (e.g. Nirvana) made token gestures towards their underground peers by wearing T-shirts or name-dropping in interviews, but few were as urgent in championing music's margins as Sonic Youth. Had they not signed to Geffen, some other band would've torn a wormhole between the under- and above-ground; the commercial incursion into indie music would happen sooner or later. I think Sonic Youth understood this and worked to foster a more faithful relationship between the audience and underground music, a relationship that could've easily been superficial, fickle, and fleeting. As I wrote before:
The problem, then, is not of revolutionary intent or lack thereof, but of what if the revolution succeeds? As pure as it may be then to wipe one's hands, declare the job done, and ride off into the sunset, this leaves the freshly razed ground at the mercy of tyrants & thugs - be it Stalin or the Universal Music Group. Not to forfeit what was fought for requires the victors to become stewards of the movement - in artistic terms, curators. Though this role is frequently disdained for plasticising new forms and jealously protecting legacies, good curators use their seniority to support & shepherd younger artists flush with potential. Even if popular taste swings away, a safe haven for bold thinkers & iconoclasts will have been carved out, with nothing ceded for the sake of fame or money.
Where I think Albini is absolutely right in his criticism is that Sonic Youth "[took] a lot of people who didn't have aspirations or ambitions and encouraged them to be part of the mainstream music industry." In the sleeve photos for Goo (SY's first album for Geffen) and the video for "Kool Thing", the band adopted the glam-trash strut and Ray Ban-shaded thousand-yard stare of marquee-topping Rock Stars. It was clearly an ironic goof, laughing at the hilarity that a band once described as "pigfucker rock" were being ushered into the megawatt glare of mainstream success. But Albini identified the dangerous ambiguity of this stance in an interview last year:
If you see it as somewhat of an irony that someone from your background would be in the mainstream, you’re more inclined to participate in it. My experience has been that the more comfortable that outsiders get saying and doing stupid shit, the more the ironic distance narrows. And the ironic distance eventually narrows to a point of nothing. Then you have this sort of ascendancy where something from the underground, by ironically adopting the mannerisms of the mainstream, becomes the mainstream.

And there’s an ironic defense that people use who want to maintain some perspective on themselves of being outside of mainstream culture that allows them to do crass, gross, grasping things with the idea that “it’s O.K. because it’s me doing it because I’m doing it for all the right reasons. I’m doing it for our team” as it were. That’s the point when the ironic distance narrows and the person becomes the thing he was previously a parody of.
The immediate rebuttal that pretty much everyone has slung at Albini is that he engineered some of "alternative" rock's major-backed breakthrough albums, both good (PJ Harvey's Rid of Me) and bad (Bush's Razorblade Suitcase). Pitchfork writer Ryan Dombal snickers, "Perhaps he never cashed those checks?" But this cuts right to the heart of why Albini qualifies himself as an engineer, not a producer. Whereas a producer coaxes & sculpt the music to elicit a desired emotional response, an engineer must simply document a band with maximum fidelity. Any engineer worth their fee will have a workmanlike, time-to-make-the-donuts approach, because they are a technician, not an artist. Whether or not the band is any good (let alone "cool") is not Albini's problem. He isn't there to fuss over lyrics, make the chorus "pop", or tighten the drummer up with Beat Detective; he's there to capture a band's performance as transparently & truthfully as possible. If the chorus ain't catchy, if the tempo wobbles a few b.p.m., if the guitarist's tone is like an electric baloney sandwich pumped through a 10" thrift-store Squire amp, that's on the band, not Albini.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Remote Psychoanalysis

First, it was three of the 9/11 hijackers, now it's a whole bunch of Mumbai wannabes. What exactly is it about Hamburg that apparently produces terrorists?

I believe I have the answer. It's not that the city is a magnet for, and provides cover to, religious fundamentalists intent on loosing bloody mayhem. As a former Hamburg resident myself, I just think these dudes are fucking bored. Hell, after five months of freezing rain, I was ready to stab a motherfucker on the Reeperbahn just to switch things up.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Freaks and Fire in Japan's Second City

Funny how stereotypes can be so stubbornly self-sustaining. A few years ago, I showed some friends in Baltimore my favourite Japanese TV show, Gaki No Tsukai. Though most found it hysterical (if mildly disturbing), one friend was actually angry with me. "Y'know," she started, "whenever I say 'my friend lives in Japan,' I spend all this time telling people it's not like you live on Mars, it's not completely batshit insane, not a real-life Blade Runner, the Japanese are just normal cats with some slightly different cultural conditioning - and then you show me this. What the hell am I supposed to think now?"

Similarly, six years ago, almost all I knew of Japan was the lunatic notoriety of the Osaka noise scene. Tokyo was forest of steel & neon, Kyoto was all bamboo & raked pebble gardens, and Osaka was an open-air asylum packed with certifiable nutters who'd swapped bushido for bulldozers & fuzzboxes. Of course, after moving here, I saw how coarse & ignorant this assessment was. Tokyo is an omnivorous hyperreality, Kyoto is more than a historical diorama, and any perceived derangement on the part of Osaka-jin was likely more middle-child contrarianism than a hysteria innate to the city.

But after last weekend's Bakuto festival, I take that last bit back. There really is something in the Kansai water, and Osaka people are off the fuckin' hook. Okay, that's a little unfair: any festival will draw a self-selecting (and thus unrepresentative) multitude. Bakuto is equal parts skate show, dub-head soundclash, tattoo convention, and experimental rock extravaganza - none of which screams "mainstream appeal." But if I threw a loudly-'n'-proudly "countercultural" festival in Tokyo, I'd likely draw as many reactionary nationalists ("Death to post-modern demographics!") as anyone. I certainly couldn't expect the diverse congregation of J-dreads, mori gyaru, baggie skaters, gangsta pseuds, techno-hippies, hardcore punks, fashionistas, greasers, tweakers, pushers, enforcers, Vice mag devotees, expat Williamsburg/Brighton wannabes, aloof chin-strokers, awkward tag-alongs, and unhinged musos that populated Bakuto.

Immediately striking is the festival's setting: a disused shipyard, backdropped by the post-industrial rust & grime of the Suminoeku waterfront. Strolling the docks, it's hard to see whether or not the outside world has indeed crumbled into the yawn of the apocalypse. This dilapidation at once encourages avant-gardistes to bring their convention-smashing A-game, yet makes whatever Neubauten-esque mayhem ensues seem merely appropriate to the environs.

My band was playing the outside stage (next to the skate park) in the mid-afternoon. I spent most of the morning people-watching and wandering wantonly. The earliest bands were all the kind of willfully-amateur, pseudo-tribal dance-punk acts that made Wham City famous, despite how dull & gimmicky they are. Watching a band with the exquisitely dull & gimmicky name Ultrafuckers (ウルトラファッカーズ), a Jared Swilley lookalike was trying way too hard to be really into it while simultaneously stonewalling me, as I depressed his currency as "in-the-know" white guy. Tokenism will only get you laid for so long, dude.

Lunch was a Kafkaesque experience that bordered on sensory breakdown - which had nothing to do with the quality of food. I'd slunk indoors to avoid sunstroke, but the second-floor concourse was sandwiched between competing bass frequencies of obscene volume. From above came the indolent throb of house DJs soundtracking the tattoo convention, while below bands on the Gareki stage vied for sonic supremacy with the incessant thrum of the "Black Chamber" drum-n-bass room. The whole building - windows, walls, ventilation ducts - groaned as several streams of sub swam in and out of phase, coalescing into the same ear-canal-clenching whomp as the Inception score. It sounded... no, it felt like a war zone. Seasick and half-deaf, I stumbled back outside.

Happily, Bakuto delivered that epiphany you always hope for at festivals: when you discover the kind of music you knew someone had to be making but had yet to hear. Kyojin Yueni Dekai (巨人ゆえにデカイ) more-or-less translates as "Because I'm a Giant, I'm Big," which explains why frontman Mizuuchi Yoshihito plays atop stilts, exaggerating his already wiry & mantis-like frame. His guitar has the tinny, equivocal tone of a shamisen or wounded banjo, except for the bass string substituted in the instrument's lower register. The bass string is so roughly detuned that it doesn't so much articulate notes as belch concussively; an atonal gut-punch. Skinsman Wada Shinji alternates between the most minimal of percussive accents and blastbeat freakouts, mirroring Mizuuchi's vocals as he leaps from stony blankness to hoarse bellow. But catharsis is always deferred in favour of suffering the anticipation of the next note; restraint and painfully drawn-out pauses become more tensely theatrical than any punk shitfit abreaction. The effect is like mid-'80s Swans if Gira had been a kabuki student instead of a construction worker.

Unfortunately, two acts that I was especially looking forward to - オシリペンペンズ and オニジャガデルカ - were both playing at the same time as my band. Still, we had a healthy turnout considering we were competing for attention with two giants of the Osaka underground. Hell, I wouldn't even blame someone for skipping our set to go watch the Battle Robots.* Don't get me wrong, I think we're pretty good, but not a lot can compete with remote-controlled scrap-heaps going at it hammer-and-tongs-and-flamethrower.

Some acts were less willing to sacrifice their audience share to automated warriors, and fought fire with fire - literally. Following our set was D.D.S., who performed as a kind of checklist for "subversive" noise rock. Bondage masks? Check. Samples of Hitler? Check. Theremin, circuit bending, turntable abuse? Yep. Gratuitous immolation of old televisions? Of course - but these brainiacs had set the TVs atop a stack of old tires. They deliberately started a tire fire. As plumes of noxious yellow smoke rose into the sky, an ambulance came screaming onto the festival grounds. I suppose the authorities reasonably assumed the sudden expulsion of fumes meant some bad shit was going down.

D.D.S.'s vocalist responded to this incursion by clambering atop the fence and hollering at the EMTs, "Dees eez LOCK AND LOLL!" Couldn't really argue with that, eh?

(*) - That's actually my band in the background of this video clip.