Thursday, March 25, 2010

Old Gods Almost Dead

It's embarrassing to see aging rockstars prancing with all the libidinous abandon of teenagers - not the least because of how their jowls flap now that the elasticity has been sapped from their skin. There's something inappropriate in seeing arthritic ex-junkies singing songs like "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" and "The Kids Are Alright" when they should be at home watching The McLaughlin Group or Question Time, waiting for their next pension check and wondering why their kids haven't called in so long.

But as quickly as everyone groans at cankering Paul McCartney and the withered Bob Dylan, they not only tolerate but encourage the retrospective victory laps being run by "alternative"-era rock icons. No one was convinced that it was necessary, let alone cool, for the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac to reunite in the mid-'90s, but Generation-X and its successors have yet to show a shred of their characteristic disillusioned nonchalance towards the Pixies, Blur, Dinosaur Jr, Faith No More, the Jesus Lizard, the Jesus and Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine, Sleep... uh, Polvo...

There are almost more '90s bands these days than there where in the '90s.

This gush of resurrection isn't as welcome with Mark "K-Punk" Fisher, who in the latest issue of Loops attempts to answer the question of why bands don't break up any more. It's a timely query, given that the Pavement reunion has nailed shut the coffin of baby-boomer cultural hegemony. The '90s are haunting the '10s, as they were haunted by the '70s, because - especially in the nanosecond hypecycle of the information age - it takes too much damned effort to remain au courant. No longer endowed with the impetuous energy & autonomy of twentysomethings, Generation-X have more pressing errands than surfing music blogs or attending Todd P shows and are probably content to dust off their 15-year-old Sub Pop & Matador records when they want to tickle their cochlea.

The second issue is the internet itself: a whole generation has by now grown up without the memory of mail-order or the Dewey Decimal System, with the wealth of all history a mere Google search away. "In the age of Web 2.0," writes Fisher, "nothing goes away, everything comes back – if not in the flesh, then as a YouTube clip." How could this produce anything but an infinite feedback loop? It's an odd nostalgic simulacrum - memory not necessarily anchored in experience - but it's a kind of nostalgia nonetheless.

This makes it easy to see why a band that broke up a decade ago would want to reform: in addition to their old fans, there's a whole new generation keen to see what they missed the first time around. Who'd prefer to watch grainy bootleg videos of My Bloody Valentine when you could see them in the flesh?

The other, more cynical answer is that contemporary music is such shit, bereft of imagination or vitality, that the shoes of the last batch of bands have yet to be filled. If the scariest & most dynamic experience to be had in the contemporary hardcore scene is Daughters covering the Jesus Lizard, then please, cut to the chase and get David Yow himself back onstage.

Fisher seems to reserve special disdain for the acts who, like the Stones and The Who, did not fade away: The Fall, Nick Cave, Sonic Youth, etc. As cynical and sticky-fingered as reunion tours can be, there aren't many people who'd opt not to pay off their mortgage playing in a rock band instead of punching the clock down at patent office or call center. This is easier to understand than the musicians who, through good fortune and/or force of will, never quit the stage. Carl made a similar complaint about "career artists" a while back, but that sounded more like a case of sour grapes than anything. For Mark Fisher, the persistence of formerly "underground" acts is a betrayal of their original raison d'être: "wasn't this everything that post punk's scorched-earth modernism disdained?"

Of course, if he more closely examined the acts he accuses of perfidy, he'd find no inconsistency. For example, The Fall's mayor domo, Mark E. Smith, has often been compared (by Fisher himself, too) to a factory foreman, a wizened prole whose devotion is solely to his work. Nevermind that it's silly to chastise a band, whose first single included the tune "Repetition", for their dogged persistence; Smith's no-nonsense work ethic and incessant (if inconsistent) productivity are directly at odds with rock's no-future hedonism and its planned-obsolescence capitalist ethos. Also, as the developed world has de-industrialised into an anaesthetised service-oriented pleasuredome, much of society's ills stem from the fact that we don't make anything any more. Amidst regurgitative mash-ups and laptop-toting "performers", a guitar act that pays the rent through gigging, instead of media saturation, is as much an anachronism as steel mills and and mines. This actually casts The Fall further from mainstream society than the band was at its inception in the late '70s.

Sonic Youth, meanwhile, are victims of their own success. It's not that the band ever disavowed itself of the revolutionary intent of the No Wave scene (though I imagine Fisher would be rather disappointed to know that most of its participants went on to join more historically reverent & formalist units like the Lounge Lizards). By the time SY's most startling innovations were behind them and they signed with a major label, the band wasn't selling out to the mainstream: they were the mainstream, godfathers to the entirety of '90s "alternative" culture. Their appearances on MTV and atop festival playbills weren't the product of some crafty publicist, but again of an intransigent work ethic and the crafting of an aural aesthetic that captured the popular imagination.

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.

Ultimately, Mark Fisher's article is itself rooted in the kind of memorial arrogance typical of someone past the peak of their cultural relevance. "Modern culture is stagnant & redundant" is in no way different from "shit was better back in the day" - the same, tired moan of countless curmudgeons who can't be bothered to explore the very culture they're criticizing. As I've said before, "all music nods to its antecedents; torches are passed, picked up, or rekindled." It's also reactionary & provincial to protect music from an audience that isn't exclusively "our people." Music, like the word, is a virus, and is impossible to quarantine. What is important is that the underground-mainstream conversation remain one-sided. Steve Albini recently said 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.
This, I suspect, is what actually troubles Fisher: the blurring of counterculture and mainstream until the distinction is functionally meaningless. This, however, is not the same as underground artists gaining acceptance from the bourgeois & corporate classes. Musicians shouldn't be punished de facto for their success; if anything, their accidental intrusions into the mainstream should be welcomed as fissures opening to possibility, giving sight to the culturally blind.

It's unreasonable to force artists into retirement simply because their lingering presence is an unpleasant reminder of how old we ourselves are. Nick Cave, Tom Waits, The Fall, and Sonic Youth are all releasing records of far greater audacity than anything Lou Reed, Bowie, or the Stones were releasing at the same age. Had those performers vanished into some subterranean cranny long ago, it would only allow us to feel smug in our apathy towards contemporary culture because dude, shit was real back in our day. Any embarrassment felt towards the senior class of modern musicians is simply that these geezers, these ancients still rock harder & weirder than the juveniles - so what the fuck is wrong with these kids, man? Nevermind the pentagenarians, tell Passion Pit and These New Puritans to step their game up.

And even if, even if, even if the Bad Seeds, The Fall, and Sonic Youth aren't quite as spry as they once were, that's not cause enough to demand they cease practicing their craft. After all, I don't see Mark Fisher shutting down his blog even though his writing's been getting worse over the last couple of years.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Monday, March 15, 2010

Pearls To Swine

Well, I've hit a few unfortunate snags in distributing my recently-completed full-length, Rogues Gallery, so the masses frothing with anticipation (ha!) will just have to hang on a bit longer.

The good news is that in the meantime, here's a digital 7" pour gratuit to whet your appetite. "The Bug Man", a track off the LP, is the toe-tappin' tale of a sociopathic exterminator, while the B-side, "Tarred Memory", started as a simple folk tune but was quickly swamped in so many overdubs it'd make Kevin Shields blush. Nonetheless, it's a relentlessly fun track.

So please, go download the sumbitch, pore over the artwork, and pass it amongst your friends. May it bring a little joy to your auditory organs.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Is it spelled "poorism" or "pourism"?

Update in the Indie Bono-ism department: Swedish songbird Lykke Li has jumped on the bandwagon to Uganda. Evidently, what the world needs now is yet more fashionable white people going slumming on their fans' dime. At least one ugly angle has been wrenched out of this con job - donations towards the trip (organized by the noble folks at Invisible Children) are no longer going through a website in which Pitchfork editor Chris Kaskie is an investor. One less eschelon in this Ponzi scheme.

To reiterate: by all means, lend whatever support you can to Invisible Children, but do so directly instead of investing in this ridiculous indie rockstar Make-A-Wish field trip.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Souvenir Parts 3: Guys With Guitars

Continuing a look at the albums that logged the most spins on my stereo over the Aughts.

Fugazi, Red Medicine
XTC, Drums and Wires

As the first few pages were torn off the 2002 calendar, my mood was gradually improving. I'd spent the winter listening to records that were series of bloody gut-punches from start to finish - Big Black, the Jesus Lizard, and especially the Birthday Party's live album. It had helped sooth my uglier moods, but it was a strictly passive activity: I was without a band & living in a one-bedroom where I daren't plug in any instruments for fear of upsetting my alkie wife-beating neighbour. Stuck noodling on an unplugged SG, I at least wanted to play along to tunes that were a little more energetic than "Nick the Stripper". I was neither ambitious nor studious enough to tackle the finger-sports athleticism of the Dillinger Escape Plan, and a workplace feud had put me right off the gentler dexterity of finger-picked folk guitar.

So I settled on Fugazi's "deal-breaker" record, Red Medicine - often derided by the hardcore faithful for not being "punk" enough, yet too wry & recondite for emo fucks clutching copies of Diary to their chests. Which is exactly why I loved it so much: every repeat listen revealed a new harmonic warp or timbral weft, wrapped up with scathingly funny lyrics. Obviously, it was just a lot of fun to pinball around my living room jamming along to "Bed For the Scraping", but it was equally enjoyable to unravel the ambiguous, serpentine melodies of "Fell, Destroyed" or "Long-Distance Runner", or to parse the guitar-tone patchwork of "Latest Disgrace" or "Birthday Pony". It was impossible to tire of this record.

But Red Medicine also boasted a lot of hooks - not something often associated with post-hardcore slash-and-burn. By the early Aughts, there was already a glut of bands who squeezed every last histrionic drop out of the soft-loud dynamic, who screamed like drama queens, and who could purposefully hammer away at root/relative-minor chords. But Fugazi crafted choruses that could be sung, not just shouted; their riffs were armorial & memorable; and there was swing & groove in their rhythms.

This lead to the (incredibly late) realization that, perhaps, nuanced songwriting really mattered. Blisteringly obvious, I know, but remember that I'd preferred Zappa to Zeppelin and Mike Patton to Pavement over the course of my adolescence. During that time, one band that had been just compositionally perverse enough to attract my attention was XTC. I found it hysterical that a hyperactive pop romp like "Scissor Man" was actually about a serial killer, and the staccato clangor of "Paper and Iron (Notes and Coins)" sounded like Fugazi playing at being the Beatles. I'd also never heard low-gain guitar tones that still attacked with such crackle & whizz. Concerned I'd been buying all these distortion pedals for nowt, I became a little obsessed with this production trick, and so my fandom of XTC became slightly self-congratulatory when, of the various low-volume home-recording experiments I'd been conducting, one of my most successful had been in recreating Andy Partridge's guitar tone on the Black Sea record.

(There was also the fact that XTC had written the unequivocably anti-theistic "Dear God", wherein Partridge kept the tone intelligent and didn't resort to pseudo-occult faith-baiting. This song could be a musical madstone for a young atheist living in the dogmatically faithful United States.)

Though Black Sea is arguably my favourite XTC album, it sags in the middle such that I spent calculably more time listening to Drums And Wires. Also, though Drums is far more sapient & eccentric than the forgettable, naive New Wave of the first two records, it's still got the pluck & pathos that disappeared from XTC's music after 1982, as they fossilized into more of a fastidious songwriting workshop than a band. Consequently, Drums was a reasonable blueprint off which to work as I first attempted writing an entire song in a single key, or slowly accepted that repeating a motif more than once didn't automatically make a song "boring."

And to think that the album I listened to most frequently last year was Dopesmoker. I've come a long way, baby.

Next: Going to extremes and retreating.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Apocalypse No

Poor Evan Calder Williams... I never give the guy a fair shake. Every mention of him here and every comment I've made on his blog has been from a combative, borderline-bullying stance. But the truth is that we're both Marxists of one sort or another; we both try to imagine means by which capitalism can be choked; and we both have unruly beards that do us no aesthetic service. We're on the same side - and yet I can't read his writing without taking a swing at him.

How ferocious the battles are when so little is at stake.

Anyway, Williams has contributed to Mute magazine an article a propos apocalyptic cinema. It's well worth a read, and makes some interesting distinctions between crisis, catastrophe, and apocalypse. Most of my disagreement with the piece is specific & quibbling. For example, whereas Williams tacks to the original zombies-as-consumers interpretation (updated with a Žižekian notion of drive), I think the new glut of zombie films differ significantly in intent from the original Romero movies. The old Living Dead films were satirical critiques of persistent consumption, whereas the current crop are exploitation flicks preying on the audience's fear of the Other. Suppurating blank slates as they are, zombies are floating signifiers for whoever the audience fears are tearing at the fabric of civilised society: leftists may see fascists; Christians may see Muslims; conservatives may see immigrants, gays, or communists. (The heathen/immigrant/homosexual angle is especially persuasive, given bigots' fears of corruption of the blood & conversion by a kind of lobotomisation.)

I also think Williams gives The Road incredibly short shrift when he calls it "a terrible, terrible film." I see why many people wouldn't enjoy it (long, bleak, proud of its own straightjacketed sentimentality) but to call it "terrible" is unfair & inflated. I think the film is as embarrassed as proud of its nostalgia for good ol' late capitalism, especially considering how quickly the film's survivors/survivalists turn to cannibalism. Taking this literally - as an animal "urge" to digest human flesh -, Williams utterly misses the obvious symbolism of the cannibalistic act: that we as a species have eaten ourselves out of house & home, and will continue to do so until the last man gnaws his own kneecaps off rather than suffer from want.

I also get the sense that, as a good Marxist, Williams finds The Road's lack of faith in the collectivist spirit repellent and perhaps inaccurate. Maybe in Santa Cruz, where Williams lives amidst the redwood-shaded spectre of hippie utopianism, a group-oriented, egalitarian approach to survival would prevail. Let's hope it would. But from the rust belt to the Gulf Coast, where the bibles are beaten the hardest and the Gini coefficient is at its widest, American citizens faced with the deprivation & desperation presented in The Road would make the marauding motorheads of Mad Max look like British aristocracy.

A greater problem with Williams' piece is the writing itself - what happens to academics that bleaches any style or wit from their writing, leaving in its place a skree of adverbs and neologic nouns? Most infuriating (and this almost ruined Dominic Fox' Cold World for me) is an over-reliance on stock first-person-plural devices that affect the tone of the dullest college lecturer ever:
  • To start, we should...
  • Let us...
  • What do we mean...
  • Let us...
  • To conclude, we should...
No, not "what do we mean," but what does "we" mean? Who is this phantasmic "we" that I, as a reader, have been presumptively lumped into by the writer? What are "we" fighting for, and can I get a deferment?

Ultimately, it's Williams' apocalypse fetishism that bugs me the most. Clearly, he's found his theoretical niche, and I can't begrudge him that, but his pontifical embrace of the eschatological suffers from two problems of perspective. The first is that Williams has never experienced first-hand the truly catastrophic. I'm not asking that he suffer, but anyone in Haiti or the Gaza Strip would probably find him naïve & privileged.

The second is the same arrogance that every post-apocalyptic film appeals to: that "I" am one of the lucky ones, that "I" am smarter-faster-stronger, that "I" will survive.

What are the odds of that? Well, how many heroin addicts aren't William Borroughs or Iggy Pop?

A Fantastic Life!

Happy 53rd, Mark.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Indie Bono-ism

Yesterday, I was catching up on current affairs & cultural chatter over my morning coffee when I saw this:
Yeasayer has committed to join the Polyphonic Spree on a trip to Gulu, Uganda later this year, where the bands will learn about the effects of the Ugandan civil war and perform live in various locations.
Ah, Yeasayer - the band with the hardest-working publicist in indie-rock, proof that in the post-Pitchfork paradigm, a high profile guarantees neither consensus nor support. Why exactly is this quintet of bourgeois-bohemian Brooklynites traveling to eastern Africa? Here's the story: Invisible Children is a nonprofit group that rehabilitates ex-child soldiers from Uganda's civil war; they've teamed with French music blog La Blogotheque to bring occidental indie-rock bands to Uganda to see firsthand what horror Joseph Kony hath wrought and, y'know, play a few tunes. La Blogotheque will film the cross-cultural encounters for a DVD which will be sold to benefit Invisible Children.

Oh, but to pull this off, they need fans of the bands to donate $20,000 towards the endeavour. Kind-hearted consumers can donate their ducats via the Kickstarter website, a "funding platform" whose investors include Pitchfork publisher Chris Kaskie.

This whole thing stinks to high heaven.

For starters, neither Yeasayer nor the Polyphonic Spree is a band that sells hundreds of thousands of records, let alone millions. If Invisible Children wants the M.O.R.-indie audience's discretionary cash, why not recruit acts with a wider fan base? Are Vampire Weekend unable to rearrange their touring schedule? Do the Arcade Fire not give a fuck about the Ugandan civil war? I seriously doubt that.

Secondly, the loop of participants is far too closed for this to be anything other than graft. Bands routinely hyped by a prominent music website get a free trip to Africa, while the publisher of said website gets his pockets lined by donations by the bands' fans - who are expected then to pay again for an entertainment commodity wherein the globetrotting bards will learn valuable "life lessons" from poor, beleaguered brown people. And Pitchfork seems to think the magic words "full disclosure" mitigate the flagrancy of this conflict of interest.

Amidst all this backscratching, it's expected that some money will wend its way towards the nonprofit, but this is going around your ass to reach your elbow. Rather than raise twenty grand to fly a bunch of mediocre musicians to Gulu, couldn't that cash be spent on, I dunno, a school? A mobile clinic? A skills-training program?

After all, why assume concerned consumers will only donate to Invisible Children after watching a bunch of middle-class musos wander awkwardly around Africa, muttering platitudes about what great perspective it lends them (before jetting back to the warm bosom of the developed world)? Condescending juxtapositions of celebrity Caucasians cuddling third-world orphans aren't necessary to appeal to people's sense of charity. Not On Our Watch just donated over $1 million towards the Haiti relief effort, and no one had to watch some damned documentary of Brad Pitt or Matt Damon gawking at bloody rubble in Port-Au-Prince.

Though I'm not the first incensed by this debacle, no one is questioning the nobility or value of Invisible Children's mission; I'd encourage you at the very least to check out their website, if not donate directly to their cause. What's disgusting is not only how integrated into the machinery of capital so-called "indie" music has become ("as in Lady Gaga is Brokencyde is Pavement reunion"), but that the musicians see nothing wrong with this and expect their fans to empty their pockets accordingly. By turning featherweight "ethical" gestures into commodities - like hybrid cars or "Live in Uganda" DVDs - capitalism not only keeps everyone playing only by its rules, it tacitly absolves everyone's guilt about playing only by its rules. The expected/accepted display of rockstar ostentation has shifted from trashing hotel rooms in a narcotised rage, to flying half a world away to be photographed messianically embracing victims of some fresh disaster. As Jessica Hopper put it recently, "is 'I can't afford to go on my trip to Africa' any different than 'I can't afford this special cocaine I'd like more of'? Not really."

Tuesday, March 02, 2010


Sometimes I feel like if someone were to parody this blog, all it would take would be a black-and-white photo of some dude screaming into a microphone followed by an apology for not having written anything 'cuz I've been soooo busy lately, wrapped up in vague reassurances that the storm has passed and I'll resume writing with renewed vigor.