Friday, March 18, 2011

Out of Vogue

I'm out of the loop, I know that because there was a time when I was in the loop. I ran a radio station, wrote for magazines, ran a sound system company, DJ'ed and played in a band. Hard to get more in the loop than that, right? Oh, and I freelanced as a cameraman, not to mention, got a comfortable 9 to 5 working for colleges and even an Ex President. Yes, very much in the loop. But, all that's behind me, abandoned from the mid 1990's. Now, I do this blog, I work a fairly straight job, I raise a kid, I play with my cats, I live in the Exurbs, well out of the loop. The reasons are a big mix of personal, philosophical and political- and far too messy to explain, here. However, it means that like some bizarre twilight zone episode of a castaway on a deserted island, strange bits of my former life wash up on me from time to time. Sometimes,I'll get a catalog. Other times, an invitation to a promotional event. Sometimes, a job offer. Usually, though, it'll be a promo CD, or a PR kit.It leads to some dissonances-wearing hipster J brand skinny black jeans to go to a tractor pull, and talking to a national figure on the cell phone, while trying to order an apple crisp from the Roy Rogers. I haven't reviewed a whole lot from that strange driftwood from another life. Most of it is crap, and not worth a mention. A few weeks ago, I suspect somebody screwed up at play it again Sam, and I got a package sent to a PO Box that I still have, and some of that stuff got forwarded to where I live now. I told you- it's very odd, how these things happen. Most of that stuff was basically known quantities but there was a CD that was completely unknown to me. The name of the band was very vaguely familiar, but I could honestly say I didn't know them, and was intrigued primarily by two factors- the painting on the cover ( a big Fauvist/ pointillist/impressionist painted face) and the production team- Flood and Alan Moulder. For those who wouldn't know- Flood and Moulder, back in the late 1980's and early 1990's were the best producers/mixers/engineers going. After listening to it, I cannot explain how I slept on this band before now except to say that I really am out of the loop. Unlike what I first thought- this is no debut from a british supergroup made up of pre-grunge all stars- this is a second LP from a New York band with Indie aesthetics that are firmly retro, but my missed impression should speak volumes. So, the band name is "The Pains of Being Pure at Heart", and the CD is called "Belong"- at first I thought it was the other way around. It sounds like a playlist from 120 minutes, circa 1989, mashed up, and played by a somewhat more energetic version of Belle and Sebastian. In other words, it completely speaks to the last time I was in the loop. The folks at Spin, Pitchfork, AV Club, Drowned in Sound, Rolling Stone, and so on- in other words, everyone in the loop, really likes it, and loves this band. I like it, but all I can think about when I hear it is that it really doesn't seem to matter if I'm in the loop or not because the loop is exactly that- a loop. They circle each other, again and again, looking very, very busy- but they're just going around and around, never changing all that much.


Some groups or artists get popular and it's easy to understand why it happens: a combination of marketing ploys, and crowd pleasing hooks, and whomp, there it is. Most of the time, it's a bit more obscure, and of those times, it's usually obscure to some, but not all. I chalk it up to a more targeted attack on certain demographics, and if you're not one of them, you'll never understand. Sometimes, there's a surprise, but such surprises are usually fleeting. This is why pop culture tends to be seen as "greasy kids stuff" and "fluff" and ephemera- the resonance of a deeply shared communication has very little place in such by-rote transactions. It's supposed to be different for the Alterna- Indie- Artsy- or Adult contemporary folks; you'll note the irony that I can name the demographics instantly, and easily. Sorry if you haven't heard it before, but it's all the same- We are all teenyboppers, in the modern marketplace of culture. It doesn't matter if you're talking about Yo Yo Ma, Radiohead, Katie Perry, Alan Jackson or Dimmu Borgir, it's all a commercial transaction based upon the same combination of hooks, advertising and identity.
So, jaded as I am, cynical as I am, I still enjoy wading in to the pop culture morass, and I'm enthusiastic about it. Much like Greek mystery plays, I already know the story, but I enjoy the telling, because the way it goes has individual pleasures for me. However, I'm awake, and self-aware, and I know when there's something amiss. Such is the case with the Joy Formidable. Something about their "small town girl makes good" story seems a bit too mythic, and fits a bit too hand-in-glove with the secondary "girls just wanna have fun" byline about tiny welsh girls making big guitar rackets. You mean to tell me, in this age of Internet connectedness, that some little welsh girl isn't canny enough, nor informed enough to make the connections between English Twee pop, Shoegazer revivalism, and Post-metal noisiness on her own, and just came about that sound like some kind of primativist? I doubt it. You mean to tell me that a world-traveller is just some introvert, smitten with the majesty of her native land? Yeah, right- tell me another one, Polly, you're not rid of me. Hell, even the Wiki page reads like Ad copy. I give them 2 albums, tops, before the story wears thin.
However, like i said, I'm an enthusiast, and I'm a fan of their symphonically lush and loud indie pop, so i have an idea for them- Justin Broaderick. The thought came to me whilst listening to the new version of "Whirring" on the new release "The Big Roar"- the drums share an obvious connection with early Jesu, as do a lot of the guitar/electronic tones. ( You want a nutshell description of their sound? Siouxsie Sue meets Jesu, to play Lush songs. There you go, you got it) Here's the narrative twist- get Broaderick to produce the next record. Go very minimal and goth on a lot of the aesthetics. Think mid-period Godflesh meets This mortal Coil. Do a bunch of Hip-hop inspired remixes ( clearly they're hurting for new material- the two standout tracks are the same two standout tracks from the prior mini album, one even recycled twice from their first single). Maybe get some collaborations going, though that might be pushing it. Besides getting exposure with a new potential demographic, you can exploit the whole naif goes to the big city, gets burned and bitter narrative, and then go back and do another record of lush and lively pop songs- a "return to form"- only "older and wiser". That'll give you about a five record career, which would be respectable, and sure to garner you a lifelong career in the business of one form or another.
In the meantime, for us listeners taking this new release as it is, here's my advice- listen to it. It might very well be the only record you'll ever need by them, but it's a good listen. It has some very pretty parts, and some real thunder, and it's not just pablum. I think it's much more worthwhile than last year's mini-album which was decent, but a bit perfunctory, and overshadowed by hype surrounding it. The standout tracks, as always are Austere and Whirring, which could also be a description of their drum sound, but the guitars are mixed with electronics, and effected, and multi-tracked to a symphonic extreme- like Broaderick is noted for doing- but with a more oceanic, more sweet tone than even Jesu produces- giving it a very lush, and dreamy feel, like the louder Shoegazer bands. To return to my cynical tone- the music basically covers the aesthetics of folks into modern Alt-Rock who predate Grunge, like me.


Quicksand, of course, brings us to Walter Schreifels. He's got a new record out in Rivals Schools called "Pedals". This is a release that probably wasn't supposed to be, and most folks are writing it off as a kind of coda to his career, released 10 years too late. I don't blame them- his career has been pretty spotty, in terms of new records out, and continuity. However that all seems like background noise to me- the guy is younger than me, and most of his releases are "classics" to me. That is- there are only two Quicksand records, and now, two Rival Schools releases- all four are simply awesome. So, since 1993, that's 4 great records. In the same time, Radiohead has released 4 songs that I would listen to, and people drown themselves in praise of radiohead. Since 1993, Rage against the Machine have put out 1 double record that I'd put on the same level, and they burned out. Since 1993, Pearl Jam have released no music I like. Get the idea? I'd prefer 1 great song to a mountain of garbage I don't want to hear. ( Hence, Radiohead is OK by me, because those four songs are really worthwhile) I also don't rule out the possibility that Schreifels could make another fantastic record after this.
So, taken on its own, Pedals ( the new release) is definitely on its own. It occupies a space between Shoegaze, posthardcore, Punk and Indie Rock ( you'll note all are genres I'm prone to like). By that I mean it's densely layered washes of woozy and concrete guitars, buoyed down by syncopated beats and solid choruses. At the same time, unlike a lot of other 'unclassifiable' rock music, it sounds coherent- it's not like listening to two records at once, and hoping they'll mash up. Shreifels, instead, reminds me of Bob Mould at his best- like Mould, his influences are audible, but the result is unique and revelatory. It sounds like "Alt Rock' is new and relevant again- I know that's an illusion- because it's definitely rock, but it's not rock you've heard before, and it's vibrant and alive in a way that top 40 pop will never be. I recognize that it may not play well in the Art House, nor is hard and abrasive enough for the Pit. There is enough melody and Pop structure in the songs that I'm sure some would find this a bit too mild, and enough grit and angularity that most would find it too wild- hence my re-animation of the term Alt Rock, as opposed to 'grunge', "post hardcore' or whatever the more modern term might be. There is no fad or fashion to this. It doesn't reference stuff that was popular the first time around, and certainly won't be mainstream mutated like this ( ever notice how the folks that will blast something that references subcultural stuff from 5 years ago are the same folks who'll laud stuff that references things that were really popular 15 years ago? For example- they'll say that something that references the Cave In is tired, but if it references Deee Lite, they're all over it). At the same time, it's not hyperliterate, ultrachallenging hipster intellectual music- so it doesn't cover the anti-fashion fads, either. It's not heartland rock, but it is anthemic. It's smart, it's soulful, it's just a little challenging, and it's tasty enough that you don't have to "develop" a taste for it. Blast it loud, even the acoustic parts, and shout along to a chorus or two, and you might just feel an energy that you knew was lacking in your life.
If you are a fan of something that has the volume and power of hardcore punk Rock, but couched in terms that divorce it from rote examinations of forms crystallized more than 20 years ago, Shreifels has it.

Sine is Fine, but Sludge is thicker.

I can only take so much math. I was a split major in college- one major was a science (Electrical Engineering) and one a liberal Art ( English Lit)- so I can hang with more math than your average Artsy fartsy type, but I have my limitations. Higher level calculus blows my mind, and trigonometry nearly killed me. The same goes for stuff that colloquially gets called "Math"; I can take Meshuggah, but Dillinger Escape plan is too much, I can take Shellac, but Circus Lupus leaves me behind. The issue is that I really like the math that I like, and so people assume that I like all Math, when I just am enthusiastic about some.
So, when I say that my favorite United Sons of Toil release is this newest one- " When the Revolution Comes, Everything will be Beautiful", a fair assumption would be that they're still straight Math rock, when that's neither the case, nor the reason I like it. I actually like the points at which it deviates from Math- there are touches of Sludge Metal, and dance Punk in there- and mixing that with Midwestern Math Rock interests me more than if they'd gone the way of the Flying Luttenbachers. I would say that the math influences are getting closer to Shellac than Jesus Lizard, on this one, while the structural complexity seems closer to Report Suspicious Activity, and other J Robbins-fueled Emo Punk than to Don Cabellero. I think that might be due to some sub-or un- conscious bleedover from their Joy Division project ( my thought is this- J Robbins, John Reis{ Drive Like Jehu}, Jim Wall {Kerosene 454} and others have talked about Joy Division as an influence, while later Emo, and Math derives more from other sources) but regardless of source, i'm a much bigger fan of say, Arcwelder or Honor Role than I am of Dazzling Killmen or Shipping News. ( Getting Dizzy, yet?).
Let's dispense with the labels, then, and use analogies- the sound that USOT have is more like Vic Bondi's and J Robbin's and the Hobson brothers ( I'm hearing a fair amount of Killdozer. What's up with Madison?) mixed with greg Ginn's and Kirk Fisher's than anything else. I'm hearing the politics of Report Suspicious Activity mixed with Killdozer, and the beats of Polvo- played at Amphetamine Reptile volume. Heck, I'm even hearing some Helmut dynamics. As a matter of fact, the band mentions Touch and Go records, and they'd be a somewhat ill-fit to that roster, but I think they'd have been perfectly at home on Am Rep, at least musically. I can see them playing with Unsane and godheadSilo, at some Student Union, somewhere, sometime in the 1990's. The band cites Unwound, and I can see that, but you'd have to beat Unwound up, then train them to box to get the sound tough enough.
I will admit, it starts a bit slowly for me. Songs like "Alcoholism in the Former Soviet Republics" call back to the last record, which was very good, but a known quantity at this point- it's all Squall and release. Also, the more noisy production is sometimes a great choice, and other times obscuring. However, from the keening start of "Sword of Damocles" until the last note of "State Sponsored Terrorism" it's some superlative dissonant complex post-hardcore/Math/Sludge/skronk, on par with Quicksand- and more on why Quicksand is a favorite in later posts...

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Not a new post but a note about new stuff

This has been a really good week for me, music-wise- I've been listening to new stuff by United Sons of Toil, Rival Schools, Joy Formidable, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart and the already mentioned Twilight Singers. It's only Wednesday, but it feels like I got a month's worth of new music.
On top of that I've got some thoughts on Movies, which I don't write about nearly often enough, but that's probably because I haven't watched too many, as of the past 6 months. Still, I promise there'll be stuff about that, soon...

Monday, March 14, 2011

Pure self indulgence

I'm glad if I can help people find more music than what they already listen to, and I'm even more happy if I can slightly tweak someone's perception of pop culture. I do really believe that the narrow spectrum that so many fall for is so utterly unsatisfying, so shallow, so thin as to be useless- and that so many alternatives exist that it's entirely possible to have something that's been unavailable since the beginnings of the mass consumer media age- a shared, but completely individual culture. By that I mean, with all that's available, it's now possible to simultaneously follow your unique aesthetics and tastes, and still find some community in the world at large, in that pursuit. That's something that simply amazes me, and I think it should amaze everyone, but I understand that for teens into twenties, this is the cultural world they were raised within. So, I've always followed my individual tastes- but now, a significant portion of what I'm talking about, I realize, concerns antebellum icons- artists, and arts from before the Flood that is the Internet. I'm doing so primarily out of self indulgence. No offense to those who might read this, but my audience here is small enough that I might as well just be talking to myself, and I like it that way. I find the notion of the back country crank with an outsider library in the shed to be a romantic and praise-worthy lifestyle. Yes, I know I'm a crazy old hermit- but the point is that, in this new age, even crazy old hermits have a slot to fit in the grand design of culture.
So, with the obligatory "meta" discussion out of the way- here's what I'm talking about this week-
First, Grunge. Well, not exactly. I think that grunge was a misnomer to begin with. I still prefer "alternative rock" to most of the terms available (from "underground" to "college" to "proto/Post Punk" to "stoner" to ye gads, I don't care) simply because it's the broadest, most meaningless term- that still conveys that I'm not talking about the "classic" rock that still dominates this backcountry's radio, and I'm not talking about the "Punk" that teenagers with dyed hair think is relevant. I'm talking about stuff from the new Mark Lanegan single, to the new Twilight Singers release, to old Radio Birdman records, to pre-major label Jawbox, to the last two Government Issue records- all of which is what I've been listening to this week. It all still sounds amazingly fresh and vital to me. Mark Lanegan, as you might know, could sing the Phone book in that velvetty rumble of his, and it'd sound like poetry sung by the devil, himself. Greg Dulli has spent the past 20 years making a body of work every bit as important as Leonard Cohen, or Nick Cave, but based on a hard RnB instead of a flinty folk base, and the new Twilight Singers is no deviation, but is on a more electronic/shoegaze base than previous. I dig it, a lot. "Radios Appear" and "Living Eyes" you should own already and understand. If you don't and do not understand what Radio Birdman means- here's the deal- Deniz Tek and company made what Punk rock should have been, if it hadn't gotten sidetracked by The Ramones' forced simplicity. As for Jawbox, J Robbins is a genius, and always has been. "Grippe", the particular CD I've been listening to this week, is the record he made after leaving Government Issue, and, no one else will tell you this, the record that Fugazi spent a decade trying to emulate. I just listened to Government Issue's "You" and "Crash"- which both are basically an East Coast version of what TSOL perfected on "Dance with Me" and "Beneath the Shadows"- an American hardcore version of the Damned's "Goth" phase, mixed with the aforementioned Radio Birdman- based mostly upon Robbins.
On top of that, with TV, I've been watching a lot of the Palladia channel. Yes, it's a VH1, hence Viacom, hence mass media product- but it's allowing me to get a small taste of things like the 2010 Oxygen festival, and bits of Glastonbury, and so on- there's several five minute segments that get played that are worth your time. Still, I would warn the weak minded- if you don't know what you're doing Palladia could leave you feeling that something horrible is worthwhile- I even was very briefly charmed by the Kings Of Leon, until I noticed that their hair never was anything less than coiffed, which broke the illusion that they are anything other than bland corporate rock. So, much like painkillers, take Palladia with great care- you might just be accepting an unacceptable situation. The discomfort you feel might be a warning that you have an Arcade Fire infection, and should seek immediate assistance- preferably involving something with some power....
But, my TV has been reserved for watching a fair amount of wrestling, as well. If you don't know Shimmer, you should. Mention that you enjoy Pro-wrestling, and you get sneers and sidelong looks. Mention that it's Women's wrestling, and you get expressions of outright disgust. So, Shimmer doesn't involve hot oil, mud, or silicon. It's not about a corny soap opera. It's an athletic exhibition, much like has gone on at carnivals and circuses for over a century. I think it's only marketing that makes people think of Cirque du Soliel as "art", and Pro-Wrestling as trash- they're the same thing. Athletic shows formed around contrived stories, derived from the jugglers, acrobats and performers that have entertained people for thousands of years. So, if you can open your mind to wrestling, Shimmer is an excellent place to start.
OK, I'm going back to enjoying, now...