January 31, 2008
January 28, 2008
The Hype Machine released their 2007 Music Blog Zeitgeist list today, compiled of data from the top 10 lists of 600 or so blogs. INCLUDING THIS ONE.
For some reason they only seem to have taken 9 of my top 10, because the Skeletons album is missing. OH WELL. That's life in the blogosphere, I guess!
January 27, 2008
January 26, 2008
Yesterday I picked up Steve Reich’s Phases, a 5-disc Nonesuch retrospective of his phasing compositions of the ‘60s and ‘70s. When I looked it up on Amazon to see what other people had to say, I was surprised to see that – for a set of classic works – it was receiving some low ratings*. It turns out that the Nonesuch recordings are generally somewhat recent, from the 80s to early 2000s, and aren’t what many consider the “definitive” recordings of the pieces. Coincidentally or not, for these reviewers, definitive seems to be synonymous with “first”. It’s not that those were Reich’s own recordings and the Nonesuch versions are farmed out to various sub-par ensembles; many of the pieces, including “Music for 18 Musicians” and “Drumming”, are performed by Reich and his own group of musicians. Regardless, the reviewers dismiss these recordings as overproduced, criticizing things like mic placement and overall sound quality (too good); a common theme was that the recordings lack the immediacy and character of a live performance. To me, this sounded a lot like the griping generally heard from hard-line rock critics and fans. It was, of course, an appeal to authenticity. Since these tracks don’t recreate the feeling and sound of a live performance, they’re lacking. Never mind that the composer himself played on many of the recordings, and likely had a good deal of oversight during the recording process. In such a case, how are the new recordings any less authentic than the old? Particularly if they represent the artist’s evolving vision of the work.
Classical music presents an interesting contrast to rock music in that the pieces are written to be performed at different times, often by a variety of different ensembles. Pieces are generally written for live performance in front of an audience, rather than for recording. Classical music isn't designed to be consumed in the same manner as rock music - its variability is built in and assumed from the beginning. It's not a band writing a song for itself to perform, it's a composer writing a piece that could be performed by any number of ensembles. (It's interesting to note that in this sense, classical music bears more similarity to pop songwriting, ie. the Brill Building model, than it does to the traditional paradigms of rock music.) Thus, a recorded piece of classical music will always be lacking, and I think, as long as you keep this in perspective, it’s a reasonable attitude to take. These compositions are designed for live performance, to be heard in the concert hall, to be seen. Particularly for pieces like Reich’s phasing works, the dynamics and reverberations of a room can have a significant effect on the sounds created by the overlapping patterns. For an example, see my earlier post on “Clapping Music”. In the video, the sound is aided by the acoustics of the room, as well as the microphone of the video recorder, giving the sound a lo-fi quality that allows the single claps to occupy even more sonic space, filling out the sound beyond even the natural density created by the gradually shifting pattern. Compared to this, the studio recording off of his Early Works album sounds thin and precise, it is a little too perfect, but I don’t think this makes the recording any less essential.
The main problem that the detractors have is that they seem to expect the recorded pieces to be able to recreate the experience of the live performance – something they allege the original recordings were able to do. The short response to this is that nothing can recreate the live performance. Every live performance, no matter how perfect the ensemble’s performance, will be different. Every listen to a recording will be the same, even if the recording is of a live performance. By recording studio versions, the pieces are presented as a kind of blank slate – the piece performed as nothing more than the notes on the page, a perfect form that can never be replicated in a live setting. Just as such a perfect studio recording isn’t exactly ideal; I don’t think a live recording is either. Yes, a good live recording will capture the variables at work that day, that one moment in time, but once on record, those variables will never change, but even they will be degraded and altered by the recording process. Also, if you’ve only ever been exposed to one live recording of a piece, would you even be able to identify the variables as such? Is this any more true to the spirit of the piece than the perfect studio recording? Or are they both imperfect in their stasis when compared to the living sound of the live performance?
If we’re willing to acknowledge that a significant part of a piece of music’s beauty is found in its variable nature, to criticize a recording for lacking that variability is ultimately meaningless. It only serves to underscore the fact that the ideal setting for classical music is the live one. The only way to even begin to recreate the experience of variables that comes from the live performance is to listen to a variety of different recordings, noticing the differences in sound of all of them, in which case the studio recordings would have as much utility as any live recording. In this way, they serve their own purpose; these recordings are just as essential or definitive as any other.*Some of the criticisms referred to below were found in reviews on the Amazon pages for the individual Nonesuch CDs, not the box set. However, these are the same recordings that are found in the set.
January 25, 2008
Tomorrow is the first ever Festival 71 at the Beachland Ballroom in Cleveland. Times New Viking is headlining the show, a collection of bands from the Cleveland and Columbus areas. If i was still in Ohio I would go. If you are there now, you should go.
Check out I Rock Cleveland for a complete list of bands and links to their Myspaces/websites.
Coincidentally, Pitchfork posted a Times New Viking Guest List today: take a look.
More info @ Beachland Ballroom.
John Hodgman's thoughts on the event can be found here. Check this space soon for a recap of the evening's happenings.
January 24, 2008
January 21, 2008
Steve Reich (right) performing "Clapping Music"
Steve Reich, "Clapping Music" (mp3 @ zShare)
January 12, 2008
Today I went to Record Den in Mentor, OH; I wasn't really expecting to get anything, but they ended up having one of the sweetest used CD selections I've ever seen. I picked up the Phil Spector Back to Mono (1958-1969) 3 CD (the Christmas album was missing) box set, along with Sonic Youth's Sister, Entertainment! by Gang of Four, and Robyn is Here, the late 90s teen-pop album by my #1 Swedish crush. A few of the things I passed up were Applause Cheer Boo Hiss by Land of Talk, Psychic Hearts by Thurston Moore, Goo and Washing Machine by Sonic Youth, The Traveling Wilburys, Vol. 1, and albums from forgotten mid-90s local bands Sons of Elvis and Paranoid Lovesick. Record Den also has huge selections of new CDs, new and used vinyl, and used cassettes. Score 1 for Cleveland's east suburbs having sweeter record stores than Northampton.
January 11, 2008
Glenn Schwartz, former guitarist of the James Gang, Pacific Gas & Electric, and the All Saved Freak Band, is one of those "lost" 70s guitarists whose past is likely now more myth than reality. My dad told me that Clapton, Hendrix, and Page all saw Schwartz play, and each agreed he was better than they were. Now more outsider-musician than rock legend, Glenn and his brother Gene, playing as the Schwartz Brothers, are the Thursday night house band at Hoople's, a bar on the west bank of Cleveland's Flats district. Due to Schwartz's history of religious salvation, abuse at the hands of a cult leader, and resulting mental illness, his blues sets are often erratic and unpredictable. In mid-2007, a Slate article on "The freaky origins of Christian rock" provided a short history of Schwartz's time in the All Saved Freak Band:
The All Saved Freak Band is a different kettle of fish—at once more powerful and more disturbing, and a reminder of how apocalyptic convictions, Christian or otherwise, can go sour. The band began when a drugged-out Chicago guitarist named Joe Markko moved to Ohio, where he met a fiery street pastor named Larry Hill. Convinced that the Chinese and/or Russians were coming, Hill set himself up as patriarch of an isolated survivalist Christian commune, replete with guns and goats. When he performed, Hill wore a wide Amish hat and a priest's habit, and he sang to hector and convert. But the band didn't really gel until Hill and Markko were joined by Glenn Schwartz, an incendiary blues shromper who had played guitar for the James Gang but had publicly renounced commercial rock. Living collectively, the band made a handful of intense and very strange records, including the Tolkien-inspired folk-rock rarity For Christians, Elves, and Lovers. In 1975, in response to Hill's authoritarian brutality, Schwartz's family attempted to kidnap and "deprogram" the guitarist. The attempt failed, and the band's third record was called Brainwashed.Schwartz's lyrics are invariably apocalyptic; in last night's opener, the first words he said were "2008 will be the end of you." A minor earthquake had hit the Cleveland area a few days prior, and he pointed to this as a signal from God of the coming End. Later, he advised the audience that we'd "better get out quick, 'cause that chemical warfare, it's gonna make you sick." Early in the set he stopped the music and began to chastise/preach to the audience, referring to certain spectators as "lame brains" and "dummys", yelling at them for drinking beer "full of chemicals". He also told us that 1 out of every 2 people has cancer, and that there were 14 people with cancer in the room that night. Given his extreme fundamentalist views, his tirades are also often laced with invective against women; last night he warned us of the "females in power [who] don't even have the good sense to wear a dress ... women in pants is disgusting, it's disgusting." Later in the set he stopped again, this time relating his experiences as a medic in the Vietnam war, referring to Vietnamese soldiers as "slant-eyes" and "japs", then segueing into anecdotes about cancer-stricken relatives who had been saved through the power of prayer. At this point, the bartender had enough of the ranting, and turned the stereo on, leaving Prince to drown out Schwartz. Following a talking-to from the bartender, the 2nd set was largely uneventful, with Schwartz sticking to the music. Mental illness aside, Schwartz is an incredible guitarist in the blues-rock style, coaxing sounds without the aid of any pedals or effects. At one point early in the first set, he took out a comb and did his hair with his right hand while soloing on the guitar's neck with his left. Later, he jumped up on an automated bowling machine, surprisingly nimble for his 60+ years. As much curious spectacle as blistering blues guitar set, it was remarkable to see such talent survive in a man whose mind had left him long ago.
Gene Schwartz, Glenn Schwartz, and one of their revolving group of drummers.
January 8, 2008
January 7, 2008
For some reason, this song (Yeasayer, "2080") always reminds me of this (in style and spirit, if not necessarily in sound):
In my mind, the only appreciable difference in style - the part that makes Yeasayer's vision futuristic - is the yelling bridge that comes in about half way through the track. While Mad Max is destroying in Thunderdome, Yeasayer is a quasi-religious group of post-apocalyptic wasteland hippies, riding around in a converted, open-air Chevy Astro Van pulled by burros, eating the peyote that no doubt managed to survive the end times.
It's kind of disheartening to realize that songs that are getting all kinds of praise (at least on-line blog buzz praise) are just updates of corny songs from decades past.
January 4, 2008
Friends' Blogs and things
Elliott has been writing at Biomusicosophy, a blog about life, music, and knowledge. Check out his year end lists, or his Straussian interpretation of I Am Legend.
Stephen's blog, All Things Go, is a collection of field recordings of buskers in Chicago. I haven't explored it too deeply yet, but the concept is intriguing. Totally Lomax.
Bryan has been contributing to music blog The Owl and the Bear for a few months now. Click the link to be taken directly to his pieces.
Colleen has revived Nine Times That Same Blog, writing about whatever she wants. She is a free-form renegade.
Idolator's unsubstantiated and obnoxious "manifesto" is a pile of sub-MisShapes cooler-than-thou dogshit. "Online music criticism sucks, they're all dorky white kids, we're BADASS." This has turned everyone off, and I mean everyone. ... So far, the site reads like a piece of Chewels with no goo inside, Indieshite without the slanderous so-sue-me insider sneer (though I'm sure with some reputation-building, it will develop Gawker-level cachet). Maura's trying to even things out with nods to bands like Syrup USA and some other heartfelt digging, and if anyone has the ability to draw in readers from outside the narrow-minded hipster set it's her, but Idolator is obviously a job to its editors, at least for now, and that's a major incongruity with the divisive, overconfident contentiousness of that scene-shattering launch announcement.Now that Idolator is over a year old, it seems like as good an arbitrary time as any to reassess this criticism, particularly in light of two recent events. First, Idolator's editors made their only foray into 2007 year end list-making with their "Top 40 List of Awesomeness", and second, yesterday's post for their new intern search contained the most distilled version of their mission statement that there's been since Maura took over as Editor: "If you read Idolator, you know we're looking for someone with a gut-level love of music but a suspicious eye trained on all of the online hype and industry b.s. that comes with it in 2008." To begin with the latter statement, it clearly bears out Ott's early reading of the site. Even with the author of that derided "manifesto" gone, Idolator has remained clear in their suspicion of the online hype machine, largely composed of the "younger, self-policed culture writers" Ott refers to. While I obviously can't speak to the actual opinions of the Idolators, I imagine they're not completely opposed to the fanzine mentality, the "casual, party-hopping positivism," on its face. Rather, they are leery of the power and sway that the broad reach of the internet has given to that voice. Rather than the positive boosterism of a 2-4 issue a year fanzine - simply out to turn people on to some new bands - the breadth and communicative ability of the blogging world can make and/or break a band in a matter of weeks or months (see: Tapes 'n' Tapes, Birdmonster, Vampire Weekend, Black Kids, and plenty of others). Moreover, there's now real money involved (Stereogum is now a multi-million dollar venture), and if not money, then there's plenty of merch and other similar perks (the MOKB Zune imbroglio comes to mind). With nothing like editorial oversight, their casual, self-policed nature has allowed the world created by these blogs to spin out of control. In this case, I think Idolator's treatment of these issues is valid. Perhaps, given the passing of a year and three months or so, Chris Ott could agree that the milieu of the music blogging community is of a different nature than that of old cut-and-pasted-and-stapled paper fanzines.
The branded, jaded tone of the site—its Gawker quotient—is also 100% counter to the culture the entire pop music shouting match rose from, the fanzine. Idolator is a grotesque Baby Huey that has the potential to ruin a lot of slow-boiled friendships based on years of trust and good faith, to spoil the casual, party-hopping positivism of our younger, self-policed culture writers.
Turning to Idolator's list of their 40 favorite songs of 2007, one could come away with the notion that their suspicion and cynicism regarding the indie rock hype machine has taken a reactionary turn. In this case, "Top 40" is an apt descriptor indeed (zing!). The majority, I'd say between 2/3 and 3/4, of the list is made up of chart-friendly radio pop. I don't want to get embroiled in some kind of rock vs. pop debate, since I think that "good" music is any music that you like (it's part of the idea behind this blog in the first place), but it's hard not to feel like the editors are pumping up their anti-indie (or "popist", for people who like to talk that way) bonafides in order to provide further evidence of their distance from the hype machine. That is to say, while I acknowledge that there's an abundance of over-hyped mediocre-or-worse crap clogging the indie pipelines, I think there's still enough good, interesting music out there to construct a list without turning to major label music with radio play and thousands of marketing dollars behind it. [Two possible responses to this criticism: 1) Why should radio-ready pop music be considered only a last resort when making a list of your favorite songs? 2) Many of the people reading Idolator are, either out of professional obligation or by choice, not paying much attention to this type of pop music, and thus, in a manner that queers the indie fanzine concept, the list serves to introduce many of them to music that they wouldn't have heard otherwise - in this case music that has already gained plenty of exposure through mainstream outlets. That Lloyd song was alright!] In this sense, I think Chris Ott's "Online music criticism sucks, they're all dorky white kids, we're BADASS," description still rings true. Their reactionary slant in regards to online music criticism is palpable. However, later in that paragraph he says of Maura: "if anyone has the ability to draw in readers from outside the narrow-minded hipster set it's her." The "Top 40 List of Awesomeness" serves as further proof, as the average Brooklyn Vegan commenter would likely do no more than scoff at the list, not giving it another thought.
All of this is to say that Idolator is a weird and interesting element in the current online music writing environment. The editors have staked out a crucial position, one so unique that it's only natural that they'd lose their footing at times, coming off as reactionary cranks when it is really only their love for music that has so concerned them with changing nature of the entire music business - from the recording industry at the top, to consumers and critics at the bottom - and their's is one of the few voices questioning this change in a reasoned, thoughtful manner on a daily basis. As that sentence may suggest, this is also a love letter. Reading Idolator turned me on to writing about music, and the elements surrounding it, more than Pitchfork or anything else I've ever read. I've been toying with the idea of applying for their internship position, but now I don't know, as this post would seem like a total ass kiss. Maybe I could delete this last bit.
Update: I just found a similarly-themed post at Eric Harvey's marathonpacks, dated 9/18/2006 (just 2 days after Ott's). It's pretty long, and I haven't yet had a chance to read it, but it's definitely worth a look.
January 3, 2008
The 'Forkcast has the premiere of Thurston Moore's video for "Fri/End", from his 2007 release Trees Outside The Academy - an album that was all over my year end lists. I figured I'd post it, since we're neighbors and stuff. It looks like it was filmed on location in the Pioneer Valley.
The Dirty Projectors' "Two Young Sheeps" (link to mp3), off of their 2006 New Attitude EP, has been one of my favorite songs for the past month or so. An eight minute live recording, the song's guitar, key and vocal parts rely heavily on call and response structure. Along with the lo-fi sound quality, this gives the track a total funky Lagos feel.
In the wake of Sasha Frere-Jones's New Yorker article, criticizing indie-rock (a term I'd prefer not to use) for what he sees as its overwhelming whiteness (and the spate of responses it provoked), Dirty Projectors' use of African structures raises a different sort of questions about the relationship between music and race/ethnicity. As shown on their two most recent LPs - The Getty Address (2005) and Rise Above (2007) - Dirty Projectors' mastermind Dave Longstreth has a unique ability to craft songs and album concepts that play with notions of authenticity and the creative process. Here, he takes the form of traditional African music and uses it to create something artificial but not cheap; appropriating without being exploitative, the sound vividly evokes the loose, collective feeling of a blissed-out 3rd world jam.
Check out their Daytrotter session for 4 more songs.
January 2, 2008
We live in public trailer from RADAR on Vimeo.
Radar online has the premiere of the (briefly NSFW) trailer for We Live in Public, an upcoming documentary about a group of 100 artists and volunteers who live in an sub-Manhattan bunker under constant video surveillance as part of some artistic-cum-social experiment. While the clip has a number of remarkable elements, from reminders of the heady days of the late 90s, when "cyberspace" presented a world of endless possibilities; to the muddled (to the point of incomprehensible) political overtones of the project; the most striking feature of the video is just how quaint it all seems. I don't know if its because 8 more years of reality TV have desensitized us to the entire premise, or because the inhabitants largely look to be the kind of "artistic" types whom it's impossible to take seriously anyway (think Elisa from the current season of Project Runway), but aside from general curiosity, the film doesn't seem nearly as interesting or compelling as it should. Wasn't there already a bad Matthew McConaughey movie about this? And at least that one seemed to have a clear idea of what it wanted to say. I'm all for raising more questions instead of providing answers, but the whole concept just seems like an already-dated mess.
Take a look and let me know what you think.
For the heads:
Jonas Brothers - Year 3000
Apple Jacks Commercial, 1998
While it may be a bit Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism to suggest that advertising copywriters are often the most adept at capturing and distilling (or is it creating?) zeitgeist, the Apple Jacks tagline is a remarkably succinct, evocative portrait of late 20th century American consumer society. Part of a contemporary trend in advertising aimed at children, the theme/mission of these commercials is the empowerment of the child qua consumer. Unlike earlier advertising, (see 1988 Apple Jacks commercial) these commercials set the preferences of the child in direct opposition to those of the adult. Moreover, they offer no reason for this preference, save the "adults don't get it" angle. The message imparted is that the way to rebel, to differentiate yourself from your parents, is to want this product. The "Apple Jacks '94" commercial (see sidebar) lacks even this, offering no more than, "We eat what we like!" And why do we like it? Well, we just do.
A rallying cry for irrational choice, "We eat what we like" is now over 15 years old. Though no longer a part of Kellogg's advertising campaign, its ethos still exists in the child - now adult - consumers educated by its message. Through our choices, we make ourselves. Reason is an inconvenience. We are what we eat; we eat what we like.