30 April 2007

still over, still now

EMP hi-lites, cont'd. saturday:

rob't xgau's reflections on pazz'n'jop - generally, and '06's poll(s) specifically - were as incisive and enjoyable as ever - he's just such a pleasure to listen to, with his inimitable, impassioned/impatient delivery of wry, wordily wrought sentences designed to maximize his "micromanaged microphone minute." the content of his talk was nothing unexpected either - i felt like i'd heard many of these opinions and anecdotes from him before, whether in print somewhere or other, or in person at the philly lit fest this fall. mostly, he sounds the authoritative, all-acknowledged voice of (post-Voice) reason, but in some moments an ambivalent dichotomy emerges - one pointed up by joshua clover's impish importunities - a perhaps generationally-derived, but less than precisely divisive, divide, of which i'm disinclined to decide on a side. where's the line between christgau's circumspect attention to the "residue" swept aside by the "blogging fools" [in an acronym; ABM] and the at-long-last lost-touch of fogey-dom? or between j-clo's futurological, fashion-forward championing of the "emergent" and impolitic impetuousity? the two needn't be irreconcilably opposed, of course, but it's something to be settled in the process of discovering value and meaning of silly little things like critics polls, and in grasping towards a sense of the "current state of music."

daphne brook's panegyrical examination of TV on the Radio, which i found a good deal more compelling than the band itself (unlike greil marcus' commendation of early rod stewart shortly afterwards, which i just couldn't focus on, despite greil's grace and geniality.) brook's talk was also less abstruse than her abstract, though not necessarily less erudite. it certainly made me want to revisit their last record (wish she'd had more to offer re:it's title), even though i'm not sure i can articulate exactly what she was arguing about it. the most relevant thought i can cull from my sparse notes is about their music as "the sonic equivalent of the practice of diaspora."

maura johnston's presentation on freestyle was perfectly delightful, even though it focused less on lyrical and situational paradoxes and more on a (helpful and necessary) history/explanation of the genre itself, grounded in her personal experiences of listening to it on the radio as young girl. she passed out a mix cd of favorites, which i'm enjoying even more than i anticipated. (most of the stuff still sounds surprisingly fresh.) it was nice to hear folks chime in with their own recollections in the q+a.

• i'm not sure i completely bought alexa weinstein's theory about headphone listening making us more present in the moment and in our surroundings, but it was cool to hear her offer some generalized analysis of this very personal phenomenon - headphones as 'non-diegetic music for life' makes a lot of sense. also cool: silent disco.

brian goedde and elena passarello (no sign of their third partner who wrote a book with christine vachon) gave one of the coolest presentations at the con, for their format innovation alone - mairead case comes close too for her free-form poetic monologue about karen dalton, which i only caught the latter half of. bg+ep's piece was effectively documentary theater; a series of monologues culled from interviews with iowan hip-hoppers; a couple of rappers and at least one somewhat confused fan. a charismatic and touching combination of humor, poignancy, and anthropology, it offered no big generalizations or conclusions, but plenty to think about.

carl wilson led an interesting lunch session about local music scenes, which he's already written about himself. i was hoping somebody might speak up about philadelphia - whose scenes-to-speak-of seem to be decently well covered in local media, actually - but it only got a passing reference, and i didn't feel qualified to comment, not being an active journalist.

• my buddy tom kipp showed us some pictures and played us some awesome recordings from the weirdo (post)punk bands he and his friends used to be in in montana in the '80s, which is a pretty rad thing to be able to do.

• my other sort-of buddy charles hughes ripped it up talking about southern soul and country crosspollinations (mostly in the '60s-'70s), something he could undoubtedly have gone on speaking about for many hours without flagging in knowledgeability or enthusiasm. he spoke of this interwoven tradition of soul, country, and adjacent genres as an alternate history of 20th century popular music, and presented his specific topic for the day - the influence of soul on country music - as an alternate history of that alternate history. now that i've read (the majority of) peter guralnick's book and encountered most of the major players there, i was much more easily able to follow along with hughes' rapid-fire narration, and to readily incorporate some of this new information into my mental picture of the history. but even so, what he gave us felt like merely a teaser; dude's been stewing in this stuff (working on his masters and now a phd) for several years at least, and his expertise and passion for the subject is simply inspiring. i did think it was kind of curious that his recommendation for current southern soul (in response to a question) was bubba sparxxx's deliverance (that is a great album though) - also mentioned ellis hooks, who's underwhelmed me a little. ["sharon jones to panel!"... i was thinking, not for the last time.]

• finally...as per carl's summary, the panel he moderated included interesting talks on woody guthrie and joanna newsom. i left after those to hear a couple of old white guys talk about sleater-kinney...yeah.


and then there was one more panel on sunday. actually this might have been my favorite panel of the whole conference (though, as noted before, it was one of only two i stayed at for its entire length.) this was the perhaps-winkingly titled "hard to place," which indeed at first blush seemed like an assortment of rather unrelated loose ends, but turned out to have more thematic unity and cross-panel resonance than even most panels organized around a single genre or subject. basically, these three papers dealt with issues of legacy, aging, historicality, traditionalism, and so forth, with regard to specific artists in three different genres: jazz, '60s vocal pop, and chicago blues. together, they offered an assortment of options for what can, and what should, happen to musicians and musical forms as they advance in years.

harvey cohen related how duke ellington "fought nostalgia" in the 1960s (in his sixties as well) not only by continuing to innovate musically, but also by seeking out new performance opportunities and audiences - performing and speaking at colleges, conducting international tours for the state department, composing overtly religious works for the first time, as well as involving himself in the civil rights movement and creating black history-themed pieces. in the q+a, christgau raised an eyebrow at cohen's assertion that by so doing ellington modelled a new role for the senior citizen in popular music, but although i'm not hugely familiar with his counter-examples (lawrence welk, rosemary clooney) i have to say it seems like a strong argument, even if he wasn't technically the first 'pop' musician to continue to innovating into old age.

tom smucker offered an insightful and highly entertaining exegesis of the four seasons' underheralded legacy - in the wake of the success of the musical "jersey boys" - according to smucker the first ever telling of the four seasons' story, after 43 years. much of his paper involved an abstract but intriguing mapping of - i suppose - pop narratology onto the political landscape, with the three major mythic types relevant to the 1960s consisting of motown/"overcoming adversity" narrative (analagous to mlk); the beatles/british invasion model (jfk); and southern/country music model (lbj/george wallace.) the four seasons don't fit into any of these schema; possibly they might have matched up with rfk, but his death, in smucker's formulation, meant to removal of this "frame" as a possible means for understanding their story. it's not clear that they have a political analogue now, either - but the socio-cultural environment has opened up room for them, most recently and pertinently in the form of the sopranos, which is not about creating a dynasty, but about a suburban family struggling to keep their business afloat. that's about as much of the gist as i can reconstruct from my notes - clearly, the paper was highly theoretical, but in its own curious terms it did make a lot more sense and work out better than it might seem.

carlo rotella's presentation concerned the perhaps questionable future of chicago blues as a 'living' genre, and held up the guitarist magic slim as one of the style's few remaining traditionalist practitioners. though hardly advocating a strict, static structure for the venerable form, rotella opined that things would be better for all concerned (innovators, newcomers, purists, and the vitality of the genre itself) if everybody took a lesson from slim (or, as he suggested, spent a couple of years in his backing band.) as he put it, the issue is not stasis but "passive innovation by default": on the one hand, pure stasis - the alternative to innovation - would lead to stagnation and then dessication; but the disappearance of an orthodox "center" can lead to the death of a genre too, as the remaining elements gravitate towards and "latch on" to other forms.

in the discussion period, folks tried to apply this formulation to other genres - country (which follows the same schema well), jazz (which, going off the ellington paper, seems perhaps to have the opposite problem) and indie rock ("everybody has to serve time in guided by voices"?), which as far as i can tell isn't stagnating or dying. soul was brought up but only tentatively, in a question about joss stone working with betty wright (which was news to me - that's cool), which prompted my only public verbalization of the whole conference (i pointed out that joss is already moving towards pop/r'n'b, far from stagnating in trad soul), and which i may get around to following up one of these days, on myspace. i do think there's a ton of relevance for soul here in all of these papers (well, maybe the four seasons one less so...though there were some gestures to thinking about them as in some ways like a soul group - many songs dealing with issues of class and social hierarchy, for one thing.) in fact, this would have been the perfect panel for my paper to have been included in (!) (and there were only three papers, so there could have been room too...) but perhaps i will contemplate that at another point.

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