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.
30 April 2007
EMP hi-lites, cont'd. saturday:
24 April 2007
like EMPtiness and harmony. (i need someone to conference me.)
ee em pee ee em pee ee em pee. let's see. what did i learn?
highlights from friday included:
• simon reynold's informative rundown of londoncentric dance music of the last 15-20 years, with awesome sample clips. apparently he went way over his time allotment (and he didn't get to finish his paper - he skipped his further comments on lady sovereign - but i really didn't notice at the time. i think this was the first time i understood the difference between jungle and drum'n'bass (which made me think i really need to listen to more of the former and less of the latter.)
• daphne carr's investigative report on hot topic, whose sources were primarily postings from the dozens of myspace groups whose sole purpose is to advocate for or against the store. i'm not sure i'd ever heard the terms "scene" and "scenecore" before (apparently they're what "glam-punk" and "emo" [the same thing?] are called by their detractors - that makes the new fall out boy single make a little bit more sense.
• robert fink's proposal that james brown's "soul power" is a rhythmic and political response to stokely carmichael's "black power" chant of several years earlier - riffing off the benjamin quip that aestheticized politics demands politicized art. [the jb tune had j-clo air-drumming along in his seat]
• douglas wolk's fascinating illumination of clydie king, a (mostly) forgotten-by-history soul/r&b/rock singer of the '50s/'60s/'70s, whose session work dominates classic rock radio but who never achieved success in her own right - perhaps as wolk posits because, as a black female, she was shunted into soul and disco and would never have been allowed to make a rock record. that presentation came with a fantastic and impressively eclectic mix-cd, which i'm listening to right now.
• discovering that joshua clover, sasha frere-jones, and dominique leone aren't really very much like my mental images of them. dom, in particular is so unassumingly ordinary, endearingly grinny and almost dadlike (though youngish) for the savvy p4k esoterica correspondent and abstractronica artist that he is. [man, i've been loving "nous tombons dans elle" for years now!] his virtually-interesting (but nicely extemporaneous) talk about the effect of p2p and the internet on the speed(s) of music consumption/digestion unfortunately got too bogged down in unnecessarily thorough explanations of message boards and the like - and really really unnecessary summaries of relativity physics - before it got the chance to reach any real insight. (the take-away message, as iterated later in the conference, was that some people will form an opinion about an album after only listen to 20 sec of each track.)
sasha is also very ordinary looking (and not youngish) with more self-effacing bumblingness than i might have guessed - his talk started as mostly verbatim from his rather lengthy précis, but rambled toward an unexpectedly insightful conclusion that R+B (especially the "cyborg strain" he opposed to the historically familiar likes of mary blige), is a "faceless raceless projection" (did he say holographic? something about shiny), ontologically self-contained; that it never extends beyond the world of the club, and so contains no potential for socio-political responses ("no rioting" my notes say); that it's the most incredibly awesome detention music ever devised - and "it's our music." he also inadvertently coined (?) the phrase "hip-nop," and read the titles of the 2005 and 2004 billboard #1 hits in sequence, with repetitions, as found poetry.
joshua's presentation was one of the best of the conference (as was this panel generally - maybe not coincidentally it was one of only two, the first and the last, that i stayed at for their entire duration), with excellent use of multimedia and what i guess was critical karaoke technique to discuss songs - by scorpions, jesús (?) jones, roxette, and deee-lite - from a period just slightly before my own musical awareness. as he put it, from "1989," though not necessarily from 1989 - his piece started with a discursus on scare-quoted dates and collectively imagined historical moments - in this case the putative beginning of something (the post-cold war era) that, from my perspective, doesn't seem to have unfolded in a way consistent with the tone and nature of those particular choice cuts; perhaps we've ended up at something closer to what clover called "nerf humanism."
there was also the ellen willis tribute session, with touching remembrances from folks that knew her or didn't - including christgau, who met her when they were eleven, and later lived with her and then had his heart broke, who said she was one of very few people he'd readily admit were smarter than him. "she wasn't shy" he said: "she was thinking" and probably ignoring you. most people read from her work and glossed her ideas on a broad range of topics. some phrases from my notes: "the ethical valence of not caring" "profusion of commodities offered as compensation for oppression" "the erotic as moral/ethical grounds of society" [on rock music:] "even when the content was anti-woman, anti-sexual, anti-human, the form [in its inherent humanity/sexuality] urges that chick in her bedroom forward." one young speaker, who had never met her, said that her writing had been a touchstone for him in trying to connect with and understand the '60s that he didn't live through. anne powers asked: "how did we get from pro-sex feminism to 'who wants to be the next pussycat doll'?"
so that's friday. more later.
20 April 2007
[ann powers ended last night's keynote talk by referencing "we've only just begun" instead - "the real and beautifully fake karen carpenter" - but i prefer the jimmy castor bunch - q.v.]
yep, here i am again, back where i started one year ago, in beautiful EM(P)erald City, getting my conference on. 1st blog anniversary festivies will be forthcoming, as will the rest of the mega-ish post about disco i started writing yesterday in the koolhaas libarary (a building comparably funky to the emp itself, though slightly less ostentatious and definitely more charming.) but for now i just wanna do my reportage; i'll attempt to stay better on top of it this year. brought little mnemo so that might help.
only a couple sips into my "early times" (what the receipt called my whiskey and ginger ale?), as logan and i sat in our little corner of the revolution bar and grill sighting faces and soaking in the old memories, i got a txt-message mission to say hi to m. barthel, aka eppy, who happened to be sitting right by us. so i did. mission accomplished. friend number one.
jonathan lethem, whose cred as "one of us" - a rockwrite, specifically, that being the dominant visible culture at emp - i raised an uncertain eyebrow at a little while back, was validated in eric weisbard's opening address/introduction since he seems to aspire to true rockcritdom despite having achieved actual success as a more legit writer. his "love-song of the wanna-be" only vaguely danced around that issue, though it was largely a wandering personal narrative and account of his own history as a fan (and as a dancer, in highly articulate, amusing detail.) it turned out to be less about "the fannish auteur" (which may be something like the condition aspire to, or probably already inhabit, fandom elevated to auteur status) and more about the imposture and amateurism of of "actual" musicians. how fandom simultaneously mythologizes its objects and castigates them for "not being more than anyone could be," and how popstardom seems always or often to involve some element of imposture or chicanery. which was slightly vague. discussing mostly the beatles, the stones, dylan, chuck berry, james brown, iggy pop, sid vicious, and rap, he touched on appropriation, lack of "actual musical talent," and the image of everyman/nonentity...but there wasn't much talk of reality/authenticity in terms of emotional or artistic "truthfulness," which i thought was sort of significant. (the idea that he was calling rock stars out as in some sense "fakes," without a very clear notion of what that means exactly.)
his talk was not very structured, at least not in a clear way for the presentation of ideas, but it was very literary, kind of adorably so (and it was great to see that his off-the-cuff speaking style approximates that careful diction and sentence-composition to a great degree.) and very funny. he talked about his mystified teenaged obsession with determing the identity of the "fifth beatle," and then the realization that maybe there wasn't a fifth beatle - and after "learning" that ringo's drumming was "bad" ..."maybe there wasn't even a fourth!"
anyway, yeah, the authenticity debates were off and running, almost immediately. and as soon as the comments started (if not before) the race/authenticity card was played - somebody called lethem to task for referring to louis jordan as a "clown"; he acquitted himself admirably i thought, but without mentioning that it's because he was funny; xgau chimed in to make that point and also to rather gruffly, if astutely, point out that "clown" has a very specific meaning in (contemporary) black culture. powers said "welcome to the bob christgau/daphne brooks connection," and daphne half responded/half demurred.
other questions led to some interesting talk about tricksterdom (lewis hyde got a namecheck), neoteny (the suggestion that rock is a neotenous form of blues or jazz) and, of course, sanjaya.
time to go hear alyssa's boyz!
13 April 2007
(know what it means? i betcha joanna newsom does)
basically the entire music section of last week's philly weekly pissed me off... so i figure it's time to deliver some popjustice, bedbugs-style.
first of all there's this always-useless feature, wherein they (oh, i see, it's a 'comedian') make snarky jokes about album covers and say nothing about the music. this week wasn't any more obnoxious than usual (except that the targets were more recognizable and possibly more legitimate), but the thing about the lcd album really doesn't seem to make any sense.
then there's this very silly and nonsensical piece about how white people only dance in times of national distress. i know it's supposed to be cutesy and playful but this really just makes me angry:
Fact: Traditionally, straight white American males don’t like to dance. They think it’s gay. You might find a few here and there who profess loving it, but that’s because it’s gotten them laid a few times. It’s a Pavlovian something-or-other that’s left them confused. Believe me: no bushy, no dancey.(you can't tell it from that paragraph, but "bushy" actually refers to our president.)
well, whatever. the thing i really wanted to respond to was this column about amy winehouse. craig lindsay, who writes a weekly about "soul" (interpreted pretty broadly), has annoyed me occasionally in the past, but for the most part he's no more harmless than your typical genre-blinkered, generationalist music scribe, and i often enjoy reading his pieces. but this one really ruffled my feathers.
fair enough that he wants to share his excitement about winehouse - but isn't it a little backhanded to hype her by grousing about an impending backlash? and, really, is it necessary to frame his entire column as a response to one measly negative review, in the raleigh news & observer of all places? granted, awarding the album 0 stars is a very harsh move that betrays some serious personal/ideo-cultural bias on the part of the reviewer, josh love.
love readily admits that the album is listenable (though only "on the surface" - if that's even coherent), and that his primary gripes boil down to (extra-musical) identity politics - and then attempts to justify the rating by hastily adding that winehouse is "simply uninteresting." well...okay. back to black has been kicking around on my hard drive for over four months now, and it hasn't done a lot for me either, outside of a few tracks (mostly "rehab" and the title song. and i really really wanted to like it too - contemporary music that sounds this much like soul achieving genuine success ought to be cause for excitement.) but there's enough base-level musical merit there to make up for a bland persona. especially in the face of such an overwhelming consensus of praise (even the lowest-scored blurbs on metacritic are phrased positively), a zero-star review of this album is a political statement, not an aesthetic assessment.
to his credit though, even though i'm not necessarily convinced by love's assertions about the album's problematic racial politics or "cynical formula," his review is very upfront about the source and substance of his issues. lindsay's response, though, almost completely sidesteps love's clearly (albeit briefly) articulated gripes, and baselessly accuses him of fomenting hipster backlash for the sake of backlash. this is criticasterism of the most obnoxious stripe - petty stereotype-mongering - and it just comes of as willful misrecognition of love's arguments, second-guessing his motivations to set him up as a target for scorn. indeed, the quote which apparently provoked the bulk of lindsay's outrage is a secondary comment, practically an aside, in love's piece:
“People call Ashlee and Britney artificial all the time,” Love wrote, “but they feel 10 times more genuinely expressive than Winehouse.”whoa! hold on there. okay, this is mostly (or at least partly) a misunderstanding, and a rather understandable one on lindsay's part: i doubt he even considered that love might actually like ashlee and britney, so he assumed that that comparison was intended as a dire, vindictive insult, whereas it was actually just trying to put things in perspective. (turns out love wasn't the josh who wrote the stylus review of i am me like i thought, but he did give kelly osbourne an A-) but, um, seems like it made lindsay pretty angry.
Yeah, he’s going to hell for that one—and let’s hope Lester Bangs, Paul Nelson and Ellen Willis are there to take turns sodomizing him with red-hot rhino horns.
[i really don't understand what lindsay thinks is the big difference between winehouse and joss stone - certainly amy's not much less "callow and pale-skinned." he mentions stone like it's understood that we're supposed to be disdainful, but i thought stone was reasonably well-liked by neo-soul folks - i haven't heard her much, but i'm enjoying the singles from her new record. anyway. i guess we'll find out at the end of the month.]
the only "substance" that lindsay really seizes on from love's review is the complaint that winehouse doesn't have the life experience to back up her persona. actually, love doesn't really say that - he complains that the "boringly 'taboo'" drug references in the lyrics are cheap and manipulative, and that the persona she presents is uncompelling and unoriginal (and therefore not detectably "herself"), but he never suggests that the problem is winehouse's lack of life experience (he certainly doesn't claim she's "too young.")
regardless, lindsay counters by bringing up her widely-publicized alcoholism. indeed, it would be pretty hard to deny that "rehab" is drawn from life, no? (still, a drinking problem that leads to public punchups and unprofessionalism doesn't quite constitute "heartaches and hardships," especially when she doesn't face up to the issue by seeking treatment.) but somehow this sidesteps again (suddenly he's not concerned about the "haterade from critics") into a vaguely patronizing concern for winehouse's health - and the bizarre, incongruous assertion that the fact that amy's "self-destruction is so imminent" makes her "the sort of pop/soul star we need more of." wtf? we want our talented musicians to be mentally unstable?
whatever...i'm going to bed.
10 April 2007
low have quietly, slowly, gradually (well, you know how they do...) become one of my very favorite bands.
saw them last night, and that really clinched it - made me start to love them and relate to them as people, beyond the already strongly personal affinity i feel for their music.
(even though i'm not a very melancholy person like that might suggest; even though - and despite what i've said in the last post about my generationally-based difficulties accessing mid-90s indie - i didn't even really listen to them until four or five years ago, already almost a decade into their career.)
i saw them before, last year, in the sanctuary of the church in the dead of winter (an apt time for low - now it's not, but the lingering cold was fitting.) but this was better - maybe because i wasn't in the middle of a fight with angela; or because the church basement, though less evocative, is more intimate; or just because of how much i've been loving drums and guns.
they played a lot from it, including key highlights "belarus" (very minimal, with ambient loops and that keening high octave harmony), "dragonfly" (the prettiest one - addiction metaphor), "in silence" (which i hadn't noticed as much until hearing it live, but has been in my head since) and "murderer" (which seems to take the perspective of a religious terrorist, by my reading anyway - closed the set - slightly less intense than the album, actually.) and of course "breaker" - the single, if that means anything - which they did twice, first in the organ-and-handclaps ("you don't all have to do it, but some of you should - it's fun!") version from the album, and then in a more rocked-out and menacing encore.
[also of note - show opened with "cue the strings," lovely lilt from destroyer; first encore. by request, was "violence" - which i recognized but couldn't quite place as the opener from long division - amazing how they can say so much with so little, and then, nicely, by my suggestion and gentle prodding, but then taken up by the crowd in general, the first song of theirs i ever loved, "in the drugs."
there was some amusing - just slightly tense - banter between alan and mimi, about the lighting on his face (she said "it fits you" and he demanded to know what she meant), and later an attempt at a sort of open discussion on any topic of interest to the crowd - alan seemed to be suggesting legalizing marijuana as roundabout semi-solution to the crime problem; compared notes on disillusioned mayors - ended when mimi asked "what about disillusionment and marriage?" but they were in good humor. alan's funnier than you'd think.]
the new album is more anxious and bitter - more political, though obliquely enough that you can't exactly call it that - than anything they've done before. it's most similar to trust in that respect, but even starker and sparer, with a reenvisioned sound palette centered around glacial, quietly menacing drum loops and little snatches of ambient guitar noise. but there are still those ineffable, ethereal harmonies, low's sonic quintessence, all the more haunting and disarming when set in contrast to the foreboding music beneath them. (it's telling that the opener, the devestatingly bleak "pretty people" - devoid of harmonies - is the hardest song to listen to.)
they didn't do "hatchet," the lightest (and most atypical) song on the album, and probably my favorite (this revelatory article/interview calls it a "dance song," which may be going a little far) - i didn't really mind (not sure it would have gained much from the live setting) - but somehow just seeing them gave me a new perspective on its lyrics, which i've been puzzling over. (i guess i'll just post my thoughts there on songmeanings, so read it there if you like.) the beatles and stones references there made me think about yo la tengo (mostly "tom courtenay") (hey, have you seen that video? it's really good.) (actually, this review calls the song "yo la tengo-esque," which i guess it sort of is.) (and come to think of it, "hatchet" is in the title of my fave song from the new ylt album too.)
it's not like i hadn't thought of them in conjunction before (their albums are next to each other on my cd shelf, for one thing), but i'm not sure i'd realized how almost uncannily parallel those two bands are. the obvious: both are trios consisting of married couples - drummer-wife and guitarist/writer-hubby - one jewish, one mormon - with third-wheel bassists (though they originally started as quartets), from and strongly associated with small unlikely cities (hoboken nj and duluth mn.) both have been around for a really long time, have earned a tremendous critical reputation for consistency and quality, with similar but distinctive musical approaches (one more eclectic, the other more minimalist) that have developed and mutated only very gradually throughout their careers, and both have remarkably devoted fans who presumably collect their countless endless eps and ephemera (oddly enough, both have released christmas eps.) they're both noted for being fairly low-key and unassuming, personally as well as musically, and tend to underplay their considerable instrumental chops (the guitarist/de facto frontmen, specifically.)
they both released defining, consensus-pick albums late in their careers - and i can hear the heart beating as one and things we lost in the fire are very likely the first albums i heard by each, though their respective follow-ups (and then nothing turned itself inside-out and trust) were the first that i fully explored, digested, owned, and loved. (i've come to appreciate and eventually care for ichthbao and twlitf too, though for a long time i could only really connect with them as far as their first halves - it's taken patience to make it all the way through to their ultimately crucial, sweet closing tracks.)
picking up used copies as i come across them, i've gradually worked my way through much of their back-catalogs - indeed, i have exactly three earlier lps by each (which still leaves a lot more ylt albums, but only one - the beautifully titled curtain hits the cast - by low.) i actually purchased the three most recent low albums new and full-priced, around the time of their release (there are very few bands for whom that's true) - in ylt's case i got summer sun as a promo, although like the great destroyer, it was something of a critical disappointment which i wholeheartedly embraced (actually to a much greater extent, on both counts.)
there's something of a divergence after that in terms of my personal relationship to the bands. i publicly declared my love for yo la two years ago - as i'm doing now for low - but although i still stand by the things i said there, i've gotten a little distanced from them since. you know how you fall out of love with bands? not just letting your affections gradually wane, but having something diminish them more actively, acutely. it's happened for me most markedly with beck, and also elvis, sad to say - for both personal and musical reasons. not quite saying that's what's up w/ ylt - but there was something symbolic in my walking away, 20 (very enjoyable! so bad decision?) minutes into their p4kfest set, to go watch spoon (who also let me down a little bit - they've got a good shot to make it up though, with their forthcoming.) i was also underwhelmed by their live show in '04 (though i loved it in '02), but the scarier bit is that i've really been kind of turned off by their "return to form" [i am afraid of this album title], which sacrifices the satisfying cohesion of their previous two (unexciting, maybe, but still the only ylt lps i truly love.)
low, meanwhile, like i said, have subtly, gradually revealed themselves to me in the last few years - i've had much less difficulty connecting with their earlier work (i can live in hope, their 1993 debut, is in the running for my favorite), and now that i've caught up with them, i've enjoyed watching their style finally blossom and mutate in more dramatic, overt ways. and, clearly, their newest is far from a disappointment.
not that it's a competition. but i have been thinking in terms of the entertaining stylus "versus" features - which would be appropriate for these two. if i wrote one at this point, i'd obviously give low the edge, which might not be quite fair. (ylt's best shots: more lovable bassist - and better side projects, i'm assuming; possibly better album covers although their last may have screwed them there; better song covers by default, since although low have many lovely ones to their credit ylt are basically the kings and queen of cover songs.)
the thing is, their differences are almost as striking as their similarities, which makes them seem more like negative images of one another than mirrors. it's in their affect. low are somber; restrained; lugubrious; spiritual. yo are playful; direct; ebullient; worldly. both have undeniable beauty - but it's like light and dark; heaven and earth. there's some exaggeration here, of course - there are spaces in both for joy and sorrow, and each may at some point take on the qualities i've ascribed to the either - but in terms of the overwhelming, general quality conveyed by their music, the contrast is unmistakable.
yo la tengo's recent retrospective was titled prisoners of love - arguably a more appropriate title for low (theirs - three discs of rarities rather than a more scattered putative 2cd "best of" plus bonus disc was called a lifetime of temporary relief), but suitable for both. because earth and heaven can be prisons or sanctuaries, it's all in how you view them. it all boils down to love - sacred and profane; as you will - and maybe the distance is not so great.
09 April 2007
(arms race whoops i mean scene)
transferred from from the podcast post, for yr reading ease, and to combat wanton blog sprawl.
one of the many memorable moments of south-by-south-west that i didn't mention in my recap came right at the beginning, the first morning of the festival, in jenny's car on the way to austin java, when, in search of some blonde redhead song, we listened to the first few seconds of each track of two discs of somebody's 'introduction to indie' mixtape. it turned into a sort of rapid-fire pop quiz, with jenny not pressing the skip button until i could correctly identify the artist. it usually took about ten seconds, and i probably got at least 90% of the tracks: jolie holland, enon, neutral milk, john vanderslice, spoon, even tx weirdballs the baptist generals ("okay, it's kind of a fluke that i knew that one") - it made me feel slightly ridiculous, not so much like i was showing off as revealing an inordinate and casual familiarity with indie music, at least c. 1998-2005 or something. not that that's so surprising, but it prompted me to sigh, with performative resignation, as we stepped into the parking lot: "okay...i guess i like indie music..."
had been feeling a little bit lukewarm about sxsw just because of its pronounced emphasis on indie, as opposed to the kinds of music that i think of myself as being excited about these days (dance-pop, soul, electronica, '60s pop.) but obviously i did find plenty to enjoy, regardless of labels. 'course, these days "indie" feels like more of a cultural category than a stylistic one - as the music-industrial complex merrily bumbles its way towards apocalypse, the indie and main-streams become increasingly difficult to untangle, and the incoherently defined indie listenership is just as likely to devote itunes attention and mixtape-slots to folky singer-songwriters (the mountain goats, m. ward), hip-hoppers (el-p, the clipse), scandinavian electro-poppers (!) (annie, the knife), sonically expansive "experimentalists" (panda bear, scott walker), and big-budget dance acts (justin timberlake, missy elliott) and so forth as to the kind of prototypical "indie rock" bands whose albums, by the way, are hitting #1 and #2 on the billboard charts lately (modest mouse, the shins, arcade fire.)
if this diversification in the quote-unquote indie milieu is a relatively recent development - which i think is fair to say - why do i find myself - an eclecticist die-hard - with a growing ambivalence towards the concept of "indie"? it's a little hard to pinpoint. i don't want to delve into the muddle of trying to actually define "indie" or "indie rock" or what-have-you - no question these are major-league Superwords - just take a look at the wikipedia entries for some considerable confusion. but i think we more or less know what we're talking about.
whatever it is - and, by the way, i feel like i hear "indie rock" a lot less often than just plain "indie" these days, even though the two used to seem roughly synonymous and the former probably more prevalent - it still feels to a great extent like my "baseline" music; the foundation and starting point for my understanding of and perspective w/r/t popular music in general. even though i grew up listening to oldies pop radio, and such seemingly classification-proof deviants as tmbg, phish, and talking heads (on reflection, it turns out that they were all rock bands), i guess the groups that i stumbled upon in my later high school years represented the first music that i came to understand in terms of a coherent "scene" that, at least by early college, i could see myself as in some way part of.
i dunno. radiohead, belle and sebastian, and elliott smith are my "comfort music" (all class of '97-98.) pavement and guided by voices (and, even more so, sonic youth) - "seminal," milieu-defining acts who reached the height of their prominence (or better: "influence") shortly before my awareness kicked in - still maintain a vaguely mystical stature in my mind, a sense that they'll always be the province of people slightly cooler (that is, older) than me - unlike earlier, probably more objectively "important" bands like the clash and the velvet underground and even the pixies, who seem more approachable, more possible to own.
the acts that came up while i was in college - shins, strokes, spoon, new pornographers - i have total mastery of: we can relate as friends, as equals - we love each other but they hold no real mystique for me. (though there are some, like yo la tengo and the mountain goats and the dismemberment plan, slightly older and with longer and darker pasts that i may never quite get a handle on, who'll always retain just that slight bit of distance.) but now that i'm three years out of school, well beyond the tyranny of the wsrn rok playlist, the delimited benificence of olde club and r5 all-ages booking, the rockcentric listening interests of most of my musical colleagues... i feel like it's gotten away from me, or me from it.
i'll still devotedly keep tabs on those aforementioned friends; i'll still dutifully snap up used back-catalog from the likes of sebadoh, lambchop, and superchunk, bands whose early-90s work i feel i'm supposed to have already known and loved even though they came to me in later incarnations that will always bear more emotional significance. but i'm running into limited tolerance, and diminishing returns, for the more recent crops of touted, beloved bands, whose sound, i've gotta say, often seems so distantly related to "rock" per se that i'm more inclined to call it Indie Guitar-Based Music.
[btw, one pop-ular indie band that does stand out as undeniably, unrepentantly ROCK, in a distinctive albeit derivative way - and thereby sort of points up what i mean - is The Hold Steady. so go them. (and look, i made a movie!)]
funny thing. it makes me feel like a bit of a young curmudgeon, a bit of a traitorous ingrate (turning my back on the scene that made me?), a bit of counter-cultural cliché. and y'all know i hate to be a hater. so this is hard. some of it is undeniably cultural - it's not so much that being out of college has separated me from a community that's actively involved in this stuff; almost the opposite in fact, as more and more people are tuning in and turning on to the music whose oppositional definition as "independent" grows ever more dubious. i'm all for increasing audiences - far be it from me to heap scorn a band or style for becoming popular - but the sense of a cohesive listenership becomes increasingly vague as it grows; much like the stylistic limitations of the music itself: it gets so big and diverse as to become meaningless.
[i've just written a paragraph and a half that i'm now retracting b/c it kind of seems like unonvincing, insubstantive whining stemming from laughably flimsy generational bias.]
in musical terms though - and obviously this is just my perspective - i've really struggled to find any sustainable interest in most of the new indie rock bands of the last few years: wolf parade, clap your hands say yeah, tv on the radio (whose previous album i found much more distinctive than return), islands (even though i quite liked the unicorns record), menomena - even though i have enjoyed listening to them on occasion (some more than others)...and i'll admit that i haven't given any of them a lot of attention or listening time... they just really don't sound very interesting to me. rather, they all sort of sound the same - i think a lot of it has to do with the production - these records often sound flat, cold, muddy, cluttered, claustrophobic. it's like they're trying to hold on to the lo-fi aesthetic of earlier indie music, as if on principle, despite arrangements and performances that are too big to be translated justly by those means, so that an approach which should make the music seem more personal and idiosyncratic ends up making it rough and indistinct. when moments on these albums do stand out, it's because the songs or the singers succeed in spite of this unflattering presentation.
well. of course it's okay for me not to like them - obv. they're doing fine without my support, and it's probably healthier for me not to want to traipse down every single musical avenue i encounter. but, you know, it makes me a little sad, or at least a little confused, and distanced from my fellow listeners (which is the opposite of what music should do), to find little to connect with in music that's clearly struck a chord with many people. and since i personally feel like these bands could be more exciting with cleaner, more vibrant production and arrangements, i get to wondering whether folks are (unwittingly?) harboring complicated, inappropriately moralistic grounds for wanting to listen to music that's so defiantly "indie" (for better as well as for worse) in its production values...
as a final note on that strand, i better say something about the band that to some extent epitomizes this aesthetic, has found the greatest success with it to date (a #2 album, on merge! that's crazy-talk!), is starting to look like the biggest, most significant indie-associated act of the 2000s (well, who else... lcd soundsystem?), and is hugely emblematic of my personal relationship with guitar-based indie music. y'all know how the story goes. it's effing ridiculous. i saw the arcade fire in a tiny club in NC, two months before their album came out, before anybody had heard of them; they blew me away, i fell in love, bought their album they day it came out, my buddy dave gave it an almost-10 in pithfork (sic but i like it), i found it a little less exciting than the live show but still love it and name it my favorite of the year, i saw them once more in a somewhat larger club - still good but they rubbed me the wrong way by doing a lame cover of my favorite song; they got gradually massive, and even as i thrilled when "rebellion" becomes an end-of-the-night danceparty anthem, and they started to hobnob with my other buddy dave the famous rckstr (who wrote my favorite song that they butchered, and whose quoted lyrics had opened pfk review, but whose band i think has become majorly abused as a reference point in recent years, including/especially w/r/t the a.f., whose appeal comes from a very different place, imho)... eventually funeral started to leave me a little cold, hate to say it but maybe, just maybe my relationship with it has been corrupted by overexposure, although it can still catch me the right way on the right sunny morning...flashfoward to three weeks ago when the follow-up dropped (and hits #2!) and my unreconstructed (ha!) indie-devotee roommate buys it and loves the heck out of it and...well, i'm listening to it now: it's pretty good. i guess. it does sound like them, at least, though i wish regine got to do more - she (and esp. richard reed perry) always seemed much more charismatic and important to the band's unique appeal than the likable but kind of drudgy over-earnest (?) everymannish win butler. oh man. "no cars go" (rerecorded from the debut ep) is still a great song. "my body is a cage" has a nice melody. "keep the car running" has a sorta nifty jangle to it. those organs sure are big and imposing. oh dear...i don't know what to say. like, it's an album, you know? the cover art's kind of ugly...