Sunday, November 16, 2008

Brains in Jars

Prisonshake’s Dirty Moons is a hard record. Not just difficult or complex--hard. This is the math exam you failed in High School.

It’s kind of maddening actually. They lyrics are good but they’re not actually about anything. Some of the rhythm changes make you seasick if you decide to listen with headphones.
And to top it off it’s a double album all about ideas. But there isn’t any philosophy to speak of. All of these songs just seem to double back on themselves musically. In other words, all of the excess we’ve come to expect from 4 sides of music with 12X the self-loathing in the lyrics.

I just felt bad listening to music this good. It’s unreal.

The most digestible way to describe this is experimental/garage rock. There are tape loops, blues guitar licks by Robert Griffin that are clean and narrow, circular drums, and really fantastic bass work that will probably surprise you more often than not.

There’s also a gong on “We’ve Only Tasted the Wine". A subtle gong. Zappa never screwed with anyone’s head that badly.

So yes it’s a hard record. But mostly because it’s also an important document. These are songs which were slowly pieced together for Scat Records from 1995 to 2007. Unlike the usual “pound the session into the ground" ethic with rock bands (see Hold Steady; Stay Positive) this is an album with the strength to stand up against the ravages of changing tastes and critical perspectives.

Dirty Moons contains some of the most deliberate and thoughtful composition you’ll see for quite a while. An album where you genuinely don’t know what the artists were thinking when they put it together. But the thesis I prefer to work from is that these are songs which are so removed from the conciseness of any group of musicians and which could honestly have a mind of their own at this point.

13 years is exactly as long as it feels. Except when it isn’t.

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Saturday, October 04, 2008

There Are Only Two Types Really

One of the things that’s really grating is that we’re stoking genre warfare on almost a daily basis. With all of these new avenues of choice to where you can find music comes a really ugly sort of taste reinforcement.

People who were going to Dire Straits concerts weren’t exactly buddies with the kids at Minuetmen shows. But thanks to all of this new media saturation more music fans have a much clearer view on what their missing out on.

It’s sort of the reverse of selling out. More like smacking down a particular band before it can invade you laptop.

Because the Internet is the ultimate multimedia scene; you don’t have to really weigh in on the music.

You see the word “indie” and “Seattle” and maybe “queercore” or “lo-fi” and whatever. You think to yourself how boring Belle and Sebastian is and how you couldn’t stand Juno then you leave it at that.

We’ve started judging people instead of the music.

I don’t dress like the members of the collective Your Heart Breaks. We don’t really share any similar personal background. I don’t even like the music of a lot of the artists they tour around with or even some of the solo projects from their collaborators.

But Love is a Long Dark Road is an excellent record. And none of what I said just now changes how I feel about the music they make. If anything it only makes me more sympathetic to where we part ways. My only regrets about this one is that I didn’t snatch it up sooner when it came out over the summer.

It’s a lush and human record. Unlike a lot of confessional albums no one is trying to impress anyone or glorify spoiled and childish complexities. Instead there’s sort of an overarching message that we all secretly hold on to people and places which cause us that distinct brand of embarrassment.

The sort of embarrassment that almost always escalates to a long and secret pain.

Principally this is Clyde Peterson’s project and her great gift is restraint. Her guitar lines and lyrics stop short exactly when they need to and the small bits of violin and horns stay at very low volumes.

Her voice has that sort of deadpan insistence that you get from social workers or clerks at the DMV. If you believe them—you’ll believe her.

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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

What We Did On Our Summer Vacation

Calling Old Friends

R.E.M. isn’t normally a band which chronicles descending action (even “Fall on Me” has irresistible heights to it). But there’s a very real feel of falling in “Mr. Richards” that’s pretty neat. By far it’s the best thing on Accelerate. In the production and the writing of this one song there’s a basis for an entirely new album that breaks the mold of the entirety of REM’s career. Normally they do records which explore one of two environments. The desolate black and white landscape (Murmur, New Adventures in Hi-Fi, Around the Sun, Fables of Reconstruction, Document, Life’s Rich Pageant, Automatic for the People, Accelerate) or summer glow color explosions (Out of Time, Reckoning, Monster, Green, Reveal, Up). If they can break this mold they might find the success which has eluded them in the post-Berry years.

Meeting New Friends

The Witch Hats’ Cellulite Soul is one of the best records of the year. Everything on this album just sound like a compilation of really private moments of self-loathing cranked up to impossibly high volumes. Different instruments overtake each other in really unpredictable ways that keep surprising me after about 50 listens. “Summer of Pain” wasn’t the anthem we wanted but like the best music it’s the nightmarish stuff we deserve.

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Saturday, March 01, 2008

What is This Place ?

Somehow we know that we weren’t suppose to drift this far.

Because around the time you were 8 or so you did. That first time you allowed yourself to walk as far as you could go, testing personal boundaries as much as physical ones. And maybe running from the idea that, sooner or later, your going to have to devise some way to get home. By yourself. And in the middle of this strange place which is wholly familiar. But because of the journey involved it is decidedly alien in all the important ways.

The characters in The Mountain Goats‘ “Heretic Pride” are these people too.

John Darnielle has crafted an album with not only the necessary sets but also, the right lighting cues and stage props.

Every instrument here feels in synch with the character its supposed to bring to life. Jon Wurster’s drums are panicky heartbeats. Annie Clark’s guitar lines are frustrated legs trying to maneuver their way through a Sax Rohmer pulp. Erik Friedladner’s strings inform us on the emotional dimension of the whole affair.

And the recently returned Bright Morning Choir? The ethereal; something beyond what we can comprehend urging the events into motion.

John’s words are the players themselves. A lot of them are unfortunate souls but they don’t insist on being labeled that way. In a record which has a song titled so plainly about desperation, you’d think that everyone here is some how grasping at straws. But you’d only be partially right.

You see there’s that title again “Heretic’s Pride”. Pride doesn’t only imply simple confidence but the reassertion of identity, when it is plainly clear that the entire world aims to strip those traits bare.

As relaxed as the Tianchi Lake monster is in his surrounding, there’s that sadness in the realization that he doesn’t belong. That somehow his very existence is pitted against an entire world that is trying to correct itself, and leaving him out of the picture.

Said monster is sort of the mascot here for the others. Because everyone has wondered from the safest place they know. Yet, they are also clinging to their personalities even more tightly than they would in secure surroundings.

On “ Sept. 13 1983” Prince Far I, a warm and righteous human being, has found himself slowly dying after a senseless and immoral act. His own people have conspired to show him that he’s spent too much time engaging the goodness of mankind while wholly forgetting his own sense of vulnerability and the realities of the malevolence that would invade his home. Even his body betrays him, drowning him with his own blood. He dies subverting the whole irony into a hopeful affair, crafting an obituary resembling one of his own songs.

The Prince’s goodness also serves as a specter over the living, breathing and hopelessly naïve kids in “San Bernardino”. The world has been chasing to undue their heresy and return them to the cruel and dogmatic rigors that the rest of us have to endure. Each moment of happiness feels borrowed and, somehow, bound to turn on them in an instant.

They are all scared. Some have even given up hope (“Autoclave“ “Lovecraft in Brooklyn). But they know who they are, making "Heretic's Pride" a small victories record for deshevled lives.

That’s only some of it of course and we won’t spoil the whole album by picking apart the songs to an absurd degree (especially “Marduk T-Shirt Men’s Room Incident” which is being vigorously dissected on the Mountain Goats message board)

There is, however, one heretic who is decidedly not lost and he is saved for last. Almost as if to say that all of our transgression away from home have a champion out there.

The titular character in “Micheal Myers Resplendent” is exactly where he needs to be at the right time and in the right place. And he’s going to make the most of it by destroying his enemies and standing up for all the monsters and misfits out there.

Just because you don’t have a place in this world doesn't mean you can’t win now and again.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Midnight Sun

"The mediator between head and hands must be the heart!"
-Metropolis (1927)

“A quiet and uninteresting life.”

-Description to Boblog; Bob Mould’s blog

Bob Mould’s “District Line” makes me feel good. It taps into the things I like about guitar heavy records right away in a very lean and fat-free way. It has a lot of talent working to its highest potential. Sort of a propulsion record, something that helps the long days on the road go more smoothly, and makes lonely nights more consolable. Mould is wistful but positive here, always an admirable combination.

But I can’t recommend it. At least not with any sort of admission that Mould has thrown us into a familiar moral dilemma: Whether we’ve though about the music we like too much or not nearly enough.

Occasionally active listening allows you take yourself out of the equation. In essence the record becomes your identity. By enmeshing yourself in it, the album doesn’t soundtrack your life. Instead it provides an alternative timeline and series of events that you get to ride for a little while.

When something hits you in a particularly poignant way, you grab your bearings and realize who you are again. That’s where really deep listening gets its power from

“District Line” severely suffers once you try to take it to at a more intellectual standpoint. As a raw emotional appeal, Mould delivers big time. The seasoned and commanding pop-vocal approach he’s crafted is strong and nearly inscrutable.

“The Silence Between Us”, in particular gives us that hard to find evocation of a recent past that seems somehow further away.

When you turn a more seasoned eye past how talented and empathetic everyone is here, a lot of little touches fall short. Guitar solos last just a little too long. Electronic touches are a bit too hasty and seem out place. These lyrics also seem a bit too dumbed down for such an intellectual approach.

And everything feels just a bit too familiar. That magnificent strength that’s compelled us? Well, that’s also made some of the tracks too stiff and repetitive.

Then we’re at that dilemma again, because the production values are of a different era, circa. 1996-1998. Maybe we want to be there, but its not good for us in the long run because music has changed and its not the same animal Mould has remembered it as.

The most difficult part about writing a review like this is that Mould put his heart in this, and there’s no sincerity gap with him or Brendan Canty who’s at the production helm. But the portion of his heart which he gave us feels like the section he was most comfortable giving. Sometimes that’s just not enough.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Rubin vs. Rubin

After looking it over a few times I’m not sure why Jacob Rubin wrote “Runnin’ Down a Dream” for The New Republic. “Why” is a very important question for me and I guess that comes from the number one rule of narrative writing. Why did we read this and not do something else with our time?

Rubin’s gripe (or compliment its sort of hard to tell where he lands on the issue) was that Tom Petty taking the stage at the Super Bowl was emblematic of rock and roll’s harsh adherence to adolescent mores. The argument, and once again I’m just guessing here, is that he does the youth bit brilliantly, but that on the whole it’s a dishonest routine. From the piece:

“It is its very simplicity, after all, that makes rock 'n' roll music what it
is. In The Closing of the American Mind, the brilliant conservative Alan Bloom
correctly identified the genre as a music of adolescence. The great lie of rock 'n' roll is that the complete range of human emotion is contained in the adolescent experience. It is a freeing lie, no doubt, and one that America, in almost every sense an adolescent country, has embraced with a characteristic mixture of denial and glee. In this sense, a rock star is a person gifted with a surplus of adolescence, a grown man or woman who can continue to delve into a teenager's disappointments and exhilarations long into his thirties, forties (and in Mick Jagger's case), eleventies.”

Let’s put aside for a moment that Rubin never actually defines what rock music is or isn’t. I’ll take it on face value that he’s talking about commercially successful music from the baby boomer crowd through Generation X and on to today. Exempt seem from this conversation seem to be genre bending acts like Kraftwerkor Radiohead

I think we all know the overwhelming proof that songs like “Blitzkrieg Bop”, “Teenage Riot”, “The Kids are Alright”, “Teen Age Riot”, “Smells like Teen Spirit” weren’t referring to inner office politics of men and women in their late 30’s.

But if that’s the lie that Tom Petty is a part of, where is the truth? Is it in another genre? Maybe dub or reggae? Jazz ? Tribal music? Western classical? Or is it in no music?

If not music why write about? If it’s such a blatant affront to the human experience why does Rubin admit that he likes Tom Petty? What exactly is a freeing lie in this instance, the music itself or the music as its written and/or marketed?


There’s an answer I’m willing to throw out there and it reflects some sentimentality but it feels right when I think about it. When rock shines above commercial excesses it hits a striking place that seems pretty unique to Americans; the feeling of playing music alone and towards no particular ends. As a phenomena, it alluded so many generations of traditional European musicians who had their craft steered towards occasion driven music in the courts of holy figures and royalty.

That’s why adolescence is so important. Because when you don’t have the talent or the rapt ear of adults you have no choice but to play for yourself. But even playing styles don’t remain static to teenage nostalgia.

Like its grandfather, the blues, rock and roll encapsulates the whole of restlessness, not just its nascent period. While teenagers swagger with resentment easily, age helps musicians channel it towards realization more than anger. The Sex Pistols become PIL. Chisel becomes Ted Leo and the Phramacists. Tsunami becomes Liquorice. Fugazi becomes The Evens. Uncle Tupelo becomes Wilco. Heatmeister becomes Elliott Smith.

It’s a sentiment that Tom Petty captured on his last solo record “Highway Companion”. On Rick Rubin's American Recordings label, Petty created a desolate record filled with insecurity and strife. The subject matter doesn’t extend to red caddys or teenage girls either. Instead Petty asks himself plainly how he can contribute any more of himself after performing his craft for 30 years. While the phrasing throughout is cliché, the poignancy of how the record is put together is fascinating and, yes, adult.

Monday, January 28, 2008

There's a really bad Doors pun that I'm not touching

Ok, so we all kind of dropped the ball on Fire on Fire. They got a smattering of praise from their first EP which came out a few months ago on Young Gods. Smattering don’t pay the bills though, so let’s see if we can go one better and see what to make of these people.

The fills on their self-titled Handmade EP (not sold in stores and only $7) are really remarkable. Mostly because the lyrics aren’t anything terrible special, if you press me on subject matter, I can’t tell you what any of these songs are about.

But the music is so good that the literal meanings seem to be beside the point. Note-wise everything is sparse, but they play the hell out of their instruments with what little has been mapped out.

Because all the players are clearly recorded in one room the interplay is a lot tighter. What they obtain is that sort of psychic vibe that bands give off when they know each other too well for their own good. You’re sort of left guessing on which direction each song is going. Crescendos rise and lead nowhere while choruses start at weird moments. And when you think a song is near the end… it goes on for 3 more minutes.

Vocals are shared within the group and treated like percussive instruments. Very blunt and very loud when the occasion calls for it. During group choruses they reach a register I’ve probably never heard before; most likely you’ve never heard anything like it either. Vibrating, nasal, and smooth; almost like Hawaii interludes. Where a bunch of Mainers found Polynesian records though is a subject for another day. Harmonically I feel like this something unique and a little mind blowing at times. Granted we live in the era of the group shout. But not like the wailing of a free jazz trumpet.

A lot of the younger freak folk artists are schooled in hardcore punk and usually aim statement and reiteration approach with a kind of pre-Dust Bowl voice. Fire on Fire, however, adopt a narrative and see it through. The group chemistry is so tight that stretching out tunes to 7 minutes or 8 minutes only tightens the melodies to a finer point.
It’s all about starting out on one key and pounding different stlyes together like railroad spikes until some notion of harmony is achieved.

They’ve got their debut LP slated for this year people. If we let this slide again we’ll all have go up to Portland and become missionaries for these guys