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“I want you to play like you’re 7 years old at a recital. I want you to play like your mom’s in the room. I want you to play like you’re miles from home, and your legs are dangling from a boxcar. Or play like your hair’s on fire. Play like you have no pants on.”

Stuff Tom Waits says to his musicians to get them to play how he wants

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Hey look: I get quoted all throughout this article Liz wrote about Sade in the New Times. In fairness to me, I was pretty drunk at the time that I made these statements.

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Yep, turntable.fm is just about the best thing ever. You need to agree to a terrifying browser warning to log in with Facebook, but it seems to work just fine afterwards.

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Fleetwood Mac vs. Aerosmith

A co-worker was telling me about the time she went to a big “rock superbowl” (or something. whatever) at some point in the past that featured, among other things, Fleetwood Mac and Aerosmith. I asked her which band headlined. Fleetwood Mac. This pretty well traces the date of the show to pre-1987; in that year, Aerosmith released Permanent Vacation, which propelled them to pop/rock superstardom (where they, annoyingly, spent the next two decades and counting). In the same year, Fleetwood Mac released Tango in the Night, a transition to oldies-act status signaled by desperate attempts at relevance via “cutting edge” production values. For extra fun, we then looked the album up on Robert Christgau’s site, where he has this to say:

Tango in the Night [Warner Bros., 1987] Fifteen years ago, when their secret weapon was someone named Bob Welch, they made slick, spacy, steady-bottomed pop that was a little ahead of the times commercially. Now, when their secret weapon is their public, they make slick, spacy, steady-bottomed pop that’s a little behind the times commercially. This is pleasant stuff, nothing to get exercised about either way—no Rumours orFleetwood Mac, but better than Bare Trees or Mystery to Me, not to mention Mirage. Marginally better, anyway. In a style where margins are all. And all ain’t all that much any more. B+

I remember the album from when I was a kid. I liked it then, maybe because I “didn’t know any better.” I don’t know what happened to Fleetwood Mac after that. I think that, unlike Aerosmith, they lost their drive. They went into semi-retirement, and only got back together to tour and record a little when their bank accounts dipped down into the 7-digit range. Bummer. But not nearly as much of a bummer as what happened to Aerosmith.

Posted: Friday April 22, 2011 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment [1]

 

Oval - Wohnton

Oval - Wohnton We could really use a 5,000 word look back at the glitch movement from Pitchfork or someone, couldn’t we? It ain’t happening, but in any such feature, Oval would play feature centrally. They began by experimenting with manipulated CDs (played in primitive CD players that wouldn’t give up in the face of extreme digital errors), and soon were exploring complicated computer-based composition. At its best, their music was hazy, gentle, and abstract; here’s a great example. They released about a half dozen albums through the 90s, oscillating between accessible collage anchored with the (surprisingly melodic) digital skipping and a completely abstract soundscape (Dok being an example of the latter, and maybe their best work).

The one album that is all but forgotten is their 1993 debut, Wohnton. Long discontinued, it is from before Oval was just a solo project for Markus Popp, and features, unexpectedly, singing. We’re talking here a sort of untrained German warble, which appeared on less then half the songs. What’s impressive is that while the group didn’t think so, and never attempted anything like it again, the singing actually works? Kind of? But so I was looking for one of these weird charming lyrics for “my music video blog“http://alesh.tumblr.com/ the other day, and was bummed to not find any. But hey, I’ve got the technology. I decided to make one myself. Warum nicht?

So without any further ado, here’s my little video:

Posted: Monday March 8, 2010 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment [1]

 

Ryoji Ikeda Radio So I’m reading Haunted Weather by David Toop, and right off he starts talking about Ryoji Ikeda a Japanese experimental musician / sound artist who’s music is like a more cerebral version of Pan Sonic. I totally recommend the Toop book, btw (his previous, Ocean of Sound, had a lot to do with how I listen to music), but it demands a suitable soundtrack. Here for you as much as for me, I give you:

Buildings and Food Radio, Ryoji Ikeda Edition

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Jens Lekman - Night Falls Over Kortedala

Jens Lekman - Night Falls Over Kortedala Rather than try to explain how mind-tingling pretty and unabashedly likable everything on this album sounds (ok a little: think Esquivel meets Sade meets Morrissey meets the Velvet Underground), I though I’d run down what each of the songs was about, which was fun with Coney Island Baby. You can listen to a few of these songs on Jens’ MySpace, or download them from Amazon.

Posted: Wednesday December 23, 2009 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment [1]

 

The xx

XX If you follow the musicians feed of Craigslist here in Miami awhile, you’ll find that the bands people are trying to form and find musicians for fall about equally into three distinct categories:

  1. Pretty ambitious and specific punk/hardcore/metal. These listings will say things like “must be into Caliban, IKTPQ, and August Burns Red etc.” (I personally found it instructive to click through and listen to a little bit of these bands’ music, though they’re myspace links, so they might crash your browser.)
  2. Specific professional genre bands that play reggae, salsa, classic rock covers, or what have you, and are after paying gigs, sometimes on cruise ships.
  3. Bands that say they want to sound like Radiohead.

Which, that last one is pretty strange if you think about it. True, Radiohead is maybe the most popular “serious” rock band since U2 gave up around 10 years ago. But on the other hand, Radiohead’s only real signature is that they have no one distinct sound, that they shift and evolve with the artistic whims that blow them this way and that way, that even their approach to songwriting and music making is open to renegotiation every time they go into the studio. So that to say you want to sound like Radiohead is to have missed the point, to have failed essentially before you’ve begun.

Then again of course the “Radiohead” signifier is a rejection of some of the less masculine (and more artistically potent) trends of bands like Animal Collective, Grizzly Bear, et al. I don’t know what sort of Craigslist ad these bands might have found each other through, but I do know that when they got down to making music, it wasn’t with a preconceived notion involving the sound of some already-existing thing. You get together and you start by throwing ideas around, and if you’re sufficiently creative and open-minded you arrive sooner or later at a distinctive vision, which you then let that artistic vision be your guide, take you where it may.

Which brings me to the xx album, which has been on heavy rotation at chez Alesh for a few weeks, which clearly began with singers Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim (cut them some slack on the names, they’re British) sitting a room with a couple of guitars, playing and singing. You can get a sense of what that sounded like from this clip, but what’s interesting isn’t so much the sparseness of the music; it’s how beautifully that sparseness translates to the completed record.

Sim moves to bass, and another guitarist is brought in to handle the less intricate parts. The sound is rounded out not by a drum machine, but by a drummer who taps out rhythms live on a grouping of little electronic pads. The sound is almost completely untreated, with the guitars clean and ringing and the bass bright and prominent, so that everything sounds naked and fresh. This to go with the lyrics, which, while not as sex-obsessed as you have been led to believe, are intimate and probing.

I don’t need to tell you that they’re great, you can hear that for yourself. What I think is so interesting they look like fans of Joy Division, right? Even the choice of instruments suggests Joy Division. They probably have started a band thinking they’d sound like Joy Division. But, thankfully, they approached it with an integrity and willingness to be led by the music. And they ended up sounding like Young Marble Giants and covering Aaliyah. The resulting buzz is not insubstantial.

The road to success in any artistic endeavor begins with casting aside your expectations and finding that new thing that wants to be found. You don’t do that by theorizing; you do it by sitting down and making stuff. You just can’t get to being like Radiohead by wanting to be Radiohead.

Posted: Monday October 26, 2009 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment [2]

 

Pandora

Pandora illustration from NYTimes In the beginning, we were all blown away by Pandora, right? Type in the name of an artist, and it generates an instant radio station based on their music. You rate particular songs up and down and it refines the station. You can store multiple stations of your own, and mix and match them at will. And it works really, really well; you discover music you’d never heard of that you love, and more importantly the music experience is just really good.

So how does it work? I guess shockingly, the hard way. They have people — Pandora employees, no croudsourcing here — sitting around listening to and categorizing songs. So when Pandora says you’ll like something because of “swung rhythm, minor tonality, syncopated guitar, and whispered singing” (or whatever it says), those are tags that someone manually applied to that song. Amazing. This is from a feature on Pandora in NYTimes’ magazine last week. Here are a few particularly interesting bits (and do not miss the completely absurd accompanying “infographics”):

[Tim Westergren, Pandora founder] likes to tell a story about a Pandora user who wrote in to complain that he started a station based on the music of Sarah McLachlan, and the service served up a Celine Dion song. “I wrote back and said, ‘Was the music just wrong?’ Because we sometimes have data errors,” he recounts. “He said, ‘Well, no, it was the right sort of thing — but it was Celine Dion.’ I said, ‘Well, was it the set, did it not flow in the set?’ He said, ‘No, it kind of worked — but it’s Celine Dion.’ We had a couple more back-and-forths, and finally his last e-mail to me was: ‘Oh, my God, I like Celine Dion.’ ”

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They moved on to vocals [in Indian classical music, a new genre being added to Pandora], and Alan Lin, a violinist, ticked off the scores he came up with for things like rhythmic intensity and the relative exoticism of the melody scale. “I actually put exotic at 3.5,” he said. This prompted Sameer Gupta — a percussionist and an expert on Indian music who was weighing in by speakerphone from New York — to lead a brief discussion of how to think about melody and exoticism in this context. Seven or eight scores related to melody, and then about the same number for harmony. (“A 5 for drone,” one analyst announced.) More scores related to form. Tempo. The timbre of the reeds. When Gupta gave his score for riskiness on the percussion — a 3.5 — Lin did a sort of fist pump: “Yes!” Evidently he’d scored it the same way, meaning progress toward properly fitting Indian music into the Music Genome Project. Things went on like this for a while. “Even if you have a solo violin with a tabla, you’re still going to have monophony,” Gupta remarked at one juncture. “I just wanted to point that out.” It was hard to believe there was a business riding on this kind of conversation.

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Maybe the more vivid illustration of social influence on listening habits isn’t in what we share but in what we obfuscate. Last.fm, for example, publishes a chart listing the songs that its users most frequently delete from their public listening-stream data. The guilty pleasure Top 10 is dominated by the most radio-ready pop artists — Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl,” several tracks by Lady Gaga. The service iLike compiles similar data on the most “suppressed” songs its users listen to in secret; Britney Spears figures prominently. Apparently even listeners who can set aside certain cultural information long enough to enjoy something uncool would just as soon their friends didn’t know.

But there’s a problem that emerges with Pandora, right? It’s anti-variety. If what you want to hear is just plain good music, it hasn’t really got your covered. If what you’re craving specifically is variety, or great new music that sounds like nothing you’ve heard before, you’re out of luck. I happen to enjoy completely disparate sounds back to back with each other. And while Pandora allows me to combine my stations into a “quick mix” (in fact of course, that’s how I created the “listen now” button in the sidebar), it’s limited by my imagination and my existing taste, which is exactly what I’m trying to get away from when I turn to internet radio rather the, say, my own iTunes playlists.

Not everyone wants quite the level of variety I do, but to some extent this is a real problem for anyone looking for more then background noise. If you care about music, then you want to have your tastes pushed, you want a music service to favor brand new music, and you most definetly do NOT want to hear Celine Dion (and no, it is not a shocker that her music is in fact completely pleasant and enjoyable in a bland sort of way).

Even the “listen now” link I’ve got is sort of a dead thing. I put it together something like a year ago, and it’s been exactly the same thing since. There’s a mix of genres, and it’s “eclectic” in a sort of a way, but not in a satisfying way, because the formula emerges and then becomes predictable. I could go in and tweak it once in awhile, but I’m never going to surprise myself in the way I want to be surprised, because that takes the real work of discovering stuff. And I can’t help but feel like all those people sitting at Pandora HQ are chasing a dead end. That croudsourced “people who liked X also liked Y” systems are inherently better, but that even that only goes so far.

My two favorite recently-discovered artists are the Bird and the Bee and the Brazilian Girls. And not only did I not find them through Pandora, but there’s no way I could have found them through Pandora. Their “musical qualities” do not match anything I listen to now; in fact, their musical qualities don’t much match anything else at all. (Well, maybe the Bird and the Bee have musical qualities similar to Beach House, but let us not digress.) This has less to do with sociocultural issues then with great musicians making pop music in a smart new way. The way you get to this is by reading blogs like Gorilla vs. Bear, and by keeping an eye on Pitchfork, and by checking out what your clued-in friends are listening to, and by listening to smartly curated online radio stations.

Pandora is great from time to time, but relying on it as your main source of music leads to nothing but ruts.

Posted: Thursday October 22, 2009 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment [5]

 

New Vampire Weekend album not out until January 12th(?!), but a preview download tune is up.

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Attention recovering stalkers: mild voyeouristic content alert. Where were you when you heard that Jim Carroll died? I was sitting in front of my computer last night, when I came across the news reading the Awl in my RSS reader. The reason that this struck me as odd is that at 5:47 pm on Sunday (that would be the day before yesterday), I posted a video of Carroll’s song People Who Died on my tumblr (you can confirm this by refreshing the page today at 5:47, when the date stamp should change from “one day ago” to “two days ago”). I assumed that I’d heard about the death sometime Sunday afternoon, and that’d sparked the post. So, I checked my firefox history — you can see me posting the video at the top, and no mention of Carroll in the preceding few hours. Ah, maybe I heard about it on twitter? Nope.

SO, I’m provisionally going with Coincidence, but watch the tumblr for predictions of future deaths.

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Ye olde Kanye West controversy: If you’re one of the billions of people who didn’t even consider watching the VMA’s, but heard about something to do with Kanye West, well Gawker has your back, natch, with the video and the debate about whether the whole thing was staged. (I say YES!!) Update: Choire says, essentially, ‘it’s all good.’ Update #2: I am not even joking with you, Obama is on the record on this situation.

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“Singer, drummer, bass player needed. please no ego’s mine is the only one that counts anyway.” Craigslist ad, which is funny despite probably being fake.

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Hurra Torpedo – Total Eclipse of the Heart. Best Swedish kitchen appliance cover of an 80s hit song, period.

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Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue is 50 years old; Fred Kaplan has a great appreciation, with sound clips, at Slate.

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Les Paul died. Not many people get credit for both inventing and perfecting the same thing, but with the Gibson Les Paul the man did exactly that. Before him, all electric guitars were essentially acoustics with pickups on them. People thought he was crazy to put pickups on a solid piece of wood, but not only did it succeed brilliantly, but nobody has ever made a guitar that looks or plays better. (As evidence, witness the so-called Dark Fire, Gibsons latest ill-conceived attempt to improve on a classic.) R.I.P. (Thanks, Steve.)

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In Foreign Policy, Marc Lynch compares contemporary hip-hop battles to international diplomacy (Jay-Z is the parallel to American hegemony). (via)

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The Grateful Dead

I’m not much of a Grateful Dead fan, so it’s hard for me to work up a case for the Grateful Dead being the American band of the 20th century, despite the fact that the case that is there to be made. Let me sketch it, so that others might come along and flesh it out.

The Grateful Dead produced a massive body of work during their heyday, from the mid-1960s and the early 1980s. But their live performances were always much more important then their recorded work; this is the band that re-invented what a concert tour was, and how fans would relate to it. They criss-crossed the nation (and the world), performing hundreds of shows every year, such that anyone with even a passing interest got to see them preform live. And attendance to a Dead concert was not like anything else — it was to be sucked into a world of people seemingly living a lifestyle outside the mainstream. A virtual city of fans followed the band from city to city. To attend a concert was to become immersed in the Grateful Dead; it was never a casual experience.

But the real relevance of their music comes not from the fans deep commitment, but from the music itself. It had a depth that is seldom matched, and a breadth that probably never can be. Consider: the Grateful Dead were a touchstone of the counter-revolution, the massive upheaval of culturally and politically aware music that swept over the country in the late 1960s. They regularly explored the extreme strains of psychedelia, playing LSD-inspired music inspired by the most avant-garde of late-20th century atonal composers. Yet they just as easily embodied the most populist music. And they reached not just forward, but back in time. The Dead may be associated with trippy jams, but they were always equally at home playing protest folk, country, rock, bluegrass, rockabilly, and blues. That, my friends, is just about the full spectrum of 20th century music.

But it’s not just that they played is all — it’s that they made it all sound as though it were coming from the same cloth. Anyone (maybe) can play a punk song followed by a bluegrass song. But to make them sound like they’re the same thing is something else — it’s a gift that the Grateful Dead has not been sufficiently recognized for.

They are a band that is intensely loved by it’s still considerable fan base, but not sufficiently appreciated by the public at large. Perhaps it’s because of the synthesis they brought to all their music — their rock always had a foot in country, and their MOR always had that touch of psychedelia — that made it difficult for them to get consistent radio airplay. But as popular as they remain, it’s not incorrect to call the Dead underrated, because they deserve to be cherished by all Americans as a band that helped tie together our culture, and to make us appreciate that all things exist on a continuum, dude.

Posted: Wednesday July 22, 2009 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment [4]

 

In the spirit of pissing in everyone’s lemonade, Criticism of the Space Shuttle program. (You may also enjoy: Whitey’s on the moon, Gil Scott-Heron.)

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Paper scissors rock crack-pipe

paper scissors rock crack pipe ((The Unicorns will go down as the seminal band of the early 2000’s. They embody several of the key tendencies of the best bands of the period (Low-fi irreverence, deconstructed song structures that assemble disparate elements in a hyper-linear fashion while retaining coherency (this idea The Unicorns took farther then anyone else, actually), a blending of genres that was more seamless and, again, irreverent then anything before, the embracing of a thinly-veiled yet potent band mythology, a production approach that consciously eschewed the notion that everything should be made to sound as capital-A Awesome as possible, the ability to fucking ROCK, and irreverence), and they paired a dual-frontman lineup with songwriting that re-examined what the content of song lyrics can be (see also: The Talking Heads, and the entire genere of hip-hop), usually to hilarious/smart effect.) Trust me, I could drone on and on about why I love the Unicorns, but let us rather present three versions of their signature song, I Was Born (A Unicorn):


Exhibit A: Album Version. You can read along with the lyrics here. Note how the shifts in the song do not detract from the overall unity and momentum?

Exhibit B: A much earlier take from an earlier release, featuring the immortal line “… not a dog with wings.”

Exhibit C: A live version, notable for some fleshed out lyrics (like the “If you stop believing in…” part), rocking hard, and generally being smart about playing live.

You’ll notice the “paper scissors rock crack-pipe” refrain in the second version, and that’s really all I need for us to leave the parentheses behind.: )

Pardon the digression. So, for years I didn’t think that Paper Scissors Rock Crack-pipe was a real game, until, the other day, scraping against the bottom barrel of my Podcast playlist, I stumbled across this episode of the highly annoying WNYC program Radiolab. The program plods along, pondering whether the performance of athletes can be predicted as easily as a coin flip (it can’t), until, two-thirds in, the rules of the game are revealed! The crack-pipe is obscured as “the well” and the game is given a goofy name, but it’s unmistakable. So:

Rules: The game is played exactly like standard scissors/paper/rock, with the addition of a fourth option. I recommend playing the crack pipe as a simple extended index finger. The crack pipe beats both rock and scissors, and is beaten by paper. I shut the podcast off before the end, so I have no idea where Krulwich took this after observing that, no, you wouldn’t just always play the crack pipe, because then the other person would just keep playing paper. I assume he observed that this makes the game slightly — but not completely — asymmetrical. Of the four possible plays, there are two stronger (beat two of the other three plays) and two weaker (beat only one of the other three plays) options.

The original game is t best a mildly interesting psychological puzzle. The revised game introduces elements of game theory and generally complicates things.

Or does it? Let’s look at the four possible plays one by one. The crack-pipe is clearly a strong play, since it defeats two other plays. Paper, too, is a strong play, since it also defeats two other plays. Scissors only beats paper, but it’s the only play that beats paper, and based on what you’ve heard you can predict that your opponent will be playing paper pretty often, so scissors remains a strong play. What about rock? Well, poor rock still beats scissors, but we know that the crack-pipe beats scissors too. If you play rationally, it is never advantageous to play rock! And with rock effectively removed from the game, the advantage of paper and the crack-pipe disappears — both now only effectively defeat one other play. The game resolves back into a simple three-option play, crack-pipe having effectively replaced rock in the line up. All we’re left with is a song.

Posted: Tuesday July 14, 2009 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment [1]

 

Over on my tumblr, a brief introduction to PJ Harvey for you kids out there.

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I don’t love it with exactly all of my heart, but there is something special about this Dirty Projectors song/video.

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Jesse Thorn, Oliver Wang, and Jay Smooth remember Michael Jackson.

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Attention aging Jeff Buckley fans!: You can now listen to a previously unreleased Jeff Buckley cover of Elton John’s We All Fall in Love Sometimes. Just please keep your eyeball excretions off me.

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Animal Collective photos

Animal CollectiveCLICK FOR SLIDESHOW

Trying to describe an Animal Collective concert is like trying to describe one of their albums, and I’m not even going to try. It does shed some light on how they make their music, if only by revealing the ingredients — multiple sample-triggering devices, keyboards, guitars, and drums. And whereas the Battles show felt like an approximation of the recorded album, with the post-processing absent, Animal Collective seems to be at their prime in concert. But whatever; I can’t explain to you what it was like. All I’d say is: go see live shows. There’s nothing else like it.

Posted: Tuesday June 16, 2009 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment [1]

 

Shows of the upcoming in Miami over the next few months that may be attention-deserving (in light of the canceled Orb): Harvey Milk, July 11, Churchill’s, Tori Amos, July 29, Jackie Gleason Theater, Maxwell, August 1, James L. Knight Center, Pet Shop Boys, September 9, Jackie Gleason Theater. Pretty sad list. (Via Tourfilter and JamBase.)

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Attention old people: the new Tortoise album, Beacons of Ancestorship, is streaming on the web. (via)

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RIP Jay Bennett

Jay Bennett This will perhaps make sense only for those who have seen I Am Trying to Break Your Heart (trailer), the film about the making of Wilco’s uncanny Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. A key layer in the movie is the increasing frustration that Jeff Tweedy has with Jay Bernnett, whom he eventually fires.

That’s all ancient history, and it may be a complete coincidence that Wilco hasn’t had an album approaching YHF artistically, or commercially, since. But look at the song-by-song list of Bennett’s contributions and the accompanying interview, and a distinct picture forms. It’s sort of Bennett’s musically technical Paul to Tweedy’s spontaneous John, right? Like, he was the guy, as Brent DiCrescenzo said, that every artist needs in the room occasionally to say “no” to the bad ideas (which you could see how that would annoy someone, and get you fired if that someone had absolute control of the situation). Maybe not, but that’s my reading of the situation.

Anyway, subsequently Bennett released some solo albums, needed hip replacement surgery which he couldn’t really afford (!), filed a lawsuit against his former bandmate, and, last week, died for an as yet undisclosed reason.

Stereogum remembers with a live Wilco performance of Misundersood, featuring Bennett on organ and piano. And here’s a remembrance from Don Gerard, who was close to Bennett. RIP.

Posted: Monday June 1, 2009 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment [2]

 

q: you seem to like drinking. do you view this as a positive thing in your life? how’s it working out for you? a: it has treated us very well of late; there are times when it is revolting and weakening, both physically and morally. sometimes there is no drinking, sometimes a little, and someitmes a lot. it is something not entered into lightly or negligently, at the best of times. — Bonnine “Prince” Billy interview.

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Dangermouse and sparklehorse - dark night of the soul After a legal dispute, Danger Mouse said ‘fuck you’ to his label and released his new album with all artwork and packaging intact, and with a blank recordable CD-R. (If he’s a bad ass it’ll also have a quick guide on using teh bittorrentz.) There is something very refreshing, logical, and even beautiful about this, much more so then the ‘pay what you like’ scheme I think. Update: Listen to the album on NPR. Worth it! Oh right — it’s a collaboration with Sparklehorse, with photos by David Lynch.

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Weekendly clickables XI

Posted: Saturday May 16, 2009 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink ·

 

Pan African Space Station (“it’s only music, but we love it”), an internet radio thing the awesomeness of which I’m just beginning to understand. For example, African Noise Foundation, Kalahari Surfers, and Dala Flat Music. OK, now how do I get this into iTunes again? Update: A cockroach-eye view of life for Marechera.

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Lou Reed - Coney Island Baby

Lou Reed - Coney Island Baby The 90s was the decade of record stores stocked with CDs, and a staple in all these stores (Specs, Tower, Sam Goody, and Peaches — where I spent three years) was a cutout bin of $5.99 reject discs of unknown provenance. Lou Reed discs were always legion in these bins. I suspect because the “serious” music fans who were buyers for the stores and controlled the distribution networks in the late 80s and early 90s were all Reed fans and created an overinflated demand. Also, Lou Reed released a lot of albums in the 70s and 80s, and apparently the idea that there would be a fair number of completists of this body of work was uncontroversial.

Well, I was a self-professed Velvet Underground fanatic, and so for awhile I was snatching these up on a regular basis. (I learned my lesson after a half dozen or so purchases of mediocre Lou Reed product.) But there is a diamond in that particular rough — 1976’s Coney Island Baby.

The greatness of the particular album is not attributed to any guise of genius. It’s the obvious result of the drug-induced indifference that we now recognize fueling so many 70s albums by the Rolling Stones et al. Lou Reed, backed up by a roster of session musicians who were competent but not particularly hip to his vision or musical past, puts in no more effort than anyone would have expected (note: he was averaging two albums a year during this period). Yet in all this indifference, a sort of accidental magic happened. The music is easy-rocking, almost country, with modest flourishes of weirdness at the margins. Imagine a drug-addled and burned out Reed trying to get these rut-stuck musicians to engage in the experimentation of the Velvets (imagine, also, the talk that producer Godfrey Diamond must have gotten from RCA before the sessions, this being the followup to Metal Machine Music, and even Lou was explicity asked to “go make a rock album”). So Reed got the eccentric specifics he requested — washes of cymbal here, accelerating tempo there — but the basic tracks are straight down the middle.

The songwriting is something else alltogether. There, Reed did exactly what he pleased. And boy were the muses smiling on him. Every single song on this album, on closer listen, reveals something profoundly fucked up. Let’s just quickly run them down:

Posted: Thursday May 7, 2009 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment

 

The legendary Nelly Furtado remix of Missy Elliott’s Get Ur Freak On. I’ve been periodically checking Songza for this, and suddenly it’s back.

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michael jackson

A painting, one of the items from Michael Jackson’s estate being auctioned off. I would very much enjoy owning this piece. Those of you who still have not gotten me a present, a month after my birthday, you know what to do. (via)

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Battle of bad album cover lists: Pitchfork’s Worst Record Covers of All Time is about a hundred times more interesting and entertaining then Noise Addict’s Some of the most controversial album covers ever, the latter of which has been getting linked around a bit lately.

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Cecil Taylor

Posted: Tuesday March 24, 2009 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment

 

Mugshots of Phish fans. Police in Hampton, Virginia raided a series of Phish concerts last week (apparently they haven’t heard that the Obama administration is legalizing pot) and confiscated $1,213,882.80 (?) worth of marijuana.

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Joaquin Phoenix rapping

Quick video of Joaquin Phoenix rapping. This is from Las Vegas; no video has surfaced from the Miami performance, which apparently was replete with a fake fight with a fan. This is all pretty good, but I think the Andy Kaufman comparisons are still a bit premature.

Posted: Monday March 16, 2009 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment

 

I have been waxing philosophical about U2 over at this post, btw.

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Concerts at the White House

Stevie Wonder performed at the White House. Cool enough. I say let’s do a concert a week, and let’s move them outside. Here’s a few folks I’d like to see performing in the rose garden (in addition to the obvious choice of George Clinton):

More suggestions?

Posted: Saturday February 28, 2009 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment [1]

 

Davie Shipbuilding, Unruffled Under All Circumstances

Wikipedia names your band, a clever band name/album title/cover art randomizer, with some gorgeous results. It’s worth sifting through all the submissions. (I have a few in there.)

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A completely unexpected argument about Billy Joel. I’ve read the Chuck Klosterman article, and while it was fun to read, I don’t care about Billy Joel either way, and I don’t understand why these people are so worked up.

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Great moments in post-modernism, pt. 2 (Daddy's Gonna Pay For Your Crashed Car)

We all have our concerts we regret missing. That one amazing show we knew we should go to but ended up missing for whatever reason… for me it was Alice Cooper when I was in high school, but most especially Zoo TV. This is the story of three U2 albums: Achtung Baby, Zooropa, and Pop. If you knew me at the time, and you got me started about U2, you’d hear my analogy between the Beatles and U2. How each had their “black and white” phase, both sonically and visually, and how their overwhelming popularity pushed each group to really explore and experiment (unlike lesser acts, who’s success forces them to retreat and to try to repeat the formula that brought them the success).

Achtung was U2’s Sgt. Pepper (simultaneously a complete break from their past work and a complete masterpiece), Zooropa was their Yellow Submarine (even more experimental, but also more hit-and-miss), and … well, at some point U2 went “back to their roots” (ie stopped being interesting), but not before releasing Pop, an album which requires a whole shift in paradigm to understand. So now hear this:

And remember, power moves aren’t about being cool, they’re about being awesome.” (That may be the worst possible episode of The Show to start with if you’ve never seen one before, btw.)

So, over the course of these three albums, U2 stopped trying to be cool, and started to concentrate on being Awesome. The awesomeness is pretty evident on Pop, with unabashed songs like Discothèque and The Playboy Mansion. The attempt to be cool (i.e. detached, in contrast to their earlier earnest work) is in effect from start to finish on Achtung Baby — in fact, it’s what distinguishes it from the ultra-sincere previous studio album, The Joshua Tree.

Musically, Zooropa is the least successful of the three albums. It finds the band in its most experimental and exploratory phase, and the duds come as fast as the successes. But none embodies everything that is right with this period of U2’s music better then “Daddy’s Gonna Pay For Your Crashed Car.” One of the things that’s cool about the song is that it doesn’t even have a proper video; it lives on only as an album version and several live permutations. The basic one is above. Check out how the staging had evolved in short order:

Now we’ve got Bono, in full-on lead singer parody, singing the first verse to himself in the mirror, in some sort of Satan’s dressing room. If anyone’s keeping archetype score, don’t forget Pink from The Wall here. OK, but let’s get to the heart of what’s great here. It’s how directly the faux-nihilism of the concept of the song leads to its greatness. The second person — the “you” of the song — is held in utter contempt by the song’s narrator. Yet the staging, and the setup of the song, makes clear that the “real” singer has at least as much contempt for the “narrator.” The whole thing twists back on itself, and nobody ends up guilty except maybe the un-self-conscious pop star that Bono mocks.

After all that, it’s almost unnecessary to examine the formal qualities of the song itself, but let’s run through them anyways. Refer again to the music-only version of Daddy’s Gonna Pay For Your Crashed Car. We open with a bit of obligatory static and some classical music (I don’t even have to refer to my CD sleeve to tell you that this sample was credited simply to something called “Lenin’s Favorite Songs,” in a transparent bit of liner-note showmanship). What follows sounds novel even today, despite being built out of fairly mundane sonic blocks.

The cry-cat effect, in evidence on various guitar parts from all over this era, finds its way to the snare in the main bit of the song. (In technical terms, the effect emphasizes frequencies that are higher the louder the input is. Compare the snare on the first part of this song to the guitar on Mysterious Ways to hear it.) After that, the song is largely built on the bass part. Sonically heavily compressed, the sound is nonetheless a tribute to Adam Clayton’s oft-overlooked creative force.

We get a few other keyboard/sampler sounds, but the only other distinguishing sonic feature is the lead vocal’s reverb advance/retreat. I’m not sure how conscious the untrained ear is to this, but this song is an early blatant example of a lead vocal that vacillates between dry and wet (echoy) sonics for emotional effect.

During the chorus, in the live version, the monitors flash “A-HA” and “SHA-LA,” in bold all-caps, a tongue-in-cheek “This is a Pop Song” deceleration. This is not unimportant, because it marks the single most conceptualized point in U2’s career. It’s the most “meta” they ever got, and maybe the most “meta” any pop star can ever get. Nothing before or since had tried as strenuously to deconstruct (and perchance to mock) the relationship between the cult-of-personality of a music star and the idol-worshiping ID of the pop music fan.

And maybe it’s just as well. Pop is a better album overall, and mines a similar territory, but the emotional space of the narrators of Staring at the Sun and even Last Night on Earth is much more familiar then that of Daddy’s Gonna Pay For Your Crashed Car. Mostly forgotten, the song deserves its place as the marker of the most self-consciously and deliberately detached narrator in the pop canon.

Posted: Friday January 23, 2009 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment [3]

 

At the end of the year, when most bloggers are kicking back and taking it easy (ahem), Rex Sorgats has been busting his butt, bringing the excellent 30 Most Notable Blogs of 2008, the Top 35 Albums of 2008, and the monster List of Lists. Crazy.

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Chuck Klosterman: Chinese Democracy - a review of a review

klosterman reviews chinese democracy So, I thought that Rex Sorgatz was the only person in the world who cared about Chinese Democracy, but it turns out I was wrong. His college roommate, Chuck Klosterman, also cares a lot, and wrote a 1,900 word review for the Onion’s AV Club.

Now, the opening pages of Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs is some of my favorite neither-fiction-nor-nonfiction writing ever, and I’m generally all too happy to follow Klosterman on whatever flights of rhetorical fancy he chooses to explore. (It’s also tough to escape the fact that my writing style largely consists of biting him to whatever limited extent I’m able.) But I’ve read the Guns N Roses review twice now, and I’m just not sure I’m buying it.

I understand Klosterman’s position — I’m just about the same age as Rex and he, and so I understand that he’s got a lot of yarn to spin around Guns N Roses (just by way of example, check out a fake review of Chinese Democracy he wrote for Spin in 2006). This being (please God) the last time anybody will have any interest in reading about what’s left of GNR, he’s got the one chance to let it loose.

Klosterman’s gift is the ability to momentarily make the trivial seem monumentally important, and he goes all in here:

Reviewing Chinese Democracy is not like reviewing music. It’s more like reviewing a unicorn. Should I primarily be blown away that it exists at all? Am I supposed to compare it to conventional horses? To a rhinoceros? . . . This is a little like when that grizzly bear finally ate Timothy Treadwell: Intellectually, he always knew it was coming. He had to. His very existence was built around that conclusion. But you still can’t psychologically prepare for the bear who eats you alive, particularly if the bear wears cornrows.

I’m with him there, but it goes off the rails right away in just the very next paragraph:

Three of the songs are astonishing. Four or five others are very good. The vocals are brilliantly recorded, and the guitar playing is (generally) more interesting than the guitar playing on the Use Your Illusion albums. Axl Rose made some curious (and absolutely unnecessary) decisions throughout the assembly of this project, but that works to his advantage as often as it detracts from the larger experience. So: Chinese Democracy is good. Under any halfway normal circumstance, I would give it an A.

Am I the only one who zipped happily through that paragraph and didn’t at all see where it was headed? An A?! Since when does a competent rock album with three great songs get a fucking A? Here mainstream rock has been dishing up stagnant pop-punk since Kurt Cobain’s suicide (i.e. just about 20 years), with interesting music coming mainly from eccentric Brooklynites who get minimal play outside of pitchfork, and we’re seriously handing out good reviews to 46-year-old has-beens who manage to come up with 3 good songs and a pop-metal album that isn’t completely embarrassing?

Next, we’re then treated to a boilerplate “last real album” argument in which we are to believe that rock fans around the world will take Chinese Democracy as seriously as Klosterman does, and that it’s good enough to be remembered as the end of the era before all music was downloaded track by track. Which is completely goofy, since even the albums alleged fans are streaming it on MySpace and downloading it off the Pirate Bay.

Continuing as though he were working off an Important Album Review Template, Klosterman next gives us the lyrical analysis paragraph, which is actually the highlight of the review. “The weirdest (yet more predictable) aspect of Chinese Democracy is the way 60 percent of the lyrics seem to actively comment on the process of making the album itself.” Do tell. But we run into trouble again when the discussion turns to “the music.” If the warning bells haven’t begun ringing yet, what about when the praise for an album begins with “It doesn’t sound dated or faux-industrial.” And if you cherish, even in a small way, the Guns and Roses of yore, you’ll cringe at where this is going: “But it’s actually better that Slash is not on this album. What’s cool about Chinese Democracy is that it truly does sound like a new enterprise, and I can’t imagine that being the case if Slash were dictating the sonic feel of every riff.”

I don’t know who that works for, but as I vaguely recall it, GnR gradually tanked artistically as Rose’s influence over the group’s direction grew and Slash’s waned. Buckethead may be an interesting guitarist, but I suspect he’s playing Philip Seymour Hoffman to to Axl’s Robin Williams in Patch Adams here.

But don’t get me wrong — reading this review is still way more fun then entertaining the prospect of listening to the actual album. Towards the end, Klosterman goes off on one of his two-tangents-a-minute romps, speculating at great length about why Axl Rose chose to sing one particular line in one particular song in the particular way he did, along the way winding his way through an Extreme comparison, a James Bond reference, and the entirely probably speculation that there are 400 hours of vocal takes of this one particular song on tape somewhere. “Throughout Chinese Democracy, the most compelling question is never, ‘What was Axl doing here?’ but ‘What did Axl think he was doing here?’” Maybe so, but how compelling is either question, really? And is it going to make this album worth listening to?

Klosterman concludes with a sincere and heartfelt deceleration that this is, in his honest opinion, a Good Album. He sounds like he means it, but I actually sort of hope he doesn’t. I hope he just figures that making a big deal out of Chinese Democracy makes sense for him, and making a big deal out of it being good is more plausible then making a big deal out of it being predictably lame. He seems oblivious to the fact that much of the anticipation that existed at one point for Chinese Democracy has fizzled out years ago, and that CD is little more then the present day Two Against Nature — very few people care today, and nobody will care or remember 6 months from today.

In the end, Spin Magazine’s actual review of CD, brief and mildly dismissive, seems like a much more measured response. And if you want some primo Klosterman, go read his piece on R Kelley’s Trapped in the Closet, or better yet Sex Drugs and Coco Puffs.

Posted: Tuesday November 25, 2008 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment [5]

 

David Byrne on tour. Miami date: December 13, Jackie Gleason.

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Great moments in post-modernism, pt. 1 (More Money, More Problems)

I came across this old nugget while doing research for my forthcoming comprehensive appreciation of Missy Elliot’s work. This track, credited to Notorious B.I.G. (his second posthumous #1 hit single, an all-time record), is really a Puffy vehicle, and one of the strangest bits of art to make it onto MTV in the 90s. We open with a parody of a climactic moment of a golf tournament, Puffy playing a Tiger Woods character, cut to a “conventional” rap video, back to a bit of golf footage, back to rap video, then to some home-video of Biggy rambling, then cut to more rap video footage, now with a primo verse of posthumous Biggy spliced in from some abandoned track* (this is far and away the highlight of the whole thing), and then back to the previously scheduled song. The hook is lifted from a Diana Ross track (re-recorded), but what holds the track together is the line “more money, more problems,” repeated in the golf skit and in Biggy’s candid monologue.

When I saw this video in 1997 I loved it immediately, and for two reasons. One was the (* not so conventional, really) completely new vision of a bright shiny approach to hip-hop. Credit for this of course goes to Hype Williams, who directed the video, and who’d certainly directed equally eye-popping videos before. This one, though, sunk into my consciousness as much as (and just before) Missy’s I can’t Stand the Rain. The 90’s were a desolate time for rap, where the gangsta (sp?) ruled, and it was all about pictures of yourself and your crew in baggy denim and Timberlands in a bleak urban landscape, and all about your flow. It seems quaint now, but the idea that rap could be Glam again (like it had been in in the mid 80s) struck like a hammer. So did Mase’s lackadaisical flow, which seemed like a challenge to the silver-tongued MC’s of the day (e.g. DMX, who you may not remember being that fierce, but really, he kind of was) that ruled in those days, and of course Puff Daddy’s rapping was that much closer to a joke from a conventional perspective — dude got over purely on personality, and plus being the dude who’s business acumen built the building in which the party was taking place.

But much more then that, what hit home was the song’s frank discourse with reality. The toss-off line “more money more problems,” which the posthumous Biggie attributes to Puffy (who’s really creating the song, follow?), seems to accuse the whole post-barter system of human trade of being a way of keeping the little guy (ie the black man) down. Success = problems, or so it sounded to me at the time. I don’t think anyone cared at the time whether this very real critique held any merit — what was so powerful was that it sounded true, and that it helped break the mold of a pop-song, propelled it into something that looked like a particularly biting form of social commentary.

This really strikes home in the middle of Biggy’s verse, when we’re treated to a brief shot of a party with several dozen women dancing, while the song tries to to sell the idea that its grandiose concept is based on a seed in B.I.G.‘s words. Of course, this leads us to an inevitable conclusion: that Biggie’s death was somehow the result of his success. More money leads to more problems, most money leads to getting gunned down by a never-to-be-identified assailant. That is some strong medicine, and in terms of the alleged exploitation of the Notorious B.I.G.‘s death for commercial gain, challenges even the sappy ballad I’ll be Missing You.

So there it is: a weird/powerful truism about social politics delivered in a catchy, post-modern package that uses parody, found video, and cutting-edge video techniques (and let’s not sell Hype Williams short for a second — check out the shots of Puffy and Mase in the yellow suits — I mean, what the hell is that?!), all montaged together with an off-handed mastery (check out how some of the transitions are deliberately not on-beat) to create something that felt so like the future that it could never really be the future. Just like all videos for pop singles, it was dug, and it was forgotten. And so it goes. Somewhere out there there is a list of videos that really truly did something new, and this one belongs on that list.

Correction: While the single and the album it appears on were released after Biggie’s death, the song was almost certainly created while he was still alive, with everything as it appears except the 2-part golf skit.

Posted: Friday October 24, 2008 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment [9]

 

A small appreciation for Richard Wright

richard wright It is very stressful, in these troubled times, to try to summon emotions specific to Rick Wright. Waters and Gilmour would be no problem, even Nick Mason I have lots of specific affection for. As the keyboard player, Wright was obviously central to PF’s sound. But I think that he was most interesting in his minimalist approach to the keyboard. I guess it’s hard to appreciate what he was doing because, rare and innovative as they were at the time, his gauzy synth washes sort of became the default mode for keyboards in pop in the 80s and obscured his contribution. Maybe. I believe he composed that song on Dark Side that has a female singer doing a long wordless improv(?), but insofar as that sort of thing represents PF’s most indulgent side, well, I dunno.

I’m young enough that my introduction to PF came through Momentary Lapse of Reason, by which point Mason and Gilmour were listed as the only two official members of the band (although, oddly, Wright plays on the album), which I guess speaks to his friendship with DG and says something about loyalty and his generally being a perfectly lovely British chap.

If the four members of the Beatles were about as close to all being equal as you can imagine, and REM represents some sort of opposite extreme, with one extremely gifted member and three perfectly good but ultimately replaceable musicians, I guess PF fits somewhere in the middle. Two (three if you count Barrett) creative fountainhead dudes with two talented and valuable supporting musicians, of which Rick Wright was one. Not, I suspect, a bad life.

Posted: Wednesday September 17, 2008 by Alesh Houdek · Permalink · Comment [3]