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

“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

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.

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:

Ryoji Ikeda Radio

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

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.

  • And I Remember Every Kiss: I miss my girlfriend so much that when I got drafted into the army I named my gun after her.
  • Sipping On the Sweet Nectar: An open invitation to bring more nostalgia into your life. Featuring the immortal line: “I see myself on my deathbed saying / ‘I wish I would have loved less.’”
  • The Opposite of Hallelujah: Jens hangs out with his kid sister and tries to tell her about being depressed, basically by shouting the title phrase after his metaphor gets ruined by a hermit crab.
  • A Postcard to Nina: Jen’s lesbian Berlin penpal takes him to her parents’ house and tries to pass him off as her boyfriend. Awkward hilarity ensues. “Your father’s e-mailing me all the time … I send back out-of-office autor-eplies.” Also, the last line before the outro is “Sincerely, Jens Lekman.”
  • Into Eternity: Hugs are nice.
  • I’m Leaving You Because I Don’t Love You: Mostly just the title repeated over and over. But also a breakup song with the line, “So you pick up your asthma inhaler / And put it against your lips.”
  • If I Could Fly (It Would Feel Like This): This one really is just the words that are in the title.
  • Your Arms Around Me: Jens’ girlfriend comes up from behind (on “silent brand new sneakers”) and gives him a hug while he’s working in the kitchen. He accidentally cuts himself, bad enough to have to go to the hospital. Mild gore and hallucinatory imagery.
  • Shirin: Jens longs for the Iraqi woman who cuts his hair out of her apartment salon.
  • It Was a Strange Time in My Life: Assorted meditations about a vow of silence, including flirting with deaf girls.
  • Kaske Ar Jag Kar I Dig: Google has the title meaning “Perhaps I am in love with you,” so this is maybe the oddest come-on song ever.
  • Friday Night at the Drive-In Bingo: Jens and his girlfriend play bingo with some country people they discover while exploring the Swedish countryside. Also features some class politics and a fantasy about a rabbit farm (“Watching them copulate is very funny”) during a coda that is a hilarious mimicry for Andy’s Chest.

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.

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.’ ”

[…]

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.

[…]

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.