Howdy, hangers-on and hopefuls! It’s been awhile, but I’m still kicking over here. How about you? Here’s a new track I just finished.
It’s past the holiday season, but what the hell. Since when is human decency seasonal? at about 36:00 in this holiday interview Terry Gross and Nick Lowe touch on the compassion that sets Lowe’s songwriting apart from the rest. It’s the thing that, for me, anyway, makes his music so appealing. It’s music written for human beings by a human being. It’s sometimes morbid (Marie Provost), sometimes bemused (So It Goes), sometimes heart-on-sleeve (What’s so Funny ‘Bout Peace Love and Understanding), but always true. It is always songwriting stood on a bedrock conviction that people have dignity and it is deserving of recognition.
I saw Nick Lowe’s Quality Holiday Revue with Los Straitjackets this year, and it was absolutely the best concert I’d ever attended. I’ve never seen a better performance, I’d never witnessed better musicians, I’d never heard familiar songs so imbued with their own inimitable and indelible character. There was an incontrovertible, nearly geologic factuality to the presence and musical mastery those musicians brought to the stage.
Anyhow, here’s that interview:
A Doctors Without Borders hospital is cynically pummeled with ordnance in distant Afghanistan. There is another school shooting in nearby Oregon. Theorists call the state of modern life precarity, people like Bezos or Gates give it a sheen by jargonizing it as “disruption”. In the total world terrorist state, violence, whether defined by constant threat of air-raid or mass shooting or the randomly-placed economic sword hanging above every corporate cube-dweller’s head, erupts without warning, from every direction, without predictable source or intended target. The apparent rule is lawlessness, the constant state of mind is suspicion, trauma, fear. This lawlessness, this norm wherein there is no basic stability, extends everywhere. It atomizes collective community action and nullifies the operation of politics in the rich world while simultaneously fundamentally erasing stability, memory, and history in every place geographically located outside the castle walls of the neoliberal project. The razing of a temple complex in Palmyra and the enforcement of reductionist binary rhetoric promoting ever-increasing militarization of civilian life in the heartland demonstrate the creep of the same mission: The end of history, memory, agency; in short, the end of life lived for any human purpose, and the start of one whose only permitted goods are its timeless, rote performance of servility to ideology that maintains the power of a very few.
In “Life in Wartime” (1979), the desperate voice of Dada is set to music. Byrne sings, “This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco, this ain’t no fooling around.” Where Magritte famously set up the surreal opposition of image and description in his “The Treachery of Images”, stating that what was illustrated was, in fact, not that which was illustrated (“This is not a pipe”),
the Talking Heads similar statement, paraphrased “This is not a disco”, moved from a surrealist transgression of the order of signs and language to engagement with the dadaist dilemma: what does one do if there are no laws anymore? How does one exist in the state of emergency and exception “during wartime” when all law has been suspended? The video linked to above is from a live concert recording, itself repudiating proof that there was a party, that there was, so to speak, a disco. The effect produced by these statements is the same as that produced by Magritte’s painting, but with an edge. It made reference to the fact that everything seemed to be coming apart at the seams. New York in ’79 was in shambles and the banking system seemed as though it was on the edge of collapse as it starved major cities of cash. The country was still staggering after the real and moral defeat in Vietnam. The empty energy of hippie consumer hedonism had been overtaken in the culture, where any energy was still boiling, with its only possible progeny: anger and addiction. The song sets this problem for the viewer and listener: How does one acknowledge one’s fundamentally precarious position in a society that has gone off the rails while the trappings of celebration-as-usual march, undead, wildly on? The time was ripe for the contradictions this song manifested in 1979, but lamentably the song is even more relevant to our present moment than it was to its own.
The dadaist meets terror with an exacerbation of the same, an amplification that hopes to widen and make apparent the fissures of contradiction immanent in the organization of society. In this bizarre year 2015, 36 years after “Life During Wartime” was released on Fear of Music (Sire), a video of the band (still, obscenely, young) playing with abandon can be called up instantaneously from any device with a screen and access to the internet to provide an escapist shot of nostalgia or enjoyment. Meanwhile, one alternately reads news of the latest Joseph Heller-esque escapade of our military, our propagandists on the pre-campaign trail, or our spiteful fellow citizens while absentmindedly scrolling through pictures of celebrity cats. The song’s references to the Mudd Club and C.B.G.B. (“This ain’t no Mudd Club, no C.B.G.B., I ain’t got time for that now”) are now true in every respect; the venerable punk venue C.B.G.B., present at the level of reference and memory in the lyrics, in a reversal of its aura now houses high-end shopping on a former skid row. In the intervening years the song has become more true. The fissures have widened. It is more than not C.B.G.B. It is its own antithesis, a negation or forgetting of itself.
The difference between then and now collapses with the ease of accessing video of the performance. So does the perceptual distance between the siege of emergencies (real and constructed) that threaten us and our accelerating means of diversion and consumption. We are told “This ain’t no disco”, and this we by now should already know. Still, they tell us to keep dancing. For whatever reason, for now, we still do so without changing a step.
At least it’s natural to jitterbug when the bullets keep falling so close to your feet.
Some of this blog entry makes reference to Bad New Days: Art, Criticism, Emergency by Hal Foster
-Updated to provide a working link to another live performance of Life During Wartime, as the intervening years saw the other video go dark.
In which this reviewer frolics in the used CD bin and reflects on the ambivalent nature of Pop memory
A “wise” algorithmically generated amalgamation of message board users once said, “The Internet never forgets.” While that is superficially true, it would be more accurate to say that, abetted by the vast semi-organized troves of music and obscure band trivia music nerds have put on the Internet, music nerds never forget. One of these music nerds is musician Alexis Georgopoulos, AKA Arp. In 2013, Arp released the very ENO-esque More, a tiny stadium of simple, high-contrast glam outfitted with warm jets galore. Today, while slowly perusing the used CD bin, I found an earlier Arp opus, the 2007 release In Light. While I couldn’t help be touched by the faithfulness of his full appropriation of ENOisms on 2013’s More, I was struck on first listen to In Light by his apparent love for ENO collaborators and inspirational source Harmonia, in particular for their 1975 album, DeLuxe.
Oh, Arp, shall I compare thee to a summer’s eve?
Let’s begin our comparison with the names of these records. Michael Rother, Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius’ band Harmonia’s 1975 record’s title, DeLuxe, means “of the light.” Arp’s 2007 release, In Light means, well, just that. Harmonia’s original work came from the light, the source of inspiration, and Arp’s record was made by in the light cast by its predecessor.
Arp’s cover art has a certain undeniable, warm similarity to Harmonia’s, which carries the metaphor further. The cover image of Arp’s 2007 album, by then already far from 1975, is more distant in obvious visual proximity from the source. Here the reduction in the camera’s proximity to the sun does not reduce the similarity to the subject matter, however; in spite of the drifting, obscuring, amnesiac clouds, the parity of the image’s composition with the timing (further away in time and more obscure) only increases the level of homage. Less is more.
The content (that hated word) of the record lacks an exact analog to the signature Rother guitar, but, if one is looking, a suitable one can be found in the steady saw-wave buzz that drones on the second track, “Potentialities”, or on the fourth, “Fireflies on the Water”, or opening the fifth, “Premonition of the Sculptor Steiner”. In fact, the sound on the fourth may even be a guitar. Even without a guitar, which we know Georgopolous will get to along with vocals on More, the songs all bear an unmistakable resemblance to the spare synthesized rhythm and repetition of the works of Moebius and Roedelius. The use of a muted, pastel pallet of analog arpeggios and LFO-modulated, watery pads throughout Arp’s In Light hearkens back to Harmonia’s “Kekse”, “Notre Dame”, “Gollum”, or “Walky-Talky”, the less driving 3/4 of the earlier masterpiece.
Momus recently mused whether anyone was talking any longer about originality. In a summation of an earlier survey he had conducted, he states “critics in music and art mags prefer to talk about influences and reference and context.” This question of originality in conjunction with or in opposition to creativity is very interesting to me, a person raised in the waning, pre-Internet years of the American Monomyth, my brain antiseptically washed squeaky clean in the Superman-iacal ideal of the One who would change All, in spite of the fact that, even then, everyone knew no one could ever come along and be the Beatles again. The Alphas were out. Onward to the age of the Alpha/Omegas- the Guns ‘n Roses of the world- the bands that would, at the very same time they finalized the form they embodied, kill it with their perfection.
Now, with the availability of cheap storage, streaming music, and endless, unpaid music journalism, we seem to have entered a Pax Romana of pop culture. The illusion of an endless swathe of time seems to extend ahead and behind in Western culture in which our trivia, our selves, continued, continues, will continue, and will have continued to make sense.
In reality, Pop music by its nature lacks permanence. Pop music appears before its intended audience at the time when they will hear it, and it leaves that audience’s consciousness nearly as soon as that moment as passed. Unless you are a completist, it requires no effort to unearth. It is apparently omnipresent, and as undemanding of examination as most people’s unexamined lives, lit intermittently as they are by the strobe of changing fancy. Like politics, Pop comes and goes and is drowned in the waters of Lethe nearly as quickly as it gains its audience share.
For the completist, however, this is not the case. The Internet needs the completist far more than the completist needs the Internet- for it is the true rock nerd and his narratives who keeps the cobwebs on all that rock obscura (placed there by those same rock nerds or ones like them) at (e-)bay. It is the completist, obsessed with the human continuity of any cultural form, who saves us from our woefully short memories. This was true in the past, and it’s especially true now in the age of the Internet, with all that cluster of media forms’ distracting, rapid-fire arguments aimed to cut us off from whence we came.
It is this present environment that makes an artist like Arp so interesting. The Long Tail means that, for the completist, the archival Pop reference becomes at once a blatant strategy for remembering, for organizing a history, and a form of expression. If culture appears to have been on a steady course lo these many years, and all that work that composes that history is still available to tap into and compare oneself to, why wouldn’t Pop in some way formalize itself to remember itself?
Another act that comes to mind when considering this question is recently reviewed, Sub Pop-signed His Electro Blue Voice. With their music they make references to The Pixies, Ministry, and Weezer in addition to their more obscure prog touchpoints. Pop is an amateur form, and these references are up to thirty years old. Why shouldn’t they be available to be used as an artist wishes if, as in any amateur form, one must imitate them to learn the temporary laws of genre? Why should we be surprised to see them here again? I prize originality, but I fear its illusion more. A stress on continuity signals a knowledge of history, something our always-accelerating media has been trying to divest us of since the inception of print. If reference and derivation means, on some level, the triumph of history, I will revel in the stylistic reference. It is never reviled among filmmakers. Why should it be so in the case of musicians who respect their teachers? The crucial element is, of course, this respect on the artist’s part for the innovation in a prior work, a prior work that is understood by the current artist. This is what separates hackneyed derivation or kitsch from homage, and it allows for new beginnings, for audiences to connect to the same expanding pool of vetted reference points. This is the condition in which originality can come into interplay with hagiography and survive.
The most tragic and sobering aspect of Pop is its veiled allusion to death. Warhol knew this. Pop is here today, and tomorrow its audience will have moved on, more concerned with making sure they can pay for their kids’ college tuition than with engaging in the romantic fantasies tied up in a night out. Most serious Pop acts lose their audiences to maturation and the unexamined life, or become entwined in more banal concerns themselves. Astute readers of Pop forms should appreciate when new acts flatter those masters they came across in record bins, through recommendations, and via RSS feeds with imitation that doesn’t become kitsch. It is good when audiences can be taken along on an artist’s path of discovery, when they are allowed to follow the curved lines of a human dawning of context, culture, and music while more deeply forming their own.
A final aside on homage will end this post. As I sat writing this, I listened all the way through another used find, The Album Leaf’s 2001 EP In an Off-White Room. On the final track, on the far shore of a river of twenty minutes or more of ambient room noise, there is a fantastic cover of the English language version of Kraftwerk’s “Computer Love.” Michael Rother of Harmonia and NEU! was briefly a member of Kraftwerk in an early incarnation of that band. It’s hard to call it serendipity when everything is just so connected.
Sub Pop put out the debut LP from obscure Italian psych/noise/shoegaze/krautrock/garage punk outfit His Electro Blue Voice in the closing months of 2013, horrifically entitled Ruthless Sperm. I came to hear it in a roundabout way that, as it so often does, involved Indie fountainhead and local/global radio station KEXP. A friend heard it tucked amongst other driving gems on in one of the more punk-formatted specialty shows, was provoked to investigate them further, then passed the recommendation on to our small cadre of 1337 man-child indie-rock snobs. Because I am possessed of the handicap of being unable to listen to music as though it is an entirely new experience, I was immediately compelled to make the following comparison: “Holy shit, this sounds like someone played Weezer’s “Surf Wax America.” over the top of Ministry’s “Thieves”!
At first listen you might be compelled to make similar juxtapositions of seemingly disparate acts and genres in your description of what you’re hearing. They’re probably all dead-on. The exciting thing, though, is that they don’t stay right. Everyone has influences, but those are only a common ground, a shared grammar on which new statements can be built. In true Bakhtinian fashion, subsequent listens to their catalog yield new combinations, new music, transitions from driving simplicity to synthesizer-accompanied stretches of minimal Psych, new impressions at play with your expectations. I hope Sub Pop manages to bring these guys stateside so we can see them live.
As much as the Internet lends itself to giving its users a false sense of its all-encompassing immensity, so does the momentary nature of youth lend a false sense of universality to our impressions. In my early- to mid-twenties I was very, very into the laid-back urgency of HUM’s spaced-out psychedelic metal, all brilliant production, intricate layering of delicate sounds, and heavy, heavy guitar riffs. When that band broke up and frontman Matt Talbot released what would end up being the only record by his new band, Centaur, I was ravenous for something even harder, more all-encompassing and urgent than what even the nearly perfect HUM catalog had to offer. I wanted another HUM record that I would react to just as intensely as I had to all the ones that came before. The problem, of course, is that when you first hear the music you wind up loving, you love it precisely because you have built up no expectations, you have no defenses against the truly new thing that you are about to hear. Expectations are defense mechanisms that, interestingly, actually seem to “protect” you from exactly the pleasant experiences that you are hoping to repeat. (I defense of expectations, I still get a little teary-eyed when I think of how beautiful it sounded to hear HUM project a shimmering wall of space out over Lake Michigan from the Death Star-sized sound system on the stage at Chicago’s Millenium Park; who wouldn’t want to repeat that experience?)
On this past weekend’s birthday record store raid I came across a copy of Centaur’s In Streams, so I bought it.
Pro tip: Even in the age of the Internet, even in the age of mechanical reproduction, the availability of art is finite. If you see an old, rare, out-of-print record you know is “important” to you, just buy it. You may never find it again.
On this listen, on my birthday and 12 years after its release, I was particularly attentive to the differences in my impressions, and to the details of the record’s production. Many recognizably “HUM” flourishes were there, from Talbot’s use of a pretty, undistorted guitar, to beds of long feedback, and, yes, occasional walls of hairy, distorted lead guitar. What leapt out at me, however, impressing me on this listen but leaving my younger self cold, was the extremely deliberate use of restraint throughout. All the ingredients of a Hum record were there, but, at every single point when Talbot could drop the wall of sound on you, he pulls back. Nothing is gratuitous, nothing is overused. The songs are marked by their expansiveness, their space, their ragga-like quietude, rather than by force and urgency. The songs take their time, and the joy-buzzer distorted wall of sound is always shut down as soon as it can be. Seeming to be an extension of where HUM was going on the orphan single “Aphids”, this is an overlooked masterpiece, a picture of the genius Talbot at the very top of his craft and fully aware of the power of the techniques he pioneered. He was a master that had ascended faster , unfortunately, than his late-adolescent boys-club of fans, still limited by their own aggressive expectations, could. I’m grateful for record stores, long Saturdays, and the serendipity that the two of those combined engender for reuniting a more able listener with a record he had failed so miserably in the past.
The COERCEYOU Best of 2013 List
Here we are, having slid down the icy gullet of December, swallowed now and again in cold snaps and polar vortices that seem so sudden, but whose inexorable arrival has advertised itself daily these 365 days of 2013 during which we’ve been listening to pop records instead of making hay. 本当に時間が飛ぶね。
Here is my yearly contribution of lines of code to the internet-clogging social-engineering computer virus that is the year-end best-of list. It’s my unique and special drop in the infinitely redundant server farm heat-sink we once called “the blogosphere.” Anyhow, here’s the drill: These are not necessarily exclusively records that came out this year, but they are records that came under my loving scrutiny this year.
Black Moth Super Rainbow Cobra Juicy (2012)
Sometimes the genius of things your are resistant to seek you out and find you at those odd hours when you’re most susceptible. BMSR emerged in the yinzer metropole a few years ago like a furrier from the backwoods to trade heavy, reverb and delay saturated psychedelia along the Schuylkill. I love few things more than the sound of close, warmly overdriven synthesizers being allowed to ring out, but the first couple records were just too heavy, too repetitive for my tastes. Hearing it on KEXP or in the coffee shop now and again was enough for me. Then, not long ago, I was driving very early in the pitch-black morning with the radio on when the brilliantly sleazy “Hairspray Heart” came on by request. Inside the destroyed cacophony of filtered noise and overdriven guitar samples was the confidently delicate restraint of a brilliant pop song. As brazenly sexual and materialistic as anything Madonna did in her early career, the vocals are delivered from behind a thick, velvety, vocoded curtain, crooning about control and absolute reciprocal commodification as though by Glenn Danzig at a Material Girl drag burlesque held in the Black Lodge. Who knew that’s exactly what the video would be getting at. The mysterious frontman of Black Moth Super Rainbow, a man who goes by the nom de guerre Tobacco, has cultivated something of an Aphex Twin persona with the creepy BMSR grinning skull mask that adorns record sleeves and covers the faces of most people in his videos. Even though it’s been done before, Tobacco is an artist who manages to do something his pop-savvy quick-study contemporaries can’t anymore- he manages to be dangerous, and he does so while delivering the most careful, the most Pop record of his career.
Demon Queen S/T (2013)
I posted about this very recently. More Tobacco. More signs of life from a dying, desert-colored and grey-green sphere.
Translator Collection (2007)
I picked up the Translator debut LP, Heartbeats and Triggers (1982), for $0.30 from a bargain bin set on the street outside my local record store. My New Wave heuristics picked up on the vibe on the vinyl by way of the surprisingly well-preserved cardboard sleeve without the need for a needle. I took it home, amplified it, and my ears just NECKED it. Translator’s original 415 records catalog was reissued by Wounded Bird Records in 2007, but they’ve been out of print since, and the individual discs can be on the pricier end at your local record shop. Luckily, Acadia, an in-label-group imprint of Evangeline records, issued a nearly completely comprehensive two-CD collection of their work the same year that reproduces the debut, Heartbeats and Triggers and the follow-up No Time Like Now (1983) in their entirety, while including B-sides and highlights from Translator (1985) and Evening of the Harvest (1986). Taken as a whole, it’s a self-contained history of the New Wave on its fringes, a Pandora’s box of proleptic hints presaging everything from late eighties clean Brit Pop guitar to Nirvana nineties grunge to the oughts’ Interpol-led indie revival. I still can’t believe I never heard of them until this year. It’s like a group of bodhisattvas secretly unscrewing the dependent world with skillful means and guitar strings.
Bottomless Pit Shade Perennial (2013)
These guys do no wrong.
Annie A&R EP (2013)
With the kids bringing the nineties revival back into full swing (albeit usually the wrong parts of the nineties- those parts with the high pants sucked, guys), it seems fitting to come back the oughts’ one time almost-darling of dance, Annie. It was 2005, and dance Pop was just becoming OK for the indie kids to listen to. Enter Annie Berge-Strand, descending on New York’s newly opened Tribeca Grand for a free US debut show right around the same time that Bloc Party first crossed the pond. Franz Ferdinand’s “Take Me Out” was still playing in every bar in town. Annie’s debut record with producer Richard X is lauded by Pitchfork. And then… and then… And then everyone starts listening to Robyn.
Annie’s work with Richard X has always been her strongest, and this 2013 EP with the producer is as knowingly nostalgic as it is deliciously Pop. Annie has never seemed particularly comfortable on video with choreographed dance and cookie-cutter, meaningless youthful exuberance, and it hasn’t worked when she’s tried it on. There’s a certain endearing shyness and awkwardness to her persona, something that seems genuine, that might be too subtle for Pop audiences trained to experience push-button ecstasy to access. Maybe that’s why Robyn’s rise seemed to coincide with Annie’s fade from the web’s bullshit circulating machine. Annie makes dance music whose stories have a background and a future, something you carry with you. So I wonder, smiling along to “Ralph Macchio”, whether anyone but us late Seventies kids know who she’s talking about, whether the audiences of today can even comprehend what they’re missing when they forego a sentimental education for algorithmically generated 3-minute shocks to the vagus nerve. This is just good pop.
The Go-Betweens Before Hollywood (1983)
I have been a Go-Betweens fan for some time now, but I had never heard this early record containing their breakout single “Cattle and Cane”, a rumination on memory and nostalgia. A friend had passed me a MOJO Magazine compilation of Manchester scene-era music entitled There is a Light that Never Goes Out: Indie Classics 1982-1987, a sort of contextualizing exercise with The Smiths occupying the lacuna at its center to give the uninitiated a glimpse at what was going on at the time The Smiths managed to get so big. Those purveyors of mopey bombast provide a good foil for considering the chronically underrated Go-Betweens and their subtle and angular cast of pop in contrast.
Not available on Spotify, I got hold of the 2002 2-disc reissue of this deeply emotional masterpiece. It’s less immediately accessible than their late-era work, for which hit-it-big TV themers The Rembrandts have reason to be so grateful (an obvious example of which being the Ivy-covered “Streets of your Town”). Its sparseness and breathy atmosphere open a tender and naked space filled with now honest and doleful emotion, now with staccato cacophony. The lament of “Dusty in Here”, a mock dialog between the ghost of someone lost and someone left behind about the father that Grant McLennan lost as a child, moves from denial to acceptance, but the line “Twenty years, and six feet down, I’m told, I know your face, I share your name” could just as easily have been penned by his bandmate Robert Forster about McLennan’s own demise, coming as it did quite suddenly in 2006, about 20 years (23, to be precise) after this song was written.
The way these spare arrangements burst suddenly into torrents of lyrical poetry, like when the moans of the title track (“make me last!”) burst into the soaring chorus about the development of the monolithic cinematic propaganda machine of Hollywood (“In the New West/The orange groves/Grow like a plague/Wherever you go/I told the Heads /We’ll show the World/We’ll film ourselves in history and chrome”), it’s like a drowning rush from a cloudburst, a biblical flood washing away the hapless everyman who doesn’t stand a chance before the power of so much truth.
Roomrunner Ideal Cities (2013)
I like what these guys are doing, and I think it’s fine to sound derivative of beloved bands. People peg them as sounding like Nirvana, but I hear a lot of Hum. In spite of that, people still like them. And for good reason- they fucking rock. Their recent album, Ideal Cities, features a picture of a panoptic city/prison on it. I love it when my indie rock is served up to me on a big Foucaldian platter. I hear it, but it hears ME, too. The whole Roomrunner catalog is free on their Bandcamp.com page for awhile. Get acquainted.
Survival Knife Traces of Me EP, Divine Mob EP
What if Rush got hold of a time machine and went ahead in time with the sole mission of being the Unwound of the future? This.
ARP More (2013)
Do you like Glammy 1970’s Brian Eno? So does ARP. So do I.
Atom™ Pop HD
I don’t think there is anything more I can say about this deeply intellectual and highly technical electronic record than I already said here.
Momus Tender Pervert (1988)
“He draws the angels close to watch that slut the world get hers. God’s a tender pervert, and the angels… the angels are voyeurs.”
Múromuk Museum EP
Don’t know much about this guy, but I like his record.
First the Japandroids, now this. How did Vancouver, B.C. start producing all this midwestern emo?
Daft Punk Random Access Memories
It’s the guys who made sure everyone knows that there is an old guy named Giorgio Moroder for about five minutes or so.
Boards of Canada Tomorrow’s Harvest
Consistently weird and unsettling. Bravo, guys!