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.
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.
I am writing to you about an exciting opportunity to listen to the HOTTEST new music in the UNIVERSE. I am happy to say that I can WHOLEHEARTEDLY without ANY RESERVATIONS recommend to you the music of a peppy Baltimore ensemble performing under the name THE ROOMRUNNER. Without a doubt, PUMMELING YOUR TINY COCHLEAS with their THERAPEUTIC THUNDERING will TEACH YOUR FUCKING HAIR CELLS WHO’S THE BOSS. I know, because I once LISTENED TO AN ENTIRE DIGITAL UNDERGROUND CASSETTE TAPE with TONY DANZA.
FRIENDS, you may have wondered, “How many different ways in space can the SPIKES ON A BALL OF NOISE PROTRUDE AT ONCE?” I have been to the mountain, I have rinsed my mouth with all the brands, I have WATCHED THE WRATH OF KHAN with nothing more than socks on my hands and the power of my AUGMENTED MEMORY.
THE SPIKES ON A BALL OF NOISE CAN PROTRUDE IN EVERY DIRECTION SIMULTANEOUSLY, YOU FUCKING IDIOTS!
Did you know that the panopticon is a machine which, whatever use one may wish to put it to, produces HOMOGENEOUS EFFECTS OF POWER?
Deehunter’s Monomania will be released May 7, 2013 but, as part of a trend that is making me feel like all my tastes are completely outdated, NPR has it available to stream and listen to online in its “First Listen” section now.
Deerhunter’s last record, Halcyon Digest, is now three years old. It was a remarkable record, but it’s sound was marked by the fact that, at the time of its release, the two creative poles in the band were clarifying the sound of their respective solo projects. Lockett Pundt’s Lotus Plaza and Bradford Cox’ Atlas Sound were each to drop definitive records in the wake of Halcyon Digest. Hearing Lotus Plaza’s Spooky Action at a Distance and Atlas Sound’s Parallax made it seem as though Halcyon Digest were more a collaboration of two side projects than the internally consistent output of one band. Cox was (monomaniacally?) fixated on the use of looping pedals, and songs like “Fountain Stairs” found their long-form perfection over the course of Pundt’s Spooky Action.
It’s good when a band can mix things up and change expectations, and few groups can pull this off. Deerhunter did on Halcyon Digest, but gone was the sock-hop gone freakout bad vibe that infused Cryptograms and Microcastle/Weird Era Continued. Monomania, then, is a return to form. Perhaps the record’s title is to some degree a tongue-in-cheek nod to this need to home back in to the familiarity of the band’s screaming swirl of noise, and to those influences that seem to be displayed so ostentatiously on these new songs. Never had Deerhunter’s debt to the Pixies and Breeders seemed so apparent to this reviewer than on “Dream Captain”, and is it possible that “Leather Jacket II” carries the lipstick traces of Garbage? The title track has that by-now-trademarked pounding, repetitive feature, be it bridge, chorus, or solo, that marks so many of the most signature Deerhunter tunes (“Nothing Ever Happened”, “Memory Boy” are two good examples) reduced to the barest minimum of performance time. Indeed, if anyone has seen the band perform “Nothing Ever Happened” more than once over the past several years, they have surely been left with the impression that the band is both playing the song through as quickly as possible out of annoyance over having produced a “hit” that can so readily pigeonhole them for fans and to somehow imbue it with more power, to concentrate the power of that song into a single grammatical flourish. “Monomania”, the title song, leans more in this latter direction, seemingly only slipping between the open spaces of the verses in order to rage back into the fuzzed-out canyons of sound in the chorus. There’s also what sounds like the recording of a motorbike engine all over the last half of the song. That’s pretty cool.
Chicago’s Mayor for Life is still in office, and they’ve issued their latest edict in the form of an attractive 7″ for sale on their Bandcamp page. It’s not the same thing as suffering under the despot’s direct, unfaltering, undiverted gaze, but you can give this record a “spin” above to taste the leader’s discipline from a distance only Orwell could have predicted.
Some facts of secondary relevance: I’ve only ever seen or heard alt-country labeled bands at shows that are the provenance of guilty, guardedly fearful financial organizations (Son Volt upwards of 3 times during New York’s summer-long outdoor River-to-River festival, popularly known as “The-City-Makes-a-Nearly-Empty,-Painless-Gesture-to-the Sucker-Hopeful-Future-Bourgeois-Paying-the-City’s-Rents Concert Series”), as part of a neighborhood arts organization’s summer to-do (Wilco at Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center), thanks to a gesture of largesse by the caliph of an inland city-state to his teeming, restive plebes (Wilco again, debuting “I am Trying to Break your Heart” at the Taste of Chicago”), and by dint of that careworn, if obfuscative, axiom, “A rising tide lifts all boats” (enjoying the acoustic perfection from where I sat with my back leaned against the back wall of the bandshell during yet another Wilco set. They were playing for paying ticket-holders at Brooklyn’s McCarren Park Pool that night— this was before the gated-community set, whose fortresses continue to go up in Williamsburg, decided their kids need a place to swim other than the ocean since their money and numbers have ensured Frank Serpico’s services are no longer really required there, prompting the city to decree that the pool would be restored to working order, no longer used as a concert venue). And, recently, on Monday night I got to see the fantastic Old 97s play at the Showbox at the Market in Seattle through the good graces of Easy Street Records. This is to say I’ve only ever seen this brainy, frank, hopeful, tender, egalitarian and plain-spoken genre of minstrelsy performed gratis.
But why is that? Indie rock, I love you and every other over-confident, stars-in-their-eyes, innovative, cock’o the walk flavor of the minute blog sensation youthful bravura tempts into swelling your ranks, but how easy is it to enjoy the shows your stable puts on with all that courtly intrigue and those transactions of cultural capital poisoning the air? The concert venue is a house of prayer, but you are dividing it into a house of specialized niche musical self-marketing content exchanged so hipsters can get laid! Galilee’s scene is so over! Why am I swilling my beer money away at your shows? Alt-country shows— this is where all the other folks in western shirts have been taking their R&R. I think I’ve found my people.
[singlepic id=50 w=333 h=250 float=left]
Monday’s Old 97s show brought a smile to my face and reminded me of two reasons why I got hooked on seeing live music to begin with. The first is that hanging out in a room full of people who are just happy to be gathered to hear music- good or bad- is good juju. Alt-country, country-rock—however you choose to term this stuff, it is blessed with the best crowds. The second is that there’s something transcendental about being part of that artist-audience circuit when the performers are as happy to be there as the fans are.
Alt-country isn’t a form that requires a constant virtuosity. It honestly and openly relies on hokey tropes hearkening back to long-quelled booms and forgotten busts when there were such things as cowboys and overnight boom towns. The only thing this requires is that everyone be in on it. With a wink and a smile, the Old 97s most certainly are. This doesn’t rob the act or the genre of authenticity. If, as they say in the academy, I may make an intertextual reference, there are some Silver Jews lyrics that speak better to what I’m trying to get at than I can do myself,:
When you know how I feel I feel better/When you’re 15 you want to look poor./Do unto others, and run like a mother/I don’t want to look poor anymore. -Silver Jews, “Buckingham Rabbit”
No one wants to be the coal miner’s daughter, and most of us probably aren’t. It’s still good, in the knowledge we’re all, artist and audience alike, getting screwed somehow, to catch the momentary pit stop distraction of our collective candles burning brightest as we make our tumbleweed’s journey to the ignominy of the grave. It’s also real good to don a western shirt with pearlized buttons and stand in a loud room.
And did I say that alt-country doesn’t require virtuosity? Perhaps, but please don’t think I malign the headliners of Monday’s show. The harmony and the sorrow in Monday night’s rendition of “Valentine” brought a genuine tear to my eye, and the twanged-up Dick Dale fury of Ken Bethea’s lead guitar made me happy to be alive.
Crusading music writer sits down comfortably for entire show, eschews the inconvenience of walking nearer the stage to take nicer pictures!
[singlepic id=41 w=320 h=240 float=]
Wednesday evening found me at Seattle’s Showbox at the Market to see a band I talk entirely too much about, Atlanta’s Deerhunter. Unless you live in a lightless, airless tomb outside of time (I’m talking about YOU, Cthulu), you probably already know that Deerhunter is back after about a year’s hiatus touring in support of their most recent record, that record being the excellent Halcyon Digest.
The band hasn’t lost a step in the year or so they took off from being Deerhunter- they still play their songs way faster live than they do on the albums, and the emotion that they display during their performances surpasses the often sadly philosophical tone they strike on their recordings. Bradford Cox’s sudden eruption into nearly screamed vocals during the much heavier and more punked up version of Don’t Cry was the welcome surprise that makes seeing a good band live worthwhile.
[singlepic id=47 w=320 h=240 float=]
It’s also a pleasure to see a band that is so talented that they simply can’t lose each other. At times one got the feeling that one or another component of this elite musical unit was pushing to go AWOL, but that kind of thing can’t happened when all the members’ skills are so evenly matched. What results instead is the feeling of an added, embedded tension, a new edge to familiar material.
And now, a word about Deerhunter’s backline: Moses Archuleta is an unflappable human metronome of frightening precision.
[singlepic id=46 w=320 h=240 float=]
Lockett Pundt’s presence as stage forward vocalist is a welcome addition to the Deerhunter oeuvre, one of the things that made the sound of this new record such a huge evolutionary step for the band. Where Microcastle/Weird Era could be said to have been a polishing, a realization of the sounds hinted at on a Cryptogram tune like Hazel St., Halcyon Digest is a departure into new atmospherics. The band has the advantage of being as tight as it was on Microcastle, but the quiet, musing tone struck by so many of the loop-heavy tracks almost makes it sound like it was recorded by a different band. Lockett has a subdued rock tendency that’s a counterpoint to the Atlas Sound-reminiscent technological flourishes on the new album, and his wistful, detached, confident style of singing seems to be singlehandedly resurrecting the dying American Monomyth. Where Deerhunter subject matter seems to swirl unanchored in memory, he haunts the record like Clint Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter, calmly coaxing us out to take up our executive privileges on the perimeter on the Halcyon Digest track Desire Lines, which song was flawlessly performed on Wednesday, by the by. I