On Seeing The Babadook

I finally rented Australian writer/director Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, a lean, masterful synthesis of seminal psychological horror films The Shining (Kubrick, 1980) and Repulsion (Polanski, 1965).  From The Shining, Kent adapts the parent-as-monster and boy visionary.  From Repulsion, she takes the isolated woman disturbed by sexuality, and the victim who, when her pain can’t be shared, succumbs to adopting the ultimately self-destructive perception of herself from the point of view of others.  The hypnagogic imagery depicts a woman dissociated from herself and the passage of time, keeping the viewer constantly on the fence: is this a story of the supernatural, or are we simply seeing the world through the protagonist’s psychosis?

The film leans heavily in the direction of a creatively-told psychological tale of a combination of Munchausen-by-proxy, unresolved grief, misplaced survivor’s guilt, and resentment, denuding much of the more visually spectacular horror scenes of their typical horror-genre immediacy.  In this way, the most anxiety-inducing moments of the film direct viewers not to their own sense of self-preservation, nor to fear of the unknown as represented by the possibility of an actual embodiment of supernatural evil, but instead towards a mother’s concerns: the well-being of others, here the mother, Amelia, in particular, the adequacy of our protagonist’s parenting, and the well-being of “the boy”, Sam.  This is a horror film of compassion, a film whose top concern is not self-preservation-by-proxy, but, remarkably, compassion for others.  This is the particular genius of Kent’s film.  Her storytelling makes the obvious, terrific, bone-chilling imagery secondary, subtle, and allows the human concerns behind our fears to take the center stage.

The Long Tail and Endless Flattery

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?

51lfYaMZ2bL._SX300_ Harmonia: DeLuxe

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.

In Which the Author Hears HIS BLUE ELECTRO VOICE

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.

Into the Not-So-Wayback Machine- Listening to Centaur’s “In Streams” (2002) in 2014

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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.

時間が飛ぶね。もう、2013年の一番良いポップレコードについてお話しなきゃ時間になった。

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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ARP More (2013)

Do you like Glammy 1970’s Brian Eno?  So does ARP.  So do I.

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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.”

Momus is relentless, and he’s probably smarter than you.  Just listen.  His Creation catalog is available at Ubuweb.

Múromuk Museum EP

Don’t know much about this guy, but I like his record.

Weed Deserve

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.

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Boards of Canada Tomorrow’s Harvest

Consistently weird and unsettling.  Bravo, guys!

Demon Queen: Exorcise Tape

When I listen to Tobacco’s work, I’m taken back to the retro-dangerous world of Beck’s Midnite Vultures (1999), with the difference being that Tobacco’s weird forays into plastic-wrapped synthy drug-shimmer and hopeless mall bravado don’t arrive laden with Beck’s by the late nineties well-established reassuring mainstream stardom.  Tobacco remains an unknown quanitity, forever masked with the obscene grin of the BMSR, a fringe character hovering somewhere in the collective unconscious between Jason Voorhees and Aphex Twin.  Where Aphex Twin managed to disappear and make us accept his own face as an uncanny mask, we are forced to wonder whether, in Tobacco’s case, there is anything at all behind the mask we are given in lieu of a face.

On 2013’s Demon Queen: Exorcise Tape, Tobacco’s team up with Tucson rappers Zackey Force Funk and his cohort repositions the messily quantized machine funk of Grandmaster Flash back into the desperate places whence it came.  That sounds to me a lot like the goal of industrial music- to stick your neck out far enough to just touch the void that pop culture was built up to blind us from seeing.  My favorite track from this record is streaming from Soundcloud above, a ditty about a party gone wrong reminiscent of Anti-Pop Consortium’s “Tragic Epilogue”, locating the constant threat of desperate living’s violence shoulder-to-shoulder with escapist weekend dreams.

Chaos, chaos, buzzsaw, joy.

Dear readers,

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?

Please enjoy Roomrunner.