Ted Leo at the Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington, Seattle 2/25/11

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The indefatigable Ted Leo was at a small auditorium at the Henry Art Gallery on Friday, February 25 doing a solo show put on by UW’s Rainy Dawg Radio. Indefatigable may be a hyperbole, considering his recent comments, however clarified and defused, hinting at retirement and his postponement of about 2 weeks of dates at the beginning of his tour. The pictures tell the story.  The lighting wasn’t so great, we were seated (a guaranteed mood-killer), the sound was sub-par, the audience was a bit too hushed, and Ted was fighting his way through the onset of a cold.  All that said, it’s always a pleasure to see the hardest working man in rock managing not to sell out for one more year. He pushed through whatever he was fighting to deliver a solid performance.  I don’t think this guy can put on a bad show.

I can (proudly?) say I contributed one moment of hilarity to the nearly nonexistent banter between Ted and the audience (I mentioned the audience was quiet, right?).  Hoping to hear a favorite track off his debut solo record from ’99, a little ditty called “The Northeast Corridor”, I piped up during one of those airless pockets of absolute non-interaction the audience was showering the stage with to request… a nonexistent song called “The Northwest Passage.”  In the abbreviated parlance of today, that was a superfan fail.  It did manage to animate the audience a bit, though, and the gracious Mr. Leo was very nice about my request being for something on the opposite side of the country from where the subject of the song should have been and the fact that he hadn’t rehearsed that one.

Still a good show, though.

One question for the Ted Leo-lovin’ world at large- I guess I can understand why no one ever asks him to play the brilliant songs off the first record (that might be an obscure entry in the catalog, what with all the tape noise and effects noise tracks filling out the incredible songwriting), but why am I the only one who requests “The Great Communicator” at shows?  Has everyone forgotten about that one?

Musique in le 2010

What a year.

My apartment burned down, I got into a PhD program, I got engaged, I spent the summer sweltering in the Midwest, I got married, I drove across the entire country with my wife, and I just finished my first quarter as a doctoral candidate.

Did I listen to any music?  Let’s perform a simple diagnostic test that will tell us the answer.

Diagnostic Question: Was I alive at any point during 2010?

Answer: The aforementioned details of what went on would indicate yes.

Result of diagnostic analysis: I listened to music in 2010.  This is what I really got into.

LCD Soundsystem: This is Happening

Clean and long-form dance songs about how terrible and shallow people are in New York.  For some reason this really spoke to me this year.  There are also some meditations on commitment once and for all to yourself or another person, commitment to the wrong person, making the mindless sex with the funny people who have to drink and pretend they don’t want to make the sex before they make the sex, and sticking to your guns.  End of shipping manifest.

Wild Nothing: Gemini

This record transformed the stifling inland old-growth Southern Indiana/Moon of Endor jungle where I spent the summer sweating myself into a damp raisin into a hazy place of dreams and pining.  Wild Nothing is VA dude Jack Tatum, and what he achieved here made it safe for men to cry again, to cry little girlie tears of winsome loneliness into the 150% humidity of a million degree summer night.  Reverb washes from these songs across miles of imaginary sepia toned highways, while jangly faeries hold your sniveler’s hand and you weakly bop to the no-balls-at-all vocals and the distant drums, too limp-wristed to masturbate.  Seriously, this is a really good record.

Kurt Vile: Constant Hitmaker

For some reason this came out in 2008.  I didn’t know anything about this until my buddy DC and his crew at WWALT alerted me to the fact that I was already deeply in debt and I didn’t know it.  I was in debt and I needed to pay my respects to Mr. Kurt Vile.  I have done so, and I continue to do so with interest.

Though the tome of wisdom that is comprised of Vile’s work can be opened to any page for enlightenment, this is the album that does my soul the most good.  Every song takes you back into the womb of the blues, where mother earth’s arterial amplifier hum swishes all around your foreverdreaming ears and Momma never kicks you out of the house.

Squarepusher: Squarepusher Presents Shobaleader One: d’Demonstrator

Tom Jenkinson, or Squarepusher, is the guy Radiohead looks up to as their Radiohead.  See the trailing bits of the below interview he gave to BBC2’s The Culture Show for Thom Yorke’s kudos if you want proof.  If you sit through the part of the piece intervening between the start and the finish of the interview, and I don’t see any reason why you wouldn’t want to, you will gain a valuable insight as to why Jenkinson’s work always stands out as such an individualized oeuvre.  As he puts it, he tries to keep a “hermetic” approach to his work, to let what he is expressing develop with limited influence from or intertextuality with trends that sweep through music at any one time.  I listened to nothing but this record for several weeks straight as it deeply and tortuously carved from the inside of my head the high chambers of Squarepusher’s new cathedrals of tone.  Everything on this record, from art to composition to the engineering of the sound, is a high resolution postcard from a new world.  He has pulled in the reins and diverted from his last few performance jazz influenced records to revisit some earlier themes of otherworldly R&B and sharp synthesizer crunch, culminating in a record that could just as easily have been named “Oh my god” if the demonstrative appropriateness of the record’s title had been deemed important than being cryptic and awesome.

Deerhunter: Halcyon Digest

Sure, fine, I’ll reduce this record to an oft-reproduced blurb singer/songwriter/guitarist Bradford Cox posted on his Facebook page around about the time of this record’s release.  He said that the title is a reference to “a collection of fond memories and even invented ones…The way that we write and rewrite and edit our memories to be a digest version of what we want to remember and how that’s kind of sad.”

What is it really?  It’s a painful and ecstatic faceplant on the very edge of spiritual awakening, if you take the subject matter of “Don’t Cry” or “Revival” at face value.  I’m just one listener/fan/critic, but these sound like meditations on how a person at the end of their rope can turn toward faith instead of away from it when they’re at the very terminals of extremis.

The record’s a desire-gone-cold reflection on lost youth and gained cynicism, on life lived on the perimeter if you take “Desire Lines” (sung by guitarist and vocalist Lockett Pundt) at its word.  “Memory Boy” is a tribute to the departed Jay Reatard if I ever heard one.  The opening riff is pretty reminiscent of the former Deerhunter collaborator’s track “Before I was Caught” from his final album, Watch me Fall.

The limitless talent and the fearlessness with which Deerhunter put out their new music is incontrovertible, unassailable.  It is the only true mark of an artist.  At the end of the day or the end of a life, what does one have but one’s work?  The simple fact is that we, all of us, know that we have nothing if we have not remained true to our talents and our ideal selves, to THE IDEAL SELF locked like a minotaur inside the maze of mysteries or miseries he or she must decipher alone.  Deerhunter is a pack of monsters who live that human axiom to its rarely practiced extreme.  I unabashedly love this band with their shimmering atmospherics, their endless experimentation, and their personal lyrics.

Caribou: Swim

A weird trip through handcrafted techno.  This album which I thought completely programmed in a DAW is actually completely played live.  It’s cold-weather music for weird headspaces.

Lloyd Cole: Broken Record

My wife, she of the impeccable musical taste who is always teaching me something new, she introduced me to Mr. Lloyd Cole during our courtship.  Maybe first she slipped me “Like Lovers Do” during one of those stealthily competitive and eminently meaningful exchanges of single songs that takes the place of exchanging mix tapes in the digital era, and, when I was sufficiently whammied by that, by the depth and breadth of her musical knowledge and her acumen in discerning killer songwriting, she closed in for the kill with the masterful and timeless “Are You Ready to be Heartbroken?”  That could be how it came about that I became a fan of Lloyd Cole.

Then, there we were with a 3,000 mile road trip ahead of us.  Thank the songwriting gods with every pagan rite they demand that Lloyd Cole put together a top-notch country band to back up his melancholy musings and Westerbergian turns of phrase just in time for our departure.  It starts eloquent and sad, lamenting the pratfalls of self-involved lovers on the skids in tracks like “Like a Broken Record” and “Writers Retreat!”, and it ends elegant and glad with overtures like “Oh Genevieve” and “Double Happiness”.  On the way he manages to touch the fuck you kiss off base as well, with the resignedly exasperated- but not too hurt- “That’s Alright.”

Thanks, Lloyd.  Glad to see you weren’t afraid to be heartbroken again.

Matthew Dear: Black City

Black city is a wild meander through the secret ghettos of techno, where the locals will tell you there’s nothing to do, but from the windows waft strange vocal stylings and the streets throb with secrets.

Shy Child: Liquid Love

Have you ever been wrong, said something in foolish youthful bravura you wish you could take back?  I have.  I’m sorry, Shy Child, but I was wrong about your new record when I first heard it.  I thought that your last record, Noise Won’t Stop was the pinnacle of what your work was going to amount to.  All the staccato breaks, the overpowering, interweaving lead synth lines, the barely comprehensible shouting over all that musical intensity.  It was so tight and immediate.  How was I supposed to be prepared for this shift into measured genius, into subtle groove?  I wasn’t up to the task.

I’ve spent the year listening to the new record, Liquid Love, however, and I’ve changed my ways.

Have you ever come to the realization once you took inventory of how many of a certain group’s CDs you had or how many plays of an artist’s songs you’d racked up on your MP3 player, that you were a superfan of a band, or that that one record you’d been overlooking was, unbeknownst to you, in actuality your favorite?  That’s how the ballad of me and Shy Child would go.

Like LCD Soundsystem, Shy Child is a New York band that has learned how to put the space and pace back into dance music.  That’s where I’ll stop that comparison, though, because Shy Child is doing something else entirely in all other respects.  They’re a band that bites all the cheese of ’80s synthesizer decadence and cornball delivery, they steal riffs from Tango in the Night era Fleetwood Mac and vocal cadence from Hall and Oates, but they are still firmly entrenched in dance music.  Between albums they’ve learned to sing and not shout, and the deliberate delivery of their carefully designed synthesizer sounds is a testament to a commitment to musicianship that goes beyond the berserker bombast of their last album.  Arpeggios, sleazy slow disco-paced beats, throbbing basslines, and vocal harmony strung up over all the neon.  An almost total lack of that dilettante’s crutch, irony.  This is absolutely one of the best records of the year.

Ted Leo and the Pharmacists: The Brutalist Bricks

In the world according to Ted Leo, we are all terminal cases- unless we stand up, once and for all, and hear the tracks he’s laying down.

The hardest working man in Rock ‘n Roll is also the only actually earnest, tireless, unimpeachably incorruptible, driven, and humanist artist to aspire to the concert stage since the baby boomers popularized those tenets as a disguise for their avarice and consumerism in the ’60s.  He’s a real punk.

He and his Pharmacists put together a big, lush set for their Matador Records debut this year marked by a speed, vivacity, and urgent intensity that has only grown more remarkable over the course of an already long and wonderful career in music.

And this is the thing about Ted Leo.  He’s not cashing in, he’s not slowing down, he’s not mellowing out.  He believes in his art and he believes in his message, and he backed that up this year with some of the hardest-driving music he’s put out to date.

“Where Was my Brain?”, the song from which the album’s title was taken, has these quintessentially Ted Leo lines, lines that really, really spoke to me this year:

Well modern agriculture gave me my fill/until I saw the things it brutally killed/well modern architecture gave me a kick/until I lived among the brutalist bricks/where was my brain?/with me all the time/getting it wrong again.

Sporting influences from Squeeze to Thin Lizzy (and millions of local stops in between I am not even qualified to speak to), the man, the songwriter, the band continues to set the world on fire, bathing it in the light of warning flares and messianic abandon.

Sebastien Tellier: Sexuality Remix

How many times in a row have you felt compelled to play a remix album?  I didn’t think I could love the material on last year’s Sexuality by Sebastien Tellier any more.  It was verging on carnal.  Then this remix collection dropped.

Small Black: New Chain

This one has been growing on me, all new wave and echo.  The opening track sucks you in with a combination of The Cure’s “Pictures of You” and Psychedelic Furs’ Pretty in Pink, and then the record just takes off.

Sweet Lights: S/T

This Sweet Lights S/T is a great record for fans of Kurt Vile and the Beatles, a good slow-grow set that I can’t say I deliberately put on for straight-through listening, but that came on randomly often enough, always giving me pause to see who it was, that I came to love it front to back.  There was a reason this never came off my iPod all year.

Bear Claw: Refuse this Gift

Pure Chicago aggression, pure aggro intensity, pure obsessive method.  This is one of the most inventive, intense, aggressive, and sonically interesting recordings I’ve heard in a very long time.  No guitars, only basses.  There isn’t anyone else out there doing what Bear Claw is doing.  Small wonder Steve Albini listed them as one of his favorite bands.

Washed Out: Life of Leisure

Normally I revile music that trades in a false sense of nostalgia, but there is something really happening here.  Digital aliasing brought on by downsampling, fuzzy filtering, the trappings of overbearing tape compression, slow compressors that mean each instrument is pushing the other one out of the way in the mix- all these things are here along with a dreamy 1.5 times slower speed to the swing tempo that really makes you feel like you are somewhere better, in the sun and on drugs.

Against Me! White Crosses

The follow-up to 2007’s Sire debut New Wave, Tom Gabel’s Against Me! are riding the Butch Vig big drum express deeper into pop territory.  Good thing they are bringing all that ordnance.  Sentimentality, power pop, strong lyrics (as always) and slick production find  Against Me! still waving the punk flag.  After the anthem of New Wave‘s “Thrash Unreal”, I didn’t think it was possible for him to make another sad song such a Springsteen-y stadium rocker.  Yeah, he gets sadder on this one, and bigger.

Jay Reatard | Watch Me Fall – Feelin’ Weird about I Guess a Good Album

Jay Reatard - Watch me Fall
Jay Reatard - Watch me Fall

I plugged into the hype surrounding Jay Reatard last year when I picked up the Matador Singles ’08 record.  A good buddy had been extolling the necessity of climbing onboard the shortwagon (that’s a painful and awkward metaphor for joining a lot of other people in liking a guy whose stage name is a creative spelling of retard, a slur meaning a person of limited abilities who has to ride to school with other like-impaired people on a short bus- painful metaphor all my doing, no need to impugn said good buddy), and the Matador Singles had just come out.  I skipped Bloodsongs.  I skipped everything this guy did from the age of 16, and I just jumped right into the boutique-y, specialty audience stuff.  Yeah.  Boutique-y.

Jay Reatard carries off extremely simple song structures mainly on the merit of the the sense of urgency he performs them with.  He frequently lapses into needlessly confrontational self-centered lyrics, though he breaks away from this this record’s excellent tracks Wounded and Before I was Caught. However, most of the rest of the record still has that eerily sociopathic Jay Reatard vibe that hangs coldly over all the tracks, no matter how quickly or brightly the guitars are strummed, like a cold, dead hand tapping time on your shoulder as you listen.  Is it possible for a record to want to kill you ‘soon as look at you?

The speed with which Jay Reatard came out with new material until now seemed to be at the expense sound quality.  On Watch me Fall, this is no issue.  You’re listening to the guy play in surround sound.  He’s separated so many layers of instrumentation and orchestrated them into each song that, while you’re still getting knocked to the ground with too-hot guitars and yelping vox, it’s happening from all sides by a million sweaty, angry Jay Reatards- and some of them with a nearly sixties pop sensibility, albeit a thanatoid, undead zombie hippie pop sensibility, like a band out of a Pynchon novel.  This is a Jay Reatard record, and it’s also pretty and quiet in places.  This is probably what the Paranoids or the Boards would have sounded like

So, here’s the disclaimer.

I’m behind on my Jay Reatard news.  It’s dismaying to find out after I’ve gotten myself all excited to hype an album that dude gets all fucked up and punches people at his shows.  You can read about it at these music blogs.

Rock Insider | Jay Reatard Punching Some Guy in the Face

Buddyhead | Jay Reatard – Watch me Fall

As a huge fan of someone like Ted Leo, a guy with a  pretty militantly humanist ethical streak, a guy who steps off the stage to break up fights in the audience, I feel ripped off.  Jay Lindsey (Reatard’s nom de real) has made a record that sounds great and makes me want to recommend it to other people, but I am uncomfortable promoting his music.  Stories of onstage violence like this tell me that creepy air of general, you wouldn’t call it disdain exactly- maybe human disregard, flavoring Reatard’s records seems to have documented expression.

This is Ted Leo breaking up a fight at one of his shows.  This is an example of class:

Talent or even mere access to resources (which everyone with a computer has now) doesn’t equal entitlement.  This attitude, seemingly held by a lot of acts today, disturbs me.  The cold, vacant stare of guarded antipathy so many bands put on (or is that just folks in front of a camera trying to keep it together as they suffer from paranoid reactions to awful hangovers?) has an inhuman feel.  It’s the sign of folks taking themselves too seriously. Does no one smile except calculatingly anymore?  Can no one relate to anything other than their own image?

What can I say?  Even if the NY Times’ keen ear to the street (please hear my sarcasm?) fashion beat reporters are declaring the guy safe as milk, I feel pretty weird about this album.

T/L + N/A + D4

A tiny moment of confluence that I write down here just to remember as an articulated thought.

Nelson Algren’s Nonconformity: Writing on Writing I was yesterday morning reading. Ted Leo’s early solo single, work of supreme retro styling and contemporary reflection “The Great Communicator” I have now more than 8 years been repeating the act of committing to the grooves of my inconstant human memory.
The chorus of Ted Leo’s song runs something like this:

You get detached from what’s been going on/they feed you crap you can’t keep growing on/they give you stats that tell you nothing at all/about who you want to be

I have been deafening myself now and again with Dillinger Four’s catalog for near on the same amount of time.
Their very piquant pop song entitled “A Floater Left with Pleasure in the Executive Washroom” on 2002’s Situationist Comedy sports the chorus,

This isn’t what we want/this isn’t what we need/this is what we can afford

Algren writes:

Ours no longer being the lonesome prairie’s desolation, but the spiritual desolation of men and women made incapable of using themselves for anything more satisfying than the promotion of chewing gum, a goo with a special ingredient or some detergent ever-urgent. Working one trap or another for others, the aging salesman of bonds or used cars, having made his little pile, senses dimly that he’s backed up into a trap of his own devising.

The tiger-pit of loneliness out of which there is no climbing. Alone at last with his little pile, the weary years in and the weary years out haven’t brought him a thing he wanted in his heart. It was only that which he was taught he was supposed to desire that he now owns so uselessly.

From the coolest zoot-suit cat getting leaping-drunk on straight gin to the gentlest suburban matron getting discreetly tipsy on Alexanders, the feeling is that of having too much of something not really needed, and nothing at all of something needed desperately. They both want to live, and neither knows how. That’s the trap.

The funny bankruptcy we brick ourselves in with is observed and trumpeted with clarion calls throughout the century by our artists, our artists who believe in keeping ideas in writing, in speaking, in singing.

The desperate traps we ensare ourselves in seemingly for lack of anything better to do, when in this short life we should instead be remembering how to live without insipid diversions and games of aging uselessly.