Saturday, December 1, 2007

Man, if you could just only hear this...

There's a hilarious scene in the first season of Mr. Show where Bob Odenkirk brags about his charity work reading the Sunday comics to blind people. Reading Calvin and Hobbes to David Cross (playing a blind man), he soon gets enraged because he can't explain the panels adequately. "Aww, if you could just only see it! It's so funny!"

I often feel that way writing about music because I want people to understand what the hell I'm talking about without just imagining it. Since my current computer has no sound card and is too old to run iTunes on (yes, that old), I can't post mp3s. Anyway, I'm going to test my writing abilities by trying to explain current songs I'm enamored of, with the help of that most outdated technology, the written word.

"Shell of Light" off Burial's Untrue: The last fifty or so seconds of this song off reclusive (and as of yet unidentified) dubstep producer Burial's new album sounds like either a) an 80s r&b song playing underwater, or b) said type of song with the bass turned up listened to through two different walls. While mostly I hate hearing music diffused through walls since it's just irritating white noise I can't tune out, every once and awhile hearing a song that way moves me immensely. "Shell of Light" recreates those moments.

"Young Hearts Run Free" by Candi Staton: I first heard this song on a cheaply made disco compilation I got at the library called Boogie Wonderland. At once heartbreaking, gorgeous, and triumphant, the song has an out of this world chorus that seems to float above the low end of the song like it needs to soar above the pain and bitterness down on earth. A plea to young people to not love so easily that you get trapped in a relationship you can't escape, the song is proof positive disco can be as sad and soulful as soul music.

"Ballin' In Normandie" mashed by ABX at The Hood Internet: Nowadays, you look a like a jerk for infusing about a mash-up. The critical consensus, as retarded as it seems, has become that mash-ups are lame and boring and no one with real talent would ever consider attempting one. This is bullshit. Firstly, what's the point of rap acapellas if not to put something new under them? Secondly, as much as I love the production on current hip-hop records, it's also exciting to hear what rappers sound like over violas or dubby Animal Collective sounds. "Ballin In Normandie" is a mash-up of a Project Pat rap and a Shout Out Louds song. Sampling a viola and jaunty acoustic guitar from the Shout Out Louds, ABX creates a colorful and chipper backdrop for Pat's bragging and threats. Instead of menacing, Pat sounds joyful, which is wonderfully unusual. All hail ABX and The Hood Internet.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Give Up the Funk

It seems like all the music blogs I read (that's like five or six) are buzzing about Sasha Frere Jones' article in the new New Yorker called "A Paler Shade of White." Tom Breihan and Rob Harvilla, both Village Voice writers, argue about it here. And this morning, Brandon over at No Trivia, had this to say about the article. I expect more reaction in the next few days.

To put it simplistically, Frere Jones (or SFJ as he's called) thinks indie rock (indie rock here defined as non-mainstream rock music, regardless of whether the bands are actual independent labels) has become too white. Eschewing the importance put on rhythm by African and African-American music, bands like Arcade Fire and the Decemberists and the Shins stick to styles of music that mostly skirt black influence . He attributes part of this to the fear white musicians might have of trying to borrow from genres like gangster rap without looking like a joke or being labeled a thief of authentic black culture.

SFJ further complicates his argument by explaining that, unlike in the days when rock bands like Cream or the Stones covered blues songs to give the artists they loved exposure (as well to give themselves authenticity), black and white artists are on the same playing field when it comes to exposure. No rock act has to cover Snoop Dogg for someone to hear about him.

Towards the end of the article, it becomes clear SFJ's true issue with indie rock is that it's not energetic or danceable enough. That may be a fair criticism, although obviously subjective, but he begins the article by attacking, of all bands, The Arcade Fire, for lacking "ecstatic singing" and "elaborate showmanship." The rap equivalent would be to attack Busta Rhymes for not rapping with enough passion and abandon. If anything, The Arcade Fire could be accused of being too dramatic and over the top. Many of their stage shows have featured men in motorcycle helmets bashing into each other and spontaneous (well, sometimes) exits out into the crowd and onto the street outside, banging away the whole time.

For me, the idea that indie rock is too white is ridiculous. Musicians have the right to play whatever kind of music they want. If the Decemberists love The Soft Boys and Neutral Milk Hotel (and lately Jethro Tull), that's great. If the Shins like 80s new wave guitar bands and the Beach Boys, more power to them. Only people who don't really like those bands would want them to stick funk bass lines or hyphy synth sounds in their music.That's really all this boils down too: people who don't like certain popular bands wishing they'd change their music so it sounded better to them.

As a fan of rap and soul and numerous other African and African-American art forms, I'm reminded of conversations with people who wish "rap wasn't so materialistic" or that "r&b had more soul like it used to," as if they just want to like the music but can't. But what's so wrong about not liking it? If you dislike rap, that's fine. If you dislike whiny, precious indie rock, that's fine too. But if you want to like rap if only it was more like jazz or you want like rock if only it sounded like funk, you're waging a losing battle. So leave those bands alone, Sasha Frere Jones, and go listen to whatever it is you actually like.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Shocking Stink

As remixers, DFA (James Murphy and Tim Goldsworthy) are pretty much untouchable. Their remixes of Goldfrapp's "Slide In," Unkle's "In a State," Chromeo's "Destination Overdrive", and Tiga's "Far from Home" on the vinyl version of "DFA Remixes Chapter. 2" are easily the best of their kind. A DFA remix (with the exception of their half-assed reworking of Justin Timberlake's "My Love") is pretty much a guarantee of quality. As well, their roster (The Juan McLean, Hot Chip, Gavin and Russom, Black Dice, LCD Soundsystem) is amazing for not only its diversity but its consistency.

So why'd they sign Shocking Pinks?

After reading this review, I was pretty much sold on the Shocking Pinks first album for DFA.Describing the album as containing "scruffy Jesus and Mary Chain dream-pop, ecstatic My Bloody Valentine haze, droning C-86 confessionals, and bedroom New Order bass lines" appealed to the geek in me in a way that now I'm not too proud of. Turns out the JAMC dream-pop is extra scruffy, the My Bloody Valentine "haze" sounds a lot like a cheap synth pad buried deep in the mix, and the New Order bass lines need to be turned up, oh, I don't know, six or seven notches to actually be New Order bass lines. Only the "droning C-86 confessionals" is dead on because, firstly, droning is the only way to describe Nick Harte's (Shocking Pinks frontman and only member) vocal style, and secondly, only on cheap 80s mix tapes by twee English teenagers can I imagine music so poorly mixed and amateurish.

But maybe that's unfair. After all, C-86 bands like Tallulah Gosh and The Field Mice actually wrote a lot of catchy songs, something Nick Harte can't do to save his life. I could have forgiven all of his flaws--the buried, half spoken vocals, the drums constantly mixed into just one channel (oh, did I forget to mention that?), the aforementioned cheap synth pads--if the album had at least a handful of catchy songs. Instead, Harte uses my favorite indie-rock trick of singing half the lyrics, playing a bridge, than singing the rest and playing the bridge again before fade out. I swear, only "musicians" do this, because amateurs are too focused on just writing a song poppy enough to hide their inability. Harte used to be the drummer for The Brunettes, an insufferably cute indie-pop band from New Zealand, so I don't think he completely lacks musical talent, but his songwriting is so lazy and half-assed it's hard not to think he should stick to banging on drums (Decide for yourself: here are links to songs here, here, and here.)

I think maybe DFA is a little pissed off at their success and are trying to throw curveballs at their audience. Their other new signing, Prinzhorn Dance School, is an ultra minimalist art punk band that wouldn't really blow the mind of someone looking for another Hot Chip. As music nerds, I think they're resentful that fans are pigeonholing them as a dance music label, and a "slick" one at that. On a certain level, I totally sympathize. DFA represent a sensibility, not a sound, and making only "good" music is a quick path to mediocrity. But there is a fine line between music that's difficult but ultimately engaging and lazy stuff like the Shocking Pinks record. DFA remains bulletproof, but they won't be for long if they keep releasing stuff this bad..

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Loser

So it looks like Kanye won. Reading the article, I couldn't help but feel like talking about the contest being a "marketing strategy" really insults the people who went out and bought the records. I mean, of course no matter who won, Universal profited, but I think people went out and bought a certain record because they wanted to side with one of the artists. I considered buying Graduation on Sept. 11 because I was disgusted by 50 Cent's belittling of rap artists for "reading too many books" and his assertion that record sales matter more than the craft. I'm sure a lot of rappers believe that, but to say it in interviews is like daring people not to buy your record. Does he think the public are such automatons that they won't read what he says and will just buy the record on the strength of a single?

As much as has been said about Kanye bringing vulnerability back to rap, I think 50 is and will always be the more interesting character between them. Have his records gotten stale? Sure. But his insecurities and flaws as a person are far more fascinating than Kanye's because they lurk under the surface of his persona. His contradictions aren't paraded out for all to see, like badges of honor. Since College Dropout, Kanye's "complex" personality more and more looks like a guy who won't take a good hard look at himself (especially when, as he says, his "wrongs" help him write his songs, and sell a ton of records). Over at No Trivia, Brandon Soderberg has spent entry after entry extolling the virtues of Graduation, explaining how humble and complex of a record it actually is, despite its surface subject being fame and "the good life." As much as I respect that opinion, I don't hear it in the music.

50 Cent, however, strikes me as someone truly fascinating because he seems perpetually trapped in a combative mode. Having made his millions by attacking other rappers and appearing to the world as some kind of thug superhero, it's clear that he can't calm down and enjoy his success. All over Get Rich or Die Tryin' or The Massacre are references to not only not needing other people, but to viewing friends as just enemies in waiting. This could be written off as just tough talk if 50 hadn't displayed this distrust so clearly in the past few months. Insulting his own crew of rappers and his label, 50 has isolated himself even further. Sure, he may have been on Rap City joking with the G-Unit, but it's clear most of them are just hanging around him now for the paycheck.

In one of the Beef documentaries, 50's old friend Bang Em Smurf recounts how, at the height of his success, 50 not only wouldn't help him out with bail money (even after, according to Bang Em Smurf's story, he had "taken care of" 50's shooter) but got on a mixtape and claimed he was "God" to Smurf. However much of the rest of the story is true it's hard to tell, but the recording of 50 saying he was God to Smurf is real and it paints a disturbing picture when placed next to the dozens of other incidents of 50's megalomania.

It's clear from his comments during the Kanye West feud that 50 truly believed he was somehow invincible. Why else would he have painted himself in such a corner? If you're going to talk all kinds of shit, then you had better have an album good enough to make everyone forget what you said, and if you have a clunker of an album, you should probably shut up and hope your name alone sells enough copies. 50's strategy, for all his "business savvy," was to both talk a ton of shit about being a hit maker, not an artist, and then release a terribly dull album. That strikes me as the work of someone who isn't really in touch with reality.

The problem is that 50 has long ago stopped tapping into his own psyche for inspiration. His records sound by-the-numbers even by gangsta rap standards (if you're not parodying yourself, you shouldn't release a sex rap called "Amusement Park" after having already released a song called "Candy Shop"--that's some Spinal Tap shit and even further evidence 50 is not all there). He's obviously scared he'll alienate fans and hurt his tougher than tough image if he reveals too much of himself. But the history of hardcore rap contains plenty of artists who managed to express their fear and vulnerability within the genre's often limited strictures.

I have to admire Kanye West for constantly growing as an artist both musically, and to a lesser extent, lyrically, but I sometimes want him to just go away. For a superstar of his stature, he has a pathetic mix of arrogance and neediness that just makes me uncomfortable. I saw a clip on YouTube of Kanye on "Entourage" which is just hard to watch because Kanye's acting is so transparent--his face both says "Fucking A, I'm on 'Entourage,' that is so cool" and "Hell yeah I'm on 'Entourage--why wouldn't I be? I'm Kanye fucking West." Kanye is clearly warring with himself, but not in a way I find at all interesting. If he thinks that he's God gift to the world than he should act like it, but he also shouldn't be angry and hurt when people talk shit, because people are going to talk shit. I'm "hating" on him right now. That's the reality of being someone with that kind of fame--part of the reason people "hate" is to feel like they're not just mindless consumers of someone else's genius.

I may sooner or later buy Graduation and maybe even get into it off the strength of the music, but when it comes down it,I'm just more interested in what's happening in the loser's corner.

Monday, September 17, 2007

The Unmagnificent Lives of Adults

I've been listening to a lot of The National's new album, "Boxer," and I'm becoming a huge fan of Matt Berninger's lyrics. In the song "Mistaken for Strangers," he has three perfect lines that just blow me away:

Oh you wouldn't want an angel watching over you
Surprise surprise they wouldn't wanna watch

Another uninnocent, elegant fall into the unmagnificent lives of adults

For me, those three lines make a meal out of a million "little girl lost in a city" songs. In fact, they pop the bubble of a bunch of other song cliches, including, among others, the vampiric hipster girl steals your soul cliche and the good girl meets bad people narrative, the latter often finding its way into otherwise good songs, like The Hold Steady's "Crucifixion Cruise."

What I love especially about the "Another uninnocent.." line is that it points out how boring self-destruction and bad behavior actually is. The man or woman the song is about is far from a doe-eyed innocent (the elegance of their fall reveals they've fallen before) and where they're falling is right smack dab into the banal dance of drugs, sex, and indecision. No matter how much pop culture tries to pretend the lifestyles of attractive people in their twenties and thirties are some larger metaphor for the whole of society, hauling out sad abstractions like "We've all had these kind of relationships" and passing off "lifestyle" columns that seem tailored to fictional "hip, young singles" as somehow relevant, the truth is that adult life is unmagnificent. That doesn't mean it's bad or not worth living, just that it's not the romance it's sold as.

The "angel" line is just as funny and true. I can just imagine the character, half faux-ashamed, half bragging, saying "I wouldn't want an angel watching me--he he he..." The line makes me think of an alternate "Wings of Desire" in which angels have to follow around skinny boring hipsters (or frat boys or sorority girls, same lifestyle just with better music) as they hop from party to party, scene to scene, bed to bed, pretending their life is more exciting than it really is. Poor angels...

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Slug and Lettuce

After much procrastination, I finally finished an entry on Atmosphere's Slug (pictured above in maximum lameness--a My Chemical Romance t-shirt? No wonder fourteen year olds love this guy) for Brandon Soderberg's Biographical Dictionary of Rap. I'm not a huge Atmosphere fan ( I had to buy his first Felt album with MURS to help write the entry), but I feel like I did the man justice, or at least blogger justice.

"At heart, I think Slug wants to be a singer-songwriter, not a rapper. He's got a record label offshoot of Rhymesayers for signing rock bands, he name checks Tom Waits as an influence in interviews, and he raps about how, as a kid, he hated when LL Cool J started rapping about girls, even though any rap fan knows LLs been rapping about the ladies from the beginning. In this article, Slug says that a Cage song sampling Built to Spill's "I Could Hurt A Fly" was " one of the first hip-hop songs that touched me in a way outside of me wanting to bop my head or punch a cop." I'm not trying to make a federal case here, but isn't it odd that a guy who raps for a living would associate hip-hop with exclusively those two reactions?"

Please check out the entry, as well as the other entries on Beanie Sigel, J-Dilla, and Masta Ace. Brandon's idea is an awesome one and I think it could be a really exciting way for bloggers to come together to talk about hip-hop on the Internet without gay-baiting each other or using "U' for "you."

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Top 10 Party Crashers: Sampler Smackdown, Pt. 2

Here's part 2 of comparing sampled songs to the songs they were sampled for.

6. "Spirit in the Dark" by Aretha Franklin vs. "School Spirit" by Kanye West: As much as I love Aretha Franklin (especially "Since You Been Gone" and "Baby I Love You"), "School Spirit" just has an infectious spirit (pun intended) that "Spirit in the Dark" doesn't. The way Kanye stretches out Franklin's voice in the sample it sounds like she's saying "e-voo" or "evil," followed by a slightly lowered pitch "in the dark." The main verses use the humming refrain of the latter part of "Spirit in the Dark" to great effect, creating a earnest chorus to off-set Kanye's bitter lyrics. Besides being an amazing song, "School Spirit" is pretty the summation of Kanye's "College Dropout" album. Lines like "Told 'em I finished school and started my own business/They say "Oh, you graduated," No, I decided I was finished/Chasing all your dreams and what you got planned/Now I spit it so hot you got tanned" perfectly capture the album's theme of being trapped in a life path that's stifling and oppressive. What is odd but charming is how the beats use of fraternity stepping ("Alpha step, sigma step..") and the gorgeous humming refrain make being miserable in college sound kind of fun. I always chuckle at the line "This nigga graduated at the top of his class/ I went to Cheesecake, he was a motherfucking waiter there" because Kanye's delivery and the joy in the music makes the situation sound more like a funny scene in an after-college comedy, instead of a depressing comment on how much a college degree is worth nowadays.

7. "Family Affair" by Sly and the Family Stone vs. "Family Affair" by Ghostface Killah: How long did it take for Pete Rock to make this beat? As much as I dislike the Roots, the way they sampled "Everybody is a Star" on "The Tipping Point" kept intact the song's melody (as well as adding on a bunch of unnecessary backing vocals) while Pete Rock's beat just samples the bass line and Sly singing. Ghostface sounds best over maximalist soul tracks like The Stylistics "You're a Big Girl Now" and Isaac Hayes' "Walk On By" since they compliment his emotional delivery. The original "Family Affair" is one of the best soul songs ever, managing to be sad, creepy, and funky all at the same time. Frankly, even a good sampling of the song probably couldn't beat it--it's untouchable.

8. "Theme from 'Tenebrae'" by Goblin vs. "Phantom pt. 1 and 2" by Justice: As much as I like Justice, Goblin are the kings of horror movie music (Bernard Hermann doesn't count since he mostly scored thrillers). Their music mixes disco and prog rock in such a charmingly cheesy way that it makes the Argento movies they score seem far cooler than they actually are. Listening to "Phantom," it's hard to hear what Justice adds to the original except a more jagged rhythm and a ton of filters.

9. "Sure Shot" by The Beastie Boys vs. "Daylight" by Aesop Rock: "Life's not a bitch/She's a beautiful woman/You only call her a bitch because she won't let you get that pussy/ Maybe she didn't feel y'all shared any similar interests/ Or maybe you're just an asshole who couldn't sweet talk the princess"? This is why Aesop does not rock. Beasties win.

10. "Gypsy Woman (She's Homeless)" by Crystal Waters vs. T.I.'s "Why You Wanna": Since I'm lame enough to have heard the T.I. song before "Gypsy Woman," I assumed the latter would be the sort of slow burn disco song Donna Summer did it so well, the kind of song where the energy of the performance makes you dance (or nod your head) faster than the actual BPM. Actually, "Gypsy Woman" is a more a house song than a disco one (I know some people don't hear the difference but if you don't start differentiating somewhere, 70% of electronic music with singing on it is disco). The tempo is quick and, unlike "Why You Wanna," the horn line circles in on itself. The way the horn line is sampled on "Why You Wanna," the last note is left unresolved, like the melody isn't finished. This bothered me at first, but it benefits the song tremendously, because it leaves the listener hanging on the last note, waiting for resolution, only to jump back into the beginning of the horn line.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Top 10 Party Crashers: Sampler Smackdown Edition, pt. 1

I thought it'd be fun to write a post comparing songs that have been sampled to the songs they were sampled for. I'm sure it's been done before on other blogs and in magazines, but hopefully I can pull out some surprises and maybe even piss some people off (always the highest praise a blog can receive)--though I might need more than four or five readers to accomplish the latter feat.

1."Just Don't Want to Be Lonely" by Main Ingredient vs. "Dead Muthafuckas" by Cam'Ron- No contest, Cam wins this one. The strongest part of "Just Don't Want to Be.." is the laid back hook, which is exactly what gets sped up in the chorus of "Dead Muthafuckas." As much as it's cool now to complain about the staleness of sped up vocal samples in rap songs, the combination of huge beats and helium vocals still gets me every time.

2."The Ecstasy of Gold" by Ennio Morricone vs. "Blueprint 2" by Jay-Z- It's no surprise Jay-Z used this Morricone song for his second attack on Nas. After a melodramatic piano build, the song is all grandeur, full of triumphant horns and an anthemic melody Metallica fans have been humming for years (the band uses the song as their onstage intro music). As good an MC as Jay is, you don't want to hear him whining about Rosie Perez over one of the most gorgeous instrumentals ever.

2. "Nautilus" by Bob James vs. "Daytona 500" by Ghostface Killah- I first heard "Nautilus" on the Master Sounds radio station featured on Rock Star's Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. The song, along with James' cover of Paul Simon's "Take Me to the Mardi Gras," has been sampled on numerous rap songs. including LL's "Rock the Bells" and Slick Rick's "Children's Story." Since "Nautilus" is a cheesy fusion song and "Daytona 500" is an undisputed classic, you'd think this would be a no brainer. However, my vote goes to "Nautilus." Firstly, I love cheesy fusion songs--some of Herbie Hancock's best songs are the kind of shiny, fluffy disco instrumentals that house DJs in the 80s sampled the hell out of. As much as I've come to appreciate more traditional hard bop jazz, there is still a part of me that only really likes the kind of jazz that sounds like free form funk or disco. Secondly, the beat to "Daytona 500," like a decent amount of early RZA beats, just does not do it for me. While propulsive, it lacks melody and dynamics, though I suppose you could argue the scratchiness of the beat adds texture. Add to this the fact that the chorus is thin and cliched, and the title goes to "Nautilus."

4. "Hunters of Heaven" by Harumi vs. "Big Lost" by Diplo: I first stumbled upon the Harumi song on an mp3 blog and thinking they were a Japanese psych band, I downloaded it. Turns out "they" was Harumi, an obscure Japanese songwriter and super producer (Bob Dylan, VU) Tom Wilson, who teamed together to make a psych pop record for Verve in 1967. According to this review, the results sucked. Having only heard "Hunters in Heaven," I have no opinion, but the horn line is amazing. When I first heard it on Diplo's "Florida," I was convinced I could place the sample because it just sounded so familiar. As far as which song is better, I'm going to have to go with "Big Lost" because its energy and groove have managed to make the Harumi song sound better just by association.

5. "Every Breath You Take" by the Police vs. "I'll Be Missing You" by Puff Daddy and the Family: Even though "I'll Be Missing You" is cheesy and cliched and sentimental (not to mention arguably exploitative), it's a better song than the original because it treats "Every Breath" like the sappy love ballad it is. Even though the song is supposed to be about a stalker, there is not an ounce of menace in Sting's voice or in the music. I'm sure to this day there are couples who think of it as "their song" because they don't pay much attention to the lyrics outside of the chorus. By turning the song into an elegy, Puff Daddy understood it better than its creators.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Top 5 Party Crashers

"The life cycle of the turtle is a wondrous thing..."

Since I'm consistently too tired to write a long post about one subject (oh, M.I.A. post, we fought it out but we're still friends), I've decided to take a page from one of my favorite critics/arch-nemesis Greil Marcus. His column "Real Life Rock and Roll Top Ten" used to drive me nuts with its various obsessions (situationism, Elvis, Sleater Kinney) but it always had at least one entry that was worth reading. Thus, I introduce:

The Top Five Party Crashers

1. Lil Wayne in the New Yorker: It's odd over the last couple of years how the New Yorker is suddenly covering rap. My brother and I laughed our asses off when, in the article on Houston rap, Sasha Frere Jones said that, unlike other rappers, Houston rappers aren't afraid to rap about death and racist cops. We were like "Does he even listen to rap?" The Dylan comparison in the article seems weird at first until you think about it. Wayne's love of words and his relentless delivery reminds me of Dylan circa "Bringing It All Back Home." And if you think comparing a lyrical genius like Dylan to a mere rapper is insulting, just listen closely to the lyrics to "It's a Hard Rain Gonna Fall"--the song is leaden with clunker lines.

2. Vitalic- OK Cowboy: Ridic. Maybe it's because I just listened to this album while buzzing off a crappy cafeteria (my work has a cafeteria) Vanilla Creme coffee with extra sugar, but this sounds like the greatest techno album ever made. A lot of the songs feature that electronic classical, "Bach Rocks" moog sort of sound that Daft Punk does on "Voyager" and "Verdis Quo." Songs like these always remind me of the soundtracks to 60s Sci-Fi movies or old educational films about the breeding cycle of turtles in the Galapagos.

3. The Old Grey Whistle Test, Vol. 3: I checked out from the library the third volume of performances collected from the English 70s music program, and while for sheer starpower the collection is kind of weak (no Bowie, no Roxy Music, no Stones, all who are on earlier volumes), there are some amazing performances from unexpected artists. Roger Daltrey's version of Leo Sayer's "Giving It All Away" is just begging to be put in a Wes Anderson movie. At first listen, the song seems kind of lame, another in a long line of boy-loses-his-innocence songs that the 70s are full of. But for me, the magic of the song is how cheesy it is. In a weird postmodern twist, the song is both too lame and overdone to be sincere and yet open to being sincerely appreciated for being so cheesy. It's a sort of similar phenomenon to people who appreciate Justin Timberlake songs because they're excited by how excited everyone else is about them.

4. "Bangin' Screw" off Paul Wall's "Get Money and Stay True": I checked out Paul Wall's second album from the library on a lark, but I've been pleasantly surprised. Most of the production is done by Houston rap/house music DJ Mr. Lee and it's full of lush, buzzing keyboards and synthetic choir voices. Paul Wall is still a pretty generic rapper, but he flows well and that's all the music needs. My favorite song is "Bangin' Screw," which has a beat that reminds me of the music from the old NES games, "California Games," where you could surf, skateboard, and BMX bike. The song's about driving around Houston listening to the late great Houston DJ Screw (pioneer of the chopped-and-screwed style of production) and it feels very nostalgic. It feels nostalgic to me too, but more because the music reminds me of playing old Nintendo games during the summer, buzzed from soda and candy.

5.'s "Ham of the People" article on Al Pacino: It never occurred to me that Pacino might enjoy hamming it up--I always just assumed he was resigned to chewing up scenery because that's what directors wanted and what paid the bills. He's certainly gotten the most reaction from his over the top performances (My brother and I are constantly repeating the line from Michael Mann's "Heat" where Pacino taunts Hank Azaria by telling him his mistress (played by Ashley Judd) has an ass "you want to take a bite of!"; we can't imagine how anyone on the set kept a straight face after that line). His performance in "Any Given Sunday" often feels like a parody because he was injecting pathos in what was basically a grizzled caricature of the long suffering football coach who lives only for the game. When he makes his before-the-game speech about how he's lost everything in his life to football, it's hard not to laugh.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Cheese Is the New Cool

It's a lot harder to feel cool for liking Italo-Disco after watching this video.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

I Feel My Pores

"Fireworks," off the new Animal Collective album "Strawberry Jam," is an amazing song. It manages to capture so many different moods, some of them so specific they almost need to be combined like those big clunky German words. For example, when I first heard the song, riding the bus back from my parent's house to my own, I felt joy-in-the-immeasurable-moment-of-awe-of-hearing-beauty-you-didn't expect-tempered-with-a-"oh shit"-this-moment-has-to-end-and-I'd-really-rather-not-let-it.

As usual, the song invokes something childlike, but not in any sentimental way. The rush of stimuli that Panda Bear a.k.a Noah Lennox (I think it's Panda Bear singing) sings about seems to keep temporarily paralyzing him. From fans asking about his mood and new AC songs to the way sweating can make you feel ugly, Lennox seems both high on his band's success and always anxious about the fact that he can't decide how he feels about it.

The video, frankly, is a little boring. If the song weren't so good, I'd probably turn it off after thirty seconds or so. Why the band spends most of the video standing there trying to look amazed I wish I knew, but it just seems a little forced. The scene where a hand keeps making weird gestures through a car window is like two steps above a video made for public access (not that someone couldn't create a cool video using a public access aesthestic, this just isn't that video.) But just hearing the song is enough until I can figure out how to post mp3s on this blog.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Here I Dreamt I Was a Soldier..

"And then Neil Patrick Harris says 'What a cougar!'"

About two weeks ago, I was watching that mediocre, paint-by-numbers, probably-robot-written sitcom "How I Met Your Mother." Why? Burnt out from work most days, I find an odd comfort in watching mildly entertaining sitcoms. Something about being tired fries the critical part of my brain, leaving me to just passively absorb.

Towards the end of the show, I heard a familiar jangling guitar riff. After a few moments, I placed it: The Decemberists' "Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect." Since the show had been all about how the main character Ted could use the fact that he was an architect to get any woman he wanted into bed, it was clear why the show had picked the song. I wasn't really outraged when I heard the song; I've heard other Decemberists songs in TV shows and I'm long since over my obsession with the band (Increasingly, I find their costumes and props and silly audience participation bits verging on cartoonish, like a slightly less tongue in cheek They Might Be Giants.)

But when I first heard "Here I Dreamt...," I was in awe. I was a sophomore at the Evergreen State College, working in my free time on a screenplay about mentally unstable high school student who models himself on Jay Gatsby, and the song sent my imagination reeling. The song's archaic language--"balustrade" and "furrowed" and "courtesan"--and its wartime set pieces ("And here I dreamt I was a soldier/And I marched the streets of Birkenau") kept ringing out in my head as I wrote. I had the main character, Sam, spin a tale of how his grandfather escaped a Blitz bomb in London by committing adultery with a nurse at the very time bombs rained down on his home and wife. This act of adultery cursed the man forever, as he had to marry the mistress he thoroughly disliked and lose the woman he truly loved, his only happiness left in amassing a large fortune that the main character inherits. This story is concocted to hide the fact that all the money Sam supposedly inherited actually comes from selling pain pills and weed to businessmen.

Silly as it all might sound, I was euphoric writing this tall tale as I listened to "Here I Dreamt.." on repeat. The song and its characters seem to exist in the ideal version of war, full of colorful characters, bittersweet bar songs, and clothes that high school drama kids covet. If you listen to any recording of Marlene Dietrich singing to the troops, you'll understand the strange feelings of romance that can sometimes surround the past worlds of either world war. As unrealistic and idealized as this fantasy is (knowing you could die any day is bound to suck the "poetry" right out of war, even for soldiers on leave in exotic foreign countries), it's what I tapped into when I heard the song.

Hearing the song two weeks ago, I realized how contrived it could sound. Part of the appeal of singing about soldiers in past wars or pirates or Cold War spies or anything else from the bucket labeled "Past" is the odd sense of innocence those people and places and times seem to retain. When Tom Waits sings about murderous carnival barkers or a man that's just a head who plays beautiful jazz piano, most listeners don't think "Thank God those freaks don't live in my time," they think: "Cool. I wish my life was as weird and exciting as the world was back in the day." The most disgusting spectacle, the most mundane horror, becomes novel and exotic because it's not like our present disasters. As much as I love the album, Neutral Milk Hotel's "In An Aeroplane Over the Sea" can never approach its subject--the horrors of the Holocaust--without a little bit of poetry, a little bit of beauty rubbing off onto it. When Jeff Magnum sings that, though the world would like to see Holocaust victims eyes "filled with flies," he'd "love to keep white roses in their eyes"--is that for their benefit or his?

What I'm trying to say is that maybe having a stupid sitcom ruin what used to be one of my favorite songs is a good thing. Instead of stirring me up with romantic notions of past wars, the song can remind me of boring old now, with its bad presidents and global warming and inane sitcoms I only enjoy because work has worn me out.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Got the Whole West Coast Doin' The Robot

One of my brother's friends mentioned a few months back that his girlfriend, a Vassar undergrad, and her friends were going to have a "hyphy" party and that she had called him one night in search of more hyphy slang. She knew "Ghost ridin' the whip" and "stupid" and "scraper"...What else was there?

To me, this is the epitome of what the hyphy movement has become: the slang is more famous than the music. Besides that Mistah F.A.B. song where he samples the Ghostbusters theme and E-40's "Tell Me When To Go," what hyphy song has really made an impact outside of the Bay Area? A compilation has recently been released entitled "Hyphy Hitz" and it begs the question: what hits?

Back when E-40's "Ghetto Report Card" came out, I gave it a glowing review in my college paper. After hearing an endless line of stale E-40 tracks with beats that sounded like the "Funk" demo on a cheap keyboard, it was exciting to hear something as off-kilter and energetic as "Go Hard or Go Home" or "Sick Wid It II." It reminded me of the kind of more-is-more attitude of Cam'Ron's Dipset, though 40 and his producers preferred big squelchy synth sounds and echo-chamber bass drums to sharp strings and military snares.

But over time, "My Ghetto Report Card" has begun to sound stale. Where once the beats sounded huge and in-your-face, like (to quote Keak Da Sneak) three or four people on a car hood "trying to cave in your roof," they now sounded weak and anemic. Part of the problem may be E-40, whose flow is quick and nimble but at heart basically laid back and chill. In my opinion, a genre like hyphy needs a fiery rapper to compete with its hyperactive energy and 40 is not that rapper.

That rapper may be Turf Talk. A cousin of E-40, Turf Talk has a whiny but raspy voice that seems highly influenced by Eminem. Just like Em, Turf Talk stretches syllables like a middle schooler just learning how fun is it to talk dirty. Last month, he released his second album, "West Coast Vaccine (The Cure)," which I purchased a used copy of after a recommendation from P-Fork and Village Voice writer Tom Breihan.

Songs like "Super Star," "That's That Turf Talk," and "I'm Ghetto" have an infectious energy that makes you realize the true potential of hyphy when it's done right. "Super Star" has a merry-go-round melody courtesy of old school Bay Area producer E-A-Ski (who has switched his style up quite well from his warmed over G-funk days) that Turf rides over with an easy and bratty confidence. "That's That Turf Talk" is produced by Tha Bizness, though it sounds like a Rick Rock beat with its mix of horns and big, (there is no other word for it) farting synthesizers. The song's hook sounds like a techno marching band parading the field with MPCs and air sirens, with the crowd in the stands shouting "Turn it up!" and "Make them speakers bump!"

"I'm Ghetto," from which the title of this post is taken from, has a ringtone-ready melody of bells and (what sounds like) champagne glasses on the verses and big synth chords on the chorus. The chorus, where Turf brags that he's ghetto like "strawberry kool aid," sounds like an early acid house song, back when just the huge sound of the Roland TB-303 synthesizer was enough to make a whole song. The fact that the usual musical choice for a "I'm from the ghetto" song would be a cut up jazz or soul sample meant to signify the soul (pun intended) of the marginalized makes "I'm Ghetto" even more refreshing and fun.

Don't get me wrong: "West Coast Vaccine" is far from a classic. As cocky and charismatic as Turf Talk is, he's simply not compelling enough as a personality to pull of anything but a really good album (at least not yet). Part of me wants to hear an album from a hyphy artist that's all hyper all the time, but I wonder if that would blunt the edge of the music. Whatever my issues with the album, it's proof that there is still life in the hyphy movement.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

The Scariest Movie Ever

Ah, Andrew Bujalski: How does he do it?

I've been watching a lot of Bujalski's 2003 film "Mutual Appreciation" but I've yet to finish it for reasons I'll soon explain. On the surface, the movie is about a dude (Alan, played by Bishop Allen frontman Justin Rice) who moves to New York to play music and find a girlfriend, but it's actually the most frighteningly realistic portrayal of twentysomething hipsters I've ever seen. Unlike the two million other movies about twentysomethings in bands looking for love, "Mutual Appreciation" isn't look-at-me clever or tooth decay sweet or even cruelly satirical. The characters in the movie talk like real people, so much so that it gets a little obnoxious.

In one scene, Alan gets drunk and starts rambling about starting a club/space where "like-minded people" (presumably artists and musicians) can get together and be a resource for each other. His idea is annoyingly vague but his enthusiasm is endless, and when his friend Lawrence tells him he'll help out with the club if he's given a specific task, Alan gets angry and tells Lawrence he's ruining the whole project. Lawrence's girlfriend, Ellie, however, is excited by Alan's theoretical "space" and keeps talking in semi-patronizing tones about what an "amazing" idea he has.

The scene is fascinating for a variety of reasons, but I'll only talk about a few. Firstly: Alan's idea. I've heard this idea, in different forms, from at least six or seven people, all of whom were drunk at the time and as overly enthusiastic as Alan. It's a variation on the classic "We have so many talented friends--why don't we get them together and make something cool?" insight that almost everyone I know has come up with at some point. Invariably, the idea loses its luster the morning after and no one ever mentions it again, which is exactly what happens in the movie, though we technically never see the morning after.

Secondly, Ellie's patronizing enthusiasm is a dead on portrayal of the kind of insultingly "supportive" way so many people I know talk with their friends. Because she enjoys Alan's excitement, Ellie goes overboard in her praise for his idea, without actually appearing to be excited herself. At various points in the movie, Ellie refers to Alan as a "rock star," and considering he's played one show and recorded nothing more than a demo, this sounds unbelievably patronizing. Since Alan is insecure about himself and his art, all this over-the-top praise and ego massaging is bound to have the unintended effect of making Alan feel even more insecure because of the huge discrepancy between what people say about him and his own estimation of himself. To put it more simply, if you make something (a song, a poem, a painting) that you consider mediocre or worse and your friend tells you it's "brilliant," you're not only going to feel lied to, you're going to feel the soul-crushing distance between what you made and actual brilliance.

Finally, the way Lawrence explains that he needs his friend to give him a specific task to do or he's useless is note perfect. It reminds me of the way people from my generation constantly say things like "I'm a really visual learner" or "I'm a person that thinks in abstractions." In the interest of (relatively) full disclosure, this is a big pet peeve of mine. I think educated people easily have the capacity to think outside of their comfort zone and purposely use the "I'm a____" to preempt any one from challenging their point of view or way of thinking.

On the back of the "Mutual Appreciation" box, the movie is described as being about "miscommunication." I think instead the film is about a certain kind of communication favored by educated, middle class hipsters. This form of communication prizes civility and "niceness" above all else. That's not say that the type of people I'm talking about can't be rude or sarcastic or malicious, only that the default mode of conversation is low-key civility. Everything's basically chill, everyone is basically cool, a pretty good time was had by all. It should come as a surprise to no one that this sort of communication can communicate very little and "Mutual Appreciation" captures that perfectly.

I'm not kidding with the title of this post. For anyone who's spent time with people like Alan or Ellie or Lawrence, you know how painful it can be to be around them. There's something scary about watching a movie that so perfectly replicates the boredom and frustration of hanging out with boring, self-involved hipsters.

For a different perspective, read Chuck Klosterman's take on the movie.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Intelligent Dork Music

Why am I suddenly into weird electronic music?

Back in high school, I had a friend who was a serious electronic music snob. Besides being a bit of a jerk sometimes (he once told me, out of nowhere, "I think you're a cool guy, just don't murder anybody because then I'll have to testify against you"), he worshiped avant-garde electronic artists like Autechre and Oval like a religious devotee. He introduced me to the term "IDM," which used to mean "Intelligent Dance Music" but now it just means the speaker is stuck in the nineties.

How IDM differs from other dance music is that you can't dance to it (except when you can). IDM can encompass such mini-genres as glitch, dub ambient, folktronica, and microhouse, depending on who you ask. It's a highly contentious genre, even to this day, and the moment you mention a few artists (the video game sounds of Plaid, the blippy low end of Black Dog, the Wyndham Hill-meets-Kraftwerk sound of The Future Sound of London, the "This sounds like a modem starting up" weirdness of Autechre), you get a bunch of "fans" jumping down your throat about what you don't know and where you can stick said ignorance. This was a daily trial on the IDM message board my high school friend introduced me to and the board eventually sucked itself into its own black hole of elitism.

Partly out of enthusiasm for my friend's enthusiasm and partly out of curiosity, I tried listening to some "IDM" and I was bored to tears when I didn't drift off into unintended sleep. Even Plaid's Bubble Bobble symphonies were only good for playing for friends and laughing at how much it reminded us of slumber parties spent playing NES. The problem I had with the music at the time was that it had no discernible structure: no hooks, no choruses, no melody you could follow through the entire song. It didn't help that my friend's favorite artists were the most experimental; he was seriously giddy when he heard that Autechre's new album at the time was made with a software in which the computer completely randomized the group's compositions. The idea of music made almost entirely by computers delighted him to no small degree.

Frankly, my vanity kept me listening, even after I had napped through nearly CD my friend let me borrow. I desperately wanted to like the music--it was so weird, so chilly, so cool. Ever since I worshiped the kids smoking cigarettes and rocking Pink Floyd shirts outside the gym in middle school, I've always wanted to be capital C cool. The kind of cool that is less about being emotionally distant and laid back and more about knowing about all the bands, the movies, the books, and the art that no one else does. Listening to weird music that sounded like machines talking to each other seemed to me the ultimate in cool, the kind of personal trait so strange and unique it couldn't help but define me for others. "Dude listens to that weird electronic music from Europe..."

I somehow thought listening to IDM would change my lifestyle. When you like music that obscure and inaccessible, I thought, you need new friends, new, cooler, more sophisticated friends with ergonomically short hair and black glasses. You need a new wardrobe, preferably from Europe. You need to buy subscriptions to glossy magazines that review Japanese free jazz and cost $11 dollars an issue on the newsstand. You need to purge your living space of useless junk and buy cold, black metal furniture.

Alas, I could not get into IDM. When I moved off to college in Olympia, I sold all my IDM cds at Rainy Day Records so I could buy all the new indie rock and pop I was getting into. When I started listening to Belle and Sebastian, my high school friend called it "pity party music for people who love to dwell in their own sadness." At the time, that was exactly what I wanted. I wanted bookish, sensitive sounding music about people too smart or too weird for everyone around them (which wasn't too far from what I wanted from IDM--a feeling of shared uniqueness and coolness with other unique and cool people).

Flash forward almost eight years. I hear Four Tet's "Rounds," an album made up of tons of tiny, sometimes noisy samples of everything from Kevin Ayers records to Bali finger percussion, for the second time. The first time I heard it, I had, predictably, fallen asleep. But this second time I heard new things, melodies and themes and patterns I hadn't heard before. Whether this had to do a liberal consumption of a certain drug in the period between my first and second listen (I'm referring, of course, to St. John's Wort) I can't be sure, but I heard it all with new ears. Suddenly discovering the music's structure allowed me to appreciate the unique mood it created. As opposed to the endless singer-songwriters and indie bands I'd been listening to, Four Tet's music didn't explain itself--his songs weren't sad or happy or bittersweet or clever; they were sad like the way the smell of leaves in the fall reminds you of loss, or happy like the odor of a roommate's cooking lifts your spirits moments before you fully smell it.

Hearing "Rounds" like that was the beginning of my ongoing appreciation of all forms of electronic music. I've come to love the way the music doesn't force an interpretation on you, or the way little changes in the music can feel like big ones if you listen close enough.

Which brings me back to my friend from high school and the Vladislav Delay album at the top of this post. My friend once brought over a VD record to play on my dad's record player. The record was full of abrupt cuts and weird percussive noises, layered over with big, sweeping chords of melodious drones. I remember my dad remarking "This makes it sound like my player is broken." I laughed, but pretended that the joke was on my dad, not my friend's poor taste in music. Two days ago, I purchased a copy of Amina, VD's 2001 album and marveled at how time had changed me enough to enjoy the sound of a broken record player.