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.