Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Moving Day

Since Blogger thinks it's cool to delete an entire post without warning me beforehand, I'm moving this whole blog over to Wordpress. The new address is here. If you link to me, please update the address. 

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Let Us Remember: The Congos's "Ark of the Covenant"

In "The Upsetter," the 2008 documentary about Lee "Scratch" Perry, Perry blames the group The Congos and all their many rastafarian friends for tainting his Black Ark studio with rampant drug use, endless mooching, and racism (he claims that God was punishing him for believing in the rasta idea of white people as devils), forcing him to burn it down in a spiritual act of cleansing.

Hearing Perry talk about his time with the Congos without hearing the album that resulted, The Heart of the Congos, you might assume their collaboration was a mess, an ugly testament to an ugly time. But The Heart of the Congos is one of the greatest reggae albums ever made. Combining Perry's Black Ark sound, with its protean bass sound and cave-like echo, and the Congos's deeply spiritual roots reggae sound, the album sounds as vital as ever, forever being what you hand to Bob Marley fans and say "This is the real stuff."

One of the single biggest influence on reggae vocalists since the 1960s has been Curtis Mayfield, and when you hear "Ark of the Covenant," you'll know why. Nothing sounds better over a huge low end than a keening falsetto, and here it's supplied by Congo Cedric Myton. Perry provides the perfect ambience for the group's harmonies, creating echo effects that sound like wind blowing through palms and hi-hats that hiss like smoke released from craters. When the group stops singing at around 2:26, you get nothing less than a clinic on Black Ark dub, with rock-like snares and gurgling, underwater reverb.

Speaking of Black Ark dub....Not to sound like a jerk, but pretty much every next level musical trick you've ever heard was done by Lee Perry first, thirty or forty years ago. From Timbaland using a crying baby as a musical instrument to M.I.A.'s bird squawk percussion on "Bird Flu" to almost anything Animal Collective has done over the past few years, Perry thought of it first, and as opposed to holding this over newer artists as a taunt, I think this fact should encourage fans of those artists to seek out something or everything by the man (plus then you don't look like an idiot when you're talking about how brilliant and original your favorite artist and how "no one else would have thought of that.")

Soulful, sad, a litle creepy, and heavy in every sense of the word, "Ark of the Covenant" and The Heart of the Congos needs to be remembered.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

I Will Never Like: Blu

Blu bores me. Sure, he can flow and his lyrics show some degree of writerly detail, but there is absolutely nothing compelling about his personality. Were he a singer and not a rapper, this might not be a problem. I find Thom Yorke to be quite irritating in interviews and his lyrics increasingly read like the repetitive ravings of a bus stop paranoiac, but the sound of his voice can still give me chills.

Rapping requires a tremendous amount of personality and conviction, and truthfully may be closer to acting than singing, because the ultimate aim is to make the listener believe what you are saying is true. This is the reason Tupac will be forever more popular than, say, Rakim, because the former, whether he believed his own bullshit or not, portrayed the more interesting character. I'm not saying Rakim didn't possess personality or conviction, just that his persona of the uber-MC got stale quickly because, while intelligent and poetic, it was, from a dramatic standpoint, pretty one-dimensional.

Looking at it this way, rappers like Blu are bad actors. They write fluid, poetic rhymes full of metaphors and similes but deliver them in a way that signifies only their lyrical prowess and nothing else. What could be more boring? Even when he's rapping about dead friends on Johnson and Jonson's "Hold On John," Blu sounds like he's a motivational speaker giving a lecture on "What Grief Can Teach Us." No wonder so many listeners would rather listen to Lil Boosie curse the world because his friend died, because even if he's not capturing very many specific details, the visceral emotion of losing someone comes across loud and clear and isn't undercut with faux-wisdom and self-help platitudes.

I'm not saying Blu is some unfeeling, uncaring intellectual and Boosie some salt of the earth "real dude," just that the latter better understands the dramatic nature of rap music. The reason so called "positive" or "conscious" rap isn't more popular has nothing to do with listeners disliking songs with positive messages. Popular music is full of hokey songs that even the most cynical listeners find themselves enjoying purely because of the melody. But subtract the melody and have some dude just saying stuff like "R-E-S-P-E-C-T/Find out what it means to me" and the sentiment lives and dies based on its delivery. If rappers want us to respond to their "wisdom" and "knowledge," they've got to convince us that both were hard earned and not some shit they just thought up when they were stoned. Rappers who rhyme about drug dealing and living in fear of being killed have it easier because their subjects are already inherently dramatic.

Blu, and rappers like him, epitomize the problem with lyrical prowess as the primary standard for judging rappers, and help explain the ascendancy of what Brandon Soderberg calls post-lyricism. Just putting some hot lines together and rapping them well is not enough anymore; now you have to, like a good actor, create a compelling character that can transcend the fact that, at the end of the day, you're just a dude reciting poetry.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Right Track: Magik Markers' "7/23"

Magik Markers, like Sunburned Hand of Man and Mouthus, are one of those bands that explores the crusty margins of 60s rock music, the music made by those bands who were too sloppy and/or trippy to break big. I'm talking about bands like Sweden's International Harvester and Germany's Guru Guru and LA's literal "cult" band Father Yod and Ya Ho Wa 13, groups who continue to find a small but obsessive audience all these years later because they, unlike Jefferson Airplane or the Grateful Dead, actually sound heavy and druggy and weird enough to be called psychedelic.

"7/23," off of Magik Markers' new album Balf Quarry, is the perfect marriage of this half-broken, hypnotic noise rock and a gorgeous melody. Almost every element of the song save for Elisa Ambrogio's singing is either clanging or atonal, but her vocal melody is so irresistible that it sounds like a pop song. At around the three minute mark, there's a guitar solo that strangles out the main melody, sounding almost like a parody of it, like the band can't help but make fun of themselves for writing such an easygoing and catchy melody.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

I Actually Like: Rye Rye and Blaqstarr's Blaqout Mixtape

Rye Rye and Blaqstarr's Blaqout mixtape is pretty overwhelming on the first listen. It's unquestionably club music, all crazy build-up and schoolyard chants and pounding bass drums and handclaps. But you'd be doing the music a disservice if you dismissed as "only good in a club." It sounds good, if not better, on headphones because you can hear all the tiny shifts in dynamics that producer-DJs like Blaqstarr excel at, the moments that explain how music that sounds so repetitive on the surface can keep you hyped up and energetic for hours.

There are so many great things Blaqstarr does throughout that need to pointed out: The way he changes up the tempo on "Hustress (Club Version)" not by slowing down the beat, but by slowing down the whole song; the funky flanged drums and Jeezy "Ay!" adlibs on "Ay Buddy"; building a whole beat around the beginning of "Jesus Walks" on "Guns in the Air"; singing over nothing but a decaying sample on "Feel It In the Air," and the moody, almost new wave-sounding remix of M.I.A.'s "World Town."

Speaking of M.I.A.: It's disappointing that she appears anywhere on this mixtape at all, though I don't blame Blaqstarr for wanting to point out his contribution to her sound. The production on Kala owes so much to Baltimore club music, but the critical consensus seems to be that that album created a sound as opposed to borrowing one. Though M.I.A. did take Rye Rye out on tour with her, that barely covers her debt to the music she's taken so much from and which she only casually mentions in interviews .

Honestly, Rye Rye is sort of a negligible presence on Blaqout, but I don't mean that in any insulting way, just that this seems to be mostly Blaqstarr's show. The girl does have charisma to spare and is probably the first teenage girl rapper I've ever heard who sounds like an actual teenager and not some record company's idea of one. Also, her lullaby-like chorus on "Get on the Floor" is integral to the song's chilled banger vibe.

The track I've included, "Hands Up Thumbs Down" is my own edit from the full mp3 mix I downloaded over at, Brandon Soderberg's Baltimore Club blog. I highly recommend everyone head over there and download the full mixtape.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

I Actually Like: Venice Is Sinking

On Thursday, I got an email from the Athens, GA band Venice Is Sinking, informing me of the release of their new album AZAR. Since it was the first email I've ever gotten from a band wanting me to write about them, I felt flattered enough to listen to the album and, lo and behold, I actually liked it.

Venice Is Sinking play the sort of orchestral indie rock often termed "slowcore," and true to form, the tempos on AZAR don't often rise above a sitting person's heartbeat. But it's the band's stately pace that allows their richly textured arrangements to be fully appreciated. Utilizing trumpets, viola, steel drums, and the shimmer of sounds played in reverse, Venice Is Sinking remind of everything I loved about the rich and cinematic arrangements of bands like Rachel's and Low.

The two songs I'm posting for download, "Wetlands Dancehall" and "Iron Range" are my favorites on the album. "Wetlands Dancehall" begins with a shuffling, shaker-driven beat and singer Karolyn Troupe's almost operatic vocals, gradually turning into a glittering waltz. On their iLike page, the band mention they recorded Javanese seed pods for the album and I think I hear the sound of the pods flit in and out of the song's choruses.

"Iron Range" starts out sounding like a Godspeed You Black Emperor! song, with Troupe's viola weaving upwards through a bed of strummed guitars and ethereal synths, the music building towards one of those classic post-rock crescendo that give you goosebumps no matter how many times you hear them. When the vocals come in, Troupe and fellow singer Daniel Lawson use their harmonies to slowly ascend to what sounds like the highest note in both their ranges.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Let Us Remember: Smog's "Let Me See the Colts"

Smog's A River Ain't Too Much to Love is generally considered the beginning of Bill Callahan's kinder, gentler period, a period that, with the release of his new album, Sometimes I Wish I Were an Eagle, appears to have come to an end. But A far from the sappy, nature-loving therapy session it's often made out to be. While songs like "I Feel like the Mother of the World" and "Rock Bottom Riser" are kind of hokey, most of the album has an awe-struck ambivalence to it, a recognition that nature is as much about death and decay as it is about peace and tranquility.

One of my favorite songs on the album is "Let Me See the Colts." As the album's closer, it sums up Callahan's guarded hopefulness in the image of watching colts being trained to race in the coming year. The song begins with Callahan bursting into his girlfriend's room and excitedly asking her to take him to see "the colts that will run next year." He tells her he wants to show the horses to "a gambling man....thinking about the future." This last image is enigmatic, since the reason Callahan wants to show the horses to the gambling man is never made clear. Are the horses supposed to make the gambler optimistic about future winnings? Or is he being shown the horses to make him stop thinking about the future (i.e. which horse he should bet on) and just appreciate the beauty of the running colts?

One of my favorite lines of the song is "The all-knowing, all seeing eye is dog tired/It just wants to see the colts." Firstly, the line's slightly ridiculous since the all-knowing, all-seeing eye would have already seen the colts run, but it's the idea that, having seen all there is to see (and presumably being both exhausted and in despair), the omniscient eye just wants that sliver of hope that comes with seeing horses run, even if it already knows all the future outcomes. You get the sense Callahan empathizes with this feeling, like he's experienced too much to be truly optimistic about anything, but he wants the brief breath of hope and inspiration that comes with seeing something that seems to epitomize all the wonderful possibilities of the coming future.

"Let Me See the Colts" would be a great ending credits song, because it imparts hope without explicitly saying things are going to be OK. Its uplift has a kind of OCD quality to it, like Callahan desperately needs to see the colts run to feel good about the future. Earlier in the song, when he wakes up his girlfriend, she asks him if he's been drinking. "No, neither drinking nor sleeping," he answers, and you can picture exactly what he looks and sounds like. It's this half crazed quality that's part of what makes the song that rare thing: a hopeful song for the hopeless.

Friday, April 17, 2009

All Screwed Up: 4 Deep's "Rollin' 4 Deep"

Like ESG's "Smoke On," DJ Screw's version of 4 Deep's "Rollin' 4 Deep" is woozy as hell. You have to laugh when whoever is talking at the beginning of the song says "let's get crunk," since nothing this slow and bluesy could be mistaken for crunk, or at least the hyped up version of crunk represented by Lil Jon and Three Six Mafia.

Screw stretches out the beginning of the song for a couple of minutes, letting you absorb the leisurely guitar line that rings out like a a sigh, or a deep exhaling of breath. Of course, as usual, members of the Screwed Up Click are talking shit over the song, but here the talk sounds like the pleasant background noise of a party, more comforting than annoying. Besides slowing down the song, Screw has also added some sort of resonance filter, as you can hear the song dip into its low end and then emerge back up again. Stuff like this drives people on ecstasy crazy when it's used in house or techno, so I'm sure it had a similar effect on anyone high on codeine syrup (though anyone's who actually tried the latter can feel free to tell me if I'm wrong).

At around 8:10, Screw brings in the chorus. When you listen to the original song, you realize those moaning voices in the background on the Screw version are just ad-libs, or little throwaways bits of melody added to beef up the chorus. Slowed down, the effect is far more soulful and vulnerable, making even the random ad-lib "Hello, six pack of tobacco" sound slightly desperate, if maybe in a slightly self-parodying way.

After this, Screw starts this amazing delayed gratification thing he sometimes does where he'll scratch the first line of the song over and over, messing with your expectations enough times until you're resigned to just hearing the line repeated ad nauseum. For me, this creates a hypnotic effect similar to drone or ambient music, where you're no longer expecting the music to progress, just enjoying the mood it creates. Also, catch how slow he's scratching--he's not trying to show off with some Scribble Jam bullshit pyrotechnics, but instead just using the scratching as another musical element.

Once the rapping starts, the slow pace of the song is kept all costs, with Screw chopping up almost half the lines of the first verse. Every time a line gets chopped, the listener is forced to follow Screw's tempo, not the rapper's. I'm sure for many listeners, it's this very "chopping" that turns them off this kind of music because it makes listening to rap the conventional way, by following the rhythm of the rhyme, nearly impossible. If you listen to Michael Watts' "screwed and chopped" mixes (which should be called "slowed and chopped" since only Screw can make screwed and chopped mixes), there seems to be more care taken that the chopping itself doesn't obscure the rhymes, whereas Screw, on a song like Tray Dee's "Droppin' Bombz" off of the No Time for Bullshit tape, will chop a song up within an inch of its life.

Screw chops the hell out of the song's second chorus, making "real g's roll four deep" sound like "real real j-j-j-ees ro-ro fo-fo dee-deep." Then after a quick scratch, he gives the first two lines of the second verse "Coming up the block boomin' blades/ Steady hittin switches you can't fade" this bizarre, almost ODB-like cadence, which I wish was repeated three or four more times.

"Rollin' 4 Deep" appears quite frequently on Screw tapes and it's quite clear why. Like ESG's "Smoke On," it's got one of those beats that sounds perfect screwed, to the point where the original sort of pales in comparison. I've included the original (via Noz's great post on 4 Deep) so you can hear the differences I've mentioned.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Portland's Got to Be Good for Something: Valet Covers Boris

Valet's Naked Acid was one of my favorite records last year and for good reason. Few records combined all the disparate strains of 21st century psychedelic music, from drone to space rock to slightly out of tune backwoods weirdness, as well as it did. Now Valet (AKA Honey Owens) is back with a new 12" record called False Face Society on Mexican Summer, a cool, bizarrely subscription based (because lord knows the subscription based model has been a winner for the music industry!) record label.

One of the songs on False Face Society is a cover of "Rainbow" by Boris and Ghost guitar god Michio Kurihara, and it's as great as you'd imagine it to be. Starting out as a Windy and Carl drone (with some cheesy cool heavy breathing stereo pans), the song alternates between heavily treated wah-wah guitar solos and Owens's whispery vocals. Listening to the original side by side with Valet's treatment, it's clear that, while Owens can't touch Kurihara in the guitar heroics department (dude's solos sound like they could cut metal), her version is arguably "trippier" and sexier with its lower-fi, soft-focus sound.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

All Screwed Up: ESG's "Smoke On"

Over the past two months, I've developed an immense appreciation for the music of DJ Screw. At their best, Screw's mixes re-imagine and re-contextualize rap music, making it, in turns psychedelic and bizarre, haunting and heartbroken, and celebratory and slow motion funky. Since Screw made over three hundred tapes and often mixed based on playlist requests, the results aren't always as great as they could be. However, since only the residents of Houston during the 90s and early part of this decade know which tapes were playlist requests and which were curated by Screw, there is the exciting possibility that random dudes from the neighborhood understood Screw's aesthetic and could hear the possibilities in screwing up, say, Phil Collins "In the Air Tonight."

When you realize that, for almost ten years, people rode around Houston in their cars bumping this dark and druggy music, music that often requires incredible patience and tolerance for repetition (on Blue Ova Grey, Screw stretches out Ice Cube's "Loved Ones" for twelve minutes, with the first five minutes devoted to nothing but the song's first couple of bars and slowed-down, drunken shout-outs from the Screwed Up Click), it's hard not to be in awe of the whole phenomenon, something that shows, as Brandon from No Trivia says "just how weird regionalism can be." Listeners who probably wouldn't even consider something like drone music music had no problem hearing a Scarface punchline repeated so many times that it starts to fold back on itself and become meaningless, at least in the literal sense of communicating meaning through words. Like drone or ambient music, Screw's music slows down the listener, lowering your heart rate and making time seem slower and more meditative. While some people insist the music should only be listened to under the influence of codeine cough syrup or marijuana, I disagree. Listen to the music for long enough and it creates the conditions needed to appreciate it.

Since the All Screwed Up series is about specific songs that I feel like people need to hear to continually appreciate the brilliance of Screw, I want to start with ESG's "Smoke On." Featured on the Syrup and Soda tape, "Smoke On" is great in so many ways. It mimics the slow, laid back feeling of being high and without a care in the world, the beat's airy G-funk keyboards sounding like the afternoon light that creeps through your window as you're zoning out on your living room couch. But since the original song was never meant to sound this druggy, it also retains its aggression and anger, sounding like a bunch of dudes who, high as they may be, are ready in second to get yanked back into the reality of defending their manhood and their status in their neighborhood.

Or you could hear it in all its passivity, its swagger and boasts empty in the face of a pleasant numbness. The chorus can sound so ghostly, as if you're smoking on and on to feel less human, less connected to your body and your mind, or, instead, less connected to things specific to you and more tuned into how it feels to just be. As pretentious as this last interpretation sounds, you can't deny it's not there in the music, just like you also can't deny that, druggy or not, part of the song is still rooted in the culture of dudes driving around stoned and showing off their cars and jewelry.

This is the complexity of Screw's music, the way it opens up songs to new interpretations and new ways of hearing, instead of closing them on some "This is gangsta music--case closed" crap.
In future installments of All Screwed Up, I hope to explore this complexity and hopefully help people realize how revolutionary and powerful Screw's music was and is.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

I Actually Like: Woods (with a few reservations)

Had I not been looking for new (non-rap) music to write about, I might have written off Woods as yet another band making shambling, slightly off center psychedelic rock music that's basically just ripping off Neil Young's Zuma. But I like lead singer Jeremy Earl's voice. Michael Hansen, from the great blog Decibel Tolls, describes it as "Elliott Smith experiencing zipper troubles" and I don't think I can come up with a better description. Pitchfork compares his voice to Neil Young, but Earl's voice is far wimpier. Though Woods play a similar form of backwoods psych to former labelmates (on Fuck It Tapes, the label the band themselves founded) MV and EE (Matt Valentine and Erika Elder), Earl's voice is far more melodious than Valentine's verging-on-atonal whine. 

The song Pitchfork posted, "Rain On," off their new LP Songs of Shame, is a pleasant, folksy psych-rock song, saved from mediocrity by Earl's voice. The way his falsetto keeps pressing against its limit on the verses brings the focus where it should be: on the sound of his voice, rather than what's he's saying. The circular guitar line on the chorus acts a cool sort of answer to Earl's vocals too. "Gypsy Hand," also off Songs of Shame, has a slightly annoying sing-song melody and foolishly buries Earl's falsetto, making me worry "Rain On" might be the only Woods song I'll ever like.

Songs of Shame, and the band's previous album, Rear House, have both been released in limited edition tape form, and I'm wondering if I would appreciate the band more in that crackly, analog format than on CD. The Fuck It Tapes aesthetic and the whole idea of still, in this day and age, putting music on tapes, is about the way the archaic sound quality changes the music itself. Like the way DJ Screw can make a cliched C-Bo song about riding around the hood in his car haunting and poignant just by slowing it down, layers of tape hiss and compression can be both a comment on more established forms of music ( like I talked about here with Wavves) and a distancing tool, allowing for new and different ways of hearing song forms we've all heard thousands of times before.

Of course, this begs the question, which has come up concerning Wavves, if songs need fucked up production values to be interesting, are they really good songs at all? I don't really agree with this kind of thinking, but by suggesting Woods would sound better on tape, I'm wondering if I'm lending some truth to that kind of criticism.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Let Us Remember: The Greatness of ELO

I'm tired of people ironically enjoying the Electric Light Orchestra. What exactly is so lame about their music that it requires ironic distance? The fact that the band had silly cover art, overambitious arrangements, and dopey, idealistic lyrics makes them pretty much like every other popular rock band of their era. You can't ironically like ELO without ironically liking the Beatles or Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin, because all those artists have moments as cheesy (if not cheesier) as Jeff Lynne and Co. I'm not saying you have to rank ELO with those bands, just that you can't damn one band for their excesses while completely ignoring those same excesses in another, more popular band.

And to act like adding synthesizers to rock music is lame in this day and age is just silly. If anything, the band were trailblazers. From Daft Punk's Discovery (whose title is an homage to ELO's Discovery album) to Phoenix to M83 to any random Kitsune Maison dance rock band that makes a song that sounds like a late 70s disco rock one-off, the influence of ELO is still strong. The reason the band's influence has remained so strong despite cultural and critical baggage is that they made great pop music.

Listen to "Confusion" (off Discovery) and "Rain is Falling" (off Time). Even stripped down they would be beautiful songs, but who would want to lose all the different synth sounds? "Confusion" features a harpsichord-like sound, a deeper, flanged keyboard, and that descending organ part that sounds like someone whistling. "Rain is Falling" has just as many different sounds, my favorite being the one played during in the intro that sounds like a voice singing underwater.

Face it, snobs: ELO hate has nothing to do with the actual music and everything to do with residual judgments left over from pompous rockists and the "Disco Sucks" movement.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

I Actually Like: Fabo, pt. 2

I wanted to do a second part to my "I Actually Like: Fabo" post, partly because I couldn't figure out how to conclude the previous post and partly because there really is a lot more to say. While tracks like "So High" and "It Got Me" are full of anger and paranoia, songs like "Super Good" and "Spaceship Man" are more celebratory, with the latter sounding like some kind of geeked up gospel music.

Produced by DJ Speedy (who also produced the great Gucci Mane track "Running Back"), "Spaceship Man" is less about escaping the harsh world on your spaceship and more about getting so high you cease to be human. That idea may sound silly, but what else are drug music and gospel music united in except escaping the human form? Hearing a song like "Spaceship Man," you realize how boring so many party and drug songs are, because while partying is supposed to be about losing control, most of those songs seem to be about maintaining it, whether by mean-mugging everyone you see and carrying a gun or by refusing to dance. To a certain extent I get this, because if you're worried that the minute you start dancing someone is going to to jump you, well, then caution and a certain amount of sobriety is understandable.

But it's clear Fabo doesn't give a fuck about this. While most of his songs contain at least one gun reference, it's clear that, deep in his heart, it's all about the drugs. He wants to lose control, wants to get to that place you see clubgoers and churchgoers go to where they look lost in their own pleasure. That place is pretty solipsistic, and it's where genres like crunk and snap music meet rave and dance culture and produce a kind a strange reaction to "rap music," namely solitary girls and guys dancing their asses off, unconnected to the world around them.

Of course that reaction among elated churchgoers isn't considered strange, because they're connecting more to God than to the people around them. The fact that Fabo is partying on a spaceship and not in a club is telling, and separates the song from other "wildin' out in the club" songs like it. Like heaven, a spaceship isn't subject to human laws, and therefore at no point will the lights come up, the music go down, and the bartenders start cleaning up, reminding everybody that "Oh shit, real life has started again."

A song like "Super Good" is more standard snap music fare and, if you want to be super literal about it, contradicts a lot of what makes Fabo's other songs so interesting. He's "mean mugging haters," "in the VIP," and re-enacting "Love in the Club," but so what? I don't expect "Spaceship Man" or "So High" every time and neither should you. What's interesting about Fabo as an artist is that he's not just making a "spaceship" song because Lil Wayne made "Phone Home" or a drug song because that's what all snap or crunk artists do; his sincerity and conviction is unmistakable. Let's hope he stays true to himself and keeps making great music.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

I Actually Like: Fabo, pt. 1

When you think about snap music, you think about silly dances and popping 909 drums, not sadness and drug-fueled paranoia. But the latter is all over the music of Fabo. Formerly of D4L, of "Laffy Taffy" fame, Fabo has, with songs like "So High," "Spaceship Man, " and "It Got Me," created a kind of snap music that brings to the forefront the darker elements that have always lurked in the margins of party rap.

While the majority of party rap songs follow the same stale cliches about hitting on hot girls at clubs and showing off your clothes and jewelry, the best songs capture that mix of joy, sadness, and self-destruction that happens when you're literally trying to party your life away. It's interesting that this kind of song appears far more frequently in regional forms of rap like hyphy and snap music than in more mainstream rap, and I would attribute this to the fact that regional acts are far more likely to play club shows, where the audience is full of working people who want to dance and drink their problems away, and where a certain amount of "fuck the world, I'm getting wasted" attitude is always welcome.

On the first verse of "So High," Fabo sounds like he's about to pass out, his mind racing with hallucinations, fears of going to jail ("It's so easy to be erased/Another judge, another case"), and a nagging desire to just get even higher. The second verse is a little less lyrically dark, but the sadness that was there before is even more palpable because Fabo is singing instead of rapping. The pathos in the line like "I can dance on the moon, and I can hardly breathe/Now that don't mean I want you bothering me" is undeniable for a number of reasons, but mostly because of the way it's sung. Note the fact that it's not "but I can hardly breathe," but "and I can hardly breathe," meaning being barely able to breathe is pleasurable. Fabo is high on feeling close to death, and he doesn't want anybody fucking up that high.

The chorus of "It Got Me" makes this kind of feeling even more explicit, with the lines "I look good tonight, I got a whole big bag of thrills/I already feel alright, but I might overdose for real/ Cus it got me, it got me..." The song's beat is full of foreboding and melodramatic synthesized strings, like the sound of a drug addiction overwhelming all other desires. Fabo raps "I do this every day, it's like religion, routine..." and it's impossible to deny that you're listening to either someone already addicted to drugs or someone who will be soon.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Let's Get Deep for a Second: Drone For a Sad Day

I just found out this morning that my grandmother has passed away. And since drone music is the only thing that seems to capture that subtle mix of vague and visceral emotions that appear at times like these, I thought I'd share some of my favorite artists in the genre.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

I Actually Like: Wavves

For someone with a healthy threshold for low production values and liberal doses of fuzz and feedback, I have to admit that the first time I heard Wavves, I was like "Whoa, that's just unlistenable." It didn't help that the music was described as "surf-punk," which is how every mediocre punk band who plays major chords describes themselves.

But after hearing the band (really just one dude, Nathan Williams) praised everywhere, I figured I'd give the music another shot. And while I'm not completely smitten with Wavves like other bloggers, I'm definitely a fan.

First and foremost, you've got to respect Williams' branding power. With nearly every song featuring the words "California," "weed," "beach," "sun," or "girl" somewhere in the title, you've have to be retarded not to know what's trying to be evoked. Copping Beach Boys riffs and harmonies, Wavves reimagines surf music as scuzzy pop music for teenage skaters and stoners. For me, the music evokes that particularly teenage mixture of joy, anger, and hormones I had back in middle school, the kind of feeling that made my friends and I just randomly decide to destroy this kid's homemade skate park or sneak shots of vodka and practice pogoing to Blanks 77 records.

Whether Williams' songs would hold up as well sans fuzz is a good question, but also kind of beside the point. It's clearly an intentional choice on his part to record with such low fidelity, and it pays off as a tool for distancing the recycled riffs and harmonies from their more clean cut (and cleaner sounding) origins. Just like when Fennesz coats sentimental surfer fare like "Endless Summer" in layers and layers of fuzz and computer glitches, the ultimate effect is a kind of warped nostalgia. Time has roughed up these remnants of an idealized past and there is no going back. As well, the purposely ugly nature of some of the sounds puts into question whether surf music and surfer culture were as innocent as they appeared.

Underneath it all, Wavves is pop music. And while some of the material off his first album Wavves can be so fuzzed out it's difficult hear much beyond a basic caveman surf melody, everything I've heard off his second album, Wavvves, has just the right mixture of surfer harmonies and fuzzed out punk.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Are You Serious?: OJ Da Juiceman's "Culinary Art School"

Man, you know you're running out cocaine metaphors when you're stealing ideas from those culinary arts commercials that run on local TV in most cities. Here's the one that runs in Portland:

Got to love the phrase "hospitality professional." That means waiter.

Now let's talk OJ Da Juiceman. Following the Young Jeezy rapper model (slow, measured flow, purposely dopey coke metaphors, heavy on ad-libs--in the Juiceman's case "Ay ay ay!"), OJ has built quite the following, enough to convince Cam'Ron to jump on his "Make Em Say Aye" remix with Gucci Mane.

Like Jeezy, it's hard not be charmed on the first listen. The superhero charisma and the goofy bragging are an entertaining combination, plus the beats are usually the kind of low-budget trance rap I love. But unlike Jeezy, the Juiceman does not reward multiple listens. First and foremost, hearing "ay" after every line (every f'n line!) starts to get on your nerves, and if you listen to two or three Juiceman songs in a row, you might just want scream "Nay!" and punch something. As Jim "My Jewish Lawyer" Jones would probably tell you, the key to ad-libs is to sell a kind of shitty rhyme with a silly shout out, like if you were bragging about a purple Benz, you'd yell out "My Barney car!" Just yelling "ay" is not going to cut it.

Secondly, Juiceman's voice is unremarkable. Back when rap bloggers couldn't stop ragging on Jeezy because he's not Rakim, a crucial point was left out: rap is music. There are plenty of singers I love whose lyrics are mediocre to terrible, but it doesn't matter because I like their voices. The same applies to rap to a larger degree than a lot of rap fans are willing to admit. It's what people are talking about when they compare Lil Wayne's nasal whine to Dylan, or talk about how Ghostface raps like he's singing.

Thirdly, and finally, he's not making his silly punchlines work for him. On "Benjamin Franklin," he raps, referring to his money, "like best friends, you can call else Burt and Ernie," but he raps it like he's still just talking about drugs and clothes. For something so completely the opposite of rapper tough talk, the beat should have cut out so that you couldn't miss the line.

Anyway, despite my misgivings, I eagerly await OJ Da Juiceman's " Free Credit Consolidation."

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Let Us Remember: "Get It Together"

Listening to J. Period's mega Q-Tip mixtape The Abstract Best (which would be flat out amazing if not for over half the songs being edited for profanity; seriously, what's the deal with that? In the words of Christian Bale, "It's fucking distracting..."), I was reminded of the unimpeachable genius of "Get It Together."

I remember when I first listened to Ill Communication, my first thought was "Why so few rap songs?" You get Buddhist chants, soul jazz interludes, skate punk, and like five rap songs. But those rap songs are all brilliant. "Sure Shot"? "Flute Loop"? "Get It Together"? "Root Down"? I get chills remembering the joy I felt when those songs came on. They were basically the prize for sitting through the Beasties' self-indulgent moments.

The key to what makes "Get It Together" so great is that it sounds like four friends just screwing around, bouncing off each other's punchlines and bragging in a way that's more silly than serious ("Heart like John Starks"?). It makes you realize how rare that kind of thing is in rap today. While I'm sure Lil' Wayne could just geek out on a song like this, it's hard to imagine any other rappers as popular as the Beasties and Q-Tip were back then ever allowing themselves to be this goofy.

The beat, which samples Grand Funk Railroad, Fred Wesley (of the JBs), Eugene McDaniels, and a Moog Machine version of "Aquarius/Let the Sun Shine In," sounds deceptively simple, like it's just a fuzzy bassline and drums until the chorus comes. I can hear a faint organ sound underneath the bassline, but it mostly seems like the rappers are carrying the melody themselves with the changes of pitch in their voices.

One of my favorite moments in the song is when MCA says he's "a praying mantis on the court and I can't be beat/Yo, Tip, what's up with the boots on your feet?" and Q-Tip answers "I got the Timbos on my toes and this is how it goes.." and then cracks up laughing, saying "Oh, one two, oh my God" and a sample from Tribe's "Oh My God" pops up all the sudden. The way they've clearly taken a mistake made in the booth and turned it not only into part of the song, but built on it with the sample is just the coolest thing.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Are You Serious?: Ponytail at the Laundromat

The above is 100% not cool. A handful of Queens residents just trying to do some laundry have to be aurally assaulted by the preschoolers-with-fingerpaint indie rock of Ponytail. On Pitchfork, the blurb to the right describes the poor folks at the laundromat as "Clorox pushers." Nice, Pitchfork--it was about time someone stuck it to people who have to go the laundromat.

Besides laziness, crap like this is the reason I don't go to very many live shows. It's just painful when the performers are having more fun than the audience, completely oblivious to how obnoxious they are. But at least when you go to a show, you've chosen to subject yourself to self-indulgent idiots.

I find the shots of the people confused by the band to be hilarious, as if we're supposed to laugh at them for not getting the band. Newsflash: There is nothing to get. This is bad music, pure and simple. That confused look is the look Ponytail should be seeing everywhere.

Since I rarely have good things to say about Pitchfork, I should point out that the review of the N.A.S.A. record by Tom Breihan was hilarious and dead on.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

I Actually Like: The 50 Cent/Rick Ross Beef

I remember back in 2007, Slate had an article about how YouTube was ruining rap beef. The basic idea was that rappers were spending all their time making low budget video disses instead of writing classic songs like "Takeover" or "2nd Round K.O.". There was some truth to this, especially in the 50 Cent-Cam'Ron feud where the most memorable moments came from a schoolyard taunt ("Curtisssss") and Cam'Ron in a video standing in his backyard in boxer shorts with an unexplained black eye.

But what the article completely misunderstood was that beef is never really going to be about skills ever again. Sure, a feud might pop up here or there (say Joe Budden vs. Saigon) where the whole point is who is a better rapper, but overall, beef is now about total and complete humiliation, both personally and professionally. Clever insults are antiquated; what works best is dirt.

Old pictures, court documents, ex-girlfriends, what some dude told some chick who told some dude--all of this is fair game. Beef has become like a mutant mixture of a comedy roast and tabloid journalism.

Nobody does this kind of beef like 50 Cent. It would not be an overstatement to say the man's true talent is being an asshole. His videos making fun of Rick Ross are funnier and more entertaining than the entirety of the Curtis album. To a degree, this makes perfect sense. For a multi-million dollar rapper like 50 Cent, making an album has probably become a chore, because all your energy and talent has to be spent trying to make an album that will appeal to absolutely everyone. It's possible the man doesn't even like making music anymore, as pretty much everything he's done post-Curtis attests. Making fun of people probably lets him let off steam from having to make dozens of lame decisions (a reality show? another autotune chorus?) just to stay afloat as an artist.

And who's easier to make fun of than Rick Ross? Even if he didn't have a past as a corrections officer, the guy would be a joke. The reason condescending hipsters couldn't get enough of the guy circa Port of Miami was because he's a walking parody of coke rap. He can't rap, he makes impossibly inflated boasts that not only sound stupid but ring false to even the most basic sense of how cocaine distribution works, and he doesn't have even a sliver of self-consciousness. Any joy in his music comes purely from the fact that he's charismatic and that it's endlessly amusing that he expects anyone to believe he's some kind of cocaine kingpin (I've read other bloggers who write that his songs about girls are full of great, everyday details, but I've yet to investigate this).

The actual substance of the feud is quite thin. Apparently Rick Ross saw 50 Cent at the BET Awards and tried to talk to him, but 50 Cent gave him a dirty look and ignored him. So Rick Ross got on some radio show and complained about the incident. That's it--that's how the incident got started. As many bloggers have astutely pointed out, there is something pretty junior high about the whole thing, but it's the juvenile aspect of the whole thing that makes it entertaining.

Unlike Jay-Z vs. Nas or Kanye vs. 50, this isn't one of those feuds where which side you choose says something about you as a person or a rap fan. Neither artist here has been making great music as of late and neither of them have even remotely sympathetic personalities (their treatment of the mothers of their sons pretty much speaks for itself), so the fun in the beef mostly comes from seeing two millionaire blowhards tear each other apart.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Are You Serious?: Pitchfork Finds Out About Music From Kanye

First Raekwon's "Back from the Slums," now some new song by some random girl produced by Dave Sitek (which is predictably boring--sorry TV On the Radio fans, I'm just not hearing the genius). What's the deal? Why is a music site with its finger on the pulse getting scooped by a guy with a busier schedule than Obama?

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Party's Over, Tell the Rest of the Crew: Nick Sylvester Takes It To Hipster Runoff

If any of this is going to make sense, you're gonna need to read this first.

It's Nick Sylvester, Pitchfork/Village Voice/freelance scribe, taking issue with Hipster Runoff's post "Animal Collective Is A Band Created By/For/On the Internet" Since I'm a little too tired to make a cogent argument with a beginning, middle, and end, I'll address my thoughts on both posts with that ol' standby: bullet points.

- Firstly, Sylvester pretty much nails Hipster Runoff for exactly what it/he is: "...a "failed creative type" just like the rest of us, who gets off pointing out how we're all failed creative types just so (he) don't have to confront (his) own lack of vision." That's harsh, and it doesn't do justice to how entertaining that pointing out can be, but it's true that pointing out the fact that people who want to be cool and "meaningful" are full of shit is the sort of thing that ultimately, as Sylvester points out, leads to nihilism. In the Hipster Runoff universe, we're all just pathetic, needy losers desperate to define ourselves in any way that will help us believe we're special and unique, when the truth is we're nothing but faceless and spineless nobodies. That's an ugly vision of the world, and as a philosophy for life, it's pretty much crippled by self-consciousness. You can't do anything, because everything has been done and everything is a cliche.

-Sylvester's defense of Merriweather Post Pavillion and Animal Collective is just a little too heart on the sleeve for me:

"Step into the music, the lyrics, and you realize this album is about three thirty year-olds trying to figure out how not to become grups. They are fundamentally different from the parents, living totally different lives--and yet they love their parents, probably respect the jobs they did on them, want the same for their own. The clash between knowing how screwy life is, being relatively set in your ways, and yet still wanting to remain wide-eyed--open to new possibilities the way you were at age 9, 19, 29—this is what I hear in MPP. A big vulnerable theme, and I admire them not for their answers so much as their bravery to just fucking go for it like this."

I know it's ridiculous to fault a critic for enjoying music for self-centered reasons (clearly Sylvester feels like he's in the same boat as the members of AC), but based on this description of the album, why would anyone who's not in their thirties, doesn't have kids, and didn't have a well-adjusted childhood want to listen to the album? As the entire discussion surrounding Hipster Runoff's post and its satire of people using Animal Collective as a cultural signifier attests to, music is not listened to in a bubble. Context matters. Narrative (as in "This is why/how we made this album") matters.

To give a concrete example, back when I first listened to Animal Collective's Feels, I couldn't stand it. The lyrics drove me insane because they sounded like the inane and solipsistic ramblings of someone who just got into a new relationship. References to "making funny faces in the bathroom mirror" and needy codas like "Would you like to see me often?/Though you don't need to see me often/Though I'd like to see you often/I don't need to see you often" irritated me to no end. It wasn't until I looked up the lyrics online and saw how dark and strange some of them where that I could begin to appreciate the album. For me, songs without some negativity or pain can never truly resonate because they ring false to my experience. If I were recommend an album using Sylvester's above description of MPP, I wouldn't go near it with a ten foot pole.

-Mark Richardson, who wrote the Pitchfork review of MPP and gave it a 9.5, is apparently a great fucking guy. How do we know this? Well, he was in a car full of Pitchfork critics and a song came on and he asked the name of the song. Mark Richardson is truly a model of humility if he was willing to risk the abject humiliation that could have come from revealing his musical ignorance to a car full of music critics. What this anecdote says about the vanity of certain music critics is kind of scary and the fact that Sylvester uses it to illustrate what a decent guy Richardson is makes me think he's a few more notches above down to earth than he'd ever like to admit.

-Sylvester's critique of HRO is ultimately a pretty important one, I think. As much as the site is a satire of trends in music, fashion, and culture changing daily and weekly, seemingly totally oblivious to any actual market or scene or demographic, it's also a real reflection of an immense cynicism about the power of culture or art to do anything. All those first level "alts" are pictured on the site looking naive and enthusiastic about music and life so that people older and more cynical than them can laugh at how much those kids are going to be disappointed by everything. The endless running joke of the site is the belief of all these fresh faced kids that everything is going to fall in place for them, that once when they leave high school or college, they'll move to a big city, find a great music/art scene, land a creative and fulfilling job, and live happily ever after.

I can't lie and say I haven't laughed at that joke, but it's a cruel one. If the world is as truly as empty and sad as HRO seems to think it is, the least we deserve is our illusions.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

I Will Never Like: Anything by Animal Collective As Much as "Sung Tongs"

Back in 2004 when I worked as a music critic for my college paper, my editor at the time gave me a burnt copy of Sung Tongs after I'd mentioned to him that I'd never heard Animal Collective. This was back at the height of the freak folk scene's popularity, and it's hard now to imagine how an album as weird and as messy as Sung Tongs could have found an audience without being lumped in with Devendra Banhart and Co. It was a sort of "collect 'em all" feeling, like once you got Milk Eyed Mender or Rejoicing In Hands, well, now you've got to get the first Vetiver album and Espers and Sung Tongs..

My first listen to the album left me mostly irritated. Musically, it sounded incoherent, and the liberal amount of screaming and meowing just made it sound like the self-indulgent mess I thought all experimental music was at the time. But my enjoyment of the other freak folk artists just kept sending me back to the album for another shot, another try.

The songs that first stood out were "Winters Love" and "Who Could Win A Rabbit." "Winters Love" still manages to conjure up for me the joy and excitement of singing around a campfire, and this is strange because I hate singing around campfires. The song's harmonies sound so much like a half remembered children's song that it tricks the listener (or at least me) into remembering their childhood as one long hike through a forest at golden hour ("Visiting Old Friends" gives me a similar feeling). For me, Animal Collective so often sounds nothing like my actual childhood and everything like the hazy, colorful memories I have when I think back on it.

"Who Could Win A Rabbit," as well as "Kids On Holiday," sounds more like my actual childhood. Dizzy, excitable, and prone to fits of screaming nonsense was me when I was playing with friends, and I'm sure we would have run around in circles to "Who Could Win..," yelling and throwing action figures around the room. "Kids On Holiday" is sung from the viewpoint of a child waiting with their parents at the airport (though I don't think most kids have the word "vulva" in their vocabulary) and it captures the mix of fear and exhilaration that comes with all that stimuli (including hectoring Krishnas, though I personally haven't seem them in an airport in ages). 

Sung Tongs was recorded by Avey Tare and Panda Bear only, and I think it benefits tremendously from most tracks being built around a base of just acoustic guitar and drums. Sure, there are crazy samples and textures, but hearing that folk staple the acoustic guitar twisted and shattered and made to stutter connects the sound of AC influences like The Incredible String Band and Vashti Bunyan to musique-concrete and even Kid 606. As much as it's kind of unfair, I wish Animal Collective still built their songs on folk chord progressions instead of bloated synth and sampler noises.

For me, there has never been the same pure joy in any other Animal Collective record since Sung Tongs (with the exception of the Prospect Hummer EP with Vashti Bunyan, can't forget to mention that..). While I still enjoy their music, I also find it increasingly overloaded with electronics and a "regular dudes" whimsy that often gets grating (i.e. I've never wished to get lost in a girl's curls--please, save that sentiment for a birthday card).

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Origins of Super Ape

"Super-Ape is a mighty talking Ape with a caveman style outfit from the planet Krypton. Deeply troubled by Jor-El's prediction that Krypton was destined to explode, the Kryptonian scientist Shir Kan decided to build experimental rockets as a way for he and other Kryptonians to escape before the catasrophe. In order to test the rockets' safety, he decided to first send a few young apes to different planets. Sadly, though Krypton blew up before Shir Kan and his fellow Kryptonians could escape, Super-Ape ended up on Earth where he grew up and met Superman. (Act No. 218, Jul 1956 "The Super-Ape from Krypton!")" 

"Titano was originally a normal-sized chimpanzee named Toto, and was widely considered to be one of the most intelligent apes on Earth. The gentle Toto was befriended by Lois Lane when the ace newspaper reporter aided the chimp after he was accidentally struck by a pie during a slapstick comedy act at a televised charity show. Scientists later launched Toto into space aboard an experimental orbiting satellite for a week, an event that, coincidentally, Lois was covering. While in space, the animal's capsule was bombarded by intense radiation emanating from the collision of two meteorites ... one containing traces of uranium, the other being purely composed of Green Kryptonite. Upon the capsule's return to Earth, Toto amazingly grew to a height of more than 40 feet and, recognizing Lois as the cinematic King Kong did Fay Wray, picked her up in his gigantic hand. It was at this point that Lois renamed the ape Titano. Though not malicious by nature, Titano's tremendous size and strength soon began causing a great deal of damage to Metropolis. When Superman attempted to stop the simian's escapade, the Man of Steel was knocked to the ground by Titano's incredible new power: Kryptonite vision. However, Lois then used Titano's tendency to imitate the actions of others to get the beast to wear a pair of giant spectacles that Superman had constructed and treated with a lead coating that blocked Titano's K-vision. The Action Ace then hurled the creature back through time at super-speed to Earth's Mesozoic Era where he would find contentment among beasts of comparable size (S No. 127/3, Feb 1959: "Titano the Super-Ape")."

Lee Perry and the Upsetters - Super Ape

Saturday, January 17, 2009

I Will Never Like: Fever Ray and/or The Knife

C'mon, is this supposed to be creepy? 

Who hasn't spent their first night with a new music program pitch-shifting down random songs? It's fun for a couple of hours, but then the novelty wears off. The "creepy" effect just starts to seem banal and cheesy.

Back in 2006, when I was a giddy first time SoulSeek user (justice was served when a virus corrupted my entire computer), I downloaded The Knife's Silent Shout and reviewed it for my college's newspaper, unaware the album wouldn't come out in America for almost a year. I was initially really into the album and gave it a glowing review, even dropping Pitchfork's unholy new genre name "haunted house." 

But like a week later, the whole thing just sounded goofy. What had at first seemed exciting and strange suddenly seemed like a desperate attempt by a decent Swedish synth pop band (c'mon, give it up for "Heartbreats," that song is great) to make themselves interesting. It's worth noting that the best songs on Silent Shout have the least vocal effects. And really, when you have siblings singing aching love duets, do you really need anything to make that creepier?

And now there is Fever Ray, which is just the girl in the group. "If I Had a Heart" is repetitive, ponderous, and decidedly un-catchy, retaining the worst elements of The Knife while jettisoning their pop instincts. And that video? Wow.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Debate Team: Did Fleet Foxes Deserve to be #1?

When I saw that Pitchfork had named Fleet Foxes self-titled debut (along with the Sun Giant EP) as their number one album of the year, my first response was "fuck that." Based on what I'd heard from the band, there seemed little to warrant such an honor. 

After listening to the album over and over for the purposes of this discussion, my mind has slightly changed. While I still don't think it deserves the honor of #1 album of the year, Fleet Foxes is far better than I gave it credit for.

What follows is a discussion between me, Daniel Krow, and Douglas Martin, who blogs at Fresh Cherries From Yakima, and records under that name and as Blurry Drones. Along with our discussion, I've attached two mp3s: one is my Afrobeat-ish remix of Fleet Foxes' "Sun Giant" (crazy how highlife sounding the guitars at the end sound when you speed them up) and Fresh Cherries from Yakima's cover of "Innocent Son."

DM: If I can be frank with all of you, I too was surprised when Fleet Foxes took the top spot in Pitchfork's Year-End Albums List.

I mean, we all know that Pitchfork is supposed to be the hub of what's hip in underground music; that's why arty fringe groups such as Animal Collective (whom I have no major qualms with), Liars (whom I adore), and Deerhunter (whom I'm starting to adore) are perpetually described as "Pitchfork Bands." With a record that pays steadfast homage to such vocal-based, easy-to-swallow 60's acts such as Beach Boys and The Zombies, with nary a peep of distorted guitar or impassioned yelping, Fleet Foxes' self-titled debut is NOT a hip record. I mean, hell, even principal songwriter Robin Pecknold wrote off the record upon its release, reportedly expecting it to flop.

Although the record was lauded by music magazines the world over, topping year-end lists everywhere, the record's modern update of Baby Boomer-era sounds was something mainstream music critics are supposed to get all hot and frothy over. The 9.0 score awarded to Fleet Foxes wasn't even the highest rating of the year (Deerhunter's Microcastle and No Age's Nouns-- the former being the obvious favorite-- were tied at 9.2), and poppy, Pacific-Northwestern folk-rock albums of its ilk such as The Grand Archives by Grand Archives and Blitzen Trapper's Furr (which, ironically enough, were both released on Sub Pop along with Fleet Foxes) did not even receive Best New Music honors. So, how did Fleet Foxes pull of the feat of being elected Pitchfork's Prom King?

This could very well be attributed from two similar albums on different sides of the Pitchfork scale released in 2006: Grizzly Bear's sophomore album, Yellow House, was instantly recognized by Pitchfork as one of the best albums of the year. When Pitchfork reviewed The Trials of Van Occupanther by Denton, TX band Midlake, it was well-received, but not favored. Both albums are distant cousins to Fleet Foxes; lush, expansive acoustic records that put a creative spin on music that time has forgotten in favor of semi-recent genres such as punk and hip-hop. The Midlake record especially foreshadows Fleet Foxes' ability to make soft-rock sound current (and even nearly revolutionary). Perhaps Pitchfork saw their lack of foresight in the instance of that Midlake album, and decided to correct matters by seeing the value of a record cut from the same cloth.

Of course, that theory is undercutting Robin Pecknold's ability as a songwriter and his bandmates' keen ear for vocal and musical arrangements. There are lots of goodies for underground music nerds, here: There's the song about watching a kid's head fall off and bloody up the snow ("White River Hymnal," also on Pitchfork's Top Songs List), the way "Sun It Rises" builds up and explodes into rainbows like choice cuts from Yellow House, the endless left-turns in song structure, and let's not forget those harmonies. The tunes on Fleet Foxes are just as much as artfully constructed as any work by a Pitchfork darling; it just so happens that there's also a keen emphasis on melody, as well as a turned back on noise and distortion.

Or maybe, just maybe, Pitchfork realizes that just because something is popular, it doesn't mean that it can't also be spellbinding. And in case you haven't noticed from all of the chatter about this album, Fleet Foxes is both popular and spellbinding.

DK: There is a lot to like about Fleet Foxes. Songs like "Your Protector," "Tiger Mountain Peasant Song," and "White River Hymnal" have classically gorgeous, madrigal-like melodies that make them sound like lost classics. Singer Robin Pecknold has a rich, slightly twanging voice that reminds you of Jim James without reminding you of how irritating that dude's voice can be. And while the band uses a liberal amount of reverb, they don't try slather it on everything like other bands desperate to sound like their favorite vinyl.

But the #1 record of the year? No way. While hailing from Seattle, Fleet Foxes are from the region I like to call Laurel Canyon Country. Laurel Canyon Country has little to do with the actual Laurel Canyon in Los Angeles, and is actually more of a chosen aesthetic. Bands from Laurel Canyon Country favor a laid-back, reverb heavy sound that borrows heavily from early Neil Young, CSN&Y, The Band, Fairport Convention, Judee Sill, etc. Except when it doesn't. Because those artists and bands were just as rooted in the blues and R & B as country and folk, but most bands from Laurel Canyon Country wouldn't touch a 12 bar blues progression with a ten foot pole.

It's easy to make the argument that artists have every right to pick and choose their influences, but let's face it, there a reason bands like Fleet Foxes or Midlake or Band of Horses don't dabble in the blues: it's uncool. Too many swarthy guys with beer guts and sweatpants wailing away on their guitars at your local blues festival have made blues genre non grata among hip music fans. But the fact remains that this grounding in all forms of American music is what connected a band like The Band to their influences.

What connects Fleet Foxes to their influences? Acoustic guitars and tight harmonies? Mandolins? A vague interest in poor Southern people?

Which brings me to "Blue Ridge Mountains." "In the quivering forest/Where the shivering dog rests/I will do it grandfather/Wilt to wood and end" Those are lines from the above mentioned song, and they, along with the song's title, seriously rub me the wrong way. How in 2008 is a band from Seattle still romanticizing one of the most poverty-stricken places in the country? Vampire Weekend are still being trashed for daring to sing songs about Africa or Lil Jon, but Fleet Foxes get a free pass to treat Appalachia like some sort of mythical country where people turn to wood and die?

I don't want to turn this into an ideological screed. I'm not asking Fleet Foxes to start a charity for the Appalachian poor or to start incorporating covers of "Crossroads" or "Hoochie-Coochie Man" into their live set. And based on their talent for song-writing, I can't argue with their placement somewhere in the top 10, but for a band as derivative and unconnected to the things they sing about as Fleet Foxes to hold the #1 spot just makes no sense.

DM: I do see where you're going with the "Laurel Canyon Country" thing, and the other Sub Pop bands I mentioned (Grand Archives, Blitzen Trapper) definitely fall under this sort of sound along with Fleet Foxes. And there is something to be said about being able to draw a straight line between an artist and their influences. However, I think it's sort of unfair to critique a band based on what they don't draw from. As a musician, I can say that I don't draw very much from blues, but that's not to say I don't like the genre; I'm very reverent of it. It's just not the style of music I chose to play. To say Fleet Foxes should incorporate more of the influences of their influences is to say that I should take cues from Kurt Cobain and sound more like The Melvins.

Another unfortunate stereotype you brought up is the fact that the blues is not "cool," which implies that most bands under the massive umbrella of "indie" have calculated lists of influences in order to exist in favor of music nerds who know what bands are "cool." This argument is never brought up when discussing acts of any other genre. No one talks about being calculated when R&B singers swipe vocal effects from T-Pain, or when Kanye West admitted to ripping off J. Dilla's drum sounds. I think it's because everyone assumes that indie musicians are such huge record nerds, and they're supposed to "know what they're doing" when it comes to distilling their influences.

The appeal of Fleet Foxes may be because they're not THAT connected to their influences. Check out the way they construct their songs in movements instead of the old verse-chorus-verse format. Connecting yourself to your influences is the quickest way to become a pastiche. Although I feel that perhaps Robin Pecknold is veiling his personal thoughts and feelings behind descriptive energy, I'll argue that even if he were disconnected to the stuff he sings, that's not so bad. I doubt Colin Meloy of The Decemberists has ever been a male prostitute, but that doesn't make "On the Bus Mall" any less touching.

Comparing Pecknold's allusions to the Blue Ridge Mountains to Vampire Weekend's spin on afro-pop is sort of like comparing apples to grapefruits; Sure, the Blue Ridge Mountains is venomously proverty-stricken, but I think the fact that people were up in arms about Vampire Weekend was the fact that Africa is full of third-world countries. Not just the Blue Ridge, but even the most desolate housing projects in America are a far cry to what is experienced in Africa; I guarantee no project-dweller or mountaineer would ever want to trade places with a child rebel solider in Sudan. Plus, one of the first lyrics in the song is, "I heard you missed your connecting flight." I guess whoever Pecknold is singing to isn't too poor to fly.

We're also missing a big point here: The fact that Fleet Foxes and the Sun Giant EP were placed as Pitchfork's #1 in tandem. The latter release is lusher and more dynamic than the full-length, with "Drops in the River" and "Mykonos" showing that the band is moving past the "Laurel Canyon Country" tag and moving towards more idiosyncratic places. Case in point: My best friend listened to the LP and declared that she didn't like the band at all. After I put on the EP on for her, she quipped, "Well, this one sounds like they have some balls."

With the supreme amount of song craftsmanship displayed on both releases, it's little surprise that Pitchfork would get behind something so fully-formed out the gate. So, number one it is.

DK: Before I clarify some of my arguments, I want to share a particularly hilarious line from Pitchfork's Joe Tangari's entry on Fleet Foxes in the 50 Best Albums of 2008: "...Fleet Foxes flows like a river, wild and free but logical, filling what needs to be filled and moving on." Does this mean in times of heavy downpour Fleet Foxes might flood? What would this mean in musical terms? I would warn anyone seeing the band live on a rainy night that they make break into spontaneous "wild and free" two hour jams, incapable of "moving on" to the next song.

There is a problem with your big point: the Sun Giant EP came out before Fleet Foxes. This would mean, based on your friend's terms, that the band have lost balls, not gained them. Personally, I don't hear a huge difference between the two. With the exception of "Drops in the River," the rest of the songs would fit just fine next to the songs on the full length.

Your point about "connecting yourselves to your influences is the quickest way to become pastiche" is made well about Fleet Foxes' stated influences, but the band often sounds like a pastiche of bands they don't credit as influences. Take My Morning Jacket's aching harmonies (and nasally vocalist) and reverb heavy production, add M. Ward's unorthodox sense of melody, and sprinkle some of Sufjan Stevens' chamber pop dust, and what do you get? Fleet Foxes.

Even if you quibble with the other two, you can't deny My Morning Jacket is the elephant in the room. Not that I believe this, but you could easily suggest that Fleet Foxes heard the weird funk/classic rock hybrid that is MMJ's Evil Urges and thought "This is our chance, guys--we can finally release this stuff and no one will think it sounds like My Morning Jacket." If Fleet Foxes had been released six months after At Dawn, you can be sure it wouldn't have been Pitchfork's #1 record of the year.

Ultimately, I think that's what gained the album Pitchfork's top spot: timing. Had it been released during a year with releases by Sufjan Stevens or M. Ward or My Morning Jacket (back when they sounded like themselves), Fleet Foxes would have been in the top 50, but with a question mark as to whether the band would be able to "grow beyond their influences." With a dearth of high profile records that sound similar to Fleet Foxes, it was easy for the band to sound more exciting than they truly are.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Are You Serious?: Pitchfork 500's Entry on T.I.'s "What You Know"

In Mark Pytlik's entry on T.I.'s "What You Know," he shows off his amazing ignorance of Southern rap music. Check it out:

"Before the emergence of Atlanta's T.I., the South was, for better or worse largely constrained to a specific blueprint: Its production was minimal and cavernous, with coarse accents on the high and low ends, leavings lots of empty space for the vocals."

Yeah, right. So before T.I. came on the scene, no Southern rap producers used synthesizers. In two sentences, this idiot has managed to erase the production achievements of Mannie Fresh, Three Six Mafia, Beats By a Pound, and about a million other producers from the South who were making the kind of "regal synth patterns" Pytlik is referring to. Where does he think DJ Toomp came from: A vacuum? Did it occur to him one day in 2007 that "hey, holy crap, I bet rap music would sound great with some keyboards?"

Did no other Pitchfork writer proof-read this entry? I'm sure Tom Breihan knows this is totally false. I mean, nitpicking is one thing, but when a writer makes a mistake this blatant in a supposed "guide" to music, it just defies common sense.