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.