Vampire Weekend, s/t
The Little Ones, Terry Tales & Fallen Gates
Andrew Bird & the Mysterious Production of Eggs and Armchair Apocrypha
Philip Glass, Glassworks
Neko Case, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood
Vinicius Cantuária, Tucumã
My Bloody Valentine, Loveless
My Morning Jacket, Acoustic Citsuoca Live!
Plus every other My Morning Jacket album, shuffled together. Getting psyched for the new album...
Last week's posts (part I, part II) seemed to provoke a range of responses, both here and elsewhere (Fluxtumblr, Idolator), all of which indicate to me that there are more than one thread tangled up in this conversation about scenes. Depending on your perspective, you might have a completely different point of entry for the topic at hand. (For instance, as I mentioned in the comments last week, I used to run a club not too unlike the Smell about eight years ago, hence my affection for local scenes.) Over the next couple posts, I thought I'd break some of the responses down to their crux, then see which paths might be worth traveling a further down. As I'm just scratching the surface, your comments (here or at your own blogs) are welcome as ever.
1. The actual quality of No Age, or the hype vs. the backlash. Pitchfork gave them a 9.2, Matthew thinks they're not that good. Probably you all have your opinions too. As I said before I've barely even heard No Age so I really don't have a horse in this race. In fact I prefer to not really have an opinion on No Age. Reading from a critical distance the various posts about the band just throws into relief the ongoing cycle of "genuine taste" vs. blog hype and backlash. When you like a band--Destroyer, Vampire Weekend, whatever--the online chatter about their unworthiness always comes off as "predictably dreary backlash"; as if all those bloggers out there hatin' on your favorites obviously aren't listening without prejudice. Of course, when you find that you hate a band getting such love--maybe TV on the Radio or Arcade Fire--surely you're baffled by all the blind idiot sheep on the web. It's the equivalent of hating slow pedestrians when you're driving and hating impatient drivers when you're walking, never realizing that you yourself are both.
2. By overpraising Nouns, critics run the risk of not properly positioning themselves to gauge their future trajectory. When I quoted Fluxblog last week, I apparently missed Matthew's real point, which he elaborated on at his other other blog, Fluxtumblr: "The problem isn’t people getting too big too fast per se, it’s about artists getting praised and shot through the roof before they even reach a creative adolescence." He elaborates in the comments to his post:
Well, I think purely in the context of Pitchfork, which is really at the center of this whole thing anyway, it's just a terrible idea to give a record like Nouns a score that breaks through the 9 barrier so early in their career because it's like, no matter what they do, you're going to be inclined to give a lower score the next time around because c'mon, how much higher can you get without looking nuts? Something that expressed enthusiasm and approval for the record -- which is cool, it's a nice enough album -- but gave them some room to move up even in terms of your institution's grading system, would've been much more sensible.
Though I find this logic flawed--Marc Hogan's comments in Matthew's post mirror my own reaction--I do find the topic more interesting, and less picked-over, than the old hype-vs.-backlash line. It's nearly the same argument, but it explicitly puts the ball in the court of critics. Matthew uses Pitchfork but the same question could be put to Dusted or the critics at the New York Times--i.e., any outlet that is concerned with engaging an album critically. Critics often base their opinion on only a few listens; deadlines sometimes force a critic to go with his or her first impression. Even here at pgwp, where there are no deadlines, I've written reviews of albums that, in retrospect, overpraised or underpraised due to the fact that I couldn't wait to find out whether the record would truly make itself at home in my head. So, how do critics navigate that scenario? Will Amanda Petrusich regret her 9.2 rating (or, for that matter, will Matthew come around on Nouns) in a few months? How should--how can-- reviewers accurately adjust their first impressions?
Later (maybe tomorrow), the rest of the threads: art vs. commerce and community vs. iconoclasm.
Antonio Carlos Jobim & Elis Regina, Elis & Tom
Don Shirley, Plays Love Songs
Billie Holiday, Lady's Decca Days
Dizzy Gillespie, Greatest Hits
The Who, Sings My Generation
The United States of America, s/t
Fairport Convention, Unhalfbricking
Neil Young, Everybody Knows This is Nowhere and Harvest
The New Pornographers, Challengers
Elvis Costello, Armed Forces
Andrew Bird, & the Mysterious Production of Eggs
Spoon, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga
Les Paul and Mary Ford, Best of the Capitol Masters
[Earlier, Part I]
Despite all I've said so far, something has obviously changed. I’d have to be an idiot to think the internet hasn’t had some influence on the way bands come up, and perhaps on the identities and sounds coming from different scenes. “Lord knows I'm no internet utopian,” Barthel writes, “but it seems strange to deny that there are real communities online. They may not be able to give each other haircuts or provide venues for bands to play, but none of that is necessary for vital art to happen.” Vital art, no. How about vital audience?
On the surface, the internet era seems like it should be tailor-made for bedroom stars—those kids who don’t take part in any local scene, simply uploading their work to the global audience that might find their MySpace page. That's the way the net gets idealized—whether by no-name bands looking for exposure, lonely bloggers looking to flex their influential muscles, or desperate major labels. But is that the reality? Is that really the era we now live in? Last week Ryan Catbird asked whether it was conceivable for small-time acts to follow the "new model" set by Nine Inch Nails and simply give their music away for free:
I still think the more important question is: “What if an artist that hasn’t already built a career on the label system released their work directly, gave it away for free, retained their rights, etc. Would it matter?”
The answer, sadly, to that one is “no, it doesn’t matter.” Myriad small unheard-of bands are out there posting their albums for free every day, but there’s still no good way for them to get heard.
For all the chatter about how new technology/Music 2.0/viral marketing etc. has the power to “break” new artists, there are precious few examples of this actually occurring.
Catbird is right, but one needn't be cynical about the 2.0 scenario either. The fact is the business models for an arena-rocking megastar and a DIY band from Ohio have never been the same, not in the 90s and not today. The degree to which different revenue streams are available—whether through retail sales, touring, or licensing—is tied explicitly to one's audience. That's where a lot of bands, bloggers, and fans get mixed up when it comes to the internet: there is an illusion that the internet somehow holds the key to bypassing all the dues-paying, skipping straight to the career opportunities and adulation.
If your music bypasses Hank in your hometown but reaches Henri in Paree, where exactly does that get you? Aiming for the bright lights of internet stardom without honing your chops at home—and building a tangible, carbon-based following—is a chimera. Which is just to say that bands should log off and rock the old-fashioned way.
For that matter, bloggers should log off too. For those wondering why bloggers don't "break" the new hot shit band, here's a newsflash: the internet is not the ground floor. If you want to break a new band, go see a local show and find a band that's toiling away in your own obscure back yard. Why do bloggers think they need to sort through the desperate pleas for exposure in their email inboxes to find the right bands? Your inbox is not the scene.
Yet, sadly, there seems to be a danger that in fact that is the new scene. Not to put too dour a spin on it—Barthel is right to say that it's wrong to claim internet culture as "inauthentic"—but the national indie scene is beginning to shake down into the kind of singular social hierarchy that would usually define individual community scenes. Look, for instance, at last year's end-of-year lists, almost all of which, across the board, were identical. Maura Johnston, in a comment to her own post at Idolator last week, said this:
If anything a big part of my frustration with indie rock right now comes from the insularity that's bred by the ever-shrinking mass—it's so informed by itself and only itself that it's sometimes speaking a dialect full of really really boring words.
In other words, the variety of subcultures that has made indie rock so invigorating for two decades is currently getting a little vanilla, as the most popular tastemakers, whether based in New York or Chicago or Toronto or wherever, seem to be aligning their viewpoints, even if unintentionally. So if the blog culture is somehow consolidating all the music scenes of the country into one generic über-scene—to the point that it's novel to point out that No Age played shows at a dingy club that holds vegan potlucks—then it's time to start looking outside of that scene. As Barthel puts it,"the best and more enduring American indie bands of the 90s, if they were part of a scene at all, existed on the outskirts of that scene." And the outskirts of this scene is your scene. So log off and go see a show.
Last week I pointed to Mike Barthel’s post Punk Grammar in the context of the band No Age. But in fact his post has almost nothing to do with the band and much more to do with the idea of local scenes and how they are perceived—or, more specifically, how relevant they are—now that the internet has rendered the idea of “local scene” quaint.
As Barthel and others (among them the New Yorker and Pitchfork) have made apparent, the phenomenon of No Age is indelibly linked to their origin in the L.A. scene surrounding the Smell. As far as No Age is concerned, I find the whole conversation a shade disingenuous—just as discussion of Vampire Weekend was less about their music than about their class issues and musical colonialism. It’s an excuse for us bloggers to talk about something more interesting than the music itself, yet throw a band’s name around in close proximity, blowing their importance as a musical entity out of proportion. (For the record: I’ve heard two songs by No Age and am ambivalent to them; I have no critique to offer their music.)
The common thread I’m picking up in all this discussion of the Smell seems to be how novel it is that a band can come from a living, breathing scene—as if the pre-MySpace/Hype Blog Era has existed for generations, and the idea of a band bolstered by its local fanbase is something to be nostalgic for; as if unearthing the Smell scene is somehow akin to anthropologists analyzing the tools of an ancient culture. Worse, I find it alarming that people are surprised that such scenes still exist. Amanda Petrusich, in her Pitchfork review of Nouns, writes:
To an outsider, the Smell is idealistic and romantic…. Save Baltimore's Wham City, it's been a while since American music fans have had a similar hometown scene to get riled up about; regional culture has been fractured and marginalized by the internet, and being too focused on anything local—except produce, maybe—feels depressingly provincial in 2008. Consequently, it's weirdly thrilling that a community-sponsored, community-supported art space can attract (and sustain) such a horde of admirable bands.
Barthel puts this in the context of what he calls “the myth of the 90s” (perhaps more accurately the mythologizing of the 90s). As to why No Age is the band garnering allusions to the bygone eras of local scenes—surely Wolf Eyes had/has its own venue in which to nurture its sound and audience?—Barthel rightly notes that it’s because they sound like they came from the 90s. It’s easier for music writers to therefore conclude that everything about them is 90s: they buy t-shirts at thrift stores! they eat vegan cupcakes! they… come from a close-knit music scene the likes of which (not counting Toronto or Stockholm or Brooklyn or Chicago or apparently Denton) haven't been seen since Seattle at its grungiest!
Are we so glued to our mp3 blogs, tour date aggregators, and bittorent sites that we’ve forgotten about local scenes? Should we believe all these bands we read about every day are born whole, without coming up from some sort of hometown scene? More likely, those of us who were twentysomethings in the 90s, taking part in scenes of “hardcore bands and community centers,” as Barthel puts it, are now the thirtysomethings who stay home and write blogs instead—forgetting that there are new twentysomethings going to those shows, starting their own DIY spaces, birthing the bands we’re writing about.
I think, quite simply, that many people out there are forgetting about and/or ignoring the importance of being a local band first, national act second. Also writing about No Age, Matthew Perpetua worried on the band's behalf:
I don't think No Age is a fully-formed band at this moment in time, and I worry that they might get screwed over/screwed up by Certain People overrating their juvenilia, whether it's out of genuine enthusiasm, or because it is beneficial to Those People's brand. This rarely works out—either the artist hedges their bets, and feels no need to progress, or they develop their skill and create better material, and the audience moves on to smothering some other inexperienced band.
This is a concern I've seen voiced on behalf of numerous blog-annointed bands (again, see Vampire Weekend): that maybe we shouldn't get so hot for their debuts; maybe we should let them mature first. Since we're treading around in 90s throwbacks anyway, I'd just like to ask: why start now? Slint put out two albums. Drive Like Jehu put out two albums. Rodan, one. Dare I mention Neutral Milk Hotel? The list goes on—either bands that were lauded on their debut and went on to have long careers (Pavement? Palace?) or bands that had tremendous influence but imploded before they could make three records. So No Age now has two records out—in indie parlance, that means they're ready for their close-up. Maybe in a year or two each dude will go on to form their own June of '44 or Hot Snakes.
I think the fear of letting a band get too big too fast, lest they stunt their growth, stems from a simple confusion: the internet is not a local scene. One needn't "worry" about a band's fragile trajectory, whether it's No Age or Vampire Weekend or the Dodos; they're probably further along than you realize.
Andrew Bird & The Mysterious Production of Eggs
Iron & Wine, The Shepherd's Dog
Les Paul & Mary Ford, Best of the Capitol Masters
Neil Young, Everybody Knows This is Nowhere
The Ruby Suns, Sea Lion
Blonde Redhead, Misery is a Butterfly and 23
Dave Brubeck, Time Out
Neko Case, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood
Okay, enough downer posts from me. In the meantime...
[Brief disclaimer: This is, I think, the last post of this nature. I promise more lighthearted fare next week...]
I was back home taking care of my dad, then dealing with the funeral and otherwise putting things in order, for about three weeks total. (It felt like three months.) When I returned to work last week, greeted by flowers and cards and kindness from my many co-workers, one of them—who has no idea I'm a nerd for music or that I have this blog or used to be in a band or used to run a performance space—offered to make me a mix of cathartic music. She claimed that certain aggressive songs helped her get through similar times. I told her thanks but no thanks: I was in the country music phase of my 12 Stages of Grief Mixtape.
It was just an off-the-cuff joke, but it made me think about my listening habits not just over the last few weeks but the last few months. I've obliquely made mention of it here in the past though hadn't (until earlier this week) come out and said what it was I was dealing with.
I first noticed the way my listening habits were being affected around the beginning of the year. This is the point at which my dad seemed perfectly healthy, though the inevitability of what was going to happen had been made plain by a phalanx of doctors. Because he did not seem outwardly sick, visiting Dad was not a sad experience—we'd go out, barbecue in the back yard, watch sports on TV, do the usual. There was no dwelling on the bad news, no urgent heart-to-heart talks; just laughter and crossword puzzles.
Yet once I returned home, four hours away, I'd find myself gravitating to a certain kind of music. It was hazy, hypnotic, gauzelike, perhaps with some percussive undercurrent. So, a lot of krautrock. Animal Collective's "For Reverend Green" fit the bill in a big way. Of course I wasn't in the mood for happy music, but I also wasn't in the mood for sad music. I wanted some sort of emotionless music. Something that could enevelop me and keep the world on pause or at a distance. I took long walks with this kind of music droning in my headphones, not really seeing the world outside, simply trusting my body to take me down familiar streets.
None of these songs fall into the same genre, yet they all have that sort of enveloping feeling. Sonically they somehow embrace you without feeling comforting.
By this time last month, though, I needed comfort. I coincidentally picked up Andrew Bird's Mysterious Production of Eggs just a few days prior to the call from home, asking me to come up. I listened to the album on the drive up more or less for the first time, easing into it the same way I did Armchair Apocrypha—that is, it felt inviting at first but exhausting by the end. I knew that repeated listens would heal that. Eggs is a slower album; it feels more like Armchair's second half than its first. For my state of mind, I welcomed the lack of faster-paced numbers.
I've already written about why the album turned out to be just what I needed. Dad was declining rapidly; he was mentally sharp but physically spent when I first arrived, meaning I had a lot heavy lifting to do—getting him from his bed to his wheelchair and vice versa. It was an emotionally draining experience, to say the least, and became harder and harder each day. I continued to take those long walks but this time I needed songs that felt more soothing, warmer.
I listened to Eggs and nothing else for at least a week straight. I guess it turned out to be my wallowing record. I'm still listening to it almost daily, though at least now I'm alternating between that and other albums. It helps that I'm back in L.A. again, with my full music collection to choose from and more opportunities to be out, listening.
Thus I unconsciously started mixing country music into my daily consumption. And when my co-worker got me quipping about mixtapes I had a sort of Freudian epiphany—that maybe my listening habits were still being shaped by my dad. He was a huge country fan, mostly bluegrass and 60s-70s style. Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, old-timey stuff.
It's hard for me to get more specific than that, though. Unlike the folky stuff he liked (which I've already written about), Dad's country tastes were exiled to his car stereo. Neither my mom nor his second wife liked it, so he kept it there. I think of his country music tastes as being more personal to him and more mysterious to me. I can't go out and buy the album I know he loved. I just have to guess, and make due with my own meager collection, most of which comes from a fairly brief alt-country phase in the late-90s/early-00s and a spate of downloading over the last few months.
That's okay though. I'm not really listening to this stuff to continue wallowing. For the most part I'm skipping past the aching ballads, opting instead for the upbeat numbers. Those are the kind of tunes Dad liked, I know that much. Right now, me too.
Planning a funeral is a strange experience. A day after my dad died, my brother and sister and I were sifting through photo album after photo album in order to make a slide show for the service. On one hand it was therapeutic—it allowed us to look back on a lot of happy memories—but we were under deadline. We had two days to put the show together and set it to music. So, the whole thing felt both like a distraction and an annoyance; immensely important and absurdly unimportant.
We had to pick a song or two that would add up to about five minutes; and the total time would therefore limit the number of photos we could use. That meant whittling the image selection down from 300 to a little less than 100. When you're trying to show the full spectrum of a man's life, 85 or 90 photos feels slight. Even more difficult was the song selection. It had to come from Dad's collection in order to have the right resonance, and of course it had to have the right meaning for a funeral. It's tempting to use a song that wallows in an I'll-miss-you sentiment, but that didn't fit Dad. He was positive, didn't linger on sad times. We thought maybe a song about growing up, becoming a man, might fit the imagery of a young boy growing into a grandfather—going to Vietnam, traveling across Europe in a camper with his wife and two small children for a year, working the same job for 30+ years, and ultimately remarrying and rediscovering his religion in between.
But we had limitations. The song(s) couldn't be too short nor too long, and couldn't be just any song. I remember when my grandmother died fifteen years ago and they played "Wind Beneath My Wings"—the right sentiment, I guess, but what the fuck: Bette Midler meant nothing to my grandmother nor to my family. It was just filler at a funeral. Think about your funeral: would you want filler?
My dad had a smallish collection but he loved what he had. Mostly he liked bluegrass and 70s folk, with a little bluesy rock thrown in for good measure. We narrowed it down to four or five contenders:
"So Far Away from Me," Dire Straits. Dad was a huge Dire Straits fan, and Brothers in Arms in particular. This album and Graceland are probably the two most-played household albums of my childhood. So the song worked from the standpoint of meaning something to my dad. It's also five minutes long, so the perfect length. My sister asked me, "What's this song actually about?" I told her I had no idea, except that every single lyric that isn't "so far away from me" is nigh-on unintelligible. So it has that going for it. Of course as soon as I said that my ears picked up a line about making out on the telephone. "Maybe people won't notice that line." Anyway, the overall mood of the song wasn't quite right: medium tempo the whole way through with no real shifts between verse, chorus, or bridge.
"Angel Band," Ralph Stanley. Dad loved everything on the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack. Many of the tracks were songs of his own boyhood. One night he and I were driving in a car with his mother and he put the soundtrack on and she just started singing along with nearly every song. But no, it wasn't right. Maybe it's just me, but these songs that essentially say "I'm tired of the earth and I am ready to go to heaven" just aren't what you want to hear when someone has actually just gone to heaven.
"Brand New Day," Van Morrison. Like "So Far Away From Me," the song is half-unintelligible and its subject matter is vaguely meaningless—lots of sunlight references, meaning it could have a decent metaphoric resonance. And the mood was somber yet hopeful. (Though I don't personally have a high tolerance for Van Morrison, I tried to suppress that feeling.) But like the Dire Straits song, it just wasn't a perfect fit. We'd be settling if we chose this song.
"Fire and Rain," James Taylor. My brilliant wife picked this out as she thumbed through Dad's collection. She comes and gets me, eyes pink from crying, and says "What about this one?" The song comes on and Taylor softly laments,
Just yesterday morning they let me know you were gone
Suzanne the plans they made put an end to you
I walked out this morning and I wrote down this song
I just can't remember who to send it to
And so I start to tear up too. "Well, it works," I said. "But is it too emotionally manipulative?" "Maybe," my wife says. (Reason #842 I love her: she doesn't call me out for getting all High Fidelity about my funeral song choice; rather, she's totally High Fidelity with me.) But then my sister heard it and said this. Small problem being it was only three minutes long—too short.
"Photographs and Memories," Jim Croce. Thus we came to Jim Croce. Like Taylor, Croce was a staple of our household growing up, and his songs certainly hit the right emotional buttons. This one was a bit too literal—playing as we look at photographs and memories—but it worked. It was also two minutes long and paired well with the Taylor—the right length, the right tone. We were set. Unfortunately Dad's version of this song was on vinyl; I had it on my iPod but we couldn't transfer it over to the computer with the Taylor song. So we went to iTunes and downloaded it—or thought we did.
The night before the service my brother realized that we hadn't downloaded the Croce version, but rather some sort of studio musician knock-off. Unacceptable! Into the middle of the night my brother tried to search out a worthy replacement. He landed on Ry Cooder.
I'd forgotten about Ry Cooder. But his albums were certainly played all the time in our house. I knew Cooder's versions of "Blue Suede Shoes" and "All Shook Up" before I knew Elvis's. We settled on his cover of "Stand By Me," from 1976's Chicken Skin Music. It still paired well with the Taylor and also was the best testament to Dad's character through the years—not to mention was a somewhat more positive song, a nice tonic to "Fire and Rain"'s melancholy, without being inappropriately sunny.
Ry Cooder, "Stand By Me"