Thursday, December 6, 2012

Aspirational Aesthetics

I remember my mother taking me to the Tualatin public library, age 11. I was already at this point, fairly music-obsessed, if haphazardly informed. I emerged from the library with White Light / White Heat by the Velvet Underground under my arm. I have no idea why I checked it out: I hadn't heard the names Lou Reed or Velvet Underground yet. It may have been the cover that caught my attention... but I didn't actually know what was printed on the nearly indecipherable black-on-black cover until a few years ago. My mom certainly had no clue what the record was about or she would have nipped that one in the bud.

When I got it home, I waited to play it--I wasn't even sure the turntable in the house even worked. More than that, it intuitively seemed this was a private journey. If I wanted to go down this road, it would be alone. Without having a clue of their infamy, it was clear this was objectionable.

Imagine my look when I did listen to it: oversized earmuff headphones on my head, mouth agape, eyes off in to space. In short, horribly, horribly disappointed. Faulty memory has probably fraudulently filled in some blanks, but one thing is certain, it was terrible. Side A had its moments, granted; I clung to Here She Comes Now like a life preserver. Side B was irredeemable. I Heard Her Call My Name should have been a warning klaxon: it bursts in, as if the producer pressed 'record' too late. The drumming sounds like ham-fisted, off-beat thudding. The guitar is blistering from the get-go, but by the end, completely unhinged. I can't be confident, at this remove, if I made it through all 18 minutes of the orgiastic Sister Ray.

The point of recounting this part of my personal mythology is it was my first encounter with what I can only think to call 'aspirational aesthetics'. I felt sincerely cheated by my White Light / White Heat experience at the time, but I was also fundamentally changed by it. I was by no means ready to hear that record, but having heard it, Oingo Boingo and Erasure just didn't sound quite the same again. In retrospect, every band I got into over the next five years was like training myself to hear VU with new ears. By the time Scott gave me a dubbed copy of it my sophomore year in high school, it felt like  homecoming.

Since that experience, there are a clutch of artists that I've struggled with, until that fateful day when it suddenly clicks: Derek Bailey; Robert Wyatt; Vladislav Delay; Keiji Haino... Somehow, the only way forward is to push through and come to terms with this new aesthetic landscape, like or no. Even if less-than-impressed on first blush, notably, none of these are artists I merely appreciate. By the time I  come around, they're written into my musical DNA--a vital new part of my life experience.

These musicians, and those like them, forced me to grow. That's a healthy thing--in my opinion. By no means do I believe that everyone has to dig into the avant garde and I certainly haven't given up my deep love of pop... Lord knows, nowadays if you made something as safe as Beethoven your 'thing', you'd be branded an elitist. Of course, if everyone had some form of aspirational aesthetics, small, seismic shifts in their comfort zone, the world might be a tad more interesting.

It's easy to be preemptively defensive about suggesting your own horizon-expanding moments as some sort of model. Even friends can be quick to shoot back with accusations of snobbery--that you don't sincerely enjoy the music you like; that it's a pose. I hope in some way this story explains some of that away: aspiring to understand and enjoy things is different than liking them to aspire to whatever it is you might be accused of... social prestige?

Encountering these unique challenges altered my way of hearing, irrevocably. That way of hearing is how I formulate my aesthetics. It has never been a fixed target. I've learned to enjoy new modes of listening and it wouldn't be exaggerating to say I now need them. Observing this mutation within myself has amounted to a lifelong fascination and a testament to the subjectivity of personal aesthetics. I've arrived at where I'm at step-by-step. Your interest in music or sound wouldn't be the same as mine unless you followed that same path (and even then, who knows).

How do we each find our way? Magically stumbling on White Light / White Heat was a one-in-a-million, right? Why the fuck did the public library have it on vinyl at all? I've often needed some sort of guide: a more informed friend, a trusted record store or label or an exciting music magazine. It speaks to the power and value of critique, a value that tends to get overlooked in this world of peer-reviews, customer ratings and crowd-sourced best-of lists. Knowing what people like you are into is a great tool for discovering more of the same, but let's not substitute that for the influence a good critic can wield. They can not only lead you to new experience but help frame that encounter. (And yes, I see the irony of an amateur music-blogger advocating for the preservation of a professional critical class).

Of course, this 'critical class' has taken some blows to its credibility. I've smugly observed how the most popular review sites quickly slide into a high-median range: virtually everything reviewed is inexplicably 'better than average'. The only times they deviate are utterly predictable: reissues of classics? 10. New disappointing records by formerly adored stars? 4. Everything else? 7.5.

In that light it makes it even harder to navigate. My (highly) personal experience says it's worth trying though. I want to understand music more than I do. I want to catch glimpses of things I don't yet comprehend, in hopes that--one day--I will.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Uncertain Signifiers

I was recently smugly viewing the landscape of bands that are near and dear to me, that just happen to be approaching or surpassing that dreaded 20-year mark in music. It seemed--to me--that many of the bands I came of age with in the late-80s / early-90s have sidestepped the sort of traps that befell so many of the classic rockers when they hit the same milestone. 

Remember David Bowie dancing with muppets in Labyrinth? Paul McCartney had suffered in fits and starts ever since he went solo, but Ebony & Ivory was a death knell. The Stones steadily plodded towards boring irrelevance. Dylan floundered with weak albums and misguided production, bottoming out with the nadir of Knocked Out, Loaded  (after already flailing through a 'born-again' phase in the late 70s). Neil Young was in a category all his own for daring-do that shouldn't be done; churning out weird genre albums from Trans to Old Ways to Everybody's Rockin'--all to the point that he got unceremoniously dumped by Geffen Records for violating his contract by releasing "uncharacteristic albums".

In comparison, look at Sonic Youth. They've made it 30+ years and the worst that could be said about any of their albums is that maybe NY Ghosts & Flowers reached a bit too far for their wider audience. They quickly learned to relegate their wilder impulses to their sidebar SYR self-released label. Pavement (and their principle: Stephen Malkmus) have enjoyed a measured consistent career. Fugazi (and all their related projects) continue to inspire. Robert Pollard is spotty (I suppose) but that's more like carrying on in his case; he was always more about quantity crossed with occasional inspiration, than consistency.

How is that these bands that are second tier--sure they're popular, but Beatles and Stones popular... no--have managed to do what every one of the most classic rock-n-rollers could not? Does it mean they are better, as I was thinking for one self-satisfied moment?

On second thought, it may say more about our musical culture since the early 90s than it does about the artists themselves. I don't particularly want to to diminish their greatness, but I do think it helps to inform their continued, unbroken relevance.

Mainly, I ask: What tectonic shift has happened in popular music since grunge broke out?

I don't mean the ascendancy of any single star, Kanye West or what have you... What has happened that fundamentally changed rock-n-roll, and how we hear it? Consider that in the 70s, AOR and progressive rock (along with a nascent heavy metal scene) were ambushed by punk rock and disco, which was followed by post-punk, new wave and the inception of hip hop. This even leaves off what was happening the fringe-y background (krautrock et al). People like McCartney and Neil Young who had been instrumental in defining what we fundamentally think rock-n-roll is could only watch horrified as scruffy kids kicked it over and wrote an entirely new manual.

There's also a maturity problem. As bands get older, they can't help but get more experienced and accomplished. It's perhaps sad to say, but many ways of expressing nuance, skill and insight are antithetical to rock-n-roll. I'm not saying there are no sophisticated rockers out there--mind you--but that it takes a rare panache to make it work with the primacy of the form. Furthermore, even when you can cram more than three chords into a song, every now and again you are still going to come up short against the 'immediacy' of some 'back-to-basics' upstart rocker churning out two chords with attitude to spare... Right as the aging classicists were beginning to grapple with questions of immediacy vs intricacy, punk was left on their doorstep like a flaming bag of shit: they couldn't just let it burn but they couldn't stamp it out, either.

This of course leaves off one other major factor: burnout. The gist of the 'sophomore slump' is that a band sharpens their craft for years, writing and playing songs live before they get to record their debut... Then, due to contracts or market expectations, they need to turn around and write / record as many songs in less than a year. Hence, the second album is almost always a pale comparison to the first. What happens then 20 years down the road? Sure you've maybe found a way to produce material, but does the work of being a rocker start to finally feel like a job? Do you start to tire of it at that point? Does the material start to sound like assembly-line, prefab pop?

Let's not even talk about the toll of 20 years of the rock-n-roll lifestyle. Living on the road, drink, drugs and sex may all sound awesome... but two decades?!

Some of this, of course applies to the crowd that started in the 80s and 90s. There have certainly been plenty that could not go the distance. That these outliers have managed to not fall flat--even briefly--is significant. What it really comes down to (the more I think about it) is that they've never had the rug pulled out from underneath them. The music of the last 20 years and still today, is directly related to the groundwork they laid, even sometimes downright derivative of them.

Once again, context is everything...

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Ques que c'est 'sexy'?

The idea of 'sexy music' is an odd thing on close examination. I think we inherently sexualize musicians--people who would pass as merely average are slathered after as soon as they strap on a guitar to stand on stage. Can you imagine Mick Jagger or Steven Tyler being objectified sexually if they didn't make music? In my experience, most songs explicitly about sex serve the purpose of only making me think about sex, but I find them utterly distracting if engaged in anything remotely sexual ("I'm busy! Stop telling me what to do!") Of course, allowances must be made for personal history: my first girlfriend, Kimberly introduced me to Peter Murphy's Love Hysteria and R.E.M.'s Fables of the Reconstruction. They soundtracked so many of our first fumbling adventures, I'll always think of them as sexy.

There is one song I've long thought of as not just sexy, but downright dirty: Masada's Ziphim. I am not trying to be contrarian here, by picking a 'jazz song'; I have a small posse of friends who can attest that there's something primal and thrilling about free jazz in general--the way it squeals, it writhes, it lunges--but there is plenty to objectively defend this particular song.

John Zorn conceived of Masada both as a modern appropriation of his Jewish heritage and a tribute to the classic Ornette Coleman quartet. According to the lore, he wrote an entire book of 100 songs in a flurry. Each one takes a modal jazz approach to scales from traditional Jewish music. In practice, it captures a combination of euphoric energy, belly-dancing exotic eroticism, and complex interplay (because we all know the best sex engages the mind). 

First off, it is not funk. Funk is not fuck-me music. I'm sorry, it's true--it's get-ready-to-fuck-me music. It epitomizes flirting and acting raunchy on the dancefloor, but you know you don't want that playing while you're actually doing it, right? That said Ziphim does have a lithe groove it rides on. Joey Baron plays his kit with his bare hands--no sticks--giving the rhythm a rapid-fire-but-soft feel to it. (The rimshot-like click you hear in the rhythm is the bassist, Greg Cohen, popping one of the upright bass strings.) They hold down a steady, syncopated backbeat for the real show.

John Zorn opens the song (and album) up with a sharp, pinched saxophone bark. Then for a full minute before the rhythm section joins in, you hear him and trumpet player Dave Douglas feeling each other out; establishing a sort of push and pull interaction. After the initial head, Zorn and Douglas tear into improvisations simultaneously, wending melodic lines around each other tighter than a sailor's knot. Their complicated, never repeating discourse is a tangle, they're never going in exactly the same direction but they're never in each others way.

Then, after the two horns have been winding each other up for about 5 minutes, they come together in a wailing, held peak before the rhythm section moves forward to ride it out.

After that mind-boggling first five minutes, when they trade some lines off--one answering the other--it comes off a tad disappointing--too vanilla. When they return to the head at the end though, all is forgiven--the song executes an entire cycle, comes full circle and it's completely satisfying to hear them vamp the melody in unison.

Inevitably--though there does seem to be a modicum of consensus--what mood any given song represents is highly subjective. Ziphim somehow manages to perfectly embody the ideas of sex without trying to spell the act out, and that's what makes it the sexiest music I know.

Monday, February 20, 2012

More potholes in the history of music...

I am embarrassed to admit how long it was before I embraced Sonic Youth. That situation was only fully rectified when a one Mr. Lala loaned me a copy of A Thousand Leaves. (Who could resist Wildflower Soul, really?)  I have since come around fully. I confess I still sort of skirt around popular opinion and favor alternately, Sister and Evol or their later material like Rather Ripped.

While I was busy being blind to SY's charms, I was hard at work falling deeply in love with bands obviously indebted to them: Archers of Loaf and Edsel. The Archers have marched on to a legacy of indie-rock royalty, as shown by their sell-out reunion tour crowds, but Edsel has fallen through the cracks. Never more than a footnote on the scene they lack a cult-ish fanbase to earn a posthumous place in the written history. The Edsel boys failed to fully connect with the cultural zeitgeist of their time. Interestingly, I think they would have fared better nowadays when shoegaze and spacerock in all their flavors are still ascendent.

The label they were on (Grass Records) went under and with it a wide swath of their catalog fell out of print for years. The lead singer, Sohrab Habibion--quiet on the scene for some time--has resurfaced as the guitarist in the Obits (which has its own royal legacy, featuring the singer and frontman of Drive Like Jehu / Hot Snakes fame). Apparently Habibion bribed the engineer mixing the latest Obits record to give a remastering touch-up to the o.o.p. Edsel material so that they could self-release it digitally. Though it never really left my musical vernacular, I am happy to have center stage again.

In fact, being the sort musically obsessed geek that I am, I have kept a sort of personal record of what I believed (at the time) to be the best record of the year, since 1990. To point out the hubris of such an endeavor, I was 15 in 1990; nobody knows shit about anything aged 15. Anyway, come the ripe old age of 18, I selected Edsel's sophomore record The Everlasting Belt Co. as my pick of 1993. I may just  be a nostalgic old geezer at this point, but I think the record holds up. I don't know if I would say it was the record of its year, but I'm not going back to rewrite that history.

Being weened early on with a diet of brit-pop, perhaps it makes sense that Edsel got through to me so easily: this has more in common with the tradition stemming from Echo and the Bunnymen and MBV than Nirvana or their ilk. The guitars are as likely to chime and ripple in psychedelic phasing as much as they are to grind with angsty distortion. They seem have learned as many lessons from Spacemen 3 as Fugazi. Sohrab's frail voice sounds like what it might be to hear Robert Wyatt front a punk band, as he hovers on the edge of a cracking falsetto. More often than not, they don't rely on soaring choruses so much as the compelling verses whose phrasing wend around the beat.

Like many-a-great band, they were restless: each album advanced their voice, progressive gains on a style that was less derivative and more distinctive. The follow-up to Everlasting, Detroit Folly, had some breakthrough moments, but was a bit shy on memorable hooks. My understanding is that they intend to release their swan-song, Techniques of Speed Hypnosis, as well. While for me, that one didn't have the brace of never-heard-this-before newness, I think it was their largest, boldest and even catchiest record. A real winner--keep your eyes peeled.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

HIstory and its failings

To be certain, even as an ambient artist, Paul Schütze is a fringe musician. His name will never be spoken in hushed tones outside of that little soundworld, the way Brian Eno's is; but there really can only be so many Eno's. On the flip-side, Schütze was a forerunner in a vital (if shortlived) subgenre of electronic music, and his material is plentiful and remarkable enough to ensure he won't end up in the recycle bin of history.

What seems more likely to happen is one of his finest works, Site Anubis, is in danger of being relegated to 'lost rarity' status. Some musicians, it seems, suffer from a damnable consistency. If his place in history is too small to sustain a large catalog, it gets tricky when his catalog is--although varied--uniformly good. Even my selection of Site Anubis as his best work is loaded with personal history, time / place associations, and probably a touch of its very status as a rarity (I am a record collector at heart).

A landmark electro-acoustic masterpiece, Site Anubis manages to graft Schütze's trademark ambient electronica--filled with rich drones and vibrophonic pitches that happen on an indiscernible rhythm--to an edgy, textural improv played over a dubbed out post-punk bedrock. If I remember the press rightly, the different instruments were recorded separately in no relation to each other. The different players improvised their parts in isolation. It was then Paul Schütze's job to create compositions from these raw materials.

What raw materials, though. The roster on this album is an avant-supergroup of the highest order.

Dirk Wachtelear, a member of the ambient group Pablo's Eye, pounds out drumbeats deeply indebted to Schütze's own idiosyncratic style, as if one arm is pinwheeling at a different bpm than the rest. Raoul Björkenheim of the Finnish jazz band Krakatau lays down arcing sheets of sustained guitar. Alex Beuss, on bass clarinet, duels with British saxophone legend Lol Coxhill. Coxhill himself is no stranger to meetings of jazz and rock, being a member in the ealry 70s of the prog outfit The Whole World that recorded Kevin Ayer's classic Shooting at the Moon.

The legendary Bill Laswell is the bassist for the session. Although his trademark rubbery bass-work is all over the album, what's more noteworthy is how his projects like Material and Automaton are clear antecedents to this work. There was certainly something in the water in the 1990s. Über-hyphenated outfits were prominent from top alternative rock to the avant garde. A few years later Jah Wobble would put together Deep Space (that at times included Laswell, too), a band that mined similar terrain to Site Anubis, carrying the torch forward. 

The key difference to me between those works and Phantom City may come down to premise: the construction of this album engendered an inherent disregard for the purity of the original performance. Schütze applied a heavier hand when sculpting the material into songs. A year or so later, nearly all these musicians would release a live album (which has been included in Schütze's bandcamp push) that I frankly find disappointing in comparison.

That Site Anubis became rare at all may not even a qualitative decision. More often, these things are combination of collaborators not seeing eye-to-eye or licensing issues with art or content. (You might recognize the art used for the cover that has been more recently appropriated by the band Cut Copy.) New releases from Schütze are intermittent at best nowadays, but he has finally made the vast majority of his back catalog available online, through bandcamp. For me this is a cause for celebration. I could not help but notice, though, that one of the few glaring omissions to this shiny new download store he has set up is Site Anubis.

Friday, February 3, 2012

So here's something interesting...

The Fall are the preeminent post-punk survivors. This much is accepted. This too is true: their catalog is a minefield to the uninitiated. It's not just that some of the 29-or-so official studio albums are sometimes lackluster or spotty--but their are countless compilations of seemingly arbitrary selections, reissues with shitty sound remastered from vinyl copies, a mountain of shoddy live albums of suspicious origin... the list goes on. But get this: for the last 30 years, they have consistently released high-water-mark albums every 5 years, like clockwork. Read on and see if you don't agree.


Arguably the first classic Fall record. From beginning to end, this is Mark & Co. firing on all cylinders. Grotesque also marks the end of the first phase of the Fall: by the next album, Mark's new wife, Brix would join the band and begin steering their absurdist rewiring of punk towards a more streamlined, poppier sound. Filled with chugging rhythms with no interest in taking-it-to-the-bridge, kazoo solos, left turns and right hooks--everything they do from raves ups to roiling abstract, 10 minute jams works on Grotesque. Smith at this point was discovering the peak of his powers. He gives his literate, confounding lyrics an abstract sense of rhythm that can only be rivalled by Captain Beefheart. He also has quite the range for someone who rants more than sings, punctuating his lines with pinched yelps and hilarious asides.


I barely need to defend this album. This Nation's Saving Grace is often shortlisted as the single best Fall LP. Now well into the the Fall mkII--they had gone deep into keyboard driven pop on the last outing, and from the start of this record the guitars are making their presence felt again. The Fall are once again menacing; not like a monster from a horror flick, but like the cooler kids at lunch that have too much fun at your expense and just might have been up to something truly unseemly before school. From Bombast to Cruiser's Creek, they are leaner band with more now at their disposal, and on Saving Grace, they deploy it all.


Extricate is a hissing, mean record. It is the first album the Fall cut after Mark and Brix called it quits, and kicking off with a track like Sing, Harpy; it shows. This album languished, ignored, in their discography for years. In part it had been poorly served by following a couple of passable filler releases and followed itself by a pair of weaker but questing LPs. Even though there is plenty to recommend this record, Chicago, Now puts it in the history books; another churning Fall epic--but this one murkier and more subtle than they had ever achieved before.


Inexplicably in the mid-90s, Brix came back into the fold for a few records. In fact she is one of the only (countless) ex-Fall band members to ever return. Her presence raises the bar on what was the first of many late-period rebirths for the Fall; the group has more August comeback-records than any one band deserves. The snarling interplay between her and Mark on Don't Call Me Darling, or the buzzing punk take on boy-girl pop that is Feeling Numb put this record on the Fall-keepers pile. Add to that the truly bizarro Bonkers in Phoenix and aptly titled Life Just Bounces and... well, you get the picture.


Coming hot on the heels of what was two of their most unhinged records, fresh with (yet another) new lineup, The Unutterable should have been the shmabling mess the subsequent Are You a Missing Winner was. Grant Showbiz, a frequent Fall collaborator produced this record, and his hand was unerring in bringing some of their best work to life. Mark's voice is close-mic'd throughout, bringing all the character of his distinctive bite to the forefront, competing with a punishing rhythmm section while electronic flourishes and guitar-work vie for some light. An indisputable Fall must-have.


It is telling what a dry spell the early 2000s were for the Fall that even their biggest booster abandoned them: after doing more John Peel sessions by this date than any other band by a mile, he had not asked them back in over 5 years. The session they cut in 2004 ended up being a clarion call. Rooted by the mammoth track, Blindness--a stomping dirge built around bass-work that sounds like the strings are as thick as power cables. That track is reprised here and easily serves as the centerpiece of Fall Heads Roll. The album is filled out with rollicking material that flies in the face that the group had been active endeavor at this point for 27+ years.


With recent good marks, the Fall was now in danger of becoming the one thing they had never, ever been: boring. Reformation was a lackluster outing and Imperial Wax Solvent was earning them the feint praise of "best album since ___________" that's the bain of so many elder statesmen.  YFOC ranks as far more than that. Mark shows a wit here that lets him escape the grumpy old man the snarling teenager he used to be turned into. More than that, the album signs off with Weather Report 2, the most moving moment on a Fall record to date. Over a rather lovely guitar figure, Smith mumbles about what sounds like redemption within a relationship (sort of), but half way through the music devolves into a single rolling, overdriven bass pulsation as Smith spits the same words he just sang. That description completely overlooks that the song also name-checks Murder She Wrote, so go figure that one out.

Obviously with a band as storied and legendary as the Fall, any handful albums does not give the whole picture. Then again, seven records are nothing to shake a stick at. The Fall are somehow constant yet constantly in flux. These albums serve as benchmarks, quality dispatches charting the developments and changing methods and priorities of the band. I look forward to what 2015 brings.