Wednesday, December 30, 2009

White Rabbits, & cetera

Somewhere out there is there a satisfactory definition of the Pop Hook? I don’t actually have one yet, but my working version goes something like this: a Hook is where the song sets up a formal expectation, & then immediately resolves it, sometimes in a surprising way. It’s often an aspect of the melody, but a Hook can entail any facet of the song, from snare-fill to chord-change to piano riff to lyric, wherev. Actually, not knowing where the Hook is coming from next is often key to its success. Hooks can get hackneyed, & if you see them coming they’ll just fall flat. So, surprise, immediacy. These are important elements.

Oh, & perfection: that’s the thing about the Hook: it just satisfies. It feels perfect.

& then it keeps walking right on by. Because also key to the successful Hook is that, in the time it takes you to notice & appreciate its clever brilliance, the song has already moved on. Hooks by definition do not stand around waiting for applause. The Hook’s abject nonchalance is its sole irreducible ingredient: the Hook is brilliant & perfect without ever breaking a sweat.

Speaking of which, the new album from Spoon comes out in just a couple of weeks, & so I’m sure we’re all very excited about that.

In the meantime, it’s the end of the year & I’m lurking my way through the sundry “best of” lists of bloggers far more au courant than myself, & I’m seeing everywhere this band called White Rabbits. Which, when I check them out they turn out to be awfully hard to put back down. Is it just me, or does this just immediately
make you want to hear some more?

It does not come as a complete surprise that It’s Frightening was produced by Britt Daniel of, yes, Spoon. There’s a certain sort of crisp efficiency to the sound of this album that’s very Spoon-like. There’s no grime there’s no mud. &, as much as I have waxed enthusiastic elsewhere about grit & dirt & noise, the squeaky-clean sound here is the right choice. Because there’s just no room for clutter inside of these songs. Which are laden, laden with hooks. Much like Spoon, White Rabbits are all about the Hook.

Incidentally, the drumming in “Percussion Gun” sounds to me just like a Burundi rhythm. Bow Wow Wow used it extensively, a very long time ago, but it’s actually a traditional motif from Central Africa. Hear:

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Promises, Promises

Well, here’s something.

We Were Promised Jetpacks is the cheeky name of this band from Glasgow, & I’ve been spending some time with their debut album, These Four Walls. With admittedly nothing to go on other than what I can hear here, I picture brawny bad lads somewhat spiffy for job interviews or for church, but reeking yet of booze & maybe still bruised up from brawling. Yeah, that.

The first & primary impression here is of singer-slash-guitarist Adam Thomson: he wants your hands off his chest, is conducting electricity, thinks he’s solving crimes, & cetera. These are his tropes. It's all delivered from deep in the bottoms of his lungs, emphatic & earnest & delectably (b)roguish. Reminds me at times of a certain Irish singer name of Mister Vox. Now, I know that not everybody who cares about music nowadays can even remember that U2 was once actually raw & dangerous (or even that Bono had 2 names), but you’re going to have to trust me on this one. End of digression.

Anyway, this here Adam Mister Scotch T can wind it up well & truly something fierce, can scream it out good, & then the whole band will just pummel the crap out of you for a good 6 or 8 measures before catching any breath at all. The Sunday-spiffy part, though, is that somebody has gone & reamed a lot of the grit, gravel & noise out of this music, presumably for record release purposes. OK so fine, they’ve made it in through the front door now. My strong suspicion is that We Were Promised Jetpacks is a far less solicitous proposition once this band gets going in the live, onstage realm.

I’m hoping to be proven right on that point in a couple of months. These guys will come through town for our local Noise Pop Festival. February 27 at Slim’s, specifically. I’m there. See, hear:

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Light, Bright

You know that part in that Girls song where Christopher is all exuberant & he goes Oh, I wish I had a suntan/I wish I had a pizza & a bottle of wine? Man, I am so there right now. (&, at the risk of completely changing the subject, am I the last person in town to know about the hardcore version of the video for that song? N(even remotely)SFW, btw.)

Anyway, I had my sunglasses on briefly this a.m., for the first time in like a week. bc it’s been raining here, yeah. In the wintertime here, the world gets gray & heavy & it gets good & wet. Plus there’s that whole getting-out-of-work-&-shit!-it’s-already-dark-out trauma on a daily basis. Sigh. Maybe that’s why all the music I seem to want to hear lately is bright & light & clean & nice.

I picked up Real Estate a couple of weeks ago, before all this weather started up. I liked it, but then promptly forgot all about it. Now all of a sudden it’s tonic for what ails me. It just puts me poolside, drinking rum & it’s not even lunchtime & oops it looks like I’ve gone & gotten myself a little bit drunk already but that’s OK I don’t have to be anywhere for hours & hours & damn the sunshine feels good on my face & yes I do think another round would be nice, merci beaucoup.

Yeah, it puts me right there:

So that’s nice. But you know what’s really grabbing me right now all of a sudden is the XX. I had heard that the XX were some kind of bfd at the CMJ this year, so whoop-de doo was my initial response to that. They’ve come through town here a couple of times lately now, opening for other bands, but I didn’t make it out to see them, & I really was not understanding all the fuss to be perfectly honest.

I mean, you hear the XX & you get it, more or less instantly. You think Yeah, I got it. Because this music is pretty simple, & it’s really pretty stark. Listen to any of their songs for roughly 60 seconds, & you have effectively heard every single sound in the musical palette of the XX. There’s no bombast here, no deep layers of sound that you only notice on the tenth listen, no sudden upheavals in tempo, dynamic, or volume.

Surprisingly now, though, I actually am on more or less my tenth listen to some of these songs. I’ve warmed up to the XX. Or maybe it’s just that the XX have warmed their way up to me, now that the season's weather outside is all, you know, frightful.

See, listening to summery music like Girls & Real Estate might put me momentarily in a fantasy place I’d like to be. & that’s nice, sure. But maybe the XX are putting my feet on the ground right here where I actually am. Here, where it’s warm inside while it’s cold out there. I can feel the cold in the music of XX, but it’s all outside, over there, while we are here, inside. Warm & dry & cozy. Oh yeah: & sexy. That’s what it took me all those listens to actually get: that the XX have, you know, a certain sort of something that's sexy.

So I'm listening to the XX & now I'm all Let It Snow.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Represent, Two.

Well, it's hard to tell, it's hard to tell...

So, we were talking about the Jasper Johns painting, “Flag,” & how I can’t quite figure out exactly what it is or what it does or what it says or what it means. At the end of the day it just sits there Sphinx-like, posing riddles.

(&, I know this is not normal, but: I get a genuine thrill out of this kind of shit. The longer I ponder the paradoxes implicit in this painting, the more excited I get. I can’t help the way I am.)

oh, & btw, I fully realize that nothing I’m saying here is the slightest bit original, right? I mean, the intellectual resources of entire graduate departments are daily devoted to just these kinds of semiotic inquiries, of which I’m presenting only my own little thumbnail sketch, no doubt full of holes. I’m not undertaking a comprehensive review of the critical field here, ok? I’m just thinking aloud is all. Hence, no footnotes.

OK so Music, right, we’re talking about music. & more specifically right now: audio recordings of music. Which, to my ears, can be ambiguous & paradoxical much like (spoiler alert!) the Jasper Johns painting. I do listen to an awful lot of music. & a lot of what I hear amounts to a capital-M Modern subversion of Art-as-Depiction, or Art-as-Representation kind of deal. Because (obvious exceptions aside), recorded music no longer purports to re-present any particular performance, fixed at any point in time.

As a pre-Modern point of reference, here is the recording of Robert Johnson performing his song, “Love in Vain.”

RJ-Love in Vain mp3

Beautiful. Brilliant.

This recording is a documentation of a particular event that occurred in the history of the universe, in Texas, & that lasted for about two & a half minutes on one particular day in the year 1937. It’s a snapshot. It’s a historical record of something that once actually happened. This is what recorded music was, exclusively, for a substantial period of time: an audio photograph, a record (a record) of a single performance that otherwise would have existed only in its own present, ephemeral moment, & then afterward only in the unreliable memories of whoever was there. Now having been recorded, it’s a regularized (institutionalized) memory of that one past event, rendered communicable to anyone & for all future time.

OK, now compare: Fire up your iPod or whatever & hear Beyoncé Knowles. You don’t even need me to post the link, right? “All the single ladies! All the single ladies!” & we’re off: that song is stuck in your head for the next 45 minutes, am I right? I’m using Beyoncé as an emblematic example here, just because I know you know the song. But here, hear:

BK-Single Ladies(Put a Ring On It) mp3

What is this music constructed of? Primarily I guess it's a Voice & a Beat, but there's a lot of spice here in this Ratatouille. The squealing synthesizer loop; the funk drums chopping so seamlessly into the bass that I can't always distinguish between them; vocal harmonies processed through a super wet flange & chorus combo; reverb repeatedly inserted then extracted with precision. All of it exactly coordinated, calibrated, all of it enmeshed & all of it in motion. A complex & very finely-tuned machine; a miracle of modern engineering. Oh, & I almost forgot it's fucking great music! (No comment on the lyric, though.) Most of the vocal is a series of interlocking chants, but Ms. Knowles does also make a point of demonstrating that (hello?) she can sing. e.g., listen to her navigate that key change mid-way through the bridge (~2:20). But then also hear how the song quickly reasserts its own recorded artifice when the vocal grinds to a quick halt like a busted loop, & then immediately recovers (~2:40). & just btw, if you can hold your hips still during any of this, well, somebody ought to check your pulse.

But here is what I’m getting at: a recording made today no longer constitutes a documentation of a past performance of that music. No. Now, the present moment is self-actualizing, self-perpetuating. It’s a continuous & perpetual present moment, now. There is no longer any reference made to any then-present, now-past moment. All there is is Now.

Initially & substantially, this is a by-product of overdubbing. Just from the mere fact of different instruments being recorded at different times, we’re already outside the realm of documentation, of re-presentation. The actual, present moment becomes a fiction. The end product is an artifice; it may connote a single musical performance, but without documenting any event that ever actually happened.

Early on, overdubbing is just a benign sort of “cheating,” right? You go back & “fix” that one part of the guitar solo or whatever, but the record still operates as a representation of the band playing the song, more or less. Later, artists begin making music that deliberately calls attention to this technical aspect of itself. Sounds & individual performances that physically could not have occurred together are juxtaposed for deliberate effect, dramatic & otherwise. Music starts getting described in cinematic terms, because it’s so clearly & deliberately constructed & edited in ways calculated to draw attention to its own artifice. Now, entire pieces of music are built from this aesthetics of juxtaposition & incongruity.

You know what I mean, right? Every single piece of music that uses sampling is an obvious illustration of this. The sample takes a piece of some other sound, song, spoken text, bass line, whatever --& combines it incongruously. Dramatic & musical effects are constructed from the bare fact that the recorded elements do not really belong together. &, as a whole, the recordings operate as recordings: Each calls attention to itself as a recording that deploys part(s) of another recording; it is not a document or a “record” or a re-presentation of a past event. At most, the recording re-presents the past fact of another recording –mirrors reflecting other mirrors.

The use of sampling is a clear example of this distinction, but not an exclusive one. Beyoncé’s song is not built around samples in any obvious way. But neither does it refer to, or re-present any event outside of its own intrinsic present. The instrumentation is, obviously & aggressively, an amalgamation of studio-generated sounds that are looped, spinning tight cycles in a way that evokes (without directly operating as) hip-hop samples, all in a way that insists, again, on the fact of its own artifice.

Listen to the Robert Johnson, & you know & understand that you’re hearing a record of a historical event. Listen to the Beyoncé Knowles, & what you’re hearing is that song, timelessly. You’re not trying to fix it in any particular place or time. At most, you might be picturing the video. (Itself, incidentally, re-presenting no time or place at all, as dancers are suspended surreally in shifting tones of white, gray, no floor beneath, no walls around.) “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on it)” never actually WAS; it just IS, as long as you’re hearing it. On your iPod or in your brain.

Anyway, here’s where I’m headed. I think the Robert Johnson is the Mona Lisa: there, you’re looking through that window, taking in the scene, & understanding that it’s a depiction of a then-present, now-past historical occurrence. The Beyoncé is “Flag”: it’s all icons & emblems & cultural signs, steeped in context & meaning & adding up to a physical object operating on your senses, a Modern piece of Art.

& I think this matters, why? Because there obviously still IS such a thing as live performance of music. & it’s frustrating to hear music so often performed as an effort to re-present a recording. That’s a failed strategy, dead on arrival & ass-backwards. Live music is exciting & alive to the extent that it can accommodate surprise. Live music should entail not actually knowing for certain what’s going to happen. More about that in future postings. For now, my point is just this simple: a recording of music and a performance of music are DIFFERENT from each other; they are not the same thing.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Grand Lake

OK, so back in the Department of Right Up My Alley: I heard recently from Caleb Nichols, ex-bassist for Oakland indie band Port O’Brien. His new band is just now reaching its own cruising altitude.

Grand Lake is the name of the new project. This is a rock trio that does fun things with electronics &, well, noise. & so, Noise being pretty much my favorite flavor, yup, I’m listening right now to some selections from their new 4-song EP. The title track, “Louise,” opens up with a quick little feedback meander before getting down to some serious business in the land of chunka-chunka. By then I’ve already been sold bc, guys, you had me at scrrreeeech. Heh.

So yes feedback gives me a thrill, everybody knows that. But what I’m really liking here are the sharp dynamic shifts, now raunchy, now sinuous, now pounding, now howling. (Oh, & is that actually a sort of proto-disco rhythm, completely incongruous, at the beginning of “Black Cloud”? Can’t you just for a second almost hear Donna Summer singing “I Feel Love” over the top of that bass line? That’s just hot, I don’t care who you are!) Anyway, Grand Lake can turn on a dime & I think that’s important in a 3-piece band. With so few elements in the mix, each player needs to be right on top of his (her) game at all times. Based just on these couple of tracks, what I hear here is some very heavy hitting from these guys. & they’re just getting started. Right now I think they’re still figuring out the exact parameters of their sound, but this is going to be a band to watch.

You can pay Grand Lake a visit on their myspace page, or on their own blogsite. I’m told a full-length album is targeted for Spring 2010, & my curiosity has been officially piqued. It looks like a couple of local gigs are scheduled in the meantime, including one at Café du Nord on January 6. Which is now in my calendar.

In ink.

See you there?

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Shants

I think that’s a cool band name, the Shants. Singer Skip Allums is coy about what it actually means, offering a couple of explanations. One, evidently, is British slang for getting drunk (e.g., “fancy a shant?”). I had not actually heard that term before, & have not yet independently confirmed its correct usage. So caveat emptor on that one, party peeps. Anyway, I just like the way it rolls off the tongue: the Shants. The Shants. So there’s that.

The Shants are a newish band, based in Oakland. Which seems to me like a funny place from which to launch this nouveau-retro-Country-type project. But what do I know, since this is clearly not my usual cup of tea anyway, right? See, at first I was all: yeah yeah, pedal steel guitar, nice, whatev. But here’s the thing: the Shants & my iPod have been carrying on a torrid little dalliance for a few days now. & I’m surprised to find myself getting actually kind of infatuated with these here Shants.

Submitted for our consideration is an 8-song EP entitled Russian River Demos, evidently recorded live in a cabin among the redwoods. & it feels like that: kind of languid, kind of sexy. Nobody’s in a hurry to get anywhere. Skip’s singing is, well, pretty. But it’s also delivered with the quiet confidence of somebody who’s strong enough to never need to shout. OK, I guess that’s a lot of words just to say he’s understated. Anyway, I like the singing & I like the songwriting, too. I like the frequent drifting into a minor key, just to keep things interesting. The clear signature here is the aforementioned pedal steel, wielded craftily by Samuel Tokheim. & that’s what really drew me into these songs. Samuel plays with finesse, with wit, & with a poetic sense that makes these good songs kind of great.

I like the Shants, & you might too. If you go to their myspace page, check out “Tired of Everyone,” and “I’m a Ghost.” It looks like they have a couple of San Francisco gigs coming up next month. You can buy their EP at a show, or on their site for 5 bucks. That's sweet.

Sunday, December 6, 2009


"Flag" -Jasper Johns, encaustic, oil, and collage on wood, 1954-1955

Long about the 3rd bottle of wine, my pal D was chuckling at something or other I had just slurred. We were probably playing the Clash. Or maybe the Buzzcocks. Anyway, D was far less impaired than I was (that's typical), & her claim is that she then texted me, quoting what I had just said. You know, for posterity & for hilarity. So I could see in the morning what nobody would otherwise remember. Here's the message I found on my phone next a.m.:

"I think really hard about things that no one cares about, thats whats wrong with my life."

It was actually pretty funny at the time. In context, I mean. I had been going on for a while about (big surprise) music. Recorded versus live music, my view of certain substantial & critical distinctions between the two modes, and what I see as analogous developments in early-to-mid Modern-era visual arts. In America.

I know, I know, I can't help it.

I just get that way sometimes. True story: I really actually do think about this kind of stuff pretty much all of the time. I mostly try not to talk about it unnecessarily when people are trying to just have a drink & a little fun. But D's been to art school & so I figure she's more used to geeks of my particular stripe, & I guess I gave myself license to be self-indulgent that night. More than usual, I mean.

Anyway, what I remember is that we were jamming some old-school capital-P Punk, & I was talking re: Warhol, de Kooning, & Jasper Johns.

i.e., a painting is a picture, right? It’s a depiction, a virtual window into a “scene” that we, as viewers, have to agree to believe in, to some negotiable degree. Right?

A painting is a picture. It’s a picture of something, someone. Some where. Some when. It’s a representation. A re-presentation, as in setting forth an artificial “present” moment, & asking us to be complicit in believing it’s real, & in believing it’s now. That’s pretty much the pre-Modern consensus on Western pictorial art, yeah? When we look at the Mona Lisa, Mr. da Vinci is asking us to pretend to believe we’re looking through a window at that nice smirking lady, comfortably placed in the foreground of a receding perspective scene. & we’re saying Yes, sure we’ll pretend to believe we see Her (& see her There) & not just smears of crackling sepia paint here, on an old piece of wood.

Then, in the capital-M Modern era, capital-A Art fucks with that consensus in a big way, right? It says, Whoa, not so fast. Let’s do look at the paint on the board (broadly defined). Let’s no longer pretend the painting is a magically-frozen present moment of some OTHER when/where/one/thing. No. The painting isn’t a picture at all any more. A photograph is a picture, yes. A photograph is a documentary event. Of an actual past moment, frozen now in an eternal present. But a painting is a painting: it's a physical object existing nowhere but the physical space in front of your eyeballs. Here. & occupying no present moment other than the one you’re alive in. Now.

Except. Maybe we're not always willing to go along with that. Maybe just because we’re human beings &, as human beings, we’re (maybe innately) inclined to invest physical objects (particularly objects created by ourselves) with significance. With meaning, even. We don’t want the painting to just be painting, or "a" Painting, no; we want it to be a picture. We want it to mean something. We want it to stand for something, for something other than what it plainly just is. We want it to depict, we want it to represent, we want it to re-present. We're inclined to want all of that.

I think these are the ideas that Jasper Johns was exploring when he made this painting in 1954, and called it “Flag.” It’s a super provocative piece because: What the hell is it? Is it a picture of a flag? Is it a flag? Actually, functionally a flag? & what, by the way, IS a flag? (I mean, speaking of physical objects invested with significance & meaning?) So, is this painting called “Flag” supposed to have the exact same significance & meaning as that flag on the pole at the Post Office across the street? Um, no? First, this thing is just different –it’s constructed of different materials, & it occupies a different physical context. Ok, but just because it’s made of wax & paint & wood & it’s hanging on the wall at the MOMA, does that actually mean ipso facto that it’s a picture? &, if so, of what? & what does it depict/mean/re-present?

Just by way of comparison, this is not the picture of Marines raising “the” flag at Iwo Jima, right? We know what that picture is, & what it connotes, & how it’s supposed to make us feel & think about “the” flag. But this thing? I don’t know what it is. I don’t know what, if anything, it says. At least, I don't know what it says about its apparent subject matter: "the" flag.

Do you? I imagine you (reader), opening this page, seeing that picture, & forming immediate expectations based on that picture. & then I imagine you shifting your expectations as you understood we’re only talking about “Flag,” & not about “the” flag. Of course, by now what you’re really wondering is what ANY of this has to do with music, the stated subject matter of this blog.

& I will get to that.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Take It From Me -- Track # 18 -- Son Lux

“Stand” by Son Lux
from At War With Walls & Mazes
March 2008

With this, our compilation closes out for better or worse. & this here is really JUST the kind of pretentious, arty shit that I tend to have a very high tolerance for!

The lyric repeats well past the point of stridency, the drum machine collides full-on with the opera-style singing, it’s all histrionics, electronics, & angular juxtaposition. Nothing even remotely, uh, punk about it, & yet it’s downright ostentatious in its audacity. It’s lush, it’s luxuriant, hey damn it’s gorgeous! The whole album is crazy like this.

Many, many people will dislike this, but shouldn’t everybody give it a try just once? Like escargot.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Take It From Me -- Track #17 -- Bon Iver

“Woods” by Bon Iver
from Blood Bank
January 2009

For a little while last year, Bon Iver was one of those bands where you think you’ve discovered something really esoteric & you think it’s going to be like your own special thing.

& then suddenly you find that everybody’s getting into “your” new band, & there’s a moment of readjustment there where you have to decide if you’re still going to be that into a band that’s that ubiquitous.

So, everybody knows the story now, how Monsieur Bon Iver (Justin Vernon) got his heart all broken & he went off to a cabin in the woods of Wisconsin (hello?) all by himself & didn’t come back until he’d recorded For Emma, Forever Ago. The album is really quite beautiful, but it was just everywhere for a while there & I finally had to take a little break from it. I’m sure I’m not the only one.

& that’s a commercially dangerous place for an artist to be, right? I imagine it’s all terrific & exciting to be this year’s Big New Thing. But from there, you can go where exactly? Because you do NOT want to be reduced to, you know, Last Year’s Big Thing. So, some strategic thinking might need to enter into the artistic decision-making. Not to be overly mercenary about it, but music undeniably is --among many other things, duh-- a commodity in the marketplace.

So anyway, Blood Bank was a four-song EP that Justin put out early this year, pointing in a couple different directions & maybe just trying to figure out where exactly he wants to go next. Because it’s not exactly obvious how to follow up on something so unique (& uniquely personal) as that 1st album.

For now, I think he punted. What is, functionally, this year’s Bon Iver album is, nominally, a side project: Unmap, by Volcano Choir. Which, when you listen to it, really actually is the new Bon Iver. It’s a shrewd move commercially, and it’s a perfectly satisfying move artistically, so win-win. If my 2010 year-end compilation ends up including selections from 2009, something from Volcano Choir is likely to be one of them. It's some good shit.

But anyway, here we have a current-year selection from the EP. “Woods” consists of nothing other than voice, processed through that god damn Auto-Tune thingie. btw, there actually is another version of this song on the Volcano Choir album. There, it’s called “Still,” and it’s a much fuller arrangement.

Here in this version, a single lyric repeats, & the harmonies evolve. & that’s pretty much all there is to it. I guess it’s really just a novelty track, but I still find it oddly compelling.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Take It From Me -- Track #16 -- BLK JKS

“Lakeside” by BLK JKS
from After Robots
September 2009

I don’t know a lot about this South African capital-R Rock Band called BLK JKS. I’m hearing a lot of really interesting ingredients in this music, but they can get lost under the sheen of all that prog-rock production. The mix is overly-homogenized; it’s like they stirred too many lumps out of the batter. Do you ever make pancakes? The batter has lumps in it, & that’s OK. In fact, it’s pretty important that you don’t over-stir the batter. Because in the course of stirring out all the lumps, you also stir out all the air, & then your pancakes won’t rise when they cook.

Anyway, I’m very curious to hear this band live, if an opportunity should arise. In the meantime, I’m intrigued but not yet sold.

Your thoughts?

Monday, November 30, 2009

Take It From Me -- Track #15 -- Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson

“Woodfriend” by
from Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson

June 2008

In this day & age, can there still possibly be anything of interest to be wrung out of the whole singer/songwriter schtick? Why, yes, it turns out that there sort of perhaps can!

I understand Mister Robinson to be a fairly young (mid-20s) guy who’s been kicking around Brooklyn for awhile now. The songs here succeed largely on the sheer iconoclasm of his artistic Voice. I wouldn't have thought that could still really happen any more nowadays, but there you have it. This song is more raucous than most of the album, but it’s all quite good.

He now has a new 2nd album out, that I have not heard yet. I understand that he made kind of a splash at South by Southwest this year. Q: When am I going to finally go to South by Southwest? A: Shit, I still don’t actually know.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Take It From Me -- Track #14 -- Of Montreal

“Women’s Studies Victim”
by Of Montreal
from Skeletal Lamping
October 2008

& then maybe we can use a little comic relief, yeah?

Ok so, wow, where the hell was I while this band called Of Montreal was putting out an album almost every year since 1997? In the dark, me!

This is what we used to call a “concept album.” i.e., all the songs are organized (very) loosely around some sort of a story/character/theme. I’m not really actually following the story/character/theme all that well in this instance, but hey: Everything on this album is rich, charming, hilarious, full of wit, & (bonus!) gratuitously filthy. This song is a great example of all of the above.

& yes, you heard that lyric correctly.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Take It From Me -- Track #13 -- The Antlers

“Two” by the Antlers
from Hospice
August 2009

I don’t actually know much about this band.

The album is an extended narrative about taking care of a loved one with a terminal illness. It’s really very good but, you know, not so uplifting. Insert appropriate emoticon here.

I rather like the slow dynamic buildup over the course of this longish song, the lyric is very strong throughout, & then that long, ethereal moaning whoosh for a full minute at the end is a very satisfying coda.

Take It From Me -- Track #12 -- the Kills

“Tape Song” by the Kills
from Midnight Boom
March 2008

Time ain’t gonna cure you honey
Time don’t give a shit
Time ain’t gonna cure you honey
Time’s just gonna hit
On you, you got to
[thump! thump-thump!] Go straight ahead…

If you don’t like this, you just hate rock & roll. The Kills fucking rock.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Take It From Me -- Track #11 -- Atlas Sound

by Atlas Sound
Let the Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel

February 2008

Yes, I am again pulling from the 2008 album (see track 3 on this mix).

The signature sound here is that popping, wet reverb on the vocal consonants –it makes my skin tingle!

As discussed elsewhere here, I was fortunate enough to see Bradford & co, on November 3, & this song was a highlight.

Take It From Me -- Track #10 -- Deerhunter

by Deerhunter
from Weird Era Contd.
October 2008

Well. Not for the 1st time, I’m in love with a band with a kind of stoopid name. This album was released simultaneously with Microcastle, they’ve got a couple of albums earlier than those & also some later stuff, & plus Bradford’s solo band has at least two albums out + some EPs, so, yes, these are some very prolific boys. I could easily have filled this whole CD with their excellent & variegated songs. & yeah, I thought about it.

Anyway, I love love love the way this song ostensibly ends, only to reprise itself & then quickly disintegrate into a distorted auto-reflection before wrapping up for real. Hot!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Take it From Me -- Track #9 -- Thurston Moore

“Off Work”
by Thurston Moore
from Trees Outside the Academy
September 2007

This is the oldest selection on the mix, I promise!

From Thurston’s last solo album. I like the juxtaposition between his Sonic Youth guitar & the electric violin that’s featured throughout. It’s noisy, it’s pretty, it see-saws back & forth. The combination sometimes works in a very satisfying way, as on this track. Here, I also enjoy how that weird hissing, vaguely-industrial sound insinuates itself into the middle of the song, practically taking over the whole show only to abruptly disappear, leaving the chord structure sort of inverted in its wake. Not everyone in my house appreciates that, but I think it’s nice.

btw, a chronically-underappreciated treasure is Thurston’s 1995 solo album, Psychic Hearts, which improves with age & is almost uniformly brilliant from start to finish. Seriously. Although, you may want to debate me on that. If so, buy it, listen to it one hundred times, & then I will buy you a drink. Or, you know, one hundred.

Take It From Me -- Track #8 -- Grizzly Bear

“Dory” by Grizzly Bear
from Veckatimest
May 2009.

Well, here’s a switch.

Grizzly Bear is now a band that makes pure, unadulterated capital-P Pop Music. I can’t help but hear the Beatles all over this album (see also, In Ear Park by side project Department of Eagles), e.g. especially, the single “Two Weeks,” which you might have heard a lot of last summer.

What’s curious to me is how little this resembles their earlier music (e.g., Horn of Plenty –noisy, electronic, often interesting, not always listenable). A curious evolution, & my general preference is for a little less sugar w/the medicine.

I do like this song though; it’s a kind of a suite, & I find the lyric genuinely poetic (“wo-wo wo-wo-wildly cohering in a watery deep,” etc.), which is rare let’s face it.

My usual music hosting site has let me down on this one; this album is inexplicably unlicensed there. You can still check it out here, or here, or wherev. Also, here is video of them performing the song live in an orchestral setting, which is kind of cool.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Take It From Me -- Track #7 -- Sonic Youth

“Malibu Gas Station”
by Sonic Youth
from The Eternal
June 2009

I won’t try to explain here all the reasons why Sonic Youth still occupy such a warm & special place in my heart. But it’s not difficult to get me started on the topic over beers, just FYI! I saw SY at the Fox this year, but I missed the “secret” show at the Independent (tickets sold out online in two minutes flat).

Kim’s vocals (can’t always call them “singing”) are not typically my favorite ingredient of SY music. I like Thurston’s crisp & precise rhythm playing on this song (e.g., at ~2:00). It's not virtuosic or anything, but just a tasty little surprise, an indicator that this band is still reaching, still growing. The obligatory degeneration into noisy feedback is obviously their stock in trade, & handled particularly well on this track, I think.

Take It From Me -- Track #6 -- Rain Machine

“Give Blood”
by Rain Machine
from Rain Machine
October 2009

This is Kyp Malone’s solo project (&, here again, the band’s name doesn’t do anything for me. Just saying.).

Not all of the songs on this album compare favorably to TVOTR, but there’s some very good & interesting stuff going on here. I do like the way Kyp’s singing just seems to drift in & out of falsetto, often more for dramatic than strictly musical effect. On this song, it’s the click-click-click percussion & the throbbing, raunchy fuzz-tone guitar that I find very tasty.

btw, I had a ticket to see Kyp’s new Machine play the Independent in October, but had to miss it when I couldn’t shake a pounding headache. I’m still mad about that.

Then Kyp & Co. opened for the Pixies at the Fox. Which I skipped. bc as much as I love me some Pixies, I just wasn’t going to pay out 65 bucks+ for ye olde reunion tour (see my snarky comments elsewhere here re nostalgia events masquerading as rock concerts). But I digress.

Kyp is a smart guy making smart music. Here, hear:

Take It From Me -- Track #5 -- Dirty Projectors

“Useful Chamber”
by Dirty Projectors
from Bitte Orca
June 2009

OK, back in the current year.

I had never heard of this band before seeing them open for TVOTR this year. I just have to say first: Dirty Projectors is a crappy band name, evocative of nothing, clumsy to say, & just really nothing much other than dumb.

So there’s that.

Still, it took me all of 15 minutes to fall irrevocably in love with the music. Dirty Projectors have evidently been on extended tour all year, & they keep passing their way through SF, so I’ve now seen them live three times, as discussed elsewhere here.

David Longstreth is the main guy in the band. From what I can tell, he is young, probably pretty pretentious, & is maybe even full of himself. I’m actually cool with that, since he’s a genuinely brilliant composer & a fascinating guitar player. I have heard comparisons between this band & prog-rock excesses of yore, & that is maybe fair, but only to a point. What I love most here is the arch sense of musical humor that permeates these ambitious & very quirky songs.

Take It From Me -- Track #4 -- TV on the Radio

“DLZ” by
TV on the Radio
from Dear Science
September 2008

I have to admit I was a little slow to catch on to this group, & I really have no excuse since they have THE BEST band name since, like, Talking Heads.

That alone should have clued me in, right?

Happily, I saw TVOTR play at the Fox in Oakland this summer, & the show left me very excited, very interested. Their music is not exactly rock, or jazz, or funk, or hip-hop, or techno, or doo-wop, or high-concept performance art, or etc. But it seems to me to connote all of those things & more. Oh, & it’s overtly & aggressively political, too. There’s just a lot going on inside of there, & all of it is (most importantly) very fun, danceable, & yeah, sexy.

I understand the band is now on a 1-year hiatus while Kyp Malone pursues his solo project, but I’m expecting a long & fascinating career ahead from these guys. In the meantime, I can recommend this album without reservation, as well as Return to Cookie Mountain (admittedly weird title), from 2006.

Take It From Me -- Track #3 -- Atlas Sound

“Ativan” by Atlas Sound
from Let the Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel
February 2008

Like I said, I’m still working my way through last year. This year’s Logos is also excellent, & may well appear on next year’s mix. So.

Anyway, usually the 1st thing that hooks me into any bit of recorded music is some flavor or texture in the way the thing is produced. e.g., I most certainly do love the swirling, sonic smear of Atlas Sound, solo project of Bradford Cox (of Deerhunter). Often, a song’s lyrics are the last thing to get my attention, but the opening lines here (“I slept til I threw up.”) are, um, kind of arresting yeah?

That said, I really just love the big, lush reverb that pervades this album. This music has direct antecedents in My Bloody Valentine, Jesus & Mary Chain, Velvet Underground (in reverse chronological order), all of which I will almost certainly address in future postings here.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Take It From Me -- Tracks #1 & #2 -- Flaming Lips

“Aquarius Sabotage” &
“See the Leaves” by the Flaming Lips
from Embryonic
October 2009

Hold on to your hat, right? Our compilation kicks off loudly, with a frenetic blast of free-jazz-ish electronica. The distortion is intentional, no need to adjust your equipment. Also, don’t panic as the chaos lasts only for approximately 1:05 before plunging into a bucket of feathers, a cloudful of sighs, a melancholy idyll. & that’s only the 1st track! From there, we segue into a throbbing march, dark & portentous. Are you getting chills? I’m getting chills.

This music is evocative, challenging, surprising. As you likely know, the Flaming Lips have been around since 1983. As far as I can tell, no band that’s been working it for over 25 years has any business at all putting out something this unexpectedly good. I think I listened to the whole album about ten times right after I bought it. I was stuck home with the flu that day, & this boisterous, baroque gem was a very medicinal tonic indeed.

Take It From Me -- The Scoop

OK, full disclosure: My ostensible year-end compilation CD, entitled Take it From Me Mix, contains 18 tracks, only half of which were actually from 2009. The rest were from 2008. Um, except for that one from 2007. I will cheerfully cop to having omitted many fine selections that actually were released in 2009, in favor of pieces I included for no better reason than I like them & I listened to them a lot this year, & plus 80 minutes is a finite number.

Distribution of these discs is & has been pursuant to the friends & family discount, terms of which are set forth as follows: I give you the CD & you, in turn, flatter my great taste in music. Win-win! For those not lucky enough to score a disc, links to the operative tracks will appear here over the next several days, along with my brief commentary on each.

Sunday, November 8, 2009


It's a lucky privilege indeed to live in a city where every single band on tour can be depended upon to stop by sooner or later. Yes, it is.

On the other hand, that's a whole lot of hubbub, & it does get difficult to keep track of it all. I'm just not that in the know, much as I'd like to be (Action items: 1. Quit job. 2. Get fake IDs for the children. 3. Never miss another show.). But don't you just hate it when you get all clued in to some "new" band, only to discover that they came through town already like, last freaking year? That is the thing that I hate.

So anyway, Ponytail. Don't answer out loud OK, but have you already seen Ponytail? Shit. I'm hunting online & I see an old tour schedule where it looks like they played Bottom of the Hill last May. Did you see that show? Shit, don't even tell me bc I'm just now getting hip to Ponytail & I want to see them SO. BAD. & as far as I can tell right now they're touring Australia and New Fucking Zealand. & that is very far away indeed from here.


Ponytail is one of those bands where you hear the record & you just immediately know the concert would be so much better. Like, the recording is just so plainly a mere shadow of what you think & dare to hope the band is really all about.

I don't even know how to convey the thrill I'm getting from this music. The band is fast & very, very tight. On first listen, it reminded me a little of Battles. But this is different. It's just more dirty & more sweaty. Nimble, but not even remotely subtle. Bright & hard, but not shiny. Is any of this helping? No, right? Here, hear:

I think I'm hearing two guitars & no bass, at least some of the time. The vocalist is Molly Siegel. I'm not calling her a singer. I mean, if Molly wants to call herself a singer I'm not going to object or anything, & I have nothing but admiration for what she does. I just think at the end of the day it's too damn reductive to call it singing. Molly yelps, Molly yowls, Molly hollers. She howls.

I just want to be in the room with this band doing its thing. I want to eat some of that euphoria. I want to hear it in my bones.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Atlas Sound

Great American Music Hall
San Francisco, CA
November 3, 2009

Bradford Cox is playing hooky from his day job with Deerhunter.

I definitely think of Deerhunter as a quote-unquote experimental rock band because they do question & expand the usual boundaries of the form. It's just that they often do so in stealthy ways, loading relatively conventional songs chock full of Trojan-horse surprises.

But that's another day's discussion. Tonight, Mr. Cox is engaged in his *other* project, Atlas Sound. I've spent a lot of time with the "Let the Blind Lead..." album, where the "experimentation" is overt & obvious. There, the "band" does not produce "songs," so much as aural tableaux vivants. Dream-ish snapshots, half-obscured, evocative & lush. The new album, "Logos," is somewhat less insistent on its own iconoclasm, but still: Altas Sound is processed sound, distorted & manipulated beyond easy recognition, repeatedly confounding of the listener's expectations. Delicious. Hell, it's magically delicious.

In Atlas Sound, Mr. Cox wields the fact of recording & production itself as his primary musical instrument. There's a lengthy tradition for this sort of thing, & he has described this project as a venue for ideas ill-suited to the usual rock band format.

Well, OK fair enough. But I'd been wondering: now that he's touring Atlas Sound as a rock band, how does its essence translate back to a live performance context? Based on tonight's show, the short answer is: It thankfully doesn't. My concern had been that this concert would be all self-serious, & that the band would execute wan imitations of those rich & complex recordings.

But No. First of all, Bradford was jovial & warm from the start. I was completely thrown off as he cracked jokes, flirted brazenly, recruited an audience member to play tambourine, & cetera. So by the time he started playing acoustic guitar & a fucking harmonica, well, I had already been so utterly disarmed & seduced that I was ready to follow wherever he & Atlas Sound were planning to go. (To be fair, he did allay fears by promising to play "some really weird shit" later in the set.)

This was a thrilling show because, while everybody knew to expect "experimental" or Experimental or whatever, this band played nothing that fit easily into any such pigeonhole. Instead, we got ~80 minutes of veering madly from one modus to another, never settling anywhere comfortably, & all of it was just damn fun! Mr. Cox has a lot of electronics on the floor, including some fancy-ass sampling machines. So, e.g., the acoustic guitar could morph into a hammer dulcimer on crystal meth, the harmonica could transmogrify via god's own echo-box. Or, just as often, not. Because playing it clean & straight is just one more color in this artist's very big wheel. & just to not leave the stone unturned: Bradford Cox is a fucking bad-ass electric guitar player exclamation point.

One favorite moment among several: tonight's version of "Quarantined." Stripped of its popping reverb & (deliberately, ironically) cheesy sequencer, the song was suddenly driven by Bradford's surprisingly passionate & ultimately poignant vocal performance. A complete reinvention of a song I have well-known & well-loved. Outstanding.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

DP update

Dirty Projectors at Bimbo’s 365 Club

San Francisco, CA

November 1, 2009

The bass player has grown a porn ‘stache. Or maybe it was just a fake one, left over from Halloween yesterday. Either way, it was a good omen: in direct contravention to my last post, Dirty Projectors clearly joined in the fun tonight. Dave & Amber were actually rocking out, bouncing around, jamming together. The drummer got so worked up he stripped off his shirt mid-set. Shit, even Angel was looking happy & cracking jokes! Dirty Projectors have been on the road for a good long time, now. & they no longer play like they’re Dave Longstreth’s hired crew. No. Finally, now, they’re a fucking band. The ensemble playing is tight, tighter than ever. But there’s an evident ease & fluidity to what these six individuals are doing together onstage now. They nailed it tonight. I’ll bet they’re doing that a lot lately.

I kept pretty good track of the set list, but I didn’t recognize the 1st song. It was just Dave alone; his guitar playing had a guttural quality I don't think I'd heard before, so I'm guessing it's an old song dug out from the trunk. Or maybe it's a new one, pointing to changes afoot. Apart from that gap, my notes have the set as follows:


Ascending Melody

No Intention

Temecula Sunrise

Two Doves

Spray Paint (the Walls)

The Bride

Cannibal Resource

Remade Horizon

Stillness is the Move

Useful Chamber

When the World Comes to an End

Knotty Pine (encore)