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?