Following up on my note about last.fm offering free / ad-supported streaming of full tracks, everyone should read this missive from Rogue Amoeba, the authors of Audio Hijack Pro and Radioshift, two very useful tools for internet music fans. It’s difficult to concisely describe the very delicate balance of competing forces that makes legal on-demand streaming possible. I honestly think Rhapsody and Napster owe their continued viability at least partially to a need by the major labels to not look like they’ve been chumped by Apple (the iTunes Music Store looms very large when it comes to music and the internet). I really like last.fm and I’d like them to succeed, but what they’re doing is increasing the volatility of an already fluid situation.
So one of the areas where my preferences intersect with Planet Pitchfork is that I have a serious weakness for the whole freak-folk scene (which is only intensified by my recent discovery of the world of Joe Boyd-produced folk/rock). While I liked Joanna Newsom live back 2004 (when I saw her opening for other freak-folk heavyweights Devendra Banhart, Vetiver and Brightblack Morning Light), I resisted picking up Ys because the reviews made it sound like overindulgent prog wankery (as a side note, I have no idea why I decided that was a bad thing, as I have acres and acres of overindulgent prog wankery in my collection – maybe it was that it was popular, much-hyped prog wankery).
As it turns out, Ys is a meticulously crafted work of genius, and is only overindulgent if you are a frowny-faced fun hater. Its five tracks are overflowing with song, and are almost embarrassingly rich in beautiful melodies and flawless couplets. I’ve listened to it countless times and “Emily” and “Sawdust & Diamonds” still – still – make me tear up every time I hear them. This is not an easy thing to do, people. I was genuinely delighted it when Ys came up on my iPod just now.
Newsom’s masterful poetry (seriously, I think I know good poetry, and for all of Newsom’s four-dollar words, this is as elegant and concrete as poetry gets in 21st century English), distinctively girlish voice (WARNING: her breathy, raw delivery is a deal-breaker for some) and harp playing combines with Van Dyke Parks’ ornate, varied orchestration to create something that has all the subtlety and restraint of a sledgehammer to the forehead. In a good way. Next to this, Joni Mitchell’s experiment in orchestrated folk-pop, Travelogue, is a miserable failure, and the songs on Travelogue are some of the best songs chosen from a 40-plus year career of one of America’s greatest songwriters. I cannot praise this record highly enough.
Colin Newman’s “Round and Round”, the last track from his 1988 solo album It Seems, is a brilliant and maddeningly catchy exercise in looped anti-pop music. It’s especially impressive in the way that it flouts pop song conventions while sounding relentlessly poppy – the song is only Newman singing his elliptic, nonsensical lyrics over layered synths, with no percussion or rhythm section. It builds and builds, paying off in… nothing. It fades out and the album ends. It’s a completely typical move for Newman, who manages to combine both the most pop-oriented and most pranksterish tendencies of Wire (his most famous project) in a single person. And it’s a beautiful little song. I seem to be incapable of just letting it play through, rewinding it back to the beginning each time I hear it.
One of the many pleasures of the digital download revolution is that it means that people who like raw, tracky electronic music can get high-quality techno in a portable form without having to jump through hoops to get it. I haven’t ripped my vinyl yet, and may never get around to it, because doing it right is a lot of work. And a huge chunk of that stuff was originally available solely on 12” and 10” records which never made it to the west coast of the US. But who cares, when I can hit Beatport or Bleep and download acres of high-quality MP3s at more or less reasonable prices?
Especially when it’s stuff like Surgeon’s, or a release like East Light? East Light came out in the middle of Surgeon’s most fertile period of the end of the 90s, when he was running two labels (Dynamic Tension and Counterbalance) and putting out material on two others (Soma and the legendary Tresor). Upon first listen, it is a clinically dry collection of tracky dancefloor techno, unrelenting and very mechanically composed. All four tracks are pure percussion workouts, and this is precisely where their most appealing qualities lie: while they sound unremittingly electronic, almost all these tracks are made from carefully chosen samples of real percussion instruments, orchestrated into a smoothly ticking orrery.
Because these tracks were, after all, intended to be worked into a dancefloor set by a DJ, they don’t have the sophisticated progression and complexity of Surgeon’s dense, sui generis Force+Form, or the easy appeal of records by Model 500 or Underground Resistance, but first listens can be deceptive. I’ve had East Light kicking around my iPod for years, and it continues to grow more interesting and immersive each time I hear it.
Would New Order have become the juggernaut they were if they hadn’t been the wreckage of Joy Division? I have a hard time believing that any band with Bernard Sumner as its lead singer could have gotten so famous without some major help. He seriously has one of the most godawful singing voices I’ve heard in pop music. The dude has never, ever learned to carry a tune. “Blue Monday” is one of my all-time favorite songs, but listen to a song like “Every Little Counts” or “All Day Long” and try to convince me egregious crimes against all that is good and just are not being committed.
Today marks the rollout of last.fm’s on-demand streaming music service. This is and isn’t a big deal. On the one hand, it’s free, and they got the agreement of the four major labels and the largest indie aggregators (IODA and the Orchard), so there’s a lot of music, and it’s all available now. You should go check it out. On the other hand, Napster did more or less the same thing over a year ago as a way to drive potential paying customers to their site (and their higher-quality paid offering) and doesn’t appear to have benefited from it; analysts keep saying they’re doomed, and Rhapsody, my employers, have been steadily pushing our integration with social networking sites like Facebook. On a third hand, last.fm has been offering free internet radio for a long time now, and the difference between “internet radio” and “on-demand streaming” means a lot more to people trying to market (and profit from) those services than it does to your average music fan, I suspect.
I think it’s interesting that this is the first big change last.fm has made in the wake of selling themselves to CBS (which has no relationship to the old CBS Records label they sold start Sony back in 1988, although confusingly enough, they did restart a new CBS Records label at the end of 2006 to push music tied to their television shows). Subscription streaming is a tough, and so far unprofitable, business, and CBS must really believe that it can create a big market for last.fm’s advertisers if it hopes to make its money through advertising alone. It baffles me that so many executives think they can save the music business by giving its primary product away for free, especially because one of the main lessons I’ve taken away from watching the onward march of filesharing is that people vastly prefer having the music in their possession, legally or not.
In any case, I’ve been using Audioscrobbler to keep track of my listening for several years now, and after some growing pains, last.fm has turned into a smooth and professionally-run service. I wish them luck. We’re all going to need it.
Today marks the beginning of this blog for real.
I recently created a new smart playlist in iTunes named “terminator”. It includes every track on my iPod that hasn’t been played since midnight last night. Upon its creation, that playlist contained 21,433 tracks, which I will now listen to shuffled by release. That’s a whole lot of music, no matter how you look at it: 148 gigabytes (which is all my “160GB” iPod classic will hold), 70.7 days’ worth of uninterrupted listening, 1,998 albums containing tracks by 1,044 different artists. After I’ve listened to all that, I’ll pull in more from my archive, which currently includes 6,102 albums collected over the last 20-odd years.
For the last few years, I’ve been using myself as a test subject for new ways of listening. Playing through huge playlists of incredibly diverse music, randomly-selected album after randomly-selected album, has had strange effects on how I hear music. Genre as a differentiating principle has diminished greatly in importance, and I have definitely learned to privilege songwriting and composition over production and musicianship. I try very hard to give everything an equal chance to be heard (the reason I only started this project now is that I wanted to hear everything on my iPod at least twice), but my subconscious brain definitely plays favorites (consider the relative accessibility and songness of the things that get stuck in my head).
This blog is, in large part, intended to be a scratch pad for me to document whatever random thoughts occur to me during the process of listening through my collection. I’m trying to get in the habit of making quick observations several times a day, and otherwise not decide in advance what and how I write. I firmly believe that we, as listeners, need newer, more rigorous and inclusive ways of talking about music in the thoroughly postmodern culture we all live in now (I know, I know, postmodernism is so 20 years ago, but in many ways, it’s more in control than ever). I’m still trying to figure out what that means and how to do it. My hope is that writing a little every day will eventually help me figure it out.
I may or may not make it through my whole collection. As the subtitle of this blog says – at the time of writing this post – I have 248.8 days’ worth of music in my personal archive, if I were to listen to it 24 hours a day. In reality, I listen to about 8 hours’ worth of music a day, mostly while I’m working, running errands or reading at home. Very approximately it would take over two years to listen to it all at that pace, and of course I’m not planning on stopping my music shopping just because I’m doing this project. I’ve committed to giving it at least a year, but after that we shall see. Finishing things is not my strong suit.
So far today, I’ve heard the FAN disc from New Order’s RETRO compilation, Side 1 of Severed Heads’ Op3, Surgeon’s East Light EP, Janek Schaefer’s Above Buildings, a stray track from The Haunted’s rEVOLVEr (not sure what’s up there, probably some kind of metadata bug), and Troum’s session for the Mort aux Vaches show on VPRO radio in the Netherlands. I don’t intend to write about everything I hear, nor document my listening album by album (people who really care about that sort of thing can check out my last.fm page – almost everything I hear gets logged there). I don’t have anything insightful or penetrating to say about a lot of my favorite music; I just enjoy it, and that’s fine with me. My hope is that the stuff I do write will be interesting to some of you, and that as this project develops, some of you will be interested enough to hang around.
I am no longer even pretending to be in a band, but this makes me want to start a new one:
Like most Metasonix gear (they have a long history of this sort of thing), this is a totally uncompromising, experimental piece of gear that might destroy anything you plug into it and probably requires great ingenuity to make not sound like butt. Also it’s a custom build and will “probably” cost around $5,000, which is insane for something using tubes repurposed from television tuners and old microwaves. It also has a very rude, yet awesome, name.
I bet it’s a ton of fun to play.
(H/T Joel Johnson)
Swervedriver were a terrific band. They released four albums that managed to mine just about every great rock and roll tradition of the preceding 30 years without ever sounding like anything other than Swervedriver. They were better on stage than on record, even though classic songs like “Last Train to Satansville” were minor masterpieces of invisible soundtrack work and they were clearly consummate craftsmen. Their songs have a transparent clarity that glows brighter the more attention you give them. They were, in short, a great British rock band, and these days almost entirely unknown.
The biggest reason for their relative obscurity is due to factors beyond their control; their first records were released by Creation at the height of shoegazermania, and while they had some brilliant dreampop moments (“Sunset” off their debut is my favorite along those lines), they were both more muscular and more traditional than most of their peers. I saw them open for Soundgarden in the spring of 1992, and I went from thinking they were also-rans to being a fan in about 10 minutes. They rocked hard, and played far more confidently than you’d expect from an opening act who were almost completely unknown in the US at the time. My favorite album by them, Mezcal Head, is a straight up rock and roll masterpiece – nothing “alternative” about it – and owes much to the Rolling Stones, Lee Hazelwood and The Byrds.
I picked up their third album, Ejector Seat Reservation, shortly after it came out in 1996. It was hard to find (it didn’t get released outside the UK until 2003) and so I was a little disappointed that it seemed so featureless and dry next to the effortless pyrotechnics of Mezcal Head. That feeling persisted until just a couple months ago, when I ripped all my Swervedriver and put it on my iPod. Having the opportunity to hear Ejector Seat Reservation while I was out and about allowed me to get to know it at a more leisurely pace, and I slowly realized that it is at least as classic a set of songs as anything else Swervedriver ever released. I use the word “classic” consciously; Swervedriver’s debts are more obvious than ever, but so is the care and conscientiousness of their songcraft.
This album really deserves to be in the same category as the best records by Blur, Ride or Pulp, and easily outclasses anything made by the odious Oasis (the Gallagher brothers are jerks, their records sound like overcompressed crap, and they had one great song they kept permuting over and over). It’s hard to say what Swervedriver could have done to get more noticed, but it’s a shame they weren’t.
Stuck in head this morning: Torche’s “Fire”, a two and a half minute buzzbomb of droning catchy pop melodies running on consonant bass-heavy stoner metal rails. The fact that the lyrics are apparently sung in some otherworldly foreign key (which they keep in harmony, despite being at least half a semitone sharp throughout the song) only adds to its wayward charm, although it makes it somewhat awkward to have stuck in your head. I keep trying to force the singing into tune, but my brain won’t let me.
This song, more than any other in Torche’s catalog, lays bare their debt to Jane’s Addiction, who I would describe as “long gone and lamented” if they – especially Perry Farrell and Dave Navarro – had not so badly overstayed their welcome. As it is, their inescapable sensi frat-boy hijinx keep me from forgetting how the jocks in the dorms used to play Ritual de lo Habitual every day, sure as morning wood.
Stuck in my head as I got up at the semi-buttcrack of dawn this morning to wing my way back to sweet, blessed, soggy civilization: “In the Jailhouse Now” by The Soggy Bottom Boys. You know, the song from O Brother, Where Art Thou. At least that’s better than yesterday, when I had “Union Maid” by Woody Guthrie stuck in my head after my girlfriend and I spent like an hour on the internet listening to ice cream truck theme songs. I can’t even explain.
I have sort of a disdain-hate relationship with Nick Denton’s would-be media empire. Over the years, I’ve read Gizmodo, Gawker, Defamer, Jezebel, io9, Fleshbot, Kotaku and Idolator. Sooner or later, all of them except Jezebel have started to really piss me off. Denton encourages an irreverent house style that’s reminiscent of a brain-damaged version of British tabloid culture: gossip reigns supreme, sincerity is toxic, and a cheap, facile presumption of auctorial authority oozes out of every page.
Jezebel makes it work. At least one of the editors is like a retarded kitten, and you want to pet her even as you kind of pity her, and the rest of the editors know how to be provocative (and funny) enough to get Jezebel’s thriving community going on a given topic. Their commenters have sort of taken charge of the site’s vibe, and they’re an interesting group. That’s the only reason I still read Jezebel, even though I probably shouldn’t.
Idolator, on the other hand, makes me crazy in the head. Maybe it’s just that they’re treading very close to where I live, but for all of their cheap cracks and flashy insider knowledge, they still come across as no-talent assclowns. They act like they’re letting you in on the scene, but it’s all written from the consumer’s side of the music biz firewall, so they never really offer you the economic analysis or industry context that would allow you to understand the larger forces at work – something I think is critical in understanding how and why we get the music we do. In place of thoughtful analysis (or useful criticism) we get the same tired-ass shallow celebrity gossip horseshit: who’s got beefs, who flashed their beaver in public, which famous person said something dumb or mean about some other famous person, Amy Winehouse is gonna die, Britney’s still alive, etc. And occasionally some totally insipid “pop” criticism from writers who I know are capable of much better.
That’s the thing that gets to me the most, I think: I know that Jess Harvell and Maura Johnston are die-hard music fans with interesting tastes. Anyone who will go to the mat for Scritti Politti is clearly on my team, and Harvell’s recent analysis of what internet hype is doing to the development of new artists was sharply written and perceptive. It’s just when they write to match the Gawker style that they piss me off, because it does a disservice to music, which I fervently believe deserves to be taken seriously, and it does a disservice to their own skills when every sharp insight is immersed in a sea of semi-pointless snark.
I only subjected myself to them (again) because I’m trying to keep a closer eye on the business end of music myself, and it sort of seemed like they might have some insight into deals like the recent flaps at EMI. But they’re using the same primary sources I am, and tossing it into Nick Denton’s Borg processor to be extruded as partially hydrogenated meta-cultural product, and it’s all terrible and makes me sad. Don’t support their asinine bullshit. Even Pitchfork is better, and that’s not something I admit lightly.
(NOTE to Annalee and Charlie, should they ever stop by: I like you guys just fine, and I wish you all the best in your new gig, but trying to read io9 just makes me sigh. No offense. I think I just come at fandom from another angle.)
So there was once this pseudo-band called The Dukes of Stratosphear, which is actually XTC wearing floppy shirts and playing British psychedelia that is the definition of “pastiche”. Which is to say that while I love their music for historical reasons, my enthusiasm for it is sapped after spending some serious time with Pink Floyd’s The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, to which it is beyond indebted. The Dukes are one step above being a cover band, and while their ear for that style is uncanny, the resulting songs aren’t very strong. That said, I will yield to no one when it comes to “What in the World”, which is by far the finest song on the album. None of it’s bad, I just thought it was niftier before I knew what a clone job it is.
Stuck in my head this morning, as instant karma: “Head On”, by the Jesus and Mary Chain, medleyfied with “On the Wall” (are they even different songs?). I keep hearing bits of the Pixies version mixed in. That’ll teach me for trash-talkin’!
This is the life we chose, the life we lead. And there is only one guarantee: none of us will see Heaven.
I, uh, I don’t really know what to say about Abigor’s Fractal Possession. Beyond saying I’m sorry I ever doubted them (in the wake of the tepid Satanized), and ever having said anything snarky about this album. Fractal Possession is stunning and sui generis.
So, here’s a précis: Abigor. Austrian 3-piece with a revolving membership, no bass player, and the style of rattletrap pell-mell drumming that owes more to old grindcore (with its double-footed oatmeal box kick drums) than death metal’s bass-heavy rolling thunder. Possessed of a singular guitarist who can twist the whole chaotic mess around his finger and turn it into something grandiose and beautiful all by himself. Never make the same album twice. Fond of stealing samples from Dom & Roland, who probably stole them all from somebody else.
This album pushes all sorts of buttons for me, with its high-velocity prog/black/technical death metal warped into all kinds of strange shapes by the promiscuous borrowing from industrial, drum’n’bass and metalcore. Samples from Road to Perdition are juxtaposed with Abigor’s inimitable overdubbed twin-lead guitar pyrotechnics and random doomcore synth blats. And just to keep you on your toes, whenever the density peaks and it starts to blur into saminess, things ease up and get more melodic. It’s really quite something. I like it so much I had to listen to the whole thing all the way through twice, which I almost never do.
Crebain’s Night of the Stormcrow is, for the most part, one man band black metal with the usual death and thrash metal influences: ridiculously morbid and aggressive lyrics, galloping drum machine rhythms, and the distortion turned up to 14 on everything. But for ten glorious seconds at the beginning of “Time to Die” the po-faced façade cracks, as Crebain stages an aural drama about some jolly Swiss lass singing a jolly little tune, only to fall shrieking beneath some sort of hideous assault by a jolly, madly cackling Crebain. It’s ridiculous and sublime. He should do more of that.
The ending of “The Cries of My Motherland” samples some beautiful a capella Eastern European / Middle Eastern folk singing in multi-part harmony, too, this time without interruption by the malign forces of darkness. Nothing out of the ordinary, but it’s still very pretty, especially in the midst of all the churning thrash.
head on 3
Once upon a time, I spent what seemed like an endless night with some friends watching a compilation of all of the Jesus and Mary Chain’s videos. Every one was identical: William and Jim Reid, standing in front of a monochrome backdrop (sometimes black, sometimes white, sometimes with cheesy video effects overlaid), staring straight into the camera with deadpan expressions (if they weren’t wearing sunglasses), listlessly strumming at their instruments without too much concern for staying in sync with the songs they were miming. Sometimes one would halfheartedly dance around, staring fixedly at the camera the whole time. After what seemed like eight hours (but was probably only four), it was a relief to switch to Nekromantik 2, and as anyone who has experienced that bizarre mindfuck (I hesitate to call it porn) knows, that’s saying something. After that night, it’s been easy for me to believe that the band are exactly as humorless as they seem.
But there’s always Barbed Wire Kisses. It was the first Jesus and Mary Chain album I bought, after hearing “Sidewalking” on the lone “alternative” radio show that Portland radio carried in syndication. “Sidewalking” is a catchy, propulsive electro-rockabilly ode to personal transportation, and I was mostly excited to hear it again, but the album ripped the top of my head clean off. The next day I was ranting to my friends at school, “DUDE, you’ve GOT to HEAR this! These guys use FEEDBACK as an INSTRUMENT!” I think it’s that combination of noise and pop that made JAMC so influential on My Bloody Valentine (who, after all, started out sounding pretty much exactly like The Cramps, another band of rockabilly outlaws) and the other Creation bands of the late 80s.
Barbed Wire Kisses is a collection of singles and B-side tracks, but it has a coherency and sleek, menacing sound that I miss on the rest of JAMC’s records. It also has a few choice covers, and that’s where it seems like maybe they do have a deeply buried sense of whimsy (if not humor), because their choices for artists to cover are Bo Diddley, the Beach Boys, and… Can? They somehow take “Mushroom”, one of Damo Suzuki’s stream of consciousness rants, and make it sound positively malign. It’s not quite as doom-hollowed as “Cracked”, which has a queasy sexual vibe that both thrilled and spooked me back in 1988, but the JAMC version brings out the nuclear-war subtext in a way that’s left completely implied in the original.
(As a side note, it’s always mystified me why the Pixies chose to cover “Head On”, probably one of the least interesting songs in the entire JAMC catalog, by turning it into probably one of the least interesting songs in the entire Pixies catalog.)
So I seem to be back to having Lester Bangs & Birdland’s “Kill Him Again” stuck in my head. It’s so agonizingly close to being a work of genius, in the same way that, say, Foreigner’s “Jukebox Hero” was. It would just need slightly less eccentric singing, or slightly tighter production, or something, and it would have been a perfect nugget of slightly leftfield rock and roll.
(People like to hate on Foreigner because they kept going way too long and because their songs were easy to like, but “Jukebox Hero” is as much about being young and being in Foreigner as it is about hitting the big time. I don’t think that would have been enough for Bangs, because he would have recognized Foreigner for the phonies they were, especially by the time they put out 4, but I think he probably would have admitted that “Jukebox Hero” is about as perfect a pop song as you’re likely to find. Anyway. I’ve loved that song since I was 9, and just about everyone I knew back then did too, so it bums me out to see people my age trying to act like they were always too cool to like Foreigner, or Loverboy, or Night Ranger. 80s hard rock 4EVA!)
Thinking about Lester again reminded me of Bruce Sterling’s story “Dori Bangs”. It’s an alternate history story about a world in which Lester Bangs met Dori Seda and they fell in love and didn’t both die way too young of dumb things (a combination of a bad cold and cough syrup abuse on Bangs’ part, respiratory failure caused by a flu and busted lungs on Seda’s part). Googling around for Sterling’s story ended up leading me to this page, and I think Ray is essentially correct. I love “Dori Bangs”, but that’s because I love the ideas in it, not because it’s a flawless story. There’s a lot more Lester than Dori in the story, and that just doesn’t seem right or true to me.
Dori Seda and her work aren’t very well known anymore, which is, to put it mildly, too bad. I only discovered her because she had a few comics in Twisted Sisters: A Collection of Bad Girl Art, which a girlfriend got me as a gift a long time ago. Dori’s stories are raunchy, self-aware and deeply funny, and she had a wicked way with a line. She lived in Berkeley and San Francisco’s Mission, and both places were a lot scuzzier than they are now. She makes early-80s grimy San Francisco and her friends (and dog!) come alive in a way that makes me feel like I missed a swinging party.
It’s easy to see why Sterling would have been wanted to speculate about what would have happened if these two oversized characters had hit it off, but in reality, probably nothing would have happened. Lester was famously retarded with women (although, according to Cynthia Heimel, yet another larger than life rock and roll character, he had his moments) and Seda’s love life wasn’t simple or strings-free enough for her to run off and marry a hairy New Yorker with self-esteem problems.
But it’s a nice idea.
It’s a good thing I didn’t know or forgot that Dead Meadow’s Howls from the Hills was a reissue, or I might have skipped picking it up. Somebody told me once that their old records suck, and like a chump I believed Andee. Somebody. Whoever it was who told me that who definitely wasn’t Andee. The lead singer has kind of a whiny voice, but not in a Doug Martsch way, and I’ve come to love Martsch’s voice anyway. These are some epic stoner jams here, sort of as if Black Sabbath and got together and recorded some jams with Bardo Pond at their most baked. The whole thing is very 1975. It’s not quite as space-rocking or as catchy as the more recent Dead Meadow albums, but their combination of midtempo sludge, fuzzed out guitars, and wah-wahed droning feedback is instantly recognizable. These guys are like comfort food for me. Now I gotta go pick up the other reissued old album and their live CD. I can’t believe I passed up the chance to see them live. Stupid tinnitus.