Friday, December 09, 2016

Marc Spitz, "Poseur"

This is my second review this year of an autobiographical bildungsroman about an artist struggling to succeed in the music industry in New York City (the first being Moby's excellent autobiography).  In both cases, the city itself is the main character in the story, where a picture of a bygone city is captured in vivid detail during its transformation in the 1990's.  Both authors struggle to find their way in a fog of substance abuse, self-destructive behaviour, and depression.  There's even an odd bit of convergence of their stories, where Spitz backs off from dating a girl because she'd been linked to Moby, and even becomes paranoid about the techno star stealing his crushes.

Despite the many similarities, their writing styles couldn't be more different.  Moby is an amateur storyteller, albeit a very good one, who recounts almost everything with nostalgic colour.  Spitz (whose book was published in 2013) has carefully honed his hipsterism over time, worshipping at the altar of countless great writers.  He's always on the bubble between trying to write the next Great American Novel (or play) and infusing the spirit of Lester Bangs (and the rock and rock lifestyle to go along with it).  Luckily for him, he got to do a bit of both.  

Even though Moby was born just four years earlier than Spitz, he's part of a totally different generation.  Moby's NYC is firmly in the pre-gentrification era, it's closer to the Wild West than anything one would recognize today,  Spitz's experiences hit closer to home for me because he's from my generation musically.  Moby was reared on late 70's punk and new wave.  Born only four years later, Spitz is firmly an 80's kid, bred on the Smiths, Cure, and Depeche Mode.    

Two thirds of the book happens pre-SPIN magazine, before Spitz had a real career to speak of.  Nevertheless, these pre-1996 struggles and story after story "about nothing" are the highlights of the book.  It's usually not a pretty sight, but Spitz keeps the narrative moving with heavy doses of humour and self deprecation.  He's astonishingly self aware and constantly critical of what he did and how he treated other people.  In the hands of a less gifted writer he'd come off as insufferable.  Nothing is romanticized, and it's clear that he's not encouraging anyone to emulate his behaviour, but he managed to function and interact with a fascinating array of characters (and many celebs), despite his troubles there's plenty to be envious of.  His is a story well worth telling.  

His success as a writer and playwright only makes him more unhappy.  He gets to interview many of his musical heroes and even befriends some of them.  Eventually we reach the happy ending, although not the one that's implied on the back cover of the book, where he seems to find love and live happily ever after.  In fact he ends up alone, content to soak in the city while walking his dogs.  But he's happy.  There was never one moment where he "recovered" and stopped being a drug addict and a major pain in the ass to his employers.  In his telling, he did nothing other than what we all do naturally and without even trying.  He grew up, entered his mid-30's, and understood that he had to leave all that behind.  No more chasing after the next cool musical trend, no more partying like a rock star.  It's real, and it's relatable.       

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

PJ Harvey, "The Hope Six Demolition Project"

We've reached the last month of the year and I've been revisiting a lot of what I've been listening to over the past eleven months.  That includes the albums that I've been overlooking, and PJ Harvey's most recent is certainly one of them.

When this album was released, I found it somewhat offputting and quickly filed it away.  Musically, it was undoubtedly PJ Harvey at or near the peak of her powers.  Her voice remains uncannily potent even after twenty five years as a major recording artist, conveying rage, defiance, and empathy in equal parts, better than just about any other songwriter in music.  The album also contains her bluesiest work in two decades, with "The Wheel" as a standout that comes closer to recreating the feel of "To Bring You My Live" more than anything she's recorded since.  There are no shortage of anthemic choruses, and the rage against the dying of the light (and Walmart sized corporations) that is "The Community of Hope" ranks among her very best album openers.

However, I couldn't get past the notion that PJ Harvey is trying a bit too hard to make a statement, resorting to political tourism and acting as a vehicle for the ambitions of others, rather than writing about what she truly feels in her heart.  "Let England Shake" looked at war and imperialism through the eyes of First World War soldiers, which only could have come from the mind of an English soul attuned with the beauty and serenity of the countryside.  And even then, nobody else possessed the genius to see things from that angle. On "The Hope Six Demolition Project", she's parachuted into complex political landscapes, and as an outsider, she's well-meaning but impressionable.  Her reportage lacks the nuance of "Let England Shake" and even many of her third person, character-driven writing (e.g. most of "Is This Desire").

Community leaders in Washington were supposedly upset at her labeling their neighbourhoods as shitholes on "The Community of Hope".  Lines like these come off like they were fed to her by local guides with a personal or political agenda.  PJ Harvey rarely throws out lines to shock just for the sake of it, she's been above those kind of gimmicky quote-bait lyrics for her entire career.   It concludes with "they're gonna put a Wal-Mart here" which actually works to bring the song to a rousing conclusion, but is also as subtle as Wal-Mart itself.  Corporations are running America and trampling on the poor -- how unoriginal and exactly the kind of giftwrapped story that can be easily fed to foreigners looking to confirm their biases about America.  Look, I'm not saying that sentiment isn't correct, but PJ Harvey used to always find ways to look beyond the completely obvious, either to peer into the souls of her subjects deeper that her contemporaries would dare to, or to say the obvious in a decidedly non-obvious and unique way.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Leonard Cohen RIP

Days later, and it's still sinking in. We've become uncomfortably used to dealing with the deaths of A-list musicians this year.  But much like David Bowie's death, the clues were all there, left behind in Cohen's words and music, and we somehow didn't see it coming.  How can somebody leave behind such great art in the face of death, and maintain this type of poise and dignity until the very end?  Us ordinary folks may never understand it.  

Cohen's remarkable final act is now well known.  His former manager stole most of his life savings, and Cohen embarked on a massive, years long set of world tours to rebuild his fortune.  If he hadn't nearly been bankrupted, does he live out a quiet retirement, releasing the occasional studio album to mild acclaim by a fanbase and critical establishment that had more or less forgotten about him when he became a recluse in the mid 90's?  Instead of that alternate reality, he not only rebuilt his retirement fund but also his musical legacy.  Would the obituaries have placed him second to Bob Dylan among rock era lyricists (I have seen this written over the past week) if that tour hadn't happened?  Would he have been elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008 without the newfound sympathy and interest in his music in the wake of the management scandal?  He'd been eligible for fifteen years and people weren't exactly up in arms about why he hadn't been elected.  The Leonard Cohen of 2005 hadn't released an album in over a decade, and had been widely assumed to have fallen off the deep end due to his years long stint in a Buddhist monastery.  

But you also have to wonder about the toll that years of touring took out of the body of a man in his late 70's.  He was meditating for hours per day in the monastery well into his 60's, so he was obviously of sound mind and body.  You still have to think that without his misfortunes, he stays at home all these years and is still with us.  He unknowingly traded that for a pile of riches he'll never get to enjoy and a "legacy".  Cohen never cultivated any kind of legacy and only people who lionize the 27 Club give a crap about legacies as they pertain to unforeseen death, but without that tour, the headlines probably read "'Hallelujah' composer dies" rather than the stuff you've been reading this past week.

Speaking of "Hallelujah", what happens if John Cale doesn't overhaul the song in 1991 and turn it into the now familiar piano led ballad?  The radio staple from the "I'm Your Fan" compilation was REM's version of "First We Take Manhattan".  This was "Out of Time" era REM, who were suddenly one of the biggest acts in music and were played on the radio across multiple formats.  Before "The Future", and before "Closing Time" inexplicably became a minor hit at the height of grunge and the years long Boyz II Men/Mariah Carey run of pop chart domination, Leonard Cohen was a relic with a covers album, not too different from the "Red Hot and Blue" covers album of Cole Porter songs that was released the previous year.  U2's "Night and Day" was the "hit" song from that album, because like REM on "I'm Your Fan", they were the biggest stars on an album filled mostly with cult acts.  There was no comeback for Cole Porter, who had been dead for decades, but at the same time there wasn't exactly a rush to cover more of his songs from that point on.  

In 1991, John Cale and Leonard Cohen were nearly the same artist, "legacy" wise.  Their styles are nothing alike, but in stature, they could be grouped with the likes of Patti Smith as the kind of artists major labels used to keep around to increase their cred among the weekend paper reading intelligentsia.  Other musicians would cite them as an influence, which also was considered important when building a roster of artists for your label.  Both were arguably far bigger in Europe than in North America.  A few years later, and Cale was arguably still ahead -- Cohen made "The Future", but Cale reformed the Velvet Underground and toured the world.  Could anyone have predicted how their careers would diverge from then on?  Cale has remained active for the past two decades, Cohen disappeared for years but eventually became a megastar anyway, who would have known?


Friday, November 11, 2016

Moderat, Autarkic, Noga Erez live at Hangar 11, Tel Aviv

Toronto music fans will remember the Warehouse (later the Kool Haus), which hosted countless international acts in spite of having the worst acoustics of any major music venue in the city.  I personally found the sound to be OK if you were down near the front, but at the back, sound was lost throughout the cavernous expanse of the venue, choked off by the many pillars spread around, vanishing into the high ceilings.  Hangar 11 is a similar venue for mid sized (~ 2000 persons) concerts and conventions, located on some prized real estate in the ultra cool Tel Aviv port, and "features" even worse sound that the Kool Haus ever had, at least as far as I can remember.

Noga Erez's version of "soulful" vocals over bruising electronic beats and live percussion was pleasant enough, although it felt like a million similar opening acts I've seen at other live shows.  Autarkic, however, was the perfect warm up act for this crowd.  He's obviously studied his LCD Soundsystem records well, memorizing every last ironic lyric delivered with pithy nonchalance, and every bumping intro building into electronic freakouts.  It was hipster techno extraordinaire, delivered to an impressive variety of vintage Tel Aviv freakos and hipsters whose ages spanned over four decades as far as I could tell.  Even I was starting to get won over by his set, although I'd never listen to this stuff at home.

I'd waited seven years to finally see Moderat live (although I've seen Modeselektor twice) and nothing about their show was disappointing. Unfortunately, I can only dream of how much better it could have been in a venue with decent sound, where guitar techs know how to do proper sound checks and the bass doesn't sound distorted nearly beyond recognition.  During songs that were lighter on the bass it wasn't too distracting, but "Intruder" (to name the most egregious example) was completely ruined by the wall of watery, distorted bass vibrations that blanketed the song.

Nonetheless, their nearly two hour set couldn't have been executed any better.  The visuals started out in minimal black and white, casting the band in stunning black silhouttes.  Colour started seeping into the occasional song, mainly in monochrome, before "No. 22" closed the main set in a blitz of kaleidoscopic colour.  A good half of their set was built around the subtle, R&B tinged downtempo techno of their third album.  But "Milk" is an exception in their catalog, a ten minute slow building clubland epic that destroyed when played live, as you'd expect.  Their more expansive, breakdown filled songs ("Running", "No. 22") were the highlights for me, even though I've come around on their new album since the start of the year.  If the end of the trilogy really represents the end for Moderat as a studio project, their album stands as the best advertisement possible for forward thinking pop artists looking to collaborate with electronic music producers.  

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

The Kate Bush Story (BBC documentary)

There are certain strains of pop music that I have come to appreciate a lot more than I once did.  The music stands apart as more time passes and nothing that sounds even remotely like it comes along.
These notions are repeatedly highlighted in this short BBC documentary about the career of Kate Bush (there is also a two hour version that I haven't yet seen).  It's hard to imagine something as strange and adventurous as "Wuthering Heights" or "Running Up That Hill" on the radio today.  Even after countless listens to "Wuthering Heights" over the years, the first appearance of the chorus always catches me by surprise.  Her vocal acrobatics and complete lack of melodic repetition during the first verse throws off one's sense of timing.  One expects four lines with convenient rhyming, and a line or two in the bridge to build to the chorus in an obvious way.  "Wuthering Heights" begins as a love/hate letter to an old flame without any clear structure and then boom, the chorus descends as if parachuted in from a completely different song. 

At that point in time, Bush seemed to take her cues from the unpredictability of 70's prog music.  "Running Up that Hill" takes a different approach, anchored by a consistent, predictable rhythm while the verses churn along before sliding gracefully into the chorus. 

This is the first time I had seen clips of Bush's 1979 tour, and I was surprised to see how much of a complete performer she was.  Merging pop with high performance art was particularly visionary stuff for 1979, especially for an artist who had never toured before and had barely even sung on stage outside of her brother's pub band.  And it was yet another reminder that the days of recording artists who can retire from the road to make "challenging" albums for major labels are long gone.

The documentary doesn't reveal anything about Bush that her fans wouldn't already know.  The point is more about featuring celebrity musicians (Elton John, Brett Anderson, Tricky) and their musings on Bush's music.  The most interesting comment for me was from Tricky, who focused on the "breathing my mother in" line from "Breathing" and attributed his entire career to that line.  That one line neatly summarizes how he'd internalized his feelings about his mother (who he never knew) and tried to express them, one suffocating song at a time.  Another interesting comment came from Steve Coogan, who quoted a line that Byron once said of Keats -- "Keats writes about what he imagines, I write about what I lived".  Bush is like Keats in this instance, writing character driven songs because she felt they were more interesting than anything in her life.  However, Bush would go on to write a number of personal songs too.  And then it struck me that PJ Harvey, most notably over the past ten years, is the closest we might get to a second Kate Bush.  Harvey excels at writing personal songs too, and when she gets bored of that, she also writes songs about historial/literary characters with dark political overtones with unconventional musical arrangements.  

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Pitchfork's 50 Best Shoegaze Albums of All Time

The most surprising thing about this list is that it took them so long to finally run it.  Although it's a good idea on paper (scratch that -- a great idea considering the tastes of the contributors Pitchfork has at its disposal) the reality is that it's exceedingly hard to come up with fifty original pieces of writing about bands faithfully copying the sound of maybe three other bands.  There are only so many adjectives about shoegaze to go around, and we've heard them all countless times because the vocabulary hasn't changed in twenty five years.  Comparing the subtle differences between UK and US bands is a trope that works in a single album review, but wears thin after repeated mentions.  Sure, US bands were influenced a bit more by grunge and lo-fi indie rock like Pavement.  That's neither surprising or all that interesting, to be honest.

I appreciate the attempts to solidify the place of shoegaze hybrids in the canon (e.g. techno shoegaze such as Seefeel and Ullrich Schnauss, or metal shoegaze such as Jesu and Alcest).  But elsewhere, a number of albums on the very fringes of what can be considered shoegaze, great as they are, really don't belong ("A Storm in Heaven", "Pygmalion", "Chrome").  And in the end, six of the top seven albums are by the predictably entrenched threesome of early 90's UK shoegaze.  There's something very disenchanting about trudging through a list that ostensibly gives shoutouts to a handful of more recent albums, but saves the top spots for the real stars of the genre, all of whom made their best music more than two decades ago.  It's not any different than every "best of" list I saw as a teenager, with the same Stones/Beatles/Zep songs/albums at the top each time, "confirming" the notion that the music I listened to sucked because clearly all the best music had been made before I was born.  I'm not saying that you need to make wild picks for your top 10 just to be contrarian, but predictable lists don't always make for interesting ones.

I think my favourite part was the intro written by Sonic Boom -- indeed, as he wrote in his piece, that is not something I expected to see, and he offered a welcome viewpoint from the perspective of a pioneer/outsider.    

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Diary of Musical Thoughts Podcast Episode 34

A perfect opportunity to network and connect with old 90's mixes (75 minutes)

As I alluded to in earlier posts, I recently dug out a huge binder of CD's that had been stored away and unheard for years.  Most of it's content are 90's and 00's electronic music compilations, and I've been having the time of my life revisiting this stuff.

Naturally, one thing led to another and I made a mix exclusively from six of these compilations:

Em:t 2000 (Instinct Records)
Pop Ambient 2001 (Kompakt)
Networks.1 An Intellinet Compilation (Studio!K7/Plus 8/Mute)
Montreal Smoked Meat (Force Inc. Music Works)
Detroit: Beyond the Third Wave (Astralwerks)
We Are Reasonable People  (Warp)

Plus there's a Facil track thrown in because why not, it fit.

There's a lot more material where this came from ... this mix might be the first of a series.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Swans, "The Glowing Man"; Tim Hecker, "Love Streams"

These are two new albums by acts that have (stubbornly?) stuck to a formula for some time but have gotten away with it on account at being better at their style than anyone else.  In fact that would be underselling their talents -- they've been so successful at what they do that they're practically inimitable.  

On one hand, they get to claim a micro-genre for themselves and monopolize the attention and accolades that come with it.  On the other hand, there's a fine line between working the formula successfully and falling back on it as a safe default option, in place of pushing their creativity forward.  With both of these albums, we've reached the latter point.  The bloom is off the rose, and we've heard all they have to offer with this style (sadly, one could say the same about the M83 record as well).

Michael Gira had already announced that he was retiring Swans in their current incarnation.  I sense that he knows he's taken the 2010-2016 version of the band to its extreme, and there's nowhere left to go. The next time we hear from Swans, he claims it'll be a studio based guest artist collective, rather than a fixed collective of surly middle aged dudes who flesh out their ideas at maximum volume on stage.  "The Glowing Man" has been labeled as the softer, more contemplative side of Swans, but that side was always around on their past few albums.  It was on the folksy "The Daughter Brings the Water" (from "The Seer") and the mammoth, shimmering intro to "No Words/No Thoughts" (extended to almost unfathomable lengths when played live).  "The Glowing Man" is a half hour of crushing and spectacular noise, but they've done a few of those now and the sense of numbing shock you get when hearing those kinds of tracks is lessened every time they do it.

Tim Hecker's explorations into the densest, blackest drone reached their extreme with "Ravedeath, 1972".  Since then he's tried to lighten up, so to speak, but I can't hear much beyond the fairly gimmicky "Hecker + choir" combo.  He's not adapting his music to fit the choir, he's doing his thing and hoping it sounds cool and different with vocals decorating the mix. Hecker has played a number of live shows in churches over the years and perhaps that's what inspired him here, but his math feels off.  It's like there's an assumption that the hazy, soaring vocals merged with Hecker's typical style will automatically produce something meditative and spiritual, but I'm not feeling it.  

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Diary of Musical Thoughts Podcast Episode 33

His ancestor mix would be simultaneously revolted and proud - a techno classics mix (85 minutes)

After my last mix I wanted to continue making pure techno club/dancing oriented mixes.  I also wanted it to be a fun, "greatest hits" type of set with a number of well known tracks rubbing shoulders with a few newer ones.  And these were the results ... there are nearly 25 years of techno represented here, with (multiple) tracks from 1992 right through to 2016.

V/A, "Clicks and Cuts" (Mille Plateaux)

I recently dug out a massive booklet with more than a hundred old CD compilations from my parent's house.  I haven't heard a lot of this stuff in over ten years, so it's like a wormhole opened up and dropped a mountain of classic and rare music from a long lost galaxy right on my head.  Expect a good deal of tripping down memory lane over the next little while, including at least one mix (already in the can).

This very famous compilation was released in January 2000, and the symbolism of the date is significant because it was intended to signify a new paradigm for techno in the 21st century.  It's title became synonymous with the entire genre, and the first MUTEK was for all intents and purposes, a "Clicks and Cuts" tribute festival.  I was the target audience for "Clicks and Cuts" without a doubt -- a fan of bedroom techno (e.g. Warp's Artificial Intelligence series), of minimalism, ambient, of Oval, Sub Rosa compilations and similar oddities on the outskirts of techno.  It was one one of my top albums of 2000, and I was very much in favour of the slow continuing takeover of "Clicks and Cuts" style techno. 

Of course it didn't quite happen that way.  "Boring" laptop techno was superseded by less boring laptop techno with a beat, and became minimal techno that you could actually dance to. 

Needless to say, this stuff hasn't aged well.  On the first CD, even the stuff with a semblance of a groove that I really dug back in the day, like Farben, now sounds feeble and almost directionless.  Tracks by Sutekh and SND are nearly unlistenable, with nothing to draw one's attention outside of the frittering pops and whirs that burrow into your ears like sand swept up by a gust of wind.  The stranger tracks have fared better, such as Vladislav Delay's ten minute "Synkopoint", which used to bore me but now presents a more varied and unpredictable palate of sounds than anything else on the disc.

The second CD is a bit better (fifteen years ago I would have said the opposite).  Again the weirder tracks by Ester Brinkmann, Dettinger, and Goem are the highlights.  The Panacea, Ihan, and Kid606 tracks towards the end form the worst three track run on "Clicks and Cuts" by far, with almost nothing to redeem then other than the historical curiosity of being included on this album.  But that's the whole point here -- as a historical document, "Clicks and Cuts" is still essential as an accurate summation of a major trend in techno at the time.  If you try to edit this down to a 40 minute condensed version of "highlights", you're missing some important information.