Thursday, May 18, 2017

Chris Cornell RIP

First of all, a hearty FU to "news" sites like CNN for sticking the "people we've lost in 2017" graphic at the top of every tragic story such as this.  Screw them for turning death into a meme.

I was never a Soundgarden fan, but there was no denying Cornell's talent and stage presence.  As opposed to the other star frontmen from the grunge era (who don't need to be named here), whose deaths were not entirely a surprise when they happened, Cornell seemed to have grown into the elder statesman role, and I assumed he'd have another two decades (at least) of steady touring and soundtrack work, not unlike Trent Reznor these days.

Unlike many rock stars who have to disappear before making their comebacks, Cornell stood apart from so many of this 90's contemporaries by staying relevant for the past two decades with Audioslave and his solo work.  Much like Dave Grohl, he stuck to making uncompromising rock music during the uncool days of rock when Nickelback and Creed were inexplicably kings.

And he hung himself on the same day (give or take a few hours) as Ian Curtis.  Damn.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Sigur Ros live from the Walt Disney Concert Hall with the LA Philharmonic Association; Carl Craig, "Versus"

I'm on Sigur Ros' mailing list and news of this concert certainly got my attention.  Even the band admitted to being a bit nervous.

The full concert features a one hour set with a huge LA orchestra, and a second one hour set with just the band. It was streamed live worldwide and can be viewed here.  But I almost always find that these band + orchestra in a classical music setting collaborations never live up to their promise.  Any band that aspires to this kind of performance already has a cinematic majesty to their music, and adding the orchestra then fails to amplify the magic that is present in the bulk of their recordings.  That's essentially the case with this performance.  Sigur Ros fans will certainly want to check it out, but there's hardly anything resembling a definitive version of these songs.

I enjoyed the second half of the show more, because it was my first time seriously checking out the stripped down, three piece version of Sigur Ros -- with no backing musicians, and no backing tapes (none that I could see).  When a band loses an multi-instrumentalist/keyboardist, the bass becomes more of a lead instrument to fill the space, but in this case it can't come close to filling it completely, nor does the band even try.  What's left over is raw, airy (well, more so than before) and sparse, like the home demo recordings version of Sigur Ros.  Nobody gets to hide behind a wall of feedback or a string loop, and for me it's a refreshing change to see this severely stripped down version of the band.


And then there's Carl Craig's "Versus".  This isn't Jeff Mills banging out techno with real strings instead of synthesized ones.  It may be Carl Craig's best album.  It's undoubtedly his most challenging one.

"Versus" is uncategorizable, because nobody's pulled off a techno/classical hybrid quite like this before.  This is the furthest thing from a techno album with added strings to give it extra flair for the dramatic.  It's also not a classical music score that attempts to capture the rhythmic pulse of the clubs (which reads like a horrible idea anyway).  Carl Craig deconstructed his most famous tracks and remixes and has rebuilt them from scratch.  The pacing, instrumentation, and mood of each track has been completely re-envisioned.  The border between acoustic and electronic elements has been erased, thanks to nine years of painstaking effort in the studio to meld everything together just right.

Many contemporary artists see the orchestra an opportunity to lend sophistication to their comparatively simple compositions. Carl Craig and Francesco Tristano looked at each other's respective domains and see a vast space into which they can expand their palate of sounds.  If it was as simple as it sounds, everyone would already be doing it.  But Craig and Tristano have basically claimed an entire genre for themselves.  If the genre lives and dies with them because they're the only ones capable of pulling it off, more power to them.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The Caretaker, "Everywhere at the End of Time - Stage 2"

In one of last year's best interview pieces, Leland James Kirby laid out his plans for the Caretaker persona's six part slip into dementia.

"The interesting thing is the switch between the first and second album. The second one is a massive difference between the moods. The second one is the point where you realise that something is wrong. You’re seeing doctors. You’re still coherent enough to say, “Right, I’ve got dementia…” You know this thing is coming. There’s a bit of disbelief."

There are way too many great quotes from that interview to list here, but it's rare to see an artist's vision translate so vividly into the finished product.  "Stage 2" is exactly what Kirby promised and more.  If anything it's even more nerve-wrackingly beautiful than I ever could have imagined.

The first album didn't stray very far from much of his prior work as The Caretaker.  His gently distorted ballroom ballads conveyed a type of nostalgia that could either be sad (crushing realizations that the old days are gone and never coming back) or wistful and peaceful (happy remembrances of how simple and fun those old days were).

True to his words, the transition to the second album is brutal.  Parts of the old memories are still there.  The crackling static is more pervasive, and yet the mind perseveres and sometimes can retain its focus throughout one of the old standards.  But at other times it increasingly becomes clear that important parts are missing.  The tone of the instruments becomes so distorted that there's some doubt about who or what is playing (is that a saxophone?  clarinet?  bassoon?)   The solos are still there, floating through the haze, perceptibly stretched in time, and are no longer anchored to anything in particular (where is the bass line?  where are the verses?  are these parts even from the same song?)

There's a functioning human being in there who can still hum the choruses to plenty of long forgotten tunes, but 20-30% of the time he's humming on autopilot, recalling without thinking, feeling empty and confused as to why things don't make sense like they used to.  It's a horrifying feeling, really, to fully understand what's happening to you, powerless to do anything except grip your memories tightly before they disappear forever.

At the time of the interview, Kirby had just started working on the third album.  He acknowledged that his patient was degrading fast and that he was unsure what the last three albums would entail.  "How do you make complete confusion a good listen?", he wondered aloud.  Can it really get more depressing than this album is?  

Friday, April 07, 2017

Diary of Musical Thoughts Podcast Episode 36

So important was this mix that this mode of consciousness became an instinct - 54 minutes

It's been so long since my last mix that Mixcloud sent me an email about this week.  I've been sitting on this mix for nearly three months.  Inspired by Dan Selzer's New York Endless Mix (which I wrote about here), I had been thinking to myself, "why can't my mixes be as fun as this?"  Nothing too challenging, no downer experimental interludes, don't be afraid to make abrupt transitions as long as the sequencing works, always think about how it would sound on the dancefloor, and don't wear out anyone's patience.  Get in and out in about an hour.  

All that, and I managed to span twenty years of techno too.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Pitchfork's 50 Best Britpop Albums

I fell for the clickbait again and read through yet another Pitchfork top 50 list of a poorly defined genre from a poorly defined era of time with a completely predictable top ten that reiterates the great things we already know about the albums that we already knew were great.  In this instance, they're barely even pretending there's an actual genre to tie the list together.  It's a list of mid-90's British indie rock (hence it's the 50 Best but not the 50 Best "of all time" ... which would be redundant because we're essentially talking about a four year window in the 90's save for the rare exceptions for the likes of the La's).

It's kind of embarrassing when so many of the bands were never lumped in with the Britpop I knew at the time (SFA, Denim, Mansun, Placebo, the list goes on and on) or were outwardly hostile to Britpop (Manic Street Preachers, Auteurs) and would be appalled to see themselves on a list like this.  Inasmuch as an actual genre of Britpop can be defined, it was one of the most top heavy scenes ever, with a small number of excellent bands at the top, a handful of mediocre curiosities with a couple of passable hits, and very little else.  When you narrow the eligibility criteria to such a degree (UK indie rock bands who released their debut album after "Parklife" and placed at least one album in the top 30 of NME's year end list in either 1994, 1995 or 1996!) even Echobelly and Sleeper can wind up on a "best of" genre list.
Predictably, only Tom Ewing brings any interesting ideas to the table as he stops to consider the Britpop that never really was in his short takes on Saint Etienne.  What would have been if Britpop had been more like the introverted, cosmopolitan urban dance pop model of Saint Etienne instead of the extroverted, beer and football loving anthemic chorus model of Oasis?  More than anything, the best bands of the time exuded confidence (or arrogance, depending on one's viewpoint) that made them far more exciting than Saint Etienne could ever hope to be (and I love Saint Etienne).  Pulp, Blur, and Suede each had their visions of music (completely different from each other) that were rooted in uniquely British traditions and each was 100% convinced that their music was the most worthy distraction against the then-dominant stodgy American grunge rock.  However, the fact that Blur had their biggest hit with a grunge song a few years later was an irony only the most British of British bands could pull off though.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

A Spice Girls Puff Piece

As a breezy, easy to read summary of a group and a time and a place, this short Spice Girls history isn't bad.  The context isn't really there, nor would I expect it to be in a fluff piece like this (the photos and video clips provide most of the context the piece requires).  It's true that boy bands ruled the charts in the UK for most of the 90's, but girl groups like En Vogue and TLC were big in US at the time, and worldwide it was a near golden age for female solo artists (Celine, Alanis, the Lilith Fair artists, and countless others).  So the Spice Girls' world takeover was hardly unprecedented, but they were still revolutionary in that no other contemporary group had been marketed in that way (five divergent looks, five unique personalities) and they were marketed specifically to girls, i.e. they competed with the boy bands for the same fan demographics and won.  

In reading histories like these, I'm always struck by how short-lived their fame was, compared to how all-encompassingly long it felt at the time.  Spice Girls were at the highest strata of pop dominance.  They were everywhere -- on the radio, in movies, in the tabloids -- with market penetration and omnipresence that only the likes of Michael Jackson, Adele, the Beatles, and a handful of other pop stars can lay claim to.  And it all lasted little more than two and a half years -- from "Wannabe" in the summer of '96 to Geri leaving the band and their final Xmas number one, "Goodbye", in the winter of '98.  It was still enough to make them the biggest selling girl group ever. 

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

RIP John Lever

Tributes have been slowly pouring for the Chameleons' drummer who passed away a few days ago. When you're a "cult" band (a unfortunate term, as Ned Raggett refers to it in his piece for The Quietus, but it is what it is) the proper recognition can take time to gather steam in death just as it did in life.

Chameleons belong in a select group of influential 80's bands that nobody has ever quite been able to duplicate (I'd put both The Smiths and Cocteau Twins in this category).  The combination of Mark Burgess' throaty vocals, Reg Smithies and Dave Fieldings' interlocking guitar lines, and John Levers intricate yet propulsive drumming somehow added up to more than the sum of their parts, as many have noted.  When I was first absorbing alternative music in the late 80's, "Swamp Thing" was the Chameleons staple heard most often on the radio.  But as the years went by, "Soul In Isolation" became their signature song for me, in no small part due to Lever's blowaway drum performance.

While recording the album "Strange Times", the band was pushed to record live as much as possible with no overdubs.  So rest assured that Lever played the complex opening riff for "Soul In Isolation" with two hands and only two hands.  In an alternate universe, its opening drum riff is as iconic as "Be My Baby".  It would be copied more often if more drummers were capable of playing it.

Few rock drummers could switch so effortlessly between the busy opening riff and the expansive, energetic drumming in the bridge and chorus.  Of course you can always stick together two ideas in a song to form an odd, schizophrenic pairing.  But the two drum riffs in "Soul In Isolation" don't come off sounding like that.  They're a logical progression in a cohesive whole.  And then the pattern repeats itself in the second half of the song!, i.e. yet another switch to the busy would-be iconic riff, and back again to the propulsive final stretch.

Jammed into the middle as the fourth song on a sixteen song CD (ten for the album proper plus six bonus tracks), "Soul In Isolation" arguably loses part of its impact in the post vinyl era,  On vinyl, it was the epic Side 1 closer, fading away in volume while the band surged on without the least bit of let up, with Lever's outstanding drumming leading the way. It reminds me of something once said about Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir".  It's a song without a clear beginning or end, it's practically all middle.  It passes by like a slow moving float in a parade, and while it's in earshot you get you hear a few (well, technically eight) scant minutes but you can't be sure how long they were playing before, or how much longer they'll keep playing after the float passes by. 

Friday, February 10, 2017

Pitchfork's 50 best IDM albums of all time

This list follows a similar pattern to their best shoegaze albums list from October -- classics mixed with curious (and more recent) picks that Pitchfork is inexplicably trying to cram into the genre, only for the early and mid-90's big guns to predictably take all the top spots like they always do in any other discussion of the best IDM.  If they wanted to make a point of updating the canon, wouldn't a "20 best IDM albums you've never heard of" list have accomplished the same thing?  Nobody reading this list needs to be clued into the greatness of Autechre and Aphex Twin, but they need to be included for reasons of clickbait, and Pitchfork and their megamedia overlords want to make money, so it's fine I guess.

Another similarity to the shoegaze list -- the opening essay is the best thing about it.  In about one thousand words, Simon Reynolds covers the history, aesthetic, name controversy, influence, and contemporary significance of IDM as eloquently as you're ever going to see it.  He leads off with the elephant in the room for every serious IDM discussion -- the name.  Yes, it's a stupid name.  But so is "prog", "shoegaze", and many others.  Once the name sticks, it sticks.  However, the debate about the "intelligence" behind the music was always beyond ridiculous.  When the biggest star of the genre is a cryptic loner who drives a tank for fun, the scene has to invent its own controversies to survive.  Early on everyone knew you weren't going to get scandalous quotes out of the boys in Autechre or Boards of Canada, so they came up with a purely theoretical but meaningless debate about whether this music was inherently "smart" compared with the reputedly "dumber" club oriented music.

The real story starts to come out in Reynolds' essay and some of the album reviews.  In the late 80's, chill out rooms became a popular come down spot in certain clubs in the UK.  You'd hear downtempo, but still danceable music that was given the tag of "ambient house".  That was yet another stupid name.  It certainly wasn't ambient in the Brian Eno "god knows how much time has passed while we've been listening to 'Thursday Afternoon'" definition of the genre.  It was an alternative to the off your face partying happening in the main room at the club.  It was ambient purely relative to the more hedonistic mayhem of regular club music.

The "ambient" tag soon spread to many other bands with vague connections to electronic music but weren't likely to be played in clubs.  The Orb, Seefeel, and even Stereolab (circa "The Groop Played Space Age Bachelor Pad Music") were awkwardly lumped together as ambient.  It was a terrible, non-sensical catch-all applied to completely different types of bands, but journalists liked (and still do) to create scenes and labels out of thin air, and so the name stuck and was commonly used for a few years in the early 90's.  This is why Aphex Twin called his album "Selected Ambient Works 85-92" --  the title made sense according to the then-contemporary usage of the word.

The IDM tag wasn't a reaction to "ambient", but it happened to come along at around the same time that the latter had lost nearly all its meaning and was becoming a joke even those who liked the music.  Regardless of whatever people were calling it, the idea of chilling out to electronic music had never gone away.  It was inevitable that there would be an audience for techno fans who wanted music for home, rather than club listening.  But just because it was inevitable doesn't mean it was any less revolutionary.  To this day, people still sometimes say to me that they don't understand how anyone can listen to techno at home or at work.  Or they claim that they don't mind it if they go out, but otherwise they can't stand it.

You can piece together the rest from the Pitchfork list.  Warp's "Artificial Intelligence" compilation came along, and the series of albums that followed (plus the AI 2 collection) solidified the careers of many of the top names in the genre.  And the IDM name was inspired by the name of the compilation.  But it's just as easy to see that there was no claim of greater "intelligence" on the part of the creators or listeners of the music at the time.  A video featuring cutting edge (for the time) computer animation was released in parallel to the music (I still have my VHS copy somewhere).  It made a connection between the music and the digitization of our culture.  It was focused on the symbiosis between the music and emerging technology, rather than between the DJ and his or her audience with the music as a conduit.  Naturally, the introspective, futuristic style of Detroit techno was a central theme as well.

All that aside, I still love at least half of these albums unreservedly.  And how many times do I have to say it -- "Surfing on Sine Waves" >>>>> "Selected Ambient Works 85-92".  

Sunday, February 05, 2017

Techno in the face of fascism

Gunnar Haslam and Johannes Auvinen wrote essays for XLR8R that hopefully will stir up some lively debate.  I am all for giving musicians the occasional platform to express these kinds of opinions.  The "fascism" claim is clearly exaggerated and intended as click bait, if not viewed this way, it's hard to take anything they write seriously.  

It is undoubtedly true that for decades, politicians have scapegoated clubs for various societal problems.  For instance, getting drugs off the streets is a hard order of business, so local politicians tend to go after the clubs instead.  It's easier than dealing with a multifaceted societal problem at its roots, and it's a straightforward way to produce results when they need to show the public that they're doing something about it.  A spate of violence or a single OD death usually provides a convenient catalyst for getting the ball rolling.  None of this has anything to do with fascism though.

They are right about the spirit of neoliberalism dissolving itself into club culture.  Neoliberalism first and foremost seeks to keep the capitalist machine running, trying to avoid serious damage but not seeking to make things better for all.  Similarly, much time and money has been invested into super clubs and megastar touring DJ's with the intention of sustaining the bubble as long as humanly possible (this applied to the entire live music industry really).  The music is taking a back seat to the "experience" of going out.  Boomer era acts have sustained themselves for decades by enabling their fans to revisit the songs of their youth.  Current "stars" may be in for a rude awakening in ten or twenty years when they discover that fans didn't connect to the music as they thought and have moved on to whatever the new technologically flashy concertgoing experience will be.  

The solution, however, isn't the techno protectionism that Haslam seems to be advocating for.  His call for a more direct relationship between artists and fans suggests that local scenes need to more self sustaining, but this will make them become more insular and stifle collaboration.  For DJ's living in the bubble of New York or Berlin maybe this is a reasonable option.  But people outside the meccas of clubland want to make a living too.  His criticism of a DJ's carbon footprint seems downright silly to me.  DJ's don't travel with huge entourages and diesel guzzling trucks full of equipment to their gigs.  The life of a touring DJ is just about the most environmentally friendly form of live music work there is.  

At the end of the day, clubgoing is for the most part a luxury.  Techno doesn't have to be something of substance, it doesn't need to change the world.  Going to a club isn't supposed to be hard work, it's an escape from real life and real responsibilities. For the first wave of Detroit techno pioneers it was both, i.e. the music represented a good time and an escape from the urban decay of the (then) present with an eye toward a gleaming, futuristic future.  That was a vision unique to Detroit in the 80's, it can't be copied and pasted elsewhere as a rallying cry against political leaders you happen not to like. 

Monday, January 30, 2017

(Ex-) Pazz and Jop 2016

They changed the name ... and now they're changing it back?  I think?

I would have bet on "Lemonade" winning the poll this year in a walk, but somehow Bowie squeaked out one of the narrowest wins ever.  Somehow Beyonce dominated the songs poll like no artist ever has, but that support didn't transfer over to the albums poll.  It was the year of high profile celebrity deaths like no other, so perhaps Bowie's win was symbolic of the year that was.  Bowie has never drawn much support from P&J, having never placed an album in the top ten prior to "Blackstar". However, today's electorate is more than a generation removed from most of the writers who voted in the 70's and 80's.  Perhaps this generation unfairly judged his more recent work (although there wasn't anything to judge for most of the 21st century) in comparison with his now legendary 70's output, but the outpouring of condolences and memories on social media this past January was like anything I'd ever experienced following a celebrity death (sadly, until Prince passed away a few months later).  The pre and-post release praise for "Blackstar", followed by the gamut of emotions brought on by Bowie's sudden death only days later, raised his profile higher than it had ever been and clearly sealed this win for him.  Even with Michael Jackson's death in 2009, there weren't the same outlets for commiserating, linking, revisiting, and reminiscing the way we could for Bowie and Prince this year.  The win for "Blackstar" feels like a Grammy-esque Album of the Year award that's really a lifetime achievement award in disguise for a veteran artist.

Maura Johnston summed up a disappointing year for female artists on the pop charts with a powerful and insightful essay.  She may be overstating the case a bit, considering that Adele, Rihanna, and Sia totaled sixteen weeks at number one on the Hot 100 between them.  But she's dead on in considering the differences between how The Weeknd and Drake's paranoia and insecurities are perceived, versus how Beyonce's have been perceived, at least as far as the pop singles charts are concerned.  Yes, the critics loved "Lemonade", but the critics aren't the masses.  

As for Glenn McDonald's always indispensable P&J statistics, his tabulations revealed an unprecedented consensus in the albums voting -- giving some statistical mettle behind some of my recent complaints about the bland predictability of year end lists and critical tastes.  As expected, I nearly fell off the critical grid this year, ranking at number 493 (out of 542 albums voters), with a much lower centricity score than last year even though the percentile was nearly the same (bottom nine versus bottom ten for P&J '15).  But despite the strong consensus at the top of the poll, there was an equally strong lack of it at the bottom, with a long statistical tail of nonconformists.  In 2015, the bottom 20th percentile centricity score was 0.138, this year it was 0.103.  Seventy one voters (thirteen percent of the total) had a centricity less than 0.05, last year only forty three did (nine percent of the total). 

There were just 29 total other votes for the albums in my top ten (versus 47 in '15, which I figured was rock bottom at the time), and I was the only voter for six of them.  At least Moderat got some modest support this time, getting four times the support for "III" than for their last two albums combined (not counting my votes for all three).  My top kvltosis picks this year (i.e. reweighting of the albums lists according to centricity, with lower centricity voters' picks getting the highest weight) were Autechre (#6) and Moderat (#22) (how appropriate!), although they ranked slightly lower than last year's top two (Brandon Flowers at #5, Prurient at #16).