Thursday, December 13, 2018

Pete Shelley RIP

For years, the sum total of my knowledge of Pete Shelley was the video for his 1981 non-hit "Homosapien".  I still love everything about that song.  Years before the likes of New Order perfected their formula, Shelley fused rock, electro, and disco into a coherent whole that still sounds ahead of its time.  The video had a hazy, artsy "Ashes to Ashes" type of feel but Shelley was this relatable geeky character as opposed to Bowie's air of impegnability. 

Years later, I learned that the Buzzcocks were the punk icons who gave Joy Division a big break by inviting them on tour.  But I didn't start listening to their music until years after that.  Welcome to the filesharing era, and my dl'ed copy of "Singles Going Steady". 

The story of punk that I knew had always drawn a line from reggae as the music of rebellion straight through to Sex Pistols and the Clash working to smash the system.  Even though the Ramones were in plain view as punk (and alternative) heroes, the idea of punk as fun, bouncy rock and roll was overlooked, and to some extent still is.  Punk could be an outlet for teen angst, a safe haven for complaining about boredom or bad habits or getting dumped.  Buzzcocks helped teach me that. 

I was lucky enough to see them live twice, post-reunion in 2006 and 2011.  And more recently, I learned even more about what a generous soul Pete Shelley was from reading Peter Hook's Joy Division bio.  Buzzcocks were elder statesmen (despite being in their early 20's themselves) to virtually every young, hungry band in Manchester at the time, and went out of their way to mentor young musicians and help grow the scene.  

Sunday, December 02, 2018

Diary of Musical Thoughts Podcast Episode 40

"November 2018 techno comeback", 59 minutes

My first mix in over a year.  A comeback of sorts for the long dormant podcast.  And dare I say it, this mix is a banger.  Simple but effective, featuring many of my techno favourites of 2018.

"A Star Is Born", dir. Bradley Cooper

There are plenty of things to appreciate about this movie (the always great Cooper, riveting stage scenes, at least two thirds of the music) and plenty of negatives (the horrible miscasting of Dave Chappelle, the completely one dimensional sleazy manager albeit played to maximum effect by Rafi Gavron).  But the movie ultimately fails due to two, huge reasons that completely blocked me from suspending my disbelief:

1) Bradley Cooper is completely convincing as a broken down, insecure, drunk and drug addict.  However, I couldn't buy him for one minute as one of the world's most famous rock stars, not when his act amounts to (at best) a cowboy-fied version of Dave Matthews. 

2) Lady Gaga had zero "it factor" as a genre-transcending pop star.  Think about that for a second.  They cast Lady Gaga in a film as a working class songwriter who turned to the pop side and became a huge star but stripped away all the intangibles that mirrored her real life rise to superstardom.  I could practically hear Simon Cowell saying "I've always said that it's not just about the voice" as a voiceover during half  of her scenes.  

Her character could have fully embraced pop music and foresaken the rootsy blues and country style of her husband, which would have led to friction between them and all the necessary plot points.  But I can understand the decision to feature Lady Gaga unplugged and nearly free of makeup, in which case her character could have gone full blown Adele.  That's who she is by the end of the movie anyhow, singing eye-rolling sub-Diane Warren love songs at Kennedy Center style galas.  Instead, the movie tried to split the difference and I found myself constantly asking myself "why is she a Grammy-winning singer"?     

Thursday, November 29, 2018

The Caretaker, "Everywhere at the End of Time Stage 5"

The fifth installment in the series assumes the same basic format as the fourth, with four long (20+ minutes) tracks of blended noise posing as garbled memories.  Stage 5 is less abrasive than Stage 4 and at times makes for a pleasant, even blissful listen.  Stage 4 was more "noisy" because stabs of melody would constantly pop in and out for fractions of a second, as the brain ceaselessly tried to jumpstart the re-formation of coherent memories.  In Stage 5, at this point in the deterioration into an increasingly formless dementia, the mind is too weak to fight the condition.  The songs that formed the basis of Stages 1-3 are only discernible if a person of sound and astute mind makes the point of trying to listen for them. 

However, once the brain admits that the fight is lost, there are extended periods of peaceful contentedness.  By the end of Stage 5, it would appear that the next step could only be a formless swirl of dark, isolationist noise.  But I have a strong feeling that I'm going to be surprised.   

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Kim Gordon, "Girl In a Band"

Kim Gordon is a private person by her own admission, often shy and introverted, a reluctant star for an industry that sought a marketable personality for her band Sonic Youth.  Reading about her LA upbringing, as the child of academics, brutally teased by her schizophrenic brother, was the most engrossing part of her memoir.

Those looking for blow by blow accounts of Sonic Youth's rise to the top of the 80's and 90's alternative pile, or even for wistful philosophizing about how and why they made such an impact, will be sorely disappointed.  It seems that a major motivation for writing the book is to show that her life has been far more than just being one half of the power couple behind Sonic Youth.  However, this leads to the book becoming a bit too insider-y into goings on in the arts world.  It may not be an exaggeration to state that fans of fine art will get more out of reading the book than music fans will.

I've thought a lot about Sonic Youth's near-breakthrough.  "Kool Thing" is one of the most perfect songs ever written. For a band debuting on a major label and looking to make a splash, courting new fans while maintaining all the elements that made them legends to existing hardcore fans, "Kool Thing" could not have achieved their goals any better.  It had all the elements for getting played on the radio and MTV -- a slick, yet lo-fi video that maintained all their underground cred, a brilliant guest spot from Chuck D, an air of dissonance and danger that absolutely screams "soundtrack to the counterculture", and a brilliant, endlessly repeatable chorus.

The third single from the album, "Dirty Boots", tries to be "Smells Like Teen Spirit" before "Smells Like Teen Spirit", or at least, its video does.  It features kids moshing to the band in a cramped club, audience crushes on the band, and twee crushes been slackers in the audience.  It might have been appropriate for second gen faux grunge nerds like Weezer, but it couldn't possibly have been less fitting for Sonic Youth.  Eventually SY would have modest commercial success working with Butch Vig, who famously produced "Nevermind".  But it was their least interesting period creatively, and Gordon has very little to say about their music during these years (but has many interesting personal memories of Nirvana).

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Slash: The Autobiography

I bought the e-reader version of this book and it was so cheap that I wasn't expecting much beyond endless tales of mindless debauchery in order to get my money's worth.  This book delivered the excess in spades, but wasn't the superficial read I was expecting.  It's a moderately heavy book (160K words -- hardly a quickie, grade school level read that you'll plow through in a day, like certain other cash grab memoirs are) and contains quite a bit of depth.  For instance, the years in LA leading up to Slash joining GNR are recalled in fascinatingly vivid detail.  The writing (and/or ghostwriting) is superb, Slash's writing persona comes off as affable and highly believable. 

In fact, Slash's life up to the recording of "Appetite for Destruction" takes up well over half the book.  The idea that the journey to become famous is more interesting that actually being famous (and more enjoyable for the protagonist, both at the time it happened and in the present day) is a notion that rings loud and clear.  Once GNR take off, most of the characters practically disappear from the story.  There's a good deal of philosophizing about the Axl Rose that he knew pre-1987 (they even lived together for a short while) but after that, almost nothing.  Like many wildly successful groups do, GNR split into separate camps and Axl become a side plot, a person who turns up on stage (most of the time) but is otherwise a shadow character who only exists via his managers and lawyers who act as his conduit.  This is really a book and Slash and Slash only.  Anyone looking for insight on what the other main players in the GNR story were "really" like at the height of their fame will find almost nothing to chew on.  Thus, the second half of the book is far less interesting than the first half.  Being the biggest band in the world was a succession of gigs and bottomless alcohol and drug binges, but by that point those stories have mostly lost their sordid power. 

After reading this, I'm even more baffled at how GNR became the biggest rock band in the world for a few years.  There was no grand plan to flip the music industry on its head and expel the multitude of wimpy 80's "rockers".  They weren't following existing trends, there was nothing like "Welcome to the Jungle" on the pop charts in 1988, but the public somehow managed to buy into what they were doing.  It may be a cliche, but at its heart, beyond all the drugs and parties, it's a story about never compromising and believing in the artistic merit of what you're doing.  Slash emphasizes it repeatedly as GNR are getting rolling, but the message may be drowned out by all the tabloid-ready stories throughout the book. 

One final note -- this was published in 2008, i.e. years before the GNR reunion tour.  Toward the end of the book, there's no inkling of any reconciliation taking place in just a few short years. Could there be an updated and expanded edition at some point?   

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

The Caretaker, "Everywhere at the End of Time Stage 4"

The first three installments in the series chronicle a slow descent into the clutches of dementia, with an emphasis on slow and barely discernible.  Melodies, used as a stand-in for memories, were blanketed by the persistent crackle of a scratched record, with gentle shifts in their intonation and overall clarity.  But the fourth installment takes an abrupt turn toward noise and chaos.  "Post Awareness Confusions" is the title shared by three of the four tracks (each running over twenty minutes) and essentially sums up the current diagnosis.  The patient took a sudden turn for the worse since the end of Stage 3 and their personality became unidentifiable seemingly overnight.  Snippets of the old melodies can be picked out here and there, but anything approaching a recognizable tune has vanished completely.  You can't even characterize it as sad, there's simply no trace of the human being who was once there. 

The first half of the album is a trying listen, which is certainly the intention.   The sudden transition between Stage 3 and 4 feels like cheating the concept of the series a bit -- without knowing exactly how to proceed, The Caretaker launched into noise for noise's sake.    The beauty in The Caretaker's music was always in the subtle details, which are now obscured by the change to a more generic noise-based sound.  But the second half of the album is far more alluring.  "Temporary Bliss State" offers nothing in the way of coherent thoughts -- it's not a reprieve where a few memories come back into focus -- but does settle the torment of the previous forty odd minutes. 

As a state of mind, Stage 4 it undoubtedly succeeds, but as an album you'll want to hear regularly, less so.  But like so much experimental and noise music, to enter that state of mind, you'll need to subject yourself to nearly the entire thing.  

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Kristin Hersh, "Paradoxical Undressing"

Kristin Hersh's memoir focuses on a single year of her life but doesn't have a beginning, middle, or end.  The writing is based on a diary she kept at the time and the story (or lack of it) picks up with her band and home life in a state of barely controlled chaos, uncertainty and turmoil and ends with her band and home life in a different state of barely controlled chaos, uncertainty, and turmoil.  Along the way, the action (or lack of it) takes in an eclectic cast of friends and bandmates, which is where the real action is.  Scenes, moments, concerts, and conversations are recalled in exquisite and sometimes absurd detail.  The minutiae of daily life gives us a charming, and touchingly personal look at the people involved.  Her writing is beautifully strange and lyrical much like her songs.  Sometimes I found myself humming tunes from her solo albums while reading the words and slotting them in as newfound lyrics, especially in the earlier chapters. 

There's a precocious air to the entire book, and a "smartest kids in the room" vibe at times that could be offputting to some.  But it's a brutally honest memoir, and the well meaning innocence of all involved makes this a great underdog story.  I don't often find myself rooting for the author of music memoirs, but with this one I definitely did.       

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Beach House, "7"

Five years ago, when I would listen to Beach House's third album "Teen Dream", it sounded like a dress rehearsal for the fully fledged maximalist dream pop of "Bloom".  When I listen to "Teen Dream" now, I understand why people who were not enthused by "Bloom" considered it to be the quintessential Beach House album.  "Teen Dream" is dewy eyed pop that could have believably been recorded in someone's basement, filled with gorgeous ballads that would burn up the charts in a mirror universe despite being self-recorded on a minuscule budget.  That's the fantasy that "Teen Dream" promoted so well.  "Bloom" was bigger, louder, and more ambitious, but the intimacy and instrumental simplicity of their earlier albums had begun to slip away.
"7" completes a reiteration of sorts of the previous album cycle.  "Depression Cherry" is a final goodbye to the intimate, home studio aesthetic of their early albums, and "Thank Your Lucky Stars" is the quickie demo version of the more expansive sound they'd aim for on "7".  In interviews, Beach House have talked about how "7" was largely conceived in the studio, and it certainly sounds like it.  "Dive" is splattered with producer Sonic Boom's fingerprints, From the droning organ intro to the churning drum machine that crashes in partway through, this is "Recurring"-era Spacemen 3 filtered through a new vessel.  "Dark Spring" is straight up fire, a storming statement of purpose to open the album, Beach House's closest facsimile to MBV, a "Glider"-esque wonder of multitracked wailing guitars.  But immediately afterward, "Pay No Mind" heads in a different direction completely, bludgeoning its way through a murky bass and drums-led dirge that's disguised as a love song.  
Unlike every previous Beach House record, "7" never settles into a signature mood that envelops the album.  It couldn't happen because they were too busy exploring the studio with new producers who forced them to leave their comfort zone.  The result is a creative tour de force, but is it at the expense of the "real" Beach House of the past who still kicking around in there somewhere?  This new version may not know exactly who they are yet.      

Friday, August 24, 2018

Prodigy, "The Fat of the Land"

This is one of those unfortunate cases where I end up defending music that I was never a big fan of to begin with.  But Jesse Dorris' retrospective review is a sad example of reflexive political correctness in contemporary music criticism.  He might as well have written GOTCHA at the end of every paragraph, as he tries desperately to point fingers at 90's fans and critics who bought into the supposed scam. 

The intended centerpiece is the "Smack My Bitch Up" controversy.  The misogyny in the song was most certainly NOT accepted at the time, so sorry, there are no MeToo revelations to be found here.  That's not to say that there weren't arguments made on both sides of the issue (e.g. "it's just a sample" so Prodigy technically didn't say these things), but point being that the review doesn't touch on anything new about 90's masculinity.

Elsewhere, the Prodigy should apparently be scorned by thinking people in 2018 because they were too male and too white and catered to white male audiences.  The fact that half of the group members were black and their US label boss was a woman and a feminist icon somehow doesn't fit into the argument.  Dorris goes on about macho-ness and male-ness and somehow missed the entire post-1994 "smash the system" ethos of Prodigy. This was intersectionality long before its time, and could have never been born out of a 90's "rock" genre.