Saturday, March 29, 2014

Berlin nightlife in pictures

I never get tired of reading first hand accounts of life in Berlin during the Cold War.

But the only thing shocking or revelatory about these photos is how ordinary they all look.  Plus or minus a hairdo or two, just about any of them could have been taken in any year from the 1970's until today.  I did a double take on the B/W photo from the 1992 Love Parade, which I would have pegged for something from 1975 without a second thought.  You can't blame the author/collator Stefanie Seidl for false advertising though -- she says in the accompanying interview that the photos weren't about capturing the biggest celebs but about "conveying an authentic atmosphere".  There's a powerful take home message in there.  Maybe you need to know the right people or the super secret way to dress to get into the most prestigious clubs, but no matter where you end up partying in the end, the essential, authentic Berlin is everywhere, you can find it without hardly trying.  You can't say that about New York, Paris, or just about anywhere else.

Somehow this article about repetition in music feels appropriate to be paired with a story about the nightlife in Berlin.  Read the whole thing, but in particular, I've experienced "semantic satiation" a number of times and never knew (but should have assumed) that it was a real, scientifically studied effect.  

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Lady Gaga at SXSW

NPR's Ann Powers posted a commentary about Lady Gaga's interview at SXSW.  It's a bit cynical and pessimistic, but she makes a number of interesting points.  What's lost in her commentary (aside from a single offhand admission that Gaga is "far more interesting than what 95 per cent of mainstream pop produces") is that even her appearance at an event like SXSW was something unthinkable even five years ago.  The fact that major pop artists make a point reaching out to an audience at what used to be more of a niche underground festival is a victory of sorts.  The playing field is more level than it's ever been, and spending millions of dollars to promote your album is less of a sure thing than it once was, and "ARTPOP"'s relatively poor sales are a perfect example of that.  Of course, "Lady Gaga appears at SXSW" is a marketing ploy too, where major artists go in the hope that some hipster cred will rub off on them.  That's true no matter how many times Gaga says that she's not manufactured and would happily go back to slumming it in New York rather than play processed music she's not passionate about.

Anyhow, Lady Gaga and Depeche Mode at SXSW in consecutive years is exciting in a way that a festival stacked with unknown bands hoping that their names go viral on Twitter isn't.

Her insistence about "not fitting into a mold" is worded to seem profound, but actually it's a totally conventional path to superstardom.  Great artists break the mold and set themselves apart from the background noise of whatever else is in the charts.  Famously, Avril Lavigne and Pink refused to conform to music industry standards and didn't fit a mold when they eventually broke big.  

The biggest Gaga-related news out of SXSW -- besides getting thrown up on by Millie Brown -- is the "don't sell out, sell-in" statement which probably would have been reported using sensationalist headlines about how "Gaga hearts mega-corporations!!" if she hadn't belittled that kind of sleazy reporting during the interview.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with accepting the support of a patron, and the arts have depended on rich patrons for hundreds of years.  The value is in the association with the artist, not with forcing the artist into striking a pose that's tailored exactly to the need to market a product.  Gaga's comments have been twisted to seem like they're daring or controversial when they really aren't, and that's not at all her fault -- she seems to truly "get" how the industry works, and the press falls for the same traps every time.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Kassem Mosse, "Workshop 19"; Lucy, "Churches, Schools, and Guns"

Leftfield, experimental house looks to be peaking right now.  It's a catch-all term that means different things to different people and I'm not clear on the definition either. But fortunately, these days it seems to be applied less and less to pop-orientted blog house and more toward the "anything can happen at any time in this track" club music that has made Terre Thaemlitz AKA DJ Sprinkles an unlikely star.  BTW, where does Thaemlitz going from purveyor of wibbly ambient to a big name in house music -- over the course of TWENTY years -- rank among the most remarkable and unpredictable comebacks in electronic music?  

"Workshop 19" reminds me of those marvelous cassette tape recordings of 80's Hacienda or Warehouse sets that have been known to pop up on the internet, where everything sounded underproduced, the bass or treble would tend to vanish without warning, and eclecticism was a constant theme.  Unfortunately, most of the tracks here are too short to get their message across.  His earlier singles are wondrous for the way they let the groove breathe often for well over ten minutes, and you just can't capture that hypnotic effect in only five or six minutes.


I can't believe I'm about to write this, but "Churches, Schools, and Guns" is mostly an album of looping, abstract, club unfriendly minimalism and it might be too abstract and too minimal even for me.  As an exercise in crafting dense and chunky techno it makes for an intriguing listen, but you'll need to be in a patient mood before you sit down with it.  The vaguely Hallucinator-like "Laws and Habits" is a change of gears that threatens to launch the album properly, but the spooked-out horror techno of "Follow the Leader" and "Catch Twenty Too" ratchet the mood right back down again to something unfriendly and fierce.  "The Illusion of Choice" is possibly the most conventional banger here, and it's followed up by "We Live As We Dream"'s static-y beats and echo-heavy, barely there looping melodies that could have been lifted from Autechre's fluffiest album "Amber".  I was expecting a more club-oriented album and I got something that'll take quite a bit of deciphering.

Friday, March 07, 2014

Magnetic Fields, "Strange Powers" (documentary)

I finally saw this Magnetic Fields documentary that was released a little over three years ago.  The reviews were generally quite positive, but I feel that was mainly out of respect for Stephin Merritt's body of work. I didn't get a "this is a must see doc" vibe from anyone. My own views are a bit more negative, out of the reviews I read, I identify most strongly with Mike Hale's take in the NYT.

My main issue is that I don't particularly understand for whom this documentary was made.  It's not for the casual music fan who's never heard of the Magnetic Fields, because the documentary makes almost no effort to explain what makes their songs so great or what makes their fanbase tick (save for the odd comment by a Peter Gabriel or Sarah Silverman).  It's not for the hardcore fan who's looking to peek behind the curtain, because all the principals (especially Merritt) are a bit too aloof and cynical to let their guard down.

There are a number of memorable moments in the film.  Seeing the band record songs in Stephin's chaotic mess of an apartment is a treat.  In some sense it de-glamourizes the songs but that's more than compensated by the way the recording humanizes the people involved. I couldn't help but smile at the way Stephin completely recreated the atmosphere of his New York studio apartment when he moved to Los Angeles at the end of the film.

Kudos to Sasha Frere-Jones for appearing on camera to say "mea culpa" for the racism allegations from 2006.

However, deep insights into the minds of band members are rare.  Sam Davol's admission that he isn't friends with Merritt -- even after twenty years playing in bands together -- was a refreshing and fairly shocking admission for any band documentary, especially one like this that is 99% feel good content.  He simply feels that it's best for band chemistry if the members know how keep an appropriate distance from each other.  This was also the take-home message behind the film's most poignant moment.  After Stephin's move to LA, we see Claudia Gonson looking lonely in NY, clearly missing her best friend like crazy but trying to be supportive of the change because she knows that it's best for Merritt.