Monday, January 19, 2015

Pazz and Jop 2014

The results were published last week, and there was a surprise winner!  This is a true rarity for P&J in the internet era.  Every major print and online publication posts its list by mid-December, so by the time P&J counts the votes and publishes its list, dozens of competing polls and lists have already been dissected for weeks from every conceivable angle.  By that time, the Village Voice's list is often little more than a foregone conclusion, despite the care and thoroughness that goes into it (you still won't find a larger poll with a more varied electorate anywhere).  To counter this somewhat, the Voice has moved up the P&J publication date over the years, from early February to the first half of January, but they're still the latest arrivals to the end of year wrap up party.

The advantage with being the last to publish, however, is that they're the last to accept ballots -- often right until the last few days of the year.  I personally have always hated the idea of seeing "year end" lists published in November, or people starting to rank their top tens in July, because a year is a year, and I want to maximize my time spent with every release, particularly the ones that come out in the fall.  That leaves room for albums like D'Angelo's "Black Messiah" or last year's Beyonce album to capture some last minute crit-love before the year is over.  Equally surprising is how handily D'Angelo won, and the amazingly high number of points/vote that he received (12.3).  Only seven other P&J top ten finishers from 2010-2014 had a 12.0 or higher.

Statistics for the poll, as always, come from Glenn McDonald's indispensable database.

I had my highest ever centricity score this year, breaking into the top 40th percentile for the first time.  The only other year that comes close was 2009, when I also voted for two albums that finished in the top five of the poll.  Otherwise it was my usual stars and scrubs ballot.  My third album that cracked the top 20, Swans' "To Be Kind", had 49 other voters.  My other seven albums combined had just 33 other voters.

This was the first year I didn't submit a singles ballot.  I absolutely hate being one of those people who doesn't vote for singles but my long standing rule is not to vote for token album tracks from my albums list, and I didn't get into enough proper singles this year to the point where I could put together a list I could really stand behind.  The vote distribution on singles was arguably the most divided ever in the poll, so I think there were many voters who were of a similar mindset.  There weren't any brilliant and inescapable singles that a large number of people could rally behind, which likely resulted in an apathetic attitude toward singles in general.  

Glenn tabulated a stat called Vitality this year, where albums were re-weighted by the percentage of points that came from new voters.  For years many people have been complaining that voter tastes are too narrow and that an injection of new blood is needed not only to keep things fresh, but to increase the visibility of under-recognized genres.  That sentiment reached a fever pitch around 2009, when the P&J top ten was dominated by Pitchfork-approved indie rock.  So Glenn tabulated everything according to Vitality, and the top ten is dominated by ... slightly more obscure indie rock!  Listen, I'm all for adding as many new voters as possible, I'm not elitist in any way about preserving the sanctity of the ballot like the BBWAA is with their baseball Hall of Fame ballots.  But I never understood this strange belief that adding new voters would automatically increase diversity.  I also never thought the answer was to "add metal music critics" or "add country music critics" to get those genres represented, because they'll load up their ballots with nearly nothing other than metal or country.  Adding new voter blocs isn't the same as adding diversity.  "Breadth" measures this somewhat -- if someone consistently votes for a variety of genres, they're more likely to be discovering new artists all the time and less likely to be voting for the same artists year after year.  

On that note, I usually complain about the poor state of techno and electronic music in the poll, but this year I'm not sure I can.  The strong showing by genre-spanning artists like FKA Twigs and Caribou shows that many of the old boundaries between genres are becoming blurred.  Todd Terje and Aphex Twin may be canonical and therefore boring according to some, but they both made the top 40.  Do we have the EDM boom to thank for this?

Thursday, January 15, 2015

An evening with Mark Gardener @ Barby Club

You have to admire Mark Gardener for the effort he put into making this evening happen.  His originally planned visit, a supporting slot on a bill with Dean Wareham, was cancelled over the summer due to Operation Protective Edge.  Most of the time, musicians' schedules don't allow for cancelled gigs to get rebooked.  But Gardener seemed determined to deliver more than just your ordinary gig.  This was more like the Mark Gardener Experience, a unique and intimate evening with a man who will shortly be playing arenas and headlining sold-out festivals.  This seated concert was to be his last show before the long-awaited Ride reunion. 

Living on the isolated fringes of Europe and Asia has its advantages and disadvantages when it comes to international touring artists.  Most of them don't bother coming through Tel Aviv -- the market for their music isn't large compared to the major European cities, and high travel costs make for an expensive one-off show that often isn't worth it financially.  That's the disadvantage.  The advantage is that when people do come, many of them go out of their way to experience the country, travel around meeting and talking to people, and do something special at the actual gig.  The evening started out with a nearly hour long on-stage sit-down interview with Israeli author and musician Yaheli Sobol (lead singer of the popular band Monica Sex).  Sobol focused mainly on the sound and structure  of the first two albums, with a musician's eye for detail in speaking about how advances in studio technology have changed how they approach the studio.  Somehow he avoided asking the more obvious questions, which for me, first and foremost would have been "in your opinion, why has shoegaze had such amazing staying power and even gained in popularity and influence over the years when every other microgenre of 90's British music proved to be a passing fad?" 

Many artists feel compelled to comment on the political situation these days, which is in one sense unfortunate (stick to music, please) but also interesting because you get a better feel of who they are as a human being.  Gardener spoke about the boycott calls but felt it wasn't right because even though he disagreed with the direction of the country, he disagreed with the direction of a lot of countries.  Taking this to its logical conclusion, there would be no place left to play, and fortunately that's the attitude that most musicians have.  He was taken to a Heartbeat Foundation gig in Jerusalem the night before and even invited one of the singers, a young woman who went by the name of "Russia" I believe, to be his spur of the moment opening act.  He'd heard about Heartbeat after Neil Young donated money to them following his cancelled gig this past summer, and was so moved by what they were doing that he decided to donate money himself after spending an evening with them.  Heartbeat is a perfect example of how Western journalists and musicians want to see Israel -- young Arab and Jewish musicians working together to write songs about "the occupation" -- rather than how it really is, but what can you do.  As a slight aside, here is my first and last comment on the boycott situation -- there's no justifiable reason for it and it's a problem only when the artists want it to be a problem.  Macy Gray turned the matter over to her fans and it descended into a shouting match.  Gray would swoop in and declare "oh it's so complicated!" and it makes artists feel like heroic soldiers leading the charge for hope and change when all they're doing is traveling to a perfectly safe Westernized country to play some music.  On the other hand, when Mark E. Smith got harassed by fans four years ago over The Fall's upcoming concert, his response was roughly "fuck all of you, we're playing" and that was the end of it.

Gardener told a funny story about Ride getting signed by Creation.  They had a support slot for five nights on the Soup Dragons' UK tour.  Alan McGee followed them from show to show and would sit with them afterwards.  There was one problem -- his Glaswegian accent was so thick, Gardener couldn't understand what he was saying.  He figured it's OK though, at least one of the others would understand him and they'd piece it all together later.  So he asked the others later on and they all said "we didn't understand a word he said either ... but I think he wants to sign our band?!?"

As for Gardener's set, it was transcendent.  He struck a good half and half balance between Ride songs and his solo work, the latter of which was dominated by his soon to be released collaboration with Robin Guthrie of the Cocteau Twins.  Playing with just an acoustic guitar and a loop effects pedal, he would loop his riffs and backing vocals to create a swirling, shimmering miasma of sound, which is exactly what you'd want a Gardener/Guthrie collaboration to sound like.  You would expect "Vapour Trail" and "Twisterella" to translate well to an acoustic performance, based on their original arrangements.  But Gardener particularly shined with some of his more ambitious adaptations, such as "In a Different Place" and "Polar Bear".  His voice is in top form too -- stronger and more refined than in his Ride days. 

The whole night felt like a VIP-only performance from an artist poised to make a big comeback in the next couple of years.  Those of you were tickets to the Ride reunion shows are in for a treat. 

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

String Cheese Incident, Spearhead live at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, December 28, 2002 (12 years later)

This is another retrospective review, and it's appropriate for kicking off the new year because it was part of a series of New Year's Eve shows from a band that's well known for them.  Unlike my review of Spiritualized twenty years on, I attended this show.  It was almost exactly twelve years ago.

I wrote down my thoughts about this show after it happened.  They're in an old notebook that I have to find one of these days.  I haven't seen that review or heard the recording since the day of the show.

Spearhead were the opening act and that was a welcome surprise that I didn't know about when I went along with the idea to get tickets to this show.  I think they were announced as the opening act only a few days before the show.  I remember thinking to myself that no matter what happens, I will get to see a really good band that I'd been curious about seeing for some time.

About a year ago I bought The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprosy's first and only proper album, "Hypocrisy Is the Greatest Luxury".  It was a bargain bin purchase and it's an album that barely remembered today.  It couldn't have been more out of place than it was -- a hip-hop inflected album by a California crew but with no connection to G-funk or gangsta rap or any of other West Coast trends of the time.  Instead, it combined the Bomb Squad's kitchen sink mix of beats and chaos, the swagger of industrial music, and Michael Franti's politically charged lyrics.   Sonically, it still sounds fresh because it's a blueprint that was never duplicated.  Nobody even tried to duplicate it, including Franti.  He decided to grab his guitar and reach out to the freaky people of the world instead.

Around the time of this gig, I saw a Much Music interview with Franti (can't recall the interviewer) and they were casually wandering the streets of downtown Toronto.  This was not altogether unusual.  Unlike MTV and many other journalistic outlets, MM was never about shutting its guests in a sterile studio, they always tried to integrate themselves into their urban surroundings by letting the crowds get up close and personal to their ground floor studio, staging events in the parking lot by the side door, and so on.  Franti wasn't the only artist to be interviewed outside Much Music building, but as far as escaping the confinement of the studio goes,  to absorb the energy of the streets, I'm sure he wouldn't have had it any other way.

Anyway, they were walking the streets and he was recognized by a passerby.  I can't even recall it they were male or female, let's say it was a male.  What happened next was remarkable.  They had a short conversation and the fan became a bit flustered in trying to communicate his feelings.  You're an inspiration, keep doing what you're doing, don't change, and just when the fan seemed to lose track of he wanted to articulate, Franti grabbed hold of him and embraced him like one would embrace a close friend or family member that was about to board a plane for a long journey, not to return for many months.  Except this was a total stranger from the street.  The hug made everything OK. Celebrities have to find ways to detach from their fans all the time, there's a fine line between saying you're a big fan and getting too nosy, outstaying your welcome, and making the encounter uncomfortable for everyone involved.  This fan wasn't like that.  He wanted to briefly say his piece and let Franti continue on.  Franti could see that.  He made the encounter special by embracing him and making the fan feel like a true friend.  After a few brief parting words, he continued down the street and went on with the interview.

This kind of connection between an artist and their fans is incredibly rare.  Of course there are plenty of friendly musicians who go out of their way to interact with their fans.  How many of them hug random people on the street?  Franti connects with people not only because he's a talented musician with something to say, but because he's nice.  He's so nice that he can connect with people without even trying.  Cultivating a stage persona and connecting with fans is hard work for most people, and it should be.  For Franti it's not work.  He can connect to people without even trying.  Obviously part of it has to do with the types of fans he attracts -- jam band, outdoor festival types who are open and welcoming people to begin with.  But Franti has perfected the art of being nice better than just about anybody.

Even after all these years, Spearhead's set from that night in '02 immediately brought a smile of familiarity to my face.  The music was infectious and fun from the first song to the last.  At the time I was wondering whether SCI could top their set, and listening to these recordings now, I'm wondering the same thing all over again.

The litmus test for SCI rears its head right away.  The first song, "Johnny Cash", features the chorus "Johnny Cash, Johnny Cash, Johnny Cash, don't smoke hash".  Even without hearing the song, if that seems like a funny and amusing chorus to you, then you'll probably like the Cheese.  But if you find it an adolescent stab at humour that came out of an afternoon of reefer madness that you're glad you weren't a part of, then you probably won't.  What does that line even mean?  Are they telling Johnny Cash to stay away from hash, or are they informing us that he doesn't smoke it?  (It's the latter, which is clearer from the rest of the lyrics)

The first set is breezy and energetic, highlighted by a cracking version of "Under African Skies" and a deliciously groovy "Born on the Wrong Planet" featuring Michael Franti and other members of Spearhead.  Seeing this live, I couldn't believe how quickly the 70+ minute set flew by, and was even disappointed for the break in momentum. Hearing it today, my reactions are largely the same.  

The second set is a different story.  It's slower pace and more jammy style is designed to cultivate a different sort of mood, and for me that mood was exhaustion.  I was about ready to crash, partly a comedown from the energy of the first set, and partly a physiological comedown, probably from having a few too many drinks earlier in the day.  During the encore, there's a short delay as the band tries to figure out what they're going to play.  Fifteen minutes of jamming later, the song abruptly ends and it's time to go home. The gig is over, and it's as if they were punching a clock, got in the two and a half hours that their fans expect, and called it a night.  The second set is inoffensive enough as a relaxing listen during my daily commute, but live I was straining to enjoy it.  I wanted to get the most out of the SCI experience, but by the end I was well past ready for it to finally end.  

Live recordings of these shows, plus hundreds of others by both band, are readily available online. My copies, courtesy of the Live Music Archive: