Saturday, February 27, 2016

Three great articles from the past week

Neil Shah examined the global appeal of metal for the WSJ, which is one of the last places you'd expect to read such an article.  It provides a general overview of the astonishing global spread of the genre and highlights the leading bands in a number of exotic locales.  Unfortunately it's light on analysis of the whys behind metal's global reach, beyond a single paragraph about how metal can transcend language barriers because of the emphasis on the timbre of the vocals, rather than the meaning of the lyrics.

He does note that metal scenes don't develop on the cheap, in fact, they are often linked to economic booms in the area.  Metal is more closely linked to lifestyle that most other genres -- those clothes, music, and merch don't come cheap.  And when you're in, you're all in.  I don't know very many casual metal fans.

The most amazing thing to me about the global spread of metal is that it's transcended race and religion almost completely.  This isn't addressed at all in the article.  Shah notes that metal is often the domain of rebellion and the political left, which has helped it to find a following in so many different countries.  But hip-hop is also about addressing the "real" issues on the streets and giving voices to the voiceless and all that, and I don't think hip-hop has traveled nearly as well as metal (although I could be wrong).  But metal, which is strongly rooted in (let's face it) the culture of Norwegian white supremacists, has been adopted by countless cultures that many of metal's pioneers would have found revolting.  It's almost as if the Nazis or the KKK had been music pioneers and future generations decided to not allow their heroes' racism to inconvenience their enjoyment of the music.  It's a fascinating dichotomy that I sometimes see getting discussed online, but have yet to see a consistent, definitive take on the issue.

Jes Skolnik's short history of police boycotts of musicians (for Pitchfork) was a unique and well-thought out piece.  The gist is that the police occasionally overreact and decide to boycott people, but nothing ever comes of it because they always back down.  I didn't understand the connections to US presidential elections though.  First of all, election cycles are so long in the US that you easily link any issue to a state or federal election anywhere at any time.  Second, what exactly is supposed to be the connection between the police boycotts and political action, beyond simple coincidence?  Is it implied that the police pick and choose their spots to pressure certain politicians?  If so, then who?  Have these actions ever decicisvely swung even a single election, even on a municipal level?

Finally, Ned Raggett's primer on the Cocteau Twins for the Guardian might be the best intro to the band I've ever read, and his ten track playlist even contains four or five of my all-time favourite Cocteau Twins tracks.  His piece has received a ton of praise, even from former Cocteaus band members.

The Cocteau Twins might be the ultimate "sounding better with age" bands, and one of the most inimitable.  Most great bands have very faithful imitators, both good and bad, but I've yet to hear any band that came close to reproducing the sounds and atmospheres of the Cocteau Twins.  By now I think everyone has given up trying.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Where has all the nuclear war gone?

Listening to JD Twitch's excellent "Nuclear War" mix over the weekend got me thinking about how the fusing of music and politics has changed since the 1980's. 

Beyonce's "Formation" has been fiercely debated online and in countless critical assessments, with the reactions split between "finally, it's about time Beyonce added a explicitly political, confrontational element to her music!" and "who does Beyonce think she is by jumping on this political bandwagon?" 

Frankie Goes to Hollywood's "Two Tribes" (one of the songs featured in Twitch's mix) was a gigantic hit in the UK, spending nine weeks at number one.  Its equally iconic music video is one of the best of the 80's.  There's a tendency to look down one's nose at the 80's (I don't, but others certainly do) as the selfish "me" decade with its slavish decadence and laughable hairstyles.  As in, people sure were dumb to be duped by all that flag waving, Cold War propaganda -- thanks to new technologies, the flow of information is less controlled and  our bullshit filters are stronger.  A generation ago we were sheep, now we have the tools to be more analytical, more cynical.  And yet, it's impossible to think of a phenomenon like "Two Tribes" happening today.  Can you imagine a hit pop song today about nuclear deals  and/or confrontations with Iran or North Korea?  (incidentally, "Two Tribes" was a chart topping hit in the UK and a number of European countries, but only reached #43 in the US.  This can be Exhibit A if you ever need to elaborate on the oft-repeated claim that Americans don't understand irony)

Sure, every generation in music has its touchstone issues.  Nuclear war was a hot topic in the 80's but different issues take precedence these days, and that's fine.  Still, even after all these years and countless "Two Tribes" listens, it's almost shocking to hear a pop megahit that so boldly mocks major world leaders, that is something that doesn't happen anymore.  In 2016, we should be more accepting of bold statements by major names in music, but instead, I see a stronger division among critics between artists who should be "allowed" to be political and those who shouldn't.  I don't see where people get off trying to disqualify Beyonce for not having the proper "credentials" to make a statement like "Formation". 

Social media has lead to a democratization of celebrities that in this instance, is far from a positive.  It's not like Holly Johnson had a degree in international relations that qualified him to write "Two Tribes", but at the time, people were more content to leave the art to the artists.  Now, we can maintain the illusion that musicians are exactly like us because we assume we can get close to them via their Twitter feeds.  So why are they any more qualified to speak out about racism or nuclear war than we are?

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Diary of Musical Thoughts Podcast Episode 28

"Rebuttal of FACT Focus 6 - Stereolab", 90 minutes

"Episodes of FACT Focus focus on a specific artist, label, scene, or sound".  That's FACT's mission statement for this relatively new mix series, and that description actually makes it sound less exciting than the reality.  Six episodes in, it's been one of the most adventurous mix series around, eschewing all the obvious artists and safe trends.   Episode 6 was a 2.5 hour journey into the deepest depths of Stereolab's catalogue, impeccably sequenced and with outstanding track selection.  It also made me a little bit mad.

Most overviews of Stereolab tend to focus on a style that I once referred to as "outer space science pop with cooing French lyrics".  This became their signature sound sometime around "Dots and Loops", which is now regarded as one of their very best albums for reasons that I've never fully understood.  This was a time when John McEntire was their go-to producer and everything started sounding a bit too clean and shiny for my taste.  I've been meaning to revisit all of Stereolab's post-2000 work for a while now, on one hand they settled into a fairly nonadventurous homogeneity during their final decade but on the other hand some stuff was underappreciated and seems to get better with age (e.g. "Sound Dust").  Hopefully that's a post for another time.

Anyhow, the problem with Jon Dale's Stereolab mix for FACT is that it almost completely ignores the loud, two chord, Velvet-y droning, Krautrock-obsessed, endlessly repetitive style that is MY favourite style associated with Stereolab.  It's the style they were known for when they started out and that dominated a majority of their recordings for the first four or five years of their career.  I get that albums like "Mars Audiac Quintet" aren't for everyone -- the same Krautrock boogie played 15 different ways -- but this was the version of the band that I idolized and played to death in the 90's.  And so I made my own Stereolab focus mix, a rebuttal of sorts to the FACT Focus mix.

Here I present ninety minutes of a different side of Stereolab, one that's necessarily slanted toward their early years, but I tried to spread things around as best I could.  Some of my all-time 'Lab favourites are here, but it's not a personal all-time top ten or anything.  This is meant to be an overview of a style, in the spirit of the FACT Focus series, not an excuse to cram all of my favourites onto a single mix.

Think of it as a companion piece to the FACT mix.  Put together, you have four hours of Stereolab that hardly feels like we're scratching the surface -- hardly any singles are represented, for instance!  And if you're looking for connections between the two styles, anyone who saw Stereolab play live knows that they only sounded soft on studio recordings.  Right up until the end, they were a groovemaking machine that rocked out on stage into infinity, as some of the live cuts and radio sessions on this mix will show (Tracks 8,10,11, and 13 are live radio sessions, tracks 12 and 14 are in concert).

(note: to avoid possible flagging of this mix, I altered the artist name in the track listing in a few places.  Don't worry, it's all Stereolab.)