Friday, December 23, 2011

Late to the Party--Ozzie, "The Parabolic Years: 1975-1982" (2010)

It is easy to see why the Sacramento rock band Ozzie got lost in the shuffle in the late 1970s and early 1980s. They were from Sacramento, California, which is not typically recognized as one of the hotbeds of subversive rock music. Their moniker, Ozzie, might have been confused with that other famous OZZY, the one that was, at the time, Black Sabbath's lead singer. It is also hard to define them musically. I have a feeling that if they were from England, they would have been dubbed a "pub rock" band because of their versatility and their unwillingness to adhere to just one brand of rock music. Also, their quirky sense of humor rarely misfires, but it hardly ever lands either.

If one were to only hear "Android Love," the A-side to their one single (backed by mostly instrumental "Organic Gardening"), released in 1977, they would be unsure why critical or commercial success eluded them. The driving track is relentlessly catchy and possesses a provocative lyric--especially for 1977--about love between man and machine. In an alternate world, this song be talked about with the same reverence held for contemporary numbers like the Sex Pistols' "Anarchy in the U.K.," the Ramones' "Blitzkrieg Bop," X-Ray Spex' "Oh Bondage Up Yours!" or Richard Hell and the Voidoids' "Blank Generation." With only one other EP credited to the band during their tenure, the bulk of the posthumous collection The Parabolic Rock: 1975-1982 consists of unreleased studio takes and demos.

The band is technically proficient, which allows them to flirt with a variety of styles. Tracks like "Android Love" and the bizarre "Child of the Reich" are glam-inspired numbers comparable to pre-Manifesto Roxy Music. There are prog-rock tendencies on display as well, especially on the aforementioned "Child of the Reich" and the overly long epic "The Ballad of Jack Ruby." Tracks like "Wall," "Faunamania," and "I Love a Tank" are firm new wave numbers. Rockers like "Cookies Rundgren," "Kung Fu Karate Man," and "Terror in the Streets" (which has a riff that Poison sounds like it must have nicked when they wrote "Talk Dirty to Me") obviously show the strong influence of Todd Rundgren. Because they never really settle into one sound, they can come across as dilettantes. The fact that they opened for bands like the Talking Heads and The Nerves makes sense. But it is also easy to understand why they only opened, and never headlined these gigs.

Still, S-S Records has done a great job with this two-record set. Though clearly drawing off less-than-pristine tapes (and a direct vinyl transfer in the case of the "Android Love" single), the records still manage to sound great. The liner notes provide an extensive history of the group and do an excellent job of shaping the context for how Ozzie arrived at their sound. Because of the somewhat steep price tag for this set (around $20-25), I would recommend it to fans of obscure 70s rock, proto-punk, and proto-new wave. While an uneven collection, it is always fun, and the band is tight. The Parabolic Years does make a mildly convincing what if? argument about their place in rock history.

Below is a clip for their Bizarro World classic "Android Love":

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Songs that Changed the Landscape of Human Thought and Understanding: The Floaters' "Float On"


When the members of Modest Mouse were still in short pants, the Detroit-based soul group The Floaters released a song for the ages called "Float On" in 1977. This thoroughly visionary track foresees the 21st Century's renewed enthusiasm for the accurate predictive process of Astrology, online dating, and an anonymous woman finding out how sweet it was to share her love with Larry.

After doing extensive research on astrology, I was shocked to discover that it was not--in fact--invented by Miss Cleo in the 1990s. Who knew?! It turns out that Astrology dates all the way back to the 1960s. A formerly agnostic astronomer by the name of Dr. Lowell Astor was employed at the Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona. The observatory is known for having some huge ass telescopes. He noticed that Mars, the Red Planet, temporarily entered the constellation Sagittarius. About two weeks later, a bit of good luck came his way. From this humble moment, the astrological arts arose, and became a phenomenon during the 1960s and 1970s. It's popularity started to wane during the presidency of Gerald Ford, for obvious reasons: he was a Leo. But thanks to the sexy powers of The Floaters (who were, collectively, "Aquarius, Libra, Leo, [and] Cancer" and "Ralph, Charles, Paul, [and] Larry," respectively), astrology came back into full force.

In the song, each member of the group reveals: 1) their astrological sign; 2) their first name; and, 3) what kind of woman they are looking for. By doing this, they set up the entire paradigm of online dating. More on this later. They continue their quest for the woman of their desires by "taking" their hand and inviting them to a place called "Love Land," which is presumably somewhere in the greater metropolitan area of Detroit, Michigan. Finally, each member promises to show the lady how sweet it will be if she shares "her love" with him. The combined effect of this amorous barrage is that one will "float, FLOAT, float on." The light doo-wop singing of The Floaters, combined with the smooth funk of their backing band, amounts to a dulcet online dating profile.

Now, at the time this song was rising up the charts, the phrase "online dating" meant about as much as "snarg friltawog tigghol" did. Sure, matchmaking services existed. One such system is documented in the classic Bernard Malamud short story "The Magic Barrel" (1958). Some even utilized phones, newspapers, and computers. But by launching a full multimedia campaign, including TV appearances and live shows, The Floaters were promoting themselves across purposes: first, as great soul singers, and, most importantly, as all around good dudes who want to meet some compatible nice ladies for possible connubial relations and even a potential relationship. "Float On" served as their irresistible profile. Its continued play on the radio served as the contemporary online dating equivalent of men constantly bombarding women's inboxes with pervy notes. (Forgive the poor phrasing of the conclusion of that last sentence.) According to my in-the-know imaginary friend, Dr. Fred "Forklift" Quarg, the prototype for's first profile page was based on this song. For instance, under the prompt, "Come with me baby to _______," you would enter the name of the place you would like to seduce your prospective date. Apparently, the standards and practices team at the aforementioned dating site thought that was pretty creepy.

Thanks to "Float On," astrology became a healing power of love, subverting the then-popular claim, made so eloquently by the female news broadcaster in the film Kentucky Fried Movie (1977), that it was meant "merely to support people who [could not] take responsibility for their own lives." Similarly, by providing a general outline for what online dating should look like, it subsequently replaced beer as the way most awkward people hook up. It never really helped Larry, though. All he needed was the glorious majesty of sweet sweet song.

*-For the purposes of full disclosure, I candidly admit that the name of the group discussed (The Floaters) and the name of the song discussed ("Float On") played no part in my selection for its entry in this series of song profiles, even if it very closely resembles my last name.

Here's a sexy clip of the song:

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Book Review: 33 1/3 #63 XO

One of my pet peeves in the 33 1/3 series of books is when author's writing with interesting angles suddenly break off their discussions to offer a linear song-by-song explication of the album. Typically, these song-by-song sections are boring and uninspired. They convey information that isn't particularly new, or interesting, or even necessary (which we see when the song-by-song sections devolve, bafflingly, into awkward, clunky descriptions of how songs sound--the music book equivalent of stopping to write a forty page summary of a novel for a piece of literary criticism). But just because these song-by-song sections are usually lazy and unnecessary, that doesn't mean they can't have any place in a work of music criticism. Enter Matthew LeMay's mostly interesting and well-written counter-analysis of Elliott Smith's XO. LeMay starts his book with a fairly straight-forward and inspired mission--to re-examine Smith's work outside of the cultural fetishes of mental illness, drug abuse, and suicide. LeMay argues that Smith has been taken too literally, and his work done a disservice by critics and fans who elevate the "singer-songwriter's" work because of the narratives surrounding him, not because of the exceptional quality of that work. In order to achieve this, LeMay approaches Smith's work on the level of craft--by providing both literary readings of the song's lyrics, and illustrating how Smith's songs evolved over time, it becomes clear that much of what fans believe to be autobiographical is not, and those songs about a tortured soul always on the verge of suicide maybe shouldn't be read quite so literally.

This is why LeMay's use of the song-by-song analysis is so effective. It isn't filler or fluff--the song-by-song is the book. LeMay treats his analyses as archaeological, in a way. We see how, as lyrics change and bend, their meanings and narratives changing with them, in effect exonerating Smith's music from being sentenced to the songwriter's past. While LeMay is in this analytical mode, his reading of XO is phenomenal.

Where LeMay begins to falter, if only a little, is when he begins dealing more explicitly with other writers' treatments of Smith. In a way, LeMay takes these bits too personally, and fails to recognize the broader context of the most-main-of-mainstream popular culture from which many of these critics were writing. LeMay takes issue with USA Today and Yahoo! Launch articles that describe Smith's sudden rise from "obscurity" to performing at the Oscars. I understand why this seems troubling to LeMay. We've all felt this way, when a buddy says "Hey, I just got this album called Good News For People Who Love Bad News by this new band called Modest Mouse." Just because a band or artist is "new" to the listener/writer/reporter doesn't mean it's new to everyone. But LeMay seems to expect that the primary audiences of USA Today and Yahoo! Launch--the people for whom their writers are writing--would be at all interested in Elliott Smith's past. In a way, LeMay's one failure with this book is his inability to separate the mainstream press from indie culture, and taking that mainstream press to task for trying to present an artist who defied narrativization to a fickle, and largely uninterested mainstream audience. At one point, LeMay is critical of a critic for referring to a particular club in L.A. as small when, in fact, it's a nice-sized club for nice-sized touring acts. Here's the problem--the majority of the audience for which the initial article was written would probably list their most recent concert experience as U2 or Celine Dion or Garth Brooks at Big-Ass-Fucking-Arena-United in 1996.

To this end, some of LeMay's argument feels a bit disingenuous because he doesn't account for the the real mainstream popular culture in the late nineties and early aughts when Smith was getting press. This does not, however, take anything away from LeMay's exceptional work tracing the evolution of Smith's songs, and the argument that he makes in separating Smith's music from the tragic narrative of the artist, himself.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Book Review: 33 1/3 #70 Facing Future

I felt odd reading a book about an album I'd never really listened to. I checked out some of the songs through the magic of downloads and YouTube, but for the most part, I came to Dan Kois' volume on Israel "Iz" Kamakawiwo'Ole's Facing Future as an outsider. This is doubly fitting as, throughout my reading of Kois' volume, I felt like a cultural outsider--but in a good way. And that's what makes Kois' volume on Facing Future such a compelling read--the book is as much about Hawaii's culture, music industry, and values as it is about Iz's album. Truth be told, as a straight forward "album book," Facing Future is a bit pedestrian--Kois traces the history of the performer and the songs well enough, but where the book finds its stride is in its dealings with the specifics of Hawaiian popular culture. That is to say, before reading Kois' book, I never would have guessed or suspected how much of a local music industry Hawaii has, nor would I have supposed that this industry would mirror the mainstream (or mainland) record business, only in miniature. And I definitely wouldn't have dreamed of the existence of Jawaiian music (thank god). While this resulted in a bit of me "othering" a different culture as I read, that was through no fault of the author. In fact, every step of the way, Kois is sensitive to and respectful of the Hawaiian culture he is exploring.

In all honesty, Kois' empathy is the key to this volume. From the opening pages in which he tells the tale of Iz recording the famous "Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World" medley in the middle of the night after a night of drinking and possibly drugging, to the treatment of Iz's desire for his family to be taken care of after his inevitable early death, Kois' prose is rich with a sincere pathos that brings Iz and the people surrounding him to life in ways rare for "album books." One of Kois' other strengths is his sincere even-handedness in dealing with local label "politics." For instance, Kois is willing to present Jon de Mello as both a hero in Iz's story, and a villain (or at least an unsavory opportunist) depending on who is talking. That Kois never really comes down on either side of the issue but merely presents the various attitudes toward de Mello is a nice change of pace from other rock books that are quick to label key players as heroes or villains and focus on those roles through the entirety of their involvement in the project.

So there it is--I don't have much to say about this book because I've never been terribly invested in Iz's music. That being said, Kois' volume was interesting thanks in large part to his ability to write well and bring Iz and the people around him to life while also painting a vivid picture of Hawaii and its culture. Sure, the book gets a bit tedious for a spell when Kois lapses into that oh-so-tired trope of the "song by song" analysis (stop it 33 1/3 writers, it's boring and lazy), but all in all, Dan Kois' exploration of Iz's Facing Future and Hawaii is well worth the read, whether your sick to death of "Over the Rainbow" or not.

Next up, the volume on XO, in which I admit to liking the song-by-song structure for once.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Late to the Party--15-60-75: The Numbers Band's "Jimmy Bell's Still in Town" (1976)

While the music scenes based around Los Angeles and New York City get most of the press, Northern Ohio produced a healthy number substantial musical acts in the 1970s. Devo, Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders, Pere Ubu, and The Dead Boys all originated there, and so did lesser-known but no less brilliant groups like Rocket from the Tombs, The Electric Eels, Ex-Blank-Ex, Tin Huey, and The Waitresses. One of the hidden gems of the Kent, Ohio scene has remained 15-60-75, also known more simply as The Numbers Band. They formed in 1970 and are still active to this very day, primarily playing in small clubs in Ohio. The band has counted among its alumni Gerald Casale (later a founding member of Devo), David Robinson (who drummed in the original line-up of The Modern Lovers and in The Cars), Terry Hynde (Chrissie Hynde's brother), and Chris Butler (the leader of Tin Huey and the primary songwriter of The Waitresses, who had a MTV hit in the early 1980s with "I Know What Boys Like"). To most experts, their crowning achievement is their 1976 live album Jimmy Bell's Still in Town. It was recorded June 16th, 1975 at the Agora in Cleveland. Reportedly, The Numbers Band was the opening act for Bob Marley and the Wailers. When it was released in album form a year later, it appeared on their Water Records label, getting little distribution, and quickly falling into obscurity. Long since championed by David Thomas of Pere Ubu (who currently releases the album on his Hearpan Records label), it has maintained a small but loyal group of listeners.

Jimmy Bell's Still in Town is a remarkably tight set, and each of its five tracks flow smoothly into each other, as if there are no breaks between the songs. It is also rather difficult to categorize. Ostensibly, The Numbers Band are a roadhouse blues rock band. The title of the album even refers to an obscure blues 1958 song by Cat Iron called "Jimmy Bell." Their ten minute cover of the song, on Side Two, is without question the centerpiece of the album. While the stamp of the blues is all over this record, it is a remarkably off-kilter variation on the form. It hints at Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band's 1968 Mirror Man sessions, but is far more cohesive. Similarly, the lineup and musical arrangement of The Numbers Band is highly unusual by blues band standards. They have two guitarists (frontman Robert Kidney and Michael Stacy), a bassist (Drake Gleason), and a drummer (the aforementioned David Robinson), which is not all that aberrant. However, their sound is augmented by three saxophonists (Robert Kidney's brother Jack, Terry Hynde, and Tim Maglione). Their ensemble playing is disquieting and discordant, their horns often slipping slightly out of pitch. When they solo, they owe more to Ohio native Albert Ayler than to, say, Jr. Walker or King Curtis. The guitar solos vary range traditional blues workouts to oblique motifs that foreshadow the playing of Tom Verlaine or a more restrained Robert Quine. As a result, Jimmy Bell's Still in Town is an album in which comparisons to the first two Bruce Springsteen LPs and later recordings such as Pere Ubu's The Modern Dance, Television's The Blow-Up, and Morphine's Cure for Pain are all appropriate. It is not an album that necessarily resonates on first spin, though. This is because the material is so uniformly constructed and tightly delivered that it's often difficult to distinguish when they are improvising or deviating from the structure of the tunes. Vocalist Robert Kidney's vocals are largely free from emotion or theatricality, which can give off the initial impression that he is not all that enthusiastic about the material. But once you recognize the powerful and unusual grooves they are able to develop and pursue, it becomes a thoroughly rewarding experience.

Jimmy Bell's Still in Town is available from Hearpan Records' website.

Below is an audio clip of "Jimmy Bell."

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Book Review: 33 1/3 #71 It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back

I had mixed feelings going into Christopher R. Weingarten's volume on Public Enemy's classic album, It Takes a Nation of Million to Hold us Back. On the one hand, I wanted to be blown away by the book because it is about one of my favorite hip hop albums ever. On the other, I was kind of dreading reading an entire book written by Weingarten, known around Twitter as a bit of a reactionary curmudgeon. While I am certainly entertained by Weingarten's antics on Twitter and the constant arguments he provokes through his, ahem, strong opinions (latest: complaining about the state of interviewing), I wasn't sure I wanted to read an entire book by the man. If you haven't read his tweets, you might have encountered the video of Weingarten's stunning rant about the state of music criticism in the age of the internet, given at a conference a few years back. Or maybe you've heard about his successful attempt to review 1,000 records via Twitter (which was later released as this odd artifact). But alright--so that's Chris R. Weingarten, and this review is about a book he wrote, not the man himself. Still, while I was excited to read about It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back, I was also worried that Weingarten might fuck it up with his weird, angsty, reactionary music critic persona.

Well, Weingarten didn't fuck it up. In fact, It Takes a Nation of Millions... turned out to be one of the best entries in the 33 1/3 series. It gets off to a bit of a slow start as the author provides context that doesn't quite fit (yet, it makes sense soon), but once the book gets rolling, Weingarten's explorations of the various samples that make up Public Enemy's classic record are engaging--revelatory even. Perhaps the single most important factor in making Weingarten's book a success is his ability to combine narrative and analysis in conveying the history of the album's key samples. He doesn't simply identify a sample's source and move on, he recreates the historical moment of each sample and, in the process, shows us that It Takes a Nation of Millions... is a daring and political record through and through, not just because of Chuck D's lyrics and Public Enemy's persona, but also because many of the key samples were pulled from historically loaded cultural moments. In the process, we learn a little bit about James Brown, his bands, and his contributions to African American culture. We also learn about Funkadelic, Stax records, the Wattstax festival, early hip hop--the list goes on and on. What I find most surprising about Weingarten's discussion of this source material is, while I've always been aware of many of the sample's sources (though I was unaware of just as many), I've never considered their import so thoroughly until reading this book.

Eventually, Weingarten's volume runs out of steam a bit. The final chapter turns toward a discussion of how It Takes a Nation of Millions... has, itself been sampled and how it continues to remain a vital cultural artifact. Unfortunately, this last chapter feels more like an epilogue than chapter eight, or like the 80's movie that gives a brief summary of what happened to each character after the movie. After being immersed in Weingarten's fascinating historical narratives and analysis, I found the last chapter's rapid-fire rundown a bit unnecessary. Granted, the record's influence isn't really the book's focus, but why not put some time into telling more of the stories behind PE's influence on culture instead of just mentioning some times they were sampled.

Of course, that's just a quibble, and the lesser ending doesn't really detract much from the book as a whole. In writing this review, it occurs to me that Weingarten's volume can be a very useful book. In my comp/rhet studies, I've read a glut of material about "remix" culture, or the "rip, mix, burn" mindset. But in their discussions of sampling and digital culture, few of these scholars ever really address the potential for the intertextual methods they are describing. If I had a bit more money, I'd probably carry a dozen copies of Weingarten's book with me at all times so that, when someone uses sampling in the context of comp/rhet, I could give them a copy and tell them how much more exciting their ideas are than they even know.

So there--while I don't always agree with his reactionary woke-up-on-the-wrong-side-of-the-bed tweets, I have to admit that Christopher R. Weingarten has written one of the finest books in the 33 1/3 series.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Songs that Changed the Landscape of Human Thought and Understanding: Men Without Hats' "The Safety Dance"

Societies demand safety. That's a fact. Why do you think prisons exist? Long before Michel Foucault examined the prison as a metaphor and tool for authoritarian control of the populace in his highly influential study Surveiller et Punir (Discipline and Punish) in 1975, America's first goth kid, Nathaniel Hawthorne, was making similar observations. In his cheery piece of fiction, The Scarlet Letter (1850), his narrator makes the following statement: "The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison." While this is unmistakably true, because Hawthorne was NEVER wrong, one thing Utopias have long overlooked, for some unknown reason, is dancing kids. According to our society's elders, these spastic little jerks have been wreaking havoc on the world since they first decided to swivel their hips and gyrate in sexually-suggestive ways. History is filled with examples of dancing kids messing things up. William Shakespeare's tragedy Romeo and Juliet is fully based on the notion of these fools and their disruptive, lascivious ways. Years later, Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise brought this tale to the big screen in the form of West Side Story (1961), which filled with racist, finger-snapping kids with social diseases. In 1978's blockbuster Saturday Night Fever, dancing kids who are into disco get into more gang fights, have unprotected sex, rape a woman, do more racist stuff, commit suicide, and wear horrible shoes. Fortunately, the geniuses in Men Without Hats provided an alternative, a social salve, if you will, when they unleashed "The Safety Dance" on the great unwashed dancing masses in 1982. Because it championed safety in the art of the dance, it instantly became the greatest song of the 1980s, even better than Joe "Bean" Esposito's "You're the Best."

With its throbbing, minimal bassline and infectious hook, Men Without Hats, led by the great Ivan Doroschuk, found a simple way for kids to dance without unleashing their homicidal, herpes-infected ribaldry upon the poor proles who just want to go to their jobs in peace, drink the weekend away, and continually ruin their credit scores. Doroschuk's solution: an enclave for dancing kids away from the rest of society. He sings, "We can go where we want to / A place where they'll never find / And we can act like we come from out of this world / Leave the real one far behind." Furthermore, if you don't dance, then "you're no friend of mine." Soon, the powers that be took notice of Men Without Hats' brilliant scheme. By establishing dancing "zones," or what the Reagan administration would soon name "dance clubs," these "imbecile(s)" who are always "out of control," according to Doroschuk, could fraternize with each other, frolic, and basically do their thang all over each other. The most brilliant thing about Men Without Hats' "The Safety Dance" is that comes across as pure anarchy in dance, giving it an edge for all those would-be nonconformist dancing kids. Really, though, the dance is all about safety, as the title suggests, because the main move in the dance involves "look(ing) at your hands." Clean hands help reduce sickness and The Safety Dance, with its insistence upon hand-looking, reduced instances of the common cold by one million percent, according to the Wikipedia entry on hyperbole. Because of "The Safety Dance," the tyrannical terrorism of dancing kids has been blotted out completely ... Well, unless you count Footloose, or the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Book Review: 33 1/3 #78 Pretty Hate Machine

I don't know if this accurate and, if it is, what the circumstances behind it might be, but I feel like we've been waiting on Daphne Carr's 33 1/3 volume on Pretty Hate Machine forever. It wasn't a title I was particularly excited about as I haven't listened to much NIN since I stopped being seventeen, but I was curious to see what a writer as accomplished as Carr might do with the album. Turns out, this book was well worth the wait. Instead of setting out to "read" or "explain" Reznor's seminal album, Carr's project centers on locating Pretty Hate Machine in time, space, and memory. In pursuing this project, Carr provides important bits of Reznor's (and his family's) history, brief narratives of important cities in NIN's history, namely Mercer, PA, and Youngstown and Cleveland, Ohio, fan oral histories, and explorations of the sub(and mall)cultures to which Reznor's music was instrumental. That may sound like a lot of disparate material to cover in a 150 page (plus notes) book, but Carr's overarching focus on culture and her discretion in limiting each section to essential components keeps the book moving and developing in a number of interesting ways.

In a move that seems both bold and necessarily obvious, Carr begins her volume on Pretty Hate Machine with a discussion of the trench coat mafia, the tragedy at columbine, and the resulting media frenzy surrounding NIN and like artists. Why begin there, of all places? Because it was the point at which the culture that grew out of NIN's music was in the media spotlight, the moment when all of the kids in corners were suddenly dragged into the light in a flurry of paranoia and fear. In other words, it makes perfect sense to begin a book about culture with the moment when that culture was the most seen.

But Carr's book goes so much further than simply exploring that gothic/industrial culture. In her own words, by telling the story of NIN and Pretty Hate Machine, Carr was able "to tell the story of lower-middle-class white men in the Rust Belt through a narrative beginning with Trent's birth and leading to the album's birth, as a mirror of American transition from Industrial to Information Age labor" (10). This is where Carr's take on Pretty Hate Machine excels, and what sets it apart from other books in the 33 1/3 series. The story Carr is exploring is so much bigger than just an album--she's taking on class, race, economics, urban decay, privilege, etc...So thorough is Carr's exploration of NIN's impact on culture, and culture's reliance on NIN, that the books final chapter includes a brief history of Hot Topic and its intertwining with Reznor and his music.

Of course, what stands out most about Carr's book is her willingness to let her subjects speak for themselves. In the process, they say some insightful things, some intelligent things, some horrifying things, some tragic things, and some disturbingly unintelligent things, but Carr never really judges them. She let's them tell their stories and, through the context she provides, let's her readers come to their own conclusions (with only one or two fleeting exceptions). This, more than anything, is what makes Carr's book such a compelling read--it's not just about the culture of NIN fans, it is in part by them. Any author who trusts her subjects and her audience that much deserves some serious respect. So thanks, Daphne Carr, for adding a new highlight to the 33 1/3 series. My only regret is that I didn't read this book sooner so I could assign it for the class I'm teaching this fall.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Songs that Changed the Landscape of Human Thought and Understanding: Spandau Ballet's "True"

It was 1983. People drove to work in horseless carriages. They used telephones with wires attached to them. They wondered how Ronald Reagan's hair got so darned black. It was also the year that we learned the truth about truth. Spandau Ballet's tasty piece of "sophisto-pop," "True," is easily one of the most mind-blowingly brilliant singles ever committed to any recorded media. Gary Kemp, the song's writer, penned the perfect melody for the group's baritone singer, Tony Hadley, who articulately communicates, to his audience, the essence of truth. In the process, he makes a mockery of Western philosophy with brilliant ease.

Philosophers had been contemplating truth for years, from the Platonic ideal to the Nietzschean will to power. A breakthrough occurred in the 1930s, when philosopher Alfred Tarski gave the following example: "Snow is white if and only if snow is white." You can't argue with that logic. Well, Spandau Ballet decided to revise this precise if nonsensically coined formula by way of a fruitful combination of British New Wave and Yacht Rock. Tony Hadley seemingly non-verbal singing during the chorus actually packs plenty of meaning. "Ah ah ah ahhhh ah," he sings, in sexy croon-breaths. What most listeners fail to realize upon first listen is that this utterance is the crystallization of all truths. He explains, "Why do I find it hard to write the next line? / Oh I want the truth to be said," continuing, "Ah ah ah ahhhh ah / I know this much is true." What could quite plausibly be understood as an admission of writer's block is really a profound, mind-blowing truth in and of itself: "Ah ah ah ahhhh ah" is truth and truth is "Ah ah ah ahhhh ah." Suck on that, Alfred Tarski.

The key to understanding the perspective of Spandau Ballet is hidden within its chorus as well. Hadley sings, "I bought a ticket to the wor-or-orld, but now I've come back again." Clearly, Spandau Ballet was collectively abducted by a super-intelligent race of skinny tie-wearing aliens who taught them their culture and all of their knowledge. The only thing they couldn't teach Spandau Ballet was how to alleviate homesickness and how to give up the desire to feel sexy. So, after some time spent in space, probably in the months between their 1982 album Diamond and the one this appears on (clearly also titled True), they purchased tickets to return to Earth. Fueled by this new knowledge, as well as months of pent-up sexual frustration, they were inspired to tell us "this much is true" as well as include one of the decade's hottest slow-burn sax solos during the bridge.

It cannot be denied, ever, that "True" has fundamentally changed both the perceptive and linguistic truths of humankind. In the years since, we've had Madonna's "True Blue," P.M. Dawn's "Set Adrift of Memory Bliss," as well as The Truth About Cats and Dogs. Probably the most telling way it has affected culture, at least in the United States, is that when a witness has to take an oath in the courtroom, they now just sing, "Ah ah ah ahhhh ah."

Monday, April 25, 2011

Book Review: 33 1/3 #74 Song Cycle

It would be an understatement to say this is merely sad. Even the Wikipedia page for the album provides very little information or insight into an album that, by all means, is one of the best of the 60's. This isn't surprising, of course, as Song Cycle was barely purchased upon its release, and its praises rarely sung by any but the most well-informed critics in the decades following the album's entrance into the world of popular music. As such, the task of anyone choosing to write about an album like Song Cycle might be a bit daunting. In his entry into the 33 1/3 series about Parks' album, Richard Henderson largely rises to the occasion with a volume that is very purposeful and thorough, if a bit dry at times. Of course, saying the book is dry "at times" might also be a bit of an understatement. In all honesty, Henderson's volume, while well written on a technical level, is a bit of a slog because the author is so dedicated to the album's (and Parks') history that it's easy for a reader to get swallowed up in the dense torrents of information. Henderson occasionally tries to get playful--especially in the book's first section, which happens to be a highlight--but ultimately, while full of outstanding information, the volume is a bit of a drag to read.

But that's okay for this book. In past reviews of 33 1/3 books I've been quite critical of overly-traditional approaches to the featured albums. Song-by-song summaries and analyses, chapters that compartmentalize the various facets of an album's production and reception, loads of facts without any fresh ideas--these are all elements of 33 1/3 books I've taken issue with in the past, and all of them are present in Henderson's Song Cycle. But while a plethora of books have been written about, say, AC/DC and plenty of articles written about and interviews conducted with My Bloody Valentine, Henderson's work on Parks is filling a glaring void. We see this even more when we look at the bibliography at the back of Henderson's volume and see it filled with books about Brian Wilson, 60's pop music, California pop music, recording studio histories, record label histories--but nothing about Van Dyke Parks. So yes, Henderson's Song Cycle is dry and even a bit banal, but the author had little choice. Many authors of 33 1/3 books have had the benefit of a rich and varied body of writing about their chosen albums from which to draw, which ultimately frees them to approach said albums from interesting and unique angles. Henderson did not have this luxury.

And of course, there are some fascinating and engaging moments throughout the book. In particular, the opening chapter, in which Henderson describes how he came to the album, is fun and engaging, and the section dealing with the controversial marketing of Song Cycle is a wonderful case study of the 60's music industry and the tensions that arose between "big business" and "counter-culture" art.

But by and and large, Henderson's Song Cycle is more the type of book that fans and scholars of pop music should read rather than one they'll necessarily want to read. And that's fine--because they should read the book. They just shouldn't expect to have their socks knocked off with the exciting prose and new insights that the 33 1/3 series has been so good at providing as of late.


Next Up: I don't know--my stack of unread 33 1/3's has grown immensely. I might pick one at random.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Songs that Changed the Landscape of Human Thought and Understanding: USA for Africa's "We Are the World"

There has never been a song in the annals of history that has fused egoless philanthropy with pure pop-songwriting chops the way USA for Africa's mega-hit "We Are the World" did in 1985. This supergroup, this X-Men of musical acts, reminded us who "we" are, that WE are "the world," and that it is indeed a heavy burden, literally. According to Wikipedia, the Earth weighs over seven gajillion tons. And that's heavier than two stoned hippies* having a conversation about how "we are the world." So how are we the world exactly? That is the question Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie, the song's composers, set out to ask. And, fortunately for us listeners, they answer the question with ease. They also make us feel good for solving what had previously seemed to be a problem without a remedy: WORLD HUNGER. Through sheer hope, starpower, and the insane amount of cash money generated by the song, the people of Ethiopia were able to forget about an unforgiving climate--which provided the region with a historically devastating drought and subsequent famine--and the long history of European colonization of the African nations surrounding them. I bet you never did anything that cool. Seriously. I know I haven't. Feeling special because I once helped out my grandmother during her walk for Breast Cancer Awareness just makes me feel like a great big jerk in comparison. Perhaps the song's greatest achievement, though, is that it presents a universal, timeless picture of who "we" are.

Who are we, then? Well, we are a bunch of popular musicians from the mid-1980s, that's who! We are Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Willie Nelson, Hall and Oates, The Pointer Sisters, Kim Carnes, Cyndi Lauper, Huey Lewis and the News, Steve Perry, Sheila E., and James Ingram. We are pop-rock legends Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, Billy Joel, Harry Belafonte, Smokey Robinson, Dionne Warwick, Paul Simon, Kenny Rogers, the living half of The Blues Brothers, and Lindsay Buckingham. I think we can all relate to that. As an added bonus, the presence of the British musician Bob Geldof (the brainchild of Band Aid) on the track lets every listener know that one of the goals of "We Are the World" was to make the world forget about "Don't They Know It's Christmas," the most religiously presumptuous song ever recorded (well, except for Carrie Underwood's "Jesus, Take the Wheel").

The song also speaks generally to the human condition. There are most certainly always times "When we heed a certain call / When the world must come together as one." Since we are the world, we are also "the children" as well as "the ones who make a brigher day." Because, ultimately, this is an existentialist "choice we're making," as we are a part of "God's great big family," there is only one choice: to "[save] our own lives." Cool beans. Most people can't handle the responsibility of their own job, let alone feeding and clothing the entire populace and knowing that their actions are, essentially, the actions of all seven billion people on this planet. Therefore, "We Are the World" is the most reassuring song ever recorded. Whenever we slip up--like, say, we forget to pick up our kid from school because we were deep into a game of World of Warcraft--we can realize that we are just a microcosm of this world that we also are, that for every mistake, we are actually our own lives, and we are curbing world hunger while we're at it. And for those critics who think this message is convoluted, well it's not. You are. Get me? Or, rather, get we? Are the world?

The knowledge that we are all helping goes down so much more smoothly with great vocal performances. And "We Are the World" has 'em by the boatload. The song is highlighted by that most dulcet of crooners, Bob Dylan. When he sings, "There's a choice we're may-can / We're saving aaaahhhh own liiiiives / It's trooooo we make a bedduh day / Just yooooooo and meeeee," you can literally feel that same burning passion in in the pit of your stomach. Similarly, Bruce Springsteen feels so committed to this message that apparently he didn't have a bowel movement for two weeks before he recorded his take. It meant that much to him. And with that kind of focus and determination, USA for Africa's "We Are the World" was and will always be a song that changed the landscape of human thought and understanding.

*-I'm fully aware that the phrase "stoned hippies" is redundant.

Below is the rousing video for the song. Try not to shed a tear for our greatness:

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Songs that Changed the Landscape of Human Thought and Understanding: Baha Men's "Who Let the Dogs Out?"

Last Friday, my office-mate Jill told me she had to go home in order "to let the dogs out." Ergo, in true Jeopardy fashion, "Jill" is the answer to the notoriously prickly question asked in 2000 by the Baha Men in their riddle-for-the-ages anthem "Who Let the Dogs Out?"

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Songs that Changed the Landscape of Human Thought and Understanding: Rebecca Black's "Friday"

People make a really big deal about certain days of the week. Nobody likes Mondays. Out of the seven days in a week, most die on a Tuesday. Wednesday is rather perversely known as "hump day." Thursday ... well, I honestly can't tell you what the hell is Thursday good for. But we all know the one day of the week that undoes the previous four days and gets us ready for the next two: Friday. Thankfully, thirteen year-old Rebecca Black reminds us how much this day of the week totally dominates in her 2011 smash hit aptly titled "Friday."

Friday hasn't always been the most popular day of the week. In fact, it is common knowledge that Saturday was THE DAY throughout most of human history. This changed, however, in the 17th Century, after the first performances of William Shakespeare's comedy As You Like It, when it appears that Fridays and Saturdays became tied as the favorite days of the week. In it, Orlando commands Rosalind to "love" him. Rosalind replies, "Yes, faith, will I, Fridays and Saturdays, and all." From this point until the release of the double-whammy of the 1975 television comedy show Saturday Night Live and the 1977 film Saturday Night Fever, it appeared that people still preferred Saturdays. However, the following year saw the release of another disco classic, Thank God It's Friday, and the tables forever turned. From this point on, Fridays were King. The film itself is solely responsible for this exultation. Subsequent studies have in fact proven that Friday itself is absolute proof of a Judeo-Christian God, hence the very phrase "Thank God it's Friday," and, of course, that glorious chain of fine dining establishments, whose food has more product in it that Guy Fieri's hair. Plus, would the formerly most pissed-off rapper in the world Ice Cube have made THREE films about the day if it wasn't so inherently excellent? I think not. When he says, "Damn it was a good day," it's of course Friday he is talking about, not lame ass Tuesday. Seriously. Besides, who would ever eat at a place called Thank the Absence of a Deity It's Friday? TTAOADI Fridays just doesn't roll off the tongue well at all.

Like blue moons, or people who have watched Showgirls all the way through sober, Friday's are rare. They only happen once every seven days. As a result, we need to be constantly reminded about them and their genius. Fortunately, Rebecca Black reminds us, and how. Nestled over a Euro-dance groove, Black's mixolydian dulcet drone of a voice presents Fridays for what they really represent: possibility. According to Black, Friday's present all kinds of crazy options. Should one be "kickin' in the front seat," or perhaps decide on "sittin' in the back seat"? "Everybody's looking forward to the weekend," she sharply observes. She points out how strong desire really is, in ways no other human has so directly expressed. While people have "fun, fun, fun" and like to go "partyin' partyin'" on the weekends, looking forward to all this fun and all this partying is far more cathartic. The weekends become, to evoke the theorist Roland Barthes, a pleasureable text, a jouissance, as our desire for revelation is intrinsically more pleasurable than the revelation itself. Also, because Friday's are so rare, we often forget "yesterday was Thursday" and that "tomorrow is Saturday" and "Sunday comes afterwards." It's that intense of an experience, this Friday thing.

In short, we should all not only Thank God It's Friday, or Tell God to Shove It Because It's Not, but we should Thank Rebecca Black for Reminding Us How Awesome Fridays Are. Even if that creepy rapper guy who makes a cameo toward the end of the song seems way too thrilled about passing a school bus.

Here's the brilliant promotional clip for the song:

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Book Review: 33 1/3 #77 Tusk

Rob Trucks opens his volume on Fleetwood Mac's classic album "Tusk" with a warning of sorts: "There's a character named Rob in this book who functions in ways that may or may not clearly relate to Fleetwood Mac's Tusk, and if you don't feel like you can handle that, then by all means put this book down." Trucks' "warning" does two things for me--first, it really kind of annoys me. Okay, so you wrote a not entirely conventional piece of music journalism. So what? So some boring readers don't like it when music journalism has things like "personality" and "style" and only want to read the same boring facts and anecdotes presented in the same boring way over and over again. By "warning" these people away from a book, you're essentially apologizing to them for not writing the book they would have written. Never apologize to those people. Odds are, what you've written is better than what they would have written. Odds are, what you've written is better than they're ideal of what should have been written. Second--the warning made me more excited about the volume than I had been. Tusk has always been my favorite Fleetwood Mac album, but then, I've never been a huge Fleetwood Mac fan, so that doesn't mean much. Trucks' "warning" sent a clear message to me that said, "hey, this book could be a little bit bold--I like bold, let's read."

And read I did.

And to be honest, Rob Trucks has some serious chops. He does a nice job of navigating dueling stories about the creation of Tusk with moments from his own life which, at times, hardly seem relevant to the album, but which ultimately add up to some sort of psychic and/or spiritual homage to the album's creation and themes. What makes this even more impressive is that Trucks never condescends to his audience, never feels the need to explicitly explain the connection between the bits of memoir and the bits of Fleetwood Mac history. He lets us intuit the relationship. Let's us feel our ways in, around, and through his experiences and how they play off of Tusk. The end result is not just a book that is engaging and smart with a clear emotional core, but a beautifully written, ecstatically felt study of subjectivity and art that might even deserve a second read.

Of course, not everything is perfect in Trucks' take on Tusk. A few of the "What We Talk About When We Talk About Tusk" sections--in which Trucks interviews musicians about the album's influence on their careers--feel a bit tacked on and completely unnecessary and/or uninteresting. Avey Tare's insight into Tusk is about as interesting and relevant as his latest solo album (burn!) and the Walter Egan section, though only a few pages, is pretty boring.

All in all, though, Rob Trucks has delivered a fine volume in a run of great volumes for the 33 1/3 series. His prose is crisp and fresh and I enjoyed learning about Rob Trucks' relationship to Tusk as much as I enjoyed learning about the album itself.


Next up, Van Dyke Parks' Song Cycle.

Friday, March 18, 2011

"We're Not Above Reviewing Leaks": Vivian Girls - Share the Joy

Ever since the Vivian Girls got their big break (relatively speaking) in 2008, they have been extremely busy. They have gone through two drummers, Frankie Rose (now with the Dum Dum Girls) and Ali Koehler (who subsequently joined Best Coast). They cut their vastly underrated second LP Everything Goes Wrong. They have also formed a record label (Wild World Records) and engaged in numerous side-projects. Cassie Ramone has recorded and toured as The Babies along with Woods bassist Kevin Morby. Kickball Katy Goodman has been especially active, releasing an EP and a 7" (including last year's most delicious shoegaze moment in "It'll Come Around") with Gregg Foreman as All Saints Day as well as a full-length, eponymous LP as La Sera, featuring two of the coolest videos made in the last eight months (check out the grim yet free-spirited clips for "Never Come Around" and "Devils Heart Grows Cold"). Oh, and it should also be noted that they have toured constantly in the meantime. So how did the Girls find the time to write songs and record their latest album Share the Joy? And is it any good?

Share the Joy is the Vivian Girls' third studio LP, their first for Polyvinyl Records. On it, they retain their jangly approach to pop and hardcore punk which is, as always, loaded with tasty girl-group harmonies. There are a few noteworthy developments here, though. Cassie Ramone's songwriting skills continue to improve. The group's harmonies are as lush as ever. Lastly, Cassie Ramone's guitar leads are more assured, more adventurous, often confidently straying away basic melody. It also boasts the best fidelity of their three albums thus far. While for most listeners this would appear to be a good thing, Share the Joy does lack the zestful naivete of their generally over-hyped debut (Vivian Girls) as well as the crisp immediacy and fury of Everything Goes Wrong. Lastly, new drummer Fiona Campbell lacks the precision of the recently departed Ali Koehler, but is still a vast improvement over Frankie Rose.

The album opens with the stunning "The Other Girls," the Girls' longest track to date (clocking in at six-and-a-half minutes). Cassie Ramone's simulated twelve-string jangle, along with Kickball Katy's insistent, thumping James Jamerson-inspired bassline, carry the listener on a journey that includes Ramone's most impressive guitar solo thus far. The album's first single, "Heard You Say," finds them in minor-chord pop terrain, highlighted by their hallmark vocal harmonies, especially during the chorus, and a guitar solo that sounds like it was played on a twelve-stringer. Songs like"Lake House" and "Trying to Pretend" retain the angst of the previous album with cleaner production. Share the Joy's most overt nod to 1960s girl groups comes by way of "Take It as It Comes," which has a spoken-word dialogue between Cassie Ramone and Kickball Katy that recalls the opening of The Shangri-Las' 1965 masterpiece "Leader of the Pack," albeit far more lighthearted, as its focus is on "boy problems" rather than, say, a fatal motorcycle crash. As a result, it is the most fun cut on the album. They don't stray away from the topic of mortality, though. They re-record "Death," which previously appeared on their limited edition 2009 7" for the song "Moped Girls." The album closes with another six minute track in "Light in Your Eyes," which essentially re-delivers the single "Heard You Say" with far more seriousness and scope. Share the Joy benefits from having the most variety of a Vivian Girls album to date. There is plenty to like here for fans and neophytes alike. While it lacks the sizzle of their previous album, Share the Joy reveals a group that is continually growing and redefining their aesthetic.

--Share the Joy will be released on CD and vinyl courtesy of Polyvinyl Records on April 12. It is currently available for MP3 downloading at Polyvinyl Records' website.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

"We're Not Above Reviewing Leaks": Colin Stetson - New History Warfare vol. 2: Judges

If there is any justice in the world of music criticism, a good deal of the coming months' digital ink is going to be spent covering saxophonist Colin Stetson and his new album New History Warfare vol. 2: Judges. Of the reviews that will be written, many of them will, undoubtedly, hone in on the album's apocalyptic themes, others will talk about his impressive resume (he's played with Tom Waits!, The Arcade Fire!, Lou Reed! etc...), and everyone (and I mean everyone), will marvel at the dude's chops. While all of these are impressive in their own right, I find myself intrigued by another facet of Judges. Before I go on, let me provide some context. In a recent interview with Pitchfork's Ryan Dombal, Stetson talked about how, in lieu of using loops or effects in his recording, he relied on creative microphone placement to achieve the fantastically layered, rich sounds that populate his album:

"I didn't want to just put up a stereo mic in a room and try to get some two-dimensional snapshot of an instrument. The set-up allowed us to capture it in three dimensions so we could then spread out and reshuffle and make our own surreal representation of that performance. There are mics inside the instrument, a contact mic on my throat, and countless mics clustered around the air of the horn and throughout the room. I wanted to make something that was specific to the medium of recording. I want to make albums that are like a Murakami novel or a Terrence Malick film-- something that explicitly states its own world." (Dombal)

Now, in addition to referencing one of my favorite novelists and one of my favorite filmmakers, what intrigues me about Stetson's approach as described in the above quote is his use and definition of space. Stetson's own description of the process as being captured in three-dimensions is compelling, but almost doesn't do justice to the scheme. My own initial thoughts on how to describe this process found me comparing the approach to the creation of bullet-time for The Matrix. But even that doesn't seem to convey the complexity of how this sound is being produced. What I've settled on, then, is that Stetson's album is recorded in four dimensions. Not only is his album "stating its own world," but it is creating a new form of sonic space that accounts for both the placement of sounds in a room, as well as the necessary time for sound to travel to those various microphones. We hear sax moans echoing through the room and more present, immediate growls from the musicians throat fighting for space and the imperceptible gap between each sound's creation. The resulting sound is that of time and space piling on top of each other, of the artist-subject spliced into disparate sounds and forms only to be reassembled into a single performance.

The end result is an utterly engaging and powerful sonic document. Stetson's got chops, and they show. He's also got big ideas, which also show. The sax lines, vocal hums, and pad-slap percussion of "Home," slide into and through each other to produce a haunting and surreal recording. Elsewhere, Stetson's saxophone rumbles, flits, dances, dredges, and moans. Sporadically throughout the album, his performances are complemented by haunting narration--both spoken (Laurie Anderson!) and sung (Shara Worden!)--telling a vague story about end-times. While these moments are equally haunting and surreal, and by no means detract from the album, I'm fairly certain that Stetson's vision and skill would have been enough to carry this collection of songs. Still, the narrative is a nice touch and adds some extra mystery to an already engaging piece of music.


You can pre-order the album from Constellation Records It comes out on 2/22/11.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Book Review: 33 1/3 #76 Kid A

For some reason, I've never really stopped to think about the relationship between music and time. Really, my failure to think about this relationship is a bit odd, surprising even. After all, as Marvin Lin points out in his well-researched, beautifully rendered exploration of Radiohead's Kid A, music is made of time, is time. Music notes themselves--not their placement on a staff, but their shapes and sizes--are nothing more than symbolic divisions of time. To be fair to myself, I know I'm not the only one who hasn't made this connection until now. Many people haven't. And why not? Perhaps because we take the relationship for granted? Or maybe thinking about the relationship between music and time seems like it might be kind of like thinking about the relationship between ice cream and milk--in other words, the connection seems so obvious on the surface that there shouldn't be much to talk about.

Of course, that's not the case or Marvin Lin wouldn't have written such a compelling analysis of Kid A, and I wouldn't be reviewing his book right now. To begin with, I should point out that Lin's entire book isn't about time. Lin does a nice job of balancing an exploration of the album's various contexts, including downloading culture, politics, band dynamics and, capitalism, to the point that, while his conversation of time is certainly the most compelling, Lin sells us on the notion that Kid A is a creature of its contexts. Such a bold assertion might be hard to swallow for some--in particular anyone who champions the notion that great art is timeless--but Lin convinces us so thoroughly of both the timeliness and timelessness of Kid A that the question becomes moot. And what...wait...what just happened there? Ah, of course--see, this entire book is about time but we don't always know it.

Even when Lin isn't explicitly writing about something like music's attempts to subvert linear time by complicating rhythms and challenging traditional song structures, he's writing about the album in its time, and how we have come to understand the album through time, and perhaps most importantly, how spending time on the album can be transcendent.

Lin's book is, without a doubt, a top-tier entry in the 33 1/3 series. Were it not for a few missteps--too much retreading of the talked-to-death Napster years, and an oddly misguided (but well-intentioned) paranoid rant about genetically modified foods--this book could have rivaled Carl Wilson's Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste for the "best in series" crown. As it stands, Lin's inventive approach to music and time is still one of the series' more compelling entries and one of the few that sent me to the library to track down some of the books and articles quoted within.

Although, a note for the future, Continuum--a works cited list would have been pretty helpful this time out. Why'd you leave us hanging?

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

"We're Not Above Reviewing Leaks": Toro y Moi - Underneath the Pines

I want to try to think about this new Toro y Moi album divorced from its context. After all, while I kind of enjoyed 2010's Causers of This, and had heard plenty about Toro y Moi mastermind Chaz Bundick's contributions to that whole hypnagogic pop thing, neither of those things are going to help us make sense of his latest album, Underneath the Pine. That's not to say the album needs to be made sense of--it doesn't really. It's not obtuse, lo-fi, difficult, obscure, or any of those others terms that are often attached to the hazy brand of pop that Bundick has been rightfully associated with until now. Instead, Underneath the Pine is a lush and finely wrought pop album that combines 70's dancefloor glitz with the warmth of that decade's MOR, singer-songwriter fair with results that take a bit to sink in, but are ultimately both fun and haunting.

The fun comes largely from the song's beats and arrangements--"New Beat" bounces with a faux-funk disco groove, while "Still Sound" lands a bit more in the early 80's post new-wave camp. But one of the things that sets Toro y Moi's latest apart from some of its other retro grab bag contemporaries is that Bundick goes beyond the dance floor in seeking out his points of reference. Take "Before I'm Done," for instance, a gentle psych-lite, pop-folk ballad that works primarily as a mood piece, a brief detour from the glitzy, slick dance pop arrangements that anchor the album, but not the only detour scattered throughout the album. In fact, I might go so far as to argue that, while the detours don't tend to be the album's highlights, they are perhaps the biggest reason that Underneath the Pine holds together so well. "How I Know" is a bit more of a pop tune than "Before I'm Done," but reaches back to less dancey, almost naive brand of sixties pop for its rhythms and harmonies. The arrangements are still characteristically out-of-time, but the song's melody and accompanying harmonies paradoxically manage a rare marriage of sunny pop and haunted nostalgia.

And that is perhaps, regardless of what Toro y Moi does with his production and arrangements, the one reason why Underneath the Pine is an unqualified success, and we have every reason to think that Bundick will remain a relevant force in off-kilter pop music for some time. What Bundick does with melody here, with the subtle textures of his arrangements all while decade-hopping, and with pristine production, is no small feat. In a year that is already starting to characterize itself as the year of the well-executed studio sheen (James Blake? Destroyer? Cut Copy?), Toro y Moi can hang at the top of the heap.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Songs that Changed the Landscape of Human Thought and Understanding: David Geddes' "Run Joey Run"

In his classic text Politics, the philosopher Aristotle correctly observes, "The notion of a city naturally precedes that of a family or an individual, for the whole must necessarily be prior to the parts, for if you take away the whole man, you cannot say a foot or a hand remains." If this is indeed the case, then we all must live in pretty dysfunctional cities. Aristotle's idealistic view of the family's role in society illustrates an unassailable fact: that it wasn't until quite recently in human history that the family unit became such a source of complete befuddlement for its sharpest psychologists, sociologists, and anthropologists. A cursory examination of literature and film prior to the 1950s will reveal that ALL families ran swimmingly. However, thanks to Natalie Wood's role as Judy in the 1955 classic Rebel Without a Cause, that all changed. Her father's rejection of her in the film created the perfect conditions for father-daughter dissent globally. In its wake, popular music responded strongly. Madonna's "Papa Don't Preach" (1986) and DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince's gender-neutral masterpiece "Parents Just Don't Understand" (1988) appropriately reflect this new era of fragmentation in the family structure. However, no song better illustrates this rapid devolution of the family unit than David Geddes' "Run Joey Run," a Top Ten hit that took the entire universe by storm in 1975.

"Run Joey Run" relates the story of an Oedipal triangle of desire featuring the narrator Joey, his, um, ex-girlfriend Julie, and Julie's abusive father. After finding out Joey has gotten Julie pregnant, Julie's father vows to kill Joey. However, because of one of these things--a) fate; b) the father's lousy aim; c) a faulty firearm; d) Julie's secret martyr-complex, or; e) a soul-crushing way to learn about the concept of irony--the father misses his intended target, killing his daughter instead. To keep this story from bumming out an entire generation of teenagers, David Geddes--who was, oddly enough, a law student at the time the song became a raging success--successfully deploys some Socratic method (just kidding!) and a little 60s girl-group melodrama to build up tension within the track. The addition of an unidentified female voice in the role of Julie along with a crescendo rivaling The Shangri-Las' "Leader of the Pack" (1965) make "Run Joey Run" a cautionary tale about how a combination of abstinence-only education and an asshole dad can lead to fatal shootings. David Geddes' achievement with "Run Joey Run" is to signal the unfortunate shift in family relations in the years after James Dean made straight men lust for him in Rebel Without a Cause in an accessible manner. Its heavy story and violent conclusion are completely undermined by its "I'm going for a hard jog" musical backdrop, and for that it is a brilliant achievement. As Matthew Slaughter (acted by Martin Donovan) says in the film Trust (1990, dir. Hal Hartley), "A family is like a gun. You point it in the wrong direction, you're gonna kill somebody."

I don't mean to make light of the serious subject matter of this song. If you or anybody you know is being physically, sexually, or emotionally abused, please check out the following links:

The Hotline: The National Domestic Violence Hotline
Prevent Child Abuse America

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Recipe for Yuck

2 Tablespoons Dinosaur jr.
1 Cup 90's spacerock (think Hum or Siamese Dream era Smashing Pumpkins)
1/2 cup of mid-nineties emo (Sunny Day Real Estate/Mineral brand, preferably)
1 1/2 teaspoons of Weezer's Blue Album

Melt the Dinosaur Jr. in a small frying pan. Mix in the 90's spacerock and stir until lightly browned. Toss in mid-nineties emo and add Weezer's Blue album to taste:

Yuck is pretty tasty when it's all done, but you won't ever quite be sure if its delicious on its own merit, or gratifying because it reminds you of so many familiar, comforting flavors from your youth. This problem may never be resolved.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Book Review: 33 1/3 #48 Rid of Me: A Story

Kate Schatz's Rid of Me: A Story is a tricky entry into the 33 1/3 series. Most volumes deal with albums in a fairly straightforward manner providing a direct set of criteria through which to evaluate them. These criteria generally look to a book's insight into the album, its clarity of purpose and vision, the quality of the prose, and the various strategies an author uses to explore said album. Schatz's entry on PJ Harvey's Rid of Me, like the volumes on Meat is Murder and Music from Big Pink before it, is a little trickier in that its fictional. What makes Rid of Me: A Story more complicated, however, is that it never explicitly deals with PJ Harvey or her album. That's okay. I like the boldness of the approach. Whereas Joe Pernice and John Niven ground their fictions in the experience of listening to the album and a fictionalized telling of the creation of the album, respectively, Schatz's volume focuses instead on the themes and mood of Harvey's album as invoked through a dark and, at times, sexy narrative. Because I'm a fan of the idea of a book of fiction being about a rock album, I wanted to love this book and bury it with praise. And, while much of Schatz's volume pays off, I find myself distinguishing between the volume's two aims: its ability to capture the essence of PJ Harvey's album, and its ability to tell an engaging story.

As an exploration of Rid of Me, Schatz's work is a surprising success. The narrative's grim tone and damaged, but strong characters read as if they were ripped right out of Harvey's album. Schatz's desolate nature imagery and her protagonist's desperation, anger, and longing all bristle with the same energy that Harvey brings to her compositions. Through the protagonist's odd romance and flight from those who wronged them, Schatz is able to explore the raw, thrumming pathos that underlies every distorted guitar and pained howl on Rid of Me.

So what is holding the volume back? Well, it doesn't quite work as a story. At least to this reader. I'd like to qualify this, though. The prose in this book is mostly excellent, and the ideas seem pretty compelling, but neither of these are enough to carry the narrative beyond its simple lack of grounding. Ultimately, Rid of Me: A Story aims to be a non-conventional narrative told through points of view that shift between unreliable narrators, and which are so grounded in the sensation of the moment that I had trouble finding stable footing at times. While this ethereal approach to storytelling works wonderfully in capturing the mood of the album, I found myself struggling to stay invested in Mary and Kathleen, the story's protagonists. Even now, as I think back on the story, the details are a bit hazy--I know Kathleen and Mary escape from shitty patriarchal surroundings, find each other, and forge a darkly erotic relationship. Then, while little happens in the story's present, the women are besieged by paranoia, fear, and bad dreams as we learn bits and pieces of their pasts through hazy flashbacks. In the end, my connection to these characters is about as foggy as the ways their backstories unfold. I wonder if the story might have benefited from some stronger grounding in the present, and perhaps a bit more present-tense friction to help drive so much uncertain remembering.

Still, I feel as if my own fiction writing and workshop mentality (which is begrudgingly branded into my brain) is getting in the way of my fully enjoying Schatz's story. I want to love this book--its approach and attitude is everything I look for in fiction, but without enough footing to stand on, I ended up feeling lost and aloof.

Regardless, I'm thrilled that Continuum and Schatz took the risk with this book. Despite my problems with it, the volume is still interesting and worthwhile, I was just hoping for a little more.


Next up, Marvin Lin's book on Kid A