Saturday, April 24, 2010


There’s a line in Warren Perkins’ Putrefaction Live, when a character sits in a jail cell organizing the ambient sounds around him into music: It was the only way he knew to do nothing and yet be creative, actually dwelling inside music itself. My job is hardly a prison, but I sometimes feel like that there, locked in a task but my mind spinning ceaselessly. The only creative act I’m really allowed is the discovery of connections between songs and the art of suppressed crying, pushing myself as close against the threshold of tears as I can in public (I’ve said it before, some songs, including most by The Beach Boys, are just too intense for the workplace). So this blog is useful, because if I let these creative impulses remain internal and forget how to transpose them into writing, I’ll probably end up in an asylum one day drawing spirals on the walls.

1. I got knocked out, down, and around, all in the safety of my chair, and more than ever before, by the vocal from The Four Tops’ “Ask the Lonely,” and was wondering what my all-time favorite vocal performances have in common. The two others that come most immediately to mind are Michael Stipe’s voice-cracking giddiness on “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite” and Andy McCluskey’s deep croon turned heartache crescendo on OMD’s “International.” The verdict: amount of singing is certainly a common thread, but that’s the musical equivalent of Oscar-bait, so I’ll say instead… I love vocals that exist moment to moment, keying us into the singer’s every feeling through every turn of phrase, while still making a coherent emotional statement by song’s end. No surprise that The Four Tops would make my list, given the soul-boiling exuberance in all their songs. They have the added benefit of having recorded in the 60s, their voices too large to be contained by the fidelity of the LP, so that everything bleeds together in a joyous mush.

2. Can man-made things take on a reality of their own? Kelefa Sanneh, in the bright spot of a recent brain-hurting article about whiteness, says it’s important we remember the way forgeries can become genuine, the way categories people make cannot simply be unmade. Does this mean that the thing we call the 1980s is in a sense “real,” and has a sound? Because I don’t know how else to explain the way The Replacements’ “Answering Machine” sounds, except that some physical manifestation of time itself—the year “1984,” as we’ve defined it—left its ghostly vapor all over the recording apparatus. There are textures in that song way beyond Paul’s anguish… so spooky.

3. Wye Oak’s The Knot is an album I’ll always regret not top-tenning, but I also find myself making minor cosmetic changes to it whenever I listen. The gently shuffling rhythm of “I Want For Nothing,” for example, could be celebrated for its amorphousness, I suppose, but every time it gets to the chorus I get a bit worried. There’s a beat missing or a splice somewhere before the word “want,” and while the song retains its gentle vibe through this weird moment, there’s nothing gentle about the effect it has on me. But this is a minor complaint; the song and album are tops.

4. When I make definitive statements about things I don’t much care for, I think I owe you all occasional updates whenever I reform my feelings. So today I have to give Animal Collective credit for “Bluish,” a magnificent song that ideally would have provided Merriweather Post Pavilion with a stronger guiding force and a better title. Elsewhere on the album, the vocals are all about what modern progressive males want and need—to be out in the flowers, not material things, to walk around with you, to do just what my body wants to. “Bluish,” by not straining to make a statement, by being just a beautiful moment suspended in time—the mundane made underwater fantasy—says everything that the album’s more brazen anthems fail to say, no matter how loud they shout it. To wit: We live inside our brains, and with drugs or open eyes can make the world as beautiful or ugly as we choose. The album as a whole tries to enact this “way of seeing” life’s minor moments, but too often turns to rallying cries when it should turn inward. “Bluish” trusts you to get it, and doesn’t tell you you have to.

5. Courtney Love only says the word “feminist” once on Live Through This, but is the album the definitive feminist text of the 1990s? I think so. I’ve never heard an album in such furious pursuit of a theme. Now with Ms. Love’s comeback, everyone seems to remember that she was an important figure because of her “rebel attitude,” but really she was great because of the things she wrote. Like: They say I’m plump, but I throw up all the time. She never made any of this sound pleasant.


I've racked up some more albums. A lot of them are great.

[a] Surfer Blood, Astro Coast : Timeless as the riffage is, this is an album that couldn’t have existed any time other than the present. I don’t remember singers having voices like this in the pre-Panda Bear era, although it hardly seems like an affectation. Anyway, I once claimed I didn’t want to hear this band until they found a way to make their name irrelevant like The Beach Boys did. But then I remembered The Beach Boys’ greatness was always at least partly defined by their name. And then I heard this album, which is pretty groovy. This is legitimate surfer music, though it doesn’t sound composed under a wave so much as in a cabin on the beach, bonfires outside the window in the dark surf night. That’s “Harmonix” anyway, the Breeders-imbibing best song here.

[b] Owen Pallett, Heartland : Hear this one with a lover of classical music. You will hear it more fully. Most of my music listening is done alone, so I sometimes forget how a song can really open up when you’re wondering what someone else is thinking about it. This is a lovely album any way you hear it, but also a fairly difficult one. Like Patrick Wolf, Owen Pallett makes no concessions to his listeners, and may seem all the more impenetrable because he never sings about his own situation, instead builds weird architectures of meta-biography around himself. I’m still enchanted by the music and haven’t yet taken a look at the lyrics, but even so you can get an instant fix by hearing the words out of context. Pallett’s escalation of I’m never gonna give it to you’s is the sexiest thing I’ve heard all year, even if it’s not supposed to function as a throwaway hook.

[c] jj, no 3 : Some have been comparing this to Enya as a shorthand way of saying the album’s no good. Little do these critics know that I grew up listening to Enya; even if the comparison wasn’t bogus, which it is, shouldn’t there be a further explanation of why jj’s proximity to Enya degrades the experience of listening to their music? Because I fail to see it, and instead see another critic’s failure to engage with an artist’s music by way of a tired assumption of a New Age star’s inherent crappiness. Let’s also leave out the seasons in our discussion of jj, as everyone seems to have their seasons all mixed up in regard to this band. If no 3 isn’t summer as experienced from beneath a musty quilt, I don’t know what is. But before I risk becoming an entirely reactionary music writer, let me say something positive/positivist. I predict that jj will grow increasingly minimal from here, that their many influences will register in only the smallest ways: the rhythms of an a cappella vocal, an old rhyme laid bare. Opener “My Life” is this group’s raison d’etre, highlighting our chanteuse’s ability to just sing, and not tell you she’s doing homage.

[d] The Besnard Lakes Are The Roaring Night : I think the Lakes have set before themselves the challenge of perfection this time around, and have come pretty close to the mark. This is not one of those albums that arrive at perfection through some accident of disorganized inspiration, but one that must get there through diligence and obsession over every detail. So while you can tell the effort that went into these songs, every drum fill calculated for maximum momentum (I now count Kevin Laing as one of my favorite drummers), they also never feel stifled. Indeed, “Chicago Train” and “Albatross” are supremely lifting, tossing your body aloft with all the abandon you would expect from a band that can turn the rockin’ into the reverential.

[e] Joanna Newsom, Have One On Me : This contains some of the best music of the year, and none of the worst. Newsom famously doesn’t listen to other people’s music when she’s working on a project, and it shows, but by shutting out the culture machine has she created a greater articulation of what it’s like to live in the world in 2010? I think she has, even if she only uses that fullness of experience to imagine the past from the present, which she does charmingly, hauntingly, in “’81,” a transportive, enchanted vision of olde times that puts her in the company of Vashti Bunyan. Elsewhere she channels early Kate Bush and Joni Mitchell, so her bearings are straight even if she’s following her own muse.

[f] Beach House, Teen Dream : The music world of today is chock full of teen dreams, but Beach House’s aptly titled new disc presents something of a reversal. This is not the sound of adults pining for lost youth and old sounds, but the sound of youth dreaming toward adulthood, learning the emotions and wisdom that can sometimes be hidden inside music. This young dreamer I’ve conjured is not in the music, of course, but that’s one way it might be heard. Did you ever have an album in your collection that was a sort of challenge, that you weren’t immediately ready for, but when you were it made you wiser even as it baffled? Was the album Sister Lovers, or London Calling? Teen Dream could be that album for someone today. This is the “album of the year” so far, which is more a statement of fact than opinion. I would venture that Alex Scally Victoria Legrand has the greatest voice in music today. When he she has the right material, he she can turn a song inside out, with a one-of-a-kind soulfulness that everyone’s been wanting but not getting since Alex Chilton.

[g] The Radio Dept., Clinging To A Scheme : But here’s my “favorite” of the year at the moment. The title may be descriptive, but I’m fairly new to The Dept, and I don’t think any artist ought to be faulted for a relentless pursuit of his obsessions, unless the returns start to diminish, which they don’t, here. There are a number of contexts in which this album can be enjoyed, none of them incorrect (I suspect one involves Owl City, so it goes). The most interesting angle I’ve found is to imagine that the magic spirit of ’89—the one that gave us De La Soul, Paul’s Boutique, and Keith Haring—migrated to Sweden sometime in the past 20 years and has found perfect expression on Clinging To A Scheme. Perhaps that ignores how insular these songs really are, but oh my, those punchy burbly horns on “Heaven’s On Fire,” that introductory audio clip that I think is probably not but in a way could be the voice of Thurston Moore, the chiming barking piano on “David” (more hip hop ’96 than ’89)—it all just seems more fully-realized and more fun than on other recent albums I’ve heard. Whether the Dept. are clinging to a scheme or reinventing the scheme-wheel, I wouldn’t know, but this is a wonderful album.

[h] Broken Bells, Broken Bells : This may privilege atmosphere over songwriting, as some have argued, but it still strikes me as a pretty thorough blending of two distinct sensibilities. The seams never show, which makes me think that this was a match made in heaven, or that James Mercer and Danger Mouse are both just really good at self-effacement. As a result, these songs are tame almost to a fault. I never doubt their intentions, but still, shouldn’t artists who are so capable of making exciting music want to be making something a bit more… exciting?

Now I will rank them.

a→i, b→o, c→l, d→m, e→k, f→r, g→p, h→n

1. p
2. r
3. o
4. m
5. k
6. i
7. l
8. n


[I will put something here about the television show 24, once I have time to get it right.]


The stories in Low Moon represent Jason at his best. His genius can be summed up in one word, pacing, which I don’t think is a simplification but proof that one small idea can be plenty inspiration for a life’s work. The two best stories in the collection are the ones that play on this strength. “&” alternates page-by-page between two different stories, laying bare his process as they progress in startling and contrasting ways; “You Are Here” takes place across a span of decades, giving abstracts like ellipsis and pattern their proper tragic dimensions.

I’ve worked up a list of books for spring/early summer reading:

Black Cherries by the notable Montanan Grace Stone Coates.
Scorsese by Ebert.
Herr Bognanni’s House of Tomor-Row.
Cold Water Flat’s Paul Harding’s Pulitzer Prize-Winning Tinkers.
The Film Writing of James Agee.
Colson Whitehead’s Intuitionist.
The Habit of Being Flannery O’Connor (Letters).

What should I expedite to the top? (Hint: I won’t get around to any of this unless I quit my job(s).)


This was supposed to go in my homecoming post two posts ago, but I forgot. My last night in St. Paul, I had a dream in which I had gotten off the bus in Helena and was walking along Euclid Avenue at the beginning of summer. Euclid is an ugly street in reality, but as I was walking, the sidewalk was lined with trees in bloom, so overwhelmingly vivid that I laughed and cried the whole way. I don’t know if I’ve experienced the loveliness of summer more fully than I did in that dream, and while it all seems a bit less magical now that springtime has truly arrived, I still think about how my vision of a stroll bodes well for everything.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

The Famous Johnny Cash Shackles Scholarship*

I have a new job where I can pretty much listen to music all day. Here’s what I’ve been up to this week:

[a] The Flaming Lips, Embryonic
[b] Frank Sinatra, Watertown
[c] St. Vincent, Actor
[d] The Black Watch, Tatterdemalion

[e] Imperial Teen, What Is Not To Love
[f] jj, no 2
[g] Deerhunter, Rainwater Cassette Exchange, Fluorescent Grey
[h] Black Tambourine, Black Tambourine [comp.]
[i] The Tough Alliance, The New School

[j] Sam Phillips, The Indescribable Wow
[k] Marshall Crenshaw, Marshall Crenshaw
[l] Moonshake, Eva Luna
[m] Th’ Faith Healers, Lido
[n] The Decemberists, Always the Bridesmaid, The Hazards of Love

[o] Modern English, After the Snow
[p] Boards of Canada, from The Campfire Headphase, In a Beautiful Place Out in the Country
[q] A.R. Kane, Sixty Nine
[r] Sloan, Never Hear the End of It, Pretty Together

[s] Sloan, Navy Blues, Between the Bridges
[t] The Hidden Cameras, Awoo, Origin: Orphan
[u] The Everly Brothers, Cadence Classics, “Cathy’s Clown”

[a] Embryonic is workplace poison, it turns out. “Enjoyment” was never the chief pleasure to be derived from this album, and on the job, when the time to enjoy is scarce and the time to contemplate even scarcer, Embryonic is a freaky death shudder that you worry might be leaking from your headphones and scaring your co-workers. But I still admire it.

[b] Ol’ Blue Eyes’ melancholy little gem from the Tricky Dick years is the rare LP that makes me care about love as it existed in the early 70s, and one of my all-time favorite works of fiction. Watertown has been a continual catalyst for my writing aspirations, and also a painful reminder that I’ll never write anything very good. And as for the vocals, just listen to the way Sinatra sings these phrases:

--hangin’ ‘round (“Watertown”): The History of Human Resignation to Cruel Fate could be written about this moment.

--but he’s so old (“Michael & Peter”): The History of Emotion could be written about this moment.

[c] I still love every moment of this album.

[d] Every time someone earns a Ph.D. and continues to make music like this, my hope grows a little stronger.

[e] I used to consider this one of my very favorite albums, not because it was, but because I recognized and aspired to a certain type of coolness that this album so coolly represented. Did Imperial Teen anticipate an entire generation when they wrote a song about a girl who's a "major in self-portraiture"?

[f] If jj wasn’t so intent on being so minimal, they could have titled this album with a paraphrase of their finest lyric: The Truth We Shared & The Lies That Drove Us Apart.

[g] Are these lyrics true? They are so wrenching! “Game of Diamonds” is another workplace danger, this time the danger of being overcome with feelings that can’t be dealt with in private. The lyrics throughout Rainwater Cassette Exchange seem more carefully thought out than in the rest of the band’s catalog, or maybe Brad C. is becoming an effortless master of his greatest themes: watch your skin erupting … all sickness and sorrow … two weeks of misery … then the opening couplet of “Game” will make you shed one tear, made a deluge when you hear the rest of what might be the band’s closest thing to a Stipe-ean ballad. Indeed, I haven’t often thought of Deerhunter as a Southern band, but I’ve started to realize that many of the colors and textures in their music produce in me feelings that only the most tangled and pungent of R.E.M. does.

Deerhunter’s music has likewise been a creativity catalyst in my recent life, mostly inspiring me to think of ways I might infiltrate the band. You know those books of published letters between famous literary types? I’ve been imagining striking up an electronic correspondence with Bradford Cox, and the ensuing book of our communications. I don’t know whether this book would exist on paper, but either way it would have a cover:

[h] Not the greatest early 90s band with a pop song sentimentality swaddled in lots of distortion and charming lack of chops (a quality that always strikes me as an addition to rather than a subtraction from a band’s sound). But the point isn’t how good they are, but whether you like them enough to wear their button on your sweater. Mine’s already full up on buttons—Heavenly, Confetti, Vaselines, Young Marble Giants, 14 Iced Bears—but I’m sure I can find Black Tambourine a bit of space somewhere.

[i] Maybe the ultimate Swedish album of the last decade, not because it’s the best, but because it has perhaps the greatest global crossover potential, comes closest to embodying the way Swedish music straddles the line between Anglophilic pop and world music (from our perspective), the way these new Swedish groups identify with and borrow from a surprising array of movements and cultures. Released in 2005, the year before the arrival of most of the new crew, The New School couldn’t have a more perfect title, and contains some of the hookiest songs of recent years.

[j] Marshall Crenshaw with boobs.

[k] Sam Phillips with balls, which I don’t really mean figuratively, as Sam Phillips has plenty of figurative balls.

[l] One of many albums from the WMCN library that hasn’t really been earning its keep on my hard drive these past years. Now I remember why I never want to listen to this: I don’t like it very much. The album cover suggests the best twee pop band you’ve never heard, but in fact, as their name implies, Moonshake are Can acolytes. I’m sure this was well and good in 1993, when Moonshake’s weird fusion was a sign o’ the times, but good as I usually am at entering a frame of mind that can make anything antiquated sound sleek and sexy, or regressing to my childhood ears that would have loved this band, some coolness is just impossible to reclaim. Sorry, Moonshake, I bet the ’94 grads love you still.

[m] Ditto these Faith Healers, one of the best songs here is a cover of Can’s “Mother Sky.” Th’ Healers have been retroactively lumped in with the early 90s shoegazing scene, and while they lay it on thick and create some great trancelike passages, they’re a more artful offshoot of the million-selling grunge scene. They were never one of “my” bands, so I have some trouble journeying back and carrying them with me to the present day.

[n] Colin Meloy is having a great career, isn’t he? Always the Bridesmaid was a songbook expander in 2008, as routine as a dental checkup but also quite good, while The Hazards of Love was the most underrated album of 2009. It took me a while to come around to it, as I’ve always resisted the theatrical ambitions of The Decemberists, and a “rock opera” seemed to promise that they’d be indulging in everything I like least about them. But the huge hour-long momentum that the album generates has nothing to do with its storyline and everything to do with its monster riffs, well-considered motifs and incomparable female voices.

[o] Still amazed how exquisitely rhythmic and twinkling this album is, considering that its hit single “I Melt With You” is a lot more lumbering than my early memories of it.

[p] “’84 Pontiac Dream” is the song that comes closest to describing what the world seemed like to me when I was 18, living in a weird new city. 18’s the age when everyone ought to have a life soundtrack.

[q] For much of this album I can hang my head in total surrender to the glorious wash of proto-shoe weirdness (though at work I can only imagine myself doing this), but when the music fails to pull me inside its enchanted womb, through no fault of its own, it can be a bit boring.

[r] Maybe it’s cruel to choose just one, but Never Hear the End of It has a clear standout, and that’s “Fading Into Obscurity,” the only song I can think of (maybe because it gets it so right and “obscures” all other attempts) about the titular subject, told from the point-of-view of a former rock star. Sloan can seem a bit straight-laced at times, in their notions of rock music and proper lyrical matter, but they do a story song like no other, and are always ready to surprise with sly genius: This cake is baked but I much prefer the batter / Perhaps in part because it had so much potential / To be delicious and still be influential. Zippo! Pretty Together has some moments, but had I heard it in 2001 I would not have guessed the band’s finest music was still in front of them. How they went from album #6 obsolescence to album #8 magnificence I don’t quite know.

[s] But maybe their fourth and fifth albums provide a clue. It seems there’s always been an ebb and flow to Sloan’s career: Navy Blues is another hit-or-miss affair, while Between the Bridges, though also not perfect, is a great synthesis of four very different songwriting perspectives and an early attempt at the concept-album-without-a-concept that found perfection on Never Hear the End of It.

[t] The notion that Joel Gibb shouldn’t be allowed to grow up, but should stay young and horny (and faggy and polyamorous) forever, was the thesis of some of the most infuriating music “criticism” I read last year. The great thing about Gibb’s rapturous adoration of the human body has never been the “fun” of it, but rather the opportunity it affords to glimpse a sensibility so loving that everything hateful and ugly seems banished from the world. Origin: Orphan is not an album about “growing up,” but one that is tweaked ever so slightly toward seriousness, because Gibb has realized that his love’s abundance is inherently political, and because he’s taking less for granted. But the playfulness persists: his declaration that he will “marry one day” is just about the most tentative promise a person can make, and he says it in a song called “In The Na,” whose nonsense title becomes a giddy refrain that puts a glaze of fantasy over everything. He won’t marry outside the Na, it’s clear, and the only place on Earth where the Na exists must be in Gibb’s bed.

[u] I’d hesitate to call these brothers Everly total iconoclasts, but there are moments in even their tamest songs that signal to me how far from safe they are:

--looks like we’re duped again (“Wake Up, Little Susie”): sung with the sort of excessive human energy, like a boy playing with a dead snake, that makes mothers worry about their sons.

--mmmmmmmm (“’Til I Kissed You”): as lustful as the best of Elvis.

--don’t you even care? (“Cathy’s Clown”): sung like the definition of sullenness.

--“Since You Broke My Heart”: with the right decoration, would be the essence of psychedelic rock.

It’s fun to try to find narrative arcs on greatest hits albums, especially ones that are arranged chronologically. Cadence Classics oscillates between songs about girls who unfairly break the brothers’ hearts and songs about bad boys whose rebel ways cause them to lose their loves, so I imagine that there’s an element of wish fulfillment in these latter songs, that the Everlys wish they could be active participants, not passive, in their failings at love.

Announcement: Of late I barely have time to write down ideas for posts I want to write, but expect more substantial posts soon, including my lengthy (and mostly impartial) Gaga review.

*The title of the post comes from a dream I had in which I was reading about a new movie starring Jim Carrey and George Clooney that was getting considerable Oscar buzz. The unlikely premise of this movie (based on a true story) was that two guys determined to create a college scholarship for underprivileged students, and short on funds to do so, had laid claim to Johnny Cash’s prison chains before the singer’s famous stint in jail, knowing that the shackles could be auctioned upon his release to great advantage. In this version of the universe, Johnny Cash had done time.