Thursday, December 30, 2010

It’s II: Seemingly A Result Of Radness Overdose

The Head on the Door

Another year, a thousand more attempts by commentators to declare the album dead, and a thousand more opportunities for me to decline into irrelevance by not being able to abide the newfangled sounds these young people are making. But you’d have to be deader’n shit not to have noticed this was a great year for albums, and I responded as well as I was able. So I’ll go ahead and celebrate with typical comfort and complacency: a top ten!

[1] Owen Pallett, Heartland
[2] Deerhunter, Halcyon Digest
[3] Joanna Newsom, Have One On Me
[4] Laura Veirs, July Flame
[5] Janelle Monae, The ArchAndroid
[6] The Radio Dept., Clinging To A Scheme
[7] The Depreciation Guild, Spirit Youth
[8] Robyn, Body Talk
[9] Lower Dens, Twin-Hand Movement
[10] Jeremy Jay, Splash


I have the same needs as anyone else, but I guess they express themselves differently. Imagine a club where “E Is For Estranged” plays while the patrons stare silently into each other’s eyes. That would be a joy greater than talking or dancing!

Anyway, I think I’ve made the mistake of emphasizing (in my mind) this album’s technical accomplishment over its effectiveness as a great pop album, but still I don’t understand how even a genius like Owen Pallett has time for this undertaking.


Please don’t call it haunting: No album made me feel closer to real living breathing people this year. Even the dead ones (Dima, Jay Reatard) sound yet alive, not just a-ghosting. Call it instead: Sundays = Youth.


Slow down, people. Even geniuses need time to mature. This is the year even the Newsom skeptics came to love her, and she gave herself in such abundance. There was a time when she didn’t believe she could be a singer, and now, at 28, she’s giving words, in her phrasing, more meaning than they have in their entire etymology: “hotter’n Hell,” “duration,” “my love for you,” “lawlessness” (standouts).


A lot of people made the albums they were born to make this year, none more convincingly than Laura Veirs. That “born to make” designation is especially compelling in her case, ever since I came to the conclusion that July Flame might be a conception album. But even if the apocalypse doesn’t happen soon and Veirs’ newborn Tennessee doesn’t become our John Connor, this album can still be a reminder of how good and unfettered life was as recently as 2010.


I’ve got no beef with the Kanye album, but we all know (don’t we?) that it’s not nearly as exciting as Sir Lucious Left Foot (in its rapping) or ArchAndroid (in its weirdness, epicness, thorough tangling with music history), and that it’s doubly inadequate when you add those two together to get the best OutKast album since Stankonia. Or ever? But, nay, Monae’s brilliance and weirdness are entirely her own, and she has better taste than anyone right now … Whoa, I just went into a mini-reverie trying to think of something to say about her, but all I came up with is that she is the best person ever.


Two honey-voiced men—one is Kurt Feldman, whose sadly defunct Depreciation Guild has internalized as much of the best music of the 1990s as has his other band, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart; the other is Johan Duncanson, who, being Swedish, has of course internalized all music—awash in warm digital and analog environments, respectively, as delicate as themselves. Though your definitions of honey and delicate might be different than mine.


Any single installment is excellent enough for placement, but since “Cry When You Get Older” is on Pt. 1 and “Hang With Me” is on Pt. 2, let’s just consider the whole 21-song, 82-minute aerobic mastercise for inclusion here. OMD’s Andy McCluskey, who knows better than anyone, says: “I don't think that Robyn is interested in making history. She is too busy loving, hurting, singing, and feeling. But she is making musical history. This is Ibsen and Munch set to a metronomic beat.” Yikes! But he’s right. It’s always a mistake to not take Robyn seriously.


A new addition to my listening, so I’ll elaborate… I wrote the other day that “I feel myself turning away this year from the dreamy and hazy, the half-formed and half-heard,” and in my recent listening bands continue to be edged out in favor of, in the words of last year, “faceless musicians serving the visions of individual artists, bringing to life the singer’s ideas about himself or herself.” So that I’m currently so high on a Band playing Essential Psychedelic Patterns of American Rock ‘n’ Roll, while Jana Hunter lisps and mumbles half-heard phrases through the compost heap, is proof of some kind of personal salvation. And let’s dispense with the rumor that Hunter sounds like PJ Harvey. It’s not only wrong, it’s irrelevant: This is as much an instrumental band as The Feelies, which is to say not entirely, but essentially.

So let’s let Lower Dens stand in for all the great freak-pop bands (my coinage!), lo-fi fops and weirdo manufactories of melodie I’ve been hearing in the fourth quarter: Women, Weekend, Tennis, Veronica Falls, Twin Sister, the refurbished Crystal Stilts. Lower Dens are from Baltimore, the home of John Waters, Frank Pembleton, and the Beach House/Wye Oak contingent, but that album cover looks a lot like Montana, so (to tear myself from deadening bedroom listening and remind myself that this music-loving business doesn’t pause for retrospective December but continues year-round) I took a stroll with the music through a wintry Montana dusk and, lo and behold, it really brought the landscape alive. The only thing that qualifies this album as freak-folk is the ripe possibility that it was recorded outside. (The totally indescribable) Twin Sister, on the other hand, seem to record in an overstuffed bedroom in which all the objects give off tiny frequencies. (Can you even call them a band?)

Anyway, I wonder if this is all happening too quickly. For example: I heard Deerhunter’s “Like New” sometime in 2007, and liked it well enough, thought it a nice foray into a mode of American music that was perhaps played out. It was another year before I heard Microcastle and realized all they were capable of, and then another year before they became absolutely essential to my life. Lower Dens are no Deerhunter, not yet, but I fear I’m exhausting them too soon. But no, there will always be more: More walks, more rooms to crank these waves in.


I guess I’m like that guy who discovered The Modern Lovers in ’76 and then never gave up on Jonathan Richman, telling all his friends about how great Richman’s ninth solo album is when they didn’t even care about his eighth. But Jeremy Jay will never be just coasting (I’m sure that’s true of Richman as well, but I wouldn’t know), and Splash, a real rock ‘n’ roll record, couldn’t be more unlike the austere fireside croonery of last year’s sublime Slow Dance. No one’s playing guitar more cleanly, and yet with greater attack, than Jeremy Jay right now.

Special Jury Prize

Beach House, Teen Dream

So awarded to an undeniably classic album that failed to make the cut for no reason other than my own fickle nature. You know I consider sobriety a virtue, but my prejudices don’t extend to music, and I don’t even know if this album counts as drugged out, since even a teetotaler could access these deep, deep feelings. Anyway, I feel safe letting this one go and entrusting it to the ages.

Audience Award

Twin Shadow, Forget

So awarded to a nearly perfect album that is, in the final estimation, perhaps a bit too labored over. Break-up albums have never meant much to me, but this is a great one, and the only one to ever make me feel what might be at stake in losing someone, how much there is that’s worth saving. But even though these songs might sound like attempts to get her back, I think they’re more likely a final purge of all the music that reminds him of her.

Lifetime Achievement Award

The Joy Formidable, A Balloon Called Moaning

So awarded to an awesome collection of songs that belongs just as much to last year and next year as it does to this year. And I don’t just mean that in some spiritual sense. This shot of brilliance was self-released in 2009, re-released in 2010, and some of these songs will find new life on major label debut The Big Roar next month.

Problems for the future

[a] How old am I again? Before college (6-10 years ago) the majority of the new music I listened to was simply the latest releases by all my 80s and 90s faves (Sonic Youth, R.E.M., Stephen Malkmus, Ken Stringfellow, Guided By Voices, etc.), and I thought that stuff described my life perfectly. Today I make a real attempt to keep up with new bands, whose members are barely older and sometimes younger than me, and I feel that the premature maturity of my youth never happened. I feel I’m aging in reverse even as I’m aging forward.

[b] Why am I so uninterested in this century’s IDM and electronic music?

[c] Should I feel bad that most of the new music I listen to is American? There’s an amazing amount of creativity in this country, considering that its musicians have access to everything they could ever need to be inspired by and can’t really feel a great sense of discovery on a daily basis. If North Korea ever eases up on its bullshit, even slightly, that’s going to be a place of art like we’ve never seen before.

[d] You know my life is good when I’m able to do a blog post like this. The year I don’t is the year you can start worrying about me. And, with a sigh of relief, I’m off to listen to some old music again, but first a roll call:

Twenty-five more
(these are all really good)

Arcade Fire, The Suburbs
Belle & Sebastian, Write About Love
The Besnard Lakes, Are The Roaring Night
Big Boi, Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son Of Chico Dusty
Darker My Love, Alive As You Are
Das Racist, Sit Down, Man
Field Music, Measure
Girls, Broken Dreams Club
Glasser, Ring
John Grant, Queen Of Denmark
Harlem, Hippies
Let’s Wrestle, In The Court Of The Wrestling Let’s
Perfume Genius, Learning
Pernice Brothers, Goodbye, Killer
Emma Pollock, The Law Of Large Numbers
Rogue Wave, Permalight
Sun Kil Moon, Admiral Fell Promises
Superchunk, Majesty Shredding
Surfer Blood, Astro Coast
Teenage Fanclub, Shadows
Toro Y Moi, Causers Of This
Twin Sister, Color Your Life
Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Wild Nothing, Gemini
Zoo Animal, Zoo Animal

The rest
(I like all of these too)

Atlas Sound, Bedroom Databank
Best Coast, Crazy For You
Broken Bells, Broken Bells
The Chemical Brothers, Further
Das Racist, Shut Up, Dude
Kristin Hersh, Crooked
How To Dress Well, Love Remains
jj, no 3
jj, Kills
Liars, Sisterworld
The Magnetic Fields, Realism
Matt & Kim, Sidewalks
Matt Pond PA, The Dark Leaves
The New Pornographers, Together
Procedure Club, Doomed Forever
Quasi, American Gong
Shout Out Louds, Work
A Sunny Day In Glasgow, Autumn, Again
A Sunny Day In Glasgow, Nitetime Rainbows
The Thermals, Personal Life
Weezer, Hurley
Wolf Parade, Expo 86
Wye Oak, My Neighbor/My Creator

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Macromix 10

Same rules as last year. The unveiling happened here.

1/ 20 Atlas Sound, “Mona Lisa”
2/ 19 Big Boi, “Shutterbugg”
3/ 18 Panda Bear, “Slow Motion”
4/ 17 Perfume Genius, “Mr. Peterson”
5/ 16 Harlem, “Prairie My Heart”
6/ 15 Robyn, “Cry When You Get Older”
7/ 14 Shout Out Louds, “Walls”
8/ 13 The Radio Dept., “David”
9/ 12 Beach House, “Zebra”
10/ 11 Real Estate, “Out Of Tune”
11/ 10 Arcade Fire, “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)”
12/ 9 Owen Pallett, “Keep The Dog Quiet”
13/ 8 Surfer Blood, “Harmonix”
14/ 7 Deerhunter, “Helicopter”
15/ 6 Janelle MonĂ¡e, “Oh, Maker”
16/ 5 The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart, “Lost Saint”
17/ 4 Laura Veirs, “July Flame”
18/ 3 Teenage Fanclub, “Sometimes I Don’t Need To Believe In Anything”
19/ 2 Joanna Newsom, “On A Good Day”
20/ 1 The Besnard Lakes, “Albatross”

Technicalities: This year’s top seven are among my very favorite songs of all time, as are The Besnard Lakes’ “Chicago Train” and Joanna Newsom’s “‘81,” both of which would’ve been in the top four if I was being totally honest. I also neglected to include The Joy Formidable’s “Austere” and Quadron’s “Slippin,” as it seemed both more accurate, and easier, to consider them among the belatedly heard crop of 2009’s finest songs.

My intension is always to make a good 80-minute-or-less mix CD more than it is to make an honest list, so I’ll sometimes sacrifice integrity (if that’s even a quality that the fickle art of list-making can be said to have) in favor of the former pursuit. I didn’t have to do that so much this year, and still I find that Macromix 10 unfolds with atypical drama and narrative flow, especially in the final fifth.

This is an amazing era of new music we’re living in. Don’t believe anyone who says otherwise (does anyone?). Albums list sometime this week.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Man of the Year

Mondo Guerra

I’m listening to Rufus Wainwright again and oh, gee. This is a dangerous thing, since the music of my late 90s youth often sounds in retrospect much more sophisticated and mature than anything being made today. I think this has more to do with my age circa 1998—old enough that I was beginning to realize that music could not only sound “cool” but could also communicate important adult themes, but still too young to understand what these were, except maybe wordlessly—than with the quality of the music. I hear “adult themes” today, in the work of artists my own age or a bit older, but it’s the same boring stuff I deal with in my own life. The mystery just isn’t there, yet it persists in a song like “April Fools,” which I still hear as an expression of a much more profound maturity than I can ever know, one so advanced that it can even play at youthful folly without debasing itself. It’s so good I laughed when I heard it again. I’m sure it’s been said before, but Rufus was the Frank O’Hara of ’98, the difference being that O’Hara was a new name in the New York of the 1950s. It’s amazing when the sons of prominent people arrive so fresh on the scene. Remember his Gap commercial?

But this year has a Rufus Wainwright, and if it’s not Owen Pallett then it’s John Grant. I’m surprised and pleased that Mojo magazine has named his Queen of Denmark their album of the year, as it strikes me as one that might’ve been doomed to niche gay album status, a thoroughly ironic, despair-in-your-underwear, redemption and damnation via beautiful men fag blues sort of affair. So that it has such wide rock critic appeal is pretty hopeful. Its classicist bona fides are firmly in place (Grant fronted the orchestral rock band The Czars, and he has the fine nostalgists Midlake backing him here), but the lyrics are sometimes so silly that they almost make a mockery of the 70s piano balladry mode of the songs, e.g. "I feel just like Sigourney Weaver / When she had to kill those aliens / And one guy tried to get them back to the Earth / And she couldn’t believe her ears." The imprecise conversational nature of the words and the grandiosity of the music create a nice tension. And if the British critics can’t relate to Sigourney Weaver, then what I think they must cling to on this album are its admissions of weakness, as on the Nilsson-esque smash “Silver Platter Club”: "I wish that confidence was all you could see in my eyes / Like those interviews in locker rooms with talented sports guys." I tend to think of the British press as a dominant, masculine bunch, but they’re probably as lousy and self-doubting as John Grant, hiding inside their love of records like his, proud of him in his musical world where he can be the strong one.

(Maybe you could say the same thing about all the American critics who love Kanye West and his musical world, but West is still the popular kid to Grant’s last-picked. I pause here to wonder what a comparative analysis of the preferences of today’s British and American music writers might reveal. If we used Mojo’s and Pitchfork’s top ten albums of 2010 as our sample British and American data, respectively, we’d find that somehow, in the age of the internet, hardly anything makes it across the ocean anymore. So long, 1990s.)

Anyway, I like the up-front humanness of Queen of Denmark. I feel myself turning away this year from the dreamy and hazy, the half-formed and half-heard. No more hiding from and/or inside ourselves, let’s aim for the fullest expression of our aliveness! Maybe I’m just following the musical tendencies of Deerhunter (“Helicopter” is a song you can only sing if you’re fully awake), and I certainly haven’t yet put my own tendencies into meaningful practice, except in ranking my year-end favorites. But that’s where I am. And yet I know that lo-fi is always inherently philosophical, a surrender to the gods of impermanence, not just recourse for people who don’t want to try hard enough, and that the digital fuzz on How To Dress Well’s Love Remains is today’s equivalent of analog burble. I’m not sure if How To Dress Well has arrived at the beginning of a new lo-fi movement (to hell with chillwave) or at the end of a decade of R&B genre-melding, or vice versa, or what, but that question is too academic anyway and doesn’t really cut to the heart of the matter, which is that Love Remains, all half-heard 38 minutes of it, is an accurate portrayal of many people’s experiences in love. I don’t find its leagues of digital fuzz nearly as haunting as the ghost trails and forlorn melodies they conceal (the same generally goes for pixelization, the video analogue; there’s just no poetry in it!), but I will admit that the album’s emotional world, even if born of musical philosophers, is convincing.

So I understand Love Remains just enough to realize that what it represents is a significant development in the history of recorded emotion. But I can’t figure out where we’re going with recently lauded tracks like Crystal Castles’ “Not In Love” and Girl Unit’s “Wut,” because I never got music for music’s sake. There’s nothing in these but sound and newness. It seems impossible for anyone to describe either one without relying on some of my least favorite critical shorthand, like “reptilian brain” and “pleasure centers.” I don’t know what these things are, or whether all reptilian brains have the same pleasure centers. That seems unlikely.


Some Came Running (a.k.a. Gosh Frank Sinatra Has A Flat Stomach) is Peyton Place with pure motives and an ending later stolen by Chinatown. There’s no muckraking, no dark secrets suddenly exposed, only the weaknesses of small town people, hidden for a while and then unhidden, rendered not as scandals but as personal problems. At the tragic denouement, I almost expected its inheritor’s climactic “It’s only Chinatown” to be replaced with a solemn, ironic or indifferent uttering of the film’s title, something like, “Some came running; none cared.” Not so, but then it goes one step further, more genius-y, to a cemetery scene that I still can’t get my head around. Why (why!) does the camera single out the characters in that order? Anyway, finally, it’s the rare movie where a woman realizes that she lets her man get away with being a jerk because he’s “interesting,” and, knowing there can be no phony ending where he reforms, she resolves to end it and doesn’t look back! (I don’t think.) Vincente Minnelli is the greatest director of all time.

The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest is a ticking down of the clock, an inexorable sorting of the good guys from the bad guys that would play out easily even without the participation of the main characters (well, there’s quite a bit of effort involved, but ultimate justice is a foregone conclusion). So we watch and wait, but it’s a good movie because that’s how Lisbeth Salander spends the final hours too. She’s never boring, especially not when you’re her partner in silence.

I couldn’t help but view Inside Job as anything but a story about mental illness.

I couldn’t help but view Temple Grandin as anything but a story about kindness!

I couldn’t help but view Exit Through the Gift Shop as anything but real, and if a hoax an entirely plausible one. The art world doesn’t need satire or fictional character studies of weirdos when it has itself. Our weirdo in this film has a lot of charming psychoses, and some beautiful ones, like his compulsion to film every moment of his life and save the forever-unwatched tapes in boxes. I do that too, with lists and notes, my own version of “life as it happened and as it will never be known again.” Why are we compelled to save anything?

And with that, let me unveil the movies I liked most this dismal-relative-to-most-but-maybe-not-so-bad-after-all year:

Non-fiction: [1] 45365, [2] Exit Through The Gift Shop, [3] Sweetgrass, [4] Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, [5] Restrepo

Non-non-fiction: [1] Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, [2] Greenberg, [3] The Social Network, [4] The Ghost Writer, [5] Life During Wartime, [6] Fish Tank, [7] Winter’s Bone, [8] Mother, [9] Toy Story 3, [10] Shutter Island

Non-non: [4] I’m Still Here

But there are many left to see, including the Coen Bros.’ True Grit. I’ll try to take it on its own terms, but so far I’m filled with nothing but ire from all the reviews that describe the 1969 original as some kind of campy trifle and don’t appreciate it for the heartfelt ode to lesbians and outcasts that it is. I liked it enough to name a blog post after it, and in memory it’s become one of my very favorite movies, so I’ll direct you back there for the time being, and hopefully have more to say when all the facts are in.


When I start reading John Waters’ Role Models (soon), it’ll be the fourth book I’ve read from the publishing year 2010. I’ve collaged the covers of the other three I read (two of these by former teachers of mine) into a single master-book, which I will designate the “book of the year.”

The Age of Innocence is an extraordinary thing, but I find I can read no more than 10 pages per day, probably because it is so rich with motivation. Wharton can trace every action in the novel to the feeling and societal pressure that triggered it, and I’m taking pride in painstakingly following her logic. I’ve gotten finally to the really heavy self-abnegations, when it becomes clear that this is a love story after all, not (as I previously suspected) a story in which a character chooses a mode of existence by choosing a lover.

Where have you been all my life, Peter Bagge? Your Buddy Does Seattle is a veritable comic book anthology of the grunge scene that so captured my imagination many years ago. But maybe it’s best I’ve only just discovered the beflanneled apathetic Buddy Bradley (in a way not so different from Newland Archer, but stuck in a different time and different place), as my younger self could no way have recognized any relation between him and my beloved Nirvana. I was in it for the music back then (case in point: I loved the Singles soundtrack but never saw the movie). So it’s funny now to find myself in the sub-prime of life that Buddy Bradley so perfectly represents, while the music of his era seems so remote. What a reversal!


The trophy looks like this: @~~| (on its side)

Album of the Year (sneak-peek)

When audiences of the 19th century went to a new Beethoven symphony, did they feel despair equal to their sense of beauty, as they witnessed the evidence of so much talent contained within one man that they collectively lacked? _________ too is a work of such genius in all its parts (the singing, the playing, the orchestration, the lyrics) that you might despair, but eventually you have to throw up your hands and realize that we only receive such a gift every so often.

Video of the Year

Deerhunter, “Helicopter"

(The only other ones I remember having seen are Katy Perry’s “California Gurls,” Willow Smith’s “Whip My Hair,” Insane Clown Posse’s “Miracles” and, worst of all, My Darkest Days’ “Porn Star Dancing,” so there wasn’t much competition.)

Album Cover of the Year

Album Title of the Year


(Procedure Club)

To be doomed, that’s a horrible, heavy feeling, but doomed forever… there’s something quietly celebratory about the word “forever,” like taking that doom and making it your own.

Record Label of the Year

Slumberland, and its mp3 generosity.

Arrival of the Year

“Forget the second coming, I need you in the here and now.” (Surfer Blood, “Floating Vibes”)

Fatalist Lyrics that Should be Sung
with a Bit More Conviction of the Year

“Our lips won’t last forever and that’s exactly why I’d rather live in dreams and I’d rather die.” (Wild Nothing, “Live In Dreams”)

1992 of the Year

The Radio Dept. and their Foxbase Alpha moment, “Never Follow Suit.”

Paul Westerberg “I Hate Music” Hall of Fame

“Baby, let’s make music, it’ll make us feel better and worse at the same time.” (Zoo Animal, “Baybee”)

Still to come:
Next Sunday: Macromix 10
Next week: It’s II


I could see The Nutcracker every year for the rest of my life and still never quite figure out what it’s all about. Its wordless narrative is as bewitchingly obscure to me as the best of Jim Woodring, giving me plenty of time to think about such things as: [1] The Nutcracker is best seen from very far away, so that the people become as miniature and toylike as possible. Perhaps movies tend to favor medium shots and close-ups to avoid this effect. [2] Ballet makes more apparent than most art forms the collective mind of humanity. People to write the music, people to play the instruments, people to conduct the players, people to dance to the music, people to make the dancers’ costumes, people to make the sets, etc. And the people aren’t just doing these things out of obligation. In each role there is at least someone who is fulfilling a passion. And a passion fulfilled is only meaningful if every passion is fulfilled, and a full ballet results. [3] What obsessed Tchaikovsky? Simple-minded me likes to imagine he wanted only to write music that men with nice legs might dance to, but who knows what kind of rare and indescribable visions might have moved this man. [4] Sometimes I forget what it’s like to see.


I sometimes feel that our life’s work is only the result of an attempt to make do with whatever set of mental disorders we happen to have. I have some strain of OCD that is linked to my mania for music; it can only be calmed with music, but music also agitates it, with the need for more and more (carefully catalogued) music! So I write reviews. I wish I was compelled to write fiction, but I’m not (except when someone is expecting to read it). I’m only compelled to write reviews and the kinds of things you read here. Actually I don’t know if any of this is true, but I do know that the keywords in the preceding paragraph are relevant to my life.


Ariel Schrag says something amazing in Definition about an older girl she has a crush on, to the effect that since her idea of who this girl is exists only in her head, what it amounts to is being attracted to her own mind. This is an uncommonly wise thing for a person of any age to say, and I think it can be extended to other realms of the mind, in particular: I’ve sometimes felt nostalgic for my own mind. I think about this often in terms of music. The world defined by my listening has always been very small in scope (my bed, my mom’s car, my sister’s room), so most of my memories of songs aren’t really linked to events in my life, but simply to the way my brain processed each song the first time I came to love it. So my nostalgia for songs is self-referential and all within my head. I’d like to believe this is the purest form of music love, since it exists almost entirely without context. But what do I know? I keep to my bed.


Maybe the reason our brains are so scrambled is that all the information that beams down into our laptops from above in areas with wireless signals is really in the air (because really, where else could it be?) and our minds are busy clicking and scrolling and browsing this digital ether even when we’re just sitting eating banana bread.