Tuesday, July 29, 2008

What We Do is Secret: Should Punk Be Exposed on Celluloid?

I am by no means an expert on The Germs; in fact, I'm not even really a fan. To be honest, I just never sought them out, nor heard of them til a few years back, but at the same time, I was intrigued by a biopic made about them, Rodger Grossman's What We Do Is Secret. I suppose that being an avid music fan generally makes me interested in any film about music, and punk as a cultural/sociological phenomenon has interested me for years. All I knew going in to see the film last week at Cinematheque was that The Germs were a chaotic punk band from California in the late 70's and that their frontman, Darby Crash, overdosed on heroin just before the day that John Lennon was killed, overshadowing his final bid for immortality. I also knew that Shane West, the actor who first found fame in teen romantic comedies and later as part of the TV show ER, had apparently gotten so completely into his role as Darby Crash, that he actually became a member of the recent reformation of The Germs, adopting the moniker, Shane Wreck. Considering this rather slim amount of knowledge, rather than pontificate on whether the film was too slick for the documentary style it was going for, or whether it was actually true to the band members' lives and the facts, I'm more interested in the broader issue of punk rock movies. This musing comes from the experience of being in last Thursday's audience.

I didn't quite know what to expect as far as audience members, but I did assume they would behave like regular audiences that usually attend the independent/arthouse films that Cinematheque runs. I forgot to factor in the possibility that actual Germs fans might come to see the film. About ten or fifteen minutes into the film, I realized my mistake as a large group of "punks" continued to heckle and shout profanities at each other and the film for its entire duration. And they also kept leaving and returning (I know this because I had two girls in pathetically short skirts climb over me about six times). And they thought it would be rather "punk" to light up regular cigarettes in the non-smoking theatre. I know I'm old and I don't consider myself a punk (I love punk music and its aesthetic, but at heart, I could never have been a true punk), but this chaos around me, which emulated the chaos presented in the live shows on screen, really annoyed me. If I had wanted to feel like I was at a punk show, I wouldn't have chosen to watch a film about it. As I braced myself for flying bottles, which never did appear, I kept thinking, "Why show up to a film if you know you won't like it?" and "Why stay for a film if you clearly think it's crap?" In the angry haze of that entire hour and a half, straining to hear dialogue and actually follow the narrative, I didn't think too deeply about my situation. At the time, I did appreciate the life imitating art imitating life dynamic that was happening, but I didn't contemplate the possible reasons for why this was happening. All I really wanted was for Darby Crash to die already, so I could go home.

Now that my head is clearer and I don't wish to bottle every single one of those punk kids, I wonder about whom punk films are intended for. Are they intended for actual punks, or for the more objective voyeurs of punk? Should punk even be made into films? And what kind of films should they be? Just by looking at the list of punk films listed in Wikipedia, it becomes apparent that punk has definitely been filmed to death whether as documentary, mockumentary, or biopic. Whether those that ascribe to the punk subculture actually find The Great Rock 'n Roll Swindle, the Julien Temple mockumentary about the Sex Pistols, and Temple's later Sex Pistols documentary The Filth and the Fury, credible or not is hard to say. Footage of The Germs was included in Penelope Spheeris's documentary The Decline of Western Civilization, which featured other bands of the time like Black Flag and Circle Jerks, and perhaps the fact that it was real footage of the band rather than a neatly constructed narrative with leitmotifs would appease punk fans. At the same time, punk's power and identity was bound up in the pose of sneering and the rejection of everything, including art, which even documentaries ultimately are.

While documentaries featuring live footage of punk artists might seem more credible and true to the punk experience than creative endeavours or biopics, those who are members of the subculture want their subculture to remain as such - not paraded around by those they believe could never truly understand it. If I remember correctly, a lot of the punks in the first showing of Derek Jarman's Jubilee stood up and left. And his rendering of the UK punk scene was pretty nihilist and graphic - unlike the more tempered and formulaic What We Do is Secret. I wonder how many punks actually attended showings of Sid and Nancy.

Punk, like other subcultures, lives and thrives underground to spite the mainstream that either panics about it or wants to co-opt it, and I suppose the point is that punks would never be satisfied or happy about their subculture on celluloid no matter how much a filmmaker tried to enter the inner sanctum of the subculture. And in punk there is no inner sanctum anyway - nothing's supposed to be sacred. But then why should punks care about how their bands and subculture are portrayed on the screen either? Obviously their subculture in which nothing has meaning means something to them. It's a catch-22 that applies specifically to punks - they're supposed to hate everything and consider everything worthless in some sort of snot-nosed arrested adolescence, aspects which make you wonder why they bother caring to be a punk in the first place and which, in turn, led to punk's rather rapid downfall.

Apparently, the re-formed, and likely "reformed," Germs, with Mr. Wreck as their vocalist, played last year's Vans Warped Tour and will once again play this year. I can see why this might rankle both Germs fans and punk fans in general, especially considering the last I heard of Shane West's musical endeavours was a pseudo-punk effort that had a song on the A Walk to Remember soundtrack. Yes, alongside tracks by Mandy Moore and Switchfoot. Then again, anyone who thinks the Vans Warped Tour is punk shouldn't be too fussed anyway.

Lexicon Devil - The Germs

Circle One - The Germs

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Everyday is Like Sunday, Except for Blue Monday and Ruby Tuesday, and...Well, Friday I'm in Love: Weekly Mix #27

I had been toying with the idea of having a Britpop mix for one of these weeks, but at the same time, felt like it would be a bit boring (despite the fact I find the whole "Cool Britannia" and "Britpop" phenomenon fascinating in a cultural and political way). Not to mention the fact that I refuse to post any Oasis on this blog at any time. So, next I thought I could post a mix of lesser known or lauded Britpop artists. And then The Vinyl Villain started a series of lesser known Britpop artists, and as that concept is much better in his more than capable hands, I decided just to make a mix of British artists that I enjoy. To prevent it from becoming a game of Russian roulette with my iTunes shuffle function, I tried to focus on artists/bands that often don't get a lot of attention (ie: still no Blur, Suede, Pulp, or The Verve), and looking at the list now, I realize a lot of them are now defunct, and in fact, several of them, like Mansun and The Longpigs, were more loosely connected with the Britpop era. However, while Britpop was pretty much an English movement, this mix will feature music from the rest of Great Britain.

Being an anglophile or unitedkingdomophile, the majority of my music collection is British. Somehow I've always identified with the caustic wit, the romantic gloom, the fey camp, the offbeat quirkiness, and the melodic sensibilities of British music. Not to mention it constantly amazes me how the British tend to be ahead of the curve for most subcultures and innovations in music. And when they're not, they borrow bits from other places and transform them into something completely brilliant, and then sell it back to the people they took it from in the first place. It also just feels like they care more about music than many other places in the world - they have considerable music press, decent record shops (even in small towns), and whenever I've been over there, it just seems like more people bother to shop in music stores and actually buy music than other places I've lived in or visited. This love affair with British music (and many other things British) has conspired against me by setting me apart from most people I've encountered in my home city. Thankfully, the Internet has made me feel less alone in my obsessions and interests.

My first encounter with British music was David Bowie when I was eight (yes, it was via Labyrinth, but that was a genius movie), and as I grew up, I continued to search out more and more of his music. Then when I was eleven, my best friend, who was far more into music than I was as a child, introduced me to the glam theatrics of Queen (to this day, I can't help but think of the image my friend came up with of a frustrated person swatting flies dead when I hear Another One Bites the Dust). In the following few years, with her, I discovered more British artists from the 80's, including New Order, Tears For Fears, Duran Duran, Billy Idol, The Cure, Simple Minds, and Depeche Mode (I had the extended dance mix of Bizarre Love Triangle on a compilation cassette called Choose 80's, and I rewound and played it over and over again - incidentally, that tape also included songs from The Jam, Squeeze, ABC, Bronski Beat, and Dexy's Midnight Runners). This is also the time when I started watching a lot of 80's music videos, and falling in love with the British artists with their synthesizers and eye make-up. I also had a very vague sense of Britpop with the odd Blur, Oasis, and Pulp song that found its way onto our radio stations and music television during my teenage years - the biggest impression being made by Jarvis Cocker's limp-wristed, jerky dancing in the video for Common People.

When I began university, I started getting into punk, but of course, I tended to favour the British side rather than the American side of punk, listening to The Clash, Sex Pistols and The Damned. Soon after punk, I also fell in love with the jangly indie bliss of The Smiths and the formidable Manic Street Preachers, who have influenced me much more than a lot of the people I've known. As my knowledge continued to expand, and with it, my range of tastes, I embraced more and more British music, encompassing the mod, glam, punk, post-punk, New Wave, New Romantics, acid house, twee, shoegaze and Britpop.

When trying to create this mix, I figured I'd attempt to focus on artists I hadn't featured in previous mixes, so at least 50% haven't been posted on this blog before. There will probably be another one of these in the future, especially as I wrack my brain for more weekly themes. For a rather comprehensive look at the Britpop phenomenon and its connection to Tony Blair's nauseating New Labour, read John Harris's book on the coinciding rise and fall of Britpop and New Labour, The Last Party. I believe there was also a documentary hosted by Harris - you can likely watch it on YouTube. I'm calling this one The UK Made Me.

Six - Mansun

Vendetta - Adorable

All the People I Like Are Those That Are Dead - Felt

Chinese Bakery - The Auteurs

She Said - The Longpigs

Obscurity Knocks - Trashcan Sinatras

Calliope! - The Veils

I Feel Better - Frightened Rabbit

You Are the Generation That Bought More Shoes and You Get What You Deserve - Johnny Boy

We Hate the Kids - The Indelicates

Kill Everyone - Codename Sparrow

Don't Forget to Remember - Puressence

Total Recall - The Sound

Hey Bunny - The Cherubs

Bloodbeat - Patrick Wolf

The Novelist's Wife - frYars

The Far Too Simple Beauty - Trembling Blue Stars

England Made Me - Black Box Recorder

The Campaign For Real Rock - Edwyn Collins

Friday, July 25, 2008

Suntanning in the Nuclear Fallout: The Very Sexuals' Post-Apocalyptic Love

I came across the Netherlands' The Very Sexuals via The Walrus, and the fact this blog threw in the words Cocteau Twins and Mazzy Star when describing their sound made me stop to check them out. Also, the fact the band have made their debut album, Post-Apocalyptic Love, available for free on their Web site makes the life of an amateur reviewer a lot easier. Having listened to the album, I don't think it's quite up to Cocteau Twins stratospheric standards, but I do hear hints of New Pornographer-type shimmery pop harmonies and shambolic beats, youthful excitement and vocals similar to Ash, and some spaced-out melodies à la Dandy Warhols. Consisting of Joep van Son, Pien Feith (who also does her own music - worth checking out), Niels Philipsen, Cox Dieben, and Rob Bours, The Very Sexuals espouse a strangely positive view of a post-apocalyptic world:

It's 2008 and the apocalypse didn't wait for you
It did not wait for you or for me, it waited for nobody
Only a few could escape the fire
And they don't know why they were so lucky
Maybe it's because they still had a message to convey
Maybe they are functioning as prey
Or maybe it's because they are

I'm still not quite sure where the sex is fitting in, just as I'm not so sure the band name is the most appropriate for the type of music they make, but I definitely feel a life-force pumping throughout the record. While sex may be part of this band's idea of recovery and dealing with post-traumatic stress, the music itself reflects a generally more twee atmosphere rather than sweaty and seedy.

The album opens with the psychedelic WWIII Rocketeer, which features fey male vocals from van Son until the lilting, jazzy female voice of Feith joins in, setting up a brilliant vocal pairing. Second track, Carla, is one of my favourites with its jubilant, explosive sound like some of Puressence's latest songs. The guitars jangle and chime beneath sunny vocal harmonies, a soothing balm for a diaster-ridden world. Bowie Eyes announces itself with squeals of feedback and fuzzed-out vocals as it bounces around like postmodern surfers on a beach of the ash from incinerated civilization while Anti-Valentine has a rather retro Phil Spectorish feeling to it and child-like crooning vocals - like Raveonettes without all the shoegazey feedback. Romping along like children taking pleasure in kicking over sandcastles, Wrecked This Century feels like one of those irrepressible youth anthems where the best the new generation can do is rip everything up and start again while they cheekily sing: "Give me the year 2000 and I'll make it bleed." While the melody for the next track, Billy Idol Lookalike Contest, isn't as memorable as some of the other tracks, its narrative is quirky and random enough for me: "We met on the evening of the Billy Idol Lookalike Contest/You look so very pretty/And hey, you look exactly like him."

Can You Promise Me the Sky Won't Fall On Us has heavier, dirtier electronic beats to it and Feith's vocals resemble a more aggressive Feist; only here does the possibility of an ominous post-apocalypse surface like a primordial weed in a field of radioactive heliotropes. While this song does stand out against the breezier fare of the rest of the record, I actually think it's one of my favourites. Final track, Finn, is a puffy cloud of a song with simple guitar and airy voices, finishing the whole album off with the line "And the sun dies out." But somehow, it still leaves you thinking everything will be okay. Also, it features the quite brilliant line of "boy meets girl and girl steals his potential to be cruel."

Overall, Post-Apocalyptic Love is a great pop record for summer listening - if this is what the end of the world sounds like, I think we'll all survive just fine. So while I may not have gotten a new Cocteau Twins, nor a new Mazzy Star, I did get a fantastic soundtrack for weathering the apocalypse. Just pass the SPF 5000.

The Very Sexuals' MySpace: http://www.myspace.com/theverysexuals
Pien Feith's MySpace: http://www.myspace.com/pienfeith

Carla - The Very Sexuals

Can You Promise Me The Sky Won't Fall On Us - The Very Sexuals

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Human After All: Daft Punk's Electroma

I only recently got to see the 2006 film Electroma, which was directed and written by Daft Punk (Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo) and which recently released on DVD. Though I can't say I'm very familiar with previous Daft Punk film efforts, this piece does stand out as not including any music from the electro duo, and I think this aspect was key to its impression on me; rather than shoe-horn in music that doesn't fit the story or use predictable electronic music for a film about robots, Daft Punk chose to paint feelings onto their robots through strokes of genius music. Also, rather than donning the iconic helmets themselves this time, Bangalter and de Homem-Christo have Peter Hurteau and Michael Reich play the two hero automata, walking purposefully about in their Hedi Slimane-designed, skin-tight leather suits as the soundtrack alternates from an eerie, nearly uncomfortable silence, to the likes of Brian Eno, Haydn, Chopin, Linda Perhacs, and Sebastien Tellier. There's something about its cinematography that gives it a rougher '70's feel - like one of those older films predicting the future, not the slick CGI films of today.

The narrative of this minimalist sci-fi follows the two robot heroes in their failed quest to become human. While the visuals are hugely important, exploiting the alien-like sandscapes of the American southwest and using interesting effects in which white figures void out everything else in a white laboratory, the music is equally important through its restrained use. The film opens to silent abstract shots of the natural rock formations in the American southwest desert before the robot duo (one with a silver helmet and one with a gold one) get into their Ferrari and drive down endless highways, both silently and then to Todd Rundgren's International Feel, which communicates a very human feeling of excitement and adventure on the open road. When the robots finally enter a town, you realize that in this version of reality, everyone is a robot, making the duo's quest for humanity a stranger reversal of Frankenstein. Interspersed throughout the film are inexplicable flames, a portent of a grim ending, licking at the celluloid and burning into the narrative.

In this film, music tends to come as a relief for the pregnant silences, and I found myself actually musing about the choice of music for each scenario it illustrated; the music's meaning was heightened to the point that it couldn't be merely ignored or subsumed into the background. For example, after the heroes' helmets are covered in oversized, plastic human faces, they stroll proudly through the streets to the hugely appropriate, jaunty Billy Jack by Curtis Mayfield. Their stroll and the song abruptly ends as the duo confront a child robot holding an ice cream cone and he/she drops it on the pavement in one of the most salient images of the movie. Of course without the skillful manipulation of music and silence, this specific shot wouldn't have carried the meaning it does. The music shifts soon after to sombre choir music as the two heroes are chased by an impassive mob of robot citizens; the contrast to the earlier Mayfield is palpable as the heroes no longer strut, but stumble along, trying to shield themselves from the sun, which is melting their human masks into deformity. When they take refuge in a run-down public toilet, the gold robot furiously tears at his human mask and wig, and in another salient image, his human face stares up at the camera while being flushed down the toilet. In contrast and without the aid of dialogue, the silver-headed robot appears more reluctant to shed the grotesque remnants of his human face as he stares at himself in the mirror and a faulty lightbulb strobes and sways above him, mimicking the silver robot's emotional turmoil.

One of the main criticisms of Electroma was the sequence in which the two robot heroes walk endlessly through the sun-baked salt flats - and I will admit it's pretty wearisome and tedious, but at the same time, I can see why it was likely included to highlight just how pointless, lonely and endless their quest is. This sequence also reveals subtleties that foreshadow their unhappy end, particularly the fact the silver robot's head remains slightly bowed as he walks while the gold robot remains completely erect; of course this small detail blossoms into fruition as the silver robot begins to lag behind his more purposeful companion. After forcing his gold-headed companion to trigger the detonator on his back, the silver automaton walks a fair distance away to commit a rather explosive suicide. As the gold robot ranges over the cracked earth, which is covered in shards of black plastic and metal, his grief is made poignant and real with classical piano translating via minor chords.

During yet another deafening silence, in one of the most pitiful and memorable scenes of the film, the remaining hero is helplessly writhing, his helmet grinding into the dust, trying to no avail to reach the detonating lever on his own back. Ultimately, the robot decides to remove his helmet, and when he does, I actually felt surprised - because I had so much emotionally invested in these robots, I was a little unsettled by the flat circuitboard face even though I knew there wouldn't be a human face beneath the helmet. Ultimately, the gold robot sets himself on fire with the same sun that stripped him of his dream of being human, and the film closes with the gold robot as a figure in flames, striding across the darkened, voided landscape as the haunting and mournful Jackson C. Frank's Dialogue plays. In my opinion, the song is the star of this scene.

This film had more of an emotional effect on me than I would have expected. Because this film is about robots, who ostensibly cannot have emotions, but who in the heroes' case do have, the soundtrack, with its alternation between clinical silence and beautiful, affective pieces of music, reflects this dilemma. And unlike a ham-fisted music video of quick cuts and less than salient imagery, this film is a piece of art that unfolds naturally with its music, building, receding, undulating. Despite my pre-conceived notions of a Daft Punk film, Electroma is a well-crafted piece that, for me, emphasizes the connection of music to affect, the connection between music and humanity. Where even the long, blank stares of robots with only a black visor in place of human features, can convey that, in fact, they are human after all.

Human After All - Daft Punk

I Want to Be Alone (Dialogue) - Jackson C. Frank

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Has the World Changed Or Have I Changed?: Musings on the New Musical Express Train to Nowhere

I've been meaning to write something about my general feeling of malaise with new music, and now that I've read two very eloquent posts about this same feeling at To Die By Your Side and The Vinyl Villain, I very likely don't need to now because I don't know if I have that much more to add, to be honest. But since I must write something to keep this blog alive, I'll do it anyway. It's my blog and I'll rant if I want to.

I'm twenty-five, so why I feel so jaded about music already is something I would like to try to understand. I agree with what the bloggers above have said about how maturity and acquired knowledge does eventually make music sound less "new" and "innovative"; the more you know about music and music history, the more connections you can make between new and old music. And if there's one thing I had to learn over the years, it's that art of any kind must always use what's come before it in some way. Originality is a flawed concept, and it's a concept that has dogged me for many years as I shied away from writing creatively for long periods of time, believing that I had nothing "original" to say. In fact, I wrote a short story called Life is Art is Life all about that particular conundrum. I realized that it's how you build on what's come before you that makes you special and memorable; no one reinvents the wheel, instead, you get fantastic variations like cars, ferris wheels, and my personal favourite, the pennyfarthing.

As others already noted as well, the music of your youth or the music tied to "new" experiences in your life will always be special to you. It's why there's such a thing as nostalgia. I like to think that there will continue to be new bands that will impress me in the future as I grow old, but at the same time, I don't think they could ever make me feel the way the Manic Street Preachers, The Smiths, The Clash, and New Order do. These artists/bands got to me first and changed my life in their respective ways; for the most part, they ushered me into adulthood. Sadly, only one of them is still around, and through unfortunate circumstances, have had to change from their first, truly brilliant incarnation.

So, have I changed? And is that at the crux of my lack of excitement over most new bands? Likely, that's a big part of it, but at the same time, the music industry and its attendant press has changed rather drastically in recent years. Technology and the Internet have expanded access for both artists and fans, and they've sped up the process of production and promotion. While these developments can be hailed as the next stage of a truly DIY music scene, in a lot of ways, to borrow from Dick Hebdige, they've defused and diffused it. It's become increasingly harder to pick through the sheer masses of artists/bands out there (for my thesis, I made some rough calculations and figured there are at least 450 000 artists/bands with profiles on MySpace). Add to this overwhelming number the erosion of interest via media bombardment, and the situation gets sadder - the more information people are exposed to, the more apathy there is. The brain can only handle so much before needing to defer to others' opinions to make decisions, and in some cases, the brain just shuts out information wholesale in an act of self-defence.

And of course the advent of MP3 blogs and their aggregators have made it quite easy and speedy to hype a new artist based on very little. Of course, if a band is ultimately worthy of praise, they will weather the hype and continue to make interesting music. But this mad rush for the "new thing" has accelerated to such speeds, I can't bother to keep up, and instead, have found refuge in filling out my collection with older bands' back catalogues. Often I end up discovering an old band that I had never heard of before (some blogs can be thanked for this). For example, I only just found out about the post-punk band The Sound this year, and I now consider them one of my favourites. I'm also very aware that the bulk of new music I end up paying attention to is created by artists/bands that have been around for awhile - though, I can often also be disappointed in new output by old artists as stated in my post about The Cure. That's a different discussion for a different time, mind.

At this stage, my modest patch of cyberspace has by no means garnered too much attention by promotional people, but out of the emails of this nature that I have received, I've only been interested in two or three, and only really and truly loved one. As Coxon from To Die By Your Side stated, most bands are just too samey to be worth listening to, let alone worthy of a blog post. I require more than just a new Libertines or Arctic Monkeys, and I am too often disappointed by the comparisons of these new bands to older bands that I love, comparisons which never pan out.

Not only do I have to be critical of the promotional hype I get in my inbox, but I have to be just as critical of the information I get from "professionals." I know I'll sound like some whiny curmudgeon when I say that the music press isn't what it used to be. Sure, in the past, editorial and journalistic styles have displaced that which preceded them, but the recent shifts really don't speak to me. I like to believe that I would have been far more impressed with the work of Lester Bangs and Nick Kent had I been alive at the time they were prominent. I may also have romantic notions of the more politicized, intelligent NME of the early to mid-eighties, considering I was a small child then, but I do long for those times. I read less and less music magazines these days because either their information is out-of-date, or they're too busy chasing the next Libertines/Strokes to care about what really matters in music and the discourse that surrounds it. You will never see as brave a cover as that nearly all-black 1986 issue of NME that discussed youth suicide, nor content as brave. As much as I love The Mighty Boosh, they are merely a sales figure booster for the NME with comedic links to music and Noel Fielding's rather pathetic public antics. I can't imagine the bands being championed in the recent press as being as iconic and meaningful even ten years down the line as bands like Joy Division and The Smiths were/are. And though I don't expect all artists/bands to carve "4REAL" into their arms in order to prove a point to the NME, I do long for those who are willing to stand out and stand by their beliefs and opinions, or frankly, willing to have an opinion at all.

Having said all of this, I will say there have been rare instances when the white noise of bands clamouring for attention has cleared for a moment, allowing me to hear new music that I believe has that capacity to change my life. I believe in these bands and what they stand for; not only do their music and lyrics affect me, but so do their ideologies and philosophies, aspects which make art meaningful. They take the brilliant elements of previous artists, musical and otherwise, and multiply them into something more than the sum of their parts. They are "4REAL" in the same way Richey Edwards once was. And these bands aren't even at their peak yet; there's no reason they should be, and that very fact makes them exciting. These bands are Vanilla Swingers, Stroszek and Black Umbrella, and you can read about them in more detail when you follow the links below.

Post #1 on Vanilla Swingers

Post #2 on Vanilla Swingers

Post on Stroszek

Post on Black Umbrella

These are the bands that will mean something to me in ten years time. These are the bands I would feature on the cover of a magazine purporting to be about "new" music. These are the bands that continue to give me hope that not all good music was in the past.

Goodbye Lennon - Vanilla Swingers

Railway of Bones - Stroszek

Secret Kiss - Black Umbrella

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Everyday is Like Sunday, Except for Blue Monday and Ruby Tuesday, and...Well, Friday I'm in Love: Weekly Mix #26

My very first weekly mix was one entitled When the Humans Are Away, The Robots Play, and the time has come, my friends, for another robot-inflected mix. It was very fun the first time round, and I know at least one reader out there highly enjoyed it. Oddly enough, the only actual link to robots in that mix was the fact Robots in Disguise featured - this time, I made a more concerted effort to include songs with robots in the titles without compromising the sound and flow of the mix (this rule ultimately made me discard using the song Sister Robot by The Trons, a band that is actually composed of robots - the song just didn't really fit with the feel of the rest of the songs).

In the midst of the ridiculous fun, I included robot classic Mr. Roboto from the notorious Styx and another track from Flight of the Conchords, which, like last week's track, is quite a ribtickler ("The humans are dead/We used poisonous gases/And we poisoned their asses"). Don't worry, I'll resist the urge to include an appropriate track from Flight of the Conchords in every mix. This mix is called More Than Meets the Ear.

Arcade Robot - Boys Noize

Kicking and Screaming - The Presets

The Lake - Muscles

Robot Love - Ganymed

Robot High School - My Robot Friend

The Anthem - Bitchee Bitchee Ya Ya Ya

Mr. Roboto - Styx

Robots - Flight of the Conchords

Too Many People (iamchemist Plus One Remix) - The Retrosexuals

Disko Eskimo - Salon Music

Professional Suicide - Ladyhawke

Bunny - Zeigeist

Wow (MSTRKRFT Remix) - Kylie Minogue

Neue Strassen - Metropakt

Heartbeats - The Knife

Someone Like You - Revl9n

Girl - Robots in Disguise

We Are Rebels - Alice in Videoland featuring Maja

The Negative Sex (US version) - IAMX

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Cleanse Your Spirit: Bodies of Water's A Certain Feeling

I'm still kicking myself for not actually talking to the L.A. band Bodies of Water when I saw them open for Sons & Daughters in Toronto earlier this year. Instead, I hung about like a vagrant outside the venue, surreptitiously watching them duck in and out of their trailer and take photos of the gig poster. You see, I was embarrassingly early for the gig, and was literally the first and only audience member for at least twenty minutes after the doors opened. So, rather than skulk next to the door and slightly shivering, I should have attempted to engage Bodies of Water in some sort of conversation. In the end, I only spoke to them when I bought their debut album, Ears Will Pop & Eyes Will Blink, off them directly after the show. They seemed very sweet, but I being a dunderhead, will never truly know. At any rate, their second album, A Certain Feeling, is due out this coming Tuesday, and I'm counting myself very lucky that I got to see them live, and in fact, performing Gold, Tan, Peach and Grey from this album.

Bodies of Water fall somewhere between the power and cultishness of the Polyphonic Spree and Arcade Fire, but unlike those two bands, Bodies of Water only use four people to generate their massive sound and spine-tingling atmosphere. Of their opening slot for Sons & Daughters, I wrote:

For only four people, they create a choir of voices, filling the small venue with waves of beautiful sound. Their songs are long and meandering, switching time signatures several times before ending, but it never gets tedious; instead, you feel like you're accompanying them on a journey that no one has mapped out yet, but is bound to be filled with serendipity and wonder. Styles seamlessly moved from gospel to reggae to latin to operatic epic.

Of course, the recent departure of drummer/vocalist, Jessie Conklin, may shift things a bit for live performances and/or future recordings, but to fill a venue with such palpable emotion without the aid of matching robes or the waving of flags, was/is a grand achievement. A Certain Feeling is certainly on par with their debut with perhaps a slicker production, which I'm not one to find fault with.

The album begins with the magnificent Gold, Tan, Peach and Grey, which starts rather subtly with guitarist David Metcalf's tenuous, evangelical vocals, but when the rest join in for the "oh-oh-oh's," the song launches into a whole new level. And just when you think it can't get any more intensely beautiful, Meredith Metcalf, who also plays organ, sings a counter-melody over top of the "oh's," pushing her voice into a breathless, implosive force, and then the song shifts into a driving, chanting juggernaut. The following track, Under the Pines, which can also be streamed and downloaded from the band's MySpace, begins with a spindly organ line only to be joined by rather dramatic guitars and drums, and then a scratchy guitar line starts up (with an angularity akin to the riff from Franz Ferdinand's Take Me Out), making way for more choir-like strains from the entire band. The melding of Meredith and David's vocals creates a springboard for the syncopated drums and half-shouts that arise when the rest of the band's vocals comes in. They slow it down for the briefer Only You, which features Bjork-like vocals as Meredith plaintively sings, "I am trying to be near you." Water Here then begins with brass sounds and Kyle Gladden's bass, almost sounding like an orchestra tuning up, until a playful melody kicks in, see-sawing along with the band's voices, rallying like a well-tuned band of revolutionaries, and then the song changes speed as though it has a mind of its own, moving into a jazzier, funkier style as voices overlap and criss-cross each other in a lattice-work of sonic intricacy.

The second half of the album is just as commanding and meandering as the first. Keep Me On recalls the dramatic openings of songs like Gold, Tan, Peach and Grey, with quieter strums of guitar and light organ paired with their unique vocal ensemble, and has an eerie Old West feel, reminding me a bit of Nick Cave. Lines and phrases like "hold me on the narrow way," "in the grey grass" and "sting of the nettles" conjure up a difficult, but sublime journey, reminiscent of a hymn. For its first minute, Darling, Be Here is a more straight-ahead rock number, but as is expected with Bodies of Water, it wriggles out of those constraints into different, unexpected rhythms and instrumental combinations. With the theatrical flourishes, it feels like a mini-film-soundtrack contained in five minutes. Like Water Here, Even in a Cave starts with random, yet pleasing sounds like honks of clarinet and muted trumpet, and then Meredith comes in with a hushed voice, but through the fantastic serendipity of the song, it all ends with a festive, squiggly Latin style. If I Were a Bell makes several different stylistic choices before settling into that arcane wailing that they do best. The album closes with the two-minute The Mud Gapes Open, a folkier tune with a sense of slightly warmed earth parting for new life - a wonderful way to end the record.

There is something undeniably organic about Bodies of Water - in fact, they move like one natural body, but with the unpredictability and versatility of water. When you try to put your finger on their music, it rises and resurfaces somewhere else, all the while it pushes you in strange directions with a gentle, but insistent power, sometimes baptizing you with a wave of fervour. Their esoteric, pastoral lyrics add a further austere, magical quality to their work. I highly recommend both purchasing this latest effort and seeing them on their coming tour (I'm quite stewing over the fact I won't be anywhere near to the cities they're playing this time around) - it's bound to be a religious experience.

So as not to be emailed with notices from Secretly Canadian to take down the tracks not authorized for download (other blogs appear to have been told already), I've only included the legal MP3s provided by the label and then one track from Bodies of Water's debut album. It's more than likely that the label never would have found me and my humble little blog (it, like me, is as stealthy as a ninja), but stranger things have happened.

Bodies of Water Web site: http://www.bodiesofwater.net/
Bodies of Water MySpace: http://www.myspace.com/bodiesofwater

Gold, Tan, Peach and Grey - Bodies of Water

Under the Pines - Bodies of Water

Our Friends Appear Like the Dawn - Bodies of Water

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Spend the Night: Zeigeist's The Jade Motel

Whether or not the Swedish electro band, Zeigeist, is actually a conspiracy concocted by The Knife as blogs such as Caffeine and Music and More Than Milk have proposed, doesn't really affect the fact that I highly enjoy Zeigeist's debut album The Jade Motel. Yes, I really like The Knife, too, but at this point, it doesn't matter to me whether the two acts are related, or, in fact, the same one. I'm more fussed about the missing "t" in their band name than the concrete identities behind the music. I don't want to get bogged down with technical terms either (electroclash, electropop, electro-whatever) - I just want to share my enthusiasm for a new record. The Jade Motel was apparently released in April of this year, but I only just came across it a couple of weeks ago. I should have just called this blog Better Late Than Never at the rate I review things, but as Vonnegut says, "So it goes."

Zeigeist, consisting of Princess, Per and Mattias, and citing the influences of Andy Warhol and David Lynch, straddles the likes of The Knife (last time mentioning them), Revl9n, Depeche Mode, and Ladytron with their crisp electro and dark, trashy underbelly. Their visuals are also rather stunning in a glam masquerade way - see their MySpace. Album opener, Humanitarianism, which also graces the second side of the Bunny single, is probably one of the less memorable tracks on the record for me, but it still hints at the brilliance of later vocals and rhythms. The second track, Tar Heart, is one of my favourites on the record - it blends unhinged, banshee vocals with precise beats, and though it very obviously borrows from Running Up That Hill, it still manages to sound fresh and rather eerie in places. The following track, Wrecked Metal, which is also the latest single, takes New Romantic synths and pairs them with fey, detached male vocals. After a brief interlude, the next song, Bunny, shimmies in, sounding like Depeche Mode's Just Can't Get Enough on speed, and improving on Gwen Stefani's What You Waiting For. Zeigeist's first single, Black Milk, pulses along in an upbeat way to accompany the contrast of lyrics like "We are the prophets of sorrow," and the dichotomy creates a dancefloor anthem.

Cuffs takes a much darker turn as the tones step down into the spiral stairwells of lower registers, whispering at violence while Pressurized Chamber uses breathy, smooth male vocals like Dave Gahan at his dreamiest. Fight With Shattered Mirrors begins in a style quite similar to the preening of acts like Dragonette and New Young Pony Club, but then scatters into different directions for the chorus like refracted strobe light, staccato and spinning. Final track, Dawn//Night uses a riff that sounds a bit like Gorillaz's Dirty Harry, but then whips it into a funkier, Justice-like track, adding dashes of disco falsetto.

Blending the art and beauty implied by "jade" with the clandestine sleaze of "motel," Zeigeist's debut is an electro feat of dancefloor desire and rendez-vous reverie.

Zeigeist's Web site: http://www.zeigeist.eu/

Tar Heart - Zeigeist

Black Milk - Zeigeist

Fight With Shattered Mirrors - Zeigeist

Will Robinson, I Never Had a Chance: The Sound of Arrows' Danger!

I've fallen in love with Sweden's The Sound of Arrows, composed of Oskar Gullstrand and Stefan Storm, based on the strength of their single Danger!, which falls somewhere between Peter, Bjorn and John and the bouncier, gypsy side of Patrick Wolf's The Magic Position. When I listened to the rest of the original material off their EP of the same name, they instantly became one of my new favourite bands.

The Intro for the EP is a brief, twinkling track with harp flourishes, and leads into the title track with which I am so enamoured. Its skipping intro reminds me of something wonderful that I can't put my finger, or ear on at the moment (maybe a twee version of Justin vs SMD's We Are Your Friends), and when the chorus riff kicks in, I go into some sort of sugar shock - like I got a hit of some particularly fantastic drug. The Mr. Pedro remix, which I'm also including for download, is a brilliant 80's synthpop take on it. The next track, A Very Sad Song, swirls through The Radio Dept-esque reverb and hovering synths while guitars come forward in the mix halfway through. It feels like a refreshing sea breeze carrying a single red balloon off into the stratosphere. Winding Roads is more subdued dreampop with a gentle piano line bolstered by bell chimes and electronic whizzes. Its layered, overlapping vocals are like cumulus clouds scudding across the summer sky. In fact, the whole EP is pop genius, and with all sky/cloud metaphors exhausted, it encompasses an irrepressible joy and freewheeling freedom.

You can stream some of the songs off the EP (basically everything but the remixes) at Last.fm and then purchase it for a mere six euros at Labrador. The Sound of Arrows aimed right for my heart and definitely hit their target.

The Sound of Arrows Web site: http://thesoundofarrows.com/
The Sound of Arrows MySpace: www.myspace.com/thesoundofarrows

Monday, July 14, 2008

Everyday is Like Sunday, Except for Blue Monday and Ruby Tuesday, and...Well, Friday I'm in Love: Weekly Mix #25

I believe Bastille Day is tomorrow (or depending on when this actually gets posted, it could be today), so that gives me a fantastic excuse to post a mix of music by French artists. I chose an image that means a lot to me to accompany this post - Monet's Les Roses. But more about that slightly later.

In my innate tendency towards all things British, I have never really been one to embrace France and all things French easily. Odd, since I'm Canadian, and the French language, at the very least, is something you grow up with even if you don't live in Quebec. Sesame Street in Canada inserts French-Canadian characters, teaching you French words and numbers before you likely encounter French in elementary school (for me, French was compulsory from age six to age eleven, but I continued to take it all the way up until high school graduation - the unfortunate and embarrassing result is that I can read French pretty fluently, but am a complete failure at speaking and understanding spoken French). Of course Canadian French is still notably different from French French, which any French French person will remind you.

I mentioned my European backpacking trip a couple weeks ago, and on this trip it was inevitable that we would visit France. The friend I was travelling with was as passionate and excited about France as I was about the UK, Germany and Italy. She speaks French fluently, so I'm sure that's part of it. When we visited the small town of Sarlat-la-Canèda in the Perigord region, and subsequently hitch-hiked to the nearby castles on the opposite sides of the Dordogne (Château de Castelnaud and Château de Beynac, which constantly changed hands between English and French, if you're interested), we mockingly took sides, she on the French side, I on the English. There was no doubt that I found France and French history interesting, especially because I love a lot of French art and literature, but I was just more relaxed and happier in other countries. Rather than some romantic city of lights, I found Paris to be, through no fault of its own, too touristy, too crowded, and too stifling. However, the Musée Marmottan Monet, a rather small museum by most standards, was an oasis amidst the frantic souvenir hawking and freak heat of that particular summer.

If there is one museum or gallery you visit while in Paris, I would definitely recommend Marmottan. Unlike in the overwhelming Louvre, you can get incredibly close to the paintings, which are of course primarily Monet but also include other impressionists, and you don't feel like you're part of some indifferent herd pushing through just to say you saw something. I was in awe of the fact that I could actually examine Monet's brushstrokes, and built as an exhibition hall based on that of the "Grandes Décorations" in the Orangery at the Tuileries Gardens, the intimate space in which the paintings are displayed gave them a deserved air of calm. While the waterlilies, Japanese bridges, and the burning orange sun of Impression, Sunrise all deeply impressed me (no pun intended), I stood rooted to the spot in front of a lesser known, and probably unlikelier piece. Les Roses is a rather large canvas which features, as you can see, a branch of pink roses spilling across a blue sky background. As I stood beneath it, I felt like I was outdoors, inhaling the summery, soft fragnance of roses - Impressionism is supposed to give you just enough visual information for your eyes and brain to complete the picture, but this particular painting was a conduit for a utopian place I could only get to through my mind's eye. I filled in far more than the flowers. Though others will always praise Monet for his waterlilies, I will remember him for his roses.

Up until that backpacking trip, my outlook on French music was rather grim and my knowledge of French bands/artists was pretty patchy. And my friend's off-key, but constant singing of some Champs D'Élysée song throughout our entire time in France put me off even further. But as my musical tastes grew, they ended up encompassing a fair bit of music from French artists, not always in the French language, mind. I discovered the bittersweetness of Jacques Brel and the playfulness of Serge Gainsbourg along with the twee beauty of Peppermoon and Emilie Simon and the heady stratospheric sounds of Air, M83, and Indochine. And of course all those English-singing French artists like the relaxed, retro Phoenix, the bouncy, poppy Rhesus, and the New Wave Mary Goes Round. With one of my all-time favourite films being Amélie, Yann Tiersen's romantic instrumentals also worked their way into my playlists. And all of these find their way on this mix. Also, as part of a joke to myself over French musical stereotypes, I'm including the excellent Foux Du Fafa by Flight of the Conchords (I still snort when Jemaine comes in with "baguette").

Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Thirteenth From The Cure: Will It Be Lucky or Unlucky?

I've been a fan of The Cure for a fair portion of my life. My interest in them came via the better-known hits that I was exposed to in my teen years (Boys Don't Cry, Friday I'm in Love, etc). Of course, later I discovered The Cure that I absolutely love and admire - The Cure that produced the delicious moodiness of Seventeen Seconds, Faith, Pornography and Disintegration. I am by no means a Cure expert, but I do understand the stir and significance the return of Porl Thompson has caused, especially with the thirteenth studio album to release on September 13; I just seem to have lost track and/or interest in The Cure in recent years. I admit that I can be a bit of a sentimentalist with older bands/artists, usually loving the earlier stuff far more than the recent; whether this is my own peculiar quirk or based on some sort of inevitable running out of steam on the artists' part, I don't know. It would be best if it was just my problem. Anyhow, I was excited to hear earlier this year that The Cure was planning a thirteenth album with a plan to release singles monthly leading up to the album's release, but remembering the fact I had pretty much ignored Bloodflowers and their self-titled last album, I went back to listen to get a slightly less-biased opinion about newer material.

Having done this, I realize that Bloodflowers can be seen as a step in the right direction after the dip with Wild Mood Swings, but it still doesn't affect me in the same way their earlier albums did. Nevertheless, there are some notable tracks that I still liked, including The Loudest Sound, which features a reverby, dreamy pulse that reminds me of the internal sounds you hear when you rest your head on another's torso, and the lyrics are some of Smiths's better ones. The title track has some of that cosmic atmosphere of classics like Plainsong, and 39 has a rather nice guitar solo amongst the cacophonic symphony. As far as the self-titled 2004 album, I found less to be pleased with. Smith repeats "I can't find myself" over and over again at the beginning of the record, and the phrase seems apt in light of the rest of the album - I couldn't quite put my finger on what The Cure is anymore either. I also can't quite articulate what's missing for me. Maybe it's as though they're trying too hard with too many layers going on until the beautiful lines of simplicity disappeared. Maybe they're not as led by the bass as they used to be. Maybe I'm just being picky. Admittedly, the last song on the album, the rather epic The Promise, with its wavering guitars, is the saving grace of an otherwise rather directionless effort. Smith can oscillate between petulant whininess and truly passionate vocals, but in The Promise he thankfully uses the latter.

On to thoughts about the latest work. Thus far, Robert Smith and Co. have officially released the singles The Only One and Freakshow with Sleep When I'm Dead to follow tomorrow and then The Perfect Boy in August. So far, I've been pretty disappointed - it feels like The Cure still can't find their feet, uncertainly straddling the shimmery, more commercial pop of their mainstream heyday with the post-punk, darker aesthetic of earlier albums, and not really achieving either. While there have been some overlap in their more memorable pop songs (I still sometimes confuse Inbetween Days and Friday I'm in Love), The Only One feels like the mediocre, half-hearted sibling of Mint Car with just as sappy lyrics. Freakshow confuses me with its strange retro-60's-slinky-hand-clap rhythm - catchier and perhaps more memorable than The Only One, but it still doesn't sit right with me. Maybe because it sounds like a shoddier version of Close To Me b-side A Man Inside My Mouth. Sleep When I'm Dead is a more raucous affair with its screeching, swirling guitars, but this cacophonous spinning sounds like it could have been at home on the last album. The Perfect Boy is more poppier than rock-influenced, but pretty much non-descript. The b-sides thus far are also nothing to scream about - my favourite is probably Down Under, which is the flipside for Sleep When I'm Dead and which hearkens back to some of their breezier pop sensibilities. I don't want their music to become just as much a mortifying caricature as fright-wig Robert Smith is at this point. But rather than carefully building sonic atmospheres and soundscapes, The Cure just seem to be smearing more and more sound together, layering it just as heavily and unnecessarily as Smith has been with his make-up.

I miss the sheer majesty of Plainsong, which sounds like how you would imagine a supernova would sound in air rather than space and it still sends shivers through me. I miss the graceful simplicity of the rhythms and subtle melody in All Cats Are Grey. I miss the eerie voices and feedback over those incessant, paranoia-inducing drums in Pornography. I miss the genius of that basic but brilliant guitar line in A Forest. I even miss the superb, memorable pop of Inbetween Days. You would think four years between albums would be producing better effects than they have been for the last decade.

Will The Cure's thirteenth album be lucky or unlucky? At this point, all I can wish for is that these recent singles aren't the high points and that Robert Smith still has some winning cards up his sleeve. Or under his hair.

Sleep When I'm Dead (live) - The Cure

The Perfect Boy (live) - The Cure

Plainsong - The Cure

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Everyday is Like Sunday, Except for Blue Monday and Ruby Tuesday and...Well, Friday I'm in Love: Weekly Mix #24

I was a strange child. Well, that only figures since I'm a strange adult. However, one of the strangest things about me as a child was my keen sense of nostalgia and self-reflection. My first memory of this was New Years Eve 1989 - I was seven, but I knew the decade was changing, and I felt a profound sense of loss about never being able to return to the 80's. Time marched on and no one could ever go back, and that did a number on me as a child. The next time I panicked was when I turned ten - this time, I was keenly aware of the fact I could never go back to a single digit age. If anything, my tenth birthday was more traumatizing than my thirteenth, sixteenth, eighteenth, and twentieth, and it likely prepared me for all these other "landmark" birthdays. Perhaps I had an overdramatic outlook on life, or an overdeveloped romanticism, or maybe I was just bonkers. The best way to explain my emotional state when these changes occurred, changes which didn't even register with regular kids, is that it felt like leaving the movie theatre after the end of a particularly amazing film or watching the last episode of a television series you enjoyed for a long time, knowing it had to end, but also knowing you could never encapsulate that moment again. To combat all of these feelings, I think I tried to arrest my development for as long as possible. I never looked forward to growing up like other children did. I never felt like adults had it better or had more freedom - it's like I knew that being a child was the best time of my life before I even left it behind. The last time I felt unequivocally happy and satisfied with life was when I was eleven years old.

Adolescence was still a relatively naive time for me, but at the same time, I couldn't capture the unbounded creativity and self-assurance of my childhood - I had written three novels by the time I was fourteen, but then I stopped writing creatively until I was in my first year of university, and even then, I found it rather difficult. I was caught in a weird dichotomy of naivete and intellectual maturity, and I swung between the two like a pendulum throughout my teenage years. I entered my most embarrassing period of music for a couple of years in high school, following my friends' penchant for diabolical, vapid pop music of the worst kind, but at the same time, I penned the following poem at age fifteen:

Generation X

Indecision, indifference,
A bleak yet volatile combination.
Standing on the brink of nothingness,
Knee-deep in aromatherapy and pop culture.
Numbing from the coldness of society
Moving to the extremities.
Intellect maturing beyond experience
Futile, but articulate.
Pressure to be perfectly imperfect
Perhaps even cynicism is parried by apathy
A confused, deviant future
Labelled Generation X.
A variable without a common denominator,
Nevertheless, a variable that equates
The future.
A category derived by psychoanalysis,
Making a vain attempt to conceptualize people
Terming them as gothic rebels with a cause;
Excuses made for them, telling them what the inkblots mean;
In actuality, they are raging against the stereotypes
Searching for hope in a frantic world;
Varying, a spectrum of integrity,
as much as 'x' suggests,
Desperately clutching the receiver
listening to the busy signal
From a world that has hung up on them.

Whew. I hadn't even heard of Douglas Coupland at this point in my life. Nor was I even a member of "Generation X" - I missed that by a whole generation. I won fourth prize from the Poetry Institute of Canada for this little piece of poetry (my guess is the ones who actually won monetary prizes may not have been so bleak). Sufficed to say, I haven't really written poetry since.

Throughout my teens, my preemptive need for nostalgia and bizarre fear of the loss of cultural artifacts manifested itself in my compulsive documentation via video and audio cassette. I still have over a hundred videotapes of all sorts of things (interviews, music videos, television shows, movies, advertisements, etc., and I recorded tons of material off the radio at the time - even the stuff I didn't particularly like - with the rather odd feeling that I may want or need to listen back to it in the future - for the record, I don't think it's worth my time or my ears at this point...if anything, these tapes are a concrete document of the bad mainstream music scene of the late 90's and evidence for anyone who wants me sectioned). And I have a feeling no one, including myself, will be interested in VHS copies of the short-lived TV series Teen Angel. Maybe I should have taken anthropology in university instead.

I am getting to a point somewhere here, and not just to conclude that I was a cracker as a child and teenager. I decided to make a mix of music that either celebrates or encapsulates that feeling of being young. From those simple chords of Baba O'Riley that always make my heart pump faster to the wild vindication I feel listening to Stay Beautiful, this mix will attempt to catch that romantic notion of youth, whether as a child or an adolescent. That feeling that your whole life is still ahead of you and you still have so much potential to explore. That feeling that living fast and dying young is a brilliant idea. That feeling that things could never be this good again. I'm going to call it I Don't Wanna Grow Up. And yes, I realize I didn't include Teenage Kicks, but that was because I already posted that song in a previous mix, and that also goes for Whipping Boy's When We Were Young.

Eanie Meanie - Jim Noir

Childhood Memories - British Sea Power

Pumpkin Soup - Patrick Wolf

Sixteen - The Indelicates

Pretty Young Thing - Blondfire

So Young - Suede

One More Lie In - The Delays

Time to Pretend - MGMT

Baba O'Riley - The Who

Teenage Lust - The Jesus and Mary Chain

Stay Beautiful - Manic Street Preachers

The Prayer - Bloc Party

Antmusic - Adam and the Ants

You Were Young - The Associates

Once and Never Again - The Long Blondes

Alright - Supergrass

You! Me! Dancing! - Los Campesinos!

Burn Baby Burn - Ash

Teenage Thunder - Sigue Sigue Sputnik

Rebel Yell - Billy Idol

Saturday, July 5, 2008

MP3 Blogs vs. Music Blogs: Different Purposes?

My thesis has got me thinking a lot about music blogs' purpose lately. In my research, I stumbled across a music blog symposium, which included participants like Maura Johnston of Idolator, music journalist/critic Simon Reynolds, and music writer Carl Wilson. They discussed the differences between writing about music professionally and writing music blogs more informally. But one of the more interesting bits that may have a considerable effect on my thesis is the response to the fifth question: "Would you agree that the back and forth conversational aspect of the music blogosphere has died down somewhat in the last few years? Any theories as to why?" It was here that the distinction between MP3 blogs and music blogs comes out, a distinction that I originally didn't take much note of. I had started using the terms interchangeably, which I realize now that I shouldn't have done so glibly. Perhaps the inclusion of MP3s does a lot more to a music blog's purpose than I would have expected. What appears to emerge, is a rather firm division between the "old guard" music bloggers and the later crop of MP3 bloggers. Both seem to have their own communities and their own beliefs about what the purpose of a blog dealing with music should be, and it seems rather rare for them to cross paths and/or engage each other. Carl Wilson, who I would consider one of the "old guard," lists reasons as to why dialogue and dialectic have decreased on music blogs, and one of them is MP3 blogs:

MP3 blogs, which turned the music-blog scene into an acquisitive feeding frenzy which spares little time for reflection and contemplation. It’s a shame, as the earliest mp3 blogs such as Said the Gramophone and Fluxblog present an entirely different model, but few are the people who have followed in their model, compared to the here’s-the-latest-leak-with-200-words-of-hype model. The earlier, more criticism-oriented bloggers lost some focus and, more so, I think, have been turned off by all that.

I can see Wilson's point, but at the same time, does this difference between criticism-oriented, text-heavy music blogs and promotion-oriented MP3 blogs point to something deeper? A respect for the primacy of text versus an immediacy provided by non-textual samples? An elitism of bloggers who know more about music than more amateur efforts? Or is it the elitism of intellectuals, so to speak, over the more negative connotations of PR people? If we're all music fans, and writing music/MP3 blogs comes from a fannish impulse, can our purposes vary so much? I'm not sure, but I'm beginning to think there are differences in purpose, and this difference has a lot to do with whether MP3s are included or not.

The inclusion of MP3s does point to a conundrum: why would you post music up for people to sample if you don't like it? For one thing, it's wasting your time, and if you're a blogger who maintains a music blog as a hobby, wasting time on music you don't like seems silly. Secondly, why would a reader read your bad review of the music and then decide to give the music a try anyway? The second way MP3s are affecting bloggers' purposes is via the MP3 blog aggregators like The Hype Machine and Elbows, which function either completely or nearly completely because of MP3 links in each blogger's posts. The focus, especially on The Hype Machine, is definitely the MP3s over the text accompanying them - the tracks are the most prominent text on the home page of the aggregator, dwarfing the text around it. To be included, and thus to be more easily found by others (a concern of nearly all bloggers because as much as bloggers say they blog for themselves, they are writing in a public space, thus ostensibly seeking some sort of attention), a blogger has to include MP3s. This is one of the reasons I hadn't really stumbled across music blogs without MP3s in my earlier travels in cyberspace. In a way, aggregators force MP3s to become the attraction for the audience rather than the text first. This is not to say that people don't subscribe to MP3 blogs for what the blogger writes and his/her style because several of the MP3 blogs I've come across are worth reading for the calibre of writing alone; however, I also admit that I can flit from blog to blog on the basis of MP3 selection alone, often without reading the blurb accompanying the links.

I suppose the distinction between MP3 blogs and music blogs boils down to a difference in rhetorical approaches - with music blogs the readers are being persuaded about issues and arguments about music, whereas MP3 blogs are persuading readers to sample and purchase certain artists' music. I would say, though, that in both cases, the blogger him/herself also wants to persuade readers to visit his/her blog and validate him/her along with the blog itself.

Early in my research, I hypothesized that MP3 blogs are places where one can create music criticism/journalism with the immediacy of samples unavailable to those operating in print, but now I wonder if they are more often primarily promotional tools for both artists and the bloggers themselves. In the end, blogs vary so much that I can't state anything definitively or too generally. I have observed, however, that MP3s have seemed to increase the number of bloggers who post in a slapdash manner in order to be the first to post a particular track or to follow the frenzy over a particular artist, but perhaps the audiences for these types of blogs want quantity over quality in posts, so they can form their own opinion about the music posted rather than engage with lengthy textual opinions. They prefer their music in bites and bytes just like their regular consumption of other information.

Maura Johnston answered the aforementioned symposium question slightly more positively than Carl Wilson:

with the rise of the MP3 blog and the idea that a person doesn’t need to write about a record in order to communicate what it sounds like, the space hasn’t become just for critics–while there are some great writers running blogs that have MP3s and music samples on them, there’s also been a rise in blogs that are much more enthusiasm-driven and interested in sharing music directly, without any verbal clutter. There’s a definite divide between the two generations of music bloggers, with a few people (Matthew Perpetua of Fluxblog, Sean at Said The Gramophone) straddling it.

What is the impact of no "verbal clutter"? What would happen if MP3 blogs became more and more about posts with links to YouTube clips and a couple of free MP3s (The Music Slut comes to mind)? Do these things mean something on their own without words? This approach takes selection of reality quite literally, and could end up becoming a debate on orality and literacy. Are MP3 blogs more oral and music blogs more literate? Maybe so. After all, MP3 bloggers most closely remediate word-of-mouth and mixtapes, which belong within oral culture rather than literate culture. And if this is the case, do MP3 blogs foster a different sense of community and solidarity whereas music blogs encourage deeper individuality and value logical thought?

I can't help but notice that most of the music blogs without MP3s and the most criticism-oriented approaches are written by people who also write about music professionally. For these bloggers, blogging is an extension of their career, where they don't have to worry about editors and word counts; in contrast, for MP3 bloggers, I think blogging becomes more of an act of subversion and an expression of power within a market they don't have control over. And all this thinking has gotten me wondering what my purpose for this blog is. And whether I'm even fully aware of the purpose or could ever be fully aware.

So far, I think I've leaned towards the MP3 blog tendency to write about music I actually like and endorse, rather than criticize music and/or other people's opinions of it. I think this is only the third post to deal with music as an issue and argument to be explored, and I think I've only criticized music in a negative fashion four times in the six months I've been running this blog (a criticism of The Long Blondes' latest album, this year's Brit Awards, the Manics' cover of Umbrella, and the Tokyo Police Club gig I went to). For me, I think the issues mentioned earlier (time constraints and not feeling the need to post links to music I don't like) are the most obvious reasons. Then again, to be honest, I also post MP3s to gain some extra attention I likely wouldn't without them. My blog isn't on The Hype Machine, so I have no idea how being on it would affect traffic to my site, or whether that would even matter so much, especially if most traffic was to download the MP3s and move on. I quite value any comments I do get and any emails I've received from both artists and readers thus far.

The idealistic side of me, to some extent, has deliberately tried to post about bands who are either unsigned or independently produced because I know it's less likely they'll get promotion via more mainstream channels. I've also tried to maintain integrity in terms of what I post about - I don't post music just because I've been asked to (as guilty as I sometimes feel about ignoring requests). These sorts of things help me sleep at night. But there are times when I wonder if I should be posting more complex posts or deeper insights with a critical slant or not. Am I restricting myself and my personality by only posting positive things about music I like? I'm still unsure.

I've seemingly used this blog far more personally than I originally intended, for better or for worse - my relationship with music seems too deeply rooted in my personal life to extract it more objectively. I'm also one of those people who expresses him/herself much more effectively in writing than in speaking, so writing is important to me - I don't think I could ever be one of those blogs that just posts MP3s and YouTube clips. There's always that part of me that's been an attention-seeker, too - I identify with Andy Warhol, who once said he wanted to be famous and gain everyone's attention, but once he got their attention, he didn't know what to do with it. I seem to need attention while shunning the awkward interactions that ensue from said attention, and blogging fulfills these requirements quite nicely. Again, if I'm completely honest, I do want any readers (all four of you out there) to trust me and value my judgement and taste just as much as I want them to support the musical artists I'm promoting. I know my impact and influence is miniscule, but I guess it's my proactive way of battling the frustration over the music covered in the music press.

MP3-free music blogs like Blissblog, K-Punk, and Pop Life are intimidating to me because as music-crazy as I think I am, I'm definitely not in their league. I don't write about music for a living, and have always shied away from it because I've never been secure enough about my music knowledge, and I can't imagine going head-to-head with the people who write this seriously about music.

Has this gotten me any closer to an answer to my thesis? I couldn't say at this point. I have become more self-aware about my own purposes, mind, and that's a start.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Take Me to an Owl Sanctuary: Hemme Fatale

I first heard about Welsh band Hemme Fatale via Fluxblog's brief post about them, and I immediately went to their MySpace page to check them out. Their rather clever name aside, Luke, Ellie and Jen produce some very fun and witty electro-pop. Their track Animal Lover, which includes the line "I know a girl who says/she wants to take me to an owl sanctuary/the second biggest in the country," made me think immediately of Alan Partridge and his Valentines Day trip to the owl sanctuary, and I'm big enough to admit that this fact swayed me as much as, if not more than, the music itself.

Fluxblog described them as influenced by The Human League, which I can hear, but they've got a looser style and an unhinged quality that comes with making music for kicks. For example, Animal Lover begins with a massive disco intro before going into grimier beats that have been popularized lately with groups like Justice. Baby Witch begins with a distorted retro 60's sound before settling into electropop featuring a duet of male and female voices that play off each other - there is a time about one minute into the song when the female half slips into that vocal riff from Islands in the Stream, but which bears most resemblance to the Pras and Mya's updated version in Ghetto Superstar. And Hag in a Black Leather Jacket shimmies to a Latin beat before moving into 80's synthpop and then back again. What truly stands out about Hemme Fatale is their sense of fun and humour, which reminds me of Robots in Disguise in places, and since there are times when I weary of bands taking themselves too seriously, Hemme Fatale provide the perfect antidote.

Their debut Silent Sleepover EP includes the following tracklisting as elaborated on by the group themselves:

"1. Peryglus Lucifer - a song about the darkest party this side of Austria.
2. Animal Lover - a song about the dirtiest girl this side of Merthyr.
3. Baby Witch - a song about the devil in your womb.
4. Hag in a Black Leather Jacket - a song about the despised."

My favourites are, of course, Animal Lover and Peryglus Lucifer, a song which features vocals from Aled Phillips from Kids in Glass Houses and grooves along to a funky beat and snatches of 80's girl group sounds. Also for your information, "peryglus" is Welsh for "dangerous," which indeed Lucifer is to most people. Unless maybe you're Aleister Crowley. I look forward to hearing how Hemme Fatale develop, and hopefully, there will soon be a full album release.

Hemme Fatale's MySpace: www.myspace.com/hemmefatale

Animal Lover - Hemme Fatale

Hag in a Black Leather Jacket - Hemme Fatale