Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The 1UP Yours Drinking Game

Yes, it's time for another drinking game. You may remember the Guided By Voices drinking game I came up with. Maybe you even tried it?? Whatever. Be that way. Today I'm going to list the rules for the 1UP Yours podcast, which along with being a really entertaining videogame podcast also features some of the drinking-est hosts around.
Before I get to the rules, note that the traditional, accepted way to play this drinking game is with the whiskey or scotch of your choice, as well as whatever beer you have lying around. When I say "take a shot" you, well, take a shot of liquor or take a healthy swallow of scotch (assuming you drink it straight or on the rocks, that is...you could do shots if you want to). When I say "take a drink", that means you take a healthy swallow of beer. When I say "finish your drink" that means that you finish off the beer you currently have open. With that out of the way...

--As soon as the music ends and Garnett says his first line, take a drink.
--If at any point someone says "weekend confirmed" or there is talk about a possible confirmation of said weekend, take a shot.
--If there's a British person on the show, take a drink when they're either introduced or you hear their first line, whichever comes first.
--Whenever Shane mentions seeing a game or getting to play a game but he can't talk about it yet, finish your drink.
--If there's an ex-1UP staff member or on-their-way-out 1UP staff member on the show, take a drink at the beginning of the show.
--If Garnett mispronounces a word, uses the wrong word, or slurs his speech, take a shot.
--If the show is over two hours in length, go get a glass of water at the one hour mark. You'll thank me later.
--If they are doing a '4 Minute Warning' segment, finish your drink.
--Whenever Garnett has to explain how people have misrepresented his comments, and that he actually doesn't hate a game or isn't down on it, take a shot.
--At the break between segments, take two drinks.
--If Shane says anything along the lines of the follow phrases, take a shot: "I'm a huuuge fan of..."; if he says anything is the "secret best..." anything ever; any talk of something being over or underrated.
--If Andrew 'Skip' Pfister gets on the mic, you hear him talking in the background, or someone refers to him (particularly with the words "on the wheels of steel"), take a drink.
--If, in the process of fondly remembering something, Garnett refers to it as "the shit", take a drink.
--If a British or other foreign personage is on the show, every time you can't understand a word they said, take a drink.
--If Shane or Garnett aren't on the show, take a shot. If they're BOTH missing, take a shot and finish your drink.
--During the news segment, if they're doing NPD numbers, finish your drink.
--At the end of the show, when someone (usually Garnett) says "we are ghost" take a shot. If they forget to say it, take two shots.
Garnett and Shane and alcohol and microphones

Monday, September 29, 2008

Album of the Week: Fleet Foxes- Fleet Foxes

It's all well and good to listen to experimental and challenging music, music with grime, sweat, and blood caked unto every note...but sometimes you need a reminder of what else is out there. Music that is impossibly catchy, un-apologetically classicist in its songwriting while still being successful, or music that strives to uplift because it's just so damn beautiful. This kind of music is often unassuming in its greatness, in my opinion, because its immediacy has me wondering "is that it??" before realizing I don't need to apply the same scrutiny and work into appreciating it as I would the aforementioned "experimental, challenging" music.

The debut, self-titled album from Fleet Foxes resists this kind of criticism and desire to dig deeper. It makes you embarrassed of your critical faculties because it has a natural, organic, and pure beauty, as if complaining about it would be like complaining about a waterfall or a rose bush growing next to a farmhouse. That doesn't mean there isn't anything to say about it, so don't go away just yet.

While listening to Fleet Foxes I'm instantly reminded of what I think is half the reason most people hate indie/underground bands: the vocals. While I subscribe to the immortal words of David Berman of the Silver Jews--"All my favorite singers couldn't sing"--I can't pretend that some, or even most, people feel this way. Having a unique voice gives a band character and makes it more memorable, but this isn't what most listeners want. They want something appropriate to the music and a bit more...obvious, whether it be angry grunting set to metal or the flat speak-singing most rappers employ. While the singer of the Fleet Foxes may not have much personality, this is one of the prettiest albums in recent memory due solely to the vocal performances. Recalling Crosby, Stills, and Nash (and sometimes Young), the gold standard of harmonized vocals in rock music, Fleet Foxes also draw comparisons to contemporaries like My Morning Jacket and Band Of Horses. In case you don't follow, this means that the album is stuffed to bursting with soaring melodies and heartbreakingly pretty harmonies. Even if the singer is kind of faceless, he has to be for this kind of approach to work.

Though the music of Fleet Foxes is steeped in Americana, rustic folk, and classic rock, the whole thing reminds me a lot of the Flaming Lips's The Soft Bulletin in the way it uses staggeringly pretty orchestrated music to talk about dark lyrical themes. You don't really notice it at first, but on this album death is a recurring theme, along with general Appalachian malaise and introspection. 'He Doesn't Know Why', despite its prettiness, is the lament of a sibling for a brother who has been gone for two years, and who has been humbled by the world:
Penniless and tired with your hair grown long
I was looking at you there and your face looked wrong
memory is a fickle siren's song
I didn't understand
But, lyrics aside, the album is as pretty as I keep saying, the sort of music you idealize in your head when you use words like "lush", "ornate", and "gorgeous" to describe other bands or albums. Even the mostly instrumental 'Heard Them Stirring', which effectively uses wordless vocals in a way similar-to-but-entirely-different-from Animal Collective, is beautiful. Speaking of Animal Collective, some have noted their influence on this band though I suspect all they mean is a similar focus on using vocals in unique ways, as evidenced by the Collective-esque "row row row your boat" style of the singing on 'White Winter Hymnal', which is probably the most lush, ornate, and gorgeous song ever written about watching someone collapse from unnamed wounds and turn the snow "red as strawberries in the summertime." It's also worth praising the album for playing it loose with song structure, particularly the opener 'Sun It Rises', which begins with an a-capella section before the song proper begins, eventually closing things with a tacked on guitar outro that sounds like it might be beginning a different song before dropping out.

Fleet Foxes have here crafted one of the best debut albums in recent memory, containing some obvious influences but doing new and interesting things with them. Though normally I loathe bands repeating themselves, I wouldn't mind if Fleet Foxes released another album or two that was largely similar to this. After all, Fleet Foxes is like a countryside vacation simply too satisfying and too relaxing to never want to repeat.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Album of the Week: Boards of Canada- Geogaddi

Before I had ever listened to it, I read somewhere that audiophiles used Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon to test and calibrate their stereo systems. I've always liked the idea of people having a certain 'item' they run through new purchases for testing purposes, whether it be comparing a certain movie on Blu-ray vs. DVD or using one of those test CDs to make sure your car's new set-up can handle super loud bone-shaking bass. Me, though, I like to try out different visualizers, and while everyone else is focusing on how the new iTunes has a music recommendation feature called Genius, I've been putting the new visualizer through its paces.

My chosen album for putting said visualizers through said paces?? Geogaddi, of course. I find most instrumental music intensely visual, in a synesthesia kind of way--especially if it's electronic in origin--so it's nice to be lazy from time and time and let a computer handle the visuals while I relax my eyes and let drool slowly waterfall down the sides of my mouth. Some of my favorite times during school were watching science films with glazed-over adolescent eyes, and even if they were made in the same decade I was viewing them (the 90s, for those keeping score at home), they usually had this eerie soundtrack made up of late 70s/early 80s sounding keyboards, synthesizers, and sometimes even primitive drum machines. It sounded artificial and clunky, but it was otherworldly and oddly fascinating to me, and for the longest time I longed for music that sounded like it. Ambient music and ambient techno came really close, but my dream only can true when I discovered Boards of Canada, who--believe it or not--took inspiration for their name from 'The National Film Board of Canada', who produced many such science films.

Though Music Has The Right To Children, the band's first album, is widely considered to be a landmark in the electronic music genre, I personally think Geogaddi is the better album. This is for the entirely selfish reason that it comes the closest to meeting my longing for music that was like a science film soundtrack only better. Well, OK, I also think it's got better songs and does that magical music critic sentence fragment of "rewarding repeat listens." Speaking of magic, the duo behind Boards of Canada have talked about how they're obsessed and influenced by things like math, science, the paranormal world, cults, nature, childhood innocence, and outdated technology. At the same time, they have an aesthetic that reminds me a bit of the kind of...dark underbelly of late 60s music, with backmasked messages, mysteries about the making of their music and their identities (it was only recently revealed that the duo are actually brothers), hard-to-find albums or bootlegs of material not generally known to the public, a sense of general unease that hangs over some of their music, and a habit of putting hidden meanings or messages into their music (or at least, people reading it into their music).

I was recently relistening to Aphex Twin's first Selected Ambient Works album, and I realized why I don't like it as much as I do his second. It's entirely due to the instruments he used to make it, because the album has a very cheap, artificial sound to it rather than the organic, natural sound I associate with ambient music. Rather than being timeless music, it sounds very obviously early 90s, just like early Autechre does. Boards of Canada are so incredible to me because, by using outdated technology like analog synthesizers, their music becomes timeless. It's exactly why Brian Eno's groundbreaking ambient releases still sound captivating today. Don't mistake this for thinking that the only good ambient music has warmth or is human sounding, though. Great ambient music, and ambient techno in particular, often sounds cold, spacey, otherworldly, inhuman, and sometimes machine-like.

In fact, Geogaddi neatly juxtaposes human/otherworldly and natural/machine-like sounds. The shorter "interlude" tracks are usually free floating ambient pieces, sometimes with samples from science films or children talking, while the longer tracks have persistent beats that never fall prey to dancefloor bump-and-grind obvious-ness. Geogaddi is my ideal for how 'ambient techno' genre (or is that subgenre??) should sound, combining highly melodic and memorable keyboard melodies, synthesizer washes, surreal soundscapes, and plaintive minimalism with hypnotic-but-never-tedious percussive rhythms. More specifically, the album is full of contenders for the band's best work, including 'Dawn Chorus' (which reminds me of the beginning of 'The Gash' by the Flaming Lips for some reason) and 'Sunshine Recorder', a song I liked enough to have its title inscribed on the back of my iPod three years ago.

For what it's worth, the new iTunes visualizer passed the Geogaddi test. But more importantly, Geogaddi still holds up as one of the best ambient techno albums ever made, and one that I never seem to get tired of. Those interested in the genre (or subgenre...?? Whatever...) could scarcely find a better introduction, while those of you left a little underwhelmed by The Campfire Headphase are urged to travel back to this release and refresh your memory as to why you loved this band so much.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Sincerest Form of Flattery

As kids, a great deal of our play was given over to recreating and imitating the things we loved, whether it be TV shows, movies, videogames, or books. I fondly remember constantly having the debate between 'little Turtles' or 'big Turtles' with playmates; that is to say, would a friend and I play with our action figures of the Ninja Turtles, or would we pretend we were them?? It grew to the point where, when a bit older, we would use such exciting new technology such as tape cassette recorders and video cameras to recreate talk radio and game shows, respectively, both with primitive props, sound effects, and costumes. Eventually, the human mind desires to create things of its own. We learn how to play instruments by playing the songs of others, but if you stick with it long enough, you want to write songs of your own. Personally, I've spent a lot of time reading and imitating the writing style of others in order to figure out what works, but also to help influence and shape my own style.

There is something genuinely sacred and fulfilling about the creative act and it's something that I think most people take for granted and don't realize they're doing. As adults we often parrot lines and skits from TV shows and movies we love in order to elicit the laughs of those in on the joke, and as a way to connect with people we don't know very well but who also love similar things. This, obviously, mirrors what we did as children. But the older you get, the most amusing things to you are those that you and your circle of friends and family come up with. I'm sure you can think of a few hilarious moments or running jokes you and your friends/coworkers have that wouldn't make sense to outsiders; even if you took the requisite 10 minutes to set up why the joke is funny, in the telling it becomes neutered and lame.

At the same time, it's increasingly hard to be original anymore. I'm talking specifically in the field of the arts. I routinely get the feeling that everything has been done before--every book has been written, every kind of music has been made, every possible permutation of a story or joke has been told, every art movement and counter art movement has run its course. Originally comes at a premium for me, such that it's always a temptation for me to overvalue things that don't look/sound/read/play like anything I've experienced before. However, the critical faculties eventually kick in and I begin to ask myself whether something is both original and good. There is a huge distinction between "original" and "original but also good" that critics and fans must constantly keep in mind. On the other hand, this obsession with originality plagues my mind when I'm writing, to the point where I sometimes scrap things because, even though they're good by my estimation, they read/feel too closely to the style or thought process of other writers.

I've always gravitated towards art that creates a distinctive, unique world. Even if it borrows elements of other things, the result is something that feels wholly original. I completely realize the flaws in something like, say, the anime Neon Genesis Evangelion, but I absolutely love it for the odd world it establishes. I think this is precisely why people like 'cult' movies, TV shows, videogames, and so on, because they like to feel as if they're part of some other reality outside our own that most people aren't aware of. Kind of like a larger form of an inside joke, if you think about it. This is why I loved The Adventures of Pete & Pete as a kid: the city it was set in, along with its characters, gave me a glimpse into a world that was more surreal, interesting, and sensible than our own. When I meet people who also loved the show, it's as if we suddenly have a set of inside jokes and references to share.

To tie all this together: the best art, in my opinion, is that which feels like the work of a small group of people--the inside jokes and references they have--which somehow translates to a wider audience because of the world it creates. Kevin Smith always seems baffled by the popularity of his Jay and Silent Bob characters, but the way they walk the border between the 'mundane' and the 'supernatural' is what makes them seem so real and lasting. They sometimes end up doing extraordinary things, but they're part of a world (the Askewniverse) that has a definite mythos and concrete set of rules. The same goes for bands that sound completely original, who seem to come out of nowhere and shock crusty critics like me who spend most of their thinking time at their menial jobs trying to come up with reference points for whatever band they're going to have to write a review of. Whether you love or hate Deerhoof, The Fiery Furnaces, The Silver Apples, Beat Happening, Frog Eyes, etc. you can't deny the originality of their sound. Certainly they have some influences and antecedents you could point to, but they don't really sound like them. It's more "we were influenced by..." than "we imitate...", if you follow my meaning. I love those bands because they create their own little niche world you can inhabit as a fan. They may not seem to create a world as richly and easily as books, TV shows, movies, or videogames can, but keep in mind that you've got more than just their music to work with. You've got their album covers and liner notes, their websites, their live shows, and their interviews to work with, too. Listening to, say, the Pixies or Talk Talk for the first time, it's as if you're being let into a new club that's always existed and now you get to play catch up. Moreover, other bands may be influenced by them, but if they stick too closely to the sound they sound like a cover band playing original material in between said covers. This is why Nirvana were so awesome, because Kurt Cobain admittedly took a lot from listening to the Pixies, but listening to them back-to-back, there's something new and original in Nirvana's sound.

You may remember that in 1998 a remake of Psycho was released to theaters and promptly dropped out of sight. What you probably don't remember is that it was a shot-for-shot attempt by Gus Van Sant to remake the original by following Alfred Hitchcock as perfectly as possible. Even though critics tried to see it his way, as an experiment in remaking films, everyone--even Van Sant himself--has agreed that a shot-by-shot remake of a film is pointless. You can't totally copy a film anyway, and even if you could, what would it accomplish?? As much as most remakes end up being crap, it's always best to change something from the original because otherwise it's a waste of time and money on everyone's part.
With all of this in mind, I present to you Rook by Shearwater and Stars and Garters by Muy Cansado. Enjoyable albums, yes, but they sound so close to their influences--the aforementioned Talk Talk and Pixies, respectively--that it bothers me. Rook is, according to Metacritic, one of the best rated albums of the year, so I've given a lot of thought to this whole 'originality'/'imitation is the sincerest form of flattery' issue. What's ultimately troubling about both of these albums is that they aren't very original yet I like them. Mostly I think it's just because both the Pixies and Talk Talk are defunct, and you can only listen to their albums so many times before you want something like it, but different and new. So, do you, as a critic, curve your score of these albums because you know they're borderline ripping off other bands, bands you enjoy?? I mean, it would be one thing if they were ripping off cancerous bands like Creed and Limp Bizkit, but critical darlings such as the Pixies and Talk Talk?? No fair. The case against Muy Cansado is more damning, I will say, because, not only do they sound like the Pixies, they also stole many other things from them, like being from Boston, having a girl bassist who sings one song, having a song or two in Spanish, and having album pacing that recalls Doolittle. I mean, the first song, 'Telemundo', might as well be 'Debaser', while the second song might as well be 'Tame', only with less screaming and tamer (har har) guitars.
People like to pretend that art should be judged on its own terms, but nothing exists in a vacuum. This is where the role of critics come in, whether it be the professional old hands or snotty upstarts like yours truly. Our job is to expose ourselves to a chosen art form, to swim across its breadth and dive into its depths, and to use this knowledge to sift the gold out of the river of releases like old timey gold prospectors. A job that is half consumer guide and half high falutin' think pieces (like this one, I suppose).

Judged on their own merits, Stars and Garters and Rook are good albums. But judged in reality, where I know of other, better, more original bands, they aren't good albums. They can't be, because they try to insinuate themselves into the world and mythos of others, and this always rings as false. We knew as kids that we weren't really the Ninja Turtles. We had fun with it, had fun playing in the world they resided in, but we never tried to convert that play into a career. I'm not implying that Shearwater and Muy Cansado are making money off the work of others--because that's what cover bands do, in all honesty--but I wish people who know better would make clear to the public when bands are imitating versus when they've just been influenced. Because in the arts, influence is the true sincerest form of flattery.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008


You know, I really did intend to post something, but I spent most of the day while I wasn't at work assembling a new CD/DVD shelf unit and arranging my stuff on it. Also, I only have like 3 hours til it's midnight and I might as well rally for something great tomorrow instead of a thrown-together-piece-of-crap article.

So, yeah. Sorry. Here is a hilarious video* from the Internet's past in consolation.

*video may not actually be hilarious.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Fiery Furnaces- Remember

Going to see a band live can sometimes just be an excuse to brag. So many times a band's live incarnation consists solely of a shuffled selection of songs from their albums, played in exactly the same way. This isn't automatically a bad way to do things, since the intimacy of most live shows combined with knowing tour money is mostly responsible for bands staying afloat makes you feel good about the arrangement. I try not to let the whole 'star power' thing affect me, but I do sometimes have those moments where I'm watching a band and I think "holy crap, they're right there!!" So, you go just to say you went in some vain attempt to impress others.

However, the other ways of doing a live show interest me much more. Many bands are unwilling or unable to utilize the musical format--and make no mistake, a concert is a different format in the same way that singles, EPs, albums, double albums, and box sets are different formats--but those that do make a live show a precious, memorable, and once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing. With these concerts, you aren't going just to say you went. You're going to see and hear something entirely unique. There are many ways to reward a live audience with something substantial. For starters, bands can go the jam band/jazz-route and add improvisation to their songs, often times segueing directly into and out of very different songs. They can re-arrange their songs for the stage, turning originals and cover songs inside out. They can interact with the audience by taking requests or bantering between (or during!!) songs. They can perform medleys, combining their songs into an epic mass made up of small snippets of different material. And there's probably a few dozen other ways to make live shows unique that I'm not thinking of, including varying combinations of the above.

The Fiery Furnaces are well known for seizing the advantage of a live setting. Their approach is two of the above--to perform re-arranged versions of their songs and/or to perform medleys of songs. This ensures that every show you see of their's is unique, because from tour to tour they usually have a different band as well as a whole new set of songs to pull apart in addition to re-arranged versions of old nuggets. You go into a Fiery Furnaces show not really knowing what to expect, whether it be burning garage rock, scintillating prog, lively salsa/tropicalia, or borderline-music hall ditties.

Remember represents a step further from their live shows, utilizing 3 years worth of material to craft a 51-track monstrosity that, in the course of a single song, might use two or more different versions of said song. This makes the whole package a fascinating, unwieldy beast that ought to bear the disclaimer "For Fans Only" instead of the "Do not attempt to listen to all at once" that it does. It is funny to think of someone who wants to get into the band thinking a live album made up of album highlights is the best way to go, and having their brain cells fried by the music within. Anyway, it is probably good advice to take these two discs in chunks, so bear that in mind.

Remember also bears the distinction of going the furthest into the rapid fire switches of tempo, mood, and texture that have characterized most of what people hate and love in the Fiery Furnaces. 'Hyperactive prog rock' is something I've heard a lot about this band, but it's not until Remember that I really felt it was apt, since now the songs--being made up of two or more different versions--are careening ever more rapidly. The impression an initial listen leaves you with is that this album is exhausting in its quixotic medleys, breakneck changes, and unrelenting pace. With time, though, Remember reveals itself for what it is: an inverted greatest hits album.

I know that doesn't make sense, but let me explain. See, 'Greatest Hits' packages are not designed for fans. They're designed to pull in casual listeners with a set of the band's best, most appealing songs, as if someone were pulling a $5 bill connected to fishing string down the sidewalk. Remember is unquestionably for the fans, and rather than featuring a set of the band's most appealing songs taken from studio albums, it features completely different versions of those songs taken from live shows. Perhaps it's best to think of this as a remix album combined with a live album combined with a greatest hits.

Even if you're a hardcore fan who owns all their stuff, Remember may as well not have any previously released songs because of how little resemblance these songs bear to their studio counterparts. As it's made up of songs from all of their albums (disappointingly, none of Matt Friedberger's solo material shows up, though his few turns on the mic are treats), even if you only like certain releases from the band, you'll be constantly surprised at the new transformations of songs you thought you hated. Personally I think the album is perfect for people who never got into Rehearsing My Choir because the renditions of its songs are pretty incredible (and assuming you couldn't stand their Grandmother's voice, you'll be happy to know that she's nowhere to be found here).

The only problem with Remember is that there isn't enough breathing space. It is a visceral rush when an album never lets up but it doesn't make for an appealing listen you want to hear over and over. I would definitely like to hear a straight-up release of a single live show from the Fiery Furnaces because the flow of a concert is missing here. Your mileage may vary, but I want some release from the tension every so often. And coming from a band that secretly has some really great ballads and mellow songs up their sleeves, it's a bit of a let down when they bulldoze through 'Birdie Brain' and 'Waiting To Know You.' At the very least, they could have transformed other songs into more mellow and ballad-like forms.

As usual with The Fiery Furnaces, we've been given what the band thinks we need and not what we want. Remember is another fascinating, challenging, and rewarding album from a band with no shortage of fascinating, challenging, and rewarding music. Aside from a strict warning for non-fans to stay away, my only caveat emptor to offer about this release is that you go in with an open mind and try to understand what the band is doing rather than dwell on what you think they're doing wrong. Even if Remember isn't the band's best work and can only be digested in chunks, it's still an essential part of their discography and a veritable Rosetta's Stone for understanding their live approach.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Video: El-P- 'Deep Space 9mm'

Call me a racist, a rockist, or whatever you want, but hip hop, rap, or whatever the cool kids are calling it these days...well, it's never hooked me. I think this is mainly due to the fact that the production and beats are generally garbage. For instance, I love DJ Shadow's Entroducing, which is a rap record without rapping, effectively, because it's got great samples, loops, and production. Also, the content and attitude of most rap don't appeal to me, since I don't get off on pretending I can relate to ghetto violence, poverty, or bling bling millionaire philosophy.

All that said, I like this video a lot. And no, it's not because he's white. Eminem and Vanilla Ice are white, too, but you don't see me posting videos of them, do you??

My favorite part of this video is the evil group of Boy Scouts toward the end. Yeah.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Album of the Week- Guided By Voices: Propeller

There are certain works of art that have such great stories behind them that the tale and not the product get all the attention. A Confederacy of Dunces was published long after its author killed himself. The 'Penny Arcade' webcomic began because its creators lost a comic contest but liked their submissions enough to put them online. Kevin Smith's Clerks was made for only around $28,000 and filmed at night inside the convenience store Smith was working while it was closed. Add to that list Guided By Voices, a band that crafted Propeller as their goodbye album after years of going nowhere, handmaking the covers themselves for a limited edition pressing of 500 vinyl records. But then, so the story goes, they started to gain attention in the underground, and with the 1994 release of Bee Thousand the band had created a true masterpiece and a critical favorite. They had finally arrived.

It's a great story, but I've always thought it was more interesting that Robert Pollard was 35 when Propeller was recorded. That's relatively old for starting a rock 'n roll career in earnest. Normally by his age most bands are either breaking up or transitioning into the less inventive and intriguing phase of their careers. But Pollard was just getting started and would only get both better and more prolific as time went on.

All of that backstory aside, Propeller is a fantastic album. It's the sound of dudes who grew up on 70s rock really wanting to be arena gods but instead toiling away in obscurity for far too long. And then, pouring everything they had into an album made up of songs that only they could have come up with in that situation. I can only imagine their respective wives and girlfriends wondering when they were going to give it up. Luckily Guided By Voices were one band who refused to stop rocking even though they were starting to look like those pathetic 30 something dudes every town has who insist they can still make it. The difference, of course, is that Robert Pollard is a brilliant songwriter, and whatever motley assortment of Other Dudes he has hanging around are the kind of loose-but-tight backing band that every great rock star needs.

Yes, Robert Pollard is a rock star, but he's one of the weirdest to grace the stage. Sometimes you have to wonder if he realizes how strange his music and lyrics are. I mean, at their basic core, Guided By Voices are the link between 70s classic rock/arena rock and 90s lo-fi indie rock. While their songs are often anthemic and can rock all day long, the lyrics are generally surreal, psychedelic, and overtly strange. It's hard to imagine The Who playing a song called 'Some Drilling Implied' or '14 Cheerleader Coldfront', and I suppose that's why I love this band so much. Any old fool can write a song about love or being on the road and make it sound like an anthem; it takes a particular genius to write a song as bizarre as Bee Thousand's 'Tractor Rape Chain' and make it an anthem.

But we're talking about Propeller, which opens with the now classic "G-B-V!!" chant, intended to replicate a live show even though, according to the always questionable Wikipedia, it was done in-studio by the band. If they couldn't have the adoration of a huge audience of fans, by god, they were going to manufacture it. The song from which the chant comes, 'Over The Neptune/Mesh Gear Fox', serves as a very appropriate beginning, giving a sample of GBV's ability to capture all the power and swagger of an established arena rock touring band with nothing more than a humble 4-track, some cheap beer, and a group of guys who had nothing to lose. Side one--I'm reviewing the vinyl edition, since it's the preferred format for this album--mostly sticks to a hard rock vibe, while the second side shows off the band's stranger and calmer sides. 'Exit Flagger', '14 Cheerleader Coldfront', and 'Back To Saturn X Radio Report' form a string of three songs that demonstrate the band's strengths. 'Exit Flagger' is one of many minor masterpieces of the band's that you've probably never heard, an addictive song with a chantable chorus that you can just imagine being sung by the audience as Robert Pollard swings his microphone. '14 Cheerleader Coldfront' is a sweet acoustic ballad of sorts about...I don't know. But it's genuinely kind of pretty. Finally, 'Back To Saturn X Radio Report' is memorably made up of short snippets of several other songs that aren't actually on Propeller. This also neatly reminds you of Guided By Voices's ability to make short-but-potent music, reminiscent of Wire's Pink Flag in terms of concise-ness and memorability.

The best and worst thing about Guided By Voices is that they have released so many albums, EPs, and singles that it's hard to know where to start. At the same time, every new release of their's you buy contains at least two songs so good you wonder how you ever got by without them. Though Propeller is neither the band's best album nor the best place to start, it's still a really good rock album. If you're in the group of people who often wish there was a bit more 'rock' in most 'indie rock', than Propeller is exactly the sort of thing you're looking for.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Complainer: Facebook

I know what you're thinking, but no, I'm not actually complaining about the "new" Facebook. In this very special entry of The Complainer, I'd like to complain about people who are themselves complaining. Ironic, you say?? Maybe.

What it boils down to is this: Facebook was and is a free social networking site that you have no right to complain about because you don't pay anything for it and anyway why do you care??. Originally Facebook was only for colleges, but it quickly allowed everyone in, which eventually just made it like every other social networking site in history: that is to say, it's a pointless gathering place where the signal-to-noise ratio is very wrong. Genuine discourse and re-connecting with old friends/classmates/co-workers is constantly overridden by the posting of useless polls, endless creation of groups for Internet memes/every lame in-joke you and your friends have, and completely shallow attempts to rekindle friendships or keep in touch.

As the ease of communication over the past 100 years has increased, the content of said communication has become watered down until you get something like Twitter, where every event of our lives can be cataloged and broadcast to tens, hundreds, thousands, and millions of people. I like some people enough to want to talk to them every day, which is a huge compliment because I am a self centered jerk, but I don't need to know what they were doing at 2:46 P.M. yesterday. I'm sure that sandwich was very good but unless you are going to bring me one so I, too, can experience it, I don't know why I should care.

So it all seems faintly ridiculous to me that people are bitching about the "new" Facebook. Apparently it has occurred to no one that Facebook is the same damn thing you get on every other social networking site, and instead of bristling over its new facade you should ask yourself why you care so much about something that, in the grand scheme of things, is so trivial. In the end, it's all a way of wasting time you should spend doing other things, like, I dunno, reading, doing homework, exercizing, getting drunk, listening to music, posting angry screeds on your blog, etc.

p.s. If Facebook is the only way you are able to keep up with the aforementioned lapsed friends, ex-co-workers, and ex-classmates, then they probably don't mean enough to you to be worth the trouble in the first place.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Video: Minutemen- 'This Ain't No Picnic'

I feel like, at some point in the future, the Minutemen will have their day. This isn't to say that they weren't beloved in their day and haven't continued to be, but there haven't been a lot of bands that sound like them. Buying a copy of Double Nickels On The Dime is one of the best things you can do for yourself because you're unlikely to find a double album of such incredible economy and consistency. As the Minutemen are the mid-point between the "lean, clean, and bluesy" sound of Creedence Clearwater Revival, punk rock, and funk, they're an impossibly fun band to listen to.

Also, even if you don't like the political subtext of this video, you have to admire the fact that three pretty ugly guys made such incredible music. Maybe I've always put too much stock into the whole 'ugly people making beautiful art' thing, but it's inspiring that fat, dorky, and otherwise ugly dudes can rock so righteously. A-men.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008


There were a few older games I understood and appreciated more as I got older, but by and large the games of today are much more rife for reinterpretation and revisiting because they are trying to say something or give you more to work with. I mean, the original Mario for NES is still a lot of fun, but unless you're going to get really pretentious and read things into it that the designers never intended, your understanding of it now is still "hey, jumping on stuff is fun!!"

EarthBound, then, is an older game that I understand much better today, now that I've moved beyond "is this entertaining or not??" as my sole determining factor for something being successful or not. As a game, EarthBound is very entertaining and a cult classic: a quirky RPG set in modern day with an odd sense of humor and an absurd, surrealist take on the world. At it's core, though, it's a competent Dragon Quest clone. EarthBound wasn't a huge success in the U.S. when it was release, but now it has a fanatical following that Dragon Quest has never achieved here. How to account for this, when the game is, as I said, a veritable clone of an unpopular-in-the-U.S. RPG series?? Sure, it's unique, but that's not always enough.A lot of the reason the game has been so cherished for so long has to do with all the things you don't think about while playing it. It's only after you're done with the game that you begin to think about what it's trying to do, what it achieves, and what it's about. Other than its sheer uniqueness, the allure of EarthBound is the same as that of the Dragon Quest series: the characters and scenario writing. I absolutely loved Dragon Quest VIII for the PS2 even though it's pretty much built on the same gameplay style from the series' 8 bit days. Like EarthBound, I loved it for the places you go, people you meet, and things you do. To be sure, EarthBound has incredibly interesting locales, from the trippy Moonside to the zombie infested Threed to the mysterious and aptly named Deep Darkness.
At the same time, EarthBound features a memorable set of characters that still inspire love today, most notably the (in)famous Mr. Saturn creatures, who've gone on to be weapons in Nintendo's Smash Brothers series. But let's get back to my three thinking points--to start, what is EarthBound trying to do?? Well, on the surface it's attempting to be a weird RPG that overturns many genre conventions. But beyond that, in actual practice, it's a pretty decent parody of the genre though it's not always explicit about it. In a early area of the game, the player's party has to defeat a group of moles who've hindered a mining operation in a desert. Funnily enough, every mole threatens you pre-battle and promises that it's the third strongest of the group. More brilliantly, the game breaks the fourth wall by requiring you to call your Dad to save the game; Dad is a character you never actually see, but who sometimes calls to remind you it's a good idea to take a break (implicitly, in real life, to take a break from the game) and save your game. The game's excellent translation helps these parodies succeed, thanks not just to faithful-in-spirit-but-not-literal-word-for-word-translating but also to neat tricks like the odd speech pattern and borderline-unreadable-font that the Mr. Saturn talk in.
In the game's most overt commentary on the RPG genre, you meet a character named Brickroad who designs dungeons for a living. His first appearance is right after a simple, rudimentary dungeon, the kind you may have seen in 8 bit RPGs, with only a few paths and dead ends and no possibility of losing your way or dying. Later when you encounter him again, he has become Dungeon Man, a literal living dungeon in a the form of a giant stone humanoid. After entering him, you climb to his top 'floor' in order to interact with him. On the way there are plenty of signs that comment on the dungeon and dungeon design in general, such as what a good dungeon should have. It's all very...meta and post-modern, when you think about it. What EarthBound achieves is to both critique and transcend its own genre. There is an undefinable quality in regards to what the game is about that I'll get to in closing, but its success as 'parody' and 'paragon' deserves further mention. Though it is, at heart, based heavily on the Dragon Warrior gameplay style, it's a bit more advanced in a few ways thanks to its unique-ness. For starters, the modern setting lets the game play fast and loose with convention. In typical Dragon Warrior-style RPGs, you stay in old timey Inns to rest, and you save at seemingly arbitrary locations, like with the Innkeeper or at glowing crystalline savepoints. You also get money from a bank or your characters simply hold unto all the money at all times. In EarthBound, you stay at hotels to rest, which also cleverly have bellhops reading you snippets from local newspapers as an ongoing commentary on the plot. There phones you can call your Dad on in order to save (or to order pizza deliveries, talk to your Mom to cure homesickness, and to access the game's storage system). Finally, there are ATMs in the world that allow you to depost or withdraw money.
EarthBound's gameplay and its battle system specifically are better than the usual Dragon Warrior clones. Instead of instantly being killed by a fatal blow, your characters have slot machine-style rolling meters for their life, perhaps indicating your character, when mortally wounded, is bleeding to death and trying to get off quick, desperate attacks rather than instantly succumbing. Instead of swords, armor, and magic spells, you are armed with baseball bats, frying pans, hats, bottle rockets, and psychic powers. Instead of static backgrounds of the current terrain, you get psychedelic colors and patterns. And finally, instead of the usual grand and dramatic ending, in EarthBound you get to revisit all the areas of the game to hear new dialogue from the characters before simply...going home and going to bed.
This last bit is important, because what EarthBound is about is growing up while still desiring to stay young and a child. Some have noted this interpretation of the game, and the more I think about it, the more sense it makes. Sure, the first set of towns you go to are called Onett, Twoson, Threed, and Fourside as clever wordplay and a simple way to remember which towns you went to in what order, but moreso it makes me think about how, just as games get more difficult as you go, in real life, growing up and getting older means that life becomes more complicated and difficult, too. The desire to stay young is something I read into the game, because there's an underlying feeling of nostalgia and childlike melancholy running through the whole thing that I can't quite explain. Since I replay the game every few years and simultaneously experience this feeling from the game itself as much as I do thinking back to other times I played the game and what age I was, this whole thing becomes a self-fueling loop of nostalgia. The game seems to feel the same way, because during the ending, on top of being able to revisit every place you had been to during the game, you also get to look back via a photo album of snapshots taken by a mysterious photographer during the course of the game. Could this photographer be interpreted as the player's memory of specific moments from a game, which you naturally revisit when you're doing playing?? Perhaps.

That I'm able to get so much from EarthBound this many years later...well, I think it really says a lot about the quality and depth of the game, its world, and its story. What you bring to it is equally as important as the game itself, and the fact that a much younger version of me enjoyed it as much as I do now--with all my interpretations and pretensions--is pretty incredible.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Coming To A Theater Near You

Going to the movies can be a terrifying experience, one that you'll often describe to friends, loved ones, and barbers-you-can't-think-of-anything-to-talk-about-with as "harrowing", "an ordeal", "confusing", and "popcorn fart inducing." Since movie studios only see fit to advertise films on TV with suddenly-much-louder-volume, quaint voice clips on the radio, annoying (often interstitial) Internet Flash animations, the sides of buses, and by paying off your wife/husband/boyfriend/girlfriend/friend/caddy/therapist/sidewalk taco vendor, it's become more and more difficult in this disconnected age to know what films are playing and what they're about without having to drive to the megaplex and read the sign while rearending people in front of you because you weren't paying attention to the road.

Lucky for you, then, that I couldn't think of anything else to wri...uhhh, I mean, lucky for you, then, that Whiskey Pie is here to inform you of and also summarize upcoming films. I will attempt to make each description so succinct and coherent that you can use the following as responses to the elderly greeter at your local Walmart.

Ghost Town This movie answers the questions that have been on our minds since the ending of Ghostbusters 2: "where did Slimer grow up??" and "what was his childhood like in his ghostly hometown??"

Igor From the creators of I'm Not There, in which various actors and actresses played Bob Dylan throughout his life, comes Igor, which does the same for Igor Stravinsky. Those tackling the role this time out include Kevin Bacon, Heath Ledger's corpse (too soon??), Billy Crystal, Jack White and Jack Black in one of those two-person horse costumes, and Amanda Bynes.

My Best Friend's Girl Industry insiders promise that this movie will do for the Cars what Mamma Mia! did for ABBA.

Miracle At St. Anna A spiritual drama based on the true story of one of those times somebody in a no-name place found a potato chip or oil spill or scab with the Virgin Mary's likeness on it.

Nights In Rodanthe Sorry, I started thinking about Rodan there. You know, Rodan?? Godzilla nemesis and sometime-partner...?? Anyway, I think Nights In Rodanthe is about old people crying a lot, and standing together on the beach where it's artfully implied they're going to have sex soon by cutting to footage of the waves flooding the moat of a child's abandoned sandcastle.

Eagle Eye This romantic comedy stars Adam Sandler as a man born with the powerful vision of an eagle, thus getting him into all sorts of hijinks with the fairer sex. 'Beak' careful not to miss it!!

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Lil' Indie Round-Up 4

Album: Angels and Demons, Space and Time by Hypatia Lake
What Does The Cover Make Me Expect??: This cover reminds me of something a high school art student might do to raise controversy at her school. Or post on her DeviantArt page. Either way, it looks amateurish and stupid, and not in that awesome, minimalist, and iconic Daniel Johnston kind of way. So, I'm expecting ham fisted gothy rock.
What Does It Actually Sound Like??: While it's admirable for bands to have a sound that can accommodate so many different sounds, the important thing is that they do it well. Hypatia Lake do not do it well. Yes, it's impressive that this album has prog rock, folk, psychedelia, noise rock, and a few tracks that remind me of REM circa Monster, but none of it is done well and it makes the album a fucking mess instead of a coherent work. Meanwhile, the band really wish they were alive in the 70s, when the ridiculous concept of this album (for a baffled laugh, go read up on what the band and the overarching 'story' of their albums are about) might have flown.

Album: La La Land by Wax Fang
What Does The Cover Make Me Expect??: Let's be frank here; let's not mince words, and just get right down to it: this is a terrible cover. It's the kind of thing you might make as a joke to piss off a record label or in case you don't want anyone to buy your album, ever. Seriously. I'm all for kitsch and randomness and absurdity, but this is awful. What I expect from this is a really adolescent punk band with neither imagination nor skill.
What Does It Actually Sound Like??: You know, not bad. It's not punk rock, let's clear that up right away. Rather it's more akin to the distinctive sound of mid 70s rock, warm-but-distorted guitars and all. The singer sounds like a combination of Carey Mercer of Frog Eyes and David Bowie, too, which makes it a strange beast. All in all, it's pitched somewhere between Brian Eno's mid 70s solo albums (but not as experimental) and how Pink Floyd sounded on the more rocking tracks from The Wall (but not as good). While La La Land is not a bad album, there isn't enough unique stuff about it to get me excited enough to completely recommend it.
Album: Waves On Waves by Waves On Waves
What Does The Cover Make Me Expect??: What a garish mess. I don't want to come off as a homophobe, but this cover reminds me of the self-consciously weird fashion photo shoots involving gay men that I randomly came across while flipping through fashion magazines while bored in bookstores waiting for ex-girlfriends to check out. Thus, I pretty much expect glammy piano driven rock a la the Scissor Sisters.
What Does It Actually Sound Like??: A lot of 80s pop music has a sound to it that always makes me think of nightclubs and parties held by the upper crust of New York society. It's not even always dance music but it just sounds like it belongs in a dance club, you know?? That's what Waves On Waves sound like: 80s pop music, but recorded with a modern sheen and production techniques, so it's also vaguely-spacey-at-times pop/rock. Some of the song titles are genuinely terrible, too--witness 'U Moved Me In2 The Future' and 'We Want 2'--which is always a bonus. I should mention that I hate this kind of 80s coke party, vaguely gay, dance clubby kind of music and just move on.

Album: John Eichleay by John Eichleay
What Does The Cover Make Me Expect??: Using your name for your 'band' and your album title usually implies one thing: singer/songwriter. Otherwise, this cover is vague enough to be nearly anything.
What Does It Actually Sound Like??: Competent, incredibly faceless pop/rock, with terrible lyrics. Like most singer/songwriters who dabble in other genres--in this case, country-rock ('Great Love'), ska ('Countdown'), and Southern Fried boogie ('Subway Shuffle')--they manage to do so with skill but little personality or invention. John Eichleay also bears the disadvantage of really bad lyrics, which trot out such trite, unoriginal sentiments no one could sue him for plagiarism because there are a million other songs saying the same things in the same ways.
Album: Leavetaking by Peter Bradley Adams
What Does The Cover Make Me Expect??: A badly drawn owl?? OK. Owls are generally symbolic of the country and rural-ness. Meanwhile, Leavetaking is the kind of odd turn-of-phrase that people who write a lot of poems/lyrics fixate on. All signs point to country-ish singer/songwriter music, fit for coffeehouses and the record collections of intensely uninteresting people.
What Does It Actually Sound Like??: I was really close. Leavetaking is a pleasant, totally unmemorable singer/songwriter album in a crowded field. There's nothing inherently wrong with this music, but there's simply so much of it that sounds so much alike that it's hard to care. You really need something--a voice, songwriting, instrumentation, etc.--to set you apart, and Peter Bradley Adams doesn't have it. Still, it'd be a nice album to overdose on sleeping pills to, or as background music for bedding a vapid co-ed who thinks Jack Johnson is too challenging.
Album: Re-Education by Rurik
What Does The Cover Make Me Expect??: Something about the band's name and the cover itself makes me expect a techno or techno pop sound. Call it a hunch.
What Does It Actually Sound Like??: A slightly-more-deeply-voiced Weird Al leads a band who can't decide if they're synth pop, pop punk via Good Charlotte, ora long forgotten one hit wonder of late 90s alt. rock. Being unique does not automatically make you good, and while this may come off as needlessly vindictive, I have no problem with telling you that this album is incredibly irritating and I truly regret the time I wasted listening to it.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Video: Yo La Tengo- Summer

I like Yo La Tengo a lot, but they don't have any videos, really. There is the one for 'Sugarcube' but it's partially a Mr. Show sketch, so...

Mostly I just wanted to post this so you'd listen to Yo La Tengo, and also to note that a dude I knew in college kinda looks like Ira Kaplan.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Album of the Week: Olivia Tremor Control- Music From The Unrealized Film Script: Dusk At Cubist Castle

There's just something about late 60s/early 70s music that continually fascinates and appeals to music listeners. Though there was a lot of great music made beforehand, this era in particular feels like the point at which musicians--pop musicians in particular--began to take music seriously as an artform. Bands taking themselves and music seriously would result in a lot of pretentious dreck, but there's no denying the huge amount of fantastic music that came out during this time. It's a well known tale, but the Beatles and Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys had a friendly rivalry going, resulting in some of the best pop music ever made. All over the world, people were really pushing themselves to innovate and to say something with pop music. The rise of concept albums, progressive rock, art rock, and so on were all results of this trend.

It's no accident that the Elephant 6 collective latched unto this era as their influence. And as, arguably, the flagship band of the collective, the Olivia Tremor Control represented the most obvious and pure obsession with this era, creating music that sounded like it belonged in the late 60s/early 70s and to sit alongside the incredibly ambitious pop music of the time. Music From The Unrealized Film Script: Dusk At Cubist Castle (whew!!) is the band's first album, and a suitably monolithic debut it was. Even the background of its creation sounds like it could be the story of some kind of 60s hippie commune taking too many drugs and slowly finishing a masterpiece, as it was recorded over the course of three years on outdated 4-track machines (just like they had back in the 60s, kids!! Well, OK, Wikipedia tells me that they later used a 8-track for final production work).

Olivia Tremor Control is the story of the co-existing-but-ever-dueling music sensibilities of Bill Doss and Will Cullen Hart. While Doss is seen as the pop classicist, writing incredibly catchy 60s style tunes, Hart is seen as the arch experimentalist, favoring tape collages, ambient soundscapes, and musique concrete. As such, Dusk At Cubist Castle is a fascinating, complex album that rewards the returning listener. Though primarily a psychedelic pop album that recalls the best of the Beatles at their druggiest and catchiest, the album also has a middle section entirely given over to the 10-track 'Green Typewriters' suite, a showcase for Hart's experimental bent, as well as odd sonic tricks throughout. I've always thought of Dusk At Cubist Castle as a perfectly paced album; that is to say, an album's album. Right about the usual time I tend to drift off while listening to a long album, Dusk hits the 'Green Typewriters' suite, and wakes up along with me 23 minutes later. Not that it isn't an engaging listen, as it gives little snippets of mini-songs along the way that are intriguing glimpses of what could have been full songs, but once you hit the drifting, ethereal heart of the suite, it's hard not to surrender to the void.

At 27 tracks and 74 minutes of music, Dusk At Cubist Castle may seem like a daunting, overlong listen. But thanks to the delicious pop songs of Doss, it's a breezy experience: 'Jumping Fences' is rightfully considered one of the best things the band produced; 'I Can Smell The Leaves' has a druggy, reverential vibe; and 'The Gravity Car' sounds like a music box or carousel going delightfully out of control. More than anything, though, Olivia Tremor Control prove to us what the best artists of the late 60s/early 70s discovered: pop music and experimental music aren't mutually exclusive. Though I have to confess that I personally enjoy the band's second (and last) album Black Foliage: Animation Music Volume 1 slightly more because it's darker, crazier, and not-as-slavishly-close to the 60s sound, Dusk At Cubist Castle represents the more successful combination of the visions of Olivia Tremor Control's co-leaders. Black Foliage often sounds as if the yin and yang are tearing at each other and stepping on each others' feet, but they co-exist peacefully on Dusk.

'Timeless' is a term that's sometimes bandied about to indicate music that has a unique sound which doesn't belong to any particular era or scene. I'm not sure I would call Dusk At Cubist Castle timeless. What I am sure of is that I would call Dusk At Cubist Castle an incredible achievement in pop music, and an underground legend deserving of its praise.

Monday, September 8, 2008

The Jesus And Mary Chain- Psychocandy

Since you can't get more than a paragraph or so into a review of Psychocandy without bringing up feedback and noise, I figured I would just attack it head on. I used to hate noise and loud volumes, and I still generally avoid them when I can. I have always hated being around the kind of people who malevolently pop balloons at parties, play music ridiculously loud in their cars, and are incapable of sitting still and being quiet for more than five seconds at a time. Moreover, I was genuinely nervous the first time I listened to the Velvet Underground since I had read so much about the 'noisy' aspects of their music. The idea of feedback scared me for a long time after I accidentally touched the strings of my electric guitar to the amplifier while showing it to a friend shortly after I got for a birthday and a horrendous, deafening, indescribable racket erupted into my ears and body. At some point, though, I began to like noise, feedback, and distortion, probably when I started to hate the world, myself, and other people. I even got around to 'playing' feedback with my guitar. All that said, I still don't like noise music. I have occasional dalliances with it, sure, but I usually require some kind of modifier to go along with 'noise', whether it be 'noise-pop' or 'pretty noise.'

I figured I would just lay all of that out there because Psychocandy, despite the 20+ years of criticism since its release, is still referred to as 'noise pop.' And going into the album with that assumption (and the deadpan recommendation from a record store clerk that it was his "favorite album for about five years"), I was misled. I've been struggling with the album for a few months now, and the curve of my experience with it is pretty much identical to my original relationship with noise and feedback. On first listen I was kind of terrified of the album. It seemed so bleak and menacing, all nihilism and skull throttling bursts of white noise. I didn't listen to it for awhile, afraid to admit to myself or anyone that I didn't like such a 'classic' album because the feedback scared me. Empowered by alcohol, I have since made repeat excursions into the cityscape of Psychocandy and have finally come around to it. It's a great album, but it's great more for what it sounds like than what it is.

See, Psychocandy is not 'noise pop.' But that doesn't help, does it?? Genre distinctions are entirely meaningless and arbitrary; they're shorthand for referring to a general "feel" or "kind" of music when we're too rushed (or lazy) to completely lay down the full story. Allow me to explain what I mean, then. 'Noise pop', to me, is music that allows--wait for it--"noise" and "pop" to co-exist peacefully. This can be pop music with experimental/noisy undertones (see: Deerhoof, Sonic Youth, et. al.) or noise as pop music (see the ethereal, beatiful noise of My Bloody Valentine's Loveless). However, Psychocandy is much more noise than pop most of the time. What little pop there is to be had isn't the 'Beach Boys' kind of pop reviews often refer to it as. Rather, it's more like the Velvet Underground, a druggy, languid pop with a singer who doesn't care. At the same time, most of the songs have a shrieking torrent of noise either constantly on tap or waiting to be poured for the listener. This isn't noise, feedback, and distortion as an enhancement or interesting texture to music. Rather, it's noise as an impediment to enjoying the song that is trapped underneath.

The sad truth about Psychocandy is that, without all that howling noise, nobody would really care about the album. Only 'Just Like Honey' stands up as a classic pop song with or without noise, and it's one of the least feedback-drenched tunes from the album. Without the incredible aural headache you're exposed to on 'Never Understand', all you'd be left with is a sub-par take on Joy Division/Velvet Underground inspired British 80s music. It's telling that the band never recorded another album like this, and the shoegazer bands who are its obvious descendants crafted music that was much more successful at blending 'noise' and 'pop' in a symbiotic way. You can tell they looked more closely to 'Just Like Honey' and 'Inside Me'--which, in retrospect, sound really similar, down to the drumbeat--for inspiration, music that was still challenging and 'noisy' but not so excruciating and forceful about it.

And yet...remember when I said earlier that I liked Psychocandy more for what it sounds like than what it is?? Well, Psychocandy was like a shot-across-the-bow for the 80s underground scene. You're very unlikely to hear an album quite like it from this era, and its sheer extreme-ness garnered it endless talk and debate in British music magazines at the time. Listening to Psychocandy at loud volume is really the only way to hear it for what it truly is: a noisy monolith, a middle finger to polite-and-proper British pop music, and a reptilian-brain-stem endurance test. Psychocandy is an album you experience as much as you hear, and even if you don't like noise music, it's hard to argue with its committment. The Jesus & March Chain weren't fooling around when they recorded this music. The feedback and noise are actually more extreme than that of the Velvet Underground; even if the resultant songs are nowhere near as good or enduring, the sheer sonic assault of the album is brilliant. I mean, is it even music?? It's the sort of album that makes me reconsider what 'music' can be, and what it means to 'enjoy' something. I don't 'enjoy' watching Silence of the Lambs or Schindler's List, yet they're incredible movies. Or should I say "experiences"?? Like them, Psychocandy is not enjoyable in the way I typically associate with its artform, but it is an incredible experience.

To be succinct, what Psychocandy is isn't important, because it's not 'noise pop' and the songs buried below the noise are mostly forgettable. But what Psychocandy sounds like is important because it's an incredible piece of sound violence, nihilistic and painful, that is like nothing you've heard. I don't like it as a piece of music made up of discrete songs to enjoy, but as a slab of noise to be played at loud volume so that I feel it in my whole body. Amazing.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Yeah Yeah Yeahs- Fever To Tell

You don't hear much about Fever To Tell anymore. In fact, the last time I can remember talking about it to someone was the fall of '06, when a short lived relationship found me in a then-girlfriend's car with, oddly, her pet bird hanging out on her shoulder. The song 'Maps' came on the radio and she quickly turned it to something else, insisting that she couldn't stand that song because it was played too much. I tried to argue its case, saying that you couldn't hold popularity against a song if it was good, but it did get me to thinking how much 'Maps', and to a lesser extent 'Y Control', had become these generational touchstones. During the latter half of my college life, circa '04 to '06, I could swear I heard one (or both) of those songs at every party I went to.

Allow me, then, to present my case against Fever To Tell. My thesis is that it's the most overrated album in recent memory, and its reputation is built entirely on the last three songs which are all anyone remembers from it. Now, don't mistake my meaning: I don't dislike Fever To Tell. It's the kind of fun nostalgic album I can throw on while drinking and remind myself of the good times I had in college, shrieking along to the tracks. But therein lies the problem...you see, most of Fever To Tell is made up of very repetitive, simplistic, and short songs that fail to make any sort of impression. Certainly they sound cool, and have a visceral, punk rock rush to them which is fun to try to sing along to while drunk. But they aren't songs, and definitely aren't good songs. They're like sketches for songs, with only a few ideas barely held together before collapsing into the next song-ette. Short songs, and by extension, short albums aren't a bad thing, but the true meat of Fever To Tell only shows up in the last three songs.

If you disagree, try this exercise: name me one song from the album that isn't 'Maps', 'Y Control', or 'Modern Romance.'

Had to really think about it, didn't you??

You may or may not recall that the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' reputation was almost entirely built on two EPs. I've only heard their first, self-titled EP, released two years before Fever To Tell, and I think it's emblematic of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs as a creative unit. They work great in 20ish minute EP doses, but don't have enough good material for a full album. This isn't an entirely original criticism, I'll admit, because I remember seeing this issue brought up in some reviews at the time. Yet Fever To Tell was the New York Times' album of the year for 2003, and while opinion is ultimately subjective, it does give one pause to consider, just how goes an album that's half or mostly forgettable earn such top marks??

Well, as I keep eluding to, the last three songs on Fever To Tell are incredible. After the way-too-long 'No No No' evaporates, the unbeatable 'Maps' soon begins, with its radio signal flutter giving way to anthemic drums and guitar chording. Once you get to Karen O.'s restrained, yearning chorus, it's hard not to fall absolutely in love with the band. Then we get the "everybody on the dance floor!!" throwdown of 'Y Control', all skittery drums and that noisy keyboard/guitar slide sound that keeps popping up. The song could be the cap to a great night or a mid-evening energy boost, but either way, it's definitely one of the best songs of the decade. Finally, the plaintive comedown of 'Modern Romance', which bums us out by assuring us that love is dead...then, after some silence, a hidden track comes in and convinces us that, no, no matter how badly we've been treated, true love is real. All in all, it's a stunning conclusion, and kind of proves that if an ending is good enough people are likely to forget the stuff they didn't like from the beginning...and the middle.

What it all comes down to is that Fever To Tell is an incredibly uneven and overpraised album. Give a cursory glance to other, better albums that came out that year and it's hard to justify the love this one gets. But, as I've established, the love it gets is built almost entirely on the last three songs--which, again, are really good. And while I'm hesitant to break an album down mathematically and say "I only like 8 of the 12 songs, so it gets 4 out of 5 stars" or some such formula, that's got to be the case with Fever To Tell. As an EP it would've been a borderline masterpiece (like Young Liars by TV on the Radio), but as an album it's just average.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Not To Be Confused With...

Developing an encyclopedic knowledge of music is a tricky business, requiring one to memorize all sorts of names, album titles, release dates, and arcana. More often than not, though, it's the names that trip people up. As time goes on, there are just so many bands to keep track of that it becomes a maddening process to keep it all straight. Allow me to present some easily confused bands and artists and how to distinguish them for everyday, music nerd conversation.

The Rapture, Not To Be Confused With Rapture
The Rapture are an indie rock dance/punk band. Rapture are a metal band from Finland. 'Rapture' is also a hit song by Blondie which featured semi-embarrassing rapping from Debbie Harry. But that's neither here nor there. How to keep them straight in your head?? Repeat this sentence to yourself: "Rapture would rupture my ear drums, but The Rapture covering 'Rapture' by Blondie would be either the best thing ever or completely terrible."

The Sea and Cake, Not To Be Confused With Cake
While this one may not be quite as tricky, it's worth going over just in case. The Sea and Cake is a breezy, jazzy indie pop band from Chicago. Cake is a vaguely Beck-ish alt. rock band mostly known for the singles 'The Distance', 'Never There', and 'Short Skirt/Long Jacket.' Music nerd fact: The Sea and Cake's name came from a song by Chicago-scene-legends Gastr Del Sol entitled 'The C In Cake', on which a future member of The Sea and Cake played. Anyway, repeat this sentence to yourself: "I like Cake because they helped me realize that I, too, like vaguely Beck-ish songs about girls in short skirts and long jackets; however, I like The Sea and Cake more because they helped me realize that, as with eating cake every day, I like hearing what amounts to mostly the same album recorded in different ways over and over."

Wolf Parade, Not To Be Confused With Wolf Eyes, Not To Be Confused With Frog Eyes, Not To Be Confused With The Frogs
This one's a pretty tangled web, so I'll dig right in. Wolf Parade is an indie rock band who've recorded two really great albums so far. Wolf Eyes is an experimental noise band who I can't stand to listen to because it hurts and I'm a coward. Frog Eyes, sometimes featuring a member of Wolf Parade on keyboards, is a skewed indie rock band with a crazed, energetic frontman and remind me of the mania of Pere Ubu despite sounding very little like them. The Frogs are a jokey lo-fi indie pop band active from the late 80s to now, who kind of remind me of Beat Happening only they write songs about being gay (despite not being gay) and other ironic things. So, how do you keep these four bands straight?? Repeat this sentence: "I would march in the Wolf Parade because they record great indie rock, unlike Wolf Eyes, who produce painful noise, though I'm torn on Frog Eyes and The Frogs because the frontman of Frog Eyes scares me and I think The Frogs are just a jokier, not-as-good Beat Happening."

Soft Machine, Not To Be Confused With The Secret Machines or The Soft Boys, The Latter Of Which Should Not Be Confused With The Dead Boys
Since I've never listened to any of these bands, I find it hard to keep them straight. However, they're all very different so putting them down on paper helps a bit. So, then: Soft Machine are a prog rock band from the 70s who eventually became quite jazzy and introduced Robert Wyatt to the world before he left the band, became paralyzed, and made a career out of pretty great music (from what I'm told). The Secret Machines are a sort-of-proggy trio from Texas who record music which begs the question "what if Pink Floyd or Rush grew up in the 90s and sucked??" The Soft Boys can best be summarized, from a cursory listen of YouTube clips, as the missing link between Syd Barrett and punk rock. Finally, the Dead Boys were one orthodox product of the break-up of proto-punk legend Rocket From The Tombs, the other product being the post-punk/new wave/Captain Beefheart-worshipping Pere Ubu. Repeat this sentence to yourself: "I like Soft Machine because they recorded good prog rock, unlike the crappy modern day Secret Machines; at the same time, I much prefer the Soft Boys to the Dead Boys because the Soft Boys were weird and psychedelic and the Dead Boys were, well, just a decent punk rock band."

The Silver Apples, Not To Be Confused With Silver Jews
Well, this one's pretty straightforward, and for the record, both bands are awesome (even if the new Silver Jews album is crap). The Silver Apples were one of those "way ahead of their time" late 60s/early 70s bands that were influential and revolutionary in retrospect. In this case, they were an early electronic music duo who expertly blended experimental keyboard/synthesizer textures and psychedelic melodies with funky/jazzy drumming, recalling German contemporaries like Can and Neu!, only more catchy. Meanwhile, Silver Jews is the country tinged indie rock project of singer/songwriter David Berman, originally (and mistakenly) thought of as a Pavement side project. Fun fact: 'silver jew' is a term for Jewish people with blond hair. Keeping them straight is easy, but I still sometimes flub up. Repeat this sentence: "The Silver Apples were way ahead of their time, with funky electro-psychedelic grooves, and equally timeless as the Silver Jews, who, despite being an indie rock band from modern times, could easily have fit into the singer/songwriter craze of the early to mid 70s."

Gang Of Four, Not To Be Confused With Gang Gang Dance
This one's a bit tricky because not only are their names kind of similar, but their sound is, too. Gang of Four were an ahead-of-their-time punk band from late 70s England who mixed funk and reggae into their sound, later inspiring a whole scene of American indie rockers like The Rapture and Liars to pick up this 'dance punk' thread. Gang Gang Dance is among many modern bands--like Liars, Animal Collective, TV on the Radio, and others--who combine primitive, hypnotic drumming, noise, pop, effects pedals, and unique vocals in such a way as to sound totally distinct and yet sounding of a similar movement. Repeat this sentence to yourself: "Gang of Four were a funky punk band from the late 70s which inspired modern bands like Gang Gang Dance, who combine hypnotic drumming with experimental rock kind of like Liars."