03 March 2010

Things Blinking Across My Head

Would the Who have been a better band without Roger Daltrey? I recently saw an article (Rolling Stone maybe?) that I'm not going to bore anyone by linking to, wherein some poor music writer was contracted to deliver a very special message from Roger Daltrey, fresh off finally killing rock and roll music forever and ever at this year's Super Bowl Halftime Show. "I want to work with Jimmy Page," he said. "He needs a great blues singer to drive him. I am a great blues singer."

I love the Who. I really liked "My Generation" first because it sounded like punk rock to me, and because they were absolutely mind-blowing to watch as a live band in their prime. Being a Hendrix fan from deep in my soul, from way before my birth, I was always looking for a VHS copy of the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival concert movie at Blockbuster, MooVIES, MediaWave, the Library- you know, no big deal. I don't remember how I came about it- I think VH1 played it periodically when I was in junior high- but seeing and hearing Jimi Hendrix play the guitar straight, unedited and in a full "concert" setting (Christgau: "less than extraterrestrial"- we'll ignore him on this) was life-altering to me. The sound of his guitar is shocking, totally powerful. You can hear jagged shards of electric noise branch off into fuzzed out octave parts, moaning and screaming at the same time. The way he just leapt around the guitar, not just tossing out single notes, but complex, thick, heavy chords and feedback. He has a naturally crisp, heavy blues tone at it's base, but what he lays over it is ferocious and violent and the most unique sound in modern popular music. It can't be described in words.

"Should words serve the truth?" - Watt

So of course no mention of Jimi at Monterey can be made without also mentioning the Who- their performances both have this very desperate, urgent quality, and also uniquely interact and play off of one another. Pete Townshend in the years since has always been at great pains to let us all know of the fight had about who would follow who (sorry, I had to)- both wanted to go on first, looking to upstage; the subtext of the story, of course, for Pete, being- "I was on his level."

Well no, he fucking obviously was not. A really interesting book could be written about that love triangle of late- 60's guitar gods, all getting their start in the UK. Clapton comes first as a blues virtuoso, Townshend pretty soon after as a brilliant sped-up noisemaker/ innovator and songwriter. Then comes Hendrix, who completely redefines the medium of the electric guitar like Joyce redefined prose and Prometheus redefined barbecue. Hendrix, for his part, is in many ways equal parts both- blues prodigy, technical and emotive master just like Clapton, but loud, abrasive, and experimental with a gift for songwriting like Townshend. Except, Clapton's never performed anything near Jimi's blues work on "Red House" or "Voodoo Child" or his performance of "Hear My Train A-Comin'" from Rainbow Bridge. In the same light, between Hendrix and Townshend, Hendrix is far and away the greater songwriter and studio innovator. Hendrix came and blew them both away at the same time and they both knew it.

Clapton chose to openly acknowledge it and humbly worship at his feet. Townshend, particularly in the Hendrix documentary, chose instead to express his more complex emotional reaction- jealousy, anger, awe, somewhat false bravado. Whenever he describes his experiences regarding Hendrix he is careful always to acknowledge the obvious about his tremendous talent, but is equally careful to never give an inch on his own position in the grand scheme of that "tradition." The story from Monterey goes that neither band wanted to go first because they were both known for their performance art-like stage antics- Eric Burdon describing Jimi's "making love to the guitar" while Pete's a "brutal rape." Interesting. Yeah.

Anyway, they argue backstage. Pete isn't having it when Jimi simply declares they're going on first. Jimi grabs his guitar, stands on a chair and stares Pete down as he plays his unplugged guitar. Townshend stares back. They flip a coin. They go to stage in this order: The Who, The Dead, Jimi, and then some boring comedown crap.

My friend Bill and I used to talk about music non-stop in college (seriously, it never ended), and easily the biggest disagreement we ever had was over this. Bill really hated Pete Townshend, mostly for the scene in Hendrix where Pete describes the Monterey story. "That guy is full of shit." I said I hated Clapton specifically for how he describes Jimi in Hendrix. "He's like a goddamn Star Trek geek about it. He knocks himself right out of Jimi's class. At least Pete has some fight in him." He thought (and, in a way, he's right) that humility was the more heartfelt appreciation, and that it wasn't bravado, it was pretension. I thought it was really telling ultimately about Clapton (I'm not as down on Clapton as it seems, but... yeah I don't listen to Eric Clapton at all. Ever.), and that Townshend was wrong, but right to think that highly of himself.

Of course, the final most telling layer of the triangle is- no one was askin' Jimi for anecdotes about Eric or Pete. (And the best line from that movie is Lou Reed's anyway- "Oh yeah, I thought Jimi was just such a bitchin' guitar player." "Was he better than you?" "No.")

Ultimately, how they react to his death is really pretty sad. Coupled each with additional tragedies, they both get heavily addicted to drugs and alcohol and all that fun business. I've always thought that it probably hit them both really, really hard- because, even though they've both, to varying degrees, become fairly bloated and uncomfortable versions of their younger selves (and don't say everyone does- there's Neil.) they're both people that would be particularly appreciative of what his ...event represented. And I'm sorry, before I leave Jimi altogether here, I have to say, since I put it on my speakers- I don't care if it's become a fratboy cliche or whatever- the sound on "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)" is not of this Earth. If I can travel a little further up my own ass for a second here- the sound of his guitar is the sound of modern life, even still today. Plus I mean, "Machine Gun"? "Machine Gun"? "Machine Gun". "MACHINE GUN".

But my early love for Jimi lead me to this also legendary performance of the Who, which is really no slouch in it's own right. It is the performance that broke them in the States (or so the story goes, I'm sure the internet could cough up a reason why that's not really actually true) and killed me. I was obviously a really big Nirvana fan at this point, so the instrument smashing was cool to me. Keith Moon stuck out obviously, their senses of humor, the way there appeared to be like, two cliques in the band- the two straight-laced college guy types in Daltrey and Entwistle, and the pissy, annoying, funny, weird, tweaked out on speed and coke C-3PO and R2-D2 of Townshend and Moon. It was a weird dynamic- they sort of each took lateral "sides" of the stage. At their peak as a live band Townshend didn't really move far from his amp and thus didn't cross this "line" (he was close to get feedback, his big new trick), he and Moon flailing away like Animal and Dr. Tooth from the Muppets band. On the other side, Daltrey is doing this rote mic sling and delivering quaint, taupe-brown rock vocals with an almost off-puttingly blank blue stare ("Hey Pete, these lyrics for 'Behind Blue Eyes' are really pretty neat, where'd you come up with the idea for that?!"), with Entwistle directly to his right, never moving except to flick his fingers from his almost corpse-rigid body at his bass. He was a fucking unreal bass guitar player. When he sang "Boris the Spider" he'd grin and it was funny (PS Jimi's favorite Who song).

The Who were pure dynamics (MAXIMUM R&B), loud and quiet, restraint and unbridled energy. Kurt Cobain never really mentioned the Who (Townshend was in league with The Vedder) as an influence really, but they were, big time ("I'm a Boy," "Been a Son"). Nirvana was endeared to that dynamic style by the Pixies, but they got it in practice from the Who.

That's when I fell in love with the Who. I bought Live at Leeds first, figuring it was as close to Monterey as a record would get. There are a few albums you get and, between your natural excitement to discover them, the artwork that just strikes a certain tone on your way home to put it on, and the way it starts as the sounds open up- you just know that whatever comes out, it almost won't matter, you're going to love it. You're going to always love it. Another more recent example for me, actually, is the new Surfer Blood record, Astro Coast, which I basically haven't stopped listening to for more than a day or two since I downloaded it in November. It's the best guitar record since Murray Street. They're the first band to really meld all these trendy new styles- surf music, garage, the Beach Boys, Jesus & Mary Chain, a little Sonic Youth and 90s guitar-y/ production-y stuff like Pavement, Dinosaur and My Bloody Valentine- in a really compelling new light. There's that indescribable whiff of "East Coast college boy" on it too, which I get a kick out of personally. See also: Weekend, Vampire. Bear, Grizzly. Phoenix, . Like even more "boy in college" than Pavement even. Yes I know none of those bands are in college and that Phoenix are French and probably over 40 so should they count?- yes, I say they do. I saw Surfer Blood a week or so ago here in NYC and they were pretty good, kind of nervous to start. Maybe a little preoccupied with fine-tuning the gee-tarz too. Yikes. They caught some wind later in the show though, and it was a great time. They use some really nice, boutique fuzz pedals and have killer motherfucking merch.

When we were in Cape Cod later that 16th summer, I bought Tommy at The Caped Cod CD store. I can still smell the moldy wood in the house we slept in, on vacation with the family as I absorbed that and Raw Power by the Stooges in one night (that's one grand fucking slam of a trip to the record store when you're 16 or 17), in pain with a sunburn, aloe cold on my skin. Raw Power won out both because it's simply better and because it was shorter and easier to immediately wrap my head around. That album is a whole 'nother post though- they haven't invented words for that album yet. If art is my religion then Iggy is St. Peter.

But Tommy always stayed with me. Initially I missed the heavy feedback and constant, driving speed but... I mean, I don't need to sell Tommy anymore. It sounds great. And I always thought this was the best execution of that story Towshend conceived (maybe that's obvious)- there's something faceless about it all that adds a creepy layer to the album. Maybe it was the cover too. Who's Next was great too, Quadrophenia. There's a lot to love about this band.

Of course, the Who are not the Who anymore. The Who were not the Who once Keith Moon died, and I say that not as some fanboy snit- I don't think it's a stretch to say that whatever Keith Moon "was", it was integral to their sound and presence and it was absolutely irreplaceable without completely changing the DNA of the band. But even if you concede that- when Entwistle died- it's just cashing a check now. I mean, come on. "Roger Daltrey?! The guy from CSI?) That's fine if that's your thing, but I can't imagine finding any of that appealing. Man, they were so bad at the Super Bowl.

But back to my point- Daltrey, in an effort to lure Jimmy Page into working with him, claims to be a "great blues singer." Now, I will acknowledge that I am not a Roger Daltrey fan, not so much as to say that I dislike him, just that I think he is there as a prop to hold up the fun parts. You could bend over backwards and be sore all day arguing he was a "great" frontman. He was a fucking snooze on stage and his voice was... solid. Unremarkable.

But no- I'm sorry, I don't buy "great blues singer." It made me think- if the Who were this tiny, scrappy power trio with the nutty (kinda thin-voiced) frontman ("nose on a broomhandle"), the nuttier drummer, and the statue bass player- would they have been any better? Maybe a bit dirtier, even punk-ier? A lot of what made Townshend great was his ability to roam, to basically treat singing duties as a whim- he was writing all the material, so he basically sang when he felt it appropriate- at great length very often. When he felt it time to simply stand back and focus on the rawking, he rawked, hard. So Daltrey does have that going for him- likable enough that he exists as a solid frontman when he's in his natural position, but bland and uninspiring enough that you don't miss him when Pete does- and he will- take over. If you listen to "A Quick One, While He's Away"- the Who's greatest song- you can tell especially that this is Pete's band. It's a mini narrative, and Pete comes out for the star parts, killing it on the sensitive, plaintive bits and letting Daltrey do his bloozy groawwwan thing. So that's the thing- Daltrey knows that was his role, and you can't blame the man for thinking a bit too highly of himself- hey, he got there. He earned that at least. Plus, I don't think there's any way the Who are anywhere near as successful out of the gate like that without Daltrey. He really "sold" the band.

So to sum up, dude, Tim- what is your problem? Live and let live, kind friend. Let Roger be Roger.

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06 January 2010

Top 15 Movies of the Decade

This is the one I got lazy about posting, so while it may seem like I absorbed all the magazine/ online polls and was influenced as a result, in fact I was not. All these decade long lists are works-in-progress from Jan. 1 2000. Sadly. I don't know why I do this. Can you help me to stop it?

15. Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009) I watched this again, just the other night. Everything about it is good- not a war movie, but a movie about movies. The clash of cultures in the big wars is a nod to The Grand Illusion, and Landa is sort of like von Rauffenstein. In this one though, the "clash" is the crashing, crude American soldiers robbing the old world fascist European trodden the ability to die even with dignity. "Teddy BAWLGAME IN THE PAHK!" Shosanna is my favorite Tarantino heroine.

14. Zodiac (David Fincher, 2008) Let's just get this out of the way: Benjamin Button was an incredibly beautiful piece of shit/ awards bait. It was boring, it was stupid, and it was pointless. But this one? This was none of those things. The opening scene is fucking terrifying, and tricks you into caring deeply about the story- you find yourself strung along for nearly three hours- like the characters, growing old with the obsession to figure it all out. Seeing the recreations are so haunting because we know we'll never really know who he is/ was, and he was, for a period of time, a force of nature in that area of the country.

13. Borat (Larry Charles, 2006) This is a funny god damned movie. The first time I saw it too- and maybe it was just me- I couldn't help but think that, given how popular it was from weeks in advance, we were watching a place-in-time kind of thing. He wasn't going to be able to do it like that ever again. Bruno had great, great moments, but in a lot of ways, it felt like scenes were staged in tricky ways to fill out the story (which was basically identical to Borat's). One of the funniest movie characters ever.

12. American Splendor (Shari Springer Berman/ Robert Pulcini, 2003) I'd only read one thing by Harvey Pekar going into seeing American Splendor, so I was more attracted to it by Giamatti and the word of mouth, I guess. I love the different perspectives we see Harvey through- drawings by himself, as portrayed by Giamatti, as originally written by Pekar, as adapted for the film, through the mouths of the man and his family directly, from TV screens and through the media of a given era. The plot is the same shaggy dog sort of thing, but it makes itself relevant by expanding on and presenting the story and his themes in ways his comics could not. By, in fact, convincing the cynic that is it's subject it's a movie worth existing. Also, Toby.

11. Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (Adam McKay, 2004) In a lot of ways, this decade was defined comedically in film by a small group of actors doing broad, improvisational stuff to great success. It started with the Jack Black/ Will Ferrell/ Vince Vaughn/ Wilson Brothers coven, which evolved eventually more toward the Apatow stuff in the second half of the aughts, with a lot of crossover. There are a lot of greats to choose from: Step Brothers, Pineapple Express, The Foot Fist Way, The School of Rock, Old School. But to me, the champ is clear. It's the weirdest, it's the most perfectly absurd, and with apologies to the also-incredible The 40 Year-Old Virgin, it's definitely the best. Taking the Ron Burgundy character and throwing the roadblock that was late-70s feminism in his path- where it became institutional and thus totally unavoidable to even Neanderthals- is what makes this a masterpiece. Was there a more perfect foe for Ron Burgundy than feminism? Especially since you know he has to lose that battle in the end. Christina Applegate was really funny in this movie.

10. The Incredibles (Brad Bird, 2004) Sometimes it sort of feels like Pixar makes movies just for me. I needed The Incredibles in November 2004. The way the story was told, through the eyes of those parents, was really impressive, and probably my favorite part of the movie. It's my favorite Pixar because it's a genre movie- the best superhero movie of the Super Hero Movie Decade?- and Brad Bird was smart enough to make it feel and look like one while telling a story about a strong family. It looks like a James Bond/ Raiders of the Lost Ark hybrid, and while it does borrow themes (as do all super hero concepts) from other sources- most notably The Watchmen and The X-Men- it's perspective is entirely genuine and new. Pixar was the most important/ best thing that happened in movies in the 2000s. High art that everyone can love.

9. City of God (Fernando Meirelles, 2003) Meirelles took this story about a young kid barely dodging the raindrops as an aspiring photographer/ dreamer surrounded by crime in Rio de Janeiro and made it like a modern American crime film. It was a jarring idea- all this depravity and poverty, and the impish little goons are treated like the legendary gangsters in Scorsese movies. It's further proof that Scorsese was probably the most influential director for the folks making their way in this decade. He had some gems of his own- I had a relatively tough time leaving The Aviator off this list, and I don't buy for one second that Nicholson ruins The Departed.

8. Adaptation. (Spike Jonze, 2002) It frustrates me that the main gripe about this film- the way the ending develops, especially vis a vis the Donald Kaufman character- is what is so fresh and exciting about it. Everything about it turns the movie over one more time, gives it another level of self-scrutiny, maybe another layer on a movie that is re-skinning itself like an onion.

7. A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (Steven Spielberg, 2001) I don't often pat myself on the back I think, so I suppose it's OK to point out that, while you'll see this movie popping up on decade-ending lists now, that wouldn't have been the case back when it was released. I, however, thought this movie was the shit from day one. I don't have a lot to add outside the boasting- I think no matter what your opinion of the way Spielberg shot it (versus how Kubrick may have, I guess, which was why the movie was down a peg for a lot of people to start), he at least had the wisdom to understand that Kubrick's central idea was the artificially intelligent being's response to maternal longing. Well, he imagined it would be, I guess. For this kid, it's a really tragic quest because you know he came from nothing. That is a serious sense of dread to put on any being.

That's what this story is about, I think. Plus I thought it looked awesome, and so many of it's visual touchstones- the Teddy Bear, the Blue Mother at Coney Island- had very creepy, disturbing qualities to them.

6. No Country for Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2008) For a while, because they were arbitrarily released during the same twelve month span, I felt it my duty to "make a choice" between this and There Will Be Blood, which of course meant that the reaction to this versus the reception given Blood pitted them against one another for me. I picked Blood, and my perception of this got tainted for a while. I can be a fucking raging jackass sometimes.

But, I loved this when I saw it like three times in two weeks back in '08, and I watched it again recently and was drawn right back into it. They seemed at great care to recreate the tone and atmosphere of the book, which was cool, and was part of why you discover Brolin's character's death the way you do. I loved the ending. Even the fruity, boring stuff about the dream. Am I crazy or is this one first movie they were both credited as director? Isn't it usually Joel, director, Ethan, producer? I suppose I could look that up.

5. Kill Bill Vol. 1 (Quentin Tarantino, 2003) You can count this as a vote for the second installment too I guess, but that's also sort of cheating, and I think this one is markedly better. It's tighter, moves quicker, and though it does lack for as much dialogue as you'd expect (a shame from a writer who is almost superhuman in his ability to write dialogue), it is some of the most visually exciting stuff he's ever done. Where the 90s were something of a macho phase, Tarantino's stuff has been almost uniformly feminine in the '00s.

4. WALL*E (Pete Docter, 2008) If you need these things to slot into spots, this would be, along with Eternal Sunshine, the most beautiful love story of the decade. Maybe the last act feels a little bit heavy on the message stuff, but it's an otherwise perfect movie. The comparisons to Chaplin were great but were mostly references to the WALL*E character. It's a lot like all great silent films though- really cinematic in that it's largely visual storytelling, and sometimes that's the best thing to sit in a dark theater and stare at. His junk collection is epic.

3. The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004) Next time you think about how much you hate romantic comedies, think about this movie. I don't mean to say that this proves the romantic comedy a still-living medium. I think I'm torn between saying that it proves how "possessed with greatness Kaufman was writing this movie to make something of that sort of arch into such a bizarrely frightening and beautiful piece of work" and "goes to show- if you're good, you can find yourself being good wherever you put yourself." The second one sounds assholey. To Charlie Kaufman then!

2. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2008) I'm not real sure at what point in making Magnolia it was that Anderson went and visited Kubrick in Europe while he was shooting Eyes Wide Shut. I know about this only because he mentions it a lot in interviews- not dropping it to brag, but explaining larger points by referring back to it, relating stories to it- it struck me as maybe a big deal to him- understandably.

Given that it took Kubrick years to make Eyes, finally coming out in '99 along with Magnolia, it's a safe bet it was before. Prior to this, on Boogie Nights and Hard Eight, he was someone attracted- like the Scorsese/ Sidney Lumet/ Coppola types from the 70s- to telling morality tales through the eyes of outcasts. After the Kubrick set-visit (which included Anderson's being embarrassed about his excessive crew-use in comparison to Kubrick's smaller one), however, his films become much, much more complex, darker, emotional. Magnolia bears as much Robert Altman as it does Kubrick (Altman seems to be disappearing as an influence), but 2002's Punch-Drunk Love (probably would be something like #16 or 17 on this list) was where Anderson started to draw back his characters' showy, expressive outbursts into quiet, mature frustration and fear and anger. Blood and Punch Drunk are his best films- expressions of extraordinary frustration and slow but ferocious reaction. Both Kubrick and Anderson seem to use that calm, smooth movement of camera and stark photography like sober, staring eyes at people unraveling in all sort of ways, sort of like some inhuman observer. What made Punch Drunk so incredible was that the sober eye looks at the "unraveling" that comes when social frustration is finally relieved and is replaced by love. It's a movie about love for people that aren't in it, convincing though it may be.

There Will Be Blood is something different, of course. I don't generally give a flying fuck about actors and performances and that stuff- I respect what that process is, and it certainly adds to a movie, but I like things on that level to be two things: credible and interesting. That's it. If the guy fits the role and seems like he gets what's going on around him- fine. Bonus points if he/ she's fun to look at. But there are certainly exceptions, and, well, obviously this would be one. There are these perfectly realized physical cues he has, the exactness of that voice. It's not just that he's really good- it's such a force that it becomes a part of the storytelling, the composition, stuff like that. It's so exciting to watch, and it makes the film glow.

I recently saw The Shining, in Blu-Ray, the way it was meant to be seen. Now, when I was in high school/ college, I had this serious preoccupation with Kubrick. Like, people would buy me his movies, books about him, t-shirts with him on it. Anyway, I love all of his movies, but the two I could just never connect with in any meaningful way were The Shining and Full Metal Jacket. I still, to this day, don't really get Jacket. I come away from it feeling like I missed something obvious about it.

The Shining was slightly different- I didn't dislike it, it just didn't captivate me like the others did. So seeing it here, where you could feel all the air in those gigantic Overlook Hotel rooms, the colors burning holes in your eyes, the sound of Danny's plastic bike skidding from wood floor to carpet- all the elements of the movie came together, I guess. I think one of my favorite parts of starting to getting older is revisiting works of art I first absorbed when I was much younger, and seeing them now. It really changes how you relate to it, and brings out new elements and ideas you never knew were there the first time around. I love that. But here- something "clicked," and I got this movie. I was blown away.

More specifically, however, the entire presentation of Jack Torrance, alone and small amongst the vast spaces around him, seemingly pre-destined to descend into madness, the jarring uses of avant garde (for a movie score, I guess) music, that same, slow, calm (but moving) eye of the camera- it all reminded me a lot of There Will Be Blood. Right down to the abrupt and pat endings for both- frozen like an icicle and "I'm finished!" All of which is to Blood's credit.

1. Mulholland Dr. (David Lynch, 2000) I've never seen another movie like Mulholland Dr., in every way that phrase can be true. Have you?

Just missed the cut: The Royal Tenenbaums; Synecdoche, NY; Up; Munich; Man on Wire; O Brother, Where Art Thou?

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20 November 2009

Best of 2009

  1. Animal Collective- Merriweather Post Pavilion
  2. The Flaming Lips- Embryonic
  3. Nirvana- Live at Reading
  4. Sonic Youth- Live Battery Park 4 July 2008
  5. Anni Rossi- Rockwell
  6. Yeah Yeah Yeahs- It's Blitz!
  7. Pink Mountaintops- Outside Love
  8. Pains of Being Pure at Heart- Pains of Being Pure at Heart
  9. Dinosaur Jr- Farm
  10. St. Vincent- Actor
  11. Neko Case- Middle Cyclone
  12. No Age- Losing Feeling EP
  13. Kylesa- Static Tensions
  14. Raekwon- Only Built 4 Cuban Linx Pt. II
  15. Sunset Rubdown- Dragonslayer
  16. Dirty Projectors- Bitte Orca
  17. The xx- XX
  18. Bonnie "Prince" Billy- Beware
  19. Screaming Females- Power Move
  20. Oneida- Rated O
  21. Bat for Lashes- Two Suns
  22. Sonic Youth- The Eternal
  23. DOOM- Born Like This
  24. Crystal Antlers- Tentacles
  25. Pissed Jeans- King of Jeans

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19 October 2009


7PM - $5

  • INFO & RSVP here.
  • Become a fan of the show (before even seeing it!) here.
  • Email for info and tickets here.

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17 October 2009

1997: "I'm an island of such great complexity."

On February 11, 1997, Pavement released their fourth studio album, on Matador, Brighten the Corners.

On April 8, 1997, Sleater-Kinney released their third studio album, on Kill Rock Stars, Dig Me Out.

On June 16 1997, Radiohead released their third studio album, on Parlophone/ Capitol Records, OK Computer.

Sometime probably in early July, out of school and just starting work at my first job- a bagel store franchise called Einstein Brothers Bagels- I bought all three of those records in one stop. 1997 was a really weird year. The new job- where we were all forced, in the days leading up the the grand opening, to stand in a giant circle- it being mostly girls my age (just waiting to turn 16)- and take turns calling out our favorite flavor of Einstein Brother's bagel and then the name of someone else in the circle, pointing to them. Corporate "team building" stuff. There- we know names and favorite bagels. This was my first brush with anxiety as well- the moments leading up to work for the first probably two months were indescribably worrisome to me, every single time. I did make some cool friends- there was Jay, the drummer for a hardcore metal band who, though their name annoyingly escapes me at the moment, had a legit EP and sounded pretty professional (cookie monster vocals aside I guess). Jay could fucking play. He was gigantic, and even though I was easily 6'0" at this point, he towered over me. He played big brother, which included scorched-earth dead-arms that would come unprovoked literally out of nowhere and would be followed by some real shit-eating laughter. There was Mike, the frustrated, rosy-cheeked bad boy baker with eyes that were too close together. There was the other Mike, who was into punk like me. There was this older chick who I pestered because she liked the Beatles and the Pixies. There was Ryan, the badass skater dude who was into Nirvana. Stephanie, who was crazy cute. Sensing a theme here? I was a heat seeking missile for the tiniest bit of music interest. I would pry it loose every time though.

Right down the street from Einstein's was, sitting nestled on each side in one of those little mini-strips of stores littered over parts of Fairfield CT (and elsewhere), Murray's Records- owned and operated by Murray himself, a dead ringer for Patrick Swayze (RIP). I loved Murray's Records like I've loved very few things. I'd first gone because a friend at school had mentioned they had Nirvana bootlegs. All the guys who worked there were really nice, but also really cool. I remember the day Chris Farley died- in late 1997, I had to work at 6 AM and we were all up real early, sort of spooked out by it. Well I was anyway.

I went over on my lunch break after eating ("I'm Tim and I love Chocolate Chip bagels!") and bought my first copy of John Lennon's primal scream masterpiece, Plastic Ono Band. See, the CDs sat in the racks unwrapped, which was fucking incredible for a music nerd like me. I would spend hours there opening CDs I couldn't afford, taunting myself with the artwork and words spread out, tempting, already spending future paychecks almost entirely as they came. I'd just have someone change my check to cash and off I went.

So I brought Plastic Ono Band to the desk and the guy (not Murray, a scruffier, hipper dude I think named John) laughed a knowing laugh- "ah yes, perfect for family gatherings, quiet moments, before you go to bed..." Music nerd humor. I thought that guy was the coolest- they were never condescending.

I don't remember when it was, but it seemed like right around the same time- probably the moment I started picking up music magazines- I kept reading everywhere, in scattered places, about these three bands I'd never heard of who all sounded really exciting. Sleater-Kinney was from Portland, OR and "Rolling Stone" said that, at that time, they were on of the drop-dead best live bands in the world. That piqued my interest big-time (this was back when "Rolling Stone" was occasionally worth reading). The other was the massive amount of attention being given to Radiohead's new album, OK Computer. I didn't know much about Radiohead- their name was was carved into the desk I sat in for Western Civ freshman year of high school- two lines, hyphenated. This was a bit before I'd come to embrace, in specific, Britpop (which is what I assumed Radiohead was) and, more generally, most anything English recorded from 1980 on. I was (and kind of still am) bigger on American independent music. I digress.

But the word on this one was that it was of another stripe. If I'd known, I'd already have been digging on The Bends, because OK was nothing new. But it was new in it's greatness, and how immediately obvious it was.

The last band, the most an overthought of the three when I headed over to Murray's after work that day some time in the early summer of '97, was Pavement. The only thing I remember thinking- from those moments I can recall when I knew of this band but wasn't yet completely in love with it- was that "Rolling Stone" gave their new record, Brighten the Corners, a four-star rating, which was a big deal to me back then (Dig Me Out got four as well, OK the eye-popping five). Such was the fever to buy more music I was under, the more precise my measures of acquiring the best I could find became. I scoured the internet on awful pre-Google and Wikipedia fan sites for lists (this is where my love for lists comes from). Let's say Kurt Cobain tells me in some old interview I find to go fucking listen to Beat Happening right fucking now- I need to know which is the best record, and not some crappy b-sides collection or awful live album (ps- it's Black Candy). This was important stuff. I bought The Rolling Stone Album Guide (and still own an updated copy) and could probably still rattle off some of the rankings. They weren't always right (and are rarely so now), but it was a great, great resource.

"Rolling Stone" also, in this review, made mention of something that should have tipped me off- that Pavement was, at it's core, a fantastic god damn guitar band. They have in common with REM a lot of things- but chief among them is the relationship people have to the respective bands' lyrics- they're often frustrated by their obscurity- though in different ways- and it sort of hangs over what is otherwise brilliant music. Stipe's early works were nearly incomprehensible- probably in that they were likely direct references to things that had meaning to him and him alone (and there's certainly something to that). Malkmus' inscrutability is much more rooted in an arm's length- they get roped into being called "slacker rock" sometimes (the same way Nirvana gets roped into "grunge") in part because of this- there's a quality to SM's lyrics that is very much of that era- slightly sarcastic, seeming to want to really be vulnerable and detached at the same time. Again- that tension. All the great shit has it.

So that's naturally the focus with Pavement, and while I love Alex Ross' "New Yorker" piece on the band following Brighten's release (it's in the Nicene Creeders liner notes and definitely worth checking out)- focusing largely on Malkmus' lyrics. Ross notes how most of them exist only as phonetically pleasing in nature. Their ability to fit so seamlessly into his really unique phrasings, despite being angular and articulate at the same time- like a jigsaw puzzles falling into place. It all tends to lend the somewhat absurdities in the bare recitation of the words some pretty cool new and independent meanings. The way they catch rhythm influences how we interpret it. "Most bands were worrying about tackling a concept album- SM's never written a concept song."

So I bought all these three on a total lark one day- three CDs being a pretty solid chunk of change then and now. Of course, Murray's had punch-cards, so how does that hurt me? Months later I was the proud owner of a free copy of the Who's Live at Leeds.

I play Dig Me Out still- I've put "One More Hour" on a few mixtapes. I remember how cool it felt that I was into some angry female punk band from Oregon. They were catchy fucking songs, all about the inter-band romantic tensions (or so I've read). It also has one of the great album covers ever- a great re-imagining of the Kinks' Kink Kontroversy. I saw them years later in New York, and while I thought "Start Together" or "Oh!" were going to be my favorites, "Words and Guitar" fucking melted my face off like a Garbage Pail Kids card. Like end of Raiders of the Lost Ark style. They really were an amazing live band.

Dig Me Out was an intro to a group I still love to this day, but I don't look at Dig Me Out on quite the same plane as the other two. To me, Dig Me Out was their first really great album, and you can take the cover and the sound as a sort of statement that they were ready to branch their sound out a little more, which was cool. Carrie Brownstein talked about loving Pete Townshend which I could really relate to (I worshipped the Who then). She even had a red SG like me. They were moving away from being a riot grrrl punk group and more towards just being a really great rock band. So I think of this band, I think of the three headed monster that is the "Start Together" single/ One Beat/ The Woods. But Dig Me Out is still the shit, mon freres.

"The other two," though, totally blew my mind. I'm going to take a general pass on the OK Computer thing just because it's been done to death and it's becoming increasingly hard to find new ways to say it's close to perfect. I generally think it takes a long time to feel out where a really great album fits in among other really great albums- you can pick the diamonds out, but it takes time to get them back to the surface to compare to the others. Or something.

Some, though, just burst out and it's obvious. Sgt. Pepper's is the classic example (Patti Smith's stories about staying up all night with "A Day in the Life" the day it came out, Jimi learning the title track over the weekend and killing it live in front of Paul days later), but there's London Calling, Blood on the Tracks, Thriller. They're like Babe Ruth at-bats. You seem them coming down the pipe and you think, "I bet he hits a bomb." And then yeah, he does. He hit fucking 60 that year. OK Computer is a no doubt member of this club. It's a weird list- it's not necessarily the best of the best- some records become richer and more rewarding as you slowly acquire a taste for them. Still, OK Computer, with that catastrophic riff opening up "Airbag" (their most underrated song, I think)- just announced itself. It was the first time I was listening to stuff outside my comfort zone of guitarbassdrumswords, and that it was so rewarding made me excited listen to exponentially weirder, wilder stuff.

The Pavement thing hit me harder though. Those are the years when your favorites come in chiseled in stone. You take to something and, if you really love it, you take to it. Jerry Seinfeld has a great bit about how men dress- you can tell what decade he was like 17 or 18 because that's where his taste in clothing freezes. It's true in a lot of ways with music too, and it's only natural- it's when we're most passionate about nearly anything, and when discovering This New Thing really means something special. So yeah, this is when I found Nirvana, Sonic Youth, Pavement, the Velvet Underground, the Stooges. They stuck with me, sue me.

I remember the line, from "Transport is Arranged," where SM says "I vent my spleen at the Lord/ He's so abstract and bored/ Too much milk and honey." I still think that's really funny, but I also remember then, going to school at a Jesuit high school, that this was a dude that probably came from a similar background as me. To this day I don't really know if that's true (where would one go to check on that anyway?), but I immediately identified with him and how he wrote, maybe starting with that line (or the still used "What about the voice of Geddy Lee?..."). I started writing a lot around then, and I wrote songs on my guitar too. All my shit, from this point forward, really read like Pavement lyrics and poetry and all that early-teenage stuff. I liked and read a ton of other stuff, but it was really one of those "if he's doing it, I can do it too" things, owing less to what I thought was his reachable level of talent and more to the personal identification I'd made. I felt like Malkmus and I would be buds. Now I'd probably want to hang with Bob (who is fucking hilarious, let's just be honest. He did a column in one of those old Grand Royal magazines the Beasties put out- came with a bitchin' iron on transfer- on horseracing, which he is an avid follower and participator in).

The guitars on this album are, to a guitar-sound junkie such as myself- almost orgasmic. SM and Spiral Stairs are right there with Thurston and Lee as my favorite guitar duos ever. Pavement produced all their own records (save for OK Computer fifth Beatle/ producer Nigel Godrich), and their sound slowly evolved in it's own way with each one. Say whatever you want about the rest of it, Brighten is the best sounding Pavement record. This is the sound I think of (along with a couple other scattered records) when I think of whatever I'd call a "perfect sound," in a tortured sort of way. The little middle boogie on "Embassy Row," the fucking rawk part on "Transport is Arranged," the dueling Velvet strums on the "Qasar in the mist/ the kaiser has a cyst" line from "Stereo." The way this record sounds is how I want records to sound. Especially after the '02 remaster.

And while Brighten does not rank high amongst their five studio albums, there are some things to consider along with this. All five Pavement albums are capital-G Great. The first two are in the hall of fame, Wowee is the one the hardcore fans (me) gush over, and Terror Twilight has some of their strongest songwriting. So where Brighten ultimately places along that list is largely irrelevant anyway. In addition to this, Brighten's material is the work that translates best live- "Type Slowly" became, with "And Then (the Hexx)" (a Brighten-era song that ended up on Terror Twilight), one of their guitar freak-outs- where SM and Spiral would get to spin their web of chord shapes and bouncing harmonies. "This next song is called 'Fin,' EFF-EYE-ENNN... like a shark!" Malkmus says this before the band plays a gorgeous version of the song from the Record Store exclusive live album Live Europaturnen MCMXCVII. It makes me laugh every time. He says it so strangely. Stuart Berman from Pitchfork wrote, in a great write up after the reissue, that "Fin," the album's closer, was "among the most affecting in the band's catalogue", and that while it signified really for the first time the next phase of the Malkmus Sound as it were (thicker, fuzzier, drawn out post-punk jams- and a cool twist: drummer Janet from Sleater-Kinney plays with singer/ guitarer SM from Pavement now in the Jicks), it also marked the end of goofball Pavement. Except for the "Carrot Rope" video, obviously.

(I love Wowee Zowee unconditionally, but I am more excited to hear "Type Slowly," "Transport is Arranged" or "The Hexx" than I am anything from that record (when I see them live and my head explodes next September, that is). Well, "Fight this Generation" would be cool. Whatever, I'll move on.)

I got really into Brighten, then soon bought Slanted and Enchanted and Crooked Rain really close together. Slanted was an early favorite, but Crooked has won out all these years. That album is just the best. Recorded on 30th St. right above Rogue Music (and not in fucking California).

Later that summer my grandfather died, and I turned 16. It was really sad, but I started feeling really creative, and Pavement was a huge part of that for me. I used to turn my room into a recording studio and rock the fuck out, dubbing over myself four or five times, building up sounds with my guitar. It was fun. I've looked everywhere for those "albums" I recorded (I remember the names of all three of them) on tape, but I can't find them anywhere. The first one, the one I recorded summer of 1997, probably sounded a lot like Slanted and Enchanted (but by a 15 year old who couldn't really play a guitar) crossed with the first Ramones record (but by a 15 year old who couldn't really write songs) and a generous helping of Nirvana (but by a 15 year old armed with a $4 microphone from Sam Goody and a boombox), which was more or less the ketchup of my musical diet- I had it with everything. I called it Plastic/ Electric, which I still like.

Everybody that's read this far probably has a year they remember, almost a romantic one with music- where everything feels so great and sky-high and you can't get enough of any of it. There were a lot of other great albums released that year too- Shellac's Terraform; Belle & Sebastian's breakout, If You're Feeling Sinister, Ween's classic The Mollusk; Mike Watt's Contemplating the Engine Room; Elliott Smith's best record, either/ or; my favorite rap single of all time, Wu Tang Clan's "Triumph;" Yo La Tengo's I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One; Dylan's epic Time Out of Mind; "Spin" Magazine Album of the Year, Cornershop's When I Was Born for the 7th Time; Spiritualized's Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating Through Space; Mogwai's Young Team; Blur's Blur (their "Pavement-y" sounding album, with "Song 2," which may or may not be about Bob Nastanovich); Bjork's Homogenic; Built to Spill's Perfect From Now On- of course, the Foo Fighters' The Colour and the Shape- I really loved the Foo Fighters then (they also reissued the Smithsonian Folkways Anthology of American Folk Music, which is in-fucking-credible).

If you remember, this was when everyone was supposed to be listening to "electronica," which more or less fractured into a millions smaller (and ultimately really cool) parts on arrival and never happened like everyone was saying it would. It was also the start of the Spice Girls, which, in the wake of the grunge and alternative late-decade swoon, reaffirmed the audience and viability of R&B/ dance based pop music. From there came the NSYNCs and Backstreets on the bad end and the influence of early Michael Jackson through the emerging hip hop thing on the good end (bringing us close to where we are now, with most rock music still basically absent as a consistent presence on pop charts).

All of which obscured what was a pretty great year for new music.

(I had a similar feeling in 1999, my first year in college in New York, going to the movies. My friend Bill and I saw almost literally everything- I was really interested in movies then, and it turned out to be a sensational year- a whole ten years ago, and a handful of full fledged classics. I feel lucky for those things.)

Murray's closed down a couple years later- obviously a dying breed. I got to relive my record store fetish by working at one for three years in college. A whole other ball of wax: the music of '01/'02...

Pavement- "Fin" live from, I believe, '97.

Pavement- "Stereo" a pretty crappy music video, but some funny Bob stuff and West in a Civil War outfit. Plus, the "I know him, and he does." Priceless.

Sleater-Kinney- "Words and Guitar" live at CBGB's, 1997

Radiohead- "Airbag" live on Jools Holland, 1997

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28 September 2009

B.A. Robertson- "Knocked it Off" b/w "Sci-Fi" (1979 Asylum Records)

This one called out to me from the Bleecker Bob's crap bin- the front cover is a fairly ugly and hacky cartoon illustration of, one had to assume, Robertson himself- complete with a frighteningly huge nose and Shadoe Stevens haircut, leaning up against a giant fountain pen looking like he was shooting a promo for his new comedy-drama from 1981 on CBS about a private eye who likes to go clubbing. Then, looming on the back was, in fact, Robertson himself- this time posed with his guitar, his shadow on the wall. Skinniest jeans and a floppy hair cut. Plus, these insane lyrics:

Some of us have talent
And some of us just haven't
Some are super sensitive
Like Mr. Spock

I have my creativity
Think of my sensitivity
You know I really love my art
We think you are boring

Well, turns out Robertson was a fairly successful late-70s/ early 80s pop star on the UK charts- "Knocked it Off," which reached number eight, was the follow-up single to his biggest hit, "Bang Bang," also from 1979 (they're both off his Initial Success album).

It's hard to really land on an opinion for this song. My first reaction was just short of disgust because it had those synthesized disco strings as part of the opening riff, but it does have a really cool hook that's too snotty to be disco. It starts with those strings before leading into a group of singers hush-singing the title over a funky little guitar part.

His vocal performance is pretty cool- the new wave kind of sneer sound there a bit, plus he's a Scot. The start-stop rhythm of that big chorus is great, too. Those fucking string sounds are just terrible though, and not even funky enough to have that going for it. These passages sort of remind me of "Tonight's the Night" era Rod Stewart- just way overdone on the obvious disco touches. That sliding, gilded sound that has a really pallid undercurrent. Hate it. The best you could say for it would be the slight Paul Simon via Graceland influence on the tight little guitar part.

He certainly seems to have a sense of humor- which may shed some light on the disco hybrid of the verse, but I sort of doubt that. Those parts sound dated in the worst way, nothing particularly interesting about the sound of it. The hook comes in and out more as it moves along, and so the new wave half seems to win out over the soul of the song.

If nothing else, this song is far more interesting than the bare printing of his lyrics would suggest. What about these lyrics compelled him to include them on the back cover of a single? During the verses, over his glittery backwash of sound, he does sort of bark out a lot of these words- almost like Stipe in "It's the End of the World As We Know It." I guess it's possible he thought some of these little bon mots ("Tell them they can stuff it/ I'm not gonna ruff it/ In some Granada Ghia/ I was top of the pops") were clever in that concise, brief sort of way. Filling up space?

Either way I think, if nothing else, "Knocked it Off" is an interesting drop in the bucket of my theory that rock lyrics, with some very notable exceptions, are more or less interchangeable, or- insignificant. What appears (and really is, actually) almost painfully stupid on paper can actually stand by and support a song in just filling a simple role. I've always felt a great song can have pretty dopey lyrics. Vice versa, too. I mean, I'd read and was excited about hearing these inane lyrics being performed in earnest... and I still barely noticed them when I put the record on. Well, except the "Spock" line.

I know a lot of people really respond to new wave in general- the best of which I really like too. But in a lot of ways, a song like "Knocked it off" is the worst of new wave- somewhat formulaic, opportunistic (hammering tracks laid already by punk, disco, funk and rockabilly). New wave was, at it's worst, a vulture of a genre, picking off still twitching parts from already-dying styles.

But still, I sort of liked this. Here's B.A. today. As for the song- check it out:


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14 September 2009

WANNABES- "Dead True" b/w "Itchin' Jenny" (1992/ Biffco Records)

Wax. So a few weeks ago I decided that the act of walking into one of NYC's remaining few record stores and buying a 7" that I was either entirely unaware of or something unique/ funny would be excellent fodder for a little feature to be done here. Plus, hey, it's not much but patronizing record stores is important.

I'm not sure what ended up happening to my old turntable, so getting the new one has been some slight delay. That being said, I have stocked up on some stuff that I think will, at the very least, be fun to write about. Fun to read about is another story altogether (it always is).

My first selection is (technically) the b-side of a single from a band called The Wannabes. I came upon the Wannabes while sifting through the "indie" bargain stuff at Bleecker Bob's. As you can see above here, it was labeled by someone, somewhere as being "GRUNGY TEXAS." Christ, man. Sold!

Near as I can tell, this is the Wannabes Myspace page. Of course, owing to their status as an underground rock band, a name like the Wannabes- it could be anybody. However- the bio starts by describing them as "Austin’s favorite band to see when nobody else good is playing," and goes on to describe their beginning: "crawled out of the DFW mid-cities in 1985 where nobody good was ever playing with the help of founding members and childhood friends, Jennings Crawford and Hunter Darby." That sort of feels right. Plus- when you hear the song- this band is from Austin.

And so it is right- here they are on AllMusic- which, in their overview, mentions this very single. It's actually sort of important info- AllMusic lists "Dead True" as the A-side, which is news to me since both sides are labeled "B" (cute) and "Itchin' Jenny" - the song I'm going to look at- is so clearly better. Either way- they mention it came out in 1992, and I can report from the label that it was on Biffco Records, possibly a one-record storefront. There is, however, a British label called Biffco that put out the Spice Girls records among others. Doubt it's the same one.

I think the story of this find is that ridiculously perfect classification Sharpie'd on the front- "GRUNGY TEXAS." Grungy actually might be a bit of a misnomer- they're closer to something like the Replacements sloppiness and who-gives-a-shit vibe (present more early on for them) plus something off of Nuggets- garagey, catchy, simple riff-rock- but it's the "TEXAS" that nails it. This is a Texas band.

It starts with that early-90s indie driving rhythm and strumming- there's some really cool second-guitar stuff on the opening riff, which is what makes this promising from the get-go. The danger for a band like this, honestly, is that they start drifting into Soul Asylum territory- which is a really inauthentic bar band sound. There's something about the buoyancy of the riff that makes it mostly immune to going too far in that direction, though. Or, likewise, making it sound too BUZZ BIN or, yeah, "grungy." It's a nice balance of sounds- even some Neil on the crashing open chords.

I love a great guitar sound, and "Itchin' Jenny" has a really great, sharp guitar sound, especially in the few parts where they stray a bit from pub rhythm and into some dueling guitar parts. They're spare enough that you know these guys were worried people would think it indulgent, which is a shame because they're good at it. Maybe there's more of it on the rest of their catalogue.

This is a really dynamic, well produced little song. Turns out, as I'm just now discovering- it was produced by a guy named John Croslin, who went on to work with Guided by Voices, Spoon, and Mates of State. Sort of not surprising- it really does sound that good. I was expecting something considerably sloppier, like it was recorded in someone's shed or something.

The vocals really aren't much to get excited about- the slacker-sneer of that time. The lyrics are mostly mumbled throughout but what you do get is fun, and pretty clearly not the point. I like the vocal parts too, right down to the intentionally dodgy stabs at harmony.

So "Itchin' Jenny"- the far superior b-side to the plodding "Dead True"- is a really solid rock-n-roll song, deftly maneuvering over it's three-and-half-minute lifespan around every pitfall you'd expect them to stumble on as the song starts. But it rocks, it moves, and then it ends. Can't complain about that.

But you know what I like to think about? I like to think about what kind of journey the Wannabes had. These guys met in high school- they're amazing when they're in their niche- they weren't great guitar players, but they could catch fire with that casual, insistent stomp. I bet they got on stage every single night and just killed it. They were a band that seem to inherently understand what it was to be "in a band," in terms of chemistry and direction. They were obviously a live band- they relied nearly completely on dynamics- but they have a sound, an identity. This is what can be truly exciting about independent American music- the way this band can be such unknowns up East, but are likely still legends in Austin. They're one of those great "scene" bands- the ones that open for everybody and have the local sound boiled down perfectly. "Itchin' Jenny" is on a lot of jukeboxes down there, I promise you, and not too many up here. That that sort of provincial gap can still exist is fun to me, for some reason.

Now, if you Google "Itchin' Jenny," besides a lot of links describing it's use as slang for female genitalia there is this account of a reunion gig for the band in October of '01, a positive review:

While the evening clearly belonged to the Wild Seeds, the Wannabes and the Rite Fliers turned in solid, enjoyable sets as well. The 'Bes opened with two new tunes but then stuck to their own classics, to the delight of their loyal following (not coincidentally the same audience as that for the Seeds). "Itchin' Jenny," "Every Star Mary," "Boxing Manual" and a ferocious "I Am God" displayed their easy mastery of melody and louder-than-God crunch, and set closers "You May Be Right" (yes, the Billy Joel song) and "Glandma" proved that punk rock doesn't have to be anarchy to be exciting.

That last line is very, very true and a great observation (about this band especially). Then, a listing for the 1992-93 Austin Chronicle (the newspaper that "discovered" Daniel Johnston) "Austin Music Awards," (awards that are a pretty big deal locally in Austin) where "Itchin' Jenny" came in as the third best single of the year, behind only Arc Angels' "Sweet Nadine" and Ricky Broussard's "Angels Cry."

Here's the song to listen to- check it out!


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29 August 2009

Top Ten TV Shows of the Decade (Non Talk/ Variety Column)

This one is a bit tougher to define than you'd think, so I'll just say this- the show has to be known for being "from" this decade. It can have a significant portion of it's episodes in this one as well, but let's assume every show is assigned one decade to fall in. Most will be easy. This is my way of saying The Simpsons isn't eligible because it's definitely in the 90s column. Also, I'll be handling the likes of Letterman and Conan and all that sort of stuff in a different list, far far away. Freaks and Geeks is 99.

Again, in Jamesian/ Christgauian capsule fashion. The Top. Ten.

10. Da Ali G Show - All apologies, but I'd call it The Borat Show. That movie still stands up real well. Bruno was solid. He was really smart largely confining Ali G to the TV show and letting the show be little tastes for the big movies, as those two characters really translated well. Best: "Throw the Jew down the well!"

09. Deadwood - I don't care how tired a point it is- the writing is just so fantastic. The antidote to the mouthbreathers that love how Aaron Sorkin has people speak. Milch owns. How it ended (as in, not at all) wasn't right. Best: EB Farnum, Mayor.

08. Arrested Development - I was way late to the boat on this one, but I got them all in one big burst more or less just as it was ending. It's such a weird show because the sense of humor is so hard to define or compare. It is sort of close to a live action take on The Simpsons in a way- the absurdity, the in-jokes, the visual puns, the satire. Best: "The Final Countdown," Europe

07. The Office (BBC) - Brevity is the soul of wit. Best: Brent's angry season 2 boogie in the office lobby.

06. Battlestar Galactica - I wasn't in love with how they did the end of the finale, but this show was almost inexplicably good. I always thought the association with the old show was odd. I wouldn't say it was a necessary element to whatever you want to say it was and the name definitely turned a lot of people off. Which is too bad because it couldn't be a more simple, direct story (believe it or not), and they do a great job with it. Best: "Watchtower"

05. Curb Your Enthusiasm - I'll be honest and say that a large part of this show being so high on the list comes from my steely, nerd-alert confidence that the Beatles-esque reunion- done, like a Seinfeld reunion would have to be done, with a guarded twist- will be the best season of what's already been an incredible riff on the neurotic navel gaze. Best: The 5-Wood; "can I use the familiar tu form?"

04. Lost - I think this show, in a lot of ways, is dismissed in large part as sort of escapist fare- on some level, it definitely is. I don't mean to blow it entirely out of proportion; it is a flawed show. That said- what this show has been able to do telling stories on so many different levels (in every sense of the phrase) is it's greatest strength. That something this profoundly strange- oddball physics, Joyce, Caravaggio, blah blah blah- is this popular blows my mind. I think it's awesome. Hitchcockian! Best: Season Three Finale, "Through the Looking Glass"

03. Mad Men - These top three are largely interchangable, with one caveat- I'm not sure how much I like where season three of this show has started (after two episodes, as of this writing). That much aside, it doesn't have the bulk of achievement one and two have yet, but it absolutely has all the chops they do, and it feels like only a waiting game until they catch up there too. Still waters run deep. Best: "The Long Weekend"

02. The Sopranos - This is the "complicated" great one. Having rewatched it, I beg people- your first impressions were all tied up in expectations related to the insanely indulgent breaks in between seasons. When you can watch it in the scope of a longer story, moments that many (myself not included) hated- like the dream sequences and long abstractions about nothing- are what really enrich the larger story and, incidentally, are really compellingly done. They laid some clunkers for sure- their handling of black/ hip-hop culture really was sort of embarrassing, but this was like Tolstoy on TV. (And for the record, the finale kicked fucking ass) Best: Christopher Moltisanti; "Cold Stones"

01. The Wire - Too perfect for words. Best: Season Four- maybe the greatest season of a TV show ever.

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19 August 2009

Top Twenty Albums of the Aughts

Normally I'd wait until December but then I noticed Pitchfork was doing their's soon, so I wanted to do mine before I saw that one and got influenced by it. I mean this to be a "best" and not a "favorite," but keep in mind the sort of new stuff I'm more likely to listen to. Ideally you'd do this in earnest five years from now when all the records from the last couple years would have their due digestion time. But that's not as fun.

I'm going to do these Bill James/ Christgau-capsule style.

20. Joanna Newsom- Ys (2005)

19. Fugazi- The Argument (2001) I never really fully embraced Fugazi- they were a really great band, but a great band that was sort of born of a better one. This album is undeniable, though. A great guitar record, the catchiest shit Ian MacKaye ever recorded, and a drum sound to die for. Join the ranks of Big Star, The Sex Pistols and, arguably the Beatles (if we're counting Abbey Road) in counting their last album as their best. BT: "The Argument"

18. Jay Reatard- Blood Visions (2006) I love the guitar sound on this record, a legitimate garage rock classic with more punk in the mix than the stuff of the Garage Rock Revival from nearer the start of the decade. BT: "Oh it's Such a Shame"

17. The Boredoms- Vision Creation Newsun (2001)

16. Battles- Mirrored (2007) One of the better debuts of the decade, it has a brilliant cut-and-paste sound with a really live feel. A lot of comparisons were given to prog, but I didn't see it- prog in spirit, maybe, but it's a post-hardcore/ math rock thing. A minor point, but still. The breakdown in the middle of "Tonto" is mind-expanding. BT: "Tonto"

15. Ween- White Pepper (2000) The biggest similarity I see between Ween and someone like Zappa isn't in the humor or irreverence or goofiness- it's the use of those things set against great records. From the spacey drums on the opener to the smooth 70s rock of "Bananas and Blow." BT: "Flutes of Chi"

14. PJ Harvey- White Chalk (2007) History will judge this one of her absolute best. A lot of these lists will have Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea on them, her '01 NYC-inspired return-to-form. It's a good album, but I guess I thought it dulled too many of her edges. This one, though, is a dark, airy, spooky album. It might be her strongest collection of lyrics, like a diary of ghost stories. BT: "White Chalk"

13. Arcade Fire- The Funeral (2004) At about mid-decade, it was looking like this was going to be a lock as one of the two or three best when it came time for this very task. That's before we got to know them and found them- while certainly still excellent- a little overbearing and, uh, earnest. These tunes are still really good, but some records stay with you and some burn bright and fade over time. BT: "Rebellion (Lies)"

12. Kanye West- The College Dropout (2004) I tend to think all his albums being of basically the same quality- he hasn't really tread a ton of new ground from release to release since the debut (save for 808s, which, as a noble failure, is nearly a lock to go underrated) but the ground he treads is pretty interesting. This one wins for having "Jesus Walks," one of his patented (and somewhat hard to take entirely seriously) "soul-searching" tracks. BT: "Jesus Walks"

11. Jay- Z- The Blueprint (2001) Do you ever get the impression that Jay-Z takes the 9/11 connection a little too seriously? Either way, this is one of those hip-hop testaments, a moment where all the boastings become simple statements of fact. Also, speaking as a huge Nas fan- Jay eviscerates him here. "One hot album every ten year average." Ouuuuccch. BT: "Izzo (HOVA)"

10. Animal Collective- Merriweather Post Pavilion (2009) I'm not going to talk about anything but how this is a really catchy, fun, inventive, weird, exciting album. I love the way it sounds- bouncy, chaotic, stoned. Maybe this one doesn't last in such a high spot over the years, but I stand by it right now. BT: "My Girls"

09. Outkast- Stankonia (2000) The second half of their twin masterpieces (the other being 1997's funk supernova, Aquemini). I remember exactly where I was standing when I first heard "B.O.B." Watching on the 13" TV in my dorm room in the Bronx, I walked all the way down Fordham Road the next day and found one of those CD stores with the shiney walls and cheap synthesizers for sale to get it. That single, released nine months into 2000, is still the best song of the decade. "POWER/ MUSIC/ ELECTRIC REVIVAL!" BT: "B.O.B."

08. Interpol- Turn on the Bright Lights (2001) If you're a nascent NYC rock band, and you're going to rip off either Joy Division or The Velvets- I have to say, I'd want to hear the Joy Division band. What's new about an American rock group that sounds like the Velvets? I say "rip off" with love, of course. People honed in on the Joy Division stuff because that element of the sound is naturally going to be very distinctive. But, they American-ized it, adding dashes of Mission of Burma style tension and some Sonics brand of garage. BT: "Obstacle 1"

07. Radiohead- In Rainbows (2007) As great a moment as the "pay what you wish" experiment was (I paid $9.00 USD), you almost have to wonder if it ultimately will come to overshadow the actual record. It's the first thing people always mention (like me, apparently). But honestly, I probably would have rated this even higher if it weren't the same band sitting at number one (SPOILER ALERT), but there's an art to these lists, man. It's all fuckin' politics anyway. BT: "Reckoner"

06. Wilco- Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2001) I think this would be a great opportunity to mention that six of the twenty albums on this list were recorded or released in 2001. A very deep year. Jim O'Rourke had a hand in this, of course, and while Wilco are no slouches- this is so clearly their greatest work it almost seems like a different band. Like they were possessed. Should give In Rainbows fans hope- the quality of the album has outlived the tumult surrounding its release. BT: "Jesus, Etc."

05. The Avalanches- Since I Left You (2000) The great kitchen-sink album of the aughts: think a more feminine Paul's Boutique. The Bomb Squad doing DJ Shadow doing the Las. The title track is pure summer on wax. BT: "Frontier Psychiatrist"

04. Ghostface Killah- Fishscale (2006) This is his Time Out of Mind- he's reinvigorated, but he's an elder now. The closest any Wu project- solo or otherwise- got to the band's epic early peak. The follow up, The Big Doe Rehab was like his Love & Theft. Think about it, dude. BT: "9 Milli Bros."

03. Sleater-Kinney- One Beat (2001) OK don't freak out on me. I know this one's out of left field. This was a great, great band, and this might be their best record. The only thing that really sets it apart is the quality of the songs- boring to talk about, but sometimes shit's just real good and that's all there is to it. BT: "O2"

02. Sonic Youth- Murray Street (2002) For a band this great to take such a new shape was one thing- but that such an evolution could be so amazing and seemingly well within the band's reach. Their first with O'Rourke as a member, they survived the Great Guitar Heist of 99 and turned into one of the more gracefully aging bands in pop music history. BT: "Rain on Tin"

01. Radiohead- Kid A (2000) I'm not sure, but this may also be the oldest record on the list. It's all noise and forshadowing. A worthy successor to OK Computer. BT: "Everything in its Right Place"

JUST MISSED THE CUT: M.I.A.- Kala, TV on the Radio- Dear Science, The Microphones- The Glow, Pt. 1, The White Stripes- White Blood Cells, Erykah Badu New Amerykah Part One (4th World War), Anni Rossi- Rockwell, Panda Bear- Person Pitch, Mastodon- Leviathan, Bob Dylan- Love + Theft, The Wrens- Meadowlands

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29 July 2009

We're Still Broadcasting...

... just trying to finish work on a long-term project, so this place has suffered. Tonight, as part of my "tiny distraction time" I made a list of my 25 favorite books. OK I made a list of my 55 favorite books but I'll spare you that level of insanity.

A lot of these really had a lot to do with how this project comes out for sure.

  1. Ulysses, James Joyce
  2. The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner
  3. The Heart of the Matter, Graham Greene
  4. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
  5. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S Thompson
  6. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce
  7. Billy Budd: Sailor (An Inside Narrative), Herman Melville
  8. Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
  9. Moby-Dick, Herman Melville
  10. Blood Meridian, or: the Evening Redness in the West, Cormac McCarthy
  11. Jude the Obscure, Thomas Hardy
  12. The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, Bill James
  13. Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert
  14. As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner
  15. The Divine Comedy, Vol. 1: The Inferno, Dante Alighieri
  16. The Power and the Glory, Graham Greene
  17. The Power Broker, Robert Caro
  18. Dubliners, James Joyce
  19. War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy
  20. The Waves, Virginia Woolf
  21. Rabbit, Run, John Updike
  22. Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison
  23. James Joyce, Richard Ellman
  24. Daisy Miller and Turn of the Screw, Henry James
  25. The Victim, Saul Bellow

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