Monthly Archives: January 2012

new influences

I can basically second Brandon’s anticipation of new music from the Magnetic Fields and Frankie Rose, especially since both have released promo tracks that sound so wildly different from their most recent releases.

Stephin Merritt’s last release with the Magnetic Fields (Realism) struck me as music for musicologists: humorless and self-congratulatory where his best stuff has always been wry and deceptively unassuming.  It’s also heartening to hear those trademarked tinny synths on the aforementioned “Andrew in Drag” — those cheap sounds are part of the bizarre alchemy that made the MFs’ dizzying run through the ’90s so virtuosic and yet somehow approachable (culminating, of course, with the unimpeachable 69 Love Songs) .

Frankie Rose released an album (with the Outs) in 2010 that had a lot in common with Girls Dum Dum and Vivian (naturally, Ms. Rose was a member of both bands).  “Know Me”, while not exactly rejecting that blueprint, throws new influences (Brandon called them dreamy and I’ll go with slick) in the mix and the results are more than promising.

Rather than spending this entire post congratulating my colleague on his impeccable taste, I’ll point out a few more 2012 items I’m looking forward to:

Lower Dens – Nootropics (05/1 Ribbon)

I guess we shouldn’t be surprised by anything Jana Hunter does any more.  After two albums and an EP of psych-folk released under her own name, the first Lower Dens album hit in 2010.  With her new bandmates, her sound became decidedly more plugged in and blissed out, but their new album (with new members and on a new label) seems to be headed in a more rhythmic direction.  Yes, please.

Sharon Van Etten – Tramp (02/7 Jagjaguwar)

If Sharon Van Etten is ever going to blow up, it will be with this record.  Her quiet 2009 debut got its fair share of love and a year later her more assertive sophomore effort gained her some more traction in indie circles, leading to her third album on her third label.  This one features a veritable rogues gallery of talent — Matt Barrick (Walkmen), Zach Condon (Beirut), Jenn Wasner (Wye Oak), Julianna Barwick and Aaron Dessner (the National) — but Van Etten has hardly given up creative control.  (You really ought to check out the performance of this song on Fallon.)

Xiu Xiu – Always (03/6 Polyvinyl)

It’s hard to be indifferent to the music that Jamie Stewart makes.  He does a lot of yelping over dissonance, I guess.  Ten years into the Xiu Xiu brand, I still love it.

of Montreal – Paralytic Stalks (02/7 Polyvinyl)

The last oM record should have been a lot bigger, what with appearances by Solange Knowles and Janelle Monáe and a tour that produced a bewildering cynicism when critics should have been more content to be bowled over by ridiculousness.

Today I discovered CYRK by Cate Le Bon, an album that was released last Tuesday and is streaming at KCRW until the 24th.  If you like Nico, I think you can dig it.

In the cinematic world, The Playlist has really done all the work for us, breaking down their most anticipated releases of the year into indie, foreign-language, escapist/popcorn, and, er, films.  It will almost definitely be a stellar year at the movies.

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Exploratory committee

In this post I’d like to ask what everyone is looking forward to in music this year. Are any of your favorite artists expected to release new albums? Have you discovered any great tracks from upcoming discs? Feel free to talk about movies or life events also.

I’ll begin.

The Magnetic Fields – Love at the Bottom of the Sea (03/06 Merge)

“Andrew in Drag” is the best song I’ve heard all year. That’s only three weeks, but I feel comfortable predicting an extended run. How do you go about writing yet another version of the kind of song that’s been done so many times throughout your band’s long career? It’s easy, just do a good job. Things will turn out OK.

Frankie Rose – Interstellar (02/21 Slumberland)

More Slumberland love. “Know Me” gets away from current garage revivalism and encroaches upon the dream-pop style of much of the Captured Tracks roster, but it still has a little Dum Dum Girls boldness in the vocal delivery.

Grimes – Visions (02/21 4AD)

Last year’s “Vanessa” was a superb piece of weird music, and “Genesis” (above) from the forthcoming Visions is right up there in terms of being addictive and also kind of disquieting, sort of like those duplicate pictures where everything is the same except for a few little unassuming details. It’s also strange how you can’t really isolate the 50s rock and roll, contemporary radio pop, and 80s Cocteau Twins styles, but they all seem to be there, competing for primacy.

Tanlines – Mixed Emotions (03/20 True Panther)

Tanlines are one of the few notable American bands doing the balearic electronic pop thing (a style I associate a lot more with Scandinavian artists). They’re a bit harder edged and beat driven than a project like Elite Gymnastics (also worth checking out, for a ton of free mixtapes and a great LP out on Acéphale). Tanlines have been around for a little while now without releasing a truly accomplished full-length album. I’m hoping Mixed Emotions finally makes good on the promise of some of their better tracks: at their best they sound self-possessed and incredibly clear.

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The 90s, continued

The first and only Smashing Pumpkins CD I ever bought was Machina: The Machines of God. Without being too familiar with their catalogue, I would assume that this was the low point of their career, at least until the band was resuscitated, or whatever it was that happened, sometime in the past decade. Machina arrived in the first year of the new millennium, thereby symbolizing THE END of the Smashing Pumpkins and the questionable decade of rock music they represented.

I wish I had had a more agreeable introduction to the band, but times were tough: I spent my early teenage years under pretty strict parental media censorship, and it was the only SP album that far-right Christianist magazine Plugged In, whose “reviews” consisted mainly in the simple enumeration of cuss words (and, possibly, minor chords), deemed suitable to breach the threshold of upright ear canals. As much as I wanted to like that album at that time, it was apparent that there was cooler stuff to be heard in the Christian rock genre. To clarify, there was really no cool stuff in the Christian rock genre. As John Jeremiah Sullivan observed in an essay I would recommend, which can be read here or in the book Pulphead, Christian rock subverts itself into being logically incapable of being cool, or good. It does so primarily in a different way than Seth meant by his suggestion that the attempt to be cool sabotages itself, but that mechanism is there, too.

The main trend in modern American Protestant churches is to falsely reconcile with pop culture: multimedia “message” presentations might feature secular movie clips; the praise band, bedizened impressively in current alternative fashions, as if they were being filmed (and often, they are), might perform an Adele song as a lead-in to the service; you might see seamlessly automated lights and graphics throughout the ritual (surely an antiquated term – spectacle does the job better). Some congregation members will defend these window dressings, although most won’t see the need to, by claiming that they are merely inviting gestures meant to ease new members into church fellowship, but you don’t have to be all that bitter and cynical to recognize that it’s less about saving souls than it is about crass growth. I may be an apostate, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t lament the ruthless thoroughness with which the ideology of free-market capitalism has hollowed out the dominant form of practiced Christianity in America today.

But weren’t we talking about the Smashing Pumpkins? I would like to find a way to connect this little tirade to the discussion. The cynical cultural positioning I’ve witnessed in Protestant churches is related to the point about coolness, since the intentional gesture toward relevance undermines itself. But this makes me think of two things: 1) Why are we right when we say that the Smashing Pumpkins and a tasteful arrangement of a pop song in a church service are definitely not cool? Lots of people apparently think they are cool. 2) The point about trying to seem cool and always failing seems to be complicated by the face of current indie music. I don’t want to pick on any single band, but there’s so much crate-digging and mining of old pop styles formerly considered garish, that a lot of it must be motivated by the intention of becoming cool. And I think that that was just a wordy, complicated way of saying that it would be foolish to ignore that many young people get involved in music scenes and subcultures with the aim of being cool. And it seems to me that it would also be an error to claim that all these scene-crashers fail in that attempt out of trying too hard. It works out for some of them. They attain coolness. But this doesn’t address Seth’s question about longevity and legacy. Maybe there’s a long-term mechanism for weeding out the less sincere artists.

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