Author Archives: sethvalentine

More Useless Noise

One of the things I hate about the internet (and there are millions) is the way that it makes every single argument a shouting contest and every jackass gets to air their (usually racist or misogynist) two bits without any vetting, regardless of qualifications. I’m going to throw my two cents in here though on the Daniel Tosh blow-up because it’s really rankled me. Feel free to ignore it.

The Daniel Tosh scandal is an interesting confluence for me because it combines two things that I loathe: the “comedy” of Daniel Tosh and rape. First, the “comedian.” I have never found Daniel Tosh even remotely funny. His smug, self-satisfied delivery style and sub-frat house level of discourse lights up my limbic system like the Fourth of July with rage. I’ve never once heard him say anything I find even remotely funny. His Comedy Central show is even worse. At this point, I don’t know anyone who either has trouble finding YouTube clips or likes it when their friends make them watch videos. Can you think of a more annoying sentence than “Hey bro, you GOTTA see this YouTube!!” Watching some grinning prick make Bob Saget-on-amphetamine-like comments about internet videos is about as appealing to me as a root canal sans novocaine. But whatever. He’s famous and I’m not so I’m sure somebody must find him funny. 

Anyone who has had the misfortune of speaking to me for an extended period of time also knows that there are few things that send me into as blind of a rage as sexual violence (Republicans and Yankees fans are about it). This is not a uniquely noble or notable view–I would hope that all rational humans agree–and I don’t bring it up to paint myself as some sort of folk hero. There are certain things about the world that set everyone off and mine happens to be rape. I don’t think there’s anything as dehumanizing or degrading and I can’t even begin to imagine the psychic and physical pain that accompany it. I think it’s a bigger problem than a lot of people realize, especially when you look at the statistics about unreported rapes. (It’s a little more than half, by this estimate). This shit destroys lives but it often goes unnoticed because of the shame and stigma attached to being a victim, to say nothing of the outright blaming of women who are sexually assaulted. In a fairer world, anyone who used the phrase “she had it coming” would have their tongue removed as they have conclusively proven themselves to be too stupid to contribute anything of merit to the human world. Still, look at the number of celebrities and athletes who have been accused of rape and suffered almost no consequences–Ben Roethlisberger, Jerramy Stevens, Mike Tyson, Ted Kennedy, Sebastian Janikowski, Ramon Castro, etc., etc. etc. Michael Vick served jail time for DOG FIGHTING. It is not a great stretch of the imagination for a woman in today’s world to imagine that her safety matters less to the criminal justice system than the life of a few pit bulls. Anyway, the point is this is a really big problem and it is absolute garbage for anyone–and especially a man whose risk is so much less–to trivialize the seriousness of sexual violence. That is contributing directly to the rape culture that makes this okay in the first place.

So, given all this, my blood pressure was primed to skyrocket when I saw the first reports that Daniel Tosh had made some rape jokes. (You can read about the incident and his weaksauce apology here). There has already been a lot written about this (excellent coverage here and here). What really brings my piss to a boil about this, though, is the need that other comedians feel to defend this scumbag. Here’s why:

NOTE: Before I begin, I will concede that there are multiple versions of this story and, as such, the truth probably lies somewhere in between all these accounts of the event. Still, I think her complaint bears hearing out.

1) Claims that the woman was in the wrong because she “heckled” Tosh. Patton Oswalt, in his supportive Tweet, was upset that Tosh would have to apologize for something he did onstage, especially since the woman was interrupting his show. Look, I get it. Hecklers are annoying. I’ve done theatre for almost my entire life, much of it for child audiences. It is incredibly frustrating when your show is interrupted by an audience member. But, as my friend Jeff pointed out earlier tonight, I don’t know that the woman’s outburst even qualifies as real heckling. She interjected her honest feelings about Tosh’s remark that rape jokes are always funny. It’s not like she was trying to divert the audience’s attention toward herself and steal the asshole’s laughs. It was about her sticking up for her viewpoint that RAPE IS A BIG DEAL. Moreover, it’s not like Daniel Tosh is a world-renowned classical musician or a fucking Barrymore. He’s a two-bit comedian with a shitty Comedy Central show. Heckling is a part of the stand-up tradition. I find it annoying too, but it’s not like she was throwing Skittles at Joshua Bell. Your JOB for which you get PAID QUITE WELL is to stand up and make people laugh. I once had a job delivering prescription medicine to housing projects for barely above the minimum wage. I walked in on drug deals and had my life threatened more than once. Yes, stand-up comedy is a daunting task. But it’s also a pretty cushy gig. If the harshest thing you deal with on a daily basis is someone yelling at you, I think you’ll live. 

2) Daniel Tosh’s response was COMPLETELY INAPPROPRIATE. According to the accounts of the show, people were laughing at Tosh’s assertion that rape is funny. I disagree, but fine, whatever. I wasn’t there. The woman voiced her disagreement, saying “Actually, rape jokes are never funny!” Here are, off the top of my head, three things Tosh could have said to diffuse the situation and regain control of his act:

“You seem to be in the minority on that one.”

“I was talking about animal rape, actually.”

“How many rape jokes have you even heard? Tell me one.”

Granted, none of these are comedy gold because it’s late and I’m not a comedian. They would, however, have shut down the heckler and returned the focus to Tosh. Instead, he said this: “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, 5 guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her…” Setting aside for a moment that this could well be construed as ACTUALLY CALLING FOR THE RAPE OF ANOTHER HUMAN (Note: Even though I think Daniel Tosh is despicable and irresponsible, I don’t actually believe he was asking anyone to rape this woman. I think he’s just a shitty comic without the ability to think on his feet) what if she’s a rape survivor? Are you telling me that your little nightclub act is so fucking important that you deserve to rip open perhaps the most profound psychic scar that a person could have so that we listen to your dumb little stories about spraying homeless people with Febreeze? You actually think that suggesting a human be brutally violated is an appropriate response to having your shitty stand-up act briefly interrupted? FUCK YOU.

3) The woman who wrote the blog post is being dismissed for not being able to take a joke. Now, it’s a perfectly fair argument that you don’t go to a comedy club to hear life affirmed or great truths told. But that also doesn’t mean that you’re a whiny asshole if you get offended. People do or don’t get offended by all sorts of shit all the time (see Gabe for more on this) and that’s part of what makes offensive comedy fun and edgy. The woman does concede that she doesn’t care for Dane Cook but decided to go anyway in hopes of seeing another comedian that might be funnier. You could argue, I suppose, that she must have known the other comedians on the bill would likely be similar and probably not to her taste. I don’t think, though, that the woman is upset because Tosh was telling rape jokes. I think she’s offended that he SAID IT WOULD BE FUNNY IF SHE WERE GANG-RAPED. What if, by some horrible coincidence, she’d walked outside and been brutally assaulted by a group of people? Would that change the conversation around what Daniel Tosh said?

4) I have been disheartened to see Patton Oswalt and Louis CK come to bat for Tosh on this. I don’t see why you need to Tweet support to him. I mean, for one thing, he’s still famous and probably doing quite well for himself. He’s a big boy and big boys have to deal with the consequences of the shit they say. Once words leave your face, you have to live with the world that you’ve created by saying those words. This is why I FUCKING HATE it when someone says “You shouldn’t have been offended because that wasn’t my intention.” Well, that’s not your decision. Once you say something, if it offends someone, you have to deal with that. THAT’S PART OF BEING AN ADULT. Anyway, I don’t see why much funnier and more successful comics need to help this prick whose insincere apology probably took all of thirty seconds out of his busy day of writing one-liners about dogs biting people on skateboards.

5) Speaking of Louis CK, he serves as an interesting counterpoint here. His comedy is often wildly offensive (he makes rape jokes himself and, while I still don’t find them among his better work, I think they’re better than Tosh for reasons I’ll elaborate on later) and, as has been noted, an episode of his current TV show deals with this very subject. The difference, though, is Louis CK’s comedy seems (and I says seems because it’s impossible to know what he’s thinking or feeling) to come from a much more thoughtful place. Take, for example, one of his most famous bits on offensive words. This entire monologue really suggests that he’s thought reflectively on the way we use words to hurt other people. He explores the same territory in another episode of his show when he and his friends as a fellow gay comedian if he’s offended by their use of the word “faggot” in their acts and personal lives. He really seems to want to understand and explore this as an issue. Moreover, CK makes himself a punchline more often than not. At least half of his comedy is driven by his own despicability as a human. When I see someone like Daniel Tosh–who I can’t imagine has ever thought critically about anything more complex than which ball cap makes him look least like Fred Durst and who seldom cracks a joke at his own expense–tossing off rape jokes, I don’t get the same level of reflection. He seems either unwilling or unable to make himself the butt of a joke. 

6) A brief tangent: when I was in college, Sacha Baron Cohen released the film Borat. My friends and I all loved the biting satire of Bush-era America, xenophobia, racism, and misogyny that he served up. On our way out of the theatre, though, we overheard a group of guys all excitedly swapping lines from the film unironically. They had taken Cohen’s satirical story at face value and really enjoyed the new set of misogynist and racist put-downs they’d acquired. This led to a long and productive discussion with our most thoughtful professor about the dangers of satire and being taken seriously. Similarly, I’ve heard people–educated people–use CK’s logic from the above clip to justify using the word “faggot” in daily conversation as an insult. It’s really easy for people in a position of privilege–white men most of all–to say and do things that are wildly offensive to marginalized groups because they can’t see the damage they’re doing. This is the problem with wishing gang-rape on an audience member.

I don’t know Daniel Tosh and I likely never will. All I know about him is his public persona which I find smug and grating. Perhaps underneath that he is a lovely and complex human being who would never dream of hurting another person. But he’s got to be aware of his audience. Putting ideas out about rape being funny may seem harmless to him but it justifies and strengthens the marginalization and downplay of rape as a crime. Certain segments of the audience don’t get the joke. Even people who do can eventually become desensitized to it. When you’re famous for saying funny things, there is a certain level of responsibility that you have to make sure your message is clear. Saying outrageous and offensive things can be incredibly funny and effective and it’s not your job to make sure the audience is comfortable 100% of the time. But when you make jokes that can be perceived as actual threats, you’ve crossed the line. That’s Tosh’s crime here. It’s not about his right to deal with a heckler and it’s not about the integrity of a performance or the nature of comedy or anything else. It’s about him contributing to a culture of violence and viciously singling out an audience member with a threat. And if you find that funny, you’ve got bigger problems than a cable TV host’s stand-up act getting pissed on.

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NSA

This morning I watched The Terminator and read something that made me so mad I kind of wished it were a documentary. Now, I should point out that my anger is totally irrational and borderline sociopathic, but certain things really stick in my craw. American Idol, for instance. And this: http://www.npr.org/blogs/allsongs/2012/06/16/154863819/i-never-owned-any-music-to-begin-with

If you can’t be bothered to read the article (and I don’t blame you) let me summarize it: All Songs Considered summer intern Emily White has an iTunes library of 11,000 songs though she’s paid for only 15 CD’s in her entire life. I admire her post, though, if only because it is rare for someone not in the employ of Fox News to publicly depict themselves as such an unrepentant shitbag.

We (for better or worse) live in a capitalist society. The rules of that society dictate that you must exchange currency for goods. If you don’t, then you’re a thief. White seems to think the fact that she didn’t illegally download these songs insulates her to some degree from criticism. It doesn’t really matter, though, if she downloaded the music, ripped it from friends’ collections and the radio station she manages, or got it from a magical music unicorn–she benefited from the work of another person without compensating them. And that’s stealing. 

Now, I suppose I’m being too hard on Ms. White–after all, she’s a college senior. When I was her age, my biggest priority was tricking my wealthy roommate into buying a 30 rack of Coors pounders. I understand the budgetary constraints that face college students and it makes sense to save money by not buying physical albums if you don’t have to. And that’s not really my issue with her piece.

What makes me angry about Emily White–and all the people like her–is that she claims to care about something that is actually worthless to her. Look at her opening description of herself: “I’m almost 21 and since I first began to love music I’ve been spoiled by the Internet,” (emphasis mine). A self-described music lover, White later says that she is “an avid music-listener, concert-goer, and college radio DJ. My world is music-centric.” If that’s the case, why does White not find it necessary to compensate artists for making music? 

I concede that artists do benefit from concert attendance and merch buying. Former Camper Van Beethoven leader/current professor David Lowery makes a good point here, though, about why that isn’t enough: http://thetrichordist.wordpress.com/2012/06/18/letter-to-emily-white-at-npr-all-songs-considered/ (In the interest of fairness, here too is a remarkably eye-opening piece by noted asshole Steve Albini from the 90’s about the flaws of record companies that Lowery seems to be trying so hard to flatter: http://www.negativland.com/news/?page_id=17)

Artists make money from fans attending their shows and buying their shirts and posters, yes, but that doesn’t compensate them for the actual artifact that they produce. Unless you exclusively like listening to live music and wearing shirts, your refusal to pay for music does nothing to incentivize its creation. Even the laziest Weird Al parody that gets farted out in 30 seconds deserves SOME compensation. 

Claiming that you love something doesn’t mean you actually love it. Lots of people claim to love things because it makes them seem smarter or more worldly (I, for instance, claim to love L’Avventura, which I’ve never seen, when my favorite movie is actually Red Dawn). But I think that White actually is a music lover. She just does very little to support the thing she claims to love. 

On one level, this is emblematic of a huge problem with current society: we have little interest in making the arts a lucrative enterprise. It is monumentally difficult for any type of artist to make a living income solely by practicing their art. In spite of the fact that most people would say that, after spending time with other humans and drinking, art is the most meaningful thing in their lives (including television and movies) there is no economic reason to go into the arts. Only a fraction of the number of poets, novelists, actors, directors, guitarists, comedians, drummers, sculptors, painters, et cetera who go into the field will ever be able to support themselves with their art. As things stand now, only the children of the super-rich and people who are willing to live in hovels and eat grass soup stand to make it as artists.

Musicians are more vulnerable than other artists to this paradigm. Publishing companies still control the distribution of literature, movie studios and theatres produce films and plays, visual artists use galleries, museums, and fairs to disseminate their works. Music, however, is much more susceptible to piracy. Especially now, in the digital age, it is possible to be a “music lover” and never have to exchange a single cent to access hundreds of thousands of songs.

When a person like Emily White claims–remorselessly–on NPR that music has played a huge part in her life and she has obtained most of this music for free, it’s a giant middle finger in the face of all those musicians. What about the bands whose catalogues fill her iPod whom she has never seen live? And what about bands who don’t tour? Fuck those guys, I guess. One would believe that if music really played such a big role in Emily White’s life, she would be willing to OCCASIONALLY exchange some money for it.

I’m not interested in getting into a debate here about capitalism (which is a fucking scam and a half and SUCKS) or the virtues of the music industry (which is two scams). My problem is this: I consider myself a music lover. I read 20-30 pages of music journalism a day. I am constantly seeking out new bands and going to shows (EVEN ON SCHOOL NIGHTS YOU GUYS). And I buy CD’s AT LEAST once a month and usually more. It’s only fair that if I want a band’s product, I shell out for it. That’s the world we live in. And it’s not a perfect one, but it’s all we’ve got for now.

White spends some time complaining about the current system of music distribution without offering any alternatives, claiming “…I honestly don’t think my peers and I will ever pay for albums.” Well, why not? Because you’re cheap? Because you’re thieves and liars? Because you actually don’t care about music as much as you think you do? She the envisions some worldwide Spotify-esque database where artists can upload music and fans can access it on any device (if you’re bleeding from your nose now, just wait). She closes by saying (and this is fucking amazing): “All I require is the ability to listen to what I want, when I want and how I want it. Is that too much to ask?” YES THAT IS TOO MUCH TO ASK! “All I want is the ability to access 100% of humanity’s musical recordings anywhere at any time on a whim whenever any mood strikes me, an ability that has never been available to any previous people and requires zero effort on my part at all.” Can you not meet the bands or the labels half-fucking-way? You want us to invent a worldwide cloud for ALL MUSIC so that you can stream “Holocene” via iPhone whether you’re on the quad, hiking in Tibet, or taking a runny dump in the library??? Fuck me.

Emily White’s problem isn’t that she’s selfish. I’ve never met her and likely never will so I can’t say. That last line certainly makes it seem like the case, though. I just think she’s grown up in a world where certain things (arts) were assumed to have no value and she’s internalized that belief, even though she intellectually knows it to be wrong. As someone who 1) loves music and 2) works in the arts, I find it incredibly distressing that a well-educated young woman who works for one of the biggest proponents of culture in America could espouse these beliefs with so little remorse and with no suggestion for ways to improve the situation. 

I’m not saying Emily White has to fix the problem that Napster started. And I’m sure she’s a charming young woman who really does love music (and likely most of the same bands that I do). What I’m saying is that WORDS MEAN THINGS and if you want to claim that you love something, you had better stand behind it. In the (vaguely shitty, often stupid) world we live in, that means compensating people for their efforts. Psychopaths…oh, sorry…people who truly love capitalism often note that the market is beautifully democratic because it allows people to “vote” for the best goods and services with their dollars. Until we get rid of it (which could be any day now, the way things are going), the Emily Whites of the world need to put their money where their mouth is. 

 

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The 90’s

So here’s the beginning of what I hope is a productive discussion I’m interested in all of us having (with very few sentences as confusing as this one). I recently bought the super-deluxo reissues of Gish and Siamese Dream after a protracted period of debate with myself. I’ve listened to the first of the two and I’m passingly familiar with the singles from the second. I also re-read the Pitchfork review of the two reissues which contained a link to this little gem. Reading that piece made me start thinking about the wave of 90’s nostalgia that’s washed up on the shores of 2011 and a point that Klosterman once made about coolness. So here we go.

There’s an essay in Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs where Chuck Klosterman elaborates on his admiration for Billy Joel by repeatedly emphasizing how cool Billy Joel isn’t. (This is kind of a brilliant strategy because no one in their right mind would argue that Billy Joel is cool. Uncoolness is to Billy Joel as perceived cuddliness is to koalas. By conceding the most obvious point of attack as the core argument of the essay, Klosterman pre-empts the majority of the criticism he could face. I suppose you could still say that Joel’s music sucks but that would seem mean since 1) even his supporters already go out of their way to make it clear he’s lame and 2) that’s actually a LOT more subjective of a question than whether or not he’s cool. None of this is remotely relevant to what I’m talking about here, though). Re-reading that Spin piece immediately made me think that Billy Corgan was the Billy Joel of the 90’s (hey, they even have the same first name!) because while the Smashing Pumpkins could certainly be a great rock band, would anyone ever say they were a cool rock band?

Billy Corgan’s problem, I think, is largely that he became a star right when it was becoming impossible for a public figure to exert complete dominance over what that meant. Think about Billy Joel again for a second–even his staunchest admirers would have to admit he’s not a handsome man. He looks sort of like a mouse whose wish was to become a Jewish man. It was possible when he was establishing himself for music fans to appreciate his music without ever having to contemplate his celebrity. A music fan could consume his output without ever seeing an image of the man himself (assuming, of course, they never bought his records). By the time the Smashing Pumpkins came around, though, MTV was integral to a band’s ability to break through into the popular culture mainstream. Unfortunately for Corgan’s ego, this also meant that music fans also had 1) a lot more freedom in constructing their own ideas of a celebrity’s personality and 2) a lot more shiny material from which to build that crow’s nest.

Anyone who’s had the misfortune of bringing up the subject of music around me after I’ve had more than two drinks has doubtless heard me pontificate about my love for Pavement. The reason I had such a protracted period of debate with myself about picking up those two reissues (well, other than the fact that I am an idiot who only thinks about irrelevant nonsense) is the famous slam that Stephen Malkmus makes on the Smashing Pumpkins in the song “Range Life.” Corgan responded angrily and the two enjoyed the sort of adversarial public relationship you’d expect to find between the kid who was actually the smartest in school and the one with the highest GPA. The Spin article kind of supports that idea, since Corgan can’t seem to stand anybody not thinking he set the entire universe in motion. The problem is, as Klosterman says, that the only surefire way to not be cool is to WANT to be cool. This is why Stephen Malkmus will always be cooler than Billy Corgan. (Also, Malkmus’s music has held up a lot better in my opinion). Corgan always seemed obsessed with people thinking he was the best.

Notably, the other band mentioned in the Spin article is equally uncool. Apart from that one TERRRRRRIBLE single (“Black Hole Sun”) I doubt anybody even remembers Soundgarden at all. Their music was the nadir of 90’s alternative movement and the best example of how a lot of the “alternative” Seattle bands who positioned themselves against 80’s hair metal were just the same warmed-over crunching guitars with lead singers who sounded like they were undergoing treatment for severe hernias instead of the pretty boys of the Sunset Strip. Even when they were popular, I don’t think anybody who didn’t spend most of their day under the influence of something would have called Soundgarden “cool.” Today, I’d be shocked if anyone not in his immediate family could pick Kim Thayil out of a lineup.

I’ve thought about a lot of the bands who were a part of the 90’s grunge/alternative explosion and most of it just strikes me as really boring and lame. Steve Albini once derided the Smashing Pumpkins for being too commercial but they’re one of the few bands from that period whose records I would ever even consider putting on. (Incidentally, if you’ve ever made it more than halfway through the first side of a Shellac or Big Black album, there’s a chapter in the DSM IV about you). Billy Corgan may not have been cool, but he was certainly better than most of the others.

A lot of this plays into the en vogue Simon Reynolds-driven nostalgia discussion happening in many of the internet’s nerdier corners. The points I want to discuss here are, roughly, as follows:

1) How is coolness/image related to a band’s success in their period? Does that image complicate their legacy/longevity/influence?

2) What does the specific 90’s rehash tell us about this trend and how those bands look now?

3) To what extent was early 90’s grunge and alt-rock a second punk explosion/rejection of 80’s hair metal/extent of the indie ethos?

 

Any thoughts? Feel free to bring more questions to the fore here.

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Year’s End

The end of every year is a pleasant time for me as I love reminiscing and making lists of things. In that spirit, then, here are some of my favorite records from this year. They’re in no particular order (though I will note which was my favorite overall) but these are the discs that spent the most time in my player this year.

The Decemberists–The King Is Dead

On some level, I think this record was only released so a bunch of uncreative journalists could call it the best R.E.M. record that came out this year (the venerable, departed Athens college rockers’ record Collapse into Now was a little underrated in my opinion but the Decemberists album is much better). Peter Buck guests on three of the songs, including lead single “Down By The Water” and the album does owe something of a debt to R.E.M., amongst others. It’s nice to hear that kind of variety and absorption of influences nearly a decade into a very strange career of making a really specific kind of literary indie rock. If someone were looking for an entry point to the band’s catalogue, The King Is Dead would make a great primer. The big knock against The Decemberists is their penchant for writing long, theatrical songs about history and literature. This reached its apotheosis on their previous record, The Hazards of Love, which was something of a heavy metal/folk opera/concept album heavily influenced by British folk. Given the obvious excesses of that undertaking, King is a much more stripped-down affair that eschews the band’s usual theatricality in favor of a much looser sound that’s influenced by country and classic American rock. There’s still the inevitable dash of pretension–second single “Calamity Song” references Infinite Jest, but if your objection to The Decemberists was based on their love of writing fifteen-minute epics about Confederate wives, you still might find a lot to enjoy on this disc. It spent most of January in heavy rotation in my listening diet. Pay special attention to “January Hymn” and “June Hymn,” the emotional centerpieces of the album that showcase frontman Colin Meloy’s gift for weaving small details into a narrative that perfectly captures the fleet of passing time.

Destroyer–Kaputt

My favorite thing about art is the chance you get to see the world through the lens of another person, a sort of guided tour of another person’s consciousness. One of my favorite guides is Destroyer’s Dan Bejar, an affable lunatic who makes the kind of pop records Alfred Jarry would probably have liked. His release this year was an interesting departure from his earlier work, heavily influenced by Roxy Music’s Avalon and lite-pop from the 80’s and early 90’s. With the sort of hushed sonics that would soundtrack a visit to Shoney’s as a backdrop, Bejar croons typically occluded lyrics in his unmistakable tone. A sample line: “I want you to love me/you send me a coffin of roses.” While he claims to have no real idea what the songs on this record are about, I read them as confronting loneliness and imperialism in both private life and the world at large. But maybe that’s just because I see that everywhere.

Wire–Red Barked Tree

I will never understand how Wire has managed to stay so fucking cool for 30 years but they’ve done it without breaking a sweat. Released in January, Red Barked Tree is another in a career full of staggering achievements. While most of the best songs are voiced by Colin Newman, album highlight Graham Lewis sings album highlight “Bad Worn Thing.” Lead single “Please Take” is among the coldest songs the band has ever written in a career full of cold songs. Name another band that could work the lines “fuck off out of my face” into a four-minute pop song. It’s nice to know that it’s possible to keep making reliably great records into your sixties.

Okkervil River–I Am Very Far

Okkervil River is one of my three or four favorite working bands in the entire world and their 2011 album was probably my overall favorite of the year. Will Sheff is an incredibly literary songwriter who manages not to be too ostentatiously wordy in his writing. Who else could write a song about a girl finding her father dead that references a segment of Beowulf? Sheff creates entire worlds that he populates with characters who all seem as unhinged as his singing. Helping the teetering-on-the-brink-of-oblivion aesthetic is the fact that the band sounds like they’re seconds from coming unglued in every performance. While Okkervil’s last two records explored themes of fame and celebrity in the modern era, I Am Very Far focuses on more personal and esoteric matters. Most of the songs address mortality (the most commonly repeated word on the record is “throat”) but the track sequencing leaves the listener with a hopeful note. They were also the best concert I saw this year.

 

Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks–Mirror Traffic

Stephen Malkmus doesn’t reinvent the wheel on any of his records–he perfects it. Liberally tipping his hat to influences from the Velvet Underground to Dylan to Todd Rundgren, Malkmus cranked out another album of unmistakably nuanced guitar rock. Although Beck’s production was unremarkably formless for such a big name, the record holds up as the best of Malkmus’s post-Pavement output. In interviews given around the record’s release, Malkmus commented that the lyrics were mostly tossed off in the studio as the group recorded. While this meant that it lacked a bit of the narrative cohesion that you might get in a Pavement album (if you’re the kind of person like I am who believes there’s more to those lyrics than meets the ear at first) there’s still a fair amount of nicely constructed “””poetry””‘ for any Deconstructionist.

 

Wild Flag–Wild Flag

And straight from one former Portlander to another, here’s Carrie Brownstein’s post-Sleater-Kinney guitar rock quartet! A quasi-supergroup featuring fellow Sleater-Kinney alumna Janet Weiss (incidentally, my favorite drummer), Mary Timony from Helium, and Rebecca Cole from the Minders, Wild Flag’s debut is probably the best straight-ahead guitar album of the year. Brownstein and Timony trade vocal duties but the Brownstein numbers stand out as being tighter and more rocking than Timony’s smokier numbers. Look no further than this for all your six-string needs.

 

Girls–Father, Son, and Holy Ghost

I was convinced that Girls were a one-hit wonder after their 2009 debut Album. They made a fool of me this year, though, with a much tighter sophomore effort. While Father, Son, and Holy Ghost lacks a standout track as good as “Hellhole Ratrace,” the album also doesn’t suffer from the same weak back-end of their previous record. The album isn’t necessarily any darker than its predecessor, though songwriter Christopher Owens does seem to explore his dysfunction with more care and self-pity (not in a bad way, totally) than before. Musically, this record finds the group stretching their sonic palate to include surf-rock, rockabilly, heavy metal, and 60’s soul. Highlight “Love Like a River” proves that Owens may indeed achieve his stated goal of becoming a songwriter for a pop starlet.

So that was the year. A decent year for music after the embarrassment of riches that was 2010. It was, as the AV Club noted, a year devoid of Important Records. Hopefully, the new year will see at least one of those.

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Christmas Music Questions

Hey guys and gal,

In the next day or two I’ll get around to putting up my year end music post but I thought I’d take a minute now to talk about three of my favorite Christmas songs and ask you all to share some of yours. I know Christmas music often sends people into paroxysms of rage or delight but I’m mostly indifferent to a lot of it. The three songs below, however, are a notable exception.

 

“Father Christmas” by The Kinks

http://youtu.be/CjaPXihbORk

Quick, name a shitty Kinks song. That was a test–if you said anything at all, kill yourself. “Father Christmas” is no exception to their series of solid gold hits. Recorded in 1977, the song features Dave Davies doing his best Johnny Ramone impression while Ray Davies howls a sad/funny (which is THE BEST combination) story about robbing Santa Claus for cash instead of toys. The lyrics are unabashedly anti-commercial, righteously liberal, and feature the typical Davies wit. A nice, bitter antidote to the more saccharine fare of the season.

“All I Want for Christmas Is You” by Mariah Carey

My family makes fun of me because one Christmas, under the influence of holiday cheer and almost a fifth of Wild Turkey, I played this song roughly thirty times during our Christmas Eve celebrations. I do have a soft spot for Christmas songs about being separated from loved ones (cf. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and that really stupid one Aaron Neville covers that I think the Eagles wrote) so Mariah Carey’s ode to her absent lover was pretty much guaranteed to appeal to me. Beyond the lyrics, though, the song’s built like a brick outhouse. With thudding, meet-thy-maker, Motown-on-Rip Fuel-drums and a backing chorus of fallen Christmas angels, Carey’s voice soars through her octaves pleading her erstwhile lover to come home. By the time the song reaches the bridge, you can practically hear the blood starting to trickle from her nose. Never before has unhinged, psychotic loneliness sounded so fucking amazing. Nick Cannon, get home to momma!

“Fairytale of New York” by the Pogues

I spend a post-college year living in New York, wildly miserable and frequently as drunk. That December, I found myself in a bar in Queens with a friend. The two of us, lonely at spending the holiday apart from our families, were seeking to rid the world of alcohol by drinking all of it and this song happened to come on the jukebox. We drunkenly belted out the chorus and stumbled through the verses while the rest of the bar tried to ignore our terribleness. It was the happiest moment of my entire time in New York due both to the company and the song. Though it’s ostensibly a Christmas song, it’s one of the best musical descriptions of the intense loneliness that being in the city engenders in a person I’ve ever heard. I find a lot of the Pogues work tiring because Shane MacGowan’s lovable drunkard delivery wears a little thin for my taste but it works charmingly on this song, largely due to the presence of Kristy MacColl. Like the above songs, it’s also a combination of moods with the darkness of the lyrics contrasting perfectly with the lilting Irish rock that the band cranks out. Play this in any bar during December to start a sing-along.

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Missing the Forest for the Trees

While I admire both of your EP lists, I don’t buy enough EP’s in a year to comment intelligently (though that rarely stops me, heyamirite?!?!?). Instead, I want to talk about something I just discovered on a trip to my local record store. First, though, a bit of background.

As a junior in high school, I discovered the music of Elvis Costello. I came to his discography right as it was being reissued (for the second time in less than ten years) by Rhino. Each CD reissue included a full bonus CD of material (singles, b-sides and demos, mostly) and a booklet of notes about the process of making each record by Costello himself. I devoted all my spare cash during this period to acquiring these reissued and spent hours poring over the essays included to get an idea of what these records were about and trace the development of his sound. (This probably goes without saying, but I didn’t date much in high school).

One night during the winter of my senior year I found myself in a Best Buy, charged with buying a TV as a birthday gift for a friend. I took the opportunity to also pick up The Soft Bulletin by the Flaming Lips and the reissue of Imperial Bedroom, Elvis Costello’s 1982 orchestral pop confessional masterpiece. I listened to it five times that night. It’s been my favorite album ever since then. While I have numerous thoughts about Bedroom, that’s not the focus of this post.

In the liner notes that accompanied the record, Costello detailed the influences on the album’s recording sessions. While most of these were classical or jazz artists, EC noted that he’d spend a lot of time listening to a collection by a band called the Left Banke. I’d never heard of those guys but once I got my own PC for college that fall, I spent a lot of time downloading music and I checked out a few Left Banke songs. I was immediately taken by the theatricality and scope of the songs. I added their collection There’s Gonna Be A Storm to my list of things to always check for in record stores. As it was in print for less than a year, though, it was impossibly difficult to find.

This past Sunday, I discovered that the band’s two 1960’s LP’s had been reissued this summer. They’re remembered today for being one of the first baroque pop bands and for one semi-hit, the maudlin (in a good way) ballad “Walk Away Renee.” That song, written by keyboardist Michael Brown about bandmate Tom Finn’s girlfriend, is sampled in the Jens Lekman song “Maple Leaves. ” (Another tenuous connection!) It’s a lush, orchestral piece about unrequited love that is a pretty good example of what Brian Wilson called “Teenage Symphonies to God.” I think they’re among the most underrated bands of the late 60’s and I’m happy to finally have physical copies of their two records.

All of this brings up two questions. First, how did I miss that these records were getting reissued??? I spend all my free time surfing the internet reading boring, nerdular music websites looking for this kind of thing and I somehow missed it for nearly half a year. Secondly, though, this made me curious about the current reissue craze. Every time I read anything about the music industry, all that I hear is that nobody buys CDs anymore. Pitchfork commented in their review of the Beatles box two years ago that its release marked the end of the album era. If that’s the case, then why would anyone bother reissuing the two (mostly) forgotten records of an obscure 60’s band that nobody cares about? Especially if the only song 99.9% of humans would want to hear by that band plays with some regularity on oldies radio? Does anyone have any ideas?

 

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Never Not Good

Hey guys. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately and I thought it might make kind of a good introductory post so here goes: Big Troubles has been in my playlist a bunch in the past few days and I was struck by how it sounds like it was custom-made for me. Here’s the particular song that’s been bouncing around the cavernous recesses of my skull:

So for whatever reason, there’s something about this kind of 90’s-ish, guitar-driven indie rock that I’m defenseless against. Here are the reasons why:

1) It’s generally (and vaguely) about some sort of romantic longing, which is a feeling that I’ve had every second of every day of my adult life for the past eight years.

2) I’m a sucker for melody/chiming guitars.

3) It’s “teenagery” in the best and worst senses of the word. It reminds me of a time of my life that was simultaneously optimistic and crushingly depressing, although I didn’t really process it at the time.

4) It’s easy to like.

So what do you guys think? What kinds of music always do it for you?

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