le croisette

While the term “bucket list” makes me want to vomit into a bucket, I confess that I have a few things I need to accomplish before I shuffle off this mortal coil.  One of them is going to the Cannes Film Festival.  Every year, I geek out on film selections, buzz, distribution deals, and awards that come out of the fest, and then bore my friends as the line-up trickles through the arthouse circuit, saying things like, “It won the Palme d’Or at Cannes!” and “The American critics didn’t like it as much as the French!”  It’s no wonder I spend many an evening alone.

Nevertheless, the time has come once again.  The festival opened last night with the latest Wes Anderson movie, Moonrise KingdomEvery person who did their high school summer reading assignments is excited about new material from Anderson, and the early word on this one is positive.

I am also looking forward to hearing about these movies:

Amour – Michael Haneke snagged the Palme d’Or in 2009 with The White Ribbon and the Grand Prix in 2002 with The Piano Teacher.  This movie is his third collaboration with Isabelle Huppert, a formidable screen presence who always captivates.  Jean-Louis Trintignant (The Conformist, My Night at Maud’s) and Emmanuelle Riva (Hiroshima Mon Amour, Blue) also star.

The Angels’ Share – Ken Loach probably won’t add another trophy to his Cannes shelf (The Wind That Shakes the Barley won the Palme d’Or in 2006, while Hidden Agenda and Raining Stones won the Special Jury Prize in 1990 and 1993) with this comedy, as the jury tends to award more dour affairs.  Maybe the social bent so often seen in Loach’s films will win them over.

Beyond the Hills – The Romanian New Wave was essentially confirmed by Cristian Mungiu’s victory at Cannes 2007 with 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, an incredibly stressful movie about life under Nicolae Ceauşescu.  This latest entry is also based on life in Romania, but other details are scarce.

Cosmopolis – I know nothing about the source material by Don DeLillo, nor do I care too much about Robert Pattinson.  David Cronenberg, however, can always get me into a theater seat.  While I’m one of the sole detractors of his adaptation of A History of Violence, I have enjoyed many of his other films, especially The Brood (1979) and Eastern Promises (2007).  Oh, and this one has Juliette Binoche, my favorite actress and the recipient of the festival’s 2010 award for Best Actress.

Lawless – Maybe this will be John Hillcoat’s big break.  It reateams him with singer Nick Cave, who also wrote 2005’s minimalist western The Proposition.  That movie featured some of the most badass posturing ever, especially from Danny Huston.  2009’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road went all but unnoticed, but I dug it.  Anyway, the cast on this one is stacked: Tom Hardy, Guy Pearce, Gary Oldman, Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain … and Shia LaBeouf.

Like Someone in Love – Iranian genius Abbas Kiarostami follows up Certified Copy with another movie made abroad, this time in Japan.  Can’t.  Wait.

MudJeff Nichols nailed a specific kind of 21st century dread with Take Shelter, which picked up a couple of awards at last year’s fest.  Nichols has cast powerhouse Michael Shannon in all three of his features, and this one adds Reese Witherspoon and Matthew McConaughey, who seems to be entering a more interesting phase of his career post-Ghosts of Girlfriends Past.

On the Road – This adaptation of the potentially unfilmable beat novel comes from the team that made 2004’s solid The Motorcycle Diaries.  That includes Brazilian director Walter Salles, Puerto Rican screenwriter José Rivera, and Argentine composer Gustavo Santoalalla.  The cast includes Sam Riley (Control), Kristen Stewart, Kirsten Dunst, Viggo Mortensen, Amy Adams, Steve Buscemi, Elisabeth Moss, and Terrence Howard.  I have a feeling it will be very good, very bad, or, you know, mediocre.

Post Tenebras Lux – Carlos Reygadas has earned comparisons to Terence Malick and Andrei Tarkovsky with his elliptical films.  I’ve only seen 2003’s Japón, but I’m excited about this one.

Rust and Bone – Jacques Audiard’s follow-up to 2010’s brilliant A Prophet is already getting great reviews.  It stars the gorgeous and talented Marion Cotillard and is based on a short story by Craig Davidson

7 Days in Havana – Anthology films are, by their nature, inconsistent, but I’m hopeful that this one will be an exception to that rule.  It features (you guessed it) 7 segments by 7 directors, all taking place during the same week in the Cuban capital.  Contributors I’ve heard of include Julio Médem (Sex and Lucía), Laurent Cantet (The Class), Juan Carlos Tabío (Guantanamera), Benicio del Toro (Traffic), and Gaspar Noé (Irréversible).

Beasts of the Southern Wild This blew up at Sundance.  Huge.  Maybe America’s best chance for a top prize.

Garbage in the Garden of Eden – documentary by Fatih Akin, the Turkish-German director behind Head On and The Edge of Heaven.

Mekong Hotel – Apichatpong Weerasethakul follows up 2010’s Palme d’Or winner, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.

So those are fifteen I’m excited about.  Did I miss any?

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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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A Superfluous Look at 2011

Excuse me, I would like to begin this post with a little antagonism: Seth, you and AV Club are so wrong. This was a great year for music, absolutely ridden with important records. The variety and divergence among best-of lists around the Internet attests not to a lack of definitive music, but to an outpouring, an overflowing, a superfluity! On top of all the thrilling original music produced, this year saw massive reissues and singles collections from Disco Inferno, Talk Talk/ Mark Hollis, Throbbing Gristle, This Mortal Coil, The Radio Dept., and Ty Segall (see FACT mag’s best reissues for many, many more). Dusted came through again with their superb retrospective series, as varied and surprising a collection of lists as could be expected of any gang of hard-core music nerds. You can even find a jazz list there, if that’s your thing. (And given how above ground underground pop music has become, maybe jazz is where it’s at for those who need that sweet rarefied snobbery. It’s pretty much the only way to guarantee that Carson Daly won’t start stammering about your favorite band in the middle of the night between infomercials for four-course push-up pops and that lap-dance workout video.) I recommend the year-end features over at FACT, Altered Zones, and Gorilla Vs. Bear.

This will be annoyingly lengthy, but I’ll now put my favorites from the year into list form. First I’ll do 20 records that I considered the best, and then I’ll present a list of some records that I love but can’t take credit for knowing about before I started poring over all the year-in-review lists like those mentioned above.

  1. Panda Bear, Tomboy – A joyously claustrophobic album in which Noah Lennox’s exquisite stacked vocal harmonies are tethered to the ground by rigid techno rhythms and heavily processed, unrecognizable sampling and instrumentation. You can hear him abandoning the infantile wonder of his earlier work for a more mature understanding of the limits inherent in reality and of those further structures of order and limitation we erect for ourselves.
  2. Wild Beasts, Smother – With every album, Wild Beasts become more and more by doing less and less, and you wonder if their fourth or fifth record will consist merely of the sound of a solitary lusty breath of air.
  3. Destroyer, Kaputt – I don’t know what it is that allows Dan Bejar to inject so much gravitas and loss into the probably off-the-cuff line, “I thumbed through the books on your shelf,” or how this album always manages to sound simultaneously exhausted by the world and alive to every sensation (like the character in Miranda July’s 2011 film The Future who resolves to notice everything, especially things said by people with their hands on doorknobs). Maybe this is “poem rock.”
  4. PJ Harvey, Let England Shake – I had no problem with Radiohead’s latest album, but if you’re looking for the better example of well-crafted melancholy British post-rock, here it undeniably is, with lyrical turns of phrase and imagery so doggedly political and viscerally unforgettable as to shut up at least a few citizen-chauvinists: “What is the glorious fruit of our land?/ The fruit is deformed children.”
  5. Tim Hecker, Ravedeath, 1972 – In the blurb at Kranky.net, it is described as “a pagan work of physical resonance within a space once reserved for the hallowed breath of the divine.” This reminds me strongly of the Phillip Larkin poem “Church Going,” in which the speaker finds himself lingering in an old Catholic church, trying to reckon the symbolism of the place with its physical actuality and temporal nature. Hecker’s work is concerned not only with the seriousness of this setting, but also with the related theme of destruction, represented by the album art depicting a piano being pushed off a building (the act portrayed in the photo is actually an annual ritual, which helps to enforce the thematic relationship I think Hecker is elaborating). Larkin’s speaker notes a similar relationship: that the gravity surrounding the place comes not from above, but rather from the graveyard, where “so many dead lie around.” Hecker recorded the source material on a church organ before processing it on a computer, stripping the sound of its reality yet perhaps imbuing it with a different sort, the mediated hyperreality we’re all pretty much acquainted with by now. In that regard it’s similar to James Ferraro’s hyperreal Far Side Virtual – listening to which feels a lot like seeing through the special sunglasses worn by the hero of John Carpenter’s They Live, but if instead of corporate drones, the disguised aliens looked liked iPads  – except it’s much more beautiful to hear.
  6. Metronomy, The English Riviera – “The Look” is a marvel of clean lines and unconventional plotting. The low and high ends of “She Wants” pull away and snap back like a rubber band. Other highlights include the expansively funky refrain of “The Bay” and the jittery buzz of “Corinne,” but the whole album is a perfect blend of impersonal post-punk and sunned electro-funk.
  7. Girls, Father, Son, Holy Ghost – I agree with Seth’s comment about this one. A whole lot of Album seemed second-rate set against the flawless “Hellhole Ratrace.” Here they avoid that problem by, instead of writing one excellent song, writing 11 equally excellent songs, each containing multiple excellent songs compacted into one.
  8. Fucked Up, David Comes To Life – Probably the most fun and feel-good music I heard all year. The album keeps propelling you forward into cathartic heights of emotion with its surging refrains and sure-fire guitar leads. Epic rock-and-roll led by Pink Eyes in his most dynamic and relatable performance. He basically climbed on top of me when I saw them perform this year.
  9. Ducktails, Ducktails III: Arcade Dynamics – I’m not sure what to think of Real Estate’s latest, which seems a little too cleaned up and milquetoast. Maybe I’ll come around on it, but for now I’ll keep enjoying the less-talked-about side-project album, whose central song, “Killin the Vibe,” has possibly the best hook of the year, knows it, and so in what is maybe the laziest thing ever just repeats the one hook over and over, overdubbing more guitars and vocal riffing at every round and dissolving into a euphoric delirium.
  10. Twin Sister, In Heaven – This band is too young to be making music this sure handed and imaginative. Their style is kind of difficult for me to pin down, but each song seems like a little sub-genre in itself, so convincing and precise a sound-world for a pop song that I almost get bored by the panache. Listen to “Kimmi in a Rice Field” to hear Cocteau Twins stranded in Twin Peaks.
10 more excellent albums submitted without comment:
John Maus, We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves
Veronica Falls, Veronica Falls
Twerps, Twerps
Arctic Monkeys, Suck It And See
Toro Y Moi, Underneath the Pine
Atlas Sound, Parallax
Craft Spells, Idle Labor
Smith Westerns, Dye It Blonde
tUnE-yArDs, W H O K I L L
Blackout Beach, Fuck Death

Finally, the following records flew under my radar for most of the year. They’re undoubtedly as good and in some cases clearly better than many of the more visible records released this year.

  1. The Babies, The Babies – While many columnists at Dusted offered long lists of favorites, Talya Cooper only pointed readers straight to this bizarrely neglected debut album featuring members of the better-known bands Vivian Girls and Woods. The Babies sound so much more immediate and charismatic than either of those bands, though. For a bunch of ragged pop rock songs with predictable sidesteps into folk, garage, and punk, this album cuts through the rabble with audible ease (maybe it’s that insouciant cool that Seth was referring to in his 90s post below this).
  2. King Creosote & Jon Hopkins, Diamond Mine – This album possesses an aura that is difficult to describe, but as soon as the piano and ambient electronics begin hovering over the backdrop of cafe chatter on the first track, I know I’m listening to an album with a personality that exists apart from its makers. The whole thing, with Hopkins’s sepia-toned arrangements anchored by King Creosote’s sweet and melancholy lyrics, sounds earthy, rooted, and comforting.
  3. LV & Joshua Idehen, Routes – Slippery London dance music that feels incredibly alert and alive. Standout tracks are “Northern Line” and “Primary Colours.”
  4. Christina Vantzou, No. 1 – This is something of a hybrid ambient/ neo-classical album, written on a computer and interpreted by a seven-piece orchestra. It’s slow music that should carry you away as soon as the first track enters. I find it to be really similar to Grouper in terms of tone, timbre, and movement.
  5. The Sandwitches, Mrs. Jones’ Cookies – Exemplary San Francisco psych-pop. I think one thing that sets them apart (aside from those incredibly high-pitched vocal trills) is how much country music flits around this record.
  6. Total Control, Henge Beat – In addition to Twerps and the next entry, Kitchen’s Floor, this makes three Australian garage/ punk bands that are just doing everything right. I wish I knew more about the scene or scenes from which these bands are coming, but it’s news to me, and honestly, a little mystique always helps music to sound thrilling and precarious. Iceage is good and all … not as good as this.
  7. Kitchen’s Floor, Look Forward to Nothing – Dirty garage with chugging guitars, slurred, sullen vocals, and a casual rhythm section suggestive of the early 1990s. The apathy feels earned. “116” is one of the more immediate and visceral songs I’ve heard in a while.
  8. Thee Oh Sees, Carrion Crawler/ The Dream – Following Castlemania, this is the second release of the year from a prolific band whose enthusiasm bleeds through every krautrock-tinged pysch-rock fever dream of a song.

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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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