Tunin' the motor, like a weekend boater
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Monday, January 26, 2009
One Of These Days, These Days Will End
So, remember how I made the Silver Jews record my album of the year, and talked about what a great, positive, revitalised record it is, looking forward to grand things in store? Well turns out I may have spoken too soon, on the latter point at least.
According to a posting by David Berman on the Drag City forums, Silver Jews are no more:
“Silver Jews End-Lead Singer Bids his Well-Wishers Adieu
Hello, my friend.
Cassie and I went to the cave and it looks great. 58 degrees but the humidity makes it feel like 72.
I'm just going to play fifteen songs. My fifteen favorite ones.
A dollar per song. Plus Arnett Hollow. I don't
want to keep you underground for too long. Fall Creek Falls State Park State Lodge is great by the way.
Yes I cancelled the South American shows. I'll have to see the ABC Countries another way.
I guess I am moving over to another category. Screenwriting or Muckraking.
I've got to move on. Can't be like all the careerists doncha know.
I'm forty two and I know what to do.
I'm a writer, see?
Cassie is taking it the hardest. She's a fan and a player but she sees how happy i am with the decision.
I always said we would stop before we got bad. If I continue to record I might accidentally write the answer song to Shiny Happy People.
What, you thought I was going to hang on to the bitter end like Marybeth Hamilton?
All of which is fair enough, and gracefully expressed. He’s not just packing it in because he’s bored though. Get a load of this second post:
“Now that the Joos are over I can tell you my gravest secret. Worse than suicide, worse than crack addiction:
You might be surprised to know he is famous, for terrible reasons.
My father is a despicable man. My father is a sort of human molestor.
An exploiter. A scoundrel. A world historical motherfucking son of a bitch. (sorry grandma)
You can read about him here.
My life is so wierd. It's allegorical to the nth. My father went to college at Transylvania University.
You see what I'm saying.
A couple of years ago I demanded he stop his work. Close down his company or I would sever our relationship.
He refused. He has just gotten worse. More evil. More powerful. We've been "estranged" for over three years.
Even as a child I disliked him. We were opposites. I wanted to read. He wanted to play games.
He is a union buster.
When I got out of college I joined the Teamsters (the guards were union organized at the Whitney).
I went off to hide in art and academia.
I fled through this art portal for twenty years. In the mean time my Dad started a very very bad
company called Berman and Company.
He props up fast food/soda/factory farming/childhood obesity and diabetes/drunk driving/secondhand smoke.
He attacks animal lovers, ecologists, civil action attorneys, scientists, dieticians, doctors, teachers.
His clients include everyone from the makers of Agent Orange to the Tanning Salon Owners of America.
He helped ensure the minimum wage did not move a penny from 1997-2007!
The worst part for me as a writer is what he does with the english language.
Though vicious he is a doltish thinker
and his spurious editorials rely on doublethink and always with the Lashon Hara.
As I studied Judaism over the years, the shame and the shanda,
grew almost too much. my heart was constantly on fire for justice. I could find no relief.
This winter I decided that the SJs were too small of a force to ever come close to
undoing a millionth of all the harm he has caused. To you and everyone you know.
Literally, if you eat food or have a job, he is reaching you.
I've always hid this terrible shame from you, the fan. The SJs have always stood autonomous and clear.
Hopefully it won't contaminate your feelings about the work.
My life has been riddled with Ibsenism. In a way I am the son of a demon come to make good the damage.
Previously I thought, through songs and poems and drawings I could find and build a refuge away from his world.
But there is the matter of Justice.
And i'll tell you it's not just a metaphor. The desire for it actually burns.
There needs to be something more. I'll see what that might be.
Many things that could be said about that spring to mind, but – I don’t know the situation; as the guy says, he’s a grown up, he knows his own mind.
Basically though, this leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Ok, having an estranged father who’s an unrepentant bastard & evildoer of the worst stripe must suck pretty bad, but… is letting it derail your own creative career and publicly announcing that you’re going to plough your energies into some kind of quest for vengeance really a sensible response? This whole turn of events strikes me as dangerously melodramatic – the above missive reads like the kind of thing some screwed up character in a Wes Anderson movie would write.
BUT – not my business, not my place to comment. I shouldn’t have even written that last paragraph, only it bugs me so.
Between his songs, poems and prose, Berman can pretty much stake a claim as my favourite American writer of the past few decades. Here’s wishing him health and happiness, and I hope this latest development drives him toward something new that the world can enjoy/appreciate.
Thinking about it, Silver Jews have always specialised in perfectly pitched closing songs for their albums, so there are a few definitive “so long – the end” moments to choose from, but I think it’ll be a while before anyone beats this one, from their masterpiece “The Natural Bridge”:
Silver Jews – Pretty Eyes
Friday, January 23, 2009
A Cavalcade of Wonders.
I haven’t had much writing-time this week I’m afraid (I’ve been busy in work, doing music at home, etc.), but thankfully, the internet keeps offering up wonders, like an unstoppable tide of reasons to go on living through the working week, so here’s a round-up of some stuff you should get down with if you’ve got a spare half hour.
1. “That’s no scarecrow, it’s a crucifix in a hat!”; declaring something “the most inexplicable comic book ever published” is inherently foolhardy given the bottomless barrel of strangeness that comprises the history of funny books, so I won’t say it. But, after reading this brief piece Steve Aylett wrote for Arthur, it’s safe to say that we have a contender. Jeff Lint is clearly set to become a new guru in my life, and I shall be seeking out copies of ‘The Caterer’ by any means necessary:
“Several dissertations have been published deconstructing the long, complicated rant in issue 6 about how goats have the skeletal system of chickens (the most incisive being 'That's no scarecrow, it's a crucifix in a hat! True Phantoms in The Caterer' by Alaine Carraze). The tirade, conducted over five dense pages after Marsden interrupts a school swim meet, has been interpreted as everything from a critique of Jimmy Carter's then-undisclosed connection to the Trilateral Commission, to a warning about genetic tampering, to homosexual panic (which would jibe with the mustache attacks). Certainly the Caterer's friends are bewildered (or understanding) enough to stand listening to this drivel. But when he tries to leave by riding on an unwilling dog, the cops arrive on the scene and Marsden goes into one of his frenzies. All credit is due to Pearl Comics for depicting the relatively static scene of the diatribe on the cover, rather than the explosive gun battle that follows.”
2.“Earn your prejudices, son!”; Characteristically thought-provoking stuff from Destination:Out, as they consider the legacy of much derided jazz reactionary Wynton Marsalis. It’s interesting to see his work being given a fair shake of the whip from a pro-free/avant perspective alongside discussion of his frankly absurd views on music, and mp3s of some of the cracking stuff he was missing out on during the ‘80s speak for themselves.
3. Chris Summerlin has a new weblog – which is good news! And on this weblog, he has posted a link to an extensive collection of photos from the Library of Congress. Now, I don’t know about you, but I would have expected the Library of Congress to be a fairly fusty institution that would limit access to their archives to serious researchers, get needlessly uptight about copyrights and so forth, but no! It seems the Library of Congress have started a Flickr account, just like you or I might do, on which they say friendly things like “Yes, we really are THE Library of Congress”, and “We invited your tags and comments and you responded, wow, did you respond!”. Thus far, they’ve uploaded literally thousands of historical photographs from their archives, grouped under such headings as “World War I panoramas” and “The 1930s-40s in Colour”, for anyone in the world to freely gaze upon / share / download. Library of Congress – you’re alright!
4. Excitable, science-illiterate types such as myself tend to throw around terms such as ‘cosmic’ and ‘mind-blowing’ at the drop of a hat, so it’s good sometimes to catch up on some TRULY mind-blowing goings on, courtesy of New Scientist (I copped the link from Doc40);
“For many months, the GEO600 team-members had been scratching their heads over inexplicable noise that is plaguing their giant detector. Then, out of the blue, a researcher approached them with an explanation. In fact, he had even predicted the noise before he knew they were detecting it. According to Craig Hogan, a physicist at the Fermilab particle physics lab in Batavia, Illinois, GEO600 has stumbled upon the fundamental limit of space-time - the point where space-time stops behaving like the smooth continuum Einstein described and instead dissolves into "grains", just as a newspaper photograph dissolves into dots as you zoom in. "It looks like GEO600 is being buffeted by the microscopic quantum convulsions of space-time," says Hogan.
If this doesn't blow your socks off, then Hogan, who has just been appointed director of Fermilab's Center for Particle Astrophysics, has an even bigger shock in store: "If the GEO600 result is what I suspect it is, then we are all living in a giant cosmic hologram.”
Readers, will you join me in clutching your heads as if in pain and exclaiming “whoa, hold on a minute – the WHAT?”...?
5. The notion of CHOOGLIN’ has long been close to my heart. I have however tended to consider a purely musical definition of the choogle, whilst aware on some level that any attempt at a wider, verbal clarification of the concept would do the unthinkable, and halt the choogle. If you have to ask, you’ll never know. Thanks therefore are due to Ami Tallman for her/his(?) wide-ranging and visionary exploration of chooglin’ in it’s wider context on the WFMU blog:
“But don't forget, the performer who's brought the word into existence is demanding that you, his listener, choogle. This strongly suggests that the choogle is not merely something to be executed musically, but something a mere man might do, and in fact, as Fogerty himself revealed first in "Born on the Bayou," a train can do it. To choogle is always, in addition to whatever else it might entail: to go, to drive, to progress, to continue, to persist, to keep on the move, to remain in motion.
The thing I love best about the choogle is its fundamental logical impossibility: for while it is en-choogle, it is definitionally unstoppable. But it will stop, though until the moment it does, it will have been impossible that it should. Yet this is perfectly suitable, for the ambition which set the choogle in motion to begin with was also impossible, for it is an ambition whose attainment can only be reached through the accomplishment of something the choogler couldn't even have imagined -- still can't, in fact, even at the moment of impact with success. The choogler who choogles to the absolute must rely entirely on his or her senses to even perceive the accomplishment, for absent from the choogler's mind is any abstract frame of reference with which to fill in those aspects of the experience that might have been taken for granted.”
6. Teleport City has long been one of my favourite places on the internet, home to a vast and ever-growing archive of lengthy, fascinating, idiosyncratic and consistently hilarious write-ups of all manner of trash/pulp/cult/weird/whatever cinema, their essential philosophy being summed up quite well I feel by this extract from a review of The Land That Time Forgot:
“Most children view films differently than adults. When a film is cheap and boring, the cheapness doesn’t really register (what do you have, at age six or seven, to even judge cheapness by) and the boring parts wash over you like water off a duck’s back. You tune out when it gets boring, and all you remember afterward are the cool parts. Thus, even really crummy movies can seem relatively enjoyable, because you don’t remember the dull bits; all you remember is the shrieking caveman being torn apart by a pterodactyl. Oh sure, I know some of you watched these movies with the keen eye of a wizened critic even at age six, and you turned your nose up at how juvenile they were even when you were juvenile. Well, I hope you had fun watching Kramer versus Kramer as a child, while the rest of us were watching dinosaurs fighting a submarine while Doug McClure punched cavemen in the face.”
My reason for bringing Teleport City to your attention now however is their current series on the murky world of Indian horror, which, even by the high standards of this site, is an absolute joy for all lovers of… this sort of thing. See Shaitani Dracula and Pyassa Shaitan, and go from there. Be warned though: if you’re internetting from work, you may soon find yourself without a job once you get stuck into Teleport City, probably rejoicing at all the free time your newfound destitution will give you to keep on reading about post-apocalyptic rollerskating nun movies. There but for the grace of god...
7. Last but not least: only halfway through January, and already some great new bands are skimming my radar, so say a big three chord YES PLEASE to The Rayographs and The Strange Boys, just for starters.
Saturday, January 17, 2009
Deathblog: Patrick McGoohan 1928 - 2009
I’m sure I don’t have to remind anyone reading this what a landmark of uncompromising, freethinking strangeness ‘The Prisoner’ was, and what a rare and unprecedented event it’s incursion into the sphere of mainstream British TV represented. Even if you’ve not actually watched the show (I made my way through the complete run a couple of years ago), its reputation, imagery and ideas have left an impression that extends across the whole spectrum of weird popular culture.
It’s worth remembering that as well as staring in the show (his piercing eyes, flying fists and single facial expression surely winning the nation's heart), McGoohan also devised the premise and complete plot outline for The Prisoner, scripted and directed several episodes and – allegedly – took the helm on many more via the use of pseudonyms.
I seem to remember reading some recollections somewhere of McGoohan sitting for days in his favourite pub, making voluminous notes charting out every conceivable idea he wanted to fit into The Prisoner, right down to details such as the invented martial art of Kosho.
Nothing before or since has beaten the explosion of hilarity and confusion in my household when, during a sombre viewing of the Prisoner episode ‘It’s Your Funeral’, there’s a scene in which a supporting character who’s having a disagreement with Number 6 shouts “I challenge you to a duel!” McGoohan barks “I accept!”, and then, with no explanation offered, we cut to this:
To this day, words fail me.
Sadly it seems that after the masterpiece of The Prisoner, McGoohan never again succeeded in bringing his clearly pretty unique take on things to public at large, spending the rest of his life working through a comfortable schedule of TV roles and movie bit-parts, although my brother, who takes rather more pleasure in daytime TV than I, has spoken in glowing terms of a few gloriously surreal episodes of ‘Columbo’ that McGoohan directed. You’ll have to ask him about them some time.
In the meantime, a spot-on and to the point obit from John Coulthart is can be found here.
And so, as all McGoohan obituaries are duty-bound to end: be seeing you.
Wednesday, January 14, 2009
Six Reasons Why I Want To Live In New Zealand in the Early 1980s
After all that marathon record-writin' over the past month or so, I think I’ve earned myself the right to do a post full of videos, so here it is. Actually though, I’ve had this one up my sleeve for a while now.
I’ve been spending a lot of time recently listening to some of the ‘classic-era’ New Zealand / Flying Nun bands. Some would say this is simply the next natural stopping off point for the discerning indie-geek who’s already plundered the vaults of British and American esoteric guitar pop for all they’re worth. Others rather further down that same woeful path may gasp in feigned disbelief that I, who call myself a music fan, previously used to make it through the day WITHOUT an intimate knowledge of the career of David Kilgour or whoever. Myself, I would simply point to off-the-scale levels of creativity, talent, originality and humour of these groups, the impeccably DIY/punk spirit underpinning all of their work, their consistently great songs and smart refashioning of underground rock influences, together with the somewhat eerie, eccentric atmosphere imposed on the scene by – I’m assuming – the sheer geographical isolation of life in NZ, and I would ask how anyone who’s taken the time to investigate it can possibly STOP listening to this wonderfully out of space / out of time music.
One of the joys of discovering the early Flying Nun bands in the internet age is that they all seem to have put a lot of effort into making great, imaginative homemade videos to accompany their great, imaginative homemade songs, and many of these have now been faithfully youtubed. Watching them can provide a perfect introduction to the scene for those who are unfamiliar with it, as well as a whole truckload of low budget pop video fun… assuming your idea of fun includes watching antipodean geeks hop about with guitars in the early 1980s. Needless to say, mine does, and these videos make me very happy indeed.
So to get straight down to business, here’s The Verlaines ‘Death And The Maiden’, perhaps my favourite music video of all time, and I can’t even explain why. I must have watched it about thirty times. The song, the lyrics, the aesthetic, the imagery, the spirit, the curious people who slowly appear and the weird way they dance to the song's peculiar middle section, the bare house and the landscape shots, the bunny rabbits, the bass player's sweater, the girl holding the rabbit and looking lost at 4:12 – everything about it. I want to MAKE THE WORLD more like this video.
Now here’s ‘Anything Can Happen’ and ‘Beatnik’ by The Clean. The more I listen to The Clean’s early stuff, the more of an inspiration it becomes on every level. Need I say more? Watch, watch and all will be clear.
Next up: The Chills. Now I know a lot of people really flip for their Submarine Bells / Heavenly Pop Hit era, and yeah, that stuff’s alright, but for me it’s all about their first few Flying Nun singles. Here for instance is the video for ‘Pink Frost’, which I think was their second, third single..? Something like that. The song is beautiful anyway – as artful a bit of spine-tingling ‘80s moodiness as you’ll ever encounter, fusing lyrics reminiscent of Husker Du’s ‘Pink Turns To Blue’ to the band’s trademark sorta-otherworldly guitar/synth tones. It's possibly not the most exciting video ever shot, but the song itself will have you sold within 90 seconds, and shortly after that the thoroughly misguided singing scarecrow turns up, and you're home safe.
Somewhat lower on the international pop radar than the big names I’ve posted above are the excellently named Look Blue Go Purple, one of the only (the only?) all-female bands to sign to Flying Nun, a few years after the initial heyday of the bands I’ve mentioned above. I’ve been listening to the compilation album of their various EPs/singles a lot recently, and it’s really, really wonderful – smart, spaced out, understated pop of the best possible kind, all centred on some wondrous post-VU guitar strumming of the kind I could happily listen to forever. More people should be aware of this band, I feel. So I typed their name into Youtube, not expecting much, and lo and behold, here’s the charming video for their song ‘Cactus Cat’, along with some brief interview clips. Fantastic stuff – god bless you, internet. (There’s a great live video out there of them covering Buffy St. Marie’s ‘Codine’ in their own unique style too if you’re interested; and you should be interested, cos it's great.)
Dragged even further out to sea by the tides of obscurity, here’s another great, lost video by a NZ artist called Jay Clarkson, of whom I know nothing except that she used to be in bands such as The Playthings and The Expendables. Of whom I also know nothing at the time of writing. ‘The Boy With The Sad Hands’ is a pretty sweet song though, so let's hope she did some more. What I really love though is the brilliant ‘animated band’ conceit of the video… so simple, so weird, so effective – an example of homemade genius that on some level exemplifies everything I love about the Flying Nun aesthetic. Look at the attention the guys behind the screen are putting into trying to fit in with the song, look at the ‘drummer’s cigarette, and somewhere out of the corner of your eye, you’ll see it.
If you’d like to learn more….
Watch a feature length TV documentary on the Flying Nun label here.
Say hello to them here.
Much of the label’s best stuff is out of print and difficult to track down though, so, mum’s the word you understand, but you could do worse than have a look at Kiwi Tapes and The Doledrums if you want to hear some of this stuff. Happy hunting!
Thursday, January 08, 2009
Deathblog: Ron Asheton 1948 - 2009
So I was determined to get that Top 30 out of the way before posting anything else, but during the meanwhilst, as it is apt to do, stuff happened.
In particular, it’s been a bad festive season for guitarists.
Ron Asheton. Need I say more? In the field of memorable and iconic christian name / surname combinations, ‘Ron Asheton’ is hardly up there with, say, ‘Mars Bonfire’ or ‘Templeton Parsley’, but nonetheless, for everyone out there who was lucky enough to be exposed to (and more than likely “transformed into the misshapen wreck you see before you today” by) the first two Stooges records at a formative age, it’s a name that’ll ring out as if I’d typed it in twenty foot high stone-wrought block capitals surrounded by exploding fireworks.
Ron Fucking Asheton. I learned of his death about the same time I was finishing off my #5 - #1 post.
Trying to think of much else to say is pretty futile. I’m sure there are already thousands of people around the internet saying stuff like “No Ron Asheton, no punk rock”, and so forth. And on one level that’s obviously a utterly witless thing to say – punk rock is as punk rock does; you could apply that to literally hundreds of people; witness Lester Bangs bit where he traced the ‘spirit of punk rock’ back person by person to St. Francis of Assisi or something. But at the same time, you can see exactly where they’re coming from – there’s a SINGULARITY, and monolithic year zero power to Asheton’s playing on those records, that defies any attempt at description, and if a daft generalisation gets the feeling across in a moment of several-steps-removed mourning, why not?
I knew the first time I heard ‘No Fun’, on a mixtape, walking ‘round some anonymous country road somewhere aged 16 or 17, that there was no possible way to express what this music did to me; I felt exactly the same way the last time I heard it, for the millionth time, probably in the background at some gig, waiting for a band to come on. Some great music you end up taking for granted after you’ve heard it X number of times; it becomes part of the canon, part of the background. That never happens to The Stooges. An A barre chord, a D barre chord – out of that he makes something that makes you feel like the only sane reaction is to explode into some kinda hummingbird-esque frenzy, followed by plunging your hands into your chest cavity and tearing yourself inside out. Talk about the ‘spirit of punk rock’.
And ‘TV Eye’ and ‘1970’ from a year later, are, like, ten times gnarlier. So gnarly it’s taken me till my mid-20s to even process ‘Funhouse’ to a satisfactory degree, despite regular and ecstatic plays. The second side of ‘Funhouse’ is ALWAYS too much; a vicious, damaged, intoxicating, unrepeatable living thing, like rock n’ roll’s nearest equivalent to those latter day Coltrane albums... if Coltrane had been a knuckleheaded, drug-hoovering, white suburban delinquent I suppose.
Of course, Iggy’s lyrics and implied physical presence are a vital part of making this music what it is too, but this isn’t really the place/time to talk about that. And, no matter how many interviews he gives talking about how he was the brains of the operation, the pecking order on those albums has always seemed the other way around to me, and who needs brains? It sounds more as if Iggy is being whipped up to career-best levels of performance and creativity by the pre-existent force of The Stooges music. Especially on ‘Funhouse’, where his whole being seems to become one more instrument, gasping for life in a purely exhilarating fashion between the lava-storm of Asheton’s guitar and Mackay’s sax.
And that’s that. Rather than say more words, I was tempted to suggest that everyone who owns a guitar and amplifier should pay tribute by, an a predetermined juncture, throwing open the windows and blasting the ‘No Fun’ riff as loud as is electrically possible, like some musical equivalent of the ‘mad as hell’ scene in 'Network'.
Thankfully though, some other people have come up with some fine words where I failed, to save the local police the embarrassment of having to drag me away for breach of the peace.
As is so often the case, Chris Summerlin is right fucking on in every respect, and I hope he doesn’t mind me stealing the picture he used for this post. I wouldn’t go quite so far as he does in condemnation of Iggy (I’ve got some love for the old bastard yet), but all his points are sound, and he runs down all the pertinent info you need to know.
This guy has some good stuff to say about his time roadying for Asheton and J. Mascis prior to the Stooges reunion too.
And man, do I ever now feel an idiot for not getting it together to ever witness said reunion. I mean, I know the album they did was a fucking disaster, but those shows they played must have ruled like nothing else. What else was I doing that was so important every time they played in London? They were even the saving grace headlining some utterly loathsome corporate festival on Clapham Common over the summer. To think – if somebody whispered to my teenage self that at some point in future IGGY & THE FUCKING STOOGES would play within walking distance of my house, and I DIDN’T GO... well I think I’d better watch my back lest some unlikely time travel paradox allows my teenage self to be lurking in a shadowy doorway with a sack full of doorknobs.
Someone else I’m cursing myself for not going to see when I had the opportunity is Davey Graham, who died before Christmas. I’d love to take the time to say some stuff about him, just as I’d love to proof-read this post properly and fill it with Mp3s and other nice things, but I’m posting from work and probably won’t get another chance to write/post for a little while, as I’m taking an uncharacteristic plane flight to Italy tomorrow morning to visit a friend.
I’m sure though that, having spent so much time mastering the ways of the guitar, carving new styles out of thin air and seamlessly blending music from all over the world, Davey would be pretty pissed off to find himself playing second fiddle in the obituary stakes to a guy who just liked to turn it up to 10 and play riffs that sometimes don’t move beyond one fret. Oh well – maybe I’ll write him a proper, if belated, Deathblog upon my return.
Tuesday, January 06, 2009
THE THIRTY BEST RECORDS OF 2008: Part #6
5. Those Dancing Days - In Our Space Hero Suits (Wichita)
Dear Diary – Ok, I’ve got to admit it – I’ve got a MASSIVE crush on Those Dancing Days. A purely platonic, impersonal musical type crush I mean. I wasn’t really sure what to make of them when they first showed up; I’d see them from afar, played on the radio or, like, mentioned on some weblog, and I couldn’t even decide whether I liked them or not – they’d play a song, and I’d be like, wow, I know on some level that was completely incredible, but somehow… I dunno, I don’t know if I get there they’re coming from. I guess they just run with a different crowd. Like, people who read Artrocker, or Pitchfork, or college students or something. But – don’t ask me why - there was a certain something about them. They stuck in my mind. So I asked the people I knew about them, and some of them said “Yeah, I know them, they’re cool”, and other people were like “no way, you don’t wanna hang out with them, they’re lame!” But by that stage I just couldn’t stop thinking about them, and I had three songs by them that I’d just play over and over, and then their album came out, and it was even better. Every single song was amazing! And then one night I saw them, and and… I couldn’t help myself, I just blurted it all out:
"Wow, Those Dancing Days were FANTASTIC last night! One of the best live bands I’ve seen in ages…. If there’s one thing I don’t like about their records (and that’s a big IF) it’s that they’re a tad over-produced, so I’m so, so glad to have seen them totally rocking all those incredible songs live to a half empty hall of about a hundred students (and about eight people over twenty sticking out like sore thumbs) on a freezing Monday midnight. As is obvious from the records, their drummer is INCREDIBLE – she looks about twelve and rocks out like John Bonham doing session work for ’80s Madonna. And the rest of them are no slouches either – not much in the way of show(wo)manship, but that’s fine with me since they’re busy playing the living hell out of their songs and looking like they’re loving every second of it. The intro to every single song, even album tracks and b-sides, got an immediate “yes! I love this song!” reaction from me and/or others in the crowd, and it’s the first gig I’ve been to for ages that had a proper, spontaneous encore. Not to mention dancing on a Monday night. Shrug ‘em off if you like, but in their own way Those Dancing Days are DIY as fuck – no gimmicks or hype bullshit or pandering to genre/gender/age-based preconceptions, just five cool, characterful girls working hard to make the biggest, best, skyscraping, optimistic pop music they can imagine. WOW. I LOVE THIS BAND SO MUCH!”
Mp3> I Know Where You Live
4. Vivian Girls - s/t (Mauled By Tigers / In The Red)
I think I’ve probably said more than enough about these girls recently. Y’know, stuff like:
“Subject of a rising tide of hype, listeners in search of the latest outsider skree may be surprised to discover that Brooklyn’s Vivian Girls are initially a dead ringer for, well, The Shop Assistants. The sing-song melodies and echoes of ‘60s girl-group pop, the frantic, stand-up drumming at hardcore tempo, gloriously messy live-to-tape recording and skin-peeling early JAMC distortion – it’s all here, though admittedly with the C86 giddiness kicked out in favour of deadpan NY cool. That’s the formula, and as far as formulas go, you’d better believe it's a good one. But there’s more to the Vivian Girls than that. There’s something that’s hard to define creeping around the edges, something timeless that reveals scene-making hype for the sad joke it is, and that makes this record, this band, very special indeed.
The brittle love chants of “Wild Eyes” and “Tell the World” and corresponding temper tantrums “No” and “I Believe In Nothing” are almost vicious in their simplicity and emotional directness, dragged straight from the brain of any film noir teenage daughter of yesteryear, trying to make sense of a threatening, staccato black & white world. Pure, sinister, feminine rock n’ roll. But the girls wait until the stunning “Where Do You Run To” to really hit their stride, slowing down to a brooding, mid-tempo psychedelia, leaving shivering harmonies and tamed feedback hanging in the air like a frozen moment in some David Lynch directed dancehall of the soul – orange moon sinking on the horizon, sunglasses on stage, and there’s something bad waiting outside, but that’s ok, cos you’ll never have to go there.
Here is the kind of ineffable suburban teenage forever that Spector/Wilson wannabe producers sweat over their LA studio consoles for years to fleetingly recapture, reborn as a ragged punk howl and laid down raw and alive by three girls with little more than a couple of mics and a reverb unit. Such is the joy of life in 2008.”
Mp3> Where Do You Run To
3. The Wave Pictures - Instant Coffee Baby (Moshi Moshi)
The Wave Pictures have been around for a few years now, and they’ve made records in the past, and I’m sure they’ll continue to do great stuff in future. But I’m also confident that when future pop historians look back to tabulate our age, they will deem this one THE Wave Pictures record – the perfect moment that encapsulates the essence of everything that’s great about this band.
I must have seen The Wave Pictures play half a dozen times between mid ’07 and early ’08, and every time they were incredible – wowing the crowd, kicking out the jams, bringing a great, good natured atmosphere. Everything a live band is supposed to do, everything their mentors Herman Dune used to do at the peak of their powers a few years back. You know that feeling when you see a group play, and they’re trying out new-ish songs, and you’re just *floored * by how good they are, thinking “oh man, they’ve GOT to record that one for their album; no wait, this one’s DEFINITELY got to be the single” etc? You don’t? Well either way, it was a bit like that. Then along comes ‘Instant Coffee Baby’, and it’s got a full scorecard of all those songs that blew me away in their live set – ‘Just Like A Drummer’ and ‘that oranges one’ and ‘the one with that great line about the Italian coffee machine’ and so many others – only now they’ve got names, and they’ve been laid down live to tape over a few days in a basement studio, with perfect, clear sound, and with hand-claps, ad-libs, background laughter, guest appearances, rockin’ solos for everybody… all the energy and spontaneity of their live shows! “Tell ‘em about it on the bass guitar!” Fucking perfect!
David Tattersall’s star is blazing bright throughout this album, as a songwriter, guitarist, singer – love him or hate him, he’s definitely stepping up to the plate of the greats as a rock band central presence here, stamping every second of his songs with his personality, making them impossible to ignore. Desperately running down the joy and wreckage of a lifetime’s worth of romantic disasters, small town English upbringing and poverty-stricken touring exploits, he’s by turns arrogant, absurd, hilarious, spiteful, tender, baffling, bereft, naïve, spine-chilling, tender, dumb, hateful, lovable, conceited, heartbroken….. you get the idea, and like it or not, you know you’re gonna be playing these songs twenty, thirty times and enjoying the hell out of them before you get to the bottom of it all. There’s always been something almost militantly unpretentious about The Wave Pictures’ approach to music: three friends, whatever instruments are lying around, a three chord turnaround, a killer rhythm section, a few handfuls of real life-derived lyrics, a great melody on the chorus, a rockin’ solo just for laughs, and an unspoken sneer at anyone who needs more than that to get their point across. And on the strength of this album, it’s hard not to see their point. “And I read your letter / about how you love Sgt. Pepper / but I know one day / I’ll do better!”, David sings on ‘Kiss Me’. Mission accomplished, and then some.
Mp3> Instant Coffee Baby
2. The Mountain Goats - Heretic Pride (4AD)
I threw more than enough words onto the fire regarding this one back in February. But regardless, here are a few more. Listened to with ten months retrospect, Heretic Pride above all seems like a chronicle of mental breakdown, reinterpreted as a masterpiece of imaginative songwriting, in which the turmoil of real life is projected back at the listener through the prism of gothic horror and pulp fiction imagery, to startling effect, as mist-shrouded agents block a desperate flight home, as a band t-shirt glimpsed in a bathroom reveals a desiccated corpse, as knives in an ex-girlfriend’s kitchen gleam like weapons in an inescapable killing ground, as a store clerk’s smile brings on visions of cosmic annihilation…. there but for the grace of god, etc. An extraordinarily powerful record, in every sense.
“I dreamt that I was purged atop
A throne of human skulls
On a cliff above the ocean
Howling wind and shrieking seagulls
And the dream went on forever
One single static frame
Sometimes you’ve got to go where everybody knows your name”
Mp3>How To Embrace A Swamp Creature
1. Silver Jews - Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea (Drag City)
This year, I found myself devouring, internalising and generally clinging on to the Silver Jews back catalogue, much like a post-apocalyptic caveman who’s just discovered the bible. So it was with perfect timing that David Berman released one of his band’s strongest, and certainly their brightest, collections of songs to date, right on schedule to catch me at the height of my devotions. In a brief Q&A with Plan B magazine back in May, Berman said: “Touring gave me a good look at who I’d be speaking to when I wrote again. In the past I only had a blurry face to go on. What I saw was a lot of tender-hearted young people with little in the way of wisdom gained from harsh experience, leaving them vulnerable to the saturation and aftermath”. And indeed, his newfound confidence as a mentor to his listeners is obvious throughout ‘Lookout Mountain Lookout Sea’, as he steps boldly forward from the emotionally shaky foundations of 2005’s ‘comeback’ record ‘Tanglewood Numbers’, combining the gutter-bound wit of old with the infectious wisdom and musical perfectionism of a man born again, ready to share some lessons learned.
As with most truly great albums, this isn’t some epic attempt to paint a sprawling musical picture of the whole of life or something; it’s just thirty five minutes comprising ten carefully selected songs from the pile the band happened to have lying around, no more no less. Ten songs that, without wishing to overlook the band’s oft wondrous arrangements, any bum can recreate with a cracked voice and a handful of fingers; in fact a chord sheet and tabs are helpfully provided in the LP for that very purpose. But nonetheless, ten songs so densely packed with wit, wisdom, and crab-walking suburban profundity that their resonance will (I would like to think) echo long through the minds and hearts of the kind of people who listen to the words in songs and like to seek more songs with better words, long after Drag City has gone kaput in the face of the forthcoming dark age and the ‘Jews have retired to their poverty-stricken critical laurels.
I know I’ve used the words ‘wit’ and ‘wisdom’ twice in scarcely the space of a paragraph, but fuck it, wit and wisdom are what Silver Jews in 2008 are all about. Like every genius out there, Berman recognises that the funniest things and most serious things in life are one and the same, and, above all else, ‘Lookout Mountain..’ is uproariously entertaining. “San Francisco B.C.” has gotta be the most inspired long-form narrative song since the Velvets’ “The Gift” or Dylan’s “..115th Dream”, highlighting the most graceful wrangling of a rhyming dictionary I’ve ever encountered, whilst “Aloysius, Bluegrass Drummer” and “Partybarge”, initially sounding like goofy, confounding joke-songs, reveal delightfully skewed depths on repeat spins. “Suffering Jukebox” could launch a rousing singalong in any hypothetical honkytonk of the soul, its central conceit still flat-out killer after hundreds of listens, whilst closer “We Could Be Looking For The Same Thing” would raise bittersweet tears from the same audience of imagined mountain men moments later – simply a straight-up, beautiful and wholly honest love song – no gimmicks, no jive, no spikes.
‘Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea’ is one of those records, like Leonard Cohen or Richard Thompson used to make, like Jonathan Richman still does make, that is hugely enjoyable, but that teaches listeners something important at the same time, asking nothing in return. Edutainment for the soul. Quite what it’s teaching you exactly, I wouldn’t care to elaborate, that’s up to you to figure out, but let’s just say that if previous Silver Jews records were near-biblical masterpieces of self-pity, this one starts from the same square, but approaches the game with a hell of a lot more get up and go.
(Oh, and best cover art of the DECADE also, I think.)
“Somewhere in a foggy atlas
Lookout mountain, lookout sea
First life takes time, then time takes life
Now the next move’s up to me”
Roll on 2009.
Mp3>Strange Victory, Strange Defeat
Sunday, January 04, 2009
THE THIRTY BEST RECORDS OF 2008: Part #5
10. Mount Eerie with Julie Doiron & Fred Squire – Lost Wisdom (Southern)
Phil Elverum – alias Mt Eerie / The Microphones - makes a lot of records. And, though he may experiment with everything from harsh electronics to “acoustic black metal”, the focus of his muse is always essentially the same: very austere, introspective vignettes of personal revelation, expressed with a very old fashioned sense of classical Romantic awe. As such, ‘Lost Wisdom’ is, I would wager, the perfect Phil Elverum record. Within it, he plays eleven of his best, most elemental, songs; just quiet-sing and soft guitar strumming, accompanied by Julie Doiron’s sublime vocals (I know I’m not usually one to obsess over vocal styles, but seriously, I cannot express how wonderfully Julie’s voice fits in with these songs), and beautifully understated electric guitar from Fred Squire. All of the elements here are in order: beauty is the result. Any of these songs, most of them under two minutes, contain the capacity to become your entire universe, so be listened to hundreds of times on repeat and to leave you changed as a result, if you could only stand to give them enough time/concentration, or if they were just allowed the good grace to hit you at the right moment – that moment of exquisite calm and collapse that each of the songs represents; the moment that takes us beyond ourselves. And if the songs fail to do that, if they start to sound insufferably precious and weak-ass after a while, and you want to take ‘em off and put something with a bit more of a kick to it…. well that’s not their fault. Let it stand as a condemnation of the noise and chaos and confusion and shit and selfishness of our modern lives, rather than of this record, because it is in essence that rare thing: a perfect piece of human self-expression fully realised in isolation from all else.
Mp3>Voice In Headphones
9. Throw Me The Statue – Moonbeams (Secretly Canadian)
I had a good old ramble about this one back in August, from which I submit to you the following edited highlights:
“…let it be said that I’ve been listening to ‘Moonbeams’ again and again, and enjoying it immensely. Why? Well, what can I tell you; I guess it’s just plain GOOD. Fuck it, perhaps it’s even great! […] And that’s that – I’ll hand in my ‘music writer’ badge at the door. Obviously there are lots of instruments and sounds on here that I really like […]; the fuzzy, clipped weezer-y electric guitars, some really on-point live drumming and wonky, overdriven casios. And in fact, all this stuff, good and bad, is mixed up in a really cool way throughout these songs, jammed as they are with rad riffs, ingenious melodic bits and pieces, inventive rhythms, singalong choruses with pleasantly unlikely chord progressions - a veritable smorgasbord of multitracked musical fun, if you will. I’m not going to win my writer-badge back by stating that the shorter, punchier tracks with the loud guitars are clearly the best ones here, but it’s true, so I’ll say it anyway. 'This Is How We Kiss' is the Obvious Hit Single, should such a thing have any meaning in 2008. iTunes says I’ve played it 36 times, not including mp3 player listens. It’s fucking perfect! Two minutes and eight seconds of the kind of geek-pop gold that wearers of black-framed glasses the world over secretly dream of whilst dutifully listening to their dreary Finnish folktronica records or whatever.
But, the fun doesn’t stop there, oh no - many of Throw Me The Statue’s other songs are almost as good. […] And the key is, of course, the songs. Throw Me The Statue’s main guy sounds like he has something he desperately wants to convey, probably re: failed relationships, or never-happened ones, or imagined ones, only he can’t really blurt it all out in a straight-up fashion for fear of maybe upsetting the people concerned, or making himself look like a jerk, or perhaps just cos that would make for boring songs (all perfectly valid reasons of course). So instead he scrambles his muse up into awkward mouthfuls of veiled meaning and book smarts absurdity that make Stephen Malkmus look like an open-hearted balladeer by comparison, at least until he decides to step out and throw in few lines of plain, descriptive fact before triumphantly scampering back again, as if to say “HA! GOT YOU!”. […] So to all my compatriots out there who’ve ever clutched a Guided By Voices song to their heart as if Bob Pollard’s cut & paste musings were the very sum of cosmic truth strapped to a second-hand Who riff (which they are)… you’d better believe Throw Me The Statue are on to a rare winner.”
I saw these guys play a couple of months back, and they didn’t play “This Is How We Kiss”! Can you believe that? It’s like if you went to see B.O.C. and they didn’t play “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper”! Anyway, never mind.
Mp3> This Is How We Kiss
8. Zatopeks – Damn Fool Music (Household Name)
It’s an odd business, pop-punk. In theory, the best genre ever – the music of suburban delinquents who never got over The Ramones, pushing speed, volume, good humour and obvious pop melodies to their natural conclusion. In practice though, things can quickly be soured by a few too many second rate bands reducing the whole deal to a joyless exercise in genre convention, all seemingly recorded by the same dude, who sets the desk for “a bit too slick” then goes out to get a sandwich. All it takes though is one really good band with a unique voice of their own, and we’re cooking with gas once more, as all the reasons why I love this music come flooding back. Enter South London’s Zatopeks with their second album ‘Damn Fool Music’, one of the strongest and most enjoyable records I’ve heard all year in any genre. They’ve got the velocity, attack and energy of this music down pat, with all the hardcore tempos, processed cheese fuzz guitar, bouncing Deedee basslines and singalong choruses are present and correct, sounding as instinctively right as they ever have done. But beyond that, the band take a slightly more wide-ranging approach to things, incorporating elements of ‘60s pop, rock n’ roll to pleasing effect. And most importantly, they’ve also got a truly great, ambitious songwriter in the shape of frontman Will DeNiro, whose smart and engaging lyrics mark the band out as something special from the word go. Just about every song here manages to kick off with the gut-wrenching immediacy of Jawbreaker or The Replacements, addressing subject matter ranging from broken relationships, depression and getting older via healthy detours into politics and history, to the more traditional punk concerns of getting wrecked and hating The Daily Mail, all approached with a refreshing level of insight and honesty, and a self-effacing English punk-bloke wit you’ll recognise from Milky Wimpshake or early Billy Brag. Oh, and some REALLY kick-ass tunes too. They even do a couple of really great, affecting acoustic songs, worthy of any of the above reference points. Yeah, for real. Perfectly paced, perfectly executed and overflowing with feeling, ‘Damn Fool Music’ is a brilliant piece of work, building up a picture of the band’s ideology and the singer/writer’s inner world that comes pretty close to doing for disillusioned punk blokes in the Heathrow flightpath what ‘Let It Be’ did for teenage delinquents from Minneapolis. I realise this probably isn’t exactly sounding like nectar from the gods to all you cutting edge underground music types out there, but seriously, what we’ve got here is a really fucking great band deserving of an audience way beyond the punk-as-genre ghetto, and if you’ve ever been remotely into the idea of guys with guitars playing loud songs about stuff that’s on their minds, or if you’re just looking for the perfect, unpretentious headphone-blast to get you on the way to work in the morning, I’d recommend giving them a shot.
Mp3s> Radio Marija
7. Pete & The Pirates - Little Death (Stolen Recordings)
Speaking as a feckless, overgrown moping indie fool, Pete & The Pirates are a very comforting presence. Come on, their excellent debut album seems to call out, come and have a pint with us; bring your unfashionable shoes and your shitty winter jacket and the bags under your eyes and tedious tales of your rubbish job, and all will be well, for we are feckless overgrown fools too, and we have a load of fast-strummed, jangling guitars like The Verlaines and The Clean used to do, and a drummer who goes off like a rocket, and a basketful of really, really great songs all about girls, and being sad, and girls, and wanting to stay in bed, and… um, well that’s about it really. All topped off with a load of fiendishly wonky pop-genius lead guitar hooks that’ll worm their way into your brain like nothing since all those Pixies songs way back when. Hooks that, along with the inherently anthemic potential of many of their best tunes, would get these fellas played incessantly on the radio were there any justice in the world, gaining them the respect of a fanbase stretching way beyond the bounds of feckless indie fools, and earning them enough shiny pounds to quit their rubbish jobs and to go live a life of comfort in nice big houses just like, I dunno, Blur or somebody. But as all us moaning, dissatisfied bastards know, there is no such justice to be found, which is exactly why we need bands like Pete & The Pirates to make us feel better by singing beautifully sad songs about the indignities of having to get up in the morning, and, ironically, giving us a perfect kick up the arse to get us out of the front door in the process. Thank you Pete & The Pirates! Long may you continue to sail the suburban seas, making ‘indie’ – sans suffix – seem no longer a dirty word, but once again like a great, righteous thing we can wrap around us like a big ol’ blanket.
6. Jonathan Richman - Because Her Beauty Is Raw And Wild (Vapour)
That every Jonathan Richman album is, taken on its own terms, a thing of beauty and a joy forever, goes without saying. But, as the uncharacteristically downbeat cover art eerily suggests, this one has a quite different feeling to anything he’s done in the past. From the outset, Jonathan’s voice sounds more distant, less self-assured, than he ever before, his guitar playing softer and more fragile, as his sole accompanist Tommy Larkins manfully attempts to lay down the quietest drums ever set on record. Befitting this change of pace, Jonathan has turned in perhaps his darkest and most questioning set of songs since he was working out his adolescent angst in The Modern Lovers. As fans and admirers of Mr. Richman, this change is initially disconcerting, making us worried for his ongoing health and happiness. But as selfish music fans, we can enjoy one of the most vital and affecting record he’s made in years. In many of the songs here, Jonathan expresses frustration with his homelife, or maybe just with growing older in general. “You are the light of the world / so why is your world so grey?” he pleads on the unspeakably tender ‘Our Drab Ways’, whilst other songs find him reflecting on young love from a distance, acknowledging for the first time that that’s not really his place in the world anymore. “They’re gonna take this sterile place and make it live”, he declares, welcoming in the protagonists of ‘The Lovers are Here and They’re Full of Sweat’. There are two renditions of one of my favourite new songs, and perhaps the most angry and controversial song Jonathan has attempted for a while, “When We Refuse To Suffer”, in which he rejects the use of anti-depressants in no uncertain terms, even shredding on an overdriven electric guitar for the first time in decades on the second version, as he spits out the lyrics with frightening passion; “..that’s when the air freshener wins, and the moon outside is the loser!” Make of that what you will, but personally, I say right fucking on Jonathan, and thanks for having the guts to sing this one for us. The same sentiment applies doubly to the album’s closing track, and the one that will mean the most to many listeners, ‘As My Mother Lay Lying’, in which he sings about speaking with his mother on her deathbed. There’s not much more I can say about that one – if your eyes are dry by the end of it, you have a far harder heart than I. For all that this is a harrowing and unhappy collection of songs though, Jonathan’s ongoing faith in the beauty of the world around him still shines through every pore of it, and my favourite song here is definitely the title track. I mean, it’s just an old fashioned love song I guess, just like some other ones he’s done in the past, so simple in its construction it’s like it’s barely there at all, it could blow away in the breeze, but… oh man, does he ever nail it. For over thirty years now, Jonathan has been a master of turning exactly what’s on his mind at any given moment into great and life-affirming art, and, though he’s clearly been having a bit of a rough time of recent, he has once again succeeded wonderfully. I hope that ’09 proves a bit more of a fun time for him and his nearest and dearest, but either way, I’m sure there are many of us out there who have been reminded by the strength of this album that, as the excellent (tho sadly defunct?) ‘Concert Haikus’ weblog succinctly put it recently;
There are few people
In this world that I love half
As much as this man
Mp3>Because Her Beauty Is Raw And Wild
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