Aughts for Nought:
Notes on an Unnamed Decade Just Like Any Other
(Or at Least/ Worst Like the Previous Two)
-- An incomplete serial (arranged in reverse-chronological "blog" style) combining previously-published essays with new writings to form an extended commentary on the past decade of (mostly) song-composing music --
* Indie (for Lack of a Better Term) Still DominatedThirty Years and Counting
* Rock and Soul in the New Millennium
* 2009: The Blog /Blog
* Return of the Jewelled Antler
* 2007, In Review, In Retrospect
* 2007: 12 and 12: Going to Shows
* 2006, In Review, Part 2
* 2006, In Review, Part 1
* 2006, In Review, Prelude
* Excepter: Genesis and Exegesis
* The Howling Hexagram
* Circulatory System: A Revealing Minor Note
Thirty Years and Counting
To start, invite nostalgia. The curt summation interrupted by attempts to capture stories once exciting, now done, in their vainglorious detail.
In the early years of the decde, Califone proved to be unlikely heroes of Indie Rock. Their live performances adroitly utilized improvisation and reinterpretation, as also heard when they provided musical accompaniment to old silent films, documented on Deceleration One  and Deceleration Two  [a concept extended recently in 2009's joint album-film, All My Friends Are Funeral Singers]. Their label, Perishable Records, put out some of their own records and those by small set of artists (for example, Sin Ropas, The Fire Show, HiM) nonetheless more diverse than the voluminous outputs of bigger indies like Merge and Matador. Their first and second full-lengths, Roomsound  and Quicksand/ Cradlesnakes , are two of the decade's finest; both brought deft, innovative adaptations of electroacoustic methods into song-composing forms. In my estimations at the time, I fashioned them as the North American Radiohead; but pursuing an infusion of electronic sounds that wasn't so dependent upon Electronica influences, that was messier, more dissonant, while at the same time taking an approach to song composing ostensibly more traditional, at times Country-esque. It's better to say that the electronics form one part of a larger soundscape brimming with the result of meticulous pursuits of sound for sound's sake: loads of percussion, close-up rattling acoustic guitars, distorted amplification, vocals that veer toward mumbling but still delineate melodies subtle enough that no-one but Tim Rutili should try to sing them, even alone in one's bedroom or shower. The "alt Country" fad was already treading close to its later nadir; Rutili's lyrics possessed a kind of ambiguity the legions of Will Oldham imitators would dismiss: Great Lakes Catholicism consumed by mundane details of the present and mythologizations of the tragic past, dreaming of somewhere else, all evoked in words that often appear to be "nonsense" sound poetry. The band become more of a part-time concern after Rutili's move to Los Angeles, and Perishable appears to be dormant; though King Heron Blues  and Roots and Crowns  had their highlights, they didn't compare (we can't help but point out, an evolution similar to Radiohead's, post-Kid A). Nonetheless, their early period still shines bright.
Formed out of the remains of Red Red Meat, Califone were among the selected few in the Indie Rock of the time whose work promised a expansive continuation upon the music of years and decades prior, instead of any sort of clear break; for example, Smog/ Bill Callahan, one of the few major Indie artists of the '90's to settle into a sort of productive routine with ease; or The Angels of Light, on its first three records before Michael Gira teamed up with Akron/ Family for the disastrous fourth L.P Sing 'Other People'. Of Montreal and Elf Power both emerged from rough patches in the decade's first half, though the former by decade's end were back in a rut. Overall though, a rupture of greater significance, perhaps, than that of the post-Nirvana discord/ malaise took placebands breaking up (The Olivia Tremor Control, Pavement, Royal Trux), quietly disappearing (Neutral Milk Hotel, Sebadoh, Pulp), slowing down (Boredoms, The Flaming Lips, Stereolab), or getting bored/ boring (The Magnetic Fields, Sleater-Kinney, Built to Spill, Tortoise, Gorky's Zygotic Mynci). The Shins, easily the best of the several Indie bands crossing over to the mainstream during those years, would soon enough follow this path of creeping inactivity and mediocrity, the inevitable result of those who want to be artists while maintaining their "pop" bona fides.
By 2003 (at the latest) artists, record labels, and scenes that had arisen quietly at the tail end of the 1990's and whose aesthetics and chosen means of production eschewed any concern with the norms of "popular" music clearly took the lead within U S Indie music, recalling the situation of the early 1990's, when those disgusted by the commercialization of Indie turned to the "low-fi" scene that actually extended far beyond artists who fit such description (who themselves were a diverse lot, including for example The Dead C, Sun City Girls, Jandek, and The Tall Dwarfs) to include the likes of Fushitsusha, My Bloody Valentine, Earth, Smegma, and Zoviet France. Charalambides [providing a link between the earlier "cassette underground" and the rise of the C.D-R], Pelt, The Vibracathedral Orchestra, Jackie-O Motherfucker, Burning Star Core, Animal Collective, Excepter, the Jewelled Antler collective, Lightning Bolt, Six Organs of Admittance, Wolf Eyes, Sightings, The Magick Markers, Double Leopards, The Davis Redford Triad, Sunn, Avarus, Kemialliset Ystävät, Graveyards, The Skaters, and many more.... Combined with the No Fun and similar festivals [Freedom From, Pasture, Notown] and new labels like V.H.F, Lal Lal Lal, Load, Eclipse, Holy Mountain, and Catsup Plate, the general thrust of this new Indie underground put it at opposition to the entrenched conversatism and "Information Age" banalites of U.S society at large. Of course, after September 11, 2001, that's precisely where you wanted to be if you relished your mind, your body, and your sanity. No surprise then, to find that artists whose work intertwines with tradition to a greater extent have been inspired by this new Indie underground, or at times have served as central figures: see, for example, Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti, Have a Nice Life, No Age, Geoff Reacher, and Oneida.
The mainstream of Indie music, in stark contrast, grew consumed by simplistic visions of past artists and scenes, in turn rendered non-predecessorsbedeviling phantomsby such nostalgia. Whereas excessive romanticizations of the past have historically led to dismissals of the presenttypical stuck-in-one's-youth stubbornnessin the "Aughts" the nostalgia has often driven creativity, although only on the part of artists apparently dead-set on ensuring their work will possess little, if any, significance for future listeners. That is, as in the nation's political and financial affairs, we're living excessively in the moment, shockingly unconcerned for the perseverance of our civilizationits preservation in practice, in non-material (specifically, non-archival) forms. Of course, romanticization has not always been the name of the game; instead, the likes of James Murphy and Kevin Barnes have presented Indie scenes of the 1990's as obsessively concerned with attitude and pretense, and thus too restricted in its aesthetics, a notion clearly not supported by the music that remains.
Such negative appraisals of Indie Rock had already begun to appear in the 1990's, as artists and commentators grew tired of the debates caused by the post-Nirvana rash of mainstream interest in "alternative" artists and scenes. The desire to transcend the very notion of commercialization-perversion of music had its positive result in encouraging sincere thorough explorations of all sorts of commercial genres, both pre-Punk and more recentgoing as far afield as West Africa and Java, while back at home the Numero Group label uncovered underappreciated Soul and Funk music of yesteryear and "Hypnagogic" music disclosed untold aesthetic possibilities of '80's schmaltz and New Age pap. On the other hand, such a self-mythologizing embrace of "pop" for its own sake not only ignores the malleability of the concept itself, but also in the hands of lesser minds has taken the form of an outright assault on the very idea of music as art, and on the once-strong network of Indie labels, distribution and promotional services, stores, venues, and publications. The cynical rejection of ornery art in favor of "having a good time" serves as the perfect excuse for all sorts of apolitical anti-intellectual reactionaryism. The main critique of Indie culture in the 1990'sas tends to be the case in the arts, those doing the complaining are in fact the source of the alleged problemhad taken the form of "ironic" Rockism taken on by those who felt that Punk-Indie had become entirely consumed with exhibiting its "cool" stance toward the proverbial masses; in the Aughts, it became the jaded dismissal of anyone and anything that aimed to avoid, or even work against, the profit-obsessed war-raging mentality of the times. Now past the good feelings engendered by the election of a new President who at least does a decent job of pretending not to be as imperialistic and corrupt as his predecessor, this same stasis has re-emerged.
Given the high degree of unfounded nostalgia and blatant hostility toward new music, the work of an artist who established himself in, and for many listeners defined the essence of, the previous decade, namely, Beck, appropriately dramatizes the struggles Indie music experienced this past decade, especially as, compared to most Indie stars of the '90's, his methods had more in common with Hip Hop and Electronica. Sea Change, like 2002's other epic-making attempts, Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and The Flaming Lips's Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, lumbers under the weight of its saacharine melodramatic bombast, and has the additional detraction of being excessively derivative of a past album, Serge Gainsbourg's Histoire de Melody Nelson. When Beck reached previous heights, he enacted a similar dependent relationship with a past album: in this case, though, thankfully one of his own, reuniting with his Odelay co-composers, The Dust Brothers, on Guero . More recently, Beck's proposed series of collaborative re-interpretations of entire albums, beginning appropriately with The Velvet Underground and Nico, has attracted attention largely because of the sheer spectacle of the all-star endeavors, little commentary made regarding the obvious conceptual/ aesthetic problems.
A variant of such a historicized approach to art, more positive in its connotations, is that of Deerhunter/ Atlas Sound frontman Bradford Cox. Not only has Cox made his appreciation for both contemporaries and older peers plain as day, but in the case of the music made available on the band's blog his own work is presented alongside mixes of, and commentaries upon, others' music; or the music that has inspired his own is acknowledged in some other fashion, for example, an interview with members of Pylon, links to Stereolab footage at You Tube, scans of the photo-copied images that once adorned Cox's bedroom wall with, and so on and on.... The voluminous music given away at the site in the later half of 2007 and throughout 2008 was itself a crucial part of a larger set of controversies regarding the dissemination of music on the Internet. More importantly, unlike the rigid commodified approach to creativity suggested by Beck, Cox's prolific work suggests an instiable need to make art, and exudes the irreverence and joy needed to make art great. Alongside the debut Atlas Sound L.P and Deerhunter's double disc, Microcastle/ Weird Era Continued, both released in '08, the downloads formed a crucial part of a massive body of work, almost entirely worthy of close listening.
Only in 2009, beginning to conceptualize the decade coming to a close, did I come to understand that the Indie music (not Indie Rock) of the first decade of the new century/ millennium easily matched, and perhaps surpassed, that of the 1990's. This understanding reflected the long-term effects of the reorientation of my sonic world, and of the expectations of music formulated in my mind during extra-musical moments, caused by years of appreciation of so-called experimental music (the shifting away from the Rock-band format, or more generally a beat-based framework, toward a open holistic embrace of sound in and of itself) and applying such a perspective to the Indie realm, revealed to be post-Rock to an extent most don't give it credit for. When some of the exemplary music of these past ten years or so comes from the likes of Animal Collective, Charalambides, Pelt, Joanna Newsom, Excepter, Avarus, Thuja, all of whom, generally speaking, we could define as Indie, then perhaps, to avoid devaluing their extraordinary cultural contributions, we should deflate the emphasis in our conceptualizations of Indie on artists relatively Rockist in their music and their milieusyes, despite the centrality of Sunn, Oneida, Boris, and a few other artists Rock-oriented, or Rock-based at least.
The striking difference between this perspective and those of what I perceive to be the norm lies in our assessments of the early years of the '90's: the difference, that is, between the period, 1986-1993, being one of a potential cultural broadening of options that was in fact thwarted; and the same period being the early years of Indie Rock as a particular generation of listeners came to know it, The Pixies and Pavement granted a paramount importance their music does not warrant. Indeed, only an anti-Punk/ anti-Indie ethos, bitterly skeptical of what the artists of the immediate-post-Punk era achieved, dismissive of the value of art, could lead to ridiculous claims that The Pixies possess a role in the history of Rock music comparable to previous landmark artists like The Beatles or The Sex Pistols. More important, such a perspective leads one to misunderstand the general course of social and cultural events in the '90's as anything other than severely reactionary, more conservative than the '80's. Only those advocating excessively-positive assessments of the post-1993 Indie realm feel the need to inflate the Indie Rock, and especially Indie-mainstream cross-over, of the "Aughts"; they do so for the sake of consistency, or to avoid accusations of being an old curmudgeon.
Thus we find ourselves in the curious position of refusing to praise, or even acknowledge, what in common parlance have come to be defined as the leading artists of Indie music. After all, Pitchfork, Stylus, Magnet, No Depression, and countless "bloggers"what happened to critics?in their varied efforts to elude the gulf separating the Indie from the rest, have largely failed. Many artists releasing their own music, or working with small labels, plainly, unequivocally refuse the notion of indie labels as the "minor leagues" of the industry, and don't pursue or accept random connections to artists in other media based upon superficial characteristics, as only in the late 1990's do we find the curious tendency to correlate Indie music with an imagined Indie film and Indie literature. Of course, in the U.S, use of the term to describe music had only become common in the '90's. Apparently the excesses of the latter half of that gilded decade precipitated the commodification process: wherein the term, instead of describing the means of production and more importantly denoting a certain independence on the part of the artists in question from the demands of the largest corporations in the record industry, instead signifies artists of a highly-circumscribed style. No surprise, then, to find that the "indie" term fell out of use as the decade wore on. That is, these artists refusing to play the game, as praiseworthy as their work is, nonetheless also decline to offer alternate world views.
The home-listening/ album-oriented end of Electronica, once the source of both derision (not least because of the obvious simplification inherent in the term itself) and excitement for the future for the music, slipped into a seemingly-permanent stasis of regurgitation upon regurgitation similar to the Indie Rock it was set to supplant. Fennesz established the tone with Endless Summer , a decent distillation of his work to that point. In turn, the optimistic fervid exploration of digital sound that had characterized the late 1990's resulted in little more than a new "ambient" genre, coupled with its predictable counter-trend (sometimes in the work of the same artist): an inspired, but often quite stagnant, resurgence in Noise music. As with U.S Indie, loads of great music in the '90's was ultimately paired with a sudden downturn, as artists disappeared (Oval, Aphex Twin) and got boring (Mouse on Mars, Underworld); though it should be said that the end of the century/ millenium doesn't work as a significant turning point as well as it does in Indie Rock, with more artists eliding the date change (Autechre, Squarepusher) and major new artists only beginning to establish themselves at the turn (Prefuse 73, Monolake). Later in the decade, Dubstep's potential melding-together of Electronica with the Dub tradition/ concept suggested it could elude the difficulty other subgenres have had in producing long-form works; while the hype surrounding Burial and Kode9 was a bit over-the-top, they're certainly artists one wants to keep in touch with.
At the same time, we don't want to make our rejection of the broader understanding of Indie currently at play in U S-British culture too abstract. Put more simply, the "Aughts" also brought us a miserable line-up of Indie one-album wonders, and as with one-hit wonders the music in question was hardly ever wonderful, more just pleasantly mediocre, an exception to the dreadful boredom such artists would generally impose. From Is This It by The Strokes in 2001, to Interpol's Turn Out the Bright Lights in 2002, The Rapture's Echoes in 2003, and the final double whimper of 2004: Franz Ferdinand's eponymous L.P and Arcade Fire's Funeralall debut albums, sans The Rapture's, in which case a nearly-total rebrandingthose of us populating the nightclubs and record shops of Indieland had to deal with the occasional die-hard fan (often surprisingly hard to find) but more often the numerous bemused uncommitted observers saying, "Well, they've got some good songs." Well, O.K, I'll meekly join that refrain myself and confirm that a few tracks on the Interpol album are good, and Franz Ferdinand's "Take Me Out," Arcade Fire's "Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)," plus a few Strokes tracks, defintely qualify as "catchy," but othwerwise these albums sound awful, exude an utter lack of inspiration beyond pitiful sentimentality (so you've writen songs inspired by recent deaths of family members and for your gigs you're dressing up like you're going to a funeral? really?) and the vague desire to "party" (like at the fraternity, after the beer's run out, and the lights have been turned on, and no, Prince, no-one has the look, though a lot of them are mimicking you). We're not even delving yet into the muck offered by various pretenders to the one-album-wonder throne, especially the British bands The Libertines, The Warlocks, Artic Monkeys, and The Klaxons, as well as two U S bands Pitchfork had trouble convincing its readers to listen to (Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Tapes 'n Tapes) and of course The Killers (justified only by the perfect use of one of their songs, lip-synched by Justin Timberlake of course, in Richard Kelly's hilarious film Southland Tales) culminating finally in Black Kids, who unleased their debut full-length only to the proverbial pitchfork in their back when the infamous e-zine decided they simply couldn't embarass themselves by peddling such doggerel.
In the '90's, numerous bands gained such undue attention; the mind-numbing effect was such that few made the kind of outlandish claims seen at Pitchfork and elsewhere about the Aughts one-album wonders. The post-Nirvana rush of signings by labels of varied ilk, alongside the continued presence of older post-Punk artists, ensured that few had the audacity to conceptualize the likes of Soul Asylum, Everclear, Nada Surf, or Better Than Ezra as significantly different from Mr. Clean, Hardee's, Budweiser, or Levi's. We should add that the one-album wonder phenomenon was principally North American: the British press, and British listeners of crap Rock, despite the persistent post-Oasis drag, at least take the task of music-journalistic sensationalism more seriously, first primming The Strokes for stardom, and giving all these artists consistent critical attention, in stark contrast to the situation here in the U.S, where the hipsters still lose interest when the bands get "big" (old habits die hard... remember when certain individuals decided that R.E.M started to suck in 1988, Sonic Youth in 1990?) going on to the next band they can rave about until their friends hear how boring said artist is. One should read Simon Reynolds's summation of Indie in the "Aughts" for a good take on the British perspective: for him, the generic Indie of the present represents a resurgence given the depths to which British song composing sunk in the Gallagher brothers' wake. For U.S listeners, though, the late '90's offered varied peaks in music [the Elephant Six collective; Boredoms; The Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev; Boredoms and Stereolab, both more popular in the U S than at home; Sleater-Kinney, Built to Spill, Pavement, The Magnetic Fields, and other protoypical Indie Rock bands of the time; the "alt Country" of Bonnie "Prince" Billy, Wilco, and Vic Chesnutt] not matched since.
While the one-album wonders have mostly been forgotten already, some artists have managed to keep the shit coming quite consistently (The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Ryan Adams, L.C.D Soundsystem, Sufjan Stevens) usually appealing to an older crowd, paving the way for the situation we find the end of the decade, where all signs suggest that a glut like that of the early-middle '90's has indeed arisen. The lack of consensus regarding which artist to prop up as representative of the yuppie Zeitgeist has allowed for a seemingly-endless multiplicity of mediocrity to emerge: Vampire Weekend, Grizzly Bear, Phoenix, Hot Chip, Dirty Projectors. These artists have ensured that the safe confines of Indie Rock have ceased to exist. We will eventually find a different way to conceptualize the great artists currently at work in the difficult intermedia art of song composing, just as Indie in the '90's cordoned off those still making innovative Rock music despite the Grunge-Garth music-industry revolution. The legions of Indie sucking-ness confirm the passing of the Rock era, already heralded by, say, 311, Linkin Park, Kid Rock, blahblahblah. Their effect is similar to that of the "Young Lions" in 1980's Jazz. As with this music the few mainstream journalists who still write about Jazz actually acknowledge to be "jazz," in the new century most music called "rock" or "indie" actually had little aesthetic investment in the great lineage of artists that includes both The Stooges and ABBA, The Residents and Pearl Jam (yes, indeed, even mediocrities like them): a break in the continuum too deep occurred, caused not so much by lack of interest in these past artists, and not necessarily by the bad music made by the present artists, but most of all by a bloated mass of artists drawing upon the same homogenizing mass of knowledge, and lacking the confidence and pretension required to command their own attention in the task of composing original music, let alone the attention of listeners to appreciate it. Most of all is the stultifying moderation caused by fears of upsetting the uptight customer, so convinced as he is that any sign of artistic ambition threatens his own social position, signifies a lame attempt to embody the spirit of past revolutionary ideas, and as such warrants him removing the financial means he has attained by gaining admission to the shrinking middle class, the repression he took upon himself making him angry enough to conceive of artists as politicians, worthy of similar scrutiny.
Hip Hop at the start of the century was an "It" genre like no other. Mainstream publications prided themselves on proclaiming that Hip Hoptwo decades prior subject to rough rebukes from Rock partisansnow stood tall and boastful as the predominant popular music. Following the wide-reaching commercial success of Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg in the '90's, the likes of OutKast, Eminem, Jay-Z, 50 Cent, Ghostface Killah, T-Pain, Lil Wayne, and Kanye West went unchallenged except by a few teenage girls who didn't know better even being referred to at times as "Rock stars," ironic-fittingly enough. Most likely we'll eventually see the accolades feverishly spat upon Hip Hop albums filled with boring skits and meandering raps as comparable to the praises Rock critics sung for, say, Kansas and Carly Simon in the late 1970's. More important, better music was found in the music's "underground," employing Hip Hop methods toward esoteric ends: Mike Ladd, D.J Shadow, M.F Doom, D.J Vadim, J Dilla, D.J Screw; this music overlapped well enough with sampling-centric artists like Portishead, The Avalanches, and The Books to suggest that the widespread acceptance of Electronica and Hip Hop even in backwards U.S.A had created a permanent eclecticism in song composing and/ or dance-oriented music, at least beyond commercial music at its most petrid. Expand your view a little further to include the wide-reaching careers of Four Tet, Sasu Ripatti, Richie Hawtin, Madlib, Kevin Martin, and Danger Mouse, and one gets a clearer understanding of what the post-Rock world sounds like.
The Fiery Furnaces deserve mention at this point as an example of how a Rock band can find a place of themselves in such a non-Rock world, that is, other than that of the hopeless retreads popular Rock acts of the early "Aughts" were. The unfortunate comparisons to The White Stripes, presumably because of the Blues-Rock leanings of the band's debut, Gallowbird's Bark , and that their two principal members, Matthew and Elearnor Friedberger, unlike Jack and Meg White, really are siblings, suggests well enough how this band has confounded critics and listeners. The unceasing humor and charmfulness of their methods (outlandish stories, unfunny witticisms, enacting their grandmother's oral autobiography as a sort of radio drama/ Rock opera) have certainly caused many to ignore their great live shows and catchy songs. Even at their most absurd, a great deal of both pathos and exuberance is at work here, toward the subjects of their songs and their methods in performing them. More important still, as noted below, is their full-on embrace of electronics even as they remain a Rock band in concert. In this regard, the second (post-Sung Tongs) phase of Animal Collective's oeuvre stands out, though the group was never a Rock band in any strict sense.
Meanwhile, besides the "indie" term, I would not know how to define the diverse artists I listed above other than that they're the best song-composing artists around. Of course, several of them never, or rarely, offer songs in any traditional sense; but they are definitely exploring the possibilities opened up by previous song composers. Moreover, despite the large amount of excellent Rock-based Indie music in the '90's, one can take a larger view going back to the formulation of Punk in the 1970's [that is, the broad conceptualization of Punk which includes artists as diverse as Throbbing Gristle, The Ramones, and The Cure] and see that the culture that resulted always had room for the experimental. We just might not have accepted this open-ended view until the paucity of good Rock in the "Aughts" left us no choice.
No-one wants to belabor the obvious (except bad comedians). Vic Chesnutt's death certainly brought a time period whose very demarcation is an exercise in absurdity to a dramatic close; talk all you want about some holiday or other being ruined, the suicide of an artist of such gargantuan importance serving as the end point of some decade or other is little more than an insult to the deceased. That said, one way in which the event was not timely is that it come too soon after the release of At the Cut  and its predecessor, North Star Deserter . Simply put, few albums in the past three decades rank as essential to the history of Rock music as this twosome, and most listenersmyself includedhave barely begun to appreciate the auditory wealth they contain. As such, they make painfully clear that no omnipotent teleogy determines the fate of any particular art form; only the actions of men do. An innovation here lies with the introduction of violin-family instruments into the Rock ensemblenot guests, full-fledged members. But this facet is only minor. After all, we look not merely for new forms, but rather for new experiences. The unlikely pairing of Chesnutt with Guy Picciotto and members of The Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra and other Montreal-based musicians allowed the already-legendary Athenian singer/ song-composer to offer two decidedly-Rock additions to his set of Country-inflected masterpieces, The Salesman and Bernadette  and Is the Actor Happy? , and his early brilliantly-minimal masterpieces, West of Rome  and Little .
...where it always ends
I recall, though perhaps incorrectly, that the Turtle's Records and Tapes chain once common throughout Georgia and Florida put the bulk of their wares under the genre, "Rock and Soul." I've always liked the term. The Rock portion does not present many complications; and I've never thought much of the argument differentiating between "Rock 'n' Roll" (that is, pre-Beatles) and "Rock"; the former, if one wants to cordon it off, is often Rockabilly, and more broadly just Rhythm and Blues.
The Soul portion, on the other hand, better characterizes the totality of what is referred to generally as contemporary R and B. The recent death of Michael Jackson, and the reissue of Isaac Hayes's Hot Buttered Soul , got me thinking again about the R and B/ Soul distinction. As far as many are concernedboth artists and listenersno such distinction ever existed. In addition, radio stations kept the R and B tag, so that in theory one could come across Erykah Badu and Missy Elliott in the Aughts at the same spot on the dial where one heard Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett in the Sixties. Still, the concept of Soul music captures well enough the music of Redding, Aretha Franklin, and so on, and its differences with earlier R and B, as well as Motown and Funk. Peter Guralnick, for one, kept the term for his book Sweet Soul Music despite discovering its lack of salience for many artists and listeners he met. Moreover, the music that came with the Philadelphia Soul of the 1970's, and R and B as it has continued to develop, seems to have grown in accord with the shift in vocal styles that we commonly see as the origin of Soul.
The mere mention of Elliott and Badu, though, brings us to the subject of this essay: the slow disappearance over the past decades of music that is artistically high-rank and yet fits within the confines of this very-broadly-defined Rock and Soul. Elliott and Badu, like most artists who satisfy the listener's jones for something new that still references, and reveres, the past, also work within the Hip Hop realm. Indeed, the zealous pontifications one hears about the general Hip Hop/modern R and B scene as the only hit parade that matters reflect an appreciation of the melding-together of Hip Hop and post-Electro mainstream music heard on most Hip Hop radio stations.
Many of said pontificators are indirectly expressing their justified disdain for contemporary mainstream Rock, which compared to R and B seems to have completely fallen from grace. I've said to myself and to friends and acquaintances repeatedly over the past few years that no artist who has emerged in this decade has made any great, genre-redefining Rock music. Several artists who came of age in the 1990's certainly have (see: Wilco, Radiohead, Califone, Sonic Youth, The Howling Hex, Smog, Ghost, Boris, Sunn, Acid Mothers Temple and the Melting Paraiso U.F.O, Elf Power, Circulatory System, Oneida, Earth, Sir Richard Bishop). But younger ones? No.
As in contemporary Soul (excuse me... R and Bor is that "Urban" music?) contemporary Rock grabs ahold of our attention when it flows seamlessly among standard Rock forms, "Electronica" methods of the House-Techno and Hip Hop lineages, and more-open, less-"pop" structures reflecting at least a passing interest in musical worlds farther afield. Animal Collective [who of course began in the late-'90's, and whose only recorded in that decadeSpirit They've Gone, Spirit They've Vanishedis also their only record to rely almost exclusively on the standard drum kit], T V on the Radio, Deerhunter, and The Fiery Furnaces most of all figure in this category. Both T.V on the Radio and Deerhunter pale in comparison to Animal Collective; the latter cover more ground: more experimentation, yet more songcomposing as well. Deerhunter's salience has grown as they've overcome attempts to make them an Indie one-album wonder, and as Bradford Cox made his Atlas Sound recordings available, both on the excellent Let the Blind Lead Those Who See but Cannot Feel album  and selected downloads from his Web site. T.V on the Radio, meanwhile, offer a bizarre, not altogether satisfying, mix: a muddy base of electronics and samples (or, perhaps, live instrumentsno difference in their case) that started intriguingly-enough with Industrial-izing touches but quickly veered off-cliff into the contemporary Indie Elevator morass; topped with vocals reflecting at times the strong influence of Doo Wop and Barbershop styles, other times little more than awkward mimicry of a slew of stylings, nearly as grating as the likes of Karen O or James Murphy. The strangest thing about them, though, is the commercial, and critical, success they've achieved with such good-not-great music.
The Fiery Furnaces, though, are another matter entirely. As a live act, they are indeed a Rock band: they've toured the nightclub circuit as extensively as any other Indie band of recent note, and in such venues their use of electronics and pre-recorded elements never takes a prominent role. Instead, the band persistently rearranges their songs, sometimes interlocking them together to form suites with minimal breaks in the performance. But as recording artists, beyond their first album, Gallowsbird's Bark , they've not confined themselves like so. Matthew Friedberger's role as the principal craftsman in the studio, at times the only craftsman (a nearly-mythological role previously played by Paul McCartney, Todd Rundgren, and Prince) surely helped push The Fiery Furnaces away from documentation of a live band, and toward electronics. Widow City  may have featured some thrashing heavy Rock not far removed from what you'd hear at their gigs, but overall it still fits in among the disjointed, layered, intricate soundscapes M Friedberger had concocted on Blueberry Boat , Rehearsing My Choir , and especially Bitter Tea .
Of course, the easiest defense for my aforementioned claim for the paucity of good Rock in the new millennium comes with the somewhat-advanced age of M Friedberger, already pushing thirty when The Fiery Furnaces began. Either way, my bold accusation is not meant to be taken too seriously. Obviously enough, plenty of fine Rock bands exist. I live in a city, Athens, Georgia, where a remarkable number of bands, some of them quite excellentand some of them featuring individuals born after 1979perform regularly. That said, innovative young producers rarely show much interest; and young artists whose recorded work would otherwise offer compelling sounds instead work with pseudo-professionals who do everything appropriatelyand boringly. Also, even good Rock music bores people to death. They don't want to pay to see gigs anymore. They stand, listless and antsy, waiting for the music to end. They don't eagerly await to hear recordings from new bands, having too much to listen to already. In Athens, an increasing number of shows take place at bars lacking proper sound systems, the excessive alcoholism of many of the townies keeping the scene solvent.
Then again, those bands who do "make it"again, let's use Animal Collective as an examplemake a living from touring. Their shows have achieved "event" status to such a degree they can draw in large audiences. In such cases, the same emotional anxieties, and social warmth, that draws us the bar takes us to the concert venue as well. The recording ismore than ever in the post-Electro/Hip Hop era of popular musicwhat defines the artist, but it doesn't compensate him monetarily all that much. So, not only should bands avoid the proscribed routes recording-wise. But also, for the spectacle they need to create to bring in customers, they need get imaginative, get attention: where's the limit there? the routine? Both Rock and Soul musics could find their way in. As could recitation of Russian Futurist poetry and Buddhist scripture, screenings of pornographic film, and displays of minimalist "op" art (just make sure there're some loud sounds, with beats, to keep the loons preoccupied). In other words, no excuses!
The Great Orthochromatic Wheel, an album by The Blithe Sonsthe duo of Glenn Donaldson and Loren Chasse, founding members of the San Francisco-based Jewelled Antler collectivecame out in 2008. Only in the new year have I begun listening to it... a curious way to phrase it, yes? I'll listen to it for the rest of my life. Here and there.
I'd begun to wonder what had happened to them. The first [We Walk the Young Earth] and second [Arm of the Starfish] Blithe Sons records had come out in 2003 and 2004, respectively, alongside a couple minor C.D-R releases. The other Jewelled Antler flagshipsThuja, The Skygreen Leopards, The Ivytreehad not been heard from in two years or longer; in the meantime, new projects had came to the fore (notably, Softwar). But 2008 also brought The Jewelled Antler Library, collecting on four discs the contents of twelve 3-inch C D's released in 2003 by the Jewelled Antler label, in addition to some new tracks.
Besides the massive amount of close listening the Library provides (and not just from Jewelled Antler artists, but a few others of different climes, if not different soundscapes, as well) I've also got in mind a return to Pine Cone Temples, the 2005 double disc from Thuja, the quartet that features Donaldson and Chasse, plus Steven R Smith and Rob Reger, who themselves engage in a variety of other projects.... That massive tome of an album, like Pelt's Ayahuasca , dwells entirely within the "free" portion of Free Folk; both rank among the best records of the decade. Pine Cone Temples, though, doesn't fit as well as the Pelt album within categories like "ambient" or "drone." Indeed, it offers music that, at first blush, the listener might not even categorize as human.
Before we get beyond ourselves, perhaps we could start with some basic description of what indeed we could call a unique genre: the mixture of recordings relatively normal in procedure with those done outdoors, including "field" recordings; with The Blithe Sons, The Skygreen Leopards, and Glenn Donaldson's solo projects [The Ivytree, The Birdtree], songs that one could call pretty or mellow emerging from a ramshackle cluttering of sound; improvisational strategies that recall the Cageian-Fluxus-Minimalist tradition of removing or de-emphasizing the singular composer, but expanded upon by being definitively cast in an ecological and holistic light, so that indeed one could imagine certain sounds within Jewelled Antler music as manifestations of nature itselfor perhaps of humans in situations where they must accept their own place in nature.
My Jewelled Antler listening experiences have not always been satisfying. The music often just sits there, though certainly a lot is going on. The appropriate accompanying image perhaps features yourself, the listener, sitting in the woods. And sometimes, you sing a song. Not much to it... ostensibly at least. But I'm glad these artists engage in this kind of work. They could care less if the listener says, "this has been done before. The point has been made."
Among the Jewelled Antler artists, Loren Chasse's work offers the most fodder for this discussion. An example: at the Pasture Music Festival that took place in the summer of 2004 about a couple hours away from Madison, Wisconsin (and which also featured Pelt, the Son of Earth-Flesh on Bone Trio, Plastic Crimewave Sound, M.V + E.E, and Christina Carter) Loren Chasse showcased an installation/ performance under his solo rubric, Of [besides The Blithe Sons, Thuja, and Softwar, he has partaken in a number of other projects/ collaborations, including idBattery and Kyrgyz]. A roll of white paper stretched from one end of a dilapidated barn to the other; on the paper he placed leaves, twigs, bark. The music came from Chasse walking on the paper and the debris atop it, and taking a handful of the debris into the audience to rub its varied parts together near one of the ears of each person, among other actions lost to my fragmented memory.
In this piece and elsewhere, Chasse works with and challenges the common distinction between music and non-music ( or "noise" if you insist). Certainly, a major facet of Jewelled Antler has been its lack of any meaningful distinction between songs and experimental music, or between music and sound art. But some of the artists published by Chasse's label, 23five, do accept the genre/ field known as "Sound Art," and as such are less compelling to me. As far as I'm concerned, the listener decides what, out of all the things he hears, is music. Thus all "Sound Art" is music and all music is sound art. Again, we come back to the idea that "this has all been done before." The concept might work in describing installation works wherein the sounds are set apart from each other, temporally or spatially, and cannot be thought of as a singular entity, that is, no set composition exists (unlike much Aleatoric music, wherein the dramatic claims of the artists were belied by the continued presence of a score). As such, we enter the world of theatre, of performance art. But all live musical performances already reside there. Intermedia art, then, not "Sound Art" only. But songs are already intermedia. Again, the concept lingers in the mushy purgatory of half-baked thoughts. I don't listen to the Jewelled Antler aritsts, or write about it as I'm doing here, because it's good "Sound Art"other artists, perhaps, but not them.
How then to explain the appeal of listening to, and thinking about, Jewelled Antler music? First, unlike the Cageian-Fluxus-Minimalist nexus I noted above, these artists de-center the individual composer not as a confrontational rejection of traditional practice (no matter how joyous that rejection was, at least with Cage and many Fluxus artists) but instead as a welcoming embrace of additional sound sources: those of the natural environment surrounding the artists, regardless if the artists manipulate the sources themselves or allow them to project sound as they were doing when "found" or "discovered." Again, these sounds are added, and traditional structures remain, quite distinct from the illusion Cage presented of eliminating the self. Granted, this comparison might not seem fair to Cage and other explorers of "indeterminancy," since they generally tried to "imitate nature in her manner of operation," not include the sounds of nature per se. That said, surely the Jewelled Antler artists do so as well (and some would say that improvising musicians do too, or again that humans are a part of nature anyway). The difference lies in the positive holistic character of Jewelled Antler, captured succinctly in Chasse's notion of the microphone as an extension of the ear, a belief one can buy into especially because (not in spite of) the limitations of what our ears, and what the microphone, indeed captures. (I am somewhat surprised of my implied suggestion that Cage's work was not positive and holistic, until I consider how rarely we listen to his music, an unfortunate reality considering that it's much better than his writing; and then I especially ponder again his crass views on most non-Cage music, wherein dear John did forget that, yes, humans are a part of nature.)
Second, about those unsatisfying listening experiences... the responsibility for those laid, as they tend to do, with the listener. A guitar part repeats itself monotonously, I think to myself, or the singer listlessly strays from his task. Alas, I just wasn't paying heed to other evolving aspects of the music. The unlikely contrasts that characterize Jewelled Antler (those songs that oddly appear, as if you've run into a strange man singing to himself while on a walk in the woods near a suburban housing development, orgoing in the opposite directionthe droning, plodding emanations of sound, obviously not sculpted into being by human hands, that seem to interrupt a delicate composed piece) sometimes occur across the course of an album, sometimes within a track. You must listen closely. Never assume you know what's going on. Because, no matter where you are, and what you're listening to, you don't know what you're not hearingthat's why you're not listening to it! So, the question: do we ever just hear?
According to the '2007' essay, none of the finer song-composing records released that year drew my obsessive attention away from other consumer tasks, or artistic pursuits. Such had not been the case with the albums I wrote about in my "2006" essays. Generally, compared to the middle period of this decade [2003-2006], the great albums of '07 (and '08) seem not as radical in their methods, instead taking stock in what has been accomplished. [That mid-period, most of all, was overwhelmingly predominated by the extraordinary work of Animal Collective, Excepter, the Jewelled Antler artists, Charalambides, The No-Neck Blues Band, Joanna Newsom, and The Fiery Furnaces]. That said, they're still "great" records. Unlike those who restrict themselves to song-based musics and other popular idioms, we listeners of all music, especially those branded "experimental," don't fret over lagging trends, failing enterprises, and dormant scenes. All sorts of worthwhile records, many of them recorded in the distant, or not-so-distant, past, appear in all sorts of places. We'll get to them eventually, and sometimes can't even figure out when they were published. Indeed, with the rash of "sharity" blogs the past couple of years, building upon the reissue business of the past decade or so, the desire to listen only to something new, something "fresh," perhaps should itself became a thing of the past.
Appropriately then, I have finally delved into some records I didn't get to during '07 itself. I'm a sucker for song composers who eschew standard repetitive forms, so both Wilco's Sky Blue Sky and Of Montreal's Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? have provided some amusement. The cover and title of the Of Montreal album bear a slight resemblance to a previous neo-Psychedelic epic, The Olivia Tremor Control's Black Foliage/ Animation Music, though the O.T.C album was unfairly maligned by many dolt critics at the time of its release, unlike the high accolades afforded Fauna. When I've returned to Black Foliage over the years, it still sounds amazing (however "low-fi") whereas when the Of Montreal album has come to mind since my initial close listening, I've decided to listen to Prince instead. At least with Of Montreal - Mark II, Kevin Barnes has found a better template for his verbosity, still at times excessively infantile.
The Wilco record we could call Jazz Rockif the Rock band in question definitely wanted to remain a Rock band. Most artists in the 1970's who incorporated Jazz tended to leave standard Rock forms behind, or came close to doing so (see: Joni Mitchell, Henry Cow, Frank Zappa). Instead, we have a Rock ensemble that brought a Jazz guitaristthe highly-regarded Nels Clineon board, became a live-act staple (perhaps the closest thing we have to The Grateful Dead), and yet gave us a record that ostensibly is little more than "light" fare for relaxed settings, certain not to ruffle anyone's eardrums too much. Having said that, I must admit I love it. Beneath the surface, the pieces are delicately intricate, both because of Cline's contributions and the subtlety of the dense arrangements. I also have a soft spot for the kind of lovelorn bad poetry Jeff Tweedy excels at. It encourages me to break out the Neil Young and ABBA records.
Another mopey album, Lucinda Williams's West, is also worth your time, though mostly for the slower numbers. For the heavier stuff, you'd have to turn to her previous work, World Without Tears . It's nice to know, I suppose, that in the fake-Country era a legendary artist like Williams still seeks solace outside any narrow confines others try to impose on her. Her work since the excessive gushing praise awarded Car Wheels on a Gravel Road  has been sufficiently idiosyncratic. Meanwhile, all sorts of "Indie" boys and girls find themselves possessed with masochistic visions of submitting themselves to illusions of how the Nashville machine should work. The romanticization of the older, real Country by the "alt Country" mob is grounded of course in their distance from the machine. And no, their understanding of the fake Country music isn't spot-on. It's incomplete, based on the assumption that the fake stuff doesn't accomplish what Nashville always strived toward. In fact it does. Besides, money's real, not fake. So how could Shania Twain not be the "real deal?" Isn't that "Cash" bumper sticker supposed to be upside-down? Nevermind...
Vic Chesnutt's North Star Deserter ranks as the best record of the year, along with Animal Collective's Strawberry Jam. This surprising collaboration with Guy Picciotto of Fugazi and members of Thee Silver Mt. Zion gives us some noisey Rock and quieter moments, but with some electroacoustic surprises as well, as on "Debriefing" and "Marathon." Robert Wyatt's Comicopera, like his previous Cuckooland , is hampered by several arrangements that are both too nice and yet always falling apart (if only he'd get Evan Parker, who contributed to Shleep , back). Several tracks, and the album's tripartite structure, work quite well. On the other hand, while the poetry certainly seems inspired, it also seems confused. I too felt disgust at the imperialist geopolitical hysterics of the post-"9-11" period, but Wyatt's songs, trying to express the sickening absurdity of those miserable years, aim too high. His 1985 album, Old Rottenhat, intellectually speaking is a massive tome written by a stern curmudgeon, while Comicopera consists of graffiti scrawls written by young rebels with no semblance of an historical consciousness, especially when the tired old subject of Che Guevara, the nationalist revolutionary who turned turtle to become a meddling imperialist, comes up. Granted, such responses are what the beyond-stupid (beneath-contempt) notion of an "axis of evil," and other drivel nostrums spouted in those years, deserved.
The Good, the Bad and the Queen and Grinderman both warrant mention not just as excellent albums that got 2007 off to a good start but also for their apparent status as one-off projects. If only more Rock artists took such an approach...
Having been told by the artists that Bitter Tea is more of a "pop" record, a counterpart to Rehearsing My Choir, which was recorded just prior and features a similar approach to instrumentation, many critics and listeners were taken aback once they heard this album from the prolific brother-sister duo, The Fiery Furnaces. Indeed, in the number of parts and the complexity of their arrangement, Bitter Tea's songs are not considerably different from those of Choir or Blueberry Boat. Until one considers the lyrics. Even compared to those on their debut, Gallowsbird's Bark, these songs serve as exemplary models of the concise expression of thought in the form of song. The first track, "In My Little Thatched Hut," largely consists of two different refrains, with only a short distinct verse later in the song to break the to-and-fro, this later verse having been anticipated when its first line ("in the meantime I cry") served as the last line of the second refrain; the second track, "I'm in No Mood," is simpler, again with two refrains, both short, with only tiny variations in their repetition. The following tracks, forming the core of the record ("Black-Hearted Boy," "Bitter Tea," "Teach Me Sweetheart," "I'm Waiting to Know You," and "The Vietnamese Telephone Ministry") are not so terse, but still avoid the narrative approach of much of their previous work. "Teach Me Sweetheart," a rare track in that Eleanor Friedberger contributes to the lyric, dramatically stands out, with its vaguely disturbing images of in-laws demanding the narrator "spill [her] blood." Despite Eleanor's formal contributions here and to "Benton Harbor Blues," and her sole authorship of the lyric of "Police Sweater Blood Vow," Matthew Friedberger is the composer here; and gives us many poignant moments describing the travails of romance and various misadventures experienced by the narrator. (Eleanor's informal composer-role, that of the singer who gives voice to the words of another, is nonetheless the central attraction of The Fiery Furnaces; as M Friedberger's recent solo double-disc makes too-abundantly clear, his songs by themselves, sung by him, would hardly compel at all.) "The Vietnamese Telephone Ministry" ends with the singer going to ridiculously-named churches, like the St. Innocent Orthodox and Jesus in Delight, and as such takes into a portion of the record more inclined toward storytelling ("Oh Sweet Woods" and "Borneo") thankfully not lasting long, as, compared to Blueberry Boat's dizzying heights, they are pithy. Yet, one wouldn't want to do without the comedic relief of "Oh Sweet Woods," with its "two extra-blond short-sleeve button-down white-shirt blue-tie mystery Mormons" kidnapping the protagonist in order to balance her check-book, organize her receipts, and itemize her expenses.
The record's dark humor extends to the backward vocals which pop up throughout, especially on "The Vietnamese Telephone Ministry" and "Nevers." More often sung by Matthew, who otherwise takes on vocal duties even less than before, they exude a menacing aura. In repeating what E Friedberger has sung [though perhaps not always... with a Dr. Sample and patience, one could find out] the annoying disquieting feel of backward-effects provides a cold detached commentary on the longing and woe she expresses. When she sings, in "My Little Thatched Hut," of the "tears of joy" that will come when the lover she pines for finally returns, the backward voice mockingly recants the phrase, turning it to gibberish. As noted above, the common complaints about these backward vocals have not commented upon much beyond their very presence. Nonetheless, outside the core of the record noted above, M Friedberger's compositions do tend to wear, especially the concluding "Whistle Rhapsody," an ornery piece with Matthew singing lead that should have just been excluded.
Meanwhile, with her second album, Ys, harpist-singer Joanna Newsom has for now taken the place of The Fiery Furnaces as the leading practitioner of the story-song. Ys is one of those rare works that captivated this listener thoroughly, before having the chance to take on a critical perspective. But, alas, the chance has come (but what has ended?)... Those who find Newsom's voice annoying, assuming that they, if singing so much, with such passion, would somehow sound "normal," will have to pass quickly, finding other ways to repress themselves. While with only a few repeated listens, the structures of the songs come to light, the vocal performances are not so easy to pin down. The minute textures, the gradations of shade and emphasis, animating the rapturous sonic gestures emanating from Newsom's mouth and throat are seemingly endless. Thankfully then, Steve Albini recorded them. Van Dyke Parks's orchestral score generally avoids the trite and hackneyed, but one cannot help but want to hear Albini's initial recordings of the harp and vocals unadorned. This album is a striking change from The Milk-Eyed Mender; since works of such complexity as Ys tend to keep the listener at bay, blissfully unaware of any deeper meaning, reveling in the sensory experience, we cannot help but wonder what could have lay in between the two albums. Then again, we have "Sawdust and Diamonds," the third track, which is just Newsom and her harp; and the different versions arising from the relatively simple set-up of her performances. More important, Parks's contribution avoids the trite and hackneyed precisely because it comes in fits and pieces, rarely providing a regular beat. In other words, all of the other instrumentalists are submissive to Newsom's playing.
The refrain about meteorites, meteors, and meteoroids, appearing early in "Emily," and then once again at the conclusion, is not just the focal-point of this opening track; it is also symbolic of the obsessive attention to detail and structure impelling songs of such breadth. The narrator says the refrain is a mnemonic device ("I promised you I'd set them to verse so I'd always remember"). Like the Breton myth of an island-city that succumbed to flood which inspired the album, this lyric refers to, or at least allows the listener to dwell upon, pre-modern times. For, until the rise of printing, memory was the be-all and end-all of learning; without it, no matter how much information one took in, soon it would all dissipate back out, and one would revert to an ignorant state. Not only epic poetry, which of course comes to mind when listening to Ys, but also the rules of grammar and other regimented systems of learning... all were likely to be transmitted in the form of verse and/ or set to music, so that they could more easily be remembered.
Perhaps for any given songwriter, the editing process out of which come finished songs equals the act of discerning which of his memories will last. Taking on new form, they leave the hazy realm of thought where they can easily be lost. We can only begin to fathom the myriad of events and thoughts that inspired Ys. In the recent Wire article on Newsom, she discounts the notion that the album's cover-painting can be tied to the pastthat distant pre-Enlightenment, pre-industrial past we have ever-greater difficulty imagingnot because the painting does not refer to older styles, but because it is also of modern times: for example, the airplane trail in the sky. Since that article also notes that "Emily" is the artist's sister, the same rule applies to the lyrics. In that song, images and tales of decadence and decline alternate with entreaties to the song's namesake and heartening memories of the past. The rest of the tracks seem more mysterious; meshes of incidents recalled, and then described or interpreted anew; or perhaps, in "Monkey and Bear," transformed into what we could call the singer's re-telling of a longer allegorical tale previously told. "Only Skin" we can imagine is a literary re-enactment of the wildly disparate scenes and ideas which follow one another, seemingly illogically, when one daydreamsa daydream being the brief losing-track of the pattern of one's thoughts. With this track in particular, the fitting precedents for Ys are perhaps Robert Ashley "operas" (like Perfect Lives) rather than the work of any songwriter. Nonetheless, Ys is a singular achievement that deserves even greater attention and acclaim than it has received, and most likely will over time attract a cult-like following like that of "classic" Rock albums of yester-year (such as the Rock "opera" albums of M Friedberger's inspiration, The Who); while once popular music in general courted and received reverence and was the subject of much anticipation for the future, now we reserve such attention to individual artists.
Jarvis Cocker, the Pulp frontman who was in the previous decade arguably the undisputed champion of putting wordsa lot of wordsto song, made a comeback of sorts in 2006, with The Jarvis Cocker Record. No longer backed by the gargantuan backing band Pulp waslest we forget the droning minimalist layers characteristic of their peakCocker nonetheless avoids verbosity. Indeed, this record serves as another step, following the final Pulp records, This Is Hardcore and We Love Life, away from the narrative-method of their predecessors, His 'n' Hers and Different Class, the albums that made him famous (in Britain). While stories still figured on Hardcore and Life, on this solo album we only get excerpts from potential longer texts, a satisfying difference, enhancing the ambiguity and thus contextual space they inhabit; the music, considerably more sparse and at times almost drab compared to Pulp, allows the words to command the attention it turns out, upon close reading, they deserve.
The melody of "The Loss Adjuster," whose "Excerpt 1" and "Excerpt 2" serve as the album's introduction and penultimate track, respectively, seems like a slight variation upon the simple guitar line that runs throughout "Roadkill," the penultimate track of We Love Life. Pulp's disbanding, amicable as it may have been, was certainly a loss, and perhaps is commented upon here. Either way, loss is this record's theme; it pervades every song, as our singer ponders that one moment of inspiration when his personal trajectory seemed to match with the world around him ("Black Magic"), a lover who has gone ("Heavy Weather") but who may return ("Baby's Coming Back") childhood fantasies ("Disney Time") and his life itself ("Fat Children"). "Tonite" speaks of drunken revelry, apparently the only thing the narrator has left to look forward to; and yet he does so with guarded optimism.
The nature of our losses grows more complex with "From Auschwitz to Ipswich." Presumably chosen for its significance in the Second World War, however Ipswich's anonymity relative to Auschwitz is what initially struck this listener. Yet, with the recent infamous murder there of five prostitutes, we see a link to the Nazi extermination camp. How might they be "the same"? As far as this listener is concerned, both the massive crime of the Shoah, of world-historical importance, and the minor recent crime of Ipswich, surely soon to be forgotten, suggestno, demandthe existence of deviant members of society, those who are in the way of a fantastical future state of perfection, and thus must be disposed of. And of course, with the line that opens and closes the song ("'They want our way of life,' Well, they can take mine anytime they like") Cocker refers to the current obsessive desire of many otherwise-likable people in the United States and elsewhere in the West to kill "terrorists," the latest in a long series of Others proclaimed to be the enemy of our governments and civilization. The narrator's phrasing is fitting when he says, "Evil comes I know from not where. But if you take a look inside yourselfmaybe you'll find some in there." For (to put meaning where Cocker probably did not intend) to say that evil is from "not where," you could be saying not that you don't know its origin, but rather that its origin is the act of asking the question itself. In other words, evil does not come from the "where" our imperialist do-gooders designate, but from the position of leadership itself, insofar as it entails engaging in ideological denunciations of foreign individuals and societies merely for being foreign. As such, Cocker ideally would have made clear that the "we" he speaks of in the song, "going the same way" as the Roman empire, is the West (namely, the Christianized civilization that insured and leeched off of Rome's slow demise, not including Slavic or Semitic cultures, despite all the present-day talk of at least the former being part of some vague "west"). Only in this historical West do the warriors, but more likely the arm-chair intellectuals, seem overwhelmingly preoccupied with finding an absolute undeniable final evil, foxing it out of its hole; and then, curiously, finding another absolute undeniable final evil, and another... We won't fret over Cocker's lack of thoroughness too much though, for we should not try to find philosophical meaning of such significance in a song: that interdisciplinary art where the demands of prose are submitted to artistry of singers and other instrumentalists. Indeed, only in a song would we find the macabre one-liner disposing of the scene described as such: while the narrator orders food from an Indian restaurant, a terrorist attack occurs; he is spared, while "others went to an early grave: got stoned. Yeah, I went out and got stoned."
The conclusion of the album proper (unless one counts the "hidden" track, "Running the World," which with its refrain, "Cunts are still running the world," could send us off into another discussion of art, ethics, and politics, this time centered on sexismthough a discussion that is plausible only in the U.S, where use of the word, "cunt," unfortunately still reeks of a certain beyond-the-pale impropriety it lacks in Britain) "Quantum Theory," revisits the theme of lost goals, as Cocker sings that a better world does not exist, at least not beyond thoughts which remain unique to each individual, and as such could never bring about a final happiness of anyone but that very individual when actually made into physical acts, statements, policy. An unlikely pairing of the phrases, "everyone is happy," and, "fish do not have bones" (both scenarios occurring in a "parallel dimension, happening now but not within your sight") is the same point stated indirectly. Yet it suggests another point: that the revelations discussed here are mundane, and hopefully one had fun listening in spite of the oppressive seriousness that has increasingly characterized Cocker's work. Yes, we did have fun; like Cat Power's The Greatest earlier in 2006, a relatively-traditionalist approach to popular songoften dark and foreboding songs, moreoverhas given us an endearing record, solace in a time when as always there is too much talk of revolution, and too much young blood to be squirted, spilled, and splayed. If only our "leaders" could, like Cocker, take a look at themselves on the page and write over and over again, like a punished child at the chalkboard, that "God knowsI know I ain't living right: I'm wrong. I know I'm so wrong" ...
While The Fiery Furnaces and Joanna Newsom probably set new records for words-put-to-song with Blueberry Boat and Ys, respectively, the move away from youthful bursts of pent-up energy, of delving deeply into the possibilities of one's art, offers much for the artist and the listener, even as it inevitably curtails the listener's desire to create for himself. If "From Auschwitz to Ipswich" encapsulates one's thoughts about a number of socio-political problems, does it not then encourage passivity, or unemotive re-cant? We do then run the risk of erring in the same way our "leaders" do: playing god not with the materials of different art media, but with fellow humans instead. The worst then is not to disagree terribly with your neighbor, but to agree with him too much, too often. Then, you will lose focus on your unique interests, in favor of social bonds, which despite their seeming strength soon fray when stretched too far, to include too many people. The enthusiasm and righteousness one felt about those bonds inevitably comes into question, jealousies arise directed at those you found to be too different, and so on... until, for example, a nation as wealthy and edified as the United States can reach such absurd states of misunderstanding with foreign nations that it descends to the deplorable behavior its government has displayed this decade, or in Nicaragua in the 1980's, or Vietnam and Cambodia in the 1960's and '70's. So, only tread out into the open rarely; keep to yourself for the most partand your friends, your family, your town, where judgments are based on mutual experiences, not on conjectures and opinions. Fitting then, that M Friedberger's songs written for his sister to sing have evolved to the point of Bitter Tea, focusing often on the unreliability of men, and sometimes on religion's similar uselessness. The Fiery Furnaces apparently got off of their Byzantine Blueberry Boat only to find much to bemoan. Meanwhile, Newsom remains up in the hills, observing the battles between the "signifiers" and the "signifieds" she sang of on "This Side of the Blue" from Milk-Eyed Mender. The only truth we hold to steadfast in society's morass, where the beholden is blurred and the tactile turns out to be muck, is that those who know the value of the "steady, illiterate movement homeward" are the only ones worth knowing.
Cee-Lo and Danger Mouse's mutual appreciation of Portishead, helping to foster their shared vision and the subsequent Gnarls Barkley collaboration, has been noted in the New York Times Magazine article on Danger Mouse and elsewhere in the press. The similarities between Gnarls Barkley and Portishead, though, have not been dealt with clearly or thoroughly. Let's begin with a brief diversion: the electronic sounds of contemporary popular music, often imitating drums, strings, and horns, are in a roundabout way samples, similar to those making up most of the non-vocal parts of Gnarls Barkley or Portishead. Original sources were studiedthe frequencies they send into the air measured scientificallyand then recreated by machines, albeit with sound waves much simpler in their rise and fall, giving the results the "fake" or "artificial" sound many listeners raised on Rock dislike (though perhaps not anymore, given the assembly-line-like "modern" Rock of the post-Pearl Jam era). The musicians who instead take up the Hip Hop artist's approach have thus made a wise move: going straight to the source, so to speak, restores the presenceliterally and in terms of their timbral complexityof common elements of the modern pop song: the Funk-derived beat, the strings adding sentiment or melodrama, the quick injection of instrumentation or "effects" filling up space.
Besides Portishead, another obvious example to point to is Beck. A precedent even more revealing, though, is the work of Mike Ladd, especially Father Divine, released in 2005, and the Majesticons album, Beauty Party, released in 2003; the former features singing as much as rapping; and even the latter, like all of Ladd's records, refuses to confine the vocalist to an either-or position, following the logic Cee-Lo put into words: "rap is just a cadence." Beauty Party is of the present: the Majesticons, doing battle with their rivals, the Infesticons [the album released under that moniker, Gun Hill Road , is another essential record from this artist surely deserving more attention] strive to push Hip Hop in the direction of Bacchanalian pop, the irony of the concept/ project being that, while they play the bad guys to the Infesticons' heroes of the "underground," the Majesticons (the artists) make a record that, if it reached the proverbial masses the Majesticons (the fictional characters) hope to win to their side, would surely broaden the range of possibilities in contemporary pop music. Father Divine is of the past: while at least some of the record concerns Father Divine, the religious leader who proclaimed himself to be a god, founded communes based upon celibacy, and reached the height of his influence in 1930's New York, more of it consists of Ladd recalling his youth of the early 1980's, when Rap was just one part of a "new music," post-Rock (in the original definition of that term) then being foretold by optimistic artists and listeners. Besides the vocals, the instrumentals muddle any clear genre categorization; furthermore, the record is on the Reach Out International Records (R.O.I.R) label, despite its continued existence more the stuff of legend than present cold fact. Again, we look back to a time when, for at least an enlightened minority, the appropriate reaction to conservative backlash was further radicalization. Nonetheless, the example of Father Divine's difficulties with both the law and his followers cautions against any sentimental nostalgia. The realization of one's own god-like state, which ideally comes with the creative process, too often (as it did with Punk) fails to inspire others to embark on a similar path, as post-industrial society leads us instead to revere those smart and daring enough to refuse consumerism, thus reinforcing the status quo. After all, at the onset of the 1980's, the "hot" antidote to the Cold War then rearing its ugly godhead once again was more likely to be The Knack or Tom Petty than 23 Skidoo or E.S.G (which is not to degrade the work of either of the former).
With Beck, Mike Ladd, and Gnarls Barkley, the point is not to exclude electronic sounds for the sake of a sampler's world-view, which is merely a happy idiot's embrace of the consumerist dystopia: acting as if all original recordings of sound have already been made, the artist's role being that of the rebellious consumer continually reconfiguring aural documents of what increasingly seems like a bygone era. No, the point is to keep all avenues open; let both the music one hears in his head and the results of experimentation with all sorts of tools dictate the course the music takes. The bright, ebullient soundscape concocted by the iconoclastic Danger Mouse on St. Elsewhere is no surprise then. Still, Danger Mouse's half of the project does not overwhelm Cee-Lo's, an obvious point to any listener, but perhaps not to those who have only read the New York Times Magazine article noted above, wherein Brian Burton posits the work of film directors as the model he emulates, because only with them does he see the kind of mastery over a project he'd like for himself. However, it must be said the analogy of singers to actors is both specious and misplaced. Musicians of Burton's ilk already have the option of complete control over their projects. Before Danger Mouse, there was Pelican City. If he wants to make pop music that is similarly entirely his own creation, he can sing songs himself. Given that he has not, when he discuss Gnarls Barkley, we discuss Cee-Lo. After all, the auteur theory of film we are drawing upon here falls apart when the director is not also the screenwriter. And the screenwriter here, so to peak, is Cee-Lo, with his songs revolving around his and Burton's unifying concept of insanity. If anything, many of these tracks pass too quickly, the singer not given enough room to stretch out and digress, especially toward the end of the record as it limps to an anti-climax.
And so, not St. Elsewhere but rather two other records released this year have occupied much of my listening time of late: Geoff Reacher's Avec Reacher C'Est Plus Sur and Excepter's Alternation. Reacher's is surely a pop record, like those made by Gnarls Barkley, Beck, and Ladd. It will, nonetheless, strike tender ears oddly: a singer infused with the varied currents of American popular song, trained well (by Dave Van Ronk, of all people!) in the plucking and picking of the strings of the guitar he wields, all melding into the bed of beats, samples, and synths underneath. The ebb and flow of electroacoustic elements, whichto keep the lines sufficiently blurredincludes the overdubbed guitar parts interacting with whichever one the listener decides is the primary, as well as, to a lesser extent, manipulation of the voice, gives the record at times a earphones-required complexity. Still, the drama here lies more in how this music grew out of Reacher's approach to live performance and in the charming mix of bravado and self-deprecation on display in the lyrics. In short, from Van Ronk who taught him to the Rap/ Hip Hop artists who inspire him, Reacher covers a lot of ground, and the playfulness of his approach makes the experience a celebratory one.
This singer-songwriter with a guitar does not employ electronics in a lame effort to modernize the ancient art of song, or as a gimmick, but to become a one-man band, like another of his inspirations, Hasil Adkins. Those who witnessed Reacher's numerous gigs in Athens in the years, 2003-2006, when he has called the city home know the joy they bring. The performancesthe improvising, the venturing forth (along the edge of a cliff)are uncanny in their life-like-ness, their transparency. In an era when Indie bands appear on Austin City Limits and Improvised Electroacoustic artists are escorted around the world like diplomats, few artists so completely part of popular-music traditions, as Reacher is, would seem so out-of-place performing in our standard forums; and few experimental artists have an approach as open-ended, likely to fall apart completely, not painting one's self into a corner, as he does. At Athens's smaller venues, house parties, and informal performance spaces, we have gotten to know these songs, but only bare outlines, as Reacher continually hones them, never aiming to replicate the "final" versions on this record (different, if only slightly, from those on 2005's "You Like My Song" E.P); new variations always come forth, the creative process put on display in all its messiness.
As for those lyrics... the album begins with the singer referring himself in the third person: "Geoff Reacher, the lonesome engineer," "a man well aware of his worth"indeed, "you like [his] song." Yet, just as much as this Rap-influenced self-boasting, the subject of the album is the narrator's love for anotherat least, the very act of proclaiming such love. The desire for a romance, a partner in life, is driven by, if not inexorably tied up with, the fear of death, end-times arriving. The singer suddenly says, "we'll be dead in no time"; there are "hearses circling your house"; though your "eyes are closed, doesn't mean you're dead." Love is the "feeling I can ride to the grave," content with and certain of at least one thing in life. By the end of the record, a necromancer regales us with a swaggering, vengeful songcertain he "won't get cancer." Apparently, all the talk of one's own worth and one's recognition of another's comes to naught, and other means of shaping the future are sought out. (Both Reacher's record and St. Elsewhere have songs sung from the perspective of necromancers, though the Gnarls Barkley is more about necrophilia, sadly enough more reflective of the social context, as 2006 was the year Americans finally grew tired of George W Bush getting off on the proverbial dead corpse of US imperialism.) Indeed, after the myth-making cheap-wine grandeur of nearly every song on the record, Avec Reacher ends with "Customer Service," where the narrator is just one service-industry minion among many, in Athens, Austin, New York... wherever young artists on the make congregate to take on the bizarre dual task of timeless artistic pursuits and piss-ant day jobs.
With Excepter as with Reacher, sampling is of course not the modus operandi, or selling point, or preferred means of composition; it is just another facet of an open-ended approach to electronic music-making devices. Indeed, the Hip Hop-derived common understanding of "sampling"that it involves the appropriation of another artist's workacts as an unrecognized intellectual hegemon blocking greater awareness of how most artists use the devices known as samplers. But we'll return to the issue of these tools' usage in a moment. First... Alternation is the second manifestation of the band's renewed sense of direction and purpose, and new confidence as performers, after the quintet version gave way to the quartet; it follows Sunbomber: now, we do have a selling point: Sunbomber was recorded in one hour, while Alternation required one year. That one hour took place July 9, 2005, the day before the new line-up first played live, at the gig I noted above. As Sunbomber, despite its quick production, was still not a live performance, but rather featured the same editing of improvised performances characterizing all of Excepter's records, Alternation does not simply take the opposite position, as a meticulously-crafted pop record. Instead, the interaction between improvisation and composition, performance for others and performance at home for one's self or friends, is a fundamental "subject matter" here.
Alternation is a double L.P; as such, under discussion here we have four short L.P's, none reaching the 40-minute mark. Confronted by the decline of the album, to the point where perhaps for the first time since the early 1960's the single song (if even an Internet download instead of a single per se) predominates, these artists stage an unwitting protest. Each of these also flows like an album, a continuity, so that listening to individual tracks is not satisfactory (thus, the ironic widespread popularity of "Crazy"). Alternation's side A at least manifests John Fell Ryan's remark in part 2 of our Correspondence that vocals are central to the record. "Ice Cream Van" and "The Rock Stepper" venture into songwriting, the former a myriad of instrumental and vocal melodies mixed into a complex web of other elements, the latter overwhelmed by a vocal refrain with different words at each reoccurrence, the singer starting anew every time; and a mantra-like synth part, which in its varied repetitions serves as a sort of commentary on the quiet influence of minimalist aesthetics on electronic popular music; while the underlying bass line and stilted beat provide about as regular of a rhythm one will find in Excepter's music. The result with both tracks is a queasy, yet (when listening closely) hypnotic, stasis. In between, "Lypse," recorded live from a gig at Northsix in Brooklyn, features a wrenching word-forming performance from Ryan on top of beats stuttering, and melodies and textures fluttering and sparkling, but not violently; this clatter which runs through most of the track is hard to pin downthe lines of demarcation not seen whole, a splattering of directions.
Side B allows the listener to relax some. "The Ladder" is Excepter at its simplest, its most-sublime; a second live track, "If I Were You," exudes a laid-back cool, perfect for automobile-listening, while "Whirl Wind" is an electronic recreation of those moments in a Sun Ra concert where all the players collectively made a "joyful noise." Sides C and D follow more closely upon Throne and Self Destruction. Once past "(The Pipes)"supposedly performed by the building where many of Excepter's recordings have taken placewe have four tracks, "Knock Knock," "Apt. Living," "Op Pop," and "'Back Me Up' (Show)," bringing the record to the closeappropriately enough, as they also serve as the pinnacle of Excepter's oeuvre to this point. Listening to these tracks, we hear a new level of comfort and dexterity certain contemporary music artists have attained with electronic instruments. Those of us raised on Academic masters of the distant past, and pioneers of digital dissonance of the near past, cannot help but make too much of the simplicity of the electronics and concrete effects found in some of the best contemporary music: notably, the undulating waves of delay coating the music of Animal Collective, the persistent backwards vocals on The Fiery Furnaces's Bitter Tea, and the ghostly echoes of voices in Excepter's early work. In doing so, we make the mistake these artists are avoiding: thinking of electronics and effects as fancy new embellishments upon, or curt rejections of, the Rock-band core, and as such required to surprise the listener with a new sound he has never heard before. One example: in the class on electroacoustic music I took in college, the professor warned against the simple use of the "backwards" effect, because it was too obvious and did not impel the listener's interest. Another: the constant rush of Experimental Electronica artists toward new ways of mining their machines for "glitches," as if any electronic sounds not more "modern" and dissonant than what came before were to be discarded. But, what if, when listening to Bitter Tea, we treat the backwards vocals as different vocals, rather than manipulated vocals? That is to say, what if we ignore our own knowledge of what was done there electronically? Let our guard down a little, and cease these pathetic efforts of ours to avoid looking like suckers. No, sullen Indie Rocker, bitter Rock critic, those are not backwards vocals, they are just vocals. And those are not echoes, but other voices. Not addenda, but the substance itself. New instruments.
These four tracks are similarly effective in the use of synthesizers, drum machines, samplers, and treated vocals. "Knock Knock"'s simple House beat takes the listener through three distinct aural spaces, each more confined, only to be overtaken by a hand-drum beat, naturally leading us into "Apt. Living," which evinces a Buddha-like detachment, suitable as musical accompaniment to a large number of environments and circumstances. The vocals on these tracks are similar to those on Throne (except its first track, "Jrone (Three)"), floating, roaring or mumbling along in the background. In some cases, the vocals are among the many elements which I only noticed after several listens. Indeed, despite being largely kept in the background, some searing vocals make themselves heard later in "'Back Me Up' (Show)," by which point a brash driving bass line has gradually risen to the surface alongside synth parts, alternately playful and siren-like. At first, vocals are more prominent on "Op Pop," but they give way; the real stars of the track are the bright springing bell-like sounds that gloriously grow in intensity, a reverie forming a pointillistic whole.
Cat Power's album The Greatest does not just feature great musicians of the Soul music tradition (notably, Mabon "Teenie" and Leroy Hodges, part of the Hi Rhythm Section that backed Al Green, Ann Peebles, and O V Wright, the staples of Willie Mitchell's Hi Records label); it takes Soul and similar popular musics as a model for its composition: adroit but not zealous musicianship creating a dense but light backdrop for a singer who sounds a lot like you, the listener, would if you gathered your bearings and started to sing, no matter how peculiar you sound. Yes, we hear ourselves dancingnot literally: our voice(s) are dancing, above music that embraces us like cool but humid air. Following the contours of these lines Chan Marshall puts forth, we enter into a world turned on its head, as we are indeed supposed to do with popular music, but so rarely do these days. Nevermind Soul music, where the singer was not just the star, but generally played a role, or even dictated, the course the music took. Artists cannot even successfully master relatively professionalized and rigid methods like those of Motown or the newer post-Electro star system pioneered by Madonna. As first Pop, then Rap, then Country, slavishly followed the paths laid by her, Michael Jackson, and others, popular music's exemplars (culprits) began to reek with mimicry-insincerity. While our contemporary stars are apparently certain they are expressing themselves, and are fully in charge of their fate, their vocals, and their words, pale in comparison to the glory of Soul's pinnacle, when African American singers, often supported by "white" and "black" musicians, sang so freely, intenselythe ecstatic clamor of manifest spiritual yearning translated into the secular realm; moreover, they did so via the best recording technology available at the time, resulting in powerful, yet magisterial, records.
Furthermore, Marshall is fully a part of the post-Punk poet-singer lineage. In popular music of the pre-Rock era, a singer with Marshall's difficulty with live performance would have been dismissed: an unreliable entertainer is no entertainer at all. In the pre-Punk era, she would have been an anomaly, fated to do only recordings, staying out of the limelight. But, after Punk, when that band playing to a sparse crowd at the dingy night-club down the street may very well be, in a round-about way, the most influential artists of their day, or the strangest thing you've ever seen, Marshall stays on the club circuit, keeping her shows low-key, because... well, they could turn out to be nearly non-existent. As such, she is more herself, but also like you: what would result when the tables are turned on the listener, the spectator, the patron.
Her place in the music "industry," mirrors her post-Punk place aesthetically speaking. We want to follow those lines because of the captivating unpredictability of her voice, as it goes from a conversational whisper to a full-body yell, singing poems, telling stories, embodying others, making pronouncements, all the while decidedly not trying to imitate "good" singers, to fit a prescribed genre, or to project an image instead of making a sound. The combination of Marshall with the tight accompanying music makes the dark lyrical themes go across more smoothly, making it a record you can live in for a little while, especially as Soul music is perfect for the South (whenever Soul artists appropriated elements of Country, they made the latter less ornery)and for the summer. It also makes The Greatest the dualistic counterpart to Moon Pix, where the relatively free-form accompaniment is more in accord to Marshall's style, resulting in a work that seems outside of time itself: Marshall's irregularly over-lapping, over-dubbed vocal parts on that record are like the sirens that sang for Odysseus. The Greatest finds these voices forced to discipline themselves some, and as such brings us closer to home. The result is music that can bring peace of mindto think that the perils of love and life Marshall sings of can be put into beautiful forms, finally distant from the artist, no longer stinging, but soothing.
Performing at the Notown Sound Festival, Atlanta, Georgia, 2 April 2005... a barrage of sound, yet consisting of parts relatively-easily discernable... Excepter is to the electronic music of the present-day as the Velvet Underground were to teeny-bopper Rock in 1966. How far we have come in such a short time... I remember Ian Penman, in reviewing Mille Plateaux's Modulations and Transformations 4 compilation for the Wire, ridiculing the "Brit Pop" of Blur and Suede in comparison, and being angry at such a curt dismissal of music I loved even as I was intrigued by such a strong advocacy for another kind of music I was just starting to appreciate. Indeed, the stark digital sounds of Experimental Electronica did seem liberatory. As we listened to Aphex Twin's Richard D James Album, a friend of mine and I lamented the sweet synth-keyboard melodies getting in the way of the splintered brittle beats. We greeted the harsh landscape of the computer world with a warmth it lacked. These new soundsthe extraordinary timbre of digital sound when not forced to constrict itself in imitation of acoustic instrumentsprovoked thoughts of renewal, progress over the past, though not toward a better future, just one more at ease with the technology's seemingly-uncontrollable historical trajectory. But, in darker timeswhich means, poorer timesa critical and inspired approach to machines is more apt to make music which reflects and impels the culture enveloping it.
Hearken this moan: the low, drawn-out voice which is the central actor in Ka's first track, "Sheltered Skull," accompanied by a simple two-part bass dronethe track's persistent backgroundas well as shaker percussions and another voicefemale, scattered at first, before becoming a running commentary upon the moan (which at one point becomes a scream, or is that still another voice? and of what relation are the other voices appearing in fragments here and there?)... could there be an introduction to an album more evocative and revealing? It is unfathomable in many waysthe movement of the voice itself, the emotions it is conveying; I suppose it is unsure itself, and has simply come unexpected up from the singer's belly, occupying the entire body with the mere act of singing, improvisedreally improvisedthen treated with electronics, given a sharper relief, as the artist considers what it meant, molds it to fit the idea he now has in his head, after the act. The percussion is amplified and multiplied, the movement of the hands thus made into a grand gesture, like the planting of a seed. Indeed, in the electroacoustic manipulation of virtually every facet of the track, it becomes the mysterious magisterial thing it is. Without the space created by all that reverb and echothe distance thus created between the artist and the listenerthe sounds would not command our attention, would not captivate and intrigue like they do.
Nonetheless, the centrality of the voices distinguishes the track, and Excepter's music in general, from the two-dimensional nothingness of much contemporary music. No festishization of electronic sound; instead, the use of tools to satisfy well-honed aesthetic senses. No virtuosity with the instruments either, as the group prefer to discard what are, after all, mere disposable pieces of mass-culture junk, once they feel they have gotten out of them what they need. And, perhaps, what is needed most in these times is such unadulterated moans, yelps, screams, mumbles, nascent words slowly rising from the mind, taking center-stage, in lieu of skilled actors and technicians.
A two-week sojourn to New York, July 2005, and the first performance by the new quartet version of Excepter awaits, as do two new records, Throne and Self Destruction. The performance: leaner than the entrancing density of sound I had heard at the Atlanta gig; as such, the listener follows along more closely. The rationale behind the change, and its results, will become evident on the 2006 records, Sunbomber and Alternation. Meanwhile, 2005's: Throne is an electronic psychedelic masterpiece, steadily building over its half-hour length a driving momentum, which nonetheless is weighted down by the stately rhythms of "Jrone (Three)" and "Jrone (Two)" (the first "Jrone" was on Ka); and yet, with "The Heartbeat" and "(The Ass)," it reaches a frenzied climax or two, or three. The looped beat that underlays the "Jrone" tracks, allowing breathing room for both entrancing plateaus and frenzied peaks, is closer to Javanese gamelan or Japanese Gagaku than any sort of electronic music. As with Ka, the electronics-manipulated voices, which are a crucial part of these climaxes, are like barely-formed ghosts of everything that has ever uttered from human mouths. I say, "psychedelic"... remembering that years ago, a friend of mine said that live performances by the group Spiritualized were akin to being on hallucinogenic drugs; that was not what I heard. Maybe I have a less-benign view of drugs, but Throne, especially when listened to on earphones, is to me psychedelic music; it is truly disorienting, making one unsure of what his senses are taking in. Perhaps it's best just to say that you should listen to this record loudreally loud. Make sure you notice the different parts. Dwell in them. I hardly ever listen to music loud, but I have difficulty appreciating the record's various parts and its overall effect at low volumes.
Self Destruction explores varying strategies of the less-is-more school of thought, even as its soundscapes are as complex and hard to pin down as the longer works of Karlheinz Stockhausen or Pierre Henry or the multi-layered electroacoustic songs of The Olivia Tremor Control or Animal Collective. "Bad Vibration": while I would not use the word, "bad," there is something intriguingly annoying, or aggravating, or sickeningbad-vibe-likeabout the three-part pattern that runs throughout the track's ten minutes. Consisting of a bass tone, a digital click, andlet's guessa choir electronically muffled until it's as quiet as a hum, sounding machine-like but human-like too. While the middling digital click seems to stay the sameperhaps one of its three steps is weakerthe to-and-fro between the other two, after its origin (or what this listener decides is its origin, since the pattern sounds like it'll go on forever, that it has its own existence beyond this track, which only realized the pattern's existence well after it had begun) takes two steps up in frequency, and then starts over again. It unexpectedly slows down at one point, when the other parts of the track have dropped out; you're surprised, you think you're imagining it; you have to listen to it a few times to convince yourself it really did that. You're in a non-descript office building, the drones of masses of machines surrounding you; you're going insane (or have taken too many pills). The drones are slowing down, or there are little variations in the patterns you never noticed before. You're going insane.
Then again, listening to the track on the stereo in my living room, doors open to the screened porch, and thus to the massive swell of sounds made by insectsassuming it's not winterand further outthat is, from the perspective of our senses, as the insects' sound reaches us firstto the sight of trees, great numbers and kinds of trees, "Bad Vibration" makes perfect ambient music. I go out, into the porch, and sit. The bugs buzzing, I look up: a small tree close to the porch has become, in the darkening night, nothing to my eyes but black lines against a deep navy-blue sky. This: the inability of my eyes to see what the tree "really" looks like, is the beginning of everythingart, science, literature, and back again to art. An ideologue among artists could say that we should not worry about our supposed inability to see the tree exactly. This perspective is ultimately true; after all, I cannot confirm that the tree exists, only that some images have formed in my head. But we'll give the scientists their duethey did make the stereo I'm listening to possible. "Bad Vibration," meanwhile, provides plenty to occupy my ears: from the aforementioned "vibe" with its deep bass toneswhich, being electronic, of course are marked by fine lines so unlike their acoustic counterpartsto the sprightly high frequencies of the synthesizer melodies that grab the listener's attention when they come in; not to mention John Fell Ryan's vocal part, which when it first appears brusquely breaks the general mood of the piece, only to flow into the whole.
Both Self Destruction and Throne make even the best of Experimental Electronica (Pan Sonic, Oval, Fennesz, Alva Noto) seem paltry, too enamored with the pitiful influx of power the artist apparently feels when exposing the listener to the harsh sounds of digital electronics, or still too encumbered by past interest in House-Techno. At the same time, Excepter find themselves at a curious intersection of, on one hand, Noise and Industrial musics and, on the other, Improvised Electroacoustic music. For, until the revival of the latter in the 1990's [Günter Müller, MIMEO, Japanese "onkyo"] the artists who approached performance the same way Excepter do were with some exceptions (notably, Voice Crack) part of the music-cultures we call Noise and Industrial. That is to say, for concerts they did not aim to recreate recordings, but understood the potential of the event, the happening; and yet, for their records, though they might record live, these artists worked in the studio (or the home "studio") carefully sculpting worksediting and re-editing, montaging and collagingin a way musicians corded off in the Improvised category would find pointless or, in some cases, ideologically suspect. Not that Industrial-Noise artists or Excepter ignore the potential in live recordings: see Throbbing Gristle's exhaustive documentation of its performances (which we can only hope Excepter equal with their M P 3 streams of concerts). While the flow and morphing of Noise and Industrial into the less-easily-pigeon-holed pseudo-academic electro-acoustic music of the present day [see: Ralf Wehowsky, John Duncan, Zoviet France] was fairly evident, their similar prescience of the resurgence of Improvised Electroacoustic music was something we just did not comprehend until Excepter's music broke down the walls in our histories and made it obvious.
Moreover, in performing in the contemporary Indie-Rock contextsmall boutique-like "micro" labels rarely run by artists themselves anymore, gigs that hardly assume "event" status and largely give the artist a chance to sell themselves and their waresand having a singer who in some respects fits the mold of a "front man," something decidely "Rock" is suggested by Excepter's music. The Experimental Electronica of the 1990's pointed away from a social milieu, that of dance clubs and House-Techno music, toward domesticity: the artist making music at home, the consumer listening to music at home. Excepter as a live act move us back in the other direction. While Excepter aesthetically have much in common with Noise-Industrial music, both as noted above and at times in the palpable, wide-range-of-frequency-covered effect of their music, they do not, at least not overtly/ literally, seek to shock the audience, to delve into the themes of human degradation and depravity. When they engage in performances that are open to improvisation, collective, charting new territory instead of rehashing completed works, they evoke instead the excitement, the promise, live Rock shows once had: the sense that the artist and the listener were challenging each other to take this "pop" music seriously, to let it be the center of your lives, instead of work, and the recipient of your intellectual and artistic energies, instead of academic, high-culture pap. And yet, like the best of contemporary popular music (notably, Animal Collective) Excepter one-ups Rock in its tendency toward improvisation and its radical approach toward composing in general. Their shows are pleasantly unpredictable: on the Obedience cassette, for example, one moment you're listening to them sound-check, the next you're hearing ragged, soaring, droning, wavering voices that arenot like ghosts of the past, as I said abovebut instead suggest a purposeful return to wordless singing, not going forward in one's thoughts to the point of speech; so much more is said that way.
One's a little bit younger, so she has a picture of the way it should be. Somebody will make her give in someday, but I'm glad she knows it won't be me. It's easy, it's rough, I'm falling sleep, I ain't lifting any weight on a human scheme.
The Howling Hex: does the term describe the U.S in the Twenty-First Century? Well... The Howling Hex, at least on all of the records on which Neil Hagerty has used the moniker certainly sounds like the work of an artist trying to evoke, perhaps embody, his home society in music. Serene experimentation: simplest of gestures resulting in a cacophony of structures and sounds. A lone man, and a woman too on occasion, doing what fortunate few are able to do collectively: get beyond the intellectual baggage weighing down the music culture, the entire culture.
No other artist who emerged in and came to define the Indie era has changed so much in the past few years, adapting to the times as if he were always waiting for them, to find peace of mind, finally, in them. Ignored because of a lack of interest in how his recent work fits in with the present array of experimental Rock, Hagerty is not far from where Royal Trux started, on the out-skirts, the nooks-and-crannies, of Indie music, along with the likes of Jandek, Chris Knox, Charalambides, Sun City Girls, Caroliner Rainbow, Cerberus Shoal. Rejected because of his movement away from ironic Rock, Hagerty does not amuse the slumming yuppies; instead he makes soundtracks to those wandering lost in contemporary America, feeling oddly at home in the heathen-horror, the hick-history, the highway-holiday... the howling-hex, the trick played on us all. I love my own people, and that is defensive. It makes me feel so proud to see such deception.
From the first song on Neil Michael Hagerty and The Howling Hex, the driving inspiration seems to lie at the intersection of melancholy and nostalgia, what Mark Simpson in his book on Morrissey calls melanalgia. Looking back at youth, benignly reflecting upon such naivete and ignorance. Though you are much wiser and content now, you are also angry and confused that in such a position you find yourself with less compatriots, and thus less will to do anything. It feels so hollow, when no-one is on your neck making you regret what you had to do. Only with the foolish belief in the possibility of the world being turned on its head does one seem to escape the inhibiting patterns of daily life; oh, yes... and of course the distinct ability middle-class youth have of being given so much idle time and free money, and yet being possessed with déclassé visions of revolt, helps too. You better stay busy... or they'll catch you dreaming too.
So what to do in and with such a state of mind, with so much knowledge not pointing in a certain direction, offering no pay-off, no vindication? The eclecticism of Neil Michael Hagerty and The Howling Hex, wrapped neatly in its own sloppy way into a classic-form double L.P, designed to allow the listener to explore and get lost in, was an initial baby-step away from irony. The three Howling Hex L.P-only releases make the definitive leap; they offer no excuses for being all over the mapnone is needed, none ever was. As such, they manage to inspire and beguile at once. Drum machines and cheap synthesizers, creating meek and distant rhythms, like karaoke, like a memory of good times we once had listening to music, communing in the sound waves; simple drum patterns presumably played by Hagerty himself looped longer than you ever expect, even after hearing the track several times; guitar solos barely amplified, frail and noodle-like, presenting musicianship as the garbled mesh of broken and half-formed thoughts it often is; the mysterious female singer, with her Country and Western voice ripped from one context, the fake America of fake Country, and put into another: America in its hex-enduction time; the third L.P's first side's eleven brief tracks offering bewildering densities of sound; on several of the same tracks, Hagerty speaking, fragments of stories intoned quickly and monotonously.
Perhaps the crucial difference between Neil Michael Hagerty/ The Howling Hex and Royal Trux lies with Hagerty's voice. He now occupies center ground. In Royal Trux, he frequently offered the high-pitch accompaniment to Jennifer Herrema's low guttural growling. As charming and righteous as that topsy-turvy-ness was, Hagerty occupied the role, most of all, of the trained musician providing the groundwork for Herrema's less-inhibited explorations and, second, of the prettier, more-accessible voice making the melodies and Herrema's take on them more acceptable to the fragile ego of the expanding Indie audience. Hagerty was only rarely the lone singer on a track (and then tended toward fine, but fairly standard, songs like "Stop" or "Sunshine and Grease") and only occasionally let out some primal screams of his own. Tending to emphasize his skills as guitarist and putting such extraordinary effort in Royal Trux's reconstructions of Golden-Age Rock, Hagerty self-consciously (as revealed often in interviews) put behind the radicalism of early Royal Trux and of the larger home-recording Indie underground they had been part of. Now, having left Royal Trux behind, he has become an expressive singer, with a subtlety few contemporaries match. On "I'm Your Son," the fragility of the voice makes one wonder if the singer is on the verge of tears, even as he also sounds sleepy, bored, disengaged. A similar ambiguity is heard on "Greasy Saint," where "it's nice to know the things you lost were real," and on "Fat Street," where the narrator wonders what it takes "to forget such a strong, strong lie" and "such a deep, deep dream," before concluding "it's a really good thing that your dreams get ruined."
And so, on All-Night Fox, Hagerty does not yield the center: he shares it with his female-voice counterpart, still nameless. The guitars and the drums (still presumably played by himmanifestations of the complexity of "primitive" skills) are looped time and again to provide welcoming platforms for the vocals, which are for the first time in Hagerty's long career absolutely the main attraction. Sung with urgency, yet not worrying too much about where they are going, they find a certain melody, honing in on it, getting all they can get out itwhat more thoughts can I fit into this line? Again, the complexity arising from simple building blocks is startling: sometimes, the two singers sing the same melody, taking turns; other times, they each have their own, call-and-response-ing; and yet even the repetition of the same melody is complicated by the use of the simplest sound manipulations: panning and reverb mostly, and in some cases the panning of the reverb (!); which precisely because of their transparency, make the resulting treated voice like another actor in what are apparently only excerpts from a four-hour music-as-performance-piece. Sometimes, the switch to a new line gives a track the semblance of a refrain, and when it comes the effect is all the more greater for its rarity. The same is the case when, on one occasion, Hagerty breaks with the tendency toward repetition of instrumental elements, unleashing his guitar to wile its way through all seven minutes of "What, Man? Who Are You?!" the album's peak, followed by two brief tracks which, like the sudden beginnings and ends of every song of the record, as if they all could easily go on much longer, only make us wonder what Hagerty has planned for the live version of this music.
Silver was one of three homemade C.D-R's Circulatory System made available via Cloud Recordings in late 2001, only a few months after the release of their eponymous record: the others were Circuits, an excellent collection of electroacoustic pieces utilizing guitar improvisations recorded over the course of two days in September, 2001, as their sound source; and Inside Views, an album of different versions of tracks from Circulatory System plus additional material. While Inside Views was thus the second Circulatory System we've all supposedly been waiting for, the other two were credited just to Will Hart, in either case the composer in question.
Silver explores the quiet minimal aesthetic of artists like Bernhard Günter and Francisco Lopez through a compositional method using chance. The aleatoric experiment is neither incredibly exacting or scientific nor involves the alteration of traditional notation or performance practices. Rather, it is an electroacoustic piece, made up of sounds emerging from the chance operation itself. As Hart explains, "[a] tape recorder was switched on and buried in the backyard. Sounds of snails, ants, passing traffic, etc., from this rumbling soundscape of the world around us, below us, and inside us" make up the composition, with a few sounds added after the fact. The low-frequency sounds which resulted presumably are not the sounds of any living beings, but indeed, "passing traffic" (of especially loud and big cars?) and sources that remain mysterious to me, though perhaps not to someone more familiar with the vicissitudes of sewage systems and underground wiring. They serve as an intriguing counterweight to the high-pitched tones of artists like Otomo Yoshihide and Sachiko M. As Günter suggests with his works, Hart recommended that the listener play Silver at a low volume.
The lack of differentiation possible with bass frequencies will render Silver an unsatisfying listening experience for manyat high or low volume. Is it merely a concept gone awry, perhaps flawed from the outset? Certainly, if one attempts close listening, on earphones especially, the record quickly bores; indeed, in such situation, Silver might very well be one of the most-unlistenable pieces of music ever made, no matter how well-composed. But on your high-fi, it achieves what most Ambient music does not: that is, it serves as actual ambient music. At low volumes, the listener has difficulty delineating the rumbles as they emerge; at times, one is not sure if sounds are emanating from the loudspeakers at all. Sometimes a listening experience like so is exactly what's desired: not much more than turning on a fan for the "white noise" backdrop it provides, a welcome respite from all the clatter and vociferation.
Moreover, the piece proceeds logically from past aspects of The Olivia Tremor Control's and Circulatory System's music. Recall the bass line that served as a sort of motif in Black Foliage/ Animation Music, or the chorus of deep voices on "Outside Blasts" on Circulatory System. This interest in low sounds evokes larger themes that permeate Will Hart's music and of the experiences of the Olivia Tremor Control and the more-experimental work of Elephant Six artists in general. The underlying problem behind the lack of interest expressed in the "out" side of [outside of?] Elephant Six (which besides the Cloud C.D-R's includes The Black Swan Network; Julian Koster's Music Tapes project; certain aspects of the Olivia Tremor Control and Neutral Milk Hotel; much of Eric Harris's solo work; and the solo electroacoustic work, largely unreleased, of Jeff Mangum) is that it emerges from a milieu that does not regularly produce such music. In the case of the common description of The Black Swan Network's The Late Music as "ambient" music, it has been presented in a way that would only confuse the listener. On Circulatory System and most Olivia Tremor Control, and early Neutral Milk Hotel, releases, the passages reflecting and coursing through various experimentalist traditions pass by in a moment, or as particular passages in the music, easily demarcated and thus, for the annoyed listener, easily discarded or bemoaned. Yet, in the case of the Olivia Tremor Control, by the time of Black Foliage these moments grew in scope and significance to the point where they often subsumed the songs and other traditional structures, leading to the negative reception the album received from many critics. (This sense of a clear progression in the band's development, though, fails to explain their second mini-album, Giant Day, perhaps their most-complex piece of music overall.) Meanwhile, the problem of reconciling songs with electroacoustic composition (or, rather, apparent lack of interest in doing so) has played an important role in Jeff Mangum's current abstention from releasing (if not composing) music.
As such, Silver becomes an ironic reflection on the difficulties of presenting music in a social environment which does make room for it. Hart unwittingly challenges the milieu in which he finds himself, with a piece of music made easily, in a D.I.Y manner surely to amuse if not inspire, and yet the concept itself and the final result seem flippant and confrontational. By creating a work with a chance method that renders the piece minimal nearly to the point of non-existence [Taku Sugimoto comes to mind], Hart accomplishes two things: a reaffirmation, though not necessarily a celebration, of the existence of the intriguing sounds which continually surround us, as in John Cage's work; and a step toward allowing chance to dictate the final work, in the tradition of Cage orin the visual artsHans Arp, which nonetheless seems to be an expression of frustration by an artist who must continue to create in spite of discouraging signs. The disavowal of barriers between Rock and experimental musics, which was crucial to the achievements of the Elephant Six artists, is perhaps abandoned, or at least is muzzled until it is nearly silent.