I’ll admit I had never heard of Cee-Lo Green before the song “Crazy” (of Le Aught Blog fame!) came out in late 2005/early 2006.  And it wasn’t really until I went to see Gnarls Barkley live in Boston (dressed as tennis players, a little disappointing) that I really began to appreciate the brilliance of Mr. Green.

Cee-Lo Green – Gettin’ Grown (from Cee-Lo Green and His Perfect Imperfections; Arista 2002)

There is something ever so catchy about this song.  Despite being about the transition from being young and carefree to becoming a man with responsibilities, the song maintains an incredibly playful nature.  There’s a fun little rhythm underlining everything, and any song that can successfully incorporate whistling is a winner in my book.  Finally, the music video for this song is worth checking out, as it features Cee-Lo dressed as three different Teletubby-like creatures, one of whom is drunk…

n1890_30778073_2039(Props to Diana Fridberg for the excellent Photoshoppery)

The Heart Attack – Right Now

I first discovered this song while working on a project call Summer Burn.  The idea was to promote the exchange of music by making mix CDs of summer music and sending it to two random people, and getting CDs from two random people in return.  In my search to find appropriately summery music, I found Right Now.  There is something so light and airy, something that allows you to throw your cares away.  With the trumpet at the forefront and the wind chimes in the back, Cee-Lo lets you know it’s ok to just chill the eff out.

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Being a music fan in LA is a constant struggle. We Angelenos have the good luck of being consistently toured by great bands. We also have a pretty solid local scene with a megaton of bands (many good ones) trying to make it. Unfortunately, we also have to contend with an enormous population of people interested in seeing live shows, which means a lot of competition for popular acts or small venues. The other harsh reality of the Los Angeles music community is the sheer number of douche bag scenesters in this city.*

Back in 2006, BV asked if I wanted to see Emily Haines at the Viper Room. He was going through a big Metric phase and I was certainly intrigued, so we picked up some tickets. We wrangled some cheap parking in the lot behind the venue, found our name on the list and wended our way up the stairs into the main room. The room had a very smoky vibe to it, all hazy lighting and moist air. A guy who looked like Ben Gibbard (and for all I know could have been) sat at one of the two tables in the back left corner of the room and the stage was ringed with a velvet curtain in the right corner.

Emily Haines and the Soft Skeleton – Doctor Blind
(From the album Knives Don’t Have Your Back: Last Gang Records, 2006. Buy it here.)

Emily’s solo album Knives Don’t Have Your Back hadn’t been released yet, but it was just about to come out. From her Metric stuff, I think we were both expecting a high-energy live show, so it was a bit of a surprise when she ambled onto the stage with two guys and the gravitas of an oak-paneled library. She brought along a friend who had put together short black-and-white film clips from old movies to accompany her songs. They were played on a screen above her and her worn keyboard.

No doubt about it, the set was a whisper in a crowded room. Frankly, I don’t even remember how compelling it was at the time. I just know that it stuck with me more strongly than most shows I’ve seen this decade. What I saw was a room full of people that were merely there to be there. When Emily arrived at the final song of her set, she shouted everyone down just long enough to play about half of a song before the chatter at the bar rose above her breathy vocals once more. It was one of the ruder live show experiences that I had encountered up to that point, but it was more than that. It was a reflection of what we are becoming as a generation. We tune out from the conversation and forget about what art is supposed to be: an expression of ideas, a dialogue to engage in. (It’s possible that there is more than one definition of art’s role in society. Unclear.)

Every once in awhile, something beautiful and soft-spoken gets lost amidst the constant drone of people searching for where they should be. If that susurrus manages to rise above the din around it, sometimes a few heads will turn and recognize that someone is searching out loud and heartbreakingly for where they should be. After that show, Metric felt flimsy to me. Emily’s solo album felt disturbingly unheralded and overlooked. It wasn’t an innovative album, but it was an important album that bristled with loss, confusion and self-doubt, more so than just about anything else from this decade. The accompanying EP, What Is Free To A Good Home?, only proved to be more seminal than the initial album.

Emily Haines and the Soft Skeleton – Telethon
(From the EP What Is Free To A Good Home?: Last Gang Records, 2007. Buy it here.)

I find it particularly interesting that a lot of the diction in her lyrics hints at an overly complicated, constantly buzzing world despite the simplicity of her snaky piano figures. The juxtaposition of “Telethon” as a title next to its straightforward music strikes me. The lyrics often imply a manic energy that never gives out despite how wearying it becomes, much like a telethon itself. “Doctor Blind” leads off with a similar breathless bombardment of imagery: “the lack of light, hollow sea, poison beaches, limousines, toothless dentists, cops that kill”. No wonder a soft-spoken set of songs like these went largely unheard. In a world as frenzied as its lyrics paint, these songs never had a chance.

The reality of our world is that we have largely forgone engaging with ideas in favor of the appearance of engaging with them. We’ve seen everything, heard everything, read everything, been everywhere, but we aren’t feeling anything. It’s a narcotized world that Haines’ work accurately reflects and fails to be appreciated by. More and more, we run the risk of not engaging with anything, even the things right in front of us. That’s the legacy of the scenester and one of my greatest fears: a generation always on and never interested.

*Most people who know me can vouch for the fact that I am not a violent person. I don’t even like confrontation. Nonetheless, I can honestly say that I nearly got into a fistfight with an asshole at a Hot Chip show out here. That dude knows what he did. Subsequently, I no longer attend shows at the Henry Fonda Theater.

Heartbeats

October 18, 2009

(from the album Deep Cuts: Rabid Records, 2003).

While we’re on the topic of college radio, it must be said: CMJ is happening this week, and I’m incredibly sad that I’m not there. The CMJ Marathon is an annual, five day convention where hordes of college radio folk descend upon New York to attend panels, promo parties and tons and tons of shows. Ostensibly, it is about sharing ideas with managers from other stations, meeting contacts from promo companies face to face, and learning in general how to better your station. But, above all else, it is the only way I know about to get your university to pay for you to skip a week of class and go to about 20 shows in 5 days. I attended CMJ with my station in 2006 and 2008. These two trips remain some of my fondest memories of college.

Being 21+ at CMJ means getting wined and dined (or, more accurately, beered) by promo companies. Naturally, it rules. I saw some amazing shows last year (Women, Mirah and Marnie Stern were the stand-outs for me), but most of my lasting memories of CMJ ’08 are decidedly alcohol-tinged: brown-bagging in a Manhattan park in the middle of a thunder storm, drinking smuggled Sparks in the Bowery Ballroom’s handicapped bathroom stall with two other staffers, and, most fondly, seeing our mild-mannered and beloved station librarian pour an entire cup of beer down the pants of Monotonix’s lead singer. (We always seemed to be mindful of the fact that the C in CMJ does in fact stand for college.)

CMJ ’06 was something else, though. I was 19 and had never been to New York without my parents, and the prospect of spending a week there on my own —when I was supposed to be in school, no less — was just about the most liberating thing imaginable. The familiar skyline looked much different from the backseat of my mom’s minivan than it did from the window of my first Chinatown bus. (I should mention that the bus I took to CMJ arrived in Manhattan an hour early. I still don’t know quite how that happens; we were in the process of running a red light when I briefly woke from my nap and I decided, wisely, not to look out the window again). I stayed with three other DJs in a hostel in Harlem, sharing a small, bunk-bedded room that smelt strongly of fish food. We laughed and talked and played pranks on each other and ate really good ice cream and saw a bunch of awesome bands. If a six-year old music snob had been given some crayons and asked to draw their ideal vision of adulthood, it would have looked like my first CMJ, gratuitous promo swag and all. It felt too good to be true.

Perhaps the most anticipated event of CMJ ’06 was The Knife’s show at Webster Hall. To be sure that we’d get in, my fellow DJs and I waited outside the venue for what must have been two hours, and in this time flashes of rumors rippled through the anxious crowd. Was this tour really the first time in the band’s seven year career that they’d performed live? (Indeed.) And this was one of four dates in the U.S.? (True story.) Had Karin Dreijer Andersson and Olof Dreijer ever appeared in public not wearing those creepy bird masks? (Unconfirmed.) Once we all filed into the gorgeous Webster Hall, anticipation reached a fever pitch. One of the drunkest men I have ever seen in my life told us with all the conviction (and spittle) in the world, “This is gonna be like John Fucking Lennon. This is gonna be like seeing Pink Floyd on the Dark Side of the Moon tour, 1972.

Drunken hyperbole aside, this guy was right about one thing: the hype surrounding the Silent Shout tour was something completely rooted in a particular cultural moment, as both the mystique and ubiquity of a band like The Knife is hard to imagine without the Internet. The Knife formed in Sweden in 1999, and released three full-lengths over the past decade: The Knife (2001), Deep Cuts (2003) and Silent Shout (2006). Though these records were successful in Sweden, they were still unreleased in the States when Jose Gonzalez released his acoustic cover of the Deep Cuts track “Heartbeats” in late 2003. Gonzalez’s record received its fair share of acclaim, and his “Heartbeats” was featured in a TV commercial. As his song became something of an underground hit, mp3 bloggers and download fiends unearthed the original version — an anthematic but haunting synth-pop gem — and began to pass it around, accompanied with the prevailing sentiment that the understated whisper of a cover didn’t come close to the original. By the time Silent Shout was released stateside in July 2006, The Knife’s “Heartbeats” was a cross-cultural hit, and the narrative arc of their cult fame read like a fable of the widespread power of the blogosphere; when Pitchfork crowned Silent Shout the best album of 2006 a month later, it was the only fitting conclusion.

But back to the show — which was unlike anything I’ve seen before or since.

The band stood behind a translucent screen that spanned the entire width and height of the stage, and as they performed, animated images were projected onto the screen. Andersson and Dreijer stood side by side and wore pink gloves that glowed vibrantly as they banged drums and fiddled with synths. My favorite visual occured when they performed “Marble House” and a giant, illuminated moon face came to life out of the darkness of the stage and sang the song’s male vocal. It was all spectacular, but, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one in the room who got goosebumps at the opening notes of “Heartbeats.”

The performance of that song was particularly memorable, and not only because of the animated snowflakes that cascaded down the screen in time with the chorus’s arpeggiated synth notes. As everyone in the hall sang along to the chorus, the audience’s love for this song was glorious and palpable, but also a bit strange, since the album on which it appeared, Deep Cuts, had been released for the first time in the U.S. literally the day before the Webster Hall show. This wonderful song, unreleased and without any commercial radio play, had found us all in some way or another, unobstructed by things like geography and record contracts — things that used to matter so much in the music industry but that were now becoming more negligible with each passing moment.

Here is an indisputably goosebump-inducing video of The Knife performing “Heartbeats” from the concert film, Silent Shout: An Audio-Visual Experience:

…Also Called Mt. Eerie

October 15, 2009

I remember thinking throughout my college search that working for the radio station seemed like it would be a fun thing to pursue once I got to college. When I finally arrived, it got lost in the shuffle amongst multiple other activities. It didn’t help that the process for joining radio was convoluted and rigorous whereas the process for joining band was essentially writing down my name on a sign up form. I approach life like I approach Free Cone Day at Ben and Jerry’s: if the line seems too long, I’m happy to go to another ice cream shop and buy a cone; I don’t need a handout that badly.

When Jerry (of Le Aught Blog fame!) joined the band sophomore year, I was psyched to find out that he had the patience to go through radio’s comp process our freshman year and had his own show. And really, who wouldn’t be jealous of a Tuesday from 2am to 5am radio show host? The immediate benefit to me was that I could now go to the radio station for hours before the show and dig around in their record library, a large room filled with CDs and records primarily by bands I had never heard of. Another immediate benefit was that Jerry would let me pick out stuff to play on his show and I would get to hear great stuff of his selection.

Lucky Dragons – Mercy

(From the album Dark Falcon: 555 recordings, 2003. Currently out of print. Download it here.)

These early days were filled with outré gems that appeared from the ether and disappeared as quickly. One of my favorites was a track by Lucky Dragons that Jerry had picked up after they appeared at a small festival. It was a gloriously glitched out mix of an obscure soul song. “Mercy” constituted my first foray into what amounts to the deconstruction of sound as a genre and I can honestly say that this song still fails to make any logical sense to me. However, I still play it at least ten times per year (if not more) nearly seven years later.

Languis

During the early days of Jerry’s radio show I distinctly remember showing up early to pick out songs for his set and finding Languis’s Unithematic in the recent arrivals pile. Geometric designs really appeal to me (part of the reason I was attracted to Hauschka’s record last year) and this album cover was no exception. We slipped the CD into the preview stereo and jumped around before finding a track that really appealed to us for the show. It made such an impact on me that I ordered the album off Amazon later that evening and bumped it for months. “Clusters” is a rich, tessellated tapestry of plucked guitars, tennis ball volleys, and popped bubbles. It conveys a sense of wonder that far more ambitious songs have failed to achieve.

Languis – Clusters

(From the album Unithematic: Pehr Records, 2001. Buy it here.)

Something funny happened part of the way through college, though. I started to become more active in my search for good music. No. That’s not quite right. Maybe the correct thing to say is that the searchable avenues open to a music lover drastically changed. I started subscribing to emusic at the beginning of my junior year of college (9/2003), which opened me up to greater avenues of legal music downloading. Coupled with that was my increased awareness of Pitchfork, a now ubiquitous web music presence. The upside of these changes was an increased agency for finding music that might appeal to me. Along with that agency came a slight change in the nature of Jerry’s radio show. We certainly didn’t stop combing through the record library before shows, but the search became more focused. We were curious to hear albums that were making a splash on Pitchfork. Moreover, we were bringing in mixes with a few tracks that we had gathered up from various albums outside of WHRB’s sphere of influence. An early favorite of ours was Blueberry Boat by the Fiery Furnaces (sweet cover art, too!), which had blown up all over the internet in the summer of 2004. Although we had heard of it, we didn’t actually get to listen to it until the summer ended and it wound up on the Record Hospital’s playlist that fall. We sat in the dark library on beat up couches and scanned through the tracks before settling on “My Dog Was Lost But Now He’s Found” for the show. As hard as it might be to believe, this song represented a shift to a mainstream position for us as radio show compilers.

The Fiery Furnaces – My Dog Was Lost But Now He’s Found

(From the album Blueberry Boat: Rough Trade, 2004. Buy it here.)

My brother, Drew (of Le Aught Blog fame!), began college right after I graduated and he got his own radio show right off the bat. I don’t know if his university’s radio station had a simpler comp process or if he has more patience than me (certainly true for free cones) or if he just slept with the comp supervisor, but I suspect that all three are at least partially true. I was an avid listener whenever the show was on, which was usually easier for me since 2am to 5am was really only 11pm to 2am on my new coast. He introduced my to some great music throughout his time on WVAU (www.wvau.org: represent.) and I was stoked to do a radio show with him when I made my first visit to D.C. in 2008. I spent a great deal of time putting together my playlist of deep cuts and unearthed gems and the show didn’t disappoint. I was particularly proud of Janelle Monáe’s “Violet Stars Happy Hunting”. We had a blast and played some really phenomenal songs for the record numbers that tuned in.

Janelle Monáe – Violet Stars Happy Hunting!

(From the album Metropolis: The Chase Suite: Bad Boy Records, 2008. Buy it here.)

What occurs to me in retrospect though is how different that last college radio experience was from my initial experiences. One of the fundamental changes in music as an industry this decade is the revolution in the average listener’s agency to find music. Whether it be passively through something like Pandora or actively through extensive reading of music blogs, reviews, and sampling on Hype Machine, the listener holds a lot more power. And if this transition has come at the cost of the record industry’s livelihood, well, they sort of have themselves to blame. It was partially the implosion of commercial radio by Clear Channel’s increasing market share and decreasing desire to cycle through anymore than 40 songs at a time (mostly of questionable quality) that led people to desire more control.

However, what interests me is the change in college radio. It seems that college DJs used to spend a lot more time digging around in record libraries at the station, the net result of which was a less consistent, ultimately more random and often illogical set of songs on any given show. Sure, there was always a certain amount of rack records that were new and experiencing some popularity at any given time, but the rest of the show could be chalked up to entropy. In this new age of expanded access, the college DJ often winds up aggregating the best tracks that they have found in their recent searches through the internet, which definitely leads to more consistent showmanship.

I contend that this change is neither for better or worse. Consistency is great and it lets us experience outstanding heights of musicianship in smaller increments. The real downside to the disappearance of the randomly selected, haphazardly curated radio show is that we lose out on all those illogical surprises. Like a lost possession that only appears when one stops looking for it, the illogical surprise is nearly impossible to find if you look for it. The best way to find a song like “Mercy” is to happen upon it by random chance. Should we be worried that college radio will become as homogenous as a Clear Channel station if we continue on this course? Will it become populated with retreads of Pitchfork’s Best New Music pantheon or is random chance still an important factor in any DJ’s set?

PS. Should I do ten more posts on ridiculous shit that happened on Jerry’s radio show or should I let him tell you about Mt. Eerie, the Jerry radio voice, lounge Nintendo, and Tony Goddess?

kanye-muppet

Kanye West- The Glory

(From Graduation: Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam, 2007. Buy it here)

Recently, I remarked in an email chain after his VMAs debacle that if Kanye West was someone we actually knew, not just someone we saw on a screen, we would hate the guy. Which, you know, is pretty weird to state about a celebrity, people we’ll never likely meet and should probably all hate. It’s even weirder that I said it about Kanye, an artist that I spent about half a year loving. When I saw the video for “Through The Wire” on MTV Jams in the great 90-degree South Florida winter of 2003, there was something totally endearing about the guy. Between that and the didactic but bumping “Jesus Walks,” I was living on the hype of his debut album, The College Dropout. The album came, it was pretty good, and more than anything, I thought that he had a classic in him; probably by the time I did my first keg stand at college. At some point I even mentioned to my friends that I planned on naming my first-born son Kanye.

And then I began to hate him. I hated him because other people began to adore him. Other people, who didn’t read Pitchfork everyday, who didn’t do any research on what to listen to, and most importantly, didn’t care about championing a new voice, were all on Kanye’s tip now. His punchlines seemed forced and obnoxious, while his flow had no wired jaw to excuse its staleness; it was like that moment in Step Brothers when Seth Rogen’s character first finds Ferrell and Reilly’s tuxedo schtick funny, and then realizes later that it’s just fucked up. Since then, I’ve followed along with each album, hoping that this will be the one where everyone realizes that HE CAN’T RAP. I treat him awfully, as he’s one of the few artists whose albums I’ve excised half of from my hard drive, an act more of vituperation than of necessity, and I almost always take the counterpoint when my friends laud him (don’t get me started on how not great “RoboCop” is.)   Yet I can’t figure out where this disdain stems from, because if you made a mix of his seven best songs of the decade, it would compare with mixes from some of my favorite artists. Maybe I criticize out of disappointment, or from misplaced love, but it’s most likely out of pure interest: will he ever become something I can marvel at again?

For someone whose genius I publicly repudiate almost any chance I get to, Kanye West has been tied to my academic pursuits far more than any other artist. When I worked for my high school newspaper, I utilized the lax budgeting of stories to review The College Dropout, labeling Kanye as “ground-breaking.” In my first article for the college paper, I reviewed Late Registration, and proceeded to slam most of it, leading to a group of strangers knocking on my dorm room door at 1 AM, asking if I really listened to hip-hop. And my final paper of college was about notions of the post-human conceived in 808s & Heartbreaks, a piece that I actually find myself interested in pursuing further and even more interested in letting everyone know was accepted as part of my degree plan. Kanye West has never shifted far from my conscience, even when I want him to, and I think it’s due to his ability to astound, even if only in small spurts, like Robert Horry in the postseason.

“The Glory” never really gets a lot of credit, but it’s the most obvious reminder, aside from making Mike Myers squeamish on live TV, of just how great Kanye can be. He’s always been a much better producer than rapper (this point shouldn’t have to be made), yet he really impresses with the array of sounds he uses on “The Glory,” placing the digital next to orchestral substantially better than, yes, “RoboCop.” It’s a lesson in letting a two second-long sample dictate instrumentation and arrangement, with sped-up Laura Nyro vocals serving as the foundation for Kanye to pull out almost every variation on a sample he can think of. A gospel choir, choppy (but not chopped) strings, and spare, anti-“Flashing Lights” synths complementing sampled piano melody— it’s a notably passionate effort, especially when sharing vinyl with “Drunk and Hot Girls.” It doesn’t excuse “Stronger,” or his social blunders, or all of the weak drum programming, or the general public’s consensus that he’s one of the best rappers alive. But if one lets it just exist without thinking of who he makes himself out to be, lets it soak in every few weeks or so, plays it on repeat four times with headphones in, then one is brought back to the Kanye of “Through The Wire,” someone who you actually want to root for. Then the next track hits, you hear Chris Martin singing, and realize the glory’s over.

A decade is a long time, wide enough to find and lose inspiration in the same thing. Before I wrote this, I listened to The College Dropout again while I drove around. I hoped to find what made me inspired—inspired!— by Kanye West in the first place. What I instead found was what I remembered from his other albums: a third bangers, a third middling, and a third shit, with a lot more awful skits than the others. At this point, I’ve lost faith in Kanye as a consistent genius, and certainly wouldn’t count on an opus in his future. But maybe I should treat him more as a R. Kelly-esque figure, an artist who whiffs hard at times but at the end of the day still has his share of stellar moments. He fails, but most do, I just don’t give them shit about it. I don’t really want to spend the rest of West’s career bemoaning his musical trajectory; I’ve got to dwell more on his triumphs and the fleeting glory his best can bring.

You’re okay, Kanye, you’re okay. I’m okay, too. But my watch sick.

Gemini (Birthday Song)

October 8, 2009

Why? – “Gemini (Birthday Song)”

(from the album Elephant Eyelash, Anticon Records 2005).

“It seems that a profound, impartial, and absolutely just opinion of our fellow-creatures is utterly unknown… life is but a procession of shadows, and God knows why it is that we embrace them so eagerly, and see them depart with such anguish, being shadows.”
-Virginia Woolf, Jacob’s Room

“You know my build, you know my size, the degree to which my eyes are astigmatic.”
-Yoni Wolf, “Gemini (Birthday Song)”

Words are trouble, words are subtle, words are tiny harbingers of death and original sin and the unscalable Aggro Crag that separates my sadness from your sadness. So, staring down at a freshly paved sidewalk the other day, I felt sort of disappointed to live in a world where most people, when confronted with a wet slab of concrete, can think of nothing more interesting or evocative to write than their own name. (Really, ‘Robyn’? Really?) Why?’s Yoni Wolf is one of the few contemporary musicians who treats words with the respect, anxiety, humor, and complexity they deserve; tugging at their most elastic parts, caressing their limitations like a lover’s goosebumped skin. For four albums now (Why? began as a solo project but now backed by his brother Josiah along with Austin Brown and Doug McDiarmid), Yoni has written lyrics with the sort of candid intimacy that puts the most perverse and worry-worn pieces of his nerve endings on display. He is an imagist poet swiping lines from a morgue trashcan. He is, I think, one of the most talented and expressive lyricists to emerge this decade.

“Gemini (Birthday Song)” appears on his second proper album, Elephant Eyelash — an ode to loneliness and suicide notes crumbled in the bottom of wastebaskets and the kind of bleak, urban wintertime coldness that spits in the face of your thickest scarf. My first winter spent with this album was the one that began in ’05 and ended in ’06. I was a freshman in college and, as the East Coast cold ushered in the start of my second semester, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to stay there. I’ve always been bad with transitions and especially sentimental about goodbyes, and those that I’d had to say a few months before still rattled through me that winter with a dismal — and, in retrospect, totally false — sense of finality. I listened to Elephant Eyelash over those few months more than probably any other record, and “Gemini (Birthday Song)” was always the clincher for me, the one song that understood what I was feeling much better than I did. Though it’s sung with the sort of candor that makes you think it’s got to be at least a little bit autobiographical, “Gemini” encapsulates something universal too: that horribly commonplace feeling of missing somebody a few moments before they are even gone.

“Gemini” is something of a story song. Yoni (“you mean, the narrator,” grates the inescapable nag of my English degree) and his girl sit in her parents’ bedroom on what appears to be the night before he is leaving to go somewhere very far away. In the beginning, some of the lyrics focus on the minutiae of the things in the room around them — There was a moth caught in the soap dish laminated in lye — the sort of inconsequential things your eyes settle on in a time like that, when looking directly at the other person would be a too-painful corroboration of the awful truth that fills every inch of the room. And then, he musters the courage to look that truth straight in the face and capture it in a verse — maybe my favorite one Yoni’s ever written — a verse that sputtered through my head so ceaselessly that winter that it would feel wrong not to quote it in full here:

When we’re on different sides of the globe
I thought we’d keep our veins tangled like a pair of mic cables
And if there ain’t enough slack to reach
That we’d solder them together, ‘cross oceans they’d stretch.
Our faces reflected in separate windshields
And all our body hair pricked up in elephant eyelash.
Should we be tempted, by thief or by saint,
It seems I leave and you say to crowd the cage and curse.
But don’t regret the done dirt, there is no lifeplan set
You just swallow the cold and follow your breath until death.
Now even if the will to sleep persists
I can’t, ’cause a harsh cloth, it grazes my blisters.

Later in the song, when the narrator is alone, these images that seemed so inconsequential come back to him with searing clarity (“Your legs are two skinny dolphins swimming/Between the mattress and the layers of bedding/Turning in your drug dry sleep“). These images, in all their pettiness and opacity, are what we cling on to when the shadows are gone. We use words to trap the tiniest, most tangible things. This is how we know each other. You know my build, you know my size, the degree to which my eyes are astigmatic. This is what we remember.

After I graduated college last spring, I happened to listen to this song again as I was packing all of my things into boxes and getting ready to move out of a house that I’d lived in for a year and a half. And though I was preparing to say goodbye to a whole different group of people this time, “Gemini” hit me on the exact same gut level that it did on the other side of college. Listening back to it in that moment, I felt a pang similar to the one I felt when I saw Robyn written in the sidewalk, a personal embarrassment at how being human sometimes means being really unimaginative by design. I felt disappointed that the chemistry of missing somebody is so familiar and uncomplicated that it feels the same no matter who the person is. It feels similar enough to be defined by exactly the same song.

Little Derek/ The Star

October 8, 2009

“Little Derek”

(from the album, This is My Demo, self-released, 2005)

“Little Derek” is an extremely heartfelt, simple proclamation of Sway’s place in the world circa 2005. It also serves as a great analogy to the struggle of UK rap to be viewed as more than a curiosity but rather a genuine contribution to hip hop. In fact, in many ways the best rappers of the decade have come from the UK where a more honest and candid form of rapping has combined with a wider palate of beats to reinvigorate hip hop (at least to those who listen to it). Sway, unlike Dizzee Rascal or Wiley, has failed to gain very much recognition in the last five years outside of the UK which only serves to highlight the genius of his laid-back delivery on Little Derek. While the bird call sound he uses to end nearly every line may at first seem gimmicky, it is precisely why I love this song. Check out how subtle the variation of this sound’s inflection is from line to line (especially in the chorus).

Lyrically, Sway is simultaneously boasting about his minor success (the entire chorus), while fairly candidly discussing the perils of his past (“We did what we had to done to get BY, hoping not to get caught up in some silly drive-BY”) and the challenges of being an up-and-coming rapper (“When you do UK rap, you’re number TWO, cause the US ain’t giving us space to break Through, so I’m on my grind trying to pioneer a breakTHROUGH”). Sway, on this track as well as many others on This Is My Demo, managed to get a lot out of the old rap tropes of urban decay and self-promotion purely because of an interesting voice and good taste in beats. This precise combination has been approached recently, albeit with a pretty different aesthetic, by DC’s Wale, another unsigned (at least at the time of “The Star”) rapper from an underrepresented city with an ear for interesting beats, deft wordplay, and a never-ending zeal for self and hometown.

(from The Mixtape About Nothing, self-released, 2008)

Where “Little Derek” is a nonchalant, effortless jam, The Star is anything but relaxed. Over the course of nearly six minutes (and two different beats at completely different tempos) Wale delivers the manifesto of the kind-of-underground, but kind-of-wants-to-be-Jay-Z rapper that is so ubiquitous these days. Rather than riding a beat, Wale pushes himself the entire length of this track to inform, entertain, and mostly impress with his ability to give us more than just a peak into who he actually is. There really does not seem to be that much of a difference between Wale’s persona and the guy behind the rapper. Even a line like, “I’m a S-T-A-R, the one that A and R salivate for”, feels like a triumphant reminder addressed to himself that he is actually finding success after “grindin’ for 9 years”.  Maybe the all-over-the-place references, jokes, and emotional and social tones of the entire Mixtape About Nothing make Wale’s bid for mainstream success with recent single “Chillin” and his upcoming Attention: Deficit album sound like a stifling medium for one of the roundest characters to emerge in hip hop this decade.

While Sway has managed to stake out a place for himself in the UK just outside the mainstream, it will be interesting to see which direction Wale goes. Will Attention: Deficit be the hit album it’s anticipated to be or will Wale be able to continue to push himself and further explore the multi-dimensional Wale of his mixtapes and not of his stale Lady Gaga collaboration?

Over the decade, I’ve had a lot of people ask me what music I listen to.  And to be honest, it’s a pretty wide variety of stuff, but if I had to offer a one word response, it’s usually been “indie”.  Easy enough to say, and instantly recognizable to other indie music aficionados.  But to those who aren’t indie fans (or at least, don’t yet know that they are), it’s a very difficult thing to explain.  In fact, I’m pretty sure over the past ten years, I have not once come up with an answer that really satisfies me, one that really conveys the essence of indie music.  And really, when you think about it, that probably hard to do in words for any genre- everyone know what country music sounds like, but you’d probably be hard pressed to describe it.  With that said, what I hope to do with this post is give three examples of indie music that I think are really solid representatives of indie music as a genre.

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Tullycraft – Twee, off Beat, Surf, Fun, Magic Marker Records 2002

I first heard Tullycraft when I was working as a DJ for WHRB during college.  This twee sound was new to me- even listening to the alt-rock station in high school, I had never heard anything remotely like this before.  Playful, poppy, full of glee, this song takes me to the beaches of Southern California (maybe it’s the cover) even though the band is from the not-quite-so-sunny climes of Seattle.  And at the same time as they demonstrate this particular sub-genre, they also give you a kind of history/biography of what it means to be a twee listener.  To me, this represents a poppier, simpler side of indie music, the indie pop end of the spectrum, as opposed to…

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Superchunk – Phone Sex, off Here’s to Shutting Up, Merge Records 2001

This is another song I discovered during my first year as a DJ, and in contrast to the previous song, is more on the indie rock end of the spectrum, though this song is a lot less rocking than Superchunk’s offerings from the ’90s.  In fact, this song, and really the whole album, has kind of a country feel to it, with what sounds I’m pretty sure is a steel guitar tucked away in the back.  There’s just this very mellow feeling to the song.  There’s a well of emotion buried within this song, but it’s let out slowly and carefully, as though a sudden outburst could ruin everything.  I feel like that kind of restraint is not present in most of the music played on mainstream radio.  There is one other neat fact that really cements their status as a quintessential indie band- they own their own record label, Merge Records!

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The Ivy League – London Bridges, off London Bridges, Twentyseven Records 2006

Finally, we have this gem from The Ivy League.  We start off with a repetitive rhythm line and gentle strumming of the guitar with just a hint of distortion and a little wavering pitch, which I think is the perfect accentuation.  But where I think this song really shines is in the guitar solo at 2:39. The guitarist’s fingers dance lightly across the strings, creating a playful, yet ultimately ever-so-slightly mournful melody, and I love the depth that is conveyed in these thirty seconds.

I’m still not convinced I’ve explained WHAT indie music is, but I hope if you’ve ever asked someone what they listen to and had no clue what they meant by indie music that listening to these three songs gave you a better understanding of that tricky, not-so-little genre.

In The New Year

October 1, 2009

“My sisters are married to all of my friends.”
– The Walkmen, “In The New Year”

The Walkmen – In The New Year

(From the album You & Me: Gigantic Music, 2008. Buy it here.)

Does it get any better than that? Hamilton Leithauser manages to find the ultimate expression of fortune and world-weary joy. This sentiment is the happy ending that we look for after any difficult journey. Not only did we make it through the woods, we came out better for it. And it isn’t just a solitary victory. No, we won this because of our friends, because of our family. That’s just teamsmanship. Our friends aren’t just friends anymore either. This victory was so huge and the odds so tough that these friends are family now and to seal the deal, these dudes are marrying my sisters.

I wanted to live up to these soaring melodies and words for months over the course of the past year, but the journey started somewhere else. I came to LA to be a comedy writer, but I just didn’t have the will power to sit down and do the writing that I needed to do. My background in science allowed me to get a job working in an Alzheimer’s lab at UCLA, but I kept telling myself that writing was the goal. I let that reasoning become my excuse for not giving it my all in the lab and I let the lab become my excuse for not getting much writing done. Finally, after several years in the Alzheimer’s lab, I was ready for a change. An opportunity came along in August of 2008 to become a property manager at my apartment complex. The pitch was that it would be a steady income with plenty of time to write. No more excuses. Unfortunately, the job turned out to be a lot more time-consuming once the recession hit and my writing time at work evaporated. Work was joyless and draining and I started to feel lost. Worse yet, I began to stop thinking about writing at all. I found it hard to remember what my dream was, if I had a dream at all.

Then, Japandroids happened.

Japandroids – Young Hearts Spark Fire

(From the album Post-Nothing: Polyvinyl Record Co, 2009. Buy it here.)

“Oooooh! We used to dream. Now we worry about dying.”
– Japandroids, “Young Hearts Spark Fires”

When Japandroids hit the internet earlier this year, I had just started biking down to the beach from my apartment along a narrow bike path by the LA River, a river in name alone. I was doing the ride as often as possible and I threw Japandroids on my iPod and flew down the path. With the wind whipping across my face, I started to wake up. I could equivocate on the quality of the lyric above, but fuck that. That lyric is good. That lyric is what I needed to hear. I was so worried about making it through the day everyday that I had stopped worrying about why I wanted to make it through the day.

“That’s how it started.”
– The Walkmen, “In The New Year”

I got on my grind. Working in property management sucked, but I’m glad that I did it. I wouldn’t have found out that I need a little bit more from my job. I wouldn’t have discovered that my work ethic needed to step up. My job search kicked into high gear and I found an awesome job at an autism lab at UCLA. I’ve been hustling on that job too, because it’s not just a job now, it’s something that I feel passionate about. I want to make waves in research. I want big publications and I’m dreaming of wrecking chumps that aren’t ready to know. That’s not all, though. I feel renewed strength on the writing front, too. My short stories are coming together, I’m cranking on some good comedy scripts, ideas are bubbling up all the time, and this blog is obviously the must-read event of the summer (suck it, Dan Brown!). In short, I stopped using everything as an excuse for everything else and started dreaming big on all fronts. I don’t see any reason why I can’t be a great biochemist and a great writer. I’d be selling myself short any other way.

And the best news of all? I just received an evite from all my friends: they’re marrying my sisters.

It’s gonna be a good year.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

September 29, 2009

“How can I possibly describe how we looked back then?
Falling in love, whether or not it lasts, there’s truth in that.”
-The Anniversary, “Emma Discovery”

I came of age in the aughts. I was 13 when they began and I will be 23 when they are over. Some things about my life have changed drastically over this decade, and some have stayed stubbornly put. I still have problems, but they are not the same problems; How can I get that guy in my pre-algebra class to know I like the Deftones too without being really obvious about it? has turned into the rather banal but equally pressing Fuck, how am I going to pay my rent? I hate to speak for the other writers here in matters that concern something as intimate and lascivious as adolescence, but I think we write most of our pieces with a slight streak of sentimentality because we’re writing about a time in our lives when nothing was constant and changes of tectonic, Judy Blume proportions were occurring with nagging persistence. The things we liked — in this case, a song that could be played over and over and over again and bring with it the comfort that it would always sound the same — were constants that we clung to in that particular, white-knuckled way that one clings to something good and solid when chaos is swirling vertiginously beneath your every step. There’s something inherently sentimental about that particular quality of liking something, because even when listened to back on solid ground, that song still bears the grubby fingerprints from the times when you clung to it so hard. Sometimes later inspection of these fingerprints induces an overwhelming nostalgia, coupled with the delightful discovery that, after all these years, the song still “holds up.” But then of course, just as easily, these fingerprints can also induce an embarrassment of the most brambly and personal sort — the sort of feeling I get as I tell you that, although second wave K Records stuff was a pretty huge chunk of what I listened to the last couple years of high school, the year The Glow Pt. 2 was actually released I bought a pair of skate sneakers in honor of Mark Hoppus’s birthday; true story. For most of us, I think, the most interesting and nagging questions we’ve had to grapple with when choosing what songs we write about and compiling our top 100 albums lists is this: how do I reconcile the things I used to like with the things I like now? And, for goodess’ sake, how am I supposed to rank them numerically without totally denying the person I used to be?

I might not have been listening to the Microphones in 2000, but I certainly was listening to the Anniversary’s debut album, Designing a Nervous Breakdown. And unlike the tortured, angsty warble of Conor Oberst or Dashboard Confessional’s, uh, tortured, angsty warble, this record still sounds good to me ten years later. Really good. Perhaps part of my love for this album comes from how I’ve constantly had to extol it to people who haven’t heard it because today The Anniversary remain all but forgotten, except in circles where people still argue about whether Hey Mercedes are better than Braid (they’re not; duh) and still pump those Vagrant Records comps in their cars from time to time. So, a brief crash course: The Anniversary played an earnest-but-never-excessively-earnest brand of synth-pop that specialized in boy/girl vocal harmonies and wore its literary references on its most prominent sleeve (sample song titles: “The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter;” “Hart Crane”). They released two albums and then broke up in 2004; one of them married a Get Up Kid. With its only rival being the anthematic and gorgeous “The D in Detroit,” “The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter” is the best song they ever wrote. It’s a synth-pop relic from a recent but much simpler past, a reminder that a band one could comfortably call “emo” did not always have to wear eyeliner and could, occasionally, contain vocalists who were capable of singing in a way that one could comfortably call “pretty.” “To know what’s fair is not always fair/But what proves true will never flee,” Justin Roelofs hollers over a buzzing keyboard line. The Anniversary found a way to sing about huge, AP-English concepts like “truth” and “beauty” with an earnestness so uncommonly tempered that it’s a little disarming.

Quite a few of my friends were big fans of The Anniversary, and I always think of the band in connection with a story about my friend Will. He went to see them in Philly shortly after Her Majesty was released. Conning a press pass out of some sap who believed that he was a “reporter” with my high school’s newspaper (in reality, he didn’t even write for them), Will was able to go backstage and interview the band. Since he was not actually a reporter, Will didn’t have a tape recorder, a camera, or even anything for the band members to sign. He just wanted to ask them, which he did, if they were working on a new record and when it would be coming out.

I’ve never heard this story directly from Will, and I was going to ask him about some of the details in preparation for this post. I decided, though, that I didn’t want to. I like thinking of it — as I like thinking of Designing A Nervous Breakdown — trapped in the amber of a slighted innocence, a memory too pure to ever be remembered true. Maybe I am unfair to this album, maybe I am too nostalgiac about it, maybe I make this band stand for something way bigger than they ever were meant to be, maybe the sort of memories I ascribe to this song never even happened. But, like Will’s refreshingly pre-WordPress anecdote, that’s how I choose to remember it.