Thursday, January 19, 2012

Worth It In 2011: #1 - Eric Church (PLUS THE COMPLETE LIST)

At PopMatters's Best Country of the Year list, I wrote:

On Chief, Eric Church plays the cad, honing his voice into pure aggressive TWANG. He’ll pick a fight with your boyfriend and then graciously let you buy him a drink. After you dump his sorry liver, he’ll drown his sorrows in breakup songs that sting like prime Taylor Swift. It figures that this album’s most perfect line, “Here’s to all us haters of old lovers’ new last names”, is a toast. But rather than weepy honky-tonkers, Church and producer Jay Joyce have made wall-to-wall classic rock tunes, including a Springsteen ode that sounds more like John Waite. And the singles are phenomenal. In 2011, no song embodied America’s racial and class tensions like “Homeboy”; few songs chronicled our subsequent need to medicate those tensions like “Drink in My Hand”. 

At Singles Jukebox, where "Country Music Jesus" was Anthony Easton's pick, I wrote:

No no no, Eric, you’re thinking of Charlie Daniels, and he is not Jesus, no matter what he says when you’re together hunting, fishing, and enjoying other outdoor activities. But then, Eric and I have so much to talk about. Why, for instance, does his excellent soft rock ballad “Springsteen” sound like Bad English, while THIS song swipes the riff from Springsteen’s “Fire”? (Maybe to set up the “Fire On the Mountain” bit?) Will Country Music Jesus’s reach extend to all humanity, or simply to the realm of country music? I dunno where Eric places Jamey Johnson in the great “Country Music Jesus” sweepstakes, but the shaggy concert I attended was a little more laconic than this whole revival business, while I’m pretty sure people bang drums, scream, and shout at Taylor Swift and Lady Antebellum shows. Which, I guess, proves once again that you can never predict what Jesus is gonna look like. Speaking of which, has anyone ever told Eric Church, maker of my favorite album of 2011, that his twang sometimes resembles Rob Thomas?

(From Anthony's blurb, in a passage that gives me chills: "So he is blaspheming the good Lord, and he is blaspheming country music, but sacramentalizing both at the same time. It is a viciously sophisticated work.")

At Singles Jukebox, where "Homeboy" enjoyed a somewhat controversial reception, I wrote:

As a narrative I buy it, because I know the Brother. Back in high school he had ridiculous dreadlocks instead of a “hip-hop hat” and the rest, he didn’t push Daddy around but he did spend some time in jail, and now he’s a solid taxpaying citizen with strong family ties. Small predominantly-white towns SUCK in many ways, so you try to escape to the first Other that comes along, and your conception of that Other is probably based on the broadest stereotypes, and maybe you pair those stereotypes with violence because that’s an Other too. The problem is, Church isn’t handing this sermon to his wayward Brother as a private press 45. As a cautionary tale “Homeboy” is worthless, because any real-life Brothers won’t listen to it. No, Church is preaching to a public country audience, much of which already views hip-hop culture as an Other and equates it with violence. But I’M Church’s audience too, and maybe lots of us know Brothers of our own and “Homeboy” touches us as a well-constructed piece of songcraft. Job well done! On the other hand, “Homeboy” is definitely constructed — Church and co-writer Casey Beathard have invented this Brother, the fake gold on his teeth, and his superficial take on Otherness. They’ve also appropriated the word “homeboy” and the synths from the hip-hop culture they’re dissing. They’re hypocrites and opportunists. But the synths sound great, and the lyrical twist “come on home, boy” is deeply felt; this song isn’t glib about Otherness like the go-to pariah “Beer for My Horses”. Finally all my back-and-forth on “Homeboy” zips it up into a tense interlocking bundle of contradictions that I can’t separate from how much I enjoy its details, guitars, and narrator, even if he’s using his bully pulpit to congratulate his country’s narrowest minds.

Eric Church
(EMI Nashville)

The complete list!

1. Eric Church -- Chief (EMI Nashville) (major, country)
1 REISSUE. Neil Diamond--The Bang Years: 1966-1968 (Legacy) (major, reissue)
2. Limp Bizkit -- Gold Cobra (Interscope) (major, rap, metal)
3. Henri Pousseur--Parabolique d’Enfer (Sub Rosa) (indie, classical, electronic, reissue)
4. Monotonix--Not Yet (Drag City) (indie)
5. El Bebeto y su Banda Patria Chica -- Quiero Que Seas (Disa) (major, Latin)
6. Lady Gaga--Born This Way (Interscope) (major, dance)
7. Original Cast -- The Book of Mormon (Sh-K-Boom) (indie, CCM)
8. Cheer-Accident -- No Ifs, Ands or Dogs (Cuneiform) (indie)
9. DJ Quik -- The Book of David
10. Thi’sl -- Beautiful Monster (X-Hustler) (indie, CCM, rap)
11. Steel Magnolia--Steel Magnolia (Big Machine) (major?, country)
12. Burlap to Cashmere -- Burlap to Cashmere (Jive/Essential) (major, CCM, folk)
13. Quintron--Sucre du Sauvage (Goner) (indie)
14. Randy Montana -- Randy Montana (Mercury Nashville) (major, country)
2 REISSUE. Various Artists--Nigeria 70 -- Sweet Times: Afro-Funk, Highlife & Juju from 1970s Lagos (Strut) (indie, reissue)
15. The Dirtbombs--Party Store (In the Red) (indie, dance)
3 REISSUE. Various Artists--Fania Records 1964-1980: The Original Sound of Latin New York (Strut) (indie, reissue, Latin)
16. Charlotte Martin--Dancing on Needles (Test-Drive) (indie)
4 REISSUE. Bacilos--20 Grandes Exitos (Warner Music Latina) (major, Latin)
17. Mary Mary -- Something Big (Columbia) (major, CCM, R&B)
18. PJ Harvey--Let England Shake (Vagrant/Island) (major)
19. Iron and Wine--Kiss Each Other Clean (4AD/Warner Bros.) (major)
5 REISSUE. Stephin Merritt -- Obscurities (Merge) (indie, reissue)
20. Locussolus--Locussolus (International Feel) (indie, dance)
21. Bragado -- De Pies a Cabeza (Discos Power) (indie, Latin)
22. Various Artists -- 101 Things To Do In Bongolia (Electric Cowbell) (indie)
23. Jake Owen -- Barefoot Blue Jean Night (RCA) (major, country)
24. Group Doueh--Zayna Jumma (Sublime Frequencies) (indie)
25. Mikko Innanen & Innkvisitio -- Clustrophy (TUM) (indie, jazz)
26. Paul Simon--So Beautiful or So What (Hear) (indie?, CCM)
27. The Lonely Island -- Turtleneck & Chain (Universal Republic) (major, rap, comedy)
28. Dead Cat Bounce -- Chance Episodes (Cuneiform) (indie, jazz)
29. ChuCha Santamaria y Usted -- ChuCha Santamaria y Usted (Young Cubs) (indie, dance)
30. Los Huracanes del Norte--Soy Mexicano (Musinorte/Disa) (major, Latin)
31. Those Darlins--Screws Get Loose (Oh Wow Dang) (indie, country)
32. Buraka Som Sistema -- Komba (Enchufada) (indie, dance)
33. Thompson Square--Thompson Square (Stoney Creek '10) (indie, country)
34. Weasel Walter, Mary Halvorson, Peter Evans -- Electric Fruit (Thirsty Ear) (indie, jazz)
6 REISSUE. Drive-By Truckers -- Ugly Buildings, Whores & Politicians (New West) (indie, country, reissue)
35. Alexi Murdoch--Towards the Sun (Zero Summer) (indie, folk)
36. R. Kelly--Love Letter (Jive ‘10) (major, R&B)
37. David Banner & 9th Wonder--Death of a Pop Star (b.i.G.f.a.c.e./eOne ‘10) (indie, rap, CCM)
38. Heavy Winged -- Sunspotted (Type ‘10) (indie, metal)
39. Blind Boys of Alabama--Take the High Road (Saguaro Road) (indie, country, CCM)
40. Gucci Mane--The Return of Mr. Zone 6 (Warner Bros.) (major, rap)

Worth It REISSUES In 2011: #1 - Neil Diamond

A commenter at PopMatters notes, "Josh Langhoff and Rolling Stone’s Rob Sheffield must be hanging out in the same circle of friends, or one of them is a plagiarist.  It seems strange that you both began your reviews the exact same way.  FWIW, Langhoff’s appears to have been published first." Also FWIW, Rob Sheffield is one of my favorite writers, but I did come up with my opening line (see below) before I read his Rolling Stone review, which opens, "If Neil Diamond is the Jewish Elvis, these are his Sun Sessions." See? Clearly different! Sheffield omits the unnecessary "then"! Full disclosure: I read Sheffield's Neil Diamond overview for the most recent Rolling Stone Record Guide -- which employs the term "Jewish Elvis" -- while preparing to review this essential compilation. And my wife will attest that I was wildly excited to open Rolling Stone and discover that my thought patterns, at least, travel in the same circles as Sheffield's. 

Neil Diamond
The Bang Years: 1966-1968

The PopMatters review:

He got the western movement!

If Neil Diamond is the Jewish Elvis, then Bang was his Sun Records. Bang was a small New York City label, distributed by Atlantic and operated by “Twist and Shout” songwriter Bert Berns. When Berns signed Diamond in 1966, Bang Records was best known for the McCoys’ “Hang on Sloopy”, another Berns composition. Like his boss, Diamond had graduated from New York’s Brill Building, a sort of Harvard for staff songwriters; unlike Berns, Diamond didn’t graduate with honors. As he puts it kindly in the liner notes of his new compilation The Bang Years 1966-1968, Diamond’s early non-hits were “silly songs about made up people”. By 1966, Diamond was frustrated and out of work, with a baby on the way. Bang was where he pulled it together and found a voice that was completely new.

As with most completely new voices, Diamond pillaged what other people had already done. Specifically, Diamond’s music combined the introspection of Greenwich Village singer-songwriter folk, the tightly wound beats and arrangements of Brill Building pop, and the brooding, leather-clad urban cowboy sensibility of a thousand solitary men toiling away in garage bands. This music was post-Beatles and post-Dylan (another compelling candidate for Jewish Elvis), but it was an utterly contemporary urban pop sound, with a scraggy rock edge in Diamond’s voice. Had Diamond undergone electroshock therapy and become friends with John Cale, he might have started the Velvet Underground.

That’s a big “if”, but listen to “Someday Baby” and see if you don’t hear more than a little Velvets in its droning, cavernous groove. “Someday” is a deep cut from Diamond’s debut album, The Feel of Neil Diamond, heretofore unavailable on CD except as part of sketchy bootlegs or a short-lived stereo compilation. Feel only reached #137 on Billboard’s album chart, but it’s terrific from top to bottom. It showcases Diamond the rhythm fiend, the backbeat scientist, the Dr. John of NYC guitar-slingers.

Feel’s songs are practically a taxonomy of different backbeats. Besides the druggy Factory vibe of “Someday”, there are the boogaloo touches of “Cherry, Cherry”, the horn stabs of “Solitary Man”, the slowed-down bubblegum of “Do It”, and the morose tambourine folk of “I’ve Got the Feeling (Oh No No)”. Diamond’s covers catalog his influences: “Red Rubber Ball”, “La Bamba”, “New Orleans”, “Monday Monday”, and “Hanky Panky”. Each is seemingly chosen for its locomotive energy, each manifests that energy with a distinct rhythm.

These rhythms are played straight, rarely swung, and they subsume all other musical elements. The trombone chorus, honking one-note bari sax, and omnipresent bottom half of the piano don’t play melodies so much as extensions of the grooves. Even Diamond’s melodies are rhythmic marvels. Go ahead, sing the stunning line that opens this album (you know you want to): “Melinda was miiiine ‘til the tiiiime that I found her.” Notice how it starts and ends with syncopated figures, and how they contrast and highlight the longer notes in the middle. Diamond’s biographer Laura Jackson describes those early recording sessions: 

“He didn’t merely sing the song. To the surprise of those in the control room, he performed it, and in such a way that the strong sense of rhythm running through him was channeled visibly in the way his body and his acoustic guitar would sway in perfect harmony with each other. [Engineer] Brooks Arthur called it ‘a kinetic thing happening’...”
—from Neil Diamond: His Life, His Music, His Passion
If Diamond wrote and performed with innate beat savvy, his arranger Artie Butler and producers Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich made those beats explicit. Barry and Greenwich had discovered Diamond, and the authors of “Hanky Panky” knew how to bring songs to life. That’s them singing backup and clapping throughout these songs; their vocal arrangement on “Cherry, Cherry” is one of humanity’s proudest achievements.

The Bang Years also includes Diamond’s second album Just For You—as poorly represented on CD asFeel—and the single “Kentucky Woman” b/w “The Time Is Now”. All this stuff is uniformly great. Just For You boasts the hits “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon”, “Thank the Lord for the Night Time”, and the eternal classic “You Got to Me”. It features songs that were bigger hits for other artists: “I’m a Believer”, “Red, Red Wine”, and the eternal classic “The Boat That I Row”. It’s got “The Long Way Home”, a majestic song that barrels like a subway train. And the whole comp ends with “Shilo”, the first big Neil Diamond power ballad—it trades Ellie Greenwich and her handclaps for strings and actual drum fills. A harbinger of adult contemporary schlock to come, but a great bittersweet song nonetheless.

Two caveats: this package omits two of Diamond’s unofficial Bang songs, “Shot Down” and “Crooked Street”, and the mono remastering sounds a little loud through headphones. No matter. Overall, it’s a steering-wheel-pounding treat. For decades it’s been hard to find all these songs in the same place, especially in the sonic glory of their hard-hitting mono recordings. Because half these songs are already widely available elsewhere, this collection has slightly less archival impact than the Gentile Elvis’s Sun Sessions or last year’s widely-circulated Never Mind the Bullets, Here’s Early Bob Seger. Musically, though, it’s in their league.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Worth It In 2011: #2 - Limp Bizkit (BEWARE OF CUSSING)

For reasons I sort of understand but hold in contempt, my positive review of this album (see below) was far and away the most controversial thing I wrote all year. Usually negative reviews get all the angry comments, but this one garnered its share. People like and dislike what they like and dislike, I get that. But the conventional wisdom of people who read reviews and make lists of popular music TENDS to arrive at the consensus that Limp Bizkit Sucks. Before I heard this album, I was inclined to agree. I'd barely listened to the guys, just whatever was on the radio around the turn of the century. I still haven't listened to their other albums. As I said earlier (somewhere around here...) I did not expect to like Gold Cobra when I requested it for review. I expected I'd be able to listen to it, form an opinion, and quickly turn around a review full of smutty jokes. 

But here's the thing -- IT'S REALLY GOOD. I wish I'd written more about this in the review -- Fred's persona kind of sidetracked me -- but Wes Borland's riffs somehow manage to ape death metal while being catchy and funky, and the hooks are monsters, and the beats make me jerk around my car like Ke$ha. For PopMatters's year-end list extravaganza, Adrien Begrand, whose metal writing I admire, called this one of the worst albums of the year for its "incredible lack of hooks," and I literally have NO IDEA what he's talking about. I hear a song like "Douchebag" or "Shotgun" (one of Entertainment Weekly's worst singles!) and I'm chanting it in my head all day long. 

And the thing is, this conventional wisdom is unwarranted because Limp Bizkit haven't been universally loathed. Sometimes music writers ACTUALLY LIKE THEM, to say nothing of all those music fans who don't read reviews or make lists. I mean, they're not Radiohead, but Significant Other got a positive lead review in Rolling Stone, Chocolate Starfish got good writeups in RS and SPIN, people love to pay Wes Borland backhanded compliments, but for some reason Durst's persona, which is diametrically opposed to most review-reading listmakers' personalities, overwhelms anything else that people might actually hear in their music. This is the main reason I chose to focus my review on Durst's persona rather than what the band's doing musically: I was writing to those people. Of which I am one -- albeit one who jams the Bizkit.

Limp Bizkit
Gold Cobra

The much-loved PopMatters review:

You can't make them stop, no matter how hard you tryyyyy...

“A person has no need of sincerity, nor even of skill in lying, in order to be loved. Here I mean by love reciprocal torture.”
—Marcel Proust

“I’m really feelin’ bad that we both gonna hafta say good-bye now… (GOOD BYE!!!)”
—Fred Durst
Like plenty of rappers before him, Fred Durst feels beset on all sides. Sometimes it seems like that was his main takeaway lesson as a neophyte rapper: “Dude, everyone hates rappers. Run with that.” Who exactly hates the guy, I’m not sure. Limp Bizkit haven’t done much lately—Gold Cobra is their first album since 2005—but a mid-career slump doesn’t equal the trials of Job. I’m guessing they have enough money to live. Besides, it’s worth remembering that they’ve garnered pretty good, if sheepish, reviews throughout their career. Nü-metal may be scorned, but at least Bizkit aren’t Hollywood Undead. (SERIOUSLY, have you heard that Hollywood Undead album? Don’t.)

Fortunately, Durst has figured out a way to fight back. He actually has several coping mechanisms. There’s the unbridled aggression (“Douchebaaag! I’mma fuck you up! FUCK you FUCK you FUCK YOU UP!!!”). The regression to an animal-like state (“Polar Bear ain’t a cracker you should fuck with”). Sometimes he walks away (“Walking Away” doesn’t have any memorable lines, sorry). Mostly, though, he lies like a polar bear rug. Look at that quote at the top. He doesn’t feel bad about leaving his lady at all; the gleeful “GOOD BYE!!!” clinches it.

Durst lies when he cries. He also lies when he doesn’t cry, when he shuns tears and emotion and turns himself into a cold shell of a man. “Should I remind you motherfuckers I don’t give a fuck?” Durst asks over the big lurching riff of “Shotgun”. No need, Fredrick! You’ve already told us so, over the monster riffs of “Bring It Back”, “Get a Life”, “Shark Attack”, and “Gold Cobra”. Remember when you were rapping all those words back there? Funny thing about making an album is that you have to MAKE it—write words and music, rehearse, book studio time, basically run a whole gauntlet of rigamarole designed by the music industry to ensure that, if anybody’s ever gonna hear your music, you do in fact “give a fuck”. If you didn’t, you might sit in the living room with the sawed-off on your lap, but you wouldn’t release a song about it.

So by definition, Durst lies about not caring, which means when you listen to most of Gold Cobra you’re dealing with some version of the unreliable narrator so adored by pop sophisticates. This really shouldn’t surprise anyone who loves pop music, because pop singers say one thing and mean another all the time. At the very least, music makes singers overstate their cases, and listeners can see right through that. For some reason, though, people tend to think Fred Durst is incapable of irony, maybe because they sell him short in the intelligence department. At one point he does rhyme “habit”, “grab it”, and “stab it”, so that might have something to do with it.

Just to be clear: Durst’s unreliable narration isn’t some abstract device meant to curry favor with pop sophisticates. This device may or may not provide Durst himself with some aesthetic satisfaction, I don’t really care. But in his songs, Durst’s irony comes across as clear-cut communication with listeners. It’s a writing device that clarifies and specifies our feelings.

You ever have a really bad day at work when it felt like you were, I dunno, fighting off a bunch of douchebags or sharks or something? And all you wanted to do was either obliterate your adversaries or convince them you don’t care about them? But you couldn’t attempt either of those things because they’d see right through you? So instead you drove off and got all teary listening to “Working Class Hero”? (I, um, must’ve read about this somewhere.) Fred Durst also understands the impotent rage of the working class hero. He knows it’s vitally important to convince your enemies that YOU DON’T CARE ABOUT THEM, he knows this desire is futile, and he knows his listeners feel that same futility. All that impotent rage is embodied in his lyrics.

Musically, too, Durst knows what he’s doing. Though his rhymes and rhythm patterns aren’t complicated, you don’t rap as well as he does without honing some technique. He’s got a good ear for a syncopated line. Durst makes rhymes that are easy for his Everydude audience to learn and remember, but they’re also indelible enough that they’re hard to forget.

Bizkit’s music, played here by their original lineup, clarifies and specifies Durst’s rage. As plenty of reviews last decade sheepishly pointed out, Limp Bizkit are actually a Good Band. They’ll nod your head. Guitarist Wes Borland pulls off one huge catchy riff after another, and he and DJ Lethal add sound effects that alter their songs subtly and not-so-subtly. (“Shotgun” ends with an Andes flute playing “There’s a Place in France” over a beat made entirely of shotgun sounds. Badass.) The rhythm section’s bottom end is fatter than your girlfriend.

That reminds me! Limp Bizkit have some unreasonable expectations of women. Specifically, if Limp Bizkit attend a party, they expect that there will be nine women for every one of them, and that these women will undress, enter a swimming pool together, and kiss one another. I think they request this stuff in their tour rider. Frankly, with Odd Future innovating the field of female objectification every day, Bizkit’s imaginations seem a little quaint.

Also quaint, at least in the context of all Durst’s fighting and threatening, is a sung bit of advice that just sort of appears out of nowhere. In the middle of “Get a Life”, right after screaming murderous threats at some haters, Durst sings, “Don’t let the world bring you down.” Twice. That advice could serve as the band’s aperçu, sort of the flipside to Durst’s refusal to care about the haters he’d like to kill.

You and I both know the world is full of haters. Life in the world is inseparable from pain, at least if you care about people, and nobody except a sociopath is capable of not caring about people. Caring equals pain like love equals reciprocal torture. Proust and Durst don’t share much, but they do share this darkly funny truth: the more you try to detach your feelings from a lover or an adversary, the more you realize how little control you have over those feelings. People go to desperate lengths to assert that control. Some people even liken themselves to golden cobras or go swimming with sharks like Frank Whaley (not to be confused with Frank Ocean). With any luck, those people also form a crack band and make an album that sounds better than 90% of the music released this year. Let your guard down and jam some Bizkit. You owe it to yourself. Besides—and I hate to make threats, but it’s true—if you tangle wit’ the lion you gon’ end up in the zoo.

Worth It In 2011: #3 - Henri Pousseur

No surprise that I was the only person to vote for this in the Village Voice's Pazz & Jop poll, but I was also the only person to vote for a Sub Rosa album! And come on, they must have put out SOMETHING else that was one of the top 1,000-however many albums last year. Not that I know offhand what those might be, but weirdo electronic stuff is their forte, and I hope to listen to more of their output in 2012. (I also voted for one by Ata Ebtekar, an Iranian electro-acoustic dude, back in '09.) Free samples are scant, but the kind folks at Weirdo Records dot com have put up this sound clip, which unfortunately lacks Ethiopian choirs. This album created as compelling and immersive a sound world as anything else I heard last year.

Henri Pousseur
Parabolique D'Enfer
(Sub Rosa)

The PopMatters review:

Henri Pousseur was one of those electronic music pioneers you read about but rarely get the chance to listen to. Belgian, with the look of a jovial mad scientist in need of a comb, he came up in the Darmstadt school of the 1950s, alongside new music legends Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Like much of that milieu, Pousseur composed and theorized in equal measure.

In particular for our purposes, he devoted much thought to the new sonic vistas opened up by electronic composition. InParabolique d’Enfer, you can hear him grappling with his electronic medium and the questions it posed: What does live electronic performance mean? How do you maintain musical spontaneity when all your sounds are canned? How can electronically generated sounds evoke anything other than themselves?

When you hear someone play a Beethoven sonata in person, you hear a new creation of an old piece of music. The pianist mediates Beethoven’s fixed notes in a way that’s unique to that performance, highlighting certain phrases and making the music speak in ways that Beethoven couldn’t have predicted. Something similar happens when a pop musician covers a song live. Now, when you hear a recording of such a performance, it may strike you differently in different frames of mind, but the essence of the performance doesn’t change. Cliburn’s Beethoven recordings will always be his, and they’ll always be different from Horowitz’s Beethoven. These differences explain why some people collect so many different recordings of Beethoven sonatas, or Grateful Dead concerts, or covers of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, or whatever.

What if your composition is the recording? What if your music can’t be conventionally notated and played because it’s all sine waves and timbres specific to this recording, made with this equipment, onthis particular day? Is that composition fixed for all time? Is there any way that, somewhere down the line, a performer will be able to reinterpret it, so that it remains the same composition but speaks in a different way?

Reggae producers of the ‘60s and ‘70s, people like King Tubby and Lee Perry, hit upon one solution: the remix. Henri Pousseur and his buddies came up with something similar: open form. Different composers made different sorts of open form compositions, depending on their media and whims. Pousseur’s idea was to record a set of source material—the “8 Etudes Paraboliques” of 1972—that he and other people could use to construct new pieces of music.

The etudes themselves are fixed electronic compositions, set in stone—or rather, tape. Unlike many electronic compositions that were built by painstakingly splicing magnetic tape, Pousseur’s etudes are real-time recordings of their composer messing around in the studio. According to Pousseur scholar John Dack, Pousseur spent several productive days recording his “sonic voyages”, which he produced using sexy gadgets like ring modulators and voltage control generators. Though always intended as source material for future works, the eight etudes can reportedly stand on their own as varied and intuitive collections of blips and bloops.

Like most of his fellow Darmstadters, Pousseur also composed for more traditional ensembles. In 1991 he wrote “Leçons d’Enfer”, a centennial tribute to the poet and gun runner Arthur Rimbaud. It was an electroacoustic musical theatre piece featuring singers, instrumentalists, electronic gizmos, and field recordings from Ethiopia, where Rimbaud lived late in life. (Conspiracy theorists should note: while in Ethiopia in the 1880s, Rimbaud befriended Ras Makonnen, father of Ras Tafari Makonnen, aka future Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, the Conquering Lion of Judah so beloved by remix pioneers King Tubby and Lee Perry. Small world.)

“Leçons d’Enfer” didn’t conquer the Great White Way, but it did provide more source material for Pousseur’s sonic voyages. In 1992, Pousseur combined bits of his etudes with recorded bits of “Leçons”, and came up with the 70+ minutes of Parabolique d’Enfer.

If you’re at all interested in electronic art music from the ‘50s on, you should hear this piece of music. For one thing, you’ve read about a similar mix, based on the same raw materials, in that dogeared copy of Björn Heile’s The Modernist Legacy on your nightstand. For another, Parabolique beautifully illustrates one solution to the problem of making old electronic works say new things. And it does so in a way that obviously parallels the contributions of reggae and rap producers, who make old recordings say new things all the time.

If you’re not interested in all that theoretical mumbo jumbo and you’re inexplicably still reading this, the 13 tracks of Parabolique are worth hearing for their sonic splendor alone. This mix is deep and layered, varied and surprising. It’s atonal and certainly nobody’s idea of easy-listening, but it’s no monolithic wall of noise either. Pure electronic squealing gives way to Ethiopian choirs, who are interrupted by angry blasts of squall, which melt into flitting synthetic insects and chimes. The music crescendos and morphs in gestures that are unpredictable but obviously intentional. At times it even settles into regular rhythms that are sort of catchy and bouncy. It’s arresting and devoid of cliché.

If you’re a Rimbaud fan, Parabolique may shed new light on the poet’s later years. If you’re not, don’t sweat it. After all, you don’t need an extensive knowledge of reggae riddims to know that Lee Perry’s dub music sounds great, and you don’t need to spot all the samples to appreciate a Public Enemy song. Those things might add to your interest, but ultimately the combination of sounds is what gets you. That fascination with sonic possibility inspired Henri Pousseur, too. Listening to Parabolique d’Enfer, you may find yourself lost in thought, pondering the implications of our brave new electronic world, or you may simply find yourself marveling at all this sound for its own sake.

Worth It In 2011: #4 - Monotonix

After cursorily scanning their reviews, the two common themes -- which I sought to address in my own writeup, below -- are "Monotonix are wild live" and "Monotonix don't do anything new". I haven't seen 'em live, but music penpal Jeremy E. reports, "Monotonix actually got kicked out of Bumbershoot in 2008 after only playing a few songs.  I wasn't at that show, but people who wrote about it said the security guards had no idea what to expect and shut things down when a garbage can got involved.  Also, there was mooning." Yikes! But I do hear newness in the guitar work -- it adds beauty to an often beauty-averse genre.

Not Yet
(Drag City)

The PopMatters review:

I dunno about you, but when I hear about a garage band that kills it live; that’s single-handedly reviving the pure punk spirit of a bygone era gilded in sepia and blood; whose mustachioed derelict singer lubricates the floor with a never-ending stream of bodily fluids; whose only instruments are a guitar and drum kit routinely set ablaze by said mustachioed derelict singer; AND who’ve been banned from playing most of their local clubs, I gotta wonder: “Are these guys from Israel?” Because seriously, that shit’s been done to death in America. Call me a relic or what you will, but the notion of getting drenched in someone else’s sweat while helping a shirtless 40-something rocker crowd-surf is a tad less appealing than the prospect of being stricken insensate by the Signature Cocktails of some obnoxious casual dining chain. For one thing, those casual dining places have to clean their bathroom floors every hour, a nicety likely overlooked at the dives frequented by Monotonix, the killer Israeli garage band in question. For another thing, Monotonix’s new album Not Yet is a great, non-sticky substitute for their live shtick.

Monotonix sound pretty much how you’d expect. Ami Shalev, the 40-something singer, opens “Everything That I See” with a cough and sounds like he’s puking the rest of the time. Drummer Haggai Ferschtman flails his arms like they’re 20 feet long, and he seems unusually proud of his cymbal collection, accurately miked by Steve Albini. Yonatan Gat’s guitar veers between fuzzy riffs and strangled lead lines. Song for song they sound good and threatening, but the romance and mystery in Gat’s guitar set ‘em apart from other such miscreants.

Unlike most guitarists whose ideal is scuzz, Gat isn’t beholden to the blue notes. In fact, he comes up with surprisingly pretty riffs, laced with major 6ths, 7ths, and 9ths, giving his squalid gusts a feel somewhere between Hüsker Dü and some classic rock band I can’t place. The album’s masterpiece is the portentous five-minute “Late Night”, a two-chord choogalooga that cuts its guitar haze with syncopated swagger. Gat throws in little detuned blasts that sound like the steam rising up from the dark streets of a Scorsese movie, while Shalev leers a full-on madonna-whore complex, promising his ladyfriend “To let you under my skin / To feel you in my hands.”

In a recent interview, Gat speculated that Shalev’s lyrics are about “trying to come to terms with tying your life to someone else’s.” Um, okay. Mostly, Shalev sounds like a raving psychopath, a fine aesthetic mode, though I concede the lines that register are pretty emo: “Just let me whisper in your EARS TO-NIGGGGHHHHHT!”, “You just need to let me find my WAAAAYYYYYY!”, “[Something something something] like an octopus!” Clearly he’s coming to terms with SOMETHING; an unfamiliar appetizer plate, perhaps. 

Monotonix trust their rock chops enough to let in some beauty and softness along the way, and that’s what makes them more than just garage revival sticks in the mud. But make no mistake, they’ll still flatten everyone in the room. Ultimately, if you’re trying to learn about the vagaries of the heart from Monotonix, you’re even sicker than they are.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Worth It In 2011: #5 - El Bebeto y Su Banda Patria Chica

SUCH a good album -- song for song, as good as anything on this list, the distinctions becoming smaller from here on up. Maybe my marching band background renders me more susceptible to El Bebeto's charms, but even if you don't THINK you like regional Mexican stuff, this is undeniably big and bright and impressive, with indelible melodies and virtuosic funk. I could listen to gigantic banda ballads (like the one below) all day long; they're a pinnacle (a plateau?) (a really high plateau) of consistent greatness in Western music, like Western swing songs. It's hard to find a bad one. And this album does a whole lot more.

El Bebeto y Su Banda Patria Chica
Quiero Que Seas Tú

From PopMatters's "Best New and Emerging Artists 2011" feature:

2011’s splashiest regional Mexican debut came from babyfaced 20-something Carlos Alberto García Villanueva—“El Bebeto”—and his Sinaloan Banda Patria Chica (“hometown band”). Their Disa album Quiero Que Seas Tú comprises 26 minutes of fat brass grooves and unbelievable moments—it’s hard to fathom that human lips and fingers can achieve some of these effects. El Bebeto was last seen in the likable but little-heard Banda Sairú, and he leads his own group with the confidence and drive of a tiger freed from a cage. Equally adept at rapid-fire waltzes, huge swinging ballads, and one very catchy cumbia, the band fires off 10 well-chosen songs full of humor and high drama. They sound perpetually eager to play their next amazing tune—not a bad way to begin a career.

Worth It In 2011: #6 - Lady Gaga

I can still remember where I was when "Born This Way" first came over the radio, apparently in concert with every other media outlet in the country. (In the car, with the family, no unicorns in sight...) As a pop music event, I can't remember anything as big and exciting since Michael Jackson's Dangerous videos aired on network TV in the early '90s. The monoculture lives! Gaga and Adele battling for ultimate supremacy! Adele winning handily! But still!

Below is my not-necessarily-readable Gaga thesis for Burnside. (Needed an editor.) More readable are the Singles Jukebox writeups on "Marry the Night", "You and I", "The Edge of Glory", "Judas", and "Born This Way": the blurbs nearly as indelible as the songs, and just as divisive.

Lady Gaga
Born This Way

Lady Gaga
Born This Way
“Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?”
– DA BOSS, from “Da River”
What he doesn’t consider is that it might be something better.
At Burnside I’m a rock critic. If I said I was a theologian I’d be fooling myself, though probably not anyone else. Nor would I be presenting an accurate idea of what theologians do. But if I continued to insist I was a theologian, I’d be telling you plenty about myself, about my values and aspirations. Lies and delusions can be good for that.

Where Unicorn meets Highway.
On Lady Gaga’s second-or-third album Born This Way, she tells us she’s all sorts of things. Most obviously, she thinks she’s Bruce Springsteen. The album’s title starts with “Born”, Big Man Clarence Clemons plays sax on a couple tunes, and on the cover, Gaga nearly straps her hands ‘cross her own engines. If nothing else Gaga’s lyrics sound like a once-removed Springsteen copycat — Jim Steinman, maybe, or the Killers’ second album.

Why do pop musicians so often want to be Springsteen? You know, besides factors like Money, Success, Respect, Good Parenting, etc? I mean sure, the guy can be great, but so can Neil Young, and nobody’s been drinking from THAT particular adenoidal well lately. But Springsteen! Back when the Killers were recording their explicit Boss-mage Sam’s Town, lead singer Brandon Flowers said:
“Springsteen touches on the American dream, and that’s everybody’s dream… Most of [our new] songs are about getting to that place, of making it to the promised land… It’s very optimistic.”
If you’re anything like me, that sort of claptrap makes you wanna either puke, blast some KMFDM records, or create a garish piece of public art consisting of desecrated baseballs, apple pies, and the Goldman Sachs logo. But maybe that’s just me. More than most pop stars, Springsteen’s capable of drawing people together into a simulacrum of National Uplift. His post-9/11 album The Rising meant a lot to a lot of people. Also to his credit, he’s usually more nuanced than his role of National Uplifter would suggest, as I tirelessly remind my poor wife whenever we hear the bleak character study “Born in the USA” during a fireworks display.
But for pop musicians who wanna be uniters-not-dividers, Springsteen’s the guy. Gaga, with her blond ambition and her devotion to her litter of adopted “monsters”, wants to signify that same broad, all-accepting appeal. She also wants to make money. As Karen Spears Zacharias andRich Juzwiak have both pointed out, Gaga knows how to pander to our insecurities and our desire for glory. So she’s crammed Born This Way with Bruce-derived symbols of the runaway American dream — the Road, the Night, Freedom and stuff. None of the symbols dig very deeply into that dream, nor do they acknowledge its central paradox: that it somehow manages to glorify both democratic equality and cutthroat individual achievement. Album closer “The Edge of Glory” could almost be a parody of that paradox, given its parity of Springsteen-isms with the lyrics of adult contemporary D-listers Lifehouse. Why else would an otherwise intelligent woman spend half her song singing “I’m hanging on a moment with you”?
But of course, the uplift is only half of it.
I’m guessing that Gaga’s unity claptrap sometimes makes her wanna puke. This may explain why half the album sounds like a KMFDM record. (Goodness knows the Lady’s been responsible for some garish public art.) More even than on The Fame Monster, the Gaga of BTW tells us she’s a dark outsider. Her songs are thick with heavy industrial beats, and every song seems to have some huge phasing distorted synth in the background. She claims to be a “Government Hooker”, fulfilling all your sinister fantasies, over a track that could have come from the most recent Skold album. “Scheiße” works the same theme, evoking a Eurotrash world of dirty youth hostel experiences. There’s also “Heavy Metal Lover”, officially approved by Decibel magazine, in which she aligns herself with a whole subculture of leather-clad gay-friendly Eurometal without actually sounding like any of it. (Sadly, “Lover” is one of her most forgettable songs.)
And then there’s all the religious talk. Please tell me you don’t turn to Lady Gaga for theology. I doubt even her most ardent monsters do, except to feel flattered by some fancy Bible-talk. That’s fine; that’s also what people get from Bob Dylan. I’d guess that 90% of your record collection flatters you in some way, even the “challenging” stuff.
But yeah, “theology.” The lyrics of “Judas” use a wild phantasmagoria of Gospel images to express a timeless girl-group message: “He’s a bad boy, but I don’t care.” Actually, “wild phantasmagoria” is generous; you could also say “random-ass freewrite.” In the first verse Gaga’s boyfriend “Judas” betrays her three times, and that’s after she’s washed his feet with her hair, which seems to indicate that both Gaga and her boyfriend are Jesus. May we all so honor our loved ones.
I suppose I should mention, this is a really good album.
Ever since I’ve known my wife, she’s had a very weird poster hanging on the wall: The Arrival, byCliff McReynolds. It’s a surrealistic landscape with a bunch of little naked people running around, doing possibly symbolic things — worshipping a giant breast, holding aloft a big piece of cherry cheesecake, etc. It strikes me as the decadent ramblings of a twisted mind wary of self-editing — which isn’t to say I couldn’t look at it for a while.
On Born This Way, Lady Gaga tells us she’s a dark industrial musician who’s also Bruce Springsteen. She’s a hooker who’s steeped in religion. (I won’t even attempt to parse the lyrics to “Bloody Mary”.) She wants to marry the night while riding away on Highway Unicorn. Her disparate identities practically fight with one another. The imagination of this album is all over the place, but it’s definitely got personality.
That goes for the music, too. Sure, it’s wall-to-wall dance music, but Gaga’s main producers RedOne and DJ White Shadow (hometown!) draw from an immense variety of past disco styles. Besides the Euro-club thumpers and the industrial stuff, there’s the sleek and spacious “Electric Chapel”, the sparkling “Bad Kids”, and the Santa Esmerelda handclaps of “Americano”. (You may know Santa Esmerelda from that epic version of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” on the Kill Billsoundtrack.)
That said, Gaga’s classical popcraft is as sturdy as ever. Her songs have memorable meat-and-potatoes hooks and unified constructions. Britney Spears’ recent Femme Fatale album may be more sonically adventurous, but it’s harder to love. After only a couple listens, Born This Way felt like home.
Part of that is Gaga’s singing. Pretty much everybody acknowledges that Lady Gaga is a better straight-up singer than her Top 40 peers. Her songs sometimes rip off Madonna, but isn’t it nice to hear Madonna songs sung well? She can do American Idol wailing, but she can also cut loose, and she’s not afraid to distort her voice to serve her songs. You rarely catch her preening. I mean, preening is basically all she does, but in the unself-conscious manner of a wild fowl who must preen to survive. You can practically see the bugs wiggling between her teeth. She’s not precious.
But an even bigger part of that comfortable, homey feeling is that Gaga comes across as recognizably human in her songs. It’s weird. She hardly ever looks or acts recognizably human in public. She’s a workaholic who hugs people while wearing raw meat. But somehow, despite sounding like the soundtrack to a green-tinted German art film about organ trafficking, Gaga’s music comes across as warm.
Sometimes in life we don’t want recognizably human people. Especially if they’re strangers. We want polite small talk or maybe gossip, but above all we want people to be easy. Understandable. Followers of protocol. People should let us know what they’re gonna do and then do it, and our expectations will be met and nothing will be disturbed. Smooth sailing.
Of course, that approach rarely works in music — if people kept singing about their normal everyday lives, music would get pretty boring and/or country. Musicians are more effective when they’re larger than life. But Gaga’s something else again. In some ways she’s an abject slobbering failure. Her music doesn’t even meet its own expectations. She tells us what she’s gonna do — basically, make a world-unifying fusion of high art and pop that melds de Tocqueville with de Sade — and she totally misses the mark. With such a tall order, how could she do otherwise? She’s not unlike that fascinating person you meet at a bar, or maybe on the street, with big dreams and no apparent chance of success. She’s the hustler who’s becoming an entrepreneur, the Vietnam vet who’s also a one-man prog band, the rock critic who dreams of being a theologian. Her failures are more captivating than other singers’ successes.
Of course, it helps that her songs are insanely catchy.