Why I Quit Music (and the redemption of small press)

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Part I: The Plight

A few months back I made the decision to quit music.  Ok, that’s not really true.  I’m just being manipulative.  But it is partially true.  I, like 6,335,428  other people in the Bay Area, fancy myself a “singer/songwriter”.  I had a little project that I called The Mockingbirds. (I would link you to the website, but I deleted it.) I put out an album back in 2011 called Lacuna that I was very, very proud of.  So proud in fact that I ended up printing a thousand of them, which in retrospect bordered on hubris.  With my little project (which boasted a price-tag of upwards of $15 grand) proudly gripped in my bony mitts, I ventured out into the local venues with the notion that I would strike up enough sales to pay for the next record.  Who wouldn’t want to buy this after all? It has all of the trappings of what people love: it thematically revolved around my late father but was uplifting rather than maudlin, it was all acoustic, it had just enough arty influence to make it interesting but was also quite approachable, it was beautifully produced and engineered, it had an absolutely stellar cast of musicians, the cover art (executed by gifted artist and good friend Derek Wilson) was gorgeous, and the songs were really fuckin’ good!

Now, hear this:  Being a “singer/songwriter” or any other kind of musician or artist or poet in the Bay Area, or any place else for that matter, is really freakin’ hard work.  You end up being composer, creative director, publisher, marketer, promoter, manager, financier, performer, networker, and sales team – any one of which is a full time job in itself.  I don’t imagine that most artists enjoy doing all of that other work, but they do it anyway. Why? Because there is no other way.  And this is what pisses me off to no end about “popular music”.  I personally know dozens and dozens of first rate, absolutely dazzling musicians and songwriters that are struggling to make ends meet while airwave-wasters like Bieber and Spears et al sit on their professionally toned asses collecting fistfuls of cash for absolute dreck!  Though I have now quit performing music of my own, I fully and happily and with god on my side, endorse a fifth  entry into Kant’s list of antinomies:

  1. the limitation of the universe in respect of space and time,
  2. the theory that the whole consists of indivisible atoms (whereas, in fact, none such exist),
  3. the problem of free will in relation to universal causality
  4. the existence of a necessary being…and...
  5. the cotemporality of shit and diamonds (or: you can’t polish a turd with cash)

Here’s an interesting side-note.  Just as an experiment, I started a Facebook page for Lemmiwinks the Gerbil King, one of my favorite characters from South Park.  I just wanted to see if it got any attention.  I also created a Facebook page for my musical project The Mockingbirds because, as stated above, I was also the promoter and marketer for my music.  I do absolutely nothing to the Lemmiwinks page, except post some sporadic bullshit about gerbils and other rodents.  That page now has 359 likes.  It just got another one yesterday.  My Mockingbirds page to which I pretty consistently posted “meaningful” and heartfelt content has 246 (200 of which are friends whom I paid to click the button, the other 46 are spam). Now if I were the scientific type and had to formulate some kind of hypothesis regarding public taste, I might come to the horrific conclusion that the general public cares more about animated rodents than art.  Would I be right?  Who knows, but I bet if we conducted a poll, we might verify that hypothesis.  Reminds me of the scene in Supersize Me where Ronald McDonald was a more recognizable face than Jesus (and that’s saying something in this god-fearin’ Christian nation of ours).

As I stated earlier, I have incredible respect for the musicians that are attempting to pull off a career amidst all of the crap they have to do to get attention.  But for me it’s like this: I like driving my car but please don’t ask me what’s under the hood.  I felt like an absolute poseur with promo shots, stage banter, web presence, blasting Facebook with cheery, upbeat status updates about shows that were an absolute fuckin’ train-wreck -“Great show last night at ArtBeat!  Thanks to all [two] of you that showed up! Thanks for [not] supporting local music! :-)”… Probably the worst experience was a disaster of a gig at Pyramid Brewery in Downtown Walnut Crick.  It was like Derek Bailey (rest his ultra talented soul) performing for KFOG Kaboom – all puzzled looks over pints of draft beer and nachos.  All of this to say, I still have over 800 really lovely cd’s in my garage that I’m now donating to charity events.  (You think I’m kidding.  I’m not.) (If you want one, let me know. It comes with a dollar bill.) I say these things not to get an aw-poor-baby but to reveal just what the hell is going on for most of those “singer/songwriters” that are up there pouring their talented little hearts out for a crowd that is more interested in gossiping about their neighbor’s teenager than listening to what the artist has to say.  So I say to all those people (none of which are you, dear reader):  Pay attention, dammit! Buy a freakin’ cd!  You spend more on crappy Starbucks triple grande lattes than you do on music!  You say you love this artist or that artist and then you go home and stream it on Spotify!  You say to me, “aw c’mon dude, Spotify is coool… I totally use it to discover new artists”… No, you friggin’ don’t!  You get all of your music for free because you think you somehow deserve it!  Let me inform you of something, person other than you who cares deeply about the survival of the arts, you absolutely don’t deserve it.  That little silver disc that you refuse to purchase from the artist is not some damn gratuitous gesture, it is a labor of love!  It is a little slice of the only thing about humanity that gives me any hope – CREATIVITY.  By going home and launching Spotify (or Pandora or BitTorrent or any other stupid website or app that gives people’s music away for free) you are killing creativity.  You’ll pay $40 a week in crappy lattes but $10 for a cd that will help support an artist’s creativity well, that’s kinda pricey. Jesus.

Part II: The Redemption

Which brings me to the part about the possibility of deliverance.  (Cue angelic music). Amidst all of the utter and absolute crap that’s being released by the major labels, there are isolated islands of hope, oases of artistic integrity that are doing such incredible work that it makes me do a ludicrous little jig in celebration.  (It is like that joke where this guy has twin sons – one is a pessimist the other an optimist.  The guy can’t stand his sunny little boy but adores his little curmudgeon.  For their respective birthdays he gets the grouch a shiny new bike, and the little idealist a giant pile of horse shit.  While one boy is ignoring his new bicycle, he checks in on the other who is busily shoveling away at the pile of shit.  When the dick-head dad inquires as to the purposes of his activity, the boy brightly replies, “Well, with a pile of shit this big, there’s got to be a pony in here somewhere!”) But back to the islands of hope: Some of these small press labels are simply devoting themselves to releasing really great music that pushes boundaries and explores the fringes of what music is capable of accomplishing (Isounderscore, for instance). Others, bless their souls, are releasing tiny runs of limited edition packages that are so exquisite in execution, design, and aesthetic content that it makes the mind wobble.

One of these art houses is Time Released Sound, lovingly run in Alameda, CA by a nice fellow named Colin Herrick.  Why just this morning I opened, listened to, and explored the 2013 release by The Angling Loser.  What can I say but what a treat for the eyes, ears, and fingers.  Inside the green, opaque velum envelope to which is affixed a fishing cigarette card, lies a little treasure trove of delights: a hand sewn fly tying flip book, an antique fishing postcard, a page from an angler’s instruction manual inside of which are enfolded two beautifully recorded cd’s, and a hand-numbered insert with track information.  The music is a tranquil combination of treated ambient-ish guitar, electronics, field recordings, and cryptic recorded voice.  Each release is a literal feast for the eyes and ears, usually in a run of maybe a couple  hundred.  Here’s a picture from their blog showing off some of this ultra-fine work:

time-released-sound

Am I right or am I right.  (Notice how I ended that with a period.) Freakin’ stunning. I want them all.  Now maybe it’s because I grew up listening to records (the kind that are 12″ in diameter and go inside a nice big cardboard cover with cool art to gaze at) that I like actually holding something in my hands when I’m listening, something that informs the sonic world in either text or imagery.  Something that fills the lacuna of meaning in the rich tapestry of the sensorium.  Or maybe it’s because I spent so much time with my lips on a bong as a young ruffian.  I don’t really know.  What I do know is that I absolutely love beautiful things, things that somebody’s hands have touched, things that are personal expressions packaged in love. I buy regular old cd’s in those goddam jewel cases, sure, but there is something so clinical and, well, unpatriotic about those.  This stuff that Colin produces, on the other hand, brings back that fine marriage of the arts that so many great artists (Gustav Klimt, Tristan Tzara, Jean Cocteau, Laurie Anderson, etc.) have spent their energy pursuing.

Here’s another one:  Wounded Wolf Private-Press is a publishing house in the UK/Turkey run by two ridiculously talented polymaths, Atay İlgün and Gözde Omay.  Quoting their website, their focus is “poetry, fiction, photography, folk and textural music along with additional prints and ephemera.” I recently ordered a couple of items from them which arrived promptly with a couple of additional gifts from these generous, kind-hearted folks.  The Hogweed and the Aderyn, is a beautifully textured slice of acoustic heaven.  Somewhat dark and pastoral, it conjures those European country-sides that all of us romantic Americans love to pine for.  The disc is housed in an elegant (biodegradable!) cardboard sleeve with a tiny carved wooden folk instrument affixed to the front.  All of this done, the music and the packaging, and executed by Atay and Gözde.

hogweed & aderyn

To my mind, this is the future of music.  Though I will probably never perform in front of humans again, I do plan to write and record. I hope that my next collection of songs can be released on a worthy press like one of these. Maybe just 100, but beautiful, handmade, personal, and intimate; a reflection of the time and effort it takes to plumb the soul and the intellect for words, search for the right notes and chords and rhythm to make the words come to life, explore the infinite variety of sonic textures that will support but not overwhelm the delicacy of the song, record until each gesture is in integrity with what the piece needs to come to fruition, muddle through the dozens of possible track orders until it flows like a river, and finally marry the final product to a visual aesthetic which both informs and augments all of those life experiences that have been boiled down to 50 or so minutes on a silver disc.

I love that there are people out there who have committed themselves to making a small but vital difference.  I love that there are musicians out there who are willing to go through endless amounts of bullshit just to grace our ears with their song.  I love that human beings love to create.  It gives me hope for the future.  For the rest of us our task is simple: appreciation.  Make art a priority because without it we lose a little bit of our humanity.  Scratch that… a lot…  So next time you are at a club watching/listening to an artist and some clown is talking about their stupid day at work, smack them upside their head and remind them that this music we humans make is our salvation, so shut the hell up!

Under the Radar: 2013 Picks

I know, I know, just what you need – another list of great albums that you feel compelled to ignore.  Well, here’s what I have to say about that: suit yourself.  But, by not giving these albums a listen you are doing yourself (and the world… perhaps the universe) a terrible injustice.  In case you are wondering, the vast majority of these were not listed by Rolling Stone nor Mojo nor npr .  Dave Matthews is not on the list, nor is John Mayer.  So if that is what you are interested in you will be sorely disappointed, incredibly puzzled, or positively irate that my taste is so different from yours.  Thus, without further ado, here is some of the most sublime music from 2013:

In alphabetical order by the last letter of the title:

Jim Haynes – The Wires Cracked

One of my favorite cultural philosophers, Jean Gebser, theorizes that a prerequisite for the unfolding of human consciousness into what he terms The Integral Structure is the process of making all “previous” structures – archaic, magical, mythical, mental/rational – transparent to one another.  One of the most interesting symptoms of the current structure (mental/rational) is our relationship with technology.  Look no further than the analogy that the human brain is somehow akin to a computer… the metaphors abound.  Technology has integrated itself with music to such a degree that it is no longer really feasible to delineate the two.  Glitch was an interesting moment in modern musical history in that it forced the listener to gaze through the lens of faulty technology in order to perceive the music that was lying underneath.  In my mind, Jim Haynes has taken this idea to its most fruitful and beautiful extreme.  Jim taps into the invisible yet ultimately pervasive realm of electric current, magnetism, radio waves, and decay.  As Jim says, he “rusts things”.  The Wires Cracked is a soundtrack to a world we would rather ignore, a world we would rather peer through than at.  Stunning.  

Wrekmeister Harmonies – You’ve always meant so much to me

imgresI cannot get enough of this album.  At every listen, more is revealed.  What at first listen appeared as an amorphous mass of sound has transmogrified into a delicate balance of bows, plucks, scrapes, drones, and bubbling electronics.  Little melodies begin to emerge that mysteriously vanish back onto the wash of tone clusters.  Here is a confession… I pray to the little tiny healing hands of baby Jesus that I’ll be forgiven for my transgression… but I enjoyed the downloaded version better.  Crap!  I said those words.  Here’s why.  This album is a slow burn, not unlike God Speed You Black Emperor at their most patient.  Just as Side 1 begins to build I had to get up and flip the record.  Now, don’t get me wrong,  I do love me that vinyl but this recording deserves to be heard as a piece, uninterrupted.  Because:  as Side 2 hits the midway it busts into the most finest of black metal riffs. Oddly, it does not feel out of place on this otherwise drone oriented work.  On the contrary, it feels like a most well earned orgasm. This is a ridiculously well conceived record. Highly recommended.  (Though I do feel that it would be better served on cd.)

Teho Teardo and Blixa Bargeld – Still Smiling

imgresI vividly remember the first time I heard Einsturzende Neubauten.  It was 1985.  I was in a little record shop in Picadilly in London.  I was searching them out because of a track on a Fad Gadget 12″ called Collapsing New People. Neubauten was accompanying Frank Tovey with all kinds of industrial noise that I instantly fell in love with.  Nobody, but nobody had even heard of Neubauten in St. Louis (where I grew up) so I had high hopes for London.  So while Then Girlfriend (see my post Hooray For Hollywood for a thorough explication on the matter of Then Girlfriend) was perusing the streets for shoes and tacky outerwear, I was filling my greedy little mitts with Fad Gadget singles and searching for the elusive Neubauten.  When lo and behold, I found it.  I approached the small counter gripping this forbidding looking record bordered with photos of bad sets of teeth… turns out that you could actually listen to stuff before you bought it there!  The last thing I heard the clerk say before I slipped on the headphones, in his somewhat cockney accent, was, “Be careful, they are very loud.”  The first sound to emerge on the headphones was a drill hitting a metal plate.  He was right.  It was loud.  I fell in love.  I’ve been following Neubauten rabidly ever since.  They have never done me wrong.  Now, in case you are trying desperately to figure out why in the hell I am prattling on about Einsturzende Neubauten when this post is supposed to be about Teho Teardo and Blixa Bargeld, let me continue.  Blixa is the front man for Neubauten.  (He also played guitar in Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds for a long stint.)  A close friend of mine described him as “a messiah, possibly the best front man ever.” Still Smiling is an absolute masterpiece.  Subtle, poetic, and stunningly musical.  It is a long way from Halber Mensch but still retains that unwavering devotion to plumbing the depths of genre-defying music.  Listen to this one late at night over a nice glass of port.  Won’t do ya wrong.

Esmerine – Dalmak

imgres-1Esmerine is a band out of Montreal – a city with an absolutely staggering music scene.  (Consider: Godspeed, Sam Shalabi, Silver Mount Zion, and every collective offshoot thereof.) Their previous record La Lechuza (2011), was an absolutely heart-wrenching tribute to Llasa de Sela (1972-2010) – an artist who left this world far too soon.  The last track on Lechuza contains a haunting vocal… one of her last performances before she was taken by breast cancer.  If this did not seal Esmerine’s pedigree, then Dalmak surely will.  For this record, they’ve decamped to Istanbul to collaborate with a frighteningly talented group of Turkish musicians.  What they’ve ended up with is an album that skirts along the borders of classicism, experimental, pop, and tradition but never lingers long enough to live there.  Despite the melodic interplays of east and west and the addictive textural feel of the record, it is the sheer energy of location (Istanbul) that gives the record its magic.  Don’t pass this one up.

Kingdom of Not – Journey to the Far Side of the Room

imgresI’m about to use a word that has become anathema to cultural academics.  So if you are a cultural academic, close your eyes as you skim past the next sentence or two.  I’ll wait… (           )…  Ok, here goes.  Dan Carbone, the man/personality/mind behind the project that is The Kingdom of Not is a genius.  Alright, I said it. All of you cultural academics out there can open your eyes now.  As I spun this cd for the first few times several months back, I could not shake a certain feeling.  The feeling was the one I felt the first time I heard Pere Ubu’s -The Modern Dance back in 1978.  It’s the same sensation I would imagine one would experience if they jumped out of a plane.  Now, I would never be foolish enough to jump out of a plane, so I don’t really know what that feels like. Nor will I ever find out because I will never, of my own accord, jump out of a plane.  I don’t even like being on my roof.  It’s also the feeling that I imagine Alice felt as she strolled through Wonderland.  I had been exposed to Dan Carbone before I met Dan Carbone.  The front man/poet, Daniel Ari (another genius), from the band I was in for a while (Bass Line Dada) used to burst into a Carbone monologue during rehearsals. Said monologue included the utterly brilliant line – “The pig is thinkin’!” If memory serves it was some kind of surreal barnyard fantasy.  But it was brilliant.  Now I know Dan.  And I’m glad I do.  Because he is not only a genius but a real swell dude. And he has put out, in my opinion, one of the finest records of 2013.  Buy it dammit! And if you still aren’t convinced, read my lengthy treatise hyah: Thanks For That Cigarette. And there it is.

Son of the Velvet Rat – Firedancer

imgresA very special guy turned me on to SoVR: Mr. Richard McGraw.  Remember him?  He’s the guy I interviewed a while back.  Remember?  You rushed out and bought all of his cd’s because you were so impressed with that article.  Well Mr. McGraw has some fine taste in music.  Firedancer is SoVR’s 11th release.  Songwriter, Georg Altziebler, falls into the ranks of Leonard Cohen, Nick Drake, and Will Oldham, with a touch of Tom Waits and a dash of Jacques Brel. Altziebler hails from Austria and you can tell.  His songs have that timeless feel that I’d associate with the Black Forest.  A sense of silence that falls behind the song.  A voice from the back of a lonely bar that you simply can’t ignore, a voice that begets a hush.  The arrangements are complex and textural with horns, hurdy gurdy, strings, things that pluck and things that scrape. The instruments are used tastefully so as not to interfere, but perhaps augment (fill the empty spaces of meaning) the well chosen words:  you can’t be with the dead and the living/& make a bed in the middle of nowhere/try & bridge that gap in your dreams/in the long long night.  Pure poetry.  This is a hauntingly beautiful album that no one in their right mind should ignore.

Dan Cantrell – Orphaned Anthems

imgresI must say that this record is impossibly good.  Dan is one of the most musical people I know.  He lives it and breathes it.  He is also one of the most humble and like-able guys around.  The tunes on this cd are Compositions with a capital C.  They are meticulously arranged, impeccably performed, and beautifully recorded.  Ranging from Balkan inflected symphonettes, to Carl Stalling inspired cartoon themes, to abstract film scores, Orphaned Anthems is nothing short of an adventure.   I could not put it better than my friend Roger Andris, whom I quote, “Compiling an album is a tricky thing.  Each song serves as a tectonic plate resting beneath the final soundscape, with the capacity to wreak havoc.  Attention must be paid to the smallest detail and movement.  There is a lot of music on this recording but you never get the feeling that Dan was simply throwing things at the wall to see what would stick or shying away from the editing process.  Nor was he heeding the winds of prevailing popularity.  This work smacks of a collection of people who fell in love with music at an early age, studied it seriously and elected to give back to it versus get rich from it . . . and we are the richer for it.”

Tim Hecker – Virgins

imgres-1Karlheinz Stockhausen influenced more modern musicians and artists than anyone would care to mention.  His goal, in the beginning, was to bring an end to Romanticism, which had fully flowered in the early 19th century and become fully decadent by the early 2oth. Romanticism in philosophy was said to have met its maker as Ernst Cassirer famously lost the philosophical Davos debate to Martin Heidegger in 1929.  Emmanuel Levinas was reported to have claimed that “a young student could have had the impression that he was witness to the creation and the end of the world.”  In a way it was, as this debate marked the beginning of Post-Modernism and the end of a long tradition of Romanticism which colored the entire output of Western art and music.  In this age of such intense dis-integration it really should come as no surprise that the Romantic tradition has wormed its way back into the humanities and the arts.  Humans crave meaning – something at which Post-Modernism turned up its brandy-stained schnoz. Tim Hecker’s latest release has not eschewed beauty and meaning for the sake of modernism.  Through the cracks of damaged electronics lies a music in love with consonant harmony.  This appears to be a very personal album, very intimate, made from the heart but kept at a slight distance so as to avoid the maudlin trappings which Stockhausen so successfully stamped out.  The cover art is captivating, alluding simultaneously to the haunting photos from Abu-Ghraib and Christian iconography, which of course is echoed in the song titles.  This will be a recording that begs repeated listenings as it reveals more of itself at each spin.  Gorgeous.

Date Palms – The Dusted Sessions

imgresMarielle Jakobsons and Gregg Kowalsky have tapped into something so indelibly West and colored it with something so unmistakably East.  I have no other apt comparison except to say that this record may be something akin to Ry Cooder being interpreted by Pandit Pran Nath… or vice versa.  It is an incredibly patient record, allowing meditative melodies to unfold slowly over dusty drones. Distorted guitars provide an undergirding to these plaintive tunes, but also give them a slightly sinister feeling of something wanting to burst free.  Though Marielle’s violin is a stand out instrument on the record.. her playing is positively sublime… Michael Cormier’s pedal steel is a show stealer.  His contributions to the Yuba River trilogy are magnificent.  I think what stands out most on this fine record is the subtle sense of composition.  What could have turned out to be aimless but beautiful melodic drones reveal themselves to be highly structured, intelligently conceived constructions.  Side 2 opens with Night Riding the Skyline, a fractured Mettle era Pink Floyd study in tension.  It is challenging to avoid slipping into imaginings of the film to which this could be a soundtrack.  But it is ultimately satisfying to simply stay with the music as it is – its texture, its loneliness, and its beauty.  Perfect.

Kaboom Karavan – Hokus Fokus

imgresThere is something just a little bit scary about Bram Bosteel’s Kaboom Karavan project. When I first picked up his previous release, Barra Barra, with its tweaky little bird/human on the cover, I was mesmerized for weeks.  On the one hand it was one of the strangest things I had ever heard (brings to mind hearing The Residents’ Eskimo for the first time in the late 70’s… with that what-the-fuck? kind of reaction) and yet utterly beguiling.  David Lynch comes to mind.  I kept hearing some kind of otherworldly folk music , not otherworldly, that’s the wrong word, this music comes from some underground cavernous community of Morlocks improvising on long dead Eastern European folk melodies.  It’s the future and the past living simultaneously in the same music.  Hokus Fokus travels the same ground, thank heavens.  How he makes most of these sounds is utterly beyond me.  Most of the instrumentation sounds acoustic in origin, with creaky little voices created by toothless little trolls.  Each piece is a perfect slice of weirdness. Just long enough to sink into its exotic fabric and just brief enough to want more.  All in all, I’d say this is a near perfect record.  I’m overjoyed that Bram Bosteel is on this planet.  This is a singular recording by a very unique artist.  A+++

The Parlour Trick – A Blessed Unrest

imgresGood Lord a’ mighty but this is a damn fine record.  Dan Cantrell and Meredith Yayanos have unleashed a doozy of an album to an oblivious world.  I was happy to see it on Carnacki’s list for KALX. It’s also shown up on a couple of blogs here and there, mostly due to a Twitter post by author William Gibson for their Kickstarter campaign, to which I proudly contributed.  Dan Cantrell is the only artist that has made two, count ’em two, appearances on this here list.  Something to be proud of, I’d say.  Seeing as how I have such a populous readership on this fine interweb (I think I’m up to six now!), I’m hoping to bring more attention to this BRILLIANT project. These two artists have more talent and intelligence and artistry than anyone really deserves to have, and they have crafted an album so delectably bewitching and charming and with such depth, that I think everyone needs to shout it from the rooftops. Ranging from austere homages to Erik Satie to rusted Hungarian folk tunes to sincere classicism and round the bend to exotic ambient soundtracks, this is a record to grow old with.  Five million stars.

Howe Gelb – The Coincidentalist

imgresAh, Howe.  I confess to you dear reader that Howe Gelb is one of my most absolute favoritest artists in this wide world of sound makers.  In my humble opinion, he has done no wrong.  From his work with Giant Sand to, well, basically everything the guy touches, I have been utterly smitten.  Howe is one of those artists that just oozes creativity and playfulness. His new album is certainly no exception and might I say that it is another little masterpiece in a long line of little masterpieces.  Howe is considered the godfather of that Southwest Tucson sound. Calexico was spawned from Giant Sand.  Lord knows how many have been influenced by Howe’s left-field genius.  He has this way of combining elements of Americana, jazz, blues, barrelhouse bar rock, and just good old fashioned song into a blend that is at once intimate and confounding.  As one reviewer said, if it weren’t confusing, it wouldn’t be a Howe Gelb record.  For this one Howe is joined by M. Ward, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Steve Shelley, Thorger Lund, and KT Tunstall.  It is a record that will leave you with a smile on your little face.

David Sylvian – Do You Know Me Now? 

imgresEarlier this year Sylvian was asked to participate in an installation by visual artist Phil Collins (not the drummer) called “My heart’s in my hand, and my hand is pierced, and my hand’s in the bag, and the bag is shut, and my heart is caught” (after Genet).  Each artist was given access to anonymously recorded telephone conversations from a booth in a homeless shelter in Cologne. The pieces were then played back in listening booths specially designed for the exhibit.  I can only imagine how powerful the installation would have been.  Sylvian’s lyrics are, as usual, poetic and emotionally provocative without descending into cliched sentimentalism.  “The planets high above you/Spun in houses of their own/You were dropped and hit the ground running/But they failed to lead you home”.  The two songs on this finely packaged 10″ vinyl release are both absolutely gorgeous, bridging the gap, as Sylvian so brilliantly does, between experimentalism and traditional ballad.  Highly recommended.

Ulver/ with Tromso Chamber Orchestra – Messe I.X – VI.X

imgresFor those of you that are unfamiliar with Ulver, I say with no hesitation – get thee to a record store!  This has to be one of the most interesting bands to come out of the Norwegian black metal scene.  Ulver has been nothing if not unpredictable and has never disappointed.  Their latest release is absolutely stunning.  With more allegiance to Arvo Part or Ligeti than Allagoch or Wolves in the Throne Room, Messe is a study in slow burning symphonic texture.  Don’t expect some kind of hybrid beast that attempts to juxtapose symphonic music and metal; this is pure classicism, but with that undeniably Ulver touch of pathos and visceral charge.  Gorgeous album.

Nick Cave – Push the Sky Away

imgresTo my mind, Nick Cave is the musical equivalent to William Faulkner or Denis Johnson.  Since he turned the page on his musical career with Henry’s Dream, Cave has been relentlessly pursuing his particular brand of literary lyricism.  Yet we can always count on him to defy expectation.  This album, not unlike PJ Harvey’s from last year, is a beguiling tapestry of texture. With a mostly spacious approach, Cave, Ellis, Casey, and Wydler weave beautiful accompaniments to Cave’s lyrics that are quite different from anything we’ve heard before. In fact I might go so far as to say that this may be the most cohesive release in Cave’s long career.  There is not time or space here to go into the lyrical content or the fact that Cave’s inspiration came from Wikipedia. I’ll leave that to more capable hands. Leave it at this: this is a spectacular album well deserving of the critical acclaim.

Big Blood – Radio Valkyrie + 1905 + 1917 +

Radio ValkyrieLast but certainly not least comes this fine, fine double vinyl release by a favorite of this here blogger, Big Blood.  Colleen Kinsella and Caleb Mulkerin do this particular thing that absolutely no one else does, thus comparison is fruitless.  Think what happens at the crossroads of dark appalachia, dream, experimentalism, ritual, and myth.  Here is where you may begin to taste a flavor of their voluminous output. Radio Valkyrie, and I do not say this lightly, may just be their most realized album to date.  And this is coming from someone who has listened to absolutely everything they’ve released.  Perhaps there is a reason that they finally decided to put out a real bonafide Record.  They must have surely been aware of the power and perfection of this last recording.  Well, they were right.  Absolutely brilliant.

Dave Matthews and the Golden Calf

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Dave, when he read my blog.

Those of you who read these scholarly posts may have picked up a certain distaste for the gentleman to the left over there.  More than likely you have had one of two reactions: a) you have pumped your fist in the air above your head and cheered me on, or b) you have felt a little sorry for the poor sod, sensed that I am just another merciless critic, hiding behind my computer and loquaciously getting even with all of the pricks in junior high that were more popular than I was (which was mostly everybody if I had to be precise). Honestly, I am still bitter about junior high but that is not why I pick on Dave Matthews.  Here is the weird thing: I really have nothing against Dave Matthews (except his dancing, which is not so much reprehensible but utterly clownish and therefore absolutely hilarious). To me he is like unsalted butter – flavorless, textureless. People say, “Dude, what’s there not to like about Dave Matthews? His band kicks ass!” To which I say, “Exactly!” What is there not to like? And therein lies the problem.  Dave Matthews, to me, is a symbol for all that is wrong with the current music industry.  Notice that I did not say music scene. Dave Matthews is like the golden calf that Aaron threw together when Moses took his ill-fated trip up to the tippy top of Sinai. They had nothing cool to worship, so they frikken’ made something! Like the golden calf, most popular music is all bling and no substance.  Now all of that is just fine until the masses get duped into believing that the statue is God.  The calf does not challenge one to be a better, more open minded, deeper person.  It allows you to remain exactly who you are comfortable being.

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Dave as Calf.

I remember playing “O Superman”, Laurie Anderson’s first 12″ single, for a couple of friends an eon or so ago.  They listened for a minute and said something akin to this: “You call this music? She’s not even singing.  There’s no melody.  This is weird!” If memory serves, I was forced to remove the record from the turntable.  Which was fine with me as they had a shitty needle anyway. But I remember thinking to myself, what the hell is wrong with people?  Here’s an artist pushing the boundaries of musical expression, experimenting with new structures and sounds, defying classification, and I’m forced to remove the record to make way for the latest dreck from Eddie Rabbitt and witness the self-satisfied look of placated contentment plastered across the visage of someone suckling from the mother’s milk of top ten radio. My feeling was not so much angry or resentful, elitist or smug, but hurt. I was not trying to offend anyone’s sensibilities.  Far from it.  I had brought this new music to my friends with absolute Love!  That little record had rocked my world and I wanted more than anything to share the experience.  So understand this:  When I write these blog posts and rail against the machine, it is out of love – love for the artists that continually take risks, love for the infinite human capacity towards creativity, and love for you, dear reader, for opening your ears to music that challenges the norm, that bucks the system… music that deserves and needs support!  Laurie Anderson says in O Superman:

When love is gone, there’s always justice.
And when justice is gone, there’s always force.
And when force is gone, there’s always Mom. Hi Mom!

Isn’t that a great line?  The humor, the depth, it’s all there.  Eddie Rabbitt says:
Well I love a rainy night 
I love to hear the thunder
Watch the lightning
When it lights up the sky
You know it makes me feel good
Isn’t that crap? C’mon, please, just admit it.  That song was #8 on the Billboard Charts in 1981, the same year O Superman was released. It was played on the radio every five minutes.  It was inescapable.  Raise your hand if you’ve ever heard Laurie Anderson on the radio.  Methinks that all kinds of folks out there are under the impression that songs are on the radio because people like them.  Thus, public taste governs radio airplay.  I am firmly convinced that it is precisely the opposite.  The radio plays it, therefore the people like it.
Imagine a world where all radio was like college radio.  Would record sales shift? You’re damn tootin’ they would!  If Dave Matthews and John Mayer were regulated to some static-y radio station so far down the dial that your carpal tunnel acted up just getting there, then I sincerely doubt that they would be household names.  Here is my plea:
Listen to something new.  If you don’t know how to find something new, go back and check out any one of my earlier posts. Find something you’ve never heard of.  Relax and really listen.  The artist created it because they thought it was beautiful. Find that beauty.  Relish it.  Try this every day.  Challenge yourself and your conceptions of beauty.  Why should you do this? Because it is good for the soul.  You may decide to say, “Fuck you, lacunamusic man. Fuck you and all of your blathering on about art.  I like Dave Matthews and there’s nothing you can say or do to change my opinion. So there!”  To that I say, fine.  Shun my love. You’ll be sorry when I’m dead.  (That’s something that my grandmother used to say to me when I was  kid. It’s very effective.)
Something else my grandmother used to say.  After quietly watching some musical performance on TV she’d mutter to herself, “Ah, they’re only clappin’ ’cause it’s over.”  My grandma was a smart lady.
For your first listening assignment: