Monday, November 30, 2009


So, I don't do this often, but I wrote a pissy post this morning about a particular record label that I would now like to redact. Pissiness limply tossed at an irritiating but ultimately peripheral antagonist is no way to live one's life. Confident, incisive, heat-seeking ire is the way to go about it.

So, post redacted (cause it was poor, unfocused griping), but the point still stands, if you had the chance to read it.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

My Little Blue Window/Radio Silence

Recently, a lot of my listening has been taken up by one Mr. Elvis Costello, or as some of you may know him, "Declan MacManus: International Art Thief". I've been a huge Costello fan since high school, which may explain why I wasn't exactly a ladies' man, but it was also reassuring to know that there were other angry nerds out there. My Costello listening never really ceased since then, but for me, it's certainly more of an autumn/winter thing, and I've recently pulled out my EC discography from its digital crate.

It seems that whenever I pull out ol' Declan's records, I not only discover new things about the records that I love (which is most of them, but I'm certainly partial to his '77-'80 output, from My Aim Is True to Get Happy!!), but I usually discover a new record once a year or so. Apparently, I'd never cleaned my ears out to bother to listen to his 2002 "comeback", When I Was Cruel. it seems to be the weird, dark, seething record that he was threatening to make back in '91 with Mighty Like A Rose. The great thing about Elvis is that he's never really been pigeonholed by people who know his music. Sure the "angry young man" image sticks in people's minds, but he's always been as stylistically shifting as even David Bowie, he just changes shape within the "post-New Wave songwriter" boundary. Everything on When I Was Cruel seems dark and muffled, giving it a similar vibe, if not exactly sound, of groups like Massive Attack. That haunted, dark, angry sound is a welcome refresher to those of us who love Costello's razor-sharp wordplay. I've been on record since I was 17 as digging his Burt Bacharach collab, but that was a little sweeter - nobody can pen a put-down like Costello.

Back in '02, I was doing summer duty at a mall record store when I was home from college, and we were pretty restricted as to what we could play (thanks, GloboCorpMedia, Inc.), but When I Was Cruel certainly got lots of play from me, but I wasn't giving it a fair shake, cause I was young and angry, and it wasn't This Year's Model. So I've heard the record, but I'm 7 years late in getting to it's glorious, muffled anger - so what's your point, Mike?

My point is that I'm sick of the Day Glo, pseudo-cheerful 80's retroism of today. It's like people have fooled themselves into feeling things that they're not actually feeling. I'll freely admit that I don't understand why anyone would live at that surface level all the time, but I think that some of these people genuinely think that they feel certain things, but it's all ironic, and some of them don't even know it:
Teen2: Are you being sarcastic, dude?
Teen1: (shakes head) I don't even know anymore.

Maybe it's because we're coming out of a dark time, and some of the people in their late teens and early 20s weren't properly emotionally equipped to deal with being plunged into a paranoid era about 8 years ago. The '80s were pretty Day Glo and there was the constant threat of nuclear war. It's back again. But I was old enough to deal with it. And I'm bitter. Bitter at those people, bitter at the spirit of the era, bitter that nobody else seems to be feeling what I'm feeling. Ignoring it with solipsistic dance squiggles and silly haircuts doesn't protect you from fear - you have to fool yourself when all is said and done.

So I'm going to start writing some lyrics for the album I've got in the can. And they're going to be bitter. Because nobody else seems to be doing it with any articulation or conviction. Fuck this dance music. Things might be getting better, but bopping to reheated, rehashed Synth-Pop horseshit isn't going to make this any better. Duran Duran was bullshit then, and their progeny still are. You can't dance your troubles away when the world is falling apart. They say that those that don't know their history are condemned to repeat it, and apparently they've never heard the tale of Nero fiddling while Rome burned.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Don't Know About You, But...

i-ron-y: [ahy-ruh-nee, ahy-er-]
5. an outcome of events contrary to what was, or might have been, expected.


So, I'm going through my thrice-a-year Pixies binge, because I'm pretty convinced that they might be in contention for the highly unexpected position of "one of my favorite bands ever".

I didn't really like the Pixies when I first heard them.

Annette, a manager at the restaurant I worked at in high school, loaned me Doolittle... passing it along to me like it was a secret. I assume this is the way people with older siblings find out about cool music. I had to mooch off my friends' older siblings. This would have been about '96 (I think), and I just didn't get along with the record. It was a little scratchity, almost too quirky, and the screaming wasn't really my bag at the time. I was just out of my "nothing but hardcore" phase (done with screaming), and the mysterious ambience of Guided By Voices (which she also loaned me, at the same time) held a lot more sway over my listening habits. Everything about the Pixies seemed so out front and clear and flat, like a photograph or film, while GBV was murky and deep.

But I diligently taped it, and kept going back to that cassette ever couple of weeks. I didn't really like it, but I couldn't help but want to listen to it more - it was like a compulsion. I didn't feel like I needed to like it, but it was so alien to me, I just wanted to see if it was as strange as I remembered it being. Naturally, as happens with most listeners (usually earlier than it did with me), I had some sort of epiphany with that record, and it was like a sudden, jolting realization when I understood I was listening to it wrong. I was taking all my preconceived notions - about it being a seminal "alternative rock" album, an influence on Nirvana that never broke through 'cause it was too weird, and the way that fans a generation ahead of me talked about it - and filtering through that.

All I had to do was open my ears and realize that it was just great music, you know? These were pop songs. Skewed, fractured, with scratchy mariachi guitars and screaming and stomping, but they were also 2:30 pop tunes. Shortly after I had this realization, I finally understood why Weezer had constantly been pegged as Pixies soundalikes. "Debaser" could have been on the Blue Album with a different vocal track. The more I listened, the more I liked it. The more I liked it, the more I listened. It was a good time to be an obsessive high schooler.

As I kept writing songs, in my so-called "punk rock" attempts to get away from "classic rock" songwriting (rootsy, verse-chorus-verse, maybe an acoustic guitar), I was drawn to the way their songs were short, like punk, and they were just played wrong as well. Where my primitive tunes had 8 bars of verse, 8 bars of chorus, 4 bars of bridge, 8 bars of chorus again, these Pixies albums were full of moments where they'd play a riff 7 times instead of 8, giving it this weird push-pull, with unexpected changes that actually SURPRISED me. And if Black Francis was the heart of the band, Kim Deal was the soul. She was what really hooked me overall. The frontman was scary, screaming like a deranged hobo about aliens and whores and surrealist films, but Deal's charming normalcy and audible sweetness was reassuring - as though to say "Hey, I know this is weird, but it's cool Go with it... it'll be a fun ride." As prickly as Black Francis seemed (as though he'd flip out at any moment), Kim had this sort of "Oh, Charles...!" vibe that didn't defuse the insanity, it just made it seem like a lot more fun.

All of the records are good, although my favorite often changed. Doolittle is probably their objective best, the most realized combination of fucked-up weirdness and hyper-catchy spazz-pop. Lots of my friends claim that Surfer Rosa is, like, THE ONE, and I know a few people who think that Trompe Le Monde is the best thing they did, due to the combination of heaviness and texture (the keyboards on that are actually really good). I'm the only person I know who really likes Bossanova, thanks to my love of surf music and space rock, although I know it's probably their weakest album. My favorite is Come On Pilgrim, not because I think it's their best, but because it's the most unique. All the songs sound like they were recorded live, in that order, on the same day, over the course of about 45 minutes. No super hits (no pop magic like "Wave Of Mutilation" or "Velouria"), and every one of those songs is catchy, but sounds like no other song I've heard before. And it was their first EP! How does a band do that?!?

What's the point of all this rambling? I'm coming to terms with the fact that while they've always been a band I really liked, and obviously thought was great, they may have just edged up into that rarified strata of "Mike's Favorite EVER Acts", up there with The Ramones, The Clash, Elvis Costello, et al. I would not have expected that the band I put on in high school and though "Too shrill. Too quirky." would end up a perennial favorite. And I stand by my assessment the other day. I am in the "Breeders" stage of my life right now. I no longer FEEL the way these songs feel. But they sure do compliment each other well.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Bedhead Residue: More Scrapings From The Bottom Of The Top Of The Decade

The Strokes - "Is This It?"

I was wondering if I should even consider mentioning The Strokes in my (too-long-dormant) discussion of the Best Records Of The Decade (TM), and I've decided it's going to be necessary. Whether they make it in to the party remains to be seen, but I liked First Impressions Of Earth much more than I expected to, and besides, the NME list is out today, placing the Strokes at the top.

To shift gears for a minute and get all political, I'm of the opinion that no matter what else Barack Obama has done for the country, he's unified a large part of it. What will happen remains to be seen, but the idea that so many people were so fervent about making the administrative change, that he brought unity to the people, a sense of activism, a push to DO rather than "have done for". People being lazy, after the election, slid back to their old ways, largely, but for a minute there, it was one icon inspiring all of US to make something happen.

The Strokes were the Obama of their day.

I heard from every damn angle about this band when their first EP came out and the press went wild. The banned album covers, the trebly, buzzing sound coming from a dirty guitar through an amp. Touchstones of everything from Television to the Velvet Underground. People were STOKED. And this was a good thing. Sure, it may have ended up being a big ol' disappointment overall, but that garage rock revival had a lot of cool music bubble up to the charts. The Hives? America should be GRATEFUL for that happening after the sugary pop of the late '90s. The Strokes (well, the press surrounding the Strokes) reminded everyone that rock 'n' roll was still there, and in the process, made a really good garage-pop record. "Last Night" still sounds like Tom Petty, riffs are lifted here and there from some of your tamer (but hipper) punk forebears (New York Dolls, I'm looking at you!), but it's a neat little album with a sexy cover and one track that caused some post-9/11 lyrical stink. But it opened the gates. People were trying to market the VINES as a garage band. They were awful! But no matter, it reminded everyone that you can crank up and amp, bang on a riff, and howl out some hip jive and you were a rock and roller.

It's the music that matters, yeah, but there are always certain trappings that influence the tunes, and these boys had it DOWN. Sure, they were rich kids playing punk, but weren't Richard Hell and Tom Verlaine just prep-school runaways? Wasn't Lou Reed just a grumpy English major? Artfully mussed hair and perfect Beatle Boots might not make the album, but they sure help sell it. And sold it was. I had a stick up my ass (based on The Wilco Principle) about being told what I had to like. So I resisted. I knew about the White Stripes already anyway, and that was more my bag. I'd rather listen to the Oblivions or the Gories than something that Spin Magazine told me was "hot". Who cares about all that. It's a good rock and roll record.

Context aside, Is This It? is a really good record, that I heartily enjoyed once I got past my pissy contrarianism. Taken IN context, one of the best records of the decade. Just avoid the one that came after it.

Beat It, I Wanna Hang Out With The Psycho Mafia

It's never good when you're having a foul day by 8:30 AM. Too many people around me spitting negative vibes has cast its long shadow over me - I'm only human - and now I'm seething, gnashing, lashing out. I'm feeling pissy and just want to be left alone. Anymore, when I'm in this mood, I don't tend to want to thrash about or pound pound pound my head to clanging electro-industrial beats like I did in my youth. Anymore, it's something low and rumbling like Tricky, or something fully crotchety like The Fall.

I never used to like the Fall all that much. I filed them in with early Gang Of Four as "post punk that everyone seems to love, but is a little too dissonant and dry and amelodic for my taste". I was, of course, gravely mistaken. I knew, however, that I just hadn't heard the "right" entry point, out of their 2,487 albums and EPs. I think the first one I had was a cassette of The Infotainment Scan in middle school. Eh. Not the best point to start at on either count. I heard that they started kinda Northern UK Punk-y, so I picked up Live At The Witch Trials and Early Years and liked 'em, but as a punk fan, they struck me as a case of a non-punk band doing the punk thing, and doing it quite well, but it felt like by enjoying them, I was shortchanging a band that, apparently, was quite a bit more than that. Sort of like really digging on Joy Division's recordings as Warsaw, or the first couple of Police singles - they're all good work by bands that went on to do more interesting things in related fields. But to define those bands by that work would be rather limiting and shortsighted. I was lost as to where to go next, so I tried a few, some were good, some weren't. I guess I was just lost in the wilderness for a while, largely put off by the prickly Mark E. Smith.

The older I get, the more I like Mark E. Smith, in that he might be a complete prick, but he makes no bones about it. He doesn't hide it, and you just know that that's what you're getting.

"Fuck off."

Today, it's been This Nation's Saving Grace. For a while, this "mid-period" for the band seemed a little overproduced, a little les "raw" than the early stuff that I guess I liked, but right now, I want to hear one noisy riff, repeated over and over with frustrated, grey, clanging vigor. I want to hear it decay and start up again, like some sort of broken machine, repeating it's head-nodding, rhythmic fervor over and over and over. The Fall, as music, is equivalent to watching a band like Pere Ubu from outside the room, only to have the door slammed in your face for peeking in. They don't give a rat's ass about you. Or anyone. Not only is it surprising that they release this music to the public at all, but that they release it in HUGE volumes. But even still, they don't care if you buy it, really. Which I guess is what made the music so impenetrable for me for so long. It's completely uncompromising in a way that so much avant music wasn't. Where Beefheart and the Residents created a new language for you to listen to, The Fall just play droning vulgarities in a language you already know, only they're not talking to you. They don't go out of their way to be weird or difficult, they just are.

So bug off, everyone. Leave me alone. Leave me with my Fall LPs.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Can't Fight The Breeders

I'm getting older, I realize. See, nowadays, I want to live at the Breeders, and visit the Pixies. I realize that this statement might seem silly and crazy, but when I was a youth, I was amped up and wired and on edge and constantly on the verge of freaking out - i.e., my reality was similar to the vibe I get from the Pixies' oeuvre. I used to like to vacation in the Land of the Breeders, a hazy, noisy, pretty place with mountains and pretty harmonies. No less rockin', but a little less spazzoid.

Now that I've mellowed with age, I often feel a certain placidity and calm, and like to occasionally get nuts and bounce off the walls. Unfortunately, other than rounding up some singles 'n' b-sides 'n' stuff, I didn't have a lot of background music for that feeling. The Breeders haven't been the most prolific band of the past 20 years... 4 albums? The enjoyable but less-than-epochal Title TK aside, however, each of them has been downright magical.

There are very few recording acts that just completely confound me. I'd like to think that I'm a pretty well-versed music consumer and creator. I know how certain sounds are made, and I know how to achieve that, and how it all fits together. I may not always be able to speak the language, but I can understand what you're saying to me. However, there are those rarified acts that I just can't fathom how they put together that sequence of sounds and timbres to make the music I'm hearing, and often, the Breeders are one of them. The way the Deal sisters put the parts of a song together is completely confusing to me. Which could be part of the appeal. The best part of it, though, is, much like the Early Day Miners, the wizards behind the curtain are almost completely without pretense.

Maybe it's the Deal sisters' Ohio roots, or the down-to-earth mentality I keep seeing around Boston (Kim's temporary home in her Pixies days), but it seems like a completely unaffected piece of primitive art. To assume that the Deals are some kind of savants is doing them a major disservice, though - don't underestimate these women. They know their field, to be sure. But part of the reason that everyone loves them (in the same way people love their Dayton neighbor, Bob Pollard), is that they seem like people you could know, regular people, who have this other side to them that creates this magical atmosphere. Maybe it's her deadpan Midwest accent, but Kim Deal has always reminded me of someone who could have been my babysitter when I was a kid. A little older than me, waaay cooler, but still wouldn't mind eating cereal and watching cartoons. The key, however, is that this side of the band is never distinct from the lush, jagged, hauntingly crushing music that they can whip up like a fever dream. It's not distinct, and in fact the music would be weaker if that side of the personality wasn't visible through the haze.

The Breeders, though, like myself, have mellowed with age. Their 2009 self-released EP, Fate To Fatal, is a wonderful follow-up to the stellar Mountain Battles. There are lots of stories about these people, including nasty band break-ups, drug addcitions, arrests, bad feelings, back-biting - but all that really, truly feels in the past. Like Mountain Battles, there's a sort of, err, "elder statesmen" vibe to this, that says to me "been there, done that, who cares? let's just kick back a little..." It's not that the songs are lacking anything, but without the constant threat of everything suddenly falling apart, the four songs here are allowed to breathe a little bit. There was a day when any new music from the Breeders was met with baited breath, simply due to the scarcity and the event surrounding it all. Despite the fact that it's now a different era, the fanbase is still there, and it's actually nice to hear music like this without the crushing weight of anticipation. It seems like it's nice to the band, too, becuase this feels a lot more alive and organic than most of the other records I've listened to this year. Add it to the list!

[Bonus points to any reader who can tell me why I found the title of this post so damn funny when I wrote it.]

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Gettin' SAD: Keeping Your Chin Up In The Clutches Of Autumn

Fall is once again upon us (at least those of us up here in the Great Northeast), and I've only seemed to make that definitive the night before last, when I put the new album by Early Day Miners on the turntable and let that slow swell of mood once again creep over my very soul. Not bad, per se, just a sort of isolated loneliness that is hard to combat, no matter now much happiness and how many loved ones you surround yourself with.

I'm one of those guys that gets SAD (that's seasonal affective disorder, kids) like clockwork, and the fact that I've been off the Prozac for far too long is putting me in a very melancholic state of mind. Perusing the upcoming album release calendars tells me that, barring and huge surprises, the EDM record will probably be the last "great" album of the year in my book. I mean, the Tom Waits live album will be fun but not revelatory, the Nirvana set at Reading '92 will certainly be enjoyable, but I've had a bootleg of that for years. Where does that leave me... the abysmal new Weezer album? This time of year is usually the point where I tend to stop looking forward for a few minutes and just exist. Lately, that's meant a lot of Brian Eno and "comfort music" - perennial favorites that I know so well I don't really need to LISTEN to them, just have them there as a companion. Some dub reggae, the Clash, Stooges, and the aforementioned Nirvaner (Boston pronunciation).

So what now? There's a debate in my mind as to whether to make a concerted effort to uplift my mood with bright, jangly pop that could make even the heaviest heart step lighter, whether to compliment my mood with autumnal music to ponder the great questions, or whether to explode it all and start listening to things that are so unrelated and all-over-the-place in mood that I don't know what to think and I'll just find myself confused. The problem with the first option is that most of that jangly power pop is ultimately of the blues tradition of singing a happy melody to cheer yourself up. Seriously, Altered Beast or Bandwagonesque or even the first Gin Blossoms album is beautiful, but once you listen to the lyrics, you'll be reaching for the nearest razor blade. The problem with the second option is that if I lean too hard on the "complimentary" music, it could teeter things too far to that side and I'll end up worse off than I am now. When you have evocative music to be plaintive to, it's easy for that to snowball. And as far as the third option... well, The Residents alone cannot sustain a man.

So the big question is, what makes for good autumn music? Right now, I'm leaning toward some psych-flecked Mod pop from the mid-'60s - The Creation, The Smoke, Nuggets II - because it's peppy enough to keep me upbeat, but most of the lyrics are so evocative and impressionistic that they don't really SAY anything to me. It's too cold out to really rock out to some sweaty garage rock, so the Dirtbombs and their ilk are largely off the table. Is there anything that might speak to me but keep me from feeling completely bummed for the next couple of months?

We here at Central Target turn to you, Dear Reader, for your sage advice!