Month of April, 2010
Having a chit chat with Neil about the new MGMT cover, which forced me to listen to the thing after all the reviews told me it was an unmitigated disaster. Which, it is.
The track "Brian Eno" might be the key reason. It should be some tongue in cheek conjure of the prog-pop master in 21st century hues (see LCD's "Drunk Girls" for a successful version of this), but MGMT's inexpert craft and wretched lyrics turn the song into a piece of clunky fan art no fan could love. It starts with a plodding attempt of a classic pop-punk intro in the style of (the far superior) "Orgasm Addict," and descends quickly via some wonky toothless organ figure into funhouse texture as smooth, inoffensive and banal as latter day Tim Burton films mostly because of a mix so dull it must have been done by that other guy from Spaceman 3. And, are adults actually singing lyrics like "I can tell that he's kind of smiling but what does he know/we're always one step behind him, he's Brian Eno?" and doing so not on a first but a second album?
Two obvious points: A) read A Year With Swollen Appendices and you'll see why he's got that Cheshire grin (answer = butts) and B) One step? How big are your feet? I mean, read what that fucking hippie said in the Guardian today. Yes, he is a pompous asshole, known to be unreasonable in and out of studio, a bit of an unapologetic thief, but you can't argue that he's been blowing pop up, out, and over for 40 years, and he didn't do it in earnest songs about how awesome his influences were.
It seems that writing songs about guys who wrote songs with strategy reveals a basic lack of understanding of the aforementioned strategist's strategy, and anyone who knows Eno (P4K's suggestion that MGMT will introduce listeners to Brian Eno is so laughable - have they ever heard of a little band with the letter U and the number 2?) can hear the gracelessness of the whole concept while those who don't know Eno can stil hear the gracelessness of the music: a double fail.
We are bumping around to find the edges of the new sincerity and this album seems to be defining one of them.
But to find the others? We. Must. Keep. Scratching.
"I do." The performative utterance that means somehow "I give me to you." What one gives is either explicit or implicit, and it is always changing. But from outside the negotiation, the ring is only a simple communication of the exchange, a reminder to the beloved and, as Nina sings it here, warning to the world outside. I suppose it's a classic reification, a standard country music trope, this gold band telling over and over the story of yes, but also the story of no.
What an envious dirge it is, with Nina at 25 singing "I'll rememb-errrr to my dy-ing day" over that piano-snare figure, her voice disappearing in a velvety fadeout that suggests the moan could go on until that very last minute. Funny to think of a ring as this - a life's curse as much as a promise, a phantom object worn in the mind of the dispossessed because of its material and spiritual wear on the beloved's body.
I'm not one much for possession, but today I am without two more rings promised me. I am sad for the situation, but not sad for losing them. My mother's house was robbed and the thief took the wedding rings of both her and my great-grandmother, among other things. In her tears to me she spoke of inheritance, of history, of her shame at the situation. All I could say to her, and all that was true, was that it does not matter.
They are melted hunks of gold by now, the little diamonds bent out and tossed into trays with others wretched through the violence of break-in, hold up, and other desperate, sometimes criminal, acts in my miserable hometown. It's the kind of place those Fox News 'cash for gold' ads really prey on and really, my only thought about our break in is - what took them so long? And my great-grandmother is dead, my mother is divorced, and I refuse the concept of possession on the grounds that, while Nina should sing such songs for the world, no lover suffer a feeling thwarted for my pettiness or insecurity. The envy Nina sings of scares me - she desires not sharing but a transfer of title - but I hold true that there is a way one can have a promise strong enough to withstand even such a passion as lover Nina's. And the rings were just some reminder of the way it did and didn't work before, and I have already inherited that.
We didn't invite the criminals in to our house, surely, and I would rather have some nice jewelry than not. But love is not that, and I guess it is important to keep it straight so when a disastrous phone call comes, like it did today, I can say the right thing at the right time: this is not the important thing. We have faith in our phantoms and our promises, our past and future, and we live to love each other right now. We respect the rings other people have, but we don't need them ourselves. We were free before, we are free now, and we will be free. Nothing can be stolen.
So it's pretty funny that the Midlake wiki says their newest album The Courage of Others "garnered generally good reviews," when it got a 3.6 on the Fork. Seems a UK/US divide, with a sharp turn among the Stateside tastemakers away from such beardo sincerity in 2010. Pretty much every person I ask who's listened to it hates it soundly, except my psychfolk superhero Neil, who wrote the band a personal letter to thank them for their 21st century reanimation of the Pentagle tradition. I guess Neil's letter is the reason obscure weird bands keep going round the world, so bravo to him. Less public fan art, more private fan mail.
I too love the heavy British folk influence and adore moments on the album. And I'll come right out and say I love it for the reason the US nerds hate it - it's tots sans irony. I do agree that the vocals are flat, lifeless, both in delivery and in the mix, but still...
"Rulers, Ruling All Things" has been on constant rotation in the glum moments that overtake me when I start wondering how it is that I am so far from home, which are less often then they were when I got here but somehow more acute in the spring. Yes, this is a song that contains the word "maidens" and they aren't for torturing, and it features the lower register of the flute for dramatic effect, but it also has the lovely, melancholy opening couplet "I have been cruel and kind without knowing/I fell in the silence overwhelmed by these days" that somehow describes exactly my non-research or teaching life right now. Quiet, a little medieval, and frankly humorless.
Except today, after Fleck left my house and I realized that I had no keys to get in but the window was open. One text message, ladder appropriation, and a few laughs later and I was back in, thanks to Keith - who is not just punk in Africa, but every damn place he goes.
So yeah, I guess Midlake might be a bit staid, but I guess right now I'm a bit staid, or feckless or simply between. I just started reading the anthropologist Michael Jackson's At Home In the World, and he has a lovely passage in his introduction about conjuctions as verbs. Right now I work, but in my private life, I am living a conjunction. And it sounds like Midlake.
Good night at Dox last night - we had the Czech premier of Copyright Criminals. I'm totally biased since the head writer of the film, Kembrew McLeod, is a friend of mine, but I really think it's a great intervention on the dialog about the nature of digital creativity and American copyright law. First off, it's extremely MUSICAL, which I remember talking to Kembrew about mostly because it was some kind of nightmare clearing all the vid samples for the montage sequences. There are a maybe a half dozen sequences illustrating the work of specific artists - Clyde Stubblefield, Public Enemy - and specific musical techniques like analog and digital scratching or famous sampling afterlife of "Funky Drummer." Second, it reframes the history of sampling as an artform popularized by black American musicians, which isn't news to anyone who loves music but might be to the people who read Lawrence Lessig or only jumped into the legal debates about appropriation through Illegal Art and/or after Girl Talk. Girl Talk is great party music, but the appropriation of a great sample into a new context has deeper meaning for listeners and creators alike, as was excellently discussed afterwards by my new friend Karl Vesely, who is writing the first Czech language book on the popular music of the Black Altantic (yes!). Then there's the real stories of the chilling effect of copyright law on creativity - De La Soul talking about how label execs sat with them and outlined what artists were in litigation over samples and therefore were offlimits for sampling.
The film is definitely not for those uninitiated in either hip hop or copyright issues, but since Good Copy, Bad Copy and Remix have been around this film builds on, clarifies, and illustrates in a great way that is potentially more useful for those interested in the musical implications of copyright law. Plus, it has the best soundtrack. Win.
So since I've been in Prague I've been watching my friend Keith put together interviews and research material for his Punk In Africa film, and I've gotten hooked on the history, the music, and the spirit of the project myself. Today's next step was a morning meeting with Wild Youth's guitarist Michael Fleck, who flew from the UK to Prague for an afternoon filming session and is staying at my house, the new Punk In Africa Hotel.
He showed up with a small purple suitcase and an acoustic hardcase, all smiles and full of stories about then and now. Seems that research for Keith's film has gotten all the old punkers networking through Facebook, and many are getting together remasters of old work, thinking about meeting up, playing shows, or at least trading new stuff they've worked on. We talked about Wild Youth's secret weapon - their gonzo hardhitting drummer - which seperated their rudimentary punk and made it into something special, something blistering. Check "So Messed UP" here, and also give a listen to "What About Me," that classic droll Richman delivery for the classic punk kill yr idols frame.
I'll be at the shoot tomorrow, catching the details of how Fleck, who was born in C-S of all places, ended up in South Africa and how he got into the '70s Durban punk scene, along with the small mass of Czech punks who are now actively interested in the film and the goings on of Keith.
Honestly, I always feel like I could give a shit about ANOTHER punk history, especially the tired repackaging of '77 narrative, but I have been amazed by the new versions of the story in the last few years - afro punk, the rise of rock camps, and now Punk In Africa. It's inspiring, especially as I wander around in my own research. There's always a new, better way to tell this story.
In comparison to Dan Deacon, this was the future I wanted to be part of. At first, at one a.m. with the stage boys moving the screens into position it seemed like it might not come off like anything more than another night of bullshit and disappointment. It started so soft, with bells. The first sounds I learned how to make with a computer – simple. I knew these sounds would build into “Lay In A Shimmer” but standing in the center of the crowd, maybe 20 feet from Pantha du Prince it just sounded plain. Kid stuff in a room full of people desperate to either be or not be kids.
I’d been standing with Amanda at the door for nearly an hour waiting for that droll posicore screecher to get away from sound reproduction equipment. We were so angry at the relentless and brutal ugliness of his set. “I’m getting paid a lot of money to make you guys dance” and “I know you people speak English/but there must be some absolute cultural divide preventing you from doing what I want” being two of the more choice statements hurled in the lights-up eternity before he started his boring lo-fi noise dance party. A good idea on paper, the transnational hipster headline bullshit played at maximum volume was, alas, artless and unsubtle. People streamed out. We watched the Vice fashion show in lieu of our own actual pleasure. There was no where to go but the bar or the drum and bass room.
And no one wanted that, it’s freakin 2010. Standing there looking at Weber in his black hoodie I was reminded of the Sunn O))) show I saw in New York, the one David Bryne said sounded him like the “cunt of Mary.” Can you imagine? I just don’t go around sound-dreaming about the vag of Jesus’s mom during shows, but maybe I got it. It’s combination of holy place with pleasure place with earthen place that he was talking about. That’s what Sunn 0))) was like for me that night and that’s what slowly crept into the world for me this evening with Pantha du Prince.
So yeah, “Lay In A Shimmer.” That whole suspension of the drop, the whole tension. The whole floor was a weaving, bobbing mess waiting for something to happen. And in that holding pattern the bass was just sick, like Berlin even. Certainly the best I’ve ever felt in Prague. So pure and clean, absolutely deafening without being too loud. It was a quake you could whisper in. I’ve missed it.
I left to find Craig. He’d gone missing, talking to strangers whose names he never caught but who knew his. Classic Saturday night situation for which I was the rescue. Best four words one can utter: “Come dance with us.” Best one word response. “Yes!”
The blue pin spots crossed on to Weber’s head. His body was swaying along. His laptop’s Apple was Xed out with gaffer tape and the screen shown Black Noise cover art - pictures of autumnal mountains with whiteouts like the image had been through the wash. The bass crept up into real house territory and some glorious fools in front of us started screaming. It’s so easy but still so sweet when a simple sonic addition brings such pleasure to the room.
Somehow the sound got normal, like he started with “Satellite Sniper” and it bummed me and I lost my posse and I wandered out into the lobby. Ran into the art school kids who started telling me about their trips to New York City and how Pantha du Prince was boooorrriinggg them. I put myself on a bit of autopilot, afraid for a second that the crush of sound, the bit of vodka, and the late hour had caught up with me and I was too disoriented to find my friends and might be trapped in this situation indefinitely. Blinded by the lights, etc. Can I keep up this banter until I get brave enough to go back in alone? Luckily I didn’t have to answer my own question. They decided to go back in, and in a little real world serendipity we wandered right back into my crowd. Who were dancing madly.
The sound hadn’t gotten better but I was more thankful to be back in it. The bass, the silly transcendent cheesy snyths like Depeche Mode played at 1/20 speed and nutters all around spinning at their own frequency, following little bits of the different elements of the mix with their heads, arms, hands, torsos, legs. It was just glorious. Time stopped, the elements added and subtracted were more like layers of a painting than moments in time and when it was done, 2 a.m. on the dot, I was reconfirmed.
The cups on the floor, the wavecrash of voice chatter, the disorienting lights. It was like my first time at Twilo or the Tunnel some decade ago. Those big rooms with the perfect sound, waiting for the DJ to drop something so sick it can’t be denied. Mutant basslines filling up all the space in the room, razor clicks and hilariously dubbed out snares, all of it raising the pressure in the ears, on and in the body. Only here it was a show, not a DJ night, and this between sets quickly felt more like the end of an evening. 2 a.m. The place was getting desperate anyway.