Archive: 2009

Album of the Decade: “Kid A”

Wednesday, December 23rd, 2009

kid a

From the Department of Obvious Things: there were other contenders here, but I came on fairly late for The L Magazine‘s “albums of the decade” article series and was a little shocked that nobody had already picked it, so I took the not even remotely controversial position that it was Radiohead’s Kid A.

Radiohead, having long cultivated and complained about and composed around these nebulous fears about our souls being liposuctioned out from beneath us — “Heat the pins and stab them in/You have turned me into this/Just wish that it was bullet proof,” and so on — had finally decided that since nobody was quite getting the message, they needed instead to embody it, themselves becoming something too challenging to be ignored, too terrifying not to at least be remembered, whether by way of a temple or a crater. So if you could find an emotion in the throbbing cryogenic Jell-O of “Treefingers,” maybe there was still a heart in there somewhere (by which I’m not really sure whether I mean in you or in the Jell-O, but either way).
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See also:
Ys by Joanna Newsom
The College Dropout by Kanye West
Silent Shout by The Knife
Funeral by The Arcade Fire
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot by Wilco
The Con by Tegan and Sara

eMusic end-of-decade “Yearbook”

Thursday, November 26th, 2009

yearbook

I’m part of a really cool Yearbook project over at eMusic — they asked ten writers to submit essays about musical trends during one year from the last decade in an attempt to sum it all up. We were basically given carte blanche with regard to possible angles and approaches, so what resulted is an intriguingly varied set of reflections on and refractions of the last ten years, both musical and otherwise.

For example, my piece zeroes in on retro R&B and soul label Daptone Records, which put out some of its strongest in-house records thus far in 2007 while simultaneously helping coax out chart-topping releases from Amy Winehouse and Jay-Z. (This was actually the second time I’ve had a chance to shoot the breeze with Daptone head Gabe Roth, the first being the technically-oriented interview [PDF] I did for Tape Op that year inquiring about his production techniques.)

The other essays are all very much worth your time too, though. I suppose I’ve already done quite enough gushing over eMusic’s editorial crew, but it bears repeating briefly here — these are all writers whose work I’ve been following for years, so I’m delighted to have made the shortlist for this.

Archaeopterock and roll

Tuesday, November 17th, 2009

archaeopteryx

Still stuck on the prehistoric animals: my recent profile of indie-pop duo Dinosaur Feathers in the Village Voice works in a quick homage to an old forgotten storybook, one of my childhood favorites, which narrated a day in the life of the highly unusual dino-bird Archaeopteryx. (This here would be the opening illustration.)

“I wanted to create something that seemed sort of fantastical, but when you broke it down into its elements, was still very organic,” explains [frontman Greg] Sullo, who immediately thereafter describes “taking a look back at those old ’50s and ’60s songs and reimagining them with modern technology that the Beatles and Os Mutantes didn’t have.” Either way, Dinosaur Feathers are evolving nicely—from this summer’s free-download Early Morning Risers EP to the full-length scheduled for March—but Sullo still worries about his favorite paleontological theory. “It’ll be interesting to see where that information goes in 20 years,” he says. “I wonder how much of it is getting into literature and textbooks and the sort of books you’d have as a kid. Maybe we can do our part to help.” Not necessary, guys: It’s already out there…
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Acoustic Asobi

Tuesday, November 10th, 2009

asobi rewolf

My review of Asobi Seksu‘s new unplugged album Rewolf went up at eMusic today.

With the touring lineup left behind, core members Yuki Chikudate and James Hanna have a lot more canvas across which to paint their surrealist watercolor keyboard washes and twinkling, fingerpicked guitars which, now entirely buzz-free, recall in equal parts Joni Mitchell and Vashti Bunyan. “New Years,” no longer anchored by the drums and arguably one of the only songs here that doesn’t definitively trump the original full-band version, instead just drifts off on a hazy cloud of whimsy that starts making funny impressionistic shapes by the time it gets to “Urusai Tori.”
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Dinosaur-Elephant

Friday, October 30th, 2009

mastodon

I just interviewed Brann Dailor, drummer for Atlanta metal quartet Mastodon, for New York Magazine‘s pop culture blog.

Why all the thematic complexity?
It allows us to go to a bunch of different places artistically; there’s just more to experience. Putting out a record without any of that stuff would be short-sighted, like you didn’t put everything you had into it. With each album you get to try it again and get it more cohesive and more thought-out and more psychedelic.
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Audio dork checkup

Friday, October 9th, 2009

das-racist

Some cool recent pieces:

At the Indaba blog, I jovially report on the tremendous recent drop in price of Pro Tools and consider how emerging online functionality could shape audio production software in the near future.

For Tape Op, I complain about Simon Cowell some more and then ponder McNugget rappers Das Racist and — wait for it — the implications for audio professionals of the remarkable remix of “Combination Pizza Hut And Taco Bell”.

In related news, I’ll be hanging out with the Tape Op guys at stand #849 at the AES convention in Manhattan today.

Nine Inch Nails (the end!!)

Thursday, October 1st, 2009

trent-reznor

This is a recent favorite, both in terms of concerts I’ve seen and reviews I’ve written: PopMatters got me into one of the astoundingly small venues at which Trent Reznor decided to stop while taking Nine Inch Nails on its farewell tour.

Apologies in advance if this will make for a lousy epitaph limerick or whatever, but it seems totally obvious and coherent that Nine Inch Nails should close up shop, and that it should be a really big deal, if only because Trent has been on the ol’ Debbie Downer kick for 20 years, always singing about things dying and ending and breaking. I had a hard time figuring out NIN as a teenager, precisely because my foo-fightin’, punkin smashin’ ears always found the singles too openly mopey, but as a nerd, this still is pretty hard to swallow: we’re losing the guy who followed up a career as the defining dark consciousness of 1990s alt-rock by then epitomizing new-millennium forward-thinking—you know, hiding USB drives in bathrooms and all that. Who’s gonna one-up Radiohead now? (I took a little pee break on the way in to the show, by the way, but found only an attendant offering paper towels and Milky Way Minis and squirts of Axe at a buck apiece.)
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Sonic Youth concert *SKRONK* review

Tuesday, September 29th, 2009

sonic-youth

Also recently liberated from the PopMatters vortex: Sonic Youth making a mess uptown, which was actually quite wonderful.

Thurston Moore is about eleven feet tall and looked to be about nineteen, especially in the way he flopped and flailed about with the riffs, a stark contrast to singer/wife Kim Gordon’s stoicism. At one point he even knocked over part of the lighting rig. “You gotta strap that down,” he grumbled to the nearest roadie. Lee Ranaldo, likewise, later spazzed the cable right out of his guitar mid-strum, leaving us with live contact points buzzing against the floor, which I guess didn’t actually sound all that different after all.
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Of Montreal

Wednesday, September 16th, 2009

montreal-mango

Finally free from months of purgatory in the PopMatters editorial chain due to a changing of the guard, my recap of the time they sent me to the Montreal Jazz Festival over the summer. (That would be a preposterously ornate mango I bought from a street vendor.)

Sorry if I tricked you into thinking this would be about Kevin Barnes and his glam-pop band; I did interview him [PDF] for Tape Op a while back, though.

Putting the I in API

Saturday, August 29th, 2009

Starting here, with my review of the 2005 Four Tet album Everything Ecstatic, I’m now writing for eMusic. I find this, to put it mildly, absolutely thrilling.

Four Tet - Everything Ecstatic

One of Kieran Hebden’s more aggressive outings under the Four Tet moniker, Everything Ecstatic veers away from the rustic acoustic guitar loops which, for better or worse, came to represent his earlier work. Here, he replaces those sounds with low-pitched synth rumbles, buried beneath the drum machines like the unrelenting drone of a factory assembly line.
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As an aspiring music writer, I’m always following bylines and tracking other writers as they hop around between publications, which is why I was able to conclude long ago that eMusic’s editorial division is probably the strongest on the internet. I’m still a little woozy at the thought that I’m now part of it myself. Since I know most people don’t obsess over critics the way I do, a quick run-down of some of the other eMusic contributors whose work I’ve admired elsewhere:

It’s really amazing that they’ve been able to collect all these heavyweights under one masthead. Most dizzying of all, though:

Kurt Loder

That’s right, I’m now writing alongside Kurt Loder, whose MTV News briefs were a staple of my after-school vegging-out through the 90′s and present every step of the way — prodding me along, actually — as I grew to become an obsessive music fan.

Here’s the thing, though — eMusic isn’t, as you might think, a music magazine.

Rather, it’s an MP3 download store in the vein of iTunes. Its prices are considerably lower, however, and its catalog is heavily skewed toward indie labels. Particularly in the earliest days of the digital music Wild West, it made for a much more customer-friendly download service than Apple’s. For one thing, the audio encoding algorithms were better, a detail about which I care quite a bit, and there wasn’t any Digital Rights Management, a sort of catch-all term for the various forms of nefarious copy protection horseshit that the major labels once demanded the download stores employ before they’d permit inclusion of their tracks. Your previous purchases could even be downloaded repeatedly if need be — say, in the event of a hard drive crash or laptop theft.

Most striking of all, though, was that rather than $1 a-la-carte purchases, a low monthly subscription fee would get you unlimited access to the catalog, meaning that you could explore new music with reckless abandon. A few people used to complain about the selection, which excluded almost all major label content, but I’d just run searches for phrases like “Best Of” and “Greatest Hits,” and the results would overflow with guys like Hank Williams and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Andrew Lloyd Weber — all hugely influential artists that I felt compelled to teach myself about even if they were off the beaten path. With said path being beaten mostly by dolts like My Chemical Romance, it was hard for me to see this as a problem.

eMusic started enforcing monthly limits on customer downloads in 2004 after independent music became hip again and the site’s popularity increased accordingly, which was unfortunate for the customers, but an understandable move overall because the free-for-all obviously wasn’t financially sustainable if proper royalties were to be paid out to the artists. The landscape has changed a lot since then, but even though iTunes has since dumped DRM and doubled its audio encoder bitrates, and even though eMusic has since increased its prices and embraced major label content, I still think they’re doing something remarkable. If you haven’t already, go check out the page on which my review appears and/or one of the artist pages. You will, in a manner of speaking, see the entire internet at a glance.

I spend a lot of time navigating the intersections between art and technology, and can unequivocally say that eMusic’s site is a case study in awesome. They’re able to pull in data from other places — Wikipedia, YouTube, Flickr, the All Music Guide — by sending queries through cross-site connection protocols called APIs. (That’s “application programming interface,” not “Automated Processes, Inc.,” although I can see where the ambiguity comes from.) For example, if they send an artist’s name as specified by the All Music Guide’s API, they might get his bio in return, and then by doing the same per YouTube’s instructions, they can return all his related video embeds.

This is all then rendered as part of the page content, and the effect of so many API’s working successfully and in synchrony is quite breathtaking, producing an evolving aggregate snapshot of the music you’re inquiring about compiled from sources all over the internet. At the risk of sounding like a raving partisan lunatic, especially given my earlier thoughts regarding their other writers, eMusic’s may be the most technically remarkable, staggeringly efficient music discovery platform I’ve encountered. In fact, though I’ve let my payments lapse on a couple occasions — mostly because the music submitted for the coverage I was writing for The Hook had piled up ominously — I’d usually still log in and browse around even though I couldn’t download anything. eMusic might not be able to offer unlimited downloads the way they once did, but the site makes for a very compelling substitute.

As for the ways in which the art — by which I mean both my writing and the songs I write about — collides with the technology, it’s pretty clear to me that eMusic considers their writers an important part of the equation. Just as the writer in me is thrilled about getting filed away alongside Kurt Loder, the geek in me is excited to watch as the writer gets a seat right next to the Wikipedia API. Welcome to the machine, and so forth.

Goochie redux

Tuesday, August 18th, 2009

A couple quick follow-ups regarding my article about Anamanaguchi in last week’s Village Voice:

First, although I’ve been published by the Voice a few times before, that was the first article which was long enough to get me into the table of contents. It’s crazy to see my own name next to those of Rob Tannenbaum, Tom Robbins, J. Hoberman, and of course Michael Musto.

Village Voice Table of Contents 2009-08-05

Second: predictably, the Anamanaguchi guys and I spent a lot of time discussing synthesizers during the interview, but since that material wasn’t really appropriate for the Voice, I instead sent the tech talk to Create Digital Music, an awesome and remarkably high-traffic niche blog which consistently publishes some of the best coverage of music technology you’ll find anywhere.

Anamanaguchi Nintendo

Vijith: Do you write using a guitar or a Nintendo?
Pete: The music is pretty melodic, so it’s pretty transferable from instrument to instrument. Anything I write on guitar I can put on the Nintendo, and anything I write on the Nintendo I can usually play on guitar – unless it’s way too fast, which it usually is.
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Even speaking strictly as a reader, I really can’t recommend CDM highly enough; publisher Peter Kirn is both a music software programmer and, by day, a professional writer, so the posts are always informed, insightful, and far more literate than most studio trade rags. If your interest in creative technology tends elsewhere, you may want to check out Peter’s other sites instead, including Create Digital Motion, which is aimed at animators and visual artists, and the community-oriented Noisepages.

On Anamanaguchi

Tuesday, August 4th, 2009

Anamanaguchi

In this week’s Village Voice, I profile Anamanaguchi, a four-piece NYU rock band in which piece #5 is a customized NES console which has been programmed to spit out complicated sequences of lo-fi beeps while the other band members play along with the more obvious instruments.

This is not as nerd-niche-y as it may sound. Ratatat turned into one of last year’s more curious indie-rock success stories by conjuring texturally comparable Fire Flower and 1-UP noises via guitars and keyboards; in 2007, Timbaland himself was caught illegitimately sampling an obscure chiptune composer for a Nelly Furtado backing track. Meanwhile, gamers have also grown more musically engaged through titles like Rock Band and Dance Dance Revolution, boosting the career of Guitar Hero–buoyed metalheads DragonForce, suggesting a massive built-in fanbase ripe for the harvesting. If chiptune does finally go mainstream, Anamanaguchi will surely lead the charge.
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Changing pitch

Friday, July 17th, 2009

Imogen Heap

And now, a couple recent items — both related, in a way, to dramatic changes in pitch — for those brave souls willing to follow me out to my geekiest musical fringes.

From the audio engineer: at Tape Op, “In defense, unsuccessfully, of Autotune,” wherein I ultimately give up and instead go on a Google expedition to find the haunting voice from the competing software‘s demo video.

From the academic: at Indaba, a comparison of approaches in pop and jazz for analyzing key changes.

Indabalamadingdong

Friday, June 26th, 2009

Indaba

Some activity of note on various blogs other than this one:

First, at PopMatters, a quick look at NOBOT‘s awesome score for the delightfully depressing animated short Subprime.

Also, for the past couple months, I’ve been contributing some posts to the blog run by Indaba Music. Their conceptually remarkable project pairs a social network for musicians with an online audio editing platform to facilitate collaborative recording over the internet; think Apple GarageBand running as a Java blob in your browser with Facebook Lite spackled on top.

Now, I’m just on board to feed occasional articles to the community of participating musicians, but the the geek in me is fascinated by this intersection between web development and audio production. Music distribution has been radically transformed by communication technology in the past decade, and now we’re starting to see the creative end change as well — Ableton recently started hosting a repository wherein Live users can share their sessions, and scripts and patches for Max, Pd, and other software platforms are now sometimes shared via Subversion, a kind of version-controlled incremental super-FTP which was previously the domain of hardcore programmers. That’s to say nothing of the online libraries and torrents used for distributing the tools, of course, which are plentiful, if sometimes of dubious pedigree.

As you can see from my archive, however, the Indaba posts are not always technical — some of my favorites thus far have discussed the insect response to Led Zeppelin and the social elements of Green Day’s latest album release and even attempted to earn back the $12 I wasted on seeing the goofy Star Trek prequel. That said, I’m also quite happy with the epic treatise on my favorite delay pedals, mostly because I can’t get away with that sort of post anywhere else.

Well, except for the new blog run by the magnificently eccentric DIY music-making mag Tape Op, that is; you can also occasionally find me there in between articles for the print edition, which aren’t made available online. I should probably post more frequently since I’m the guy who talked the editor into launching a blog in the first place, but if anything, I need to spend less time and energy talking about these things and more time using them.

Peter Bjorn and John

Friday, May 1st, 2009

Peter Bjorn and John

I just reviewed last night’s impressive performance by Peter Bjorn and John for the Village Voice.

Even their most immature tunes were updated with startling verve and grandeur. Foremost among these was “Living Thing,” which turned into an energetic cross between “Not Fade Away” and “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” Second place goes to “Object Of My Affections,” if only because of its audience participation segment, which somehow actually had everyone clapping on the correct beats. “Young Folks” didn’t fare nearly as well; ever heard several hundred people try to whistle in unison? “Lay It Down” drew some cheers with unruly lines like “Shut the fuck up, boy/You’re starting to piss me off.” But it wasn’t a fight song, or at least not a serious one — it was a party anthem, the sort of drunken spat between friends that gets worked out the next morning over hangovers and cold Pop-Tarts. Carpe diem, kids; even the worst memories from the best years of your life are worth holding onto.
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A longitudinal study of Kaki King

Wednesday, April 29th, 2009

Kaki King

Several years ago, Kaki King used Everybody Loves You to unveil an idiosyncratic and highly unorthodox guitar technique based in part on two-hand fretboard tapping. That record came out right around the time I started focusing on two-hand tapping in my own music, which is probably why I latched on so quickly, but it certainly didn’t hurt that the tunes were gorgeous in addition to being difficult.

Her next couple releases were pretty frustrating for me, though, because she seemed to be deliberately moving away from the techniques I’d initially found so interesting. I halfheartedly tried to dance around all that when I interviewed her in 2006, but she shared some concerns about becoming one-dimensional which definitely informed my review of last year’s Dreaming Of Revenge, in which I complained that she was apparently more concerned with making her records different than with making them good.

One of her curveballs just hit the strike zone, though. Her new Mexican Teenagers EP, which I just reviewed for PopMatters, is full of excellent and thoroughly assertive heavy rock, all electric guitar and drums and vicious attack formations that I’d never have expected her to even attempt, let alone succeed with. Now I can’t wait to see what’s next.

Rah Rah Tibet

Monday, March 9th, 2009

philip-glass

Tibet House rented out Carnegie Hall for a benefit show where they actually managed to get Vampire Weekend, The National, Antibalas, Angelique Kidjo, Keb’ Mo’, Steve Earle, and Philip Glass on the same stage. And, er, Patti Smith.

The highlight punctuates one of Smith’s bouts of frenzied head-flinging: She hawks up a nice fat loogie, deposits it quite expertly all over Carnegie’s hallowed stage, and then proceeds to apologetically mop it up. What fun!
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That aside, it didn’t go as well as you might think.

Body For Karate

Friday, March 6th, 2009

Body For Karate

My buddy Colin Steers is currently a contestant on Bravo’s Make Me A Supermodel. I first met him because his old high school band, Body For Karate, used to record at the Music Resource Center back when I was a staff member there in 2005. They were remarkable; PopMatters wanted to know more, so I rounded up some MP3s and posted them on the Sound Affects blog.

The Roots on Late Night

Wednesday, March 4th, 2009

The Roots

Some thoughts on the debut of The Roots as Jimmy Fallon’s house band

Kronos Quartet concert review

Wednesday, March 4th, 2009

The Kronos Quartet

At PopMatters, a review of the Carnegie Hall debut of the abstract new piece composed by Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche for the Kronos Quartet.

I did a double take: Kotche, in his most impressive virtuoso moment of the night, was playing melodic mallet lines with one limb and percussive parts on the drum kit with the other three. It made my head hurt.

Although he was compelling as a performer, his composition seemed a bit scatterbrained, perhaps a bit too eager to show all his cards in one go, as though he needed to get all his weirdo ya-ya’s out before heading back out on the road with Wilco. (To be fair, he’s not the only one grappling with that problem—paging Nels Cline.) At times, it seemed to be more about spectacle than sound; we were probably a good twelve minutes in before he so much as hit his snare drum. His art-house technique of choice seemed to change every few bars (the cracking of twigs into a microphone being the most obnoxious phase) and I shuddered at the thought of what he might have planned for the giant gleaming golden gong planted stage left.
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