I wrote what I believe is the The Awl’s first technical white paper.
My goal here was ostensibly to put together an essay for the Village Voice about the new Aphex Twin album, but it’s actually more about the absence of the new Aphex Twin album, and how I got highly attached to an amazing leaked track in the interim.
Not only has James never released another album like Selected Ambient Works 85-92 — worse yet, these days he just doesn’t really release albums at all. It’s been 22 years since that debut, and for more than half that time he has existed only as a beloved ghost. The last thing he released before disappearing was 2001′s Drukqs — twisted, knotty, and in places totally incomprehensible. Frankly, it has proven exhausting to be a fan of a musician who was first brilliant, and then difficult, and finally just totally absent.
I wrote a very opinionated post for Wired about Apple’s recent decision to force downloads of the new U2 album on all iTunes users.
There’s a very simple reason why this is unprecedented, and that is because it doesn’t make any sense. Never before has such a major technology company also operated as publicist for a creative artist. The whole endeavor yearns desperately to be a landmark new innovation for the music industry, perhaps something along the lines of Radiohead’s legitimately earth-moving In Rainbows, which was self-released with variable pricing in 2007 and remains the gold standard against which music industry innovation is measured. But this is not In Rainbows, and as such should instead be remembered primarily as a monumental blunder by the tech industry.
Update: At 1:30pm today I’m going to be a guest on CHQR AM 770 in Calgary to discuss this fiasco; listen here.
Chrome’s recent move to Blink undercuts the primary olive branch it promised to Web developers upon Chrome’s release in 2008; those developers now need to test their Web sites in an additional rendering engine. But there is an argument in favor of the change: WebKit is now very widely used, especially in mobile devices, in much the same way that Internet Explorer 6 dominated the market and brought a near-halt to real innovation in the look and feel of the Web a decade ago.
Even fans of the xx would have to concede that there’s a strict formula in play in their music — sparse percussion, simple chord progressions implied more than stated, and most importantly the hypersexual whispered interplay between dueling vocalists. “Børn Af Natten” proceeds along at a tempo that’s just a hair too fast for the xx, and this has the effect of tempering the depressing sinking feeling that emerges from the spaces between the beats.
Who’s up for a little time travel? I’ve been a little under the weather so this time we dig into the archives for my my busker recording project with the Village Voice — I recorded Monica Bethelwood and Juliet Biemiller ages ago but the segment never ran, and I’ve always felt guilty about letting such an excellent song get buried by our hassles on the editorial end.
Bethelwood told me she’d just returned from California, and given the hobo-folk vibe I was quite content to just assume that she hitched a ride on a rusty freight train. (One of her songs was called “Hubba Hubba Hobo,” actually.) She has since set up shop in North Carolina; “I moved to Asheville with 20 dollars in my pocket,” she told me recently, so I like to think she now travels between her gigs doing tarot card readings riding atop a rickety old mule.
The dual release format makes a lot of sense precisely because the composition almost seems to have been built from the ground up for this express purpose — each version focuses on one part of the song, at the expense of the rest. Which is not to say anybody’s any better off as a result — the median age of the band members is a crisp 21 years, and consequently the rock version sounds like a hazy reflection of rock as understood by someone who grew up in the age of Shinedown: dramatic pauses, fluttering echoes and filters, doubletracking everything to death even when the riffs don’t actually want to go anywhere useful.
The latest round of my busker field recording project Cast In Concrete features Scottish Octopus, a duo that combines bagpipes and drums.
Bagpipes are a deceptively powerful instrument, which you may not realize until you’ve heard them from a few feet away and/or had them overload your mics, but that also means they’re a fine counterweight for a drum kit. Combining them, at least in the manner these two do, also creates a strangely compelling time travel sensation, because although the pipes are well outside the comfort zone for most of the people who are going to end up reading this, a drummer like Morales can propel them along into something that could pass for modern, at least enough to survive outside period pieces and dramatized police funerals on Law & Order.
New York’s transit system has been eviscerated by Hurricane Sandy and none of the subways are running in a sensible fashion, which is precisely why I made a point of meeting up with the wonderful singer and cellist Lenna Pierce for an underground recording session. This one is a bit weirder than usual.
That voice, man. It’s like something echoing out from history itself, like it should be trained on weighty Celtic spirituals instead of the inconsequential love songs that typically concern us mortals. The cello all but disappears here, buried unceremoniously by the futility of trying to keep up.
On a related note, I’m also thrilled to have finally snuck in a silly little contribution at The Awl, which for my money is the greatest editorial property on the internet at the moment. Hopefully next time I’ll graduate from barebones rankings of the downed subway lines for everyone to argue about into doing some actual writing.
New York’s annual CMJ music festival is happening again this week. I’ve written about it before via short reviews of the litany of concerts held across the city, but this time I wanted to focus on the awesome daytime programming hosted at NYU before the shows commence each evening. So, for the Village Voice, a series of mock flow charts which help* you pick the right discussion panels to attend (* = they do not actually help).
A few interesting footnotes here:
First, we considered putting the charts together as giant image files, which is how this sort of thing is usually done, but eventually I successfully pitched the idea of building the charts right on the web page. This makes for a much more pleasant user experience, since traversing the decision tree is just like scrolling through an article without any cropping or resizing weirdness, and the content can be highlighted and copied just like any other text. It also reconfigures itself much more cooperatively for viewing on mobile devices than a static image file would.
In a way, it’s pretty simple — essentially, we just created a whole bunch of divs and applied tons of inline CSS to them, most notably setting the background images and the padding to create the illusion of interconnected lines and arrows flowing between them. This is generally frowned upon as a web design practice, but for a single-use scenario like this it actually works quite nicely, because I didn’t have to add any external stylesheet files to the CMS and it’ll remain remarkably stable as the Voice’s site evolves in the future.
But man, that’s a lot of inline CSS! For example, generating single box to put a question in requires all these rules (many of which are duplicated because they get split across a parent and child div):
width: 500px; min-height: 150px; padding-top: 70px; background:url(“6.png”) no-repeat center top; background-color: #F9FFB2; padding: 20px; border: 1px solid #333399; text-align:center; margin: 0 50px 0 50px; font-style: italic;
Worse yet, since it’s all stored in an inline attribute, this would need to be repeated in full every time you want to generate a box of that type. And if you later need to change something — say, the images aren’t lining up quite right, or you need more vertical space for text — you’d have to go back and manually fix every instance. So in order to make this easier, I wrote a little set of scripts in PHP which dynamically applied the CSS while looping through the content I wrote for the boxes. I’ve done a fair amount of both writing and coding over the past few years, but it was really neat to finally have a project in which both were so tightly woven together.
Second, please also note the awesome visual design work by my friend John Bylander, who first brought the rough demo charts I sent him to life with subtle color and typography tweaks, and then cobbled together image files late into the night.
And finally, a nod to my sources of inspiration for this: former Village Voice music editor Rob Harvilla, who back in 2007 wrote about the rapper Mims using diagrams to thunderous acclaim, and then in 2010 covered the CMJ panels with a series of snarky comments not unlike my own Q&A content here. And then there’s also the extensive timeline of future events from sci-fi movies as compiled by the Awl, where a close examination of the markup helped me figure out how best to approach the CSS here.
See you next year, I hope.
Lately I’ve been lax about posting all the individual installments of my Village Voice column, in which I roam around New York City with a portable recording setup trying to turn performances by buskers and street musicians into tangible MP3s for music fans. This should catch you up:
I’m starting up a new recurring feature for Spin Magazine called It’s No. 1 Somewhere, in which we’ll look at pop songs which are doing well on the foreign charts but wholly ignored in the United States. The first installment ran earlier today — it’s about Ukrainian dance-pop singer Svetlana Loboda and the ways in which she seems to logically follow from Lady Gaga and Shakira — but since we just sort of hit the ground running with it, I’m thinking perhaps I should use this space to provide a little introduction or explanation. Or a mission statement, even?
“World music,” though in a way it feels like a term so broad as to be useless, has gradually become actually quite restrictive, since it’s mostly attached to traditional folkish forms that can sell out Carnegie Hall once a year but aren’t really getting any attention at the clubs and radio stations back at home. I mean, I absolutely adore Tinariwen, but they’re also a prime example of how the marketing of the world music genre can preclude mainstream reception for a great band even as it builds a focused and enthusiastic audience out of other people. Truth is, in many cases what’s actually bumping from the car stereos elsewhere is not aesthetically all that different from what we listen to here, except that there might be a language barrier. But so what? It’s not like we’re listening to Ke$ha for her lyrical insights.
This then means that there’s an extremely accessible pop middle ground between those two worlds that’s being largely ignored simply because western audiences are too busy sorting through their own overabundance of musicians and media files. I think we can use chart performance in other parts of the world as a sort of qualifier, a red flag indicating that we should take a break from all this navel gazing — that is, anything that 80% of Nigerian teenagers love should at least briefly register as a blip for us over here. We’re hoping to help connect foreign artists that are poppy enough to immediately feel accessible and familiar to the receptive audiences who won’t mind filing them right between Adele and Beyoncé. Both these groups are already out there, but they’re having trouble finding each other.
At the end of 2011, UCLA doctoral student Patrick Adler compiled a geographic distribution of the bands represented in Pitchfork’s “Best Songs Of The Year” list. Even though I really enjoyed many of those tunes, his terrifying histogram speaks for itself.
This is bullshit, and I want to help fix it. Won’t you join me?
Hey, you guys are already reading The Billfold, right? That’s the new blog about financial matters brought to you by the folks behind The Awl — essentially, interesting writing about money from people who mostly don’t have any. My new piece there is mostly numbers, though, since I’ve just vaguely quantified how much I’ve paid for liquor over the years.
This works out to just under $0.98 for each of 77 shots at 1.5oz/45mL, although I rounded down because you might accidentally spill some of it after having a few rounds. Before crunching the numbers I’d always thought of drinking at home as an endeavor of negligible cost, but at a buck a shot I guess that’s not really true—especially if you’re drinking along with friends, which is really how you should be approaching it whenever possible.
I attended a variety show at which noted cartoon voice actor H. Jon Benjamin performed, sort of, as the musical guest.
Since the brilliant FX spy cartoon Archer might be intended as a vicious Aqua Teening of intelligence agencies and our decade of national security hysteria, you have to wonder whether lead voice actor H. Jon Benjamin may have been trying to do the same to overly serious electronic music when he took the stage last night as the musical guest for Elna Baker and Kevin Townley’s popular variety show The Talent Show. Or maybe he’d giggle a bit at the idea of his goofy show spawning such a pretentious opening line—and wouldn’t that be glorious, with his fantastic baritone.
My NYC field recording project Cast In Concrete found a kindred spirit in Mark Johnson of Playing For Change, who travels the world facilitating collaborations between otherwise disconnected buskers and street musicians. He was kind enough to share with me some of the insights he has picked up over the years.
“It occurred to me that the best music I ever heard in my life was on the way to the studio, not in the studio. And what New York City can teach you is that the best music and great art, it’s just everywhere. People always say to me, ‘How do you find all these musicians?’ And the truth is, by showing up. Great music is everywhere, so those people that show up are the ones that get to find it.”
Moments before the clock runs out on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, here’s an introspective and retrospective piece for the Voice about one of my coping devices at the time. If you like it, you might also proceed on to the companion interview with a somewhat confused rock star.
The most violent guitars turn up on a song about suppressing the urge to retaliate and trusting in cosmic retribution. This, of course, was not the way the 9/11 aftermath played out.
I enjoyed the Bush reunion show way more than I thought I would.
My second concert ever was Bush’s tour in support of Sixteen Stone. (I can’t bring myself to tell you the first.) This necessitated an extra ticket for a friend’s parent, who drove a van full of kids up to the arena an hour away while we giggled in the back about girls and whatever, and then sat up in the stands while we went down to the floor to explore our first-ever mosh pit. We promptly discovered crowdsurfing. “The rest of you guys, sure — but I swear, every time I looked down, Vijith was floating across the crowd,” said Jefferson’s dad after the show. As an awkward 14-year-old who couldn’t play any sports and took forever to work up the guts to admit to anybody at school that I was trying to learn to play the guitar, that’s as proud as my moments got. Bowery Ballroom in 2011, though? Totally different story — I don’t know exactly what I was expecting, but it was upsetting to realize as soon as I entered that it looked and smelled like a room full of Shinedown fans (hair gel, beer, sweat, shame).
An exciting new project! For my new Village Voice column Cast In Concrete, I wander around NYC recording buskers and street performers, then write about them and post the MP3s on the Sound Of The City blog. Here’s the first installment, wherein I happen across the wonderful Sistine Criminals in Washington Square Park.
I’m fantastically excited about my latest essay for the Village Voice (and tickled that they started the “appreciations” tag just for this piece). It can be hard to cut through the torrential weirdness of the British experimental electronic duo Autechre, so they often get filed away as music to academically respect rather than passionately adore. Here, I defend them as a band that’s well worth your emotional investment, filtered through the autobiographical story of my own decision to move to New York City.
By the time Quaristice came around in 2008, just a few months before my big move, almost all the sensible time signatures had been subverted by experimental ambition, and sure, there was probably also a little ego in there too. “Perlence” was an especially difficult track–just two minutes and change, but I still can’t figure out how to count its pulses, and when the inevitable remix came, its running time had been expanded to a full 58 minutes. Even the song titles grew stranger: from “Flutter,” “Chatter,” “Eggshell” and “Further” to “fwzE,” “ThePlclCpC,” and “90101-51-6.” It’s mostly from these obnoxiously antisocial shenanigans that we get the common but misguided notion that if Autechre’s music displays any beauty at all, it comes in a sterile and mechanical form, like a sculpture built from gears or animations made with a glitching graphics card.