Tag: music writing
In a manner of speaking, The Awl has picked up the remnants of my erstwhile Spin column about foreign language pop songs. For the next few months, I’ll be covering the phenomenon of the “song of the summer,” but specifically excluding anything with English lyrics.
The Japanese songwriter’s new single is so relentlessly upbeat and optimistic that it almost reads as 2015’s response to Pharrell’s “Happy,” but it’s also somehow simultaneously weirder than anything currently happening in mainstream American pop. There are the unexpected production flourishes derived from disco, of course – shades of Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You,” or perhaps at least the lightweight adaptation of it he might have performed during a guest appearance on Sesame Street thirty years or so ago.
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 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).
Update: these broke with the latest site relaunch :(
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.
It’s time once again for the Blip Festival, about which I have written far too many times already, so this year I took a step back and used it as a way to more generally discuss the ongoing conversion of music into a heavily technical endeavor.
When his predecessor first took office, even basic familiarity with a Web browser was considered the exclusive domain of geeks, but Mayor Bloomberg kicked off his 2012 with a tweet resolving to learn programming. Facebook built an empire from thumbs-up clicks, as evidenced by last week’s IPO. The march toward the future might be relentless and inescapable, but sometimes it’s still easy to overlook the largest strides. Music is likewise an increasingly technical game, from creation to promotion to distribution. Which brings us to this weekend’s Blip Festival, the annual celebration of retro video games and one of New York’s geekiest music events.
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.”
Just in time for Halloween, here’s a roundup for eMusic about some of my favorite murder ballads.
Nick Cave and Kylie Minogue – Where The Wild Roses Grow
“Why do they keep calling me the wild rose?” she keeps asking. “My name is Elisa.” You know the drill — boy meets girl, boy kills girl, boy plants rose between girl’s teeth. But what makes this so fascinating are the dueling accounts whereby both killer and victim describe in parallel each of the three days leading up to the murder. He says, “I kissed her.” She says, “He hit me with a rock.”
Unfortunately I couldn’t include it in the roundup, but this article idea came to me while I was listening to “Old Judson,” a fantastic song by Charlottesville songwriter Peyton Tochterman‘s short-lived mid-00’s bluegrass trio Fair Weather Bums, in which peppery mandolin runs and subtle vocal harmonies populate a small world of places and characters only to slowly darken them on the way to the big reveal at the end. I really want more people to hear this.
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.
Well, here I am writing about chiptune music again, which must mean it’s time for the Blip Festival, NYC’s annual video game music bonanza. This time I previewed the lineup with a roundup of the specific game systems and the artists that use them.
Nanoloop 2 for the Game Boy Micro somehow packs unbelievably sophisticated filters and oscillators for subtractive synthesis into a gorgeous minimalist greyscale grid, which makes for one of the most soothing and meditative music composition spaces I’ve yet seen on any platform, bigger dogs like Pro Tools very much included. Nanoloop might actually be the best way for non-chiptune musicians to dip their toes into this world–you can’t very well duct-tape a proper keyboard to your acoustic guitar, now can you?
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.