Fighter X: Youngish probably-hipster dudes in tight pants and floppy hair shoveling out manic, skittering Game Boy duels. Even if they sometimes came across as a sort of sleazy fun-loving Europop compared to their fellow performers (hey, there’s a place for that stuff too), the lengthy continuous set was very impressive, as was their tendency to abandon tending to the devices and instead jump around the stage or go crowd surfing, especially given that they have such small memory banks. The Game Boys, I mean.
There’s my ballot, of course, and Glenn McDonald’s usual statistical analysis (he was quite fittingly tapped by the Voice to run the official numbers this year), but also this time a short bit in the commentary portion of the program.
As a displaced second-generation, it warmed my heart a bit to see legendary Indian film composer A.R. Rahman finally get his due in the States thanks to the Slumdog Millionaire soundtrack, the ensuing performance during the Grammy Awards broadcast, and, of course, that crucial assist from M.I.A.’s tidy soundbite referring to him as “the Indian Timbaland.” It’s a shame, however, that it took six years to come up with a suitable follow-up to Jay-Z championing Panjabi MC. Come on, second-most-populous country in the world, get your act together.
(Also not me, but getting warmer, I suppose.)
Since the Petey Pablo song is a good six years old at this point and “Jai Ho” as sung by the Pussycat Dolls makes me die a little inside with each masochistic tick of the iTunes play count (yes, I downloaded it, shut up), I’ll instead point you here to “Mann Chandre” from his decent (if ultimately not quite ballot-worthy) ’09 album Connections. I’m not so sure about the Voice’s section heading, which is “Yes, I ‘Actually’ Like It: More music to love, loathe, fear, and tragically fail to avoid,” but I’ll guess I’ll just assume the first option there unless explicitly told otherwise.
Now, I’ve voted before, but this time my guiding logic was a lot more interesting (a relative term there, I realize).
First, the unranked singles portion. I was far better equipped to handle that part this year, in large part because I’ve been closely following former Stylus Magazine writer Will Swygart‘s awesome new Singles Jukebox blog, in which he aggregates the scores and witty blurbs about current pop singles from his own fairly killer lineup of music critics; it’s a bit like a daily P+J pill, in a way. The Jukebox first crossed my desk around the time they skewered Parachute, a pop-rock band based in Charlottesville which I wrote about on several occasions for The Hook; it was both brutal and captivating, and I’ve been addicted ever since. The caveat here — and it’s a big one — is that I didn’t manage to get around to sifting through Pitchfork’s 2009 best-of yet. It’s been compiled into a single handy download, available via your favorite troublemaking website. Say what you must about other aspects of their editorial coverage — there’s some baggage there, at least — but I really can’t argue with the taste; 2007 and 2008 (also available via the same) were superb. (I will also point out, however, that somehow my stated preference for the wonderful remix of Das Racist’s otherwise grating snack food devotional chant “Combination Pizza Hut And Taco Bell” was not preserved, and the votes for both were apparently collapsed when tallied.)
The album portion will require a bit more explanation.
See, while I am a voracious listener and obsessive hoarder, for the most part I am quite over the album as an arbitrary grouping construct for listening; Smart Playlists > iTunes Genius > Shuffle, and so forth; no big surprises there, I’m sure. But in addition, I still tend to listen more as a fan and a musician rather than as a critic, which means that I’m looking for things I can love and/or learn from (ideally both) rather than pontificate on or publish about. Come to think of it, even when I’m wearing the critic’s hat, I’d say it’s of far more value in the long run to spend my energy making friends with established works of far-reaching cultural relevance than running around trying to obsessively catalogue everything that’s new and undocumented. More bluntly, and obviously: I care more about what it sounds like than when it was released. However, I write in various forms for what can only sensibly be considered the mainstream music press, which overwhelmingly tends toward discussing new albums. Thus, I have a little conflict on my hands.
I should therefore be considered fairly incompetent with this sort of thing, grand statements about evaluating the best albums of the year and so on, hence my even-steven ten-point ratings across the entire group. Honestly, it all just amounts to a mad dash every November or so to find ten that I’m not horribly embarrassed to throw my support behind. (I realize there’s plenty of amazing stuff being made, though, so that’s less a cynical humbug in which I hate all contemporary music and more like an admission that I’m not particularly inclined to look for it in my increasingly-rare elective listenings when there’s still so much Mingus or whatever which I haven’t learned yet.)
Anyway, last year I barely made it to the tenth. This year, I found nine. This brings us to another substantial disconnect between my head and my writings, and then to what just might be the strangest album represented in the poll this year.
Thanks to other facets of my life (I have them, I swear), I have a substantial amount of training in things like music theory, arrangement, audio engineering, and production technology, and though they all certainly inform my evaluations when I’m writing critically, they’re fairly difficult subjects to address directly unless I’m dealing with a specialty publication like Tape Op, Create Digital Music, or Indaba (although I did recently get away with dropping some theory on Lady Gaga for PopMatters). So given the opportunity, and finding myself in a bind just hours away from the submission deadline, I decided to give slot #10 over to my hyper-technical side.
I’ve been doing a lot of web development in PHP lately, specifically with the “object oriented” paradigm, in which the functionality is captured in small modular chunks and recalled asymmetrically instead of simply run from the beginning of the script through to the end. That logic is just a way of organizing concepts, though, and has also been used to great effect in several audio-specific programming platforms that I’m really interested in learning as a way of taking my interest in controlling audio technology to its logical extreme. They essentially let you sculpt sounds using the most low-level fundamental elements your computer can possibly control — oscillation frequencies controlled by mathematics controlled by data flow structures, and so on. Max/MSP and PureData are the most popular graphical options among these, but I’ve lately developed a particular interest in a similar textual platform called SuperCollider, mostly due to its elegant program infrastructure and also its ability to export to Apple’s industry-standard Audio Unit plug-in format, which allows finished projects to be run as fully-integrated elements of more common audio workstations like Ableton Live or Apple’s own Logic and GarageBand.
It’s quite incredible. It runs on code and equations, like so:
And I find putzing around inside quite fascinating even though I don’t really know how to drive it yet. It even shares vague syntactical similarities with PHP.
So then a funny thing happened earlier this year among SuperCollider users: presumably as equal parts a show of coding virtuosity and a means of much-needed social interaction, the finest among them started sharing their sound creation codes using Twitter, which obviously meant that a complete idea had to be executed in under 140 characters (in some cases even leaving room for the #supercollider hashtag, which is of course all the more impressive). Some of them are quite captivating, all things considered. Immediately after submitting my ballot, I fully intended to write my own 140-character tidbit by the time the issue came out, but damn, this shit is hard! Not quite there yet, unfortunately. So instead…
(As far as I can tell, the code is also the title of the piece, which is either cute or infuriating, depending.)
A sort of best-of was promptly curated by UK tweako-tune mag The Wire for digital release (aka “woohoo we made a zip file!”) as SC140. I am sure you’ll be shocked to learn that I’m the only guy who voted for it.
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.)
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.
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.)
Some activity of note on various blogs other than this one:
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.
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.
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!
That aside, it didn’t go as well as you might think.
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.
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.
I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the last few albums from My Brightest Diamond, but much to my surprise, last month’s show at (Le) Poisson Rouge left me lukewarm. (To be fair, I had spent the whole day at Santacon, which is pretty hard to top.)
With the strings already accounted for, who exactly is going to pick up the slack when you nix the distorted guitars or the drums? Because it sure isn’t the voice leading. This is not to say that we need faithful reproductions—an unexpected harmonic departure in the middle of “Inside A Boy” is angular, jarring, and by far most interesting interjection of the set, and when the strings swell up underneath and take over at the end, it’s absolutely sublime. I’m all for artistic growth and boldly traveling into new musical territory, but unfortunately these adaptations are a little too haphazard—or maybe just understaffed—and Worden’s magic has been lost in translation. Maybe it’s just that her strength is as a recording artist, with all the trappings and rhinestones and cheese sauces, and not as a barebones songwriter.
You don’t have to take my word for it, though: the show was filmed in its entirety by a fan and has been posted online.
At PopMatters, a review of Blipfest 2008, the largest chiptune show of the year.
I’ve fiddled with the programming enough to know that this stuff doesn’t come easily. There’s a certain sameness to a lot of it on the surface—all lo-fi electronic music in 4/4 with house-derived “drum” sequences which rely on filtered white noise—but after taking in a couple of sets, the differences between the artists become more readily apparent. Bucket-headed spaz-dancer Sulumi’s restless melodies were a fantastic highlight, skipping across the room like so many chips of shale across a Mario 2-2 swimming level, but geek-chic Asian chick Bubblyfish had the most depth, with an enthralling opener which expertly transitioned from jovial Katamari plinks to ominous Metroid gloom over the course of ten minutes.
PopMatters has published my complaints again, this time about the new album from jazz drummer Steve Reid and techno tinkerer Kieran Hebden.
Reid’s creative phrasing and pulse games are, as always, a fascinating contrast to the rigid rhythmic grids typical of Four Tet constructions, but on NYC the pair doesn’t seem to find a happy middle ground anywhere. With Reid on tap, ready to dive in headfirst with limbs flailing and very few responsibilities, you almost have to wonder whether Hebden just found himself in over his head; the album may have been considerably more focused if Hebden had sampled Reid’s performances and woven them in as loops. But that would defeat the whole point of the project, now wouldn’t it?
Probably, but it would have also put its crucial flaw to bed. A number of Hebden’s most compelling pieces as Four Tet start with the thumping of a lone bass drum or the cautious clicking of a hi-hat sample, only building to the sort of Taurined-out pitter-patter-slosh of something like “Sun Drums and Soil” after a fairly lengthy expository period. Here, largely due to Reid’s presence—specifically, his sense of texture and Hebden’s apparent competitive desire to goad his MacBook into keeping pace from the get-go—the joy of hearing the motifs evolve is gone.
I hit the streets for CMJ with several other PopMatters writers, and we all threw up some posts every night onto the Notes From The Road blog. Mine included Vivian Girls, Dexter Romweber, Giveamanakick (pictured above, as they were the best of the bunch), Annuals, Minus The Bear, and Dragons Of Zynth.
The looming election and the recent economic collapse were weighing heavy on my mind when I tried to cover an admittedly political outing by Nickel Creek mandolin player Chris Thile and pianist Brad Mehldau, and the PopMatters editors decided to save the results for publication on election day.
The stiff entry fee might overshoot by quite a bit, but the leftovers will buy you karma: Proceeds go to the Obama campaign—after all, outspending the Republicans by a factor of three has to come from somewhere. So here we are, just a few blocks from where Lehman Brothers officially launched the downfall of Western Civilization a few weeks ago, trying to rally the elites who still have hearts. The room is well under capacity, though, which is troublesome both politically and culturally.
Squarepusher‘s compositional philosophies have always fascinated me, so I jumped at the chance to use them as a lens into his latest album.
Tom Jenkinson announced his new album, “Just a Souvenir,” with a long recount of a dream and/or acid trip in which he watched a seemingly conventional rock band pound out extraordinary otherworldly sounds. As a result, it’s hard not to consider a thematic connection of sorts to 1998’s thoroughly confused “Music Is Rotted One Note,” in which Jenkinson played a one-man band wearing as many jazz-fusion hats as he could find. “Rotted” was considerably more aggressive with its mission statement—samplers and drum machines were banished entirely—but the concept of the music originating with blobs of meat is still a common thread. For a guy who writes essays called “Collaborating with Machines”, this is not a trivial detail.