Thursday, March 24, 2011

LOW - C'mon (Sub Pop)

Low have been making music for eighteen years now. Through stylistic and personnel changes, mainstays Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker have consistently created some of the most stunning and emotionally-resonant music in the American independent music scene. The band is often credited with creating "slowcore," and while they may try to disassociate themselves from that term, their first three records bore all of the hallmarks of the genre; quiet minimalistic compositions played at the speed of molasses. Over time the band's music grew increasingly lush and atmospheric, leading to a three record run - beginning with "Secret Name" and ending with "Trust" - that longtime fans consider their apex. 2005's "The Great Destroyer" found the band shaking things up considerably and forgoing dirges for straight-up indie guitar rock. Admittedly, I was one of the many fans who were initially left bewildered and disappointed with their change in direction. Over time, though, I have come to appreciate "Destroyer" for what it is; a pretty great collection of melodic indie rock that makes for the perfect road trip album, even if I can't sink into the floor while listening to it like I can when listening to "The Curtain Hits The Cast." The band followed up "Destroyer" with the more experimental "Drums And Guns," a much overlooked and underappreciated meditation on violence. Now Low has released their ninth album "C'mon," which finds the band returning in large part to their classic sound, albeit bringing with them bits and pieces of the places they have been since.

The album begins with "Try To Sleep," a prime example of the band playing it old school, while showing off a few new tricks. It's a mellow, but dynamic, song bolstered by Low's signature harmonies and Parker's cavernous back beat. The piece bares a familial resemblance to classic songs like "Sunflower" and "Starfire," even if it is admittedly sunnier and considerably more polished and restrained than either of those emotional juggernauts. Still, it sounds closer in relation to the those tracks than anything on "Destroyer."

If "Try To Sleep" leaves you wondering what direction the band is headed, "You See Everything," one of the album's best songs, makes it clear that Low are returning to their roots on "C'mon." The Parker led track sounds like it could fit on "Trust" without raising an eye. It is a dark atmospheric song punctuated by her thunderous drums. At the same time, there is a restlessness present throughout the piece that didn't exist in the band's earlier works. The song certainly calls to mind classic Low, yet it is anything but slowcore.

Parker returns with the equally magnificent "Especially Me," another ponderous piece in the vein of classic Low, but sounding more muscular than previously. That sense of toughness runs throughout the album. For instance, "Witches" bares a little of the Neil Youngish guitar that colors Sparkhawk's Retribution Gospel Choir, but rather than sounding like an indie rock song blasted by distorted guitars, it still sounds like a Low song with extra umph. The band isn't trying to sound like anything but Low, but Low sounds like they've been hitting the weights.

And then there is "Majesty/Magic." This one is the real deal, a straight shot of dirge-doom Low. Yes, we have heard the band do this countless times before, but it remains gut-wrenching, powerful stuff. It is no more than a simple beat and minimal instrumentation that grows in intensity until climax while harmonies sing the same refrain over and over again, but it's primal, mantra-like, and sounds like the earth opening up to swallow us whole, making for an incredibly heavy listen.

One of the record's most pleasant surprises is "Nightingale," which calls to mind the earliest Low records. It's a sparse, no frills number that seduces regardless. Like everything else here it benefits from that band's years of playing and exploration. It sounds more confident than anything the band did some eighteen years ago, but it maintains the introverted appeal that made so many of us Low fans in the first place.

There is an argument to be made that Low is not really adding anything new to their repertoire with "C'mon." It would be easy to say this has all been done before by the band, and, at heart, certainly that is true. At the same time, few bands sound this consistent nearly two decades into their career, and Low sounds tighter than they ever have on "C'mon," making for one of the best sounding records in their catalog. Furthermore, there is something to be said for a band like this making a record that finds them returning to the sound that made them so loved in the first place. These guys are professionals now and this is a major league album. Sure it may lack some of the rag tag glory of an upstart, but in the end it's hard not to be in awe of the precision and craft that characterizes Low at this point in their career. It's like watching Michael Jordan play basketball. Does it really matter that he makes the shot every time? It's the thrill of watching him do it, it's the poetry in motion. After all, isn't that what makes him one of our greatest professionals?

I agree, Low aren't reinventing the wheel here, but they are doing what they do best and they are doing it rather wonderfully, and still creating poetry.

Low - C'mon (Short Album Trailer) from Sub Pop Records on Vimeo.

"Try To Sleep"

"You See Everything"


Tuesday, March 22, 2011

KURT VILE - Smoke Ring For My Halo (Matador)

Over the course of only a few years Kurt Vile has gone from much mumbled about lo-fi bedroom artist to one of indie-rock’s most recognizable names. His progressive, but laid-back, approach to Americana is easy to appreciate, because underneath the clatter and hum of even his most submerged and fuzz-laden tracks, lies the work of one of the most gifted singer/songwriters that has emerged in some time. He is part John Fahey, part Keith Richards, and part Hank Williams, yet it is clear that he came of age in the 1990s. Nevertheless, there is something almost nostalgic about his music that invokes a road trip into the heart of the vast American night that existed before billboards and cellular towers populated the landscape, when the horizon seemed open and limitless. You can imagine Vile playing on the stereo of a ’57 Chevy as it pulls into to a full-service station off of Route 66 somewhere between Albuquerque and Flagstaff at around 10 o’clock on a Tuesday night. It's sharp, road-worthy stuff that can easily soundtrack your entrance and exit from city to city, but casual enough to take the time and appreciate all of the empty space in between.

"Smoke Ring For My Halo" is Vile's forth album, and his most focused yet. Oddly enough, though, it is more languid and spacious than his last record "Childish Prodigy" which flirted with burned-out blues rock at times. This time around Vile pulls his punches in terms of volume and noise, emphasizing instead all of the tiny flourishes that make up this batch of subdued, but often spritely, Americana-inflected gems. With the exception of a few effects here and there, Vile has left his prior lo-fi leanings behind to great effect. Songs like opener "Baby's Arms" show a depth of composition and production that we have not yet heard from Vile, or maybe we have, but with "Halo's" cleaner sound we finally hear these songs' beautiful layers in all of their glory. Spend time with "Baby's Hands," and not only will the crystal clear acoustic picking strike you, but you'll gradually become enraptured by the subtle percussion and effects that shade the song so perfectly.

Cleaner production isn't the only change to Vile's sound; "Jesus Fever" is his first straight-up pop song. I can hear this being played on the airwaves alongside Wilco, Tom Petty and George Harrison. Granted, Vile has undoubtedly flirted with pop before, but this is his most direct foray into accessibility. Contrary to my own natural inclination against such easy breezy flights of melody, it is also one of my favorite tracks on the record, addictive hooks and all.

Then there is Vile's revamped, more restrained approach toward his blues-rock tendencies, and guess what? It works wonderfully as well. "Puppet To The Man" has the same swagger of a Stones' song, but is more spacious and laid-back, even while it snarls throughout. It's a great track and reminds you that even though Vile has made his name as a quirky songwriter of beautiful acoustic songs, there is also a toughness at his core that makes those beautiful moments well-earned. Vile isn't Sam Beam after all, he's more Elliott Smith minus the vast tragedy that ended Smith's life and career too early.

The reworked template that Vile lays down on "Halo's" first three tracks is repeated throughout the record without flaw. The album is populated with immaculately produced acoustic driven numbers, hummable pop tracks and darker, edgier songs making for a consistent whole that - like "Childish Prodigy" before - holds up no matter how many times you hit repeat. Often Vile combines these elements, like on the stunning "Runners Up," an angry, serrated, but gorgeous acoustic track that may, or may not, have brought tears of rage to my own hallowed-out cynical eyes more than once.

The record's last proper song is the expansive "Ghost Town," a track that sounds like it could have been an outtake from Wilco's masterpiece "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot." I say this not to compare Vile to classic-era Wilco, but because it strikes me that as "Halo" comes to a close Vile sounds confident beyond his years throughout this record, and he should. For me to even talk about "Smoke Ring For My Halo" in the same breath as one of the greatest albums of the aughts means that he definitely should. Vile has the talent and the vision to not only live up to his quickly-earned reputation, but to far exceed it.

"In My Time" live at Luna In-Store

Kurt Vile - In My Time from LaundroMatinee on Vimeo.

"Runners Up" live on Pitchfork TV

"Jesus Fever" live on Pitchfork TV

Sunday, March 13, 2011

JAPAN: A Musical Homage

Friday morning I woke up with Kurt Vile on my mind. I had finally processed his new album "Smoke Rings For My Halo" and was ready to write up a Friday review, when I logged onto Facebook and saw the status update from a close friend of mine who works as an editor at the Chicago Tribune. He has a tendency, given where he works, to know the news as it happens, and his status read "Poor Japan!" I knew there had been seismic activity over the past few days in Japan, and immediately a horrible sinking feeling came over me as I read my friend's two-word post. I quickly clicked onto a news site to see the horror that had unfolded. All I could do was sit in front of a live feed from Japan and watch images appear on the screen that looked like what I imagine the end of the world would look like. Once I was able to contain the shock to some degree I began to think of all the rich culture and history of Japan, particularly post-WWII film and music. Japan kind of is the land of unparalleled genius after all.

Personally, my all time favorite film director is Akira Kurosawa, and right behind him is Masaki Kobayashi, an opinion I share with Coppola, Scorsese and Tarantino. Younger generations of Japanese filmmakers were not exactly slouches either, giving us a treasure trove of over the top crime and horror films that reinvented both genres in the 1990s and 2000s. Then there is the music; oh yes, the music. I always think of the Japanese as the first experimental musicians. Their lyrical and instrumental folk music is some of the most intriguing, bizarre and haunting historic music that we have record of. I spent an entire year once captivated by biwa, shamisen and koto music, as well as Noh, the musical drama form that was experimenting with rhythm and space long before Western 20th-century avant-garde composers were.

Japan's music of the modern era is vast and brilliant. Ranging from Toru Takemitsu's astonishing mixture of classical and traditional folk to the psychedelic-punk of the Boredoms, there are few nations outside of the United States and England that house the diverse mixture of musical geniuses that Japan does. So not really knowing what else to do in the wake of the disaster that hit Japan this morning, and certainly not having it in me to write a review of Kurt Vile's new record, I thought I would assemble this hodgepodge of Japanese music to honor that great country. This is certainly not a definitive list of the massive talent and artistry that hails from Japan, but I think it is a good jumping off point from which you can start to explore the incredible talent of that now devastated land. Before I get started though, here is a link to go to for ideas on how you can help the people of Japan right now.

And here we go:

Before America ever got its deconstructed acoustic ambient freak-folk on in the mid-aughts, Japan was way ahead of us with the mind-boggling Taj Mahal Travellers way the hell back in the very early 70s. They are mythic, they are kvlt all the way, and if you understand them, I understand you. Get "August 1974" and freak the fuck out.

Les Rallizes Dénudés were communists, terrorists and total fucking rock and roll. They sort of sound like The Velvet Underground but as a noise-psyche band, and ended up being the most influential band in Japan, creating a blueprint for rock-n-roll in that country that has endured for over thirty years. Their "Le 12 Mars 1977 À Tachikawa" should be in ever respectable record collection.

"Night Of The Assassins" live

Fushitsusha are probably the next most influential band in Japanese rock. Decidedly darker than Les Rallizes Dénudés, the "band" was really more of a launching point for the man who would become the most overpowering shadow in all of experimental music worldwide, not just in Japan; Keiji Haino. I have always kind of thought of Fushitsusha as the post-punk Les Rallizes Dénudés, and just as good. They will melt your face off and take you to a place as black as Ian Curtis on a block of ice waiting to die. Start off with "Live 1" or "Live 2" (also known as "Untitled 1 & 2").

Which leads me to...Keiji Haino. What can I even begin to say about Keiji Haino? He is a one man tour-de-force, and as with Les Rallizes Dénudés, if you don't have his work in your collection, well have some work to do before you can hang with the big dogs on the proverbial front porch. Harrowing, brilliant, emotionally raw and abrasive. We may have Bob Dylan, but Japan has Keiji Haino, and it's a toss-up between who is better to be your country's musical legend. The man is prolific. My personal favorite, and a great starting point, is "I Said, This Is The Son Of Nihilism." Gut-wrenching stuff.

"My Only Friend"

Merzbow is one of the first actual "noise" artists. He has written music inspired by both S&M and animal rights, and is pretty much responsible for extreme music worldwide post-Norway. He really is that important.

And now for something completely different: Shonen Knife. Part of "Alternative Nation" history, Kurt Cobain claimed them as a favorite, and stated that they reduced him to "a hysterical nine-year-old girl at a Beatles concert" when he saw them live.

"Banana Chips" live

Shonen Knife wasn't the first punk band in Japan by any means. Guitar Wolf is Japan's Stooges. Their adherance to punk traditions in the late 80s made them that much more authentic.

Melt Banana are one of the most insane bands in the world, and yet another example of Japan's fearless experimentalist. A mixture of punk, noise and electronica, their insanity is matched only by their sense of humor. It is no wonder that Mike Patton loves this band.

"Sick Zip Everywhere"

Melt Banana exists to make the Boredoms seem sane. Here is what you need to know about the Boredoms; other than the fact that they are almost, but not quite, as insane as Melt Banana, they fucking rule. Their psyche-punk is the stuff of dreams and transcendence. Seriously, you could start a religion based on their music. Beautiful, powerful and utterly unique. "Seadrum/House Of Sun" is a pretty great starting point.

"Super Go"

"77 Boardrum" WATCH THIS!

OOIOO is Boredoms drummer Yoshimi P-We's side project; an all female group that combines organic elements with electronics to make for a mix similar to the Flaming Lips. Like the Boredoms, it is hard not to come away from an OOIOO album without a huge smile on your face. I'm a pretty big fan of "Gold And Green."

"Grow Sound Tree"

And then there is Acid Mothers Temple. Combining psyche, metal and everything awesome about the 60s and 70s, Acid Mothers Temple are an institution. Although, I'm sure they would love for you to think of them as a cult. With every cult there is a leader, and AMT's leader is the unbelievably talented and prolific Kawabata Makoto. He is a goof, but he is also a guitar genius that can do Hendrix, Eno and Zappa simultaneously. Yes, he is that good. For a while I attempted to buy every AMT release that came out, but I found myself quickly going into debt and also losing prime real estate on my record shelf. They have so many unbelievable albums, but I'll try to recommend only a couple - You absolutely cannot go wrong with "Univers Zen ou de Zéro à Zéro" or "La Novia."

The first 10 minutes of AMT's epic "Pink Lady Lemonade"

Makoto helped make modern psych-rock history outside of AMT with Mainliner. More straightforward than AMT, Mainliner were "these go to 11" in-the-red rockers who killed it all the way. Mainliner only made a couple of albums, but that is really all that was necessary to ensure them a place in Japanese rock history. Get their awesome "Mellow Out" and weep.

Kawabata Makoto's solo material is something else entirely. Makoto is responsible for some of the most beautiful ambient music of the last twenty years. Seriously. His solo work is as profound and gorgeous as AMT's is profane and over the top. It's like Windy & Carl or Stars of the Lid, but even better. I can't help but recommend pretty much everything he has ever done solo-wise, but I guess if you put a gun to my head I would say start with the "Inui" albums.

Corrupted exploded in the mid-90s and became one of the first progenerators of doom-metal as we know it today. When people list modern doom masters they usually include Corrupted alongside Sunn 0))) and early Earth. Considering the video featured here is of the band playing live in 2000 and this approach to sludge/doom is what has come to dominate the American doom scene over the past few years, it goes without saying that Corrupted are one of the most essential metal bands not only in Japan but the world.

Ghost continue Japan's love affair with psyche, but politicize it in the service of Tibet and progicize it in the service of Emerson, Lake & Palmer. At the same time, their ethereal experimentalism is hard to deny. The band has a long and storied history, and runs the gamut of boundary pushing left-of-center rock. Check out "Snuffbox Immanence."

"Hazy Paradise"

Nagisa Ni Te aren't only the best Japanese dream-pop band, they are one of the best dream-pop bands anywhere. Imagine a Japanese Galaxie 500 and you have an idea of what Nagisa Ni Te sound like. The one to get is "The Same As A Flower."

Do you like Neil Young? Do you like Keiji Haino? Do you like Spacemen 3? Then you will love LSD-March. Awesome drug-addled psyche with a bit of a rustic feel at times.

"Dare Ga Hoera"

And finally...BORIS. Seriously, do I need to write anything about them? If you don't know who Boris is then you better check yerself, before you wreck yerself. They are not only the best band in Japan, but one of the absolute best bands in the world...ever. No other band is able to navigate punk-metal, sludge, doom, ambient, drone, pop and goddamn everything else you could ever throw at them. They are so good that I sometimes take for granted how great they are, like Radiohead. Boris isn't just Japan's national treasure, they are a world treasure that makes being alive at this time worth while even now.

Thank you Japan for all of this amazing music, our hearts are with you.


"My Neighbor Satan"

"A Bao A Qu"

"Flower Sun Rain"

Beginning of "Untitled" from "Smile"

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

TIM HECKER - Ravedeath, 1972 (Kranky)

Tim Hecker is the closest thing to a super star that experimental music has. It's a toss-up between Fennesz and Hecker as to who is the more well-known, and who gets more acclaim from general indie rock sites like Pitchfork and Stereogum. The point is that beyond the genre's dedicated fans not a lot of experimental artists get to the level of recognition that Tim Hecker has reached. After a trio of lesser known, but well received, albums, Hecker produced 2006's breakthrough "Harmony in Ultraviolet." That album's dark epic beauty introduced him to a whole new audience outside of the readers of Wire and Brainwashed. His follow-up, the less dramatic but equally epic, "An Imaginary Country" solidified Hecker as one of the genre's greats. As a result, the build up to "Ravedeath, 1972" has been one marked by great anticipation with early murmurs declaring it Hecker's best yet.

The album was inspired by what Hecker sees as the death of music. After viewing images of pirated cds being bulldozed in Eastern Europe, Hecker apparently became interested in what he perceives as both the hatred of music (as illustrated in the album's cover which features a piano being thrown off of a rooftop) and the disposability of music in the digital age. How this intent translates to the music on "Ravedeath" is open to interpretation, but what immediately struck me on the first few listens is that this album is considerably less dynamic than either "Harmony in Ultraviolet" or "An Imaginary Country." It almost sounds static by comparison. At the same time, there is a general sense of decay that runs throughout the record. It calls to mind William Basinski's epic "The Disintegration Loops," which was itself the product of magnetic tapes that had physically deteriorated.

Musically the album is a mixture of organic and electronic instrumentation. The basis for the pieces originated from a live improvisation session Hecker performed on a pipe organ in a church Reykjavik, Iceland, as well as piano work provided by fellow traveller Ben Frost. Hecker then, of course, processed and manipulated the performances to create the dense sonic fog that he is so well known for. On occasion, though, passages of unadulterated organ can be heard throughout the album, as well as piano. That back and forth between the organic and the manipulated makes for the record's strongest dynamic.

The album begins with "The Piano Drop," a dense oscillating number that sets the stage for what is to come. There are minor synth washes underneath a pulsating ascending and descending electronic motif, and eventually the track fades into the fog from which it came. The piece would make an ideal soundtrack to a sepia-toned film played on a glitchy projector. The next passage is "In The Fog," one of the album's many internal movements. Broken into three pieces "Fog" emerges out of a discordant mixture of descending piano passages and submerged, but subtly lacerating, electronics. Eventually the piano and electronic chaos subsides leaving a naked pipe organ in their wake. Hecker's playing here brings to mind Philip Glass' haunting organ work on "Koyaanisqatsi," invoking the same ominous sense of doom and decay through dark minimalist repetition. The piece eventually cascades as harsher distorted effects wash over the organ before descending into subtle tones over a grinding, but buried, drone.

Hecker strips down his approach considerably on "No Drums," creating a quite and meditative ambient number that calls to mind the more beautiful and transcendental passages of Apex Twin's "Selected Ambient Works." "Hatred of Music" finds Hecker constructing cathedrals of sound once again, this time tapping into the kind of meditative but dark noisy abyss mastered by Popal Vuh. It's another massive piece of music that pits the organ against soaring orchestrated effects as well as what sounds like gnarled distorted guitars that wouldn't be out of place on a Sunn 0))) recording.

The record's latter half is more subdued and almost indiscernible barring a focused listen. If there is one criticism I have of the album it is that at times like these it may be too indistinct, too subtle for it's own good. Yet a close listen reveals sonic violence below the surface of these pieces, which are admittedly Hecker's most restrained works to date. "In The Air" is forgettable as background music, but given full attention the piece is just as dense and harrowing as anything Hecker has done before. In the end though, I can't help but wish for the massive arch and climax that characterized "Harmony in Ultraviolet," and to a lesser degree "An Imaginary Country." At the same time, had Hecker done that he would have basically be recycling the same record that he has been making for the past few years. By sticking to his own unique vision and dodging expectations he has created something more refined, and more challenging, on "Ravedeath, 1972." In the end, whatever points Hecker loses for lack of dynamism this time around, he gains them back for pushing his music into new territory. For an album built on the premise of the death of music, Hecker's creativity sounds very much alive and well.

"The Piano Drop"

"In The Fog I-III"

Monday, March 7, 2011


This last Saturday night I was enjoying a drink with some friends at a new bar in town that I can’t help but enjoy. The owner and staff are all heavily tattooed, and there is a steady stream of punk rock blaring from the stereo. It’s very much my kind of place. Now, of course, as in every town such establishments tend to draw its share of hipsters, which I’m usually fine with, but this Saturday one of them crossed the line, and in the process made me, a long time defender of the “kids,” gaze straight into the shallow and crass abyss that lives at the heart of some of today’s youth.

Mind you, I’ve slammed Arcade Fire for writing the hipster-bashing “Rococo,” I’ve lambasted Henry Rollins for being a condescending asshole to a group of young admirers, and I’ve attacked Adbusters for their dismal take on the youth of today, and while I still think that for the most part that “the kids are alright,” let this be my “get off my lawn” moment.

What happened was this; I approached the bar to get a drink while wearing, as I am apt to do, a band shirt. This particular night I was sporting Hüsker Dü's “Metal Circus” shirt. I’ve gotten more than a few sincere “nice shirt” comments about my choice of wears from like-minded individuals. Such acknowledgement will sometimes lead to a conversation about music and maybe I'll make a new acquaintance. It’s one of the pleasant outcomes that occurs when you represent a band of your choice on your chest. On this occasion, though, some young tattooed and pierced upstart at the bar, with hair color not to be found in nature, said the following: “I like your shirt, but I can’t help but notice the newness of it,” clearly implying that while I may indeed like Hüsker Dü, I was little more than some kind of Johnny-come-lately jerk-off poser. Which, even if I was, shouldn’t really matter. I mean I was sporting a shirt touting one of the genuine classics of the American underground, it wasn’t like I was wearing a Green Day shirt from Hot Topics. Frankly, it shouldn’t matter when you discover Hüsker Dü, be it 15 or 40, anyone who knows and loves that band enough to sport them on their t-shirt is instantly ahead of the game, no matter when they started playing. But, of course, I didn’t just discover Hüsker Dü, nor was my nice new t-shirt my first of the band’s. Without missing a beat I smiled and responded, “Yeah, well, I was going through my t-shirt collection a while back and I realized that the original “Warehouse: Songs And Stories” shirt that I got when I saw them on that tour was missing, and so was my homemade “Pink Turns To Blue” shirt that a friend made for me before we went and saw Bob Mould during his first tour. So I decided to get on-line and see what was out there, and I found this, which is pretty great, because this album really helped get me through high school, as did all of their records. Hell, they probably saved my life. In fact I told Bob Mould that when I got to meet him after his show, and he was such a nice guy and totally appreciative of what I had told him. So yeah, it’s new, but it has a long history.”

The kid looked somewhat defeated and muttered “that’s cool, I haven’t really listened to them in a long time…” Causing me to wonder if he had listened to them ever, or if he just knew that he was supposed to like them. I took my beer back to the table where my friends were and told them about the little incident and proceeded to enjoy my night, but in the back of my head I couldn’t shake the arrogance, and more so, the lack of respect this young hipster threw my way for wearing, of all things, a Hüsker Dü t-shirt.

The thing is, we, and by we I mean the collective group that came to be known as Generation X who are currently clocking in at somewhere between 30 to 50 years of age, well; we made you hipster. You wouldn’t exist without us. Every bit of music, film, culture and art that you enjoy you owe to us. Here is why: back in the mid to late 80s (you know that decade that you fetishize so much?) America was a fucking wasteland. Ronald Reagan (that empty suit that you fetishize) had called upon the darker angels of our nature and opened the floodgates of greed and avarice in this country. He struck a stake through the heart of the liberal communitarianism that had been the American way of life from FDR to Kennedy. As a result the country grew meaner and colder. The baby-boomers, who had long ago betrayed their revolution, stopped worrying about saving the world and were interested in little more than how they should invest their money in the increasingly unbridled every-man-for-himself super-capitalism that Reagan had unleashed. It left many of us, raised with the idealism of the 60s to wonder where our place in this ugly new world was. We instinctively knew that Reagan’s America was no place for us, and we had witnessed the utter failure of the boomers before us, and realized that their dreams were not ours. By extension their failure was also the failure of the virtues they touted, like “peace” and “love.” As a result we were angry, isolated and cynical. Thankfully we didn’t have to start from scratch.

While we were still playing Star Wars and watching the Smurfs in the late 70s, punk rock was exploding. Not only had the hippies become empty shells of their former selves, but so had the music they had rallied under. Punk sought to overthrow the dinosaur rock and disco that inundated the airwaves in the 70s by the most violent means possible. While doing so the punks were also creating a community that fans and artists found refuge in and called home – an alternate reality to compete with the conservative cultural landscape that swept America and England in the late 70s and 80s.

The punk that came out of England and New York resonated throughout America not with a bang, but in mummers and whispers on the down-low for those of us needing something that would give us comfort, something that felt like we did, something radical that could give voice to the revolutionary voices in our heads. College campuses and the independent record stores they housed were the breeding ground for our discontent. I was lucky enough to live close to Von’s Books and Records in West Layefette, IN, and would spend hours perusing the Marxism section of their bookstore, while buying up records by bands like Killing Joke, Joy Division, D.O.A., The Exploited, the Dead Kennedys, and, of course, Hüsker Dü. These records, chock full of blasphemy and rebellion, were exactly what those of us who felt like outsiders in our own country needed. It got us through our days, making them just a little more bearable, and very quickly we came to realize that this wasn’t just some random bunch of bands making music, but a movement, a movement housed and promoted on labels like SST, Homestead, Twin Tone, Touch & Go, Dischord and Alternative Tentacles. Then, of course there were ‘zines and tape trading, and all sorts of other ways that a kid living in a cornfield in Indiana could share ideas and music with a kid living in a cornfield in Iowa, allowing both to discover the weird new noises emerging out of New York once again, long before the Internet was even a word. It was as D.I.Y. as D.I.Y could get.

As a result of this new American underground, nearly 10 years after the Clash, the Pistols and the Ramones has paved the way for musical anarchy, another revolution was brewing, and in the latter years of the 80s and early 90s it exploded across the musical spectrum. Hip-hop and rap, thrash, indie-rock, all of them were revolutions in sound and all of them are Generation X’s gifts to the world. The underground threatened to go overground as bands like Sonic Youth, The Pixies and Pavement enjoyed some modicum of success. Hip hop changed the musical landscape entirely, and thrash-metal redefined the genre, killing off the hair-metal that threatened to destroy what Black Sabbath had wrought all those years ago. Then, of course, there was Nirvana – a sort of nuclear weapon from the underground that annihilated everything lame for a brief moment in time and made a better world seem possible.

Now eventually, as with many well meaning revolutions, corruption and rot came to poison Indie's big take over. Major record labels just wanted to make a buck and in their search for the next Nirvana they signed a bunch of shit and tried to package it as edgy, when it was anything but. Of course mainstream America really didn't give a shit about authenticity and bought it up anyway. No sooner had “Nevermind” sold millions, and countless copies of “Bleach” ended up in the used bin of record stores everywhere, than nu-metal and the Gin Blossoms had won the day. Which was fine, the whole point of indie was to stand outside of the mainstream, not at the head of it.

In the wake of indie-rock’s meteoric rise and fall, battle tested labels like Matador, Sub Pop, and Drag City remained, as did a new-found determination to keep indie indie, and sell it to the man on our terms. No longer was it a band’s dream to get a major label deal, instead many just wanted to make music and have a few appreciative ears hear it. To satisfy that desire, numerous bedroom labels popped up and put out the plethora of incredibly original boundary-breaking music that populated the musical landscape of the mid-90s after the underground went back underground. These labels existed not to get rich, but to release music simply because they believed in the music. Certainly some of them did just fine. Touch UK, Kranky Records, Secretly Canadian and Thrill Jockey have all become stalwarts in the indie world. Today Captured Tracks, Woodsist, Type and Not Not Fun appear to be on track to become the next generation of great independent labels, because, like SST and Homestead before them, they are putting out some of the most adventurous and exciting music currently being made to service a community of fans and artists that will forever remain in the underground.

But what does any of this have to do with the hipster at the bar? Well, it’s simple; Hipster culture is indie culture, and indie culture is one unbroken string stretching back to 80s when the American underground arose in the wake of the punk revolution. There is nothing, I repeat nothing, revolutionary about hipsters. Their entire world is nothing more than a continuation of the American underground created and fostered by Generation X. Even the sarcasm and snark that they are known for was first mastered by us while they were still rolling around with poo in their diapers. Anyone who listened to Pavement could tell you that. The music, the art, the culture, it is all a direct continuation of the last real revolution in sound, art, and culture that occurred in the mid to late 80s and early 90s. This isn’t to say that hipsters haven’t contributed anything to independent culture. They have - big time. I want to be clear about that. They have more than contributed their share. I would even argue that the late 90s throughout the aughts has produced some of the best music period. But let’s not kid ourselves, it is has all been a modulation of something that came before, even the fashions that they are so often mocked for is only a hop skip and a jump from the flannels and vintage clothing that populated college campuses in the early 90s. The hipster has not upended anything, they have only refined and tweaked (and some would say commodified) what Generation X and our punk ancestors created, whether it be music or the scene itself. For that we are owed respect, a respect that was sorely lacking at the bar last Saturday night.

Afterwards I thought about whether I, as a young twenty-something, would have been as disrespectful and snarky toward an elder punk rocker sporting an Exploited shirt back in the day, and the answer is absolutely not. My ethics teachers were Ian MacKay, Joe Strummer and Henry Rollins, and I knew, and everyone I hung around with knew, that the geezer in the Exploited shirt at the end of the bar was the reason we were here, and he deserved some fucking respect, and maybe if we were nice enough and bought him a beer he could tell us a war story or two. And hipster, I’m the reason you are here. Because of me and my generation you have a home. We built this little indie world for you so you could be yourself, and so you didn’t have to suffer mainstream fools. We made a place where you could drink, fuck, listen to music and talk to people who share your values. D.I.Y. has been a way of life for us a lot longer than it has for you, and if you can’t realize all of that and you don’t have the character to be a real human being in the company of your own, then get the fuck off of my lawn.

Thursday, March 3, 2011


Every now and then I come upon an album that doesn't entirely sink in until well after my review, and I feel like I owe the artist an apology, because initially I gave them a mediocre review when in fact they created an incredibly dense and complicated work that not even I got on the first few passes. Some albums grow and grow and grow, and end up on top 10 lists at the end of the year when we never thought it possible. Already for me there is an album that I initially bagged on that now like Jack says to Ennis, 'I simply can't quit.' That album is Cloud Nothings' self-titled debut. I don't think there has been a single album since "It's A Shame About Ray" that I have hummed the hell out throughout the day. I listen to this album now at least once, usually twice, a day to satiate my need to hear these addictive brilliant pop-punk tracks. Of all the albums I have heard this year, this is the one that owns me, and my family, and everyone I can play this enough times to wear down their resistance. Buy this now. This is the kind of music that we all live for. Here is my initial review, but fuck that. Just buy this and enjoy throughout the year, because it really is an amazing album regardless of douche things I said about it at first.

"Been Through"

"Nothings Wrong"

Cloud Nothings - Nothing Wrong from RADAR MAKER on Vimeo.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

LA SERA - S/T (Hardly Art)

One of my favorite things as a music writer is sitting down with a record without any expectation and being completely blown away. So many albums come to us today with pre-existing hype that puts a burden on both the artist and the listener, making it hard to know if one's reaction to the music is based on a record's merit, or the context that has been constructed around it. Whether it is Kanye West, Radiohead or Arcade Fire, or even lesser-known, but much-hyped, indie bands like Best Coast, Sleigh Bells or James Blake, one ends up being forced to process the context as much as the music itself. Maybe this is not true for casual listeners, but for those of us who live and breath music, it is impossible to avoid. At times I dread getting a copy of a big ticket album, if only because during both the listening and review process I'm going to have to filter it through the hype and cultural context that exists via music sites like Pitchfork, Stereogum, and the blogosphere in general. Listening to such albums has almost become a chore. It is only well after I finish my review and the frenzy surrounding these kind of releases dissipates that I can really enjoy a record for what it is, if at all. What is missing from that experience is the pure joy of just listening to music and discovering a really great album as a personal experience, rather than a shared cultural event. So it's those moments when a record comes to me without hype, without expectation, and manages to take me by surprise and rock my world that I am reminded why I love music so damn much, and why I spend hours writing about it rather than catching up on all of those Anthony Bourdain episodes that are clogging up my DVR. In case you haven't figured it out already, La Sera is one of those albums.

La Sera is the solo project of the Vivian Girl's Katy Goodman. Now, in the interest of fairness and full-disclosure, I have made no secret about my love of indie-rock bands fronted by women, or my love for the Vivian Girls. It should also be admitted that I have a thing for redheads. Having said that, I honestly put this record on without any expectations one way or the other. More than anything I simply wanted to see what Goodman was up to during her off-hours. What quickly became apparent was that she was making music that was just as wonderful as the Vivian Girls, even though the two bare little resemblance to each other. Goodman eschews the taut punk/garage of her primary band for a dreamier hazier sound that has more in common with shoegaze and dream pop than punk or garage, although garage certainly lurks at the edges.

Goodman wrote the songs for La Sera while staying at her parent's home in New Jersey for a couple of weeks when the Vivian Girls were on break. She has said that she wrote the pieces at night during the winter, which might explain the album's cocooned blanket-like feel. Once the tracks were written, Goodman's friend Brady Hall fleshed-out her compositions with instrumentation that perfectly compliments Katy's vocals. If you have ever heard Goodman sing while warming up for a Vivian Girls' show, you know that she has an incredibly ethereal voice. I would say it's the voice of an angel, but that would be too cliche. Let's just say it's gorgeous. The fact that voice infuses every track here, alone and multi-tracked for the album's harmonies, makes this record worth the price of admission alone.

The lush beauty of Goodman's voice is immediately apparent on the stunning album opener "Beating Heart." The track has a stately melancholy that calls to mind a classic 4AD piece. Goodman's vocals float lazily, but beautifully, in the haze above the sleepy pulse of the song, making for the musical equivalent of opium. "Never Come Around" follows and bursts out of the speakers like exploding fireworks. It is nearly the opposite of what came before in terms of mood and style. It is as lush as "Beating Heart," but upbeat and expansive. Throughout the album Goodman explores variations of light and dark in-between the extremes of "Beating Heart" and "Never Come Around," making music that balances melody and harmony perfectly. Each track is drenched in atmosphere, yet baited with hooks aplenty to make for some of the most addictive dream pop I've heard.

There are too many highlights to list here, but the gothic-western "I Promise You," the fit for a Wes Anderson film "Left This World," and the Galaxie 500 with more melody "Hold" are immediate favorites, as are the head-nodding "Devils Hearts Grow Tired" and the oceanic "Dove Into Love." The thing is, there is not a bad song here; not one piece that does not have something to love. It's one of those rare little albums that isn't about the promise of something bigger and better, because it is perfect as it is, even if what it is, is a small musical offering made without pretense or expectation.

"Devils Hearts Grow Tired"

La Sera - Devils Hearts Grow Gold from Hardly Art on Vimeo.

"Never Come Around"

La Sera - Never Come Around from Brady Hall on Vimeo.