Monday, March 30, 2009

Your Personal Feelings, Digitized

Production description from (Thanks to Doug Williams for the link):
Before CDs and MP3s came along, mixtape creation was a time-consuming art form practiced by many but mastered by few. Can you assemble the perfect collection of music in less than 60 minutes? The USB MixTape gives you the opportunity to show off your musical collection brevity skills. This dinged-up looking cassette case holds an equally dinged-up looking USB memory stick. Load only the crème de la crème of your MP3s, because you only have 60 minutes (at best) of playtime to prove your music connoisseurship. Inscribe your play list in fancy penmanship and your gift is complete!
It is true that modern digital methods have yet to duplicate the intimacy of the mixtape. Even mix CD's are cold in sterile in comparison. How can one make an emotional connection to something that's "burned?" When making a mixtape, one had to, at the very least, listen to each some as he or she was recording it. Taking the time to do that and handwriting each song and artist conveys a completely different feeling than a digital readout.Besides, cassette were fragile things. One false move and they were ruined forever, so one had to really cherish a particularly loved tape.

Trying replicate that experience via a USB flash drive seems like a quixotic gesture at best and totally stupid at worst. For $20 retail, one can buy and 8GB flash drive, which, if my math is right, is 125 times the capacity of the above item. Granted, it won't come in a cute package but you can impress that special someone with not only 100 hours of music but also a PDF of that screenplay you've been working on.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Paleontology for Dullards: Poor Investment Edition

"Paleontology for Dullards" rates records I've found in used LP bins by assigning them a cash value. For further explanation, please see my original post here.

Various Artists Diamond Hidden in the Mouth of a Corpse
This compilation album was released by Giorno Poetry Systems, an organization that people who've gone to art school are much more qualified to discuss than me. I've been told that this disc fetches some high prices on eBay, mainly because of the Keith Harring sleeve and interior art. My main attraction to the album was the otherwise unreleased Hüsker Dü cut "Won't Change," an outtake from Metal Circus. Also included is Sonic Youth's awesome "Halloween" though it's easily available elsewhere. However, most of the album is hodgepodge documenting experimental approaches to rock music that were novel and cutting edge in the 80s but haven't aged particularly well. There's some post-disco dance rock amalgams, industrial from the likes of Coil (an instrumental that's actually one of the record's highlights) and Cabaret Voltaire (not half as compelling as "Nag Nag Nag") and an I-don't-know-what-you'd-want-to-call-it a cappella piece from Diamanda Galas. The album also features a pair spoken word cuts from Giorno staple William Burroughs (remarkable for taking place in front of an audience and getting laughs to boot) and Swans frontman Michael Gira (trying to transgressive and creepy and succeeding more in the latter than former but mostly just coming off as pretentious.) There are some enjoyable moments to be had here but for the most part this is work of conceptualists, not music fan. At the very least, Diamond Hidden in the Mouth of a Corpse is a reminder of a time when there was a dominant culture and existing outside of it actually meant something, a notion that's pretty much lost in the post-internet diaspora.
Price Paid: $10 Rating: 70%

B People Petrified Conditions 1979-81
I generally like skronky no-wave. I almost universally adore LA's post-Dangerhouse post-punk scene. Then why is this record so dull? There's a distinct whiff of art-house pretension and music-theory stuffiness here that might have something to do with it. B People's music is so densely layered that it feels as though there's no space where the listener could find entry. "Challenging" doesn't necessarily have to be an antonym for "listenable." It's no surprise that "Weather to Worry," the record's most unequivocally punky moment, is also its best.
Price Paid: $7 Rating: 28%

Love Child Okay?
This is what NYC hipsters were listening to 20 years ago. In some ways, this album (recorded in February of 1990) feels like the tipping point between the scuzz-loving, punk irreverence of 80s independent rock and the slacker-centric 90s, a sentiment clearly expressed the in refrain of "Can't get out of bed" in Side 1's closer, "Slow Me Down." Most of Okay? is dominated by willfully dissonant songs from Alan Licht and Will Baum, most of which seem to dollop on the noise whenever they get in danger of becoming catchy. They both have their moments but it's actually Rebecca Odes' more straightforward pop-like songs that are the standouts: "He's So Sensitive," "Cigarette Ash" and (who could forget) "Church of Satan." Okay? is an aesthetically similar record to Sebadoh III though none of the members of Love Child have the songwriting chops of Lou Barlow or Jason Lowenstein nor the adventurousness of Eric Gaffney, which makes Okay? altogether less than memorable.
Price Paid: $8 Rating: 37.5%

Pezband s/t
I don't think one could have lived in the Midwest in the late 70s without tripping over a power pop band. It was probably the success of regional heroes Cheap Trick that served as the catalyst for this trend. A handful of these were worthy but Chicago's Pezband weren't exactly the creme de la creme. Passable at best, most of Pezband's songs fade from memory as soon as they end. This may be a byproduct of the disposable 60s bubblegum pop they were obviously emulating but it doesn't make for engrossing listening. If you're going to be a purveyor of cotton candy, your product should really stick to one's teeth.
Price Paid: $2 Rating: 50%

Monday, March 23, 2009

Enjoy Good Music...

...Without Having to Elbow Your Way Through a Bunch of Music Biz Wastes of Space.

If you're like me and you couldn't make it to South by Southwest (or if you were in Austin and you're just a clueless putz), it would seem you missed a hell of a show. Fortunately, the world's greatest radio station broadcast the event as it happened. It's now available on their archives, so everyone who missed out can now listen to hot live rock action from Mexico's awesome XYX and the new project from former Drive Like Jehu/Hot Snakes frontman Rick Froberg, the Obits. This archived performance also seems to be the only place on the internet you can hear Mayyors, who will soon be the band everyone is going claim they were hyping first, so you should probably get on that. (Chunklet's Henry Owings on Mayyors: "No MySpace. No Facebook. No Twitter. No tour. No interviews. No nothing. In 2009, their marketing tactics are absolutely genius.")

Honestly, if you didn't contribute to WFMU's recent fund raising marathon, you don't deserve to listen to this. Even though it's late, why don't you do that now and ease your guilty conscience?

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Wavves and the Saturation Point

New York Magazine occasionally runs this graph called the "Undulating Curve of Shifting Expectations." Its purpose is to chart pop culture phenomenon from "buzz" to "backlash" and beyond. I couldn't help but think of this after reading some of the coverage for the latest album from Wavves: Best New Music on Pitchfork, an "A" from the Onion AV Club and even a notice from the paper of record (not records). Wavvves has the good fortune of being released at the "saturation point" of the lo-fi revival that's been gestating in the rock underground for the past couple of years.

This mini-movement was initially a breath of fresh air, especially as a counterpoint to the increasingly slick and studied sounds dominating indieland at the time. It's no coincidence that the revival's early triumphs were released when acts like Sufjan Stevens and The Knife were all the rage. Debuts from the likes of Times New Viking and Jay Reatard were more or less ignored by the larger indie press. (In the case of Mr Reatard, Pitchfork offered a late and rather unconvincing explanation.) As time passed, the movement picked up steam. Bands were signed. Publicists were hired. Money changed hands and soon respected rock critics were trying to explain to their readers why they should buy (or download) records that sounded they were recorded on 1980s answering machine. If it's your job to reflect the zeitgeist, you really don't want to look like you're out of step, and Wavves, G-d bless them, get to reap the benefits.

That said, the album is pretty good. (I've included a song from it on my latest podcast.) An "A" might be an overstatement but a "B+" isn't unreasonable. Nathan Williams writes some insanely catchy songs and has a very good idea how to (self-)produce them for maximum effect. Wavvves has more experimental (read: less melodic) material interspersed throughout the album, but the peaks and valleys give it a certain charm. One could argue that Guided By Voices did the same thing better 15 years ago, but that's not exactly fair.

However, invoking GBV does point out a major difference between the current crop of lo-fi bands and those of the 1990s. Guided By Voices, Pavement, Sebadoh, et al didn't have the option of making a somewhat professional sounding recording on their home computers using GarageBand or Pro Tools. Thus, it's reasonable to conclude that today's bands are making a more self-conscious aesthetic choice to sound like shit. The sentiment of the 90s bands seemed to be that one's songs could recognized as valid no matter what the fidelity of the recording. Today's bands might be more of the philosophy that sounding bad makes their songs good.

There's nothing necessarily wrong what. I personally find the ultra-compression that most modern records employ to be much harder on the ears than any amount of tape hiss and/or distortion. Plus, if we're being honest, most of the aforementioned 90s bands probably didn't have to sound quite as poor as they often did. (Try listening to some of those Sentridoh records again.) The aesthetic of production is going to be an important aspect of any recording. However, it's just a little phony, especially for something that is ostensibly more authentic by nature.

The backlash will come soon enough, probably just when a really great band like Tyvek releases their debut full-length. Through no fault of their own, they'll wind up getting the brunt of the hate. This is unfortunate but that's the hype machine for you, folks. However, there is an upside. Due to the hype, Times New Viking had their third full-length, Rip It Off, almost universally praised by the rock press despite being their weakest effort to date. I've seen the band in concert and they were pretty amazing. Perhaps some criticism being thrown their way will encourage them to hook up with a sympathetic producer who'll capture their live sound. Being "lovingly fucked with" by Mike Rep might only take them so far. Besides, it's an inevitability in music that if there's a bandwagon, there's going to be people jumping on it. It won't take long for some hacks to realize "Hey, if we sound like this, we'll get some attention." Hopefully, they'll be stopped in their tracks if there's no longer a trend to hop. Discriminating ears will always be able to tell the difference but it's not like those are in abundance.

Incidentally, if you were expecting me to create some pun using "Wavves" in conjunction with "saturation" or the very parabolic curve of the NY Mag graph, you're shit out of luck. I'm just not that clever.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Unblinking Ear Podcast: Signs Point to Yes

The contents of this podcast were entirely determined by a magic 8-ball. It's the same decision making process I use for ordering takeout. You may think that making life choices, however minor, based on the outcome of product made by Mattel is asinine at best and has the characteristics of a supervillain at worst. I say it makes as much sense as oblique strategies, horoscopes, psychiatry or most religions.

And if you don't like this podcast, just blame the 8-ball.

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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Hyperbole Time! Ireland's Greatest Rock Band

Yes, their name begins with a "U" but they're not a bunch of pompous jerks:

Happy St. Patty's Day!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Who Watches...

...movies they know will disappoint them?

I do!

(Say hello to this year's most annoyingly ubiquitous Halloween costume.)

Actually, with my expectations being sufficiently low, I enjoyed the Watchmen movie for what it was: a moderately dumbed-down, cliff notes version of the comic. I've read the comic I-don't-know-how-many-times and there was delight to be had in seeing key scenes spring to life on screen. It's certainly the most faithful Alan Moore adaptation ever committed to celluloid. Of course, I had the ability to fill in backstory as necessary, which would be impossible for someone who hasn't read the book.

Still, I had some problems with the film. (You really didn't think I wasn't going to complain, did you?) As a film, Watchmen kind of falls apart in its second half. Unsurprisingly, this is when the graphic novel most deviates from straight narrative storytelling, i.e. lots of Tales of the Black Freighter, information given in the supplemental sections, etc. This is one of the reasons the book had been categorized as "unfilmable" for so long. In my opinion, there were three key elements that could have improved the second half and the film as a whole. (Lots of SPOILERS here. Consider yourself warned.)

1. The characterization of Ozymandias/Adrian Veidt felt completely wrong. Matthew Goode's choice to play him as fey and smug didn't jibe with the Veidt from the book, who I saw as charming and likable. Also, his backstory was underdeveloped and thus the viewer never really got that the intention of his actions was, in his mind, completely noble. He just seems like a weaselly super-villian and I can't imagine that someone coming to the film with fresh eyes would be surprised that he's the story's antagonist. One of the key elements of Watchmen is the contrast between the passive Dr. Manhattan and the activist Ozymandias, an element the film misses completely, even ignoring their final conversation.

2. The revelation of Laurie's true parentage was ham-fisted and came off as unimportant. I didn't really have an issue with giving Dr. Manhattan a "magic touch" as it's sort of implied in the book that he may have been aiding Laurie's mind but it still felt rather rushed and sort of inconsequential. The conversation on Mars is given a full chapter in the book and the slow build up made the end result all the more affecting. In the film, one really never gets the sense of Laurie's hatred for the Comedian and why the realization that she's been hiding facts from herself would be so devastating. Subsequently, that this revelation would move Dr. Manhattan to save mankind felt forced.

3. None of the comic's many non-superhero characters are given any substantial amount of screen time. We see little to none of the two Bernies, the detectives, the lesbian couple, or Dr. and Mrs. Long. When Veidt's "masterstroke" kills all these people, we've been following their lives for most of the book. Their deaths give a resonance to the story's denouement that the film is sorely lacking. I understand that time constraints meant ignoring these characters but by excising them the filmmakers have also excised much of the book's humanity. Perhaps at least including Bernard the news vendor, who more or less functions as the comic's Greek chorus, would have been a smart move.

When Watchmen is released on DVD it will contain an extra hour of footage so perhaps these issues will be rectified. Some of the other issues the film's critics raised didn't bother me that much. Yes, Malin Akerman's performance was a little flat but wasn't Hayden Christensen-level distracting/embarrassing. Yes, they changed the ending a bit but devoting extra time to explaining where a giant squid with psychic powers came from might have been a bit much for any film to bear. One thing that did bug me was the Forrest Gump-style soundtrack. "The Times They Are A Changin" during the opening credit montage was effective but can we get a referendum on never using Hendrix's version of "All Along the Watchtower" in a film again? I'm aware that Chapter 10 of the book is titled after a quote from the song but they didn't use Iggy Pop's "Neighborhood Threat," did they?

However, for all my (and others) niggling, most of the film works. Jackie Earl Haley's Rorschach is particularly potent. While Zack Synder and company deserve full credit for sticking close to the original vision, it may have turned out that Watchmen was unfilmable after all. The comic's greatness comes not just from its story but also that it was formally brilliant and that aspect, by nature, cannot be translated into another medium. Watchmen, the movie, is an entertaining if flawed film. Watchmen, the comic, is one of the greatest achievements in the history of its medium. The adaptation surely won't have the lasting import of its source material but it more or less succeeds on its own terms. At very least, we should be thankful it wasn't another League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Out of Print Digital Relics: Rainy Day

It's sort of difficult to quantify the importance of the "paisley underground" scene of early-80s Southern California. It seemed as though most of the associated groups released a terrific debut and then lost the plot, putting out records that were neither artistically nor commercially successful. (The exception being the Bangles who slicked up their sound and became pop stars.) However, this small scene's influence on independent rock was crucial. In the early 80s, the year-zero, destroy-everything mentality of punk was still prominent. Post-punk artists were loath to trust any music made before the Ramones debut, especially if it had the taint of "hippie." Bands like the Dream Syndicate and Rain Parade showed by example how to embrace the music of the 60s without retrogressive trappings, thus expanding the sonic palette of indie rock. It's arguable that the mid-decade breakthroughs by R.E.M., Hüsker Dü and the Replacements would not have been possible had the paisley underground bands not set precedent. It's even been said that J Mascis listened to a lot of True West in between Deep Wound and Dinosaur.

On the other hand, there's a direct lineage from the paisley underground to alt-country, so nobody's perfect.

The Rainy Day album is not the best artifact of the scene (see the Dream Syndicate's Days of Wine and Roses for that) but it's a neat one. Spearheaded by David Roback of Rain Parade and Opal (and later of Mazzy Star), the album was a "super session" of various members of paisley underground groups paying direct homage to their influences, covering songs by Bob Dylan, Buffalo Springfield, the Who, Hendrix, the Velvet Underground and 70s ringer Big Star as well as "covers of covers" by way of the Beach Boys and the Byrds. Not all of the performances are top notch but all are enjoyable and the Bangles' Susanna Hoffs' take on Dylan's "I'll Keep It With Mine" might be the definitive version.

Download Rainy Day

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

How She (Almost Accidentally) Wrote "Elastic Man"

(The face that gives Simon Cowell nightmares.)

From the old news but new to me department (from UK tabloid the Sun, link courtesy of Failed Pilot):
THEY may share the same surname but that’s it for similarities between angelic Britain’s Got Talent teen FARYL SMITH and gnarled FALL frontman MARK E SMITH.

So imagine Universal Records’ surprise when they received the first shipment of Faryl’s debut CD from the pressing plant.

A cock-up in production meant that instead of delicate balladry in the honeyed tones of their recently signed youngster, what actually ended up on discs bearing her artwork and info were the grumblings of Mark and his fellow Manc veterans’ 2008 album Imperial Wax Solvent.

Needless to say, Universal chiefs weren’t best pleased.

My spy tells me: “They had ordered hundreds of copies and they were staggered by what was on it.

“They have had severe words with the pressing plant.”
I suppose there's some kind record collecting nerd fantasy that thousands of tween girls would hear Mark E and the Fall and have their minds blown and suddenly "get it" ala Mona Simpson and Joe Namath's hair. I'll admit it's a pretty silly thought to entertain but it's also one of the pretenses under which I publish this blog.


Monday, March 02, 2009

The Unblinking Ear Podcast: Snow Day!

(It was either this or a picture of the guy who did "Informer")

Et tu, Staten Island Chuck? On the very same day that New York City's own weather-predicting groundhog got legal representation to protect his name and likeness (a story which raises such important questions as "Does anyone at the Staten Island Zoo realize that 'Charles G. Hogg' sounds a lot like 'Charles Jihad' and "Don't Quinnipiac pollsters have anything better to do?"), the small mammal had his own incompetence proven. Despite his prediction that we get an early spring, the NYC-area was hit a blizzard which forced the city's public schools to close to due snow for the first time in five years.

Of course, having that day off allows people to perhaps catch up on some chores, take a mid-afternoon nap, spend a good chunk of the day watching Spongebob Squarepants, or making a new podcast. (Ed. Note: I did three of the four.)

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