Friday, August 28, 2009

Reverse In Utero: Jay Reatard's Watch Me Fall

Yes, I realize this is a bit late but if I wanted to meet deadlines, I would try try to get paid for this stuff instead of giving it away for free.

Advance word about Jay Reatard's debut full-length for Matador was that it was a departure from the aggressive sound of the titanic Blood Visions album. The words "poppy" and "wimpy" were thrown around. More to the point, an inside source said that it was "very New Zealand." This shouldn't really come as much of a surprise as Mr. Reatard did an ace cover of a Go-Betweens song on the B-side to his first release following Blood Visions. (The Go-Betweens are, of course, not from New Zealand but they're in the neighborhood, geographically and musically.)

It's understandable that Mr. Reatard would want to alter his sound not only to progress as an artist but to dissociate himself from a trend that he himself helped initiate. Even though Blood Visions was ignored by most major music outlets, it's clearly become a yardstick of neuvo-DIY and Jay himself has become probably its most recognizable figure. It's a situation that reminds me a bit of Nirvana following up Nevermind with the abrasive In Utero. Grunge was going pop and Nirvana did the their best to separate themselves and challenge their audience. Jay Reatard, while not playing for the same stakes as Nirvana did, is more or less doing the same here. Some have whispered "sell out" but that couldn't be farther from the truth. Jay could have presented the world with Blood Visions II and with certainty garnered the immediate acclaim that should have been granted the original. Instead of bringing the expected fuzz and fitting his peg neatly into the hole that's been assigned to him, he goes clean and melodic. It's a brave and commendable move.

Besides, Watch Me Fall is ultimately not that radical a departure from Jay Reatard's past work. Part of what made Blood Visions so potent was his gift for melody and tight song construction. He's simply brought these elements to the front while stripping back the noise. Guitars jangle instead of roar. Some songs could be called "pretty" without irony. If you didn't think Jay Reatard was capable of writing ace pop songs, you probably weren't listening that closely in the first place. The only thing that prevents the album from being a complete success is actually Jay's sharp voice, which is better suited for punk than pop. Even when he's trying to enrapture or soothe, he still sounds biting and sarcastic. But hey, at least he stays in key.

The final verdict? Well, it's not as good as Blood Visions but, honestly, few records are. Upon hearing an (illegally) downloaded version of Blood Visions back when it came out, I immediately left my apartment, got into my car and drove to the nearest record shop to purchase a concrete copy. It felt necessary. Watch Me Fall, by contrast, is merely pleasurable. Still, 33 minutes of pleasure is a lot more than most records provide.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Unblinking Ear Podcast: Indie Girl Hip Tattoo

As much as I like to think of myself as the antithesis of the sort of blogger who has a "false sense of importance when they're oftentimes just regurgitating press releases and tour dates," I'm not above blatantly directing a little web traffic my way. On examination of the stats for this blog, I've noticed the occasional "referring link" from Microsoft's new search engine, The search terms are usually some combination of "hip tattoo," "girls," "indie," "music" and (at least twice) "tiny redhead teen," which brings them to this particular post. I figured I might as well direct these folks to a more recent post where they might serendipitously become a fan of my podcast. Or perhaps curse me out in the comments section.

Some of my regular readers might find this transparent grab for hits a bit crass. I can understand that but at least these are all terms that have directed people to this blog before. It's not like I'm fishing using search terms like "Anna Paquin True Blood nude" or "Michael Vick" or "Michael Jackson death conspiracy" or "health care tea party" or "Megan Fox nude" or "James Cameron Avatar spoilers" or "cash for clunkers" or "Radiohead leak free download" or "Chris Brown Rihanna nude." That would be going too far.

Download The Unblinking Ear Podcast
Or Subscribe via iTunes

Friday, August 21, 2009

Case Studies in Hype: Dirty Projectors and the Beets

(Please note the lack of a string section above)

There's a hilarious bit from the comedy duo Scharpling and Wurster about the fictional rock band Mother 13. In the role of singer Corey Harris, Jon Wurster explains how his fledgling major label rock band sounds like a cross between The Clash, the Who, Led Zeppelin, R.E.M. and some other well-regarded, A-list rock bands. However, when he plays his band's single, what one hears is lifeless rock only remarkable for how generic it is. Scharpling is incredulous, accusing Wurster of mentioning those bands as an attempt to use their credibility for his own gain.

I couldn't help but think of this "cred by association" when I heard Dirty Projectors covering Black Flag's Damaged album. Well, they don't exactly "cover" the songs but rather offer a reinterpretation from memory. This canny stunt would bring the Brooklyn band lots of attention, which culminated just a few months ago with the release of the follow up to the Rise Above project, Bitte Orca. The album received nearly universal acclaim and has made the band into one of the bigger names in the indie community.

The problem is Dirty Projectors are more or less the exact aesthetic opposite of Black Flag: studied, precious and overly intellectualized. There's absolutely nothing visceral or immediate about their music, which evokes nothing other than how clever its composers must be. Forget about hitting the listeners as hard as a classic punk tune. They don't even have the impact of the average top 40 pop song (Those songs tend to have hooks). I have trouble imagining Dirty Projectors as music that someone "enjoys." It's music that one appreciates if one convinces oneself that is for the best.

The Dirty Projectors never met a vocal affectation or sharp timing change they didn't like, employing them whether or not they serve the tune. Weird for the sake of weird, as Moe Szyslak would say. Old school rock fans may deplore modern bands like Vampire Weekend and MGMT, at least those bands have a backbeat and seek to move the listener. Dirty Projectors just pile on the quirk and hope it adds up to something. When the band strips away their more histrionic tendencies, such as on the single "Stillness in the Move," the results approach listenable. This happens far too rarely on Bitte Orca for the album to be of use to anyone but those who'd rather marvel at a band's "ingenuity" than be engaged by their music.

The Beets, on the other hand are almost ridiculously simple. The band's Spacemen-3-meets-Beat-Happening-style garage pop gained them a good amount of recognition in a relatively short period. I caught the band a few weeks ago and I was initially impressed with their unique style. However, by the end of their set I found myself rather bored as their sameness of sound relented into monotony. This was clearly a band with potential but seemed to be unworthy of the praise they were receiving.

However, I think the root this band's particular hype comes from intentions that are sincere and well-meaning. In the film Ratatouille, the character Anton Ego gives a speech about the role of the critic, concluding that the critic's ultimate purpose is the "defense of the new." "The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations, the new needs friends," he states. I think that often people, particularly if they are in some kind of gate-keeper position, will see a band like the Beets and realize they've got something going even if they have not quite figured it all out yet. So they try to give the new some friends and talk up the band to status they may have not quite achieved as of yet. Of course, there are bandwagon-jumpers who will immediately take to a band like this as they are the sort that relish in being able to say they were into this awesome shit before anybody else. Suddenly, the band has a following and those on the outside are scratching their heads saying "What the hell is big deal about these guys?" It's sort of like a single A-prospect being brought up to the majors and everybody wondering why he's hitting .220.

Of course, in these accelerated times, bands can achieve a modicum of fame much more quickly than they could years ago. In the past the above process might have taken three years, in which time the band may have matured and developed to the point of definite potency (or they could have broken up and that would be that). Now, this process could take three months. Bands are hyped to the heavens and then quickly discarded for not living up to perhaps unreasonable expectations. There was great quote in the 2006 Pazz and Jop poll wherein a critic notes (I'm paraphrasing, I can't find original quote) "The first time I heard of Cold War Kids was when I heard that everyone is sick of hearing about Cold War Kids." That about sums it up.

The Beets may well have a great record in them. Let's not write them off before they can accomplish it.