Tuesday, November 17, 2009

I Like Things

(Photo of Grass Widow and the Brooklyn Museum taken from Flickr)

I have a propensity to gripe. A good percentage of my blog posts are complaints, in one way or another. I'm often moved to write for the purpose of offering a counter argument. I'll see something that gets the "kids" excited, such as Dirty Projectors or the Pavement reunion, but doesn't quite sit well with me for whatever reason and that's enough to get my fingers tapping on the keyboard. Am I being contrarian for the sake of being contrarian? Am I sucking the fun out of everything?

Some have told me I am on both counts. I prefer to think of it as keeping people honest. Dissent is an important thing. Ideas are not valid until they're scrutinized. Plus, I'd like to think all the negativity is actually a by product of passion. Cynicism birthed from idealism and all that. I take rock music (perhaps far too) seriously, and when it's not all it could be, I feel compelled to comment. It's my own version of electric white boy blues. ("Electric" meaning an internet connection and not amplification in this case.)

Still, there is the fear that I'm turning into the Phil Mushnick of music blogging. I actually scrapped a post on Pitchfork's review of the Girls album for fear I was repeating points I had already made. (Though I did include a bit of it in the post I eventually created in its place.) Being a crank is one thing but being redundant is far worse a crime.

Besides, there's a lot I do like and I'd much rather share the good than vivisect the bad. Of course, I do share music I enjoy every time I make a podcast but frankly, doing it via prose is much more challenging. I owe it to you, dear reader, to at least make the effort.

So, here. A bunch of things I like:

Last Saturday I managed to catch two things I liked very much. As part of a corporate-sponsored bit of altruism, I saw the recently opened Who Shot Rock & Roll exhibition as well as a performance from San Francisco's Grass Widow at the Brooklyn Museum. The exhibition is a real stunner, transcending cliched rock star worship. It posits the photographers who shot these musicians are artists whose work defined the image of rock n roll, perhaps even more so than the musicians themselves. It's not the biggest revelation for anybody who's been paying attention, but seeing the lot of these images in the same place, ranging from the obvious (Pennie Smith's shot of Paul Simonon smashing his bass) to the obscure (Justin Borucki's shot of unknown punk rockers S.T.U.N. at CBGBs), is a compelling experience.

Grass Widow somehow managed to be equally impressive. The all-woman trio released their self-titled debut long-player earlier this year and finally made it to New York for a series of seven or gigs over the course of a single weekend. (Lots of day/night double headers for these ladies.) The album is one of the year's best, further evidence that great musicianship and technical prowess do not have a correlative relationship. Grass Widow's songs are relatively simple but take unexpected turns, their angularity tempered by surprisingly lush three-part harmonies. The closest antecedent is probably the Raincoats but like most remarkable bands, mere comparison doesn't do Grass Widow justice. Their album has just been repressed by Make A Mess Records and is also available via iTunes. A more recent 4-song 12" EP on Captured Tracks is also recommended.

I like other new records too. A couple of months ago I noted that there were a bunch of noteworthy releases which all came out in a relatively short period. I'm slowly making my way through the pile and have found the below to be particularly ear-pleasing. (Caveat emptor: my ears are pleased by things that frighten most other humans.)

The Fresh & Onlys Grey-Eyed Girls
Second album from this group, who apparently already have a third slated for release on In The Red next year. I haven't heard the first one but I'm looking forward to the third after hearing this. Kind of reminds me of the aspect of New Zealand post-punk bands that reminds me of 60s garage. I'm not sure if that makes any sense but if it sounds appealing to you, you'd probably dig this record a lot.

Times New Viking Born Again Revisited
A return to form after last year's somewhat disappointing effort. I've wondered aloud if TNV might do themselves a favor by going into an actual studio with a sympathetic producer/engineer. I'm not saying hire Ric Ocasek like fellow hiss-loving Ohioans Guided By Voices did, but maybe someone who could replicate their live sound. In any case, the new album proves I often don't know what the hell I'm talking about. They haven't cleaned up a bit and still knock it out of the park.

Pissed Jeans King of Jeans
A terrific third album of heavy punk sludge from one of the best post-hardcore outfits going today. Often compared to mid to late period Black Flag (the good parts, I hope), I actually hear a lot of the Birthday Party in the new album. Singer Matt Korvette stretches vocals into twisted, tortured forms just like vintage Cave. The band retains their sick/wicked/juvenile sense of humor. If you don't find a cut like "R-Rated Movie" hilarious, then you probably think this past year was the best season of Curb Your Enthusiasm yet.

I like other things besides records. TV, for example. And the best show on TV right now just might be Adult Swim's The Venture Bros. Why might it be the best show in television? Well, it has the deep mythology, rich backstory and character development of a show like Lost while being just as funny as anything else on the air right now. It's really the best of both worlds. Like other Adult Swim shows, The Venture Bros get a lot of mileage out of "geek-recognition" humor (as the Onion AV Club called it). However, unlike the Family Guy/Robot Chicken school of let's-throw-spaghetti-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks gag comedy, The Ventures generally stay within their universe of "kiddie pulp" (i.e. superheroes, boy adventurers) though even other references (a Hunter S. Thompson pastiche and David Bowie himself are major characters) are fully integrated into the story. Plus, it's the best looking animation on Adult Swim by some distance.

You know what else I like? Reading. And the most entertaining prose book I've read this year is Mike Edison's I Have Fun Everywhere I Go. Subtitled "Savage Tales of Pot, Porn, Punk Rock, Pro Wrestling, Talking Ape, Evil Bosses, Dirty Blues, American Heroes, and the Most Notorious Magazines in the World," Edison's biography details his career as a kind of lowbrow renaissance man. Edison wrote and edited for various wrestling dirt sheets, stroke books and skin mags, all while maintaining a parallel career as a drummer for a series of low-rent garage rock bands. And that doesn't even tell half the story. The book certainly contains all the drug consumption, fornication and general debauchery one might expect, but Edison's writing is sharp, involving and good-humored, transforming what might have been lurid sensationalism into literate earthiness. Even if it wasn't, wouldn't you want to read the life story of a guy who was publisher of High Times and buddies with GG Allin anyway? Oh... Evil Knievel is in there too.

My personal favorite anecdote: After Edison balked at writing a gay-oriented smut book under the premise that he simply didn't know the subject matter, his editor told him "You got a hole, and you got a pole, and that don't change. Now sit down and write your fucking book." Pure poetry.

The year's best book, sequential art division, would have to be David Mazzucchelli's Asterios Polyp. Mazzucchelli made a name for himself in the 80s, penciling a pair of critically acclaimed and hugely popular superhero comics with Frank Miller writing: Daredevil: Born Again and Batman: Year One. He was an in demand artist and could have had a long and profitable career drawing men with capes. However, Mazzucchelli decided to give up the superhero racket and focus on art comics. His work since has been been anything but prolific. His major works in the past 20 years have the Rubber Blanket anthology, which lasted three issues, and a graphic novel adaptation of Paul Auster's City of Glass.

His first entirely self-penned and illustrated graphic was finally released earlier this year and I have to say Asterios Polyp was well worth the wait. It's an auteur comic through and through, as interested in the way it tells its story as much as than the story itself. Form comments on content and vice versa. Mazzucchelli does things with color and line work I've never seen done before. For example, characters are drawn in different visual styles (right down to their shapes and fonts used for their speech balloons), which represent their differing philosophies. As two characters become romantically involved and their philosophies are found to be compatible, their style merge into one. When the characters argue, they separate. It's a simple tactic that pays off brilliantly. That's just the tip of the iceberg. Mazzucchelli plays with the comics form to comment on the subjects of identity, academia, aesthetics, philosophy and fate and it would not surprise me in the least if Asterios Polyp is quickly acknowledged as one the great works of its medium. (Please read Douglas Wolk's New York Times review of the book for a more thorough analysis.) I should note that Asterios Polyp is not as heady or challenging as I'm perhaps making it sound. It's a total delight to read. I went through the whole thing in one sitting.

So there you have it. That should keep you occupied for a while. Hopefully, you'll find the works above more rewarding than the scathing dismissal I nearly wrote on New York Magazine's suckjob cover story on Brooklyn bands who take the rock out indie rock. What's the line from that Buzzcocks' song? "Now I can stand austerity but it gets a little much/when there's all these livid things that you never get to touch."


Unknown said...

Totally agree about the TNV album. I appreciated the fact that Rip It Off was basically a noise album with pop underpinnings and that it was a kind of a statement having just signed to Matador and all, but those pop underpinnings weren't particularly memorable compared to their previous efforts. I think Born Again Revisited just has better songs, for whatever that is worth. I hate speaking in intangibles, but I can hum most of the new one from memory. I can't tell you what was on Rip It Off apart from that song about a face being on fire.

J said...

why do you feel the need to apologize?
it is not your fault that certain segments of your audience don't understand the concept of criticism, or much else.

I'd much rather read someone's honest opinion of music, art, pop culture than some leach trying to blow the next cool indie group.

PB said...

Joe, it's not so much an apology as it is that I feel for criticism to be balanced, I should share some things about which I'm enthusiastic. If one doesn't like anything, then how can one's claims to dislike any one thing hold any validity? I felt that lately I'd been too focused and the negative and was dangerously close to making the same points over and over again. I needed to change it up to avoid cranky old man syndrome.

I'm still keeping it honest, I'm just looking at the light rather than the darkness for a change. Don't worry. I'm sure I'll find something to complain about soon enough. The universe just keep producing awful shit.

dola said...

Pauline Kael said she got out of the film reviewing business when not enough movies excited her anymore and she was tired of ripping apart the schlock. Let that never happen to you my good man.

Brushback said...

I love enthusiasm when it comes from a great writer, it can get me pumped up into checking something out that I've never heard before (Jay Hinman is always good for that). Still, it's always harder to write about something you like without sounding like a cliched hack than it is to cut apart something that sucks... insults are always right there at the tip of your brain, compliments are a little bit harder to contstruct.. Actually, Paul, I'm always coming back here to read your posts even though sometimes I don't care about the bands you're talking about-- because the writing is good-- so don't worry about it...