Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Art of Self-Plagiarism: Sonic Youth's The Eternal

Like most people around my age, Sonic Youth played an huge role in the development of my nascent musical taste. I probably first became aware of the band around the time of Goo. (I know that's not very hip to admit but please consider that I was 12.) A couple of years later, an older friend made me a personalized "greatest hits" mixtape of their early material. Having at that point only heard their first two DGC albums, songs like "Flower" and "I'm Insane" absolutely blew my mind. I'd known even then that I had perhaps missed out on the band's creative zenith but my regard for them was nothing short of reverential. A cooler band was unimaginable.

That being said, I haven't bought a Sonic Youth album since 1995's Washing Machine. This despite my peers' insistence that pretty much every album they've released since Murray Street was "their best since Daydream Nation." I've heard most of these albums in bits and pieces and they pretty much confirmed that I knew all their tricks and the band's new material was unlikely to engage me that way their old albums did. The Eternal, their first album for Matador, does little to change that perception. Sonic Youth offers variations on "the Sonic Youth sound," emphasizing whatever elements make them more relevant to the sounds that are dominating the underground at that moment. It's fairly well-known at this point that SY have always kind of been carpetbaggers and careerists, imitating as often as they were imitated. The Eternal has a bit of a punkier flavor and one has to wonder if that's a reaction to the Jay Reatards and Times New Vikings of the world.

This isn't to say the album is bad. It actually sounds pretty terrific while it's playing. It has no real weak spots in its 12 songs and has grown on me substantially with each listen. The band has perfected crafting sounds that zero in on the pleasure center of a Sonic Youth fan's brain. If that's more or less all they offer nowadays, I have little to complain about. I might take some guff for this comparison but it's similar to the elder statesman model the Rolling Stones have adopted, releasing albums of new material that receive positive reviews and satisfy the cult, recalling past glories if not quite equaling them. However, when you want your fix of the band at their best, are you going to put on Aftermath or Voodoo Lounge?

Thoughts on some other records out now or soon:

Stuart Murdoch God Help The Girl
Like Sonic Youth, I sort of gave up on Belle and Sebastian. After the exceedingly dull Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant, I bailed for a while though "Piazza, New York Catcher" certainly made me smile. However, after hearing 2006's The Life Pursuit, I was back in the fold. The album's glam accents helped highlight the (often overlooked) humor and playfulness inherent in the band's work. God Help the Girl is the new project from frontman Stuart Murdoch and is probably the closest thing to a new B&S album we're going to get any time soon. It's billed as "a story set to music" and a soundtrack to a musical film that's yet to be shot. Yeah, I don't get it either but maybe this could better explain it. A pair of songs from The Life Pursuit are recycled, one of which, "Funny Little Frog" with unknown Brittany Stallings on vocals, completely eclipses the original. Ultimately, God Help the Girl may be little more than a pastiche of musicals, girl groups and orchestral pop but it's a delightful pastiche, one that B&S fans would serve themselves well by picking up. And I'm sure it's lot better than whatever the hell that Duncan Shiek shit is.

Cause Co-Motion! Because Because Because
Because Because Because is the latest release from Brooklyn's favorite reverb-abusing twee poppers. Recalling the early Television Personalities at their best, this EP is relatively longer than the band's previous releases, which excluding a compilation, were all singles. I say "relatively" because the set is only 6 songs in a mere 10 minutes. Still, it's a treat to hear this band work their magic without having to get up to flip the 45 every minute and a half or so. It's also perhaps a tad cleaner and tighter than previous releases (though still far from slick), which may make Because Because Because the perfect introduction to Cause Co-Motion! for the uninitiated. So get on that.

Blank Dogs Under & Under The latest release from the prolific nom-de-rock of the most powerful man in the recording industry offers 15 further mash notes to early Cabaret Voltaire and SPK. Mr. Sniper is smart enough to know that if one is going to do something that's already been done, it should at least be something that hasn't been done to death. The Blank Dogs' brand of analog (or at least analog-sounding) electropunk is fertile sonic territory farmed by few. Even the contemporaries of early practitioners seemed to wind up turning into Ministry or something. In any case, the execution has generally been hit-or-miss. When I last saw the band play a few months back, there were points when their set was absolutely riveting. At other points, one might have been best entertained by looking around the room and debating which obnoxious Brooklyn hipster most deserved to be punched in the back of the head. Likewise, Under & Under is an uneven affair. The album starts strongly but seems to peter out around the midway point, though the late-arriving "Tin Birds" is definitely a highlight. Perhaps it's just that a little of this stuff goes a long away. One also has to wonder if this material might be better served by cleaning up some of the grime. There are times when Blank Dogs seem to be aiming for 154-like textures but are afraid that more clarity would make them sound like deep cuts from a John Hughes soundtrack. Actually... that might be a legitimate concern.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Everybody's Got One

(Above: three people worse than Hitler)

Opinions, man.

A couple of months ago, I wrote about the inevitable backlash to the rise in popularity of bands who could be tagged with the lo-fi label. I reasoned that a band like Tyvek would become victims of circumstance and wind up getting a fistful of snarky derision from ill-informed, self-appointed cultural gatekeepers when the band released their first full-length. Tyvek actually quietly released their debut album a couple of weeks ago on Siltbreeze. With the limited budget of a label that small, the album (which is quite good, by the way) has gone pretty much ignored by most of the major music blogs, who generally derive their content almost entirely from whatever publicists are sending them.

It may well be Tyvek's good fortune to avoid any kind of scrutiny right now as the backlash is happening in a major way. The band that's getting the worst of it: Vivian Girls.

Take a look at the comments section in this Stereogum post for the band's new video for evidence. Admittedly, the song isn't their strongest but it's certainly not radically different or patently inferior to their material that was being hyped to the heavens only a few short months ago. Some of the very same forums that aided in Vivian Girls' ascent are now bored with them and seem to wish the band would just go away so they can move on to covering the next flavor of the month. I suppose that's what happens when your opinion goes whichever way the wind is blowing. Trendiness is a fickle mistress. In any case, there seem to be three lines of reasoning as to why Vivian Girls are not worth your time. Please allow me to attack a straw man for a moment:

1. They can't play
First of all, anyone who complains about bands like Vivian Girls' lack of musical ability should be forced to listen to nothing but Steve Vai and Rush for the rest of their lives since technical prowess is so important to them. Joe Satriani has a new band with Sammy Hagar. That should be right up your alley.

One of the most appealing things about rock music for me is that it's democratic by nature. Any one can do it. Most of the Velvet Underground's songs are fairly simple and easy to emulate. This was so inspiring and influential that it changed culture forever. One of the most important (though often overlooked) aspects of the original punk movement was its access. "It was easy. It was cheap. Go and do it" as the Desperate Bicycles sang. This do-it-yourself aesthetic got a lot of creative people making rock n roll regardless of commercial considerations or myopic definitions of "ability." Thirty-plus years later, this remains punk's gift to the world. I'm not implying that everyone who started a band using this approach had something of value to offer nor that inspired amateurism is inherently superior to technical skill. However, when one fails to recognize that brilliant music can (and often does) come from players who are less than virtuosos makes me wonder why they're into indie music in the first place.

2. No one would care about them if they weren't cute young women
This is to say that people only really care about Vivian Girls due to their gender and physical attractiveness and not their music. This is often followed by an insult regarding the relative homeliness of their drummer, which is not only cruel and unnecessary but also serves to show that the speaker is just as superficial as those he is accusing. Way to try and have it both ways, asshole.

There are certainly those more qualified than I to discuss gender issues in popular music. However, it should be evident that treating women playing rock music as some kind of novelty in 2009 is fairly despicable. It is perhaps a bit of a Utopian ideal that listeners would see no distinction between male and female led bands. There has always been and possibly always will be the kind of fan who fetishizes the female voice. And there are also those whose libido turns their ears tin, projecting their lust for the performer into the music. However, theorizing that the only possible reason one could like an band led by women is because of the above demonstrates casual sexism at best and bullying misogyny at worst.

3. What's the big deal about them anyway?
Usually, this argument goes something like "Why are these guys so popular when band X is much better?" You would think people ostensibly into underground or independent music would understand there's no real correlation between popularity and quality. Less than stellar bands get buzz all the time. Are you the type so committed to fully absorbing every flavor of the month hyped up by the blogosphere that it would truly bother you if one of these bands is not to your liking? That just shows you don't have much in the way of a personal aesthetic regarding music or "taste," if you prefer. Hence, your opinion is pretty much irrelevant and you should probably keep your mouth shut.

I don't begrudge anyone for disliking Vivian Girls. Taste is subjective and individual, after all. However, you're going to publicly trash them (or any other band) try to come up with some kind of legitimate reason. For all the criticism that can be found on the web's various forums, actual critical thinking is in short supply. This is true not only for the negative but the positive as well. Things move so fast nowadays that there seem to be two or three new bands every week getting major digital ink but it's a rarity that anyone actually explains why these acts are worth your time. All too often, it's just the band's name, an MP3 and a few sentences cribbed from the publicist's bio, like so much spaghetti flung at the wall. I know that trying to describe music with words is challenging but as Woody Allen said, it's important to make a little effort once in a while.

Preemptive postscript: Yes, I'm aware that I'm lamenting the low critical and journalistic standards of internet scribes on a blog, their chosen medium. I'm also aware that for my argument to be valid I would have to consider my blog and my opinions to be superior to others, but you know... I kind of do.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Unblinking Ear Podcast: 1st Anniversary Edition

(No one made me a cake)

It's been just over a year since I posted my first podcast. (It only feels like five.) During that time I've learned to embed files into this blog so you can listen to the podcast without navigating away from the page, thus proving my programming skills to be the equivalent of today's average 4th grader. I've also made the podcast available via iTunes and my subscribers now measure in the dozens. Look out, This American Life. I'm gunning for that top spot.

Hopefully, I'll be doing this podcast for many years to come. It will most likely end when either podcasts become a totally dead medium or I'm hired at a music director for satellite radio. Just FYI, the former is a much more likely scenario.

Thanks for listening.

Download The Unblinking Ear Podcast
Or Subscribe via iTunes

Thursday, May 14, 2009

I Just Saw the New Star Trek Movie...

...and all I got was the flimsiest pretense to post a YouTube clip. No, not that one. This one:

In all seriousness, J.J. Abrams' Star Trek was a lot of fun. (Watchable, even.) It's miles better than any of the Star Wars prequels in terms of... well, pretty much everything.

Speaking of Mr. Abrams, I have some theories on last night's season finale of Lost. Most of them involve nanotechnology and a snowglobe.

Less (nerd) talk, more rock... coming soon.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

This Moment in Slack History: The Stiffs

"This Moment in Slack History" collects songs from 90s indie 7 inches. For further explanation, please see my original post here.

The Stiffs "Destroy All Art" and Chelsea"
As Sonic Youth told us, 1991 was the year punk broke. This is about half true. 1991 was more accurately the year that punk derived bands began making their presence known in the mainstream, chiefly in the form of the success of the first Lollapalooza tour and the ascent of Nirvana and the grunge movement. It wasn't until 1994 that full-fledged punk revival outfits like Green Day, Rancid and the Offspring started popping up on the charts and in heavy rotation on MTV. While those groups and their slicked up radio ready sound moved units, the best of the punk revival was occurring in the underground. Bands like Gaunt, the Rip Offs and New Bombs Turks all released fantastic 1990s punk albums. The blog Static Party, which chronicles 90s punk 45s, even goes as far as calling this period punk third "golden era." As one who was raised on this stuff, I can't disagree.

One of the best bands out of this mini-movement were the Stiffs a.k.a. the Stiffs Inc. The New York band released a pair of 7 inches on tiny indie labels before signing with ill-fated American Records subsidiary Onion for their debut album, Nix Nought Nothing. Like every other release on Onion, it sank like stone. The band released a second album a couple of years later and called it quits soon after. However, the Stiffs' influence in mass culture has become fairly substantial. Their striking "Victorian punk" look was shamelessly appropriated by popular mall punk goofballs My Chemical Romance.

The songs below are from the band's self-released debut 45. "Chelsea" was rerecorded for the debut full-length but this the superior version. Said album is available from Amazon for a penny if you're interested in hearing more. Frankly, it's a bargain at twice that price.

Download The Stiffs "Destroy All Art" and Chelsea"

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Media Schmaltz: The Germs Movie

I caught the long gestating Germs biopic What We Do Is Secret on cable last night. By most accounts Darby Crash was a fascinating guy, as much a cult leader as a musician. (Maybe even more the former than the latter, actually.) Seeing his short life shoehorned into hour-and-a-half long conventional rockstar-rise-and-fall movie was unappealing at best and chore to sit through at worst. Pretty boy actor Shane West did his best (I guess) to emulate Darby's speaking and singing mannerisms but still managed to miss the mark by a wide margin. Darby Crash may not have been much of singer in the conventional sense and in theory he should be easy to imitate. However, his grunts, groans and stretching out of syllables were completely singular and distinctive. He was simply was one of the most fantastic punk vocalists of all time, and any portrayal that's less than dead on is going probably to ring false.

There's also the matter of the Germs' live performances in the film. It's probably inevitable that their staged nature could not replicate the wild unpredictability of the Germs in concert. Still, every show is treated as though it were a glorious riot when it was probably closer to an unfocused mess. On stage, it seemed like finding the mic was pretty low on the real Darby's list of priorities, as is evidenced in the clip below:

What We Do Is Secret has more problems than just those of authenticity. The film can't seem to decide what approach it wants to take, switching between straight narrative and faux-documentary style talking heads. In either case, one never got much understanding of the reasons for Darby's ultimate fate. And boy, is it contrived. The introduction of Penelope Spheeris in particular was pretty much on par with the Beatles scene in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.

On the plus side, I will give kudos to the guy who played Kickboy Face.