February 2009


[What follows is an article I wrote for Melisma Music Magazine, which will be puplished sometime in the Spring. So, consider this a fabulous sneak peak. A gift– from me to you. But do feel free to regift.]

The Vivian Girls formed in New Jersey in 2007, but by the end of the next year, they had found a place amongst the loudest voices of cacophonous Brooklyn. In quick succession, they released a single, an acclaimed self titled record (on two separate labels), a music video, another single, a cover of a beach boys song, two more singles—a truly remarkable level of productivity for a nascent, cheeky, lo-fi rock trio. The incredible part is that they did it all pretty much on their own, using whatever resources they had at hand, and a little help from whoever might offer it.
It has become commonplace to say that the Internet has revolutionized the music industry. What began with aural privateers like Kazaa and Napster has in subsequent years led to bands putting their music up online for free download, selling records directly off their websites or MySpaces, marketing their own shows and performances, and so on. Indeed, the industry has come a long way from the time not so distant when major record companies like Virgin and EMI controlled the means of production and distribution of popular music.

What mechanism, then, has risen in their place? While there are many bands who avoid the more traditional methods of gaining popularity and attempt to do so simply through exposing people to their music online, a challenge still presents itself in how exactly one truly talented band manages to stand out from the legions of high school rockers and wanna-be pop stars that saturate sites like MySpace. Where before talent scouts from Capital might discover an up and coming band performing at a tiny venue in front of a crowd of their friends, now bloggers are the ones going to shows, combing through local scenes, all just to find the next big thing to write about.

Though bloggers don’t have access to the resources most record company executives do, there is little doubt that (at least in the Indie music world) they have become the preeminent tastemakers in the industry. Without blogs like Gorilla vs. Bear and Brooklyn Vegan, or the team at Pitchfork, it’s unlikely that the Vivian Girls would be much more then a funky little garage (or maybe loft) band in Red Hook.

Of course it’s impossible for an outside observer to really know, but one can easily imagine the progression of events: Chris (of Gorilla vs. Bear) saw the Vivian Girls play a show, or maybe had someone tell him about them—he was intrigued and looked up their website, found their single, and posted it on his blog. Once the album came out, he reviewed it, writing “after listening to this record back-to-back-to-back over the last hour and change, I’m completely in love with Vivian Girls’ self-titled new LP, a collection of mostly sub-two minute, noisy/sweet pop songs that’s about as infectious as anything I’ve heard all year.” Considering such a auspicious sentiment, it’s hardly surprising that from that point on every bit of news from the Vivian Girls ended up on Gorilla vs. Bear.

But the blogosphere can’t take full credit for the success of this (nor any other) band. The Vivian Girls would not have become such a phenomenon without an assiduous dedication to their music, and, more importantly, without having that music be down right good enough to garner attention in the first place. Indeed, when the Vivian Girl released the second print of their album, Amy Granzin of Pitchfork wondered in her glowing review if the Vivian Girls would manage to be among the small group of “new bands that, when the hype settles, are more than inconsequential collections of postures and exhausted second-hand styles”. They were, and the only explanation as to why they never flamed out is that they continued to produce material and play shows. They kept themselves in the spotlight.

In the last few months, though the Vivian Girls have stepped a bit too the side, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that their sound has saturated the Internet. Gorilla vs. Bear, in particular, has offered up a near endless stream of coverage of similar, lo-fi bands: Eternal Summers, Wavves, the Mayfair Set, The Dum Dum Girls, and so on—and many other influential voices in the blogosphere have followed suit. Though this style isn’t an entirely innovative or revolutionary one, through it’s revival (it seems) a distinctive sound has already emerged for the New Year.

Of course, the Vivian Girls don’t have a monopoly on this particular method of getting the word out about themselves. Animal Collective, a group long lauded in Indie music circles, managed to dominate the blogosphere from the end of November of 2008 until weeks after the release of their LP Mettiweather Post Pavillion, through a succession of events that began with Grizzly Bear’s Ed Droste (as well as many others) linking to a leaked song off the album on his blog and ending with a series of new songs, remixes and live performances being diffused at the end of January. For a fair segment of that block of time, My Old Kentucky Blog, Brooklyn Vegan, and others scarcely went a day without posting some new tidbit of news about Animal Collective.

And Panda Bear, Geologists and the rest maintained that level of coverage just like the Vivian girls did—by offering up as much new material as possible as quickly as possible. What these and other bands understand is this: as long as your putting out something the blogs like, they will pay attention to you until you stop.

The most salient effect of all this on the music industry, then, is that the cycle bands used to engage in, where they would release a new record, tour in support of it, go to the studio to work on new material, release it, and so on—has completely changed. Bands like Animal Collective know that if you want to be covered by Brooklyn Vegan, you need to play as many shows in Brooklyn and Manhattan as possible; if you want to be picked up on My Old Kentucky Blog or Gorilla vs. Bear you need to release songs on line for free download; if you want to show up on Pitchfork you need to release albums, videos, or just do things that make news—whatever that ends up being.

It would be ridiculous to suggest that there isn’t a place for bands to become popular in this ever-accelerating environment. But most of those bands are the ones who have major labels behind them (or at least the promise of such a relationship in the future), or are more interested in making great music then people knowing who they are. But if you want your music to remain current, to not be subsumed into the constantly flowing sea of new music, to be a darling of the blogs, to be a band worth talking about, if you want to reach a broad, in some cases even National, audience—if you truly want to be heard, you need to be willing to manically create, to constantly and unflinchingly write and record.
And to do that, you need to do the most important thing of all: love your art the way the Vivian Girls do—even if they are a tad sardonic about it.

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I love Metric.

And not just the system, either. The band. So yes, a magical puddle of excitement did indeed apear under my chair when I heard about their new album Fantasies was coming out on the 14th of April. But beyond that, I just came across a pretty kickin’ interview with Emily Haines and Jimmy Shaw done by Pitchfork. The whole thing is worth a read, but here’s a little excerpt I found particularly compelling:

JS: There’s such a weird line between doing something really cool and doing something unbelievably cheesy. This is a thing that I respect but don’t full-on love about the indie aesthetic: Most of the time, the only way to stay cool is to do nothing on stage.

EH: Just wear the shirt that you slept in last night.

JS: Exactly. It’s very safe– a rejection of trying things that might make you come across differently. We wanna try things, so there’s gonna be a moment here or there where it’s like, “I kinda missed that one.” I’d rather go down that way. Lots of amazing artists have put out records that are unlistenable. There are some bad Neil Young records. There are 20 unlistenable Stones records. Van Morrison only made one great album– and he’s a fuckin’ legend!

Pitchfork: This reverts back to the Killers show– I’m not sure if they’re great at managing that line between cheesy and awesome.

JS: Yeah, like “Is he human…”

EH: “…or is he just a dancer?”

JS: I think that’s one one of the worst things I’ve ever heard.

EH: That lyric is really bad. But it’s a very well-crafted song. I’m glad we’re talking about this because I think about it a lot, too. The idea of spectacle versus the authenticity of indie rock. It’s like, spectacle is shallow, and pretending no one is looking at you is authentic. I agree with that sometimes, but I find the people and shows I really admire don’t strictly adhere to the idea of the invisible self.

I think Franz Ferdinand is an example of a band that knows what they’re doing– they understand the function of music in people’s lives. There are many functions, but when it comes to a concert it’s about performance. If the same people at a show were standing on a subway together, they’d be uncomfortable with their shoulders hunched. But because music is playing and this feeling is in the room, you can have this incredible communion. That usually happens at shows where the performers are putting themselves beyond themselves.

Not only are they each saying some fairly germaine and interesting things about indie music, but also bashing the mutated homunculus the Killers have turned into, as well as plugging the best Brit-Pop of the decade. Good stuff.

As to Fantasies itself, from all accounts it’s gonna be an extreamly rad release. From what I’ve heard thus far, closer in tone to Old World Underground, Where Are You Now? then to Grow Up and Blow Away which makes sense, though is a tad disapointing for the purists in the audience.

But, even so, this band does little if not evolve, so judge for yourself. Check out this video of “Stadium Rock”, a song (I can only assume) from the new album.

Also, if you get a chance, check out “Help I’m Alive”.
And be excited.

So, I was notified of perhaps the most brilliant thing I have ever seen yesterday:

Garfield minus Garfield

Oh yes, oh yes. A series of Garfield comic strips without the title cat, leaving behind a lonely, tortured, schizophrenic, and downright existential John. The panels range from hilarious, to moving, to incredibly distressing.

A couple of my favorites:

Banana Jon

Pathetic Jon

Purpose Jon

Park Jon

Now that’s something to eat your Sunday morning waffle over. Or, you know, Kashi granola.

A quick note: I have been doing well. Week 7 was a screening of the Directors Cut of The Exorcist at the Harvard Film Archive. Week 8 is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Both deserve more commentary, but I am unfortunately running off to Dreamation and don’t have the requisite time. I will say that Exorcist is a very good film, but I find it a little dated, and not for me as an audience member; and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind appeals so strongly to my hopeless romantic side that I can’t find anything to criticise about it, which I suppose is a bit of a criticism in itself.

So, here’s the current rankings, as 2/19/09:

New Releases

  1. Milk (Week 1)
  2. Gran Torino (Week 2)

New To Me!

  1. The Exorcist (Directors Cut) (Week 7)
  2. Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind (Week 8 )
  3. Hellboy (Week 3)
  4. Serenity (Week 5)
  5. Formula 51 (Week 6)

Old Favorites

  1. Hook (Week 4)

In this dispatch: Chiptunes, Goth/Darkwave/Industrial, Local Scenster Rock.

CHIPTUNES

So I’m a fan of weird music. There’s a whole scene of people making music from old Game Boys, Ataries, etc. Chiptunes/8bit/videohack, whatever you wanna call it, I love it. If you don’t know 8bitpeoples, you should. They have a couple new releases that I’m listening to RIGHT NOW.

gWem/Counter Reset Live From Hell

gWem/Counter Reset Live From Hell

80s Metal, funnelled through an Atari, a drum set and a Marshall Amp – oh yes. Recorded live in London, I’m digging the over-the-top lyrical stylings (which are STRAIGHT FROM HELL) with the bleep bleeps. Get it for free here.

M-.-n, Disco Dust

M-.-n, Disco Dust

More “traditional” (if thats an appropriate word), this is the right blend of dance and bleep for my sensabilities. Some chiptunes are a little too far off in videogame land for me to really enjoy for more than about a minute; some, such as this album, involve sexy dance beats and mix in the rawk. So, check this out if that’s up your ally. Download for free here.

If you’re interested in exploring more, I heartily recommend pretty much anything by Mesu Kasumai and Nullsleep.

GOTHDARKWAVEINDUSTRIAL

Ego Likeness (pic by Kyle Cassidy)

Ego Likeness (pic by Kyle Cassidy)

I became aware of Ego Likeness through Kyle Cassidy’s LJ, and they are an awesome goth/industrial/darkwave/trip-hop kind of outfit with fantastic vocal structure. And I was really excited a couple of weeks ago, because on their website they had a directory of free songs to download, so I snagged about 20 songs from their various albums and have been listening to them non-stop. No worries, I plan to invest in some disc realsoonnow, but it appears that the domain has tragicially expired! Well, they are still easy to check out on MySpace, and I’ll keep checking to see if the website comes back up soon. If not, maybe I’ll shoot them an email and see if they mind me hosting those free songs, cuz they really are worth hearing. Who knows.

LOCAL SCENESTER ROCK

Cure For Static Live!

Cure For Static Live!

My buddy Brian is in this band called Cure For Static. I have lots of friends in bands, but I usually don’t pimp them unless (a) I think they’re good and (b) they are being smart about promoting themselves – and these guys are both, so thats cool! You can check them out on MySpace, of course, but they are also offering the digital version of their 5-song EP Higher Ground on CDBaby for $1.00. I invested that measly buck, and it’s totally worth it. It’s a tight recording, with a kind of mid-90s alternative vibe infused with more recent indie/pop hooks and sensabilities. Also, it’s the kind of music to which you can dance with girls while listening. So, check out the 1$ EP on CDBaby, if you wanna support a solid local act.

I’ve already started to wobble a little bit, but I have managed to fulfill my movie quota for the last three weeks.

Week 4: Hook

Ah, a classic. Some friends and I arranged a movie night featuring this Oscar-nominated update of Peter Pan. If you haven’t seen it, I can’t recommend it enough. Maybe it’s just where it fell in my childhood, but I have an honest love for the film, not least because Rufio is so Emo and Dustin Hoffman’s Captain Hook is so very, very Goth. It warms my heart.

Also, it was released in 1991, falling right in the heart of the time when non-digital visual effects were at their technological peak. Movies from the early 90s that could afford it look so much better than the first wave of CGI that started in the mid-90s (Jurassic Park, for example). The crazy Lost Boys camp, the Pirate town, the Croc Clock, Hook’s Ship…all of that physical scenery really lends a beautiful look to the film.

So, 7 out of 7 detachable hooks for Hook.

Hook at IMDB. Trailer.

After Hook, I failed at seeing something in that next week, what with a weekend trip to NYC and some epic logistical failures involving the city of Cambridge. Yesterday, however, I managed to double up on movies, fulfilling my challenge obligations. They are still counted per week, though, to keep things easy.

Week 5: Serenity

Yes, I’ve seen Firefly. I think it’s pretty sweet, but I wouldn’t define myself as a browncoat. My friend lent me the DVD of Serenity, which I didn’t catch in theatres, and it seemed appropriate to watch on a lazy Saturday afternoon.

I liked it. I mean, I know the characters already, so it was nice to “see” them again, if you know what I mean. The plot is pretty solid, a lot of the dialogue is good, there are some great moments. I thought that the total awkwardness between Mal and Annoura was a little overdone.  Kaylee continues to be one of my favorite fictional characters from anywhere, ever. And I actually really liked the Operative, he has enough complexity that he was interesting, even while keeping on task as the major adversity for the plot.

I dunno how it comes off to people who aren’t already fans of the IP, but I also dunno why anyone who wasn’t already at least aware of the Firefly universe would see it, so thats a wash.

Speaking of, why does Wash die? It makes no dramatic sense, compared to the other options if one of the crew has to go. Weird.

Overall, 3.5 out of 5 incomprehensible Chinese curses.

Serenity at IMDB. Trailer.

Week 6: Formula 51

I’m not going to lie – I chose this to watch because it’s the shortest of the movies on my stack of things I have that I haven’t watched, and because I knew from the outset that I wouldn’t have to pay a lot of attention to it.

It features Samuel L. Jackson as a kilt-wearing genius chemist trying to get the most money he can from a British crime syndicate for the formula of a new wonder drug he’s developed, which is apparently 51 times as potent as cocaine.

Um, it’s not very good. You should watch these clips, to demonstrate how not good it is.

And, the most awkward rave scene ever:

Actually, the cinematography and visual style are pretty good, for a frenetic caper movie. And the movie does transcend merely bad to become “You HAVE to see this” celebratory awful, so it has that going for it. But, um, see Snatch instead, if you have the choice and want to watch something that doesn’t make you dumber.

1 out of 9 kilt-wearing Jacksons.

Formula 51 at IMDB. Trailer (you should watch the trailer).

So, here’s the current rankings, as 2/8/09:

New Releases

  1. Milk (Week 1)
  2. Gran Torino (Week 2)

New To Me!

  1. Hellboy (Week 3)
  2. Serenity (Week 5)
  3. Formula 51 (Week 6)

Old Favorites

  1. Hook (Week 4)