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by Sarah Zupko

16 Mar 2009

Austin’s Seth Walker is a restless musical spirit. He began his career as a classically trained cellist and morphed into a bluesman. But even that doesn’t fully describe the musical stew that Walker serves up as he roams across African American musical forms, including blues, soul, gospel and jazz. His latest album “Leap of Faith” released two weeks ago and “Rewind” is dose of sweet Sam Cooke styled poppy soul from this latest release.

Seth Walker
“Rewind” [MP3]

by Matt White

16 Mar 2009

The Old Grey Whistle Test was a live music show that ran on the BBC from 1971 to 1987. The three DVD collections that have been released of Whistle Test are some of my favorite music DVDs, not just for showcasing amazing live (and the occasional mimed) performances by bands I love, but for introducing me to band’s I had yet to hear or had heard only a song or two from (usually the hits). The discs, for me, have been a treasure trove of musical discovery. Thanks to YouTube more performances from this seminal show have been made available and I’ve decided to start showcasing some of my favorites in a possible ongoing series of blog entries. Keep in mind these are just my own personal favorites and not necessarily the “best” or most important.

For five unfortunate years I worked in a factory making parts for airbags. After one particularly slow, grueling day I was driving home listening to the radio when a song came on that I didn’t know but was exactly what I wanted to hear at that moment. It was so mellow and relaxed, yet had a definite groove. I took note of the title and found out it was by someone named Al Stewart. The song was “Year of the Cat” and this performance on Whistle Test from 1978 is a great version of the song. From the wonderful piano intro on, the song takes it’s time as every instrument and every note gets room to breathe. I still know very little about Stewart, but I do know that “Year of the Cat” still has that calming effect on me every time I hear it.

The Only Ones are best known for the punk classic “Another Girl, Another Planet”, but that wasn’t their only great song. “No Peace for the Wicked” is a wonderful, shambling ode to pain and heartache with Peter Perrett’s distinctive voice asking “Why do I go through these deep emotional traumas?” before answering his own question… “I’m in love with extreme mental torture…”. Perfect.

Obviously with someone like Thomas Dolby, I knew “She Blinded Me With Science”, but it was through his performance of “Hyperactive”, included on volume two of the Whistle Test DVDs, that I realized he was more than a one-hit wonder. There could not be a more fitting song title for this frenzied funk jam. Shakers, trombone, synths, and a vocoder are all employed throughout along with the vocals of Adele Bertei who provides the track with an almost childlike innocence amidst all the frantic instrumentation. A joy to watch.

The third volume of the Whistle Test DVDs was my introduction to the underappreciated and often overlooked Prefab Sprout. Intricate guitar lines weave over top warm synths and tight, occasionally jazzy drumming with the male lead vocals/female backing vocals dynamic that may draw comparisons to the Dream Academy. Prefab Sprout are much more than that though and you only have to watch this magnificent performance of “When Loves Break Down” to see that. There’s a real gentleness here, like they’re trying to play as soft as they can without losing the sound completely, until, at the end, they do; fading out like someone is slowly turning the volume dial.

by Andrew Martin

16 Mar 2009

Here is the latest from Donwill, of the hip-hop group Tanya Morgan. His upcoming solo LP, Tanya Morgan Presents: Don Cusack in High Fidelity, is both an obvious ode to the 2000 film and what appears to be another solid entry in the TM catalog. Here we have the video for “Laura’s Song”.

by Sean Murphy

15 Mar 2009

Enough good things really can’t be said about Dave Foley, Kevin McDonald, Bruce McCulloch, Mark McKinney and Scott Thompson, also known as The Kids in the Hall. I celebrated them, in 2007, for the Popmatters “Best of TV on DVD” feature (http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/part-3-the-new-networks), and this was as succinct a summation as I was capable of conjuring up:

The Kids in the Hall existed in a sort of parallel universe to the much more popular, much less brilliant Saturday Night Live. Though comparisons between the two are inevitable, perhaps because of the Lorne Michaels connection, Kids in the Hall should be appraised—and appreciated—as part of the crooked line connecting Monty Python, which preceded it, and Mr. Show, which followed. While attracting an intense cult fan base, the Kids faced at least three major obstacles that made crossover success pretty much an impossibility. They were Canadian and had a pronounced—-and, for fans, most welcome—-quirkiness. They were disarmingly intelligent, yet always willing and eager to embrace the oddness of life. Their one-two punch of ingenuity and eccentricity could be like Gary Larson’s Far Side cartoons: you either got them, immediately, or you did not. Lastly, they dressed in drag. Often, and convincingly. Too convincingly, perhaps, for the average American sensibility circa 1990-something.

That works, I think. You can, and should, encourage those not-in-the-know to check them out, but it seems safe to predict that KITH will remain forever a cult phenomenon, appreciated by a discerning minority. Not unlike Monty Python, come to think of it. Not the movies, but the actual TV series: everyone loves Python and everyone ensures they get their props, but I can’t say I know too many people who have actually seen more than a handful of the actual sketches.

Speaking of the sketches, it’s an impossible, and pretty futile endeavor to attempt isolating the single skit that best represents the whole (whether it’s MP or KITH or even a shorter-lived gem like The Chappelle Show). But it’s still funny, and possibly imperative, for fans to play around with the agonizing, if ultimately unimportant distinction. There are at least a dozen serious candidates, and different KITH fans would invariably choose different ones, but that is also part of the fun. 

Bruce McCulloch

Bruce McCulloch

One skit in particular I never get tired of is “Work Pig” (from Season 4) which, unlike many of the great KITH sketches, is not a collaboration, but pretty much a vehicle for Bruce McCulloch. It has all of the elements of a prototypical top-tier KITH effort: the quirky, dark, surreal humor, the clever (and always remarkably subtle) social commentary, and mostly the rather inimitable oddball sensibility. This skit, as anyone who has seen it will know (and for those that don’t, see below), works so perfectly because its skewering of the frenetic corporate circus is timeless.

But watching it again, recently, something hit me.

This had to be made in the early ’90s because it nails all the last vestiges of the old world order: the phones, the fax machine, the suspenders, and especially the rolodex. That skit could not be set up the same way now for the simple reason that no office looks that way today. And one is tempted to think: thank God. Who needs the bad old days when you actually put people on hold not merely because you were busy but because you actually talked on the phone. Plus, what else did you have to do? No Internet to surf, no e-mail to send and receive, just…work.

But wait. That is still happening; it just happens in one centralized place: on the monitor of a ubiquitous PC. The activities he is engaging in (still called multi-tasking, one assumes) are all occurring now; they merely appear more innocuous, or unthreatening, because they are all trapped in electronic ether, they are confined to a 12 inch screen. Suddenly it’s slightly more unnerving to consider that if, like myself, it’s not uncommon for you to have more than 10 windows (various sites) along with MS Outlook, and one or more spreadsheets and/or MS Word documents, and maybe a CD playing, you are bopping around doing a million things. Here’s the thing: it just doesn’t require you to bop around. It’s all happening, in your head. And how much more intense—and damaging—is that type of information overload? It’s no wonder (if, like myself) at least once a day you open a new window to look something up and get momentaritly sidetracked (say, you see the window you’d previously opened and remember you need to finish that task or send that e-mail) and then, when you turn back to the welcome screen on for a fresh window, have no earthly idea what it was you were looking for.  We’ve been moved out of the pigsties, perhaps, but maybe the joke is on us. Possibly, people will look back at our moment in time and ask how the fuck we outsmarted ourselves into being even busier every day.

Or, like the songs says, freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose. Like your mind.

by Rob Horning

15 Mar 2009

I’m not glad that people will be out of work, but I can’t say that I’m too sentimental over the demise of Virgin Megastore. Other than the time when a boss gave me a gift certificate, I never shopped there, and I never understood the appeal—they seemed noisy and disorienting, overstocked and poorly organized. There was too much stuff, too much sound, too many racks, too many ads—it all seemed designed to drive me away as rapidly as possible. Joy Press, who wrote a swoony obituary of the store for Salon (link via Rob Walker) , describes it somewhat differently:

Virgin had an in-store D.J., private listening booths and plenty of room to mingle with records while also flirting with cute, lanky boys in eyeliner. Alongside the diversity of music, the megastore stocked a selection of culty and esoteric books, adding to the sense that Virgin offered a magical combination of mall-like consumer convenience and independent-minded cool.

Nothing could seem further from my experience. It seemed to take the stuff my peers had painstakingly discovered in quirky corners of the retail world, or had passed to one other in shoddy photocopies or beat-up, well thumbed editions, and made it all too easy, invalidated it. The store inevitably seemed full of teenagers who’d wandered in from Hot Topic, who were either sulky, giggly, or vaguely menacing. (Fittingly, the Times Square megastore is becoming a Forever 21.) The idea that anyone would flirt or hang out amidst the cacophony never would have occurred to me. The place revolted me viscerally.

I was born too early for the Virgin Megastore, perhaps. When I think of chain music stores, I think of the late 1980s and early 1990s, and Tower Records and HMV. These were alienating places, too, but I shopped in them. They were a step up from Listening Booth and Wall to Wall Sound, the only record stores I knew while growing up in the suburbs and going to the mall. They had a wider selection, but were still fairly homogeneous. At college, I eventually discovered well-curated indie record stores, but I was always a little put off by the coolness tests you seemed to have to pass to hang out in them. One day, I finally somehow managed to pass the test, which in retrospect meant far too much to me and contributed somewhat to my general antisocial orientation.

The problem with record stores generally was that they embodied the idea that you could buy integrity or superiority by getting the right albums and knowing the right musical references. The poster-heavy, shit-pile aesthetic in the stores—mirrored in the teenagers’ rooms depicted in 1980s movies—emblemized a certain dream of abundance, one which seems extremely juvenile to me now. If you could have access to it all, it seemed as though you could pass as if you knew it all—and for some reason I thought that this was a good thing, trying to be a know-it-all. Records stores made it seem as though that smug posture was the height of accomplishment, that nothing could be more justified, nothing was a better use of erudition, than to insult the ignorance of others about niche pop culture. So having a pile of records—owning more stuff—seemed like material proof that you were smarter and better than others when it came to music, and music was a metonym for our entire identities. The music you could reference was an index to how you wanted to be regarded, who you wanted to impress. (Dick Hebdige’s Subculture: The Meaning of Style details this phenomenon well. Allegedly this is not the case anymore, and music doesn’t loom so large as the basis of subcultures. Is that right?)

In truth, the stores encouraged the formation of a specifically consumerist self-concept that was especially insidious, because it left those of us prone to the stores’ allure believing we were cooler than ordinary consumers, and perhaps not even consumers at all but refined aesthetes. The irony that we spent hours and hours each day in a record store managed to escape us. We thought we had found a place to escape the system.

No one in Virgin Megastore felt like they escaped the system, of course. Though it was always a distortion, the huge chains symbolized for indie- record-store denizens a homogeneous mainstream taste; the megastores were necessary in order to believe it was distinctive and important to listen to alternative music. It’s tempting to argue now that those who did their record shopping at Virgin were the true escapees, the ones who better avoided pegging their identity to a particular mode of consumerism, but that seems too facile. I wish I took music less seriously in my 20s, but I don’t wish that I was in Virgin Megastore lackadaisically buying into the zeitgeist. I wish only I had made my vocation then something other than having a encyclopedic knowledge of what in the end is just a species of consumer goods. I wish I would have actually been doing something instead of listening and categorizing and posturing.

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