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Thursday, Mar 12, 2009

Several years ago I was a member of a very short-lived band, Sonic Boob. (Note: Band names have been changed to preserve the anomymity of the victims involved.) We made some great music together (a strange combination of soul, post-rock, and emo), but, ultimately, we went our separate ways, because our opinions were too disparate on one key issue: the Backstreet Boys.


For those of you that just landed on Earth, the Backstreet Boys were a pre-millenial boy band, a pop music enterprise whose main purpose was entertainment and commerical success—not to create meaningful, groundbreaking, or divisive art.


Given this information, naturally, the question that divided Sonic Boob was: could the Backstreet Boys produce good music?


In the interest of full disclosure, I will admit that we were a band of music nerds, first and foremost, and so such questions seemed incredibly meaningful to us at the time. (Or perhaps that is already too clear.) At any rate, I fell on the side of the argument that thought the Backstreet Boys were capable of (and actually did produce some) good songs. Did I prefer to listen to these songs instead of, say, the works of Black Star, Godspeed! You Black Emperor, or Oswaldo Golijov? Certainly not. But, I also did not believe, as many of my bandmates did, that the Backstreet Boys’ apparent pandering to pre-pubescent youth was necessarily related to the group’s ability to perform/produce/create good music.


I supported my view with several alcohol-fueled points: 1) The Backstreet Boys utilized talented songwriters, producers, and arrangers who, while they surely wanted to make a buck, were musically-trained and have at least some artistic integrity. In most cases, the songwriting team and process is even insulated from the marketing machine for an album. 2) Extreme popularity and commercial success does not necessarily mean you suck. You can look at pop music as music of the masses. In other words, it’s a folk music (Intro to Anthropology, don’t fail me now). It doesn’t break new ground, sure, but it connects with people - -a whole lotta people—in a meaningful way and makes them feel. That counts for something—a variable or two in the complicated differential equation of good music. 3) A good song is a good song no matter how much you dress it up. (Please, no pig/lipstick metaphors.) AutoTune, synthesizers, and orchestral flourishes are nice, but they cannot cover up a crappy song. Similarly, they cannot make a bad song sound good. I mean, wasn’t the original Incredible Hulk TV show far superior to the recent CGI-saturated motion picture?


Here are my bandmates’ also alcohol-fueled rebuttal of my points: 1) The Backstreet Boys suck and so anyone who writes music for them also sucks. You certainly don’t need talent to write formulaic songs with a maximum of four chords and the most inane lyrics on Earth. 2) Economics and art do not make a tasty cocktail. They run counter to one another at nearly every step of the way. If you are worried about popularity and mass appeal, then you are at least unconsciously making decisions that compromise the artistic integrity of the music. Let’s say that as the songwriter for the Backstreet Boys, with your background in dodecaphony and atonal musical serialism, you are feeling a D diminished 13 chord as the next chord in the song you are writing for the group. Well, the audience certainly won’t stomach that kind of dissonance so, instead, you are forced to alter the artistic integrity of the song by plopping in a D minor triad—yet again. Over time, these compromises make music bland and boring—they make it suck. 3) A good song is a good song no matter how you dress it up. But in most popular music they successfully fool the masses into believing million-dollar production equates to a good song. Essentially, they make you believe the Hulk movie is way better than the original with its limited special effects. And the box office numbers don’t lie—they fooled most people.


In the end, Sonic Boob’s arguments were more interesting than our music and the band split. This brings me, in a most roundabout way, to my main point: Chris Cornell.


A brief, and albeit incredibly unscientific, survey of the growing body of (largely negative) criticism mounted at Cornell’s latest effort, Scream, a collaboration with pop-producing sensation Timbaland, shows, in essence, the debate I had with my bandmates lo those many years ago. Can a serious rock dude with major indie music street cred team up with a commercially-cognizant producer to make good music? Most critics have said “no.” In fact, the only reason I thought about a possible similarity between criticism of Scream and the debate within Sonic Boob was the extent to which critics have slammed Cornell for his apparent “change in direction.” What is significant, however, isn’t that critics dislike Scream. That’s certainly their job and what we love and expect from music criticism. What is significant is the way in which the critics have expressed their displeasure for Scream. This expression is what closely echoes my band’s disagreement.


Let me break it down: Many critics who dislike Scream seem to suggest that the album’s failings are related to Cornell’s desire for mass market appeal. As a result, these critics appear largely wary of the idea that good music can be birthed by artists aiming at commercial success. It’s not necessarily that these critics consciously believe that artists aiming for commercial appeal are incapable of producing good music. Rather it’s that their criticism of Scream is related to their belief that Cornell is aiming for mass market success. They believe, like my bandmates did, that this aim helps the music in some way to suck—at least a bit.


On the other side of the aisle are the handful of critics (myself included) that are at least somewhat fond of Scream. For the most part, they separate Cornell’s music from his potential desire for commercial success. As a result, they seem overtly open to the possibility that good music can come from artists with eye towards popular appeal.


(I am of course oversimplifying the issue, but I think it’s useful to do so in this case to show how differently people view the relationship between commercial appeal and artistic integrity.)


Of course there are plenty of critics who do not fit my rubric. But the question is still a relevant one, particularly in this age of growing commercialism, where your favorite song may just end up appearing in a Geico or iTunes advertisement. At least it was relevant to Sonic Boob.


Tagged as: chris cornell, scream
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Thursday, Mar 12, 2009
by PopMatters Staff
Miranda Lee Richards recently released her latest album Light of X via Nettwerk Records. The singer-songwriter checks in with 20 Questions

1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
Slumdog Millionaire. The Alchemist.


2. The fictional character most like you?
Santiago.


3. The greatest album, ever?
Parallel Lines, Led Zeppelin III.


4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
Star Wars.


5. Your ideal brain food?
Salmon.


6. You’re proud of this accomplishment, but why?
Arranging the strings on my album, Light of X. Because I had the wherewithal to stick with the task even though I wasn’t initially sure I had the ability. That’s always good for one’s self esteem! :)


7. You want to be remembered for…?
Being a great singer, songwriter, and musician.


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Wednesday, Mar 11, 2009
Mysticism runs wild on the Josh Reichmann Oracle Band's debut LP, Crazy Power, out now on Paperbag Records. The former Tangiers frontman is currently creating a one-of-a-kind genre, mixing layers of bouncing jazzy instrumentals over tribal beats, and matching it with his distinctive glammy, ethereal vocals.

1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
I’ve Loved You So Long (film)


2. The fictional character most like you?
Carlos Castanada


3. The greatest album, ever?
Bob Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks


4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
Star Wurst.


5. Your ideal brain food?
Sweet Breads.


6. You’re proud of this accomplishment, but why?
Sobriety - Because I have energy - Infinite fucking self love and energy, and I have passed through the ego fire ahhhh!


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Tuesday, Mar 10, 2009
Sonic Youth's 16th studio album Eternal is set to drop early this summer. I took a very brief look back to how we got here and, possibly, where Sonic Youth is going next.

Michael Azerrad claims, ”Few American bands were asking to be taken seriously as art, but Sonic Youth did.”


Pandering to Sonic Youth on a blog dedicated to pop art and history and rock is about as cliché as any writer could perform. However, I also know writing about Sonic Youth is necessary because so few bands want to be taken seriously as art. The history of pop music is populated by people who just want to be musicians or in a band or, in some cases, a rock star. Sonic Youth wanted to be art! Their earnest beliefs during the early part of their career would fail an ordinary band. Pop/rock acts looking to become more than their worth usually burn out from the strain of having to meet such lofty self-expectations and, for the majority of their career, Sonic Youth has teetered between complete brilliance and sudden extinction.


But here they are; a 16th studio album Eternal due out in June, their last two studio albums,  Rather Ripped and Sonic Nurse displayed their relevancy, and the re-release of three of their mainstay and eponymous albums, 1982’s self-titled release Sonic Youth, 1988’sDaydream Nation, and 1990’s Goo brought many fans back to their fold. Then, Sonic Youth’s complete performance of Daydream Nation at 2008’s Pitchfork Festival made them an urgent expression. Many bands dry up, but Sonic Youth inspires imagination and creation.


When Neil Young released his 1991 “live” album Arc, it was a direct tribute to Young’s conversations with Thurston Moore. An inspired CD of mixed feedback loops from Young’s concerts with Crazy Horse or the band’s inspiration in the development of Wilco from alt-country heart throbs to feedback frenzied creators of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Sonic Youth is there as a nod to those who want to be more than a band, but art.


Most agree that two of the three most essential Sonic Youth albums are Daydream Nation and Goo. I don’t think these two could be argued against. Daydream Nation found the band exercising their vision in a non-stop attack on conventional sound and criticism of the age’s anti-culture and ignorance. Goo set into motion how the band could infuse their musical energy into tight three-five-minute sound bites that featured a growing sense of melody and an understanding of pop song mechanics. Goo is as important for the reasons that are not true in Daydream Nation; Goo is playful in the ironies of the modern world whereas Daydream is a bombastic soundscape of criticism and anger. Both are truly brilliant because they attempt to make sonic art.


However, after Daydream Nation and Goo, the band fell on tough times and the sweet taste of success clouded many musical adventures. The album Dirty although remarkable in its production value, fell short and subsequent albums of the 90s showed a band trying to recapture an energy many long time fans thought was a thing of the past, but the 2004 release of Sonic Nurse brought the band back from the depths. The release of Sonic Nurse demonstrated a band that still held musical relevance, but in its wake were the childish angers of the ‘90s and a band fully accepting of its age and maturity as song writers. Sonic Nurse revitalized a band left, by many, for dead.


Gone was the ironic and uninspired tinge of the Washing Machine album and replaced by a band hell bent on recapturing the artistic song crafting that had been a staple of Daydream, Goo and the like. Sonic Nurse begins with “Pattern Recognition” a nod to the William Gibson novel and a strong hint that the days of old were back for the band. William Gibson was highly utilized in Daydream Nation; his writing influential for many of that album’s work. The highly critical look outward to a world full of patterns; “I won’t show you,/
Close your eyes and feel the fun/ Pattern recognition’s on the run.” Sonic Youth is best when their critical eye is guided outward, but where there is demonstrated restraint sonically and lyrically. The sonic depth that makes Sonic Youth so brilliant is a sound that doesn’t overindulge in volume, but in the notable attempt to ebb and flow over sound.


Songs like “Dripping Dream” with its opening layers of guitar and Kim Gordon bass line, followed Steve Shelley’s steady drumming are subtle and evenly mixed. A track like “Stones” with its minute of rhythmic, Sonic Youth-esque guitar staccato and slow build to the final 1:30 of what may be the best riff in the entire career of the band demonstrates the band’s realization that Sonic Youth finally recovered its sonic mojo again after years of trying to hang on to ancient and angry tropes from the overused Grunge phenomenon. They understand what made Sonic Youth was not necessarily their desperate anger (although this is still a part of it), but they can layer a song like no other band.


When Kim Gordon whispers in the track “I Love You Golden Blue” I am reminded that Sonic Youth is in the art game. The gentle guitar and subtle but even groove of Gordon’s bass and Shelly’s percussion remind me that Sonic Youth has also grown. The band is too smart, too creative, and too good to go away for too long. I am eager for Essential because every time Sonic Youth goes away I want to whisper the line from “I Love You Golden Blue” with Kim Gordon, “I still miss you.”



Tagged as: sonic youth
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Monday, Mar 9, 2009
The '90s R&B video went to some weird places and Jodeci embody both the weirdness, both on the sensitive and the thug sides.

In the early ‘90s, music videos had come into their own, and were big-budget marketing tools to solidify a band’s image and to help sell albums.  Jodeci have always been a mystery to me.  I’ve never been a big fan, but one night when watching all of their videos in a row, I realized that there’s a lot going on in ‘90s R&B other than the Boyz II Men syruppy slop. 


Jodeci were of the late-new jack swing era, which meant that they were producing more hard R&B songs as well as the sappy and slow softies. The videos that are representative of these two types of songs are the super-sensitive sounds of “Forever My Lady” and the weirdo, tougher but still sensitive sounds of “Feenin’”. This write-up is less to figure out what was going on with Jodeci at the time, or to figure out something about ‘90s culture, and is instead just to draw attention to the art of the ‘90s R&B video. 


“Forever My Lady” begins with soft lighting and contains the two main settings for the video: the sea side and some sort of cathedral or bath house.  It’s a great mix and what makes things even better are the costumes. It happens a lot with videos from past decades, when you wonder about the appeal of the fashion. In this first part of the video, the Jodeci boys are all wearing: white hats, white button-up sports jackets, white shorts, and black combat boots with white socks poking out above them. There’s nary a shirt to be seen.


The song focuses around typical sensitive ‘90s R&B themes of love, family and total devotion. Serious stand-outs for the video involve K-Ci skipping a rock into the ocean, K-Ci’s hand movements that mime the lyrics he’s singing, and Devante’s (I think that’s Devante) air-keytar solo at the end. He continues the keytar solo from ocean to cathedral, and back.


“Feenin” is way different and though it also hits with some muscular R&B, there are darker elements. The song focuses around how love can be so strong and addictive that you essentially become a drug fiend.  The drug fiend depicted in the video though is more like someone with serious mental problems that has been committed, and now lives in a padded room - there’s even a shot of one of the members, or an extra, wearing a diaper.


This video makes the mistake of trying to become some sort of narrative video, as shown during the star-studded poker game which attempts to explain the concept of “Feenin”.  Snoop Dog provides some very unnecessary advice (though Snoop is just making a cameo, Jodeci had other star affiliations with Missy Elliott and Timbaland both involved with the group before the song kicks into a heavy rock intro.


The song then gets into its proper form, strong drums with a really amazing sounding snare, and K-Ci’s singing providing a narrative while the video switches between scenes of him in what is possibly hell (or blacksmith forge), and in an insane asylum.


The video is half-horror movie and half-mistaken ideas about what an insane asylum might be.


Some real highlights are Suge Knight as an orderly bringing in food, the aforementioned man in a diaper, the group sing-along around the piano in the padded music room, and the topless escape scene at the end where they rip all of the padding from the walls.


Overall, I’m not really sure what these videos say about anything, or whether they do say anything, they more show the music video at one of its most confused and weird times.  The budget was there to make a big video, but people didn’t quite seem know how to do it.  A big budget just meant a couple of more costume changes and renting expensive sets.  Jodeci really took it to a weird level, and these two videos are entertaining examples.  Though for the most part it’s a good thing that the big-business music industry is failing, the one thing I’ll miss most is absurd and large scale music videos.  Animal Collective and Chairlift have shown how you can make amazing videos with a small budget, but the excessive nature of major label music videos in the ‘90s was something special.


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