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Tuesday, Mar 17, 2009
Death is Alive in 2009

This is the reason you always remain humble, if not entirely content in the knowledge of how little you actually know. Not only about all the great art we know is out there, (and can’t get around to acquiring all of); but the great art that is not out there, obscure, undiscovered, without a champion. Without a story.


The subject is Death, and here’s the story, from Sunday’s New York Times.


Wow. This is Bad Brains before Bad Brains, The Ramones before The Ramones. Punk before punk, as Mike Rubin opines in his excellent NYT article.


It is enough of a commentary to even name-check Bad Brains without embarassment (I say this as an intrepid advocate for that band), because their debut album inspired a whole slew of styles and imitation, sprouting like weeds through concrete. It is almost beyond belief that Bad Brains did what they did in the early ’80s; to think that Death (three brothers, literally and figuratively, from Detroit) was making proto-punk like this in the mid-’70s in almost utter obscurity is staggering, to say the least. 


It doesn’t get any better than this.


But it does: if the legend is true, rock impresario Clive Davis dug what he heard, but couldn’t get past the band’s name. Change it, and I’ll back you, he said. Fuck that, Death said. And the rest is, until now, three decades and change of unwritten (and almost unrecorded) history.


It gets better, still: this would be a wonderful story, a readymade movie even, regardless of the actual quality of the music. But check it out: the music is astonishing. As I say, to invoke Bad Brains would be ballsy, even gratuitous. Here’s the incredible thing: their song “Politicians in My Eyes” can stand alongside any of Bad Brains’ seminal early ’80s output. How is this possible? Don’t listen to me, listen to your ears: the ears never lie.


Here’s hoping Death lives in 2009, and cashes in some heavy and overdue karma to become the best story of the year: 1975 and now. Do what you have to do: MySpace.


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Monday, Mar 16, 2009
The second installment in my look at some of the most memorable performances from the BBC’s Old Grey Whistle Test television program.

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.



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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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