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Saturday, Jun 21, 2008
Max Tundra - "Lysine"

Electronica can be a cold beast. The sputters and clicks of a hard drive at work (think Autechre) certainly stimulate the brain, but personally, I rarely get the pure rush of endorphins that a perfect pop song generates. That is what makes Max Tundra’s (born Ben Jacobs) work all the more miraculous: he works in the idiom of electronic music (he has released two albums on Warp), yet his music sounds like that of a child discovering every sound and genre known to man. Mastered By Guy at the Exchange is Aphex Twin waking up on the sunny side of the bed, and “Lysine” is the afternoon trip to the beach. Over skipping percussion and a catchy analog synth line, Ben’s sister Becky Jacobs intones:


I isolate amino acids sometimes
I bottle them and sell them when the sun shines
Cold sores erupt if you don’t keep lysine levels healthy
A tingle on your lip, should come and see me


A helpful and humorous warning, no? Then the Steely Dan bridge comes in and all hell breaks loose [I’m glad Popmatters has given me the opportunity to write sentences like that]. The percussion explodes into so many pieces that I’ve spent the last six years trying to piece it together, and I enjoy it every single time. So much work must have gone into every second of the song, yet it is transcendentally fun. The wait for the next Tundra album has been long, but it is promised some time later this year. My musical blood sugar level is getting low.


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Friday, Jun 20, 2008

Amazingly enough, Girl Talk’s Greg Gillis has been met with virtual silence thus far by the major record companies, despite the relative ubiquity of 2006’s Night Ripper on Illegal Art Records. He released his fourth album this week, Feed the Animals, under the newly fashionable pay-what-you-will model used by Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails. Armed with an illegal mashaholic summer jamfest, a high profile scheme, and a potentially far-reaching audience, Gillis teeters himself closer to the orange alert attention of the music industry’s legal industrial complex.


Gillis is in many ways the music industry’s worst nightmare: a well revered artist on a populist and decidedly anti-capitalist bent. His music broadcasts the message of music as a universal language, both interpersonal and catholic, quotidian and intimate. In this space, a record exists amongst its peer albums as a dialogue, not a competitor. Gillis has avoided the polite avenues for fair use, gleaned through music’s top-selling brands for his own gains, and, to boot, he’s ahead of the curve in terms of utilizing the latest digital sales technology. Girl Talk’s pay-what-you will method is certainly at least five years away from any credible media giant touching it with a ten foot pole. After all, how do you convince the shareholders that the way to save your dying company is to let consumers set their own price? A free market economy is designed upon the Hobbesian principle that the proles, given the freedom to set their own boundaries, will always choose none. The uninducted masses, so the theory goes, would hypothetically act without restraint, without caution, and with only their own self-interest in mind. It’s easy to see why they would think so. That’s pretty much been the model the multinationals have followed for the past 20 years or so. 


Sure, Girl Talk is not a household name yet, but certainly the big five have to know about them. It’s not like their name or their source material are any secret. Unlike many sampledelic artists, Girl Talk do not mask their sonic bibliography under the plaster and latex of endless tweakings. In fact, they are rather cavalier about the orgy of pop radio sounds cross-pollinating throughout their records. The liner notes for Night Ripper give shout-outs to each artist whose work was used as the album’s mortar. And within hours of Feed The Animals‘s release, fans were already compiling a comprehensive list of all the album’s recognizable primary sounds on Wikipedia. The information is widely accessible. Yet unlike Jon Oswald’s Plunderphonics, which was voluntarily decimated 19 years ago under threats of legal action, Girl Talk have been asked to neither nor desist. Could it be that the music industry actually has, gasp, better things to worry about these days?


Rather than inviting trouble though, the pay-what-you-will model may actually present a legal loophole for artists like Girl Talk. The problem with selling material with uncleared samples seems to be an issue over ownership of the sounds themselves. Would the same rules apply if said sampling artist were to only accept “donations” for their art? Consumers are not being asked to give money out for the purchase of Feed the Animals. They’re being ask to donate to a musician and his label for having made Feed the Animals, which they will gladly give you for free. In this context, Feed the Animals is about as illegal as any mashup some kid in his living room designed for his blog.


Appropriately, the button under the field where you fill in your personal price for Girl Talk’s new album says “Feed the Animals”. The music industry long ago stopped caring about whether it could feed its artists. Maybe they’ll finally stop treating them like animals when the artists begin to realize they can feed themselves. Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails are well-fed post-industry cash cows. Gillis is another story. If proven a success, Girl Talk’s newest experiment may pose more of a threat than all the Napsters the music industry once refused to shake a ten foot pole at.


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Thursday, Jun 19, 2008

The opening track on 1968’s Music from Big Pink is one of the most perfect pop compositions ever. It is a perfectly atypical opening number and a perfect introduction to the intriguing style of The Band. It is also a depressing suggestion as to how much more perfect they could have been had Richard Manuel been able to keep himself from himself.


Co-written by Manuel and Bob Dylan, “Tears of Rage” is the painful lament of a betrayed parent. The first recorded version of the song is the Dylan-sung one that was released on The Basement Tapes. Dylan’s – usually extraordinary – ability to capture the essence of the song was utterly obliterated by Manuel’s on the official Big Pink reading. The extraordinary anguish in Manuel’s voice added exponentially to the already heartbreaking lyrics. The slower composition, Garth Hudson’s haunting organ, Robbie Robertson’s swirling guitar, the unparalleled rhythm of drummer Levon Helm and bassist Rick Danko (who also provides backup vocals), as well as Manuel’s own piano work combined for one of those very rare occasions in which Dylan was completely schooled on one of his own songs (ironically, Manuel does it again on the same album with his version of “I Shall be Released”).


Sadly, the mood of “Tears of Rage” was forebodingly symbolic of the pain and suffering that would eventually consume Richard Manuel – who hanged himself in 1986 after two decades of extreme substance abuse. Perhaps the rarest attribute of The Band was the deficiency of a definitive front-man. With three lead singers and all five members’ status as exceptional musicians, there was no member of The Band who was more important to its achievements than the other; but for the first five minutes of their first album, they seemed to revolve around one genius.


Though the introverted Manuel would continue to prove integral to The Band’s success with his singing and playing abilities, his contributions decreased to the point that Robertson was getting credit for writing all of their songs (whether he actually wrote them or not has been debated) and Rick Danko became, more and more, the go-to-guy for mournful ballads.


The final and lasting image of The Band, for many, was Martin Scorsese’s documentary of their farewell concert, The Last Waltz, in which Manuel sang only one complete on-screen song (“The Shape I’m In”) and the middle verse of the closer “I Shall be Released”, during which he is barely visible, eclipsed by the throng of superstars on stage (Dylan, at center stage, sings the other two verses). As great a movie as it was, The Last Waltz did not portray Manuel in a way that would provide those unfamiliar with him any insight into just how important he was to The Band.


To this day, most people seem to know of The Band, but few know much about them outside of their association with Dylan and would probably only recognize the name “Robbie Robertson”. Their eponymous second album is generally regarded as their definitive statement. While I wouldn’t deny that it is a pretty great album, I feel that Music from Big Pink and, more specifically, “Tears of Rage” are perfect examples of how much better “The Brown Album” could have been had Richard Manuel conquered his inner demons a bit more and played a larger role in the songwriting.


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Wednesday, Jun 18, 2008
The Kills - Cheap and Cheerful

This song is a guilty pleasure for me.  Guilty because The Kills are the Marquis de Sade’s of skeletal alleyway rock wreckage, artists whose image has always felt a little too arch, constructed and Warholian for me.  A lyric like “I want expensive sadness”, regardless of the labored New York aesthetic is exactly the kind of thing I’d expect Paris Hilton to say.  Nihilism and empty heiress blather tend to meet on the extreme ends of the circle.  But there’s something about the gutter blitheness that makes The Kills a band that gets you in touch with your dirtiest, darkest most decadent impulses even if it is a hand-crafted collection of ironically non-ironic cliches.  Not to mention, they can concoct grooves that sound assembled from tenement litter with guitar little more that sparse, fierce punches.  I like them, but always fell like I should have my caveats handy. 


Imagine my surprise to see that the video for a song celebrating the destructive, melodramatic and snide aspects of human nature that has almost no creative energy behind its images.  We have tattered drum corps that really just looking like a methadone line forced to play band camp for day.  Splashes of paint smear the screen but the effect is campy, psychedelic, the antithesis of their sound.  If this is itself a cheeky inversion of their image, then I’m afraid I have to give up out of the sheer exhaustion of following such Olympic level posturing.  Allison Mosshart forgoes her pitch black mane for Flo’s wig from Alice making a perfunctory stab at the retro junky look that serves the video only in the sense of adding another decade to the slopped pastiche.  This song sounds sexy and dangerous, but the video is simply lazy, limp and tame.  They may as well have done it on a mountain top with someone’s “eyes on fire” for all the energy put into tossing this half-assery together.


Tagged as: the kills
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Wednesday, Jun 11, 2008
I Gotta Know - Wanda Jackson

Okay, so the title is both an exaggeration and a reversal of proper chronology.  Wanda Jackson is a huge Elvis fan, as evidenced by her one of her most recent releases, I Remember Elvis, but I couldn’t resist the quip since nearly all writing about Wanda Jackson contains the diminishing compliment, “the female Elvis”. 


Personally, I listen to her more and get much more enjoyment from her sound than I do Elvis’ oeuvre. (Also, please note that she could really play the guitar from the very beginning of her career.) The comparison also misses the deeper country and western influence, nowhere more evident than on the song, “I Gotta Know” which almost comically accents the twang on “thang” and “rang” (ring). 


She’s still touring; I guess that’s one of the benefits of being a hard working musician over a worldwide icon.  Try to sit still through the song’s bounce and her tight little jig around the stage.  Granted, she doesn’t have the smoldering sexy that pre-Rx bloat Elvis had, but her pin-up beauty and spitfire confidence go a long way in cultivating a wholly different brand of star presence.  She should have garnered bigger fame in her time, but has to instead settle for a devoted following and a belated critical resurrection.


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