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Thursday, Feb 12, 2009

Recently, new age music got a major dose of street cred courtesy of an unlikely source. Though it wasn’t televised or even publicized all that much, legendary jazz drummer Jack DeJohnette snagged the 2009 Grammy for—get this—best new age album.


You may remember DeJohnette as the man holding down the beat for several little known musicians like Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, and some guy called Miles Davis. Over the years, DeJohnette has tackled and mastered nearly every type of jazz and pop form, from free jazz and fusion to rock and R&B. Now, we can add new age to that list.


I must admit that new age music has never been at the top of my list. Embarrassingly for a music critic, I’ve always viewed it the way people look at abstract art: It’s pretty, but what’s so special about something my four-year-old nephew could do. If music were a collection of animals, new age would surely be the snail. Slow and methodical, it seems to rarely change its pace and direction. If jazz is the epitome of spontaneous, exciting, and emotional music, new age always seemed like the opposite—stagnant, boring, and devoid of genuine feeling. A not-so-scientific look at the past Grammy winners for best new age album reveals names like Paul Winter, Enya, and the Clannad. Accomplished musicians in their own right, but not exactly the artists that speak for a generation. Jack DeJohnette is another story.


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Thursday, Feb 12, 2009

The cell phone company found the biggest, blackest group of loud bling-wearing, “wife-beater and jeans” thugs in American hip-hop to rock the crowd in order to promote their brand. The largest man of the bunch both in terms of height and in terms of width, stood in back wearing dark sunglasses and a heavy hooded sweatshirt. He was the only one on stage without a microphone and had, what one of my favorite comedians calls, “the kind of muscle that you get from trying to keep a brutha off you” (Prison style)! Everyone else on stage showed-off muscular torsos and sagging jeans.


An imported popular, affordable vodka brand sponsored a special foreign guest DJ-event the only other time I had visited this discothèque. On that occasion, the bar only served that particular brand. Something similar was repeated during what turned out to be the taping for their commercial—apparently the cell phone and liquor companies were in collusion to win us all over. The limited drinks alongside the massive branded-posters all around the hallways and stage, and even seemed to float above the dance floor like its halo, implying a kind of divinity that the brand certainly lacked.


On the whole, however, this was a crafted marketing event. The Rs. 1500 ($30) cover charge included 500 rupees ($10) worth of drinks that sold for Rs. 150 ($3) and included Rs. 20 (40 cents) worth of liquor and Rs. 7 (14 cents) worth of juice. I suppose they charged for ice as well.


The crowd’s hands shot into the air the moment the group finally appeared on stage after several announced delays and stalling by an annoying squirt to whom I shall return to later. The crowd thrust their cellular phones high to capture the action live. Many mobiles had flashes adding a sense of bedazzlement and active participation coming from our side. I could see that others took video recordings that they reviewed, at times ignoring the live performance altogether; for them this even was more about their ability to boast later, than actually enjoy the present. This went on throughout the first three acts. When hip-hop was born, empty hands and firm fists flew into the air raising the roof, but this would have been too transgressive for the commercial state. Besides, one cannot commodity and export/import defiance and self-determination as easily as a DJ on stage with some fat tracks. Still, thanks to the hype-men, we sang: “The roof, the roof, the roof is one fire, we don’t need no water…” But the crowd didn’t know how the song ended unless and until they were told so.


The first two songs ended abruptly with the DJ spinning the sounds of a broken window or perhaps shattered goods. Then, each transition between songs was marked by the noise of crashing glass, as if we had witnessed some altercation or other illicit transgression. This sound repeated over and over, sold us the idea that we were amongst real bad boys, and that we were somehow a part of this dangerous cluster. I looked around, and as I noticed many teens from the local high school for expatriates, I imagined that this must have felt exhilarating to them. Here we were in an exclusive and expensive bar so far out of the city that the very ability to reach that space already implies a great amount of relative privilege in this city. Moreover, like most of the kids in attendance for the commercial, there were chauffeurs waiting outside to cart them between the high walls and security guards blocking the gates to their school, their homes, their friends’ homes, the places where they shop and spent leisure time, including and especially places like this club.


Enhacing the crowd’s criminal sensibilities, the end of the third song ended with the sounds of a machine guns—I dare not imagine the target, the victims, the criminals, the police, the criminal justice system. These were all the mad men who were seemingly convinced that violence was regular. They constitute one of many well-treaded institutions in America built around our propensity towards violence. The prison industrial complex is one of the fastest growing and privatized national industries, and is a direct descendant of the institution of slavery a transition that was so shady that we could just mark it with the sounds of shattered dreams- broken glass.


The cameramen on stage competed with the local announcer and his tiny digicam for the best shots of the rowdy group of men as they spit on the mic, criss-crossing the stage. The cheering crowd seemed to be their main focus, and one wonders what becomes of this footage—market research? Propaganda? Convincingly, there were several redundant TV networks standing by to capture each bit of the action.


Gangbanging the crowd


The crowd roared quite a bit that night. Certainly, there were those who welcomed the beats with a response when any new, deep bass came through the blisteringly loud speakers. The speakers were set so loud as to literally penetrate our muscles and bones even as densely packed as we were, pressing forward towards the stage.  I went with a mixed group of friends, so the males in our bunch spent most of the night as human shields for the women in our group because the crowd’s density provided ample opportunity for the sort of public fondling of women that is quite common here in India- that which drives women to constantly strategize about how to deal with crammed busses where women and girls have been fingered by hapless men who believe the anonymity of the crowd grants them permission to behave in ways that they probably would not their mothers, wives and sisters to have to suffer. What’s more, the hype-man* made sure that the crowd cheered after the DJ spun each song. The hype-men also teased the crowd who grew agitated waiting for the real thugs to arrive. After one hype-man had announced for the third time that the group would arrive in another 15 minutes some folks even started to shout, and a beat began to emerge from the ground as they stomped in unison. Good job; we were sufficiently hyped up.


After each song the hype-man would come on stage and ask the crowd to, “give it up for the DJ,” or “give it up for that dope beat,” and finally, “give it up for the sponsors,” to which many reluctantly complied. As a final point, the hype-man announced: “There are too many white people in here!” I suppose that he bonded with hip-hop culture through a mutual dispassion for ‘the man’. If new comers to America can align themselves with the culture of dominance, power and the false sense of meritocracy through adopting the dominant culture’s stance of racial superiority, then certainly a hatred of ‘the man’ marks one as a radical, right? Thanks to this cell-phone company the hype-man has taken full root in India. I caution you to consider what it is that they are selling. I caution us all to (re)consider what it is we choose to buy- and why.


* A hype man is a hip-hop performer responsible for backup rapping and singing, and increasing an audience’s excitement with call-and-response chants. A notable hype man is Flavor Flav from Public Enemy.


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Wednesday, Feb 11, 2009
by PopMatters Staff
Hot Panda, a new Canadian pop band, released their debut yesterday on Mint Records. Entitled Volcano… Bloody Volcano, it’s a dose of off-kilter, spastic pop.

1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
Venus on the Half Shell by Kilgore Trout. “The Earthmen didn’t mind this because Arcturans looked so laughable when they sneered, twirling their long genitals as if they were keychains.” Tears of laughter, but still tears.


2. The fictional character most like you?
Jesus. For obvious/controversial reasons.


3. The greatest album, ever?
How do you choose the greatest album ever? All four of us would have different answers. The greatest album would have to be original, seminal, creative yet accessible, depending on how you listen to it, it should seem very complicated and deep, or alternatively simple and beautiful. Finally you should be able to listen to it while having sex, and not laugh… But I can’t think of anything that fits that criteria. Therefore, the greatest album has not yet been made! Challenge!


4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
Star Trek. Star Wars is for geeks!


5. Your ideal brain food?
Bathtubs, vinyl, house plants, Apples to Apples (the game), crossword puzzles, beer, being in other countries (the further outside your comfort zone the better), extra terrestrials, Naomi Klein, fresh food, fresh air, and French kisses.


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Tuesday, Feb 10, 2009

Much like the songwriters’ circle episode from a few weeks back, tonight’s episode of Spectacle: Elvis Costello With… (airing Wednesdays at 9pm EST/PST on the Sundance Channel) boasts multiple guests, and as a result, more music than talk. Costello is joined first by M. Ward and Zooey Deschanel, who released their collaborative debut, She & Him, last year. Ward describes his predilection for music that blurs the distinctions of time and place—a “healthy confusion”, as he calls it. Jenny Lewis (Rilo Kiley) follows, and emphasizes Ward’s “timeless atmosphere”, a feeling that she chased after on last year’s Acid Tongue. Though She & Him deliver a solid “Change Is Hard” and Lewis shines with “Pretty Bird” and “Carpetbaggers”, the best performance of the episode’s first half is “Go Away”, the final (and strongest) track from Costello’s Momofuku.


Costello chats and performs with Jakob Dylan for the second half of the show. Dylan, after speaking a bit about resisting the desire to distance himself from his father’s influence, performs some acoustic renditions of Wallflowers and solo songs—a plaintive reading of “One Headlight”, in particular, allows Dylan’s sandpapery voice to expand. A somewhat bumbling performance of the Clash’s “Straight to Hell” follows, before the entire cast reunites for a stomp through “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love & Understanding”. There are so many musicians on the stage for this final number that it moves a little too close to a Hall of Fame jam for its own good.


Still, none of these performances can touch Costello’s opening run through Steely Dan’s “Show Biz Kids”—as Pete Thomas and his daughter Tennessee provide a double-thunder backbeat, Costello lays down a dirty fuzz-wah guitar solo and impassioned vocal, lifting the song up to a primal pedestal.


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Tuesday, Feb 10, 2009
Will the myth hold true as merger between giants is announced?

Will the myth hold true as merger between giants is announced?


Woke up this morning to this potentially game changing news in the concert promotion industry. Ticketmaster and Live Nation have announced plans to merge. In a Financial Times.com story appearing this morning, Michael Rapino, CEO of Live Nation and the proposed CEO of the merged group, said the combination would produce “measurable benefits to consumers”, noting that “current inefficiencies in the system result in higher costs and confusion over access to seats”. 


These two giants in the concert promotion industry could potentially have a stranglehold on venues, artists, and ticket buyers. According to the piece there are still a lot of particulars to work out but it will be interesting to see how this plays out.


A recent conversation I had with a source in the concert promotion industry, said advance ticket sales for premium seats at venues are sagging considerably. Perhaps this merger is designed to shore up ticket sales in a bad economy. Will this also mean an increase in 360 deals, a trend started by Live Nation. I’m sure much more will be written about this in the coming months.


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