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Wednesday, Dec 9, 2009
For a decade that prided itself for breaking down musical barriers, there is a noticeable lack of female presence on this decade's most highly-regarded albums.

Regardless of your music taste, coming up with a list of the influential artists of this past decade is relatively easy. The White Stripes, the Strokes, Kanye West, Animal Collective and a few ‘90s holdovers like Radiohead and Jay-Z would certainly make the list. These were just a few I could rattle off in about 30 seconds. However, as I gazed at this list, I started to wonder what was wrong with it. It was lacking…something.


Estrogen.


Not to generalize: Mathangi Arulpragasam (M.I.A.) is on the short list for “Artist of the Decade”, and artists like Neko Case and Cat Power have made some of the best albums this decade. But compared to the breadth of female trailblazers that broke out in the ‘90s, this decade has come up somewhat on the short end. And as a result, popular music in general has suffered from this.


When I was making my “Decade’s Best” list ten years ago, I could rattle off nearly a dozen female artists who made a significant impact on popular music without batting an eye. Tori Amos, Liz Phair, Lauryn Hill, Lucinda Williams, Courtney Love, Missy Elliott, Ani DiFranco, PJ Harvey and Björk for starters. With this decade, I was struggling to list six that emerged in this decade. Yes, after a few minutes of research, I could easily list a dozen heavy hitters this decade, but in the ‘90s, female artists were often overshadowing their male counterparts.


Take the Village Voice Pazz and Jop poll for example. For those unfamiliar, it is a poll comprising 500 critics’ “Best of the Year” selections. In the ‘90s, four of the ten top albums of the year were by female artists (1993’s Exile in Guyville by Liz Phair, 1994’s Live Through This by Hole, 1995’s To Bring You My Love by PJ Harvey, and 1998’s Car Wheels on a Gravel Road by Lucinda Williams). Total number of top albums awarded to a female musician in this decade by the Pazz and Jop poll: zero.


This exclusion has surfaced on several notable “Best of the Decade” lists. Pitchfork and AV Club’s Top 10 did not have a release from a female artist or a female-fronted band. Paste’s list is a notable exception as Gillian Welch (Time (the Revelator)) and M.I.A. (Arular) made their top ten list.


It would be foolish to dismiss the relative male dominance of these lists as sexism. Albums that have received multiple mentions, such as OutKast’s Stankonia, Radiohead’s Kid A and the White Stripes’ White Blood Cells deserve to be mentioned based on their own merits. But for a genre (mainly indie) that prides itself in progressiveness, it’s hard not to hearken back to Liz Phair’s Exile In Guyville, an album Phair said was in part recorded as a response to the male-dominated Chicago indie/alternative scene.


The ‘90s saw such a flood of high-profile releases by female artists that the movement spawned the massively successful Lilith Fair. That movement even produced a bit of a backlash as critics hoped edgier artists like PJ Harvey, L7, and the Breeders would share the roster. What made the ‘90s such as huge decade for female artists? Why didn’t it carry over into this decade?


The answer could just be coincidence. Tori Amos, Liz Phair, Björk, Luscious Jackson, Hole, Garbage, Missy Elliott, and Lauryn Hill all released albums that were critical and commercial hits around the same time. With such a wealth of talent, it sort of produced a “perfect storm” of great albums by female artists. Whether this coincidence can happen again is anyone’s guess, but I sure as hell hope next decade we’ll see a similar storm form.


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Tuesday, Dec 8, 2009
Some artists are more than merely great. There are some artists that for a period of years, a period that is finite, consistently produced music that, it can be argued, far exceeded the work of their peers. For that brief period of time they were definitely Masters of the Form.

“This is the new sound; just like the old sound.”
—Rage Against the Machine, “Ashes in the Fall”


It’s one of rock’s most apt paradoxes.


By 1999 Rage Against the Machine held a singular place in the rock and roll landscape. They had suggested a new genre, rap-metal, with their self-titled 1992 debut, and given the genre legitimacy with their 1996 follow up Evil Empire. Both were vivid, visceral works that made Rage Against the Machine Masters of the Form. 


The Battle of Los Angeles, which would prove to be the band’s last album of original material, was another step forward displaying a musical focus and strength of songwriting absent from their debut and only hinted at on Evil Empire. The album itself is a musical paradox, a work of sonic maturity burning with youthful fire that favors the force of textured subtlety over mere blunt force. The Battle of Los Angeles is an album of revolutionary new music that leaps forward while pointing back towards the band’s previous work, and upon its release it was a new sound that sounded just like the old.


“With precision you feed me”
—Rage Against the Machine, “Testify”


Rage Against the Machine and Evil Empire had both sounded unplanned, like works of musical spontaneity—the first of anger and the second of invention. There is nothing spontaneous about The Battle of Los Angeles, it is a measured masterpiece, a collection of songs that sound deliberately plotted and precisely performed without ever feeling deliberate or stale. The entire album still feels spontaneous because it continually yields unique sounds for rabid Rage fans to devour. Drummer Brad Wilk and bassist Tim Commerford play like pistons in an engine of fury. The album bristles with rhythm that is excessively heavy, increasingly funky and incredibly supportive of Tom Morello’s musical experimentation. Morello is in masterful form throughout, and much of the album’s entertainment value stems from how he coaxes new sounds from his guitar and effects pedals. 


Rage Against the Machine chased listeners through random speakers before violently attacking, but The Battle of Los Angeles puts listeners at the opposite end of the struggle. “Testify” opens with a swirling wall of guitars that listeners fight through in order to get to the song’s riff and the wall continues to swirl through each of the verses before giving way to the riff again when the chorus hits. “Calm Like a Bomb” is nearly consumed by the high pitched clean tone that weaves its way throughout the excessive crunch of the rhythm, like a fuse’s lit flame that inches its way closer to the inevitable explosion. Morello is more DJ than guitarist on “Mic Check” and “Sleep Now in the Fire”, which find him treating his guitar like turntables and scratching the solos, and part blues singer as he delivers an amazing “harmonica” solo on “Guerilla Radio”.


“Whatcha say, whatcha say, whatcha say what!”
—Rage Against the Machine, “Calm Like a Bomb”


If The Battle of Los Angeles has a flaw it lies in its lyrical content. Zack de la Rocha had clearly grown as an MC from Rage Against the Machine to Evil Empire and that growth continues on The Battle of Los Angeles, but as a lyricist it can be argued that he gives the average listener, even an incredibly intelligent listener, too much to handle.  He is incredibly verbose and he seems to go out of his way to point out every social injustice that angers him. So, as on the group’s first two albums, while it is abundantly clear that he is angry, it is just a bit difficult to keep track of all the things he’s angry about. However, his vocal performances on The Battle of Los Angeles are easily his best out of all three of the band’s releases. De la Rocha does more than simply scream as proof that he is impassioned. He whispers and growls. He utilizes volume as a vocal instrument on “Born As Ghosts”, “Maria”, and “Voice of the Voiceless”. More than anything though, his passion is so accessibly packaged that it becomes far more intoxicating than his anger. It’s invigorating to hear him take a stand even if you’re unsure exactly where he stands.


“I’m deep inside your children”
—Rage Against the Machine, “Sleep Now in the Fire”


The Battle of Los Angeles is angry, inventive, and exhilarating to listen to and it is a fitting final chapter for Rage Against the Machine. The band reintroduced anger to rock and roll, and in doing so, they connected deeply with teenagers who were angry and in need of music that would reflect that. Rage did more than connect; they penetrated the soul like a tattoo and became permanent. They were true Masters of the Form that roared with passion and prompted an entire generation of teenagers to do so as well.




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Monday, Dec 7, 2009
Artist/producer PC Muñoz mines for gems and grills the greats.

In the press materials accompanying her debut release Bible Belt (S-Curve Records), singer/songwriter/pianist Diane Birch says this about the album’s title:


“The idea of Bible Belt has a layered kind of meaning for me. Because my dad was a preacher, the very religious upbringing I had made a huge impact on my life, in a very restraining and constricting way. I’m constantly talking about heaven, angels, and forgiveness. I’m hugely inspired by church hymns—their chord structures, their colors. It was a form of constraint for me as a child, but now I see that it has fueled my creative fire.”


Thus, the clever reclamation of a term commonly used to describe an area of the United States with a large evangelical Christian population becomes both a symbol of the ties that bind (literally and figuratively), as well as an acknowledgment of roots that run too deep to deny. It’s a finely calibrated balance of soul and craft, that title, a delicate dance of substance and showmanship which can also be felt in the music and aesthetic on the record itself.


The songs on Bible Belt were all written by Birch and feature an earthy, keyboard-driven pop-soul sound that has critics everywhere name-checking songwriting heavyweights like Carole King, Laura Nyro and Carly Simon. The detailed production (which sonically telegraphs some of the comparisons mentioned above), was handled by Steve Greenberg, soul legend Betty Wright, and Michael Mangini. With a savvy, proven hit-maker like Greenberg (Hanson, Jonas Brothers) and a boatload of session ringers in her camp, it would be easy for lazy cynics to only locate the powerful industry push at work here, and that would be a shame. Even a cursory listen to the record, and a reading of recent interviews, reveals a talented young artist with an interesting mix of influences and a thoughtful way of articulating her ideas.


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Friday, Dec 4, 2009

In 1994, alternative rock ruled rock music.  At the time, some in the music press occasionally remarked that punk rock had finally “won” due to the mainstream breakthrough of alternative bands like Nirvana, but that ignored the fact that as a genre alt-rock had long ago become a distinct form from its progenitor. Sure, alt-rock retained punk’s do-it-yourself ethos and its disdain for the iconography and excesses of mainstream music, but anyone who was familiar with the sound of the Ramones and the Sex Pistols (a sound that continued to breed and develop in places throughout the world such as Berkeley, California’s Gilman Street scene) sure wasn’t going to find it replicated by Pearl Jam, the Smashing Pumpkins, or Nine Inch Nails. While some called 1991 “the year punk broke” (a term based on a widely misinterpreted reading of the title to a Sonic Youth concert video), the music press quickly had to shift the headlines a bit when in 1994 punk truly claimed a victory on the pop charts after over a decade of hiding underground. Green Day’s Dookie was primarily responsible for this turn of events, and it all started with the album’s first single, “Longview”.


Like many compositions on Dookie, “Longview” features a character that’s unsatisfied with his life. While Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong has at various points indicated an affinity for crafting characters to inhabit in his lyrics, the jaded slacker at the center of this song is undeniably a distorted version of Armstrong himself. Explaining the inspiration for the track during a 2002 interview with Guitar World, Armstrong said, “I guess it was just living in the suburbs in a sort of shit town where you can’t even pull in a good radio station. I was living in Rodeo, California, about 20 minutes outside of Oakland. There was nothing to do there, and it was a real boring place.” Armstrong stated that feelings of “loneliness and isolation” form the core of the tune. He commented, “I think everyone has felt those things, either right at this moment or at some point in the past.”


What sets the narrator of “Longview” apart from the other characters that populate Dookie is the utter disgust he harbors for his situation. Reflecting on the period that inspired the song, Armstrong told Rolling Stone, “I really didn’t care—for a time I was wallowing in my own misery and liking it. The lyrics wrote themselves.” However, the final product doesn’t contain any sense of contentment.  In “Longview”, Armstrong is plainly sick of sitting around all day doing nothing but watching television, smoking pot, and playing with himself, but can’t be bothered to do anything about it, which in turn bugs him even more. It’s a cycle he can’t escape, and his self-loathing is palpable with every emphasized curse word and lyrics like “I’m sick of all the same old shit / In a house with unlocked doors / And I’m fucking lazy”. Even the baser pleasures have lost their appeal, as he explains in the classic line “When masturbation’s lost its fun / You’re fucking breaking.”



Tagged as: green day
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Thursday, Dec 3, 2009
After a short chat with Feelies co-chairman Glenn Mercer, co-leader of The Feelies, writer Kieran Curran started thinking about the seminal rock band's place in our modern times...

The Feelies are a band which seem to defy classification even today. Through not being part of any “scene” as such, they followed their own idiosyncratic muses, incorporating influences both typical for alternative bands of their time (Velvet Underground, The Modern Lovers) and atypical (classical minimalism, incorporating found object sounds in their records). Coming out of the suburban village of Haledon, New Jersey in the late 1970s, the band were ensconced with their record collections and jamming with friends in garages, punctuated by occasional trips to the big city to see bands. Without the strictures of a set scene or predefined sound, however, they were able to dip into New York without ever being immersed in it, free to do what they liked, unencumbered by generic expectations or localized trends.


Almost 30 years after their first record (the seminal Crazy Rhythms) was released, the Feelies are, like so many bands of the post-punk era, on the reunion circuit, backed by the reissuing of their first two albums. The crowds they play to are aware of their music through the diversions of the rock canon, through downloading and a general tendency towards retrospection amongst modern music listeners. With the plethora of music easily accessible online, fans are more and more aware of the interrelatedness of music, and the reference points that bands make. If you’re doing it, chances are someone in the past has done it already, whether you know it or not (and the knowingness is quite likely). A current band that makes explicit its debt to its influences from the indie rock canon, Times New Viking, namechecks members of its favorite groups (the Clean, the Fall, Pavement) on its MySpace, as well as referencing Yo La Tengo in a song which sounds very like Yo La Tengo.


Tagged as: the feelies
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