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Monday, Nov 23, 2009
Pandora's Kevin Seal takes over this week's column, and reveals a gem in sonic collage artist Dave Fischoff.

Dave Fischoff is a sonic successor to the painter Georges Seurat. He thinks in colors, paints in pixels and eyelash brushes, and connects millions of dots to create his gestalt. Fischoff’s 2006 masterpiece on Secretly Canadian Records, The Crawl, is his A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (or, for that matter, his take on Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park with George”):  an epic landscape of skin, populated with a set of characters who are all reflections of the same hive-mind consciousness.


In Fischoff’s parallel reality, acid rain turns to gasoline, Cinderella becomes Ray Charles, Chicago snowstorms are merely tiny ripples in the ocean, and marriage is either a case of sour grapes or a brilliant vineyard waiting to bloom. In this evolutionary crawl, Adam and Eve are just another middle-class Ward and June, and all of the past negatives evolve into future hopes and dreams.


Fischoff has recently re-christened himself in Brooklyn as a DJ named Spoolwork, but in his past life, he worked at the Chicago Public Library, crate-digging thousands of LPs to find the micro-samples that would populate his pointillistic masterpiece. He built The Crawl entirely within Reason (a step-sequencing software tool), but you would never guess that within the first ten listens. Like all finely detailed paintings, this one requires multiple views. And like all great albums, the cover art is central and inexorably linked to the sound, courtesy of Emme Stone.


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Friday, Nov 20, 2009
Forget all about equality: this is one of the greatest productions of the 1980s.

I mentioned in my review for Nouvelle Vague’s 3 that I found the French pop group’s cover of the 1984 Depeche Mode single “Master and Servant” lacking. Now, I don’t really want to rag on Nouvelle Vague (I do like the group’s music), but there’s simply no way that anemic faux-blues version could ever stand up to the source material. The original “Master and Servant” features the members of Depeche Mode in their musical prime, partway between their awkward early teen idols years and on the road to fulfilling their destiny as gloomy stadium gods. It’s also a song that shouldn’t be toned down into some easy listening version. After all, this is a tune explicitly about BDSM, a topic the group addresses both lyrically and sonically with full gusto. It’s no wonder that when Depeche Mode was creating this record, its chief inspiration was “Relax”, the innuendo-laced smash hit by Frankie Goes to Hollywood.


Ah, “Relax”: quite possibly the greatest dance track of the 1980s. The result of the occasionally inconsiderate creative drive of producer Trevor Horn (who was so intent on crafting a megahit for his label ZTT he didn’t even let the band play its instruments on the record), it’s a dancefloor masterpiece built upon an urgent, pounding bassline in the key of E and hooks that hit the listener with the force of a cinderblock. Oh, and its suggestive delivery (not to mention its promo material, the record sleeve, the original music video...) contained more than a few winks to the subject of hardcore homosexual sex. Despite a belated BBC Radio ban due to its content, “Relax” became a trans-Atlantic blockbuster and an inescapable pop culture phenomenon, exemplified by those legendary “Frankie Say Relax” T-shirts. To this day few dance songs can match its sheer power. Obviously somebody had to try and top it at some point. Enter the boys from Basildon, England.


Tagged as: depeche mode
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Thursday, Nov 19, 2009

As a kid I listened to my favorite high-voiced divas croon and trill through lyrics of love and loss and recovery as if I had known that same experience. Not only could I match their range with my pre-pubescent voice, but there is certainly a quality of strength and simultaneously vulnerability in these high pitches, which also explains our love for the male falsetto, or even the castrato in the—circa 1650-1750—castration of boys to preserve that ‘classic’ boyhood soprano. Perhaps this high pitch also allows us to channel castration anxieties, as Freud might have said. Whatever the case, I certainly faced a world that threatened to castrate me, lest I act straight.


Through my family, I was exposed to Patti LaBelle whispering, hollering, then shouting and wailing on “You Are My Friend”. Yet, speaking directly to the video-mesmerized XY generation, as a kid of 11 years old when “All Cried Out” hit Billboard’s #8 position in October 1986, my heart was already all cried out. I listened to these divas shout about how they had invested all of themselves, yell about a betrayal of trust, and holler about the pain of abandonment, neatly pressing the beat and rhythm forward. Indeed, this unique mix of power and vulnerability is shown through the quality of Lisa Lisa’s voice, or even Full Force’s (not to leave Force MD’s out of a mention powerful voices) skirting across the butch and the femme.


This mirrored my process of coming to terms with my sexuality in a time and space were such things were not annunciated, let alone discussed, so I had learned to bury my feelings. This only intensified the anguish of middle school crushes lived out in teen mags, and through heartthrobs like Marvin Gaye, the Gap Band, New Edition, Prince, WHAM!, and those sweet DeBarge boys. Outside of the music, I was silent.


“There you are, holding her hand / I am lost / Dying to understand”, Mariah quailed, gently explaining a similar anguish I felt years later over loosing my first love. I was the first man he had loved, and he was my first love; once we split, he dated a mutual friend.  I did not know how to explain the layers of pain I felt, watching him walk around campus holding her hand. And there was no script for all this tenderness.


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Thursday, Nov 19, 2009
A growing list of bands unpopular with critics, but genre-defining nevertheless, is impatiently awaiting their admittance into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

As the years progress, the process of getting into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is beginning to look a lot like the process of earning a letter for a high school letter jacket: The superstars (Bruce Springsteen, Prince, Aerosmith) are awarded just for showing up, as are the academic overachievers who are still social enough to get a seat on student council (U2, The Police, Talking Heads). However, the nerds who create the science fiction clubs and painstakingly put together the yearbook (Rush, Genesis, Yes, Kraftwerk) face a much steeper battle for recognition.  And while you can’t really letter in smoking, there’s no way to recognize the smokers and the class-skippers (Slayer, The Replacements), those folks who are just as essential as the jocks and student council presidents in defining the experience that is Rock and Roll High School.


Perhaps by coincidence, the same year the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame turns 25, KISS may finally get their due as inductees. They have been eligible for almost a decade. And while I’ll be the first to praise Hall of Famer Jackson Browne, there’s no question who has been more influential in rock. Alice Cooper may have been first, but KISS made makeup and pyrotechnics almost essential in a big-time rock show. KISS was one of those bands that inspired thousands of teenagers to want to form a band to get to that level—the stage explosions, the groupies, the outfits. But the Hall of Fame is like a selection committee for a state dinner: you want to invite the people who’ll make you proud, not ones that will embarrass you. But sometimes you have to acknowledge those very folks (which is one possible reason why the Sex Pistols took a great deal longer to get into the Hall of Fame than the Clash).


Fans, and even non-KISS fans, have been screaming to let KISS into the Hall of Fame. But now that their work is done, people have started to raise a ruckus about why progressive rock has not been represented. As for speed metal fans, a Metallica nod won’t be enough to keep people from demanding a Slayer induction as well.


The nomination of Genesis is a decent start for progressive rock, but King Crimson, Yes, and Rush are still patiently waiting for nomination. One problem for progressive rock is that, in general, it’s not a genre adored by rock critics. But regardless of whether you think 2112 or Relayer is a masterpiece, progressive rock’s most notable characteristics (the odd time signature shifts, full albums broken into “acts” or “suites”) are everywhere in rock. If a song by a rock band exceeds eight minutes, chances are high that there’s going to be a Yes comparison. Even a band as critically adored as the Decemberists has garnered plenty of prog rock comparisons.


At least Rush or King Crimson will put on a polite show at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame concert if and when they get inducted. What the hell would a Slayer performance be like? Don’t think that doesn’t cross a voter’s mind when he or she is filling out their ballot. As most rock historians should know, rock was never intended to be pretty or suitable for an awards banquet. And the exclusion of the geeks, nerds, and troublemakers—who not only contributed significantly to rock, but helped build foundations for an entire genre of music—is inexcusable.


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Wednesday, Nov 18, 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.

“Yeah people come up.”
—Rage Against the Machine, “People of the Sun”


It’s an unlikely invitation from an unlikely source. 


In 1992, Rage Against the Machine had stormed onto the music scene with the finesse of a class five hurricane.  Their self-titled debut album played like a musical version of blunt head trauma, and displayed so much honest anger in its fusion of rap and metal that it clearly wasn’t the work of an average rock band.  Rage Against the Machine was the work of true Masters of the Form.  This mastery continued with the 1996 release of their amazing follow-up, Evil Empire


Throughout their debut, Rage Against the Machine grabbed listeners by the throat, refusing to let go, with music that was vital and stirring, but rarely inviting.  Often, the lesson the band was trying to teach was lost in the midst of the bludgeoning volume they used to ensure it would be heard.  By 1996, people were already listening, and in its new volume of lessons, the band displayed how much they themselves had learned.  The opening notes of Evil Empire’s first track, “People of the Sun”, were easily the most subtle the band had ever recorded.  Rage Against the Machine had chased listeners down; Evil Empire invited them in to learn about things like the Mexican Zapatista Movement and “face the funk now blastin’ out ya’ speaker…”.  It was an easy invitation to accept.


“Turn on tha radio, nah fuck it turn it off…”
—Rage Against the Machine, “Vietnow”


Once you accepted the album’s initial invitation, it was difficult to turn Evil Empire off.  The album is an improvement over the group’s debut in virtually every respect.  The songs are more tightly structured, each one rooted just as firmly in hip-hop as heavy metal, each finding an explosive groove and sticking to it like audio napalm.  The rhymes are more compact, and Zach de la Rocha never sounds as though he’s trying feverishly to squeeze in more words than the songs have room for. More than anything, though, Evil Empire is the first great “rap-metal” album, even more so than its predecessor, because it is a much better hip-hop album than Rage Against the Machine.


Evil Empire sounds forceful without ever sounding forced.  Zach de la Rocha is a vastly improved MC, an angry, booming-voiced rapper rather than a metal screamer trying to rap.  Tom Morello is a far more musical DJ, routinely transforming his guitar into a six-stringed turntable that scratches as often as it solos.  In fact, the “Guilty Parties”, as the band is once again credited in the album’s liner notes, perform explosive hip-hop throughout, and that’s what sets Rage apart from the bands that tried to follow in their “rap-metal” footsteps, and Evil Empire apart from the albums that such bands released.  At their core, Rage Against the Machine are a hip-hop band playing metal, not a metal band fronted by a rapper that has somebody scratch a record a couple of times on each track.  Even a quick listen to Evil Empire reveals a legit MC, a fantastic DJ (who was aware that if you need to scratch a record on a metallic song, you should figure out a way to play it on guitar), and a tight, funky rhythm section—the foundation of all good hip-hop.  And, of course, it brought the Rage.  After all, Evil Empire was more than an album, it was an invitation to . . .


“Rally round tha’ family with a pocket full of shells.”
– Rage Against the Machine, “Bulls on Parade”


“Bulls on Parade” is a snarling beast of a rap song, coaxing listeners to slither back and forth with the rhythm that snakes its way through the verses, as it criticizes America for having a greater love for the military than education. “Down Rodeo” is a scathing indictment of racial and class politics that boldly proclaims, “So now I’m rolling down Rodeo with a shotgun / These people ain’t seen a brown skin man since their grandparents bought one”, over some of the most infectious riffs the album offers, while Morello’s guitar whistles like rapidly fired shots.  “Vietnow” is blatant finger-pointing at the fear mongering of right-wing radio.  de la Rocha raps, “Well I’m a truth addict, oh shit I gotta head rush”.  “Rush”?  Limbaugh, perhaps?  The audio texture continues in “Roll Right”, which uses volume as an additional instrument and displays more than a little irony when the album’s loudest scream bellows, “Now we’re alright, we’re all calm”.


“And now it’s upon you.”
– Rage Against the Machine, “Year of tha Boomerang”


Evil Empire is a masterwork that challenges its listeners to act upon what they hear—words that are just as topical today as they were in 1996, over music that is so far beyond what is being released today it sounds as though it hasn’t even been written yet.  And Rage Against the Machine?  They were Masters of the Form who conquered the Evil Empire and then charged head first into The Battle of Los Angeles.


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