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Friday, Jun 13, 2014
This week’s Counterbalance looks at a 2004 release from a relatively obscure Columbus band, hoping to gain an understanding of acclaim and success from a somewhat different perspective.

Mendelsohn: A couple of weeks ago, when we were talking about the Japandroids, we briefly talked about the fickle nature of the music business and just how much luck it takes to break a band upon the public consciousness. This week, I present you with the Tough and Lovely and their 2004 record Born of the Stars. The Tough and Lovely were an outfit out of Columbus, Ohio, who released an EP and two albums before, I can only assume, moving on to other things. They popped up on the tail end of the garage rock revival, and, for my money, released some of the best music to come out of the movement in the mid-2000s. I saw the Tough and Lovely play in a dingy bar in my hometown nearly a decade ago — a dingy bar that I grew up in and where I witnessed some of the most memorable concerts of my young life — a dingy bar that no longer exists, wiped out in the name of urban renewal. The Tough and Lovely were one of the last concerts I saw in that bar and while this piece isn’t an ode to that rathole my friends and I used to hang out in, it does fit into the nostalgia I feel whenever I pull out Born of the Stars.

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Friday, Jun 6, 2014
Hey, how you doing. Sorry you can't get through. Why don't you leave your name and number and I'll get back to you. In the meantime, a 1991 hip-hop milestone is the week's Counterbalance. You could read that.

Klinger: A couple months ago, the news broke that venerable hip-hop artists De La Soul were offering up their entire catalog for download free of charge. Because De La Soul’s albums are, of course, chock full of samples, some of which are buried so deeply that it would take a sonic archaeologist to sort it all out, placing them on iTunes would present copyright headaches that could stretch out for decades and singlehandedly employ all of the nation’s attorneys. Offering them free of charge neatly sidestepped the issue—at least for the time being. Needless to say, not only did my dial-up modem get quite the workout, but the news also led to an inevitable flurry of internet thinkpieces about De La Soul and their place in hip-hop history.

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Friday, May 30, 2014
Long lit up tonight and still drinking. Don't we have anything to live for? Well of course we do, but till they come true, we're drinking — and listening to this 2012 blast from Japandroids.

Mendelsohn: I’m fascinated by the sheer amount of luck it takes to make it in the music world. Not only do bands have to be good at what you do, they also have to get people to notice them, then like them, then tell other people who have a less discerning taste in music to like them as well. That sort of proposition is even harder these days with the demise of the gatekeepers, the removal of critics from their seats on high, and the overabundance of stimulation waiting to assault the senses at every turn, both in the real and digital worlds.

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Friday, May 23, 2014
Put jelly on your shoulder, lie down upon the carpet and dig into the Velvet Underground’s eponymous third album. A 1969 classic is this week’s Counterbalance.

Klinger: So the other day I’m hanging out in my basement. I’m waiting for my laundry to get through the spin cycle so I can put it in the dryer and go to bed. Because the party never ends. Anyway, I happen to catch sight of the 1979 edition of The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll, and I start flipping through it. I land on the index, and I notice something odd: the Velvet Underground’s name appears on four pages in the book. The Velvet freakin’ Underground. By all accounts today, one of the most influential groups of all time and the presumed architects of just about everything that’s come in its wake. Four pages. Not a four-page chapter. Four individual references — probably about seven sentences altogether.

Needless to say, my mind was blown. Even the critical industrial complex, for which Rolling Stone was the epicenter in the late ‘70s, had yet to fully grasp the Velvet Underground’s legacy. In part, of course, that’s because their legacy was still unfolding as New Wave and ‘80s artists had yet to begin dropping their name as a full-fledged touchstone of cool. Anyway, I was inspired to check back in with the group and their self-titled third album, which checks in on the Great List at No. 170 (if we were still covering the Great List in order, we would have written about this a few weeks ago). I’ve been listening to this album for nearly 30 years now, and I’m still caught up in its huge range of styles, from the sweet sadness of “Candy Says” to the avant gardery of “The Murder Mystery”. But it’s a very different record from The Velvet Underground and Nico and a vast yawning chasm away from the blistering White Light/White Heat. But I’m beginning to think that it’s the group’s almost perverse range of styles that kept just about everyone, from the general public to the critics, from fully wrapping their heads around this group. Am I onto something here, Mendelsohn?

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Friday, May 16, 2014
I want you to get together. Put your hands together. It's a simple song so you can work it out -- a 2000 electronic landmark and the subject of this week's Counterbalance.

Mendelsohn: This week, I offer up yet another electronic album. This one is a little different, though, Klinger. It might be a little more to your liking. Or it might not. I don’t know. I’m not a mind reader. Although, I imagine you are going to tell me what you think because that’s how this works. So, I present to you St. Germain’s Tourist, a record from the venerated jazz label Blue Note, a record full of jazz soloing and blues noodling that just so happens to travel the speed of house.

St. Germain is the brainchild of French DJ and producer Ludovic Navarre. Navarre spent most of the 1990s releasing electronic music under various aliases until the mid-‘90s, when he used the St. Germain moniker to start dabbling in laid-back groove-centric electronica, ultimately merging his electronic sensibilities with those of jazz musicians. The result was 2000’s Tourist, a record that sold over three million copies, garnered some critical acclaim (No. 41 for the year and No. 2971 all time) and helped sell out a bunch of concerts. But since then, Navarre’s output has dropped off completely. All we are left with is this record, a record that I think makes a real effort to merge two genres that are so similar yet decades apart. Does it work, Klinger? More importantly, does it work for you?

Klinger: You know something, Mendelsohn, I’m going to have to hold off on making a statement just yet. I need to know more. Because right now I’m hearing something that might be a cut above your standard electronic album, but it still gives me the same feeling as I get from most other things I hear from the genre. Yes, the jazz soloing takes Tourist in another direction, but no matter what I find myself checking the little clock on the player to see how much longer this track is going to go on. It’s that rhythm track, Mendelsohn—nothing happens.

In actual jazz, the rhythm section propels the song along, often in completely unexpected ways. The drummer probably doesn’t maintain a backbeat, instead allowing the bass to hold down the beat that centers the song. Here it’s a sample done up in standard 4/4 and a beat that seldom if ever changes. (That especially jarring to me when he samples Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five,” by the way, since that’s a song that’s pretty famous for being in 5/4 time.) Anyway, about three and a half minutes into each track, you’ll hear me say, “OK, I think I’ve got the gist of this,” and I skip ahead. But (and I feel like I say this a lot with these discs) talk me through it, Mendelsohn. Why did you pick this record? What is it you’re hearing that I should be taking note of?

Mendelsohn: I picked it because Tourist is one of those albums I pull off the shelf whenever I want some electronic music that moves, but isn’t simply limited to one guy pushing buttons and twisting knobs. Also, I’m trying to find to a way to slip you an electronic record that meets you half way. I have to tell you though, I’m not surprised by your reaction. In fact, as I was listening to this record, I thought to myself, “Oh man, I bet Klinger is going to find this record really boring.”

The Tourist doesn’t really stand up to the scrutiny of active listening for all of the reasons you listed above, especially if you are used to the free flow, improvisational spirit of jazz. I not sure if anyone, other than Navarre, thought it was necessary to connect cool jazz with Detroit techno but here it is. Maybe a little context might help as well. This record was released in 2000, a transitional zone for electronic music. Moby had spent the last part of the 1990s turning all of his music into car commercials and between the big beat of Fatboy Slim and the overproduced dance pop coming out of a myriad of boy bands and the like, there wasn’t much else to choose from. Enter St. Germain’s Tourist. This record isn’t a true gamer changer but it offers a different way to view electronic music and connect it to a genre that had fallen out of popular favor decades ago. As wins go for Blue Note go, this one was pretty big and fairly unexpected.

Just don’t listen to it as a jazz record.

Klinger: Well, that’s helpful, although the jazz soloing throughout is really what’s holding the record together for me. I think what keeps me from understanding electronic music is that I’m never entirely sure what I’m supposed to be doing while I’m listening to it. I’d rather dance to the more organic grooves of soul (it actually suits my, shall we say, unorthodox approach to dance). And what I’ve heard doesn’t seem to have the ebb and flow to hold my interest when I just sit and listen to it. With Tourist, I find it helpful to drive around and pretend I’m starring in a ‘90s reboot of a ‘70s cop show. That helps a bit.

And I keep coming back to a study I heard about where a scientician remixed a complicated piece of 20th classical music so that it more repetition in it and everyone, from average joes to serious music experts, rated their enjoyment of the music considerably higher. There’s apparently something in people’s brains that seeks out familiar sounds, so when we hear them our brain gives us a reward. There’s something in there that applies to both my situation and critics in general. Am I not accessing the part of my brain that seeks out these rewards? Is there something broken in my brain? Does my natural depressive state prevent me from receiving these rewards? Much to consider. Also does a person need to listen to something repeatedly to trigger that reward, which is why critics are so often wrong in their initial assessment of an album? Please answer these questions, or refer me to a qualified neurologist who can.

Mendelsohn: I listen to a fair amount of electronic music. None of it makes me want to dance. I’m not saying you can’t dance to some of it. I probably could but it would be a lot of flailing about and no one needs to see that. Let go of that stigma, Klinger. Just because the music is electronic doesn’t mean you have to be in the club to enjoy it. Yes, it is repetitive, more so than most music. But I don’t think it is any more repetitive than some forms of the blues. Blues out of the North Mississippi hill country by the likes of Junior Kimbrough and RL Burnside is borderline trance (and trance is just a faster version of house). Don’t dwell on the fact that some of St. Germain’s songs go on for nearly ten minutes, look instead at the how and why. Look for the subtle variations within the repetition as the flute gives way to the piano and back again.

Klinger: That’s certainly a different way of thinking about it, and it’s pretty much the same advice as you’d give to people who can’t wrap their heads around jazz or classical music. I think it’s the case with any unfamiliar genre that outsiders have a hard time distinguishing thought-out intelligent stuff from hacky crap, and it may be even more challenging when you’re talking about music that can sound flat-out boring if you aren’t keyed in. In the case of electronica, part of the problem may be that we keep hearing the word “dance” when people talk it, and that sets people up for unrealistic expectations — much like when Taco Bell uses the word “food” in its marketing.

St. Germain is clearly, even with my tin ear for this stuff, a good example of thoughtful electronica, and at some point here I’m going to get around to listening more closely for the nuances that make the difference.

Mendelsohn: There is an ebb and flow to this record, but it is on a much larger scale. When you are on the beach, the waves are varied and come quickly, breaking fast upon the shore. When you are out at sea, the waves are large and low, not nearly as pronounced as the boat rolls gently over each crest. Listening to Tourist is a lot like being out on the open ocean. It may all look the same, but that’s just because you’ve been staring at the sun and drinking salt water.

Maybe your brain just isn’t compatible with any electronic music. But as you noted, critics often respond in the negative to music they find unfamiliar before doing an about face once it has set in. Let this record set in, Klinger. It can be a rewarding experience.

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