Catalog by Robin Cherry

Absurd as they frequently are, catalogs have a good chance of surviving longer than the magazines of which they have long seemed so derivative.


Publisher: Princeton Architectural Press
Subtitle: The Illustrated History of Mail Order Shopping
Author: Robin Cherry
Price: $35.00
Length: 272
Formats: Hardcover
ISBN: 9781568987392
US publication date: 2008-12

With the advent of online shopping, it's possible that we are living in the last days of the mail-order catalog. For now, though, they are still coming; I can readily imagine the coffee table at my father's house, where at any given time there are offerings from Pottery Barn, L.L. Bean, Ikea, Vermont Country Store, and any number of other retailers. Direct-mail catalogs remain as persistently prevalent and their come-ons as ludicrous as ever, filled with second- and third-rate models posed in improbable circumstances, above or beside descriptions that defy coherency and invariably insult the attentive reader's intelligence.

At his blog Minor Tweaks, Thomas Bartlett occasionally posts about "what he learned" from various catalogs, more or less quoting verbatim risible examples of their egregious copy:

What I learned from the Pottery Barn "Outdoor Spaces" catalog

-- The Chunky Outdoor Rug is made from jute-mimicking polypropolene

-- The Outdoor Flower Bowl can be used for fruit or "summer collectibles."

-- A "welcoming glow" will "gather friends."

-- Outdoor furniture gives peace of mind while "asking for nothing in return."

But absurd as they frequently are, catalogs have a good chance of surviving longer than the magazines of which they have long seemed so derivative. Since the catalogs strive to create a place where the brands and products advertised can exist in a sumptuous and absorbing alternate reality, they have the distinct necessity of being tactile, glossy, immersive.

The diffuse focus of magazines -- even "magalogs" like Lucky -- leaves them vulnerable to the endless diversity of offerings online, whereas catalogs have a streamlined appeal: They draw a far more direct line between the product and the lifestyle it is supposed to give those who consume it, without pretense to objectivity or plausibility or actual service to readers. Magazines, in the end, still get read, whereas catalogs afford a far more straightforward route into daydreaming.

Catalog: The Illustrated History of Mail-Order Shopping, which consists almost entirely of reproductions of old catalog pages from the past century and a quarter, is an invitation to indulge such daydreams, without offering you the option of trying to realize them through purchases. Even if you’ll never get to touch the merchandise, the book is rich in evocative nostalgia and glimpses into life as it was idealized in past eras.

You’ll see the Jurassic Pong videogame console, the permanent-press leisure wear, and the shag-carpeted bathroom of the 1970s, the elaborate hi-fi systems and trunk-size televisions of the 1960s, as well as pages of Clara Bow hats and patent-medicine advertisements dense with tiny type. It sometimes hard to read the copy, but it's often worth the effort to read such well-turned phrases as "Neatniks make great playmates" (from a 1969 Sears catalog) or "Now! Toasters with color." (also from a Sears catalog, circa 1939).

As with old TV commercials, we no longer need to defend ourselves against the appeals these vintage pages once may have had, or be offended by the person they seem to take us for. Instead we can merely be entertained, the way we might be by a museum exhibition, an antique car show, or anything old-timey for that matter.

After a prefatory section in which some of the more successful mail-order retailers are detailed briefly, Catalog breaks down into chapters by topic, with one section for fashion, one for toys, one for housewares, and so on. Robin Cherry provides brief, utilitarian introductions to each chapter, but mainly the vintage pages, a disproportionate number of which are drawn from Neiman Marcus catalogs, are allowed to speak for themselves. This is perhaps fortunate: Cherry is not a historian or a scholar of any sort but a freelance journalist, and this shows in the sweeping generalizations she uses to characterize various eras.

While kitsch-loving graphic designers might mine these pages for ideas, for the rest of us, it's a coffee-table or back-of-toilet book for browsing in spare moments, in which we become tourists of the consumer past. Cherry pursues no particular theoretical angle on the material presented here, so the pages selected for reproduction seem somewhat arbitrary.

No attempt is made to offer suggestive juxtapositions; instead the pages are presented in an uninspiring chronological ordering that passes up chances for possibly provocative side-by-side comparisons. Our gaze is thereby drawn inward; we are absorbed by the pages in isolation, which perhaps is more in keeping with their original intent to sweep us up into the seductive world of goods.

What becomes obvious from browsing through Catalog is how little direct-mail appeals have changed over the years. The window dressing is superficially different, but the underlying psychology of the pitches remains the same. They typically hope to capitalize on our insecurity, as in the pages displaying antiseptics and facial creams, or our vanity, as in the ones promising luxury our neighbors will envy. And if these tactics seem too subtle, catalog retailers sometimes attempt the sensory overload approach of cramming the page full of goods.

With such a cornucopia available, it seems almost absurd not to try to claim a small part of it for ourselves. Such pages have a similar effect as 99-cent stores, where the sheer surfeit of manufactured products is dizzying, disorienting. Thoughts of mere utility are cowed by the tide of commodities; usefulness can seem beside the point in the face of such bounty.

Whether they advertise luxuries or durables or just novelty junk, catalogs seek to stun us into that state of labile submission, and lure us with the idea that they exemplify, that our belongings constitute a catalog of their own, an ideal portrait of the lives we pretend to live and the lives to which we have been led to aspire. They hope to convince us that there is no accomplishment more rewarding than cataloguing our own goods as an index to our consumer souls.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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