Thursday, August 11, 2011

The FMDP: Level One

Just when you had almost completely forgotten the FMDP, here it comes roaring back!

Today Frances is "dancing" (you call that dancing?) to the freaked-out sounds of "Nyctaphobia", off of the full-on redonkulous second album by the Eleventh House, Level One.

I know that it is incredibly dangerous to expose children to jazz fusion. I didn't want to, but Frances picked the record, and she insisted. I warned her. And I'm warning you: watch at your own risk. You only have two ears.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Relocation Blues and Purples

We moved!

As it turns out, buying a house and relocating a family is a lot of work. So much that it made it pretty hard for me to fulfill my tri-weekly obligation to write an FPE post.

So I'm punting! Hail Mary y'all! To tide you over till the next scheduled bit three weeks hence, here are some photos of the unpacking. Happy May!

Handy moving tip: if you get these U-Haul boxes, you can return any that you don't use for full price. Of course, you never don't use any. You can see here that the FPE got its own special box!

Mmm, grindcore!

Magic Moments.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

RSD Love 1: A Little Bit Country

The Conceit

Record Store Day! I can't believe they invented a holiday just for me and my tribe, but they did. 2011 is the second year in a row that I shared my RSD shopping and celebrating with Frances, and we had an awesome time. Part of my personal Record Store Day celebration this year was activating the FPE in the wild anarchy of the record store environment. Serendipity ruled as Frances dipped her little hands into the stacks and came out with some beautiful record store flotsam.

I love record stores. I used to own one, even. There's so much musical content in the world, so much more than you could ever master. It's easy to think that when music was confined to physical media (a temporary prison; before records, music was the province of the spheres) there used to be less access, that the Internet opened the floodgates and now we have this problem of choice that used to be regulated by the relatively comprehensible physical limitation of a record store. That's true, to a point. What it misses, though, is the sheer volume of recorded sound and cultural information physically archived in even the smallest record store. The dollar bins. The story that the mass of unmoving detritus tells. The record store already contained an uncountable infinity before it got digitized.

The value that the record store brings is curation. Economics of space and supply and passion rule, and the store cannot help but be the outward expression of some set of canny individuals' take on what's worth hearing. Over time, the desirable goods sell and the pile of crap grows and grows and tells the story of the space and the people who use it.

We need entertainment discovery technology in the digital realm because we don't have dollar bins. We need recommendations technology not because there's more stuff, but because the equally infinite amount of stuff is no longer subject to the same rules of space organization and economy. The internet didn't increase access, it decreased clarity.

So Record Store Day. First stop was Val's Halla in lovely Oak Park, IL. Frances and I enjoyed the band - you can even see pics of us digging it there. I scored a trove of Messiaen and other 20th-Century art music and an Ambitious Lovers album, among other things. Then I let the FPE loose on the 3-for-a-dollar CDs.

My other RSD had-to-go was The Old School in Forest Park - Frances chose some stuff there too that I'll write about next time.

For this post and the next, I'll let my little curator bring these beautiful spaces into focus by shedding light on these things that may have wanted to remain buried within them.

The Evidence

Karen Anderson - Over the Line

Released in 1998, this was northwest suburban Chicagoan Anderson's second album. She's got a beautiful, strong, clear voice, and she writes tuneful, confident pop songs that are honest and a little bit sad, flirting with country and folk, lushing things up with delicious vocal harmonies, and bringing a big pro sound to rock the bars and summer fest stages. Not my thing, really. But gosh her voice really is so pretty and the songs suit it so well with their happy, sunny sadness, I don't mind playing this CD a bunch of times.

What's she up to now? Her website paints a cheery picture of a thriving singer-songwriter, getting all the right notices from the local music machine. It looks a little clunky and dated but there's no reason to think she won't be playing Schuba's in a couple of weeks - until you look at the calendar on the wall and realize that the last time April 30 fell on a Wednesday was years ago. And then you find this twelve-year-old interview that says

To make the future even more interesting, Anderson is expecting her first baby in August.

"It's just another thing in the mix," she said with a laugh. "I mean, as long as I can still play my guitar without it being too uncomfortable, everything will be okay."

The trail ends there. She was on the way up and just stopped - either cause she had a kid, or maybe she lost interest, or maybe her sportswriting career offered better earning potential. Who knows? If she had kept on, maybe someone would have bought that CD from Val before it went to the cheapo bin, and then the FPE would have picked something else for me. I'm kinda glad it worked out the way it did - I'm looking forward to the reformed Karen Anderson band playing some summer stage or cafe I find myself at one of these days, after her kid goes off to college or gets good enough at drums to join.

Chase the Sun - s/t

Whoops! It's COUNTRY. (The naked lady on the blood-orange cover plus the creepy bare tree on the back and the one dude's bushy square brah-goatee had my ears prepped for a metal riff-crunch.) I lack the critical apparatus to comment on this meaningfully beyond the fact that the singer's hearty, gruff rasp kinda bums me out, and the dusty-road pickup twang the band lays down places them firmly inside a genre whose conventions turn me off so thouroughly that I can't be fair. I think this might be what Toby Keith sounds like? I'll just figure out where this thing came from, let it play through, and move on.

Let's check the internets... whoa! They're from Australia! I wasn't expecting that. Look at this! They got "the prestigious 'Album of the Year' gong for 'Rednecks and Gentlemen' and the 'Duo or Group of the Year' award" at the "Australian Blues Awards". They got a gong for that? I want a gong! What is this "Australian Blues Awards", anyway?

Based on recorded product, the Australian Blues Awards are adjudicated by a panel of judges drawn from across the Australia.

Based on recorded product, yes. The Australia, I see. Well that makes sense. What's with all this BLUES, though, eh? Must be a fluke. I'll check the bio.

“I was playing all sorts of stuff through school but when I heard Joe Satriani, that’s when I knew I wanted to be a guitar player” recalls Rynsaardt of his 20-year focus. Satriani lead to Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan who took Rynsaardt back to the blues. “Stevie Ray pushed me in an early direction: back to the blues masters like BB King, Muddy Waters and Johnny Winter”.

On cue, they just launched into "Catch the Rabbit", a full-on slide guitar blues boogie instrumental. It even sounds a little bit ok. Next track, "Come Back Around", is back to full-on suck, though - but now it's BLUES suck instead of COUNTRY suck. Again, I'm the wrong guy to be writing about this. I don't dig the form. I do find it kind of interesting though, how for the whole first nine songs, my ears were telling me COUNTRY COUNTRY COUNTRY, and the website was going BLUES BLUES BLUES and how I had to listen closer cause I wasn't able to trust my ears and I think what it is is that, there's a huge dollop of bluesy slide guitar in the modern radio country sound. I guess that's probably cause the genres are twin sibs. Not a revelation I suppose for those who pay closer attention, but interesting to hear in practice coming in from the outside. And outside this record is where I am.

Sea Ray - Stars at Noon

See gray... Curious how the same lexicon of words and notes that produced The Rite of Spring, Ulysses and Wu-Tang Forever can be recombined to create works of such shocking blandness as this... A subdued quietness of mood that fails to soothe, producing anxiety that the time is going down the train... Yes I said train... A peaceful, pretty mix of hazy, dreamy indie pop that's a little country... Strings... Vagueness...

Here they are... see for yourself! I'm pretty sure this is why "shoe-gaze" and "indie pop" are descriptors for so few of the things I collect. The appeal is that it's pretty, so pretty, so soothing... I'm drifting again... Track 8, "Forge Utopia" is pure bliss! No, I must fight this. But it is! It is nice! It is pretty! So pretty! Dammit head, stop swaying! Mmmmmm... The cello... I love cellos... Oh, a little bassline flicker...

I listened again. It whooshes by in a rush of gray. There's at least one fast song ("Quiver"). It is not hateful. It is nice. It is not exciting.

The Conclusion

Val's Halla is... a little bit country. My dollar's worth of CDs all had that in common. I coulda guessed the flotsam (or is it jetsam?) would have told me that. The band was playing "For What It's Worth" when we walked in, and they had a banjo. Not country, nope - a little country. A little country, a little folk, a tease of blues, not so much metal really at all. The FPE sample from the cheapos missed the classical that I go to Val's for, and the new wavey power poppy stuff that the 80s bequeathed, but it got the core flavor I think. A system tends towards this self-similarity at all the levels, no? We'll see next time when I take a crack at Frances's picks from The Old School...

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

What It Feels Like for a Girl

Music is the universal language no matter the country we are born in or the color of our skin. Brings us all together.

--Justin Bieber, via Twitter, May 19, 2010, as quoted by James Parker in "Daydream Believer", The Atlantic, March 2011

Music makes the bourgeoisie and the rebel come together.

--Madonna, "Music"

Every few years, I decide to put the KISS station in heavy rotation on my playlist. The last time I did this was 2008 or so; Akon, T-Pain and Ne-Yo ruled. Before that was 2006, and my favorite jam of the summer was "It's Goin' Down" by Yung Joc.

At the moment, in the spring of 2011, Katy Perry's dark fantasy "E.T." (with a slightly horrifying verse by Kanye - "I'ma disrobe you, then I'ma probe you, see I abducted you, so I tell ya what to do, I tell you what to do, what to do, what to do") is sharing airtime with "Love the Way You Lie", in which Rihanna continues to bolster the kink cred of her public persona by engaging in some edgy power play with Eminem - "just gonna stand there and watch me burn, but that's alright because I like the way it hurts". (The extent to which Rihanna's play could really be considered "play", I guess, depends on your viewpoint. If Rihanna's in charge, it's play, maybe. If Mr. Mathers, or your basic hive-mind internet commenter's in charge, women lose the game. One gets the sense from listening to the shouting that Em's not necessarily "playing" from the same deck. "If she ever tries to fucking leave again, I'ma tie her to the bed and set the house on fire.")

Music makes the people come together. In our current hive, "coming together" seems to involve an awful lot of guys telling women what to do, and women expressing their enthusiastic consent. Have you heard the new Enrique Iglesias track? You should.

I'm a lover of the pop hook and the pop production. They have it down to a science these days, manipulating the ether of sound to directly release the dopamine. Too bad it's so often deployed in the service of such a reprehensible rape culture as the one we all inhabit. It's not all bad, though. I didn't like Ke$ha's breakout hit, "Tik Tok", but her recent jams, "Blow" (amazing video - it's no "Telephone" but a good effort) and "We R Who We R" raise the roof. They are bratty to a fault but they let me feel the power and freedom of being teenaged. Ke$ha and Rihanna (who's definitely come out on top in the wake of that ugly stuff a couple years back, and whose "S&M" strikes me as a sex-positive step in the right direction) are taking some power for the ladies - but I think the industry's stacked against them. A quick look at the jiggling flesh on exploit in that "We R Who We R" video should be enough to disprove anyone who wants to hold Ke$ha up as the next feminist icon.

This is the context in which I listen to Music, Madonna's eighth album, from 2000. Madonna's great. I like her voice and I like the songs she chooses to sing. It's great too how you get the feeling from watching her career that she has final say on most of the decisions. She's smart and she's got femdom's back. You don't see too many popular music artists, male or female, where you can really tell that they're calling the shots. "Borderline" was one of the first top 40 songs I really loved. Even as I went all classic rock in the late 80s and all underground hipster in the 90s, I was able to pay attention to her cause she kept on doing sorta interesting stuff like "Vogue" and "Justify My Love" and even that weird Dick Tracy thing that wasn't any good but at least it was bad in a weird, refreshing way, not all depressing like the misogy-racist crap that floods the rest of pop music. She lost me with Evita and Ray of Light but when the new decade came and I heard this record it was like renewing an old friendship. Same girl-posi message, same kinda dopey lyrics that consistently fail to bum me out, same consistently catchy and non-boring dance production. Awesome.

I sell it short with this faint praise. Music is a remarkable album. Tiny flourishes bubble to the surface to shimmer and sparkle: the way the pretty acoustic guitar in the intro to "Don't Tell Me" has random silent dropouts that mimic a CD defect; the little Cher effect warbles in "Nobody's Perfect"; the throbbing sheen and electro-stutters of "Impressive Instant". The choice to close with a double shot of intense spiritual longing in "Paradise (Not for Me)" ("I can't remember / When I was young / I can't explain / If it was wrong...") and "Gone" ("Dream away your life / Someone else's dream / Nothing equals nothing..."). The effortless, natural flow from beginning to end that renders irrelevant the critical tools of dissection: highs and lows, ebbs and flows, over and out.

But back to the sexes. "What It Feels Like for a Girl" issues a challenge to us guys: "Girls can wear jeans and cut their hair short, wear shirts and boots cause it's ok to be a boy. But for a boy to look like a girl is degrading, cause you think that being a girl is degrading. But secretly you'd love to know what it's like wouldn't you?" The great video ups the challenge to a salvo: Madonna and her octogenarian lady friend go on a man-rage spree, tasing vulnerable dudes at lonely ATMs, mowing down hockey players and straight up murdering this one guy she steals a car from. Commenter "bperry28" says about it:

This is a video of what goes on in my brain every time some idiot makes a remark about my butt/boobs, some guy tells me I'm too emotional or asks if I'm PMSing, says women aren't funny or can't drive or play guitar . It's lucky for the world that most women have control of themselves.

I wish there were more women and men using a platform like Madonna's to spread an anti-rape message.

Or an anti-racist message, for that matter. Or any message that wasn't "Buy all this crap and get fucked and like it."

I use music to experience the world in ways my body won't let me. Your experience is your only possession. Empathy is the ability to borrow experience from others. Music has the power to create empathy - that's why Madonna and the Biebz can talk about it making people come together and we want to agree with them. It's why I can hear "We R Who We R" and feel young. (Wait - I'm still young! What's my age, again?) That united experience, the shared space, the common distortion of the fabric of reality, the lens through which you can modulate yourself into the body of another, it can create the world, and it does.

Our choice reinforces our sense of self; our fractured, diffuse choice in this era of hyper-availability has been widely criticized as over-stimulation and loss of individuality. But what of the mainstream?

Friday, March 25, 2011

The FMDP: Aspen-Serenade

The FMDP's back!

This time around, Frances and I are exploring the composition Aspen-Serenade by Darius Milhaud. It's performed on this Everest LP by a group called the Milhaud Ensemble, under the direction of the composer.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

P2P1: Double Live

I present the debut this week of an exciting, backlog-clearing new feature of the FPE: the P2P Series! That's "Platter-to-Platter". Frances picks albums at ten times the rate I write about them, so I'm doubling up. P2P: it's head-to-head as brother contends with brother, rock goes mano a mano with folk, and judgments are continually spared in the spirit of "yeah, whatever man" that you've come to know and love. The FPE tolerates and respects all records, no matter how odious.

This week: P2P1. Donovan goes up against Lou Reed in an entry that shares its name with an awesome Butthole Surfers album: Double Live*. I'll let the unnamed announcer from the beginning of the Donovan album set the stage...

If I can wend my way through the flowers here... Welcome to the phenomenon of Donovan. (Applause) I say phenomenon for various reasons which you'll see tonight. Uh, in particular a few weeks ago KRLA was proud to present Donovan in his first concert at the Hollywood Bowl - some of you were probably there, right? (Enthusiastic applause) If you were there, you're well aware of this story, for those of you who weren't there I think you'll find it interesting. Donovan came out on stage, and it started to rain. And he said if everybody claps their hands it'll stop raining. So everybody applauded and it stopped raining. When he left the stage it rained again. Call him what you will, he is a phenomenon.

If you needed further proof, there it is folks:


Donovan came to America in 1967 and it blew his mind. He had already blown America's mind cause he was the grooviest, magicalest cat out there. The overlay of Scot on his accent fed the dreams of millions of teens, especially girls, as his tales of life in the eternally now, mystical forever age shaped the love-drunk tone of the pop culture. The documents escaping his native UK for three years had begun an evolution from faery Dylanite to singular prophet of the age. Once the early, super-Dylany recordings had been thoroughly disseminated throughout the land, and joined by two domestic albums (Sunshine Superman and Mellow Yellow) showing a rocket to maturity and artistic independence, it was time to tour the States. The album Donovan in Concert was recorded in a huge venue in California - a convention center, actually - during this tour.

(Incidentally, the recording date is just 38 days after the birth of his son Donovan Jr. I wonder when he left for the tour? (The announcer at the beginning of the album places him in LA "a few weeks ago".) I wonder if he was thinking about his little baby boy. He probably was, a lot. Also incidentally, Donovan's dad, Donald Leitch, was on tour with him - the new grandpa comes out on stage at the beginning of the show to introduce his son, the groovy cosmic love prophet who was himself a new dad. Family.)

How do I know America blew Donovan's mind? You can tell from the liner notes, rendered in his charming scrawl:

And though I am back in the green land of Celt where Dame Spring sings I think upon the beautiful concerts. Swimming in silence of our making me and you shared.

I mostly saw airports hotels and concerts. I did spend a pleasant time in Malibu on the beach. Whilst flying I saw the vast deserts of your land and when I saw the painting "Desert Journey" by Fleur Cowles I was reminded. The painting is on the front. The music on the record is the concerts in the cities. The desert is over which I flew...

The painting is two birds on a rock, suspended in a blue sky over a desert plain. Ok now my mind is starting to get blown. So tripped out!

The music is great. It's the sound of this guy just discovering the limitless vistas that have opened for his creative potential, once he's opened his mind to different kinds of sounds, and the public has acclaimed his genius and caused the money to start flowing freely. Using a small backing combo of flute, sax, piano, bass, percussion, and his own guitar and harmonica (and a string quartet on one song), he experiments with genres (including most obviously and jarringly, jazz) and brand-new songs (including lots of stuff from his album A Gift from a Flower to a Garden which hadn't been released at the time of the concert). The pop hits are limited to two: a pretty lame version of "There Is a Mountain" (he just chugs away at this repetitive, boring figure on the guitar for the whole song - this never was my favorite Donovan jam anyway) and a rocking closer of "Mellow Yellow" (in which he augments the lyrics: "I'm just mad about fourteen year-old girls and they're mad about me". I know, this skirts close to ickyland - but you gotta remember, it was the 60s, practically the whole decade was icky, and really I think it's just Donovan throwing a bone, as it were, to a demographic that was really, demonstrably mad about him). Mounting a high-profile concert tour at the height of your pop-star breakthrough that's filled with non-hits, unfamiliar songs and marginally cool stylistic experiments is ballsy.

Some of the experiments don't produce good results. The fuck-the-man old-timey number "Rules and Regulations" is too lame for words - don't even get me started on hippies and vaudeville - and the jazz song doesn't do it for me, but even with the bad moments I think this album is great. I love how it opens, after Mr. Square Announcer-man and Donovan's Dad say their little bits, with one of his deepest of deep cuts, "Isle of Islay", and just thrusts you into dark, intimate, mystic fingers on strings for thousands of miles expanding water through time and seagulls. I love how it's a concert so you're that one step closer to the guy, you hear the sounds that went through the air in Anaheim that day forty-four years ago, there's no studio to mediate the music and give it the overdubs. I'm a musical perfectionist myself, so I know how it is to be the one behind the music, the urge to insulate yourself with the perfection of a slaved-over Document. There's a candor to the Live Album that sets it out from the canon of the Artist, that renders it incapable of being a fully realized statement of the music; rather it's an alternate version, a sub-optimal realization, a live "version" of the Artist's pure, studio-crafted vision. Like I said, I'm in the perfect-vision camp myself, so I don't go for the live records so much, but I really enjoy it when I find one that augments the way I understand the artist, and gives me the Thousand-Mile Fingers and the Seagulls.

The other Live Album in my Frances Picked It pile, Donovan in Concert's contender in P2P1, is Rock n Roll Animal by Lou Reed, a 1974 release, and if I'm not mistaken, the first Lou Reed album I ever got. (When I was a kid, I was actually really into live albums - something about extended guitar solos maybe? 10-minute jams to lose your mind?) It was definitely the first time I had heard any of these five songs, four of which are by his old band, who of course are like, the best band, totally seriously, great band man. Really awesome. So the VU jams on here are "White Light/White Heat", "Heroin", "Rock 'n' Roll" and "Sweet Jane" - the last two of these I wouldn't get around to hearing the VU versions of till I was a total grownup, like maybe only about ten years ago or less. But it's funny, knowing these songs as I do now in their pure, studio-mediated forms, the forms in which they were first presented to the world and which most who care about such things would consider definitive, to hear these thick slabs of explosions of arena-rock monstrosities and experience them the way I did twenty-five years ago when I first heard them: "Sweet Jane is an AWESOME ROCK SONG!!!"

It kinda is, I mean it's got a mean hook and stuff but you'd never know it until the sick rock combo Lou put together to tour with after his thinky band broke up teased out the riffs and tricked out the jams and amped it up to eleven. This record is all crunch and riffs and guitar solos. I hate guitar solos. I think it's a little bit of jazz that escaped into rock in the 60s to dress up the three chords that Chuck Berry had bequeathed, emphasizing instrumental technique without adding any interest. That's right. "To rock" is actually "to jazz", where "to jazz" means "to noodle". (It's also "to poet", which makes me wonder why I even bother with rock music. I don't these days, as much as I used to, at least not if it's got a lot of poetry and guitar solos in it.) But this record kinda rules anyway, cause even though I hate the idea of guitar solos, and poetry, I don't always hate them in practice, depending on the context, you know, and these songs are all great in the riff/chord/harmony/anthem department. The Lou Reed deadpan is nice too cause it doesn't let the poetry get out of control.

Rock n Roll Animal crunches up the gnarl, and smooths the rough by crunching - you dig? "Rock and Roll", the VU chestnut from Loaded, rocks on this record, jamming out its ten minutes with a manic, simplistic figure that's got the primal simplicity to erase your mind and your ass will follow (maybe this is what Donovan was trying to tap into with that boring arrangement of "There Is a Mountain" - good thing Donovan knew enough to steer clear of the bonehead mostly and leave the rocking to the rockers). I think Lou always had this desire inside him to rock super hard and wicked long, but you can tell he's a creative guy who wants to think a lot too. Not to put too fine a point on it, but those desires oppose each other. "To rock" is "to riff" and "to bonehead" - the "to jazz" that the guitar solos added to the meaning of rock is really just a way of extending length and bombast without generating new musical material. It takes a special kind of creativity to draw inspiration from the rigidity that is rock, merge it with a desire to perpetrate art, and use that dialectic to forge an oeuvre that brings something new to the table, even as it moves units.

In conclusion, then, the results of P2P1:

Reed crunches up the gnarl, while Leitch lays down the mystic trips. Reed makes a big crunchy rock album to kick start a career in the mopes, while Leitch shrinks an arena to fit the intimacy of his far-reaching vision, riding the crest of his stardom. Reed uses the concert to give the people what they are desperate for, and so does Leitch. Rock n roll, the phenomenon that is Donovan. Welcome!

*There's a song on Double Live called "Lou Reed". Also, the Butthole Surfers do a Donovan cover on one of their other albums. They are the missing link between Donovan and Lou Reed, apparently.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

It Is Not What It Is Not

I met this guy on an airplane a few hours ago. He was carrying an instrument case that I guessed contained a clarinet, so I asked him, "Is that a clarinet?". Turns out it was a trumpet. He was returning to New York City from Fort Worth, Texas, where he had been invited to preach. This guy was a Seventh Day Adventist pastor (I was like "Oh, so you must be vegetarian then." After that, my store of knowledgeable things to say about the Seventh Day Adventists was pretty much tapped). He was carrying the trumpet because he uses it in his ministry - he said he usually starts out the sermon with some solo trumpet stuff.

We exchanged a lot of ideas about music, what with him being a musical pastor and me being a music theorist / composer / recommender / archivist / whatever it is that I do. I got the sense that for him, music was a sacred space, a touchpoint between the physical and spiritual, between the earthly and divine. It inhabits both spheres simultaneously. It is a time out of time. Or maybe that's what it is for me, and talking to this man just helped me to define it in those terms.

I was in awe of this man. He explained to me that he had grown up Presbyterian, but had attended some Seventh Day Adventist (do they call it SDA? I'm gonna call it that, if it keeps coming up) meetings when he was on a spiritual search in his early 20s, and one thing that particularly attracted him to this faith was its emphasis on health and the body.

It seems to me that seeing music as a sacred space between worlds provides an insight into the health/body aspect of SDA. Like, the body is the essence of the physical, yet too it is our spirit's manifestation in this world, the seat of our consciousness, and as such can be seen as another gateway to the divine. If the divine has chosen to manifest itself in this body, then we in turn can honor that nature by choosing to nurture and sustain it, using the knowledge we have of its working to maximize the realization of good work that it can do while it moves in the physical plane under our stewardship.

I explained a little about my job. I work for a company that develops search and recommendations technology for content providers in music, TV and video. I enjoy this because I'm fascinated to explore the individual relationships that people have with music. I'm happy with it because, in a small way, I am helping to make people happy, and enhance their lives.

He said, this is a ministry.

Well gosh! I guess I'm blessed then. Creating music recommendations is a ministry, and I get to do it. That means my daughter Frances has a ministry, too - the FPE. She recommends music for me. This week, I continue the work I began last time of clearing out the L's and M's that she selected at the FPE's inception, with this winner:


Frances isn't the only person who has recommended this CD to me. I received it in the mail some years ago from a friend who said, "I am sending this with the thought that you might crack yourself up with this thing... track 2 is the one".

Track 2 is "Messiah", and these are the lyrics:

I have broken the seal
I can no longer think, I can only feel
I can ride to a blinding night
There is something going on here

I am the sigh that makes you cry
Hold on
I am the one that makes you numb
Hold on

I have broken the seal
I can no longer touch, only feel
I can leave this world when I may
Let the star guide you

Chorus a few times

Messiah... messiah... messiah... messiah

I'm trying to find something to grab onto in there, but it's all just vague Collective Soul-y-ness. I think I'll try to write a 90s alterna-rock song now. Here goes:

If it is what it is
Then it's not what it's not, then, too
I long for it too
She is a mad monk

Grab me!
Put your head in a vice
Drag me!
Don't make me say it twice

It is not what I am not
And you are not there too
We long for it too
Her hair entwines the grass

Chorus a few times

Lama... lama... lama... lama

So there we go - I cracked myself up, and all because of the Lufa CD! Mission accomplished.

(The musical vagueness beautifully complements the lyrical vagueness. Bland post-grunge un-hooks meander, punctuated by an occasional uplifting guitar solo. When those solos kick in they could almost be Dinosaur Jr. for a minute - and then when the solo's over and it's time for the next song, I hear a lingering Mascis tang in the gray guitar rock, and I'm struck by how much Dinosaur Jr. actually sounds like Collective Soul, except with way better vocals.)

Lufa. Why these guys? Why now? Why ever? Their complete unremarkableness is the inevitable reality with which I must contend. These goofy, slouchy teens from an affluent Massachusetts town are tonight's manifestation of a deluge of boring guitar rock. I know it's out there, so many people spent the 90s and the 00s documenting its existence and blasting it from their dorms that no one can deny the reality of post-grunge. Lufa are the thing you mean when you say, post-grunge, and yet nothing could be further from the truth. I try to write around them, to describe with categorizations and comparisons, but with each name I drop and bucket I invoke I only push myself further and further away from their particular flavor of lame, uplifting vagueness. Can I reach into this music and pull something out? Why must they be what they are? Why can't they be Dinosaur Jr.? If they were Dinosaur Jr., I would not listen to them ever, but I would enjoy them when I did. What if they were Collective Soul? Well then, I would hear them now and again on the radio, and think to myself how lame they sounded, and then congratulate myself for liking Dinosaur Jr. They are Lufa, and I'm listening to them now, and I don't like their music very much. How silly all this is. We like what affirms our own reality.

So my friend sent me this CD and in doing so he ministered to me. He pulled a little bit of flotsam from the stream and blessed me with it. It didn't matter what it was, of course, any missive would be such a blessing, but the paradox is that it was Lufa and it couldn't have mattered more what it was, because that's all that it was, and that's all that it is.

Peace on earth...

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

To Hit Armor Class Zero

This FPE post takes me back to the very origins of the FPE, a year and a half or so ago, when my little shrub was but a sprout who had just discovered walking, and still employed that zombie/Frankenstein shuffle that makes it clear why we call them "toddlers".

This toddler named Frances toddled over to my CD shelf and grabbed a CD from near the bottom to examine. Then she did it again, and then she did it again. When I put the CDs back, she would take them out again. They would wind up sitting on the couch or the floor. Eventually, since I couldn't keep them on the shelf, I decided to just go with it, and started stacking them on top of the CD shelf unit. By the time Frances had lost interest in this game, a month or two later, most of the high Ls and low Ms (from The Lotus to Lata Mangeshkar) were stacked up there.

The chief method I employ to quell my anxiety flareups when life upsets the order I've tried to impose is to go with it, and do my best to facilitate the process of turning perceived liabilities into the assets they almost always can be. (Isn't that what a koan is? An intentional disruption or revolution, a slap in the face of an honest petitioner, a teachable absurdity or impossibility that is the foundation for getting outside a box; lemons/lemonade [though, you need to add sugar]). Hence, the FPE - Frances un-files my records? Well then, why not actually listen to them for a change? I didn't get to this "aha!" when she was on the CDs, but needing to stack them on top of the unit was the foundation for it. Eighteen months later, the CDs are still up there, despite Frances having soon moved on to my preferred medium, the vinyl LP. If I don't write about the CDs soon, I'll need to re-file them!

I have a complicated relationship with CDs. While I have nothing against them, officially, I just love LPs so much more. I don't think CDs are evil, and they are the first music medium I collected. The LPs won my heart though. Since I considered writing this post, I've been thinking about the roles played by CDs and LPs as "versions" of album releases, and wondering if one is intrinsically better suited to "define" a release than the other.

A quarter-century ago when they entered the mainstream consciousness, CDs were quickly reviled by music geeks as a high-profit new face for old recordings: run it through a digital processor and call it "remastered", squash the beautiful cover art into nonsense, force consumers to buy shiny bauble with the face of Led Zeppelin II, snort cocaine, repeat for 'Zep 3. Technology always has the potential to facilitate profit, when craftily employed - but at the end of the century, when Sean Fanning or whoever did it first liberated the digital files from their plastic bodies, we the people had our revenge over the corporate overlords who had held up those pale mirrors to the classic rock gods of our parents' youth, at least according to the narrative that's been most popularly accepted (though there's always that problematic other side of the story - the evil labels took a non-fatal blow, but the content creators, with their artistic integrity and lack of comparable financial reserves, seem to keep complaining too!). The CDs started looking more like the "rich man's 8-track" that Steve Albini had called them when the market demanded CD versions of his beloved Big Black albums, and the vinyl albums that had refused to completely vanish started looking more robust than ever.

My personal journey as a collector has been linked with this story. In 1985 I was 12, and the first CDs I bought were reissues of canon items: the Grateful Dead's Workingman's Dead (lots of kids in my school dug this band, and the title seemed to indicate this was a good entry point, and plus they had a sick name - man was I disappointed with this album) and a much-hyped Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (as they did recently with the iTunes deal, the decision-makers at Beatles LLC waited until the waters of the new medium were good and tested before jumping in with great fanfare). I decided to acquire everything on CD, the assumption being that every album worth owning would henceforth be available in both a vinyl and CD version, and the modern CD was the best way to archive the canon. Later, I realized the obvious: the new object was of necessity a re-mediated re-creation, subject to any considerations that a newly-created object is subject to when being judged for value: there's no "definitive version" of a particular release, any more than there can be a "definitive" performance of a composition, the appreciation of any object or performance being subject to multiple contexts, such as how and why was it created, what is your historical/emotional relationship with the composition or album, were you high when you heard it, etc.

Despite the medium's crass exploitation by entrenched stakeholders at its inception, the CD's not naturally better or worse than the LP as a carrier of musical content. As they matured in the 90s (and quickly brought about the demise of the LP as a mainstream medium), CDs were more creatively and interestingly packaged, and came into their own as collectible objects. Independent labels, who continued to release both LP and CD versions of the same material, were of course aware of this, and, as CDs continued to gain object independence from vinyl, differentiated the versions in more significant ways. (One I always dug from the late 90s was the CD of the first OOIOO album, which employs a translucent plastic cover containing four trippy O's in conjunction with a trippy oval I on the CD itself to spell out the band's name.)

Out of the L and M CDs that Frances chose for my future project way back in mid-2009, only one is a release that I have a corresponding vinyl version of, and it's a great illustration of the right way to independently exploit the strengths of both media. Lemons/lemonade again, though the value hierarchy isn't linked to the two versions; rather, the lemons are the need to release two objects, and the lemonade is the creation of two medium-specific lenses that offer complementary views of the same material. It is...

The Mae-Shi - To Hit Armor Class Zero

The Mae-Shi itself, as a unit, has a bit of a history when it comes to multiple versions. As a close but not intimate observer, it's clear to me that ambition, mis-communication and differing visions of what the band was all had a part in a story that was not a little bit tragic in some aspects - but rather than get into that uncomfortable, recently buried history, I'll just refer interested parties to the written records that remain on the Internet here, here and here, and instead move on to my intended focus, which is their first release, an EP that turns 8 this year.

I pretty much love this band, and this explosive record is as great a mission statement as any band has ever dropped for a first release. Three tracks of bonkers noise-rock mayhem, Ezra Buchla's gonzo voice belching all over it, analog synth noise impolitely dolloped over the top like Cool Whip, followed by one track of the comparatively subdued, but still way too over-caffeinated noise-disco that they would try, somewhat unsuccessfully, to reconcile with the noise-rock on their first album proper, 2004's brilliant, unsatisfyingly produced Terrorbird (but a style that would be fully integrated into a mature Mae-Shi by the time of 2008's masterpiece HLLLYH), followed by "To Hit Armor Class Zero II", an unapologetically indulgent, abrasive analog synth jam (possibly, a composition?) that's epic in length, overstaying its welcome again and again for some fifty headachey minutes (more than five times the length of the other four tracks combined!).

Yeah, it's an EP that's an hour long. But really it has the soul of an EP; the title jam is really just too much, you know?

So versions. The 10" vinyl (that's right buddy. I said 10". What's up now, tough guy?) presents completely different (and much handsomer / more assertive) cover art, though the cheerful color scheme is the same. Naturally it's on colored vinyl: a creamy yellow/orange mango. The four actual songs on side one play at 45 rpm, again natch, and for gravy, you get a vinyl-exclusive super-stupid comic book, drawn with gusto by someone that, like, "can't draw".

And then the icing on the gravy: Side Two! The noise-jam ogre from the CD has been replaced with "To Hit Armor Class Zero (Locked Groove DJ Tool Edition)", explained thus by a toothy dog in the enclosed "Instructional Comics": "Those are lock grooves that you can use to make your own songs. You can make rap songs, IDM, um, uh... Activist techno, Pizza Hut commercials, etc." They are groovy, gravy needle-droppers indeed, and what an object of wonder is this slice of mango.

So versions. Obviously the record is cooler than the CD - but be real, I can't spend an hour getting up and shifting the needle to new 3-second dance parties, any more than I can listen to fifty minutes of blonky scrapes (of course, if Pizza Hut calls me to score an ad, I'm totally going with this). Where the FPE takes me I am pledged to follow, though - so listen to the noise jam I did, and listen twice. It's great. Total sandpaper, start to finish, the choppy stream of a loud consciousness, a mushroom cloud that never lets up. As a listening experience, easier than the physicality of that record, and less painful by far than the anxiety-inducing repetition of letting one of the vinyl grooves play (the head-trippiness of some of them notwithstanding). Even a formless explosion that changes eases my tension more than an unvaried infinity. Would I prefer pi to 1/3? It would seem so.

Thus I'm with the CD for casual plays. It gives you one more little bonus as well: the booklet! Like I said above, it's original art that's not reproduced anywhere in the vinyl version, and yeah, it's not as "handsome", but it's kinda cool: some leg diagram thingy with weird writing that might be Hebrew on the front, and paper cranes on the back. The inside-booklet art is exclusive to the CD too: it lists the tracks, and each track is paired with an animal (avatar?). "You Can't Do That to an Axe!" gets a turtle, "Summer in Gomorrah" a hedgehog, "Revelation Party" a flower, "(Raise Up) The Judges Go Dancing Again" a fish, and "To Hit Armor Class Zero" another fish. Wicked zen, man, kinda deep, and there are tiny guitars and buildings and creepy crawlies and stuff too. The CD art is by dudes in the band, and the vinyl art, even the comic, is by dudes not in the band. The CD is the first release on this one dude in the band's label, the vinyl is #31 on some dude not in the band's label. So in the end I'm with the CD for homeyness, full integration with the band's scattered trip, and the koi - and I'm with the vinyl for polish and panache.


In closing I'll add that we just got the non-small, non-board-book versions of two Dr. Seuss classics that Frances has been reading in small form for a long time (Dr. Seuss's ABC and Hop on Pop), and her mind was blown and world rocked. Mine too, actually - who knew there was just tons of extra material in the big books? I wasn't quite as disturbed by Frances at the near-total lack of convergence on the K page (she cried), but I must admit the X page was a bit of a shocker: it's completely different (and much better - the big book has "ax", "extra fox" and "Nixie Knox", and the board book replaces these with "X-ray" and "xylophone", ho-hum).


Friday, January 21, 2011

The FMDP: Art School Girls

This week on the FMDP, Frances and I appreciate the grooves of Pitchfork's second-lowest rated album of 2010 (1.9!), Ninjasonik's Art School Girls.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

So Much More Than a New Discovery

I'll just say it: I can't stand Laura Nyro. I've been trying to figure out what it is about this record that doesn't work for me, but it's as simple as that. Its accomplished mix of soul, tin pan alley, heartfelt emotion and deeply felt alto clarity of voice do not impress me. The sensitive instrumentation and production panache are aimed at someone who isn't me. I'm used to accommodating records and letting them be themselves but I just need to draw the line somewhere.

The liner notes on this record, More Than a New Discovery, explain that the first reason you need to like her is that Arthur Mogull ("Artie") "discovered" her, and apparently he also "discovered" Dylan*.

<sarcasm>Ooooohhhhhhh! Bob Dylan! I am sooooooo impressed.</sarcasm>

Ok so she's not Dylan, fair enough, but the guy who "discovered" her goes by "Artie" and the whole thing just kind of feels like old guys with tin ears foisting their weird conceptions on the world. Like, Hanna-Barbera, you know? I mean really, does anyone really think Snaggletooth is funny? Did kids really respond to that crap in the 60s?

The counts against Laura Nyro:

  • Early in her singer/songwriter career, there was talk of her being the vocalist for Blood, Sweat & Tears, whose Blood, Sweat & Tears 3, which contains multiple Laura Nyro covers, is possibly my least favorite album, but only constitutes their third worst crime against music, the first two being their tasteless name (body fluids - yum!) and their actual singer's proto-Eddie-Vedder atrociousness.

  • The first real concert I can remember going to was when I was about 15 or 16, and my mom took me to see Laura Nyro at this little converted movie theater, and she sloshed and slathered her overflowing bucket of piano glurge for two hours, and the whole time this one lady a few rows back from us kept on saying "Go Laura!" in a voice that started out sad, and over the course of the concert, became plaintive, and ended up downright despondent.

  • "Tin Pan Alley"

From the general down to the specific complaints: this album (her first - More Than a New Discovery, which would later be reissued as First Songs to capitalize on the moderate fame she would achieve as a pop songwriter over the next few years) closes with a track called "California Shoe-Shine Boys" that features, yes, banjo, and joyfully proclaims over a riverboat jive, "California shoe-shine boys, you can shine my shoes!"

So I wonder why this particular song makes me so profoundly uncomfortable. I grimace and feel kind of ill when I hear it.


I figured it out! Banjos plus shoe shining plus "tin pan alley" equals trigger concepts. The history of race in America. I'm a white liberal, so I'm terrified of triggers like these - just the words "shoe-shine" are enough to make me cringe a little bit. I cringe because these directionless, non-specific symbols aren't overtly hostile in this context, because I'm an onlooker but not an intended victim of the virulence of the power-holders in the scenario where the symbols become overtly hostile, and because it just makes me feel icky inside.

And this feeling really is inside me, too. As I mentioned in a previous post (which was itself about the perpetuation of un-criticized notions of race inherent in the song selection on a particularly banjo-y children's record, and how those notions could have shaped the mental landscape of the kids that heard them, sponge-like), that Blood, Sweat & Tears record was the only pop record my parents had. I don't know if my mom was actually a Laura Nyro fan, if she even knew of the BST connection or even remembered owning a BST record, or if she just got hyped into taking me to that show in the late 80s, but the fact is there: she did. These things aren't evil. They are the mainstream, or a particular, un-controversial side eddy from that stream. They're an unremarkable part of our artistic and cultural legacy, just like Mrs. Butterworth, lawn jockeys and those Bugs Bunny cartoons - you know the ones. The symbols are more coded and more deeply buried, but they are there, and we still have to understand what they mean.

Ok, I need to back up a minute. I'm not accusing Laura Nyro of being a racist, and even less so Blood, Sweat & Tears, who don't even cover that particularly difficult song. I'm just saying she has shitty music, and so does Blood, Sweat, & Tears, and, on a separate but possibly related note, banjos should be approached with caution, as should "tin pan alley". The main stream has racist eddies.

You know who else my mom was really into the Seventies and Eighties, and who does the vaudeville schtick with the banjos and the riverboats and stuff? Neil Diamond. For some reason he doesn't make me cringe though - I kind of love his music. I even love the super icky stuff that creeps in - like when he belts out "Sing it like a black man!" in "Free Life" from the Tap Root Manuscript album (or that concert my wife and I saw on PBS about five years ago where old, crusty Neil french-kissed a woman who was in the front row of his show - YES! I KNOW!!!). He's just as clueless as Laura about the race stuff - probably even more so. I think what's going on is that I'm just giving him a pass cause I like his music, and I can't stand Laura Nyro's.

I have a lot of Laura Nyro albums (I picked them up out of curiousity when I had a record store - she was my first concert, after all), and now I want to listen to them all and see if I hate them as much as this one. I suspect I will. Maybe it's a guy thing. I like to think I'm pretty in touch with my feelings, as guys go, but Laura's rocking a pretty estrogen-y vibe, and I'm guessing the collaboration with Labelle isn't going to change my mind.

She seems like a really nice lady, though. It's too bad I have to complain so much about her music. In the spirit of fairness, I'll end on a positive note, with some things I like about her.

Points in Laura Nyro's favor:

  • The big hit off this album, "Wedding Bell Blues", is catchy, pretty, poignant and kind of awesome, Brill Building style pop, with a crashing inevitability in the melody, a desperate longing in the lyrics that's somehow happy and not infused with the heavy sadness of most of her other songs.

  • She wrote "Stoned Soul Picnic", famously covered by the Fifth Dimension, which, though hazier and more, um, stoned than "Wedding Bell Blues" (but less stoned than, say, "Good Vibrations"), is a pretty great primary document of the freedom those boomers felt in their precious Sixties of yore, and asks the question, "Can you surry, can you picnic?"

  • She was born Laura Nigro.

*So Dylan has a legitimately great first 2-3 albums, and released the punkest Christmas album ever in 2008, and is a generally awesomely curmudgeonly dude, but mostly, I'm sorry, really I am, but Dylan doesn't really work for me.