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?