Thursday, March 27, 2014

DEAD BUT NOT GONE



Here are two reviews recently killed by editors. No, I won't tell you which magazines rejected them. Enjoy!

MEMPHIS MAY FIRE
Unconditional
Texas-based metalcore squad Memphis May Fire have never been the most creative band around. On their last album, 2012’s Challenger, they brought in a pair of guests—Asking Alexandria’s Danny Worsnop and Sleeping With SirensKellin Quinn—whose powerful personalities only served to make their hosts seem faceless by comparison. For Unconditional, the band have kept the same producer (Cameron Mitchell) as on Challenger, but there are no ringers this time; they’re standing or falling on their own merits. And while that’s admirable, it would have been wise of them to write better songs. Chugging riffs, pop-punkish choruses, gang vocals, digital stuttering, one-finger synth melodies—all the ingredients for a circa-2014 metalcore album are here, including drums so hilariously triggered it’s amazing they keep the drummer on the payroll at all. But here’s the thing: for a piece of music to qualify as a song rather than just a loose pile of sort-of-cool parts, it’s got to stick in your head once it’s over. There’s exactly one track here that passes that test with flying colors: “Possibilities” rides a wave of positive energy and catchiness, with more than enough melody to keep a listener interested. (And OK, “The Answer” has a pretty solid chorus, too.) On the other hand, the ballads (“Need To Be” and “Speechless”) are a slog, and only Matty MullinsClaudio Sanchez-esque* vocals make the other songs recognizable as the work of Memphis May Fire rather than any one of literally dozens of other bands.

GANG WIZARD
Important Picnic
Do you need a new shambling, half-assed noise-rock album in your life? Or do you already have six thousand of them left over from the '80s and '90s? Well, just in case you feel insufficiently flush with discs offering indecipherably howled vocals, guitar that sounds more like sheet metal being torn apart by robot claws than a musical instrument, minimalist bass lines a one-armed monkey could play, and drums that are all clattering snare and washes of cymbal, Gang Wizard are here to help you out. For nearly two decades, they’ve been bashing out one-take jams that live in a territory somewhere between Les Rallizes Dénudes, Sunburned Hand of the Man, Half Japanese and a teenaged garage band trying and failing to learn a song from Nuggets.
Most of the tracks on this album actually have some song-like qualities, but Gang Wizard are so committed to their half-assed/fidelity-is-for-chumps aesthetic that only those listeners who share their enthusiasm for rock as outsider art are going to be even slightly enticed. For every “Dog’s Share” (a rocking instrumental with plenty of guitar skronk), there’s a “The Fiasco,” an 11-minute fumble-jam that lives up to its name and then some. If there was a “single” on this album, it’d be “Ugly American,” which sounds like a bootleg of an ultra-early Pere Ubu rehearsal. But pretty much everything else here is half-formed, unambitious like that’s a thing to be proud of, and thoroughly inessential.

*Claudio Sanchez = singer for Coheed and Cambria, known for his extremely high-pitched vocals.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

WEDNESDAY MORNING 20

Every once in a while, I have to hit Shuffle on my iPod just to remind myself of some of the shit that's on there. This is exactly what came up this morning, no skipping.

Foghat, "Slow Ride (Live)"
Dale Hawkins, "Susie Q"
The Lawrence Amavi Group, "Money That's What I Want"
The Lazy Cowgirls, "Jungle Song (Live)"
Cypress Hill, "Legalize It"
Converge, "Wishing Well"
The Chemical Brothers, "Elektrobank (Live)"
Natalia Lafourcade, "Let's Get Out"
Wormrot, "Why We Fight"
Coleman Hawkins, "Lover Come Back to Me"
The Sisters of Mercy, "Floorshow"
Krisiun, "Hateful Nature"
Witchman, "N.Y.23"
Ted Nugent, "I Won't Go Away"
Ancestors, "A Friend"
Airbourne, "Hellfire"
AC/DC, "Safe in New York City"
The Thing with Joe McPhee, "Baby Talk"
Godflesh, "Life is Easy"
Closer Musik, "One Two Three No Gravity (Dettinger Remix)"

Saturday, October 19, 2013

IT'S LIKE SOMETHING YOU'D LIKE TO BURN DOWN AND START OVER

[The title of this post is something my father once said about the city of London.]

Chris Molanphy (the Nate Silver of pop music criticism—not just because of his ability to parse stats, but because of his ability to upturn conventional wisdom in the process) has written an excellent piece on how, and why, bands/acts get into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, or don't. Go read it if you want some insight into the mindset of the Nominating Committee, and how it diverges from the tastes of the voters, of whom there are many more.

I don't care who's in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, not anymore. The execution has been so flawed virtually from Day One that it's pretty much a pointless joke, albeit one that keeps getting re-told every year. Yes, my beef with it boils down to who's in it and who's not, but from a stricter definitional standpoint than most complainers, who just want to see their favorite bands inducted and bands they don't like shut out. (Over on Facebook, some maniac is kicking up a storm about the snubbing of Chicago. No, really.) What this boils down to, for me, is whether you believe rock 'n' roll is a style of music, or a marketing buzzword. And I believe a lot of music writers (who are the people I see getting all wee-wee'd up over the annual list of nominations) are in the latter category.

To me, rock 'n' roll is a form of music, and it has boundaries and prerequisites. For one thing, it is primarily a small group form, though strings and other embellishments can be brought into play as needed. The foundation is more or less the same as Chicago blues: guitar, bass, drums, piano, maybe a horn or two. It's blues-based, though the degree to which that's true is highly elastic. To pick an obvious example, Elvis Presley sang ballads, country songs, show tunes and hunks of indescribable weirdness, but remained a rock 'n' roll singer. It's a song form—there's room for improvisation, but it cannot be totally improvised unless that improvisation takes the form of variations on existing tunes (an extended blues jam, for example). It's also the result of organic interaction between musicians, meaning it should be reproducible onstage and more or less "live" in the studio. Having a band with a steady lineup goes a long way toward making this latter condition possible.

So given my definition of rock 'n' roll, here's how the nominees for the Class of 2014 shake out:

• The Paul Butterfield Blues Band: The name says it all, really. They were an electric blues band who, because of the era in which they operated, incorporated other sounds—funk, rock, Indian music—into their music. Because, as I say above, Chicago blues is one of the foundations of rock 'n' roll, and because rock fans were the ones buying their albums, they merit nomination, if not necessarily inclusion.

• Chic: Chic were not a rock 'n' roll band. Chic were a funk/disco band, and a very good one. They should not be nominated, and they should not be voted in.

• Deep Purple: Deep Purple definitely merit inclusion. They were a highly successful (commercially and artistically), musically assured band that, despite going through multiple lineup changes, maintained a signature sound rooted in blues and hard rock but with room for extended instrumental soloing. Unlike the Butterfield Blues Band, who shifted members in and out on every album, Deep Purple had a strong core roster that lasted several years, during which time the band did its best and most revered work. They deserve nomination, and inclusion.

• Peter Gabriel: The band Genesis, for whom Gabriel sang, is already in the Hall of Fame; as a solo artist, he's never made music I would call rock 'n' roll. He's a kind of theatrical art-pop performer, and shouldn't be nominated or included.

• Hall and Oates: Again, not rock 'n' roll—Hall and Oates were a pop/R&B/soul vocal duo.

• Kiss: Kiss are a rock 'n' roll band. I don't like their music—most of their songs, including their big hits, are melodically weak, and the production on their records is frequently underpowered (Destroyer is the major exception here)—but mine is a minority opinion. They've sold millions of records, their tours do absurdly well, and their merchandising empire is legendary for a reason. This being the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, they should absolutely be in it.

• LL Cool J: LL Cool J should not be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. No rappers should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. People who say that rap/hip-hop is "rock and roll" mean it in the sense that an advertising executive uses the term: to signify generic rebellion. (Also, people who say this are mostly 40 and older, and, I suspect, never understood what rock 'n' roll is.)

• The Meters: The Meters played funk, and were amazing at it. They should not be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

• Nirvana: Nirvana were a terrible band. Sloppy, and self-conscious to the point of self-sabotage (personal and musical), they were nevertheless commercially successful and served as a bridge between the underground and the mainstream—literally; their best-known song pushed the riff from Boston's "More Than a Feeling" through an arrangement based on earlier work by the Pixies—and, most importantly of all, they were a guitar-bass-drums power trio. Definitely rock 'n' roll, and Hall of Fame-worthy, despite my own feelings about their meager artistic achievements.

• N.W.A.: See LL Cool J.

• The Replacements: Like Nirvana, the Replacements were not a very good band; they were basically the Georgia Satellites of the Upper Midwest. There are several dozen bands like this active at all times, in all corners of the country—the Gaslight Anthem are their present-day equivalent. But they knew their history (as they proved every time one of their shows devolved into a round of drunken covers), and quite self-consciously sought to place themselves in rock history. They played by the rules, maintaining a fairly steady lineup (only one change during their recording years) and growing artistically from album to album. They didn't sell very many records, but a lot of music critics like them. They were a rock 'n' roll band, so from that standpoint if no other they're justifiable nominees, but I don't think they should be in the Hall of Fame.

• Linda Ronstadt: Linda Ronstadt was a pop singer who covered rock 'n' roll songs at times. She didn't maintain a working band for studio albums, which sets her apart from, say, Pat Benatar, who I would say absolutely merits Hall of Fame inclusion.

• Cat Stevens: See Peter Gabriel, Hall and Oates, and/or Linda Ronstadt.

• Link Wray: As a pioneer of the guitar sound and style that defined early rock 'n' roll, Link Wray is not only a worthy but necessary inclusion into the Hall of Fame.

• Yes: Despite their extended, occasionally meandering compositions, Yes were absolutely a rock band, maintaining a simple five-piece lineup (vocals, guitar, keyboards, bass, drums) and significantly cranking up the power of their music live—check Yessongs out sometime, if you haven't. Massively successful and influential, they are absolutely Hall of Fame material.

• The Zombies: While they only had a few hits, they maintained the same lineup for their original creative lifespan, and as far as 1960s pop goes, they're OK. Like many other bands, their critical reputation is inflated relative to their status in the memory of the general public. I wouldn't nominate them, or vote for them, for the Hall of Fame, though they are undeniably a rock 'n' roll band.

The reason the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is so fucked up is that in many ways it's the only game in town. Sure, there's a Country Music Hall of Fame, but country knows how to patrol its borders—they're never gonna induct Nelly just 'cause he had Tim McGraw sing on a track. What's really needed is 1) a Pop Music Hall of Fame, which would enable all the hip-hop, disco, and other non-rock 'n' roll acts currently in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to have a home they could be proud of; and 2) a better understanding, culturally, of what rock 'n' roll really is. Acceptance of the idea that it is a fairly specific thing—an organic, small group music made with guitars, bass, and drums, sometimes keyboards, occasionally horns, even less frequently other instruments—would quiet down a lot of bullshit cultural debate. Because musicians know the score. People who are actually in rock 'n' roll bands know exactly who they are and what they're doing. It's critics who fuck everything up by trying to shoehorn their favorite songs and performers into categories where they don't belong—something even the performers in question would cheerfully admit. Go ahead and ask LL Cool J, on or off the record, if he thinks of himself as a rock 'n' roll artist.

Of course, it should be obvious that saying that a given band (or, more likely, solo performer) should not be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is not the same thing as saying that band or artist makes bad music. It's just saying that categories matter. Pop music is music that's popular, whatever that happens to be in a given year. Rock 'n' roll, though, is a traditional form of music—a folk form. It should be celebrated as such.

Of course, it's too late now. Mine is a minority opinion, and has been for decades: most people have long since subscribed to the ad-exec definition of "rock and roll." So fuck it. Thanks for reading.

Sunday, July 07, 2013

POWERS OF PERCEPTION



In a July 3 article on NPR’s website, Ann Powers draws attention to recent discussions about Miley Cyrus’s new(ish) video, “We Can’t Stop” (that's it above). She takes an adversarial, even scolding stance; the title of the piece is "When Pop Stars Flirt With Bad Taste," and Powers calls Cyrus out for “racial appropriations”—namely, twerking, which, for those who don't know, is the latest of the ass-shaking dances that have been part of hip-hop (and Latin music—do a YouTube search for "perreo" sometime) for decades.

Says Powers, “Many critiques of Cyrus rightly [emphasis mine] question why this privileged young woman has chosen to adopt an ‘urban' style grounded in the most abject aspects of African-American culture, as it's been filtered through a ‘hipster-racist’ subculture that reduces black masculinity to thug primitivism and femininity to door-knocker earrings and big, juicy butts.”

One of the critiques Powers links, and by extension co-signs, comes from Sesali Bowen; it was originally published on the blog Feministing, and reappeared on the blog Racialicious. In the piece, which seems intent on making some larger point (it fails), Bowen implicates Cyrus in “a larger system of cultural appropriation, commodification, and sometimes exploitation,” reproducing a photo of the singer with her hands on her knees and her ass sticking out, glancing over her shoulder Betty Boop-style at the camera, and sneering, “Her skin and class privilege overfloweth in this poorly executed commodification of ‘ratchet culture.’”

Another critique comes from the self-described feminist blog Jezebel; this piece is called "On Miley Cyrus, Ratchet Culture And Accessorizing With Black People." Here's a sample quote:


"In the video, Miley is seen with her 'friends': Mostly skinny white boys and girls who appear to be models. But in a few scenes, she's seen twerking with three black women. Are they also her friends? Or is she just hoping for street cred? Note that she is wearing white, in the spotlight, the star of the video — and they are treated as props, a background for her to shine in front of. We've tackled the use of people of color in the background before; it's a theme that persists, but remains wrong. In a white-centric world, putting white women quite literally in the center of the frame while women of color are off to the side is a powerful, disrespectful visual message, and it really must be said: Human beings are not accessories. These women might be her friends, but the general dynamic created is that she is in charge and they are in service to her."


Or they might be, you know, backup dancers in a music video.

I have questions.

1) When did Miley Cyrus become a ‘hipster’? She’s from Nashville, the daughter of a country singer, and a former Disney child star. She’s about as unhip as it’s possible to be. Indeed, for years now it’s been perfectly acceptable for online commenters and even some bloggers to call her a hillbilly or white trash, without repercussion.

2) In what way is Miley Cyrus “appropriating” anything? Look, I’ve argued many times against the existence of a monoculture in America, but if there is one, it’s hip-hop. Miley Cyrus is 20 years old. Hip-hop is at least 35, maybe 40 if you’re stretching it a little, and at the time of her birth in 1992, it was in a golden age, and beginning an era of commercial and cultural dominance that shows no signs of fading. She, like millions of other children, has grown up in a world where hip-hop is the lingua franca of pop culture.

To say, as Powers does, “For Cyrus, hip-hop is a corporate legacy, not a lived one; like virtually every privileged kid her age, it was sold to her like sneakers and soda,” is absurd. There is basically no way for anyone under 30 to avoid “living” hip-hop; it’s everywhere, at all times. There is underground hip-hop, but hip-hop is not underground, and it hasn’t been for at least 25 years. Are underprivileged kids presented with hip-hop in some pure, non-corporate way? As far as I know, black kids watch the same YouTube videos as white kids. But maybe they just osmose this stuff. You know, like “natural rhythm.” 

For Powers, Jezebel's Dodai Stewart and other critics, the problem with Miley Cyrus is simple, even if it must go unsaid within the polite confines of NPR: She’s white, and rich, which given the state of contemporary pop-culture/Internet-social-justice discourse means that her pleasures, her tastes, are always suspect. To any critic with correctly aligned racial and class tunings, she can never be anything but an exploiter. Powers asks whether “Cyrus genuinely like[s] and participate[s] in the cultural expressions she's now taken on,” but for her, the answer seems clear: it’s “just another case of artistic theft.” 

Based on what evidence? This argument (and calling it that is being generous) is two-pronged: On the one hand, we are asked to believe that white participation in hip-hop is still, nearly 30 years after the Beastie Boys, somehow suspect, and on the other, we are asked to infer that Miley Cyrus is the puppet of outside songwriters and producers (it’s apparently very important that “We Can’t Stop” was submitted to Rihanna, who rejected it, before Cyrus bought it), without individual will or an aesthetic perspective.

But the facts just don’t support that interpretation. Miley Cyrus hasn’t just posted Instagram photos and YouTube clips of herself twerking, and incorporated the dance into the “We Can’t Stop” video; she’s also shown up at a concert by rapper Juicy J (of the Oscar-winning Three 6 Mafia—how underground!) to dance onstage. But somehow she’s forever an interloper, an exploiter, never a true fan.

Meanwhile, in 2007, when the rap group Shop Boyz had a massive hit single with “Party Like a Rockstar,” the chorus of which featured slang that was 20 years out of date (it ran “Party like a rockstar/Totally, dude”), no one went after them for (totally) misunderstanding rock culture. Similarly, the pre-teen, all-black metal band Unlocking The Truth, whose live videos are a YouTube sensation, aren’t being questioned about what "culture" they might be “appropriating." When they talk in interviews about not liking hip-hop, nobody asks if they “genuinely like and participate in the cultural expressions [they’ve] now taken on.”

There’s a strong vein of racial essentialism running through this discussion. In some way that’s never clearly explained, black people’s experience of pop culture is apparently radically different from white people’s experience of that exact same pop culture, even though they’re both getting it from the same websites, radio stations, and cable channels. Even though no hip-hop album can go platinum without attracting a significant number of white buyers, critics like Powers (and others) continue to insist that white listeners are still somehow outsiders to this culture they’ve been subsidizing for three decades. They're also desperate to elevate street culture, as when Powers makes sure to point out that twerking "has roots in African dance," as if Africans invented ass-shaking and African-Americans are taking folkloric study to the club. Why must hip-hop be homework?

And another thing: Was it really hipsters who “reduce[d] black masculinity to thug primitivism and femininity to door-knocker earrings and big, juicy butts”? That seems like a convenient way to exonerate hip-hop for its own messaging—apparently, hip-hop is like Communism; it cannot fail, it can only be failed. (Mostly by white people.)

(Note: Lizzy Acker also has an excellent rebuttal to the Jezebel piece.)

Thursday, June 13, 2013

ALBUMS OF THE YEAR, SO FAR

It's mid-June, so here's what I've heard that might wind up on my year-end list(s), so far...

JD Allen, Grace
Airbourne, Black Dog Barking*
Amon Amarth, Deceiver of the Gods
Attacker, Giants of Canaan
Michael Bates/Samuel Blaser Quintet, One From None
Black Sabbath, 13
Terence Blanchard, Magnetic
David Bowie, The Next Day
Dawn of Midi, Dysnomia
Dave Douglas Quintet, Time Travel
Endless Boogie, Long Island
Fire! Orchestra, Exit
The Gates of Slumber, Stormcrow
Hush Point, Hush Point
Immolation, Kingdom of Conspiracy
Killswitch Engage, Disarm the Descent*
Kvelertak, Meir
Mainliner, Revelation Space
Hedvig Mollestad Trio, All of Them Witches
Mostly Other People Do The Killing, Slippery Rock
Jeremy Pelt, Water and Earth
Resolution15, Svaha
Savages, Silence Yourself
Suffocation, Pinnacle of Bedlam
Wayne Shorter, Without a Net

*conflicts of interest prevent me from actually voting for these records in any year-end polls