Fluxblog

Archive for January, 2008

1/31/08

What More Can I Say Than OMG?

Electric Six “Kukuxumusu” – One of the things the Electric Six do better than most anyone is subvert catchy, macho mainstream rock tunes with a deranged sexual panic that highlights the paranoia and insecurity at the heart of typical dudeness. The structure of the lyrics in “Kukuxumusu” is a play on the old “in each verse, I’m gonna tell you all about some sexy lady I’ve fucked” paradigm — good examples would be “Sir Psycho Sexy” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers or “Free Love Freeway” by David Brent — but in this case, instead of attempting to prove his sexual prowess, he describes a series of brief relationships in which the women drain him of life, figuratively or literally. It sounds as though he’s trying to show off his promiscuity and his conquests, but the details reveal him to be a rather passive character who can’t stop himself from becoming involved with vapid, toxic personalities. It may be that he is drawn to entering into relationships with people who validate his fear of women, or perhaps more damning, it’s just a case of water finding its level.

The chorus flips a slogan from Bruce LaBruce’s left-wing terrorist parody The Raspberry Reich into a confused, nihilistic, self-deprecating shrug: “I’m not the Revolution, I’m just your boyfriend — a fuck solution until the world ends!” Like a lot of Electric Six characters, the dude in “Kukuxumusu” has forsaken idealism in favor of empty hedonism, and the joke, as always, is that he just does not understand why he’s made that decision. He’s just standing around, shouting “OH MY GOD!,” constantly surprised by the inanity of his life, and doomed to never figure it out. (Click here to buy it from Amazon.)

1/30/08

When I Saw Her Eyes In The Flashlight

David Byrne “Ex-Guru” – Essentially, this is David Byrne doing Fiery Furnaces karaoke. I might be wrong, but I’m pretty sure that he’s singing over a modified mix of the original track. It’s a great performance — it’s him being him, but also him doing his version of the unmistakable Friedberger cadence. (This may be somewhat unavoidable, given that their particular vocal rhythms are the most distinct and essential element of anything the Furnaces have ever done.) Nevertheless, even though there are moments when Byrne is clearly paying homage to the peculiarities of Eleanor’s style and the precise specificity of Matthew’s words, there are some points when Byrne’s phrasing seems to deliberately recall his own back catalog, as if to say to the listener “hey, I just want you to recognize that this isn’t too far off from, say, “Once In A Lifetime” or some other things I’ve done in the past.”

Given that he’s spent a lot of his time in this decade throwing his support behind musicians who seem to be influenced by his impressive back catalog, I get the sense that David Byrne has a strong interest in his artistic legacy. It might be vanity — I wouldn’t blame him if this was the case — but I think it’s a more to do with aesthetics. I mean, if you have a unique notion of what you want art to be like and then people start making it — even if it often sounds like a clumsy, bland version of your own juvenalia — you ought to like it right? It’s like how if I write about how I want music to be and people make it, I’m almost always pretty glad about it.

So here’s the interesting thing about this cover: There’s an extra verse that doesn’t appear on the Furnaces’ version of the song, and I don’t know whether it was written by them, or by Byrne after the fact. If it’s the latter, it’s a brilliant simulation of the Friedbergers’ lyrical style. The language is playful and incredibly vivid, with the singer recounting how she joined the cult, and the time she found the titular guru and her goons rifling through her trash in the middle of the night. I really hope that Byrne wrote it, actually. Not only because it’s so cool to see him writing in their style, but because it fits into the old folk tradition of personalizing the songs that one covers, and I really think that more people should be doing that when performing uncanonized contemporary tunes. (Click here to buy it from Thrill Jockey.)

1/29/08

I Need The Feeling Of A Perfect Lover

Throw Me The Statue “This Is How We Kiss” – For a lot of people, punk rock is a teenage phase. They may never grow out of it or lose their affection for the music, but it ends up getting tied with teenage feelings, and teenage memories. In the context of Throw Me The Statue’s 00s-indie album, “This Is How We Kiss” uses the genre as something of a flashback device, a nostalgic sound for a nostalgic song. Essentially, the singer is confronting strong, immediate feelings with the benefit of perspective and hindsight. He misses the thrill of naïveté, he laments his emotional clumsiness, but he ultimately sounds secure in his adult self, or at least incapable of regressing too much. He can revisit the feelings, but he can’t recreate them, or hang around them for too long. It’s a bit like revisiting your old school — it seems like a quaint idea in the abstract, but if you do it, you just feel weird and out of place and every room in the building seems smaller than you remember. (Click here to buy it from Amazon.)

1/28/08

You Look Like A Mirror To Me

Britta Persson “At 7″ – The title refers to the time when a game is set to begin, and though it very well may be literal (ie, a sporting event), the real significance lies in the figurative meaning: Once again, the singer and her suitor will be stuck in a romantic stalemate, with neither of them knowing just how to progress to the next level of their inept flirtation. She worries about overstepping, she wishes she could be more aggressive, but she’s resigned to feeling powerless and confused. The best she can do is to ask him to sit next to her, and cross her fingers in hope that maybe this will be her lucky night.

I really must emphasize just how much I love Britta Persson’s voice on this, and pretty much every other track on her new album. Her phrasing and tonality has a great emotional depth to it — at her most confident, she recalls the restrained warmth of Natalie Merchant, and at her most fragile she reminds me of a more polished version of Liz Phair. Without overplaying a sense of intimacy, Kill Hollywood Me as a whole seems very personal and distinct, to the point that I come away from it feeling as though I know her, or at least in the sense that some fictional characters (and/or the actors who play them) can seem as familiar to me as my own friends and family. (Click here to buy it from It’s A Trap.)

1/25/08

Four Capital Letters Printed In Gold

Yesterday I mentioned that terrible essay by Todd Burns about “dance music” that was published along with the 2007 Pazz & Jop critics poll in the Village Voice, but I didn’t really get into what I disliked about it. I mean, Jess Harvell already tore it to bits over on Idolator, but I feel that it’s such an incredibly wrong-headed piece of writing that I ought to respond to it in my own way.

If you’re the type of person who, for whatever reason, does not have any intention of actually reading what Todd Burns wrote in the essay, let me paraphrase it for you:

I love dance music, and the dance music that I love is the real dance music. Many of my peers — and a fairly large number of ordinary music fans — love Justice, Simian Mobile Disco, and other contemporary musicians who make dance music, but that stuff can’t possibly be real dance music because OH MY GOD YOU GUYS that music has a lot of hooks and shares some stylistic DNA with rock music! Ugh, rock music! Rock music is for total fucking idiots, and you can’t possibly dance to that shit. Even though a great many people from around the world get happy and dance to music by Justice, you cannot actually dance to it because…..uh, I’m not going to explain that. YOU JUST CAN’T DANCE TO IT, OKAY? Everyone knows that it is im-fucking-possible to dance to music that has a strong beat and catchy bits! The dance music I like is pure and authentic, and you rock-loving motherfuckers will never understand it! Real dance music lacks hooks, vocals, novelty, dynamic shifts, and just kinda blends together into an amorphous blob of sound, and only special people such as myself can appreciate it.

Okay, I admit that I’m not being very charitable, but I really don’t think I’m wildly misrepresenting anything Todd is saying in that essay.

One of the more depressing aspects of Todd’s essay is that he comes on strong with some anti-rockist sentiment, but seemingly without realizing it, he’s expressing all the most odious elements of rockism, but he’s just swapped out classic rock or punk or metal or indie or whatever for a strain of European electronic music specifically designed for a smallish subculture. He can barely conceal his reactionary zeal — check out that sneering condescension in the second and third paragraphs — but he seems entirely oblivious to the notion that he sounds exactly like the sort of provincial asshole he’s so vociferously deriding.

The bigger problem is that on a fundamental level, Burns seems to misunderstand the reasons why people dance to music. In his mind, dance music is a weirdly prescriptive thing — it has a specific sound, purpose, and context. It is a thing that is governed by rules, and those rules are primarily dictated by random people in Germany. It is a thing that is somehow naturally opposed to rock music, and when elements of rock — or presumably any other mainstream sort of music — enter into it, the aesthetic is compromised, and the experience is cheapened.

This is, of course, total nonsense. People dance to music because it moves them, physically, emotionally, and sometimes even, spiritually. If you’ve ever actually DJ’d for people — or better yet, have ever been to a wedding — you would know that people are most willing to dance to music that they feel connected to, and music that makes them feel connected to the people around them. When you start decreeing what people should or should not be dancing to, you just sound like a prick: People are going to dance to whatever they enjoy, and anyone who begrudges their pleasure in doing so is nothing more than an uptight snob.

The anti-rock thing is just baffling, at least on a rhetorical level. It’s not hard to figure out why Burns might feel a bit alienated by rock fandom, but it’s truly mystifying that a person who clearly has a wide frame of reference on both new and old music would so willfully ignore rock and roll’s roots as a form of dance music, or reject the notion that “dance music” could be improved by elements of rock and roll, and vice versa. As far as I’m concerned, much of the best music from this era comes from artists who embrace “dance music,” rock, hip hop, and any other genre that works in order to produce a bold, inclusive, super-dynamic, ruthlessly effective strain of pop music.

Justice “DVNO” – And that brings me to Justice, who do just that on this song, and a few others on their debut album. “DVNO” is one of the my favorite songs of the past few years. I listened to it almost every day in the latter half of 2007, usually when I was out and about. It is a reliable jolt of energy, and no matter how many times I hear it, it never loses its capacity to thrill me. I can’t be fully still when it’s on, and when that first beat hits, I always feel a sudden rush, like OH YES INDEED, IT IS ON. I love the way the vocals are bent and cut so that about a half of the lyrics are entirely unintelligible, and the other half hint at something fabulous and tantalizing. I put it on a mix for a friend, and she told me that it sounded like being en route to an event more than being an event itself, and I think she’s pretty close to it: “DVNO” is the excitement of anticipation and expectation, it’s the feeling of being so close to something amazing. Basically, it’s the moment just before the thing you want soooooooo badly is diminished by reality. (Click here to buy it from Amazon.)

1/24/08

A Mood That Turns

Joy Denalane “Soweto ’76-’06” – How’s this for a “huh, really?”: This Afro-funk/neo-soul hybrid is by a German artist. Okay, so, an Afro-German artist, but still, it’s hard to imagine anything sounding less Germanic than Delanane and her most recent album Born & Raised. “Soweto ’76-’06,” a clear highlight from that record, is a dense and moody track that sounds a bit like Mary J. Blige fronting Fela Kuti’s band. The lyrics are relentlessly grim, but the tone of the piece errs on the side of celebration, which makes a lot of sense, actually, given that it’s essentially a song about finding a way to survive against all odds. (Click here to buy it from Amazon Germany, or here to buy it from eMusic.)

Meanwhile, on Fair Game: Ted Leo stopped by for a solo session, and it was very awesome.

Elsewhere: The Pazz & Jop and Idolator polls are both up now, and if you are for some reason interested in seeing what I voted for you can see my Idolator ballot here and my Pazz & Jop ballot here. I really need to emphasize that these should NOT be taken as my personal “year-end list.” This is a matter of voting, and my selections are totally arbitrary. (The only real constant is that the Of Montreal is my favorite record from 2007. It just is.) If you read this site regularly, you may have picked up on the fact that I like a lot more than ten albums per year. To be very blunt, I feel like any critic who either finds it a little too easy to fill those things out or struggles to come up with enough records to fill the positions really ought to find another line of work.

Anyway, I find it really, really hard to care about any of this stuff right now. I think both of the lists skew heavily in favor of records I either enjoy or respect, and so there’s really nothing much to bitch about other than the fact that I felt like I needed to pry my eyes open in order to read through the Voice’s essays, even the ones written by friends of mine whose work I usually admire. (The most disappointing by far is certainly Todd Burns’ cringe-inducing, disturbingly elitist essay about dance music.) I don’t think it’s really their fault, though. It’s just a lot of tired bullshitting, and smart people working hard to find some kind of narrative in their given topic. The thing is, though — who the fuck needs a narrative at this point? Aren’t we already overflowing with narrative, whether it’s from magazines, blogs, publicists, and the artists themselves? If anything, we should all be running screaming from any attempt to force 12 months of music into some tidy storyline. It all just seems like a huge waste of time (and talent) at best, and an exercise in lame-ass witless punditry at worst.

1/23/08

Sold Used Cars, Paved Parking Lots

White Hinterland “Dreaming of the Plum Trees” – Casey Dienel — who you may remember from all those times I wrote about her debut album — is no longer called Casey Dienel anymore, or at least not in a “the name that goes on the spine of the cd/artist tag in the metadata” sense. At least partially in the interest of expanding her commercial appeal, she will now be recording under the name White Hinterland, presumably because market research showed that indie audiences are more willing to deal with a band name that is easily confused with White Williams, White Stripes, White Rabbits, and White Magic (not to mention a couple called the Hinterlands) than confront the reality that the music is the work of a single young woman. In my experience, indie labels and publicists like to claim that it’s easier to market a band rather than a solo artist, but I’m extremely dubious of that bit of conventional wisdom — if anything, it seems that the reverse is true in the larger marketplace. It just seems a bit silly to stake Ms. Dienel’s career on a tiny niche market (indie people) that is mostly quite hostile to female artists, particularly those who almost exclusively play jazzy piano-centric ballads.

Perhaps the best justification for the switch to the band name is that though Casey is clearly the dominant player, she is now working very closely with the other musicians. Whereas even the songs on Wind Up Canary that featured accompaniment seemed bare and unadorned, nearly everything on Phylactery Factory sounds active and full, with arrangements that emphasize movement and rhythm without crowding out Dienel’s piano parts or her delicate, keening voice. “Dreaming of the Plum Trees” in particular highlights the interaction of the full ensemble — her terrific rhythm section shimmies and shakes around her piano motif throughout the piece while her keyboard player slides around her notes, gradually tightening their part until it shifts into a braid-like outro. It’s a remarkable piece of music, effortlessly graceful while also playful and amusing in its lyrical detail and vocal delivery. (Click here to pre-order it from Dead Oceans.)

Meanwhile, on Fair Game: I was on the show last night to talk about songs by Marit Larsen, Katy Rose, and Siobhan Donaghy.

Elsewhere: Good to see that I’m not the only person who thought “Hey, what if Nick Denton had Heath Ledger killed to boost traffic on Gawker?”

1/22/08

Either Way This Is A Losing Fight

Katy Rose “Sloth” – The ironic thing is that Katy Rose was originally marketed as an alternative to modern dance pop, but when she got her artistic independence, she went out and made a bunch of songs that are like warped, unsettling versions of Britney Spears et al circa the first couple years of this decade. Like a lot of pop songs from this decade, “Sloth” is sexual but not quite sexy, but that’s on purpose — it’s supposed to sound tarted-up yet sickly and zoned out. It’s a song about uncomfortable feelings, or the discomfort of not quite feeling your feelings the way you think they ought to be felt, and trying to make sense of the difference. The synthesizers in this track are brilliant — it sounds as if the funky hooks are giving the woozy, dizzy textures an awkward, nervous lap dance at some seedy club. (Click here to buy it from CD Baby.)

No Kids “For Halloween” – The basic sentiment of this song is sort of mundane — he’s lonely and depressed because someone special has left him — but the careful, vivid details in the lyrics and the band’s gentle, nuanced arrangement combine to create a very well-observed portrait of a man stumbling through a period of quiet, low-grade misery. There’s a shot of pure self-pitying melancholy in there, but it is diluted by comfort and the knowledge that things will inevitably get better, or at least change. Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but I get the sense that on some level, this is a song about easing into more mature forms of depression — you get older, you get some perspective on things, and then you can’t really rationalize these dramatic young emotions anymore, but you still want that purity of feeling, but all you can muster is this watered-down grown-up bullshit, and even though it’s more functional and reasonable, you feel a little bit cheated. (Click here to buy it from Amazon.)

1/21/08

This Feeling Will Still Be Here In My Heart

Cat Power “I Believe In You” – I hindsight, I probably shouldn’t have been so dismissive of Cat Power’s brunch album. I mean, it’s not her, it’s me — I mostly just want her to do one thing, and that thing is Moon Pix, basically: Stark, fragile ballads sung in a way that articulates undiluted pain, loneliness, shame, and love with such primal accuracy that when they connect, the feeling is overwhelming, almost unbearable. The Covers Record and You Are Free had these moments; The Greatest simply did not, because it mostly just kinda sounded like a Beth Orton album or something. Jukebox is another story, though. It doesn’t sound much like classic Cat — this Bob Dylan cover straight-up rocks, for example — and some of the tracks are duds, but when it clicks, it’s very potent stuff. She sounds like a woman who is just beginning to find her strength, and high on the pride that comes with finally getting one’s shit together. There’s still a lot of heartbreak and sorrow, but it is tempered by perspective, confidence, and faith. Above all other things, the Cat Power of Jukebox sounds thankful — for her life, for her art, for the singers, and for the songs that give her inspiration. Keeping that in mind, it doesn’t seem like much of an accident that one of those singers just happens to be the Cat Power of Moon Pix. (Click here to buy it from Amazon.)

1/18/08

Strange Things Keep Happening

Evangelicals “Bellawood” – File under psychedelic psycho camp: Much of the song sounds as though its disturbed protagonist is being chased by a vicious, unrelenting gang of b-movie soundtracks from the ’50s and ’60s. He shakes them off during a quiet passage in the middle, but the over-the-top panic never goes away, it just gets muted by fearful self-reflection and crippling paranoia. Were it not for the band’s self-awareness and obvious sense of humor, this might be a bit too overblown, but they manage to hit the appropriate balance of terror and fun, just like a good horror movie. (Click here to buy it from Insound.)

Magik Markers “Empty Bottles” – The song is a direct descendant of Cat Power’s spare, rambling, heartbreaking piano ballads — “Colors and the Kids” is certainly the finest example — but Elisa Ambroglio’s persona is far less fragile, even when she sounds as though she’s about to break. There’s a lot of sentimentality, love, and intimacy here, but it’s guarded and careful, as though she can’t help but protect herself. Honestly, I don’t blame her. (Click here to buy it from Amazon.)


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